Monday, April 12, 2021

MARLEY AMES: THE FEAST

          Marley Ames searched the ground before him, taking carefully calculated steps to avoid ripping away the loosely hanging sole of his right shoe. In his part of town, strands of wire littered the dirt alongside the sidewalks. Any time he needed wire, he simply started walking and very quickly discovered a suitable piece. 

          Sure enough, the third wire that presented itself was the kind of strong easily bendable line that would hold a shoe together. He sat on the curb to remove the shoe and then held it up so he could force the wire through the synthetic material. He made a ring of it and twisted it tightly. After bending the excess wire repeatedly until it broke free, he repeated the operation twice. Once finished, the shoe seemed good for another two to three weeks. He had wired other shoes and so had gotten to be quite the expert.

          Marley was able to walk naturally now as he continued down the sidewalk. He had not realized he was this near the zoo until he looked up and saw the entry. It always surprised him that the Fresno zoo was so near to home and easily accessible. He wandered in.

          In the first cages were monkeys. They were a species with dark fur and fairly large and they ignored Marley totally. After watching them for a few moments he discovered that a peanut meant for the monkeys had fallen near enough he could fish it out of the outer cage. Sure enough, with a bit of diligence, he secured the peanut. As he stood up and broke away the shell and pushed the tender salty meat into his mouth, he heard a voice say, “That damn kid’s a pig.”

          A man and a woman had come around a curve in the path in time to catch Marley in the act. Embarrassed, the boy wandered away from the zoo and toward home.

          He wistfully gazed inside store windows along the way, feeling the pangs of deprivation, having been aware his entire life that other families than his were somehow not as dysfunctional and actually had enough money to eat well and dress well. He had gone just five blocks when a brand new ’54 model car pulled over to the curb. “Excuse me,” a woman’s voice called out.

          He recognized the woman and the man from the park. She wore a long dress and kept her hair in a bun. He was tall and thin and wore a blue jacket. He had more grey than black in his beard. Marley paused to hear what they had to say.

          The man spoke from behind the woman. “My wife and I are heading for Schultzi’s. We would like to invite you along to eat with us.”

          Marley motioned with his hands as though pushing them away. “I don’t think so,” he said.

          “Please,” the woman said.

          “I will be honest with you,” the man said. “I couldn’t help but notice you appear to be hungry. Your shoes, the patch on your jeans -”

          “No,” said Marley. “I’m going home.”

           “We can’t force you,” said the woman. “But if you’ve never eaten at Schultzi’s you’ve missed some of the best eating this side of Heaven.”

          “Chicken fried steak, corn on the cob. Ice cream. And you can have all you want. We’re paying,” the man added.

          The more they spoke the more Marley’s poor stomach rebelled against the boy’s intransigence. Finally, as it began to seem the couple in the car might pull away, Marley said yes. 

          He was let in the back seat, where the clean of newness was vastly impressive to a child of poverty. They rode in silence until the car pulled onto the parking lot. As they stepped away from the car, the woman smiled and said, “I’m awfully glad you decided to come with us. I’m Daisy Chance. My husband is Professor Oliver Chance.”

          “Pleased to meet you,” Mr. Chance said. “We come into town Fridays just to eat Shultzi’s wonderful food.” 

          “I’m Marley Ames,” Marley said. 

          His embarrassment over getting caught taking a peanut out of the monkey cage had long since faded. In a life filled with indignities, specifics meld into a single fabric. 

          Still a bit timorous, he went beside these Chance people as they entered into what proved to be an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

          As Oliver Chance settled the bill, Marley and Daisy Chance took up their plates and went off to fill them from steam tables and salad bars. Marley selected a portion of fried fish, a helping of beef tips on a bed of egg noodles, four green olives, four purple olives, and four tiny tomatoes. He met Mrs. Chance at the table and they put down their plates before going to the drinks station for glasses of tea. She took napkins, enough to share with Marley. As they settled to eat, Mr. Chance arrived with a plate full of various meats and a side dish of coleslaw. He was off to the drinks station when his wife told Marley, “Don’t wait. Dig in.”

          But Marley felt he owed it to Mr. Chance to wait for him to get seated. He did sip from his iced tea. After the professor joined them it became a situation of every person for themselves. Marley ate his fish, olives, and tomatoes first. He reserved the beef tips over noodles for the last because it was sure to command his complete attention. He had never eaten such a dish and he intended to savor it. After a lifetime of eating mostly pinto beans, fried potatoes, and skillet biscuits he was about to fill his mouth with heaven. 

          It was as he anticipated. The beef tips over egg noodles put him on another level of dining. And when he finished Mr. and Mrs. Chance tried to interest Marley in the table laden with desserts. But Marley took up a clean plate after the custom and bypassed the dozens of untried dishes and desserts to fill up with more of the same, minus the fish and vegetables.

          It passed through his mind when eating that his Mom and siblings would be home, preparing for the usual pintos with biscuits or cornbread and he vaguely felt sorry. Not sorry enough to forgo the feast, however. When his plate was polished clean, he sat with a stuffed belly, hating that he would have to get out and walk very shortly.

          He drank down the tea, watching his hosts enjoy their desserts.

          “I should go home now,” he said.

          Daisy and Oliver Chance paused, forks poised above the black chocolate desserts they were eating. “Don’t you want us to drive you home?” Oliver said.

          “No,” he answered. “I can walk home from here. It isn’t that far.”

          He stood before them and thanked them, clumsily, sincerely, and turned and walked away.

          Outside, in the late cool air, he turned toward the home on South Walnut Street. He wondered if his drunken stepfather would get home today. It had been about three days since he got his paycheck, about as long as it usually took to spend the money and come home. He thought about how Mom would quietly tally another day her children safely gathered for dinner and bed. He would never forget the Chances and the finest meal ever provided a hungry boy. This was the best day of his life.      





Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Cask of Merlot

           “Think if Poe had written “The Cask of Merlot,” cracked this girl with a puckish smile.

          Already I was in love. I watched her tiny fingers tilt the wine glass until a sips-worth spilled past her lips and trickled down her throat. Those nearly green eyes of hers played with mine as she let the wine glass down. Before I took a longer sip of my own, I said, “I am a fan of Poe. He sometimes had a wicked sense of humor.”

          Annie was my date. Our first time out together. “I was named for Annabelle Lee,” she replied. “I think that’s why I am drawn to him. That and the fact my father recited The Raven over and over when I was growing up.”

          The pinot noir kept us company until Joseph the waiter arrived with our food balanced on platters. Hers a meal with roast chicken. Mine, charbroiled steak. I was happy she was a healthy eater.

          “I spend my free time buying books,” I told her, pouring the last of the wine. “I’m pretty much a nerd that way.”

          “I love that you’re a book person,” Annie replied, arranging her food. “I’m one too. I adore Capote. Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

          “You do?” Against my will, I sounded miffed.

          Annie putting on her armor. “Of course. Don’t you like it?” 

          “Well, to be honest,” I said, “I expected so much more out of that book. I actually felt like I had been robbed before I came to the end.”

          And, she took up the gage. “I’m no intellectual. I read for the love of a good story. I love Holly Golightly.”

          I paused my utensils, regretting the challenge I read in her face.

          “Anybody who claims they’ve read Ulysses is a liar,” she said. 

          She laid her weapons to the side and lowered her head over the platter, taking up her knife and fork to cut into the chicken. I chose not to pursue the conversation and concentrated on the steak that was getting cold. I sliced off a portion and pushed it into my mouth. Chewing, looking at my date, who refused to look up at me just now. “Do you like Daphne du Maurier?” 

          She seemed a bit less petulant. “A little. I did when I was a kid.”

          “I’m enjoying you, Annie. I don’t think we ought to spar over our reading habits.”

          Her demeanor softened. She attempted a smile. “Of course not,” she said. 

          We continued our meal, mostly in silence. I could not help feeling I had wounded our budding friendship, and it was like a hidden hole in a rusting cargo vessel. There seemed no way to seal the hole. I watched Annie pick up the glass to drink the remaining wine from it and I drained a final swallow from mine. Joseph appeared to ask if we would like a dessert. He offered a dessert menu.

          I took it from his hand and glanced over the glossy photos and lavish descriptions, but quickly handed the menu to Annie, hoping she might be interested. She studied all of the cakes and ice creams for a few minutes, then returned the menu. “You choose us something,” she said.

          So I chose the biggest, the gooiest, the chocolatiest concoction of them all. She looked somewhat dismayed when Joseph deftly slipped what the restaurant billed as Chocolate Mountain Ecstasy down before her. Slightly alcoholic, perfectly sweetened. She ate three or four bites before pushing the rest of it to the table’s center. “Wow,” she said. “It’s great. I just can’t eat more.

          I nodded, halfway through my own Chocolate Mountain of Ecstasy, swallowing the chocolate, unable to reply. I nodded and managed the tiniest smile.

          Fifteen minutes later, as I held the light jacket for her to slip her arms into, she turned her head to look upon my face the way one looks when evaluating and making judgments. I returned the stare, curious to know her conclusions. Walking to the parking lot, I was searching for something to say. Annie spoke first. “My grandmother tried to teach me to let the man be smarter if I wanted him to like me. I never believed her. There had to be men who value the accomplished woman and revel with her in her triumphs. I’ve met more than a few such men.”

          We had reached the car and we paused before her passenger’s side door. “She was from another culture wasn’t she?” I said. “Didn’t she grow up in eastern Europe somewhere?” 

          “She was Czech,” Annie said. “Tonight I was testing you. Instead of going to the theater, why not just drive and talk?”

          “Of course,” I replied, as I opened the door and she gathered her skirt to slip inside. She was buckling her seatbelt and I came to my side and got in. “You continue where you left off and I will jump in when I see the proper opening,” I said. 

          My seatbelt snapped and I started the engine. I slowly backed into the traffic lane. Choosing a road I knew to be lightly traveled I let us cruise slowly toward the coast. 

          “You thought a little less of me when I said I like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I don’t know if that makes you a snob or discerning critic. I know you have a good education and you are smart. I called you a liar if you say you read Ulysses.”

          She looked at drops of rain wetting the side window. 

          “Go on,” I said as I adjusted the wipers to match the intensity of the unexpected little April shower. 

          “I’ve read Ulysses. Have you ever attempted it?” she challenged.

          “Yes, I’ve read it from cover to cover. I confess to not understanding all of it, but the beauty in the writing haunts me. It’s among my favorite books,” I said.

          “I’m an authority, if such exists, on Finnegan’s Wake,” she said proudly. “I have written articles that were published, helping to make it accessible to more people.”

          “I’m impressed. Deeply impressed. I’ve dabbled, but haven’t gotten far with that one.”

          We both were relaxed and intent on carrying on in this fashion until time to go home. We discovered that we adore Faulkner. And she revealed her tenure at the university. I mentioned my nearly signed book contract. Then she asked and I told her how I wrote my first novel on spiral notebooks while at work. The years of submitting manuscripts, to be ignored. Lightning strikes and I am suddenly making my living off the books. All too soon we were parked where Annie would be getting out and I would walk her to the door. The rain had dissipated. A fretful breeze played with our hair. Her tiny fingers sought mine and we joined hands until we had gotten within a few steps of the entrance. “I certainly enjoyed everything,” Annie said. “I would like very much to see you again.”

          “Me too,” I replied. “Perhaps we could go to the theater on Saturday?”

          “I think so. Call me tomorrow in the evening,” she said, slipping her hand away from mine.

          Annie planted a quick kiss on my cheek and dashed for the door. Pushing the key in the lock she looked back at me and said, smiling, “But I actually do adore Holly Golightly.”

          I grinned all the way back to the car.  


Friday, February 19, 2021

DANCE INTO THE SEA

 Some love science
Some love gods
I love to dance with the arthropods
Ready?
All hands waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Heady
Click and shuffle to the side
Now reverse you quickly glide
Eyestalks top to bottom 
Wave'em both if you got'em
Rock on all your legs
Claws up like one who begs
Into the waves 
Into the surf
Do it all again in reverse



Wednesday, February 10, 2021

HUNTING WASSELNORF

  HUNTING WASSELNORF 


         The monkeybirds at the window reminded Hadley he was on a foreign planet. He dutifully sent them a few of the green fruits he had saved out the slot he’d made in the screen for that specific purpose. The monkeybirds scooped the fruit up and went off to either eat it at their leisure or else feed to their young. Hadley watched as they sailed away through the white leaves until the vegetation seemingly swallowed them up. Returning to his coffee, he sat, still wondering why the expedition had left SL5 so abruptly, without informing him or asking if he were ready to leave. He had paid to hunt the wasselnorf only, not to emigrate here. The dead wasselnorf was in its case, already loaded for shipment to the museum. So why did they not take him along to deliver it?

          He had no doubts he could survive until a next expedition arrived. Sadly, he had no way of guessing how long it would be. The operational section was securely locked away, leaving no means of communication. Hadley did not relish growing old here. But he must plan for possibly a long interlude. He would set up a routine to keep his health and acuity intact. It also seemed prudent to walk the entire grounds daily for security, although he was unaware of threats from what seemed a docile planet, with no carnivorous animals at all, so the literature read. In fact, SL5 seemed like a park more so than an undeveloped planet.

          There were nutrition pills to see him through for years to come if the food ran out. The cupboard held many tins of coffee, more than one could consume in a lifetime. He toyed with the notion of domesticating a monkeybird for companionship. It might work. The ones he had been seeing appeared somewhat friendly already. Tomorrow, when they came expecting fruit, he would try to coax a few in. He looked around, eager to keep his mind busy. There lay his tablet across the table. 

          It had been Hadley’s intent to study all the literature concerning his wasselnorf during the long journey home. Now, there was ample time to do it here. He opened the tablet to the downloaded information and began to examine the commentary and educational videos. After a time it began to seem unreal, for the presentation featured many unsubstantiated generalities about this supposed native species. Smelling a hoax, he began to read side comments submitted from anonymous sources. A recurrent theme among the comments made the charge that this organization imports its creatures for targeted hunts, that both clients and specimens are then either sold to various museums about the galaxy or, variously, discarded. He finally left off, thoroughly confused. He should prepare for lunch time. 

          There was a sausage stew inside the giant freezer, which he took out and put in the sink to thaw. Then decided it to be a good time to walk the property. As the door closed behind him and he stood smelling the fresh sweet air, he heard a general movement all about the building. He looked around to witness metal shutters coming down to block the doors and windows, making the walls faceless and smooth. Making the building inaccessible to Hadley. He stared hopelessly at the shutter blocking the door through which he had freely passed a minute ago.

          He knew beyond a doubt that every side would be the same, but walked it three times, hoping hopelessly to find a chink in the building’s armor. He would be stuck in the out of doors until the whims of commerce sent a next expedition. Which could be never, since the surveys of SL5 had long since concluded and now they had taken the only locally known wasselnorf away. At age fifty-five, he was hardly a candidate for survival in the rugged outdoors. Before taking on the work for the museum his life was sedentary. It was a solitary existence, minus family, minus a mate, minus a pet even. In a fit of depression, he grew restless and applied to work for the museum. In today’s situation, thus far, he had not succumbed to panic. Perhaps now he had reached an appropriate time to do so. Feeling as though floating in a fog beside his body, he walked the confines of the compound, seeking the odd things that could help him to survive. It was clean, having been meticulously gone over by a crew member the day before, as Hadley now remembered. That meant he would be compelled to make forays into the woods, where he would seek out food and material for a shelter from the elements. It was hoped he would not encounter any hitherto undetected wasselnorfs, for they were huge and strong as several humans at once. He determined to make the most of the remaining daylight. He wished there had been a vessel of any sort for the transport of water, for the site on the stream where he shot the wasselnorf was a fair distance away.  

          The massive gates to the compound were designed to withstand almost any sort of attack. Fortunately, they were manually operated. He was learning to be less trusting and so removed his shirt to stuff in the gate to thwart the locking mechanism, in case it tended to roll back and snap shut. Uncomfortable to be so exposed, his first effort was to pick up something that would replace his shirt in the gate. He was able to separate a suitable limb off a rubbery grey plant, one with leaves resembling octopus tentacles. It was a perfect substitute for the shirt.

          He knew there were plenty of trees with fruits and berries, all within easy range of the base. The trouble with it being, he had no education as to which among them could safely be eaten. The green fruit shared with the monkeybirds was the only one he could be certain of. It hung in great pods where the forest’s general tone of colors shifted from white to mauve, about two miles downstream from where the wasselnorf died. The crew had shown him how to harvest these fruits when they discovered he was slipping them to the wildlife.

          It was a tossup if he should bring back some of the green fruit first or gather tree limbs and branches for his shelter. But appetite demanded and prevailed and he set out to gather some pods. There was in a sheathe a sharp knife, which would be handy for separating the fruit from the trees. During the traipse to the site, it occurred to him that a carefully opened pod could serve as a water bag. Now that there was a plan that could not just save his life but would give him purpose he gained confidence that all would end well.

          Hiking along near the flowing water gave a calming effect. Foreign planets could sometimes harbor the unexpected hazard. Not so, apparently SL5. The only danger he felt he might expect would be if the wasselnorf left a mate bent on vengeance and the expedition chief had assured him this was a solitary specimen for this side of the planet. The occasional mauve leaf signaled the nearness of the groves of targeted fruit. He had learned that monkeybirds love for green fruit began with humans opening up the pods and sharing. They came to love it above all else. He moved through a thicket of white elephant ears looking plants to come out among the green fruit-bearing ones. Hadley was disheartened to discover the pods were mostly beyond their season. He was able to rescue only five decent ones. After cutting them loose with enough stem to hang over his shoulders, he prepared his return to the base. He was set to leave when a honey-sweet smell rushed over him to overwhelm his olfactory nerves. 

          Alarmed by what seemed a targeted action, he looked about for the source. There were no predatory animals, he recalled. But what about carnivorous plants? He could not be sure about those. And then he saw a monkeybird being irresistibly drawn to the source of the odor. It had been aimed at that innocent and not Hadley. He followed just in time to observe the poor creature getting closed inside a cage of rough vegetation and being drawn to the mother plant. He ran forward, knife in hand, to slash at the cage, creating a hole the monkeybird escaped through. The arm of the plant recoiled, drawing away to avoid further damage. The freed monkeybird now was nowhere to be seen. He went on with his task, stepping lively, for there was much to accomplish before darkness sets in.

          At one point Hadley paused for a moment to shift his load. In the process, he chanced to look into the branches of a tree to discover the rescued monkeybird monitoring his progress. He smiled affectionately, shaking a pod. The monkeybird responded with a tiny screech, showing its teeth.

          Once inside the compound, he laid the pods against the fence and made a decision to put together a shelter of some kind before opening one. The next few hours were spent gathering limbs and branches and making a lean-to against the front entrance, the furthest he could get from the landing pad. At this juncture, he was weak from hunger. He sat with the first pod between his legs, carefully cutting around the stem, hoping to preserve it as a vessel to hold water after taking out the fruit. 

          Shortly, a nice pile of green fruit was formed at his side. He looked for the friendly monkeybird in hope of offering it a few. Apparently, it had left off following during the boring episode in which he built his shelter. Hungrily he bit into one, unaware at least a dozen monkeybirds had approached and were looking down from atop the wall.

          Before he knew what was happening they descended to take his fruit. He tried to grab some for himself but they bit and scratched his fingers and wrists until he rolled back to shield himself. One of his ears was painful and bleeding. By the time they flew back over the wall, the entire content of the pod was missing, even the piece he bit into. Disheartened, disappointed, Hadley gave up on eating for the day.

          By now it was dusk. Extremely tired, Hadley finished making his bed and fell back to rest. The temperature was dropping quickly. He was obliged to bury himself in the loose material. After a snug night, he awakened to drips caused by heavy fog. Moisture lay atop his covering and wetted his hair. Hadley arose, hungrier than ever. He hid in the recess of the shelter, facing the wall, to cut into the next pod. Only in this wise was he certain to consume all of the fruit he wanted.

          After, he sat back for a time, his overfull belly making him listless. Still tired. 

          At approximately mid-day Hadley roused himself to go with two empty pods to fetch water. After reaching the stream without incident he moved without delay to secure his water. He ended taking one shoestring and cutting it to have something to bind each pod shut. The other shoestring he also cut in order to tie the tops of his shoes so neither would slip off his feet if he had occasion to run. He found his burden too heavy for such a journey until he devised a travois for it to ride upon. 

          When he returned he found the monkeybirds in and around his shelter. All intently returned his stare. He knew they meant to have his fruit. He yelled and waved his arms to shoo them off, but they merely resettled. After a hopeless standoff that lasted at least an hour, he surrendered. “Okay, then,” he pronounced as he pulled his knife. “You can have it.”

          The monkeybirds made room for him to pass. Hadley pulled the remaining pods into the open and slit their sides. He scattered the fruit by dumping it and slinging the pods in the same motion. Now forgotten by the voracious little shits, he wandered back in the direction of the fruit trees, in hope of discovering more trees with pods a little deeper in. As he went he nursed his resentment toward the company, until now subverted by the struggle toward survival. His failure brought it once again to the fore. The conspiracy comments began taking on importance in his musing, as there appeared to be no rational explanation beyond that. He approached the water for the second time this day and turned along the bank. As he went he heard a melancholy voice from afar. That was an animal crying, he felt certain of it. The voice went silent. Hadley pressed on, still hoping to find another source of green fruit. He had gone a mile or so beyond the original grove when the forest opened up and the stream curved off to join a river. The river had a high bank on his side. As he came near the bank the crying from before was resumed and it was very near. He saw a well-used trail at the base of the tall bank.

          Easing his way around the curve, the mouth of a cave came into view. Just partially inside it, the main bulk of a huge body, cinnamon-colored. The source of the crying. A second wasselnorf. He attempted to back silently away, but something about him alerted the beast to his presence. It grunted in fear as it pulled itself deeper into the recess. Hadley saw his chance to get away and turned to run. His foot slipped off a stone surface and became lodged in a crevice. Frantically, he worked to untie the shoestring in the hope he could slip out of the shoe. The commotion finally drew the wasselnorf from hiding, out of curiosity. 

          Wasselnorf can walk with equal facility on two legs or four. This one stood on two, towering forth to examine Hadley at close range. Hadley felt the eyes of his victim’s mate. Cowering, steeling himself for the worst. She stared at him until he could bear it no longer. “Well. What are you waiting for? Get it over with.”

          The wasselnorf’s demeanor changed with the human’s frantic words. She took one step closer and bent with two paws reaching for him. They squeezed him below the arms, then lifted to pull him upward. He felt a pain in his foot when it came free. Miraculously the scraped foot was not seriously injured. She gently let him down. To his astonishment, the lady wasselnorf turned away. She returned to her cave to collapse once again at the mouth of it to resume her crying.

          Touched to his core, Hadley sought out the beast’s head. He wrapped his arms about her face and hugged her for a long time as her tears flooded over him. 

           --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

           Captain Bark spoke to his fellow crew member, Willie Snark, a crustacean sort of fellow from SN20. “Hadley must have felt abandoned. Marooned and forgotten. Well, it has been just two calendar months. Perhaps he is alive somewhere. A pity he didn’t know the compound is programmed to lock down the minute it becomes unoccupied. Take Clive Hern and Glenn Shaver with you. He was most familiar with the trail leading to the stream north of here. I suggest looking in that direction. Bring him some food. He will appreciate it.” 

           -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

          Hadley could hear the rescue team booming their signals and calling his name throughout the forest. When eventually they approached his lair he stepped out to meet them. He recognized Willie Snark. He pointedly avoided Snark‘s outstretched hand. “Willie? Why did you leave me alone here? I could have died with no training and no warning.”

          Willie‘s eyestalks went waving wildly. “Please, Hadley; let me explain. We responded to an emergency on board the mother ship. We left so hurriedly that we overlooked you. It wasn’t intentional.”

          “Let me have your gun.”

          “Wait. What? You want my gun?” Willie said, backing off to the safety of numbers with Clive and Glenn. “What do you want it for?”

          “Relax,” Hadley said soothingly. “I want it for protection, not to shoot any of you. You see, I’m not leaving SL5. My gun is exactly the same as yours. A fair trade.”

          Willie looked uncertainly at his comrades. “What do you think?”

          Glenn nervously licked his lips. “I don’t know. I think it’s alright.”

          Clive chimed in. “Give it to him and let’s go.”

          Willie handed Hadley the gun. “Just one more thing. Did I see a wasselnorf with you?”

          Hadley was defiant. “Maybe you did. So what?”

          “Just this,” Willie replied: “You should know the administration has rights to collect any specimen it wishes on SL5. You may see a hunter coming after this one at any future time. Don’t make it hard on them.”

          Patting his gun, Hadley said, “They better not try.”

          Willie’s eyestalks drooped on opposite sides of his head. “Okay,” he said. “We are leaving you a bundle of food. Goodbye, Hadley. Good luck. You will need it.

          Hadley waited and watched long after they had gone. At last, he returned to the cave. “Patricia?” he called. “They are gone. No need for hiding.”

          The wasselnorf stuck out her head. “Neef?” she said in a petite kind of voice.

          Hadley and Patricia had been developing a language of their own. He was able now to convey to her they would need to migrate in order to be out of danger. He thought they could unite with other wasselnorf in the distant reaches of SL5. He also thought they might devise some tactics for fighting back when inevitably the territory for hunting expanded to wherever they ended up. Her big trusting eyes assented. She brought her face close to his and he buried himself in her fur to hug her. 

          That night they slept one final time in the cave, with she on her side and he against her nape, his back deep inside the fur keeping warm. There was a single monkey bird he had named Rascal nesting on her ear. He kicked aside the meal the rescue party had left him as they went out that morning. They forded the small stream and continued into the mauve forest on the other side. They were unaware if the spacecraft had already docked with the mother ship to soon be leaving for the solar system of Hadley’s youth. They were, in a good way, off to hunt Wasselnorf.      

            

           

                   



Saturday, January 30, 2021

LARRY DONOVAN’S TONGUE

 LARRY DONOVAN’S TONGUE


There was this invasive creature that his imagination could just vaguely describe - No words came to express a concrete image - Which viciously pushed itself between his lips and teeth to nip away his tongue. The monster then attached itself inside his mouth where the tongue had been rooted. It did this each night, between four and four-thirty, several horrible times in succession, and he, desperate to eject it, straining, yet unable to make the slightest defensive motion. He would finally jerk awake and then seek out the clock, which always proclaimed it to be four-thirty-one.


Larry Donovan would lie still, hoping to gather some restful slumber before time to roll out of bed and stumble tiredly into the bathroom. It went on like this for three weeks. Then one morning he awakened, refreshed, after not having to awaken himself from the dreaded nightmare. He tripped almost lightly into the bathroom. As he sloshed his mouthwash, the thought sounded in his head, “Okay, that’s some miserable tasting stuff.” 


He had to have had the thought. But, why would he? He had sort of enjoyed the artificial cherry flavoring his entire life. “It’s good,” he said after spitting it into the basin.


“Not,” said that voice, which he now distinctly understood to come from inside his head, but not from his brain. 


His tongue moved involuntarily. A slight tic, he might have assumed one day in the past. However, still powerful in his imagination was the recurring dream of the tongue monster. He shuddered as a gigantic WHAT IF? lit up for him like a neon billboard. “What if my tongue actually was replaced by a monster?”


He pushed his face close to the mirror in the medicine cabinet door, with his mouth wider than even a dentist could coax from him. The tongue looked at first to be normal. Pink and smooth, the way he liked it. Still he peered intently inside the mouth reflection, not totally convinced. He moved his head a bit to catch the different angles. He nearly gave up a few times, but continued his study, until at last he caught it: The glimmer like he would expect from two eyes, set deep in the back.


Debilitating fear gripped him at first, but he regained control by reminding himself that panic sets one up for defeat. Must be calm. Must - Must get help.


Dressing desperately quick, almost falling over while putting on his shorts and again while pulling on his trousers. He slipped into a shirt, grabbed a pair of socks, headed into the living room, where he had gotten in a habit of taking off his shoes at night. As he sat bending over to slip on the socks, the voice said, “Where’s breakfast?”


“Hell with you,” he replied, gathering the shoes. 


With the shoes were neatly tied, he grabbed a few envelopes and started for the door. Just as he reached to turn the deadbolt the monster in his mouth shifted somewhat and began vibrating. The movement quickly built so strong as to rattle Larry’s head, clattering his teeth together. His hands tried to hold his head still. The vibrating paused. “How about it, Larry? Breakfast.”


Larry meekly slinked into the kitchen, where he pulled from the dishwasher a cereal bowl. He poured a heaping portion of frosted flakes and overfilled it with milk so that cereal sloshed over the side on his way to the table. He sat down, with cold milk wetting his thigh. Ignoring his discomfort, he consumed huge bites in rapid succession. 


“Hmm-mmmm,” the tongue monster sighed.


After the bowl was empty, Larry arose and went to look for the envelopes he had been carrying before his head became a mariachi. The monster still moaned with satisfaction as he took the found envelopes out to the car.


“Where are we going?” asked the tongue monster.


“To my job.” Larry had opted to be polite, for now. “I have to get these papers to my boss first thing this morning.” 


Monster had other ideas. “Wouldn’t you rather do me a favor and drive us to the zoo? I left my family there.” 


Larry considered. “I don’t know. Are you going to rattle my teeth if I don’t” 


“You don’t want to experience some things I could do to you,” The monster said blithely.


Larry had no choice but to continue with his politeness. “In that case, it’s the zoo for us. What did you say was your name?”


“I blush to say it,” the monster answered.


“Suit yourself. I will just make up a name for you. UG,” Larry said. “Ug for short.”


“What does it mean?” the monster asked.


“It labels you for what you are,” Larry said with a nasty edge in his voice. “Unwelcome Guest.” 


They were already halfway to the zoo. “So what’s your story, Ug? Why did you do this to me?”


The monster sounded irritated. “If you weren’t driving I would rattle your head so hard. Your teeth would shatter. Stop calling me Ug. My name is Finnless, in honor of my ancestors, who separated from deep ocean fish to arrive here.”


Larry was intrigued in spite of himself. “How did this parasite thing get going?”


Finnless took a moment to think. “We picked it up several hundred generations before moving on land. In our oral history, there is no explanation how it first happened.”


“It’s too ludicrous,” said Larry, “you went to all that trouble before leaving out of the ocean. How long until you experimented with humans?”


“You, Larry. You’re the first.” It seemed to Larry Finnless must be smiling.


Larry frowned. He continued frowning as he pulled onto the lot and searched out a parking space. “What do you want to see first, Finnless?” he said as he eased into a stall and killed the engine.


“To the zebras, my man. That’s where my family is camping, Oh boy, I get to visit my Mama again,” Finnless gushed. “I haven’t been back since after I killed a man in a box truck for sticking me with a pocket knife.”


Larry paused with his hand on the door handle. “But you told me I was the first.”


“Oops. First success,” said the mutated fish. 


Larry stared hopelessly out the windshield. “How did you kill him?”


“Crawled down his throat; exited his anus.” 


Finnless paused, reflecting. “Don’t worry. I like you like a brother already.”


Larry paid at the window. It had been a lot of years since he visited a zoo. He hated to see anything enslaved. Walking the path to the cages, he picked up the conversation. “You know, you could have chosen the gorillas to live in.”


Becoming strident, Finnless said, “And what? We stand around with his belly pressed against a truck tire? Rot while the goons on the other side of the bars have actual lives? Do I seem like that kind of a tool to you?”


Larry yielded the point. Looking ahead, he thought the zebras ought to be near the giraffes, the heads of which he could see towering over nearly everything. There was another point he needed clarified. “Something that’s starting to puzzle me is, how did you manage to remove my tongue with no awareness on my part?”


Finnless laughed. “Easy. Once you sleep I insinuate myself inside, secreting a fluid the whole time to make you oblivious to pain while it deepens slumber. The old tissue dissolves and mixes with your body fluids. The nightmares you experience are meant to condition you into acceptance, once you learn the truth.”


Larry said, “Oh.”


Finnless expanded on the topic. “Evolution can be a wonderful thing. For instance, you and I enjoy a symbiotic relationship, Larry. I can do lots for you. How long do humans survive? Perhaps eighty years. My presence boosts your immunity enough to make you live twice that amount.”    


They passed the giraffes, who watched their young one cavorting with the abandon of one too young to realize the boundaries of the prison it was born to.


Larry understood what his personal parasite was saying, but he still was hoping to learn something that could free him of it. He would continue to listen. And to wait.


The zebras were away from the fence, paying no mind to the visitors. “Yell at them,” the parasite said. “Tell them Finnless is here.”


To the quizzical looks from other visitors, Larry did as he was told. The humans were astonished that the stripes quickly crowded against the fence. 


“Hey, Mama; it’s me,” Finnless said, voice quavering with emotion. “I’ve got me a home now. It’s perfect. I want you to move in with me. Oops. Not in your mouth, Larry. Your friends‘. Or family’s. What ya say?”


“Later,” Larry muttered, mindful of the small cluster of humans potentially listening in.


He began walking back to the car. Once beyond the range of the people, he said, “Give me some time to consider this, and who to do it to.”


“Fair enough,” Finnless agreed. 


They went home and consumed a snack of leftover pie. Larry took a seat before the television set. After making himself comfortable and after calling work to explain his “illness,” he reached into a humidor and pulled out one of the Cuban cigars a cousin had smuggled to him. Without giving a thought to Finnless’s confiture, he snipped the end and pushed it in his mouth.


“What’s this?” Finnless queried. “Another snack this soon? Well, I am game to sample everything you enjoy. It’s just, this one’s a little odd.”


Larry had a second thought but went ahead with it. “You’re going to love it,” he announced.


His lighter put a flame to the tobacco. The first puff bathed Finnless in heavy smoke. The fake tongue made a sound like groaning, causing Larry to hold back on further smoking. After a long pause, Finnless spoke impatiently. “Get on with it,” he demanded.


Larry took in deep drags, paying attention to Finnless’s sighs of bliss that grew weaker and finally ceased. He suspected his zoned out border had lost consciousness. He touched it, then tugged it. The root tying them together was not deep. He gently eased the creature out onto a table. Then ran to a closet to fetch the Have a Heart trap. He stood the trap on its end to as gently as possible drop it in. Mission accomplished, he closed the gate and set down the trap on the coffee table, that he might contemplate it and the future from the comfort of his stuffed chair.


He stared at the caged creature for a long time without moving. Without a thought in his head. Staring. Experiencing emotions. Wistfulness. Sadness. Laughter. Remorse. At the end near to crying. 


He began to weigh his options carefully.


He was on the brink of getting condemned to a life with no tongue. He had to believe there were medical inventions to help overcome such a condition. It all was certain to complicate his life, which depended on clear speech in so many ways.


There was no animosity toward his prisoner. Finnless had done what Finnless had been born to do. He had to admit having a close companion to talk to any time he wants is a plus. Didn’t he say his presence would double Larry’s life span? 


If the creature were stupid or a nag, he would take him to a government agency without a qualm. 


By now the creature was whimpering very slightly. About to wake up. Larry tensed up. He was too tenderhearted to listen to any victim’s pleas without cringing and feeling sorry. After a moment, without further thought, he extricated Finnless from the trap and pushed him back inside his mouth. He settled in his chair and began casually rifling his mail, as though nothing was going on. Cautiously pausing when his partner awakened and voiced concern that he had somehow gotten turned around. The tongue monster fixed himself back into place. 


Larry smiled. “Enjoy the tobacco?” he asked.


“O-o-ho-ho. We’ll do that again. But not too often. It could be habit-forming. You and I are going to be a great team,” Finnless said.


Larry agreed. “How much family of yours needs a home?”         


    

             


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

(SHE'S A CHILD OF) COAL BLACK RAINBOWS

 She`s a child of coal black rainbows

Staring at a fogged up window
She`s the girl with a crack in her soul
In her life no dreams, no heaven
In her time not warmth, not even
Can`t feel enough to sense the cold
Seems like the night`s melting away
Seems like her heart`s only clay
His dirty cash upon the bed
Wordlessly turned away her head
When he`s finished he must have to go
In her life it seems it`s over
In her time there is no cover
Even the best times pass too slow
Seems like life`s melting away
Seems like her heart`s only clay
Once there was a girl
Living just for fun
The cotton candy world
Became a lonely one
Seems like she`s melting away
Seems her heart`s only clay
Her Tommy comes into the room
And she bows to him in the gloom
He plays to the crack in her soul
He`s replaced her dreams, her heaven
Picks up the cash she`s been given
Tells her to work harder for more gold
Seems like at last he`s melting away
Seems like her heart`s only clay
Once there was a girl
Living just for fun
The cotton candy world
Became a lonely one
Seems like she`s melting away
Seems her heart`s only clay
Seems like the night`s melting away
Seems like her heart`s only clay

Monday, January 11, 2021

REFLECTION SONG

 Reflection Song

It’s sometimes a hard road, ain’t it son?
And a long old way until the race is won
Sometimes you’re tired
‘N’ sometimes you’re wired
‘N’ I hope you sometimes have some fun
It ain’t just feathered wings makes a bird to fly
It’s knowing he’s ready makes him even try
Sometimes he stalls
maybe he falls
yet flits back into the sky
And sometimes it seems you’re all alone
You’ll find me cheering from my paternal zone
Though words might fail
May love prevail
If not this brass ring then another one
It ain’t just feathered wings makes a bird to fly
It’s knowing he’s ready makes him even try
Sometimes he stalls
maybe he falls
yet flits back into the sky
I’m not the parent you might have had
In every family’s some good and then some bad
Be your own man
And not your old man
Set your own terms and make both of us glad
After all
It ain’t just feathered wings makes a bird to fly
It’s knowing he’s ready makes him even try
He soars over walls
However tall
The thrill the knowing soaring through the sky

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Final Answer

           His was the first life the river had taken in over fifty years. In one minute he gingerly stepped upon the water's frozen over surface. In the next, Bill plunged through it into the swift-moving current. He was inexorably moved downstream, trying desperately to make a hole in the hard crust while drowning. 

           A younger Bill Trainer had been an avid Bible reader As he grew older he went on to read of transmigration of souls - reincarnation. Later, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and works pertaining to Buddhism. He just dabbled slightly in the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran. None of it managed to lure him away from his atheism. Of course, the overriding theme of these studies concerned the aftermath of one’s transition from life to death. And yet - Not this lack of belief, plus anything he ever experienced, heard, or read gave an inkling of what actually occurred on the day his mortality expired. 

          The bright light of extinction separated him from the inertness. A darkness darker than sleep, absent even the deepest recess of mind, prevailed, for perhaps a single instant. But perhaps instead for eons. The only certainty was his awareness revived in an agonized event when he himself became an explosion of unimaginable proportions. He felt himself spreading in all directions at light-speed. Unable to react or retrieve an internal monolog to question or to test himself.

          And he witnessed in the space created from nothingness the gradual turning of the explosion’s remnants into suns and worlds even while it all continued to expand. With unflagging patience he witnessed planets coming alive - teeming with millions of species. Flora and fauna: swimming, digging, flying. And Trainer experienced helpless emotion from time to time, for the planets mostly failed after the early promise of intelligence. Other planets produced intelligence, limited to loops that produced naught of creativity. 

          Finally, there moved forward worlds able to orbit satellites and to visit moons and neighboring planets. But most such societies raped their home planet of resources and poisoned the populace out of greed. There were others that obliterated the entire planet due to wars and failed experiments. Finally, one race of beings built robot space conquerors.

          The robots evolved into self-sufficient entities that made the Sentients, as they were labeled, irrelevant. They constructed world-sized “Spiders” to weave a web connecting the vast reaches of space. With the web completed, Trainer felt whole, for the first time since his death. 

          The robots made of Trainer’s universe a super being, designed to break through barriers to add weaker dimensions to the web. Similar universes succumbed even as Trainer’s domain continued the original Great Bang, making it, one assumes, the big kid on the block. But in so supposing one would be wrong. 

          Bigger by many times over came an invading other dimension. It burst the bounds of Trainer’s universe, replacing all with its own web. As his empire crumbled, Trainer became a part of a greater whole, becoming diluted. Successive such invasions further diluted him, until it may truly be said he was dead. Purists may argue.          

                


Saturday, December 26, 2020

ERIN CHRISTMAS

 Erin Christmas

by

Charles Mitchell Turner



     The oppressive midsummer sun spread a stifling mantle above the divided land. Inside the city walls hummed a smug citizenry, like a throng of fat bees. Outside were the drones, struggling with heartbreak and starvation. Of these, an old man foraging for food came up with a few grubs and a questionable root that had a pungent odor. So absorbed and light-headed became he, the oldster absently wandered too near a checkpoint, coming on, head down, rheumy eyes barely open, the ravages of time hounds at his heels. 

     He had no business out on his own. Going by appearance, he might carry plague; one could not know. And so, the fearful young soldier attacked to drive him away. 

     The dotard had no idea of the blows he received, in fact already lay on the ground before becoming aware the gargantuan youth in gray fatigues and heavy boots came at him more. His mind relayed pain in a detached, unemotional way. It is probable he would have been beaten to death but for the staying hand of an older, less murderous fellow in a captain’s uniform. The two troops moved behind the gate, allowing him to crawl away. He pulled himself off the hot asphalt, losing consciousness in the bush, nearly smothered in his own mucus.


     One eye opened to the lower east side jungle. He was on a mat of decayed cardboard, with a chunk of foam rubber under his head. The closed eye felt grossly swollen. A filthy rag testified to the cleansing effort made to his wounds.

     He sought a point of familiarity, perhaps some landmark he knew, but the hurting kept him from lifting his head. He could not see so far anyway. He relaxed on the makeshift bed, drifting out of consciousness.

     After an indeterminate time, he roused to feel himself being raised and spoons full of warm broth pushed through his lips. The one eyelid laboriously lifted, revealing the blurred vision of a woman with a red growth about her mouth and glassy white eyes. Her witch’s tangle of long brittle hair rivaled his own matted, mossy growth, white hair with a beard hiding his craggy face. He grunted appreciatively, greedily swallowing the watery soup.

     For her part the crone was silent, her nut-brown face a solemn mask. She slid the last of the flavorless liquid down his throat and eased his head back on the pillow. She carried the utensils off to clean them, using what medium G/d only knew. She put them in a sack by a pile of seemingly worthless belongings. The old man mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

     Again he drifted away in sleep.

     A commotion deeper in the hobo jungle awakened him. It was a whole day later and he felt somewhat better, although he found himself unable to walk. The woman was gone, apparently foraging, the one vocation left to the poor outside the city walls. He propped his aching bones against a tree, straining his ears to learn why a group of inhabitants was being so noisy. To his gaze, they were like a body of dark liquid. A drop squeezed from the whole, a small figure swinging its limbs in great anger. The being came into somewhat of a focus, bending before him.

     “There you are,” it said. “Why did you not come back?”

     “I could not,” he began. “Walk,” he concluded after a bit.

     He knew his beloved Pumpkinpulp.

     “Problem? Over there?”

     “Ah, not really. The big one called me ’dwarf.’ The drunk said, ’No; he’s a midget.’ Sassyfrassin’ junedunkers.”

      “That was it, the whole of it?”

     The elf had not the heart to inform him that he was the problem.

     “Get that old bones away from here. He snores something fierce and he stinks.”

     And, while it is true everyone in the jungle was dirty, he did have a particular stench that made even Pumpkinpulp blanch.

     “Move him or we will,” a manlike woman had threatened.

     “I will move him,” the diminutive one responded angrily. “You bunch a simians. That man is a saint.”

     “An unwashed saint.”

     “A rotten saint.”

     Now, the small one, regarding him with hands on hips, smiling sardonically, had to agree with them. Such a stink! Perhaps when the nearly divine dies the decomposition is accelerated because the fading one has experienced life to the nth degree and so would taste death in equal intensity. 

     “Let’s have a look at you,” the small one said dubiously.

     The clothing pulled away revealed that a leg tended to gangrene.

     “Ouch. A long, unrelenting ache.”

     In one ear was blood.

     “Have you tried standing?”

     “Yes. It’s hopeless.”

     “I want to move you.”

     “A travois. I saw a donkey -”

     “Before or after your head got kicked?”

     “I think I imagined it.”

     “Those junedunkers spoke of the woman who brought you here. Cursed her for a she-dog and more. I saw her corpse where they dropped it. She had a donkey, all right. They robbed it and her food.”

     Pumpkinpulp took the filthy rag and wiped the old one’s nose. 

     The old one said, “At one time I could have summoned a hundred elves, a thousand, even.”

     The helpless one sneezed, prompting the elf to grimly employ the rag again. As he did so, he remarked he would return in a bit; he had some bargaining to do with the big man running the miscellany of cutthroats over there.

     “Perhaps that fellow might be persuaded to move you if I pay with one of my best knives.”

* * *

     The Richcity streets were quiet in the low afternoon. Erin, the adventurer, strode with a swagger down a residential one, with a thought to seek out a friendly countenance and use the wearer of the face to insinuate himself into the population. He knew he could make a wonderful soldier or anything else he set his mind to, given the chance. So sure was he of his charm and spunk, he had not a doubt it would transpire.

     He wore a cheery grin as he rounded a corner and spied a rosy maid cuddling a kitten, looking down over a patio rail. Did he detect a returned smile? Vainglorious, he strutted before her, grinning broadly at the comely features that could do so much for him.

     “I am Erin,” he proclaimed. “May I chat with you?”

     The fair damsel motioned him near, becoming dryly sober.

     “You are an outcast,” she stated. “What good are you to me?”

     “I am resourceful, intelligent, strapping, an insatiable lover …”

     The maiden flushed. She spoke out to her father in the recess near the door.

     “He is near enough,” spoke the lure.

     A bearded man, with cruel gray eyes, came from the shadow, training a long barrel at him. The maid had, fortunately, alerted him a half-second too soon. He eluded the rapid-fire potshots, traipsing between rows of apartment dwellings and regaining his path to the outside world. 

     He scaled a twisted oak tree, dove over the parapet into the jungle of growth, jumping from the matted foliage to the moist earth below. The brash adventurer jogged deep into a nearby hobo jungle, threading between lean-tos and debris from fallen buildings, followed by suspicious eyes. He ducked under the low branches of a great willow tree, hiding in its hanging leaves, laughing over the ease with which he had avoided paying a penalty for being caught inside a Richcity’s walls. He might have lingered indefinitely but for a commotion at a cluster of rusted metal shelters. He stepped out to witness the antics of a tiny fellow being chased by a man of brawn.

     The hulking one grabbed the smaller foe, attempting to wrest an object from his grip. The tiny one’s hands were incredibly strong. He wrested it free, plunging what proved to be a knife into the greater one’s flesh. The big man shot a piston-like blow to the elf’s jaw, sending him crashing into a pile of rubbish. Pumpkinpulp rebounded, weapon at the ready. 

     The wounded man staggered away; the dirk not worthy of his life.

     “Keep it, you insect,” he shouted.

     The elf made a face over the insult but sheathed the blade.

     “Show’s over,” he said to the young man by the willow, standing motionless, dappled by leaves and sun.

     Erin turned to go, the breadth of his shoulders and the swell of his arms apparent.

     “Wait up,” the elf said. “I would pay you to assist me.”

     Erin paused.

     “Pay? With what?”

     “How about this knife?”

     “You don’t need it?”

     “I have several. How about it?”

     The young one had been sidling up as they spoke. Wily Pumpkinpulp edged away, prepared to fight as often as necessary to protect his property.

     “I am not one for labor,” Erin admitted. “I am an adventurer.”

     “So you’re a thief,” the exasperated elf said. “Look, I have an injured comrade to move. He is mostly skeleton, but it is a matter of miles. Help me and the blade is yours.”

     Erin compared his own poor knife, dull, nicked, point broken off and stuck out his hand.

     “Let me look,” he said.

     The small one pointed.

     “The old one is propped against the tree, yonder.”

     “At the knife.”

     The elf held it up, comfortably out of reach. It was a work of beauty, of the finest, sharpest steel.

     “Such a handle. No way it is slipping.”

     “Friend -”

     “Don’t call me that.”

     “- I will do it. But, if he is diseased, that knife will be the death of you.”

     “Don’t worry. Gather stuff to make a gurney. If you could scrounge a set of wheels, even better.”

     Erin went off to find the items, fretting that the mission seemed too much like actual work.

     The ancient elf discovered that the old man had weakened in the past hour, his ravaged body slumped against the rough bark, eyes closed, no detectable movement. Feeling no breath on the back of his hand, the hob raised with his thumb the one working eyelid.

     “Shut it. I am resting.”

     “I am almost ready to move you.”

     “Too late. I am already dying.”

     “My friend -”

     “Help me to lie down. It is all I need.”

     * * *

     The small one sat atop a pile of the old woman’s rubble, looking steadily at the old man. Soon the vigil would end. A montage of their years together ran through his mind, of when the dying friend had been an unknown beardless whelp, all the way to the height of his career when the entire world would break off the fighting in the spirit of perfect peace one whole day each year. They had been a team, although he got the glitter, Pumpkinpulp the grit. No, it was not fair to characterize it like that. Each deserved full credit. But, all things in the universe turn. New becomes old and gets pushed aside. Together this man and the human will to prevail became weak. The powerful built the heartless cities, the masses became hobos. Pity humankind- -the inglorious, reeking bag of bones, the spark feeding the world, must expire. Now, total famine.

     Eric came, towing a cart borrowed from an unattended habitation. He swore he would return it. He wheeled it over to the bed of rotten cardboard, prepared to lift the vile carcass onto the platform.

     “Ah, forget it,” the elf said. “He won’t be moving at all. However, I feel I owe you the knife. So, here it is.”

     Erin greedily snatched the dirk, holding it up to admire it.

     “Man without knife- -not good,” he grunted.

     Pumpkinpulp had dismissed the adventurer from his thought, redirecting his attention to the old one. When Erin persisted in hanging close out of curiosity, the elf snarled at him.

     “Begone, junedunker.”

     “Sorry. I just felt, somehow, involved. Guess I should be on my way.”

     “That would be the gist of it,” the small one agreed. “This great saint from the past, whose sphere has shrunk to a miserable pallet, should pass peacefully, without the idly curious standing around.”

     Erin sheathed the precious dagger, pitching the old blade onto the rubbish heap.

     “Good-bye, then. Sorry about his dying, sir.”

     The ancient one croaked a string of unintelligible words.

     “What did he say?” Erin wondered.

     The next spate they understood.

     “Come here, young man.”

     He looked to Pumpkinpulp for direction. The elf was noncommittal.

     “Come- -here.”

     Erin knelt, putting his ear near the old one’s mouth.

     “Your name?”

     “Erin, sir. I’m an adventurer.”

     “Would you like to hear a story, Erin?”

     “Very much, sir.”

     The one open eye had glazed, becoming sightless. 

     Striving to not be sickened by the smell, the young man attended attentively.

     “There was one like you,” the old one said in a weak whisper. “Pugnacious, saucy, quick-witted, strong. No goals, no ties to anything.”

     Pumpkinpulp had moved in very close, his raggedy hat off, twisting it in his hands. Tears ran unrestrainedly down his cheeks.

     The old one continued.

     “He came to me over twenty-five hundred years ago, the first of his ilk. Nothing special, in the scheme of things, one would surmise. But, one would then be wrong.”

     The eye closed. There ensued half a snore. The tale-teller awoke to resume the narrative.

     “Have you heard of Christmas, Father Christmas? The young man came to me, as I say. He heard and understood and because he assented the world became a better place. It did not descend to become the dismal sewer it is today until a few hundred years ago, when I was struck by an astral fever, weakening the universal will to peace. I recognize in you the same properties that can again save the festering masses from themselves. If you could do it; save the world, make it flower, would you?”

     “I suppose I would. I don’t really understand where you are going with this.”

     “Touch my soul if you want to save Christmas.”

     “How do I do that?”

     “I think you know.”

     “I don’t. I …”

     He took one of the skeletal hands in his own in a caressing move, becoming instantly electrified. He felt the power draining out of his soul and then his body, all in an instant, folding in upon himself, becoming a heap of dross. The recipient sat up, vibrant and youthful. He looked to the elf.

     “As I was the day we met, so I am this day. A new age for humankind has already begun to germinate in most every heart and soul.”

     Pumpkinpulp must grouse.

     “Why didn’t you tell me to bring a youth? Save me the turmoil?”

     “Because, dear friend, Erin as the one and only had to find me, not I him. As I have no last name to call him, in the lexicon he shall be known henceforth as Erin Christmas.”

     “We are to revive the shop, then? The elves will come if you say it.”

     “Yes. Think you could find me some reindeer?”  

       

     

     

     

     

          

     

     

     

     

      

      

              

       

            


Friday, December 25, 2020

STUMPY THE TOAD

 Stumpy the Toad

By 

Charles Mitchell Turner


One


     It was inevitable that Robbie should find such a door. You see, there are certain children behind which looms, in giant letters, the word PROBLEM. In Robbie’s case, it simply was not fair. He was not such a bad boy. Perhaps it was his silence, perhaps the refusal to give in, which made others feel so strongly about him. He was admired or disliked and there was nothing in between, for the lines were all too clearly drawn.

     Even the boy’s mother did not understand her son. She held a vague notion of a “bad seed,” one who by propensity is antisocial. It seemed at last to the ones who had say-so that a school of corrections could be the final answer.

     It was a solution that terrified Robbie.

     His friend, Maxie, had been there. He returned a changed boy. His frequent smiles turned in at the corners, good-natured jibes edged with bitterness, actions furtive, sneaky.

     No, it was a resolution Robbie could not abide.

     As you see, he simply had no choice. 

     When boots scuffled on the porch, the doorbell rang authoritatively, neutral voices carried through the hall to his ears in the bedroom, he looked in his closet and it was there. A low, gaping portal. It beckoned him through.

     He scrambled on all fours into the brightness beyond. 

     It was a deceptive radiance, spelled before a threatening sky. He was on a sandy lane at the outskirts of a village of scattered huts and stucco cottages.

     The hole leading from the house winked like an eye, then vanished.

     His escape was complete, then. He could not be followed. But, escape was not all; he would be freed further. 

     A change began inside his body. It was an adjustment and displacement of everything vital, a process begun within, spreading without, until his smooth body became all puffy, flesh covered with knotted, warty skin, his legs misshapen, elongated. His head too took on added lumps. With the transformation complete, he gazed at himself in a rain pool. The gray phantom of a toad returned the stare.

     “Hi,” he whispered hoarsely. “I’m Stumpy.”

     Already, Robbie seemed just a dream.

     Stumpy approached a stoop, an entrance glaring red in color. There seemed a familiar warmth about this cottage. The longer he stared at it the more certain he became that he ought to knock. Here was the home of somebody he knew.

     A familiar voice called out.

     “Stumpy? Why are you late? We don’t want to miss the funeral, do we?”

     It was Potty Lumpnee. She was like an aunt to Stumpy.

     “Oh, no. We can’t miss that.”

     Potty emerged from the house, wearing a black dress so long it hid her red velvet shoes, with dead flowers pinned to the bosom. A tiny parasol tried valiantly to shield her from the elements. Her hippopotamus face had been painted white, with red circle cheeks. Extra thick long lashes curled above innocent blue eyes. She put her arms about Stumpy and hugged him.

     They hurried to catch the end of the procession, which slowly moved from the village to a great rolling meadow, dotted with tombstones of granite and beautiful bouquets throughout.

     The ugly sky darkened as the villagers gathered about a bronze coffin. The speaker stood before the assemblage, intoning, “He is not dead, he is not dead …”

     The mourners filed past the casket, each saying a personal farewell. When Potty stepped up to the box she dropped the dead flowers onto the breast of the young one within. She kissed his cheek. Stumpy could not bear the pain one final look would bring.

     He wandered from the gathering until he entered a deep wood. Hours he spent, observing the forms of life with leaves, stems, and flowers and studying the ones with legs, eyes, hair, and feathers until it became just too overwhelming. The beauty and mystery of it sent him crashing deliriously into a pile of leaves 

.   He lay quietly on the coolness, with sighing trees bent, sky of rolling clouds, until he slept, unaware when the heavens wept.

     Later, Stumpy made his way back to the village.

     Potty was having tea and little cakes when he knocked.

     “Come in, dear.”

     Stuffing the cakes in her mouth two at a time, pieces fell out as she looked around.

     “Stumpy, come in.”

     She gulped half a cup of tea.

     “What a pleasure to see you.”

     “Hi, Potty.”

     “Are you feeling better?”

     “Potty, I don’t know who I am or what I’m supposed to do.”

     Potty freshened her tea, dumping in four spoonfuls of sugar. One nostril had been stuffed with toothpicks and a blue eye threatened to drop out of its hole. She tried to focus the good orb on Stumpy, but he would not quit vibrating. It was Stumpy, wasn’t it?

     “Is that you, Stumpy, dear? Alf was here a while ago, but he has gone off to sea again. He said to tell you he is sorry he missed you.”

     “Gee; cousin Alf. I am sorry I missed him, too.”

     “You are a warty little toad. Do you enjoy being that?”

     He nodded.

     “It suits me, here. The village will accept me this way.”

     “That’s fine, Stumpy, dear; but, who are you?”

     Potty smiled into her tea, in which floated hair clots and a lemon circle.

     “I cannot say. It is as if I am on my way to becoming, but I can’t know to what.”

     “That sounds like time.”

     “Perhaps a great deal of time.”

     Potty felt for more cakes, disappointed to find she had eaten them, every one. She pinched a few crumbs and pushed them into her mouth, her sigh just audible.

     The succeeding days were short, the weather brisk. Stumpy cut firewood for Potty and the neighbors. The pennies he earned were to pay for his new winter coat. He played in the village streets and several vacant fields with the neighborhood kids; Grunt the gopher, Scratch the weasel; Ginger the duck. Exuberant, pleasantly tired, he came in to the evening meal, which Potty always had ready. Feasts, of meat or fish, potatoes, greens, sweets. Everything a hungry youngster could dream of. 

     In the quiet evening hours, he helped her with special projects, such as mixing the colors with which she painted her face, or modeling the dress she sewed for Grunt’s mother. Much of the time was spent reading, or pleasantly talking.

     His contentment kept right on growing. He might easily have forgotten Robbie had the boy been peacefully sleeping. But there came a day when Robbie could be still no longer.

     “Potty, I am off to play. Scratch and Ginger should be waiting for me.”

     “Stumpy, are you truly happy? Would you choose to always live like this?”

     “I love you, Potty. I love everything here. If I had set out to create the perfect world, this would be it and you and I, Scratch, and all the others would be in it together.”

     “Yes. Yes …” Staring into space.

     “Your eyes.” Feeling separation. “Potty -”

     “Are you crying because you love me?”

     “Yes.”

     “Hurry now and meet with Scratch.”

     “’Bye, Potty. See you this evening.”

     “Kiss me good-bye.”

     The trees across the meadow were black. Through tall grass Stumpy raced against the wind, dogging the heels of Scratch the weasel, who knew no trace of fear. They stood on a hill, overlooking the exploded graveyard. The wind was suddenly still. Stumpy felt the chill creeping up his backbone. 

     Long after sunset, he made his way to the little cottage where he had been so happy. Potty Lumpnee did not answer the knock. He held an ear to the door, listening to voices inside. Clearly, someone had taken his place. 

     “Potty -” Stumpy choked.

     He ran.

     Beyond the village lay other lands. 

     He collapsed at the foot of a tree. For a long time, he lay breathing as hard as he could. How he wished Scratch could be here, that dauntless weasel.

     At the wish, a motion caught his eye. A familiar voice spoke.

     “Scratch here.”

     And he was there, with paws on hips, looking as saucy as ever.

     “Come on, Stumpy; we have got to be going.”

     For hours they continued in the direction Stumpy had been running until the path meandered and they were lost.

     “Come, let’s go,” Scratch cried, dashing on.

     “Wait,” Stumpy pleaded.

     Try as he would, he could not catch up. His friend faded over the horizon.

     He despaired. Why go on? He dearly wished to be with Potty, safe, and comforted.

     He saw across a patch of flowers a cottage with Potty on the stoop. He chased the image, pitching at last into a void with neither dark nor light nor color. Perhaps an eternity passed, or just a moment. Sailing or suspended; who could tell? Far off for just a flicker, he saw Scratch with Potty, cavorting in those flowers. Then a sensation of falling. 

     Returned to the coolness of the wood with tears scalding his cheeks, he lay on a soft shoulder of earth. Soon he got on his feet, cried out, resolved. He would forge ahead. Perhaps Scratch would be at the end, perhaps not. He faced that perhaps Scratch was lost to him forever. There would be other friends, new villages. He was strong. He would endure.



  

      

     

   

              

      


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