Archive for March, 2011

Storytime: Alpinism.

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

“You’re crazy, Erik.”
Erik looked at the author of this statement – George, his good, old friend of too many decades to be kind towards him – with an expression of disdain for his pedestrian views.  “’Course.”
“No, no, more than usual I mean.  You’re not just a loony, you’re not even using common sense anymore.”
Erik busied himself with buckling and rebuckling the elaborately sealed and insulated snowsuit he was wearing and checking all of its some hundred pockets with speed approaching a cobra’s.  A small, well-sealed cylinder was tucked into the deepest of them – which, to all appearances, it was much too large to fit into.  “Sure I am.”
“No you’re not.”
“Am so.”
“Cut it out.  You’re heading for a summit climb on the most dangerous peak on the planet, you’re doing it solo, you’re doing it without any ropes or anything, and you’re doing it because you’re mentally ill and I should’ve taken the advice of all your old girlfriends and locked you in an asylum and thrown away the key.”
“You never listened to them before.”
“Only because they were barmier than you were,” George admitted.  “Look, just give it up, eh?  Take a guide.  Or something.”
“There are no guides – no one’s been up there before and come down alive but me, remember?”
“Half-way.  At best!”
“Trifles.  And the ropes and pulleys and all that jazz would just slow me down.  The only time I’ve ever used them was when I climbed Olympus, remember?  Fierce winds up there.  This is old hat.”
“That was because you bet Zeus that he couldn’t blow you off partway up.”
“See?  Nothing to it.”
“Erik, you lost the bet.”
“Only on a technicality.  I still made the summit.  Eventually.”
George took a deep breath – as deep as possible for a very large and annoyed Newfoundlander.  Erik had never been a cat person, to his tutor’s irritation.  “No appreciation for the classic familiar,” she saidWell fie on her too, the bitter ol’ hedge-witch.  There’s a reason theyre called man’s best friend
“The point I’m trying to make,” said George, “is that at least every other time you knew what you were getting into.  You’ve climbed a lot of places, you’ve done it in a lot of ways no one’d ever thought possible –”
“Please, I’m blushing.”
“Shut up.  But you’ve never climbed something like this before.”
“Yes I have.  Twice.”
“Half-way.  Just swallow your pride and use some assets beyond those antiques.  Sentimental value or no, you’re going to need a lot more than your basic kit.”
“Swallow my pride?  I’d choke in a flash.  And besides,” – and here Erik grinned very alarmingly – “these aren’t antiques.  Antiques don’t do anything.”  He stamped his boots three times and headed for the tentflap.
“Damned psychotic,” said George, tail wagging a monomolecular amount entirely against his will.  “I’ll keep your dinner ready.”
“Doubting, dreary, dour Thomas,” said Erik with a happy wave, and he was off into the teeth of a blizzard that could eat cities. 
It was the middle of July, comfortably in the midst of Antarctica’s sunless, cheerless winter.  The only living things for miles and miles were him, George, and the unidentified little bird that was probably a petrel that had just shat on him.  The temperature was cold enough to crack rocks, the wind was low, bitter, and alone, and all these things meant it was time for Erik to go and try to climb the Missing Mountain, which wasn’t.

It was a very strange mountain, and this was by the standards of Erik, who had climbed the slopes of Atlantis, Mount Olympus, the ruined stub of the Tower of Babel, Yggdrasil, and Mt Fuji (three times in one day, just to see what would happen – he’d still rather not talk about it). 
Most of the year, it fulfilled its name.  But on a few special weeks, right in the belly of Antarctica’s winter, it rose out and up out of time and mind and the ice itself, slinking back into place like a cat that had just fallen over and was trying to pretend that reality didn’t work like that.   There were a few other mountains that normally filled the small depression it sat in, but they always seemed to slide away just before it could pop up, never when you were paying attention. 
There it was.  It was a bunch of thousands of feet tall, a couple million tons or something, and made of rock that wasn’t quite like any other on the planet.  Erik had grudgingly chipped off a small piece for George to take a look at during his previous ascent and had been forced to restrain it at least eight times before it would consent to analysis.  The comparative sample of limestone he’d placed next to it had gone missing after he took a break for coffee, and he had a sneaking suspicion it had been eaten.  In any case, the whole experiment had been botched after he realized that every note he attempted to make on the rock was forestalled by his pencil breaking, his pen running dry, his computer freezing, or a violent sneezing fit. 
None of that was important anyways.  Erik wasn’t there to study the thing, he was there to climb it.  Third time’s the charm, after all.  He braced himself, put his best foot forwards on the slope (his left), fought off a brief wave of transdimensional disruption that threatened to tear him into four separate schizophrenics, gave the finger to the still-circling petrel, and up he went. 

The first few hundred feet were easy, a veritable vertical stroll in the park.  He ambled freely through small dips and valleys, each filled with conical, unpleasant things that were almost trees but not really, and just barely not ice.  Eyes stared out at him from their insides now and again, but he ignored them.  Whatever it was had been frozen dead for a few million years at minimum, and if it hadn’t bothered to move yet he doubted it would now.  He wasn’t that tasty-looking. 
Ah, and the easy trek was over, up came the cliff face, sheer and grim.  The wind played strange tunes upon its peculiarly fluted hollows, making sounds somewhere between an angry cassowary, a mating antenna, and a frightened mist.  For three heart-stopping seconds Erik nearly paid attention to it, and the air looked like lime and tasted like purple.  It was only with the greatest of efforts and the most vividly pornographic of his memories that he managed to distract himself long enough to slip in a pair of beeswax ear plugs, dropping the cliff’s whispering down to a bare murmur in the back of his head that registered only as an abstract announcement of unwelcomeness. 
“Charming,” he grumbled to himself.  He set himself to attaching his crampons – huge, ugly things cobbled out of blackened metal he’d scavenged, shattered, from an old, old gate in a deep, deep cave somewhere or other.  They’d broken several of George’s diamond sampling drills, so he figured they were pretty solid. 
Erik’s pitons, now, they were a little less obscure in origin to him.  Just little pieces of ice from Niflheim, sheathed lightly in very cold iron and stashed in a favourite thermos of his.  He never touched them without at least two layers of comfortably thick gloves – just one left him slightly chilly, and bare-handed he could lose fingers.  
He slid one of them against the angrily mumbling stone and selected his hammer.  It was from some hardware store and had been selected both for its relative cheapness and its attractive red handle.  He’d had to replace the stainless steel hammerhead with an extremely old and durable rock made by some towering Paleolithic genius or another, of course, but it was still the same hammer in principle
Whack, whack.  Check the strength.  Oh good, it’s safe.  Up we go, careful on the footing.  Whack, whack.  Theeeereeee we are.  Whack, whack.  Up and up and up and up we go.  Step lively now – those ice splinters melt about five minutes after exposure to air without leaving so much as a nick on the stone (Erik had been an early proponent of clean climbing).  Yes, they reappear inside the thermos, but do you want to be standing on one when it goes?
Up and still up.  Those peculiar cones looked awfully small from all the way up here, and the mountain above still seemed pretty big.  The wall sloped into a pettily vicious little overhang for some distance, giving Erik a wonderful five minutes spent hanging by his fingers and toes and distracting himself by counting to prime numbers whenever he started thinking about exactly what he was doing. 
At last he breached the cliff face and came face to face with greener pastures.  He wasn’t quite sure what had coloured the rock here that way, but it had left it startling translucent: he could see right inside the mountain’s skin for scores of feet before opacity set in.  The complete skeleton of something five times the size of an elephant and eighty times as malevolent leered at him with toothy suggestiveness, giving him stark flashbacks to his third honeymoon.  Shuddering, he pressed on, eyes passing over bones upon bones, jumbled and whole, some that schoolchildren could name like clockwork and some that would’ve baffled a paleontologist of forty years or more.  Occasionally, one breached the sanctity of its jade-tinted cell by some degree or another, and at least four times he was strangely pleased to find himself using some exposed leg or another as a climbing grip.  The last of these was an enormous claw, which attempted to grab him and succeeded in claiming a chunk of his pants. 
“Sloppy,” he scolded himself, inches away from the waving, quartz-tipped claws.  “Sloppy.”  Strange that it hadn’t happened on either of his prior attempts.  Maybe it had been asleep. 

He left the fossils behind in body and mind – with the exception of his chilly right leg – and pressed upwards.  Another pause in the cliffs came, this time a veritable plateau, a strange little glacial valley cloven into the mountainside. 
Erik looked to his left.  Sheer, sheer, sheerest wall.  He looked to his right.  A cliff that rivaled glass in pure slickness.  He looked forwards.  A strange and mysterious city the likes of which no man had seen and lived.  Except him, so far. 
Forwards, of course.  It looked interesting.  Especially since this was where all his memories of previous attempts faded out and vanished up until the hospital bed. 
The first thing Erik noticed was that the shadows were all wrong.  As soon as his foot passed the gigantic, spiked column that marked the city’s borders, every sense of proportion that involved darkness and light seemed to be off by an amount just fractionally tinier than measurable.  To compound this, all of it seemed to be made out of the oddly shaped whisperstone from the mountain’s base.  How they’d lugged it all the way up here was something he wasn’t sure he could guess.  And to top it all off, he kept moving in circles and finding himself back at where he’d just been ten minutes ago.  Including when he sat down to take a break. 
Erik’s compass was old and beaten and consisted of a crude tin cup that a chip of rock was dropped into.  It worked best filled with water, but ice worked in a pinch.  A quick shake, rattle and roll told him that north was that way, up was that other way, his house was over there, George was still in his tent, the next time he would taste waffles was either in two weeks or never depending on whether or not he lived that long, and that to get himself out of the mess he was in would require shimmying up one of the buildings and jumping off. 
He frowned at the last instruction, but accepted it.  If his compass wanted him dead, it’d had plenty of other opportunities to kill him with less fuss and drama.  That didn’t comfort him as he hugged close to the leaning, geometrically dubious frame of a hundred-foot, three-story tower not built by human hands, but it provided the illusion of hope, which was nearly as good.  He closed his eyes, counted to seven, jumped in a somersault, and landed knee-deep in a snowdrift overlooking the softly-glistening city from a far-above ledge. 
“Hah!” he proclaimed triumphantly, then fell into a pit. 

The pit wasn’t nearly as deep a drop as the tower-dive had promised to be, but it made up for it in surprise value.  Erik brushed himself off with a few brisk and businesslike curses, gathered his wits, set on his way, and immediately fell into the much deeper and even more surprising shaft one footstep away, which had been beautifully covered with an inch-thick snow lattice.  Frantic and instinctive use of his ice axe – a cobbled-together thing made from mammoth ivory and ash – left him dangling above a drop that was anywhere from two hundred to infinity in depth.  Somewhere far beneath his gently-waving boots, something that he could only hope was merely an unspeakable, sightless horror gurgled, producing a lovely and obscene echo that reminded him of opera. 
Climbing out was the work of five minutes: two to clamber and three to convince his body to move instead of put down terror-induced roots.  His feet – ever-treacherous bastards – had led the revolt.  From there a moment’s illumination showed his options: climb back up to his original entrance point, which appear to be an entirely blank, featureless ceiling with no exit whatsoever, or take an ominous and stalactite-mawed tunnel.  Reassuring himself that he was only playing along and that in spirit he was rebelling against this, Erik took the tunnel. 
It went up, reassuringly.  Well, and a little bit down.  Very little.  Half-masked things glowed just past the edges of the walls in pockets chipped in the rock by strange drills and stranger claws.  There were hieroglyphs that had ceased to be petroglyphs and now hung about an eighth of an inch off the stone they were carved into, ceremoniously describing the end times or idly discussing the sexual prolectivities of the foreman, depending on their status as holy text or graffiti, which Erik was unable to determine.  The one with the fish eating a second fish that was eating the first fish that was eating a third, completely different fish was a real eyeball-twister though. 
At some point or another the walls were switched from bare rock to fitted stone.  To be more specific, poorly-fitted stone.  Not a single slab lay square with any other, producing an odd, jointed sort of tunnel like a suit of knight’s armour made by a blacksmith with rheumatism, rickets, and a habit of nervous twitching under pressure.  To make matters odder faint wind came through the cracks, as if they weren’t overlaid on rock but empty space. 
Erik thought about this, then about the pit that had been opened under his feet.  He wondered if, given that the mountain was somewhere else than Antarctica for four-fifths of the year, it was technically possible that it was not even sitting on Antarctica right now and was just pretending to.  Then he wondered what it was that was sitting on.  Then he began loudly singing old Disney songs to force his brain to shut the hell up. 
The aimless, empty little frilly tunes squeezed out through the cracks above, below, and beyond, echoing out for possibly forever.  The sound that leaked back at him from all sides was technically music in the same way that a Deinonychus was technically a bird, and he stopped singing. 
The sound wouldn’t go away.  His head tingled, and possibly wasn’t there. 
Too long later, there were footsteps behind him.  Very small ones, quick and fast and light, narrow and too thin to be his, or to anyone with proper feet. 
Oh damnit. 
He broke into a run, a sliding dive.  The slabs whistled and groaned under his clutching toes as he hurried, cursing him out and drawing a bright-burning beacon to his location.  An intersection-that-wasn’t appeared (one path crumbled and crushed, the other with no floor and no ceiling) and he cursed, for the eightieth thousand time in his life, his species’ lack of wings. 
His pursuer called out something in a rattling voice, a complicated, wobbling cry rising from what sounded like a musical instrument stabbed through a lump of meat. 
He ran faster.  The footsteps neared with almost casual inevitability.  Crying through all of his eyes, he dropped to fours and began to gallop, tearing the sensitive skin on his hands away and making him hiss. 
Slap-slap-trip-trap-slap-smack-footsteps.  He dropped to all sixes and began to slide on his belly, grasping all sides of the corridor at once and bobsledding his way down, gills flaring at the harsh intake of the air. 
The footsteps dropped away, and for one brief, pure moment he knew exultation before he ran nosefirst into a stone in the corridor that was precisely one inch above its fellows, flipping him halfway through a somersault, most of the way into a cartwheel, and one hundred percent into the floor.  From under the tangled nest of his limbs he saw his pursuer overtake him – a hideous, bipedal thing, coated in layers and layers of screamingly wrong colours – and then he was Erik again, in a very small cave, facing the sunlight with a black tunnel behind him.  He looked over his shoulder and saw a single, upraised stone with a smear of goo on it that wasn’t a colour he could recognize in this particular spectrum. 
“Well,” he said to himself.  “It’s a good thing I’m a fast runner.”  His legs hurt, and he didn’t want to guess at what would’ve happened if he’d managed to make it all the way out of the halls ahead of his body.  Maybe he would’ve never stopped running.  Or maybe he would’ve just woken up in a hospital bed with George yelling at him again and no clue what had happened.  That might’ve been more irritating. 
A cautious poking of Erik’s head outwards from the cave revealed two rather surprising facts: first, he was nearly at the top of the peak; second, there was a very astonished face inside the snow storm watching him.  Before he could even get as far as species, never mind details, it had vanished. 
“Screw you,” said Erik, on general principle.  It made him feel better. 

The final climb was interesting.  There was no rock, only ice.  Really good ice too, the kind that even his Niflheim pitons squeaked against and his crampons moaned on.  His ice axe screeched in protest with each hold it cut, his gloves audibly sizzled as they freeze-dried themselves against their chiseled grips, and only his hammer remained stolidly uncomplaining as it bonked in piton after piton.  It had been made by someone who figured that rocks lasted forever in the brief moments before he had realized what his own project’s completion implied, and that brief moment, especially as rare as it was nowadays, held a lot of power.  Nobody had ever really believed in permanency that purely since average brain size had topped 600 cubic centimeters.  It would probably outlast Mount Rushmore, and possibly even the contents of Erik’s fridge, assuming that the bindings placed on its locks stayed potent enough to keep it shut and the mountain he’d placed above it wasn’t removed unexpectedly. 
Erik was keeping such a careful eye on his equipment because it was being continually coated with sleet that stuck like cathair, which he had to remove while clinging to the rock with all available limbs in a wind that wanted to pluck him like a chicken.
“I can do this,” he pronounced, and immediately had the equivalent of at least four slushballs rammed down his throat.  I can do this, he repeated more internally.  I scaled Mount Olympus with Zeus chucking every wind he could dig out of the bottom of his sock drawer at me, even if he was drunk enough to aim left half the time. 
Of course, I did have ropes. 
Goddamnit George, this is
exactly why it’s hard for us to be friends. 
Whack, whack, smack, crack, whoops there goes a handhold, whoops a foothold, there’s the other, dangle by your left hand for a minute or two and then get yourself sorted out, spit in the eye of the blizzard (hah, didn’t expect that – he flinched, cyclopean bastard) and haul yourself up like your tail’s on fire.  Then Erik’s hands felt solid rock and the wail of the snowstorm dropped away behind him, defeated, furious, and despairing. 
He looked up.  There it was, a bodylength away and maybe ten feet around.  A tiny, narrow peak, a perfect tapering point of an almost perfectly conical profile.  He vaguely remembered why he’d been disappointed to learn that the Missing Mountain was already named in some long-dead book or another: he’d wanted to call it the Murderhorn. 
Erik got to his feet.  Then hobbled one step, and another step.  He pulled loose a small and well-protected cylinder from the depths of his jacket’s deepest pocket (wincing against frostbite), which was still much too large to fit in there.  It twisted open under his hands, into an elegant, serviceable flag, firm of pole, pointed-tipped, topped with the national banner of someplace no one knew about anymore.  It was so perfectly balanced that it could’ve been used to win an Olympic javelin throw, and had on four separate occasions over the past nine hundred years.
He raised his arm in anticipation, allowing – to his pride – only the faintest suggestion of a wobble. 
A small, vaguely familiar shape bobbed out of the wind and settled neatly on the peak ten feet ahead of him.  It was probably some sort of petrel. 
There was a very long moment.  It stared innocently at Erik. 

Despite his best effort, he was no javelin thrower, and missed by about a meter. 


“Alpinism” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: The View From On High.

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Calp was secret, and secrets are strong. 
His priests knew this because he told them so, whispered through the walls of their care-carved masks and into the dark places of their minds, popping up like urges from nothing.  Secrets are strong, and you are secret.  To pray in Calp in public like any other of the five-on-the-sky’s-borders was a gross indecency; to speak of anything his holy men told you to another was tantamount treason; to know the site of his temple, wherever it might lie, was to be forcibly abducted into his priesthood and swear to hide it forever.  It was solely through this method that Calp gained his preachers and officials. 
They were secrets, and secrets were strong.  And in time, their strength only grew, and grew.  The city shrank, then dwindled, then finally burst apart under invasion, and its citizens fled as refugees and booty from the plunder, slaves and serfs, and their temples were cast down and all their gods, all the five-on-the-sky’s-borders, went with them in chains and in rags.  All but Calp.  He was a secret, and secrets are strong.  Not a single priest of Calp had told of his temple’s location, not under the gravest torture.  And so as the city’s conquerors marched away, heads held high and laughing, there was one living soul who watched them go: the high priest of Calp, whose age, though he never once spoke it aloud, was ninety-four. 
His name was Murah and his mind was torn, a thing not often occurring.  He made it his habit to sit alone, in the dark depths of his god’s temple, and meditate upon Calp, and secrecy, and unbreakable walls made out of silence and slight-of-eyes.  When he did these things all became clear and his thoughts spoke unmuddied through his actions.  But now he felt doubts arising that he scolded himself for: was not this a good thing?  With the death of his order the word of Calp was now more secret than ever before, and not a single new priest could be inducted to replace his failing frame.  He shuffled to the altar, a block of some description or another, obscured under a tattered old cloth.  He had never looked underneath it. 
“Secrets are strong, and you are now secreted,” said Murah, pressing a hand with gentle care against his chest to stifle a cough.  “Now, here are the words that you must take back from me that the last priest left for me upon the altar.”
“You are the oldest of the three brothers of the five-on-the-sky’s-borders, and you are thought by all to be the youngest.”
“You claim to have weak eyes, and so ask your priests to serve as them for you, but you never speak word of your sharp ears.”
“Where no one is is where you always are.”
“This altar has never been revealed and never will be, and if it is, only you will know.”
Murah coughed, against his will. 
“Your face is plain and unremarkable.  It is a mask, and it looks very much like the ones that your priests wear.  They do not know this.”
“You know which of the three brothers kicked down the ladder after they reached the sky, and which of the two sisters lied when she said she didn’t know who did it.”
“You are secret.  Be strong.”
He died one hour later, in some pain and great peace. 

Murah’s final words were not quite truth.  It took some one-hundred-and-forty-one years for the last distant memory of a black-masked priest to fade from the dimming mind of an old, old man whose great-great-grandfather had mentioned it in passing to his grandfather, who had mumbled it to him. 
At that moment, Calp fell into a category that included most of the universe: things that no one thinks of, or dreams of, or knows of.  He fell into fellowship with the way the sky tastes, daring to ride a chair across the inside of the sun, and the sensation of thinking of your grandmother while eating ice cream at the bottom of a black hole. 
And Calp woke up. 

It was a strange thing at first.  One moment he was sitting there under the ruins of the city, under a black altar, mind full – full of secrets, of memories, of his long history of family and warfare with his two brothers and the two sisters they adopted – and then he was nowhere, and all his thoughts had fallen away below him so suddenly that they might never have been there at all. 
I am Calp, he thought to himself.  I am secret, and secrets are strong. 
What is Calp?
It considered for a moment the dwindling, melting remnants of his mind on the floor of his temple, which was very hard to focus on (had the space always been so small and narrow?). 
That is Calp, it decided.  It was odd to think of such a thing, a name, a short sound made into a summary of all that something was, a word that in any language but its own was a strange noise.  That was Calp.  I was Calp.  I had worshippers, I had priests, and I had a ninety-four year-old man named Murah who never spoke his name aloud.  They gave me a name and a gender, and they gave me brothers and sisters, and a mind and personality and a face, even if it was not a face. 
And now I am free.

It wasn’t fully aware of what that meant for some time.  How long was unknowable, because time had stopped.  There were no days, there were no years.  There were no suns to rise and no moons to wax or wane.  Stars twinkled somewhere, but not there. 
When the time ended, the first thing it did could best be surprised as laugh.  It laughed and laughed and laughed so hard that it danced, breaking into a frenzied spiral of poorly-coordinated joy as it spun in shapes that hadn’t existed for it mere thoughts ago. 
I am free.  I am not Calp.  It nearly suffocated on the tides of its own glee.  I do not care for secrets, and I have no brothers and sisters, and I know what’s under that covered altar and I know that it’s been revealed no less than six times, half of them by accident, and I know it’s just an OLD BOX WITH NOTHING IN IT! 
There was deliciously intoxicating about tearing apart so many things that so short a time ago, it would have been forced to find so very important.  Forced, yes, that was it.  Forced into a tiny little genie’s bottle of a shape and body and soul by thoughts and minds and prayers and belief; forced to hear tiny, whispering little secret after secret and remember them all; forced to be a silent counsel to an old, old man talking to himself and naming one of the voices Calp, and naming Calp itself. 
It moved in ways that weren’t quite properly unreal, slipping its way through the thick blanket of possibilities that hung over the planet like a shroud, a tangled mess of threads of might-haves-beens and could-be-next and what-is-happenings that would’ve put Anansi and Arachne’s best collaborative works to shame.  Above and around it cuddled closely the black ocean that made up most of the universe, set properly Spartan and as bare of chances as a well-swept corner.  It felt a strange vertigo singing in its soul as it looked up above, a thrill of the unknown, like a salmon smolt fresh from the river’s flow taking its first gulp of saltwater. 
It touched the earth lightly, with care and fascination.  Events and possibilities squeaked with only the mildest of protests under its fingertips, then quivered into lulled acquiescence at its murmuring reassurance, unfolding their wonders for it to gape at.  Older things and queerer still made rumbles and jabbers at its hesitantly excited introductions, speaking in words made entirely out of thoughts taken from the philosophical musings of the final hours of the last solitary member of the extinct species that someone, possibly a human, had once called Steller’s Sea Cow.   The words were deep and sad and old and had a wrinkled, thick feel to them backed by surprisingly stubborn warmth.  It felt deeply curious, and looking forwards its shoulder, it could see the sea cows swimming somewhere in one of the might-have-beens, and over its other shoulder in the past, and when it looked inside itself it could see one in there, bumbling along a current in the year after the death of our lord seventeen-forty-one as a man in a very thick coat sketched it from the shoreline.   
It reached through itself and touched the sea cow, watched the broad thick stripe of its life peel out and spin in its grasp with a sort of slow, puzzled meatiness.  It was born, it did what its instincts demanded, and very shortly indeed after this moment it was stabbed and eaten by some hungry shipwrecked explorers.  One of them would be the man on the shore, named Georg Wilhelm Steller.  It began to reach for him, and hesitated at the vibrant hum of something too dangerous to be exciting in the air around him.
Something secret.  It didn’t feel like letting it stay that way, but touching was something that it knew would be bad before it could even guess it.   
It was thinking wrong, it was thinking like Calp.  It was looking and listening, when it could just try and know things. 
So it looked at Steller and knew what it was.   Something was wrapped around the man’s mind and spreading itself like a spiderweb over the land near him, something frailer than a baby’s wrist and more tenacious than clinging ivy, something that it had felt arise from its priests to grip and shape it like a miniature tree trapped in a pot.  Something that took everything around it and warped it into a shape that could rest more easily inside his skull. 
It thought it guessed, it thought it knew.  So it reached out and away and knew, from four or five hundred or thousand or million people somewhere, and somewhen. 

A poet at a broken table coughing with one hand, mind like a viper, plucking strand after strand of broken meanings out of thin air and stabbing them to a piece of paper.  They cried as he shaped them, crushing down long, trailing tails of purpose and possibility underneath the blunt hammer of his pen. 
A man in a desert watched the sun rise up and ate it from within, sealing the shine of dawn under a barrage of locks and a flurry of rising walls from within his own mind.  That night he told his town and it spread from mind to mind with the pace of a wildfire, entombing the sunrise under a smouldering mountain of certainty and fancy that would last almost three thousand years. 
A woman feels profound happiness one day as she sits with her child in a park and thinks about the world.  In her mind the words whistle out of the darkness and wind tight around the emotion, binding it faster than blinking.  Before the year is gone it’s on the radio, and that same straightjacket is made of a thousand, thousand, thousand listening ears, all wardens of a thin-stretched love. 
It drew back in horror from one after another, and then it looked at the world, not knew, and it saw past the things seeable down to the marrow of all its minds, and saw the slaves in their chains.  Ideals bound down under the weights of philosophies and laws until they lurched crippled under definitions and debate; fettered, fetishized creatures named as gods by those who forced names upon them; emotions from hope to hopelessness drained away mewling and sucked into bottomless reservoirs of H. sapiens, diluted infinitely, leaving the wide-wandering webs of the world blank and bare of thoughts without thinkers.  Ideas and concepts that spanned the universe itself were clumsily seized and crushed down to the size of drowned kittens to be consumed haphazardly by learned, ignorant men. 
There was much entering the worldview of the thing that had once been unjustly called Calp.  Among this, that Murah had been right: to be secret was to be strong.  He had never spoken of what it was to be known
It is to fall victim to imagination, it whispered to itself in its own language (invented as it was needed to be spoken – it did not feel right, not then, to speak in the words of the city of Calp).  It is to be what you are said to be, by the gaze of the blind and deaf.
And with that, almost as if it had been waiting, it felt a tug. 

It was subtle, and smooth, and so strong that by the time it realized the pull was present it was halfway there.  Already linear time had looped itself carefully around it, like a meticulous, courteous python, and it had barely managed to register the minds of humans buzzing about it like bees before it realized that it was having to rely on such crude, primitive things as senses.  It had lost the world beneath him and the sky had been stolen from above its head, and he wasn’t it anymore, he was Calp, the forgotten, discovered-again god, Calp, whose temple alone had survived to tell the tales of its ancient secrets to all the world under the picks and brushes and tiny tools and cleaners of diligent archaeologists.  Calp, the key to unlocking the mythological past of a long-dead culture only now recognized from the plundered, buried remnants of its last great city. 
Calp, whose secrets were all bled out on the journals and papers and research reports all around the world.  Calp, the ominous, brooding figure of a culture that had gone to such strained lengths to protect such strange and small secrets. 
Calp, who now knew only that he was bereft of priesthood, and that this displeased him, and it may have been some plot or another of one of his three brothers (or maybe the two sisters), who he would have to get revenge on. 
Calp was not secret, and so you must pity him, for he was now weak. 


“The View From On High,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Cliff Diving.

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Mark decided to take his shot at dawn.  He always was the dramatic one, every time. 
It was the same as always, except for the differences.  Out came Mark from his tent, stripped nude for maximum aerodynamic speed, all the most offensive crevices of his body exposed to the sky, leaving it blushing in horror.  Here came all the others (there’s me in there, somewhere), trying not to look directly at him. 
He didn’t pay it any mind, of course.  His eyes were firm on the sun ahead, his strides sure, his walk firm.  Then it was a jog – and we all kept up – and then a sprint – and we all kept up – and then a full pell-mell head-over-heels gallop of a run, a speed that you only see when someone’s being chased by something toothy or late for dinner. 
We couldn’t keep up, try as we might.  We never could, even when it was Padma’s turn, short-legged as she was.  So we were about fifty feet behind when Mark went over the cliff, arms spread and elbows bent, legs angled just so, just so, face a fierce wind-streaked grimace of calculation and fatigue. 
Out, out, out he flew – ten metres, twenty maybe, could’ve been thirty even – and then he smacked into the water full force like a pancake, bounced off a rock, and sank. 

“Damnit,” said Abraham.  “We were so sure that the kneecap twist would do the trick.”
“Good distance anyways,” observed Padma.  “Cleared your record from last time.  Cheer up, you’ll have a while yet to get it tested out before it’s your turn.”
“Mmph,” said Abraham grumpily.  But from the look on his face, he was already thinking through the angles. 
“Oh shut it,” said Sherry.  “In the meantime, someone’d better go tell that one kid that he’s Mark now.”
No one moved, everyone looked at me.  I sighed.  “Fine.”
It was always my job.  Always Tom’s job to go deliver the news, because Tom could be pushed around.  No one was ever glad to see Tom, because it was his duty to tell you that things weren’t comfortable anymore. 
That one kid lived in a little tent down the hill from ours, like all the other kids.  If you weren’t Mark or Tom or Abraham or Padma or Sherry, you were a kid.  And because one of the defining traits of being a kid was being dumber than paste – as sure as surliness was Abraham and bossing around was Sherry – you wanted to be Mark or Tom or Abraham or Padma or Sherry so bad it hurt, because to you, a name was everything.  Which was why a lot of kids waited a long, long time to be Mark, Tom, Abe, or Sherry – I think the record was something like thirty years.  To be any of us, you had to either not want it or not give a shit.  Except for Padma.
Too many angry faces every time, though.  And more each trip than before.  If glances were knives, I’d have bled out the second I started walking down the hill. 
That one kid’s tent was different from the others.  It had twice as many legs and looked like it was trying to eat itself half the time.  That was the sort of thing that made a good Mark: the willingness to think up crazy stupid stuff. 
“Hey, kid,” I said to the closed flap.  “You’re Mark now.”
“No I’m not.  Go away.”
“Knock it off, Mark.  Get out of that kid’s tent and come on up the hill.  Abe’s already going to be driving the others nuts if you don’t drive him there first.”
“I’m too busy to go jump off a cliff, so cut it out.  And stop calling me Mark.”
“Damnit, why do you always pull this crap, Mark?  Every time, bitch bitch bitch.  Look, everything you need is up there in the tent.  Get your ass out of here before all the dumbass kids start throwing rocks at you out of jealousy.”
Mark grumbled his way out of the tent.  He was shorter this time – not that it was hard, he’d been the tallest of us last time by four inches, a scarecrow with the world’s worst shave – and even more wiry.  He was carrying a big bundle of stuff in his arms, all wrapped up tighter than a baby.
“What’s that?”
“None of your goddamned business.”
I grinned at him.  “Yeah, you’re Mark all right.  C’mon.”
He swore at my back until I was nearly out of ear-range, then started following. 
There was a small obstacle: a crowd of the kids had appeared around us while we talked, and they didn’t seem to want to move off the path. 
“Push off,” I said.  They stared at me.  No one listened to Tom. 
“Get out,” he told them.  “We won’t be back again for a while anyways.”
They got out. 
“How did you do that?”
“They don’t think I’m Mark yet.  Give it a week and they’ll hate my guts too.”  He scratched the inside of his nose with surprising care and delicacy.  “Just like I hate yours.”
I smiled as I started walking again.  Mark never changed, even less than the rest of us, right down to the words he always spoke when he saw his tent. 
“What the hell is this shitheap?’
“Your tent.”  It was an honest assessment.  It looked like the result of a tragic and violent mating between three sets of carpet rugs after it had been hunted down and impaled with poles, then rolled in a garbage heap.
“Great.  Just great.  Hey, I could use that part.”  He snapped off a dangling thing that might have been a windchime, a weathervane, or a birdcage, and found out it was a support.  I left him cursing.  The day had already been too long, and it wasn’t even noon yet. 

I ate my early lunch at the cliff, legs dangling over its edge, flicking the fishbones down one by one into the angry surf at its base.  I wasn’t afraid of heights.  None of the kids that were afraid of heights ever got ahold of one of our names; it would’ve been as senseless as picking a puffin. 
Sherry turned up behind me, in that quiet way of hers that was nevertheless totally broadcast.  She didn’t sneak.  She was just…stealthy. 
“Just talked with Mark,” she said by way of introduction.  “He thinks you’re a total asshole already.  Good job.”
“Thanks mom,” I said around the last mouthful of salted fish.  I sent the tail-fin skimming out into the air and watched it flutter down.  “Look at that.  Lighter than a fingernail and it still can’t make it more than an eddy’s –spittle offshore.  You know, sometimes I think we’re just never going to do it.”
“Sure we can.  You get good enough at anything and it becomes possible.  Did you see how far Mark went?  You know damned well he’s barely better than Padma at this, and he almost doubled his last record.  Every time we make it a little farther.  And we’ve got loads of time.”
“I guess.”  I stared out over the ocean’s smugness.  “But is it worth it?”
Sherry sighed.  “Tom, we’re sitting on a puffin-infested, storm-blighted, rocky cliff on the ass end of the planet’s ass-end.  Whatever’s on the other side is definitely worth it, and if you keep on whining this much I’ll just chuck you over the cliff myself.  I bet that’d cheer you up a bit.”
“Fine, fine.”
There was candlelight coming from Mark’s tent as I went to bed.  And loud noises, some of which weren’t swearing.  I gave it a week before we saw whatever was in the bundle completed.  It turned out to be four days, during each of which a little more of Mark’s tent vanished, along with a bit more of his patience.  On the morning of the fifth, the tent was gone entirely, consumed into a webbed mess of spines and flaps. 
“Not your usual work,” commented Sherry. 
“Looks like shit,” said Abe. 
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like more time to work on….whatever it is?” asked Padma. 
“First of all: fuck you.  Secondly, it’s a…sort of wing set.  See, I was watching the gulls – not the puffins, the little pudgy buggers are too stubby-winged for the job – and I noticed that…”
The conversation that followed was long and one-way.  I woke up enough at the end to notice Mark had unzipped the wings and was wearing them as a sort of backpack, with his arms slotted into handles.  At a yank, the whole thing bucked and quivered, tipping one way and then the other.  He tottered in the light morning breeze. 
“That’s very nice, Mark,” said Padma.  “Does it work?’
“It’s damned well unnatural,” said Abraham.  “Go back to ankle angles.  I’ve been working on the hips all month, checking wind resistance on bits of whittled driftwood, and I need someone to check the hips and you’ve got all the notes in your tent.”  He squinted suspiciously at the left wing.  “I think you’ve got them there, actually – did you really use the whole thing?  You’re not sleeping in my tent, that’s for sure.”
“Not if you were a threesome with twins,” snapped Mark.  “And I’m not spending another night here, waiting for all the little SOBs down the slope to get tired of us once and for all and come up here with torches and pitchforks.  I’m taking this thing oversea.”  He tore a crude lump of marked tent fabric out of his back pocket and smushed it into Abe’s mitt.  “Here’s the design specs if you want to copy it.  I’m heading out now.  You can stay here and keep trying to dive solo from now ‘till the end of time if you want, but I’m not standing for it.”
Abe stared at him.  “You’re what…you’re wait.  You’re going to fly across with those?  Not in a million years.  Wings are for puffins, not people.”
Mark laughed.  It sounded like a fish gasping for air.  “We’ll all still BE here in a million years if we try it your way.  We need new ideas – I’ve seen this happen too many times.  We need to switch to machined flight.”
“We’ll run out of parts for flyers inside a week.  How’re the kids supposed to follow us?”
Mark shrugged.  “Screw ‘em – they’ve been getting nastier and nastier the last few years anyways.  They can take over diving for it.  Or just stay here.  Their own fault for not thinking of it first.”
“That’s nasty even for you,” I said. 
He gave me a remarkably evil grin.  I could count the food particles on each tooth.  “You knew the risks when you picked me out.  Now get out of my way.  I’ve got a run-up to do.”

Another day, another dawn.  The same as always, except a lot slower – Mark’s fast, but he’s weighed down pretty nicely with all the gear.  He pants and swears and hisses like a cockroach, not running, just tottering as fast as he can. 
We all reached the cliff before he did.  That was a first.  None of us knew what to do; just stood there for a moment, not knowing where to look.  Then up he came running, arms spread, swearing and wheezing, and tip-flip-toppled over the edge, with a kick and a scream. 
We watched him fall for a moment, then we watched him rise, and then we had to jump back for a moment as the wind heaved him into the air, spinning and pinwheeling like mad.  He made eye contact with me for a moment.  His eyes were bulging and very brown, and I couldn’t help but feel how wrong that was.  Mark’s eyes were blue.  I remembered that very clearly. 
Then he was down again, like a rock.  The splash sounded before any of us could make it to the ledge, and by the time we peeked over he was an odd shape bobbing in the waves. 
“Well, that was interesting, but scarcely helpful,” said Sherry.  “I hope we’ll all remember this.  Hell, a new Mark after less than a week – that’s nearly a record, isn’t it, Padma?”
Padma shut her eyes and moved her lips for a moment, counting.  “Still held by Tom with five minutes,” she said.  “He called you some rude names, you got into a shoving match, and then he lost it.  Barely made a meter – bounced off the cliff, I believe.”
Abe was standing at the edge of the cliff, clenching and unclenching his hands. 
“You okay?” I asked.  I carefully measured the distance between us, guessing it as just a bit more than grabbing reach.
“Yes.  No.  Damnit.  He was an insufferable little shithead who wouldn’t know common sense if it bit him.”  He sighed and scrubbed away something from his face.  “Almost irreplaceable.  Tom, go get him replaced.”
I sighed.  ‘He wasn’t making up that about the kids.  They tried to hem us in last time we left.  Could’ve gotten ugly.”
Sherry scowled.  “Why didn’t you mention that before?”
“He said it’d wait ‘till next time.  They’d have time to forget.”
“Well, obviously not.  Hell, Tom, why do you go along with this sort of bull all the time?”
Because that’s what Tom does, you high-handed bunch of space cases, I didn’t say. 
“Right,” I said. 
The hill looked bigger than usual as I went down it.  All those kids looked so small, so small you couldn’t see their faces.  All looking up at me, staring up at me with those blank faces.  But then I was at the bottom, and their faces were still empty.  Very empty. 
They were standing in front of the tents, all of them, all on display.  One of them must be the kid I was looking for, but I couldn’t see him.  They all looked the same – how were they doing that?
I walked along the line.  Their eyes followed me. 
I should’ve waited. 
I should’ve thought it through. 
I should’ve toughed it out.
But Tom’s not supposed to do any of that, so I broke and ran and picked a kid at random and said “you’re Mark.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Cut it out, Mark.  C’mon.”
The girl next to him stepped forwards.  She was blank.  Not Sherry-stern, not Padma-mellow, not kid-mulish, just calm and flat and smooth as a bay with an undercurrent that’d rip your legs out to sea.  “He isn’t.”
“Yeah he is.  Look at him.”
She cocked her head to the side, as if she was listening to birds squabble.
Then all of them took a step forwards.
And another.
“No we aren’t,” she said.  They all said it.  Very disturbing. 

So I ran for it.  For real this time, not just in my head.  And they all ran after me. 
Funny.  I’d never actually run the cliff run before, yet here I was, matching it, without even a moment’s thought.  Turns out it’s all instinct. 
I may have been yelling something, because the other three had come over to the hilltop to look.  Wow, it must’ve looked bad.  Abe was too open-mouthed to scowl, and that was a pretty pale look on Padma.  Was Sherry yelling something?  My ears were too clogged with wind and adrenaline to tell, but she’d just run off so she must’ve been upset. 
Woop, over the hilltop.  Everyone else was running too, but I was the fastest of all, ahead of even Abe’s gangly legs.  I looked back and oh, he’d stopped at a tent to pull a metal stick out of his tent.  Big one too, with lots of knobby bits, and a funny handle.  But a rock hit his forehead, and hey, down he went, flailing like an upended spider being swarmed by ants. 
Padma screamed something, so that must’ve been her too.  And who knew where Sherry had gone to, because by the time I turned my head forwards to look for her I’d gone off the cliff. 

Now, Abe and Mark were always the enthusiasts, you might say.  The rest of us implemented their ideas about heel curvature and the proper stance of the arms for maximum glide as best as we could, but I’m not sure we ever really put our hearts into it the way they did, not as a science.  For us it was “give it a shot and maybe it’ll work this time.”  Seemed a bit silly in retrospect. 
What I’m saying is that I’d forgotten all the instructions on gliding.  So I pretty much dropped straight down, arms flailing a little above head, feet above.  Not an inch of altitude gain or distance made. 
But down below were those rocks, and up above me was sky, and then SPLASH I went into the water, ice cold, and without a single broken – well, wait, my foot hurt a lot – without a single major broken bone. 
Hmm, never mind, felt like half of my right foot and all its toes.  Ow. 
Why wasn’t I sinking farther?  Here I was, caught right under the surface, drowning very slowly.
I twisted myself around and took a look: Oh.  I was looking right into the submerged, very alarmed face of Mark, with his wings bobbing on the water’s surface just above.  A foot to the side, and I’d have landed headfirst on them. 
It was strange to see him – Mark wasn’t supposed to be dead.  Now he was dead and there was…no Mark.  A strange world, one with no Mark in it.  Holy shit, what if the kids didn’t pick an Abe, Padma, and Sherry?  Hell, they’d need a Tom too, because I wasn’t coming back up those cliffs.  But you can’t have two Toms, so that would be…
I realized that while my brain dithered, my body had taken matters into its own hands and hauled me on top of the little platform made out of Mark’s gliding wings.  A rock plunked into the water near me, then another.  Splish, splash.  Probably best to get moving before the kids got much more accurate. 
I ripped loose a piece of wing and began to paddle sloppily.  The whole thing was remarkably stable, thanks to its Mark ballast.  I wondered if he’d planned on this – well, maybe without the bit where he got stuck under it and drowned – and decided he probably had.  He’d been smart.  Hell, he’d been smarter than our… last Mark.  The other one that we’d called Mark.  That Mark had spent most of his time bickering with Abe and trying to talk Sherry into things that made her hit him.  Never really had thought about it before, as to how we changed.  I wondered what the kids thought about it. 
It was amazing how much easier all this thinking made the paddling.  I resisted the urge to check over my shoulder: it’d just make the distance stretch longer. 
One of the kids was yelling something down at me, but I couldn’t hear it. 
I guessed it was time to see what we’d been diving to.  Maybe it’d be nice.


“Cliff Diving,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

Storytime: Bed Rest.

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Huh, it said.  There was something I was forgetting. 
That was it for a while. 
Oh wait, it said.  Was it…no, I don’t think so.  Can’t have been that. 
Time passed.  Trickles of thought percolated through the accumulated mental debris of millennia. 
Aha! it proclaimed in triumph.  I’ve got it!  Or I don’t.  Yes, that’s it!  I was forgetting that I was forgetting things.  I should do something about that.  Maybe ask someone.
There was another, much longer pause, and then it remembered again.  Oh right, it said.  Better get on that.  River! it proclaimed.  Go out there and find me one of those people that fiddle with layers of rocks and ground and dirt and water.  Someone who knows all about it.  A beaver or a badger or bullhead, one of those things. 
“You mean a human,” said the river, lazily. 
I know what I meant, exactly.  Didn’t I?  Go find one of them.
“Allright,” said the river.  It sloshed away down its channel as indolently as only it could manage, and proceeded to gently meander its way for a hundred miles down sixty miles of land before losing interest. 
“So dreary!” it yawned.  “Oh, the city is near, I’m sure, but I’m FAR too tired to make it all the way there.  Stream, be a spry thing and take this message there, will you?  Quickly now, before the master loses its extensive patience.  So dull this all is!”
Yes…” whispered the stream.  It slipped the message loose from the sluggish bulk of the river’s currents and was away down its own murmuring path, quiet and quick, darting through trees and into concrete boundaries and under the shade of a big pond in a park. 
Here…” it breathed into the idle ear of a babbling brook.  “Take it…” and it was away. 
“A message?  Most munificent!  Oh rapturous rush I shall flee fiercely and find the fellow!” it gibbered happily to itself.  Away it dashed, over rock and through the air, spraying and giggling to itself until it darted to near the very feet of a park-bench and its driplets spattered the trousers of a man with very hairy eyebrows.  He was reading something rather dull and not quite as important as he would’ve liked. 
“Halt now and harken hirsute hooligan there is news nurturing neatly ‘nside my nethers!  Afriend from afar!”
The man raised his hairy eyebrows and put aside his papers.  “Oh yes then?  What is it?  Who is it from?”
“My master oh my master’s master’s master musn’t mix them madly no!  It is the lovable larger than life lake itself laughably!” said the brook, drooling in sublime delight. 
“A lake?  Now that’s a new one,” said the man.  “Why does it want me?”
“You are a GEOLOGIST gratefully grasped in great grace,” crooned the brook.  “It desires rocks and ripples and earth and eddies all knowledge kneaded in one fine form!  Now come on come on!” it called, and it pointed up its stream.  “To the stream to the river to the lake lake lake go go go!”
The geologist threw his papers down beside the garbage can and got up, took out his car keys, and was off and away.  He drove up the highways and down the byways and through the dales and over the hills and at last he came to the lazy river’s roots and found the lake itself, snugged in bed. 
He introduced himself, of course. 
What are you again? it asked. 
He explained it a bit farther. 
Oh.  So, do you remember why I wanted you?
“They said,” the geologist patiently stated for the fifth time in five minutes, “that you wanted my help with your memory problems.”
I see.  What kind of problems?  I seem to have forgotten them….

That is a problem indeed.  I must have wanted you to go take a look at them.
“This sounds more like a psychologist’s job,” said the geologist. 
Well, it said, if it’s a memory problem, I need you for it.
I keep it under my bed.  And in my bed. 
“Hmm,” said the geologist.  He looked a bit thoughtful.  “I’ll need a scuba tank.  And a lot of men.  Maybe more than a lot.  Some grants.  A few years.  And of course, plenty of equipment.”
I can let you in just fine, it said.  Just hold your breath for ten seconds, stick your head in me, and inhale hard.  Do that, and I can remember to keep you safe.
“That sounds like it would be very unpleasant.”
Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it.  After that, just swim down and start looking.  I’ll take care of the rest.
The geologist shrugged, stuck his head in the water, counted to ten, and inhaled.  It wasn’t pleasant, but it also was surprisingly mellow after the first dozen coughs, reminding him of nothing so much as trying to breathe in an exceptionally thick and delicious fog.  He slipped into the water like it wasn’t even there and paddled his way down to the lakebed.  A small family of ducks witnessed this and gave a perfectly-synchronized double-take. 
First, of course, there was the silt.  Lots and lots of silt.  The geologist stuck a hand in it cautiously and watched as it sank in without so much as a ripple, giving a bass that was watching him the shock of its life.  He wished for his rod and reel as it swam away, then shook it off and dove headfirst into the lakebed. 
Past all the organic scum and wisps of little lakebed life, he found things. 
Lots and lots of rock, for the most part.  There were strange holes knocked out of it, bits missing here and there. 
“Here’s your problem, I’d guess” he said. 
Have you found it already? it asked, surprised.  What caused it?
“Well, let me see,” said the geologist, and he took a close, close look.  “Looks chiseled – like with a pick.”  He ran his hands over the stones and gazed calculatingly into the empty, innocent little face of a long-lost seashell.  “Lots of little fossils here, strange shells.”  He frowned.  “I’m no paleontologist, but some of these look REALLY strange.  I don’t recognize any of them.  Burgess-levels of weirdness here, and –”
Hang on.  What kind of markings did you say there were?
“Looks like someone’s been chipping around down here, carving holes.” 
WHAT! it bellowed in outrage.  The lakebed shook around the geologist, frightening him, and in a single moment’s panic he yanked out his little pick and chip-chopped a single one of the shells from its matrix, tearing it free and leaving another open cut. 
The turbulence subsided, so suddenly that it almost frightened the geologist more.  “Hello?” he asked. 
Yes?  I apologize, I seem to have lost my train of thought.  Have you found anything?
The geologist looked at the shell, which he still didn’t recognize.  He was probably the first human to ever see it.  He thought about names.  He thought about journals.  He thought about how insufferable some of his classmates had become, how they talked down to him. 
“No,” said the geologist as he looked at the shell.  “Nothing important.”  Out of curiosity and childhood memories of the sea, he put it to his ear. 
“That wasn’t a good idea,” it said in a tinny voice.  He scowled and stuffed it in his pack. 
Damnation, it said.  Onwards!  Whatever it is should be somewhere.  In there.  I think.
The geologist shrugged and burrowed deeper, worming his way through the layers and layers and past the sediment (that had been old, old sediment – how elderly the first lake had been, and how rare for a second to land right on top of it) and into deeper stone with a final glance at the mammoth, immovable remains of something that had been too impossibly huge to live in those old days, and soon hadn’t.  Down he went, shifting through fractures, and he found a strange thing, trapped underneath all the shale above his head.  Immersed in the cracks, following the chisel-trail, swimming through darkness, he found a great floating microsea of something lighter and fouler than water.  Its name was sweeter than honey on his tongue, and by far richer. 
“Oil!” he said aloud, and wished he hadn’t.
“Oil’s well,” the man corrected. 
What are you talking about?
“Oil’s well, guv’nor,” said the man.  “Oil’ll have yer noggin back right as rain, as soon as kip’s a winkin’ fer the hangman’s noose.  Cheerio.”
I don’t think you had an accent before, it said, slowly and unsurely. 
The man smashed some rock aside and jammed his flask into the damply puddling liquid, corking a jar full of crude.  It seemed to smirk at him as it swam against the confines of its new habitat, with such smugness that he could feel its heat through the metal stopper.  Wealth warms without a furnace, in its own way.  God, such wealth.  The geologist felt the currents in that deep sea, and knew that it was huge.  So much energy, hiding just out of sight, and he held the keys.  That would show them, the whole class.  Theresa with her ethics and Thomas with his salary and Ryan with his papers.  All of them! 
I must have lost track of something.  Have you found anything?
“No, no,” said the man, stowing his flask.  “You’re fine, you’re fine.  This may all just be a figment of your imagination.”
Oh, I hope so.  I think. 
Deeper still ran the man, following the chiseled gaps in the rock, holding his head hunched and his eyes wide now, shifting to look at everything, hunting for treasures.  A glittering vein caught his eye, and another, and another.  Gold, gold, gold, they sang cheerily, proudly under the no-sky.  All that glitters is gold, and nothing glitters down here. 
He scrabbled at the stone with hands, teeth, and pick, tearing loose great chunks of the stuff and letting loose gouts of stone, chuckling deep.  Prestige, fame, fortune all in one, and as instinctively as breathing.  Shiny.  Look here monkey out of place, here is what you desire!
Something hurts! it said.  Ow, ow, ow.  What was that?  What’s going on?  What?
“It’s fine,” said the treasure hunter, grinning like a goblin.  “Don’t worry.  I’m almost through, you’re sure, you’re sound.”  His head was awhirl with capital and plans, of how to make machines reach so deep.  There’d have to be drainage for sure, dams and such.  He could afford it now. 
Good, it said.  What’s fine again?  Please tell me, what is fine again?
“Shush, shush, shush,” said the hunter.  “There there.  Shush shush.”  The chisel-marks were closer now, more frantic.  There was something deeper, something farther, and a little voice in the back of his head was politely asking him who’d left the chisel-marks but he didn’t care anymore because the answer was in front of him, in a deep, deep pipe, inside a geode the size of a house, surrounded by a nest of diamonds. 
They didn’t gleam, they glimmered.  They simmered rather than shone.  And in their midst, entangled and mushed, was a half-crushed pack so much like his own, stuffed with riches beyond bounty.  A great claw, stone-bone, unknown; a great silvered stainless steel bottle sloshing with purest crude (the smell, he could smell it through the bottle’s lining it was so true!); and gold and crushed carbon, hardest and softest, mingled in an embarrassment of wealth so great that it nearly burst the bag’s seams.  And all of it was sitting next to a gem that made it blanch, a great uncut diamond that massed about the same as his torso.  It was sitting in a mass of old broken things that he didn’t really care to look at. 
The hunter reached out, and touched someone’s hand.  Well, it had been a hand.  It was carrying a small, diamond-tipped pick.  He didn’t really notice, or care. The bones crackled grumpily as he ripped the pick free from them. 
Something hurts, a lot.  I remember this – ow ow ow ow ow ow – but not what makes it.  What’s going on?  I can’t remember.  Who are you again?  Am I doing something?
“Quiet!” laughed the treasure hunter. 
Out came the picks, one in each hand. 
Down came the picks together, one in each hand. 
Crunch, protested the matrix of the diamond. 
Silence, went its mind. 
And scrunch (that wasn’t the noise, but it was the closest thing imaginable) went the treasure hunter. 

There was a pause of some length where no thoughts happened. 

Huh, it said.  There was something I was forgetting. 
That was it for a while. 
Oh wait, it said.  Was it…no, I don’t think so.  Can’t have been that. 
Time passed.  Trickles of thought percolated through the accumulated mental debris of millennia. 
Aha! it proclaimed in triumph.  I’ve got it!  Or I don’t.  Yes, that’s it!  I was forgetting that I was forgetting things.  I should do something about that.  Maybe ask someone. 


“Bed Rest,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor. 

Storytime: The Worst Potato.

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Once upon a time, some time ago, there was a witch.  And she was burnt.  It may have seemed cruel at the time, but such is the way life turns.  Aspen sprouts thrive after forest fires, male spiders commit suicide on the fangs of their mates for a chance of reproduction, and witches get burnt and leave horrible curses on their burners.
“Come along now,” said the big burly man with the torch who was entirely unsympathetic and making a poor go of disguising it, “come along.”
The witch glowered at him as the two (smaller, less burly) men at her sides dragged her to the sloppy pile of kindling and logs.  She was gnarled, haggish, had poor eyesight that led to a habit of peering at things queerly, and kept to herself, and thus her fate had been sealed.  Of course, such traits were common amongst little old ladies, but this was a long time ago: anyone who’d managed to live that long was probably up to something.  A good enough excuse.
“Flames cleanse all, so on and so on and so on,” said Jack the torchman.  He waved it aimlessly.  “Now, who wants to light this?”
“You do it,” said the smaller of the smaller men.  “You’re holding the damned thing you daftie.
The torchman looked defensive.  “You know how I get around fire, William.  It makes me come down all sweaty all over.”
“I mean more than usual.  Look, just light the torch, yeh?  Don’t be such a pisser.”
“More than usual?  Only time you get sweaty is near fire.  Hah, and maybe if a pretty girl asks you a favour.  Only time you’ll get any work done, lord knows.”
“You’re no better!  Useless wastrel.”
“Sod off.”
“I’ll do it,” said the remaining man, whose name was Marvin Copperby.  He said that a lot when he was out on a job with William and Jack – and it was the reason they were burning the witch in his particular field.  He was vaguely aware that he should probably let them know that he didn’t appreciate doing it very much, but he was unable to say so because of that sad social affliction, borne only by a pitiable handful, known as politeness.
“Fine then,” said Jack.  “Mind the end.  It’s all hot.”
Copperby sighed a little, committed extremely well-mannered and discrete murder inside his skull for the twentieth or so time that day, and lit the pyre.
The witch glared at him as the smoke began to rise.
“Sorry,” he said.  That was the sort of thing Copperby did.
“Don’t you say that.  I’m cursing you,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said again, haplessly.  That was exactly the sort of thing that Copperby did.
“Take that empty word back.  Right now, this second, or I’ll curse you, and your children, and your children’s children, all the way up through the years until you make that pointless little word mean something and these two stop being such lazy bastards – look at the state of this pyre, I’m ashamed to be burnt at it!  I’ll do it right now, so’s I will.”  Her dress was starting to flicker merrily around the edges.
“Sorry,” said Copperby, impatiently.
The witch snarled something indecipherable, squinted extra-hard at him, made a sound like a foghorn sneezing, and went up in a brick-thick plume of smoke that ate itself and the entire stack of firewood up in no more than five seconds.
“Well, that was a strange one,” said Jack.  “What was she saying there, eh Copper?”
Coppyerby was staring wide-eyed at the scorched patch on the ground by his left boot.  Whatever it was, it had missed him by centimetres.
“Nothing important,” he said.
“Well, that’s just fine,” said Jack, who hadn’t really been listening anyways.  “Justice has been served, evil has been vanquished, now let’s go fetch some supper.  I’m famished.”
They left, after a brief argument between Will and Jack over whose place they were eating at (Copperby’s, it was decided), and that was pretty much that for them.  They went their ways, tilled their fields, raised their children, and had happy, fulfilling, long lives into their early forties.   To his very dying day, Copperby was very careful to never sow any seeds near that peculiar scorch mark in his field.  It gave him the willies.

Copperby’s dying day was when it all fell to pieces.  His son took the land, and, having never bothered much to listen to the old man when he was alive (as had most people), took it into his head that perhaps the fields should be filled with potatoes.
“As far as the eyes can see,” he told his wife, staring raptly over their property.  “From acre to acre, nothing but potatoes.  It’ll pay off, you’ll see.”
“That’s nice, dear,” she said and allowed herself a brief fancy involving much use of the big kitchen knife.  She had always had a certain rapport with her father-in-law.  They both knew what it was like.
The seeds were cast, the sprouts were grown, and up they were dug that very fall, one fat, surprised tuber after another to be thrown into sacks and hauled away.  All but one.
“What’s this?” said the farmhand who plucked it up.
“What’s that?” called out Copperby Junior, who had a keen eye when it came to seeing a pause in work.
“Well, damned if I can tell,” he decided, giving it a disgusted look.  “That’s the worst potato I’ve laid eyes on.”  It was indeed; its colour was a sickly green, despite its being stowed well out of the way of sunlight, its innards bloated and shrunken at the same time, its eyes looked like eyes and its skin was as deeply and viciously furrowed as a worrywart’s brow.  “Toss it.”
The farmhand tossed it, and it flew freely and far across the field, where it rolled a surprising distance before coming to a halt at the roadside.
Some days later, the farmhand died after a short and startling illness during which little half-sprouted buds popped up all over his skin, killing him through what was at first thought to be surprise but was later revealed to be the large root system wedged in much of his chest cavity.  Copperby Junior was forced to move the last of the sacked crop himself, and grumbled all the while as he loaded up the wagons.  Something half-sprouted in the ditch caught his eye as he set the horses to walking.
“Oh,” remarked he, as a quick bend-and-a-lean brought him within eyesight of the object, “that’s the worst potato.”  And then the wagon wheel bumped unexpectedly on a stone that had been uplifted by the plant’s roots, and he went head over heels right on his neck.
His wife took the news with a shrug and an inward smirk, and moved away back to her family with the two children, where all three of them lived somewhat more happily than before.

The years went by, the children had children, grew old, died.  And so did their children, as they are wont to do.  Much later on in life, one of those children was working on the road (dirt, for shame, and cobbling was needed – if only the damned stones weren’t so heavy) and he spotted a strand of weedy-looking plant in the ditch, which he heaved free with some difficulty.
“God preserve me,” he said, staring at the thing, “that’s the worst potato I’ve ever seen.”
He took it home and fed it to his pigs, which choked and died, sold his pigs to a butcher earlier than he’d hoped, who choked and died on what appeared to be a mouthful of soft dirt for no visible reason, then went home with some of the bacon and choked and died on it.  His home and lot were purchased and flattened out, and a big warehouse was built on the spot.  Thousands and thousands of pounds of goods were stored in there, and down in the cool dark of the cellar was where they put all the potatoes
“Hey, what’s this, Wilbur?” said a stockman to his coworker, shifting an unsightly lump from beneath a sack.
“The worst potato I’ve ever seen,” said Wilbur with a calculated glance.  “Chuck it in a corner and let’s go.”
“Free’s free,” said the stockman, whose name, for the disinterested, was James.  He plucked it from the ground, turned about carelessly, and was buried instantly by a landslide of potatoes that just barely scraped the tips of his coworker’s toes as they tore off the front of his boots.
“Huh,” said Wilbur.  He scratched his head, took off his hat, muttered something vaguely solemn and hopeful, stuffed the hat in his pocket, collected his pay, and legged it all the way back home, where he swore off root vegetables in general, just to be safe.
He awoke the next morning somewhat relaxed, but worried.  He should go tell old whats-his-name’s family, he should.  It was only proper.  Besides, his wife – sorry, widow – was a fine eyeful and someone had to help her through the grieving.  That decided, he put on his head and was knocked senseless by the potato that had been quietly lodged within its brim until that very moment.  While lying unconscious on the floor he was set upon by unusually large amounts of rats and devoured quite rudely.

In the meantime, time moved.  Copperby’s family name had clung on by the skin of its teeth, right up until the day when Francis Copperby decided to open one of those newfangled fish-and-chips stands, the second in the country.  The idea, he was sure, was going to catch on.
“It’s stupid,” his friend John told him.
“Maybe,” said Francis.
“It’s barmy,” his other friend Wallace told him.
“Could be,” said Francis, perking up a bit.
“We want in on it,” they said.
“Oh” said Francis.
The whip-round came up to just-barely-enough, and so the wagon was raised, the oil vats found (crafted out of old kerosene drums, to save on price), the fish hauled in, the mysterious battered mixture that hinted suggestively of cardboard brewed, and the potatoes peeled.  Seeing as Francis had done all the rest of the work, he drew the line here by means of pointedly falling asleep.
“Lazy bastard,” griped Wallace, dragging the smallest bag to a comfortable spot and fiddling it open.
“Spendthrift skinflint,” agreed John.  “Won’t give out a shilling to a friend in need but spends all our money on worthless spuds.  No justice, friend.  No justice.”
“S’right.  Here’s a peeler, let’s get cracking before the slavedriver wakes.”
“God almighty,” said John, as he pulled out the Worst Potato and stared at it in fascinated horror.  “What do we do with this one?”
“Just slice it,” said Wallace.  “They can’t tell on the inside, can they?”
So they sliced it – gingerly, at arm’s length.  Out spilled…well, ropes, of a sort.  Long, snaky, roiling bunches of ropy potatoflesh.
“Reminds me of that dead rat back when we were sixish,” said Wallace.  “Now what do we do?”
“Mash it,” said John.  “You going to let your money go to waste?  It’ll sell proper if we just crisp it up a bit.  Just mash it and shape it.”
So they mashed it and shaped it.  The smell that arose was truly indescribable.
“Lord have mercy,” said John.  “We’ll crisp the thing to tatters trying to get the stink out.  We should just toss it.”
“It’s our money, remember?” said Wallace.  “Let’s fry it.  Besides, he paid for the oil.”
“Spot on,” said John.  They fiddled with the cart’s cooker, jostled its valves, rattled its trays, lit a match, lit another match, finally got ignition, dropped in the mutilated remnants of the Worst Potato, were startled by the sudden, sharp inquiry of Francis as to what the hell they were doing, and were all abruptly blown sky-high and deep-fried, possibly in that exact order.
So that was the end of the name of Copperby, because Francis’s sister Francine, the youngest child of dutifully unimaginative parents, was none too eager to keep it.  Too many people attached to it had become dead in alarming ways for her taste, and she was quite happy to be married under the banner of Gardener.  She was sensible, raised her children as such, and avoided fish and chips to her dying day for reasons she knew not why.

Her great-great-great-granddaughter, Mavis (the youngest and only child of dutiful if slightly too imaginative parents), had a hunch why.  Doing her family tree for a school project had seemed dull at first, but now it looked entirely too exciting for her comfort of mind.
“Mom?” she asked after lunch.  “How did grandpa die again?”
“Heart attack,” she said, absently.  She was scheduling five or six meetings in her head.  “He never ate healthy.  Too much greasy pub food.”
“Oh.  How did great-grandma die?”
“Broke her hip carrying a sack of produce.  Infection set in, I believe.”
“And great-great-grandpa?”
“Grandma told me that he was killed during a food riot.  Some farmer threw some root vegetable at his head, I think.”
“Mom, don’t you think it’s weird that out of the last twenty generations of our family, sixteen have died involving potatoes?”
“Don’t get such fancies into your head, it’s all just a big coincidence.  Now go out and tend to your garden; that should chase this bad mood right out of your head.  Uncle Jeremy and Uncle Wendell are coming over later, and you should be on your best behavior.”
Mavis plodded outside past the autumnally skeletonized aspens with doom hanging over her head like a stormcloud and glared at the little garden at the bottom of the back yard.  If only she’d started a few months later, she might have known not to include the potato plant.  It practically leered at her from its spot.
Mavis went back inside.  “Mom, can I borrow your gun?” she asked.
“No, dear.  But you can take out your super soaker.”
Mavis sighed and did as she was allowed.  But she filled it with weedkiller.  Mom had told her to tend to the garden.
She marched down to the plant, cocked, aimed, and hesitated.  Something didn’t feel right.  She could practically feel it in the air, a threat-that-wasn’t, just waiting for a chance.
Mavis went back inside.  “Mom?” she asked.  “Can I make a fort?”
“Of course, dear,” said mom distractedly.  She was typing three documents on two laptops and a PDA.  “There’s bricks and boards in the shed.  Just be sure to tidy it up when you’re done.  And be careful of nails.”
Mavis had spiked her finger rather badly on a rusty nail once and had to have a shot.  She had no intention of doing so twice.  The real problem was the weight.  She could take a brick in each hand, maybe three or four if she stacked them up her chest, but it made walking hard and tired her out, and who would’ve thought you needed so many bricks to make one fort?
“Hi-ho, budgie,” said a voice from behind as she was heaving on a length of plywood bigger than she was.  “What’s going on?”
“’m building a fort,” she grunted.
Her uncles stepped in and held the board for her.  Each of them had always reminded her of a plate of Jello – something about the movement of their bellies, and the way their scalps glistened under lamplight.
“What for, budgie?” asked Uncle Jeremy, the older one.  He had the bigger beard and a fake golden tooth made from fake-gold.
“Yes, whatever’s wrong?” said Uncle Wendell, younger by two minutes and louder in both voice and shirt.  “Lot of work, that.  Best come inside, have a snack before dinner.  Your dad’s cooking some steak, and your mom said there was a treat for you coming.”
Mavis examined the garden with a cautious eye as she caught her breath.  Something about it positively brooded, and the thought of turning her back on it made it itch.
“Nooo,” she said carefully.  “Can’t do that.”  A thought struck her.  “Can you help?  Please?  I reeeally want to get this done?”
Her uncles exchanged grownup-glances.  The ones they thought you couldn’t see.  “I don’t know, budgie,” said Uncle Jeremy.  “I mean, it’s been a long drive, and we’re a bit tired, and –”
“Plleeeeease?” begged Mavis, doing the thing with her eyes that made them tingle and get bigger.
“Wellll….” said Uncle Wendell, “I mean, he could spare a minute.”
“You could go for a moment.”
“Oh come on Jeremy, it’s just for a bit.”
“Well then why not you?”
“Why not YOU?”
Mavis counted to five, imagined very mean things, then bugged her eyes even larger.  Fawns could’ve drowned in her pupils, lambs would’ve given up and slunk home bleating.  “Pleeeeeeeeeeeaaasee?” she pleaded, voice sweeter than honey drowned in caramel.
“Well,” said Uncle Jeremy,
“All right then,” said Uncle Wendell
“I guess,” they agreed, and realized their mistake too late.
“Oh goody!” giggled Mavis.  “Yay!  Thanks!”  She even managed a skip as she headed back into the shed, just for safety’s sake.
Many hands did make light work, even if four of them were attached to arms more fat than flesh and two were tiny.  By sundown a little fortress stood above the vegetable garden, bristling with its grand total of one armament.
“Good enough?” said Uncle Jeremy.
“Seems so,” sad Uncle Wendell.
“Looks good,” Uncle Jeremy admitted.  “And hey,” he said with a touch of surprise “feels good to have worked up a sweat.”
“Not often THAT happens.”
“Oh yeah?  Well –”
“Mavis?” interjected mom from the doorstep.  “Bring in that potato, will you?  It should be ready by now, and you can have it baked with dinner.”
Mavis looked back and forth from house to garden.  She hefted her super soaker.  She felt the walls of her fort.
Well, now or never.
“In a minute!” she called back.  “Can you help me dig it up?” she asked her uncles.
They shrugged.
“Why not?” said Uncle Wendell.
“Came this far,” pointed out Uncle Jeremy.
“I’ll get it,” they agreed, and both made for the patch at the same time, neatly running each other over.
“How about I dig it up and you help me?” said Mavis.
“Good enough,” sad Uncle Wendell, struggling free from Uncle Jeremy’s armpit.
“Agreed,” said Uncle Jeremy, replacing his fake fake-gold tooth.
The spade felt heavy and cool in her grip, but warmed fast with sweat and slipped as easily as air.  But it did the job well enough, and eventually there it was, sitting at the bottom of its hole, glaring up at her with all its too-many-eyes, the Worst Potato.
It was a lot smaller than she’d thought it would be.
“Ugly thing,” said Uncle Jeremy.
“No uglier than you.”
“Hey, on me it’s character.”
Mavis leaned in and reached for the Worst Potato, super soaker clutched tight and careful.  It seemed to puff out a little, unless it was her imagination.  Strange things slid under the surface.  That looked all wrong.  It must hurt an awful lot – and then she wondered how long that particular potato had been around.  A year was a long time.  Three hundred must be a lot longer, even if you were a potato.  A lot, lot longer for the Worst Potato, twisted and gnarled and eating yourself up waiting for the next person you had to hurt.
“It must be sad, to be stuck like that for so long,” she said, “I feel sorry for you.”  And it did look like it was sad as well as angry; all scrunched up like that, in no proper shape for a potato.
The potato rumbled something almost like words but not quite, squinched, scrunched, made a great gargling sound like an elephant throwing up, uncurled itself, rolled around four times in a triangular blur, and poofed away soundlessly, smokelessly, without so much as a scorchmark.
“Well,” said Uncle Jeremy after they had stopped staring, “there’s something you don’t see every day.”
“Not much,” said Uncle Wendell.  “Can we go inside then?  My back hurts.”
“Your back always hurts.”
“It hurts more.”
“Mavis!  Have you gotten that potato yet?”
“Noooo,” said Mavis carefully.  She poked the ground where the potato had lain.  “I think I missed it.  It’s not here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” affirmed her uncles in unison.
Her mother’s sigh carried all the way down the backyard on the soft wings of an autumn breeze.  “Oh well.  You can bring in some carrots instead then.  We can have them with some dip.”
“Right then,” said Uncle Jeremy, “Now let’s go get some supper Wendell, I’m famis–”
The spade caught him square in the breadbasket as Mavis tossed it to him and headed inside.  “The biggest ones are on the west side!” she called back.
Jeremy and Wendell stood there on opposite sides of the garden, a spade on the ground between them.
“I’ll do it,” said Jeremy.
“Nah, I’ll do it,” said Wendell.
They shrugged, laughed a little (a bit helplessly, a bit in pride) and pitched in.

The carrots were delicious.


“The Worst Potato,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.