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Ron Sanders Feb 2020
(Glade, World, Master, Boy, Hero)

                                                 GLADE

There is a glacier.
Its blue tongue’s tip just tastes a frozen gorge.
There is a gorge, its walls shattered by cold; a once-green thing that, in dying, birthed a thousand aching fissures. It works its jagged way downhill, round ragged rifts and drifts until it comes upon a little frosted wood.
There is a wood, an island locked in ice.
Within this wood the gorge descends. It wanders and it wends; it brakes and all but ends outside a clearing wet with sun. And there, forking, its bent and broken arms embrace a strange, enchanted glade.

There is a glade.
And in this glade the black bears sleep, though salmon leap fat between falls. Here the field mouse draws no shadow, the eagle seeks no prey; they spend their while caressed by rays, and halcyon days are they. Here rabbit and fawn may linger, no longer need they flee. For in this timeless, taintless space, the Wild has ceased to be. (Outside the glade are shadow and prey, are ice and naked death. There blood may run freely. There the eagle, that thief, is a righteous savage, a noble fiend. But once in the glade he is dove, and has no taste for blood, running freely or otherwise).
And in this glade there nests a pool:  a dazzling, blue-and-silver jewel; profoundly deep, pristinely clear. All who sip find solace here, for this is the Eye of Being. They lap in peace, assuming blear, not knowing it is seeing. And ever thus this pool shall peer:  a silent seer, reflecting on—all that Is, and all Beyond.
(Outside the glade there lies a world where rivers ever run, where ghastly calves in random file revile a bitter sun. East, the day is born in mist. West she dies:  her rest, the deep. And North…North the Earth lies mute. Wind gnaws her hide, wind wracks her dreams. Wind screams like a flute in her white, white sleep).
But in the glade are tall, stately grasses, sunning raptly, spinning lore. Roots render the rhythms, blades bend without breeze, as signals ascend from the glade’s tender floor. (In this wise the glade weaves its word, airs its views. All the glade’s flora are bearers of news). They do not wither with fall, for in the glade there is no fall. They do not bind or wilt or brown—they gesture, spreading the mood, the mind; conveying, indeed, the very soul of the glade. As ever they have, as they shall evermore.
Bees do not hum here; they sing. They fatten the dream. Mellow and round are the timbres they sound, sweet is the music they bring. Birds do not sing here—they play. They carry the theme. Dulcet and warm are the strains they perform. Gifted musicians are they. (All in the glade are virtuosi. They were born to create. Melody, harmony, meter…are innate). Now the performance is lively and bright, now full, now almost still. For, though all in the glade may lean to the light, they must bend to the maestro’s feel.
And yet…there was a day, long ago in a dream, when this ongoing opus was torn. And on that day (so the lullaby goes) the wind brought a scream, and Dissonance was born.
There was a noise.
Moose tensed, their coffee eyes narrowed, their patient brows creased. Bees mauled the tempo, birds lost their place. The grass stood *****, all blades pointing east. There was a crash, and a shriek, and a naked, bleeding beast burst stinking through the fern, fell stumbling on its face.
Moose scattered:  unheard of. Sheep brawled, geese burst out of rhyme. The symphony, forever endeavored to soar sublime, fluttered, plunged, and, for all of a measure, ceased.
The pool was appalled…what manner brute—what kind of monster was this? Furless flank to forelimb, hide obscured by blood. As for its face…it had no face; only a look:  of shock frozen in time, of horror in amber. A deep welling rift ran temple to chin, halving the mask, caving it in. Such a grievous wound…the pool watched it stagger, on two legs and four, thrashing about till it came to a rise. There it labored for air, wiped the blood from its eyes, lashed at illusion, looked wildly round. Beholding the pool, the beast tumbled down.
And there this wretch plunged his thirst, drank his fill, fell back on his haunches.
The pool became still.
The two traded stares.
The glass read his features:  that durable eye pondered the wreckage and probed the debris. Revolted, the pool sought the succor of sky. But that thing remained—that face…in all creation…surely there could be…no other creature so ugly as he.
And he gazed in the glass.
Beneath the surface were…images…swimming in currents of shadow and light. He saw half-shapes and fragments…hideous men, exotic beasts…saw blue worlds of water, saw white worlds of ice…it was all so vague and unreal—yet somehow strangely familiar. Deeper he peered, but, as his mangled face neared, the sun smote the pool and the shapes disappeared. The brute pawed the ground and, dreaming he’d drowned, shook his head sharply and slowly looked round:
There were starlings at arm’s-length, transfixed with suspense, their tail feathers trembling, their dark eyes intense. Fantails and timber wolves, stepping in sync, paused for a sniff, stooped for a drink. Bees, pirouetting, threw light in his eyes. Seizing the moment, the pool pressed its hold.
And the glade revolved.
The freak watched it spin—saw the ferns’ greedy fingers reach round and close in, saw the tall grass rise high in an emerald sheen, swaying to rhythms from somewhere obscene. This place was madness; he struggled to stand, but, weak as he was, keeled over cold.
And the glade heaved a sigh, and the tall grass reclined, in curious patterns once rendered in whim. Far off in thunder the hard world replied, as iced pines exploded and screamed on the breeze. Down bore the sun, a chill just behind. The pool, grown blood-red, fended frost from its rim. Details dissolved in the oncoming tide. The pool dimmed to black. Night seeped through the trees.
Now flora found slumber while, pulsing below, the pool was infused with a soft ruby glow.
Soon birds bearing beech leaves, and needles of pine, laid down a spread and returned to the limb. But breath from the North blew their blanket aside. The wind grew in earnest, the air seemed to freeze.
And the wolf and the she-bear, of contrary mind, abhorring their task approached, looking grim. They sniffed him for measure, then, loathing his hide, growled their displeasure and dropped to their knees.
All night these glum attendants flanked his naked quaking form. The rising moon drew dreams in gray.
In time the man grew warm.

Morning swept through the glade in one broad stroke of the master’s brush, dappling the foliage with amber and rose. The pool was roused by the sweet pass of light. He opened his eye and the glade came alive:  into the whirlpool of life a thousand colors swam, chasing the scattering eddies of night. The magic of morning began.
Bluebird and goldfinch descended in rings, primaries clashing with robin and jay. Dollops of sun, repelled by their wings, spattered anew on the palette of day. Banking as one, the hues struck away.
There was a crowd.
And in this crowd that oddity sat, its chin on its chest, its rear pointing west. Its forepaws lay leaning, upturned and at rest. ***** and blood messed its muzzle and breast. Passed overnight. Or perhaps only dozed…tendril by tendril, claw by claw, the crowd decompressed:  the ring slowly closed.
And the stranger cried out and shifted his seat. His eyes sought his feet—rounding the arches, and topping the toes, the tall grass was questing. The little brute froze.
And the fauna took pause, and the flora went slack. Leaves followed talons, stems followed claws. Hooves tromped on paws as the crowd drifted back.
Not a breath taken. Not a move made. Stillness, like fog, enveloped the glade.
Now the grass tugged his feet, now the sea of jade splayed—left hand and right, the slender shafts reared. Gaining momentum, blade followed blade. The green field was torn till a deep swath appeared. The swath hurtled west, reflecting the sun. A hundred yards distant it died. Once more the grass stood, its tips spreading wide. The swath, born again, repeated its run.
Plain was the message, and clearly conveyed. The newcomer gawked. Confusion ensued.
The tall blades were swayed by the pulse of the glade.
But the swath was not renewed.
Something tiny bounced by. He ventured a peek, barely rolling an eye.
A chocolate sparrow, with pinfeathers black, popped past an ankle and paused to look back. The bird cocked its head, rocked in place, hopped ahead. It fluttered. It freaked. It glared and stopped dead. Vexed to its limit, it burst into flight.
The sitting thing watched till it passed out of sight.
Now a breeze bent his back, picked him half off his stern. The wind, done its best, grew flustered at last. It trailed to the west, thrilling lilies it passed. It wound round the willows and didn’t return.
So the fauna repaired to the live oak’s shade.
A strange kind of stupor fell over the glade.
From deep in the wood came a shape through the trees—a pronghorn, perhaps, or an elk swift and sure. But up limped a moose, a flyport with fur, low in the belly and wide at the knees. Wizened he was, scarcely able to see. Neither vision, nor vigor, nor velvet had he. He hobbled abreast, then groveled or died, his nose facing west, his tail flung aside.
The brute merely glazed.
But the glade was unfazed.
Those long shafts reshuffled. A tense moment passed.
The ominous shadows of badgers were cast. Three left their holes, as if to attack. They pedaled like moles and the stranger jumped back. He stumbled, fell flailing, and, kicking his guide, threw out his arms and tumbled astride. First he stepped on his tail, then he stepped on his pride. The moose bellowed twice and shook side to side while the little pest clung to his high, homely hide.
And the old moose unbent to his knees by degrees. He reeled like a drunk down the path of the breeze. Together they lurched through a break in the trees. And all morning long, and on through the day, both beggar and bearer would buckle and sway. The moose lost his temper, but never his way.
And the wind blew the sun to its deep ruby rest; the scrub, in obeisance, inclined to the west. Their slow taffy shadow in slinking would seem to slip round the rocks like a snake in a dream.
And the sun became a beacon, and the underbrush a stream. The wide Earth took their weight in stride, and the wind named him Hero.

                                               WORLD

When the sun was low the old moose began to stumble, at last limping to a halt beside a swift river lined with stunted pines. He’d half-expected a somewhat graceful dismount, but Hero, dug in like a tick, wasn’t about to let go. The moose knelt until his joints objected, shimmied, bucked, and with a sudden whirl sent the little bother flying.
Hero scraped himself out of the dirt and looked up forlornly. The ancient moose, his good eye gone bad, glared a long minute before hobbling away, his bony **** rocking with dignity, his scraggly tail fighting off imaginary flies.
Hero managed a few steps and dropped, staring in disbelief as the moose disappeared between half-frozen pines. He remained on his knees for the longest time, his jaw hanging, waiting for the moose—waiting for anything to show. At last a ruckus to his left snapped him out of it. His head ratcheted around.
Fifteen feet off the bank, three screaming gulls were dancing on an immense stone outcropping, fighting over a rapids-tossed sockeye. Hero was instantly famished. He wobbled to his feet and stumbled twice wading out, only regaining his balance by leaning against the current while rapidly wheeling his arms. The shrieking gulls reluctantly backed off as he stepped in slow-motion through the rushing water. Hero lunged at the slapping fish, cracked an ankle on the rock, and hopped around howling with both hands holding his shin. One foot was as good as none in the surging water. He went right under. Before he knew it he was being swept downriver.
This was glacial meltwater, so cold he quickly lost all sensation. Hero swallowed a mouthful and surfaced fighting for life; too disoriented to combat the current, too numb to realize his waving arm was striking something solid. That solid something turned out to be a swirling clump of rotted birches tangled up in scrub. He embraced one of these trunks as the mass slammed against isolated rocks, kicked his feet wildly, and somehow hauled himself aboard. The raft ricocheted rock to rock until repeated impacts sent it spinning. Giddy from the whirling and soaking, he clung freezing to the trees, retching continuously while the river roared in his ears. Through spray and tears he made out only cartwheeling fragments of the world.
But then the river was widening, its fury dissipating. The raft was approaching the sea. Hero gasped as the seemingly boundless Pacific swallowed the broad red belly of the sun. And as he spun he was treated to a panoramic, breathtaking spectacle:  the great indigo ocean with its slow traffic of driftwood and ice—voiced-over by the dismal calls of foraging gulls, and broken rhythmically by intermittent glimpses of the river’s rocky banks growing farther and farther apart. Whirling as it went, the dying man’s soul was taken by the sea.

At the 59th Parallel in winter, the Pacific coast plays host to numberless floes and minor bergs orphaned from Alaskan coastal glaciers. Hero cruised into a watery gridlock on a boat of ice-glazed birches, one bit of flotsam among the rest.
The cold wouldn’t let him move, wouldn’t let him breathe, wouldn’t let him think. He lay supine, feet crossed and hands clasped, terrified that to budge was to roll. An ice patina grew over the tangled trees like a white fungus—this growth soon webbed his fingers and toes, speckled his chest and thighs, glazed his hair and face, danced and disintegrated with his breath’s tapering plumes.
Floes and frozen-over debris tended to group with passing collisions; Hero’s married birches bit by bit accrued a mostly-submerged tangle of trunks and branches, all becoming fast in a creeping ice cement. Night came on just as resolutely, until land was only a flat black memory. The raft moved silently over the deep, still accepting the occasional gentle impact. And the floes became thicker and wider in a freezing doldrums; soon the proximate sea was all a broken field of packed ice, bobbing infinitesimally with the planet’s pulse.
Long ghostly strands of fog came striding over the torn ice field. They leaned this way and that, their mourners’ skirts tearing and patching and leaning anew. The ghosts were there to seal it:  their locked fingers and gray diaphanous wings were quickly becoming a wholly opaque descending shroud, its boundaries lost in the soughing wind.
Collisions came less and less. Darkness and silence, breaching some previously impenetrable barrier, began to take up residence in Hero’s chilling marrow. From his very center broke a weak little cry of refusal, of denial, as mind mustered frame in one desperate bid for freedom. His skin, frozen to the raft, peeled right off, and at that his inner brave succumbed. Hero’s smashed head arched back. His face contorted frightfully while the little lamp fluttered and paled within.
A raucous chorus slowly worked its way through the mist. It emerged a few hundred yards off—a tiny, terrified barking, growing in clarity as it grew in volume and urgency. It was a sound beacon. Hero strained eagerly, and when for one excruciating minute the beacon was cut off by a large passing body, was certain death had claimed him. Then it was back, and his heartbeat was quickening. He caught a heaving sound…something was moving his way down a wide tributary between floes. Hero could hear a gasping and snorting, accompanied by a hard slapping and splashing. The sounds vanished. In a moment the raft was rocked from below.
A sputtering muzzle blew salt in his eyes. A cold slimy flipper flapped across his chest and slapped about his face. The fur seal barked directly in his ear. Whiskers raked his dead cheek. The seal barked again.
Back below the surface it slipped. Hero listened anxiously as the splashing sound retreated whence it came.
The seal swam off perhaps a hundred feet and began barking hysterically.
From much farther off came a profusion of answering barks.
The seal swam back to Hero’s raft, circling and calling, circling and calling, while the responders approached en masse.
Now a sallow beam could be seen cutting through the fog. Several more showed vaguely along a plane yawing with some huge, barely discernible object.
A herd of northern fur seals burst into sight, barking madly, beating through the ice. They converged on Hero’s raft, really bellowing now.
Those odd yellow beams came in pursuit, and soon were close enough to eerily illuminate a gigantic wooden vessel parting the ice. The seals barked ferociously. Whenever the vessel leaned away, those nearest Hero’s raft would absolutely howl.
The fog deepened, condensed, crystallized, and then the collective light of a dozen lanterns was playing over a low, listing nightmare. Hero could hear the shouts of many aggressive men, but the waterborne seals, rather than scatter, boarded the ice and redoubled their din, fighting their way onto his quickly mobbed raft.
The sealers hurled serrated spears even as they clambered down rope ladders. When these men reached the ice the seals snapped and gnashed madly, refusing to be dislodged. The sealers lost all composure with the thrill of the hunt:  wielding clubs, spears, and hatchets—sometimes using iron bludgeons or any old utensil handed down—they crushed skulls, dragged carcasses, hooked animals still spurting and bleating. Clinging though he was, Hero was flabbergasted by the way the slipping and scampering men went about their butchery, hacking and smashing more with passion than with precision. But not a single seal attempted to flee—throughout the carnage they barked all the louder, egging on their slayers, carcass by carcass drawing the impassioned sealers to Hero’s ice-locked raft.
It was all so hazy and macabre. Hero’s eyes rolled back, and the next thing he knew he was sitting hunched on the vessel’s sopping deck. Two men were rubbing his limbs while another poured warm water down his back. He looked around in shock. The very notion of a boat containing more than one or two individuals—a sort of floating tribe—was way beyond his ken; so to see it, to have it come looming out of nothingness, was an experience almost supernatural.
He remembered some of those fur-covered men force-feeding him mouthfuls of halibut and seal fat, and he recalled a small group standing around him, shouting words that made no sense at all. After that he had a very vivid memory of their angry little chief repeatedly punching him while hollering one angry little word over and over and over. Hero couldn’t make out his inquisitor’s face, for the large feather-lined hood quite engulfed the man’s head, yet he could see those quick eyes flash as they caught the oil lamps’ light. Finally this man stopped boxing Hero’s ear. He stared hard. In these remaining decades of the tenth century it was fully within his power to administer as he saw fit—he could have ordered Hero’s immediate execution and not a man of his crew would have objected. He hesitated only because there wasn’t a hint of resistance in his prisoner’s pinched and frightened eyes. He leaned forward, studying the wound that all but split Hero’s face in two before grunting, raising his right arm, and yanking down its seal hide sleeve. Attached to the stump of his forearm was a primitive prosthesis consisting of a thick oak cap strapped to the arm with lengths of gut, and, hammered squarely into the center of that cap, a broad, cruelly hooked blade chiseled from a narwhal’s tusk. He held this obscenity in front of Hero’s eyes, traced the face’s deep diagonal rift, and once more demanded his captive’s identity. Hero then vaguely remembered being dragged along a tilting deck and thrown into the ship’s tiny hold. He retained a strong mental image of landing in a place of musty odors and dank projections.
There came a soft scuffling in the darkness, and presently a blind and exceedingly old woman felt her way to his side, mumbling as she approached. Her speech was comprised not of words; it was rather a running gibberish of cooing vowels and clucking consonants. The old woman was as mad as her circumstances; sick with sea and solitude, bedeviled by age and confinement. She sat cross-legged, patting her withered palms up his arm until she came to his face. Her strange mumbling soliloquy rose and fell as her bony fingers daintily explored the newly opened wound. Hero let his head fall back in her lap. A pair of hands like emaciated tarantulas scurried through the filth and tiny bodies until they came upon an old otter’s pelt bag that held her secrets. The woman loosened the bag’s cord and extracted an assortment of herbs, sniffing each in succession. She then scooped a handful of blubber from a bowl made of a previous occupant’s skull, kneaded the selected herbs into the blubber, and commenced gently massaging the wound, clucking and cooing while the black rats watched and waited.
For nine interminable days Hero remained in that cold, stinking compartment, rocking back and forth between life and death. The old woman never gave up on him. She clung to him during his seizures, rubbed his limbs vigorously when his blood pressure fell. She gathered various accumulated skins and, using woven strands of her own long hair, sewed him a multilayered, body-length wraparound with arm sleeves and very deep pockets, working by touch with a needle formed of a cod’s rib. By this same method she was able to fashion a pair of heavily lined snug-fitting moccasins. The old woman made him eat; she masticated the cod and halibut their keepers pitched into the hold, then shoved the results down his throat with a long gnarly forefinger. She called into his screaming nightmares, talking him out of sleep and back into their foul little reality. Together they lowed in the dark, while the keel groaned along and the waves beat time.
At the end of those dark nine days his strength was restored, but not his mind. Once again he was taken on deck.
The vessel had reached a chain of remote wind-swept islands, rocky and treeless, naked except for patchy carpets of hardy grass. These islands stretched far to the west, shrouded in mist. The ship was making for the smallest; just a chip on the sea. When they reached depth for anchorage Hero was hustled into a rowboat and lowered over the side. He looked up, saw two men climbing down by rope. These men positioned themselves at the oars and slowly rowed toward the islet. Seated between them, Hero felt like a man being led to his execution. He snuck a peek. The rowers’ heads were lowered, their features completely obscured by the heavy feathered hoods; they had all the somberness of pallbearers. Not a word passed between them as they rigidly worked their oars:  the only sound was the dip-and-purl of wood in water. Hero looked away. Against his will, he found his eyes drawn to that rocky islet waiting in the fog.
Not a bird, not a sea lion, not a shrub. It was lonesome beyond imagination.
Upon landfall one of the men used a spear’s point to **** Hero ashore. While his companion steadied the boat, he removed a skin sack full of half-frozen halibut, followed by a few armloads of precious tinder. These articles he tossed at Hero’s feet. He resumed his place at the oars and, without looking back, used the blunt end of his spear to shove off.
Hero watched the boat moving away, watched the men climbing their ropes, watched the boat being hauled aboard. As the mysterious vessel receded he saw a number of those silent men standing at the stern, stolidly returning his stare. Their hooded forms grew smaller and smaller, finally becoming indistinct. The vessel was swallowed up in fog.
Hero looked around, at a desolate world of rock and drifting ice. In the sunless pools at his feet a few purplish, flaccid sea anemones were waving in a sickly phosphorescence; along the rocks ran a tattered quilt of wild grass and lichen. It was the end of the world. He began to pace in his anxiety, only to crumple bit by bit inside his furs. At last he just sat with his face in his arms and wept. When he could weep no more he raised his head and opened his red, swollen eyes.
There were gulls all around him, staring like statuary in a madman’s garden. Standing in their midst were auks and puffins and murres, absolutely spellbound, unable to lean away. The silence was broken only by a wild, fitfully pursing wind—a wind that seemed, eerily, on the verge of producing syllables. And on that wind a flock of terns was rising slowly, their beady eyes fixed on the lone sitting man. The terns watched as he trembled, and banked as he swooned.
Then, beating as one, they threw back their wings and blew into the sun.

There was a blaze.
Behind that blaze a pair of black, bug-like eyes met his and immediately withdrew. A man wrapped in caribou hides stood abruptly, drawing angry swarms of sparks.
The Aleut peered queerly into the icy Pacific, his craggy profile merging seamlessly with a jumble of rocks showing just beyond his shoulder. The man was very tall, closer to seven feet than to six, and thin almost to emaciation.
He was also a mute. Soon enough he would display a talent for communication through gutturals, but now his body language spoke louder than words. It told the shivering stranger that he was not only disliked—he was feared.
The islander removed the hides he’d piled on the sleeping man. He produced a bone awl and strategically pierced a caribou hide, draped the hide over the old woman’s handiwork, and ran a cord of tightly woven tendons crosswise through his made holes, knotting it at the bottom to create a kind of cloak. He then killed the fire, heaped wood, fish, and remaining hides into Hero’s arms, and led him to a tiny cove where his long skin canoe lay in the grass. This was not the one-man kayak used by his people for centuries, but an actual canoe modeled on the graceful vessels he’d observed under the control of northern coastal tribesmen. After dragging it into the water he perched Hero in the fore, placed the cargo in the middle, and stepped into the rear like a gaunt furry spider. The Aleut dug out a paddle and began pulling with smooth strokes of surprising muscularity, his black eyes trained on his quiet companion’s back.
So began their long island-hopping journey. They stepped the chain one stone at a time, living off the sea. But much as the islander disliked Hero’s vapid company, it was not in his nature to proceed expeditiously; his people, remote as they were, had learned to count not in days but in generations. Given this, the Aleut took his time. He showed Hero how to build shelters of skin and gut; during bad weather the two would sit on an island in utter silence while rain hammered on their stretched seal-intestine window. And one very clear night he pointed out constellations while attempting to demonstrate, using broad gestures, just how the brighter heavenly bodies were in perfect alignment with the Aleutians. Hero followed his guide’s gestures as a pet follows its master’s movements and, like a pet, soon became bored. The Aleut did not grow flustered. He grew ever more wary:  behind that granite, weather-beaten exterior squirmed a very primitive imagination. Superstitious as he was, the Aleut was almost certain Hero could read his mind. So one time, and one time only, he threw a searing look at the back of Hero’s bowed and listing head. After a long minute of vigorous thought-projection he shifted his gaze aside. The brute appeared to feel this shift, and gently turned his head. And both saw the ocean break rhythm, and watched as otters and sea lions surfaced, noted their progress, and slipped without tremor beneath the waves.
In spring the fogs lifted. The grimness gave way to serenity, a generous sun buttered the dappled sea. On the islands grass grew lushly. Wildflowers leapt on the color-starved eye.
And one day the islander’s nape itched. He turned to see a flock of arctic terns casually tracking them under a gorgeous, white-plumed sky. As the day progressed the terns came drifting high overhead, slowly but surely taking the lead.
The Aleut squinted against the sun. He’d never known these birds to pursue a westerly migratory pattern—the terns were distributing themselves into a rough wedge shape, much like geese on the wing.
For a while he let the flock be his guide. Then, to test his stars, he cunningly steered his canoe north. At once the wedge disintegrated. Not until he’d lowered his eyes and pulled purposefully to the west did the disrupted pattern reassert itself. He peered up timidly. The wedge was now in the shape of a perfect arrowhead.
Just so were the fates of mariners and aviators inextricably entwined. At night, once the Aleut had landed his canoe on the nearest pearl, the terns would light in a quiet circle and remain until sunrise. As the Aleut and Hero took to sea, the flock would quickly form that same authoritative pattern.
In time the Aleut paddled his companion clear to the westernmost islands of the Aleutian chain. His people had dwelt, even here, a thousand years and more, but no contemporary islander knew for certain what lay beyond. Legend told of an enormous land mass forever gripped by cold, where a cruel people waylaid innocent seafarers for barbaric sacrificial rites.
So here the islander paused. But even as he vacillated he noticed the terns were veering south.
If the Aleut had been able to curse aloud he would have been vociferous. He was being compelled to follow an even less desirable course—that of the unknown open ocean. Now he looked upon his passenger’s hunched back not with fear but with loathing. He took a deep breath, rolled his shoulders, and defiantly continued west. The wedge broke up immediately. The terns dive-bombed the canoe, whirled around the windmilling Aleut, tore skyward and hovered determinedly. Something huge broke surface behind them, but the Aleut was way too frayed to turn. He dropped his head, a beaten man, and began paddling south. Little by little the birds returned to formation.
The tiny canoe had no business going up against the mighty Pacific. It would soon have been swallowed and smashed, had not the terns veered in close formation whenever the distant sea appeared too rough. Once he’d lost his bearings the Aleut religiously followed their serpentine course.
The days began to warm.
Now the sea’s bounty all but leapt in the canoe.
It seemed the Aleut was forever catching the finest currents, practically sliding down a corridor entirely free of peril. In this manner he was able to safely navigate waters no such craft had mastered before.
They were proceeding south by southwest, awed children of a plenteous, generous sea. The going became easier by the day, the ocean heavier with cod.
Nights the Aleut drifted comfortably, but a lifetime of wariness made him wake off and on. He’d slowly rise to find Hero sitting quietly under the stars, and soon he’d see, pallid in moonlight, a large body neatly pleating the ocean’s surface. The shape would precede them a while, only to vanish without a ripple.
All this strangeness kept the Aleut’s heart in a whirl, though he took pains to maintain his poise.
To allay his fear he kept a flat black stone planted squarely between them. It was his oldest treasure; an oddity he’d taken off the body of a mauled Tlingit woman when he was a child. Who she was, and how she’d come by the stone, were mysteries far beyond him, for no such piece had ever been known to Aleut or Inuk.
The stone was smooth and had been worked perfectly round. Bright yellow specks were scattered about its dull black face.
Long ago someone had etched a quaint and clumsy rune on that flat black surface—it was the crude, universal symbol for sun:  a broad circle surrounded by several rays. When the stone was rubbed against a pelt it possessed the curious property of growing quite warm and bright in the rune’s grooves, while the surface remained cool and dull.
This stone, both friend and overlord, had always “spoken to him”. It caused him to become restless when it was time to move on, and allowed him to relax when a destination had been reached. In this way he’d come to the familiar islet and discovered the unconscious little man. Just so:  the stone, he was sure, was responsible for making him “feel bad” as he watched the stranger shiver, and “feel better” once he’d built him a life-saving fire from the small pile of tinder he’d found nearby.
By now, however, the Aleut was wholly disenchanted with his stone, and deeply regretted having done its mysterious bidding. Never before had he been so long from sight of land, and never before had he felt so very, very small. The unimagined immensity of the Pacific was really starting to get to him when, after all their while at sea, a gray, seductive haze broke the horizon. They had reached another chain of islands, an Asian chain, the dark and smoky Kurils. Here a cold current kept the climate cool and foggy, and the chill, along with the prevalence of otter and seal, made him feel almost at home.
But this place gave him the creeps; he was a stranger, a trespasser somewhere sacred. There was a looming quality to the island mountains that made him extraordinarily aware of his transience, his pettiness, his puniness. He grew more and more cautious, sure their progress was being monitored—he could have sworn he saw wraiths in the trees, and wolves padding warily in the brush. The big islands looked on breathlessly. All along the rocky cliffs, thousands of auks and puffins followed the canoe in dead silence, their heads turning simultaneously, their countless tiny eyes peering redly through the fog. As the weeks passed, the Aleut’s anxiety was manifested in tics and sighs, and he’d cringe each time the crimson sun sank behind those black volcanic summits. In his imagination the mountains would rise right out of the sea, as though to pluck him. But the islands, in all their dignity, would always refuse to acknowledge so meek a stranger, and return their eyes to sea. The Aleut would hang his head, and timidly paddle by.
Then for days and days he pulled his weary canoe west—through a strait parting two mighty islands not part of the chain, and thence across a sea that was a warm, enticing bath. Spring had come to the East Asian coastal waters, and the Ainu, alone and in groups, were venturing deeper in search of increasing bounty. The Aleut, absorbed in his thoughts of sweet climate and bitter fate, was unaware they’d been spotted.
This first meeting between strangers of different worlds was a brief and awkward one. A lone Ainu fisherman, seeing the Aleut come paddling out of the unknown, dropped his net and turned to stone. The Aleut, for his part, instinctively froze with his body turned half-away to make the leanest target possible. Their stares locked. Never had the Aleut seen a face so heavily bearded, and never hair so fair. The Ainu began banging on his bronze catch pail. Other fishers soon appeared from the north and south, effectively cutting off the canoe. The Aleut caressed his stone and looked to the sky. The wedge had vanished. He put down his head and paddled for all he was worth.
With the word out, uncountable fishing craft appeared out of the blue and broke into hot pursuit, their pilots determined to force the canoe ashore.
Suddenly they were in sight of land, and the sea was absolutely riddled with watercraft. A train of small boats cast off from the mainland, even as a posse of two-man coracle-like tubs began to surround the battered skin canoe, their inhabitants calling back and forth in astonishment at the sight of these dark, savage newcomers. But the pursuing little coastal men, banging excitedly on the sides of their boats, were not Ainu. They had very straight black hair, prominent cheekbones, and strangely slanted eyes. And their speech, oddly marvelous as it was, was a rapid series of coos, chirps, and barks. Their boats formed a tight semi-circle around the canoe, forcing the Aleut to approach the mainland. The little men banged their boats maniacally, with more joining in as the canoe neared shore.
A bit farther south was a natural harbor swarming with fishing vessels of every description. As the canoe was forced into this harbor, people along the rocky coast began banging whatever they could get their hands on, until the air was filled with their lunatic percussion.
Tiny brown men came running along a soft yellow cliff overlooking the harbor, gesturing wildly. The canoe was squeezed between a chain of tubs and the shore, and, as it slowed, the tempo and ferocity of the banging decreased accordingly. When the canoe came to a halt the banging and shouting stopped. Hero creaked to his feet. The first North American to set foot on Asian soil stepped out shakily.
There followed the profoundest silence imaginable.
A second later it was as if a dam had burst.
Hundreds of hysterical, yammering voices erupted from hundreds of hysterical, clinging men and women. Hero was spun around, jostled about, handed along. He stared into their astounded, pinched little faces, and the sun, pulsing between their heads as he was turned, repeatedly stabbed his eyes. There came an excited outburst and frantic splashing which could only have been the Aleut’s violent demise, and then Hero was somehow limping alongside a primitive fishing village, blindly following a narrow dirt path that hugged the yellow cliff’s base. The warm spring sun caught the dust as he shambled. He rounded a bend and stopped.
Half a dozen children stood in his way, too fascinated to run. A chatter and scuffle rose behind him. He looked back to see that he was now in the midst of a small crowd of these children, and that more were running up with cries of amazement.
A stone struck his shoulder. As Hero turned another glanced off his chest.
A moment later he was being pelted from all sides, and the giggles and gasps had become something wildly unreal. He dropped to his knees in a hail of hurled rocks, covered his head with his arms, and slithered up the path on his belly.
A new voice broke in; an older, authoritative voice.
The children scampered off squealing.
Hero, shaken to his feet, found himself face to face with a diminutive, shouting, incomprehensible old man. The old man threw his arm around Hero’s waist and, jabbering all the while, led him to a secondary path cut into the cliff’s face. This path sloped gently upward over the waves. Together they picked their way to a place maybe halfway up, where the cliff’s face was honeycombed with natural alcoves and dug-out caves. Most of these spaces were used as one-man shelters; a few, cut deeper in the earth, as family hives. Strange gabbing people slid out of these holes like worms, reaching, but the little old man, who was evidently a little old man of some stature, embraced his find possessively and shouted them back inside.
The path narrowed as they climbed.
At its summit spread the upscale end of the neighborhood. Hero was led to a hovel nestled amid dozens of similar hovels, all scattered around a dainty stream wending between patches of stunted vegetation.
The old man’s place was basically a one-room hut fashioned of earth and salvaged boat hulls, with a slender side-yard surrounded by dry, dusty hedges. But inside it was clean and tidy, with rice paper partitioning and, built into the far earthen wall, a miniature stone fireplace. The old man sat his guest in the exact center of the room. There he fed him scraps from his bowl, using long sticks to pluck out bits of fish and clumps of tiny, starchy white pellets.
He studied the brute closely, watched him chew, walked round and round him. He poked here. He pinched there.
And that night he lit a fire on his crushed-shell hearth.
Hero curled up on a mat where the gossip of flames could reach him. Nearby, at his delicate wicker table, the old man sat in semi-darkness, illuminated only from the waist down.
But his eyes were alive. They spat and darted as they reflected the fire’s light, and, when at last they’d begun to sputter, his scratchy little voice came pattering out of the dark, muttering something vile and oddly modulated, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a gathering snarl.
Hero feigned slumber, unable to ignore those paired ominous flashes. Still, the room was cozy, and the fire warm, and the play of light and shadow kicked sleep in his eyes.

In the morning he woke in the old man’s side-yard, his head pounding, a rusty iron clamp securely fastened around his neck. This clamp was attached to the outermost link of a crude three-foot chain, and the link at the other end to a long stake driven into eight inches of solid rock. The chain and stake, like the clamp, were hammered of local iron. The clamp was too tight for comfortable swallowing, the chain too short to make standing possible. Hero could, however, spread out on his chest and stretch an arm to a low row of hedges. By parting the tangled undergrowth he had a limited view of the fishing village below, and of the harbor beyond. As the days passed he was able to tweak himself a view-space discernible only from his peculiar vantage. He accomplished this by gently breaking small branches strategically, then guiding their interrupted growth with the utmost tenderness. It was his secret garden.
He had no memory—none whatsoever—of being staked here. Obviously the old man hadn’t set this up overnight. Hero’s mind prodded timidly…how many others had been chained to this spot, and why?
But over the subsequent weeks and months he went beyond caring. Each day was the same:  just after dawn the old man would storm into the tiny side-yard swinging his reed whip wildly. The lashings were savage and unremitting. The old man, except for his eyes, would be mute. Only his whip need speak. And the snap of his reed had but one message:  when you see this whip you go down, and you go down immediately.
The naked savage, scarred head to foot, learned to go prostrate on the moment. Even so, the old man couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in the occasional good old, all-out thrashing. And after each session he would toss the prisoner a vile mess of dead fish and rotting leftovers.
Hero lived like this for many months, lost in a confused world of pain and anticipation. Perversely, he came to look forward to the bite of that whip, for, whether he flogged him in passion or just for sport, the old man was always sure to make it personal. It seemed their relationship might go on forever.
But one day there was a great commotion in the sleepy little fishing village. Hero parted the leaves and beheld a small train of oblong coaches at rest near the harbor. Large oxen yoked in pairs lolled between the carriages, immune to the clamor around them. There were dark shaggy horses and colorfully dressed Bactrian camels. The horses and camels were tethered in the rear, but were occasionally paraded around the carriages by little men wielding long painted bamboo poles. The whole affair was exotic and mesmerizing, eccentric and profane. Hero watched all day in amazement, infected by the hubbub, though he was totally mystified by the crowd’s fascination on the carriages’ far side.
And late that afternoon he saw the old man come walking out of that crowd, talking heatedly with another man. The stranger was shorter and broader than the old man, with long stringy hair and long stringy mustaches. He saw them climbing the path, saw them crawl inside a hole lashing furiously. They were lost from view for a minute, then popped up big as life. Hero glowed and curled up eagerly as they approached.
The old man and stranger came into the narrow side-yard still arguing. The old man grabbed Hero by the hair and twisted until he was facing the newcomer.
The stranger had oily, porous skin, and a round but grave countenance. His highly slanted eyes were bright and restless. He studied Hero’s mutilated face with keen interest before borrowing the old man’s reed. When Hero scraped at his feet he grunted and returned the reed.
The stranger pulled out something shiny and hefted it in his hand. He then raised his other hand while considering Hero, as though weighing him too. The old man’s eyes glinted, and for an instant his expression became grotesquely servile. The stranger and old man, facing, nodded curtly in unison. The stranger dropped the shiny thing onto the old man’s itching palm. The old man whipped Hero frantically before taking a small ax to the chain. A few hard blows split a link, the broken link was bent back by the tool’s shaft, and the prisoner was at last released.
The old man handed the stranger a short hempen rope. The stranger bowed deeply. He then tied an end of the rope through one of the remaining links and began dragging Hero along. Hero’s hands sought the old man, who kicked and cursed him all the way to the path. The three stumbled single-file to the bottom. The old man waved his arms and shouted hysterically, trotting behind until he ran out of breath. But he got in a final kick and, before he came to a gasping halt, managed to lash Hero once for old time’s sake, and to spit on him twice for luck.

There were five carriages; a long one in the center hitched to four oxen, and two smaller coaches in the front and rear with a pair of oxen on each. The carriages were old and battered, built of splitting wood slats and rusted iron braces. Various hides, spare wheels, and a hundred odds and ends were tied to the sides and roofs. Hero’s new master, using him as a ram, shoved him through the crowd to the long carriage. He hauled him up the single wood step and watched the crowd’s reaction. Children hid behind mothers, mothers hissed and jeered, men spat in that smashed, disgusting face.
Satisfied, Hero’s master twisted the rope tighter and dragged him through the hide flap that served as the carriage’s rear wall.
A strange ruckus began at their entrance.
Inside the carriage were bulky shapes and quirky movements, yet the immediate and overwhelming impression was one of unbelievable stench. Hero, instantly covered with flies, was kicked and shoved down a foot-wide aisle. The carriage’s walls were riddled with black flecks of old dried blood, the floor coated with standing *****, a variety of small carcasses, and some clinging, indefinable slime. But the living contents of this hell were so horrifying, and so unexpected, that Hero at once dropped to his knees. Observing this, master grabbed a whip off the wall and lashed him along the floor.
A number of bamboo cages lined either side of the carriage, each four feet high, four feet wide, and three feet deep. In the first cage to their left, a quadruple amputee dangled in a leather harness in a cloud of flies, jealously gnawing a chicken carcass balanced on his belly. The second cage held a man who had been burned over ninety per cent of his body, and the third a middle-aged woman with no eyes or tongue, her head shaved. The next cage housed a fully grown black leopard, its bright eyes fixed on the horrified newcomer. Then an empty cage, and finally a cage containing a demented man whose long yellow nails were busily raking a face deeply scarred and bleeding.
The first cage against the opposite wall held two girls rolling in their own excrement. Siamese twins unable to part, they had developed a unique method of locomotion, and now executed a three-quarters cartwheel in Hero’s direction, their mangled, severely bitten hands attempting to reach him through the bars. In the cage next to theirs a naked dwarf glowered menacingly, his eyes following coldly as Hero’s master shoved him down the narrow aisle, occasionally pausing to lash a cage. The hissing and howling increased as each prisoner beheld the new neighbor.
The third cage held an intensely sick adult Bornean sun bear, so confined it was entirely unable to move. Its hide was a patchwork of scraggly fur and grayish skin, glistening with odd eruptions. It rolled its sunken eyes in Hero’s direction, its muzzle twitching feebly.
The next cage contained a man who was frightfully diseased. Broad fungal patches covered his face and limbs, terminating in waxy folds that dangled like a rooster’s wattles. Welling sores spotted his chest and back. His eyes were bugged and sallow; his lower lip drooped below his chin. He barked wetly at Hero’s passing legs.
The second-to-last cage housed a rare, completely hairless Chinese albino, and the last cage a very tall, skeletal woman. The albino snapped at Hero while repeatedly banging his head against the cage. The woman hissed and coiled like a snake, her spine arching amazingly.
Master hauled Hero to the empty cage on his left, swung its door open with his foot, and forced him to his knees by pushing down with all his weight. He kicked and punched until Hero had been squeezed inside, then shut and secured the wide bamboo door.
Master inched his way back down the carriage, hammering the **** of his whip on each cage as he passed. There was a glimpse of daylight as he lifted the flap.
Once he’d departed, the carriage grew eerily silent.
Hero cautiously turned his head. Less than a foot away, the black leopard was frozen in place, one paw waving hypnotically in his face. The beast’s fangs were bared, its ears straight back, its eyes glistening. Hero turned ever so slowly, until he was looking into the eyes of the demented man in the final cage. The man cocked his head quizzically. A second later he was screaming his lungs out in a bizarre downward spiral.
At once the carriage erupted. The freaks shrieked and scrabbled, the leopard spun in place. Directly across the aisle, the albino hurled himself against the bars of his cage. He batted his face with his fists, threw back his head, and just howled and howled and howled. The snake woman curled even tighter, her long scrawny legs entwined behind her head.
Hero sat with breath held, absolutely silent, absolutely motionless. He very, very slowly closed his eyes.

Later that night the flap was flung high. The menagerie came alive as master, weirdly illuminated by moonlight, slowly made his way down the aisle carrying a skin sack oozing blood. He stopped at each cage to toss in a dying chicken and a handful of smelt.
When he reached Hero’s cage he looked down thoughtfully.
He extracted a quivering chicken and held it above the cage so that blood dripped on the brute’s deeply pleated forehead. Hero lowered his eyes. Master’s face darkened. He smashed the bird against the cage, over and over, a vein throbbing in his temple. Finally he hissed and displayed the limp chicken high over the albino’s head. The albino yelped and kicked, thrusting his hand up between the bars and jerking it back to lick away the blood rolling down his forearm.
Master eyed Hero coldly before pointedly dropping the chicken into the albino’s searching hands.
Master hissed again. He slowly made his way out.
Soon there was a commotion outside. The carriage rocked a bit before settling. Hero, turning in his cage to peek through a rift in the wood, saw horses being urged forward. He could hear men shouting. The carriage rocked again. He looked up and saw the gibbous moon suspended in mist. For just a second something wedge-shaped cut across its soft white face.
But then the oxen were grunting, the wheels had been freed, and the horses drawn abreast. Master’s lash spat left and right, and the show proceeded…west.

                                              MA­STER

She was very round and very small, with very short, very shaggy black hair. Her arms bore the scars of numerous bites from beast and man, and around her neck ran long wheals from a particularly savage owner. Hero, having spent the better part of the morning watching master storm in and out of a strange screaming house, now watched him drag the little round woman through the dirt. For a while he listened to the song of his master’s lash, waiting for the woman to break. But there was never a whimper.
It had been a difficult transaction for master, and an altogether difficult morning. For hours he’d paced up and down the main carriage, alternately murmuring affectionately into, and lashing at, each cage he visited. The sun bear, long dead and stuffed, had been taken outside for barter. It had soon been returned.
Master had lingered over Hero’s cage for a good while, staring critically. He’d begun shouting, and three of his men had burst in through the flap, unlatched the demented man’s cage, and dragged him out by the feet for trade, master personally stomping on his torn and groping hands.
And now master was kicking and shoving the little woman down the aisle as his men restrained her by the hair and throat. Upon master’s command these men stripped her naked and commenced pinching and slapping while making threatening faces and mocking noises. The freaks sat right up in their cages.
The woman looked as though she’d fainted:  her arms were lax, her eyes rolled up. Her whole face seemed to purse, and her body, head to toe, began to run blue. Her fingers quivered, arched, and clawed—the woman was self-asphyxiating. Master fairly leaped with delight while the cages rocked around him. He had the men slap her awake. Once she was fully conscious they stuffed her into the demented man’s old cage next to Hero’s.
Master then looked in eagerly, one to the other, his hands balled into fists. The woman buried her odd round face in her forearms as she squeezed herself into her cage’s deepest corner. Hero gazed indifferently and went back to his peephole.
Master exploded. He smacked and kicked the cages over and over, swore up and down, ran the shaft of his whip back and forth against the heavy bamboo bars. Eventually he calmed somewhat. He stared coldly at Hero, made a ***** smile, and spat right in his eyes. A tense minute passed. Master slowly made his way outside.
Hero automatically relaxed. Across the aisle the albino ****** his face between his cage’s bars to sniff the newcomer. The leopard, bobbing rhythmically, emitted a high-pitched squeal that gradually descended to a steadily throbbing growl.
Hero looked the stranger over. Once she’d lowered her hands he saw that her eyes were crossed, her jaw slack, her face as round as the full moon. He looked closer. There were scars all over her throat and arms:  plainly, the small round woman had been treated very badly. Hero instinctively slid a foot between the bars; the woman cried out and scrunched even deeper. Across the aisle the albino quickly extended an arm. Without knowing why, Hero turned on him. The albino flinched, his eyes tearing into Hero’s. A second later he was stamping his feet and grinning wildly. Hero went back to his peephole.
Next morning master and two of his men dismantled the bamboo walls separating Hero’s and the woman’s cages. They bound the frames with broad leather bands, making a single cage of the two.
A common door was fashioned and secured. Master used his broad blade to shear away Hero’s rags. The men hunched around the long cage expectantly.
The naked couple backed away. Master was instantly exasperated—he shouted, lashed furiously, stamped and screamed, jabbed a broken shaft between the bars with malevolent intent, whirled and hurled the shaft at nothing. The carriage’s inmates went out of their minds. At master’s bellowed command a man scurried outside, returning with a long rope of woven leather strands. Master opened the cage and, applying all his weight, pinned Hero and his new mate in an awkward embrace while his men tied them together.
Again master and his men bent over the long cage to watch.
When Hero realized his predicament he made a desperate attempt to reach his peephole.
The men, misreading his struggles, babbled and cheered, but master threw up his hands. He then, through gesture, ordered his men to drape a number of hides over the long cage. Once these hides were in place he very quietly bent to one knee and placed an ear against the cage. After a while he cursed and rose to his feet. He shook the cage and stormed out, whipping and kicking the howling inmates.
In the semi-darkness the man and woman quit fighting their bonds.
A muffled patter began on the hide-covered roof.
Rain, as always, had a calming effect on the carriage’s occupants, causing the freaks and beasts to slip, one by one, into lethargy or slumber. Under such a spell, the attainment of master’s goal was inevitable.
It was a coupling both innocent and vile, without passion or celebration. Occasionally the freaks would surface, register their excitement by shrieking, shaking their cages, or otherwise clamoring…but very quickly the air would stifle them, weighing their heads and confusing their impulses. The atmosphere grew heavier by the minute. And, when night rolled over the carriages, the rain came down in sheets.

Leaning ******* the woman’s cage, master slipped his gnarly hand between the bars and slowly rubbed her belly in a counter-clockwise motion, his sinister features soft in the candle’s light. And he told, in nonsensical cooing whispers, of a lovingly secure and impossibly prosperous future.
How large and promising that belly had become! And how wise was he, the cunning and aggressive master, in his far-reaching business decisions. He turned his affection to the motionless gaping brute; stroked the battlefield of its face, tossed in another lizard. Master rubbed his palms together. From now on it was extra lizards daily, for both the woman and her mate. He remarked, with only passing interest, his star player’s continuing indifference. They didn’t know each other, didn’t need each other.
There’d been months of shows on the road now, broken only recently by this sensible rejoining of the mates at conception.
Hero’s horrible disfigurement was unquestionably top draw; he was a guaranteed crowd pleaser at every stop. So now master looked him straight in the eyes and smiled. He held the reeking candle high. The carriage was absolutely silent. Master smiled again, rose to his feet, tiptoed away.
Hero watched him retreat until the flap had fallen. He returned to his peephole, saw master round the rear of the carriage and slowly crunch by. For a time he could see nothing but the half-shapes of junipers bathed in starlight. There was a tentative movement to his right and a large shape came to obstruct his view.
The horse stood for a minute in profile. It slowly brought its head to rest against the carriage, applying its eye to the peephole. Hero froze. The two remained fixed, eyeball to eyeball, while a breeze played odd tunes on the outer wall’s hanging paraphernalia. The horse’s big dark eye rolled nervously. A long moment passed. Slowly the horse backed off. It stood uncertainly for a while, staring at the peephole. Then it quietly moved away.

Master kicked the cages one by one, left hand and right, as he slowly made his way down the aisle. Into each cage he delivered a personalized warning in passing—a growl, a hiss, a bark—but he was quickly losing control. Animal electricity hopscotched the carriage, cage to cage, ceiling to floor, front to rear and back again. Master froze. Much more of this excitement, he feared, could seriously agitate the woman—with grave consequences for master.
She was splayed on her back, in labor’s throes, her ankles and wrists bound to the long cage. Hero had been removed to give her room, and now sat hunched atop the snake woman’s cage, two men holding him by the throat and legs.
Master gnashed and snarled, listening to the woman scream, watching her stupid round head bounce up and down and back and forth. He knew it! He’d been suckered, hoodwinked, scammed—ripped off like a common rube. The woman was too ******* to handle even something as natural as childbirth. Still…it was too late to second-guess himself—all these months he’d been patient—he’d been supportive and vigilant and now he would not be denied. He flogged one of the men to alleviate his tension.
The blue lady was very slowly, very dramatically arching her spine. Master wiped the sweat from his eyes. When the bars were pleating her big round belly, her shoulders began drumming on the straw-strewn floor.
Master screamed one very colorful expletive.
A razor silence came over the carriage. Not a body moved or breathed.
At last two men tiptoed around their purpling master and leaned into the cage. One obediently ****** a foot between the bars. He pushed ******* her right knee while using a hand to grip the left knee, spreading her legs wide. The other man drew a broad leather strap between her teeth. After lifting the woman’s head he pulled the strap behind her neck, knotted it to make a gag, and yanked a skin sack over her face. He looked up anxiously. Master licked his lips and nodded. The man made a fist and frantically punched the woman’s face until her muffled screams ceased. She moaned gently throughout her contractions.
Master genuflected, brought a spitting candle in tight, and took a deep breath. As he raised his hand the candle’s light bounced off his knife’s chipped and scored eleven-inch blade. Master swore and reached down carefully. He flicked his wrist twice and the menagerie went mad.

The child was a tremendous disappointment.
Master had eagerly anticipated an infant ******* and deformed; something embracing the best qualities of its parents. He had even designed a special cage that could be expanded by degrees as the spawn developed. There also remained the tantalizing option of a family display, though such an undertaking would require the eventual construction of a structure even larger than the cage its parents now shared. Master anguished over the logistics, knowing it would break his heart to have to cut one of his jewels’ throats just to make room for a growing child. Nights he would slowly pace the carriage with all the possessiveness of a jealous suitor, one hand maneuvering a sputtering candle, the other tenderly rapping his whip’s **** against each visited cage.
But the boy was a flawless specimen; a beautiful, undemanding baby. From the moment master angrily tossed the placenta he felt cheated, even betrayed. He grimaced as it peaceably took to its mother’s breast, despite the surrounding horrors. Master hated it, immediately and entirely. The ****** thing was so docile it was almost charming. He drew his knife and was just reaching down, when an overwhelming sense of dread shook him like a rat in the jaws of a mastiff. Sweat poured down his squat, pig-tailed nape. He knew he would live to regret it, but decided to not cut the child’s throat right away. It was the oddest feeling. His knife hand had trembled for the first time in his life, and he had found himself momentarily contemplating right and wrong at the outset of a perfectly simple and commonplace procedure. That was it, then. His business instincts were letting him know there was a good, albeit unknowable, reason to let the sweet baby live. Master left the carriage anxiously, muttering in his ambivalence.
The boy grew to embody his worst expectations. Not only was it a poorly oriented child, clinging to its father rather than its master almost from the moment of weaning, but it soon proved a lousy draw with the patrons. Those who paid to view the child dangling in its special cage inevitably departed unsatisfied, some vocalizing, strangely, an acute sense of shame. So once again master entered the carriage with his knife hand steady, and once again he exited trembling, his heart in his throat and his soul in a whirl. He whipped the dwarf savagely before leaving. What place conscience in the mind of a businessman?
Soon as the boy could walk, master put him to work fetching and feeding. But the brat was slothful in his chores, preferring to hang around his family’s cage while staring wistfully at his father. For their part, the parents were wholly disinterested. Master would fume while Hero gazed for hours out his peephole—even as the mother lolled, perpetually ill. Sometimes that accursed woman’s condition riled poor master to no end. She could teeter at death’s door for months at a time, her body changing hues to the fascination of customers, only to bounce back with a hardiness that was of interest to no one. But at the peak of her performances the blue lady could really hold a crowd. Master produced an entire outdoors extravaganza around her:  within concentric rings of raging torches his men would slowly strip her naked before wild audiences, then allow the dwarf and albino to take her while the leopard strained against a gaily festooned chain. Master circulated his crew through the crowds to encourage his patrons’ cult-like behavior of breath-holding and fainting. No getting around it:  the customers were crazy about her—village to village, master’s Bactrian vanguard’s colorful robes shouted her approaching fame. And Hero’s popularity continued to soar. Many were the nights when master, pacing the perimeter, wondered just what devilry could have produced the lovely boy.
Overall, Hero remained his master’s favorite conceit and hottest property. Part of the little brute’s appeal was, of course, his exoticness. And certainly the ugliness arising from his deformity was compelling…but there was a detachedness about him that fascinated every soul with a fistful of copper cash coins. Whether they ****** him, cudgeled him, or spat in his face, he remained unflappable, staring only at the aching sky. Though many would leave uneasy, master noted with deep satisfaction that they almost invariably returned.
The boy soon evinced an amazing affinity for animals. No matter how agitated an ox or horse became, the child could pacify it with one hand on a lowered brow. This was a source of endless fascination for the crew. Wagers were made. The boy was pitted against oxen whipped to a frenzy. But they would not harm him; they would rather go prostrate and take the lash. Master tried to work this knack into a viable act, but his patrons just weren’t buying. They wanted freaks.
When the lad was a mere five years old, master had him trained in the peripheral art of the pickpocket. The boy worked well alone, and had all the makings of a fine little flimflam artist. Master sighed, his chronic nightmares a thing of the past. As ever, his business instincts were guiding him well.
Then late one afternoon he found the boy squatting outside his parents’ cage. The boy had done the unthinkable:  he had deposited his day’s pickings at the feet of his father instead of bringing the ***** to master. Master flew into a rage and raised his whip to give the little traitor the lashing he deserved. But before he could deliver a single stroke his other hand shot to his chest and he staggered back against the albino’s cage. He blinked down at the boy, who regarded him steadily while scooping the plunder into a little pile.
From that day on the boy placed whatever he could get his hands on at his father’s feet. As time passed he became ever more adroit at thievery, growing into a youngster both admired and despised by master and his crew; admired because theft was a cinch for him, despised because they were all that much lighter in their possessions.
Now, for eleven long years the strange little train had bounced along, sometimes camping outside villages for months, occasionally pausing on connecting roads. The show traversed the heart of Manchuria, skirted the Gobi in the north, and so eventually crossed almost the entire width of Mongolia before proceeding north to the confluence of the rivers Yenisey and Ob’. Much silver and copper had come to master’s coffer, much fame to his name, but he now sat looking over a vast, unmapped Siberian wilderness. The mostly nomadic characters they’d been encountering spoke in tongues unfamiliar even to his personal valet-translator-accountant, and the tone of these nomads had been unmistakably hostile.
Master huddled surlily under a canopy of sopping hides. Night was falling hard during a merciless rain, the wind was picking up, and his supplies coach was bogged in a growing sea of mud. At that moment he accepted the whole end-of-the-line concept, and knew he wasn’t going anywhere but back. And when he got back he was going to shine! He jumped from the coach.
The earth took his weight for a heartbeat—and he was up to his chin in muck, splashing about on his hands and knees, sliding forward on his palms and toes. He did a belly flop into a rain-filled depression and churned to his feet with the devil in his eyes. Wallowing in mud and bile, master stomped to the supplies coach and kicked wildly at the stuck rear wheels.
Somewhere between kicks he lost it completely.
Master broke for his whip. One minute he was blindly lashing his men, the next he’d succumbed to a mindless ferocity. He thrashed about like a berserker; whipping the beasts, the coach, the very night. His men were scarcely able to move in all that mud, but their dread of his savagery kept them hopping. They gathered as one and shoved the coach recklessly; slipping, splashing, shouting. A minute later, three lay splayed underfoot, but the mired wheel had been freed.
Throughout all this the oxen had swayed nervously, while the horses softly tramped their hooves in place. Master had his men turn the oxen about until the rickety train was pointing dead east. He checked the hitches and personally applied the lash. The oxen didn’t budge. Master swore and wiped the rain from his eyes. He had the horses hitched ahead of the oxen, but they were even less obliging. Master flew into a spectacular rage. His men, fearing for their lives, ran liberally with the lash.
The swaying of oxen picked up until the entire train of carriages was rocking. Yet the oxen could not, would not be compelled, under any amount of prodding, to take an eastward step. Master looked around in exasperation.
The night had gone insane.
Horses were fighting hitches, oxen walking on fire.
Master cursed the rain and mud and lashed all the harder. His men, seeking to please, whipped maniacally until the horses and both lead oxen broke their hitches and bolted west. The men immediately embraced the rear oxen, but the hitches shattered and the beasts stormed off. The remaining horses blew it, kicking at everything and nothing.
Inside the long carriage all was chaos. The albino was neighing and screaming, the aged leopard spinning in its cage. Hero stared out his peephole, amazed at the blur of figures stumbling by in the rain.
A pair of clopping blows rattled the opposite wall. Three slats cracked. A tremendous impact, and a huge section collapsed. A thrashing, hysterical mare burst through the breach in a veil of rain.
The horse went mad, killing the albino and snake woman in a flurry of hooves. She fell ******* the near wall, crushing the cages. The leopard shot into the air like a rocket, slashed at the mare’s throat and vanished in the rain. The horse reared above the family cage. She was just coming down in a wheeling storm of hooves when something made her freeze. Her stare locked with Hero’s, and a second later her eyes were rolling in their sockets. The mare kicked crazily and came down ******* her left flank, smashing the long cage’s side. She whirled upright and leaped outside.
For a tense minute the family sat in the rubble, rain bombarding their eyes. Nothing in their years of captivity had prepared them for such a situation. But by the end of that minute the son had taken full command. He rolled onto his back, braced himself, and kicked his parents across the aisle, through the remnants of the opposing cage, and out of the carriage. They all fell about in the mud and rain. To the west, the mare stared back strangely as she splashed into the night. The boy wedged himself between his parents, threw his arms around them, and pushed with all his might. Their bodies found a common center of gravity. Fumbling drunkenly, the family staggered through the rain in the wake of the mare.

The boy was the natural leader.
Master’s innocent-looking little ex-student could quickly assess and exploit almost any situation. He did the foraging and the figuring, slept with one eye open and one fist ready. He got what he wanted by charm or by stealth, slipping off at nightfall, returning at daybreak with small slaughtered animals and chunks of dark peasant bread. He also pilfered any bauble or oddity he could get his paws on, to be placed reverently at his father’s mangled feet. Breadwinner and watchdog, he faithfully held the family together; a nuclear son. He sewed hardy feather-lined cloaks of reindeer hide, and turned a cache of marmot pelts into a kind of side-slung backpack. He was doting nurse during his mother’s episodes, and unbending apportioner of calories in lean times. Dauntless when it meant crossing mighty rivers, relentless when it came to finding mountain passes. But the endless marching, the unreliable diet, and the countless predators made the three wanderers lean, haggard moving targets. There were times when the little lamp of family was all but extinguished, and long stands in places that seemed absolutely impassable. Still, the boy would work things out. He would stoop to any level to feed Hero, and for a stranger to threaten his father was to summon a psychotic, unyielding monster. He was both spear and shield.
The toughest job of all was maintaining a tight unit, meaning he was forced to become a hard-nosed ******* whenever his father was ready to wander off, which always seemed to be whenever the mother was hurting most. She’d become a tremendous impediment to Hero’s compulsion, and therefore her son’s chief nemesis. It wasn’t a big-picture concern anyway; the writing was on the wall. The blue lady’s attacks were increasing spectacularly on the steppe; her world had always been an enclosure of some kind, and the great horizon was proving just too much. Perhaps these intense affairs served as links to Hero’s suppressed memories, for at the onset of each attack he’d turn and hike, and then only exhaustion could curb him. The boy would press his mother on, dragging, shoving, and smacking—he could be mean when necessary, and though circumstances had made him the nucleus, their worlds unquestionably revolved around Hero. Where he sat, they sat. When he rose, they did the same. In this manner they marched for years across the vast steppes, single-file—father, mother, and son, respectively—unmolested, lacking possessions, always following the sun. Long before they could be measured they had drifted into obscurity.
The woman’s end came quickly and dramatically, in a rocky little depression on a half-frozen field. One moment she was responsive to her son’s prompts, the next she was flat on her back, her eyelids fluttering. That night she leapt from fever to chill, from alertness to stupor. The boy, squatting beside their campfire, watched her face and hands run cadaver-blue to fish belly-pale and back again. While he was staring her eyes popped open and her hands came scrabbling. He sweated through the clawing embrace until he could bear it no longer. He oozed out and ran down to fetch his father.
When they got back Hero watched incuriously for a while. His mate’s face was scrunched up and her skin the color of sapphires. She wasn’t breathing.
His gaze became glassy, his eyes returned to the night. As he rose the boy immediately grabbed an arm. Neither moved for minutes. When the boy at last relinquished, his father casually stumbled off.
Strange things were going on in Hero’s world. Some days he would notice how animals regarded him oddly, in a manner that seemed almost personal. He found, for instance, that particular creatures were recognizable even over great distances. A number of times he would sit with one in a stare-down, waiting patiently, until the animal’s natural disposition caused it to bolt. Though the meaning of these encounters was way over his head, he would watch, and he would listen.
In time he noticed an increasing skittishness in some of these familiar creatures. Something had them spooked. He then observed a number of lean gray wolves moving in and out of the picture with an air of complete indifference:  these wolves weren’t hunting; they were loitering—lounging in the grass, lackadaisically padding to the rear, filing by slowly in the distance. Once in a while a lounger would raise its head, yawn cavernously, and drop back out of sight. So unobtrusive was their behavior that even Hero’s ever-vigilant son began to take them for granted. They paused where the family paused, and halted whenever the woman broke down. Perfectly camouflaged by the gray boulders and dire sky, they were completely forgotten in the drama of her passing.
There were other, far subtler events existing for Hero’s senses alone. He could perceive patterns in everything around him; in the manner vegetation gave way wherever his heart was leading, in the way so many animals appeared to be not merely mirroring, but making his course. And wind, rain, running water:  these phenomena had voices. Yet not for everybody. No one—not his mate, not his son, not another soul on the planet could hear this call, for they were all of a sort. They were static, they were temporal. Hero couldn’t have cared less about the lives of his family, or about the mundane goings-on in the encampments and small tribes they skirted. Such beings lived in a world that was defined by the moment. They shouted, they banged, they clamored.
But west—west was music.
For his boy, once again watching Hero shamble off, the moment of truth had arrived. He looked back down, at his mother’s death mask being remade by the dying light of their campfire. As the flames dwindled he could have sworn he saw shadows creep into the wells of her eyes, while others, crawling up around her jawline, drew her bluing lips like purse strings. He hopped to his feet and ran for another handful of tinder. When their little fire provided enough light he dropped to his knees and looked again.
She was sinking right before his eyes, every aspect of her expression in collapse. The boy watched clinically, fascinated. As the flames began to sputter he thought he could see large purple bruises spreading across her cheeks like the seeping limbs of overflowing pools. He bent closer.
From deep in the night came the longest, the leanest, the saddest wail he’d ever heard. He turned to see the starlit ghost of his father, facing away, staring at a low barren hill. Uncountable stars embroidered the spot. The boy made out a low shape moving along the hilltop, cutting off patches of stars as it passed.
The wolf howled again; a mournful, spiraling cry to nowhere and nothing. Hero’s head notched upward. He began to hike.
Halfway to his feet the boy stopped dead.
It took a minute to sense why he’d frozen in place, and a good while longer for his heart to quit pounding. He was aware of a nervous padding, and, once his vision had adjusted, of a lazy stream of eyes gleaming in the dying campfire’s light. The eyes bobbed around him, glared momentarily, returned to the ground.
A massive gasp, and his mother was tearing at his wrist. He watched her hyperventilating, saw her bulbous yellow eyes sinking in a wide violet pool. With a sizzle and pop the last tongue of flame was taken by the night.
Then her clammy hands were all over him, pulling and demanding, caressing and beseeching. He had to pry them off like leeches, had to place them clasped on her shuddering arched belly.
A silky snarl rose almost in his ear.
With a little squeal he sprang to his feet, even as something nearby jumped back in response.
The boy stood absolutely still while the panting thing padded nearer. They stood very close, smelling each other. He instinctively extended a hand, palm forward. But it was no good; his arm was shaking out of control. The snarl rose again, not so tentatively this time. His mother’s nails tore at his ankle.
The boy gently stepped away, only to find himself surrounded by the shifting silhouettes of half a dozen gray wolves. They approached in a calculated manner:  two from the left, one from the right, another from behind. He was being goaded away from his mother; he could hear her fists beating the ground, and a few seconds later the sounds of a nauseating assault and ravaging.
He shakily raised his other hand. Now both arms were extended, and their message was clearly one of defense rather than control. Two snapping wolves stepped aside, leaving him a gateway into the night. A cold wet nose bumped his wrist.
Screaming like a woman, he took off after his father just as fast as his feet would carry him.

                                                  BOY

Alon­g the great Kazakh Steppe a man could wander a lifetime and never meet another of his kind—especially if his kind happened to be Alaskan Inuk, and if he happened to be the teenaged patriarch of a two-man family going nowhere.
Here history is mostly mute.
Upon this continent-spanning steppe, unnamed communities were scattered and rebuilt, lives blown about by the wind. The only centers of humanity a traveler might encounter, far removed from the Silk Road at the very crack of the new millennium, were temporary encampments of civilization at its rudest—shifting holes of cutthroat commerce existing solely for the barter of silk and spices and hapless souls. Life here was revered far less than merchandise, and the longest-lived men were those who kept their distance.
Hero and his boy hiked over permafrost and tundra for years; their meandering course a drunken mapmaker’s scrawl. Chronological entries along this imaginary line would reveal that they’d stopped, sometimes for months at a time, when the father had grown too weak and disoriented to continue. Hero’s internal compass was long-sprung, and his weight had fallen considerably. He’d sit on his lonesome, scarecrow-scrawny, wistfully scrolling a 360-horizon while his boy scouted and scavenged. Then, for no apparent reason, he’d just up-and hike—sometimes northwest, sometimes along a tangential plane that always threatened to spiral. It was brutal:  winters were frigid, summers, by odd contrast, running steamy to baking. Season by season these marches lost their tenaciousness, and eventually their heart. Hero’s obsession was becoming his demise.
Now, to a hypothetical observer, the ratty pair of woolly camels materializing out of the rising August heat might have been mirages.
These beasts were novelties here, and pioneers, for they were way beyond their normal stomping grounds. They’d tramped for months with a mind-numbing monotonousness, a thousand miles and more; round the Urals to the south, and through the hard territory braced by the Volga and Voronezh, avoiding anything that even smelled of men. They’d been wild camels; ugly, ill-tempered, and unpredictable, until the boy tamed them by touch…but this new pattern was a literal change of pace…for weeks the frail little man and his dark teenaged son rose and fell with the animals’ rhythm, lulled by it, sick of it, dreaming of lands far removed from hoarfrost and peat moss. In this manner they were borne clear to present-day Belarus, whereupon the camels’ stupefying march began to quicken. Mile by mile they put on steam, until one day they reached a broad area distinguishable from its bracing terrain only by its many deep surface cracks. Here the camels’ behavior became erratic; they crouched at an angle while tramping, their long necks oscillating, their noses bobbing along the ground. Eventually they came upon a dingy pool nestled in a pebbly depression. The local brush surrounding this pool was situated like iron filings about a lodestone. The boy hauled back his camel’s neck and laid a hand on its brow. The brute slowed to a halt. The other camel imitated its partner, move for move. Simultaneously the animals dropped to their knees.
The boy jumped off, catching Hero as he fell. The camels stood watching stupidly as son maneuvered father, but after a while grew nervous and began tramping their hooves in time. They slowly stepped to the pool’s rim and knelt woozily, their noses poised just above the surface. Their whiskers danced on the pool’s face, their lids became heavy, their hindquarters quivered as they drank. Their nostrils, having fluttered in unison, remained agape. They appeared to be asleep.
The boy began filling skins.
The water was quite warm; he slurped a palmful and almost immediately felt intoxicated.
He flicked it off his fingers; the water was bad.
Three heads were now mirrored in the pool; the camels’ at ten o’clock and two o’clock, the boy’s at six. He watched their reflections continue to ripple, long after the pool had become still. His face, melting and firming, rapidly fluctuated between extremes of age, and between his own recognizable features and those of some…monstrosity. The effect was hypnotic. He felt his joints stiffen; his eyes became weak, his thoughts muddled…his face was irresistibly drawn to the pool’s surface, and for a moment he was in real peril of drowning. He ****** his head aside and creaked to his feet.
Where the camels had knelt were only the prints of their bellies and knees. In the distance they could be seen galloping all-out for the horizon, right back the way they’d come. The boy watched until they were swallowed by their dust, and when he turned around his father was long gone.
Now he knew it was all just a matter of time.
And sure enough, after eleven more days of feebly staggering along, Hero completely ran out of gas. The boy bundled him up in a shawl, like an old woman.
Sitting there, cradling an unresponsive man weighing less than eighty pounds, he couldn’t help but let his morbid fantasies run wild. He was now old enough to realize his father had at some time suffered severe head trauma, and honest enough to accept that the man was rapidly approaching a vegetative state. This understanding accompanied him like a shadow, and that night he questioned, for the very first time, his own convoluted rationale.
He was just beginning to sense that his will was not his own.
He built a semi-permanent camp west of the Desna and foraged in a tight spiral, always returning in a straight line. Some days he came back feeling uneasy, sensing another presence. Then it was every other day. It bugged him to no end. At last, when it became every day, he hauled his father to his feet and began a resolute march to the west.
Again he became anxious, and after only a dozen yards.
He turned slowly while hunching, certain something bulky had just dropped out of sight. Nothing looked suspicious, everything looked suspicious. He walked Hero some more, occasionally peering back over his shoulder. There was…something.
He whirled:  only masses of rock and high brush. Yet, when he really strained his eyes, he was sure, pretty sure, that he could make out a large crouching body continuous with the rocks. Heart in his throat, he began a slow steady creep, only to pause, positive the bulge, whatever it was, had shifted in response. The boy very gradually raised his arm until it was level with his eyes, faced the palm outward, and extended the arm parallel with the ground. He could almost feel some kind of current passing between his itching palm and…nothing. He walked over to Hero, stopped again. There’d been the subtlest sense of traction. The boy propped up his father in a cloud of flies and waited.
In a minute the bulge drew *****.
Out of the brush strolled a furry gray wild ***, her back inclined from countless weary miles; stretching her neck, pausing to nibble, taking her sweet time. Grungy as she was, she fit right in.
At the boy’s first casual step she immediately hit the dirt and remained flat on her belly, one big dark eye staring between her hooves. Another step, and her **** bunched up. The closer he got, the higher her rear end rose. When he was almost at arm’s length she sprang back and danced away, seeming to bound with delight. But not to the east, as she’d come.
To the northwest.
She backpedaled while the boy came on whistling and cooing, matching him step for step. But the moment he threw up his arms in resignation she spun round as though cued, dropped on her belly, and peered over her shoulder.
The boy was first to blink. This time he approached fractionally, keeping movements to a minimum. She rose just as carefully, sauntering northwest in reverse, and at the first sign of hesitation turned, dropped, and cautiously gazed back. The boy glared at that huge mocking **** and broke into a sprint. She easily danced out of reach, plopped down, and continued to stare.
He began hurling stones, with venom and with accuracy, until she’d scurried into the brush.
But on the way back to his father he could feel her tagging along.
Twenty feet behind she halted, looking bemused.
The boy nodded ironically. He walked Hero over, murmuring baby talk all the way, and firmly placed a palm on the animal’s muzzle once her breath grazed his fingers. She stroked his hand up and down with her whiskers, gave a kind of curtsy, and waited on her knees while he helped his father mount.
At Hero’s touch a shudder ran down her body. She stood up straight. Her eyes became set, her back absolutely stiff. She put down her head and began the long trek northwest, never once breaking stride.
It was an amazing march, an impossible feat. For a little over three days and almost four hundred miles she progressed like an automaton, driving herself without rest, without food or water.
After trotting alongside for an hour the boy climbed on and force-fed his father berries and smoked meat, his dark eyes constantly searching the countryside. Occasionally he’d see a run of red foxes to their left, watching intently, padding cautiously. Sooner or later they’d vanish, only to be replaced by a train of feline or equine pursuers. Packs approached and receded while, high overhead, flocks formed triangular patterns that continually broke up and reformed. There was a peculiar rhythmic quality to this ebb and flow that lulled his senses further. The boy shook his head to clear it, but his exhaustion was deeper than he’d supposed—even the brush appeared to be leaning northwest.
That first day he grew numb with the pace, and that night the relentless pounding of her hooves drew him into a miserable slumber. He wrapped his arms around his sleeping father and lay half atop. When he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer he tore strips from his skins, then looped his tied wrists round her neck, his ankles round her belly.
On the second day she was breathing hard, but her back was still high and she showed no signs of faltering. Her eyes remained focused on the ground dead ahead. She always sensed the best routes; finding mountain passes, fording wetlands.
But by the third day they could feel her ribs quaking against their legs. Her breath exploded as she marched, blood frothed and caked about her nostrils. Still she pushed herself on, her pace so steady it was almost metronomic.
On the fourth day her legs were gone. She veered and stumbled, shuddering every few paces. The boy hopped off for the umpteenth time and tried to bring her to graze, but she wouldn’t be turned. He ran behind her as she staggered along, unwilling, or unable, to rest.
At last a foreleg gave and she went down hard. Sobbing and snorting, she plowed her muzzle back and forth in the soil, the useless leg repeatedly pounding the ground. After a minute she raised her head and brayed at the sky, her neck muscles taut, her head slowly swinging side to side. Her cry went on and on.
With a tremendous effort she pushed herself upright and butted the boy aside. Every part of her body was shaking. From her depths a low moan grew to a steady bray, and finally to a wild, pulsing howl. She came to a rise, but was too weak to climb without sliding. Stamping in frustration, she managed a few feet, reared feebly, slid some more. The boy got behind her and applied his back; it took all he had to assist her almost to the top. With a desperate lunge she crashed on her belly.
Amazingly, she dragged herself on, her howl now a scream, her head whipping left and right. When she could pull herself no farther she ****** forth her neck to its very limit and, with a shudder that ran from the tip of her nose to the tuft on her tail, shoved her muzzle straight into the dirt and died.
The boy hauled off his father and fell back. The animal’s eyes were fixed upwards, seeming, even in death, to be straining for a glimpse of what lay just beyond the rise. The boy half-dragged Hero the last few yards. They collapsed at the top, and together looked over the cold Baltic Sea.

At water’s edge a haggard fisherman sat on his boat’s ravaged deck, blindly staring out to sea. His was a queer vessel; a family structure built more like an aft-cabined barge than like seacraft typical of that period. The fisherman’s boat, like his mind, had been abused beyond repair.
He’d lost much in his life. Time had taken his dreams, pox his face, hardship his back and shoulders. And, more recently, a brawling band of drunken Baltic pirates had ***** his wife and daughter before butchering them along with his two fine sons, while he sat helplessly bound to the mast. Finally, to further their delight, they’d set the boat aflame and sent it crackling against the sun; knowing he could hear their hoots and howls, knowing he would drift undead, accompanied only by this last unspeakable memory.
But a squall, without prelude, had doused the flames and blown his home ashore.
There he’d remained for a full long day, staring at nothing, his shattered life caught on the rocks. On the second day he’d worked himself free and commenced staggering about in his memories, gathering shards. It was a pathetic claim. He made a pile of all the old bedding and linen and usable cords, and set about sewing a sort of mementos sail. All that third day he had sewn, and on the fourth he had hoisted this sail and been moved to see it billowing in a northwest-blowing breeze. Again he just sat and gaped. And later that day he’d become aware of a commotion taking place on the long grade leading down to the water, where a writhing mass of seagulls was proceeding like a tremendous slow-motion snowball. He’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t uncommon to find gulls in a group of many dozens or more, but there must have been two, maybe three thousand of the birds now swarming toward his boat. They were making an incredible racket. In the midst of this cloud could be seen a couple of slowly walking figures; as they neared he made out a small man accompanying a boy in his late teens, both dressed in odd skins. When they reached the rocks his eyes were drawn to the small man’s face. It was a foreign face, brutish and dark, with a deep cleft running from above the right temple to the jaw’s left side. Whatever instrument had felled this man had been devastating—everything in its path was smashed, and with permanence. The forehead was caved in. There was no bridge to the nose, the left cheek was completely collapsed, one side of the mouth was a mangled mess. The jaw itself had set improperly, so that it jutted to the side. The general impression, especially from a distance, was of some unforgettable circus freak’s countenance puckering at an angle. It was a face right out of a nightmare. But there was nothing frightening about the eyes. They were the eyes of a child.
Maybe half the gulls hopped screaming on the rocks. The rest circled overhead.
The boy considered the fisherman curiously before placing a foot on the charred deck. His gaze went around the boat, lingered on the makeshift sail, returned to the slumped figure. He passed a hand before the eyes. No response. He then leaned in close and placed his fingers on the man’s forehead. Immediately that bleak expression became fluid, brimming over with horror and heartbreak. Tears rolled down the fisherman’s cheeks as he gasped, shuddered, and backed up the scorched mast to his feet. Thus propped, he squinted at his visitors and was overcome by a wave of homesickness so strong he had to turn away. The feeling bewildered him, for this vessel, and this sea, were all the home he’d ever known. He clung to the mast while the boy helped his father board. Once he’d collected himself, the fisherman tore a heavy crossbeam from the toasted cabin. He and the boy used this as a lever, and together they shoved the boat off the rocks. The wind picked up nicely, and the little craft was swept across the water.
Exploding off the rocks, the gulls shot after the boat as if it were brimming with fish, the loudest and orneriest vying for favored positions directly overhead. The melee attracted additional gulls—they came shrieking in their hundreds from all sides, banking and calling in the oddest manner, until the mass grew so thick as to cast a permanent shadow on the boat. All day long the clamor continued, and all that night. The fisherman rolled with the rudder, listlessly, allowing the sea to control him. Eventually he let go, that the wind might bear them where it would. His sail ballooned but held firm, and the boat fairly zipped across a sea somehow smooth as glass, broken only by the vacillating ripples of bottleneck dolphins and migrating humpback whales. The three tiny sailors sat hunched together, motionless, all throughout the next day, until the black coast of Sweden loomed in the twilight.
As the boat neared land the cloud of gulls broke up, shot to shore, and landed in groups of a thousand and more; a dizzying, wildly uproarious reception committee.
The dung-covered boat slammed into the rocks, shattering the fisherman’s trance. He intuitively walked his **** up the mast and, swaying there, watched the boy draw his father over the side and lead him to a clearing at wood’s edge. There in the dusk he made out what appeared to be a hefty spotted runaway heifer hitched to a rickety wood wagon. He saw the cow gallop up to meet them, saw the boy look around warily, saw him help the little man into the wagon and climb in beside him. The animal immediately began picking through the woods, the large brass bell round her neck clanging forlornly.
The clarity of that bell made him realize just how quiet it had become. He craned his neck:  there wasn’t a gull in sight. He fell back against the shot mast and slid onto his tailbone with a clacking of teeth. His eyes were misting up. In the gathering dark a few sail fragments flew past and were ****** into the woods. The boat rocked and relaxed. After that there was only the sound of the receding bell’s sad, monotonous song being batted about by the wind.

The little cow strode through moonlit woods until she came to a path formed by the rutting of wheels over many years. She followed this broken, serpentine track throughout the night, and by morning was passing farms and, occasionally, crossing broader paths that might realistically be defined as roads. All day long she bore down that ragged track, until she came in late afternoon to a clearing near a village. Here many such tracks converged. And here the boy slipped away while she grazed.
Sometime after dark he returned with a load of straw, a couple of pilfered blankets, and a fat iron kettle. Crammed in this kettle were salt, tubers, cheese, a few loaves of rye, legumes, and a plump foot of lamb sausage. Most of this ***** he’d brought in tied to the bowed back of a huge, puffing, highly amenable black pig which, thus laden, now followed the boy’s every step like a fresh convert tracing the heels of the messiah. The boy built a fire under the stars, filled the kettle with creek water, and commenced simmering their dinner. While waiting, he couldn’t help but note an odd feature of the local flora:  plants, especially trees, all seemed inclined to a northwesterly disposition, though no amount of wind could account for it. He shooed the pig. But rather than run along, it backpedaled in a nervous circle, round and round in reverse, until it lost its balance and fell on its ****. There it remained, a yard behind the wagon. The boy fed his father and lined the wagon with straw. They settled in for the night. The boy must have nodded, might have dreamt, but while he was drifting he became aware of a stirring in the woods. He sat up, saw the pig’s eyes gleaming inches from his nose. And there were a number of animals, some wild, some strayed from farmsteads, arranged in a broad circle around the wagon, their eyes glinting with moonlight. Not a rustle, not a peep, was lifted from the woods.
In the morning he woke to find the pig still staring. The fidgeting heifer, impatient to roll, began her long day’s march while Hero and his boy were yet stretching and scratching, and the ******* pig, galloping heavily, fell in close behind. Each new day this routine was repeated. They banged past farms and small communities until the ruts intersected a broad rocky road wending halfway across the kingdom. The cow addressed this road with vigor. They picked up followers—a goat here, a couple of sheep there—which hurried after the wagon as best they could. The cow stomped on with resolve, mile after mile, day after day, her bell keeping steady time. That bell’s peal attracted foals, lambs, and kids into the wagon’s narrowing wake. Hares hopped between hooves and wheels, boars and blue foxes fell in and withdrew. White falcons, normally solo fliers, whirled into wedge shapes high overhead.
At night the entire train would camp on the road while the boy raided proximate farmsteads, always returning fully laden. And as soon as the fire died the colony grew, creature by creature, and the moment the sun broke the horizon the heifer came to life and moved on, but each day a bit more resolutely, as though straining to meet a deadline. The march took on a sense of real urgency. The cow pressed on with attitude, the clang of her bell more strident with each passing mile. Soon her followers numbered in the hundreds, as animals deserted their farms or crept out of the woods to tag along. Tillers and traders stood dumbfounded, amazed by the bizarre flow.
Once they’d crossed into Norway the frothing cow veered hard to the west. The pace really picked up; no longer were Hero and his boy afforded the luxury of a night’s sleep in one spot. Days blurred into a single variegated flow as the bashed and lopsided wagon continued building its entourage; the riders were surrounded dawn to dusk by a confused and confusing scurry. Word of the flow’s weirdness preceded it clear to the Norwegian coast, so that now plowmen and merchants, wearily gathering their goggling families, found themselves lined in anticipation along the king’s highway. Horsemen went pounding to and fro with news of the procession’s progress and particulars, children ran through the streets banging pots in imitation of the cow’s approaching bell. Livestock wheeled and stamped, fowl leaped and crashed.
The slobbering cow broke into a run.
Bystanders trotted behind, calling back and forth excitedly, while the wagon’s permanent following squealed and squawked between their heels. The cow made a hard turn onto a widening swath in the brush. This swath, seeming to strain against the soil, ran straight down to the crest of a low hill overlooking the Atlantic. On either side a crowd had been studying the phenomenon for some time, but now all eyes swung to the dark and disfigured man and his son, clinging to the disintegrating wagon behind the careening spotted cow.
The trailing people traded views as they ran. Most—at the very outset of the new millennium, with Christianity burgeoning throughout Europe—leaned to the miraculous. Others, just as superstitious but prone to a darker point of view, threw looks of horror at the deformed little man. Yet they ran no less eagerly.
The galloping crowd made for the seaside, where only one local event of any moment was brewing:  on the coast a Greenlander Viking was preparing his longship for the rough voyage home. Impetuous son of the great island’s first permanent European settler, he’d just been baptized in Olaf’s court, and was now eager to sail—but not as a warrior—as a missionary. While his spirit remained in a tug-o’-war between his father Erik’s will and that of gods old and new, his duty was clearly to his king. And Olaf had charged him with the Christianization of pagan Greenland.
Something on the wind now made this destined man turn his head. From behind the gentle hill to his rear came a kind of thunder. Heads popped up, followed by a confused explosion of voices, and seconds later a frantic bug-eyed heifer burst into view, dragging the wheel-less skeleton of a shattered wooden wagon. On the wagon’s splayed frame a man and teenaged boy clung for their lives as the spewing animal made a beeline for his ship.
The new missionary, still egocentric enough to assume his Maker might actually toss him a personal, surreptitiously rolled up his eyes. The sky yawned at his arrogance. At his side a smallish cowled man rose irritably, but the missionary sat him right back down. He then snorted, squared his shoulders, and signaled his men to halt their preparations.
Knowing it was expected, he gathered his hard Nordic pride and coolly made his way into the crowd.

The priest clung to port, gagging above the waves.
After a completely uneventful minute he leaned back and stared through tearing eyes at the distant backdrop of gathering mists. Weeks now…a man of his constitution had no business at sea.
Along, too, were a quirky little man and his fiercely devoted son.
Through his pantomime, the boy had been so persistent in begging their passage that refusal, under the circumstances, would have been unbecoming not only a man of God but a man of the world.
So there it was:  a priest who couldn’t hold his lunch, a witless eyesore who couldn’t sit still, and a surly teenaged protector who snarled at the first hard look. This crossing just had to be some kind of divine test—of mortal patience as well as moral values. Norsemen weren’t made for babysitting.
The mists condensed.
And the shifting shape became a hard familiar coast.
And the longship was mooring, and the crew were jostling and clambering, and the big missionary had booted off the haunted little freak and his hypersensitive son, and was condescendingly half-escorting, half-carrying, the green priest ashore.
And they were home.

Priest in tow, Leif quickly took up the Christianization of Greenland’s Western Settlement, as per Olaf’s command. The mangled little man and his son followed him around like dogs, slept outside his door and annoyed his visitors, ultimately proving far easier to adopt than to shake. Barely tolerable shadows…still, the lad was simply amazing with livestock…and though the youth’s useless father seemed time and again to be just begging for a whooping, his son’s presence bore some ineffable quality that always curbed the missionary’s hand. Several times he’d witnessed the father approached by settlers bent on abuse. Each time the boy had stepped in, and each time the troublemakers were mysteriously repelled. The missionary of course didn’t attribute any kind of celestial intervention to these episodes, and certainly the popular notion of devilry was a natural reaction to the pair’s outrageous exoticness, but…in the son’s company, and even under the sharp eyes of his fellow Norsemen, Leif more than once found himself oddly moved to protect the father. And so the deformed man and his boy day by day blent in—as village idiot and mystic guide. And when in time a ****** brought tales of an unvisited land to the west, it was only natural for the restless Greenlander to buy that ******’s boat and, before stalwart comrades, weary family, and whimsical God Almighty, reluctantly accept the eccentric father and son as sort of seagoing mascots.
Hero was from then on irrepressible. During preparations he would pipe and stammer in his half-mute way, brimming with a confounding anxiety that kept him underfoot and at odds with all. On frigid nights he perched on the westernmost rocks, moaning to the horizon in the strangest fashion while his son stood guard. He positively spooked the locals; they’d gossip, nervously and with bile, of an answering wind that came wailing off the sea like a banshee in labor. The whole island wanted rid of him. And when his champing beneficiary, still clinging to the notion of Christian charity, bundled him aboard with his son and a crew of thirty-five, not a single settler was sorry to see him go.
Almost from the moment they cast off everything went wrong, as all attempts to control the longship were met with some kind of unknowable countermanding force. Vikings were not renowned for passive resistance—they fought, squaresail and steering oar, leaning oarsman to oarsman, until the ship rocked on the waves like a bucking bronco. An erratic weather system pursued them, worsening dramatically at each minute variation in heading. The Norsemen doubled down, and when the clouds finally burst wide, the cowling sea went mad. Dervishes whirled about the hull, crisscrossing winds bedeviled the sail. Patches of kelp belonging to much warmer waters came heaving alongside, fouling the work of the oars, while far to the west a humongous fog bank formed, eradicating the navigable field. The lightning-streaked horizon was a throbbing gray slit.
The longship became locked in a slow westerly current.
Fatigued crewmen complained of headaches and hallucinations, and of a nasty, slightly metallic tang to the air. There were numerous walrus sightings; bobbing flippers and snouts amid drifting ice chunks that came prowling the North Sea like a circling pack of famished white wolves.
Worst of all was the boy’s father—instantly agitated by everything and nothing, prey to some primitive impulse that caused him to periodically incline his head, shudder to his feet, and loop his arms as though embracing the sky. Leif would watch him scrabbling at the prow like a cat at a tree, furs snapping in the wind. He’d watch the boy re-seat him for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time be filled with an immense contempt. By now he’d acknowledged that it takes a special kind of strength to shoulder charity and tolerance. That brown little freak struck him as an enormous malformed barnacle, slowly working its way back up the prow. Trying so hard to go unnoticed, looking and listening so intently, though there was nothing to see other than the growing shelves of fog, and nothing to hear save the rising, almost hysterical voice of the wind.
Leif sniffed the air, his ******’s instincts nagging him. This was a foul current, and a fool's errand; he took a deep breath and tentatively ordered the longship brought about.
The ship kicked twice, as though an enormous submarine hand had seized and released the hull.
A whirl formed in the water, causing the keeling ship to sweep around like a clock’s second hand. All about them, those drift-ice ghosts cruised dangerously near.
But they’d been liberated from that accursed current. Leif fiercely urged on his rowers, and at last the ship broke free. They made a bead due north.
Night came and the temperature plummeted.
Small sheets of ice converged, drifting between the hunks. The Norsemen, instinctively huddling amidships, passed out one by one in a massive pile of fur and flesh. In the freezing silence the floes bumped and recoiled, bumped and gathered, bumped and bonded. The tiny ship, swallowed whole, was dragged along in a labyrinth of black sea and interlocking slabs of ice.

The Norsemen came to in a surly, foul-smelling heap, lost at sea. While they were still groggy a voice cried out that a darker patch was developing in the fog. The men all fell to port. Under the confusion of their voices could be heard a distant rumble.
At this Hero hauled himself up the high curved prow. A half-light began to penetrate the fog, barely illuminating the irregular faces of drifting ice. The missionary stormed forward and indicated by gestures that if the boy didn’t restrain his father he would have the man tied down.
The longship stopped dead in the water.
The men found themselves regarding a perpetually frozen coastline swathed in bluish veils of mist. Directly before them loomed an immense ice cliff hundreds of feet high. Rising beyond this cliff were endless snow fields, where lean violet shadows seemed to drag about of their own volition. And upon those bleak fields a thin howling wind prowled, kicking up brief white dervishes, leaving a strange zigzagging signature.
Even as they stared, a darker shadow high on the ice cliff’s glistening face began to widen, accompanied by a cracking sound that could be felt before it was heard. With the illusion of slow-motion, a stupendous chunk broke out of the cliff and came screaming toward the sea. It hit the water like a bomb. The thunder of its separation and the explosion of its impact took a moment to reach them. Then, out of a spewing crater of crests and spume, the new calf came lunging, tromping the sea so hard the longship, fully a mile to sea, was swept out and ****** back in like a cork. The floundering mountain of ice bobbed and lilted, generating huge waves which continued to rock the ship long after the monster had settled. In a while the roaring in their ears subsided and there remained only the swirling, nerve-wracking howl of the wind.
The missionary’s eyes swept left and right. Whatever this place was, it sure wasn’t the fair shoreline he’d been promised. Hero again scrambled up the prow, and Leif again yanked him down. This time he made good his threat; he had the little nuisance bound, though he was half-tempted to let him take his chances overboard.
From somewhere deep in the haze grew a soulful, otherworldly call. It went on and on, electrifying the air, bottoming out once the ship had merged with that previously fought westerly flow.
By now Leif’s nerves were shot. He ordered the oars raised.
The longship began to drift. Ship and ice were pulled due west.
The clouds fell far behind as the ship embarked upon an amazingly calm sea—so calm its entire visible surface was featureless except for the faint wakes provided by the ship and its hulking ice companions. To the east a huge fog bank appeared on the horizon, and a while later a smaller bank to the north. Then a very dense one to the south. In time these banks converged, imperceptibly becoming a single mass that closed about the ship, bit by bit creating a slowly heaving dome. Tiny beads of water appeared on beards and eyebrows; in a minute everything was soaked. The only sound was that of the dragging steering oar. The men were now sopping ghosts, speaking only with their eyes.
Directly ahead the fog began to dimple. The dimple became a hollow, the hollow a cave, and then ship and ice were being towed through a low, ever-extending tunnel in fog. The current increased its pull. Ship and drifting ice accelerated through the tunnel.
After a while the missionary quietly stepped forward. He stood with one hand on the prow’s neck, listening to the mist, so motionless he might have been a carved extension of the longship’s aggressive design. Not a man breathed. The tunnel’s dilating and contracting bore was producing an all but seamless series of oscillating, near-phonetic sounds. Leif almost tiptoed back. No god, pagan or Christian, could account for the strangeness of this situation.
They were borne on a course that grew more southerly, and the following day beheld an inhospitable shoreline glazed by dazzling white beaches. Their course held. Two days later they came upon a far pleasanter, thickly wooded coast. Here the current released its hold, and here the missionary untied Hero and personally placed him and his son in a tiny oak faering. He was just as sick of them as he was excited by this promising new land. Once the rowboat had been heaved over the side, he and another man stepped aboard and took up the oars. They began rowing with easy, powerful strokes.
When the boat kissed sand the missionary stood unsteadily.
The first European to set foot on North American soil now placed one hand on his crucifix, the other on his sword’s hilt, and awkwardly plunged his leg into the thigh-deep, ice-cold surf. Before he could take another step the boat lurched as Hero leapt headfirst into the water, followed an instant later by his son. The Greenlanders watched sourly as the two splashed their way into a mad dash for the waiting pines. Leif wished them both good riddance and turned to grin wryly at his fellow Norseman. He must have blacked out for a second, must have been blinded by a shaft of sun, for he found he was staring stupidly at a point midway between his companion and the longship. It felt like he’d been kicked between the eyes.
Everything was dissolving.
He studied the beach and pines closely, but saw nothing of the man or his boy. He turned back, disoriented. With what seemed a superhuman effort he took up his oars. He rowed out sluggishly, in a dream, and the fog rolled in to meet him.

The boy broke into the trees and embraced a trunk, fighting for breath. What happened next happened so fast and so unexpectedly he didn’t have a chance to react.
Three savages stepped from behind the pines and beat him to his knees. They twisted his arms behind his back and hauled him to his feet. He’d barely processed the impression of a wild painted face when something sharp struck him ******* the temple and tore down his cheek to the jaw. Two of the assailants manhandled him into an upright position and held him in place while the third brought his weapon down again and again and again.
All but dead, he watched a nightmare countenance shouting through a shot veil of blood, and behind that image a reeling crimson sun. He lay there gushing while the savages went through his rags. They propped him against a pine and shrieked with triumph, tore the hair and gory scalp from his skull, threw back their heads and screamed at the screaming sky. Tooth and nail, they ripped apart his face and throat and, certain he would die, split what bits of fur were left and let his carcass lie.

                                                HERO

The weeks stretched into months while he fought his way back into the light.
He progressed in stages; only half-conscious, stumbling along in a blood-red stupor punctuated by a slow strobe of frequent blackouts. Days loomed and decayed, nights pounced and were gone; the backlit, swirling gray cosmos collapsed and expanded on every missed beat of his pulse. A thousand times he broke down to die, and a thousand times he clawed to his feet, driven to pursue a tiny, ghost-like figure fluttering in his memory.
Everything conspired to check him.
A bay like an immense landlocked sea was skirted over months or years—it was all the same. Cold locked him in, Hunger drove him afield, that rude ***** Wind lashed him blind, wore him like a shoe, screamed for his skin while he worked his way west.
Somehow he ate, somehow he avoided being eaten; the instincts that had served him halfway around the planet were still vital beneath the abused exterior. His simple burrows became sturdy temporary shelters. He relearned the art of fire, and began to cook what he killed. He manufactured crude snares and weapons and, when his recuperation was complete, paid closer attention to the on-again, off-again trail he’d been following…forever.
Sometimes this trail would call to him like a lover. Other times he stood peering uncertainly, trying to recapture meanings and aims. Then the ground would turn spongy and the sky revolve, and once again he’d be lying all but dead in the woods, while from the face of the sun emerged a vile winged horror, its ugly pale head lashing side to side, its cruelly hooked beak dangling something that glistened in the wild pulsing light…then the fat moon, rising like gas against the icy black night…the feel of the wind:  the slashing of her nails, the chafing of her hem…the sound of things crunching and pausing and sniffing…then the sun, blazing anew. And again that thing, descending, its wide black wings beating slowly, metronomically—but none of that mattered any more. For his mind had quit him, had flown howling into ice and pine to roost with things surreal. In the day his madness might muddle and run, or spend the light stalking, cat-like, watching and waiting. But at night it came creeping from all sides. Sometimes it came in waves. It could gnaw like the devil, or wrap around him like a warm second skin. But none of that mattered either.
The only thing that mattered was the trail—whether it was lost for good, or for only a while. He’d been following it through his episodes, always north, wondering just who and where in the world he was, and trying to shake a ridiculous notion of being led on a wild goose chase.
The cold was unbelievable.
The deeper north he delved, the more confused he became. He grew starved for colors and scents, finding nonexistent patterns in the stark contrast of shadow and snow. He thought he could detect a kind of otherworldly design in the overwhelming number of dead ends he encountered, and, too, in the diabolically frustrating locations of natural obstacles. He seemed to be forever fighting the wind—a hulking, despondent snowman, he hiked face down and focused, while another aspect of his attention floated just behind, disembodied, watching his silent pursuers…leaving no tracks, blending perfectly with the environment in their clever winter coats…not predators, but creatures that normally should have been hightailing it away from him. By the time he could turn, they’d become nothing more menacing than snowdrifts. But they pursued him nevertheless.
And so his paranoia increased…had there ever really been a trail…and when did this miserably cold, miserably anemic crusade begin…his long-term memory was falling apart a chunk at a time. It just got colder and colder and colder until at last, one snippet of a day during one blur of a year, he found himself utterly lost, and clueless as to his history or objective. His mind was a blank, as colorless and featureless as the endless world of ice around him. He’d come this far solely to learn that the only trail he’d been following was his own—and now even that trail was succumbing to ice. On all sides there was nothing to see but an infinite field of glaring whiteness, and nothing to hear but the ululating wail of the tubular polar wind. It was the loneliest, the unholiest, the creepiest sound imaginable. But it wasn’t insanity that made him wheel. It was his self-preservation instinct.
And then he was somehow on his knees in the woods, facing a furious setting sun.
Whole seasons had passed from his memory like chalk from a board. His only recollections were those of a broken, haunted animal:  of being perilously sick, of fearing the unseen, of blindly struggling across a solid-white wilderness. That he’d survived such an ordeal meant nothing to him. And that he had in some indecipherable manner stumbled across the cold-as-stone trail did not fill him with amazement or with thankfulness—there simply wasn’t anything visual or emotional left to draw on. A significant part of his life had been whited out.
But now he could focus entirely on the trail. And before he knew it, the fuzzy area between fantasy and reality found a seam. He began to analyze and plan. He paid attention to hygiene, and kept a kind of running mental journal. Things were sorting out. Yet there were nights when the old sickness would resurface, reestablish its hold, and leave him sweating and uncertain under the stars. Then, paradoxically, his perception would become razor-keen. And so he would see, on a distant hilltop, a pair of scrawny silhouettes, one on four legs and one on two, slowly crossing the faintly pocked face of the setting moon. He would become strangely excited, and thereafter retain crystal-clear images of himself, as if seen from above, hurrying with adroitness through the silent, graveyard-like setting of black and blue night and white-frosted trees. Then the fuzzy area would broaden, and it would be the next morning, and he would be staring at the prints of man and elk in snow. And he would see how the elk’s prints doubled back, and how the man’s prints terminated where he had obviously mounted his guide. An unfathomable glow would bring tears to his eyes. But, even as he gathered himself, a fresh snowfall would wipe out the prints. And once again the world would plummet into white. And the wind would howl as the snow hammered his eyes. And he would ***** on.

A haggard animal sat shivering in a small grove of frozen pines, watching his campfire die. His eyes were fixed. Like the fire, he was running out of warmth, running out of fuel. There wasn’t a whole lot of tinder round his bones, and not much feeling left in his limbs. The slowly heaping downfall was burying him alive, but he was too numb to care.
It had taken him six long years to cross an entire continent, and during that time he’d known only cold and excruciating pain. The pain was leaving him now. The cold was making it right. His eyes glazed over.
Along a narrow plain to the west a herd of caribou filed dreamily through the snow, cutting across a panoramic backdrop of dazzling white mountains. The slow-motion parade was hypnotic. After a while it occurred to the drifting man, in a roundabout way, that he was dying, that he was nonchalantly freezing to death. Concurrent with this notion there rose in his chest a wonderful liquid warmth. His eyes slowly closed and, once shut, began to set fast.
He was jolted from within. It was as if he’d been kicked in the heart.
He ****** to his feet, pounded his fists on his thighs, felt nothing. The breath spurted from his mouth in small white clouds as he stumbled downhill after the slow caribou train. He swam through the snow, hallucinating, imagining that certain individuals in the herd were mocking him by slowing and accelerating, while others glanced back with expressions of contempt.
As he burst into their midst the animals stepped aside indifferently. A few galloped ahead to keep up the herd, but most simply sidestepped while he danced there, stamping his feet and smacking his hands. The herd grew thinner, until only the old and infirm were filing by. The man desperately embraced a hobbling female for warmth, but she cried out and kicked, triggering a panic reaction in the herd. Clinging for his life, the man was dragged along beside her as the herd stormed into a maze of flying ice and snow. His weight caused her to stagger sideways until they slammed against the flank of a sick male. The man instinctively threw an arm over the male and, thus draped between them, was borne across the drifted plain for upwards of a mile, his freezing feet alternately dangling above and dragging through the snow. The herd broke into a hard run, forcing him to assume a broken trot. Soon his legs were stinging. Sensation rushed through his body.
Now the herd, still picking up speed, began to contract, jamming him between his bearers. There was a quick jolt to his right and he was lifted clean off his feet, nearly straddling the bucking female. It had become an all-out stampede. Through hard-flung snow he saw the cause:  just ahead, the caribou had run head-on into a solid wall of galloping wood bison, and both frantic herds had blindly veered to the east; were in fact running side by side down a deep, ragged canyon—were pouring over the canyon’s lip like a cataract. He was approaching, at breakneck pace, that very place where the converged herds so abruptly swerved. The hanging man snarled as he was borne inevitably to the point of deflection.
There came a concussion at his left shoulder, followed by a blast of snow. In an instant the ailing male was tumbling head over heels to the east, ****** into the stampede’s plummeting mass by the fury of its descent. The man and female, rebounding from this impact, were shot to the west in a crazy jumble of flailing legs. The caribou lost her footing, flew nose-first into a snowbank, and came up running. Kicking off, the man used the last of his strength to heave himself astride. At first she fought to shake him, but the spell of the run was too strong. She and half a dozen others went pounding in the opposite direction of the stampede, quickly joined by a number of bison that had likewise splintered from their herd. The riding man could make out their huge hulking shapes thundering by in a blizzard of flying ice, could hear their heavy gasps and explosive grunts. One passed so close he felt its massive flank brush his leg. He peered to his right and saw a black, pig-like eye regarding him excitedly, moving up and down like a piston as the beast ran alongside.
The eye shifted, focusing on the gasping, completely obsessed female. The bull dropped its head and slammed into the caribou’s side, sending her and the man careening down a ***** to the west. The caribou brayed hysterically and her backside went down, but she managed, despite the weight of her rider, to return to all fours and frantically continue along the *****. Again the bull charged, crashing into her shoulder. The man and caribou were launched sideways into the white searing air.
He sat up carefully. The huffing bison was straddling him like a bully laying down the ground rules. Its big wiry beard came right up to brush his chin. The stench of its breath was stupefying.
The bull stamped and snorted, thrusting its stubby horns left and right as the man used his elbows and heels to back away. The bull followed, move for move. When the man collapsed under his own impetus the bull shoved him along with its snout, bellowing furiously. Clear down the ***** they lunged, shoving and lurching, until the man lay sprawled on his back; up to his chin in snow, completely helpless. The ton of a bull butted and kicked, but only glancingly:  those hooves could **** with a blow. At last the man, in one clean sequence, spun on his rear, dropped to his side, and went rolling down the ***** using his elbows for ******.
At the bottom ran a narrow fence of frosted saplings marking an ice cliff’s precipice. He lay face down in the snow, too done in to do anything but **** at an air pocket.
And there came a high-pitched crackling, a sound like the protracted gasp of embers in a dead fire. He turned just as those saplings began leaning to the west, their frozen skins cracking with the strain.
The bison bellowed menacingly.
The sprawled man looked back and saw it still standing with legs spread wide, silhouetted against the sky. In a moment it began huffing downhill, lurching side to side, surfing the snow between lunges.
It chased him through the genuflecting saplings straight into a frozen gully where, protected by a few feet of insurmountable verticality, he was able to slide on the ice between its stomping hooves, downhill out of reach, then downhill out of control—spinning just in time to glimpse a breathtaking vista:
Partly framed by the gully-straddling saplings was a vast crescent of jagged white mountains seemingly huddled round a small stretch of snow-draped pines. The little wood these mountains surrounded was isolated in a broad lake of solid ice. Hundreds of fissures radiated crazily throughout this packed ice field, appearing to issue from somewhere near the frozen wood’s center, which was completely obscured by a ring of rising mist. Above this thumbnail panorama the sun showered gold.
Then the gully dipped radically, and he was skidding headfirst, slamming back and forth against its slick white walls. This uncontrollable plunge had the positive effect of getting his blood flowing. Yet it tore him up. Had the gully concluded in a cul-de-sac, or had further progress required a single calorie of uphill effort, his struggle would certainly have ended here. He would have been too weak to move, and death would have been swift.
But there was a glacier—a great river of ice pouring slowly out of the clouds. The gully, terminating in a little scoop formation near the glacier’s base, spat him flailing onto its gnarly glass hide. He went head over heels, bits of skin and fur flying like chips from a band saw. Somehow he gained his footing, and then he was running against his will, tumbling and recovering and tumbling again.
He didn’t catch much of that crazy run. He half-glimpsed whirling walls of ice, felt a fickle surface underfoot, and broke through an assaultive mist that clung to his ankles and arms. He remembered having the ragged hides torn right off his body, and then being skinned alive. And he remembered reaching the glacier’s base and crawling like an animal; round its sweeping drifts, past its peaked moraines, all the way to a twisting frozen gorge.
And he followed this gorge down; ricocheting wall to wall, delirious, small plumes of thrashed snow marking his descent.
Through a freezing wood he fumbled. In a veil of mist he tumbled down a steep and verdant grade. As cold consumed his closing breath, he fell upon, near-blind, near death, a strange, enchanted glade.

There is a pool.
And in this pool a man lay purged, his broken body half-submerged.
The stumbling man stopped. He knelt to weep, but lost his thread. One hand took a bicep, the other, the head. With a twist and pull the corpse emerged.
That visage…that face—misshapen mask, contorted, bleached; of life’s deposits fully leached. Essence dispatched—a void, sodden wretch.
He let it fall and the glass was breached. All a freak, all a stretch:  upon this act his grip detached.
And the bridge collapsed…one vagabond grasp…what were these feelings; recaptured and trashed…a span elapsed…who was this puckered mass…he hauled it by the waist and thighs…slid it in, watched the pool react:  purse and recover, expand, contract. The glass reformed, now silver-backed…a sudden mirror…the man leaned nearer…saw his reflection, just smashed, remade intact.
The pool grew still.
Within its depth a shadow stirred—visions gathered, some distinct, some obscure. What they meant, and who they were, was much too much to fathom. The glass became blurred.
He closed his eyes, let his heavy head fall, fell back on his haunches, felt the sweat seep and crawl. The air was a pall—as he struggled to rise, a nib crossed his wrist.
He opened his eyes.
Between his fingers the blades poked and crept. Round his knuckles they ventured, up his forearm they stepped:  they seemed to be triggered by prompts from the ground. He shook his head slowly and dully looked round.
There were jays grouped about him, their black eyes aglow. Red hens came running, their fat chicks in tow. Gophers engaged in a weird hide-and-seek. Bluebells and buttercups craned for a peek. Sparrows hopped past and, paying no heed, burst into flight. He watched them recede.
Westward they flew.
Bewildered, he slumped.
Bumped from behind, he jumped to his feet, flabbergasted to find an ancient gray moose near-eclipsing the sky, with grit in his snarl and fire in his eye.
The old moose took aim.
The man turned to flee and stumbled, then tumbled and fell on a palm and a knee.

But there lies a world (so the lullaby goes) where rivers ever run.
Poked from behind, pushed out of his mind, he staggered into sun.







Copyright 2020 by Ron Sanders.

Contact:  ronsandersartofprose(at)yahoo(dot)com
Sorry about the ghastly copy. This system makes graceful formatting impossible.
STLR Nov 2016
How many ladders does it take to get to the top of the atmosphere
Where ******* doesn’t matter, and matter doesn’t appear

I broke the physics 
my mental is often there
some say I’m too high


But heights are nothing fear

I’ve found a way to escape my current reality  

a path that’s unknown and doesn’t reflect my salary, place nor origin my story is far from vanity

To live a life of “routine” is a life full of tragedy, depression, and disparity

Especially if your dream was driven 
I’ve excelled in this keen vision 
Avoiding obstacles isn’t impossible 
If you keep rhyme

No retronym needed 
I slide on and off beat

This….next line is an e x a m p l e

My mind is often offset like a distorted sample

Your half way there take a tug of this **** rope, I attract flickers of light equal to that of a candle

A venomous vandal, soon to verbally attack and dismantle

Clear words, let’s separate the pure from the ramble

I am like Rambo with a headband that’s inverted in hue

Since I am blue I will never be evergreen, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not attracted to the words of that being

I'm more than fascinated, I’m reaching heights only illustrated in my imaginations

I'm seeking collaborations, creators of a different mind to calibrate with
No calculations could change my current status

No aggravation could shake
my 
Inner patience

Blasting straight from the basement
Scaling to higher places
Ladders on top of ladders

How many ladders will it take to make it?
Salty rancher spackle is to Earthy diva smackers as Swinging hotel number is to?
Rippling cling bread is to Three lizard chariots as Indigo lime tangent is to?
Nighttime reunion planet is to Nettle lane scuffle as Soaking spider *** is to?
Fancy trance logs are to Sticky fudge lather as Vivacious gator college is to?
Cheerful blossom face is to Secret tractor rocket as Canned gremlin emblems are to?
Jealous pitchfork generals are to Heartbreaking patchwork veranda as Folding robot noise is to?
Pretty rhino rash is to Lost locket vengeance as Back pocket weather is to?
Frosted candy sidewalk is to Sneaky kook code as Shiny waffle smoke is to?
Sapphire cloud romance is to Magnetic comet lava as Blue triangle envy is to?
Vanishing honey melody is to Thermal elf pajamas as Whistling iceboat shampoo is to?
Peach mint politics is to Frozen doll pennies as Rusty anchor catapult is to?
Swollen pony fever Throbbing sword kazoo as Silent turbine science is to?
Obese germ thunder is to Stacked lemon towers as Corrupt moon jockey is to?
Demented insect whistle is to Glass trophy cleanup as Purple geode bubble is to?
Nighttime razor slime is to Lacquered dragon maps as Tint paper mittens are to?
**** camel drops are to Velvet ****** shoes as Slippery red muffins are to?
Flying hot drool is to Pale chocolate telescope as Tin trumpet ballet is to?
Expensive puppy speed is to Flowered duck mirror as Cosmic needle factory is to?
Fractured laser doodles are to Cracked butter gravel as Rubber holster straps are to?
Majestic panther fortress is to Jeweled cork target as Iron swan taxi is to?
Poisonous pepper bouillon is to ****** goat soap as Chrome feather pirates are to?
Digital gorilla scriptures are to Timid hunter stench as Frozen domino video is to?
Eccentric troll opera is to Transparent wax village as Spoiled coral agony is to?
Bizarre green metal is to Pillow eating hamster as Leather cavern ***** are to?
Eternal hurricane evidence is to Powdered rainbow perfume as Smoking yellow prune is to?
Liquid wish cleanser is to Exploding meadow ladders as Brittle rose hammer is to?
Caged foam filter is to Cherry balloon string as Ivory cactus spider is to?
Carbon puppet watch is to Sad kings compass as Elastic lace whiskers are to?
Nitrogen trolley dust is to Lazy elephant toffee as Orange toad choir is to?
Dark pole zodiac is to Blue finger blanket as Illegal bug nozzle is to?
Stinky towel cookies are to White jade caskets as Sticky snail tea is to?
Converting stellated caramels is to Mythic aerosol socks as Rubber raspberry jokes are to?
Flying clock carousel is to Whisky nut worms as Plastic fish platforms are to?
Queasy Vaseline queens are to Moody pigeon pills as Aqua mice fur is to?
Spotted bowl shadow is to Idiotic radiance lotion as Bungalow toad hearse is to?
Gushing chimney fungus is to Funky lamb acrobat as Utopian **** sprinkler is to?
Twinkling bungalow tablet is to Botanical duck rope as Bug hat ram is to?
Broken clock fossil is to Black ginger confetti as Parisian cobra meatloaf is to?
Silly Xerox ribbon is to Obedient raccoon carny as Traditional cat linguini is to?
Last astral advisor is to Elastic badger riddles as Broken circle rifles are to?
Bagged squire channel is to Temporary mosaic cake as Ancient bacon thread is to?
Wireless math army is to Moronic neon money as Pearl razor radar is to?
Rubber buzzard blizzard is to Troubled bubble wizard as Crushed hash ******* is to?
Purple birdy cure is to Tangled frost blossoms as Silken bridal saddle is to?
Unisex owl accordion is to Sugar bottomed boat as Optical nougat treasure is to?
Flavored saline rain is to Black arrow clan as Transistorized clam guitar is to?
Sharpened twig scar is to Mutant beet sonar as Baked troll mask is to?
Boxed noodle secrets are to Traditional guru buttons as Glossy marshmallow strategy is to?
Vibrating melted jelly is to Silver furniture dream as Spewing collated seats is to?
Burnt mountain pickles are to Baby preacher shoes as Sympathetic pilot pain is to?
Narrow portal treaty is to Monkey warehouse vacancy as Painted tornado trap is to?
Porch penny sulfur is to Glowing pony fat as Patched mattress bait is to?
Frigid waitress fallacy is to Graphic shrimp salute as Misted sneezing window is to?
Moist apple moss is to Daddy’s zoom seed as Downtown Pope cart is to?
Tired felon trickle is to Holographic squirrel candle as Wild ray hay is to?
Deadly zero chalk is to Folding wilderness chart as Curved ******* vacuum is to?
Hollow porcelain pellets are to Strawberry rain stencils as Microwave taxi nomads are to?
Wasted machete balcony is to Crumpled creature confessions as Fridge fuzzed fruit is to?
Sloppy demon damage is to Squeaky puppet chuckle as Mental arcade combat is to?
Monster trout stories are to Lewd pirate cocktail as Locked mammal grommet is to?
Rotting rope network is to Tragic toy goat as Cotton submarine shoes are to?
Complex pepper dance is to ****** cloud cushion as Marching taxi holiday is to?
Mental petal collectors are to Spooned barn putty as Dork factory fiction is to?
Hot spotted tops are to Timed stepping pests as Yogurt notching tartar is to?
Crazy dog comics are to Ambitious cartoon sphinx as Pavlov’s zinc ballet is to?
Soiled spinster wedding is to Padded razor wound as Floating fish map is to?
Slippery leopard pants are to Perfumed nut button as Dart wizard party is to?
Needy alien elephants are to Barking garden gnats as Quasar focused paper is to?
Slanted heart **** is to Bronzed cliff sandals are to Cunning jockey jokes are to?
***** thumbprint massage is to Holistic princess memory as Sliding dental sword is to?
Drifting wood whistle is to Fluorescent carpet powder as Foam dragon whistle is to?
Chopped web shadow is to Immortal vermin soup as Collapsing porch conspiracy is to?
Stolen thunder chant is to Haunted comet heart as Swollen throat portrait is to?
Fragrant frost parfait is to Grumpy caveman *** as Random stingray solo is to?
Squeaky polar turbine is to Silent lava fever as Oversized lunar fulcrum is to?
Synthetic dew droppers are to Pocket poster paste as Hypnotic screen dog is to?
Symbolic whirlpool nausea is to Dreaming tree phantom as Log badge bracket is to?
Camp hippo map is to Horseradish seizure insurance as Distant insect mirror is to?
German lady sherbet is to Stuntman laundry wax as Hungry butterfly ghost is to?
Fly smudged foil is to Amped maze coil as Shifting optic terror is to?
Automatic sheep floss is to Panoramic tanker anchor as Throbbing bone pillow is to?
Mutant clown village is to Nightmare translation treasure as Spotted spectral chakra is to?
Blind roach tweat is to Hermit worm tiara as Divine logo ritual is to?
Glueless gun stamp is to Malicious spam pump as Floral toffee pods are to?
Dudgeon mist removal is to Menacing bolt smacker as Boating duke shadow is to?
Costly metal plungers are to Creaky buzzing gushers as Glowing star cushions are to?
Raked barge sludge is to Crusted cream glitter as Zircon gutter babble is to?
Fake gold scholar is to Amish ******* mogul as Faithful ***** choir is to?
Sacred limo prayers are to Fried mice café as Splintered ****** thimble is to?
Dealing rabbit decals is to Pelican bongo festival as Patched equator rot is to?
Freedom gourd gasoline is to Cobblers studying acorns as Desecrated dice crater is to?
Tattered tapestry rod is to Busted particle scanner as Bogus piffle catalogue is to?
Trifle truffle raffle is to Last lamb laminate as Segmented cake goggles are to?
Domestic tackle tactic is to Ticking tic talk as Cordial corps coordinates is to?
Tucked duck caftan is to Sunken ramp ruckus as Wretched ranch rhetoric is to?
Clearly incomprehensible directions are to Useful archaic nonsense as Antiquated skeletal outline is to?
Bewildered beasts feasting are to Lazy busybodies resting as Vaccinating brave volunteers are to?
Lucky wagon dragons are to Famous gargoyle gargle as Formal postman funding is to?
Furrowed shroud chowder is to Borrowed tartan pajamas as Martini mixed algebra is to?
Cowgirl balloon helium is to Chewy glucose habitat as Stationary monument movement is to?
Diamond powered powder is to Diagonal diameter diagram as Purposely condensed expansion is to?
Organic iodine capsule is to Gleaming beach probe as Dominant dome static is to?
Shaving wrinkled targets is to Petting sensible monsters as Selling invisible whiskey is to?
Frozen piano architecture is to Note dotted clouds as Screaming Korean worms are to?
Sonic plant website is to Telepathic climbing clam as Bored protein exercise is to?
Gourmet mollusk cone is to Numb poodle caravan as Asian raven radar is to?
Did you ever hear about ******* Lil?
She lived in ******* town on ******* hill,
She had a ******* dog and a ******* cat,
They fought all night with a ******* rat.

She had ******* hair on her ******* head.
She had a ******* dress that was poppy red:
She wore a snowbird hat and sleigh-riding clothes,
On her coat she wore a crimson, ******* rose.

Big gold chariots on the Milky Way,
Snakes and elephants silver and gray.
Oh the ******* blues they make me sad,
Oh the ******* blues make me feel bad.

Lil went to a snow party one cold night,
And the way she sniffed was sure a fright.
There was Hophead Mag with ***** Slim,
Kankakee Liz and Yen Shee Jim.

There was Morphine Sue and the Poppy Face Kid,
Climbed up snow ladders and down they skid;
There was the Stepladder Kit, a good six feet,
And the Sleigh-riding Sister who were hard to beat.

Along in the morning about half past three
They were all lit up like a Christmas tree;
Lil got home and started for bed,
Took another sniff and it knocked her dead.

They laid her out in her ******* clothes:
She wore a snowbird hat with a crimson rose;
On her headstone you’ll find this refrain:
She died as she lived, sniffing *******
pixels Feb 2013
i cut ladders
up and down
my legs
my arms
my stomach

maybe
if i cut just deep enough
space the
perfect straight lines
just so
just this far apart

i will be able to climb
up up up

dig my feet into
the bright pink muscle
push the skin apart

and climb the bean stock
to a universe
where

my skin is not too tight
my eyes are not broken
my seams are not ripping
my soul is not shattered

spiralling
out
of
c o n t r o l

saveme

i make ladders
full of hope
because i have none
Matthew O'Reilly Apr 2015
Life is like snakes and ladders
every day is unexpected with challenges
some days you will climb a ladder finishing tasks
other days you slide down because of a snake in your life
but in the end you will reach the end and look back at your challenges and you will know you rolled the the dice the right way
onlylovepoetry Jun 2017
Square One of Chutes & Ladders  (single life after thirty)


~~~


For Tina
the game rules wink & explain that should one
(minimum number of players *1!
)
land on a chute, the non-trivial risk of returning to square one was no risk at all but just a fresh direct chance, a new roll of the dice,
a please-do-start-all over, a 2nd maybe to the power of infinity,
quite the accurate inaccuracy, this curse of the slip & fall treadmill

and you're hot smart and hot good looking with a good job,
but the chutes keep on sliding you back to square one,
and the revolutionary trips of over and over again are not
revolutionary at all, voluntary or fun but so *** unfunny, *** emoji-teared smeared, for real ones no longer bother to appear even when you bang your head on kitchen table

the suitor list lengthens even as it grows more abbreviated,
for the longest running one-act play in Manhattan seems to have no dearth of duplicative Stepford men willing to he-be a walk-on, stand-in, stand-by, understudies who want to be on top for one night only, take your applause, your easy-going unguarded openness, run their lines to find the way in to a garden where the fruits never ripen and never fully sweeten, and you can grimace-smile from the familiar **** flavor of resignation, one hand clapping-applauding yourself in your Emmy Best Unsupporting Actress weekend role of a
Stepford Wife

deception, repeating misperceptions and the wrist slitting frustration of the god, how boring is the game playing, and you think
let me rip, me, rip the rule book up, go live in Spain,  
with no plans in hand, learn to drive stick shift and accidentally meet a really good looking man at a roadside cafe whose gentility rocks me in away that I had forgotten was humanly possible and who loves to salsa and speaks to me through dance even though we don't speak a common language, just an uncommon one, then your subway stop arrives and the summer heat seems ever worse

Thursday night is dating website visitation scheduled and sometimes one cannot recall the password, thinking it's
of of these:
shampoo^ rinse repeat

friends cluck sympathetically but cannot locate a decent boyfriend's friend and this chute **** exhausts from numbing familiarity and a plot that never thickens in a city where the emphasis is on the endless, of endless possibilities

and what you fear is not being sad, when the game roll lands you on a chute, winking time to start over, but that the effervesced heat of a new hopeful start is overcome and 'why bother' is the whisper you have been ignoring and only love is just a poem, not a real thing, even though you are the single player, the game wins when you quit

but the 1% chance leads you back to the start, for though
the lottery odds are ridiculous but does not every week
someone else wins at Chutes and Ladders*

4:03am 6/17/17
http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Chutes_and_Ladders

en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stepford_Wives

^"gonna shampoo that man right out of my hair" South Pacific musical
a large quantity
of ladders were found
in a pile of ladies stockings
at the Hosiery Emporium

could all owners
please collect your ladders
before the close
of business to-day
Breanna Stockham Feb 2016
If it wasn't
Race or religion
It would be something else
It's one big competition

We're living in the Darwin days
Survival of the fittest
As if we don't all deserve
To have equal chances

We're breaking ladders
Instead of building them taller
Instead of working toward growth
We make others smaller

Can't get anywhere
If we're tripping each other
But how far we could go
If we worked together

Start building, not breaking
We'll get so much further
One mile alone
One hundred miles together
Silent Thoughts Jun 2014
But it doesn’t really matter what you say
They’re all just words anyway
I could hear them all day
And I know I’d still be okay
It doesn’t really matter what you do
Only who you do it to
Because they might give up on you
And find someone new
Nothing doesn’t really matters
Until all that climbing ladders

Takes you nowhere
Samuel Alexander Dec 2013
As I stared at the corroded ladder of rust and regret that is the life I call my own, you find your way into my mind once again despite the walls of stone I've piled up to keep you out so that I may sleep in peace and dream of currents that take me out to a sea of wonder and beauty, where indigo waves dance to a choir of dazzling stars orchestrated by the moon, I find myself remembering the way your lips would curve up ever so slightly at the edges as you saw me walk up your driveway with love in my eyes and I remember the pain I withstood as your own met mine with annoyance like looking down a loaded barrel which I soon after found myself considering, but despite the pain in my chest that struck with each intake of breath I held strong to the belief that there was something worth waiting for just around the corner of this street so littered with mistakes, bloodied doorways, broken mailboxes and boarded up remains of what were once church windows, the path upon which I tread was as broken as I, awash with the brown and green of shattered beer bottles, and with each step I took to a chorus of crepitations I came to realise a little bit more that this was wrong, this was not the path for me, or at least not the one upon which I could wear a smile with the hope of looking out at the world with love in my eyes again, you see I was not resigned to the occupation of an angry old drunk spouting abuse at any who wandered too close, I was not content to such a lifestyle, no I was not content to such failure, so I found the corner and now I climb a different ladder, one lacking poorly made decisions bred out of a sorrow so deep it was evident in every stolen glance, I'm climbing with hope in my battered heart, and though I fear to fall, I know now that I will land in safety netting strung by the desire to stay alive and see a pair of lips curve up ever so slightly at the edges once more as I walk down a driveway with love in my eyes, I have faith that I can climb this ladder to its peak and cry out in amazement as the sun lights the sky and the earth awakens around me, as though some unseen artist takes up his palette of petals, the likes of which set autumn ablaze, and with each brushstroke a new story begins as seeds take root and fears dissipate in the mind I now have no horror of traversing, thoughts form and drift lazily through my mind like a crows feather on a still lake, I stand tall among the clouds made up of arms ready to embrace me should I fall, I find tears in my eyes once more, and yet unlike those salty droplets of sea foam sadness that fell to crimson wrists, these sparkle in the rays of stellar dust that warm my cheeks, for they are shed with joy, unknown to me until such a time as now, when the blood in my veins no longer needs to stain my skin red and my flesh once withered, is now pure, unimpeded by urges spawned from despair of forever living in darkness, I survived the darkness, and I have found the light, I take one last look at the corroded ladder of rust and regret that was my life... And I finally take the first and last step towards truly living, I have no more need of ladders.
Sean Hunt Aug 2016
Snakes and ladders is the name
Of my game of blame and shame
Where every move that I make
Leads to even more heartache

One day I made a big mistake
I slipped and slid down a snake
I tried to climb back up a ladder
But slipped and became even sadder

I looked around for another ladder
To take me back to where I was
But they all took me somewhere new
And slippery snakes were all I saw

Snakes and ladders is the name
Of my game of blame and shame
Where every move that I make
Leads to even more heartache

Sean Hunt  July 2016
Mike Hauser Jan 2018
Life is a game of Chutes and Ladders
At every step you roll the dice
What you think really doesn't matter
Each day you'll either climb or slide

With every move you take your chances
You will either rise or plunge
Don't ask me, I have no answers
You'll never know until you're done

Where every step along the way
Is a case of do or die
It makes no difference in how you play
With every day a roll of dice

In this game of Chutes and Ladders
That some out there fondly call life
Where your next move at any given moment
You will either climb or slide
Sam Hawkins Apr 2013
What we have named Fire Escape
(an ordered, angular tangle of ladders and rail)
had made picture geometries in my west window
well-framed and flat--set foreground and background
in two dimensions, as the sun hid,
and my round eye opened.

What we have named Fire Escape
was flaked-paint brown orange, as if
first it had been born of a flame
and then had taken up living as metal--
tempered itself into usefulness,
which I should trust now, in case of the yelling
and the engines.

What we have named Fire Escape
was happy Jungle Jim or Jungle for Jane
for the sparrows I saw this morning
which flitted and wildly played
within, rising up
arched and back again.

Made of the square pairs of ladder rungs--
a tunnel entrance or ducking posts,
or highway bridges to clear;
the birds like small plane, daredevil pilots
each following each, going under.
No sparrow would ever crash.

And what is this I remember now?
How one bird eased its engine and perched there to stay?
As if to offer me, with a little turn of head gesture--
a thank you, for the bread I'd left on the sill? Or to say  
I'd better shut the curtain and make my exit?

Either prideful guess gets me nowhere fast.
Failed even is speaking in any sparrow languages
from my recline stuffed chair; again, but now imagined,
to draw beady eyes to fix on me, telling me much less.

That morning, with the very last sparrow gone,
I remember that nothing in my sight moved,
save an American flag at a distance in the wind,
with its one red-white striped wing
waving toward the cold north,
as the white church spire,
framed in open quadrilaterals,
held its position.
written and posted a few hours before the Boston Marathon Bombing, Monday April 15th, 2013
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound
except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember
whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve
nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky
that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in
the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays
resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her
son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland,
though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we
waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they
would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and
moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their
eyes. The wise cats never appeared.

We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows - eternal, ever
since Wednesday - that we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or,
if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor's polar
cat. But soon the voice grew louder.
"Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.

And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring
out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier
in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the
house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.

Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a
newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A fine Christmas!" and
smacking at the smoke with a slipper.

"Call the fire brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
"There won't be there," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his
slipper as though he were conducting.
"Do something," he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke - I think we missed Mr. Prothero - and
ran out of the house to the telephone box.
"Let's call the police as well," Jim said. "And the ambulance." "And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."

But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose
into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier
Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt,
Miss. Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would
say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets,
standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, "Would you like anything to read?"

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel
petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt
like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the
English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the
daft and happy hills *******, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I
made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it
came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow
grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and
settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

"Were there postmen then, too?"
"With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and
mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells."
"You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?"
"I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."
"I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells."
"There were church bells, too."
"Inside them?"
"No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings
over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It
seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our
fence."

"Get back to the postmen"
"They were just ordinary postmen, found of walking and dogs and Christmas and the snow. They knocked on the
doors with blue knuckles ...."
"Ours has got a black knocker...."
"And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little, drifted porches and huffed and puffed, making
ghosts with their breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out."
"And then the presents?"
"And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with a rose on his button-nose, tingled
down the tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on
fishmonger's slabs.
"He wagged his bag like a frozen camel's ****, dizzily turned the corner on one foot, and, by God, he was
gone."

"Get back to the Presents."
"There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths;
zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o'-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o'-
shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking
tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you
wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now,
alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not
to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp,
except why."

"Go on the Useless Presents."
"Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor's cap and
a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a
little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that
an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the
trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the
red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches,
cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who,
if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for
Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to
wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall.
And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited
for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And
then it was breakfast under the balloons."

"Were there Uncles like in our house?"
"There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle
and sugar ****, I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird
by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and
women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles
their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all
the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in
their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling
pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying
their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms' length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then
holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the
kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to
break, like faded cups and saucers."

Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this
time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he
would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing,
no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite,
to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two furling
smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the
dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a
snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of
a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself.

I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my lips and blow him off the face
of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high,
so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would press against their tinsled
windows, the whole length of the white echoing street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after
dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch
chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie
Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some
elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port,
stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to
see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In
the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among
festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o'-war, following the Instructions
for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim
and Dan and Jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge footprints on the hidden pavements.
"I bet people will think there's been hippos."
"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?"
"I'd go like this, bang! I'd throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I'd tickle him
under the ear and he'd wag his tail."
"What would you do if you saw two hippos?"

Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow toward us as we passed Mr.
Daniel's house.
"Let's post Mr. Daniel a snow-ball through his letter box."
"Let's write things in the snow."
"Let's write, 'Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel' all over his lawn."
Or we walked on the white shore. "Can the fishes see it's snowing?"

The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills,
and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying "Excelsior." We
returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-
rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock
birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly;
and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with ***,
because it was only once a year.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like
owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the
stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving
of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we
stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand
in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant
and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give them?
Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high
and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood
close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small,
dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry,
eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped
running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-
gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said.
"Perhaps it was trolls," Dan said, who was always reading.
"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we did that.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another
uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip
wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a
Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out
into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other
houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas
down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
We played the game, threw the dice
at times we got lucky with the game.
although caught in a web of lies...
though a picture locked in a frame.




Life gave pain, left us with misery,
and empty people fought with bigotry,
all stuck in the same boat of poverty,
snakes and ladders showed our reality.
Despite our lack of opportunity...
it gave us life when we wanted to cry.
But we kept strong, continuing a story
all our forefathers faced in our society.





Without the shadow of a doubt,
we played games, feeling liberated...
As kids we played monopoly & chess,
but snakes and ladders we did best.





At the end of the ladder waits a snake
to stab you in the back with a knife
But when facing the reality of life,
some took paths not easy to take.





We took paths that left us stagnant,
made some choices in our youth.
But wisdom always showed the truth,
about our growth when we were Ignant.





Although some are fierce,
walking though lions in the street.
We used to play snakes and ladders, lost at times, we still showed no defeat.
Francie Lynch Dec 2016
Why do you put up with a social climber
With two rungs left
Before his feet touch the earth?
Is it pity, empathy or indifference?

Choices are often ultimatums;
Free will is frequently channelled;
Chaos and dominos infiltrate like moles;
Serendipity and chance prevail.
A few rungs were damaged,
And the playing field is never level.


Why do you put up with one so down?

Ladders, she says, extend both ways,
The angles depend on aspirations.
Going up varies,
Coming down, inevitable.


She concludes with:
*The law of gravity is grave.
That's how.
Gabriel burnS Dec 2018
The light tail of the tail light leaves me blue in the dark hues
… when it carries away what I belong to…
Unfolding the tar-black sky of asphalt, the longest arm of missing you…
My body is now the distance between us, big and empty,
The bigger, the emptier, thinner than air…
As time piles up, my ladders turn into pointless meters
Measuring the ratio of nothing in everything
...telltale
Alex Feb 2014
I.
I felt it the first time I saw you. My heart stopped its incessant beating upon the sight of you walking down the busy city street, a little windswept and breathless with your cheeks flushed, hair messy and your lips slightly parted as if you were asking for a kiss and I wished I were the only one who could give it. It’s what gave me courage to talk to you. This was the time when I finally understood the likes of poets like Shakespeare, Debussy’s longing and the stuff of silly songs sung by the town drunks with their guitars and slurred perspectives. It was like flying. I was walking on air and floating in bewitched water. I saw it in the color of the crimson hue in the roses I bought you, that dress you wore, the color of your cheeks and the color of your lips when you leaned into whisper in my ear your vow of eight letters, the prospect of a future that no longer promised me loneliness. Each night I heard it when you were in my arms and the whole world decided to quiet down and stand still like a child halting the spin of a wildly spinning top. In the smallest moments when all that pervaded me was the scent of your hair, the hint of your smile, your warmth and the palms of your hands over my beating heart, I have never felt more contented. I have never known people could be happy and elated like this. For once in my life I think I could never tire of seeing someone, of wanting to become part of them, of knowing every flaw and every well-kept secret. In the half-shadows of the lazy afternoons we spent together and the sleepy mornings tangled up in sheets, I saw our dog, perhaps children and then 20 years of marriage.
II.
Perhaps once upon a time, a long long time ago I met it a few times and each with a different face. I saw it in the way a mother held her child as her most valuable possession, the warmth of affection and the smell of home on her skin when she embraced you, kissed you when you stumbled and picked you up when you fell. I saw it in a father’s pride, his secret admiration. I remembered my own mother and my own father and all my bravado left me. Once upon a time, I read it in my mother’s bruises like a map, the ones my father lovingly decorated her with in strikes, punches and eager beatings. I felt it every time she kept her bags unpacked and put away the bitter ****** aftermath of the underlying storms with a forced smile on her lips and the promise that everything would be okay, that I had just been dreaming. Even then I saw it in my father when he came home-- the twisted way he held her close and said his sorries, the way he treated her like a queen and tried his best to keep his promise. In the days he told me to be strong and in the days he really did try hard, I found it difficult to blame him—I could not place the hate I felt for him and why my fortifications threatened to dissipate and crumble. I never noticed this before but it was always present in the way my mother and father laid to rest their hopes and dreams, buried them in a lot of filthy graveyard soil when the wretched curse that was me took away all their aspirations and they selflessly sacrificed their whole young lives ahead of them full of travel and the irresistible seduction and sparkling lure of opportunity to work like dogs on their hands and knees so I could live my own fickle life of wasted hours and silly daydreams. Money did not grow on trees, darling and yet for every mistake you made, every useless rebellious decision that only resulted in heartbreak and derision their forgiveness knew no bounds and they threatened no abject beleaguering, no threat of desolation. By and by, you fail to see their infinite patience, the hope and the investment—the silent prayer for all good things and mighty rising sons and daughters.
III.
Again, one day, I saw a couple in the park holding hands, their faces lined with age that told their story with their depth and their number. I saw their narrations told, young buds and blooming then the bad days that came and the sad days that kept repeating. In their intertwined fingers and the slow steps on rocky beach, bathed in glowing sunset sunlight, the twilight of a remarkable 20 years or so and maybe one, two or twenty sons and daughters, I wondered if you and I would come around like that—battle through decades with our feelings unchanging. I thought about your face and the way you slept, and the first morning that I saw it and decided that yours was the one I wanted to wake up to everyday for the rest of my life. I wondered if you and I, darling, would come out strong and happy, still holding hands after the lagniappe of challenges, the labyrinthine years of madness. I decided I would not die with you in the manner of Romeo and Juliet, the drama of Shakespeare but I wanted to spend every waking moment that I could live and breathe on this desolate earth spending it with you or else thinking of you and going through it for you. Why would I waste our precious time with grand, suicidal gestures when I could just show you in little ways, every day until we grew old and grey together?
IV.
Then I forgot you were only temporarily mine, that I could not keep you. I lost the feeling. It only turned to rot in my hands and I only grew bitter. I forgot that butterflies in mason jars died, and so did the red roses, the bouquets of flowers. It was it how I felt when I saw you in the arms of another man, laughing and smiling. It was not how I felt when my heart threatened to burst and split, along with my knuckles and hanging picture frames now lying shattered on the floor. It was not how I felt when you left, said goodbye and closed the door. It was the hope I felt when I thought you would return but it was not the face I saw when I accepted you weren’t going to. I know not the ugliness it carried, the blackened underside of a two-faced coin but perhaps this was the price paid for such elation, for years of bright colors, laughing and slices of heaven. I realized that when it was all over, when the rivers run dry that it was the emptiness that made the winds cold, the world gray, the streets empty, the people cruel and the cold winds bite and the trees shiver. It’s what turned hearts into rock-hard gemstones and what makes hopeless romantics wither. It was the wind that left me, the feeling I felt when I could pinpoint the exact moment my heart dropped to my knees and bled to the floor when I looked into those eyes, those lovely eyes, for the last time. I would forget your face, but the marks, the scars, the things you taught me and the way you made me ache for beauty and an invisible power would stay in me forever long after you have gone. It was not the feeling I felt when I let you go and didn’t run after you.
V.
In its pursuit, and in the withdrawal stage of emotional drug use and admiration, people struggle to constantly search for the fleeting high, the temporary feeling of wonder. There are girls that walk the street in short skirts, high heels and revealing blouses searching for the right things in all the wrong places in between soiled sheets and pockets full of paper. I see the beggars ply the crowded city streets, some with eyes that know the danger but hunger still and some with just innocent ideas, feigned knowledge and naïve understanding.  They search the faces of people and window shop at bars for their favorite pair of jeans, the man or woman that will fit the hole where the heart had been, heal the wounds and the body that will curve and fit theirs so perfectly into a perfect puzzle. It is not what they find on the silver-tongued strangers with sweet lips and deliberate touches. It is not in his lies that sound so much sweet music; that feels like climbing up ladders. It is not in her games, her daring looks and sweet whispers. It is not out in streets, it is not ours to claim ownership over.
homework assignment from lit class grew epic proportions. a bit of word ***** here and there, but that cannot be helped.
RAJ NANDY Jul 2016
Dear Poet Friends, our World today & especially Europe is threatened with terrorism from the religious fundamentalist groups like the ‘IS’ ! History teaches us that during the Middle Ages the Holy Crusades were launched with the combined forces of Christendom. May be History is repeating itself once again within a span of thousand years! Do kindly read with patience this True Story of the Holy Crusades in Verse, to see events in its proper historical perspective. Concluding portion as Part Two has also been posted here. You will find the portion on ''Motivation & The Medieval Mind'' to be interesting! Kindly take your time to read at leisure. No need to comment in a hurry please! Thanks, - Raj

               STORY OF THE HOLY CRUSADE: (1096-1099)
                                           PART ONE

                                       INTRODUCTION
For thousands of years the Holy Lands of Palestine on the eastern coast
of the Mediterranean Sea had witnessed,
Ferocious battles fought between the Christians, Jews, and the Muslims,
with much bloodshed;
For a strip of land few hundred miles in length and varying between some hundred miles in breadth,
Which they all righteously defended!
There the Ancient City of Jerusalem now stands as a World Heritage Site,
Sacred to the three of World’s oldest Religions and as their pride!
Jerusalem today is a symbol of unity amidst its religious diversity;
For on its Dome of the Rock, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Synagogues, are etched thousand years of Ancient History.
In 1096, Pope Urban the Second, motivated Christendom and launched the First Holy Crusade,
To liberate Jerusalem from 461 Years of MUSLIM dominance!
Some Historians have listed a total of Nine Crusades in all,
And I commence with the FIRST, being the most important of all;
For it recaptured Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks making it fall. (in 1099AD)
While subsequent Crusades did not make any appreciable dent at all!
Not forgetting the THIRD, led by King Richard ‘The Lion Heart’, -
Who made the Turk leader Saladin to agree,
For Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy shrines in Jerusalem and the Hills of Calvary.
The Crusades began towards the end of the 11th Century lasting for almost Two hundred years;
Had later turned into a tale of sorrow and tears!
Now to understand the Crusades in its proper perspective let us see,
The brief historical background of Europe during the early parts of
Second Millennium AD.

                         A BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The Normans:
During the first century of the Second Millennium, Europe was in a formative stage,     (11th Century AD)
It had began to emerge from its long period of hibernation called the ‘Dark Age’!
The Viking raids from those northern Norsemen had ceased subsequently,
As they became Christian converts settling in Northern France in the Duchy of Normandy.
In 1035 when Robert the Devil, 5th Duke of Normandy died on his way
to Jerusalem during a Holy Pilgrimage;
His only son William, who was illegitimate, was only seven years of age.
By 1063 AD these Norman settlers had intermingled and expanded their lands considerably,
By conquering Southern Italy and driving the Muslims from the Island of Sicily.
And in 1066 Robert’s son William shaped future events, -
By defeating King Harold at Hastings and by uniting England.
Now William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert the Duke of Normandy,
Participated in the First Holy Crusade, which has become both Legend
and a part of History!
These Normans though pious, were also valiant fighters,
And became the driving force behind the Crusades from 11th Century
onward !

                     MUSLIM CONQUEST AND EXPANSION
After the death of Prophet Mohammad during 7th Century AD,
Muslim cavalry burst forth from Arabia in a conquering spree!
They soon conquered the Middle East, Persia, and the Byzantine
Empire;
And in 638 AD they occupied the Holy city of Jerusalem and
Palestine entire!
Beginning of the 8th Century saw them crossing the Gibraltar Strait,
To occupy the Iberian Peninsula by sealing ruling Visigoth’s fate!
Crossing Spain soon they knocked on the gates of Southern France,
When Charles Martel in the crucial Battle of Tours halted their rapid
advance!  (Oct 732 AD)
By defeating the Moors, Martel confined them to Southern Spain,
And thereby SAVED Western Europe from Muslim dominance!
Charles Martel was also the grandfather of the Emperor Charlemagne.
The Sunni–Shiite split over the true successor of Prophet Muhammad,
and other doctrinal differences of Faith,
Had weakened the Muslim Empire till the Mongols sealed their fate!

                         THE SELJUK TURKS
Meanwhile around Mid-eleventh Century from the steppes of Central Asia,
Came a nomadic tribe of Seljuk Turks and occupied Persia!
In 1055 they captured Baghdad and took the Abbasid Caliph under their Protectorate.
The Persian poet Omar Khayyam, and the great Rumi the mystic sage,
Had also flourished during this Seljuk Age!
In 1071 at the Battle of Manzikirt the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines
and occupied entire Anatolia,     (now Turkey)
And set up their Capital there by occupying Nicaea!
Deprived of their Anatolian ‘bread basket’ the Byzantine Emperor
Alexius Comnenus the First,
Appealed to Pope Urban II to save him from the scourge of those
Seljuk Turks!
The Seljuk Turks had also occupied Jerusalem and entire Palestine,
And prevented the Christian pilgrims from visiting its Holy Shrines!
The Seljuk, who converted to Islam, became staunch defenders of the
Muslim faith,
And played an historic role during the First Two Holy Crusades!

THE CHURCH AND THE SECULAR STATE (11th Century) :
The ecclesiastic differences and theological disputes between Western (Latin) and Eastern(Greek Orthodox) Church,
And the authority over the Norman Church at Sicily;
Resulted in the Roman and Constantinople Churches
ex-communicating each other in 1054 AD!
This East-West Schism was soon followed by the ‘Investiture Controversy’,
Over the right to appoint Bishops and many other doctrinal complexities;
Between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV  
of Germany.
Here I have cut short many details to spare you some agony!
Pope Gregory was succeeded by Pope Urban the Second,
Who was a shrewd diplomat and a great orator as Rome’s Papal Head.
Pope Urban seized this opportunity and responded to the Byzantine
Emperor’s desperate call,
Hoping to add lands to his Papal Estate after the Seljuk Turks fall!
Also to reign in those errant knights and warlords, -
Who plundered for greed and as mercenaries fought!
And finally, by liberating Jerusalem as Christendom’s Religious Superior,
Pope Urban hoped to assert his authority over the Holy Roman Emperor!
It is therefore an unfortunate fact of History, that the news of re-conquest of Jerusalem failed to reach Italy;
Even though Pope Urban died fourteen days later,
on the 29th of July, in 1099 AD!

                 MOTIVATION AND THE MEDIEVAL MIND
The Medieval Age was the Age of Faith, which preceded the Age of Reason;
A God-centred world where to think otherwise smacked of treason!
It is rather difficult for us in our Modern times,
To fully comprehend the Early Medieval mind!
The Church was the very framework of the Medieval Society itself,
With their Monasteries and Abbeys as front-line of defence
against Evil;
While combating the deceptions and temptations of the Devil!
It was a mysterious and enchanted Medieval World where superstition
and ignorance was rife;
Where with blurred boundaries both the natural and the supernatural
existed side by side !
When education was confined to the Clergy and the Upper Class of
the Society exclusively;
In such a world the human mind was preoccupied with thoughts
of Salvation and piety;
And in an afterlife hoping to escape the pains of Purgatory!
So in Nov 1095 at the Council of Clermont in France,
When Pope Urban II made his clarion call to liberate the
Holy Lands from the infidels,
The massive congregation responded by shouting, “God Wills It”,
‘’God Wills It’’,  - which echoed beyond France!
The Crusade offered an opportunity to absolve oneself of sins,
And to even die a martyrs death for a Holy cause, which motivated
them from within!
Now for actual action kindly read the Concluding portion,
I tried to make it short and crisp!


    STORY OF THE HOLY CRUSADE : CONCLUSION
                                 PART TWO

THE  PEASANT’S CRUSADE (April-Oct 1096) :
Even before the First Crusade could get officially organized,
A Peasant’s Crusade of around forty thousand took-off,
taking Pope Urban by surprise!
When these untrained motley body of men led by the French
Lord Walter Sans Avoir, and Peter Hermit reached Constantinople;
They disappointed Emperor Alexius, who for seasoned Norman
Knights had bargained.
So Alexius ferried them to Anatolia across the Bosporus Strait,
Only to be massacred there by the hardy Seljuk Turks who sealed
their fate!
Thus ended the Peasant’s Crusade, also known as “The People’s
Crusade’’.
But Peter the Hermit survived as he had returned to Constantinople
for help,
And participated with the main Crusade, motivating them till the
very end,
With his sermons and prayers till their objectives were attained!

THE CRUSADE LEADERS AND THEIR ROUTES:
Now let me tell you about those Crusade Leaders and their routes,
For this true story to be better understood.
In the Summer of 1096 French nobles and seasoned knights,
along with Bishop Adhemar the Papal Legate,
Set out in large contingents by land and sea routes, forming the
Christian Brigade!
Their rendezvous point being Constantinople, capital of the
Byzantine Empire,
And from there across the Bosporus to enter Turkey then known
as Anatolia;
To finally take on the Seljuk Turks, in response to the request  
made by Emperor Alexius.
Raymond the IV of Toulouse, the senior-most and richest of
the Crusaders,
Was an old veteran who had fought the Moors in Spain was one of
the Crusade leaders.
He brought the largest army and was accompanied by the Papal Legate, and his wife Elvira,
And later played a major role in the siege of Antioch, and Nicea.
Raymond along with the veteran and pious bachelor knight
Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the First Ruler of Jerusalem
after its capture and fall;
Was accompanied by Godfrey’s ambitious brother Baldwin and
a large contingent, -
They followed the land route to Constantinople.
The fierce Norman knight Bohemond of Taranto, along with
Robert II Duke of Flanders, and the Norman knights from
Southern Italy,
Followed the sea route to Byzantium from the Italian port of Bari.
I have mentioned here only a few, to cut short my story!
At Constantinople Emperor Alexius, administered a Holy Oath of
allegiance to the Crusade Leaders;
Hoping to win back his captured lands after the defeat of the
Seljuk Turks.

THE SIEGE OF NICEA (14th May – 19th Jun 1097) :
This captured Byzantine City was then the Seljuk Capital;
With 200 towers its mighty walls was a formidable defence!
Emperor Alexius sent his army to help the Crusaders in the siege,
And by blockading the food supply lines the city was besieged;
In the absence of the City’s ruler who had gone on a campaign
to the East, -
Alexius’ Generals secretly worked out a negotiation of surrender
and peace!
The Crusaders were angry and felt they were being cheated,
But Alexius gave them money, horses, and gifts to get them
compensated!
On the 26th of June the Crusader army was split into two contingents,
And the Turks ambushed and surrounded the vanguard led by Bohemund the Valiant.
Turk cavalry shooting arrows mauled part of the vanguard,
When the rearguard of Godfrey, and Baldwin charged in
and rescued them from the Turks!
Historians call this the Battle of Dorylaeum;  (1st Jul 1097)  
It was the first major battle  which provided a taste of
things to come!

SIEGE OF EDESSA:
Next a three month’s long and arduous march followed
under the sweltering Summer’s heat,
When five hundred lost their lives due to sheer fatigue!
Baldwin lost his wife God Hilda, a rich heiress;
Now with all her wealth going back to her blood line
as per tradition of those days,
Placed ambitious Baldwin under great mental and financial
distress!
So Baldwin with a few hundred knights headed East for the
rich Christian city of Edessa,
With intentions of claiming it as his own after the loss of his
wife Hilda!
The citizens there backed Baldwin and gave him an Armenian
Christian lady to be his wife,
And against their old childless Ruler Thoros, they plotted to
take his life!
It was not a great start for the idealism of the Crusade,
Since motivated by greed Baldwin had carved out his own
State;
While Edessa also became the First State to be established
by the Holy Crusade!

THE SIEGE OF ANTIOCH  (21 Oct 1097- 02 Jun 1098) :
Antioch was an old Roman city built around 300 BC,
Its six gates and towers fortified the city.
Its formidable walls were built by the Byzantine Emperor
Justinian the First,
And twelve years prior to the arrival of the Crusaders,
Antioch had got occupied by the Turks!
In the absence of a Centralised Command, the Crusade leaders
frequently argued and quarrelled;
Since the majority preferred a siege, so Antioch got finally
surrounded.
When food supply ran short during the winter, both
starvation and desertion plagued the Crusaders;
While Antioch’s Governor Yagi-Siyan appealed for
assistance from his distant brothers the Turks.
He tied messages on legs of trained homing pigeon,
A unique postal service of those early days!
End May 1098 brought news of a large Muslim army
commanded by Emir Kerbogha,
Had set course from Mosul to liberate Antioch from
the Crusaders!
The Crusaders now had to break in fast into Antioch,
or face those 75,000 strong Turkish force!
The Twin Towers on the southern side was manned by
an Armenian Christian Muslim convert named Firuz,
Who was bribed by Bohemund to betray Antioch!
Firuz let down rope ladders for the Crusaders to climb
inside,
And a massacre followed late into the ****** night!
Next day Emir Kerbogha’s troops arrived and the
situation got reversed,
The attackers now lay besieged by those Seljuk Turks!
After fifty-two days of trying siege food supply ran out,
Morale of the Crusaders were rather low, and some even
feared a route!
Now buried in the Church of St. Peter, Peter Bartholomew
the French priest found the ‘Holy Lance’,
About which he had a vision in advance!
This find raised the morale of the Crusaders, and some
even went into a spiritual trance!
For Peter claimed this ‘Holy Relic’ had pierced Christ’s body
after his Crucifixion;
And the Crusading army now moved out of the city in full
battle formation!
Soon after the Turkish army of Kerbogha retreated fearing
devastation!
This victory has been attributed to God and His miraculous
intervention!

                     LIBERATION OF JERUSALEM
After the conquest of Antioch in June 1098, the Crusaders
stayed on till the year got completed.
Though the death of the Papal Legate in August got them
rather depressed;
While Bohemund of Taranto took over Antioch, which now
became the Second Crusader State;
And Raymond of Toulouse became the undisputed Leader
of The Crusade!
Next travelling through Tripoli, Beirut, Tire and Lebanon;
To liberate Bethlehem they sent off Tancred, and Baldwin
of Le Bourg.
On the 5th of June they liberated Bethlehem, and on the
Seventh of June they reached the gates of Jerusalem!
Facing acute shortage of food and water their initial attack
failed to materialise,
When priest Peter Desiderius’ vision of the deceased Papal
Legate came as a pleasant surprise!
This vision commanded them to fast, atone for their sins and
make amends,
By walking barefoot in prayer around the Holy City of Jerusalem!
After a final assault on the 15th of July 1099, they broke into
the City,
Killing all Muslims and Jews with impunity!
Pious Godfrey of Bouillon refusing to wear the crown, became
the First Ruler of this Third Crusader State;
And objectives of the Crusaders were finally attained!
With the formation of warrior monks of ‘Hospitallers’ and
‘Knight Templers’, wearing White and Red Crosses respectivel
RELEVANT LESSONS CAN BE DRAWN FROM PAST HISTORY!
1.

When I
was young
I listened to
Billy the Kid

I galloped
across the
living room floor
giddy upping
in an ecstatic
square dance
with my beloved
America

excitedly
enraptured
boundlessly
enthralled
in youthful
zeal
ebulliently  
yodeling
hymns
whistling
reveries to
America’s
heroic prairie
songs

a precocious
kinder beaming  
moved and illumined
by the broiling fanfare
of trilling trumpets

to uphold the promise
I pledged allegiance
to diligent  work
galloping onward
on ponies of
reverent faith
respectful duty
playful engagement
and guardianship

2.

expectation
never fell short
of resounding
supranaturalistic
optimism

energising
the sweep of
a nation’s
self evident
exceptionalism

our democratic
vista stirred
and steeped

a nation of
wheelwrights
building
wagon trains
to traverse
stratified latitudes
with sturdy ladders
erected with common
sense sensibility
of hands to work
and hearts to God

earthen
yeoman
dancing in
wheat fields
threshing sheaves
of prosperity
their exertions
elevating
families
raising
a glorious chorus,
a peeling crescendo
of horns of plenty
splayed across
landscapes of
an ennobled
nation
placing fruits
of labor upon
ascendent
alters to
to receive
the anointing
of abundance

the lighted grace
of infinite possibilities
shines for a grueling
world listening to the
clamouring drumbeats
sounding in the hearts
of all grace anointed
republicans


3.  

No lullabies
no quiet moonlit nights
we ardently
dance on keys
boasting soul
filled dexterity
the quick self
assuredness
extemporaneously
jazz tapping
across bold
hidden rondos
grasping
transcendence
squarely set
in the minds eye
of unbroken resolve
our cool countenance
an unassailable
righteous destination

any
spare sweeping
plaintive introspection
lends space to
affirm
an
affirmation
beginning
with the individual
unum to e pluribus

solitary dancers
incorporated into
fully enfranchised
troopers

the gyrations
the rhythms and steps
of individuated melodies
join to form a harmonious whole
a beautifully woven consensus

this democratic symphony
perfected in an intelligent
choreography of
separate people
sojourning  
toward
a mutually
constructed
shared destiny

aspirational desires
call forth generations
of spirits boldly engaging
the challenges upholding
the rights and privilege
of all citizens
the celebratory harvest
of a new nations
natural law


4.

As a man
I cruise
along
Main Street
in a joyless
joy ride
gliding by
disassembled
factories
moldering schools
defunct governments

surveying the
demolished ruins
of cities,
the decrepit
wrecking ball
of history
is busy,
rolling through
towns
not worthy
of cast iron
destruction
forged in
foreign kilns

we built palaces
to democracy
in the tiniest hamlets
dotting the granges
wholly assimilated
into a national congress
of freemen

today our
congress
is scattered
dialog seeking
resolution is considered
betrayal to holy
partisanship...

selfish insistence
masquerades as
high ideals

portraiture
of obstinance
is a grotesque
reflection
of virtue

we have
reduced
the peoples
house

to a battlefield
for tribes…..

once freemen
now captives….

soulless ghosts
wandering lost
inside grand
rotundas...

mocked
by murals
and inert
granite statuary
howling
expiration dates
of timeless
psalms

sojourning
the trail of tears
drinking from bowls
of anguish

our only
respite
the silent
ruins we
find impossible
to leave

fear fills our bellies
rust stains our hearts
abiding acrimony
ain’t easily brushed
from dust laden cloths

the deconstruction
of dead cities, mark
expired civilizations
centuries in the making
hammered by the blows
of the mightiest blacksmiths
with precision and deft craft


5.

the spareness of
Martha Graham's set
frame black shadows
of fortitude

it always starts
with the individual

then surely
sure footedness
measured footsteps
boldly dance about
the lily pads
of the keyboard
a resounding ballet
the arms wave
like swaying stalks of wheat
but hurry to respond
opportunity knocks
conditions change
the group awaits
to be joined

my pirouette
remains my solitary mark
on the weaving spindles
crafting the mosaic
of a complex American
complexion

the possibility
the promise
laid before us
wheat fields
of democracy
tilled planted
attended

the wondrous yields of
an Appalachian Spring
the promise
hectare of grace
apportioned to all
citizens

the promise
harvest of liberty
freedom
of opportunity
all anointed
freemen
conferred an
amazing grace

civil discourse
was once spoken
we can learn the
lost languages again
sitting on the porch
with neighbors
sipping ice tea
sharing thoughts on
hot summer evenings
caring too care

but scoundrels
became heroes
we fetishized
idiosyncrasies
of insisted
entitlement

we ******
the whole by
exalting the part

we dare not condemn them
lest we condemn ourselves




6.

the west was once woolly wild
I hear the sweeping sound
of my youth rustle again
the dramatic symphony
of a brilliant people
filled with courage
undeterred optimism
claiming a continent
manifesting a new
Pax Americana
a century
of immigrants  

coming to integrate
coming to assimilate
coming to believe in the promise
coming to make a new promise

I came to hear Copland
when I was young

when America was young
when promises were made
and sworn by a brilliant
fanfare of trumpets

when America was young
Copland composed
when America was young
a promise was made

come forth brothers
come forth sisters
come claim
the promise
of a simple gift


Aaron Copland:
Billy The Kid

11/29/11
Oakland
jbm
v V v Mar 2011
His nights are restless, endless dreams
of young men climbing ladders.
The ones who stop to fix their vests
are left below, row after row
there seems no end, distorted faces,
silent screams through bottle bottom glass.

Twenty winters wishing that
the dream might finally end,
he tilts his head and looks at God
above his bed, a crucifix upon the wall,
his Jesus hangs and bleeds for sins
of lesser men but for him there is no comfort,
he can't escape the scene of drifting death
and flotsam, sailors drinking blood
from swollen corpses, greedy
in the eyes like the sharks
that encircle them.

When daylight comes
still no relief, he sits among
his salty sheets and chokes
on waves of guilt. Deceit
will always be his master,
every day no different
than the rest
except,
today he’s had enough,
the dead,
they will not cease their torment.

Twenty winters waiting
but the dead won’t go away.

The boys who stopped to fix their vests
The man with gaping wound in chest
The burning wreckage going down
The screams of those who soon would drown
The oily water thick as mud
The utter chaos, flesh and blood
The rabid thirst he could not quench
afloat in pools of human stench

He goes outside and lies upon
the grass, a Navy Colt revolver
in one hand, a toy soldier in the other,
he puts the gun against his head
and pulls the trigger.

Twenty winters

Twenty winters

Rest
In memory of Charles B. McVay,  Rear Admiral US Navy, commanding officer of the USS Indianapolis, sunk buy a Japanese torpedo, July 30, 1945 IIIhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_B._McVay_III
Em Feb 2014
I knew a girl
Back in my hometown
And should you ever
Decide to go down
To see the hills
And valleys
There's no better view
Than Allie's.

I knew a girl
On holiday
Who liked to sit
Next to the bay
And look to the sea
When it's sunny
There's no better ocean
Than Bonnie's.

I knew a girl
At a B&B;
When I lost my way
In Sicily
At the end
Of your journey
There's no better bed
Than Courtney's.

I knew a girl
Who worked at a club
And liked jazz, blues
And jailhouse rock
If you like the sound
Of harmonicas
There's no better show
Than Danica's.

I knew a girl
Who breathed in fumes
Of marijuana
And did *****
If you like to get
Delirious
There's no better trip
Than Emilia's.

I knew a girl
That made no fuss
And bathed in sweat
And reeked of musk
If you're into
All that hanky-panky
There's no better bed
Than Frankie's.

I knew a girl
With perfect teeth
But had a thing
For eating sweets
And if you lose
Your stash of candy
There's no better place to look
Than Ginny's.

I knew a girl
At a fancy bar
With salon-fresh hair
And a red sports car
I'm gonna take her home
Or better yet
There's no better place
Than Harriet's.

I knew a girl
She had no shame
I barely even
Caught her name
When you're in the mood
For something obscene
There's no better bedroom
Than Irene's.

I knew a girl
Who liked to dance
And displayed a fondness
For romance
If you'll love her 'til
The end of days
There's no better love
Than Juliet's.

I knew a girl
Who spoke her mind
And didn't care
For cuffs and fines
So if protesting's your
Idea of a date
There's no better activist
Than Kate.

I knew a girl
Knew how to work a pole
As long as people
Kept dealing the dough
So if you fancy
Yourself a high rolla'
There's no better showgirl
Than Lola.

I knew a girl
We met at the gym
She was into the whole
Fitness thing
If you can keep up
On treadmills and weights
There's no better body
Than May's.

I knew a girl
Who could make a mean shake
Whether by ocean or poolside
Or down by the lake
If you have the time
To head out to Bora
There's no better smoothie
Than Nora's.

I knew a girl
In the symphony
Who played the double bass
In perfect harmony
If you like to watch
The orchestra
There's no better sound
Than Octavia's.

I knew a girl
In New Orleans
She could read tarot cards
And decipher dreams
If you'd like to know
The things to be
There's no better fortune
Than Penelope's.

I knew a girl
Who was quite possessive
And I must admit
A bit of a sadist
But if you can look past
That killer grin
There's no better poison
Than Quinn's.

I knew a girl
With venomous lips
And razors on her
Fingertips
That troublemaker
Will give you hell
But there's no better trouble
Than Rochelle's.

I knew a girl
At an art exhibit
She liked the emotions
Raw and inhibited
If you ever pass
By a gallery
There's no better aesthetic
Than Stephanie's.

I knew a girl
Who could arabesque
And pirouette
With all the best
If you'd like to try
A ballerina
There's no better plié
Than Tina's.

I knew a girl
From the Philippines
And was the brightest star
You'd have ever seen
Major in astrophysics
A real Minerva
There's no better brain
Than Ursa's.

I knew a girl
Who lived next door
And when she woke up
Every morn
She'd start playing
The harmonica
There's no better wake-up call
Than Veronica's.

I knew a girl
Who was always loud
Soon as she had an idea
It had to come out
Bursting with
Youthful energy
There's no better mind
Than Wendy's.

I knew a girl
She held the reign
Over all pretentiously
Spelled names.
Somebody ought
To give her a tiara
For there's no better Ciara
Than Xiaira.

I knew a girl
Who owned a shop
She'd sell the goods
And work the mop
She's a hard worker
That one
And there's no better employee
Than Yvonne.

I knew a girl
With a heart of aurum
With grace, she observes
The proper decorum
Climbing the ladders
Never once a pariah
There's no better friend
Than Zariah.
I deeply apologize for the overuse of the word "harmonica." No, really!
Taylor St Onge Apr 2015
Buddha belly, rabbit’s foot,
how much luck can you get
                                                    from touching the dead?

(Maybe that’s the reason behind Jeffrey Dahmer’s slaughtering of
                                                                ­                         seventeen men;
maybe that’s the reason why we break wishbones—
to remind ourselves that this bone is dead
                                            these hands are alive
                                            do something with them.)

In some cultures, it is socially acceptable to
                             eat your child’s placenta—
there is good fortune in it, power in it.

(I wonder if this is the reason why cannibals eat their victims.)

Number seven.  Cross on the wall.
         I wish you good luck.
idk. this is one of the shortest poems I've ever written.
I thought of killing myself because I am only a bricklayer
      and you a woman who loves the man who runs a drug store.

I don't care like I used to; I lay bricks straighter than I
      used to and I sing slower handling the trowel afternoons.

When the sun is in my eyes and the ladders are shaky and the
      mortar boards go wrong, I think of you.
Donall Dempsey Apr 2020
THE SNAKES AND LADDERS OF TIME

She gasps
at the faded photograph.


A crease
hides my smile


"What...you. . . you
were four?"

She's never considered
this before.

I smile at her
disbelief

that this fat old man
could ever have been

surely not
her age.

She acts as if she is
the first four ever to be.

Ahhhhh the snakes
and ladders of time.

"Oh it's a long time since
I was four...but four...I was for sure!"

I laugh at her
incredulity.

"So where did your four go!"
she asks like a defence lawyer

turning to the judge and jury
of her lined up dolls.

"And how did you get so old?"
she clinches the conversation convincingly.

Yes...where did I go
I question myself.

Four year olds never die
I tell my self.

They play hide and seek in
the minds of fat old men.

Popping mischievously up
with a now and then yell.

"Here I
be!"

"But if you were four
once upon a time ago..."

I feel her argument
close about me.

"Then you should know why
I don't want to go to bed!"

I check with my former four year old self
and sure enough he says: "Yup!"

I have to admit she
has got me...there.

Trapped by my child's
impeccable logic...******!

And so we have 4
extra Snakes and Ladders

played with all her
extreme hysteria.

Stops only
when I fall asleep.

She covers me with a towel
from the bathroom.

Puts her self
to bed thank you very much.

Tells Mummy
"Shhhhhhhh...

Daddy's
sleeping!
Joshua Vincens Apr 2013
Ya wonda why I'm filled with so much passion and rage/
But that's what happ'n when ya lessen a man to a cage/
I haven't even unleashed the darkness/
Imagine a soul that's cold 'n' heartless/
Crowley is weak compared to the I beast/
Within me, 'n He I now release/
It in I and we have begun to feast/
Spit it out/
Shut ya impudent mouth n listen/
Time ta quit ya ******' insolent dissin'/
Check me out I'm hookless/
Reckless/
You follow the text n I'm bookless/
Check this/
Determination look me in my Eyes/
Ya gunna stay in tha gutta, ***** *****, just to watch me rise/
RA!/
I am incomparable/
Can't match  me, I'm too lyrical/
I am a spastic assassin/
Breath deep/
I am the heir, with anthrax-in/
How I see it, You nuttin' but fails/
You in a row boat *****, n my ***** got sails/
Ya call me crazy/
Ya vision is hazy/
And ya thinkin is lazy/
What I know would make ya a sage see/
I'm filled with these higher optics/
Shouldn't need a telescope ta spot this/
But you do/
What, Hoss is up, Livin life in love/
'N neva givin' a ****/
Crowned/
I Come here to shut ya ta hell down/
------------Chorus-----------
Duranged/
It's Dark n Strange/
Quit ya askin', 'What am I?'/
Darkness Fire burnin' opaque, I neva Die/
Strange Set by Ra, Look to tha Sky/
Nothin' weirder than I/
So Dark N Strange/
I Am, Cryptic Poetic Hark outta Range/
Who is, Dark n Strange/
Ya frightened of tha Wakin' Age/
Ya tormented by hæmaluna change/
IT'S NOW/
Needa label me "I Am" - The Omnipotent is Dark n Strange!/

------------------Verse 2--------------------------------
I'm spittin' real ****, so consider me exlax/
Banishing the lies, I'm leavin'em just facts/
True talk is how this ****'s gunna torment Ya/
Break ya Soul if ya fearin' It, I'm thinkin' torture/
Wake Up/
No fire to go with  your sulfur/
Poor tormented Souls end of time to torch ya/
Flowin' hot speakin' blazen fluid/
Become a fire frequency king druid/
Remain in vain and **** it, You'll die morbid/
In days last You'll be over timid/
Skinnin' weak people like piglets/
Label me 'Naught' I've no limits/
I'm life Livin'  in center aligned/
Tippin' scales them ******' swine/
Ascend win twin minds combine/
Balancing act Life's **** or 'dalini/
Rise Up/
I'm beastin' the intensity/
I climb ladders frequently/
******' sick of livin' hell I harmonize Energy/
Mind insane I'm bringin' ******* madness/
Lost senses found you still sittin' sadness/
Be More/
I'm mastering levels with the Dodecahedron/
Ya livin' lame that's ya lazy ******' conundrum/
I get pure data that's distilled in a cauldron/
Most minds are piles of **** like postmortem/
Abominations bossin' somniliquists with abhorrence/
Only condemnation for such ******' malevolence/
Opened eyes providing ya with luminescence/
End for all contempt contrite by due reverence/

-------Chorus-----------
Duranged/
It's Dark n Strange/
Quit ya askin', 'What am I?'/
Darkness Fire burnin' opaque, I neva Die/
Strange Set by Ra, Look to tha Sky/
Nothin' weirder than I/
So Dark N Strange/
I Am, Cryptic Poetic Hark outta Range/
Who is, Dark n Strange/
Ya frightened of tha Wakin' Age/
Ya tormented by hæmaluna change/
IT'S NOW/
Needa label me "I Am" - The Omnipotent is Dark n Strange/

---------Verse 3----------------------------
I'm Clinically Fearless... Absolutely scared of none/
You're afraid of my haunted paradox... Defined me Fearsome/
I'm sick of this ****** lost society/
Living a worthless illusion no reality/
What is it/
Mass Individuals stuck in egotistical vanities?/
I am goin' crazy contemplatin' such insanity!/
Can't you see/
This is the path of demise for humanity/
You need a hand, so sad/
Refused for me to help you, your bad/
To hear this/
You need to wear a mental harness/
This is the seed of my soul's darkness/
Everybody does share none and lives careless!/
The fruit is hard truth, Ya life is hopeless!/
There's tha gun, here's tha trigger- PULL THIS!/
Should have been Tempus Fugit as We Carpe Diem/
Too late tempers temp-is ****-it Masses parley Global Requiem/
Yeah I know my process is dark & strange/
My mind is warped definitely it is deranged/
After all I Sow & Reap for simple change/
Here is wisdom, which is validated by three/
Blow your ears & gouge your eyes, than you will see/
Divide by none return to your commUnity/
The end of my advice, now reach for DivUnity!

-------Chorus-----------
Duranged/
It's Dark n Strange/
Quit ya askin', 'What am I?'/
Darkness Fire burnin' opaque, I neva Die/
Strange Set by Ra, Look to tha Sky/
Nothin' weirder than I/
So Dark N Strange/
I Am, Cryptic Poetic Hark outta Range/
Who is, Dark n Strange/
Ya frightened of tha wakin' age/
Ya tormented by hæmaluna change/
IT'S NOW/
Needa label me "I Am" - **The Omnipotent is Dark n Strange!
Devon Brock Aug 2019
I used to live downwind of the slaughterhouse,
the one below the high bluff where the state pen towers,
commanding the best view of the marsh lands
and the stink ponds making lime outta ****
for the crops not meant for human consumption;
by the dry grass parks with the broken backboards
and the netless hoops that never slow a ball down.

I used to live downwind of the rendering plant
where the bubbling lard becomes aerosol
and the air reeks of freezerburn bacon and feces,
below the high bluff where the trustees cut grass
in the clean air not meant for the locals
mixing with the immigrants and loser folk
who have knots in their shoelaces that
press against bone when chasing a loose ball.

This town never grew up. Doesn't need to.
There's plenty of ground for the taking.
Plenty of farmers selling out to the downtown club
who cobble the streets in past time fashion,
netting big gains from the professional set
lining the smooth roads annexed to the east.

I used to live downwind of the closing in stink
of renewal, where the cheap rentals and struggle
stores with the marked-up Walmart brands
lining the shelves - expired but still edible -
bide their short time compressed and diced
up like leftovers for dogs.

But this is America. I don't live there anymore.
I got myself a cush gig with a padded ladder
to the top. Did everything I needed to do
for that sure climb out into a cleaner air,
only to find myself bruise-faced and reeling
when the profits didn't match the dream
and the ladders were sold for scrap.
Sara L Russell Jan 2015
Sara L Russell 20/1/15 11:32*

Windows of opportunity
ways of touching base
teamwork with alacrity
cutting to the chase
jingoist linguistics
speaking business tongues
ladders of loquaciousness
rushing up the rungs

See all the little workmates
running for the bus
trying not to be late
not to cause a fuss
every day frenetic
 a speeding metronome
a life too energetic
so glad I work from home.
Westbow Sep 2012
An old tree is
Embracing the soil
Embracing the sky
Without a will

Simply, to thrive
Just as easily
To die
Rid of evening chants

Lacking logic, lacking time
Each thread
Integrates
Thoughtlessly

But we
With ladders of misery
With counts and scales
And endless isolation machines
Our soil is dust
And fabled peace
Lies dormant

Rust creeps over
Our ploughs and tractors...
Harry Roberts Nov 2017
Snakes and Ladders
Forever starting anew,
Seen circles of adders
Biting their tails
To the bone and through.

You got to move quick
In that place and have forethought
Forefront,
Otherwise you'll fall short
When your works not nearly done.

Beware the Ivory fangs
Flashing in the night.
Let fear butterfly into strength
And sight so you can
See which path is right.

Find a ladder
To lead away
From what made you
Madder,
Remember the feeling
Don't daunt
But it matters.

Snakes and Ladders
Beat at its own game,
You choose yours
But I threw the board
To the flame.
Snakes and Ladders
S & |=|
agdp Mar 2010
speaking only
through moves;
we are playing games
of chosen mad-libs
and retracing Uno steps
to find ourselves,
to return back looking
for multiple axes
so you or maybe I can
call bingo!

but I move, without you seeing
you return to reprise tension
lessening these enveloped expectations

rolling single digits
i'll fall behind, though you follow
this trend we seem to allow

hoping to land
on the same space
so that piece of you
may continue
3/16/10 © AGDP
Sam Oliver May 2010
Unlucky
i am a black cat
who has his path crossed by another

Unlucky
i walk under ladders
i had once tried to climb
just to fall back down
to where i am now

Unlucky
i look for hope
like a piece of hay
in a needlestack
and i'm stuck with all the pins

Unlucky
i look on my reflection
in the mirror of my mind
which my ugly sadness shatters

Seven Years More...
Seven Years More...

i beg for a lucky charm,
my 'lucky rabbit's foot'.
Daisy Arcos Oct 2015
We were born into a world of shallow minds and deep disturbances of young millennials mimicking mindless mimes because we were told to stay in line but be yourself but follow me but think "originality."

A generation full of copycatting individuals with monotone mindsets mulling over social ladders and trends dictated by invisible monarchs of industry inviting and spoon feeding insecurities masked as improvements.

A generation spending more time pretending not to care than on passions stifled by our peer pressuring playmates who are all prescribed Vyvanse, Adderall, Ritalin for their incurable imaginations deemed "learning disabilities."

A generation of temporary friendships because no one can connect with each other but we can connect to the internet and chat with strangers and share thoughts, photos, and secrets to a virtual audience that loses interest in an entanglement of wires forming a noose around our sincerity.
Inspired by "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.
Emma E Jones Sep 2013
that night with no sleep
it rest in my head
with the smell of cigarettes
floating through the air

ladders were placed at a window
we made cookie dough i believe
around midnight the real night began

poems read allowed
with words lingering
far into to the night

out in the cold many cigarettes
smoldered in each hand
i lost count as to how many
after three

on the brink of dawn
i sat with coffee in hand
on top of my cold car roof
waiting for the sun to rise

clever words come to mind
as old acquaintances come
and judge me for sitting
and writing about what i see

after a walk
to clear me thoughts
i decide on donuts
with box in hand i climb
up the ladder to a dear friends room
curl up in bed
there i stay till noon

that sober night is my favorite
to remember
not a thought of sleep
only words carefully written
one sleepless night of summer, a favorite story
Jaime Lyn May 2014
I remember
when you were young and wide eyed
excited at the possibility of the world
and afraid because it was all so big and you,
you were the smallest creature in a forest full of monsters

still, you had big dreams and wanted
so badly to write something
so unique and profound
something to make people understand you
understand themselves
see that we are all one
know that we all bleed the same
slippery shades of water color
even if the canvas is is different

Fear is an ugly thing and overshadows
and overwhelms, *******
the life out of life
and the colors out of the rainbow that
is supposed to shine overhead and keep
the bad the things at bay

it crawls into bed with you at night and
keeps you awake, drilling
everything that is wrong
straight through your skull and
into your soul like a
woodpecker, never ceasing
never letting you rest

there is so much that is so hard
to comprehend and make sense of
and it is so much easier to let the fear
take hold of you, wrap it's fingers
tightly around your neck
a noose growing ever tighter, strangling
while you struggle until
you have no voice left to speak

It left you choking
out fragments
and run-on sentences into a journal
that no one would ever see
that still makes me burn when
I flip through those pages reliving
the story of my life that you wrote
all those years ago

I remember
when you thought that no one could see you,
so you lived your life like a child
jumping up to see over the counter,
making make-shift ladders out of whatever
you could find so that you could grasp
everything that always seemed so far above your reach,
losing yourself so easily
in a sea of people
because they were so big
and you were
nothing

You words are a time capsule
that bring me back to a place when
when we stared at each other in the mirror
and curled our tiny fingers into a fist
wanting to smash the glass
because
we were ugly

But my words are a time machine,
my gift to you from the future

You are small still,
but the world is not as big as it used to be
and nothing ever comes easy
but your dreams are coming true,
you did not give up despite
believing so often that you would fail and
you are making a difference

I am afraid
because
everyone is afraid, but
I stand in front of the mirror
young and wide-eyed,
excited about the possibility of the world
and when I look at you now, I know
that we are learning to love each other
finally.

— The End —