Archive for June, 2010

Storytime: A New Leaf and Old Growth.

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Life is a funny thing, and it can happen in funny places.  The inside of dark, quiet caves hundreds of metres under the ground, giant planktonic masses off the coast of Antarctica, sterilized clinics, and sewer systems are all places where life frequently, constantly, doggedly makes itself known.  In this particular case, the seed of it began about seventy feet off the ground, alongside some six hundred thousand of its siblings.  As with most living things it was jaded enough by birth to accept this as normal, although it was aided by not having a brain or any central nervous system whatsoever available to express disbelief. 
The list of things that it knew was very short: it was dangling from something, there was something else (let’s call it a wind) that was very big and all-encompassing causing it to bounce wildly and shudder – more so today than any other it could remember – and… whoops, now it wasn’t dangling from anything at all and was free-falling through it, bouncing against something quite a lot like itself, and another, then another, and soon it had ricocheted off its siblings times innumerable as it spun like a top, little wings on either side of the package that was itself whirling. So it went, typical enough for a maple seed, only really becoming aware of its family just too late to say goodbye to them. 
What was atypical was the distance traveled.  The windstorm, the storm of the century the seed rode upon, was exactly strong enough to knock down full-grown trees, up to and including its parent, which it had departed less than ten minutes before it finally started to sway its way down past the point of no return.  Not a long time, for a tree, and its final relatively-brief moments were spent wishing a vague sort of goodwill to its descendants and relations, marred only by a very, very brief bit of worriment concerning beetles.  Sap isn’t the best conductor of thought, but roots reach surprisingly deep.  
Just not deep enough this time. 


The same wind that orphaned the seed and six hundred thousand of its siblings was gentle with it, relatively speaking.  Pieces of its wings went spinning away as it hurtled through the night, but the seed itself stayed snug, if damp, as the leaves down below it whistled and rumbled through the night, broken occasionally by the scream-and-thud of a creaky old trunk giving up the ghost.  A very puzzling experience for the seed to be sure, one that ended as the gale turned to a wind to a breeze, riding its way down from the dizzying heights as the sun started to plod its way upwards. 
Down it came, graceful as a one-winged eagle.  The seed touched down in a fine layer of leaf litter and checked its deepest plant instincts.  This took about a week.   After that, a single, hesitant, somewhat nervous and embarrassed tendril poked its way into the outside world, touched dirt, and liked what it found. 
It wanted more.  It got it, but cautiously, and therefore slowly.  And slow for a tree is slow.  That first quiet, secretive root sprouted and crept.  A crude semblance of a stem was erected and hastily be-leaved – and just before the last drops of energy and nutrition were milked out of the seedling’s original home.  No sooner was it out than something small, long, and tubular with far too many legs (by the seedling’s standards, any legs at all) tried to munch on it.  And no sooner had it taken four mouthfuls than something else with far fewer legs (but still too many) fell down out of the sky, plucked it up in a sharp, horny thing sticking out of its face, ate it, and flew away. 
The seedling wasn’t quite sure if it wanted to sprout anymore after that, but realized it would make no difference.  Stoicism is considered a strong point among trees, but fatalism is an acceptable second-best. 

Time passed at the usual rate, but as is also usual, perceptions argued differently.  Summer sauntered by at an easy pace for the deer, crept forwards for approximately one-sixth of the entirety of the shrews’ lifespans, and was here-and-there by the time the seedling was just getting the hang of this leaf thing.  Before it knew what was going on, half the chlorophyll had been blocked out of its hard-grown leaves and they’d turned into morbid reddish things that fell off and withered up right in front of it.  It was so horrified that it barely noticed the dropping temperature until it was buried under two and a half feet of snow.  The less said about that the better.  Something small and furry rushed past it at blurring speed, tunnelling a hole to the surface that iced over, thawed, and caved in as the snow was reduced to puddles where the sapling half-drowned even as new leaves sprang up. 
That was definitely the worst year, the first one, when every single surprise was a nasty one that would lay low dozens of the seedling’s peers all around it as pointed examples.  And the second wasn’t much better, especially when a passing deer casually nibbled away half of it before strolling off to clear-cut its neighbour, munching to herself.  Or when the seedling played host to three caterpillars at one time, and came out of it with maybe three leaves left.  Or the unusually sharp and cold autumn that turned into a prolonged winter. 
So, maybe the second year was actually the worst one and the first was just the most shocking.  But in any case, it was a grimly determined little seedling that shook off the meltwater and dug its roots in deeper come springtime. 

At least there was plenty of room for the seedling; even as its roots spread and its height grew, its space grew no more cramped.  A creaky old ash tree had succumbed to the storm that brought it here, and it had left a nice clear space in the canopy that the seedling and something like ten compatriots of similar size inhabited.  As of yet, none of them had come close enough to do anything more than eye each other distrustfully and boldly rustle their leaves.  It was a silent time, even for vegetation, and the seedling resigned itself to another competitive spring as it revved up its chlorophyll again. 
Excuse me, said a very small and excessively polite voice, but I don’t believe you’re using this particular patch of topsoil at the moment, are you?
The seedling nearly shed its freshly-budding leaves in surprise.  A very small and very colourful little plant was unfolding itself at its base. 
No, not at all, it replied, after quickly checking its roots, which the stranger didn’t appear to be intruding on.  What are you?  How did you get there?  What are you doing?
I think, said the very small plant, as it sprouted a little higher and brightened its little white decorations, that I am a daisy.  I believe a seed was dropped here somehow and I sprouted, much like you.  And I’m trying to grow just a bit higher so I can duck out of your shadow here and get a little more sunlight.  You’re awfully shady. 
How are you doing that? Asked the seedling.
Doing what? Replied the daisy, sprouting further and further. 
Growing so fast.  You’re already almost as tall as I am.  The seedling was very poor at hiding its annoyance, it had been quite proud that it’d managed to grow at all last year, and now some uppity little white-and-yellow thing had popped up and done two year’s work in the span of a single springtime. 
I’m not sure.  Maybe my sibling knows. 
The tree politely tried to figure out which of the several hundred nearby daisies it had only just realized were surrounding it had been indicated, which took just long enough to be uncomfortable.  Then become more uncomfortable as the numbers sank in. 
So, how are you growing so fast? The seedling inquired of what it hoped was the correct daisy, as the first heat wave of the fresh summer came along. 
About done, really, it said, petals drooping in the warmth.  Spring’s the big season for that.  Now we just relax. 
A dreary, miserably damp weekend passed overhead, leaving the seedling gleaming with delicious moisture.  Why stop? It asked. 
No real point.  If it were a bit warmer around here maybe, but as it is, we’re just about finished. 
There was a pause in the conversation as the seedling watched four deer meander through the grove, clear-cutting two of its rivals on the clearing’s opposite side down to nothing in a single terrifyingly grisly afternoon. 
With what? It asked, trying to take its mind off what it’d just seen. 
Finished with what?
Life.  Sprouted, bloomed, blossomed, pollinated, seeded.  What else is there to do?
Grow, said the seedling. 
For you, maybe, said the daisy’s sibling.  We don’t work that way.  At least, not around here.  It fell into drowsy silence then, and the seedling was left in confusion and embarrassment for the rest of July and all of August.  Then came September and the first real overnight frost with it.  No sooner had it melted off with the morning sun than the seedling saw the daisy, the daisy’s sibling, and all the others drooping mournfully. 
What is it?  The seedling asked.
Oh, just about that time, said the daisy, sleepiness clogging its voice.  Thank goodness.  Staying upright was getting to be quite the chore.
Time for what?
The daisy looked like it was about to say something, but then the second, much sharper frost hit.  And when the sun rose after that, none of the daisies looked like they were going to say anything. 
When spring came again, so did the daisies, and their polite voices.  But none of them were the same, and after a few halting attempts at conversation, the seedling gave up and consigned them to their own conversations and itself to trying to keep up with that one other maple across the clearing, which had already managed to overshade its smaller neighbour and was currently in the lead.  So the seedling brushed away thoughts of daisies, though it made the innermost layers of its phloem twitch, and tried to focus on the things that would still be around next year.  Thankfully, there were plenty of them.    

The hole that led to the precious, light-giving sky above began to shrink as the trees surrounding the clearing slowly caught on.  The seedling became a sapling, as did its competitors, who were now beginning to blot one another out in earnest.  It was lucky, and still had no immediate neighbours, no one to taunt or debate or trade or semi-amicably exchange threatening banter with.  Except for the daisies, which seemed to trouble it now and then. 
This did not go unnoticed by the middle-aged ash nearby, child of the ancient tree that had graciously collapsed to give birth to the sapling’s clearing. 
What’s wrong? it inquired one day.
Why do we grow? asked the sapling. 
If you don’t, you’ll drown in shade beneath your neighbours, said the ash. 
No, I mean, why do we grow and other things don’t?
The ash considered this.  Like what?
Daisies.  Deer.  Caterpillars.  They all grow up and stop, and then they die.  We just grow.  Why do they stop and die and we don’t?

They just don’t, said the ash.  You can’t fix it, you can’t help it.  Grow and be happy you don’t have to do it, and they’ll do the same. 

The sapling grew, made a game effort at being happy, and kept thinking about it.  Some of its thoughts centered on the other maple, which had eclipsed its closest three neighbours and was approximately the sapling’s own height despite having had to fight for its light.  They never spoke, but they watched each other constantly, two very large bears browsing opposite ends of the same berry patch.   
What it finally took for them to make contact was the summer, the hottest one yet in the sapling’s two decades or so of life.  The heat waves rolled over and on top of one another, building themselves into a blistering beachhead of oven-baked air and scorching surfaces.  Small things expired in open ground, bodies steaming as the water baked out of them.  The entire forest was parched and bleached, and the sapling (barely even still a sapling) had to delve deep and long for moisture, roots questing fervently.  Maybe it would have to stop growing, it thought, and lurking behind that were other, more unpleasant ideas connected with small polite colourful things and its own mortality.  Luckily enough it was just as those images were becoming uncomfortably clearer that its questing tendril dug into damp soil.  Unluckily enough, it also almost dug into the other maple’s taproot. 
Pardon me, it said, but I believe that I was here first. 
The not-quite-a-sapling thought about the daisies. 
Just for the drought, it said.  Just for the drought.  I’ll withdraw after that.  As it spoke, it wormed the root in deeper, surreptitiously securing anchorage.
Before it could so much as realize what was happening, its root was in an iron vice, sap slowly oozing out as it was cut off by pressure. 
I don’t think you will, said the other maple. 
What followed was very slow, quite awkward, and fuelled by the sort of slow-boiling inexplicable angry, paranoid fear that can’t be found in anything that doesn’t live for over a century.  At first the sapling liked to think it sought only defence, but as it sank more and more tendrils into the seething, wrestling mass that both their root systems were rapidly being diverted into, it admitted it was pushing the definition.  Nearly all of the precious water they found was put straight to work in their roots, surging forth new laterals, deepening their taproots, hunting and battling downward farther still.  The drought ended, but their feud did not, not during the discarding of their leaves, not during the first sharp frosts, not until the full strength of winter brought a forced cease-fire through cold so fierce that the sap froze in their minds and ice coated them like a caterpillar infestation. 
As the thaws came in that spring, the two involuntarily relaxed, roots feeling new life begin to flow again, leaves budding gingerly into the cool reception of the sun. 
Perhaps, said the sapling, it has been long enough. 
The other maple considered its competitors, who had quietly taken advantage of its distraction to gain some precious, desperately-needed height in late summer and early autumn. 
Agreed, it said. 
It was around then when they discovered that neither of them could extract their roots from the tangled ball they’d become, or even recall how in earth they’d even managed to do it in the first place.  That was an unpleasant spring, although it did introduce the sapling to the novel problem of having too much to talk about.  The other maple had an expansive vocabulary, and employed enough of it that the sapling almost wished it could go back to the less painful battle of wrestling for the groundwater. 

More and more generations of the daisies sprung up around the sapling – the tree’s – roots, but they grew fewer and sparser each spring, shrinking as the maple tree and its compatriots ate up the hole to the sky, branches poking up into the wide world of the canopy, where echoes of conversations held miles away were many and the mood was more amiable, the competition less ferocious. 
The canopy wasn’t the only place to speak.  The ash, withdrawn though it was, often had an amiable word, and the other maple spoke often now, even if much of it was pointed requests to relocate a root that was delving somewhere personal. 
The tree distracted itself in routine, and was surprised at how easily it was drawn in now that it had sufficient size to render most deer and insect predations moot.  Spring comes, bud leaves, grow roots, dig deep, breathe hard, fill all gaps with somnolent conversation over the canopy’s leaves, decay, sleep, repeat.  Beyond storms and several prolonged scratching session by an idle grizzly the routine was ironclad and immutable.  This was interrupted by the sudden arrival of small, colourful blossoms along its branches late one spring.  They reminded it of the daisies, except brighter.  Similar blooms sprouted along the branches of the other maple and its shrunken vassals, peeking out between the leaves. 
Wonderful, the other maple remarked.  A chance to do something other than sprout; and the tree had to agree with it.  By spring’s end the entire forest was a haze of pollination, and somewhere in the midst of summer the flowers dropped and hundreds of thousands of slender, winged seeds dangled from the grove’s inhabitants.  It was a disconcerting sensation, particularly whenever they started dreaming particularly loud and the sound made the tree’s xylem rattle.  Still, if it was uncomfortable, it was the kind of discomfort the tree welcomed. 
When they began to blow away in clumps during a mild midday breeze, the tree found itself uncomfortably barren of things to tell them, wherever they might land and start their struggle. 
Goodbye, it said.  It searched for more.  Don’t get in trouble.  I hope you’re lucky. 
The other maple chuckled.  The tree devoted a few days to growing an extra tendril and poked it in the taproot. 

Years were kinder at maturity, thought the tree.  The leaves came easier, and came down easier.  The pollen and seeding woke you up very nicely for a few months (it still couldn’t think of anything more profound to tell its seeds), and the hum and bustle of the canopy lulled it peacefully as it swayed its way through breeze and storm.  Nothing tried to eat it that it couldn’t ignore and outlive.  Even the other maple was friendlier, seeing as they were probably exchanging half the pollen each of them received each spring.  Altogether, things were quite ideal. 
The ash died one quiet autumn, to a bolt of lightning from a just-clearing sky after a mild storm.  Half of it was seared away instantly and it crumpled to the forest floor without fuss, dignity, or regrets.  The tree didn’t quite know what to make of that – and especially not of the daisies that it barely-saw sprouting from around the topped trunk – but it heard sorrowful whisperings across the canopy for months afterwards.  Bad luck, they said. 
Didn’t have long to go as it was, said the other maple.  It was starting to creak loud enough in those high winds to deafen an oak
That was just its way, said the tree.  It could’ve stood strong for another six decades. 
The other maple laughed again, the force of it sending the pair of withered little near-saplings that were its vassals shuddering, seeming to be supported as much by the thickets of brush that had sprung up around them as holding on their own.  Maybe you, definitely me, but that old thing? It said.  You are too much of an optimist.  Perhaps if you’d ended up on this side of the glade, you’d be more realistic. 
If I’d ended up on that side of the glade, said the tree, I’d be hiding underneath you desperate for sunlight and you’d have half your root system tangled up in my leftovers. 
This time, the near-saplings were almost toppled. 

Other trees fell, of course, though none as much in close proximity as the ash.  Over the seasons and the grand circles of the decades, they tipped over near and far, and though it seemed more the latter than the former, it was an odd thing when one day the tree noticed that it was the tallest of its kind for as far as its canopy could touch.  Except for the other maple. 
I am taller by a foot, it stated, smugness pervading the air about it nearly as headily as its pollen.  In the midst of its canopy, a family of squirrels bickered noisily and scattered to the four corners of the woods. 
Nonsense, said the tree.  It’s nothing but the angle of your leaf-growth.  Once autumn comes you’ll be the same as I, or even shorter. 
The other maple rustled indignantly.  The same?  Unlikely.  Shorter?  Impossible.  I may have had to fight for what is mine, but it was worth it.  What has held you back over there?  Sloth!
The tree rumbled a day-long laugh at that.  Silly things.  I can’t believe that this is what the ones around us did while we worked our way up to the canopy.  Speaking of silly things all day long, comparing branch length, life colour.  Isn’t having a place in the sunlight enough?
It’s never enough, the other maple stated. 
The youngest squirrel returned and built a nest in the other maple’s crown next spring, snapping off enough branches to bring their height neck and neck.  There was much arguing over whether or not this was considered fair.    

It was some time before the first and last blow was struck, but when it came, it was as quick as it was quiet.  The spring surge had only just begun to ripen when the tree saw the lithe little ropes wrapped tight around the other maple’s trunk and branches, weaving through the treetops with lazy, effortless speed. 
Hello? It inquired.  The other maple trembled, but made no response.  Its roots squirmed, wandering wildly from their usual placement. 
A very small sound on the edge of the tree’s hearing drew its attention: the laughter of the vassals down below.  For the first time in years it looked on them, and it could barely see them through the tangle of vines and creepers that ensnared them.  One was already rotting upright, the other half-sagging into the embrace of its woody cocoon. 
It was worth it, it cackled, in such a tiny voice that the tree was barely sure it was there.  Every moment of it.  It still is.  Had to talk to them for days to persuade them, had to promise them we’d let them use us, but now they’re there.  It’s all over.  For all three of us. 
By the time the tree managed to unstick the words from its mind, it was too late to ask any more. 
That summer was the longest one the tree had ever lived through.  The vines slipped through the other maple’s canopy like snakes into mouse burrows, delicately but firmly throttling it alive from the treetops down.  The most the tree could do for it was adjust the other maple’s roots as they struggled, guiding them to its own deposits of nutrients and down to groundwater.  Its own growth suffered, but it seemed to calm the other maple, though it still struggled, shaking its root network free of many of the ancient knots they’d tied themselves together with, blind fumbling doing what deliberate movement hadn’t so many years ago.  . 
As fall passed on and their leaves changed – not that the other maple had many left to change – the vines dried and shed their own, drawing themselves into dormancy, toughening but slumbering. 
The other maple had a little time to speak and act before the winter sleep came, and did so on a perfectly windless day. 
A pity, it said.  No anger, just irritation.  But that was near enough to six decades.  I suppose most don’t get as far.
It will be allright, said the tree. 
I should very well expect so, said the other maple.  This would be easier if you hadn’t tried to stop me from pulling loose, you know, but I expect I can still aim properly.  Still, if you fall over too, it’s your own silly fault.
said the tree.  The other maple was tipping back and forth, swaying of its own accord, aiming, judging distances.
Goodbye, it said.  Don’t get in trouble.  I hope you’re lucky

By spring, all four of them were a formless mass.  The vines and the vassal near-saplings were half-rotted underneath the other maple’s trunk, but the other maple itself was largely pristine in the warming sun.    
The maple decided that it would’ve liked that. 

The summer of the vines had been long and painful, but the years after it seemed to vanish as quickly as the maple could comprehend them, as if in a hurry to distance it. 
The maple was alone, and stranger yet, alone in a crowd of trees that were suddenly and strangely younger and smaller than it.  Where had all the old growth gone, the towering green spires that rose alongside it? 
Where are you? it asked the canopy.  Which, it was alarmed to notice, lay beneath its crown.  Puzzled, polite rustlings were its only reply. 
Exactly one decade from the summer of the vines, the maple’s seeds were near-ripe.  It hadn’t felt right releasing them since the other maple fell; there was no one to laugh at it. 
The maple looked out over the forest, at all that life-given shadow, and it felt the slight breeze brush against its creaking trunk. 
No, not yet, it said.  And so it wasn’t. 
Holding in seeds that were demanding to be released was difficult, but the maple was determined, firm in that it was not yet, and such an attitude often trumps reasonableness.  Three months wandered by, three aching, swollen months as ironwood-strength stubbornness crept through its sap and performed heroic tasks in its phloem, all based on guesses and stubbornness to shut in its seeds and stall their launching.  Not yet.
It was September when the wind changed, when the storm came roiling down from the north, a blustering, howling gale that came roaring in through the forest, scattering deer and making wolves howl. 
The storm of the century was very nearly late, but it was still on the cusp of punctuality as it came back to greet the maple for the second time, on behalf of its illustrious predecessor. 
The maple had run out of thoughts and words both, it decided as the seeds spilled out eagerly, overdue, cramped, and impatient, vanishing into the teeth of the wind to sprout and grow.  But then again, it still had the core of hope that had hidden at the bottom of its message all those years.
Find somewhere not like this, and keep it like that.  Don’t steal the sun.  Please be kind to each other.  Two hundred years isn’t long enough to justify cruelty
And don’t be afraid to argue over silly things.

The thought struck it on the way down, inexplicably, was that it had never had trouble with beetles.  That was good, for some reason.  Maybe it all hadn’t been so bad. 


“A New Leaf and Old Growth,” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Things That Are Awesome: Redux.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Once again, it is my birthday, as tends to happen.  Once again, I am tastelessly abandoning my duty to hand you something that at least pretends to be content, and shall depart henceforth to bloat on vidjagames and idleness.  In return, here is a list of things that are awesome.  Probably. 

-Manly men who do manly things while secretly wearing pink floral print boxers. 
-Dinosaur fossils that have been jam-packed full of extremely hi-tech electronics. 
-Irate invertebrates whose gripes are well-founded. 
-Someone born in Hawaii who will grow up to be the greatest architect of snow forts ever to live. 
-Household chores done in the style of rip-snortin’ 1930s serials. 
-The square roots of fictional numbers.  
-An elaborate and labyrinthian palace of wondrous sumptuousness made entirely from twigs and used dirt. 
-Bears who heroically manage to fight off and kill attacking humans armed only with their paws and teeth. 
-Forms of entertainment that get so meta that you’re no longer sure if you don’t give a shit or if you’re secretly intended to not give a shit, in which case you want to care just to spite the creator. 
-Danged punk earthquakes that just hang around major population centres, threatening to start something but then running away laughing at the last moment every time. 
-Beavers that qualify for the title of Senior Architect that nevertheless still just build stuff wherever the sound of running water is. 
-Suspiciously delicious candy.
-The popular conception of the future changing every ten years to something that still suspiciously resembles modern life with more shiny bits and a few aliens. 
-Rampant kittens. 
-A snailshell large enough to use as a house.  Or a house small enough to use as a snailshell. 
-That one colour that’s sort of blue but not really and maybe could be green I’m not sure. 
-Thugs throwing pies at Superman mean-spiritedly. 
-Ancient, powerful, invincible weapons that heroes use to slay just one monster and then stick on the shelf and forget about. 
-Games of Scrabble using human tiles that end in bloodbaths over the correct spelling of “Worcestershire.”
-Ancient and depraved cults dedicated to worshipping laundry. 
-Clowns that aren’t actually all that scary. 
-Stephen King engaging in fisticuffs with Dean Koontz.  But only if he wins by picking up Koontz and throwing him out of the ring head-first. 
-That sound your knuckles make when you smack ‘em together. 
-Monkeys that prefer tangerines to bananas and have been steadily building up to a shooting spree over it. 
-Crocodiles that say “crikey” unironically.
-A keyboard God made so large that even He couldn’t log into Facebook with it.  That He then uses anyways. 
-A sub sandwich the size of the Chrysler Building that wishes deep down inside that it was the size of the Empire State Building. 
-Things that are exactly the same size as a bread box. 
-A man holding a spleen raffle for charity. 
-Unexpected limb loss that makes the victim laugh out loud. 
-Supervillains who forget that cops don’t have a never-kill rule and get gunned down in front of their traumatized nemeses during a dramatic monologue. 
-Really big whelks. 
-A scientist who invents functional anti-gravity fields and only uses them to have incredible trampoline parties. 
-A couple of drunken idiots making dangerous and irresponsible use of chips while next to a zoo’s lion pit. 
-A couple of ancient feuding gods giving the chess-game-with-mortal-pawns a pass and just playing tiddlywinks so they can have a good time for once. 
-Soccer with violence allowed as long as you don’t use your hands. 
-A little lightbulb inside the helmet of a suit of armour.  Maybe a mini-minibar in the visor, too. 
-Mr. Clean wrassling a shark with both parties restricted to teeth only. 
-A home-made biplane. 
-A Tyrannosaurus tackling a Triceratops, then getting sent to the penalty box for cross-checking. 
-An angsty palm tree that wallows in self-pity as happy couples make out underneath it. 
-Tailgating spacecraft. 
-A nuclear aircraft carrier pulling into a drive-thru for some fries. 
-Giant, rampaging teddy bears that are defeated by mounting needles and thread onto ballistic missiles. 
-Murals that are accidentally painted onto floors because someone bumped the artist’s elbow. 
-Non-toxic, recycling-friendly, eco-green, biodegradable civilizations, cultures, and religious systems. 
-Shortlisted Wonders of the World. 
-Someone pasting a poster for a summer blockbuster over exceptionally artistic graffiti. 
-A Cyclops poking someone in the eye. 
-Really tasty strawberries. 
-An arthritic haemophilic klutz bowling using lightbulbs. 
-Gods that become monotheistic in a snit after their buddies stop returning their calls. 
-Shuffling layers of bedrock. 
-An uncontrollably ticklish blue whale. 
-Prokaryotic grand opera. 
-That one tune some slave worker in Mesopotamia hummed about five thousand years ago.  It was only about twenty seconds long, but man
-Saucy, socially misplaced heart attacks. 
-Any palaeontologist who has ever scientifically named a species including the phrase “thunder” in the genus simply because he’d wanted to do that since he was six. 
-Antisocial Jehovah’s Witnesses. 
-Poetic Portuguese Man-o-Wars.
-Prisoners of war who diet. 
-Zippy, heartwarming family musicals about famous serial killers. 
-Nonaggression pacts signed in pencil, preferably with half-erased spelling errors.

Storytime: Or Was It?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a knight named Phillip.  Sir Phillip, of course.  He was brave, strong, among the best of the king’s guard, and handsome enough that the queen paid more attention to him than was strictly necessary, which was why when that strange old seer came bursting in the door at midnight screaming of the prophecy that foretold the doom of the kingdom, the strange and twisted thing that would come rumbling down from the north to set it ablaze, the king turned to him immediately.  Before Sir Phillip could so much as say farewell he was given a company of followers and a smiling farewell with many gritted teeth, then booted out the door on his…
Wait….  I’m sorry.  Wrong character.  I’d forgotten how this one starts.  It’s all clear now; my apologies. 

Anyways, so Lieutenant Commander Phillip, the best the United Earth’s navy had to offer, was shipped out in command of the Marie, a light cruiser with a twenty-man crew, before the heat exhaust on that strange half-garbled distress beacon had even grown cold.  Phillip’s mission was non-specific, being basically “head to the colony that was screaming for help and see what ate them” only with much fancier wording, but for such a vague goal he was firmly prepared as best as could be.  His crew were loyal, tough, and well-trained.  His weaponry was very impressive and he treated it as life-saving, hazardous tools to be respected rather than genital enhancement. 
Unfortunately, his ship was a bit finicky from its recent overhaul, and a rather important part of the engine coughed politely and exploded just as they were performing the manoeuvres to settle nicely into orbit above the colony.  After an emergency landing (and an emergency exit, since the ship was calmly blowing itself apart around him), the Lieutenant Commander and the scant armful or so of supplies he’d managed to drag out found themselves face to face with…
…Hmm.  That isn’t right either.  Ah yes, I recall it now. 

So then, there Captain Phillip was: broken and battered ship behind him and already sinking on the rocks of the reef, crew drowned, map to a supposed great secret lost, armed with nothing but a snapped cutlass and a waterlogged, useless pistol, and stuck in a staring competition with a very, very large and mildly surprised crocodile.  He was just starting to feel his eyes water when the crocodile forfeited the contest, because it becomes very hard not to blink when someone shoves a harpoon through the back of your skull. 
The harpoon belonged to an elderly man who belonged to a name that Phillip found completely unpronounceable because he was missing several well-placed piercings inside his mouth that let him do strange things with his tongue.  For his part, Phillip’s name was just about all he could manage in English, but he seemed happy just to see another human.  Rudimentary exchanges about sums of fingers and setting suns sketched in the dirt put him at being stuck on the island for something like seven years.  And he wasn’t alone, from what he could get across in their sand-scrawlings. 
See, it wasn’t that there were no people.  Just no humans. 
The Captain wasn’t about to buy that on the poorly illustrated say-so of a lonely, very possibly crazy man who’d been stuck on the same island for over half a decade eating unwary crocodiles and very interesting herbs.  Luckily, the islander was also a very firm believer in “seeing is believing,” which was why the next thing he did to prove his point was…
Damnit.  I was sure I had it that time.  Oh yeah – now I remember.

Right.  Phil had seen a lot of weird stuff in his years – as a PI, you tended to – but he figured the thing that the mute old homeless man handed him then was the strangest yet.  Now, he’d raised a few dogs, shot a few dogs, booted a few alley cats (the nastier ones that spat and hissed and clawed at him), and he figured that pretty much completed his knowledge of animal anatomy.  But still, he was pretty sure that no creature he knew of on earth had teeth like the one that lay in the palm of his hand.  For one thing, it took the entire palm and part of its brother to hold it comfortably. 
It was at this point that Phil decided that his client was not paying him enough for this. 
Phil looked at the tooth, looked at the abandoned tenement in front of him, then glanced back over his shoulder at his totalled car.  What a lovely place to be stranded in.  Even the junkies had abandoned it.  He sighed, fruitlessly tried to unjam his pistol, then walked towards the askew doors behind the soft footfalls of the homeless man, patting his pocket for the reassuring prod of his switchblade as he did so. 
The lights weren’t working, of course.  And his flashlight barely was.  Still, it could’ve been worse; the structure itself was reasonably sound.  Just empty, creaky, filled with the faint and ever-present drip drop drip of water leaking from ruined pipes.  Phil could feel the sweat prickling on his skin, clinging to his neck’s rising hairs in a hapless plea for reassurance.  It dripped, crawled, skittered, and then it licked him and he realized it was in fact a cockroach clinging to the back of his head, which he missed, with great force. 
By the time Phil had picked himself up from that, the homeless man was nothing more than an invisible set of shuffling feet somewhere down the hall, one that he hurried after as thoughts of that tooth in his pocket danced merrily through his skull.  His eyes darted from wall to wall like indecisive houseflies, the floor loomed grossly under his feet, and every one of the thousand cracks in the ceiling promised to contain something unspeakable.  Phil was so distracted that he walked straight into the homeless man’s back, almost turning a surprised grunt into a yell while he was at it. 
The man shushed him silently, hand across Phil’s mouth, and pointed forwards about two inches past his toes, where the floor ceased to exist.  His free hand bumped Phil’s light gently towards the hole, offering vision. 
Cautiously, inchingly, Phil crept forwards.  He peered down into that dank pit, that yawning, strangely moist void beneath him, as the warm air tumbled by his face, looked by the feeble glow of the flashlight, and saw something that was physically incapable of looking back at him, yet somehow knew he was there.  It stood on two stocky stumps that might’ve once been legs, a mass of breathing sores in a tattered ruin that could’ve once been a shirt and jacket. 
Phil’s hand slipped to his tiny, insignificant switchbla…
No, no, NO.  That wasn’t it at all.  What happened was…hmm… wait, did I have it right in the first place? 

Well, as Sir Phillip looked down that blackened canyon and drew his sword, the lurking reptile at the bottom raised that lidless skull of its – you couldn’t call it a head – and gave a creaking, croaking cry that made the distant birds grow silent. Bile flowed from its throat and spilled onto the rocks, burning where it touched, and the slushy, haggard beat of its heart made the knight’s skin crawl.  At his side, the silent lantern maiden stepped back, even her calmness rebuked by its presence.  He really wished his horse hadn’t thrown a shoe.  And that his followers hadn’t been killed by brigands.  And that the king hadn’t been quite so stingy and selfish about his wife’s affections. 
The dragon lurched to its paws, tail dripping over softening stone, and began to stumble drunkenly towards Sir Phillip.  He raised his…..argh, damnit!

Lieutenant Commander Phillip raised his broken, beaten rifle to chest-height, cradling it against the bulky and dented chestplate of his environmental suit.  At its tip, the tungsten bayonet hovered, barely giving so much as a twitch as his nerves locked down in a harmonious blend of discipline and heart-wriggling fear. 
The emaciated, coral-bodied thing at his side crept backwards, buzzing warnings to escape, to leave well enough alone.  He ignored it.  Deranged or not, an overgrown, mentally handicapped offspring of it or not, the shale-sided monster in front of him had killed and consumed an entire colony.  Maybe it had been because it was provoked, maybe it hadn’t, but it was definitely not something he could leave lying around. 
Besides, there was no way in hell that he was going to try and hole up in the colony’s ruins and wait for rescue with that thing still walking around out here. 
The alien loomed overhead, five tons of surly, ambient cliffside on a spider’s legs with a wasp’s instinct for mindless anger, and then….all wrong!

And then Captain Phillip darted backwards as the not-quite-an-ape came crashing down, hot breath wheezing in his face, angry eyes burning a trail through his heart, hands big enough to crush his limbs like stalks of wheat groping where he’d just stood.  He came back in fast and cursing, half-cutlass striking, being seized and oh damnit the thing was right in his face, meaty grips encasing his sides and preparing to crush ribs.  The man with the incredible piercings swore something impossible for any other man to say and spun to the beast’s other side, harpoon darting out like a serpent oh not at all!

Phillip watched as the homeless man’s crude shank buried itself in the shuffling, stumbling thing’s side, heard the dull scream that sounded all-too-human, felt the floor shudder under its weight as it fell to its knees, arm’s flailing, and sent him careening off into its depths.  Too slow to be real, too fast to stop, even as his own arms continued on their inevitable course.  Not inevitable, not at all, ARGH!

So the lantern maiden fell as the bile seared her face, without a sound, as Sir Phillip’s blade – no!
Lieutenant Commander Phillip’s bayonet – not at all!
Captain Phillip’s snapped cutlass – definitely not!
Phillip Macguire, freelance PI’s switchblade – of course not!
Damnit, what WAS it?  This is the important bit too.  Was it Sheriff Phillip?  Private Phil?  Maybe it was a murder mystery, was that it?  No, no, no….oh. 
Oh dear.
Erm, ah, my mistake.  Obvious in hindsight, just rather, uh, embarrassingly so.  Right then. 

So, Captain Phoebe Macquire’s combat knife reached down through the gigantic, rubbery mantle and deep into the braincase of the squid.  It spasmed and thrashed in midwater, beak gnashing and biting in a cloud of its own leaking vital fluids and ink, but she had other things on her mind as she rushed to the side of the old pearl-diver, bobbing limply in the red-and-black current. 
She checked his pulse as she pumped them both towards the surface of the Pacific, lungs starting to burn in a fiery deep red ache as the aqualung dribbled away its final dregs of air.  There was something there, but whether or not it was his stubborn refusal to die or her own reluctance to accept that the thing had managed to send one more person to join the rest of her submersible’s crew at the bottom of the sea she wasn’t quite sure yet.  The sunlight grew brighter as the slime and blood streamed down and away from her, a small streak still delicately trickling from the blade of her knife. 
The beach was very warm under her feet as she staggered onto it, wrenching the scuba gear from her back.  The old man was deposited somewhat more gently, and this time her anxious finger felt something move that was definitely more than just hope as it lay against his neck. 
As Phoebe began CPR, she stared out past the old man’s body and over the waves of the South Pacific.  They were once again serenely blue. 




…Wait, come to think of it, was that supposed to be the Pacific or the Atlantic?  Oh, damnit



“Or Was It?” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

Storytime: A Night on the Town.

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

It was a fine, ripe, mellow sunset that slid down past the horizon that summer eve, bloated and content in the knowledge that all had enjoyed its ruddy sheen and would be eager to attend its next showing the following morning. 
There, were, however, those who were glad to see it go.  It meant they could finally go get some clean, simple, dishonest work done, and the burglar was one of them.  He was so filled with impatience he half-thought he’d burst into a sopping puddle of it.  All his plans had been made, the ground scouted and prepared, the estate mapped, the guard routes memorized, the night when the homeowner would be out on extremely discrete business awaited with eager anticipation.  In fact, the burglar had prepared so carefully and so well that he’d been ready for the past eight hours with nothing to do and his brain was starting to bore its way out of his earhole in sheer mind-numbingly tense boredom. 
He’d brought a book with him to settle his nerves while he waited, a terrible potboiler that an idle housewife would’ve deemed not worth more than tinder.  It sat, prematurely dog-eared and page-marked without respite, on page one.  As the sun went down he let it slip from his hand and nimbly kicked it out of the window, where it nearly clipped a stray cat. 

The night was a fine, crisp one by city standards, with wholesome air that seemed to be worth a full meal per inhalation.  Given the particle density it’d acquired inside the city’s chimneys, slaughterhouses, tanneries, and other such places, it may even have been true, although the resultant meal wasn’t exactly one you’d tip your waiter for.  As he gingerly tossed his grappling hook over the high (and unguarded for another thirty seconds) east wall of the estate, the burglar decided the first thing he’d spend his money on would be a good dinner.  In a nice restaurant somewhere upscale, the best he could find, with a big steak and a particularly lovely dessert.  After this job, he could afford it. 
He swung himself over the wall on the line, huffing and puffing and cursing his inattention to fitness.  Well, if he had more of a work ethic, he supposed he might not be robbing a mansion at the moment.  Of course, he’d be doing some ghastly long-houred sort of labour and the mere thought of it gave him the creeping shivers.  No, this was a much better way to go about it, he decided as he gracelessly tumbled down the other side of the wall and nearly landed on the murderer. 
“Watch out!” snapped the murderer, slapping a hand across the burglar’s mouth and a knife to his throat.  He was skulking low and cautious against the wall, as inconspicuous as a six-foot-three man could be wearing his filthy, tattered, tawny suit and outstandingly bushy red beard.  “Keep it quiet, you lummox!  The guards’ll hear, and where’ll we be then?  Eh?  Eh?”
“Mmrrrph,” opined the burglar.
“Eh?  Speak up!  Don’t whisper!  Oh, yes.”  The murderer snatched his hand away and glared at it as though it had made an impolite gesture of its own will.  “Right.  Right!  What are you doing here, eh?”
The burglar looked at his soft, dark clothes and his soundless slippers and covered face and thin, strong rope, and then looked at the murderer.  There were no apparent signs of sarcasm on his face. 
“Thieving,” he said, using every ounce of will in his body to maintain a moderate, pleasant tone.
The murderer gawped, eyes popping slightly farther (if that were possible).  “You don’t say!  Hah!  Don’t that take the biscuit, eh?  What a luck, a lark!  Well, I’m here to murder him, so just stay out of my way and don’t try taking his watch or anything ‘till I’m through, we clear?”
“Perfectly,” said the burglar.  The knife didn’t seem very large, but the size of the fist it was clenched in might have tweaked his perspective on it. 
“Right!” said the murderer.  He got himself to his feet and brushed an imperceivable amount of dust off the arms of his tawny suit, which bore enough exquisitely-tailored scars for the burglar to suppose that he hadn’t made similar use of a rope and had simply heaved himself over the wall with fingernails and possibly teeth.  “Lord Hemmeley-Pewthrett On-The-Lake,” he said, extended the unknifed hand and seizing the burglar’s unresisting palm, which he then mangled crudely.  “Bloody good.  Bloody good, eh?!  Right then.  You take the east door and raise a ruckus, see if you can bait the bugger thataways, eh?  I’ll nip in through the servant’s entrance, see if I can be stealthy a mite.  See you at the bastard’s throat!”  He made a nasty hacking motion, then ran away chortling merrily. 

The burglar spent almost 20 seconds of his meticulously timed and planned route sitting there in the mud, mind working its way inch by inch through the shock and patiently reminding him that this opportunity wouldn’t last forever.  Besides, if the distant and strangled shriek he’d just heard was any indicator, the murderer had just barged in on the cook.  He hoped the man wasn’t far gone enough to resort to random killings just yet.  The burglar knew of his motives, of course.  The owner of the estate was a rich man, a man of high society, and riches at such heights were often most easily obtained out of the pockets of any peers you had to hand.  Hemmeley had been hard-hit, but even so he appeared to have taken it more passionately than most did. 
The east door was empty ahead of schedule, and the fading sound of a jogging guard told of Hemmeley’s unintentional if highly effective distraction.  The burglar slipped in as lightly as his rotund self allowed, squeezing his paunch uncomfortably against the doorframe. 

Inside, his task became easy, his pulse slowed again, his movements slipping into confidence and concentration out of confused anxiety.  There was little sign of the servants he’d expected to encounter, and his path was speeded greatly on its way, expensive knick-knacks sailing off shelves and into his pockets.  So greatly was he sped, in fact, that he nearly ran headfirst into the youngish and rather fetchingly dressed man waiting right outside of his lordship’s bedchamber, skidding to an arms-windmilling, desperately-balancing stop no less than an inch behind the man’s sculpted buttocks where he peered through the keyhole.  He showed no sign of awareness, peeping cautiously through the keyhole, one hand nervously fiddling with his collar and an unbecoming sheen of sweat gracing his face. 
The burglar pulled out his leather cosh cautiously, then sneezed.  The man spun about in horror, finely-combed moustache twitching hysterically. 
“What?  What what what oh my goodness, thank goodness, it’s a mere thug.”  He slumped in relief.  “Thank goodness, I thought you were Lord Dracey.”
“Yes?” inquired the burglar cautiously.  He waggled the cosh threateningly, which he was dismayed to note was completely ignored.  Indeed, the young man was perking up quite rapidly.  “Yes indeed.  Oh, pilfer what you’d like indeed, I won’t say a word.  Fat old fool deserves what’s coming to him – no offence, you are most nimble for a man of your stature, I mean no slur against you sir brigand – and more, for indeed sir, his material treasures distract him from his greatest source of light in life!”
“Being?” inquired the burglar, fascinated in spite of himself. 
“Lady Dracey, sir!  A more precious jewel you could not find in all the lands, in India, Tibet, or China!  She is filled with goodness, too good for the likes of that fat dotard of a husband!  Twice her age, oh pilferous sir!  Pshaw!  Such a man knows not how to treat a woman of her fabulous wonderousness, and so I have taken it upon myself to woo her gently, to treat her as he shall not.  And I shall woo her most well.  I have, thieving sir” – and here he preened his moustache in a manner so smug that the burglar nearly fell over –“a certain degree of experience with these matters.”
“So it seems.  Why then the key-hole peeping?”
The adulterer looked embarrassed for the first time.  “Ah, well, you see… the lady, I confess, is not within the bedchambers for the moment, and it was her location I was attempting to discern.  It appears she may not have received my note, which I did not wish her dullard of a husband to receive.  I was very discrete with it.  Possibly too much so – I handed it to her chamber maid’s uncle’s sister-in-law, with instructions to pass it on.”
The adulterer shifted from one foot to the other.  “So as not to be indiscrete, you see.”
“Yes.  Well, as I said, it is possible I was too discrete.”
“It very well may have been so.”
“Indeed.”  He cleared his throat.  “Tell me sir…know you where the lady might reside?”
The burglar thought.  “I haven’t the faintest idea, truth me told.  She putters around the estate quite a bit.  You might try for the flower beds.  West side of the house, to your right.  Can’t miss them.”
“I thank you greatly, kind sir of quick fingers.  Away I shall be, and trouble you no more!”  With a bow and a tip of his hat he was away and scampering down the hall, keyhole left gaping and forlorn.

The burglar stood there a while, thinking quietly but not without internal turmoil.  At last he cautiously poked his head into the room, glanced about, then looted freely and with little care weighing down his heart.  The jewellery box in particular was a fine haul, and surprisingly easy to open, thanks to a specialized little tool he’d brought along. 
As he turned to leave, a hulking presence barged in the door, breath reeking of whiskey and fire, soot-covered and with a knife in each hand. 
“Hello!” exclaimed the murderer cheerily, teeth surprisingly yellow against his dark red (and black now) beard.  “These chaps” (and here he jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the burly, glowering chef and two under-chefs behind him, nearly taking off his ear in the process) “have a bit of a beef with the bloody little pillock themselves, eh?  So I’ve brought ‘em along and we can all have a lovely piece of his hide each.”
“I get th’ scalp,” said the head chef, testing the edge of his abnormally large cleaver with unsavoury anticipation.  The two underchefs nodded and hefted their meat tenderizers with appropriate menacing grunts, muscles squirming like meerkats in a sack. 
“My,” said the burglar, with even more care than was usual.
“Cheap bastard,” the chef elaborated.  “Under-pays, an’ too rarely.  Slice ‘is head off, I reckon, grab our wages from the safe and scarper.  ‘E here?”
“No,” said the burglar.  A small plan was forming behind his eyeballs.  “But try the west garden.  If he isn’t there, a man is who’d be happy to join you.”
“You heard the rascal!” boomed the murderer, waving his weapons most alarmingly (one was still bloody, noted the burglar – hopefully from a pot-roast rather than a guard).  “Let’s move out!”
The burglar waited some seconds for the sound of the stampede to fade, which he spent slowly letting his grin grow wider and wider before erasing it with a serious effort.  Then the bedchamber was behind him and he was off upstairs, humming a reckless little tune. 

Upstairs, he nearly tripped over Lady Darcey as she left the reading room, too distracted for her to hear even his creaking, clanking, overburdened footsteps. 
“Goodness,” she cried, eyelashes a-flutter, “are you here to ravish me?”
“Never, lady,” he replied. 
“Oh pooh,” she grumped.  “I need someone to do it, because my husband surely won’t.  That impotent old toad – I knew I shouldn’t have married for money.”  She moved into the burglar’s personal space and sighed extremely gustily.  “And he keeps such a greedy eye on me that I’ll simply never get a chance to have some fun.”
“West gardens, follow the rummaging, talk to the big fellow with the red beard,” said the burglar, as quickly as he could.  “I believe they have a solution to end all your problems for good.”
“Oh, it’s to be a lynch mob then?” she inquired.  The Lady laughed.  “Goodness me, what a lark!  Thank you, mysterious man of my dreams.  Care for a little moment of celebration?”
“No thank you,” said the burglar, backing away from her grasp.  “Must move on!”  Her laughter trailed him, and he smiled where she couldn’t see it. 

By the time the burglar was through hurriedly pillaging the upper floor, the mob had re-assembled itself at the staircase below, and it now contained practically all the estate guards, who seemed to be something of the same mind as the chefs. 
“No trace,” said the murderer.
“Nary a sign, alas,” sighed the adulterer.
“’ide nor ‘air” hissed the cook between his teeth, as the underchefs rumbled their disapproval. 
“I’ve not seen him since this afternoon,” sighed the lady.  “Where on earth could he be?”
“There is a wine cellar, is there not?” inquired the burglar.  “Mayhap he’s been drinking.”
“But he has the key,” she complained.  “And he won’t tell me where he keeps it!”
The burglar fished an object from around his neck, where he’d stored it for safekeeping.  “This?”
The cook snatched it from his fist with the speed of a snapping adder.  “’at’s it,” he agreed.  “Where you find it?”
“Underneath his third-best hat,” said the burglar, which was an utter lie.  “Shall we?”
There was a general roar of approval and many a sharp object was brandished in the milling midst of the parade the burglar led down to the darkest and coolest corner of the cellars, where the great winery door stood foursquare and tall, fastened with a padlock that would make a sledgehammer blanch in stark existential terror.  The burglar fancied he could feel it glaring at him as it thumped neatly into his palm, flapping open.
“AT HIM, LADS!” he called, and charged beyond the darkened door, where he flattened himself to the wall and allowed the rest of the hooting, hollering bunch to stream past.  He then darted back outside, slapped the padlock on, allowed himself five seconds of maniacal laughter, then ran for it. 

Lord Darcey’s estate was the centre of a great scandal, to be sure.  For the whole staff to run riot with the aid of so many nefarious plotters of murder was one thing, but the wholesale pillaging of valuables was quite another.  Thankfully, the vast majority were insured, and Lord Darcey himself reaped a tidy profit, which, combined with the sale of the old manor (“Bad memories,” he claimed), led to his acquiring a tidy and sprawling new home in the country, one nearly beyond even his reputedly vast amassment of fortune, which showed no sign of shrinking. Even more thankfully, much of his property was seized by the police and returned to him from several fences after a flurry of anonymous tips. 
The murderous instigators were for the most part free to go under little more than stern warnings, but Lord Hemmeley-Pewthrett On-The-Lake and the dashing young Sir Albert Lawrence were examined more seriously, the former on grounds of mental health and the latter on the producing of an extremely passionate letter from Lady Darcey’s own chambermaid’s uncle’s sister-in-law, which Lord Darcey had fortunately discovered by sheer luck.  The Lady was placed under scandalous regard and they soon separated. 

The steak dinner had to be put off until after the legal business had been settled.  It would’ve ruined his appetite. 



“A Night on the Town” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010.

Storytime: Four-Season Five-Draw.

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

The cards were oak.  The four chairs were maple.  The table was from something that no one could remember, because it and all its relatives had been extinct for at least three hundred million years. 
As always, Spring shuffled and dealt the first hand, flipping each card out with happy carefreeness that never failed to send them spinning across the table and into laps.   The other three took it with varying degrees of grace: Summer smiled politely, Winter’s lips pursed, and Autumn…well, autumn glowered, but he did that at anything.  The sight of a chipmunk consuming an acorn under an apple tree on a sunny day would’ve merely deepened his scowl. 
“So!” said Spring brightly as she laid the deck down on the table.  “Who cuts?”
“It’s always Summer,” said Winter, clutching his robe around himself so the drafts clung to him like children.  “It was Summer last time and all the times before, and it will be Summer next time and all the times after.”
“But what about this time?” asked Spring, as Summer gently plucked the deck from her fingers. 
“That too,” Summer said as she cut the deck.  Warmth spread across the age-smoothed surface of the cards as her wooden hands touched them. 
“And might I add,” said Winter, “that it is customary to cut the deck before you deal.”
“Oh,” said Spring, crestfallen.  The flowers in her hair brightened a little in an attempt to cheer her up. 
“Leave off her,” snapped Summer, surreptitiously sliding a few extra cards off the deck and passing them around to even out the hands.  “Right then, game’s open.  I’ll ante in a warm afternoon.  Autumn?”
He sneezed sulphuously, spreading patches of mould across his end of the table like slimy spiderwebs and making the great wheezing root-filled gape in his chest yawn like a second mouth.  “I’ll raise you ten acres of rotting hardwoods,” he declared, and slapped the shoulder of the frozen man next to him.  “Winter, hurry up.”
Winter raised one stiff corpse’s eyebrow in distaste at the gnarled paw on his shoulder until it was removed nonchalantly.  “Six hours of light snow,” he said, testily.  “Spring, your turn.”
She jumped.  “Oh!  Already?  Ummm….. let me see.”  She chewed her lip as she examined the old, old, old playing cards clutched in her bright green fingers.  “Ummm…  Umm.. Um.  Uh, I’ll raise it,” she declared. 
There was a pause. 
“By what, dear?” asked Summer, as gently as possible. 
“Oh!  Umm, a blooming cherry tree!” she said. 
“Marvellous.  Right then, time to draw.”
Summer took two cards.  Autumn took none.  Winter took one.  Spring chewed a nail, hesitated, then replaced all five.
“Don’t do that dear, it’s a nasty habit,” said Summer.  “I’ll put in a sunny weekend; Autumn, your go.”
“A foggy fortnight,” he wheezed, then banged his twisted walking stick.  “Winter!  Hurry up you miserable old coot!”
“Be quiet,” said Winter.  “I’ll wager… a storm of sleet.  Spring, it’s your bet.”
“Ummmmmmmmmmmm….”  Spring looked at the small glowing flickers of something-or-other that had congealed in the center of the table.  They weren’t quite all not there, and were shaded various colours of imagination.  “Did you say a whole sleet storm?”
“Yes,” said Winter.
“Not just a shower?”
“No,” said Winter.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Winter, something in the hiss of the syllable trailing off into hints of unspeakable deeds. 
“Um.  I fold,” she said. 
Summer sighed.  “Spring, honey, let me look at your cards for a moment.”
“Here now!  That’s cheating!” snapped Winter.
“Stuff your miserable lungs,” said Summer, examining Spring’s reluctantly proffered cards with a critical eye.  “The girl’s still learning, and there’s no shame in getting a little help.  Dear, this is an excellent hand.  I’d keep a tight grip on this one.”
“She’s always learning – that’s the entire point of Spring.  You’re being absurd and unbalancing the game,” said Winter.
“Act your age.”
“Insufferable,” whined Autumn.
“Quiet!” said Winter and Summer.  He gurgled grumpily at them.
“Okay,” said Spring.  “I’ll put in… a rainy week.”
“A whole week!  See what happens when you indulge them?” said Winter.
“Shut up and show the cards,” said Autumn, dumping his hand unceremoniously on the table, where it sprawled like an infestation of toadstools.  “I’ve got three-of-a-kind tree stumps, and the lumberjack’s axe.”
“A pair of ewes and a pair of rams, shepherd-high,” said Summer, over Winter’s attempts at protest.
“Jack Frost and thirty-four snowflakes,” he said, putting as much bitter venom into his voice as he could.  It was surprisingly little – frozen vocal chords are even less expressive than they sound. 
“Um,” said Spring as she laid down her hand.  “Here’s my cards.  I’ve got a budding forest, a flowery meadow, green grass, a blooming rose, and a freshly-laid robin’s egg.  What is this called again, Summer?”
“A flush, dear,” said Summer.  “And the highest hand, too!  The pot’s yours – go on, take it.”
Spring hesitated for a moment under Winter’s baleful eye, then reached out and gently poked the nearest of the… things in the center of the tabletop.  They vanished into her hand with nary a whisper.
Summer accepted the cards and shuffled them with a businesslike manner.  “My turn to cut,” chuckled Autumn, moistly.  The cards nearly stuck to his palms as he separated them clumsily, turning over and over with gross slurping sounds.  He handed them back, and Summer wiped off each one she dealt without really noticing. 
“A midafternoon chill,” Autumn said, eyes spilling over his cards.  “Winter, you’re up.”
“A blustering blizzard,” said Winter, glaring at Summer.
“I fold,” said Spring quickly, shoving her cards away as if they’d grown red hot.  She felt the urge to chew her nails again. 
“Oh, but you don’t have to, dear,” Summer told her without making eye contact and in a slightly absent tone.  She was busy glaring back at Winter. 
“No.  Um.  I’m fine.  Go on.”
Right,” said Summer in the nastiest voice she’d used all evening.  “A blazing heat wave.  Draw, and draw well, boys.”
The cards were picked up by the three players, in one case haphazardly and in the others with a great deal of deliberate menace and enough tension to crack a wineglass from forty paces.
“Eight thousand tons of rotting leaves,” croaked Autumn.  “Go on then, Frosty.”
“An advancing glaciation,” said Winter, poker faced as only a frozen body can be.
There was a long, significant pause, in which Spring nearly bit off a finger.  No one noticed (including her) because they were all watching Summer very carefully.
“A global spike in temperature, leading to the vanishing of the polar ice caps.  A rise in sea levels.  And.  General.  Humidity,” said Summer, each word delivered as if it were a brick being bashed into the back of someone’s skull.
The cards dropped. 
“A mother grizzly, a subadult, and three cubs,” said Autumn.
“Four glaciers,” said Winter.  The hoarfrost around his eyes had thickened to the point where his face was nearly full again.
Summer’s expression was wooden, as befitted her skin, but her face had turned a deep red that typically heralded one of the more colourful skin cancers.  “Four forest fires.”
There was an even longer and more significant pause as the bets were silently whisked back to their original owners, and it ended when both Summer and Winter stood up. 
“I think,” said Summer, “that we should take this outside.”
“I concur,” said Winter, icicles now dripping from his mouth. 
The door banged shut behind them, leaving Spring and Autumn alone.  Almost immediately afterward, there was a heavy thud.
“I do hope they won’t be too hard on each other,” said Spring, still nursing her wounded finger.  She winced at the sound of ripping cloth. 
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Autumn, leering absently as he examined the bottom of the deck.  He removed the card, then replaced it, then took it out and put it back in the centre of the stack with a satisfied grunt.
“I just hate it when they fight like this,” she explained.  A sudden crash and yell made the table quiver. 
“Eh?” said Autumn as he fished in first his chest cavity, then his boot for something murky and thankfully unidentifiable.  “Oh?  Yes, fighting.  Terrible thing.  Terrible.  Awful really.  Say, you deal a lot with, heh, blooming buds and such, right?”
Autumn raised his voice over the increasingly noisy sounds coming from outside.  “Birds courting, bears shambling out of dens all ready to pair off, flowers screaming to each other “Fertilize me!  FERTILIZE ME!” right?”
“Oh of course,” said Spring.
“Are you sure?” asked Autumn, stuffing the glob-shaped object he’d extracted up his sleeve.
“Pardon?”  It had gone quiet beyond the room. 
“Oh, never mind.” 
The door swung open again and both Summer and Winter reentered.  Winter was breathing unusually heavily – that is, at all – and Summer was still unusually red.
“Right,” she said, sitting down heavily.  “Whose deal was it again?”
“Mine,” breathed Autumn, a messy grin on his face.  The cards slopped heavily through his hands for a scant collection of seconds before he tossed them to Winter, nearly decking him.  “Cut them up fast then, will you?”
Winter barely had the energy to give him more than a weary look as he crisply sliced the pile into two and rearranged it, the faint traces of sludge freezing in place.  “A perfect icicle,” he said.
“Back to trinkets again, are we?” taunted Autumn. 
“Shut up,” said Winter, without much force or care behind it.
“A sprouting seedling,” said Spring, examining her finger with care.  She’d wrapped a small leaf around it as a bandage, and was watching it bloom happily. 
“A cooling midday breeze,” said Summer, slowly stretching her shoulders and working out a kink in her neck. 
“The first snow of the year,” said Autumn. 
Summer nearly sprained her neck. 
“Well,” said Winter, whose eyebrow had raised an entire inch.  “I take it you preferred the big stakes then, eh?  Fine.  A night that drops fifty degrees Celsius below zero.”
Spring was rearranging her cards frantically, looking at one, then two, then the other three, then four of the lot, as if it would change them into something she could understand.  “Uh, one second, um.  Um.  Err… I’ll put in… one moment…”
“While we’re still young, girl!” shouted Autumn, then he guffawed. 
“Hush!” said Winter and Summer simultaneously.  He merely snickered.
“Right!” said Spring, spots of tulip-red anger appearing on her cheeks.  “A whole two months of rain!  And stop laughing at me!”
“A windless three weeks with no clouds in the sky,” said Summer.  “And yes, stop that for goodness’ sake, you sound like a crow choking on a toad.”
“Every ripened nut in all of the Americas,” said Autumn.  He threw his hand down.  “Three fat squirrels and a pair of sleepy skunks!  Top that!”
“That will be rather difficult,” said Summer, “As I’m sure you know, having marked all the cards with that raw rot of yours.”
A third pause, somehow contriving to be more awkward than the other two. 
“Ah?” said Autumn, part disbelief, part question. 
“The smell,” clarified Summer.  “Of course you can’t tell, or Winter, and Spring’s a good girl – just a bit distracted.  But some of us can use our noses just fine, thank you very much.”
“Ah,” said Autumn, shrinking a little in his seat.  Winter began to stand up again, rolling up the sleeves of his robe. 
“Please don’t,” said Spring.  “Please.”
“He cheated,” said Winter, icicles beginning to form on his knuckles as he flexed them. 
“He’s old and just wanted some nice weather, I’m sure,” begged Spring.  “I can lend him some afternoon showers and a few rainbows.  Please.”
Winter looked to Autumn, cowering in his high-backed maple chair, then over to Summer.  She shrugged, then nodded very slightly.
“All right,” he said.  “Fine.  For the sake of ending the game peacefully.”  He picked up the deck and gathered his quarter of the cards from it, stuffing them into one of his pockets.  “Same time next year?”
“Of course,” said Summer.  Her cards she slipped onto her arms, where they soaked into her skin, wood on wood. 
Spring made a second garland from hers, earth tones and bright flowers mixed in green hair.  Autumn stuffed his into his chest, clutched amidst the roots, then caught the little flickering mess of complicated things that Spring tossed to him.  He nearly dropped it in surprise. 
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” he said. 
“It’s all right,” she replied.  “I’ve got plenty, and you need them more than I do.”  She hugged him on the way out.  The slime took a bit of scrubbing, but the look on his face was worth it. 

They parted ways immediately after leaving the playing room, farewells and waves slung over shoulders like old sacks.  Where they each spent the rest of the year was quite different, and not at all nice for any of them to play visitors with each other. 
Still, there was always the next game to look forward to. 


“Four-Season Five-Draw,” Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.