Archive for February, 2011

Storytime: Of a Feather.

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Winter came, and so the birds flew south. 
This time, there was a little more to it than that, of course.  The winter came not at autumn’s end, but at the height of midsummer, it brought no gales but sent the winds spinning in confusion, it dropped fire from metal in the sky in place of water, it set the lands aglow and brought daytime into the night. 
That wasn’t quite normal.  Still, winter came, and so the birds flew south. 
All of them.  It wasn’t a winter that could be toughed through. 
The bits of the sky that weren’t filled with dust and cloud were choked with a thousand thousand feathers, endless plumes, wingbeats that could deafen a human at forty paces.  It was a flock of flocks, one that hadn’t been alive in flesh or memory since the last Passenger Pigeon died alone in Cincinnati. 
It landed somewhere in the southwest, on a very large rock several miles across.  There wasn’t an inch of spare ground to be had, and many of the bigger birds found themselves turned into makeshift roosts by the smaller.  Far down below, the lake at the rock’s base was coated with nesting waterfowl.
The most important thing to do now, of course, was figure out who was in charge. 
“It should be us,” argued a chickadee, hopping nervously in place.  “There are lots of us, lots of us, a whole lot, lot, lot of us.  It’s only fair.”
“No no no, there are more of us, more of us,” snapped the sparrow facing it, bobbing furiously. 
Who’s talking?
They didn’t listen to the question.  No one was listening to them, after all. 
Up above them as they squabbled, on the big broken butte that was the highest point, around the broken, dead tree, all the biggest and loudest of all the birds were arguing the question of leadership.  The wind whistled through the cracks in the rock around their feet, polishing the rock smooth and moaning under each word spoken as though it was trying to say something. 
“If the flock has be steered, it should be us that’s doing the steering,” said a big Canada Goose.  “Geese flock, and we flock far.  If you want expertise in migration, we should be in charge – we know where the water is, we know where the safe spots are.  This continent is a memorized map for us; we won’t steer you wrong, however far we have to fly to get out of the winter.”
The Crows all laughed, caw, caw, caw, harsh and merry.  “Strong but stupid, firm but foolish,” mocked the biggest of them.  “What good is a sure and smooth flight if you don’t even know what you’re doing or where you’re going?  These are changeable times, to have winter come in summer, to have cold come from human fires.  You need a master of change at the helm to keep a cool head, and we’re nothing but.  And we’re no strangers to a flock either, pillowstuffer.  We prospered under the humans, and we’ll prosper without them.  You need us in charge.”
A Golden Eagle stared at him, and would not stop until he shrank in on himself.  Satisfied, it turned to face the others. 
“Eyes,” it said, half-spreading its wings for attention.  “You’ll need eyes in the skies, to see where you should go and where you should not, to find food and avoid trouble.  We have the keenest of gazes, and will not lead you astray with fancies and whims.  I can spy an insect from a treetop, and a safe nest from miles.  You will be led with clear vision.”
There was a soft breeze gusting, a sort of asthmatic chuckle, and it took all present a moment to trace its origin back to the old Great Gray Owl that had been roosting on the stub of a stump the meeting was being held around, hemmed in on all sides by squabbling songbirds and till now quite asleep.  “Keen-eyed?  Hoo, hoo, hoo.  Not in the dark, you aren’t.  Those pretty eyes of yours are as useless as mirrors come night-time, and this winter will be the darkest of any we’ve ever known.  The sun’s already half-masked in midday, and the sky grows dimmer with each passing moment.  If ever there was a time for sight, it is now, yes, but your eyes are useless here.  I can see clearer now than you could at high noon, and I can hear the faintest scurry on the ground or under it, predator or prey.  Nothing will dare move for miles as long as I and my kin play sentry, and we can guide you through any night, no matter how dark.”
“Can you see through soot?” croaked the turkey vulture, shuffling her feet for warmth and hunching her wings against her back as a shroud against the rising wind.  “No, I don’t think so.  Stupid old thing, there’s more to darkness than mere absence of light!  The sky is choked with the falling dirt and dust, and it will fall for months – you’ll be as blind as anyone else, and I’d like to see if you could pick out your own chicks cheeping for food in your ear amongst this hubbub.  Sight and sound can fail alike in these times, but I can always follow my nose, and if any of you lot are disposed the same, I will not turn you away.  There will be starvation and death aplenty among the groundbound, and nothing that lives can avoid its own stink, can avoid my nose.  If you really must depend upon a sense for leadership, trust in the vultures: we do not need eyes nor ears to find what is needed.”
A very small throat cleared itself awkwardly, and one of the few things present at the council that was not a bird chirruped for attention. 
“Excuse me,” said the rather small bat, “but you’re wrong; there’s still those that can hear, and more than that.  And what good is smell if all you can smell is something dead or alive?  Can you smell us a good roost for the night?  Can you catch the whiff of a stream?  No, we have the advantage.  Even in this dusty air, our sonar fails us not, and we can see everything, without even opening our eyes.  You may not like us that much, but there are lots and lots of us, and we don’t need much to eat – and this black dust is even easier to groom from fur than feathers.  You’re lucky to have us, and you’d be luckier if you’d ask us to lead you about.”
There was a quick buzz through the air and a hummingbird invaded the bat’s personal space, beak pressed against eyeball.  “Stopbraggingsillyfurrythingnobrainsleftinyouonlyspitestupidslowthing,” it spat out in one incoherent burst.  “Ishouldbeincharge! You’realltooslow,willstillbeheretillendoftimeifhadyourway! Wetravelhereallthetime,everytime,fasterthanslowgeeseandjustasfar! Followus! Followus!”  Each insistent statement was punctuated with a little shove, and at the end of its diatribe the bat was bent over backwards and its eye was watering. 
A burst of harsh, human language assaulted the ears of all present, bringing each eye to the scrawny, slightly tarnished majesty of a battered old African Grey Parrot. 
“Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” he squawked, and let fly another torrent of human abuse, mixed with the harsh jangle of an alarm clock.  “All of you!  Stupid!  Look at you all, quarrelling and jabbering about leadership!  Well, let me tell you this: I am the smartest bird here, I am the oldest and most experienced bird here, and I am the only bird here that can understand humans!  And I tell you this again: gone or not, we will get more help from humans than anywhere else with this many mouths to feed.  Grainhouses, seed stores, meat-packing plants – all can be plundered for the taking with a simple knowledge of the written word; and I’ll bet you every date in Morocco that there’s not a bird here that can understand any of it but for me!  And to top it all off, I have no kin here to favour – I alone will be in charge, and I will appoint whom I please as aides!”
There was a long, thoughtful pause, and then a pigeon raised its wing. 
“Yes?” inquired the parrot. 
It stepped forwards, bobbing automatically, ducking its head against the moan of the oncoming winds that scraped the butte’s surface, half-instinctually checking about for bread crumbs that it knew deep in its heart had left it forever. 
“Speak up,” snapped the parrot. 
The pigeon cleared its throat.  “No, you’re stupid,” it said. 
There was a much shorter and less thoughtful pause, and then everyone started shrieking and yelling at once.  The parrot made a mad dash at the pigeon’s eyes, the crows mobbed the eagle, the owl and the goose started a shouting match, and the turkey vulture’s attempts to call for order were brought to a halt by a bat zooming directly into its nostril. 
“Why can’t you be quiet!  Quiet!  Quiet-quiet-quiet!” yelled up the chickadee.
“Yes, shut up!” called the sparrow.  “Shut up! We’re trying to argue here.”
Who’s talking?
“They are, are, are,” said the chickadee. 
“Yes, they are,” said the sparrow, annoyed.  “I know that and you know that!  You are stupid.”
“You asked me first!  You’re stupid, stupid, stupid!”
I will talk to them,” and this time the chickadee and sparrow were too busy arguing to hear the words. 
Up above on the butte, matters were beginning to calm a bit, if only because most of the debaters were too bruised to continue their discussion and had retired to nurse their wounds and soothe their ruffled feathers. 
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t be in charge,” grumbled the parrot. 
“You’re too showy,” said the goose sternly.  “All this nonsense about humans.  Humans, humans, humans.  They’ve had their chance and lost it, and it’s our turn now.  We must make a clean break of it.”
Who’s talking?
“I am, now,” said the crow.  “You’re no better – clean breaks, clean breaks, the break is old and new, not humans and us.  You’d better change fast, old stick-in-the-mud, or we won’t make it much farther, and if you won’t change, we’ll do it.”
Who’s talking?
“Stop asking that,” hissed the vulture.  “You’re taking up air we could be breathing.  A lot of talk over nothing, that’s what’s talking.  Bags of feathers and air all waffling ‘till the end of days.”
“I will talk now.”
“Then speak,” said the owl, who had pinned the bat under one foot and was lecturing it viciously on manners.  “Goodness knows it’s hard to hear you in this… wind.” 
Yes,” said the voice in the wind. 

It was very thin and very reedy, very breathy and very small.  It was gusting up out of the ground under the feet of the flock’s council, blowing through the cracks in the rock.
“Who speaks to us?” demanded the eagle. 
The voice paused, but the wind didn’t.  It eddied and howled, low and sad, and somewhere in there words were being made. 
I’m not me.  I’m a bit of me.  I was me, once.  I was.  I was.”
“Speak plainly,” said the goose. 
I’ll try.  I’ll try, I will.”  It paused again, collecting a thought.  “I flew, I did, I really did,” decided the voice.  “I flew.  Yes.  That’s why I thought to speak, yes.  I heard you all speak, of the flying, of your feats, yes, of who should lead you all, all of you.  I should; I could, you know.  Because I led under the cold once, when I used to fly.”
“Pardon me,” said the bat, squirming loose from the somewhat distracted grip of the owl, “but why are we listening to this?  It’s just some old ghost, you find them in caves sometimes.  Nothing important, and it has nothing to do with us.  Who cares if you flew?  That’s no reason to lead.”
“I was big,” it said.  “I was big.  Bigger than you, bigger than you all.  I was bigger.  Yes.
“Andsowhat?” said the hummingbird.  “Slow. You’reslowanddead.  Doesn’tmatter. Can’thelpusnow”
I flew far,” it said.  “I flew over oceans.  So far.  Flew over the world, so far, almost never flapping, no.
“Albatrosses,” said the eagle dismissively.  “Vagrants.  Tale-tellers.  Only a step above common gulls.  No advice of yours can help us, ghost.”
No gulls, I think, I don’t think.  No gulls.  No birds, not really, just little ones, so little ones.  Are you birds?  You must be, so many feathers.  And some fur.  There was almost no fur.  So small, all of you, so small.
“This shivers my bones,” said the crow.  “Let’s leave it here.  Put me in charge and let’s leave it here, now, fast.”
Listen,” said the voice, and it said it so agonizingly that they had to stop and listen, really listen for the first time all that evening.  Even the sparrow and the chickadee paused in their debate. 
I was there, you see.  Was alive.  It was warm, and I was young, and my wings covered the sky for the things on the ground, down there.  I needed no feathers, almost didn’t need to flap my wings, almost never, no, and when I did, each beat broke brush against dirt.  Each wing was double the full span of the largest of you put together, it was, it was!  I flew, I really did!  Like you!  I flew!
Dead quiet. 
“And?” asked the bat.  The owl stepped on it again. 
Ashes,” said the voice, slowly.  It was getting quieter again, as if it had said whatever it felt it really had to.  “Ashes in the sky.  Like now, but a little more, a little more.  All cold, all dark, all hard for the things on the wing.  I flew, you know.  I flew.  I was the biggest, and that’s why I led us, when we flew, we fled.  I fled, and I flew, but the ashes still caught us, and the cold would not leave us.  No matter how big, how swift, how strong we flew, how well I led, long ago, until I couldn’t fly, didn’t flew.  Couldn’t fly, not the cold.”  It seemed to remember something, as it sank into whispers.  “The humans found us, you know, you know, not long ago, after the long ago.  They called us a god’s name, did you know?” it said, sounding almost surprised at the knowledge itself.  “A great god, a feathered god.  Was I a god?  I needed no feathers, you know.  The little ones, the other ones had feathers.  Some of them.  I wonder what happened to them.  Maybe I shouldn’t lead us.  Why is it cold again, so cold again?
“It’s winter,” said the goose.  “We fly south for the winter.”
That’s good,” said the voice, barely audible now.  “Too cold.  Good plan, fly away.  Fly faraway.  We’ll try that.  We couldn’t.  We tried…  We tried...”
The wind died down.  The owl cocked an ear and listened for a moment longer, watched by all, then shook her head. 
“What’ditsay?” asked the hummingbird. 
The owl shrugged, ill at ease.  “’Fly.  Faraway.’”
“Here,” said the bat, once again tearing loose from her distracted grasp.  “Let me take a look.”  It squirmed into the largest of the crevices of the rock, and was gone for a time.  It came up clutching an old, broken pebble. 
“Fragment of a wing joint,” said the eagle, passing it over with a critical eye. 
“How big?” asked the goose.
The eagle didn’t answer. 

There was no agreement, after the meeting.  There was no leader.  There wasn’t even a council.  But the flock arose in the morning all the same, in the cold that was growing colder, and flew south, away from the winter. 
Faraway.  Maybe it would be far enough. 


“Of a Feather,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Armour.

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Crash, bang, clang are the sounds of the factory, whether it makes cans, canister shot, or chocolate-coated peanuts.  Echoing metal, booming walls, great open spaces turned inside out and into tight, cramped ones.  And there’s no factory like a war factory for pace and noise and volume. 
This one was making tanks. 
CRASH! and down comes the cupola.
BANG! with the big main gun slamming into place, piece after piece.  BANG!
CLANG CLANG CLANG! is the call of the tracks, as the nearly-finished tank comes rolling down, freshly minted, not yet painted, and trying to tell its hatch from its axles.
Outside, later on, the sounds become different.  Softer, but somehow louder. 
Boom, is the quiet voice of authority as it rolls onto the turf and lines up with its peers, hundreds of glistening periscope’d viewports bright in the spring breeze as they consider the world and each other.  There are men all around them, with guns – little pea-shooters compared to the main guns they’re wielding, barely capable of hurting a fly, or a fellow man – and they’re all waiting for something. 
And that something is the first noise, and it sounds a bit like the factory all over again.
Off they go, a mile a minute, in a hurry and not really wanting to be.  Needs must, guns speak, and the tank stands dead still in its tracks because it really isn’t all that sure about this. 
“What’s your problem?” asked the man stashed inside its guts.  “Go on, let’s go.  Our unit’s up ahead.  We’re falling behind.  C’mon.”
The tank voiced its uncertainty.  It was worried. 
“Nothing to be afraid of,” said the man.  “Hey, you’ve got it easy.  You guys were made for this.  You’ll knock ‘em dead.  Let’s go.  The early bird gets the worm.”
Mollified by his arguments, the tank gathered its steely, smoothly-plated nerves and trundled forward with all due caution and a little more besides, treading gingerly over already-rutted roads and slicing up all the just-settled puddles with its monstrous great weight.  It was travelling in the tracks of its brothers, or maybe its sisters, and that cheered it up a bit. 
Then it heard the sounds of explosions, and it became concerned a bit. 
“Buck up,” was the man’s advice.
It bucked up.  Then it smelt burning metal, and it grew worried. 
“It’s probably nothing,” said the man sagely.
The tank discarded its worries as probably nothing.  Then it rounded a corner in the road and almost ran over the smouldering wreckage of one of its siblings, and it became quite alarmed. 
“I’ve seen worse,” claimed the man. 
The tank expressed disbelief at this statement, and shut off its engine. 

The argument that followed was long and convoluted.  Suffice it to say that the man first attempted to appeal to the tank’s blocking of the road, and the unfortunate strategic implications thereof (the tank pointed out that they were the last of their unit in line, and that it was a sideroad and therefore likely to be unneeded after their initial sally along it), then to its sense of fair play (the tank didn’t think ending up like the rather large heap of gently-roasting debris next to it would be fair at all, and that the debris itself was past worry about such things), and finally resorted to straight pleading that it go forwards, pretty please, pretty pretty please.
The tank remained silent on this point. 
“Look,” said the man, “what would happen if all the other tanks had done the same thing?  You’d have all been blown up into little pieces together.”
The tank advocated that this was likely happening right now because the other tanks hadn’t done the same thing, and it would rather not try it and find out.  Besides, it was rather pretty here.  There were trees, and birds in the trees.  Aside from the smouldering corpse of its sibling, it doubted it would find anywhere nicer to stop.
“Well, screw this,” said the man.  He got out and walked back to base, where he complained to some other men, who told yet other men, who decided to do something about it.  As for the man himself, he proceeded onwards to a career somewhere halfway up the ladder of rank for the rest of his days, where he developed a small reputation for achieving expectations exactly, not an inch beyond or below. 

First, the other men sent a chaplain. 
“Do not fear,” he told the tank, “for if men fall on the field of battle, they shall be elevated to heaven for their reward.  Or something like that.”
The tank asked if that applied to tanks as well.
“Hmm,” said the chaplain.  “I don’t think there’s any tanks in the bible.  I’m sure they would have been mentioned.  You know, I think there could be a paper in there somewhere.  Thank you very much.”
The chaplain left, wrote the paper over the next three years, and received modest praise for it.  The tank remained in the middle of the road, unreassured and unmoving. 

Next, the other men sent a sergeant. 
“Hey, are you moving?” he asked the tank. 
The tank asserted its lack of locomotion. 
“Get off your ass and give me ten, solder,” said the sergeant, scratching his side and checking his pocket for spare matches. 
The tank pointed out its lack of ass and inability to give ten. 
The sergeant shrugged as he extracted a battered, beaten match without a container from the depths of his jacket.  “Have it your way then.  Got a smoke?”
The tank offered some rather cheap cigarettes that the first man had left under his chair, and the sergeant spent a happy half-hour smoking and idly discussing sports with the tank, which was puzzled by the notion of men throwing things at each other that didn’t explode. 
“Welp, that’s all she wrote,” said the sergeant as he threw the last butt into the treeline.  “I’m back to the barracks now.  With any luck I’ll be out there by next Monday.”
The tank questioned the luck of this.
“I didn’t say it was good luck, did I?” asked the sergeant.  He shrugged, walked back to the barracks, and after being dressed down thoroughly for taking his time was out in the field by next Sunday, where he managed to escape the brunt of the fighting and go home with four medals, earning him some acclaim locally. 
The tank, of course, heard none of this.  It sat in the road and marveled at how different the smoke from nicotine and cordite smelt. 

The next man to come walking down the road – the patriot – didn’t.  He strode, each leg flinging itself out with reckless determination towards the ground and making contact with the grim authority of a baron dealing with a freeloading peasant. 
“What’s this about then?” he snapped.  “Have you no backbone?”
The tank was halfway through explaining its anatomy again before it realized the patriot hadn’t stopped talking, and tried to listen.  “-blatant ingratitude, it is,” he was shouting.  “Disrespect to the country that shaped you, that made you, that gave you everything you have, and all in exchange for one little thing: obedience!  Why can you not be obedient then, in this one little thing, eh?  Ingratitude!  Impertinence!  Insubordination!  I’d court-martial you if you had a rank, if I had a rank!  Now get out there and show the world that our tanks are the finest that exist!”
The tank was quite intimidated, and had a mind to roll forwards, but a question caught it just as its treads made to turn: how were their tanks the finest that existed?
“They’re fast, strong, tough, and they do what they’re told,” said the patriot in a voice so crisp that it brought fresh lettuce to shame. 
The tank pointed out that it was not doing what it was told, and that perhaps if it were to go out there so late and only after such a lambasting, it would be taken as animate proof that their tanks were not the best in the world.  Also, why was being the best in the world so important?
“So we will be respected,” said the patriot.  “When you are respected, no one dares to act against you.”
The tank postulated that if they were so respected, they wouldn’t need it, the tank’s, services right now.  Therefore they were not sufficiently respected, were thus not the best in the world, and as it, the tank, could not singlehandedly create this reputation, perhaps it would be best if it stayed here, thank you very much.  Perhaps the gentleman would do it the favour of shooing away the birds that had begun to poke about its main gun?  It was beginning to worry that they might start a nest there. 
As it transpired, the patriot was also an entirely unenthusiastic amateur birdwatcher, and upon this excuse to expound upon his subject, listlessly identified over ten species of “something like a bluetit” in the nearby trees before departing, four freshly-laid eggs in hand (alas, the nesting had proceeded too far too fast, and the parents would not return).  He went home, raised them, taught them many intricate tricks in exchange for delicious snacks he prepared himself, and became moderately famous on television some years after the war. 

The final man that was sent was the general who had sent the other men.  He did not walk either; he drove in a big car, scribbling in a notebook and consulting maps as another, much smaller man handled the wheel. 
“Mornin’,” he said to the tank without looking up.  “Still not moving?”
The tank confirmed this. 
The general shook his head.  “Damned shame.  I’d have you towed out, but all the vehicles that could do it are tied up farther behind us evacuating civilians.  I’d have you blown up, but all our munitions are scattered up at the front.  And I’d get someone to drive you out of here but all our drivers have vanished all over the place and I can’t find one for life nor money.  Ah well.”
The tank timidly noted that the general possessed a driver. 
“Look, someone has to look at these maps,” said the general with some irritation.  “And someone has to drive around making other people look at them too.  And both of those someones are me.  Now, I’m supposed to be somewhere else ten minutes ago, unless that was another place.  Goodbye.”
The general drove off.  He was half an hour late for his interview with the press, which prevented him from his appointed leaking of some trivial aspect of his supply lines or another to placate them, for which he thanked his driver (who went on to found a reasonably respectable chauffeur business some years later).  He left the war behind him and devoted his later years to his family, in mutually mixed affection and annoyance. 

The tank was left alone for a while.  It felt itself growing a bit lonesome, and wished that it knew the names of the ten different kinds of birds in the trees that were something like bluetits.  Then it heard a new sound, not really a birdcall at all, but a sort of whistling. 
It was an old man, older than any of the men it had met.  He was bent and nobbled and used a crooked stick to support his crooked self, bent over double at the waist and forever clutching at his side. 
“Hello there,” he said to the tank.  “Mind if I sit a spell?”
The tank agreed to this. 
“Thank you,” said the old man.  He put down his cane as he seated himself, and rubbed the tip of his right leg-stump ruefully.  “Too long a walk all in one go, nowadays.  Should’ve known, more fool me.”
The tank asked, pardoning its curiosity, how the old man had acquired his stump.  Or lost his leg.  Either.  Both. 
“War,” said the old man.  “About twenty years ago, I’d guess.  I was lucky in the first one – just took a little scratch over the ribs, right here, where I keep my hand – but that last one, well, I wasn’t as young as I should’ve been.  Lied my way into frontline duty again, and took a shot and a shell for my trouble.  Now the scratch’s a scar and my leg’s a memory.  Ah well.  Can’t be helped.”
The tank asked, excusing its bafflement, why in the world the old man had gone back.  And however had he made himself go in the first place?
“Someone had to,” said the old man with a shrug.  “It might as well have been me.  If I go, someone else doesn’t have to.  If I get shot up, someone else doesn’t have to be.  And someone has to go.  That’s what I was told.”
The tank asked why. 
“That’s the way it is,” the old man said.  He got up and stretched, and the tank saw that stripped of his pain from the long hobble, he didn’t look as old as he had before.  Aged, maybe. 
“Thank you for the seat,” said the old man, and he wobbled his way away down the road and out of sight. 

The tank sat.  And the tank thought.  The tank looked at the charred hull of its sibling a bit more – the fire had gone out some time ago.   And eventually, reluctantly, not quite one hundred percent sure of why it was doing it, the tank fired up its big gasoline engine and lurched its way down the road.  It swiveled its turret about and looked back many times. 
Up ahead was a fork.  Down one road was something or other, the tank didn’t know what, only that it was strange and mysterious. 
Down the other was an awful lot of explosions. 
It paused for a very long moment, then it turned towards the explosions. 
There, up ahead, were its siblings.  Bang, bang, bang, such noise – and all from their big guns, like its own, the gun the tank had never fired.  Clang, clang – the rumble and thunder of metal smashing metal and metal grinding itself. 
The tank heaved itself up and surveyed the battlefield.  It was terrifying, but not any more than its noise was.  It paused one last time, spun its turret for good luck, set its sights, drove forwards, and went
right on top of a mine almost immediately, right underneath it.  The treads screamed, the hull shuddered, the main gun cracked, and the tank blew apart into a million pieces, one after another, all over the place. 
“Look at that!” exclaimed a few of the men and their tanks, amazed at the fireworks.  “Look at that!”

There was some disagreement about the facts after the event.  Some people said they hadn’t known there were mines there, some argued that until that moment, they hadn’t a clue.  A few had planned to drive over it, a few more had been strictly told not to and that they had no business on that ground. 
What wasn’t disagreed was that the tank was a gallant hero, a symbol of national pride, a true soldier, and guaranteed to cut the line past the pearly gates as soon as someone sorted out whether or not tanks qualified or something. 
And so the biggest piece of it that could be found – that was part of its big frontal glacis armour plate – was scavenged from the battlefield and enshrined personally by several very important men in a very important place during some very important event or another that many people said something about.  It was scribbled down and argued about in history books and mentioned in footnotes and asides and for years was a cherished and prized piece in many a grandfather’s collection of old war stories. 
No one asked the old man what he thought about it. 
No one asked what the tank had thought about it. 


“Armour” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: A Question.

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

As always, dawn came late to me, well after all the rest of the world had begun to stir and hum.  The sun’s rays made a gentle, lazy surmounting of the weathered bricks that rimmed the mouth of the well above my head, sending glow and gleam floating down to my blinking eye on rafts of dust.  I had scarcely time to yawn (cavernously, to a degree that would’ve broken a lesser being’s jawbones and spine alke) and scrape my fangs clean of sleep-drool before the first light of my morning was obscured by the shadow of someone’s head. 
“Oracle,” the head whispered quickly, “mother of mindfulness and father of foresight, the open eye in the dark, I put a question to your ear in fair exchange for payment.”  It said the empty, silly titles with no formality or respect at all, something that I heard all too rarely.  From its timing, haste, quiet, and twitchiness, I could almost guess the question before it was asked.  “The daughter of the carpenter, who lives a half-mile from our home, is she…umm…”
Yes, I knew the question.  I also knew the answer, but giving it to him at this point would be too easy.  “Payment before answer.  And it’s customary to finish the question before the answer is given as well.”
I could practically smell the blush bloom.  “Right, right, sorry.  Sorry.”  There was a rustling of feathers, a strangled “awk!” cut short, and a freshly throttled chicken plummeted onto the rock at my side.  “The daughter of the carpenter, who lives a half-mile – or maybe two-thirds of a mile – from our home, is she, ah… expecting?”
I was half-tempted to prompt further clarification, but felt merciful.  The chicken was a good fat one too; he’d be hard up to explain just how it had gone missing from his father’s coop.  “No.  But only through luck and luck alone.  Don’t try it again; her father already thinks something’s up, and I don’t have to say anything about what he thinks of you.  Find a new girl, speak nicely to the carpenter, or be more careful.”  A lot more.  If he’d had a bit more fortitude for another fifteen seconds, he’d be getting a different answer.  Saved from adolescent impulses by adolescent lack of control. 
“Right!  Thank you!  Thank you!”  The relief filled the air, but I couldn’t so much as smell it under the rich blood of the chicken.  The bird really was succulent.  “Uh, goodbye, oracle.”
“Go,” I mumbled through a mouthful of feathers. 
The last bone had barely vanished down my throat when another set of footsteps arrived, much heavier and more stolid than the youthful skip-step of my last observer.  
“Oracle,” it said, flat and impatient together.  “Mother of mindfulness father of foresight open eye in the dark, question for payment: how many days ‘till the first real frost?”
Trickier.  But doable.  A bloodied rabbit from above was a good step towards earning my efforts as well; it must’ve nosed around the fields a little too closely.  “Sixteen give or take.  There’ll be at least three mellow ones in a row just before it strikes, so watch for those and be ready to save the crops.”
“Hm,” said the client.  He left without thanks, a practical man.  Too practical for ritual, or far-flung thoughts, or basic manners.  A good sort, and I’m glad there aren’t more like him. 
There was a lull then, now that the early risers had done and had their questions.  An hour or two squirmed by, during which I ate the rabbit organ by organ, as much to pass the time as for the nourishment.  I lounged against the rocks at the bottom of the well, sides fitting squarely into the worn-through grooves my bones had forced into the stone. 
“Oracle,” said a soft, startling voice, and I was forced to admit that I’d been napping.  Surely I wasn’t that old yet?  “Mother of mindfulness, father of foresight, the open eye in the dark, I put a question to your ear in fair exchange for payment.”  Down came a handful of mice.  Lovely for a snack, but a poor meal.  They’d last the day much better than rabbit giblets.  “Did that louse that calls itself my neighbour’s son touch my little girl?”
I thought over my phrasing.  “No,” I said.  She was bigger than her father, I wouldn’t call that especially little, for a human. 
“Are you sure?” he asked.   His hands were on the well-rim; I could fancy nearly seeing the knuckles whiten. 
“Yes.”  Doubting me, even on so dear an issue?  That was something new.  I’d have thought with over a hundred years of accuracy behind me, I was past the stage of the skeptic.  About the only people nowadays whose minds refused to change at my sworn-in word were proud parents. 
“He must’ve done it.  I’m sure he did it.  She won’t look me in the eye proper now.  He touched her, didn’t he”
“I have answered your question.”
I must have added just enough weight to that last sentence to head him off, as he slowly released the well and left without another word.  I dislike rants.  I also dislike hearing people’s life stories.  Everyone has one, they’re all different, shining, brilliant examples of the human condition etcetera etcetera, but in the end I just can’t care enough.  In this, I was in company of thought with most other humans.  Besides, they were all window-dressing, mere trappings.  The same ten questions, the same sets of clothing, all draped over one big request: will it be alight?  That’s not any question, that’s The Question.  Sometimes it’s phrased very funnily, but it’s all the same.  A thousand thousand times in a life everybody asks it, and around here they all get asked of me. 
Oracle, mother of mindfulness, father of foresight, the open eye in the dark, I put a question to your ear in fair exchange for payment.
“Is my son still alive, over the sea?”  Yes, but he’s probably picked up a few minor problems from the local ladies of pleasure, as sometimes happens with soldiers and other men on the move. 
“What’s wrong with my dog?  It snaps at my hands whenever I come near – is it ill?  Should I kill it?”  No and no; it just hates you.  You tormented it when it was a puppy and claimed it was to “toughen it up,” remember?
“Does the carpenter’s daughter favour my courtship?”  I can say “no” with rock-solid certainty. 
“Where’s the best spot to fish today?”  Down by Little Lake’s western shore, where the island is near.  Bring back a spare for your next question, hmm?  I don’t often feed on fish. 
“Are you quite all right down there?”  I’m quite sorry?
“I said, are you quite all right down there?” 
I craned my neck upwards for the first time in hours, hauling my body from its rut.  “What kind of a question is that?  And you haven’t brought payment in exchange.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, but I’m in no need of fortunes at the moment.  I was just thinking that it seemed awfully dark and lonely down there.”
“Dark and damp,” I replied.  “I don’t mind.”  Though a bit of loneliness is a pleasant thing during the day. 
“You poor thing.  Why do you stay down there?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Moved in last winter, my wife wouldn’t stop talking about you.  Very secretive about the details though, said I wouldn’t understand it.  But why do you stay down there?”
“Well, that’s a proper question, and it needs proper payment.  But not the usual, I think.  Tell me, are there any sticks up there?”
“There’s some twigs.”
“Twigs will do.  Throw them down here.”
A moment’s scraping scratching, and a little neat bundle dropped down, disintegrating into midair chaos.  I regathered them as I spoke. 
“I stay down here because I was put down here, and I was put down here so that the town would have an Oracle, to give them their answers and take their questions.  In that order, sometimes.”
“But how were you put down there?”
“A few sharp stones will set that right.  Just a little larger than pebbles will do, but with an edge is best.  Toss down a handful.”
“Won’t you be hurt?”
“I’m tougher than I look.”  And don’t I look it.  Spik spak spang, down came the rocks, clicking off my head and tapping off my sides. 
“I was put down here because I was very small.  I was a newborn when an old man found me, under the open sky and the fresh air in the mountains, and he brought me here and put me in my well, because he was old enough to remember those sorts of tricks.  If I were bigger, maybe they wouldn’t have worked, and I wouldn’t have come.”
“That’s horrid.”
“That’s life,” I said.  “I know what I am and I know what I do: I am the Oracle, I answer questions.  I’ve answered yours, haven’t I?”
“Poor thing,” he said.  “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

That night, to distract myself, I made music.  In the daylight hours too many people came by, too many nagging interruptions – and besides, this was a private thing, none of their business.  But in the night I could sing and hum and whistle ‘till my tongue fell out and my teeth ran red, moving my head from side to side and up and down to find just the right pitch and blend of echoes.  I would accompany myself with percussion, drumming like a fiend on the walls and floor.  A few month’s drumming would wear apart the rock and leave it all uneven, and I’d have to polish it flat again.  I usually kept two or three new surfaces in varying states of polish, if I could manage it.  It gave me something to do during the daytime. 
The sticks and stones added a most pleasing depth to it all, a whole new range of sounds and scrapes and scratches.  Most times I asked for them the first thing I heard would be “why?” and that led to all sorts of awkwardness.  Thank goodness for the naturally obedient. 
The music always had a special rhythm to it on the nights I could see the moon, especially a full one.  There was just something naturally delicious about it.  It looked the way I supposed the wind felt. 

The next day I was awoken before my time as some sort of breaded thing bounced off the tip of my nose. 
“You’ve got to ask first,” I said, rubbing my face – more for show than anything, not that anyone could see it.
“I’ve brought you some breakfast,” called down a familiar voice, a touch too loudly.  Sound carries much more easily down here than you’d think, no matter what you think. 
“Oh.  What is it?”
“It’s a scone.  You put butter on them.  I think it’d make a bit of a mess if I dropped some down there, though.”
I ate some.  The lack of bones made it unusually uncrunchy to my taste, but there was something there, some flavor I was pleased to meet with.  It was a pity it was encased in some sort of planty brick.  My stomach felt leaden. 
“Do you like them?” asked the voce. 
Technically, I hadn’t been given the oath yet.  But I had been given payment and asked a question, so…  “They’re the best thing I’ve eaten today,” I said, rooting around behind a tooth with my tongue for a lingering, semiliquid fragment of scone. 
“It’s my mother’s recipe.  My wife can never quite get it right – not that they’re bad when she makes them, oh no.”
“Hmm.”  The scone was clinging on with stubbornness hitherto unknown to me, even by that one rat I’d eaten while still living.  Nothing with that much of its torso missing should’ve been able to bite as hard as it had. 
“Why don’t you come out?  I’m sure you’d like it.  There’s nothing down there that’s very nice at all.”
“It’s soothing,” I said. 
“It’s nothing but hard stone.  And there’s rain coming today!  Won’t you be flooded out?”
“It’s what keeps the mushrooms blooming.  You’d better run home before it comes, I can already feel the air changing.”
“How deep down there are you?  It’s awfully dark.”
I shrugged.  “Thirty-five feet, maybe?  Not so deep.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” he said, and left. 
Shortly afterwards, the storm hit. 
It was good for the mushrooms indeed.  Besides me and the occasional still-wriggling payment, they were all that lived down here.  They were bright and cheerful, vibrantly flush with happy colours that would kill an ox that dared nibble or nip at one.  I knew better, and merely watched them soak up the water that didn’t escape through the little cracks in the floor.  Where those cracks went was one of the few things I didn’t know about my well, and it irritated me that no one asked me about it.  I couldn’t ask them to ask me, of course.  That isn’t how it works.  I’d spent many hours with one eye pressed tight against the crannies, watching the drip and dulled decay of the water as it tottered its way into the bottom of the world, hoping to see firsthand.  Maybe if I looked hard enough, I could stare through it and out the other side. 
The rain had another mark in its favour: it kept the day calm.  Few questions, fewer answers.  But when the only questions you can get are from people who can’t possibly wait ‘till the storm’s past, they grow a bit intense. 
“Can the carpenter’s daughter become…uh….if we, that is..”
“-Yes.  But not with the other thing you were about to say.  But wash thoroughly before and after.”
Some people always have to have that last bit of common sense spelt forwards and backwards for them.  And the people who say there’s no such thing as a stupid question are only half right: nothing stupid, surely, but plenty of room for persistent ignorance.  At least the answers stay simple. 
“Will she marry me?”
“Will he marry me?”
“He’ll try.”
“Whose fault is it all?”
“Your parents’.”
The last didn’t go over well.  Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing, but that’s never an option for me. 
The last question of the day was from an old woman who wanted to know if anyone loved her.  “Yes,” I said.  Then I had to sit through an hourlong rant on how they didn’t love her enough and her grandchildren were ungrateful old so-and-sos and on and on and on.  My head ached as I bedded down for the night on dampened stone, and it may have been that that led to the peculiar dreams I had.  Endless, boring dreams, floating through blank masses of something-or-other-or-not and always a humming drone in the ears and eyes, a whisper of a thousand voices.  This.  That.  The other.  The Question.  Always The Question. 
I felt old in that dream.  A lot older than a hundred-and-a-bit years.  Too many worries, too many echoes down the well, always too loud. 

“Look out down there!” dropped from above. 
“What?” I said, stupider than any request I’d ever taken.  It was well before sunrise, early even for me.  Not even the moon shone in the sky now, hidden behind black clouds that thicketed a blacker sky. 
The rope smacked me square in the face on its way to the floor, coiling extravagantly across the cracks. 
“Hurry up hurry up,” said the voice from above.  “The way is clear!  Come up the line, friend!  Come along!”
“I like it here,” I said.  “I do,” I told myself. 
“Come on!” insisted the voice from above.  “Come on!”
I thought.  It was the longest thought of my long life, though it only took a second or so of time.  I thought about all the echoes down the well, I thought about all the times I’d answered The Question, and I thought about making music at night, where no one can hear it. 
So up I went.  It was hard going, heavy as I was and thin as the rope, but I managed.  Inch by inch, up and up, up and up, and then I was almost there, which was when I heard The Question again, which was “Hey, what are you doing?”
“What?  Oh, nothing, nothing, sorry.  Just thought I’d measure how deep it is, and it said it was all right only I didn’t want to be in the way so I –”
“You shouldn’t do that!  You don’t do that!”  Rustles, struggles, shuffles, the cursing and panting of men objecting to other men very strongly. 
I came up in haste, breached the stone ring that was my world since infancy, and saw that it was, of course, the beau of the carpenter’s daughter.  Who knew what question could’ve been so indecently embarrassing as to bring him out at this hour.  He and my attempted rescuer, a shortish, stoutish man, had laid hands on each other, though things had not yet gotten beyond that. 
“Stop it,” I snapped, releasing the rope from my mouth.  Strong as my jaws were, nearly my entire body had rested on their power for some minutes, and I was cramped and sore.
They looked up, and saw me coiled about the rim of my home, scales flat black under the moonless sky, as misplaced as a fish on a cloud. 
The boy looked shocked, awed, puzzled into horror at the violation of common sense.  He was young, much younger than I’d thought he would be. 
The man though… oh, the man.  I had forgotten: his wife had told him little about me. 

At that moment, The Question going through his head was so strong I could reach out and see it, close as it was.  What are you, what are you?  Why are you this serpent?  And I knew then, of course, that serpents have been associated with oracular activities for time out of mind, in particular Python of Delphi, whose Oracle was most famous. 
And I opened my mouth to answer, of course, because that is what I must do.  I am the Oracle.   I have been given payment.  I must perform the fair exchange.
It did not reassure them.  The boy struggled to move away, the man struggled opposite him, they reversed, seized, grappled, fumbled, tripped over my tail, and over they fell, head over heels, down, down, down into the well, the rope slapping futilely at their faces all the long way to the dismal halt, where they pressed their eyes to the cracks.  I wonder what they saw. 

I left the town, of course, for the far, unremembered mountains.  I was gone before the thud of the well that left a last echo in my ears, before their carefully-mended clothes pressed flat my mushrooms and squeezed the colour out of them in surprised rivulets.  It had been one Question too many, and an answer that had helped no one.  I was through. 

It took a long time to dig a pit deep enough.  It took longer still to narrow up the entrance properly to that little slit-hole view of the sky.  And of course I’ll never have that little ring of bricks to frame the blue above again, not unless I go clay prospecting one day. 
But I did it.  I can creep out if I wish and find my own food, and I can sit in here all day while the sun burns hot.  There’s a patch of stolen soil where I can already imagine some mushrooms blooming, and smooth, clean stone that clicks off my teeth like a violin string.  It’s dark, and it’s damp, and the rock is hard against my back and belly both.   There is quiet, and no Question. 

And I can make music at the sun.    


“A Question,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: Nightfall.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Under the last, shuttered rays of the sun, a night was being born.  It was so quick it seized the eye true and strong; one moment, splintered light fading into greyness under the aegis of evening; the next, true blackness filled the air. 
For a moment after it was birthed, it didn’t know anything.  Just dark, flowing over the world.  But then it blinked, it stretched, it laughed, and then its mind began. 

The first thing the newborn night saw was that the world was big, and it was big in it.  A more pleasing combination of wonderment and vanity could not be found anywhere under the moon, and it gloried mightily in it, roiling happily against hills and sliding into dales with the cheer of a sporting otter.  It wriggled with delight as the treetops stroked its soft, velvety underbelly, squirmed its way over crags and jags and a great, battered horn to stare down all over the land all around it, like a toddler perched on a runty tree stump. 
Hello! it called to the world around it, challenge and greeting most jovial.  Hello hello! it called to the quiet that clung to itself.  Wolves sang at its introduction, owls nodded curtly, the impertinent little lights that shone in big cities flickered uneasily with the defiant stupidity of a child caught in the wrong and refusing to admit it.  Hello!
The night paid them all no need as it journeyed on, examining and discarding them all, an endless curiosity confronted with an endless basket of wonders.  Here – there was water flowing over a cliff!  Who could imagine that?  There – here is a lake filled with surly, slovenly, brown-bellied sharks that snap at anything that dares intrude on their prickly sense of personal space.  Who could’ve dreamed of that?  The night did and more, peering at the strangeness that greeted its every step forwards. 
There!  A little opening under a hill, a nook that widened farther and farther where the night could not see, where a deeper darkness pooled from.  It was old, and ignored its cheery introduction with stone-cold resolution.
Here!  A little tree on a sheer mountainside, growing not up so much as out.  It was older than some of the rock around it, fancied the night, and its needles were thinner than a pixie’s dreams, its roots great, bulging muscles that clung to the rock with strength unmatched on the earth. 
Look!  A glittering wonderland hiding inches under the waves, a breadbasket of corals that stretched for hundreds of miles.  Its fishy inhabitants glittered and shone under the slightest speck of light, their tumultuous little lives never pausing, not even for the night’s touch. 
See!  A rainstorm, a thunderstorm, a cauldron of bubbling lightning that rumbled in approval as the darkness wrapped around it and filled its heart with deeper chill. 
All this and more spread itself beneath the freshly-budded wings of the night as it flexed and tested and flapped them.  It slowed to watch, it sped to prove it could, it rolled and flipped its way over the horizon, eating the air.  It was perfectly happy and nothing troubled its mind but for a faint worry and a memory of sharp bright fear, and they were nothing, only premonitions, which you couldn’t trust, the night was sure.  It was sure. 

It began to turn its gaze above.  There was so much above. 
For one thing, there was the moon.  It was so close and yet so far, bobbing just within the night’s domain yet separated from its grasp by a space that shocked even the night’s mind.  It was a pity, to see something so far-away and beautiful remain untouchable, yet strangely thrilling.  For the first time, the night felt smaller.  It hallooed to the lunar sphere, a big bobbing gibbous demiscircle that winked down at it with old ease, the poise of a high lady mixed with the familiarity of an auntie. 
For another, the stars caught its gaze, even as it removed it from the moon.  There were so many!  The first glance saw hundreds, the second thousands, then more, and more, and still more millions, endless numbers clotting the empty skies thick and sweeter, smeared deliciously from near to far, the nearest oh so far.  The night was in awe at them, and a little bit frightened (though it didn’t know it).  Something about their twinkle brought on strange memories-that-weren’t, and left it uncertain.  It had the feeling it was being chased. 
It called up in pressed happiness to the stars, a forced self-reassurance, and they smiled back sadly.  Soon, soon, they whispered where they hung, near to the eye and farther from the hand than anything that was ever dreamed of.  Always so soon.

The talk of the stars unnerved the night, as did their continued quietude, and its eyes were (if not quick) eager to fall back down from the dizzying heights and depths that adorned its above-space and rest once more on the spinning display beneath it.  It watched with detachment unwanted as a moose stumbled loose from a thicket, clumsy even in grace, and that helped a little.  It cheered up still more as the moose’s calf followed it, twice the leg and half the presence of mind-in-body, barely able to walk but masterful in wobbling.  Then it was gone again, swirling away in the night’s long wake as it sped through the hours and miles.  It alit upon a crooked fencepost, and for a moment it was quite pleased to see eye-to-eye with a cowled old corbie that huddled itself on its tip, cynical old bird rendered speechless, but then it was off and away, dragging itself low over the land with reluctant haste. 
Perhaps speed should be embraced then, decided the night, if only because it was so persistent.  So it did, it sped.  Up came its haste, down and away flew its patience, and it was off like a shot from the gun that spun the planet, whirling with the force and might of a thousand dervishes.  It barely saw the passing sights, spinning mountains dark within an instance’s worth of note.  It felt the tickle and tremble of long landscapes against itself fade into a soothing, strikingly homogenous hum that filled its soul.  The sky streaked with white on black, dots in a seascape, and under its hands oceans bled away nearly as fast as the continents, passing from blue to black and blacker still.  It was the purest speed in the world, and no other thing knew it but the night.  It knew this deeply, drank it in heartily; it laughed loud and long as the haste soused its mind, sending it into crazy cartwheels that would’ve dashed any other thing’s brains apart just from thinking them.  Whatever it was that chased at its heels was beyond sight of mind, far away and never there, and it was free of all worry. 
And then, cresting a valley’s rim, it looked down and made a mistake, the same mistake anyone might make, anywhere, and it saw what it was doing. 
Boys going lost in the fields, sent out to call in cattle and caught by the sudden dark.  Fawns seized with sudden cold that huddled to their mothers for warmth as their time to browse was cut short and replaced with the hours of the predators, muzzles pressed into sides and flank to fur. 
Owls seized by instinct’s awakening before they could so much as wake, gliding out of their homes still wishing sleep. 
Sun-baked crags forced fast from weathering the heat to the chilly grip of the darkness, cracking before their time, splintering to gravel. 
All these things were small, and as such, all the more notable, and for each of them there were a thousand more so alike that the night could barely look for seeing them.  All around it, little troubles, small pains, and each an accusation by dint of its lack of accusation.  No blame fell on the night, not for the harm that it caused in innocent speed, not so much as a disapproving look or a plaintive plea, and for that it cut all the deeper. 
So it slowed.  It idled.  It took its time, took it all back, and meandered its way through the skies it had galloped against so furiously mere moments before.  It watched anxiously what it had so free-and-easily ignored in favour of the call of the rush and thrill – it hurt more, it did, responsibility.  To be carefree was to be painfree, but somehow, the night felt a little proud of itself as it saw the world shape itself right again under its cloaked depths (though not too proud, of course, because that made it feel bad again). 
Also, something was nagging it, those not-recollections again that the stars had whispered of to it.  Soon, soon.  Whatever it was, it would come all the sooner now.  Yet still, though the feeling of pursuit grew ever stronger, not a single hint nor scent of whatever that was chasing it appeared at its rear.

For a time it became (if not routine) calm.  There were fewer sights now for that night that took its breath away, fewer wonders.  The world was big and full of uniqueness, but even that grew mellow with experience, if never tedious.  Living and land alike passed by its mind and sight, and it noted them with care.  It was nearly a challenge in itself now, to see how many things it could see as they came under its shroud before they were whisked away into its wake.  What had once frustrated it became a sport, a counting of many tallies that was made all the more challenging by the night not having any numbers to count with.  It found an abandoned textbook of maths lying on a park-bench, but it was closed and unhelpful, so it passed on carefree and ignorant.  Numbers were easier when you didn’t know them, anyways.  And sooner or later the counting wore thin too, and by now the night was old enough that it could simply appreciate the calm, coasting on a hemisphere’s-worth of momentum that wouldn’t end.  It was soothing, letting it all roll by at its own pace, hearing the slow running down of life and matter underfoot as it calmed under its touch. 
But there was something stronger warning it now, an alarm bell ringing inside the night’s mind.  Something touching old not-memories and stiffening what could’ve been hairs along a possible-spine.  There was something chasing it, yes, yes, but it wasn’t coming closer from behind.  The night had left it far away, that way, no matter its chosen speed (from swift to sloth, it was all the same, it seemed), but there was still something there
Then the night looked forwards, and it saw something, on the edge of perception.  It was strange and flat and it looked something like starlight, but harsher, stronger. 
The memory was real, and it had a name: daylight.  It chased from ahead. 

For a passing moment the night knew no fear, only surprise.  The first sharp slivers of the bright were still blinking into existence, slow but sure, implacable.  It saw the tatterings of twilight beginning to appear at its outermost edges; it was shocking to see the raiments of its birth returned this way, at this moment. 
Past the shock came terror.  The night stalled desperately, snatching at its surroundings, grasping at obstacles with panic in its soul.  All slid away from it in a gentle caress, the same frictionless ease that had felt so pleasing and now seemed devilish.  It tore and snatched and smashed for something, anything that could touch it besides that growing glow on the horizon, the herald of something new, the star that smouldered too close and too strong for it. 
Things stirred in the land beneath, thousands upon thousands of things, far more than had wandered quietly in its depths (all abed now; the owls a-roost, the bats be-caved, the hunters and predators a-rest), awakening at the stroke of shine.  The night was more grey than black now, rent through with smouldering rays.  It balked at their touch, impaling itself on them even as it struggled, fading apart.  And up ahead, where the balelight glared, it could hear the nightmare yammer of the endless swarms of things that screamed and grunted and stank under the burning pyre of the skies, a cacophony of billions that knew no rest and no concord, the antithesis of its calm. 
The night quailed.  If it could, it would have wept.  It stretched from the heavens to the soil, it girthed from pole to pole, and all of its breadth and majesty was about to be cut up and swept away by the glare.  It almost averted itself, sought to become lost in the details of that it washed over (thinly now!), to distract itself from the end.  But something spoke to it in the last bits of its truedark, whispered to look its fate soundly face-to-face. 
Slowly, the night looked up.  Past the brightness, the new colours that cut its eyes with their loud sharpness, up and up to the hint of a handful of pure light that was touching it from just above the trees, the edge of the near-star.  And there, watching it back, was the hint of something shining and small.  So small.  So very bright and so very full of pain, but so small. 
And there was a worry in it that the night knew as its own. 
The night gazed back at it and at itself.  It was crumbling, but it was still impressive.  Pole-to-pole, heavens-to-soil.  It reached to the moon that it could not reach (was it gone now?) and saw even the stars so far.  What must it look like now, to this little stranger that was kin, watching it anxiously now, seeing if this groaning ancient would lurch forwards at last and swallow it up?
The night remembered very little of its childhood now.  There had been twilight, swallowing light.  There had been a terrible light, but it had stopped chasing it, had faded away as the night fled, crumbled into its trail and left it running free and wild across the skies. 
The night thought.  It had time for that much, even as it wore thin.  And then it reached out (surely, slow but swift!) and touched the dawn. 

It burned, but only for a moment.  The day shrank, but only for a moment.  And for a moment, just for a moment, the night realized that this wasn’t so bad. 
Then it was over, splintering into a thousand quarrelsome little shadows and shades, slipping into trees and under stones, diving into the bottoms of ponds to wait for the sun to pass again. 
For now, it shone true, and the new day blinked to itself in confusion, surrounded by folding darkness and watching the hills dawn rosy. It didn’t know anything, and all that was, was light.  There had been something chasing it, but there was something about the way it had looked that wasn’t quite right, not quite like that, a memory that wasn’t there. 
Then it blinked, shook itself, and sang, and its mind began. 


“Nightfall” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.