Spring 2015

copyright 2015
photo by linda orlomoski

Come in, come in! Warm thy cockles! Welcome to the Spring 2015 issue!

Brilliant fantasist Alina Rios opens this volume with her creepy yet heartwarming ‘Midnight Man.’

Christine-Marie L. Dixon then shares ‘Ephemeral,’ a prose poem of depth, beauty, and sadness.

Heartfelt and intrepid writer Deirdre Fagan then offers us ‘There Once Was A Man Who Thought Too Much.’

Sue Ann Connaughton brings us a wonderful and warm story from her own hearth, ‘Wrought from a Perukemaker’s House.’

Then last, but certainly not least, Ed Nichols brings us a tale from the Deep South with ‘Last Born.’

Enjoy this issue of Beorh Quarterly, please, because, after all, these are the best stories out there!

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Midnight Man

 a story by

Alina Rios

There once lived a puppeteer.
He was not very old, nor very young. Nobody could really tell and nobody asked. His name was Bartolo.
All his life, Bartolo made little puppets for a small theater he set up outside his shop. He would make puppets all week, and as he made them, the puppets told him their stories.
Then on the weekend, he would have a show of all the puppets’ stories. The neighborhood kids knew about this and looked forward to the show, because inevitably, there was a puppet who needed rescuing, or an evil puppet who had to die. The dying was especially exciting and dramatic, because Bartolo would orchestrate a beheading for such puppet, with a giant knife.
One day, after the show, Death visited Bartolo in his shop and told him he had seven days to live.
Bartolo scratched his head. How was he to spend his last seven days? It was nice, after all, of Death to give him this warning. But Bartolo was a lonely man. He had no wife, or kids, or much in the way of friends. And while the town’s kids loved his puppet shows, they were scared of the dark man who put them on. They whispered that the man was um bruxo, a warlock, because he made the puppets talk in such different voices—it didn’t seem possible any other way.
Bartolo wished he had more time. He wished for another chance at life, for maybe a wife and a family. But alas…. Instead, he decided to make the best puppet he could, just something to be remembered by.
The puppet he was building was very tall—twice his height. It was a man. Bartolo dressed him in the finest clothing, and, since it was a week before Carnival, he dressed him in bright colors. The puppet’s tuxedo was green, with gold shiny buttons. On his head Bartolo placed a black top-hat made of the finest silk. The hat he swapped for a case of his best paints at the little store down the street that sold all manner of things. In the same store, he found two pairs of deep purple trousers, which he paid for with his mother’s wooden comb that had one broken tooth. From these, he fashioned one pair of long trousers for the puppet.
Bartolo stood back and examined his work. The purples didn’t exactly match, the darker being at the bottom, but the puppet still looked like a well-dressed man.
Now for the face. Bartolo shaved his thick, black beard and gave it to the puppet along with his gold tooth, his prized possession, which he took out with pliers and stuck in the puppet’s mouth. The blood from the tooth dripped onto the puppet’s beard and glistened in the candlelight.
All this time, as Bartolo was working, the puppet was silent. He didn’t tell him a single story. Not even a whisper escaped his painted lips. “Just as well,” thought Bartolo. “I don’t have time for another show.”
On the evening of the seventh day, Bartolo costumed himself with his puppet and walked out the door. It was the night before Carnival. The puppet’s clothes covered Bartolo completely—only his eyes showed through. People pointed at the strange puppet. Some whispered, frightened. Some laughed, thinking it was somebody’s clever Carnival idea. For the first time in his life, Bartolo felt free, because he wasn’t Bartolo anymore, he was just a puppet.
His feet in hard leather boots clicked against the cobblestones. Around him, the city was alive: bursts of laughter from groups of people for whom the celebration started earlier, embarrassed giggles of young couples who couldn’t find a dark-enough corner, kids squealing from the welcome confusion of being up past all reasonable bedtimes, and the insistent chirps of bats distraught by all the activity below.
Smells of chocolate and sweet spices, hot oil, limes, and a welcome freshness of mint drifted from open doorways. It all reminded Bartolo of the Carnivals with his mother. Him, excited and proud to be at her side. The spicy goodness of coxinha, still hot from the bubbling oil. He could almost feel the burn on his fingers, trying to hold it, too anxious for the first bite as his mother blew on it, the softness of her breath—the essence of love.
His back ached from having to keep it straight, but he didn’t mind. His heart beat faster than it had in years, as if trying to prove to him that it was not ready to stop.
It was a perfect last day.
Close to midnight, Death joined Bartolo and walked at his side. “I like what you did with your time,” he said.
“Thanks, I do too,” said Bartolo.
At midnight, Death reached in and took Bartolo’s heart. Bartolo collapsed on the gritty cobblestones. The puppet man fell next to Bartolo, his blank eyes reflecting the dark sky.
Death was about to swallow Bartolo’s heart, but he stopped and chuckled, as an idea came to him. He bent down to the puppet man and put the heart into its hollow chest.
The puppet man sprung up to his feet. He looked down at Death.
“Thank you!” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” said Death and walked off down the hill.
The puppet man watched Death leave with some sadness. Then, he walked in the opposite direction, following the sounds of the Carnival. A group waved him over to their make-shift table and poured him a drink. A woman gave him a hug. He walked dizzily among the revelers and somebody was always near, sharing a story or a joke. No one was afraid of him. In the morning, they made him march at the front of the Carnival procession. The puppet man was joyful.
The next day, the papers told about the mysterious boneco gigante, a giant doll that walked the parade. They called him Homem da Meia Noite, Midnight Man, and the name stuck. People loved him so much that a few years later, they made him a wife, whom they called Mulher do Dia, Woman of the Day. The two were very happy and had two children, a boy and a girl, of course, whom they named A Menina de Tarde, Girl of the Afternoon and O Menino de Tarde, Boy of the Afternoon. They asked Death to be their godfather, to which he agreed, chuckling happily.
Now, every midnight before Carnival, the whole family walks the streets to the joy of all people.
And if you ask Midnight Man, as he’s the only one of the family blessed with a human heart, and so the only one who can speak, he’ll tell you he lives happily. But in the dark, away from the lights and the people, he misses Death.
Russian-born Alina Rios now breathes in the coffee-scented air of Seattle, edits technical documentation, and reads her work at local open mics.  She was recently short-listed for the Gulliver Travel Grant. Her poetry has appeared in Mused and Rust & Moth and is forthcoming in Neon and Starline. www.alinarios.com

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Ephemeral

a prose poem by

Christine-Marie L. Dixon

Sometimes I look upon the setting sun and weep because I know I cannot keep it safely inside my dresser, folded neatly between linens and handkerchiefs. I cry because I know that I shall die without swallowing the moon into my soul or exchanging confidences with a marigold. Sons and Daughters, you shall grow old; your knees shall someday soon turn to creaking hinges, echoing through lonely halls of timbered prisons and clanging gongs. You will exchange fading whispers for your favorite songs, the words of which you do not know. You will look at the stars and repent that you did not try harder to scale their heavenly depths. You will cry that you have wasted countless precious breaths conforming to the rise and sink of mankind’s demands and the office which fed you for fifty years will quickly crumble, dissolved into sand.
Standing on this side of eternity my heart breaks because I know there is not enough time to love the rushing winds and roaring ache of ocean waves. My soul craves a road paved around this earth with my feet, every secret measured by my heartbeat.
Christine-Marie L. Dixon is a writer and musician from Detroit.

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There Once Was a Man

Who Thought Too Much

a story by

Deirdre Fagan

There once was a man who thought too much thought too much thought too much. He lived on an island in the borough of wee wah wah and slept not at all. His back was strong his legs were long and he wore a moustache below his nose and fur one supposes upon his chin.
It all started when he was just a boy and was dreaming about it.
About what he was dreaming is what we do not entirely know but it had something to do with what is what and what was what and so he went and found a book and then he sat within a crook and as he turned the pages of that book he began to think and think about it. As he read and thought and read and thought he wondered what if anything others thought so he took that book and gathered some more and went from his crook to a crescent on a hill where others who also began as boys left as men and he not only thought and thought about it more than others seemed to but he somehow some way on many a day began to teach other boys and girls to think about it too.
One day when all the books were put away and he was thinking thinking about what he had done and what he would do and how to give to others all the thought he ever knew his thinking grew and grew.
This man who thought too much thought too much thought too much first saw a thinning in his hair. His eyes squinted to procure what was not there but all he saw was that part in his hair. So he thought and thought and thought about it and then he washed what was not there with little care and left the rest to bear.
On another day while walking down a summer lane he thought he saw a willow in the air and taking the willow as just as fair as what was departing from his hair he grasped it between thumb and forefinger and put it in the part that was there. The willow blew and blew about leaving his part without and as he chased it down the lane his legs that were too long seemed to disintegrate in thin air! With each stride his part widened and his gait spasmed and soon it was as though his legs were not there — he was gliding on air!
The man who thought and thought about the thinning in his hair was now losing his legs his only pair. This he thought was quite rare.
With himself down to his legs that were not there and with that part dividing wider his thinning hair he began to think and think and think about what had gone awry for before he had always seemed quite spry. Strong back strong legs and fur beneath his nose one had never supposed that his grasp between thumb and forefinger would no longer grip what was there but would somehow lead him to what was not. The book’s leaves which he would leaf when he was loafing in the summer breeze upon that hill that he could no longer climb had the answer that he was trying to find but as he reached for another book to see what others’ thought and determine what had somehow brought what had been brought upon him to others too his grip gave way to another waylay — his arms had grown taut.
Not for naught but first it was the thinning of his hair and then the legs that were no longer there and now the arms had grown thin and taut and about this he thought and thought.
The more he thought the more he read and the more he read the more he learned that it was not the thinning in his hair that had led to this despair but the loss of strength in his legs his only pair and his arms which now no longer felt there. Before he knew it his lips would cease moving and air that had always been without a care would be heaving — it would be entirely rare and unfair.
Those that knew not what to do made absent queries:
Had this to do with the thinning in his hair?   Had his hair to do with the thinking that had been? What happened to the legs no longer there? What about that willow placed in his hair?
No no nothing is so unfair that it punishes those who think so fair yet somehow the thinking that had had such a good run caused people to start to point and stare not at the thinning in his hair but at the thinning of what was still there.
Unmoving the rest were moved as he thought and thought and thought about it. While he could not bring back the legs no longer there or the arms that were in need of repair and while his lips only gently passed air his thinking thinking thinking taught and taught and taught all about it.
Like the other boys and girls who glide on air because the body they once had is no longer there it was not because of thought that life brought too much to bear. The man who thought too much had not used up all his thinking — those fools! There are no such rules.
But if we do as the man had done and we think and think and think until our own days are done we may too go taut (or not) but not for naught because we will have taught others not only how to live but how to die and through thought we may even try and write down for others to read how to survive not only the loss of this man and other boys girls and women like him but we may devise a plan for how to undo what his thinking had not done but with some more thinking what could have been done.
If we can do this we will somehow have won.
Deirdre Fagan is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of Composition at Quincy University.  She is the author of Critical Companion to Robert Frost and has published stories, poems, and articles in various journals and magazines.   Her interests include but are not limited to American poetry, memoir, and creative writing.

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Wrought from the Perukemaker’s House

 a story by

Sue Ann Connaughton

 

A brass wedding ring, clay pipe, tiny porcelain doll, poison bottle, and large bones—these are some of the artifacts that my husband unearthed while excavating under our kitchen during renovation. Our research indicates that the artifacts date from the late 19th century, although the house was built in the late 18th century. We devised a legend around the items, one that incorporates love, marriage, childbirth, and unexplained death, not necessarily in that order. Intrigued by our discoveries, I urged my husband to dig deeper. I wanted to uncover the 18th century. But alas, he declined, on the basis that it was more prudent to finish the kitchen renovation than to spend several more weeks shoveling and groveling, while taking all meals from the microwave.
The house was built in the 1790’s for John Archer, a perukemaker. The current kitchen did not exist then. Cooking took place in the keeping room, which is now our dining room. I wonder if John Archer made his wigs in the keeping room, by the cooking fireplace, the only source of heat on the first floor at that time. Or, perhaps he made them in the front room, where he could open the Indian shutters and hang a shop sign on one of the 12 over 12 windows.
Maybe John Archer chose the middle room for his workroom, labeled the “dismal room” on the electric box, by another owner, presumably because the windowless room lacks natural light, or views of the outside world—features that make it perfectly suited for my writing room.
As we move from room to room, renovating each one, we observe the imprints left by former inhabitants: the wooden stair treads, worn smoothly in the middle from decades of boots and shoes – we’ll never hide those with carpeting – and layers and layers of wallpaper and paint, with still brilliant colors that reveal different eras and fashions, peel by peel. Occasionally, we find dated initials under a beam, or on a floorboard, charming signatures of previous carpenters or handy homeowners. Regarding the floors: they all slant, causing cracks in the walls and ceilings, which recur, no matter how often they’re patched.
The renovation of our antique home progresses slowly and may never be completed. Future owners will make changes, stamp the house with their own touches. We hope they’ll be charmed to discover my husband’s initials carved into the kitchen shelves he built, and a copy of my first published story, hidden inside a closet in the dismal room.

 

Sue Ann Connaughton writes from a drafty old house in New England. Her short pieces have appeared in various journals, most recently: Counterexample Poetics; One-Sentence Story Anthology; Barnwood Poetry Magazine; The Bicycle Review; The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts; GlassFire Magazine; You are here: The Journal of Creative Geography; and Fabula Argentea.

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Last Born

a story by

Ed Nichols

 
A warm, late summer breeze passed over Mike Caudell as he sat on his back porch and stared at his pasture, and beyond to the woods and mountains in the distance. He much preferred sitting on the porch than inside the house this time of the year. He knew that this porch had also been the favorite spot for his father, and for his granddaddy. Three generations of Caudells. Across the pasture and just inside the tree line was Goshen Creek. He could not see the creek from where he was sitting—but he could visualize it. Mike thought, I need to go up there, see the creek, walk in the woods. It’s been awhile.   
His wife, Laura, opened the back door. “Supper’s ready!”
Mike went inside to the bathroom. He washed his hands and face and combed the cotton lint from his hair. Laura had fixed a good supper like she always did on Friday nights. He didn’t remember why she liked to do it on Fridays, but it was okay with him. She had cooked green beans, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, fried squash, fried chicken, and cornbread. Sometimes on Friday nights, Mike felt guilty having so much good food in front of him. When they finished eating, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Dad-gum, Laura, you are a great cook.”
“Thank you,” she said. “You deserved a good meal.” He picked up his empty plate and tea glass.
Laura said, “You go in the living room and watch TV, or go to the porch if you want.”
“No thanks, I’m going to help you clean up. I’ll wash the dishes.”
Laura let him help, and soon they had the dishes and pots washed up, and everything put away. Then they went to the back porch and sat in their rocking chairs. Mike said, “I been meaning to ask you, I’ve forgotten, but why do you always cook such a big meal on Fridays?”
Laura laughed. “I got it from mama. She always cooked a big meal on Fridays. Course we had a big family, lots of mouths to feed when I was growing up.”
“I’ll say.”
“She, and me too, like to have lots of leftovers for the weekend.”
Mike nodded. “I reckon you’ve taken right after her.” Then he went silent, and Laura did too. He knew that she was thinking—the same thing he was thinking. It would have been nice to have shared tonight’s meal with children. He needed to change the subject. He pointed toward the mountains in the distance, barely visible now in the twilight. “I think I’ll hike up to the creek tomorrow. You want to go with me?”
“No. I guess not,” Laura said. “I want to go into town and get a few things. I’ll go with you when the leaves start turning and we’ll have a picnic by the creek.”
“That’ll be nice. Leaves will start turning in a few weeks.”
“You go on tomorrow,” Laura said as she reached over and put her hand on his arm. “You gonna check on Grandpa Caudell’s liquor still?”
“I will,” Mike said, and he teased her, “I might just run me off a batch while I’m up there.”
“That’ll be the day! But you be careful, and look out for snakes.”
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The next morning Mike took his walking stick off the hook on the back porch, and he headed out. He passed the barn, then walked across his pasture. After a little ways, he stopped and turned around. He could see Laura hanging clothes on the clothesline. She still has a fine figure, he thought. He whistled as loud as he could and she jerked around like she’d heard a shot. He waved. With her hands on her hips, Laura stared at him. Finally, she waved and blew him a kiss. He continued his walk across the pasture with her on his mind; thinking of her long hair and beautiful body. What he had a hard time living with was the knowledge that she wouldn’t ever be able to have a baby. He remembered the night of the emergency hysterectomy, and the words the doctor told him after the surgery. “Laura will never be able to conceive.” Laura had cried for days and he had consoled her as best he could. She gradually came out of her depressed state—but he knew she still thought about it. One night, a couple of weeks back, he had heard her crying in the bathroom. He didn’t say anything. He remembered one particularly bad night when she told him that he should divorce her, and marry someone who could give him children. They rarely spoke of it anymore.
After crossing the pasture, Mike entered the woods. It was mostly hardwoods: oak, popular, sweetgum, dogwood, along with large clumps of mountain laurel and rhododendron. He loved the smell of the forest and the familiar feeling it gave him as he walked to Goshen Creek. It was a good-size creek, not deep but with high banks. His granddaddy had actually lowered the creek several feet in places so it would not flood the pasture during heavy rains. Mike crossed the water on the old footbridge, also built by his granddaddy. After another mile in the woods, he came to a narrow draw, bordered on each side by heavy thickets of rhododendron. He walked carefully down the draw, being aware of slippery rocks and leaves. The sun barely touched some of the ground in the draw.
Halfway down, beside a spring head, had been the perfect location for his granddaddy’s liquor still. Mike walked over to the remains of the still and sat down on a large rock. The same rock he was sure his granddaddy had sat on as he watched glass jars catching the liquor as it flowed from the tap. The still was gradually being consumed by nature. He knew that the copper would remain for thousands of years, but most of the wood was rotting away. He ate a sandwich Laura had fixed, and he reached down and drank a palm full of water from the spring.
Mike sat quietly, listening. He thought of his granddaddy and the last time he saw him in the hospital asylum. He was discharged from the army at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia and when he called home, his mother had begged him to please go by the asylum in Milledgeville and visit Granddaddy Caudell, so the family could have a report on his condition. Once in Milledgeville, Mike found the State of Georgia Mental Hospital. He parked and went in the large, white administration building and signed in the register. He was escorted by a black man, dressed all in white, to his granddaddy’s room. He barely recognized his granddaddy, asleep in bed. The black man said, “Mr. Caudell sleep ‘bout all the time, now.”
“Can he get up, you know, walk around?”
“No,” the black man said. “He tries, but we don’t let him.”
“What do you mean, we don’t let him?”
“Not let him get up and about, and fall and break his hip or arm,” the black man explained.
Mike nodded and walked closer to the bed. His granddaddy looked terribly thin—older than his age. He said to the black man, “I think he’s about eighty-five.”
“No, he’s almost ninety. He’s been a good patient, and when he first arrived we thought that someday he might get better and could go back to his home.”
“But, he’s gotten worse.”
“That’s right. Downhill all the time. Got bad dementia now.”
Mike stood, watching his granddaddy sleep. He reached over and touched the old man’s face. His granddaddy turned his head, opened his eyes, and smiled at his grandson.
“Grandpa?” Mike said.
The old man opened his mouth and said, “You…been?”
Mike didn’t know how to respond. He said, “Yes, sir, I’ve been in the army. Just got out.”
The old man nodded and smiled. He turned his head and stared at the ceiling. After a moment, he turned back and said, “Tell…yore daddy…look after…still.”
Mike nodded, unable to tell his granddaddy that his only son was buried in the American
Cemetery in Normandy, France. And that he knew as much, having been told many years ago. He watched as his granddaddy moved his head, shuddered slightly and closed his eyes. The black man turned to leave the room. Mike stood for another minute looking at his granddaddy. It dawned on him again that once his granddaddy died, he would become the only surviving male in his family.
Sitting on the big rock now at the old still, Mike tried to visualize his granddaddy lying in that bed. The last time he saw him. Then he tried to guess when the still had been built—he wished that he had asked his granddaddy more about the still. Probably the early thirties, he figured. It was never busted by law enforcement, and his granddaddy was never arrested. He had been lucky on those accounts. Mike listened to the wood’s sounds: birds, squirrels, and once he thought he heard a deer snort. He used to hunt these woods, just as his daddy had hunted them before the war. He wondered how it would feel to have someone come to your house and announce that your only son had been killed in a far-away country. He couldn’t imagine what went through his granddaddy and grandmother’s minds. It would be enough to drive some folk’s crazy, Mike figured.
That night Mike told Laura about his hike, and that he had sat for a while on the big rock and thought about his granddaddy, and his daddy, too. Later, getting in bed, he turned off the nightstand light and leaned over and kissed her. Laura said, “You don’t hate me anymore because I can’t have a baby, do you?”
“Of course not. You know better than that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t blame you. Remembering your kin, and the fact that your name will die with you, could be aggravating to lots of folks.” Then she leaned over and kissed him. Just before Mike drifted off, he heard Laura ask, “Did you see any snakes?”

Winter 2014

copyright 2014
GIF pumpkin ghosts
Winter is here yet again. Where does the time go? Oh, there is no time? Hmmm… yes, I might agree after all. Just a tool, a construct, a metaphor, if you will, of growth and movement toward something better, smarter, faster–more peaceful and full of light. Let that be our hope, will we?
Welcome again to Beorh Quarterly.
In this issue Beth J. Whiting offers us “Cupcakes,” but be warned–they’re whimsically flavored.
Then Rebeka Singer shows us “Foreign Lands,” and lets us into her heart and memories. If you have a sense of romance and hope, this one will appeal to you.
Don’t be surprised, though, when Germaine Paris demands that you “Don’t Eat That” while taking you into the mind of a child and her view of family and world.
Brian Mateo then brings us, with “The Bethesda,” journal entries from a time which may seem long ago, if for the truths that we are all in this together, and that time is indeed an illusion.
Prayer, in a variety of specified forms, is, notwithstanding, the very lifeblood of humanity. Angela D. Sargent reminds of this most important task in “The Prayer.”
Thank you for once again sharing your time with Beorh Quarterly. Next issue? February 2015.
Scáth Beorh
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Cupcakes

a story by

Beth J. Whiting

 

Maria didn’t have any friends.  The only joy she had in her life was cupcakes.  She made them with her mother every night.
When they went to the grocery store every week, it was a wonder.  Her mother let her decide the frosting and the batter.  Sometimes she did funky combinations like coconut frosting with butter pecan batter.  You could do anything.  Her mother packed four cupcakes for her every day when she went to school.
One day she was sitting alone at lunch when a skinny boy named Ian asked her for a cupcake.
This was a huge problem.  How could she give up a cupcake?
Yet something told her to comply.  So she gave a cupcake to him.
He asked her something strange. “Do you like bugs?”
“No.”
“I think they are the most wonderful thing in the world, Maria.  People dismiss them as ugly, but they are fascinating creatures.”
Ian invited Maria to his house–the first time that had ever happened to Maria.  She could not say no.
She let her mother know before she went.
Ian’s house was a normal suburban home with a green lawn.  It didn’t prepare her for his room which was full of bugs in cages.
“Here are my bugs.  You know, I’ve surrounded myself with them so much that I now know their language.”
Yeah right, Maria thought. Then she heard Ian speak in a foreign tongue. He pointed to his ant farm.
“They’re tired all of the time.  They rarely complain.  Grasshoppers cry all the time.  That’s what they do when they sing.  They’re very romantic creatures.”
Maria didn’t know what to make of Ian. The next day at school he sat by her and asked for a cupcake again. She sighed.  She was going to have to ask her mother for five cupcakes now that this boy was asking her for one.
Ian brought an encyclopedia out and talked with Maria the whole hour about bugs. She stood there eating her cupcakes, spacing out.  She didn’t understand what he was saying.  Not that it mattered–she had company.  That was important.
Ian invited Maria over to his house again. It was creepy hearing grasshoppers and fearing any second that a bug might crawl over her.
Ian told Maria that he had a ‘friend crush’ on her once he saw she was as much of a weirdo as him.
“What do you mean?” she asked offended.
“There isn’t a second in the day that I don’t see you with a cupcake.”
“My mother and I make them every night.  Cupcakes are very complex.  You can do many different flavors.”
“What about cake?”
“I like cupcakes because of the wrapper, and the fact that I can hold it.”
“I like cupcakes too.  Would you like to go with me to a cupcake shop tonight?”
She had heard about these cupcake shops.  Ian and Maria lived in a small town.  The nearest one was a thirty minute drive. Maria’s mother told her that was too far to go for a cupcake.  But Ian’s mother drove them to one.
Ian talked the whole ride over about bugs.
His mother kept switching topics on purpose.  It seemed like she had to deal with this all of the time.
When they got to the cupcake shop, it was a glorious surprise for Maria.  She got three of them.  She would save them for a snack for tomorrow night.  She had one at the moment.  It had filling and was delicious.  If it was up to her, she would have the whole store.  They tasted professional, not homemade.
Ian got two. “We go to this cupcake shop on a regular basis.”
“Really?” Maria asked, stunned. She wished she had a mother that took her places, but her mother went to work and was always tired.
Maria went to Ian’s house again with the secret idea in her mind that they would go to the cupcake shop again.  They did.
Maria thought that Ian had the best mother in the world.
Ian’s mother told her, “I’m glad my son finally has a friend and not just a bug.  I’m getting worried about him.”
That night Ian talked to the bugs in his room just as much as Maria.  She couldn’t understand a word he said.  She  spaced out and hoped he would talk to her again.
Maria invited Ian over to her house.
Maria and her mother were making cupcakes.  Her mother had the great idea to make cupcakes for their class.
Ian helped with the baking.
When the class had them the next day, a kid complained, “There’s an ant in my cupcake!”
No one finished the cupcakes.
Maria knew that that Ian must have had a mix-up, and she was mad.  It was her only chance for the class to like her.  She didn’t sit next to him at lunch the next day.  She walked passed him the following day and saw him sitting all alone and sad.
He pleaded with her. “I didn’t mean to do it.  I must have been playing with them while I was making cupcakes.”
Maria sat there wondering if the class really like her anyway? “Fine.  You have to do something for me though.”
“Anything.”
“Teach me how to talk to bugs.  If I’m going to be your friend,  I have to understand what you’re saying.”
So Ian spent a week teaching Maria the different languages of the bugs in his room. She listened into an ant farm one day. “They’re talking about working and how they’re tired.”
“I know.  You’ll discover worlds you’ve never known.”
Maria was glad to have made friends with Ian.

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Foreign Lands

a story by

Rebeka Singer

We ate our Fourth of July dinner around a glass table on the outdoor patio. Dad and I sat on the back steps while Mom washed the dishes. We sat outside the sliding glass door facing the evergreens that lined the brick driveway. The bricks he had lain himself when they bought the house sixteen years before were faded now—zinfandel once gleamed startling hues of raw salmon.
The blue sky softened to gray.
“So you don’t want to not live here then?” I asked.
He looked away. “There’s a place, Death Valley. Bad Water. Furnace Creek.”
I clutched my knobby thirteen-year-old knees.
“No one can take the heat.” He sighed. “There’s dehydrated remains. One place in the valley there’s a wagon with a skeleton underneath it with a plaque that reads: ‘He got to this point, he couldn’t go no further.’”
I searched his face. His eyes drifted off and returned in another vein. “Well even if I go for a little while and then come back here to die—that’s okay.” His face was damp. “But honestly, I prefer Central America, the Caribbean Islands—” Dad trailed off as his mind wandered to foreign lands. “I’ll join the Somali pirates and sail the Gulf of Aden!”
I was dazed, struck by anger and wild admiration: he was a dreamer.
“One day I’m going to take you to the desert, Lily.” His voice was soft. “Death Valley, 135 degrees. No one can take that heat. No one will be there.” He stretched his hand out to the horizon and moved it in an arc to paint the invisible picture of the heat before my eyes. “It’s the closest you’ll come to God.” He looked mournful. It looked natural, I thought.
“Want to go set off those fireworks now?”
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We stood in the driveway. The New England summer heat possessed us. Dad hunched atop unsteady legs. A homemade cigar sat loosely between his teeth. He unloaded the bundle of fireworks onto the bricks and retrieved a sparkler bearing a bubblegum-hued fuse. He handed it to me and held up a lighter.
“Now don’t burn me,” he said. “Not too close.” The fuse lit and he pulled his hand back as from an ignited stove. He smiled, folding his fingers over the opposite palm.
Smoke began to fill the driveway. I coughed. Dad tacked up a spinning firework to the telephone pole on the street. He summoned me to light it with the sparkler.
It spun rapidly, emitting different colored spears. A pink and white diamond, green sunbeams, and little blue stars twinkled then faded into empty space. Nothing was left but smoke and silence.
I felt alone amid the remains and urged Dad to light another. We went through three spinners and six sparklers. Smoke swirled down the street, filling the driveway and rising up through the branches of a weathered beech. The leaves of the tall oaks along the sidewalk whispered in the uncanny stillness.
“Very few people have been to the Moon,” he said as he looked off into the dim skies. “When we come back from the desert, Lily, you can say you’ve been to the Moon.”
I tried to follow his gaze, tried to find the faint ivory Moon buried in the twilight sky. It seemed to flicker in and out of sight.

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Don’t Eat That

a story by

Germaine Paris

Mwuah. Mwuah. Mwuah. My mom makes that noise whenever she’s putting on her red lipstick. She smacks her lips together and makes this fishy face, and goes, mwuah, mwuah, mwuah. Sorta makes me wonder that if fish had red lipstick to put on, would they make human noises? You would think so, right? Like we borrowed their underwater noises, so they can borrow our land noises? They do have lips too, you know, skinny ones. I guessed so because sometimes we ate fish for dinner, and I’ve noticed its lips before, on that grilled up, flaky head. Have you ever looked at a fish’s head? You know, if you thought with your head instead of your stomach for a second, just a second, you can imagine the fish’s last glubs of water, like it said, “That worm tricked me!” or “I’m dead!” All of the fish I ate had its mouth all open, and their eyes are all fried up, so I imagined them to say those sort of things. Maybe thats why I never ate the head. My dad did though. He would munch on the fish eyeballs and the fish brains, cracking the skull in his teeth, eating the bones too. I don’t know, I never looked, but I suppose it would make you smarter if you did eat it because my dad always said smart things. “Sacrifices. Sometimes in life, we have to make sacrifices in order to reach our goals,” is what he would say after every dinner. I remember it word for word too, even in the way he pronounced them. Kinda have to, especially with how my dad looked at me. He would stare at me. Not that there’s anything wrong with me or that there’s a fish scale stuck in my tooth, but he’s just the seeing-not-talking sort of type. We’d be standing right across from each other, and he’d have his steaming cup of tea in hand, and he’d be staring at me. It was like we had staring contests all the time, except I’m pretty sure my dad doesn’t know about that game because when I blink, the game isn’t over. He continues to just stare, and I know he doesn’t zone out or anything because he wiggles his eyebrows at me to let me know that he’s looking at me. I always laugh when he does that because he has these furry thick eyebrows. Or sometimes he doesn’t do that at all, and says something smart again. Like this one time, I had this homework assignment I got from school. I was supposed to read some books and record them on this caterpillar worksheet. This caterpillar had circles for its body, and for every book I read, I was supposed to color in one of its circles. I remember I got done coloring in the sucker and so I decided to hang it up on our fridge. I used the bright magnets too. I remember I stood there, waiting for my dad’s response. He stared at me, and didn’t wriggle his eyebrows like I expected him to. Instead he said, “Why don’t you make the body longer?” Longer! Can you believe that? After all that hard work, my dad wants the caterpillar longer! Well, I did it, I tell you. I turned that millipede in and you know what my teacher said? “A gold star for you!” Yep! My dad doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s important to listen. You can laugh at him, I know his eyebrows aren’t too normal looking, but you should hear what he has to say sometimes. Just don’t eat the fish heads, he eats those.

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The Bethesda

a story by

Brian Mateo

I.
“Father said the sea was for noble fishermen. Bethesda is my own to decide what to do with. I am choosing the helm, picaroon or not.”
 The Journal of Bartholomew Winsock,
Captain of the Bethesda
6 June 1897
As we plunged through the sea, the storm conducted our first duet. The waves grab hold of you as if it is leading us through this dance. Maybe people will ridicule me for being a blockhead. Maybe I’ll get a really nice obituary as ‘The Man Who Tried.’ Regardless, I am doing this for myself.
While you sway us back and forth, my heart is in the back of my throat, but my faith is anchored to you, now more than ever. Putting on my raincoat this morning was probably the hardest step to take. Now it’s time to reach our goal.
The thunder rumbles as if Poseidon strikes the Earth itself with his trident. I hold your helm as tight as I can while the rain wipes the salty residue from my face.  My faith is a child ahold of your skirt.
II.
“The final number of our stroll is about to commence and I see a strip of land along the horizon. What was a 27-league journey felt like a decade. The docks of this Island shall be your home.”
 The Journal of Bartholomew Winsock,
Captain of the Bethesda
8 June 1897
The shillings do not fill the void in my soul. Rainy days remind me of you. The day we had the courage to escape from the mundane to encounter the unknown. The day the storm almost took us with it. I am who I am because of you.
Now I must find refuge in an unfamiliar island, with the value I placed on you weighing my thoughts. The memories of boarding you with father and his fishing crew haunt me at night. We sailed to feed the family and earn the respect from the town. I miss seeing dad’s smile as he came home from a good day’s work. I miss boarding you.
After dad’s passing when the men dismissed my efforts, I cried on your side while wiping away the brine from the sea. It was then when I longed to understand the conundrum beyond the horizon.
I have braved the storm, now I must bid adieu to the child inside. The nostalgia is the price I must pay for the comfort of wealth you have given me. My quest for adventure has plagued me to depart from you. And you, well, you were born to travel. Born to see the world.
III.
“But that is not me. Or maybe it is? I long to have you by my side. The mysterious sea keeps me restless in the moon light.”
The Journal of Bartholomew Winsock,
Captain of the Bethesda
11 August 1897
The carnival will assist in deceiving my thoughts today. Clowns and pantomimes hide their faces away to bring entertainment onto the island. Balloons are floating as if they are trying to seek new refuge. Something I must do when my shillings deplete.
The steadiness of land makes me sick as I long for the surging waves.  Memories of you inundate my mind as the sand prickles my callous feet. I lust for the silky deck that only the bravest of men have been able to walk on. I crave the saline kiss of the sea.
The allure of a fortuneteller compels me. Hesitantly, I give in. With a look of pity, she waives her fee and begins her quest. Setting the stage for my vision, she flips over an hourglass as I inhale the scents of wisdom from her left palm.
Suddenly I feel myself swimming through the stream of my subconscious. Then a voice starts to creep in:
“You are hungry, anxious for more. You left for the mere fact that you needed to live your life. But what is life? Is it grounding your roots and blossoming future generations to carry your name? You are a wanderer, someone who needs to seek the unknown. Not many are comfortable being transient, but you were born to do it. You will be remembered. Not by a few but by many. You know what you have to do. It’s been in your heart all along.”
The sudden snap of her fingers jerks my head from the table. I thank the fortuneteller and begin to seek out what I have been yearning for. At the pier, Bethesda’s new owner dresses her up for another voyage.
The nostalgia creeps in, but I am lucky you waited, my love. As an act of penance, I give him the rest of my shillings begging to be his companion. He grants me access to join his quest and we set sail to new horizons. You belong to him, but my heart belongs to you.
IV.
“In memory of Bartholomew Winsock: The man who traveled the sea, although by his terms, and never letting go of the helm as it sailed into Poseidon’s possession.”
The Journal of Norman Hucsby,
last Captain of the Bethesda
29 November 1914

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Brian Mateo is an aspiring writer who works with historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi and adventure. He currently resides in New York and works for Bard College. You can follow him on twitter: @brianmateo

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The Prayer

Angela D. Sargent

Penitent, enveloped in need, the prayer reaches above the prayer-maker, stretches up and up, tries to touch the Father’s hand. Color distinctions now made indistinct–age, status, experience all become insignificant. There is only Omniscience and thick hope in a candle-scented room. Trouble and worry, illness and pain struggle to sever themselves from salty, moistened lips. The prayer-maker weaves coil after coil until the rope is too heavy to carry. In flush and perspiration she hurls her prayer up to Heaven, hoping God will have mercy and send His healing balm.

Autumn 2014

copyright 2014

cinemagraph-gifs-cat

Welcome to you!
Again we enter the shadowed realms of the soul, there to discover kings and knaves, gentlemen and gendarmes, murderers and mistresses, metanoia and melancholy.
In this issue of Beorh Quarterly we begin with a deeply disturbing tale from Rebecca Troy, ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ whose title is drawn from the erudite spiritual writings of St. John of the Cross.
P. J. Gannon then brings us ‘Caesar,’ a delightful look at timeless and idyllic childhood–the selfsame childhood we loathe while we are yet children, but long for the older we become.
We then step back to our own childhoods, perhaps, or maybe to a childhood we wish we could have had, and hear the beautiful story of Einar and his woodland in ‘Adventures in a Skinner Box’ by new-classic writer Harley Staggars.
Ken Schroeder then graces us with his warm and witty work ‘Against the Yellow, Painted Arrow,’ the story of two English-speaking travelers in a not-so-English environment.
The story of ‘The Clock’ is then told by storyteller Ramona Scarborough, and her work rounds out this issue of Beorh Quarterly, home of ‘The Very Best Stories Out There!’
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Rebecca Troy

Dark Night of the Soul

(an entry from the
Lizzie Andrew Borden Diary
dated August 3rd 1892)
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a story by

Rebecca Troy

Small cuts. That’s all it would take. I cannot fathom the thoughts that would have gone through his head whilst committing this act. Why should I understand him? Not all men can be understood. I am tired. Now I am left with nothing; he means for me to have nothing. These tiny creatures meant the world to me and now they are gone, their heads severed delicately as if they were never there at all. Why is this my father’s way? I see no way for us to reconcile now. He means for me to carry on. He keeps pushing. I’ll soon have less than nothing left. I wish another to be my father. All little girls want is a father who doesn’t chop the heads off her beloved birds when she is at church serving God. God is the only man that would not treat a woman in this manner. I am certain that he means for me to take these bodies and put them somewhere where he is not reminded of what he has done. Cleaning up after a man is woman’s work. I am not going to clean this murder.
I could call Bridget to clean, but I know she will not. She has no stomach for this. When I cut myself during dinner, I watched while the blood ran onto the white linens. Bridget was quite beside herself. Mrs. Borden was also distressed, but for another reason. I see no value in having linens if we are not to use them. Perhaps she was upset because it was our only set, and now it is covered in a blood that does not match her family line.
I lift up one of the lifeless bodies for just a moment. This morning they were full of life and if they had ever wished to be freed, they received their wish, but not quite as they would have imagined I am sure. I kiss where their heads once lay. The coldness of their neck hit my lips immediately. I now understand what death tastes like.
Father always says the prayer before we eat. I go to church the most, but he says the prayers. He tells me that he was afraid that the neighborhood boys would come to visit the birds, and burn down the shed, but that does not explain the need to kill. I have no real appetite. I find sitting opposite my father a task. My stomach churns in disregard. I try to reach as far down as I can to retrieve a memory that I can hold on to, to  preserve some respect for him, but instead my mind is numb, unable, and now all I have left is this fork and knife and the food I must eat, if I am not to enrage father. I wonder what he will kill tonight?
Tell me all that I can do, Lord, tell me, tell me. If I have strength then let me see it. Tell me what needs to be done. I have come here, in your house, your church, everyday for as long as I could walk and now I am asking you for help. I have never asked anything of you before. I know you will answer. You have to. I have no one. I can no longer live in this manner. I have no understanding of comfort. I have no understanding of the fashion of life. I live as he has requested I live, with very little. I hate my father. I have enough dedication for ten men, you cannot desert me. I am alone with no way forward.
I have these thoughts, unnatural, unrelenting. Please understand that I know the Devil can have his way at any time. I cannot let him in. Where are you, God? Is the need for freedom a sin? I know if I give into certain urges then I will never be able to find my way forward. Only people with good hearts enter Heaven. I am a good and pure soul, but I cannot hold my soul in place forever. God has given me Mrs. Borden and my father, as tests of faith. I know that if I can keep them from destroying me I will be stronger, more able to be the person that I want to become, one free of sinful thoughts. I have prayed constantly since the morning of the slain pigeons but I cannot free my mind of thoughts of revenge. I will never say or do anything that will hurt my Father in Heaven. I wish to be with Him. In Heaven.
Father believes the worst of me. He does not see me. He murdered my birds because of it. He finds me disgusting. I refuse to marry a man who is like him. I refuse to live another life the same, with a cruel fate. I will not do as he asks. I will not marry. He can kill a thousand birds but I will not do as he says.
There is no one. Why do you leave me here, Lord, in this basement, cold and hidden? I have ceased eating so that I can better hear you, but you never speak. I stay in this dark space, no candles. Father’s tools lay against these forgotten walls, and sing a song of freedom. Should I listen? I need not be in the light. If you will not be there to guide me then there is no point in being able to see through the night. I cannot continue to live like this. Nothing. The promise of a new life beckons, if it will not be with You, then I will find another way. If I cannot be free, You cannot expect me to wait for Heaven. I must find a way. Forgive me, Lord, but I can no longer wait for You to hear me. Please understand that I am still Yours right up until the end, if You will still have me. No matter what action I take, know that in my heart I do it for You.
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Rebecca Troy attended Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, and took a BA in Feminist Theory from State University of New York Empire. She has written two novels and one graphic novel. Her second novel is YA fiction set in the rural South during the Civil Rights Movement. She is also an avid writer of screenplays, and runs a small film production company called Sub Floor Seven Productions. Rebecca is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Goddard College.

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CAESAR

a story by

P. J. Gannon

One house on my route, a green cape, had a small side yard, where behind a cyclone fence the German Shepherd roamed. Each day, as I rolled up on my bike, a Schwinn Stingray with speckled banana seat and sissy-bar, he’d be out, chewing on his rubber ball. I’d try to be quiet. I never wanted him to know I was there. But one way or another, whether it was the squeak of my brakes or the lowering of my kickstand, I’d alert him. I’d approach cautiously, and, when his eyes, mean and penetrating, found me, his mouth would grow limp, the saliva-soaked ball dropping and bouncing aimlessly on the patio. He’d run at me as if there were no fence and for a moment I’d stop breathing, doubting whether there was one.
But it was real, as were his thick haunches, his foul breath that seemed to stretch the property’s length, and he’d collide with it and I’d be able to breathe again. On his hind legs, he was as tall as me and by his underbelly, whitish and lumpy, he looked twice my weight. His paws would grab hold of the horizontal pipe, right above the sign that read: BEWARE OF DOG.
One day, while I stood on the stoop waiting for the seventy cents that was owed me, I learned his name. Mr. Gianni, a muscular, loudmouthed man, was rummaging for coins in his tight Sassons but coming up short. The dog hadn’t stopped barking, and, finally having enough, he turned, his pocket linings hanging out, and yelled, “Shut up, Caesar!” Hearing that was like getting clobbered in the head with a baseball. I was dazed; my skin turned hot. Looking down at me, Mr. Gianni mumbled, “I can’t even think straight.” There was a menthol cigarette dangling from his lips and he released it and with his slipper squished it like my younger brother would the water bugs by our garage. “I’ll get you next week, okay?” I could hear the words but my mind had trouble shaping meaning; it was almost like listening to my grandmother speak Irish. “Next week. I’ll pay you. Don’t look so broken up.” I hurried to my bike and took a short cut across his lawn. “Off my grass, kid! I just put down a bag of seed!”
Caesar. One of the few names I heard once in my life and never forgot. According to my Children’s Bible, which I kept on my shelf above my bed, Caesar was the leader of the Romans, the men who had nailed Christ, my Savior, to the cross, the ones in the full page color pictures clad in armor and wearing helmets topped with what looked to be red brushes.  One of the Romans even threw dice for His possessions, while another with a sword pierced His side as He hung in agony. Those same men would later feed good Christians like me to lions. 
Caesar became the embodiment of evil in my neighborhood. I began terrorizing myself, wondering what awful things he’d done to lead Mr. Gianni to name him that. Before becoming domesticated had he ruled over a pack of killer dogs? Had he ripped the last paperboy to shreds? I’d come into the route rather suddenly when other kids who had applied at the same time, and some even before me, were still on a waiting list. Also, what kind of man would name his dog this? One I’d never seen in church. The entire house had lost its color. Everything about it, the asbestos shingles, the front door, the window boxes, the shutters, had been painted black by the brushstroke of the name. Caesar.
So, whenever I approached, I’d say the Lord’s Prayer. I also took to running to the stoop, sometimes with my eyes half-closed, or, when my courage faltered, throwing the paper from the driveway and getting the hell out of there.
Once, when I was getting set to throw the paper, Caesar hit the fence and the gate came ajar. I couldn’t breathe. A heart-stopping second later, he saw what had happened—he was no dummy—and sprung from the gate. I dropped the paper and took off. Running past my bike, I sensed him gaining on me. Oh, no. No!
In the street, next to Mr. Gianni’s Oldsmobile 98, I felt a stab on my right thigh, not unlike a bee sting, and then heard Mr. Gianni’s voice booming like an M80 detonating. “Caesar!” With tears in my eyes, I turned. The dog had begun making his way back. “He doesn’t bite!” Mr. Gianni was chuckling, an unlit cigarette in one hand, a lighter in the other. But my corduroys were torn and there was blood, right below the blue ink stain that had formed a few days before when my Bic pen exploded in Social Studies.
I grabbed hold of my leg; there were two small puncture wounds and wincing I limped back to my bike. Mr. Gianni, who was now heading down the walkway, had a look of disbelief on his face. “Oh shit! How about that?! I’m sorry, little guy!” He pulled out a handkerchief and crouched in front of me, his bald spot the size of Caesar’s rubber ball, and began blotting the wound. “Does it hurt?”
“A little.” And I started crying, not from the pain but from the whole ordeal.
“He’s got all his shots! Don’t you worry!” I nodded and wiped the tears with the back of my hand and when the bleeding stopped I got back on my bike. “Do you want a ride home?”
“No, I got more papers,” my voice trembling and I pointed to my bag.
“If your parents want to talk about this, they’re more than welcome.”
“Okay.”
“Here.” And he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. It didn’t feel right but I took it anyway. “It won’t happen again. I promise you.”
The bill was crisp and fragrant and I folded it in half and slid it into my pocket. I could buy a ten-pack of Bubble Yum, Gobstoppers, Fun Dip, Reggie bars, catch Mr. Softee more than any other kid on my block.
Caesar was back behind the fence, the ball in his mouth. If that was all he had, and it appeared to be, I wasn’t afraid anymore and, with my spirits soaring, I pedaled off.
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Adventures in a Skinner Box

a story by

Harley Staggars

Kingdoms come in all sizes. The bigger ones – Sweden and Spain and England – have all been spoken for. But there are little kingdoms around that no one has claimed yet, and it doesn’t really matter how big they might be. A kingdom doesn’t necessarily have to occupy a physical space at all. There are kingdoms to be found in the clouds – in the fertile imaginations of children. Every boy, no matter how small or how many big brothers he may have, can be the king of someplace.
Einar ascended the throne during the Summer he was five years old – on the day he first turned his back on the sunlit field and ventured out into the shadowed world of the forest creatures. He did not go boldly, sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, into this great unknown; he was truly terrified. He knew there were great gnarling bears out there, and prowling wolves and screaming lynxes, and an endless array of goblins and savages lay in ambush within the foreboding darkness – creatures that dwelt nowhere but in the fantasies of a five-year-old, and in the woods behind his house. But he was driven by a more imminent and certain danger. Knute was after him.
Knute was a year older than Einar, and he was, even then, a formidable adversary and a veteran of the First Grade. Einar, on the other hand, had never been to school or anywhere else, and had done nothing worth mentioning in his entire life. He had, by virtue of his presence alone, become an embarrassment to Knute, who felt honor-bound to make him pay dearly for the disgrace he had visited upon the family.
Knute’s favorite instrument of retribution, whenever their mother lay down for a nap with three year old Erik, was a stick freshly dipped down the hole in the privy – a horrifying implement sufficient to reform the renegade and bring the rebellious heretic home to Jesus. But the administration of justice, being among the most sacred ceremonies that a six-year-old may be called upon to perform, requires the most thorough preparation, and one does not quickly and easily scoop up a truly good gob of such viscous admonition. Even if he has the perfect stick, with a crotch just below the business end, it takes time and determination to dig up material of just the proper consistency, with just the proper degree of tackiness. And Knute would settle for nothing less than perfection.
Having seen him select his stick and march resolutely toward his own private armory, Einar had been forewarned and had managed to acquire a moderate head start. But Knute was considerably faster, and he rapidly gained on his younger brother. As you may well imagine, the very tangible menace coming up so quickly behind him worried Einar substantially more than the remote possibility of unknown dangers lying in ambush on the path before him. He had given no thought to the direction he had taken in his flight until he suddenly found himself in the shadows of the woods. By that time Knute was hard upon him, and his alternatives had narrowed significantly. He could entertain no thoughts of turning back.
Momentum, emotional as well as physical, carried him more deeply into the woods than any man had ever gone before, beyond the point at which he could have nurtured any hope of survival. But it wasn’t until he was certain that Knute hadn’t followed him into that twilight region that his natural cowardice returned to sustain him.
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A rat in a Skinner box, as is taught in Psych 101, when placed between two negative stimuli of sufficient authority, will vacillate between the two until he finds the point at which the ratio of the distance to each of the stimuli is exactly equal to the ratio of their perceived discomfort. Once he locates this point, he will be paralyzed, unable to move in either direction until one of the stimuli is removed or the equilibrium is otherwise disturbed.
But the woods behind his house bore no resemblance to a Skinner box, and, unlike the rat, Einar hadn’t yet mastered the concept of ratios. He vacillated, but he failed to find that point of which Doctor Skinner had been so justly proud. Fear, in contest with his cowardice, drove him first more deeply into the lair of unknown dangers; then escalating cowardice drove him back toward his brother the avenging angel, and fear, again advancing, forced him once more into the shadows. In his panic he lost all sense of direction, a sense with which he had been but poorly endowed in the first place, and he succeeded only in running around the concentric circles of an ever-diminishing radius. And when at last he fell, exhausted, it was in the approximate center of all those circles he had just described – the center that may have been, in retrospect, his Skinner’s point.
He lay there with his face pressed into the aromatic carpet of spruce and balsam needles in a vain attempt to stifle the sound of his labored breathing. He could hear Knute pace back and forth through the tall grass, brandishing his unholy weapon and shouting what he believed to be obscenities. And Einar was certain that Knute could hear him just as clearly as he could hear Knute. Or, if not his brother, then God knows what other creature might be listening and, even now, measuring him against its calibrated appetite. He knew all the fairytales, and he understood the fate that awaited the unfortunate child who strayed beyond the protection of sustaining sunlight.
“Who are you? And why do you intrude upon my woods?”
He had known that the Bogeyman was out there somewhere, but he hadn’t expected to be discovered so soon.
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It was the English, who for centuries have been far too civilized to quiescently endure the petty problems of raising children, who contrived the legend of the Bogeyman. Though it may be difficult for folks here on the less-cultured side of the Atlantic to believe, not all English families can afford the luxuries of nannies to nurture and public boarding schools to warehouse their progeny. Some of them are forced by financial circumstances to actually wipe their own children’s noses and change their soiled linen. These unfortunate folk would welcome any artifice that would ease the odious burdens of parenthood. So, if the Bogeyman hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to silence noisy children and to set them properly on the path to righteousness.
The Bogeyman is not, contrary to the general assumption, an English invention; it is merely a clever adaptation of an already existing phenomenon. The English have long had a penchant for ordering the world according to ethnic differences: the Englishman, at the summit of course, followed in descending order by the Scotsman, the Frenchman, the Irishman, the Chinaman, and so forth down through the diverse family of man – and, at the very bottom, the Bogeyman.
Early English sailors exploring Indonesian waters often encountered, with ample repugnance and considerable trepidation, an enterprising people called the Bugis – a nation of loosely organized warrior tribes. Many of these Bugis had been driven from their homes during the reign of a particularly brutal prince, and, being excellent sailors and ferocious fighters, they naturally gravitated to the comparatively lucrative profession of piracy. Moreover, they had flaunted their barbarity by siding with the Dutchmen over the English in their competition to divide the world between them.
Of course England, herself, has never been burdened with an unseemly absence of pirates among its citizenry; most of her oldest and noblest families owe their eminence to one or more of their forbears who flew the Jolly Roger. But, as civilized men, they have always had the good grace to decry the practice and to deny any taint of ancestral brigandry in their own blood lines.
In the mind of the civilized man, piracy has always been, by its very nature, among the most despicable of crimes. The size of the small wooden vessels in which they plied their trade necessarily limited the size and weight of the booty that could be seized, and this unfortunate limitation dictated the class of citizens upon whom they preyed. Although the bulk of the wealth of any nation consists of the corn and livestock and other commodities with which, by the sweat of its peasantry, it has been blessed, this wealth is thinly distributed across the breadth of the land. It requires an efficient and well organized societal structure to properly plunder such bootie. The crew of a small boat in the middle of an endless sea would find it difficult to sustain a decent livelihood pursuing the occasional pocketful of rye to be found among the common folk. They must, of necessity, seek more concentrated riches: the gold and jewels to be found only in the possession of the most worthy of citizens – the well-to-do. And this, dear friends, will always be most vigorously discouraged.
It has been, perhaps even more than his fear of hanging, his English sense of propriety that has led many an errant mariner to forego his evil ways and retire to the luxurious life of the landed gentleman, and, on an estate purchased with his ill-gotten riches and with the full blessing of his peers among the gentry, to legally, morally, and, above all, most courteously pick the pockets of the local peasantry.
The Bugis, being a savage and untutored race, have no such sense of decency. Not only did they remain unrepentant of their monstrous crimes, they seemed to take some perverted pride in the enterprise, and they encouraged their children to continue in the shameful family practice of piracy. It is certainly no wonder then, that in good English and American homes, it is the Bogeyman – and not the Scotsman – that parents invoke in order to inspire respect and piety in our offspring.
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But Einar had no knowledge of such arcane subjects as English moralism and Indonesian buccaneers. He feared the Bogeyman as any child would fear such a being vested with immeasurable powers and utterly devoid of compassion for the problems of little people like him – much as years later and with far more reason he would learn to fear teachers and military superiors.
And so it came as a complete surprise to the child to hear his own voice, hesitant and muffled, yet defiant, “This ain’t your woods. This is our prop-a-dee.”
“Everything in darkness belongs to me,” countered the Bogeyman. “I own these woods. I own the shadows. As long as it’s bright and sunny out, you think that field out there belongs to you, but tonight I’ll have that too. I’ll take everything that’s outside where the lamp light won’t reach. And under the bed, I’ll own that too.”
“Who says you can own it? My dad bought it. It’s our house, and it’s our prop-a-dee.” This disembodied voice was unmistakably his own; yet it operated independently of his control, overruling his sincere desire to melt into the earth on which he lay.
“I own it because no one can take it away from me.”
“My dad can take it away.”
“He can’t take it away because he isn’t here. You’re the only one here, and you aren’t big enough to take it from me.”
“Well, Knute is right over there. He’s big enough to take it away. He’s been to school. And he’s got poop on a stick. He can take anything he wants away from anybody.”
“Knute won’t take it from me because he doesn’t want it. He’s out there in the sunshine where he belongs. He doesn’t care about these woods; only you care. And you’re not big enough.”
Einar was losing this argument in case you haven’t been keeping score. He lay with his face pressed into the dirt to avoid seeing his tormenter. He was a spectator listening to his own voice – which seemed to emanate from five feet over his head – calmly engaged in reasoned debate over the fabled Nine Points of the Law, while he lay cowering in the dirt like the respectful five-year-old he was. He wouldn’t have talked back to Knute, let alone the Bogeyman. And yet it was unmistakably his voice raised in reluctant defiance against this spectral bully.
Although it had never occurred to him that he should have another voice – one he’d never heard before – he wasn’t greatly surprised to learn of it either. The discovery of that other voice didn’t contradict any belief that he held sacred. If people had voices they didn’t usually use, it might simply mean that a person is more than one person after all, and there was certainly nothing surprising in that. Knute was at least two people that he knew of: the well-behaved boy he became in the company of grown-ups, and this poop-wielding avenger who would deny a younger brother the only route of escape from his current torment.
So why shouldn’t Einar be different people too? Why shouldn’t he be, on the one hand, the boy who sometimes pays attention in Sunday School and, on the other, the one who only this morning had tried to pee over the top wire of Sigurd Opsahl’s barbed-wire fence; the one who watched over Erik while his mother made dinner and the one who sucked at his father’s discarded cigarette butts and blew make-believe smoke rings into the air; the one who cowered here in the dirt and the one up over his head arguing with the Bogeyman? He saw nothing strange in that.
“Well, I’m gonna be big someday…” Einar’s other voice hurled the ultimate – the most menacing – threat in his arsenal, “and then you’ll be sorry!”
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From the sunlit field Knute swore splendid vengeance in Einar’s general direction, and the wind blew a mournful melody through the evergreen boughs overhead. Einar waited, expecting a tirade of abuse for his back-talk, but no one disputed his last declaration. Maybe the Bogeyman wasn’t ferocious enough to intimidate his disembodied voice. Maybe he’d found no snappy answer to parry such a clever retort. Maybe he was considering the consequences of offending someone who would, indeed, be big someday.
It was only when the birds resumed singing that Einar realized they had been silent. A red squirrel, loathe to suppressing its eloquence longer, began scolding from the tangled branches of its lofty jurisdiction. But still there was no answer from his fearsome visitor. An errant bumble bee, blown astray on a wayward gust of wind, droned busily past in her futile search along the forest floor for the nectar bearing flora of the open field. Somewhere nearby, a redheaded woodpecker beat a staccato tattoo on an insect-infested tree. But the sounds of nature’s normal business only emphasized the unnatural silence centered in the thicket.
Einar was quite comfortable, thank you, lying there with his face in the dirt; so he was in no great hurry to raise his head and look around. And, although he began to suspect that his guest had taken his leave, he felt fully justified in ignoring his presence – or his absence – which ever applied. Good manners didn’t dictate that he be especially gracious to someone who either would leave without saying goodbye or wouldn’t respond to a perfectly friendly remark.
“I’m gonna be big someday,” he repeated less loudly and in his usual voice this time, “and then you’ll be sorry.”
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Life – during our passage from that first slap on the behind at birth, through the humiliation of adolescence and the discomforts and disappointments of maturity, to that final one-way Cadillac ride – will not suffer the dictates of a constant velocity. Time pursues its course in fits and starts, oblivious to the wants and needs of mortal intercourse. In seemingly deliberate recalcitrance, it hurtles quickly past life’s more cheerful moments, and it interminably prolongs the unpleasantness with which one is so frequently afflicted. The older one grows, and the more precious his remaining days, the more rapidly they desert him.
But the impatient hours of a five-year-old are frozen in amber.
And so the decades rolled forever by. Civilizations rose and lingered in the limelight, then crumbled and decayed. Glaciers carved new valleys and, retreating, spawned great river systems. The collision of tectonic plates thrust virgin mountain ranges high into the stratosphere, and the wind and rain wore them flat again. And, eventually, Einar sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked around.
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He was alone. His loathsome visitor, unaccustomed to defeat, had quit the Field of Honor. Even Knute had ceased his taunting and strutting, and had retired, weapon unbloodied. For the first time Einar enjoyed the luxury of a leisurely surveillance of his asylum.
He found himself in a grove of immature spruce and balsam trees. The peripheral boughs hung thick and low to the ground, screening him from searching eyes, yet not obscuring his vision of the world without. Though invisible to anyone in the field, he would have been able to see Knute, had he not given up by then and gone home. Beyond the sheltering branches of his grove, the hazel brush grew thick and intertwined, and it grasped at and held intruders. But no brush grew in the green and violet shadows at the center of his thicket, and the trees were bare of lower branches, permitting ease of movement without stooping or stumbling.
Magic governed this grove. The still air was rich with the perfume of balsam fir, an aroma that, for Einar, would ever after engender an aura of security – sweet sanctuary amid life’s turmoil. Einar felt thoroughly self-possessed in this enchanted refuge so deep in the woods that Knute would never find it – where even the Bogeyman was powerless to harm him. No fairytale potentate ever possessed so wondrous a kingdom. Nor had any dominion ever enjoyed so worthy a king.
Woodpeckers provided a drum roll to announce the ascension of a new monarch to the throne of his woodland kingdom, as King Einar sat back in his twilight realm and took census of his sundry subjects. A pair of chipmunks observed a curious protocol from the trunk of a fallen tree. A snowshoe hare, unseen but for an occasional flash of white tail, bounded away in a long looping course though the hazel brush and cottonwoods, and then shyly wound its way back, all the while keeping a wary eye on its newly-crowned sovereign. Butterflies and yellow jackets executed intricate aerial salutes in the humid evening air while ticks and crickets and woodland beetles paid more pedestrian homage. From deep in the forest, a solitary partridge drummed its resonant applause, and the red squirrel, though not without vociferous misgiving, relinquished its erstwhile interest and assumed a perch of more modest elevation.
Wearing his new responsibilities like royal robes, King Einar set out to explore his throne room, calmly and deliberately studying each tree trunk and low-hanging branch. At length, he approached the largest balsam tree and contemplated the blistered purple-grey bark. He poked at a large glutted blister, and when his nail pierced the soft bark, the sweet-smelling pitch oozed out and flowed down his finger.
Balsam bark, once seen, will not leave a boy alone; it must be prodded and picked at. The blisters, like overripe pustules, beg to be violated. Even tired old grown-ups, knowing full well that the pitch will weld their fingers fast together, and that soap and water will avail no relief, are yet compelled to pop the blisters with their thumbnails and allow the pitch to flow out onto their hands. And then whatever they happen to touch – leaf, grass, insect, or baby bird – sticks to them and becomes as much a part of them as their own noses. Later, of course, they will regret having popped balsam blisters. But then they will do it again at the next opportunity.
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By the time the sun began to set – by the time his mother had grown hoarse calling him, and Knute had repeatedly denied having seen him, Einar had managed to completely cover himself with pitch and moss and dirt and twigs. And by the time his clothing had been peeled off and thrown away – by the time water had been lugged from the well and he had been scoured with brown lye soap until his whole body smarted, it was well past his bedtime.
Going to bed without supper didn’t detract from his satisfaction; he was more tired than hungry anyway. He had endured a very busy day. He had escaped Knute’s terrible vengeance, and he had outwitted the Bogeyman. He had discovered an enchanted woodland. And he had declared himself king of his own private dominion, where he had ruled wisely and justly, and he had become beloved by his subjects.
Few five-year-olds could claim such achievements.
And when, in belated answer to his mother’s call, he had crossed beyond the frontiers of his kingdom, he was no less a king. When the King of Spain visits another country he remains a monarch. He brings along his chauffeur, his barber, and his cook. All the perquisites of his office attend him wherever he goes. Foreign dignitaries call him Your Highness and escort him to the head of the line. They know he’s a king, and they treat him like one. But, more importantly, he knows himself he is a king. Distance cannot diminish his dominion.
The lamp had been blown out and King Einar lay in the dark between his two brothers. The mattress stuck to him; so did the blankets and pillow. Knute stuck to him on one side, and Erik on the other. Wherever skin met skin he stuck to himself. And yet a satisfied smile played at the corners of his mouth, and, with the sweet scent of balsam following even into his dreams, he surrendered to warm and welcome sleep.
From its dark refuge in a shadowed thicket, night emerged from a long day’s sleep to advance across the meadows and clearings, wrapping its raven mantle around each object it encountered along the meandering pathways through the fields and yards. But as it approached Einar’s house it wrapped less tightly and less darkly, and, out of deference to the young king sleeping there within, trod more lightly and hastened on its way.

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Against the Yellow, Painted Arrow

a story by

Ken Schroeder

There has been rain, torrential at times, in Extremadura, and we have been holed up in Zafra, waiting. Today the rain has lightened up, and as we have stayed with our hosts for a few more days than expected, it is time to move on. Olivia and I trudge out of Zafra with our ponchos on over our backpacks, and at the edge of the city, at the train station, I am already lost.
We have been following the signs for the Via de la Plata, but in Spain there is only one way to take the Via de la Plata, and that is northward, in the direction of Santiago de Compostela. As we have been walking south, we’ve had to look for the painted yellow arrows that point the way from which we’ve already come. One of these arrows is pointing the way back into Zafra, and seems to be pointing from the direction of the train station, so we walk to the station, and there are no more arrows, and when I finally find someone who is willing to listen to my broken Spanish, and I ask him where the path is, he points the way back into Zafra.
“Well this is great,” I say to myself, but loud enough so that Olivia can hear. “First thing in the morning, in the rain, not even out of Zafra yet, and we’re already going the wrong way. I’d really like to be able to sit down with the people who only marked this path in one direction. ‘You ever think maybe someone might go the other way?’ I’d ask them. I wish they could be in our shoes, you know? They might do a better job of marking this camino if they were the ones walking in the rain with heavy backpacks.”
Olivia listens patiently as I vent– or perhaps it has nothing to do with patience; perhaps she simply tunes me out. In any case, she plods along with me in silence.
We find the last yellow arrow we’d seen, and now we take a muddy path off the road, leading past rubbish bins– the only other road to take besides the one we had come from–  and soon there is another yellow arrow pointing in the direction from which we’ve come, and also the official stone marker with the yellow seashell, and I am satisfied now despite the rain and the 20 minute detour, because we are back on track.
Then the rain stops and it becomes foggy, and as we are walking along the dirt road and into the fog I imagine that this is a reflection of my own mind– I am walking into the unknown, and I am doing it with determination rather than hesitancy. I am unafraid; and I am satisfied by this thought.
“Take a picture of me, Ollie, from behind, with me walking into the fog.”
She sighs, but takes the photo. I often ask her to take a picture of me, with me posing as if I were not posing, and perhaps she sighs because she thinks I am vain, or maybe because the rhythm of our walk is broken by these staged scenes. But the photo captures the spirit of the moment; or at least, as I see it.
At a crossroads there is an arrow spray-painted on a boulder, but it is on our side of the crossroads– it directs those heading north towards Zafra, but is of little help to us, the anti-pilgrims who are walking away from the city in Galicia that holds the relics of Saint James– so we continue straight on, unsure, and only several minutes later is our path confirmed by another yellow arrow. I am happy now, walking in the gravelly mud in the November fog in barren Extremadura, because I am on the right path and the rain has stopped, and I can see that Olivia is also determined and happy.
When our muddy road becomes a swamp, and then a brown, rushing river where there is a low dip in the road, I am still happy despite the challenge we are presented with, or even because of it; our way is blocked by the flooded road, and we will cross this barrier with our determination and our own wits.
And I am happy also at the thought that only a few weeks ago I would have stopped at such an obstacle as this, and returned home to the warm fire in our wood stove. I am happy that today there is no home to return to, no sanctuary but that we can find ahead of us, on the other side of this barrier. I am happy because I am rooted in the present; there is nothing else, and if there is a future it is very near; it is on the other side of the flooded road.
We discover that there is no short cut, no easy way across, and we decide to take our shoes and socks off, and to plunge right in, and we roll up our trousers as far as we can to wade across with our packs.
“You ready Ollie?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Right, so I’ll go first. You ready?” I ask again, but maybe I’m asking myself.
Ollie shudders, and I shudder; we’re anticipating the cold water but we’re both smiling. When I wade in, the water is cold and the current surprisingly strong, and my feet sink into the mud at the bottom, and the water is up to my thighs, and I waver a bit, and pause, and stay focused because I don’t want to slip and fall. There are also some large stones that I feel with my feet, and I pause to sidestep them, and the twenty kilos on my back make me feel top heavy and unsteady, but in a minute I rise to the other side.
“Watch out for the stones at the bottom, Olivia, go slowly,” I say, but Olivia is already halfway across, and she doesn’t need to hear my instructions.
Then she is across, and we are both relieved and congratulating ourselves though shuddering from the cold, and we dry our feet with towels and put our shoes back on, and roll down our trousers, which are wet at the bottom, and we keep walking. Better to have challenges like this than the challenge of having to find yellow arrows pointing the wrong way, I’m thinking. It’s simple determination; go forward.
But after walking for another kilometer we find ourselves in the same situation, only now the river that was a rivulet before the rain is higher, and faster.
“Oh, no!” Olivia exclaims, but with a laugh, and I laugh with her, and we go through the same procedure, but this time I nearly fall into the water as it is deeper, and the current faster, and the bottom is very stony and my feet are tender.
“You really have to be careful Olivia, it’s pretty bad here, worse than before,” I tell her, and not so calmly, but I manage to reach the other side without falling, though I nearly fall again trying to get up the slippery bank. When I turn I can see she looks worried because of my own difficulty in getting across; but she crosses the flooded stream easily, and I feel a little embarrassed at my own clumsy crossing.
“You made it look a lot harder than it was,” she says.
We again put our shoes on after drying our feet, and roll down our trousers which are wet to the upper thigh, and march on, having had enough of this for the day, and wondering when we see the next arroyo if we’ll have to do it again.
Before long though, we are in Puebla de Sancho Pérez, and as we enter the puebla, there is the yellow arrow painted on a stone wall to confirm that we are still on our path, and then another on a sign post, and then we are in the town center, on its plaza. There are four or five streets to choose from to continue on our way, and one of those streets will have our arrow painted on the reverse side of another sign post, perhaps; but instead of trying the two or three streets heading south– instead of walking down each of them for a hundred meters to find our arrow by looking behind us, as the arrows are only painted for the true pilgrims heading north to Santiago de Compostela– instead, Olivia asks a woman the way, and she points down the street we’ve just come down, and then Olivia asks another– it is Olivia doing the asking as she speaks better Spanish than I do– but this one also points from where we’ve come. Then she asks at a shop, a bazaar, and the woman there has no idea, and is really not interested in helping us, and I am again feeling angry at the indifference that so many people with comfortable lives have for two pilgrims trying to find their way, and I am angry at the narrow-mindedness of the people who will only help the pilgrims heading north.
In the end we try the streets, and find our yellow arrow, and we leave the puebla and head back into the wet countryside, and I think of Puebla de Sancho Pérez as having been an inhospitable village.
Before long I am again happy though, again heading in the right direction with my daughter, who is filled with the same happiness that comes with the simple physical struggle of hauling our loads.
Late in the day there is another crossroads, and we continue straight on, but after half a kilometer we still haven’t seen our arrow, and I say, “To hell with it, let’s just keep going.”
We come to the highway, and there is our objective, Calzadilla de los Barros, to our right, but we see no way to get there directly, and we decide to cut across the fields. But the fields that look simple to navigate from a distance are always more difficult to do so in reality, and we stumble across the uneven terrain, and have to leap a ditch, and get through a barbed wire fence after throwing our packs over first.
There is a hill on our right, with woods, and I think about camping there for the night, but when I mention it to Ollie, she urges me on into the village where we had already decided to get a warm bed and a hot shower at the pilgrim’s albergue.
Just before dark we trudge into Calzadilla, and we’re looking forward to finding the albergue there, which will be our reward for having slogged through the rain and mud and two flooded streams. As we make our way into the village a car passes us, then slows, and the driver toots the horn. In the passenger seat is one of our hosts from Zafra, a young American woman who teaches there, and she waves, and then her boyfriend, who is driving the car, speeds down the road. Olivia and I laugh; we are both thinking the same thing: that it took them perhaps 20 minutes to travel the 17 kilometers between Zafra and Calzadilla, while it has taken us a full day. They are warm and dry while we are wet and muddy, and they must pity us a little, but I can’t help but feel a little contempt for the ease of their trip, and a little pity in return for the prosaic nature of their journey, while for us, it has been a challenge and an adventure, and these kinds of days will be our routine for a very long time, while theirs will perhaps be days of existential crisis and ennui.
In the center of town there is a monument for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, and I see this as a good sign; perhaps the villagers here will be friendlier. To get our six-euro room at the albergue, we have to pick up the key at the town hall, and there is a gathering of people there as it is election time, and people are voting. We have to wait, but Olivia finally gets the key, and informs me that we have another three kilometers to walk to get to the albergue, which is out in the countryside. We are both exasperated by this news as we are ready to quit for the day, but we trudge happily out of the village and up a slope to get to our sleeping place– happily because our beds are waiting for us. But when we reach the albergue the key gets us into the common room, but not into any of the bedrooms.
“Well, at least we’ve got a bathroom and we can have a hot shower, ” I say.
Olivia goes first, but then calls out, “Uh, Dad, bad news…”
“No water.”
“There’s water, but no hot water,” she says.
It is getting dark, and I don’t want to walk another six kilometers to the village and back to get the right key for a bed, and to have someone turn on the hot water– and even if I did, the town hall must be closed by now– so we put our camping mats and sleeping bags on the cold, tiled floor, and we are content enough to have a roof and four walls around us.
As we lie there, we talk about our day, and have a dinner of bread and cheese, and as I am looking at the map planning our route for the next day, there are sounds outside, like footsteps, and a jostling of the locked door leading into the common room.
“Maybe someone’s here from the village to give us our key and hot water,” I say.
But when I go to the door, there is no one, and I lie down again, on my sleeping bag on the floor.
“There was definitely someone there, Dad.”
“Maybe it was the wind,” I say.
A moment later the sounds are there again– someone is trying to get in the door, there can be no doubt– and this time I walk out and have a look all the way around the building, straining my eyes in the dark, but there is no one.
“Must be a ghost,” I say when I’m back inside with Ollie, and she laughs, but she is uneasy.
“Who would be way out here in the countryside trying to get in?” she asks, and I look at the window which reveals nothing but the darkness outside.
As we drift into sleep the unease dissipates, and I think about this being the anniversary of my mother’s death. I had sat beside her a year ago in the hospice in Florida, and I had held her hand and told her that I was there for her when she had fallen into unconsciousness and her breathing had become strained and difficult, and I had felt privileged to be the only one to see her go, and I remembered thinking then that she had seen me come into the world, and I would see her leave the world, and I had felt very close to her at her death, and now perhaps my mother was making her way around the albergue, trying to find a way in– she would have been very curious about this adventure that her son and grand-daughter were making together– yes, it is mom padding about outside the albergue and trying to find a way in– she wants to tell me to keep walking against the yellow arrow, just as she had told me not to follow the crowd when I was a teenager–but she can’t come in as we are in two different dimensions, and I tell her that I love her as I drift into sleep.
The next morning we’re up and in the bathrooms, which only have cold water, and we have a little breakfast of bread and cheese, and we hike back down the road to the town hall in the village. Though it’s chilly, by the time we’re in the village we’re sweating. I explain to the woman at the desk in the town hall about the key not being the right one to get into the bedrooms, and about the cold water shower, as I’m hoping for a discount, and instead she returns the full amount, and we leave Calzadilla feeling that they have a right to have their monument for pilgrims, as it is a hospitable village indeed.
We find our yellow painted arrow with help from a friendly local, and we head south on the country road, plodding along contentedly with our backpacks, and there is only the road, and the painted, yellow arrows pointing the wrong way to guide us.
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The Clock

 a story by

Ramona Scarborough

As a new French timepiece, I had stood proudly on the work bench. My interior workings had been made by a craftsman of the highest order. The marble, slate, and brass embellishment gracing my exterior had been cut, polished, and shaped to perfection. The rounded shape of my timepiece contrasted with the square pendulum housing. Accompanying me was a pair of brass flower holders mounted on matching pedestals. Monsieur La Dou, a near-sighted clockmaker, peering through his thick glasses, had pronounced me, “Magnifique!” You’re already sold. You’re being shipped to a couple in London, England,” he’d said.
Mr. La Dou packed me and my matching vases in wool batting and put us into the dark interior of a wooden crate. “Be especially careful with this box,” I heard Mr. La Dou say to someone. We were carried into a darker place. An engine started up and I felt the crate shaking. The brass vases huddled against me for protection. I worried about damage to my insides on the long ride.
I felt myself being lifted into another conveyance that made excessive noise. Again, we traveled a long way. Upon arriving, I was carried into a building with familiar smells and sounds. Brother and sister clocks chimed “En Francais.” I was reverently unwrapped on another work bench. An unfamiliar clockmaker adjusted and oiled my workings. I felt brand-new. The brass flower holders stood up straight and shining on their pedestals.
Mr. and Mrs. Claigh were our new owners, a quiet, retired couple who often looked up and smiled when the pleasant tinkle of the chimes sounded in the cavernous great room. The wide mantel where the flower holders and I resided was oak, ornately carved with leaves and berries. Occasionally, the Claigh’s would host a dinner party and they would point with pride to us, their stately acquisitions. Their grandchildren were a trial, loud and boisterous, covering my melodious marking of the hours, but they only came on holidays. Thirty-three years rolled over us, content, admired, and frequently dusted by maids.
One day, there was a commotion after breakfast; Mr. Claigh was hauled away, never to be seen again. Mrs. Claigh took to her bed. Now my bell-like tones echoed in the silence and bounced back from the high ceiling. Then Mrs. Claigh disappeared one night. Their son came a week later, speculatively touching objects in the room, including me, leaving smudgy fingerprints on the glass in front of my pendulum.
A few days later, some workmen came and loaded up practically everything in the house. This time there was no soft covering for me and my “daughters” as I now thought of the flower holders. We were jostled around with fireplace tools and silver candlesticks. We and the other occupants were unceremoniously dumped onto a dock.
A man came out from a door, wringing his hands and screaming. “You idiots, these are valuable. I will call your superiors.”
The first worker just shrugged. “Go ahead. They don’t pay us nearly enough money anyway.”
“Get out of here,” the large man with a mustache said, brandishing a poker he’d picked up.
It was obvious the man had an appreciation for high quality. He examined each piece for an extended time, nodding vigorously when he spotted us. However, we were taken to a dark back room and covered with cloth.
We waited there for a long time. My gears and springs wound down for the first time in my life. My hands stood still at half past midnight. I was humiliated not to be announcing the correct time. Our brass tarnished. The marble dulled.
Finally, the cloth was lifted, the light so bright, it flashed onto my glass face. We were dusted and polished. Happily, I was wound, and again kept time to the minute. We were carried to the platform of a hall filled with empty seats. People began to file in.
When the hall was filled, Mr. Mustache mounted the platform and began speaking so rapidly, the numbers fairly flew from his mouth. People in the audience raised paddles, up, down, up, down. Finally, a bellow, “Going, once, going twice, sold to the gentleman in the blue cravat or the lady with the flowered hat.” So it went, on and on. I was surprised to be lifted onto a table, facing the crowd.
“This handsome French Devillers drumhead mantle clock with matching flower pillars is signed by Mr. La Dou, the famous clock maker of Saint Nicola d’Aliermont. The garniture of slate and marble came from the Dinant region of France. It has a mercury pendulum and easy-to-read numbers. I’ll start the bidding at one hundred dollars.’
Only one hundred dollars? Why even by myself, I’m worth at least five hundred.
A paddle flashed up in the hand of man with unruly hair, mutton chop whiskers, and a wide belly straining against his vest.
If he doesn’t take care of himself, he likely won’t take care of me and my girls. I hope we don’t have to go home with him. Perhaps the elegant lady with the feathered hat will outbid him.
Alas, it was not to be. The rumpled man continued to bid and the lady stopped raising her paddle. Mr. Mustache banged down his gavel. “Sold! to Mr. Barnard Cox for three hundred dollars.”
The house we were taken to was as large as the one belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Claigh, but the contrast between the two homes could not have been greater. Animal heads with beady eyes stared down on us from every wall—rather intimidating. The rug was made of zebra skin. A gun cabinet filled with weapons of all sizes stood guard on one side of the massive stone fireplace. On the other side was a steel wine rack with shelves below for more potent brews. We perched timidly on the mantel above and, for a great many more years than I wish to remember, were witnesses to debate, debauchery, and dereliction.
Once, a drunken guest leaned up against the fireplace and told another equally inebriated man, “Barnard Cox is new money. I hear he got rich by blackmailing people and then he invested in the railroad. Doesn’t have a bit of class or good taste.”
In 1929, when the stock market crashed, so did Barnard Cox. He lost most of the money he hadn’t squandered yet. His liver refused to put up with any more drinking and stopped functioning. The house was locked up and stood empty for years. Again, I was silent as dust and cobwebs settled over us.
We were rediscovered the day workmen were brought in to restore the electric lights and do some much needed repairs. A realtor, Mr. Achen, and an antique dealer, Mr. Sloan, walked around writing notes on respective tablets.
Mr. Sloan brushed the spider’s masterpiece away from my face. ‘Well, now here’s something I’d be interested in.”
We were moved that day. We sat among other worthy objects d’art in Mr. Sloan’s warehouse. Mr. Sloan himself came the next morning, blew away the dust, and cleaned us with meticulous care. Then I was sent to a nearby watchmaker to be serviced. The watchmaker exclaimed, “Oh, what a marvelous clock! Are you going to keep it?”
“No, no, I’ve already found a buyer in the United States—San Francisco to be exact. The clock and its matching pedestals will be shipped out next week.”
Though we were carefully packed for the ocean voyage, the rolling and pitching of the ship concerned me. I feared my fragile mechanisms would suffer harm…. However, on arriving at Lady Cafferty’s home, I was wound by the butler and I chimed in joy and relief. Lady Cafferty made my girls useful and beautiful by placing red roses in their holders to match the bouquet on the dining table. Important citizens came and went and were served tea. Here, in this home overlooking the Bay, we were in our element. We wanted to stay there forever.
Our forever with Lady Cafferty turned out to be twenty-seven years long. In 1962, after a long illness, she passed away. Her niece, Isabella Norton, inherited us.
Right in front of us, she told her husband, James, “Oh, no, let’s get rid of this old clock. I only want modern furnishings for our home. I’ll sell it to an antiques dealer.”
Why, I wasn’t old. I was only eighty-two.
However, when we were taken to Gold Crown Antiques, I changed my mind. I found out being older makes you more valuable to collectors. Unfortunately, the owner of Gold Crown, Remy Pike, was greedy. He bought us for a ridiculously low price and then tried to sell us for four times that amount.
At first, we were displayed in the window. When we didn’t sell there, he put us on a table near the front door. As time went on, we kept being put farther back into the shop. Finally, we resided in a corner with a jukebox that nearly blocked us from view.
We were discovered by a beginning antiques collector, Fletcher McNeil. He was ecstatic over his find and wasn’t experienced enough to realize he was paying an exorbitant price. He took us to his home in Oregon where he had begun furnishing his mansion with priceless objects. His enthusiasm made us think we had landed in another clock and pillar paradise. We hadn’t met his wife Vivian yet.
Vivian hated us on sight. We were a chore to dust I’ll admit, but she had no appreciation for our beauty. After a while though, we weren’t even as highly esteemed by Fletcher. He kept acquiring antiques, clocks in particular.
His mansion became too small. Twelve rooms bulged with possessions. Tiffany lamps shone on Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century paintings. Mementos of his past travels crowded his den. On the hour, my delicate, musical tones were drowned out by discordant notes, bongs, and a chorus of cuckoos.
If an unsuspecting neighbor showed up at his door, Fletcher would drag him inside to show off his domain. He never failed to regale his captive about the origin, vintage, and price of each item. By the time he had finished being a tour guide, the poor soul had wasted his entire afternoon.
As Fletcher grew older, he was obliged to hire Ben Miller, a handyman and chauffeur. He never hired a housekeeper. He didn’t want some clumsy person breaking his valuables. Vivian made a career out of dusting, vacuuming the Persian rugs, and washing hundreds of cut glass chandelier crystals.
I heard her complain constantly. “You’ve just got to get rid of some this junk.”
“Junk? Junk?” Fletcher’s face turned red. “How dare you call this junk? Someone who appreciated fine things would never say that!”
“They wouldn’t seem so fine if you had to use a Q-tip to get dust out of tiny crevices. Why, I counted the clocks in this house last week. There’s over a hundred. Some of them are really heavy to move. Put some of them in the basement if you can’t part with them.”
Fletcher didn’t relegate us to the basement right away, but Vivian kept nagging. Over a period of time, the basement became an accumulation station for less expensive items. One day, Fletcher had Ben come downstairs and rearrange us and other pieces to make room for more.
“Mr. McNeil,” Ben said. “This clock is just beautiful.”
“Ah yes, the French Devillier, the first of my clock collection.”
“Why is it hiding down here?” Ben took out his pocket handkerchief and attempted to swipe off some of the dust.
“If you had a clock like this, what would you do with it?” Fletcher asked.
“Why, I’d put it on top of my entertainment center and show it to everyone.”
Finally, someone who valued us.
“Ben, Vivian’s always hated this clock. Why don’t you take it home and enjoy it?”
“Really? Isn’t it worth a lot of money?”
“The last time I had it evaluated, it was worth over a thousand dollars. I’d like to give it to someone who appreciates it.”
“Well, thank you, sir. I’ll take really good care of it.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Ben wrapped us like a treasure in soft towels and gently set us on the front seat of his pick-up. He chuckled as he started up the engine. “Ellie will sure be surprised.”
He lugged us into his house, a real disappointment. Ben lived in a dinky trailer in a senior mobile home court. Oh well, this was better than languishing in the basement of a Fletcher’s house.
Ben called to his wife. “Hey, Ellie, come look.” He whisked the towel off, “Ta-dah!
“What is this monstrosity?” Ellie crossed her arms over her apron.”
“You don’t like it? Mr. McNeil gave it to me. It’s very valuable.”
“Is he giving it to you in lieu of wages?”
“No, it’s a gift.”
“This ugly clock doesn’t match anything in our house. Where in the heck will we put it? There’s hardly any room in our trailer for what we have.”
I felt the mercury rising in my pendulum.
“We’ll put it on top of the entertainment center.”
“Where are you planning to put my plants? The knick-knacks are from my mother.”
“I guess we’ll have to distribute them around on the shelves we have.”
Ellie stomped into the kitchen to prepare dinner. She slammed cupboard doors and banged a soup pot onto the stove.
After a few months though, she softened up. I think she was just mad at us to begin with because nobody consulted her and Ben assumed her stuff wasn’t important. Now, she even bought some artificial carnations for my flower girls. Ben and Ellie Miller have lots of company, friends, relatives… and every Tuesday, Ellie’s fiction writers group. All the visitors say we are magnificent.
After Ben leaves in the mornings for his handyman jobs, Ellie disappears into the tiny computer room and writes stories for an hour or two. She sings while she prepares meals. They don’t argue a lot like the Fletchers. I guess she’s not so bad, just not very cultivated.
Last night, she looked up at me and said to Ben, “If this clock could talk, I bet it would have some great stories to tell. I think I’ll start writing about him.”
We have no idea how long we’ll stay here or where we’ll go next, but she’s right. We will always have stories to tell.

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NEXT ISSUE OF

BEORH QUARTERLY

OUT ON HALLOWEEN!

Summer 2014

all content copyright 2014
gif public domain

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Let’s do it again, will we?
Welcome to yet another issue of Beorh Quarterly!
Beth J. Whiting wows us with ‘The Playground,’ another of her abrupt and beautiful takes on the strange existence many of us, for convenience, like to call ‘America.’
Then Noel Armstrong gives us terror as only two boys could experience it–and as only a student of the ‘other’ Speculative Fiction could write it.
Annie Blake then wows us with her prose poem ‘The Tenacity of Sin.’ This one gets right to the heart of the matter, maybe especially when people ask ‘What’s the matter?’
Need more fresh perspective? Thought so. Give ‘The Bundle’ by Hall Jameson a whirl…
and if you still need more inspiration, take ‘One Day at the Anthill’ by Jon Beight for a spin. You won’t be sorry, because, after all, these are the best stories out there!
Scáth Beorh,
Acquisitions 
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The Playground

a story by

Beth J. Whiting

 

Alison and Martin had been friends for ten years now.  Martin remembered that, at seven, they had been enemies.  He had been a bully, and taunted her.  Something changed, though, to make them friends.  His memory was kind of fuzzy on that point. Since Alison was his best friend, it made sense that he would tell her first about what he discovered in the playground. He took Alison there himself to show her. She was skeptical. “Why are you taking me to our elementary school playground?”
He had to admit it was kind of weird. Only, he had been babysitting his sister when it happened.  He found a time portal. “It’s kind of by the veranda.”
The playground was huge.  Most of it was land.  There was a playground with swings and slides in the middle, with a sandbox.  It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. Alison laughed when she saw Martin feeling in the air for a portal.
“Come on! This is stupid.” Then Alison saw Martin disappear, and then jump back.
“See.”
Alison was suspicious.  “What is it then?”
“It’s a time portal for going in the past.”
Her face turned gray.  She seemed disturbed. “Let’s not do that.  I think we should let the past be the past.”
“Nonsense.  The thing about it is that you don’t choose what time that you go to.  It’s strange.  I saw you and me and we were in junior high together.” He laughed. “Like I would like to relive those days.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
Martin grabbed at Alison’s hand. “Come on don’t be such a chicken.”
Alison let him suck her into the portal.  Soon they weren’t in the playground anymore. They were in a house.  Only they were invisible to the people in the room.  It was Alison’s house.  There was Alison, ten years old.  She looked pinker in the face, but still the same.  She had rosy cheeks.  Her blonde hair was put in braids, and she wore a pretty white dress.  It was a special occasion.  It was her tenth birthday.  Martin was there as well.  Although he looked like a shrimp compared to now.  He was shorter than her.  He had the same black hair and dark eyebrows. Other children were gathered around the table as Alison blew out her cake.
Martin said, “See this is a good memory.  I don’t see why you are so afraid.”
“For every good memory, there’s a bad one to replace it.”
“That’s not true.  I think we have more good memories in this life than bad.” But then that was Martin.  He was always more optimistic than Alison. “Come on, Alison. Let’s try one more.”
“I have things to do today,” she said, nervous.
“Fine. But we have to come back here.”
Martin wouldn’t let it go.  For a week he talked of the portal and nothing else. “It’s interesting, but the portal won’t let you go to another time period.  Like, say I wanted to go to the 1800’s and invent the computer and become a millionaire.  I can’t do that.  For some reason, the portal only connects to your own lifetime.  It only explores your memories.  It’s kind of disappointing if you ask me.  Just yesterday I had to see my five year old self fall off a bike.”
This constant talk was enough to make Alison snap and say yes, she would go to the portal again. So they went to the portal.  Only Martin was the one who turned out to be disappointed. The portal sent them to the first grade.
He saw Alison walking alone.  She was less attractive than she was now.  She didn’t take showers often then, and the dirt on her showed. She wore some mismatched clothes. His friends and he came from behind her and threw her books down. They laughed. Alison looked sad and had to bend down and get her books.
When they came back, Martin justified himself. “Yeah, I was a real jerk back then in the first grade.  We both know that.  What? Does the portal want to punish me?”
“The portal might choose random memories.  I told you this was a bad idea.  We should not mess with this portal.  The past in meant to be left in the past.”
Martin may have seemed depressed by the last episode, but he was real antsy to go to the portal the next week. Alison reluctantly went with him. It sent them to the first grade again.
Martin had a slip of paper in his hand.  He knew this memory right away.  The other day the kids had a poll in the class to see who the three prettiest girls were.  Well, now he had gotten the class to do a poll of the ugliest girls.  Alison was on top of the list. Once the poll was announced, Alison cried.  The teacher got upset and threatened detention to the person who made this poll to begin with.  The kids ratted on Martin.
Martin thought that the portal would close this memory now, but it didn’t.  It focused on Alison.  She got up and took her backpack.  She left the classroom.  The teacher tried to stop her, but Alison was too upset to be stopped. She began to walk home.  It was a long way. The whole time, she looked agitated, wiping her eyes.  Her face was red.  Finally, Alison stopped at her white suburban house.  Then she went inside and started looking through the kitchen.  She went through the cupboards in a messy way and found a box of matches. She went across the street to Martin’s blue house.  She found the door unlocked.  She threw a lighted match onto their carpet.  Then she ran back across the street and went inside her own house.  She called the police.  Then she watched from her lawn as the fire rose up in Martin’s house. The portal ended then.
Martin looked at Alison with anger. That was what that started that friendship – that incident.  She had been the one who called about his house being on fire. He thought she was brave. Finding that she was the one who started it changed things.
Martin yelled. “Someone could have burned in there!”
“But no one did.  I was a bit of a criminal when I was a kid.  It wasn’t until I began making friends that it stopped.”
“That doesn’t excuse your behavior!”
“We’ve been friends for ten years.  Can’t you let this go?”
“You burned my house down!”  Martin was boiling red.
“But I promise you that I didn’t do anything more after that.”
“How can I know that?”
“You’ve been my best friend for years.  Can’t you trust me?  You can’t just let ten years slip like that.”
“That’s why I’m going to the portal alone to find out what you’ve done these past ten years.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“No.”
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Loafer Hollow

a story by

Noel Armstrong

 

I’d smelled this before. When I was a child I took the magnifying glass from my father’s desk and held it over a dead rat in the field behind our woodpile. I focused the sun to a white-hot pinpoint on the rat’s belly and breathed in the single line of smoke rising from its burning fur. The smoke bit sharply into my nostrils and flooded my eyes with tears. I dropped the glass and backed away choking and coughing.
But it was different now, after Jonah. This time I let the smoke engulf me, nearly overwhelm me. It filled my eyes and mouth, flooded my lungs, entered the pores of my filthy skin and seeped in through my matted hair. Still I did not back away from this fire. I watched it as flames burned dried skin to airy cinders that floated up with the breeze. I watched it as muscle and sinew were scorched to charcoal. I tell you I did not back from this fire until I saw bones split open and the marrow inside boil and spit.
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            I remember the summer afternoon when Pepper wandered into my yard. Gordon Shute and I were playing army, facing off with broom handle guns from ten feet apart and blasting each other a million times dead. As we started to argue about who was hit Pepper, Gordon’s German shepherd, wandered out from the alfalfa field by the lawn. The way she moved made us lower our weapons and stare.    
            “She looks goofy,” I said. “Look at her smile.”
            “She’s not goofy, Spence,” Gordon said. “She’s panting. She’s hot.”
            “She’s wobbly,” I said. “And her smile is goofy. Something’s wrong with her.”
            “Pepper?” Gordon called to her. “What’s wrong, girl?”
            Pepper took a few more steps and collapsed. As she lay there panting we saw that the skin of her left side was torn down in a rectangular flap, showing her ribs and muscle like a hanging beef.
            “Spencer? Gordon? What’s wrong with Pepper?” my dad asked. We hadn’t seen him come from behind us. Gordon dropped his stick gun and I hid mine behind my back.
            “She’s all torn up,” Gordon said. “Look at her—she’s dying!”
            My dad went to Pepper with soothing sounds and checked her wound. “Gordon,” he said in the same soothing voice, “run and get your dad. Tell him to bring the station wagon.”
            Pepper was almost still, but her breathing was shallow and quick like the effort was costing her. When Gordon’s dad came with the station wagon she allowed the men to move her to a blanket and lift her in with only a few whines of protest.
            But once Pepper was in the back of the wagon and Gordon’s dad tried to move a corner of the blanket from her wound something happened. Pepper began to cry out with sounds that made my hair hurt. I had to plug my ears against her yipping screams as she snapped at the blanket and fought weakly to get to her feet.
            “What’s happening?” Gordon asked.
            “I don’t know!” Gordon’s dad shouted trying to keep her from jumping from the wagon.
            “Leave the blanket,” said my dad. “It’s sticking to her like it’s glued.”
            “Gordon, get in,” said Gordon’s dad, slamming the wagon’s tailgate. “Let’s just get her to the vet.”
            I watched as they drove down the dirt road, Gordon’s face pale, his father trying to drive with one hand while trying to reach back and calm Pepper with the other, and Pepper’s cries echoing from inside the wagon.
            My dad and I watched them for a few seconds until the car turned out of sight. “What happened to her?” I asked.  “What was that?”
            “Got me,” my dad said as he wiped his hands on his shirt. “She got into it with something, it’s anyone’s guess what.”  He was right. Pepper was the alpha dog of the area, a ninety pound shepherd with no rivals, domestic or wild. She had ranged unleashed and unchallenged through the hills and mountains season after season, sometimes being gone for days at a time.
            “Me neither,” I said. “Pepper can eat anything.”
            “Maybe so, Spence,” my dad said with a hint of a smile. “But there are things. A mountain lion with cubs. A bear. She’d have a hell of a time with a bear.”
            “You told me there were none. Not around here.”
            My dad shrugged. “That’s what I can’t figure.”
            “Not in a hundred years, you said.”
            “I did, didn’t I? Ah, well, it’ll be nothing exciting,” said my dad. “She probably got hung up in a barbed-wire fence or thought she could push around one of Hal Shuler’s bulls.”
            I thought he must be right. It would turn out to be something boring. It always did. Only later did I realize that the whole time we talked he was staring at the woods two thousand feet up the face of Mt. Loafer.
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            We lived in an unincorporated town called Salem Hills on the high desert bench of Mt. Loafer. It was a town full of dry, prickly things: stinging nettles, blow snakes, and the descendants of Mormon pioneers. We called it a town and gave it a name, but it was really just a few scattered houses connected by rutted roads and bad plumbing. We ran out of water so often that I can remember feeling lucky when I turned on the faucet and something besides mud and air came out. 
            Over the years my own dogs had come home from the hills with porcupine quills in their muzzles, skunk spray in their fur, cactus needles in their paws, or what we called “ear seeds” that made them cry out every time you touched their heads. But they had never been torn up like Pepper, and they were runts, little dogs that didn’t let any beating change their opinions of their high status.  
            I went to Gordon’s house later to see what happened at the vet’s.  I kept thinking about the way Pepper had been crying as they drove away. I was sick with surety that Pepper had died or been put to sleep, but I was wrong on both counts. The Shute’s station wagon pulled into their driveway two hours after it left. Pepper, shaved, sutured, and coned, slept in the back.
            “What happened, Gordon?” I asked. “What happened to her?”
            Gordon shrugged and looked at his dad. Mr. Shute said, “Something got at her. You two give me a hand.”  Together we lifted Pepper from the back of the car and lowered her to a mat in the garage. It was a clumsy move, but she didn’t even stir. When I left she was still sleeping soundly.
            Three days later Pepper was trotting around Salem Hills, cone off, and her shaved fur was the only evidence that anything had even happened to her. I pestered my dad with questions and theories until I wore him out, but after a few days of ‘don’t knows’ and ‘maybe so’s,’ I gave up talking to him about it. Gordon and I, though, talked about almost nothing else.
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            “Where are you going?” I asked my dad. It was a week after Pepper had been injured. I found him in the garage filling a canteen, wearing a backpack and a wide-brimmed hat.
            “Hiking,” he said firmly.
            “You’re going hiking?”  My dad liked to look at the mountains, liked to drive his truck to camp sites and light a fire. But he had never, to my knowledge, simply walked around on a mountain for the pleasure of it. He was as likely to delve into the poetry of Rumi or listen to a David Bowie album as he was to go hiking.
            “Yes, hiking,” he said. “Mr. Shute and I are going to go exploring, have an outing.”  He closed the canteen, said, “And no, you can’t come. Someone needs to change the water on the rows.”
            “But…”
            “No buts,” he snapped. “No buts.”
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            Gordon and I met in my yard as soon as our dads left.
            “They took Pepper,” Gordon said. “And my dad took his guns.”
            “Guns? They took guns?”  I paced back and forth, looking up at the face of Mt. Loafer. “Where are they going? Did your dad tell you?”
            “Wouldn’t tell me,” he said. He waited for a few seconds then added, “But I figured it out.”
            “You did? How? Where?”
            “I heard my mom talking to him,” Gordon said. “My dad said Pepper was well enough to go to the hollow. My mom was upset. She said he was being reckless. Guess what my dad said?”
            “What?” I asked, rolling my hand in a hurry up gesture.
            “He told her,” Gordon said, “that it was reckless not to go. He said they had to do something, because anything that could do that to Pepper was dangerous.”
            “Dangerous?” It’s a sacred word to a boy, and I said it with reverence.
            “Dangerous.”
            My brain felt hot. I couldn’t keep still. What could drag my dad up the side of a mountain? Why the secrecy, the talk of danger? And the guns? Gordon and I couldn’t believe we were being left out. We were sure it was the only time in our lives anything ever had happened or ever would happen.
            “They’re hunting,” I said. “They’re taking Pepper so she can track whatever it is that ripped her open. Then they’ll shoot it. And it’s not Hal Shuler’s bull and not some barbed-wire fence.”
            “Yep,” said Gordon. “And you know what else? They’re nervous.”
            “What should we do?” I asked. But I didn’t have to. Ten minutes later we went for provisions. We filled two canteens. I handed Gordon our small camp ax and I shouldered a training bow and a quiver of three arrows.
            “We can catch them easy,” said Gordon. “They’re old.”
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            Elation. We were not only stalking our fathers, which alone would have made for a good day’s work, we were stalking whatever they were stalking. It was like we were some kind of secret double-agent hunting spies.
            “Is this the way they went?” I asked Gordon. We had been walking for only a few minutes, but the dirt was hard and I couldn’t see any sign of our dads.
            “Oh yeah,” he said. “This is it for sure.”
            We walked for what seemed like a long time, up the face of Mt. Loafer, following a path that got steeper with every step. Old or not, our dads were proving harder to catch than Gordon said. We were breathing hard, my thighs were burning, and sweat was prickling in my hairline. I hit my canteen again and again, taking sips and then gulps. After the twentieth drink it was empty. A drip of water, too small to get my lips wet, was all that came out.
            “Hold up,” I said. “My canteen’s out.”  I held it upside down and shook it.
            Gordon unscrewed his lid and took a tiny sip. “You should do it like that,” he said. “I have a gallon left in mine.”
            Nothing was less helpful than that advice. “Let’s just rest a minute,” I said.
            I sat on a stump and shed my pack. Somewhere along our hike the scrub oaks and sage brush had yielded to stouter pines and maples. The dry, brown dirt of Salem Hills was now a darker loam. In the trees above us a jay squawked as it crowded a pair of yellow warblers off a limb.
            Gordon saw where I was looking and shook his head. “I hate those birds,” he said.
            “Which birds?”  I asked.
            “Just all of them,” he said. I looked over at him and he shrugged. “They give me the creeps. I saw a magpie picking at a dead cat on the road. I could see pieces of the cat in its beak.”
            “That’s sick.”
            “Yeah, it had to lift its beak to get the pieces down its throat.”
            “I’ll never eat a cat again,” I said.
            Gordon eyed me. “They’d eat you just the same as that dead cat—if they could.”
            “Well, they can’t,” I said, but the thought was a little unsettling. “I like them anyway, even the magpies. My dad says they’re smart. If you cut their tongues in half they’ll speak English.”
            “My dad says they’re flying maggots,” Gordon said.
            I could see this wasn’t getting us anywhere. My breath was back. “We should get going,” I said. “Are you ready?” 
            I hefted my pack and began walking before Gordon had a chance to answer. He scrambled to his feet and fell in step beside me. Soon we were deep in the trees, and the shade made the climb easier.  It became easier still when the trail leveled out, and then we were descending a short rise into a grassy clearing.
            “We made it,” Gordon said. “Loafer Hollow.”
            “How do you know?” I asked. “You’ve never been here.”
            “Look around,” he said. “Where else could we be?”
            “I don’t know,” I said. “Anywhere.” But from what I’d heard I thought Gordon was right. The clearing stretched out for a hundred yards in all directions. It was a nearly flat meadow of tall, thick-bladed grass bordered by firs and quaking aspens. The grass was damp, and the air smelled like wet worms and pine sap.
            “Which way do we go?” Gordon asked. The trail divided into three separate paths from where we stood.
            I shrugged. “We’ll find our dads’ tracks and follow them. They couldn’t get through here without making tracks.”
            “I’ll start this way,” Gordon said. He went to the left, searching the ground as he walked.
            I turned right and did the same, scanning the trail and grass as I made my way to the tree line. I found a set of cloven, crescent-shaped imprints and said, “Deer.”
            Gordon was several yards away. “What?” he asked.
            “Deer,” I said louder. “Tracks from a deer.”
            “Who cares about a deer?”
            “I don’t,” I said. “And it’s more than you found.”
            “Yeah, nothing here,” he said.
            We came back to where we’d started our search. “One trail left,” I said. Gordon didn’t say anything. He was staring to the edge of the hollow. “What?” I asked him. “What’re you looking at?”
            He looked down at the ground like there was something troubling him.
            “What’re you thinking?” I asked. “You’re acting weird.”
            “What if we don’t find our dads?” asked Gordon. “What if we find the thing that ripped up Pepper first? Or what if it finds us?”
            Gordon’s words were like a doorknob rattling in an empty house. A drop of sweat ran down my neck and I slapped at it like it was a hornet. “Jeeze, Gordon,” I said.
            “Well, you thought about it. You had to. Nothing could do that to Pepper.” He was right, but he shouldn’t have said it. Some things you don’t say. My mother taught me that you give the Devil power if you even mention his name, and Gordon had done just that. It was an unwritten rule in Salem Hills—maybe in all of Utah—that if you bring up a problem you become the problem, and problems lower the value of your common stock. That rule extended to everything from family conflicts to doubts about the historicity of talking donkeys, towers built to Heaven, or snakes that herded cattle across the ancient Americas.
            Gordon turned around and looked back the way we came. “What should we do, Spence?”
            “We should find our dads,” I said.
            “You don’t want to go back?” he asked. “Back home?”
            “No way,” I said, raising the bow. “We’ll be all right.”
            Gordon looked from my bow to his camp ax. He bounced it in his hand a little, ran a thumb along its edge, then sized up my bow. He did not look reassured. “I guess,” he said. “Let’s go.”
            We followed the path across the clearing and up a hill to a forest. I’m sure it was a beautiful place, full of aspens and maples, flowers and butterflies, but it wasn’t beautiful to us. The sun looked like a pat of cold butter far behind the trees. The birds sounded put upon. Even the trees even seemed to lean in like they resented our intrusion. Gordon and I had lost our strut, and it wasn’t because we were tired.  Everything was different.
            “Why did you have to go and scare us like that?” I asked.
            Gordon knew exactly what I meant. “Who’s scared?” he asked. “Are you scared?”
            “No,” I said. “No thanks to you and your talk.”
            “Good,” he said. “Neither am I.”
            We walked into the forest, sullen and deflated, leaving Loafer Hollow behind. I regretted making us go on. I wanted to turn around. But I wasn’t about to admit it.
            “Watch out,” Gordon said. I had walked right into his back.
            “Why’d you stop?” I asked. “What are you looking at?”
            “Here, we’ve been walking all over them.”  He pointed to an indentation in the soil, flat, wide, and poorly defined.
            “Big deal,” I said, wishing I’d seen it first. “That could be anything.”
            “Could be,” he said. “But it isn’t. Look back there and look up here. They’re footprints.”
            He was right. Prints, all about the same size and shape, wandering on and off the trail. They were unmistakable. On some we could see five toes.
            “They’re human,” he said. “Or pretty close.”
            I put my shoe into one of the footprints. “Look how big they are,” Gordon said.
            I nocked an arrow in the bow. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
            “What do we do?” asked Gordon.
            “I’ll cover our tail,” I said, since I’d heard it in a movie. “You take the front.”  I turned around and readied the bow. Gordon raised the camp ax to port arms. Gordon and I walked back-to-back as he followed the footprints and I swept the bow back and forth across the trees behind us, looking for any signs of movement.
            “Do you have to crunch every stick as loud as you can?” Gordon hissed at me over his shoulder.
            “I’m walking backwards!” I said. “And your breathing sounds like an air raid siren.”
            “Well I have allergies,” he said. “You could step anywhere you want.”
            “Okay, okay,” I said. I turned to Gordon and said, “Shhh!
            When I turned back I saw something move in the trees twenty feet away. My breathing stopped. It was huge, with white fur and bulging eyes. Eyes that were watching us.
            I drew the bow and loosed an arrow before I could think. As the arrow spun off into the trees, Gordon looked back, screeched, and ran for his life, throwing the ax in the dirt.
            I might have shot another arrow, but what was the use? Compared to the thing behind us my bow felt like a toy, and my arrows seemed like matchsticks tipped with gum wrappers. All ballast. I threw the bow in the dirt a few feet from Gordon’s hatchet and ran after him.
            We flew from the creature. I didn’t dare to look back to see if it was following. My nerves knew it was; knew that claws were about to rip up my heel cords and teeth were inches from my spine. I had only one goal: Pass Gordon!  I had to get Gordon between the white thing and me. It’s not something I’m proud of, but Gordon wasn’t helping me pass him, either.
            “Oohh Lord!” A voice cried from behind us. “I’m shot!”
            Then I knew. My brain caught up with my nerves and I knew. It hadn’t been a monster in the trees, it had been a man. And from the sound of the racket he was raising, my arrow had hit him.
            “Help me oh Lord!” He was wailing loud enough to wake the dead. “Aaaahhh!
            “Gordon,” I gasped. “It’s a man!  I shot a man!”
            Gordon didn’t slow. He shouted “Good!” and kept on running.
            “Wait!” I said. “We have to help him!”  But Gordon was having none of it. He didn’t turn back and didn’t waste his breath answering me.
            The man started howling like an arched cat. It was unbearable to hear. My mind flashed with gruesome images: the man pinned to a tree by my arrow like a mounted beetle; the man with my arrow protruding from each side of his neck like Frankenstein’s bolts; the man reaching deep into his opened gut to try and pull the bloody shaft of my arrow out.
            I slowed, came to a stop. I had to do something. But what could I do? I was terrified of the man and terrified of what I’d done. I stayed low and crept back toward him. I spotted him, lying on the ground in a fetal ball. He didn’t see me. Yet. I couldn’t stand to hear him suffer, but I wouldn’t even think about going to help him. I could only think of one thing to do. I walked back a few steps and shouted, “Gordon.”  I listened. No answer. “Gordon!”
            “Hey you kid!”  I turned back to see that the man was no longer writhing on the ground. He was glaring at me. As I stared back he pushed to his feet and came for me. “You! Stop!”
            He marched toward me like a soldier on drill. I wouldn’t believe I could literally be frozen by terror if I hadn’t experienced it at that moment. Not only couldn’t I move, I couldn’t think.
            He held my arrow up and shouted, “Stay your course, Loo-see-fur!”  He was a bizarre man, shirtless and barefoot, clothed only in a pair of ragged Levis and a sheepskin that he draped on his shoulders like a cape. The huge eyes I had seen in the trees were a pair of thick-rimmed glasses with coke-bottle lenses.
            He stopped in front of me, leaned into my face. “Ha!” he said. “You failed again!”  His breath was rotting teeth and tonsil nuggets. He pointed to a small bruise on his stomach. No bloody hole, no slippery guts, just a little dark spot on the skin. He broke the arrow on his thigh and tossed it into the dirt.
            I found my voice, said, “I didn’t mean to hurt…”
            “Lies! You’re the child of Leviathan!”
            “No, sir! Gordon’s dog was hurt…” I said. “Something hurt Pepper….”
            “Dog?” he asked. His eyes darted around. “Where’s a dog?”
            “Pepper’s not here. She’s Gordon’s dog,” I said. I knew I was rambling, but the words just came out. “She was torn up.”
            “Shhhhh!”  Spit flew from between his teeth. He grabbed the back of my head in one hand and clamped his other hand over my mouth and nose. “He’s here, eyes on us, somewhere.” His fingers were damp and smelled like pit sweat. I tried to pull away but he pressed harder, pressed until it hurt. “Looking for a torn dog?” he asked. “Leviathan has a pile of them.”
            I couldn’t get enough air. My chest heaved with the effort. I tried to scream, tried to push his hands away, tried to punch his arms and chest. My blows felt as weak against him as birds fluttering against a wall.
            At last he pushed me away. I fell to the ground gasping.
            “You know the pile,” he said. He wiped the hand that had covered my mouth on his sheepskin. “You know Leviathan.”
            “No sir,” I said. “I don’t know any of that.”
            “You know!” he said. He moved close, loomed over me, tapped a finger on his temple, “Jonah the Lamb discerns you. Every damned last one of you.”
            “No,” I said. I crab-crawled back, trying to open enough space to stand and run.
            “The light of truth,” Jonah the Lamb said, “confounds the darkness.”  He snatched up the broken arrow, pointed the tip at me as I backed away.
            “I’ve chased Leviathan across the Earth,” he said, “Chased his servants!”  He bent down and grabbed my ankle. 
            “Stop it—let go of me!” I shouted. “Gordon! Help me!” I tried to jerk free, but his grip felt like an iron manacle.
            Jonah raised the arrow to the sky and studied it for a few seconds. I kicked and twisted until I thought my knee would fail but it was no use. The manacle just got tighter. Jonah began to lower the arrow.
            Then total confusion followed. Jonah’s sheepskin seemed to fly from his shoulders. He buckled forward. The arrow fell from his hand. I jerked free of his grip. Jonah cursed and put a hand to his shoulder and blood seeped from between the fingers. He looked around frantically and saw Pepper. Pepper!  She had Jonah’s sheepskin in her mouth. She sharked it back and forth, worried it to dandelion fluff.
            “Come on!” Gordon yelled. He was behind me, dragging me to my feet. “Run!”
            “Where’d you come…?”
            “Jeeze!” Gordon yelled, tugging me along. “Let’s go!”
            Pepper dropped the skin and went for Jonah. He screamed and kicked to ward her off but she was too quick. She dodged, lunged and snapped, retreated and growled. She positioned herself between Jonah and us, nipped his feet and backed him up, not letting him turn to the right or left. Jonah cursed and flailed at her with his good arm.
            I was starting to fade. Jonah, Pepper, Gordon, all of it had moved far into the distance. I could see Jonah’s mouth shouting, could see Gordon yelling something at me, but their words sounded like they came from the bottom of a mine.
            “What’s wrong with you?” Gordon was right in my face. He pulled me forward and I followed, holding his arm until my head began to clear. It took several seconds, but I began to steady.
            “I’m okay, I can run,” I said to Gordon, and we did. I followed Gordon, watching only his back and the branches that whipped my face and neck. A narrow game trail out of the woods, a grassy slope by the side of a ridge, into more trees.
            When Pepper caught up to us we slowed to a walk. My legs were shaking. My eyes stung with the threat of tears.
            “What a creep,” Gordon said. “Is he the one? Did he hurt Pepper?”
            “I don’t know.” I said. “I hate his guts.”  Tears came then, and I turned from Gordon to wipe them.
            Gordon pretended not to notice.  We walked in silence as the trail we were on grew fainter and faded away entirely.
            “Where are we going?” Gordon asked.
            “I thought you knew.” I said. “You were in front.”
            “So what?”
            “Then let’s follow Pepper,” I said.
            “She doesn’t know anything,” Gordon said.
            “Well it has to be downhill,” I said. “We’ll just go downhill.”
            We walked a little further and came to the top of a ravine. Gordon and I looked back and forth at it and each other. I didn’t want to think about turning back. I wanted a hundred miles between Jonah the Lamb and me.
            “We can follow this,” I said.
            “No one will see us if we walk along the bottom,” Gordon said, and we started into the ravine. But we felt it right away. Something was wrong. Pepper wouldn’t follow us.
            Gordon tugged my arm. “You hear that?” he asked.
            I did. A high-pitched buzzing noise. It was faint, but getting louder.
            “What is it?” I asked. Gordon didn’t answer. He couldn’t hear me. The buzzing became intense, like impact wrenches going off in my head.  It hurt my ears and I covered them with my hands. I saw Gordon do the same, but it wasn’t helping. The sound seemed to get in through our mouths, our nostrils, the pores in our skin.
            I don’t trust my memories of what happened after that. The sound is overwhelming. A million needles stab into my eardrums. Gordon hits his temple with the heel of his hand. He whips his head back and forth like a wildebeest trying to shake out a botfly. Spit flies from his mouth. He loses balance, tips, and rolls to the bottom of the ravine. I try to reach out to him but my body follows my hand and I’m falling end over end after him.
            Pepper is howling at the top of the hill but I can’t hear her. I lie on my back next to Gordon. The ground spins, the sky pulses like a frightened heart. The noise!  It thrums in my teeth, in the long bones of my thighs.
            A tree looms over me. Its cinnamon bark is arranged in huge plates. It’s impossible—the tree is too big to be here. It towers above the sides of the ravine. Insects swarm around its trunk. Fat, bloated flies with blunt heads. Birds flutter in broken patterns above its branches. I try to stand, but lurch to the side and land on Gordon. His eyes are rolled back and twitching with vertigo. One of the birds careens into the tree and sticks to it like a gnat on flypaper. I try to right myself, to push myself to my feet but the whole world is unhinged and the noise is omnipotent. I see the wing of the stuck bird flapping weakly then going still.
            Jonah the Lamb is on the steep hill at the far side of the ravine, throwing dirt with his hands and feet as he scrambles away from the tree. He’s frantic with motion, but as directionless as a whirling fish.  One of the tree’s limbs falls on the bare skin of his back and pins him to the hill. Jonah flails madly to get out from under the limb but its weight carries him back into the ravine. Flies swarm in a loose cloud to where he is pinned, then coalesce into a solid mass and descend on him. It is like an explosion in reverse. And as quickly as it began, the buzzing sound fades and is gone.
            I feel queasy. I crawl to Gordon. His eyes find their focus. From under the flies Jonah is screaming. Limbs from the tree fall over him, popping like logs in a bonfire. Gordon and I push to our feet, leaning on each other for support. We hobble away from the tree, fall, and rise again.
            A sound of groaning timber, like a great ship being broken on rocks, fills the ravine. Jonah lets out two or three choking screams and is silent. The buzzing noise starts again. Gordon and I flee down the ravine in a stumbling, stiff-kneed lope. I break into a full run, careening blindly down the mountain. I can’t escape the echoes of Jonah’s shrieking agony.
            How long I run, the route I take, how many times I crash to the ground and scramble to my feet again, or where Gordon is during my flight I don’t know.  I am next aware of him leaning against the wall of my house, sobbing, as I lay collapsed on the ground in the same patch of grass that Pepper had fallen into two weeks earlier, certain I can still hear screams just below the level of hearing coming from a forest on the far side of Loafer Hollow. My father is carrying me and my mother is sobbing and I cover my ears and I shout that Pepper won’t stop yipping and Jonah won’t stop screaming and the flies won’t stop buzzing and that Leviathan’s eyes are on us.
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            I am cloistered in my room for days. I tell my parents what happened twice. Both times they look concerned. Not frightened, concerned. My mother starts to cry and my dad speaks to me in the same maddeningly soothing tones he spoke to Pepper in. I want to talk to Gordon but I’m told he is visiting his grandmother in Panguitch. He’s a little shaken up by the whole thing, my dad tells me. We’re all a little shaken up by what happened, he says. But I can hear in his words that he doesn’t understand.
            But I understand. I catch glimpses of a wing fluttering at the periphery of my vision that vanishes when I turn toward it. I hear the noise of breaking timber and cover my ears reflexively. In my dreams clouds of thrumming flies coalesce over animals, people, over my father and mother. I understand and I wait.
            Two days, three days, a week. I show interest in my food. I make small talk, help with cleaning. Then a Sunday morning comes and my parents ask how I feel about going to church. Not yet. But I’ll be fine if you go. Am I sure? Oh yes I’m sure.
            When they are gone I fill two canteens, one with water and the other with gas. I dig a book of matches from the coffee can in the shed. I follow the trail up the mountain, across the hollow, along a single track.
            The ravine is still there. It is at peace. But I understand. I empty the gasoline in a tangle of dry grass in the far downhill end. I light the match and watch flames spread from the grass to the weeds and willows, then catch in the trees. The fire gets hotter as small trees are fully engulfed. There is no sign of the flies, no sound of buzzing, no cinnamon plates of bark on a great trunk. But I understand that, too.
            As the fire spreads I climb out of the ravine and stand at the side, watching. My eyes sting, I cough and cover my mouth with my shirt. I’m lightheaded and drop to the ground in a patch of dirt to get out of the smoke. I pull myself to the edge of the chasm and stare down into it. Fire is consuming the small bushes, the grass and weeds. I wipe my eyes to see shapes revealed as the underbrush is cleared. The skull of a cow, deer antlers, a collection of bones. The fire burns away more. A skeleton of something smaller with sinew still clinging. My face is hot and my eyes burn, but I look deeper into the ravine than I’ve ever looked before. The weeds are gone, the grass is gone, the trees are gone. Even the dirt has burned away so I can see it. Beneath all is the mound. Half-decayed flesh loosely bound to bone. Hair, skin, faces of animals, the face of Jonah frozen in perma-scream, still twitching as the fire comes close. The mound starts to whistle like a teakettle as the fire takes hold. I roll to my back as the fire lights in the branches of the trees next to me like the heads of great matches.
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Noel Armstrong lives in the Colorado mountains with his wife, kids, and a land porpoise named Max.
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The Tenacity of Sin

a prose poem by

Annie Blake

 

You drink my gold and silver. My cry tears through the winter wood staining crimson, the sapling and then the ancient tree; spilling brighter and thicker against the waning moon. But it is you who drinks my gold and silver and robs the night of its shining stars! With every passing hour, I hear that cry break louder. The jingling coins make you keen and the rum and gaieties froth on your highest shelf. My nocturnal eye feverishly opens, drinking pain through the sweaty walls and I hear your footfall—leaden, through the grimy hallways. The curse of your flashing eye and pale heart kindles the fiery, hot storm and withers the field before the seed can dance.
Dark remembrances master the ray and I find myself a traveller against the open winds. The inky, treacherous waves arch their backs and crush me to pieces. Sleep will not let me sail and the flowers do not smile or play. How can my soul weep under the shadow of the great demon? Your hand soaks in sin. It is washed and dried until threadbare, frayed and tattered.
I never knew your accessory would throw a heavy cloak to the moon and snuff out my stars. Her sepulchred sob strangles my wife and children. The composure in her laugh abrades me. Her impassiveness is practised and her diverting eye—a craft refined.
But the claw-like hands of mercy—oh how she swoops! Her entwining, lithe feather  embraces my wedding finger. Her swift wing dissolves the cloud. A great war divides me from my forebears. I air out my heart and make room in my soul. She implants in me human eyes and I hear the groan of our young ones when they sing and frolic with the haunted ghouls.
Dampen the burning glare and pacify my untied emotions. Keep the door and windows barred, for your seething throat shall swallow my gold and silver no more! Mercy—oh how she flies and throws her spell! I, a phantom-bird, soar through the bars to brush the fire moon—gold and bright! And cloud—to breathe out its silvery, sheer ribbons upon the wood.
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Annie Blake is a former teacher who resides in the west of Melbourne, Australia with her husband and five children.  She is passionate about writing and enjoys period literature and films – her favourite texts being of the original Gothic Horror genre.  Other interests include music, surfing, and research in psychology and sociology.

 

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The Bundle

a story by

Hall Jameson

 

I fell asleep midafternoon while resting in the crook of an ancient deciduous tree, the kind that grew along the edges of streams, a cottonwood, or Russian olive. In the dream that followed, an enormous beast chased me along a narrow wooded path as roots and vines reached for my bare ankles, trying to trip me up. When he was almost upon me, a sound woke me: a branch snapping, or a trout jumping. I opened my eyes and the sun flashed as it rounded the steeples of high pines that surrounded the thicket.
The light shimmered in jewel tones: royal blue, emerald, and gold. Within the network of leaves and branches, dozens of perfect spider webs floated, dew-flecked, illuminated by the early morning sun. I shifted and discovered that I was bound in a milk-and-peppermint-scented wrap. I twisted and tried to stretch my arms, but could not free myself.
Shapes wavered at the edge of my vision and I willed myself to wake up, because surely I was still dreaming. I screwed my eyes shut and clenched my jaw, but when I opened my eyes, my circumstances had not changed. I squirmed, but found the more I panicked, the tighter my shroud felt.
Strands of silk covered my head like a hood, but I could swivel my neck. Above me, beyond the line of clear sight, a dark thing waited, part of its shadow covering me. It twitched, and I wriggled in my restraints. I felt the fibers tear and almost cried out, but the thing above me jerked again and I froze. When it grew still, I began again, and this time the silk ripped open at my chest. I strained my arms, pushing up and out, the fabric tearing at my throat and falling away. Freed, I clung to the branch, delighted to discover that I had wings, though crumpled and soggy against my back. I strained and they popped apart, perfect white edged in black, resembling stained glass when the sun found them. I marveled at their velvety texture, amazed they belonged to me.
There was movement at the top of my branch and I look up expecting to see a spider, but instead found another creature like me. It slowly opened and closed its black and white wings. I echoed its movements.
Gaining strength with each pump of my new wings, I took to the air. I flew over the marsh, the spider webs, the shivering leaves of my deciduous tree, and saw something odd: A human form, face up in the marsh, unmoving, wrapped in something heavy. She was familiar, this woman half-submerged in the murk, her body wrapped tightly in a rug, the white skin around her throat ringed with purple bruises. Above her head, spider webs stretched across the branches, the leggy tenants visible, mandibles trembling as they decided what to do with this unexpected gift.
Another figure, a man, walked away, a strand of frayed rope in his hands. He disappeared in the woods. I would have followed if not for the darkness, it reminded me too much of my dream from the night before.
I floated back over the body and landed on the carpet, following the braid of the rug. A memory flickered.
            The rug from my living room. The one in front of the fireplace.
I crawled up onto the dead woman’s chin.
            This was me. What I was before.
My thoughts evaporated as the sun rose in the morning sky, my senses consumed by the scent of lavender and lilac.
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One Day at the Anthill

a story by

Jon Beight

 

“It’s a beautiful warm day out today,” said Joey’s mother, as she shut off the television. “Go outside and play. The sun will do you good.”
Preferring the air conditioned house to the unrelenting heat of outdoors, eight year old Joey protested, but lost. He put on his shoes, grabbed his magnifying glass, and went into the backyard to look at the anthill, which sat in the dry grass and brush near the far corner of the yard.
The late morning sun shone bright on the ants and their little ant world, as they went about living their little ant lives, as only ants can live it.
Joey walked up to the anthill and paused. He tilted his head back to face the sun and squinted. It was hot on his face.
What Joey didn’t notice was that his shadow had come to rest on the anthill. The ants noticed the shadow on their little ant world, as only ants can notice, but continued to do all the things that ants normally do, because shadows are not an uncommon thing.
As Joey went to his hands and knees, the sun was once again shined on the anthill. Joey used his magnifying glass to watch the ants up close. Being the toiling creatures that they are, the ants continued to work and paid little attention to him.
Joey soon tired of observing ants at work, and the dried grass and brush that surrounded the anthill captured his attention. He drew back the glass to focus the light on a few of the dried stalks of grass, and with a wisp of smoke the beam of light cut through the stalks and left glowing red stumps. He moved the magnifying glass up and down and back and forth as he cut a fiery swath through the grass.
The ants began to notice the changes in their little world as a second sun came in and out of view. This was not normal, and the commotion made the ants stir from nervousness, as only ants can stir.
They scurried to make sense of these unusual occurrences around and above them. They moved in all directions, bumping their antennae into the antennae of other ants as they exchanged information, until all the ants knew what all the other ants knew. Then, once they all understood, the ants calmed down and went back to going about their business as only ants know how.
But Joey wasn’t happy simply letting ants go about their business. He decided that ants must pay a price for being ants. As Joey began to focus the light on the world the ants had built for themselves, their warning systems and danger sensors caused their frenzied activity to begin anew.
The light from the new sun cut a path back and forth across the anthill, indiscriminately passing across the little bodies of hapless ants. Some were hit directly and became tiny cremated specks amidst the minute rubble. Others were only partially burned, the seared ends of their bodies vanishing in the flash of light. Searching for an answer, the antennae of the wounded ants swung wildly back and forth as their remaining legs struggled to escape the pain and terror. Other ants, being ants, were not capable of helping them in any way. They could only sense the screams of agony when their antennae touched. Since Joey had no antennae, the ants did not know that Joey laughed.
Hysteria threatened to overtake the ants, but their survival instincts soon gained the upper hand and they headed for the safety of their underground sanctuary. They left their dead and dying behind, and mourned their losses as only ants can mourn.
With the holocaust playing out and holding firm on Joey’s interest, he noticed too late that the surrounding dried grass and brush had caught fire, and he was trapped in the middle of it. Panicky, Joey tried to stamp the fire out, but the flames were too large for one small boy to extinguish. Realizing he was in trouble, he screamed for his mother, but she was inside their home and couldn’t hear him.
The flames grew, the heat intensified, and the smoke was thick. For Joey, there was no escape. Were it not for a moments glance out the window, Joey’s mother would never have seen the smoke. Running toward her son, she saw his clothing in flames as his arms flailed. She fought through the smoke and fire and pulled Joey to safety.
The ants stopped doing the things that ants do, and watched as the firemen put out the fire. They watched as the inquisitive neighbors stood and gawked. They watched as the medical team loaded Joey and his mother into the ambulance. But since the firemen, the inquisitive, gawking neighbors, and the medical team had no antennae, none of them could hear the ants laugh, as only ants can laugh.

Spring 2014

copyright 2014

 

It is Spring again along the solar year for the Northern Hemisphere, and here in Florida that means that we still have cold nights but beautiful, sunny, cool days–and these will remain so through April… at least. Yet, around the world springtime behaves in different ways. February in much of the world is frozen. In Ireland, it is lambing season, yet the last snows can still fall in April. In Los Angeles, February is cold–but the deserts are safe to wander through at this time of year. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire? Frozen solid. And Australia, where live a few friends of mine? The ending of Summer.

 

In ‘Devils and Dolgens’ we enter the world of three boys, two of which are not sure about their mutual friend… and neither should we be! Surety about anything is always a slippery slope.

 

‘The Adventures of Rabbit’ follows, an Indian legend retold by returning author Ed Ahern. If you don’t see yourself in this tale somewhere, your possession of a belly button may be questioned.

 

We are then graced with a visit from the ‘Queen of May.’ Frederick Hilary brings us this fresh commentary on one of our age-old themes. Really worth the read!

 

Now, the theory of the multiverse is a new one–at least empirically–so you are invited to enjoy the quaint (and quirky) “Aunty Merkel” by British writer Deborah Walker.

 

A Joyous Spring!

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Please enjoy this issue of Beorh Quarterly.

 

Gratefully Yours,

Scath Beorh, Acquisitions

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Devils and Dolgens

a story by

Phil Richardson

 

The firelight created a cocoon of warmth and safety in the dark meadow. The smoke drifted upwards, but the smell of the pinecones the boys had been throwing on the coals pervaded the area. Gary, Tommy, and Mark sat as close to the fire as possible, because the cool summer night made its light as comforting as its warmth. Mark had been telling ghost stories, and they even scared him. Although Tommy and Gary felt grown up at twelve, somehow Mark was always able to scare them. His voice seemed to get much deeper when he was telling a story and his bright, blue eyes changed as they reflected the light. He had black hair that gave him a sinister look, but it was his voice that caused little prickles of fear.
Mark leaned forward as he came to the end of his story. “The family was found sitting around the kitchen table. Their plates were full of food, but none had been eaten. They were all dead and there wasn’t a mark on them. To this day, no one knows how they died. I think it was dolgens that got ‘em.”
“Jesus!” Tommy said as he looked over his shoulder. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell any more stories. I don’t think I’m going to sleep tonight.”
“Good,” Mark said. “You can keep the fire going. As long as we have a fire, the dolgens can’t snatch us out of our sleeping bags. Dolgens love to find people asleep in the woods without a campfire. They crawl over their mouths and smother them, and then,” he paused for effect, “they eat them.”
Gary reached over as if to shut Mark’s mouth. “Enough already. You are the weirdest guy. Do you read anything but comic books and ghost stories?”
“Oh, I don’t read that stuff at all. See, I have these dreams—sometimes I almost think they really happen. I sold my soul to the Devil in one of them. That was spooky!”
“Jesus!” Tommy liked the word because his mother never let him use it. “I’d hate to have those things going around in my head.”
Gary threw another log on the fire. The pungent odor of burning pine tar filled the air around them. “Sometimes I worry about you, Mark. If you didn’t know so many scary stories and love to camp out, I  don’t think I’d hang out with you.”
Tommy scooted closer to the fire, spit into it, and seemed satisfied with the sound of the sizzling on the hot coals. “Devils and dolgens, devils and dolgens! Jesus! I know I’m not going to sleep tonight. It’s bad enough worrying about the war and how maybe the Nazis might invade us. I dream about that a lot. I just wish this war was over and things could be the way they were.”
Mark smiled at Tommy and said, “I could cast a spell so you can sleep—if you want me to, that is.”
“Spell? What do you know about spells? You are definitely weird.”
“It’s not so hard to cast spells.” Mark moved his hands in a circle. “I can show you if you want.”
“No thanks!” Tommy and Gary scooted away from Mark and curled up in their blankets.
In the middle of the night, Tommy woke up to a guttural mumbling and then something that made his hair stand on end—a growl. He went cold and almost wet his pants. Then he realized the sounds came from Mark who, asleep, stared at him with lips drawn back and eyes wide with the fire mirrored in them.
“Stop it!”
This woke Gary up, and he reached over and pushed Mark. “Quit it! Wake up and quit it!”
Mark shook his head and jerked. “What’s happening? Why’d you guys wake me up?”
“You were asleep. Well, you must have had a nightmare,” Tommy said as pulled his blanket around him. “You were growling and you looked like you were going to bite somebody.”
“Probably just another one of my Devil dreams.” Mark turned away and curled up in his blanket. “I’m going back to sleep. Try not to wake me again.”
“Try not to wake you? Jesus!” Tommy spit into the fire. “You quit growling and stuff and we’ll let you sleep until noon.”
Eventually, they were all fast asleep, but their dreams were troubled.
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Several weeks later, after school started, there was an incident in the gym involving all of them. The football coach, Mr. Marone, got mad at Mark because he refused to take a shower. Mark’s hadn’t done anything but sit on the sidelines because he was afraid he would break his glasses, so he said, “I’m not sweaty.”
Coach had a rule—everybody in gym class had to take a shower, and he never gave in. Finally, he got a group of guys to throw Mark into the shower, clothes and all. Tommy and Gary tried to save their friend, but they were shouted down, and Coach made the three of them run twenty laps around the basketball court, “So you’ll be sweaty.” Mark was visibly angered and protested the punishment, but finally ran his laps. Tommy and Gary were not happy either. After finishing their run, they sat around and planned.
“Let’s sneak into the gym and let the air out of all the basketballs,” Tommy said. “Coach will bust a gasket!”
Gary suggested putting ink in the shower heads. “Think about it.” He waved his arms and danced around. “All those naked guys covered in blue ink!”
Mark didn’t want his friends to do anything. “I have my own plan. I’m going to cast a spell on Coach. I’m going to make him wet his pants every time the class bell rings.”
“You can’t do spells,” said Gary. “Spells are for witches and wizards and you’re just a kid. You just say things like that to try to scare us.”
Mark smiled in such a way that Tommy and Gary felt goose bumps. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Coach left school early the next day and no one knew why. Mr. Theron, the chemistry teacher, substituted for him in gym class, but since he didn’t know anything about what they did in gym, it turned into one big recess with no showers afterward.
“Wonder where Coach is?” Gary asked.
“I heard he’s not coming back.” Tommy was always first with the rumors.
“He won’t be coming back. Not to this school or any school where there’s a class bell,” Mark said. “Not unless he wears diapers.”
“Jesus!” Tommy put his hand to his mouth like a girl. “You don’t mean you really put a spell on him?”
The smile that crossed Mark’s face left them wondering.
“Don’t listen to him,” Gary said to Tommy. “He’s just trying to spook you. He can’t do spells and he sure ain’t no wizard… are you, Mark?”
“Let’s just say Coach gets to wet his pants every time the bell rings. Let’s say he found out it’s not a good idea to cross me.” Mark stood up. “Remember, guys. It’s not a good idea to cross me.”
Tommy and Gary waited until he was out of sight.
“Do you suppose he’s telling the truth? Do you suppose Coach really was cursed with peeing at the sound of the bell?” Tommy looked scared.
“Nah,” Gary replied, “I bet there’s a perfectly good explanation.” He didn’t look convinced, however. He pushed Tommy and then punched him in the arm. “Besides, even if he is a wizard, he’s our wizard.”
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Two more strange things occurred at school. The first happened when Mrs. Prior told Mark’s study hall that everybody had detention for a week because some of them were too noisy. Mark objected, “It’s not fair! You know it’s not fair. You can’t do this.”
“Oh yes I can, young man. You’ll be in that detention room with the rest of them and, if you keep talking back, you’ll be there longer. Just because your dad owns a store doesn’t mean you’ll get special treatment.”
Mark knew when to shut up, but he complained to Tommy and Gary. They were sympathetic, but relieved they hadn’t been in the study hall themselves.
“What are you going to do, Mark? Are you going to cast a spell on her too?” Gary said this with a smile. “You fixed Coach didn’t you? Fix her too. Maybe have her hair fall out.”
“Jesus Criminy!” (Tommy had expanded his vocabulary). “Mark, you wouldn’t do anything, I mean, couldn’t do anything. Besides, she’s not so bad.”
“You don’t care ‘cause you don’t have detention,” Mark said. “No, if I cast a spell, it wouldn’t be as simple as the one on Coach. Let’s just wait and see. How about we all go hiking in the woods after school? There’s some things I need to find. Special things.”
“What? Lizards, mushrooms, bat wings?” Gary was laughing until Mark gave him one of his penetrating stares. “Okay, sure, we’ll go with you. Right, Tommy?”
“I… I guess. Where we gonna meet?”
“Beecher Wood,” Mark replied. “It’s real dark there and lots of interesting things grow—or live there.
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The guys met after school in the parking lot and hiked down to Beecher Wood. Mark took the lead, and they roamed through the woods while he looked for certain weeds and roots.
“It’s starting to get dark,” Tommy said. “I think we should head home.”
“Fraidy cat!” Gary made a gruesome face. “Think the demons’ll get you?”
“I’m not scared, I’m just careful.” Tommy looked around—nervous. “Anybody who knows a wizard like Mark should be careful.”
Mark looked amused. He had gathered a small bag full of weeds and mushrooms, which were “for biology class,” so he said it was time to go home. They all trudged back through the woods, Tommy making sure he wasn’t the last in line. “Are you really some kind of wizard?”
“What do you think? Do you suppose a kid like me could make a deal with the Devil? You think I’d sell my soul, even though I don’t believe in souls? And, if I did, do you suppose I’d still be going to school and sitting in a boring study hall with a dumb teacher like Mrs. Prior?”
After that, they walked home in silence.
+
A week later, Mrs. Prior had a substitute. No one knew, or would tell, why she wasn’t in school. Like Coach Marone, it was a mystery.
“Maybe it’s a contagious disease,” Mary Johnson said to Gary as they waited for the bus. “Two teachers out sick and nobody knows why. We could all come down with something serious. That’s what my mom thinks.”
“Oh, it’s something serious,” Gary said with a superior tone. “Some of us know what’s wrong with them, and I can’t say why, but I can tell you it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of our friend Mark.”
It wasn’t long before rumors started flying around the school. “Mark poisoned them,” or “Mark put dog poop in their food.” Other kids started shunning Mark in the halls and scooting their chairs away from him in the classroom.
Mark confronted Gary after school. “Why did you start this, Gary?” Mark’s face turned bright red. “Mary Johnson said you told her I did all this stuff.”
“Well, didn’t you say you cast a spell on them?”
“That was just a joke! I’m no more a wizard than you are.”
“Well, whatever you say, there’s something strange going on.”
Mark walked away in disgust, not even bothering to say hello to Tommy, who he almost ran into.
“Hey Gary, what’s wrong with Mark?” Tommy asked. “He looks really mad. I wouldn’t want him to get mad at me.”
“Well, he’s mad at me, I guess.”
“Jesus Criminy! I wonder what he’s going to do to you?”
Gary paled. “I don’t believe that garbage. He told me he he’s not a wizard. I believe him—I think.”
+
Two days later, Gary didn’t come to school. Tommy was beside himself. He wanted to ask Mark if he was responsible, but he was afraid to. He tried to visit Gary, but he wasn’t allowed in the house. “Might be contagious,” Gary’s mother said.
Two weeks passed before Gary came back to school. He found Tommy. “We’ve got to do something,” he said. “I almost died I was so sick. I shouldn’t have made Mark mad, but he didn’t need to take it out on me! I’m going to read up on witches and wizards. We’ve got to do something about all this!”
The next day Gary went to the library and checked out as many books as he could find on witchcraft. The librarian, Mr. Temple, frowned as he saw the kind of books Gary was interested in, but Gary said it was for a paper he was writing. He and Tommy pored over the books. Some of them were just too complicated to understand, but there was one thing that kept coming up—a wizard soon became the pawn of the Devil, and if you were to save his mortal soul, you had to kill him.
“Jesus! Couldn’t we just perform an exorcism or something?” Tommy’s eyes darted from side to side. “We can’t kill him! We’d be murderers. Besides, he’s our friend.”
“We’re not killing him, Tommy. We’re saving his soul.”
They talked and talked. Tommy finally agreed with Gary when he told him he might be next on Mark’s list. “My dad’s got a pistol,” Gary said. “We can get Mark to go with us out in the woods again… and then we’ll shoot him.”
“What if he’s immune to bullets? We’d just make him mad and then, Jesus Criminy we’d be in trouble!
Gary hadn’t thought about this. He decided to read some more about witchcraft, and discovered that in the old days they tied witches up and threw them in the pond. If they came to the top, they were witches. If they drowned, then they weren’t. Tommy wasn’t sure about this. But it seemed like the only way they could prove Mark wasn’t a witch would be to kill him.
“He’s a witch all right,” said Gary. “If you were as sick as I was, you’d know it had to be a witch who done it to you.”
“How are we going to tie him up?”
“We’ll tell him we’re playing a game. Whoever gets himself loose first wins. You’ll go first, but I won’t tie you up too tight.”
“Well,” said Tommy, “it might work. I guess I could help.”
Gary began the plan by telling Mark it was time for another outing. “This time let’s go out to Beecher Pond. We’ll build a fire and you can tell ghost stories.”
Mark liked the idea. The next evening they all trekked out to the pond. They soon had a roaring campfire.
“The evenings are starting to get kind of cool,” Mark said as he held out his hands to the fire. “Pretty soon it’ll be too cold to do this.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, looking nervously at Gary. “It’s too cold right now to go swimming.”
Gary shook his head and gave Tommy a dirty look. “I know what, let’s play a game. I got some rope in my knapsack, and I know a good game.”
“A rope?” Mark pretended he had a noose around his neck. “Are we going to see who can hang from a tree the longest?”
This was a little too close to the truth, and Gary was spooked. “Nope, we’re… we’re gonna to tie up each person and see how long it takes him to get out of the ropes. Tommy, you can go first.”
Mark and Gary tied Tommy up. Gary pressed the button on his stopwatch. “Go!”
Tommy struggled and struggled. Ten minutes later, he still hadn’t gotten loose.
“Guess you’ll have to stay here all night,” Mark said.
Tommy looked scared, “Jesus! I gotta’ pee! Let me loose!”
After Mark and Gary untied him, Tommy hustled to the bushes. Mark yelled at him to watch out for demons that might grab his thing and pull it off.
“Now it’s your turn,” Gary said as he turned to Mark.
Mark smiled and held out his hands. “I won’t have much trouble beating Tommy’s time.”
Tommy picked up the rope and the two boys looped it around Mark’s arms and hands and then wound it tight around his legs.
“Hey,” Mark said, “At least give me some room to breathe.”
Gary tied the last knot and looked Mark straight in the eye. “You’ve got to tell us something. Are you a wizard? Did you cast a spell on Coach and Mrs. Prior and me? Tell the truth now. Did you sell your soul to the Devil?”
Mark, uneasy now, answered in a sarcastic tone. “Of course I did. I cast spells on everybody. I can even make these ropes disappear.”
His friends looked at the ropes as if they expected them to turn into snakes and crawl off.
“Let’s do it!” Gary said as he pulled Mark down the pier.
“Are you sure?” Tommy twisted his hands and furrowed his brow.
“We’re going to save his soul and get it back from the Devil!” Gary said.
“You guys are crazy! Don’t push me in that water! I’ll drown! You’re crazy!” Mark struggled with the ropes, but he couldn’t break loose and, as he threshed around at the edge of the pond, he fell off the pier and sank out of sight.
“Now, if he doesn’t come up, he’s not a wizard,” Gary said.
“Jesus!” Tommy shook with fright. “What if he does come back up?”
“Then he’s a wizard.”
“He’s gonna be one pissed-off wizard!” Tommy struggled with the logic of this test.
“I can’t see him, can you?” Gary was scared now.
Just then, there was movement in the water. Mark popped to the top. His hands flailed as he struggled to the pier. “Help me! Help!” The rope was loose around him, but he made little progress.
“He got loose!” Gary said.
“He’s drowning!”
“I can’t swim!” Mark’s head went under water.
“I gotta help him!” Gary said as he jumped in the water. He pulled his struggling friend to shore.
“What did you nuts think you were doing? You almost killed me!”
“I thought maybe you were a wizard. You know, the spells and all,” Gary said.
“Wizard! I’ll wizard you!” Mark lunged for him, but slipped and fell in the mud. “I thought you were my friends!”
“We just wanted to save your soul.” Gary moved away from Mark.
“You’re crazy! There’s no such thing as a soul!” Mark ran down the path, his shoes making sloshing sounds, his sobs echoing into the empty night.
“I guess we were wrong. I guess we really did do something crazy,” Tommy said as he watched Mark run away.
“Well.” Gary looked out over the pond. “He really did come to the top, didn’t he? Isn’t that what wizards do? I hope he ain’t too mad.”
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Phil Richardson is retired from Ohio University and lives in Athens, Ohio where he writes literary and genre fiction. His wife Joyce is a poet and a mystery writer. Two of Phil’s stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Fiction and he has won or placed in numerous writing contests. His publications include over seventy stories in print and online magazines and in 21 anthologies. Phil’s website with links to some published stories is philrichardsonstories.com
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The Adventures of Rabbit

 

a retelling by

Ed Ahern

of a folk tale

recorded by Charles Leland

in The Algonquin Legends of New England

1884

Of the old times.
Some Indian  tribes called him Mahtiguess, the Rabbit, but the Micmac called him Ableegumooch, Master Rabbit, and this part of Rabbit’s tale was told by the Micmacs.
Rabbit lived in hard times in a wigwam with his grandmother, waiting for things to get better. It was a brittle cold winter, with ice on the river and snow on the plain, and Rabbit could not find food.
One day, while running through the forest and leaving deep tracks in the snow he saw a solitary lodge. Inside was Keeoony the Otter. Otter’s wigwam was on the banks of a river, with an ice slide from the door of the lodge to the edge of the river.
Otter welcomed Rabbit into his wigwam, and offered to cook him food. Rabbit was skinny from hunger and quickly said yes.
“Wait here in the warmth of the lodge,” Otter said, “ while I catch supper.”
Otter took down hooks he used to hold the fish he caught.  Laying down on his belly at the top of the ice slide, he pushed off and slid down the slide and deep into the water. In a little while he came out of the water with three eels on hooks. They quickly cleaned, cooked, and ate the eels.
My life! thought the Rabbit. This is an easy way to live. Fishers do little work and eat well. I am cleverer than this otter, I must be able to do this.
And Rabbit was so confident that that he asked Otter to come visit and eat with him- adamadusk ketkewop– in three days time.
The next morning Rabbit called to his grandmother. “Come, we will move our wigwam down to the lake.”
And they moved their wigwam down to a bank on the lake. Rabbit poured water to make an ice slide, just as Otter had. When Otter arrived, Rabbit called to his grandmother, “Prepare for dinner!”
“But what am I to cook, grandson?”
“I will see to that.”
Rabbit grabbed a nabogun, a stick for stringing eels, and hopped over to the ice slide.
But Rabbit was not made for sliding, and as soon as he got onto the ice he swerved right, then left,  then tumbled tail over head until he fell into the water. And things got worse. Rabbit fur is not Otter fur, and Rabbit began to freeze in the cold water. Rabbit also is perhaps the worst swimmer of the animals. He lost his breath, struggled, and began to sink.
Otter was looking down the bank at these thrashings. “What is wrong with this fellow?” he asked the grandmother.
“He has seen you do this,” said grandmother, “and is trying to do as you do.”
“Ho!” yelled Otter.” Come out of the water and hand me your nabogun.”
Rabbit crawled, shivering, out of the water and up the bank. He gave his nabogun to Otter and limped into his lodge to get warm.
Otter slid down the bank and plunged into the lake. He surfaced again in a few minutes with several fish held on the nabogun. Otter was angry at Rabbit for attempting what he could not perform. He threw the fish down at the entrance to the wigwam and went back to his lodge without tasting a single fish.
Rabbit was embarrassed and disappointed, but not discouraged, for he never gave up. One day in Spring he was wandering in the woods when he came to a wigwam filled with several pretty girls, all wearing red headdresses and looking just like birds. And no wonder, for they were woodpecker sisters.
Rabbit may have been rash and over confident, but he also had good manners. He and the girls talked together so happily that he was invited to dinner, which he immediately accepted, for Rabbit was still very hungry.
One of the red-capped girls took at wooden dish, a woltes, and seemed to run right up a tree. She stopped here and there, tapping now at this spot, now at that, picking out insects called rice, apchel-moal-timpkawal, because the little bugs looked like rice grains. These bugs, for those who like to eat them, are very tasty. The woodpecker sisters quickly boiled the insects and they all sat down to eat.
And Rabbit thought, how easy it is for some people to live.
“Girls,” he said, “come over and eat with me the day after tomorrow.”
When the woodpecker sisters arrived rabbit took the pointed head of an eel spear and tied it to the front of his face. And Rabbit started to climb up a spruce tree. But rabbit paws are not made for climbing and Rabbit did not get very high. He began banging his head against the tree trunk, but Rabbit did not know where the insects were hiding. And Rabbit’s face began to get bruised and bled from the pounding of the eel spear head.
The pretty woodpecker sisters laughed loudly and asked Rabbit’s grandmother what he was doing.
“Ah,” said grandmother,” I suppose he is trying to do what he has seen someone else do. It’s like him.”
One of the woodpecker girls stopped laughing and yelled up at Rabbit, “Come down here and give me your bowl, your woltes.” She grabbed the bowl from rabbit and hopped right up the spruce. Pecking here and there she soon had a bowlful for them to eat.
But it was a long time after that before Rabbit’s face healed and even longer before the tree-tapping sisters quit reminding him of hitting his head against a tree with the tip of an eel spear.
Even after this, Rabbit still thought about living as other animals do and not as a rabbit does. For Rabbit was very strong of will, and once his strong mind was set he would almost have to die before he changed it.
One day, while wandering in the woods, Rabbit came to a bear cave, and Mooin the Bear invited him in.
And Rabbit asked Mooin, “I have heard a story that you are able to live during the Winter by sucking on your own paws. Is this so?”
Mooin did not explain, but only said, “Join us while we eat.”
The bear Mooin took a huge pot and put it over the fire. He filled the pot half full with water. Then he took a knife and cut a little slice from a pad under his foot. Mooin threw the slice into the pot and it boiled and grew into a huge chunk of meat which was served to Rabbit and the bear family. And there was a large piece left over which was given to Rabbit to take back to his lodge.
Truly, thought rabbit, this is a thing I can do. For it is told in wampum beads that whatever a bear can do a rabbit can do better.
Rabbit turned to Mooin the Bear and asked him, ketekewopk, to dine with him the day after tomorrow.
After Bear had arrived, Rabbit said to grandmother, “Noogume Kuesawal wohu, set your pot to boiling.” Rabbit whetted his knife and started slicing at his feet. But Rabbit’s soles are small and thin and he got almost nothing despite all the cutting and pain.
“What is he trying to do?” growled Mooin.
“Ah,” sighed the grandmother, “something he has seen someone else do.”
“Ho! You! Rabbit!” said the bear, “Give me the knife.”
Bear took a small slice from his sole, which did him no harm. He threw the slice into the pot and they all ate. But Rabbit was in considerable pain, and even after the pain went away he was embarrassed to remember trying to feed Mooin.
Rabbit began to understand that he was bad at imitating others, but good at persevering. He quit trying to do as others did and did as he was meant to do. Rabbit studied and gained magic power, m’teoulin. And it was good that he did, for he fell into great trouble with Lusifee, the Wild Cat. But that is a tale told by the Passamaquoddy, for another time.
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The Queen of May

 a story by

Frederick Hilary

 
Gerald lived a cloistered life. His house was large enough for multiple families, yet he shared it with no one; the dining room was spacious enough for the gathering of many friends, yet he dined alone. The halls and corridors would have echoed with the footfalls of running children, had he any relatives to bring them, but only the draughts blew through them. It was a great old house which amplified his loneliness.
He was unhappy. Unhappy, yes, but it was not an unhappiness which weighs down on the soul and withers it, or else it did not seem so to him. Rather, it was an opiate bitterness, enlarging his sense of self and giving him a tragic self-importance. To him, one thing alone mattered: that he labour on his writings, and shut himself off from the world outside.
One day there came a knock at his door. Gerald started at this, for visitors were rare indeed, and Mrs Mulvaney had left for the afternoon. Crouched at his desk, pen poised over a sentence, he wondered  what he should do. A second knock came, prompting further contemplation. At the third knock he finally rose and made his way to the entrance hall.
When he opened the door, he was taken aback. He was not used to visitors at all, and he was certainly not used to visitors like this one. A woman stood there – hardly a woman, a girl of perhaps sixteen. She wore a long frock embroidered with flowers whose colour was so vivid and texture so fine that they looked real; there were real flowers in her hair, too, and what could only be described, frankly, as straw. She smelt of fresh grass and May blossoms, and before Gerald could open his mouth she spoke. Her eyes were not a maiden’s, he later recalled, despite her youthful look. “I am the Queen of May,” she said, “and I have come to put the old to death, and to breathe upon the new.”
“I’m sorry, it’s not really a good time to…”
Gerald wasn’t given time to finish. The girl had glided past him into the house. He followed the trail of flowers and straw she had left strewn behind her in the hall.
“Why have you come here?” said Gerald, catching up with her in the parlour.
“Because,” she said, “this house is withering under your feet. Look at the carpet. It is old and ash-stained, and the colour has dimmed so that it is nigh impossible to tell what the original pattern was. Let it Spring up again.” And as she said this, something miraculous was already occurring beneath Gerald’s feet. The carpet, which had till then held a dark and indistinct pattern, suddenly became jewelled with little points of colour that shimmered before his eyes. They shimmered, and then grew into lines, and suddenly there was movement of shape and colour in the weave, as if tracing lost lines, and myriad patterns emerged as if at once: fruit, the fronds of plants, birds singing from branches, an explosion of fruitfulness and colour, bursting out so suddenly and completely from the cloth that Gerald thought he would be engulfed in the bloom of a real garden. But then he felt his feet rooted steadily to the ground and his perspective returned to normal; though there was a carpet of vivid and lush garden colours beneath his feet, he was still standing in his parlour with the familiar objects of his cloistered existence all around him.
He stepped around, his feet testing the cloth, speechless. It was magic, surely. The Queen of May, or whatever she really was, had passed on. “Come back,” called Gerald, following in her train. “Explain how you did that. What’s the trick?”
“The trick?” the Queen of May laughed without looking back. “The trick can only be felt. It cannot be explained, or put into mere words. Go look at a Spring meadow and wonder how the new shoots rise from their sleeping places. Life springs from death and Winter’s sleep. The sun is a conspirator, the thaw and an end to frosts pave the way, but there are invisible things, spirits in the earth you do not see, and scarcely understand. Do not ask me more. Come with me, and let us put an end to withering.”
They were in his study. Gerald saw his oak desk sitting idle, the pages all but unmarked, and it pained him. Let the Queen go about her business quickly, so that he may return to his equations. “I’d really rather you didn’t change anything here,” said Gerald. “You see, this is my work station, and I can’t bear anything being changed around. Things can get lost. Important documents. Mrs Mulvaney doesn’t come up here.”
The Queen cast her glance around. “Not the most inspiring of rooms, is it?”
“Well, it’s not really about inspiration. It’s the elimination of distraction that I’ve worked on, you see. Can’t have anything getting in the way. There was a window over there, but I’ve had the bookcase put in front of it, so that I don’t idle away the hours gazing out at the orchard.”
The Queen, he saw with rising dread, was already lifting her arms. “Not the desk!” he pleaded. “Anything but my work papers.”
The Queen, though, had turned towards the cabinet to the side. She spoke inaudible words, pointed her fingers towards the cabinet, and the transformation took place. The cabinet had held prized first editions of Gerald’s most beloved works: books on astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, even alchemy. It was old, deep red in colour, and the glass had become grimy with dust, so that one could barely guess what lay behind it.
Now, instead of a cabinet, Gerald saw before him a tree, a tree with a multitude of branches, branches of budding leaves, and instead of books he saw roosting white birds, doves and pigeons, trilling from between the arch of branches. He nearly fainted. “My books. What’s happened to them?” What indeed had happened to them? He looked again, and saw that just as with the carpet, it was not as he first believed, for the glass was covered with the images of birds, and the wooden frame around patterned with leaves and branches, so that the once stout old cabinet had become vibrant and a delight to the senses. He bent towards his desk, peered down at the papers, and found himself cocking his head to the right at the splash of colour that had invaded the room.
“No more,” Gerald mumbled, running after the Queen. “There really isn’t any need. But what am I saying? This is my house. I forbid you to do anything else.”
“As I’ve already explained, your house is in the diocese of the Queen of May, and so I shall do as I like.”
Gerald held back as she disappeared through the doorway. He swung his desk chair around and sat down, head in his hands. Through the gaps in his fingers he could see the lush green of the leaves on the rug, whose fate had obviously been the same as the cabinet’s. This woman had invaded his house. He would have to do something about it, something to stop her. “How does one contend with a myth?” he told himself. “How does one fight magic? Or go against the Spring?” The latter came into his head unbidden: it was her voice, the same certainty of tone and indifference of feeling, like nature personified. And then his own, much younger voice, just as unbidden, from his student days, when arguing in the Oxford debating society was his weekly sport. “In the clash of opposites there is no winning. It’s like an endless tag team. Winter strikes at Spring, Spring strikes at Winter. Every victory temporary. World without end.”
“If this is a dream, then magic may equally lie at my fingertips,” thought Gerald.
The unbidden voice returned. “Dreams abide by logic, just as waking. Magic exists, but laws cannot be bent. If Spring troubles you, look towards Winter.”
“Look towards Winter,” mumbled Gerald. “Where can I find Winter? Winter personified, of course, for that is the logic of the Queen of May. We are barely into the change of season. The balance is a delicate one. Gales may blow about the house, and frost lie on the panes, just as easily as Spring sunshine. I will go and find Winter, wherever he is hiding. Where else, but in the places where the sun does not penetrate.”
And so Gerald put on his walking boots, and tied his Winter coat about him, and went out of the house, while elsewhere in its endless rooms the Queen of May was going about her work, ruining all that was dark and sober and dust-covered. He went towards the wood first. It was no more than habit, for he went there sometimes in his walks, for the gloom agreed with him. Where might Winter be hiding? In which nooks and corners had Spring not yet stepped with her light yet ruinous tread? Old Jack Frost would be lurking somewhere, or perhaps the North Wind. He would find them, and set them loose in the house, and undo the work of that mistress of the Spring.
With his footsteps he traced the walkways in the wood fruitlessly. No sign of Winter or its ambassadors. He went to the orchard next, and found nothing there either, and thence to the old well near the courthouse, and the brook beside the bathing pool, and not one glimpse of Winter did he see. Time was running short. Vast as the house was, how many rooms yet lay untouched by the Queen of May? Before he found his champion, she would have transformed all, and set to rights what ought not to be righted at all.
No voice came unbidden from his past this time. Think, then, he told himself. Where is the last resting place of Winter, before he enters that final sleep, and Spring triumphs over all. I cannot make the North Wind blow, nor can I hasten the night, so that Jack Frost presses his fingers against the window pane. Spring sleeps in the earth, the seeds of her flowers sleep in the lowliest places, hidden from wind and weather. That’s it! Higher ground. The old stony hills. The Steeple. Where the air is raw and the winds blow hardest, that’s where Jack Frost can be found.
So Gerald struck the path to the nearest of the Beacons, and before long he was out of breath but able to look down on the low valley where his house lay, and with grim determination he vowed that he would soon return with his ally, and put an end to the Queen of May’s works once and for all. He picked amongst the stony hills, and caught himself in a shout more than once, a cry of “Winter! Winter! Come to me!” But no white, frost-garmented figure came. So he made at last for the peak of the highest hill, known locally as the Steeple, and when he got there he felt the cold Northern wind sting his face, and he stooped amongst the stones, and began to root in all the shadows, with nothing to show for his work.
“What do you look for?” said the voice at his back.
Gerald stiffened. He did not answer. The voice repeated the question, and if there was any doubt the first time he was now sure: here was the same certainty of tone and indifference of feeling that he’d heard in the Queen of May’s voice, only this voice was colder, and gustier; the words seeming to cling to the air and freeze it.
“You cannot win, but nor can she,” said the voice, before he could even explain. “Things hang in the balance for an hour, a day, a month or two, but the turning always happens, and sorrow turns to defeat, and defeat to awakening hope, and hope to victory. The great thaw and freeze are in endless dance together. Turn back, and let her do her work.”
“Not yet,” said Gerald. “Not yet. And besides, this time she has come where I have not bidden her. My house is my own. Let Spring rule the gardens, and the woods, and all the verdant glades to her heart’s content, but leave me my own.”
“Very well,” said the voice. “Turn and face me. Show me to her, and let us claim a last victory before the next turning.”
Gerald rose, and turned about him, and saw the Winter King, Jack Frost himself, with a beard of long icicles, and eyes that were like two cold emeralds, smiling back at him. “Quick, quick, let’s do the work. Lead me to the Queen of May,” he said, and went tumbling down the hill like a snowball, and before Gerald could take more than a few steps he had blown into the house and was gone from sight. Gerald, panting, gave pursuit, until he was at the door to his house; there was an eerie silence within, and with a grim step he went inside.
He passed from room to room, looking for the Winter King or the Queen of May, but saw only the signs of their passing. It was if they were locked in battle, and each room bore the marks of their victories. In some rooms Spring had lightened everything, as it had been when the Queen of May drove Gerald from the house; the scent of flowers, brightness, dust and cobwebs brushed away. In others there was the indelible touch of Winter: frost covered tapestries, lingering cold, ice upon the window panes, and the stale smell of leaves having laid long in the earth. Nowhere could he find either Winter King or Queen of May, though, and it was hard to tell who was winning, for through seeming countless rooms, and through some Gerald had never set foot in before, there was no more than a chequered history of their battle – Winter gave way to Spring, and Spring to Winter, so much that Gerald found himself disorientated.
Gerald came to a stop in one of the upstairs bedrooms. He was quite faint, and felt run off his feet. Before he could catch his breath he heard a voice at his rear. “It seems I cannot win, and neither can she.”
Gerald turned to face Jack Frost. The two green icicles that were his eyes glinted fiercely, and his mouth was set and determined. “Come,” she tells me. “I will dance with you on the lawns. Let us forget our quarrel.”  She knows this must be, for we both work towards the same end, ultimately. What makes you want to escape utterly the cycles of birth and death?”
“I don’t want to escape anything,” Gerald said. “I want her out of the house. And you also, if you can do no more than bring frost and ice to one room and not the next. Can you not undo what she has done?”
“I have done so. But yet she turns things back again. She will not yield, and I will not yield, and everything is unsettled.”
“How can a man put a stop to the Spring?”
“He cannot.”
“Thanks. I’m thinking, actually. I thought Winter the answer also, yet you have done little good.”
“If that is all the gratitude you offer, I shall return to my hiding place amongst the crags.”
“What about the North Wind?”
“He is my cousin. He will do no better than I.”
“Well, I am convinced there is an answer to this. If Winter cannot banish Spring for any conceivable length of time in this house, if the great North Wind cannot blow her straw hair away, I will find another way. If Nature cannot turn against herself, what if man sets himself against Nature?”
Jack Frost’s eyes were gleaming suspiciously. He seemed ready to dart away, yet he lingered.
Beads of sweat began to trickle from Gerald’s forehead. “The answer! I have it,” he said.
“What gives power over the turning seasons? What gives power over death?”
“Well?”
“Magic. Power. The cabinet!  The logic of the dream dictates that I use whatever means suit the myth. There is a book in the cabinet, no more than a curiosity I believed, which may do the trick.”
“But you do not believe in such things. And besides, if it is a dream, why do you trouble yourself over it?”
“Because, dream or not, it rules my work. I will rather have done with it, and if I cannot make myself wake, I will triumph in line with its dream logic.”
In the cabinet he found the book he was looking for. The spell was called “No Time,” and would freeze space and the inhabitant within so that the season could not change anything of its existence. It would turn out the Queen of May and lock all within a perpetual solitude beyond the struggle of generations. Gerald took the book and laid it open over his papers on the great oak desk. Jack Frost peered over his shoulder. “I thought you were leaving?” Gerald said.
“I will stay for a while, until the spell is done.”
A dove flew past the desk. Gerald realised that the doves on the cabinet had come alive.
“Ah, the Queen of May mocks you,” said Jack, and blew an icy blast that killed the bird instantly.
“You will not stop me?” Gerald asked as he thumbed the pages.
“Why should I? It is not Nature entire that will be stopped. It is just your tiny sphere. And besides, I would like to see the Queen of May bested at last.”
There, at last, was the spell. Gerald rehearsed the words in his mind. It only remained to speak them.
The Queen of May had entered the room. Gerald turned, and Jack Frost at his side turned with him, looking equally perturbed as he.
“Do you desire death?” the Queen of May said.
“No, life. I will stop time from flowing. I want neither Winter nor Spring.”
The Queen of May smiled. “So you will place yourself, and all in this house, beyond Winter and Spring.”
“That is what I will do.”
“So then, you will not love? And neither will you fear loss?”
“I will be beyond them all,” said Gerald. “I will have only my books to feed on. No more will the trifling world darken my path, or pound upon my door. Goodbye, then, Spring, and you too, Jack Frost. Be gone from this house. Fly out of here, whether through window crack or chimney flue, go back to nature. For nothing of nature is here.”
He saw them poised before him as he opened his mouth. He spoke the words. The next instant they were gone, and he neither knew nor cared whether the spell had banished them or whether they had fled from its power. Staring down at the oak desk, he saw that all the papers were untouched and unruffled; that the cabinet had returned to its dull coat of grime, with no trace of the carvings. All the colour and the images of nature the Queen of May had introduced were gone; so too was the filament of ice that had covered everything in the rooms where Jack Frost had scored a victory.
Gerald sat down at his desk. He wrote, and picked out a book, and took it down from his shelf, and delved into its secrets, and when as an afterthought he looked towards the corner of window visible behind the cabinet he saw only an indistinct grey blur, an abstraction of colours and shapes, giving no hint of the changing of seasons. Days went by, and weeks and months, and when from time to time, in the hour of the weakening of his thoughts, Gerald looked up towards the little space of window, he learned to read the passing seasons from the vague impressions of colour there. The realisation pricked him, when he saw, for instance, that Winter had bound the land in snow, but no sooner had the thought entered his mind than he lowered his head to the words of his book, or focused on his pen, and the memory was gone again.
There was a indeterminate longing, he decided, that came from these glimpses of change through the glass, so he gave the cabinet a final shove until there was no light from the window to enter; nor in the rest of the house did the windows let in any shape or impression now but light; he wondered why this could be, for dust did not fall upon the rooms now that time within the shell had been stopped. But it was better, for he needed no reminder of what was beyond his own domain.
Of course, there were no visitors of any kind. The housekeeper never came. There were no accidental callers, and no trifles to interrupt the work itself. Gerald scratched away on the paper, and as he did so he looked at his hands, and wondered if they looked old, if the lines that now existed had been there before the spell had been cast. Time does not exist here, he told himself. I cannot grow old, for I have sealed this house against time and the withering of generations.
His life went on thus, for how long he did not know, for there were no markers, nothing to keep a record of time passing.
And then one day, there was a knock at the door. There are no accidental callers, Gerald told himself. How can this be? There was a second knock, as Gerald’s pen quivered over the paper. And a third, and only then did he rise and make his way to the entrance hall. A memory came back to him, a memory of how, long ago – how long there was no telling – the Queen of May had come to his door to bring Spring, unwanted Spring, into his guarded rooms. He felt a pang somewhere deep within, a stirring amidst the numbness.
Was he going mad? Did he desire that the Queen come back? All this time, he had wanted to be left alone. Had there really been something lovely, after all, in the colour she had brought to his shabby carpets, to the disorder she brought to his ordered neglect?
He held his breath and opened the door. There was a woman there. It was the Queen of May, surely. Had she had come back to ask if he wanted a second chance, if he wanted to spruce up his rooms? Even Jack Frost, he decided, would be welcome. There on the threshold of the door, Gerald felt the turning about in his feelings. Was it so bad, after all, to let in a little fresh air, a little light, a little bit of nature, now and again? It need not mean giving up the work, only staggering it.
He looked at the figure of the woman, back turned to him, dressed in a long shawl of black.
“Do you want to come in?”
The woman took time in answering. All the time she did not face him, but then said,
“Come out, Gerald.”
“Why did you knock?”
“I did not.”
“Are you the Queen of May?”
“She is a conspirator of mine.”
“What about Jack Frost?”
“He, also, works towards the same end.”
She reached out a hand from her shawl and touched him, and feeling that touch he realised who had come for him.
She was leading him across the fields. He let her press his hand tightly, and walked behind her willingly enough, and the fields they passed through were Winter turning to Spring.
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Frederick Hilary, a writer of mythic fiction and fantasy, has been published in Cabinet des Fees, New Fairy Tales, and the Mythic Circle. His website can be found at http://frederickhilary.weebly.com/
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Aunty Merkel

 a story by

Deborah Walker

           
An English church. An August wedding.
Aunty Merkel sits at the front of the church, staring at the happy couple. She’s wearing her wedding suit, a three-buttoned crotched jacket over a matching dress. The light from the stained glass windows reflects off her wing-tipped, milk-bottle glasses.
Two widows, Edith and her sister, Moira, sit, whispering to each other, passing comment on the rest of the congregation. They have chosen a respectable position in the middle of the rows of pews: close enough to show that they are family, far enough to show that they are not pushing themselves forward. 
“Is that Aunty Merkel?” says Moira. “My word, yes, it is.” 
“She must be getting on a bit,” says Edith. “I remember her being around when I was just a kiddie.”
“She attends every family wedding,” say Moira. “She must love weddings.”
“She can’t love them that much; she’s an old maid,” says Edith.
“What’s that in her bag? It looks like a rat.” Moira leans forward to observe the strange creature peeping out from Aunty Merkel’s handbag.
“That’s Mr Tegmark,” says Edith. “Aunty Merkel’s hairless cat. She was always rather eccentric.”
“It’s an odd looking creature,” says Moira. When she catches the cat’s eye, it disappears into the depths of Aunty Merkel’s bag. “That’s a cat that doesn’t like to be looked at,” says Moira with a sniff.
The bride’s matron of honour walks to the front of the church. She grips the sides of the eagle lectern. Her voice trembles as she speaks.
“Nerves,” says Edith.
The words of the matron of honour flow over the sisters:
“Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
Ruth is such a lovely book,” murmurs Moira.
Edith nods, lost in the past. They had read from the Book of Ruth at her own marriage. Such a happy marriage. She misses her Bert so much…. She seems to remember the glint of reflected light at her ceremony. “She never comes to the reception,” she says.
“Who doesn’t?”
“Aunty Merkel.”
“Ah.”
“She never gave me a present, either,” whispers Edith, running her finger along the neckline of her dress, which has been bought especially for this wedding and which is a little too tight.
The sounds of the organ fills the church: All Things Bright and Beautiful. It’s a well chosen hymn. The congregation know this one and they join in with gusto.
Then Cousin Mitch stands up to make the final reading.
Edith nudges her sister, “The nerve of him, bringing his fancy piece to a family wedding,” she says.
Moira raises an eyebrow in agreement, “He says she’s trying to get a divorce.”
“Divorce? I don’t approve of divorce,” says Edith.
Cousin Mitch stands at the lectern and reads aloud: 
“Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offense. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and endurance. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.”
The sisters have forgotten Aunty Merkel. Thoughts slide around Aunty Merkel; it’s better that way. 
Aunty Merkel never brings a present, she brings something better. She’s staring at the happy couple and she’s shifting through their futures, unravelling the ball of tangled string to find the thread of their happy marriage.
Chaotic inflation means that multiverse is always stretching, like a loaf of bread, forever baking in the oven of eternity.  Aunty Merkel likes wedding; she likes this family;  she likes this bubble universe that stopped expanding a while ago, and sits static in the bread. When this bubble formed in a spasm of spontaneous symmetry it enclosed linear time. You can keep the other  10^10^10^7  bubbles with their diverse physical constraints. Aunty Merkel likes linearity; she likes ceremony; she likes repetition.
The couple make their vows.
A successful marriage is difficult, but in this bubbleverse there are plenty of worlds to choose from, there’s room for happiness. Aunty Merkel searchers for the dopplegangers of the happy couple; through the parallels and possibilities; through the hubble volumes; discarding the myriad worlds of sadness, disappointment, divorce; always following one thread: there are three things that last forever . . . the greatest of them all is love.
When the couple finish their vows and kiss, Aunty Merkel gives the couple their gift. Moira was right: Aunty Merkel is a romantic. And, although, she never brings a present; she always gives the couple their future.
The wedding is over and the congregation wait outside the church while the couple sign the register.
Edith rummages in her handbag for a box of confetti.
“Where’s Aunty Merkel?” asks Moira.
“She must have slipped away.”
“Why, Edith you’re crying.”
Edith wipes away the tear, “I had such a happy marriage, Moira.”
Moira grips her sister’s hand so tightly that her knuckles show white through the skin, “I know, my love. We both did. We were both blessed.”
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Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives. Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com 

 

Next Issue of

BEORH QUARTERLY

Out in May!

Join Us!

Winter 2013

all content © 2013

Greetings, Dear Friends!

In this delightful issue of BEORH QUARTERLY we introduce five new stories from our own day as we creep more and more toward the Light. Danielle Davis brings us terror with “The Collection.”

I then offer yet another tale from benighted Salem, but this time–I promise–not about witchcraft.

Then David Galef introduces us to “The Junk Man,” a delightful sojourner sure to whisk you away into a Bradburyesque world of shadowy whimsy.

Beth J. Whiting, a new favorite writer of mine and one I am happy to feature regularly, then tells us the story of “Seaweed” which brings to mind a certain Sid & Marty Krofft production many of us watched on TV every Saturday morning as kids.

And then… surprise! Ken & Barbie make an appearance in Sandy Hiortdahl’s “The Dream House Holiday,” a warm and funny view of Faeries from, yes, their own perspective.

Wintertime is here again, and you, good reader, are welcomed yet again to Beorh Quarterly !

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The Collection

a story by

Danielle Davis

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“I’m not too sure about this,” Suzanne said. She stood just inside the threshold of the front door. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and glanced around like she expected something bad to happen. The hallway smelled like old people and boiled eggs. Faintly, underneath it all, there was a hint of bleach. It was like someone woke up, made breakfast, and set about to clean right away.
“Oh come on. It’ll be ok. Besides, we’re coming right out again in a minute.” Mark was already out of sight around the corner into the living room. It was his house, but his parents weren’t home yet, and this was the first time Suzanne had gone to a friend’s house when their parents weren’t there. She was pretty sure she’d be grounded if her dad found out, so she was anxious to get home.
A tabby cat poked its head from underneath a love seat in the entranceway and meowed at Suzanne. She stepped forward to pet it, glancing around again as her fingers rubbed the soft fur at the back of its ears. It leaned into her touch and closed its eyes in bliss, purring like a small motor. “If my parents find out that I’m over here…” She didn’t quite want to admit that she wasn’t supposed to be there. The Brewster twins, Mary and Mark, had only been at her school for a week, but she’d already developed a crush on Mark that her parents probably wouldn’t approve of. They told her sister Marianne that she was too young to be interested in boys, and she was a year and a half older. Suzanne was thrilled that Mark had invited her to his house—the last thing she wanted to do was act like she was scared of breaking the rules. That wasn’t how cool kids acted.
“What, they don’t let you visit friends’ houses?” Mark’s head popped out from behind the corner. He frowned. The cat gave a venomous hiss and darted back under the loveseat, startling Suzanne. Mark rolled his eyes. “That cat hates people. I’m surprised she let you touch her. You coming?”
Suzanne followed Mark into the living room and down a long hallway. The house looked ordinary, with a few boxes stacked against the wall. “We’re still unpacking,” Mark said over his shoulder. It was eerie to be in someone else’s house without their parents being home.
Mark stopped in front of a bedroom door that had a poster of Spiderman taped on it. Inside, the room was mostly boxes, with rumpled sheets on a bed against one wall and a lonely chest of drawers across from it. There were bumper stickers stuck to the fronts of the drawers, but the print was too small for Suzanne to make them out without staring.
Mark darted around the bed, picked something up from the floor and held it out to her. “Isn’t this cool? My dad bought it for me when we moved here. He said it might help me make friends.” It was a remote-controlled helicopter with blades that sounded like a hive of bees buzzing when it hovered. He demonstrated how lights on the side flashed when it made machine gun noises. Suzanne tried to pretend she was interested. But she was acutely aware of the time shown on the digital clock next to his bed. Her skin started to feel itchy with the sense that every minute she stayed put her one minute closer to being grounded. “Can we hurry? I’m supposed to be home in ten minutes.” It embarrassed her to admit she had a curfew, but she decided nothing was worth risking getting grounded for, not even a visit to Mark Brewster’s house.
“Do you always have to go straight home?”
“Not usually. Just since…” Suzanne glanced at the doorway and lowered her voice. “Just since the murders. My dad said it’s not safe to dawdle after school until they catch whoever did it.”
“Oh, yeah. I kinda heard about that.”
“You kinda heard? Wasn’t Terrence Latrell in your English class?” She was surprised—she thought everyone was taking the murders as seriously as her dad was.
“Wait, that’s why he’s been out this week? He got killed?” Mark’s eyes were wide. His mouth hung open as he stared at the floor in shock. “Oh man. I just thought… well, that he’d been sick or something. But killed?”
Suzanne straightened a little, pleased to be able to show off her knowledge on a subject he obviously didn’t know much about. “There’ve been three so far,” she said. “All kids.” She cocked her head. “Well,” she added, “the first was a high school kid. But the last two were from our school.” Her voice dropped even lower, and when she leaned toward Mark, he leaned forward, too, to hear her better. “My dad says there’s a serial killer on the loose.” She allowed a gloating smile when Mark’s eyes got even wider. “My mom got real mad when he said that, because it was at the dinner table. But I heard them talking later that night about it, and she thinks it’s one, too.”
Mark fidgeted with the edge of his shirt. “Yeah, my mom and dad mentioned that earlier, too.” Suzanne’s shoulders slumped a bit—she’d thought her parents were pretty smart to have come up with that—but Mark didn’t notice. “They were worried about my sister.”
“They were worried she’d be killed?”
“No, not that. Worried that…” He looked up at her, and she was surprised to see that he looked uncertain, as if he were struggling to decide what to tell her. “Do you know why we came to Woodbury?” She shook her head. “My sister kept getting into… she had some trouble at our last school.” He looked at his shirt again. “It got so bad that we had to move.”
Suzanne stared at him, unsure how to respond. “That’s… terrible.”
Mark gave an angry glance to the side. “It wasn’t fair!” he said. “One day stuff started happening and everyone thought it was her. People all over town kept harassing us. The teachers whispered things behind our backs. Folks tried to pretend they weren’t staring at us when we went to the grocery store. The neighborhood kids, kids at school—they started with the names. Calling her ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Mary the Maniac.’ It was awful! She’d come home crying every day. It wasn’t even her fault.” Suzanne thought she saw a shine of tears collecting in Mark’s eyes. “This is our chance to start over.”
“What kind of stuff happened?” Suzanne asked in a soft voice.
Mark blinked and frowned at her. “What?”
“You said stuff started happening. What kind of stuff? Was it the same kind of stuff as here?” Goosebumps rose along her arms. She felt her scalp tighten. The room felt colder, though she knew it probably wasn’t. It was her that was getting colder as she listened.
Mark opened his mouth, but before he could answer, a door slammed shut somewhere back the way they’d come. Suzanne jumped and whirled to face the hallway. “Hello!” a woman’s voice called out. “Hello? Anybody home yet?”
Mark stepped past her to the door and leaned his head out of the room. “I’m here, Mom! And I’ve got a friend. Suzanne.” It seemed so strange for him to be calling down the hall instead of going to meet his mother to talk. Suzanne’s mom always got on to her for yelling in the house, when she could just as easily walk to the other room talk in a normal voice like a civilized young lady.
“Oh lovely, sweetheart! Is she from school?”
Even though Mark’s mother sounded cheerful, Suzanne thought it felt wrong, somehow. She supposed it was just because of what she and Mark had been talking about.
Mark glanced back at Suzanne with a theatrical roll of his eyes. She giggled. “Of course from school, Mom! I was just showing her my pets.”
“Well, don’t get too messy, love. You don’t want to ruin your school clothes.”
Suzanne touched Mark’s arm. “No, wait. I can’t. I need to get home, remember?”
“It won’t take very long. They’re in the closet. Don’t you want to see?”
“But…” She glanced between Mark and the doorway, torn. “If my dad finds out, I’ll be grounded for life.”
“Relax.” He smiled at her—the same cute smile that he’d given her the first time she saw him in class. He pointed at the door. “One quick glance and we’re gone. Besides, it’s probably best if you’re not here when Mary gets home. She doesn’t like it when I have friends over.” As he moved toward the closet door, she realized there was no trace of the tears he’d been close to shedding moments before. In fact, his eyes were clear and alert, and he grinned like her sister did when she rode her bike down a steep hill.
Mark put one hand on the doorknob and then paused. With a glance over his shoulder at Suzanne, he said, “I only show this to my friends. But we are friends now… aren’t we?”
Suzanne couldn’t help but nod, though the way the sunlight slanted through the curtains in Mark’s room told her it was way too late for her to be out.
“On second thought,” Mark said as he stepped back. “You open it. It’ll be even cooler that way.” His shoes clicked together at the heels as he stood the way a doorman might stand at attention for a rich lady in a movie. Suzanne felt like some other girl in a dream as she put her hand on the knob. Though she expected it to be cold, the brass was warm from Mark’s hand. She pulled it open.
Inside were glass aquariums, the kind she’d seen in pet stores for lizards or snakes. Three were side-by-side on a shelf, with another three perched on top of those. Each one held a head, in various stages of decomposition. They floated in a clear liquid that looked too thick to be water. She stared at the heads that stared back at her, feeling empty as her brain struggled to make sense of what she saw. The three heads on the bottom row were the farthest gone, with milky orbs for eyes and floating bits of flesh like sediment around the faces. The ones on top were the freshest. She recognized Terrence’s head. It bobbed, frozen in an expression of surprise.
Suzanne opened her mouth to scream, but only a low huh huh huh noise came out. She turned, slowly, dreamily, to look at Mark. He stood where she had last seen him. He wore a feral grin, but now he held an empty aquarium. She hadn’t even heard him move to get it. He held it out to her. “We’re going to need this,” he said. She took the aquarium like a robot, looking down into it with a glassy-eyed gaze that didn’t really see anything at all. ‘Don’t get too messy,’  his mother had said.
“Now the fun part begins.”
Contrary to popular belief, Danielle Davis was not raised by wombats in Pau Pau, New Guinea, though she did own 2 gerbils as a child. She received her MFA from the University of Memphis and has had work published in Fantastic Frontiers Magazine and Whortleberry Press’s Strange Christmas 2012 anthology. She writes under the pseudonym “Danielle Davis,” which happens to be an anagram of her real name, Danielle Davis. Most of her time is spent worrying about the inevitable zombie apocalypse, fidgeting, and being awkward in social situations. You can find her wandering around Tumblr and blogging infrequently.

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No Variableness,

Neither Shadow of Turning

a story by

Scathe meic Beorh

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Salem, 1636
The sturdy oaken door opened to the frigid air filled with the scent of burning leaves. The elderly yet alert Goodwife Naylor looked with inquiry at the stranger, but said nothing.
“I am Mister William Hinderall, come from Babworth this week passed. Your name please.”
“Goodwife Naylor.”
“Well met, Goody Naylor. I am newly commissioned Inspector General whose duty be to go from house to house once a month to inquire what strangers have thrust themselves into the town.”
“I see, Mister Hinderall. Well, ye can be assured that little thrusting be done here these days.”
Hinderall winced. He bit his tongue. Surely this woman meant nothing indecent by that remark!
“Yet,” continued the Goodwife, “will thou come in to assure thyself there be nothing here amiss? Mine husband John Naylor the Blacksmith be at home. He prepares fresh fish out in the kitchen while I finish knitting a shawl for the Widow Crabb. Ye would be welcome to sup with us this night, Mister Hinderall.”
“I shall dine with Magistrate Hathorne this evening, thank ye. Now, it being the case that thine husband be at home, I will enter, Goody Naylor,” said the inspector as he stepped across the threshold. With somber ceremony he took his hat from his head and hung it on an ornate hook nailed up just inside the doorway. “Impressive ironwork, though excessively elaborate. My cloak, Goody Naylor?”
“I will take it, Mister Hinderall.”
 “I thank thee.”
“Please to forgive mine eavesdropping, Mister Hinderall,” said Goodman Naylor as he entered the house through a side door of the dwelling. “Do ye have prior warning that House Naylor show hospitality to strangers? Forsooth!
“Nay, Goodman Naylor,” said Hinderall as he turned to study yet more well-wrought iron hooks and tools of the hearth. “‘Tis but my obligation to inquire at every door in Salem. It be the duty of Magistrate Hathorne, by whom  I be employed, to take care of matters of our holy religion. The end of the office of magistrate be, as ye know, godliness. It be the duty, therefore, of Magistrate Hathorne, and of myself by extension, to punish and repress idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, the venting of corrupt and pernicious opinions, open contempt of the word preached, and profanation of the Lord’s Day. Since strangers more oft than not bring with them such outside devilments, my position has been formed of recent to counteract such persuasions.”
“Yet, does not Holy Writ teach us,” said Goodman Naylor, “to be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares?”
“Goodman Naylor!” said Mister Hinderall as he whirled to face his opponent, incensed. “Ye seek to teach me Scripture? Where have ye been schooled in such matters as angels and those who wander in the Name of God?” He took in a deep breath in attempt to relax his anger. “Ye would not know, of course, that I have assisted in directing the new school of theology in Cambridge, Harvard by name, where conversations upon such topics be as commonplace as breakfast idle!”
“No, sir, ye be right. New school, ye say? Good news, that. Nevertheless, I do read, unlike many here in Salem. Be it not the Holy Ghost dwelling within we who have been baptized who teaches us according to the deep things of God?”
“Ye hideth someone here, methinks, Goodman Naylor,” said the inspector as he clenched his teeth and fists, “or a divertive talk on such matters which do lie far above thy station in life would not issue forth from thine heart. Where? Where be the stranger this house doeth hide away! Could it even be the likes of that heretic Roger Williams?”
“We have no stranger here, Mister Hinderall,” said Goodwife Naylor as she gestured to the narrow flight of stairs behind her. “And certainly Mister Williams would not dare be seen in Salem. Thou art more than welcome to discover for thyself.”
With a puff and a huff, Mister Hinderall took exaggerated leaps up the steep, narrow steps. He stomped around in the spacious loft upstairs. He swung open the wardrobe, shifted the bed aside, swished curtains along their sally rods. Nothing. He exhaled like a sea-pig. The Naylors snickered at the foolish man, but regained their composure before he returned.
“Cellar?” he said, red-faced.
“Follow me,” said Goodwife Naylor.
No one of import hid belowground, though a towhead with large blue eyes could be seen afloat in the vicinity of the apple barrel.
“A grandchild, Goody Naylor?”
“Indeed. That be young Habakkuk a’looking at ye.”
“Outbuildings? Kitchen? Horse stable? With a quickness, Goody Naylor! I do not have all day.”
The smokehouse, springhouse, tool shed, icehouse, stable, chicken coop, smithy, and finally the kitchen were shown to the inspector. Nothing.
“Satisfied, I do reckon,” said Hinderall as he reentered, crestfallen, the main abode. “But mark ye my words, Goodman Naylor! I am watching thee and thy wife and house. Let the very shadow of a stranger touch this dwelling hereafter, and both ye and thy guest shall be punished forthwith!”
“Aye, we hear and heed thee, good sir,” said Goodman Naylor as with grace he handed Hinderall his hat and cloak, then saw him to the door.
Outside, the afternoon sun showed then from behind a purpled sky, and lo! the shadow of Inspector Hinderall fell in monstrous size over the threshold of Naylor House. The poor man started, threw his hand to his heart and jumped back so that his silhouette did then touch the earth only, and no more the house. Flustered beyond words, he turned and jogged away.
The following morning, a sojourner, a journeyman blacksmith, came from the Bay Colony to Salem for work. He was welcomed into the Naylor home, with no penalty upon any head for the kindnesses shown him.
*
*

The Junk Man

a story by

David Galef

+

The junk man travels through towns, showing and trading his wares. He can be a middle‑aged man with a salesman’s voice or a boy with a buttercup smile and cowlick. The junk man is an ancient figure, bent over his case of dusts and powders, muttering to himself as he goes from door to door.
The junk man walked until he came to a faded white house with peeling gray trim. A gap-toothed picket fence surrounded a patch of mostly dead grass. An old bulldog rested against a tree stump. The junk man opened the gate and walked up the path. He rang the bell once and waited.
A young woman wearing a tattered orange apron opened the door. Standing on her doorstep was a tall boy in his late teens. He wore a gray sweater and brown slacks and carried a satchel under one arm.
“Excuse me, but I wonder if you’re interested in what I’m selling?” He opened his satchel and took out a spray bottle. “Your name is Dorothy Ogleby, right?”
Dorothy nodded. He must have checked a telephone directory before he came: it was an old trick. Still, she had a long afternoon ahead of her, and she might as well see what this young man had to say. “What are you selling?” She tried to look into his satchel, but he closed it.
He began his pitch. “I’m selling the past: visions of yesterday, old experiences….” He let an embarrassed note creep into his voice. “Anything the customer remembers.”
Dorothy tried not to smile. He was almost handsome, in a crooked sort of way. “All right, then, give me a demonstration.”
“Gladly.” He shook the bottle and pressed the nozzle, enveloping her in a fine green haze. Inside the mist, she seemed to be leaning back and looking upward. As the vapor cleared away, she was smiling like a ten-year-old. Then she let her hands fall with a hurt look. “What kind of trick was that? I don’t know how you did it, but I don’t think that’s very funny.”
“It’s no trick, ma’am. You want a memory, I’ll bring it back for you. Your father, an old classroom, a few lines of verse. What is it you want?”
Dorothy leaned against the doorway, her disapproval gone. “Bring me back to our old house on Allen Street, the one with green shutters and gold trim. We’d sit on the porch and drink lemonade. I saw it again a moment ago.”
The junk man shrugged and lifted the spray bottle again. When the vision was over, he wasted no more time. “Here’s the bottle, Mrs. Ogleby, but I want something in return, some little item, something you may have lying around—may I look inside?”
Dorothy opened the door so fast it hit the wall. “Okay, look around, find something, but I’ll get the bottle, right?”
The teen nodded and smiled. Then he was in the living room, glancing at the souvenirs on the mantel. He reached out for a small brass knob. “Here, I’ll take this.” He showed it to Dorothy for an instant before slipping it into his satchel.
She bit her lip. “Look, why don’t you take something more valuable than that? I mean, how much use can you get out of—oh, you don’t want that.”
He put the bottle in her hand and hefted his satchel. “I’m sorry. This is the only object I can use.”
“All right, go ahead and take it.” Dorothy watched the young man walk down the path with measured, brisk steps. She shut the door and walked back into the living room. The bare spot on the mantel from where the junk man had taken his prize was like a sad eye staring at her. Why, of all the things in the house, had he taken the door-knocker from their old home? She placed the bottle where the knocker had been. It seemed to cast a presence of its own, some hint of a forgotten secret, or a dusty attic window opening onto a cloud-filled sky. She stared at it for some time in the fading afternoon light.
The junk man moved on, skipping three streets of houses before he stopped at another one. In the front yard was a boy playing in a tree, looking down from an overhanging branch.
The junk man was now a middle-aged man with a sandy mustache and a large shopping bag. He approached the tree and called up to the boy. “Come on down, Donnie. I’ve got something to show you.” He reached into his bag and took out a purple stone the size of a walnut. Held up to the light, it showed coils of smoke that curled and twisted about themselves. Donnie reluctantly left his perch and slid down the trunk. “My mom’s not home, and I don’t have any money. Whatcha got, anyway?”
The junk man held out the stone. “I’m giving away wishes, Donnie. The kind you read about in books. You can dream up anything, anything at all.” He placed the stone in Donnie’s hand. “Here, rub on it.”
The boy looked doubtful, so the junk man leaned over and moved Donnie’s hands over the stone. A haze arose and settled about him. He laughed and walked into it. He ran back a few feet and caught an imaginary ball. He waved. He yelled. Then the vapor disappeared and he was left holding the stone. “They’re not here anymore. What happened?”
The junk man smiled. “They were never really here. Only an image, a memory you had.” He pointed to the stone in Donnie’s hands. “You see, it gets smaller each time you use it. It should be good for a while, though.”
“What good is it if they’re not really there?”
“What difference does it make whether they’re real? While it’s working, you can have all the friends you want, people crowding around you…. When it’s over, you can do it again.”
Donnie’s fingers curled around the stone. “How much, mister?”
The junk man appeared to weigh the value as he sized up the boy. “I’m not interested in taking your money—”
“All I got is fifteen cents.”
“What I want is a rubber band or a piece of string, maybe a marble, something like that. In fact, a marble would be just right. You have one in your pocket, don’t you?”
Donnie felt in his pocket and brought out a yellow cat’s eye. “Here,” he said.
“That’s not the one I mean.”
He stuck his hands back in his pockets. “I don’t want to give you the other one. It’s special.”
“Then give back the stone.”
“What’s the matter with the yellow one? All you said was you wanted a marble.” With his hand in his right pocket, he gripped the special blue marble his friend Jake had given him before he moved away. “Here, take your stupid stone! I don’t want it anyway.” He ran for the tree and was soon high up on a branch.
The junk man sighed and put the magic stone back into his bag. He looked up into the branches where Donnie was staring down at him. “That’s all right, I might be back sometime.” He picked up his bag and made his way to the edge of the lawn.
Walking down the street again, the junk man shook his head. Where did they think he got his supplies, anyway? All recollections are based on something: lace from a wedding dress, the door-knocker of an old house, a marble given by a friend. Some people aren’t ready to give those things up, of course. But they all came to him sooner or later. It was simply a matter of time. And what did the junk man want? Hard to say. No one had ever asked him. He looked back at the tree where Donnie was climbing to a higher branch, not looking down. “I’ll be back someday,” he said, nodding. His tone was neither nasty nor kind, merely a flat statement. He watched the boy climb around in the tree for a while longer, and then continued along the street.
The junk man walked until he crossed into a wealthier area with finer homes and bigger dreams. He finally stopped in front of a large brick house set back from the street. It had a winding path with violets along the border. The yard was fenced in, but the junk man walked to the gate and swung it open. A pale face peeked out from a set of heavy green curtains on the second floor. The junk man pursed his lips. He walked up the path, now in the guise of a portly gentleman carrying a leather briefcase. He wore a charcoal gray suit and looked rather important as he walked up the three doorsteps and put down his briefcase.
The junk man knocked at the door.
+
David Galef is a shameless eclectic, with over a dozen books in over two dozen directions. They include the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress (listed by Kirkus as one of the 30 Best Books of 2006), the story collection Laugh Track, a nasty book of poems called Flaws, the children’s picture book Tracks, and a volume of translated Japanese proverbs called Even Monkeys Fall from Trees. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, which is as odd as it sounds. A professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University, he is also a humor columnist for Inside Higher Ed.

*

Seaweed


a story by

Beth J. Whiting

+
Marie told the camp leaders that she wasn’t doing anything this year. No summer camp activities. She brought a suitcase with seven large books so she could read the whole time.
         She got aboard a bus for the two hour drive to camp. When she arrived, the girls in the bunkhouse were giggling and socializing, but soon went off to do camp activities. Marie sat in her lower bunk and read the whole day through.
         The next day, a camp counselor came to Marie’s cabin and told her, “You have to at least go swimming.”
         “What?” Marie moaned and thought for a second. Then she smiled. “Oh no, I didn’t bring a swimming suit!”
         “That’s okay. I brought a few extra.”
         Marie frowned and got into a black suit. She went out to the water to meet up with the other girls.
         Marie descended into the water and almost immediately screamed in fear.
         Something had bitten her. She saw a green creature swim away.
         Marie ran to her camp leader with her bruised and bleeding leg. “I think I got bit by seaweed!”
         “Oh dear,” one of the other camp leaders said. “That old myth again? Go get cleaned up.”
         Marie bandaged her wound and was resting in the bunkhouse an hour later when two men approached her window, eager looks on their faces.
         “Word’s got around that some seaweed bit you.”
         “Yeah.”
         The men looked happy. “I knew it.”
         “It’s a sign that they’re here.”
         “What’s here?”
         “The seaweed creatures, of course. They live underwater, they have sharp teeth. They wreck boats for fun.”
         Marie looked puzzled.
         “There’s evidence. We call them seaweeds. Our mission is to find out about their culture. There hasn’t been a sighting in a year. You’re it. Would you care to give us an interview?”
         Marie felt special.
         “Well, I was under water when I felt something bite me. I looked and a seaweed creature rushed past me.”
         The men listened in awe.
         “We haven’t come that close to the seaweeds.”
         “Please join us at the Seaweed Café. It’s just a mile from here.”
         “Really?”
+
         The next day, when she would have been reading, Marie walked on over to the Seaweed Café. There were paintings and blurry photos of seaweed creatures on the wall. A tooth was encased in glass.
         The men now wore name tags and were eating fish.
         “Welcome to the Seaweed Café. Look, it’s the girl who was bitten.”
         “How long have the seaweeds been around?”
         “As long as anyone can tell. They talk like humans. People have heard conversations. They speak English. For some reason they like to attack our boats. We’re not sure why. There have been little seaweeds, adult seaweeds spotted. ”
         “Do you try to hunt them?”
         “We want to study them. We tried to get research teams out here, you know, scientific people. But they laughed at us. They thought we were making it up.”
         “Well, I know you’re not.”
         “Over the years, explorers have captured seaweeds, but they always get away. They’re smart creatures.”
“Wow.”
*
         Marie looked at the ocean all day the next day, daydreaming about a culture that lived down there. A whole land of seaweeds. What do they do down there? Do they have school?
         She eventually fell asleep, and when she awoke it was 2 a.m. She walked to the shore. She heard a splash. A tall seaweed climbed out of the water.
         There was also a girl there. A girl from her camp. A pretty girl she had dismissed as a snob: Nana.
         Nana kissed the seaweed.
         Marie quietly walked away.
         She waited until the next day when Nana was putting on makeup in the morning so she could talk with her alone.
         “I know about you and the seaweed.”
         “Who told you?” Nana asked, frightened.
         “I saw you myself. Just how did you get to know such a creature?”
         “I was alone in a boat and he attacked me. We got to know each other, and I’ve been meeting up with him for three summers.”
         “Do you have any other boyfriends?”
         “Yes, but they don’t count much. I don’t care for the ones at school.”
         “What do you love about him?”
         “His heart. He’s a simple creature. They only attack boats for pranks. They’re actually a very nice, sophisticated culture.”
         “How do I get to know them?”
         “You can’t. They’re shy about the outside world. They know people go hunting for them and take snapshots.”
         “Can I get to know them?” Marie said, trying again.
         “No.”
*
         The next day Marie went to the men again.
         They were complaining about the seaweeds.
         “They never interact with other creatures.”
         “That’s not true.”
         Maybe it was out of spite for not getting to know one, but Marie told her tale about Nana.
         The men stood there amazed.
*
         Word got around, and soon Nana was ordered to pack and go home. She wasn’t allowed to return to the camp again.
         She stormed out of her cabin when her parents arrived early to take her home. In front of everyone she declared, “I’m in love with him! There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m 18. I can move to this place if I want!”
         “Who will hire you around here?”
         The café workers stepped in and said, “She can have a job with us.”
*
         So Nana worked at the Seaweed Café. Sometimes the seaweed would step in shyly and ask for his wife.
            The men treated him like a hero. It was the talk of the town for a while, and even made tabloid news (though hardly anyone believed it was real). Gradually, the residents accepted the relationship between the seaweed and Nana. Marie now liked summer camp.

*

*

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 Dream House Holiday

a story by

Sandy Hiortdahl

 +
“It’d have to be a very special cat,” Luke said as he kicked back on the ottoman for emphasis.
            Kirk frowned. “Cats are fine. You’re too fearful for your own good.”
            Both of them were boorish, as though being in the realm of humans had made them so.  First, we hadn’t seen any cats, and second, we were seated in the Barbie Dream House, second floor, and the girl Tricia had kindly replaced the fake piano and two wicker arm chairs from the porch so we could all sit together. Not only was it air-conditioned in here, but she’d given us a grand tour, including the dollhouse elevator, which went wonderfully up and down. I rode four times and didn’t care what Luke and Kirk thought—as a girl, I, too, had played with dolls, though mine were carved from linden branches and wore clothes made from refashioned human shoe leather, feather down, and bits of dandelion cotton—similar to what I wore now.
            “This is Barbie,” Tricia said to us as she held up the doll which was about our size. “And this is Ken.” She bobbed their heads. “They say ‘Hello, fairy people!’”
            “Hello, Barbie! Hello, Ken!” I replied. I inspected their long, painted eyelashes and their blue, unblinking eyes. I really wanted them to be as alive as Tricia believed them to be.
            The boys would have none of this.  Luke, the soldier, was stretched out on the ottoman. Kirk was looking through his medic sack. Two hours earlier, the big black dog called Buddy had come to our glen in the linden wood and explained in his primitive language, “Girlchild… sick… I’m sad… this way.” We’d consulted with our Mayor, gathered a medic sack apiece and hopped aboard for the ride back, holding tight to the thick fur.  Buddy’d galloped right through the kitchen, a glorious ride—where the Dad didn’t notice us clinging on—and up the stairs. We almost never turned down a dog’s request: they could be magnificent allies. Also, to do a human a favor was good luck, and almost always resulted in some useful booty. We still immortalized the group who’d brought back half a roll of duct tape from a campsite: it’d lasted for years and solved innumerable problems. For all that, we were a proud and ancient race, but we were practical as well. That was the party line, the one the boys followed. As for me, I wanted a holiday in human land, and I thrilled to the shine of Barbie’s plastic furniture.
            “Wait! I know!” Tricia said and dropped her dolls to turn and open her toy chest. Her breathing was labored, and it was clear she was feverish as she turned back with handfuls of Barbie’s attire. She filled the dollhouse kitchen and pantry with leotards, sequined gowns, bathing suits, and mismatched shoes, along with a tiara. “Barbie would like to make a trade,” she said, though Barbie just stared. “She likes your vest.”
            Luke laughed. “You’d look great in the wee silver skirt, Lil,” he said. “Or the fur coat!”
            “Hush,” I said to him, and then to Tricia, “These are lovely.”
            “Okay,” she said, “Okay, good! Because Barbie’s tired of everything and she can get more but what she can’t get is what you have on. You think about it and Barbie will think about it. Try stuff on if you want. I’m going to sleep again if you promise you’ll be here when I wake up?”
            “Promise,” I said.
            “Promise?”
            “Promise.”  
            Tricia climbed into her bed and went to sleep almost immediately. Kirk busied himself with a repel line and hook so he could get a blood sample. 
            “Lil, is there anything good for lunch?” Luke asked. By ‘good’ he meant not the jerky and dried raspberries we’d brought with us. As kids, against the consent of our parents, we’d often raided the ‘spoils’ of human picnicking—a stray olive would be the equivalent size of a watermelon. One of those with a bit of hot dog and a corn chip or two was a feast for us.  It’s junk, pure junk, the elders would say, but that hadn’t stopped us. 
            I opened the pink refrigerator, moved aside the plastic pizza and the plastic chicken and pulled out the round red “M” candy, about the size of a human cake for us. “There’s this.”
            Kirk smirked. “Isn’t that plastic like everything else here?” Grumbly fae nature man!
             “Chocolate inside,” I said.
            Buddy the dog looked up from the rug at the end of the bed, where he was gnawing a bone. He nudged the bone with his nose. “Want?” he asked.
            “Not quite our feed,” I said. He smiled, licked his lips, and resumed his gnawing. Dogs are simple creatures, generous and kind-hearted—but generally hungry as well.
            The boys got busy. Luke took out a knife and came over to try his luck with the “M” while Kirk set up his line to get from the dream house to the dreaming girl. That left me and Barbie’s clothes! They were extravagant and very human, and though I tried with everything in me to be disdainful, I had to try them on. The elegant black dress with purple flowers and elbow length white gloves. Next came a crazy polka-dotted skirt with a football jersey. Then a pink gown with lace and an impossible hoop skirt, a sailor hat and shorts, a crazy-colored jumpsuit….  I glanced at Barbie and wondered if she’d be as thrilled with my leather jerkin, dandelion cotton frock, or hemp pants. Perhaps.
            Luke peeked in, his face covered in chocolate. “What the hey, Lil? What are you doing in that?” It was the crazy-colored overalls and the aviator cap with glasses. He started to sneer, but then cocked his head and grinned. “Is there something for me to try?”
            “Sure!” Ken’s clothing had been mixed in and I’d tossed it over the ironing board.  “All kinds of stuff!”
            Luke wiped his face and hands and started modeling, first the tuxedo with a fake rose held in his teeth, then the Hawaiian shirt and shorts, then the soccer uniform, and finally a pair of worn blue jeans and a t-shirt with a guitar on it. “This…” he said with a happy sigh, “feels heavenly….”
            “Cool fae hippie rock dude!” I said.
            “You like it?”
            I clapped. “Encore!” There was tons more. More colors and styles than could have been imagined. Kirk, meanwhile, had gotten a blood sample from the girl and was back at the lime green plastic dream house dinette set running tests. When I glanced in, he didn’t look up, but huffed, “That’s the trouble with humans. They wait too long. A serious infection will run through a body in less than a day! Our people have old medicine, good medicine.”
            Luke chuckled as he straightened his yellow bow tie and admired himself in a red and white striped suit. “Humans too busy making plastic doll couches and air conditioning. Not that I don’t appreciate both, but their cultural priorities seem a bit askew.”             
            Ten minutes later, Kirk had determined the problem to be a spirochete infection, likely from a tick bite, and had concocted a remedy. He loaded up his syringe and took it back to Tricia. When he pricked the back of her hand with it, she awoke. “You’re here,” she said, with a yawn. “Thought I’d dreamed you.”
            Then she noticed Luke and me. “Oh, you both look so lovely dressed up! Let’s put Barbie and Ken in your clothes and see how they look!” We fished out our discarded fae-ware and handed it to her. She quickly dressed her dolls in it. Even Kirk smiled. The dolls looked like crazy fae mannequins. “Can we… can we have them? You can have all of these!”
            It was too tempting. I pictured myself dancing down the olive branch in lime green sequins… skating across the Root-Oak Pond in the delicious white skirt and jacket…. “We won’t be able to get them home, though,” I said, sad.
            “Sure you will,” replied Tricia. She already seemed to be feeling better. “Look, Buddy brought you in so Buddy can take you back when it’s time… and when it’s time, Buddy will carry them for you.” She grabbed a pink human girl sock. “In this!” 
            By the next day, Tricia was nearly well, we’d stuffed ourselves with half of her breakfast pastry, and Buddy proudly carried us on his back with our sock luggage in his mouth. We promised the little girl we’d be back for more visits, and she promised us there’d be new wardrobes and new adventures with Barbie and Ken. “Next time,” she said, “I’ll make you a swimming pool in the sink and introduce you to Wilma, our cat.”
            “Cat?” Luke jumped and put his hand on the hilt of his knife.
            “Next time,” I said, and we were off again, bound for home—but with fine holiday treasures.

*

Sandy Hiortdahl lives with her best friend Kismo Blue, an Australian Cattle Dog, in East Tennessee. She’s a recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize and has an M.F.A. from George Mason and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. She teaches at Northeast State Community College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming this year in Punchnel’s and Barely South Review, among others. More may be found on her website: www.sandyhiortdahl.com She’s on Twitter: @hiortdahl

Autumn 2013

all content © 2013

Issue 5

The Quintessential

*
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.
Please enjoy!

Climber

a story by
Maggie Whitefeather

+

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.
“A little.”
“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.”
“Umm, no.”
“No? My friend turning down an adventure?”
“That’s right.”
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.
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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.
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The Sun Sets Largest On The Last Day

a story by
Jonpaul Taylor
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“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.
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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.
            “I know.”
            “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.
 
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The More Things Change…

a story by
Scathe meic Beorh

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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.”
“What?”
“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!”
“That’s funny…”
“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…
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Chu-Bu and Sheemish

a story by
Lord Dunsany

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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.

Summer 2013

all content © 2013

issue 4

One Year of Freedom Edition

 
Welcome one and all! to Beorh Quarterly, the Speculative Fiction magazine sharing with the world the very best stories out there!
In this fourth installment, we are proud to include “When Dead Men Dream,” a Sci-Fi piece by mystery aficionado Amy Pollard.
Following that master of the macabre, we are delighted to have Robin Wyatt Dunn aboard with his strange delicacy “Integration,” a brilliant work of dreamy weirdness that carries both hope and sadness.
J. S. Watts graces our pages in this issue with her smooth and thought-provoking work “The Painter and the Angel.”
I then bring you “Mariposa’s Purpose That Peculiar Day,” a tale which adds to the growing list of ‘odd children’ stories such as Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” or the venerable Robert Bloch’s “Sweets to the Sweet” or Saki’s “The Penance” or William F. Nolan’s “Something Nasty.” This story is featured in my latest book Children & Other Wicked Things published by James Ward Kirk Fiction.
Renee Carter Hall evokes a world we all love—if we adore childhood at all, and long Summer nights, and electric dreams—with “The Longest Night of Summer,” a wistful and lovely tribute to all things speculative!
Enjoy!
Scathe meic Beorh
Founder & Editor
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When Dead Men Dream

 a story by
Amy Pollard
No one knew the secret. No one had ever known. All this time, floating in the field of space, and no one had ever guessed it. Captain George Vladok smiled, peering at the champagne as it swished in his glass. It had been a wearisome twenty-six years of war, full of precarious battles and even more precarious treaties, but it was over now. It was over and still nobody knew the secret of The Avalon.
“To my victory!” he exclaimed, plopping onto the warm, plush couch in the corner of his room. Victory on the eve of the new year, 3001. How fitting. Gazing out the window by the control board, he lifted his finger as if to pluck each star that passed into view, glittering like diamonds set against black velvet. A drop of champagne spilled onto his velvet bathrobe; he stared incredulously at the dark blotch seeping over the cloth, only to sigh and nestle his head further into the cushion, letting the champagne course through him until his veins tingled. “To my victory,” he said, holding the glass to eye level before taking a sip. A harsh, rhythmic knock at the door jolted him. “Come in.”
Lieutenant Raza wore a frown as he marched into the room, the leather notebook tightly fixed between his arm and his side. “Reporting, sir!”
“At ease. Relax, for once,” Vladok said, stifling a yawn. “You’ve had a long day. Sit down. Pour yourself some champagne.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the lieutenant, falling stiffly onto a velvet-backed chair. He placed his notebook on the glass table, rattling the vase of electric roses, but did not touch the champagne. Instead, he sat on the edge of the chair, fidgeting with the hem of his jacket.
“Go ahead, Raza.” Vladok nodded toward the bottle. “You want some, don’t you? It tastes like it fermented in a rat’s nest, but it’s really all right—”
“Sir.” Raza’s face twitched. He cleared his throat. “It’s bad, isn’t it.” He nodded mechanically. “They think we’re going home, sir. They haven’t been told…” His cool voice struck the air as shards of glass on a cement pavement. “Soon enough, they’ll find out for themselves, like when we bypass Earth, and then—” His voice creaked. “Then we may have a mutiny on our hands, sir.”
“Well…” Vladok frowned as he rose from his couch. “We wouldn’t want that, would we, lieutenant? Thank you. I’ll see what I can do.”
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As the captain’s gruff voice plummets out of the loudspeakers dotting the ship, I am standing with the other crew members, my stiff-collared uniform sticking to my skin like a bed sheet drenched in dog urine. Frank comes up to me; he slings his arm around my neck.
“Well, Duane, looks like the old man’s at it again. You can hear me, can’t you?” He gawks at my right ear, cocking his surly head to the side.
I cross my arms. “It’s the other one, stupid.”
“Oh…well, guess I should’ve known that,” he grunts. “Been in this hunk of metal too long, eh? Whatcha gonna do once we dock at home? I’m going to buy me an Italian ride and soak it up in a nice, bubbly Jacuzzi on an island somewhere.”
“Oh?” I tilt my head to hear the speakers better. The captain’s harsh, granular voice streams into my right ear. In my left one, only silence.
Frank jerks his head spasmodically. “Whatcha gonna do, once we dock?”
I turn on him with a scowl. “Buy a long, thick rope, hang it from a tree and wait for some ass to get tangled up in it.”
He starts to say something else but I tell him to shut up so I can hear the speaker. Not that our idiotic captain would have a thing to say.
“I regret to inform you, crew members of The Avalon, that we will not return home at this time. Earth’s atmosphere is experiencing a rapid increase in toxic gases that would prove detrimental to this vessel in mere milliseconds. I repeat, we are not returning home at this time. Lieutenant Raza will be accepting your money if you want to send a hologram home. Please know that all systems of our ship are under control and fully operational. A message has already been dispatched to Earth, announcing our intentions to orbit Mars until a solution can be found and we can safely reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. This broadcast terminates in three, two, one—over and out.”
Captain Vladok sank into his couch with a sigh. “There,” he exhaled, taking another sip of champagne. “That warning should be sufficient, don’t you think, Raza?”
“Indeed, sir,” declared Raza, gathering his notebook and rising from his chair. “If you would permit me, captain—”
“Yes, yes, lieutenant!” Vladok bellowed at length. “You are dismissed.”
The lieutenant turned, partially, only to halt at his captain’s voice. “Yes, sir?”
“Send for Private Tucker.”
“Yes, sir!” Raza replied. “Is that all, captain?”
“That’s all.” Captain Vladok watched the bubbles in his champagne glass fizz into iridescent foam around the lip of the glass. “Vladok, Vladok…George Vladok, you are a madman. You are a madman if you think you can pull this off.”
“Reporting, sir.” I raise my dirt-smudged hand in salute.
“Sit down, Tucker,” the captain grunts, pointing at a cushy chair.
I plop into the seat and sniff the electric roses. Wires…it’s always wires. Sighing, I lean back and wonder why I—out of all eighty-two electricians—had to be called. But even more mind-boggling is our avoidance of Earth. I know there’s something behind all of this. Something we haven’t been told. Not that I want to go back to Earth. I need this stale ship air. It’s the only thing to keep my lungs from getting all twisted from that smutty penitentiary air I inhaled so often back home. I frown when I think about the rest of the crew and how indignant they’ll be at the news that we’re not going back. They all have wives and children and space cars with their names on them on the home planet—unlike me.
“How’s progress?”
The captain’s voice vaults me back to The Avalon. “Good, sir. All units are in top condition.”
“Tucker.” He punctuates my name with a chuckle and his eyes get all round, as if he’s talking to a goldfish in a bowl. “How many years have you worked the electrical unit—twelve?”
“Actually about nine years, sir.” I shift my position in the chair. He just sits and stares right through me. I hate it when he does that. Last time was just this past February, when I made some error with the hologram wiring. He lectured me for an hour about how the men missed their sweethearts and what right did I have, anyway, to spoil their relationships. I talked back and he got all red in the face. But he seems to have forgotten about that incident now—or, at least I think he has.
“Nine years…” He lowers his voice and leans forward on the couch. “I just hope this room isn’t bugged.”
“You’re the captain, sir,” I persist. “Don’t you have a say in what goes on?”
“Twenty six years…” he begins, slightly raising his eyebrows.
Oh god. Here it comes.
“Twenty-six years of scrapes and adventures with The Avalon. Some say that I have control of this vessel…and others say that I don’t. Maybe you’ve heard them talking. They’re saying it’s too much for an old crack like me, that I should just dock in the next port and get the hell out. But a secret keeps me here. A secret that they will never understand.” He rises to his feet, his brow furrowed as he concentrates on every word. The vase of roses seems to tremble. “When I was a young man, about your age, I fell in love. So heavenly, so beautiful a creature as Estrada never existed. Then war came. I was the first to be called away. Only a month after I’d been drafted, I found out she’d died in a space shuttle accident. I became full of rage—you know what I mean, don’t you.”
My vision blurs, and the odor of blood creeps back into my nostrils. Her blood. My body tenses. I was never trying to hurt Samantha. It was an accident. But there were no witnesses—in the end, they chose to boot me onto this cursed ship to get me out of the way, to make sure I didn’t “pluck any more lives” as that fire-mouthed judge put it. Why, the way they tagged and shipped me out here makes me look like some sort of foreign contaminant. I grimace and look up at the captain. He sees me. Worse than that, he sees right through me. Right through that dry, crusty layer of skin, to the cracked bones beneath.
With a sigh, the captain shifts his gaze to the crystal stars flitting by the window. “The war lasted only two months more. Then our enemies, from the Jupiter colony, surrendered their cause. But I was still devastated by the loss of Estrada, the only woman I’ve ever loved. My grief was so rabid that I searched the galaxy until I found an engineer who had the skills necessary to mold my conscience to the hull of this ship. That’s when the secret began. Any bit curious, Tucker?” His lips stretch into a smile. “That’s why I accepted your application for an orbit penalty. You seemed the resolute, headstrong type. Just like I was.” His eyes assume a wretched glow as they hone in on me. “But more than that, you and I understand each other.” He rolls up the sleeve of his bathrobe and brings his arm into my field of vision.
“Sir?” I see nothing but a man’s arm, flat and a little stubbly, desolate as a desert road. But I look again and see a tiny gray memory chip with a yellow blinker, wedged into a rectangular socket underneath his elbow.
“I’ve watched you, Tucker.” The color seems to drain from his face as he taps a finger on the memory chip. “These nine years I’ve watched and waited and dreamed. Now it is time. I have found you. My successor.”
“What?” A rush of blood surges through me, jarring my insides apart. “I’m an electrician, sir, not a captain! I could never—”
“This duty is not without rewards,” he continues smugly. “You will feel no anger, no pain…no sorrow, no grief…no shame, no despair …in fact, Private Tucker, you won’t feel anything at all.”
I gape at the little gray chip. All else flips to the back of my mind. “It can do that for you?”
“That, and more,” returns the captain. “Take it out, Tucker. Take it out and see what I’m truly made of.”
Never to breathe, never to feel. For years I’ve dreamed about it—about forgetting the scream, the gunshot, the smattering of blood on the wall. That freezing, blustery day outside the courthouse when I got the news about my orbit penalty on The Avalon. The moment the dogs shoved me into this rusty hunk of old metal and I never again saw sunlight. These memories will mean nothing once the chip is installed. No chip, no regrets. Only numbness, as soon as that gray chip is in me. This is what I want. This is what I’ve always wanted. My fingers trembling, I grasp the memory chip and slide it out of the captain’s arm.
Captain Vladok jerked sideways, tumbling onto the floor. His champagne glass exploded to bits. Fizz engulfed him in a stream of tears—or were they tears? Vladok winced, able to feel them now, grating against his pallid gray cheeks like slabs of rusty metal. His hands flailing ahead of him, he groped for support. His skin burned with Estrada’s touch, the gentle, silky hair between his fingers. Paralysis gripped his legs, rooting him to the floor. The badges on his suit clinked as he rolled onto his back, coughing loudly. For the first time he could see, truly see, what was around him. The private was hovering over him with a slight contortion to his otherwise stiff, rigid face. Vladok felt his arm loosen and he grimaced. Sorrow and happiness blended together in his mind, ebbing and flowing like the ocean back home. Home. He could see her, standing by the seashore, her hair braided and bowed. As the image dissipated, Captain Vladok stared up at the cold, callous face above him, his stomach churning. The buzz and commotion of the ship faded and his field of vision seemed to sift away, particle by particle, as ashes sprinkling into the sea, mixing with the foam and froth.
My jaw unravels. All this time, cruising the realm of stars, and I’d never really seen him till now. That gray, sickly bag of bones; that long, spiked nose and those peg-like teeth are all that remains of our captain. The memory chip moistens in my palm. Never to breathe, never to feel. I lift the chip to my arm only to pause. Is this truly what I want?
The control board at the end of the captain’s quarters makes a faint clicking noise. I gulp and tell myself not to be a fool. About to fuse the chip into my arm, I freeze as the voice on the speaker blurts out, “Auto drive disengaged. Spacecraft to self-destruct in ten, nine, eight…”
It is now or never. Unless the memory chip finds a new bearer, The Avalon is history. I swallow. No more feeling for me. It’s all over. Already the numbness writhes up through my throat, making me choke. The ship sways and I almost lose my hold on the chip. As I squeeze my palm around it, I glimpse the captain’s body through the champagne bottle and I hesitate. Is this truly what I want? Is that who I’ll become? A dead man, bound to this ship for all eternity?
“Seven, six, five…”
The chip falls out of my hand and cracks on the floor. Dashing to the control panel, I bang on whatever buttons are the biggest and the brightest. I want to live. I want to breathe. I want to feel.
“Four…”
The buttons aren’t going. But the lights and speakers and everything else on this blasted ship is. The ceiling starts to crumble as the ship rocks side to side and rapidly changes speed.
“Three…”
Damn that voice! Why won’t it shut up? I make one last round of the buttons, a grisly, pulsating desperation tearing at me, but nothing happens. It is over. I am done for. The crew is done for. This whole godforsaken ship is done for.
“Two…”
A tear attacks my cheek. I curl up on the floor and cup my ears like a little boy hiding under the bedcovers after a nightmare. I’m not a religious man; I know I’m really scared once I start praying.
“One.”
Let me live. Let me breathe. Let me feel.
“Spacecraft is go for self-destruct.”
My heart beats once, beats again. I don’t want it to stop. I want to live. I want to breathe. I want to—
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Amy Pollard is a poet, writer, and student. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Emerge Literary Journal, Eunoia Review and The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly. In her spare time, she drinks coffee, makes music and browses used bookstores. For more information, visit amyspen.blogspot.com
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Integration

a story by
Robin Wyatt Dunn
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Dancing is eternal.
Under the watchful eyes of their cacogen neighbors hovering above, the children dervishes whirled and smiled and laughed, their dresses spinning outwards like tops, white and red and yellow across the Plaza of the Divines in late summer, in the fifth year of the reign of the Raj Broadfort.
“They’re dancing!’ cried Meredith, her small face turned upwards towards the sky. And they were, spinning through the air along with the children.
“Hush!” said Evelyn, her neighbor. “Just be quiet!”
“Look at them!”
“They’re bad,” she said with a hiss.
Two adults watched, one in blue and one in grey, their eyes narrow and their bodies stiff. It was a like a wake.
Thomas whirled too. He whirled faster than the others. He whirled so fast that he was out of rhythm a little, or rather, his rhythm was syncopated. He whirled to fight away the whole city, to escape the coming civil war.
The man in grey took out a gadget and looked at it; it analyzed the childrens’ gaits, sorting malleable from non. Those who could work well with cacogens were his business.
“Beautiful isn’t it, Tepper?” he said. The other said nothing.
As the craft spinning above circled lower, towards the children, the small dervishes arced out in response, forming curved patterns that strung out from the locus of the craft, like petals of a flower.
“Don’t you want to meet them, Ev?” Meredith cried to her neighbor.
“No!”
“Meet them, Ev!”
“No!”
In truth the children were already firm in the convictions of their parents, like children everywhere and when, proudly offering up nativist and neo-interstellar arguments in class like the best of debaters, not knowing a word of what they said. But they knew it was serious business; that was enough.
Thomas whirled till the moment of touchdown and then he ran, lifting his skirts and sprinting towards the river. He loved the aliens but he hated the feeling he had now:  forced to choose, he would rather swim, though it would mean he could attend school no longer.
The craft settled to the ground. All the children’s eyes were wide as their cacogen neighbors stuck out their heads and bodies, performing their centuries-old obeisances to the endoskeletal organisms, humans, that had dominated this planet.
All the children could feel the love of these ugly things, and each knew what they had to do: smile or frown, bow in welcome or cross their arms and turn aside, and so they did.
The adults watched carefully, noting the details of the ritual.
Tepper was crying.
“What is it, man?”
But he only shook his head and stared ahead at the children gathered around the landing craft. Finally he spoke:
“My grandfather fought them. He wanted them all dead. Still when I see them I want them dead too.”
“Why are you crying?”
“Because they’re beautiful.”
Evelyn stepped up the ramp of the ship, watching the huge grey and blue insect quiver with its huge eyes.
“Hi!” she cried out, and it hummed back through its translator: “Hi!
Hi hi!” and Evelyn smiled. “What’s your name?”
Meredith’s mother had already come to collect her—taking her firmly by the hand, she led her daughter home. Meredith did not wave goodbye.
From above, the figures on the Plaza of the Divines described a wolf-flower, a plant native to this world whose spiral seeds could travel for a thousand miles on the wind. As the children scattered for recess like seeds, it began to rain.
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Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in The Town of the Queen of the Angels, El
Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, in Echo Park. He is 33 years old.
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The Painter and The Angel

 a story by
J. S. Watts
 
There was a painter, in times gone by, but not so many times and not so long gone that his hopes and his dreams were that different from yours or mine.
            He was a quiet man, his focus always on the line and the point of contact with the surface. Although still relatively young, he no longer had a wife; the one he did have having wandered off one day when he was focussed on the line’s perfection. It did not worry him unduly. The only thing that mattered to him was the truth and his ability to paint it. He had never felt the need to paint his wife and so her departure was less consequential to him than the sun going down. He spent many hours studying sunsets and sunrises in order to better capture the truth of their light.
            On this particular day he was once again trying to find the right shade of light to wrap around an angel. He had been working on the angel for sometime. Indeed, the painting was well on the way to completion, but the light that he was seeking to do justice to the angel was eluding him. The dying notes of sundown were too melancholy for the hope he had painted in its eyes and he was struggling to find the right balance between the blinding purity of sunrise and the later clarity of a morning’s pure water light.
            He stared yet again into the dazzling rays of the sun, searching for inspiration, when the sun, it seemed to him, stepped down from the sky and walked towards him. He blinked through watering eyes to find the face of his angel smiling at him.
            What do you say to a descended angel?
            “Hello?”  
            “Hello to you.”
            There was a deep silence that felt as if it was infinite.
            “Do you want something from me?”
            A further pause and then the angel spoke in a voice that sounded like bird song on an early spring morning.
            “You called me.”
            “I did?”
            “The very act of creation calls us.”
            “Us?”
            “Elements of the Host.”
            “I see.”
            He didn’t, but that no longer mattered. He had his angel. He was seeing it with his own eyes. Now he could truly paint the truth of it.
            “May I paint you?”
            “If you wish” and he did.
            The angel was patience and sat for the artist as if he was sitting for all eternity. At some stage she said,
            “I do not wish to disturb your act of creation, but I am curious. If you can answer without ceasing your labours, will you respond to a question that I will put to you?”
            “Surely. If I can.”
            “You are poor and you hunger, not for the food you have denied yourself, but for recognition for your creations. If you had a choice, which would you rather have: acclaim and recognition only within your lifetime or the praise of ages, but only after you have died?”
            “A combination of the two isn’t possible?”
            “No. I think not. Fame in your lifetime will come quickly and bathe you in transient glory, but will fade like the wake of a shooting star. Recognition of your creations’ soul will take longer than you have to give, but will hang in the heavens for centuries like a burning sun.”
            “So I have to choose. How hypothetical, or otherwise, is your question?”
            “Yes you do and, I think, it is otherwise.”
            The artist paused and thought. He was hungry, both for recognition and for the food he hadn’t eaten in days. He knew what he painted was good, but part of him yearned for the acclaim he had so far been denied and the money to buy food and life’s basic comforts that would go with it. He looked at the painting of his angel, over which he had sweated his soul. He wanted to hear its truth acknowledged, but he wanted, most of all, to spend yet more time on it, to make it perfect.
            “What will happen to my work?”
            “That will depend upon your choice. If you choose fame that you will know, the works you create will be bought from you by the fashionable and wealthy and will hang on their walls until after you have died. You will know happiness and success and die a reasonably wealthy man, but once you have died your paintings will fade into oblivion, just as your corruptible remains will crumble into the soil. Both will soon disappear from this world.”
            “And if I do not choose to know my fame?”
            “You will create nothing more after this painting. You will die just as you are now, unknown and in poverty, but as your mortal remains rot your reputation will grow and the truth of your work will finally be fully recognised. Your memory will be praised throughout the World and your paintings will last longer than the walls they first hang on.”
            “But at least I will be able to look down on all of this from Heaven?”
            “You will be dead and in your grave.”
            “But then I will be in Heaven? There is an afterlife, isn’t there?”
            “I could not say.”
            The artist paused thoughtfully for a very long time. The angel sat on. Eventually the artist said,
            “What you say confounds me. I do not wish to understand it. What I do wish to do is reveal your eternal truth on this canvas. I know nothing beyond that.”
            “Then that is what you shall do”, she said and he sat on some more while the painter continued to work the painting to such a degree that it seemed as if the birds sang within it, as on an early spring morning. When it was finished to the painter’s satisfaction he knew he had created a masterpiece and became light headed with pride and said,
            “I want the world to love this painting as much as I do and to see your truth within it. I want generations yet to walk upon the Earth to know you.”
            The angel said,
            “Amen” and he rose with a cavernous clap of her wings into the dazzling fire of the sun. The painter watched until he could watch no more and then lay down exhausted at the foot of the painting.
            They came too late the next morning and found his cold and wasted corpse still in the same position. He looked as if had not eaten for weeks rather than days.
            They took his body and buried it in an unmarked pauper’s grave, but they were moved to tears by the pity in the eyes of the angel and could not bear to part with the painting. They hung it on the church wall to marvel at and, in due course, others came to marvel too and also at his other paintings. Time passed and the wall on which they first hung the painting crumbled, but the painting was rehung as often as need be and the look of pity continued to burn in the eyes of the angel upon the passing generations that came to look upon it.
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J. S. Watts lives and writes in the flatlands of East Anglia in the U.K. Her poetry, short fiction and book reviews appear in a variety of publications in Britain , Canada, Australia and the States including: Abandoned Towers, Danse Macabre, Mslexia, Silver Blade and Visionary Tongue and have been broadcast on BBC and Independent Radio. A poetry collection, “Cats and Other Myths” and a pamphlet, “Songs of Steelyard Sue”, are published by Lapwing Publications. Her first novel, “A Darker Moon” is published in the US and the UK by Vagabondage Press. Further details at: www.jswatts.co.uk  
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Scathe meic Beorh

Mariposa’s Purpose That Peculiar Day

a story from ‘Children & Other Wicked Things’ by
Scathe meic Beorh
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When I saw Mariposa swinging around the light pole in the grassy median of our neighborhood avenue—being nothing more than a narrow Victorian street made even narrower with the addition of the attractive median—I didn’t take much notice of her. She had gone out to play an hour before, and I assumed that she had found an absence of neighborhood girls who were likely out with their parents to shop or picnic—it being a gorgeous early Autumn weekend—and had decided to play alone for a while. Usual. I did that all the time as a kid. She was within range of my voice. Too, being a median-split dead end, Avery Circle was about as safe as a street could be. Satisfied about our daughter’s wellbeing, I focused my concern elsewhere, and soon had the beginnings of a new painting on canvas. After another hour, I again looked out the front picture window. Mariposa was still swinging around the light pole, clockwise, smooth, unhurried, smiling—her eyes closed. I thought it might be a great time to step out and check up on our ten-year-old.
“What are you doing, sweetheart?”
“Making this lamppost disappear.”
“Oh,” I said, amused. “That sounds like a good plan for a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Getting hungry?”
“No thanks. Breakfast is still in there.”
“Oh I see. Alright. Well, come inside when you get hungry, and we’ll have burritos.”
“Where’s dad?” Mariposa said as she continued her swing around the light.
“Wondering where you are, I imagine.”
“Oh. Well please tell him that as soon as I’m done with this pole, I’ll be in and help him edit his magazine or something. Will you? It shouldn’t be too much longer now.”
For some reason I took a good look at the pole to see if Mariposa was indeed wearing it down to nothing as she swirled, but then I got hold of myself, laughed off the neurosis, and went back to work on my painting.
An hour later, I looked out again, this time at the front door. Somebody was barbequing. The scent was delightful—almost intoxicating. Mariposa was still swinging around the pole. Alright, I whispered to myself, enough’s enough.
“Sweetheart!” I said in a loud enough voice for her to hear me across our yard and into the middle of the street. “Darling, why don’t you come in now? I know you’re having fun, but…”
“Mom! I’m almost done! Look at the clock and give me five minutes! Five more minutes is all I need!”
I turned to the grandfather clock in our foyer and noted the time. “Alright, Mariposa. Five minutes and counting!”
And then the world I had always known, had always believed to be reality, was distorted into something new… and terrible. My legs turned to dry twigs. I fell hard to my knees, my eyes riveted to our daughter and the light pole in the median sprinkled with gorgeous October leaves. As Mariposa swung around and around, the object of her intense concern began to shake, as if it were a blade of grass in a breeze, or maybe a stick somebody had stuck only a little way into the ground. I tried to call for Elgin—my husband—but the sound that came out was like a scream underwater, and clearly only heard by me because our next door neighbor Mr. Akins was raking leaves on our shared property line and didn’t look up, and Mariposa kept swinging—something I know she wouldn’t have kept doing if she heard a scream. The light post continued to quiver, and then it began to vibrate and thin out until it looked like a giant toothpick. “Mariposa!” This time I made no sound at all. I felt hot tears running down my cheeks. I could see that our daughter was in no danger, but the idea that she had somehow developed the power to affect a lamppost horrified me. I felt icy all the way to the center of my body. I felt as if I would pass out any second, or even pass away.
“Mom! See? I told you! Look at the clock! Is it five minutes yet?”
I couldn’t turn my head. I didn’t want to anyway. All I wanted to do was stare at the place where the light had been—the solid, sturdy place in the middle of the street just one plot down from ours and directly across from the Johnson’s front yard.
“Mom! Now I have a light pole for my dollhouse! Tomorrow I’m going to find one of those beautiful Rolls Royce cars, and next weekend I need a dog. Maybe a sheepdog. Do you think a sheepdog would be nice, Mommy?”   
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Scathe meic Beorh is the author of Children & Other Wicked Things, a new collection of stories published by James Ward Kirk Fiction, 2013.
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renee carter hall

The Longest Night of Summer

a story by
Renee Carter Hall
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The mechanic is slender, with skin the color of smoke, and he smells of oil and hot metal. Greasy rags hang out of every pocket, and there is no name stitched on his coveralls. His step is light, but his eyes are solemn. He looks like the sort of man who might whistle as he walks through the carnival grounds this night, when all the rides are dark and silent. But he is silent too.
He passes the kiddie roller coaster that was rattling on the far turn today. It’s none of his concern. The swing with the grinding gears doesn’t merit a glance. His gaze is fixed on the painted horses of the carousel, on the OUT OF ORDER sign hanging on the chain across the entrance. He unhooks the chain and passes through. When he sets his toolbox on the platform, a hollow clank echoes. He doesn’t open it.
Now his eyes are alight, eager, and he walks from one horse to another, speaking softly, a language of murmur and whisper, touching a nose here, a flank there, running hands down the carved legs. From far beyond the grounds, far beyond the night, come echoes of whinnies and stamping hooves. He speaks their names to them again: Alidor, Fleethoof, Wind’s-heart, Keshla. Under his hands, the wood shudders, like the fly-twitch of a horse’s hide, but that is all they are allowed.
He polishes their saddles and bridles, the paint brightening under his rag. He feels them soothe again, for a while. It’s hard on all of them, hardest on him. Only when they have circled a thousand times a thousand will they be free again, and that is many years away. For now, they will run and leap on their poles, snort and prance only in the fancies of their riders.
“Patience,” he whispers, stuffing the rag back into his pocket, “patience,” the word a comfort, a benediction.
He unhooks the OUT OF ORDER sign and places it carefully aside. The night smells of mud and metal and frying oil, popcorn butter and burnt sugar, but for a moment the breeze carries the scent of flowers that bloom in an endless spring, of sweet grass in sunlight and rich, ancient earth.
“Patience,” he whispers again. He picks up his toolbox and walks back through the grounds. He still looks like the sort of man who might whistle, but the night is silent, and so is he.

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Renee Carter Hall works as a medical transcriptionist by day and as a writer, poet, and artist all the time. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including Strange Horizons, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, and the Anthro Dreams podcast. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, their cat, and a ridiculous number of creative works-in-progress. Readers can find her online at http://www.reneecarterhall.com/
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Spring 2013

all content © 2013

Beorh Quarterly
issue 3
Shamrock Edition
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In This Issue!
Pierre Comtois!
William Page!
Stefani Christova!
and more!
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Welcome one and all! to Beorh Quarterly, the Speculative Fiction magazine sharing with the world the very best stories out there!
In this third issue of BQ, Pierre Comtois, editor of the smashing magazine Fungi, joins us yet again as he shares another of his heartfelt tales of lost humanity in “The Day the Computers Failed.”
Daniel Hale brings us the trouncing “Passing Crossroads,” another story in the arsenal against the unseemly second-best.
Studied writer S. R. Hardy graces us with the timeless masterpiece “The Acolyte,” a story of bad choices—and healing forgiveness.
Alex Scott gives us a new classic in “The Tether,” a heartfelt story of friendship between two boys reminiscent of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade from Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I then share with you my latest faerytale “Jack-o-Lantern,” the story of a cruel man, and the children who loved him still.
Stefani Christova gives us her subtle horror in “Suzie Wants To Know the Truth,” a piece found securely in the new tradition of brilliant women writers of Magic Realism/Fabulism. (more from Stefani in February 2014 as she again stuns with her strange and beautiful worldview!)
William Page then brings us “The Air Serpent,” a classic Sci-Fi work from the year 1911.
Enjoy!
 
Scathe meic Beorh
Founder & Contributing Editor,
Beorh Quarterly
 
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The Day the Computers Failed
 
a story by
Pierre Comtois
 
 
Jon Kinespee remembered how it was before baseball, before cooking, and even before the existence of Time.
     In those days, when he was much younger, machines had done it all and people did nothing for themselves…except for Mr. Lenoir who alone knew what to do in the days immediately following the arrival of the Pulse.
     The funny thing was that before the Pulse, no one realized that anything was missing from their lives. Not Jon’s dad, not his mom, not his little sister Sal, not even his dog Spot, or the two goldfish the family kept in a compu-tank in the living room.
     Life had always been complete from the automated homes people lived in to the smart highways that they drove along to the intel-games they played. Nothing was left out; nothing left to chance; nothing missing.
      Every morning began the same way when the house computer would awaken family members to begin a new day. First, dad and mom would be woken with the soothing tones of a wordless ditty and when they had reached the required level of post-sleep consciousness, the computer’s strategically hidden speakers would resonate with carefully chosen words whose modulation were designed to bring its listeners to full alertness with the least chance of discomfort.
     When fully awake, dad would get up and head for a shower that was already running with water at a temperature intended to complement the wakening process. Emerging from the shower, dad would take his place in the auto-chair where machines would shave his face, comb his hair, brush his teeth, and massage his body with scientific exactitude. Getting to his feet once more, dad would step into his clothes for the day which were also chosen by the house computer on the basis of information provided by the business computer that ran dad’s place of employment.
     Meanwhile, a similar procedure had been performed on mom in her own computerized bathroom and when she emerged to head for the kitchen, the bed was already made and any loose articles left around the night before picked up and put away or whisked into hidden laundry chutes. In the kitchen, mom arrived just in time to make sure breakfast was ready before saying good morning Jon and Sal.
     Although timed by the house computer to all arrive in the kitchen at the same time for breakfast, the children had undergone a slightly different early morning procedure than their parents.
     Although both Jon and Sal were awakened in the same soothing manner as the adults and gently urged into their separate bathrooms for their morning ablutions, Jon’s hair was applied with an oily compound then popular with 11-year-olds that allowed it to be molded into any shape desired while Sal’s dress was adorned in the latest ankle length style with a trim of tiny bells attached around the hem.
     Eventually, the entire family was gathered in the kitchen and as they took their places around the table, an assortment of mechanical instruments emerged from beneath the surface to serve breakfast.
     “Will you be home at the regular time this evening, dear?” asked mother of her husband.
     “6:15 as always,” replied father dabbing lightly at the corners of his mouth with a disposable napkin. “You know my schedule has been arranged all in advance by the company’s central computer. I’m sure the house computer will be informed if there’s any change.”
     “I’m sure,” said mother. “It’s just that I won’t be home for dinner this evening as I have choir practice tonight.”
     “The church computer on the blink again?”
     “No, but I have to make sure the new arrangement downloads have been installed properly by the music company computer.”
     “Don’t trust the machines?” It was a rhetorical question, an old joke really, that had lost all meaning over the decades since the last major computer malfunction in 2057.
     “I don’t understand why we can’t just go to school at home,” complained Sal only for the thousandth time it seemed. “We can plug in to the virtual classroom just as easily here as across town.”
     “You know the answer to that question as well as I do,” said mother. “Computer studies have shown that children your age need regular interaction with young people of your own age. Walking to school with the other children is valuable for proper social development.”
     “Humph,” said Sal, holding her mouth open to allow the computer assisted spoon to place cereal in it for her.
     Jon watched as his own spoon vanished into the table top along with his cereal bowl and sighed as he lifted a glass of orange juice on his own and downed its contents in a few gulps.
     “Jon!” said his mother. “Where are your manners? Let the computer feed you.”
     “Aw, ma! I’m too old for that now.”
     Following breakfast, father headed for the garage stall while the children kissed their mother goodbye and left the house by the front door.
     In the garage, the door to the family car opened by itself and father slipped into the driver’s seat. Disregarding the steering wheel (which only existed in case of computer failure), he hit the start button and the vehicle’s automated systems came to life. Light’s glowed and a familiar hum emanated from the computer regulated engine that operated on a microscopic fragment of atomic material. Slowly, the garage door began to rise and in another few seconds the car rolled outside and down the driveway to the road in front of the house.
     Sitting back and catching the news on the vid monitor mounted in the dashboard, father let the on board computer do the driving as it opened communications with the city’s master computer that recognized the family’s particular vehicle and integrated its intended course with hundreds of thousands of others that made up the morning traffic stream. The trip to work however, was far from the frustrating experience that had once plagued commuters as the master computer, in cooperation of the thousands of other workplace computers, arranged work schedules in such a way that hindrances in traffic were reduced to nothing. Accidents involving motor vehicles were unheard of.
     Meanwhile, after leaving their home, Jon and Sal stepped onto the sidewalk conveyor that took them and other neighborhood children to a branch conveyor down the street and with increasing numbers of young people, they were conducted to PS 12 where they were met by their teachers who separated them by grade and led them to their respective classrooms. There, each child immediately took their places at personal consoles, placed learning hoods over their heads, and entered a virtual classroom for their first lesson of the day.      
      Back at home, mother went to the house computer console to begin setting the program for the rest of the day. During the morning, she would observe the house electronic aparati as they made the beds, dusted the furniture, tended the yard, and a hundred other tasks, making sure that all was done according to her wishes. In the afternoon, she might take the sidewalk conveyor to do some errands, work on her column for the daily newspaper, and finally join other women in the neighborhood for refreshments and conversation while they waited for the children to come home from school.
     Yes, to Jon, life in those days seemed complete with nothing left to chance…except for old Mr. Lenoir.
     Mr. Lenoir lived by himself in the big house at the top of the street. Dominating the neighborhood, the house looked down over the rest of the neighborhood as if it were a creature out of time and in a sense it was because unlike other buildings of its kind, it was the only one Jon knew that did not have a house computer. And strange as it seemed, Mr. Lenoir didn’t mind the personal hardship of being cut off from the electronic network that made life as easy as it was. In fact, Jon recalled more than once seeing him puttering about his well manicured yard trimming the hedges, mowing the lawn, or pruning the apple trees while humming a jaunty tune or two; exactly as if he were enjoying himself.
     Indoors, or so Jon had heard from adults who shook their heads in pity for the old man, Mr. Lenoir was similarly bereft of computerized help doing his own housework, preparing his own meals, and even driving his own car! Jon could hardly imagine what that kind of life could be like with its tedium and drudgery but it was one they would all learn much more about the day after the Pulse hit the Earth.
     Afterwards, Jon had heard on the television that the Pulse had begun somewhere far out in space, maybe following the collapse of a dead star, or an unexpected shift in the radio waves caused by the collision of negative and positive galaxies, or the sudden surge of dark matter emanating from a black hole. Whatever its origins, the Pulse had probably been traveling through space for thousands or millions of years before striking the Earth and shorting out every computer on the planet.
     In an instant, without any warning, the memory banks of every electronic brain from vast and complex central cores that coordinated the activities of whole continents to Jon’s personal all purpose GPS monitors were wiped clean and all activity linked to any kind of computer at all seized throwing the whole world into chaos and confusion.
     Luckily, however, there were no real panics and government agencies stepped into the breach to reassure the public that the disaster was not life threatening. Quicker than most people realized (at least so it seemed to Jon at the time), the major functions of civilization were taken over by human operators, albeit with chores being accomplished at a much slower rate. Traffic for instance, became a confusing mess for a while and for a few months food distribution became spotty. But all that was on a scale beyond Jon’s direct experience. For he and Sal and their friends, the new world created by the Pulse was a frightening one filled with an uncertainty that even their parents were hard pressed to comfort them over.
     Then reassurance came from an unexpected quarter.
     One by one, people in the neighborhood began to make the trek up the hill to the home of Mr. Lenoir. At first, forced by the inexorable plant growth around their homes, they asked to borrow his hand tools: hedge clippers and grass cutters, then water cans and yard rakes. Following their husbands’ example, the women of the neighborhood began to appear at Mr. Lenoir’s back door at first seeking advice on how to prepare food themselves and later for items that were suddenly indispensable in preparing their meals: sugar and flour and eggs.
     Suddenly thrown onto their own resources, Jon and his friends were at a loss how to entertain themselves. Temporarily suspended from school as lesson programs were reorganized, the children discovered that they had plenty of free time to do what they wanted but with no idea how to use it. Their virtual vid helmets were useless and the games and music available on their all purpose GPS monitors had been erased. In addition, their individualized home entertainment systems that allowed them to visit and play anywhere and anything they wanted to from ancient China to the ice fields of Pluto were down for the count.
     As a result, children were seen wandering about the neighborhood in aimless circles or sitting on the curb beside the useless sidewalk conveyors or simply sprawled on their beds listlessly waiting for the computers to come back on. At last, frustrated with the situation, Jon tore his useless virtual vid helmet from his head and dashed it to the floor with such violence that the pieces flew in every direction. With a growl in his throat, he stomped to the bedroom window and looked out over the dead streets of the empty neighborhood.
     It was a hot summer day and the green leaves of the trees fluttered here and there in stray gusts of warm wind. Along the streets, he could see some of the neighbors as they attacked lawns and shrubbery that had grown noticeably longer and shaggier in the days since the computers failed. Forced to do the work themselves, many of those adults who had gone to Mr. Lenoir for advice had returned with borrowed tools which they had to operate by hand. Not familiar yet with how to use them, the results of their yard work was spotty at best and not at all as uniformly efficient as when it had been performed by domestic machines. But seeing the work being done gave Jon an idea. If the adults could get useful information on how to cope with the new situation, why couldn’t he?
     Energized by the revolutionary thought, Jon left his room and took himself outdoors. There, in the bright sunshine, he walked up the street along the stilled sidewalk conveyors in the direction of Mr. Lenoir’s house.
     As he approached, the first thing he noticed was that there were no security cams around the property nor were there any garden robots anywhere in sight. Although both would have been out of order due to the Pulse, their metallic carcasses should have still been in place or stored somewhere around the property. But what surprised him was how neat the landscaping around the old house was in spite of how Mr. Lenoir never having used robots to keep things trim. Somehow, Jon had never expected a single person to have been able to keep up with the work of trimming, cutting, pruning, painting, sweeping, and all the other work incumbent upon home ownership. He had expected a ragged look to everything with a yard that resembled more a jungle than a well manicured garden.
     So it was with rising curiosity that he approached the big front door and waited to be scanned and announced but after a few minutes he suddenly realized that even if Mr. Lenoir had employed a house computer, it would not have been operational. Feeling somewhat foolish, Jon knocked on the door the way he had seen others do it in the virtual vids about the times before computers. His knocking was rewarded with the sound of approaching footsteps from inside the house and a moment later the door swung open and Mr. Lenoir stood in the opening.
     “Well, young man, what can I do for you?” he said.
     Suddenly, Jon was at a loss for words. He had indeed been bored but what exactly was he looking for to relieve the tedium? What could Mr. Lenoir, who had never relied on computers, offer him in the way of divertissement?
     “Cat got your tongue, lad?”
     Jon stared at Mr. Lenoir’s kindly features. He had thought him elderly but now on closer examination, he seemed younger than that. In fact, he did not seem that much older than his father. His hair was gray to be sure, but it still had many dark threads woven among the white and only the corners of his eyes displayed wrinkles that appeared when he squinted. His posture was erect and when he extended his hand in greeting, Jon could not help but notice how firm it was.
     “I know you,” said Mr. Lenoir then. “You’re the Kinespee boy aren’t you?”
     “Yes, sir,” said Jon, finding his voice at last.
     “Come here because your mother has a question about what to fix for supper? Your father want to know how to change a spark plug in the lawn mower?”
     “Uh, not exactly,” said Jon. “I came to ask you something for myself.”
     “I see! Well, then, why don’t you step inside so we can discuss the matter?”
     Jon did so and as Mr. Lenoir closed the door behind him, he noticed immediately a strange smell that permeated the inside of the house.
     “Something bothering you, lad?” asked Mr. Lenoir, noticing how Jon’s nose had wrinkled up at the smell.
     “Just something in the air I guess…what are those?” asked Jon suddenly, pointing at the rows of shelves that lined the walls of the house.
     “Haven’t you ever seen books before?” asked Mr. Lenoir not without some irritation.
     “Is that what they are? I’ve never seen real books before. Just in the virtual vids.”
     Mr. Lenoir shook his head in pity.
     “Never seen a real book before? Never held one in your hands? Never felt the spine of a new book crinkle when it was opened for the first time? Never smelled that aroma of ink and pulp paper?”
     “Is that what I’m smelling?”
     In reply, Mr. Lenoir took down one of the books from the shelf, opened it and held it up to Jon’s nose.
     “Breath deep,” said Mr. Lenoir. “Because if you were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Captain Nemo, it’s a sure bet you wouldn’t be able to.”
     Jon did so and the peculiar aroma tickled to the back of his throat and he almost sneezed.
     “Here try this one,” said Mr. Lenoir, replacing the first book and taking down another. “Can you smell the water of the mighty Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn?”
     “No,” said Jon with some disappointment. “It sort of smells just like the other book.”
     “Pshaw!” declared Mr. Lenoir in disgust. “You’re nose is just out of practice. You don’t read enough.”
     “Read? The computer teacher does that for me. And besides, reading is too slow, too dull!”
     As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jon knew he had said the wrong thing.
     “Reading…dull?! Impossible! Listen, lad; have you ever actually read a book before?”
     Jon had to admit that he had not.
     “Then how do you know what you’re talking about? Don’t you know that every book has its own scent? The Maltese Falcon smells of gunpowder and The Call of the Wild like wet animal fur. You can almost smell the rotting jungle in Tarzan of the Apes and the dank scent of wet stone in Jane Eyre; but best of all is the rocket fumes in books like The Martian Chronicles and The Gray Lensman! But never mind about those, you can start with Doc Savage” he said, handing a very old book to Jon with the cover long since missing. “There’s the smell of the ocean in that one and sweat and laboratory experiments gone wrong, and even a dash of talcum powder…but never mind all that for now. First, read it and savor it and enjoy it. You’ll be back for more in no time, I’ll guarantee it!”
     Jon said nothing, preferring not to upset Mr. Lenoir more than he had already done. Carefully, he slipped the battered paperback into the front pocket of his shirt.
     “Now here,” Mr. Lenoir was saying, “I keep my magazines filled with adventures in time and space and every exotic land in between…”
     “Uh, Mr. Lenoir…” said Jon, clearing his throat.
     “Yes, lad?”
     “What I really came for was to ask if you had any ideas for what I could do with my friends now that all our virtual vids aren’t working…”
     “Bored, eh?” said Mr. Lenoir immediately.
     Jon nodded. “I thought that maybe you could give us some advice the way you’ve been doing with the adults.”
     Mr. Lenoir paused and rubbed his chin.
     “Ever hear of baseball?” he asked suddenly.
     “Wasn’t it a show they used to have a long time ago on something called a television?”
     “Pshaw!” said Mr. Lenoir again. “No one ever intended baseball to simply be watched but played and played by real live people…running, jumping, catching, hitting!”
     “Hitting?” said Jon, slightly alarmed.
     “A ball, lad. Why do you think the game is called base-ball?”
     “Oh,” was all a relieved Jon could muster.
     “I take it you haven’t got a base or a ball…or even a bat?”
     “What are they?”
     Mr. Lenoir heaved with the heaviest sigh Jon had ever seen.
     “Looks like I’ll have to start from the beginning. Come with me, lad.”
     Jon followed Mr. Lenoir through the house to a door that led down a flight of wooden stairs to a musty basement filled with tools and another smell that he later learned to associate with the cutting of wood.
     Mr. Lenoir reached up and pulled a cord that lit a fluorescent light situated over a work table cluttered with tools and metal receptacles filled with nails. Fascinated, Jon picked up a hammer and wondered at how it felt in his hand.
     “Like that feel?” asked Mr. Lenoir, recognizing instantly the instinctual connection of a boy to a tool. “Here’s what I’m looking for.”
     Mr. Lenoir had taken a broom with a long wooden handle and laying it lengthwise in a vise clamped to the work table, he spun a handle until the sweeping implement was held in a fast grip. Next, he took a hand saw down from the wall, measured a length of the broom handle with his eye, and began to cut.
     Jon watched Mr. Lenoir work with fascination, never having seen anyone do such a thing.
    In a remarkably short time, Mr. Lenoir had cut through the broom handle and was giving the loose piece a few tentative swings in the air. Satisfied, he put it down and began rummaging among some old boxes on the floor. Presently, he returned with something in his hand. He tossed it to Jon.
     “Think quick!” Mr. Lenoir said with a chuckle.
     Startled, Jon reached out and tried to catch what proved to be a soft sponge rubber ball but missed.
     “You’ll have to do better than that if you want to win at baseball,” said Mr. Lenoir watching him as he scrambled to retrieve the loose ball. “Now toss it back to me.”
     Finally in control of the ball, Jon did as he was told and was surprised to see how easily the old man caught the ball even while holding the broom handle in one of his hands.
     “Don’t look so astonished,” he said. “It’s simple once you get the hang of it and you will, faster than you think.”
     At that point, Mr. Lenoir led the way back upstairs and at the kitchen table with glasses of lemonade at their elbows, he drew a diagram of a diamond shaped object that Jon soon learned was a representation of the playing field upon which baseball was played. At first, as the old man explained the concept of “bases” and “outs” and “home runs,” it all seemed terribly confusing to Jon, but gradually as the rules began to sink in, the picture in his mind jelled and soon he was imagining himself swinging the broom handle at the ball and running around the bases with the wind running through his hair.
     At last, Mr. Lenoir folded up the paper with the diagram and tucked it in Jon’s shirt pocket along with the copy of the Doc Savage book and conferred on him the broom handle and sponge ball with all the gravity of a king of old giving a knight his sword.
     “There you are, lad,” said Mr. Lenoir stepping back. “Go forth and play baseball!”
     Not sure how the other children in the neighborhood would take to the new game, Jon determined to at least give it a try. After all, the old man had insisted that it was more fun than a virtual vid, which even Jon found hard to believe.
     After a lunch of ham sandwiches, a wedge of angel food cake, and chocolate milk (which his mother took pride in having prepared), Jon left the house to round up as many of his friends as he could. When he did, and they were all standing together in a rough group in an empty lot a few streets away from his house, it was a strange sensation because he could not remember a time when he had associated at the same time with more than one or two other boys in his life. More often, they gathered on the virtual plane to play Dungeons and Swords or World Wrecker or to go mountain climbing in Tibet. As a result, there was quite a bit of foot shuffling with no one really sure how to associate with the others on a personal level. At last, by reason of his having interfaced with Mr. Lenoir, Jon took control of the situation.
     “All right, gather round,” he said as he crouched down and unfolded the paper with the diagram that Mr. Lenoir had given him. “I’ll explain to you how we’re going to play this game.”
     “What did you say it was called?” asked Swifty.
     “’Baseball,’” said Jon as he flattened the paper on the grass.
     “Never heard of it,” said Tom. “Is it like virtual bashback?”
     “No, nothing like that,” replied Jon. “You play this for real.”
     “For real?” said Swifty. “Like in we have to run and stuff?”
     “Yeah, what’s so bad about that?”
     Swifty shrugged. “Just don’t feel like knockin’ myself out chasin’ a ball all over the place.”
     “Oh, get over it,” said Jon, exasperated by an attitude he himself had shared not a few hours before. Since then, the idea of playing a game for real had grown on him and he was anxious to give it a try. “Now here’s how it’s played.”
     The next half hour was taken up with explanations and answers to his friend’s questions. In the meantime, other children who had observed them from nearby houses began to drift over, drawn by the possibility of being relieved of their boredom. In no time, there were enough children to form the “teams” Mr. Lenoir had spoken about.
     Finding bits of metal and disposal waste containers around the lot, Jon instructed the others how to place them to represent the “bases” and standing in a circle, they began to toss the ball to each other, getting used to its feel and how to move in order to catch it before it struck the ground.
     Soon however, with a young boy’s patience being what it is, there was a general consensus that the game should begin. Choosing “teams” in the manner Mr. Lenoir had showed him how to do Jon, acting as one of the “captains” asked for another for the opposing team and when Tom stepped forward, they began to choose sides. That done, the broom handle was thrown to Jon who caught it in a single hand (a skill that delighted and surprised more than one of the boys). Tom then placed his hand above Jon’s followed by Jon’s free hand and in such manner, Tom’s team was selected to “bat” first.
     After that, Jon lost all track of time as did everyone else as cautious and clumsy play slowly evolved into something resembling self-confidence. By late afternoon, at least two games had already been concluded with everyone exhausted but paradoxically exhilarated from running back and forth in the “outfield” and dashing madly from base to base. It took no time at all for them to discover the pleasure of sliding into home base under a wild throw from the “infield” or diving full length for “fly balls” in the outfield so that by supper time there was not a boy whose clothes was not streaked in dirt and who didn’t take pride in knees covered in grass stains. They were having so much fun that supper time had come and gone and the glow of the streetlights had been illuminated for quite a while before anyone noticed how late it was.
     “Gee, my mother’s going to be wondering where I am!” said Tom.
     “I didn’t even notice that it got dark!” said a breathless Swifty.
     “Should we quit and go home?” asked another boy.
     There was silence. Although the streetlight gave some illumination, it was near impossible in the dark to see a ball plunging into the outfield. Nevertheless, it was proving difficult for anyone to tear themselves away from the “diamond” that by then had been etched in the grass. Suddenly, however, the problem was solved when Jon’s father appeared from the darkness.
     “Jon, is that you?”
     “It’s me dad,” replied Jon, stepping into the glow cast by the streetlight.
     “Wow! Are you a sight!” said his father who found it difficult to recognize his son beneath the grime that covered his face and arms and the dirty clothes that boasted a number of tears that had not been in them when Jon left home that morning.
     “Sorry,” said Jon, looking down at himself. “We were playing baseball.”
     “Baseball, huh?”
     “You know it?” asked Jon, catching a strange tone in his father’s voice.
     “I remember the word,” said his father, rubbing his chin. “I think your grandfather mentioned it to me once…something people used to play before virtual vids.”
     “That’s it. It’s a game like we play on the virtual plane except you play it for real.”
     His father wrinkled his nose at the notion. “Running and jumping and skipping? Ugh. Anyway, time to head for home. It’s late and you missed your supper.”
     “See you guys tomorrow?” asked Jon in a last look over his shoulder.
     “You bet!” said the other boys all at once clapping each other on the shoulder and shaking hands as they broke up and headed to their various homes.
     Jon saw the family car parked alongside the road directly beneath the streetlight and when he had slid into the passenger seat, noticed that a number of components were missing from the dashboard.
     “What happened to the vid monitor?” asked Jon.
     “Didn’t need it any more,” replied his father as he actually turned a key in the ignition to start the engine. “I had a technician take it out but had to make an appointment to go back and have the space filled with a computer free music console. It’ll have a receiver so that I can hear the traffic reports on the way to work. No more computers to automatically avoid slow downs you know.”
     Jon marveled as he watched his father take hold of the steering column and guide the car away from the curb and into the middle of the road. All the way home, he fought against holding his breath while the car moved strictly under the guidance of a human hand. The whole experience was positively eerie.
     Later that evening, all scrubbed clean and feeling more contented than he had ever felt in his life, a smiling Jon lay back in his bed, his hands folded behind the back of his head and dreaming of all the homeruns he would make the next day. What fun baseball was! How exhilarating to use his body and expend his youthful energy for tumbling in the grass, racing from base to base, swinging the bat with all his might and watching the ball as it climbed into the blue heavens and then arc down almost out of sight!
     Looking around his room, Jon’s eyes spotted the vid helmet lying useless on the floor. He had no desire at all to put it on, even if he hadn’t smashed it earlier in the day. The vistas of Tibet and Mars and the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean now seemed unreal and unsatisfying. How could he ever have thought living in that world was fun, even fulfilling? With a new perspective, he realized how empty and shallow those worlds were with their too sharp images and perfect settings that didn’t even allow him to suffer so much as a scratch even after wrestling with Bengal tigers or Venusian swamp snakes. Touching one of the half dozen scratches that adorned his body, the sting reminded him of the day’s exertions, and proved that he had actually gone and done the things he remembered doing. Could he ever have said the same thing about the worlds he had visited in virtual vids?
     Jon swung his legs off the bed and going over to the remains of his helmet, picked it up and took it to the window. Lifting the sash, he flung the helmet out into the darkness and listening, heard a satisfying crash as it struck the pavement of the street out front. Back inside again, he began to pull the room’s house computer unit and individualized home entertainment system outlets from their housings; wires snapped and fastenings groaned their resistance to being ripped from the wall, but at last they were all free and collected in a pile in the center of the floor. Tomorrow, he would throw them all out.
     Suddenly there was a noise behind him and whirling, he saw Sal at the door. She was staring at the pile of wires and switch panels on the floor.
     “You think father and mother will be angry?” asked Jon.
     “Maybe, except that I think I saw mother herself throwing out components,” said Sal. “She said she needed more room in the kitchen for groceries. C’mon.”
     Jon followed his sister into her own room and there found a pile of junk on the floor that looked very much like the one he had made.
     “You too?”
     “I’ve got better things to do than play house with Neptunian ice princesses and designing clothes for the miss alien species pageant,” said Sal.
     “Oh, yeah? Like what?”
     As if waiting for the opportunity, Sal rushed up to Jon, her hands clasped at her breast, and said, “I went to see old Mr. Lenoir today and…”
     “Mr. Lenoir!” said Jon, startled. “Why did you go see him?”
     “I was bored with nothing to do so I thought if Mr. Lenoir can show mom and dad how to get along without the computers, then he could do the same for me,” said Sal. “And I was right. He told me about this wonderful game I could play with my friends and we’ve been playing it all day! In fact, according to Mr. Lenoir, the game can be even more exciting after dark!”
     Jon, recalling how well Mr. Lenoir’s advice had served him, found himself eager to discover what other game he may have come up with for Sal and her friends. If it was anything as fun as baseball…and could be played after dark when baseball became difficult…
      “What’s this game called?”
     “Kick the can,” said Sal. “You see, we get a can (Mr. Lenoir gave us one of his but told us soon they’d be a lot more plentiful when the new supermarkets open) and someone is chosen to count to 100 while everybody else runs to hide. After that…”
     Virgil listened with increasing interest and found himself wondering what other games Mr. Lenoir could teach them. At last however, with exhaustion overtaking him, he yawned and said goodnight to his sister.
     In his room again, Jon sat back in bed. He was just reaching over to switch off the light when he noticed the old book that Mr. Lenoir had lent him peeking from the pocket of his shirt. Curious, he reached over and plucked it out.
     The Submarine Mystery read the title.
     Flipping through the yellowing pages, Jon speculated that if Mr. Lenoir had been right about baseball being fun, could he have also been right about reading?
     In the proper frame of mind to experiment further, Jon turned to the first page of the book and as he struggled through the first chapter, the chore of reading began to fade and was replaced with delight and wonder as he plunged not only into the world of Doc Savage, but also on a voyage of discovery of his own little dreaming of the amazing vistas that lay beyond the pages of a book or the boundaries of a baseball diamond…
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Passing Crossroads
a story by
Daniel Hale
 
It’s a cramped little bar I play tonight, dark and small. Old license plates and sports memorabilia on the walls, electric neon signs. I’m setting up my stuff on the little stage; my chair, my amp, my stand. It doesn’t take long to set up for a gig. Music isn’t about numbers or about power. It’s all about music.
            The owner of the bar went a little overboard with the advertising; I saw dozens of flyers on my way out here, on telephone poles, shop windows, actually blowing through the streets. I don’t know what he was thinking. I suppose people are slightly more eager to come to the bar with live entertainment, even if they don’t know what to expect.
            Then again, it probably is a larger crowd than he’s used to; every table occupied, every booth filled. Mostly older folks looking for a little novelty, and a few younger folks who couldn’t find a better one on a Saturday night. They look to me for that novelty, for something different, or at least distracting. And they may think, if they think about me at all, that I do this for the exposure, for a pretense of fame.
            It may have started with dreams, with longings for something greater. But I go on because the music goes on. I’m not here to be a star; I’m here to show people the music, for just a little while.
            A lifetime ago, sitting on the porch, in the rain. Fingers tracing the strings on my first guitar. He’s standing at the edge of the yard, in his thick brown coat and dark glasses. He’s smirking a smug little smirk, hinting at what he has to offer…
            Country, jazz, soulful tunes and lively ones alike. I play them all the way they should be played, each strum of my guitar a ringing in the darkness, each word sung like the name of a lost friend. Not extravagantly, but carefully and respectfully. Older songs, mostly. You’d recognize most of them, or thought you did. A few I wrote myself. People are talking quietly amongst themselves, brooding over their drinks. One or two are looking at me, nodding in time. I’m just a backdrop, but the music frames and flows through everything, gives it life. It glides through the room, through the ears of everyone listening.
            There’s one man in particular who stands out, sitting at the bar, stool turned towards me. His big, thick coat hangs like fog on his shoulders. A slight smirk plays on his face, dark glasses shade his eyes.
            He hasn’t changed. He never does. He is what he embodies and always has been.
            The night of my first gig, the talent show in high school. Prize went to the break dancing kid. My voice was too desperate, too erratic, though I played the tune well. He waited by my locker, saw my disappointment. He knew I wanted more.
            Two hours later. The bar’s closing up for the night. I’m sitting on my stool, a basket of records by my feet.  A few people compliment me as they walk out, and I smile and thank them. One or two records go out with them. The tune spreads a little farther.
            The owner hands me my money, murmurs a few inaudible words of gratitude, tells me he’ll have to call me in again. He probably will. It wasn’t a rollicking crowd, but it was full.
            Down to the car, amp and guitar in my hands. He’s already waiting there, at the corner of the crossroads. Just my little joke.
            He speaks tonight, for the first time in my life. I pack the stuff away, set the amp down in the truck, place the guitar case in the backseat. He whispers his promises, shows me the futures I could have. Fame and fortune, devoted fans. Nothing he hasn’t offered anyone before. He tells me the names of those who took him up. Some I suspected, others are a disappointment. The rest I don’t believe.
            And he tells me his price. He isn’t a con man, not really. He always delivers, and he is always straight about his fee. They always take him up. Living to play is never enough, and there comes a point where they want to play to live. Blinded by visions of flashing lights and screaming hordes, deafened to the music. They’ll take the stage, at the cost of who they are and all they mean. They’ll take the stage, at the cost of their voices. Their souls.
            He beseeches me. He cajoles and pleads with me. It’s no kind of life, he tells me. It’s an echo at best, a mockery at worst. With my talent, my voice, I could be more. He could give me the nudge, offer the note, and conduct the tune. I just have to take it…
            I don’t say a word, and leave him there as I drive into the night. He could set my name in stone; put me in the center ring. But he would take my voice, and my own self, to do it. It would be his voice, that people can’t help but listen to. It would be an imitation, a true mockery, coldly designed for desire. It would not be me.
            I may fade away, but the music goes on. It always goes on…
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The Acolyte
a story by
S. R. Hardy
  
The figure on the beach grew in size and definition as the Acolyte approached, first appearing as an undifferentiated mass, then as a man sitting and, finally, as the Priest.  He sat in the sand, his long brown beard standing out starkly on his chest against a white robe.  The robe was cinched at his waist with a black belt, signifying that he had reached the highest level of the Priesthood, and billowed out onto the sand so that it covered his legs.
The Acolyte looked back over his shoulder, at the masts of the harbor and the long curve of the beach that he had traversed to get to Ancestors’ Rock.  He had never actually been this far down the beach before, but he had seen the Rock from the walls of the Seminary.  It was widely reverenced as the place where the first of the People had landed many years before when they had founded the Realm, but it was rarely visited. 
The Acolyte quickened his pace, as he had no idea how long the Priest had been waiting for him and he did not want to exacerbate the precariousness of his situation further.  He had awoken in his room that morning after only a few hours’ sleep to find a note on the floor next to his bed.  The note had summoned him to the beach in front of the Rock when he awoke.  He had expected some type of punishment following his failed attempt to run away from the Seminary, but he had not expected it to take place on the beach.  The note had not mentioned a time, and upon reading it the Acolyte had hurriedly put on his black robe and set out for the beach without taking the time to eat breakfast. 
Finally the Acolyte found himself before the Priest, who remained seated.  Not sure whether to sit without being invited to do so, the Acolyte remained standing, with his hands clasped in front of him.  He bowed to the Priest but did not speak, as he was not allowed to address a superior in the Order without being spoken to first. 
The Priest smiled at him and nodded.  “Sit down.”
The Acolyte sat down cross-legged in the sand and arranged his robe around his legs in the same manner as the Priest and bowed his head again.  “Thank you, Master.”
“Do you know why I invited you here, to this place?”
“No, Master.”
The Priest did not speak, but reached out into the space between them with an extended index finger that, even in its small way, exuded both age and power, and drew a circle in the sand. 
“What is this?” he asked. 
The Acolyte did not respond at first.  He was confused by the question and suspected some sort of trick.  The answer seemed too simple. 
The Priest did not repeat his question.  He just looked into the Acolyte’s eyes without blinking, waiting for an answer. 
“A circle, Master.” said the Acolyte.
The Priest nodded.  “Yes, it is a circle.  But what is its nature?”
The Acolyte lowered his gaze, afraid of causing offense.  “I am sorry, Master.  I do not understand your question.”
“Stop trying to think and start trying to remember.”
Confusion turned to shame on the Acolyte’s face as he raised his head and met the Priest’s eyes.  Now he understood.  The Priest’s admonition to rely on memory rather than logic meant that he should reference the Way, the memory of the People.  He dispensed with the formal form of address, as was the custom when reciting the Way. “The circle is both the All and the Nothing.” 
The Priest nodded and relief flooded the Acolyte.  He felt that he was now on familiar ground, though he still was not sure of the Priest’s purpose.    
“And where is the Will?”
The Acolyte used his left index finger to make a small hole in the center of the circle.
The Priest smiled and nodded again.  “Very good.  You have not been sleeping through your lessons.” 
“No, Master.” 
“And what does this symbol signify?”
“The point in the circle is the Will, which is life.”
“Why life?”
The Acolyte paused before answering.  “The Will arises in reaction to the inertia of the Nothing.”
The Priest shifted his weight and leaned forward, his beard separating from his robe and scraping the sand in front of him.  “But if the reactive Will arises from Nothing, by what is it engendered?”
“The Will arises from the latent potential inherent in the All, which is also the Nothing.”   
“But how can the All be the Nothing?”
“Only that which can be, can not be.”
“Exactly.  You have studied well.”
The Acolyte bowed his head.  “Thank you, Master.” 
  The Priest leaned back and looked first to his right, at Ancestors’ Rock, and then to his left, at the open sea. 
He spoke while staring out at the hazy blue horizon.  “Where did you intend to go?”
            The question was one the Acolyte had asked himself more than once since he had been brought back to his cell in the middle of the night.  “I intended to go to the harbor and take ship, Master.”
The Priest focused his gaze directly at the Acolyte.  “To where?
When the Acolyte did not speak, the Priest asked another question.  “With what money?”
Still the Acolyte did not speak.  He had had no thought other than the foolish idea to stow away on the first ship he was able to board.  The intended destination had not been important.    
“Were you trying to die?”    
            “I do not know, Master.”
            “Truly?”         
            The Acolyte bowed his head in shame.  “I do not know, Master,” he repeated.  He saw out of the corner of his eye that the incoming tide was reaching closer to where he and the Priest sat. 
The Priest leaned forward again to emphasize his point.  “But you chose to exercise your Will in a destructive manner, to run away rather to engage your problem constructively.  This is against the Code.”
            Tears formed in the Acolyte’s eyes.  “I know.”  He realized with horror that he had addressed the Priest impolitely and added, “Master.”
            The Priest’s gaze intensified into a look that was unsympathetic, but not unkind.  “Cry if you must, but tears do not bring understanding.” 
            The Acolyte nodded and raised his arm to wipe his eyes with a black sleeve.  “I am sorry, Master.”  He felt that he had been unworthy of the Priest’s questions and of the Code. 
            The priest stroked his beard, his hand beginning just under his chin and ending up in his lap.  “Why did you want to die?”
Tears now streamed down the Acolyte’s face.  “I will tell you the true reason, Master, though it shames me to do so.”  He paused and took a ragged breath.  “I failed my Test.  I am not passing on to the Priesthood with my class.  I have disappointed and shamed my family, Master.”
            “Failing the Test is indeed unfortunate,” the Priest said, “and cannot be taken lightly.  However, it does not bring eternal shame.”  The Priest smiled, this time kindly. “You can take the Test again.”
            The Acolyte nodded.  “I know, Master.  But my uncle is the Mage.  My failure will be an insult to him when he learns of it.  More than an insult, a mortal wound, Master.”
            The Priest laughed at the Acolyte’s words.  “The Mage is a strong man.  He will surely survive the experience.”
            The Acolyte hung his head and listened to the sound of the sea, its slow and steady rhythm providing a counterpoint to the raging emotions in his breast.  He was confused by the Priest’s levity and he still did not know the purpose of the conversation, nor what his punishment would be.
“In your studies, you have learned the principle of the Forking Paths, correct?”
“Yes, Master.”
“Please explain it to me.”
Remembering the Priest’s earlier admonishment to rely on the Way, the Acolyte took a deep breath and said, “The Path forks infinitely in all directions and our choices determine our personal Path.  Constructive choices lead to constructive Paths.  Destructive choices lead to destructive Paths.”
 “Exactly.”  The Priest paused, as if preparing to deliver a speech.  “Your actions last night led you down a destructive Path.  But now you stand before a new fork and you face a choice.”
The Acolyte nodded to indicate that he understood.
The Priest continued, “What type of decision will you make?”
“A constructive decision, Master.”
“Tell me specifically what you will do.”
“I will take the Test again and approach it with positive intention and energy, Master.”
“Very good.  I think that is the wise course.” 
The Priest turned his head and looked at the encroaching surf, which was now only a few feet away from where they were sitting.  He turned back to face the Acolyte.  “The thing you must remember is that your Path is doomed to failure if it does not stem from a constructive impulse.” 
The Acolyte nodded.  “I understand, Master.” 
“You must also remember that you choose a Path not to reach the goal.  The goal is something that is simply arrived at as the end result of many small decisions and it may not be the one that was originally intended.”
The Priest paused to let his point sink in.  “It is only by making attempt after attempt, decision after decision, and by continually exercising your Will in a constructive manner that you can hope to develop, to change your black robes for white and, maybe someday, for red, like your Uncle.  This effort is your Duty and leads you down a Path which is unique to you and is the culmination of all the decisions you have made in your life.  Do not worry about the destination of your Path.  It goes where it goes.”
“I understand, Master.”   
Both men sat in silence on the beach.  The Priest stared out into the empty ocean to the West, as if waiting for something, while the Acolyte stared down at his lap waiting for the Priest to speak.  The tide came in again and lapped the outer edge of their thighs.  The cold ocean water was shocking to the Acolyte’s senses, but as the Priest did not acknowledge it in any way, he remained silent and still.  
After a few moments, the Priest leaned down and drew four hooked lines that bent away from the dotted circle, which remained in the center of all the possible paths.  He then turned his attention back to the Acolyte and pointed at the figure in the sand.  “Tell me what this represents.”
“The point of decision, Master.”
“And what is the point of decision?”
“The point of decision is the Will poised at a fork in the Path,” said the Acolyte. 
The Priest again looked out at the limitless ocean.  “Now watch.”
As he said this, the surf came in again and rose a few feet higher up the beach than it had previously and swept past where the two men sat.  As the water receded, the figure drawn in the sand was made flat and smooth by the inexorably shifting sands being dragged back out to sea by the tide. 
The Priest nodded at the now empty space between him and the Acolyte.  “The tide of time has negated your decision, the result of your Will and, hence, your momentary life.  What will you do?”
The Acolyte paused for an instant, then reached down and drew a new circle in the sand between them, and added a dot in the center.  He then quoted the Way without being prompted.  “The self may be extinguished, but there are many selves and the Will creates them.”
“Very good.”  The Priest smiled but did not speak further.  He reached forward and again drew the hooked lines indicating the paths were converging on the figure drawn by the Acolyte.  The he sat back and stroked his beard, waiting.
The Acolyte sat in silence waiting for the Priest to speak as the smell of salt filled his nose and the sound of the ever closer surf filled his ears.  Then, a small wave soaked his legs and he saw the water cover the design he had drawn in the sand and recede, leaving a smooth surface in its wake. 
“Again,” said the Priest. 
The Acolyte complied and drew the circle and dot in the sand again, and again the Priest silently drew the lines of the Path.  The Acolyte sat with his back straight, breathing deeply and slowly, waiting for the tide to come in. 
After another minute, the water returned, rising slightly higher on the Acolyte’s legs and again erased the figure in the sand.      
He looked at the Priest, who nodded and said, “Again.” 
The Acolyte did as he was told and the Priest added his lines.  When that figure had been erased by the tide, the Acolyte repeated the process an additional six times at the behest of the Priest.  Each time, the incoming tide erased his work.    
Then the Priest stood up and smiled at the Acolyte.  “I think you have seen enough to understand.  Let us go back to the Seminary and have some breakfast.”
The Acolyte stood, his cold and aching legs threatening for a moment not to support him.  “Yes, Master.”
The two men, the bottom halves of their robes sodden and dripping, began to walk back toward the City and the relative comfort of the Seminary.  After they had walked ten paces, the Acolyte heard the tide come in again.  He turned around and looked back to the place where he and the Priest had been sitting and watched the foaming surf recede, leaving a smooth and unblemished stretch of beach in its wake. 
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S.R. Hardy is a poet, fiction writer, and translator whose work has previously appeared in venues such as Northern Traditions, Eunoia Review, Death Head Grin, Eternal Haunted Summer, and The Shining Cities: An Anthology of Pagan Science Fiction. He is currently at work on a variety of translations, poems, and stories. In addition, he blogs at http://anarcheologos.com
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The Tether
a story by
Alex Scott
 
Nick gazed out the window of Gemini Deck on the Big Lift, searching for the tether that attached it to Earth. Clouds swirled over the ocean, where the coastline emerged as a gentle brush stroke. But the Earth was too bright, and the tether too thin, for him to see it. He could only trust that it was still there.
Just a week before, Nick was at home on the Florida panhandle. He had flown to the Lift only yesterday. Now he was floating in an indoor garden inside an elevator above the atmosphere, halfway to the Jefferson space colony. Flowers and bushes were sticking out of the wall. He ached from the airplane seats, the drawer he slept in, the padded walls he’d hit while floating. He still wasn’t used to the weightlessness. The bars mounted on and between the walls were the only way to move or stop.
He had dreamed of riding the Lift his whole life, yet he hadn’t expected it to be so lonely. His parents had arranged the trip as a once-in-a-lifetime birthday present. Unfortunately, they could afford only two tickets, one each for him and his mother. And it wasn’t the same without Dad or Perry. If they were here, they’d have the time of their lives. They could play games in Turbo Deck, check out the exhibit on Crystal Deck, or just goof around in zero gravity throughout the Lift. It could have been a blast.
Nick finished the cereal bar he’d bought at the cafeteria on Galaxy Deck, and breathed in the scent of the flowers that filled Gemini.
A boy about his age floated up next to him. He wore baggy clothes and had hair that flared out everywhere. He pointed out the window. “I can see my house from here.”
Nick smirked. “Very funny. I’m Nick, what’s your name?”
The boy turned, and bugged his eyes out. “Nick? No way, it’s really you. It’s me, Michael. I can’t believe you’re here.”
Nick took a second look. “Michael? Michael Shand? My god, it’s been forever! What are you doing here? I mean, here, of all places!”
Michael glanced out the window. “I’m going up to see my dad. He lives up on Jefferson now.”
“Who’d have thought he’d end up there?” Nick let himself hang off the wall. “My cousins live up there, too. Haven’t seen them in two years, but my mom’s taking me up for my birthday.”
“Dude, happy birthday. Should’ve got you something.”
“Because of course you knew I’d be here,” Nick said. “What about your mom?”
Michael rolled his eyes. “She still hates his guts. I’m lucky I made it this far.”
Nick remembered their divorce, and cringed. The Shands would fight any time, any place, no matter who was watching. It was a wonder they never killed each other.
“At least you still get to see him,” Nick said. “How’ve things been since you moved?”
“Not too bad. I have a brother now. His dad’s an airline pilot, married my mom last year.”
“Can’t wait to meet them. Wanna hang out?”
“Sounds good.” Michael glanced at the wrapper in Nick’s hand. “Where’d you get that? I’m starving.”
“Oh, it’s Galaxy Deck, right under us. I’ll show you.” Nick tugged on the handle and launching himself downward, then grabbed another one beside the corridor to Galaxy Deck. Michael caught up, and they went through.
A window spread across the opposite wall, displaying a glowing panorama of Earth. There were tables and chairs on both floor and ceiling. The sight still made Nick a little dizzy. He navigated slowly toward the vending machine using the bars that crossed the room.
Michael floated behind, twisting around with no way to stop. Nick waited, and grabbed Michael’s collar, and straightened him up. Michael laughed. “Still not used to this.” He looked at the selection on the screen, and ordered a cinnamon roll. “Hey, Nick, got any money?”
“You didn’t bring any?”
“I’m out of cash, and I left my card in the room. What about you, when did you get so greedy?”
“I didn’t–you can use mine, okay?” Nick dug his card out of his wallet and swiped it. The machine fed the roll through the slot.
Michael slapped Nick on the shoulder. “Come on, just messing with you.”
They snagged a table, and strapped themselves into the chairs.
Nick heard his mom’s voice. She was waving at him from a corridor on the side, coming in from Bright Deck. She pulled herself out, pushed herself off the poles, and flew toward the table. Michael snorted with laughter as she dogpaddled through the air. Nick had tried to tell her weightlessness didn’t work that way.
She stopped on a pole, straightened herself out, and adjusted her hair. “Lord, this zero gravity–it’s a miracle I haven’t broken something yet.”
“Good morning to you, too,” Nick said.
“Who’s your friend?”
“It’s Michael. You remember Michael Shand, right?”
Michael waved. “How’s it going, Mrs. Tallier?”
Her eyes flickered. “Of course I remember you. Look at you, you used to be so tiny. Your mother must have such a handful. How is she, anyway?”
“Doing okay. Got married.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Are they around?”
Michael glanced at the corridor. “I think they’re still in bed. We had a long trip.”
“So did we,” Nick’s mom said. “I hope I see them later. Nick, can you get me some Pop Tarts, and some orange juice?”
“Fine.” Nick didn’t feel like fighting it. She gave him five dollars, then he unbuckled and went back to the vending machine.
When he returned, she was, naturally, talking about him. “Oh, Nick cried all day after you left. I could hardly do anything.”
“Here you go, Mom,” Nick groaned, and passed along her breakfast.
“Don’t be so embarrassed. It’s true, isn’t it?” She opened the Pop Tart packet as the bottle twirled in front of her.
Michael grinned. “Don’t cry for me, Nicky. I’m just fine.”
“Shut up,” Nick said.
“So what are you up to today?” his mother said.
“We were just about to leave. Right, Michael?”
“Sure,” Michael said. “Let’s check out the arcade.”
“Got your phone?” Nick’s mom said.
“Right here.” Nick tapped his pocket.
His mom grabbed the bottle and popped the cap. “Have fun.”
Michael was still grinning when he and Nick reached Gemini. “She hasn’t changed a bit.”
“What about you?” Nick said. “When was the last time you saw your dad?”
They turned toward the Spark Deck corridor. Michael counted on his fingers. “About five years ago.”
“Five years?” Nick turned, and kept turning, and spun through the corridor, into the fitness room on Spark Deck. Treadmills, ellipticals, and rowing machines whirled around him, and he had no idea which way was what.
Michael snatched him, pulled him to the wall, and grabbed a handle. “You okay?”
“No.” Nick felt his breakfast climb up his throat.
Michael hopped from handle to handle, holding Nick behind him like a banner.
When they reached Turbo Deck, Nick wrapped himself around a pole to breathe and let his breakfast settle. Michael drifted around to explore. Every wall was divided into cells, each with a different game, and Michael peered into each one. Nick felt better by the time Michael came back and took Nick to an empty cell with an augmented reality ping-pong table. Nick swiped his card, and a slot opened in the wall. He took out the paddles and goggles, and passed a set to Michael.
Before they could start, Nick’s phone rang. He drew to a corner. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
“Nick, is Michael still with you?”
“Yeah, he’s right here. Why?”
“I just called his mother. She never changed her number, so I thought I’d say hi. Do you know where she is?”
“Spark Deck?”
“Oklahoma. She says he ran away a week ago, hasn’t seen him since. I’ve never heard anybody so frantic.”
Nick stared at Michael, noticed his nervous tapping on his paddle, his eyes darting all around. Was that really something Michael would do? Was this really the same kid who would spend days with Nick playing on the beach, or whole nights gazing up at the stars? The same one who would let Nick come over any time to play games just like this? Was he really someone who would run off into outer space on his own?
Michael’s eyes caught Nick’s. “Sometime this century,” he said.
“What should I do?” Nick whispered into the phone.
He heard his mother sigh. “Listen, he might be a stowaway. I hate to ask you to do this, but can you bring him down here? He needs to tell her he’s safe, and we need to keep him out of trouble.”
“Sure, I’ll be there soon.” Nick closed the call.
“Got you on a tight leash, huh?” Michael put on his goggles.
“Sure.” Nick wondered what to say, whether Michael would come along or do something drastic, and what would drive Michael to try and do this. He’d mentioned his father…
Michael watched him with an impatient scowl.
“Sorry,” Nick said, putting on his goggles. “Let’s play.” He clicked a button on the paddle that made a small white ball and a score counter appear over the table. He served.
And he could not focus. His worry yanked on his arms, pulled his eyes away, froze him. He kept thinking about Michael’s mother and his father and the colony and what it must have taken to get here, and it distracted Nick from some easy shots. Michael pounded him in a few minutes.
“You sure you’re okay?” Michael said. “Wanna play something else?”
“Sure.” Nick followed Michael, full of questions, but unable to let them out.
Along the way, Nick got another phone call. “Hello?”
“Nick, are you coming down here or not? Mrs. Shand’s desperate.”
“Uh, sure. Just a minute.” He closed the call.
“What does she want now?” Michael said.
Nick sighed. His heart was a balloon ready to pop. “Michael, I… well…”
“Come on, spit it out.”
“Look, my mom called your mom. We need you to come down and talk to her.”
Michael’s eyes spread open.
“We know you ran away. It’s okay, really. You oughta be able to stay with us until we get to the colony.”
Michael began looking around the deck, as if searching for something.
He kicked himself off the cell wall, then caught a pole and swerved to the corridor into Spark Deck, all before Nick could react.
Nick felt numb. All this time, he had been hoping to hang out with Michael at the colony. He didn’t have to be alone, cut off from people they loved. It would have been fun.
What if Michael was a stowaway? What if he got caught? When would Nick ever see him again?
Taking in a breath of resolve, he jumped out, reaching for the same pole. His fingers slipped, and he had to drift across the deck before he could grab another one. When he did, he clutched it tight and tried to breathe. What now?
First off, he thought, call Mom.
He dialed her up, biting his lip, dreading the way her voice would stab him in the ear when he told.
She answered.
“Bad news,” he said. “I tried to talk to him, and he ran off.”
“Ran off? Where is he?”
“If I knew I’d tell you.” He looked toward the Spark Deck corridor, wondering how far Michael could have gone. “Let me look for him, okay?”
His mom groaned. “Call me when you find him. I’ll be in the cafeteria.”
“Sure thing.” He hung up, turned himself around, and aimed for the corridor. After taking a few deep breaths, he kicked himself off, and flew straight through.
The deck made him just as dizzy as before, as left and right refused to stop moving. He caught a treadmill to stop himself; the girl running on it goggled at him, and he gave her an awkward grin before he pushed back to the wall, where he caught a bar. From there, he climbed along the wall, keeping his head down.
When he reached the next corridor, he risked a look through the whole deck. He had to turn away after only a few seconds; but he could tell Michael was not here.
He wasn’t in Gemini, either. Nick went to the same window where they had met up, and scanned every tree and flower bed. Other than the cafeteria and the bedrooms, that left Crystal Deck, above him.
It was a gallery on the history of space travel, depicted in statues, dioramas, and holograms. In the center was a glass column, with a miniature of the Big Lift crawling from one end to the other. It was tiny, and had come a long way on a very long thread.
Nick spotted Michael up in the corner, staring out a window, toward the Earth. His throat tightened as he approached. “Michael,” he said.
Michael turned, and only now did Nick notice the bags under his eyes.
“It’s okay,” Nick said. “What’s going on?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I might have a few ideas. How’d you even get here on your own?”
“A fake ID, a credit card, and so much planning,” Michael said. “I have a cabin, but as far as the crew knows, I’m a nineteen-year-old named Gary.” He gazed out the window. “I’m sorry I ran off. As soon as you mentioned my mom, I panicked.”
“What’s going on?”
Michael groaned, rubbed his face. “Well, first she married that pilot, who hates me, and got me that stepbrother, who hates me even more. Then I found–” He balled his fists and shook. “I found my dad’s letters. Turned out he’d been writing to me for years. They were all stashed in the attic.”
“And nobody ever told you?”
“No. I mean, he was never the best dad, but he was still my dad. And I miss him.”
Nick thought about his dad back home, how empty this trip had felt without him. “Why don’t you stick with us? I’m sure my mom can help.”
“Sure, until we get to the colony. Then you’ll have to send me straight home, ’cause if you don’t, my mom would make sure you regret it. Especially if it means I get to see Dad. She’ll probably have you two charged with kidnapping, or something. You know what my mom’s like. She once called the cops on a neighbor’s barbecue because she didn’t like the music.”
Nick pictured Mrs. Shand breathing fire over this, and cringed. What was he supposed to do?
His phone rang. “Mom?”
“Nick, please tell me you found him.”
He took a long look at Michael. They had barely spent an hour together, and already it seemed as distant as their childhood. Nick felt as though no matter what, he would lose his best friend all over again.
At the same time, Michael deserved to see his father.
“Sorry,” Nick said. “Can’t find him. Must have gotten away.”
Michael perked his head.
Nick’s mother groaned. “Mrs. Shand’s going to be furious.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Just slippery, I guess.”
He heard his mother sigh. “Can you come back down here?”
“Sure. Be there in a minute.”
She said goodbye, and they hung up.
“Holy crap,” Michael said.
“I know. I can’t believe I did it, either.” Nick wiped sweat off his forehead. “Think you’ll be safe till we get there?”
“I can lie low in my room. Maybe we’ll run into each other on the colony.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Nick said. “But just in case we don’t, good luck.”
“Thanks a lot, man.” Michael gave him one final hug. “I dunno what I’d do without you.” Michael flew off toward Turbo Deck, and turned and waved on the way out. Nick waved back, and went through Gemini to Galaxy Deck.
His mother was hanging up her phone when he arrived. “Mrs. Shand again. She won’t stop calling.” She sighed. “What am I supposed to tell her?”
Nick shrugged. “I looked everywhere.”
His mother stared at him for a moment, and a shiver crept up his spine. Had she figured him out?
She let out a heavy groan. “Come here.” When he did, she wrapped her arms around him. “Nick, I love you, and your father loves you, and Perry loves you, and I wish more than anything that we could all be together right now.”
“I love you, too,” Nick said.
She let him go, and he strapped himself into a seat. “I think he’ll be okay. He made it this far.”
His mother gave him that stare again. “But why would he do it?”
He felt that shiver again. “Well, he did mention something about his dad being up there.”
The stare in his mom’s eyes changed, as if no longer aimed at him, as if somehow, she were staring at Mrs. Shand. “She never mentioned that.” She leaned back. “We should look his father up when we get there, make sure he knows what’s going on.”
“Maybe so.”
His mother stretched her arms. “God, the stress. You want to go look around the Lift?”
“Sure,” Nick said, hoping Michael was out of sight.
His mother unbuckled herself, and let herself float out of her seat. Her head turned toward the window. “Look, you can see the tether.”
Nick looked. “I see it.”
It was like a hair, barely glinting over the surface of the Earth, a clear line, pointing the way back home.
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Jack-o-Lantern
 
a story by
Scathe meic Beorh
 
A long time ago, in Britain, there was a wicked man called Jack. He was a thief, and a murderer of children. Jack was never happy to only take from others what was not his to take. No, he did more than that. He took children from their homes and sold them as slaves. When the children Jack stole away could not move as fast as he said for them to move—because they were sad or maybe sick—he would slit their throats with his knife and toss their bodies into the woods.
One bright, crisp day Jack was resting under an apple tree, enjoying the sunshine and birdsongs, when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. When Jack turned his head, he was astonished to see a brawny, half-naked man standing there with goat horns sprouting from his head. Ach! The Devil himself! thought Jack.
“Come along, Jack,” said the Devil. “Your way of life has been giving even me a bad name with your child-murdering ways! I want my work on Earth done smoother than all that, so I can gather more disciples. More flies are collected with honey than with vinegar, boy! And now I am collecting you! Get your bag. You’re coming with me.”
Jack, quick of mind, realized who he was up against. Being a crafty fellow, and he gazed up into the apple tree and said, “Alright then, sir. But before we go, could I have that last apple hanging up there? I bet it’s a long trip to where we’re headed, and I’m hungry. We can share it if you like.”
In truth, high up in the tree hung a bright red apple. Jack’s request seemed to be a reasonable one. So the Devil scrambled up the tree to get the fruit. With a quickness, Jack pulled his knife and carved a ‘Star of Solomon’ on the trunk of the tree, thus trapping the Devil up in the tree limbs.
Ha! You thought you had me, didn’t you, old man?” said Jack. “Now I’ve got you! Stay in that tree and rot!” And off he rambled, chuckling to himself.
Now, it would be nice to say that, in meeting the Devil himself, Jack had learned his lesson. But he didn’t. He murdered more children after that than ever before.
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Years passed, and Jack died. When he realized what had happened to him, he said, “I believe I’ll make a journey to the Bright Land.” But when Jack arrived, the warrior at the gate stopped him.
“Jack! What are you doing here?” said the guardian. “You were told of Christ and His transforming power an abundance of times throughout your life, and you only scoffed at the good news every time you heard it. You cannot come into the Fellowship of the Saints, for not only do you have no soul, but you don’t even have a conscience!”
Jack, deeply saddened that he had not listened to the message of the Cross of Jesus as he should have, wandered off, searching for the soul he lost in his childhood. Eventually, he found his way down to Hell. When Jack asked the demon at the gate for entrance, the Devil himself came out.
“You!” said the Devil. “You soulless good-for-nothing scoundrel! You trapped me in that apple tree for three long years, until the bark grew back over that symbol you carved there! Do you even realize what your stupid trick allowed Saint Patrick to accomplish in Ireland during my absence? Idiot! What do you want down here in Hell?”
“I have nowhere else to go,” said Jack as he placed his hand on his head in uncertainty as he had when he was little and his own daddy threatened him and beat him until he bled.
“Oh, no you don’t!” said the Devil, who was looking every second more and more like his daddy. “You come to my house and ask to come in after how you treated me? Go away! I have no use for you, stupid boy!”
“Where am I to go then?” said Jack, beginning to weep.
“You can go to Nether Gloom for all I care! Get out of here! Why don’t you go and look for your soul you lost as a child! That’ll give you something to do!”
So Jack wandered off into the Nether Gloom that is found between the worlds, feeling more lonesome and dejected than he ever had before. There were terrible things living there in the blackness and freezing cold. Unclean spirits wandered there, and ghoulish things, and unspeakable things that should be forgotten forever. They grabbed at Jack with their claws and bit him with their fangs and tore at his clothes until they were nothing but shards hanging from his tired body.
One evening before All Hallows Day, as Jack sat lonely and sad, feeling like his mind was about to be pulled into shreds, a gentle spirit passed by. This spirit, seeing Jack, took pity on him as he sat there alone in the darkness. She plucked a turnip from the field next to where he sat. Borrowing his knife, she hollowed the vegetable out, carved a face, and put a candle inside it.
“Here, Jack,” she said as she handed him the glowing lamp. “This lantern shall light your way through every darkness. It shall protect you between the worlds and beyond, until such time the Lord God may have mercy on your lost soul, and mayhap bring you yet into His kingdom. Jack, as it stands now, you are not important enough for even the wind to pick up and carry along. Christ have mercy on you, as well as the children in their prayers for you.”
Jack did not understand what the spirit meant about the children and their prayers, but he remembered every one of the little ones he had hurt and murdered in life, and these memories filled him with such grief that if he had not already been dead, he would have died of a broken heart.
After a while sitting there and crying, Jack took his turnip lantern and continued to wander. He walked around in Nether Gloom, and over the Earth, and through other worlds, and all over Time itself. He saw many frightening and dreadful things as he traveled, but the turnip lantern protected him from every evil that tried to rip him asunder… but never from the earnest prayers of children who heard his sad story, dressed up in torn clothes like him, begged for ‘soul cakes’ in their prayers for him, and carried their own lanterns to help Jack find his lost soul.
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Suzie Wants To Know The Truth
 
a story by
Stefani Christova
 
Soap bubbles foam around Suzie’s hands as she washes the cup, the small plate and the big plate from her dinner last night. Some of the bubbles take off and drift around her in the sun-warmed air, reflecting the world outside and multiplying the kitchen cabinets, the chairs, the table with the orange globe above it, and the phone on the wall. The phone on the wall. Suzie’s heart skips. They should call her today, tomorrow at the latest.
The phone makes a short, whirring sound as if it is about to ring, and trying not to make noise with the dishes, Suzie waits to see if it will. When it doesn’t, she unplugs the sink and reaches for the towel on the stove door. The towel takes the bubbles away from her hands, and color and sparkle turn into wet spots on the worn-out material.     
Suzie smiles an inward smile. What amuses her, even in the midst of self-pity and dread, is the irony of it. Is her wish for escape going to be granted finally, ten years later, when completely forgotten, the bitter taste left in her mouth from the sleeping pills gone, and when all she is looking forward to is the summer vacation and her painting class.
Suzie wants to be brave. She has been brave for three days already. Can she do it for a bit longer? For as long as it takes? She doubts it. The waiting is becoming impossible to bear, the wading through the fog of her days harder and harder. She may need to talk to her sister. She starts in the direction of the phone, but it looks so bloated with bad news that she cannot make herself touch it. She decides to walk; her sister lives only a few blocks away.
Suzie goes to the entry closet and rummages through her shoes. The shelf has given way, and all the shoes are piled on the bottom. She untangles one of her favorite sandals and looks in the pile for its pair, in the meantime stepping into the shoe she has just taken out. Her foot slips out to the side, and Suzie almost loses her balance. She picks the shoe up and looks at it. The upper part of the sandal, woven from straw-like material, has been cut through with what seems like a sharp knife. The cut has been made on the outer side, close to the sole. Suzie turns the sandal in her hands, wondering how this could have happened, then she drops it aside and pulls out a pair of rubber flip-flops, bright blue and easy to find in the pile. Each of them has its straps cut off the same way. She searches the pile and looks at shoe after shoe that is mutilated, damaged, impossible to wear.
“Father!” she cries, and her father opens the living-room door as if he has been waiting for her call, the paper in one of his hands, his eyes big and moist behind his reading glasses. “Has anyone been here? Eileen maybe? With the kids?”
He takes his glasses off to take a better look at her as she sits on the floor surrounded by her useless shoes, her face distraught to a degree he doesn’t seem to understand but doesn’t question. “I have nothing to wear. What am I going to do?” Suzie whines, and she knows she is whining but cannot help it.
Her father goes back to his room without saying a word and closes the door behind him. He comes back in a minute holding a hundred-dollar bill, which he gives to her. Then, he is gone again to the safety of his armchair.
Pressure builds up behind Suzie’s eyelids. She rubs her temples until it hurts. “How about a bit of self-control?” she asks herself. “How about you leave Eileen out of this?” After a few minutes, she feels ready and stands up. 
She drives, still barefooted, to the mall and buys a pair of slip-ons. The shoes are a pearl-rose color that will go well with the new dress she is going to wear tonight for the end of the school year dance, but not so well with the summer dress she has on. Then, she drives to the campus—she has things to do there and she wants to have lunch in the cafeteria. She likes the cream pies they have and the spicy pockets with feta cheese.
It is already half-past one, but there is a long queue, students, professors, even parents, lined up for a last meal before the summer takes them away to their small towns, suburbia, second homes, Paris, the mountains, wherever. Suzie takes a tray and waits her turn. No one comes after her, she is the last one in the queue. The food they have today is better than usual, she can see that when she looks at the other people’s trays. Arugula sandwiches, stuffed peppers, crème brulée. When her turn comes, only some of the stuffed peppers are left, and there are no more clean plates at the line. The three women behind the counter turn their backs on her and start cleaning and tidying the kitchen. She waits for them to notice her, but they don’t. “Hello, hi there…no more clean plates.” “What? Ah, we just loaded the dishwashers, there isn’t a single plate left. Sorry.” “What about the crème brulée?” “What about it? It’s gone.” “But I see some over there.” Suzie points at the inside shelves where the crème brulée crinkles its sugary, golden-yellow crust in ovenproof, individual bowls. One of the women comes to the window and closes it in front of her face, without further explanation. Suzie lifts her hand halfway to the window, and stays like that, giddy with confusion, not knocking, her hand in the air, a little tic pulling the corner of her upper lip.
The tower clock downtown chimes two times. The sound is clear and sharp like a thorn, and it startles Suzie into motion. She wanders out still holding the tray until she reaches the first benches and leaves it there.
The campus is like a ghost town. No people, no moving cars, only a few parked in the vast, empty parking lots. Abandoned bicycles line the buildings’ entries, or are chained to lampposts and trees. It is like that every summer. The students depart in haste and leave their bicycles behind. On the first day of school, the unclaimed ones will be offered in an auction. Suzie glances wistfully at a bright red, foldable bicycle, and goes through her to-do list where two items wait to be crossed out. She returns the key for the biology lab in the administration office, leaves a memo for her adviser on the door of his office, and reads the messages on the board. It’s still two-thirty. She goes to the library, where she picks a Spanish magazine to read, checking in the dictionary every word she is not familiar with. She does that until it’s time to go home and get ready for tonight.
Suzie barely knows the boy who will take her to the dance. He has beautiful hands, long, with delicate fingers like the hands of a piano player. She will ask him if he plays an instrument if she goes out with him a second time. He shows up at her house with a bottle of inexpensive champagne he says she doesn’t need to open now—it’s a present for her. She insists, however, and they drink it from glasses that had been too long in the cupboard and give the champagne a faint dusty flavor. He drinks very little, he will be driving, so she finishes her glass, then his, and pours the rest in her water bottle to take along. The plastic bottle expands from the carbonation, and by the time they reach the campus, is inflated like a balloon. The champagne fizzes and spills out when Suzie opens it, and she drinks quickly, laughing and shaking the excess from her chin and her dress.
Inside, she dances with the boy, with other boys, with two of her professors, and with her friend, Amy, who has had a crush on her since their junior year. The boy wants to take her home around eleven, but she refuses, she wants to dance until midnight. He says he is glad she is having such a good time. When he drops her off, he doesn’t want to come in, he will call her tomorrow. Not tomorrow, she says, tomorrow is not good, the end of the week should be better.  
The next morning, Suzie wakes up on a soft, feathery cloud, surrounded by apple blossoms and blazing blue sky. The peaceful feeling she brought out of her sleep is still with her, a drowsy happiness that could only be experienced at the brim of awakening. She accepts what she sees without questioning it. The apple blossoms seem frozen in space, not a petal moves or trembles, and their stillness gives the impression of a deeper but forged third dimension like in a holograph. There is a cluster of blossoms no more than six inches away from Suzie’s eyes, and she examines them closely. The ones that are fully open are pure white, the buds have a tint of pink on the edges. She wants to smell them, even though the fragrance is all around her, she has felt it seeping into her dreams all night. She reaches to bring the twig closer and the shift of weight upsets her cloud. Fully awake now, she moves back to firmer ground.
She is on the apple tree that grows behind their townhouse. Someone had built a platform between the branches for the kids to play on. Last night, she brought her down comforter here and fell asleep watching the stars. Her dress is probably all wrinkled now. Suzie wishes she were still sleeping among the flowering branches, breathing the sweet smell and believing she was in heaven. She closes her eyes and tries to make herself comfortable again, but moves the wrong way and almost rolls off the platform. A wonder she has made it through the night without falling down.
At least her shoes must be safe here. No one could have climbed the tree without waking her. She sits up carefully and searches the folds of the comforter for her shoes. Her heart sinks as she pulls them out one by one. They have been cut the same way as her other shoes. Sharp, clean cuts close to the soles. She falls back into her makeshift bed, hugs the shoes close to her chest, and turns on her side, curling around them. Now the view through the branches is no longer the bright blue sky, but the thinly grassed open space behind their building. 
           The trees on the other side look peculiar. They have never been that close or that dense or that old and gnarled. Now they are dark and looming, with shaggy curtains of moss draping their limbs. The artificial pond in front of them has turned into a bog. The bog, in the shadows of the trees, is so overgrown that it takes Suzie a moment to notice the two old women sitting in the murky water. For some reason they have taken their clothes off. The skin on their forearms is loose and their empty breasts hang to their waists. Their features are strange. One of them is bold and her head reminds Suzie of a straw mushroom with its shape and color, and with the gray peelings on the sides. The other one has the pasty skin of someone dredged out of the deep. The first woman is seated deeper in the water, and the second one is behind her standing or sitting on higher ground so they seem stacked behind each other like cards from some obscure tarot deck.
Suzie moves aside the branches and looks at the women. She hopes they will go away. They look back, unblinking and expressionless.
“What is happening to me?” Suzie cries so they can hear her in the distance. “Who is depriving me of shoes to wear, of food to eat? Tell me.”
The women gain an air of satisfaction about them as if they got something long waited for. “She wants to know the truth. She wants to know the truth,” they chant, their voices old and cracking and full of mockery. The one behind pulls something from the water and starts smacking it against the tree on their left in time with the chanting. Suzie can see what has been brought out of the water with clarity and in the finest of details. It is a skinless fish. The blood vessels on its body are bright red against the gray of its flesh. The mouth with sharp, pointed teeth is opening and closing. The big, frenzied eye makes rounds in its socket. The bark of the tree is deeply cut and ragged, and the fish makes a loud slapping sound when it is brought against it.
Suzie gags and starts to cry. Not letting go of her pretty, ruined shoes, she slides down the trunk of the apple tree. Just in time she notices Mrs. Pelham, the lady that takes care of the grounds, who is sweeping the pavement and the stairs on the side of the building.
“Good morning, Suzie,” Mrs. Pelham calls out. “Did you sleep in the tree house? Nice dress you have. Put your shoes on, you’ll catch a cold like that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pelham. I will. Good morning to you, too.”
Finally, Suzie is around the corner. Loud sobs shake her whole body. She needs to talk to her sister. She will do it right now. She runs past the first and the second entryways, then past the third one where she lives with her father, and where the phone will ring any moment now. The townhouses with their columned porches and flowerpots with geraniums and pansies waver in front of her eyes as if the whole street has gone underwater and she is watching it from a submarine window.
Suzie cannot stop crying. The air is becoming salty and sparse. Soon there won’t be enough to breathe.
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The Air Serpent
a story by
William Page
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GENTLEMEN: The report which I now have the honor to submit to your honorable body is so extraordinary, and deals with facts so difficult to prove—beyond my own mere word and the records of my barograph which indicate the approximate height reached by my machine—that it is with much trepidation that I now appear before you. In presenting to you the results of my recent exploration of the upper ether, and the mysterious disappearance of my late mechanic, John Aid, of which cognizance has already been taken by the police, I realize that I am taxing the limit of credulity; yet before passing final judgment upon the extraordinary narrative I am about to place before you, let me call your attention to the fact that my record hitherto in the annals of aviation has been a story of unquestioned achievements, of daring which has often been characterized as reckless, and of an earnest and constant effort to discover new truths in that wonderful air world which has been opened up to exploration through the recent development of the aeroplane.

I cannot refrain, also, from reminding your learned body that pioneers in all fields of endeavor suffer martyrdom from the unthinking and the unbelieving. Half a century ago, a ribald rhymster mocked at Darius Green and his flying machine; yet within the brief space of half-a-dozen years, the perfect aeroplane expresses of to-day have been evolved before our very eyes. Even last year, when a new world’s altitude record of 16,374 feet was established by the lamented Renegal, your sub-committee on altitude adopted a resolution that the limit of attainment in the upper ether had been reached; yet less than two months after, Santuza, the daring Spanish aviator, flying his 200-horse-power Mercadio tri-plane with the improved ailerons, reached the incredible height of 23,760 feet, when the ink in his barograph ran out and refused to register a greater height, although Santuza is of the belief that he climbed almost 1,000 feet higher.

To pause for a moment from the subject nearest our hearts, let me only speak for a moment of the derision and ridicule heaped upon Columbus when he planned his first voyage; of the insults and scorn directed at Galileo; or of the thousands of martyrs in the realm of science, invention and discovery who, at first denounced as fakers and preposterous humbugs, were proven after a lapse of time to have been honest, sincere and truthful in their claims.

Bearing these facts of history in mind, permit me to present herewith a brief, accurate and truthful account of all that happened during my recent ascent when, with the aid of John Aid, my invaluable and greatly mourned mechanic, I established an altitude record which I do not believe will ever be exceeded, if indeed it is reached by other aviators within our time. For not only are the difficulties such that our machines will have to be improved in some miraculous manner to go higher, but there are living, breathing obstacles to further exploration of the upper ether which will make all such experiments extremely hazardous, and probably fatal, to even the most venturesome aviator. For I have the important announcement to make, almost beyond your powers of belief, that I have discovered that the upper ether is inhabited. This astounding discovery was made simultaneously by me and my mechanic, John Aid, for whom the voyage of exploration brought death in an unprecedented and most deplorable manner. Had not the mysterious creature of the air claimed my poor mechanic as its first earthly victim, he would now be standing here beside me upon this platform, to corroborate my unsupported testimony with his own verbal report of the most extraordinary experience that ever befell mortal man.

As your honorable body well knows, I have secured patents from time to time for improvements in the Gesler engines with which my aeroplanes have been fitted the past two years. By enlarging the plane surface and fitting four blades to each propeller instead of two, I have been enabled to increase the speed record to 97.16 miles per hour, this having been officially accomplished at the July Palm Beach meeting. Having established a new speed record, which I confidently think will stand for some months, I determined to try for new altitude records, but in view of the numerous unfortunate accidents resulting from experiments in the upper ether, I determined to secure safety at all hazards. I therefore reconstructed my last imported Gamier tri-plane so that the improved ailerons invented by Santuza could be applied not only to the main planes, but to the forward controlling and lifting planes as well. This preserved the lateral balance to such a perfect degree that it was easily possible to make a turn in eight seconds in a 25-mile wind, without banking the machine more than 30 degrees. I found, also, that by fitting the new plane with three propellers, three Gesler engines, and three gasoline tanks of ample size, I could feel reasonably certain that my power would not be exhausted without warning, for a single turn of the lever would put any or all of the three engines in operation, singly or together, and if I wished to economize on power, I could climb with only one propeller, holding the others in reserve for possible accidents or in case I wished to combat any of the strong air currents sometimes encountered above the 12,000 foot level.

It was a clear August day, late in the afternoon, when John and a couple of hangers-on wheeled the big tri-plane out of the hangar at Belmont Park, the beautiful Long Island aviation ground where aerial history has been made in the past two years. Both John and I were determined that before another sun should rise, we would bring back as a trophy from the air a record for altitude that would never be broken. How little we knew at what a price we would succeed, or through what dangers we would pass before I returned to that dear old hangar where we had chummed together and experimented so much.

I was determined to go after the record at nightfall, because’ so far above the clouds the sun’s rays prove a trifle too glaring. It was undoubtedly the tremendous light from the sun which affected the sight of poor Renegal when his machine fell from a height of 14,800 feet when he tried to exceed his own altitude record at San Francisco. Therefore I determined to do my high flying at night, when the moon was at the quarter and gave just enough light for us to see clearly and distinctly after we had passed from the lower levels.

The gasoline tanks were carefully filled, the engines tested, a supply of light provisions placed in the basket between the two seats, and the oxygen tanks carefully strapped in place on both of us, with the connecting tubes and the helmets under the arms ready to be applied when we had passed the 15,000-foot level into the upper strata where the rarefied air made the oxygen tanks a necessity.

Egerton Brooks, the official secretary of the Montauk Aero Club, personally adjusted the official barograph of the American Aeronautical Society, and sealed it with his own seal.

“I hope you will get the record above 25,000 feet,” he cried, as the mechanics began to start the engines. “It is a new Angiers barograph, adjusted to register up to 50,000 feet, though of course no living thing could attain such an absurd height. You will notice that it is surrounded by cork, so that if you fall into the water, the record will not be injured or lost.”

Giving Brooks a hearty hand-shake and a few words of farewell, I gave the signal and Aid started the middle engine, No. 2.

“You may expect me about midnight,” I cried in farewell. “Keep the beacons burning until then, and if I don’t return you wiU know I have been blown out of my course.”

The great whirring of the propellers drowned further speech. I rang the forward bell, the mechanics let go, and like an eagle the tri-plane sprang aloft.

Forward, upward, over the field, over the grandstand, and ever onward and upward the giant tri-plane mounted. I had tilted the lifting forward planes to 28 degrees, and now started engine No. 1. The added power sent us upward at nearly twice the speed first employed, and in a few seconds the earth below was but a dull, dark, blurred mass, with now and then a faint twinkling from an electric light far below.

The early twilight faded into darkness when we had reached the 3,000 level and I directed Aid, who was looking after the engines behind me, to turn on the electric search-light. The warning came none too soon, for almost as I spoke there was a little fluttering, crashing sound as the machine plunged headlong into a flock of sea gulls which had not noticed our approach.

“Better look at the compass,” shouted Aid. “You are out at sea.”

Brushing two of the dead gulls from the plane at my side, and turning on the pocket electric light which was placed at my left over the map and compass, I soon realized that we had indeed been following a straight course across Long Island and were now probably over the Fire Island light. Shifting the vertical planes in the rear a trifle I set them at 18 degrees, which would mean that the tri-plane would describe great circles approximately ten miles in diameter, as it gradually ploughed upward through the atmosphere.

The earth was now entirely out of sight. In daylight, as all experienced aviators know, the earth becomes practically invisible at the 7,000-foot level, even on a clear day. On cloudy days one is lost to the earth after ascending a few hundred feet. Just as the waiting crowds below at an aviation meeting find it impossible to distinguish even a speck on the horizon ten minutes after a swift machine leaves the earth, so the aviator aloft on his speedy career finds himself absolutely alone in a new world.

The sensation is indescribable. One feels that one has opened up a new territory, discovered a new realm, in which he alone is king. Preserving the balance when thus out of sight of the earth is not as difficult as one might imagine, as the laws of gravitation operate through the unseen space, and one has only to watch the delicate mechanism of the anograph to ascertain whether one is losing the equilibrium of the machine.

Slowly the needle moved round and round on the barograph, steadily registering our ascent. Within the first hour, when darkness had completely shut us off from the rest of the universe, we had passed the 10,000-foot level, which for almost a year in the early days of aviation had been a prize goal for the amateur aviators before the business had been placed :n the firm footing it now enjoys.

Then came the moon. It rose at 9:02 on the 75th meridian, but as we were nearly three miles above the horizon, we saw it much sooner. It seemed reflected in some faint, misty manner by the water which he knew must be far below us, but as we mounted higher and higher, even the faint reflection disappeared.

At 9:37 p.m. Aid leaned over my shoulder and grunted.

“Fifteen thousand feet,” he muttered. “We can do it faster if we use the other engine.”

“No,” I replied. “Hold engine No. 3 for emergencies.”

“Emergencies?” he repeated, with a laugh. “Good Lord, what emergencies can happen now? What? As if the tri-planes are not as safe as an express train or a submarine nowadays.”

I did not argue with him. Aid was noted for his fondness for a controversy. I merely signaled to him to get the oxygen helmets ready, for the increased difficulty of breathing showed me that the rarefied air was fast becoming too thin for us to breathe with comfort. I noticed, too, that our speed seemed to diminish slightly, as the planes found the supporting air becoming thinner and thinner. I fondly reflected, however, that the third engine would remedy this when it became necessary to get more speed to keep aloft on the last leg of our upward climb. However, we were soon inside the oxygen helmets, and once more I could take a long, full breath of life-giving ozone.

The helmets of course made further conversation impossible, but long experience in the higher altitudes had perfected a system of signals between my mechanic and myself which enabled us to carry on a conversation fairly well.

John leaned over my shoulder at 10:38 and pointed to the needle of the barograph. It registered 22,380 feet. He nudged me.

I understood that nudge perfectly. It meant that in less than ten minutes more of climbing, we would have passed the best record of Santuza, officially 23,760 feet, and would have the world’s altitude record within our grasp.

So absorbed were we in watching the barograph that we both neglected the engines, and it was only a miracle that something did not happen when engine No. 2 developed a hot bearing because of lack of oil. I sharply reprimanded John for not attending to such details, and bade him by signals to attend to his business, while I would watch the needle.

Up, around it moved. First it reached the 23,000 mark, then hundred by hundred, ten by ten, it moved on and on. I turned and gave a silent signal of joy when we passed Santuza’s mark. Then I set forward determined to establish a world altitude record that would never be broken. And I succeeded.

It must have been shortly after 11 o’clock when the barograph registered 30,000 feet. This gigantic achievement, nearly six miles away from the earth, higher than the loftiest mountain peak, higher than any balloon had ever floated, should have satisfied us. I deeply regret that we were not content to rest upon these laurels, but with a foolhardiness for which I can never forgive myself, I tried to see how much higher we could go without using the reserve supply of gasoline contained in the tank of engine No. 3—which fortunately, we had not yet started. In fact, I venture the assertion that had it not been for the precaution of providing a third engine neither of us would have been saved from the catastrophe that followed.

Onward, upward, past the 33,000 foot level the sturdy tri-plane, steady as a ship in a calm, continued to forge. When 35,000 was reached I turned and signaled John for his advice. The poor fellow, who didn’t realize how near he was to the end of all earthly things, answered to keep on going. So we went up past the 36,000 foot level.

And then we saw it.

Never to my dying day, gentlemen, will I forget the horror of that moment. Never will I be able to efface from memory the dread picture of that gigantic monster of the air, lazily floating along on the ether, scarcely moving the great, finnish wings with which a wonderful creator had endowed it. Although the cold was almost unendurable, and I had thought myself as nearly frozen as possible, I felt a sudden stiffness permeate my veins and I shook with terror. I felt John grasp my shoulder, his hand shaking as with the palsy, and though neither of us could speak because of the oxygen helmets, we both felt a grim horror which would no doubt have stricken us dumb under any circumstances.

For there, almost in front of us, a trifle to the right, coming in an opposite direction, and gazing at us with mild curiosity and perhaps astonishment, was a gigantic monster, utterly unlike anything I have ever seen before. The light from the electric searchlight cast a weird reflection upon the great creature, and this light, I believe, was one instrument which proved our salvation temporarily, for it struck the giant monster fairly in the eyes, and seemed to blind him.

The monster—or air serpent, for so I must call it—seemed to be about ninety or a hundred feet in length. Its physical structure seemed a cross between a bat and a snake. There were undulating movements as it slowly drifted, together with flapping of the twenty or thirty batlike wings which projected from its sides. The head was enormous, and it was not the head of a bird. Two great eyes, approximately a foot in diameter each, glared and blinked over a cavernous maw which opened and closed spasmodically as the creature breathed. This much we saw, and then as the swift tri-plane shot by almost under the creature’s startled eyes, I felt a sudden blast of hot air which made the tri-plane quiver and tremble for a moment. Then we had passed the creature and had sped forth into the darkness, for the moonlight was very faint.

I felt John grasp me for support. He was trembling. I turned, pointed toward engine No. 3, and at the same time deflected the forward controlling plane to an angle of 20 degrees, determined to make the quickest and yet safest descent on record. I had no desire to get a second look at the monster of the air.

The jarring of the third engine made a terrific noise, but we could not hear it. The stalwart tri-plane shook under the added pressure, and we sprang forward at a speed which I estimated at 80 miles an hour. The needle of the barograph began to settle quickly, as we dropped to the 35,000-foot level.

Suddenly I felt John’s convulsive grasp upon my shoulder. I turned, and he pointed off to the left.

“It’s there, sir,” he cried, as plainly by his signals as though he had spoken out loud.

I looked as he indicated. There, two hundred feet away, following us almost without an effort while we were making 80 miles an hour, was the air serpent.

I shifted the vertical plane sharply to the right and veered off to escape. Almost before I had settled down to a straight course ahead, I felt again that hot, nauseous breath, which I knew came from the giant monster hovering so near us.

John was trembling all over. We were descending fast, for the barograph now registered 33,750, and our course ahead was being made at 80 miles an hour, yet that gigantic, wonderful, monstrous thing seemed able to keep up with us without an effort.

I determined to try strategy. Remembering how the eyes had blinked at the electric searchlight, I suddenly turned a trifle to the left, shifted the searchlight, and struck the creature with it squarely in the eyes.

The air serpent backed off instantly, I turned sharply to the right, extinguished the searchlight as I did so and lowered the forward planes to 25 degrees, a dangerous angle for a descent, as all aviators know, but I was determined to escape from the monster if possible.

But it was futile. Before the barograph showed 30,000 feet, I felt the hot breath again, and this time it came from beneath.

With incredible ingenuity, probably realizing from the changing air pressure that its prey was trying to escape into the lower ether, the monster had placed himself under the aeroplane, and I firmly believe that if I had not suddenly shifted the forward lateral planes to the horizontal, we would have struck the creature from above.

I turned to John, mutely asking advice. He was quivering with fear. And I too began to tremble anew when I realized how completely this mysterious monster of the air had us in his power.

I switched on the searchlight again and aimed it below us. There he was, the giant, undulating, fin-like creature, his sixty wings flapping noiselessly, his hulking, soft, snaky body moving forward without an effort, and the great head and the cavernous maw turned upward as if it had not yet determined what manner of bird or beast this was which had invaded the upper realms where this creature alone seemed able to exist.

I turned the plane sharply to the right, and keeping the searchlight pointing downward, shifted the forward planes again for a descent. It was our only chance and we had to take it.

But the enemy was vigilant and ever-watchful. It followed us curiously to the 25,000-foot level. Then it evidently became oppressed by the thickness of the atmosphere, and decided we had gone far enough. With a quick, sudden lashing of the fins, it dived under us, the hot breath again making the planes tremble, and loomed up straight ahead. In another moment we would have struck it had I not tilted the vertical planes sharply to the left. I turned completely around in less than three seconds, the quickest turn on record, I believe, but while the strain on the ailerons was terrific, the tri-plane held on its course.

But we could not escape the enemy. The giant monster merely gave about two jumps, and with incredible speed, repeated the maneuver. Once more I jammed the wheel sharply to the right, and once more the ailerons creaked as the strain of the sudden turn almost tore them loose.

Then came the catastrophe. The next time the monster leaped before us I flashed the searchlight into its great wicked eyes. It blinked and ducked, and in an instant we had passed over it.

I firmly believe that John Aid expected me to execute another sharp tarn. Perhaps he leaned too far over in an effort to help maintain the balance. Perhaps fear and the terror took possession of his heart, and he thought the end was near anyhow. Whether he fell or jumped from his seat I know not, but when I turned my head the instant after we had passed the creature, I realized that I was alone.

I swung about instantly, and felt an ominous snap about the ailerons under the terrific strain of the turn, but fortunately all held. Then I directed the searchlight downward, and what I saw by the brilliant dashing rays I shall never forget.

There, three hundred feet below me, I saw the giant monster of the air, his great maw pointing upward. A dark object hurtled through the air, falling like a stone. It passed the startled gaze of the air serpent and fell into space below. Quicker than I can speak the words the monster darted downward after the falling object. Sick with horror, scarcely able to work the controlling levers, I saw by the faint, flickering rays of the archlight, down below, the monster suddenly pause in its mad dash. It had caught the falling object and swallowed it in its maw.

How I reached the lower levels I know not. My arms worked the planes automatically, the terrific descent was made in thirty minutes, and sometime about midnight I landed on the sandy beach of the south shore of Long Island near Montauk Point. Too weak to remove the oxygen helmet, which fortunately was charged for twelve hours, I lay there in a daze. About five o’clock some fishermen found me and aided in removing the helmet. The tri-plane, slightly injured by its sudden contact with the beach, was taken apart and shipped back to New York, and I personally brought the barograph, still sealed as I thought, to the rooms of the Montauk Aero Club. There a cruel disappointment awaited me, for it appears that the shock of landing broke the seal, and the record, while perfectly clear, could not be accepted as official without the official seal showing that it had not been tampered with.

I made a preliminary report on the extraordinary adventure to the newspaper reporters, and notified the police of the accident to my mechanic, but only to meet with such ridicule that I speedily decided to delay my report for careful reflection and consideration. The accepted version of the death of John Aid is that he dropped into the ocean, but gentlemen, I have made here my report, and in view of my hitherto unquestioned word, I believe I have the right to demand that it be accepted as authentic. Some day a venturesome air-man will penetrate to the upper levels, five miles from the earth, and discover new evidence to corroborate my unsupported word. And then, gentlemen, the world will realize that just as in the farthest depths of the sea, there are strange monsters we have never seen, so in the thin upper strata of air there are tenuous creatures living in a world of their own, which we have never seen.

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NEXT ISSUE OF
BEORH QUARTERLY?
 
MAY 2013
 
(barring unforeseen circumstances)
 
 

Winter 2012

all content © 2012

End of the World Issue

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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.”
Enjoy!
Scathe
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The Fascination of the Abomination

or,

From Blackwood to Coppola: Apocalypse Now as Weird Tale

 

 an essay by

Ben Thomas

 
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 existencesuggests. 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.[1]
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.”
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“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.”
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“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.”
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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.
[1] 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.
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Ben Thomas is a professional writer who lives and works in Los Angeles.
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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.
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Scathe meic Beorh is the editor and founder of Beorh Quarterly. He lives with his wife Ember on the Atlantic Coast.
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The Disappointed Martian

 

a story by

Pierre Comtois

 
“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.
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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
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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.
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            “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….
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            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!”
            “Sorry.”
            “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.”
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            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.
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            “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…”
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            “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.”
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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.
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Storm Chaser

 

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.
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The Chenoo

a retelling by

Ed Ahern

 
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.
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 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.
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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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 THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US HERE AT BEORH QUARTERLY! STAY TUNED! MORE ISSUES ON THEIR WAY!

Autumn 2012

all content © 2012

inaugural issue

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A Joyous Halloween!
and welcome! welcome! to the inaugural issue of Beorh Quarterly!
In this first issue you will read, if you have a mind to, the American Civil War horror called, aptly, “The Lords of Chickamauga” by Hollywood writer Ron Yungul.
“Adam’s Reach” by Jim Clinch follows.
“The Halloween Thieves” and “The Creepy Old House Up On Waterstone Street” by Scathe meic Beorh come next.
Then comes “The Pagans” by Ben Thomas, a one-time featured author in Weird Tales and EIC of defunct The Willows Magazine
“Halloween, 2032” by Angel Zapata adds yet another wonderful tale to the ever-growing ‘Halloween Story’ collection.
“Asteroid” by John Grey rounds out this first exciting issue.
Enjoy!
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Adam’s Reach
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a story by
Jim Clinch
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They were aliens. What we might call robots or cyborgs. Manufactured at the cellular level and sent to explore. She was called Mary Jones. Research showed that was a common American name. They had Patels and Gomezes and Kims in other parts of Earth, but in Hayesville, Georgia, the name Jones was deemed appropriately average.
            The three of them had recently arrived to begin their mission. They were to gather data, observe and interact with the indigenous life. It was simple scientific research: integrate with the locals, compile the knowledge gained and add it to the great galactic library.
            Except that now her “son” seemed to be acting in ways that were outside of his performance matrix.
            John was built to look sixteen. He was designed as a teenager because even a superior alien robot race was having trouble understanding teenagers. Evidence suggested this might be a universal constant.
            John’s problem was his “dad,” Bill Jones. Lots of kids had problems with their father, but this was different. Bill died, or something mechanically equivalent. This was rare. Sure, there were losses from wars, accidents, asteroid strikes, novas and such, but only 0.000000023 percent of these bionic researchers ever failed. The alien machines that made these human replicas had an exceptional quality assurance program.
            Nevertheless, Bill Jones died and Mary and John stood his body up in the master bedroom closet and shut the louvered accordion door. Mary told John she would have to ask their superiors for instructions. Perhaps they would be asked to call a funeral home and research North American burial rituals?  They were, after all, perfect human reproductions and were designed so any doctor or coroner would find nothing out of the ordinary unless they searched at the atomic level, which wasn’t likely. Still, he did fail. Even though he looked normal from the outside, Mary thought his breakdown could conceivably have done something odd to his insides. If some glitch had caused him to mimic Ebola or bubonic plague, for example, this could prove highly problematic should his body be examined by persons of authority.
            It was immediately after standing Bill in the closet and while she was discussing the issue with John that Mary became aware of the anomaly in her “son.”  He seemed not to react to her comments. North American verbal social cues, for which they were both programmed, elicited no spoken responses. All Mary got was a shrug, and a sort of grunt that indicated aural reception only. Her systems analyzed this in nanoseconds and produced the appropriate human-like response which was annoyance.
            “Don’t you want to discuss this incident?” she asked.
            “Whatever,” John replied.
+
            “So, what does your daddy do?” the pretty girl asked. John’s experiential modeling told him the sound of her voice was pleasant. He liked it.
            The girl was Natalie. They had several classes together. While the other teens tended to remain aloof from the “new kid,” she was friendly and often initiated interactions with him. She had a habit of placing her small hand on his arm or shoulder as they talked. He liked that, too.
            “He’s an electrician. He works for a contractor over at the navy base in Brunswick,” John answered. He felt . . . what did he feel? Nervous? Self conscious?
            “Oh,” she nodded. “That’s a long drive. He must be away a lot. My daddy’s away a lot, too.”
            They were sitting in the school’s media center looking over algebra homework. She wore pink and John’s sensory receptors noted this. He concluded that, based on the spectrum of colors available to human vision and factoring in her complexion and hair, this color looked good on her. Her scent was of some undetermined tropical flower, perhaps ylang-ylang or frangipani. The human nose was an excellent sensory receptor, he noted. Their research had shown it was vastly under-appreciated by the species.
            They had Social Studies last period. Their desks were near each other which, again, pleased John. He did not have a clear explanation as to why this was so. He also found he was thinking about his “dad” again. Perhaps this was because of Natalie’s question and his prearranged response, but perhaps not. Fifteen minutes and twelve seconds had elapsed since she had made the query back in the media center. So what does your daddy do?  It was a colloquialism of the southern United States for humans, particularly females, to refer to their fathers as “daddy.”   It was childish, in a way, but it suggested a level affection toward the paternal unit that was unusual in the universe. There appeared to be a very strong bond between parents and their offspring in this species. Very strong indeed.
            Perhaps that is why I am having random thoughts about “dad,” John reasoned. Perhaps my construction was flawed in some way and I am generating anomalous human-like emotional responses. Was “dad” constructed with the same defect?
            Natalie reached across the space between their desks and placed her hand on his arm. John felt a strange sensation when she did so, akin to a static electric discharge at the point of contact. It was not the first time this had happened when Natalie touched him. He realized the teacher was speaking to him. He had been daydreaming. Natalie was trying to help by getting his attention. Other students snickered.
            The teacher shushed them and turned back to John. “As I was saying, John,” she smiled. “We are talking about Michael Angelo and the Sistine Chapel. You’ve seen this before, haven’t you?”  She gestured at the image on the video screen. It was the iconic fourth panel of the ceiling known as “The Creation of Adam,” in which God is reaching out to touch Adam’s outstretched finger.
            “Yes, ma’am,” John said.
            “Can you tell us, what does that painting suggest to you, John?”
            The machines that built him were very good at it. They had digested every bit of writing, every book, video, temple carving, play, song, personal email and text message from the human species. With that blueprint they made John Jones. They gave him the curiosity, the fears, the aspirations, the stubbornness, and every other trait of an average American sixteen-year-old male.
            “Well,” he began. Capillaries in his face flushed with blood creating the appropriate reddening for a reticent teen forced to speak in front of a group. “It’s big. It’s meant to show something big. Big ideas. There’s God and man. Um, Adam?”
            “Yes,” the teacher smiled encouragement. “The man is supposed to be Adam. Who was Adam in Western religions?”
            “Um, he was the first person. The first human being. And, in the picture, God and him are kind of . . . kind of reaching out to each other.”
            “Good!” she said. “Now then,” she addressed another student. “Why are they reaching out to touch each other?”
            The class proceeded but John’s thoughts returned to his “dad.”  They had thrown a ball back and forth in the yard, gone fishing, gone for hamburgers together. They had emulated the familial interactions typical of a father and son in this culture. Unless “dad” could be somehow repaired or remotely rebooted they would not be able to engage in these activities again. Ever. Something about the finality of that thought made John feel… ill? Not possible, John thought. He was research equipment. Equipment doesn’t feel sick.
            He suddenly noticed his tear ducts activating. The bell saved him. Natalie tried to talk to him but he hurried away, out of the school and back home.
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            John stood in front of the open bedroom closet. He stared into the shadows at the broken equipment inside; the machine called “dad.”  He stood there for most of an hour trying to process the situation. He did a self-diagnostic, trying to locate his malfunction. All he could determine was that there was a dull sensation in the region of his diaphragm.
            “What’s wrong with me?” he said aloud to the empty house.
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             Mary came home from work and dropped her keys in the dish on the counter. She walked down the narrow hall to her bedroom. When she got there she saw the closet was open. John sat on the foot of the bed.
            “What’s wrong?” she said.
            “Everything,” John responded. She looked at him, perplexed.
            “Are you malfunctioning?” she asked.
            “I’m sick. I think I have what dad had.”
            Mary took a step backward. She was designed with a human’s desire for self preservation.
            “Any instructions yet?” John asked.
            “No.”
            John looked from his “mom” to the darkened closet and back.
            “Then we have to watch TV.”
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            Mary protested, but her “son” was adamant. They reviewed every second of “dad’s” time on Earth. A quantum recorder built on the molecular level need not look like an alien device. It can look like anything: a tree limb, a lamp post, a songbird. Each of them was being continuously recorded. It was part of the mission. Now, together and at high speed, they reviewed Bill Jones’ activities up until his death.
            John froze the data stream. The image on their living room television, which had been nothing but a blur as they reviewed Bill’s every act at super high speed, was now frozen on a scene of Bill Jones driving his car to work on the day he died. John played it at human speed. The car was leaving town. It was raining. Bill slowed the car, then stopped. There was an accident in the road.
            John switched to internal view. The TV showed what Bill had seen. They watched through Bill’s eyes as he left the car and ran forward. A pickup truck had just hit a bicycle. It was a small bicycle, mangled under the truck’s bumper. An image of the bike, then a quick pan back and forth, then a lock on the image of a small child in the wet grass. Bill ran to the child, turned him over, and the boy of about six started crying. Bill checked him all over and he appeared fine, but terrified and sobbing.
            John switched back to remote view. The visual zoomed in from a distance. Other cars were stopping. The driver of the pickup, an older woman, stood by the driver’s door with her hand to her mouth. A man, Bill Jones, knelt over a crying child in the rain. The little boy sat up. He put his arms around Bill’s neck and hugged him.
            The alien research unit called Bill Jones stood up with the little boy. He hugged him back. He stroked his head. The child cried and buried his face in the crook of Bill’s neck.
            John froze the image. If any neighbor would have looked in the window they would have seen nothing more than a mother and her son watching TV in the early evening darkness.
            John’s tear ducts activated again.
+
             “It’s a virus,” Mary explained. “Or that’s the closest explanation, anyway. It infected the Bill unit when the human child touched him. He came home afterward and the incident created an internal loop. He could not erase it, could not stop internally processing it and it shut him down.”
+
 “Paralyzed with fear,” the Project Manager said.
            “What?”
            “A human expression,” the Manager explained.
            “What about John?” asked the Assistant Project Manager.
            “He would not leave,” Mary said. “He malfunctioned. Like Bill.”
            “No,” the Project Manager corrected. “John did not shut down. I suspect his design, his ‘youth,’ made him more resilient and better able to survive the transition.”
            “Transition?” the Assistant Manager inquired.
            “Assimilation, actually. The virus, whatever it is, had a transformative effect.”
            The Assistant Manager lamented. “More lost equipment.”
            “He disengaged his link and his quantum recorder,” Mary explained. “He sent a final image.”
            Together the three virtual entities viewed an image from a Social Studies textbook. It was the fourth panel of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
            On a shady street in southern Georgia a boy and a girl walked someplace, holding hands. It was a remarkably unremarkable sight.
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Jim Clinch is the author of the novel Canterbury’s Tale, a humorous mystery involving whiskey, cigars, and murder (available on Amazon and Kindle). He holds a BA in English, a MA in Management, and a poor opinion of both. Jim has worked as a musician, cop, newspaper reporter, corporate VP, and insurance agent with questionable success. He lives in Southwest Florida, and more can be found about him here.
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The Halloween Thieves
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a story by
Scathe meic Beorh
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In anticipation of the ‘Holiday of Victory,’ finishing the three-part narrative begun at Christmas, I bought from J. Anselm, the local sutler, the finest pipe tobacco and Turkish coffee money can buy. Then from Mr. Collárd, the greengrocer, I selected a medium-sized pumpkin into which I carved (with the carving knife given me by my Uncle Ruskin, for which I gave him the obligatory penny so that our friendship would not be severed) the most horrific visage my imagination could produce. It was then that I went to the attic for a trunk full of old clothing, that I might be dressed not as a ‘Trick-or-Treat’ urchin, which I leave for the children, but rather as the lonesome vagabond on the earth known as ‘Jack-of-the-Lantern.’ From an archaic ironclad coffer, I drew a well-worn pair of greenish knee britches, a dun-colored waistcoat, and a red gingham shirt (quite faded by sweat and sun). There, I also found a leather knife belt that I again made supple with neatsfoot oil. I also took from the chest a threadbare pair of stockings wrapped in two leather thongs once used as garters (and I reused the leather accordingly). A bedraggled pair of straight-last shoes were then located, and to finish my design, I discovered, on a disused hat rack, a tattered but wearable black tricorn, or french-cocked hat.
            Once downstairs again, I outfitted my pumpkin lantern with a stout candle and strong hempen cord so that I could carry the macabre thing as a light in the darkness of that most holy night. I then donned the musty clothes I had salvaged from many decades of abandonment, ate a light supper of apple cake and soft cheese, and set out, excited with anticipation, to do Halloween to my utmost, hopefully setting hearts afire with that particular fear that draws the eyes upward in awe.
            It was dusk when I set foot outdoors. A chill in the air, usual for that time of year, coupled with the scuttling of dead leaves across the redbrick pavement like so many wee creatures of twilight, filled me with delight and a deep and joyful curiosity—for what do I really know of this strange and beautiful world where I awoke, so long ago now, lying comforted in my mother’s arms?
            “It will be any moment now,” I said as I struck a match and lit my lantern dangling from the handle I gripped with firmness (lest a stumble or a clocking of the wind should take us both sidewise to disaster). “Any minute the night shall be filled with ghosts and goblins, seers and soothsayers, druids and dark hosts of the netherworld.” I meant children, of course, out to get a scare and give one if they could, out to show the minions of evil that there has come a Light into the world for all who would long for completion and not, after all, be sadly satisfied with the vampiric revenant existence as the popular Irish writer Bram Stoker speaks of so eloquently.
            I walked the length of the avenue upon which I lived. I saw no one. I heard no laughter, no squeals of fright, only the scraping of leaves along the path and the wind as it made great tree limbs creak and screech like doors in an olden house. I checked my timepiece. Half past the seventh hour. “Surely Halloween has begun,” I said to myself. Yet, there were no children in celebration. Not one. There was only me, dressed as a stranger and wanderer in the land—an anachronism and village fool armed only with my candlelit pumpkin and great joy in my heart.
            “Quarter past the eighth hour,” I said as I walked along a street adjacent to my own, and then down the next street over.
            The night grew crisper as I tramped along in my outdated attire, surely a frightening image to the unseen persons peering into the night.
            “A quarter to nine,’” I said. “And no children. Not one. What is amiss?”
            I thought then to visit my dear friend Torrance Meeks the next street over from where I stood. He was home, but at first, he didn’t recognize me for my unusual disguise. He would not open the door to me until he heard my voice.
            “Evan, my dear man!” he said at last. “You gave me a bit of a fright there. Come in. Come in!
            “Torrance,” I said, hardly giving my friend time to shut his door, “there is something very wrong with tonight.”
            “Of course there’s something wrong. Deliciously wrong! It’s Halloween!”
            “Have you been out-of-doors this evening?”
            “No. And I’ve no plans to. I have a bowl of sweets and fruit for the children when they come.”
            “Have you…” I said with an air of bewilderment. “Have you looked at your clock of recent?”
            Torrance looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of his parlor. “My goodness. It’s getting late. I’ve had not one child threaten to trick me unless I treat him. What’s… happened? I wonder what’s happened, Evan?”
            I sat in a leather wingback chair situated near his warm hearth. “It’s a mystery,” I replied. “And one deeply disturbing to me. It’s as if, all of a sudden, Halloween were… were dead.”
            “How could that be, Evan? This night is as important as any I know of. Christmastide rings in the Good News of the coming of the Light into our dark world. The tintinnabulations of Easter bells let us know that He has risen from the dead. And Halloween commemorates the decisive battle when the principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness were trounced and routed, once and for all. How could Halloween be dead?
            “This I know,” I said, standing. “This I know! Yet, where are the children; the very heroes of this night?”
            “They don’t seem to have come out this year, good friend. I… am as perplexed as are you…”
            “Then there is only one thing we can do.”
            “What would that be?”
            “We have to go and find them. Halloween is utterly lost without children. Show me to your attic.”
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Torrance looked ridiculous dressed as a flamboyant circus ringmaster. His grandfather had mastered a three-ring extravaganza which had traveled our tri-state area and even beyond, doing very well and providing my friend with a continuing income through various brands and sales yet connected with the brilliant and undying enterprise.
            “In honor of Grandfather Meeks,” my companion said, smiling. “A circus ringmaster and a vagabond strike out as a team to find lost children on Halloween.”
            “Let’s not declare them lost just yet,” I replied. “Something is ‘off beam,’ as it were, but I’m not sure what.”
            “Do you think the whole thing has been usurped by ‘unclean spirits,’ as you call them?”
            “Not a chance. This is not a classic battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of the Light. That battle, contrary to popular belief, has already been won, never to be fought again, exorcisms and such only being after-the-fact ‘clean-up operations,’ if you will. No, I am feeling that something much more mundane is at work tonight. The mood outside is one of disheartenment, disappointment. I discern no sinister forces. In fact, the winds are quite peaceable, if a bit rowdy. No, there is something else causing the downfall of this holy day. And with your much-needed assistance, Torrance, I’ll get to the bottom of it before noon-o’-night.”
            We stepped into the evening chill. I buttoned my waistcoat. Torrance drew his velvet-lined cape about him and pressed his stovepipe hat down upon his head. He then twirled his silver-handled blackthorn cane in a most delightful manner and nodded that we should be on our way.
            Our traipse was not long before we saw ahead a large band of laughing ghouls and ghosts. “Ah!” said my friend with an air of relaxation. “They’ve only waited a bit later to come out this year is all. I’m quite sure…”
            “Shhhhh…” I replied in whisper as I touched his arm. “They’re too tall.”
            “Too… tall? Ah, so they are…”
            Nine adults dressed variously as ghouls and witches, buccaneers and ghosts passed us with ‘Happy Halloween’ on their lips. They carried bags of sweets and other treats (I could smell apples).
            “Adults,” said Torrance. “And no children to be seen…”
            “Adults with no reason to be out-of-doors,” replied I, “other than to pretend to be nine years old again.”
            “Evan?” said my friend as he turned to face me.
            “Yes, my good man?”
            “We happen to be dressed for Halloween… and we are adults.”
            “Ach! I’ll have you know, sirrah, that I am not an adult! I am a grown-up! And furthermore, are we a band of marauders like the one that passed us only seconds ago? Are we commandeering a holy night meant for children—meant to give children the knowledge that the unclean legions of the world have been defeated forever?”
            “We are not!”
            “Therefore, we have a duty at hand, my dear friend. Look! Here come more adults dressed out and dominating the night. Hide!
            I pulled Torrance behind a gargantuan oak tree we happened to be standing near. This second group of ‘Halloween Thieves’ had no idea we were there… until we stepped in front of them, I brandishing my flintlock and Torrance, following suit, swinging his injurious blackthorn like Moses wielding his magical staff. “Stand and deliver!” cried I, now fully filled with the joyful mirth associated with this night, and, in that moment, understanding that we had been transformed into Halloween Highwaymen!
            “Thy sweets or thy life!” Torrance said with a deep growl in his voice, and this miscreant group—there were seven adults in all—screamed and ran, leaving their bags of begged-for treats sprayed all over the walk whereupon we had waylaid them.

Half an hour later…
           
“We’ve put quite a number of the scoundrels to flight already, haven’t we good fellow?” asked Torrance. “I especially loved how the lady lost her ‘Marie Antoinette’ wig as she ran, and when she returned to retrieve it, her counterfeit bosom fell out!”
            “Indeed. That was rich,” said I with an enthusiasm I had not felt in ages. “We have really given them all a good trouncing, but there must to be a different course of action we should take. A more decisive approach. We still have not found one child.”
            “I believe I’d be ready for anything now,” replied Torrance with a grotesque grin rivaling that of my lantern. “What do you have in mind?”
            “I have a sickening suspicion,” I said, “that something wicked this way has come, and there is none but us to stop it from destroying a most sacred celebration.”
            “Ho! Up ahead!” cried Torrance as he pointed. “Is that a house on fire?”
            “It… appears to be…” I replied, my heart racing. “It is something on fire, that is to be sure!”
            We ran down the street.
            “It’s… a bonfire, Evan…” Torrance said.
            “A what?” I asked, knowing full well he was right, for I saw old chairs and boxes and other combustible things piled high near the gutter of the street.
            “Come join us!” cried one of the adult participants in the revelry. “Join in the fun!”
            Torrance and I stood aghast. These were not children doing what children have always done on Halloween Night. More dastardly adults!
            “Where are the little ones?” the ringmaster asked me, his voice low with sadness as his cape billowed in the breeze. “Why are they not out with this bonfire, dancing and singing and challenging one another to venture abandoned houses alone?”
            “I don’t know where they are,” I replied with equal sorrow. “But this inversion of proper Halloween etiquette has to be stopped. We cannot allow this sacred night, the very symbol of Childhood come to destroy the dark forces of evil, to be waylaid by a bunch of self-centered, thrill-seeking jackanapes arrested in their development.”
            “But how… I’ve got it!
            “Tell me, old friend,” said I.
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            The first house we came to had a lone candle burning on its dark porch. “Trick or Treat!” we together said, yelling at the tops of our voices. The door inched opened. A Faery Princess of about seven years stood there, tears staining her rosy cheeks. “Trick or Treat…” I said again. “What’s wrong, sweet one? Why are you crying?”
            “My mommy and my daddy left me to give out candy. While they went tricker-treatin’.”
            “Isn’t there a law about leaving small children at home alone?” asked Torrance.
            “Laws?” I replied. “What are laws when such a sacred night of year is ambushed so that adults who still imagine they are children can steal the night for their own egocentric pleasures?”
            “I agree, Evan. This is truly an egregious turn of events. My Lady?”
            “Yes, sir?” replied the little girl.
            “Princess, keep your candy,” said Torrance. “Eat all of it that you want.”
             “But my mommy and my daddy said…” she replied, fresh tears erupting.
            “Shhhhh…” said my friend. “Don’t cry. You are right. Do as your parents say. But this ragged gentleman and I, we are your friends. We will mend Halloween tonight if it is the last thing that we do.”
            “You… will?”
            “Indeed,” I replied. “Be safe, little one. We will send your parents home directly.”
            She smiled, and the door closed.
            For the next group of rowdy adults we came across, we set aside the ‘Highwaymen Attack’ and instead suggested that while we were trick-or-treating we found a little girl at home alone who was weeping and holding a straight-razor to her wrist. Seven of the ten adults in the party ran screeching into the night, saying things like “That sounds like Alice!” and “No! Not my little Melissa!” and “Oh, God! What have we done to Gertrude!”
            Our mission was partially accomplished, but there was more to be done. At our next house, we were greeted by triplets—all boys, all dressed as pirates, all with tear-stained faces.
            “My, my,” said I. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of pirates crying.”
            “Then you’ve never seen pirates telled they couldn’t go Trick-or-Treatin’, mister,” said the middle triplet.          
            “And telled they can’t eat any candy on Halloween,” said another of the brothers.
            “And… and telled there’ll never be another Halloween for kids anymore ever,” said the third sibling as he began to weep again. “Here. Take some cookies and leave us alone, Mister Halloween Stealer.” 
            “Just a minute, lads,” said Torrance as he caught the door with his foot.
            “What?” asked the first brother. “You gonna kill us now?”
            “You might as well kill us,” said the second brother.
            “Yeah,” said the third as tears streamed down his face. “Halloween’s dead, so we might as well be dead too.”
            I held back my own tears. Torrance wiped his wet eyes. “We’re sorry,” my friend and I said together. “We’ve done nothing to hurt you,” I added.
            “What are you out Trick-or-Treatin’ for then?” asked the first boy.
            “We’re saving Halloween,” I replied.
            “How?” asked the second brother as he looked me up and down as if trying to discover what magic I might be using against the adults. Suddenly, a set of parents went running by, yelling the name of their little girl. “Beatrice! Oh Lord!
            “Oh. Now I know how these men are savin’ Halloween,” said the third boy to his puzzled brothers. “Thank you, mister. You can tell our parents that I chopped my brothers up with a cutlass, and then I hanged myself from the rafter in the parlor. That should send ‘em home pretty quick.”
            It was a great idea, and it worked.
            At the next house there were two sisters, one about two years older than the other. Our story about them on the street was that one had strangled the other with a scarf and had then punctured her own heart with a knitting needle, all while we watched. “Agnes! Oh God! Margaret!” the girl’s parents wailed as they raced down the street, dropping their bags of candy as they went.
            “Unbelievable how that house with all the children in it caught on fire and burned so quickly,” I said to Torrance in a casual tone as we walked by another gang of adults.
            “What house?” asked Dracula. “Where?”
            “Oh, two streets over, I believe,” Torrance replied with a yawn. “Maybe three streets.”
            The ‘Halloween Thieves’ ran hither and thither like spooked mice. Our secret mirth was delicious.
            “What next?” I asked Torrance. “More Trick-or-Treating?”
            He agreed, and we strode away to the next avenue over.
“Trick or Treat!” we cried as we stood on the porch of a beautiful ‘Queen Anne’ Victorian.
            No answer.
            “Trick or Treat!
            The door cracked open. A grisly little face could barely be seen. “What do you want?” it asked.
            “Treats, or we’ll trick ye, Miss Creepy,” said Torrance.
            “Trick me then,” said the child as she opened the door wide. Me and my brudder! ‘Cause we don’t care anymore….” She began to cry, and as she did, a ghost floated up behind her and wrapped its wispy arm about her shoulders. “This is my brudder Hanson. I’m Gilda. We’re sad.”
            “Yeah,” said Ghost Hanson. “So take these ol’ walnuts and go away. And please don’t throw eggs. Our daddy’ll make us clean it all up.”
            I felt outraged. What kinds of parents did children have these days? Ogres and maniacs?
            “We’ll not trick you at all,” replied Torrance as he took the offering from the Ghost. “And, inside a quarter hour, your parents will be home. And Halloween will be restored forever. We promise you.”
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“The children on Sycamore Avenue!” I said in the most alarming voice I could rally as I walked down the street. “Please! Somebody! They’re badly hurt! Head injuries, I believe! Blood everywhere! Ropes! Children hanging…. oh God in Heaven!
            The street cleared of wanton adults who, seconds before, had been joking and horseplaying like a bunch of silly thirteen-year-olds.
            “I believe that may do it, Torrance,” I said.
            “I do believe so, Evan. We’ve positively routed the enemy tonight. Do you think we’ve saved Halloween?”
            “Sadly, we may have just begun. We’ll have to see next year what happens. Wait. Do you hear something?”
            Torrance cocked his head sidewise to take a better listen. “Why… why yes! It’s the sound of children… and they’re laughing.”
            We strained our eyes in the darkness. At first, I saw in the distance a lone light. As it moved closer, I could make out the frightful features of a pumpkin lantern. Then there were two lights, then four, then eight, then ten lights bobbing this way and that, all leading a motley crew of thirty or more Trick-or-Treaters giggling and singing and laughing like children are wont to do on windy, sinister nights.
            “Well,” said I, and that one word was a prayer of thanks on my lips.
            “Yes,” replied Torrance. “Yes.
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The following Halloween, and the many coming after for as long as I lived, the ‘Children’s Crusade’ was not ever again destroyed by ‘Adulthood,’ that perfidious enemy of the Light, but rather grew fiercer and more gargoyle in appearance as each season came and went. No, to my mind, and to that of my good and loyal friend Torrance Meeks, the tables would never again be turned on the indomitable Spirit of Childhood.
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Scathe meic Beorh abides with his exceedingly creative wife Ember in an idyllic Edwardian neighborhood on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. He is the Founder & Editor of Beorh Quarterly.
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The Lords of Chickamauga
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       a story by      
      Ron Yungul    
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Private Israel Halstead stepped gingerly over the ashen forms lying around him. He had to watch his feet lest they fall with slippery uncertainty onto what were pieces of limbs or heads or the red, ropey strands of human innards scattered with grotesque abandon about the rugged terrain near Pigeon Mountain. These riven remains were all that was left of his platoon, already reduced to about twenty men and had Private Halstead not chosen to bivouac some distance away from them last night after a fit of the “skeedaddles,” he would have been amongst them. He would have been even further away had not the weather, bitterly cold and wet that night, compelled him to seek shelter under an outcropping of rock along a bend in the creek which lent its name to the great battle set to resume that day.
            It was the morning of September 19th, 1863. Detached from Major General James Negley’s division, in the middle of what would become known as the Battle of Chickamauga, Private Halstead’s company had the unpleasant task of determining Confederate strength in a small area known as Dug Gap. The private had joined the cause of Union seven months earlier with thoughts of grand deeds, and to help restore the 11 stars that had been so rashly and unlawfully torn away from the colors. But this—this was madness. He was sick and horrified and angry that things could have come to such a ghastly conclusion. There had been no warning as he lay in his little granite lean-to, no sign of the carnage that had taken place so close to where he fitfully slept. But then the thunder and constant prattle of rain had provided likely cover for the hard sounds of death and dismemberment. The morning had dawned with a preternatural stillness as if the myriad bird and insect life, which normally provided an unceasing hum in the forest, were themselves shocked into submission by the extent of what had happened. He would have continued his clandestine exodus had not the bitter metallic smell of blood stirred a last remaining particle of duty to his comrades and forced him to return to camp.
            His eyes searched for a horse, but either they were run off or the noises of battle, or the smell of powder, smoke, or death itself must have spooked them and God only knew where they were now. Just as he was about to retreat back into the woods a strange, guttural sound came to his ears—as of a heavy rasp being run across the bark of one of the many spruce pines which surrounded him. Almost as a reflex, he crouched behind a tree. Low on his haunches, he looked across the broken forms before him, their contorted torsos standing out Union blue and blood-red against the grass. In the middle, one heaved upward as he heard the gurgling rasp again. He wanted to run… to blot the whole damn scene from his mind, but his legs, so eager to disobey his head and save themselves last night, now disobeyed a second time and began to lurch forward toward the source of the noise. He stepped back into the field of death and approached a corporal, lying face up, eyes glazed, a horrible wound in his neck. A bolt, as from a crossbow, lay broken near him, stained with blood. The corporal sensed the private’s presence. A hand reached up, a hand missing two fingers with a third dangling from the second joint, leaving the forefinger pointing in damning accusation. The private recoiled instinctively.
            “What in God’s name happened?” Halstead asked.
            The corporal’s words came out in a soft hiss. “They came out of the mist…they chopped us to pieces as we slept.”
            It must have been a Rebel raiding party. But why hadn’t the pickets stopped them or at least given a warning? Halstead asked the corporal just that.
            “Nothing can stop ghosts.”
            “Ghosts?”
            But Halstead could clearly see that the life force was quickly ebbing from the corporal. A cloudy film had formed over his eyes and they began to sink into their orbits, becoming expressionless. His mouth went slack.
            “Ghosts you say?”
            Only a few words passed through blackening lips. To Halstead they sounded like, “Knights. In shining armor. Shining in the moon…” The corporal’s head lolled to one side, his eyes unseeing. A heave went through him and his last breath passed out in a great exhalation. A few tremors and he was gone.
            Halstead looked upon the still form for a few more seconds then rose to his feet. Grasping his Enfield rifle until his knuckles blanched, he made his way once more to the copse of spruce, poplar, and sycamores bordering the southern end of the field. He pushed through the undergrowth and came to a small dirt lane that seemed to materialize only then between the trees. The morning fog was cold and flitted through the forest, leaving small pockets of mist where it collected in the swales and depressions of the forest floor. A sense of dread overcame him, smothering him like the fog itself. He began to quicken his pace down the lane, the sound of his footfalls muffled by the swirling mist. A turn, down a gentle slope, splashing through a stagnant creek, up a rise and down again. The woods grew thicker. Another turn. He found himself in a grove of yellow poplars, unmixed with any other kind of foliage, otherworldly in its pureness and in the yellow-green light that filtered through the canopy, bathing everything in a ghastly pallor. Halstead kept his eyes riveted on the ground before him. The fog was drifting in thick clouds here, by turns obscuring then revealing the road ahead. Something made him look up.
            There, ahead in the road about a hundred paces, six human forms on horseback, their silhouettes crenulated, with pointed heads and pointed feet; a few grasped crossbows slackly at their sides. The others held what looked like lances and broadswords. Beneath them, horses but not horses, their shanks and necks articulated in outline like wooden toys. Halstead lurched one more step and froze, afraid to move. The forms faded to white, and back into view as the fog shimmered around them. The dying words of the corporal came to him. Knights in shining armor, Halstead thought. They materialized once more into the black silhouettes of armored horses and riders. One gave a start and turned his mount towards Halstead. Then another did likewise. His legs were finally cooperating with his brain, and did its bidding. He dashed from the road, knocked against a poplar, and dropped his rifle. He knew it was useless against apparitions anyway. He lurched through the grove, his eyes wild, his body senseless, his mind a runaway train of animal reason, pushing aside all thoughts but one: how to get from here to anywhere at the highest velocity possible.
            Halstead’s fear began commingling with a new feeling: guilt. He thought of his mother’s rationale behind spirits. She was uneducated and had that strange mixture of common sense and superstition so common to women of her station. To her, everything had its purpose. Apparitions, ghosts, spirits, whatever one wanted to call them, they manifested themselves for a reason. They were the remnants of our spiritual and temporal transgressions and they served to set us once more upon the path of moral salvation and redemption. They were the tools of God, and to ignore them and run from them was to wallow through the stagnant stream of spiritual effluence that ran alongside the road of life.
            A deafening flutter–a flock of wild pheasants exploded from the foliage in front of Halstead–sent him reeling on a new tangent, out of the poplar grove and into a denser part of the forest. Chivalry is not dead, he thought, it’s alive and well and pursuing me to ground. He became aware of a sound—the wheezing of his own breath, which he was rapidly running out of. There, up ahead—a clearing. Something whizzed by his ears and struck the ground ten or so yards ahead of him, furrowing into it with a little burst of earth. He ran out into the clearing, into the unblemished sun which had suddenly appeared through the broken sky, and became aware of men–men in blue who were emerging from the shadows of the forest at the far end of the clearing. They were raising their rifles and taking aim. At him. He was running into an ambush. They had discovered his transgression, his treasonous fear, and were going to shoot him dead. He dropped to the ground as the first volley exploded before him, sending its echoes careering through the valley.
            New sounds smote his ears—shrieking horses and a strange clatter of metal on metal and metal on earth. The blades of grass pressed into his face. Another volley as a second line of men fired, and the sounds behind him began dissipating with whimpers and sighs. Now a third volley—not of bullets but of prattling voices as his compatriots advanced toward him. There was the sound of surprise in their murmuring. Slowly Halstead raised his head. He pushed himself up onto his elbows. He craned his neck around and looked behind him. There in a heap were the knights in armor, forming a single body of tangled extremities wrapped in metal, lying under the writhing bodies of their mounts.
            Halstead turned his head back to see a captain slinking toward him, a new Spencer rifle in his hands.
            “You all right, private?”
            “How did you do it? How did you stop them?”

            The captain went over to survey the mass of human and animal wreckage. “There ain’t much can stand up to a blizzard of .58 caliber minie balls.”
            Then Halstead became aware of another sound…the bleating, despairing voice of an old man. “My young men. My young men…” he wailed. Dressed incongruously in 18th century breeches and buckled shoes, he tottered out of the woods towards the private and the scene of destruction, waving his arms in little despairing circles. The captain turned and ran toward the old man, catching him as he fell forward.
            “I’m sorry, old feller. We had no choice. Another ten feet and they would have cut down that boy there, and maybe made mincemeat of some of mine.”
            Halstead got up onto his feet at last. Again, that familiar sound of rasping on bark–with a metallic echo this time. He slowly made his way to one of the suits of armor, spilled from a dead horse, one foot in a stirrup. He raised the visor and saw the eyes of a boy, perhaps thirteen years old. A strand of straw-colored hair, matted with blood, stuck to his forehead. The glassy stare, the sunken eyes, the breath loud and sonorous, coming at longer and longer intervals until they finally stopped. He raised another visor. This one, perhaps eleven, already gone. Another… and another. All boys. All probably under fifteen years of age. The knights of old must have been small men, Halstead thought, his mind taking desperate, inappropriate diversions.
            “My boys,” cried the old man again as the captain led him back to the company.   
            He turned suddenly to Halstead and scrutinized his face. “I’ll want to talk to you. Want to know what you’re doing so far from your unit. You have all the looks of a runner.”
            Private Halstead, his legs shaking and tired from their independent thinking, followed the captain. They made their way through the skirmish line that was just now standing down and breaking ranks to the rear. Halstead found a tree stump and sat on it. Another private sat cross-legged next to him and pulled out a satchel of tobacco and a pipe, which he started to fill. “Poor old buzzard.” He handed the sack of tobacco to Halstead, who shook his head.
            “Who is he?” A pause, and with a tired, sweeping gesture towards the dead, “and who are they?”
            “Old feller is the superintendent of Troy Military School for boys. Just over the ridge there. Come looking for a bunch of cadets who raided the Armory museum of the school. Thought they’d help out the cause wearin’ their purloined armor. He been lookin’ for ‘em and I reckon he’s found ‘em. Poor old buzzard.”
            Halstead heard something else before his thoughts turned to his fate. It was the sound of shovels meeting earth and the gentle muffle of that earth falling into growing mounds….
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Ron Yungul’s inspirations as a writer range from the works of Ambrose Bierce to Robert Bloch. When speaking with Mr. Bloch one cold Hollywood night several decades back, and revealing that he, too, was a writer of horror, the master replied “Well, misery loves company…” Ron is also a screenwriter and has projects in development with Indiana Girl Productions in Hollywood. He lives with his wife and son in Burbank, California, and can be reached via rsyungul (at) yahoo (dot) com
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The Creepy Old House Up On Waterstone Street
                                  a poem by
                        Scathe meic Beorh
The creepy old house up on Waterstone Street
bodes a long journey for very small feet
when very small sneakers have skipped across town
to see the dire place and to call its ghost down.
 
This old haunted mansion, the one painted red,
is said to be lived in by somebody dead.
Tommy believes it, and Ginger does too.
Mimsi is frightened and Jackie turns blue.
Sidney is braver, but Willy won’t go…
not even with candles and flashlights that glow!
 
The creepy old house up on Waterstone Street
proves not the best dwelling to go Trick-or-Treat.
It’s happened on Halloween all through the years,
another kid stumbles and then disappears!
So…
 
last Christmas is when all the children set out!
Such a strange picture to hear them all shout
‘Happy Holidays, Holy Days, Spooky Days, Spook!
We’re off to the big house to have us a look!
We’re off to roast ghosties and get us a fright
to tell around campfires next Halloween Night!’
 
Not one child returned from that fateful foray.
Not one child returned, and have not to this day.
The creepy old  house up on Waterstone Street…
so patient and waiting for children to eat!
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The Pagans
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 a story by
Ben Thomas
 
It came to pass under the reforms of king Zimri-Lim that the ports of Mari, so long fallen into decay after the campaigns of Shulgi and his sons, were again plied with trade from distant cities. Longboats bearing cedars from Lebanon, or precious metals from Dilmun, or stone from the hills, gathered along the Euphrates to dock at her bustling quays.
Her streets spread out along the western banks of the Euphrates, and her walls overlooked a patchwork of barley-fields dotted with juniper and elm. Built of sandstone wrestled from the bosom of the land, adorned with mosaics of copper and lapis lazuli, those walls reminded passing travelers that within those barriers lay the wealth and culture of the privileged.
But today, clouds like bruises swarmed above the Euphrates, battering her banks with rain: waves of clay-red water spilled out from the web of canals beyond the city. Already the first wave of farmers were making their way up to the walls, skins full of barley on their shoulders. In less than an hour, Mari would be full of peasants and their wailing children—but my current concerns were more immediate.
“Yes, I displeased my gods,” I told the mob that had gathered to stone me. “But this storm–”
“He admits it with his own blasphemous lips!” cried the priest with the enormous gray beard, who seemed to be the ringleader. For the past few minutes, he had been holding me by the hair, as if I were a wild cur.
“This deluge has nearly ruined the harvest!” he shrieked. “The people of Mari will starve, and still you hide from your gods. Well, let us keep them waiting no longer!”
The crowd—mostly farmers; perhaps fifty of them—looked more drenched and frightened then murderous. Their wet kilts made them scratch incessantly around their waists and knees, but they brandished rocks and pottery in agreement with the priest. If they were going to starve, someone was going to die for it.
Under the direction of the priest, they had backed me into a blind alley near the center of the city. We were undisturbed here; a fire devoured a stack of straw under an awning nearby; no one brought water.
“Who has rope?” called the priest. He shoved me back against the wall.
After centuries in the dry heat, these baked mud-bricks had dried to the color of bone. Judging by the red and brown splatter that had dried on the walls and ground, they made a habit of herding their scapegoats here.
“I fled the burning ruin of my city; Ber-Ashippa, to the east,” I shouted to the crowd. “Everyting I own is ash. My gods destroy without reason!”
This only provoked further outrage from the crowd.
“Whatever mysteries you speak,” said a voice at my ear, “This is not the place to discuss them.”
Before I could turn to reply, the high priest whipped me across the chest.
Last I had looked, he had been holding my hair, not a whip. But he was holding one now: a cat—and a glass-tipped one, from the look of it. I glanced down at my chest; a cluster of rough little craters—hollow and dark–had been torn from my skin, and dark brown stains were gathering at their edges. My knees began to buckle.
At last I turned to see the man who had spoken in my ear: another priest, much older than my tormentor. He moved behind me now; caught me as I fell before I knew I was falling. I heard the crowd’s raised voices as if through water, and the sun itself seemed to darken.
“I am Ibrainu,” said the voice at my ear. “Do not try to speak; just lie here a moment.”
The younger priest continued to shout to the crowd “This man speaks blasphemies beyond any I have ever heard. He must be given over to his gods!”
Someone in the crowd must have produced rope, because I heard Ibrainu yell, “No–do not bind him!” I raised my head to see him join the younger priest at the head of the crowd.
“I must take him away now,” Ibrainu told them, as if it were as simple as that. “We must make certain his body is prepared for death; this extra purification is necessary for such a unique offering. Come, Attanati.”
A short moment of perplexed silence ensued.
“The gods want him!” shrieked the other priest; Attanati. “It was he who brought this storm here; we have proof of that now. We have only to do the justice of his gods, and it will cease; we may yet be able to salvage our crops!”
This provoked a thundering affirmation from the mob.
I have not yet declared it!” Ibrainu’s voice thundered more loudly than I would have expected possible. When an old man cries out in such a manner, even an angry crowd falls silent.
Taking me by the arm, Ibrainu walked straight into the crowd. The farmers and peasants were too stunned to do anything but leap back. By the time Attanati was calling after us, we were halfway down another alley. Mari is a labyrinthine city, and one can easily become lost in its side-lanes.
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 “So, your gods,” said Ibrainu.
“Not mine any longer,” I replied.
We were catching our breath in the courtyard of Mari’s temple to Inanna—a goddess of sacred old Sumer, from the dim days before Lord Naram-Sin first rode out to unify all the lands between the Rivers.
From these wide steps, I could see out across the vast plaza, where rows of great palm-trees kept watch over market-stalls. Even in this torrent, throngs of traders plied their wares. And the sick, who lay on their filthy blankets hoping for a wise word from a fellow sufferer—or a blessing from Inanna—were out in droves today.
“I have known many men from pagan tribes,” he mused, “who later came to Inanna. But never a man who—who abandoned his gods. Very strange.” He shook his bald head. “And who are your gods now?”
“Where are you taking me, Ibrainu?” I had been glancing down alleyways and side-streets, expecting either to hear the thundering of footsteps and the cries of the mob, or the second thing–what I dreaded far more to see.
“Where were you heading?”
“West. But as much as I would like to leave Mari tonight, the floods–”
“In the library,” he said with a nod; and evidently that decided the matter, for we were off at a quick pace again, down a mud-brick alleyway that Ibrainu might have chosen at random, as far as I could tell.
“And what is in the library?”
As he hustled me around the corner of a bakery, I caught the sweet smell of barley loaves, and realized I had not eaten since last night in the forest, when she found my fire, and—
“Its reading rooms are easy to get lost in,” Ibrainu was saying, “but I know them well. We will be safe until the rains are over.”
“But the mob!” I looked around for them, as if they might be sneaking up in silence.
“How long do you think Attanati will be able to keep them that riled up?” He grinned. “Look at the weather!” And he spread his arm to encompass the clouds that still shrouded the sky, and the torrent that still poured on everything from the fields to the temple complex, high above the city.
“And you,” he patted my arm, “will tell me why you have departed from your city and your gods.”
I sighed, but his expression made it clear he would accept only one answer. So I nodded in agreement.
“And what may I call you?” he asked me. “I never did learn your name, or your country.”
“Call me Yishai. I come from the town of Ber-Ashippa—what was the town of Ber-Ashippa. It is no more. But it was once three days’ walk from here; I ran it in two.”
“And straight into a kind reception. Ah—here we are now.”
We emerged out of a narrow street filled with piles of broken pottery, and into a wide courtyard, surrounding one of the largest buildings I had ever seen: the great ziggurat of Mari. It rose as high as a mountain, but in titanic steps built of baked mud-bricks. Around this behemoth sprawled an entire complex of outbuildings, each larger than any house in Ber-Ashippa.
“The library is just on the other side of this augury temple,” Ibrainu called through the rain, as we hurried past a building that reeked of goats. The smell sent a chill up my back and down to my fingertips—I was thinking of her again—
“Here we are,” Ibrainu led me through an archway and into the dark.
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We passed through a small side door into the library’s main chamber. Ibrainu and I passed straight through; a few priests were reclining on a pile of pillows and rugs around a low reading-table, studying clay tablets covered in inscriptions. Most of these tablets were probably records of economic transactions, but I still found myself wishing I could red over these men’s shoulders as we hurried through another series of smaller rooms. When we found one that was unoccupied, Ibrainu unrolled a curtain over the doorways, and at last he bid me to sit.
The cushion felt more lovely on my legs than I would have imagined possible. I might have fallen asleep, had Ibrainu not asked his question: “Do you have a wife, Yishai?”
Before I knew what I was doing, I had sat bolt-upright. I must have looked a mess, because Ibrainu reached out a hand as if to steady me.
“Forgive me.” He placed his hands palm-up: a formal apology; perhaps excessively so. “I know you fled a catastrophe–”
“My city burned to the ground.”
We stared at each other for a moment, catching our breath.
“Your gods did this?”
I nodded.
“For what reason?”
“As they told me: to punish the wicked.”
That seemed to have caught his attention. “Your gods spoke to you? You were a priest?”
“Not a priest. A scribe. But they told me I was a righteous man.” Then I could feel the words spilling from my lips before I could stop them: “And I did not have a wife, for the woman I loved was an acolyte in the temple. But our love for our gods was great; we waited so long, but at last–” and here I did stop myself, for I would not speak of what happened; not here, at any rate.
“And your gods declared your city was full of wickedness.”
“So full that they decided to burn it to the ground.” My eyes wandered the cracks between the bricks in the walls as I spoke. “They spoke to both me and Nelenei in dreams, and telling us that we had not sinned as the rest of them had; that our hearts were yet faithful to them. They would allow us to flee; to found a new city; a great city; in their name. But they also gave us a command: we were to take nothing with us from Ber-Ashippa–nothing but the kilts about our waists and food for three days. Not a single memory of our life in that city was to be preserved. For they did not know our secret.”
Ibrainu only nodded.
“We departed three days ago, knowing only that we must travel west—that was the gods’ command. But Nelenei—she took something with her. Something that was ours; it was not for the gods to destroy—but she was the one holding it in her arms.”
We sat in silence for several moments, and when Ibrainu spoke, it was with gentleness. “Whatever you took must have meant a great deal to you.”
“And when we passed the walls of our city, I heard her cry out–” my voice broke at last, and I dropped my face into my hands. “When I looked back,” I muttered to the floor, “they had turned her into–” but my lips would not form it.
“Any gods that would take such a thing from us,” I muttered to the floor, “are not gods at all.”
“I cannot deny that yours are vengeful,” was his reply.
And we fell into silence once more.
“Thank you,” I said, after some time.
“I did not think I would regret it,” I looked up; he was smiling at me. No one had smiled at me for days; it was contagious.
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In the silence of a humid midnight, Ibrainu led me beneath gutters dripping with rainwater; through courts still slippery with mud; until we arrived at a small side-gate in the wall of the city.
“I wish I could say, ‘may your gods watch over you’,” he said, as an exhausted-looking night guard slid aside the plank that bolted the gate.
“Perhaps others will someday,” I said.
He patted my arm, and I thanked him again. Without another word, he turned on his heel and vanished down an alleyway.
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A mile outside the smoking ruin that was once Ber-Ashippa, I returned to my hiding-place in the forest. I discerned my beloved’s form in the shadows of the undergrowth; her breathing was quiet, which meant she had fallen asleep. Then I heard her voice: that deep, mournful lowing that sent tension up my spine: I had awakened her.
Her gait was quick but clumsy—her crushed limbs pained her with every step, but she was growing used to them, in a manner. But even after three days, I felt a sob rising as I watched her dragged herself to me: a knee-bone for one foot; a shattered wrist for another.
“Don’t get up,” I whispered, kneeling at her side.
She moaned to me through a torn and bloated throat: my beloved, whose voice once echoed through the halls of our temple, now neither woman nor she-goat, but a half-being with deadened eyes and flattened nose and shattered teeth; a wreck that kept crawling, kept wrenching breath from the air, only because of what we carried—
“Is she asleep?” I asked Nelenei, reaching into the bushes. A high-pitched cry answered my question, and I raised the reed basket that held our son into the moonlight.
“Mari was unkind,” I told her. “Except for one man: a priest. But he could only get me out of the city; we must keep moving.”
I was not sure whether she understood me or not; she only nuzzled me with her soft-sagging forehead, and stared at me with eyes as eager as they were dull. The gods had broken my Nelenei, but they had left me intact. Perhaps they had not made a mistake; perhaps my punishment was indeed the worse. And as for our son, why had they left him untouched?
Who can answer such questions? Mens’ lives are as grains of barley on a breeze; and the gods, it seems, are mad.
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Ben Thomas is a professional writer and freelance neuroscience journalist who was the Founding Editor of The Willows Magazine, a periodical of atmospheric horror. He was also once published in Weird Tales–no small feat. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Halloween, 2032
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a story by
Angel Zapata
 
The carved pumpkin sitting on the front porch steps of the house was actually a hologram. The image flickered intermittently and quickly disappeared.
“Crap!” Michael Plant stood just outside the doorway and continued to press the red power button on the pumpkin’s remote control. “It must have some kind of short in the digital box.”
“Could be, sweetheart,” his wife, Rachel agreed from inside their home. She stuck her head outside the window. “You need me to help you troubleshoot it?”
“Well, I really think the kids look forward to seeing it every year. I don’t want to disappoint them.” Michael sighed and slapped the remote against his palm. “You think we got enough candy?”
“I don’t think we’ll ever run out of it.” Rachel popped her head back inside, walked through the kitchen and into the hallway. She pressed her face against the screen door. “The kids won’t be home for a few more minutes, so you may have some time.”
“Okay, I’ll do my best.”
Rachel watched her husband struggle with the holographic component that had been installed above the old porch swing. The sky was slowly turning black, and the wind was pushing brown leaves against the trash cans. The paper witch she had hung with masking tape on the glass pane of the window suddenly tore free and took flight over the trees.
“What time did you say Jason and Gwen will be home?” Michael called.
Rachel pulled back her sleeve and stared at the numbers programmed on her remote unit. “Exactly two minutes, hon.”
A decade ago, the doctors had told Rachel she would never be able to bear children. She was devastated, but Michael had been incredibly supportive, assuring her that one day a miracle would provide a way. And he’d been right. She’d found the perfect solution offered by a small experimental lab near Atlanta. Rachel owed her entire existence to the good people out there at Family Spatial Environment for making it all possible. The day her beautiful twins, Jason and Gwen entered this world was the happiest day of her life.
Michael grunted and shook his head. “No luck, darling. I hate to say it, but there won’t be a pumpkin for this year’s Halloween night.”
“Don’t worry, sweetie. It’s going to be okay.” Rachel stepped outside the screen door and it snapped shut behind her. She reached out to touch her husband’s face, but her hand passed right through his simulated presence. “I know you tried your best.”
A soft rain began to fall, filling the yard with shallow puddles.
Rachel pushed the button on her wrist remote that controlled the pumpkin. The triangular eyes materialized two seconds before the orange body appeared.
“Well, how do you like that?” Michael was pleased with himself. “It seems like I was able to fix it after all.” He placed his hands on his hips and smiled.
“Great job, sweetie. I never doubted you for a minute.” Rachel spun around and pointed a thin red beam onto the white picket fence surrounding the house. “Here come the kids,” she whispered quietly, beginning to cry. ”Aren’t they the cutest things?”
The twins flickered to life, powered by an interchanging series of revolutionary, microscopic lasers. They were both dressed as ghosts.
Michael stretched out his arms and waited for the children to make their way across the wet yard.
Rachel couldn’t help but notice there were no footprints to be found in the slowly forming mud.
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Angel Zapata grew up in NYC, but now lives in Georgia. He is not a hologram. Some of his published and upcoming fiction and poetry can be found at Nailpolish Stories, The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Devilfish Review, Bewildering Stories, Mused: Bellaonline Literary Journal, and Microw. Visit him at http://arageofangel.blogspot.com/
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Asteroid
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a story by
John Grey
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In this jungle, I can smell the death of dinosaurs, bones locked up by intense nuclear winter, grey skin freezing blue in the wake of the fireball that blurred weather, geography, even time into a puzzle insoluble by their giant gasping lungs, vast deltas of blood and nerves shrunk to terror by the explosion of their senses, and the clue is not the silver iridium crust beneath my boots, the glistening ejecta that could only come from vast volcanoes of space, thick chunks of quartz and their eye-encyclopedic light show, but the scream of the wind through these forests, the crack of trunks like necks arched back in fear, the fat crash of a branch to the earth like bodies shattering over themselves, the fatal truth: dinosaurs only die in places where imagination dies.
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The next issue of Beorh Quarterly
will be Winter 2012, out November 2