Archive for September, 2010

Storytime: Clear as a Whistle.

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

There was a village, and it was the world, at least as far as the people living there were concerned.  There were the farms, and the meadows, and the forest surrounding it like some sort of herbaceous asteroid belt, and everything beyond that was probably not worth your time, regardless of what those strange people that came wandering down the road kept saying.  But that didn’t count, not really.  The village was the world, and it was everything. 
Well… not quite.  There were some holes in that particular cozy mental framework, that had to be covered with less-than-liberally-sized blind spots. 
One of them was Old Man Morris. 

“So, is he real?” asked Simon at Charlie’s retreating back. 
“Yup,” said Charlie.  He slipped on a rock, sending a spray of gravel just past his friend’s face, then caught himself on a bush.  A raspberry bush. 
“He isn’t real,” said Simon, loudly over the inept cursing. 
“Is so.”
“My daddy said so.”
“Well your daddy’s wrong.”
Simon glared at his friend’s foot, then hastily cut his malevolence short as a fresh wad of mixed soil and slender-rooted plants hailed downwards.  Casting doubt on the word of a father was a serious thing.  But Charlie did it without a moment’s hesitation.  Clearly, this was worth exploring. 
“Well, prove it,” he said. 
“Doin’ that.”
“Howja find out anyways?”
“That time I got lost looking for the cows last week,” said Charlie, as they heaved themselves over the final yards of cliff face and onto the weedy, long-grassed, tree-shaded peak of the Big Hill.  “Almost walked into him.  Now shh!”
“What’re you –” managed Simon before Charlie slapped his hand over his mouth. 
There were such things as desperate times and desperate measures, Simon knew.  He could imagine a thousand things that would make Charlie do something like that.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of anything that’d let him stand it, especially right after his father’s all-knowing powers had just been disputed, and so instead of staying quiet he punched Charlie in the gut. 
The resulting tussle, doomed to tininess as it was, ranged far and wide across the hilltop, with much energy and ruckus had by both.  But not by all, because the third member of that distinguished group was less than pleased when they rolled directly through the basket of mushrooms he’d been picking. 
“Eep,” said Simon. 
“Hullo, Old Man Moss,” said Charlie. 
“Hmmph,” said Old Man Morris. 
He was tall and bent quite short and broken, a big man who’d spent too much time fiddling with small things.  One of those small things was manifestly not at all his beard, which was so thick and tangly that it could’ve been a sweater. 
His sweater, on the other hand, was rather threadbare. 
Probably blue once. 
“Hmmph,” repeated Old Man Morris.  “That’s Morris.”
“Moss,” agreed Simon, companionably.  It was true; seated where he sat on the old, old stump, the man looked mossy.  He could’ve out-willowed a willow in full weeping. 
“Hmmph,” reiterated Old Man Moss.  “Go away, boys.  Bad enough you bother me yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, and all to last week with your spying.  Bad enough.  Now go away and stay away, and take your friends and acquaintances with you.”
Charlie picked his nose without malice.  “My daddy told me,” he announced as he inspected the extracted particles, “that you’re a wizard.”
“Go away, boys.”
“A crazy old wizard that lives all on his own and talks to the bugs and the weeds.”
“I can do what I want.  Leave me be.”
“And that my mommy smacked him and told him to Mind His Words, and that you were my grandpa’s uncle’s cousin.  Once removed.”  Examination complete, the mote was flicked away into the grass. 
Old Man Moss’s brow wrinkled further, amazingly.  “She a Nickel?”
“Nu-uh.  Daddy’s a Clay.  We’re Clays.  But mommy said she used to be.”  He grinned in gap-toothed triumph.  “I’m Charlie Clay and this is Simon Adams and he’s my friend.  You’re my grandpa’s uncle’s cousin”
“-once removed-“ reminded Simon. 
“-once removed-“ agreed Charlie, “-and we want to see you do a magic trick!”
Old Man Moss sighed into his beard, setting it whistling and rattling like branches in the winter.  “Like what?”  He gathered up his mushrooms, palms a deeper dirt brown than the soil he’d plucked them from. 
“Can you whistle?”
“Hmmph.  Anyone can whistle.”
“The special whistle.”
Old Man Moss kept his back turned so they didn’t see his face.  “Quit fooling around, boy Clay.”
Charlie put his fingers in his mouth, moved them around so they were plugging the right gaps in his teeth, twisted his tongue the secret way, and out came a cold clear whistle, the up-and-down slip of it as sweet as a songbird’s, any songbird, the one in the trees above.  It warbled its approval and slid down to Charlie’s hand as smoothly as a diving leaf in autumn, which it inspected hopefully for traces of worms.
“Mommy taught me that,” said Charlie proudly.
Old Man Moss rubbed his back.  He’d turned around very fast for someone so gnarled; it had been like watching an oak get up and dance a jig.  “Your mommy, her name’s Edith?”
Old Man Moss glared down at the boys from his head’s creaky old perch.  “Scat.  Both of you.  And you tell your mommy to mind what she teaches, unless she wants more than she can handle.  It ain’t anything to be proud of.”
Simon tugged at Charlie’s hand.  He didn’t like what he saw in the old man’s eye.  It was that nasty gleam grownups got when they had a new way to keep you busy.  Charlie shook it off.  “Show us a whistle-trick first then,” he said, stubbornly.
“Clays,” grumbled Old Man Moss, loamy as an apple orchard, gravelley as a coal mine.  He puckered his lips and shook his head, and he gave a low, whirling whir, as dronesome as a bumblebee in a long fog.  It made the boys’ teeth twitch and the air hum, and then it was been and gone, out over the forest. 
They waited. 
“That didn’t do anything,” complained Charlie. 
“Takes a moment,” said Old Man Moss.  There was a huffing and a puffing and a great big bear’s head burst through the bushes at his side.  It shook its fur and grunted into the air, hot damp pouring out of its lungs.  “Now scat.”
The boys scat, aided by the galumphing of the bear at their heels.  They ran all the way home, and received a pair of hide-tannings apiece: one for going out all that way to bother that crazy old man, and one for lying about bears.  There were no bears within a month’s walk or more, not since Simon’s great-grandfather had shot the last as it went for his cows. 

The next day there were the two of them and Simon’s little sister Margaret, who’d wrestled the story out of her brother after bedtime and demanded to come along on threat of alerting their mother, a fearsome woman who would’ve led her own horde in another time and place.  They waited for Old Man Moss at his mushroom patch.  Far too long, as far as Margaret was concerned.  
“You said he’d be here,” she whined. 
“He was!  He will.  He’s just taking a while.”
“I’ll tell mom if you were lying.  Liars get tanned.”
“You do that and I’ll tell her you made us bring you out here.”
“Wouldn’t dare!”
“Would so!”
They were interrupted by the thud-thud-rustle of big feet, and up came Old Man Moss himself, rising up through the greenery like the king of the marsh.  It was a strange thing, seeing him on the move, like watching a hill tiptoe to one side.  He stopped short his stumping as he caught sight of the children. 
“You,” he said, flatly.  “I told you all to scat.”
“This is my sister Margaret,” said Simon politely.  “We call her Margie.  She’s little, so she isn’t very smart.  Say hi, Margie.”  Margaret smacked him. 
“Hrrmmph.  Get going before I whistle up another friend at you.”
“How’d you do that?” begged Charlie.  “There’s no bears here.  Daddy said there’s no bears here.”
“I didn’t call that one from here.  I whistled him in from… elsewhere.”  Old Man Moss’s face moved under that beard in something that could’ve been a frown.  “Now get going.”
“How far away can you do that?” asked Charlie with interest, picking his nose again. 
“How big a thing can you move like that?” asked Simon. 
“You’re making that up,” complained Margaret.
“Pfah!”  Old Man Moss eyebrows rippled together like fighting snakes as he glared down the children, mouth working in weird shapes.  Out of that jumble of tongue and teeth came a short, sharp switch of sound, a slap across the ears, and up popped a blade of grass that shot straight up and smacked Charlie across the nose.  He yelped and fell over.
“Told you,” he mumbled, pawing inside the stinging orifice.  His finger had been driven somewhat deeper than he’d intended by the blow. 
“Neat!” chirruped Margaret. 
“Hrrmmph!  Go away.”
“Can you do that with a whole bunch at once?” asked Simon. 
“What about one, but a reeeeaaallly teeny one?” asked Margaret.
And so on and so forth went the day, with the children taking turns at pestering and bothering until Old Man Moss would give in with a grump and show off some thing or another that would make them gasp and gape and giggle.  Charlie tried a few of the sounds, but they didn’t work.  The puckers sent his tongue diving into the back of his throat and the very first whispers of sound made his lips tie themselves up in granny knots.  The notes that managed to come out at all came out wrong. 
“Just as well,” said Old Man Moss.  “Shouldn’t do that sort of thing at your age.  Not safe.  Now go home!  Scat!”
And then they asked him another question. 

The next time, they brought along Charlie’s other friend, Thomas.  And Thomas’s brother, Sam.  And Christopher Petey, because he was desperate to hide from his father and they felt too badly to say no to him. 
“Bah!” said Old Man Moss the moment he saw them, and he whistled up the bear at them.  They ran away and got lost in the woods, and it was some time before they found their way back. 
“No fair,” complained Charlie. 
“I thought you’d gone home,” said Moss, testily.  He was starting to wonder if the mushrooms on the Big Hill were worth the trouble they were getting to be nowadays. 
“Why’d you go and do that for?”
“A bear not scary enough for you boys?  Fine then.”  The new whistle was wild and fresh, like a bowlful of ice cold lakewater to the face.  The wind wooshed and howled and before the boys could so much as open their mouths to complain down came a great big eagle, claws wide, mouth open, shrieking the wild call that made the breeze seem small.  It chased them all the way home, where they each received separate, individual tannings. 
“Next time,” complained Simon to Charlie, “I’m bringing my sister.  He didn’t make a bear chase her.  She’s too little.”
Though Charlie’s pride was against it, his rear was for it, and so Margaret was re-invited with grudging politeness on the followup trip the next day. 
“Hmph!” snorted Old Man Moss, and he didn’t take it farther than that.  From then on Margaret was a permanent, smug fixture on their visits, a solid core with Simon and Charlie that the other children of the village dropped on and off of as the mood for adventure struck their fancies.  Adventure mostly consisted of hurled tidbits of debris, endlessly being told to “go ‘way,” and at least one viciously channelled and directed beehive, but you had to take what you could get. 

Charlie didn’t show up one week.  Old Man Moss kept his voice lower and softer, and his gaze farther away.  A thinking look.  He kept ignoring questions, but with silence instead of words. 
“Your Clay all right?” he asked Simon at the day’s end. 
A blank stare answered him. 
“He’s sick,” said Simon.  “He’s in bed.”
“Hmm,” said Old Man Moss, trailing away the grunt that had been forming in his mouth.  “Bad?”
“Dunno.  We wanted to see him but his mommy wouldn’t let us.”
“Hmm.  Hmmph.”  Old Man Moss breathed in deep through his nose, as if to refresh its purpose and remind it of its station in life.  “Right.  Go away.”
They nodded and didn’t.  He let them be until late on in the afternoon, when most of them started to remember chores that needed doing and drifted away awkwardly.  Not being chased off or stomped away from was a new and unsettling thing for them. 
Charlie was in bed that night, but not asleep.  The things he saw whenever he shut his eyes were too alarming for that.  So he lay there in bed, swamped in the covers and pillows, and he tried not to blink.  The moon was full, and the light made his eyes burn. 
There was a stomp-stamp outside his window, slow but sure, and then a shadow that smelled of leaves and mould. 
“Charlie-Clay.  You sick in there?”
Charlie made a noise that he guessed was positive.  The air in the room felt dry and strange whenever he tried to speak with it. 
“Ah, you’ve got it hard there, Clay.  Not too hard though.  I can fix that, but you have to let me.  Listen careful now, Clay.  You hear me?”
Charlie lolled his head around in something like a nod. 
“That’s good.  Now, listen careful here, Clay…”
It was strange, sitting there, half out of his mind with the new tune, the new tone rolling its way about his skull like a marble in a tight passage, but Charlie tried hard.  The whistle was queer and sad, wobbling and wavering like an indecisive robin, but it slid through his throat more sweetly than any of his mother’s medicine had, and by the third go-round he was letting it slip as easily as breathing.  Which was a lot easier, all of a sudden.
“Sleep now there, Charlie-Clay.  And you keep that tune safe, hear?”
Charlie did.  And the sleep came quick. 

He was better the next day.  Point of fact, he was so much better that his mommy said that if she hadn’t seen his fever the night before, she’d have called him a faker and tanned him.  As it was he was shoved out the door to play all day under firm instruction not to hurt himself and give her another fright like that ever again. 
Charlie went up the Big Hill late, after a leisurely breakfast had been thrust upon him.  Most of the others were already there, talking and poking.  One or two were helping Old Man Moss gather up mushrooms, under the unhelpful supervision of Margaret. 
“Thank you very much,” he told him, as politely as he could recall his mother telling him. 
“Mmm,” said the old man through his beard, and said no more of it.  He showed them how to whistle through a grass blade that day, and the next he showed them how a cricket dances.  The rhythm and feel had changed on the Big Hill, and after a few suspicions of poisoning later that month, when he gave them apples to take home, they adjusted happily.  A little clearing was worn into the hill’s crown from pacing feet, and a crude trail blazed up its side, a path of hand-and-toe-holds and smoothed surfaces polished by slipping grips. 
It was about that time that the families of the village finally started to notice their children vanishing every afternoon, especially since some had taken to doing it during chore time.  Lips were kept sealed and earnest lies unfolded, but eventually someone got around to spilling the beans – Russell Petey’s youngest son, Malcolm, under threat of a leathery backhand – and Russell was none too shy to share the news with the rest of the village. 
“Who knows what kind of devilry’s afoot up there?” he told the other parents, after all the scoldings and stay-in-that-house-until-I-say-sos had been said.  “Nothing good.  Teach ‘em all a lesson and make them stay home, I say, and warn off that old vagrant while we’re at it too.”
There were murmurs, but as much against as for.  Charlie’s mother was tapping her foot pointedly – the mention of her father’s uncle’s cousin once removed being up to any sort of no good irked her – and the words being spoken, however appealing, were coming from Russell Petey.  The best thing that could be said about the man was that he never struck any harder when he was sotted than when he was sober.  And even then, he never struck any lighter, either. 
In the end, a few of them went up to talk to Old Man Moss.  There was Charlie’s father, and Russell Petey, and Simon’s uncle. 
“It is getting in the way of their chores,” said Charlie’s father. 
“Damned waste of time, should’ve run him out long ago,” muttered Russell Petey. 
“They keep talking about whistling,” inquired Simon’s uncle.  “What’s that about?”
“Hrrmph,” said Old Man Moss, and he glared at Russell Petey, and he put two fingers to his mouth and did something complicated that made a sound like a bell being eaten by a parrot.  Then a trio of mice ran out of Russell Petey’s pant legs. 
“Now cut that out!  Make ‘em go away!” he screamed, stamping and swearing.  More mice peeked out from his pockets, and dropped out of his shirt. 
“Hmm.”  This whistle was scratchy, clawing at the air, and it produced a cat.  Inside Russell’s shirt.  He ran home yelling, tripping on the underbrush. 
“Just try not to teach them too much of this… stuff, will you?” asked Charlie’s father, before they left. 
“Don’t worry any.  They can’t manage it.  Except your boy.  Damned Nickels, always could carry a tune, even when it does them no good.”
“Well, at the least we can give you a little in return for keeping them out of our hair,” said Simon’s uncle.  “I’ve got some eggs spare to hand every few days, and I expect you could use a loaf or two of bread.  I know for a fact Harriet makes the best around, right Bill?”
“Hmmph,” said Old Man Moss, waving them off.  But he didn’t send back the eggs when they arrived with Simon the next Wednesday, or the bread that Charlie brought in after the Saturday baking. 
The next month, Thomas and Sam complained of an ill turn that had hit their father’s cow.  The poor thing had sunk up to its knee in a burrow something careless had left in its meadow, and snapped its leg quite properly. 
“That so?” asked Old Man Moss.  He thought for a moment as the breeze washed his beard in the wind.  Margaret futilely attempted to jump atop him from behind and failed, as was her wont. 
“Let’s go look,” he decided, and stood up and left almost before the children could follow him, a noisy entourage through a quiet wood.  They sent all the songbirds fleeing, and drew every eye in the village as they marched through its center, a pilgrimage of rags and sticks. 
The whistle he used down there at the farm of Thomas and Sam’s father was a sturdier, simpler version of a tune that rang bells in Charlie’s head.  He didn’t say a word, as promised, but he tried to remember it too.  Just in case. 
“She’s good,” said Old Man Moss, as the cow took a wobbly step, surprised at its own daring.  “Just let her rest for a bit before she goes trotting around like normal again.”  And he was out and gone, before the farmer had time to say so much as a thank-you-kindly. 
That was the beginning of the third time, the longest one, and the best one, and it got better as it wore on.  The children visited the old man in the hills in the afternoons, after his morning walks, the grownups asked for his help with this-or-that in the late-day and evenings, and as night fell he walked back off into the woods, off to who knew where.  The only complaint (from anyone that wasn’t Russell Petey) that was had of him was that the tunes he used that caught the mind so easily were impossible to mimic by any mortal tongue – save that of Charlie, who took much smugness from it, and the occasional cuffing. 
“Everything wants to move,” he explained to his sister self-importantly, “it just has to hear the right tune to get it up and motivated.”
Margaret pinched him, making him yelp. 

The first signs of the downfall happened in late autumn.  The children still followed Old Man Moss as he walked around village – still looking as out of place as a sheep in a bedroom – if in fewer numbers than before, and so it was that a few witnesses were on hand for it.  The procession was on its way over to see about loosening a stubborn tree stump lodged in the fields of Simon’s uncle when a call came floating across the way, a call from Russell Petey.  He was leaning against the fence on his run-down property, swapping tobacco with his hand, Devon.  The big man barely ever talked, barely made any noise at all.  When he wasn’t around, the grownups would say that was because with Russell near, he didn’t need to.  The children never said anything about him.  Ever.  Those big ears were all too listening, and that little smile that never left his face all too knowing.  He had too much time on his hands, Devon did – nothing on that land was fixed or mended, not by him or anyone – so what did he do with it all?  And none of the cats in town liked him.  Not even the old tabbies that had drunk so much milk in their lives that they’d sopped up all its mildness into their furry tummies for all time and beyond. 
“On your way, hey, on your way?” he asked, half-joking in a voice that sounded too hearty to come from him.  He laughed.  “Given any more thought to my questioning?” he asked. 
“No,” said Old Man Moss, curtly. 
Russell’s smile stayed, but the face behind it seemed to close up some.  “You sure about that, ol’ friend?  I wasn’t joking around with those numbers.  I could bump ‘em up a mite, even.”
Old Man Moss turned his back and walked away, children in puzzled trail, looking back hesitantly.  Devon grinned at them, and they quickened their pace. 

Up came the first snows, and the visits to the Big Hill started to lessen.  It was a tough climb in the snow, and a cold one.  Old Man Moss was busy as always, walking into the village without an escort now, attracting the children from every doorway like a magnet still, but not from so far.  He cleared chimneys, helped mend fences, helped colds.  He was everywhere, anywhere, and he was talking more and more now, even to the grownups.  Margaret claimed she saw him smiling once under that beard, but everyone dismissed it as an idle boast, a baited hook for attention. 
They waited at the gate while he mended Russell Petey’s dog, Brutus.  Russell said that he’d chased a rat too hard and too close, and knocked half the woodshed on himself.  Having heard some of Malcolm and Christopher’s stories, the children were disinclined to believe him. 
“Still have your mind made up?” asked Russell.  Devon was holding the dog still, each hand practically swallowing one of Brutus’s legs.  He wasn’t a small dog, but he looked it then. 
“Yes,” said Old Man Moss, as the last whispering whistle left his lips.  “It’s no good.”
This time Russell couldn’t hide the anger, even if it was just for a moment.  “An’ why would that be, eh?”
Old Man Moss stood up.  Bent as he was, he was still bigger than Russell, and his glare matched his.  “It isn’t.  Leave off.”  He stomped more than usual as he left.  A dog yelped as they passed the half-toppled fence, and for a moment he nearly turned to go back.  Then a laugh drifted out across the snow, and he shook off his shoulders and walked back into his woods, each angry footfall launching a hundred snowflakes from his beard. 

Spring’s first runnings came at the end of it all, just as the celebrations were beginning.  Praises over the end of the snow, the opening of the ice on the river, the congratulations-you-must-be-so-happys of Charlie’s new little brother, they all took up time.  The party for little Michael took up all the village by the time it was through, and as the night wore on and the grownups drank grownup drinks and spoke of grownup things the children grew bored and wandered away to do interesting things, under the light of the shooting stars that made Michael’s birth oh-so-lucky.  And the first interesting thing, the thing that popped into Margaret’s head, was to go see if Old Man Moss was at the Big Hill again. 
“That’s stupid,” scorned Simon.  “It’s nighttime.  No one gets mushrooms at night.”
Margaret’s little teeth shone all the wider and whiter.  “Then we can find out where he sleeps!  Come on, aren’t you curious?  We owe him a visit.  Let’s give him a visit!”
“Yes, let’s!” piped up all the younger of the children, and Simon and Charlie and Christopher and the other older, wiser heads knew they were outnumbered and despaired. 
So they walked into the woods, all of them, past the quiet, darkened farms – all of everyone was at that party, really! – and into the trees.  And with the time that had passed since their last visit, and the way they were looking for something they’d never seen before, a bit of turning around happened.  Besides, it was awfully dark.  The light of shooting stars, while pretty, isn’t all that good as a guide. 
“Where’s Margaret?” asked Simon. 
“Here,” said Margaret, behind him, and he jumped.  She laughed. 
“Where’s Malcolm?” asked Charlie. 
“I’m here,” piped up Malcolm, from inside a nearby thornbush. 
“Where’s Charlie?” asked Simon of Margaret, and realized she wasn’t there anymore.  Nor was anyone else. 
“Hello?” asked Simon.  No one answered.
“Hello?” asked Simon, voice wobbling.  No one answered, and he heard something move. 
Simon ran, and strong hands grabbed him, grasps rougher than any rope coiling around him and wrapping his arms and kicking feet tight.  There was a smell of tobacco and sweat and old, unwashed clothing, and the strange, gurgling chuckle that he’d never heard before was as good as a signed autograph: Devon. 
He was dragged away at impossible speed, long pale legs lurching through the slush that was left of the year’s snow like a spider’s.  Up and up they went, Devon’s feet scaling slopes that took minutes to scramble up in less than seconds, and with a thud and a cough Simon was dropped down to the little patch of dirt that was the clearing on top of the Big Hill.  A hand fell upon him right away, yanked him tight to his feet and to Devon’s side.  Something nasty and sharp glinted in its knuckle, held with loving threat near to him as the hand waited. 
“Got yours then?” called out a familiar voice, rough with excitement and malice.  Russell Petey struggled up over the edge of the ledge, wrestling with a wriggling, bucking bundle that Simon recognized from the coat must be Charlie.  Russell flung him to the ground with a curse and kicked him in the ribs, only furthering his resolve. 
“Nasty little bugger, he is.  Bit me hard and clean here on the wrist.  Should take some of his teeth out for that, but no time, no time!  We’ve got a meeting to arrange, some deals to strike!”  Russell glared about him, staring out over the forest beneath and the sky above with blinded eyes.  “Come out, come out, you old bastard!  Where are you at?  We’ve got something you should see right here, someone you should meet!”
“Here,” said Old Man Moss. 
Russell nearly jumped out of his skin, and Simon felt Devon start a little, the metal in his hand dipping uncomfortably near to his neck before the hand recovered.  Old Man Moss stood at his stump, his seating-place, all but invisible.  He looked as near to be a part of it as anything, face unreadable and immovable in the dark.
“Right, yes you are,” grinned Russell.  It was fake, but it was an effort, a recovery.  There was a strain underneath there, a tension years in the building that was all winding up to now, to snap or release, no other choices.  “Yes you are, you are.  And you’re going to give now, you are.  We’ve got your pets, you’ve got your tricks.  Which do you think is faster, eh?  Your throat or our hands?  You’ll do as you’re told or I don’t need to tell you what’s going to happen.”
Old Man Moss made that noise he made, that same sound he’d warned off Simon and Charlie with so many times.  “Hrrrmph.”  There was something different there now.  “Do what?”
Russell waved his arms to either side, trying to grab something bigger than he was.  “Make me – make us rich.  Pucker your withered old lips and whistle us in some gold, some silver!  Whistle us away to a plot of fine land!  Bring me wealth, you crazy old sheep-curer!  I asked you nice, and I asked you sweet, and you told me down like all the rest did!”  Russell’s face was torn between exultation at a long-awaited moment and fury at held-back slights.  “All the same!  Even you, out here in your damned woods, living like a beggar!  Why look down on me, eh?  I’m better than you!  I deserve this!  I deserve to leave here forever and never have to see one of those damned bumpkins look down their noses at me again.  All the gold and silver and, and land I can carry and more!  Give me what I deserve!” 
Old Man Moss turned his head in the night, this way and that, little crooks that reminded Simon and Charlie of an owl.  “Yes,” he said.  “But put them down first.”
Devon hesitated, but at a nod from Russell slowly, reluctantly released his prize.  Simon and Charlie lay on the ground, but held fast still, forced down with boots on their backs. 
“No one’s going anywhere ‘till I get what’s mine,” said Russell.  “’Till we get what’s ours.”  Simon felt Devon’s boot twitch at that, right through to his spine, and he couldn’t stop himself from shivering.  He didn’t want to think about Devon getting anything he wanted. 
“Hrrrrrrrrmm,” repeated Old Man Moss, and Charlie, who’d learned the whistles with careful ears, heard that difference there for what it was.  A growl, a low rumble. 
And then Old Man Moss began to do something strange.  He tilted his head back, back, up, straight up at the skies and the light from above in the inky black.  His mouth gaped open, wide open, so wide even the beard couldn’t hide it, so broad it barely seemed human.  His tongue protruded, his teeth clenched, his eyes rolled and gleamed in the starlight, and a strange sound that wasn’t there leaked out from him, roiling over the hilltop and across the ether.  Strange bones jumped in both the boy’s bodies, resonating to rhythms unheard by ears, and there, at the midst of the highest, hardest note of that unhearable tune, Devon slammed his hands over his ears and shrieked in a voice that was barely there, unable to bear the sound any longer.  Russell was a moment ahead of him, flailing his injured head, clutching at it. 
“Scat!” called Old Man Moss, and the spell was broken.  Feet scrambled under themselves as Charlie and Simon bolted for the edge, tumbling headfirst down slopes half-remembered and bruising themselves on forgotten rocks.  Above them, Russell was yelling something, but it was all lost in the roar from above, the great, earth-shattering boom that rattled their grips out from underneath themselves and sent them rolling the rest of the way to the bottom, where they chanced to look up. 
Big Hill was on quiet fire, its top asmoulder, its sides strewn with broken earth.  The air was quiet.  There were no voices.  There was no sound. 

“Meteor,” judged Simon’s uncle, as they all gathered round the peak of the hill the next day.  “One of the shooting stars brought down to earth.”  No one said anything about Russell, or about Devon.  Simon and Charlie’s tall tales were just wild enough to believe for once, especially with the absence of the farmer and his hand. 
Everything wants to move, thought the children.  And they all held hands just a little tighter than before. 
Charlie’s father looked around.  The peak of the Big Hill was a mess – stump shattered, bushes charred away, grasses and dirt and stone pummelled into a dent, a shiner that would do any prizefighter proud.  “We haven’t found anyone,” he declared. 
The village nodded.
“It’ll stay that way,” he said.  “But that doesn’t mean they’re all gone.  All three.  Well, maybe just the one.”
The village agreed. 
“I think,” said Charlie’s father, “that we ought to leave well enough alone.  And maybe he’ll do the same for us.”

“Still,” he said to Charlie as they all walked home very quietly, “best do as your mother asks and keep practicing those tunes.  Just to be safe.”

“Clear as a Whistle,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010.

Storytime: The Life Arboreal.

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

There was a storm.  It wasn’t a particularly big one, nor a notably blustery one, and its rain was of average intensity, volume, and general wetness.  It was in all respects an ordinary and most mediocre storm, which is not an altogether bad thing.  The world needs its middling storms, just as it requires its moderately sloping cliff faces, halfhearted scrublands, and disappointingly tepid public speakers.

It did, however, have an unexpected side effect.  A tree fell in a forest, and no one was there to hear it.  Well, half a tree fell.  The other half remained unfallen, and most irked.

“Damnit!” said the tree.  It then spoke several more words, all of which were unspeakable – quite a mean feat by anyone, particularly an individual that was never blessed with a mouth, tongue, or respiratory system.  All, alas, wasted on its audience of no one.

The broken tree glared at the forest around it.  So many of its weedier, limper, half-hearted colleagues still stood with as much feeble firmness as they could muster, while the tree itself – as vigorous, proud specimen and citizen of phylum — as could be found, in its (exceedingly!) humble opinion – had limply given up half its total mast height without so much as a hold-on-there-bucko.

“This,” the broken tree said, deliberately and menacingly, its roots curling, “is most annoying.  I shall fix it at once.”  And then it leaned over and tried very carefully to pick up its fallen half.  It failed.

The broken tree spoke more unspeakable words, which attracted the attention of the birch next to it.  “Pardon me,” it inquired, “but you seem to have dropped something.  Will you be all right?”

“No,” said the tree shortly.  Doubly shortly.  “I cannot mend myself, and I point-blank refuse to regrow the whole nine-and-three-quarters-yards!  That’s how many years wasted?  Sap’s flowing here, I don’t have the time to throw away!  The whole place’ll be old-growth and I’ll be a seedling still if I faff about with that nonsense!”

“You could ask an arborist,” volunteered the birch.

“No thanks.  As much as I’d gloat over seeing some of these louts regrow from ground zero, I don’t fancy sitting through a fire much myself.”

“An arborist,” the birch enunciated most carefully.  “A sort of tree-doctor.  They can fix anything from bark beetles to leaf-blight.”
“Are you sure?” asked the broken tree, dubiousness exuding from its every twig.

“Positive,” said the birch, who wasn’t.  Its source was decidedly second-hand.  Squirrel-handed, to be precise.  Still, they were usually somewhat correct about thirty to ten percent of the time.

“Then I will see about getting to one of these arborist,” declared the broken tree.  “Where do they live?”
“The city?” volunteered the birch.

“That seems counterproductive of them.  I will set out at once!” said the broken tree, and then it did nothing.

“Blast,” it said.  Roots are much more difficult to remember than you’d think.  “Plan the second then,” it decided, and it whistled sharply, attracting the attention of a passing man.

“Excuse me, man,” said the broken tree, “but I am in dire need of transportation.  Would you mind cutting me loose from my roots?”

“Sure,” said the man.  When you lived in a forest, it paid to be polite to trees.  He walked home, took out his big axe, walked back, and had the whole tree down and chopped before you could correctly spell onomatopoeia.

“Thank you,” said the tree.  And then it failed to move some more.  “Damnation.”

“I could put you up at my place for a while,” volunteered the man.  “Besides, I could use the wood.”
“I suppose I could spare a little,” agreed the tree.  “But NO firewood.  I haven’t seen any of my tiniest twigs used for so much as tinder, and I won’t go farther.  I won’t, won’t, won’t.”

“Sure thing,” said the man.  He hauled the tree back to his house and put it in the woodshed.

“A bit stuffy in here,” the tree complained.
“Shove off you daft twit,” snapped the cordwood.  Their relationship grew no more civil for all the nights they spent cooped up together, and the broken tree came to look forward to those nights that the man grew cold and lit fires.

“I could use a bit of whittling to fret away some evenings,” said the man in November.
“Fine, fine… but mind you don’t take too big a piece,” the tree grumped.

“A little piece off the trunk for a new seat on my stool wouldn’t be too bold, would it?” he inquired in December.

“It would be, but I will allow it nonetheless,” decreed the tree.

“My chest has broken!  I need somewhere to place my things!” was the cry in January.

“Careless!  Spendthrift!  My wood will never break, but be more careful, you reckless fop!”

And so it went on, all through winter and into spring, and it wasn’t until mid-March when the last bit of cordwood had been burnt up (to the tree’s immense satisfaction) that the tree said “Hang on a second… I must be off to the arborist!  Man, I am in dire need of transportation!  Quickly now, before I am all used up!”

“Well, now, there’s no need to be in such a hurry,” said the man.  That trunk was mighty sturdy, and his stool had never been so comfortable.  He was in very little rush to move the tree anywhere.

“I demand movement!” roared the broken tree.

“No rush, don’t worry, it’ll come soon enough, soon enough, as sure and soon as the spring rains die down and the rivers are passable” soothed the man.  He made many fine placating speeches and proverbs, which affected the tree not one whit.  It had the most unpleasant sensation that it had acquired a new set of roots, except these ones opted to forgo extracting nutrients from fertilizer and were made entirely of it.

Time passed and the man stalled, and in late spring his friends came down.  The maple syrup run was on, and they were gathering pails and boiling sap.  A gruesome sight indeed for any tree.  But yet the mob brought hope to the broken tree alone in its woodshed as it heard them chatter and yowl indoors after dark.  Perhaps it could entice help from one of the strange men.

“Psst,” it whispered to a big bulky man as he relieved his bladder against a nigh-bloodless maple three yards away.  “Consider bringing home some magnificent wood?”

“I’ve got that right here,” slurred the man, and he hooted so loudly that he nearly fell over.  The tree thought nasty things at his back as he reentered the house.

“You look a discerning sort,” it praised the second man to saunter outdoors for a leak, a stocky, shortish, bearded bloke.  “Would you care for some fine, aged timber?”

He appraised the tree with a critical eye, nose, and beard.  “Pah!  Barely fit for termites,” he sniffed, and left the door swinging before the tree could come out of its shock long enough to insult his parentage.

The third man kicked his way out of the house, stomped down to the woodshed, and urinated with such vicious force that he cut leaves from stems.

“I’ve HAD IT with that dimwit!” he snarled into the forest at large.

“So have I!” agreed the tree.  It was prepared to classify any and all of the men it had met as the dimwit in question.  “Take me with you!”
The angry man squinted at the tree in the dark.  “You Charlie’s?”
“Most likely.”  The tree had never bothered to learn the man’s name.

“It’d piss him off?”
“Definitely,” said the tree.

“Hell yes!” said the angry man, and he wrestled the broken tree away and into the night before it could egg him on any further.

“I have an urgent appointment with an arborist,” explained the tree to the angry man as they hurried along through the night.

“And I have a project I have to finish by the day after tomorrow,” said the angry man.  “I think this will help both of us.”

“What?” said the tree, but before it could get a straight answer it found itself raced through a sawmill, made into planks, and shoved into a strange, half-tubeish form.

“This is terrible!” yelled the tree.  “How am I supposed to see the arborist now!?”

“It’s a canoe,” said the angry man.  “And you’re going to head somewhere, all right.”
“What?” said the tree again, but once more its answer had to wait, as it was violently tossed into some water and had things piled in it.  Another man in fancy clothes handed the angry man a bunch of shiny bits of metal and then it was away down the river.

“Who the hell are you?” demanded the tree.

The fancy man looked startled.  “Goodness me, a talking canoe.  I must have had a few too many nips from the bottle last night.”

“You aren’t from around here, are you?” asked the tree.  ‘Ignorant swine.”
“My goodness me,” said the man, and his surprise and shock was so great that he quite failed to notice the rapids coming up.  The tree was drifting downstream empty and upside down before five minutes time had passed.
“Men,” it said underwater, “are growing irksome.”  And then a man pulled it out of the water.

“Here boys, a replacement canoe already!” he hollered at his friends.  They were even burlier and hootier than the friends of the first man the tree had met.

“I happen,” said the tree, “to be looking for an arborist.”

“Never met ‘im,” dismissed the man, and he had the tree caulked, sealed, thumped in approval, and shoved back into the water with four men and their supplies onboard before it could so much as sputter indignantly.  It was reduced to choking out swearwords between stretches of white water all the way downstream, for miles and miles and miles.  Then thump-bump, into a dock, splash, thud, off with the clutter, heave-ho, into a shed.  Not a woodshed, but a shed.

“I happen,” the tree said to the man shutting the doors on it, “to be looking for an arborist.”

The man paused.  “That one of them firebugs?”

Arborist,” clarified the tree.

“Never met ‘im,” said the man, and he shut the door on the tree.  It seethed all winter, and come spring it was on with the loads again, on with the loud men, and down, down, down the rivers and streams, on backs and off again, until it ended up – to its greatest surprise – to be in the city.

“An arborist!  An arborist!  My kingdom for an arborist!” cried the tree across the streets as it was hoisted into a warehouse.  Its calls fell on deaf, ignorant, and uncaring ears.

“You talk too much,” complained the man, and locked it away, solving that problem for a hundred years and a bit as the trading company went bankrupt the next Thursday.

A hundred years later, there was a click-clack and off came the door’s lock.  “Huh,” said the construction worker.  “A bunch of old canoes.”
“I am a tree and I am very, very, very bored,” came the reply, leaden with staid despair as few can produce it.

“Oh,” said the worker.  “My apologies.  Hey, the museum should get a load of this.”
“Wait, what?” said the tree, but the worker was talking into his small squawky metal thing and didn’t pay it any attention.

Some other men came to take it away.

“Are any of you arborists?” it asked as it was heaved with great care into a noisy, cement-y street.

“Naw,” answered the foreman.


The tree was put in a large glass case in a large stone building with a small plastic plaque with smaller micro-bits of information on it, mostly concerning voyageurs and the beaver fur trade.

“Are you an arborist?” it demanded of the first (and rather small) man that came across it.

He picked his nose and ate it.  “Mommy, I bored,” he announced, and waddled away before being scooped up by his grudging parent.
The tree did not like the start to its search.

“Are you an arborist?” it asked a man who looked to have seen much in the world.

“Janitor,” he responded curtly.  “I don’t talk to displays.”  And he didn’t ever again, threaten however the tree might.
“Are you?” it asked a bearded, rounded man.

“I am,” the man replied grandly, “freshly unemployed.  And newly single.  And very, very, very, alone.”  And then he burst into hysterical sobbing laughter that lasted until the guards led him away.

“Are you?” it inquired of a man with a face like a terrified gargoyle.

“Elementary school teacher,” came the strained response.  He tottered away, surrounded by his horde of manlings, waving futilely at them.  For a brief moment, the tree knew pity for something other than itself.

“Are you?”

The man blinked several times over.  He was unbearded, untall, unshort, unfat, unthin, and altogether unremarkable.  “Yes.”

“I am an arborist.  Why do you ask?”
“An arborist, yes?  Not the other one?  The one with matches?”

“No.  I am indeed an arborist.”
“Well,” said the broken tree, “you took your time!  I have half a trunk missing and I demand that you fix it!”
The arborist examined the canoe.  “You seem to be a bit past worrying about that,” he mentioned.

“Pish tosh!  Are you a proper arborist or aren’t you?  Bark beetles to leaf blight to missing half my trunk, you can and will fix this!”

“Where’s the other half?”
“It’s…” and the tree tried to remember.  “It’s the one next to the birch.  Yes, that was it.  Or maybe it was a sycamore.”
“Hmm.  When did you lose it?”

“A hundred and three years ago, or somesuch,” guessed the tree.  “Well, maybe a hundred and fifty three.  Or maybe not.  Does it matter?”

“Mm,” said the arborist.  “Say, do you like being a canoe?”
“I am a tree,” said the tree testily.
“Right.   Listen, I’ve got an idea.”

The arborist went and got the curator.

“Can you sell it?” he asked.
The curator stroked his thin, hideous beard gently.  “Yeesss….I suppose so.  There were several dozen in the storage room at the time.  Several are in comparable condition.”

“Then you can replace it?”

“I am irreplaceable,” the tree declared proudly.
“Deal,” said the curator.  “It’s disturbing visitors anyways.”  He took some shiny bits of paper from the arborist and helped him load the tree into his pickup truck.

“Where are we going?” asked the tree.

“A place I know,” said the arborist.

Before too long, they were in a big building filled with paper.  There was a large and intimidating-looking machine filled with metal teeth, and the arborist took the tree to it.

“You’re sure this will work?” asked the tree.  There were an awful LOT of teeth.

“Positive,” said the arborist, and he dropped it in.  A tremendous amount of shredding, screaming, pulping, pain, cursing, squashing, flattening, fuming, sheeting, and screeching happened.  The tree came out in a lot more pieces than it had went in, all flat, white, and in a neat stack, which was scooped up by the arborist.

“This,” said the tree, “is not helping one bit.”

“Relax,” said the arborist, as they pulled in at a big brick building.  “I’ve got just the people to solve it.”

The nervous, terrified gargoyle-man met them, and he and the arborist talked.

“It’s a big project,” said the man.

“They can handle it,” said the arborist.  The tree was brought into a room.  A hundred gibbering manling faces stared at it, in varying states of drool and phlegm-expulsion.

“Turn around at once,” commanded the tree.  Those glassy eyes, combined with the bowl of gunk it was approaching, gave it no small pause.

“Don’t worry,” said the arborist.  He swerved away from the bowl, filling the tree with deep relief, and dumped it in another machine filled with metal teeth.  They were much smaller, but just as pointy.  The tree called him things that made the classroom gasp and ooh as it emerged from the shredder’s maw, and then was stifled by the goop.

“Go for it,” decreed the arborist, and the tree was set up and crudely slapped around a skinny metal frame through long, painful hours of maddened giggling.  Paint slopped over it, brown and green.

“This –” said the tree as a brush interrupted it.

“Why –” it began, only to have a careless handprint splotch beige against its features.

“You are –” it managed, and almost fell over as a manling shoved another one into its base, nearly toppling it.

“THIS IS NOT HELPING!” it yelled as loud as it could, as the arborist gently steered it back upright.
“You’re done,” he said, and held up a mirror.  And much to the tree’s shock and surprise, it was.

“Paper-mache,” explained the arborist as it examined its small, crudely-painted leaves and knobbly trunk.  “I made the frame myself, so you’re not missing any important bits.  And you’ve got that trunk back, all in one piece.  Like it?”

The tree considered its options.
“Yes, well, it will suffice,” it managed.

“Good,” said the arborist, and turned to leave the classroom.
“Tell me,” said the tree, making him pause in the doorframe, “do you solve all your clients’ problems this way?”

The arborist chose his next words carefully.  “Just the special ones.”
“Right,” said the tree, vaguely satisfied.  At least it had a professional’s opinion.
All the same, it wasn’t sure it would pass on any recommendations.

“The Life Arboreal” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Research Project

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Dave was always a tidy guy.  Everything in its place, and a place for everything, that was how he worked.  Which made the way he killed himself really weird.  Blood everywhere, on everything.  He would’ve been livid.
What I should’ve done next was call the cops.  Then I could’ve figured out what the hell he was looking at – “major breakthrough!” and all.
And I did just that.  Sort of.  But I decided to look through what he was reading after the 911 call.  You know, inform the police, right?  Be helpful.  Besides, it was clearly a suicide – how many people were murdered by holding up a butter knife and stabbing themselves in the neck? – so no chance they’d miss fingerprints from a killer if he didn’t exist.  This way I could tell them exactly what my roomie had been going over when he departed this vale of tears mortal coil etcetera etcetera etcetera.
Besides, I was curious.  He’d been obsessing over this project for months.  Research, research, research, and not a drop of information as to what.  No hints, if, ands, or buts, just slammed doors and covered papers and “you’ll see it when it’s ready”s.  A guy can be excused for a little curiosity under those circumstances, right?
So I reached gingerly around his neck and yanked away the papers he’d been looking at.  Straight away, I knew this was a long way from a thesis yet.  Maybe he’d realized it never would be and had done himself in?  Didn’t sound right.
Page one was a bunch of scribbled and illegible notes as to the tone and content of an introduction.  None of it made any sense.
Page two was where it started to get clearer, if not more interesting.  Senseless and weird, but interesting.  A long-winded and badly-written treatise on the superstitions and beliefs of some demi-obscure northern European peoples during the dark ages.  Tedious and not fully edited, but a decent leadin to page three, which was a hodge-podge of facts and myths about an axe some king used for a while.  A very short while.  On the very first battle he used it in, he’d gone mad, decapitated twenty men, eight of which had been enemies, and then been stabbed to death over forty exhausting minutes.  The axe was taken by the king opposing him, who successfully managed to top his score four battles later, when he murdered his entire command staff during a strategic session.
Page four.  The axe claimed two more important people before it was deemed cursed – a very right and proper superstition, I’d say – and given to a blacksmith to be melted down and discarded.  Good quality metal, though, as one of Dave’s notes eagerly attested, so the last instruction, he hypothesized, had been ignored.  So the big, fancy suit of plate armour that came out of the blacksmith’s shop a few months later might’ve contained a little crazy-axe.  Who’d know?  Well, no one did, although the man in the armour was probably puzzled some weeks later when it shattered spectacularly during a practice bout, grievously wounding him and sending a jagged piece of metal into his sparring partner’s eye.  Seeing that the deceased man was his brother-in-law and a quite important man in his own right, this led to a very jolly series of events involving a whole bunch more dead nobility.  The armour was deemed unsound and smelted down.  But it was such a waste of good metal, so….
I skimmed ahead.  More reforgings, more gruesome deaths.  A rapier that left an unsettling streak of mutual-mortality duels before someone got skittish and hocked it.  A zweihander – that one had an impressive kill count indeed before its wielder went down, probably because he was an armed and armoured lord overseeing a peasant battalion.
Then things got really strange.  Four pages with no more examples, just ramblings, theorizing, and speculation on the reliability of the evidence.  Followed by assurances of more proof.
I glanced uneasily at Dave’s body.  This wasn’t the sort of thing that healthy people did, and what I was reading sounded like one of those really bad sci-fi movies made with 85% CG and 15% story, but there were an awful lot of sources marked down here.  Some of the names I’d even heard of, big ones.  But squirreled away in odd notes, margins, other things.  Nothing obvious.
Past the semi-delusional justifications, there was more.  A long drought, and then a pistol that exploded in someone’s hand when fired.  A shame to waste something so expensive, so it was taken back, repaired, and exploded during the test shot the smith made in front of the customer to demonstrate its renewed soundness, killing both of them with bits of hurtling metal and wood.
Firearms were the trend for a while, mostly small pistols, occasionally rifles, but almost always finely-made.  Officer’s stuff.  Whatever Dave was tracking never seemed to end up in the hands of grunts, people whose property wouldn’t be important enough to reuse later, or might be lost unclaimed on a battlefield.  No one who’d break the chain of hand-me-downs for long.  There was a skewing from the military trend for a short period – the busiest guillotine in Paris for a year and a month, a razor with an uncanny thirst for the throats of gentlemen.
More digressions.  I glanced at Dave again as I skimmed over the research.  Still no hint as to why he’d done it.  Maybe the last page would have a cited source that made the entire thing make no sense whatsoever and he’d offed himself in the shame of wasting almost a year on it.
A few rifles used by crack snipers, ones that never died on the field but tended to have unfortunate accidents back on shore leave, where their weapons would be claimed by others easily and quickly.  The prototype for the first gatling gun was on its menu.  There was a fun surprise.  One of Custer’s pistols at Little Big Horn.  A World War I-era dreadnought, which fired four times in its career.  The first three shots sank one enemy ship each.  Then they brought it back, tooled it up for repairs, fired a practice volley, and its magazine blew.  All hands went down less than a few hundred feet from shore, and the ship was scrapped.
There was a tank in Germany during the last, nasty fights near Berlin.  Massacred four or five separate squads at once from cover, then took out a bunch of its own soldiers sheltering near it when it blew.  Dave had scrawled a small note here questioning whether the tank’s crew’s bodies had been found.  Or if they’d existed.
And after that, it got hazy.  There was a train somewhere in France that went off the rails, but most of the rest were just examples of AK-47s and such that got swapped around and had misfirings.  Very bland, and some of them were definitely stretches.  I started to realize why Dave might have decided this was a waste of time…except, he’d said he had a breakthrough.
Then I hit the last page, which commented on a story from last year about a state official’s car blowing its engine and swerving off a bridge (no survivors, naturally), and found a little note about its remains being sold to Home Steel.  The rest was all blood spatter from Dave, who’d really made a mess of his jugular.  Awful stuff.
I pulled out my Blackberry – noting as I did that Dave had done the same thing, somewhat worryingly, although his was coated in a thin layer of his bodily fluids – and checked.  Home Steel produced stainless-steel household items, including a full line of silverware.
My head very slowly moved upwards to examine Dave again.  The knife still had butter on it.  It looked entirely innocent.
I turned off my Blackberry, put it in my pocket, reached for Dave’s notes, decided against it, and ran like bejeezus; sprinting through the kitchen, vaulting the living room couch, and slamming the front door behind me with enough force to set off the small, stupid dog of the lady down the hall.  Something very small smacked into the wood against my back, making the whole frame quiver.
I waited for my pulse to drop a little, and heard nothing further.
“A garbage dump,” I said aloud.  “One of the really old-style bad ones.  One of the ones where they aren’t even ever going to try to recycle anything, because it’s probably been breeding down there and building cities.”  It was either that or the Marianas Trench, and I doubted I could get there on a student’s cash supply, let alone quickly enough for it not to find a way to shank me.
Ah, there were the cops.  I hoped I could get them to read the papers before they confiscated the knife as evidence.  Things could get messy otherwise.

“Research Paper,” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Transparency.

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

In a great walled city lived a glassblower and his wife, Sara.  He was overworked and she was overdue, and so when the baby came at last both were in a position of considerable stress.  She was in the back of the shop gathering supplies when the pains came, and there was no time to move her, barely time for the glassblower to shove out his customers and run to her side.  By the time the midwife arrived, huffing and puffing and blowing, the birth was nearly through – a fast, hard, sharp one – and it was all too late. 
The baby was weak, the mother was weaker, and wasting fast.  “Let me hold him,” she told her husband, and well, what could he do but agree, even if he’d known the consequences?
So the new mother held her baby, back and forth, shush-shush, don’t cry (he wouldn’t stop), and she listened to him most carefully.  And she saw what the midwife (who had already left, knowing there was nothing in her power to fix here) had missed.  “His heart is weak,” she said.  “Too weak.  He’ll barely outlive me with that heart.”  The glassblower nearly went into a frenzy at that, mad at the thought of losing wife and child both, but Sara was as calm as a lake on a breezeless day.  Her mother had been a witch, her father, a butcher, and between the both of them she wasn’t frightened of anything anymore, not even now.  She didn’t see her death, she saw a problem. 
“We can fix this,” she told the glassblower, sitting propped up in their bed, small but strong-voiced, “but we need a heart.  Can you make one?”
“How?” he asked. 
“Like anything else you make.  Carefully.  Perfectly.  Quickly.  Very, very quickly, if you can.”
“But it’s glass!  Hearts aren’t glass!”
“This one will have to be.  Hurry.”
So the glassblower hurried.  Unlike his wife, he was frightened of many things, and the thing he feared greatest was happening right in front of him.  And as her lack of fear gave her strength, so his terror lent him wings; the heart was finished almost before it began, glowing-hot and perfect, smooth and clearer than a raindrop.  It looked tidier than a heart of flesh, more polished, more perfect.  But it couldn’t beat, and the glassblower didn’t understand why it needed to be made. 
“Please,” he said.  “What will happen?”
“I’ll give him all the love he’ll need.  It’ll have to be enough.  Now, go,” said Sara.  “And don’t come back in until you hear him stop crying.”
It took almost an hour and all of the glassblower’s nails.  And when he entered the bedroom again, he found a softly sleeping baby with a pale pink scar on its chest and no trace of that awful little swish-slosh heartbeat that had warned his wife so.  A very quiet heartbeat now, but a very firm one. 
She was gone, without so much as the warmth left in the sheets to tell that she’d been there. 

The years went by for the glassblower and his son, one growing up, the other wearing down.  The glassblower’s business still kept them fed and housed, but something had gone out of his craft the day his wife had gone.  His pieces no longer gleamed so prettily, his hands were unsteadier on the blowpipe.  The latter was helped along by his drinking, which although never heavy, was near-constant.  The glassblower couldn’t face a day perfectly sober anymore. 
Fortunately, the glassblower’s son was not a demanding child.  He almost thrived off of what may not have been neglect but certainly was grand inattention, growing up raised by the cobbles of the city’s streets as much as his father.  He was strong and broad, in many ways almost a throwback to his grandfather of his mother’s side (yet less heavy, with more of his father’s leanness), but he refused to take part in the popular neighbourhood pastime of quarrelling and fighting that his peers exulted in, something he was taunted and occasionally chased for. 
The real trouble came when he was eight.  As he walked down the street, he saw a girl around his age, one of the neighbour’s children, sitting on the stoop to her house.  She was singing a song he didn’t recognize or care about, and she was doing something peculiar with a cloth and a glittering thing in her hands. 
“What is that?” he asked her. 
She followed his gaze.  “A needle.”
“No,” he clarified.  “What are you doing?”
“Sewing.  What do you care?”
The glassblower’s son cared deeply, though he wasn’t sure why yet.  “Can you teach me?” he asked. 
The girl, whose name was Abigail, gave him a strange look, and for a moment the glassblower’s son was sure she would reject him.  But instead she nodded, picked up needle and thread again, and began to show him.  Both captivated him: one so small and delicate-seeming, yet strong as anything when placed perfectly, the other a deliberate sliver of sharpness in a blunt, clumsy world.  The feel of the careful, repetitive stabbing demanded from it, each slipping of needle in cloth, was soothing. 
After two weeks of this, one of the other boys of the street saw him practicing with Abigail, and he was ambushed on his way home, with taunting and worse.  The other girls made fun of her, her parents admonished her for playing with “that rough boy,” and his lessons and time with her ended. 
He didn’t seem to mind on the surface, but he remembered, and he would see to it that the torment was returned, very carefully.  Things were broken around the victims that only they could have damaged, bringing parental wrath upon them; their pets would disappear; and sometimes worse.  Repayment for his opponents was slow, but always sure.  By the time he was fifteen, the last of them repaid it to the very end of his life, and had to be delicately placed somewhere unseen after dark.  The glassblower’s son dug dutifully, as deep a hole as could be made in a broken old cellar, and he buried with care and thoroughness. 
His father knew none of this, of course.  The boy spoke little, and at home he busied himself in aiding the glassblower with orders.  He as diligent in this as he was in covering his trail, which, by the time he’d reached the age of eighteen, he’d done three more times. 

Just past his son’s nineteenth birthday, the glassblower began to pull himself together under the wing of one of the neighbours, the widow Lynn.  They were both lonely, and for her sake, he stopped drinking for a while. 
The widow’s son did not like the glassblower’s son.  Fresh as he was to the city guard, he was already showing signs of a lawholder’s instincts, and didn’t like the other youth’s feel.  The glassblower’s son disliked him as well, for more reasons than personality: there were things he wanted that could not be done with two more people working in and about the store. 
One day, the widow Lynn failed to rise from her bed.  It seemed she had confused several boxes of herbs and managed to give herself a fatal dose of wolfsbane in her evening tea.  Forgetfulness was one of her few flaws, and although tragic, the event was accepted as it was.  Her son sold the house and hurled himself headfirst into work to erase all thought, the glassblower turned back to drink, and the glassblower’s son continued to plan for the future. 

When the glassblower’s son was twenty-one, a rich man entered the shop.  He was surprised at the daze and glare that hung over the glassblower’s head like a shroud – the pieces the place produced were still so fine, too fine to be made by this walking, wasting malady.  His eyes barely brightened at the mention of the piece, a fine vase to be gifted to a noble of the king’s court, but he nodded and mumbled small talk as well as could be expected.  The rich man left no less puzzled, and a little worried for his commissioned piece. 
When he returned for it, he found the glassblower’s son running the shop.  He was calm, polite, and courteous.  The parcel was dutifully handed over, its contents as promised, and when the rich man opened it later for proper packaging, he found that a small and elegant dish had been placed within it, a small note informing him that the glassblower’s soon had produced earlier during the day, and hoped it was not insulting to give it to him with the rest of the order. 
The noble was delighted with both the gifts, and a recommendation was made.  The glassblower was puzzled as to where the wealthier clients were coming back from, but he wasn’t displeased.  He began to spend more of his time in the workshop, as his son handled the customers. 

When the glassblower’s son was twenty-five, his father (who had been drying out more and more again since their fortunes began to turn), in a moment of surprising chance, found where he’d been hiding over half their profits.  He confronted his son, as angry as he was bemused, and for the first time in his life he demanded things directly of him. 
The glass needle was very cold, and very brittle, and very thin.  The slightest misplacement of its aim would’ve snapped it to pieces.  But the glassblower’s son was very careful, and the small, quiet funeral to commemorate the unfortunate heart attack (what sort of attack was left unsaid) went ahead as steadily as the blade itself had. 
The son conducted himself most composedly on the occasion, which was attended by many of their best clients.  They remarked on his bravery, and did not fear for their custom.  Even the widow Lynn’s son, now a captain in the city guard, gave him his sympathies – although he detested the son, he had liked the father when he was sober.  He took the words of condolence and approval as he did all else. 

The glasswork was better than ever, and the clients grew both more numerous and richer.  For the former he hired apprentices, and for the latter he saved now his own two hands and personal attention, which became all the more acclaimed for its rarity.  He remained a quiet conversationalist, but an excellent listener.  He developed a reputation for discreteness in all things, and many a nobleman poured their troubles into his willing ears.  And then one day, listening to a viscount complain of a brother-in-law who was blackmailing him for a little indiscretion – so little, and after all, the man’s sister was so ugly, how could he be blamed for it? – he mentioned that he might know a man who could solve problems of that sort, for some manner of a fee.  Details were scarce, but the man with the glass heart’s word was as good as gold, and the viscount was more than willing to open his purse for it. 
That night, he went out on the town.  He took another long, thing glass needle with him, the finest he could make.  And the next morning, the viscount’s troublesome brother-in-law was discovered to have succumbed in the night to some unknown malady.  His heart had given out. 
The viscount was pleased, and word of mouth took over once again, spreading tales of something in even more demand than fine glasswork.  Clients came, shared tales of their troubles, and the man with the glass heart told them if he thought he knew a man that could solve them.  And they rested their heads in peace, for as they all knew, the man with the glass heart was nothing if not discreet.  Both his careers prospered, and he went about them both as he was expected to. 

The man with the glass heart was careful, nearly invisible, and he took only the jobs that he was certain would go unnoticed, but still, the patterns were noted by those on high.  Assassins and poisons were the tools of the upper class, and though his methods of killing were nigh-undetectable, the means were easily guessed at. 
The panic was subtle, muted.  It was Not Done to be fearful, overt wariness was a sign of weakness.  The nobility remained defiantly devoted to excess, cheer, and power games, and the man with the glass heart was invited deeper into the fold every day.  He owned a grand workshop, accounted all the finest among his clientele, and was invited to parties, where he was respected – if not lively – and gave short, sage advice to those who needed it.  And maybe a quiet word or two of recommendation as to who might need to be silenced.  His influence grew, his renown swelled, he began to think of how to replace the duke without causing a stir. 
And then, five years from his father’s death, at a celebration of the birthday of the duke’s youngest daughter, the man with the glass heart glanced at something over the shoulder of a particularly dull and vengeful conversation partner, and blinked four times in a row without realizing it.  His chest felt strange, tense, brittle. 
There was a woman standing on the sidelines, speaking with the duchess.  She was pretty, as many of the women at any of these dreary events always were.  The man with the glass heart didn’t notice them.  But he noticed her.  In fact, he noticed her so clearly that he quite lost the thread of what his client was saying, and realized that he was staring at him in total puzzlement. 
Now, what the man with the glass heart should’ve done, would’ve done at any other place and time, would have been to make an observation on the information he’d been given that clearly gave an impressive signal to the client that he had indeed been paying attention and in fact already seemed to know more than he did.  Instead, he pointed at the woman at the fireplace, and asked who she was. 
“Some commoner, someone’s fiancée,” the client said irritably.  “Not a clue.  Now, about my problem…” but his problem could wait and this couldn’t, and he found himself adrift as the man with the glass heart walked over to ask the woman to dance. 
He had no knowledge of it, but was a fast learner, putting as much care and balance as he dropped into a vase for the duke, or the removal of a nobleman. 
“Abigail,” he asked as the annoying music passed unheard, “what are you doing here?”
She laughed a little.  “Teaching the birthday girl to sew, mostly.  I’m her maid.”
The man with the glass heart knew the duke’s daughter.  “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s not all that bad.  You just have to manage her moods, and it did lead me to my husband – oh look, here he is, here he is!”
The man with the glass heart turned about, and shook hands, and the introductions weren’t needed, for here was the widow Lynn’s son, now commander of the city watch.  And somewhere in the back of those deep-set eyes, something was glaring out at him, recognizing him. 
“You two know each other?” he asked. 
“I taught him to sew,” said Abigail.  “Never got very far, poor thing – all the neighbourhood boys made fun of him, and my parents forbid it once my friends told them.”
“Useful skill,” said the commander of the city watch.  “No shame in it.  Honest work.”
The man with the glass heart didn’t like the pointed meaning hiding behind the neutral tone.  He wished with all the will in the world that there would be another dance with Abigail, but the night was winding down and the musicians were retiring; the duke was saying farewells and the nobility were all flocking home to their estates to roost. 
The man with the glass heart thought all the way back home, back to the commander’s mother, the widow Lynn.  He’d already stopped one marriage.  He could stop two. 
There was a customer who he’d promised to attend to tonight.  There was a stained glass window for the new church he’d promised to oversee. 
They could wait.  This was important, so important that his chest hurt.  It had to be done. 

The man with the glass heart was quiet, oh so quiet, as he slipped in the upstairs window to the commander of the watch’s home, padded in dark fabrics that sapped the colour from his form and bled him into the night, dropping on a thin silk rope from the rooftops.  He felt strange, hesitant.  To kill without pay, for his own purposes, it was not something he’d done in many, many years.  He pulled a glass needle from the little cushioned containers on his waist, and he moved through the house’s rooms, all simple, all straightforward, all safe.  The commander had been practical as a youth, and that had not changed. 
There were two bodies in the big, sturdy bed upstairs.  One was Abigail (oh how his chest hurt), the other was not.  It also was not living – there was no rise and fall of breath. 
The man with the glass heart turned at the doorway to leave, and knew before the short sword hummed through the air at him that it was too late to run.  He ducked, and felt cloth and flesh tear along his chest.  A very shallow cut, but painful. 
“Think I’m stupid, do you?” grunted the commander, pushing him back, into the room.  “Think I’m going to sleep and die?  I know you.  And I know those deaths.  Too many quiet ones.  You like it quiet, don’t you?  Heard about your father.”  He was feinting now, dancing from foot to foot, thud-thud on the floorboards.  A noise from the bed – was Abigail waking?  She shouldn’t see this.  “He was a good man.  Better than you deserved.”  He pushed forwards.  Still back, boots nearly at the bedside.  “Answer me, damnit.  Answer or I’ll bleed you out here and now and we won’t have to waste money on rope.”  He swung, and cursed as the man with the glass heart’s hand moved, leaving glass shimmering sweetly in the flesh of his swordarm.  It snapped as their bodies clashed together, sword spinning away with a clang on the floor. 
The man with the glass heart was smooth, his focus was clear, his head was quick, but the commander was tough, and he’d fought his way to his rank.  Two fists to the gut in a space that couldn’t possibly let him punch, and then a knee to the groin.  The man with the glass heart saw stars, one hand tightened ineffectually at the commander’s throat and the other wrapped around that wounded arm.  His fingers brushed blood-sticky hairs and he squeezed, felt the crunch and slice of the needle as it came to pieces, an elegant weapon used brutally. 
Even then, not a scream – a pained grunt, a groan, a weakening of purpose.  The man with the glass heart threw him to the floor, spun to his feet.  Hand at the belt, needle at the ready, a new one, one of the bigger ones, an emergency weapon that cut like a knife.  He shifted his grip, raised his arm.
Abigail rushed past him, calling a name that wasn’t his. 

Neither of them saw it– he was too blinded by pain, and she was crouched low over him, trying to see his hurts – but they heard it happen.  There was a sob, a gasp, and a great tinkling splintering crash, all at once, like the world’s biggest picture window falling to pieces. 
What they found there, after the fact, was not what they told the others.  He had landed a blow in the dark, and it had taken the murderer a moment to realize it had killed him.  It happened.  It had happened before.  Dangerous, but knowable. 
But what they found on that floor was a man dead, a scar split open, with bloodless shards of smooth glass splitting open the skin from deep inside.  They shone clearly in the moonlight through the window, and then they were gone.  And not a drop of blood remained in the room that didn’t belong to the commander of the city watch. 
“What was he like?” he asked her.  “You knew him before I did.”
Abigail thought as she sewed the cuts.  There were plenty of words that described him, but only one that she thought was proper. 
“Fragile.  Where it counted most.”


“Transparency” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

A Special-Needs Report.

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Hello there, I’m Kimberly Beverage and this is Not Really News: Where the Real Isn’t.  Your usual host Joey Fishlips is on sick leave for undisclosed reasons, and I will be your commentator this evening.  I am being paid a tiny stipend for this that is one-eighth what he would get, but I promise I won’t let the tremendously swelling bitterness within my heart pour out on the air. 
So, today’s first stupid “story,” if you can call it that seeing as it doesn’t even exist, is that someone in British Columbia, Canada, has formed a sasquatch-defamation league to protest the racist use of the slur “Bigfoot” to describe the species of big hairy crazy guys that live in the woods.  Can you believe this shit?  “Sasquatch-defamation league.”  Honestly.  The man, a mister Harry Sole, held a very small press conference that he may or may not have attended according to witnesses, with the audience members puzzling over grainy footage that shows him ambling away from the podium with an odd stride some maintain is not human.  Others insist the entire thing was a hoax, much like the line that good ol’ Joey fed us about where he was going on weekends.  “Seeing a man about a carp” indeed, you filthy weasel. 
Speaking of animals, the new center for the Inhumane Society opened in downtown LA.  “We figured, well, there’s got to be balance,” said founder Platz Roberts.  “Moderation in all things, right?  Right now we have a flagrant disrespect for that, with thousands of professional locations across the country dedicated to comforting suffering animals, while horrifying mistreatment is left to rank amateurs.  I think we’re correcting a very important part of nature here,” he concluded as he teased a large German shepherd with a treat just out of what was proven seconds later to be not quite its actual full reach.  An update: the new LA center for the Inhumane Society has closed on opening day following our interview, as Platz proved unable to drink coffee and work at the same time since his hand was messily removed.  Our condolences, as I think we all know of someone who does nasty things to animals, don’t we, Joey?  Oh wait, you can’t hear me where you are. 
While on the topic of where things are, geographers of the world rejoiced earlier when they realized they had “missed a spot.”  “Seriously, we somehow managed to skip over this little five-by-ten kilometre patch of land somewhere in eastern Kenya like, eighty times in a row,” said professor Arnold Z. Squibbits.  “I guess it was this one guy’s job for a while, and he just got a blind spot.  That happens.  But it just kept happening.  It’s the most evasive and least attention-drawing piece of land I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and even now I’m not sure I’ve seen it.”  Professor Squibbits pointed out that the missing spot was “by no means particularly unworthy of attention.  It just doesn’t, you know, catch the eye.  At all.”  A major land war between Europe and the United States of America is expected to break out within the month for dibs on colonization, enslavement of the locals, and grossly exploitative resource exploitation.  Which reminds me, Joey, what you did to that poor young lady went beyond mere exploitation.  There’s being a prostitute, Joey, and then there’s being a prop.  One implies that you are still a person, albeit one with a shitty career, and the second implies a basic lack of social empathy on the viewer’s part that renders them incapable of seeing people as anything other than things, you monstrous twit
In art, a local lout has produced the world’s most ironic piece of art, a gigantic, poorly-thought-out, self-absorbed painting that loudly acclaims himself as the smartest, straightest-thinking man in the country while depicting him skewering “furreners.”  The art community praises mister Ted Gabble for his commitment to the massive irony inherent in the piece, for which he called them a “buncha sawft pansees” and asked them what the word meant.  Clearly, his dedication to the piece goes beyond its mere creation, indeed, he lives his very life ironically now.  Or so the theory goes.  He may, in fact, just be an ignorant meathead.  Like someone else we all know, who is still somehow making more than I do despite being in PRISON, huh?  How’s that for fairness?  How’s THAT for irony? 
In other unfair news, today some angry old racist was the victim of ageism.  Being overheard making a crude joke at the expense of some people who didn’t quite look like him, he was surrounded by youths who also didn’t look quite like him who taunted him mercilessly for being a “scrawny old bastard” who looked like the lovechild of a prune and an ice mummy.  The merciless discrimination against his elderly status left no mark untouched, down to their mocking of his incontipants-brand adult diapers.  Attempts to defend himself were fruitless; no amount of cane-waggling deterred them, as they simply stole the cane and sold it to buy candy.  When asked for a statement, the elderly racist simply requested that we get off his lawn and gummed our reporter on the upper hip, which he attempted to suckle.  Disgusting, but apparently newsworthy.  Apparently not like what you did with those fish heads, JOEY.  That doesn’t belong on the news but this shit does?  Give me a goddamned break.  If it’s vile tripe the network wants, they can get it straight from the deviant’s fishlips, right here, right now!  Why don’t we do an interview from your cell, huh?
Right, right, sorry.  Anyways, our big item for the evening: the Prime Minister of Canada narrowly survived an assassination attempt while fishing for bass earlier today.  Our extremely invasive and legally questionable cameras caught footage of a scuba diver silently slipping into the canoe and stabbing the leader directly in the spine with a perch, presumably in an attempt to make it look like an accident.  However, he was unaware that the Prime Minister is an emotionless robotic shell, and as such his fish-blade bounced off the cold titanium lying just beneath the official’s pale and artificial skin.  Moments later, the assailant was beaten to death with the bailing bucket.  Although the attempt currently seems mildly humorous it is worth noting that the Prime Minister’s system specs are not optimized for piscine defence, and a larger fish, such as a big pike, muskellunge, or sturgeon could very well have breeched his hull and exposed his circuitry, to the great relief of the population at large and much celebrating in the streets at the end of the steely grip of our robot oppressor.  Try harder next time, please. 

Standard warning that none of this is real, or even quasi-real, yadda, yadda, yadda, with the notable exception of the following news.  JOEY FISHLIPS IS IN PRISON FOR UNNATURAL ACTS WITH A SOUTH AFRICAN HOOKER INVOLVING FISHEADS!  RAW FISHEA


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