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End of the World Issue
Welcome, welcome! to the second issue of Beorh Quarterly!
In this Winter 2012 End of the World issue, published on this 2nd Day of November 2012, we again feature the brilliant writer Ben Thomas of The Willows Magazine renown, this time disguised as a macalla of Rudolf Otto with an encouraging and soul-provoking essay on the true nature of horror, “The Fascination of the Abomination.”
“The Disappointed Martian” brings us a touch of classic Science Fiction through the pen of author Pierre Comtois (editor of the leading Spec-Fic magazine Fungi).
“The Blonde Girl in the Alley” & the controversial essay “Halloween: A Christian Holiday” are also here, written by yours truly, BQ founder & editor Scathe meic Beorh.
The stimulating and thought-provoking piece “Storm Chaser” by Fabulist genius R. M. Fradkin has also found a warm home here.
And last, but not least, Edward Ahern gives us a weird and beautiful Mimac legend in “The Chinoo.”
The Fascination of the Abomination
From Blackwood to Coppola: Apocalypse Now as Weird Tale
an essay by
Have you ever watched a movie that was so scary you couldn’t look away?
For as long as I can remember – and probably longer – I’ve been intrigued by monsters. At preschool age, I possessed what my parents called an “overactive imagination,” and a few nightmares from which I woke screaming convinced them to prohibit me from watching TV shows – even cartoons – involving monsters or horror of any kind.
As might be expected, this ban only served to intensify my fascination. By junior high, my parents seemed to have accepted that this love of the unnatural wasn’t going away, and they let me devour everything I could find by Poe, Bierce, and Lovecraft (probably relieved that I was reading actual books).
As I eventually discovered, my dad shared my love for old monster movies; and by high school, I’d amassed a respectable VHS collection of classics (and not-so-classics) plundered from the “horror” and “sci-fi” sections of every video shop in town. By then, the only thing still off-limits in my parents’ house was “R”-rated horror, which might explain my college-age plunge through the nightmarish works of Miike and Fulci.
What was I looking for in all this?
Sometime in my early twenties, this question abruptly reared its head, and it nagged at me so insistently that I developed a sort of obsession with answering it in a way that satisfied me. It was here, I think, that my two great lifelong loves – mysteries and neuroscience – met for the first time. In a lifetime of exploring the mysterious, this was the deepest and most primal mystery I’d ever encountered: why is the human mind so eager to confront the dark?
The first serious meditation I found on the subject was Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror. The book’s thesis centers on the idea of “paradoxes of the heart” – i.e., that the unknown holds a powerful fascination for many people precisely because it’s so potentially dangerous. The more we fear something, it seems, the more we’re driven to learn about it – perhaps to test our mettle and prove our strength; perhaps because we sense that knowledge of a thing’s true nature is a form of power over it.
Or perhaps fear and horror are routes to other ecstasies. In his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto argues that the root of all religious experience is something he calls “the numinous” – a sense of vast, powerful, and ineffable mystery that can’t be described in terms of other experiences. Otto explains this feeling as a sort of transformation – or sublimation – of the indefinable dread one might feel when walking through a forest at night, or the chill that runs up one’s spine when wind whistles through an empty canyon. It’s a feeling one encounters much more in wild places, when traveling alone – a sense of a place’s vastness, power, and Otherness.
Just as ancient rituals to appease spirits gradually evolved into acts of worship toward gods, a proper respect and appreciation for the numinous transforms dread into awe – terror into ecstasy – the mysterious into the holy.
One of my favorite fiction authors, Algernon Blackwood, dealt with exactly this theme in much of his work. In his short story “The Willows” (which I can’t recommend highly enough), the narrator and his guide sail down the Danube river into an unusually wild swamp. As night descends, both are overcome by feelings of dread and awe for the swamp’s alien vastness:
Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect — as it existed across the border to that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was now not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
Blackwood – along with other writers such as Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft – helped develop the literary form known today as the weird tale. Though these stories often contain elements in common with mystery, fantasy, and horror, they differ from these primarily in terms of the feelings they aim to evoke in the reader. Lovecraft described his own style of weird tale in this way:
[It] has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
And indeed, in plenty of Lovecraft’s fiction we find a near-worshipful reverence for enormous spans of time and space, and for the inconceivable vastness revealed when the delusions of human civilization give way before the ultimate incomprehensibility of the cosmos.
In other words, while Blackwood tends to focus on the supernatural, Lovecraft typically makes a point of keeping his horrors and “gods” in the physical realm… even if that realm is a bizarre multiverse in which humans are mere prey – or worse, are of no significance at all.
Lovecraft’s narrators open their eyes not to unveiled supernatural horrors, but to the unfiltered facts of cold physical reality. In a way, Lovecraft was homing in on the true emotional crux of the weird tale: not the monsters themselves, but the concepts implied by their existence.
That’s one of the central ideas explored in Orrin Grey’s essay “The Condition of a Monster”:
H.P. Lovecraft once said that “suggestion [is] the highest form of horror-presentation.” I think of this as less an affirmation of the old saw that things are scarier in direct proportion to how well (or how much) you see them, and more an exhortation that it’s not the monster itself that’s so scary at all but rather what that monster, by its very existence, suggests. To put it another way, the thing that makes a vampire interesting… is not that it will suck your blood, but that it is a vampire at all. That it is a teratism, a thing outside of commonly accepted possibility. The better such a creature is understood, the more bound in rules it is, the more pedestrian and commonplace it becomes…
But less explicit monsters lurk between the lines here: both Lovecraft and many of his narrators cling desperately to “fixed laws of Nature” as a bulwark against “assaults of chaos” – clinging, in other words, to logical, representational, Apollonian, “left-brained” perceptions of the Umwelt; blockading their minds against the arbitrary, raw, Dionysian, “right-brained” holistic reality they dread facing.
In short, despite the very different approaches of Lovecraft and Blackwood, both of their horrors spring from a common cause: the confrontation of the rational mind with an experience that is simultaneously undeniable and unclassifiable – an experience so original and immediate, so impossible for the rational mind to “re-present,” that it forces words to “turn back,” and compels the narrator’s ego to prostrate itself in heartfelt astonishment – to become temporarily like that of a child, awash in the pure “is“-ness of the moment.
Indeed, this is what’s so fascinating not only about monsters, but about any story or film that evokes quasi-religious feelings of terror and awe: these experiences invoke a breathless sense of revelation about a certain idea, shot through with an overpowering sense of that idea’s mysteriousness; incomprehensibility; ineffability.
Even stories without a hint of the supernatural or the “weird” can summon these feelings. In fact, “The Willows” is reminiscent of a much more famous story that also uses a river journey into the wilderness to evoke dread and awe: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Blackwood and Lovecraft, Conrad makes no mention of the supernatural or of other worlds, instead focusing on the numinous power of something much closer to home: the human psyche, and its place in relation to untamed nature.
Throughout Heart of Darkness, Conrad interweaves thoughts about the dark and ruthless jungle with meditations on the savagery of ancient and “primitive” mankind. As the character Marlow explains, modern, “civilized” man walks the thinnest of tightropes above the abyss of his own primal nature – and every man’s mind has a breaking point, beyond which it will slip back into raw atavism. Early in the story, Marlow reminds the rest of the boat’s crew that even familiar England was a savage forest not too long ago:
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago … We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ‘em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft … Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush.”
“All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination…”
Thus, whereas in “The Willows” and other Blackwood stories, nature and its rational laws (or – to put a finer point on it – our belief that we can use logic to classify and predict nature’s behavior) are delicately suspended above the vast unclassifiable weirdness of the supernatural, in Heart of Darkness, rational human consciousness itself is suspended above the vast darkness of man’s primeval natural state. In short, the ultimate horror is to stare straight into the unthinking, irrational chaos of nature itself.
But again, horror is only a stop along the route to other states of mind. As the story progresses, Marlow’s feelings toward the jungle – and toward Kurtz, the rogue wild-man he’s tracking – undergo a transformation from dread to awe. Immersed in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” he becomes – much like the narrator of “The Willows” – overwhelmed with the sense that human civilization is no more than an insignificant island drifting in a vast and uncaring universe. Here, the numinous is expressed not through supernatural monsters or interplanetary “gods,” but by nature itself. As the jungle’s shadows swallow the boat, Marlow muses, “The earth seemed unearthly.”
In other words, Marlow has begun to experience his Umwelt in a heightened, almost childlike way: as an environment that’s alien, raw and terrifying and immediate in every moment – and therefore, worthy of worship.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now – based loosely on Conrad’s story – evokes many of the same feelings through visual means: the enormity of the civilization-devouring jungle; the terror of unlit nights where predators lurk just out of sight. Parts of Coppola’s film could almost be seen as twentieth-century adaptations of portions of “The Willows”; it’s not hard to imagine a latter-day Blackwood setting his story in the mysterious jungle of Vietnam.
In fact, in his ‘Great Movies’ write-up of Apocalypse Now, Roger Ebert references some themes that could have come straight out of the classic weird tale playbook:
“What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.”
If we are lucky, we spend our lives in a fool’s paradise, never knowing how close we skirt the abyss. What drives Kurtz mad is his discovery of this.
Compare those lines with the opening of Lovecraft’s classic story “The Call of Cthulhu”:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
A bit more melodramatic, perhaps, but the gist is essentially the same: the only thing that keeps us humans sane is the delusion that we’re somehow separate from the rest of nature; not subject to the same chaos as all other animals. When this delusion is shattered, we will – like Kurtz in Conrad’s story and Coppola’s film, and like Blackwood’s and Lovecraft’s narrators – plunge back into atavism; as Lovecraft puts it, we can “either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
As the philosopher Albert Camus wrote,
“A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”
And yet, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, like Willard in Apocalypse Now, and like the protagonists of hundreds of weird tales, I nevertheless feel myself drawn inexorably toward the alien and the strange – not in spite of the revelations they harbor, but because of them. For me, this fascination runs far deeper than a desire to confront what scares me, or to test my own mettle. I’m intrigued by vast unknowns, by primal forces whose very natures lie below or beyond the reach of conscious thought. These might take the form of physical or supernatural monsters, amorphous “powers,” or depths of the human mind.
Maybe there’s a bit of the mad scientist in me – I sometimes feel I’d gladly sacrifice my own sanity for one glorious tidal wave of the numinous; for one breathless instant of revelation; to see…!
By the year I was born, every landmass on Earth had largely been mapped – “dark continents” are long extinct. But three great unmapped places still exist: the deep sea, outer space, and the interior of the mind. These dark and airless realms still teem with possibilities we can hardly imagine. But only one of them can be explored for free, whenever we have the time and inclination.
As Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, “When I grow up I will go there.”
The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet — the biggest, the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after.
Though the days of trailblazing jungle exploration are long-gone, “biggest and most blank” realms continue to intrigue me, precisely because they contain such potential – such suggestive hints of the numinous. I love them because I fear them – because they force me to confront them in all their naked immediacy.
The safety of civilization holds little appeal for me in comparison to the visceral power of the unknown. The promise of revelation and the threat of madness – are they really so different, after all? Both sing like Sirens to places deep within me. If Blackwood, Conrad and the rest are any indication, they sing to many of us.
Shadows of the primordial savanna, held at bay by dying firelight, are far more than ancient history – we carry them, each one of us, somewhere at the edge of consciousness; in a place we find when we’re alone in an unlit house – when we avoid looking out the window because we half-expect to see something staring back at us – when we lie just at the edge of sleep, unsure if that scratching at the door is imaginary or real.
In those moments, our fool’s paradise falls away, and we remember what we’ve always been: naked apes huddled in dread against the night. And even still, the night – in all its forms – beckons us to stare into its shadows; to whisper, with awe, hints of its secrets.
 It’s interesting to note that in ancient Greek thought, Dionysos was the god of madness – the devouring of the ego by the ceaseless flow of raw experience – while Apollo, by contrast, was the god of insanity – the mangling of “true” reality-perceptions by the ego’s constructed reality.
Ben Thomas is a professional writer who lives and works in Los Angeles.
Halloween: A Christian Holiday
an essay by
Scathe meic Beorh
Who, Christian, is called the Lord of the Harvest? Do you even know? Then why do you rail against All Hallows Day as if it were some day set aside for evil? What part of ‘All Saints’ sounds satanic to you?
The word ‘Halloween’ is a contraction for All Hallow’s Eve (Hallow-Even—Hallow-E’en—Halloween). The word ‘hallow’ means ‘saint,’ in that ‘hallow’ is an alternative form of the word ‘holy’ (‘hallowed be Thy name’). All Saints Day is November 1st. It is the celebration of the victory of all saints, or believers, in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1st in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic druidry or a Christian fight against druidry (assuming there ever was any such thing as druidry).
In the First Covenant, the war between God’s people and God’s enemies was fought on the human level against Egyptians, Assyrians, et al. With the coming of the New Covenant, however, we are taught that our primary battle is against principalities and powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world who bind the hearts and minds of men in ignorance and fear. We are assured that through faith, prayer, and obedience, all saints will be victorious in battle against these unclean forces. The Spirit assures us: ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.’ (Romans 16:20, RSV).
The Festival of All Saints reminds us that though Jesus has finished His work, we have not finished ours. He has struck the decisive blow, but we have the privilege of working out the details. Thus, century by century, true Christians have rolled back the satanic realm of ignorance, fear, and superstition.
In line with Jewish tradition, the Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints Eve precedes All Saints Day.
The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: on October 31st, the satanic realm (literally, ‘accusing realm’) tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.
What is the means by which the unclean realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. The Accuser’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan (literally, ‘Accuser’) from us, we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns, a tail and a pitchfork. Nobody thinks Satan really looks like this. The idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. Our fallen nature, our accusing nature, no longer has power over us.
The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized Christianity ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the saints. Gargoyles are not satanic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated army of darkness. Thus, the defeat of evil and of unclean powers is associated with Halloween.
On All Hallows Eve, the custom arose of mocking the satanic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan, the Accuser, has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus the Christ—we have no fear!
‘Trick or Treat’ originated simply enough: something fun for children to do. As with anything else, this custom can be perverted, and there are occasions when ‘tricking’ involves mean actions against others, and therefore is banned from some localities. We can hardly object, however, to children collecting candy from friends and neighbors. This might not mean much to us today, because many of us are so prosperous that we have candy whenever we want it. But in earlier generations people were not so well off, and obtaining candy or other treats was special. There is no reason to pour cold water on an innocent custom like this. Similarly, the jack-o’lantern’s origins are unknown. To hollow out a gourd or some other vegetable, carve a face, and put a lamp inside it is something that has likely occurred independently to tens of thousands of ordinary people in hundreds of cultures worldwide over the centuries. Since people once lit their homes with candles, decorating those candles and their candle-holders was a routine part of life designed to make the home attractive or interesting. Potatoes, turnips, beets, and any number of other items were used. In the New World, people soon learned that pumpkins were admirably suited for this purpose. The jack-o’lantern is nothing but a decoration; and the leftover pumpkin can be scraped again, roasted, and turned into pies and muffins.
In some ancient cultures, what we call a ‘jack-o’lantern’ represented the face of a dead person whose soul continued to have a presence in the fruit or vegetable used. But this has no particular relevance to Halloween customs. Did your mother tell you, while she carved the pumpkin, that this represented the head of a dead person with his soul trapped inside? Of course not. Symbols and decorations, like words, mean different things in different cultures, in different languages, and in different periods of history. The only relevant question is What does it mean now?—and nowadays, like the Tannenbaum (Christmas Tree and, literally, ‘Fir Tree’) once symbolizing the pre-Christian concept of the World Yew, the jack-o’lantern is only a decoration. And even if some earlier generation did associate the jack-o’lantern with a soul in a head, so what? They did not take it seriously. It was only part of the mockery of Satan and his defeated legions by Christian people.
This is a good place to note that many articles in books, magazines, and encyclopedias are written by unbelievers. These people actively suppress Christian associations with historic customs, and try to magnify secular associations. They do this to try to make their reconstructed ideas of pre-Christian religions (Ásatrú, Wicca, Druidry, et al) acceptable while downplaying Christianity (which is shown by them to be the cause of all strife in the world, an age-old argument repackaged for the present day). Thus, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc. are said to have pre-Christian origins. Not true, and this for the simple fact that Christianity predates all world religions since it was begun by the Logos (Jesus) who was ‘in the beginning’ (St. John 1:1). Oddly, many fundamentalist Christians have been influenced by these slanted views of history. These fundamentalists do not accept the secular rewriting of Western history, American history, and science, but in many cases they do accept the humanist rewriting of the origins of Halloween and Christmas, the Christmas Tree, etc. We can hope that in time these brethren will reexamine these matters as well. We, as Christians, ought not to let secular humanists do our thinking for us.
Today, children often dress up as superheroes, the original Christian meaning of Halloween being absorbed into popular culture. Also, with the present fad of ‘designer paganism’ in the so-called ‘New Age Movement,’ many Christians are uneasy with dressing their children as spooks. So be it. But we should not forget that originally Halloween was a Christian custom, and there is no solid reason why Christians cannot enjoy it as such.
‘He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision,’ says Psalm 2 (RSV). Let us join in His holy laughter and mock the enemies of Christ on October 31.
Scathe meic Beorh is the editor and founder of Beorh Quarterly. He lives with his wife Ember on the Atlantic Coast.
The Disappointed Martian
a story by
“How many years?”
Every time Sirjyl thought of it he had to do the math: he was 150 years old, his parents were 60 years older than he was and they were born 3 years after the first rocket ship from earth arrived on Mars… That was as far as he got before giving up trying to figure out how long it had been since the last time he had even seen one of his own kind.
That, however, did not prevent him from hoping it would yet happen. Hoping…for how many years? he asked himself again. Smiling at the self-pity he detested, he realized it had been a long time, at least since he was a youth of only a score of seasons.
He remembered the small cluster of traditional Martian dwellings that his family and a number of others had occupied here alongside the canal and how he had played games of hide and seek and chase the soomping with the other children. There were get togethers in the cool winter evenings at neighbors’ dwellings and on hot summer afternoons when he and his friends returned from a day in school, parents would take turns sitting in front of each others’ dwellings sipping glasses of rare klopel juice waiting for the children to come up the dusty road.
Afternoons were taken up with play exploring the dry canal or looking for klopel fruit or playing competition games. Evenings were given over to homework and quiet time with parents and siblings. Nightfall came early with the thin Martian atmosphere and Sirjyl recalled lying on his cot and staring out the open window of his dwelling at the brilliant galaxy of stars that filled the heavens and listening to the desert winds that sifted red sands across the screening that covered the window openings.
Now, with the passage of well over a hundred Martian years, those times seemed idyllic to Sirjyl. A golden age that he had failed to fully appreciate at the time and one he had tried to preserve in the many years since. But those efforts had become increasingly difficult as one by one all those friends and neighbors and family members had either disappeared or gone on to a happier afterlife.
In his stone dwelling by the canal, the same dwelling he had been born and raised in, he occupied the same room in which he had done so much youthful dreaming and still looked out the same window at the same stars that had not moved or changed in all the years. On shelves in the living section of his home, sat readers collected over a lifetime from the many abandoned dwellings he had explored in the years of searching for companionship. Volumes he had loved in his youth and that he collected now and reread endlessly in an attempt to recapture if only for a little while, that sense of the lost golden age when their stories seemed so important to he and his friends.
Putting away the utensils cleaned after his solitary breakfast, Sirjyl flung a satchel over his shoulder, the same satchel with which he used to carry his readers home from school, and stepped outside his dwelling.
Pausing on the dusty path leading from the front opening of his stone domicile, Sirjyl took a deep breath of the morning air reveling in the fresh scent of the mineral laden sand and fancying that he could taste the suggestion of moisture drifting from the empty canal. But he knew that was only a trick of his mind; wishful thinking, as there had not been moisture on Mars for well over a hundred years…or at least, none worth measuring. With the exception of the specially adapted klopel plant, no other indigenous life form survived on the planet and the great canals that his ancestors had engineered in prehistoric times had run dry centuries before he was born.
Which begged the question: could the golden age of his youth only have been a mirage as seen through the eyes of a child? Although his common sense told him that it was most likely so; that the adults of the time had probably been plagued with many challenging problems the greatest of which was simple survival. But he never could recall any complaints from his parents or other members of the cluster. Were they that strong or had he just never noticed? He chose not to dwell on the subject preferring instead to concentrate on preserving that golden age…without anything to look forward to, no work, no friends, no mate, no family…it was all he had that made life worth living.
Stepping along the path to the unpaved road that ran past his dwelling, Sirjyl noticed that erosion continued to wear away at the thin slabs of slate that formed the roof of his home. He would have to go to the old quarry and chip away a few more to effect repairs. The thick stone walls of the dwelling however, looked as if they had not changed in all the years since he lived there with his parents.
As he did every morning, more out of habit than the expectation of finding anything, Sirjyl checked his message box alongside the road but it was empty…the same as it had been every morning for the last hundred years. Sighing, he took to the road that followed the edge of the canal and led in the direction of the Terran city whose glassite dome glistened distantly in the morning sun.
Once again, Sirjyl wondered at the attitude of the Terrans that kept bringing them to Mars despite the fact that it was in the concluding phase of a death that had gone on longer than any Martian could remember. Sirjyl recalled the stories his parents used to tell him about the time when the first rocket from Earth had arrived on Mars. Of course, they had been too young to have had first hand knowledge of the event themselves, but according to tales that had been handed down to them, the first Terrans to arrive had been friendly and exchanged information with Martians on how to survive on the dying world. Even then, the Martian population was sparse and when the Terrans began to build their first cities, there was no thought of resentment but only consternation about why the newcomers would want to invest so much time and energy on a world that offered them so little.
But Terrans, it seemed, were an adaptable race and many of them claimed to have fallen in love with the planet’s barren landscapes and even vowed that in time, they could restore much of it to its former beauty. That idea pleased the Martians who continued their friendly relations with the Terrans and not long after, began referring to the planet and themselves as Mars and Martians. It was only in his old readers that Sirjyl later discovered the planet’s original name and the Martians’ name for themselves but by then it hardly mattered as the race was obviously dying out.
That too was an unpleasant fact that Sirjyl eventually learned as first his family members died and then the rest of the cluster members began to scatter in search of food supplies that had grown more scarce over the years. In a way, the Martians had the Terrans to thank for the few of their fellows who continued to survive, including Sirjyl himself. If not for the kindly Terrans sharing their food and supplies, the Martian race would have died out soon after their arrival. Looking out over the expansive width of the canal that fell away at the side of the road, Sirjyl saw its sandy emptiness as a symbol of the end of Martian civilization and the ascendancy of the Terran. Some day, the Earthers said, the canals would once again flow with water and when that happened, Martian civilization would be reborn. But if all the Martians were dead, would it be Martian civilization or simply Terran civilization transplanted to the red planet? Sirjyl suspected the latter, but he had long since stopped worrying about the distant future and preferred to concentrate on his own lifetime and his desperate hope to recreate his golden age that at various times included a mate and family and the bringing together of other families to reform the old neighborhood cluster as he remembered it.
After walking for some little time, the sun had only risen a few fingers above the horizon and the road, having left the canal, veered toward the big air lock that pierced the side of the dome enclosing the Terran city of Arborville. The road itself had gone from a little used trail to one covered with the tracks of many heavy all-terrain vehicles favored by the Terrans in moving about the surface of the planet.
Approaching the base of the dome, Sirjyl passed through a vehicle park where the Terrans left their motorized transports when not in use and, like the over sized air lock that gave entrance to the city, it was unguarded. After all, with everyone from Earth inside the city, who was left to vandalize the equipment? Shifting his satchel, Sirjyl struck a worn knob beside the air lock door and when the portal hissed open, stepped over to the small chamber inside. Behind him, the first door closed and immediately his ears began to pop with the change in atmosphere. Although the air on Mars was much too thin for Terrans to breath, the oxygen rich environment of the enclosed dome presented no problem to Martians.
In a few moments, the inner lock had swung open and Sirjyl stepped through into the city proper. He shivered slightly in the increased warmth and waved a friendly greeting to the Terran technicians whose duty it was to monitor the dome’s seals. They waved back and never gave him a second glance. Long accustomed to each other, Terrans and Martians came and went from the city as they pleased with all of Arborville’s facilities available for use by both people…that is, when there used to be more Martians. These days the entire local Martian population consisted only of Sirjyl himself.
Without hesitation, Sirjyl began the long walk up the city’s central promenade that stretched for many footpads in either direction giving plenty of room for both pedestrians and the near silent motorized carts that zoomed up and down Arborville’s grid of well laid out streets and avenues.
Just as in a city on Earth, Arborville had its suburbs of single unit dwellings (constructed mainly of artificial materials in the peculiar Terran fashion) located on the outer edges of circular shaped colony while the larger buildings gathered at the center consisted of administrative, manufacturing, and research functions. But to Sirjyl, the most interesting feature of the Terran city was its vast array of plant life.
As much as they claimed to love the harsh landscape of the Martian desert, the Terrans clearly could not be without the lush vegetation that grew wild on their native planet. Everywhere in Arborville, beneath the weak light that filtered down through the pink skies of Mars and through the glassite dome, there were creepers and ivies that crawled over every kind of structure, lawns of grasses that separated buildings in swathes of green, gardens filled with every kind of vegetable and fruit, and everywhere, outside every doorway and window it seemed, were pots of earth that sprouted flowers in a dizzying variety of colors.
Most impressive of all however, were the towering trees that lined the streets and whose branches almost brushed the top of the dome. Over the years, Sirjyl had learned that they represented many different kinds of species from Earth including maple, oak, ash, and pine. Some even included difficult to grow tropical trees whose fronds swayed gently in the controlled atmosphere of the dome.
Sirjyl always enjoyed his walk along “Main Street,” gazing admiringly at the patterns of leaves and branches over his head and wondering if Mars had ever been able to support such a profusion of life.
As usual, many of the Terrans walking along the street waved to him in their fashion and sometimes greeted him with a word or two. Very rarely did one express any kind of surprise at seeing him and when one did, it was invariably a very young Terran freshly arrived from Earth. Thus it was with little attention that he finally arrived at what the Terrans called a public media center where computer records, communications to Earth, and even records written physically on a material called paper could be accessed by anyone in the city.
Mounting the stairs, he pushed his way through revolving glassite doors and swiftly went to a drinking fountain that constantly bubbled a clear stream of water that never ceased to amaze Sirjyl. When he was a youngster living in the cluster, moisture could only be had naturally by sucking on the klopel fruit and now that the last of those plants had nearly vanished, he was reliant on what water the Terrans could provide. At first, transported all the way from Earth, water needed to be used only sparingly; but then the Terrans began hauling in chunks of ice as big as asteroids that circled the sun beyond the orbit of Mars and after that, there was enough water to turn Arborville and other cities like it into giant arboretums. Some day, the Terrans insisted, there would be enough to transform the whole ecology of Mars from sandy desert to blooming gardens. Sirjyl, however, was not sure he would like to see such changes, positive as they may have been. It would change the world too much from the golden times he remembered in his youth.
Finished with his drink, Sirjyl passed the information desk saying “hello” in the Terran tongue to the female clerk before entering the hall of computers and finding an empty station. There, he set down his satchel and told the computer his password. When the screen became active, he asked for his personal file and began his search.
Searching the computer files had become a daily routine for Sirjyl over the past several decades; each morning except for the day Terrans called Sunday when the library was closed, he would access his personal files where any report of activity by his people anywhere on Mars would be automatically downloaded from electronically published newspaper articles, professional journals, government reports, privately produced web pages, and even personal correspondences that did not have a privacy lock. All of the data produced over the day before would be collated and collected by the computer and delivered to his address where he could review them himself. In most cases, entries could be deleted safely as they had nothing to do with what he was interested in but in a few cases, they conformed to what he was looking for, namely the companionship of his own kind.
The truth was, that the dying planet had been taking its human population along with the native flora and fauna leaving people like Sirjyl lonely and isolated and yearning for contact with their own kind. And though Sirjyl had decided long ago that he could live without friends or family if he had to, the desire for the special benefits only a mate could bring had been difficult if not impossible to suppress. In the daytimes, keeping himself occupied with his visits to the city, tending his rock garden, exploring the old byways along the canal, or delving into his old readers, made the absence bearable but the night times were often an agony of longing and loss. It was then that he could no longer deny to himself that he was as human as anyone else and felt that he could not go on without the support only a special female could provide. That was what kept him coming to the library every day; the hope that he would discover somewhere on Mars, a female with whom he could bond. But each day was the same: there was no such person and with each passing day, as the decades stretched on, the possibility of finding such a one became more and more difficult to believe.
Disappointed and angry with himself for allowing his hopes to rise (as they did each day when he entered the library and activated the computer), Sirjyl ordered the computer to shut down, took his satchel, and exited the library with considerably heavier steps than when he had entered.
As he always did, he wondered how he could manage to get through the rest of the day and as usual, he decided to wander through the city a bit before returning to the outside. Somehow, the tree lined streets and neat little rows of dwellings surrounded in green helped sooth his spirits and restore his battered feelings.
He was passing a schoolyard filled with Terran youngsters laughing and running about in a manner not unlike what he recalled doing with his own friends years before when the sound of a voice stopped him.
“Hello, Mr. Martian,” said the voice.
Sirjyl turned in the direction of the voice and discovered that it belonged to a Terran female no older than six or seven Terran years.
“Hello, little girl,” Sirjyl said. “Shouldn’t you be within the enclosure of the schoolyard?”
“It’s all right,” replied the girl. “I live across the street and they let me go home for lunch.”
“I see,” said Sirjyl feeling the mood of despondency slipping from him in the presence of the youthful Terran. “My name is Sirjyl; what is yours?”
“Kama,” said the girl unhesitatingly. “My mother told me it means ‘flower’ in Martian. Is that true?”
“It’s true,” nodded Sirjyl. “But more precisely, the word means ‘flower that blossoms in the desert.’ When there used to be flowers on Mars, it was of a species that covered the ground like a carpet and whose petals sported colors of every shade from pure white to darkest maroon. It was a very beautiful sight to see miles of surface area covered with the plant…at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never seen any flowers on Mars myself.”
The girl’s expression had gone from delight to disappointment at Sirjyl’s final words.
“You never saw a flower?” she asked.
“Well, not outside the city,” admitted Sirjyl not without some sadness in his voice. “That’s why I enjoy visiting your city so often; to look at the trees and grasses and especially the many varieties of colorful flowers.”
“Oh, we have lots of them at my house,” said Kama, brightening. “Would you like to see them?”
“I’d be delighted, but what about school?”
“Oh, I have plenty of time,” she said, taking his hand and tugging him in the direction of a dwelling across the street.
Finding that being in the little Terran’s company raised his spirits greatly, Sirjyl allowed himself to be led into the yard space surrounding the neat dwelling where Kama and her family lived.
Although there were a few flowers planted along the short walkway leading to the front door, Kama did not linger there but instead, continued around the dwelling to the rear of the property. Passing through a squeaky gate and into the small private area behind the living unit, Sirjyl suddenly found himself amidst a veritable bower of blooming plants.
Staring, he noted the crawling species that had been trained to grow along upright trellises and over the roof of the dwelling, beds of vari-colored ground plants that curved along the borders of the yard in elaborate shapes and behind them, rows of flowered plants that grew to different heights, each succeeding the other with the tallest in the back with their giant sunbursts hanging heavily and threatening to snap their stalks with their weight. Overall was the mingled scent of thousands of flowers and even the background hum of Terran insects that were an essential component of the city’s vegetation plan.
“It’s beautiful!” gasped Sirjyl.
“I knew you’d like it,” said Kama in delight. “Me and mother work in the garden nearly every day…but my mother does most of the work.”
“How wonderful it must be to come out here to read or simply stare in appreciation that something so rare could be accomplished on Mars,” said Sirjyl more to himself than to Kama. Indeed, after seeing such a sight, there was no longer any doubt in his mind that the Terrans could change the planet into a garden again as they insisted.
Suddenly there was a squeaking sound and Sirjyl saw an older female Terran pushing a door open and emerge from the dwelling; no doubt the youngster’s mother.
“Kama?” said the older female. “What are you doing back home? And who is that with you?”
“Hi, mom,” said Kama. “This is Mr. Sirjyl…he’s a Martian. I brought him over to see our garden.”
“Good morning, Sirjyl,” said the mother, aware of Martian custom that included no salutation of rank or status nor even of surname.
“Good morning, Mrs…”
“Stoneham,” said the mother. “But you can call me Helen.”
“Good morning, Helen,” said Sirjyl extending a hand for the Terran practice of greeting.
Helen shook his hand in the dainty style of Terran women and cocked her head slightly in the direction of the garden.
“What do you think of Kama’s handiwork,” she said, no doubt exaggerating the little girl’s contribution.
“As I was saying to your daughter, I think it’s marvelous!” said Sirjyl without reservation.
“Sirjyl said that my name means ‘flower that blossoms in the desert,’ mom; isn’t that beautiful?”
“Very!” said Helen with genuine feeling. “I can imagine how you can appreciate our garden, Sirjyl and of course, you’re welcome to come and see it whenever you want.”
The invitation did not completely surprise Sirjyl as it was the manner of Terrans to be open and accepting even of strangers until their trust was proven misplaced.
“I’m truly grateful, Helen, and will take advantage of your kind offer,” said Sirjyl.
“Yippee!” said Kama literally jumping up and down in her excitement. “We have a real Martian for a friend!”
Thereafter, the daily visits and continuing disappointments of his library search became a good deal lessened when he followed them with time spent in the Stoneham family’s garden and in no time, Sirjyl found himself helping Kama and her mother with the plants. Indeed, his visits to their home became those of increasing wonder as he helped to prune the flowers and dig his fingers into the soft loam to pick them clean of old roots and unwanted insects and afterwards planting seeds and bulbs. Later, he was given the chore of watering the plants and over the days that followed, watched as his handiwork grew and eventually bloomed in their own right. At last, he learned the secret of planning ahead, using the little greenhouse attached to the dwelling to pre-grow selected plants and then planting them in the garden in such a way that when they bloomed, colors could be arranged in any order desired: by type or in intricate patterns such as the one Kama surprised him with by writing out his name in purple colored blossoms.
At last, overcoming his reluctance to prune the flowers, he was presented with a handful to take home to his own dwelling. That day, Kama accompanied him home for the first time and helped him choose the perfect location in his dwelling for the stone vase with its spray of flowers.
“There!” said Kama after they had spent some time in serious consideration of the problem.
“I think it looks beautiful!” declared Sirjyl.
“Are you sure there are no flowers anywhere on Mars?” asked Kama for only the hundredth time it seemed.
“I’m sure,” replied Sirjyl with the same level of sadness he had answered her all those other times. “The only flowers on Mars these days is in cities like Arborville.”
“That’s too bad! They look so pretty by the window there.”
“They do, don’t they?”
“But you’re rock garden outside is very pretty too,” said Kama hurriedly.
“It is very creative,” admitted Sirjyl. “But it’s still not as good as a real garden with real flowers.”
“From now on, I’ll bring you fresh flowers for your house every week!” declared Kama who subsequently did and continued to do so for many years until having married and produced children of her own, came with them as a unit to deliver Sirjyl his flowers.
Over the years, however, Kama had not only grown older, but wiser, eventually coming to realize that her Martian friend was engaged in a constant battle against depression and despondency. Sensing his desperation, she became a good companion to him, little realizing how much Sirjyl had come to rely on her friendship to ease the pain of a loneliness he finally accepted would never be assuaged.
As for Sirjyl himself, for many years he continued to visit the Arborville library and although he occasionally made contact with a few fellow Martians, even female ones, nothing ever came of the effort; it was as if too much time had passed and Martians as a group had forgotten how to be a society. Gradually, his visits became more rare with more of his time spent at the Stonehams’ and with little Kama who soon grew into a young woman.
Throughout the years, their mutual love of plants and flowers continued to keep their friendship strong and when Kama had children of her own, Sirjyl once again found his dwelling frequently filled with the laughter of youngsters (albeit through the breather plugs in their little noses). And so, more often then not, he could forget his loneliness as he basked in the love and affection of his Terran “family” who made sure he was regularly seen by a Terran physician and that he received his government benefits.
But not all was undiluted happiness; because of the long lived nature of Martian physiognomy, Sirjyl had outlived many Terrans he had known and Kama, unfortunately, was one. And so, when it came time to bury her in the Terran fashion, Sirjyl was among family members in the little cemetery outside the city and his own sadness at his friend’s passing was eased by the little grandchildren who clung to his legs or who wanted to hold his hand. The years that followed were studded with happy moments with the Terran children and their parents, with visits to each other’s homes, and celebrations of various Terran holidays but as the years since Kama’s death stretched into decades, Sirjyl’s own days began to catch up with him. Having learned the Terran language, he spent much of his time writing his “autobiography,” a reminiscence of his growing up in the cluster, the rising strength of the Terrans, the beauty of the Martian landscape, his hopes and regrets and shattered dreams with the fitting climax being that the book was rejected by every publisher to whom it was submitted. No one seemed interested.
With the advance of old age and final disappointment regarding his efforts at writing, Sirjyl had learned to accept his fate and retreated behind the walls of the familiar: delving into his favorite readings, gardening in Arborville, tending the little chores around his dwelling, and walking the trails along the canal just as he did as a child. But sometimes, Sirjyl’s heart still grew heavy and often he wanted to cry as the Terrans sometimes did and regretted that Martian eyes lacked tear ducts. Instead, he gradually began to give up and stopped coming out of his dwelling and when Kama’s great-grand-children came by to bring him fresh flowers, he could barely manage the energy to greet them.
When the children returned home, they asked their parents what they thought was wrong with “grandfather Sirjyl” and was told that the old Martian suffered from the same things Terran elderly did when they reached an age when all they once knew was gone and the world around them had changed beyond recognition.
“It’s a natural phenomenon,” their elders explained as they watched construction of the new domeless Arborville suburbs made possible with the restoration of a near Earth normal atmosphere on Mars. “Sirjyl has lived almost 300 years. He probably knows that his time has passed and does not wish to live in world he no longer recognizes.”
Saddened by the knowledge that they would soon lose their special family friend, the children determined to visit Sirjyl more often but although their comings and goings lifted the old Martian’s spirits somewhat, it was clear that his physical condition continued to decline.
At last, having reached the old age he always expected, Sirjyl finally had to admit to himself that he would never find that special Martian companion, the one who would comfort him on lonely nights when the wind swished the red sands against the screening and who would have given him his own children to delight in. Sighing, Sirjyl reached up from his cot and his hand was taken by a Terran child whose face was damp with wasteful tears.
“Don’t cry, Vulnoose,” he said weakly. “Don’t you know your name means ‘Happy Face’ in the old Martian tongue?”
“I know, grandfather,” said the girl. “But I can’t help it. I don’t want you to die.”
“You don’t have to cry,” replied Sirjyl, looking around at the scores of Terrans who had filled his sleeping chamber and spilled into the rest of his dwelling, all descendents of his old friend Kama. “I have suffered loneliness in my life but my suffering would have been much greater if not for you. I go now to see my Martian family and to never be lonely for them again. Kama, I trust, will be there too and when I see her, I’ll say ‘hello’ just the way we used to and take her hand like I’m doing yours, and tell her all about little Vulnoose and how she cried for my passing.”
And with those words, Sirjyl slipped from life and was never lonely nor disappointed again.
Pierre V. Comtois is a newspaper reporter writing from Lowell, MA who has been editing and publishing Fungi, the Magazine of Fantasy and Weird Fiction intermittently since 1984. Comtois’ latest book, Marvel Comics in the 1970s: An Issue by Issue Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon, was published in 2011 by Twomorrows Pubs. An earlier volume, Marvel Comics in the 1960s, appeared in 2009. In addition, Comtois has contributed fiction to many other small press magazines over the years including Haunts, The Horror Show, Thrilling Tales, and e-magazine Planetary Stories. His fiction has also appeared in various magazines for Cryptic Publications and Rainfall Books as well as such collections as Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth, Eldritch Blue, and various Chaosium Books anthologies. He has also written a number of books including novels such as Strange Company and Sometimes a Warm Rain Falls; non-fiction such as Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor; and short story collections such as The Way the Future Was, The Portable Pierre V. Comtois, and the forthcoming Autumnal Tales from Mythos Books. Comtois has also found the time to contribute non-fiction articles to such magazines as World War II, America’s Civil War, Wild West, and Military History, many of which were collected last year in Real Heroes, Real Battles, a book published by Sons of Liberty Press. Also from Sons of Liberty is River Muse: Stories of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley, to which Comtois has contributed a personal recollection entitled “I Was a Teenaged Bibliophile.” For more information about the author, visit http://www.pierrevcomtois.com
The Blonde Girl in the Alley
a story by
Scathe meic Beorh
The blonde girl stood in the alley watching Nancy as she took out the trash. Nancy waved and said hello, but the girl stood silent, her large round blue eyes sad, very sad. Nancy stopped.
“Are you the new girl? I heard we had a new girl moving into our neighborhood.”
The girl stood, staring, sad.
“I thought you might be…. Can… I help you?” said Nancy. “Is there something wrong?”
The girl said nothing, only stared with her large blue eyes now filling with tears. It was then Nancy noticed that she held a leash in her hand. “Oh! You’ve lost your dog? Is that what’s wrong?”
The girl didn’t reply.
“I… I like your long blonde hair. It’s very pretty.”
No smile, no nod of her head, nothing except those big round sky-blue eyes rimmed with tears that refused to drip.
“Well, I have dishes to do,” said Nancy in an air of resolution. “Maybe I’ll see you around, alright? Good luck finding your dog.” Then Nancy noticed a puppy sitting at the end of the girl’s leash, its golden eyes looking sadder than the girl’s. Nancy jumped back. “Oh, I didn’t see him!”
The girl didn’t look down at her dog, didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. The puppy sat still as an August night. Nancy became more terrified by the second. She stumbled over a broken conch shell her little sister Mona had left lying in the back yard. She fell backwards. She hit her head on the side of the house.
“Mom! Nancy’s awake! Nancy! It’s me! Your little sister Mona! It’s me! I’m Mona! Remember me? Remember your little sister Mona? Nancy!”
Nancy swam up from a sedative-induced delirium. No! Not a hospital! How did this happen? Oh… must have been the spooky blonde girl and her dog….
A day later Nancy was out of the hospital and feeling partly cloudy with a chance of rain. Her memory of the blonde girl in the alley haunted her. “Mom?” she said at supper that night. “Dad?”
“Yes?” said Laura Huggins with a genuine smile.
Gill Huggins looked up from his genre magazine.
“Dad? Mom? Have either of you ever seen the girl with the long blonde hair and huge blue eyes walking around the neighborhood?”
“That’s a frightening image!” said Gill. “I’m not sure I’d want to see huge blue eyes walking around the neighborhood! Egad!”
“I have! I’ve seen her!” said Mona as a piece of boiled potato and three peas floated through the air on her fork.
“Stop playing with your food, Mona, and eat,” said Laura as she looked to her husband Gill for support.
“I believe that’s a spaceship to Jupiter,” said Gill. “See its three green lights?” He again fell into the ‘space opera’ story he had been reading.
“Copy that, Ground Control,” replied Laura as she rolled her eyes in mild disgust and turned her attention back to Nancy.
“See!” said Nancy. “Mona has seen her, Mom. So I’m not crazy!”
“No one said you were, dear,” replied Laura. “I’ve never thought you were crazy. Now, this one sitting here reading his comic book or whatever it is, I’ve had different thoughts about through the years.”
“I’d take deep offence,” said Gill with a jovial smile, “if it wasn’t for the fact that I make our family’s living as an author. But I know you only jest, my love. Perhaps, though, I shouldn’t study the market while having supper with my family, what say?”
“That’s a fine idea,” replied Laura as she patted her husband’s hand. “Now, girls. Tell me and your dad more about this girl. Does she live around here, Mona?”
“I’m not sure, but she has the cutest dog! Oh he’s so cute!”
“So you’ve seen the pup too,” said Laura. “What… what did it look like? I mean, exactly…”
“I’m scared of that girl,” said Nancy. “I don’t like how her bangs are cut straight across her forehead like some girl out of the 1970s or something weird like that.”
“Now wait just a minute!” replied Laura. “I’ll have you know, Miss Prissy, that…”
“Scared?” said Gill. “Did I just hear my brave girl Nancy say she’s scared?”
“Yes, Daddy. You did. Because I am. That girl doesn’t talk. And when I first saw the leash in her hand, there was no dog attached. And then when I was about to leave to come back inside to clean the kitchen, because she would not say one word to me and I tried really hard to have a conversation with her, her dog was on her leash! I got so scared that I tripped on something and fell and…”
“You fell and cracked your head open on my seashell!” said Mona.
“Sweetheart!” said Laura. “Careful with the violent images please.”
“Sorry Mom. Sorry Nancy. Sorry Dad. Sorry weird girl with long blonde hair standing right behind my sister….”
“Eek!” said Nancy as she dove forward in her chair and covered her head with her arms, upsetting her iced tea.
“I was just joking!” said Mona. “It was just a joke. She’s not really there, Nancy. It was just a little joke was all it was. Just a itty-bitty little joke….”
“So this girl with alien eyes,” said Gill as he stood and got his daughter a kitchen towel for the mess. “What’s this all about? You’d think no one had ever seen a girl with large eyes before.”
“Dad, it’s not that,” said Nancy. “Jinkie Halverson sort of looks like that. And so does my friend Aurelia. It’s not the girl’s hair or her eyes. It’s her stare! It’s how she stared at me like she was about to lift off the ground and fly through me like some kind of steam-ghost or sharp Venetian wind!”
“Yikes!” said Gill, thrilled with Nancy’s science fiction description. “Like father, like daughter, apparently!”
“Agreed,” said Laura, grinning weakly. She’d hoped for more of a ‘girlie girl.’ Maybe Mona would fit the bill a bit better…
“Is that the same kind of wind that blows through our venetian blinds in our bedrooms, Nancy?” asked Mona. “You know, the howling wind that makes the venetian blinds bang really loud and wake me up when its about to storm outside, or when it is storming, or when the storm is leaving and its still super windy and stuff like that outside?”
“No,” replied Nancy as she took Mona’s small hand in hers. “Not that kind of Venetian.”
“Oh,” said Mona, confused but soon captivated with landing her boiled carrot-rocket onto the uneven surface of Planet Meatloaf.
“So this blonde girl’s about your age then, Nancy?” asked Gill. “Thirteen or so?”
“Eleven and a half, Dad!”
“And,” continued Nancy, “I’ve never seen her before that day. Some of the kids said there was a new girl moving into our neighborhood, but when I asked her if she was that new girl, she just stared at me and looked like she was going to cry a river.”
“This is really strange, Gill,” said Laura as she implored her husband with her eyes.
“Alright. Tell you what we’ll do,” said Gill. “It’s still early. After supper we’ll take a walk down through the alleys of our quaint little Edwardian neighborhood and see what there is to see. Maybe we’ll run across our new friend, and I’d bet that if anybody can get her to talk, it’ll be Mona. What say, Nancy? Mona, you up for a challenge this evening afore All Hallows Eve?”
“Yeah, Dad,” replied Mona. “I can make a dead cat talk if I want to.”
“Oh Mona!” said Laura. “Please, not that story again!”
“If somebody’ll hold my hand the whole time, then I’ll go,” said Nancy.
“I’ll hold your hand!” said Mona as she smiled and gazed into her big sister’s eyes. “I’m glad you’re not dead, Nancy. I’m glad you didn’t crack your head wide open and die in a pool of your own blood.”
The alley walk proved happy but uneventful. Not a sign of the girl anywhere. Back home, Gill read a daily devotional in silence while Laura crocheted a new square for the blanket she was making. Nancy disappeared upstairs while Mona paged through one of her dad’s weird magazines, intrigued by the bizarre illustrations of space flight and monsters that looked a lot like the pictures of deep sea fish she had seen at school.
“Mom! She’s outside! She’s outside on the sidewalk! Dad!”
Gill was out the front door before Nancy could get downstairs. “Where? Where is she?” he said as he ran down the walkway to the street.
“I saw her too!” said Mona as she hopped down the porch steps. “She was holding a leash no puppy! Leash no puppy hop! Leash no puppy hop!”
Laura stood in the doorway. “Are you sure it’s safe out there, Gill? What if she’s out there and you can’t see her. What if she… what if she stares at you and you fall and…”
Gill turned, studying his wife as if she were a recovering mental patient. “Sweetheart? This is Rohde Avenue. This is where you live. We’ve both lived on this street every since we were kids growing up together. Same Edwardian houses. Same neighbors, for the most part. Same oak and pecan trees. Same everything. You married me and then gave us the house you grew up in. I adore you for that, and for so much more. We all love it here. We wouldn’t live anywhere else. Our little neighborhood, remember? Our childhood neighborhood?”
“Yes. I remember. And I still remember your bugs and your model spaceships and your Bradbury stories and your incessant teasing. I knew you liked me, but all you knew to do was to tease me and call me ‘Goldilocks.’ I hated you until I was old enough to see how exciting you were; what a great boy you were. Yes, I know where I am, Gill. But, be careful please. That little girl could be out there…”
“I’m never taking the trash out again…” said Nancy through her tears. “She wouldn’t say anything again, and this time she had the leash with no dog, and then he was there, and then he wasn’t there, and then he was!”
“Is she a ghost, Daddy?” asked Mona. “Is the blonde girl we keep seeing a ghost? Did you know her when you were a little boy? Did she die somewhere in our neighborhood?”
“I’m not sure what a ghost is, girls,” said Gill, “but whatever she is, or whoever she is, she needs something. Or wants to tell us something.”
That night, in the master bedroom:
“Laura, I honestly believe its been years since I’ve seen you with your hair down. Why?”
“I… I don’t know why, Gill,” replied Laura as she removed her glasses and, for the first time in fifteen years, let her long blonde hair down in front of her husband and began brushing it in measured strokes.
a story by
R. M. Fradkin
When Mom died, Dad did not become the Mom we would’ve wanted him to be. He had been good as a Dad all along, but when he tried to be a Mom, too, he totally bombed it.
Coming down to the kitchen in the morning, we saw a big bow in front of the stove, and for a second it might have been Mom, but Mom’s butt never bulged that way out of the pants and her thighs weren’t so wide, were they?
Then the bow turned around, and I knew the knees. I didn’t see how Dad’s knees and Mom’s bow could be on the same legs, but I had known for the past few days that she had abandoned the kitchen, which she had never done before. And if she wasn’t coming back, which seemed to be the general idea of everything Dad and our neighbors told us about death, it made sense that she might have left a bow or two behind, and that Dad might have taken them.
Even so, I noticed that the bow was not the way it used to be, and how had he crumpled it so much when it used to fly butterfly-clean to Mom’s back?
“Pancakes,” he said, in the pink apron.
And Vince, sprinting by me through the doorway to the kitchen, could only land in his seat and gobble everything that Dad handed him as if he didn’t even see Mom’s bow sitting right there.
When we were all around the table, we asked Dad if we could see the newly imported brontosaurus today.
“Sorry, guys, I have a storm to catch—I mean, sorry, guys and girls. Excuse me, Laura,” he said.
“Guys includes me,” I said. “Guys can also mean girls.”
When I was young and stupid, I thought he really meant it, like he actually wanted to catch the storm and grab it in a game of tag.
Now I know that he just chases it, but he does not chase it away from our house, the way I also thought when I was younger, he just follows it wherever it decides to go. Actually he’s a storm spotter, not a chaser. Some people don’t know the difference between spotters and chasers, but those people aren’t Dad’s daughter, and I bet they can’t recognize a ‘barber pole cloud’ either. Chasers travel all over the country to find a good storm, and some yahoos chase way too close, just to get a video. Spotters have positions they’re supposed to stick to, and they check on the storms that are hanging out nearby, but Dad always takes things farther than anyone else.
Then he calls back to Skywarn for the National Weather service, and they can tell everybody else, so hopefully everyone can stay away. Or at least if they’re going to get hit, people know before it happens, so that’s helpful. This is a super important job where we live, because our air has lots of thunderstorms and tornadoes.
He also has a less important job at the pet store, although Dad likes it because they pay him, and Vince and I like it, because if we come by at closing time, he can shut all the doors and let all the birds out of their cages for a while. Then, if the birds poop on things, Vince and I have to scrub off the counters and things so “The Boss” will never know.
It is worth it though, even to scrape poop off things, just to see the whip, whip, whip of colors over our heads.
And when we have been really, really, especially good, he’ll let out the puppies and the kittens, too. Not the guinea pigs, in case the dogs eat them. If we want the guinea pigs, we need to put all the big animals away and only have the little ones out. When I was young and stupid, I used to ask Dad why we couldn’t let the fishes out.
Obviously, I know why not now.
Today though, I really wanted to see the new brontosaurus at the museum, freshly caught like a storm, so I wasn’t as excited as I usually am when Dad starts getting his spotting equipment out. But then I thought, now that Mom isn’t here to stop him, maybe Dad will take me, the way he always promised he would.
So I scooted over to him as he was taking off his shoes and putting on a raincoat. He grinned like a goon at me when he held out the heels he had been cooking in.
“These are no good for driving,” he said.
They were very high and pointy, and his toes must have been crammed.
“Why?” I asked, meaning why had he been wearing the heels, but he sneakily answered another question instead.
“Because the heels will get stuck in the mat, and if we’re going to catch this storm, then I’ll need to accelerate and break at top speed.”
“We,” Vince shouted out of the other room.
“We,” I shouted, too.
And we ignored the back door that Dad held open and ran around to ride shotgun. Vince always got shotgun, the big fat warthog, even if he had to throw me down on the gravel, where it cut my knee. Mom would have given me the front seat, because he had shoved me, and made Vince sit in the back for once, but Dad didn’t notice.
I swallowed the unfairness and just got in the back, because I didn’t want even a bloody knee to hold us back from a PDS, or Particularly Dangerous Situation in spotter slang.
Vince got to hold the lightning detector and mess with the buttons on the radio, which Dad uses to talk to other storm spotters, and look at the weather reports being sent over to Dad’s phone. Vince was even luckier than usual to be bigger and stronger than me, and I was even unluckier than usual to be me.
I should have been excited to be on the trail, but I was too hot-dog mad, and the drops scooting diagonally down my window were blurred from my eyes on the inside. The streets were already sloppy. Tornadoes come from thunderstorms, so usually there’s rain around them, even though, at their heart, they’re dry, and Dad sped away toward the clouds that popped with anvil zits of lightning.
Then we saw the CatMobile. We call it the CatMobile, because it’s owned by a horrible woman named Catherine, who told us we could call her Cathy, but we know Cat makes her mad. Plus she has an old Datsun with a long hood like the Batmobile, and it’s tripped out with air probe cannons on the side to measure the wind and that kind of thing. We never resort to stuff like radar and air probes. A good storm spotter can just see when a storm’s boiling up and taste the updraft on the back of his tongue and in his nostrils, Dad always says. Cat’s a storm spotter, too, and Dad hates her when she gets there before he does. So Vince and I hate her, too. It’s not hard to hate a woman who talks to you like you’re at least a year younger than you really are.
She was behind us for a while, where we like to keep her, until our trunk popped and Dad had to pull over to pack things tighter.
“Too many,” he kept shouting as he tamped down on all the stuff in his trunk. There were a lot of stews and pies and things. They were all the things our neighbors had brought us in exchange for Mom.
“These should be in the fridge, Dad,” Vince said.
“We have pies in the fridge and pies in the pantry. Pies all over the goddamn house! But there were still too many. So I put some in the trunk.”
One of the pies—blueberry, I thought, from the way it smelled under the rain—had rolled out into the road. The crispy crust melted with the raindrops, and it all looked colorless until the CatMobile drove up and splattered over it. Then you could see the bright blueberries—I was right!—spilling out of the guts of the pie like roadkill. They were on Dad and me, and when I looked up into my bangs, there were blueberries there, too.
“Yahoo!” Vince and I shouted after her.
Dad took a handful of squashed pie and hurled it after the fleeing CatMobile, but of course, he was never going to make it. “We’re going home, guys,” he said and didn’t even bother wiping off his hand, so it smeared blueberries on the steering wheel.
Then Vince tried to make Dad turn around. He had guts to even try. “So we lost a pie, Dad. So what? It’s not like we lost one of the peach ones. We still haven’t caught the storm. Let’s go get it.”
“Catherine will intercept it first,” he said. It was a bad sign that he called his nemesis Catherine, because usually we called her Cat amongst ourselves, and that made her less scary, because we were making fun of her. We could have both followed the storm and called back to the weather service. Dad always says that two storm spotters are better than one, because one person can see what another person can’t sometimes, like trees down or debris in the air, but he never remembers that with Cat.
When we got back, he was trying to make up, so he said he would make hot chocolate, and not just with powder, but on the stove, with different ingredients and everything. He had all the jars and stuff out on the counter, so you knew he was for real and he was going to make an amazing mess. He went upstairs to put on a skirt and a pair of heels, and then he tied Mom’s apron on again, with a bow at the back, the way he had in the morning, but he messed it up even worse than before. Mom would’ve been ashamed that Dad was stealing her stuff and not even tying it right. And I don’t know, but if Mom was gone, I wanted her all the way gone. I didn’t want her clothes on other people.
“Why has this mustard been opened?” Dad yelled from the kitchen. If it had just been Dad yelling, no one would’ve listened, but there was a high screech in his voice that got our attention more than Dad ever had before, and Vince and I ran to the kitchen door.
“This mustard is open and half-gone, but now someone has opened a new one, and that’s half gone too, so instead of one full jar, we now have two, and they’re both taking up space. I want to know who did it.”
“It’s fine, Dad,” Vince said. “We’ll use both of them eventually, and it’s not like mustard goes gross.”
“It’s the clutter. It’s the extra space. There should be one container for every food. I’m going to put one of these away in the cupboard, and we’re going to finish the one in the fridge down to the last drop before we touch the next one.” Dad didn’t used to care about these things. Having to cook more was rough on him.
“You don’t need mustard for hot chocolate, anyway,” I said. “Why were you looking at the mustard jars?”
We didn’t get any hot chocolate that night. It was a bust, like a storm that stands you up.
More storms. We were on red watch constantly. A funnel a day almost, even if they spluttered into ropes really quickly and died. No one had ever seen the weather like this before, not even our really old neighbors who have lived here forever. The clouds never rolled back anymore, and whenever I sat down on the toilet, the thunder hit and shook the house until I fell off the seat.
At night, Vince couldn’t sleep because of the lightning. Because we shared a room, I heard him rummaging around in his bed when the lightning flashed behind the curtains, but when I asked him if he was scared, he started going to the bathroom, instead, whenever the lightning struck. He told me he had diarrhea, but I knew he was scared. I was scared too, but I didn’t try to hide it.
Dad wouldn’t take us when he went out to follow the storms anymore. He said it was too dangerous, but he had never thought it was too dangerous before. He had always told Mom that she was too afraid, that she was making us into cowards.
But still he wouldn’t take us along. I would have rather been in the car with him following the storm than sitting in the basement playing Go-Fish with Vince and waiting for lightning to hit our yard and open the garden up wide and deep for our house to faceplant in.
I was pretty sure that if we sat there long enough, it would happen, but I was never sure what would come after. Would the house ooze down to the center of the Earth on a slide of quicksand? Or would we just sit there in the pit made by the lightning, waiting on the ceiling for Dad to rescue us?
The second way seemed more likely, and I kind of wanted to play hide and seek with Vince inside all the furniture, but on the ceiling. And Dad would come home eventually from his long drives and save us. But we might sink down into the mud, and I wasn’t willing to find out.
“Any rainbowfish?” I said.
“Go fish,” Vince said.
“No, I know you have one, because you asked me for one before, when I didn’t have one,” I said.
He handed it over.
“Let’s go to the pet store and get a real rainbowfish,” I said.
“Mr. Sebasticook will be on shift though. Dad’s on the roads.”
“Oh come on, we can still go and look around. If you fill a Ziploc bag with water and put it in your coat pocket and leave it open, then I can scoop a little fish into the bag without anyone knowing.”
“We can’t mess with Dad’s job,” Vince said. I hated when he tried to be grown up. He always waited for me to say bad things so he could be the good kid.
“And also we kill everything in this house,” he said.
“Mr. Monster fell out of a tree, we didn’t kill him,” I said. Mr. Monster was our cat two years ago. He didn’t know that cats are supposed to land on their feet.
“And what about Lemonade?” He was our yellow hamster.
“He just died,” I said. “He was too fat and he just died.”
“You fed him too much. You shouldn’t have given him so many Frosted Flakes all the time.”
I was so mad at him, I wanted to pin him to the floor and clip his toenails, but then Dad came home. “Hey kids, you can come upstairs now,” he said, and his voice was so low and comforting that I forgot about Vince. He smelled like tires and thunder and smoke and mud. And when I ran upstairs, he didn’t touch my hair or anything, he just grabbed me and gave me the best hug he had in weeks.
“Dad, you don’t have to make us dinner tonight,” Vince said. “Laura and I can just make sandwiches.”
“No, Vince,” Dad said. “I want my kids to have a nice, hot meal. I’ll be right down.”
“Don’t bother to change, then,” Vince said. “Please just cook in your pants and your t-shirt.”
He went upstairs to change. I used to think pancakes for dinner would be such a great thing, because you would feel like a criminal, eating breakfast at night, but sometimes you get your wishes and they don’t turn out to be what you wanted.
We started playing Go-Fish again, so we didn’t have to listen to Dad go up the stairs, but we couldn’t ignore his shoes clacking down the stairs.
He tapped to the stove.
Neither of us turned around.
He kept making loud noises as he fried the pancakes. Every time he flipped one over, he hollered a little, but we were really interested in our card game.
Vince was so interested that he refused to look up, in case he forgot what his cards were when he looked away, and when Dad made us put the cards away and set the table, we looked really hard at the floor, and not towards the stove, because we didn’t want to trip and break the cups and plates.
Then Dad brought the plate of pancakes over, and I looked up to spear one off the plate, even though after three weeks they tasted flabby. And I saw the face over the pancakes, and it was wearing a curly wig. I almost checked the ears to see if they had those long dangly earrings that used to bang you on the nose when Mom leaned over to give you a kiss. He was in a skirt and a girly sweater, too, the way he always was when he was at home now. But the wig was new and ugly. He went to work in denim and flannel, but he turned into a woman when he walked through the door.
“Don’t let the syrup get cold, kids,” Dad said. “I warmed it up in that special copper saucepan.”
The syrup was burned and tasted the way sand used to, back in the day, when eating sand from the sandbox seemed like a good idea.
Two days later, it was the storm of the century, and still Dad wouldn’t let us go see.
Quiet unhappiness had turned into full-on mutiny in our house, because Vince and I just couldn’t sit still and take this. If we had to go to school, there might have been some excuse, even though school was a lame one, but during summer break, there was no reason we had to stay at home all the time.
We watched the meteorologists obsessively, who were so full of doom that they might have been hired by Mom to keep us off the roads. Supercells were streaming in faster than wind, but meteorologists can’t tell you if a funnel will squirm out of the wall cloud and touch-down on earth. They might have radar, but they still need Dad to go and stare at those hard anvils and beaver’s tails and watch for rotation. Even with Dad’s education, I couldn’t understand all the words they used, but the gist of it was that a good chunk of the State was going to get flattened by wind, hail, and lightning, and the only questions were which parts of the State and how much flattening.
Other signs of the apocalypse were everywhere. There was snow in Memphis, where there had probably never been snow in July before. And we found an armadillo in our yard, when he should have been way off with his friends in Texas. Also, Vince told me he was scared one night and came over to lay in my bed for a while.
These were all crazy foreboding omens, but the worst part of it was that when the end of the world came, Vince and I wouldn’t even get to see it. We would be shut in our basement playing cards, or in the kitchen, if the storm forecast was far enough away from our house. And it was scheduled for Sunday.
On Sunday, Dad got up early to make us a special Sunday pancake breakfast, and you could tell that he was trying hard to make up for being such a coward and a traitor. But that syrupy perfume wasn’t helping him any.
I couldn’t help liking him a little, though, when he gave us the key to the pet shop. It was closed on Sunday, but he told us that if we locked the doors we could go and let some of the animals out. All the really fun weather was going to be far away, anyway, miles upstate. And when he said, “It will be good for them to have some company, because they’ll probably be scared by the thunder,” I liked him even a little bit more, because I knew he knew it would be more the other way around, with the two of us clutching the warm bunnies. Vince was less of a softee. He just glared at Dad, all unmeltable.
Do you know where tornadoes come from? When the knuckled underbelly of a storm breathes in so much air that it can’t eat it up anymore, it spins downwards until it hits the ground, and it keeps rolling until it gets so tired that it explodes.
“Why are you wearing that disgusting perfume?” Vince said.
“What perfume?” Dad said.
“The one that you’re wearing,” Vince said. “The one that smells like wet poodle.”
“But, I’ve always worn this perfume, darling. It’s my signature scent. And you used to like it so much.”
“It smelled good on Mom,” Vince said. “It smells totally gross on you.”
“But I have to be your mother and your father now,” Dad said.
“We’re fine with just a Dad,” Vince said. “When Mom died, we kinda figured that was the way it was gonna be.”
Dad looked at me for help, but today, for once, I was with Vince all the way.
“It smells like wet poodles and wet Chihuahuas,” I said. “Who are even worse than wet poodles.”
Dad left, and he must have been hot-dog mad, because he left in Mom’s outfit, which he had never done before. His woman’s act had always been an indoor thing, but that day, he took it outside with him.
There was nothing for us to do except go to the pet shop. Outside, branches were falling like rain, so we took the short cut through the shaking grass in the Masons’ backyard. Outside Allison Mason’s playhouse, one teacup was left over from a tea party, filling up with drizzle. I wished the rain and thunder would smash it, because she never asked me to her tea parties. She thought I was too tomboy.
Inside the store, even the parrots’ green feathers seemed to be falling more angrily than usual. We had an order to the way we opened cages, saving our favorites for last. We let the birds out first, starting with the doves and ending with the orange cheek finches. Then we let out Randy the painted turtle—all the others had been sold earlier in the summer—and the kitties and puppies. We skipped the first part where we usually let the bunnies and geckos and gerbils out for a while on their own. Today was a straight-to-the-puppies kind of day.
We were having so much fun that when the door blew off, there were three spaniel puppies dancing on the counter, a cockatoo swinging from the ceiling fan, and a kitten in the cash register. A couple of the fish palaces and plastic coral reefs fell off the shelves and broke, and the place started to smell like spoiled tuna from the broken cat food cans.
We were supposed to get the rain and lightning from around the edges of the storm, but we were never supposed to get big winds. Still, when your doors fly away, you can’t shout to the wind that it is supposed to be upstate.
I laid myself flat across the ledge of the door and made myself into a wall.
“Get the birds back in their cages, now,” I said to Vince. “I’ll make sure nothing furry gets by me.”
Vince was always good when things were going bad. He climbed on the counter and took the cockatoo off the fan. A lot of the parrots went back in their cages when they felt the wind anyway, cause parrots are super cowardly birds. Then Vince had to chase down a few canaries and parakeets. A blue parakeet got by me, though. I couldn’t chase it, because we hadn’t gotten the kittens and puppies back yet, and Randy was nuzzling my legs, but I chased it with my eyes so we could find it again.
Normally, whenever we were in the shop, I kind of wanted to let the animals escape. I bet Dad wouldn’t have let me in the store as much if he had known how much I wanted to fling wide the doors sometimes, shouting, “Make a break for it.”
The dogs and the cats maybe needed a family, but the other animals, they hadn’t chosen to live here, and maybe they didn’t want a family, and maybe the people taking care of them didn’t know what they actually needed. You should see the kind of things they sell in the store around Halloween. Pumpkin hats for cats and devil horns for your bunny. Some people are really sick. But I still couldn’t let them escape into the wind, because you can’t trust this type of wind.
Vince recaged all the things on four legs, and it wasn’t too hard, because they mostly all like to be cuddled. Then we piled the cages and tanks in the back storeroom, but there was no time to build a barrier against the wind in the entrance. The parakeet was in a little bush across the street, so we had to leave the others with the front door gone and just pile a couple of the big crates and bags of dog food against the storeroom door.
Then we went out into the waving trees.
Blueberry was halfway down the block, now, resting for a second on a blue mailbox in front of the empty grocery store. It’s funny, I had never named him until he escaped from me. I saw his tail feathers over my head and I said to myself: Blueberry is getting away.
It seemed like he was waiting for Vince and me, but every time we got close, he let himself go back into the wind and floated away to another bush or mailbox.
We passed the little museum and, through a storm-shattered window, we saw the brontosaurus lying on the ground. They really should have put him in the basement or somewhere, but I guess he was too big to take cover. I hoped none of his bones would escape. In the clear slice of sky far behind the museum, I saw an orphan anvil, huge and alone.
Blueberry flew up a long driveway with a tornado-funnel of dark trees twisting away from us toward the house. If I hadn’t been too old and too brave, I would have thought of goblins and witches and trolls.
But still, I almost screamed when Blueberry plopped on my head from out of a tree. I was too surprised to pin him to my head, and he flew up to the low branch again. Vince gave me his shoulders, and I stood on a flowerpot and scrabbled the rest of the bony way up his back.
He almost bashed me into the tree as we positioned ourselves under the branch. Now, I was close enough to see the dark brown swirls over the lighter blue. I held out my hands with a ball of space between them like a soft cage. He got in.
“I don’t usually see you kids in my trees,” Cat’s voice said behind us.
We had never known which house she lived in, and between concentrating on Blueberry and the storm racket, we hadn’t heard her back the CatMobile out right behind us.
“We lost a bird,” Vince said.
“And found him again,” I said.
“Get in the car,” Cat said.
“We should take Blueberry back,” I said. Dad might forgive us if he lost his job at the pet store because of us, but I was sure he would never forgive us for getting in the CatMobile.
“Let’s go with Catherine,” Vince said. I think Dad’s forgiveness was the last thing he wanted then.
I was still on Vince’s shoulders, holding Blueberry and dangling over the car as we talked to her. My eyes brimmed with rain.
“Come on kids,” Cat said. “It’s the storm of the century. You can’t miss it.”
“Dad didn’t want us to go out in the storm.” I sounded like Vince.
“Dad abandoned us here alone. We should go where we want.” Vince sounded like me.
“Either you’re coming with me, or you’re staying in my house until I get back,” she said.
Vince looked up at me with shadows on his face from the hands of leaves spreading out from the branches above him. I knew what he was thinking. He might be mad at Dad, but he would have to be a lunatic to enter the enemy’s lair. She might do anything to us. And Dad would do worse.
“Come on kids. I need to radio back to Skywarn about the wind speeds and the direction of the supercell. Some other spotters have said there’s a massive wedge due north.”
“Our Dad’s been out there for hours.” I couldn’t resist.
We got in. We were clearly not very good at the whole enemy thing. Vince took the front seat, of course. He could take the seat, because I had the bird.
She drove quicker even than Dad, who used to say that speed limits were only for the fools who chose to follow them.
Cat was getting calls from the weather operators, because the funnel was tripping over the land so quickly now, and the weather maps were changing so fast, they had to keep giving her updates from their radar, telling her north—northwest now—then straight back south again. She even had a swiveling compass in her dashboard.
But the best thing was, if the world ended that night, it would be in front of our eyes. It was hard to tell what time of day it was now. Five said my stomach, but we hadn’t had lunch, and you couldn’t trust the sky anymore.
I felt like we were driving into a swamp, but the swamp was above us instead of below our tires. We could feel the quicksand tug of the scud tunneling into darker and darker points ahead of us.
The first other car we saw was Dad’s. To be sitting here and not there made me feel really sorry for Dad, alone there inside the wig, and I wished we were with him. And not just because his car was ahead of ours.
Now we were entering what spotters call the bear’s cage. So much gunge was flying at the windshield that we could barely see the headlights in front of us.
Below the road we had been climbing, the trees on the side of the road unclumped to show us a plain, pizza-flat and stretching for miles. On the plain in the distance, a gigantic funnel bulged and gulped and screamed, sucking the ground and the sky. Dad would have told me it was not the thing itself, but the dust around it that I was seeing, and not to be afraid of that wild swirl, because it was only the things I couldn’t see that could hurt me.
But, Dad, it was beautiful, too.
Dad had stopped at the top of the hill, to look down at the plain, and we did too.
“I need to go take some GPS measurements,” Catherine said. “You stay in the car. I’ll let your Dad know you’re here.”
We ignored her, of course.
Dad was standing looking down at the tornado column, with his radio in one hand.
I was ready to run to him, but a flash of lightning out of the green sky streaked behind him and outlined each curl in the wig glued down to his head in the wind, how the ball at the end of the earring was blowing backwards, how the wrist holding the radio was clunky with some kind of bracelet, and how his heavy rear end bulged the skirt out in the back. At the knees, where the skirt ended, fat legs were crammed into tiny shoes, and their spikes sank into the grass.
We saw all of this before the flash faded.
Catherine must have seen, too, but she walked us over to him and said, “Excuse, me, David, I have your kids. The door blew off the pet store, and I found them on the streets.”
“They should be at home,” Dad yelled.
“We’re sorry, Dad,” Vince said, ready to forgive with a tornado behind him. “One of the birds escaped and we had to catch him. He flew into Catherine’s yard and she brought us here.”
“Don’t worry, David,” Catherine said. “I have three adult sons. I know how to take care of kids.”
“If you knew how to take care of kids, they wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Look, let’s just watch the funnel a bit, see where it’s going, measure the wind speed, radio that in, and then you can take your kids home. No harm done.”
“This was all a plot to get me out of the way, so you can follow the storm path on your own,” Dad said.
Catherine didn’t answer, she just walked a little further up the hill with her GPS.
“Look, Dad,” I said, “we saved Blueberry. He flew off into the wind, and we saved him.”
Blueberry hadn’t moved since we got into the car, but I could feel the breath moving in and out of his beak.
I held the beak out towards Dad, but he shoved my hand aside and started walking down the hill towards the plain.
The light caught in the curly hair again, and, for a second, I wished that the bolt of lightning would grab her and take her back to where she belonged.
Don’t think too bad of me. I didn’t know the storm was listening to me. You know that when you wish for things, you never dream of them coming true.
a retelling by
The following story is a retelling of a tale from ‘The Algonquin Legends of New England’ by Charles G. Leland. The book was published in 1884 but the story is much older. Lewis Brooks, a Micmac Indian, heard the story from his grandfather, Samuel Paul, some time before 1843. No one knows how much older than that the story really is.
Of the old time. A Micmac Indian went with his wife one autumn far away in the northwest to hunt. They found a good place to pass the winter, and built a wigwam. The man hunted and brought home game. The woman dressed and dried the meat.
One winter afternoon, while the woman foraged through the snow to gather wood, she heard rustling in the bushes. She looked up and saw something staring at her that was worse than she had ever feared.
A haggard old man with wolf eyes stared at her, his face a mix of devil and beast. His shoulders and lips were gnawed away, as if he had been so hungry he had begun to eat himself. He carried a bundle on his back.
The woman knew about the Chenoos, beings from the far, icy north, both devil and cannibal. She knew this was one of them.
Dire need sometimes gives quick wit. The woman, despite her fear, ran up to the Chenoo and pretended surprise and joy. “My dear father, how glad my heart is! Where have you been for so long?”
The Chenoo was amazed. He expected screams and prayers. In silence he let himself be lead into the wigwam. The wise woman looked at his ragged clothes and dirty body. “Here father,” she said. “Here are clothes of my husband. Dress yourself and be cleaned.”
The Chenoo looked surly, but kept quiet. It was a new thing to him. The woman got up and went out to gather more branches. The Chenoo stood up and followed her. Now, she thought, my death is here. Now he will kill and eat me.
The Chenoo stood in front of her. “Give me the axe,” he said. She handed him the axe, and he began to chop down trees. Man never saw such chopping. Great trees fell on one side and the other like summer saplings. The branches were hewed and split as if by a summer tempest.
“Noo, tabeagul boosoogul!” the woman cried. “My father, there is enough!” The Chenoo handed her the axe and, in grim silence walked back into the wigwam and sat down. The woman gathered wood and returned to the wigwam, sitting in silence across from the Chenoo.
Then she heard her husband coming through the snow. “Rest here my father,” she said. She ran out and told her husband what she had done. He thought it well.
The husband went into the wigwam. “N’chilch,” he said kindly. “My father in law, where have you so long been?”
The Chenoo stared in amazement. As the husband told of the many years that he and the woman had been together the Chenoo’s fierce face grew gentler. He sat for the meal, but hardly touched the food they offered him. The Chenoo lay down to sleep, but the fire was too warm. “Put a screen in front of me,” he said. The Chenoo is from the ice, and cannot endure heat.
For three days the Chenoo rested in the wigwam, sullen and grim, hardly eating. Then he changed. “Woman,” he asked, “do you have tallow?”
“Yes, my father,” the woman replied, “we have much deer fat.”
The Chenoo filled a large kettle with tallow. He put the kettle on the fire. When the tallow was scalding hot he drank it all in one swallow. He grew pale. He became sick. He cast up every kind of horrible thing that he had eaten, terrible to see and smell. He lay down and slept. When he woke up he asked for food and ate much. From that time he was good to them. They feared him no more. He now seemed as an old man.
They lived on dried meat such as the Micmacs prepare. The Chenoo grew tired of it. “N’toos—my daughter, have you no pela weoos—fresh meat?”
“No, my father,” she replied.
When the husband returned, the Chenoo saw black mud on his snow shoes.
“Son-in-law, is there a spring near?”
“Half a day’s trek away.”
“We will go there tomorrow,” said the Chenoo.
They went early the next morning. The husband ran very quickly in snow shoes. But the Chenoo, who seemed wasted and worn, ran in snow shoes ahead of the wind. They came to the spring, the snow melted around it, the fringe flat and green.
The Chenoo stripped out of his clothes and began a magic dance. The spring water began to foam and rise and fall, as if something below were heaving along with the steps and the song. The head of a huge Taktalok-lizard rose above the surface. The Chenoo killed it with a chop of his hatchet. He dragged the lizard out of the spring and began to dance again. A second lizard, a female, stuck her head above the surface and was killed. She was smaller than the first, but still heavy as an elk.
“How is this?” asked the husband.
“They were only small spring lizards, son-in-law, but I have conjured them into monsters.”
The Chenoo dressed the game and cut it up. He took the heads, feet, and tails and threw them back into the spring. “These will grow again into many lizards,” he said.
The dressed meat looked like bear. The Chenoo bound the meat together with withes of willow, and put the load on his shoulders. Then he began to run before the wind, his load as nothing.
The husband was the greatest runner in the region, but he lagged far behind. “You cannot go fast enough” said the Chenoo. “The sun is setting, the red will be black soon. Get on my back. Brace your feet. Duck your head low so you will not be knocked off by branches.”
The Chenoo—nebe sokano’u’jal samastukteskugulchel wegwasumug wegul—ran ahead of the wind, bushes whistling as they flew past them. They reached the wigwam before sunset. The wife was afraid to prepare such meat, but the husband persuaded her. It tasted of bear meat.
Spring came. The Chenoo told them that his enemy, a Chenoo woman, was coming from the north to kill him. This woman Chenoo, he said, was more mad and cruel than he had been. The man and his wife must hide, for the war-whoops of a female Chenoo might kill them.
The Chenoo sent the woman for the bundle which he had brought with him and which had been hanging untouched on a tree bough. He took out two horns, golden bright, of the chepitchcalm, a dragon. One horn had two tines, the other was straight. He gave the straight horn to the husband.
“Only these,” he told the husband, “will kill the Chenoo. If you hear me call for help, then run to me with the horn, for you may be able to save me.”
Three days passed. The Chenoo was fierce and bold. He sat and listened, but had no fear. Then, far away, from the icy north, he heard the awful scream, like nothing else that lived. The husband and wife hid in a deep hole they had dug.
The battle began with the war-whoops of the two Chenoos. They made magic, and grew to the size of hills. As they fought, thick pines were torn up out of ground, and boulders crashed into boulders.
Then the husband heard the old man Chenoo cry out, “N’loosook! Choogooye! Abog unumoee!—son-in-law, come help me!”
The husband ran into the fight. The female Chenoo was holding old man Chenoo down, stabbing at his ear with her dragon’s horn. She mocked him. “You have no son-in-law to help you. I will take your life and eat your liver.”
The husband stood next to the struggling Chenoos, so small he was not noticed. “Now,” said old man Chenoo, “jab the horn into her ear!”
The husband struck hard and the horn pierced her ear. As soon as the horn entered the ear it lengthened and shot through her head, coming out the other ear like a long pole. The end of the horn touched ground and sprouted strong roots. The other end of the horn grew from the husband’s hand and coiled itself around a massive tree.
Then old man Chenoo and the husband began to kill the female Chenoo. She had shrunk to her normal size, but the killing was long, weary work. They must chop her body into bits and burn every piece completely, otherwise a new Chenoo, worse than the first, would grow from any overlooked fragment. The hardest task of all was to melt and burn her heart. It was harder than ice, harder than ice as ice is harder than water, as ice is colder than fire. At last they were done.
Spring continued. The winter snows ran down the rivers to the sea, the ice and snow on the inland hills seeking the shore. The Chenoo was becoming as a man, his soul also softening and melting.
The husband and his wife knew it was time to leave. They prepared their birch bark canoe, but for the old man Chenoo they made a canoe of moose skins. In his canoe they put their venison and skins. The old man did not lead, but merely followed the couple in his canoe, down into the sunshine of a wide lake. But he was not fond of the sunshine.
When they came to the outlet river, the old man Chenoo said that they should tow his canoe and that he would travel downstream through the woods. They told the old man where they meant to camp that night and he started out on foot, through dense brush, over hills and rocks, a much harder, longer trip.
Husband and wife sailed down river with the spring floods, headlong through rapids. But when they came to the point where they meant to camp, they saw smoke already rising from among the trees. After landing, they found old man Chenoo sleeping away from the fire which he had built for the two of them.
This was repeated for several days, moving further south into a warmer valley. But as they traveled, a change came over the old man. He was of the north. Ice and snow had no effect on him. But he could not abide the soft airs of summer. Old man grew weaker and weaker, and when husband and wife reached their village, old man had to be carried like a small child.
His face was no longer fierce, his wounds had healed. He no longer grinned wildly. He had become gentle. He was as their father. But he was dying. The Chenoo wept for the first and last time as a man.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international paper sales. He has his original wife, but after 45 years they are both out of warranty.
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