Archive for October, 2010

Storytime: Oops.

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Three people sat on a hill, legs dangling, the back-and-forth swing of their calves showing bone idleness and deep, deep boredom in a contemplative mingling.  Two of them were gods. 
“This is dull,” said one, at length. 
They examined the rolling-out spread of the world around and above and beneath them. 
“Very,” agreed the other, eventually. 
“Let’s fix that,” said the first.  “Perhaps we should make something.”
“That sounds pretty good,” said the second.  “Who should we make?”
“How about some humans?  Let’s make some humans.”
“You did that already,” said the third person, who was a human. 
“Hmm,” said the first god, stretching lazily.  “That’s right.  I forgot that part.  Let’s make someone else this time.  There’s no sense doing what you’ve already done.”
So they got up, all three of them, and they walked over to earth from heaven.  It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. 
“Well, I’m bushed,” said the human. 
“But we just started,” said the first god. 
“Maybe you’ve just started but I’m just about through,” said the human.  “That’s a long walk, from all the way over there to all the way over here.  I’m going to take a bit of a nap, if you don’t mind too much.  I’ll catch up when I’m done with my rest.”  The human curled up under a tree, to keep the sun away, and wouldn’t move, argue as the other two might. 
“I’m sleeping,” said the human.  “Go away.  Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
“But we have to worry about you,” said the first god.  “If we don’t, who will?”
“And besides,” added the second, “you’re going to miss out.   We’re going to make all sorts of good things.”
“I’ll see it when I’m done my nap,” said the human, and fell asleep. 
The gods gave up.  There was just no arguing with humans when they decided like that. 
“So, what shall we make?” asked the first god, as they wandered through the trees.  Those were some good trees, and they felt pretty fine, knowing they’d made those on their last trip. 
“Let’s make some things for the humans,” said the second god.  “If they like it, it’s good.  If they don’t like it, it’ll teach them to not laze about while we’re trying to help them, and that’s good too.  There’s no bad about it.”
“That’s smart,” said the first god.  “Let’s give them a way to build homes.”
“They’re a bit naked with all that skin,” agreed the second god.  “And they’re too big to fit in most burrows.  Not that they’re any hands at digging.  That’s a good idea.”
“It is,” said the first god.  “What should they make them out of?”
“How about bits of trees?” said the second.  “There’s lots of trees.  I’ll bet we could just take some bits off them and mash them together in a new shape.”
“Let’s do that,” said the first god.  So they took a whole lot of the bits of the trees and mashed them up, but they couldn’t get them to stick. 
“This isn’t working,” said the second god.  “Your idea isn’t that good.”
“You wanted trees,” said the first god.  “We need something to hold this together.  Maybe something sticky.”  The first god’s eye alit on a bug buzzing through the shrubs, something they’d made at the end of the last trip.  “Hey, wasp, you want to help here?”
“Sure,” said the wasp.  “What do you need?”
“Something sticky,” said the second god.
“I’ve got that,” said the wasp, and it spewed its spit all over the tree bits and spread them real thin and tidy, all chewed up and gummed into paste.  They stuck together like anything, and the wasp turned that gunk into a good little hut. 
“That’s good,” said the first god.  “Really good.”
“That’s small,” pointed out the second god.  “Really small.”
“It’s just right,” said the wasp.  “Look, see how well it fits!”
“Fits you, maybe,” said the first god.  “But not a human.”
“If you wanted a human house, you should’ve asked for one,” said the wasp.  “This one’s for me.”
The second god shrugged.  “I guess so.  Thanks anyways, wasp.  Goodbye.”
So the gods left the wasp and its little house, and walked down to the river to splash their feet and think on new things. 
“That wasn’t too good,” said the first god.  “Let’s try again.  What else do humans need?”
“Some weapons,” said the second god.  “Their teeth and claws are awfully small.  Let’s give them some strong teeth and jaws, at least.”
“I think that’s a fine plan,” said the first god.  So they made themselves some nice strong teeth, big and smooth and sharp as anything, and some fine jaw muscles to go with them. 
“How do we put them in?” asked the first god. 
“I thought you’d know,” said the second. 
They argued for a while. 
“Look, let’s get someone to try them on,” said the second, at length. 
“Fine,” said the first.  “Hey, beaver, try these teeth on, will you?”
The beaver eyed the teeth with wary caution.  “They look awfully big.  You sure this is a good idea?”
“It’ll be fine,” said the first god, with confidence.  “Here, take them.”
“All right,” said the beaver.  So it put the teeth in and champed them around a bit, to get the feel of them.  “What do I test them on?”
“Try this rock,” suggested the second god.
The beaver bit the rock, and chipped a tooth.  “Well, that wasn’t very smart,” it said. 
“I guess not,” admitted the second god.  “How about that tree?”
The beaver bit the tree, then gnawed the tree, then chewed the tree, and it fell over right into the water, ker-splosh. 
“That worked a lot better,” said the beaver.  “Can I try that again?”
“Sure,” said the first god. 
So the beaver bit and gnashed and chewed ten fine young trees, one after another, each falling ker-splosh into the water. 
“These are good teeth,” said the beaver.  “I like these teeth.”
“That’s great,” said the second god.  “Mind if we take them back now.”
“I guess not,” said the beaver.  “I’ll miss them.”
So the gods grabbed ahold of one tooth each, but yank and tug as they might, not a single incisor would budge.  
“Oops,” said the second god.
“That isn’t good,” said the first god. 
“I don’t mind keeping them,” said the beaver hopefully. 
“I guess you’d better,” said the second god.  “We’d have to pull out most of your head to get them out too.  And you’ll need that.  Well, thanks anyways, beaver.”
“Thank you,” said the beaver.  It had an idea of what it wanted to do with those trees.  Muddy burrows in the riverbed were all well and good, but all that loose lumber was giving it plans. 
The gods walked away from the beaver and its river, thoughts working hard.  Their wandering feet roved them up into the rocky highlands, up against a big cliff.  They climbed up to its very tip and sat down, legs swinging again. 
“So, no homes,” said the first god. 
“Seems not,” said the second. 
“And no weapons,” continued the first. 
“Not this way, no,” agreed the second. 
“We should at least make sure they have something nice.  Something no one else can do.”
“How about talking?” said the second. 
“Birds call.  Wolves howl.  Whales sing.  Crickets chirrup.  Cats purr –”
“All right, not like that then,” said the second.  “How about a way to talk without talking?”
“Everybody does that,” said the first.  “Shrugging.  Flapping.  Strutting.  Posturing. ”
“Then what about a way to talk without being there at all?”
“That’s crazy,” said the first. 
“I’ll show you.”  So the second god broke off a sharp piece of flint from the cliff and scratched and scraped some little markings on the dirt. 
“All right.  See that little picture of a bear I drew?”
“That means a bear.  See?  All we have to do is leave a picture like this, and anyone who looks at it knows what we meant.  Humans can do it too.  That takes some good brains, and they’ve got pretty good brains.”
“That’s a good idea,” said the first god.  “And they can even do it on other rocks?”
“Probably,” said the second god, and gave it a shot.  The flint drawing tool snapped on the cliff face, spilling splinters onto the dirt beneath. 
“Maybe not,” admitted the second god. 
“Oops,” said the first god.  “Well, I’m just about out of ideas.  This is harder than I thought.”
“Let’s take a break,” proposed the second god.  So they walked back to heaven and fell asleep. 

Down below in the forest, the human woke up and took a good stretch, refreshed right as rain.  A wasp buzzed by, and then another. 
“What’re you up to?” asked the human. 
“Building!” said the wasp.  “Busy, busy, busy building!  So much to work on!  I made just one little home, and now all my friends and relations want one.  We’re building a home for all of us!”
“That sounds pretty impressive,” said the human.  “Mind if I look?”
“Sure,” said the wasp.  So the human came and looked.  The wasp nest was a nice big papery ball wedged in the fork of a big old oak.  The older, smaller nest hung from a branch under it.
“Hmm,” said the human.  “It looks a bit dirty.”
“They forgot to wipe their feet,” complained the wasp.  “They always forget to wipe their feet.  They left footprints all over my nice clean home, all the while complaining it was too small, and now they want me to make a big one for us all.  If they weren’t my friends and relations I’d say they were my worst enemies.”
“Hmm,” said the human.  “Can I have the old home?”
“I don’t see why not,” said the wasp.  So the human took the old home, and looked at all the tiny dark marks on the thin, papery shell. 
“What’d you make this from?” asked the human. 
“Bits of tree.  And spit.  Quite a lot of spit.”
“I don’t think I’ll try spit,” said the human.  But an idea was stewing in there.  So the human took a big bit of tree, and made marks on it.  Lots of little ones, all like wasp feet.  Some of them were drawings, some of them were drawings of drawings, and some of them were drawings of drawings of drawings that didn’t look like drawings at all any more, but symbols. 
“This could be interesting,” said the human.  “I’d better remember it.”  So the human did, and packed up that bit of tree for later study.  And the wasp nest. 
“I’m thirsty,” said the human.  “Know a good spot?”
“There’s a river a few thousand wingbeats thataways,” said the wasp.  “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, and thanks.”
The human walked down to the river and took a long, cool drink, all the while wondering what was that big pile of branches and tree trunks sitting in the middle of the stream.  The water was starting to act funny near it.  A beaver waddled by, towing a fallen sapling. 
“What are you doing?” asked the human. 
“I’m taking trees and building a home,” said the beaver, between its teeth and a little over its tongue.  “Could you move a little to one side?”
The human moved politely, and watched the beaver tow the trunk into place.  And it thought a little. 
“Could I borrow some of those trees?” asked the human. 
“The ones that are too big for me,” said the beaver.  “I chewed down some of them by mistake.”
“Thank you,” said the human, and started work immediately.  Before long all the trees were dragged into a pile in a little clearing, where they were shoved into a sort of frame.  The human covered the gaps with branches, and felt like that was pretty good.  It’d keep out rain, at the very least. 
“Now where,” asked the human aloud, “did those gods go?  I’d better go someplace high and look for them.”
Up and up the trail led, up to the mountain, and on to the cliff.  There the god-tracks ended, in a little splash and spray of shattered flint. 
The human picked up a piece, and cut a finger. 
“Hmm,” said the human, and picked up the piece again, this time more carefully, and drew it across lunch, a big dried tuber.  It cut it through cleanly. 
“Hmmmmmmmmm,” said the human, the sound of a thought wrestling for room against the inside of a skull.  “I will remember this.  I will remember this very, very carefully.”  The human walked away full of thought, and looked for the gods all night, calling their names in the forest.  Finally the human gave up, and went home to its friends and relations. 
“I think I lost the gods,” the human said, “but I’ve found some interesting things.  Now, let me tell you about them for a little while.”

The gods woke up late, even for gods.  Their backs were stiff and their heads were sore, from sleeping all out of sorts. 
“How long was that?” asked the first. 
“I’m not too sure,” replied the second.  “But we’d better go check on that human.”
So they went back to earth.  It’s not a long walk, for a god. 
“What,” said the first god, “are all those things in the forest?”
“Why,” asked the second god, “are all those trees stumps?”
“Where,” puzzled the first god, “did all the rocks up on that cliff go?”
“And what are those humans doing?” asked the second god. 
“The things in the forest are huts,” said the human.  “We made them out of those trees.  And we took the rocks to make these spears.  Which we’re using to hunt that deer, which you just chased away with your talking.”
“Sorry,” said the first god. 
“It’s all right,” said the human.  “You left us all these things anyways, while my ancestor on my mother’s side was sleeping.”
“Sure we did,” said the second god.
“Sure,” agreed the first god.  “You’re welcome.”
“How did you know about us?” asked the second god, who’d only just realized that this human probably wasn’t the same one they’d left. 
“We wrote it down,” said the human, who pulled a big scroll of flat stomped papery stuff out of a backpack.  The gods looked at it again, and there it was, all written down.  They were mightily impressed.   
“Want anything more?” asked the second god.  “You could come back to heaven, give us some ideas.  Three heads are better than two.”
The human looked around.  “No, I think this is pretty good.  We’ll manage.  Thanks.”
“Good luck,” said the gods. 
“Good luck,” said the human.  They all went home. 
“Should we make something else?” asked the first god.  “It looks like that turned out real nice.”
The second god stretched out.  “No, I don’t think so.  They can have a turn at doing that sort of thing for a while.  I feel like another rest.”
“Sounds fine to me,” said the first god.  “Let’s get comfortable.”
So the gods tucked themselves in and took a nap.  But they got a little too comfy, and when they woke up next, things had changed a bit more. 
But that’s not this story. 

“Oops,” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: A Family Get-Together.

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

The inn on the High Road was packed full to the rafters with rowdy guests, busy and cheerful, all stuffing their mouths with food and packing in whatever spaces remained with beer.  Loud talk and laughter bounced from wall to wall, crescendoing into a din that would’ve made a bear whimper.  All were of good cheer, raucously celebrating the approach of further celebration, of holiday festival, of three full days of feasts and family and arguing.
All except one.  The man sitting in the corner, staring at his plate as though it was all he had left in the world.  This intrigued Jack, over at the bar, so he walked over and asked him what was what.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said the man, as the weight of the something pressed down on his shoulders further still.
“A big nothing, then,” said Jack, who stole the man’s leftovers from unresisting hands.  His steel tooth flashed as he tore through the potatoes.  “Tell me about it.”
The man rubbed his face.  “It’s my family.  You see, the wife and I – she is upstairs, asleep, you see – we live far apart from our kin, so when we married two years ago we agreed to take it in turns to visit our families each holiday.  Last year we visited my father and mother, brothers and sisters, all in the city…”
“Ah.  In-law troubles await you this year then?”
“Yes.  They are ogres.”
Jack stopped chewing midmouthful to think this over.  “So, do you mean this as a figure of speech, or more of…”
“More of a matter of fact, yes.  They are ogres.  Tall as a troll each and twice as ugly, with muscles that can shatter boulders, breath that can blacken mirrors, and squinting, glowering eyes that can barely make out a barn wall five feet away in broad daylight.  They don’t like me.”
“My sympathies,” said Jack, resuming the busywork of his knife and fork.  Few things had ever put him off a meal for more than a moment.  “I take it your wife doesn’t take after her family?”
“No, no.  Julie is the sweetest, prettiest thing I’ve ever met.  She’s gentler than a nightingale, won’t eat meat for harm of the animals, and she winces when she swats an insect.  How she grew up in that house I’ll never know.”
“Adopted, maybe?”
“Definitely not.  She has an extra joint on each of her thumbs, a nose that can smell the difference between the sunset and the sunrise, and her back teeth can crack bone.  She’s an ogre all right.”
“Hmm.  Why does her family not approve of your union?”
“I’m not nearly ogrish enough for their tastes.  I’m far too small, much too weak, and I’m scarcely brutal.  I’m afraid that an honest cloth merchant is just not good enough for their little girl, and that this holiday visit will end in nothing but misery.”
Jack nodded in sympathy.
“And they might eat me.”
Jack slammed down his flagon.  “Right!” he shouted.  “That’s certainly enough of that nonsense!  Hear me all,” he called to the inn around them, which watched in surprised, “I’m Jack the traveller and I’ll be damned if I’ll let any passing acquaintance of mine whose meal I’ve taken be eaten by his in-laws!  Sir,” he said to the distraught cloth merchant, “I’ve got a plan, and I advise you hearken to it.  First, let me borrow your clothes.”
So they went upstairs to the cloth merchant’s room and he gave Jack his second-best suit, as he was wearing the best.  Jack admired the seams, then spoke again: “Second, give me whatever soap or perfumes you might use on your person.”
This the cloth merchant did, and Jack applied them liberally, stopping to sniff now and then with the utmost care.  At last he was satisfied, and turned again to the merchant.  “Third, let me go to your in-laws in your place.  I believe I can fool their noses in this manner.  You’ll be apart from your wife for a few days, but I believe you two can bear the sweet sorrow of a few days away from each other’s arms in exchange for your still having arms to clasp her in, when once again you meet.”
“I concede this,” said the cloth merchant, “and shall alert Julie posthaste.”  He nudged the sleeping woman in the bed awake.
“Why,” she asked, “is that man wearing your clothes?”
“It’s a deception, sweet-pea,” he said to her, “to stop your family from eating me.”
“Oh all right,” she yawned.  And then she fell back asleep without so much as a murmur.
“It was a long ride today,” explained the merchant, carefully moving the pillows so that she wouldn’t fall off the bed.
“Then she can take her rest now, and you yours while you wait,” said Jack.  He slept on the roof outside for the view of the stars – as was his custom – and he and Julie left in the morning, he on the merchant’s fat nag, she on a slim mare with cross-shaped hooves.
“My mother gave it to me,” she explained as Jack eyed the horse dubiously, stroking its muzzle.  It was as white as cream, with luminous and unpleasant eyes.
“Marvellous,” he said, and snatched his hand away a mere nails-width from snapping teeth.  “And cheeky.”
“She’s like that with men,” she apologized.  “Unless you have a sugar cube.  She’ll do anything for a sugar cube.”
Jack chose to stay at arm’s length, and whiled away the trip entertaining Julie with an endless stream of ventriloquism applied to knock-knock jokes.

Jack heard the ogres before he saw them, a great rough laugh booming through the forest and making the birds scatter, then the thud-thud-thud of big horny feet smacking on the dirt, unshod and heedless.  The trees bent and groaned, the ground rumbled, and a huge ogre burst through the trees and picked up Julie in a bear-hug, horse and all.
“Big sister!” he roared.  The mare seized ahold of his eyelashes and yanked them away, and he laughed.
“Hello, Othello,” squeaked Julie, happily but breathlessly.  The ogre dropped her, making the mare do a little dance to stay on her feet.  She whinnied villainously.
“Mother and Father are inside, and Grandfather, and the cousins, and Uncle Abraham and Auntie Skadi, and Great Great-Grandmother is coming soon!”  He ceased his little hops of excitement and looked forlorn at her.  “We all missed you very much,” he said plaintively, and shot an evil look at Jack as Julie adjusted her petticoat.
“Well, I’m here now, and so is Clarence,” she said with a meaningful nod to Jack.  “Let’s go inside and say hello.”
The ogre home was a sprawling heap, a hall made from ruptured earth and bent trees, a hill repurposed into a hold.  Its great iron door-knocker was in a sad state from the countless hairy knuckles that had wrapped about it over the years, beating it senseless and dented.  Othello’s fist showed it no mercy, setting up such a din that Jack’s ears twitched.
“Mother!” he bawled.  “Father!  Julie is here, and so is that man!”
The door creaked open, and Father’s fetid breath washed out over them all, making their clothing wilt.  He stood sixteen foot tall if he was an inch, with a nose that would put a halberdier’s pride and joy to utter shame and deep-set eyes that were as screwed shut as a mole’s.
“Harruumph,” he said, long and rough.  “Welcome back daughter.  Mmrrmm.”  The door swung wide as he ushered them within, horses and all.  He plucked Jack from his nag with one hand and picked it up with the other.  It nestled in his sprawling palm, too terrified to so much as twitch a muscle.
“Your mother worries, you know,” he told Julie as they walked under the dirty, tangled wreckage of the ceiling, a forboding mass that Jack could not stop eyeing.  “Hrrrooum.  She worries about her little girl out there, all alone.”
“Clarence keeps me safe,” said Julie.
“Fwwuush!  This little fellow couldn’t safeguard a baby bird, let alone you, daughter.”
“You’ll see,” said Julie.  She gave Jack a nervous glance.
“Yes indeed,” he said, with as reassuring a pat on the shoulder as he could manage.  Othello growled at him.
Heat flowed over the company, and it was in the red light of a fireplace that could boil a king’s court whole that Jack saw the next ogre.  It was half as high as Father, but twice as wide and a hundred times the hideousness, a hag beyond recall.  Her fangs hung down to her thighs and her thighs turned into her knees before they began; her feet could’ve been mistaken for live crocodiles without cause for reproach.
“A snack, love,” said Father, handing Jack’s nag to the hag.  She spread her jaws wide and swallowed the terrified animal without so much as a chew, blinking three time hugely as she did so.
“Now, where’s my little girl?” she asked.
“Mother!” cried Julie, and she rushed to the monster’s legs for a hug.
“Julie-girl,” crooned Mother, and cuddled her with one big fist-hand, fingers stroking the woman’s golden hair with all the soft delicacy of maggots in flesh.  “You’ve grown so much, precious!”
“Thank you, Mother,” said Julie.  Her face was buried in the hag’s foul dress, and so she missed the grin that Mother was directing at Jack.  It showed entirely too many teeth to fit in one mouth.
“Is the man cruel to you, sweetling?” she asked.  “Why do you fret at Mother’s hem so?  Does he strike you?  Mother can stop that, you know.  Stop it good and proper.”
“Mother!” admonished Julie, stepping back and composing herself.  “Don’t fret.  You’ll see!”
“Indeed,” said Jack.  He tried not to wince as Mother stared at him head-on.  “Indeed.”
“Soup’s near up, precious,” said the ogre hag.  “Why don’t you tell your man to make himself useful and call up the others for supper?  Can’t let all this good meat go to waste.”
“I don’t eat meat, mother,” said Julie.  “It’s inhumane.”
“Nonsense, dear, there’s not a spot or lick of human in here – more’s the pity,” she sighed.  “It has such a lovely piquant flavour to it too, like good prime pork.  But there’s lots of nourishing elk in here, so let’s get everyone here and dug in before it cools!”
Julie curtseyed, then turned to Jack.  “Mother would appreciate it if you would call the family for suppertime,” she said with her mouth.  Her eyes added: and it would be terrible, terrible, and terrible if you do it improperly.  There’s lots of room in that kettle yet.
Father reached up high over the fireplace and brought down a mighty horn in his paws, carved from the tusk of some long-dead beast that would’ve dwarfed even him.  He handed it to Jack with a grunt, and it was to his great pride that he barely allowed his knees to buckle, nor did he scream.
“Blow,” commanded Father, and he sat back with his arms crossed, judging.
Jack was no stranger to music, and there was scarce any instrument he hadn’t taken a gamble at one time or another in revelry near or far.  He pursed his lips, he placed them to the sooty, blackened bone mouthpiece, and he blew a blast that would’ve melted a brass trumpet to slag.  It sounded like a kitten burping in the bottom of a tin bathtub.
Father leaned back.  Waiting.  Othello cracked his knuckles.
Jack examined the horn, trying to appear unhurried.  “Just finding the pitch,” he explained through one of his especially favourite smiles, the one he used when he was asking for money that made his steel tooth shine so prettily.  The family watched on, unimpressed.  Julie hurriedly tried some of the soup and pretended not to be paying attention.
Jack inhaled deep enough that his ribcage started to creak, then let fly a tremendous roar of wind into the horn, a sputtering shout.  It left him dizzy and barely able to hold it, but had scarcely more effect than the first.
Jack had often had to think in many unpleasant circumstances, but under the unblinking stare of Mother was among the worst he’d known.  There had to be some trick to the horn, a rough sort of enchantment.  Ogres were scarcely sorcerers, but they were as likely as any other sort of troll to have some sort of base magical cunning wrapped up in their belongings.
Julie flicked into his vision again for a moment, brushing by him with a hand discretely pressed to her mouth from the soup.  She burped a little, and he hoped she wouldn’t be sick.
Wait.  Aha.  Clever girl.  Of course.
“Only joking that time,” he said with a laugh, and he pressed the great, stinking horn to his lips one last time and belched into it long and hard, from the belly, like an ogre.  It let out a blast of fulsome fumes and odorous echoes, leaving him coughing in the wake of its roars.
“Hrmmmm,” said Father thoughtfully.  Othello looked a little impressed, but a little more disappointed.
Your soup stays inhumane tonight, lad, thought Jack, and he tossed the horn with as much nonchalance as he could manage to Father, who caught it one-handed.
“Well, I don’t know about you,” Jack said, “but I’m hungry.”

It had been a while since Jack had been at a meal that boasted this level of volume.  The chewing alone could’ve knocked over the inn that he’d stayed at the night before, and the volume of the hoots, hollers, and rumbles that echoed over it all could’ve stricken a jay in full screech unconscious.  The cousins were a particularly noisy lot; Jack was seated right between two of them and across from Julie, who was protectively insulated from his presence by the immense bulk of her parents.  She smiled nervously at him.
“Good food!” roared the cousin on Jack’s left, mouth overflowing back onto his plate, where he scooped it back in with relish.
“Good food!’ agreed the cousin on his right, belching midswallow with enough force to rock the table.
“Good food indeed,” said Jack loudly, tearing apart a chunk of elk-gut with his hands.  “Why, it’s so good, I’ll wager I could out-eat both of you at once.”
There was a sudden silence around him, relatively.  He could actually hear himself think for the first time in twenty minutes.
“Haw!” exclaimed the cousin on his left, a great, pot-bellied fellow.
“Hah!” erupted the cousin on his right, a longer, leaner, ogre, shaped as though he’d been slapped together out of slabs of beef.
“First one to the bottom of his bowl, gentlemen.” said Jack.  “Do we have a bet?”
“A bet!” they shouted together, and as one they dove for their plates, hands shovelling giblets, mouths gnashing wildly at entrails, and noses rooting for scraps like wild boars.
Jack smiled as he ate, rapidly yet surely, reaching for cups and sauce vessels as needed.  The elk was pretty good, and he was pretty hungry, but he was under no illusions as to his ability to out-eat two ogres at once.  He would tack a different wind with this problem.
“Hrrrmph,” the right cousin heard Father say, “pass the pine-nut sauce, hrrm.”  So he reached out to grab it.
“Shove that pine-nut stuff this away, there’s a peach,” the left cousin heard Mother speak of, and so he reached out and seized it.
“Leggo!” huffed the right cousin.
“Shove off,” said the left cousin.  “Mother wants it.”
“Father asked first!”
“Push off, you just want it for yourself!”
And then the right cousin slapped his brother with an elk-hock and the meal degenerated from there.  Jack ate as quietly as he could, chewing down the meaty bits and spitting out the gristly ones discretely, smiling all the while.
“Finished,” he proclaimed.
“FINISHED!” he yelled a moment later.  The cousins looked up from where they lay on the floor, fists planted in one another’s breadbaskets.
“Can’t be!” objected the right cousin, struggling to his feet and scrubbing at his freshly blooming shiner.
“It is,” observed the left cousin, peering at Jack’s bowl with a gloomy expression.  “Fair and square.”
“No it isn’t, he kept eating while we fought!”
“That’s your fault.”
“Not it isn’t, you started it!”
“No, you!”
The fistfight resumed under the table, and Jack joined in with the rest of the family in throwing scraps of bone at them, silently thanking that he’d taken the chance to practice throwing his voice on the trail.

“That was very risky,” scolded Julie as she lay down in bed.  “If they had noticed, you’d have been eaten before you could say Jack Robinson.”
“They were far too thick to notice,” said Jack lazily from the floor, where he’d made a sort of mattress out of his coat.  “And my last name isn’t Robinson, so we’re in no danger of that.”
“Yes, well, that won’t work on Uncle or Auntie,” said Julie.  “Nor Grandfather neither.  And I don’t even want to imagine what would happen if you tried to fool Great Great-Grandmother.  You’ll need my help on this if you want to impress them, like it or not.  Or have you forgotten my help with the horn so soon?”
“All right, all right, all right,” agreed Jack, rolling over in his coat.  “I’ll listen to your advice come morning.”
“Good,” said Julie.  “Now, the thing about Uncle is that –” but Jack was asleep before she finished her sentence.

The next morning found him bleary-eyed and shaky in the hands, badly in need of coffee and barely awake enough to listen to anything at all.  The floor of an ogre’s house is the bumpiest, the mouldiest, and the most lively in all the world.  He’d been woken by a rat the size of a terrier trying to eat his boots right off his feet.
“First day is gathering and feasting, second day is games and feasting, and the third is the grandest feast of them all,” reminded Uncle Abraham at breakfast –  boiled rabbits.  “I propose a game of bowls outside as soon as we are able.”
“I’ll take that game,” said Jack, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Julie was shaking her head violently.
‘Excellent,” said Uncle Abraham, with pronounced relish.  He was bearded fiercely, the only one of them besides Grandfather not to go clean-shaven, and whereas that ancient had long ago aged to grey tangles, Abraham’s beard was black as coal and fiercely sharp, jutting out down over his chest like a thicket of briars.  His moustache was serrated as only the most vicious of knives was.  “I’ll fetch the balls.”
“Why the worry?” Jack asked Julie as they followed Uncle Abraham down the front hall.  “I’m no stranger to gaming of any sort.”
“Ogre bowls is different,” Julie explained through daintily gritted teeth.
“How so?”
“You throw the balls at each other.  You score points for what part you hit, and you get the most from knocking someone down.  Or killing them.”
The ogre’s lawn was half marsh, half desert, a mire of dirt and confusion and noise.  Othello and the cousins were engaged in some sort of wrestling involving tree trunks, Father and Auntie Skadi were throwing axes at a target made from a live, still-thrashing bear tied to a boulder, and Grandfather was sleeping in a bog, head tipped back carefully and teeth removed so as to allow him appropriate space to snore in.  Even Julie’s mare was out and about, pulling rabbits out of their burrows and eating them.
“Here you go,” said Uncle Abraham, handing Jack a rough-chiselled boulder that looked to have been chewed upon at one time.  He hefted his own and spun it from finger to finger, making it dance.  “We count off forty paces, turn, and toss.  If you move your feet, you forfeit.   If you die or are knocked senseless, you forfeit.  Ten points a bruised flank, brisket, or ribs, twenty for a brain-panning or a broken leg, fifty for a knockdown.  Play ‘till one hundred, deal?”
“Deal,” agreed Jack.  He tossed his rock from one hand to another, thoughtfully.  It probably weighed as much as he did, but he’d done worse.
“Right,” said Uncle Abraham.  They turned and paced – his paces much longer than Jack’s – and spun and hurled.  Jack ducked low and felt the missile breeze over the top of his head, ruffling the hair.  His own strike smacked Abraham amidships, right in the gut.  Winning seemed the thing to do here, but killing Julie’s relatives was probably not the best way to win their hearts.
“Hroff!” exclaimed the ogre.  He peeled off his shirt, rewarding Jack with the unpleasant sight of his slug-pale belly; hairy, horny, and unblemished by a bruise.  He winked unpleasantly at Jack.  “Not so much as a mark.  A poor throw for each of us.  Now, let’s try again.  Julie, mind fetching our balls?”
Julie did, hoisting them one in each hand without so much as a grunt or strain.  She gave Jack an I-told-you-so look as she reloaded them, but he was too busy eyeing his next target to notice it.  Fine, so that hadn’t worked.  Maybe the head was his goal after all.
One, two, forty paces, turn, fire.  This time Abraham’s boulder clipped his shoulder, spinning him all about until his teeth nearly shook out of his head.  His own shot slammed the ogre dead in the centre of his skull, which it bounced from as though it were made of rubber.  Abraham laughed and laughed.
“A good shot!  Ten points for me, but nought for you, I’m afraid!  Lass, our sporting equipment!”
Jack saw Julie’s lips move this time as she walked to him, and bent closer as she presented his ball.
“The chin,” she whispered.  “Uncle Abraham hides his heart under his chin.”
Jack nodded, and re-examined that bristling beard-structure that adorned the spot in question.  Its every hair looked harsher than an iron spear-tip.
“Abraham,” he called down the field.  “I fear I have you at a disadvantage, Uncle!”
“And why is that?” roared back the ogre, infinitely amused, arm cocked to throw.
“Because there is a wasp in your beard.”
At this, Abraham cursed and swore, swatted and spun, rocked and bounced and slapped at his hair, cutting himself many times over on its hard bristles.  He parted and re-parted it many times over, drawing the hair thin, and still he could not find the wasp.
“It’s gone,” called Jack.
Abraham cursed at him and threw the rock.  Jack leaned to the side, felt it caress his coattails, and threw his boulder.  It slipped nimbly through the combed and softened surface of Abraham’s beard and struck his chin dead centre, neatly folding him up in a heap.
“Forfeit,” said Jack pleasantly, and strolled off the field, trying not to feel the pain in his shoulder.

Dinner that night was quieter.  The cousins were winded from the beating Othello had handed them on the wrestling field (doubtlessly unaided by their brawling the previous evening), and Abraham’s jaw was locked from the blow he’d taken.  Jack enjoyed the silence a little, as well as the newfound willingness to chat that Father was showing to him.  Perhaps he was less than utterly fond of his brother-in-law.
“You’re making sure she eats well, hrrm?” he asked, idly scooping up a big ladleful of bear pudding.  “Needs good meat, strong flesh, harrumph.”
“I don’t eat meat, Father,” said Julie for the twentieth time that day, chewing on a veal cookie.
“Mmmmrrrmmmph,” commented Father idly, patting her back with a chuckle.  She nearly choked.  “That’s my girl, rruumm.”
Aunt Skadi beamed at them both.  She too seemed less than troubled by her husband and children’s newfound mutedness.
“Tell me,” leaked a voice to Jack’s side, just past the cousins, “do you tell, stories?”
Grandfather had never spoken in Jack’s hearing before.  He’d only just heard it, and already he was hoping he never would again.  It sounded like gas escaping from the corpse of a little dead thing, hissing as it passed through the idly flicking wings of the flies.
“A little,” said Jack.
Grandfather blinked his solitary eye, slowly and ponderously.  Everything he did was slow and ponderous; it had taken him all evening to rouse himself from his bog and drag his bulk to the table.  He was more than twice the size of father, but coiled up, all loose flaps of mossy skin and exposed, dirt-scrubbed bone.  His skin was the colour of spoiled cheese.
“I will, tell, a story,” he managed.  “Come.”  The old monster rose from the table, upending half of it, and lurched towards the dark stone staircase that led down to the cellars.
Jack shrugged, looked helplessly at Julie – she was biting her lip, he noticed – and followed, trying not to step in the ooze trail.

“This is, my home,” droned Grandfather, slipping into a wide worn hollow in the flagstones of the basement floor.  “Like, it?”
Jack looked.  He did not like it.
The mighty limestone slabs of the floor had been covered over and over long ago, layered with dirt and bone in alternating patterns, white shards and blackened decay.
That wasn’t the bad part.  The bad part was the trophy shelf, a lopsided slab of basalt hammered crudely into the wall by monstrous force.
The figures that sat atop them were entire skeletons, held together with crude blackened wire and treacle-like hardened spittle.  A knight on his horse, a hundred years old or more at the very least.  A priest, complete with tattered ritual robes and chewed spectre, and his whole retinue, all sloppily piled up in a heap around him.  A war-king of old with his broadsword, broken in half.  Dozens more, all the old meals and old wars and old foes all deposited here in a mound of dust that could’ve swallowed a lake.
“Impressive,” said Jack.  He meant it, to a point.
“Thank, you,” said Grandfather.  “Now, listen.”  He picked up the knight in one claw, bones rattling in time with arthritic strength.
“This man, was, the first,” began Grandfather, and Jack realized too late what was happening.   He nodded his head and said “mmm” and “you don’t say?” and none of it made any difference.  His brain hurt from the guttural humid vapidness of the mouldy air, and the nasal, breathy drone of Grandfather’s voice sounded inside his bones like a gale in a wind chime.  Every bone of every skeleton required an explanation, with lengthy digressions and asides and that-reminds-mes, all in that endless, wobbling voice.  His teeth felt like they were trying to crawl out of their sockets.
There was a pause, and Jack came out of his haze long enough to realize it was a snack.  Julie stood at Grandfather’s side, passing out a glass of warm milk and some toast, which were indelicately dropped into that endless maw with the very tips of his talons.
Jack took his toast warily, and was surprised to find that it did not contain meat.  It came with a honeycomb, filled with fresh, sweet honey, and it was the best thing he’d ever tasted because it took his mind out of Grandfather’s endless cobwebs of the throat.
Julie looked meaningfully at him as she left.  His hand trembled with the good-bye wave, and he wondered how much more of this droning he could take.
Then he realized what Julie had just handed him, and felt very stupid.
“But that’s, just the, first one,” said Grandfather, and Jack felt the horror overtaking him again.  He buttered and ate his toast with the speed of seven mortal men, pocketed the knife out of habit, drained the combs dry and balled them.  The little wax pellets went in his ears in a fancy motion disguised as a stretch and a kick-back-your-heels, and his mind went beautifully, blissfully blank for the first time in over three hours.  He nearly started crying in relief before he realized the odds were against him being able to pass it off as tears of joy.
From then on, time was on his side.  All he had to do was nod and mutter every five minutes as he stared glassily ahead, and try to keep his gaze focused on Grandfather’s lips without actually examining them too closely.  It was almost restful.  It was very restful.  And then it was so restful that he woke up the next morning as Julie shook him awake.
“It’s all rot, you know,” she told him, as they gazed across the basement at Grandfather’s snoring bulk.  “He never killed any of those men.  Well, not the way he said.  He just talked to them until they died, then ate them.  The poor old thing’s got very sensitive skin; a poke with a pin would make him bleed like a pig, let alone a sword slash.  And he’s allergic to iron.”
“A shame,” Jack said.  His neck was stiff, apparently he’d been sleeping on top of some unfortunate’s backbone, mangling his own slightly more than it was used to.
“Great Great-Grandmother got here last night.  You’d better come up for breakfast.  And whatever you do, don’t talk to her unless she talks to you first.  Be careful, all right?”
Breakfast was less hushed than last night’s meal – ogres healed fast.  Still, anything felt quiet after the ordeal of the evening.  Surviving Grandfather’s little talk had earned Jack even more respect, it seemed – only Othello still gave Jack that ogrish glare over his food, which, however unsettling, was a vast improvement over the whole family.  Jack wondered how on earth Clarence had ever managed to weather this mob to wed Julie in the first place.
It took him a while to notice Great Great-Grandmother, searching as idly as he was, sipping over-sugared, blood-thick tea and stealing sugar cubes the size of his fist for sheer novelty value.  First he looked for size, and that turned up nothing – Father was still the largest upstairs, a half-foot above Uncle Abraham.  Then he looked for a new face, and found none.  Then he saw Auntie Skadi very carefully pass down a bowl of pig entrails to the head of the table, and he finally saw Great Great-Grandmother.  Like himself and Julie, she could barely peek over the tabletop.  She looked like nothing more than a normal, pleasant old lady – rather quiet, yes, but some were like that, rare as they were in Jack’s experience – until she opened her mouth, revealing teeth that were just a little too long and white to belong to any human, anywhere.
That, and her eyes twinkled at him.  In three days of ogres, he hadn’t yet seen eyes like that.
The third day of the holidays, in Jack’s experience, was an open-air banquet, a meal interspersed by snacks that lasted all day long.  The ogres simply tripled the length of all meals, with a five-minute grace period between breakfast and lunch.  Jack spent most of it loosening his belt buckle, and most of lunch wishing he’d loosened it more.  At last, stomach groaning, he lurched away from the table and begged a chance to relieve himself.
“Stump out back, hrrrmmrr,” grunted Father.
The stump in question was an old, long-dead hemlock that once probably could’ve held a house in its branches.  Now it stood ten foot tall, half-hollowed, and filled with muck that you didn’t really want to look at.  Jack spent ten minutes manoeuvring himself into a position where he didn’t have to, five finding a spot where he was positioned appropriately and wouldn’t fall in, and six more after he was through just relishing the silence.
There was the thud-smush-crash of ogre footsteps.
“Occupied,” said Jack, seconds before Othello’s fist closed around his ribcage and yanked him out of his perch.
“Leave her alone,” he hissed in Jack’s face, tottering in his one-handed balance on the stump’s rim, brandishing Jack above its fetid depths.  “You’re bad for her!”
“Erk,” rebutted Jack.
“Say what?” said Othello, loosening his iron grip on Jack’s lungs for a moment.
“Surprise!” said Jack, and stabbed him between flesh and nail with last night’s pilfered silverware.
Othello clutched his hand and howled loudly, which was a bad move because it set him up for the next thing Jack did, which was to flip over his shoulder and kick him in the pants.  He landed in the bottom of the stump with a squelch you could hear halfway round the countryside.
“Are we through?” asked Jack brightly, shimmying his way down the side of the stump to solid ground.
Othello made some bubbling noises at him; apparently even ogres weren’t impervious to their own stenches, not to that degree.
“Right, we’re through.  Water under the bridge.  I’d offer to help you up, but you know how it is.”
As Jack walked back inside, he took a very small and vindictive pleasure in knowing he’d used the last of the birch-bark wiping pads that hung on the limbs of the stump.

Othello came back to dinner late, after what looked to have been a bath in swamp water and a scrub with a brush made out of a fistful of cattails.  His mother admonished him with a clout to the head, and for the first time that week, Jack sat at the big, rough-hewn table and not a single overlarge, overstuffed face was looking at him as though he were a particularly large and tricksome sort of cockroach.  And a good night it was, not just because of that – it was the last night, the last time anyone might threaten to string him up by his kneecaps from the roof, the last eve spent sleeping on floors where the vermin had vermin, the last time he’d need to see an ogre’s face for hopefully many months.  He couldn’t recall exactly why he’d done this, but it had probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  Charity, maybe.  That always seemed sunnier that it was.
Grandfather came lumbering up his stone stairwell late in the evening, towards the end of it all.  “Ma, ma!” he rumbled, and slumped down to the end of the table, where Great Great-Grandmother hugged him and cradled that hideous, wrinkled old skull.  He sat down in his seat looking happier than he had since Jack first met him.
It was a good meal.  The meat even mostly contained bits Jack could recognize.  The dessert of boiled frogspawn jelly, however, he discretely passed on.
And there, at the very end of the night, just before the big bronze clock that was wedged into the ceiling itself could begin to chime, Great Great-Grandmother stood up and cleared her throat and began to speak.
Jack knew many languages, and had forgotten even more.  He didn’t know this one at all.  It sounded like spider legs walking on sheets of frozen glass, and it gave him the shivers.
Mother stood up and walked to her side, where she whispered back and forth.
“Granny says thank you for the lovely meal,” she beamed, happiness floating up through the grim and out between her tusks like an errant cloud.
Hooting, hollering, and clapping echoed around the table.
“And,” Mother continued, waving for silence, “she says she thoroughly approves of this nice young man Julie’s brought.  A proper fellow, she says – heroes and monsters make a nice match.”
More clapping, shouting, and at least one massive hand slapping Jack on the back hard enough that it sent him into a brief coughing fit.
“But furthermore,” continued Mother, cheer practically wafting from the air around her as thick as the stench from her putrid cooking rags, “since Granny says this young man isn’t her husband, it’s perfectly all right for us to eat him!  So thank you very much Julie for the lovely present for your great-Gran!”
Massive cheering, standing ovation, enormous hands groping for Jack from all sides.  Jack was slightly comforted to see that Julie looked as surprised as he did before he was hoisted aloft and passed down the table like a parcel, transferred from iron grip to iron grip before he could so much as begin to wriggle, and receiving a nasty sucker punch to the jaw at one point from someone who was probably Abraham or Othello.  At last he was enclosed in the slimy grasp of Grandfather, who held him aloft before Great Great-Grandmother, legs dangling.
“Mama’s, hungry,” explained Grandfather carefully, pressing his great eyeball close to Jack’s face.
Jack felt his teeth gingerly with his tongue.  One of them seemed loose, and he shoved it harder.  “So I see,” he wheezed.  “But why me?”
“Has to, be, young man,” said Grandfather.  Behind Jack somewhere he heard Julie yelling at her parents, buried under a wave of shushing and murmurs from one corner and indistinct grunts from the other.  “It’s Mama,” he said, as though that made everything make sense.
Great Great-Grandmother smiled at Jack, a friendly, genuinely warm grin that was easily the most frightening thing he’d seen here all holiday.  Those long, long teeth were even longer than they should’ve been by now.  How could they fit in her mouth?
Jack’s tooth popped out.  Great Great-Grandmother reached up to him, stubby nails on thin, brittle wrists stretching out forever.  And Jack spat his steel tooth into Grandfather’s one eye.
It wasn’t quite iron, but it did the trick.

Grandfather lurched backwards, screaming, spasming, flipping over the entire banquet table.  Bowls of meat and frogspawn went flying to smash against walls and misshapen heads, splatter over bodies, cake limbs and bruise extremities.  Jack flew from his shaken grasp, bounced off the floor, and sprang to his feet in a charge for the hall.  Father stood in his way, warding back Julie with one hand, but it went hard for him.  Fighting large people is much easier than most non-heroes think: your prime target lies right overhead.
Jack grabbed Julie’s hand as he dashed between Father’s toppling legs, dragging her along – no, wait, she was rather more dragging him along.  Easy to forget that she was an ogre, wasn’t it?
They came to a skidding stop in the field.  Footsteps pounded behind them in the hall, turning the whole mounded hall into a giant, angry drum.  Shouts and roars and grunts.
Julie whistled, fingers between her teeth.  Then again.  Then again and again.  “Come on you silly bitch!” she screamed at the trees.
Jack fought through the haze of confusion (Julie swearing?  Most unthinkable) and plucked the item he sought from his inside jacket.  “Sugar cube?” he asked.
The mare had her mouth in his palm before he quite knew she was there, almost taking his fingers off when he jumped.

Julie took the reins.  Jack would’ve insisted on it anyways – it was her horse – but as it was he had no say in much, mostly because he was half-conscious, half-concussed, and approximately five-thirds overstuffed on bits of meat that perhaps had been just a little more spoilt than he recalled them being.
“Well,” she said, after the noise of the pursuit had died down behind them (thanks to a good hour or so of the mare’s tireless hoofbeats), “I suppose that’s that for family holidays.”
“Mmm,” agreed Jack.  He was trying not to watch the road move beneath them.
“I feel so bloody stupid,” she complained.  “Of course they wouldn’t have eaten Clarence.  I know they frighten him and he’d never stop worrying, so I let him go along with this – I don’t want him to be unhappy, you know – but I should’ve guessed that you wouldn’t have been able to hide from Great Great-Grandmother.  You just aren’t stout enough to be a match for him.  And you’re a little shorter.”
“Mmmhhmm,” seconded Jack.  He had the feeling that if he were more conscious, he’d be loudly objecting to something.
“They would’ve eaten you, yes, once they found out you’re not my husband, but never my husband.  This whole thing wouldn’t have happened if he’d listened to me.  And you wouldn’t have had to nearly blind poor Grandfather if they’d listened to me.”  She drooped in the saddle slightly.  “Nobody listens to me.  They all talk about how much they love me, but they never listen to me.”  She turned and smiled at him weakly.  “Well, you do.  You learned to do that fast enough once it was that or be beaned by Uncle Abraham.”  Julie stifled a giggle.   “Poor Uncle Abraham.  He’s got his nose in a sling right now, I’m sure.  You really did a number on all of them, by the end.  Fooled the cousins into a fight, bonked Uncle Abraham right in the chin – with my help, of course – beat up Father and Grandfather and shoved poor little Othello into the outhouse.  And all with my help.”
The forest was lightening around them, noticed Jack against the background noise.  The High Road must be near again.
“It’s a relief, you know.  I haven’t felt this good since I ran away from home the first time.  Nothing but happy then, and then I met Clarence.”  Julie sighed.  “He was the first person I met who wasn’t an ogre, and he was so nice about it that I just about fell in love with him.  Just about.  I’m not sure I did anymore.  He’s nice, but not much else.  And he doesn’t listen to me.”  She turned in the saddle to look at Jack again.  “I should change that, don’t you think?  All the love in the world isn’t any good if you can’t be treated like a person.  Mother, Clarence, Father, all of them think I’m a little fragile doll.  Well, maybe I can’t change Mother and Father’s minds on that.  Maybe never.  But I can change Clarence’s.”
“Mmmmhhm?”  managed Jack.  He really needed that other sugar cube or three he had in his jacket, if only he could reach them.  Heroing takes a lot out of you.  That, and all that food.  He’d need to keep his belt loosened for a month.
“I can change Clarence’s mind,” clarified Julie sweetly, as they approached the glowing lights of the inn on the hill, “because I can hold him out the window by his ankles until he starts listening.”

“A Family Get-Together,” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Skyhooks.

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

There’s a certain point, halfway up the ladder, where it seems impossible.  Just a little farther, you try and coax yourself.  Just a little; I’m halfway there, surely I can finish this, surely it’s not that hard?  And no matter how silvery-tongued and gold-throated you make yourself, your body won’t buy any of it, not so much as a penny’s-worth.  I’m done, it says.  Go find yourself a new body, because this one’s fed up and is about to let go and splat itself.  And you’re forced to agree, and your wind-numbed grip begins to loosen – just a little – and then you realize that you’re now two-thirds of the way up the side of the tower since you’ve started this suicidal little conversation. 
It’s much easier after that.  Well, most of the time.  Every year or two, someone loses the argument. 
It’s messy. 

The view from the top of the ladder makes up for it, I said to myself, as I rubbed down muscles that complained louder than my grandchildren.  It really does.  The village down there, on top of the peak, it has a nice view.  The top of the ladder, the fishing platform, that little wooden skeleton floating in the upper zephyrs all those hard-fought yards above?  That has a grand view, a view to make kings and priests drop to their knees and gasp.  You can see everything as far as the clouds will let you, from the top of the sky to the foot of the mountain, all those thousands of yards below, drowning in the thickness of the lower atmosphere. 
The air up here is different from down there; as sharp as a glasscutter, as cold and clean as a glacier’s spine.  It makes you see spots for hours after your first ascent, and you never quite stop building up a tolerance.  An expert skyfisher can stay up here for half the day and come down with a twinkle still in his eye, if not a spring in his step.  I slept overnight once, thirty years ago, fuelled as much by bravado as exhaustion.  I don’t recommend it.  Not unless the catch is really worth it. 
Today’s wasn’t.  I looked over the big basket – a big man could stand in it nicely – next to Davro, my niece’s husband.  Davro was a good skyfisher, but all he’d been able to grub up today were a few birds: some skinny Stovelings with their tubby, muscular bodies that could fly for days (and had to stew for hours for the least bit of tenderness), and an immature Banewing, all talons and beak and wide eyes that looked more puzzled than fierce on its adolescent frame.  A sad sight, to see it go before it had a chance to really learn how to ride the wind down on its prey.  And it was mostly bone and sinew, with very little meat. 
“Scarce,” Davro agreed with my silent appraisal of his catch.  “Not much out there today.   The migrations must’ve stopped a little early this year.”
“They started late, too,” I said. “That’s true.  But we’ve got a good catch from the summer still stashed away.  Remember that Moaner family?  Got all four of them, and there’s enough meat on those to feed a family each for half the winter.”
“You want to eat Moaner for half the winter?”  Tender the big, passive cloud-wanderers might be, but tasty they weren’t.  Not bad, just bland enough that one steak would drive a man to murder for some salt. 
Davro grimaced.  “Point made, Uncle.  Still, we won’t starve.  And that’s something.”
“Half the old coots down there would rather starve than live off Moaner meat.  Or at least I wish they would.  It’d save us all a lot of crabbing come midwinter.  I swear, they’ll out-moan their meals.”
“You aren’t so far off from one of those old coots yourself, Uncle.  ”
“Bite your tongue, boy.  The difference between me and them –”
“–is you’d rather climb the ladder up here than sit around and listen to each other complain about back pains?”
“–is that I’ve still got my looks.  And that too.  It isn’t the backs that’s the worst part, though.”
“Oh?”  Davro’s bamboo pole bucked in his hands, and he began to reel in the line, twisting it this way and that with old practice guiding his fingers. 
“No.  Carbuncles.  And piles.  Don’t get me started on the way they get started on carbuncles and piles.”
“A gruesome picture, Uncle.”
“And then there’s the warts.”
“And the haemorrhoids are simply –”
“Uncle, I can’t reel this in while trying not to gag at any vivid haemorrhoid description you may have readied and aimed at my sensitive, lily-like ears.”
“Soft, weak.  You can’t go skyfishing with a delicate stomach, nephew.  What’ll you do if that’s a Plowmaw you’ve hooked there, and you loose your dinner looking at its pretty face?”
“If this were a Plowmaw, I’d be halfway across the sky right now, arching gracefully, and just reaching the point where I start falling, then screaming.”
“And spraying your last meal to the four corners of the wind right then’d be downright unpleasant, wouldn’t it?”
Davro chuckled as he snagged his catch in the nets strung up around him like a spider’s web.  A single, smooth movement of his arm snapped up the wooden cudgel at his side and bludgeoned the squirming prey into passivity.  It was a mature male Scudhoppler, beautiful plumage dulled and fletching into its winter coat now that its breeding days were done.  Not the plumpest of birds, but those four skinny little wings of its crisp up nicely after just a few minutes in a pan.
“That’s it for me, Uncle,” said Davro.  “Hope you have better luck on the evening watch, but I’m for home and food now.”  He fixed a lid over his basket of catch, shoved it onto the big hook of the lift, and set about fastening all the ropes and knots that prevented it from spilling onto our roofs halfway down the descent.  It wouldn’t take anything much bigger than a Stoveling to put a hole through a house from this height, or even half it. 
“You know,” said Davro as he set the winch moving to drop the basket down, steady but slow, “I still remember the first time I asked you why we didn’t just use one of these to get up and down from here.”
“Oh yes.”
“You told me to stop asking stupid questions and whacked me on the head.”
“Well, I remembered my uncle telling me that back in the day.  I figured I owed it to him to pass it on.”
Davro laughed – louder than the lame joke had required for it to be socially acceptable – and headed down the ladder, moving in parallel with his ticking, creaking cargo.  If you were really good, your foot would touch dirt just before the basket did, so you could catch it.  If you weren’t really good but thought you were, you’d probably fall off trying to beat it.  A good weeding mechanism for braggarts, although a bit wasteful. 
I stood up there for a minute before I moved to work, savouring the sounds that coloured the silence.  The creak and whistle of the bamboo framework underfoot that made and held up this little island in the sky, our fishing platform.  The rush and rumble of the wind and the clouds.  Something out there, calling for food, warning, a mate, or just for the hell of it. 
I sighed happily, and felt those aching muscles fade into insignificance.  Davro was a nice boy, no bore to talk to, but up here wasn’t really meant for talking.  Not even during the big migration rushes, where every inch was crammed with men and equipment straining as hard as they could to bring down the quarry, the platform so overloaded with flesh dead and living that it seemed like it was going to crash down on the spot.  Even then, no one talked unless they had to.  This was a place for doing things
So I did things.  I pulled my rod from my back, assembled it with care, all the long, whippy, hollow feet of it, stretching out and giving me a reach that spanned yards.  I threaded its tip with the strong stuff, the string woven by my Vedna, near as tough as wire and nearly as stiff.  I had a devil of a time knotting it, but when it was done, nothing short of a Plowmaw would snap that line, and I liked to think that even one of those brutes would’ve had to strain itself.  I dotted its length with small glass-blown buoys, airy little things containing just enough helium to keep the line near-neutrally buoyant. 
That was the bulk of the preparations.  Now, the location, my favourite spot, a little nook tucked away on the northernmost dock.  The skyfishing platform was roomy enough for a score and a half of men to scurry about, but it never felt large, not in the face of all that empty air.  You were forever surrounded by a view that made the biggest man feel like an ant.
The sun had begun its dive.  I baited the tip of the line, placed a big soft lump of Vedna’s thickbread on its tip.  Heavy, firm dough riddled with all manner of fragrant little nuggets, meats, fruits, and vegetables alike.  Not so good for a human to eat, not unbaked, but the smell brought the game in like fleas to a roaming cat.  And as soon as they found it, they had to taste it, with just a quick mouthful, a little nip at the bait.  Which usually ended up sampling one of the two dozen or so barbed hooks of varying shapes and sizes that studded the entire doughball.  A nasty business, but I liked to think I was good enough to make sure it was over quickly. 
Preparations: done.  Location: done.  Baiting: done.  I whirled the line and cast, watched it soar into a nearby cloudbank.  And then I sat back to wait and skywatch and politely ask myself what in the name of all the sticks in the forest what I was doing up here. 

I was old.  There was no denying that, dance around the issue with Davro as I might.  Skyfishing was not a job for old men, or aging men, or anyone that wasn’t ready for an hourlong climb followed by a six-hour marathon of heaving in struggling prey and wrestling it to death, all in thin air.  So was I doing it because I wanted to pretend I was still young?  Or was the company of my near-peers really as grating as I talked it up to be? 
Or was I just determined to do this because I didn’t know anything else?
I stared moodily at my bobber, a shiny bit of metal that glinted in the slowly-reddening light of the setting sun.  Let’s face it, Farlen, I told myself, you love thisYou like the view, you love the sweet sting of the cold breeze, you love that ache you don’t care about that pops up in your arms as you try to subdue a Moaner calf while its parents get ready to charge you.  And you’ve spent your whole life doing it, and you’re damned if you’re going to step off that ladder, touch dirt, and never see the sky again except from below. 
Except you’re going to have to, because your bones hurt and your back aches and all those piles and carbuncles you were bandying about with young Davro – who isn’t young, and is just a sign of your own advancing age, calling a midyears man young! – belong to you, and the only difference between you and those coots downstairs is that they’re smart enough to know when to leave off work and take up complaining
Huh.  I bet that they were drinking tea right now, while I shivered up here.  I smiled through blue lips.  Bastards didn’t know what they were missing. 
The line shook, my mind snapped to attention, and the first catch of the eve started its laborious progress towards the dinner table. 

Time spent on the skyfishing platform was different from time on the dirt.  It had two modes, two tempos: waiting and reeling.  Waiting, it slowed, swirled, eddied around me as smooth as a summer breeze.  The line bobbed, the little buoys on it shimmered, and the cold settled in with the insidious ease of a cuckoo in a nest.  Then would come reeling, where the world shattered into a new form instantly, where everything but the line and the muscles dropped out of sight and out of mind and overheated, bones baking against blood from the sweet, sweet strain of sweat. 
Then with the plop of the catch’s body in the basket it was back to waiting, mind making a tally that sat unchanged somewhere in the back of the brain until it needed adding to again. 
The first catch was a wandering Sicklejaw, a rarer sight than most (reptiles in the sky were always rare, scaly, gliding things, and ones this high up scarcer still), and a fierce fight until I managed to wrap my hands around its neck (a riskier, but faster kill than the cudgel, and one I preferred and maintained took more skill).  Slightly rank flesh, but it was a female with a clutch tucked up in her long, curved underbill.  The eggs were protected from all by her iron-hard beak, but now lay exposed to her poisonous saliva as the muscles in her jaw gradually relaxed.  I placed them in the basket with care, and wrapped my blanket around them for cushioning.  I wouldn’t need the warmth for now anyways.  Vedna had knit that blanket, it was as thick and warm as could be and still light enough to be an easy carry al the way up.  I didn’t really deserve her company. 
Three Stovelings were next, the last of the evening, all spaced apart by no more than ten minutes, all with very little fuss.  My mother had cooked them the best of anyone I knew, even Vedna, though of course I’d never tell her that.  Most people thought the name was about their chewy, rubbery flesh, but she’d always said otherwise.  “They’re like little stoves, of course,” she told me, and she’d hollowed out their tiny ribcages and stuffed them with whatever she could, fruit or vegetables.  It tenderized them wonderfully fast. 
A vast-winged, tiny-bodied Spiralling Crover, on its way down from the vaults of the sky above where it slept in the day to the lowlands of the underclouds, aching to feed on small nightbirds and bats.  A bony, knobbly-poor meal, but with beautiful plumage and soft, insulating down that would make a fine pillow or coat lining, perhaps something for one of the grandchildren.  Maybe little Aniese?  Or wait, she wasn’t so little anymore, and would take resentment as being “babied.”  Was Olmin still the youngest?  They all grew up so fast, such a tired line that the old people had told him when he was young. 
Now here was a real catch, a sturdy tug on the line with real weight behind it.  No bird this, a bat, a Gloompounder, a big, slow browser of the high-altitude insects, the earl of batkind: fat, sleepy and thick, but with excellent taste.  A real feast, and that short, thick fur would be handy.   Easy catches too; if you could get by that first shocked and appalled outburst of theirs when they felt the hook’s prick, you were pretty much set.  This would be a fine, tasty meal.  I could share it with Davro, as thanks.  He’d always been my favourite nephew.  My brother was a better father than I was.  Had been a better father than I was.
I grew cold all at once, and reclaimed my blanket from the Sicklejaw eggs, carefully nestling them on the fur of the Gloompounder’s belly and covering it with a wing. 
Damnit, I was old. 

Another Gloompounder bit the line as soon as I’d replaced it, a smaller specimen that might have been the other’s mate (hard to check the gender on Gloompounders, especially in the oncoming dusk).  Another good meal, and a good sign.  The night was proving fruitful, and I decided I’d lord it over Davro a little when I got home.  Just ribbing, of course – luck couldn’t be helped. 
The next catch soured my optimism as soon as I heard the squealing.  It was a Chittle-Whistler, all legs, compound eyes, and carapace, with that damned pig-screaming orbiting it like a comet.   My father had sworn by their meat, but he was the only man I’d ever known who’d willingly eat the things when other food lay nearby, or even things that were only food under the most relaxed definitions.  Those things did not count among their number Chittle-Whistler meat, as far as I was concerned.  If you wanted to eat bugs, you should at least eat little ones.  Trying to consume one the size of a large boy seemed excessive. 
I smacked it between the eyes with the cudgel – nothing to strangle, and there was no way I was touching that thing – moved to throw it over the side of the skyfishing platform that faced down the mountainside, far from the village, and stopped to consider an idea.  Maybe I didn’t like Chittle-Whistlers.  Maybe no one in the village liked Chittle-Whistlers.  But there were plenty of things out there that did like them, and maybe I was being a tad too quick to discard useful bait. 
I cut free the legs – no sense in making the lure too bulky – and set them aside, then re-attached the limbless head and torso to the line, setting aside the chewed-upon scraps of the sweetdough (it had been near finished anyways – but with this, the night could stretch on a bit longer).  The buoys were measured, checked, and another four or so were added on to compensate for the heavier drag.  Then with a cast, it started all over again.  Something in the back of my head pointed out that the sun had set, and I should be heading home inside the hour.  Vedna and the family would be setting out dinner without me now, it warned, and I’d miss the scraps.  I devoutly ignored it. 

It was a matter of minutes before the next catch was champing at the Chittle-Whistler’s bit, and the weight and heft of it nearly caused me to lose my feet from glee alone.  Up up and up over the side it came, rattling and thrashing against the bamboo hard enough to rock the platform, a big fat Twulkee’s Owl, the black sheep of its particular family with its long (for an owl) beak and small (again, for an owl) eyes.  It hissed at me, and I laughed back as I brought it down.  Good stewing flesh, and that beak would make a fine razor.  But only a razor for the cautious.  The beak was sharp, yes, but just a little too sharply curved at the tip.  Treat it like a straight blade and you’d have a slit throat before you knew what from when. 
A Spreadwing Gloompounder was next up, the giant of its particular family, as fat and round as a butterball with wings like big paper fans.  It put up much more of a fight than its lesser cousins had, if only because of its impressive weight.  Towards the end it grew exhausted and hung limp, and the force of the dead weight nearly dragged me over the edge. 
Deep breath, stretch your back.  My, that hurt, didn’t it?  Odd, didn’t feel so bad at the time.  Deep breath again, keep it coming, back to work. 
Another Chittle-Whistler, never a species to shy from cannibalism.  I smacked it between the disgusting eyes and threw it away, allowing myself the brief luxury of watching the body pinwheel to a speck and then nothing against the grey rocks.  Very satisfying, perhaps inappropriately so.  The air made me gasp, and it reminded me of that one fistfight I’d had up here with brother Rackle, Davro’s father.  We’d loved the same girl.  He’d won the fight, found the girl wasn’t worth it, and moped for three years before finding his wife Yema.  And her sister Vedna, well, she’d found me soon after, hadn’t she? 
The best fight of my life, although I couldn’t breath properly for weeks after it. 

A wait, a pause, and then a heave and a pull.  And what a heave, what a haul!  I could recognize that pull anywhere, in my sleep, in my grave; it was a Highbacked Trellmador, a grand swimmer of the skies, a bird built like the beautiful, delicious, unnatural offspring of a fish and a bull, with a beak that was a blunt instrument.  My whole body was the rod for an hour there, a long, hard wrestle of skinny arms against wings that could concuss a  horse with a blow.  Twice my feet nearly left the platform’s surface, and each time I hazily considered checking to see if I’d remembered to tie the knots in my line securely, each time dismissing it – I might lose the catch!
At last it hurled itself at me head on, with a screech like cracking rocks.  I skipped, hopped, and fell over, it couldn’t check itself, and with a thud that shook the ladder to its roots it smacked onto the platform, too stunned and exhausted to even flap. 
It took me five minutes to kill the thing, tired as I was, thick as its skull was.  And what a haul  I’d send this down with the basket strapped to its side, in a special harness.  Out of season by a great magnitude – Highbacked Trellmadors were early migrators, and they might not fly fast but they flew long.  This thing’s kin should be clear to the winter nesting grounds by now, and I had no idea what on earth had possessed it to stay so long as the nights grew cooler.  
I turned to the basket, then hesitated and looked at my rod and line.  The Chittle-Whistler, though ragged, remained intact.  And Highbacks tended to flock in mated pairs.  Maybe this was an unlucky bachelor heading home alone after a long, fruitless search for a partner.  Maybe it wasn’t.  Maybe I should find out before I started to climb down the ladder, completely exposed and open, with no shelter and nowhere to run.  Highbacks paired closely, to say the least. 
Besides, said that little thing in the back of my head, you want to prove that you’re still the best.  That you’re not old.  I told it shut up, and then realized I’d spoken aloud without intending to. 
All right then.  The last cast.  Just to be sure, to be safe.  The air was getting to me.  I heaved the rod back, flicked, and watched the ungainly, half-chewed corpse go spinning away into the night, bobber shining in the flicker of my lantern. 
It vanished suddenly, and I had barely any time at all to grin before that familiar, deep haul rung in on me, with a savage undercurrent that told me I’d been exactly right.  I laughed a bit – well, coughed, what with the cold and all – and thanked every star above me that I hadn’t tried to leave the shelter of the platform, however simple it was. 
Of course, now I had an angry bird twice my size and my full weight attached to a string that I couldn’t let go of.  Still, it was probably better this way. 
The line shook, and I spilled half out over the ledge, gripping firmly to the railing with my hips as best as I could.  I tipped uneasily as it yanked this way and that. 
Well, it was probably better. 
A wrench, a yank, and my grip started to slip.  I didn’t want to think what would happen if the Trellmador got ahold of my rod.  I wasn’t about to head down that ladder with it lurking, and the thought of replicating my little overnighter of so many years ago gave me the chills in my chills. 
The line shook, I jerked another half inch towards a thousand feet of air, and then it slumped with a crunch, slackening in a flash.  I was so surprised, I nearly threw myself off the edge. 
Something rumbled out there in the darkness, effortlessly overwriting the pained squawk of the Trellmador.  Bones crunched, and the line twitched and soared this way and that, entirely independent of my muscles.  The Trellmador went quiet, and the only sound was the tearing now, like someone tearing apart wet chunks of wood. 
Then a quiet nudge, a deliberate yank on the line, experiment, cautious, intrigued. 
I dropped the rod.  It was a good one, used for fifteen years, made by my oldest son, and I was sure he’d be happier to have a living father than an intact skyfishing rod, which he wouldn’t have in any case if I chose to hang on to it.  Whatever was out there, it wasn’t something I would go after along, or with rod and line at all.  We’d need the harpoons we took down Moaners and Great Green Rumblebacks with, the summer hunting tools for when the updrafts were warm and the sun shone bright.  All tucked away safely in the sheds around the ladder’s base, damn it. 
Whatever it was grunted, and the sounds of busy consumption drifted away on the breeze, quieter by the second. 
All right.  Escape next.  Hopefully it’ll move on fast.  Hopefully.  If not, if it finds me down that ladder, I’m dead.  Probably. 
I looked at the basket, and the winch for the basket drop. 
“This is a very, very, stupid idea,” I told myself aloud, whispering. 
Still, what were the alternatives?
So it was, after a few worrying minutes of preparation and starting at night sounds, that I finished rigging the basket together with the Trellmador corpse.   I had one foot on the ladder and one hand on the trigger switch and my heart in my mouth. 
“Stupid idea,” I reminded myself, and I flipped the switch. 
The cargo dropped what seemed almost instantly, like a rock.  So hypnotizingly speedy was its descent that I very nearly forgot to start climbing, muscles locking up like children’s hands on candies. 
Over the whir of the moving dropline, something rumbled again.  That got me moving. 
It was the fastest I’d ever gone down the ladder, and in the worst state.  I was too jumpy to think or move, and my body was too numb and stiff to bend.  Yet somehow, I managed, skipping steps, releasing grips almost as soon as they were found, keeping one eye on the darkness and another on my hands, neither of which were in any state to notice anything smaller than a house.  Still, I paid close attention to them, so much that I neglected my ears, which is why it took me so long to realize that the cargo line had stopped its descending hum. 
I paused, and in the sudden, extreme moment of focus I found myself in, I heard a rumble from below. 
You don’t want to move too fast in a situation like that.  It can get you in trouble.  So I spun around so quickly that I nearly twirled off the ladder. 
Right there, right beneath my feet, cargo basket in its claws, half of the Highbacked Trellmador vanishing into its maw, was a flying reptile, streaked in grey and flecked in black and shadowed everywhere with blurred markings.  Its eyes were small and bright orange, its claws were as long as my hand, and its wings seemed to be blotting out half the sky from my view.  I hadn’t ever seen one in person, and it was only because I was too shocked to actually think that the little voice in my head promptly and politely coughed up its name from my grandfather’s ancient old book of wildlife: a Mokie Highdrake.  They were northern predators, they had no natural enemies, fed mostly on whatever was too slow to outrun them, and weren’t much studied because things that couldn’t outrun them included humans.  This one was probably migrating extremely late, and had wandered a little far south. 
It blinked up at me, eyelids flicking in irritation as the slackened cargo rope dripped across its face. 
I let go of the ladder.  I had something that wasn’t quite a plan in my head, and if I stopped to think about it I was sure it would be ruined.  The back of my head explained to me that this was completely insane approximately five times over in the two seconds it took for me to land on the basket as it dangled from the Highdrake’s claws. 
There was a snap, a thump, and a bump, and I was freefalling again, cushioned against the feathers and fur of a half dozen or more corpses.  That big rumbling roar came from above me as I fell, and my scattered vision caught a blur of orange eyes as it came streaking down after me in full dive, claws glittering in and out of view.  The rope jerked against my back, tangled in its wings, and I began to slow practically before I started. 
This is very stupid, I reminded myself, in case I forgot.  The Highdrake hauled upwards, yanking the tether in its teeth, slack looping about itself as I drew closer and closer. 
Something else was in its teeth, something twitching back and forth with each heave and pull – the handle of my skyfishing rod.  It was practically close enough to touch, so I reached out and grabbed it.  It slid out remarkably easily.  Except for the hooks. 
The Highdrake’s first instinct was to pull back.  That did its job as far as getting out the hooks went.  It also removed a good part of its tongue.  That triggered its next instinct, which was to open its mouth and hiss.  That released the rope, which promptly shot taunt under my weight plus the entire combined mass of my cargo. 
This wouldn’t have been an issue for the Highdrake if the rope hadn’t looped around its neck as it pulled.  That wouldn’t have been an issue for the Highdrake if the slight weight change hadn’t caused its right wingtip to brush the framework of the ladder. 
A falter turned into a lurch turned into a splintering snap, and down came everything, extremely quickly but just fast enough to watch. 

The landing was odd.  I blacked out on the crash, then woke up from the sheer, ear-shattering noise it made.  The hollow bones of the Highdrake seemed to pop as loud as fireworks, and the chorus of yells from around the town as people woke up at what sounded like the end of the world didn’t make things any quieter. 
That was quite a fall.  The farthest I’ve heard of.  Maybe I’d even survived it. 
I decided I’d find out later, and passed out. 

Vedna was the first thing I saw when I woke up, somehow in my bed at home.  For a horrible moment she looked worried, then angry, then she hugged me and told me I was awful.  That was reassuring. 
“How’s the ladder?” I asked. 
“Shush,” she said. 
“How’s the ladder?” I asked Davro. 
He shook his head.  “Standing.  But not by much.”
“Sorry.  Unavoidable.”
“With what you just brought down, I don’t think we’ll need the extra food.  We’ll have all winter to work out how to rebuild it.”
“Good,” I said, vaguely.  My head felt like it was full of feathers.  “Good.”
A thought popped up, slowly but surely.  “No, not quite.”
“Sorry, Uncle?”
“No ‘we.’  I think it’s time I stopped climbing that ladder.  You’ll have to build it without me.”
Davro gave me a sympathetic look.  “Age catches us all, Uncle.”
I shook my head, wincing as my back ached.  “No, not that.  I just don’t think I can ever top that catch.”


“Skyhooks” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Watercolours.

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

The sky looked troublesome today, thought Matthias.  There was something about the curve of the clouds, the texture of the atmosphere, the firmness of lines encompassed by the horizon.  It was altogether not quite perfect, which meant, as he was quick to remind himself –
“You just wasted the whole morning.”
Matthias gave as evil an eye as he could possibly manage to the nine-foot, hirsute bird squatting in the sand next to him.  “I was quickly reminding myself of just that,” he reproached his critic.  “The worst criticism is unnecessary criticism.”
“The worst criticism is unconditional praise,” retorted the bird. 
“I wish I had some of that,” said Matthias.  “It would be a nice change.”
“I always knew you were a lazy rube at heart.  A quick job, a once-over to make sure no major bits are missing, and bam, cash out.  Philistine.”
“You wound me, Gershwin.”
“Prove me wrong.”
Gershwin stretched his neck and shook it, an avian yawn that sent his big axe-beak fluttering about in the sun like a ten-pound leaf.  Matthias admired the ridiculousness of his companion’s form even as he privately wished great misfortunate and discomfort upon its wearer.  If a bear had learned how to fly, then forgot how, it would’ve looked something like Gershwin.  It would’ve had the same attitude, too.
“In any case,” he said, “the morning isn’t a total washout.  The beach looks nice.”
“Maybe not my best work, but it’s quite pretty, I think.”
“Not with that disaster masquerading as weather hanging over its head.  Tear it down and start over.”
Matthias sighed deeply.  “I suppose you’re right.  A little.  You manage it now and then.”  He picked up his palette from where it lay carelessly discarded in the sand.  Mere minutes ago he’d been so caught up in his painting that he’d let it drop at his feet as he reached up to do the high bits, and now he couldn’t imagine how the work in front of him had ever captivated his imagination. 
There were three big colours on the palette’s smooth surface: red, yellow, and blue.  There were a bunch of little ones, stuff like infrared and ultraviolet, which came in after the main job was done. 
There was a single, carefully-separated spot on the palette, which was impossible to look at.  It made Matthias squint as he dabbed his brush carefully in it. 
“I hate this part,” he said as he poised his arm. 
“Get it over with.”
Matthias did.  One long sweep, a swing, a graceful backslash, and the beach had no sky again, just like it had an hour ago.  The ocean’s waves rose up to greet blankness, turning the soft sounds of water on the shoreline somewhat confused.  A hasty sketch of a gull’s outline that had been circling overhead screeched in alarm as it suddenly found itself on the ground, the air vanishing out from under its wings. 
“There.  Much better.  Now, are you ready to try again?”
Matthias looked at all that empty space, and shuddered at the thought of filling it in again.  “No, no, I don’t think so.  I think I’ll go sketch for a while.”
“Suit yourself,” said Gershwin.  “I’ll wait.”
Matthias picked up his coat and hat and left the beach and its missing skyline.  He went to a desert for a while, and drew some pretty good rocks.  They caught the sunlight with a spider’s boldness, and he cheered up a little.  Just to reassure himself that he could still do it, he left a quick outline for a sunset overhead, so he could come back later and practice.  He didn’t feel like doing more atmospheric work just yet. 
“Better?” asked Gershwin as he stepped back onto the beach. 
“A bit,” said Matthias.  “Let’s go start up a fresh one.  I’ve got some ideas.”
So they went to another spot, a good blank one, and Matthias started drawing.  First, some water…
“You always use too much water.”
“I like water.  Besides, it’s important.  Most of the really exciting stuff only happens if you’ve got some water around somewhere.”
“Don’t overspecialize, all the same.  Do you want to be summed up as “that guy who wouldn’t quit with the water”?”
And then for the coast, a lot of pebbles, big rounded smooth ones.  Well-aged pebbles with just the right colour (dark grey to black) and lustre (shinier than a star when wet, flat and plain otherwise). 
“Either a bit dull or a bit depressing.”
“Just wait and see.”
And then (the important bit, the part that had popped into his head as he watched the sun glimmer on the rocks), with big smooth strokes, the ice.
“More water?”
“Entirely different state of matter.  Besides, you didn’t complain about me using rocks again for the ground.”
Gershwin grumbled to himself, and Matthias knew he’d scored a point.  He drew faster, with a heart growing freer by the moment.  Big swirls of ice studded the water, which took on dark curls and bleak tones.  Sweeping plains of snow stretched into the distance.  And over it all, he started to fill in the sky.  A greying, washed-out-white eclipsed in purity by the puffed and ruffled chest feathers of the ridiculous little birds he covered the rocks in.
Matthias felt Gershwin’s gaze grow frosty, and he very carefully refrained from smiling.  Although a small giggle did lodge itself in his throat and refuse to leave. 
“Parody,” said the critic, “has its place.  Is this it?”
“Pardon?” said Matthias.  He traced out a long, thin line in the water, the back of a sausage-shaped seal with the barest hint of a razory canine peeking out of its lip. 
“Hmmph.  Mind that it makes sense on its own.  The best parodies always do.”
Matthias took the point, and put some fish in the water.  “There,” he said.  “Food source and predator both attended to.  Happy?”
“Needs detail.”
Matthias drew many little nests among the rocks, made from cunningly woven twigs. 
“Did you say there were going to be trees down here?”
Matthias drew many little nests among the rocks, made from beak-chipped and carved ice.
“That doesn’t seem very safe for unhatched eggs.”
Matthias drew many little nests among the rocks, made from painstakingly relocated other rocks.  His hand was starting to hurt. 
“That’s better.  Say, where are you going to put this?”
Matthias flexed his palm.  “Well, the gallery’s south end is empty.  I figure we could always drop it down… wait, are you serious?”
“Absolutely.  Good, original work.  I should get you sulky more often if this happens afterwards.”
“I could do a companion piece for the other end,” suggested Matthias, thoughts unfolding and reshaping in his head like a pile of energetic origami.  “A counterbalance, a contrast.”
“Absolutely not.  You’ll ruin its distinctiveness.  Do you want to be one of those people that does nothing but push out sequels to their best-seller?”
“You’ll see.”
“I hope I will.”
So Matthias packed up the landscape very carefully and walked to the north end of the gallery.  He picked up his brush and considered the horizon, then redrew it. 
“Looks familiar already,” groaned Gershwin.  “Copy, copy, copy.  You’re redrawing old news again.  Creatively stagnant layabout.”
“Wait for it.”
He drew the snow.  He drew the water.  He drew the ice.  He drew and drew and redrew half the original scene until he could feel Gershwin’s urge to remonstrate him vibrating in the air like a big bomb, and then he took his brush, put it to the empty, silent vista in front of him, and he drew a really big bear. 
That set him back on his heels a bit.  “What’s the idea there?”
“Look,” said Matthias, and he put in a seal.  “Wait a moment,” he said, and put some ice over the water.  Then he put in a hole for the seal, which stuck its head out of it.  The bear smashed its head in and ate it. 
“Creative,” commented Gershwin.  “Disgusting, but creative.” 
“Thank you.”  On second thought, all those rocks didn’t really fit in.  What about more ice?  More water.  Matthias scribbled and rescribbled, blotting out whole chunks of land without so much as a twinge.  More ice floated in the water, big mounds and mountains of it.  A whale poked its head out in the space between floes, and for a lark he fitted it with the same colours as the penguins, adding elegance to an already sleek figure. 
“Very pretty,” said Gershwin, “but aren’t you forgetting something?”
Matthias’s fingers beat a rapid pit-a-pat-a-bat on his palette as he considered the sky.  Its blankness was making the polar bear confused; the poor thing kept giving him the most forlorn looks. 
He tried white again.
“Predictable.  And a little too close to before.”
He tried blue.  
“Too normal.”
He tried puce, in a fit of irritation.
“No tantrums now.  Come on, act your age.”
Matthias tried black, with some stars.
“Setting it at night?  Wonderful.  Paint everything black and call it a job.”
Matthias tried throwing his palette.  Gershwin ducked amiably, and it splattered all over the sky. 
“Now look at what you’ve done,” he said. 
Matthias was opening his mouth to scream something, and then thought again. 
“What is it?”
“Look at that, won’t you?”
Gershwin turned around and looked.  “My word.”
The sky was streaked and spattered with all sorts of colours, smeared in sheets that dribbled across the constellations like delicate silks.  They rippled up and down, jostling on the breeze, and there was a strange little spot at their hearts that seemed impossible to see, no matter how hard you squinted. 
“That can’t be safe,” said Matthias, gingerly picking the palette up from the snow.  One of the bears hopefully licked the stains, checking for edibility, and turned its tongue permanently purple.
“Who cares?” said Gershwin, staring at the aurora borealis with the rapt concentration he normally reserved for small, edible mammals.  “It’s the best thing you’ve done since those big lizards.  And don’t you dare try to fix it – you’ll just end up tossing out half the gallery and starting over again.”
“You were entirely too attached to those reptiles.  I just wanted to try drawing some things that looked like me for a change.  And I have to change those – there’s some of the correctional blotter left in the middle of them.”
“Piffle.  Pish tosh.  As long as no one looks at them too hard, who’ll know?  Besides, no one’ll visit up here anyways.  Too cold.  They’ll stick to the central hall, and you’d know it, what with all the tasty fruit you kept adding in there.”
“I was hungry that day.”
“I take that as agreement.”  Gershwin clacked his beak in satisfaction.  “You know, today hasn’t been half bad.  If you fix up that beach’s skyline before you go slouching off to bed, maybe you’ll even be ready to open the place up to the public before you’re completely senile.”
Matthias, inspired by the unexpected and rare praise, not only finished the sky but fired off three new delicious kinds of fruit before going to bed, one of which was unexpectedly and ebulliently toxic. 

He wasn’t sure if it was that or his furtive decision to copy the aurora in the southern piece – just experimentally, no one would notice – that led to Gershwin attempting to peck his eye out the next day. 


“Watercolours,” copyright 2010 Jamie Proctor.