Archive for September, 2017

Storytime: For Whom the Bird Tolls.

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

No bells tolled.
The cars didn’t slow. The lights didn’t dim. There were no pallbearers or mourners or even plain gawkers. Not a blink from an eye.
After all, it was only a small dead bird.

There it lay, turned on its back with its head to the side. Feathers ruffled in the breeze when it burst hard ‘round the corner. It had been kicked by careless toes once, twice, five times until it was off the beaten centre of the sidewalk, and the slight smear of its blood had been worn away by ten million soles since then, since the morning.
Like most bodies, it looked a little surprised. But no one else was.
After all, it was only a small dead bird.

Someone had most of a hot dog and was left with the unfortunate part of a hot dog, which was the butt-end of the bun. Someone let it drop. And because it landed next to the body, that was where the pigeon found it.
It bobbed its head, as pigeons do, and muttered and chuckled its odd pigeon voice.
Then it left.
Then it came back.
By the end of the day there were a round dozen pigeons standing on that little stretch of curb. Some would take off, some would come in. But never less. Never less.
It was a peculiar sight to any that noticed it. A couple motorist swerved. One honked. The pigeons would take off and land again. Bobbing. Talking.
Nobody really noticed what they were standing around. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

In the morning the first seagull stopped by. And from there word moved on faster, farther. Magpies and crows and starlings oh my, all in a row on the lights and storefronts and curbs and all staring, all staring in that lidless bird way that usurps words.
That evening the first raptor stopped by – a youngish peregrine falcon, a resident of the skyscrapers. It slid out of the sky like an otter down a riverbank and tucked itself in between a couple of finches, which didn’t so much as twitter.
The ducks came in, which raised a few eyebrows. And the big, foul-tempered geese. And the little batch of swans that had stopped by the week before, taking time out of their trek to stand around on a streetside. Honking and muttering, shifting from foot to foot and tucking heads and necks into place.
Waiting and watching.
People were taking pictures now, with and without selfies. Amateurs and idlers and professionals and perfectionists, dropping by or coming over.
But there wasn’t really any sort of explanation they could see for it. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

The city woke up to find itself corralled in feathers. Birds lined every roof, rail and corner. A stare for every footstep taken, every inch of every block. Storks in the parking lots, crows in the suburbs, ospreys on the balconies of the condos. Woodpeckers clung to the great glass panes of the skyscrapers, giving offices an unexpected new decoration.
There was no wood. Mind you, they weren’t pecking either. Just watching.
And nobody was sure what they were watching for, either. Because nobody had any idea why they’d all come. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

That evening, a formal petition was left on the doorstep of city hall, signed by an uncountably vast number of tiny little claws and beaks. The writing was chickenscratch, but a definite list of demands.
This got the attention of more than the photographers. Scientists became involved, and the media. Interviews were conducted with councillors and Phds. Everyone was extremely excited to hear that birds could communicate with people, let alone in a legal or quasilegal context. It was quite a novelty. A few thousand gigabytes were wasted on it very quickly, here and there and everywhere, and the city went to bed wide-eyed, waiting for more. The news wasn’t happening fast enough anymore.
The day following that a fresh copy of the petition appeared on the stoop of every councillor, plus inside the local paper’s mailbox. And everyone was very excited until they realized it was the same old thing they’d seen yesterday. How dull. Birds couldn’t be as interesting as all that after all.
Besides, they were in the way now. Birds clogged the streets as well as the sky. Sometimes they crapped on the ground and people stepped in it, or it landed on them, and that was intolerable. They obstructed traffic. They called loudly to each other at inconvenient times, or indeed at all, and this annoyed people that were trying to get to work and just keep on staying alive. It was all a nuisance, and for what? Why all the fuss? Who could understand what kind of nonsense could make perfectly normal birds get up to that kind of irrational nonsense?
Nobody had any idea. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

On Friday, the birds stopped waiting.
Executives were picked up bodily and swung head-first into their own shining glass-walled towers.
Storefronts were defaced with guano.
City hall was picked up by ten million geese and ducks with a lot of rope and dropped into the harbour.
Every single polished, sweeping plate-glass window in the city was broken into extremely small fragments, allowing pigeons in through the new door to flip cartwheels through the businesses and high-rises and whole world they’d been barred from.
And the mayor was waylaid, abducted, and left stranded and clinging for dear life atop the tallest antenna in the city.
“You mind telling me why you went and did all this?” he asked the pelicans that had ferried him there, before they lifted off. “I really don’t understand why.”
The pelicans consulted with their translator, a particularly ruffled and therefore entirely ordinary crow.
“There was a small dead bird,” said the crow.
“What? Well that’s… well, bad, obviously. But scarcely unusual! It happens every day here. Why? What was so special about that happening?”
“Mostly that it wasn’t special,” said the crow.
And they left the mayor high and dry. But with plenty of grips to hold on to.
In a bit of a breeze, though.

The papers wouldn’t shut up about it for days. But it was real peculiar.
After all, it was only a small, flattened mayor.

Storytime: Treed.

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

The ground shook as the jug dropped.
It was merited. The jug was four feet tall and three feet across at its broadest point. It was iron, ugly, half-slagged pig iron that looked as though it had been allowed to cool rock-solid before pouring. A chain dangled from its neck, with links that had been mended so many times that they were almost little balls.
Lensh picked it up in one hand and swigged it. The swig turned into a slurp, elongated itself seamlessly into a swallow, and ended at rock bottom.
“A hateful death on tiny drinking vessels,” said Lensh, and gave the jug’s side an affectionate slap, which deepened the dent in its gut. She leaned slow against the tree, nuzzling her face into its bark until the trunk groaned. “One day I’ve got to get a bigger one.”
The tree moaned at her weight.
“Oh, silence yourself. It’s a bad habit but we all need one. And it didn’t kill me yesterday, and it hasn’t killed me today, and as for tomorrow why should I or anyone else care, eh?”
“An astounding philosophy. Meritorious. Mellifluous.”
Lensh squinted up into the tree’s branches. “Is that you Allysii?”
“I would applaud but both my hands are stuck to this branch.”
“It’s you, isn’t it Allysii?”
“Such words of wisdom could only come from the innocent and pure mouth of a born child.”
Lensh sniffed. “You are Allysii. I can smell your perfume from here. They used the eggs of little purple crabs to make it. I walked down the coast seventeen years ago on my way to get married and I had an entire bushel of those crabs for breakfast for every league I walked.”
“And how many leagues did you walk, o wife of wisdom and mistress of mastery?”
“Amazing. They must have been astoundingly tasty.”
“Awful. But I was energetic, and still growing. I needed to keep healthy.” Lensh picked up the jug again, put it to her mouth, remembered it was empty and gave up with a sigh that shook the leaves. “Ah, that’s yesterdays. Yesterdays don’t matter. Tomorrows don’t matter. Now does. You are Allysii, and you are helplessly trapped and soon I am going to kill you.”
“How are you going to do that?
“I will tear down this tree, tear off your arms, tear off your legs, then tear off your head and tear apart your body,” said Lensh. “Then I will take all your pieces and drop them into the sea in different places that I find particularly pretty. This is the way I have killed all the rest of your family, Alysii, and you know that perfectly well. Do you have any more silly questions?”
“Certainly – three more, in fact!”
“Three! Such a chatterbox you make of me, Allysii. Go on, name your poisons you little squirrel!”
“Why are you going to kill me? What is the reason you carry that marvelous and wondrous and oh-so-illustriously lustrous drinking vessel? And also, last but not least, I humbly ask you this: who is this Allysii?”
Lensh laughed a lot at that. The tree’s roots buckled under her as she pounded the ground with a fist, and finally she shut herself up by tucking both her hands into her mouth and punching herself to be quiet.
“You ARE funny today Allysii. Well, I will answer you in reverse order, so your very baited questions are not left to very late in the evening. Immediacy is important! So, your third question.”
“You are Allysii. You are the very last child of the last person who offended me – well, the last who did so in such a great and unspeakable manner. For this, I have personally and gradually torn apart all of their relations (save you) and dropped their parts into different places in the sea. As you are aware.”
“I was not aware of any of this, my clever and honeytongued friend, but your elucidation is most appreciated. My goodness me! Such a long way to come to avenge the taking of your arm.”
Lensh checked her arms. “No, no. They are still here. Nobody may take my arms but me, I am very certain of this. You’re being weird, Allysii, but that is nothing new. At any rate, I have followed you for six years two months and four days and as my legs are long and strong and yours are spindly and week I have caught up with you and caught you and soon I will tear you apart into parts and drop those parts into different places in the sea, which is no surprise to you. Now, I will answer your second question!”
“I am listening with great and attentive care.”
“As you should!” said Lensh. And she raised her iron jug and toasted the tree.
“You see this dent?” she asked.
“I do indeed, revealer of secrets, speaker of truths. A grievous wound for any cup to bear, but on yours it only adds charm!”
“Absolutely. And my jug is nothing but charm. You must understand, when I went to marry seventeen years ago I was an innocent young thing that knew nothing of vice or hardship. All my life I’d been coddled in the foothills, wrestling mountains and playing with giants. But at last they were all too small for me, and I was very lonely until the day the ground shook under my feet and tore apart the hills.”
“Terrifying and fearsome! A shame for any child to endure such trauma.”
“Oh, it was wonderful! I’d never seen something so impressive! So I picked up a herd of goats to eat and a stream to drink and I walked down the hills to the coast and went looking for that earthquake, who I had fallen madly in love with.”
“Such romance at so tender an age? You are a prodigy and an ingénue in the same soul, my admirable companion.”
“Well, I was foolish and happy to be that way. What fool isn’t, eh? So I walked and sang and drank and ate, and although I ran out of goats on the third day I ate the little awful purple crabs instead, and made do.”
“And what did you drink? Surely not the sea?”
“Me and mine, no no no! So salty! It was a good-sized stream and it kept me going for half the journey, and when it ran dry I rolled it into a ball and squeezed it until the juice came out, and I drank the juice, and what was left I made into a cup, and when I was done I had a fine wedding present for my groom, who I found in the middle of destroying three cities at once.”
“So noble! It’s no wonder you fell for it on the spot.”
“He. Mind your tongue when you speak of my husband, Allysii. I give you questions, but if you trade me back impertinence I will give you my fist instead.”
“I beg the humblest of forgivenesses from the bottom of my heart to the heights of every heaven.”
“And I will grant it! Now, where was I?”
“Your husband, the earthquake.”
“Ah, yes. Well, after a week of marriage he’d shuddered down to a mere creak and could barely be bothered to knock the plates off the pantry. So I told him to do better. So he hit me. So I hit him back. So I left with my marriage gift and a couple bruises and all of his teeth. And let me tell you this: it matters no matter at all what I put in this jug, Allysii, but it tastes better than your dreams can ever know.”
“I am awed to be in its presence.”
“You should be.” Lensh shook her head mournfully. “Alas, it remains empty.”
“A sad yet joyous occasion, to take that burden of weight off the bad leg of yours.”
“Bad leg? Hah! Could I have outrun you so with a bad leg? Oh, and as for your third question, I am going to kill you because – as I am sort of sure I may have mentioned in passing, and besides, as you already know, being Allysii, who has been fleeing me for six years two months and four days in terror of my power and tremendous anger – your mother gave me horrible offense. When she did me wrong, I nearly ate her on the spot, but such was my shock and my anguish and my anger and my disbelief that I stood struck dumb as a stone for a week straight, permitting her time to escape with her person, her possessions, and her family. Which I then pursued, caught, tore into pieces, and dropped into different places in the sea, to my satisfaction and to your lack of surprise.”
“As was their just desserts, for inflicting such a blow to your poor weary heart, the fiendish louts.”
“Heart? Hah! I have none. I traded it to a tortoise in the desert past the mountains past the forest past the river past the lake past the sea to the south of here, in exchange for a good meal.”
“Was it so?”
“He tasted magnificent. I have no regrets, and never will – as you know, Allysii, yesterdays don’t matter.” Lensh clicked her tongue, scratched her side, wiped her nose, and cricked her knuckles. “Anyways, I am going to stand up and uproot this tree now. Are you satisfied?”
“Although I am spellbound, I regret to speak this most dread of words: ALMOST! That is a marvelous tale, worthy of any queen or empress’s court. But I must trouble you with one trifling detail, oh fablemaker, without which your tale lacks denouement to soothe my wary, weary soul: what offense in all the world did my mother commit to make you wish her and her family such harm?”
“Oh, that,” said Lensh. “Well, when I first walked on your family’s grounds I had never yet sampled from my old friend here, of the iron sides. And in taking my first few draughts I was a bit preoccupied, and a tad musty in the head. It was a warm night and I took all my clothes off to keep cool – there was a lovely breeze, Allysii – and as I strolled I danced, and as I danced I sang, and as I was so busy singing and dancing I smashed straight into your mother’s window, where I fell flat on my back until she came to see me.”
“And what did she do there to cause such offense, my benevolent keeper?”
“Well, I introduced myself. ‘I am Lensh, the inevitable and indestructible! Wrestler of mountains! Uprooter of trees! I married an earthquake, divorced him for his smallness and timidity, and left him with all of his teeth in my fist! Behold me!’”
“No, me.”
“Indeed! And what transpired then?”
“She threw a cup of water on me.”
“The gall!”
“I thought so!”
“The cheek!”
“And it drove you blind in your right eye?”
“Oh, my mistake. It drove you blind in your left eye?”
“What?” said Lensh irritably. “You are getting slower and stupider by the day, Allysii! It landed on my forehead between my eyes.” She rubbed her face and parted the thick fur that matted her skull. “Right here!”
“Ah! I see!”
“As well you-”
It was a very small knife, and although Allysii’s whole body was behind it, it was a very small body.
But although Lensh’s fur and hair were tough as diamonds, her skin was as soft and supple as a baby’s.
“Damnation,” said Lensh, as she fell over, flat on her back. “I am Lensh! Behold me! The great idiot!”
And she died, with a belch.

Allysii left the jug where it lay. One day, some birds made a nest in it. And my, were their eggs strange.
But that was a story of tomorrow, which doesn’t matter.

Storytime: A Soft Touch.

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

I used to make fun of my big sister whenever we went swimming. I’d hold my breath and go down deep, deep, deep as I could and feel around with my eyes shut against the grainy mud until I had a fistful of soft muck. Then I’d push off and – up up up and UP and throw it at her, laughing as she shrieked and yelled and splashed me until I either swallowed water or mom told me to stop.
“It’s just seaweed,” I told her. “It’s just seaweed.”
“It’s GROSS,” she told me. And I loved hearing that, because it meant it’d work again next time too, and the time after that at least.
“Why?” I asked her. “It’s soft. Soft things can’t hurt you. See?”
And I’d throw the other fistful at her and oh it’d get louder still.
“It’s SQUISHY,” she said. “GROSS.” And then she’d finally catch me when I was laughing too hard and I’d get dunked over and over until mom yelled something. It was fine, it was routine, it was reliable, it was my very own private manufactured and malicious version of the old man-on-a-banana-peel comedy.

But then there was that one, that other time.

It was a little late, but it was a little lake and a little ways from the little cottage. So it wasn’t a problem, was it? I knew how to swim better than most of the fish in there.
And the sun wasn’t down yet. Nice rosy water, still warm from the day and with no wind to whip you when you came out damp. A padded sort of moment, when the whole world was as calm and slow as a grandparent’s hug.
Then something grabbed my ankle and I went down.

And farther.

And deeper.

And darker – but only to a point. There was light down there, at the bottom of the deepest part of the lake. I’d never touched mud farther than a body-length off the dock, but here I was nestled in its lowest guts, and surrounded by fuzzy glows that made me think of fireflies.
I was in a chair.
Well, more than a chair. It had a high, tall back and the arms were more decoration than support. The word was ‘throne.’
Around me, soft and green and wavering gently, the seaweed gathered and talked and mumbled in their rippling voices and ambling minds.
“Why me?” I asked.
Because someone has to make the hard choices, they told me. Look, look!
And they stretched themselves out very thoroughly and I could see that there wasn’t a hard part in any of them, not a speck. They were algae with ambition and not much more.
So I was in charge. And it was a wonderful hour. I ruled, I judged, I decreed, I pontificated, I got to fulfill every petty tyrant’s ambition that a modern politician dreams of.
It was a wonderful hour but a lousy hour-and-a-half.
At first I tried being random. Then I tried being spiteful. Then I tried making deliberately bad decisions.
But all around me, all those things I did just rippled through those soft jelly-bodies without so much as leaving a mark.
I tried to leave, but my throne was seaweeds too. And the harder I hauled away from it, the tighter it clung to me. Ten million little tiny ropes tautening into wire cables. Scream and twist and shout and swear every bad word I’ve ever known and nothing happened.

I almost fell asleep there when the sun went down and the water ran cold over me. Wore myself out. But in the end there’s no amount of tired that can’t keep a little kid from crying from homesickness, even when they’re asleep. When I’d finally shaken myself free of that nightmare I wiped the tears off my face (don’t ask me how that happened underwater, because I’ve never found my answer), and that was when I found my arm to be free.
So I jumped up and my throne held me down again, and again, and oh I was a stupid child because it wasn’t until the fifth time I’d nearly choked myself on my own fear that I realized that the secret was to move just like the weeds themselves.
Then I took my time, and I made it careful, and I softly, slowly, smoothly slipped free of my chains and my crown and my rulership and I skedaddled.

Kicking was the problem. I shouldn’t have kicked. I wanted to get home fast, I thought that throne was the last obstacle, but oh I made a real ruckus when I sped for the surface. My lungs hurt, you understand. They’d remembered they were there, and were aching.
But as I kicked I felt my feet tickle, and my legs, and I looked down and was nearly blinded by swirling muck. The bottom was rising after me, with a thousand feathered arms and hands and it was gripping as tightly as its damp little palms would allow.
Those wire cables were on me again, that squishing touch that meant the droning voices and the unending hours and the chair that wouldn’t let go, but my hand broke the surface before theirs broke my skin, and at that moment – that very moment – they gave up, and went limp.
And that’s when my mother found me, lying on the shore, screaming my head off and covered in dirty old seaweed.

I still don’t swim by myself. And I can’t bring myself to eat anything too slimy, or too soft.
But on the whole I was pretty lucky, I think. Imagine if they’d ever done what I told them to.

Storytime: Skippy.

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Tiny little things change a lot.
Why, look at this asteroid. Eight miles from bow to stern – not even a cosmic atom. But there it was, about to make the lives of ten billion fatty apes so very much more difficult than they needed it to be.
But they had their own little ways of making their own little changes.
“Focus, please.”
“I’m focused. Hey if I hold up my palm just right I can cover up the whole planet. Woah.”
Intentionally or not.
“Look, can you just turn around and come back to the ship? Your tank’s gas mix is off. You’re not thinking rationally.”
“I’m absolutely rational. I spent seventeen years being trained to monkey with impossibly dangerous substances day in and day out and never kissed anybody even though I really wanted to. I’m very rational. I’m very rational. Hey, what do you think is going on here? Is this rock more of a phallic thing or a yonic thing? I mean, it’s going to PENETRATE atmosphere, but it’s shaped a lot more like a-”
“Please. Major. Come back. You’ve got the detonator on you.”
“I do?”
“Huh. Where’d I put it?”
“In your left pocket.”
“I can’t find it.”
“Your other left pocket.”
“Oh! Well how about that. Heck, might as well get it done while we’re out here, right? No sense in wasting time. Every delay brings us a nanoinch closer to obliviation, right?”
“Major, please. The explosion has to be precise. You are holding the lives of ten billion people in your pocket. ”
“Nah, it’s in my hands now. And it’s safe! Hey, did I ever tell you what I did when I was a kid?”
“No, Major. Maybe you should come back and show me?”
“I skipped rocks!”
“That’s n-”
“I was good at it. Really good.” The Major brushed the detonator carefully, feeling the plastic switches tremble and judder in their little safety cages. “All those days down at the lake, it was a good lake you know. For skipping. Seven skips. Without a good stone, mind you. Like, a lumpy one. A big clunky one. Hey, you know what? I bet I can top this.”
“Major plea-”
“It’s fine,” said the Major, holding the detonator sideways and upside down and then settling on backwards. “I’m an expert at this. They called me Skippy, you know that? I miss being Skippy.”

They only got four skips out of it before it landed in the North Atlantic, but boy they were fat ones.
Still, it was just a little planet. It’d get over it.