Archive for October, 2017

Storytime: The Long Autumn.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

Once upon a while there was a warlord. But he didn’t war so much as pillage, and no noble line would claim him. A funny title, for a funny man.
And he WAS a funny man. He had a sense of humour, and a good one. Every time he and his army came to a new village, he would stomp into the center of it and challenge them fair and square: a wrestling bout, two falls out of three, for who would own the place. This was always completely hysterical to his sensibilities because he stood eight foot four inches, and was broad to match and then some. And so his realm expanded, along with his good humour.
One day that good humour was sorely tested. The warlord had just finished wrestling a stubborn old coot, and had been forced to break his arms and legs in three times as many spots as normally required just to get him to stop wriggling at him. Even now his bristly little jaws worked, fixing to chew at the warlord’s toes as he raised his foot high above his head.
“Good fight,” said the warlord grumpily. “Any last words?”
“Yeah,” said the old coot. “Twenty years ago I would’ve been biting you right now. But now I’ll settle for the next best thing. See that tree over there? The moment the last leaf drops off that thing, my ghost is going to jump out at you and eat your heart right out of your chest.”
The warlord finished stomping, but his heart was already troubled even un-eaten, and consultation with his best astrologer confirmed his fears.
“He lived a good clean life,” said the astrologer as she traced the lines on the old coot’s limp palm. “No swearing. Lots of surplus curse-juice. It’s all bound up in that one. Wow, you’ve sure had it.”
“No,” said the warlord. “I was getting sick of wandering around anyways. Time for everyone else to come to me now.”
So he crowned himself king, in the traditional manner of brutishness. And as his first command, blacksmiths were brought.
And a great chain was wrapped around the tree’s trunk
And a strong chain was linked to the great chain
And a sturdy chain was linked to the strong chain
And a thin chain was linked to the sturdy chain
And a slender chain was linked to the thin chain
And a fine chain was linked to the thin chain
And a little needle-thin chain was linked to the fine chain
Which held every single leaf of the tree in place with exquisite care.
Each chain was locked, and the king proclaimed himself pleased.
Then he had all his blacksmiths killed and began a long and happy reign of terror.

The years passed. The tree’s leaves turned grey and shrunken. The chains grew a little dusty, but the king prohibited their cleaning. And under that tree, in his court, in his castle, he would partake in his greatest sport and joy: every summer of every year every village would send him someone to wrestle. If they won, they didn’t pay taxes. If they lost, the king collected double. This pleased him immensely, and it often pleased some of the older villagers too, because there was always at least one strong young person who was too much trouble by half as far as they were concerned.
And then once upon a few whiles later, a young woman with a particularly stubborn and surly jaw came to the king’s court in mid July.
“Hello you miserable bastard,” she told him. “I’m here to wrestle. Let’s go.”
“Excellent,” said the king.
And they did. And the woman twisted and heaved and turned and spun and ducked and bit at least once, giving the king the time of his life for a good half-hour, but in the end he simply fell over at her and succeeded in breaking her left leg like a dry twig.
“SHIT,” she said shortly.
“One to me,” said the king. “The next will come tomorrow, at noon. You know, you have a familiar sort of stubborn jaw. Did I wrestle your grandfather?”
“You did,” said the woman.
“He only had the one grandchild?”
“My oldest brother is far away, studying. My middle brother is deathly ill with Lumps. My youngest brother is three. So they said ‘you do it.’”
The king laughed at that, and as he took his leave of court he rang for one of his servants to come and give her some splints. The servant was an extremely earnest boy of maybe-seven, and from the fixedness of his gaze and the care in his movements the woman saw that he was blind.
“We’re all blind around here,” he explained to her. “I was born with it. Some people have to learn it. There’s a sort of red-hot poker.”
“Ouch,” said the woman.
“No, I was splinting my leg.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, it could be worse and it likely will be. Tomorrow he’ll probably break the other one and then my head, just like grandfather.”
“You can’t beat him?”
“You can only wrestle so hard when you’re wrestling a bear,” said the woman. “He’s just too big for anybody. Grandfather couldn’t beat him, I can’t beat him. The only thing he thinks can beat him is that stupid tree, and it’s tied with seven chains and bound with seven locks, so at this rate the leaves won’t come off it until the whole castle’s ground down to sand and bones.”
They talked for a while after that, but the servant boy was distracted. In a way he’d ended the conversation there, because now he had some ideas, and he had those ideas because now he’d had a friend.
Both were very new to him, but he was an eager learner.

That night the warlord snored.
This was normal and extremely loud.
That night the servant boy slipped through his master’s door.
This was abnormal and extremely quiet. And so all was well, until he opened the great cupboard of royal keys and found that – by his rough estimate – there were seven hundred and seventy-seven keys inside of varied size and ostentatiousness.
If he’d known any swears, he would’ve made the old coot blush.
Instead, he thought. And he thought. And he wished the king wouldn’t snore so, because it made thinking extremely difficult.
Then he thought about the king and smiled. He padded up to his bedside and breathed in.
“Gross,” he whispered.
Then he went back to the royal cupboard and followed his nose to the smell of greasy palms and pig-thick sweat.
It wasn’t easy. The keys had been closed up for a long time, with nobody dusting them. But faint as a whisper, as stinking as sepsis, they came to his nose and hand one by one.
Then he snuck out again.

Early that morning the woman woke up, tightened her splint, and faced breakfast.
Breakfast was a single half-loaf, crumbly.
Breakfast was wrapped in a white cloth.
Breakfast clinked softly as she held it, and when she half-unwrapped it glimmering metal revealed itself.
“Well,” she said. “Aren’t you clever.”
The servant boy nodded.
“Hah. Well, let’s just oh damnit why’s he up so early.”
And indeed the king had not stirred at that hour for decades. But uneasy dreams had rustled his pillow, full of creaking, rustling leaves – and he’d awoken in a fit at the sound of his creaking key cabinet, one door flapping wide.
He was in a bad mood. But he knew what made a bad mood good.
“Round two, it was?” he said.
“At noon,” said the woman.
“It’s close enough,” he said. And he went for her.
“Hold my breakfast,” she told the servant bot. And she went for him. Hopping.
The servant boy shrank back into a corner of the court with appropriate awe and terror. Then he picked up breakfast and ran around the wrestlers, ran to the center of the court, and hurried like a little squirrel up into the tallest branches of the chained tree.
And he unlocked the great chain wrapped around the tree’s trunk
And he unlocked the strong chain linked to the great chain
And he unlocked the sturdy chain linked to the strong chain
And he unlocked the thin chain linked to the sturdy chain
And he unlocked the slender chain linked to the thin chain
And he unlocked the fine chain linked to the thin chain
And as he unlocked the little needle-thin chain that was linked to the fine chain, the tiny, needle-thin dusty key snapped in the lock.
Which held every single leaf of the tree in place with exquisite and quite permanent care.

There was no time to panic. There was no time to swear. Instead the servant boy dropped. He dropped and caught and fell and snatched and clawed his way down that tree again, and he grabbed hold of the great tree wrapped around the tree’s trunk and he heaved as mightily as he could and because he was only maybe-seven it did absolutely no good whatsoever. He might as well have tried to move the castle.
But from the corner of her eye, half-blind with sweat, the woman saw him strain. And as she hobbled and dodged and grunted and shifted she hopped closer and closer to the tree, where she did a complicated thing.
With her stiff splinted leg’s toes she seized the great chain.
With her body she ducked underneath the hurtling mass of the king.
With her right leg she stuck herself right in front of the king’s descending foot.
And as the king went “WOOPS,” and her right leg went ‘crack’ and he went sailing by, with her hands she looped the last link of the great chain wrapped around the tree’s trunk over his foot.

THUD, he went on the ground.
GlinlglinlglinkglinkglinkglinkglinkPOP went the chains and the seventh lock.
Creak, mentioned the tree.

And the leaves fell in a single mass with the clattering rattle of a thousand dry throats, and every single one covered the warlord’s face like a shroud.
Oh, he screamed at that! He screamed and screamed and screamed all at once in a single breath and he screamed so hard that his heart JUMPED out of his chest and into his mouth and he ate it by mistake.

They probably didn’t get married, the servant-boy and the woman. Too much of an age gap. I’d think they’d have stayed friends after that, though.
What do you think?

Storytime: A Six-Hour Shift at the Beef Store in the town of X, Y County, Ontario, Canada.

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

The air still smells nice in the early pre-noon as I clump up to the door. Trees, leaves, and the damp leftovers of last night’s dew still grimly clinging on.
But then I pop open the door and the red, meaty smell of animal hits me. Someone’s dropped a can on the floor and it’s popped open, spilling beef under a shelf.
Well, that’s one way to start a shift.

Hour one needs that sort of chore though. There’s not much else to it. Double-check the shelves for stock. Double-check the floor for spots you missed cleaning last night. Check signs, check your teeth, whistle if you can. I can’t.
The customers are mostly regulars. Very regulars. They’ve got stricter schedules than I do. It’s Wednesday, so that means he comes in at nine after the bell, smiling and waving. We talk a bit as I pack up his baggie of venison. He gives me a dad joke, which I appreciate.
“Hey. You know what the difference is between a hippo and a Bic?”
“Well, the hippo’s a little heavier. And the Bic’s a little lighter.”
I don’t laugh. The listener never laughs at dad jokes, you just make disgusted spitting sounds without opening your mouth. The joker laughs instead, and he does so. His hands shake like rattlesnake tails as he takes the baggie of animal from mine.
“Don’t you start,” he says to me, serious now.
“I haven’t, I won’t,” I tell him. “Too cheap. Beef costs money, you know.”
“I’m serious,” he says, and he still is. He’s smiling but he means it very much. “It’ll ruin your life.”
“I won’t,” I say again, and he smiles more and he waves and we say goodbye until Wednesday.

Hour two. Now the business picks up, past the regulars. It’s time to get in the car with a cooler and fill it up with animal in any form you can imagine. Baggies and cans fly across the counter. Especially the baggies of hamburger – it’s so fatty, it goes down easy. The men love it the most, and they’ll chug it by the case with their friends.
“What’s that flavoured crap?” one of them asks his wife in that mocking voice that’s just joking and therefore absolutely serious. She gives him and me and the world a giggle that’s grown awkward from overpractice and I sell her a bag of peppered beef jerky, a single stick of which has more protein in it than mister macho’s entire case and then some. Pemmican and jerkies, hard to imagine anything harder, but you don’t grill them so they aren’t manly even if they’ll trash you faster than you can say boo.

Hour three is when the part of the day I’ve been expecting happens and I say the magic words, which are “Mind if I see some ID?”
And I get my genie’s wish fulfilled, because it’s definitely SOME ID, it’s just not theirs. The face is broader and flatter. Probably an older sibling. They get the birthday wrong twice when I quiz them, and they don’t have any other photo cards. I write it down in my little booklet as I explain to them why this baggie of gravlax isn’t going to happen now, and I’m lucky because they’re young enough that they just get sullen instead of belligerent. Give it a year.
They slink off out the door and out of the parking lot and away down the road and I know in the next hour or so some adult is going to walk in the door and buy a couple of things. One of them will be a baggie of gravlax. They will meet my eyes with absolute sincerity and I will have no grounds whatsoever to say anything about it.

Hour four is the lull, where everyone’s probably at home, devouring their bounty. I take the time to wander back into the fridges and refill the shelves where they’ve been stripped bare. Some stuff needs this treatment hourly; others I’ve left there for months. It’s like a memory puzzle, seeing how much you can hold in your brain in one trip. Four gravlax eight pepperettes six sirloins and two tri-tips and a partridge in a pear tree. Twenty bags, two hands, I make it work. I’m very proud of that. The last time I dropped anything I was only holding two bags, don’t ask me how that works.
When I’m putting the sirloins on their shelf someone walks up behind me and bites me on the neck in a not particularly enthusiastic way. I yelp – that’s it, no scream, no roar, just a genuine ‘AH WHAT WAS THAT’ sound, pure and unpolluted. The biter shows no reaction whatsoever. Turns on her heel and walks out the door. By the time I’m thinking of descriptions and police she’s already in the parking lot (on foot, so no license plates) and all my memory has to go on is ‘has teeth.’ Helpful.

At hour five some of hour two’s customers come back in. Some of them are already wasted – god knows how, off’ve light beef, but I could smell it on their breath. Their eyes are red; their mouths stink of old muscle tissue and dried blood. Even with their lips shut the smell seeps out of their pores. I turn them down and they stare, bug-eyed. This must be some kind of mistake, they say. Some fucking lunatic has killed the clerk and taken over the counter. What in the name of every god and devil could be the reason for this unique and special calamity that now crosses my path?
“Whad’ya mean?” they interrupt me as I explain. “What? I’m fine! What?”
I double-check for myself. It’s hard to tell with all the frying in the air around here in summertime, but no. These two might be surly, loud and uncoordinated at the best of times, but right now there’s more than attitude at work here. The call remains.
I don’t learn any new swears as they head out the door. Contrary to expectation, you don’t get any better at cussing after a few beefs. It’ll speed your lip up but it slows down the brain. No creativity.

Hour six is very quiet. Very, very quiet. A few people missing that last thing they promised to get for their relatives coming over tomorrow. One or two people coming off their own shifts, somewhere else. And a panting, bleeding man in a ragged coat who trips on our rubber mat and falls flat on his face as he runs in the door.
He jumps up again. From flat, like a frog. His eyes are wide, his pupils maybe not nearly so, and I wonder what’s going on there. It’s not animal, but he’s definitely taken something that’s disagreed with him. Though not half as much as he’s disagreed with someone else; that’s a knife cut he’s clutched his palm over, on his right arm.
“Help!” he yells. Or something like that.
I pick up the phone and by the time I’m finished dialing he’s run out the door again.
At least I have a description this time. ‘Stabbed’ isn’t comprehensive, but it’s awfully distinctive.

That’s it.
I lock the door, empty the till, run the settlements, band the receipts and put them in the safe with the cash, file tomorrow’s starter money in the envelope, sweep, mop, stock, turn off the lights and turn on the security and then lock the door.
Then I make sure I locked the door.
Then I make sure that I made sure that I locked the door.

After the hours are gone I go home, I eat everything I can fit in my mouth, and I go to bed so I’ll have plenty of strength tomorrow, when I go back and do the world some more good.

Storytime: Dirt Nap.

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Oh no.
Oh dear.
Oh my, my my my my. My very own.

Have you fallen down?

Ah, it’s no wonder. Goodness me, you’re light as a feather – and half of your feathers have come loose. All plucked and bruised, my poor thing. Bloodied and beaten up by life. It’s a shame it always has to pick on things smaller than itself, but that’s how it is.
Don’t cry. You’re too tired to cry. And it wouldn’t help anyways. No, no, no. I know what you need right now. A nice long nap.
The longest kind there is.

We’ll use dirt.
It’s the best there is.
Proper soil, too. As unsanitary and unsterile as can be found. A fistful of microbes in every mouthful, a rioting campus of detritus and joy hiding inside every clod. It’ll keep you company. Some people like to hear a little noise when they’re napping, you know. To remind themselves that it’s not night, and it’s a nap. You can’t mistake nap for sleep, you know. It’s a bad idea. But it’s often done these days, with so many people having so much to do and so few naps to take. And fewer and fewer places to take them.
You know, some people have to nap on solid stone. Hard. Unyielding. And untrustworthy. It looks as steady as the world itself, but it’ll crumble away underneath you in an eyeblink. Just like that. Good soil will never do you wrong that way. It’ll pack itself in around you. This is good dirt and it will love you and you will love it.
And it’s much easier to dig. I wouldn’t ask you for help, of course, but you can’t blame me for making it easier on myself, can you, dear?

That pit’ll do. A nice shallow scrape. Folks all over the world sleep all night in worse. Some have to do under the open sky, poor mites. What an awful thing. A bird could take you away. A bug could land on your face – go right up your nose, just like THAT! Dreadful. Awful. Terrible.
I don’t know how you could nap for a minute up there. Here, I mean. There’s too much fresh air and stale air and air.
Lean on me. Just lean on me. In you are.

Here. I’ll pack in the substrate tight overhead. Seal you in properly. If you’re inclined, if you’d like, if you’re lucky, you may fossilize. Seeping slowly into yourself until you’re a cast of minerals thinking they’re you. Or just empty space.
But that’s mostly luck. If you’re not already a three-times-lottery-winner I wouldn’t fuss yourself with the notion. It’s not worth fussing about. It’s not a time to be fussing about. Get serious. Get comfortable.
Put your feet up. Tuck them in and let your mind wander. Count roots and seeds and millipedes, and feel the thrum of the highway, far away. Gather moss with all the other stuck stones.

But don’t forget to wake up before tomorrow, alright? Your mother’ll be looking for you then. Your mother, with her shovel and belt and spite. She’ll come looking and looking and when she can’t find you, well, won’t she be surprised? I think she will. I think she will. Oh yes she will she will she will BUT

That’s for later. Worry later. Nap now.

There you go, dear. There you go.

Storytime: A Bit of a Bite.

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

It was a hard, hard march, over rocks and trees and ferns and moss that all alike grated themselves eagerly into slippery mush under my feet. And it was a little harder than maybe it should’ve been, because Auntie Moc was over my shoulder, my good strong shoulder that I carried wood on, and she was not being helpful at all. Dead weight, lolling from the gashes in her gut, stretched wide by when she’d sprinted when she shouldn’t have.
She’d always told me never to think overmuch on what should or shouldn’t be done. Well, maybe I’d think that advice over again now. If it’s good, it’s good, but you can’t use the same ideas all day for everything. It leads to sticky spots, like the half-dried tackiness spread over half my back where Auntie Moc had been dribbling in drips for a night and a morning.
But that was enough. On top of the hill, on top of the leg cramps, on top of the sore spine and petulant muscles and finicky tendons, I’d reached the nearest spot. A little clearing and a big rock that was very good and somewhat flat and not very colourful.

Auntie Moc was big. I’d been bigger than her for two years BUT STILL and it was nice that the rock didn’t diminish that. It held her entire, but it held her up, not down.
And that was perfect too.
Auntie Moc’s knife was gone, left behind in some poor sucker’s sternum. And her other knife. And her axe. And a couple of her teeth. I’d have to use my knife – but it had been her knife, years ago, which she’d given me when I was old enough for it to be my fault if I cut myself by mistake.
And that was better than perfect.
It was mid-morning now; the sun was awake but still pulling off the cloudy blankets. Golden overcast, enough to make things hard to see but beautiful to look at.
That was probably the most perfect thing of all.
So under that perfect glow, on that perfect rock, with my perfect knife, I cut into Auntie Moc’s cheek and her other cheek and around and about and I pulled off her face.

It was in one piece. That was good. She wouldn’t be distracted by having to watch me make all sorts of mistakes, and she’d have plenty of room to get out and go when I was through. Nice knifework if I said so which I did.
I rolled up Auntie Moc’s face and pocketed it for the trip home, then I wiped the knife clean on my eyeteeth and aimed it for her side. THERE and there it was, right where it should be. And out there, in the forest where it shouldn’t be, clumsy footsteps.
Well, I was irritated. But not surprised. Places like this always pull people to them; that’s what makes them so handy. They give you a good view of everything, and if some folks ignore the everything for the forest and just look at that well that’s understandable enough. It’s just a pain when they walk in on the important things.
This pain was small, and clumsy, and mostly limbs. It ran out of the trees and ran through the grass and bounced off my shoulder, which made me sort of proud because I’d been holding very still and wanted to see if that’d happen.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” I lied.
“Oh!” said the little thing. It was probably an adult, and might’ve been a woman, and I guessed it was large? Maybe? Hard to tell with these people from far away. They don’t weigh much and they don’t wear much and they don’t talk enough to make things clear, just to confuse themselves. It’s a real pickle. “Oh! Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh-”
“No oh noes thanks. It’s fine. You’re just interrupting me a little. If you’re looking for the town your folks put up, you’re going the wrong way. It’s down the –”
“No, I’ve got to find them! Oh no, oh dear, oh no,” she said. And she sobbed in a very dramatic way that made me very impressed. I think tears came out of her nose.
“Find who?” I asked. I wasn’t very interested but I knew someone who wanted to tell a story when I saw them and the faster I pulled it out the faster I could get back to Auntie Moc, who if she’d still had a face would be rolling her eyes right now.
“My parents,” she sighed, and moped, and wrung. “My poor poor parents! They’ve been missing for days, and days, and nobody else will look and nobody else will help and they’ve all given up and now it’s me, just me, lonely me oh boo hoo hooo hoooooooooo.”
I patted her on the shoulder, which would’ve made her jump if it hadn’t sunk her an inch into the dirt. “Cheer up. See this view up here? You can see this hill from anywhere, and you can see anywhere from it. Look for your parents, go down and check, and if you’re lost you can double back and try again. It’s easy.”
And she wiped away her tears and murmured away her thanks and hiccupped and cough and as almost an afterthought asked “what are you doing there?”
I followed her finger to my little arm, my weaker arm, which was still gripping my (Auntie Moc’s old) knife and hilt-deep in her side.
“Cutting out a bullet,” I said.
“Oh!” she said. “Well, good luck!” and she ran away down the hill, heels flashing and hair bobbing all the way until she was gone.
Odd. But it wasn’t my business, I was sure.

About time. The knife was coated with some of Auntie Moc’s more resentful and acidic secretions, and I had to put both hands into the cutting where the flesh was growing stiff and cumbersome.
Off came the armour that I hadn’t already pulled away for a speedy haul. Out came the hard half-crescent of skin and muscle and (lean, very lean) meat. In went my hand and out came a liver, fighting the whole way to stay in its home. It dragged its feet, it gripped its walls, it squelched and cursed me the whole way and when it was finally under the sky it finally softened up on me, as if it had been just playing a joke the whole time.
It had to get in line behind the rest of the world, because the trees were rustling and grumbling again, carrying shouts from the woods up to my perch, and even as they came so did their creators, thrashing through grass and tearing up dirt clods and sneezing and peering and coughing and occasionally spitting and marching all the way up to my seat, where they stood up tall and fanned out and snapped and grunted and eventually noticed me and asked “you seen ‘er?”
I pointed at Auntie Moc. “Yep. There.”
They looked at Auntie Moc. Then they looked away again very quickly.
“No, no. We’re looking for someone else.”
“Well you aren’t being very particular with your words. Who’re you looking for?”
“A thief,” announced their leader, who was the best-shaven and dirtiest. “A goddamned thief and a black-hearted scoundrel and a liar to make a mockingbird gasp. She took our property and she took our savings and she took our innocent trust and faith in a decent, kind, just and reasonable world. She was about yay tall and had shoddy sandals on. Seen her? Seen her tracks?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been busy and distracted enough with my own business.”
“Yes. Yes, you have. What IS that, exactly?”
“This scumbag stole my kill’s liver and so I beat her up and cut her face off,” I said.
“Fair enough. C’mon, spread out. Meet back here at noon when we’ve scrubbed the place clean.”
And they clang bang clattered down the hill and back into the green, which finally gave me the chance to eat Auntie Moc’s liver.

It was a big liver. She’d been that kind of person.
It was a tough liver, and she’d been that kind of person too. It nearly got one of my teeth, and it didn’t stop fighting until I’d swallowed the last scrap.
There. The first bit was finally over, and none too soon. The rest would be easier now that I had that energy, and now that she’d lost it maybe she’d stop putting up such a damned fight. Sawing at her was like cutting down a tree.
Well, next things next. The gruntwork. I decided to start with the left leg. It had been her favourite, and after a good ten minutes I could see why. It put up more of a fight than her own liver had, and it kept trying to trap my blade in a bunched muscle, or a tangled sinew, and pull it out. I think if it had it would’ve slit my throat with it.
“Trouble there?”
I actually jumped. It had been a long, long time since anyone had snuck up on me, but the leg, but they were so quiet, but but but bah buts don’t count for much.
Although they HAD been very quiet. The four little strangers standing there behind me were dressed almost sensibly. Heavily armed (as heavily as such small arms could be), covered in soft colours and muddled shades, stepping where feet should go instead of where they shouldn’t. Amazing how hard that came to some, but there you go, faint praise has to come from somewhere.
“A bit,” I said. They WERE good. Not a single one of their eyes followed the motions of the dripping knife in my palm. “Looking for something?”
“A bunch of murderous kidnapping thugs,” the one in the lead said. And spat. Unnecessary, I thought. “Shiftless sacks of shit. They took someone, they took off, they’re going to come back. With or without noses.”
“Have you seen them?”
I thought. “Not sure. Hard to be sure what you’re seeing today. If you’d like to look about, feel free, but I’m a bit busy.”
“Yes. I can see that. Who was she?”
“My worst enemy,” I said which wasn’t really lying because what else is your best friend?
“Good. Hope we can join you later on.” A nod and a nod and they were down the hill and sinking into the grass – such short legs! – and almost out of sight. One whisper paused at the treeline for one more word.
“A finger would be an easier trophy.”
And then it was gone.

I worked quickly, and a little sloppily after that. But Auntie Moc was practical and would understand when I had to bolt her legs down without much chewing, or when I had to settle for half-wrenching her arms out of their sockets rather than sawing neatly, or when I simply ate her fingers whole – crunch crunch crack, like nuts – rather than chewing the meat off their bones.
The morning was getting awfully weary and long in the tooth, and my own teeth were getting achy. All that muscle! I loved Auntie Moc, truly I did, but why couldn’t she have been the sort of Auntie that cared more about, I don’t know, eating, or sleeping, or lying around very slowly getting rounder. At this rate I’d be living here on this hill for the rest of my days.
But maybe not. The limbs were stripped bare. The viscera I’d bagged inside Auntie Moc’s own backpack, to be pounded into jelly by the weight of my footsteps on the long run home. The rest of the body’s flesh was peeled away inch by inch, sucked into my mouth in a long single strand.
It was the most productive time I’d had all morning, and I was almost proud when the next interruption caught me with just her head left. Less proud that it was someone pointing an extremely large musket at my head, but still. Just a little.
“Don’t move.”
“I’m not moving.”
“Don’t move less.”
“You want me to move more?” Honestly, these little people.
“You know what I meant.”
“Clearly not. Hello, nice to meet you, why are you pointing that at me?”
“You’re holding a severed head.”
I looked down at my hand. Auntie Moc’s face was gone, but her teeth still gave her a saucy grin. ‘Now look at your stupid self,’ she told me.
“Yes, but it’s my aunt’s,” I told the small thing with the gun.
“You burying her?”
I thought very carefully about the angle of my back and the width of my body and sightlines and which way the wind was blowing and the exact position of the rest of Auntie Moc. “Yes,” I said. “The last bit I’ve got to remember her by, this is.”
“Huh. You seen a posse?”
“A what?”
“A bunch of over-armed, over-eager maniac deserters. See my face?”
I looked. It was pretty small, but it was there. “Yeah.”
“Seen one that looked like it before?”
The nose looked familiar. Maybe. The stealthy ones had been mostly covered, in mud and daub where it hadn’t been clothing. “Sort of.”
“Their leader is my stupid, useless, shiftless, time-wasting, blood-lusting sister. And I’m going to go and give her a court martial or a bullet or both. Which way did they go?”
I told her. I didn’t tell her that they were probably running around in circles out there by now turning the place upside down looking for some scattered incompetents. No sense borrowing trouble.
No thanks. Not even a nod. Just off and walking, a long-strided, straight-backed charge that probably looked more intimidating at ground level. To me it mostly looked silly. Like watching a stick insect on parade. And damn if that thought didn’t make me want to laugh pretty hard – but I was busy with my own business, and this wasn’t it.

Auntie Moc, bless her dearly, I did hope she’d understand. Noon was coming on, that soft light was being peeled away by clouds, and I didn’t have much time left. So I swallowed my pride and swallowed my reluctance and dislocated my jaw and jammed her whole skull in there and started chewing as hard as I could, worrying it like a dog with a bone.
And as I chewed, I laid out the bones. The shattering came last, like always.
There were specific words and specific rhythms and specific thoughts and specific weights for it, like a walk or a dance or a song.
I substituted (muffled) swearing for all of them, because I knew it wouldn’t bother Auntie Moc any and it would make me feel better. The sun was high and the world was starting to sweat and all that low cloud was going up in steam and the stupid, time-eating, miserable so-and-so that was the first girl ran up the hill full-tilt and tripped over the stone, landing face-first in Auntie Moc’s partially pulverized bones.
“Min yow angage,” I warned her.
“Shit shit shit shit shit SHIT” she shrieked. “Hide me! Drop whatever you’re doing and hide me! They’re there, they’re there behind me, they’re just there, down there!”
I looked. They weren’t there. They were behind me instead, which was very easy when I had someone wailing full force two feet from my eardrums.
“There you are!” wheezed the leader of the scruffy ones. Surely I should’ve smelled it coming if I hadn’t blocked both my sinuses with Auntie Moc’s cranium. “Damned sprinter. Hold still and don’t raise your weapons and we’ll make this simple.”
“Who? Who? I have no idea who you are I’m looking for my parents please go away please please do leave me alone!” screamed the girl, who was waving my knife at them.
Hey. I needed that.
“Freeze and don’t blink,” said a dead voice from my elbow, and that one I felt fairly sure I wouldn’t have noticed no matter what on any day. Half the hilltop stood up and pulled out weapons. “You’re under arrest for kidnapping. Dead or alive, your choice. Well, our choice.”
“Us? Listen, that was a mistake, she told US to take HER with-”
“Not interested!” snapped the one at my elbow, who was holding a knife uncomfortably near my groin. “Drop yours on the count of three or we’ll drop YOU. One-”
A bullet breezed past the voice at my elbow and also my elbow and also my nose. I blinked and patted it.
“Next one goes through your empty fool head, sister” said the one with the longgun. “You and your hooligans are coming back with me. And if I’m real friendly you’ll all get to keep a couple fingers to beg with.”
“You can’t shoot all of us, and it was all for a good re-”
“Fair enough. But I’ll start with you.”
The sun was high now. My eyes were watering, my head was pounding from heat, and the stone was starting to shimmy in its own juices. Auntie Moc’s gritty bones sparkling like diamonds. The ring of steel around the base of the hill glowing like an oven.
A little thing with a long horn stepped forward, made a noise like a grand over-plated fart and spake forth: “Will the traitor and renegade Marshall Sliloo –” and the longgun one did most carefully NOT twitch at this, as I observed very closely “- come forth and surrender peaceably or will she be stopped by force?”
“And I’M a deserter?” asked the elbow voice.
“It was for a good cause,” said longgun. “You did what you did for the hell of it.”
“Oh please.”
“Can we go?” whined the shortest ruffian.
“No,” said longgun.
“No,” said elbow voice.
“Well this is all very nice but oh dear I REALLY must find my parents and –”
“Hey, she’s got a knife! Look, see! I told you! I told you! Get the knife off her! Get the-”
“Shut up,” said elbow voice. “Look, we’re surrounded, we’ve got to-”
I picked up the stone, tipped it back, tipped my head back farther, and shoveled Auntie Moc into my throat until my throat felt like it’d been mortared shut. Then I sneezed and started walking.
Nobody noticed. Well, nobody on the hill.
The one with the horn called something as I walked, but my ears were mostly caulked with bone paste by now and I just shrugged at it.
“-prese-ive. M-nger?”
“Bworl,” I responded.
The one with the horn said something again, then made a complicated sort of wave and backed up. A small one with a truly shiny breastplate strode up to me.
Ah! Now I understood! Amazingly clear, really.
“Egguus,” I said.
The shiny breastplate was talking.
“Eccoose,” I tried.
The shiny breastplate kept talking.
I opened my mouth, shoved my fist inside up to my elbow, and shook it around four times and I hacked and spat and hissed and coughed until I could breath again and my ears were full of the roar of blood and Auntie Moc laughing her ass off at me.
When I stood up again the shiny breastplate was waiting quietly and respectfully with very large eyes.
“THAT’S better,” I said. “Excuse me. I’ve just got to-”
“What terms do they offer?” asked the shiny breastplate and I knew oh damnit this one was used to being important, weren’t they.
“Because we’ll pardon anyone who brings in the Marshall. Fully.”
“Tell your compatriots that, and you can leave.”
Well. It wasn’t particularly the ideal moment but I HAD finished eating and it WAS more or less my business.
“Look, I’ve got just one question.”
Shiny breastplate looked affronted, but after the coughing fit probably was a little more willing than usual to put up with untotal deference. “Yes?”
“Were you ten miles east of here two days ago when you got into a scuffle with someone a little bit shorter than me? Like so?”
And I showed shiny breasplate like so, with my hand.
“There was an incident, yes, but nothing worth-”
“Right, got it, it’s okay. Thanks. I’d been waiting all morning.”
“Waiting for what?”
And I showed shiny breastplate this, with my other knife.

It ended up being a pretty confusing afternoon. Mostly because right after I showed shiny breastplate my other knife someone shot someone, which meant someone else shot back, which meant someone else charged and someone else ran away and in all the confusion everyone forgot who was someone else and they took it in turns, which is a terrible way to organize a fight.

At the end of it I sat down at the bottom of the hill. On the stone, I was surprised to see. Someone had kicked it over during the ruckus and it’d rolled all the way down to say hello.
Appreciated. My side was hurting like the dickens. All that lead and steel and spite.
“Well, Auntie Moc, I hope you’re happy,” I told my belly. It giggled malevolently at me.
I looked at the sky. Too damned hot. I could almost feel the fever sowing seeds in my wounds, and I sighed enough for four lungs.
“And you know the damnedest thing about it all? Now I’m hungry again.”