Archive for February, 2018

Storytime: Peak Populace.

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

The origins of Risbit are shrouded in history’s thickest fog. It’s unknown if they were from the Rockilees or the Hollow; if they served Immish or Talgo; or even if they were male or female. Nonetheless, the legend has a straightforward shape.

One day, Risbit was hunting prongnose on the middle heights, far above what passed for the highest villages of the time. The Peak was thinly settled, but the prey had already learned what to expect from the bipeds with pointy bits in their hands and glints in their eyes, and was predisposed to nervous flight.
It went down from blood lose somewhere up the Trundledowns. Uneven terrain, but clearly above their houses. From there they could see every twinkle of light, every flicker of movement, almost close enough to touch.
It made the knowledge of the five-mile downhill stomp with whatever bits of a five-hundred-pound piece of meat they could rip off even more depressing.
And then Risbit spoke The Words. And, as The Words were so very wise and important, they are known with a precision that no other detail of this story can be sure of. Much else fades, but they remain, seared from brain into the stone of the Peak itself.
Risbit spoke The Words, and The Words were: “Why don’t we just roll it down there?”

Ten minutes later the slightly battered corpse of the prongnose slid off a last slope and pinwheeled into Risbit’s house, denting the wall. It is for this reason that the Peakward face of all houses constructed to this day contains a slight indentation.

There were consequences beyond the dreams of any.
First, there was now incentive for hunters to walk the higher slopes. Now that they knew of The Words, there was no true problem with killing a fat beast far from home. As long as the distance was vertical, it was, for all intents and purposes, insignificant.
Second, there was an innovative explosion in packaging, along with an exploration of material properties. The right kind of padding in the right place could keep a prongnose or bulkhead from exploding – or losing limbs – for an extra half-mile. Once the foragers got interested, baskets were designed that could safely deliver first sturdy tubers, then delicate berries – and weighted just so, so that their momentum was sustained until they reached home.
Third, Risbit was titled ‘the Poly’ by the general acclaim and agreement of their peers.

Some centuries later, after Risbit the Poly was safely buried, their home village became embroiled in a dispute. It seemed that another, younger clan had built their own village directly Peakward of the pre-existing settlement, and the manner in which this blocked off the necessary access to rolling resources was deeply resented. The accused maintained they had done nothing wrong, and in fact that the deeply Flatward positioning of the prosecution gave them unfair title to an unnecessarily large strip of the Peak. This was disputed with sharp objects, and a bloody battle ensued until the smaller, Peakward village, on the verge of defeat, heaved a large boulder down on a shale scree and triggered a very sharp and sudden avalanche.
To this day, the exact location of Risbit the Poly’s tomb and village is unknown.

So, another factor came into settlement. The lower the village, the more Peakward slope it could lay claim to for transport. But the higher the village, the less likely it would be that some upstart rival would claim its Peakward land and threaten its Flatward neighbour with burial by rock. War went from vanishing scarce to a constant threat; every person kept an eye on higher ground and slept with their shoes on. In vocabulary, ‘Peakward gaze’ went from referring to clear-headed planning to creeping paranoia.
At length, the fate of the Peak in general came to rest in the uppermost of its denizens: a council of four headsfolk whose settlements were placed so highly as to be unassailable by rolling, yet deathly impoverished – all of their foraging had to be done downslope, and hand-toted back. Above them was only a little cap of summer frost. As none of them could hurt the other, they talked as equals without fear for the first time in several generations, largely to complain about their problems.
It must’ve been then that some had the idea of extortion, which wafted around like a bad smell until – as many bad smells do –everyone grew accustomed to it and decided it wasn’t so bad. If the Four on the Peak couldn’t roll their own resources, they could profit handsomely from the rollings of their Flatward tributaries. Larger, more prosperous villages were forced to yoke their bounty and drag it upslope by rope (later chain) and by hand. It is believed this wearying vassalage led directly to the domestication of the stupid-but-tractable bulkhead, which spent a lot of its time wandering up and down the Peak anyways and didn’t mind carrying an extra quarter-ton or so of food and supplies as it did so.

For some time the Four on the Peak prospered. Unassailable from below, unrivaled above, at last the most obvious problem reared its head: what to do about those beside you. It was such an obvious thought that all four of them had and executed it at about the same time, leading to a mathematically unlikely quadruple ring ambush. So great and obvious was the hubbub and confusion at the summit that several of the larger, bolder Flatward vassals armed themselves and stole up to the heights. Hardened and embittered, they overpowered the weakened and reduced forces of the Four, although several emergency avalanches were deployed before defeat was obvious. The villages of the Four on the Peak were razed and their supplies of deadly boulders and shales depleted by the expedient measure of dropping them down empty slopes.

A time of relative peace blossomed. The Peak’s heights were now depopulated, and the strategic benefits of their position were now known and defended against. Walls were sculpted around settlements to both ensnare rolling goods along specific paths and (in wary preparation) to deflect barrages from above. In truth there were now few enemies from within; the shared suffering inflicted by the Four had forged a small bond of commonality. Rather than competing for rollzones, most codified and elaborated upon their own pre-set roll-routes.
This mutual pacifism was well-timed, for it was not longer after this that those strangers, the Flat, came to the Peak. They had interesting and exotic goods and metal weaponry. The first they bargained with, the second they threatened with, and if the Peakers hadn’t been wary from the get-go things might have ended very badly – conquered first from above, then below. As it was many of the most Flatward settlements were razed, but the newcomers didn’t know of The Words, and thus were wiped out in vast numbers when they sought to climb higher Peakward into the waiting stone rain.
The Peak solidified in friendship at this defeat of a common, alien foe, and the proto-Peak Republic was formed in the loosest sense of the term.

What followed was not unimportant, but was devoid of dramatic shifts. The Peak Republic solidified. The roll-routes were formalized into the rollways, which were deep, broad, and required the relocation of much of the Peak’s good stone into their surfaces. Agriculture – practiced initially at the behest of the Four on the Peak for greater tribute – was refined. The prongnose went extinct. Erosion became a concern, and sculpting of the slope beyond its use for rolling became more common.
This was referred to as the Combing.

The Peak Republic fell in the end not to infighting among peers, but friendship between strangers. Numerous kinds of Flat came to trade at the bottom of the Peak, and in time some of the Flatwardmost settlements came to enjoy a nigh-monopoly on exotic goods and luxuries, from which they profited handsomely. Jealousy grew in those consigned to the Peakward heights (who paid the greatest sums for the smallest tastes of these indulgences) and in the end quarrels grew into denunciations grew into embargoes grew into incitement grew into deliberate disruptions of the rollways. Shielded well from stone, the protecting Peakward walls of the Flatward settlements were not proof from stink and sickness – the Peakward settlements beset them with rotting and diseased carcasses and sewage, choking their fields, forage, and rollways with murderous bacteria. In the end every settlement Flatward of the Rockilees was emptied, either driven into the arms of their Flat allies and friends or eradicated by plague.
This was the second great redistribution of the Peak’s population. Now both the extreme heights and the farthest lows were relatively devoid of habitation. The Peak was girdled with life, and by history, inclination, custom and practicality, this range did not change greatly from that point onwards.

At some point, something had to be done about the trees.
Wood wasn’t what you built a house out of in most of the Peak, but it was needed for an awful lot of tools and smaller-scale projects. The Peak had been forested thick to the treeline in the old days, but toward the mid-life of the Peak Republic that coverage had been thinned thoroughly. Now, with the concentration of population in the Peak’s midsection, competition for timber began to grow. Each settlement also now needed more cropland – Peakward, preferably.
Nobody was above them. Nobody could sneak up on them from below.
So, once again, precautions grew into paranoia. War against one of your neighbours risked an ambush from your other, so it was safest to fortify and content yourself with sabotage and mending the effects of the sabotage of your rivals.
There was plenty to mend. But it was a lot harder than the sabotage, so nobody ever put quite as much effort into it.

At length, a problem emerged. The rollways were wearing awfully deep, and some of the oldest and most-used were collapsing inwards. Alternate routes were found, but they were less stable to begin with (being in less preferable terrain).
There were several summits. During the course of these, it was determined that
(1) rollways were necessary for a Peak life. Existence without The Words was, fundamentally, not thinkable.
(2) without noticing, it appeared that a point had been reached in rollways were no longer sustainable at the scale necessary to sustain Peak society.
(3) the individuated benefits of ceasing to crumble the Peak with rollways were basically non-existent and if any given Peak settlement did so its neighbours would simple take its belongings.
So, having determined that they couldn’t possibly fix anything, the people of the Peak resigned themselves to merely enlarging and refurbishing the rollways as much as possible as fast as possible.

Some time later, Flats came to the Peak again. Not as conquerors, not as traders. There wasn’t much anymore to conqueror or trade with, so they had to settle for being explorers, and complained a good deal about their lack of fortune. Nothing but crumbled, buckled rocks, ruts, bumps, and dirt – very poor dirt at that.
“This is the ugliest hill I’ve ever seen,” decreed Abideel Gutchen, and those words were written in her journal and remain true to this day, centuries later.
Mind you, the years have taken their toll on the Peak since her day.
It was probably a whole sixty foot high when she saw it.

Storytime: Questing.

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Sleeping people, somewhere.
“Psst!”
One less, now. But pretending.
“Psst!”
Still pretending.
“HEY!”
Ow that was the ribs never mind, up they go.
“About time! I’ve been poking you for hours and ages and forevers.”
“Why. I’m tired.”
“You’re always tired. You can be tired later. I have something very important to do! I am a hero, and a hero needs a story, and a story needs an adventure!”
“Ah.”
“And I need you to come with me for it.”
“Oh.”
“I’ve got things that need lugging. Luggage. You can be the luggee. The lugger, even.”
“Those sound like bad things to be.”
“You can be the luggage then, come on, come on. Time’s a-wastin’.”
Luggage would have protested, but The Hero had a maniacal endurance that wore away mere discomfort like a waterfall ate cheese, and soon he was prodded upright, packed with supplies, and placed on the trail.
“It’s important we sing as we walk,” said The Hero, “to show our fighting spirit. Also, to bid our loved ones farewell in case we all succumb on this desperate journey.”
Luggage waved at his friends and family. They waved back.
“Not good enough. Do re mi fa so la get going.”
Luggage didn’t know the words. That was okay – he could hum, and The Hero didn’t seem to know the words either. Or the tune. And sometimes when the path went rough the lyrics dipped into swears.
It was a good song, though.

By afternoon they ran out of trail.
“We’re leaving the Lands We Knew,” said The Hero. “That’s important. Here’s where the adventure kicks in. Keep your eyes open.”
“What’s the adventure, anyways?” asked Luggage. His feet hurt. They’d packed on the side of better-safe-than-sorry, which was making his spine extremely sorry.
“We’re going to find a ravening monster.”
“That sounds very dangerous.”
“Of course! And then we’ll risk our life and limbs to kill it!”
“That sounds even more dangerous. Why?”
“Because it’s a ravening monster. It needs to be stopped for the good of us all.”
“If it’s this far out it’ll get pretty tuckered trying to raven at us. Are you sure you can’t carry some of this?”
“I need both hands free for my weapon. Anything can happen right about…..now!”
And The Hero put his foot off the beaten trail.
Four hours and a lot of dirt, branches, twigs and leaves went by and ended at a camp, with a small fire and some foods. The Hero stood ramrod stiff next to the blaze, weapon in his hands, eyes darting.
“It’s not quite dark yet. We can see for a little ways. Would you like some?”
“Constant vigilance,” said The Hero. “I can hear something out there. We’re not alone.”
“You want first watch then?”
“I’ll stay up all night if I have to. They’ll seize any moment of weakness.”
“That’s yes?”
“There – there! You see that?”
Luggage hadn’t. Then it happened again.
“There….right ahead.”
“Yes. That’s a bat.”
The Hero shushed him and slowly and menacingly raised his weapon, eyes narrowed and face scrunched in devastating power.
Luggage went to bed. When he woke up, nothing had changed.

They didn’t sing on the second day. The Hero said it was because nobody was there to listen, so it didn’t matter. That and The Hero was extremely tired and kept tripping on things and yawning.
“Too many…..rocks. Jagged rocks. Around here, that is,” he mumbled angrily. “This is….un’atral. Must be a draaaaaa—aagon. Mmph. Around here. That is.”
“We’re hunting a dragon? That’s pretty dangerous. Why are we doing this?”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!” said The Hero. “You’re loud.”
Then it started raining.

The second night was a lot quiet and simpler. No bats. No campfire. No watch, even, because The Hero demanded first watch again and fell asleep before waking up Luggage.
Just the trickle and hiss of soft, insistent rain against the river.
Breakfast was leftovers from the attempt at dinner. It was mostly enough, and it was mostly crumbs. It took a lot of concentration to eat, and so when The Hero grabbed Luggage’s arm and pointed, bug-eyed, most of Luggage’s attention was diverted to rescuing his next mouthful.
“LOOK.”
Luggage looked.
There, farther down the riverbank, lay a thing of scales and hide and teeth, mouth wide open against the dawn, embedded amidst the reeds and dirt and snoring just a little bit.
“Is that it?”
“That’s it.”
“Are you sure it’s it? It looks like a crocodile.”
“An alligator. But it doesn’t matter.”
“Are you sure it’s an alligator? Its snout looks a little narrow.”
“That doesn’t MATTER. Listen, this is all very metaphorical now. It’s both an alligator-”
“A croco-”
“-AND a dragon. We’re making things realer than real here. What’d we have for breakfast last week? You remember?”
“No…”
“But it was real, right? What was that story your aunt told us last fall when we wanted to go nutpicking after dark?”
“You mean the one about the headless ghost with teeth the size of –”
“Exactly my point. Thank you. So! It’s an alligator. It’s a dragon. I’m a hero. These are all the things that matter right now, and so I say: this is it.”
The window bustled in a low-key sort of way.
“This is it,” said The Hero.
“This is it, I guess, okay,” agreed Luggage. “So, do you want me to distract it from the front, and you come up and –”
“No!” said The Hero, passionately. “I don’t want you hurt! This is my fight! My fight, using my rules, and for my reasons! A hero doesn’t risk other’s lives like that! I’ve got to do this selflessly, purely, and profoundly! You can sit behind this rock and worry about me.”
“Well, I’m very good at that,” said Luggage. “Alright. But please, be careful. And you still haven’t told me why we’re doing this!”
“It’ll all become clear,” said The Hero. “It’s all something meaningful. A Hero makes a story, Luggage, and stories always make sense. We’re at the denouement. The dragon is in our sights. All is to be revealed. If I die, remember the story. You ready?”
“I’m ready.”
“Get ready…get set….don’t do anything!”
And The Hero charged.

Forty feet of empty shore lay ‘twixt monster and man. It was mostly mud, and deeper than it looked. The Hero’s charge foundered, but his weight sustained it, and he ploughed through marshy grass and slopping sludge with weapon held firm. His battle cry DID taper a bit, but he needed his breath for bigger things.
The crocod – the alligator, the monster – turned its head a bit. Its mouth was still open, but it didn’t really move much, right up until the point where The Hero took a flying leap and landed right on top of it.
For a single, shining moment The Hero’s arm and weapon were framed against what would’ve been the sky if there hadn’t been trees there. Instead they just sort of stood out against the leaves. A bit.
Then it came down, quick as lightning. THUNK.
The monster grunted – more of a snort, really a puff of air if anything – and went limp.
Luggage realized in the sudden silence that he’d been holding his breath. Also, clenching his toes. He could hear the twitch of his tendons as they relaxed.
NOW came the roar, erupting from the chest of a human rather than the beast. Huge and great and guttural with emotion and joy over a death evaded, a death embraced, came the call of The Hero, the climax of the saga.
“HOLY SHIT,” he yelled at the world as he leapt to his feet, arms wide, mouth agape. “LOOK HOW BIG MY DICK IS!”
And the alligator spun about, grabbed him by the pelvis, and pulled him under.

Luggage ran over to the water. He thought about doing something, but it was as thick and clear as mud on a warm morning. All he could see was six no three no one not one ripple. Smooth as a weed-clotted plate.
So instead Luggage picked up the leftovers of breakfast and put them in his stomach for safekeeping, and he walked home.
The bats didn’t bother him.
The rain didn’t bother him.
The rocks didn’t bother him.
The night didn’t bother him.
His feet were a bit sore by the time he got home, all alone, and with the most attention he’d ever seen.
“Where’d you go?”
“What happened?”
“Where’s your friend?”
“What happened?”
“Did anything happen?”
“Something happened.”
“Tell us what happened.”
“Yes, tell us a story about what happened. Tell us a story.”
“Tell us a story.”
Luggage thought of all the things he’d been told to remember and they all clotted in his mouth and the words he couldn’t imagine jumped out of him instead.
“An allegory ate him.”

And they had to be as happy as they could be with that, because that WAS that.

Storytime: I Spy.

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

“Look at the light.”
“Look to the right.”
“Look to the left.”
“Look to the ceiling.”
“Look at the floor.”
“Now look straight ahead and read the letters until you can’t see them.”
I squinted.
“Q….P…R….C…G….F….T….M…S….Z….”
I squinted harder. Oh, there it was.
“Splon.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Splon. The last letter on the chart is splon. I almost couldn’t see it.”
“There’s no splon there.”
“Yes there is. It just took me a moment. I didn’t expect it.”
“There’s no such thing as splon.”
“Look at the chart.”
“I can’t see a splon.”
“Well, then talk to the manufacturer. Because there it is. Fairly clear, too, now that I know it’s there. Splon.”
“Wait here.”
I waited here. Some time and more here later, along came the optometrist again, this time with a relaxed woman in a suit.
“Hey,” said the woman. She was so relaxed her eyelids were barely open. “Do me a favour. Open your mouth and say om.”
“Ah?”
“No. Om.”
“Ommm.”
“Hah! Thought so. He’s got third eye. See? Right in the middle of his forehead.”
The optometrist squinted. “I don’t see it.”
“Exactly. Right, come into the room next door. We’re going to run a few more tests. It’s not a common condition.”

“Breathe in, breathe out, visualize yourself, yadda yadda. Okay, you meditating?”
“I guess.”
“Good. Now meditate at the light.”
“Okay.”
“Shh! Meditate to the right. Now the left. Meditate waaay up high at the ceiling. Now meditate at the floor – down, down, a little more – there! Now meditate and look at what I’m holding in my hand.”
“It’s hard and black and cold and stained with the guilt of failing to clean the coffeepot before you left home this morning.”
“What?”
“It’s the fifth time you’ve done that this month. You’re sorry but you don’t know how to make it better. It’s all your fault. You’re the worst.”
“Weird. That’s not normal third-eye behaviour. I figured you were going to see this die in my hand and tell me what number it came up from. Wait here a second.”
I waited a second. When the woman in the suit came back, it was with a man in a bathrobe.
“Huh,” he grunted. “Bend over.”
I bent over.
“What do you see?”
“A wasted life. A hollow existence. A failed marriage. Three resentful children that will not come to your funeral.”
“Yep. Sounds about right. Classic fourth eye. It’s lodged up your backside, and you’re seeing the backside of all humans with it. Ah well, whatcha gonna do.”
“Is there a cure?”
“Hell no. Why would there be? We’ve all got something like it, yours is just abnormally acute. Now, bend over and look at this picture.”
“Hollow longing for immortality, a desperate anxiety to make a mark.”
“You betcha. Now look ahead. Now look left. Right. Up. Down. Ahead. Now, concentrate as hard as you can on what’s in my pocket.”
“It’s fuzzy. And impossible to get ahold of.”
“You kidding? It’s my alimony cheque. They stick like glue.”
“It’s a cheque? I can’t see a cheque. Just an uncertain mass of…stuff.”
“Huh. Hold on a tick.”
The man in the bathrobe left. When he came back, it was in the company of a woman in a coat and a full-sized scanning electron microscope.
“Hello,” said the woman in the coat. “Do me a favour and tell me what this machine is looking at, without checking the display.”
I had to squint pretty hard. “I can’t tell, sorry. All I can see are stringy bits.”
“Well shit,” she said. “Looks like you’re sub-sub-sub-atomic. Or something. Hell if I can tell. Any alternate universes down there?”
“Let me look.”
I looked.
I looked REAL hard.
And when I was done looking, I looked around some more and found I was all alone in the room and they’d tied me down pretty good.
There’s an argument outside the door. Pretty energetic. Not sure what’s going to happen when it’s over. There’s ethical quandaries, and political ponderings, and some sort of abstract angles.
If I’d looked ahead a little bit harder, I bet could’ve seen this coming.
Oh well. My hindsight’s always been 20/20.