Archive for December, 2010

Storytime: Size.

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

“I am not big.  I wonder what it is to be large?” said the flea, hopping from strand to strand on an old, old tapestry.  “I can dance with a dust speck and jump two hundred times my length, but I am not big.  I wonder what it is like?  I think I will ask someone.  Spider!  What is it like to be big?”
The old, old, creaky spider in the corner of the ceiling stretched her many legs.  The flea was too small for her to eat, and too hard, but she found his company pleasing now and again.  Even a spider can’t eat everybody it knows.  “I am not big,” she said, spinning careful cobwebs as she spoke, like a knitting, predaceous grandmother (she was indeed a grandmother, though she’d never seen her grandchildren).  “I can snare the flies and crop the air clean of whatever may flutter through the air in here, in this little room, but I am not large.  No bug I’ve laid eyes upon escapes me save I call it small or poor (or friend, in your case), but I know my place.  I am small.  I will ask your question of another.”
So the spider spun herself a slim new line and shimmied her way out of the room on a fancy thread, legs twinkling.  She came to a big place where the air moved with purpose and coolness, and she spoke again.  “Bird!  You eat bugs where I can never reach.  Your wingspan is ten times my body’s length, your beak could swallow me whole without a single bite.  What is it like to be big?”
The swallow swooped down from her nest in the topmost corner of the courtyard, snapping a little thing with wings from the air on her way down.  “I am not big,” she said, lightning on the stone before the spider with all the ease of a comfortable, well-worn zephyr.  “Daily, I flit and flutter about in the high reaches of places a thousand, ten thousand times my size and millions of times my weight.  I am not the largest thing in the skies, but I am smaller still than the things that tromp down here.  I will ask one of them for you.  Priest!” she twittered, swallowsong rising up with a sweet demand, “What does it mean, what is it like, to be so large?”
The passing priest cupped a withered hand to his ear.  “Eh?”
“What is it like to be big?” asked the swallow, a bit more loudly and a lot less flowery. 
“To be big?”  The priest chuckled and fussed with his robes.  “Oh my word no no no, I’m afraid you’ve mistaken me, dear bird.  I am a small man – each and every one of my five sisters and four brothers outgrew me.  My wife looms over me, and she is not a big woman.  My children towered above me before they were grown.  And that’s just for people!  Why, people are not very big at all.  For the real size, you must look to things, not to people – even the biggest elephant, after all, would fit comfortably in the corner of this cathedral.  Is that not right, my lovely one?  Surely you are the one to tell us what it is, to be big.”
The cathedral chuckled, a sound like a quarry with indigestion.  “Priest,” it ground out in a voice too deep for most to ever hear, “you flatter me with well-meant foolery, my love.  I have been here for near a thousand years, yet I am made of rock that is older than I can begin to comprehend, hewn from places shaped by forces that would shatter me by careless lack of notice should I touch them.  I am small in this world, priest, and I will ask the one whom I came from for your question.  My mother, my mountain!  Tell us what it is to be big.”
The mountain took a moment to find its voice – which was a quiet, strong one – as they speak very seldom (perhaps once every ten thousand years, if they are garrulous).  “Little daughter,” it said, “my heights soar above all else for miles, yet they are eclipsed by the breadth and might of my roots, which sink deep, deep beneath you all, to reach places unknown by any living mind.  I know little of true size.  I have stood for longer than any can or ever will imagine, since this plate we rest on rammed its neighbour more than sixty million years ago.  I am but freshly-made.  This world I rest on is bigger than imagining, even my imagining – and what do mountains do all through the centuries beyond imagining? – and I will ask it your question.  Earth, my creator: what is it to be, to be so big?”
A planet’s voice is discrete, tidy.  It speaks using whatever materials are close at hand, from its dust on your feet to its atmosphere in your ear. 
“I don’t know,” said the planet, most thoughtfully.  “I have never considered this.  Do you think I am big?”
“If you are not, I know not what is,” said the mountain. 
“Oh no.  No.  I am small, among the smaller of our little solar system, biggest of the rocky planets though I be.  I wander through a space whose endless depth in all directions makes me shrink, and I do so under the eternal hand of a glowing fireball three-hundred-and-thirty-thousand times my mass; I did the math, you know.  It is not just big, it is strong – every moment it sheds enough energy to burn you all away in an instant were I not shielding you strongly.  Oh my sun, my Sol-mate, whose light burns life into me, can you tell me what it is like to be so big, to shine and be marked all across the cosmos?”
The sun thought.  “I am not so large,” it confessed, voice crackling through the electromagnetic spectrum.  “I am bigger than red dwarves, yes.  I am bigger than planets, yes.  But for a yellow star?  Not so large, no.  I burn slightly cooler than is the norm for my peers, and I am just as slightly smaller.  I am just barely below-average, my little planet.  And I do this inside the bounds of a system whose grip upon us all makes mine upon your person pale.  Galaxy, Milky Way, do you know what my planet speaks of, to be big?”
“No,” it said, choosing each word carefully and flatly lest it sink to causing strange ripples in nebula, setting black holes to vibrating with sounds that were the opposite of music.  “I do not.  I am average among my peers.  Perhaps a little larger than average.  I am smaller than my nearest neighbour.  Andromeda contains one trillion stars.  I contain two hundred billion.  Yet I am larger than the majority.  But galaxies are small.  There are many of us.  For each of my stars there is one of us that you can see from your seat.  And there are more unseen.  Ask the one we inhabit whose edges I do not know.  Universe.  What do you think it is to be big.”
The universe laughed.  This meant that everything in it also laughed – every star, asteroid, dust particle, truck driver, doctor, and planet laughed, and knew exactly why for at least one instant.  “Us?” it giggled.  “We?  We should know what it is to be big?  We are a possibility, all of us, one of more than can ever exist or be guessed at.  A chance, a fragment of what could happen.  We are a what-can-be, all of us, and that is the smallest and most precious thing of all.  We do not know what is it to be big.  We are small, all of us, even the largest, even against nothing at all.  That is our answer to all of us.”
“Yes,” said the Milky Way. 
“Oh yes,” said the sun. 
“I see,” said the planet. 
“Truth,” said the mountain. 
“Of course,” said the cathedral. 
“Goodness,” said the priest. 
“Surely so,” said the swallow. 
“Hah!” said the spider. 
“Oh,” said the flea. 

“But what does it really feel like?”


“Size,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

Storytime: A Three-Man Game.

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

The town had seen better days.  It had also seen better weeks, months, and centuries.  Still, when stacked up against its fellows of the past few weeks, the last minute or so had been pretty good.  Oh, some hundreds of men had died within its sixty-second boundaries, but most of them had been relatively clean and painless.  Or maybe just painless.  Well, at least that special sort of painlessness where the pain was actually incredibly intense but over inside a nanosecond. 
There was a man running between the snowy buildings, dodging and weaving through its less glamorous streets.  Not the red light district, oh no, nothing so dramatic, merely all the unfashionable neighbourhoods that had been beset with precisely the wrong sort of stores for convenient living.  The man himself was thin and ragged and wearing some sort of torn thing that had probably once been a uniform (a little American flag had been sewn into part of it, but an exciting explosion had long ago removed that).  A beaten and abused rifle swung from his hand with monkeylike carelessness, held in exactly the wrong manner for easy and quick defence. 
With a heave, a jump, and an accidentally-falling-on-his-face, the soldier stumbled his way to a specific ruin that had once been a rather ugly house.  There he looked hopefully at two equally thin, ragged, and abused men. 
“Am I too late?”
The most bearded of the three frowned.  The shape and style of the thing on his head that had once been a helmet marked him as probably German.  “Yes,” he said in an accent so thick that it was completely indescribable, “you are too late.  Over half an hour – what if we’d had to wait much longer?  We’d have had to shoot each other or something. There’s a war here that we’re busy losing.”
“I thought you were losing,” said the other man, who the others had a sneaking suspicion was British.  He’d once expressed a fondness for tea that they found most telling. 
“Nonsense.  We are all infantry, yes?”
“Then we are all losing,” said the German with satisfaction.  “Now, shall we begin the game?”
“Which game?” asked the British man. 
“You know, the one game,” said the American.  “You pass Go and then collect money.  I’m the Iron.”
“I prefer the steamship myself,” said the British man.  “Lovely little boat.  My father was a steamship captain, you know.”
“No,” said the German crossly.  “The other game.  You know, the one with three parts and three people.”
“Oh, that one,” said the American.  “Yeah, let’s do that one.  Count of three then?”
All three men sat down, chucked their various broken and beaten tools of violence aside, held out their hands, and pumped them as one to a steady beat: “one, two, three!”
“Scissors!” said the American. 
“Rock!” said the German.
“Paper?” said the British man.  “Yes, that’s that.  Sorry.  Forgot for a moment.”  He peered around the little triangle.  “Oh, did somebody win?”
“No,” said the German.  “No one ever wins.  We have all lost once again.  Why must even our games reflect our pointlessness?”
“Speak for yourself,” said the American.  “I beat the limey here, and that’s good enough for me.”
“But we’re on the same side,” protested the British man. 
“Yes, and that makes it all the more important.  I’ve got to beat you to beating up him, or how else will I look myself in the mirror?”
“But I beat up him while you were beating up me.”
“Aha, and I beat you up myself,” said the German.  “You had best watch your step, or in beating your allies you may yet be beaten up by me!”
“Really?” asked the American.  A sudden and inexplicable fear had seized upon his heart and he knew not why. 
“No, not really,” said the German.  “I think I am pretty much screwed.  But I will not go down quietly!”
The German looked from side to side.  He looked up and down.  He looked from north-north-east to south-south-west.  He spun in a little circle and then sat down again before beckoning them closer. 
“You see, I have a secret weapon,” he whispered.
“Gosh,” said the British man. 
“Yes!  Very secret.  Very powerful.  Newly developed with local materials, very hush-hush.  It was so obvious, even our greatest minds didn’t realize it until just within the month.”
“I want to see this,” said the American. 
“You’re the enemy, don’t be silly.  You will see it when we use it on you.”
“But I want to see it now.”
“Yes, show us your secret weapon!” said the British man.  “We promise not to tell anyone.  Go on, show us!”
“Oh all right.  But only because you asked so nicely.”  The German man glanced about conspiratorially, then reached into his pack and rooted around for a moment.  With a grunt of exertion, he extracted an unrounded and irregular object. 
“There!  Is it not beautiful?”
“It’s a brick,” said the American. 
“Three-quarters of a brick,” said the British man helpfully.  “That’s a whole lot more than a half-brick, and those are pretty dangerous, let me tell you.  Top drawer!”
“It’s a regular brick,” said the American.  “There’s buckets of them everywhere!”
“That is the brilliance!” reminded the German.  “Infinite ammunition!  You had best surrender while you still have the chance.”
“That’s stupid,” said the American.  “Anyways, I’ve got a secret weapon too.”
“Show us, show us, please do show us,” begged the British man. 
“No, don’t be silly.  I’ve got to use it on his commanding officer,” he said, pointing at the German.  “It’s too secret to be wasted on showing it to you guys.”
“Come now, don’t be a poor sport,” begged the British man.  “How about a bet?  If you lose the next match, you have to show us your secret weapon.  Come now, don’t be yellow.”
The American considered this.  “Sure.  I don’t lose.”
“You just lost two minutes ago, with the rest of us,” reminded the German. 
“Yeah, but I lost with scissors, and you guys lost with rocks and paper.  That doesn’t count.”
One, two three went their fists. 
“Scissors!” said the American. 
“Rock!” said the German.
“Paper, I suppose,” said the British man.  “Now then, what was this about the secret weapon?”
“I just told you, losing with scissors doesn’t count.  No way am I showing you.”
“I happen to have, in my satchel here,” said the British man, “a packet of biscuits sent to me from my dear old mother.  I will trade you one biscuit for a look at your secret weapon.”
“Well, I dunno…”
“And I’ll show you mine too.”
“Deal!”  The American rooted about in his backpack with genuine enthusiasm, then hauled out an object indescribable. 
“Feast your eyes on this, fellahs,” he said.  “It’s got a calibre of forty-five-forty-eight and it’s breech-reverse-loading-reversable, with a backup backup grip for extra precision during naps.  I can fire this baby backwards, forwards, and while sleeping, and at ninety-nine per something without even having to reload for a real good while!”
“What is it?  It is a bomb?  A toy tank?” asked the German. 
“Perhaps it’s a battleship someone trod upon,” suggested the British man. 
“Not important,” said the American.  “Sure is swell, isn’t it?  You don’t stand a chance.”
“Absolutely,” said the German.  “Is it a gun?”
“Who the hell knows?  Now, limey, you said something about your own secret weapon…”
“Oh yes,” said the British man.  “Quite right, thank you, nearly forgot.  Hold on a tic…”  He removed his helmet and began to sort through its insides. 
“Best place to keep things you don’t want found,” he confided.  “Everybody searches your kit, sure, but they keep out of your hair quite nicely.  Oh, I’d best get you that biscuit while I’m looking….wherever did they go?”
“They are in your hair,” said the German. 
“Oh?  Oh.  Thanks there, had no idea.  Want one still?”
“No thanks,” said the American. 
“Your loss then – aha, here we go!”  An extraordinary bulk of cloth was yanked out of the helmet’s lining.  “Kept it secret down there…lads, meet the next step in warfare: standardized woolly socks!”
“Those are socks?” asked the German. 
“Of course they’re socks.  What else could they be?”
“They look sorta like old towels,” suggested the American. 
“Discarded and ill-fitted mittens,” added the German. 
“Old rags.”
“Stained underpants.”
“I’ll have you lot know that these are the tactical evolution of comfort and warmth in frozen climes,” said the British man.  “I’m twice as comfy as both of you put together as long as I’ve got these on.”
“Then why not put ‘em on?”
“It’s too soon.”
“There’s snow on the ground and the wind’s freezing everyone’s nuts off, just put them on.”
“They keep my ears warm up here.  I can’t waste that.”
“My best friend lost three of his toes to frostbite last night.  Put them on.”
“Not in front of everyone, surely!”
“Three toes?  Geez, that’s hard.”
“Not especially.  First meat we had eaten in months.  A little bit chewy, but succulent.”
“Really?  You tried rats?  Me ‘n Stinky Joe caught a big fat one last night, had some real meat on it, especially around the thighs.”
“Sounds like a girl I knew back home,” observed the British man.  “Terrible temper, ugly face, but a lovely cook.  Pity she ate everything she made herself.”
“Look, this’s getting us nowhere,” said the American.  “We’ve got three counts of treason and the smell of limey’s socks here for our troubles.  One more round and then we head home?”
“So soon?” said the German.  “What if we are shot tomorrow?  We may never get another chance to play the game.”
“You say that every time,” said the British man.  “I think you’re just gloomy.”
“I am losing this war.”
“Thought you said we were all losing it,” said the American. 
“Yes,” said the German.  “But I am losing it slightly harder and faster than the rest of you.  And I am also out of ammunition; I shot the last of it against your barricade on Sunday.”
“So am I,” said the British man.  “Lovely day for it, though.  Too nice out to spoil it with shooting at people.”
“It’s nine below and the sky’s greyer than my granddad,” said the American, who was sure he had bullets left.  Somewhere.  In his locker for sure.  “You have a strange way of pronouncing ‘lousy.’”
“Well, it could be worse, you know.  Times like this you should be grateful for what you have.”
“Yes,” said the German.  “I am grateful for my brick.  I am also grateful for my skin, which has only three bullet holes in it, all too small to be lethal.”
“I’m awfully grateful for my woolly socks.  Or maybe it’s a scarf.  Also, these biscuits are simply delicious.  Sure you don’t want one?”
“No.”  The American thought for a minute.  “I’m grateful for my still being alive.  Hey, my best friend got shot last week, but I’m still here.  And then my other pal got shot the day after, but I’m still here.  And I got shot yesterday but all it did was sink a bullet into my secret weapon so the damned thing won’t start up, and I’m still here.”
“That’s the spirit!” said the British man.  “Now, I’d best head back to base before someone charges me with desertion again.”
“We just shoot them now,” said the German.  “And the last few, we haven’t even bothered that.  The snow does the job for us.”
“Come back with us,” offered the American.  “We can take you prisoner or something.  Hey, I’ve always wanted to take someone prisoner.”
The German shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  I still have to try out my brick.  Maybe next time.”
“Can’t say I didn’t give you a fair chance.  Scissors!”
“Paper!  Oh dear, wait, I picked scissors.  I meant paper though, does that count?”
“Why not?” said the American.  “Now, let’s get the hell out of this dump before one of us decides to shell it.  Merry Christmas, guys.”
“The same to you both.”
“And a jolly New Year!”
The three men hopped the broken-down pieces of the house in three different directions and trudged back to their respective not-homes-away-from-home as it started to snow again. 
By strange coincidence, each had just come within sight of their fortifications when they recalled that they had completely forgotten to get the others any presents. 


“A Three-Man Game,” copyright 2010 Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Kindling.

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Canno was seven years old when the candle came down in the wrong place.  That was how it began, the charcoal-burner told him as he went home.  A candle in the wrong place.  Dark winter nights, early nights, and his parents had been fond of books, for all that there were but two big leather-tattered volumes in the house.  They were slow but sure readers and could finish each as the other did, then swap them and start again.  And he and his big sister were small and careless and could have put down a light in some small secret place and forgotten to snuff it, easily. 
Candles, misplaced and forgotten, guttering out alone and cold and neglected.  Or growing angrier and hotter at the slight, then becoming bigger.  Oh so much bigger.  One little candle had swallowed up the whole house, which was still the biggest place in the world to Canno, back then, as the charcoal-burner carried him away from the gawking crowd of the neighbours, showing up too late to the queer house at the edge of the village to help; too late to do anything but sift through the ashes and pocket trinkets. 
Canno was crying, maybe.  The tears were freezing from the cold, or the heat could’ve dried them all up inside.  Or both.  The charcoal-burner’s shoulder was hard bone and cold, all warmth from the fire lost and faded from his sooty skin as the snowflakes melted on it. 
“Ah, now, all burnt up, aren’t you?” he said in his raspy, scorched voice, a calloused and roughened palm touching Canno’s side, feeling where he couldn’t feel anything anymore.  “Yes, you are,” he said, voice neither particularly sympathetic nor uncaring.  “All alone in the world, eh?  No family that isn’t kindled and gone, no friends – not if those at the home were all there were.  You’re alone.  We work with what’s alone.”
The charcoal-burner stopped walking.  They were in the woods, the wide white wildlands where only the charcoal-burners walked, the mysterious burnt men with the white scars and the singed beards, the ones hunched from hauling brush and dusted with ashes, bent under the weight of some great secret no man knew but they.  The trail stretched forwards and back, fading into snowfall both ways. 
“Now you choose, boy.  Yea or nay, or shake or nod if your throat still feels the smoke.  Yea, you travel forwards, move on.  You come to live, and be one of us.  Nay, and I leave you here, to find your way back and make what you may.  Choose, boy.”
Even at seven – especially at seven, children do not shrug aside such things as adults do – Canno knew this was unfair, horribly unfair.  But he was numb in all things, and fear not the cold as he might – he didn’t think he would ever complain of the cold again, not ever, not ever – he wouldn’t stay alone.  He couldn’t stay alone.  And the charcoal-burner was the only other person in all the world. 
He nodded. 
“A choice, boy.  A good one, perhaps.  Now we’ll go, and we’ll get you some sleep.  The night’s long, but not long enough for you to fit a day’s wakening and a rest in at once.”
Canno was asleep before the charcoal-burner took four more steps.  It was not dreamless.  It was not pleasant. 

He awoke in darkness and smoke, and for a moment knew only panic – had he imagined all of that?  Was he still in the house, hearing the flames crackle up the roof above and smelling his sheets beginning to smoulder?
“Wake, boy.”
No, no, the voice was harsh and rough, not like his father’s.  The blanket was sooty and rough, as tough as rock, not the quilt his mother had made.  And the smoke was calmer, smoother, less intense. 
Canno opened his eyes.  Above them was dry timber, shrouded in clay dust, cracked and ancient.  Above that, dense, tufted earth, riddled with roots. 
“Wake, boy.”  There was impatience in the harsh voice, and coldness.  “We have no time to mollycoddle ye.  Ye must work.”
Canno sat up, and knew where he was, by the faint red glow in the air that was greater than the bright light that came from the pipe nodding at the charcoal-burner’s chin.  He was different from the one that had brought Canno in – his beard the greyer and longer, though how much was ash and how much was age was impossible to say; his eyes the more sunken and glittering, his fingers turned black forever.  A hundred hundred greyed lines streaked over his arms and face. 
“Good.  Now, do ye ken where ye are, or do I have to tell ye?”  He hacked a barking laugh without waiting for an answer.  “Of course I do.  Ye be in the New Kiln, boy.  I’m sure ye’ve heard tale of it.  Now, get up.  I’ve a task, and ye will fulfill it.”
Canno didn’t move.  The charcoal-burner leaned over and prodded him hard in the knee with his pipe’s stem.  It was near sharp enough to draw blood, and Canno jumped out of the bed – a crude pile of tattered blankets mounded roughly together – before he even knew what he was doing. 
“Good, good.  Now listen, and listen well-close now, better than ye did to your mater nor yer father neither: ye are here to work.  Work and learn, ye ken?  Ye have no family.  Ye have no friends.  All ye have is us, and only as long as ye act as we do, and that means work.  And if ye work here, ye will follow three rules above all else.”  He put his pipe in his mouth again and took a pull on it, obviously warming to his words. 
“First, ye will not touch what ye are not told to touch, whether it be wood, dirt, clay, stone, flame, or food.  Ever.  Or ye’ll take a beating the likes of which ye can’t imagine.  This is great work, delicate work, boy, and too much care be needed in its making for the likes of your clumsy hands to go spoiling years in one moment’s stupidity.”
“Second, ye shall always do what ye are told by yer superiors.  Ye will know who they are.  Ye will know who they are not.  And right now, they be everyone.  Ye will not argue, ye will not spare time to agree or acknowledge, ye will do, and do so fast.”
“Third.  This be as important as the first, though ye may ken it not.  Ye will never.  Ever.  Ever.  Ever speak to those not of our lot.  Ye ken?  You speak not to any man nor woman nor child that lives outside these mounds and kilns.  When yer older, if ye’re older, ye will speechify for trade and business, but for now, with your mouth as raw and untrained and prone to flapping as it is; ye.  Will.  Be.  Silent.  Ye ken?”
Canno nodded.  There wasn’t much else he could do. 
The charcoal-burner smiled.  The lines around his mouth crinkled oddly, twisted into a shape they weren’t familiar with.  “No ye don’t.  But ye will.  Now go and find Keplak Cinders.  Go down the tunnel, take ye no turns till ye reach fresh air.  He’ll be out there, near the woodpiles.  Get him to running ye messages, so ye learn the land’s lay.  And fast now, mind ye.  Go!”
Canno went, head spinning, lurching from wall to wall.  He burst into air so clean and cold that it made his teeth ache and his eyes dwindle, and stumbled his way to a giant, brownish blob that was probably a woodpile. 
“What’s this now?” boomed the woodpile.  A beard formed on it as Canno squinted in puzzlement.  “Speak up lad!  Who sent you and what are you here for?”
Canno opened his mouth, and much to his surprise, all that came out was a small croak, a hiss of air puffing down aching passages. 
“Hah, fire-mute, eh?  Don’t speak, I know.  Smoked out… you must be the boy Half-leg brought in last night.  Ashmaster sent you, did he?  Don’t speak, nod or shake – yes, he did I’ll bet, old greybeard.  Likely sent you for messages, eh?  Hah!”  The giant’s laugh was like a thunderclap to the face, ruffling Canno’s hair with its force.  “No good having a messenger with no mouth.  No lad, you can carry some kindling for me.  Gather it from there – see where I point? – and take it to here.  Stack it neat now, and don’t go too fast; we don’t want mistakes and we don’t want you tipping over and spearing yourself on something.  Go!”

Canno went, and it wasn’t until many days later that his mouth healed well enough to run messages for Keplak.  By then he knew the layout of the place well enough – three great charcoal mounds, half-barrow, half-hall, half-furnace all, each lived in even as it was kept burning.  The little, less-than-a-decade-old and still-expanding New Kiln, the three-century-old Younger Mound, which was bigger than the village his family’s house had once stood on the outskirts of, and the ancient, older-than-time Elder Mound, which was so big he couldn’t tell how big it was, only that trying to walk a full loop around it made his feet hurt and shouldn’t be attempted. 
He worked at many things.  He lifted kindling for Keplak Cinders, and later logs.  He ran messages, first from Keplak to others, then from the others to others still, and then from anyone to anywhere, because he knew all the places.  He learned to tend fires and let them neither die nor billow out of scope.  He learned how to pick up charcoal, move charcoal, and store charcoal without giving it so much as an errant bump.  And he learned all these things well and fast, yet it was never enough. 
“Too slow!” Garren Ashmaster would spit as Canno brought him a sample of fresh charcoal to be examined with his one still-working, ever-critical eye.  “This is nearly cold!  I need it warm!  Too slow!”  Often he’d throw the coal at Canno as he left – invariably, still warm. 
“Take care lad,” warned Keplak.  “Those logs’re stacked skewed; they’ll come down on you sure as stone won’t melt.  Best to stack ‘em again now, hurry up.”
“Bah!” said Mirmar the head lumberjack, swatting him on the head.  “Too slow!  Where were you five minutes ago, boy?  Speed up!”
Canno sped up.  He took care.  He found that doing both at once was immeasurably difficult, but he did it, he and the others boys that lived in the New Kiln’s cramped, dry interior.  There were four of them, all as withdrawn and wan as he (there had been a fifth, but he vanished before long had passed – he had been quick to boast, and Canno suspected he’d been caught talking to strangers), so much so that between errands and their own shyness, more than three months had passed before they exchanged each other’s names. 
“Plalt,” said Plalt, the skinny one.  He was nearly as quick at the chores as Canno was, but far twitchier.  He needed to take care much more often. 
“Tagmus,” said Tagmus, the big one.  He was tall, yes.  He was broad, yes.  He was not fat – at least, not any more.  The thin gruel they sipped wasn’t near enough to keep them fat, not least with their work. 
“Hullger,” said Hullger, the pale one.  Hullger did little.  Very little.  He was quite good at it, Canno had noticed – he’d move just a hair slower than he needed to, be just a bit more fussy than he had to, anything to slow down the day.  Canno envied him one moment, despised him the next. 
They didn’t get much farther than introductions.  The very next day, their workloads were near-doubled, and their sleeping quarters were moved.  “You are here to work, not to chatter,” Garren Ashmaster told them all as they were separated.  He never smiled unless someone else had stopped, Garren did.  The others were different shades of dour, but he was diabolical. 
Keplak was different.  Keplak was the nearest thing Canno had to a friend.  Keplak was the one who suggested that the boys be taken into town for the next trading. 
“They’ll talk,” Garren argued. 
“Of what?  They know nothing, not yet.  Or are you afraid they’ll speak of the quality of Utu’s cooking?”
“They will talk, and that will teach them to talk later, when they know secrets.  No, no, they should not go!”
“Or,” said Keplak, “they will learn to not talk.  And they had best do so now, while they know nothing should they fail, eh?”
Garren fussed and groused a bit longer, but his heart was no longer in it.  And so it was that Canno found himself sitting on a wagon with the other three boys, legs dangling as Half-leg piloted them into town, forever half-a-step ahead of the plodding mule that towed them.  If the charcoal-burner who had rescued Canno had any other name, no one seemed to know it. 
“Remember,” they’d been told as the wagon left the broad, treeless clearing that the charcoal mounds squatted in like sleeping tortoises, “say no word.  Not even to Half-leg.  Not even to each other.”
So they didn’t speak.  Instead, they silently competed in a game of who could flick a pebble the furthest behind the cart.  Tagmus won by a good foot and a half with a cunning ricochet that he insisted after the trip wasn’t luck. 
The town was strange.  The children stared, the adults stood back, the trading with Half-leg was slow and reluctant, with many awkward pauses and hurried, failed attempts at easing the silence with senseless remarks on the parts of the townsfolk. 
The charcoal-burners keep secrets, they whispered, the sound arising from the air rather than any particular mouths.  Great secrets.  Treasure?  Gold?  Magic?  I heard they guard a sleeping king, I hear tale of angel’s graves, I know of portals to fiery pits and wrathful demons.  They keep secrets. 
“Hello,” said a little girl to Canno, interrupting the sounds that he wasn’t listening to. 
He nodded at her. 
“It’s rude not to say hello back,” she explained to him.  “My momma told me that.”
Canno made a face and cut across his throat with his hand.  She frowned.  “Got a cold?  Daddy had a sore throat once.  He couldn’t talk at all.”  She scratched her nose and examined the cart.  “Daddy said you hide treasure in your mound.  Have you seen any treasure?”
Canno shook his head. 
“Not even a little?  A tiny bit of gold at all?”
Canno made a face. 
“Oh don’t be mean!  Fine then.  Keep your stupid treasure, you dirty dumb thing!”  She stomped on the ground and ran away.  She hadn’t yet made it out of sight before incredible pain reached Canno’s ear and dragged him over to Half-leg’s side. 
“I didn’t save you for you to give away our secrets, boy,” the man whispered, low and fast and threatening.  “By word or otherwise.  Now hush up.  One more incident like this and Garren’ll know.  You want Garren to know?”
Canno started to shake his head, then paused. 
“Good boy.  You keep still now.  Don’t move a muscle ‘till we’re back home or you’ll get a lot worse than a pinched ear.”
Canno didn’t participate in the second round of the rock-flicking contest.  He didn’t miss much; the others were too terrified to play well, and so it petered out miserably halfway back, comfier though the return journey was with bags of wheat and barley and other goods to sit atop rather than the hard piles of charcoal. 
“Remember,” Half-leg said, leading him aside as the others hurried back to their pallets, “you say nothing.  Not a word, not a gesture.  What secret we keep here isn’t for you to know.  Not yet.  And it is never yours to give away.  Understood?”
“Yes,” said Canno. 
It wasn’t really a lie.  Not really. 
He understood perfectly what he was being told.  He just wasn’t promising to do it. 

Six years after his promise, Canno was beginning to grow slightly more hair on bits of his face than there should be.  His voice had dropped into a pit and never fallen out, though it kept an edge of harshness from his work amidst the burning wood and the fire at home so long ago – sometimes he still frightened himself when he spoke, back bracing against an expected scolding from one of the senior charcoal-burners. 
There were other little boys now, two of them.  One, Yemmic, he had witnessed being brought in by Mirmar, who had found him wandering the woods in a daze.  He’d tried to bite and scratch and had understood no human words when he first came, but now he fetched and carried as obediently as Canno had, once upon a time.  The other was little more than a face that he occasionally ordered to bring him fuel when he was tending a fire. 
Tending fires was all he did now it seemed.  Somehow, along the way, he and Tagmus, Hullger, and Plalt had been split apart, separated along unseen lines and sent to learn different portions of the trades.  Tagmus laboured under Mirmar to chop the wood and heave it in; Hullger laboured hard for the first time in many years under Keplak’s watchful eye; and Plalt learned to be the fast, roaming hands of Half-leg, whose peg troubled him more every winter. 
A shadow fell across Canno’s back, followed by a sharp poke with a pipe handle.  “How burns the fires?  Speak ye up!”
Canno had been hand-picked by Garren, for what reason he could not tell.  Perhaps the Ashmaster required a handy whipping boy at all times, perhaps he was too old to watch the charcoal smoulder as long as he wished to.  Whatever reason, Canno spent his days and nights in observation now, in memorizing and realizing the patterns of the coals and burnings, in tasting a smoke’s thickness and hearing the whistling sound of a fire that needed banking, in finding and decoding the tiny scraped runes and messages that charcoal-burners years past had left on the timbers to help along his kind years later.  He worked in the Younger Mound now, a maze that seemed all but endless, a warren of tunnels and burning pits rigged carefully, ventilation tilted just so, where one careless handful of dirt could ruin fires left burning for decades or suffocate all within.
“They burn well,” said Canno.  Garren had done one good thing for him: it was near-impossible for him to find his own voice harsh as long as the old charcoal-burner was near. 
“Bah!  Details, mind ye!”
Canno forced himself not to flinch at the second, heavier jab as he thought his way through the last few hours.  “The pine layer has become heavy.  The clay grade is constant.  There are notes jotted down that appear to be counts of trees needed to complete the pile – we are two-thirds through their total.  The charcoal burns steady, and should be ready in another eight months to a year.”
“Pah!  And it took ye that long?  I learned that much just at a glance!”  Garren spat in disgust.  “Details, boy, details!  Ye fuss over details like an old hag, when what ye’re looking for be as plain as the nose on yer face!  Away with ye and yer details, and go to fetch me a good fine coal from our outer layers.”
“Where from?” asked Canno, and knew it was the wrong question precisely too late. 
Garren turned near purple.  “DETAILS!  Pah!  Perhaps I was wrong when I kenned ye had some semblance of a brain jellying its way about yer skull!  Forget the coal!  Get ye to the heart of the Younger Mound, get ye to my pallet, and ye’re not to move from its side ‘till ye can name me each and every coal within six feet of it.  If ye must learn, ye will learn now!  GO!”
Whatever worries and resentment Canno had felt were washed away in a tide of enthusiasm that he was careful to keep hidden as he dashed away down the tunnels, excitement building in his veins like a second heartbeat.  To the heart of the mound.  To see the secrets, to see what the charcoal-burners guarded so close and so near, to know what no one outside of the mound did…
Finding the heart chamber took some time.  Mustering the self-control to let his heartbeat drop back down to something normal so he could enter the room without hyperventilating all the meagre oxygen that remained within it took longer – the Ashmaster must have had cinderheaps for lungs to ignore it in his sleep. 
Inside, there was almost no light, no heat-glow at all.  Canno reached down and plucked up a coal, held it in his hand.  There was warmth, just above the temperature of the air.  Faint, but there. 
Warmth, and nothing else.  No secrets here.
It was two days before Garren came for him.  Canno’s throat was becoming too dry to speak through when the report was demanded, his finger’s numbed with ashes and heat blisters that had built up over patient hours of careful grasping, his only means of identifying the invisible coals in the darkness. 
“I can name them all,” he said. 
“Good.  Do it.”
By the time he was done speaking, Canno’s voice was no more there than it had been after he’d been plucked from the embers of his home by Half-leg. 
“Good,” grinned Garren.  “Good.  Ye’ve made a start.  Perhaps we’ll have ye out of here and in the Elder Mound someday after all, instead of just throwing yer bones to it.”
Canno croaked out something before he could stop himself. 
“Yes, yes, good, bone would spoil it, yes.  Good to know ye can still think.  Now go and sleep.  But not too long; ye’ve work to do.”
Canno brooded even as he dreamt, thoughts looming through the sea of sleep like icebergs.  No secrets after all in the mound’s heart, only the dark and barely-there remnants of coals.  How long had the Ashmaster and that before him kept them burning, barely-alive?  No secrets there.  None to explain the whispers, the rumours, the awe.  What were the charcoal-burners hiding?
Canno forgot what he’d been dreaming of when he awoke.  But some part of him remembered that: the charcoal-burners were hiding something.  Not him. 

Canno did go to the Elder Mound someday – someday was more than a decade of labour away.
People came and left – the children grew up, and he had two of them working under him (‘children’ was a broader age category than he would’ve said it to be, a decade ago), examining the coals as he walked the long roads and trails to scout for new lumber-spots, nodding hellos to startled stranger-eyes that followed his tracks with wonder at this legend that tread their paths.  Garren was less and less sneering in his speech, though he remained spiteful.  Mirmar had been struck by a tree, and Tagmus now was the chief lumberjack, doling out errands and harsh language to the young.  Plalt and his assistants managed the trips to town, and Half-leg spent more and more of his time warming his stump in the fiercer heat of the Younger Mound.  Hullger’s softened limbs were corded now, though try as he might, Keplak could still beat him and any other at arm wrestling simultaneously. 
He could talk in town now on the days he went with Plalt, albeit of no secrets.  Still they asked, still they stared, asking with their eyes, their minds. 
“Come in then,” coughed Garren.  “Come on!  Take us in.”
Canno shifted more of the weight of the Ashmaster onto his shoulder, walking arm in arm with the old man as they tottered their way into the mouth of the strangely small opening that was the Elder Mound’s only entrance.  Canno had to duck to enter – Garren didn’t, hunched as he was. 
Inside was all but darkness.  No coals glowed in the deep dark of the Elder Mound – they smouldered, smothering themselves under their own smoke, keeping their burning to a dull roar.  A glance and a sniff told Canno’s senses of fires that were older than the entire Younger Mound, here at the very freshest rim of the mound’s vast bulk. 
“Inward,” wheezed Garren.  “I will direct the turns.  Now, get ye going.”
Slowly, slowly, much more slowly than Garren would’ve liked (but out of necessity – the old man was near-toppling even at a crawl), they moved inwards and outwards, back and forth.  Sometimes Canno swore they were moving in circles, sometimes he half-imagined that the passages had closed behind them.  He gave up trying to keep track, and resigned himself to walking as the halls grew ever darker and smokier.  Air vents were few and tiny, a mole’s warren chewed into the ceiling without rhyme or reason that all his knowledge could divine. 
“Every one of us comes this way,” Garren said. 
Canno resisted the urge to start at the words, coming unbidden, without instruction. 
“Every one of us,” the Ashmaster repeated.  “Ye’re earlier than most.  Yer fellows will be along inside the next eight years.  First under thirty to walk these halls since I, mind ye well it daren’t go to yer head.”
Canno nodded.  Talking still pained him since his examination of the coals in the heart of the Younger Mound.  His voice was harsher than any in all the kilns now. 
“Early, but it has to come some day for all.  All of us.  It’s time ye knew, as we all must.  Ye’re to be the Ashmaster one day, and ye must know of what ye speak and don’t speak when ye talk to the others, the outside-folks.”  Wearied as he was, Garren’s voice managed to dredge up some extra bit of venom for those last few words. 
“They speak of us, ye ken this well.”
Canno nodded.
“They buy our charcoal, trade for it, ken ye?  We make enough to let us live, but in return they get…. Answer me, boy.”
Canno’s throat felt clogged.  It always did.  “Fuel.”
“Aye.  But think ye: are they not blanketed in it?  Look about these forests boy, and ye cannot help but tread over fine pine on every other step.”  He paused for a coughing fit, while Canno silently supported him, feeling his ribs beat violently against his palms, so twiglike. 
“Nay,” he managed, resuming his shuffling walk.  “No fuel their wish.  They think it be, but what they think and what is so be not so the same, eh?  Always is.  Tell me, for ye has been outside more lately than I: what do they say that we keep in our barrow-kiln here?  What do they think we hold, eh?  More than fuel, surely.”
“Treasure.  Prisoners.  Magic.  Ancient things.”
“Aye, aye, aye.  And now ye’ll see what is real and what isn’t, and we’ll show their fables what the truth is.” 
They stood before a dead end, a tumbledown earthen wall. 
“Clear it ‘way, and be with care.  The heart be beyond.”
The rubble was old, and crumbled easily under Canno’s hands.  He wondered a little, that such disrepair would be allowed in such a special spot, but then all was lost and forgotten as Garren Ashmaster drew himself up straight and dragged him inside by the hand. 

The heart of the Elder Mound was around him. 
It was small, maybe teen foot across. 
It was dim, with a tiny beam of light filtering from above, a flue the size of his fist that wound its way up through how many metres of sod and timber and coals he could not imagine. 
It was almost completely bare.  A small stone fireplace sat in its centre.  A crude, small, ordinary ring of stones that Canno himself had fashioned more than once on a night spent on the trek. 

“Now ye see,” said Garren.  “Now do ye understand as well?”
Canno considered this. 
“No,” he said.
“None do, at first.  Listen then.”  The Ashmaster shuffled over to the fireplace, began pulling lumps of charcoal from his clothing, fill it up. 
“The mound went up long ago.  No one remembers why.  The charcoal-burning was all there was at first, as ye say, but then there came more later, when the town was built and rebuilt and yet we stayed here, building more upon more.  We became older than they, ye ken?  They began at the same time, but we are hoarier.”
“Now.  They began to think of us as things of awe and to be afeared of, ye ken?  Such happens.  Such is helpful.  They direct this upon us, they take up all their dreams and nightmares and fantasies, and they bestow them upon us.  Keeps them from wandering, ye ken?”  The Ashmaster chuckled – or maybe wheezed – as he struck flint to tinder and set a piece of cloth alight.  “Wealth?  I will tell ye what wealth is: nothing.  I will tell what comfort is: nothing.  There is but one thing a man wants, however much wealth and comfort he possesses, and that is to have power over another man.  And we have the power of them all, by right of this fire.”  He slapped one of the rocks carelessly with his hand.  “It be empty.  It be useless.  It be nothing more than some old rocks, no elder than any other ye may have used yerself out in the forest for a night’s warmth.  Nothing special, nothing necessary.  But it holds ye in its grasp, don’t it?  Ye hunger for something more, something that must be here.  As do they.  But there’s nothing here, be they know it not, and so all of their dreams come here to this place and serve us, all their hopes and fears and blighted fancies, all of them right here, under our palms.”  The last words were a sword, echoed with a stab of the pipe at the fireplace. 
“Now,” said Garren, recovering himself somewhat.  He held out the light, and Canno took it, watching the little flame creep its way towards his fingers. 
“Burn them.”

Canno thought, and looked, and watched, and stood.  And then he dropped the light to the floor and placed one foot over it, swivelled it three times from side to side. 
Garren did not look surprised.  He was grateful to the old man for that; he’d have been disappointed if he fell apart so easily. 
“Most wait ‘till it reaches their fingers,” he said.  His voice was flat, strangely so – almost all the spittle and scorched heat had dropped away without warning.  “They wait ‘till they’re near-burnt themselves, and then they light it.”
“Don’t want to,” said Canno. 
“Bigger than that, eh?  A fine thinker, boy.”  He laughed, a strange sound, a wrong one.  It bounced around the cramped little heart of the mound like a big dog in a small room, and it didn’t sound funny at all by the time it was through.  “I ask you to burn the imaginary, and you say it’s pointless.  Maybe it is.”  He laughed again, louder, hurting Canno’s ears with the sharpness of the sound.  “It is! Hah!  Ye kenned it!  Right on the spot!  Good boy!  No need for the flame, no need for the ceremony, when all is but ash and illusion!  Good!  Just to cut ye and rub the ash in then, and ye are Ashmaster beyond me.”  Up came his hand, clutching a handful of old fire-leavings, old tinders and coals mixed to nothing.  A knife glinted in his other, silver over the palm.    “Give me yer arm.”
“Don’t want to,” repeated Canno, taking painful precision with each syllable. 
“What.” said Garren.  There was no question in it, just an expression of emotion. 
“Keep it,” said Canno, lining up words.  Each one hurt, but keeping them in hurt more.  Especially after all those years.  “Keep it.  Keep all the labour, all the ceremony, all the fuss.  Keep it.  Keep your lies and half-truths and lead-ons all you want.  Keep them.  But you won’t keep this.  And you won’t keep burning their dreams.” 
And with that he plucked up the light from the floor and blew on it, and was not surprised at all when it burst into flame again.  Garren was old, and had let him perform his duties one time too many, let his senses dull to what was obvious to younger eyes.  Canno knew how to make any spark live again. 
Garren must have seen what he was planning – there he came with the knife, a wordless screech soaring out from between gummed lips, all three of them clattering to the floor in different directions as Canno shoved him down with one hand.  With the other, he raised up the light, up to the roof.
Garren screamed at him to stop, or maybe just screamed.  Either way, Canno ignored him.  He thrust the light into the roots, and began to drag the Ashmaster away. 

Finding the exit was easier than he’d thought.  The first licks of his newborne flame had stirred the air, set it a-flowing in ways he knew much moreso than the stale and dead breath he’d walked into.  Carrying Garren out was no trouble either – he’d practically done it on the way in. 
There were shouts, screams, calls all around as he left the Elder Mound; already the flames licked from the roof, spread in the cold wind.  Before long they’d jump to the others.  Slow but sure, hotter than any hell, that was a true charcoal burn, a glutton consuming a thousand-year feast.  There would be no stopping this blaze, but plenty of time to avoid it, to abandon the warrens of the Kiln and the Mounds, to leave the dreamcatchers before they fell to pieces and let their captive imaginations free. 
He laid Garren down on the ground – the old man had fallen into a stupor at some point during the journey, perhaps from exertion, perhaps from lack of air, perhaps in terror – and walked away, into the trees.  The heat followed him, decreasing only reluctantly as he travelled.  There would be no battling that fire, not with water nor dirt nor all the power in the world. 
Canno saw another man on the trail.  He was near town, after all. 
As he drew close, he saw the man’s eyes go strange, and he burst out laughing. 
“Nothing, nothing,” he reassured the man.  “It’s nothing.”
“What is?”
“Back there.  It’s nothing.”  A blank stare was his only reply.  “Never mind.  You’ll see, for a change.  You’ll see soon, all of you.”  And all your dreams let free
Canno walked south.  The cold he didn’t mind, not anymore.  But he would be happy to go where he would not need the light of fires. 


“Kindling” copyright 2010 Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Tarrow.

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

It was a cooler, calmer sort of December evening.  The stars were right, the moon was bright, and the planets all spun in a row, tilting just so, and up came Tarrow from beneath the old rock cairn, a thousand years of care-worn, weather-smoothed stone thrown away like old rags.  Up he came and up he came, big-backed, dirt-smeared, filth clinging to his legs from the dirt that he had tainted around him in his long imprisonment.  He shook his mane and flexed his paws and grinned with each and every one of his teeth.  The land had moved around a bit, and where once his barrow-prison had lain in a field, it now sat on a little island in a small lake.  Short grass grew where weeds had wandered once. 
“I am Tarrow!” he bellowed out to whoever might be near, and whoever might be far, too.  “My father was a black night in midwinter and my mother was a cold stone!  I have eaten more men than can be counted on all my fingers and theirs too!  And I am awake!”
He waited. 
A duck quacked at him from the pond and swam away, bill searching for little weeds. 
Tarrow belched, grunted, and hauled himself out and away, wading through the lake.  It came up to his hips at the deepest, and half its waters turned black from the caked muck that washed away from his body.  He emerged dripping, and as yet unchallenged.  Strange noises surrounded him, now that he paused to hear – a constant murmur and rumble in the air around him, a hum of many.  A city, maybe? 
Then Tarrow looked up.  And up.  And further up.  Far, far above him loomed strange shapes, little mountains with steep sides and shiny walls, glowing with a thousand lights, towers he’d never imagined imagining. 
A city?  But a city at night.  That was still good.  They had lights aplenty, but they’d be busy in revelry.  Safe as prey still, but strange with their castles.  Maybe they’d had giants make them.  Strange, such a chill in the air with no snow on the ground.  Wasn’t it winter?
Tarrow pushed through brush, stamped down footpaths.  The strange, spiky little grey pebbles they’d been lined with stuck in his toenails and made him itch and scrape, and he vowed to eat his first victim most painfully.  The arms first, of course.  Then the legs, then the belly, and then the head, because it was crunchy.  Yes, that would do.  Do so nicely and very well.  So preoccupied did Tarrow become in his plans that he very nearly missed noticing the strange new path he’d come to, a flat hard black one that felt smooth and gritty against his horny, rock-hard feet.  On the other side, humans walked in soft clothing, uncovered by armour, weak little peasants. 
“Food!” roared Tarrow, stepping farther into the black path, and it was only by the sheerest of luck that the big metal roaring thing that passed along it at a speed impossible didn’t take off his toes.  He lurched backwards in surprise, ears full of its calamitous wails, and was nearly taken by another that passed behind him, clipping his tail and spinning him like a giant, hairy top.  Whirling, he stumbled his way to the other side of the black path and collapsed, nearly on top of two humans. 
“Watch it,” snapped one, waving a bit of strange metal in his hand.  To Tarrow’s nostrils, it smelt like smoke and bitterness. 
“Careful there,” warned the other. 
“Too late for that, isn’t it?  And keep your mind on the present – hand me that wallet.”
“Fine, fine.”  The human gingerly removed a bit of leathery square-cut thing from his clothing and gave it to the other. 
“Thanks,” said the other, tucking it away.  “Pleasure doing business with you.  Don’t call the cops or I’ll turn around and shoot.”  He turned and walked off, pocketing the metal thing. 
“Are you all right?” asked the other human of Tarrow, who was still prone. 
“I am Tarrow,” said Tarrow.  “I crack ice with my breath and stone with my fist.  I have bitten through iron and steel and have thrown my enemies leagues with a single heave.”
“Well, here, have some change.”  The human tossed a single, shiny coin onto Tarrow’s stomach, and walked away. 
Tarrow examined it.  It didn’t seem to change. 
He needed counsel. 
“Human,” he asked of a particularly small specimen, walking by quickly, “answer or I will eat your skull: what does this change?”
It walked faster, without looking back.  Tarrow’s double-take prevented him from consuming the impertinent thing. 
“What does this change?” he demanded of the next passer-by. 
“I don’t have any, sorry, good luck, see you later,” said the human.  It didn’t look directly at him, and it didn’t look back. 
Tarrow picked up the next human by the neck.  “ANSWER, frost eat your bones!  What does this change?!”
“Police!” screamed the human.  “Help!  Assault!  Theft!  Armed robbery!”
“Which one?” asked Tarrow. 
“You have the right to waive all rights,” said a human.  There was something special about that voice, a firmness, a sureness.  Tarrow had heard that before, usually from humans with sharp weapons just before they tried to cut his belly out.  He turned around, and saw that it was coming from a human wearing some sort of strange hat.  It was holding one of the little metal smoky things. 
“I am Tarrow, consumer of men!” he told it.  It was probably some sort of hero, and deserved a boast.  “I will crack your ribs and break your liver.”
The human’s metal smoker yelled at him, his forehead stung, and he fell asleep without meaning to.  When he woke up, he was in a room made from grey, cold, smooth stone that crumbled at his touch, secured with black-painted metal bars, which bent under his hands.  He wandered into an arched hall, stomping with anger, following the air current to the exit. 
“Your walls cannot hold me!” he roared at the human at the desk.  It too bore the strange hat. 
“You’re out,” it told him.  “Eighteen hours holding for your first offence and don’t try it again.  Damned lucky you’re obviously not right in the head.”
Tarrow’s belly grumbled, but the human had another metal smoker at its side, and he didn’t want to waste more time sleeping. 
“I will return and tear down your prison,” he said, as he left.  The human rolled its eyes. 
It was only when he stepped outside that Tarrow first began to realize just how strange a place he was in.  The smooth grey stone was underfoot everywhere, divided by the great black-grit paths and pooling about the feet of the great metal mountains, towers and halls grown beyond all sanity and all belief.  He’d just left one of the smallest, and for the first time in his life, Tarrow felt small.  In answer to this, he clasped onto the first thing he had in his head, a distraction, a purpose. 
“What does this change?” he asked a human sitting on the sidewalk. 
“Eh?”  It stirred in its blankets, squinted a shrunken eye at him.  It was nearly as filthy as he was. 
“This,” said Tarrow, holding out the coin.  “What does it change?”
“Hmm,” said the human.  “Right.  Well, this is what it does.  See, you have that, right?  So you’re worth something.”  It took the coin.  “There.  Now you’re not worth anything.  That’s what it changes.”
“Give me my coin,” said Tarrow. 
“No.  You wanted to learn something, you paid for it.  Now go away; this is my corner.”
Tarrow reached out with his hands ready to throttle, but the human with the strange hat was still watching him from the window, and he contented himself with spitting on the blanketed human’s feet.  Its shoes bubbled. 
“I am Tarrow,” he reminded himself.  “I can chew boulders and split trees with a flick.  I will leave and find smaller pastures, with easier flesh and no metal smokers.”
Hours later, Tarrow was lost.  The endless maze of the towers blotted out the sky, and the sun was lost in a haze of grey grime that put the dirt under his nails to shame.  The winds bent strangely around the buildings, and there were no trees for him to check the moss on. 
And he was getting very hungry.  There were no strange-hatted humans about, perhaps it would be safe to chance a quick meal.  He ducked into a dark crevice between buildings, lay lurking for a time, and snatched a human into his grasp with one great paw. 
“Meat!” he growled. 
“Mugger!” yelled the human, and held up a little metal cylinder that shot bright agony into Tarrow’s eyes, burning them like a plague of fire ants.  He dropped his prey and roared in pain, stumbled and fell against a metal box filled with refuse, which bruised his sides.  A cat hissed at him. 
“Food,” groaned Tarrow.  “I need food.  Food.”  He ate something out of the refuse box that was far too salty, and promptly brought it up again.  The cat, tragically, evaded his grasp. 
“You okay, man?” asked a ragged human near the alley’s rear. 
“Food,” said Tarrow, and ate it.  The fibers of its clothing stuck in his teeth and tangled his tongue, and the meat tasted rank and strange, making his mouth feel numb and clumsy.  He stumbled back into the main road in a daze, following it with his feet as his eyes wandered at random.  Metal roaring things everywhere, humans everywhere, all not looking at him or at each other.  He felt even smaller among them than he had against the towers that blotted him in. 
Except they weren’t blotting him in anymore. 
“Hah!” laughed Tarrow, legs pumping like pistons, charging him forwards to the suddenly-revealed horizon, joy in his blackened, rock-hard heart.  There it was: the way out, the end of the metal and stone city that never ended, the way to trees – yes, there were trees, small and twisted and blighted but trees yes – and water and freedom. 
“Hah!” laughed Tarrow, as he vaulted the black road, dodging a metal roaring thing, hearing it scream at him.  He plunged into the tamed, sad thing that passed for a wilderness as humans yelled at him. 
“Hah!” yelled Tarrow, tearing down saplings in his haste. 
“Oh,” said Tarrow, as he came to a very familiar lake.  “Oh.  Oh.”  The ruin of his barrow leered at him from its other side. 
He stood there, staring at it, trying to think of a way out, something to stop him from doing what he was about to.  Nothing presented itself, argue as fiercely as he could while his legs slogged through the mire of the lake’s waters.  It was still fouled from his earlier passage. 
“I am Tarrow,” said Tarrow, as he stood in front of the broken stones.  They seemed much smaller than they had when he had broken free just one day ago.  “My father was a black night in midwinter, but this is no winter, and the nights are bright.  My mother was a cold stone, but cold stones surround me and they are not she.  I have eaten more men than I can count on all my fingers and toes and theirs too, but now I cannot stomach so much as one.  I am Tarrow, and I am through.”
As the last words left his lips he stepped forwards, unwilling, unwanting, and lay down.  The rocks closed over his head and sank down into the earth, and the grass was left undisturbed over Tarrow’s head, without so much as a scrap of fur left behind. 
Not one soul turned to mark the cairn’s passing, then or ever. 


“Tarrow,” Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Smell the Roses.

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Norman Sullivan walked into his apartment and took off his coat, brushing flower petals from its surface that had adhered as he walked by the bushes outside the building.  As the jacket passed by his face on its way to the coat-stand, he couldn’t smell the roses.
Norman couldn’t smell the roses, and it was because of this that he did not stand there, stopped flat for a moment as memories arose of fourteen summers ago, of Betty Newmarket, and of how she’d never once gone outside without brushing herself with a whiff of that rose-scented perfume of hers.  Just a hint, a touch, enough to rise gently above the smell of her skin – and how quickly that had overpowered the roses indoors, in her room.  He hadn’t thought about those days for years and years, but they were lying right underneath the delicate membrane of his surface thoughts, just waiting for the right trigger, the small and soft scent that he was waiting for; the trigger to walk his feet right to the desk, to the phonebook, to the page, to the number he hadn’t looked at for so very long.
But Norman couldn’t smell the roses, and so his coat went onto the hook in a businesslike manner, efficiently, smoothly, no pause for recollection, no fuss, no muss.  Norman couldn’t smell the roses, or much else, and he hadn’t been able to since eighteen weeks and three days ago, on the day that he hadn’t asked the street man the question.  The street man had worn a ragged coat and broken gloves and a battered and beaten hat with holes in it, and he had asked Norman for change, and as Norman pressed a dollar into the street man’s hand Norman had not asked him the question, which was “why?”
Norman hadn’t asked the street man the question, and it was because of this that he had not watched the man’s eyes widen at the word, because of this that he had not stood and listened as out of the street man’s mouth came words to challenge his word, from under his bruised hat and about his gesturing and cracked gloves.  The street man’s story washed over him, a story so very real and ordinary.  He spoke of things that Norman was amazed at, of trips to places Norman had barely heard of in atlases, of people met and conversations held that Norman barely understood.  He spoke of things that Norman recognized so very deeply, of the crunchiest toast with the finest jam of all, which, he said, was strawberry, of the grumpy tragedy of being thirteen and laid up alone on a Friday night with measles.  He spoke of things that tied him to the street and the ground and the world and Norman in a manner that made him so very real, the realest thing Norman had ever seen and then some, to tell you the truth. 
But Norman hadn’t asked the street man the question, and so he had continued on his way with a quick nod and a good-luck, and as he hurried away with the hunched shoulders of the aimlessly guilty he had risked back a single, furtive glance of hapless woe, and as his head turned back he had walked straight into a lamppost, seeing stars and cracking his nose in a manner that stuffed it up beyond all recognition.  Norman hadn’t asked the question, said the word, or said any words at all that day, because he hadn’t heard the message. 
Norman hadn’t heard the message that morning as he listened to the tape on his answering machine.  His girlfriend had broken up with him on tape, by phone, separated by two machines and a city from him for the safety of sorrow’s sake, and he had listened to the message through of the litany of sins and mistakes and accusations and as the very final second of the tape ticked by he hadn’t heard the whispered message, which was “I’m sorry.”
Norman hadn’t heard the message, and it was because of this that he hadn’t sat there, alone in the bright morning sunlight pouring in through the windows that was so much lonelier than the darkest night, as he listened to that message five more times, one for each sense so he could drink in the whole story, the end of which was a crucial message of “I’m sorry.”  And then he listened to it once more, to be sure that this very precious message in a bottle wasn’t his imagination, wasn’t a figment, a strange sight in a sea far greater than he could imagine, and he thought alone in his room for one hour, making him late to work by exactly that amount.  But he was odd that day – strangely content if not cheerful – and so the words flowed freely from him, if sparingly, all day long. 
But Norman hadn’t heard the message, and so he had sat up after he heard the tape through to its end – the end he missed, you see – and he went to work.  And all day long at work, the longest day of his life, he did not say a single word.  Nor did he after work.  Norman hadn’t heard the message, hadn’t listened again, because he hadn’t tried the muffin. 
Norman hadn’t tried the muffin two years before that as he unpacked the sparse lunch that his girlfriend (the very same, the very same) had sent with him to work at the construction site.  He opened up the small lunchbox that held the bit of food they could afford for the small meal, and he saw a small sandwich, a small can of pop, and a small blueberry muffin.  Norman hadn’t eaten a muffin since first grade, and he shuddered a bit at the memory, and it was at that moment that he hadn’t tried the muffin. 
Norman hadn’t tried the muffin, and it was because of this that he didn’t find out that to his surprise he liked the muffin, he really did like it, and he found himself happy all day at the thought of this old monster becoming a new friend.  He did his duty and then some, all with unrelenting care and focus, and his foreman made a note of him and smiled. 
But Norman hadn’t tried the muffin, and the thought of the wasted half-meal weighed on his mind even as that wasted half-meal grumbled in his gut.  He was depressed, the muffin weighing leaden in his mind, and he went about his duties half-heartedly.  He forgo putting on his helmet properly, and he aimed his nail gun poorly, and it was with a tremor of the weakened wrist and a thunk of compressed air and a ping of metal-on-metal that a nail slipped gently into his right ear after an aerodynamic ricochet, smoothly savaging his hearing in that ear beyond all recognition forevermore.  Norman hadn’t tried the muffin, hadn’t felt that startlingly beautiful taste of blueberry hop onto his tongue, because he hadn’t hugged his friend Thomas Riley. 
Norman hadn’t hugged his friend Thomas Riley four years beyond the muffin as they stood together in an airport lobby, Thomas about to leave on the flight that would take him to Japan and a new career.  Thomas had stood there, arms full of luggage, tongue full of awkward goodbyes, for how do you say farewell to your friend of the playpen, of the elementary school, of life?  Thomas didn’t know what to say, and neither did Norman, and it was at that moment that he hadn’t hugged his friend Thomas Riley. 
Norman hadn’t hugged his friend Thomas Riley, and it was because of this that he didn’t feel Thomas start in surprise before hugging him back two-handed, luggage smacking Norman’s back like awkward clubs.  Thomas boarded his plane as happy and reassured as a man could be, with a smile and a wave through his tears, and they had kept in touch over the years, with visits and drop-ins whenever Thomas’s path and holidays brought him back from overseas.  He had introduced Norman to sushi, and his eagerness and enthusiasm and persistence had made Norman tuck in and had made Norman find to his shock and surprise that perhaps not all food was as bad as it seemed. 
But Norman hadn’t hugged his friend Thomas Riley, and the goodbye had left off with that awkward pair of fair-thee-wells.  Letters were sent laboriously and replied to slowly, and eventually not at all, and Thomas Riley and Norman drifted apart inchingly, slow by slow.  Life was smaller without Thomas’s encouragement, without Thomas’s dares and darts to prod Norman forwards into the new parts of life.  Norman hadn’t hugged his friend Thomas Riley, hadn’t shown his affection for his oldest friend in a way without words, because he hadn’t seen the homework. 
Norman hadn’t seen the homework eight years before the airport as he biked to Betty Newmarket’s house.  The evening’s summer scent was strong, but already he thought he could feel the wind grow chiller by the day.  School was back already and soon the air would smell sharp and cold and the leaves would die in blazes of glory, whole treetop furnaces and bonfires of cataclysmic awe.  He dropped his bike alongside the house in the fading light, and he turned away from it just in time to glance into the living room window and it was at that moment that he hadn’t seen the homework. 
Norman hadn’t seen the homework, and it was because of this that he didn’t stand open-mouthed for a moment, eyes darting between the still-standing, embracing forms of Thomas Riley and Betty Newmarket and the sheaf of papers on the couch that was plainly the script of Romeo and Juliet that was to be performed by the Drama Club – of which both Betty and Thomas were members.  After five or six seconds of this he burst out laughing in astonished relief, and Betty and Thomas fell over each other in shock and profanity.  Norman laughed harder still, as did they when they heard his explanation, and Thomas headed home a bit earlier than he’d planned, leaving he and Betty alone to laugh and more. 
But Norman hadn’t seen the homework, and after a minute, two minute’s pause of absolute stillness he turned back to his bike.  He picked it up very carefully, and rode it home with absolute focus, as if it were the only thing left on earth.  He didn’t know what to say to Betty the next day, or the next, and by the time he heard of the casting roles in the play he had made up his mind – as had Betty, after a week of sudden neglect.   

Norman hadn’t seen the homework, hadn’t turned shock into hilarity, because he’d cut his right hand on Mrs. Newmarket’s rosebush patch in the dark.  It hurt badly, and the pain distracted him. 

And now Norman, fourteen years older, walks into his bedroom, robbed of memories and more; robbed by scent, robbed by voice, robbed by ear, robbed by taste, robbed by touch, robbed by sight, robbed by chance.  And as Norman pulls his shirt over his head, ready to put out the lights and crawl into the realm of sleep, he chances to see the last remnant of his earlier jacket-cleaning: a single rose petal, clinging lightly to the surface of his right sleeve. 
And Norman Sullivan looked at that rose petal, stopped flat for a moment by memories of fourteen summers ago.  And it was because of this that he walked out of his bedroom and over to his desk. 
And Norman Sullivan rubbed that rose petal softly between his hands, feeling the texture roll over him as he stared at it.  And it was because of this that his fingers fumbled for a phone book for a page for a number that he did not need because his other fingers were dialling by memory. 
And Norman Sullivan heard the ringing of the phone once, twice, and thrice, and he heard the receiver pick up and a soft and familiar voice ask “hello.”  And it was because of this that he put down that petal on the desk and cleared his throat. 
And Norman Sullivan spoke to Mrs. Edith Newmarket with friendliness and politeness, inquiring after her, after Thomas – had she heard anything from him? – and most of all, of Betty.  And it was because of this that he acquired two phone numbers from her: one in Tokyo, one closer to home. 
And Norman Sullivan laid aside the first number for now, promising to dial it in the morning.  And it was because of this that, as the phone rang again – once, twice, thrice – and the receiver was picked up, that he almost thought he smelt the roses again. 

Sometimes, it works both ways. 


“Smell the Roses” copyright 2008, Jamie Proctor.