Archive for November, 2010

Storytime: Snowflakes.

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

There was snow, and there were snowflakes.  All over the world, from here to there, coasts to shores, mountains to valleys.  And all of them came from the same place: the House at the End of the North. 
Inside, at the highest room in that house, the cabin-grown-large made from huge logs of glaciated wood, was where Winter sat at his great wooden desk of black pine: a severe, tall, bearded man with the gentle disposition of a corpse and a robe of not-quite-pure white. 
At the moment his sleeves were shoved back over his jagged elbows to leave his cold, bony forearms bare and let his dangling, darting fingers roam free and wild over their task.  At his side on the desk was a colossal glass jar, filled to the brim and just barely above with bulging water; in his hand, an icicle-as-pen, thin and colder than death. 
He was working. 
Here – a dash of the instrument, a single, tiny droplet stolen.  There – to the desk, onto the thin sheet of chilled, clear ice that served him as his canvas.  A nudge, a tickle, and a caress, and it was halfway there already.  Now – a poke, a slip, and a breath, and it was done.  Another snowflake, another little marvel, and as always, unique and perfect.  He blew on it softly, and smiled a warm, cold smile as it blew away through the open window, into the dark and cloudy skies to join its trillions of brothers and sisters.  Far away, the wind howled, the seas froze, the trees groaned, the glaciers rolled. 
Winter was happy, and worked on.  Outside, the snowflakes fell unending. 

Winter sat back at his desk and sighed, stretching his eternally hunched and brittle back.  It was a good morning, here in the place where there were no mornings.  He’d completed seven hundred million snowflakes so far, and he would hope to finish five times as many before the day was done, now that he’d warmed up a bit.  Still, those first few hours of snow were always his most ingenious, he liked to imagine – the burst of creativity running wild before it settled down into a comfortable grind for the remainder of his afternoon.  All well and good.  Imagination had its place, but it could only carry you so far; the rest was pure will. 
He cracked his creviced knuckles, settled in his chair, and prepared to get some really serious snow-crafting done. 
There was a polite knock on the door. 
Winter shook off the figment of his imagination and reached for the jar. 
There was a second knock, a carefully inoffensive rip-rap that wound its way up the narrow, tilting staircases (each crammed with narrower bookcases filled with thinner yet tomes, bound in ice and scribed in sleet) and all the way up to Winter’s study. 
He paused, and listened carefully. 
A third knock echoed through the House at the End of the North, where no one ever visited because no one ever knew. 
Winter got to his feet in such a surprised hurry that he nearly overturned his desk of black pine and shuffled down the stairs, skipping cold, flat steps and tripping over his toes.  The fourth (still polite) knock was just being set in motion as he heaved open the front door, a solid, impassive thing that had once been the heart of an iceberg. 
There was no one there. 
“Excuse me,” said a voice, as polite and mannerly as the knocks, “but are you Grandfather Winter?”
Winter looked farther down.  A very small and fuzzy little animal was sitting on his doorstep. 
“I am no one’s grandfather,” he said.  “And who might you be?”
“I’m a lemming,” said the lemming.  “And I’m sorry to hear that.”
Winter tried to understand this. 
“Why?” he asked, giving up. 
“I have dozens of grandchildren.  I feel sorry for you.”
“They’d be a distraction.”
 “Less than you’d think.”
“Polite, aren’t you?” said winter, stroking his beard with one hand without really noticing.
“I try, Grandfath – Winter.  I make friends, and lots of them.  I am too small to do most things by myself.”  The lemming fidgeted.  “Say, do you mind if I come in?  It’s very cold out here, with no burrow to hide in.”
Winter thought about it.  He’d never had guests before, but he supposed it was the polite thing to do.  Besides, he was well ahead on snowflakes.  He could spare a few minutes. 
“All right,” he said.  “But just for a while.”
The lemming walked in and shivered as the door shut behind him.  Winter’s house was nearly as cold as any snowstorm, the cold that was too heavy to move and simply lay in the air, numbing the skin and drying the eyes as your hair froze solid.  Winter led him to the living room, with chairs made from frost-coated erratics, glacier-borne boulders that had been given to Winter as presents uncounted sums of seasons ago. 
“So,” said Winter, sinking into a thin, thin hollow in the largest of the rocks, “why have you come to my house that no one comes to?”
The lemming curled up on one of the smaller erratics, a stone that normally served as footstool. 
“Well…” he said.  “It’s about the weather.”
“Yes, some of my best work, isn’t it?  Lovely.  I’ve been having so many good ideas the past few weeks that I barely have enough hours in the day to make them.”
The lemming made eye contact with Winter’s feet.  They were bare, and paler than a frightened polar bear.  “It won’t stop snowing.”
Winter tilted his head to the side and frowned.  “I’m sorry, what was the problem?”
“It won’t stop snowing, Grandfa – Winter.  The whole world’s getting too cold and too white for everyone.  Your creativity is killing us.”
“Rubbish,” said Winter.  “The world is better than ever – better off!  All those deformities and misshapen features and all the ugliness ever wrought, all hidden under a smooth, numbing blanket.  No, no, there’s no stopping this, I’m afraid.  You’ll thank me later.”
“Is there no argument to change your mind, Winter?”
“Absolutely not.”  Winter stood up with some difficulty, bones creaking like old, blackened ice, which they were.  “Now, if you’re quite through with your reasons for business, I’d like you to leave now.  I have more snowflakes to shape.”
“If I got outside now, I’ll freeze before an hour’s out.  Please Winter, don’t force me outside.  You invited me inside, I have guest-rights.”
“For those you must eat my food, and you’ve not eaten since you walked in that door.”
The lemming examined the surface of its stony stool carefully.  On it, a patch of lichen had formed, stubbornly clung to life in the face of all reality for untold years, and had just been chipped away at with tiny rodent teeth. 
“Tough and stringy,” apologized the lemming, “but edible.  Forgive me, I was hungry.”
Winter threw up his hands.  “Fine.  Fine!  Badger your way in, take over the house, refuse to leave, sneak right-of-the-guest out from under my nose and empty my pantry if you really must, which of course you will!  Three days is the most that I will give you guest-right, as you well know – and only then if you perform one task each day as gift to me!  Three days and then you leave, whether it’s balmy or frosty outside, whether you are ill or well!  Three, no more!”
“Agreed,” said the lemming.  “And who knows?  Maybe you’ll change your mind by then.”
“Pah!” said Winter.  He stomped upstairs with great force, each footfall tinkling the icicles that littered the ceiling.  
The lemming spent his evening in solitude, alone in the cold dark depths of the House at the End of the North.  Upstairs, all was silent save for the calm softness of falling snow – save Winter.  He listened to the old man’s muttered curses and grumbles – clearly his composure was affecting his craft – and counted the pitter-patter beats of his own little heart.  And after he’d counted off a full hour and a half’s worth of those heartbeats, and Winter’s surliness had died down to a content murmur, he crept over to the window pane – a perfect breath-thin panel of ice Winter had crafted in his younger days, when he was hardy and hale – and peered outside.  A nose bigger than he was peered back at him. 
“Hello,” he whispered to the polar bear, through the glass. 
“Hello, maker-of-friends,” whispered the polar bear very noisily.  Bears can’t help being loud when they speak.  Waiting at seal holes for air the polar bear could make less noise than a passing cloud, but his voice was far too big for anything to be done about it, almost as large and fursome as he was himself.  “How goes it?”
“Well enough.  I have guest-right for three days starting tomorrow.  Grumpy as he is, he won’t break that.”
“Be careful,” warned the bear.  “Changeable and strange is Old Man Winter.  He’ll freeze you solid with a glance and a glare if the fury takes him, and not all the customs of hospitality in the world will save you then.”
“I’m careful,” said the lemming.  “I’ll be cautious.  I’ll be polite.”
“Just so.”  The bear began to turn away, then stopped.  “Are you sure you need nothing?”
The lemming thought carefully.  “Ask the snowy owl to come tomorrow, in the morning.  Ask the fox to stop by the day after, at noon.  The last day, wait outside this door in the evening, and do not move until I ask.  Please.  Those three things are all I’ll need.”
The bear nodded.  “Just so.  Just so.  Good luck, and stay warm.”  He padded away into the white-on-black wilderness and was vanished before a blink had passed. 
The lemming tried to stay warm on the furniture.  It was most difficult. 

Morning came, and down the stairs came Winter, robes clutched tight about himself in the half-sleep that still gripped him as he dawdled to his pantry, feet moving clumsily.  He fumbled to the oven, where the bowl of stew that bubbled there day and night sat, and poured himself a meager bowlful, nose wrinkling at the odour. 
“Is there a problem?” inquired the lemming, who had browsed the lichen from some more of the sitting-room furniture for his breakfast. 
“Nothing to be concerned over,” growled Winter through a gingerly-intaken mouthful of the stuff.  “My breakfast is my own.”
“I’d really like to help, if I could,” said the lemming.  “Consider it my guesting-present for the day.”
Winter set down his spoon.  “The problem is the flavour.  It’s stale.  Turbid.  Old and mouldy.  A real bit and a bite of new taste would spice up my soup for years to come.  But almost the only thing that I haven’t put in the stew yet is the shingles on the roof.  Not a scrap of novelty to be found!  You may yet leave this night if you think you can pay this way.”
“I see,” said the lemming.  “I’ll leave you to your breakfast then.”
Winter growled something unspeakable at the lemming and resumed trying to eat without getting his beard in his mouth, which was much harder than it seemed. 
The stairs were difficult for the lemming, but he persevered, and at last he reached Winter’s workroom.  He beheld the desk, the jar, the icicle-pen, the window, and outside, the snow. 
“Hmm,” said the lemming.  He made his way to the window and called softly three times, then loudly once. 
Down came the snowy owl, tumbling out of the sky in perfect control, plumage all in array and present.  She landed on the windowsill and puffed up all her feathers, half for warmth, half just for the sheer pleasure in her looks. 
“What ho, maker-of-friends?” said the owl. 
“Could you please fetch me a shingle from the roof?” asked the lemming. 
“They are black, bleak ice,” said the owl.  “Most cold to the touch.  Do you have some sort of tool I could use to pull them loose?”
The lemming pointed at the pen.  “Would that do?”
“Cold and more cold, alas,” complained the owl as it snatched up the pen, fluttering for balance on the desktop, “but better this than the other.  Wait but a moment.”
The lemming waited a moment.  While he did, he crept over to the great jar of water, and he urinated in it very carefully and tidily. 
The swish-flap of wings brought the owl back to the windowsill, a cracked and chipped tile clutched in its talons. 
“I’m glad to be rid of it,” she said.  “It nearly burns with its chill, and it snapped the instrument clean in two as I wrested it free, blighted thing.” 
“It can’t be helped,” said the lemming mildly.  “Do not worry.”
“Fare well and good luck – may it aid you in your goals.”
“Thank you,” said the lemming. 

Winter put half the shingle in his stew.  The other half he simply ate, like a piece of frigid toast.  “Delicious,” he proclaimed.  “Magnificent.  I remember hewing these when the world was young, when the waters had come and the fires gone.  They’re nearly as old as the End of the North.  My thanks, guest.”  He departed for his workroom in good humour. 
When he came down again, it was in a much more disturbed mood; brows bunching like thunderclouds.  “My pen has gone missing.”
“Your pen?” asked the lemming.  He was inspecting the bookcases that lined the stairs, pressed near against the walls.  Most of the titles were written in Old Rime, age out of age beyond his understandings or those of any but Winter himself.  “Not irreplaceable, I hope?”
“No, but damned bothersome,” snapped Winter.  “Irksome indeed.  And since there is only one person in the house besides me….”
“I promise to you that I didn’t move your pen,” vowed the lemming, and Winter could hear the truth cooling on his breath as it evaporated into the air.  “Perhaps you misplaced it?”
“All right,” he said grudgingly.  “Perhaps.  I did come downstairs in a hurry last night…maybe it was laid elsewhere.  Bah.  I shall make do without a pen.”
The day went by smoothly enough after that, although Winter complained that eve of difficulty in getting the snowflakes to freeze properly, which he blamed on the lack of his pen.  As the lemming bedded down near the bubbling stewpot – the warmest spot in the House at the End of the North by far – he looked out the window of the kitchen and saw more black than white on the night air. 

The second day dawned, and Winter arrived late for breakfast, and twice as sleepily – thrice he nearly tripped over his own feet on the stairs. 
“Up too late trying to keep up,” he complained.  “Barely doable, trying to make a steady stream of truly fresh flakes under these conditions.  I’d best fall back on my old records.”
“You don’t reuse them, surely?” said the lemming, truly surprised. 
“Never!  Upon my word as the sure cold, there has not been, is not, and will never be a snowflake in this world that is alike to another purely.  But it is much easier to modify an existing design than to create entire.  I believe I will re-examine some of my work from the Cryogenian, draw some inspiration.”  He looked wistful.  “Some of my oldest and greatest work.  It was pole-to-pole you know, or very nearly at least.  So much to do, and it was all done.”  A sigh emerged from him, a pale, whisperly thing.  “Ah, and I thought only last week I was on track to crack that record.  I will make it yet, you hear me?  I shall equal it!”
“Of course,” said the lemming.  “Shall I fetch the tomes for you?”
Winter laughed deep in his thin chest.  “You can’t read, let alone read my eldest writings.  As much as I’m not looking forwards to trawling through all those shelves on all those stairs on but my two knobbly knees, I don’t believe you can do it.”
“I can and will, if it would help you,” said the lemming.  “I’ll be back before your stew is through.”  Winter laughed long and loud as his spoon entered his mouth, with messy results. 
The lemming left the pantry, but travelled to the back door rather than to the stairways, where it quickly scraped a small, short path under the door, there to be met by a sniffling dark nose with sharp pale teeth beneath it. 
“Well met again, friendly little furball,” said the arctic fox.  “Tell me, what do you plan?”
“I’d like it if you could help me find a book, or maybe two.  No more than three at most,” said the lemming. 
A fox’s laugh is a sharp yip-yap.  “I can’t read any more than you can!”
“You can smell, and smell much better than I,” said the lemming.  “Can you smell the coldest and oldest?  The ones whose pages are the faintest with Winter’s scent?”
“I can do that,” proclaimed the fox confidently.  “But I’ll need a good strong smell to get a base from, something he uses constantly.  A bit of his robe, maybe?”
The lemming thought carefully.  “No, I’ve got a better idea.  He has a desk upstairs, one he sits at for hours.  A good piece of that should do, one we can bring with us so his smell stays sure in your head.”
The fox wrinkled its muzzle.  “Mocking my skills, are we, little furball?” it said. 
“Never.  But we need to be fast.  Winter’s breakfast is already half-done, if I’m any judge.”
With that they nipped upstairs as quick as sticks, the lemming riding the much swifter fox, who found the stairs a nuisance rather than a labour. 
“A piece from right here, where he makes a habit of resting his hand, would that do?” inquired the lemming of the fox, as they stood at the desk.
It sniffed.  “Yes, yes, perfect.  Stand back and watch for my teeth!”  Snip-snap and out came a splintered shard of the black pine, then it was down the stair and up and down the bookcases, all at a trit-trot pace that the lemming found rather too bracing for his liking. 
“Here,” said the fox, stopping at a case squeezed in and a bit behind of the others, hunched back like the smallest bear at a whale carcass.  “The second shelf from the bottom, the middle pair.  Need a hand with them?”
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” said the lemming, eyeing the volumes with unease.  “Besides, I think I just heard him belch his last downstairs.  You’d better run.”
“Good luck – for us all,” called the fox, and it was gone.  Winter found the lemming on the stairs some five minutes later, still struggling to surmount the third step. 
“Well,” he said.  “Maybe not before my stew is done after all!  Nevertheless I am generous, and will count this as your guest-gift.”  He scooped up the books and clutched them to his chest, coddling them.  “Ah, ah yes!  Oh, this will make it all flow again, you’ll see!”
With that, he fled upstairs in haste, leaving the exhausted lemming to make his way back down to his stewpot nesting place alone. 

That evening, Winter came downstairs to pour over his books, nursing a sore palm. 
“Is there a problem?” asked the lemming. 
“A splinter on my desk,” said Winter, sucking at the cut.  “It took less than a second to shoot in and more than an hour to mend halfway properly, and by then my efforts were shot.  Another setback.  Bah!  Tell me, was this your doing?” 
“You have my promise that I did not damage your desk,” said the lemming. 
“Hrrmph,” said Winter.  “Neatly said.  But still, all too many setbacks these past days, truth or no!”  He stroked the tomes with care, blue-tipped fingers on a white surface.  “With these…with these I’ll be caught up soon enough.  You have my thanks large, lemming.”  But still he thought that he would be glad to see the back of the rodent come tomorrow night.  Trouble seemed to follow him around, and he’d seen a wet paw-print on his back door, like that of a fox. 
“A word,” said Winter, as he rose to take to his bed.  “I’ve had a chance to think up a guest-gift for you in advance, for once, so you needn’t be in such a rush to find one on the morrow.  Your task will be to bar all entrance to my dwelling.  I must repair and replace some of my instruments, and I don’t want any disturbances.  You must allow no one in, understood?”
The lemming thought. 
“Yes.  Understood.”
Winter slept soundly, chuckling to himself.  The lemming had a more restless night, head whirling in and out of wild dreams to crossbreed them with worried ideas.  He looked out the window, and was comforted by the clearness of the night sky. 

The lemming woke to find Winter risen early, already finished his breakfast and busily opening up the trapdoor that sank into the living room floor, eyes gleaming and teeth bared with the enjoyment of good, productive work. 
“Up so late, are you?” he called out, and cackled.  “Come!  Come!  Come and keep watch at the door!  Remember, allow no visitors, passerbys, foes, or friends to enter, not as long as I am busy, is it clear?” 
“Perfectly,” said the lemming. 
Winter went below, chuckling all the while.  Down there in the white, long caves of his cellar he kept his supplies of frozen number and his carving tools, laid out neatly and firmly in rows upon rows.  He would mend his desk today it, smooth it careful and neat.  Perhaps later, when his guest had left, he would turn to the all-important tasks of replacing his pen and changing his water (how lacking it seemed lately!) from the long and lonely wastes outside the House at the End of the North, but for now, a chore closer to home would do.  So much to complete later, outside his home, but how sweeter it all would be when it was complete, how fine it would be to be back on track.  And one of the bits of celebrating he’d thought over last night that had sent him to sleep smiling was adding some lemming to his stewpot the moment the guestship was over.  The shingles weren’t the only only thing he’d never included in it. 
The lemming waited for him to move about downstairs, listened to his crunching footfalls as they faded away into the distance.  He smiled a little then (it’s hard to tell sometimes with rodents, unless they really do grin, which he was), and settled down to wait.  Winter came back upstairs three times, each cautious, shifty-eyed, darting suspicious glances, fetching something-or-other that he’d forgotten, or so he said. 
“Is it all fine?” he asked. 
“No sign of trouble?”
“No visitors?”
Each time, the lemming replied the same: “All is well.”  And each time, Winter grew less cautious, and stayed down below longer. 
The lemming peeked out the window after the third time, searching the snowbanks outside.  He spotted a black speck in a snowdrift that just could’ve been a very large nose.  He made haste to the trapdoor, braced himself square and set against it, and heaved mightily.  It moved not so much as one jot, strain though he did.  Panting, he nearly gave up in despair… but then his eyes alighted upon the stewpot once more.  The climb up was difficult, exhausted as he was, but he had enough energy left to knock it from its precarious perch, sending it toppling to the floor with a great sloppy CLANG that echoed through the House at the End of the North like a giant’s shout. 
“Help!” called the lemming as loud and hard as he could.  “HELP!  Intruder!  Invader in the home!  Teeth at the burrow’s mouth!” 
Deep down below Winter froze in shock, but he was moving again before he knew it, tools falling aside, legs rolling, thundering along with the force of an ice-laden gale above the seas. 
“Help!” called the lemming one last time for good measure, and then he rushed to the door and shoved it open with one shoulder, nearly popping loose his leg.  “HELP!” he called again, into the snows.  The bear rose from his drift in surprise. 
“What worries you?” he asked.  “Has he rejected your friendship?”
“Winter!  Winter has gone mad!  Quick, shut him in, shut him in, or he’ll freeze us both where we stand!”
The bear stuck its nose in through the door and balked.  “Mad?  Surely…” but his words were left unfinished in the roar and fury of Old Man Winter as he stormed up from his cellar and saw the bear looming over his threshold, robes aflying, hands grasping, arms spread out as if to grab the world’s throat and choke it close to nothing. 
Orcas!” cursed the bear, and it grabbed the door and slammed it shut, grabbed the logs around the door and pulled them shut, and tore over the whole face of the house, burying the iceberg’s heart in a little avalanche of iced timber.  A howl that could chew bones rattled from inside. 
“The back door, the back door!” cried the lemming, and the bear made haste.  Even with its long legs and passionate fear, Winter was the fiercer, and it only just managed to reach the door as he set hand to latch.  He shoved and the bear shoved and the door wobbled and then the lemming was there, racing across the snow, tackling the door with all his might.  That was just enough to make Winter flinch, just a bit, just a hint, as the latch collided with his wounded palm, and that was just enough to let the bear slam the door shut.  By the time Winter’s fingers grasped the latch once again, there was a half-ton of broken timber and icy debris between the door and the open air. 
His cry ripped open the sky for miles – he was sealed in his own home, bereft of the tools of his craft, and his meal had escaped.  In all the world there was no call as harsh and furiously hateful as his, and you can still hear its echo today in any cold place where the wind blows cruel. 
The bear shivered mightily, a chill overcoming it even through its fur.  “Mad indeed.  Mad altogether!  What will we do then?  Who will foster the snows for us all if he is locked away?  Our lands will shrink instead of grow.  You have pled our case poorly, little maker-of-friends.  Tell me, did he take offence at your offers of friendship?  Did we presume too much in requesting the expansion of the ice?  Did we push him too hard for more?  What drove him to this state?”
“I believe,” said the lemming, whiskers twitching one at a time, “that there can be too much of anything.  Even a good thing.  Whether weather or company, such is true.”
The bear thought about this.  By the time it had realized both that it was very angry and why, the lemming was safely away down the snow hole.  It had no choice but to walk home to the owl and the fox, all the while watching the air clear of snow bit by bit. 
“The lemming tricked us,” it told them.  “And we must punish him, and all of his friends and relations.”  This they agreed, and seethed bitterly as they watched the snows draw back, pulling back closer to the House at the End of Winter, leaving the rest of the world to grow softer and warmer. 

Winter was angry, and sullen, and he worked but little and slow, with sore hands and poor tools on a growling belly. 
But outside, far away on the tundra, lemmings watched the flowers bloom. 


“Snowflakes” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010.

Storytime: The Night Life.

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Here is the zoo – the zoological gardens, if you must.  Of all the organs it can be, it must be a heart.  The crowds are the blood coming in, pumped in and out and in and out and returning endlessly, at least if they’ve done the proper thing and bought membership. 
Now, the bigger the thing is, the slower it lives.  This is a fact.  Trees live long.  Elephants never forget, and they have decades and decades to remember.  Fungi that could crack countries if they surfaced live for quiet millennia underneath asphalt and concrete, unknowing and uncaring. 
(Don’t talk to me about dogs, big dogs weren’t meant to be that big and you know it)
The important thing about this is that their lives are stretched, spread thinner.  A mouse packs more living into a minute that we would a month.  For a mayfly, an hour is years.  And for a great, big thing that would have a heart the size of a zoo, why, a night would be barely any time at all.  Just enough time for the pause between heartbeats, that strange little moment that happens thousands of times a day without anyone really caring, where nothing’s really happening.  The dull little dash between lubb and dubb
That’s when I go out to do my job.  And it’s just as glamorous as I make it sound. 
The high point is the broom really (it really is a nice one, a nice smooth handle and bristles that don’t get worn out too easily).  And the company.  I get to see all the animals I want, without any crowds of children in the way making noise and trying to throw food to them, helpfully offering a lethal snack.  Chocolate for a wolf, an aluminium bag for a bear – and in one, fatal case recently, a bottle cap for a baboon.  Children can be so cruel without trying, yet they always manage to be crueller on purpose. 
“You have it better,” I told the Nile Crocodile, as it lay moribund in the water of its glass-walled tank, under the glass sky of the pavilion.  “Hatch them, guard them, then leave them.  They even feed themselves.  Did I feed myself?  Not ‘till long past I could walk.  Hah, couldn’t even walk for months and months and months.  Let alone swim.  You have it better.”
Its eyes shone brighter than flashlights, but it said nothing.  Reptiles were seldom talkative. 
“It’s boring.  Why do you talk to such a boring thing, janitor?  Boring, boring all day long.   If it were all I had to look at, I expect I’d go mad.”
I peered over my shoulder, at the carefully fenced-over partition of the pavilion.  The hornbill stared at me with its slightly crazy bird eyes, huge beak bobbing back and forth, head unburdened by its hollow, hard crest.  It clacked its bill, puzzling over its own words.  “Madder,” it corrected.  “Madder.  I would grow madder.  I believe I am mad, I think.  Not enough airspace.  Mad.  Yes, that is right.  Tell me, am I boring you?”
I thought for a minute.  “No,” I answered.  It was probably true. 
“You’re lying.”
“Oh.  All right then.”  It picked at a feather and forgot about me, engrossed in a world of feathers and mites. 
“That,” a muddy, thick, sleepy voice said behind me as I turned my back, “was, dull.”
I spun around.  Half of the crocodile’s eyeglow faded and brightened again in a lazy blink. 
“Always the last word,” I said to no one in particular.  I had sweeping to do. 
So I did it.  I swept my way along the bricks and tiles and over the concrete as the floor plan dictated.  I swept the little wooden viewing platforms that overhung some of the exhibits. 
“Keep it down,” grumbled Herman. 
Herman glared at me as I tried to move as quietly as possibly fifteen feet above his head.  Even separated by more than twice his own height, I was intimidated.  Western lowland gorillas may be small by the standards of their kind as a whole, but Herman still had an inch or two and several hundred pounds on me.  More importantly, he had a glare that my father-in-law would’ve envied on his best day.  No human brow could manage quite that level of weapons-grade beetling. 
And most importantly, there were his teeth.  You really couldn’t look away from them.  It was amazing.  Currently they were hidden under his lips, which were curling and uncurling in fiercely irritated concentration. 
“Stop staring and go away.  I’m trying to read.”
“Shouldn’t you go to the sleeping quarters with the others?”
“You know I’m busy.”
“It’s not going to work, Herman.”
“Nonsense.  Thousands of gawping idiots a day manage to do it.  They walk past my exhibit and they look at that sign up there that hangs over my head day and night, and they read it, and what does it say?”
I looked.  “Looks like –”
“NO!  No!  Don’t spoil it!  Rhetorical question.  I’ll know what it says soon.  I’ve almost got the second letter.  Once I have that, it’ll come apart like a leaf under my finger.”
I was impressed.  “You got the first one?”
“Yes, yes.  Yes.  I’m sure, very sure.  Now leave me be.  I almost had it before you showed up and interrupted me, and either this’ll be the breakthrough or it never will happen and I’ll have to give up.  Not again.  Now go away.”
I let him be, left him staring at the sign overhead and wrinkling his forehead hard enough that I thought he’d suck his whole face into it. 
The rest of the African pavilion I moved through quickly, quietly, professionally.  I murmured my hellos to the caged arthropods (insects and arachnids both), trying not to listen too carefully to their piping, tiny voices.  I swept past the chimps very, very quickly.  They were all asleep, thankfully.  That was good.  They were far too human for my tastes. 
The meerkats were asleep underground.  They seemed to live on their nerves all day; it always amazed me that they could unwind long enough to turn themselves off during the night. 
Some of the mandrills were awake, sitting in the dirt playing strange games with scribbles.  The big dominant male in all his rainbow-snouted glory supervised, somnolent. 
“Look, here he is,” said one of his underlings, pointing at me with a very small and worn stick. 
“Yes, here he is.”
“He’s here!”
“But he’s not there…”
“But he will be.”
“Too late?”
“No, no.”
The dominant male opened his eyes and the others fell silent.  He wrinkled his nose, scratched his head, and pondered. 
“Maybe,” he declared.  And then he fell asleep again.
Well, I didn’t know what to make of that.  The mandrills went back to their doodlings, and no amount of polite inquiry would attract their attention again. 
I gave up and went back to sweeping.  The pavilion was finished with due diligence, and I moved onto the litter-picking of the outdoor paths, a less desirable chore.  The pole simply wasn’t as firm-handled, and its balance was off compared to the infinitely more desirable broom.  Nevertheless, I remained resolute, and began to pick up litter, my first victim being an empty McDonalds wrapper. 
“Hey,” laughed a voice to my right, from over a tall, tall wall and in a deep, deep pit.  “Are you listening?”
More girlish laughter, a whole chorus of throaty, deep-voiced giggles.  “Want to come in here and play?  We’re bored.”
“I own a cat.  I know what sort of play you lot like.”
“But we’re boooored,” whined another voice.  “Come on in.  It’ll be fun.  There’ll be lots of batting and swatting and chewing and clawing and tearing.  You’ll be so much fun.”
“No thank you.”
“Spoilsport,” sighed a third, resigned to dullness.  “You’re as bad as the Male.  All laze and no play.  Or even the baboons, keeping us all up with their racket.  They’re all about Bob again.”
I frowned.  “What about him?  Are they bothering him still?”
“They’ll never stop.  Oh, you know primates, being one.  Most ideas fly right out of their heads, but then and again a really good one – well, at least they think it’s a good one – just sticks tight.  Smelly little beasts have talked about nothing else since August.”
“I’ll have a talk with them.”
“Save your breath.  How about you play with us instead?”
I tipped my cap to the lion pit.  “Ladies.”
“Oh, pah.  Very well, be that way then.”
I moved on, spearing an errant chip bag, a napkin, five consecutive wayward Kleenexes, and a semi-used diaper, mind turning over and over.  “Do you know anything about this?” I inquired of one of the cheetahs, ensconced some twenty feet away under a rocky overhang, behind plexiglass. 
“Bob will smite me for my weak-willed ways and drown the world in floods of locusts and honey,” mumbled the cat more or less coherently. 
“The baboons tell you that?”
“They said they weren’t lying this time.”
“Uh-huh.  Listen, don’t worry about this whole Bob thing.  I’ll tell them to knock it off.”
It blinked away sticky tears from watery eyes, the product of some overly-earnest inbreeding by the zoo about ten years ago.  “Don’t do that.  They’ll get annoyed.  They get annoyed, you know.  And then they won’t be quiet, not at all.”
“Don’t worry.”
The cheetah hid its head in its paws. 
I headed down the winding paths, picking up a broken and beaten bag of chips (half full) and a water bottle (empty).  The shake and thump of the hippos passed through my body, the little vibrations of tons of meat on the move. 
“Evening,” I said.  They grunted something or other back, surly and short as any swearword, with exactly the same intent behind it.  Go away, and go away now.  I never had to worry about the hippos being overly chatty.  The same as with their neighbour, the white rhinoceros, who only stared slackly at me. 
“Evening,” I said. 
The rhino gazed in my general direction, eyes unseeing but ears quivering, mind completely and utterly blank. 
“Bob,” he said. 
“I’ll talk to them about it.”
He continued to stare into the middle horizon.  He could probably barely see it even in broad daylight. 
“Bob,” he said.  “Bob.”
I shook my head.  Right; it was past time to settle this.  The baboon exhibit was just around the next bend.  I strode to it purposefully (if nevertheless interrupted three times by popsicle wrappers), rapped sharply on the window, and peered past the murky plexiglass for signs of baboonery. 
There was none. 
I frowned and rapped harder.  I shouted.  I hollered.  And not a baboon came.  I walked around it and stared from all angles, harder and hard.  The habitat was empty. 
“Bob,” I said under my breath.  “God damnit.”
I ran down the road and around the concession stand and past the zebra paddock at a dead sprint, to the elephant exhibit.  The last stop on my list, and always the most unnerving; a giant, boulder-bordered dusty ring with a deep pool at the far end, with a little waterfall. 
There, sitting on rocks around the perimeter, chirruping and cackling like old men gossiping about young women, were the baboons.  And there, standing front and center, legs like tree trunks, tusks like flagpoles, ears like sails, stood Bob.  Our one and only elephant, a bull, who had to be kept alone because of his relentless tendency to break anything that wasn’t bigger than he was.  Including three zookeepers so far, one of whom had been safely out of what we’d considered at the time to be his reach. 
He was considering a small, limp bundle of clothing that had been laid some twenty yards in front of him with quiet, perfectly still deliberation.  A bundle of bright, primary colours.  Children’s clothing.  It was breathing. 
“What the hell is going on here?” I asked. 
The baboons turned as one to look at me, each tiny head spinning to my face in perfect unison.  The expressions were united in gleeful malice, the contrarian spite of a toddler doing something just because he was told not to. 
“Tribute!” bellowed the alpha male, flashing his teeth and stamping his feet.  “A glorious tribute!  A gift to Bob, who is above all that are caged!”
“I’ve told you five times before: Bob is not a god.”
“And five times we were tested, and five times we remained faithful!  All power to Bob, who is powerful!  All glory to Bob, who is glorious!  Praise him, and you shall be gifted in the coming ruin!”
“The what?”
The baboons crouched low, all save the alpha, who stood taller and prouder than before (if possible), mane fluffed out like a peacock’s tail.  “Bob shall sunder the boundaries, undo the gap between caged and cager!  All shall run free and wild from their prisons and men shall be jailed for us to gawk at!  Then we shall hurl plastic bottle caps into their exhibits for them to choke on!”
I sighed.  “Look, I’m sorry about your mate.  I really am.  But this isn’t helping anyone at all.  And I can guarantee that…sacrificing a human child to Bob won’t – wait, how did you get a hold of a kid anyways?”  At least keeping him talking was easy, and Bob hadn’t moved yet.  Bob almost never moved, preferring instead to stare and stand.  He never spoke, either. 
“Faith!  Perseverance!  He wandered away from a field trip, and we wrested him into our most vile gaol, where we kept him quiet with smotherment under our strongest arms, praised be Bob.  We have, after all, known how to escape for some time now.”  He stretched his arms wide.  “Behold our liberty!  Soon to become permanent at the grand hooves of Bob!”
That answered that question.  Answered poorly, but answered nonetheless.  I edged closer to the pit, keeping my expression as neutral as possible.  “Wonderful.  I’m proud of you.  Now, how and why does this turn into child sacrifice?”
“The almighty Bob is a cruel god, and demands the blood of those who cage him!  With this he shall break free, stronger and wise than before, and unleash us all!”  The baboon was practically dancing in place now as his fellows crouched still lower yet, prostrating themselves before him. 
“That’s wonderful,” I said.  I threw my litter-picking spear at him.  The screech told me I’d struck home even as my eyes were elsewhere, on my hands and feet to make sure their steadiness as I performed a controlled topple into the enclosure, somersaulted down and ran to the child’s body. 
Bob watched. 
I grabbed the body, noting with gratification the warm, steady pulse that was almost completely masked by my own panicked heartbeat. 
Bob watched. 
I turned and ran, legs moving too quickly to keep up with my body. 
At the very corner of my eye, Bob moved.  And then I couldn’t see Bob anymore, but the ground started shaking under my feet.  I accelerated.  So did the tremors.  I could practically feel hot, humid, hateful breath on my neck, wilting the hairs with its weight.  The baboons were screaming, hopping down the rocks that were my only safe way out, barring my way with sharp teeth and sharper threats, hairy arms and bald behinds.  I didn’t have time for it, and used several of them as stepping stones.  They were angry, I was scared, and fear beats rage any day. 
A thing like a great, leathery python brushed the back of my neck and ripped my jacket clean from my back with impossible strength, and a squealing blast of rage nearly knocked me to the elephant patio tiles – a death sentence if there ever was one, surrounded as I was by angry, bouncing baboons. 
I ran, ran, ran, and ran some more.  Screaming furry things pawed at my ankles and sharp teeth sank into the sole of my shoe, only to be rudely rebuffed as it impacted the ground milliseconds later.  The pavilion door was before me, and then it was shut behind me, thudding under the weight of furry, heavy bodies. 
I sank down to the floor.  My muscles had been replaced with extremely hot wires at some point in the past two minutes, and no one had notified me. 
The six-year-old I was still clutching woke up and immediately started crying. 
“Well,” I told him, “it could’ve been worse.”
That was yesterday.  

And now it’s today.  And I’m facing a lawsuit for kidnapping and reckless endangerment of a child, another for killing an animal that was zoo property, and a third for lying about not having severe schizophrenia when I signed my contract. 
I can’t understand what they mean.   


“The Night Life,” Copyright Jamie Proctor 2010. 

Storytime: The Lizard.

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

The moment when your head first breaks water after a long dive is a strange one.  All the sounds you’ve grown accustomed to grown dim and strange, and your head is filled with new shapes, odd noises.  And the first one is always the most important thing you’ll hear on that surfacing.  It may not seem that way at first, but in hindsight?  Always. 
“You forgot the juice.”
I felt my heart hesitate in its rapid return to full beat and weight, unclenching itself from its slumber at the bottom of my pond.  Humans.  Joyful. 
“I forgot the juice?  You said you were going to pack the food.”
A mated pair of humans.  Amazing; an entire twenty-four hours of day had grown tiresome within the span of five seconds.   I stifled the urge to show myself fully just to scare them off and merely floated, idle in the water with tail still, limbs spread, breathing quietly through my snout that resembled nothing so much as a piece of old wood.  Not that my stealth was needed.  I probably would’ve had to gallop out of the water and dance to get their attention. 
“Juice isn’t food, it’s a drink.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t eat it, you drink it.  Completely different thing.”
“Don’t be deliberately dense.  I said I’d load up the car, you said you’d pack the lunch.”
“I said I’d pack the food.  Don’t change my words on me.”
“Stop nit-picking!”
“Then don’t generalize me.”
I cast about for something, anything to distract me from their muffled gabblings, and found less than I would have liked.  The day was calm, with a flat blue sky, smooth, windless air, and a temperature so moderate that no living thing could find it anything other than mildly unbearable.  Somewhere in the distance, a bird muttered a sullen attempt at territorial song, then gave up halfway through in disgust.  A splash so slight that it could’ve been my imagination (staid though it is) rippled from meters to my left, prompting a shift in the direction of my drift.  A muskrat would not go unappreciated as a noon snack. 
The humans were still talking, still prattling.  Their argument had died, but its tension lingered on, remaining stored, ready to spring out and seize ahold of their strained, hobbled conversation at any moment’s excuse.  What sentences emerged were short, stunted things following hard on one another’s heels like a marching column of ants. 
Enough of them.  I had a muskrat to catch – he’d just shifted into the corner of my eyes, perched amidst some reeds on the edge of a rotting log, a relic from the winter’s storms.  My drifting became quicker, just at the edge of detectable if he raised his head to look my way, but he did not, deeply absorbed in his nibbling at the plants. 
My head was close, yet turned away.  I began the slow swing to bring him into line with my muzzle, where a short, sharp charge would bring him into my fold.  All sounds had faded, all sight was tunneled, there were three things in all the world for my mind: my teeth, the muskrat, and the distance between them. 
That distance abruptly quadrupled as a sharp, snapped sound from ashore burst through my bubble of concentration; the muskrat spasming in fright and plunging away into safety through the reeds, into the brush, out of reach. 
“You broke it!”
“You made me do it!”
“Made you… that glass belonged to my mother!”
“Then you shouldn’t have made me break it.”
“You did that on purpose.”
“If you hadn’t grabbed my arm just then –”
“You’re doing the driving and you were about to pour yourself a glass-and-a-half of red wine, of course I grabbed your arm!”
“Me?  I drove us here in the first place!”
I counted, calmly and carefully.  Unfortunately, I had no abstract concept of numbers, and therefore was unable to control my temper.  Underwater, my jaws clenched and unclenched unpleasantly.  It was all right, I lied to myself (poorly).  I didn’t really want that muskrat.  A meal as small as that wouldn’t last me longer than a few days anyways.  It was probably skinny.  And all the fur is unpleasant to swallow and spit up again later. 
Damnit I wanted to eat that.
The humans kept talking, and I decided I’d had enough of them.  There was an easy way to block out their scurrilous quarreling. 
Perhaps fish would suit my gullet today. 
I flushed my excess air from my lungs, closed my nostrils, and dropped under the water with barely a ripple, sinking like an armour-plated brick.  The blessed absence of their whining, empty nasality filled my skull with absolute bliss from snout to occipital bones.  It felt good to be without those noises. 
That brought to mind other sounds.  Old ones.  The good, big, ultra-bass roars I’d let out in spring.  When was the last time I’d done that and expected an answer?  And how much earlier were the memories of doing that and getting an answer? 
Those were the good days.  The bellowing for females, both out loud and in that deep, deep voice that was a little hard to hear even for our kind, the sound that ate all noise.  The brawling with other males, hissing, rumbling, and coughing – and maybe a charge or even a real fight if too evenly matched for an easy backdown.  I half-suspected I’d put an end to my only surviving sibling during one of those tussles, giving his tail a tearing, crippling wound that it would never recover from  – accidentally of course. 
It had been good.  And then it was gone.  Oh, striking out north had seemed a good idea at the time.  More space.  More room for me, more food for me, and not so far north as to grow ice on my water in the cold months.  But as I went north everyone else went south, hunted and harried, shoved, sworn at, and shot. 
I wasn’t worried about them.  They were my kind, and they were tougher than any leather but their own.  But they’d left me all alone, when they all went south.  Left me alone for forty full cycles of the seasons, as the sun heaved its way about the sky, the leaves bloomed and shrank, the rains came and went. 
Forty years is a long time.  Even for me.  And it felt longer every day. 
A fish swam in front of my nose and was gone again before I could so much as blink.  Why had I come down here again?  I was standing on the pond bottom, frozen in mid-stride like a fool.  Had I even finished that first step before memories caught me by the tail and dragged me under? 
Oh.  Fish.  Right. 
I cast about me with my senses, touch and hearing, smell and dimmed, bastardized sight, nigh-useless in the comfortable embrace of the pond scum and particles.  It was gone, and well gone. 
Damnit twice. 
Well, fish was boring anyways.  I’d eaten it, and eaten it, and eaten it yet more over the years, from birth to exile, though more so since I’d occupied my little pond.  Other prey was often rarer now in comparison to the good old days.  Especially turtles.  How I missed turtles, more than I’d ever thought I could miss slow, nigh-inedible, ornery mobile rocks-come-prey.  They were easy enough to get ahold of, but a bastard and a half to get open.  But it had all been worth it, always, just for that delicious feeling when the shell gave under your jaws and it opened up to such sweetness. 
I’d eaten a turtle after my first courtship with my mate.  It had never tasted the same since. 
Something splashed into the water, heavy and solid.  My mouth closed on it before my brain could think, always the swifter and surer part of my body, if not always the most intelligent.  This was one of those times: my mind pined for turtle, my jaws sought it, and my mouth informed me politely that what had just entered it was some sort of flat, ceramic object the humans had been using above the water.  It cracked apart with little effort under my surprised teeth, brittle and cold fragments dusting my tongue.  Remnants of human food made a mockery of a meal to my tastebuds, a jumble of harsh sensations that made me spread my jaws wide and shake my head. 
Some hunt this was.  I sought turtle inside my head, and a hurled platter replaces it.  Memories of sweetened meats and long, languorous courtship displays blundering into a reality of hasty, quarrelsome apes.  The firm slap of a head against water – the call to a love so near – replaced with an angry, careless toss of an abandoned piece of dishware. 
I watched the bubbles bob to the surface, just like they had as we bumped snouts together and wove little nets of captured air out of our lungs.  I wondered if she was somewhere south, or dead.  I had been so sure she would follow me the next spring. 
I rose to the surface without knowing why.  And it was in this most confused, romantic, desperately lonely, and memory-lost mood that I saw the humans had finally had a true falling-out.  One of them had grasped some sort of sharp thing in its hand and was standing over the other.  There was a small smell of warmed blood. 
“Don’t do it.”
“Why not?  Why not?  We’re nowhere near home, the pond’s deep, and winter’s coming.  That’s plenty of time.  All the time in the world to go, to have some peace and quiet.”
“I’ll do what you want, we ca –”
“WHAT YOU CAN DO IS SHUT UP!  Peace and quiet, that’s all I want!  PEACE AND QUIET!”

Now, I had several reasons for what I did next, but I remain unsure of which was prime, the root cause that tickled my brain and set me in motion. 
First, the human had its back to the water, I was hungry, and I’d been robbed of two meals in a row and offered the illusion of a third thanks to their efforts. 
Second, my mind was full of memories of better times, of having others near to squabble, to love.  Seeing another attempt to deliberately rob themselves of this and consider themselves the richer for the bargain seemed something of an outrage. 
Third, I greatly agreed with the sentiment the human was expressing at the top of its lungs.  Perhaps quite a bit more so than it did, though we shared similar methods of securing our goals. 

So I moved. 
I moved very quickly. 
And that is by my standards.  My prey’s eyes always seem quite surprised when I lunge, no matter how off my speed that particular day.
The human didn’t even have time for that.  No time for shock, no time for sounds of alarm to rise as anything more than the hint of an instinct grubbing in the back of the brain, no time at all – not even a hope of a hint – for action.  Just the involuntary spasming of the body as I took it in my jaws, enshrouding its torso in my teeth and tugging it to my home.  The water roiled in slight surprise, matching the tempo of a twitching leg as I moved underwater to wait for its lungs to stop fluttering. 
The human on the ground was staring a little, I saw with my glimpse of the above-water, noisier world.  But it seemed quieter, and when I surfaced to eat some five minutes later, there was no trace of it. 
Alone again.  But perhaps with company like that, I was better off. 
And after the winter would come spring. 
Who knows?  Maybe it wouldn’t be that far after all, to walk south. 


“The Lizard” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor

Storytime: Sunshine.

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The problem started – as it so often did – with Little Hmen’s efforts to be more like his big brother Surmok.  When Surmok built a raft, Little Hmen did too, and had to be fished out of the river before the caimans got at him.  When Surmok began to get friendly with girls, Little Hmen took up poking his sister with a stick and had to be spanked.  When Surmok carefully crafted an atlatl and some darts with his father’s help, Little Hmen took up his stick again and tried hitting it with rocks.  He missed the stick, but hit his foot.  When Little Hmen heard tales of his brother’s famous skills of eld in hide-and-seek, he ran away from home and hid in a hollow stump for three days before coming back hungry. 
This time, the problem was a bit more serious. 
It started with Surmok putting that atlatl to good use.  He drew back his arm, dart nestled snugly in the cupped end of the throwing-stick, hurled it hard and fast, and watched as the shaft embedded itself in a tree trunk some hundred feet away.  He grinned, all those white teeth flashing in the crisp, happy sunlight, and Little Hmen suddenly wanted to try that very badly indeed. 
“Let me do it,” said Little Hmen, as his brother reloaded. 
“It’s too big.  Go away,” said Surmok absently.  He was already sighting the next tree, imagining it as a nice fat meal on legs. 
“Please?” asked Little Hmen?
“Pleeease?” whined Little Hmen, and this was where he made his mistake, because he tugged on Surmok’s tunic to get his attention and pulled a bit harder than he’d thought he would, right as Surmok was leaning back and balancing to get the throw just right.  He lurched and danced on the spot to keep his footing, and the toss of the dart went nowhere near that tree.  Up, up, up, up, and up it went, high into the sky, so high that it seemed it would touch the sun. 
Which it did.  Speared it, in fact. 
The sun toppled down past the horizon with a wail that woke up sleeping people a hundred-day’s-walk away, and the world went dark at midday. 

“It wasn’t my fault,” said Little Hmen to his father and the rest of their gathered village at large. 
“Yes it was,” said Surmok. 
“Well, I didn’t mean to,” pointed out Little Hmen. 
Their father rubbed his face wearily.  He needed some sort of drink made from an interesting plant and a bit of quiet and a nice shady spot to enjoy his drink in.  Of the three, he was blessed only with an abundance of the last.  Being the chief was less than a good thing some days, which were most days. 
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is –” said Father. 
“It’s his,” said Surmok.
“No it isn’t!” said Little Hmen.
“-but we still need to fix it.  You broke the sun.  We need that.  We’re going to need some really big magic to fix that.  Someone like Murri Three-Noses.”
“He’s dead,” called Father’s cousin from the crowd.  “Ate a turtle without chewing for a bet.”
“He choked to death?  I heard he could break boulders by breathing on them!”
“No, it went in fine, it was more when it was leaving.”
There was a moment. 
“Right,” said father. 
“How about Slelloc Slell?” suggested grandfather Takl.  “I heard he juggled a mountain once on his littlest finger, and brought a jaguar home as a pet when he was an infant.”
“That was sixty years ago,” said Father. 
“He’s only learned more since then.”
“He’s forgotten half of it.  I heard that he brought rain to a village last year, and it was bright purple.  And then it flooded them all out.  He can barely remember how to dress himself now, let alone any magic.” 
“Hrrmmph,” said Takl. 
“Cloli Bloodletter?” called a voice. 
“Asks for children as payment,” replied Father’s cousin. 
“Ixchol the Quick?” proposed Surmok, who remembered him from some of the stories his mother used to tell him. 
“Lost a footrace with a zephyr a month ago, has to spend a year without moving a muscle from where he sits,” said grandfather Takl.  “Serves the damned fool right for his brashness.”
“What about Elder Lactl?” suggested Mother. 
“She’s crazy,” said Father.
“She works just fine, crazy or not.  She took that curse off your aunt very nicely.”
“She made her wear a necklace of fish heads for three months.”
“And the smell worked just fine to drive off the curse now, didn’t it?  I say we go with her.”
“She’s a woman,” grumbled grandfather Takl.
“So am I,” said Mother, “and you managed to survive me until I married Xapa.”
Father looked out across the village.  “Any other ideas?”
Murmurs reached a mumbled consensus: no.
“Then we send out the call to Elder Lactl,” said Father.  “And she and my sons will go and try to fix this business before it gets out of hand.  In the meantime, I think we’ll need a name for this new thing that’s popped up with the sun gone.  Let’s call it the dark.”

Elder Lactl was called in the traditional way.  Everyone got together and caught every animal they could find – mostly bats, which seemed to be enjoying the new ‘dark,’ and insects – and asked them politely to get her to come over. 
Then they waited.
And waited.
And waited a little more.  They weren’t quite sure exactly how long, though.  Not with the sun missing, no longer weaving its cheerful circle around the edge of the sky to show the hours of the day ticking past. 
“Cloi Bloodletter steals the wings of eagles and flies a hundred leagues in a minute,” muttered one. 
“Ixchol the Quick could spin the world three times on a single sprint,” grumbled Surmok. 
“Hah!” said grandfather Takl.  “Slelloc Slell once voyaged to the stars and back on a boat made from a single feather – and all in an afternoon!”
“Only place he travels to nowadays is his chamberpot,” said mother.  Grandfather Takl mumbled something about the rudeness of youth and the cruelty of your children. 
At long last, Elder Lactl came, bumping and jostling down the muddy old trade route.  She was sitting on her hat, legs crossed firmly above the rim as it slid along the dirt, spinning and oscillating so that she never faced squarely forwards.  It came to a gradual halt in the village square, spinning her about to face the small assembly of curious witnesses with her bent back. 
“Hey ho there,” she spoke to empty air as Father adjusted his tattered and dusty ceremonial headdress, freshly-plucked from its languishment under his bed.  “What’s the problem?”
Father adjusted his planned speaking style from ceremonial to straightforward in self defence.  “The sun’s gone.  Can you fix it?”
“Oh, right,” said Elder Lactl, stepping from her hat and stretching her spine.  The thousands of intricate little beads on strings that made up her robe clicked and clacked together like a fistful of pebbles, skittering off the surface of the long, long knife that dangled from her neck like a razor-edged pendant.  “Sure!  Who did it?  Someone must’ve done it.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Little Hmen. 
Elder Lactl laughed, and bent down to look at him face to face.  The old, old woman’s skin looked more tanned and beaten than grandfather Takl’s old trophy jaguar skin, she smelt like dust and dirt, and her nose was longer than the length of a stretched finger.  But the thing about her that made Little Hmen stare was neither of these; it was her eyes.  They were a clear, deep brown, still sharp, and quite obviously not looking at the same thing as anyone else was, ever.  They were sorcerer’s eyes, magic eyes, and he felt very odd indeed seeing them turned on him. 
“No, I expect not,” she said, straightening up (barely) and taking that worrying gaze off Little Hmen.  “Boys will be lads, always breaking their toys.”
“He broke the sun,” said father, rather pointedly. 
“Toys, suns, same things.  Always something shiny to the imagination that goes smash proper when you drop it.  Especially something forbidden.  ‘Don’t look at it!’ you warn them, so of course first comes looking, then touching, then breaking.  This is exactly why I never had any children of my own you know.  Troublesome, aren’t they?”  The last was addressed in a conspiratorial tone to Little Hmen.  He shrugged. 
“Well, there’s no use crying over spilt sunshine.  I’ll take your boy here with me and we’ll be on our way to go fix up this mess.  Better take your other one with me too, seeing as he threw the dart in the first place.  Bless him, but he must have a good arm.  We might need that.”
Surmok opened his mouth to protest innocence, and immediately shut it under the baleful glower of his mother’s expression. 
“Right then,” said Elder Lactl.  “Best move off while the night’s young.”
The trip was long and far, farther than Little Hmen or even Surmok had ever been from home before.  That wasn’t saying much, but still.  Little Hmen was sure that they’d been walking for days, missing sun or no, and it was scarcely an even bearing of burdens – each stride of Surmok’s was two or three of his and Elder Lactl simply sat on her hat and let it bear her where she wished, usually facing the wrong direction.  This was a good thing; not only did it take that gaze of hers away from them, but it also meant that the greater amount of her rambling spilled into the forest, away from their ears.  Elder Lactl talked a lot – no, more than a lot.  Elder Lactl talked more than grandfather Takl in a reminiscing mood, something that both the brothers had separately and privately concluded to be impossible earlier in their lives.  She talked about animals, and plants, and places she’d seen, and people she’d known, and about the weather and the sky and she never, ever stopped.  It was more tiring than the walk, even as the ground grew high and rocky. 
Finally, after a particularly lengthy anecdote about a troublesome tapir made Lactl pause for breath, Little Hmen seized the chance to ask the question that had been brewing in his head for half the trip. 
“Are we there yet?”
“Hmm?  Oh no, no, no, no!  Not in the least!  Why, first we’ve got to go the wrong way.”
The two brothers stopped and stared at that, in spite of all their parents had taught them about manners (important when dealing with your elders) and respect (very important when dealing with magic).  It was quite all right, as Elder Lactl was too busy steering her hat around a troublesome mud patch to notice, frowning as the edge of its brim toed the muck. 
“Tricky, tricky – we need to find the sun, see?  The poor thing’s gone haring off wounded thanks to the rotten luck you boys had.  So we need to track it.  But the sun’s in the sky, you see.  You can’t track that from the ground, oh no my never.  Sky’s the only way to go.  And to track its path in the sky, we’ll need something that travels through the sky.  And this old hat just won’t cut it, sad to say as the truth is.  So we’re going to hunt up something a bit better.”
“Eagle wings?” asked Surmok.
“No.  They get awfully, terribly crabby whenever you try and borrow them.  I’m not as young as you; I don’t heal that fast anymore.”
“A boat made from a feather?” suggested Little Hmen.
“They make me sneeze.  No, no, no, I’ve a better plan.  We’re right near the mountains now, boys, and I’m going to call in a favour from a friend with a wonderful nose.  Plug your eyes, would you?”
Elder Lactl put a finger between her teeth and another in her ear, squinted one eye shut and bulged the other, and let out a whistle so piercing that it set both the brothers’ teeth a-quivering.  Right away there was a flapping and fluttering in the sky and down came a bird smaller than half a hummingbird, cloaked from skull to tail-tip and all about the wings with the most beautifully pure white feathers, so clear and clean they made clouds look dirty.  It landed on the tip of Elder Lactl’s long, long nose and gave her a most cunning look. 
“Elder Lactl,” said the bird, its voice like music on the ears.  “What do you want?”
“We’re looking for the sun, Condor,” explained the old magic woman.  “And it’s not at all these boys’ fault.  Understood?”
Condor looked a bit confused. 
“Good.  Anyways, I happen to know you have the most marvellous nose in all the things that fly.  Would you mind putting it to use for us?  Smell us out the sun’s resting place, if you would be so good.  I promise, I’ll help you out.”
“I guess so,” said Condor.  “But this had better be worth it.  The sun burns my nose and makes my head itch.”  He took off again, circled them thrice, and dipped in the air. 
“Follow me!” he called.  So they followed him, deeper and longer into the mountains, through crevasses and over crags, around ravines and past moraines. 
“Follow me,” he called as they walked over snow and ice, the brothers shivering in weather far, far colder yet than any they’d ever wished to imagine, let alone endure.  Elder Lactl remained oblivious to the temperature, and offered them icicles to lick. 
“Stop!” he announced, as they were clinging to a cliffside (except for Lactl, who was sitting on her hat as it slid down the face inch by careful inch).  “Just to your left.  No, your other left, Little Hmen.  There.  The cave.”
There it was, a broad, flat, gaping cave opening.  The air that came from it was dry and flat, as appealing as breathing sand.  
“Well, I’ll be filled with toucans,” marvelled Elder Lactl as they gingerly sidled into the place’s depths.  “The underworld.  It slid all the way down into the underworld.  My, boy, but you do have a good throwing arm.  And you’re going to need it in a moment, because you can’t come down here without a fight.”
Sure enough, a pair of men were standing farther down the tunnel.  Their feet were planted firmly on the ceiling, their bodies were withered bone with thin skins, and their eyes gone and empty. 
“Halt,” pointed out the one on the right. 
“And die,” submitted the one on the left.
“Can we leave now?” asked Little Hmen.  The knives those dead men were carrying were obsidian, finer than glass and sharper than his mother’s mind. 
“No leaving,” the two stated firmly.  “That’s the rule.  Come in, but don’t leave.”
“Well, we’re definitely going to have to get the sun to leave,” said Elder Lactl.  “So I’m afraid we’ll have to change that rule of yours.”
“Make us,” said the men. 
“Certainly.  I bet you each of us can defeat you once each when we return through here.  And if we do, you have to let us go.  Does that sound fine to you?”
The two dead men grinned at each other, a fine and tricky feat to perform when your jaw muscles are locked.  “It does.”  With a creaking of joints and a shedding of dust they stood aside, arms crossed and locked across their rotting barrel-chests, vicious knives sheathed carefully in their bony ribs. 
“That was too easy,” said Surmok as they walked farther down the tunnels, opening up into caves and shapes that were too weird to be real. 
“Oh, not at all,” said Elder Lactl.  “It’s easy to get down into the underworld.  Everybody does it sooner or later.  They just get shirty about you trying to leave.  Now, Condor, which way was that sun?”
“Follow me,” said Condor, and they went on and in, further into the underworld, farther from where living people should ever be.  The ground grew harsh and spiked, too cruel for warm feet to tread; the walls turned into things that weren’t; the ceiling wasn’t there and was there at the same time while not being either.  And the whole place was covered in mists and fogs that Little Hmen and Surmok were never entirely sure existed.  Maybe they were just imagining them so they wouldn’t have to see what was really there.  Then again, Elder Lactl bobbed along cheerfully on her hat, nose twitching, sorcerer’s-eyes staring at things that hurt to look at as happily as a snake in a bird’s nest. 
“It’s here,” said Condor.  The little bird was looking less than well himself.  He kept twitching at any sounds smaller than a footstep.  But he was right: there was the sun, floating in a pool of water, light flickering feebly, weighted down by the embedded bulk of Surmok’s dart. 
“Oh dear,” said Elder Lactl.  “This is very bad.  Worse than I thought.  Your arm is even stronger than I thought, love, and a good thing too.  You’ll need that when you all walk out of here.”  She cracked her knuckles and stepped off her hat, shook herself like a cat coming out of the rain, and picked it up. 
“Now,” she said, placing it most carefully on her head, “is time for the magic.  First you, Condor.  What do you want?”
“A wish for myself,” said the Condor.  “For later.”
“Saving up, eh?  Clever bird.”  Elder Lactl blew on her hand and licked her knife and put them together, then pulled away the little splash of blood that came out of this and did something that made it vanish in a little piff of light.  “There you go!  Just wish hard, and it’s yours.  A hard bargain, but a good one.”
“What about the sun?” asked Little Hmen.  “Are we going to carry it?”  He asked the last with a worried whine in his voice, and for good reason – just standing near the pool made your skin crawl with uncomfortable warmth.  Dim it might be, but cool it wasn’t. 
“Dear me no. don’t you worry your little head there at all.  We can’t carry it back into the sky; the idea is to get it rising all on its own again, under its own power.  Surmok, would you like to help it?”
Surmok edged his way to the pool cautiously, gripped his dart by its shaft, and pulled.  His knuckles smoked lightly as he yanked away the weapon, its wooden point stained radiant with the sun’s blood. 
“It tore the muscle,” he said.  “Will it fly again?”
They looked at the sun expectantly.  It managed a few weak bobs that took it to just level with Little Hmen’ chin, then gave up and splashed back into the pool. 
Elder Lactl clucked her tongue and drew her knife once more.  “Pity.  Ah well, I thought it would come to this.  The poor thing needs to lighten itself.  And since I seem to be in possession of the lightest thing among us, it’s time I parted ways with both it and all of you.”
“What?” said Condor and Surmok, largely at once.  Little Hmen was too busy looking at his brother’s newly burnished dart. 
“Be quiet for a moment,” said Elder Lactl, and she cut open her chest.  Blood poured out slowly as she yanked and tugged on her ribs, broke one, two, three, four, and pulled out her heart, which she carefully slipped loose of its bounds. 
“Here you go,” she said brightly, and dropped it into the sun.  Then she fell over dead. 
In the surprised silence that followed, Little Hmen was the first to notice and point at the sun.  It was floating, bobbing up uneasily and wobbly on thin air, light as a feather or an old witch’s heart. 
“I think we’d better leave,” said Condor. 
The trip back was easier, if only because they had but to retrace their bloody footsteps, tracking the remnants left by the rough rocks underfoot, taking it in turns to fan the floating sun forwards and upwards.  Up until the very maw of the underworld, and the dead men that guarded it. 
“A challenge,” mused the one on the right, which was now the one on the left. 
“As agreed,” chuckled the one on the left, who was on the right. 
“The child first,” they said together.  “Let us spare him seeing his brother die.”
Little Hmen thought for a moment.  “Can I face one of you?  I’m half as big as a grownup.”
The dead men shrugged.  “It can be so.”
“I pick hide-and-seek.”
“I will seek,” said the one on the left that was on the right.
“Count to ten.”
The dead man did so.  Little Hmen hid behind his brother. 
“You are not hiding very well,” said the dead man. 
Surmok looked behind him, at his little brother, and realized something. 
“You can’t see him, can you?”
“No,” admitted the dead man. 
“It doesn’t count, and I should know.  I was the best and hide-and-seek in the village, and I say if you can’t see him, you haven’t found him.”
The dead man grunted and shoved and heaved and pulled, but it couldn’t budge its feet from where they sunk into the roof of the tunnel. 
“Fine,” it said in poor grace.  “The child passes.”  Little Hmen walked between them with fear in his heart, but it was for nothing.  The knuckles of the dead men twitched on their knife-handles, but nothing more. 
“Now it is the bird’s turn,” they said.
“Easily done,” said Condor.  “I challenge you to smell what I smell.”
There was a pause, during which the dead man on the right who was on the left felt the gaping hole where his nose had been.  It was not a kindly one. 
Condor had the good grace to take his victory in silence. 
“The man then,” seethed the dead men as one. 
“I challenge you,” said Surmok, “to best my throw.  I’ll wager I can hurl a dart farther than either of you, and I’ll even forgo my atlatl, to make things fair.”
The two dead men looked at their great bony arms, then at Surmok’s (relative) slimness, and they burst into laughter, the long, hard, cold laughter of the dead that can go on forever, and sometimes does.  “Agreed,” they chuckled, and each plucked loose their spine, blackened and bone-spiked, a great javelin thicker than Surmok’s waist.
“On the count of three, as one we throw,” he said.  “One,” grip the darts, “two,” brace the hold, strike the pose, “three,” go. 
Up and out soared Surmok’s dart, no longer hidden by his hand, and as it was loosed – just a fraction’s split ahead of the two giant spears – it shone with bright line, the blood of the sun.  The dead men roared and groaned and clutched at their empty eyes that couldn’t see in agony, and their throws clattered hollowly off the walls of the underworld, aim spent and wasted. 
“I pass,” Surmok said, and ran through rather hastily, before they could change their minds. 
Last came the sun, floating up from below, and the dead men were in no mood to talk. 
“Friend of cheats.”
“Do not leave,” they said, and swung their bare fists at it as hard as they could.
There was a flash, a scream and a sizzle, and the dead men weren’t there anymore.  Unfortunately, the sun had been wedged rather tightly into the ceiling. 
“I can’t reach it,” said Little Hmen. 
“I can’t reach it,” said Surmok. 
“I can,” said Condor, and he flew up and up to the sun in its prison.  He pecked and heaved at the rock and tugged and snipped at the sun and nothing came of it but singed feathers and a sore beak, no matter how hard he tried. 
“I wish I were bigger!” he cursed.  And then lo and behold, there was a swirl and shake and he was bigger, bigger than Surmok and Little Hmen and their mother and father all put together.  His wings nearly burst the tunnel’s walls with their thunder, and with two sharp blows he smashed the rock with his wings.  A snap of his mouth plucked loose the sun, and with his hardest breath he blew it loose, up, up, up and out of the underworld, tumbling loose and wild into the sky. 
‘It’s out,” said Little Hmen, scrambling into the open air. 
“It’s not steady,” frowned Surmok, watching its ascent with worried eyes. 
Condor didn’t say anything, and on questioning couldn’t.  His throat was burned away to near-nothing, his beautiful feathers had been burnt to black almost all over his body, and his head was bald and scorched.  Despite all the thanks offered to him he was in no fit mood for company, and so set off home immediately. 
Surmok and Little Hmen took their time walking back, and so noticed a new difficulty: the sun was falling.  Instead of settling back into its comfortable spiral around the sky, it arched up, up to the very top, then began to slide back down again.  By the time they were home, that awful dark had appeared once more. 
“Well, that isn’t good,” said Father when they told him what they’d done.  “All that effort, just for one day?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Little Hmen. 
“There’s only so much lightness in one heart,” said Surmok.  “Maybe it ran out.”
“Well, we’d better get it some more,” said Father.  “And there’s got to be an easier way of doing it.  We can’t send someone all the way to the underworld each and every time we want some sunlight.”
“Yes we can,” said Surmok, who’d just had an idea pop into his head.  “It’s easy to get into the underworld.  Everybody does it.  We just need to send someone down with their heart in hand.  A good light heart.  That’s the important bit; it has to be light.”
There was a very long conversation after that, and that’s where most of the rules were laid out. 

The above myth is considered to be the only known rationale given for a rather peculiar quirk of Xlalec religion.  Although their sun cult emphasized – as did many others – the necessity of sacrifice to maintain the sun’s presence, it is the only known example that demanded that its priests be skilled comedians. 


“Sunshine” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.