Archive for May, 2014

Storytime: High Water.

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

The old man walked into the smithy.
It was a short sentence, but one that took a lot of background work to make it happen: managing his knees alone these days took at least half of Araim’s concentration. He’d given up on his hips a decade ago.
He looked at the blacksmith, saw that grin, and felt the old, familiar bile bubble up in his gut. Screw them. It didn’t matter.
“Nails?” asked the blacksmith as he opened his mouth.
Araim nodded his head. See if he’d give the little bastard the satisfaction of a clean reply, if he was going to be that way today.
“Two buckets?”
A second nod.
“Right. Fork it over.”
Nod. Money. Nod.
“Pleasure doing business.”
Araim took a bucket in each hand, straightened up as much as he could (about an 82-degree angle, as far as his curiosity and tools combined had told him a few years ago), and headed for the door. Wonderful.
Araim paused, one foot over the doorstep.
“That’s your thousandth bucket right there,” said the blacksmith. “I looked over da’s receipts, double-checked and everything.” He smiled; the big, beaming happy smile of a man who loves his job and life in general. “Look, they’re free from now on, eh? Only fair.”
Araim didn’t know what to say. He tried nodding again.
“One question, though…”
oh no here it came again.
“…you really think you’ll ever need it?”
Araim nodded one last time because it was either that or throw the bucket at the boy’s face. Then he walked up the mountain with legs like hairy ramrods and a spine stiffened by pure fury.

Araim was four years old, and riding six feet off the ground on his father’s shoulders. He’d been crying two minutes ago, but the wind in his face and the sudden surge of height had thrown all that away into the rusty old past, something that didn’t matter anymore. He could see over people’s heads. He could see through windows. He could see all the main street of the town from here, from the road’s birth at the first foothill to the Squeezer, where the valley walls shrunk down together and opened up to the banks of the big wide Serenna river, idling along past them all with no cares and no worries.
“Stupid,” said Araim’s father. His name was Jerub, though the boy wouldn’t know that for almost a decade yet. What else was he but his father? “Stupid, stupid, stupid. You know why that’s stupid, boy?”
“I’ll tell you why it’s stupid. Look down there – see? See where the river’s banks slope?”
“Oh, it looks steep enough, doesn’t it? Well maybe the first five feet, sure. But after that it barely rises another two ‘till you’re halfway to the road. One day there’s going to be a flood – a real flood, not this penny-dropping pissflow we get every spring – and then we’re going to watch a lot of damned fools drowning, you can bet your dinner on it. You hungry?”
“Right. Time to go in.”

Araim came home just as the sun was starting to dip low in the cloud-bruised sky, his feet touching the closest thing to level ground since he’d left the village behind.
They looked so small from up here on the mountain. They were all so small. He’d held up his hands as a child, erased the lot of them with one palm held at the right angle. But sooner or later his arms would get tired, and the hand would waver and drop, and there they were again. Behold Araim, he taketh away, but he also returneth.
God his knees must be hurting if he was willing to distract himself with those memories. There were better ways to keep himself occupied. It was late in the day, this was really more time for dinner than for work, but it had to be done and it might as well be done now.
He picked up the buckets of nails – one in each hand again, the handles cutting into the grooves that had etched themselves into his palms over the years and years – and trudged out back.
Araim’s father had chosen his land carefully. The ground was rocky, but at least here it was flat, and there was some semblance of soil that was clinging grimly to the little plateau that hung off the mountain’s sides like a piglet from a sow. Enough to grow a few measly crops to feed a family of eleven, plus the odd wandering cousin that came back from strange parts with a funny accent and funny gifts.
Nowadays it fed one: Araim. But that was all right. He’d put the rest of the space to right good use.

Araim was eight years old, and sitting on a dusty bench in a dusty house as his grandmother read to him and his four elder sisters and his five elder brothers.
“…and the turtle,” his grandmother said, her voice as droning as a fat bumblebee, “who was the largest and widest and best of swimmers, carried up the whole of the good people on his back. And they floated there for a year and three days.”
“Did the turtle get tired?” asked Araim’s brother Isak.
“No,” said grandmother.
“How did the turtle get that big?” asked Araim’s sister Klass. “All our turtles are tiny. I’ve caught loads of turtles and they’re all-“
“It was the first turtle,” said grandmother. “He was the biggest.”
“What happened to all the other people?” asked Araim.
His grandmother looked at him, and it was Araim’s bad luck to be the third question in as many seconds, because he got the full brunt of a tired old glare, the kind that hardens with age into something like a diamond and cuts like a dull knife.
“They were the loafers, the schemers, the witless and the wretches and the murderers and the thieves,” she said, and each word made him shrink a little more. “While the good people escaped on Turtle’s back and lived together, they fought each other, and they drowned. You understand that?”
Araim nodded.
“Good. No more questions.”

Araim’s back wasn’t feeling any better once he’d scaled the fourth of his ladders, but it wasn’t feeling any worse either. It had passed through sensations altogether and entered a strange realm where the only thing that existed was tingling numbness that seemed to want to spread from your vertebrae through to your brain and blot out vision forever.
He ignored it. The view was worth it from the upper bridge, even if he couldn’t explain it. All the way up a mountain, you wouldn’t think the extra forty foot of height you saw from the deck would make a difference. But it did, and he could never tell why. From this height the clouds of far away looked like plums, curdled by sunset and by guts full of thunder both. Maybe the rain would come soon, give him a shower as he worked, soak him down so far his bones would cool and his heart would slow back to its normal crawling pump.
Well, pleasure later. He’d come up here to at least pretend to do business.
Araim fumbled one-handed and took out his hammer from his belt, where it always hung. The nails were new, but this was an old tool: it had been old when his father kept it tucked away with his saws and mallets. It had been dusty then, and cobwebbed. But half a century had gone by without it sitting idle for more than a day, usually when Araim had to make supply runs into town and the journey back took more wind out of his sails than he’d supposed.
Well, today he’d got a spring in his step. And dinner could wait.
Araim knelt down, took a plank in one hand and the hammer in the other. Nails protruding from his mouth, he began to lay down another piece of his ship.

Araim was sixteen years old, and burying his father.
It was hard. Real hard. Much harder than burying his mother had been. For one thing, there had been two of them to do the job. Even if his father had stopped every few minutes to walk off and cry where Araim couldn’t see him.
But now it was just Araim. Just Araim the baby, the little one who’d never grown up and moved out. Never had a chance to grow up and move out, never had the time to go down to the village and make friends and fall in love. Just Araim, all by himself, taking care of an old man whose shoulders he used to ride.
He paused with a shovelful of dirt – the last? Second last? Did it matter? – and looked down in the evening cool, sweat prickling on his shoulders. The last of the little lights in town were just twinkling out. Early nights, early quiet. Peaceful. Tomorrow morning he’d make the long, hot trudge down there and let them know, and they would all be sad, and maybe they’d even come back up to pay their respects at the grave he’d dug.
And that, more or less, was when he knew what he was going to do. His eyes alit on the river some seconds later, and that was when the word ‘boat’ first crossed his brain, but it had all already been decided.

The lights were going out.
That’s what drew Araim’s eye from his carpentry, that and that alone. It was too early for bed even for townfolk; this was suppertime, dinnertime. There was still daylight left, even if it was fading. Something was going on. People were in the streets now, no, people were running through the streets. Something was moving behind them, pouring through the Squeezer, shining like red fire in the sunset’s death.
Water from the Serenna, bubbling up and over earth and onto cobble and stone, churning and eating at itself with fury. If he squinted hard enough, he could almost see the flecks of black on the waves that could’ve been trees tossed aside in the fury of the storm-fed flood.
Araim stared. Then Araim snorted. Then Araim laughed and laughed and laughed, almost choking on his tongue as his head shook and his knees knocked and his hammer flew from his wide-spread fingers, arms waving as he danced and stomped and roared with glee atop the bridge atop his ship atop the mountain so high, high above the flood. He’d waited and worked and waited and here it was, here it finally was!
Now he just had to move fast enough.
Packing up the house was done in seconds. It was finally happening. The hold was already full. The ladders – those long, rickety ladders that were the bane of his back – were scampered up and down in seconds by a body filled with a glee that cut its years in half and more. It was finally happening.
It was finally happening!
Everything was done. He’d gotten it all packed. He’d even almost finished the bridge – just a few planks left out of place in the cabin floor. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. He had time now, he did; he could wait and watch and stare as the lights winked out one by one until the water lapped at the keel and he took float.
The turtle had made the new land after a year and three days, he recalled. Perhaps he’d do that too. Or maybe he’d just sail and watch the fishes flow by. Who knew? He had time. He had time.
But still… there was no reason not to do this right. It was just three floorboards. He could bend his knee once more.
Three floorboards, twelve nails. Four nails for each board, two nails for each end, one nail for each corner. Bang. Bang. Bang and bang and bang and bang twice over, and the last nail of the last bucket was gone.
Finished. It was finally happening.
Araim picked up the nail bucket, felt the weight in his hands. It would never be heavier than this again. He’d never need nails again. He’d never get those free nails or hear those stupid questions ever again.
He looked out the window, down at all the lights. There weren’t as many now as there’d been a few minutes ago.
Just Araim, all by himself. Araim the ancient, on the water, with an empty bucket that held the weight of a world in it that would drag him down like an anchor.
He ought to just chuck it overboard.
It was finally happening.

How much the ship weighed, Araim couldn’t have told anyone. It was too big to fit on any scale, and the calculations on its size and mass had been done fifty years ago by a different person.
But all the same, it didn’t matter. All you had to do was push just hard enough in just the right spot.
And as Araim felt the dirt and stone begin to slide by under the keel, as he laid his course and set his sights on the flood, as the wind rose into his face and the world shrank small beneath him, he felt the last seventy-five years fall away into the past.

Araim was seventy-nine years old, and he was being buried.
It was hard going, hard soil up where he’d made his plot. But there were many people to do the job – forty grand-nieces and thirty-six grand-nephews and two dozen nephews and nieces and even the four brothers and sisters who were still around. Many hands didn’t make the work light, but they sure as hell broke dirt fast.
Ress the littlest one was free of her father’s hand for a time – a blacksmith’s muscles were in fair demand right then – and she was using it to explore. The world was so small from here, everything she’d ever seen was so small. The village was a half-drowned ant, drying fitfully in the mid-day sun; the river a shining snake, sulking resentfully on the other side of its bank. Even the giant boat, lodged tight in the Squeezer like the world’s biggest cork, was a blurred beetle of a thing. If she held up her hand just right, her palm covered it, and it was gone.
But not really. The village was still there, wasn’t it?

Storytime: The One that Got Away.

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

It was a nice day for Sukie, right from the moment she woke up and saw the sun just blushing over a warm sky, to the very second she gripped her net with both hands and felt the good, heaving weight of a swarm of little fat wrigglers, that wonderful burn against your shoulders that came from heaving in enough food to keep you going for weeks and knowing that there was still more to be had.
They were little domeheads, the stubby-armed bodies resembling mushrooms with angry wills of their own, but out of water the fury and spite drained away and left them as sad little sacks, limp and forlorn. But they still packed a nasty bite on their skin, in their slime, and Sukie felt glad for her woven-grass gloves as she emptied the net into the bin at the belly of the boat.
One net. Two nets. Three nets. Oh, this was fine, this would keep everyone happy as they waited for the lot to dry out and stop stinging. The bin was crammed near-brimful, and greed was so enveloping at this point that it was impossible for it not to be good. The sea was smooth and friendly, the trip to shore was not so long, there was no danger and there was no rush.
Why not one more? Just one more?
So Sukie set her net, let it drift, let it idle, waited for those dozens of little squishy bodies to pack into it, soft and silent as ghosts. Not even a full net, really. Just a bit would do. A little bit. She’d yank it up in a moment. And it was just Sukie’s good fortune that she tensed up to lift when she did, because an instant later something slammed into her little net with what felt like a punch in the gut.
“Woof!” said Sukie – all instinct and vowels – and she almost let go. But this was a good net, a net made of the old plastic, a net that time and tide and however many years had left unbroken. Its form had been painstakingly crafted by Sukie’s grandpa from hundreds of little loops he’d found buried near the bottom of a Dump by chance, all arranged in little packs of two-by-three, which he’d stitched together with homemade twine, hope, and the best knots he could possibly imagine. It had been lovingly maintained by all three generations ever since; each winter, the knots retied, the weak links removed, the net shrunk by necessity.
It had been bigger, once, but it was still loved. And Sukie would rather lose her limb than her grandpa’s net.
“Wup!” she shouted – accent on UP, for up! – and hauled as hard as she could, a little thing in the back of her mind wondering what on earth had she caught on, what on earth had she done? The water here was deep, so deep you’d drown trying to find bottom; surely she couldn’t have caught on anything?
And as Sukie’s net breached the surface, she saw that she’d caught on nothing. Rather, she’d caught a monster. She didn’t even have time to scream before it and the net landed on her chest (a shockingly light monster, its snaring had been all out of proportion to its weight) and she was eye to eye with it.
Eyes. Good lord and leavings, those eyes! Those terrible, wide eyes!
“GERROFF!” she shrieked, and shoved, and down went the monster and the net, straight safe into the bin with her catch, which she slammed the rust-lid on so hard that she half thought the boat’s bottom might fall out. Then she heard the thump and thud, and sat on it for good measure.
What in all Earth’s big blue seas had she just seen, what was slapping and kicking and knocking on her cargo lid right at this second? Something she’d never imagined, that’s for sure. No bluey. No roundtop. No domehead. It was small and thick and it had more energy than a toddle, although the shrinking echoes from under her rear seemed to show that being trapped in a bin full of domehead stings was taking its toll.
What was she supposed to do with this? What if it was dangerous? Well, not THAT dangerous – it hadn’t even left tentacles on her shirt, and her gloves were clean of slime from where they’d brushed its body.
She sniffed them. Strange smell though. Nothing quite like it. Maybe Emma would know. She knew things, when she was awake. Maybe she could share them if she promised her an extra bag or two of food. Yeah. That was a good plan. Show the weird thing to Emma, ask her about it. That way what we do with it is her problem, unless she wants to admit she doesn’t know anything, and how likely is THAT?
Sukie cocked her head and listened. Dead silent.
Yeah, domehead stings, that was it. No sound now.

The monster was quiet now, resting in an antique bucket that still possessed fully half of its formerly impressive height, breathing seawater. It hardly moved at all; if it weren’t for the pulsing of its odd gill-like sides she’d have thought it dead. You certainly couldn’t tell from its eyes, those horrible human-like eyes. They wouldn’t blink, stare as she might. Did it even have eyelids?
Best not to think on it.
It was still a nice day, monster in a bucket or no. The sky was clear, empty for once of the long, dreary storms of summer, the waves were calm and tame underneath it and blue as a baby’s eyes. Sukie paused in her paddling every now and then to give her back a rest and to look at the water. Sunlight smiled back at her from below, reflected in glittering sparkles off thousands of tiny plastic shards as a marine blizzard slid by underneath her keel. They seemed to chase her home; the current was her friend, bearing her and all those miniature specks miles in minutes.
She wondered why people had filled the water with them, once upon a time. They must’ve been awfully important, for them to make so many.
“Suuuuukieeeeeee!” a call came from the shore. Tiny figures were dancing on the dock, squawking and waving their arms in the air. A rock was thrown. “Row faster, slowboat! Row row row!”
Sukie paused in her rowing to make a rude gesture and had it copied back at her tenfold. She smiled; it was always nice to teach the younger generation something. “G’wan, help or scrammit!” she called merrily to her audience of cousins. “Helpers get domeheads, scrammers get smacks! Pick it now and get a head start!”
Nobody wanted to be the first to run, everybody wanted to be the first to dip their bag. The mob of hecklers became the crew of dockworkers; the concrete slabs of the dock were aflow with helpers grasping for ropes, fighting over knots, pushing and shoving to prevent the old rust of the boat from grinding itself into red dust against its moorings.
Finally, against all odds and rules of nature, Sukie was ashore with her cargo, which was busily being hauled uphill to the shelters in family-sized bags. The children were careless – barely half a glove between them as they manhandled patchwork sacks of domeheads twice their size – but they were sure they were invincible, and were about due for another rude disabusal of that soon. How soon they’d forgotten what happened to Timm. Well, his arm hadn’t come off after all. Perhaps that was all they needed.
Sukie was travelling light by contrast and by choice; just a single sack of domeheads was hers, clasped one-handed on her shoulder. But at her side came the bucket with its monstrous cargo, and between the two of them she was half-put to a foul mood by the time her footsteps took her all the way up to the edge of the shelter, way up high, under the farthest nook of stone where old, old Emma kept out of the way with her daughter’s daughter.
“’Hoy Sukie-sue,” said the descendant in question, and Sukie swallowed her annoyance. Mary deserved none of it, and she wouldn’t get answers by being grumpish.
“’Hoy Mary-lou. Gramma here?” Mary-lou was Emma’s only family, but she was everyone’s Gramma.
Mary cocked her head. “She’s here, mostly. Had a good nap. What is it?”
“Found a monster. It’s in the pail. G’won, let’s have her take a peek.”
Mary peeked, then shrieked.
“The EYES!”
“I know. I’m half put off the sea now, thinking of things like that out there, leering up at me whenever I dip my toes. C’mon, get Gramma. We’ve gotta assuage these fears or you’ll have nobody doing the fishing.”
“Gramma’s got,” said a voice at Sukie’s side, and now it was her turn to jump. “So, what is it?” Emma’s eyes were bad but her footsteps were nigh-inaudible; Sukie’s own theory was that she was too light to make a noise. She’d gone past skin and bone to mostly bone, and the hair had left years ago.
“In the pail. C’mon, look at it in the light.”
Noon was here. The sun puddled at the top of the sky and dozed as the old, old woman looked into the pail at something that looked back. The noon blaze had improved its looks – still that flat blank face where a face had no business being, but now the light glared off its sides, as shining and bright as the plastic snow that had guided Sukie’s trek home.
How was it doing that? How could something alive sparkle like that?
Emma pursed her lips around what was left of her gums and made a funny noise, a cuh-cuh-huh-huh-huh sound like a baby blubbering.
“She okay?” Sukie asked Mary. Mary shrugged.
Cuh-huh-huh-huh-heh. “I’m laughing, that’s all,” said Emma, pausing for breath and starting over. Cuh-huh-huh. “Oh, I’m laughing! I never thought I’d see one! Oh, that’s a sight!”
“Name names, or I’ll say you’re making it up,” threatened Sukie.
Cuh-huh-huh, huh. Huh. And it was all under control, bar the leak of musty old dust-tears from ancient eyes. “Oh. Oh me. Sorry, but it’s been so long. I haven’t seen one of these since my own great-great-grandmother told me. She had a picture, you know, one of those real old ones – it fell overboard with her when she drowned, which was real appropriate and all because of-“
“I don’t hear names.”
Emma punched Sukie, but in a friendly way, and only in the stomach. “It’s a fish,” she said. “A real fish. A real live fish. Oh my. What kind I don’t know, but it’s a fish.”
Sukie felt her forehead wrinkle, and consciously chose to stop that before it got out of hand. “Fish? Fishing?”
“Yes, like fishing. It’s what people netted a long time ago, a long, long time ago. Instead of roundheads and roundtops, folks pulled up big bags of these little charmers. There were hundreds of thousands of them, you know. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands. Enough to feed more people that you can imagine.” She stared at the fish again and chuckled. “Look at that stare – isn’t that a treat?”
“I hate it. It’s like it’s watching me.”
“Oh come off, rats have faces too.”
“Yeah, but they’re land-food. Land-food has faces. Sea-food doesn’t. This is…weird.”
“Isn’t it JUST? Imagine all those folk long ago, eating these right up. Yum-yum-yum!”
“Gramma, don’t make me smack you, because I will do it.”
“Bullshit,” said Emma sweetly. “Utter bullshit. Besides, if you do that I won’t tell you how to cook this.”
“How to what?”
“What, were you going to dry it out just like the rest of your haul, my baby-sweet? Oh no, they have faces like land-food, you eat ‘em like land-food. We’re going to cook tonight.”
Sukie looked at the fish again. It wasn’t what she’d have called fat, but there was weight on those…bones. Sea-food that had bones. Good lord, if there was real meat in there instead of jelly, what a meal this thing was. It’d top the biggest rat she’d ever heard tale of that wasn’t one of Tomm’s stories. “Reckon I could find more?”
“Convinced already?”
“Argument’s sake, ‘s’all.”
Emma sighed. “Sukie, Sukie, Sukie-sue. How long have you fished here?”
“Since eight.”
“And how long did your mommy fish before that?”
“From seven to thirty.” Sukie could tell what was coming next.
“And in all those years, Sukie-sue, did you ever hear anyone tell of a fish until I just now did so?” asked Emma. “It’s finished. It’s all alone now, and there’s no going back.”
Sukie sighed. “How do you cut it?”
The old woman waved a hand. “Oh, it’s like a rat, or a person, or anything else that’s land-food. There’s bones in there and they’re all the same, from skull to tail. Just pull off the head and cut it in half along the back, you’ll work it out.”
Sukie looked in the bucket. The fish looked back. The sun had scooted behind the clouds of the late day, and in the dimness its sides were less brilliant, dull enough for her to see the batterings, the missing scales, the welts and the sores. There were cataracts across its pupils, milkiness clouding the keen black smoothness.
Maybe the eyes weren’t as human as she’d thought at first. Just panic, that’s all. A shock to see eyes on sea-food.
No, not human at all.
“Hey Emma,” she said, and she couldn’t quite tell why. “Sure there aren’t any more?”

“I said, sure there aren’t any more?”
The old woman wasn’t looking at her. Sukie put her hand on her shoulder, checking for that gentle buzz of breath that signalled a mid-conversation nap, but felt nothing but the regular wheeze of life.
“Oh Sukie-sue,” she said, and her voice was so tired now that Sukie could feel the dust on its edges as it rattled up her windpipe. “Oh my baby-sweet. Do you think I can’t recognize my own kind?”

Storytime: Half-Past Spiders.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

It was Tony’s fault. As usual.
Yes, it may have been Vanessa’s idea to play hide and seek. Yes, it may have been Vanessa who said when asked that the attic was NOT off limits. Yes, it may have been Vanessa who took her sweet time searching the downstairs bedrooms, leaving Tony’s zero-minutes-forty-seconds attention span and him alone together for far too long.
But the wandering eye that found the old clock was Tony’s, as was the hand that reached out to poke at it. He’d never seen a clock its like before – on one hand, it was an old, old old grandfather clock, the kind whose grandchildren had all had grandchildren and then died on it; on the other hand, although it was so dusty it was hard to tell, it didn’t seem to have numbers on it.
Tony wiped aimlessly at the faceplate of the clock one-handed and stared as the world made less sense by the minute. There was a mammoth at eleven, and a person at noon, and a spider at one, and was that a DINOSAUR at nine o’clock? It was hard to see.
Two things happened, both important. First, Vanessa yelled “FOUND YOU!” at the top of her powerful lungs, making Tony jump.
(That still made it Tony’s fault, okay? Not Vanessa’s fault that he’s so high-strung)
Second, Tony’s hands hopped in place. And as they hopped they jostled the hands of the clock, which felt as though they were made of sandstone, or maybe preserved bone, and sent them lurching on their way prematurely, sinking down from half-past noon to one with a resigned, creaky sigh.
It struck one.
That may be underdescribed. Let’s try that again.
It struck one, and a sound like a thousand moaning winds brewed up inside the cabinet and spewed out with the muttering ire of a hundred over-full nursing homes, circling and sputtering about the attic with dogged determination. As the sound went on – and on, and on, and ON, it didn’t seem to want to end, not even slightly – the air was filled with the sound of awful little legs, tiny dancing bodies, and eensy weensy mashing jaws. Spiders were filling up the room, spiders were standing at attention at Tony and Vanessa’s feet, spiders were mounding themselves up into a great seething pillar of arachnid bodies, its tip narrowing and narrowing until it unfolded into a singular, brightly-coloured spider about an eighth of an inch long.
“Right!” she snapped. “That was quicker than we’d thought it’d be. Well? Clear off!”
“What?” asked Tony. (Which was a very stupid question)
“Tony, what did you break?” asked Vanessa. (Which was a very smart question, and got straight to the point).
“The clock rang, didn’t it?” said the spider, in a horrible little hissing voice that sounded like hairs rubbing together because that’s what it was. “You hard your turn, didn’t you? Come on, you know the rules. We all agreed this was much tidier than just struggling and whinging every time something big went down, so don’t go welching on your word and make this as difficult as it never had to be. Mammals! Look at you, get to run rampant for a few tens of millions of years and it goes straight to your enormous fucking heads!”
“Don’t swear,” said Vanessa, who was used to policing the language of tiny rambling people.
“I’ll swear when I fucking want to, placenta-haver,” spat the spider. “Quit wasting space with your lungbellowry, my children and their children and their children and their children have been waiting long enough already. Now hold still, you’re first on our skeletonization list.”
“Wait!” blurted out Tony. “Wait wait wait!”
“What what what?” asked the spider in a rudely sing-song tone of voice that was quite disrespectful.
“We’ve got to uh….” said Tony, who’d had no plan because he was stupid.
“…Finish the ceremony,” said Vanessa, who had one because she was clever and smart.
“The what.” said the spider. Said, not asked. There was the feeling the sentence had been just… dropped there.
“Ceremony,” said Tony unhelpfully. “We’ve got to uh, have one. Rules.”
“Transfer of power,” said Vanessa.
The spider’s mandibles did something complicated that reminded both of them of their grandmother struggling not to spit out her dentures when she was cross. “Fine,” she said. “Have your stupid ceremony. What does it entail?”
“Tea,” said Vanessa.
“Boiled water and leaves.”
The spider looked as nauseated as a sixteenth-of-an-inch face with no expressions can be. “Fine. Tea. Yes, do that. I will wait here, try not to throw up, and pray that I am not expected to share.”
“Sorry,” said Vanessa sweetly.
“There are rules, but there are limits,” said the spider. “Eat them.”
“There’s cookies!” shouted Tony.
“Like flies,” he said. “But better.”
The spider scratched the tip of her left mandible thoughtfully. “Acceptable. Cookies first, eating you later. But hurry up, later’s closer nowadays.”
“Fix it,” muttered Vanessa to her brother, as she passed him on her way to the staircase. And that was a very sensible thing to say, because only the biggest idiot in the universe would expect what she’d said to mean what Tony did over the next few minutes.

They stood there, the boy and the spider, sizing one another up. Briefly. There wasn’t much spider to size, and Tony wasn’t much to look at from her point of view either. Too few legs to be worth counting.
“’Tea.’ How long does ‘tea’ take?”
“Ages,” said Tony promptly.
The spider sighed. “Ceremonies. Ceremonies, ceremonies, cere-fucking-monies. What is it with you mammals and your attaching loads of pointless bullshit to everything? You chew your food and stick it in a special pouch to digest it, you nanny your babies for ever and ever after you’ve had them, you don’t even eat your mates. Why don’t you eat your mates? Honestly, think about it: how much simpler would your life be if your mother had eaten your father at conception and left you to mature under an eave somewhere, eh?”
Tony shrugged.
“Typical mammal. At least you’ve got good taste in housing – look at all these nooks! We’ll have no shortage of places to stay.”
“The window’s real nice,” said Tony, pointing at the far end of the attic. “It’s got loads of cracks to let bugs in.”
And as the spider was looking, Tony did the dumbest thing. He reached up behind him and tried to fix the clock. But because he was a stupid fat baby, he did the dumbest thing: he tried to fix it without looking. Just grabbed the handle and tugged blind, like a big galoot. And then came the whirring, the whirring and the wailing and the terrible grinding, like a giant eating beef jerky.
“What was THAT?” demanded the spider.
“Nothing,” said Tony hastily.
“I know what nothing sounds like,” said the spider. “I hear it every day in my web. Lots of nothing. That wasn’t nothing. Are you lying to me, tasty boy?”
“I’m not!” protested Tony. “Neither! I’m neither! And it wasn’t me!”
“I didn’t say it was you,” said the spider. “What’re you trying to hide? Are you trying to hide something?”
Both Tony and the spider looked up. Hovering a discreet few millimetres above Tony’s dumb mushroom haircut that made him look like a mushroom was a squid. It was large enough to cause considerable alarm – about five foot from mantle to tentacle-tip – but what added to the impression it made was that it was glowing softly on a spectrum that didn’t quite have anything to do with visible light.
“Awwkp,” said Tony.
“Who’re YOU?” asked the spider.
“NO!” shouted the spider. “It’s OUR turn! Our clock just rang!”
Vanessa ran up the stairs, kettle in hand along with a fistful of mugs, a tablecloth in the other. She opened her mouth to say something insightful, saw the CEPHALITE, and settled for dropping a mug.
“No it’s fine it’s better this way thank you very much,” said Vanessa. “I thought it was spiders? Why are there squids, Tony is this your fault that there are squids?”
“No!” said Tony. “It’s because… because… because the ceremony’s not done yet!”
The spider looked agog at this, and agogness only becomes more impressive with mandibles. “What, you monkeys tied the clock to your stupid little show-plays?”
Vanessa considered the options carefully.
“Yes!” said Tony.
Vanessa sighed.
“Right! Then get a move on and get things working, before who knows what happens. Tea, right? Hop to it!”

Vanessa poured the tea. One mug for her, one for the spider, one for the CEPHALITE, and none for Tony, who was left to his own devices in front of the clock. An ancient, groaning night-stand had been converted into an over-stuffed table. The tablecloth didn’t cover it so much as enfold it, like a starfish sucking the guts out of a mussel. It had effectively become carpeting for half the attic.
“Right!” she said brightly. “Let’s get started. Take a sip.”
There was a pause.
“You know,” said the spider pointedly, “some of us don’t have lips.”
“And by some of us, I mean both of us.”
“In short, you can take your sipping and shove it right up your ass, primate.”
“Just a little drink?”
Vanessa noted that Tony had fumbled his way around to the clock hand again under pretense of scratching his back, but one of the CEPHALITE’S eyes was pointed in his general direction.
“No!” said the spider. “No no no!”
Vanessa shrugged. “Fine. I’ll take the mug then.” And she lashed out with her hand right-quick just as she bumped the table with her knee.

If it wasn’t quite like clockwork, it was at least like dominos. In order of events:
-the spider leapt backwards and raised her legs in threat posture
-the tea hop-skip-jumped from side to side and slid ominously towards her
-the spider bit her mug
-the mug spun gently on its access, sashayed thrice, and shattered into ten thousand nine hundred ninety eight fragments

“OAF!” shrieked the spider.
“You shouldn’t have done that!” said Vanessa. “You knocked it over!”
“You scared me!”
“You scared ME!”
“To hell with your-“ and then the spider was cut off by the screech and howl of the clock’s bell, as Tony had hastily yanked on its hands until something moved again.
There was silence then. But nobody present expected it to last for long, they were just resigned to the worst. Which it soon arrived as, in the form of small, furtive scuttling noises.
Something nudged Vanessa’s ankle.
“Beg ‘pardon,” said a small, horribly polite little voice that was far too reedy to belong to any human, “but is it our turn again? We don’t want to make any fuss, but we’ve simply been waiting for ERAS, you unnerstand.”
The spider crossed its legs over its eyes. “You,” it breathed. “You, you, you. Just YOU. You had your turn! You had nearly THREE HUNDRED MILLION YEARS of your turn! Go AWAY, grandfather!”
There was a dreadful noise like someone slapping a bag of broken potato chips with a wet towel and something like a cross between a lobster and a cockroach poked its head up onto the table.
“That’s a very rude thing to say,” said the trilobite severely. “No call for that nohow. We heard the bell, we knew our call, honest to chitin we’ve fair grounds for our supposing. Oh now, what’s all this?”
“Tea,” said Vanessa. “It’s a ceremony, and since SOMEONE jumped at their mug, it got messed up. You’re here early.”
The trilobite’s antennae twitched. “Huh. Well, suppose I might as well stick around then. What is that?”
“A mug.”
“Can I have one?”
Vanessa slid her mug over. The trilobite clasped the thing in its legs. “Huh. Warm as right. Now what?”
“Now,” said the spider, “you all go away and let us have our turn, since it’s our turn fair-and-fucking proper, THANK you very much but not really.”
“Not yet,” said Vanessa. “Cookies first.”
“Cookies? We’ve had your damned tea, we’re done. This whole ceremony’s a rolling disaster.”
“It’ll only get worse if you try and stop it.”
“Hang that hang the cookies hang you upside down and suck out your juices,” sang the spider in a happy sing-song. “We are DONE, and-“
The familiar whistle-scream began again. This time everyone screamed with it, except the trilobite, who was busy trying to figure out handles. Even it looked up as the wind faded though – there was a thud.
Preceding the thud, there was thirty-five feet of placoderm filling an awful lot of the attic.
“Hello,” it said, in a voice that had pounded its way to its throat after a ten-thousand-mile swim. “Us again?”
The armoured fish considered the table. The bony plates it had in place of teeth klinked softly as it thought, jaws that could sever sharks in two absently muttering.
“Nah. Not thirsty.”
“Tea isn’t really about THIRST,” said Vanessa properly. “It’s about style.”
The tiny, rhythmic plinking sound of the last fifteen seconds turned out to be the spider’s head smacking into the tablecloth. “Fine,” she said, between thuds. “Cookies.” Thud. “Get.” Thud. “Them.” Thud. Thud. Thud. “Now.”
Vanessa flew down the stairs. The placoderm watched her movements with curiosity. “Huh. They walk?”
“Oh come off it,” said the trilobite. “We were around before you lot and we’ve been walking since era one here. AND our cousins on land, the whole aunts-and-uncles of ‘em.”
The placoderm shrugged shoulderlessly, a current of muscle flowing down its body. “No bones. Different.”
“Typical vertebrate,” muttered the trilobite.
“Agreed doubly,” snapped the spider. “What’s keeping those cookies?”
Vanessa trudged her way up the stairs again, oreos in hand. “We should’ve had homemade,” she said, “but SOMEONE ate them all.”
All eyes turned to look at Tony for the first time in ten minutes, still leaning against the clock with one hand behind his back. He swallowed hard and tried to look nonchalant, and it wasn’t Vanessa’s fault at all that he was so bad at it. Really, if he’d been doing his job properly it’d all have been fixed by then, so he deserved to be called out.
“Haven’t we all felt that way?”
“Indeed,” said the spider. “So, how’s the rest of this ceremony go?”
“Oh, you just eat a cookie each,” said Vanessa casually. “And then it’s all over and it’s your turn.”
“You eat it with your eyes closed!” added Tony. “You have to do that! If you don’t do that, it ruins everything all at once!”
“Can’t. Will look nowhere.”
“I suppose I can stick my head in the crevice of these floor-boards.”
“Of course,” said the spider. “Of course of course. I’ll just cover my eyes with my legs. You two should have no trouble with that.”
“Oh, Tony doesn’t need to do any of this,” said Vanessa. “He’s not part of it.”
“But he is,” said the spider. “He has to eat my cookie for me. My jaws are too small – and this cookie has to get eaten, doesn’t it?”
“Well uh you see um there’s eh a bit of a problem if we kind of sort of look it’s just that” said Vanessa, or something really articulate and clever.
“No, no, it’s perfectly all right,” said the spider, as sweet as cyanide. “Come over here and take this cookie for me, will you Tony? There’s a good bipedal ape.”
Tony, who was obviously too stupid to realize that the jig was up, shrugged. “Sure, I guess. Whatever.”
He slouched forwards, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets (in plain sight, the spider’s gaze gloated upon), feet shuffling.
Shuffling quite heavily, maybe, but none of the participants at the meeting were land-dwelling bipeds save for himself and Vanessa. And SHE saw what he was doing straightaways, although she could’ve told him right then and there that it was completely a bad idea.
But Tony shuffled, and Tony stomped, and Tony twisted his heels, and miraculously enough he made it almost all the way to the table when the tablecloth underfoot decided that enough was enough and shucked itself clear of its burden in one smooth motion, surging gently forwards towards him along with the tea mugs, the tea kettle, and a half-box of semi-stale oreos.
Tony was already ducking. Which might have looked suspicious, if everyone hadn’t been slightly distracted.

The tea mugs landed, one after another, directly on the trilobite, making a noise like a steel drum band.
The box of cookies scooped up the spider like a cowcatcher and sailed (screaming brightly) into the far corners of the room.
And the tea kettle missed the CEPHALITE by a whisker (it went on to thank precognition), bounced off the placoderm’s bony mask, and smacked square into the face of the clock with a sound like the end of the world in a trash bin.
“I’LL FIX IT!” yelled Tony. And because the others were too surprised – or too squished – to tell him to stop right there, nobody did anything as he leapt at the clock, grabbed the hands, and twisted them both the only way they could go.

When the screaming died down, the spider had new bruises, the attic had a new window, and the clock needed new innards. Unfortunately the last set had been ground down to something finer than silt, so determining replacements could be problematic.
“No fooling,” said the trilobite with a grimace. “D’you remember who made this thing anyways? Maybe we could let them have a go at it.”
“Shit,” said the placoderm.
“Does this mean it isn’t our turn again yet?” inquired the newest visitor to the attic from the freshly created window, speaking as crisply as one can past teeth the size of bananas. “I take it this means it isn’t our turn again yet.”
“It was going to be OUR turn!” wailed the spider. “Ours! Not yours, OURS!”
The dinosaur yawned and shook its head, nearly adding a skylight. “Oh, spare me. The thing’s obviously as wrecked as a mammal’s self-esteem. It was never your turn.”
“It was their fault!” said the spider. “Theirs! They wrecked everything! I didn’t see it, but they did it, I know it! Theirs!”
Eyes rolled in the few individuals present that were capable of such.
“Spare me,” said the placoderm.
“Too right,” said the trilobite. “Granddaughter, you’re making a nuisance of yourself. This was a bungle from the right go, and throwing blame won’t make it any better.”
“Right, yeah, absolutely, sure, totes,” said Vanessa brightly. “So I guess that was a false alarm, everyone’d better go home now, such a shame, nice to meet you all, ta-ta?”
There was an awkward moment where no-one spoke. Immediately, everyone tried to fix it at once.
“Not as strictly such, no…”
“Go? GO?”
“We just got here…”
There was a pause again, during which Tony and Vanessa’s hearts hopped out of their mouths and fell into their stomachs.
“Fact of the matter is,” said the dinosaur, “the old system is broken. And we’re all here. Taking turns obviously hasn’t worked, so…”

Anyways, that’s the whole story. And that’s why there’s dinosaurs, trilobites, mammoths, spiders, giant jawed fish, and five-foot psionic squid roaming the street tonight, and why it’s NOT Vanessa’s fault.
Surely mom will believe this.

Storytime: The Boy Who was Pants for a Day

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

“It’s a nice day,” Alicia had said. “It’s sunny outside. There’s no school. So don’t you damned well dare turn that computer on, you hear me? Do something you can only do at your age; use your imagination.”
So Jeffrey did. And as usual, it got him straight into trouble.
First he looked outside. The birds were shining and the sun was singing. Boring.
Then he looked inside. The television had been sold last month and the computer was a forbidden zone. Besides, Saul was on it right now, doing Excel sheets. Boring.
Then he wandered around the house staring at things. Boring, boring, boring, boring.
Finally he went up to his room, took out all his clothing, and started rearranging it by colour. This was exactly how boring Jeffrey’s day was, and this was why he thought what he thought when he picked up his last set of trousers to put them away, and what he thought was this.
Hey, I wonder what it’s like to be pants?

And Jeffrey put away his pants, and he went downstairs and had some cereal, and he even washed the bowl out of sheer, unimaginable, mind-bending boredom, but as he went through all the motions the question nagged and nibbled at him. What was it like to be pants, anyways? Who could say, for who had tried? Who would try?
And why not Jeffrey?

There were things he needed to do, he knew this well. Anything worth doing had to be taken in steps, the proper steps, or else it would all fall to pieces. Willy-nilly did nobody good.
First, he had to think like pants. Jeffrey thought long and hard, long and hard, until he realized that that wasn’t working at all. Then he thought long and floppy, long and flat, he creased his brow and plaited his fingers, he filled his mind with corduroy and denim.
Second, he had to act like pants. Jeffrey let his legs hang loose and tucked his arms away into nowhere. He shrugged up his shoulders until his neck was as broad as his waist and he opened his mouth so long he could’ve swallowed a fireplace log. He shimmied until he was looser than a half-empty bag of helium.
Third, he had to be pants. Which, quite suddenly, he was. And this pleased him mightily, for in all of today so far he’d been sure he’d never get to do anything interesting.

As pants, the whole world was at Jeffrey’s disposal, if he should so choose it. He billowed and bustled himself and in the end discovered that his best bet for locomotion was a sort of sailing flap flap flap, which let him move about the house in a fashion not unlike a squid. This so pleased Jeffrey that he almost failed to notice the first great challenge of his panthood, which was that Bop heard him flailing about the kitchen floor, came to investigate, and, filled with protectiveness at the sight of the wild pants dancing about his family’s kitchen, set upon him with ferocious yapping.
This was unpleasant to Jeffrey, who’d been having a good time. He had no ears, but the sound was still offensive, and so he moved to shoosh Bop with a warning pat on the muzzle, as was common. But he’d forgotten his pantish condition and failed to analyze its likely effect on the dog, and as he drew nearer the poor animal broke into the most terrorized yelps and launched itself into an embarrassingly lousy display of canine self-defence.
It was a tragic battle fought that day beneath the kitchen lamps, one with no true cause for celebration taken by either party. For Bop, it was an endless, fruitless struggle to find a part of his foe that wasn’t denim. For Jeffrey, it was a steadily-growing realization of how pleasant it truly was to have hands by virtue of not having any whatsoever, or even any arms.
In the end, the silence of the scuffle was broken by Bop’s disheartened whimper as the confusion overwhelmed him, and he fled to his bed in the corner, tail tucked away and spirit in tatters until someone gave him a treat and told him what a good handsome boy he was. Jeffrey was not entirely pleased by this outcome, but he found it acceptable enough. Particularly as yesterday Bop had peed on his carpet. That would teach him. Nobody messed with pants.

That trial surmounted, Jeffrey began to wander about the house some more, taking stock of his home as pants. A surprising amount of it was now quite difficult to get at, it seemed. Latches were awkward, doorknobs were impossible, and even sliding under doors – which he would’ve assumed prior to his pantsing would be the optimal modus operandi of pant locomotion – was an unlikely task, due to the relative sturdiness and thickness of his pantish self. The one door ill-fitting enough to permit him access this way was the basement, and it was with great relief and anticipation that Jeffrey slipped into that place. He’d always been a little nervous to go down there alone, but as pants he felt indestructible, filled with optimism and the fire of youth in a frame much sturdier and more deftly-sewn than before.
Here Jeffery ran wild and free, cavorting amidst the cobwebs. He toyed with power tools, sashayed through scads of half-crumbled wood and metal, and wove recklessly in and out of rows of carelessly arranged bottles with interesting hazard symbols on their fronts, one of which he immediately spilled all over his pants-front.
This was the second great challenge of Jeffrey’s panthood, and a fierce one it was. This particular bottle’s little picture showed a skeleton hand on it, and at first Jeffrey was hopeful for his future as he possessed neither a skeleton nor hands. But then a strange sensation broke out across him – like an itch crossed with a witch – and he realized to his dawning horror that he was staining, staining away as if he’d been struck with ketchup.
If Bop had been a test of bodily fortitude, this was a trial of spiritual rigor. Jeffrey fought the stain on a conceptual level, controlling his breathing – well, creasing – with the utmost care and a will of iron. Go away, he told the stain, to himself. There is no place for you here, not in my body. I am me and you are you and we shall remain separate. Abandon this place, abandon these pants. Be no more here, be more elsewhere, and we shall both be happy. Go away. Go away. Go away go away go away GO AWAY.
And just then, just as Jeffrey was about to give up, the stain didn’t go away. But by then he’d tuckered himself clean out with the intensity of his thoughts, so he decided it was all right anyways. He had won the battle – not with the stain, but with his own inability to accept himself. And that was truly the lesson that needed to be learned that day.

By now Jeffrey was growing lonely, as the basement was most unsociable but for cockroaches, and he wound his way upstairs in search of companionship. But he wanted his societal introduction as pants to be spectacular, and be spectacular on his own terms. A grand surprise would do, it would, and so he prepared himself accordingly. He folded himself up at the foot his parent’s bed. He’d been quiet for some time now, and he knew that soon either Alicia or Saul would grow wary and begin a hunt for him. They would check their room last, of course, and when they’d just turned to go outside and re-check everywhere else he would spring up and surprise them. Then they would jump, and that would show them.
So Jeffrey waited. And waited.
And waited. Saul was still working on an Excel sheet, if you’ll recall, and Alicia was phoning clients. These were not things that could be rushed through without consequence, and they took themselves seriously, solemnly, and above all, very slowly. And as the sun was so awfully nice and warm through the window, and as Jeffrey was so tired from all his previous exertions, he fell quite peacefully asleep in the warm glow of noon.
He was roused from his slumber by a large hand on his neck, a most curious sensation. Saul had finished his work, the household finances lay demolished for another day, and he had finally roused himself enough to get dressed and go out for groceries. For such business as this pajamas simply would not do, and what did he have here at the end of his bed but a pair of pants such as would suit him – or rather, pant him – most well.
This was the final great challenge of Jeffrey’s panthood, a test of nerves. Specifically, reflexes. There were only a scant few seconds ‘twixt wakefulness and the very real threat of being donned and worn for Jeffrey, but he was young yet and possessed a reaction time that would put a fly to shame. Instinct was yet his ally, and at the sheer horror of the oncoming threat that was his father’s posterior he immediately let loose a most un-pantish yelp of great size and vigor, making Saul jump half a foot and put half his foot through the laundry basket, with no less noise than Jeffrey had made.

There was a bit of kerfuffle and a lot more confusion and consternation as Alicia came rushing into the bedroom to comfort her shouting husband and confront his agitated pants, but then Jeffrey began to make the most un-pantlike gestures, and soon they were all able to explain the whole thing out.
You know.
By pantomime.
When it was all said and done, Alicia started laughing and couldn’t stop; but Saul just sat down on the bed and cried. “I don’t want to have a son who’s pants!” he sobbed. “I was just getting used to having a son with two arms and two legs and a torso in there somewhere, and now I’ll have to get used to it all over again!”
Jeffrey was distressed to see his father so upset, and quickly attempted to unpants himself, in order to placate him. But try as he might, wriggle as he pleased, crease and plait as he would, he found to his rapidly-increasing alarm that he seemed to continue to be most panted.
“All right,” said Alicia tearily, wiping away a last few giggles with the back of her hand, “then let’s fix this. I know just the trick for getting rid of a case of pants.”
So she grabbed Jeffrey by his neck – kindly – and dragged him back down to the basement, flap flap flap. And she put him in the washing machine, added soap, flipped a dial and twiddled a button, and then she sat on the lid of the washing machine until the flaps and creaks turned into thumps and shouts, and she reached in and pulled out a very damp and agitated little boy by the scruff of his neck, like a puma with her kitten.
“Now, what have we learned today?” Alicia asked Jeffrey, as she wrapped him in a towel and hauled him off to get changed.
“Never to use my imagination for anything,” said Jeffrey.
Alicia rolled her eyes at this, but decided it was too late in the day for moralizing anyways, even on a Saturday. So she gave him a bowl of cereal for lunch and let him have a turn at the computer, because after all, hadn’t she been just the same at his age?

And that was the last time Jeffrey was pants. It had been an exciting experience at the start, but by the end he’d considered the whole project to be disarmingly pointless.
Besides, he didn’t like any playtime that ended in him getting collared. If he’d been born a decade or two earlier, his mother reminded him, he likely would’ve gotten belted.