Archive for May, 2010

Storytime: What You Are in the Dark.

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

In the deep down stone where the darkness dwelt lived Gulp and the world.  He took up quite a lot of it. 
The world was very wet, slightly more than one Gulp-length in length, around two Gulp-lengths in width, and approximately six Gulp-lengths deep.  The population of the world consisted of Gulp, the Things That Wiggled, and the Things That Wiggled On Rocks.  They got along tolerably well with one another, though relations became strained every once in a while when Gulp had to eat, making his mealtimes something of a guilty (though thankfully rare) pleasure.  The guilt vanished with sleep, which was good because that was easily the thing Gulp did the most.  The world was small, but Gulp could imagine things much bigger, particularly when asleep.  Once he’d imagined a pool three times deeper than all the world and twice as wide, a feat he’d never replicated since.  
Most of his time that wasn’t spent dozing was spent not thinking.  It was very difficult, but he managed.  Too much time in your own head could make you go strange and odd, like the occasional one of the Things That Wiggled that would crawl right up into Gulp’s mouth as he was sleeping and cast itself inside.  He never was sure why they did that, but it troubled him a little.  They had so much that he didn’t (someone to talk to and live with, their strange business of scraping the Slimy Stuff from the rocks and eating it, their desperate avoidance of the Things That Wiggled On Rocks and their sharp needlebits), and seeing it all go to waste just didn’t seem right.  All the same, it was nice to eat a meal that didn’t require any effort on his part. 
Gulp wondered about dying sometimes, and how he would go about it.  It didn’t seem too difficult for the Things, but there was nothing big enough to eat him in all the world and try as he might he just couldn’t see any other way. 

The world was dark and cold, but Gulp didn’t really have anything to contrast those feelings against, so he didn’t mind all that much.  Not only had he never seen light, he didn’t even know what it was, until that one strange moment (no days, no nights, only a long chain of moments stretching back on and on to Gulp’s origin, so far back that he couldn’t remember it at all) when a new and odd vibration came trembling from the place outside the world. 
At first he thought it was a bit of rock falling. Sometimes that happened, outside the world.  Four times it had even fallen into the world, and the second time it had clipped his frail and translucent back, giving him a nasty jolt and leaving a bruise that had taken far too long to fade away.  But this was different; it kept going.  Scrapes, shuffles, crunches, bumps, all rippling through the stone, into the world.  All irregular, erratic, but with an underlying pattern and getting stronger by the moment.  Something was happening up there, outside the world, far above Gulp where he rested at the bottom of six Gulp-lengths of wet world.  He decided that he would have to go and investigate. 
And so Gulp rose up from the depths on the strokes of his fins, slow and sure, past the colonies of the Things That Wiggled On Rocks and their prey, the Things That Wiggled, and their prey, the Slimy Stuff, and on and on and up and up, all the way up to the edge of the world, where the wet stopped and the strange place outside the world, the “dry” began.  It made his skin prickle as he broke its surface, and he felt the unfamiliar chill of strange currents swimming across his back. 

Something was there, that was for sure.  He could feel deep, steady vibrations.  There was a thing up there where no things should ever be, beyond the world itself; a moving thing, something so large that he could feel its very insides lurching forwards with organic implacability, something that made even the very largest of the Things That Wiggled on Rocks seem small.  It moved again, and he felt the outside of the world vibrate with its motions in harmony, a presence so massive that the world itself responded to it…
…just like Gulp. 

Thinking back on it all, that was probably the moment It happened.  It was very mild at the start, of course, but there was no question needed: that was the origin, and It sprang from a very simple and startling thought that launched its way through Gulp’s man for parts unknown: there’s something else out there, outside the world, that’s like me.  The shock came over him so strongly that it nearly stopped his swimming, leaving him wallowing uncertainly in midwater.  So great was his surprise that he almost missed the next thing, as the vibrations neared and then halted, the tremors pausing as whatever-was-outside paused above the world, leaning over from who knew where. 
There was something strange up there.  Something new that Gulp…knew of, he didn’t know how.  It was like feeling without feeling, touching without touching.  It hurt a little, and made unfamiliar bits of his skull tingle and ache in strange ways, hitherto useless organs finding their footing at long last.  He needed a word for it, the strange sensation that made murky shapes appear inside his mind, a mind that didn’t know what they were. 
Yes, that would do. 
The thing outside moved closer still, and Gulp flinched as he felt something break the surface of the world.  The light was too harsh, too hard against his… eyes, and he feared that if it got any closer it would hurt.  Perhaps that was what would kill him, or could kill him.  But the pain stayed in his eyes, and the thing outside drew no closer.  There was something it was holding inside the world that wasn’t part of itself, he saw.  It didn’t feel like rock, but it definitely wasn’t flesh.  Some small odd object that filled itself up with the world and was removed, then carried away on the echoes of fading rumblings, the sounds of the departing thing from outside the world. 

No sooner had it left than Gulp broke his startled, wary inaction.  He berated himself thoroughly inside his head as he sank downwards back towards his rest, tail twitching in agitation.  For the first time in the ever-ongoing chain of moments that he was he’d met another thing like him, felt it appear on the edge of the world…and done nothing.  He should’ve done something, shown himself at least – unmoving like that, there must’ve been no way for it to feel him.  Gulp’s life had been all the same so far; the same perils, same guilt, the same pleasures, the same silence and pauses.  Now he had a brand new regret: he’d seen the first exception from normality he’d ever known, and he’d wasted it.  The despair and depression nearly overwhelmed him, and so he went to sleep, hoping that it would bring some respite. 
It didn’t.  He awoke still sorrowful and slightly hungry, and managed to eat an entire three of the Things That Wiggled without noticing before he stopped, which made him feel worse.  Altogether Gulp was wallowing as much in self-pity as the world when he heard the same traces and tremors of movement again. 
For a moment he thought it was his (very small and quiet) imagination again, but there it was: the shifting, the rumbling, the strangely predictable irregularity of the movement.  The presence.  And as he hurried to the surface, setting the world all a-froth in his churning wake, the first faint…glows… of that strange thing, light.  The thing from outside was back. 

Many things went through Gulp’s mind as he watched, all very quickly but without haste, in a sort of dreamy haze.  There was all the time he wanted somehow, as he felt the thing from outside feel about with a pair of peculiar gripping things that weren’t quite part of it and snare a couple of the Things That Wiggled On Rocks and the Things That Wiggled, as well as a sizable scraping of the Slimy Stuff.  He supposed that it was only fair to share the world with the only other thing like him, but he was a little distressed at how much it seemed to want to eat, and hoped that there would be enough left over for him to keep eating.  He wasn’t sure what would happen then, but his stomach had always felt very odd after large gaps between meals, and the thought of a long series of moments all like that stretching onwards maybe forever made him balk. 
Gulp examined his visitor more closely this time, the thing that was like him.  Well, not quite like him.  Outside the world dried his skin and when he poked his head out it made him grow dizzy and weak, and it didn’t seem to want to entire the world proper itself, only gingerly inserting its farther extremities and going about its matters businesslike.  It was indeed around his own size, or a little smaller.  The female Things That Wiggled were a little smaller than the males, did that mean it was female?  Gulp didn’t think he was female himself, but he’d never had a chance or reason to wonder, alone as he was.  Maybe it was female, maybe it was male.  Did it matter?  He didn’t think that the world had room in it for any more Gulps or things, and perhaps it was better that it was just the two of them. 
The thing took her meals and left, but this time Gulp didn’t scold himself.  She would be back, he was sure.  Of course she would.  Definitely.  She had to.  After all, how big was outside the world?  Twice as large?  Three times?  She came from far enough away that he couldn’t feel it…perhaps even ten times larger?  It must be awfully large and empty up there; Gulp felt sorry for her, and spent some whiles carefully herding Things That Wiggled upwards towards what had seemed to be the limits of her reach, bumping them with his snout.  Perhaps she wasn’t after food, just company.  She must be very lonely.  Gulp knew the feeling.  And began to again, very deeply. 

After a long pause (in which Gulp remembered very little at all), a third time she came, a third time Gulp rose from the bottom of the world to rest at its very margins, slowly and surely using his strange eyes to see the light. 
The thing from outside found his relocated Things That Wiggled very quickly, and began to pluck them from the world as surely and swiftly as before, holding them close to her bright light.  They looked very odd in its strange illumination, quite unlike they felt to Gulp’s touch, and he peered as closely as he was able, lifting his head ever so slightly clear of the world, feeling the cold dry touch of outside on his skin once more, prickling his freshly-sensitive eyes.  He twitched in discomfort, causing the world to splash around him, echoing sharply, and hr realized his mistake exactly too late. 
The light spun to glare straight at him, he flinched backwards, sloshing even more loudly, and then thing outside lurched, slipped, made a strange cry (the loudest sound he’d ever heard, he realized through the shock), and smacked backwards onto the rock, rolling down the steep slope at the world’s edge and dropping down into it with a mighty splash.  She nearly hit Gulp as she sank by him. 
The thing was not attempting to swim, he saw, preferring instead to drop straight to the bottom of the world.  He followed anxiously, questions filling his head and stumbling around in a panic, searching for any sign of movement.  Her body still seemed to be working, but she wasn’t so much as twitching.  Was she asleep?  Why would she fall asleep like that?  Little bubbles were coming out of her mouth – why were they doing that?  How could she breathe with bits of outside the world inside her like that?  Had she moved?  No, that was the current. 
The thing hit the rock at the bottom of the world, but gently.  Gulp hovered over her anxiously, mind racing against itself.  Her body was getting quieter, the bubbles were getting fewer.  Was she going to die?  If she was like him (but not quite like him at all, not at all, now that he could feel her closely – she was shaped wrong, shaped wrong in so many odd ways but she was the right size), was this how he could die?  Was it that easy? To just stop moving, stop breathing, and shut down?  Why was she doing this?
It was at that moment that Gulp’s head cleared and in a single brilliantly, harmfully bright moment realized It had happened, what It was, and what It wanted him to do. 
First, he’d fallen in love. 
Second, this was a shorter way to say that he cared about the thing from outside more than anything else he’d known about in all his chain of moments. 
Third, sometimes love demands sacrifice. 
The thoughts were discretely herded back into his mind as the revelations faded, now calm, orderly, and filled with absolute certainty.  The thing didn’t mind the cold dry of the world above, the place he couldn’t go.  The thing had never come down into the world before, and had seemed to avoid it, so maybe she couldn’t go there either.  Maybe it was killing her.  So she had to go up. 
Gulp’s teeth were large and cruel, and his thoughts were vivid with the memories of those strange sad Things That Wiggled and how they threw themselves into it to die.  He didn’t want the thing to die, so he couldn’t carry her that way.  It took some quick and vicious wriggling, and the thing from outside flopped around alarmingly against the bottom of the world, but he managed to squirm his way underneath her as she half-floated.  Gulp’s back was frail, but it was broad and flat and just large enough to hold her and all her weight as it pressed down on him, anxious to return to the bottom even as he strove to rise again, up to the edge of the world.  The Things That Wiggled On Rocks squirmed in alarm at the turbulence his ascension left, each Gulp-length gained in height a thrashing, heaving, bone-bruising motion that left his fins aching. 
Dryness prickled his back, the brightness of the fallen light filled his eyes and he knew he’d made it.  Above him, the weight of the thing nearly doubled, buckling him low into the world and nearly submerging her again as he thrashed his flukes mightily, barely holding ground.  The roar and tumult of his efforts filled his ears to bursting; it sounded as though the whole world was trying to upend itself. 
The thing wasn’t awake, he could tell.  There was no movement on his back, although he felt a jerking, heaving life within her still as she ejected bits of the world from her mouth, hacking loudly.  She couldn’t move yet, and he was running out of both strength and the body to hold it in.  Thin bones had snapped, and muscles that had never had to face strain were stretching past their limits.  If he sank, she died, but he would sink, even if only as his frame crumpled under her mass.  How could she be smaller than him and yet so heavy?  The light winked at him from the shore, adding further pain to his efforts, and it was at that precise moment that it all fell together for him.  Gulp gathered the last of his strength, turned to face the light, and shoved with all the force he could muster. 
The rock touched his chin, his jaw, scraped along his belly painfully, and lurched its way along his body down to the very tip of his tail.  The light bounced off one of his flippers, breaking it, and the thing from above rolled off alongside him, landing square on the stone outside the world.
 There was still no respite from the weight: dry was all around him, burying him, weighing him down under his own flesh.  Even his newfound vision was blurring with strain, and the sounds and feelings around him were strange, blunted by the dry, bereft of currents to carry him.  It was because of this that he didn’t feel the other things until they were standing right next to him, over him.  One came beside Gulp, light shining from its hand, and touched his side, a surprisingly light sensation amongst so much crushing pain.  Another was at the side of the thing from outside, raising her up, helping her to wake.  More of those strange loud sounds from them, from all three.  More strange sounds, but Gulp was too tired to hear them.  His eyes were wandering, and for the first time he felt and saw and heard the world from outside.  It looked very small, over rock, under rock, surrounded by rock, and he could feel so much around him, even in the small soft bundle of sensations that were all that he had the energy to perceive. 
It was then that Gulp learned his fourth and last thing about It, as he felt the thing from outside move on her own, to crouch besides him and look at him, eye to fading, half-blind eye.  In the end, it’s worth it. 

In the deep down stone where the darkness dwelt lived light and a very small world.  It was wet, cold, and there was no truly proper way to measure it now, but she would make her best try at it. 


“What You Are in the Dark,” Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

Storytime: On a Web and a Prayer.

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Once upon a time (quite an old time, at least compared to now), there was a spider.  She was not a particularly strong spider, not a particularly fast spider, not a particularly practiced weaver of webs, nor was she notably bad at any of these things either.  Still, this spider did have something special about her: she was a dreamer.  And like all small things, her dreams were very large.  She would dream for hours and sometimes days, shaking off her fantasies and fancies to find that her prey had been and gone, shaking her web half to pieces in the process.  It irritated her, but only mildly, even if it did leave her a little hungry.  Still, she disliked the work.  It took time away from her dreaming. 
It was a nice warm day when the trouble started.  The spider was waking up one sleepy summer morning when she heard the funny calls from the humans.  Most things humans did was funny, but this was funnier than most.  They were going into a strange building, almost all of them, filing in one after another.  The spider was curious, and her web had just been destroyed again, so she decided to put off her work and investigate. 
It was a long trip, for a little spider.  But not too long to make.  She got there just in time to hear the man in the special outfit talking.  He was talking an awful lot, but no one else was talking back – just listening very carefully.  The spider thought this was unusual, and so she listened too. 
He was talking an awful lot about something he called a “god.”  He thought it was very important, and so did the others humans from the look of it.  Whatever it was, it seemed to be very complicated to need so much explanation, but the spider was bored and had time and made a game try at it.  As far as she could guess, god was very big and very strong, and she wondered how it’d gotten that way.   
“Excuse me,” said the spider to the talking man, as the people filed out of the building beneath her, “what does your god eat?”
The man was a little surprised.  Most spiders don’t express any sort of theological interest, even something so relatively down-to-earth as theorizing the dietary habits of deities.  “It doesn’t need to,” he explained, “but I suspect whatever it feels like.”
“Hmm.”  The spider thought it over, legs tapping in thought (spiders have the most marvellous and complex fidgeting of any animal besides the octopus).  “But what made it get so big then?”
“Prayers,” said the man, realizing the spider’s motives and looking for a way to excuse himself so he could go have his post-ceremonial drink.  “Lots and lots of prayers.”
“What are prayers?”
“You were watching us, yes?  We were praying.”
“Oh.  Thank you.” 
The talking man left to find his drink, and the spider reeled herself back to the roof, where she thought.  Prayers must be fine food indeed, to let something grow as big as a god.  Perhaps she should try to catch some herself the next time the humans came into the prayer-building.  Best to be discreet then; she doubted they’d be happy with her taking any for herself, even if it was just a little, enough for a meal or two, or three.  She just wanted to see how good prayer tasted, that was all.  Nothing more. 
So she built a big fine web.  It took her days to prepare, stretching from one corner of the ceiling to another, fine and yet thorough, unseeable from below and strong enough to catch the wriggliest, canniest prayer and wrap it up tightly.  Then she waited as the humans filed in again, exhausted and filled with fierce impatience.  She watched as they listened, and watched as they murmured, and watched as they left again and her web remained empty. She was tired, she was hungry, and her spinnerets were aching and sore. 
“Hey!” she yelled at the talking man, too irritated to care if he knew her plans or not.  “Where were your prayers?  I couldn’t catch any of them!”
“Prayers are invisible, untouchable,” the talking man told her.  “Only gods can feel them, and the people who make them.” 
The spider gnashed her mandibles at this.  “That’s silly!  How do they do it?”
The talking man just laughed and walked away.  That was the moment when the spider decided she’d take more than just a few prayers.  She’d take them all, then see how much the talking man would laugh at her. 

First, though, she had to think up a new way to catch prayers.  She puzzled and thought at it for hours, but got nowhere.  Her ideas were getting too hot and thick, clouding each other out and clustering up.  So she stopped thinking and started working on her web again, doubling and redoubling its strength, mind wandering, dreaming awake.  Her ideas floated away to toy with things unconscious, bouncing away from reality…where they stuck.  Stuck fast.  And with them dangling there, potential cocooned and on display, thought hit again like a wasp-sting. 
“Dreams,” said the spider. 
It took many hours of aimless, dreaming spinning and uncoiling and repairing, but at last her web was re-completed, laced with hours of meandering daydreams.  It was exactly the wrong sort of web – it was inexact, wandering, imprecise, and would snap apart under the weight of even the least determined and most suicidally-inclined fly ever to live.  But prayers were invisible, untouchable.  How much weight could they have?

She found out when the people came back.  The talking man talked, the people murmured, and the web bulged, strained, and snapped.  The spider barely had time to catch herself before she fell, and watched helplessly from midair as her web unravelled in front of her eyes, spidery dreams sprinkling across the people below (a few of them had odd flights of fancy concerning aphids and beetles, but otherwise thought little of it). 
The spider cursed old spider curses about the big clumsy stupidness of mammals and other such things, and it took her a little while to calm down and think.  They were too big, that was the problem.  Her dreams were too small, too differently-shaped to net and snare human prayers; it was like trying to scoop up a lake using a net the size of a thimble.  She needed human dreams, and well, look who was walking right underneath her…. 
Talking man’s home was not far away, and she hid under his bed until his breathing slowed and softened.  Then she crept out, quietly as only a spider can move (eight silent little legs, quick and soft as kitten feet), and she spun nets of dreams and silk, dreams to catch dreams, silk to hold form.  By morning she was exhausted, but she also had several little silk bags hanging from her abdomen crammed full of the talking man’s nighttime visions, and she was able to hitch a ride back on talking man’s coat with him none the wiser. 

Making the new web was hard.  The human dreams were strange and complex and often blindingly obtuse.  If the spider were a human artist, she would have likened it to a potter trying to sculpt a model using limestone.  It took her more than three times as long as her first web, and by completion she was sick and tired of it all.  And very hungry.  But mostly tired; so very, very, very tired that it outweighed even her hunger and frustrated impatience.  She fell asleep while waiting for the people to finish entering the building again, before talking man could even begin his speechifying. 
The tugs and jerks of movement, of twitching prey woke her.  For a moment she thought that another lazy fly had mistakenly blundered into her web – they had delayed its construction for entire hours at a time, pesky nuisances – but it was too strange, too unfamiliar.  It was a prayer, wriggling blindly in its snare, invisible but snagged by dreams. 
Quick as lightning she dashed to it, trussed it up firmly, and set about draining it dry.  It tasted better than liquid moonlight, riper than a cut of prime aged sedimentary rock, finer than atomic dust, and the spider couldn’t drink enough of it.  She gulped it down and all her aches and pains and sore tired legs vanished.  It felt like she was strong enough to snare eagles, and that… that was just the first.  Already her web was tingling, plunking, twitching under the strain of dozens of prayers, wafting up from below, intercepted before they could reach the god. 

After that, it was as smooth as dancing (spiders are as elegant as eels on the ballroom floor).  The prayers came up fast and went down fast, and the spider grew and grew.  She was fat and happy on prayers, and she no longer wondered how the god had gotten so big – she herself was swelling up and up, to the point where she could no longer hide on the ceiling of the prayer-building any longer, not without being seen.  She specially reinforced the web, backing it with the power of her stolen prayers, and it grew strong as steel and nearly invisible.  The prayers could squirm all they liked; they would remain safe there until the last human left and she could descend from the attic to snack freely, leaving the spider happy and lazy, free to dream all day and feast all night.  Each week there were more and more prayers and the prayers themselves were more confused and easily caught, as the humans bemoaned the apparent silence of their god.  Prayers for rain for the crops, prayers for the ill to grow well, prayers that the neighbour might slip in dung and fly head over heels in front of the whole village; children’s prayers, elder’s prayers, all had their own savoury, sweet, or sour flavours to the palate spider’s mind and body. 
As for the god, it was wondering exactly why the one prayer-place was so silent.  It had always been a good village; not overflowing with prayers, but it was not a large community.  It resolved to discover this mystery for itself, and it descended down into the place of prayer quietly, without fuss.  It was not a showy god, and did not wish to cause unnecessary disturbance.  How vexed it was then, when it found itself bound in a web of prayer and dreams!

The spider knew right away, of course.  She’d drawn strings of her webs up into the attic, where she could keep a running tally of how many prayers she might expect to suck up that eve.  Such a large and strange twisting in it gave her much concern, and she skittered down immediately, a great crawling thing much bigger than any other spider that walked the earth, big as a plate and more. 
“Who are you and what are you doing on my web?” she demanded.  “You’ll rip it up if you’re not careful, blundering into it like that!”  The spider had never met a god before, and had no idea what the strange not-there-but-there thing taking up valuable prayer-space was. 
“No-one important,” said the god.  It was as curious about this strange thing as she was about it.  After all, it had never met a spider quite so large before.  “What is your web for?”
“Prayers,” boasted the spider.  “They’re invisible, and they’re untouchable, but I can touch them, touch them and eat them!  They’ve made me big, just like a god.”
“I see,” said the god, who was a little worried and wanted to keep her talking.  The web was very strong, it was rather stuck (not so much as a finger could budge), and though the spider seemed conversational, it fretted that that without distraction she might remember it had damaged her web and grow angry.  “That is very clever indeed.  How did you touch them then?”
“Dreams,” she said.  “The prayers tangle up in them, and then I can suck them dry.  They’re the most delicious thing in all the world, even better than mayflies.”
“Come now.  That’s impossible,” scoffed the god.
The spider danced a little tantrum.  “Are you calling me a liar?  I say they’re the most delicious things there ever have been or will be, and I will prove it!  Wait awhile, they’re coming in mere minutes – then I’ll show you!”  And with that she turned about, ready to skitter back upstairs in a sulk. 
“Wait,” said the god, hastily.  “Please, can you loosen my bonds?  They’re too tight, and I can’t scratch my nose.”
The spider looked doubtfully at it.  “Do you even have a nose?” she asked.  “Well, no matter.  I will loosen one thread.  That will let you scratch, and still keep you out of mischief.”  So she reached out with her sharp fangs and carefully nipped one silken thread loose, then she turned on her heels and scuttled away. 
The dangling god smiled to itself, and when the people walked in it chuckled, and it began to laugh out loud, very quietly, as the desperate, confused prayers began to bob upwards in innumerable quantities and tangled themselves in the web.  It could barely move one finger, but when you’re a god, one finger is all that’s needed.  It stretched itself as mightily as it could, and soon a prayer landed on its finger and soaked in, like water in sand.  It flexed away more strands and reached further, and they soon flocked to it, vanishing softly into its core. 
They were indeed good prayers, the finest the god had seen in many a year, and it began to sing with appreciation as it took them, a quiet, happy tune that the humans heard in the very backmost corners of their brains and fell silent at without quite knowing why, happy and at peace.  They left the church in good humour and springs in their steps, and that was when the spider came down, confused at the odd music. 
“Where are my prayers?” she demanded, staring at the empty web. 
“My prayers,” corrected the god, and the spider’s heart sank as she saw it sitting there in midair quite peacefully, free of the strands. 
“It was just a few little prayers!” she protested.  “What harm did I do?”
“Very little,” said the god.  “But a little was enough.  Why did you do this?”
“To be big,” said the spider.  “To have time to dream, to be strong and not have to fix my web every day and night.”
“You had time to dream on your web in the first place,” said the god.  “You are lazy, and I will punish you for the harm you have done, as laziness is no excuse.  But as it is small harm, and you are unhappy, I will also reward you.”
The spider did another little fidget dance at this, but before she could so much as protest, it was done.  Her webs were wiped from the ceiling, and try as she might she didn’t have the faintest idea of how to remake them; her silk yet flowed, her spinnerettes were whole, but the memories of her great elaborately woven webs were gone. 
“Now go,” said the god.  “Go and hunt for your food.  In the trees, on the ground.  Make a nest if you must, but your webs will do your work for you no more, and you will search for your prey on foot.  But I promise you this: you will be big, the biggest of them all, and you will remain strong.  You will not need your webs.”

And so the spider (who the god named Tarantula) went into the forest, as she was so large now that the humans shrieked at her and tried to strike her.  She wove nests in the trees, she wove nests in the dirt, in burrows, and she hunted (although she preferred to wait and bite things as they came near her dens, that did not always work).  She was a little sad that she had no time for dreaming.  She was a little angry that she had to spend her time hunting. 
But she was the biggest one of all the spiders, and her many children too, and for that she was very thankful. 


“On a Web and a Prayer” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: The End of the World as They Know it.

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

All four of the survivors entered the shelter at almost the same time, weary, scraped, battered, and bruised beyond measure.  Each instinctively grasped at his hip, shoulder, or side for a weapon that was no longer there, makeshift or finely tooled, then relaxed as they saw the others were similarly disarmed. 
There were seats, convenient yet uncomfortable, arranged around a small, generic table with some nondescript food atop it.  They used them wordlessly. 
At last, when the plate was down to the final scraps, one of them spoke through his last mouthful.  “Helluva thing out there, wasn’t it?”
There were nods, slow and solemn, weary. 
“I was in the country when it hit, missed the brunt of it.  Any of you guys from the cities?  Was it as bad as it seemed?”
“Worse,” said a second man, one hand fidgeting with his baseball cap, brim slipping side-to-side once every five seconds like clockwork.  His eyes swept around the room rapid-fire, scanning exits, entries, points of defence.  “Panic, riots, gas main explosions, power failures, traffic jams mixed with overturned trucks.  Cops vanishing, fire department in shambles.  Was a goddamned shitstorm.”
The third stared at the empty table with the blank expression of a cow regarding a barn wall.  “There were so many missing lights,” he said, voice a dreamy monotone.  “There should have been lights, and there weren’t any.  They put out all the lights.  They don’t like it when you can see them coming.  Really pisses them off.”  His gaze lifted up to the ceiling, leaving behind his voice. 
The other two looked to the last man, the biggest in the room.  He appeared to be trying to curl himself into as small a position as possible in his chair, humming a quick and nervous tune.  His eyes met theirs, and he steadied for a moment.  “They killed all the cows,” he said, then giggled and redoubled his humming. 
The first and second man looked to each other and shrugged. 
“I would like to tell a story,” announced the third man, making the others jump a little.  “It’s how I got here.” 

“I was working,” said the third man, who was now looking directly at and through them, “at my job.  It was in a store.  A bookstore, I think.  And it was very boring, so I was on an evening smoke break.  A very long smoke break, a smoke break that would last until my manager found me, because it was so boring, you see.  And that’s why I am still alive, because they came in fast and hard through the front door.  I heard the screams, pushed the door open, and I saw what was happening.  They were all dying by then.  Lots of red, but other, funny colours too.  Like a boxful of dirty crayons.  Very ugly.”
He shrugged, the pudginess of his shoulders rippling.  “So I ran.  I am not good at running, but I forced it, and I think I overtook the worst of them.  They were fast, but they had to stop to hunt and kill and put out the lights, so they could use the dark properly.  I didn’t have to stop until I couldn’t run anymore, and that took time.  More time than I thought.  When I stopped, I was out of the city, heading off the road.  The highway was burning, full of broken cars and dead people, you see, so I could not walk on it.” 
There was a long, slow silence as he stared at his fingers, something behind that pudding-formed face thinking everything over as carefully as it could.  The slight whispery sound of the second man’s fidgeting was too loud, overlapping oddly with the fourth man’s humming, which incorporated it quickly into its own nervous leitmotif. 
“Then,” he continued, “I walked.  And after a few days, I ran out of food.  And as I was walking through the forest, I saw a barn.  I’d been avoiding buildings and roads, but I was so hungry, you see.  I went up to it, and everyone was dead, and one of them too.  The farmer had a hunting rifle, you see, and he had aimed very carefully.  But he and his family had been dead and ruined by its comrades, but it hadn’t been, and I was so hungry.  It was one of them, and they aren’t like us, so it wasn’t really cannibalism, you see.  Besides, I used their oven because it was still working, and it’s all right because I cooked it.  You see how it is.”
The silence was shorter, but quieter this time.  Even the fourth man had stopped humming and was listening with cautious care. 
“After that I walked some more.  And then I saw signs of people, so I followed them.  And they found me, and showed me to this place.  There aren’t many of them, and I am very thankful.  I was so hungry again, you see.” 
The second man spoke first.  “Hell of a story.  You got damned lucky out there.  Right near the city limits, eh?  I wasn’t so lucky.  Let me tell you what happened in there.”  He searched his pockets, then pulled a face.  “Fuck.  Outta smokes.  Had to trade my pack to the guys here for these new clothes.”  He sighed.  “Ah well, my nerves’ll just have to take it.”
“So,” he began, “I got off my shift, I get in my truck, and I pull onto the street.  There’s too much traffic, but that’s normal, and I should be used to it but I’ve just had the most miserable fucking day.  We’ve all been there, right?”  A beat, during which only the first man nodded confirmation – the fourth was back to his humming, and the third was staring at the second man’s baseball cap. 
“Yeah, we have.  So when some clown tries to cut me off almost to the exact second that it looks like we’re moving again, I didn’t take it kindly.  As a matter of fact, I jumped out of the truck, ran up to him, and started chewing the little shithead out through the window.  Well, he got out of the car and surprise, he wasn’t such a little shithead anymore.  Must’ve been six foot eight, and, well you guys can see I’m not exactly up there.  But there’s no way in hell I’m backing down.”
“So we get into a fight.  Just yelling at first, but then he tries looming over me, and I poke him in the gut, and then the shoving starts.  We’re about five seconds from a genuine goddamned fistfight in the middle of a rush hour traffic jam, and we’re yelling so loud we can’t even hear the screams from up ahead.  The first one of them I saw took the shithead from behind.  Popped his head like a cork mid-cuss.  The only reason I made it out of that was that I didn’t stick around to gawp – I was tensed for a fist fight, and I just redirected that focus a little.  Ran straight for the car, yanked my handgun out, and killed it when it couldn’t have been more than half a foot from me.  One shot, clean kill.  It was a closer talker than shithead’d been.”
“Now unlike you,” he said, grinning toothily at the third man, who remained blank, “I couldn’t run.  Bad knee, but more importantly, I had nowhere to run.  Bumper-to-bumper traffic, and just me, my Glock, and about a million fewer cartridges than I’d have liked.  Tough luck.  But I didn’t really have time to complain, and it wasn’t like it could’ve fixed anything.”
“My first thought was to get home.  I’ve got other guns there, and there was no way I was getting out of the city armed like I was, with traffic a mess and my knee.  So I headed for the subways.  There was bloody hell breaking loose everywhere on the streets, explosions, crashes, fires, and they were all over it like a dog on its own shit.  I figured so long as I was careful where I stepped and made sure to get out of the way before I heard a train coming, everything’d be fine.”
“Well, as lucky would have it, they prefer the dark – like you said pal, they keep out of the lights, and break ‘em.  But I didn’t know that until I was half a mile down the tunnel and hearing them out there, just past where I could see.  They’d taken out a subway car.  Bodies everywhere.  I hid in it while they checked around, and when they moved on, I followed real nice and slow.  Found another gun on one of the passengers too, so no big deal.  More ammo’s nice.  Then I guess they had a guy run rear guard – maybe they heard me earlier on and thought I was some sort of tail – and I almost walked into him when I pulled into the next station.  Surprised both of us, but I was more frightened than he was.  Gave me the advantage, landed him a sound pistol-whip in the teeth, and gave me the chance for a quick show of marksmanship.  Three rounds to be sure, all of ‘em dead centre.  Bastards die hard.  I didn’t care how bad my knee was then; I ran.  I only made it about a block away, but I ran, and I guess they thought I went back down the tunnel, either that or they just didn’t think I was worth following.  Sure as hell didn’t go back below, though.  Gives me the shakes just thinking about it.”
“After that?  It got blurry.  I tried sticking to the streets, keeping low in the chaos.  Didn’t work too well, almost got killed four times in as many minutes.  Tried moving inside.  They were prepared for that too; inside all the buildings, like termites invading an anthill.  Bloody slaughterhouses, every one.  Didn’t have as many near-death experiences there though – I was just one of a morass of targets.  Plus, I got smart and left right away.”
“At some point I ditched the idea of heading home.  Too far, and it was too dangerous.  I think I was probably expecting to die, I just hadn’t realized it yet.  So I started marching for the highway, taking down anything that looked at me funny.  I killed one other guy by accident – thought he was one of them.  Poor bastard.  I felt bad about it, but only for a moment, because then I’d gotten someone else’s attention with the shot.  That happened a lot.  One of them spots you?  Fire at it, maybe you get him, maybe you don’t.  But that doesn’t matter, because you’ve just alerted three or four more.  The best you can do is pray that either you move faster than they do or that they find someone else and pick on him instead.  Heard that happen a few times.  Poor bastards.  By then I didn’t feel sorry, just glad.  They were going to die anyways, might as well die saving my ass.”
“When I hit the highway?  Exactly as bad as we’ve said it was.  Nothing but hell on a neat little eight-lane asphalt line.  Swarming with them everywhere.”
“From then on, I basically did the same thing as the zen master here just told, except I had a gun.  Picked off the odd lone one of ‘em I ran into, shot game when I could find it – they don’t seem to think much of anything of most animals, weird when you think of how thorough they were on all of us, you’d think they lived for blood – and ate it raw.  No smoke that way, and no scent.  Keeping that last one made me swear off that last packet, but it kept me nicely tetchy.  Got a mite delirious a few times after drinking from a bad stream, but pulled through until I found this place.  Not too shabby, and they were happy to take me in.  Shame they wouldn’t let me bring my gun inside, but they’ve got a strongbox for it and they’ve got decent security.  Should be safe.  Probably.”
He sat back, grunting in satisfaction.  “And that’s my story told.  Who’s up next?”
Surprisingly, the fourth man uncoiled himself.  It was slow and odd, but not cumbersome – the sort of regally contorted movements that a python uses to unwrap itself from its prey. 
“Me,” he said.  “Me me me.  Definitely ME.”  His eye was odd; resting on them, then flicking wildly about, then staring flat and stable again, daring the viewer to believe that it had moved in the first place.  “Is that all right?”
“Sure,” said the second man.  “Yes,” said the first man.  The third man said nothing, but bobbed his head gently, bouncing his chin on his blubbery neck.
“Right.  Right.”  He giggled a little.  “I’m sorry.  I’m just a little on EDGE.  A little nervous.  A little.  But yes, what happened.” 

“I owned a ranch, a big ranch, a fine ranch, I made a lot of money oh a lot of lovely money.  Because I was good and my cows were good and I was good at the business it was all so GOOD.  And I’d eaten breakfast and was just going out the back door and I went out to look at the herd and the cows were all dead all my beautiful COWS.”  He broke into heaving sobs, and before the others had time to blink he was back to grinning happily.
“But anyways I saw they were dead because they had no faces anymore and I knew they were dead because they had no insides anymore they’d pulled out all the cows’ insides oh my beautiful cow INSIDES see mister sir mister you see they care about SOME animals right DON’T YOU?”  The stare that he directed at the second man was hard and flat, a near-threat backed up by clenching fists that made him reach to his side for that invisible weapon again.  And again, that smile melted back in faster than lightning. 
“And they were there, so many of them, all about the insides and I shouted at them shouldn’t have done that because they saw me and chased me and I had to run get my gun locked myself in my house fired at them stupid slow things thought I was helpless but they set FIRE to it oh my house my worn comfortable house, all gone, all the money all the wood all the books and records and beds and tables and BURNT.”  He coughed out a laughing sob.  “But it didn’t matter, got away, lost the eye to a falling timber because I had to blow out a wall with the gas main but I got away and cleaned out the socket good and I walked off because I was all that was left because the cows were all dead and the ranch was gone oh me oh my oh me.”
He curled up again, and was quiet but for the humming. 
“And what happened then?” asked the first man. 
The humming paused.  “I came here, and they put me here and now you’re here and they wanted me to meet you.  Good to see faces on faces and no insides at all, all hidden inside.  Good, oh my.”  It resumed, twice as fast and three times as heated. 

The second man turned back to the first.  “Well, you’re up, buddy.  What happened to you?”
The first man smiled bleakly.  “Nothing as exciting as any of yours, I’m afraid.  I was on a working vacation in the country.  Telecommuted; very nice, very cushy, pretty little cottage in a nice little village.  Me and my wife both.  One evening the lights started going out back in town, and before we know it something’s breaking down our back door.  They had the house almost surrounded, and barricade as fast as we could – and we, well, my wife was fast, quick on her feet and a cool head – they were coming in and we couldn’t stop them.  So we ran for the car.  And because my legs were longer, and my wife’s feet aren’t as fast as her hands, I got there first.  And because I’m not as cool a head in a crisis, I locked the doors before she got in, then panicked and didn’t unlock them.  They were too close by then, there was nothing I could’ve done, and I couldn’t have known she’d have been able to run for as far as she did after the car before they got her.  It wasn’t my fault.  Really.  Absolutely.  I was upset about it, but you get over these things.  I was suicidal and self-destructive in the car, but I think I’m over it now.  The people here have helped a lot, telling me to be calm and giving me some pills for it.  You can forgive a man a little lapse.”  He grinned, thin muscles crawling on his face.  “I mean, how often does he find himself be forced to watch his wife get killed by the walking dead?” 

The other lulls in the conversation, uncomfortable or strange as they had been, had felt natural, part of the ebb and flow of a discourse, bizarre as it was.  This one was a lurching, grinding, heaving halt.  All three of the others stared at him, even the fourth man, even the third man. 
“You’re fucking crazy,” said the second man, flatly.  “Fucking crazy.  Zombies?  You’re babbling shit about zombies?  They put me in here with a fucking headcase who believes in zombies?”
The first man’s grin had faded away into bemused umbrage.  “What?  But you said yourself – you said that –”
“Zombies?  I didn’t say shit about zombies.  Magic?  Voodoo?  None of it.  It was fuckin’ crazy for the government to declare war on its own damned citizens, but some of us saw it coming, and there weren’t any fucking living corpses involved.!”  He laughed raucously, and spat at the first man’s foot.  “Were you always nuts, or did the black ops doing in your wife do that to you?  You’re crazy.”
“What?!”  demanded the second man. “You think I’m crazy?  Listen to yourself!  How would the government convince the army to shoot up its own – no, there’s no point!  That’s crazy!  YOU’RE the crazy one!  How can you even imagine that, and how the hell did you miss seeing the damned zombies?!”
“There were no men,” interrupted the calm voice of the third man.  “There were no dead men, no living men.  They weren’t men at all; they were too tall, too thin, too lean and cold.  They had come so far to get here, spent so much effort and used so many machines.  Their machines spat beautiful red lights that stood out so nicely, with the lights they broke.  I do not think they appreciate our world’s light.  You are both crazy.”
“No no no NO!” insisted the fourth man.  “They were tall yes, but thick thick THICK with teeth and claws and blades and eyes where you can’t look and can’t unsee because they like to bite and tear, cut off the faces and yank out the INSIDES that should stay on the INSIDE don’t you UNDERSTAND are you all CRAZY?!” he screeched. 
“Nutcases,” swore the second man.  “I’m surrounded by goddamned nutcases!  Why would they put me in a room with three fucking shit-for-brains nutcases!?”  He strode to the door, slamming each step down furiously, rattled at the knob with ire, then desperation.  “Locked?  What the fucking hell?  Why’d they lock me in with two lights-in-the-sky dingalings and a nutjob who’s seen too many Romero flicks?!”
“At least aliens are scientifically plausible,” sneered the first man.  “There’s no way to prove they don’t exist.  And what about all the paranormal activity over the years that no sceptics have ever disproven?  You’re the craziest one here, crazier than these guys.  At least they aren’t pretending they’re sane.”
“I saw what I saw,” said the third man.  “And what I saw was right, even if what it was was so wrong.  You are all crazy.”
“Crazy,” giggled the fourth.  “Crazy crazy crazy CRAZY!”  All of YOU!  Because you didn’t see them properly, because you didn’t see the FACES!”  He laughed long and loud and ran to the wall, beating it with his head so hard it seemed his teeth would crack right out of his gleefully clenched jaw.  “Crazy crazy crazy on the INSIDE!”
The thuds were loud enough to echo right through the one-way mirror, and the observing medical staff found themselves wincing as the treatment session broke down.  Patient number two was yelling at the others about how they couldn’t claim going mad was an excuse for voting the apocalypse into office, patient three was trying to explain how the thin men were probably vulnerable to music because “they can’t see music either,” and patient one was repeating “oh really?” in an increasingly mocking and obnoxious voice at everything anyone else said.  Patient four’s forehead was becoming bruised. 
“Intervene now?” inquired an intern to the psychiatrist on monitor duty. 
The psychiatrist sighed, then cut himself off with a wince as the first patient said something unforgivable about the second through fourth patient’s mothers.  “I suppose so.  Send security in.  I really thought we had something there, you know, a breakthrough just around the corner, a mutual realization of shared delusions that could make all four of them wake up to reality, break that “last-sane-person” complex.  For just a few moments… oh well.  More traditional methods should see them all through this, I hope.  Send in security, and let’s get them away from each other before it gets any worse.  We don’t want this to turn violent.”



“The End of the World as They Know It,” Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

Storytime: Directions.

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

“Directions, eh?  Are you sure?  Bit of a hike, that is.  Might get a little complicated.  You want to write them down?  No?  Suit yourself.  Now, let me think…”

“Right, got it!”

“First off, keep going down Main Street.  Take a right at the first junction onto Bailey Avenue.  That’s a RIGHT, understood?  Not a left, it’s a RIGHT.  You don’t want to mess this up!  Next up, stop at the third manhole cover you find.  Bailey’s busy this time of day, so you might have to dodge traffic.  Or maybe it’ll be really busy, and you’ll have to redirect it entirely.  That okay?  Okay?  Good.”
“Anyways, once you open the manhole cover, go down into the sewers.  Head north for five minutes at a jog and you’ll find a big, circular grate blocking your path.  Now, if you look very closely and rub off the muck, you’ll see there’s about seven hundred different runes inscribed around the perimeter of the grate.  Taking it from the north centre, you want to touch the eighty-ninth, four-hundredth-and-forty, and seven-hundred-and-ninety-first of them, in that order.  Do that seven times, and it’ll open.  Or was it six?  No, it was seven.  I’m sure of it, don’t worry.  Anyways, it’ll open up and start draining the sewers.  Jump in fast, because it closes after seven seconds and it can only open once per week.  And be careful that the crocodiles don’t bite you, because the water gets sucked in fast and they tend to come with it.  What?  Yes, crocodiles, not alligators.  Alligators have broader snouts and their lower teeth don’t show when their mouths shut.  These are definitely crocodiles – oh, I didn’t mention them?  Well, I have now.”
“All right.  Once you’re through you’ll fall into the Bowl Sea and be swept into the very centre of its dish.  It might seem impossible to swim up the curved slopes of its watery sides and out of its trap, but don’t be fooled; it’s very simple when you know the trick.  You’ll need something round and pale – a melon would do.  Do you have a melon?  No?  Better get one before you reach Bailey Avenue then.  So, you take your melon, or maybe a baseball – oh, you have a baseball?  Good, then you won’t need to buy anything.  Groceries are too pricy here.  So, you take your pale round thing and chuck it as hard as you can into the sky.  It’s very important that you throw it as far and high as you can, you want to get good hang time.  Do this towards the late afternoon at least, but NOT at night.  That’s important.  Then stick your head in the Bowl Sea and yell as loud as you can: “HEY, LOOK AT THAT FULL MOON.”  That’ll get its attention (see, you can’t do this at night or it’ll see the REAL moon instead).  When it sees that pale round thing in the sky (seas have poor eyesight, did you know?) it’ll think it’s time for a big spring tide, and it’ll puff itself up, transforming from the Bowl Sea into the Dome Sea.  If you were sitting at its bottom (which you probably were), you should end up at its very peak, balancing high above the land.  Better start sliding down fast, because once it catches ahold of that ball it’ll realize it’s been tricked and splash back down again.  With a good, clean throw you’ll be sitting on the shore laughing before it can finish settling down again.  Got a strong enough arm?  You sure?  Hope so, but I guess I believe you.”

“Set in front of you from the shores of the Bowl Sea should be the Hjallit plains.  Nothing for miles and miles and miles but knee-high grass and cacti the size of skyscrapers.  I hope you didn’t leave getting out of the sea TOO late in the afternoon, or it’ll be night-time and that’s when the thousands and thousands of giant, blood-sucking bats come out of their fortresses in the cacti to feast on the thousands of insects and war against one another.  Did I mention the insects?  There’s lots, and they’re big – grasshoppers that can cross a street in a single leap and praying mantises that could take on a wolfhound and walk away half the time.  The bats eat them, but they prefer nice warm blood, which is why they battle one another for captives to drink dry.  And travellers.”
“Now, getting out of the plains consists of two parts.  First of all, you’ll want to start running, and run as far and long as you can.  You want to get deep into them before sundown, because the grass thickens and you won’t stick out as much.  Head northwest – no no no, wait, northeast.  I’m sorry, terribly thick of me.  Right, so you’re heading northeast, and as soon as evening comes in, the cicadas will start singing.  Stop up your ears with dried grass if you have nothing else at hand, because this next bit’ll need it.  Run towards the cicadas as fast as you can (they’re always a long ways away, farther than they sound).  When the sound is almost unbearably loud even through the blockage, you’ll see them.  Now, grab one – the size of a daschund, they are – and tie it up or wrap it up, just something so it won’t bite or run.  Now you can walk away through the plains all night without fear of bat, thanks to the roaring of that cicada in your grasp, bamboozling their sonar.  Which is a pity, because you’re just using it to wait out the night.  Get close to one of the really big cactus-forts and hide out there till dawn, when the bats are asleep and you can let the cicada go.  Then, shinny up the sides (you can use the spines as handholds).  This’ll probably take about until evening, okay?  That’s why you’ve got to put it off until after the first night’s through.”
“Once you’re up the cactus, head to the very peak and tip.  There you’ll find the lair of its bat-lord, its biggest, toughest, canniest leader.  He’ll sleep, but sleep lightly, so you must walk very quietly.  Get really close to him, then grab ahold of his ears and jump on his back.  Start twisting them right away, because a moment he can think clearly in is the moment you’re dead.  He’ll roar, beg, threaten, wheedle, but keep his ears hurting until he says “I submit.”  Those words, and no others, mean that you can let go, because he’s admitting you beat him, and through him, all the bats in that fortress.  Order him to take you to the northmost corner of the plains.  Should take you all night, but you’ll make it on his back just fine.  When he asks permission to leave, make sure you say “I permit this, thank you, and bid you goodnight” because it’s a formal declaration of peaceful farewell.  Anything else might set him off with a bruised ego like he’ll have by then.  You got that?  Say, you sure you have enough paper to keep track of all this?  Okay then.”

“So, that was probably a bit tiring.  Feel free to kick back for a nap before you go on, because you’ve got quite a barrier ahead of you.  The forest of Fjoi may be beautiful beyond all belief and just one kilometre long, but it’s so thick and tangly that the only animals that live in it are snakes, and it’s over a mile tall!  I hope you’re still limber from climbing the cacti, because the only way past that thicket bar pureeing yourself and seeping through is climbing.  A lot of climbing.  On the way up, be sure you don’t mistake any vines for snakes or vice versa.  Remember, the vines are safe if they’re striped green-black-green, in that order.  Or was that brown-black-green?  No, I think it was green-black-green.  “If green touches black, you’re okay, jack/if brown touches green, bid farewell to yer spleen,” those were the rules.  Right, so green-black-green is safe.  Got it?  Good.  And remember, if you get bitten, chew the seeds of the big yellow trapezoid-shaped fruits.  They’re called pam-pams, and they really are delicious.  Good disinfectant, too.”
“At the top, you’ll have a nice long view of what’s ahead: the Tumbling Hills, with their endless canyons, gulfs, gullies, and gulches, and their enormous ever-rolling stones.  Memorize as much of it as you can, but don’t stay too long – the upper reaches of Fjoi are the home of the Trunksnake.  Or at least, the Trunksnake’s head.  Its tail is coiled down deep in the earth and its body stretches up from the soil as thick and strong as any tree trunk, while its head browses the canopy for snacks.  If you see the treetops shaking near you, run for it and don’t look back.”
“There’s two ways down.  One of them, you climb.  Might be tricky, particularly if the Trunksnake’s seen you.  The other, much better.  Be sure to gather as many flower petals as you can, especially the big white sturdy ones from the Salapak vine; they’re nice and tough.  Stitch ‘em together using the jaws of ants you can pick up on your way, and you’ll have a good makeshift parachute.  Just get to the top, memorize your landing zone, aim, and hop away!”

“What happens then?  Hmm.  Give me a second, I’ve got to think.”

“Got it.”

“Okay, so you’re at the Tumbling Hills.  Whether you’ve gotten in there through airdrop or climbing, you’re in the midst of the mess now and it doesn’t really matter anymore.  The absolute most-necessary first thing you need to do is find a pebble.  A good one, about the size of my thumb, yes?  Got that?  It’s very important.  Then climb up to a good high spot, right above where one of the boulders rocks back and forth.  Watch it careful for a good time – ten minutes, half an hour maybe, depending on your attention span – and then kick it as hard as you can.  Try to nudge it towards another one of the boulders.  Bonk!  Like pool with balls that can crush you.  Just lather, rinse and repeat.  It really accelerates after maybe the fifth or six one.  After that you’ve got a nice wave of canyon-clearing, rock-slamming, hurtling missiles charging ahead of you and mopping up anything that might get in your way.  The downside is that it’s probably awakened the mole people.  Wait, no, that isn’t right.  Who ever heard of moles in rock?  No, no……yes!  I remember!  The rock giants!  How could I forget the rock giants?  They’re about a hundred feet tall and very strong.  Well, one of your rocks will probably have smacked into one or two napping ones along the way, so they’ll be really angry.  Do I have any advice?  Actually, no, not beyond “try not to get squashed.”  Look, it’s either piss off the giants or spend a month or two trying to carefully navigate your way through here.  The latter has much greater odds of squashing you and takes longer, so take your giant-induced lumps and suck it up, all right?  Don’t get all squeamish on me now.”

“All right.  Past Tumbling Hills you’ll come to the foot of Chals canyon.  Its walls are so high you wouldn’t believe, and nothing lives inside its narrow walls but one creature.  It’s the home of the Foust-dragon, and its sulphurous breath has polished the walls as brilliantly as mirrors.  If you don’t want to lose your lungs, you’d better eat some of the garlic plants growing just outside the canyon’s mouth.  Eat as many as you can, until your tongue feels blue and your stomach has stopped caring.  Then head into the canyon.  You still have the pebble, right?  Good.”
“The Foust-dragon has pretty good hearing, so it should be awake by the time you reach the midpoint of Chals canyon.  It folds up its long, gangly legs when it naps, and it takes up the whole width of the canyon when it lies on its belly like that.  Walk up to it, bold as you please (it despises cowards), and demand passage.  Be firm, but not insolent or mocking – you want it impressed, not irritated.  If you’ve adopted the right tone, it will challenge you to withstand the death of its breath before standing up to let you pass.  I hope you’ve eaten enough garlic, because unless your own breath is as powerful as you can make it, nothing will prevent your face from dissolving from the nostrils on.  Just exhale as the Foust-dragon breathes in your face, and though the wind may knock you over and bleach your hair, you’ll live and be free to go.  One last thing here: do not, under any circumstances, touch the Foust-dragon’s belly as you walk underneath it.  It’s very ticklish, and one laughing wriggle attack would be enough to smash you into raspberry jam.”
“Oops, nearly forgot!  Right, well, be sure to keep your eyes squinted nearly shut the whole time you’re walking through the canyon.  Not only is the dragon so ugly that you’d scream and make him eat you as a coward, but the walls are so blindingly reflective that a simple sunbeam would sear out your eyeballs.  Not a fan of that, let me say.”

“At the end of Chals canyon is the entrance to the deep dank dwelling pits of Chas caverns.  The Foust-dragon’s family live down there in their rotting hundreds, dead and alive, riddled with stink and gnawing hatred.  It left because it was too small and weak to thrive down there, where you’re forever being eaten as you eat, an ouroboros made out of more than a thousand separate serpents.  Light blinds and binds them, so before you enter (with the pebble, you didn’t forget the pebble, did you?), break off a piece of stone from the very end of Chas canyon and take it with you.  You’ll also need a little bit of light – just a match will do.  Reflected into the mirror, it will shine like midday light, but be careful and don’t look too hard at anything around you.  You won’t like what you see, and anything that shines back at you – lakes of fungal slime, the glistening pupils of ancient dragons, the glowering grim glimmer of darkened crystals – is especially to be avoided.  Do you understand me?  Especially.”
“Towards the very deepest of the caverns will be the Hole to the Sky, a shaft of rock almost ten miles in height.  Its exit is Mount Drabbis’s peak, but that won’t concern you as much as its root, where the city of Erakida is cradled.  It’s big, it’s thriving, and there’s lots and lots of tough customers down there, so mind you don’t let any of them get too close or too angry at you.  All the peoples of the sky and the deeps meet in Erakida, because the thermals are so clean and convenient to flap down and the tunnels so broad and accommodating to creep up.  The founder is Great Gram Drakkal, and he – ah, that’s a long story and it doesn’t matter.  Just don’t bother him if you see him – easy to identify, he’s about twenty feet tall, drab grey, and has horns where his eyes should be.”
“So!  Once in Erakida, see if you can find someone who’s about to take a trip topside.  A Cliff Amyioch might be good – they have the bodies of gorillas and the heads of crows.  They’re quite clever, so they get bored easily and cherish interesting things.  For payment in trade, offer the mirror first.  If that doesn’t work, tell them the story of how you got there.  Failing that, try a riddle.  Past that…anything you can think of, as long as it ISN’T THE PEBBLE.  If you must, try another Amyioch.  Some are greedier than others.”
“Once you’ve passed through the Hole to the Sky, you’ll be cold and exposed on Mount Drabbis’s summit.  Take a good look around, because this is the greatest height you’ll attain on this trip, and your last chance to see where you’ve been before.  Make any promises you must to yourself or others, then start walking north, downslope into the lost and forgotten lands.  There aren’t any roads, since most of the people arriving at this end can fly.”

“The Lost and Forgotten Lands aren’t going to be pretty.  They’re beautiful, but BIG.  The most powerfully exhuberant jungles, the biggest trees, the largest, most hungriest monsters, the strongest rivers with the roughest currents.  Everything in the Lost and Forgotten Lands is big and fierce, but your best bet is to find the tracks of the biggest, fiercest thing you can and follow it.  Why?  It makes perfect sense, just let me get to it.  Right, so you follow the steps until you find a kill it made.  Hopefully, it’s left.  Now you must cover yourself in the bones of the carcass.  Sheath yourself so perfectly and completely that not a scrap of flesh shows – use river mud as a glue if you must.  When you’re done. the lost beasts will see what they fear most: empty bones, barren of food.  They must eat and eat always, fiercely, to the death, and they shun the sight of bones.  Unless, that is, you meet a bonecrusher.  They’re about a hundred feet long and eat only bones (sometimes they kill prey and suck the skeleton out through the stomach), so be careful, all right?  If one goes for you, use a sharpened rib or something, lash it onto a tree branch, and go for its eyes.  They say they have the foulest-smelling and tastiest meat of any beast ever to walk the rocks.”
“When you reach the very centre of the Lost and Forgotten Lands, you’ll find an old, old shrine, the oldest shrine ever made.  It’s nothing more than a ring of rocks (not very big rocks), and a little pit in its center.  In that pit is a shiny rock (speaking of which, you still have the pebble, right?).  Touch it, and you’ll get three million years of screaming terrified monkeys gibbering in fear of the darkness and light shoved into your head, so don’t.  It hurts a lot, trust me.  Instead, wait there until high noon.  That’s when the sun’ll shine straight down on it, and that shiny stone’ll get a helluvalot shinier.  Stay in the circle until half-past-noon, then take one step out of it.  You should not have eaten anything before you do this.  It gets messy.”

“So, you’ll spin around and around and around.  After what feels like forever but’ll probably be something like two minutes, you’ll wash up on a sandy beach.  On a hill in front of you, surrounded by pine trees, will be a stone home.  Walk in through the door, and don’t look up, because the five gargoyles around the entrance will attack if you meet their gaze, and there’s nothing their claws can’t tear and snap.”
“Inside, it’ll look more like a quarry than a house.  Plus, there’ll be no roof.  Very nice, clear blue view above though; the bluest of anything anywhere that’s ever been.  Only one thin wisp of a cloud, forever orbiting the centre of the sky.”
“In the bottom of the quarry will be an old man, staring at a field of very carefully placed pebbles, grown into the rock.  Most of him is rock by now, actually.  His name is Zeff, and he won’t talk to you, nor you to him, if you know what’s good for you.  He’s busy thinking, as that furrowed brow and frozen, tapping finger should let you know.  He started a million years ago, seven million more should see him through, by his last estimate.  You’re going to change that estimate.”
“You still have the pebble, right?  Good.”
“Now, take that pebble, and place it between (counting from the bottom right upwards and to the left) pebble number seven thousand, seven hundred and seventy-six, and pebbly seven thousand, seven hundred and seventy-eight.  That’s what he’s been looking for, I think.  If I’m wrong, well, you won’t have to worry about anything ever again.  None of us will.  If I’m right, and you did it right, he’ll probably arch that immovable eyebrow of his, finish his thought, and then everything that’s ever been should get very interesting.”

“After that, you’ll get where you need to right away, easy as falling asleep.  Just take the right step in the right direction, and there it’ll be.  That good?  Good.  Got all that?  Excellent.  Nice talking to you, and good luck!”



“…Or was that a LEFT on Bailey Avenue?”


“Directions” Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.