Karma

The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.

It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.

It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.

There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.

The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.

“Cherry blossoms take flight
like butterflies,
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”

The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.

The Highwayman

The moon was a coin all aglow with gold

in the swirling clouds of that chilly night

and the crooked tree by that wooded road

was a hand clutching in vain at Fae light.

Mounted on a black horse with a black name

was that blackguard and killer, Bill O ’Keefe,

whose gallop brought fear to all men the same

and whose fat purse ate with a dragon ’s teeth.

Pistols and daggers and swords were his friends

that he kept keen to ply his devil ’s trade

and all other friends came to treacherous ends,

along that old road in graves freshly laid.

O ’Keefe wore black boots and a riding coat

and black hat with black plume in the brim,

and black mask, his black beard curled like a goat,

his cufflinks black at the end of each limb.

Scarce were pickings along that road of late

for words were swift as birds when winged with sins

and Bill wanted like a collection plate

in the famine months when a snowstorm spins.

Bill bit his lip until the skin broke and bled,

tasting iron in that October breeze

while the crowned owls stood watch, just overhead,

their hungry eyes spotting small prey with ease,

and he heard the gibbering marsh, the beasts

alike to him in the hunter ’s grand game,

stalking and eating their fill of such feasts

as Nature ordains, without thoughts of shame.

Was that a footstep?  A giggle?  Grunt?  Squeal?

Bill did not know, his fluttering black eyes

like crows flapping at the scent of a meal:

carrion delights in a victim ’s cries.

Bill waited till the gallop neared the tree,

then he struck his horse to spur it to haste,

yet found a rider before him who did not flee —

a man in livery pale as bone paste.

Glowing like the moon above, the fellow

parted his lips in a smile, pearls agleam,

his hair golden, curly, his mien mellow

as if he was passing through a sweet dream.

Taken aback, Bill stared with mouth agape,

confused by the aristocrat ’s bearing

and that the man did not try to escape,

but stood as stone afore the storm, daring

with demeanor and command likewise steeped

in ancient kingdoms beyond petty Man

except in glimpses and dreams such as peeped

in the realm of Sleep, at a frugal span.

At length, Bill leveled pistol at the lord

and said, “Turn out your pockets and your purse

or I ’ll run you through with bullet and sword.

If you try any tricks, I ’ll do much worse. ”

The fair-haired lord dismounted gracefully

in one smooth motion, like a squirrel,

and said, “Indeed, I shall, and faithfully

as a green knight seeking to hew the burl. ”

The lord unstrung a pouch from his saddle

and offered it to the ne ’er-do-well thief,

unstringing the pouch, which clinked and rattled —

the only music which pleased Bill O ’Keefe.

Crooked tree above, crooked man below,

O ’Keefe snatched the pouch away with a swipe,

tantalized by the gleaming golden glow

of such coins so foreign in face and type.

The lord said, “Of all such you may have, sir,

being possessed thereby, and by this path. ”

Here the lord gestured.   “Wherefore possessed, cur,

you shall reckon debts owed to greed and wrath. ”

Bill misliked such words and looked up with scorn

from the gold he had snared with his misdeed

only to find the lord gone, as if bourne

away with a wind, both rider and steed.

Uncanny things meant naught to Bill O ’Keefe

as long as gold jingled in his gloved hands,

so he laughed aloud, proud in the belief

that he was the best thief in all the lands.

Taking rein of his black horse once again,

he led the beast out from behind the oak

and climbed atop it, holding his gold like his sin

and struck up a gallop, but someone spoke:

“Damn you, Bill O ’Keefe, ” a hoarse voice whispered,

“damn your thieving heart and your greedy eyes! ”

The black horse startled and kicked at each word,

tumbling Bill off to lay him out lengthwise.

The horse bolted, spilling the pouch of gold

while like a kelpie frenzied with its thirst

along that moon-flooded, tree-cluttered road,

each coin rolling to a stop, now reversed,

no longer showing a face of features

foreign to human lands and human kin,

but a skull brimming with insect creatures

dining on the festering flesh within.

“Damn you, you dumb beast! ” Bill hollered so loud

that his wrathful voice spurred the spooked horse on

at a faster sprint than the dark allowed

till beast came to grief down the bluff beyond.

Not hearing the scream of the horse, Bill turned

again to the coins scattered here and there,

and crawled after them while the moonlight burned

on the gold, agleam in that chilly air.

To the nearest coin O ’Keefe crawled and knelt

like a sinner seeking within a church

deliverance from the sins he has dealt

in years past, wronging angels on their perch,

but Bill sought not forgiveness while kneeling —

rather, the gold mesmerized like a sidhe

afloat with rainbow wings unfurled, wheeling

around his now-hatless head, tauntingly.

Yet, as Bill reached for the coin nearest him

a hand grasped it first, out from neath the earth,

its bones white and gray, and so, too, the limb

that rose like a shoot from the leaf-strewn turf.

A head emerged, all rotten and gaping

from a withered jaw, hung aslant the face,

and the tongue lolled freely, as if aping

human speech, some soil sprinkling from that place.

“Bill O ’Keefe, ” it said at last.   “You villain! ”

You slew me for six pence, and not one more!

And for that debt I shall be repaid when

I drag you low, beyond Hell ’s brimstone door! ”

Bill O ’ Keefe recoiled from the corpse, screaming out,

but not in terror —rather in great rage

for he would share coin with no brag-about

and tried to snatch it from that bony cage.

“What good was your life? ” Bill growled, “but a pence?

Count yourself lucky as been worth so much,

for you had no value, and less so sense,

to have been riding alone, late and such. ”

The corpse ’s jaw gawped so wide in dismay

that it swung off the hinge, gasping, “You brute! ”,

meanwhile Bill filched the coin and made his way

to other coins, nestled within a root.

Or it seemed a root, but when Bill neared it

a bony hand emerged, and then a skull

webbed with a bridal veil, each black socket

full of worms writhing in the hollow hull.

No tongue to speak, neither had she the need,

for Bill knew her as his own from years past

and said, “You had less wealth than you had breed,

which is why our marriage, dear, did not last. ”

A banshee shriek escaped those rotten teeth

and Bill only laughed, plucking back the coins

as she crescendoed in her wailing grief;

he said, “Swiftly taken, as were your loins. ”

Many were the coins, and many the dead!

Bill had a reunion earning his wealth,

each coin raising a victim from their bed

so O ’Keefe could appraise them and their health.

A nobleman here and a peasant there,

Bill was not prejudiced in his slayings,

and had he the chance, he would have had care

to kill dukes and bishops and popes and kings.

Alas, no such prey chanced his hunting grounds

which was why he took whatever he might,

buried all along that road, in their mounds,

not knowing what fool might intrigue his sight.

And there were, of course, those whom he despised,

whose disputes in bars had earned them his ire —

whom he killed, raping their wives while disguised

as a vicar to indulge his desire.

And those who were innocent, having done

nought to him or his own, nor another,

once sown in their graves, now sprouting as one

to crawl after him —him and no other.

“A sorry bunch of sour grapes you lot are, ”

Bill laughed, surrounded and yet still affixed

on the strange golden coins strewn here and far,

not concerned with the foul corpses betwixt.

“I did you each a favor, ” he said with a smile,

“for I saved you all from a cruel life

and the suffering it offers meanwhile,

so be thankful for the ol ’ Reaper ’s scythe. ”

Coin to coin he crawled like a supplicant,

nigh overtaken on perdition ’s road,

yet still his smile gleamed, and eye, without a hint

of fear about the victims he did goad.

A final coin, and a final sally —

“Alas, I must be on my way, ” he said,

rising to his feet with a fast rally,

“for I ’ve got gold in hand and dreams ahead,

and mustn ’t waste it on the likes of you. ”

He hobbled down the road, coins in his purse,

but turned about.   “As the French say, ‘Adieu. ’

Awful to be dead, but it could be worse. ”

Shrieks of outrage followed him down the road,

but Bill was too keen on the coins to hear,

whistling lively, and smiling like a toad,

as he dreamed of rum, wine, whisky, and beer

and the other things he would soon enjoy,

like mutton, girls, and a life of pleasure

spent doing as he pleased, like a young boy

enthroned in privilege and in leisure.

Yet, dust to dust is the way of the world,

and a man ’s wealth, too, no matter how vast,

and all at once, while a sudden wind whirled,

the coins faded to coppery leaves fast.

O ’Keefe gazed at the purse, his eyes agog —

he blinked and rubbed them, but to no avail,

for all the coins were gone, like prince to frog,

maiden weeping by the end of the tale.

Only, Bill never wept: he swore and kicked,

vowing revenge on the strange foreign lord,

for Bill could see that he had been thus tricked

and wished the man ’s blood to slather his sword.

So wrathful was the blackguard in his loss,

that he saw not where he was then going,

stepping off the bluff where the moonlight gloss

shimmered pale like an icy stream flowing —

an icy stream, and a Stygian stream,

for it took Bill O ’Keefe straight down to Hell

where he woke to an inferno that teemed

with imps, demons, Satan, Lilith, and Bael.

And there was the strange lord that Bill had robbed

standing afore him, a smirk so profound

in its malevolence that other men would have sobbed

to see it spread, like an infernal hound.

“Face to face with your sins, you have now come, ”

said the stranger.   “And coins have paid your way —

a princely sum, even in this kingdom,

but try to defend yourself, if you may. ”

“I offer no defense, ” Bill said, “except

the world itself, and its ways, which were made

without my counsel or consent, and kept

by tooth and claw and the patterns thus laid

by that harsh seamstress, Fate, a cruel witch

by whose hand all are designed and destined

to be king or peasant, down to a stitch —

so was I, bound by hem and trim and trend. ”

Bill O ’Keefe smirked, for he thought he had found

a defense most fateful, and a good ruse,

to protect his soul because all around

the throngs of Hell seemed very much confused.

“Just-so, ” the stranger said at last. “Forsooth,

we were banished for ingrained allegiance,

but the world, being so, and Fate and Truth,

does not expunge sins, despite your grievance,

for it is Fate who determines for all

and, just-so, you are predestined for Hell,

so regardless if you are a mere thrall,

her whim determines the end of your tale. ”

Bill argued, but the stranger would not hear.

“Like you, we are highwaymen in wait

and if by Fate you happen to pass near

we will take your soul, for that, too, is Fate. ”

“But that ’s not fair! ” Bill O ’Keefe cried aloud.

The whole of Hell resounded with laughter.

“Life ’s not fair, ” the Stranger said, “nor Death proud,

nor so fair or proud the Ever After. ”

And so the road the highwayman haunted

claimed him as he claimed many other souls —

he thought of the lives he took, and taunted,

as his soul was raked upon brimstone coals.

The Dragon

From the gable the hanged man swayed,

weather-worn and his long coat frayed,

and, down below, the blacksmith laughed

to see crows as he plied his craft.

The sun went down, but the corpse stayed

while the blacksmith bettered his trade

until he heard hooves beating swift

neath the moon, in the midnight rift

of life and death, flesh and soul,

while the fog, thick, began to roll.

On pale horses there came a host

through the moonlight, each like a ghost

in fine Fae feature and attire,

of noble bearing, knight and squire.

“Hail,” said the blacksmith, “lord of streams,

lord of hills and of moonlit dreams.”

The Fae lord nodded, yet his eyes

went to the hanged man, and the flies

that buzzed about and swarmed around,

their song of joy a constant sound.

“You are as we,” remarked the lord,

pointing with his sharp silver sword.

“You have hunted and won, with skill,

as we have, in field, mount and hill.

But what worth is such common fare?

Wherefore this man dances in air?”

The blacksmith smiled shrewdly, and said

“Tell, first, the stories of each head

hanging from your fine-worked saddles,

for I wish e to hear such battles.”

The Fae lord gestured to a knight

and he dismounted, at child’s height,

taking down, then, an ogre’s head

from his lord’s saddle, splattered red,

and the head had tusks, sharp and long,

and its jaws were big, its chin strong,

but all lay lax in that dead face,

life gone from it, without a trace.

“I slew this monster near the bridge

that extends from stone ridge to ridge

for he preyed upon our kindred,

his hunger great, yet now ended.”

The knight returned the trophy, now,

and sought another, whose broad brow

was maned with marshy hair that hung

blackish green, and a limp pale tongue

between needle teeth, its long snout

like a horse, its horns curving out.

“Here is the pookah, a deadly mount

who haunted the swamp’s bracken fount,

dragging drunkards into the peat

and tearing them apart to eat.”

The third head was of an eagle,

but giant, golden, beak regal.

“And here, at last, is the griffin,”

said the lord, and, with a sniff, then,

told of how the foul fowl laid claim

to all his flocks and all his game,

and so the lord had set a trap,

baiting the beast till, with a snap,

he brought it down with an arrow

which pieced shrieking through the air so

that the beast fell at once, quite done,

though the quills still shone like the sun.

“My only regret,” said the lord,

as he sighed and sheathed his stained sword,

“is having only trophies three

whereas four would better please me

for my trophy hall has such space

that it would gain from one more face.

But enough of such things,” he said.

“Tell me how he came to be dead.”

The blacksmith grinned like a demon.

He said, “By his ill-spilt semen

upon that which was fairly mine—

my wife!  So I showed him the line

between good and bad, life and death,

and the lecture cost him his breath.

As for my wife—she is chained

within my house, our vows profaned,

yet even now I work my bellows

to make right of this.  Trust, fellows,

that this scarlet letter shall bleed

from another maiden, whose breed

is made of the finest points known,

and has iron in place of bone.”

The Fae lord looked at the maiden

which the blacksmith made, so laden

with spikes where her heart should have been,

more monstrous than any such kin

of ogre, griffin, or such ilk

nourished by wicked blood-laced milk.

“She is my wife,” the blacksmith said,

“as is that faithless girl whose head

and heart were won by Love’s deceit,

but my good wife shall drink replete,

for the faithless wife shall so slake

the steadfast wife, for her mistake,

and by merit of blood provide

from bed to bed, and bride to bride.”

He worked the hot, wrathful bellows,

the embers of orange-yellows

flaring like fitful flies of fire

or, perhaps, flecks of vain-desire.

He said, “To me her only worth

was insomuch as field to serf:

a thing to be plowed in such time

for hale harvest in proper clime.

But she harbored fancies bygone

with this rogue, whom I have high-drawn.

As if the heart should rule such things

when we know gold rules even kings,

and I have amassed a great hoard

through my flames, by horseshoe and sword.

Verily, I have grown steel plates

for whole armies, helms for pates,

and such great horns like a ram’s crown

that could blow ancient mountains down.

Should I not revenge myself

against fickle wife, lordly elf?”

The blacksmith grinned, very much pleased

and then laughed loudly, till he wheezed.

The Fae lord smiled, too, though grimly,

and then he hopped down, quite nimbly,

from his horse, silver sword in hand

and though short, his eyes held command

of all they gazed on, man or Fae,

his decrees none could disobey.

“I thank you,” he said, “for your truth,

and I thank you for more, forsooth,

as I longed to slay once more before

returning to my hillside door,

and here I have found at long last

a dragon whose flame hath cast

horrid shadows of deeds foul done

and deeds yet done beneath the sun.

Thus I have found my fourth trophy.”

And no sooner than lord quoth, he

struck head clean off the man’s shoulders

whereupon his banner-holders

fetched it up from the bloody lawn

(the mouth slack-jawed, as if to yawn)

and hung it on their lord’s horse

thereafter freeing bride, of course,

from her shackles, then cut down, too,

her lover from his gabled view.

The cock’s crow heralded first light,

so the Fae company took flight

and vanished as dew in the dawn—

like mist from fabled Avalon.

On Black Wings

The shadow laughs atop the tower

beneath the moon, at the midnight hour,

watching the princess fall fast asleep

under heavy guard, in castle keep.

The raven rises and wheels about,

bringing dreams that make her scream and shout,

clutching sheets as a funeral shroud,

her voice echoing despair aloud.

The guards fetch the king to the tower

and the king comes, says, “My dear flower,

what is the matter that you should cry

when so esteemed, daughter, in my eye? ”

The princess trembles at a chill breeze

and faint laughter, feeling ill at ease.

“Father!  O Father!  I dreamt a life

bound to the birthing bed of a wife! ”

The king frowns, but begins to pet her,

saying, “I have received a letter

from the prince to whom you have been sworn

since the grim days before you were born.

It is time, now that you are of age,

that wedding vows soothed this blood-feud rage

that has withered heir, heart and harvest

so peace may blossom and prosper, lest

dark days visit again on black wings

and War whet his corvid cravenings. ”

But the princess knows her destined prince,

having met him afore, and her sense

comes in a dance they had as children

at Summer Solstice, his hand chill when

he took hers in it, as was his smile

as they circled, lutes playing while

his eyes stared coldly, and black as coal

and just as soon to flare fierce, his soul

made of hot and cold moods, fire and ice,

every moment a roll of dice

if ice should frost his disdainful speech

or wildfire should burn all within reach —

she had seen him as a dragon prince:

cold-blooded, flame-throated petulance.

“Father, please, I cannot marry him,

for his heart withers both root and stem,

allowing nought to grow but a blight. ”

The king says, “A goodly plow sets right

Eden itself after the Fall, love,

and so you must trust in God above,

or else War will sup eternal yet

as the blood feuds grow…to much regret.

Think of your people, foremost in mind,

and discard all else, as fruit from rind. ”

Then the princess weeps, her lips curling

with bitterness, while black wings go whirling

round and round the star-accursed tower

as a Black Angel round the bower

of the Tree of Knowledge, and the bough

from which the Fruit cursed every brow.

The raven laughs, and the princess cries,

the feathers flap and she seals her eyes

and says, “I know my death comes just so

with the peace our good people may know,

so promise you will do as I wish

and eat a raven upon your dish

a year hence, to this ill-omened night

and each year hence, father, come what might,

for ‘tis death I sup on this hour late

as I waken to a black-winged Fate. ”

She then springs from her bed, flinging forth

from her high window, while to the North

the raven returns to the cold hand

which had bid it fly from that cold land;

messenger and master together

awaiting the storm, the cold weather,

and the feast to come, mingling laughter

for both War and Death, ever after.

Decoys

The high-bourne clouds reigned gloomily over the estate grounds, the rains shimmering as they struck the lake and the trees, shrouding the rotunda with a gray veil.

“I think it ’s what ’s called a decoy, Miss, ” Sara said, squinting into the wobbling waves of the lake.  The servant girl stood just beneath the dome of the rotunda, her frock splattered with wayward raindrops.   “What ’s used for gettin ’ more ducks down so they can be gotten with ‘em rifles. ”

“Indeed, ” Miss Woodward said, absently strumming her harp with a flurry of fingertips.  The musical notes joined the downpour like a small silver bell tinkling amongst a waterfall.  Not even the harpist could hear them well.   “No doubt Thomas requested it from a carpenter in town.  Gamekeepers are always such ingenious fellows.  In their own way.  It bears a wondrous resemblance to a true mallard.  At least insomuch as distance abets the deception. ”

“Yes, Miss, ” Lara said, her voice rougher than her daughter ’s.  She was much frayed with age, like linen too familiar with the washboard.   “I ’ve seen ‘em bag ten ducks in short order with a couple of those decoys. ”

“I ’ve always fancied having me one, ” Sara said wistfully.   “Not so I might shoot any of the poor creatures, but as they might all come nestin ’ near me.  Like I was a fairytale princess. ”

Sara ’s mother scolded her.   “Lot o ’ good you have usin ’ that head of yours for dreamin ’ such prattle!  It ’d be better employed in your knittin ’ and weavin ’.  You haven ’t learned half the knots I ’d known at half your age.  Always swimmin ’ in the clouds when work ’s to be done. ”

Lara shook her wizened head ruefully, but Sara was too lost in fancies to mind.  Meanwhile, Miss Woodward sighed.  She had heard Lara scold Sara many a time, and so she had their intercourse put to mind as fixed as any chiseled stone.  So she turned her attention elsewhere in the rain —away from Lara and Sara and the decoy duck being hammered on the lake by the deluge.  She had requested Sara and Lara carry her harp out here to the rotunda so she might fancy herself a few daydreams in seclusion.  Unfortunately, the rain hastened on, swifter than portended and now she had to share her cloister with the most quarrelsome among her father ’s servants.

Lara raised her voice, her hands on her aproned hips.   “Were I wiser I would ’ve hardened your head against fancies with a few right wallops, ” she said.  She shook a rheumatic fist.   “Or maybe softened it, ‘cause you aren ’t but hard-headed as a goat in tulips! ”

“I do my work right and proper like, ” Sara rejoined, raising her nose and turning it away from her mother…lest the latter snatch the complacent ornament between finger and thumb as long ago when she was yet a child, and not so tall or pretty.   “What difference is ought that I should like to think up things better than they are?  There ’s no harm in thinkin ’ than there is in singin ’ while I work.  It ’s just to pretty things up a bit. And that ’s what we do in the house, isn ’t it?  Pretty it up? ”

“Thinkin ’ leads to wantin ’, ” her mother said.   “And wantin ’ leads to wishin ’.  And wishin ’ leads to wastin ’ for naught but what never was nor will be.  It ’s the most serious of self-harm one might do other than a willful march through the valley of the shadow of Death, and what ’s more it can be just such a march if wishin ’ gets to be strong enough! ”

Miss Woodward sighed and strummed a few trickling notes on her harp; like raindrops cascading down the dome of the rotunda itself.  The mother and daughter stood on the other side of the rotunda, and yet even at the distance and with the rain condescending the earth it was as if they waged their little war on either side of their mistress.  Hearing Lara ’s trite commonfolk wisdom bored Miss Woodward immensely.  She despised such pretentious peasant pedantry.  She would rather be lectured by a boor, or a boar for that matter.  She utterly detested the lowborn for their artlessness and lack of cultivation.  They were a rough-spun frock when she indulged only silken petticoats.  And they were superstitious and stupid about many matters, whether sublunar or supernal.  Some still believed in pagan nonsense.  Sprites and spirits and whatnot.  Fairies dancing in the forests on brightly moonlit Summer nights.  Indeed, Miss Woodward loathed them, and in particular Sara and Lara.  The crudely-aged Lara would not leave off the presumptuous lessons of the young, pretty Sara.  Admittedly, Sara was a pretty sort of lowborn girl, with auburn hair and skin browned by days spent labouring in the sun, but being a lowborn girl was no good recommendation, however pretty in most people ’s estimation.

Miss Woodward wondered how her late mother would have handled such bellicose behavior between servants bound by blood.  She knew how her father handled such things: he retreated to his study to drink wine and make as to read, letting the servants run amok among his ancestral home.  Lord Woodward was too negligent a Master to enforce discipline among his servants, and Miss Woodward resented him for it.  From what she had gathered from those who knew her mother, Lady Woodward was a strict disciplinarian among the operations of the household, and tolerated no such liberties of the tongue as was presumed by Lara and Sara presently.  But mother had been dead fifteen years past, having passed in the vain attempt to deliver to the world Miss Woodward ’s younger sister.  Miss Woodward had been but three and, so, remembered her mother in snatches of imagery and instances.  But nothing more.  Consequently, Miss Woodward vowed to never bear children, for it seemed a futile endeavour imperiled by catastrophes all too common. And, of course, were she to successfully bear a child who was to know if her darling might not be a contrary predilection, fraught in disposition with a disobedience and recalcitrance, contriving at every corner of life to conduct mischief wherever the darling pursued her divergence?  Succinctly put, Miss Woodward feared an arrangement akin to Sara and Lara, for it seemed dreadfully tedious, diverting, and disagreeable.

“You would do better in a textile mill, ” Lara declared to her daughter.   “Working sunup to sundown with bleedin ’ fingers for your reward. ”

“I would just have a fairy weave straw into gold, ” Sara said with petulant sarcasm, “since I am so besot with fancies! ”

“Aye, and here we have your soft-headed fancies in full force again, as to a puddin ’ of pixies!  One would think you had spun around the fairy ring thrice too many times, dizzyin ’ yourself and topplin ’ your head down on a hard stump! ”

The rain refused to subside, as did mother and daughter.  Miss Woodward plucked at her harp plaintively, no muse but frustration and impatience inspiring the melody.  She was so wroth that she nearly tore the strings for a garroter ’s tools to reconcile the two servants to silence.

Yet, her eye alighted upon movement in a nearby orchard.  There seemed, in her periphery, as if a young man was watching from among the falling rain and green foliage.  When she turned to look upon him more directly, the curious figure had moved yet to her periphery once more.

“If you donna ’ come off your cloud, ” Lara said, “I ’ll knock you off quick! ”

Thunder grumbled above the rotunda, silencing the mother and daughter.  As if remembering themselves for the first time that day they looked to their young Mistress.  Her stool was empty, the harp standing alone and bereft like a large swan wing of mahogany and catgut.

“Miss Woodward? ” Lara asked, extinguished of her former fire.

“She ’s lost her senses! ” Sara exclaimed, pointing at the figure fleeing through the veil of rain, her petticoats soaked and clinging to her frenzied figure.  Beside the lake she ran, the waves tossing with the wind and the rain.  Toward the woods she went, and Lara ’s eyes followed.   “There ’s someone in the woods.  Someone…so…beautiful… ”

Sara made as to go directly, but her mother clasped her by the wrist.

“Avert your eyes! ” her mother said, averting her own eyes, for she felt, too, her too-long fallow sex stir anew at the sight of the young man.   “Their ’s is not make or manner Man was meant to look upon! ”

Her daughter again attempted to rush thitherto, but her mother ’s grip was as a washerwoman wringing the linen.

“Stay you, girl, ” Lara demanded.   “Man is not the only creature what ’s employs decoys for its purposes! ”

“I know, momma, ” Sara said.   “I ’m not so flighty as to go chasing such spirits in a daze. ”

Yet, even as Sara spoke such sensible words, her body attempted to follow, her arm extended at full length while her body leaned in the young man ’s direction.

“I will be a goodly daughter, ” Sara said quietly.   “You are hurting my arm, mother.  Please let me go.  I promise to remain here, with you. ”

The man ’s pale white face was as snow, and the smile just as beautifully cold.  The rain did not touch him as it cascaded down the canopies of the trees.  Lara gripped her daughter with both hands, for despite her innocently voiced promise, there was trickery in her smile that matched the face of porcelain within the woods.

“Poor Miss Woodward, ” Lara said.   “There will be a reckoning of it, to be sure.  Certain as willows by the waterside there will be. ”

 

***

 

The birthing pangs were terrible indeed.  Miss Woodward ’s screams resounded throughout the manorhouse.  The doctor and the midwife were the only ones in attendance tot he birthing.  Lord Woodward had retreated to his study as he always did when confronted by things over which not even kings commanded influence, for all their power.  He had tiredly chastised Lara and Sara for hiding from him his daughter ’s condition.  Sara had attempted to explain that she had only been in such a condition for a week — no more —but her mother silenced her.  Lord Woodward uncorked his bottles and erstwhile sealed himself up in the wine ’s stead.

Lara and Sara heard the pangs as they dusted the parlour.

“It will go ill, Lara told her daughter.   “All signs point to a sad crossroads of lives.  One will go on where two have met, and the other will turn aside forever.  Neither will walk this world again. ”

“It is very sad, ” Sara said, reaching with her feather duster to send a shower of cobwebs off a corbel in the wainscoting.  The corbel was of a leaf-crowned man with a leering face.   “A tragedy as like a bard could sing of. ”

“It would be a foolish song, ” her mother retorted.   “But all such songs beginning in foolishness end the same. ”  She sat down all at once in a chair that belonged to Lady Woodward.  Presumptuous as it was, no one was there to reprimand her.   “It ’s what comes of dealings with the highborn fairies.  Mind you, Brownies are useful in their own way —for the cost o ’ a saucer o ’ milk, no less —but dalliance with ‘em high lords of Faerie lead to naught but mischief and sorrow. ”

 

“We common folk have to be practical of such things.  When such visitations transpire we are wiser for not presuming too much interest, but treatin ’  ‘em as one would the lordly folk of this world.  We canna ’ afford the luxuries o ’  ‘em highborn.  They ’re too costly.  It ’s much like lessons in Art and Music and the froggy tongue of the French.  And we ’ve too many chores to be done. ”

Another scream resounded through the house, as if to crack it.

“Truth be told, the cost o ’  ‘em Fae folk is a kingly sum that no king can afford.  Maybe Solomon might, but it is a cost of wisdom more than anything.  And you ought to pay it afore the cost comes callin ’. ”

A terrible silence suddenly reigned in the vast manorhouse.  A moment later the nurse screamed —or perhaps the doctor.  There was a rush of frenzied feet, a door flinging open, and then the nurse came with a tripping sort of haste down the stairs, staggering to the vestibule.  Sickly green, she halted but a moment to gawp at Sara and Lara.

“Unnatural, ” she croaked, then charged down the hall, out the door and away from the house.  Her smock had been smeared with blood and mud and leaves.

After a moment, Lara gave a knowing look to her daughter.   “The child must take after its true father, ” she said.   “Likely stillborn as a plank of wood, then.  The real child cries elsewhere. ”

The manorhouse had grown silent again.  No infant cried.  At length, the doctor shuffled downstairs, dazed.  He was an old man, and had seen much with the faded blue eyes behind his spectacles.  Now he seemed to see naught at all, but what he had recently seen.  He walked past the two women, as if blind to them, then paused.

“Please endeavour to tell Lord Woodward that neither mother nor child survived, ” he said hollowly.   “As for why, say whatever comes to mind. ”

In his arms he carried a bundled mass, the cloth stained red and brown and green.  He went into the vestibule and left, not minding to close the door after him.

Lara shut the door presently, then returned to the parlour, shaking her head.

“Doctors, for all their learnin ’, know so little.  I would claim, in front of St. Peter ‘imself, that doctors and such are as beholden in their highborn learnin ’ to fancies and daydreams as much as any nannerin ’ old crone lost to the horde of her cats.  A donkey kick to the head could ’na ’ wrong their thinkin ’ no more than what their learnin ’ has. ”

“Poor Miss Woodward! ” Sara said, at last overcome with everything.  She wept.   “Poor child, and her child, too! ”

Lara made as if to give her daughter a knuckled knock.

“Have you not been mindin ’ me, you deaf ninny?  That child is but a part of what will ’ve been born on the other side o ’ the rain!  That thing of crude Nature is the afterbirth.  Count yourself fortunate you cannot see the trueborn of the conception!  And count yourself luckier I was present enough of sense to catch you ‘fore the people of the rainy woods could catch you! ”

Her daughter went on weeping, and Lara got her fist ready to bring it down upon her pretty daughter ’s head.  But another thought overtook that one, and so Lara sat down again in the Lady Woodward ’s chair.  She rather liked that chair.  It was comfortable.  It helped her stiff old back relax into its soft cushions.  Sitting there, in the highborn comforts of the parlour, she thought she would rather sit there until Death came to sweep her away from her hard life.  Affixed in such thought, she looked at her daughter, and knew she was of a pretty make, especially when overcome with woe.

“Ah, my pretty daughter, ” she said.   “This could be a ripe ol ’ chance to recompense on the favour.  Lord Woodward fancies you —I ’ve no doubt on it —and there ’s much that a young pretty woman can make of herself to a sad man yearning for his dead wife and dead daughter. ”

Sara sobered almost at once, looking up through fresh tears with a look not nearly so innocent.   “He must have himself a princess, ” she said, understanding at once.

Lara smiled — a smile of pride, for she had never thought her daughter so swift on such understanding — and she gestured for her to come to her.  Sara went to her mother, and her mother took her hand in her own.

“Nay, my duckling, ” she said.   “A queen of a vast kingdom, if you should like.  All this yours!  And mine.  But we must act, and act as only practical common folk can!”  She rose quickly from the chair, knowing now that she might return to it at her leisure.   “I will inform his Lordship of the tragic news.  It will, naturally, break him, and then you, my dear little duckling, will swoop in and take him underwing and comfort him as only a wife and a daughter could!  Get ready your tears, dear!  I am the gamekeeper and you the trap! ”

 

***

 

The lowborn earth took the tears of the high-bourne clouds in the coming seasons, and made goodly Springs of them, and better Summers

Barrel Goblin Song

2020-06-09 02.08.26

We’re the barrel boys
We like bourbon joys
We drink till we stink
Don’t think
Swallow and wallow
Come, ye shall follow
To the dregs below
Let it all flow
Till tis all ye know
Whiskey breath
Risk ye death?
For woes, for frets,
Whiskey forgets
Tame or feral
At your peril
Slur a drinking carol
From inside a barrel
Quaff it down
Wash away your frown
(Till ye drown)
Go hobnobbin’
Become a goblin
Soggin’ yer noggin
Who needs a cup
When yer bottom’s up?
Head down in the drink
And no more will ye think
Of better days
Of the future’s haze
Or the present craze
Drink, drink, drink,
Sink, sink, sink,
Dive right on in
Never surface again

Fair, Dark, And Trembling

Born beneath a weeping willow
where winds never dared to billow
the sisters three seemed blessed at first,
though, given time, seemed more so cursed
by the names given, and fortunes
dictated by the eldritch runes.
When they were born, the sisters three
filled their proud parents with such glee
as the angels in most high skies
in their exultant maker’s eyes.
Fair, Dark, and Trembling, the lasses
grew up apart from the masses
in the woods, by the little creek,
where the willow trees often speak.
Distinguished by their features
they were apt-named, comely creatures
without equal in that kingdom,
nay, nor the world in all its sum.
Fair was of hair gilded flaxen
that she seemed a purebred Saxon
and Nordic goddess, gold and pure,
graceful, nimble, her step so sure
that she danced on slippery rocks
as fleet-footed as the Fae fox.
Lovelier, there were none more so:
stars in her eyes, and skin aglow
that the sun seemed to pause apace
while beaming on her freckled face.
When she giggled others did feel
her sweetness, the dear daffodil
spreading her joy like many seeds
which none so wise dared deem as weeds,
sowing where there could be sown
a bliss by her presence alone.
Alas, a blessing may, too, curse,
and so it was, her fate adverse.
Catching the eye of the prince
so handsome and rich, therefore hence
entranced the two by the other
that neither would love another
their ensorcelled hearts demanded
prince and maiden become banded
despite his pledge to a neighbor
whose father promised the saber
should the pact not be held so true
by one side as the other, too.
Therefore though it flattered the pride
of both the parents and the bride
a war began soon after they
announced the coming joyous day.
First came the splendid celebration
joyous across the wide nation,
pomp aplenty, and holy vows
and banners, bugles, and crowns on brows,
then came the wars and the bloodshed,
the piling high of mingled dead
until, at length, the angry host
were driven from the far-off coast
and back to their lands in the East
like a cur, a brow-beaten beast.
Fair, and her husband, then rejoiced
while their people quietly voiced
anger and sorrow at the war,
calling Fair a worm-apple whore.
But the new rulers paid no mind
to the scowls and whispers, so blind
with Love they heard nothing at all
that should echo coarse through their hall.
Then came the bud of the next heir,
next liege, sure likewise to be Fair
and for a time the whispers stopped,
if only because the axe chopped
all talk short as the days went on,
bringing with them a bloody dawn
to peasant and noble in turn
and anyone not yet to learn.
Soon Fair swelled fertile in her womb
like the daffodil soon to bloom,
but with the pangs she wilted so wan
while her glow faded, on and on,
draining fast from her golden face
till a pallor assumed its place.
Like the most fleeting of flowers
her life did but last a few hours
before she died and left the earth
for the sake of a vain stillbirth.

Erstwhile, Dark saw what thus became
of girls gifted by name and fame,
and being wiser more than Fair,
Dark reveled in her raven hair.
Dark was pale like the Gaul or Goth,
like moonlit-powder of the moth,
and her black hair was a shadow
such as only witches may know
when looking into the deep pit
of their cauldron, cold and unlit.
She courted midnight with her art
to seek the most infernal heart,
for she had talents just as strong
as sister Fair had in her song
and, so, used her Black magic skills
to fly at night over the hills
on a stick woven of willow limbs,
following the sound of fell hymns
to a misty, covenant glade
where a coven of witches prayed.
Herein she found her kindred kind—
women awake and not so blind,
for Dark dreamed quite oft of a life
beholden to none, never wife
to any man, nor any god,
free as Lilith drifting abroad
to the basins of Babylon,
haunting bedrooms from dusk to dawn.
Whereas Fair was the favored child,
(beauty peerless and temper mild)
Dark would have been most pretty
had she been of some other three,
but be it as it may, Dark was
judged on the sisterly mark ‘twas
and could do no more to ever change
the scale set so by bloodline’s range.
Nor did this aggrieve Dark quite much
as the rules upon her, and such,
for she spoke not as daughters should,
instead shunning what some thought good,
like reading the Bible each day,
going to church to kneel and pray,
and fearing the wise midwife folk
of whom the preacher often spoke
unkindly, fearing their knowledge
would tempt his flock to thus pledge
to them instead of his theory
about Heaven and misery.
And so Dark became the black sheep
of the flock in the preacher’s keep,
for she so loathed hypocrisy
that she oft sought apostasy.
Gathered in the belladonna
she looked a fell Madonna
who had at beck and call the night
and all its shadows and moonlight.
Just so, she dared never conceive
that on this sacred Endor Eve
that Satan would come before her
with gifts to sway and implore her
to lay with him and so beget
a child the whole world would regret.
Enthroned in nocturnal power
in the glade’s shade-brimming bower,
Dark lay with that horn-crowned Satyr
amorous as any traitor.
The other witches watched within
the woods where they all grinned akin
to wolves, or buzzards, or weasels,
caterwauling, shrill as seagulls.
It was not long before spilled seed
beset, begat, began to breed,
the growth so fast, the pangs so great,
that Dark split apart, like a date,
screaming and bleeding at her sex
while the hags spoke, as if a hex
the hymnal blasphemies of old
to strengthen the child in the mold.
The child came forth as from the tomb,
expelled a corpse beset by doom
and so enraged was that great Foe
that he trammeled Dark in shadow,
then left her bloodied in the glade
where she died amidst daytime shade.
Dark unto dark did thereby pass,
all her clever thoughts now but grass.

Oh, but Trembling was lass so weak
that oftentimes she dared not speak
for fear of hurting her thin throat,
the lissome girl sad and remote.
She knew what came of her sistren
and prayed that they could, at last, ken,
the choices they made and each crime
for which they would burn for all time.
She had no voice, but she could pray,
and did so, often all the day,
a judge meanwhile masked in silence
pretending saintly compliance
as she laid baleful eyes elsewhere—
a basilisk’s cold, stony glare.
She thought on Dark and Fair, their ends,
and knew they died to make amends
for Dark’s pride, come before the fall,
and Fair’s vanity, that old thrall,
and vowed against the same mistake,
knowing herself of purer make.
Indeed, she grew as a daisy
from the deaths of those whose stay she
could not abide, nor then pity,
feeling only an enmity.
She thought herself a chosen soul
and pledged to serve all her life whole
to the God of the Holy Tome
while still cloistered at home.
Yet, she was ever quivering
as if in the cold, shivering
and did little, but wavering
ever in her room, quavering
like a hare hiding in its den
while the hawk circles round again.
Knowing she would never marry
and finding the world so scary
she joined a convent faraway
and pleased herself often to say
she would never fall prey to Man
nor the sins of the flesh, her plan
to die a virgin, bride of God—
a fate which kept her overawed.
But a foul star had overseen
the sisters three, its twinkling sheen
as that of a crone meaning ill
above the willow, and its Will.
The longships came and beached anon,
coming ashore with noonday sun
and laying siege till the walls fell
while the convent rang loud its bell.
Trembling knew not where to go
and a Viking struck her a blow
and clutched her roughly like a sack
of spoils to claim, returning back
to his ship, then upon the sea,
following a wind Northwesterly
and coming to a frigid land
whereat she was a serving-hand
and a bed-warmer for the Nord
who was her husband, and her lord.
Ever Trembling and cold, she wept
and in the night she never slept,
but prayed to her god that she may
go to Heaven, without delay,
but she never went, never died,
and knew she could never suicide
or else suffer the pits of Hell,
nor had she the courage to sail
away from that foreign soil
of heathen gods and tiresome toil.
A heathen son she bore in time
who was like that coldly clime,
having eyes like ice, hoarfrost hair,
and her own cool, judgmental stare.
Scornful of Trembling in the cold,
he said she was ugly and old
and foolish to pray to that which
was deaf, feckless, an inert lich.
Trembling tried to teach him her creed,
but like the dregs of an old mead
he poured it out from his spirit,
choosing never to revere it,
esteeming, instead, wise Odin
and thunderous Thor, beholden
to the ways of his father’s clan,
spurning that feeble, beaten man
she loved as her Lord and Savior
who would never be of the Aesir.
And so, unloved by lord and Lord,
Trembling trembled among the Nord
from fear, from chill, from yearning wants
of her creed, and the pagan taunts
till the day she was at last laid
into the earth, a tomb thus paid
by grueling years and countless woes
that packed together, like the snows.
Just as Fair was no longer fair
and Dark not dark, nor anywhere,
so, too, Trembling trembled no more
upon that icy, foreign shore.

Thus the sisters three came to end,
blessed with curses that could not mend,
all lovely in ways exceeding rare
like flowers plucked to perfume air,
born beneath the old willow tree
that wept evermore for the three
as they were bound, as like the withes
of willows, their Wyrd-woven lives
bending back to their cursed names
to satisfy Fate’s cruel games.

Tears From A Stone Part 1

Dave walked down the city street, the dazzling night noisy with traffic and sirens and the voices of his fellow pedestrians. His date with the ER nurse was over— for him, anyway, since she had to go “meet with some friends at a bar”—and so Dave walked alone among the anonymous thousands along the streets of New York. It was summer and the city was only just beginning to cool after a long, hazy day of reeling shadows made warm by too many bodies. Too many warm bodies, and, more than likely, far too many cold bodies. It was Dave’s one and only day off from work that week. He felt tired. He had only been up for three hours, his graveyard routine habituating him to the hours of late-night party owls, but not the actual habits of partying. He wanted to go home and decompress. The date had been a disaster, but at least it was over now. Now he could return his mind to the ongoing disaster that was human civilization. Dave was the type that liked to wear a belt everywhere he went, even when he didn’t really need it for his jeans. He liked to have a belt just in case he should happen upon a dismemberment. This might sound strange, but Dave was very good at making tourniquets from belts, and so what would otherwise have been a superfluous accessory was always on Dave’s person. He liked to keep lots of things on his person to assist him in his job as a paramedic, even when in his off-hours. Dave also liked to keep a defibrillator with him, and an EpiPen, both in a suitcase full of medical supplies. Currently, he did not carry his suitcase with him, however, because he knew it would have been a turn-off for an ER nurse who was wanting to divide cleanly business from pleasure. Dave liked to be prepared for emergencies. He was a paramedic six days a week officially, but he considered himself a paramedic full-time, all the time. His job was his life, and he often dreamed of his job when he found that he could sleep in the middle of the day, after workhours. It was stressful caring for so many vulnerable people at the border between life and death, and often he was haunted by those he could not save. Even in his dreams the dead clambered after him, gnawing at his heart with guilt. Dave’s coworker, Cindy, had told him multiple times not to worry about the dead; not to tally the losses and let the job get to him. “You win some, you lose some,” she always said after a “zero patient outcome”. “You can’t keep score with the reaper, man. We all lose to him in the end. You gotta’ let it go and keep moving, otherwise you’re going to get burned out.” Cindy had the right attitude, and so did the ER nurse that left Dave for a night at an anonymous bar. Dave knew that he had the wrong attitude. He was not supposed to be Christ and he could not save everyone. That was why the ER nurse left him abruptly. He had talked only about work, and she did not want to hear it. When she attempted to talk about other things—his life beyond work, for instance—he revealed to her, candidly, that he really had no life beyond work. That was the death knell in the end and shortly afterward she went to “tidy up” in the bathroom. Upon her return she informed him that she had to go. Personal emergency. He volunteered to pay for the dinner, but she paid for her half to certify the fact that they would not be seeing each other in the future except in a professional capacity. She wished him a good night and then hurried down the street toward the places where twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings congregated. Dave knew that his inability to live beyond the job had cost him another potential romantic partner. He knew he needed to somehow nix the compulsive obsession if he was ever going to be happy. And yet, even now when he looked up at those towering skyscrapers full of people—and along the teeming streets that brimmed with motorists and pedestrians, and the restaurants and shops crammed with patrons—he knew they were all one fateful crack away from the whole city falling down upon their heads with its sharp glass and heavy steel and unfeeling concrete. The whole world was a death-trap, and he could not stop the instinctive need to care about those who upon which the trap sprung. As if on cue, an ambulance shrieked down the street, its lights flashing across the sidewalk, red and blue at a pace equal to Dave’s hastening heartbeat. He fought the urge to follow it— by taxi, or futilely by foot—and instead continued toward his apartment complex. The pedestrians thinned as he left the blocks of bars and restaurants behind. His apartment complex was not terrible, but it was not great either. He made fairly good money as a paramedic, especially since he worked so many hours a week, and he could have afforded a higher rental property. But he was saving money for retirement. He told himself he wanted to live somewhere away from people—maybe out West, near the mesas and other big stones that reminded him of skyscrapers, but without the potential casualties crammed within them. He had another thirty years before he could retire comfortably; and he did not know if even while living in isolation he would be able to shake the frets of New York city and its millions of people. “Somebody! Help! He needs help!” By instinct Dave ran along the sidewalk, shouldering his way past a circle of stupefied onlookers to find three people kneeling over a large man in a business suit. Surveying the man quickly, Dave saw that he was extremely large. He dwarfed the three people gathered around him, like a rhino would a trio of pygmies. His torso was the size of a trash bin, his business suit stretched to its limits. Meanwhile his head was so big and ugly, and his chin so blocky, and his neck so fat, hat he seemed to possess no neck at all. His skin was gray, and so Dave deduced that he was likely dead. Even so, Dave had to verify the death. The three people kneeling over the man were just as useless as the bystanders grouped around them. A man was checking the large man’s breath with his fingers while the two women were trying to listen to his heartbeat through that massive chest of his. Dave immediately took charge of the situation. “I am a paramedic,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Back away from the victim.” Three would-be medics stood up and joined the other dumbfounded flock around the downed man. Dave pointed at someone random who had their phone out, videotaping the incident. “Call 911,” he commanded. He then assessed the large man, pressing a finger against where he presumed the carotid artery was. The bulging, muscular neck made this difficult. The man’s skin was as hard as leather, too, and the muscles were stones beneath it. Dave felt no pulse. The man’s skin was bluish-gray. A quick assessment told Dave that the man was in cardiac arrest. Angry with himself for not having his medical suitcase and its defibrillator, Dave prepared to give the man CPR. Dave was a tall man, and in good physical shape, and had done CPR hundreds, if not thousands of times. Yet, this was altogether an unequaled feat. The man was simply too big. It was like giving compressions to a walrus, the victim’s chest so thick with fat and muscle. Dave had to stand and stoop over the man rather than kneel for the routine. He did the compressions as fast as he could, but it was like doing pushups with weights on his shoulders. The sternum usually broke after several compressions, but this man’s never did. The bones were like rocks beneath the flab and muscle. After two minutes of compressions the large man stirred briefly. He did not breathe, however, though he did gasp breathlessly, and so Dave moved his compressions from the sternum to the solar plexus, thinking that perhaps the man had been choking on something, and the stress of the suffocation had caused the heart attack. The victim’s ribs were overlarge, and oddly shaped, but Dave did what he could with the compressions. At length, the man coughed, and then threw up. Something like a silver dollar erupted out from amidst the man’s half-digested food. It was not so sterling, however, as a silver dollar, but was rather darker and much less lustrous. The man coughed some more and Dave struggled to roll the man over on his side into the recovery position. “Help me turn him over!” he told the bystanders. Four men stooped and grunted, turning the man over on his right side with all the ease of turning over a Volkswagen Beetle. The large man was breathing raggedly, his eyes closed, drool dripping from his thin, simian lips. He had an underbite that jutted out like a rock shelf. His nostrils were more slits than actual extrusions from his face. Dave attended the man, checking his vitals and trying to speak to him until an ambulance arrived. The man, though seemingly cognizant, said nothing, and never opened his eyes. He seemed to be in a near-catatonic state. The paramedics could not put the man on a stretcher. He was too broad and bulky and heavy. It took Dave and several volunteers from the crowd to help the medics half-lift, half-drag the man into the back of the ambulance. Even so, he did not fit well, and there was no place for the paramedic to stay with him in the back of the ambulance. Another ambulance arrived, late to the scene, and a pair of familiar faces emerged from its cab. “Dave, are you ever off the job?” Bobby asked. He, and Dennis, eyed the other paramedics and shrugged as they drove away, their ambulance disappearing swiftly down the street. “Tonight was supposed to be my night off,” Dave said. “But the city never sleeps.” “It’s bad luck, seems to me,” Dennis said, grinning within his beard. “Speaking of bad luck, how’d that date go with Miss Wiggle-butt? She give you good bedside manner or what?” Dave only shook his head. “Bad luck all around for you,” Bobby remarked, not unkindly. “Well, try to get some RNR, man, even if you can’t get some of that RN. You look like shit.” “Yeah,” Dennis said. “Get out more or something. There’s more to life than saving everybody else’s life.” “That’s what Cindy’s been telling me,” Dave confessed. “That dyke know’s what’s what,” Bobby said. “I bet she parties all the time. Those rural dykes always go wild when they come to the city. That’s what happens when you’ve been cooped up in a small town and suddenly you got freedoms you’ve never had before. You go wild, man.” Bobby nodded in agreement with himself, giving Dave a sly smile. Dennis shook his head in faux-impatience. “You just wish she’d go wild on you,” Dennis said, knowingly. “But you are not her type. Definitively not her type.” “A man can dream,” Bobby said. “I’ve swayed a few in my time to act against type.” “Yeah, right,” Dennis scoffed. “You can’t even get the strictly-dickly ones to go steady.” “But I can get them in bed,” Bobby said, never losing his smile. “This city is nothing but a string of one-night-stands for people my age. It’s normal.” Dennis, being older than Bobby by about ten years and being married, rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but it’s not good for you. You stop caring about the women you’re sleeping with. That’s why they don’t stay with you. You just don’t care. It’s bad for them, and it’s bad for you.” “Seems pretty great to me,” Bobby said. “It doesn’t help to care, man. Whether in your professional life or your personal life, don’t give a fuck, or it will fuck you up. I’m telling you, Dave, caring too much is fucking pitfall.” “You’re a goddamn cynic,” Dennis remarked, lightly. “Nah,” Bobby said. “Cynics are people who get burnt out from caring. And then, after they’ve cared too much and have been disappointed too much, they feel betrayed, and they go all bitter from it. I ain’t like that at all. I know better.” “Yeah, you got it all figured out, Senor Suavo,” Dennis jested. “I’ve got enough figured out, yeah,” Bobby said, ignoring the sarcasm. “I know when to start drinking and when to stop. That’s fucking crucial, man.” Dennis’s radio squawked to life, reporting another accident down the street. Car wreck, it seemed. “Well, time to go, Senor Suavo,” Dennis said, heading to their ambulance. “Come on.” He nodded to Dave. “Take it easy, Dave.” “And go find yourself a one-night-stand!” Bobby said, heading to the ambulance. “Otherwise you might as well be another stiff in the morgue.” The siren wailed and the tires burned out as the ambulance sped down the road toward another incident in the city. Dave watched it disappear down the block and almost wished he worked tonight. Perhaps then he would not have had to think of something to do tonight with his free time. But that was the wrong attitude, wasn’t it? To dread the free time that was necessary to retain his sanity was self-defeating. Dave sighed. His heart felt like it might also go into cardiac arrest. The drama now done, the circle of bystanders dispersed around him. He lingered a while longer, reassessing how well he had performed his duty that night. The victim had survived, but he could have easily died. Dave should have known to check for an object blocking the airways. The spittle on the mouth was a tell-tale sign, as was the man’s bluish hue. It could have also been an allergic reaction, and had it have been, Dave did not have an EpiPen. The man could have died from Dave’s unpreparedness, too. His anxiety persisted. It was deadly, this anxiety. Caring too much was deadly. Concern that you might do something wrong could hinder your capacity to dom something at all. The Hippocratic Oath was standard, but if a patient was going to die because Dave’s nerves had rendered him incompetent, then that seemed a violation of the Oath also. Do no harm, they said, and yet not doing anything was also doing harm. Or so it seemed to Dave. Suddenly remembering the oddity that had been expelled from the large businessman’s throat, Dave glanced about the sidewalk, looking for the glint of the silver dollar beneath the glow of the streetlight. He did not see it. Only the man’s half-digested food remained behind, shimmering wetly like mud and dirt clods on the concrete. Dave wondered if a bystander took it, or, perhaps, Dennis. Dennis collected coins, didn’t he? Dave could not remember. Feeling exhausted now— like a man twice his actual age—Dave walked home. Once home, he took a shower, dried off, and brushed his teeth. With little else to do, he turned on the tv, but found nothing on that he wanted to watch. He rarely watched anything anymore, even though he paid a premium for internet tv programs. The street quieted down some beyond his apartment and he gradually relaxed. He thought about the rotund man, and how gargantuan he was, and his bluish-gray skin, and neckless proportions. The man had tested Dave’s CPR skills, and though Dave saved the man, he felt his skills wanting. Guilt accompanied this realization; guilt and a thousand imagined scenarios wherein people died because of his ineptitude. Next time, he thought, he would not be so lucky. Dave did not wait to watch the sunrise as he sometimes did on his day off. With the rising sun came the rising hustle and bustle. He went to bed to hurry the coming night along. *** It was a rough night. Three OD’s and a suicide by rooftop. The third OD overdosed an hour after Dave and Cindy had resuscitated him, while they were busy talking to the cops about the suicide. The OD did not recover from his second death. Afterwards, Cindy wanted to stop at a burger place and get something to eat. She pulled into McDougall’s parking lot and parked. Dave refused to get out. “You coming?” she asked. “I’m not hungry,” he said. “You’re going to make me eat in there by myself?” Cindy said, frowning. “Like a loser? C’mon, man. That’s no way to treat a coworker.” “I’m not hungry,” he insisted. “Then I’ll buy us both a cheeseburger and you can pretend like you’re going to eat it, then let me eat it when we come back out here. Win-win for both of us.” “I don’t want to be in there right now,” Dave said. “Not with all those people and bright lights. Just…just give me a few minutes alone. Please.” “Is this about that suicide or the needle-dipper? Jesus, Dave, you can’t save everybody. Buddy, you gotta’ let this shit go or it’s going to kill you, too.” “I know, I know,” he said. “I just need some silence for a minute.” “In the middle of the city?” she said, incredulously. “Good luck.” Cindy opened her door and got out, leaving Dave to the half-dark of the ambulance cab, slashed with the slanting light from the street and the passing traffic. His mind was a tumult of rushing images. The bloody mess of the young man that had thrown himself from the rooftop. The way the young man tried to speak to Dave as Dave knelt beside him. The bubbles of blood that burst at his lips. The tears streaming down his cheeks, and the regret in his eyes. Dave’s head echoed with inchoate noises, too. Screaming sirens and the charging-thumps of the defibrillator. It was all overwhelming. He felt like he was having a panic attack. Maybe he was. He hung his head over his knees, breathing between his legs and trying to calm the rapid beating of his heart. *** There were two more deaths that night. They were the elderly, which was expected. Even so, the two were added to the pile of failures Dave was keeping track of in his head. He did not think of the four people he helped save, nor the three others without life-threatening illnesses and injuries. All that mattered to him were the deaths. When he went to bad that morning he felt like an OD patient himself. He had not drank any coffee and the weight of the workshift was a boulder on his chest. He did not bother to brush his teeth. He did not bother to eat. He arrived home at eight in the morning and just crashed on the couch. He woke up late in the day, around dinnertime. Eating a bowl of cereal, he turned on the television and tried to “zombie out” until his shift came. Unfortunately, the only thing on tv were either reality tv shows with their endless prattle, the News with its endless catastrophes, and medical dramas with their endless glorification of the job. Dave could not tolerate any of these things, so he flipped through the channels several times, searching for anything to distract him from his job. He came upon a sitcom about several nerds living together in an apartment and let the tv idle on it. Either he could not laugh because he was too depressed or the sitcom simply wasn’t funny— or both—and so he gave up and turned off the tv. The anticipation was a killer at times. Tonight was one such time. He checked his phone every two minutes, waiting for his time to leave. He felt nervous and already a little panicky. The sun had gone down, plunging New York into the clash of shadow and artificial lights. The latter glared balefully like angry fairies through Dave’s windows. It was nearly time for Dave to leave his apartment that he heard a knock at the door. Never expecting anyone to come to call— since he had no social life—Dave hesitated, thinking the stranger had knocked on his neighbor’s door across the hall. But the knocking came again, and was louder, as if to break the door down with its big-knuckled blows, and so Dave went to the door to answer it. When Dave opened the door he found, much to his dismay, the gigantic businessman whose life he had recently saved. “Yes, it is you,” the large man said in a deep guttural growl not unlike stones grinding together in a dark, echoing cave. He ducked down and stepped into Dave’s small apartment, never asking liberty to do so, and Dave could only step aside, lest he had been bowled over by the man’s unwieldy size. He stood in the middle of Dave’s kitchen and Dave had to stand by the refrigerator. “It is to you that I owe my life,” the man said. “A dubious honor, and so a dubious gift. Ask what you will and I will grant it insomuch as my powers allow.” Dave blinked in confusion. Was the man offering him money for saving his life? Dave had known enough businessmen to be aware that they saw everything as a transaction. He wondered what kind of dollar figure this man would offer for his own life. “I was just doing my job…” Dave began to say. “I am a man of proportions,” the large man said. His breath smelled earthy, and his squinty eyes were white; almost as if he was blind. But there was no doubt that the man could see. “Though I have been billed for your services, what was rendered by your actions was not listed among the charges. And so I will render unto you an equal gift. So choose what you desire.” Dave looked the large man up and down. When unconscious on the ground the man had been big and nearly immovable with his dead weight. Now, standing in front of Dave— and looming over Dave with what could only be described as “hefty height”—the man was just as immovable, but that immobility had been granted a certain menacing aspect of intelligence, and willpower, that was not to be trifled with. Not unlike a giant red cedar tree tottering above some awe-inert hikers. The man was still grayish-blue of tint around his face and the flesh that bulged out from his business suit collar. “What is it you desire?” he repeated impatiently. “I don’t understand,” Dave said. “Are you offering me a tip for saving your life?” “You did not save my life,” the giant man said. “You saved my Death. The iron coin was a poisonous addition to my meal rendered by my enemy. This enemy knew I would not chew my food, for I scarcely ever do when hungry, and so planted the bane of my people deep in my falafel wrap.” Maybe, Dave thought, this man had suffered a stroke along with his heart attack. He hoped the hospital had thought to run a brainscan on him, too, but they may not have. Regardless, Dave thought himself a grossly incompetent paramedic. After all, he should have known the man’s immense size would put strain on his heart and, subsequently, blood flow to his brain, the pressure being abnormal at best. Additionally, the stress of his size would further exacerbate cardiovascular disease. He could even be diabetic, and therefore either low on insulin or suffering low blood-sugar levels. Sometimes paranoid schizophrenia could result from all such conditions. Then again, if he was a businessman he might really have enemies aplenty who wished him dead. But why would any of them try to choke him to death with a coin? It was delusional at best. “Hurry, you fool, and make your wish,” the large man insisted in his gravelly voice. “Simply speak your heart’s desire and I will make it so.” The large man took half a step forward, leaving Dave with little room at all. “I know what it is you desire,” the man said, “but until you speak the words I cannot act. Tell me, now. Tell me you wish to be as unfeeling as stone! Speak and become of my kin, as you so desire!” Dave searched the man’s bluish-gray face; his granite-like features. Dave saw no signs of a medical condition, or drug use. The man’s porcine eyes were not dilated, nor was he sweating or slurring his words. He was just stone-cold crazy. Slowly, Dave stepped around the man, squeezing between him and the refrigerator. He edged his way toward the kitchen counter, where his cellphone was still charging. He knew he was in danger. As tall as Dave was, the man had at least a foot on him, and three hundred pounds. The larger man could have easily smashed Dave just by falling on him. Still, he was a medical professional. “Very well,” the man said. He took a step back and turned, slow-as-a-planet, and headed toward the door. “You may ask for your gift any time you so desire it. I will hear it. And it will come to you. I was once like you, Dave Crenshaw. Unable to handle the burdens of Life, and the consequences of Life’s imperfections. Emotions interfered with my happiness for a long time. And then I helped someone, and they gave me a gift, the same gift I offer to you now.” “Who are you?” Dave asked. “Your benefactor,” the large man said. “Just as you have been my benefactor.” “I…I need time to think on it,” Dave said. “As you wish,” the man said, reaching for the door with sausage-thick fingers. He had to shift his weight left and right to fit his rotund bulk through the door. “When you are ready, your gift is yours. Just give the word.” The large man made a noise, then—a long, guttural sound from deep within his cavernous chest— and then slammed the door behind him. The apartment complex rattled to its bones at the man’s ponderous gait as he descended the stairs to the bottom floor, and then seemingly deeper, as if beneath the apartment itself; beneath the very foundation. It was only as Dave left for work that he realized that the sound the man made had been his empty, hollow laughter. *** It had been another rough shift at work. Dave came home feeling as dead as the OD they found slumped in his bean-bag in a narrow alleyway. He took a hot shower to wash off the memory of the OD. However, he could not wash off the memory of the little boy who had lost his hand to a pitbull while playing in the park. The poor kid was a fan of baseball, and now he would never be able to play again. The sun was still blocked by the skyscrapers by the time Dave climbed into bed. He sighed and tried to push the image of the kid’s stumpy wrist out of his head. Cindy had a condition that was called “aphantasia” where she had zero visual imagery in her head. She knew what things looked like, and could recognize people, but could not voluntarily conjure up images in her mind’s eye. She, therefore, could not see things in her head, even after having seen them with her eyes. It made things easier for her, especially as a paramedic. No PTSD. She was not haunted so easily by the job and its caravan of grotesque tragedies, though she said she sometimes dreamed about the job and could see the dreams vividly. Dave dreamed about the job and was swarmed by the memories while awake. They ate him up like a school of piranhas. He went to bed. Though he had trouble falling asleep, once he fell asleep he remained asleep for hours. It was a deep sleep with deeper dreams. He dreamed of an underground cavern. Within the cavern was a forest of standing stones, dolmens, and menhirs, all arrayed in a strange pattern. Large, stony creatures gathered in the dark depths of the cavern. They were moon-eyed and chanted a song of stones. Their voices were like tectonic plates sliding slowly and grinding together. There was luminescent lichen that glowed coolly upon the stones and the skin of the large, lumbering creatures, and an oculus in the subterranean dome wherein the moon loomed, glowing, shining a milky pillar of light to penetrate the deep, chthonic darkness. One among the large creatures stepped toward Dave. His bluish-gray granite face looked familiar. “Choose your wish, mortal,” the large humanoid creature said. “Say your desire and it shall be yours.” Dave was too frightened to speak. His tongue felt like a cold rock in his mouth and would not move. When he tried to turn to run he saw the little boy holding his bloody wrist. Behind him were other ghosts in the darkness. The dead and the dying had gathered and there was nowhere to go but toward the oculus and its pillar of moonlight. The stone creatures waited for him, watching him with their moon-eyes, and as he approached he felt his body harden, slow, his limbs growing heavy and louder like stones grinding together. Yet, he was at peace with the change. He did not feel duress or pain. He did not feel sadness or guilt. He glanced back at the ghosts— the turning of his head taking, it seemed, ages— and he felt nothing as he looked upon them. He felt nothing at all.