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Ah… and here we find ourselves again with a brand-spankin’ new issue of Beorh Quarterly, the magazine bringing to the world The Very Best Stories Out There™
We open with “Climber,” a chilling work by Maggie Whitefeather. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?
Next, Jonpaul Taylor, in his brilliant short work “The Sun Sets Largest on the Last Day,” reminds us of the gift given us beyond our mortality, if we will but believe.
Beth J. Whiting then brings us her Fabulist work “A Hole in the Heart,” the quirky and sweet story of love lost and gained, and everything that happens in between the two.
I then bring you one of my own pieces penned last Spring, titled “The More Things Change…” You’ll get all of the references, I’m sure, and I hope you enjoy the story.
Then, we conclude with a little heathen god worship, courtesy of Lord Dunsany.
a story by
It was March, a sunny, too-cold early Spring morning with snow still laying in shadowy crevices and the rock itself shimmering from the frost. Jim and Jess climbed an offshoot trail behind a row of granite cliffs at Sheboygan State Park, scrabbled over yards of large and small displaced boulders, then unloaded their rope and packs at the top.
It may have been Jack and Jill who went up the hill, but it was Jim and Jessica who rappelled back down. After all, rappelling down hills was so much more contemporary than tumbling down hills, and Jim with his Dodge Ram pickup and Jessica with her Abercrombie jeans and black stilettos (though she never wore them climbing) portrayed the pinnacle of small town Iowan contemporariness.
Jim looped the static line around the nearest tree, a cottonwood, then descended and belayed for Jess.
Jess was new to this, but a quick study. She fastened her D-ring to the harness then held the rope in front and behind, like Jim had taught her. Nearing the edge, she eased her way over, backwards, and began her walk down the nearly sheer rock face. Jim went next.
“Not bad for a first timer,” Jim said when it was all over. The gap between Jim’s front teeth blacked next to his bright whites.
“Let’s do this again, Jim. But I’ll catch up. My boots need retied.”
“Can I help?”
“Naw. You go ahead. It’ll just take me a minute.”
“I can wait.”
“Then I want to use the facilities, so no, go ahead. Maybe when you get there you can break out the trail mix and thermos? I’m cold. And I imagine after I expose my backside to the elements, I’ll be half frozen, so yeah, the coffee, please.”
“Alright. Don’t dawdle.”
Jess got busy untying and redoing her laces. Her next pair of hikers would be of better quality. The laces on these kept slipping, but then what did she expect with a pair of $39 discount boots? She should have known better.
Once she finished, she re-gloved, found a secluded spot, and dropped her jeans to her ankles and did her business. Yep, it was definitely cold. She wouldn’t wear these jeans again for climbing either. They were too loose and kept sliding down. But it had started as “one of those days” and it continued to be “one of those days.” At least Jim was his usual amiable self, and that helped.
Earlier that morning, her cat, Pria, had dumped her milk dish when Jess walked by and of course per Murphy’s Law, Jess stepped in it. She was about to scramble to find another clean sock to replace the milky one when Jim called and said he’d be there in five minutes. If that wasn’t enough, the dishwasher overflowed just as the doorbell rang. She cranked off the valve under the sink and threw a towel down on the puddle on her way to answer the door. It was the mailman. He had a package for her, but it was too large to carry and she’d have to pick it up at the post office. She hadn’t ordered anything recently, but told him she’d stop by the next day to get it. He gave her the receipt and left.
When she started back toward the kitchen, she sighed at the milky trail she’d laid on the carpet in her haste to answer the door. With Jim pulling up in the driveway and no time to spare, she slipped her new hiking boots on over her milky sock, grabbed her coat, hat, gloves, and belt pack, and promptly forgot her wallet. She and Jim always went Dutch, so she was a little embarrassed when they stopped for a breakfast bagel and Jim had to pay. Jess would keep up her end of the friendship by paying her own way. Next time, she’d buy.
Jess walked the twenty feet or so to the trail head, and started up the path covered in pine needles and oak leaves. Ahead lay even larger rocks and a few bonafide boulders. Jess squeezed between those and the cliff.
A baseball-sized rock rolled down to her left, bounced off a few others and disappeared. It was too large to just disappear. It didn’t clunk or roll farther down the hill; it dropped into something, a grassy spot, maybe, but she would have seen it. Curiosity possessed her.
She grabbed the branch of a tree on the edge of the trail and slipped and slid until her feet landed on solid ground again. A little farther on she spotted a dark hollow, a small cave set into the hillside. Jim wouldn’t miss her for those extra few minutes. If anything, he’d think her privy time had been extended.
Jess followed the terrain to the hollow, and leaves crunched under her feet—beautiful orange and red maples and brown oaks, the once-shimmery aspens and flat-as-paper balsam fir needles. She scuffed a long line in the dirt and parted them. She’d been lost in the woods once, and had to follow a friend’s voice to find her way back out. After that incident, she always carried the necessary items with her when hiking: compass, waterproof matches, pocketknife, and even a flare and a light stick—all in the pouch around her waist. She broke a small tree branch to mark her passage, then another one further ahead. Just in case.
A few steps more and she reached the hollow. The opening was small but she scrunched down and squeezed through. So this was where the rock ended up.
Jess reached for her waist pack, for a light stick, but drew her hand away. The walls flickered with luminescent particles of light. She pulled a knife from her pack and scraped at the wall; the light faded and then extinguished in that spot, and a few sparkly bits remained on the blade. She tried another spot. Same thing.
Her eyes adjusted and the cave’s enormity spread before her. The main chamber split off at the back into two tunnels. Jess’ skin crawled. Imagine. A giant hole beneath the cliffs, and she didn’t even suspect it.
“Okay, Jim. You’re gonna kill me for this,” Jess said, and waved an arm in the air, “but I’m exploring.”
Jess minced her steps on the slippery surface. She crossed the main chamber and veered toward the left tunnel. The shaft was long and winding with no further branches in sight. After several hundred feet of a gently sloping and seemingly endless downward trek, she rounded a bend and bright patches of green and blue filled the cavescape. It was like those jungle movies she used to watch as a kid when the blue sky would find little places to slip through the tangle of trees and vines, trees that reached up far beyond the trees of Iowa.
Monkeys swung from tree to tree with their hand-toed feet, and their pink soles flashed in the heavily humid air. Several large blue and yellow and red birds flew overhead—something like parrots. A sloth hung from a branch and a hyena cackled in the distance. A deer drank from a stream to the right.
Jess rubbed her eyes and blinked. Yes, she was in a cave. In Iowa. She would drag Jim here no matter how much he objected. And the camera—she’d bring the camera.
It was time to start back; Jim would be frantic. But Jess glanced over her shoulder no less than three times before she reached the bend in the tunnel. They were still there, the trees, the monkeys, the parrots. Her mind worketh aright; she wasn’t hallucinating.
At the junction of the two tunnels, Jess took a step toward the large main room and the cave’s mouth, then turned to the right tunnel instead. Jim would want to know the whole story, not that he’d likely believe her or anything.
The tiny points of light on the walls continued to shed an eerie early-dawn-like hue around, and far ahead lay another bend in the passage. A foul smell tinged the air and intensified the further she walked. She pulled her turtleneck over her mouth and nose, and held it with one hand. Maybe it was a dead animal, a dog or a deer that wandered in and couldn’t find its way out again. Smelled like a whole herd of deer.
The tunnel finally straightened and another scene lay before her. Jess’s eyes flitted back and forth over the strange tableau which could have been a clip from a thousand war movies.
Bodies lay in the middle of a tall grassy field, piled in a single mound, surrounded by other bodies. Each wore a uniform, or what was left of it. A few still held rifles.
In front of the funeral pyre a soldier sat propped against those behind him. His eyes were wide and staring, and there was a fist-sized hole clean through his chest. What was once white flesh was now gray and spackled with blood. The splintered ends of two white ribs showed even at that distance. A river of dried brown blood cascaded onto his lap and over the tops of his legs.
The body, that soldier, was looking right at Jess, and it was Jim, down to the bushy moustache.
Jess froze for few seconds, unable to move or even think clearly. Then she turned and sped down the tunnel, across the expansive main cavern, and up to the small cave opening. She wriggled through the mouth once more, and brushed herself off.
The dry heaves kicked in then and Jess’ throat burned when the bagel from an hour before refused to come up. She stood and stretched to her full 5’ 9” frame, and gasped in the frigid air, one, two, three full breaths. What she wouldn’t give for a paper bag.
Jim. She had to get back to Jim.
He was sitting on a log, sipping from a blue speckled cup, when she reached the top.
“Hey, Jess! Pull up a chair. Warm your cold… umm … body.” Jess’s white face contrasted with a normal red winter one. “You look really cold. You okay?”
“I’m sorry I took so long—”
“Long? Five minutes isn’t so long. Got your coffee ready.”
Jess checked the time. It had to be longer than five minutes–more like an hour. She sat on the log next to Jim and took the cup of steaming coffee. She held her face close and let its warmth caress her. Maybe it had been a dream after all.
They rappelled twice more, but Jess barely said a word.
“Tired?” Jim asked, for a third time.
“What say we head for home then?”
Jess smiled and Jim took it as a yes.
Jim made one more solo trip to the top of the cliff and loaded up the gear. In a few moments he was back and handed Jess her pack. They started off the way they had come in, and passed below the hollow Jess had explored. But she refused to say anything, and tried to shake the dream-shadows from her mind.
The cry of a red tail hawk drew Jim’s attention up the hillside and toward the nearly hidden dark spot there.
“Look, Jess! What say we take a peek? Seems like it could be your kind of adventure.”
“No? My friend turning down an adventure?”
Jim cringed. Never mind; her tiredness was making her cranky, and soon it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Jim pulled into Jess’s driveway, and said goodbye. He would miss her after he left for Quantico the following day—Quantico and the Marine Corps. Surely Jess would understand, and maybe even wait for him. They had nothing more than a solid friendship, yet if he stayed things might progress. Jim wasn’t ready for that.
The rest of day, Jim would tie up loose ends. He turned his cell phone over to his baby brother who’d been begging for one since his fourteenth birthday. He said goodbye to his mother and brothers, then crossed town and stayed with his father until his plane left early the next morning. His dad told him stories of his two tours in Desert Storm one last time. And one last time Dad bragged about his illustrious military career.
Jess put the matter of caves and dead soldiers behind her. Yes, she had somehow dreamed it after all, dozed while resting on the cold rock with her warm backside. She made a bank withdrawal the next day, picked up the package at the post office, and returned home.
Her belt pack lay on the table, she extracted her trusty knife, and flipped it open. The blade shone, tiny sparks of light clinging to its edge. She rolled the knife handle back and forth in her hand. The cave. The light flecks.
Jess sliced through the tape across the top of the box, and pulled up on the flaps. Inside, an oak-colored wooden edge showed through wrapping paper. She lifted the item out and removed the remaining paper. It was the back of a framed print with the inscription: “I’m in paradise, Climber. Don’t worry. Yours, Jim.”
When she turned it over, Jess was flung back to the day before. A jungle scene spread across the canvas with the bluest of blue skies and greenest of green plants. A monkey in mid-swing between two trees, and the wings of a red, yellow, and green parrot spanned several branches. A deer drank from a nearby stream and a white fuzzy sloth lay high up on the crotch of a branch.
“Hello? Hello? No, this isn’t Jim. This is Liam. Jim left already. Sure, I’ll tell him, but he said we might not hear from him for a few weeks, at least not until boot camp is over. Okay, I’ll tell him, Jessica. Bye.”
Jess lay awake too long that night. When she finally slept, it was fitfully, and her dreams were of dead soldiers heaped on a battlefield far away from home, and one emaciated soldier gnawing on the beak of a parrot.
Maggie Whitefeather is a multi-published magazine author. She lives in Iowa with her husband, a couple of Jeeps, and chickens that lay green eggs. One of her favorite activities is teaching at writing conferences where she hopes her imitation of a Margaret Atwood wannabe deflects the Blind Assassins. She is very proud of her Cherokee heritage.
The Sun Sets Largest On The Last Day
a story by
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it?” Simon asked his wife with a smile. “Knowing when you’re going to die.” He wrapped his arms around her as they stared into the ever growing sunset.
She shuddered. She was far less optimistic about her fate. “How can you be so calm? I can’t believe it! They left us behind! This isn’t happening!” Her voice squeaked with frustration and sorrow.
Simon’s frail hands wiped away the grey hairs and tears from her face. He noticed how beautiful she was – so young compared to the old sunlight that sparkled on the raindrops that left her eyes. He wished she had come to terms with her end as he had with his. “You’re so bitter,” he said to her. “What else did we have left to do? What could we have done for everyone else if we had been taken too?”
Her tears turned to anger as she pushed him away. “We could live! That’s what we could do! How are you not bitter that they left us here to die?”
He was bitter, but not for himself – for her. She did not feel what he felt. She did not see the beautiful light that had grown larger with each and every day since the others left. It was magnificent. But, instead of seeing the world unfold majestically around them, she mourned the loss of herself, forcing him to grieve for their end as well. What a pity, he thought. She doesn’t see eternity opening before her eyes.
They stood quietly for a few moments, still separated by the space of her anger and despair. He slowly moved towards her, sliding his hand under hers – holding her again. “You know, darling,” he whispered into her ear with all the love in his soul, “Those people get to live to die. Those of us left behind get to die while still alive!”
She looked him over, trying to decipher the meaning of the cryptic message. “What do you mean?”
He smiled. “We get to see something that no human will ever see again – something so beautiful that it will burn away all that witness its awesomeness, sealing its memory in ashes. Those who departed will get to live cramped into small spaces, floating around the void of the heavens until they slowly begin to pass away. They will be living in their own tomb. They won’t get to see what we’ve seen. They get to live to die. We get to die alive, and that is a beautiful thing.”
She was still unconvinced, and, after discussing the beauty of their deaths, Simon’s wife was as furious as the sun going supernova on the horizon. “That’s not beautiful! That’s terrible! I don’t want to die! You shouldn’t either! They have to come back for us! There must be something we can do!” She reached towards the sky and fell to her knees. “Please! Come back! I’ll do anything!”
Simon bent down and lifted his wife to her feet. “They’re not coming back, darling. I’m sorry.”
Total helplessness overcame her – their sentence was final. “No! It’s not fair!”
Simon said nothing. Instead, he chose to hold her as tight as he could, forming a shield of love around them both. At first, she hit him, pounding her fists into his chest like a fighter trying to end a bout with an unforgiving destiny. Still, he squeezed her tighter until her hands relaxed and wrapped around his waist. The tears flowed quicker, but not in anger. These were tears of anguish, depression, and fear. “Why us?” she asked through her sobs.
He slid one hand to the back of her head and gently pulled her closer, whispering, “Because it’s our time.”
Simon’s wife took a deep breath and the tears subsided. There was still fear within her, but it had been calmed by her husband’s comfort. “Do you think it will hurt?”
Simon stared deep into her eyes. “I think it will be wonderful!”
They stood there watching the sun grow in the horizon, wrapped up in each other’s arm.
The sun set largest on that day, never to set again.
A Hole in the Heart
a story by
Beth J. Whiting
Mrs. Dobson was the only one who seemed to care. “Why is that woman walking around without a heart?”
It was true Mrs. Stephenson was a woman who didn’t have a heart. She had a hole that ran through her chest to her back.
“That’s Mrs. Stephenson,” someone said. “Yeah, see, she’s a widower. Her husband died in a car accident awhile back. After that she lost her heart. The weird thing is that she still manages to live. She’s in good health. We think it’s emotional. She’s been miserable since her husband died.”
“Well, why doesn’t anyone tell her?”
“Because it’s not polite.”
Mrs. Dobson couldn’t stand looking at it. It looked so ghastly. The woman seemed deformed. She was like a walking painting. Mrs. Dobson thought, I could stick my hand right through that empty space. Looking at Mrs. Stephenson made her depressed. Mrs. Dobson had a lot of problems herself. One of them was that she was too interested in peoples’ personal lives. She styled herself a ‘matchmaker.’ She didn’t count the people who separated after she had introduced them. Those were practice.
There were many people who didn’t take to Mrs. Dobson. They thought she was bossy.
The woman next to Mrs. Dobson pleaded with her.
“Don’t do anything, please. Leave Mrs. Stephenson alone. She’s been through enough pain.”
“I’m not going to do her any harm.”
The woman knew it was hopeless. She couldn’t stop Mrs. Dobson.
Mrs. Dobson’s head was spinning at the moment. She was thinking of ways to make the hole disappear. Obviously the hole in her heart was symbolic. Mrs. Stephenson was missing out on life. Or she didn’t feel love anymore.
Mrs. Stephenson was in her mid 30’s and had long brown curly hair. She was kind of plain. She wore a jean-blue dress. It was a church social. Mrs. Dobson was a heavy-set woman who wore too much makeup. She approached Mrs. Stephenson and said exactly what was on her mind.
“You know you have a hole in your heart,” she said as she hid her face, embarrassed.
“Well, I’m going to try to fix that problem.”
“You are?” Mrs. Stephenson asked.
“Yes. If you’re willing to go with me, I think I have the solution to your problem.”
Mrs. Stephenson had heard of Mrs. Dobson’s ways before. Somehow they had never run into each other. It was a big church. It had been a year since Mrs. Stephenson had gotten the hole in her heart. It happened a month after her husband died. She went to the mirror and there it was. A hole that went straight through her chest to her back.
The doctors said it was a miracle that she didn’t die. Mrs. Stephenson agreed. She didn’t know what was keeping her alive. Ever since her husband’s death, her friends hadn’t been there much for her. She’d had back problems. It was hard just to make it through a work day. She had so much fatigue. Often when she would come home from work, she would just lay flat down on the couch and rest. She was desperate though. She was sick of the weird looks she got from strangers. She was sick of being tired. She wanted a reason to wake up in the morning. If this woman could possibly offer a cure, then Mrs. Stephenson thought Why not? What did she have to lose?
So she agreed to Mrs. Dobson’s “I’m-going-to-help-you” approach. She didn’t know what she was signing herself up for.
The next day Mrs. Stephenson found a man at her doorstep. He was a plumber. He was reasonably good looking. He seemed younger than her, though, by a couple of years.
Mrs. Dobson winked and said, “I hope you two have a good time.”
Mrs. Stephenson didn’t say much. The whole hour the guy talked about sports. She didn’t even fake it. She said straight out, “I don’t watch sports.”
“Well, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Filling her in on the information didn’t help. It reminded her of her husband who watched football but didn’t include her in it. This guy needed a girl who liked sports or who was used to such talk. She supposed, though, he was better than the next guy Mrs. Dobson chose—an arrogant businessman. The whole time, he talked about his business. He didn’t ask her once about herself. That, Mrs. Stephenson thought, is rude. She never thought about getting another man. She had a perfect man. He just died too soon. She was often asked about the hole in her heart, and she had to apologize for it. At least most were nice about it. Some people told her it was grotesque.
Eventually, Mrs. Dobson began to realize that men weren’t the way to help Mrs. Stephenson, at least with the men around her. So she decided that what the girl needed were more church activities. She needed to get to know the women of their church more. Now, Mrs. Stephenson, at this time in her life, went every once in a while to an activity. She usually only went if it interested her. Mrs. Dobson insisted on her attending them all. There were activities on Wednesday nights plus on the occasional weekend.
Mrs. Stephenson did like the bake-off. It was fun making cupcakes and then frosting them. But at all of the others, she felt weird. These women talked about their children most of the time. She didn’t have any children. She couldn’t relate. She liked activities that were more active.
One day Mrs. Stephenson was driving around when she saw some dogs being sold on the side of the road. They were cute little dogs. She had to have one. A week later, a little heart could be seen inside her hole.
It was the talk of the neighborhood.
“Did you hear that all it took was a puppy?”
Mrs. Dobson scoffed about it. “A puppy? Come on!” she said, annoyed.
Beth J. Whiting was born in 1983 to a large family of brainy eccentrics. At eight years old she developed a love of books through the works of Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis. Her short stories revolve around underdogs in suburban settings, such as the one in which she was raised. She currently lives with her artistic twin sister in a tiny apartment in Mesa, Arizona.
The More Things Change…
a story by
Scathe meic Beorh
Oliver Wilder kicked at a shiny round pebble. He didn’t know it would bounce off his new tennis shoes like that and fly across the sandy walkway down into the humid, shadowy ravine—a place he loved to go and hated to go all at the same time. It was better to go with A.J. and Mitch, because then they were a gang. But sometimes he still went down in there by himself. Sometimes even at night.
The scent of honeysuckle wafted through the warm summertime air of Greenburg like sweet smoke. Oliver could hear the peep-peep of bats, but they didn’t scare him because they weren’t vampire bats, and even if they were, he always had his sharp stake with him in case one of them decided to transform into a vampire after a midnight snack.
On the other side of the ravine was Ray Park. And after that, the neighborhood where the twins Georgia and Carolina lived. Their family was originally from some place called ‘the Deep South,’ they said, and that’s why they were named that. Georgia liked to be called ‘George’ because she loved some other place called England, and Carolina liked to be called ‘Bogie’ because she was in love with the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’—whatever that meant. Oliver didn’t have time for girls and their silly talk and deadly cooties. He was too busy with the guys. They had to find new fishing holes and explore crumbly old castles and build tree-houses—No Girls Allowed!
The kids at school sometimes asked Oliver if he was a Conservative or a Liberal. The first time it happened, when he got home he asked his dad what those words meant.
“Well, son,” said Miles Wilder, “a Conservative wants no change whatsoever, and never gets what he wants because change is what life is all about. If other people try to change what he is used to, he goes to war and tries to stop them. A Liberal, on the other hand, doesn’t like how things are being done, but to get his way as soon as possible, he starts wars.”
“And people die….”
“Always. It never fails, son. Sad fact, but true. There hasn’t been a change like that in your lifetime. Yet. I hope you never have to see it. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s not pretty.”
“But dad. Is there a middle kind of person? Somebody who likes a little change but doesn’t want to hurt anybody to get it?”
“Sure is. There’s the Progressive.”
“What is he? The kids at school never ask me if I’m one of those.”
“Well, I’m not surprised. People, in general, like to fight with one another. Another sad fact about the human race. Best you learn it now, I guess. Anyway, Oliver, a Progressive wants change for the better, but is inclined to use peaceful means—laws and persistence and so forth… and even prayer—to achieve the change. The Conservative doesn’t like him, and the Liberal doesn’t like him. That’s why you don’t hear much about the Progressive, because he’s been sidelined by the ones who are always at each other’s throats—with lots of innocent people caught in the middle.”
“This Progressive guy sounds pretty cool.”
“An evenhanded man is always cool. No two ways about it, Oliver.”
“Dad. If I want to change things, though. I mean, let’s say I’d like to be a Progressive. Do I have to get involved in all that political stuff? Do I have to vote and stand around in lobbies and stuff?”
“It’s not a bad idea, but there’s a problem.”
“The Conservative and the Liberal never give the Progressive the time of day. So it’s no use. There have been some Progressive changes, but…”
“But what, dad?”
“Another sad fact. The Progressive who gets too loud is taken out of the picture, so to speak.”
“You mean somebody comes along and kills him, dad? Geesh!”
“Yes, Oliver. In every single case, bar none.”
“Man. You know, dad, I think I remember my teacher Mr. Elgin saying something about that one day in Social Studies. About how our ancestors back on Earth used to kill people who spoke up for peaceful change.”
“It’s true, Oliver. And we here on Planet Gliese are no different. We all come from Earth stock, however time-out-of-mind that may be. So, we brought to Gliese, whether we thought we would or not, everything we’ve always been.”
“Wait a minute, dad… was… was there people living here when we got here from Earth?”
Miles looked at his son, a deeper sadness in his eyes than Oliver had ever seen before. He nodded his head, but said nothing.
“Wow, dad! We suck! What… what were they like? What were the people like? Do you know?”
“Just beautiful, from what I’ve been told.”
“But why don’t people talk about them?”
“People do talk about them. All the time. They even write books about them. Lots of books, matter of fact, Oliver.”
“Really? Where? I’ve never seen a book about the people who used to live here!”
“What’s funny, dad?”
“I thought I saw the bookshelf in your room loaded down with books like that.”
“Ha! Good one, dad! That’s my Fantasy books. Wait… what?”
“Now you’re getting the picture, I believe.”
“Are you telling me that the Ol’yoks and the Agerois are actual people?”
“Were actual people, Oliver.”
“We… killed every last one of them?”
“To my knowledge, yes, son. The Elves of Earth fared far better than anything here on Gliese, as I understand.”
“You mean… them crumbly old castles me and the guys find in the woods all the time was theirs?”
“I believe the Dreelanti built those.”
“Wow! The ancestors of the Dreels! So, dad, the Silmarillion is a true story?”
“An actual history of Earth and Creation, yes—disguised as Fantasy.”
“This is just too much! Wait’ll I tell the gang! They’ll never believe it! I don’t even hardly believe it!”
“Oliver. One last word of advice from your old dad, alright? Be careful who you tell things like this to. Most people see Fantasy as just that—something fantastic and untrue. Something to entertain, take the mind off worries and troubles. Not something to enrich us and enliven us and give us hope. Understand?”
“Sure. I get it.” Oliver slid his arm around his dad’s shoulders and gave a good squeeze. “Thanks. For the talk.” Then he was out the door in search of any vestiges, no matter how small, of nonhuman civilization on Planet Gliese.
He’d start at the ravine. It’s getting dark. The Ol’yoks only come out at night…
Chu-Bu and Sheemish
a story by
It was the custom on Tuesdays in the temple of Chu-bu for the priests to enter at evening and chant, “There is none but Chu-bu.”
And all the people rejoiced and cried out, “There is none but Chu-bu.” And honey was offered to Chu-bu, and maize and fat. Thus was he magnified.
Chu-bu was an idol of some antiquity, as may be seen from the colour of the wood. He had been carved out of mahogany, and after he was carved he had been polished. Then they had set him up on the diorite pedestal with the brazier in front of it for burning spices and the flat gold plates for fat. Thus they worshipped Chu-bu.
He must have been there for over a hundred years when one day the priests came in with another idol into the temple of Chu-bu and set it up on a pedestal near Chu-bu’s and sang, “There is also Sheemish.”
And all the people rejoiced and cried out, “There is also Sheemish.”
Sheemish was palpably a modern idol, and although the wood was stained with a dark-red dye, you could see that he had only just been carved. And honey was offered to Sheemish as well as Chu-bu, and also maize and fat.
The fury of Chu-bu knew no time-limit: he was furious all that night, and next day he was furious still. The situation called for immediate miracles. To devastate the city with a pestilence and kill all his priests was scarcely within his power, therefore he wisely concentrated such divine powers as he had in commanding a little earthquake. “Thus,” thought Chu-bu, “will I reassert myself as the only god, and men shall spit upon Sheemish.”
Chu-bu willed it and willed it and still no earthquake came, when suddenly he was aware that the hated Sheemish was daring to attempt a miracle too. He ceased to busy himself about the earthquake and listened, or shall I say felt, for what Sheemish was thinking; for gods are aware of what passes in the mind by a sense that is other than any of our five. Sheemish was trying to make an earthquake too.
The new god’s motive was probably to assert himself. I doubt if Chu-bu understood or cared for his motive; it was sufficient for an idol already aflame with jealosy that his detestable rival was on the verge of a miracle. All the power of Chu-bu veered round at once and set dead against an earthquake, even a little one. It was thus in the temple of Chu-bu for some time, and then no earthquake came.
To be a god and to fail to achieve a miracle is a despairing sensation; it is as though among men one should determine upon a hearty sneeze and as though no sneeze should come; it is as though one should try to swim in heavy boots or remember a name that is utterly forgotten: all these pains were Sheemish’s.
And upon Tuesday the priests came in, and the people, and they did worship Chu-bu and offered fat to him, saying, “O Chu-bu who made everything,” and then the priests sang, “There is also Sheemish”; and Chu-bu was put to shame and spake not for three days.
Now there were holy birds in the temple of Chu-bu, and when the third day was come and the night thereof, it was as it were revealed to the mind of Chu-bu, that there was dirt upon the head of Sheemish.
And Chu-bu spake unto Sheemish as speak the gods, moving no lips nor yet disturbing the silence, saying, “There is dirt upon thy head, O Sheemish.” All night long he muttered again and again, “there is dirt upon Sheemish’s head.” And when it was dawn and voices were heard far off, Chu-bu became exultant with Earth’s awakening things, and cried out till the sun was high, “Dirt, dirt, dirt, upon the head of Sheemish,” and at noon he said, “So Sheemish would be a god.” Thus was Sheemish confounded.
And with Tuesday one came and washed his head with rose- water, and he was worshipped again when they sang “There is also Sheemish.” And yet was Chu-bu content, for he said, “The head of Sheemish has been defiled,” and again, “His head was defiled, it is enough.” And one evening lo! there was dirt on the head of Chu-bu also, and the thing was perceived of Sheemish.
It is not with the gods as it is with men. We are angry one with another and turn from our anger again, but the wrath of the gods is enduring. Chu-bu remembered and Sheemish did not forget. They spake as we do not speak, in silence yet heard of each other, nor were their thoughts as our thoughts. We should not judge them merely by human standards. All night long they spake and all night said these words only: “Dirty Chu-bu,” “Dirty Sheemish.” “Dirty Chu-bu,” “Dirty Sheemish,” all night long. Their wrath had not tired at dawn, and neither had wearied of his accusation. And gradually Chu-bu came to realize that he was nothing more than the equal of Sheemish. All gods are jealous, but this equality with the upstart Sheemish, a thing of painted wood a hundred years newer than Chu-bu, and this worship given to Sheemish in Chu-bu’s own temple, were particularly bitter. Chu-bu was jealous even for a god; and when Tuesday came again, the third day of Sheemish’s worship, Chu-bu could bear it no longer. He felt that his anger must be revealed at all costs, and he returned with all the vehemence of his will to achieving a little earthquake. The worshippers had just gone from his temple when Chu-bu settled his will to attain this miracle. Now and then his meditations were disturbed by that now familiar dictum, “Dirty Chu-bu,” but Chu-bu willed ferociously, not even stopping to say what he longed to say and had already said nine hundred times, and presently even these interruptions ceased.
They ceased because Sheemish had returned to a project that he had never definitely abandoned, the desire to assert himself and exalt himself over Chu-bu by performing a miracle, and the district being volcanic he had chosen a little earthquake as the miracle most easily accomplished by a small god.
Now an earthquake that is commanded by two gods has double the chance of fulfilment than when it is willed by one, and an incalculably greater chance than when two gods are pulling different ways; as, to take the case of older and greater gods, when the sun and the moon pull in the same direction we have the biggest tides.
Chu-bu knew nothing of the theory of tides, and was too much occupied with his miracle to notice what Sheemish was doing. And suddenly the miracle was an accomplished thing.
It was a very local earthquake, for there are other gods than Chu-bu or even Sheemish, and it was only a little one as the gods had willed, but it loosened some monoliths in a colonnade that supported one side of the temple and the whole of one wall fell in, and the low huts of the people of that city were shaken a little and some of their doors were jammed so that they would not open; it was enough, and for a moment it seemed that it was all; neither Chu-bu nor Sheemish commanded there should be more, but they had set in motion an old law older than Chu-bu, the law of gravity that that colonnade had held back for a hundred years, and the temple of Chu-bu quivered and then stood still, swayed once and was overthrown, on the heads of Chu-bu and Sheemish.
No one rebuilt it, for nobody dared to near such terrible gods. Some said that Chu-bu wrought the miracle, but some said Sheemish, and thereof schism was born. The weakly amiable, alarmed by the bitterness of rival sects, sought compromise and said that both had wrought it, but no one guessed the truth that the thing was done in rivalry.
And a saying arose, and both sects held this belief in common, that whoso toucheth Chu-bu shall die or whoso looketh upon Sheemish.
That is how Chu-bu came into my possession when I travelled once beyond the hills of Ting. I found him in the fallen temple of Chu-bu with his hands and toes sticking up out of the rubbish, lying upon his back, and in that attitude just as I found him I keep him to this day on my mantlepiece, as he is less liable to be upset that way. Sheemish was broken, so I left him where he was.
And there is something so helpless about Chu-bu with his fat hands stuck up in the air that sometimes I am moved out of compassion to bow down to him and pray, saying, “O Chu-bu, thou that made everything, help thy servant.”
Chu-bu cannot do much, though once I am sure that at a game of bridge he sent me the ace of trumps after I had not held a card worth having for the whole of the evening. And chance alone could have done as much as that for me. But I do not tell this to Chu-bu.