Archive for March, 2012

Storytime: Twenty-seven Important Things Aboard the Donovan Mitchell.

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

This boat – sorry, this ship – is the SS Donovan Mitchell. It’s not a bad ship, and it’s not badly captained, and it’s got some things on it you should know about, because they’re important.
This is the first important thing that is aboard the SS Donovan Mitchell: a ticket for passage, one-way, in a berth that’s nice enough to have no rats. Or at least rats that are discreet. It’s more dog-eared than a kennel club squared, and has been nervously folded over and into itself at least a dozen different ways, unbent hourly for another round of neurotic origami.
It is currently scudding its way across the deck of the Donovan Mitchell on the breath of a foul-tempered gale, having escaped from the musty space of the pocket of Jonathon Cranberry. He is the second important thing that is aboard; as scrawny as a kite stripped down to the string and with a frightened, wide-eyed look about him that has a touch of the gecko without that lizard’s broad-smiling charm and appeal. The ticket is beneath his notice as he scrabbles up the deck, swearing at the wind and the world, sweeping his lank hair from his eyes with a shake. Another foot, another four inches, and his hand is on the ladder up – up to the bridge! There’s something important there too, but we’ll get to that later. First, we must speak of who bought Jonathon Cranberry’s ticket.
That man is the third important thing aboard the Donovan Mitchell, and he is now cold and a little stiff where he lies in his bunk down below, in the second bed of the nice clean berth that is only home to one (most discreet!) rat. What a frightful muss surrounds him! His clothes are rumpled, his bedsheets scattered, his face still set in a snarl halfway between fear and defiant bravery. His name doesn’t matter anymore, though Jonathon Cranberry might beg to differ – but Jonathon is busy now. A trunk lies open beneath his bed, kicked on its side by hasty, heavy feet and left to hang at its own discretion.
This trunk is the fourth important thing aboard the Donovan Mitchell. It is old and formed from some probably-extinct tropical wood, browner than the king of all walnuts and heavier than an angel’s sin. Not one mark mars the wood from its recent excitement, and that it was breached at all was a fault of its lock, not itself; the rusty old thing, being but mere iron and steel, gave away at pressure that the trunk proper barely deigned to notice. To its credit, though, it did creak, and that was the rub that led to the shout that ended in blood and running.
The blood in question is leaking down the man’s chest and over the blade a big knife that, despite being iron, appears to have been hewn rather than forged. The jagged rusty bits got stuck on a rib, and it appears to have been trapped within its latest, lastest victim for the present. It is the fifth important thing aboard, though it barely makes the list, deriving, as it does, much of its status from the hands that held it recently.
Those hands are pulling their owner upright now from a pile of freshly-created debris one deck beneath the fluttering of Jonathon Cranberry’s ticket, trembling with leftover fright-and-flight but still tougher than mere bone and meat have any right to be, levering up all two hundred and sixty pounds of muscle without a hitch. Except for that one large splinter in the right palm, which prompted a moaning extraction. But they’ve seen and done much worse, those hands. Beatings, bludgeonings, batterings, bashings, and breaking of bones. Why, not ten minutes ago they drove that big knife – one of a couple of gifts from a friendly employer – right through a grey man’s chest, then snatched up that old carving from his traveling trunk before his heart had stopped its last beat.
The carving was the seventh important thing on the Donovan Mitchell that night – did we mention the hands were the sixth? – and it’s no more, just a fine layer of ash and something finer still, a glaze and a glimmer. If anger gone sour has a smell, it’s in those ashes, as glossy and bright as an oil slick. They’re wafting through the night air in that angry wind now, spilling out of the Donovan Mitchell’s smokestacks. Way down there below, way down in the hull’s guts, is that boiler they came out of.
That boiler is old, old, old. It was the first piece of this iron ship that saw the daylight outside of the smelter, and it’s been chugging along for years and more without so much as a stutter, turning coal and worse into fiery red light and force and motion. But now it’s choking on ashes, this eighth important thing, and it’s choking on the skin-and-bones of a tall thin person with altogether too many teeth and fingers like knives without handles. The doors for its fuel are slammed fast and nearly bent from the force of it.
That tall thin person, the ninth important thing, is far from stranger to the grey man with the knife inside of him, and no stranger to Jonathon Cranberry, even if Jonathon doesn’t know it. It was waiting for that carving down here, all ready to take home its prize and dispose of the evidence. Those two scarred hands were strong and wary, those big solid bones are tough, but there’s power wrapped up inside of some prizes that’s too old to care about strong, and tough burns the same as anything else. The tall thin person knew that, but the hands didn’t, and that was just how it was going to be. Clean, after the ashes went up the pipes. Quiet, once the first scream died. Calm, once the one heart in the room turned black and stopped.
But all of that went wrong, didn’t it? The tenth important thing aboard the Donovan Mitchell happened. Just one loosely stacked crate, rocking just a little too close to the wrong rivet in the floor, at just the right moment. Spang!, and down it goes, crash-thud right between those two pairs of reaching hands. Whoops!, and there flies the carving, twisting in that fiery red light as it comes to meet it.
Well, what happened to that tall thin person after that wasn’t very nice at all, almost as unkindly as it was. Such a shame that nobody knows what it was, seeing as those two strong hands up and ran away so sure scared, ran blind and blubbering and hurled themselves into an empty cabin and fell all over the furniture. But now they’ve chanced upon a prize, those hands. Look, the room’s not all empty – a bottle! Just one important (well, maybe eleventh) shot. Just to calm your nerves, that’s all, that’s fine, no harm. Liquid courage, that’s all you need, a little something to drown out whatever it was that happened down there in the dark. That’s it, back on your feet. Better get out of these tight quarters, you got all turned around. Better get moving.
The Donovan Mitchell is really moving now, and that is the twelfth important thing that happens aboard it tonight. The ship’s wheel is turning as it will, too and fro, slow and slow, and of course the one manning it is Captain Neb, who’s staring out past the windshield with his thousand-mile eyes that look like sad little raisins in a face that’s a sad little prune, darkened to midnight by a million sunburns but still too pale to be healthy. That little kick that hits the Donovan Mitchell just then, maybe it’s from a real big swell, maybe it’s from the engines chugging, maybe it’s the last of those all-wrong ashes clearing their way up from the beast’s iron belly, maybe it’s just an angel dancing on the head of the right cosmic pin, but whatever it is, it makes Captain Neb blink, and he shakes his head and that’s why he sees something out of his eye’s corner
(which is the thirteenth thing)
and hits the deck.
(which is the fourteenth thing)
The fifteenth thing is that Jonathon Cranberry is carrying the worn-out bone talisman in his right hand. The sixteenth is that he’s left-handed. Both of these come into play when that twelfth-lurch hits and nearly sends him over the rail of the staircase and into the big black blue out there. As it is, he drops his treasure, his hope, and his odds of success, and that little trinket, carved by an old shaman in Siberia to while away her eldest years, it goes out there instead of he. Jonathon Cranberry is just young and senseless enough to curse at that, he is. Spilled milk isn’t worth that, Johnny. But because he’s young and senseless, that setback doesn’t hold him down, and he lurches his way up and onto the bridge just in time to be really too late.

This isn’t the seventeenth important thing that happened aboard the Donovan Mitchell. It happened a long ways away, and a long time ago, and it wasn’t a very new story, even in those days. Someone did something with someone else that somebody didn’t appreciate very much at all, and they expressed that displeasure. And when that didn’t work, well, they expressed it differently. Artistically. Good, healthy way to get rid of your aggression and jealousy and all those other emotions you’re telling yourself aren’t in you, as you hack away at that old wood and pour every little bit into each stroke of your little stone knife. Well, maybe healthy’s the wrong word.
Let’s try potent.
And maybe ‘get rid of’ isn’t how to put it.
How’s ‘re-locate’ sound?

And that’s why the seventeenth important thing on board the Donovan Mitchell is what meets the eyes of Jonathon Cranberry as he struggles that slippery latch open and staggers into that room. No proper descriptions for its look exist, because it wasn’t the sort of thing you see with eyes. You see it with your head, and what the head of Jonathon Cranberry saw there that night, well, it wasn’t pretty. Old rotten anger and seeped-in bitterness, all curdled and malformed, stunted from being squashed up inside all those knots and gnarled bits for ages on ages. It’s so big it’s amazing it fit all up inside that carving in the first place – so big it sprawls out over half the bridge and through the ship’s wheel and squishes up against the windows – and that amazement nearly got Jonathon Cranberry’s head taken off, because it hated everything – including him – too much to stand and stare like he did.
The eighteenth important thing that happened aboard saves Jonathon Cranberry’s head, and that’s Captain Neb’s wrinkled old hand reaching up from the floor and groping for the wheel and yanking it. Those little black eyes weren’t needed to see what the Captain did then, and that is that something is trying to take away his ship from him. And that is all that there is to know for Captain Neb, because first it had been his father, then his mother, then his wife, and at last his children. The nineteenth important thing that’s happening there on the Donovan Mitchell, is that the Donovan Mitchell is all that there is for its captain, and he’ll be damned afore he lets it be taken away from him, twice and thrice and twice again.
Now, there’s no shape to this thing that you can see with your eyes, but that doesn’t mean there’s no shape at all, and it certainly doesn’t mean there’s nothing that’s tangled up in that ship’s wheel. And it damned well doesn’t mean that doesn’t hurt it. And maybe it doesn’t have sounds either, that you can hear proper, with ears, but that scream it makes tugs on the heartstrings of the lovesick halfway to Boston and back. Up close it does a lot worse, and Jonathon Cranberry’s on the floor now, holding his ears and yelling, one hand half-into a pocket that just might hold some sort of help. Captain Neb’s fighting hard, harder than anything on his knees, but he can’t get up. Which is why the twentieth thing happens, as the eleventh thing barges in the door sealed inside an iron gullet inside a body attached to two big hands. And my almighty is it courageous now, and aching for a fight, and what does it see but a big blurry mess. Well, what’s a body to do but punch the biggest and blurriest part of that mess as hard as it can?
Lightning strikes, thunder smacks across the bow as the Donovan Mitchell crests a wave, knocking the whole of the bridge around in a jumble, and what but number twenty-one could bring Jonathon Cranberry skidding around and lying right smack against the side of the thing in that cabin as it tears the two hands from its throat. Muscle is strong, but it’s only so much, and it isn’t so old. Doesn’t snap away easy, though. Oh lord, it doesn’t snap easy.
But number twenty-one isn’t that.
It’s the other half of the couple of gifts given by a friendly, thin employer, and it’s just as jagged and clumsy-carved as its sister-blade, and it just fell out of a bloody coat pocket and practically into Jonathon Cranberry’s lap.
Well now, what Jonathon Cranberry does with that is what anyone would. He panics, hesitates, then nearly cuts himself snatching it up in his right hand. Careful there, could put an eye out, but he won’t put that thing out, because it’s got him sized up now, squaring off, holding its ground. Fear of iron is a spiritual thing, it is, but this is older than iron, and what’s older is stronger than iron, stronger than strength itself. It’s even older than Captain Neb, hard as that seems. He’s hanging on tight to that wheel, and his arms are shaking even if his eyes won’t blink. Who’s steering this ship, well, it’s still a close race.
The twenty-second important thing is that Jonathon Cranberry is still left-handed, and so when he makes his move, breaks the stalest of mates, he swings wide and lurches and sends that old iron blade flinging out of his hand and misses everything in the whole damned bridge except for the window, which gets smashed all to shards under that big iron blade. Gone out the window without even a clatter, and good riddance to that thing made by the tall, thin person. Even if it could’ve stood to wait a few more minutes before it took its leave.
Now the twenty-third important thing happens, and that’s that this thing in the bridge, well, it laughs. That scream, it hurt, but the laugh, it makes you sick, right in the heart, right in the head, right where you feel it when you see the wheel of a car strike a kitten. Right there, all swollen and sad.
Thing is, it laughs so loud, it misses that next thunderbolt come down; flash, roar, and all. And it misses, but Captain Neb doesn’t, and in that light he sees the next wave, the twenty-fourth wave of the twenty-fourth hour of that night, coming down on them, and knows it’s time to turn or they’re sunk. And since we know that number nineteen is true, we know they can’t sink.
So Neb takes his hands from the wheel, and that thing wins its wrestling match. And this surprises it so damned much, well, it just about bowls it over – quite a stagger, especially leaning into a trough like the one the Donovan Mitchell just plunged into. Especially when here comes Jonathon Cranberry, young but foolhardy, clumsy but a good fullback. Shoulder-first.
That shoulder takes twenty-fifth, it takes its target, and it takes the thing in the bridge right out of the bridge, through the window, into the storm and the wind and the rain, all the way out onto the deck. All that wavy mass-that-isn’t isn’t so good in a north gale, is it now? But it grasps, and holds tight, and clings to the prow of the ship just as it comes through the trough, held up high to the sky on a metal pole like a bird perched a thousand miles from any tree.
The twenty-sixth comes white and searing hot, and as old as the first storms. And what’s left over is for the ocean’s mouth, and if that isn’t old, nothing is.

There’s quite a fuss come morning, and even more come arrival in port. But all of that isn’t what we’re here to talk about, and there’s just one more bit of that. The twenty-seventh important thing that happened aboard the Donovan Mitchell is that Jonathon Cranberry, apprentice occultist, amateur fullback, and orphan, lost a father, and that Captain Thomas Neb, ex-father, widower, and walking silence, was saved by a son. And there’s nothing that binds a tie so firmly as a tragedy.
Mind you, this all led to a lot more later on, and some of it was even important. But that was afterwards and elsewhere.

“Twenty-seven Important Things Aboard the Donovan Mitchell,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: Three.

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

At the start, there were three. As always.
The three watched, the three waited, the three judged and reigned and brooded over a single little planet of a single little star, left all alone and drifting in a corner of the biggest, blackest sky that was everything.
Let us call them the three sisters, even though they are not. It’s simpler that way.
The three sisters watched that little planet, watched as it cooled from molten fragments of dust and screaming heat. They watched the impacts, the bombardments, they waded through the magma and endless winds of its birth and let them blow away as the years of the planet’s birth dripped farther into the past. The three brothers saw the first moisture, the first condensation, vapour, rains, and then the terrible storming floods that led to the seas and the oceans. The cold that turned the whole earth ice, they saw that too. And when it thawed, they saw the little bits and pieces that had stewed in the oceans for a time were getting bigger, swarming, multiplying, moving. They were strange; so small, but so many, and so determined.
First sister deemed them life. Ephemeral and feeble, but moving in a way that mindless matter did not. And they were worthy of watching for this reason.
Second sister deemed them changeable, ever-warping, ever-altering, forever seeking something they could never find. And they were worthy of watching for this reason.
Third sister made nothing fact, but watched all the same. And third sister was final, and that was how it should be.
So the three sisters watched the planet turn and its life move and grow, and they watched as great masses of rock and iron slammed into it and blasted life an inch from the endless. Over and over. Each time it was almost through, each time it scraped back with boundless tenacity. Cell by cell, it came up and up, and it grew in all ways, mental and physical, in size and complexity, in number and diversity. It lurked in every pool and every den, it was guided by tiny minds enshrined in miniature thrones of flesh. All crude, but all working.
And then one morning, the three sisters looked down and saw that life had found a new way to make things. They watched as a hairy creature of the near-plains chipped a rock to fit its hand, then attached it to a stick.
Using matter to serve mind, so deliberately? How interesting. Could they do that? They could do that. Why not?

First sister is first. That is first sister’s nature. First sister reached down, down, down, through the times and the spaces and the formless world-that-might-be and touched the little fleshy form of one of the near-plains things as it stood in a dark place, watching the sun disappear. Touched lightly, and softly, and shaped it. Matter to serve mind.
It worked, and first sister was pleased. Piles of stones were heaped at first sister’s direction, through her flesh-puppetry, and more matter was dismantled atop them, joint by joint and limb by limb, heaped higher. The piles of stones grew finer as the years grew on, and carvings were added to them with the many odd names they gave to first sister. First sister didn’t know what a name was, and didn’t care for them, only for their matter. Bodies. Bodies upon bodies hurled into piles for first sister inspection, to be shaped and made servile, and first sister made life take on forms it never would have dreamed of otherwise in its dull plod. Things made terrible music under the moon as first sister listened, and the night was a dangerous place wherever the bonfire lights of the stone-piles shone.
First sister watched, and was pleased, but first sister’s watching was only so long. As the time of life changed, it turned against first sister, and first sister’s stone piles became battling-grounds of life against life, where spear met flesh and bones were shattered. Years dropped away and so did first sister’s names, from hundreds, to dozens, to one lost and ancient shrine. And then that too was forgotten, and first sister watched a world that knew first sister no more.

After first sister, second sister watched too, and knew that first sister’s time was over and hers was dawning, as that is how things are. The three sisters – no, they are three brothers, yes, that will serve them – rearranged themselves, and second brother looked down at the things that first brother had shaped, now alone and wandering (some may live yet, in the sorriest corners of the darkest pits), all the old piles of stone abandoned and destroyed or hidden away. But the plains-apes were still shaping matter, still making minds real. And in a village in a wide swath of sand, second brother saw one change all the minds of all around him, using no tool, mind to mind without matter. This was worthy of work.
So second brother reached up, up from beneath the dead weighted dust of infinite distance and empty ages, and touched a mind, stripped it bare of its fleshy sheath, and showed it everything, then put it back.
The first one died. The third died. But many many primes later, second brother had shown itself to the mind of life that did not die, and placed it down among matter once more.
It told others, and they told others, and they told others. And that is how the little things that called themselves humans came to build new places for second brother – carving tunnels like worms, meeting in dark places, shedding light in caverns where it was never meant to gleam so carelessly. Their thoughts they held out to second brother like candies to their children, and second brother gave them new for old. Some lived, some died, none cared. They played flutes for second brother in those days. Strange piping things that whined and droned and seemed to spin in and out of hearing in a way that had nothing to do with pitch and everything to do with depth. Prayers were made that had no words, only screams, and fungi burned in braziers that set minds alight with frenzy.
But as second brother watched, time saw the world of life grow ever more filled with the purpose and tools of the humans. They fought one another as fiercely as ever they had under the eye of first brother, and with hate and fire came ingenuity great enough to shrink oceans under the steel keels of strange things upon the sea that were not fish, and roaring monsters that had iron where bone should suffice. The world filled up, and as it filled the ideas and thoughts of second brother became packed in tightly, confined to few minds, then fewer, then fewer yet until they were no more than bad dreams and errant scribblings in the most hidden journals of over-imaginative and susceptible poets. And second brother held no minds, and left no trace of what had been upon the planet, or beneath it.

After second brother, third brother – no, third, just third – third’s time was then, as the others retracted themselves from the little planet. It was how things were meant to be. Third is last, and third is finality, built on all that comes first and second.
Third bore witness to the great rock-and-mortar mounds of blood and congealed flesh that had been the work of first, and thought upon their empty, silent stones.
Third bore witness to the eldritch, lurid caverns of ghastly light that had been dreamed of by the mad minds of second, and thought upon the silence where gibbering had flown freely.
Third bore witness to the world-that-was, and knew that there were too many bodies and too many weapons to bring blood and sacrifices to its humans. Third knew there too many minds and too many moving mouths to hide in the corners, to whisper of forgotten madness.
Third bore witness, and third saw that vanity and pride was as weak and vulnerable as fear and careless thoughts, and third did not reach but MOVED, as humans might, and spoke using a mouth, and whispered words of air and matter that put seeds of mind and motion in the head of one architect, then another, and many more.
Third spoke of air and heights, and lofty perches that would be the envy of any eagle. There would be mirrored walls and steel-framed skeletons and monuments to the ingenuity and power of the peoples that made them, who would make of their dwellings darts to pierce the very sky they would span. Lies all, but pretty, oh so pretty, and the men with blueprints and charts followed them by the dozens and the scores, fighting over one another to build the highest, the next highest, then to best all the records and start over. Cities sprouted like mushrooms – upwards, reaching, grasping, straining up into the air. Men and women squinted their eyes over blurred heights that their instincts, made for trotting on near-savannah, were hapless to judge, and scrabbled nervously at their desks in offices a thousand feet above the ground. Air was piped in and treated specially at those thin heights, and the walls of the tall buildings whispered faintly with the winds that fought to tear the lofty places down. A tiny, artificial haven for humans that grew more artificial themselves; hollowed and scurrying and more and more nervous without knowing why, feeling lost and emptier as each day drained. The armour that gave those castles in the air false courage was glass-all-polished until it was as bright as mirrors, and their mirrors were as brilliant and soulless as the sky that they delved into ever farther, until they finally scraped its heights.
And when they reach there, just now, just a little past now, they will find third waiting for them.

After third? There is no after.
Third is last, and third is final.

 

“Three,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: Problem: Solve for Frog.

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Albert was not a bad man; he was an accountant. Staid verging on stale, yes, but not a bad man, just a quiet one, a small one. A lot of people said he was dull, but none of them knew the first thing about accounting so he paid them no heed and got on with his life, which was mostly columns and rows. He loved them as some people loved trees: tenderly, but without overt sentiment, as he did his children, who subsisted on a series of good firm handshakes and level-headed compliments throughout their more difficult years in school.
And then one kindly Monday morning, everything changed – at least for Albert. He was walking to work one day, to a big sweeping skyscraper with a stuffy little room for him hiding somewhere in its esophagus, and a street was blocked off for construction. As it happens, there was a little park down the side path he hurried through, and there was a little pond in that little park, and Albert’s eyes did alight upon a rather smaller pair of eyes in that little pond.
They went “chugga-rumph” and vanished with a plink of water.
Albert stood there for five seconds, then went to work and made an inquiry of the security guard about eyes in pools and chugga-rumph.
“Frog,” said the guard. “The park’s been doing nice this year then. They like clean water. They can take in the sick real easy through their skin, y’know?”
Albert y’knew – at least, now he did. So he went upstairs to his office and locked the door and did all his work inside one hour, so that he had the rest of the day free for a sudden and somewhat bigger problem. And most of the evening, and a good bit of the night until the security guards came upstairs and kindly but firmly turfed him out onto the street with a bit of money for cab fare to skip the muggers. Albert slipped the money back under the front doors and went home by the long way again, stopping by the pond to peer with wary eyes for a glimpse of a hint of a theory.
The glimpse went “ribbit.”
Albert slapped his forehead, let fly with a volley of cursing that would’ve made a twelve-year-old blanch, and ran home in a mist of numbers and calculations and division thick enough to slice timber with. He dashed through his door, up the stairs, and sealed himself in the bathroom, where he covered both sides of each and every sheet of toilet paper with notes.
Albert took the next day off, then rethought that and made it the next week. This was easy as he had accidentally performed all of the week’s work the day previously, before he began work on his little problem.
His oldest child phoned him in the late afternoon.
“I thought you’d be at work. Are you sick?”
“Mmmm,” said Albert. “Busy.”
“More work?”
“No! No, not really. I’ve got to solve for it, that’s all. I’ve got to solve for it, and it won’t add up.”
“Well, if you’re not working, you should get some fresh air. You spend all week cooped up indoors, you should get a bit of a breather while you’ve got a chance.”
Albert smoothed down the frantically rumpled remnants of his hair and looked out the window. The sun was shining firmly, if a bit murkily.
“Yes!” he agreed, and he hung up.
Then he went to the zoo. For a bit of research and experimentation. It had been years and years since the family’s membership had expired, and it took him three tries to find the exhibit he was seeking, two of which ended up with him lost in the restroom near the orangutans.
He squinted carefully against the glass, read the placard thoroughly three times, cleared his throat, and cautiously enunciated “chugga-rumph?”
A pair of tiny glossy eyes peered back at him from a stretch of preserved bark and replied “cree-ree” with piercing disdain.
Albert said some strong words loudly enough to attract cruel looks from a nearby zookeeper, and began making furious notes on his arm. He moved from exhibit to exhibit. Cree-ree, ribbit, chugga-rumph, each dialect was tried and discarded in kind against case study until the gates closed and he was guided with firm not-quite-anger from the premises, shouting questions to the zookeepers all the way about nutrition and sleeping habits and the level of activity during the summer.
Cut off from that particular route of research ‘till past the next dawn, Albert grew restless and fierce with inactivity, prowling the extremely small and tidy halls of his home through the evening. His eyes alit at last upon his salvation: a tome of mathematics dense enough in volume to kill a horse, and filled with enough formulae to pop clean of skull the average brain.
He’d read it long ago in school, and discarded it soon afterwards. But if you’ve got to learn something new, best to start over at the bottom…

Dawn found Albert already wide awake, fortified at his breakfast table with a pot-full of coffee, hold the mug, and no fewer than six textbooks of mathematical and biological knowledge, with an eye to the amphibious. His eyes were jumpier than a fat summer fly, and skimmed from page to page with a peerless disregard for the boundaries of cover and spine. Entire paragraphs were ignored, chapters parsed with a glance. His fingers ached with neglect, but his mind was as limber as a preschoolers and a million times more trained.
“Yes!” he said at last, past nine o’clock, making dusty vocal chords shimmer and shake. “Of course! Exactly!” And then he jumped up from his desk with the force of joy only to be found in the freshly awakened, and nearly broke both his kneecaps due to stiff muscles.
Some hours later Albert made his way once more to the zoo, and a few scantling minutes more took him to the cages containing his test subjects.
“Ribbit,” he proclaimed with confidence empty of any trace of presumptuousness, firmness without arrogance.
A chin inflated at him lazily, then gave up halfway through for want of motivation. “Gluk.”
Albert walked home that day slumped with despair, his shoulders stooped under the burden of a much larger and crueller world than he had ever dreamed. Every other block his head would lift, buoyed up by a hopeful thought, then a shadow would cross his face and his chin would sink to his chest once more, tugged down by blackest reality in all its pendulous grotesqueness. His feet were his visible world now, one step two step look at the crosswalk, three step four step hear the stoplights talk, five step six step where’d that grass come from.
The grass had come from a little park, with a little pond, and Albert had almost walked into it. He raised his eyeballs to it, reddened with exhaustion and unshed tears, and met a very small pair of clear dark eyes that were resting quite comfortably on a rotten yet pleasant log.
Albert opened his mouth, to speak what he could not guess, but all that emerged from his raw and aching throat was a feeble croak.
The eyes blinked once. “Ribbit?” they replied.
Albert stood there, poleaxed.
“Ribbit?”

The rest of Albert’s trip home was unknown to all, including himself. What mattered was that he was back in minutes and scribbling calculations with a pen in each hand and one in his mouth, tongue protruding from the corner of his lips only to stab in anger at its inability to grasp a fourth pen. At one point in a burst of maniacal energy he attempted to write with his feet, and found to his astonishment that he could. This redoubled his efforts, and soon not a scrap of his office, then his bedroom, then bathroom, then his living room lay unmarked by scrawling ink. Tile, linoleum, boards, drywall, sofas – all was blank medium to be marked clear with math and mindpower. He had to invent over fifteen new symbols and double the size of the greek alphabet on his way, doing the math on the fingers and fingernails of his left hand. There was material in that for a book of essays large enough to crush a coffee table.
At last it was done, as much as done could be, all but for one thing.
Albert stood there, triumphant in the middle of the floor, stood at that final pair of parallel lines engraved at his feet before his favourite chair, and wrote one word.
Then he vanished.
Along with the house.

There was quite a ruckus when word got out that Albert Pendmuss had got missing. He had not been a volatile or extraordinary man, and the abruptness of his departure was a shock to his neighbours and workers. His children, at least, took it in stride. There was always something that had been cooking under Dad’s flat hair and quiet voice, and if it chose to express itself in his up and disappearing one day and leaving a pretty nice little pond where his house had been, well, so be it. And they made sure nobody thought of putting harm to that pond, though only the most soulless suit-wearer would’ve ever dreamt of it.
It was a nice little place, on a nice little lot, and the water was strangely kindly and clear, warm enough for little lily-pads to sprout up (look, if you turn them over, you can see little veiny squiggles that could almost be words: ‘zetta,’ ‘rana’) clean enough for frogs to pop up with little inky spots all over them, like pen blots.
And there was one big fellow right there in the center of it, fat and pleased as a king on his throne. And when we asked him if he’d solved for it, well, all he said was
“Chugga-rumph!”
and that’s a good enough answer for anyone.

 

“Problem: Solve for Frogs,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: A Short Walk.

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

They always tell you to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you judge them. You know, ‘they.’ The same ones that tell you your shirt looks nice and you shouldn’t swim after eating or you’ll cramp up and drown.
Well, a fifty-fifty track record is enough for me to give them the benefit of the doubt. And when that angry old woman yelled at me I figured hey, why not? I’ve got the morning free anyways, and it’s not like the car hit or nothing. How long could it take? It’s just one mile.
So I tracked her home, broke in, stole a pair of sandals, and now I’m taking a hike. Seemed a bit ethically dubious, but we’re following advice here. Not our legal responsibility.
Well the first few meters of this walk are dull as ditchwater. Sleepy, hungry, poopy, and screamy. Mostly screamy. Screamy, screamy, scream, if you liked screaming so much kid why didn’t your parents NAME you screamy? I figure maybe that’s what this whole deal is all about: everyone was a yelling dingbat from birth, and the sooner you realize it the more sense everything they do will make.
A few more steps and hey, cognition kicks in! Now we’re cooking with gas – and woah, are those legs I see wobbling around underneath me? Hot damn, walking’s fine as can be. Look at how fast you can go! Whoosh – from one side of the room to the other! Whoosh – up the stairs to bug mom! Whoosh – halfway down the stairs backwards!
Wait, ow, ow, ow.
So there’s a broken arm there tagging along. That lasted for a good pace right there, that did, and it just weighed me down like a lead brassiere. The world seemed sadder and greyer, people were meaner, and candy didn’t taste as sweet. Wait, it was hospital candy. Damnit, even the vending machines in those places can’t escape the taint.
The cast popped off and I sort of had to relearn walking, but it was way faster this time. And then came the toys. All those wonderful toys. I’d had a spoiled older brother and my parents weren’t about to go spending good money on new toys just so I wouldn’t be getting any sorts of unwomanly ideas as a week tyke; I got a whole pile of old tin soldiers. They were just sturdy enough to stand up straight after a good stomping and had just the right bit of give to quiver like shell-shocked soldiers after an artillery foot came swooshing through their frontline. Here we were, with world war II just over and I’m already reminding people of the key strategic importance of airborne bombing. Damn I had no style, bringing all that up while everybody’s doing their best to shrug it off and get back to their feet. Not that I have to care about any of that. It all was across the ocean, and the ocean’s really big, like, hugely. I think my guess was about the size of a highway, but water.
Oh wow, what a coincidence. Up next comes the first trip to the ocean. That was a bit of a shocker. Though not as much as the crab in the dress. You jackass Thomas, I barely dented your shitty ol’ tin soldiers and you’d outgrown them, grow the hell up. Yeah that’s right you take that punch, you take it right in the kisser. Kiss through that lip if you can, twitface. Nice shark tooth, and hey, free crafts project! Necklace time with mom as a make-up for the spanking. Yeah, that was a good time there, and a good run.
School. Oh damn, damn, damn and it was all going so well, too. Here’s your As, here’s your Bs, here’s your Cs. Excuse me miss I already know those well shut up and learn them again and you can sit in the corner you little idiot. Education is bliss. Except for math. Math wasn’t hard, and it was even fun. Despite the teacher’s best efforts. What a mouth on that man, not that you could see it under the beard. Christ, looks like a mangy badger bit his fourth chin and never let go.
Now we’re picking up the pace here! School just makes those days fly by, which is funny because every single one feels like it lasts forever. Like filling your pockets full of lead and then falling over, I guess. Hey, right around now I started getting interested in guys. So that’s what that feels like. Aww, I told Clarence how I felt and he told me I smelled gross. Cuuuuute. Oh wait, I feel terrible and I’m crying after I shoved him over and ran away. Do I get cookies for that, mom? Nooo I get told to be nicer. Thanks. Thanks a lot for showing you care NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME.
Score, next week I got cookies. Pure chocolate too, none of that chocolate chip crap. If I’m getting chocolate, I want all the chocolate. Don’t chip off what you can just chuck in.
I really got into my stride now, time just flapping by. No more toys, no more games, just run, run, run. Run through school, run through a part-time typist job, run as fast as you can until high school’s over and you’re still doing the same part-time job and your boyfriend just drove into a street lamp and got himself killed without a seat belt.
Ow. Now that hurts. Really tore me up inside, y’know? Hadn’t felt that bad in a few forevers. Lots of crying, lots of yelling. A few fights with mom. Time’s crawling now, but the days are still sailing by, year by year. More jobs, more fights. Booze started to show up just now too, and look who’s my new best friend! Wow, I went from Lucy Lily-Liver to Sally Chugsalot overnight – check out that vodka action! Stagger in awe as I down whole bottles of substances served in small glasses! Behold as I end up in the hospital after another few hundred yards of this and a near-fatal encounter with alcohol poisoning!
Hey, that doctor looked really nice. Aw well, you can’t mix business and flirty looks, hippopotomi oaths and all that. Besides, I can’t really ask him out for drinks.
Oh. Well, I guess I did. And hey, I just took water. And a ring. And a really nice dress mom had been saving in mothballs for a few decades. Aw jeez, did we really cry when we were hugging? No, no, that was just her. I just got my eyes all wrinkly from the mothballs and it squeezed out some moisture, that’s all.
Whatever.
Wow, that’s the smoothest stretch I’ve travelled yet. Nice and firm-packed, well worn as the stones in my sneakers, but still dreamy with misty memories. I can ever tell what colour the floorboards were: some incompetent idiot’s efforts at fixing up the varnish had left it a half-and-half piebald. The stained glass made up for it, except for that one window right over the altar where they made Jesus all cross-eyed and it was pretty funny because Mary looked so pleased about it in a quiet way. “Oh good, my son is healthy and the son of god and also god and also his eyeballs nearly meet. This is a good day.”
Yeowch those details flew away fast underfoot! The moment that altar goes into sight, it just tunnel visions away from all those flights of fancy and turns into a deadlocked sight aimed right at that man’s face. Hah, he flubbed the kiss – poor sucker forgot to shave and I nearly chewed the stubble off his lip. But it was so cute.
Now what’s that up ahead in the road, eh? I think it’s.
Well.
I’ll just.
Uh.
Avert my eyes a bit here.
Don’t want to be a rubbernecker or anything. Besides, I’m sure the next big thing’ll stick out (ha ha oh god don’t look) just fine AAAUGH MY GUT IS ENORMOUS. Jesus I can’t sleep on my freaking back OW OW OW my feet are sore ARRRRRRGH VOMITING.
The road here is a goddamned mess. It’s swerving up and down and all around and I think it just did a triple backflip and I can’t tell because I’m delirious with sleep deprivation from something kicking my stomach from the inside out GO TO SLEEP YOU LITTLE SHITHEAD IT’S FIVE IN THE MORNING.
Okay, okay. I can calm down now. Wow that last ways just dragggged. But we’re almost half a mile down now, and HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRNNNNNNNNNNGHHH.

Aww. She is just precious. I hope someone wrote down the name, because I am gonna pass out now.

Right, all’s well. I think I can get moving a bit faster from here on out, seeing as I’ve gained some valuable perspective on why someone would yell at me for no goddamned reason because Jesus fucked if that isn’t a good excuse. Now I can just pick up this particular pace and take it past that incessant screaming, screaming, screaming and get all the way into OH COME ON NOT TWICE? TWICE? Really. Really. I just went through all that last year and now I get to do it again? Well, at least it can’t be as bad the second ti

Nope.

And this is where the pacing goes all funny and it turns into one sprint at the speed of snail’s molasses dropped into quicksand. That first third of this mile I had to walk? It sprints by in a few steps and a bound for those two girls of mine. I’ve barely budged before they’re crawling, then walking, then talking back (skip just plain talking, it’s of no mind and no notice to anyone). And just like that, without moving much farther I’m old. How can’t you help but feel old when you look at something that young? They’d turn a mayfly of sixteen hours into a grizzled grandfather by comparison.
I’m so proud of them that I can’t help but yell at them day and night until they move their beautiful, clever, lazy asses out because they’re sure as hell not giving me any rest until they do.
Now I’ve got all the time in the world to rest, and I’m lonely, lonely, lonely. Then they come for a visit and afterwards it isn’t so bad. And well, it’s not like I’ve got no company. I’ve got him, right?
Oh. Something else got him too.
My these feet are just flying now over these souls of mine. I’d better keep running in case I have to look back.
Check it out! Grandkids! Well damnit if I can’t taste that arthritis as it crackles through joints and up into bones. Cute as buttons – can’t have gotten that from my son-in-laws. Aw bless their hearts, I taught ‘em a few bad words. Hah, that look on your momma’s face isn’t going to leave my memory that easy. Good as a photograph it is. Yessir this whole day’s been alright, time to go get a snack with the kids AW C’MON SON I ALMOST RAN US OVER FUCKIN’ HOOLIGAN DAMN RIGHT I’M GIVING ME THE FINGER I COULD’VE KILLED A LITTLE KID ASSHAT.

Well.

Well now. I’d better put these back; they’re a little sweaty but I bet she’d like to keep them. Lotta stories in your average set of feet, more than I’d have guessed. Strange mile to walk though. Clock says nothing and reads nothing, mind says about sixty years.
Wait a second, I forgot something. I walk, and then I, then I…
Yeah, then I judge, that’s it. But there’s no way I’m picking that lock twice, say nothing about walking that mile all over.
Aw well, law’s too much of a pain in the ass anyways.

 

“A Short Walk,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.