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howard brace Feb 2012
Inconspicuous, his presence noted only by the obscurity and the ever growing number of spent cigarette stubs that littered the ground.  It had been a long day and the rain, relentless in its tenacity had little intention of stopping, baleful clouds still  hung heavy, dominating the lateness of the afternoon sky, a rain laden skyline broken only by smoke filled chimney pots and the tangled snarl of corroded television aerials.

     The once busy street was fast emptying now, the lure of shop windows no longer enticed the casual browser as local traders closed their premises to the oncoming night, solitary lampposts curved hazily into the distance, casting little more than insipid pools mirrored in the gutter below, only the occasional stranger scurrying home on a bleak, rain swept afternoon, the hurried slap of wet leather soles on the pavement, the sightless umbrellas, the infrequent rumble of a half filled bus, hell-bent on its way to oblivion.

     In the near distance as the working day ended, a sudden emergence of factory workers told Beamish it was 5-o'clock, most would be hurrying home to a hot meal, while others, for a quick drink perhaps before making the same old sorry excuse... for Jack, the greasy spoon would be closing about now, denying him the comfort of a badly needed cuppa' and stale cheese sandwich.  A subtle legacy of lunchtime fish and chips still lingered in the air, Jack's stomach rumbled, there was little chance of a fish supper for Beamish tonight, it protested again... louder.

     From beneath the eaves of the building opposite several pigeons broke cover, startled by the rattle as a shopkeeper struggled to close the canvas awning above his shop window.  Narrowly missing Beamish they flew anxiously over the rooftops, memories of the blitz sprang to mind as Jack stepped smartly to one side, he stamped his feet... it dashed a little of the weather from his raincoat, just as the rain dashed a little of the pigeons' anxiety from the pavement... the day couldn't get much worse if it tried.  Shielding his face, Jack struck the Ronson one more time and cupped the freshly lit cigarette between his hands, it was the only source of heat to be had that day... and still it rained.

     'By Appointment to Certain Personages...' the letter heading rang out loudly... 'Jack Beamish ~ Private Investigator...' a throat choking mouthful by any stretch of the imagination, thought Jack and shot every vestige of credulity plummeting straight through the office window and amidst a fanfare of trumpet voluntary, nominate itself for a prodigious award in the New Year Honours list.   Having formally served in a professional capacity for a well known purveyor of pickled condiments, who  incidentally, brandished the same patronage emblazoned upon their extensive range of relish as the one Jack had more recently purloined from them... a paid commission no less, which by Jack's certain understanding had made him, albeit fleeting in nature, a professional consultant of said company... and consequently, if they could flaunt the auspicious emblem, then according to Jack's infallible logic, so could Jack.  

     The recently appropriated letterhead possessed certain distinction... in much the same way, Jack reasoned, that a blank piece of paper did not... and whereas correspondence bearing the heading 'By Appointment' may not exactly strike terror into the hearts of man... unlike a really strong pickled onion, it nevertheless made people think twice before playing him for the fool, which sadly, Jack had to concede, they still invariably did... and he would often catch them wagging an accusing finger or two in his direction with such platitudes as... "watch where you put your foot", they'd whisper, "that Jack's a right Shamus...", and when you'd misplaced your footing as many times as Jack had, then he reasoned, that by default the celebrated Shamus must have landed himself in more piles of indiscretion than he would readily care to admit, but that wouldn't be quite accurate either, in Jack's line of work it was the malefactor that actually dropped him in them more often than not.

     A cold shiver suddenly ran down his spine, another quickly followed as a spurt of icy water from a broken rain spout spattered across the back of his neck, he grimaced... Jack's expression spoke volumes as he took one final pull from his half soaked cigarette and flicked it, amid an eruption of sparks against the adjacent brick wall.  Sinking further into the shadow he tipped his fedora against the oncoming rain, then, digging both hands deep within his pockets, he huddled behind the upturned collar of his gabardine... watching.

     It was times such as these when Jack's mind would slip back, in much the same way you might slip back on a discarded banana peel, when a matter of some consequence, or in particular this case the pavement, would suddenly leap up from behind and give the back of Jack's head a resoundingly good slapping and tell him to "stop loafing around in office hours... or else", then drag him, albeit kicking and screaming back into the 20th century.  This intellectual assault and battery re-focused Jack's mind wonderfully as he whiled away the long weary hours until his next cigarette; cup of tea, or the last bus home, his capacity to endure such mind boggling tedium called for nothing less than sheer ******-mindedness and very little else... Beamish had long suspected that he possessed all the necessary qualifications.  

     Jack had come a long way since the early days, it had been a long haul but he'd finally arrived there in the end... and managed to pick up quite a few ***** looks along the way.  Whilst he was with the Police Constabulary... and it was only fair to stress the word 'with', as opposed to the word 'in'... although the more Jack considered, he had been 'with' the arresting officer, held 'in' the local Bridewell... detained at Her Majesties pleasure while assisting the boys in blue with their enquiries over a minor infringement of some local by-law that currently had quite slipped his mind at that moment.  Throughout this enforced leisure period he'd managed to read the entire abridged editions of Kilroy and other expansive works of graffiti exhibited in what passed locally as the next best thing to the Tate Gallery, whereupon it hadn't taken Jack very long to realise that it was always a good place to start if you wanted free breakfast, in fact the weeks bill of fare was tastefully displayed in vivid, polychromatic colour on the wall opposite... you just had to be au-fait with braille.
                            
     No matter how industrious Beamish laboured to rake the dirt there always appeared to be a dire shortage of gullible clients for Jack to squeeze, what would roughly translate as an honest crust out of, and although his financial retainer was highly competitive he understood that potential clients found it bewildering when grappling with the unplumbed depths of his monthly expense account, which would tend to fluctuate with the same unpredictability as the British weather, the rest of Jack's agenda revolved around a little shady moonlighting... in fact he'd happily consider anything to offset the remotest possibility of financial delinquency... short of extortion... which by the strangest twist was the very word prospective clients would cry while Jack beavered around the office with dust-pan and brush sweeping any concerns they may have had frantically under the carpet regarding all culpability of his extra-curricular monthly stipend... and they should remain assured at all times... as they dug deep and fished for their cheque books, and simply look upon it as kneading dough, which eerily enough was exactly the thick wedge of buttered granary that Jack had every intention of carving.

     Were there ever the slightest possibility that a day could be so utterly wretched, then today was that day, Jack felt a certain empathy as he merged with his surroundings... at one with nature as it were.  The rain, a timpani on the metal dustbin lids, by the side of which Beamish had taken up vigil, also taking up vigil and in search of a morsel was the stray mongrel, this was the third time now that he'd returned, the same apprehensive wag, yet still the same hopeful look of expectation in his eyes, a brief but friendly companion who paid more attention to Jack's left trouser leg than anything that could be had from nosing around the dustbins that day... some days you're the dog, scowled Beamish as he shook his trouser leg... and some days the lamppost, Jack's foot swung out playfully, keeping his new friend's incontinence at a safe distance, feigning indignance  the scruffy mongrel shook himself defiantly from nose to tail, a distinct odour of wet dog filled the air as an abundance of spent rainwater flew in all directions.   Pricking one ear he looked accusingly at Jack before turning and snuffled off, his nose resolutely to the pavement and diligently, picking out the few diluted scents still remaining, the poor little stalwart renewed its search for scraps, or making his way perhaps to some dry seclusion known only to itself.
  
     Two hours later and... SPLOSH, a puddle poured itself through the front door of the nearest Public House... SPLOSH, the puddle squelched over to the payphone... SPLOSH, then, fumbling for small change dialled and pressed button 'A'..., then button 'B'... then started all over again amid a flurry of precipitation... SPLASH.  The puddle floundered to the bar and ordered itself a drink, then ebbed back to the payphone again... the local taxi company doggedly refused to answer... finally, wallowing over to the window the puddle drifted up against a warm radiator amidst a cloud of humidity and came to rest... flotsam, cast upon the shore of contentment, the puddle sighed contentedly... the Landlady watched this anomaly... suspiciously.

     The puddle's finely tuned perception soon got to grips with the unhurried banter and muffled gossip drifting along the bar, having little else to loose, other than what could still be wrung from his clothing... Beamish, working on the principle that a little eavesdropping was his stock-in-trade engaged instinct into overdrive and casually rippled in their general direction...  They were clearly regulars by the way one of them belched in a well rehearsed, taken-a-back sort of way as Jack took stock of the situation and was now at some pains to ingratiate himself into their exclusive midst and attempt several friendly, yet relevant questions pertinent to his enquiries... all of which were skillfully deflected with more than friendly, yet totally irrelevant answers pertinent to theirs'... and would Jack care for a game of dominoes', they enquired... if so, would he be good enough to pay the refundable deposit, as by common consent it just so happened to be his turn...  Jack graciously declined this generous offer, as the obliging Landlady, just as graciously, cancelled the one shilling returnable deposit from the cash register, such was the flow of light conversation that evening... they didn't call him Lucky Jack for nothing... discouraged, Beamish turned back to the bar and reached for his glass... to which one of his recent companions, and yet again just as graciously, had taken the trouble to drink for him... the Landlady gave Jack a knowing look, Beamish returned the heartfelt sentiment and ordered one more pint.

     From the licenced premises opposite, a myriad of jostling customers plied through the door, business was picking up... the sudden influx of punters rapidly persuaded Beamish to retire from the bar and find a vacant table.  Sitting, he removed several discarded crisp packets from the centre of the table only to discover a freshly vacated ashtray below... by sleight of hand Jack's Ronson appeared... as he lit the cigarette the fragile smoke curled blue as it rose... influenced by subtle caprice, it joined others and formed a horizontal curtain dividing the room, a delicate, undulating layer held between two conflicting forces.

     The possibility of a free drink soon attracted the attention of a local bar fly, who, hovering in the near vicinity promptly landed in Jack's beer, Beamish declined this generous offer as being far too nutritious and with the corner of yesterdays beer mat, flipped the offending organism from the top of his glass, carefully inspecting his drink for debris as he did so.

     A sudden draught and clip of stiletto heels as the side door opened caused Beamish to turn as a double shadow slipped discreetly into the friendly Snug... a little adulterous intimacy on an otherwise cheerless evening.  The faceless man, concealed beneath a fedora and the upturned collar of his overcoat, the surreptitious lady friend, decked out in damp cony, cheap perfume and a surfeit of bling proclaimed a not too infrequent assignation, he'd seen it all before... the over attentive manner and the band of white, Sun-starved skin recently hidden behind a now absent wedding token, ordinarily it was the sort of assignment Jack didn't much care for... the discreet tail, the candid snapshot through half drawn curtains... and the all too familiar steak tartare... for the all too familiar black eye.

     To the untrained eye, the prospect of Jack's long anticipated supper was rapidly dwindling, when it suddenly focused with renewed vigour upon the contents of a pickled egg jar he'd observed earlier that evening, lurking on the back counter, his enthusiasm swiftly diminished however as the belching customer procured the final two specimens from the jar and proceeded to demolish them.  Who, Jack reflected, after being stood out in the rain all day, had egg all over his face now... and who, he reflected deeper, still had an empty stomach.  Disillusioned, Jack tipped back his glass and considered a further sortie with the taxicab company.

     "FIVE-BOB"!!! Jack screamed... you could have shredded the air with a cheese grater... hurtling into the kerb like a fairground attraction came flying past the chequered flag at a record breaking 99 in Jack's top 100 most not wanted list of things to do that day... and that the cabby should think himself fortunate they weren't both stretched flat on a marble slab, "exploding tyres" Jack spluttered, dribbling down his chin, were enough to give anyone a coronary... further broadsides of neurotic ambiance filled the cab as the driver, miffed at the prospect of missing snooker night out with the lads, considered charging extra for the additional space Jack's profanity was taking...

     And what part of 'Drive-Carefully', fumed Beamish, did the cabby simply not understand, that pavements were there to be bypassed, 'Nay Circumvented', preferably on the left... and not veered into, wildly on the front axle... an eerie premonition of 'jemais-vu' perched and ready to strike like a disembodied Jiminy Cricket on Jack's left shoulder, looking to stick its own two-penny worth in at the 'Standing-Room-Only' arrangements in the overcrowded cab... and at what further point, Jack shrieked, eyes leaping from his head as he lurched forward, shaking his fist through the sliding glass partition, had the cabbie failed to grasp the importance of the word 'Steering-Wheel...' someone wanted horse whipping, and as far as Beamish was concerned the sole contender was the cab driver...

     In having a somewhat sedate and unruffled disposition it had fallen to Beamish... as befalls all great leaders in times of adversity, to single handedly take the bull by the horns, so to speak and at great personal cost, alert the unwary passing motorist...  Waving his arms about like a man possessed whilst performing acrobatic evolutions in the centre of the road as the cabby changed the wheel came whizzing around the corner at a back breaking 98 on Jack's ever growing list... and why, Jack puzzled, why had they all lowered their side windows and gestured back at him in semaphore..?  Rallying to its aid, Jack's head and shoulders now joined his shaking fist through the sliding glass partition and into the cabby's face, "Who" Beamish screeched with renewed vigour ,"Who Was The Man", Jack wanted to know... *"a
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.
howard brace Sep 2012
He'd been conceived in Flamborough, so his little sister assured him some eleven summers ago, which was a tad hard for Rocky to swallow, she was a whole eighteen months his junior and then some... and at that age, well... what did she know, she was only a kid, "on this very rock" River insisted, kicking her heels in delight, "next to this very rock pool" they were both sitting beside, "one sunny afternoon eleven years ago..." and that was how he came by the name of Rocky... she taunted as the rest of the colourful story unfolded... and that she had it all on the best possible authority... although the more she thought about it, had she meant concealed... she wasn't quite sure now, it was all so very confusing at her tender age but thought it sounded close enough not to matter too much and that she would just wait and see which way the wind blew.
        
     It was conceivably an ill wind that blew no one any good that day, especially if you were a boy and just happened to be sat by a rock pool next to your little sister...  Having just taken a well earned drink from a neighbouring rock pool, Sockeye the floppiest Springer Spaniel this side of the Pecos decided that he was going to dig a hole and that he would be digging it deep, then changed his mind mid-dig and decided to have a more down to earth back scratching wriggle instead... then promptly flopped over and slid into the hole... life was sweet.  Now covered from nose to tail with every species of deceased shore life usually found frequenting the high water mark Sockeye, in a blinding flash of canine inspiration judged it would be in everyone's best interest were he to have a really good shakedown which always appeared to go down well on these occasions... and give everyone a good peppering, just so they could see exactly what they'd been missing all their lives.  

     "A rock of all places, for goodness sakes..." and what's more, it was this rock, "Yuk..." he jumped up and wiped his palms on the back of his jeans in disgust, then onto his tee-shirt, then sat back down again and began exploring his left nostril in quiet contemplation before finally jambing his hands back into his pockets... what in Heaven's name had his parents been thinking of..? what on earth was his little sister talking about..? and more to the point, what in fact did conceived mean..?  these were the questions that were uppermost in Rocky's mind as he poked an exploratory stick into the rock pool...  a baby crab marooned by the tide scampered sideways beneath a large pebble and stuck one beady eye out at him... Rocky's sister, seemingly in a world of her own, much like the baby crab sat on the edge of the noteworthy rock kicking her heels, an innocent smile curled the corners of her mouth as she quietly hummed a little song of tuneful bliss to herself and considered what further mischief she could possibly pass her brother's way.

     Rocky tossed a piece of driftwood over his sisters shoulder at a nearby flock of seagulls, squabbling over what appeared to be a discarded bag of fish and chips... Sockeye, simply knowing that his little master wanted to play a game of fetch gambolled after the stick, his ears flying courageously in the still Summer air and burst, amid a melee of feathers into their midst, only to romp back moments later, the stick all but forgotten in the excitement but now proudly sporting the derelict bag of leftovers and the odd splash of guano, his tail lolloping magnificently from side to side... and for the moment at least, leaving the fratching seagulls wheeling noisily overhead and to go about their daily business without further interruption... as for Sockeye, it had been a no contest situation.

     After fourteen years of valiant endeavour his father... Red, so named for his vivid shock of wiry hair, was still engaged in man's eternal struggle to win his significant other half's approbation with the manful art of deck-chair assembly, beach barbeque and other significant gentlemanly pursuits, all while strutting his manly stuff, sporting top of the range beach wear in accordance with the social etiquette of the previous decade... his masculine paunch slumping gallantly atop his waistband...  

     After the same fourteen terms of domestic servitude and the same thirteen identically overlooked anniversary cards a certain someone had no intention of allowing another certain someone to forget so much as one of them... his better half, so she insisted would ride rough shod, administering her own brand of justice at every given opportunity, in much the same way you'd brandish a royal-flush on poker night... or better still, a loaded revolver... and that she personally carried the burden of every ill-fated card that Lady Luck had dealt strung about her neck like Adam's original sin on Judgement Day.  

     Red much preferred the shorter, more condensed name of Rock for his son, rather than the longer more protracted Rocky, as he struggled with the wood and canvas lounger badly trapping the mound of his thumb in the process, "Aaargh...!!!" plunging his throbbing hand deep into the cold, soothing rock-pool "aaah...!!!"   Still marooned by the tide, the baby crab stood poised and ready for action as it considered giving this latest intrusion a good offensive nip, then hang on spitefully as it gave Red the final withering once over with the same baleful eye it had successfully used earlier.

     Acknowledging her husbands misfortune with a perfunctory grunt as she rummaged in her beach-bag for the thermos, she refused to be drawn in where thumbs were concerned right now, after all with his DNA sequencing she was convinced he could probably grow a new one within the month... whilst Tina, well... she was just plain worn-out... but still rejoiced in telling anyone who cared to lend a sympathetic ear in her direction... and who in turn was more than happy to listen to the woes of others and went somewhere along the lines of... 'and had she heard any more of poor Mrs Dorey's lingering martyrdom recently..? you know, the downtrodden lady who lives in the next street but one... and how they would all miss her when she was gone... and how she couldn't wait...' and as rumour had it, neither could her husband...

      Feigning to be otherwise engaged, Tina... as her husband, now blowing frantically on his mangled thumb, stumbled backwards over the half erected lounger and with a spine jarring "Ooomph...!!!" landed squarely in Sockeye's subsiding earthworks... professed total disassociation with the entire fiasco as she plunged her nose even deeper into the overdue library book she'd purposely brought on holiday for just such an occasion, making it perfectly clear that she was a tourist and furthermore, planned to stick with the same itinerary once they returned home... and that while she was here, she did not under any circumstances wish to be disturbed, the notice was clearly displayed hanging from the door handle... but if anyone should, then whoever it was did so at their own peril... and she was keeping score... although a mangled thumb she luxuriated, with the same roguish smile curling the corners of her mouth as the one normally found playing around her daughter's... was equally as heart warming.

      All Tina wanted was one week of uninterrupted peace and quiet in Flamborough, preferably with a certain someone out from under her feet then spend what might pass for several undisturbed hours sitting quietly by the rock pool comparing notes on eye makeup and the feminine merits of pedicure with the little crab who, still marooned by the tide was now sat busily knitting four pairs of matching leg warmers in the cool, still water but that was only if that certain someone... a shrill  "AAaargh...!!!" somewhat more desperate than the first, ****** itself upon the as yet unaggressive afternoon as it gyrated across the warm Jurrasic rock and recoiled out to sea... "now where was I", twisting her book uppermost "oh yes..! someone was going to pay..." only now it was going to be sooner rather than later, but only if that certain someone didn't finish the seating arrangements before the Sun disappeared and drift into some backstreet tea-room before all the lemon cheesecake sold out, or was that she reflected, simply too much to ask.

     It was his Surname that Rock found so objectionable, or it had been right up until his little sister's enlightening disclosure, now it was both names Rocky disliked, it would have been far kinder had Rock Salmon been sandwiched between sliced bread and given to Sockeye... who's solemn duty, from the first mouthful to the very last, was to gaze up beseechingly from beneath the kitchen table  and devour anything that passed his way, even the postman had to be quick about his business or have his arm follow the mail through the letter box... then Sockeye would just smack his lips and help himself to seconds.  

     All Rocky's mum had thought about for the last fourteen years was seconds... every last solitary one of them since she'd suffered with an infection of matrimonial neurosis which had deprived her of common sense and her maiden name, from Chovey to that of Salmon and how with hindsight she should have taken an Aspirin instead, wedlock she asserted was everything the name claimed to be and was without doubt the worst move she'd ever made... and what's more was seen as a bad move in whoever's wedding album you just happened to be paying your condolences to.

     Rocky would never be so fortunate on that score, unlike his sister he was stuck with Salmon for good, his grandma-Ann by all accounts had been dead set against the union from word Go and saw his father as someone who would always be out of his depth in whatever rock pool he found himself in, swimming against the tide as it were, rather than going with the flow... and it appeared that Rocky, almost eleven years into a life sentence, was about to flounder in the same murky undertow as the rest of the Salmon family... only he couldn't swim.

     "There"! her husband exclaimed "all finished... better late than never eh', who fancies trying it"? his wife luxuriated over the words 'better late' and wondered whether her new earrings, her latest acquisition would complement formal mourning attire.  Red dusted off the palms of his hands with the certain knowledge of a job well done and cautiously took one step back, looking with justifiable pride at the outcome of his manly exertions of the last two hours, this was what holidays were all about he declared, one man pitted against insurmountable odds...  His wife meanwhile was getting to grips with more odds of her own than you could safely expect to shake a stick at... her husband being one of them.  

     Having gathered her offspring with the promise of verbal earache if they didn't... and finished packing the beach-bag, Tina finally located Sockeye peering out from the shade of an adjacent rock, wisps of feathers poked tellingly from the corners of his mouth, his tail beating mischievously on the shingle decided in one further blaze of canine brainstorming, as Tina attempted to slip his collar on that a game of tag would just about round the day off nicely... Tina then devoted the next ten minutes chasing him amid unrestrained salvo's of cheering from the rest of the family... then bid goodbye to the little crab who, still marooned by the tide waved a friendly pincer in return... and trusted that she wouldn't have too long to wait for the next rising tide back home, then she slid off the rock with a corrosive... "the deck-chair attendant would have shown you" she snapped "and don't forget the deposit when you take them back" then double checking that she landed squarely on his foot she marched past, her floral sun hat jammed resolutely on her head at what she considered a jaunty angle with her equally jaunty, angular children scrambling in hot pursuit, back in the direction of their lodgings.  

     "Woof "..? said a bewildered Sockeye, bringing everyone to an abrupt halt... and with paws the size of place-mats, he wasn't going anywhere he didn't want to... he hunkered down with a look of hurtful accusation on his face, "oh yes you are my lad"! said his mistress "I've met your sort before" and knew exactly where to place the toe of her dainty size-5 as Sockeye, digging his heals in even further created swathes of canine furrows up the beach, leaving her husband the unwitting holder and in sole possession of the overlooked guest-house keys... and somewhat resigned to clean up his own masculinity and dismantle the recently assembled, now redundant deck-chairs by himself... as for Tina, well... she'd had quite enough excitement for one day thank you very much.

     Morning register was always the worst he thought, as they trooped back along the shingle beach, Rocky making surprisingly good furrows of his own... but the rest of the class loved it and saw it as the highlight of each day... Rocky's form teacher, despite showing a brave face was always hard pressed to avoid bursting into hysterics every time she worked her way down the register to the letter 'S' and would attempt to bypass it altogether, jumping from 'R' to 'T' and just prayed that no one else had noticed, but it hadn't taken the class very long to point out her oversight and... "please Miss" they'd all chant "we haven't had Salmon all week" and while the rest of the class were having convulsive fits, Rocky would elbow the lad sat at the next desk in the ribs... and promptly get one hundred lines for his trouble... thank goodness it was school holidays.  Why couldn't they have been given respectable names like Seymour Legge, Rock wondered, who sat over by the window or perhaps the teachers pet, Anna Prentice or even, Robyn Banks at a pinch, but definitely not what they'd been given and certainly not Salmon, they were the most hilarious names he could imagine and if someone was looking down on them right now he thought... then they had a very unique sense of humour indeed and Rock said so... "why" his little sister asked sweetly, "what's wrong with River Salmon".

                                                      ­                         ...   ...   ...*

a work in progress*                                                        ­                                                              240­6
Cyril Blythe Sep 2012
I followed him down the trail until we got to the mouth of the mines. The life and energy of the surrounding maples and birches seemed to come to a still and then die as we walked closer, closer. The air was cold and dark and damp and smelt of mold and moths. Delvos stepped into the darkness anyways.
“Well, girl, you coming or aren’t you?”
I could see his yellowed tobacco teeth form into a slimy smile as I stepped out of the sun. It was still inside. The canary chirped.
“This tunnel is just the mouth to over two hundred others exactly like it. Stay close. Last thing I need this month is National Geographic on my *** for losing one of their puppet girls.”
“Delvos, ****. I have two masters degrees.” He rolled his eyes.
“Spare me.” He trotted off around the corner to the left, whistling.
“I survived alone in the jungles of Bolivia alone for two months chasing an Azara’s Spinetail. I climbed the tallest mountain in Nepal shooting Satyr Tragopans along the cliff faces. In Peru I…” Suddenly I felt the weight of the darkness. In my blinding anger I lost track of his lantern. I stopped, my heartbeat picked up, and I tried to remind myself of what I did in Peru.
I followed a Diurnal Peruvian Pygmy-Owl across the gravel tops of the Andes Mountains, no light but the Southern Cross and waning moon above. I am not scared of darkness. I am not scared of darkness.
I stopped to listen. Somewhere in front of me the canary chirped.

When I first got the job in Vermont I couldn’t have been more frustrated. Mining canaries? Never had I ever ‘chased’ a more mundane bird. Nonetheless, when Jack Reynolds sends you on a shoot you don’t say no, so I packed up my camera bag and hoped on the next plane out of Washington.
“His name is John Delvos.” Jack said. He handed me the manila case envelope. “He’s lived in rural Vermont his entire life. Apparently his family bred the canaries for the miners of the Sheldon Quarry since the early twenties. When the accident happened the whole town basically shut down. There were no canaries in the mines the day the gas killed the miners. His mother died in a fire of some sort shortly after. The town blamed the Delvos family and ran them into the woods. His father built a cabin and once his father died, Delvos continued to breed the birds. He ships them to other mining towns across the country now. We want to run a piece about the inhumanity of breeding animals to die so humans won’t.” I stood in silence in front of his deep mahogany desk, suddenly aware of the lack of make-up on my face. He smiled, “You’re leaving on Tuesday.”
“Yes sir.”
“Don’t look so smug, Lila. This may not be the most exotic bird you’ve shot but the humanity of this piece has the potential to be a cover story. Get the shots, write the story.”

“Do you understand the darkness now, Ms. Rivers? Your prestigious masters degrees don’t mean **** down here.” Delvos reappeared behind the crack of his match in a side tunnel not twenty yards in front of me. He relit the oily lantern and turned his back without another word. I reluctantly followed deeper into the damp darkness.
“Why were there no canaries in the mine on, you know, that day?” The shadows of the lantern flickered against the iron canary cage chained on his hip and the yellow bird hopped inside.
“I was nine, Ms. Rivers. I didn’t understand much at the time.” We turned right into the next tunnel and our shoes crunched on jagged stones. All the stones were black.
“But surely you understand now?”
The canary chirped.

When I first got to Sheldon and began asking about the location of the Delvos’ cabin you would have thought I was asking where the first gate to hell was located. Mothers would smile and say, “Sorry, Miss, I can’t say,” and hurriedly flock their children in the opposite direction. After two hours of polite refusals I gave up. I spent the rest of the first day photographing the town square. It was quaint; old stone barbershops surrounded by oaks and black squirrels, a western themed whiskey bar, and a few greasy spoon restaurants interspersed in-between. I booked a room in the Walking Horse Motel for Wednesday night, determined to get a good nights sleep and defeat this towns fear of John Delvos tomorrow.
My room was a tiny one bed square with no TV. Surprise, surprise. At least I had my camera and computer to entertain myself. I reached into the side of my camera bag and pulled out my Turkish Golds and Macaw-beak yellow BIC. I stepped out onto the dirt in front of my door and lit up. I looked up and the stars stole all the oxygen surrounding me. They were dancing and smiling above me and I forgot Delvos, Jack, and all of Sheldon except it’s sky. Puffing away, I stepped farther and farther from my door and deeper into the darkness of night. The father into the darkness the more dizzying the stars dancing became.
“Ma’am? Everything okay?”
Startled, I dropped my cigarette on the ground and the ember fell off.
“I’m sorry, sir. I was just, um, the stars…” I snuffed out the orange glow in the dirt with my boot and extended my hand, “Lila Waters, and you are?”
“Ian Benet. I haven’t seen you around here before, Ms. Waters, are you new to town?”
“I’m here for work. I’m a bird photographer and journalist for National Geographic. I’m looking for John Delvos but I’m starting to think he’s going to be harder to track than a Magpie Robin.”
The stars tiptoed in their tiny circles above in the silence. Then, they disappeared with a spark as Ian lit up his wooden pipe. It was a light colored wood, stained with rich brown tobacco and ash. He passed me his matches, smiling.
“What do you want with that old *******? Don’t tell me National Geographic is interested in the Delvos canaries.”
I lit up another stick and took a drag. “Shocking, right?”
“Actually, it’s about time their story is told.” Benet walked to the wooden bench to our left and patted the seat beside him. I walked over. “The Delvos canaries saved hundreds of Sheldonian lives over the years. But the day a crew went into the mines without one, my father came out of the ground as cold as when we put him back into it in his coffin.”
I sat in silence, unsure what to say. “Mr. Benet, I’m so sorry…”
“Please, just Ian. My father was the last Mr. Benet.”
We sat on the wooden bench, heat leaving our bodies to warm the dead wood beneath our legs. I shivered; the stars dance suddenly colder and more violent.
“Delvos canaries are martyrs, Ms. Waters. This whole town indebted to those tiny yellow birds, but nobody cares to remember that anymore.”
“Can you tell me where I can find Mr. Delvos and his, erm, martyrs?” The ember of my second cigarette was close to my pinching fingertips.
“Follow me.” Ian stood up and walked to the edge of the woods in front of us. We crunched the cold dust beneath our feet, making me aware of how silent it was. Ian stopped at a large elm and pointed, “See that yellow notch?” Sure enough, there was a notch cut and dyed yellow at his finger’s end. “If you follow true north from this tree into the woods you’ll find this notch about every fifty yards or so. Follow the yellow and it’ll spit you out onto the Delvos property.”
“Thank you, Ian. I really can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am to find out where to find this elusive Mr. Delvos and his canaries.”
“You don’t have to,” he knocked the ash out of his pipe against the tree, “Just do those birds justice in your article. Remember, martyrs. Tell old Delvos Ian Benet sends his regards.” He turned and walked back to the motel and I stood and watched in silence. It was then I realized I hadn’t heard a single bird since I got to Sheldon. The stars dance was manic above me as I walked back to my room and shut the door.

The canary chirped and Delvos stopped.
“This is a good place to break out fast. Sit.”
I sat obediently, squirming around until the rocks formed a more comfortable nest around my bony hips. We left for the mines as the stars were fading in the vermillion Vermont sky this morning and had been walking for what seemed like an eternity. I was definitely ready to eat. He handed me a gallon Ziploc bag from his backpack filled with raisins, nuts, various dried fruits, and a stiff piece of bread. I attacked the food like a raven.
“I was the reason no canaries entered the mines that day, Ms. Waters.” Delvos broke a piece of his bread off and wrapped it around a dried piece of apricot, or maybe apple. I was suddenly aware of my every motion and swallowed, loudly. I crinkled into my Ziploc and crunched on the pecans I dug out, waiting.
“Aren’t you going to ask why?”
“I’m not a parrot, Mr. Delvos, I don’t answer expectedly on command. You’ll tell me if you want.” I hurriedly stuffed a fistful of dried pears into my mouth.
Delvos chuckled and my nerves eased, “You’ve got steel in you, Ms. Rivers, I’ll give you that much.”
I nodded and continued cramming pears in my mouth.
“I was only nine. The canaries were my pets, all of them. I hated when Dad would send them into the mines to die for men I couldn’t give two ***** about. It was my birthday and I asked for an afternoon of freedom with my pets and Dad obliged. I was in the aviary with pocketfuls of sunflower-seeds. Whenever I threw a handful into the air above me, the air came to life with flickering yellow brushes and songs of joy. It was the happiest I have ever been, wholly surrounded and protected by my friends. Around twelve thirty that afternoon the Sheriff pulled up, lights ablaze. The blue and red lights stilled my yellow sky to green again and that’s when I heard the shouting. He cuffed my Dad on the hood of the car and Mom was crying and pushing her fists into the sheriff’s chest. I didn’t understand at all. The Sheriff ended up putting Mom in the car too and they all left me in the aviary. I sat there until around four that afternoon before they sent anyone to come get me.”
Delvos took a small bite of his bread and chewed a moment. “No matter how many handfuls of seeds I threw in the air after that, the birds wouldn’t stir. They wouldn’t even sing. I think they knew what was happening.”
I was at a loss for words so of course I blurted, “I didn’t see an aviary at your house…”
Delvos laughed. “Someone burnt down the house I was raised in the next week while we were sleeping. Mom died that night. The whole dark was burning with screams and my yellow canaries were orange and hot against the black sky. That’s the only night I’ve seen black canaries and the only night I’ve heard them scream.”
I swallowed some mixed nuts and they rubbed against my dry throat.
“They never caught the person. A week later Dad took the remainder of the birds and we marched into the woods. We worked for months clearing the land and rebuilding our lives. We spent most of the time in silence, except for the canary cries. When the house was finally built and the birds little coops were as well, Dad finally talked. The only thing he could say was ‘Canaries are not the same as a Phoenix, John. Not the same at all.”
The canary chirped, still only visible by the lanterns flame. Not fully yellow, I realized, here in the mines, but not fully orange either.

When I first walked onto John Delvos’ property on Thursday morning he was scattering feed into the bird coops in the front of his cabin. Everything was made of wood and still wet with the morning’s dew.
“Mr. Delvos?” He spun around, startled, and walked up to me a little too fast.
“Why are you here? Who are you?”
“My name is Lila Waters, sir, I am a photographer and journalist for National Geographic Magazine and we are going to run an article on your canaries.”
“Not interested”
“Please, sir, can I ask you just a few quick questions as take a couple pictures of your, erm, martyrs?”
His eyes narrowed and he walked up to me, studying my face with an intense, glowering gaze. He spit a mouthful of dip onto the ground without breaking eye contact. I shifted my camera bag’s weight to the other shoulder.
“Who told you to call them that?”
“I met Ian Benet last night, he told me how important your birds are to this community, sir. He sends his regards.”
Delvos laughed and motioned for me to follow as he turned his back. “You can take pictures but I have to approve which ones you publish. That’s my rule.”
“Sir, it’s really not up to me, you see, my boss, Jack Reynolds, is one of the CEO’s for the magazine and he...”
“Those are my rules, Ms. Waters.” He turned and picked back up the bucket of seed and began to walk back to the birds. “You want to interview me then we do it in the mine. Be back here at four thirty in the morning.”
“Sir…?”
“Get some sleep, Ms. Waters. You’ll want to be rested for the mine.” He turned, walked up his wooden stairs, and closed the door to his cabin.
I was left alone in the woods and spent the next hour snapping pictures of the little, yellow canaries in their cages. I took a couple pictures of his house and the surrounding trees, packed up my camera and trekked back to my motel.

“You finished yet?” Delvos stood up and the memory of his green and brown wooded homestead fled from my memory as the mine again consumed my consciousness. Dark, quiet, and stagnant. I closed the Ziploc and stuffed the bag, mainly filled with the raisins I sifted through, into my pocket.
Delvos grunted and the canary flapped in its cage as he stood again and, swinging the lantern, rounded another corner. The path we were on began to take a noticeable ***** downward and the moisture on the walls and air multiplied.
The canary chirped.
The lantern flickered against the moist, black stones, sleek and piled in the corners we past. The path stopped ahead at a wall of solid black and brown Earth.
The canary chirped twice.
It smelt of clay and mildew and Delvos said, “Go on, touch it.”
I reached my hand out, camera uselessly hanging like a bat over my shoulder. The rock was cold and hard. It felt dead.
The Canary was flitting its wings in the cage now, chirping every few seconds.
“This is the last tunnel they were digging when the gas under our feet broke free from hell and killed those men.”
Delvos hoisted the lantern above our heads, illuminating the surrounding gloom. All was completely still and even my own vapor seemed to fall out of my mouth and simply die. The canary was dancing a frantic jig, now, similar to the mating dance of the Great Frigate Bird I shot in the Amazon jungle. As I watched the canary and listened to its small wings beat against the cold metal cage I begin to feel dizzy. The bird’s cries had transformed into a scream colder than fire and somehow more fierce.
The ability to fly is what always made me jealous of birds as a child, but as my temple throbbed and the canary danced I realized I was amiss. Screaming, yellow feathers whipped and the entire inside of the cage was instantaneously filled. It was beautiful until the very end. Dizzying, really.
Defeated, the canary sank to the floor, one beaten wing hanging out of the iron bars at a most unnatural angle. Its claws were opening and closing, grasping the tainted cave air, or, perhaps, trying to push it away. Delvos unclipped the cage and sat it on the floor in the space between us, lantern still held swaying above his head. The bird was aflame now, the silent red blood absorbing into the apologetic, yellow feathers. Orange, a living fire. I pulled out my camera as I sat on the ground beside the cage. I took a few shots, the camera’s clicks louder than the feeble chirps sounding out of the canary’s tattered, yellow beak. My head was spinning. Its coal-black eyes reflected the lantern’s flame above. I could see its tiny, red tongue in the bottom of its mouth.
Opening.
Closing.
Opening, wider, too wide, then,
Silence.


I felt dizzy. I remember feeling the darkness surround me; it felt warm.

“I vaguely remember Delvos helping me to my feet, but leaving the mine was a complete haze.” I told the panel back in D.C., “It wasn’t until we had crossed the stream on the way back to the cabin that I began to feel myself again. Even then, I felt like I was living a dream. When we got back to the cabin the sight of the lively yellow canaries in their coops made me cry. Delvos brought me a bottle of water and told me I needed to hit the trail because the sun set early in the winter, so I le
Vivian Jun 2014
kiss me with a mouthful of mango sorbet;
you taste like
home and feel like
winter.
my craven desires, and
innocence in the arch of your
neck: caveats concealed in
kisses; you have
misgivings and we have
lain here for years upon years
desiring little more than to be
swallowed up by our
sins and shadows.
I'll be honest, if your moral
halflife is longer than the
school year, then
what's the point?
your beta decay is
pathetic, you're impotent, the
radiation is too weak to be
of any harm;
set my geiger counter
abuzz, like my phone
begging for attention like
you should beg for mine, and I
Love It,
you know I
do, quand tu manges
Le Gateaux, such an
eager little ****, seeking
absolution like I have anything other than
Absolut to offer you.
you drink with the
desperation of a desert-dehydrated
man, with the
fervor of a woman throwing herself,
time and again, at the
Glass Ceiling, further success
visible and attainable:
you always spoke to me like
you had a mouthful of
broken Faberge eggs, and to
close your mouth would be to
Invite Pain.
you were always averse to pain, though you
relished in inflicting it, and I
loved little more than to be
bruised and beaten and bloodied by your
ardent affections.
Come see me
9 PM this Friday
In a park near you!

Come watch me eat ḋ̸̻̺̗͙̤͕̦͂̄̓̽̊̋͗i̴̡̛̙̯̗̠͇͉̼̲̻̅̊̃̍̆͞r̸͚̼̣͔̜̟̬̰͂̽̆̿̏͋̓̕͟͡͞t̄̍̈̃̆̕͘­͗ by the mouthful at the swing set.
Come see me scream till your ears b̨̩̫͕̘̊͊̉̾͛̍́̀͞l̤̺̫̰̘͎͉̓̅̌͐̀͜͢ͅe̡̙͚̟̯͙͕̖̾͌̽͐̀͊̓̌̒͜ḝ̰̙̱̯̻̘̈́͗̌̀͞͞­̬̥d̨̡̟̪̟̗̼͍͓̓́̈̍̊̇̿͋̅͢͞ as I slide down the biggest slides.
Enjoy my one man play reenacting the Silence of the Lambs!
(Your ķ͖̠͙̫̗̣͒̊͆̾̎̽̃̈͘ǐ̷̧̛͍̦̟̜͙̥͎̔̄̽̾͢d̡̡̮̗̜̻̱̮̼̊͒̈́̓̔̊̊͒͌͜s̤͉̈̆̓͗̾̓̅͢­̴̲̜̖̻ will love that one)

Stand and applaud as I attempt dangerouse ş̵͇̲̗͒͋͐̅̚͝ͅt̸̨͙̣̰̬̩̱̥̝͒̓̀̓̏̏̓͘͠ų̷̢̨̥͓͕̉́͑̿̕͢͝ņ̸͓̱͚͈̭̣̬̘̀͑͗͊̆ͅ­t̶̨͇̝̻͍͉̼̎̓͟͠͝͠s̴̡̧̗̹̰̩̘͇̤̈́̽͛̊͐͟ off the jungle gym that I have only seen In Hollywood movies!

Watch me .
p̝̞̖̳̪̮̫͙̅̋̉̄͐͆̔̆̔̿ę̺͔̘̭̺̲̫̐̅̀̿̓͢͟ẽ̷̗͔͍̬͔͗̇͊͛̽̓͘͜͜l̟̇̔̂͗̓́͠͡͝­̧̬͎̗͙̫͎͟ off my s̷̫̰̜̤̠̿̆̎͋̕͟͜͠k̴̢͔͔̳̬̻͗͑̀̌͂͐̔͑̊ͅi̷͓͖͉͚͚̠̝̙̝͌͊̄̀̏͊̑͝͡ͅṋ̻͙̇̽̈́͋̄̔͡­̧̩̜, and use my wet muscles as lubricant to make the roundabout go faster!

Watch me dunk your neighbors dogs s̴̢̨̘͎͉̪̪̦͚̄͋̃͛̊̆̀̓͘̕ȩ̧͎͈̀̀͒͋́̐͟͠v̸̦͚̠͕̏̂̎̔̀̊͆͢͝͞e̡̳̠̺̠̟͇͂͛͗͋̍͑͢­ŗ̢̦͎̮͉͕͍̊̐̓̂͛̽̒̄͒͗e̗̩͚͖̫͋̄͟͡͠͞ḍ̴̢̲͔͖̣̪̾͌͗̀̒̄̄͞ head in the basketball hoop!
For the f̫̺̰̜̘̺̩̳̝̖̒̊̃͒̀̇͐̓͡ṵ̸̩͙̼̮͓̦͋̓͆̈̕͟͠ǹ̻̰̣̼͙̰̀͐̎͛̀̈́͞ of it!                  

Have you ever seen a rat with no              
    f̵̢̣̘̦̱͚̟̟̱̀̏́͐́̍̄̚i̵̢̢͎̺̘͚̿͒̐̈́̀̓̌̚n̛͙̟̦̟͕̩͒̌̍͑g̢̰͕̤̝͑̏̅̆̕e͐­̸̡̢͈̥͓͉̊̋͑̀r̛̩͔̻̩̮̱͆̒̽͆͋̚ṡ̸̛̛͎͕̯̳̻͙̏͘͝?             
     
Would you l̨̛̦̟͎͇̲̼̦̱̠̓̀́̇̏̀į̧͎̭̫͓̮̫̮̌͆̎̐̀̽̎͌̚k̴̭̼̥̱͖̃̽̎͒͋̅́͠e̹̟͆͑̅̅͌͗̀̀͟͠­͖̩̱̰̬̯ to?!

Come one come all,                                  
to something, entirely new!        

Enjoy something.... .
.
R̴̛͕̺̝̜͔̈́͋͑͒̎͆̏̓̒͜Ā͙̻͚̗͌́̃͂̊̈͗̚͞ͅW̶̙̻̰͙̹̲̗̆͋̈̇̓͜
.
.!
.
.
I̵̖̬̘͔̻̹̜̫͊̂͌̓̽ a̴̧̢̱͇͚̭̹̞̅͂̄̌͒͝͠m̧̗̜͍̥͙̦͈͍̐̉̔͛̍͒̌ t̸̮̪̹̺̥͈͈̯͂̔͊̅͢͞ḩ̶̧̮̠̺͉̱͈̣͛̾̊̚̚̚ḙ̴̫̬͕͍͔̯̝̐̾͑͆͘ͅ ĉ̳̝̟̙̦̏́̈͆̊́͑̽͡i̜̮͔͕͓̐̑̇̂̎͑͑r̻̝̩͔̫̮̩̽͑̍̈́̈́͛͌̕c̶̰̱̥͚͕̻͗͊̂̊͗̑̏͌̚͜ļ̶̨̯̪̲̣̑̒͛̿̎̓̾͢͢͠ȩ̧̩͇̻̦̩͓̱̿̃̊̇̐̀͗̔̚ ą̨̦͔̼̘̘̔̉̓͒̃̐̎̍̕n͓͚͖̠̭͉̱̦̋̊́̋̀̅̕d̢̥̖̯͈̠̜̑̈̇͊̾̆̈͟͝ t̷̨̧̡̙̤̮̞̮͕̔͗́̾͒ḩ̵̙͇͈́̄͐̊̓̀̈́͒̌̎͢e̸̡̘̠͔̪͂̎̓̏͑̈́͘ c̶̨̧̟̱̜̘̊̌́̀͘͞ǐ̴̲̫̙̼̟̮̎̔̀̑̂̽͜͠͡ͅr̯̟͙̩̋̊͐͂̇͟c̵̬̫̲̰̱͔̯͓̘̀̃̅͊̀͋͘͜͡l̛̪̯̬̙̙̠̗̐̉͌̃̒̔̔͘͢ͅě̜̘̫̗̰̇̏̌̊̒́̕̕͟͝ͅ į̛̟͇̜̰͓̤͆̐̊̓͗͌̚ŝ̨̨̛̭̠̐̈̌̑̇̌͢͠͞ ṃ̶̯͎̲̝͎̥̽̿̔̈̀̚͞ẻ̛̻̙̪͚̣̘̺̮͛́̽͘͟
.
.

might remove this soon
It's a little tame
ryn Nov 2014
.    _ _
     /   /  
  /  /  
 ||
    
enticed by   \\  the alluring
promise of everlasting sweetness•i had
shed all trepidation to indulge in this lone
songstress•hanging on its own, just enough
within my arm's length•seemed so easy but
a formidable test of strength•i had reached
and plucked without in mind, the doubt of
myth•held it for an instant before sinking
in my teeth•it's the sole mouthful that
had brought about this perpetual
racking cough•it's the apple...
that i should've never taken
a big bite        out of...•
Styles Jun 2015
My skin illuminates your body with my touch,
your body quaking from the rush.
My aching ***** -- eager with lust,
paying dutiful attention to your pearly gates.
With zeal they await,
to invade your presence with my grace.
filling split with my space.
in one fulfilling embrace.
Your tender folds aroused,
enclose my arousal.
swollen with desire,
swallow me whole like a mouthful.
legs spread -- wide open and exposed.
your plush lips,
blush with lust.
as your body erupts.
howard brace Jan 2013
Despite repeatedly shaking her pincer... much as a sprightly pensioner might brandish a furled umbrella at a grappling contestant, currently being boo'd at in the red corner... the baby crab stamped her foot in annoyance as she glowered at every passing wave that rolled along the shoreline.  In absolving herself of any guilt she may have felt over her prolonged excursion, she had become, even further marooned by a failure to catch a succession of tides back home, an oversight she later confessed, to observe local tide-tables in 'Old More's Almanac...' on sale in all discerning book shops and selected High Street newsagents, priced 10/6d... for unless fluent in the Russian vernacular, it was just about as articulate to the little crab as a map of the Moscow Metro during a blackout, only to have the Rouble finally drop with a throat gagging 'Gaaargh...' clunk, that you were currently standing on the down-line platform, when you should've been stood on the up... as the last train lurched unsteadily out of the station whistling a jubilant entente cordiale... 'wish me luck as you wave me dasvidaniya'.

     Still stamping her foot, only now in strict rotation with the other seven, the baby crustacean peered out from beneath the shade of the large pebble, rearing its bulk out of the rockpool like a lollypop-lady's 'STOP'!!! sign, her beady eyes twitching independently, first this way, then the other, cut withering swathes through every cardinal point of the compass that didn't duck quite fast enough, was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the rock-pool in which she found herself tapping her foot in today, would be no less aquatic as any other rockpool that she may find herself still tapping a foot in tomorrow and that the best course of action was simply to stay-put and take the matter up with the local town council, then petition for additional fare-stages to be implemented... and with the cost of shoe leather at current prices... well, with eight legs to consider it would make savings that weren't to be sneezed at.  

     It wasn't everyday of the week that a young and upwardly mobile baby crustacean had occasion to move both up-market and down the beach, all in the same mouthful... and into what could only be regarded as a desirable, detached beachfront property, a rock-pool of distinction with all available mod-cons.  She felt relieved that apart from the occasional day-tripper, who invariably dropped litter wherever they went, that a baby crab of distinction such as herself, was certain to be accepted socially and hob-*** with a new and discerning circle of acquaintances... you only had to take that nice lady earlier in the week, they both seemed to have so much in common... then she would roll up her sleeves and really show the neighbourhood what knitting was all about...  

     With as much enthusiasm as that of a three year old screaming for an ice-cream in the middle of an heat-wave, Red marched up the beach and as far from his wife's waspish tongue as a lame excuse would carry him, heading back towards the growing crush of holidaymaking fathers who were only there presumably, for the sake of their own children, laying siege to the mobile vendor... only this time, having already stood in the same queue ten minutes earlier, now had a sufficiency of funds to purchase that which he'd unsuccessfully queued for the first time.

      After an unspecified time which by his wife's reckoning was grounds for divorce... Red, now laden down with the iced confectionary picked his way through the same throng of fathers who moments earlier had been happily chatting in the queue together, were now enjoying the same berating as the one Red was looking forward to as he made his way back towards the rock pool, juggling more ice-cream than two manly hands could intelligently control... while in a bid for freedom, the rapidly thawing confectionary were hatching plans of their own, ones quite independent from those intended as they embarked upon their meandering exodus, known only to iced creamy desserts on hot sunny days... and into the unknown, roaming across Red's hands and trusting their fate to a far higher authority.

     "Did I mention that I was on a diet" snapped his significant other, as she sat licking pistachios from the melting cornet... "don't you ever listen," secretly smiling to herself... "and you did remember to bring Sockeye's water this morning.. didn't you..!" she continued "someone with half as much sense would've stood it in the rockpool to keep cool, I'm sure the little crab wouldn't have objected..!"   At the mention of his name, Sockeye with ears far too free-lance to ever consider gainful employment of their own, needed no further persuasion and charged straight through the rock-pool to his mistress's side, walloping the thermos flask for a tail whopping six... bringing his personal batting average so far this holiday to a self congratulatory forty not out... and found the baby crab spluttering flat on her back and having second thoughts on any immediate savings in shoe leather were she to stay. 

     Generous to a fault, Sockeye now thought to shower everyone's ice cream with liberal helpings of the seashore as several parasitic irritations had Sockeye hard at work serving eviction notices on some of the more exotic zoology that only a patent Bob Martin's would dare to muscle up to... the local wildlife, by the look on his face were having the time of their lives bivouacked behind his left ear, throwing wild parties and disturbing the peace.  Cross-eyed, it was only while launching a double pronged assault on the latest settlement of interlopers that Sockeye finally succumbed to his injuries and surrendered to a neighbouring sandcastle... it really didn't do to mention a certain name too loudly at times like these, especially when you just happened to be on the receiving end.

     For some strange reason he was undoubtedly in the dog house... they'd shouted at him, which made him sad, all except his little master who had pushed him away... which left him bereft.  Sockeye sat down on dads beach-towel and had a long, thoughtful scratch... where had all the fuss gone? he searched for appreciation their faces... his tail gave one disheartened thump before it stopped... and all those little pieces of ice-cream dipped wafer, which up until now had always appeared as if by magic.  

     Catching sight of one such treat, undoubtedly forgotten by the rock pool, a marauding seagull pulled out of a rolling dive and swooped, at the same instant as two gaping jaws launched themselves skywards... canine jowls quivering bravely in the light sea airs... and not too dissimilar to a heat seeking missile, rose gracefully from the ground to meet it... 'well intercepted..!' as both ears applauded in mid-air... no aerial freeloader was about to skip town with Sockeye's ice cream wafer without paying... leaving one solitary wing flapping its willingness to pay up.

     At least it kept her husband in useful employment Tina decided... and mercifully out from under her feet, as she brushed a fragment of affectionate pistachio from her bikini top... she'd have to  make sure he went for the ices in future... and without the means to pay for them... a mischievous smile turned the corners of her mouth as she leant towards the beach-bag and invested herself with several more juicy grapes... that everyone who fell within her sphere of influence had been warned well away from... under threat of dire consequence... and it would take a brave man indeed, or a very foolish one... she gave her husband who was sitting well within arms reach a caustic glance... and Tina's particular variety of justice had a very long arm indeed.

                                                        ­           ...   ...   ...**

a work in progress.                                                        ­                                                                 ­  1297
Cyril Blythe Nov 2012
I followed Delvos down the trail until we could see the mouth of the mine. The life and energy of the surrounding birches and sentential pines came to a still and then died as we left the trees shelter behind and walked closer, closer. The air was cold and dark and damp and smelled of mold and moths. Delvos stepped into the darkness anyways.
“Well, girl, you coming or aren’t you?”
I could see his yellowed tobacco teeth form into a smile as I stepped out of the sun. It was still inside. The canary chirped in its cage.
“This tunnel is just the mouth to over two hundred others exactly like it. Stay close. Last thing I need this month is National Geographic on my *** for losing one of their puppet girls.”
“Delvos, ****. I have two masters degrees.” I pulled my mousey hair up into a tight ponytail. “I’ve experienced far more fatal feats than following a canary in a cave.”
He rolled his eyes. “Spare me.” He trotted off around the corner to the left, whistling some Louis Armstrong song.
“I survived alone in the jungles of Bolivia alone for two months chasing an Azara’s Spinetail. I climbed the tallest mountain in Nepal shooting Satyr Tragopans along the cliff faces. In Peru I…” Suddenly I felt the weight of the darkness. I lost track of his lantern completely. I stopped, my heartbeat picked up, and I tried to remind myself of what I had done in Peru. The mine was quiet and cold. I wiped my clammy, calloused hands on my trail pants and took a depth breath.

In through the nose. Out through the mouth. This is nothing. I followed a Diurnal Peruvian Pygmy-Owl across the gravel tops of the Andes Mountains, no light but the Southern Cross and waning moon above. I am not scared of darkness. I am not scared of darkness.
I stopped to listen. Behind me I could hear the wind cooing at the mouth of the mine.
Taunting? No. Reminding me to go forward. Into the darkness.
I shifted my Nikon camera off my shoulder and raised the viewfinder to my eyes, sliding the lens cap into my vest pocket. This routine motion, by now, had become as fluid as walking. I stared readily through the dark black square until I saw reflections from the little red light on top that blinked, telling me the flash was charged. I snapped my finger down and white light filled the void in front of me. Then heavy dark returned. I blinked my eyes attempting to rid the memories of the flash etched, red, onto my retina. I clicked my short fingernails through buttons until the photo I took filled the camera screen. I learned early on that having short fingernails meant more precise control with the camera buttons. I zoomed in on the picture and scrolled to get my bearings of exactly what lay ahead in the narrow mine passageway. As I scrolled to the right I saw Delvos’ boot poking around the tunnel that forked to the left.
Gottcha.
I packed up the camera, licked my drying lips, and stepped confidently into the darkness.

When I first got the assignment in Vermont I couldn’t have been more frustrated. Mining canaries? Never had I ever ‘chased’ a more mundane bird. Nonetheless, when Jack Reynolds sends you on a shoot you don’t say no, so I packed up my camera bag and hoped on the next plane out of Washington.
“His name is John Delvos.” Jack had said as he handed me the manila case envelope. He smiled, “You’re leaving on Tuesday.”
“Yes sir.”
“Don’t look so smug, Lila. This may not be the most exotic bird you’ve shot but the humanity of this piece has the potential to be a cover story. Get the shots, write the story.”
I opened the envelope and read the assignment details in the comfort of my old pajamas back at my apartment later that night.
John Delvos has lived in rural Vermont his entire life. His family bred the canaries for the miners of the Sheldon Quarry since the early twenties. When “the accident” happened the whole town shut down and the mines never reopened. . There were no canaries in the mines the day the gas killed the miners. The town blamed the Delvos family and ran them into the woods. His mother died in a fire of some sort shortly before Delvos and his father retreated into the Vermont woods. His father built a cabin and once his father died, Delvos continued to breed the birds. He currently ships them to other mining towns across the country. The question of the inhumanity of breeding canaries for the sole purpose of dying in the mines so humans don’t has always been controversial. Find out Delvos’ story and opinions on the matter. Good luck, Lila.
I sighed, accepting my dull assignment and slipped into an apathetic sleep.


After stumbling through the passageway while keeping one hand on the wall to the left, I found the tunnel the picture had revealed Delvos to be luring in. Delvos reappeared behind the crack of his match in a side tunnel not twenty yards in front of me
“Do you understand the darkness now, Ms. Rivers?” He relit the oily lantern and picked back up the canary cage. “Your prestigious masters degrees don’t mean **** down here.”. He turned his back without another word. I followed deeper into the damp darkness.
“Why were there no canaries in the mine on, you know, that day?” The shadows of the lantern flickered against the iron canary cage chained on his hip and the yellow bird hopped inside.
“I was nine, Ms. Rivers. I didn’t understand much at the time.” We turned right into the next tunnel and our shoes crunched on jagged stones. All the stones were black.
“But surely you understand now?”
The canary chirped.

When I first got to Sheldon and began asking about the location of the Delvos’ cabin you would have thought I was asking where the first gate to hell was located. Mothers would smile and say, “Sorry, Miss, I can’t say,” then hurriedly flock their children in the opposite direction. After two hours of polite refusals I gave up. I spent the rest of the first day photographing the town square. It was quaint; old stone barbershops surrounded by oaks and black squirrels, a western-themed whiskey bar, and a few greasy spoon restaurants. I booked a room in the Walking Horse Motel for Wednesday night, determined to get a good night’s sleep and defeat this town’s fear of John Delvos the following day.
My room was a tiny one bed square with no TV. Surprise, surprise. At least I had my camera and computer to entertain myself. I reached into the side of my camera bag, pulled out my Turkish Golds and Macaw-beak yellow BIC, and stepped out onto the dirt in front of my motel door and lit up. The stars above stole all the oxygen surrounding me. They were dancing and smiling above me and I forgot Delvos, Jack, and all of Sheldon except its sky. Puffing away, I stepped farther and farther from my door and deeper into the darkness of Vermont night. The father into the darkness the more dizzying the star’s dancing became.
“Ma’am? Everything okay?”
Startled, I dropped my cigarette on the ground and the ember fell off. “I’m sorry, sir. I was just, um, the stars…” I snuffed out the orange glow in the dirt with my boot and extended my hand, “Lila Rivers, and you are?”
“Ian Benet. I haven’t seen you around here before, Ms. Rivers. Are you new to town?” He traced his fingers over a thick, graying mustache as he stared at me.
“I’m here for work. I’m a bird photographer and journalist for National Geographic. I’m looking for John Delvos but I’m starting to think he’s going to be harder to track than a Magpie Robin.”
Ian smiled awkwardly, shivered, then began to fumble with his thick jacket’s zipper. I looked up at the night sky and watched the stars as they tiptoed their tiny circles in the pregnant silence. Then, they dimmed in the flick of a spark as Ian lit up his wooden pipe. It was a light-colored wood, stained with rich brown tobacco and ash. He passed me his matches, smiling.
“So, Delvos, eh?” He puffed out a cloud of leather smelling smoke toward the stars. “What do you want with that old *******? Don’t tell me National Geographic is interested in the Delvos canaries.”
I lit up another stick and took a drag. “Shocking, right?”
“Actually, it’s about time their story is told.” Benet walked to the wooden bench to our left and patted the seat beside him. I walked over. “The Delvos canaries saved hundreds of Sheldonian lives over the years. But the day a crew went into the mines without one, my father came out of the ground as cold as when we put him back into it in his coffin.”
I sat in silence, unsure what to say. “Mr. Benet, I’m so sorry…”
“Please, just Ian. My father was the last Mr. Benet.”
We sat on the wooden bench, heat leaving our bodies to warm the dead wood beneath our legs. I shivered; the star’s dance suddenly colder and more violent.
“Delvos canaries are martyrs, Ms. Rivers. This whole town indebted to those tiny yellow birds, but nobody cares to remember that anymore.”
“Can you tell me where I can find Mr. Delvos and his, erm, martyrs?” The ember of my second cigarette was close to my pinching fingertips.
“Follow me.” Ian stood up and walked to the edge of the woods in front of us. We crunched the dead pine needles beneath our feet, making me aware of how silent it was. Ian stopped at a large elm and pointed. “See that yellow notch?” he asked. Sure enough, there was a notch cut and dyed yellow at his finger’s end. “If you follow true north from this tree into the woods you’ll find this notch about every fifty yards or so. Follow the yellow and it’ll spit you out onto the Delvos property.”
“Thank you, Ian. I really can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am.
“You don’t have to.” He knocked the ash out of his pipe against the tree. “Just do those birds justice in your article. Remember, martyrs. Tell old Delvos Ian Benet sends his regards.” He turned and walked back to the motel and I stood and watched in silence. It was then I realized I hadn’t heard a single bird since I got to Sheldon. The star’s dance was manic above me as I walked back to my room and shut the door.

The canary’s wings and Delvos stopped. “This is a good place to break our fast. Sit.”
I sat obediently, squirming around until the rocks formed a more comfortable nest around my bony hips. We had left for the mines as the stars were fading in the vermillion Vermont sky that morning and had been walking for what seemed like an eternity. I was definitely ready to eat. He handed me a gallon Ziploc bag from his backpack filled with raisins, nuts, various dried fruits, and a stiff piece of bread. I attacked the food like a raven.
“I was the reason no canaries entered the mines that day, Ms. Rivers.”
Delvos broke a piece of his bread off and wrapped it around a dried piece of apricot, or maybe apple. I was suddenly aware of my every motion and swallowed, loudly. I crinkled into my Ziploc and crunched on the pecans I dug out, waiting.
“Aren’t you going to ask why?”
“I’m not a parrot, Mr. Delvos, I don’t answer expectedly on command. You’ll tell me if you want.” I stuffed a fistful of dried pears into my mouth.
Delvos chuckled and my nerves eased. “You’ve got steel in you, Ms. Rivers. I’ll give you that much.”
I nodded and continued cramming pears in my mouth.
“I was only nine. The canaries were my pets, all of them. I hated when Dad would send them into the mines to die for men I couldn’t give two ***** about. It was my birthday and I asked for an afternoon of freedom with my pets and Dad obliged. I was in the aviary with pocketfuls of sunflower-seeds. Whenever I threw a handful into the air above me, the air came to life with wings slashing yellow brushes and cawing songs of joy. It was the happiest I have ever been, wholly surrounded and protected by my friends. Around twelve thirty that afternoon the Sheriff pulled up, lights ablaze. The blue and red lights stilled my yellow sky to green again and that’s when I heard the shouting. He cuffed my Dad on the hood of the car and Mom was crying and pushing her fists into the sheriff’s chest. I didn’t understand at all. The Sheriff ended up putting Mom in the car too and they all left me in the aviary. I sat there until around four that afternoon before they sent anyone to come get me.”
Delvos took a small bite of his bread and chewed a moment. “No matter how many handfuls of seeds I threw in the air after that, the birds wouldn’t stir. They wouldn’t even sing. I think they knew what was happening.”
I was at a loss for words so and I blurted, “I didn’t see an aviary at your house…”
Delvos laughed. “Someone burnt down the house I was raised in the next week while we were sleeping. Mom died that night. The whole dark was burning with screams and my yellow canaries were orange and hot against the black sky. That’s the only night I’ve seen black canaries and the only night I’ve heard them scream.”
I swallowed some mixed nuts and they rubbed against my dry throat.
“They never caught the person. A week later Dad took the remainder of the birds and we marched into the woods. We worked for months clearing the land and rebuilding our lives. We spent most of the time in silence, except for the canary cries. When the house was finally built and the bird’s little coops were as well, Dad finally talked. The only thing he could say was “Canaries are not the same as a Phoenix, John. Not the same at all.”
We sat in silence and I found myself watching the canary flit about in its cage, still only visible by the lanterns flame. Not fully yellow, I realized, here in the mines but not fully orange either.

When I first walked onto John Delvos’ property on Thursday morning he was scattering feed into the bird coops in the front of his cabin. Everything was made of wood and still wet with the morning’s dew.
“Mr. Delvos?”
He spun around, startled, and walked up to me a little too fast. “Why are you here? Who are you?”
“My name is Lila Rivers, sir, I am a photographer and journalist for National Geographic Magazine and we are going to run an article on your canaries.”
“Not interested.”
“Please, sir, can I ask you just a few quick questions as take a couple pictures of your, erm, martyrs?”
His eyes narrowed and he walked up to me, studying my face with an intense, glowering gaze. He spit a mouthful of dip onto the ground without breaking eye contact. I shifted my camera bag’s weight to the other shoulder.
“Who told you to call them that?”
“I met Ian Benet last night, he told me how important your birds are to this community, sir. He sends his regards.”
Delvos laughed and motioned for me to follow as he turned his back. “You can take pictures but I have to approve which ones you publish. That’s my rule.”
“Sir, it’s really not up to me, you see, my boss, Jack Reynolds, is one of the editors for the magazine and he...”
“Those are my rules, Ms. Rivers.” He turned and picked back up the bucket of seed and began to walk back to the birds. “You want to interview me then we do it in the mine. Be back here at four thirty in the morning.”
“Sir…?”
“Get some sleep, Ms. Rivers. You’ll want to be rested for the mine.” He turned, walked up his wooden stairs, and closed the door to his cabin.
I was left alone in the woods and spent the next hour snapping pictures of the canaries in their cages. I took a couple pictures of his house and the surrounding trees, packed up my camera and trekked back to my motel.

“You finished yet?” Delvos stood up. The mine was dark, quiet, and stagnant. I closed the Ziploc and stuffed the bag, mainly filled with the raisins I had sifted through, into my pocket.
Delvos grunted and the canary flapped in its cage as he stood again and, swinging the lantern, rounded another corner. The path we were on began to take a noticeable ***** downward and the moisture on the walls and air multiplied.  
The lantern flickered against the moist, black stones, sleek and piled in the corners we past. The path stopped ahead at a wall of solid black and brown Earth.
The canary chirped twice.
It smelled of clay and mildew and Delvos said, “Go on, touch it.”
I reached my hand out, camera uselessly hanging like a bat over my shoulder. The rock was cold and hard. It felt dead.
The canary was fluttering its wings in the cage now, chirping every few seconds.
“This is the last tunnel they were digging when the gas under our feet broke free from hell and killed those men.”
Delvos hoisted the lantern above our heads, illuminatin
The invitation had arrived and I was over the moon
It is really quite a mouthful, and it is coming soon
The Second International Gender Non-Specific
Inter-Denominational, from Atlantic to Pacific
Freshwater Synchronized Swimming Competition

It's been eight years since the first was won by China
It was held in Illinois in a place known as Medinah
Turns out the swimmers used were just not what they seemed
The chinese had a total of nine atheists on their team

So, the time has come to try again and bring it to fruition
The I.G.N.I.D Freshwater Synchronized Swimming Competition
No date has been decided yet, due to issues with each church
So, even though the invitations out, we're still left in the lurch

Saturday is out because the Jews are all at temple
Sunday, the Christians all must set a good example
Friday, cuts the muslims out for they are at Mosque praying
So we've four days to hold this meet, is what I am now saying

The Chinese team is back again, but the Atheists are out
The team's made up of Christians and two Jews who are devout
Their working on a movement that involves making a cross
The Christian swimmers get it but the Jews don't give a toss

The team from Israel's withdrawn because they are all sitting Shivah
They had a coach drown last week, he hit his head while in the River
The Arabs won't be back, you see they're not interested in the least
They get confused while under water and don't know which way is east

The I.G.N.I.D Freshwater Synchronized Swimming Competition
Will take place in the New Year, we just need to get permission
The Jews won't swim with Muslims, and the Sikhs are up in arms
Because swimming with their daggers may cause other swimmers harm

But, we've got a great location at the lake up at the park
We can use it when we want to , but it must be after dark
Remember keep an eye out for a poster where you pray
We don't know just when we'll hold it, it may just be today

This is your invitation and the event is coming soon
It is really quite a mouthful, and it'll be held beneath the moon
The Second International Gender Non-Specific
Inter-Denominational, from Atlantic to Pacific
Freshwater Synchronized Swimming Competition

See you there...
Styles Sep 2019
Her mound
amounts to
a mouthful of
of the most remarkable
thing I have ever tasted.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck'd cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek'd peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;--
All ripe together
In summer weather,--
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.-"

               Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bow'd her head to hear,
Lizzie veil'd her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips.
"Lie close,-" Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
"We must not look at goblin men,
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?-"
"Come buy,-" call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.

"Oh,-" cried Lizzie, "Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.-"
Lizzie cover'd up her eyes,
Cover'd close lest they should look;
Laura rear'd her glossy head,
And whisper'd like the restless brook:
"Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen ***** little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.-"
"No,-" said Lizzie, "No, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.-"
She ****** a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One whisk'd a tail,
One *****'d at a rat's pace,
One crawl'd like a snail,
One like a wombat prowl'd obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
She heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.

               Laura stretch'd her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
When its last restraint is gone.

               Backwards up the mossy glen
Turn'd and troop'd the goblin men,
With their shrill repeated cry,
"Come buy, come buy.-"
When they reach'd where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.
One set his basket down,
One began to weave a crown
Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown
(Men sell not such in any town);
One heav'd the golden weight
Of dish and fruit to offer her:
"Come buy, come buy,-" was still their cry.
Laura stared but did not stir,
Long'd but had no money:
The whisk-tail'd merchant bade her taste
In tones as smooth as honey,
The cat-faced purr'd,
The rat-faced spoke a word
Of welcome, and the snail-paced even was heard;
Cried "Pretty Goblin-" still for "Pretty Polly;-"--
One whistled like a bird.

               But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
"Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin:
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.-"
"You have much gold upon your head,-"
They answer'd all together:
"Buy from us with a golden curl.-"
She clipp'd a precious golden lock,
She dropp'd a tear more rare than pearl,
Then ****'d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flow'd that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She ****'d and ****'d and ****'d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She ****'d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gather'd up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turn'd home alone.

               Lizzie met her at the gate
Full of wise upbraidings:
"Dear, you should not stay so late,
Twilight is not good for maidens;
Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men.
Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Pluck'd from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low:
I planted daisies there a year ago
That never blow.
You should not loiter so.-"
"Nay, hush,-" said Laura:
"Nay, hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more;-" and kiss'd her:
"Have done with sorrow;
I'll bring you plums to-morrow
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed:
Odorous indeed must be the mead
Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink
With lilies at the brink,
And sugar-sweet their sap.-"

               Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other's wings,
They lay down in their curtain'd bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall'n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp'd with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz'd in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Not a bat flapp'd to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock'd together in one nest.

               Early in the morning
When the first **** crow'd his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetch'd in honey, milk'd the cows,
Air'd and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churn'd butter, whipp'd up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sew'd;
Talk'd as modest maidens should:
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day's delight,
One longing for the night.

               At length slow evening came:
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
They drew the gurgling water from its deep;
Lizzie pluck'd purple and rich golden flags,
Then turning homeward said: "The sunset flushes
Those furthest loftiest crags;
Come, Laura, not another maiden lags.
No wilful squirrel wags,
The beasts and birds are fast asleep.-"
But Laura loiter'd still among the rushes
And said the bank was steep.

               And said the hour was early still
The dew not fall'n, the wind not chill;
Listening ever, but not catching
The customary cry,
"Come buy, come buy,-"
With its iterated jingle
Of sugar-baited words:
Not for all her watching
Once discerning even one goblin
Racing, whisking, tumbling, hobbling;
Let alone the herds
That used to ***** along the glen,
In groups or single,
Of brisk fruit-merchant men.

               Till Lizzie urged, "O Laura, come;
I hear the fruit-call but I dare not look:
You should not loiter longer at this brook:
Come with me home.
The stars rise, the moon bends her arc,
Each glowworm winks her spark,
Let us get home before the night grows dark:
For clouds may gather
Though this is summer weather,
Put out the lights and drench us through;
Then if we lost our way what should we do?-"

               Laura turn'd cold as stone
To find her sister heard that cry alone,
That goblin cry,
"Come buy our fruits, come buy.-"
Must she then buy no more such dainty fruit?
Must she no more such succous pasture find,
Gone deaf and blind?
Her tree of life droop'd from the root:
She said not one word in her heart's sore ache;
But peering thro' the dimness, nought discerning,
Trudg'd home, her pitcher dripping all the way;
So crept to bed, and lay
Silent till Lizzie slept;
Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnash'd her teeth for baulk'd desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

               Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry:
"Come buy, come buy;-"--
She never spied the goblin men
Hawking their fruits along the glen:
But when the noon wax'd bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.

               One day remembering her kernel-stone
She set it by a wall that faced the south;
Dew'd it with tears, hoped for a root,
Watch'd for a waxing shoot,
It never saw the sun,
It never felt the trickling moisture run:
While with sunk eyes and faded mouth
She dream'd of melons, as a traveller sees
False waves in desert drouth
With shade of leaf-crown'd trees,
And burns the thirstier in the sandful breeze.

               She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetch'd honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook

               Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister's cankerous care
Yet not to share.
She night and morning
Caught the goblins' cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy;-"--
Beside the brook, along the glen,
She heard the ***** of goblin men,
The yoke and stir
Poor Laura could not hear;
Long'd to buy fruit to comfort her,
But fear'd to pay too dear.
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
In earliest winter time
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp winter time.

               Till Laura dwindling
Seem'd knocking at Death's door:
Then Lizzie weigh'd no more
Better and worse;
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kiss'd Laura, cross'd the heath with clumps of furze.
At twilight, halted by the brook:
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.

               Laugh'd every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,--
Hugg'd her and kiss'd her:
Squeez'd and caress'd her:
Stretch'd up their dishes,
Panniers, and plates:
"Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and **** them,
Pomegranates, figs.-"--

               "Good folk,-" said Lizzie,
Mindful of Jeanie:
"Give me much and many: --
Held out her apron,
Toss'd them her penny.
"Nay, take a seat with us,
Honour and eat with us,-"
They answer'd grinning:
"Our feast is but beginning.
Night yet is early,
Warm and dew-pearly,
Wakeful and starry:
Such fruits as these
No man can carry:
Half their bloom would fly,
Half their dew would dry,
Half their flavour would pass by.
Sit down and feast with us,
Be welcome guest with us,
Cheer you and rest with us.-"--
"Thank you,-" said Lizzie: "But one waits
So without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I toss'd you for a fee.-"--
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One call'd her proud,
Cross-grain'd, uncivil;
Their tones wax'd loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
Elbow'd and jostled her,
Claw'd with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil'd her stocking,
Twitch'd her hair out by the roots,
Stamp'd upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeez'd their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

               White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,--
Like a rock of blue-vein'd stone
Lash'd by tides obstreperously,--
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire,--
Like a fruit-crown'd orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee,--
Like a royal ****** town
Topp'd with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguer'd by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.

               One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuff'd and caught her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch'd her, pinch'd her black as ink,
Kick'd and knock'd her,
Maul'd and mock'd her,
Lizzie utter'd not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh'd in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp'd all her face,
And lodg'd in dimples of her chin,
And streak'd her neck which quaked like curd.
At last the evil people,
Worn out by her resistance,
Flung back her penny, kick'd their fruit
Along whichever road they took,
Not leaving root or stone or shoot;
Some writh'd into the ground,
Some ***'d into the brook
With ring and ripple,
Some scudded on the gale without a sound,
Some vanish'd in the distance.

               In a smart, ache, tingle,
Lizzie went her way;
Knew not was it night or day;
Sprang up the bank, tore thro' the furze,
Threaded copse and ******,
And heard her penny jingle
Bouncing in her purse,--
Its bounce was music to her ear.
She ran and ran
As if she fear'd some goblin man
Dogg'd her with gibe or curse
Or something worse:
But not one goblin scurried after,
Nor was she *****'d by fear;
The kind heart made her windy-paced
That urged her home quite out of breath with haste
And inward laughter.

               She cried, "Laura,-" up the garden,
"Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, **** my juices
Squeez'd from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.-"

               Laura started from her chair,
Flung her arms up in the air,
Clutch'd her hair:
"Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted
For my sake the fruit forbidden?
Must your light like mine be hidden,
Your young life like mine be wasted,
Undone in mine undoing,
And ruin'd in my ruin,
Thirsty, canker'd, goblin-ridden?-"--
She clung about her sister,
Kiss'd and kiss'd and kiss'd her:
Tears once again
Refresh'd her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kiss'd and kiss'd her with a hungry mouth.

     &nb
Edward Coles Jul 2014
“You know the worst thing I ever saw?” He asked.

I sighed to myself, took another gulp of beer and fixed him with a look of half-interest. He was drunk. A complete ****-up and a bore when he's drunk. I don't know why I drink with him. That said, he probably thinks the same.

“What's that?”
“Bedsheets over the benches in the church yard.”
“Ye-what?”
“Bedsheets over the benches in the church yard. For the homeless.”
“The homeless. Right.”
“I'll get us another drink.” he says, “then I'll start where I left off.”
“Oh, good.”

He comes back with two bottles. We drink and we start talking about football. We're just about getting by before he raises his palm to his face.
“Aw, ****. I forgot, yeah. The worst thing I ever saw. I never told you.”
“You did. Bedsheets over the benches in the church yard. For the homeless.”
“Yeah yeah, but that doesn't really say much, does it? You're probably wondering to yourself why that would **** me off so much?”

Not really. He's the type of no-action, all-caring, bleeding heart that sits on his fattening **** every day, 'liking' rhetorical captions over pictures, and signing petitions to axe some ***** politician or other.
“I guess. Shoot.”

He shoots.
“I wanna burn down the churches. Seriously. Stupid ******* religious folk. I bet they go home and post pictures up of themselves, all busy in the soup kitchen, ladling minestrone into some poor *******'s styrofoam bowl.
“They'll never touch them. Always at arm's length. You don't wanna breathe in the pathogens of the anti-people...”
He slurred a little, went to carry on, but took another gulp of beer instead.
“What does that have to do with bedsheets over the benches in the church yard?” I took a gulp myself, this time watching him with a little more interest. Probably just because he looks like he could spew at any moment.
“You're not letting me finish...”
He finishes his beer, gets up, almost bumping into his piano-***-keyboard. He's off to the fridge again. I have a look around while he's out of the room. I can hear him ******* in the kitchen sink.

I've seen the place a million times before but it always has a whole bunch of new **** tacked up on the wall or else bundled in the corner. He's no hoarder, just gets bored and throws out all the stuff he bought the year before.
There's a framed picture of himself on the wall, cradling his Fender as if he's a master of the arts. It's signed, too.
I've seen him play. Probably will tonight. Wouldn't be surprised if he's written a protest song called: bedsheets over the benches in the church yard. The old **** can't even hit an F major with regularity.
He'd decided to put up his vinyl sleeves on the wall like a 17 year old would with an array of **** pop-punk band posters.
Blink and you might think he's the new John Peel or Phil Spector. Stare, and you'll realise he's twice as crazy, yet half as talented and half as interesting to listen to.
His room is like a CV to show to interesting, young indie women. Shame he's hitting forty now,and hasn't been to a club in about 3 months.
Last time we went he just sulked in the corner and got too drunk. He cried in the smoking area about his job before going round and asking attractive girls whether they think he's too old to be out. Most didn't even bother to give an answer. Probably best.

He comes back in with more beer.
“A-anyway...” He says, groaning a little like an old man as he settles back into the chair. “As I was saying...” he sloshes beer on the carpet, rubs it in with the heel of his shoe. He spits on the mark and then rubs again.
“What I was saying was that the church would be a whole lot more useful to the homeless if it was burned down. A condemned building is a whole lot more useful than being looked down on by holier-than-thou, middle-class, white Christians.
“They go home after an hour, bolt the church doors, and then watch TV in their brand new conservatories that they spend several thousands on. Just give the losers a place to shoot up and sleep in safety. That makes sense, right?”
“I guess so.”
I couldn't think of a change of conversation. So I just drank some more and pulled out a cigarette. It's nice to smoke inside for a change.

“It's a ****** ******* awful thing. If people were actually religious, they'd throw open their ******* doors for everyone. It's what Jesus would do, right?”
“Right.”
“He'd have all the **** in his bedsit, piled in like sardines, spreading TB like wildfire.”
“And that's a good thing?”
“Well, it can't be any worse, right? Sleep's important. I learned that the hard way.”

He didn't learn it the hard way. Not really. He's a self-motivated, self-harming insomniac. He spent his teenage years listening to bad music and staying up too late ******* over his French teacher. I should know, I mostly did the same.
He hit the **** pretty hard during college. Never really looked back until recently. ****** him up worse than you'd reckon. He couldn't sleep without the stuff. Man, if you'd have seen the poor guy whenever he couldn't get hold of some for the night. Eesh.

“...you know what I mean though? I'm sick of charity. Those fun-runs you get. A load of women in pink pretending that they care about breast cancer, before posting a million and one pictures up of them in ankle warmers and a kooky hat...”
“**** of the Earth.”
“Yup. Right up there with the women who have 'mummy' as their middle name on Facebook.”
“Yeah.”
“Honestly though, it's the laziest form of charity. Throwing a couple old, mouldy bedsheets out on some bird-**** bench made of wood and ancient farts...”
“It is pretty lazy.” I drank some more.

It was getting late. We swallowed three temazepams each, moved onto the cheap shiraz once we ran out of beer. We leant back in our chairs, barely talking and letting Tame Impala supply the conversation for us.

“You know what?” I ask, pretty much out of nowhere. His eyes have narrowed. He's not sleepy, just ****** on ***** and tranquillizers. He takes a moment.
“Huh?”
“From what you were saying earlier... you know, about the bedsheets over the benches in the church yard. For the homeless.”
“Yeah?”
“Well, why don't you?”
“Why don't I what?”
“Burn it down.”
“The church?”
“Well, you go on about being lazy and ****. Here's your chance. Help the homeless. Break the locks, pour the petrol, take out a few bottles of wine if you find any...”
“Now?”
“I guess so. Homeless folk are dying of pneumonia out there. Not a second can be wasted.”
“I dunno. I didn't mean I had to do it. I was just saying...”
“I guess they were just saying too.” I felt like I was being a ****, so I changed the subject to women I haven't laid.

I stumbled home leaning on my bicycle all the way. Daylight was just about visible off in the distance. I passed two homeless guys on the way back, gave one of them a fiver, the other one my big mac and the last of my cigarettes (well, leaving a couple for myself).
They said thanks, god bless you, etc, etc. I carried on walking.

I woke up the next afternoon with a mouthful of sand and in desperate need of a hangover ****. I hadn't shaved in about two weeks and there were dark circles under my eyes. I thought about going out to the diner for a full breakfast, but strange people were beyond me.
I ordered a pizza full of meat and grease and garlic sauce instead. I text him to see if he wanted to come over and nurse the hangover with a little ****. Watch a film. Get drunk again. He still smokes it on special occasions, and this ******* of a hangover was pretty **** special.
No reply, and I end up rolling up a joint for myself, smoking it by the window and watching the magpies peck around the grass. It's nice out.

The pizza guy comes. He's holding the pizza up like a map, calls out in a bored sort of voice: “Hello sir. I've got a large Palermo Pizza here, with a side of chicken strips and a can of Dandelion and Burdock?”
I say yes and he hands it over.

I tip him with the coins still left in my wallet from the night before, and he sheepishly says he picked up my post for me as well.
I look down at the pizza I'm holding, and there's a few envelopes that look suspiciously like bills, rival takeaway leaflets, and the local paper. I say thanks, give him the best sort of smile I could, and then close the door.
I turn on the TV. I forgot the England match was on. I turn over to something more interesting. There's nothing, so I switch back over. Before I open up the pizza, I take the paper. A small-town existence, nothing ever happens, but I could do with a new job.

The front page is on fire. A church has been burned down in the early morning. A forty-something man has been arrested and then taken to hospital for severe burns to the face. A load of children's art has been lost, along with countless Bibles, prayer cushions, and vaults of cash.
“****.”
I read through the article. The whole place was gutted. Nothing could be salvaged. Nothing could be redeemed. In the corner of the picture, through the red, green, and blue dots, I could just make out some bedsheets over the benches in the church yard. For the homeless.
I apologise profusely for posting up a short story instead of a poem. I wrote this in one go tonight and haven't proofread it. I had no plan, I just wrote until there was -something- there. I just wanted to try something different.

C
Londis Carpenter Sep 2010
NOTE:  This is a short story; not a poem.  (author)

(Sometimes when you don’t know something can’t be done, you discover a way to do it.)

High at the top of a tree in Forest Park, Parker Squirrel lived in a nest that his mother had built from a hollowed out place inside the trunk of an old oak.   A large branch forked away from the main trunk and a hole in the bark conveniently served as a doorway to the outside world.  On one particular morning, Parker poked his head out from the doorway of his home and looked around very carefully at his surroundings.  It wasn’t the first time in his young life that he had peeked at the outside world from his mother’s nest, but this time he was more alert and cautious than he had ever been before.  Today he was orphaned and all alone.  Sometime in the dark of night, while he was hiding deep inside the nest, he was forced to watch in terror when a large owl came and took away his mother.  So today, feeling very timid and afraid, Parker made every effort to look in each direction before leaving his cozy home to explore and search for food.

Just ahead of him he saw that the rustic ranger station stood like a monument, to welcomed visitors to the state park.   On his left he could see the foothills of the purple mountain range.  He knew that these foothills and their woodlands were all part of the place called Forest Park.  Off to his right a dancing brook bubbled along the edge of a grassy meadow.  In its tall grasses he saw a white-tail doe playing with her newborn fawn. There seemed to be no danger in that direction, so Parker stretched his neck upward and watched as white, cotton-ball clouds floated across the azure blue sky.  Finally he looked down at the ground far below just in time to see a large toad quickly hop under the cover of some wild mushrooms.  Still, he sensed no danger.

Unfortunately, in order to see the forest behind him, it was necessary for Parker to leave his nest and climb around to the other side of his oak tree. And that was a problem for Parker, because the little squirrel was still much too timid to take such a chance.  Instead he stretched as far as he could to look around the wide tree trunk and into the woods.

Glancing back into the forest, Parker saw more tall oak trees with their strong, stately trunks.  He saw a scattering of white flowers that revealed the presence of dogwood trees.  A stand of sugar maples displayed their graceful branches and delicate leaves.  He also noticed some early spring flowers and wild mustard plants splashing bright yellow hues against the fresh green Indian grasses where a tiny meadow carpeted the outer edge of the forest floor.

There were no owls!

Even if they were hiding where he couldn’t see them, Parker would know they were there.  He would be able to smell their unmistakable odor.  To nearly all rodents, the owls have a peculiar stench that is putrid and foul.  And even a young squirrel like Parker would recognize it at once.

The young squirrel was fascinated by all he saw.  His furry skin tingled in the warm glow of the bright, noonday sunshine, almost making him forget the tragedy of the previous night.  Parker had only arrived into the world about six weeks ago, but in squirrel time that meant he would soon be approaching young adulthood.  He had always been cozy and comfortable, cradled in the nest his mother had built in the tall oak tree.  He had always enjoyed foraging with her for seeds and nuts.  The pantry was partly filled, even now, with acorns and hickory nuts, which emitted a woodsy aroma that reminded him of his mother.   He loved the wonderful world he saw from his perch and his heart was so happy that he began to chatter a new springtime song, which he seemed to hear playing all by itself inside his head.

Parker was so enthralled by all the new sights and smells filling his senses that he nearly outstretched the length of his body as he leaned outside the doorway to his mother’s cozy nest and suddenly he fell and tumbled onto the forest floor beneath him.  He landed with a horrible thud!  The little squirrel landed on his back into a clump of moss that grew beneath the tall oak, which only moments before had been his citadel.

  “Ouch!” chattered Parker as he recovered his breath.  The fall had knocked the wind from his lungs but as soon as he discovered he could breath again he checked himself all over to make sure he wasn’t seriously hurt.  Then he began to explore the forest floor.

The little squirrel was so excited, as he ran from one discovery to another, that he completely lost track of time.  Before he knew it, he was a long way from his mother’s tree and it was growing dark.   The little squirrel ran from tree to tree looking for his home and finally he stopped at a very tall oak.  Parker was certain that this was the same tree from which he had fallen, so as fast as he could scurry, he climbed up the trunk, searching among its branches for his mother’s nest.  When he failed to find his home in the trunk of the tree, Parker finally realized that he was lost. The young squirrel had exhausted all of his strength running through the woods.

Afraid and suddenly very lonely, Parker was also very sleepy and hungry.   Since he had no food and didn’t know what else he could do, Parker curled up into a ball at the crook of a branch and fell asleep.  Next morning Parker searched the tree again for his home.  To his surprise he stumbled upon a strange nest made up of branches and twigs of oak built close to the trunk of the tree.  This nest seemed substantial and well built.  The interior of the nesting cup was about eight inches across and five inches deep.  Although the nest looked crude from the outside, its bowl was delicately and warmly lined with a combination of moss, feathers and leaves. It was about seventy-five feet from the ground and two fledgling crows were sleeping inside.

An older squirrel might have killed the baby crows for food and driven off the adult birds when they returned, but Parker just climbed inside the nest, curled up beside the sleeping pair, and fell asleep to dream about where he would find his next meal.

Parker’s sleep was interrupted by the noise of the two young birds’ loud clamoring for food.  Their incessant calls were being tended to by the mamma crow, which had returned to the nest and was now busy stuffing their hungry mouths with an assortment of seeds and worms.  As strange as it seems and much to Parker’s surprise, the mother crow also began stuffing his mouth with food just the same as if she was feeding her own children.  Although he didn’t like the earthy taste of the worms, Parker was very hungry and he swallowed every bite.  He found that he was actually quite satisfied with the meal.

Parker soon learned that there had originally been six baby birds occupying the crow nest, but sadly four had recently been taken by the owls in nighttime raids.  Perhaps the loss of her own children was the reason the Mother Crow decided to adopt the baby squirrel and began feeding it along with her own young.  In nature there are many mysteries and not all of them have easy answers.  But, whatever her reason, one thing is very certain.  Parker Squirrel had been officially adopted into the Crow family and he now had a new mother and a new home, complete with a brother and a sister.

Parker’s new siblings were very close to his own age, which meant they soon would begin standing on the edge of the nest and even leave to nearby branches of the tree when they were being fed.  In the course of another week they would be leaving the nest and taking their initial flight while being watched, tended to, and protected by their adult parents.  So Parker had a great surprise awaiting him. He didn’t know it yet, but in just a few days Mamma Crow would be expecting him to learn to fly.  Of course, squirrels, by nature, are curious and quite acrobatic and no one had ever yet told Parker that he couldn’t fly like a bird.   So when the time came for Parker and his siblings to make their initial test flights, he spread his arms and began to flap them hard, as though they were wings, as he leaped from the nest.  Naturally the little squirrel tumbled down once again onto the forest floor with another thud.

Encouraged and nudged along by Mamma Crow and by taunts from his new brother and sister, Parker tried again and again to fly.  Each time he tried flapping his little arms like wings and each time he fell to earth with a thud.  Soon his whole body ached with painful bruises from his many falls.  But even more than the motivation and prodding from his new family, Parker wanted to fly.  There was something inside Parker that made him want to keep trying.  Parker really did want to fly.

Immediately after being adopted, Parker had begun foraging for his own food by pure instinct.  When he found acorns and seeds he brought them by mouthfuls back to the Crow family’s nest.  But now the urge to fly was almost as strong inside him as his urge to scour the forest floor for acorns and nuts.

At night Parker dreamed about flying.  As a younger squirrel he had often dreamed about being a “super squirrel” that flew around the forest, from tree to tree, doing good deeds and fighting off the evil owls with his super powers.  But the urge he felt now to soar through the air was different from the wishful thinking of a childhood fantasy.  Parker felt that he had to fly.  He just had to.

He thought about why he wanted to fly so badly.  It was more than the fact that his new brother and sister could fly.  There was some important reason deep inside him that made him yearn to soar from tree to tree.  As time passed Parker met other squirrels in the forest and he knew very well by now that he was not a crow, so why couldn’t he just be content to be like the other squirrels and forget all about this nonsense of flying after all.  He thought that perhaps it was because he remembered what the owls had done to his mother and what they had done to those siblings from his new family that were taken before he even had a chance to meet them.  Perhaps now, he thought, he was just afraid and only wanted to fly so he could escape the danger of the owls.  Maybe he was just a coward.

The next night when Parker went to sleep he dreamed again of flying.  But there was something different about this dream.  In his dream Parker was not flying like the crows fly.  He didn’t flap his arms up and down like wings.  Instead he just glided and soared with no effort at all.  In this dream he could actually feel the wind flowing over his body as he glided from one tree to another.  When the sun came out and awakened him from his sleep, Parker couldn’t wait to try again.  This time when he jumped from the nest he would not flap his arms because, after all, arms aren’t wings are they?

Before anyone could stop him, Parker leaped from the nest.  He began to fall straight down, but instead of flapping his arms up and down, he stretched his arms and legs out as far as they would reach.  Then, suddenly something happened.  Instead of dropping to the ground with a painful thud, Parker started gliding.  He didn’t fly far enough to reach another tree, but he was able to glide to another branch on his own tree.  After recovering from his own surprise, he looked back to the nest and he saw his mother and brother and sister all standing on the edge of the nest with looks of amazement on their faces.  They were all calling out to him to try it again. This time, having learned what to expect, Parker glided all the way to the next tree.  After a few more tries, Mother Crow was flying right beside him.

One day Mamma Crow told him to follow her.  “Come with me,” she said.  “I want to show you something.”   And he followed her, gliding from tree to tree.  She led him to a new place, deeper into the woods than he had ever been.  Soon they arrived at a place in the forest that almost seemed enchanted.  He was very surprised to see that were lots of other squirrels gliding from tree to tree just like Parker.

“This is your new home,” said Mother Crow to Parker.  “You’re not just an ordinary squirrel, you know, you are a flying squirrel.”

Then she told him, “From the day I first adopted you I knew that you were special. But you had to discover by yourself who you really are.  Here in this place you can be safe and make friends of your own kind.”  After saying goodbye and wishing him well, she waved at him and, looking back one more time, she flew away.

Well, that is how Parker learned to fly and how he discovered who he really was.  After that he continued to live a very happy life with his new friends.  The owls never seemed to trouble him in this part of the woods.  But he never, ever, forgot about Mother Crow and the family that adopted him. Even to this day, Parker often stops by the nest with a mouthful of acorns and nuts.
copyright by Londis Carpenter
Word count: 2414 Views: 29
Mike Essig Dec 2016
on poetry*

A poem is only a mouthful of air
until it is read.
Imagine it. Craft it carefully
from your heart's flesh.
Seal it in a bottle
of clear, pure words.
Set it adrift on
the ocean of time,
life's restless surge,
until a few congruous spirits
pluck it from the sea-wrack
and recognize a message
that illuminates their souls.
Readers find writers;
never the opposite.
If i could take my sewing machine and sew you a song,
it would tell of old tales of girls sat by rivers crying their tears in to a river of wrong.
There would be a loud crescendo as time came to pass,
and love would be gentle, and not lost and profound,  
as much as it would tell you how to make it last.
It would tell the tale of two lovers, who struggled to survive, their love.
They made hope for each other, prayed for help from above.
Two lovers who had burns on their hearts from being burnt alive.
From being burnt by some other burnt heart.
From some other love whose love had dearly left and was depart.
The two lovers would be lost in each other, they would console and it would be suffit.
It would be enough.
It would not be enough, they would fear.
And this they held tight to their chest, next to the heart, and they held it dear.
They would long for the day when they would overflow from each other like a tap drips into a hole.
And from this sink, they would drink a mouthful of love everyday,
and this is enough,
they would, say, as their hurt became sewn into their soul.
If i could sew you a life in a pattern of cloth,
I would sew you a life that was love and that was loss.
I would sew you how people were lost from each other and had gone to war,
how they would cut their heart out, purely just because it was sore,
how these people would find themselves in each other but not in themselves anymore,
and how i would sew with cotton and silk,
and how you would see lovers crying, blood mixed with milk.
How you would see the colour of the sky that came from their eyes,
and the hate,
and the fame that came from their despise.
If i had some cotton i would sew you a tale.
I would would sew you a story,
but that would make no sense to someone with the universe in their hands,
and they would feel the love leaving between their fingers like fine pieces of sands,
and how they would not see hate but see the hearts of ten lost men,
who died in a coma of love,
and tore their muscles and shaved their hair for the lament,
of the ten girls who sat and cried to the lord above.
Oh if how i could sew you this tale,
if i could write and weave a song into life from these words,
how i could give you all of that which you deserve,
my love.
I could show you the heavens in your palms,
and the hell you construct that lays in your arms.
I would show you that we lose and we gain,
and that learning to let go, is never an ill gotten game.
For we lust, we love, and we let it all go,
and oh, my, god, doesn't it hurt so?
For you i would sew this with my sewing machine with a red letter and a gold pen,
and it would be a magnificent tale of way back when,
men were men,
and women stayed at home,
and the dog sat in front of the fire with a juicy bone.
There would be no jealousy,
no in-trepidation of fear that someone would steal thy love,
that someone would make you question yourself,
and that you are less worthy than thought from above.
And so with delicate fingertips, i weave and i sew,
for all of this my love,
for all of this you should know,
that love is never easy, and love comes, and love shall go,
and i am not forever, but i am here right now,
and i shall be here for a long time, if you were to take this vow,
sign me here with my cotton, and my lace,
let me give you a second look in the mirror at your face,
for is this you, for whom i sew this song,
is this for everything you lost, and everything that went wrong,
is this for your forefathers who loved and hated and cried and slaved away,
is this for your lovers, who changed when the night became the day?
Or is this for you,
who i see so very clearly,
for who i cannot but see,
and for who i would fight for with my hands, my fingers, my tongue,
bent, broken and down begging on one knee.
For i love so dearly.
For this is a song sewn in to the fabric of time,
i sew,
and it is for you,
for you are for me,
and it is mine.
L B Aug 2018
He was large as frogs go
Fist-sized happy rotund dweller
of backyard pond
Garter snake large, too large
with his ominous yellow stripes
and jaws to take
a larger than average mouthful
Choked by abdomen's girth
Legs drooling from his glut
Before the victim's even hit his gut's
digestive juices

Kid with hockey stick makes him puck
for his sin
Frog makes  desperate
slim swim for rocks
Where he lies in recovery
from shock and
teeth marks on his belly
Underdog gets defense from phone call-- Eve
150 miles away
intercedes
Frog gets mercy of a transport
to another backwoods pond--
to find his life
forgetting trauma
Suns himself and swims
Eats the bugs
and ***** the froglettes
of another day
My daughter desperate on the phone-- she and her stepson have just been witness to this scene.  Now what!  Now what!  Call mommy! Quick!
I give the household, "hunter man" the job and duty of relocation.  He objects, "But it's the way of nature!"
"Not on my watch, good man!
Not on my watch!"
The underdog gets the hand.
Harley Oliver Feb 2015
a piece of art you are
in your worn out sleeves  
and heart shaped eyes
laid out in a bed of cherries
and a field of tulips to share with me
your ocean view windows
that streak the blue sea
and your sheer white pearls
that melt onto me
like chocolate fondue
warm and sweet;
you are the taste, the mouthful
of words that sit on my tongue
get along with your truffle kisses
and your red wine lips
begging for the chateau
to soak in the void
and with a mind shining thought
you traced my back
with the stem of a flower
that went on and on
for the next half hour
will you be my valentine?
Kate Lion Jan 2013
(i)

It’s wrong of me, I know
            To wait around for you to say extraordinary things, sweetheart.
                      
But there’s something so enticing about true love
                        Wrapped up in fancy scratch paper
                        With half the lines crossed out
                                                [Those are the best kind of things to say, you know
                                                            ­‘Cause it means I’ll spend hours smashing myself
                                                          ­  Between those lines
                                                           ­ Trying to fill in the blanks
                                                          ­  About who you love,
                                                           ­                         And why.
                                                … I miss knowing those things
                                                          ­                          Just a little.]    
            All tied together with the broken guitar strings
[Where now rest those hummingbird wings?]
You’d tune for me
                        Before anybody knew who you were
                                    And I was the only one who listened.

I miss the you I knew

            The one who told me I was beautiful,
                        All mismatched and clashed,
                        Because we were the brains of this outfit,
                      
And how were we to know that
                                    Dreams and reality
                                                Can’t ever
                                                Be worn together?
                        [At least, that’s what Mother would tell me
                                    When I asked to wear her fancy pearls to bed]

I remember the day before we were expected to grow up
            [The day before the sky turned inside out
            And suddenly
                        We were expected to know why it rained sometimes,
                        Were expected to expect pneumonia if we played in the puddles too long,
                                    Were expected to know black from white
To stay indoors and turn gray overnight.
Yes, the day before all of those expectations rose to meet us,]
We were expected to go to a gaudy dinner party
To boast about ourselves.
And everything we planned to become.
            But I hated heels, and you hated lies
            So I showed up in fuzzy bunny slippers with my hair done up nice, and you-
Well.
            You didn’t go.
                        There’s something about growing up you never took a liking to.

Everyone knew who you were by then.
And I sat alone as they talked about you
                        And all of the wonderful things you were becoming.
                        And I just nodded, picturing the boy I once knew
                                    Yes,
The boy that no one knew
                                    With dreams so big they encompassed the entire sidewalk in chalk
                                    Whenever we sat down to visualize the future
we never really thought would come
                      
                        There was never enough room for me to color mine
                        [So I simply signed my name
                                    All small
                                    In the corner
                                    Of that sidewalk gallery of hearts and hopes]
                        And that’s the way I wanted it
                        Because-
                        Well,­
I didn’t need a dream if I had you.


(ii)

It was too perfect, really.
Well, I was, I suppose.
Perfectly innocent.

I now see how illogical it is
To assume that a heart can simply be cut away from the chest,
And given.

For it is impossible to do so
[Truly]

No,
You got so much more than my heart, my love

From the ends of my eyelashes to my fingertips
All of me was yours

Yes,
From the frantic way my heart beat against my ribcage        
[Like a tiny hummingbird
            Wanting to burst free
To taste you with my entire soul
            Swallow you whole
            Not merely glean a teasing sample with my lips]

To the way it melted through my chest
And slid softly to my fingers
Resting in your palm
Yes,
When you placed your hand in mine
            I was clutching the reality I’d only ever dreamed of
            [My heart and I were a package deal- and you held both]
            Yes, it was the closest I’ve ever been to happiness

Oh, love…
I loved,
With every part of me,
I hope you know.

But I never considered that I did
Not really

Until that moment when you led me in my fuzzy bunny slippers to the chalky sidewalk
And silently erased my name from that corner
            Whispering you were sorry all the while.
            But we were all grown up now.

[That was the day I stood with my arms outstretched
Mouth gaping open
To catch the rain
As the sky turned inside out
Because, well.
I needed new dreams if I didn’t have you]

Tears filled my eyes, then
For I felt my heart fall out of my chest
[Yes, I thought such a thing was impossible
But I’d also
(Naively)
Thought it impossible for you to ever leave]
To rest
Forever
In your hands
[A final parting gift]

What pain filled that void!
            [I would blame it on pneumonia,
                        -For I stood in the puddles forever that day
                        Making mouthfuls of promises to that empty rain-
                        But I think we both know better
                        Than to expect a little sickness to bring pain such as this]
For I was left with nothing
And you
            [You
With a tiny hummingbird you didn’t even know what to do with
                        As it lay
                        Barely breathing
                        Barely beating
                        But doing both for you]
You still had everything

From the tears that dripped from my lashes
To the tips of my fingers that brushed them away

To that empty ribcage
            [With the bones gaping open
            So barren, but for a couple feathers
            That blew about when you whispered
                        (Hanging on to a hollow kind of hope)
But fell to the bottom of my stomach once it was clear
That you were never coming back
With my little hummingbird]
And that flat thump in my chest
[From the pendulum I secured in its stead
                        Marking each moment I spent without a true heartbeat
No frenzy of feathers
No
Just a hollow, rhythmic stupor
That fell over my soul]
That reminded me
I had
Nothing to love anymore.


(iii)

            Who knows how long I stood
                        Letting the draft in through the spaces between my ribcage
                        So raw and gaping
                        My soul an empty ocean
                        Waiting
                        Wai­ting for any kind of tide to pull me in
                                                              ­            fill me up
                                                              ­            bring me out again
            I got so cold, love
            Waiting for the wind to wash up something on the brittle beaches of my bones
          
            It took forever, it seemed
            For me to swallow that mouthful of rain you left me with that day
                        [How I wish I’d known sooner that’s all it would take]
            But when I did
            It washed that pendulum straight out
                        [Oh, and how that mouthful wetted the lips of my helpless spirit
                                    Till it was chugging words I’d never been able to find
                                                And that’s why I write
                                                About you
                                                And our love
                                                That is long lost somewhere
Lost in a somewhere only you’ve ever been to]
            Into the hands of someone who thought he’d found my soul.

And how I wish he hadn’t found the counterfeit
For he shined it so pretty and neat-like
            [Oh, that it had been real]
And secured it around his neck
            I never knew I had anything worth showing off
            No
            But he made me feel that I had

Oh, but how it all was very broken
For I was very out of order, see
            Nothing to give him
            Not really
            Nothing but permission for his eyelashes to flicker at me
            For him to brush me with his lips and the tips of his fingers
                        I never backed away soon enough
                        Always left red with regrets
                        Horrific actions I’ll never forget
            [Oh, Always
                        Always
                        The­ swing of the pendulum in the back of my mind
                        Whispering we were on borrowed time
                        Because none of me was really mine
                                                But did I listen?]

He’d tell me I was lovely all the day.

So how picturesque to think of me
Standing on his porch one day
            In my fuzzy bunny slippers
            With mother’s pearls around my neck
            Expecting him to tell me once again.
But that’s when it ended
            Just like I’d wanted
            ‘Cause he claimed I was deranged for double-dipping
            Dragging dreams into the daytime
And I smiled
            ‘Cause I knew that he was wrong.
                        [Yep, you always loved my plaid pajama pants
All mud stained from puddle jumping
From the days we expected nothing but rain for us to catch]


(iv)

How horribly addictive true love is!
            Do you not agree?

For I think we both should like to be gone from each other
Forever, if we could both stand to be away that long

But as long as I live
            I shall never find someone so perfect as you
            And your eyes are the tide that draws me in time after time
            So why should I cast you out, my love?
            Tell me to go away, the way you’ve never said.
            Give me a reason to leave.
For I can’t find one at all,
Except that I love you too much to be logical
                                                     to own up to reality

--It is a sad thought
            To think you might’ve plucked the feathers from my hummingbird
            And threaded them through those broken guitar strings you tuned for me
            To make a wind chime for your porch
                        [You’re the only one who ever listened to me, anyway]
For,
            Did I not see those fancy colors hanging by your door yesterday,
            The same shade as my eyes?
I do not wish to make assumptions,
            Stop me if I’m wrong.

For,
I already know it was so wrong of me
            To think it should’ve gone differently yesterday
                        When I laced up a corset to fill that gap in my chest
                                    Donned a dress with my mother’s fancy pearls
                                    Slipped heels onto my feet
                                    And fixed my hair nice and pretty for you
Oh, love
            How quickly I found you’ve forgotten

Because when you saw me standing there on your doorstep
            All perfect
            And real
            And neat
You handed me a piece of paper
And asked about my aspirations

I could do nothing but glance at the sidewalk, surprised,
Finding nothing but gray pavement.
            For you, my love,
            Are living your dreams now
            No need to chalk them up and wish.

But my hopes haven’t changed, love
I’ve yet to live the only dream I ever wanted

And how I wished to dazzle you by saying extraordinary things
            All wrapped up in this fancy piece of scratch paper
            With half the lines crossed out
            But I don’t think you appreciate it like you used to

And how I wished to tell you that my dream could be found in the chalk dust
Still stuck to the bottoms of my fuzzy bunny slippers
I used to wear
With my mother’s fancy pearls
Until yesterday

When I tried to match everything up evenly
            And we stood on your porch
            With no one to hear us but the wind chime
                        [The feathers holding it together
                                    Just hanging on your every breath
                                                And swaying to a hollow sort of hope]
As you whispered.

You told me I was beautiful.

            And I went home and cried.
Cody Edwards May 2010
Up from the deep
Water breaks in diagonal sheets.

The skies careen off and away
Red arrays.

Universe of musculature
A foot in a sandy detour.

Indirect to purpose
Skin and flow.

Dries on the gilded bank
Wild hair set flat.

A thousand atmospheres taken
Into a single ozone breath.

After a time, stoops
By the multiform to look.

Stones heavy-
Light enough to carry.

To the mouth wide
And bitten dry.

The water wears everything
So the teeth can split.

A fortnight of spite
And the treacherous bite.
He returns to the sea
With a headful of light.
© Cody Edwards 2010
Eriko Feb 2016
a mouthful of novels
casting evasive statements
another changing feeling
an eluding ghost,
one's written pages
colliding with sentences
clashing against
of other's capsizing
paragraphs and phases
binding in and out
from another shelf,
another frayed spine
fading yellow pages
or crips, clean textures
thinking that we write
our novels alone,
my dear, how impossible
to finish such sublime material
--our own novels--
with nothing but
our syllables
what will fuel
your words,
what will lend
the structure to cover,
the world is teetering
of rippling acceleration
and moments of
seething hesitation
we all end as
books on a shelf
just make sure
your's is willing
to tell
just thinking what my novel would sound like
Erin C Ott Jun 2018
Fallow brown, like he's poured his whole soul out through the gold sieve and lies in wait to be replenished.

2. The color of the ocean. Blue, I guess, but that’s not even the half of it. All the ruggedness of the waves—forming up, breaking, and forming again like life is only the motions. Her eyes are blue, but you could hardly tell.

3. A hand-painted bowl of fresh chocolate frosting from which the most immature hands soonest get a mouthful.

4. Beautiful. Like, drop dead gorgeous. I’d dig my own grave and stick to rolling in it if she ever looked at me some type of way. Their color? I don’t know. But most of all, I dare to wonder about the bludgeoned scar between them.

5. Sturdy cobalt. Far more indicative of her steady heart than gold could ever hope to be. Still susceptible to tear, but not so easily warped by heat or stress.

6. Simply brown. No, red? It’s always been hard to tell through the fog. Truthful like the rawest earth, I’ll call her mahogany.

7. Faded blue spray paint over a slate gray wall. Forcibly muted after her years of blasting music, but there’s still that rogue twinkle to them that I pray slips through the cracks.

8. Coffee, with all the vim and vigor to make you click your heels and fall in love.

9. Unripe lime seen lazing in the shade. Not fit for a margarita just yet, but straining at the bit nonetheless.

10. Hazel, although I still don’t know what the **** that actually is. Whatever. It looks nice on her resume.

11. Green. Or were they blue? The memories of her were too wonderful, too important, that I had to let the littlest details fade away first.

12. The crystallized seafoam that made me realize I deserved to feel alive, too.
Dedicated to any pair of eyes that's ever struggled to raise itself from the sights they've grown used to.
Asominate Feb 2019
She hides her feelings behind her soft brown eyes
She hides her ugly truths behind the beautiful lies
She hides her growing disease behind a meaty exterior
She hides her everything, afterall, what are people for?
Circa 1994 Jan 2014
Today inspiration came in the form of a watermelon seed.*
I was sitting on the couch
as per usual
and eating watermelon chunks
with my fingers.
I was doing nothing else productive.
I was eating
and being ugly
in my baggy black pullover
and my green pajama pants.
I thought about
how gross I would look
if anyone were to catch me
as I chewed on a mouthful of watermelon
and tried not to choke on the seeds.
*I shamelessly licked the watermelon juice from my fingers.
douglas chesa Feb 2012
I have been drinking wine
To douse the burning tip of my mind
Worries chewing at my nerves
Like the filter end of a rich Havana cigar
Woes of this world turn my whiskers
Into drab willows of misery
My nights into endless nightmares
And my thoughts rattling and jarring
Like the business end of a mechanical hammer.

Dreams clad in limp loincloth
Revisit me from the dark
Urns of history
The salad days of our beings
And their neauseating euphoria
When in drunken trance we siezed
Conscience by her arms
And threw her on her back
Splayed her legs
And smacked our lips
As blood spurt out...
I wipe my mind with the back of my hand
Trying
To brush away the dregs of the sordid rituals
We once enshrined.

A plump shiny green bottle
Buzzes around my mind irritating
Reminding me of Death
Hanging mockingly
Like a pendulum over my mind seducing
''O Sweet Carrion
You are food for the elders!''
And my sins in their hordes shimmer
A deathly pale round the nooze
Suspended from blushing heaven's bottom
My mind's eyes shed crystal tears
Giving away bucketfuls of Chiyadzwa diamonds to regain
Long gone and lost innocence.

I shared a bottle of wine
With my new-found friend, Today
Clinking glasses and minds
Then a greenbottle in full flight
Was caught between the grinding bellies
Of our glasses and minds
Bloodied fleshrot bespattered our intelligence
And our minds rushed to the wash basins retching
A brush with the fetid breath of the past
Left the gums of my mind barren and obscene
And together with newfound friend, Today
We covered our private parts with our hands
Ashamed
At the ****** of our thoughts.

She knocked at the door of my mind
Eyes shadowed in wet grey paint
Lips smudged in scarlet smiled at me
A Good Morning
My palm hiding the discoloured teeth
Of my inner-self
I muffled a Good Mourning to her, but
I felt a warmth spreading
At the base of my belly
Her milky-white mouthful was inviting
A milkyway blaze trailing into deep future
''I will flirt with her'' my mind whispered
But then the rasping sandpaper touch of her lips
Bruised and bloodied my thoughts
And I saw red at the future.

I must have swooned
From the First Lady's fistkisses of philanthropy
Doling out sweet nothings and promises
At a ceremony sheathed in royal pomp and dignity
Where the guests dressed like Harlequins
Mesmerised us with the crablike dance
And flummoxed O poor we
With democratic mumbo-jumbo and lingo
And the Povo touched with feeling
Donated oceanfuls of diamond tears
And their sincere prayers a mutter flutter
Into the heavens for beloved leaders.

I broke Biltong , my past, into the ***
To give life to ailing friend, Today
With my fingernail I peeled off
The tomatoe's tough ruddy jacket
To make sauce
And I heard a rumble of objection
From the August House
And the Mujibhas and Chimbwidos' angry yawn
Gave a chilli spice to the dish
And the food touching Today 's lips
He sneezed and broke wind
Startling ghosts of old nostalgic memories
That had took seats at the kitchen table
To wing away to the scrapyard
Their home beyond the rusting horizon.

Perched on the anthill of anticipation
I roll my thoughts
Into a big joint of mbanje
I **** and grey fading puffs
Of wishes spiral into the bored sky
Each a crippled dream
That was bulldozed at Churu Farm
An ambitious dream that was displaced
By the Operation Murambatsvina
A dream that lost an eye and limb in the food riots
A dream that lost its ***** at university
A dream that fell from the 11th floor at the Towers
Into the Taxman's hat
A dream that drowned in the opaque beer tank
At the Uhuru celebrations
A dream that lost its breath
On top of another man's wife in Mbare
A dream dumped and disowned
Only to find home at the bottom of the Blair toilet...
To find home in the sympathetic clicks
Of poets who have lost their voices.

The stub is burning my fingers
Minds run out of fuel and fire
The angry verbal lash
Of the emotionally wounded
Is a stub licking back at the wielder
To be snuffed out and discarded
On the ash tray of hopelessness
The grave yard that houses all
Once active minds.

-dougwa-
Third Eye Candy Mar 2013
along the red marble hall in the east wing
on either side, hung from the talons of granite stones
resting on their brother's shoulders in the bitter load baring
framed in golden oak and cherry wood, gilded arcane; several paintings
in the style of the Old Masters. And a long rug from foreign fjords
like a flat dune of spice, the length of a mile. pinched to a vantage point
in a spider's web. and a draft.
a draft through the twelve senses. your song un-gongs the gamelan
and the bells remain. pecked by crows of a different summer.
beads of honey making war
on paraplegic bees. we keep these in styrofoam cups to just enough; seal our wounds.
we encounter the lost rooms with the odd keys
on either side, the full length of the east hall. stout, brawny portals to discord and fable.
perhaps even windows of a different winter.
perhaps we know.
Jesse stillwater Nov 2018
The river forks at big stone eddy
rending currents meandering course,  
its silence speaks not with forked tongue
as kismet's swirling eddies abide
     as if time immemorial;
     a river naturally cleaved
in two separate distinct directions
befallen destiny  without a choice


Spinning round and round in big stone eddy,
time just drifting by in the throes
of doubt — high water rising
beyond the bounds of earth
taking drowning souls up to the sky


Choking on a mouthful of unanswered questions,
suffocating on the parting words left unsaid;
distilling life into poetry hew from being —
trickling out like the spilled out sky —
taken down to the empty riverbed
leave lay' til it's all washed away,
in the music of the pourin' down rain


Freedom embodies metaphysical incarnations
riding the prevailing currents it can't control
Gravity-gathered  down to the shoreline,
manifest reclamation after the deluge,
from somewhere far above the high-water mark


Swallowed by all the darkness woe betides,
thinking you carry such a weight to hold...
It seems all got a handful of sand to toss
up into the wind to seed the clouds
The totality of eclipsing silence grows
that rent the stillness of a dream
of peace on an eroding shoreline


In an Eddy of Expectations & Disappointment
dark waters will ebb and flow,
imponderable as drowning hope,
leaving it all out there to dry after the rain

       believing in your heart —
        the best is yet to come


  Jesse Stillwater ... November 2018
Thank you for reading
I could write you a thousand poems
and send you every single one.
But it doesn't mean a thing
if you give them over to your flaming heart.

From ashes my words mean nothing.

That's the problem with words.
They are leaky jars you can't plug up.
I fill them with warmth, and regret, and love.
But by the time you unscrew the lid
only drops of what was meant to be remain.

Or maybe you just won't listen.
Maybe we're just talked to death.
Maybe our words have been used too many times.
Maybe we just can't be friends.

But until the day my words take flight
I'll keep writing poems to you.
Filling them up and up again
until they start to finally break through.
Edited.
Poetic T Jan 2015
I just needed to feed this hunger
To get my fill
I was so dam
Tired,
Exhausted,
Hungered
For that last mouthful
But I am on borrowed time
I couldn't be that which I wanted to be
The hunger was getting
Greater.
Borderline,
Insanity
Fed upon my thoughts.
Was I in control of my destiny.
Could I avoid this hunger within me
I was taking my last mouthful
"Eyes watered"
"Mouth filled"
"One last time"
I had done this a few times
I rejected the coldness that would
Follow,
Silence,
Regret
Had eaten away as I know this is
"The last mouthful"
I ingest the copper, it tastes
Like a coin ****** too long,
Freedom from this hunger that needed to be **fed.
Hanna Baleine Nov 2014
Remember curiosity,
The reek of home,
Sleeping with a
Mouthful of fevers.

Remember gold,
Roasted muscles,
The shackles in your thighs.

Remember me,
When you discovered
Hearts of past lovers
Live in your fingernails.

Remember you,
A mad-driven star,
Biting waves with such
Honeydew eyes.

Remember patience,
Threaded into your skin with
Pear tree splinters.

Remember:
Even God knows limits.
Jamie L Cantore Jan 2017
Words Studied For This Writing:
------------------------------------
English: Zoup, please.
What it sounds like in German: Die Zoup bitte "Or" The Zoup? Bitter.
English: Uh, the night tea is great!
Pronounced in German sounds like: Eww. Is nachte. It's Gros "Or" Eww! Is nasty! It's gross!
English: Here.
Pronounced in German: Here.
English: Ha! I see an icky Sir's downin' Zoup.
German: Huh? - Ick- Taste. -Sie - An Icky herran down en Zoup
English:Yes.
German: Ja "Or" yeah
English: Skinny rides here. Skinny? Hmm.. horseback.
German: Dunne fahrten hier, Dunne. Hmm?  Holtzit back! Or.. Do not **** in here; do not! Hmm?  Holds it back!
English: Oh! I beg!
German: Oh! Ich bitte "Or" Oh! It's better!
English: Come back, Father.....
German: Comeback, Vatter "Or" Come back, Fatter
English: Nexxinline
German: Next in line.


Let's make a story with this .

First Act

-Enter Customer 2 in an American diner. She orders a
unique zebra-flavored soup called Zoup, created on American soil, but it's claimed to have had its origins in a restaurant located in Worms, Germany; as per usual proud fashion.

Customer 2 to Rude Waitress: "Zoup, please."

She sipped the complimentary drink placed before her as she awaited her order. Iced tea, ***** glass. It was reportedly their best tea, brewed by the Barista on the night-shift, whom did only speak in broken English and Spanish. Therefore, when the customer enjoyed her tea, she was glad it was nightfall and privy to the better drink and expressed her approval.

Customer 2 to Night-Shift Barista in simplified language:

"Uh, the night tea is great!"

The Barista nods politely.

Rude Waitress, apparently jealous because she makes the Day-shift tea, is curt to Customer 2:


"Here." she growled, slamming the Zoup on the table.

Things get quiet.

Just then, Customer 2 recognizes a crusty man who claims to have been knighted in a former life before joining a Native American tribe. She addresses him sardonically.

Customer 2 to Crusty Man

:
"Ha!" " I see an icky Sir's downin' Zoup!"

Crusty Man responds, unmoved:

"Yes."

Customer 2 cautioned him that he was being tracked by the infamous international assassin, Skinny.

Customer 2 to Crusty Man in mock Native American tongue:


"Skinny rides here ...

Crusty Man: "Skinny?"


Customer 2 (deepening voice)

"Mmm, horseback."

She makes gestures with her hands of a man riding a horse.
And follows it up with mimicking a successful hit on Crusty Mans life, complete with tongue hanging out of mouth.

The rude waitress then pleads to a deceased priest aloud to return to save them whilst making holy gestures frantically.

Rude Waitress to a deceased Holy Man:

"Oh!" "I beg." "Come back, Father...
Father Nexxinline?"

End First Act


This Final Act was created using the same exact words used in the English language, those in  quotations that is, as were in the First Act: but then translating them into German, the conversation then became a bit more humorous. The Background was filled in to fit the context of the meaning of the words sonic qualities, as certain German words sound similar to English words, though they generally have different meanings. The German word sounds brought a whole new meaning to the English words spoken, and with this contrast I finished the Final Act. Since most do not know how to pronounce certain words and dialects of German language, I took the sounds created within the language and converted them to English words of phonetic similarity. These words were not translated back to English, as that would put the conversation exactly where it began -I rather made them easier to perceive.

Background Final Act/. Skinny from First Act is now in a diner in Worms, Germany, (pronounced like Vorms with  a V.)

We begin with Skinny's response to being asked how is the Zoup by the German Waiter.

Skinny dryly to German Waiter: "The Zoup?" "Bitter."

He takes another spoonful into his mouth.

Skinny: "Ewww!"  "Is nasty!" "It's gross!"

Skinny to German Waiter in disgust: "Here!"

And he pushes the bowl of Zoup into the waiters face.


German Waiter to Skinny expressing consternation

: "Huh?"

Skinny commands him: "Taste!"

The waiter does so reluctantly and winces in clear disgust.

Skinny:

"See?" " Icky heron down in Zoup!"

German Waiter to Skinny knowing German Zoup  is flavored with heron, not zebra, and failing to see the point retorts

: "Yeah?"

Skinny then crude and vengeful 'expresses' a good one from his basest dwelling silently; but deadly with a grin. It was a most foul smell.

The waiter is exasperated with this crudeness and makes commands of his own.

German Waiter to Skinny

:
"Do not **** in here!" 'Do not!"" Hmm?"  "Holds it back!"

The odor horrid reached culmination with another waft of steam from Skinny and  resulted in the excommunication of Skinny.
Skinny yet found himself vindicated and agreed to leave the establishment as was demanded. As he exits in self satisfaction, our waiter tells him not to forget his Zoup and the prideful waiter Stolz mocks him in jest by spooning a mouthful into his jabbering jowls, as he does, he turns pale and ill and silenced, reassuring Skinny he had a reason to be disappointed.

The German Waiter refusing to admit defeat tells him:


"Oh, it's better!" Referring to his bias to the Zoup from Worms, which should be renamed Houp, but the words don't translate that way.

THEN Stolz realized his best customer, Skinny's hefty brother, Fatter, was running out the door in an attempt to escape the stench which lingered and but grew in force, and the waiter pleaded with him to return.

German Waiter to Skinny's brother:

"Come back, Fatter!" but Fatter kept running and giggling sophomorically.

The German Waiter to a diner full of people gasping for fresh air and no desire for Zoup at this moment said in defeatist sheepishness, gulping before asking wishfully... pouting, whispering:


"Next in line?"
The trans-former Apr 2015
Nicotine-stained fingertips
Curl around a pen
A mouthful of hazy breath
Calling it my friend

Cross my heart and hope to die
I'll just stay in bed
What a lively suicide
Better than they said

Putrid stench I can't wash off
Follows me around
King of sorrow, Queen Aloof
Finally I'm crowned
Today I realized the world has gone mad,
Still lending bills to penniless debtors,
But now sending in knights with armor clad
So no one messes with debt collectors.
This is it—my Sunday epiphany,
That somehow could rattle my state of mind.
Yet looking back, it’s not very holy.
I’m starting my day, and no longer blind.
Even their stuff sneaks over the border.
Look, toothpaste! Made down south in Mexico!
They laugh at the sign “Welcome to Mordor,”
And they **** the man asking “Friend or foe?”
  Dear Congressman, answer me this, big guy.
  I’m confused – where does our allegiance lie?

  Is our friendship with China just a fling?
  I thought we trusted them with everything!

  “You can make our computers, shirts, and toys.
  Oh, our toothpaste? We hired that country’s boys.”
Now there’s a just reason to start a war.
Some racist fear of lead-infested paste,
No care for the kids sweating on the floor,
More worried that our nation’d come to waste.
Ignorance is bliss; knowledge is power.  
A slavery that no one speaks about
Will never reach its final hour
unless I stand on a street corner, shout,
and wave around my poorly crafted sign.
Commercials are about money, and lots of it,
Not kids working in a factory line.
A modest proposal: destroy all profit!
  
  We should either be poor or go down fighting,
  At least we’ll have honor while we’re dying.
edited 2/15/14

— The End —