The Boardwalk And The Labyrinth

 Ray Bradbury was a natural storyteller.  The path of his plots were as boardwalks that led from one direction to another —sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes overborne with a storm from the sea — yet always in a straightforward direction as Bradbury led the reader through his homemade carnivals along the dynamic panorama of the beach.  Bradbury, therefore, is an excellent example of traditional storytelling that takes aim and hits the mark with deft precision, clarity, and economy.  His stories aim for nothing except a good story and fully realized characters, for Bradbury was a writer with a story to tell, and the story was all that mattered to him.

 Contrarily, Gene Wolfe was an engineer who reverse-engineered plot and pretense within his own stories to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of narratives and conceits.  He wrote labyrinths and dropped the reader into them with shrewdness and aplomb, like mice in a maze.  Often the reader is lost in a Wolfe story, even as the reader thinks he knows where the story is going.  Often the reader even misunderstands where he has been, the wanderer lost not only because of the many-cornered plot that Gene Wolfe angles askew from the center, but the presumptions the reader takes into the labyrinth with him as a reader given to credulity and trust of the author.  Gene Wolfe, therefore, was a deft maze-maker of stories, revealing greater truths through his puzzle-constructs which force the reader to question everything that he sees within the unfolding passages.  His stories aim at bewildering the reader, but never cruelly.  There are signposts everywhere, if the reader is observant enough to learn to read them.

 For these reasons, both Bradbury and Wolfe are good storytellers, but they are very different from one another.  Between the twain there is much to be recommended, and much to be learned from, as a writer of fiction.  Whether one writes a boardwalk or a labyrinth, it should always be well-constructed in its passages, and the journey should always be entertaining

Two Poems

Pride-Felled

And as Macbeth,

cursed by a charmed life,

so, too, those who

lose by winning,

trammeled by their own parade

through the victory arches,

hung by their own medals,

cut by the blade that knights them,

outed by triumph

with a glorious crown of

daggers

at their backs,

fattened by the spoils of war

so that they drunkenly sleep

at their victory feasts

while cannibal forces creep within

to exact the pound of flesh

rendered by such gluttonous winning.

And so, too, as Icarus kissing the

stratosphere

and plunging headlong into the sea;

as Oedipus, blinded by his own

brilliance

and stumbling into a fate worse than the

Sphinx ’s fangs —

so as these do such victors

lose all

through their breathless exultation.

See there?  Upon distant hill?

Sisyphus pushes his boulder up the

Stygian causeway,

thinking himself at the summit

of Mt. Olympus,

but soon tumbles down

with the weight of the trophy

he has won

for fooling the gods.

Just so are we all crowned

with knots upon our heads

in moments of glorious

folly.

Over 70 Million Voices

“We need fresh blood, ”

they say, “for the

millstone of theocracy,

fresh blood whereby our

Old Testament god

may wet his bread

in the ichor of innocence,

dribbling crimson droplets

from his idiot ’s grin,

enough to drown democracy

and baptize America anew

with the biblical ideals

of covenants old.

The earth must be purified

with fire, ” they add,

“and even our charred bones shall

make flour

for our god ’s covetous appetite.

Some Poems

True Love

Listen—is not true love

alike to a well?

Fed from pure rains above

and full without fail?

Yet, such wells are earned

by devout effort,

by spade and shovel turned

to move stone and dirt

and deepen it the more,

then bolster with bricks—

to dig to the earth’s core

requires more than tricks.

But it shall not go dry

if quite respected,

and if by careful eye

never neglected;

whether in desert heat

or in arctic cold,

it will quench quite complete

when one’s young or old.

My love for you, Falon,

knows no arid drought,

gallon upon gallon

never running out,

nor will it spoil with slime

or grasping willow,

or the meddling of Time

or the chill of snow;

bottomless is this well,

bottomless this heart,

come and drink yourself hale—-

let us never part.

“Free Will”

A spider among the trees,

on its thread,

swaying in the breeze,

just overhead,

going to and fro, just so,

dangling high,

whichever way the winds blow

by and by,

still weaving its silk pattern

despite gales

from the thunderstorms that turn

like ship sails

the web it spins for itself,

that silk net

that feeds and sustains its health—

a vignette

to its will, to its own drives,

yet written

like all other spider lives

as writ when

born, inheriting instincts

without thought,

their patterns woven in links

just-so wrought.

And, so, when headwinds unwind

arachnid

weaves as ordained, its own mind

bound as bid

by the web of Fate, of Cause

which, unfurled,

determines all forms and laws

of the world.

Solipsism

A fool could be under reign of thunder

and think it his cravings yet satisfied,

taking to feast as a pig to plunder

and to drink, as rainfall, much gratified

that rain should fall only in his favor

to help wash down his solitary meal,

as he eats till grown tired of each flavor,

still thinking to give the thunder his fill.

Kwaidan Season: Inevitability

Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest.  As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour.  His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs.  Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.

  “Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said.   “The rain has a chill. ”

 Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked.  Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided.  Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life.  They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.

 It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs.  He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut.  He saw Eiji standing near the corner.  The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be.  Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see.  There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft.  This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness.  It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip.  Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.

 Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand.  The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.

 And a voice spoke.

  “Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo.   “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”

  “What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror.  He held his son behind him, protectively.

  “I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot.   “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”

  “You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.

  “Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said.  The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire.   “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”

 Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it.   “Ask for something else, ” he said.   “I will do what you wish.  But you may not take my son. ”

  “I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.

 Nobuteru looked at his wife.  He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.

  “Very well, ” he said.   “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”

  “No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly.   “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ”  The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo.   “Five flood seasons from now.  No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”

 The voice died away like a withdrawing wind.  Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well.  Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know.  He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.

  “This is all a bad dream, ” he said.   “Do not tell your mother.  She must not know.  Promise. ”

 The tremulous boy nodded obediently.

 Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest.  Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder.  He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them.  He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut.  His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him.  The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.

 Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child.  Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born.  Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest.  He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres.  He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.

 It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous.  Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad.  A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.

  “Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest.   “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”

  “Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said.   “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”

 He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter.  Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive.  It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.

  “We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said.   “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”

 The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why.  She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind.  Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts.  They cherished her, as they did her brother.  To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi.  But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.

 The ritual lasted all day and night.  What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof.  It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks.  The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon.  Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved.  Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted.  She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.

 Years passed.  Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive.  She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously.  Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment.  Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed.  To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.

 Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all.  No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season.  When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing.  The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.

 Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest.  He became a fisherman to sustain his family.  Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever.  He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience.  Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him.  But he did not speak of such things to anyone.  He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.

 Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them.  But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko.  Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl.  She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring.  Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment.  She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play.  She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well.  Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her.  When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves.  This troubled Eiji.

  “There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father.   “She is no longer as she was. ”

  “So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said.   “That is what the spirit promised. ”

  “You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.

  “Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted.   “That is why I moved our family here.  The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest.  The priest saw to it. ”

  “But father… ”

  “Enough! ” his father snapped.   “That is all!  Do not speak of it anymore! ”

 Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.

 That night the rain fell hard.  The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse.  Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill.  No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound.  Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding.  He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen.  The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.

 Gradually, they all fell asleep.  They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain.  When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways.  Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko.  They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow.  All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind.  But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko.  Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own.  Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her.  He failed.  Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills.  They did not see Aiko again that night.

 The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror.  They called for Aiko.  They prayed to the gods.  Nothing answered them.  When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo.  Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead.  They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay.  When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine.  It was shunned by animals and people alike.  Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl.  It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head.  No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.

Autumn Vayne

By the windowpane

in the library

so sat Autumn Vayne

with lips nigh cherry,

watching the cold rain,

sad little fairy.

Auburn was her hair

and brown her wet eyes

as she gazed out there

at the mournful skies.

“I wish the sky fair—

not this one which cries.”

Afire were the trees

with their flaring hues—

she sighed like a breeze

or a woman whose

man died overseas.

“Life’s the thing we lose.

Death’s the thing that frees.”

The leaves fell like flames

in the rainy eve

and with them the names

she had yet to grieve—

all the petty games

of such make-believe,

such make-believe love,

the green giving way

to the seasons of

young hearts gone astray

like those leaves above,

all wilting away.

Mournful Autumn Vayne

sat and watched the Fall

of leaves and of rain

and hearts, overall—

a vigil of pain

for the forlorn sprawl.

And she sat there long

till her hair changed, too,

fading fast, ere long,

to a copper hue

like the leaves which throng

an Autumnal view.

Just Walk Away

Even now I remember

all the times I walked away,

each memory an ember

ready to flare day to day

with the fire I felt in rage

when wrongs were done unto me,

but I chose to turn the page

on a scorched-earth policy —

yet rage remains, even now

when long removed from those days,

burning brazier, ashen brow,

aglow and blind in the blaze.

Stubborn, I clutch to cinder

and blow on it with each groan,

growing thus wrathful tinder,

but burning myself alone.

(A variation on the Buddhist quote about hatred being a poison you drink, expecting the object of your antipathy to die.)