Archive for March, 2013

Storytime: Homeward.

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

In a place not so far away but a very long time ago, in a home by the sea, there lived three people: two old and tall, one young and small. A mother, a father, and a daughter. They got along, day by day, and perhaps sometimes they were even happy.
Then one day, a bad day, a hard day, the mother and the father stopped talking, stopped walking. They laid themselves down on the floors of their home and stared at the ceiling with wide frozen eyes that wouldn’t blink, wouldn’t budge, no matter how much the daughter prodded and pleaded and whined. And then came in men to take her up and take her away, far away. They brought her
through the forest
past the hills
across a river
and up the side of a windy, rocky road
to a big building that pretended to be a home when it wasn’t, all cold windows and colder floors. The walls watched you with eyes of all sizes, and you did what the men said or they put you in a box, in a hall, upstairs on the highest floor where the tip-tops of the old, dead trees could nearly reach you. They scraped and made horrible sounds on the walls, trying to reach inside with their brittle branches and twisty twigs to grab at young and small people who just wanted to sleep properly, to feel safe and sure for once.
The daughter spent a long time there, in that big building. There were other children too, but they never spoke, or the men would put you in a box, in a hall, upstairs on the highest floor. So they didn’t.
One day, a strange day, an unusual day, a letter came. It wasn’t one of the many letters of the building’s men – they spoke to businesses of business, of doctors to institutions. This was a letter from a parent to a child.
The men brought the daughter to their leader, who wore a whiter shirt than them all, and never a jacket. His thin little chin bobbed and clicked to itself as he read it aloud to her, asked her if she knew what it meant.
The daughter wasn’t sure what the right answer would be here, so she went with honesty, the easiest policy. “No.”
“Your parents have come back,” said the leader of the men. “They will come here, and bring you home.”
The daughter blinked, and remembered, and while she was remembering her mouth continued overmuch in its honesty, and it said “that’s wrong.” And so she was put in a box, in a hall, upstairs on the highest floor, and listened to the trees mutter and shudder all night. But they sounded different now – the dead, dying leaves had begun to come in on some of them, the only colour they grew all year. A new shuffling sound emerged from these: change, change. Things are going to change.

For a week, nothing changed. And then, as the daughter sat in the downstairs dining-room, she heard the sound of crackling, rumbling gravel on the windy, rocky road that the big building sat upon. She quit her seat – risking the inattention of the men on duty, who were speaking of things – and pressed her eye to the bars that ate up the windowpanes.
A car had come in. It was very shiny and very new, and quite red.
A hand tugged at the daughter’s ear; one of the men had noticed her inattention. She was towed from the room, down the hall, round the front, up to the base of the stairs, but before she could be taken up, up, up to the highest floor, other men spoke to the one who grasped her ear.
“To the lobby with her,” they said. “Her father is here.”

The daughter’s father was as tall as the tallest of the men – taller, she thought, than she’d remembered, though it had been so very long since she was home. His face was long and thin and faded, as though a pencil had sketched him out sparsely, saving the main-rub of its lead to fill in the great enveloping mass of his dirty-brown coat. She could not see his face all the way up where it lay, under his hat.
He spoke with the leader of the men in the quick, gruff, tiresomely neverending grumble of their ways. Then he pulled out an envelope, battered and pale, and stuffed it roughly into the leader of the men’s hand.
He turned to the daughter and said “come.”
So she did, and followed her father into the shadowed sunshine. For the first time in a long forever she saw the big building that wasn’t a home from the outside. It was smaller than she’d thought – even the highest floor was nearer to the ground, its dreadful trees smaller and stubbier than she’d ever believed. They were still and limp now; their night-winds absent, their branches silent; defeated and immobile.
The inside of the car was stuffy and musty. Her father would not open the window. So the daughter coughed, and her father turned to look at her as though she had said something. And that is why the daughter asked the first question to pop into her head, which was “what was in the envelope?”
The father’s mouth was most indistinguishable up there so high on his head, but even so the daughter saw it go through a disconcerting little jump into a nearly-smile before it went smooth again. “Dirt,” he replied. And then he started up the engine, grind-grind-crunch-cough, and the red car went rattling away down, down, down.

For maybe a little less than a minute, the daughter’s world was comfortable. Oily-smelling, bone-jarring, and too warm, but it was a place that she was happy to be in. And then she heard the groan and holler of other engines, other cars, the big steel-doored trucks that the men drove to and fro in to get supplies for food and wander to mysterious places.
“Are they going to catch us?” asked the daughter.
The father’s mouth did that complicated little jump again, like a skittish roach. “No,’ he said. He put his hand in his coat, and he pulled out a keyring, a big iron keyring. He plucked the smallest of the keys, and he twitched it about in his dirt-brown coat for a time. And he held up his hand to the window and pushed out a bag.
The bag burst open on the gravel behind them with a spray like fireworks, but it crawled like centipedes and flew like locusts. Little bugs – hundreds and hundreds of little bugs with little legs and little eyes. They swarmed and swooped and were covered with spines, and the daughter heard the paf!-paf!-paf! of car tires puncturing one after another as they wound their way down the bends of the windy, rocky road.
Something stirred at her foot, and she looked down. A single, half-squashed little bug lay against her shoe, wings trembling with exhaustion. It looked so small, and she felt so sorry for it. So she picked it up.
“Be careful,” it whispered in its little buggy voice.
The daughter didn’t know what to say to that. So she nodded, and tucked it into her coat where her father couldn’t see it.

The rattle and rumble of engines faded for a while, then grew louder – and another sound vied with them: the splash and swish and swirl of water. The river was approaching, and the little rickety old bridge of rust and hope that stood over it. It looked three times frailer to the daughter than it had when she’d been taken over it to the big building that was not a home, oh so long ago (how long ago?).
There was a screech and a honk behind them. The car of the men was drawing nearer.
“Are they going to catch us now?” asked the daughter. Underneath them the bridge creaked and groaned and coughed like a dying horse, all bones and tears.
The father did not smile this time, or if he did, it was not with his mouth. Instead he chuckled – a short, thick, sulphurous sound. “No,” he said. And as he said that, he wrenched the steering wheel of the car hard fast to the side and pulled it over so that it sat in the middle of the center of the bridge, breaks whimpering in pain with short gasps.
“Come here,” he told the daughter, and he took her up in his long, long bony arms and ran with huge slow steps, like a heron hunting frogs. The cars of the men hauled into view as the daughter looked over his shoulder, pulling up short and sharp at the shiny red car where it blocked them in. They cursed and waved their fists and were climbing over it as she and the father reached the other side of the bridge.
The father gave that chuckle again, and the daughter felt his chest bubble against her legs as he did so. He reached inside his coat and he pulled out a sack, a great bulging sack that surely seemed too large to fit inside that coat, big as it was. It glistened unhealthily in the midday sun. The father pulled loose that same iron keychain a second time, and he undid the old, old rusted lock that held it shut. The mouth of the bag unpinched, and then he spilt it far and wide across the bridge, splaying its contents to the air and noise of the world. Crabs – hundreds and hundreds of big sleek black crabs, with iron-shod shells and pinchers that put steel to shock and shame. They were resistant to boot and quick to anger, and before long the charge of the men across the bridge was nothing but a chorus of dismal hoots and angry yells in the ears of the daughter as the father carried her up, up, up and away as the road rose high into the hills.
There wasn’t much to look at, as she stared down at the dirt. Then something stared back.
A crab, barely yet fresh from its larvael forms, dangled precariously at the heels of her father’s coat-hood. It was a shiny freshly-minted black, like a more pleasant tarred road.
She reached down and plucked it free. Its claws held no bite, only a meek thankfulness. As she brought it up to her own coat pocket, it whispered as it passed her ear
“Don’t let him know.”
in a voice that smelt like sea-salt and soft things.
She nodded. And she didn’t let him know.

The hills were high and hard indeed, and her father’s steps lagged now out of necessity, though his breath did not shorten, did barely draw at all. He did not put down the daughter, though, and she made no request that he do so – even if his shoulder grew awful bony against her stomach. She counted bounders and rocks and pebbles as she hung up there, and wondered at how long it had been since she’d seen stone that had not been cracked down to gravel.
And then, as the sun wore the sky down into the idle blue of late afternoon, she heard once again the angry holler of the men, raised in song above the grunt and snort of an automobile’s engine.
The daughter thought to ask her father of the noise, but she felt him stir already.
And besides, she didn’t know if this was something she ought to let him know.
She could not see his face, so she didn’t know if he almost-smiled again. He didn’t laugh, though he did quiver. And he turned about in his stride as smoothly as a scarecrow, fingers splaying every which way as straw while he dug inside his coat.
“Ah,” he grunted, fetching out a mysterious squirming box. Its sides heaved and shuddered as he hefted it and worried at the lid with his long, long nails and the iron keys of his chain, even as the shouting of the men turned the corner of the trail below them. They had acquired the shiny red car that the daughter’s father had used, somehow, and they were riding it mighty hard, all those men packed into a car meant for four-and-a-half.
Her father shrugged, and her father tossed the box fast and low. It was harder than it looked, and smashed straight through the windshield and into the lap of the driver with a thwack and a thud and a yip-yipe-yap, for it was full of coyote. Then as the coyote struggled itself free and into the face of the man, it became apparent that the box was full of coyotes. How many the daughter couldn’t count, nor could she say how all those coyotes fit inside that box in her father’s coat, but it made an awful loud racket awfully louder than before. The car swerved and swung and smacked into a tree, spilling angry men and frightened coyotes everywhere.
Her father turned and moved along, not bothering to speak. And just behind him, bobbing along in his shadow, trailed a little coyote pup, barely big enough to walk without tripping.
“Stay calm,” it whispered, keeping a wary distance from those big boots.
The daughter listened, and she did as she was told.
And she scooped the pup off the ground when the hills grew steep, because she was kind.

Evening was in the air, with the sun painting the world all sorts of rare thing as it filtered through the branches of the trees in the forest. The air tasted like bark and dirt and growing good greenness, and just a hint of cinnamon fear. The daughter had bit her tongue by mistake too, but that was some time ago and she wasn’t sad about it anymore, and besides she couldn’t taste it.
“Mmmmm,” muttered her father, deep inside his dirt-brown coat. “Mmmm.”
She didn’t ask him what it was. She knew before she could feel it. The tramp-tramp-tramp of feet on the road behind them, a horde of bustling shoes on angry legs. The men had been lazy, but none of them had been fat. They were not as steady as her father, but fury gave them speed that steadiness could not match. For now.
This time it was a little can, a little sea-grey can that reminded her of the waves behind her home. Her father unscrewed the top left, then right, placed a key from the iron keychain in the top and twirled it, took it in his palm, shook it thrice, twice, once, held it firm, and whipped it straight into the dirt at his feet. Then he brushed his palms and walked onward as though nothing had happened.
The daughter watched what happened behind her. They passed a curve before the first man appeared, but she heard the shrieks and screams and knew what had caused them. She saw the coils in her head, winding and unwinding, endless loops of muscles that could wrench trees loose from dirt and grind down rocks to rubble.
A small worm crawled upon her father’s lapel. It was segmented and strong and moist and it smelt of the deep dark down where life is made into good things for more life. She bent her ear to it.
“Be ready,” it told her. Firm, sure.
She felt safe because of that, and not just because she tucked the worm into her coat.

Dark was there, real dark by the time they came to the daughter’s home. The air was clotted with night-taste, the sensation as cool and clean as a spade on a stone.
“Here we are,” breathed her father. The daughter looked, and looked, and looked.
There was a house in front of her. There was the sea behind it. And there were the stars above it.
It looked like home, but it didn’t feel like home at all. And not least because of the big sad bird above the door-light, head hooded, leg shackled to the light-stem.
“Home!” called her father, and his voice croaked unevenly as he raised it. “Home! I have brought our daughter home!”
A head poked out from behind the front door, the screen-net nearly fell loose from it. It was her mother, hair long and tangled with briny water, face drawn thin and with her teeth all showing. “Wonderful! Good! A good thing! Come in,” she creaked, “come in!”
“I don’t want to come in,” whispered the daughter, in spite of herself. She looked at the doorway, and she saw no lights, no fire in the building.
“Come in, come in!” said her mother, sliding through the door to hold it open, a mouth into the building wide and dank. “My daughter is home, here to join us! We missed you, daughter! Come! Join us! Come in!”
“You left me alone,” said the daughter, and her hand crept to her coat pocket.
“Only for a little while,” whispered her father. “Only for a little while.”
“We didn’t mean to go away,” said her mother, teeth still smiling in perfect white. “We had to leave unexpectedly. But we missed you so much where we were that we had to come back, and we had no small trouble with that, daughter! So many nasty creatures tried to stop us, horrid things.”
“Bugs,” said her father, and he made a face.
“Crabs,” muttered her mother, and she shook herself, sending the seaweed dripping from the bottom of her dress.
“Nasty,” said her father, and he spat. The spit wriggled.
“But we’re back now, daughter,” said her mother, “and we want to bring you home. Now won’t you please come in?”
“No,” said the daughter, but her father was already moving, long, thin legs as sure as a spider on its web.
“You really musn’t grumble so, daughter,” her mother admonished. “They have taught you bad manners at that nasty place. Now come in, and we’ll-“ Her mother frowned, and how she did that, lipless as she was, was a rare sight. “What’s that sound?”
It was footsteps again, and angry yelling. Down the path were shining fierce flashlights, bobbing with the frenzy of fireflies in midsummer heat.
“Them,” said her father, with distaste. One foot lay across the threshold of the home, one hand secured the daughter in her place on his shoulder. The other reached into his coat, searching for a thing.
“Ruffians,” said her mother, voice iced. “Turn the bird on them.”
“I shall,” he said, and he produced the keychain’s greatest denizen yet: a great iron key, burdened with rust and the age of years. It seemed to wriggle in his hand as he lifted it to the perch of the hooded bird, clenched in his fist with its jesses.
The girl’s pocket wriggled, and she felt four tiny heads lift themselves up and all at once shout as loud as their little lungs could “NOW!”
The daughter yanked out her pocketful of friends and thrust them into the air, as hard as she could, and things happened.
Her father screamed as the key stuck in the lock, with the bug in his eye, burrowing, needling. Snip-snap went the jesses in his flailing hand, turned loose with the claws of the crab. With a flail and a snarl the coyote-puppy caught the key in its teeth, tugging that last half-inch ‘till the lock snapped open and the keys fell loose in the wind. A yank of the worm’s tail (or maybe its head?) and the hood slipped loose.
The vulture is a sad, silly animal, and a slow one. Its head is bald, its demeanour is meek, it defends itself by throwing up its breakfast, and it eats that which no one else will. It lives a life on the warmest and slowest of winds, waiting for misfortune to occur so that it may have a meal.
This vulture was very old, and it bore that misfortune on every inch of its old, old bones. And right then, as it straightened out its wings and unbent itself from that little perch, unchained, it looked very, very angry.
“Good girl,” it croaked, low and steady. “Good girl.”
“Good girl,” agreed the crab, the bug, the worm, the pup. “Good girl.”
Her father swayed there where he stood, one hand on his daughter, the other on his leaking eye. He looked to the mother, but she stood silent, half-torn between hate and fear.
The father made up his mind. He dove for the door, a hiss without breath leaking through those teeth.
The vulture is not a fast animal. But when all you have to do is drop three feet, you do not have to be.
Her father made a noise, as the vulture fell upon him. It was not a scream. A scream needs lungs and a heartbeat to drive them, a mind behind it that can think and feel. But whatever was making that noise was gone in a flash as the vulture’s great beak tore through that dirt-brown coat and sent it back down where it was meant to be in a single snap of its jaws.
The daughter fell in the dirt, and some got in her mouth. It was the best feeling of her life.
“Carrion beasts!” shrieked the mother. “Bearers of blight! Away with you!” and then after that there was no more sound as all the bugs and all the crabs and all the coyotes and all the worms ploughed down through the road and into the home, trampling over the rags of the dirt-brown coat and the glistening ruin that used to be that iron keyring as it was trampled into the dust.

The girl lay there for a while as the house that pretended to be her home but wasn’t was being destroyed, looking at the stars. They were the same as they’d been here, as they’d been at the big building. The men from it had not appeared, and the flashlights had run the other way as all her friends had come.
A tingling on her fingers told her that the bug and worm had come back, a cold claw at her ankle heralded her crabling. The coyote pup nuzzled into her lap, and they all sat there for a while until the vulture came down from the sky where it had thrown the last bit of the weathervane away, chest heaving, head bobbing as it landed upon her knee.
“Girl,” it said, “you have done a very great deal for us, who have done very little for you.”
She nodded.
“What do you want most of all?” it inquired.
“A home,” the girl replied instantly. “A place for me to be.”
“Where would you like to be?” it asked her.
“Where can you take me?”
The vulture shrugged, its old wings bent again, tired from the night’s struggles. “Anywhere.”
The girl took it in her arms. “Then take me everywhere,” she said, “and I’ll decide afterwards.”
And they did. And she did.
But not for a little while.

Storytime: Morri.

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Morri, Morri, little boy Morri; the middle child, the one that wasn’t expected to fail or succeed. He did what he was told – sometimes – and he told the truth to his elders – sometimes – and mostly – all the time – he spent his days watching his father’s cattle to make sure they didn’t wander off anywhere interesting, which he was expecting to do all his life. Sometimes he picked up rocks and looked at them.
One day, as Morri was looking at a particularly dull and evenly-shaped rock, he heard a very strange and sudden lack of sound. A cow had stopped rustling and huffling and snorting its way along the pasture. Instead, there was a thud. A heavy, meaty, bloody sort of thud.
Morri took his rock and his feet and wandered – cautiously – down the pasture, where he found half the cow. The other half was being wedged into the gullet of something he’d never seen before, which regarded him with annoyed interest. It looked sort of like a hyena, but a bit taller than he was at its shoulder.
It made a noise at him somewhere between a growl and mrrruph.
Morri pondered the meaning of all this for a minute, weighed the balance of what his parents told him to do against what he thought he should do, and reached a compromise: he whipped the rock into its skull at full tilt, poleaxing it, but then he ran home and told his parents afterwards.
“You are obviously not working hard enough if you have enough time to come up with these stories,” said his father. So he smacked him – lightly, with love – and sent him out again the next day with a reminder to be more careful.
The body wasn’t there when Morri checked, and another cow was missing. Just bloodstains remained – cow and something else – and a nasty smell that was emitting from a pile of feces. Morri compared the size of those feces to those of his family’s dogs, then thought for a bit.
While Morri was thinking, he was also listening, which was why he heard the grass rustle and the birds go quiet, which was how he was able to get up the tree before the big, angry hyena-thing ate him. It snarled up at him from below, enough drool to fill a bathtub spilling over its rancid gums, feet shaking the tree to and fro as if it were barely more than a sapling. One eye was staring fixedly at an eighty-three degree angle, just below the very large bruise Morri had given it the day before. It made a very nice target for Morri’s second stone, which was delivered by Morri’s older brother’s sling.
His aim was poor: instead of going through the thing’s eye socket and into its skull it skipped off it, removing eyebrow, eyeball, and fur, but not brain. Morri accepted his failure and ran home again, where he once again informed his parents of the day’s events.
“Your carelessness is as inforgivable as your falseness,” admonished his mother. “Two cows in two days? What are you DOING out there?”
Morri explained himself again, and received a brief smacking. He accepted it, because when you’re family that sort of thing happens, and he took his father’s spear without permission when he set out to pasture the next day, because when you’re family that sort of thing also happens and can come in handy.
This time no cows were missing. Four of them, however, had been partially disassembled and spread around the landscape with considerable effort. Morri had obviously annoyed something.
Morri knew all about annoyance. His little brothers annoyed him, he annoyed his older brothers, and they all annoyed his parents. It was the way of family, which is the way of the world, that the smaller shall always annoy the older. And it was upon this extensive and full knowledge that Morri drew when he swaggered nonchalantly into the middle of the bloodied, cow-strewn killing ground, sat down with his back to the biggest patch of fly-buzzing grass, scratched himself, burped, and laid down casually with the spear dangling loose in his hands.
Two minutes and four seconds later he sat up very quickly without looking behind him, spear overhead, and was immediately buried underneath nearly a thousand pounds of Hyaenodon. This put him in a position for reflection.
“Father,” he said when he finally came home that night, staggering in late, “I have lost four more cows and now understand what I wish to do in my life. And I need your help getting your spear back.”
“You shouldn’t have taken that,” his father sighed. “Where is it?”
“Stuck in a monster’s ribs, through the heart,” said Morri. “It was too heavy for its own good.”
Morri’s father gave another sigh, the sigh of the annoyed, and was preparing to smack Morri again before the boy showed him the tooth he’d brought home.

When Morri ran away from home five years later, it was not much of a surprise to anyone. His mother had packed him some dinner, and he’d taken his father’s spear without permission again. He would be back someday.
“The world’s a big place, but there’s only so much to see in it that’s worth seeing,” said Morri’s father. “He’ll come back soon.”
“Besides,” his mother added, “he’ll miss the cows.”

Morri, Morri, Quick Morri; jogging across the plains and through the forests and into deserts, always looking for new people, new places, new things to hunt. He wandered north from the far south, and he found that some of what his father said was true: there was an awful lot of world out there, but not so much that was truly strange. He saw leopards and lions, he saw elephants, he saw hippopotami. He met a lot of new people, and killed many things that attempted to eat him (their hides made up his clothing, their teeth covered him like hairs), but he didn’t find anything like what he’d found in that cattle pasture as a little middle child.
Then he came up to the town on the lake by the sea one day, all alone. Some bits and ends of furs and teeth from his hunts gave him a dinner and a half, and an open ear gave him an interesting story: a monster lived in the lake, a creature that ate whatever came too near for water or for fishing. A few sheep a day had placated it, but it grew more restless and hungry of late, and they found themselves contemplating a change.
“Maybe the headman’s daughter,” suggested the farmer Morri was conversing with. “That might do it.”
“Why?” asked Morri.
The farmer shrugged and scratched his beard. “Well, it’s angry with us or it wouldn’t keep on trying to eat us. It’s got to be angry at someone, and he’s the most important person around. It’s got to want him to pay for this, and what he values most is his daughter.” The farmer gave another shrug, arms akimbo in the culturally universal gesture of well-that’s-about-it.
“When does this monster feed?” asked Morri.
“Around the evenings and mornings, usually. And the nights. Not too safe down there come daylight either, so you be careful.”
Morri listened to this advice, borrowed one of the farmer’s sheep without permission, and trussed it next to the lake. Then he took his father’s spear in hand and waited, waited, waited all night, with a little ember in hand and a torch at the ready.
Finally, he heard a crunch, and that was all he needed to ignite the torch. The sheep was gone, and for a moment he thought without a trace – ‘till light shone back at him from the lake. Two beady eyes looked back at him, ghostly-glowing in the dark from the water. He’d seen that reflective gaze before: crocodile eyes. But they were just a bit too big, and that little moment of confusion was all he needed to feel before they came hurtling at him faster than a blink, quicker than the sound of the slapping waves that formed beneath its body.
Morri was quick, but not quick enough: the jaws found him. Morri was strong, but not strong enough: the beast’s teeth grasped tightly around his midsection. Morri was cunning, and that was just barely enough. All of the teeth of his prey that coated his turned and tore at his enemy’s mouth as fiercely as they would’ve in life, forcing a flinch and a start just as the thing in the lake was ready to bite down, shrinking away from its prey with a rattling hiss.
Morri flung his father’s spear prone, at a bad angle, left-handed. He was quite proud of this because it still sunk straight through the thing’s right foreleg and into the mud, clean as a whistle. It bellowed and snapped its jaws, and it was just when it was mid-snap that Morri grabbed hold of its mouth and began to squeeze.
There are ways to overcome crocodiles with your bare hands, difficult though they are. Keeping a firm hold on the animal’s mouth to keep it from opening helps, which was good for Morri. Being able to blind it is extremely useful, which was good for Morri because that was what both his feet – wrapped around the animal’s neck – were attempting to do. Fighting it on land is helpful, which was good for Morri. Having some way to prevent it from spinning about and over upon itself is necessary, and Morri’s father’s spear was a great aide in this. Finally and most importantly, many if not all of these careful tricks are used on crocodiles that are less than thirty feet long. This was not good for Morri, and that was why when the villagers came down to the lakeshore in the morning they were not surprised to see his legs sticking out of the animal’s mouth as it lay on the shore, spear still-embedded in it.
Then the legs kicked. That spooked them pretty good.
Morri never did remember too much about how he won that one – a long, hard, struggle in the dark that wavered from muddy shore to solid ground and back over and over until somehow he lost his grip and ended up half-in and half-out of a mouth that didn’t want to bite him in half but was just fine with squeezing the air out of him. All he had left to do was put his hands on whatever flesh they could find and squeeze ‘till his fingers were bloodless, and when they pulled him free he still had a death-grip on the thing’s air-pipe.
The thing was twenty-eight feet long, give or take a bit. Its teeth were strangely rounded and blunt, leaving Morri’s coat-of-teeth sadly lacking for repairs. They made a lovely necklace, though.
He stayed for a week, then left when they started talking marriage. The headman’s daughter was nice, but she was interested in someone else and he was interested in something bigger. The world was indeed a big place, and mostly empty, but that just meant you had to look harder.

Morri, Morri, Iron Morri; the wanderer of the world, the man who couldn’t stop moving. They even said he twitched in his sleep, Morri did; ever alert to the prickle of fangs on a sleeping neck or the brush of soft air from a claw hovering above a bed. He had so many names now in the prime of his life, a new one in every village, every town. He’d tried using his own, but people kept mispronouncing it, and now whatever title that first landed on him tended to stick – at least until he started walking again, and let it peel off behind him like an old snakeskin. But other things tended to stick.
Around his neck was his old crocodile-tooth necklace, expanded upon inch by inch, tooth by tooth until it looped four times around his neck in a sort of spiky gorget. A bear that had stood twelve feet tall upright had contributed several canines to it, and a lion of ten in length had helped finished it off.
His body was wrapped in the tanned and battered hides of a half-hundred kills, from the small to the massive, selected carefully by natural wear and tear until only the most durable remained. Claws and teeth were studded throughout it, peeking through as surprising, sharp-edged whiteness against sun-darkened hides and darker skin.
On his body he carried scars, many scars – so many that he looked as though he’d been sewn together. For greater wounds, he’d acquired a few. His nose was half-missing from the charge of a giant furry creature that walked the frozen lands that lay behind him. He walked as strong as ever, but a limp in his left leg marked the passing of a creature he still didn’t know how to describe. It had stalked him through Mongolia for days, on and off, each of them all that the other could find to eat for miles around in the desolate paths they chose. It had taken a bite from him in the end, before the end, snarling. He had been hard-pressed to find more than that from it himself; it was as lost as he had been, as hungry, and as tired.
On his head, carefully modified and hollowed and balanced, he wore the skull of that creature, as a memory and as protection both. It was a full three feet long, and had once held the power to crush bones like twigs.
In one hand he carried his father’s (borrowed) spear. Its shaft had been snapped four times over – once in six places at once by a maddened thing like an elephant but far furrier, a peaceful god that had gone crazed with brain-fever and turned upon its flock – and replaced dutifully each time, on the last occasion by the carved and shaped bone of the giant furred elephant. Its head had been replaced more times than he could imagine, with good, local stone here, with a sharp piece of bone there, once (in desperate times) with simply a ground-down wooden point and a quick fire-hardening. Currently it was attached to his body with a long, long length of rope whose origin was unknown to him and whose toughness was beyond question, affixed into a small, carefully-bored hole in the shift. But it was still his father’s spear, and that’s why he took care of it instead of replacing it. Because he had to return it someday.
In the other hand, he gripped a twin-bladed paddle with whitened knuckles, and he cursed the sea softly in his heart. It had made sense at the time, so much sense. He had gone north, and as far north as he was able. He had travelled west, and as far west as he were able. He had gone east, as far east as he were able, and then as he’d stopped on those cold forested shores he’d learned of stories and mumbles and mutterings of the land that lay just a few horizons away. How could he stop there, and go back to where he’d already been?
Well, very easily. And now Morri cursed that he had to do things the hard way, as he looked down into a blue so deep it was nearly black and sought with frantic eyes a shape that made his little skin-boat (he’d traded three teeth for it, one of them an old one from the crocodile) look as tiny as a piece of wood a child had tossed in a puddle.
It was the silence that unnerved him most, as the shape underneath him grew. On land your prey panted, it gasped, it growled and snarled and hissed as the grass crackled underfoot and the wind whistled through lungs and ears. Here the waves moved as they would, and it was only at the last – at the very last – that sound arrived to mark the attack from below, as the shark seized his boat in a full-body breach, whirling through the air with force beyond imagination. The crash of waves in a giant’s wake as its body left the water.
Morri clung to its nose as it rose, felt his body grow light in the air. No eyes met his gaze: the shark’s sockets were filled with empty white, rolled away and tucked back for protection from stray flippers and sweeps of tails. It did not look upon its prey as they died, and that assumption cost it dearly because its other senses, miraculous as they were, were incapable of detecting Morri’s father’s spear as it drove inside its eye socket and dug deep into the flesh of its cartilaginous skull.
The shark spasmed, and it dove, taking Morri’s father’s spear with it. And as went Morri’s father’s spear, so went Morri, both as a matter of the practical – the tether at his waist yet anchored him to it – and by principle. After all, he couldn’t return the spear if it sank to the bottom of the sea in a dead shark’s head.
This, at least, was soon revealed to be not a worry: the shark was far from dead. Its flight was conducted with the steadfast determination of a long-time survivor, for whom the matter of life-and-death had become an hourly dilemma centuries ago. Flee deeper, its experiences whispered into its tiny mind, flee deep and far, and they will not catch you. Flee deeper.
Pull harder, whispered Morri’s own mind. Larger though it was, it was no less simple at a time like this. Pull harder, so that you can see the sun again, taste the air again, feel a world that isn’t weighing down on you from all sides. The rope is all that matters now – ah, see how it has led you back to your father’s spear! Now you must reclaim it, you see?
Morri gripped the sides of the great shark with one hand, and that was no easy task. He gripped the shaft of his father’s spear with the other, and that nearly unbalanced him. He adjusted, shifted, and shoved with all his weight.
Flee deeper, whispered the shark’s brain. Flee d p r.
Flee d .
F e .

In the end, there was enough intent and purpose left in the shark to keep it steering forwards until it reached the end of its world, and there was enough oxygen left in Morri to hang ahold until it took him to the brink of his. Not enough to wake him, though – no, that happened later, much later, in a seaside shack where a man had kept him alive with fish broth for a week. He spoke a language that Morri didn’t understand, but it was a language he hadn’t understood before, and a cautious sort of trade of debts and repayment took place. On the one hand, the man had kept Morri alive for a week. On the other, it had largely been done with flesh from the shark Morri had killed. And its teeth were valuable, so… they were even. Roughly.
Morri took one of the teeth. His father’s spear, it seemed, needed a new head.

Morri, Morri, Old Morri; the one-eyed crack-shot, the limping man who could outrun a horse. All that muscle still there, just dried close to the bone by endless sun and hardened by the wear of a lifetime travelling against the fiercest winds, tanned in the saltwater spray of half the seas the planet could hold.
He’d walked the world now, Morri had, and seen the corners of the new as well as he’d seen the old. At first south, then east, then south again, and south on and on and down and down past mountains and plains and deserts and forests whose lushness unravelled your senses with a single glance. And everywhere Morri had walked, he had hunted. Oh had he hunted. His father’s spear had been repaired so many times over and over again, it had sunk into so many chests, through so many guts, pierced so many skulls. He had killed lions that made mockery of his conquests in Europe, fought a great bear with a shortened snout and lengthened legs for three days running, duelled with cats with teeth like giant knives and necks like tree-trunks. He had even once stood against an attack of wolves – creatures with stocky limbs and massive bodies, fierce and clever in their assault. His face had met the pack-leader’s jaws that day, and they had left a warning from ear to ear and into his right eye, wherever that was.
Old Morri had seen the world in all its vastness in those fifty-and-then-some years of his, he had. And there were still things he hadn’t yet seen in it, and some things that he had seen that could suddenly turn brand-new in your eyes, at the right moment. For instance, the sky above him had never seemed more intensely blue in his life than it was right now, pinned down in the dirt beneath an angry ten-foot bird. Talons crushed against him, a beak that put an axe to shame hewed against his father’s spear, and the clouds spiralled above so lazily and sparsely in that big blue sky. It made the ocean seem a shamefully small thing.
The bird lashed out with its foot again, ready to land a hit that would turn Morri’s ribcage into grist, and he rolled and struck, too out of breath to swear and out of any words strong enough to work. The shaft of his father’s spear cracked against the thing’s ankles and made it wobble – oh, it wasn’t the first blow he’d landed there, not by a long shot – but not tumble or hesitate. It was on him again as if he were a snake in the grasp of a secretary-bird, hissing with every jab, every kick, every darting, flittering motion, a creature that massed more than a quarter-ton moving like it weighed ounces. Wherever its legs didn’t dance its beak swooped, a beak that Morri would’ve needed both hands to lift, a killing spike with the sharpness of a stiletto backed by a muscled neck that could thrust it with the force of twenty men of the sort Morri had been in his youth.
Now Morri was Old Morri, and he was not as strong, maybe. He was not as fast, surely. But oh, but oh, but oh was Morri still cunning, more than ever, and he could think and fight at the same time, all the time.
Morri stumbled, on his bad leg. The bird struck, hopping forward – all that weight, all that weight balanced with perfect precision, undettered by bruising of bone and flesh. And finally – just then, with the timing he’d been hunting for – did Morri’s father’s spear strike home as one leg was completely off the ground.
Now, that made the bird wobble. But its leg was strong and its balance was fine, and it was a mere wobble on its own, when all was said and done. Which is why Morri’s spear rebounded from its shin, loose from his hand, and shot straight at its eye.
The bird dodged that, like it or not – instinct would accommodate no less, and its neck moved without thought – and in doing so, it leaned the wrong way at the wrong time, and fell flat on its back, legs kicking. Undignified, bruising, perhaps even bone-cracking – and thus as good as dead. It would never know, because before it could try to rise Old Morri was at its throat, far away from the kicking talons, too close to the beak for the neck to drive it. His hands were armoured in rhinoceros hide, his gauntlets gripped with sharkskin, and though he was sunk to his wrists in greasy, blood-smeared feathers, he would not relinquish his grip, would not release the pressure as he sunk the full weight and power of his body down into those ten fingers underneath that big, blue sky. Another hunt, and another kill, and all the same, new and old, all the same. Nothing new happened under that sky, for Morri.
They watched one another closely, bird and man. Old stains from past meals caked the tiny crevices of its beak as it breathed and began to stop, inches away from Morri as he strangled it, as they stared into one another’s eyes. Mad, furious eyes, of the sort he’d thought had long ago become a common sight to him, a natural thing. And yet Morri could not look away from what he saw, from what was hiding there in the depths.
There was something very old there in the eye of that terrible bird, oh so much older than Old Morri was; something that stared back strong as it died, completely unbeaten. Something that hated him and everything like him; every daring ape that had once been a rat, every elephant that once had aspired to the stature of a mouse. Something that was waiting and watching and ready for the moment when the hairy things would slip and fall and drop the world into their talons again, forever.
Old Morri looked back into those eyes, and he knew then what it meant to grow old and hard and hateful.
And as soon as he knew that, he was done.

Morri, Morri, a children’s story; a name that wasn’t even his across much of the world, a hundred different people with a thousand different deeds. He was in Europe, in Asia, he’d come conquering again to Africa, he was under the sea battling the greatest monsters ever to slither its waves, he was in a land where no man or woman had ever walked, hunting the very god(s?). Wherever he was, he was hunting, because what else would he ever do?
Morri was out there somewhere, that was sure enough. And if there was an old man living on a long-abandoned piece of pastureland somewhere who happened to share a name with him, an old man with a broken, beaten (but well-repaired) walking stick; well, the world was a funny place, and for all its bigness, you’d often see the same thing more than once.

Sometimes he did miss those cows.

The Life of Small-five (Part 13).

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

The dark was not a stranger anymore to Small-five. She’d swum the seas of nighttime with her glowshine gone for many days, lightless and nearly sightless, as cautious predator and savvy prey. She knew the dark now better than any of her kind ever had, she was sure, and she thought that was well enough.
She knew the dark. But she’d never know it could grow like this.
The water at this depth was leaden, an infinitely heavy weight of purest cold that seemed to subtly press from all sides at once, deadening sensation and crushing down on sound. Sometimes Small-five couldn’t feel her heartbeat, and for a moment she would wonder if this was what death was like after all.
Then would come the soft luminescence of life, and she would recall what she’d been searching for.
Many of the things down there had no names that she knew, no pictures filed away in othershine, no reports filed by far-sweeping, Safety-led expeditions, no warnings in dry, academic voices filed away with fifteen citations. Sometimes it was all she could do to guess at their relatives, or even to tell if they were still-alive or floating carrion.
In the end, only one thing mattered of them: they were edible. Mostly. Except for one strange thing with too many fins and too little skull that Small-five had speared a short time ago; her entire body had gone numb within seconds and she’d been rendered near-paralyzed for the rest of the day. Pulsing-point had gone into fits sixteen times over by the time Small-five was well enough to swim normally, if sluggishly.
A glow of light. A smooth cruise forwards. A snap of the proboscis. Done, another piece of unseen dead flesh in her grasp, glowing lure already guttering as it was shoved into her mouth. Thankfully small; it was always something of a gamble as to whether her quarry would be tiny and filmy-boned or larger than she’d ever imagined. Sometimes she heard sounds that were too low-pitched to be truly noise anymore, from the very bottom of the blackness underneath her. Adolescent Gruskomish perhaps, still a few centuries from leaving the ocean’s floor? She could only hope so: Gruskomish were dangerous beyond imagining, but slow-moving in their juvenile stage, and lazy. She would be safe from them as long as she stayed above the absolute depths, out of easy reach. What frightened her more were the unknowns, the things she hunted that could so easily turn out to be much larger than they appeared.
The next prey Small-five found came as a surprise. In fact, she swam right into it. A spasming length of slimy muscle wrapped around her from out of the darkness, as unlit as she, indeterminate in length. Small-five thrashed, surged, began to feel her ribs quiver in their places, and realized that her proboscis was unsecured.
The third stab did the job. Whatever it was, something vital had lain too close to her head, packed in slim, slimy tissue – away from her teeth, but not from her more dangerous weapon. She wasn’t sure if it had been chance or misjudgement, but the effect was the same and her goals met. A meal in her possession and another in her belly, it was time to rise from the depths once more.
The speed was the thing. Always slow, too slow, insufferably, horribly slow. She wanted to give way to panic as she’d done the night Far-away-light abandoned her, to streak in a mad dash to the surface and light again. She also wanted to keep her bloodstream from turning into a bubbling net of agony that would strangle her brain, and that mandated patience, a slow, steady slog of patience that made her think of teeth over and over again, rising from below at a pace she dared not risk.
Where was the light? Where was it? She was too high up for no light. Where was-
Small-five twitched. Why was Pulsing-point so deep? They were too far below for…she rolled in the water and squinted upwards. The blackness remained, but as part of the sky, a sky hanging a mere bodylength above her, where the waves rolled onwards. Small-five had spent all day in the deep waters. She really did have to pay more attention to time – how long had her descent taken her? Her ascent? Her hunting? No idea beyond too long.
Yes, yes Pulsing-point, the deep water was bad. But it gave food, or something close enough. She relaxed her death-grip on the prey-that-gripped, letting its folds fall away from her.
Bad, reiterated Pulsing-point, as she began to eat. Bad. Good-food. Bad.
Small-five looked closer and saw that she had a point: the creature was still dripping with its own bodily mucous, despite everything the ascent had done to mangle it. In appearance, it most closely resembled a giant Verrineeach, though with two eyes instead of three. Its sides did not shine as its cousins did, spreading a foul taste in the water as Pulsing-point chewed her way through its sides.
Disgusting though it was, it was meat, and meat for more than one meal. The rest was shoved into their empty carry-harnesses against the protests of Pulsing-point’s greedy mouth, to be saved for later. Some days Small-five rose from the depths with nothing at all. Most days.
Bad-water, insisted Pulsing-point as they continued their swim, their never-ending swim that left their ribs a little more pronounced against their skin every hour. Bad-water. Bad-water. Bad.
It took Small-five nearly until dawn to realize that yet another observation had been embedded in her sister’s mantras of annoyance: the water on the surface was nearly as cold as the depths. Something almost like hope stirred in her then, a strange feeling that threatened to dethrone the resigned will that had reigned since she first saw the empty bottoms of their carry-harnesses, since she first made the long, long swim to the deep waters for food. She’d never counted the trips she made, for fear of despair, and now suddenly progress – the damnable illusion – seemed nearly real.
The next day they saw floating ice, and Small-five spent all of it being pestered by excitement at this novelty. She wouldn’t have traded it for anything, and thankfully she didn’t have to. Three days passed and her sister fell silent all on her own as they approached the edge of a million-year ice shelf, the border that even the strongest summer could never thaw.
The pole again. Home to where her mind began.
Bad-water, Pulsing-point said, but automatically. Big-stange-bad-strange-strange-water.
Good-water, thought Small-five. You should’ve come here with me – with all of us – six years ago, sister. You should’ve all been here to eat and learn and grow, not cowering all alone in some dark corner of a reefcolony. You should have taken in this goodwater through food and gills until it swelled your braincase by three times, opened up your mind like a pearl and let us all see you for what you could be. You should’ve been that way.
A touch at her proboscis, worried. Sister-hurt-sister-bad? Safe?
Small-five was sitting in the water, immobile. She shook herself three times quickly, stiffened her spine and resolve, and swam onwards, into the ice.

At first she thought her memories had faded, failed her, left her drifting. This was not how she’d remembered the pole – the cramped mazes were shrunken beyond accounting for her size, the waters were clear and empty, the few meals they could catch empty and scrawny as Kleeistrojatch elders. But no, it was far more than a mere faulty recollection of the end of her childhood: summer was here, bringing light and warmth and starvation, the same summer that had driven her and her sisters north to Far-away-light years ago. The ice they had found was the southernmost core, the prey they sought the refugees of winter’s bounty, clinging to the shelf and waiting for more bountiful times, for the winter night and the oncoming Fiskupid swarms and their attendants, for the juveniles on the cusp of maturity that would come with them.
Small-five examined the corpses of that which they ate – if Pulsing-point gave her enough time – and examined the progress of the stars and did her best to calculate the changing temperature of the water against old charts in old reports she’d read what felt like never ago. It all told her the same time, the same tale: midsummer. Late midsummer, if she were generous. Which was still much too early and much too long to spend eating what she could scavenge from the depths – the polar depths, where life might run riot but it also ran with sharp teeth, and quickly too.
Hungry-bad-water-hungry, complained Pulsing-point as they shivered under the sun through the nights and days, as their sides remained bare to the bones and open to the cold. Hungry-bad-water-bad.
Small-five soothed her with a brush of her proboscis and gently ran her touch along her sister’s skull, tracing the edge of her cranium. There was no notable change, and of course there shouldn’t have been, wouldn’t have been. Not this early, this fast. But the food they ate lacked that certain aftertaste that she found herself recalling from before, the hint of minerals and acid that always left your teeth itching. It tasted like watery flesh and empty bones now, cut off from the upwellings that brought up the nutrients from the deep down to the surface, concentrated and packed into meat.
Go-safe-good-water, insisted Pulsing-point. This had become part of her mantra for the past few days, a new hope, a new cause to plead for. Food-food-food. Good-water.
Small-five brushed her sister again in reassurance, and led them both farther into the ice, towards the end of the world. Day after day, stroke after stroke.

She’d hoped that it would start to make sense again, that the icy pathways would coagulate and choke to close her in from all sides and frighten her senseless, like the old days. That the Nolohks would return and stare at her from odd crevices, filled with one thousand mouths of hunger and the razory limbs that had trimmed Dim-glow’s fins so long ago, that the Rimebacks would scurry overhead on floes.
Instead, she found mountains in reverse, fangs of ice more solid than volcanic stone and a thousand times older hanging overhead and brooding as they passed, forcing them downward, always downward. The water thickened around them as they dropped again, a journey that felt like one of Small-five’s deep-foraging expeditions stretched out for days with no end in sight.
Pulsing-point made it bearable. Pulsing-point and her light, and her (slightly rattled) ability to find wonder in the sights around them rather than creeping dread. It was thanks to her that they saw the prey to catch (mostly filmy Eurenu, fat and toxic and unappealing but so wonderfully massive in their flesh, a gutful and a half at least). It was thanks to her that Small-five didn’t succumb to the mindless terror of being alone in constant darkness with no end in sight and ram herself to death against the miles-thick ice above them, screaming inside to be home. It was thanks to her that the journey even existed in the first place, that Small-five wasn’t still at home on the reefcolony regressing back to nothing more than a being of food and rest, simple needs, simple wants, a simple life with a simple death.
And it was thanks to her that they found it. A scurrying chase on the glimpse of maybe-food led her to a crevice in a six-mile spear of ice that plunged down past all sanity, to a crack in that crevice, and finally to a nook, which she wedged herself inside and immediately froze.
Small-five wasn’t worried; she’d seen her sister get herself into considerably tighter spots before on the reefcolony. She grasped her tail and began to tug gently, guiding her backwards.
Pulsing-point stiffened and squirmed, refusing to budge.
Annoyed, Small-five yanked her tail again, more firmly. No matter how tasty-looking whatever she’d cornered was, it wasn’t worth becoming frozen into an icicle.
Pulsing-point thrashed briefly, smacking Small-five in the snout with her tail.
Small-five succumbed to her irritation and yanked Pulsing-point bodily with all the force she could muster, only to meet a total lack of resistance as her sister played the oldest trick imaginable and reversed direction, shooting backwards out of the icy nook with the force of a Godfish’s fin and sending both of them spinning. LOOK-FOOD! she shone, bright as the sun with an eyeful of air, LOOK-FOOD-FOOD!
Small-five debated smacking her, but chose to succumb to curiosity rather than brutality. She cautiously swam up to the hole and peered inside.
Ooliku. A small one, but alive and alert, glaring back at her as he cowered in the nestling grip of the ice. Except ice wasn’t that colour, wasn’t that rounded, wasn’t…. Small-five began to count, lost track, and gave up.
Ooliku. The inside of the great undersea icicle was almost completely hollow. And everywhere she looked, every inch of the surface was covered in Ooliku. Resting.
Every single eye was fixed upon hers.
Small-five waited there for the longest moment of her life. Then she backed up, just a whisker’s worth.
She might well have caused the same effect if she’d dived in headfirst flashing distress-shines as hard as she could’ve ever managed. Within three seconds every single Ooliku in the entire cave had jumped into action, either trying to flee, trying to fight, or trying to see what all the other Ooliku were fleeing from or fighting. All three goals required them to pass through the same passage, which Small-five and Pulsing-point were currently occupying.
It was a reminder for Small-five of a bygone time in a place full of strangeness, to be so surrounded by life. It seemed like all the water had vanished and been replaced with Ooliku, as suddenly-numerous as Fiskupids. They swarmed over her and her sister, so eager for battle or escape that they managed to lose them entirely, spiralling away and jetting into the depths with the sudden purpose that comes with almost total distraction. They had a purpose here, in this far-away place where no one had ever been before, where no intruder had ever disturbed their slumber. A single event, however shocking, was not great enough to disturb them from their timeless ruts of instinct and habit. They were awake, and thus they would feed, so they might continue to spar and mate. To that food they raced, and in their wake, as fast as they were able, came Small-five and Pulsing-point.
First down, then up, then down and finally up again, up again on the sudden and fiercely-gripping claws of a current the likes of which Small-five had never felt take hold of her. Up again and again and again until finally sunlight, terrifying, glorious sunlight came into their eyes from far above, trickling down from above as they surged to meet it on a column of water from the coldest currents on earth.
And where the two met, life filled Small-five’s gaze.
She couldn’t describe what she saw growing on the ice around them, in this suddenly-open water, this polar oasis. She couldn’t recognize a thing that wasn’t an Ooliku (so many Ooliku, even among the bounty that they were now feeding upon), couldn’t name the corals and shells that studded every surface, the creatures that speckled the water in impossibly tiny trillions, the swarming things that dashed through the water.
But she knew one thing truly, when she first saw Pulsing-point bite down on an unaware Ooliku and shimmer in surprised distaste. When she first closed her own teeth on prey.
That strange feeling in your mouth, like minerals and chemicals and things that couldn’t be synthesized in any laboratory, that were impossible to pipe all the way home without contamination or disruption.
Strange-things, said Pulsing-point. Strange. Food-though.
And so they ate, and so they began to change.

Storytime: A Crack in the Wall.

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Of course I remember the first time it happened. You don’t just forget an event like that, you know – why, the very fact that I’m telling you all this is sheer proof of how its effects reverberated throughout my entire life! If I grow senile – well, much MORE senile – that will be the very last thing to go, I assure you.
I was nine years old and my big brother asked me to look through a crack in the wall, so that I could ‘look at her titties.’
Well, of course I had no real interest in such things yet, but who was I to deny such a moment of fraternal unity? I stepped to the wall, jumped up on a rock to give me the extra three-inch height I needed, and found myself staring at the small of the back of an extremely hideous woman, bloated, warted, and strongly resembling some manner of dinosaur rather than a human. I stared long and hard, until I saw a twitch at her scalp and realized that instead of hair, she was crowned with a wriggling mass of small but lively snakes. So I did what later years of mythological reading would teach me was the best thing possible, and lurched backwards in a blind panic.
My brother asked me if I’d seen her titties. I told him no, and he gave me a noogie without pity. I strongly suspect that this was what led to our lifetime estrangement. Oh well.

Now, you might expect that the little incident would’ve put me off peering through cracks in walls, and you would be right! As a matter of fact I stayed away from walls entirely for the next four years. My parents took me to three different specialists, but thankfully they were squeamish and opted not to follow through with a lobotomy. Those were quite fashionable at the time, you know. But it would’ve cost money they didn’t have, so instead they settled for shutting me up with distractions when company was over, and covering most of my walls with bookcases so I didn’t have to look at them. Never took to reading much, though.
So it was a while and I got most of the way through puberty and things and then I started to discard all that silly nonsense I’d believed when I was a child. Stepping on cracks snapping my mother’s back? Nonsense! Buttercups telling you if you liked butter? Bunkum! Monsters under the bed? Balderdash! All of it was discredited poppycock, and that’s why when I was wondering down a street late at night throwing rocks at people’s doors and saw that a garage door had been left carelessly unlatched (but was anyone home?), I stepped right up and put my peeper to a crack in its siding without hesitation.
Inside, I saw the most marvelous thing – a cavern filled with an endless sea of golden treasure, glittering through the smoky haze emitted from the forty torches carried in the forty left hands of forty bearded, hairy, smelly men, each more bearded, hairier, and smellier than the last. In their forty right hands they carried forty sacks of plundered loot, which they spilt about willy-nilly in the boisterousness of their passage.
Naturally, I did the sensible thing and jimmed the door open an inch, hoping to seize a single scoop of pilfered valuables for myself. My hand reached in and closed into a fist – were those jewels in my grasp, gleaming and precious? Alas no, it was the infant young of a raccoon, which bit me. My screaming hysterics soon brought down the wrath of the slumbering homeowners upon me, and following a most cruel batterment by rake and a swift trial I was put to juvie hall, where I spent my time avoiding all of the walls. Especially the cracked ones.

My little stint in our great nation’s legal halls, corridors, and cells had a great impact on me. Mostly the cells, especially when my cellmate was a testy fellow. But I persevered, and by the tender young age of twenty-two I’d put all that trouble behind me to work as a simple, honest door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, the last of my kind in the nation. I got the idea when my father passed away and left me his encyclopedia set as a quick and clean-cut way to make a modest afternoon’s living before my landlord struck me from his good books and my possessions from his property. I’d not had much luck after the first nine streets, but here I stood upon the sixtieth house of the tenth, massive, weight briefcase in one hand and a carefree grin in the other, listening to the wheezing, gasping shuffle of geriatric feet approaching from the other side of a well-painted upscale home. Alas, as their owner reached the apex of his ascent, the shuffling was replaced with a single drawn-out wail that ended in a tremendous, bone-rattling thud, followed by the silence of the cardiacly stricken. I am an upstanding citizen, and that is why I did what I did next: I peered through a crack in the otherwise impenetrable glazed glass of the door-window to make sure everything was all right and that I hadn’t fallen for some hilarious elderly prank.
I peered through utmost gloom (this house’s lighting was a travesty!) and saw before me a yawning expanse fit to make eyes pop – if this was a cavern, it was one whose scope dwarfed the Sistine Chapel! Dark stalagmites the size of skyscrapers lurked in the far-above ceiling; miles below me, magma sluggishly oozed at depths that would sicken bedrock. And in the center of the chamber lay a slab that could’ve birthed mountains, across which was trussed and chained a man whose size astounds mere description save to say that each of his fingernails would’ve made high-quality low-cost waterproof roofing for an entire football field.
I was staggered and astonished, naturally. My brain took a holiday and let my eyeballs please themselves, twitching at every impossible sight. Drawn to motion as they were, it wasn’t long before the venom dripping from above caught my eye: a snake that could’ve swallowed a hundred subway cars hung from the ceiling, twisted in the roots of an impossible tree, its open mouth filling and spilling with poisonous liquids that were landing right inside the poor old bastard’s eyelids. I winced, and at that moment of wincing the snake and I locked eyes – oh my, the evil in those little eyes the size of houses! I don’t want to know what could’ve happened to me if it weren’t for the chained man and his howling at the pain; he shivered and shook and spasmed and moaned and gave such a shaking that I was bowled clean off my feet just as the snake made to slide closer to me. I hopped to my feet, turned tail, and was off home at a sprint, leaving my encyclopedia behind me in exchange for a faster flight.
Anyways, after I got back to my apartment I locked myself up, threw all the furniture in front of the door, and curled in a ball until four in the morning, when the police busted down my door and arrested me for unlawful squatting and suspicion of murder. Apparently the poor old thing had popped his clogs clean off and a neighbour had spotted my getaway. The whole lot got cleared up after I’d spent a few years in high-security, though, so no use fussing about it.

Now, I spent my time wisely in the big box that go-around. I studied architecture, and learned all about how to make safe, secure, structurally sound walls with no cracks whatsoever in them. I did quite well, if I do say so myself, and if you go to any modern penitentiary built within the last twenty years I’ll wager dollars to dufflebags full of heroin that I had a hand in building it. They copied my notes, you see, not that I ever saw so much as a single red cent oh dearie me no, couldn’t be seen taking inspiration from a COVICT now, could we. The gall!
I lost my train of thought, where was I? Oh yes.
Right, so after I left jail again about a decade after that first time I left jail a decade before, around ten years back, my first priority was to live somewhere nice, with firm, well-founded buildings that were brand new and spic and span with no cracks whatsoever. I chose to move to Tokyo on the wings of a plane ticket that was obtained through blackmail, but the entirely acceptable and cosy familial kind where you threaten to tell your brother’s wife and kids about what he did when he was seven. Japan was lovely – I stayed in a nice neighborhood with beautiful skyscrapers, even the alleyway I lived in was so new and fresh you could eat your dinner off it, and good thing, too. Yes sir, those were the finest six days of my life, right up until the earthquake hit and I tripped and landed facefirst on the sidewalk right as it cracked open and almost sucked my entire head in.
This time what I saw I…can’t really recall. There were five suns, each lasting an age, and fire, and storms, and blood, and for some reason an enormous quantity of jaguars.
There may also have been monkeys.
All I know is that by the time I came to my senses I’d been deported and barred from entering Japan ever again, along with anyone of closer relation to me than a second cousin. Quite puzzling and altogether disturbing, especially when I found a little heart belonging to a small snake in my left pants pocket. I have no idea how the police missed it. I’ll show you; I’ve got it in a box somewhere.

After that I went and lived in the woods, which isn’t as bad as it sounds if you plaster all of your tiny hermit shack’s walls with lots of mud and replaster them again every season. Then there’s not a crack to be found! Twenty-nine years out here eating twigs and roots and VERY odd mushrooms without so much as a crevice to peer into and I’ve been happy and fine and fit as a fiddle. All until, oh, five minutes ago when I carelessly hit my head on the wall and glanced the wrong way and locked your eyes with mine.
I must say, you’re a very good listener. Especially without any ears. Do you listen through your eyes? Because there are an awful lot of them. Each charming in their very own way, of course.
Would you like to come in? The place is a dreadful mess these days, but I’m sure we could make a shot at tidying it up.