Archive for July, 2010

Storytime: Inheritance.

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The funeral was standard for a billionaire’s – gold-standard, in fact.  A large, mildly opulent room, a small, cramped coffin, his family gathered around the lawyer droning out the will trying very hard not to look predatory, and several million people watching through a couple of automated news cameras while reporters in studios dozens of miles away provided embarrassing trivia on the deceased.
Nigel’s feelings were torn.  On the one hand, he was trying very hard to listen for his name when it arrived.  On the other hand, his leg was itching fiercely against the starchy fabric of his tuxedo and it was taking all his composure to avoid scratching it to hell and back on national television.
“…And to my sister, Holly, I leave that cottage out in Alberta you always liked,” said the lawyer, shuffling papers with chilling precision.  “To her eldest offspring, my niece Florence, I leave the ranch in Montana because someone needs to take care of those horses –”
The lawyer stopped and waited patiently for ten seconds for Florence to finish her improvised victory dance, applauding dutifully as she re-seated herself.
“…And to her younger brother, my nephew Dick, I leave my majority shares in that newfangled technology company that makes those nice cybernetic assistants, whatever they’re called.  Edward, you know the one.  P.S: Don’t read this last bit aloud.”  He blinked with meticulous care, the faintest shadow of a disapproving frown passing over quickly.
“Oh.  P.P.S: Tell him to start going by his full name for goodness’s sake, people’s minds go straight to what’s expected nowadays and that nickname isn’t helping.”  Dick’s smile soured somewhat, but he managed to keep at least three teeth gleaming in the light for the cameras.
“And to my youngest nephew, Nigel” – and here Nigel leaned forwards in his seat ever-so-slightly, no more able to control it than the rise in his saliva production – “I give unto his care the whole sum and contents entire of my private tyrannosaurus paddock, as well as responsibility for its maintenance.”
And so it was that for the first time in his life Nigel said the word “fuck” on national television.  Or rather, screamed it.

“There has to be some mistake somewhere,” he told his sister afterwards at the bar.
Florence shrugged her shoulders and swallowed her martini in one go, combining both actions neatly.  “I shouldn’t think so,” she said.  “Remember how much you liked dinosaurs back in the day?”
“I was seven.”
“Yes, well, Uncle Phil was a busy man and didn’t see you again till you were seventeen.  Count yourself lucky he didn’t recall your interests from then, or you’d own some sort of recording studio right now.”
“Honestly?  I’d prefer it.  I don’t know anything about music, but it’s easy to find people who do.  Or at least, people who think they do.  But practically no one knows anything about tyrannosaurus breeding!  The care and raising of extinct animals isn’t exactly a large business circle, and everybody in it’s a rival.  It’ll be just me and a ten-ton reptile that’ll be pissed to the gills at where its handler’s got to.”
“Cheer up,” said Florence, examining the bottom of her glass with the sort of care normally found in master gem cutters.  “You get a month off from work to get used to the place, and he’ll have loads of instructions and notes for you.  No one’s asking you to just walk in and wing it.  Wouldn’t be healthy for either of you.”
“Charming of you to consider the tyrannosaurus’s well-being along with mine,” said Nigel.
“Well, of course.  What if that dreadful deodorant your people make gives it allergies when it swallows you whole?  Poor thing.”
Nigel scowled at her back and bought another drink.  Another three drinks, to be safe.  He didn’t think he could face going to bed sober.

The drive to the paddock was long and quiet, hours down dirt back roads and through fern forests, with morning light just soft enough that it almost but not quite avoided furthering Nigel’s pounding hangover.  He groaned and wished he had more elbow room to feel terrible in; between his clothing, his hygiene supplies (Big FootTM body products were excellent, both functional and in the process of becoming cutting-edge green-friendly, and damn what Florence said anyhow), his food, and his work-away-from-work supplies (much of which consisted of his hygiene supplies, plus a single PDA), his single-man car was feeling a little cramped.
The paddock compound itself was smaller and plainer than Nigel had expected: a compact bungalow and a low-lying storage shed the size of a small warehouse were the only buildings.  The real effort appeared to have gone into the extremely large and aggressively spiked metal fence that lay passively just beyond the buildings, festooned here and there with signs politely informing anyone who cared that it was really quite electrified.  Reading them was a bit of a stretch across the impressively deep concrete moat, but they were helpfully boldfaced and so easily enough understood even through the pounding veil of Nigel’s headache.
The door slid open with the first swipe of the card, depositing him into a neat, Spartan hallway with a tasteful two-metre painting of a yawning tyrannosaurus gaping at him from across the wall.  He could count every saliva droplet on every tooth.
“Creating a new profile for you, Nigel,” said a calming voice from the walls, presumably his uncle’s cybernetic assistant, a mixed blessing if he’d ever heard of one.  On the one hand, he wouldn’t be left to figure out how to feed a tyrannosaurus by himself with whatever scrawled and indecipherable personal notes his uncle had left.  On the other hand, he’d be relying on the word of something that could crash, enter an error state, get a virus, or simply wear out a part and shut down without warning.  Of course, this would probably happen right when he was in a position to really need help, like halfway down his ward’s gullet.
“Thank you, err….”
“Serial number LNF58731.  Jeremiah (deceased) has renamed this system “Wooster.”  Would you like to change this designation?”
“No, thank you.”  Nigel managed to tear his gaze away from the teeth.  They really were quite alarming.  “Listen, this is…it’s all…do you have some sort of beginner’s guide somewhere?  A daily checklist?  Any instructions whatsoever?”
“Jeremiah (deceased) was compiling material for a book.  The manuscript is incomplete, but accessible.  Would you like a hardcopy?”
“Please.”  Nigel walked into the kitchen – an airy, open space with nice big windows – and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of decaying foodstuffs in the fridge.  Perhaps his hastily-grabbed-from-the-supermarket supplies wouldn’t be necessary after all.  “Do the groceries get delivered, or…?”
“Weekly, yes.  Once per month, the cattle in the storeroom are restocked by truck.”
“Ah.”  The nice big windows faced directly onto the backyard, which consisted mostly of moat and fence.  Behind them, the forest managed to lurk and stare without possessing anything as gauche as eyes.  “Tell me… how many of them are there?”
“Clarify, please.”
“The tyrannosaurs.  How many of them are there?”
“At present, the paddock contains one adult female, name: ‘Brandy.’  There is sufficient space for up to three adults and over half a dozen juveniles within the paddock itself, although food supplies would become somewhat stretched –”
“Yes, I doubt we’ll have to worry about that,” muttered Nigel, pouring himself some truly-instant coffee.  “How large is it, anyways?” he asked, taking a sip.
“A little over one hundred square miles.  Slightly cramped if filled to capacity, but serviceable.  If you require emergency medical aid for your choking problem, please pound the table twice, if not, pound once.”
Nigel’s arm smacked the tabletop spastically once as he sputtered coffee out of his lungs.  “A hundred miles?” he gasped out, coffee mug waving hysterically.  “A hundred miles?  How am I supposed to keep track of that much ground?  What if part of the fence loses power?  What if a tree falls over and bridges the moat?  What if it gets sick?  What if –”
“The paddock is equipped with both security sensors and multiple backup safety systems, and can go off the grid for over six months without losing fence power.  Emergency services are duly aware of this compound’s presence and will be notified in the event of any serious dangers.  A medical specialist’s contact information is documented in this system and posted on the fridge with a magnet.”
“Alright then.  So, why do you need me?  I’m sure this whole place can run itself, right?  So why don’t I just run along and –”
“Jeremiah (deceased) believed very strongly in the personal touch, and as such it falls to you to keep Brandy habituated to humans, as well as perform biweekly feedings.”
“Right.  Right.  Feedings,” said Nigel hollowly.  The forest was starting to leer at him now.  “Well, I’ll get right on that then.  When’s she due?”
“The day before yesterday.  She will be quite hungry and possibly ill-tempered.”
“The feeding equipment is kept in the outer room of the meat shed.  This duty should be performed as soon as possible.”
“Right,” said Nigel, as he headed back through the front hall.  “Right!  Any other instructions?” he asked, hand on the front door.
“More will be provided on-site.  The feeding suit may require adjustment for your body size.”
“The what?”

The feeding suit was the approximate mass and size of a small deep-sea submersible and about as overbuilt, with a thickly padded, ventilated, and air-conditioned interior and a rugged external hull that combined almost made Nigel feel secure before he started panicking again.
“You’re asking me to go out into the paddock, with food, and call for a fully-grown Tyrannosaurus rex.”
“You’re trying to kill me.”
“No.  The operation is perfectly safe if conducted appropriately.”
“Isn’t there a crane or something we can just drop the food in with?”
“Brandy requires personal interaction.”
“I could wave at her a little from across the fence.”
“Jeremiah (deceased) was quite clear on the subject.”
“Fine, I’ll…look, can you just call him Jeremiah?  It’s getting a little strange listening to you saying that every time he’s mentioned.”
“As you wish, Nigel.”
“Thank you.  Now, you’re telling me that Uncle Jeremiah – who back in his best of days was built like a pair of broomsticks held together with silly putty – would go out there twice a week with this suit?”
“Well, he died of lung cancer, so it must’ve worked.”
“Jeremiah sustained seven broken bones, four sprained shoulders, and several severe cuts in the process of using this suit, all of which were given immediate treatment and support by its medical routines.  Rest assured, it is safe.”
“Thanks, sort of.”
The storehouse’s paddock-side exit was a kind of demi-airlock, a precaution that Nigel appreciated even as it gave him crippling claustrophobia, hemmed in as he was with the suit and a heavy-duty trolley weighed down with a full set of cow carcasses.  The sound of the lock snapping into place behind him as he wheeled his way out of the cool dark and into the sunlight triggered ancient instincts in him, the urge to flee underneath a rock and hide until sundown.
The clearing was neither cool nor dark.  It was open, scoured dirt marked by claws too big to be real, and the sun glared at him in it as though he were a personal affront to its entire distinguished career.  He was in no mood to quibble with it, and cringed under both its disdain and the unseen weight of all ten tons of dinosaur that was waiting somewhere out there for him.
“The dinner call button,” said Wooster’s voice, rendered slightly more mechanical by the confines of the suit’s speakers, “is just to the right of your chin.”
After a few seconds, it added, “Depress it with your tongue.”
“Right.  Right.  Thanks.”
After a few struggling attempts, Nigel finally managed to extend enough tongue to lick his own nose for the first time in twelve years and flipped the switch, creating an explosive roar somewhere in front of his chest that nearly ruined his pants.
“Realistic,” he commented as his heart rate pit-a-patted back to normal.
“The call was recorded from Lord Billoughsby’s middle-aged male, Scimitar, some eight years ago.  It’s a general, friendly call to food that will usually produce the minimum of hostility.”
“Approximately 82% of the time.  Some of the subvocal tones in the last 1.3 seconds could be construed as challenging if the listening tyrannosaur is irate.”
“Such as by being left hungry for two days?”
“Quite likely.”
Nigel teeter-tottered from side to side with the hopeless goal of watching two hundred and seventy degrees of thickly treed forest simultaneously and constantly.  It was making his eyes water, and each trunk, branch and leaf was blurring in and out of focus as his pupils tried to snap onto everything in his field of view like a confused snapping turtle in a minnow school.  His imagination helpfully filled in the blanks, turning every twig into a claw, every branch into an arm, every spec of sunshine glinting from a tooth the size of a banana, and every knothole an eye, especially that one right there with the pupil glaring directly at him.
Brandy, Nigel had been told, was of moderate to large size for her age (just-fully-mature at eighteen years five months) and sex, approximately forty feet long from snout to tail-tip and around twelve and a half feet tall at her hips.  He understood those sizes abstractly, but it was only on seeing them in person – gradually, in the bits and pieces that allowed his brain the time needed to sum it all up and explain it to him – that he realized he was used to applying them to industrial equipment and public transportation vehicles.
Now that he’d seen Brandy, he was amazed she hadn’t been more obvious from the start – despite the rather pretty and shadily appropriate cross-hatching of dark greens and greys coating her sides, she was nowhere near stealthy – and her sheer bulk made any idea of her moving so much as an inch without making enough of a ruckus to knock over several saplings seemed ridiculous.  Had she been there since he’d entered the paddock, or was he really just that dense?  And then there was the smell, just now leaking its way into his face, something rotten and heavy, musk and torn meat.
“Nigel, you are talking aloud.  And your pulse rate is becoming dangerously high for someone of your age and physical fitness.  Please calm down.”
“Right!  Right.  Thank you!  Hadn’t noticed that!” Nigel chuckled, or at least he hoped it was a chuckle.  “Need to get some exercise, maybe eat a bit better – no, I don’t want to talk about eating right now.”
Brandy’s mouth opened slightly, allowing the faintest hints of light-glimmering-off-drool to reach Nigel.
“So, erm, how do we do this?”
“Move the trolley further, into the centre of the clearing.”
“Right, yes, thank you.”
Every step ahead was the most difficult of his life, even cringing behind the cow-heaped trolley and inside the suit’s confines.  He felt slow, fat, overstuffed, and weak, the sort of thing a cat would catch and play with before swatting to death.
“Now, release the catch and back away quickly.”
Nigel’s hand felt very exposed as it crept around the side of the cart towards the cart release into full view of Brandy and the world, which at the moment consisted mostly of Brandy.  He thought he felt his knuckles getting warmer from her attention.  His fingers closed around the catch on the third try – it seemed to have gotten smaller since he’d first engaged it inside the storage shed – and pulled.  As he did so, he carefully began to back up and immediately tripped over his own feet and fell over on his back.
Brandy took one, two, three, four graceful, unhurried strides forward, each of which covered a lot more ground than it should’ve, then reached down and bit him.  Four extremely confusing and crowded seconds happened which involved a lot more movement than he was comfortable with, and then Nigel was upside down against the door to the shed and slowly tipping upright again under his own weight.  Nasty, meaty noises and grumbling leaked in as his ears started to work again.
“That was not quick enough, Nigel,” said Wooster.
“No, no it wasn’t.  Is my arm broken?”
“Bruised heavily.  Your nose is slightly out of joint and bleeding badly.”
“Oh?”  Nigel tried to reach up and poke it, slammed his faceplate with the suit’s right arm, and realized that yes, that did hurt a whole lot.  “I guess so.   Does she need anything else?”
“No, I believe Brandy is content.  The cart can be retrieved next feeding; for now, you should leave before she finishes eating.”
Despite being obvious, that was the best thing Nigel had heard for days.

Taking the suit off took much more time than putting it on had.  Nigel’s shaking hands kept missing the buttons.
“Twice a week, you said?”
“Feeding occurs twice a week.”
“And… that often happens?”
“The attack likely was a result of your insecure and unsure body language labelling you as a newcomer, combined with hunger and your refusal to immediately leave the carcasses to her.  You may wish to practice further with the suit before the next feeding; she may be less gentle if further incidents occur.”
“Less gentle?”
“She merely bit and shoved you.  More violent encounters could involve multiple bites, repeated kicking, or holding you down with one leg while she attempts to rip off the feeding suit’s appendages.”
Nigel thought about asking how many times that had happened to Uncle Jeremiah, then decided that the answer would in no way, shape, or form do anything other than depress him.  He patched up and cleaned off his nose under close, painful supervision, hauled himself into the kitchen, ate a dinner that Wooster recommended whose contents he was unable to bring himself to care about, and went to bed.
And to think, eddied through his skull as the lights went out inside it, I could be at home doing eco-friendly underarm odour research right now…

The next morning started with him waking up and screaming very loudly.
“Are you all right, Nigel?”
“Yes!  Yes, sorry.  A bad dream.  Several of them.”
“The medicine cabinet contains several types of pills that include heavy sleeping as a primary or side effect.  Would you like a prescription?”
“I’ll be fine, I think.”  Nigel shook his head, which started his nose hurting again.  “So, what’s the order of the day, then?”
“Jeremiah’s records contain first-person footage of Brandy’s life since hatching, as well as his observations, notes, and assorted personal essays.  They can be accessed from any of the household terminals.”
“Among the primary security and monitoring devices is a chip implanted in Brandy’s skull next to her visual cortex.  Any sensory data passing through her is transmitted back to this system, where it is translated into video footage.”
Nigel thought about this for a moment.  “So, you’ve got footage of yesterday’s, err…”
“Feeding incident?  Yes.  Would you like to view it?”
“No, I think I’m fine.”
“If you would like a comparison, this system also contains records of every one of the fifty-three prior incidents including Jeremiah and Brandy.  Would you like to view –”
“I think I’m fine.  But I would like to read some of Jeremiah’s notes.”
“As you wish.”
The notes took up most of the next few days, in between examination of some of Brandy’s recordings.  Both were unexpectedly dull, with Jeremiah having a tendency to break up paragraphs of detailed accounts of behaviour with rambles about what he’d eaten for dinner or which of his executives annoyed him the most, and Brandy spending an astounding percentage of her time sleeping, lazing around, or ambling to some water and then sleeping.
“Conserving energy,” explained Wooster.
“What for?  There’s nothing to hunt in there, is there?”
“Occasionally Jeremiah would release several live deer or moose into the paddock as a sort of treat.  Other than that, no.  Even without the given examples, Brandy would be instinctively sparing of her reserves.”
Whatever her reasons, it was certainly unexciting.  Many, many times over the hours Nigel reminisced over how he’d found trips to the zoo excruciatingly boring as a child, although it was interesting to skip from year to year and watch the approximate height of the “camera” rocket upwards from waist-high to over ten feet off the ground.

When feeding time came again Nigel was prepared, if not resolute.  Backed up by watching and re-watching a hundred separate meals, he strode boldly into the clearing, shoving the fresh trolley in front of him.  With a flick of his hand he depressed the switch, turned on his heel, took five smart, purposeful strides towards the door, and screaming hysterically as he was hurled into the air from behind, impacting the door headfirst.
When Nigel woke up again the cart was as empty and bloodstained as its predecessor, and he was alone beyond Wooster’s voice helpfully informing him that he was just barely shy of a minor concussion, making dragging the old cart back in and stripping out of the feeding suit even more fun than the last time.  He thought some of his hair had gone grey.

And so the pattern was set for the rest of the month.  Nigel would watch the recordings, ape Jeremiah’s poise and calm as carefully as he could, bring out the meat, begin to leave, and Brandy would promptly stomp on, bite, or kick him, each time creating a fetching new injury or embellishing an older one.
“Most peculiar,” said Wooster on the second week, as Nigel was sent spinning end-over-end and into a tree.
Nigel would’ve said something, but on that occasion he’d bitten his tongue rather badly.
By month’s end he looked like he’d decided to take up boxing and chosen a brick wall as his first sparring partner and he was more than ready to go home.  The groceries automatically delivered each week were tediously plain stuff (and Wooster refused to alter the list, claiming “health concerns” at any of Nigel’s suggestions), the bed was as hard as a rock, all the books were extensive and dull treatises on the raising of extinct animals that could spend pages on the description of a single thighbone before mentioning what that actually meant for the animal’s behaviour, and to top it off he was almost out of company-supplied deodorant, the one thing that both masked the musky, stuffy odour of the house and kept the stench that Brandy left behind after feedings out of his nostrils.
And it so it was that for the ninth time that week Nigel hauled himself into the feeding suit, turned on the air conditioning, opened the ventilation shutters, trundled the trolley of cow carcasses out into the clearing (not even bothering to check for Brandy this time – she was always there, and if she wasn’t, she’d mysteriously appear without his noticing within two minutes), hit the catch, and turned to leave.
He was halfway through the door when he realized that nothing painful had happened to him, and the sheer force of the resulting double-take nearly did the job for him.
The traditional rending, ripping sounds of Brandy eating accompanied his slow and cautious pirouette, and indeed there she was, tearing a cow in half and swallowing it casually.  It was the first time he’d observed it closely in person, and he felt a little sick.  Confusion soon overtook it.
“Yes, Nigel?”
“Why am I not being smashed into the dirt, trampled, or bitten?”
“This system lacks sufficient data to determine this.”
“But… look!  She’s ignoring me!”
“That is a good thing, Nigel.”
“Yes, but why?”
“This system lacks sufficient –”
“Shut up!”
Brandy raised her head at that last outburst and began to growl, steadily and without warmth.  Nigel felt danger approaching his pants and retreated into the shed.  Sour sweat enveloped him as he crawled out of the suit, making him sneeze in disgust.  Not only the meat, not only Brandy, but now that he was out of deodorant, he was stinking like a pig too…
Nigel stopped in the midst of putting on his left sock and stood there for some thirty seconds, balanced quite unwittingly on one leg like a stork.
And then he said: “Are you SHITTING ME?”
“Yes, Nigel?”
“Wooster, are any of the ingredients listed in my work files things that would give Brandy the jeeblies?”
“Please clarify, Nigel.”
“Give her the creeps, the willies!  Run a burr up her ass, set her off, get her goat!  Was my deodorant pissing her off?!”
“I have examined your private files as requested and can confirm that three of the primary ingredients in your test batches are odours that Brandy would associate with plants, and exceptionally strong-smelling ones at that.”
Nigel realized he was biting his fist, and had some difficulty prising his teeth from his knuckles.  “Right!  Right!  Of course!  Perfectly obvious!”  He swallowed a maniacal laugh as it was birthed, realizing that such things weren’t healthy.  “Ahahahahahahasorry.  Tell me, did Uncle Jeremiah use synthesized deodorant?”
“He didn’t use any, Nigel.  He believed it to be unnatural.”
“Hah.  Hahahah.”  No, no, stifle that.  “He was right!  Most of them are!  Ours aren’t, but apparently that isn’t good enouahahahahahahahahaha.”  Damn, no wonder the house had that funny smell in it.  And my, that felt good.  Had he been holding that in all month?  “HahahahahahAHAHAHHAhahahahahaha!”
“Nigel, can you breathe properly?”
“I’m fine!  Right as rain!”  An ear-splitting roar leaked through the paddock exit, and he spun to laugh at it, throwing up obscene gestures.  “Hahahahaha!  Right as roar!  Just wait ‘till I tell the company about this!”
“Nigel, if you require mental help, there is a number I am instructed to –”
“No, no, I’m fine.  Just give me a few more minutes like this and a glass or three of whatever stuff Uncle kept for special occasions –”
“Tonic water.”
“-a crate or three of that then, and I’ll send a few emails to R&D and the marketing department.  We can use this!  Hah!  HAHAHAHA!”

Six months after Nigel’s business vacation, Big FootTM body products launched a new green-compliant brand of deodorant, using all-natural, eco-friendly ingredients.  They called it Rex.
Brandy was unexpectedly photogenic, as one of Nigel’s senior artists had commented.  As far as Nigel was concerned, she looked a whole lot better to him now.  Especially since he’d hired a caretaking team to look after the new company mascot.  He wasn’t an ungrateful man, but he thought it was better for both of them this way.



“Inheritance” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Argh, swears, cussing, rudeness.

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

There’s a couple unfortunate things coinciding this week.  First, my computer bit its own hard drive off, and is now in the hands of a guy who I hope can salvage its big, stupid, lovable rear.  Second, I was filled with a crippling creativity deficit until yesterday.  Third, I’m lazy.  The last one’s sort of a constant, though. 

The end result of all this is that this week’s update probably isn’t happening today.  I’d damn well like to have it up and running by Thursday or Friday, but we’ll see how fast I can put it out.  Apologies to the three of you who are reading this, especially the spambot, whose appreciation for me apparently grows day by day.

Storytime: Roots.

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

The sound of scales on dirt was soft, gentle, and smooth, a strange thing to associate with its bearer’s actions, if not itself.  The snake itself was the picture of elegance, sleek and perfect, a shapely, near-liquid line of muscles clothed in a surface that seemed to near-glitter even here, beneath the earth. 
The mouse saw this, appreciated this, but most of its small and furry mind was taken up with terror.  Helped a great deal by what the snake had just done, and a great deal more by the way the noise was growing closer. 
Shuffle, shuffle, slither, slip, stop. 
The mouse saw the darker shadow of the snake’s head at the very entrance to its chamber, and it tried to freeze even deeper that it already was. 
“Little mouse,” said the snake.  Her voice was as supple as her body.  “I can feel your heartbeat, little mouse.”
The mouse tried to stop its heart.  It nearly succeeded. 
The snake’s laugh was quiet and composed.  “I can smell you, little mouse, on the very tip of your tongue.  I can hear your fur moving in the air.  I can see the tip of your tail, lying flat against the earth.  You are no secret to me.  I know you with every sense but one, and that won’t be far away.”
The mouse did not move. 
“Will you persist, little mouse?  There is no reason to wait.  Deliver yourself to me, and it will be fast.  My fangs first, before the swallow.  I can stop that small heartbeat forever, before I feed.  The choice is yours, little mouse.”
“Why?” spoke the mouse.
“Why what, little mouse?” replied the snake.  Her tone remained amiable, soft, with no hint of surprise. 
“Why don’t you come in and get me yourself?  You can’t be scared of me.”
“No, no I can’t be, little mouse,” said the snake. 
“You can’t be full.  Not even after…you can’t be.  You would have left.”
“Fair truth indeed, little mouse,” answered the snake. 
“So then,” said the mouse, fighting back panic at every mouthful of dry air, which was beginning to taste distinctly of reptile, “you must not be able to come in.  I think that you are too big to come and get me, and you are hoping that you can trick me into leaving and being eaten.”
There was only the sound of shifting scales for a moment.  The snake was coiling herself into a neat knot.  “So it is,” it said.  Even her amusement was soft and tidy.  “And what of it?  I can wait for far longer than you can, little mouse.  My blood, my body, they aren’t as hasty as yours.  I can sleep here for days, still-waking.  You will starve before I do, little mouse.  You will starve before my stomach has even had time to grow empty.”
“I can dig my way out.”
“From there, little mouse?  You know as well as I the only reason that this burrow is so narrow is because of the yew-roots surrounding it, and the hard rocks.  You did not dig it deeper or wider because there is nowhere to dig.  There will be no tunnel escape for you.”
“I would rather starve than let you eat me.”
“A proud, spiteful sentiment, little mouse.  If you must die, why deprive me of a meal?”
“You ate my family.”
“Hunger is a necessity,” said the snake mildly.
“You even ate the young.”
“Rather than leave them to die exposed?  Yes.”
“You caused their deaths either way.”
“Better the fast way and the full belly then.  Will you spite me now, little mouse?  It would be pointless.  I have eggs to lay soon, and the trip will be long.  One more meal would be all I would need, for the sake of my young.  You don’t care if you live now, do you?”
Silence again.  The snake rested, content. 
“No,” said the mouse.  “But I have something to do first.”
“Yes?” said the snake. 
“I want to tell you a story.  And then I want you to tell me what you are thinking.  And when we are through, I promise that I will come out and you will have me.”
“Then speak, little mouse,” said the snake.  “And I promise, I will listen very carefully.”

“A long time ago,” said the mouse, “there was a farmer.”
“You mice and your farmers,” sighed the snake. 
“He was a good man, a hard-working man, but a poor one.  Not only did he have to feed himself on barren land, but also his three young children, and all by himself, for his wife had passed away in childbirth.”
“Times grew hard, and the weather grew cold, with a harsh, bitter wind.  The crops failed that year, and the farmer’s food stores ran low.  He harvested all he could, but what wasn’t withered was weeds.  He would’ve asked his neighbours for food, but they were nearly as poor as he, and every path and trail he could’ve taken was buried deep under cold drifts.  He took out his father’s half-warped and nigh-broken old yew bow and searched for game, but all the woods were quiet and still as could be, as all waited for the chill to leave the air.”
“Best to slumber low and silent, and stay warm,” agreed the snake. 
“So the farmer put away his bow, and he thought and thought as his children grew ever-thinner, as did he.  Spring was coming, but too slowly.  His children would starve before the life returned to the world, and he had nothing to feed them with.  His hands were empty.  But he still had hands.”
“And so the farmer took out his wife’s old carving knife and made it sharp, as sharp as it could be with his old whetstone.  He took his axe, his wood-chopping axe, and he sharpened that keener yet.  He took his strongest rope and tied it tight, and he took his left leg.  It hurt, but not as much as watching his children starve.”
“The farmer didn’t tell them where the meat came from.  He said that he’d slipped cutting firewood, since his axe was so heavy and he was so tired and weak.  They could barely hear him over their eating, they were so hungry.  As for himself, he abstained from the meal.”
“Spring came late that year.  The farmer had another accident, and he lost his left arm.  This time he was caught by the children as he staggered to the firepot.  His excuses were few and mumbled, and they were silent.  All three of them hugged him, and then helped him cook.  Once again, the farmer did not eat.”
“Spring came, but by then the farmer was bedridden, without a leg to his name.  His children were well-fed, but he himself was on the last of his strength.  ‘Go,’ he told them, and ‘north-north-east,’ and other directions as well, and whatever thoughts on edible plants that hadn’t slipped his mind between the fevers and shakes.  They left, and I believe they made their way to safety at his wife’s brother’s home.  Perhaps they were even welcomed, as young hands to do work.  That is my tale for you.”

“A grim story for an eater of seeds and stems,” commented the snake.  “And a sad one, as well.” 
“Tell me,” said the mouse.
“The farmer gambled greatly – that his flesh would be sufficient to pave the way to spring and softer weather, that he would not fail in the cutting and die, that the children would find their way and reach a new home.  It was unsure, risky.  It would have been better had he stayed alive himself.  As long as he lived, so would the chance for more children.  If he died too soon, none would live, then or ever.  Upend the shrub, and it will regrow.  Tear out the roots, and it will die.”
There was a lull in the air, emptier without sound to fill it.
“I have another story,” said the mouse.
“Yes?” inquired the snake.  “Speak it then.  And I will listen.”

“Of the three children of the farmer, the eldest was the most roving.  His younger brother and sister adjusted quickly to their new home, stayed on the farm longer, married and settled down within miles.  But he was older and had the greater memories of that terrible old time than they, and decided the farming life was not for him.  He remembered his father going missing and coming back with that old warped bow, and he would have none of it.  To hunt was to be his game, and he would spend hours carefully practicing it while his siblings harvested.  The sling was his first weapon, and every rabbit and bird he hit he brought home to be cooked.  No sport, only food.  But he yearned for bigger game, and he ached to think of his grandfather’s old bent bow.”
“Years came and went, and he was a young man wandering deep in the woods.  A deer was startled by him, and as it fled he cursed for want of a bow.”
“’Please, do not speak harshly,’ said a voice at his ear, ‘and tell me, what troubles you so?’”
“The young man turned to the speaker and saw that it was a yew tree, watching him with a most careful eye.  ‘Pardon me,’ he said, ‘I didn’t know you could talk.  As for my troubles, I wish I had a bow.’”
“’You have a sling,’ pointed out the yew.’”
“’It is not enough,’ said the young man.’  ‘I can’t hunt mice and songbirds ‘till the end of my days.  There is bigger prey, and I must find it.  But I cannot find a bow.’”
“The yew pondered before it replied.  ‘I have a bargain for you, young hunter, a bargain I offered your grandfather.  I ask you; take a bow from my heartwood.  Use it well and it will shoot as surely as you wish.  But before twenty years have passed, you must take that bow and plant it in soft, clean soil, so that I can sprout anew.  If you do not, it will mean the end of your life.’”
“’I can find another bow in that time,’ declared the eldest son.  ‘Your bargain is fair, and I promise that I will plant you within twenty years.’  And as he spoke those words, the yew tree split apart and its heartwood lay bare.  He plucked it up and took it away, where he shaped it by trial and error, though it was most responsive to his carving.  Soon after that, he left home, and never saw his siblings or relatives again.  I believe they had good enough lives.”
“For years on end he wandered.  Food never lacked, for his aim and the bow’s strength were unbeatable.  He earned his meals where he found them, waiting silently in the bushes.  He shot deer, and wolves, and boar, and as the time went by and his skill grew greater he killed more than he could eat, honing his skills rather than filling his belly.  Pride began to slip its way into his heart and run through his veins, and more than a hint of cruelty.  His kills were now limited only by his arrows, which he made anew every evening as he set up his campsite.  As the years passed on and his hands grew sure he fashioned more and more each evening, and so more creatures died each day, great and small.  Woods were quiet in his wake and grew full of fear at the sound of his steps”
“At last, near twenty years from the yew tree’s offer had passed, but now the hunter regretted it.  He was sure no bow could match his own, and balked at the thought of reducing his power.  Besides, how could the yew object?  He was far, far away from its mouldering remains, and the wood was dead in his grasp.  Its offer must have been a mistaken hope, a desperate lie, he assured himself.”
“On the third-last day of the twentieth year since his bow had been given to him, it began to shudder and shake in his hand as he shot.  It surprised him, and he missed his shot, the first in twelve years.  He swore and shook it in anger, but by the day’s end had grown used to it and thought of it no more, so skilled was his aim.”
“On the second-last day of the twentieth year since his bow had been given to him, it groaned softly as he aimed, startling his prey.  Again the hunter swore, again he missed his shot.  But his second aimed true, and by the day’s end no thing escaped him, as it was before.”
“On the very last day of the twentieth year since his bow had been given to him, it was still and silent all morning, and the hunter was glad.  The tests of the last two days had added the last sheen of perfection to his aim, and he killed more that day than any other, songbirds, squirrels, deer, grouse.  A fish leapt from a river and was skewered before it hit the water again.  A butterfly was pinned to a tree.  The hunter laughed and laughed, silent and pleased.”
“Evening came, and the hunter set up camp.  He began to make his arrows.  So many arrows.  Tomorrow’s harvest, he hoped, would be even greater.”
“’I am not planted,’” said a voice as he fletched the final shaft.  Before he even looked, the hunter knew who spoke. 
“’No, you are not,’ he told the bow.  ‘Your tricks have failed.  You are the perfect bow, and I am the perfect hunter, and promises pale besides that.  No target is too small for me, no prey too difficult.  Nothing lives that I cannot target.’”
“’False,’ said the bow.”
“’I dare you, name me one thing I cannot target, bow, and I will shoot it.  A bet this time, not a deal.  If I miss, I will plant you.  If I strike it, you are mine as long as I live.  Three chances, even!’” 
“‘Your bargain is more than fair,’ said the yew, ‘and I will make my first dare: strike the queen of the ant colony yonder with a single arrow.’”
“The hunter scoffed.  ‘A simple shot!  I shall not waste an arrow on it, no.  This twig will do.’  With that, he seized a cast-aside twig – too slim for fletching – drew it to his bow, and shot it.  It fell deep into the anthill’s heart, and when the hunter removed it the queen was there, wriggling in vain on its tip.  He dashed it to the ground and laughed at the bow.  ‘Simple,” he mocked.  ‘I could have done that eighteen years ago.’
“’Impressive,’ said the bow.  ‘My second bequest: strike the four-leaf clover on that faraway hill with five arrows.’”
“The hunter nocked all five at once, and let fly in a single blur, hands faster than anything.  They spun out, one shaft to each leaf, and the fifth to neatly clip it loose from its stem.  It lay on the grass in puzzlement as the hunter’s raucous laughter filled the silent forest once more.  ‘A pittance!’ he cried.  ‘An insult to my skills!  Will you not challenge me, oh bow?  A last, best effort, a shot from miles at a target small?  I warn you, I will make it.  Or think you me as feeble a huntsman as my father?’”
“‘Skillful,’ said the bow.  ‘My final challenge is made, then: you must shoot the tallest leaf on the tallest tree of this forest.’”
“The hunter laughed loudest of all then, because he always slept under the biggest tree he could find, so he would have the most wood available to craft arrows.  In less than a twinkling the hunter snatched up the bow to prove it wrong, nocked an arrow, and shot straight to the sky.  It raced up to the very heights of the tree’s canopy and plucked the tallest leaf.  As it fell, it bounced off many branches, and on the last bounce from the last branch it plunged through a weak patch of bark and into the heart of an old, old grandfather of a beehive, one that filled near the entire rotten core of the tree.  It boiled over in rage and before the hunter had even finished laughing at the bow he was set upon by the bees in their thousands, a million tiny stings that would take all the arrows he could fletch in a lifetime to silence.  He ran and screamed for nearly a mile in blinded pain before he plunged over a cliff on rocky ground, and he and the bow broke apart on the hard, stony soil beneath.”
“The ground was not soft.  It was no longer exceptionally clean.  But in its way, the yew had been planted, and that is what grows above us.”

“Less depressing than the first, little mouse,” said the snake, “but just as morbid.  Do you often dwell on death like this, or is it merely your present mood?”
“Tell me what you think, not what I think.”
“Very well.”  The snake’s tail tip-tapped idly as it spoke.  “An interesting accounting of the tree above your head, if fanciful.  At root, was not the hunter merely hungry?  Pride a cover for fear, fear of starving, fear of ending up like his father, unable to provide?  His actions I can excuse, little mouse, at least as far as they are motivated by perfection – save for his breaking of the promise.  That is the moment where he leaves me behind.”
“Have you any further tales for me, little mouse?  I have listened carefully, I have spoken my thoughts.  Will you keep your promise then?”

The mouse’s fur made a very different sound on the dirt than scales, less smooth, more ruffled, softer.  It moved stiffly, weakly, toddering forwards, out and into the relatively open space of the main burrow. 
The snake was much larger than its quiet voice had made it seem, eye-to-eye.  They looked at one another.
The bite was over so fast that the mouse barely had time to blink.  Before it knew it, it was seized and cold was spreading from its toes inwards, cold so deep it could barely feel the snake’s mouth closing around it.
“Thank you, little mouse,” said the snake, voice surprisingly clear through the vibrations of its lower jaw against the mouse’s spine.  “For the stories.”
The mouse’s body was fading from itself, but its mind was still sharp enough to reply.  “They were questions.”
“What sort of questions, little mouse?”
“What kind of mother you would be.  How far you will rationalize cruelty.  What you think of promises.”  The mouse might have been all the way inside the snake’s mouth now, but it couldn’t tell.  Its vision had fuzzed over some time ago, and now its thoughts were growing dim. 
“And to what point was this?”
“Family gone, for you,” whispered the mouse, voice dropping away.  “You weren’t worthy of it.  Not food.  Roots.”
“Not worthy of what, little mouse? And what roots?”
There was no answer.  The snake felt cold, despite her warm belly, and when she poked the tip of her nose into that tight little chamber the mouse had spoken from, she smelt the sharp sting of sap oozing.
“Oh,” she said, and chuckled, the long slow full chuckle of a contented reptile, interrupted only a little by the first muscle tremors.  “Yew roots.  No, you aren’t food anymore, are you, little mouse?  You’re poison.”
“Ah, well.  Your promise was kept.  If most judgementally.  Good-night, little mouse.  Perhaps we will meet again, in a stranger place.”
She coiled up again, as neatly as she could manage as the spasm grew worse, and waited patiently.  It wouldn’t take too long. 


“Roots” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: The Argument.

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

A very, very long time ago, there was a wafting cloud of interstellar dust, gas, and general bits of leftover matter.  A very small bit of it bumped into another very small bit of it, and they stuck, to each other and soon to others. 
This took a long time.
Afterwards, there was a very small, very dense ball.  It kept growing, kept packing itself tight, getting denser and denser.
This took a very long time. 
But when the long time was done and everything had finished sorting itself out, it was a surprised and pleased ball of debris that looked around itself and decided that its existence was really pretty neat.  In fact, it decided its existence was more than merely neat. 
“Wow,” it said as it looked around the endless expanse of the universe, at the nebulae and galactic arms, at the dust clouds and lonely comets, at the asteroid clusters and gas giants.  “I am absolutely incredible.  I am amazing.  In fact, looking at all that stuff out there, I think I’m just about the best at everything I am!”
This was an unusual attitude for a ball of interstellar debris.  In general, the denser they are the better off they become, but perhaps this one was a bit too dense. 
“No you’re not,” said another voice. 
Now, a clarification on this voice, because it will be heard regularly: it is not a nice one.  It’s smug, insufferable, self-satisfied, and unpleasantly plump to the point of bloated.  If voices were animals, this one would look like a big fat toad. 
“What?” snapped the debris ball. 
“I said,” the voice said, from a clump of trans-galactic litter much like that that made up the debris ball, “you’re not the best at everything you are.  And I said this because obviously I am.”
The ball swelled up in outrage, absorbing a third of its weight again in particles.  “You?  Not a chance!  Not at all!  You’re tiny, you’re teeny, you’re barely there!  I’m more than you’ll ever be!  What a joke!”
“What rubbish!” scoffed the clump.  “What folly!  Look at you, barely a blip!  You’re comparing atoms to quarks, you miserable cretin, and you can’t even do that properly.  Look, as you can see, I am easily your better!”  And as it spoke, it sucked in its neighbours, ballooning in size to prove its point. 
Now, at this point a fair mind would provide a crude estimate and declare that the two were as near as made no difference.  But this was something neither of them was all that eager to possess.  An ego is a terrible thing to waste. 
“I’m bigger!”
“No, I, you miniscule dolt!”
And at each exchange, they both grew a little, a boost to secure their positions, just to be safe, to be sure.  And their argument got louder and hotter.  Much hotter, although that could’ve had a little to do with their increasing density. 
“Pompous gasbag!”
Now, this heating and growing went on for a long time, as it’s measured by many life forms.  For a pair of squabbling bits of leftover cosmic garbage, not as long.  And the argument was seemingly settled when right as the first bit of dirt and rock was trying to come up with a really good comeback, it ignited.  Fwoosh
“Ha!” the new star declared as it lit up a microscopic bit of the sky.  “Now who’s the best?”
“Still me, I’m afraid,” smarmed its neighbour, oozing condescension from a mere couple of light-years away.  “I believe you’ll find my entourage speaks for itself.”  And indeed, a pretty cloud of solar bits had formed around it, spinning neatly as if to marvel at its newfound heat. 
“What?  Well, I’ll show you!” and the star worked its gravitic muscles as hard as it could, twisting and bending bits and scraps to it. 
“You’ll find that mine are bigger,” called over the rival. 
“Not for long,” said the star with grim spite, and it set about collapsing and coalescing its makeshift audience as fast and hard as it could.  When both of them were through, some hundreds of thousands of years later, they had a spinning solar system each of gas giants and rocky little spheres, one two-and-six, the other four-and-three. 
“I have more,” said the first star, smugness oozing from it stronger than ultraviolet. 
“Mine are more sizeable,” snapped back the second. 
“Mine have rarer elements.”
“Mine have higher albedos!”
“Shiny rubbish!”
“Dull dirt-lumps!”
The fight was brought to a halt as a comet shower passed through both systems.  It dropped some very small bits and pieces of odd chemicals on one planet in each solar system, and it started to do odd things to propagate itself over the next few million years. 
“What’s that?” asked the first planet suspiciously.
“I don’t know,” said the second planet.  “But I don’t quite think I like it.”
“I have more than you, and I don’t mind it,” said the first planet. 
“We’ll see about that!” 
And so before long, both of the stars were encouraging the growth and spread of the strange stuff – they called it life, and both insisted the other had copied their name – the only way they could: by bombarding it with all kinds of radiation and seeing what stuck.  It took some heavy work to get it through the thickening atmospheres of their worlds, but they persisted, and for every time they saw the life wax from overtly enthusiastic efforts on their part they saw it change and redouble in vigour. 
“I have more!”
“Mine’s more common!”
“Shut up!”
A few billion years down the line, something really weird happened.  A bunch of the stuff started sticking together in clumps.  Before the stars knew it, life was getting bigger and bigger, and spreading through their planets faster than a solar flare. 
“Mine went multi-cellular before yours.”
The very peculiar thing about the life was its speed.  In a few scant tens of millions of years it would shrink, grow, shrink again, change itself five times over, then almost collapse and start over.  Keeping track required very close attention, something that both the stars developed grudgingly as a way of one-upsmanship. And it was a good thing they did, otherwise what happened next would’ve completely slipped their attention spans. 
“My word,” said the second star.  “I do believe some of my life is making things out of other things.”
“What?” asked the first star, suspicion filling it.
“See for yourself,” it said, and the first star could see, now that it was looking.  Some of the other star’s planet was now sprinkled with strange piles of minerals and repurposed carcasses. 
“What are those?” asked the first star, curiousity momentarily overcoming malice with heroic effort. 
“I do not know, but I believe I will call them artificial.  My new life enjoys creating artificial things.”
“Well,” the first star snarled, “so will mine!”  And it stepped up its radiation again. 
Sure enough, it had sentient life on its planet soon enough.  Both of them egged them along as best as possible, and although their methods were harsh, clumsy, and often collapsed civilizations due to impossibly harsh and dangerous environments, they certain led to interesting species.  Very, very surly ones with immensely tough radiation tolerances and extreme survival instincts that tended to fight brutal turf wars. 
“So tasteless,” complained the second planet. 
“Mine are tougher.”
“The hell they are!  Mine are meaner!”
“Not a chance!”
At long last, after something like the hundredth world-wide war on the first star’s planet and the hundredth-and-thirty-first on the second, they realized that their planets were getting awfully cluttered and broken, and there was real worry that their life could run out of space soon, or just not be quite tough enough to last through that next nuclear conflagration. 
“There are other planets,” said the first star, “and my life shall be the first to reach them.  They’ll spread across the galaxy, and they’ll be the toughest, nastiest, and strongest of all!”
“My life will be there first and faster, and they’ll consume yours before you can so much as flare twice,” boasted the second. 
This time the star’s searing efforts at egging them on did very little to aid the actual advancement of their life, but it certainly added urgency to their movements.  Swarms of little extremely angry and violent beings put new effort into crude spaceflight, slowed but scantly by their instinctive desire to mount terrible and monstrous weaponry on everything they built. 
“Nearly done!” said the first star, watching a fleet of colony ships being outfitted with antimatter warheads to crush any resistance on fertile worlds they found. 
“Almost there,” said the second, gloating over its creations as they tore out the minerals lodged in their planet’s core with drills that would make an Oort cloud wince.
“Never had a chance, you puffed-up little smidgen,” said the first.  “You don’t have the hydrogen to pull this off, not with your tiny little core.”
“I burn brighter, burn harder, and shine stronger than you ever will, mewling dwarf,” said the second. 
“Can you top this power?” asked the first, flaring up violently and swelling. 
“Bah!  Outshine this if you can,” said the second, and it glowed bright red, growing larger still.
“That’s nothing,” seethed the first, life forgotten as it restarted the oldest argument of all among them.  “I’ll burn so bright that you’ll vanish against me!”
“You call that bright?  You’re barely yellow, you’re turning red!”
“And you,” said the first, snowballing in size, “are tiny.  Hot you may be, but I could eat you up without noticing.”
“Pah!” said the second, bloating like a toad left under a sunlamp. 
They fought and grew and fought and grew, and they both got redder and redder.  Their inner planets began to vanish into their bulk. 
“You’re nothing but the same cosmic speck you’ve always been!”
“You’re a dust particle in your core!”
“Well you’re….. what?”
“What?” demanded the first planet, and then it saw they had both stopped growing. 
“How embarrassing,” confessed the second.  “I seem to be out of fuel.”
“So am I,” mourned the first. 
“I feel heavy.”
“I wonder why this happened?”
There was a brief (cosmically) silence as the two considered this, and then they both exploded, taking their entire solar systems with them. 
The two separate colonization fleets looked up from their battered, bleeding worlds as they fitted their cataclysmic drive engines for the first and final flights, then were unceremoniously obliterated by the joint supernovas at almost exactly the same time.  About half of them regarded it as a thankful relief as they evaporated, the rest were, as usual, very, very angry.   

That corner of that cluster of that galaxy of that tiny chunk of the universe was very quiet.  Only a pair of colourless, lightless weights on the fabric of everything remained, straining existence through their vast gravity wells in sullen silence. 
About a billion years passed calmly, and then:
“Say what you will about this whole sorry mess…”
“… but I believe that my mass is greater.”

“The Argument” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Fishing Trip.

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Juan was a young boy when he first saw the bird.  Not the most observant age, but certainly the most restless, and it was those restless, fidgeting, bored eyes of his that corkscrewed their way across the sky that day on his father’s rusty fishing boat and saw the big, white wings holding still and flat in the sea breeze, feathers ruffling gently. 
“What is that?” he’d asked his father.  The old man – well, looking back on it, not so old, but then he was his father, so of course he was an old man – glanced up from the jury-work and profanity he was repairing the creaky motor with. 
“Albatross,” he grunted, turning his attention back just in time to stop a spring from snapping shut on his thumb. 
“Yes, but father –”
“You’ve seen them before, boy.”  Unfortunately, stopping the spring had entailed hastily wedging two other fingers into a very small space, whose precise contents Juan’s father was trying to recall.  
“But it’s –“
“Shit!  Juan, pass me the hammer and a rag.”  Apparently the compartment’s contents were both sharp and moving, very vigorously so. 
And so Juan passed his father his tool and makeshift bandage and talked no more about the bird for the rest of the day, though it weighed heavily enough on his mind that the old man had to whack him on the head a couple times to make sure he was paying attention while they started to let out their lines. 
He hadn’t mentioned the odd thing he’d noticed about the bird, as he saw it swoop over the boat, before his father looked up.  The odd thing was that its wingspan had been twice the length of their boat’s hull. 

Juan grew up strong, like his father had and his mother had.  Particularly his mother, who knew much more about engines than either her husband or son and never failed to berate them on the many occasions they replaced using a specific repair tool with a hammer, which was often. 
Unfortunately, as will occur in people his age, Juan’s brain grew a bit slower than his body, and so one morning after an argument with his father the night before over laziness (the old man thought he was stricken with it, Juan insisted that he was a slave driver) he snuck down to the dock and took out their boat alone.  He’d prove he wasn’t lazy.  An early-early-morning catch he’d find, and a big one.  That would show his father properly. 
The water looked good to Juan as he coaxed the boat into what he judged a proper place.  Plenty of fish in there, just waiting to bounce themselves onto the tip of his hooks, flying into the boat to prove the old man wrong. 
“You’re in my spot,” said a voice.
It was not a very nice voice; not cruel, heavily accented in some way Juan didn’t recognize, but possessed of that raspy, disinterested grumpiness that was most easily summed up as “grizzled.” 
“I don’t know you,” said Juan to the voice, and that was more puzzling still, as the one thing he knew better than the waters around home was the people.  And he was certain that even if by some miracle from above he didn’t know one of the other local fishermen, he would remember this one.  He was old, sun-burnt so deeply his skin was near to charred black, and more wrinkled and scarred than an elderly sea sponge.  His boat was wooden, battered, and as sun-scorched as her owner, with a tattered sail that couldn’t have let any more light through if it were glass.
“No,” the sun-cooked man said, “you wouldn’t.  Push off my spot.”
Juan’s mother had made very sure that he respected his elders, but there were limits.  And most of them freshly broken as of last night. 
“You aren’t from around here,” he said, “and that makes this my spot.  I’ve fished here before and I’ll fish here for years yet.  So why don’t you push off, you miserable old thief?”
The old man’s frown deepened, and then he burst into a deep chuckling guffaw that splish-splashed off the waves for miles.  The wrinkles and scars on his face jumped and jerked in ways that made Juan’s stomach roll
“Ha!  Good offer.  No fun though.  Want to hear a deal?”
Juan thought.  If Juan hadn’t argued with his father, hadn’t snuck out early, he would’ve been more clearheaded and not as hasty.  On the other hand, if Juan hadn’t argued with his father and snuck out early, his father would be here with him and his father would’ve turned the old man down.  Which was exactly why what Juan said next was: “What kind of deal?”
“A bet.  We fish with handlines, stop when one quits, winner is the biggest catch.  That simple enough, boy?”
Juan thought a bit more.  The old man was old, which meant he would be weaker and tire easier.  On the other hand, he was an old fisherman, so not so much in either case, and he must know quite a lot of the sea to sail that relic around without so much as a backup motor.  On the third hand, Juan knew the water.  But what decided it, again, was none of these things: it was because Juan’s father had spoken to him in just that tone of voice last night, that “boy.”
“Bet made,” said Juan. 
The old man’s grin went thin and bloodless.  “Deal struck,” he replied, and with one creaky swoop of his arm he produced an old driftwood rod, knobbly old bones unfolding in a perfect cast.  Juan’s own bobber hit the water what felt like long seconds afterward, and by the time it had the old man was already reeling in his line, hauling back with gritted teeth.  A fat flapping mackerel struggled through to the surface, which he seized, unhooked, and tossed back one-handed. 
Juan was shaken, but stubborn.  He fished with every trick he knew, and he reeled in his line heavy.  He fished as the old man pulled in catch after catch, first twice what he brought in, then thrice, then four times as much.  The driftwood pole and line didn’t place itself in wait for the fish, it seemed to land on top of them and seize them bodily, hauling them up by jaws that hadn’t even intended to seize the bait.  And each fish that he caught, the old man let fall back into the water. 
“Give?” asked the old man at noon, dragging an exhausted shark’s head half out of the water to eye critically.  The sun was high and hot, the waves growing boisterous. 
Juan looked at the shark – which was weightier than he and his father put together – and then at the coolers, filled snugly with fish.  Almost more than he’d hoped when he set out, but useless to him now.  Nothing he’d caught matched that shark, and he wouldn’t lose that bet. 
“No,” said Juan.  And he cast again.  The old man cackled and released the shark.  Juan thought it looked puzzled, as far as sharks could. 
The afternoon wore on, as did Juan’s sunburn.  The old man remained unaltered, although Juan thought that if he was capable of burning any farther it would only be into charcoal. 
Finally, just as Juan was about to give up, his rod nearly tore itself out of his hands, wrenching wildly in his grasp.  The water blasted itself apart as a (relatively small) swordfish launched itself into the air.  It brandished its beak at him, thrashed madly, and then was back in the water with force that nearly disjointed both his arms.
“Hah,” said the old man, and he put his rod down and picked up a small pack of rancid tobacco, which he began to carve at.  “Should be good.”
Juan mustered the breath to wheeze a profane sentence at him before the swordfish dived. 
On the many later occasions Juan looked back on the battle, whether that evening as his father shouted at him or years later with fond regret, he found himself equally unable to remember details.  Only a seemingly unending torrent of the same muscles in his body being jerked new ways every five seconds for what seemed like five years.  As to its actual length, he never knew, but for the sun dropping down to near-horizon by the time that swordfish made its final lunge, gasping its way up besides the hull.  Its eye stared into Juan’s, expressionless and wide, yet somehow capable of conveying loathing.  Then it jerked its head once, twice, three times and Juan’s line gave up the ghost in a quiet, cynical snap.  The fish dropped firmly out of sight and into mind. 
Juan collapsed back in his seat, realizing to his surprise that someone had replaced his lungs with burlap sacks.  His hands hurt, and he wasn’t quite willing to look at them yet. 
“Not bad,” said the old man.  “Give?”
Nodding took all the energy in the world.
“Not bad,” repeated the old man.  He spat a small stream of tobacco juice.  “Spot’s yours.  Good luck.”
He rowed very quickly, thought Juan.  That strange mist that had come out of nowhere swallowed him so fast.  He’d better lie here on the comfortable floor until it passed.  Good idea. 
White wings were overhead, but he was too tired to see them. 

Juan’s father was terrified when he went out looking with half the village that evening, standing in the forefront of the largest boat, his own father’s binoculars set to eyes, peering through cracked lenses for a darker blot on the horizon.  He never would’ve seen the boat if not for the swooping of the seabird over it, a great white thing that had him squinting and readjusting the ancient device to check its scale, only to miss it entirely.
As he found his son at last, adrift and asleep, it was only the sight of the snapped line and bruising on his arms and hands that brought him back to calmness, then more worry.  As it was, Juan spent a few days laid up in bed being yelled at by his father, calmly remonstrated by his mother, and hallucinating that an albatross was trying to shove him into an egg. 

Juan’s father forgave him, of course, after a time.  And Juan got on better with him, since after the bet and the swordfish ordinary work was a welcome relief.  And surprisingly easy to boot – in no more than a few years, Juan was the best fisherman in the village after his father.  And one more year after that, he was the best fisherman in the village.
All things must end, of course.  Juan moved out of the house soon after, found a new home, a small home, and bought a very small boat.  He knew where to fish though, and soon neither boat nor home was as small.  A time after that, a woman who was much too good to be with him walked in the door and the home felt small again, good small. 
But again, all things must end, and after some time ordinary work itself ended for Juan as he was trawling through an anchovy school.  He was just beginning to winch up the net when his boat’s hull shook, shuddered, and clanged, squealing against immovable matter.  Juan was halfway to grabbing a patch and two-thirds of the way through a curse when he remembered that the nearest thing shallow enough for him to ground on it was the village dock. 
It was at this moment that the boat was surrounded in a popping, swirling circuit of bubbles.  Scrambling to the side and gazing down, Juan saw a shadow as big as the world underneath him, so large that at first he mistook it for the bottom.  It was getting bigger. 
“You again,” said the voice. 
Juan was in two minds at seeing the old man again – who didn’t appear any different.  Seeing him was a surprise, yes, but his apparent ability to pop up alongside him without so much as an oar-splash was somehow unshocking. 
“You too,” said Juan.  “No more bets.  I already have a full net, and I don’t think my father will come to help this time if you leave me adrift again.”
“Fair,” said the old man.  He pointed one sun-bleached oar at Juan’s net.  “Look out.”
Juan spun around just in time to see a mouth the size of his house breach the water’s surface in the midst of the bubbles, closing neatly around both the panicked anchovy swarm trapped inside them and Juan’s net, missing Juan’s boat itself by a couple of inches.  His knife was in his hand before he knew it, slashing at the strands ever as the whale – god, what a whale, the sheer size of it, was it a blue? – began to sink again, the winch creaking and whining as it was stretched, the boat’s stern depressing down and down only to rocket up again as the last fibres parted, spilling Juan on his rear and the last fibres of his trawling net across the ocean.
“Hmm,” said the old man, carving a plug of chewing tobacco from his ancient wad.  “Want to hear a deal?”
Juan realized his knuckles were too white to be healthy as he stared at them, and unclenching them from the knife took a more serious effort than he would’ve assumed. 
“I guess so,” he said. 
“Same as before?” asked the old man, tucking the tobacco between cheek and gum, a tight fit if there ever was one. 
“Yes,” said Juan. 
“Good,” said the old man, and just like magic there was that rod out of nowhere, bobber in the water a hairs-breadth in front of Juan’s, already jumping as soon as it touched the water. 
“Do you know what that thing down there is?” asked Juan.  The old man was reeling in whatever it was he’d caught with that same eerie ease Juan was suddenly recalling from all those years ago. 
“Yes,” he said.  “Don’t mind it.  Won’t scare the fish away.”
It certainly wasn’t.  The bubbles continued to rise, and the fish churned upwards towards them both in a panic.  Amidst the shimmering silver streams of the little ones darker grey shadows bite and ate; there were more than just anchovies down there.  And if Juan needed more proof, the old man was laughing and wrestling with the rod as a full-sized tuna thrashed at the other end.  As Juan’s bobber took its first hit the old man wrestled it out of the water and held it close, eye-to-eye, before releasing it.
Juan was too busy after that to pay attention to the other boat, having time for about one spare thought every few minutes, most of which he devoted to quickly massaging his limbs, looking for the next spot, or silently, eternally thanking his long-held-by-now obsession with ensuring he kept extremely strong line on hand at all times.  And good strong gloves, which were getting awfully thin in the palms as his cooler filled up with more and more fish.  Just the good ones, the strong, healthy thrashers, the fighters, the tough men of the sea who were surprised and shocked as he deftly circumvented their best tricks and ran rings around them right up to his waiting hands. 
Juan did things he’d never thought possible, at least deliberately.  He tricked a small shortfin mako into breaching directly into the boat.  He caught a small fish, which was swallowed by a tuna, which a shark consumed, then hooked the lot.  He hooked a tuna by its tail.  All in the space of an hour, surrounded by more of their kind. 
The contest was ended by neither Juan nor the old man, but the whale surfacing to breathe.  The bubbles ceased as it rose for air, and whatever fish that remained as the rest fled followed in the thunderous discharge of its blowholes, spout jutting dozens of feet from twin openings as big as manholes.   The wave of its flukes washed the air as it dove, sending waves at both boats that nearly tipped them.
The old man glared at the vast, dark shape beneath them, almost identical to the ocean floor.  “Bastard.”  He met Juan’s questioning gaze.  “It’s over.  Best was three tuna on one hook.  Yours?”
“Something close.  Shark, tuna, something small that the tuna ate too fast to see.”
The old man nodded, frowning.  “Hmm.  Draw?”
Juan returned the nod.  “Yes.”
“Good.  Say hello to the wife.  Goodbye.”
Juan didn’t bother trying to keep up with his rowing.  He suspected it wouldn’t do any good. 

Juan’s wife had a great deal of difficulty understanding why he stayed out there so long, with no warning.  But she couldn’t argue with the catch, and accepted his explanation, which consisted entirely of the truth.  He’d told her the story of his youth years ago, so she couldn’t say she didn’t know he was crazy.  She nodded, clucked her tongue at the rudeness of the old man up and leaving like that, then told him she was pregnant.  Juan didn’t think about the old man then for quite some time. 

Juan fished, and Juan’s daughter grew up.  He took her out there many, many times, and she took to it well, something her mother approved of even if she didn’t claim to understand, and they never ran hungry or scant of money.  Juan could practically hear the fish now, feel them swimming through the hull of his boat, something that he explained carefully to the girl that he was never sure if she quite understood.  They pulled nets and hauled lines together, father and daughter, some of the time watched from below by a strange-large shadow Juan thought he recalled, and in the evening mother and daughter would berate Juan over his amazing inability to cook. 
“She has the best of both of us,” Juan’s wife told him, and he could only agree.  And years later, when Juan’s daughter got married and left town, she had the best of someone else too. 
Fishing trips were lonelier then, and with both smaller reason to stay out and fewer mouths to feed Juan took less.  He felt a tired and elderly spider of fantastic size, sitting quietly above a gathering of prey with a single strand of web that moved as one with his thoughts, darting among the small and slow to find the large and strong.  One bait, one cast, one catch.  Economy over excess. 

Juan’s wife’s funeral was nothing extravagant. The family was there, grandchildren and her brothers and sisters and their children and grandchildren.  Juan’s wife had been loved quite fully, and by more than he.  He thanked them all, gave them food to take home (fish – which he assured them they could prepare much more deftly than he), and stayed up late that night finishing his will and a few notes, which he addressed and mailed in the early morning on his way down to the docks. 
The boat’s motor was modern, smooth and quiet and strong.  Juan was proud of it, and proud that he hadn’t once had to take a hammer to its insides.  His mother would’ve risen from the grave solely to yell at him.  It took him a long way out before he shut it off, far, far offshore, land away, just him and the sea.  And the old man, who he felt arriving before he heard his voice. 
“Hello,” he said.  “You’re in my spot.”
The old man showed as much surprise as he did increased wear, but his face looked a bit softer than usual.  “Same to you.”
Juan watched the sky, searching for a hint of white wings.  “My wife is dead.”
He looked to the sea, for quiet bulk and hints of bubbles.  “My daughter is alive and happy.”
“Good for her.”
Juan stretched; his arms got stiff nowadays if he didn’t take care to keep moving.  “I believe I have a bet to make.”
“An old one, with one slight modifications.”
The old man said nothing. 
“Handlines.  Stop where one quits.  Smallest catch.”
The old man laughed.  “Very good!”  He leaned over the side of his boat.  “Hear that?!” he shouted to the sea at large.  “Very good!”
“One question, before we begin.”
“Are they both here?”
The old man wrinkled his brow – even farther, if possible – and then held up three fingers.  “One below,” he clarified. 
“Then I will have to meet her,” said Juan.

The rods were raised, the hooks flew, the bobbers splashed.  Juan’s slightly ahead. 
He let the line run, feeling it fall, guided by something more than gravity and the currents, slipping down away from the budding morninglight into the places where there never was any.  Eddies murmured at it, fish watched and swam by, mouths clamped tightly shut. 
Down fell the hook, softly, slowly, in the cold abyss, so far down that each twitch Juan made in the boat took nearly twenty minutes to tip-toe down to it.  Luckily, he was making them ahead of time.  He wouldn’t keep her waiting. 
Strangeness flowed up from below, on the tinsel-thread of the fishing line, which was far too short to reach the hook now. 
There she was.  A grandness, an otherness, a quiet observer who never slept, seldom moved, always dreamed.   She was all tethers, all hooks and lines, arms stretching for miles farther than they really did. 
As politely as possible, the hook moved to the vents she rested about and around.  She made no objection, content to watch with the largest eyes ever created as it drifted towards the black-gushing water, hotter than hell, warmer than heaven. 
The hook stopped moving an inch from water at a temperature that would boil it into nothing in a second, jerked upwards less than a micrometer, and then respectfully withdrew, prize secured.  The squid watched patiently as he left. 
Juan grew tired as the hook rose, but it mattered little.  He would have time to rest.  Inch by inch, reel by reel, the line returned to him, impossibly long, impeccably careful, precious cargo undisturbed. 
The hook slipped into his hand.  “I am ready,” he announced. 
The old man shrugged.  Juan realized he’d finished fishing long ago, and their boats stood side by side.  “A single plankton particle,” he announced, indicating a tiny speck on the tip of his hook.  “Crab larvae.  Don’t know which kind.”
Juan nodded, and held up his own.  “Microbe, likes hot temperatures.  Just in the cradle of the hook.”
The old man leaned over and examined it closely, turning it this way and that.  “Hmm.”  He sat back, watching Juan curiously. 
Juan dropped the rod and reel into the water, feeling a strange current take them and their cargo.  Somehow, he knew they would reach the bottom safely.  
Now the old man smiled, wide and warm.  “You win.”
“Thank you,” said Juan.  “I’m going to go swimming now.”
The old man shook his head.  “Not yet.  You were in my spot, now I’m in yours, and you’ve got to take it.  Here.”  He handed the driftwood rod to Juan.  A long, long series of small scratches adorned the handle, each carefully crossed out but the last.  Most were alphabets or symbols Juan didn’t recognize. 
“You’re the best now,” the old man said.  “They need the best.  A go-between.  Look out for them.”
Juan didn’t have to look for the wings now, or listen for the bubbles, or even feel the hair on his neck prickle at the eyes.  For the same reason that he’d never had to look for his arm. 
“All three?” he asked.
“More,” said the old man.  He took up the oars again, sitting taller in his seat than Juan remembered. 
“How many?”
The oars were moving, and already he was almost out of sight.  Still, his answer was clear enough to sound perfectly in Juan’s ear, combined with the careful swipe of one oar to beckon at all that surrounded their two tiny boats. 
“All of them.”

Juan thought about that, as the splash of oars faded away.  Strange things were filling his senses now, songs he’d never heard, sights never seen, thoughts carried on secret breezes and deep currents. 
There was something he needed to look at out there, a job he needed to do.  A thousand somethings, many lifetimes of jobs, of work.  He’d best get going. 
Juan turned on the motor.  Smooth, quiet, and strong.  His mother would’ve liked it. 
“Still not lazy, father,” he said. 
He didn’t need to say anything else for a long time. 


“Fishing Trip” Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.