Archive for January, 2011

Storytime: Faces.

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Jacob was the life, soul, and limbs of the party that took up the whole street; a big dark man with an even bigger (and much sunnier) voice.  His laugh was the jolliest, his appetites the biggest, his newfound friends the most numerous, and he sang all the songs too sweetly for the volume he was stuck at.  Which was pretty good for a man who was asleep in his bed twelve hundred miles away, dreaming about his childhood toast that no one but his mother had ever known how to butter properly.  It was a fitful dream, the last twitchings and cartwheels of eyeballs and psyche blending in a confused blur of growing consciousness that would lead to wakefulness within the minute. 
There in the party, Jacob felt this coming, the roil and turmoil of his own dreams falling, and he knew he had to go.  He said his goodbyes, hugged his friends (everyone within arm’s reach, all at once), and was gone in a twinkling before anyone had missed his face.  That was the important bit: no-one must miss his face.  Especially Jacob, who had it carefully slipped back on just before his eyelids fluttered open,  the face reattaching itself with all the delicate immovability of a limpet to a stone. 
The face-thief watched as Jacob blinked and yawned his way out of bed, suffered a moment’s anxiety as he rubbed at his features, then relaxed again as nothing came of it and he wandered towards the bathroom.  A thousand thousand thousand times the face-thief had done this, and each time he worried at that moment, though it never went wrong.  If someone’s face should come off, why, they might see themselves, and such a thing could be very shocking. 
The face-thief did not want to upset anyone, least of all his friends and victims.  He knew them all so well. 
There was Jacob (always made his folded-neatly sheets messy, snored a lot, wrote novels), who lived in the city with so few lights.  The face-thief took him dancing in a hundred towns, and he made them all brighter. 
There was Daisy (deep sleeper, short sleeper, had loved all four of her childhood dogs and cried on their birthdays), with her four children that kept her too busy to think all day, let alone rest.  The face-thief brought her to fancy dinners with fancier men, who never went home with quite what they’d wanted but somehow were never displeased. 
There was Evan (enjoyed sweets, slept with mouth open, had a pet spider he doted on), who lived behind eight sets of locked doors and was guarded by three big, serious men in sleek, serious suits whenever he went outside.  The face-thief ran along the back alleys with him and over the rooftops, prancing from building to building armed with cans of spray paint and headfuls of ideas. 
And there were hundreds more that he danced to each night on his night that never ended, thousands, millions and millions over the years and the days, all the way back to before the face-thief’s memory could possibly remember, or those of his victims. 
For now, though, he was between them, and faceless.  Naked like this, he couldn’t walk the wide ways and long avenues of the world, the streets and forest trails.  He could only just fit down the Shortcuts, sliding neatly and fusslessly between scenes and ecosystems; sets, stages, and layers of sediment.  He bent himself around a beam of light and slipped from Rio to Tokyo on the breath of a whale’s-spout by way of  Kamchatka’s mountains; nimbly plucking free the face of Jun (a good boy, always happy and an uncomplaining helper of the home, collected leaves) as he slept in his room while his parents spoke downstairs.  His fever was hard and hot but soon to break, they said. 
As was his purpose and habit, the face-thief took Jun far away before he put him on, far from anywhere his face might wander in the daylit hours.  It stopped confusion, which could make people upset.  He squirmed down the Shortcuts for a microsecond longer, taking his time, weighing his options, and at last he set upon a brush thicket in Africa that he hadn’t visited in a while.  He refracted off the headlight of an expensive car, caromed through the pupils of a president and a panther, and popped out of the world’s largest termite mound, where he put on Jun. 

Jun was short and slight, even for a ten-year-old, but he was agile and monkey-like, even for a ten-year-old.  The world around him was a jungle gym, and now he had lifetimes of experience to go climbing and clambering in the treetops.  He nearly bowled over the chattering colobus monkeys in the canopy with his speed before they scattered in fright, sending him into fits of giggles as he brachiated that nearly ruined his grip. 
“Hello!” he yelled at the distrustful face of a pangolin, as the scaly little anteater blinked at him from its hollowed-tree dwelling.  It gave him a surly, smouldering look, then alarm overcame it and it vanished deeper into its lair. 
Jun shrugged.  “Hello!” he said to the leopard hovering one branch over his head, breath like pine needles smoking. 
It shifted without so much a rustle, and he ran laughing on his way, leading it a merry chase through the branches that sent birds squawking for miles.  At last it caught him as he tripped on a stone, and just as its fangs were singing towards the nape of his neck the face-thief took off Jun’s face and went laughing away, hopping off its ear and landing on a dumpster in a big city.  It was probably someplace in Europe; the face-thief hadn’t checked his descent, too caught up in the moment.  He slapped on Jun’s face and chuckled. 
“That was peculiar,” said a voice behind Jun’s elbow.  He glanced down and saw a face peering at him from under a grate in the alley, all eyebrows and elbows. 
“Was it?” asked Jun. 
“Yes.  Boys appearing out of the air is peculiar, and I’ve seen many peculiar things.  Do you have a moment to talk, boy?”
“About what?” asked Jun.  “I can talk about lots of things.  I’ve been nearly anywhere and done nearly anything.  Ask me about it all!”
“Very well,” said the man in the grate.  “What are you?”
“I’m a face-thief,” said Jun.  “What are you?”
“A thief, eh?” said the man in the grate.  “How peculiar.  What do you do then?”
“I steal their faces in the night,” said Jun.  “I put them on and run all around, everywhere, without a care.  I climb the tall places and sink through the low places and I always put them back when I’m through with them, so quick they never miss them.”
“Why ever do you do that?  A thief that puts back what he’s stolen is no thief at all.”
“Oh, but that would most shocking,” said Jun.  “It doesn’t hurt this way, you see.  And what would I do with all the faces?”
“I wouldn’t know, I suppose,” said the man in the grate.  “Tell me, in your travels, have you seen the Grand Canyon?”
“All of them,” said Jun proudly.
“But there’s only one.”
“There’s loads of grand canyons, and each grander than the last.  I’ve seen them all twice over and twice again.”
“Hmm.  Have you glimpsed the Mona Lisa?”
“I drew it!” laughed Jun.  “Or at least, I drew a sketch of it once.  Maybe.  I’ve drawn so many pretty people I can’t keep them straight.”
“Fascinating.  Have you ever danced the Tango when the night runs boiling over?”
“Oh yes!”
“With the rose between your teeth?”
“Many times!  And once with a sprig of poison ivy.”
“My word,” said the man in the grate.  He seemed to mull it over for a minute.  “I simply must accompany you,” he said at last. 
“If you’d like,” said Jun.  “I can’t remember if anyone’s ever followed me before.”
“I’m sure I could, if only you could lend a hand,” said the man.  “It’s these bars, these confounded bars.  I’ve been stuck down here for four hundred years and four months and forty-four days, with only a crust of bread and a quarter-jug of stale water.  It’s monstrous, it’s inhumane, it’s cruel beyond measure.  Whatever did I do to deserve this fate?”
“I don’t know,” said Jun, fascinated.  “What did you do?”
“Well, I can’t get out,” said the man, filled with misery.  “If only you could help me move, I could come with you.  I could be a friend for you, if you’d like.  It must be hard to have friends with no face of your own, eh?”
“I don’t know…” said the face-thief, thoughts uncurling and rewinding.  “I’ve had friends all over the world.  I had two hundred not an hour ago.”
“Pshaw!  Here one moment and gone the next.  No, true friendship is lasting, not any such fairweather cockamamie!  I implore you, face-thief, rid me of this imprisonment and I will follow you ‘till the end of your wanderings.”
“Surely!” said Jun.  He reached down and grabbed the man’s hand and yanked him up and out of his little cell under the grating; he was whisper-thin and couldn’t have weighed more than his slender, eggshell-frail bones; his skin could have been used to pattern china.  As he gasped in the cold night air, the alleyway sighed and heaved under their feet, smashing his little chamber into a grinding shambles of stone. 
“Free!” he hollered at the sky.  “Free as the deep blue sea and fresh as a lark in the morning breeze!  Aha, world, I love thee!  Garbage, I would embrace thee!  Here, friend, let me kiss your feet and shake your hand.”
“No need,” said Jun.  “Was it really so terrible down there?”
“To be imprisoned is the worst of all worlds,” said the man.  “You have no agency, no energy, no will of your own!  All is inertia, and stillness, and the death of the thoughts.  Ah friend, but you know nothing of this.  You are quicksilver, lightning unbottled!”  He stooped to the dirt and seized up a crumbling speck of mortar and stone.  “Here, a piece of my prison.  Take this, my friend, and forevermore know what is to be avoided!”
Jun reached out, and then froze.  He’d been distracted, he’d been talking, he’d almost missed Jun’s sleepy murmurings getting louder as his fever heightened.  In a second and four he’d be wide awake, talking himself out of night-time until his mother came to soothe him to sleep again. 
“Come on, away!” he said as he hastily put Jun away, and, grasping the hand of the man, he swept them away through a crack in the wall and over the aurora borealis, pinwheeling them along the edge of Jun’s alarm clock and into his room.  A quick slap and smoothing of the face-thief’s small, delicate hands secured it tight, and then they hid behind the wall as the boy awoke. 
“Such speed… magnificent,” declared the man.  “You really must show me how you do this.”
“You take Shortcuts,” said the face-thief.  “It’s easier when you’ve gotten the hang of it.”
“I must insist on lessons,” said the man.  “Go on, take me to your next victim!  I’ll pay attention most closely.”  He peered at the face-thief for a moment.  “Strange.  Where are you?  I can see you most clearly, good friend, but your features elude my grasp.”
“You can’t go stealing faces with a face,” said the face-thief.  “It’s bad manners, and it’s dangerous.”
“They stick together, you know – you could end up being all those people at once, and they’d never come off, not forever, ever.”
“My word,” said the man.  He stared at Jun’s room thoughtfully – inside, his mother had begun singing him back to sleep.  “Where to next then, good friend?  Come now, set me a course that I might learn.”
“Let’s go to Polynesia,” said the face-thief.  “I have friends there.”

The face-thief’s friend was named Ema (she slept with her eyes open, listened carefully to her grandmother, and could out-eat all her brothers), and soon she was off making friends enough islands away that none of them would ever run into her in the day-time and ask awkward questions.  The man followed her close all night, but no one ever seemed to notice him, not even when he held her hand (it passed through her arm) and glared righteously at the boys that stared at her so. 
“Shamefulness,” he said scornfully.  “To be there and not at all.  Bah!  Are you sure I cannot try on a face?  Just a little one, maybe one whose owner wouldn’t miss it.”
Ema drank something interesting from a glass.  “No, no, no.  It’s dangerous and shocking, and there could be all sorts of problems and no solutions in sight for miles.  You’re free now, be happy!  They can’t see you, but I can.”
“Ah, well,” said the man.  “Turning my words of friendship back upon me, eh?  A hard blow, a cruel one, but well dealt and spoken.  I shall say no more…” but he hesitated. 
“What is it?” asked Ema.  It wasn’t her first interesting glass of the evening, and she wasn’t tactful at the best of times. 
“I forgot,” said the man most slowly, “to give you my token of thanks.  You had to go and put back your face –”
“Not mine,” reminded Ema.
“- your face,” continued the man blithely, “and I completely forgot it.  How insensitive of me.  Set aside your face for a moment more, friend, so that I can touch you once more, to gift you as you are justly deserved.”
“Thank you very much,” said Ema, who was blushing thoroughly.  Compliments and curses alike had been thrown to her times uncounted, but never past her face.  It felt tingly.  “But give me a moment first, to say goodbye to my friends – my other friends.”
“Friends, friends, friends, and friends,” rattled off the man.  “Come now, have I not spoken of the difference between a friend and friends?  A friend in need is a friend indeed, but friends are not even accorded the closeness with which enemies are kept.”
“I suppose,” said Ema, and made her farewells a mite quicker than usual, spurred on by excitement and the disapproving frown of the man.
Stepping back to the island where Ema slept soundly was the work of a moment’s beat in a butterfly’s wings.  The man barely needed her help at all this time. 
“A new thing,” he said, “should be seized immediately and with as much force as possible, lest it glide away and you be left dreary.  Tell me, am I not an apt pupil?”
“You are,” said the face-thief, hopping nimbly from Ema’s bedside. 
“Thank you,” said the man.  “Here then, is a token of my esteem, a favour to be bestowed upon you!  Take this fragment of mine prison, oh friend of deliverance, and be reminded of what freedom is!”
With those words he lightly tossed the rude chunk of masonry that he had seized from his grating high, and the face-thief caught it with surety.  The moment his fingers touched it, it all went wrong.  The bottom and top dropped out of the world and the sides spun, the Shortcuts stretched so far that they bled out of sight, and the face-thief was solid now, solid as a rock, and heavier than sin.  He was shocked, and sank to the floor too quickly even to call out. 
“I am your friend ‘till the end of your wanderings,” said the man, with the bright and earnest smile that he favoured.  “And so I was.”
“Why?” squeaked the face-thief, breath all gone. 
“You have taught me all I wish,” said the man.  “I have spent many a word on soothing your mind to me, and I have scant patience for motives and morals.  Suffice to say it that free is as free does, and I will be freest of all – free with whatever face I choose, as whoever I choose, as all of them if need be!  Whom first will it be?  Who knows!”  He chuckled so hard that his eyebrows burrowed together like a marriage of caterpillars. 
“And you, my poor, poor old friend – you may make your way here.  Most likely straight downwards; my prison added some manner of weight to the stone that I fancy is most unnatural.”  And with a laugh and a jig he was off and away, dancing on the moonlight. 

The face-thief didn’t cry.  He laughed, and screamed, and yelled, and now and then he yapped, but he didn’t cry.  So what he started to do there on the floor must not have been that. 
“Who’s there?” said a sleepy voice, and now the face-thief’s little sobs grew that much sadder, because he knew that he’d woken up Ema, poor Ema whose face might even now have been stolen right off her head as she slept.  Maybe the man wouldn’t put it back.  Maybe he wouldn’t care.  Maybe, although the face-thief’s imagination could only begin to hint at such things in the darkest corners of his soul, he wouldn’t even wait ‘till she was asleep.  Her or anyone else. 
“Oh, a ghost,” Ema said.  “What do you want, little ghost?  Why are you crying?”
The face-thief tried to say something, tried to explain what he was doing, but he was too out of breath to say anything, and too worried, and a little fearful too.  Who knew what she’d do if he told her everything and anything, or what she’d even do to just a ghost.  He curled up in a still smaller ball around the cruel weight of the stone, and tried to muffle himself. 
“Well, that’s no good at all,” said Ema.  She swung herself out of bed and stood over the face-thief, stroked his quivering back and said soothing nonsense-babytalk to him, and bit by bit she got him to uncurl and saw the stone clutched against his chest. 
“Bad stone there,” she said, shaking her head.  “Really bad.  Who did that to you, little ghost?  You say the word, and I’ll put out the anger on them, from the whole damned town.  We’ll take care of you.”
The face-thief flinched harder.  He didn’t want to shock people. 
Ema laughed, long and rich, fuller and thicker than the quick chuckle of the man.  “You don’t worry, little ghost.  You haven’t been a secret here since you dressed up as my grandmother’s mother and got in a fistfight with her cousin-in-law while she was sound asleep in her bed.  You’re not as careful as you could be, but you’ve got friends because of it.  Nobody’s perfect.”  She reached down and plucked out the stone from the little divot that it’d drilled into the face-thief’s chest, then spat on it and hurled it out the window.  There was a clack and a click and it burst into a thousand bits of everyday dust, and the face-thief was on its feet again, if it had any, which it now didn’t.
Ema laughed as she felt something clench her waist for a fraction of a second, then vanish.  “Take care of it yourself then, will you?  Good for you, little ghost.”

The face-thief didn’t hear her, he was halfway to the moon at the moment, running on the moonbeams and dodging orbital debris – bits of old space shuttles and scraps of rock left over from the beginning of the world.  He still had time, the man loved to talk, to pontificate, to relish the sound of his voice unconstrained.  The face-thief perched on the rim of the Mare Vaporum, and stared down at the planet as hard as he could see, as quick as he could think. 
He saw everything.  Bees fluttered and he saw the dew flick from their wingtips.  Elephants tussled and he saw the dust specks on their eyelashes.  Whales warbled and he saw the microbes in their guts vibrate.  The continents ground together and he counted their atoms using numbers too quick to be real.
And there, there, there – moving fast as only he could – he saw a treacherous man standing in a bedroom. 
The face-thief didn’t dodge, or jump, or dash, or even sprint.  He fell, and he fell so fast it was near flying.  He landed in the bedroom of Jun, and he landed on Jun’s bed, on his covers, on his chest, right in front of the reaching hand of the man. 
“…oh,” said the man, as whatever grand speech that had been brewing in his mouth slid away.
The face-thief leap, speedy with fury, but the man was quick with fear.  He dashed down the mousehole, spun down a mineshaft in brazil, and wafted on the smell of broccoli in a Californian kitchen, all in a dead sprint.  He was an apt pupil indeed, the most apt of all the face-thief had ever taken, which was one. 
But he had no practice.  He had no skill.  He was flashy, yes, he was dashing, yes, he even had a spark of that rare, rare imagination that was needed, hoarded out oh-so-carefully over his long years alone.  But it was nothing but style, and as the man quickly realized as the face-thief tore at his heels, style without substance meant nothing, even when you had no substance. 
A final slide along the rim of a French teacup and they were in Polynesia again, on a very small island.  Ema had gone back to bed, sound and secure, and there was no pause to savour the moment in the man’s mind this time, only greed born of fear that turned his hands to near-talons as he darted to the bedside.  He looked behind him, he looked afore him, he looked at all sides and dimensions, and for that split second he knew he was safe.  His hands grasped either side of the face, felt for the hidden hinges he’d oh-so-carefully watched the face-thief grasp and lock earlier.  There was something about the open eyes.  They were green, with a peculiar glint.
The face-thief popped out of one. 
The man’s mouth opened, maybe to say “oh,” again, maybe to scream, to deny, to roar and fight.  But none of it mattered, because the face-thief was furious beyond all reasoning, and he had done what the man dared try far more often than he dreamed, often enough to do it without even thinking.  His hands darted out, seized on the corners of the man’s jaws and the furrow of his forehead (crushing eyebrows flat under angry palms), and he yanked free the man’s face in one thunder-bolt moment, holding it high between them both. 
There was another endless moment, when the man looked at the man and saw just what was there. 
There might have been a scream in it, but there was nothing for the man to scream with. 
There might have been wide-eyed shock, but there were no eyes for him to widen. 
Instead, he shuddered all over at once, shrank in on himself, and vanished inside-out with a strange high cry and the gritty rattle of a crushed chain.  The Shortcuts trembled tight, then relaxed once more. 

By next morning, things were different.
A publisher woke up to find a copy of Jacob’s latest draft sitting on his desk. 
Jun’s fever broke, and the first thing he saw when he woke up was a potted plant in his room.  His big book that had belonged to his grandfather said it was from Southeast Asia, and was probably extinct. 
Ema’s grandmother had acquired a rocking chair sometime in the night, which was a strange coincidence because the department store that Daisy worked at had one go missing that very night. 
Daisy was fired on the spot, and as she trudged up her driveway she found that someone had left a lottery ticket stapled to the front door.  One month later, she owned a newer, much nicer door that was attached to an entirely different house.  The driveway was a lot longer too. 
Evan found a canister of spray paint left under his pillow, along with a small set of lock picks.  The rest was up to him, and he was quite eager for it. 

Friends in need are friends indeed, and, if circumstances dictate that they be often less close than enemies, they are all the more warming to visit. 


“Faces” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Nothing But the Tooth.

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

July 15th
3:00 PM.
Finally got on-site after eight false starts, two last-minute sign-ups, and five cancellations.  Ground here looks promising – just weathered enough to begin to expose bones, hopefully not so much that they’ll have been eaten away by storms.  Tents are going up and soo
4:25 PM.
Just got back from talk with short, irritated man with shotgun.  Had to persuade him we were not FBI agents or tourists.    Have permission to dig, trip duration cut by one week.  License plate is LB-97318.
Will open bottle earlier than planned.

July 16th
7:15 AM.
Woke up, ate, dispersed black widow from left shoe, spent twenty minutes ousting students from beds.  Equipment was divided quickly after lunch.  Had to separate Patterson and Young after Patterson gestured improperly with shovel handle in attempt to attract interest.  Digging begins imminently.
12:30 PM.
Alarmingly large rainstorm with no forewarning.  Impossible to dig and possibly dangerous.  Much complaining from Donaldson and Kim, admonished them on pitching tent in depression.  Urged students to use time to plan ahead for tomorrow’s excavations.  Communication likely hindered by surreptitious iPods.

July 17th
7:45 AM.
3:45 PM.
More rain.
11:50 PM.
Rain.  Again.
Getting good use out of bottle.

July 18th
7:55 AM.
Rain stopped.  Students stayed up much too late last night, efforts at rising from bed hampered by hangovers, laziness.  Patterson claimed incapability of movement.  Young induced movement via water bottle.
1:35 PM.
Rain did us a favour – slope has been stripped apart thoroughly.  Many intriguing possibilities much easier to see without topsoil coverage.  Already found numerous bone fragments.  Possibly something quite large in here.
Dig teams: Patterson-Young, Kelly (solo by request), Donaldson-Kim-Schmidt.
9:20 PM.
Mood over dinner positive.  Many finds, minor but not so small as to be disappointing.  Genuine enthusiasm present for the first time.
11:25 PM.
Horrifying screech.
11:30 PM.
Patterson unanimously mocked by peers for screaming like child upon discovering black widow on pillow.

July 18th
4:05 PM.
Donaldson, Kim, and Schmidt called my attention.  Had unearthed small skull.  Seems some sort of little crocodile.  Good work on their part.  Directed their attention to likely spots for its other bones.  Others working harder, motivated by their success.
7:00 PM.
Young located tooth, which on closer examination proved to be pebble.  Patterson attempted mockery and was threatened with waterbottle.

July 19th
9:05 AM.
Patterson and Young remain univocally antagonistic during breakfast.  Searching sites too close together, not helping situation – each persists in pointing out things the other “just missed” on his/her side.  Violence will hopefully remain verbal.
5:30 PM.
Just past noon, Young punched Patterson directly in gut, resulting in a roll some ten feet downhill.  Fortunately, no injuries.  More fortunately, Patterson’s face landed in a patch of rock that contained actual fossilized tooth rather than stunted cactus two feet distant.  Both claim exclusive credit for discovery.  Have urged them to explore patch together, hoping either acknowledgement of cooperation or elimination of the louder, whichever comes first.
10:15 PM.
Six quite large teeth unearthed by Young and Patterson today, marking them to be envied.  Too busy arguing over who keeps them safe to bask in it though; almost were too distracted to even mark the locations found.  Willing to let them bicker if it means more finds like this – teeth not recognizable to my eye.  Will pore over books, see if I’m missing something.

July 20th
7:10 PM.
Patterson, Young remain surly and quiet – even more so.  Each accuses other of staying up all night picking at nails, each calls other liar.  Maybe joint dig isn’t working.  Donaldson, Kim, Schmidt have found vertebrae, possibly from same crocodile originally excavated.  Encouraging.  That and very nice fern leaf from Kelly make a good day.
9:35 PM.
Young cornered me before bed, insisted I take teeth for safekeeping.  Claims they’re “rattling” at her all night, blames Patterson nudging them with his boot to irritate her.  Anything to make them cut it out.

July 21st
3:00 AM.
Was woken continually by rattling noises several times in the past few hours before source of sound discovered.  Teeth appear to be shaking slightly independent of any outer force, reduced markedly in severity when exposed to light.  When in dark, escalates gradually to the scale of a small set of maracas.  Not sure if I should tell students.
9:30 AM.
Raining again; drizzle, not enough to keep dry inside.  Morale dips.  Patterson, Young more civil.  Kelly accuses Schmidt of trying to “sneak around” his site, calls him “greedy bastard,” Schmidt takes offence, Kelly assures it was meant in jest, Schmidt not convinced, perhaps sensibly.  Perhaps pre-trip briefings should have encouraged use of iPods and discouraged discussion rather than vice versa.
2:00 PM.
Teeth appear mobile when placed on reasonably flat surface (used laptop); toddle about at slow pace when watched out of corner of eyes, attempt (poorly) to freeze when viewed boldly.  Smallest one seems prone to fidgeting during this.
2:15 PM.
Had to stuff teeth hurriedly into box as Schmidt approached to complain about Kelly’s “paranoia.”  Told him to keep his distance and let Kelly cool off.  Schmidt claims impossibility, told him to let Donaldson and Kim do searching for a while.
3:20 PM.
Largest, smallest, and second-largest tooth sharply jabbed right palm as I extracted them from box after Schmidt left.  “Bite” was delivered without great force (no skin break), but clear warning gesture and not acquired wariness – no agitation post-“bite,” apparent docility upon replacement within box and lack of hand-shyness.  Presence of ethologist would be useful.  Philosophy major too.

July 22nd
11:20 AM.
Trip’s halfway done, should be a third.  Must remember license plate.  Donaldson and Kim less inclined to hunt than Schmidt, remain to search for further crocodile traces.  Schmidt sulking, Kelly smug.  Patterson and Young turned up nothing so far, are spending more time arguing than hunting.  Teeth nearly only reliable companions in camp.
12:55 PM.
Reaction to hamburger is immediate and enthusiastic embedment.  Smallest one became stuck, had to assist in egress.
11:55 PM.
Woke up with small, cold, hard object on pillow.  Smallest tooth was attempting to sneak body warmth from back via snuggles.  After careful consideration, went back to sleep.  Too blunt to penetrate skin without greater force.

July 23rd
4:00 PM.
Schmidt left Donaldson, Kim, attempted to join Patterson, Young.  Patterson received offer with guffaw, said if he wanted to take their teeth he’d have to open their mouths because there weren’t any more.  Young was more diplomatic.  Schmidt complained about Donaldson.  Young was less diplomatic.  I intervened.  Didn’t know Young-Donaldson former childhood friends, learn something every day.
Dig teams: Patterson-Young (now in better temper), Kelly (solo by request), Schmidt (solo by self-inflicted choice), Donaldson-Kim (remarkably tranquil).
7:25 PM.
Teeth remain steadfast and unidentifiable (beyond obvious reptilian origin) due to extreme wear; could be herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, fast food junkie, vegan.  Smallest one still clingy and attention-demanding.  Reminded of childhood basset hound, Halibut, but without unpleasant smell.  Am possibly the only wholly content person in camp.  Should remedy this.

July 24th
11:50 AM.
Schmidt seeks attention again, claims he left Donaldson-Kim because they were “holding out on him,” with something big.  When asked for proof, becomes uncomfortable discussing source.  Pressure causes lack of eye contact, fidgeting, verbal stammering, request to withdraw.  Will press issue later.
10:15 PM.
Teeth spent day insistently attempting escape towards NW corner of tent, where they attempted to rip through canvas.  When placed back in box, made efforts to reach NW corner no matter which way it was turned.  Appear highly agitated and difficult to keep still.

July 25th
1:30 AM.
Schmidt and Kelly came near to fistfight as both discovered fossil at same time, Kelly claiming Schmidt intruded on his dig, Schmidt claiming he was free-roaming at the time.  Fossil is lovely little fish quite well preserved.  Split them up, was rounded upon by both for lack of interaction and accused of “sitting on your ass” in tent all day.  May be time to reveal teeth, hopefully restore harmony.  Will do so after dinner.
4:30 AM.
Donaldson, Kim have found something, yet attempt to hide it.  Obvious about it, no guile, too guilty-looking.  Will ask tonight.
6:30 AM.
Patterson, Young show no results on bone hunt and no dig markers yet are covered with dirt and dust; possible fraternization via unification against Schmidt re July 23rd.  Will remind group entire of focusing efforts on studies later.

July 26th
12:25 AM.
Three days left.
Revelation of teeth post-meal rather surprising in range of reactions.  Patterson, Young stupefied (Patterson triumphantly proclaims that he never picked his nails, Young induces cranial bruising); Kelly surprised mildly yet smug; Schmidt shocked then irate; Donaldson-Kim jumpy yet attempt to remain calm while pretending surprise, poorly.  Appears only Patterson-Young have been in dark due to lack of further finds past teeth entire (Kelly’s smugness vanishes rapidly at this revelation, possibly believed himself unique).  Kelly’s fern wavers when held in wind and absorbs water, grows more lustrous in sunlight; Schmidt claims he spotted fish due to its “swimming” against the stone and suspected since Donaldson-Kim attempted to isolate him from crocodile skull + vertebrae, was root cause of departure from dig team.  Initial denial by Donaldson-Kim gives way rapidly under pressure, followed by admission of guilt: hoped to keep secret and reveal more publicly following trip for greater sensationalism.  Admonished both, learned crocodile skull has been hissing, grunting, and clacking to itself since night of excavation, though at tiny volume only audible when held near ear (prone to snapping, evidence: bandaged earlobes of Donaldson-Kim.  Must not write off such things as fashion statements in future).
Total pool of animate fossils:
Fern leaf (demi-living, absorbs nutrients).
Small crocodile skull + vertebrae (vocalistic, capable of biting; rattle against one another)
Fish (swims against surrounding rock).
Unidentifiable teeth (rambunctious)
Characteristic shared by all: increased desire to travel NW direction, noted by all fossil holders.
Reluctantly proposed returning teeth to Patterson-Young, was rebuffed.  Young claims smallest tooth’s habit of hugging close to nape of neck in unguarded moments was “adorable,” Patterson claims my role as surrogate mother too important to disrupt.  Too grateful to reprimand.
6:45 AM.
All excited to leave beds for once as full impact of trip is realized.  Divided between wish to excavate more fossils (Schmidt, Kelly), wish to see why current ones desire NW relocation (Donaldson, Kim, Patterson, Young).  Excavation placed on hold after vote.
6:00 PM.
Direction of desire tilts rapidly away from NW after one-kilometre walk from camp.  Divided group, triangulated with difficulty, approximate location was determined and reached: relatively modest butte nevertheless prominent above landscape, throne-like.  Fossils deliriously intense, agitated above centre.  Will excavate tomorrow; full day job at least.  Sleep for all will prove difficult.

July 27th
Two days left.
6:00 AM.
Even greater eagerness to leave beds, to the point of singing as march to dig is undertaken.  Patterson attempts to sing ribald marching tune taught by elder brother, is mocked roundly yet affectionately.  Best spirits yet.
7:55 PM.
Morale still undaunted despite difficulty of excavation; “Throne” butte near uppermost end of sandstone durability.  Schmidt in better humour post-apology of Donaldson-Kim, team now includes him again.  Kelly working closely with Patterson-Young, dual effect of keeping them busy and reminding him of benefits of teamwork.  Importance of mutual goal as unifying force impressed deeply, will attempt to artificially impose one more thoroughly on future digs, act more decisively to crush factionalism.  Blaming teeth as distraction from professorial duties futile, childish.
Excavation made real progress.  Teeth almost frantic with energy near pit.  Tomorrow, we breach.  Smallest tooth extra-snuggly tonight, attempting to burrow into shoulder to within small fraction of drawing blood.

July 28th
Tomorrow, we pack and leave.
5:45 AM.
For first time, ready almost immediately post-sunup.  Sleep filled with profound and fantastical dreams.  All vibrating with excitement.  Today we unearth it.
12:15 AM.
Discovery!  Fossil is corner of jawbone, extremely large, reptilian, probably theropod.  Excellent condition, will remove from seat soon.

July 29th
Home again.
11:45 PM.
Excavation did not quite go as planned.  Upon exposure of much of skull fossil emerged forcefully from rock, worryingly near complete (missing half tail, large middle portion of left leg – erratic walk to say the least).  Teeth entered skull, other fossils removed forcefully from persons and sucked directly onto surface of “King” fossil’s (Patterson’s terminology) superstructure, followed immediately with forceful emergence of others from all points of Throne and similar attachment.  End result attained within thirty seconds: King is covered with carapace composed of smaller fossils.  King bowed deeply (grace hampered by tail incompleteness), sighted on north(?) star, and departed across badlands at over estimations of fifty mph, unverified (lack of tissues appears to overcome muscle-mass ratio limitations).
Field trip net success, if ultimately with no real physical evidence.  Students initially depressed, perked up on home trip with reminder of next year.
Must remember to check license plate.


“Nothing But the Tooth,” Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: The Daily Drain.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Emma was six years old when she started noticing something was wrong with her father.  Before that (as was no fault of her own), she was too young, too prone to thinking of the universe as binary: Emma and those other things that should give Emma ice cream.  Now she saw the subtle distinctions.  For instance, Mom was a girl, and she was at work all night.  Dad was a boy, and he worked all day, and came home with lines on his face and bags under his eyes and a stare that wasn’t there at all.  He looked like one of the zombies that cousin Connor spent all his time shooting.  Emma had tried it once, but the controller was too big for her hands.
“Do you want ice cream?” asked Emma, sensitive to the complex needs of the working man.
“No thanks, flower,” Dad said without looking at her.  “Just some rest.”  He went straight through the kitchen (snagging a bottle of That Damned Stuff from the fridge), from there to the coach, and turned on the TV.
Emma was a little glad.  Who knew how much ice cream Dad could eat if he put his mind to it?  Maybe he’d start on it instead of That Damned Stuff and she’d never get any of it again unless she snuck it when he was at work.  But then maybe he’d shout at her.  He’d never done it before, but he and Mom had started shouting the one time he’d come home from work and they’d been completely out of That Damned Stuff.
Just like they were out of ice cream right now.  The freezer was empty.
Emma flounced into the living room (she’d learned that from her grandmother) and glared at the back of Dad’s head.  “Daaaaad,” she intoned in her most armour-piercing tones, “we’re out of –” and the sentence ended there because she’d just noticed something rather important.
Dad heaved himself over on the coach, displacing The Dog, which was their dog.  He looked like one of the pictures of beached whales their teacher had shown them in Science, but smaller and even sadder.  “What is it, kitty?”
Emma tried to stop staring and failed.  “Never mind.”
Dad was too tired to notice, and flipped himself back over without so much as another word.  It brought the big round hole in the back of his head back into clear view.  Emma was quite puzzled; she thought the inside of people’s heads was supposed to be read and sticky.  But there was nothing inside Dad’s head at all but black emptiness.

“There’s a hole in Dad’s head,” Emma told Mom as she tucked her into bed an hour later, very formal in her work suit.  Dad called her the Queen of the Night Shift.  Mom called him The Hippy That Went To Law School.  Emma thought Mom’s names for things were better than Dad’s.
Mom sighed.  “More like his foot, dear.  Good night, and sleep loose.”  Mom always said that.  She said that if children didn’t sleep loose, they grew up all cramped and gnomey, and Emma’d look like Grandma by the time she was twelve.  Emma always slept as loose as she could, sometimes to the breaking point.

The next morning, she was eating breakfast (bland, tepid, healthy cereal) when Dad came down the stairs.  His face was thinner than the milk he poured into his coffee.
“Why do you have a hole in the back of your head?”
He laughed.  “Now where did that come from?”
Dad turned around and rubbed his skull.  “See?  Nothing there.  You worry too much, kitty.  What made you think that?”
“TV,” said Emma automatically.  She’d discovered through careful trial and error that blaming things on television worked maybe half the time.
Dad shook his head.  “Lord knows what you’re watching all day.  Read a book or go outside or something, petal.  And you should be off to school now.  Are you packed?”
“Yes.”  Every day he asked that, every morning she answered that, every time it turned out she’d forgotten something new.  Her hat, her water bottle, the horrible old metal lunchbox that everyone at school made fun of her for owning (it had been grandpa’s, then Dad’s, then hers).  This time, it was her water bottle.
School was… school.  Emma did the things she liked (math, mostly) and the things she didn’t like (spelling, mostly), and she came home before Mom woke up, as usual.  She made herself a bad peanut butter sandwich and ate it.
Dad came home, heralded as usual by the haphazard, lazy woofs of The Dog.  As he bent over to pull off his shoes, Emma saw the hole in his head again.
He sighed as he pulled himself upright.  Emma could tell it wasn’t aimed at her specifically, just everything around him.  “Yes?”
Emma was suddenly sure that asking the question again wouldn’t help.  “Never mind.”
“Right.”  He went and got another bottle of That Damned Stuff.
Emma stayed up later than usual that night, and not just because she was finding it very hard to sleep loose.  She was planning.

The next morning she packed for school extra-carefully: sandwich, water bottle, books, notebook, pencils, and jacket.  She didn’t forget one thing, and was out the bus stop almost before Dad was done his coffee, something that surprised him even through the sleepy face he always wore right up until the moment he left.
She was back inside two minutes later.
“What is it this time, pumpkin?”
“I forgot my hat,” she said.
“It’s in the closet.”
“I can’t fiiiind it,” she said.  “And it’s raaaaaining ouuuttt…”
Dad sighed and got up to look for it.  While he was doing that, Emma snuck his car keys back into his coat pocket.  Then she took her hat (in plain sight, naturally), said her goodbyes, walked out the door, and got inside her dad’s car, where she locked the doors again and hid in the back under the old blanket that they used whenever The Dog had to come with them on a trip.  It was a good thick blanket, and Emma was small and thin, but still the big reason Dad didn’t see her was that he never bothered to look, which made her feel a little disappointed inside.
Emma had been to Dad’s Work once before last year, for some reason or another that hadn’t mattered at the time.  She’d forgotten everything, and especially how long the drive was.  At least four times she had to sneeze so hard that her face nearly fell of with its quivering, but she held it in and in all the way to the parking lot, where Dad locked the car and left her.
Emma unlocked it and stepped out after him, then stopped to look up and up and up at the building that was Dad’s Work.  It ran all the way up to the tops of the sky where the clouds lived, covered in flat squares of glass that gleamed dully against the grey horizon.  It wasn’t quite pretty.  But it also wasn’t what was drawing her attention.  That was the dragon.
It blended in quite nicely, but it wasn’t that hard to see – like those disappointing chameleons she’d seen at the Zoo on her birthday.  It lay flat against the front of the building, arching up and around its sides, sinuous as a serpent and a hundred hundred times bigger from tip to tip.  Pane for pane its scales were the same as the glass it was hugging, from its pale eyes to its see-through wings.
It was watching her.
“Hello,” said Emma.
The dragon made no comment.
“Don’t be rude,” said Emma.
“It is rude,” said the dragon, “not to speak when spoken to.  On the other hand, it is rude to disobey your parents.  Should you not be at school?”
“It’s boring.  Aren’t dragons supposed to have lots of treasure?”
“I do.”
“Well, where is it?”
“I am brooding on it.”
Emma thought for a moment.
“I know that.  Where is it?”
“I just told you.”
“Treasure is money and stuff.  That’s a building.”
“Times change,” said the dragon.  “Why are you here?”  Its expression didn’t change at all, no matter what it was saying.
“School is boring,” repeated Emma.  She felt something in her stomach move, and decided to change topics. “And Dad has a hole in his head.  Do you know why?”
“Dad,” said the dragon, flatly.  “Dad… many of my employees are parents.  Many of those have girls.  A few have girls your age.  One or two with your hair colour.  None with that coat.  Yes, I know your father. I do indeed.  And I do know the answer to your question.”
“What is it?”
“A secret.  Part of my treasure.  You may not have it.”
“But it’s okay to look at it, right?”
“You may not.”
“But I’m looking at your treasure right now.”
The dragon considered this.  “All right,” it said at last.  “You may enter.  But you may take nothing.”
“Thank you very much,” said Emma as politely as she could.  The handles on the big doors at the base of the building groaned as she heaved their ponderous weight open, tugging with her whole body.  She squeezed through the crack as quickly as she could; it was impossible to feel comfy with those eyes on you.
Inside the building was a man behind a desk.  He stared straight forwards at her as she padded towards him, lunchbox in hand backpack on back; alert, businesslike, and really bored.  Emma had felt that way enough to recognize it, even in grownups.
“I’m looking for Dad,” she told him.
He stared over her head at the door.
“Try the fifth floor,” whispered a voice from above.  The dragon’s head was hovering near the ceiling, its long, thin neck stretching all the way through the doors, which didn’t seem to have opened.
“They cannot see you.  They would make you leave, and that would be counter to our agreement.”  The dragon eased its way back outside, passing through the glass without a ripple or bend.
Emma walked back to the doors and poked them.  She shrugged, which didn’t make her feel better.  The prospect of an elevator ride, however, did.  The doors of the cage slid soundlessly open, and the rows and rows of polished buttons were warm and dimly-lit under her fingers as she hunted for “five.”
“Have some music,” said the dragon from the polished steel walls of the elevator.  Music happened.  It was fuzzy and airy, more like sounds strung together by fairies than the stuff Mom and Dad listened to, and Emma didn’t want to have it.
“Are there lots of dragons left?” she asked, as politely as she could.
“No.  Knights killed most of us.”
“Mom has music that a knight wrote,” said Emma proudly.  “He sang it too.”
“Properly prepared knights.  Knighted by royalty, yes, but with ancient weapons and the aid of great magicians.  None of those things live today.”
The music wasn’t going away, no matter how much Emma ignored it.  “Turn it off,” she said.  The dragon turned it off and its face vanished from the walls.  Still, she couldn’t quite relax until the floor bell dinged and she was outside the elevator again.  The walls kept trying to stare at her.
The floor Dad worked on was grey. Grey carpets, grey ceilings, grey walls, and even the strange fuzzy boxes that the workers were put in were grey.  The glass windows that took up the building’s outer walls looked out on the grey sky.  Emma shivered.
“The fourth cubicle on your right,” the dragon whispered to her.  It was hovering outside again, peering in at her.  Its eyes felt like caterpillars on her skin.
“What’s a cubicle?”
“The boxes my employees work in.”
Emma didn’t like the idea of Dad being in a box.  Things that she had outgrown got put in boxes, and she never saw them again.  She didn’t think she’d outgrown Dad.  He was still a lot bigger than she was.
She looked into the bo – the cubicles as she passed them.  The first one had a thin young man who kept running his hands through his hair.  The second had a woman older than Mom, who was typing faster than anything.  The third was a fat man with a grey beard who was staring at his computer screen and not blinking.  Each and every one of them had a neat black hole in the back of their heads.
The fourth one was Dad.  He was reading something on his screen and looking at papers, first one, then the other, then the other, then back again, just like the metronome they had on their piano that Mom never played.
“Hi Dad,” said Emma.  He didn’t look at her.
“Your father is busy,” said the dragon.  “He works for money, to feed you.  You should leave him alone.”
“I don’t see a hole in his head,” said Emma.
“It is a sort of medical procedure.  Nothing to worry about.  It keeps them working properly.”
“Okay,” said Emma.  “Sure.”
“Are you ready to leave now?  Your father must not be interrupted.  He is doing important work here.  You are a distraction.  Go back to school, where you belong.”
Emma looked at her shoes.  “Okay.”  She kept looking at them all the way back to the elevator, feeling the dragon’s eyes on her back.  Only when she stepped inside the cage again did they turn away, and that moment was when she hopped back outside again, letting the doors shut behind her.
“Liar, liar, liar, liar,” she hum-whispered under her breath as she ran back towards Dad’s bo – cubi – box.  “Pants on fire, fire, fire, fire.”  But dragons didn’t have pants, so she’d have to see if it was lying another way.
Dad hadn’t moved, sitting in his box.  But he wasn’t looking at his papers anymore.  He was sitting straight up in his chair, looking ahead without looking.  A thin, perfectly flat glass claw, hanging from the ceiling, was stirring at the back of his head, as carefully as Mom made spaghetti.  Cool, breathy strands of something that wasn’t quite silver were unravelling and fraying loose, dropping into the glass and disappearing.
Emma had two things, one of which she was proud of and one of which she was embarrassed.  First, she could scream louder than any other girl in her class, and all the boys, and Mrs. Campbell too, unless she was in a really bad mood.  Second, she was still the only girl in the class with a metal lunchbox.
She swung both of those things at the same time, and aimed well.  The claw jumped like a cat with The Dog after it, and in the middle of its retreat it was struck squarely and fairly amidships by the lunchbox.  There was a crash and a clatter, and something cold and sharp slid by Emma’s face with a hiss.
Dad blinked a bit and looked down at her.  Strands of the silvery stuff were still wavering from the hole in the back of his head.  “Hello there kitty,” he said feebly.  There were bags under his eyes, she saw.  “Did you break something?”
“I saw it on TV,” said Emma.  She tugged hard on his arm.  “Come on.  Cooome oooonnn.  We’ve gotta go.”
“Don’t try that sort of thing at home,” said Dad.  He followed her guiding hand, even more slowly than he usually did.  “Feels like I just got here.  How was school?”
“Good,” lied Emma, trying to tow him faster.  “Now c’mon.”
She’d just mashed the elevator button with her palm when the dragon flowed through the building wall, glass slipping away from its sides like oil from water in that silly old knick-knack of Dad’s he kept on his desk at home.  There was a toy boat floating in it, Emma recalled faintly.  It was strange, the things you thought about when a dragon was trying to eat you.  It was hissing, like a garden hose left unattended.
“Stairs,” she squeaked, and yanked the door open.  The dragon’s head jammed in the doorframe centimetres (maybe it was metres, she couldn’t remember) behind Dad’s shoes; big, silvery mirror-teeth gnashing quietly on nothing.
“The exercise is good for you,” said Dad.  The silvery stuff had sucked back inside, Emma saw, and he seemed a little quicker on his toes.  “I should take the stairs more often.  You’ve got to keep fit, especially at my age, petal.”
“Okay,” said Emma.  There were too many steps, and they were all too big.  Buildings shouldn’t be built for people so big.
“You have broken our agreement,” said the dragon in her ear.  She jumped, but saw no sign of it.
“Did not,” she said.
“You have taken my employee with you.”
“That’s Dad, and he’s mine.”
“He was mine first and is still.  You are remarkably inconvenient. All I ask for is a few moments of his time.  Why, you steal more of it each day than I do all year.”
“You’re a liar,” said Emma, trying not to listen.  “Liar, liar, liar, fire, fire fire.  All you care about is money.  Go away”
“Time is money, girl.  And I hoard it.”  The dragon’s voice never wavered, never broke its monotone.  It sounded almost as bland as Mrs. Campbell on her worst day.  “You are stealing the time that is rightfully his and therefore mine, as dictated by my terms of employment, and I will not tolerate this breach of contract.  You will be persecuted past the full extent of the law.”
Emma shoved open the door to the stairwell and dragged Dad through.  Her legs ached and tingled.  “That’s for grownups.  Go away.”
“Time waits for no one,” said the dragon, its face centimetres away from hers (yes, that was right, she remembered).  It filled most of the lobby.  “And you have much of it on your hands.  I claim it as settlement of your transgression.”  Quick as a blink its coils were around her (clang clatter bang went the lunchbox on the floor), hoisting her into the air regardless of kicks, punches, and even bites.  It tasted like soap and chemicals.
The dragon’s head came down to face her again, mouth opening wider and wider.  Its gullet was stainless, polished steel, and all the glass inside did nothing to reflect its sparkle in the dimness.
“Are you off to school again already?” asked Dad, bemused.  “Are you packed?”
Everything seemed to slow down for a second as Emma thought about what to say next.
“I forgot my lunchbox!” she screamed.
“Here you go, pumpkin,” said Dad, and he placed it gently in her hands.  Emma clenched it tight inside them and swung up and up and up, right into that flat, blank, mirror-eye, as hard as she could.
For one moment, there was nothing in the world but CRACK.  The ground was CRACK.  The sky was CRACK.  The seas (she’d been to the seaside once, and gotten her toes wet) were probably CRACK too.  Then it was over and it was all normal again, all but the dragon, which was still made of CRACK, except it was smaller, thousands of little cracks splintering and shooting along its body like solid lightning.
“I was to be killed by a knight,” said the dragon in small, shocked surprise.  It was the first thing she’d heard it express any sort of emotion over at all.  “A true knight.  With an ancient blade, and a magician’s blessing, and the favour of the queen.  There was gong to be tumult, and battle.”
Emma sat up from the floor.  She couldn’t remember how she’d got there, but her aching back gave her a guess.  “Mom is a queen, and I know that because Dad said so.  That lunchbox is grandpa’s, and he’s the oldest boy ever.  And Dad is a magician, because Mom said that it must’ve taken magic to get a hippy like him into law school.  So THERE.”
“Ah,” said the dragon.  It fell apart like a paperback in heavy rain, glass and steel flying everywhere – but not so much, and not a whole lot.  It had only been hollow inside after all, right to the core.
Flooding out of the mess came a whole tangle of flying, swirling bits of silvery stuff  that coiled around Emma’s feet like playing kittens.  They spun round three times and fled up the stairs, all but one.
That one spun up to Dad’s head and popped into the hole, which vanished.
He blinked.
“Petal?  What are you doing here?”  He looked at his watch.  “God, it isn’t even lunch yet.  What’s going on?”
“You got fired,” said Emma.
Dad stared into the middle distance.  “Hmmm.  I did?  Yes, you’re right.  I did.  I must have.  Well, at least I’ll get severance.  And I’ll have a chance to cook for a while.  Your mother’ll like that.”  He brightened up.  “Come on.  I’ll drive us home.  You’ve missed half your schoolday already, you might as well miss the rest.”
Pushing from the inside, the doors felt light as a feather.


“The Daily Drain,” storytime 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Soaring.

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Pluck and nip, turn the head, grasp the beak, wrench the neck, swallow it whole.  Simple routine, precise and practiced.  Such was the manner with which Billowbeck, the lord, entrepreneur, and (eventual) plunderer of all that he surveyed, enjoyed his breakfast.  Today, it was jackrabbit.  The poor little thing had been barely moving, weighed down by a leg so infected it was a miracle it drew breath, let alone dragged itself over who knew how many metres of rocks and dirt.  Billowbeck, munificent as he was, had dispatched the casualty of life with a sharp peck to the skull. 
“A fine thing,” he said to himself between mouthfuls, as he was prone to do (buzzards are social and friendly creatures, but they spend much of the day alone, hunting for carrion, and thus must make their conversation where it can be found).  “A very fine thing.  Tender.  Almost too fresh, but not quite.  Mustn’t grumble.  Wonderful flavour in the liver.”  He grunted contentedly and flapped his winds, taking flight once more.  The desert swept itself away from his talons below as the thermals took him, turning a fumbling half-flight into a smooth, endless soar that he could ride in his sleep.  His nostrils, his keenest of sensory organs, peerless among all creatures, touched the wind lightly with their discrete expertise. 
“That was fine,” he reminded himself, “but more is good.  More is always good, even if one overindulges slightly and must lighten one’s load before departure.  Such happens.  Hello, what’s this?”
The last remark was aimed at a smell he did not scent frequently.  A certain kind of sweat, one blended with strange oils and leathers, overlaid with the odours of a dozen dozen tools, vestments, and odds-and-ends.  Only one sort of food dressed itself so thoroughly, and rode in company with the tangy musk of horses. 
“Odd to scent them so far from home,” remarked Billowbeck, idly wheeling himself to face the source of his interest, which also carried the rich, tantalizing aroma of blood with it.  “I believe one shall see what this business is all about.”

It was, of course, about humans.  This did not surprise him.  What did surprise him was the sheer quantity of them. 
There was one human, the one he’d first scented.  His horse was tired, run-down, and bleeding, and he wasn’t much better off.  In the saddle with him rode a bundle of rags and little else.  Behind him, some few miles, rode three others.  They were scarcely better off, bar having a few more packs and a few less shallow cuts and scrapes.  They followed in the footsteps of the first, which led Billowbeck to his next conclusion. 
“A hunt,” he declared, snapping his bill decisively.  “Hunting each other, of course, which is the favourite sport of humans.  Such waste.  They don’t even eat them.  Dreadful waste.”
He circled thoughtfully, then made to follow the pursuit in a lazy spiral of figure-eights. 
“Dreadful, but most useful.  And they are quite meaty.”

Additional facts presented themselves to Billowbeck as he circled the slow, laborious pursuit that was most unworthy of calling itself a “chase.”  They took time to emerge, as he had to rely on his eyes for details rather than his nose (keen, yes, but less so than his razor-sharp nostrils!), but revealed they were. 
Firstly, the pursuit was both dogged and grim.  The man being chased was too tired even to seem fearful, and his followers displayed not a hint of joy nor prospect of a smile as clues of their prey appeared before their trudging, landbound gaze.  Small news, as the nearest place of humans was a long distance even for Billowbeck’s wings.  He pitied their worn, weary, stubby groundling legs the trek. 
Secondly, the pursuit was over some manner of great import, and most likely would be undergone to the death.  Both the length and extremity of the journey spoke of this, but added weight was the treatment predator and prey gave to their weaponry – constantly touching, caressing, examining, fidgeting, maintaining.  That very meticulous attention, combined with no trace of eagerness or fear, spoke only of blankest expectancy. 
Thirdly, as indicated by the onset of the setting sun, the pursuit would not be over come the eve, and this was by far the most pertinent and irritating information to enter the noble head of Billowbeck, infusing him with great vexation towards his eyes. 
“Thrice-damnation under three suns and four moonless nights,” he harrumphed.  “Bloated gizzards!  Can he not just give up and die?  Or give up and kill them.  Either would be a more-than-acceptable outcome.  Alas,” he sighed, and began a slow wheel towards a convenient dead tree, a corpse not so much palatable but very much inhabitable. 
And so the day ended, with Billowbeck’s resolution to check upon the manner when the morrow dawned.  As he dropped out of sight of his quarry, in the last light of the setting sun, he saw no sign of pause in their motions.
“Perhaps I shall have a larger breakfast upon the morrow,” he mused. 

It was not to be.  After a refreshing awakening and a brisk sunbath, Billowbeck’s spread wingstrokes led him only to disappointment.  Despite their exhaustion, the humans had not ceased their chase – indeed, they looked to have not stopped all night; very much so in fact.  The horse of the pursued was making wet sounds from its mouth instead of breathing. 
“Such stubbornness!  What rudeness.”  Despite his impatient words, Billowbeck was prepared for food.  The slobber smelled of blood. 
By noon the horse laid itself down, dying midkneel.  The human scrambled awkwardly from his tumbling perch, cushioning the fall of the bundle of rags that lay strapped behind his back with his own body and cultivating a few more gashes, bruises, and scrapes in the process. 
“A waste of blood,” murmured Billowbeck, basking in the vapours above. 
The human didn’t seem to mind his own injuries, preferring instead to check the well-being of the bundle’s contents with an anxious air and the closest thing to care that a thing in his piteous condition could manage.  He struggled upright, clasping it in his arms with all the strength he could manage, and took to his heels, feet smacking against rocks in boots worn so thin that he might as well have gone bare. 
“And lo, there is meat,” said Billowbeck with relish, and fell upon the carcass with the speed and grace of a rock from the heavens.  It was scrawny and bare of bones, but its eyes were as tender and succulent as they could ever be, and he was by far the least picky eater upon the winds.  He frolicked with gay abandoned amidst the entrails, plucking open the thin, sensitive skin at the gut and genitals and burrowing in to grope at the juicier meats. 
“Delectable!  A delight!  Well worth the wait,” he chuckled between gulps.  The tender task of ripping open the stomach occupied his beak for a moment, and it was in this silence that he was aware of the noises behind him.  He spun to face the fly-bitten coyote creeping up behind him just in time, vomiting on it immediately and with great violence. 
“Despicable!” he scolded as he lifted off, leaving behind him a one-animal chorus of gagging, retching sneezes.  “Vile wretch!  Competition is acceptable, a fine law of the land and understood to my mind, but assassination is a poor tool, a thing worthy of only the lowest of the low!  Away with you and your ilk!  If one were not present to claim carrion for your kind, who would?  A plague on your fur and a festerment in your liver!  You are not worth the meat one has purged upon you.”
Still fuming, Billowbeck ascended once again, robbed of a chance to bloat himself so fully that he could no longer fly – the true, great meal that all wished for.  He looked down upon the pursuers and envied them their succulent flesh, and he looked down upon the pursued and wished that he might stub a toe, or find himself trapped in a rockslide, or something, anything that might hasten his demise and gift him a meal, something to tear and peck at and remedy his ill mood. 
“Meat,” he grumbled, upon witnessing the slowness of the pursuit, “is wasted upon these fools.  No doubt they will fill his hide full of metal from those guns of theirs.  Guns!  Hah!  Who needs guns!?  One needs no guns.  Coyotes need no guns.  There is something queer about humans and their mewling, craven craving for guns.  And when it is not guns, it is bows!  Bah.  Aha, they’ve found his horse!  Now we shall see if they can make a little haste.”
There was haste, yes, but only when the men saw the corpse – a rush to its side, an examination, an exclamation of disgust at the missing eyes (“Philistines,” sniffed Billowbeck), and then some sort of argument.  It appeared that the man who rode in front was very much of the belief that the target had fled this way, as far and fast as his shaky legs could handle, and must be chased immediately at full speed, and the man who rode behind him was sure that he must be on his last dregs of stamina and had holed up nearby in the hopes they’d pass him by in their haste to catch him. 
“Half-right, the both of you,” said Billowbeck.  “He has fled as far as his legs could carry, yes, but (inefficient little stumps that they are) he has only made it over the next gully, and is searching for a holdout.  Hurry up!”
The man who rode in front was very much opposed to this plan and argued solely for speed and haste.  Something about his sister cropped up here, and if the man riding behind cared about seeing that justice was dealt for her.  The man riding behind passionately reminded him that he cared very much and was in no hurry to lose that chance because he, the man riding in front, felt a little impatient. 
Weapons were brandished.  Billowbeck’s beak clicked involuntarily with relish, then relaxed in sad disappointment as the argument cooled with the mutual realization that both men wanted the same thing. 
“Impertinence,” he muttered.  “Gross perversity.  One’s meal remains lost and spoilt and now the rabble refuse to provide a substitute.”  His ire only deepened after the men left, as the coyote crept from a nearby crevice to feed upon the horse again.  It locked eyes with him on each bite, savouring the crunch with mocking glee. 
“Filth,” Billowbeck said, genuine malice entering his mouth for the first time that day in place of his scolding disgruntlement.  “Story-hoarding slug.  Thief of plunder!  Is it not enough for you to take every hint of glory under the hard sun for yourself, not enough to prank and jape against all for your own amusement?  No!  You must harass and pilfer!  Pfah!”  He worked himself into such a lather that his bald head began to fairly burn with heat, and he was forced to cease his rant and flap his wings for a wind.  Urine flowed down his legs, streaking and mussing the chalky remnants of his last cooling. 
“Enough time wasted,” he grumbled, and took to the skies again.  The chase still awaited, but the end, when it came, was wanting.  The day was inconclusive once more, with the predators missing their quarry by some scant yards as they picked through the gully’s rim.  He lay on his belly, shaking arms wrapped tight around his rag-wrapped burden, whispering strange and calming, frantic words into it as the boots of his trackers stomped away from him. 
Billowbeck bunked down in some brush, dreaming darker, cloudier, sullen thoughts.  He felt doubly cheated, and his mood improved no more when he awoke in the midst of the night at a rustling of grass near his bedchamber. 
“Insidious vagrants,” he said to himself, peering into the dark purely for show – his keen eyes had no hold in the night, but his nose still crowned all its competition.  Still, it was not often it had to work from ground-level, much less in the cold night, and the air currents puzzled him mightily.  As he strove to disentangle the alien breezes in his nose, a polite sneeze was emitted perhaps seven feet from his earholes. 
Billowbeck wished he could say that he did not recall taking flight.  That would have greatly spared him the humiliating, terrifying, endlessly lengthy moments that followed, in which he attempted to lift off in every conceivable direction (including straight down), void his bladder in shock, vomit in defence, and grunt in alarm, all at once.  At the end of it two things had changed: he was in the air (many fluid ounces lighter), and there was a fly-bitten coyote underneath him, laughing its ass off. 
Billowbeck had no words for its behaviour this time.  None he knew were strong enough, and despite their gentile veneer, there is no subset of Kingdom Animalia better versed in matters scatological than the scavengers.  Instead, he simply hissed, long and loud, with venom that would’ve made a diamondback rattler turn pale and wan, and flapped away in the dark, divorced of dignity, to find a more sheltered roost. 
He slept poorly: the coyote chuckled underneath his tree ‘till dawn. 

The third day began, and Billowbeck found himself for once ahead of the game.  Impatient for a meal, he was on the wing far earlier in the morn than was his custom, fighting reluctant, youthful thermals and a rumbling belly both.  Yet it was his curiosity he was most eager to indulge, eyes hunting for signs of the humans. 
They had moved during the night, but had also rested, driven at last to pure, physical immobility.  Not even the effort made to lay out bedrolls had been spared; the men had simply dropped where they stood, asleep on their feet.  Billowbeck made a closer pass to see if any scorpions had tried to nest on them in their sleep – perhaps in the cracks between arm and body, or other spots that might induce accidental crushing followed by stinging – and was sorely disappointed. 
The pursued was already up and moving, but moving slow.  A somewhat modest butte seemed to be his target, or at least his vague aim.  His aimless wandering through crags was bringing him in that direction at least, and whenever he lost strength to carry his burden and sank to his knees for a time, it was towards its rubbled mound that he turned his face as he cried. 
“Cry a little louder, perchance,” muttered Billowbeck, “and mayhap they will find you.  One grows famished.”
The man did cry a little louder, but they did not find him.  They found his tracks, some hour later. 
And so the hunt was on again, but more even now as the ground grew shakier and the horses of the pursuers more reluctant to go on.  At the very base of the butte, a second argument occurred.  The man who rode in front refused to watch the horses and demanded to face the prey alone, and the man who rode behind, though reluctant to give the possibility of an escape to their quarry, seemed reluctant to allow this.  Personal feelings must not get in the way, especially when the lunatic has killed your sister and her husband both.  The man who rode in front considered this and then smacked him between the eyes with such force that Billowbeck nearly heard the thump from three hundred feet up. 
“Temper,” he commented.  He watched the man begin to scale the cliff and considered paying a visit to his friend’s unattended eyeballs, but decided against it.  Humans were worse than coyotes up close, and he’d not lived a full and healthy (if often scabrous) life by dint of approaching living prey.  Such matters were not for his talons. 
Atop the peak, the madman was preparing his stand with such feverish intensity that Billowbeck rather suspected he wouldn’t see an opponent arriving until it breathed down his neck.  Rocks were strewn haphazardly, shoved with feeble, trembling limbs into a parody of a barricade that would not have shielded a mouse.  His ammunition – all eight shots of it – was carefully loaded, unloaded, and reloaded, with the extras placed on a rock and accidentally crushed during a fit of defensive renovation.  The gun was tucked away in the deepest, vilest recesses of what remained of his pants.  The bundle of rags was tenderly placed in a safe spot at the heart of the fortress, where he glanced often. 
“Please, do not shed your last scraps of fat for this thing’s sake,” said Billowbeck.  “One would rather prefer a somewhat more substantial meal.  And it seems that it’s not long due,” he added.  The head of the man who rode in front had just crested the rim of the butte.  It had been an easy climb for him, and an easily tracked trail; following the crusted blood and spilled rocks of his quarry would have been a small task for a blind man, or a mole, a mole that vaguely reminded Billowbeck of the thing grubbing in the dirt mere yards from the cold, flat gaze of his hunter. 
Out came the gun from its holster slow, steady, purposeful as a snake watching a hypnotized mouse. 
Billowbeck circled, craning his wrinkled red neck for a better view, beak glinting as it wobbled from side to side in the sunshine. 
The man who rode ahead asked the quarry to stand up. 
The quarry did not respond. 
The man repeated his demand. 
The quarry twitched, but continued to grub for rocks. 
The man who rode ahead quietly snapped and walked forwards, vaulted effortlessly over the impregnable rock wall, and yanked his prey up by the scruff of its neck, slapped a gun barrel to its skull.  Even well-fed he would’ve loomed over it, and in its malnourished state it was like watching a buzzard make off with a coyote pup. 
“Only once,” remarked Billowbeck to himself, “but oh so sweet.  Dangerous though.  Take a minute, a month too long, and they chew.  Strike too soon, the mother’s there.  One must be discreet.”
Below, words were exchanged.  Well, words were given.  Flung, perhaps.  There was screaming, about kidnappers and murderers and thieves in the night, the audacity and wickedness of kidnapping the mayor’s wife – of kidnapping his sister – and above all and yet running strongly beneath it, where-is-she-now.  There were many where-is-she-nows, scattered wilfully and freely throughout the diatribe, and each one was thrown aside hastily in favour of another remark, as if the querying man was fearful of an answer.  In fact, he was so fearful of the answer that it took him over a minute of verbal abuse before he realized his questions had been answered with a single, wavering arm and pointed finger, directed at the bundle of rags. 
Contemptuously, the hunter threw aside his quarry, stalked to the bundle of rags, lifted a corner, and seemed to shrink in on himself. 
Behind him, the prey began to mumble.  He was talking to himself, or maybe to the world, a justification or an excuse or something of the sort that Billowbeck had never really seen the point of.  About husbands, jealous ones.  Unfairly jealous ones.  And the damage they could do, especially when drunk.  And who’d listen?  He’s the mayor, he’s trusted, he’s loved, he’s sober in public and unwinds in private in all the wrong ways.  And no one’s believing her but him, beggar, shiftless labourer, friend in low places. 
(Billowbeck snapped his beak in annoyance at this.  Lowly indeed.  Groundbound, in fact, and still not yet a corpse.  Would the man not shut up and die?)
So there’s a plan, passed along in little notes kept hidden and precious.  Run out and away.  He can steal a horse, her husband has fine horses.  An easy escape.  But the mayor only unwinds in private, and he’s not escaped showing his tastes to the town for this long by being a stupid brute.  And well, maybe the reason this prey’s in low places, however friendly, is because he’s a touch soft in the head.  He’s a bit too obvious, a bit too easily spotted snooping about, and one thing leads to another, with him getting chased away before the eyes of his lady fair.
By now, the hunter is staring into the middle distance.  His ears, however, are focused yards behind him, on that mumbling, rambling, sun-cracked set of broken lips that are spilling careless lies – must they be lies? – everywhere. 
She’s desperate.  She’s alone.  She tries to run alone, but she’s not as used to keeping low and quiet as her friend, and she’s found out.  Now that might not have led to what came next but for her foresight, and her foresight was to steal a gun.  All of a sudden the mayor’s come a cropper, and she’s standing there with the gun when his boys come in.  Bang bang whoops and now they’ve got to hide the body.  And make a killer. 
Now, the friend in low places became confused in his story here, perhaps because this was the moment when he’d become… confused, himself.  He’d heard the shots.  And when he snuck in to check on her, he made a little more noise than he expected. 
He was, as Billowbeck had learned over his days of idle observance, a loud sobber. 
Off into the dark he went, bullets at his heels.  He’s escaped, they’re excused – a murderer in the dark! – and before the morning’s dawned pursuit’s afoot. 
And that was why the hunter was standing here, looking at pages of tattered letters, hidden inside a filthy pile of old rags that had once been a careful stash of supplies, blankets, and clothing.  He hadn’t wanted to lose them, he kept saying; he hadn’t wanted to lose them.  And the hunter was staring at them, not knowing what to believe anymore. 

It was at this point that Billowbeck had taken enough. 

“A body after all,” he said.  He was too calm to exclaim now, even with the great, festering wrath that was gnawing at his ironclad guts.  “One body.  And it is buried in a secret grave miles and miles from here.  And no doubt already the meal of worms which are the meals of moles which are wholly inaccessibly to one at the moment.  One has just about had enough of this.”
Down and low he swooped, light as his feathers, landing with a faint click and a whiff of sour air and bile just behind the quavering, wavering form of the quarry.  He stood still, mouth open and soundless, emptied of his story and not knowing what to say anymore.  He’d soundlessly extracted his pistol at some point in his tale and was playing with it, spinning it from the sky to his face over and over and over. 
“If he will not talk, one shall do it for him,” said Billowbeck.  He stretched out his beak, flapped up to a perch on one of the broken rocks that had formed the world’s least likely fortress (now breached), and leaned forwards.  A brisk tap on the shoulder, an unexpected squawk of alarm from a madman, a wheel about of the hero, a sighting of the weaponry.  Bang.  And lo, there is meat. 
A short bark from behind. 
An unexpected hissing grunt of alarm from a scavenger. 
A wheel about of the failed friend, a fumbling of unfamiliar weaponry. 
“Bang,” said Billowbeck, the lord, entrepreneur, and (former) plunderer of all that he had once surveyed.  The word came out in shock and slowness, as did his craning, failing attempts to twist his head about to see behind him.  He was granted his wish as his body crumpled in on itself, wings collapsing like a broken dust devil, and he saw the barest flip of the coyote’s tail and the echo of its laughter as it bounded down the side of the butte. 
And lo, there was meat.  And in the long days after the men vacated that butte, not one creature came to feed upon it, not even the ants.

A dreadful waste. 


“Soaring” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.