Flash Fictions

Naive
“There was once a man who believed ardently in Humanism,” her father said. “He believed so utterly in Humanism that he ventured forth into the wild jungle, where it was said man-eating tigers stalked the shadows. He brought with him no protection except several books on Humanism. Once there, he preached to the jungle on the value of a human life, reading from his many books of all the merits of letting humans live and thrive. Many of the tigers passed him by, indifferently. But a few tigers began to gather around him, watching him very intently as he lectured them. He even preached to their cubs, thinking the next generation of tigers would know better than eating human beings, if only they were taught to be Humanists.
“An expedition discovered what remained of him a few weeks later, his bones surrounded by books and his skull’s sockets gaping wide, as if in abject surprise.”
“He was naive,” his daughter said. “He should have known better. Predators don’t care about that stuff when they’re hungry.”
“True,” her father said. “But you, too, should know that you are living in a jungle. That is why I want you to bring more than just books with you to ward off the tigers.”

Zen Breath
It began so simply, as many things do, and it grew unto complexity, like a sheet of paper, blankly white and smooth and flat, now folded into an origami animal. Miyazaki’s anger burgeoned from workaday irritation to blinding rage as he waited in the subway station at Shinjuku. And the irony of the situation was that as he stood waiting, steeped in his own aggravation, he attempted to take a deep, Zen-centering breath and release the rage in dissipation— he really had tried— only for the nearby commuter to breathe out a cloud of cigarette smoke which Miyazaki inadvertently breathed in, coughing uncontrollably while the other commuters stepped away from him; stepped away from him as if he had some fatal airborne illness for which he needed to be quarantined. It was then, as he coughed and cursed and chewed the grudge of that terrible year spent as a twelve-hour-a-day cubicle jockey— it was then that the yokai possessed him, at long last, and drove his fist through the smoker’s heart, tearing its vermilion core out while bystanders screamed and scrambled to flee from the horrific carnage wrought by the long-horned demon that suddenly stood amongst them, glaring with red eyes as he rushed about, in gorilla-fisted fashion, rampaging throughout silver-edged, neon-lit Shinjuku until later that afternoon, killing many people in his wake until finally finding himself at Hanazono Shrine and, by entering it, expelling the demon so Miyazaki could sit down and empty himself of his negative emotions. Indeed, he emptied himself so completely of negative emotions after that terrible indulgence that he transcended the mortal plane and passed on to a higher plane of Enlightenment. Many people, consequently, have since concluded that Enlightenment could be achieved as much through devastating debauchery, excess, and sin as much as through years of abstinence, purification, and meditation. Zen Buddhists and Shinto Priests cannot reconcile themselves either way and, it is feared, many such esteemed personages were denied Enlightenment because of this troublesome anecdote.

La Petite Mort

“Touch my breasts, not my heart,” she demanded as she gyrated atop him to the crescendo of Stairway To Heaven. Impatiently, her hand sought his, the latter crouching timidly between her breasts like a meek, trembling gerbil, and slammed it over her left nipple; her most sex-sensitive nipple.
“Oh, don’t you fucking finish yet!” she growled, feeling him erupt inside of her.
“Sorry!” he moaned, his face contorting ridiculously with orgasm. “You’re…just…so…beautiful!”
Angry, she grinded down on him harder, trying to reach climax herself. It did not work. He went limp and shriveled, vacating whatever iota of pleasure she felt in tandem measure to his manhood. He was like all of the others, then; selfish in sex, even with all of his kisses and promises of love and his priming cunnilingus foreplay. True, he had attempted to sway her heart with love, but only because he wanted sex. She looked down at him, or what remained of him now. He looked like a mummified corpse over a thousand years old. Beef jerky, like the countless others. The ancient curse, thus, persisted, as it had since Hatshepsut had placed it upon her for fornicating with her priest in her royal temple. And she would not die and go on to the land of Duat until a man had pleased her fully.
“Ammit!” she called.
The bedroom door opened and a fat bulldog entered on stiff-jointed, squat legs.
She dismounted from the leathery corpse, almost crudely, and flicked her hand in a gesture of mild irritation.
“Another one unworthy,” she said. She walked into the adjacent bathroom to take a shower and clean up. The bulldog hopped up onto the bed and looked down at the corpse. There was, faintly, the sound of a scream— as quiet as if it came from a great distance down in the shriveled throat of the inert cadaver, barely audible above the sound of the shower faucet and Robert Plant’s mewling conclusion to his magnum opus. Then again, it could have been a pigeon’s feather brushing against the highrise apartment window. If Ammit heard it, he did not care. He opened his jowl-underlined jaws and swallowed the corpse whole, as if there unfolded in his small, pudgy body a whole dimension of oblivion belied by his ostensible size.
She sighed irritably as she reentered the bedroom, walking briskly to her clothes and scooping them up. She began to dress herself hurriedly; preparing her makeup and her favorite black dress and her golden jewelry with its sapphire scarab.
“Looks like I’m going out tonight, Ammit,” she said, huffing and puffing in princess annoyance. “I feel like the Sisyphean dung beetle, pushing his ball uphill. I will never land a good man.”
She turned off the radio, as it began to play Heart’s What About Love. She sat down in front of a long, ornate mirror, applying mascara to darken her already dark eyes. She had feline eyes, like a lioness, which she inherited from her mother. Her rounded cheeks, too, were feline and inherited from her mother’s blood, as were her full lips which always appeared puckered. Her mother had been an African consort from Ghana. Her Egyptian father gave her his long black hair and dusky skin. He had been a royal priest, much like the man she had coupled with in Hatshepsut’s temple. She wondered, sardonically, if she had daddy issues and whether this whole cursed life had stemmed from a need to fulfill an Electra complex. But she hated the Greeks, and she hated Freud, so she pushed such disgusting thoughts away lest they lead to madness.
She looked glumly into her reflection with a sense of doom. She had been cursed by beauty and desirability. No man, through the centuries, had survived a night with her. Hatshepsut had devised the most consummately ironic punishment for the trespass against her divinity. By cursing her with her boons she had guaranteed a persistent curse, seemingly without deliverance. Consequently, she lived a life of one night stands and hopeless bedside regrets. And while many men willingly died for one night with her, she had hoped one of them would overcome the curse so that she could die, at long last, and escape dull eternity as it stretched out upon the infinite horizon of Time.
She braided her black hair in a complex pattern of knots; quickly, to one side. She then sighed, hissing through clenched teeth.
“The Nile is more than just a river in Egypt,” she said.
She stood up, glancing over her comely curves in profile, beneath the black dress. She ran her fingers down the black sheer gown— over her breasts, down her belly and into the valley of her womanhood. She then slapped her hip. She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Seduction has lost all of its savor,” she said.
Ammit barked breathlessly, once. She glanced back at him.
“Oh, I am sure you do not mind my bounty,” she said. “I keep you well fed.”
She fetched a pair of black stilettos from her closet. They were angled like pyramids beneath the arches of her feet, raising her buttocks high with an elevated “come hither” posture. When she walked in them it was with a slow, graceful flamingo poise, even as her eyes flashed with feline predation.
Glancing once more in the long mirror—and appraising herself bodily— she nodded and headed into the hall and toward the front door. Ammit followed her eagerly, breathing laboriously. He was a very old bulldog.
“I’ll be back later,” she said to him. She opened the door and stepped out into the outer hallway. “Here’s to finding Mr. Right.”
She closed the door behind her and set off for another day of hunting for hearts.

The Crossroads

I felt I had, in my mad dash, run my legs to splinters. When I saw the inn, standing tall beneath the moon and looming large on the precipice of the seaside cliff, I beat my feet harder in my boots, as if digging another trench against the Krauts and their endless artillery shells. I hurled myself into the door, slamming it bodily aside and falling forward onto a soft carpet. At my back I could still feel the darkness and the artillery fire vying for conquest of the night, and, too, that fetid breath of the monstrous thing that had pursued me down this midnight road.
I kicked the door shut, the heavy wood slamming loudly with a finality like artillery falling from above. I lay there, then, relieved and insensate, breathing heavily as my bones and muscles ached below my knees. Too long the War March was. The hammering of the artillery and the crawling through wet mud and barbed wire and the bodies of the dead—all too much for me. As I sat up, gathering about me my senses like a seamstress’s scattered thread, I realized that a tall woman stood before me. She was fair as salt, ephemeral like a ghost in moonlight, her white nightgown and white hair making a pale pillar of her, like a caryatid. Yet, her material form was attested by a candlestick she held to light that dark lobby. A ruby cross necklace lay between her comely breasts.
“Are you the innkeeper?” I asked.
“Always,” she said. She had a French accent, as was to be expected in Boulogne.
I looked to the window near the door, and saw the moon eclipsed by a bulky shadow. I heard the creature snorting in frustration, like a boar; like the push and pull of the tides.
“That…thing chased me here,” I said.
“As it does us all,” she said. “It catches some of us unawares. Some go to it willingly. Others ride it as a mount, exulting. But even they slip off, in time, and are eaten.”
“I…I am with the Irish Guards,” I said. Clutching my head in my hands, I felt ashamed at leaving my brothers behind. “I fled. The fighting… The artillery… I cannot take it anymore…”
“Come,” she said simply. “Your bed awaits.”
“My bed?” I said, confused.
She said no more, but turned to leave.
I did not know what to make of this young lady. Feeling ashamed now for my shame, I rose, slowly, wobbly, to my bleeding feet and followed her as she lifted her candle to light the inner gloom of that large establishment.
I could see little as I followed her except her back. She wore a sleeveless gown in the French style, the back low cut, the angel wings of her shoulderblades etched softly in her pale skin. She was ghostly in form, in her movements, as if she floated ahead of me through that enveloping darkness. She inspired in me fear, like a war widow soon to betray me to the Krauts. I had heard stories of them— French women who betrayed Allied soldiers to the enemy in return for favors. Then again, there were plenty of other stories about French women who saved many Allied soldiers; women who died saving them and their fellow countrymen. So I followed her, knowing I did not wish to return to the artillery shells or the beast beyond the threshold.
She led me upstairs to another hallway with many doors on either side. Guiding me to the last door, near the hall’s window, she unlocked the room with a key. I chanced a glance outside and glimpsed, briefly, that bulwark form of the beast below, shrouded in the obscurity of shadows. The moon glowed brightly, as did the innkeeper’s pallor. She opened the door and gestured with a lithe arm as slender and speckless as ivory. Her white hair, I realized, was coiled back into a chain of French braids, baring her slender neck on one side.
“If soldiers come,” I said, “they will ask for me.”
“No one who comes here ever knows where they will go,” she said. Her voice was faint, yet even as she stood apart from me, it was as intimate as if she spoke it at my ear. The inn, otherwise, was silent, except for the snorting of the beast at the threshold and my own heartbeat, the latter echoing loudly in my own ears. She did not smile, but she did not frown. Her face was enigmatic as she asked me a question.
“Do you want company on this Night among nights?”
I watched her face— looking for a hint of malice or mockery, or simple coquettishness—but found nothing. Only mystery dwelled in that pretty visage.
“No,” I said. “I wish only to sleep.”
She entered the room, her candle’s halo blooming in that space. What was revealed as the shadows pulled back like overabundant curtains was kingly quarters, finely furnished and familiar, its walls adorned with wallpapered flowers and finely lacquered wainscoting. The large bed was utterly unlike the muddy blanket beneath which I shivered in the trenches. It was a four-post bed heavily stacked with quilts and would have been more befitting of a Lord than a simple farmhand such as myself. Looking upon it, I knew I could not wear my sullied uniform. My muddy, bloody boots did not belong in that room, either, and so I took them off, one at a time. The pain was excruciating. It felt as if I had taken my shins off with the boots. At length, however, I stood in the hallway, barefooted and hesitant to enter. The innkeeper beckoned me with a gentle gesture, and so I entered.
She set the candle on a small escritoire beside the bed and walked to the door, presumably to leave. When I heard the door shut, I doffed my uniform, born again in my undergarments. I did not pray, but put myself to bed with utmost expedience. The innkeeper startled me by sitting on the bed, next to me, and laying a soft hand upon my forehead. I had thought she had left. She did not smile, but there was an impression of benevolence and concern in her face.
“Have you no other needs?” she asked.
“My legs hurt,” I said.
“Do not think on it,” she cooed, stroking my forehead. The ruby cross flashed as it caught the light from the melting candle. It seemed to blind me.
I felt hot and chilled alternately. I wished to be home, in Ireland, with my family.
“Why do you wear that…thing?” I asked, waving away at the red flash of her cross. “You know it does no good in times like these. Nothing does.” I became angry. Bitter. Spiteful. “The dead pile up. Nothing stymies the flow of blood. God takes no sides, but takes from every side. We are His playthings.”
She said nothing, her face illegible; mysterious; beautiful and empty, like the cross that adorned her heart. I sighed in resignation and regret.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” I said, after a while. “My father told me not to enlist. But I volunteered to fight over here of my own accord. Everyone in Britain looks down upon us Irish, but when there’s a fight we cannot help but ball up our fists and start swinging for their honor, as much as for our own. Maybe I thought I’d find a new life over the sea. But all I found was another crossroads to spin about on.”
She shushed me with a kiss to my lips.
“I shall sing to you a lullaby,” she said. “To ease you in your time of suffering.”
She then proceeded to sing a quiet, soothing song that calmed me like morphine in my veins.

“My only love swam out to sea
while singing a song, mon ami.
He swam too far dans la mer
while wondering how not to care.
My only love did not swim back to me,
lost forever in la nuit…”

I slipped beneath her gentle palm into an ocean of oblivion far deeper and darker than the Atlantic. There was no pain there; no lonely ache for home, nor cold nor fever nor memory nor regret. There was only the deepness of peace. I was at long last contented.

***

When I awoke, the fair-haired woman was gone, along with her candle and her ruby cross. Yet, I was not alone. Moonlight spilled through the windows, illuminating in milky softness the interior of the room: the walls, the furniture, the bed upon which I lay. All things were illuminated; all things except the hulking mass of shadow at the foot of the bed.
I tried to scream, but my voice would not come forth. The beast lurched forward, then, and fell upon my feet, chewing at them slowly while I attempted to scream for help and pull away. Yet, I was paralyzed, voiceless, at the mercy of its snorting, ravenous, cruel appetite as it chewed my toes and my feet and then my shins. I sobbed inwardly, for tears would not come, and the beast ate of my legs until, as if suddenly disinterested, it turned away and melded again into the shadows. In agony now, I succumbed to the pain and fell asleep all at once.

***

I awoke in a tent. A doctor stood over me, a clipboard and a pencil in his hands. He wore a long white uniform that was splattered redly, like a butcher’s apron.
“Good,” he said with a British accent. “You are awake. The worst is over.” He turned away, then paused. “But I suppose the worst is yet to come.”
He motioned for a tall, pale nurse to see to me. She wore a Red Cross gown, with a white skirt and a bonnet over her white hair. She looked familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen her. I was feverish, soaken with sweat, and I ached all along my legs. I tried to sit up, but had not the strength. I looked to one side of the table, and to the other, and saw other soldiers bandaged and bloodied and broken. Some were covered with a blanket, head to toe. Dead.
“I do not belong here,” I whispered. I pushed myself up and turned, trying to stand from the bed. I hopped off the bed, plunging downward through empty air and hitting the floor with my thighs, sprawling out helplessly in astonished misery. The tall nurse rushed towards me, but it was too late. Surveying myself, I moaned in horror. My legs had been reduced to stubs by the Krauts’ artillery shells.

***

That night I crawled out of the medical tent, pulling myself through the camp and out into the French countryside. I crawled past the dozens of nameless crosses that stood in testimony to the thousands that had died in the war, nailed together out of driftwood and kindling. I wanted to go West, away from the butchery of trench warfare. I wanted to return to Ireland. I would float out to sea, I told myself, and wake up a selkie on Erin’s beach once again. Behind me I heard the artillery shells that lit up the night once again. But I never looked back. If I looked back I would dissolve.
I crawled all night and at morning light found myself at the edge of a seaside cliff. I stared down its bluff as the briny air whispered intimately in my ear. Far below, in the deep water, I saw the beast beyond the threshold, snorting hungrily among the waves. It wanted the rest of me. There was nothing left for me except to feed it, as countless other soldiers had in this terrible war. Whoever won the war, the spoils were its alone.
The tall nurse surprised me, then, running towards me. Her hair was done up in a French braid that billowed behind her. She had been looking for me, it seemed, and she now found me. I saw the cross upon her heart, red as blood, and bitterly wished to tear it from her breast. Behind her I saw the explosions of a battle enjoined once again. She glistened like a pillar of salt, and I looked away from her before she could dissolve within the warring winds. She called to me, in her French accent, and the beast called to me, too, with a terrible squeal like a bomb falling and exploding all around me.
“Do not swim so eagerly out to sea!” she cried.
“To sea,” I said. “To home. To nothingness.”
I pivoted my legless body upon the crossroads and plunged forward, giving myself fully to the beast.

The Grasping Tree Part 1

2018-11-04 01.50.10

Cool October winds blew over the holocaust scene of cornstalks, their remainders jagged and broken in the fields that made a leapfrogging patchwork of the farm. The grass was yellowing, and the leaves reddening in the distant knobs, and the sky was dark gray in the middle of Saturday morning.
Edgar sat on the porch, feet dangling in front of the porch lattice, above the naked rosebushes. His eyes were fixed upon the old black tree that leaned toward the farmhouse, its trunk angled uphill as if the finger-like branches were stretching, grasping toward the house. It looked like it might fall at any moment, but it had yet to fall during all of Edgar’s nine years of life. Keeping his eyes on the tree, Edgar spoke to his grandfather. The latter was nodding off in his rocking chair, just behind his grandson.
“Papaw,” Edgar said, “What kind of tree is that?”
His grandfather snorted and mumbled, rousing slowly, his voice drowsy, distant, from a faraway time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Seems to me a black oak, but ain’t never had any leaves or acorns, even when I was a boy. Should be dead by now, but it ain’t never gone to rot yet.”
“Why haven’t you ever cut it down?” the boy asked.
There was a long silence. Edgar glanced back over his shoulder at his grandfather and found the old man’s head hanging low, chin to chest, snoring softly. A drop of drool hung from the old man’s pink lips. It fell like a raindrop onto his denim coveralls. Edgar wore the same kind of coveralls, but in miniature. He shifted slightly on the edge of the porch, trying to adjust his coveralls. It had been only a few months since Edgar was shipped off to his grandparents while his parents finalized the divorce. He had not gotten used to coveralls yet.
Edgar repeated his question, louder, and his grandfather stirred.
“Never seemed right to,” the old man said. “Clutching to life after a hundred years. Maybe more. Don’t know if any axe could cut it down. And I always got a strange feeling when I thought about it. It’s one of them ‘buzzard trees’. And it’s bad luck to cut them down. They say the buzzards have nowhere to roost no more and so they roost in your heart. And it…invokes the…Evil Eye on you…”
The old man drifted off to sleep again.
Edgar cast his sight again toward the tree. It was, as his grandfather said, a “buzzard tree”, except Edgar had never seen buzzards roosting in it, nor any other bird, nor squirrel, for that matter. The animals shunned it. His grandfather’s dog, Samson, who was the most ornery German Shepherd ever, never lifted a leg near it, eschewing its shadow like a pool of venomous snakes. It dawned on Edgar that he had avoided it without thinking to do so; as if it was as natural as avoiding a wildfire. But it was a silent wildfire. And it was sneaky; sneaky in that it seemed to grow closer to the house every day.
A breeze blew through the outspread branches, and their forking fingers trembled as if in a silent fury, trying to reach out to Edgar, clasp him, drag him into the deep, dark bowels of the earth.
***

Edgar took a bath in lukewarm water, and prepared himself for supper. Going to the kitchen, he found his grandmother heaping mashed potatoes, gravy, steak, and green beans on three plates. His grandfather was sitting at the table already, his eyelids heavy as he waited for his food. A big glass of milk awaited Edgar at his place. He went to the kitchen drawer and fetched three forks and three knives, arranging them around the table. He then sat down and glanced around the kitchen. It was small, rustic, bare. It had an oven, table, sparse tabletop next to the sink, a few cabinets, refrigerator, and a single window looking out toward the knobs. The pantry was a small closet in the corner of the room and was stocked with bags of dried beans, sweet potatoes, and flour. It was a very humble kitchen when contrasted with the kitchen that his mother and father had in the city.
Edgar suddenly wondered whose kitchen it was: his mother or his father? Divorces, he realized, were strange.
“Here you go, Egg,” his grandmother said, setting the plate of food in front of him. He picked up his fork and began to scoop a lob of potatoes toward to his mouth. His grandmother tsked him. “Not yet, Egg. Wait until everyone is ready to eat. And we have to pray, too.”
Edgar’s stomach grumbled, and he whimpered, watching anxiously as his grandmother gave his grandfather his plate, and then went to fetch her own, finally sitting down. The three of them then steepled their fingers and his grandmother prayed. The prayers finished, Edgar took his fork to the plate ravenously.

***

Through the cupola window he saw the moon. There was a halo around it— wide in circumference and thin in width—behind the tree, looking like a large white pupiled eye, the whole sky a dark face searching for him within his room, wanting to take hold of him and never release his soul.
That night Edgar dreamed of a woman standing in the yard. She was tall, thin, with one eye blue and the other pale, like milk. She had bone-white hair and wore an old leather frock, stitched together with what looked like sinew. She beckoned toward Edgar with one hand. The other hand remained behind her back, hidden. She smiled widely and Edgar could not guess how old she was. He approached her, his feet moving of their own accord. He tried to fight, to resist, yet his body moved without his permission, as if it was inhabited by someone else. Soon she was towering over him, her teeth gleaming. Behind her, the black night reached toward him. And then she drew her other hand out from behind her, and he screamed in terror. It was burnt black, cracked, scaly like tree bark, and as she reached for him the spell broke and he fell back, away from her, scrambling to escape, but moving so slowly, as if through thick molasses, and her hand grew larger, blacker, branching outward over him, becoming the Grasping Tree.
And he knew, as he screamed himself awake, that he could never escape its stretching fingers.

***

Edgar did not often enjoy going to church. His parents never made him go to church in the city. It seemed to him a lot of wasted time that could have been used for play or exploration. But today, at least, he was glad that church gave his grandparents the excuse to take him to town, and away from the Grasping Tree. Dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a collared white shirt, Edgar sat between his grandmother and grandfather in the cab of the truck, no seatbelt strapped across his chest and feeling the old clunker truck rattle itself half to death at any moment, and yet felt relieved despite the long sermon awaiting him at the church.
They arrived early— always too early for Edgar—and his grandparents sat in the front pew, keeping Edgar between them. It was an old church, built in the 1700’s, and had gone through minimal renovation. It was small, but big enough for the rural flock that gathered there every Sunday. Edgar’s grandfather told him, and often repeated himself in saying so, that the church had long history that began with the first settlers of Grayson County. By the time Father Douglas finished with his sermon, Edgar felt like he had spent as much time in the church as the founders. It did not help that the orange juice he drank that morning was already brimming in his bladder. While the flock exited the church to talk out in the churchyard, Edgar raced to the restroom in the back of the church. One of the few renovations the church boasted were the two restrooms, and Edgar aspired to make immediate use of such modern facilities.
He came to a screeching halt, however, when he saw Billy Mudford enter the Men’s restroom. Watching helplessly as Billy closed the door, Edgard despaired. Billy was a large teen, round like a pig and freckled red like a butcher’s block. When he used the restroom there was no hope for the next occupant to survive the miasma. But Edgar’s bladder was ready to bust. He wanted to cry. Glancing down the hall, he saw no one else, so he took a deep breath and opened the door to the Women’s restroom. Lee Frampton was standing by the sink, trying to look over it to see herself in the mirror. When she saw Edgar she merely furrowed her brow in irritation and put her fists on her hips.
“Egg,” she said, her irritation making her Southern drawl twang sharply, “this is the Ladies’ bathroom.”
Edgar just stood there, frozen in fear and bewilderment.
“Is Billy using the Men’s bathroom?” she asked.
Edgar only nodded.
“I thought I heard him gruntin’ like a sow in labor,” she said. She tossed her blonde curls, as she always did in the meantime when she was deciding something. She was a year older than Edgar, and a couple of inches taller, and so she was the de facto leader insomuch as Edgar was concerned. Whatever she said was what went.
“Come on,” she said, gesturing him into the restroom. “I’ll guard the door if you have to go that badly.”
Edgar could only nod and obey, walking toward the toilet while Lee stepped out and closed the door, standing guard in the hall. It took Edgar time to overcome his embarrassment and finally relieve himself. When finished, he opened the door, and was about to mutter thanks to Lee, but she shot him a scowl.
“Wash your hands,” she said, crossing her arms.
Edgar did what she told him, then came out of the bathroom. Billy’s stench was already invading the hall with preliminary fumes, and so Edgar and Lee left the church, going outside where the rest of the kids were playing. They did not join them, however. Instead, they stood under an oak tree in the churchyard, near the gated cemetery.
“Thanks,” Edgar said. “For…you know.”
“You’re welcome,” Lee said. “That stinky-butt Billy does it on purpose. Probably eats all the sausage and bacon and eggs he can before he comes here. Then comes out grinnin’, and smells like the sulphurs of Hell.”
She chuckled as if she had said something very funny. Edgar did not know what to say to any of that. Firstly, he did not know what “sulphurs” were, and, secondly, he knew Hell was a bad word. His grandparents always said the Framptons were “good people, but a little uncouth”, but he never understood what that meant, either. Maybe, he thought, it meant they didn’t give a single deer pellet what other people thought about them. And while Edgar had known Lee for a few months now, she was still a mystery to him. Despite her white dress and her curlicues, she was a tomboy, and he had never met a tomboy in the city. They were much more fun than the regular girls he knew who only told him he was gross and made of puppy dog tails. She liked to do things, like race and throw baseballs and climb things.
“Want to climb the tree?” she asked him.
He nodded, and up they went; Lee first—faster, with a firmer and more confident grip— and then Edgar after her—slower, more methodical, much more diffident in his fumbling finger-holds. At length he came to the lowest branch, sitting upon it, close to the trunk. Lee chose to sit on the branch above his, and farther away from the trunk. Unlike Edgar, who kept both hands always on his branch, Lee sat carefree on her branch, gesturing with her hands freely as she spoke.
“I wish papaw had this tree in his yard,” Edgar said. “Instead of that ugly tree that’s there.”
“I know about that tree,” Lee said confidently, her Southern drawl slowing around the vowels.
“You do?” Edgar said, his interest piqued.
“Sure I do,” she said. “It’s an old witch’s tree. A witch was buried there.”
“Under the tree?” Edgar said. “But what about the roots?”
Lee shook her head. “No, you ninny. I mean she was buried first and then the tree just sprung up from where she was buried. Everybody knows about it. It ain’t no secret around here.”
“Why didn’t mamaw and papaw tell me?”
“Because they didn’t want to scare you none,” Lee said. “It’s a gruesome story.” She smirked, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “Wanna’ hear it?”
Edgar did not know what “gruesome” meant, but he guessed that he probably did not want to hear the story. Watching Lee’s smirk widen, however, and seeing the twinkle in her eye grow bigger, he decided he would not let her think him a scaredy-cat anymore than she already did.
“Yes,” he said, taking a big gulp.
Lee’s smirk parted into a grin and Edgar wondered if he had not made a mistake.
“There was once this witch. She had magical powers. But she was a good witch. She did nothing but help people. But the judge had his mind set on her. They prepared a fire and the judge told her that if she didn’t marry him and put herself right by God she would burn in flames. The townsfolk pulled her to the fire when she refused. The judge gave her one final chance, but she fought back, falling down as they brought her toward that fire. Her hand went into the fire and she screamed in pain. Her hand got burnt up, but while it was burning it found the Devil’s hand waiting for her, and there and then they shook hands upon a compact.”
“What’s a compact?” Edgar asked.
“A deal,” Lee said, impatiently. “He made a deal with her for revenge. She then rose up, with her hand all fiery, and she tried to grab the judge. But somebody stabbed her with a knife.” Lee thumped herself in the chest with a fist. “Stabbed her in the heart. She died and they buried her where that tree is, in an unmarked grave. And that crooked tree grew up where she was buried. And then one day the judge was found dead, sitting next to her grave. They say it looked like he had a black ring around his throat, as if he’d been hung with a burning rope. Some think he had been strangled by the woman’s lover.”
Lee became silent, and the whole world seemed to become silent, and then Edgar thought he heard a witch cackling. And it was a witch: Mrs. Sparrow was cackling as she spoke to Mrs. Murrow and Mrs. Curtsinger. Edgar did not like Mrs. Sparrow. None of the children did.
“Why didn’t papaw tell me?” Edgar asked.
“Probably because he was afraid it’d give you nightmares,” Lee said.
“I did have a nightmare yesterday,” he said. “But…it didn’t scare me…not really…” He was overcome by disquiet.
“It’s just a story, Egg,” Lee said, her finger in her nose, digging away. “Don’t let it bother you.”
“It’s not bothering me,” he said defensively. “I’m not afraid. It’s just a stupid tree.” He stared down the side of the oak tree’s trunk, glaring at it as if it was calling him a scaredy cat. “I’m going to climb it when I get home.”
“You are a pretty good climber,” Lee said generously. “For a city boy. But I don’t think you should. I could climb it. Maybe momma and daddy can come over after church.”
“I can climb it by myself,” Edgar said, scowling.
“We’ll climb it together,” Lee said. Her scowl was much more intimidating than Edgar’s, so she won the argument.

***

That afternoon, after the Sunday luncheon, Lee’s parents brought her over to the farmhouse. Edgar was both happy to see her and resentful. He did not like it when someone treated him like a baby. His parents had done that for too long now. Everyone thought he was fragile; as if the truth would break him. But he could handle the truth. His parents should not have sent him out here, away from home. Even if home was cracking in two, it did not mean he would crack in two.
A misty rain was falling over the farm. Lee’s parents went indoors to talk with Edgar’s grandparents. Lee and Edgar walked toward the black tree. Lee glared up at it like it was a bully threatening her for her lunch money, and she would has its lunch money at the end of the day.
“It’s too wet to climb,” Edgar said, seeing the black bark glisten darkly in the falling mist. “We shouldn’t…”
“Don’t be a baby, Egg,” Lee said. “If you can climb a tree when it’s dry, you can climb a tree when it’s wet. Ain’t no big trouble. Now grabbing hold of a muddy hog, that is some hard wrangling.” She regarded the weirdly angled tree. “This…this is just a piglet chalked up in dust.”
Despite the wet chill of October, Lee was wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt and tennis shoes. Her curly blonde hair was bound back in twin braids that clung tightly to her scalp, as if stitched there. In short, she had made herself ready to climb the tree.
“Maybe we should wait until it stops raining,” Edgar said.
“This ain’t rain,” Lee countered, holding a palm up for emphasis as the little mist softly alighted there. “This is just the fart of rain. It ain’t nothing.”
Every fear Edgar voiced circumspectly, Lee dissolved into shame, much the same as the mistiness dissolved the distant hills into vague shadows. He kept silent now, but Lee was not finished yet with his acid bath.
“Just stay here, if you want,” she said. “It ain’t really a hard tree to climb. It’s all bent over, inviting you up its back. Hell, it does the climbing for you, I’ll bet.”
And it was bent over, the tree having grown sideways so much that Lee easily scampered up its trunk, without the aid of any branches, her fingernails gripping the grooves in the bark.
“Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy,” she said.
But Edgar only watched her, steeped in his own apprehension. He could not move. He had never been this close to the tree before and he felt in his bones a chgill that was much colder than anything the rain could impart. The farther Lee climbed, the greater the chill he felt.
“Lee,” he called, “I think you should come down!”
But Lee was at the first branch of the tree— a thick, stumpy branch, almost fat and jointed like a thumb at the warty knot. Reaching this, Lee dared herself upright, standing to her full height. Edgar was too scared to be impressed, however, and moreover he had always seen Lee as being “higher up” than himself in many ways. He only wished she would return to the ground, but she just glanced back at him with a self-satisfied smile.
“You coming up, Egg?” she asked.
“No!” he said, his voice creaking with defensiveness and fear.
“You’re afraid you’ll fall and crack,” she said. “Like Humpty Dumpty.”
“Please come down, Lee!” he pleaded. He rarely used her name, for fear it might scare her away. He fidgeted as he stood in place, anxiety an army of tickling ants in his pants. “Lee, please come down. We’re going to get in trouble…”
He hoped an appeal to adult authority would convince her, but it didn’t. She only laughed…
And ventured farther out along the tree.
The sky was still gray, as it had been since Edgar first arrived in this county, but he saw everything clearly. The misty rain was still falling, but there was no wind. No other tree circumscribing the farm bobbed to the unrest of a breeze. No leaves, fallen or otherwise, rustled or tumbled or fluttered. Yet, the black tree moved; it trembled softly at first, then shook, and even as Edgar was rooted in place his mind went to catch Lee as she fell. He swore he moved to catch her, and yet he watched helplessly from afar as she fell. She screamed and her arms flailed as if in search of wings. But the only thing she caught was the earth, and the earth caught her as she fell to one side, one hand at a bad angle. She bounced on the soft wet grass, but there was a terrible crunching sound, followed by her protracted shriek. Edgar watched her roll around, clutching her twisted hand and twisted fingers with her unharmed hand. He then sprinted toward the house, yelling for any adult that could hear him.

***

There was a lot of shouting added to Lee’s wailing. It seemed to match the screaming inside Edgar’s head. He felt as if his head would explode and his heart would burst. The rush of her parents out to scoop her up, the screech of the tires of their truck as they took off toward the hospital, and the frenzied questions of his grandparents was all too much for Edgar. His mind was full of crashing, spasmodic images: the black tree, Lee falling, Lee’s ruined hand, her parents’ furious faces, and. A panic beset him and his breathing heaved and lurched rapidly until his grandmother took him to the living room’s couch, sitting him down and bringing him a warm rag which she put on his forehead while rubbing his back. As he calmed down, and his heart stopped racing, his eyes rested on the front window through which the black tree
His grandfather asked him a question, but he did not hear him. He only heard the echo of Lee’s scream, cycling endlessly. It deafened him to all other sounds. Gradually it subsided and he turned to look at his grandfather.
“What?” he whispered.
“What were you thinking, Egg?” he asked. “I thought you had enough sense not to climb in the rain!”
“I didn’t climb the tree,” Edgar said, still too disoriented to explain anything.
“But you let that little girl climb the tree?!”
“She’s taller than me,” he said, his thoughts still clogged by everything that had happened.
His grandmother interceded. “Please, Sam, leave the boy alone. You know he didn’t mean for anything to happen to her. She climbed that tree of her own will. You know she can be…well…uppity. Always has to prove something. Them Framptons have always been that way. Have to prove something. You heard Ellie in here, bragging about her rosebushes. And the way she said I should use more cinnamon in my apple pie.” His grandmother shook her head slowly, ruefully. “That’s not the way you are supposed to talk when you’re a guest in someone’s house.”
His grandfather nodded in agreement. “You’re right. Them Framptons have always been uppity. I just hope they don’t sue. Not that it was our fault. They asked to pay a visit and then their girl just goes and hurts herself. Awfully suspicious.”
“Lee didn’t mean for it to happen!” Edgar said suddenly. “I told her I was afraid of the tree and she wanted to show me there was nothing to be afraid of!”
His grandparents regarded him quietly for a moment. Then his grandfather spoke.
“Well, I guess she had something to fear from it, after all. Just stay away from that tree, Egg. And other trees, too. I don’t want to catch you climbing no more. It’s all well and good, being a kid, but there’s too much to risk at it. Not that I didn’t climb when I was your age…it’s just…well…”
“Your papaw thinks you have enough on your plate,” he grandmother explained. “What with your momma and daddy going through their…troubles.”
Edgar stood up, taking the warm rag from his head. “I want to go to the hospital,” he said. “I want to make sure Lee’s all right.”
“We’ll give ‘em a call,” his grandfather said. “She’s likely in a lot of pain, and, well, it’d be best not to bother them.”
“That’s right,” his grandmother said. “Folks need their privacy when they are dealing with their problems. And that ain’t ever truer than with the Framptons.” She stood, too, and went toward the kitchen. “I tell you what, Egg. I’ll make you a nice loaf of banana bread. That sound good? I think you deserve something sweet after all you been through today.”
“That’s a mighty fine idea,” his grandfather said, eagerly following the old woman into the kitchen. “I could do with some, too.”
Edgar stood alone in the living room, looking out the window at the black tree. The Grasping Tree. He had to do something about it. He just didn’t know what he could do. He glanced around the living room. There were crucifixes on the wall, and a painting of Jesus, framed, and other framed pictures— black and white photos of relatives he had never met and rustic paintings of barns and barnyard animals and angels— and. Then his eye alighted on the rosary that his grandmother coiled around her Bible. Unwinding the rosary, carefully, Edgar took the long tethered beads out to the tree and nestled it in among the roots. He then went inside and prepared for bed.

***

That night Edgar dreamed of a man in a black robe with a black hat and a black gaze. He held a Bible in one hand, and in the other a letter. The man was silent and stern, solid like a standing obelisk made of granite. But then his dark gaze faltered and he clasped the Bible and the letter to his chest, collapsing to his knees and weeping. A tall figure loomed over him. She bent down and embraced him with her long, willowy arms. As the man sobbed, the woman looked up at Edgar, and beneath ivory white hair and a blue eye and a milky white eye, her lips parted and a gleaming toothed smile spread in triumph.
Edgar woke to rain smattering upon the cupola window. Getting up from bed, amid shadows cast across his room by a nightlight, he looked out the blurry glass and saw the tree still grasping toward the house. He stared at it for a long time. Maybe it was only a trick of the heavy rain and his groggy eyes, but the bent-over tree looked as if it was closer to the house than ever before.

***

The next morning Edgar found the rosary shattered and scattered away from the tree. Rain was falling still, as it ever did, and his grandparents were inside. Now certain that it was, in fact, a witch tree, Edgar ran to his grandfather’s barn and fetched an axe. Edgar had used the axe before, helping his grandfather chop wood for Winter, but he had never used it to chop down a tree. Yet, he was a fast learner, even if he wasn’t a fast climber.
Edgar walked to the side of the tree that leaned away from him. Taking the axe in both hands, he eyed the trunk’s circumference and, taking a deep breath, raised the axe above his head. Hesitating only a split moment, he brought the axe down, striking the tree. It was not a solid strike— the axe head bounced off the tree, taking only a few black chips of bark with it. Worse, the rebounding axe almost chipped his shin. He steadied himself, his heart pounding and his brain afire with images of the witch and Lee’s broken hand and the tree shaking to life and the dark-eyed man weeping. He swung again, with a solider strike, planting the crescent blade into the trunk. He almost smiled, so proud he was of that swing. But it was raining outside, and it was a chilly rain, and he was chilled to his bones with fear and rain. He tried to pull the axe out and realized it was stuck. Putting a foot on the trunk, he jerked up and down on the axe. Gradually he pried the axe loose, seesawing the blade until it relinquished its bite, taking with it an oozing red pulp. The wound bled copiously, then, trickling sap that mixed with rain. Encouraged to see his enemy bleed, Edgar swung again, hacking an inch block out of the grievous wound. Now he was excited, feeling like a knight killing a dragon, and he raised the axe for another swing. It was as axe rose to its full arc above his head that the tree began to shudder in anguish. He felt it in the earth—a deep rumbling of rage—and he saw images in his head of the witch’s corpse clawing her way up through the wet soil to drag him down to Hell with her. Panic overtook him and the swing struck awry, his aim overextending and striking the trunk with the wooden handle rather than the head. The handle cracked up its shaft and the impact jarred Edgar’s bones, from his wrists to his shoulders. He fell backwards, scrambling out of the way as the axe leapt up and then came tumbling down toward him. It missed his food by half an inch.
Standing up, Edgar checked himself all over. Finding himself intact, and mostly unscathed, he stared at the tree. But it was still. It was silent. It held its secrets.
And then Edgar’s grandfather appeared.
“Boy,” he said, gawking between the tree and his grandson, “what’s gotten into you?”
“That tree is evil,” Edgar said, nearly breathless with fright. “We need to cut it down.”
“For the love of God, Edgar,” his grandfather groaned. “That Frampton girl put some strange notions in your head, didn’t she?”
Edgar began to cry.
“Jesus,” the old man said, not too unkindly. “Don’t go cryin’ at your age, boy. It ain’t right. Why, if my daddy saw me cryin’ he’d of given me somethin’ to cry about.”
Edgar’s grandmother came out, then, hurrying beneath her umbrella to see what was happening.
“What’s goin’ on here?” she demanded. “Egg, what’ the matter? Sam, did you whip the poor boy?”
“No, ma’am,” her husband said. “He sure tried to whip that tree good, though. Look at my brand new axe! Splintered to pieces…” He sighed in exasperation.
“Sorry, papaw,” Edgar said, wiping the rain, and tears, from his eyes. “But it’s evil. It hurt Lee. It’s trying to reach the house. I know it is.”
“Of all the nonsense…” his grandfather began to say, but the old woman cut him off.
“Sam,” she said, in a tone that bridged no argument. “I have always wanted to get rid of it, anyway. It’s an awful eyesore.”
Edgar’s grandfather gave her an indecisive shrug. “I mean, it’s a part of history…but it had to come down sooner or later, I reckon. And with a notch like that in it, it’ll die soon anyhow.” He sighed sadly. “When the rain stops, I guess I can get my chainsaw and take her down. The wood’s no good, it seems like. Too much sap. Just have to haul it all away…”

***

Edgar’s grandfather did as he said he would. Edgar watched from the front porch as the old man revved the chainsaw to its high whine and took its teeth to the Grasping Tree. Perhaps it was the acoustics of the holler playing tricks on Edgar’s ears, but he though he head a shriek beneath the whine of the chainsaw; and that shriek increased as the chainsaw touched the wood with its growling, hungry bite. Whether he truly heard it or not, he was glad when the tree came crashing down. He was even happier when his grandfather used his tractor and chains to haul it away. Yet, even as the tree dragged behind the tractor, it appeared to be reaching for the house; receding in the distance like a witch being dragged, clutching and kicking, to Hell.

***

Edgar went to bed that night expecting bad dreams. But he dreamt only happy dreams; dreams about his mother and father sitting at a table, smiling at him as the three of them sat and ate pancakes together. His parents talked and laughed and the world wasn’t falling apart. It was happy. No one was angry with anyone else. His mother took him to school in the morning and his father picked him up later, in the afternoon, but when they returned home, both of his parents returned there. Together. No one yelled. No one slammed doors. It was such a happy dream that it made him cry.
But in the morning he woke up to a real nightmare.

***

Edgar followed the scent of pancakes downstairs, feeling happier than he had in quite some time. His grandmother was in the kitchen, at the stove, pouring pancake batter into a sizzling pan. Beside her, on the counter, was a plate stacked tall with pancakes.
“Morning, Egg,” she said. “Sleep better last night?”
“Yes,” Edgar said, emphatically. He fetched three plates from the cabinet, and three forks, arranging them around the table. His grandfather came in from the living room, yawning.
“Papaw,” Edgar said, sitting down at the table. “Do you think we can go visit Lee later on?”
His grandfather and grandmother exchanged glances.
“In time,” he said, stiffly. “Maybe next week you can see you at church. Right now I’d give them some space.”
“But I want to make sure she’s okay,” Edgar said. “Please?”
“Tomorrow,” his grandfather said, his tone terse and final. “But I’m staying out in the car. The Framptons weren’t exactly nice to me on the phone yesterday.”
Edgar seemed to shrink in upon himself in his chair, as he always had when his mother and father were arguing. “They blame me for what happened to Lee,” he said.
“They blame all of us,” his grandmother said, disgruntledly flipping a pancake over. “But ain’t that just like a Frampton to blame others for the way they raise their own kids.”
This was little solace to Edgar. Suddenly he was afraid to see Lee; afraid her parents would yell and scream at him, and his grandparents, and he could not endure that. He had enough yelling and screaming back home in the city. He hated when adults argued. The whole world seemed to fall apart and nothing made sense anymore. It was as though their hateful words broke the sky itself and it would come crashing down at any moment, like a lamp, plunging the world into darkness.
“Don’t think on it, Egg,” his grandmother said. She brought the pan over and, using her spatula, slid a fresh, crisp pancake onto his plate. “Here. Starve your troubles by feeding your tummy.”
Edgar smiled up at her and cut his pancake into bite-sized pieces with his fork, pouring molasses over the brown-and-white bits of flat cake. But it was a long time before he managed to eat the pancake, and even then only with effort. He had lost his appetite the moment he learned that Lee’s parents was angry at them.
Maybe, he thought, Lee was angry with him, too.

***

It was a schoolday and Edgar’s grandfather always drove Edgar to school. The farm was so far away from town that the school bus could not travel that far in a timely manner. Edgar did not mind the school. It was smaller than the one he attended in the city, and so had a lot less bullies in it. Edgar also enjoyed the smaller class sizes and the quieter school. He was so used to the noises of the city that he never had the opportunity to realize how much he enjoyed silence.
And yet, as Edgard walked toward the truck, towing his backpack over one shoulder, there was a strange silence pervading the farm. His first instinct was to look to the Grasping Tree, but it was not there anymore. All that remained was a scattering of broken twigs and branches and the ugly, oozing stump which the rain had failed to washed clean.
He opened the truck door and climbed in. Buckling his seatbelt, he wondered if he would see Lee at school. Then he remembered that Lee was homeschooled and didn’t go to his rural school.
His grandfather checked the truck’s oil, as he always did before going anywhere, and Edgar, meanwhile, stared out the window, trying not to think about Lee and how anxious he was to see her. He could not say the exact moment it dawned on him that something was wrong. The silence was pervasive, of course, except for his grandfather’s gripes at the engine. Edgar was used to fairly quiet mornings at the farm, but there was always a soft ambience at the edges of the horizon. Birdsong. Cow lowing. Donkey laughter. Chicken bickering. Today, however, he could not hear any of those gentle accompaniments. He heard only a terrible silence.
And then he let his eyes wander away from the farm, out toward the knobs that were crowned in forests. The trees were utterly bereft of leaves, as if a great wind at swept through in the night and, all at once, disrobed the multitude. Trees as far as his young eyes could see were denuded of their flaring foliage. And what remained beneath were angry, clutching branches that all leaned toward the farmhouse like the burnt hands of Hell. His grandfather shut the hood of the truck and then got into the cab, turning the ignition.
“Gonna’ need to change the oil soon,” he concluded bitterly.
“The trees…” Edgar said. “The trees have changed.”
His grandfather glanced toward the horizon, where all of the trees reached toward them. “Lost all of their leaves, is all.”
“They’re not right…” Edgar said. “It’s all wrong…”
“They are a mighty bit uglier for it,” his grandfather said. “But that’s how it is. You know that. Lose their pretty red colors for Winter and then Spring comes round again and they’re the prettiest green again.”
“They’re just like that Witch Tree,” Edgar said. “They’re reaching toward the house.”
His grandfather regarded his grandson for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. “Damn it, Egg, don’t go on with that stuff. I can’t cut down every darn tree that makes you upset.”
“But they’re evil…”
His grandfather sighed angrily, and shifted the truck into Drive, easing down the gravel driveway.
“Now, Egg, you know better ‘an that. You’re just…overworked in your head. You need some work for your hands to keep your mind preoccupied. Maybe when you come back I can show you how to sand scuffs out of a chair. Or whittle wood. Or maybe .”
Edgar did not say anything. He only stared out the window, looking at all of those trees grasping toward the farmhouse.

***

Edgar arrived at school feeling wary. His nerves were screaming in an insistent chorus of alarm as he said goodbye, quietly, to his grandfather. He walked into the old brick school with his eyes darting to the left and to the right. Unlike the city school that he used to go to— with its many wings all arranged around a central lobby like a confused octopus—Grayson County Intermediate School was more or less a three-storey mansion with the gymnasium added to the back in a later century. It was more an eighteenth century mansion than a modern school, and it was decrepit and powdered with endless dust and the tiled floors were stained so badly with scuff-and-stuff that Edgar could not discern its original color. As soon as he entered the front doors the secretary’s office was on the right, the principal’s office was on the left, and the lobby lay straight ahead of him, cluttered with children opening and closing their lockers, chatting, horsing around, and generally doing what most kids in the city all did— albeit not so loudly, for lack of numbers, and with a slight drawl to their conversations. Did Edgar feel like an outsider here? Yes, but he often felt like an outsider in the city, too. And the children of Grayson County, much like the children in the city, ignored him since he neither offended them or impressed them.
And yet, Edgar felt eyes watching him. He felt eyes following him as he looked around, trying to espy his stalker in among the crowds and cliques. Several students returned his glance—with frowns of irritation or apathy or quizzical concern—and yet when they looked away the unseen eyes remained on him, urgent and unwavering.
Walking toward his Home Room, Edgar felt as if he could not trust any shadow, including his own.

***

In the schoolyard the leaves still clung to the branches of the trees encircling the recess area. The children were playing kickball and Edgar stood near the farthest edge of the clearing, so as to not be too involved in the game, and so as to not be culpable if his team lost. In fact, he was more preoccupied with staring at the different colors all clashing together in the woods than he was in the antics of the ball as it bounded past him. It was no wonder he jumped, so startled was he by its mischief. It leapt and charged into the woods like a wild animal seeking freedom. Edgar would have been happy to let it live out its remaining days in among the trees, free from the offenses of children’s feet, but his teammates shouted for him to fetch the ball before the other team could score a full run. So, reluctantly, Edgar tripped and stumbled and crashed into the woods, a hesitant hunter seeking his prey.
The ball, like flighty prey, ricocheted from one tree to another, zig-zagging in rabbit fashion and seeking shelter in the deeper, darker depths of the woods. When it finally came to rest in among the roots of a tree, Edgar was breathless with the chase. Gulping down air, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying not to vomit. The back of his throat burned with bile. The ball had led him on an escapade farther than it had any reasonable right to and though he could still hear the students calling for him in annoyed tones, their voices were softened by distance and density. The trees crowded around him and the voices of his classmates rebounded in devilish ways, tricking him with the acoustics of the woods so that he knew not which direction to go to return to the schoolyard clearing. The air suddenly became colder, chillier, cooling the bile in his throat and making his lungs ache. He felt the eyes upon him again, more intense than before, and stronger in intent. He knew he had to leave, and leave quickly. He knelt down to pick up the kickball. It was as his hands lifted the ball that he realized it had not been nestled between roots, but between boots. A chill caught in his chest, like a fist of ice clutching his heart, and, slowly, reluctantly, inevitably, he looked up to see that the trunk of the tree was actually a tall, stern man with a black gaze. The dark clad, dark-eyed man reached toward Edgar with a pale hand. Edgar fell back and away, fleeing in no one particular direction. He ran and ran, more wildly than the ball had when it bounded into the woods. As he carried it out into the clearing, he cursed the ball and he cursed his own rotten luck.
***

When Edgar emerged from the woods he was panting and sobbing. He fell to his knees and crawled across the yard, the kickball rolling away from him. His gym teacher, Mrs. Bradley, rushed to him, helping him to his feet and looking him all over.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Man in the woods,” Edgar moaned between sobs.
Some of the children exchanged worried glances. Others snickered. Mrs. Bradley looked toward the woods fearfully, then toward the children.
“Everyone inside! Now!”
They went into the Health classroom and waited there, confined indoors while the principal searched the woods for a trespasser. Finding no one, he returned and asked Edgar for a description. Edgar blurted out the details in earnest, never realizing until it was too late how absurd it was.
“He was tall and had a long black coat and black hat and black eyes and a curly white wig!”
The principal and Mrs. Bradley frowned. The principal rolled his eyes. Mrs. Bradley leaned over him, smiling thinly. Edgar knew that kind of smile; knew that it meant an adult did not believe you whatsoever.
“You’re not making up stories, are you, Egg?”
“He was standing in the woods. I’ve seen him in my dreams. The witch…he and the witch belong together!”
The students glowered at Edgar for the rest of the day. He had ruined their kickball game and shortened their recess. He had been a “baby” and ruined everything with his crying, they said. It was like the city all over again—just like when he tried to get his parents’ attention from the top of the bleachers. He had not meant to fall. He only wanted them to see him, and to stop arguing in the parking lot. He shouted at them and when they begged him to come down, he tripped over a seat and tumbled over sideways. He did not remember much after that except someone crying, and his own pain. Perhaps he was the one crying. Neither of his parents ever cried—they were too busy blaming each other. He had landed on his head, or so they told him later. It did not crack, but the yolk inside sure was scrambled for a few days. They said he had a “concussion”. It wasn’t a big problem for him. He had headaches, occasionally, but no worse than the ones he had suffered before his fall— the ones when his mom and dad yelled at night when they thought he was asleep, keeping him awake so that he went to school sleepy and dizzy and often too tired to think without his head throbbing.
And now everyone at his new school was looking at him with contempt, or mockery, or both. He was a “liar from the city”, like all cityslickers who came out to the country to boast of all of the useless things they knew, talking down to the locals, or committing that terrible sin of being worldly.
Yet, not everyone in the school was unsympathetic. Mrs. Ansel, the librarian, was a favorite of Edgar’s, as he was one of her favorites, and she spoke soothingly to him about her own misadventures in imagination while in the woods. Since he liked the old woman so much he did not mind that she did not literally believe him. At least she did not believe he was “cracked” like the other teachers.
“I remember when I thought I saw a fairy sitting upon a toadstool,” Mrs. Ansel said as she sat at her desk, Edgar across from her. “My mother thought I had been eating mushrooms and was delusional. She jammed her fingers so far down my throat that I thought she was trying to turn it inside out. And she nearly did. She didn’t stop until I had given up everything I had had for lunch, breakfast, and all of the cookies I had eaten secretly between. Even after all of that she watched me sideways for a week, fearing I might keel over any moment.”
Mrs. Ansel laughed softly, her eyes peering back through the misty decades. Edgar— who was no more intentionally manipulative than any other child his age—asked Mrs. Ansel if there were any historical books about Grayson County I the library. She holy half-roused from the thick, sticky web of her memories.
“There are a few at the Grayson Public Library,” she said. “But none here. Really more like folktales than legitimate historical works.”
Edgar did not say anything else. When his grandfather came to pick him up he asked to go to the Public Library. His grandfather shrugged indifferently, one way or the other, and so, an hour or so later Edgar returned to the farm clutching three books to his chest, as if they might shield him from the Grasping Trees now surrounding the farm.
The first book, “Grayson County History” was as dry and unappealing as its humdrum title. Edgard read it for about twenty minutes—skimming the pages like a water strider over a pond—until he came to an entry concerning a prominent judge named Ethan Blake. It did not say much except in mentioning a few reforms concerning “Patrilineage” laws in Grayson County. Edgar did not know what it meant. It did not provide elaborations, either on the law or the judge’s “queer death”, nor were there any pictures or drawings; only thick blocks of stale, dense text.
The second book was “Grayson County Folklore”, which was as dry a title as the first, yet benefited from its more flavorful subject matter. Or so Edgar had thought. Whoever wrote it, wrote it drily, too. He began to think that the two books were written by the same man, or woman. Yet, as he read it, sitting next to the dormer window, it was bettered by the vista of the Grasping Trees, which lent an urgency to his reading that was stonewalled by the previous book’s bland subject matter. As he read through the titles of these folktales he could feel the trees reaching toward him with their gnarled, black, skeletal fingers. And when he saw the title “The Witch’s Ghost” he knew, in the ancestral marrow of his bones, that he had all reason to be afraid. But he read the story, overcome with a clammy sweat. The story told him nothing new or different from what other people had told him. However, to see it confirmed on a page, in a real book, somehow granted his mind permission to feel justified in his fright, which only frightened him even more.
“Egg!” his grandmother called upstairs, making him jump. “Supper!”
“I am not going to crack,” he whispered to himself. “I am not going to crack…”

***

That night he dreamt of many hands reaching for him, grabbing him, fighting over him, pulling on him as voices boomed thunderously, arguing and screaming with gale-force winds, blaming each other and him. They yanked on his arms and his legs and his hair, wrestling him one way, and then another, until they abruptly released him, all at once, as if he was no longer worth having, as if he was spoiled, and he plummeted toward the earth, shattering on impact.
“I’m not going to crack, I’m not going to crack, I’m not going to crack,” he repeated, pressing his palms upon his temples as if to keep his skull from splitting apart. “I’m not going to crack…”

Sleeves Part 1

When Miguel grabbed the red-robed man by the sleeve he didn’t think the weirdo would pull a knife. But that was what he did, the strange crescent blade flashing as it streaked through the smoky, neon-lit air of the bar, Miguel’s life flashing along its arc with all of the meaninglessness he half-suspected, but never acknowledged except when in the careless cradle of a marijuana bong. He stepped back, raising an arm. He was wearing a tanktop, and so the only sleeves the knife ruined were his tattoos, bisecting the skull-and-roses on his forearm, and so ruining his favorite bit of ink.
“Muy estupido,” Miguel said, evenly, “mi amigo.”
He raised his fists in a boxing stance, the blood like a wet, crimson snake slithering down his right arm. The hooded man raised the knife amid the clamor of screams and the music of the bar. Miguel could only see the man’s nose and chin in the cowled murk, lined with strange tribal tattoos all aswirl. Despite the movement all around them, time stood still for the two of them, like a coiled snake ready to strike. And then it struck, the hooded man slashing with blinding speed. Yet, Miguel was faster in his anticipations. Speed was power. He knew that from years of being a kickboxer and a bouncer. He had never been the biggest man, but he was always the fastest. Un Mexicano muy rapido. What good were muscles if your opponent beat you, literally, to the punch? Miguel blocked and dodged the subsequent slashes, then struck the man in the jaw. The man’s jaw unhinged and he paused, resetting it. Miguel suspected the man must have been on drugs that were muy mal.
The hooded man hissed in a voice not entirely human.
“Yo voy tener su corazon!”
He pointed spitefully at the young woman that cowered behind Miguel. She had entered the bar only moments ago, pursued by this violent creep.
The hooded man rushed forward again, swinging the knife. Miguel, knowing how to fight clean in the ring, and dirty on the street, feinted with a left jab, then threw a hook directly into the man’s esophagus. It would have killed any other person, or incapacitated a stronger windbag, but this man gripped his distorted, displaced throat and adjusted it, not even slightly winded by a crushed windpipe.
Fumo mucha hierba loca, Miguel thought.
It was then, as Miguel watched that manlike creature readjust its neck, that Miguel realized he was going to die. The man pulled back his hood and his face was revealed in all of its elaborately tattooed menace, his black hair tied back in a ponytail to accentuate his broad forehead with all of its scar-scales, as if each had been cut with a fine blade toward serpentine adornment. His eyes were slitted pupils, and his teeth were like saber blades. He raised the knife and grinned, hissing fanatically. It was as Miguel realized that the tattoos upon the man’s face looked familiar that there was a deafening explosion behind him and the man’s face erupted like a blooming bundle of crimson roses.
One pitted eye stared out from the blood gargling ruin of the man’s head, opened wide in astonishment. He stared at Miguel.
“Xolotl,” he sputtered.
Miguel had seen a lot of violence in his life, but a man’s head blossoming before his eyes was too much. His knees became wobbly and he nearly fell. An arm held him up, and laughter exploded like ironic Jazz music at his ear.
“Que pasa, mi hermano?” Raul said, grinning wide as he held Miguel with one arm and crooked an AR-15 with the other. “Senor solamente perdio su cabezon.”
He went on, at length, with Hollywood quips about not bringing a knife to a gunfight, and never bringing your fists to a knife fight. Raul would never let this debt go, Miguel knew, even if they happened to be brothers. It was too good an example for Raul to use to chastise his younger brother for his aversion to guns. But Miguel hated guns as much as he hated gunrunners and gang members and drug dealers. And even if the latter owned the bar he worked at, it did not mean he could not begrudge them their spoils. He would have joined the police force to combat them, if the police were not already owned by them.
Most of the bar patrons had left, except for the drug-addled. The girl had left, too. Everything had happened so fast that Miguel had not been able to keep track of her. But he would never forget her, or that noche loco.
“Al vencedor van los tesoros,” Raul said, bending over to survey the man he had killed. He reached down and took up the bloody knife. “Este es mi trofeo.” He laughed. “Yo soy un conquistador.” The blade looked more like a claw now, gripped in Raul’s hand.
“No es bueno,” Miguel said, thinking the blade a wicked presence, and not only because of the blood it drew from his forearm. The blood on the blade—his blood—seemed to disappear into the slick crescent.

Left Alone

 

2018-12-23 01.54.52

When Chuck clutched his fat fingers to his chest, wheezing and coughing, and then fell to his knees by the hamburger grill, everyone was too busy with the noon rush hour to pay attention to him at first. I thought he had dropped his sunglasses on the floor— since he was always wearing sunglasses indoors—and was looking for them. But then he collapsed face-first to the floor and I— being the only manager on shift at McDougall’s that day—had to leave the scrambling helter-skelter hurry-flurry of the front counter to see what was happening.
By then, Joe and Devon had both left the assembly line and were standing over Chuck, frowning down at him. Matt was at the deep fryer, glancing over his shoulder while trying to catch up with the day’s deficit of chicken nuggets. We were all too busy for antics, and I was pretty miffed already because Joe had pissed me off earlier by talking about how big my ass was, loudly so that the customers could hear by the front counter. But I knew Chuck, somewhat, and knew that he never clowned around.
Seeing Chuck’s empurpling fat cheeks, I knew something was seriously wrong. I yelled at Andrea up front, near the phone.
“Call 911!” I then pointed to Joe and Devon. “You two flip him over onto his back.”
Joe and Devon looked at each other, in reluctance, and then squatted down and grabbed hold of Chuck. Slowly they dragged his corpulent body over, face-up, grunting as they struggled. The biggest problem was Chuck’s gut. He was a large man—tall and obese and big-boned—and so flipping him over was like flipping over a beach-stranded whale.
Scabby-faced Joe, always an asshole, smacked Chuck’s cheek a couple of times.
“Wake up, you fat-fuck,” he said.
I pushed him aside and knelt down beside Chuck, ruining my brand new pair of pants on the greasy floor. How many times had I told them to mop up when the morning rush was over? They always did the least they had to for their paychecks. No work ethic at all.
I pressed my ear to Chuck’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. By now his breathing was shallow, and his heartbeat faint. Being a manager, I had taken CPR and First Aid classes in the Spring. I never wanted to have to use what I had learned, especially not on someone who stank like Chuck did. It was not fair to me. Joe was a merciless asshole, but when he chose the nickname “Cheddar-Chuck” it stuck because it rang true. At the same time, Chuck didn’t smell like Cheddar; he smelled like mold and mildew and ammonia. Cat piss, in other words. He was always worse in the heat of Summer, and a hundred times worse in the sizzling heat of the grill area. Often I sent him to fetch things from the freezer downstairs, hoping it might cool him down and stop his sweating. It never worked for very long. Being this close to him, and checking his vitals, I felt nauseated and dizzy as my stomach churned and my head spun. I did not want to do CPR on him. Often I wore more perfume because of how bad McDougall’s stank in Summer, and how bad Chuck stank over it all.
“Andrea!” I shouted. “Is the ambulance on the way?”
Andrea popped up between the partition that separated the grill area from the front counter area. She looked like she was going to cry.
“The ambulence is on its way!” she shrieked, her eyes rimmed redly and her chest heaving toward hyperventilation. God, I hated working with teenagers. It reminded me of how much I hated myself at that age. Melodrama and histrionics. Everything was the end of the world for them.
I turned back to Chuck and saw, with alarm, that his face was blue now, almost gray, like a corpse. I knew I had to do something. Being a manager, I wondered if I could order Joe to give him mouth to mouth. I would have enjoyed the look on his face in any other circumstance, but I knew I was the manager, so, ultimately, I was responsible for whatever casualties we suffered throughout the day. I did not want to lose my job because a fat, stinky loner decided to die on my shift. My aspirations were to be a CEO someday. I was too driven in my career to be derailed by something like this. I worked sixty hours a week and went to night school, marching indomitably toward my business degree. It was often difficult, especially with whiny, lazy, and stupid teenagers under me. It was worse than corralling cats. At least with cats you could just pick each up and drop them where you wanted them to go. I couldn’t lay a hand on any of the teens, no matter how much I wanted to strangle them and drop them into a river.
That said, Chuck wasn’t a teenager. I didn’t honestly know how old he was. He had a cherub face and could have been anywhere from twenty to forty years old. He never talked about himself, and had worked at McDougall’s almost as long as I had. In a way, we were kin by merit of time spent in the franchise. Still, that did not change how disgusted he made me feel.
I swallowed hard. Chuck was dying and I did not know how long the ambulance would take to arrive here. Last time we had a medical emergency it took half an hour for the ambulance to arrive. Luckily, the old man had only pulled his chest muscles and was not having a heart attack. This was different though. Chuck was dying, and in doing so he was selfishly ruining my future. Why couldn’t he have waited until he was off-duty to keel over? Maybe at home, or at least down the street and out of sight.
And looking at Chuck now, I realized I never noticed how many warts arrayed around his fat, cherubic face. He was like a warthog, really. Very ugly, all in all. The warts were discolored and scabby, and round as mushrooms. It looked like he suffered from psoriasis, too. Perhaps if he had bathed himself properly he wouldn’t have so many skin problems, or his body odor problem. He disgusted me.
I took a few deep breaths, which only made things worse for me as I knelt over Chuck. I did not want to lose my job. I had too many bills to pay, and college tuition rose every year. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I palmed my forehead, massaging my face as I weighed my options. Who the fuck was I kidding? I had no options. Do or die…even if it made me want to upchuck.
Leaning over him, with my hands over his heart, I set myself into compressions. I don’t know how many I did, actually. I did not keep count. I probably did more than I should have, stalling for time while faced with the prospect of putting my mouth to his. Then again, I might have done the right amount. It really wore my shoulders out. It shouldn’t have, if I had done them right, but I was a little panicky at the thought of losing my job. Every year they changed the number of compressions and breaths, probably to justify the renewal fees each year. It was a good business model, I supposed, even if it irritated the hell out of me.
I hesitated when I thought it came time for the two breaths. A wave of nausea overcame me again and I swayed. I told myself to woman-up and do what I needed to do. It was part of being a manager, after all. And if I wanted to be a businesswoman I would have to steel myself in as many ways as humanly possible. So I took a deep breath, tilted Chuck’s head back to open his airway, clamped his nose, held his jaw open, and pressed my lips to his. For a moment I wondered if it was the first kiss from a woman Chuck had ever had. This ironic thought was obliterated as I breathed into his mouth, and tasted the stench of his innards. However awful he smelled on the outside, his halitosis was a thousand times worse. I gagged and retched, making gawp-mouthed vowel sounds that could give way to vomit at any moment. Nonetheless, I soldiered through and breathed again into that sewage grotto of his mouth. It was musty, like a cellar, and rank, like the cellar was full of dead rats. I coughed and gagged, feeling Chuck cough up into my own mouth as something vile and sour spurted against my tongue and throat.
Lurching to my feet with a frantic cry, I ran to the nearest garbage can, clamping a hand to my mouth as vomit hurled itself against my palm. Leaning over the garbage can, I sputtered as everything came hurling out, my gullet exploding with bile and half-digested food. Joe would have laughed at me in any other circumstance, but even that asshole kept his mouth shut as I returned to check on Chuck.
He was dead.

***

The paramedics tried to resuscitate Chuck using an AED. It was no use. They asked us if he had any allergies, but no one knew. He was fat and ate three egg burritos in the morning and two quarter pounders for lunch everyday. Heart disease, they concluded, with a shrug. The “American Illness.”
They carted him away. By that time we were so far behind on our orders that we rushed for two hours straight trying to catch up. I put Joe on the grill, and I took over his spot on the assembly line. By the time Bob came in to relieve me as manager for the night shift, I was dehydrated, sick, and pale.
“You need to take a day off,” he said, after I informed him of what happened.
“I’m fine,” I said, defiantly. Bob wanted my position as daytime manager. He tried to act like my friend all of the time, with his casual talk and stupid smile, but I knew there were no such things as friends. Only competitors.
It was as I was leaving that I noticed something in the corner, beside the grills. I walked over to it and bent over, finding a ring of keys in the coagulated grease.
“DAT ASS!” Joe exclaimed.
“Shut the fuck up, Joe,” Devon said.
I ignored both of them. I took the key ring and put it in my pocket. It belonged to Chuck. I could tell because it had a Sailor Moon figurine hanging from it. Maybe, I thought, I could give it to his family.

***

A week passed and a funeral was held for Chuck. I went to the graveyard, late in the evening. There was an old woman there, standing over the large pile of unsettled earth. When she saw me, she smiled. She was a small woman, withered and white-haired beneath a black hat.
“Charlie never did have nobody,” she observed. “I should have been there for him more often. But my health problems have never been good for socializing, even with my grandson.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. She looked me up and down. “How did you know Charlie?”
“I was his manager,” I said.
She nodded and stepped forward, hugging me. “I heard you tried to do right by him. Tried to save him. But there weren’t no saving him. Not Charlie. It’s all his momma’s fault, of course. My son, Charlie’s daddy, died of a heart attack, too. When he was young. Then that no-good woman remarried, not even a month later, to some other man. Moved out of state and never looked back. Been trying to call her, but the slut blocked me.”
I could only nod. Family drama was not something I had time or energy for; it was the reason I did not talk to my family anymore. They just weighed me down.
“Charlie never really had any friends,” his grandmother said. “I raised him, you know, after his daddy died. He liked cartoons. He liked video games. He liked food, too, like his daddy. But that was his only sin, God bless him. He kept to himself. But he worked, too, and I couldn’t fault him none for that. When he moved out I had hoped he would of found a life for himself. Now…now I just hope he’s found some peace.”
“I hope so, too,” I said, if only because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Were you his friend?” she asked, looking up at me shrewdly.
“He was a coworker,” I said. “He was a…a hard worker. Always arrived on time and never missed a day.”
It was my default remark for people of whom I had little else to say positive. I said the same thing about Joe, sometimes. He came to work, most of the time, though he came only because he liked to harass the girls in drive-thru, and because he thought he might be able to fuck me someday. Fat chance, that. I had a man in my life— why would I want a scab-faced, little scrub?
“Chuck never made any problems for anyone,” I concluded, diplomatically.
She smiled, appeased. “Yes, that was Charlie. Always working hard and doing what was right. He was a good boy.  A good man.”
She wiped a few tears from her eyes and I looked away, feeling embarrassed and awkward. I never knew how to handle this emotional stuff. Emotions got in the way, I often noticed. Emotions had no business in a businesswoman’s life. I looked toward my car, parked to the side of the road that cut through the graveyard. I was anxious to leave. I was a busy woman; an aspiring businesswoman.
“Oh!” I said, suddenly remembering. “I almost forgot.” My hand rummaged through the pocket of my pantsuit, finding the key ring. I held it out to Chuck’s grandmother. “I found this at work. It’s Chuck’s, isn’t it?”
She raised a hand to take the ring, but then withdrew it. “I couldn’t go there,” she said. “Not right now. My health isn’t very good. I hate to bother you, Miss, but do you think you could just go ahead and give that to Charlie’s landlord? I know it’s a burden, but I just don’t think I could deal with it right now. He’d ask me to move Charlie’s things out, and I just couldn’t do it by myself, and I don’t think I’d want to see his things. You could just drop it off at his apartment building. It’s on Basswood Road, Apartment number…what was it? Number 230.”
I felt misused suddenly, and very irritable. I should have refused, because it would have been my best interest, but the old lady looked very pitiful, and so I felt guilty. Guilt was a moral failing. I would not be able to feel guilt as a CEO, I told myself. Still, my hand dropped the key ring in my pocket again. I told myself I wouldn’t make a scene, but I also wouldn’t go to his apartment and drop the key off. I didn’t have the time. Let the landlord deal with it. He had an extra key, anyway, if he was a responsible businessman.
“I have to go,” I said. “Sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, dear,” the old woman said. She turned toward the unsettled earth again, praying while I walked back to my car.

***

I started to suffer a cough. It came on occasionally, whether at work or at home. It was a light allergy cough, it seemed, and then it became more of a deep-chested, painful cough that rattled my throat. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor, though, so I just medicated myself with cough syrup and antihistamine pills. Intermittently I would feel nauseated and dizzy. I would have thought myself pregnant if not for the fact that my boyfriend and I were not having sex that much, and when we did we were extremely careful with condoms and birth control pills. He went on frequent business trips, too, which meant we spent a lot of time apart. He worked as a hardware salesman for a tech company. It was one of the reasons I respected him so much. Love did not enter the equation; it was all about future prospects, compatibility, and synergy; like any good Corporate merger. Still, I missed him a lot when he was out of town. Much of the time I had only the teenagers at work and the weirdos at night school around me, and I felt their presence and attitudes surrounding me like an infectious miasma of mediocrity and idiocy. Michael, my boyfriend, was so professional and savvy, and I liked to think that his professionalism rubbed off on me, innuring me to the effects of the parasites that frequently surrounded me.
I called my boyfriend the next week, while he was staying in Vancouver for a tech summit. He sounded busy. He always sounded busy while out on his business trips. That was why they were business trips.
“Hello?” he said, his voice slightly tinged with irritation.
“Hey,” I said. “Just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine,” he said flatly.
“That’s good,” I said. “How are things in Vancouver?”
“Fine,” he said. “Listen, Elle, I have to go. I have an important business meeting in a few minutes. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “So you’re making good business contacts at the summit?”
“Yes,” he said. “Really good contacts.”
“Okay,” I said. “Um. See you when you get back.”
“Sure, Elle,” he said.
He hung up. My man was doing well. I could tell. He was too busy to talk. He was in the zone. One day I called him at work, while on break, and when I hung up Andrea, who was also taking her break, asked me why I didn’t tell him I loved him. We were not that type of people. We did not “love” like in the movies. We were a mutual venture together. We were a partnership, albeit not necessarily a platonic kind. We had sex, and we sometimes watched tv together, but neither of us had pretensions about feelings. Life was a survival game, an enterprise and a franchise. We would not be embarking on the “ultimate” franchise, children, but we would be conquering the business world together. That was what I told myself I most wanted in a life partner.

***

That night it rained. My breathing became worse as I left the community college campus, holding my umbrella and fast-walking to my car to get home so I could write a paper I had due the next day (which I had forgotten about). I felt over-exerted, as if I had ran a marathon, and sat in my car, coughing and trying to catch my breath. I gagged for a moment, sounding like a cat coughing up a hairball, and something exploded wetly against my upraised hand. Turning on the light, I expecting phlegm. Instead, there was a grayish mucus splattered all over my fingers and palm. Wiping it up with a napkin, I felt horrified. I knew I needed to go to the doctor and so when I arrived home I called Melinda and asked her if she could switch shifts with me the next day so I could go to the doctor in the morning. Melinda was a twenty-something, like me, but her resting bitch-face and grouchy attitude always made me think she was in her fifties. She was happy to switch with me because it meant she would have Friday night off. I doubted she actually partied or had a date lined up, but maybe it pleased her to think she could have either going for her on a Friday night.
That night I slept in fits, coughing and hacking up the grayish mucus. Friday morning, I went to the doctor’s office. By then, however, the rain had stopped, and the sun had come out, and I was no longer spitting up the gray mucus. The doctor— an old man with a perpetual scowl— examined me and said I had allergies. He wrote a prescription for expensive allergy medicine. He also noticed a place on my chest that I had not seen: a ring of scabby discoloration just above my right breast. Examining it, through his thick glasses, he diagnosed it as ringworm and gave me prescription for that, too.
My insurance covered most of the expenses and I took my medication before going to work that night. I was relieved to think my condition was diagnosed and, hopefully, soon to be mended. I did not want to miss work or school. My ambitions had no time for any health complications.

***

I woke up the next day with my eyes sealed shut. For a moment I panicked, rubbing my eyelids frantically with my fingertips. I could feel a hard, crusted substance along the raven-wings of my eyelashes, solidifying like mortar between bricks. Painfully, I scraped the thick crust away until I could see. My vision was blurry, though, and I went to the bathroom to find out what was wrong. I told myself it was just grogginess— that my eyes hadn’t focused since waking up—but when I turned on the light in the bathroom a sudden burning ache flared in my eyes. Squinting through the pain, I saw my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot, the flesh lining the socket inflamed, and a yellow pus was leaking out of my tear ducts. It had to be an eye infection. But I had just gone to the doctor! If only this infection had shown itself yesterday, then I could have gotten treatment for it. As it was, I didn’t have time to go again. I took my allergy medicine, then went to the store and bought an over-the-counter eyedrop medication. It was not antibacterial, but it was good enough to clear my eyes of most of the redness, even if the puffiness remained, and the pain of seeing in light worsened. I bought a pair of sunglasses, also, and wore them throughout the workday. Joe, being the asshole he was, kept saying I was hungover. I wished he wasn’t a part of that school-to-work program. How the hell did he have the grades to sustain his daytime job and his schoolwork? Devon, I could understand, but not Joe. Maybe he was a dropout. I wouldn’t have been surprised. I wasn’t the one that hired him, although I sure wanted to be the one to fire him. The problem was that he worked well enough, and never missed any days. And we were always short on help at McDougall’s.
At one point I tried to take the sunglasses off, but the lights inside the restaurant burned like freshly cooked, salted fries pressed against my eyeballs. What the hell was wrong with me?

***

Work became tough after Chuck’s death; not because he had died and I missed him there— quite the opposite, in fact, since it did not stink so badly as when he was there—but because we were now undermanned on dayshift. Joe was worse than ever, consequently. He felt free to say whatever he wanted to me and the rest of the girls because he knew I couldn’t afford to fire him. Even Devon lost his patience with him. I had to separate them more than once before they came to blows. Drama was too damn high now, and I had no interest as a stage director.
And hiring new employees was only a temporary solution. The new hires quit within a couple of days. None of them wanted to work the grill. It was hot and it spat scalding grease and it was hard work scraping the grill clean between cooking burgers. But I did it when I had first started. I had the red scars on my knuckles to prove it. They just had no ambitions. That was the problem with a lot of people. Lazy and unmotivated and ungrateful for a chance. Fucking parasites.

***

I went home each night feeling more drained and miserable than before. My cough became worse, racking my body and sloshing my brain about in my skull. I slept more and more each night, sometimes oversleeping and having to rush to work to help with Opening. Michael wasn’t home from Vancouver yet, and didn’t call very often. I would have called him, but last time I did I interrupted one of his important meetings. He was very peevish with me after that and so I didn’t want to be a bother. I didn’t want to seem clingy, or even emotional. Emotions were a weakness in a partnership.

***

It was all a disaster. They suspended me at work, without pay, and they were mulling over whether they would terminate me. I did not know what to expect from Corporate. And what was worse was that it was all completely avoidable. Joe and Devon got into another argument while I was helping in Drive-Thru. It was some stupid argument over who should be responsible for throwing pickles on the hamburgers. It was petty and trivial and unprofessional. Anyway, push came to shove and Joe tried to punch Devon. Devon was a boxer, evidently, and blocked the punch. But instead of just letting the altercation go, Devon threw a punch, too, and knocked Joe backwards. It was rush-hour at the time and I didn’t see how it transpired, but Matt saw it from the deep fryer. He said Joe staggered backwards and slipped on some grease and spun around to try to catch himself, landing face-first on the corner of the grill. He suffered third-degree burns. Almost melted his face off, from what I could see from behind my sunglasses. It did not help his ugly face at all. Sorry, but it was hard to feel compassion towards the little shit. It was his own fault, anyway. I may not believe in karma, but cause and effect are real things, as are idiots and consequences.
And there were a lot of consequences from that idiot.
Since I was the manager on duty, Corporate had decided to send their army of lawyers into the case and determine what the legal ramifications could be and whether my severance might save them money in the long run. By “severance” I mean severing and skewering my head for public display to ward off a potential lawsuit and PR catastrophe. Joe and Devon were both seventeen years old, working there on the school-to-work program. I was the adult responsible for their safety, at least in the eyes of the Corporate executioners.
I had nothing to do but stay at my apartment and wait for the guillotine to drop. Michael had been sent on another business trip right after his Vancouver summit, back-to-back, and would not be home, he said, for three more weeks. This time he went to Montreal. He never had much time to talk whenever I called him, and his text messages came in tersely-worded trickles. I felt isolated and alone, unmoored from anything that kept me anchored; and the world was a violent, drunken storm. Or some such melodrama. I became a homebody in the meantime, staying cooped up all day every day, only going out at night for groceries. I kept the window curtains drawn and most of the lights off in my apartment. I never looked outside at daylight unless I had to. Even moderate light hurt my eyes. I wondered if my cataracts had gotten worse. I went to the doctor and he said I had a fungal infection, and gave me some antibiotics. The pain subsided, but the vision impairment only became worse. My skin itched incessantly, and the rings of scabby tissue multiplied, cracking and spreading like vengeful psoriasis.

***

It was the week of my period and I did not feel well. I was as anemic as an inbred aristocrat that was her own aunt. Normally my periods were light, since I took birth control, but this week was heavy and debilitating. My flow was darker than usual, almost black, and while it never smelled like roses it had a worse odor than usual. I started to believe I had an infection down there, too, since it burned so badly. Just when I was about to go to the doctor, however, Corporate dropped the blade and my head went rolling. I lost my job. I lost my steady income and I also lost my health insurance. Rent was due soon, too, as was my car payment. Because I went to night school I had little savings for anything beyond next month’s rent. When I tried to call Michael I got his voicemail. I texted him what had happened, and told him I needed money, but he only texted back a cool response:

“We will discuss it when I return.”

He would not answer my repeated phone calls and did not seem to care about the Medical Emergency texts I sent him. And while I didn’t believe in bad luck, this seemed like the perfect storm of converging problems.

***

My symptoms grew worse. For some reason my mind kept returning to the day that I gave Chuck mouth-to-mouth. I wondered, in my paranoia, if I had contracted something from him. I sat on this paranoia for a while, but then it became too strong and forceful. I became anxious, my anxiety growing alongside my illness. Finally, having nothing else to do, I decided to investigate the problem at its source.
I drove to Basswood Drive, looking for the apartment complex that Chuck’s grandmother had told me about. I did not expect much of an apartment for someone living on McDougall wages, but even with that in mind his neighborhood was a dump. It was an apartment complex beside the railroad tracks, shaken occasionally by the passing train. The cars parked outside the two-storey building ranged from rusty jalopies to pristine sports cars that made you wonder how someone living in such a rundown neighborhood could afford such flashy rides. Chuck did not own a car. He had walked to work everyday, which had only made his odor problem worse. Even on the coldest mornings he came in soaked in sweat and reeking of that soured-sweet smell of mildew and repellent body musk. Often his smell overpowered the heavy grease smells of the grill area. Since I was a manager I had to handle it when everyone complained. I bought him a very strong bar of deodorant and gave it to him, half-expecting him to lose his temper and throw it in the garbage can. Instead, he nodded lugubriously and went into the bathroom to apply it. It had done little good in fumigating his stench. His smell was like an aura permeating the air all around him. It ignored the deodorant’s best efforts. I didn’t know at the time if his stench was a result of bad hygiene and self-neglect or a medical problem. The truth was that I didn’t give it much thought other than as an annoyingly persistent defect on his part.
Everyone on the McDougall’s daytime crew knew it was only a matter of time before obesity killed Chuck. None of us expected it so soon, though. His obituary claimed he was only twenty-eight years old. He was a good worker, I realized, even with his odor problem. Then again, it was very inconsiderate of him to subject the rest of us to his stench. Perhaps he had had a medical condition; perhaps that was what eventually killed him. The paramedics claimed it was a heart-attack, and maybe it was, but maybe it was triggered by some undiagnosed, underlying condition. If so, maybe it was contagious.
Behind the apartment complex was a woods. I couldn’t see far into it, and had never been to this side of town before, so I did not know how far it spread out along the railroad tracks. I knew there used to be a small park with a slide and swings for kids, but the city closed it when they started finding used syringes near the gazebo. There was a huge hullabaloo about it in the newspaper a few months ago.
I pulled into the parking lot and idled with the air conditioner on. It was a hot Summer day and the heat made my cough worse. Only cold air seemed to allay it. I really, really hoped I hadn’t contracted a disease from Chuck.
Feeling suddenly lonely and depressed, I called Michael. The phone rang three times before it went to voicemail. I waited a minute and called again. It went to voicemail on the second ring. I waited for the beep and left a message, speaking into that static-eaten voice that lay between us.  Irrationally, pathetically, I felt the strong need for a hug. I detested such a desire even as I sighed and wrapped my arms around myself. Another fit of coughs shook me like a ragdoll in my seat, so I turned off the car and got out, scanning the numbers over the apartment doors. From one end to the other I walked, looking for the right door. I then walked the other way. I could not find Chuck’s apartment. Confused, I frowned and wondered if I had misremembered what his grandmother had said.
“What’re ya’ lookin’ for?”
I turned to see a man seemingly stepping out from shadows into midday daylight. He was skinny and greasy with sweat, his Confederate battleflag wife-beater soaked through and he had a black mullet and tacky pornstache.
“Needin’ some weed?” he asked. “Maybe somethin’…stronger?”
“No,” I said. “I’m looking for Charlie Blanford’s apartment. He goes…went by ‘Chuck’.”
The man slunk up to me like a side-saddling crab. “What was his door number?”
I told him while he leered, boldly, at my breasts in my pantsuit. I crossed my arms over my chest and turned sideways, away from him, and he looked at my butt instead, his eyes up and down my contours as if fondling me with his gaze. I got enough of that at work from Joe. Actually, I wondered if this sleazeball and Joe were related. They both had that same inbred, blueblood skin, and creepy slug-eyed leer.
He smirked. “I see yer problem. He was that boy that lived in the basement.” He chortled, a squealing pig snort that sounded as if his pea-sized brain had slipped out and become lodged in his nasal cavity.
“Where’s the door, then?” I asked impatiently.
“Follow me, Missy, and I’ll show you.”
Instead of walking in front of me, he walked behind me, telling me where to go while he stared at my ass along the way. We went around the complex and into the marshy, waterlogged backyard. There was a set of concrete stairs that descended down alongside the cinderblock foundation. A dirty, windowless door stood at the bottom of the stairs, stained with a green floodwater mark. Even now a quarter inch of water had settled there, in the cool shade, away from the sun; stagnant and dirty and full of dead insects.
I began my descent. The country-fried redneck started down after me. I paused.
“Thanks for your help,” I said, hoping he would take the hint to leave.
“No problem, baby,” he said. He adjusted his crotch while I was at head-level. I averted my eyes and I took another step down. When he did the same, I lost my temper.
“I am here because Chuck died,” I said. “I am…was…his manager. His grandmother sent me to see to his things. This is a personal matter.”
“Oh, I understand,” he said, his lecherous pornstache clinging to his face like a leech on a scrotum. “I’ll let you do what you need to do.”
I walked down the rest of the steps in a rush, unlocking the door and slamming it in his face. I locked the door again, before I even groped for a light switch amidst that moldy, catacomb darkness. I could feel water soaking through my shoes and into my socks. It splashed and lapped with each step. As my hands scoured the walls for a light switch I could feel the cinderblock riddled with a veiny, scabby, flaky substance. It felt scaley, too, and moist.
The smell was awful.
Behind me, I heard the redneck try the door knob. He was a persistent creep, but after a few futile twists of the knob he cussed and walked upstairs, leaving me alone. I suspected he would be waiting for me when I left, lingering up at the top of the stairs.
It was very dark in the basement, so I took off my sunglasses and, finally feeling the light switch, flipped it on. A couple of lightbulbs flickered to life, their pale glow illuminating the derelict basement palace that belonged to “Cheddar-Chuck”. There was a couch in the middle of the large room. It was discolored and rank, seated in front of an old television and dvd player, both of which stood atop several cardboard boxes stacked atop one another. The carpet was mushy with water, like marshland, and discolored like the couch; brown, gray, black beneath the water. I sloshed through the pool of water, following the two lights that were strung up on hooks that had been affixed onto the foundation pillars that supported the rest of the apartment complex above. The majority of the basement was just one large living room with a kitchenette in the corner. The latter had a sink full of dirty dishes, a microwave oven, and a refrigerator. The sink was overflowing with water, gushing onto the floor. Despite the light, the walls were black with shadows and mildew, scabbed over like leprous flesh. The basement was very hot and humid, laboring my lungs with its stale, stagnant, and balmy air. There were two plug-in heaters, each one standing perilously atop their own stacks of damp cardboard boxes. Their insistent heat intensified the stench.
None of this made any sense to me. It was a waste of water and electricity. As I wandered deeper into the dimly-lit living space I discovered the bathroom— partitioned with a mildewy shower curtain— and found that the bathtub’s water was on and overflowing onto the floor, too.
Chuck had really given up on life, it seemed to me, long before he had died. It was sad, or would have been if I had let my emotions get the better of me. Maybe he was depressed. Maybe he was lonely down here. Then again, maybe he liked the solitude. He couldn’t have liked the scenery much. There were no windows at all and the dim lightbulbs did little more than accent the darkness with a hinting ghost-glow of illumination. I took out my cellphone and turned on its flashlight to see where I was going. The bathroom stank worse than the living room, so I turned away from it and returned to the living room.
I could smell cat piss beneath the sweet-decay stench of mildew, but I couldn’t find any cats. I thought I heard something toward the back of the basement, and spun around too quickly, knocking over a lamp with my butt. It fell and broke in the water. Luckily, it wasn’t plugged in, or else I would have been electrocuted. It was as I picked up the lamp that I found a heap next to the couch. I shined my cellphone light on it. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. My brain told my eyes it was a scoopful of earth with dandelions sprouting all over it. When my eyes and brain finally figured the morbid enigma out, I screamed involuntarily and staggered back, hands on knees, bent over and retching. It was a dead cat: old, mangy, subsumed by cobwebbed mold as the feline bloated and decayed in the water. The “dandelions” were fungal spheres, spores ready to bloom into airborne motes.
I saw more cats around the basement’s bowels, now, recognizing them for what they were. Each had grown its own garden of fungi upon their inert bodies. For a moment I thought I saw a cat move, but told myself it was just the lapping of water against its limp tail.
I didn’t know what I expected to find, and had found more than I wanted. But before I could leave my eye alighted on some other strange remainder of Chuck’s stagnant life. There was a makeshift partition of waterstained drywood near the kitchenette. It was a crudely constructed room within the basement, and it had a single door leading into it. The door was closed and blank-faced except for mildew and water stains. I tried the knob and found it locked. Taking the keyring out again I tried one key, then the other. The second key worked and the door opened slowly, creaking on its rusted hinges. The interior of the room was utter shadow; impenetrably black. I raised my cellphone to tunnel into that darkness.
The stench of the basement was concentrated here, like the breath of a graveyard in an ancient, undrained swamp. A wave of mildew and mold and decaying vegetables and ammonia struck me so hard I staggered. I steadied myself with my free hand on the door frame. Gagging and coughing, I turned away. But then I heard what sounded like a sigh. Turning around once more, I raised my cellphone and scraped away the shadows with a swipe of its light. Involuntarily, I moaned in horror.
Listen: I wanted to become a businesswoman. I wanted to be my own boss. That was my dream. CEO supreme. Corporate Queen. Prime Mover. It was a lonely seat of power, and faraway presently, but I wanted it no matter how tough a job it was. I was willing to be an island, self-reliant and a castle envied by every petty, backstabbing person below me. A fortress of solitude. I could do that, I told myself everyday. I would strive that way, like Ayn Rand, or Margaret Thatcher. An Iron Lady. Unto myself, independent from all. A tower against the mightiest storms, standing tall and proud and always defiant.
Yet, even as strong as I thought I was, a panic overtook me and I flung myself into a dash out of that stifling, mildewy, shadow-drenched, and waterlogged place. I felt the mold and the mildew suddenly growing, like an organism, in my lungs, and I could see it conquering my wind bags, inch by inch, inside and out, soon spreading through my entire body until I was nothing but a fungus-fleeced half-corpse. Like those cats. Like that thing spread upon the bed. A thing that Chuck, in his loneliness, found and cared for while in its silent stagnation.
I ran through the door, nearly slipping and falling in the basement’s water. Unlocking it, I rushed upstairs, nearly collapsing with fatigue and fear and infection. The country-fried sleazeball was up there, waiting for me, but when he saw me— and saw whatever illness was taking me—his eyes boggled and he swore.
“Christ Almighty!”
He ran away in a frenetic, fear-sprawled scramble.
I crawled to my car and, eventually, drove myself home.

***

I wanted to call someone, as I lay in my bedroom, overcome with fatigue and sadness and depression. But I did not know who to call. I had no friends to call— only coworkers. Only competitors. After several hours of slipping in and out of consciousness, I called Michael. Someone answered, but it was not Michael.
“Hello?” she said, her voice young and perky.
I struggled to make my tongue work. I did not know if it was the sickness or the emotions I felt.
“Michael?” I whispered, my throat feeling as if it was flaking apart.
“Somebody wants you,” the young woman said. There was a fumbling noise, and Michael sighed dejectedly.
“Michael?” I whispered again. My voice sounded like wind through wet, dead leaves.
“Christ,” he whispered. He then spoke more firmly into the phone. “Hey, babe, what’s going on?”
I wanted to tell him I was dying, and I needed help, and that he was a selfish bastard, and that I hoped he would feel guilty when I died. Instead my mouth said, weakly, “It’s three in the morning.”
He cleared his throat, and I heard the woman laugh drunkenly in the background.
“It’s a different time zone,” he said, defensively. “I am having a business meeting. It’s ten o clock here.”
My head, and my heart, hurt too much to think whether that was how the time zones worked or not. Instead, I let the phone fall onto the wet, fetid bed and laid back on my pillows. My eyes were leaking, but I was not crying. I was too tired and hurt and depressed to cry. I felt hollow, and hollowing. I closed my wet eyes and let the gray pus seal them forever.

***

Chuck had been too obese to be a home for it. The stress of the loneliness and isolation was too much for his cholesterol-clogged arteries and fat-choked heart. Heat from the grills only made it worse. He often wore sunglasses indoors, while at work. I thought it was to keep the steam from the grill out of his eyes. I might have thought he was concealing pupils dilated from drugs, but the truth was that I did not care as long as he showed up for work. No one was anything to me but a worker. I wasn’t anything to anyone but a manager.
And now I was nothing.

***

I can’t see anymore. My eyes are sealed shut. Even so, my apartment is utter shadow. I cannot hear, either, except for the occasional dripping of water from my bathroom. My body cannot move. I no longer cough. Air enters through it. It helps me breathe. It keeps me half-alive, and keeps me half-dead.
I used to sneer at people who needed to go to psychiatrists. I used to mock women who said they were the victims and were oppressed. It never seemed to me that I was oppressed or a victim. But now I do believe oppression exists, and the oppressor is Life. But soon…soon it won’t oppress me anymore. The sweet surrender is nearing now. I am so tired of the rat race. So tired of the competition. Now I just want to let go. Life has held me too long as a slave. I was such a fool for not realizing it before. To live is to suffer. We are enthralled to an abuser, and we make reasons to love our abuser. But now the loneliness will end. The pain and the sadness will subside. You can’t be lonely if you have it inside your mind, always there; always whispering. And it does whisper to me, as it grows throughout my body. It tells me how contented I will be when it has fully bonded with me. We will set each other free in a great sigh of contentment.
I am so sad and lonely now. Depressed. I don’t feel like moving, or even thinking. I just want to lay here, like that thing I found in Chuck’s bedroom, half-decayed into the bed, and half-eaten up with fungus. Let me waste in the dark. Let me dissolve into nothing. Maybe if Michael finds me here he’ll be sorry. Maybe he will feel bad for having treated me so badly. Maybe he will feel something; anything at all. Or not. I don’t care. Emotions are burdens. I don’t want them anymore. I just want the shadows, and the balmy air, saturated with moisture, and the stagnated silence. Like a mushroom in the dark, I just want to be left alone.

Ashes, Echoes, And Empires Part 1

The loch breathed its mists up the staggered granite spine of the crumbling castle, darkening the gray stones with its clammy serpent breath. From a distance the fog seemed to be as smoke, and in the smouldering blaze of dawn the ruinous castle seemed almost afire, as it had been a century ago when the warlord Dundan Und Gadden laid siege to that ancestral home of Duke Loengel with trebuchets, pyromancers, and their horde of pet wyrms. Now, the half-toppled castle was home to little more than bats and starlings, the occasional grazing sheep wandering in among the fallen stones where the magical fire had enriched the soil to grow abundant grasses, and, of course, the ghosts of that fateful night, echoing onward with silent screams bemoaning their slaughter. No one set foot in among the ruins for fear of the ghosts. A wise shepherd was wary whenever he had to fetch a sheep, too, and oftentimes would let it find its destiny however the destiny was written, lest he, too, disappear from the living world.
Yet, the bard Arnady de Clain, was most welcome wherever he had gone in life to ply his lute strings. Whether ancient kingdom or burgeoning town, he was a musician with a talent for enchanting his way into the graces of many people, and even animals and other such creatures. So he thought—as he traveled by foot along the glens and glades and heaths of the Northerlands—that he would be no less welcome among the dead as among the living.
Arnady was a handsome man, for a man without ample riches, and though not wealthy in gold or silver he had a golden touch for any stringed instrument and a silver voice for any style of song. His gift for song was a double-edged sword at times, however, and while it earned him a stay among many halls, it also earned him the occasional stay in a dungeon, though never for too terribly long a time.
Nor was Arnady naive. Life on the road quickly killed all naivete about the world, if it did not kill the traveler first. He had come to Castle Loengel to compose a new dirge and thought the castle and the loch would be the perfect distillers of mood for the melancholic song he aspired to compose. The castle was dark, brooding, had a keenly sorrowful history and was, most importantly, haunted. If he could channel the spirits—if only as inspiration and not literally as their conduit upon the carnal plane—then he might write something in honor of their woes. As a rule, Arnady never wrote songs to dishonor the dead unless they had been, during their lives, dishonorable; nor was it due to superstition or fear of the “Evil Eye”. Rather, he just felt that it was underserved and morally unseemly. And a bard, he knew, had to assume the moral high ground, otherwise it would taint the Art with hypocrisy. To write a mocking ballad about an evil king who had fallen off the balcony of his tallest tower was fine, if not divine, but to speak derisively of the victims of history was to fail as a bard.
As the sun rose, Arnady sat upon a granite stone the size of a boar. Its back was softened by green moss. He began strumming his lute to various chords and singing patches of words and images that came to the fore of his thoughts as he gazed upon the castle. He always worked a song into being this way, combining word and melody together, augmenting and reconciling them in many turns and variations. As a distinguished bard, he knew that word and melody had to find their natural union, as two lovers must when making love for the first time.
It was this compositional method that made it necessary that each song that Arnady wrote had to be performed in an exact melody of instrument and cadence of voice, matching to a precise rhythm, otherwise the whole song would come apart in its meticulous particulars. His songs were deceptively complex, using as much restraint and space of silence as strumming chords and mellifluous verses. It was the same as weaving a complex tapestry in that the weave and the waft had to be properly aligned, otherwise the intricacies of its images and scheme would dissolve into amateurish shoddiness. A unicorn would look like a goat; a lion like a Pomeranian.
And so he dabbled with word and fiddled with melody for hours, sitting atop his mossy stone with a modest oak tree reaching over him like a mother draping its shadow over her child to tuck him into bed.

“By loch, by lay,
by sun, by day,
the grief doth flow
as a salty brook,
the ancient woe
of each proud rook
now overturned
by enmity;
one and all burned
without hope or pity…”

He paused a moment to remember the exact wording and melody of the next passage.

“…as stones shattered
and battle raged on,
the men scattered
from a bloody dawn.
There rose a pyre
and many perished—
Loengel’s sire
lost all he cherished…”

It was around noon and Arnady set aside his lute in favor of his wheel of cheese and hardtack. He uncovered the cloth from the wheel and, using a deceptively sharp knife, sliced a wedge to put on his bread. To this meager lunch he added a small sliver of salted ham and washed it down with a flask of mulberry wine. As he ate he occasionally mouthed new verses to his burgeoning ballad. When he saw the man approach him, he cut another piece from his wheel of cheese and, as the man came within arm’s distance, he offered the man the slice. Yet, Arnady kept the knife tightly in hand should the man aspire beyond the proffered piece of cheese.
“Thank you kindly,” the stranger said, taking the piece of cheese. He chewed it with what remained of his teeth and nodded in appreciation. He wore what appeared to be a shepherd’s frock—a simple drape of wool. Otherwise he was bare of skin, bare of foot, and, if not for the remaining curls of gray hair, bare of scalp. “I was not expecting hospitality. I only came over here to see if you were real, or if you were one of those ghosts.”
“Real enough,” the bard said, relaxing his grip on his knife.
“You never know in this place,” the shepherd said. His eyes scanned the ruins sprawling out behind them, lazing in the loch and on the heath. His age was indeterminate, for hard labor and weather had aged him prematurely, and he had a whittled jaw dotted in dark stubble. Half of his teeth were missing. “Spirits conspire here. You would do best to leave soon before they start rising. Sometimes at night you can hear voices and see torches burning in the dark, only to go out with the silence. They may be ghosts. They may be will o’ the wisps. They may be something worse. Whatever they are, they are trouble.”
“I will be cautious,” the bard said.
The man shook his head, his weathered hands on his hips, elbows akimbo. “Lost three sheep to this place. A friend of mine lost a good dog. Things go missing here, and I would hate for someone generous with his cheese to go missing, too.”
“I do not fear ghosts,” the bard said.
“It’s not a matter of fearing them,” the shepherd said, raising his hands, palms up, as if beseeching spirits to lend him aid in convincing a fool. “Grass doesn’t fear sheep, but it still gets eaten. Do not plant yourself where bad things can happen to you.”
Arnady laughed, not unkindly. “That is the shepherd wisdom I always appreciate. Perhaps I shall include your words in a new song.”
“You are a singer?” the shepherd said. His eyes went to the lute. “You play music, too?”
“When I am of a heart to,” the bard said, trying not to smile. He knew that the shepherd knew before approaching him that he could sing and play music. It was not so much a lie or a false premise on the shepherd’s part, but countryside etiquette—the easing of an outsider into introductions, in their own time, and disclosures through a pretense of unassertive ignorance. It was not manipulation, but self-defense, and it was justified. The bard always exercised caution in the same way himself when meeting people of potential harm; only, he did so with greater finesse.
“I know I have taken some of your cheese,” the shepherd said, “but could you be so gracious as to play something for me? My wife would love to hear a song…if you would.”
What he really said, beneath his words, was “If you are really a bard like you say you are.”
“I always enjoy entertaining guests,” Arnady said.
The man nodded. “I have a barrel of chicory beer I’ve been meaning to open for a special occasion,” he continued. “If you came to our humble home we could give you a blanket and let you sleep beneath our roof.”
“That sounds an excellent idea,” Arnady said, not really caring for beer, but always caring about manners. “But I must stay here tonight and…well, channel the spirits of this place. I know it seems a risk, but such are all ventures worth the risk.”
Before the shepherd could argue, the bard took up his lute and strummed the scene to silence with a single stroke. This silence established, he filled it with an old shepherd song, and whatever argument the shepherd was forming in his mind was overcome by the awe of the song he heard and felt.

“Flock of clouds, flock of sheep,
where hills rise and valleys sleep,
there came a man with a cane
cut from oak, weathered by rain,
and where he walked the flocks followed,
his silence vast, his silence hollowed
until the air seemed too loud a thing
in its breeze and butterfly wing…”

“That…that was a fine thing,” the shepherd said, after a long moment of silence. He nodded in agreement with himself. “I must see to my sheep, friend. Thank you for your song. And your cheese.”
He left abruptly, disappearing over the heath and down into a nearby valley. In that valley Arnady had seen the small village as he passed earlier that morning. It was a loose collection of stone huts and timber barns and pens. What the villagers lacked in wealth and luxury they were compensated by simple lives in a small corner of the world, mostly unobserved by greater forces and threats. It reminded Arnady of an axiom of one of those minor houses: “Head down without a crown, or head tall soon to fall.”
It was strange to think that the Loengels ruled here for so long only to be toppled, and then the warlord was himself victim to his own incessant need for war, thus undoing himself with the impulses and schemes that had raised him so high. Duke Loengel and warlord Gadden were both tyrants with two different touches; the former a soft fingertip’s pluck and the latter a hard-strumming swipe. Both were gone now and the small people who survived in their absences thrived…at least until the next conqueror should drag his shadow across their land. Arnady wondered what kind of a man he would have been had he not music to conquer hearts and earn his bread. Perhaps he would have been a tyrant himself, of either touch. Perhaps he would have been a simple shepherd, happy to never know of castles and kings except as crumbling stones and dusty bones.
Arnady was content to add to his song and refine it for as long as there was daylight. But he had to fetch water from the loch, boil it and pour it into his water flask. So he took his tin kettle to the crystalline lake and filled it. As he stooped and scooped he thought he glimpsed someone standing in the water, in his peripheries. When he turned to look at them directly, they were gone. People claimed that a boy’s ghost stood in the loch at the coming of twilight, and if you stared long enough his reflection would reach across the smooth pane of water and touch you as the warlord had touched him—strangling you helplessly in the darkening gloom. But it was not twilight, and more importantly, Arnady did not fear ghosts.
He brought his water tin back to his sitting stone. He gradually boiled the water over a small fire. He had learned of the importance of boiling water from a hydromancy healer in the Eostrelands after he had nearly died after drinking from a dubious brook. The healer nursed him back to health, and for her troubles he gave her a song, and his heart, for a time. They tested his recuperation every night for a month until he left one morning, fearful of returning to that small village lest he stay there forever.
It was at the decline of the Summer’s sun that the shepherd returned, accompanied by a hard-looking, lean woman of roughly the same years as himself— presumably his wife—and a younger woman, smiling as only a country girl can who has spent her life around her family and no one else. She had seen no more than twenty winters, and was handsome in her own way, with plaited brown hair which her mother no doubt prepared while she stirred the pot of stew they currently carried between them, shouldered with a thick stick. The shepherd carried a barrel of what Arnady presumed to be his chicory beer.
“What a fine banquet,” the bard remarked. “And here I thought I would have to settle for stone soup.”
“You can eat your fill in this soup,” the shepherd said, “and have all the beer your belly can carry. We have already eaten, and we would be poor neighbors if we did not share our blessings.”
The two women set the steaming pot in front of Arnady, then gave him a wooden spoon, which he accepted with many thanks.
“It is deserving of a king,” he said. “And many more kings would never deserve such hospitality.”
The two women bowed to him and retreated behind the shepherd. The shepherd set down the small barrel of beer and, using a hammer and chisel, cracked open its top. He produced a ceramic cup and dipped it into the beer, bringing up a dark brown liquid which he handed to Arnady. Arnady took a sip of the beer, finding it very bitter—bitter as the winds that blew down from the ice-capped mountains and across the shivering loch—but pretended an appreciative smile.
Their meal served, the family retired a few yards away, letting the bard eat in peace. The shepherd and his wife did not look at him while he ate, but the young woman’s gaze wandered to him intermittently, lingering with curious abandon. When he had finished the hearty mutton stew, the small family returned promptly to prepare for their return home. Of course, Arnady knew people, being a bard and a traveler, and he knew what they wanted; and he never declined anyone wanting a song or two. This was all merely rural theatrics. Their humility, and their pride, would not allow them to ask expressly for a song—no, never these humble-proud people in their roughspun wool frocks.
“Before you leave,” he said, “please let me share a song with you.”
The shepherd and his wife were slow in reply, but their daughter was quick to plop down in front of the bard, eagerly awaiting the true purpose of their hospitality.
Arnady took up his lute and strummed once across the strings with his fluttering fingers, letting the notes provoke the song he would play for his audience. His hand began to play “Secret Flower”, and his heart concurred with it. It was the right song for that crepuscular sky, that descending sun, and this young woman’s open face as it beamed up at him like a singular flower in an otherwise fallow field.

“My lord and my lady
had a garden, green and shady,
and this they thus forbade me
on threat of death they made me
from that courtyard glade glee.

And that secret flower
wilts within her tower
as dawn nears, hour by hour.

Yet I forget why I
slipped past the guard’s eye
and entered that garden, well nigh
upon midnight, the moon-runed sky
welcoming me with a breezy sigh
to that tower where starlings cry.

And that secret flower
with a taste sweet and sour
wilts in her secluded bower.

Climbing the tower, stone by stone,
I came to a window, from rock hewn,
and thereupon a single candle shone,
lumning a maiden, all alone
until the moment I became known.

And that secret flower
whose petals had no power
wished only for a rainshower.

Loveliest of women, she,
with golden tresses three,
she took my hand and helped me
inside her tower, glad to see
someone other than her family.

And that secret flower
promised me in that hour
to give me her bloom to devour.

She showed me her blessed bloom
and all the wonders of her room,
in being both home and tomb
since she could not leave that gloom
until she married to a groom
which, she vowed, a terrible doom.

And that secret flower
betrayed me, somehow, her
fragrance clinging as I left her tower.

Caught by guards, damned by king,
I was locked away from my dearest darling,
and thrown in the dungeon’s darkest ring
to await my death in the morning,
consoled by the song of a single starling.

And that secret flower
wanes and withers, hour to hour,
in that lonely garden tower.”

There was a long, reverent silence and Arnady saw tears in the eyes of the young woman. Her mother smiled thinly, though her face had dried of tears long ago, made barren by a harsh life. Her father grinned openly, pleased that he had shown his family something wondrous in their otherwise grueling lives.
“Beautiful,” was all the young woman could say.
Arnady was pleased that she was pleased, but he felt sorrow for the look in her eye. It was a look he had seen in many a young woman’s eye whenever he sang, or made love.
“It is the one song that remains to us from the Satoine Empire,” the bard said. “It fell centuries ago, and all that remains intact is that song. Perhaps that is all an empire can aspire to be, in the tides of time; perhaps they should not be even that.”
“You must know a lot,” the young woman said, without a droplet of irony or mockery. Her eyes were so wide that they might pop out from their sockets at any moment.
“I know a few things,” he said. “But just enough to know that I know little. Still, I suppose there are wizards that spend centuries learning only a little. A little is all any of us will ever know.”
“I know how to sew and knit and cook and clean,” she said eagerly, standing in excitement to talk to him about herself; to impress him even a fraction as much as he impressed her. “I know how to deliver lambs that have turned the wrong way, and how to sheer rams so they cannot break free, and what a crow flying against the wind means.”
“Then you know a lot more than I do,” Arnady said, also without irony or mockery in his voice.
The young woman blushed, her callused hand unconsciously playing in her hair. Arnady realized, painfully, that she had likely not spoken to many men beyond her village, and so had little experience in being a woman.
“But I wish I could sing like you,” she said. “I sing a little, but not very well. Would you like to hear a song?”
“Abby, no,” her father said suddenly.
Arnady saw no harm in the girl indulging herself, especially considering the vain, unspoken hopes of her parents.
“I should like to hear you, Abby,” the bard said. “If you would, please.”
The girl looked to her father, doubtfully, then back to the bard. Quietly, she sange a simple Matharist prayer—one among the trite thousand that the bard had heard in his travels, and never condescended to sing—but hers was a sweet voice, even if unpracticed and diffident.

“Divine light, shine bright,
divine light lead the fight,
divine light, burn the night,
divine light, love and might.”

It was a Matharist hymn, meant to indoctrinate with dogma rather than inspire visions and emotions. Yet, as irritable as such songs always made him feel, he could not offend her while she watched him in giddy expectation, eyes eager for approval.
“Very good,” Arnady said generously. “Quite pleasant, and perfect for the heath and hills. Like any songbird singing to the morning. That is the Matharist Hymn of Dawn, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said, grinning so openly at him that he felt sorry for her. “Did you really like it?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Truly?”
He laughed softly. “When was a bard known to lie?”
She was so overcome with joy at his praise that she clapped her hands together and held them tight to her heart. She was a very skinny young woman, but her breasts were large. Arnady noticed and looked away, feeling his blood rise and fidgeting uneasily at the shame of it. It had been a month since he had last touched a woman.
“Perhaps I could sing a song with you?” she said. “Do you know the Matharist Hymn of Love?”
His forced smile faltered, though he recovered it when he saw the utterly crestfallen look upon her face.
“I said something wrong, didn’t I?” she said.
“No, no, not at all,” he said. “It is just that I…I do not sing hymns. I would not profane them with my voice.”
“But your voice is divine,” she said. “How could you profane them?”
“It is no consequence,” he said, evasively. “As to your request for a duet, yes, someday, I may sing with you. As of now, however, I feel the weight of your delicious stew and beer on my belly, and it begs me to bed.”
He rose to his feet.
“Wait!” she said suddenly, grasping at his arm. She blushed and released him. “I am sorry. But…you…you must be very important. You must be like a king. Like the Wandering King in the Flaezel Chronicle. Aren’t you?” Her eyes were full of tears, as if the Wandering King had somehow stepped out of her Matharist tome and visited her in her lowborn life.
“I am only a bard, Abby,” Arnady said. “Some think fondly of us, at best, and some could live their whole lives without hearing our songs and feel all the happier for it.”
“I am glad…glad I heard your song,” she said. Her face contorted with a sudden pain of sorrow. “My life is more beautiful for having heard it.”
“Thank you,” he said, cautiously. Once again, that familiar sparkle in her eyes, hinting at a longing as wide and crystalline as the sea. There was a reason sailors sang songs about divided hearts; about being torn between a mistress at home and the mistress of waves. Arnady lamented that he had divided her heart simply by meeting her.
“I wonder, though,” she said. She took a deep breath and looked away from him, to the side, deferentially. “Your song made me feel so much. It was like magic.” She dropped her voice to a confidential whisper. “Are you…are you a wizard?”
He laughed, now, openly and unabashedly. “No, I am no wizard. I am only a bard. We have very little magical power, except, perhaps, in flattery. There are stories, of course, to the contrary. Stories likely embellished into mendacity by bards themselves. The story of the singer, Olfensen, whose song stayed the heart of the Emperor Vandorf so that he spared Olfensen’s favored valley village from conquest. And there is the story of Endor, a bard whose song recounted the tragedy of war so vividly that the tyrant king Bladforth abandoned his march toward empire once and for all. The bard, Andon von Goetzal was said to have sang a song so sad that the Emperor wept for months, indifferent to the world as his empire fell apart all around him.” Arnady grinned wryly. “But those are wishful embellishments at best, and outright lies at worst. No empire has ever fallen to a song.”
She nodded mousily, then looked to her parents. They had already picked up the stew pot and were carrying it homeward, leaving her behind. It was all part of their game. Arnady wondered how aware she was of this game, however. She was such a child in pretenses that she likely had no intentional part in the scheme. She was doing as was expected of her without consciously knowing it, and doing so quite willingly. Her parents wanted a husband for her, before she should grow too old and haggardly to catch one, and here was a man of refinement and skill, however contrasted his life was from their own. And she wanted a husband, too. Sadly, no husband would ever escape being compared to Arnady now, and seeming poorer for it.
“My parents are going,” she observed sadly.
She hesitated in following them, oscillating in indecision to stay or follow. She then blurted out, quite clumsily, what her anguished heart could not restrain.
“Are you married?” she said. Watching her say it was like watching a rabbit flee into the fox: wide-eyed, affrighted, and utterly tragic in its inevitable idiotic course. Arnady sighed heavily.
“The only mistress I know is Song,” Arnady said. “I will know no other bride in my life.”
“But you are not married to a wife?” she persisted, gritting her teeth through the pain of her humiliation.
“No, Abby,” he said, “and I never will be.”
Crestfallen, the girl nodded sadly and turned away. She shuffled home as the twilight unveiled its first stars. If Arnady could, he would have reached up and given her stars to match the twinkling dreams in her eyes, but he could not. She would have to find solace wherever she may.
The darkening of day, and the heavy mutton stew, ushered Arnady into the ruins. He brought his things with him: his kettle, his lute, his satchel of cheese and wine and water flask. The ruins were vast, where the scorched stones did not crowd the passages, and he made his way into the heart of the collapsed castle, coming to the scorched throne room. It was much like other throne rooms he had seen in his travels. It had been largely spared from the pyromancer flames. A large crack ran from the lakeside wall up to the ceiling, splitting the stone to reveal the rising moon. Its pale light washed over the throne room, revealing the dusty tapestries on the wall, behind the overturned throne.
According to the survivors of the raid, Duke Loengel and his family were taken from the throne room and executed at Dundan und Gadden’s leisure. He tormented them all, raping the Duchess and drowning their son, Mannuel, in the loch, holding the boy down with his own arm armored hands. The green-and-blue tapestries remained intact, but moldy and besmirched with smoke and dust. The throne itself—a modest wooden chair with gold inlay distinguishing it from the other chairs in the throne room—was broken. Arnady used it, and some other chairs, to make a fire to fend off the misty chill. Autumn, he realized, would be descending soon here. It was time to head South to the Midlands; perhaps even to the Southerlands. One of his greatest joys was to swim in the Southern Seas while Winter warred against the Northerlands. Nor was it a joy in the suffering of others; only in knowing that a mortal man could sometimes escape suffering, and thrive beyond it.
But these thoughts brought him again to the ebullient joy, and subsequent sorrow, in Abby’s eyes. She would survive the Winter, doubtlessly, yet she would remain alone here; all of the village too close of kin to produce a good husband for her. Arnady thought of her lonely Winter nights— and those cold, dark gulfs of night that might befall her heart in the lonely hours— and felt guilt in his own heart. Yet, he always felt guilt in how he unerringly inspired love only to flee from it. It was his curse, and his blessing. It compelled him forward. He feared the trap of marriage. He feared its stagnation. There were songs to be written, songs to be sung, and ears to entertain; minds to enlighten. Freedom called more sweetly than any maiden’s voice. And his mistress was Song, so what maiden could possibly hope to compete in wooing his heart against Song itself?
But the guilt remained, however much he exorcized it with the cold holy water of reason. Abby deserved more than her life would give her. She was a good girl, he could tell, and much more deserving of a palace of luxury and leisure than the ladies and princesses he had met in his life. Yet, he also knew that her hard life was what made her as she was, and if softened by a life in luxury she, too, would eventually become as those spoiled women. Her face was so open with its smiles and its lack of wiles; too childishly naive and unworldly to be ashamed of her teeth, especially as she beamed in admiration of this otherworldly man singing his beautiful songs. Her hands, conversely, were not so soft or silken as the ladies whom he had met, cloistered in villas and marriage chambers and pleasure palaces for the enjoyment of powerful men, all kept similarly ignorant of the world. No, she had garnered calluses which sailors would have prided themselves upon. Her eyes and heart were sheltered, but her hands had grappled with the world in its fiercest, feistiest moods. Life in luxury would have softened her calluses, but hardened her heart.
While the poor girl still had all of her teeth, some of them were crooked; as if they were embarrassed and trying to hide behind one another. This was no great fault to Arnady. He had made love to women with worse teeth, and the girl was certainly pretty enough. A few more years of hard labor out here, however, would sap her youth dry, if the curdling of pregnancy did not waste it all at once.
Arnady knew about life’s imperfections. While a bard might sing a tale lamenting a perfect love soon gone to rot, he knew enough about life to not succumb to the delusion of believing the saccharine love songs he sometimes sang. He preferred the songs that spoke of life as it was, not as a myth overlaid upon the visage to cover its mottled spots and pockmark scars. And he preferred his women much the same way: prettily imperfect. He had enjoyed a high elf twice, and while the two maidens were flawlessly skinned, there seemed a theatricality to their perfection; a staged presence of living rather than a cohabited union of body and soul. Their every movement was scripted by the obsession with perfection. He supposed bards fell to the same trap in their songs, or the unskilled did, anyway. Loftiness can leave a mortal feeling nothing in a song, except perhaps resentment or ridicule, and so the poetry and images had to be tempered by the realities of the world. If not, maudlin ballads abounded and cultural tastes decayed.
In the flickering light of his fire Arnady played a few songs. The throne room reminded him of the many he had seen and visited in his travels in the Northerlands. Courts were different in the Southerlands— they were more open to the elements since they suffer little for Winter and must only survive the heat of Summers. Their courts were but open colonnades with small pediments and eaves over the king, awnings over the important personages, and nothing for everyone else. The commoners had to abide the sun, and the king, with patience.

“They grip their castles made of sand
so tightly in their tyrant’s hand
that towers crumble, falling down,
destroyed by that knuckled crown
and the need to grasp with fretted fists,
lost their kingdoms to the mists.
But there are those who also find
themselves ruling in due kind
softer and defter than a tyrant king
and yet still losing everything
to the lapping of Time’s endless tides
while Mathara sits and abides…”

He paused a moment to tune his lute. The chords did not sound quite right and he knew his playing was not to blame. He plucked and tuned each string in turn, listening as the notes echoed in that empty, despondent place. When he had tuned each string to his satisfaction, he opened his mouth to sing again, and raised his hand to strum the chords, but then paused, glancing all around him; imbibing the melancholy scenery of that wasted throne room.
Every part of a castle was a dungeon to Arnady. They were meant to protect and conserve, but all they did was imprison and control. Even kings were trapped inside castles, inside their throne rooms, enslaved to tradition, old blood debts from previous generations, and their own idleness and inability to survive on their own, without the peasantry to feed and clothe and sustain them. Arnady was truly free. A bard could be free. He could sustain himself, playing music to earn his food and his way as well as he could. True, he was also reliant upon others to appreciate his music enough to feed and pay him, but if there ever came a day when bards were no longer appreciated with gold or food or a living then he would gladly starve to death in the wilderness, listening to birdsong and wishing a good riddance to the human world.

“The hart of the woodland wide
was a king with an abounding stride
and fought away all foes that may
come to steal a bride.
He fought them all, however strong,
and however many, however long,
and although he never lost a doe
he nonetheless feared a wrong.
And soon he came to fight the trees,
thinking their branches spread to seize
his many does, and so he met his foes
with antlers raking all adversaries.
And then he found himself caught,
antlers stuck in the trees he fought,
and as he struggled his does snuggled
with stags he had hoped to give naught…”

This, too, was a cumbersome song, which was why he needed to practice it. He also needed to take his mind off dishonorable thoughts about Abby and her sun-freckled skin, her broad-bosomed chest, and the innocence of her smile. How many such young women had privileged him with their trust in the past? Too many to count. Yet, he never indulged them fully, preserving their maidenhoods, if still intact, and even foregoing the folly of consummation if they were already “broken in”. In terms of the latter, he feared what might linger after their encounter; and in terms of the former, there was no fun in a virgin, for it was invariably painful for any maiden’s first time, and he did not revel in pain. Rather, he often charmed for himself mothers in various cities; mothers healthy and of otherwise level heads. This was convenience for him, for whereas a young naive virgin might entertain delusions of a future for any such dalliance, a married woman with children had already set anchor, so to speak, and considered him in the same manner that he considered her: a ship passing in the night. And as for their husbands— they made love more to their beer than to the lovely women they took for granted. That was how he justified it to himself, anyway.
The twilight darkened to night, and with it the moon rose wanly above the blackening mountains. The moon was a skull-faced necromancer and summoned up the chill mists from the loch, a fog rising as if an army of ghosts lingering after that terrible conquest long ago. Arnady wondered from whom were the villagers in the valley descended: the serfs of Castle Loengel, or the invading army that destroyed the castle. Perhaps both; perhaps neither. What did it matter anyhow? Scrawlings in the sand just before high tide—that was all history became.
He sipped some wine from his pouch, for it had always helped him sleep easier. He had stuffed the cork back into the flask when he heard footsteps approaching. A torch flickering in that moonlit gloom.
“Be not afraid,” Abby said. “It is only me.”
“I am surprised you are not afraid,” Arnady said. “Your father speaks of this place as being very dangerous. Ghosts and the like.”
She approached his fire intrepidly enough, nimbly navigating the crumbled stones and burnt furniture.
“I do not fear ghosts,” she said, “because I have faith in Mathara.”
Arnady did not nod, or shake his head, or blink, or say anything. He disagreed with her sentiment, but would not discredit the girl’s faith. It might be the only thing that would keep her strong in the coming years of labor and loneliness. It might also be the thing that would kill her in coming years. The bard forswore the hubris of knowing which.
“It is late, Abby,” he said. “Your parents will worry where you are.”
She stood stiffly by the fire, illuminated like a fiery genie from the Southerlands.
“They trust me,” she said. “And they trust you.”
He smiled wryly. “That is a lie,” he said. “They do not know me enough to trust me.”
“They trust you…” she said slowly. “…to do what a man wishes to do.”
Arnady marveled at the boldness of the parents; the daughter, on the other hand, was only doing what she was told. Was she not?
“I will not do as a man wishes,” he said. “Though, it is true that I wish to.” He picked up his lute once again, and plucked at the strings; a trickling cadence of droplets from melting icicles onto a tin roof.
She lingered on the other side of the fire, staring at him.
“Father says…” she said hesitantly. “Father says I will never have a husband.”
Arnady’s heart reached toward the young woman, even as his mouth stayed closed and his eyes dwelled in the flames. The song he plucked echoed in the shadows of the throne room. The moon stared wanly through the breach of the wall and ceiling.
“My village is small,” she said. “And many people do not come here anymore. The grazing is good for sheep, but it is a hard life. He wants me to escape. He wants me to…he says there is nothing for me here.”
“Abby,” he said, “I am a traveling bard. Sometimes all that saves me from starvation is a single fish caught at the end of a hook, or a handful of nuts found by happenstance in a dying woods. It is not consistent. It is dangerous. What I would suggest for you is to travel to another village. Southward, perhaps, or Westward. There you will find your pick of husbands among the locals. You are a very pretty girl, and I am incredibly flattered by your interest. But it is not a good fit. I am not worthy of your hand. You must find someone with a steady heart and rooted feet.”
He looked from the flames to her face. There was a mixture of pain and sorrow written there, in the flickering light, that wounded him. It was often said that a bard felt more than common men. This was true only in certain instances—instances when the futility of life bore upon his sympathies toward his fellow creatures, beautiful and broken as they all were—and thus was one such moment now. Abby was trapped in a hard life, and he was not the knight to sweep her off to palatial future.
“Come here and sit a while,” he said, motioning toward the fire with his head. He continued plucking at the strings. “This is no hearthstone, but I am sure Mathara watches over us from these humble flames.”
“She watches over us from every flame,” Abby said, her face softening. She sat beside him— not too close, not too far away. “From the flames in the stars to the flames in our hearts.”
“Indeed,” was all Arnady could say to that. He suddenly stopped plucking, and let the lute rest in his lap, like a cat gone to sleep. He sighed.
“I want to tell you about the caprices of my life. And the sins.” He looked her in the eye, where the flame reflected in undulating light— or was it her desire that flared there? He pushed such thoughts aside. “My life is never steady, Abby. Thrice was my life nearly forfeited by a single hiccup at the wrong place and wrong time. Once while I was hiding in a tree as a basilisk passed beneath the branch. I had become lost after wandering through a forest of black branches and black eyes. I escaped, by luck, and never again returned to that place.” He shook his head ruefully. “And yet, that was a light brush with death. At the wedding of King Philos’s demented son, to his fourth wife, I had been asked to sing a song of auspicious favor to the couple. A fit of nervous hiccups betook me, after too much wine and too many threats from the groom, but somehow I managed to transform the hiccups into a strange adornment to the song which, being a Northerland court, was well received. It was a bawdy song, of course, but the King had an appreciation of bawdy songs. Unfortunately, for King Philos’s daughter-in-law no improvisation could save her head from her husband’s whims—no more than all three of the other wives who had found themselves in a shorter coffin than they would have expected while living. I thought that I, too, was to spend the night in a shortened coffin.” Arnady grinned confidentially at Abby, but her look of concern did not indulge any dark-humored camaraderie. He shrugged impassively and continued, looking now at the flames directly. “The last time I nearly died from a hiccup was when I was hiding beneath the bed of a married woman, after a night of passion. Her husband came home, unexpectedly, but was so drunk that he passed out onto the floor as he bent over to see what was hiccuping beneath his bed.”
“How did you come to be there?” Abby asked.
He had hoped the obvious would be plain to see, but she was such an innocent that she saw the world as being full of innocents.
“I had been sleeping with the woman,” he said. “As I have slept with many women.”
“To keep warm against the chill of night,” Abby said, her smile perplexed by how such a common practice could be so scandalous.
“No, Abby,” he said. “I was fornicating with them.”
Her face brightened red in the fire, though whether from anger or shame or sheer embarrassment he did not know. Her tongue tripped over itself with denials and delusions.
“But you…you sing beautiful things…you do not…not beastly…not like that…Mathara blessed you…you would not…you have a pure heart!”
“No, Abby,” he said. “You have a pure heart. I am merely living day to day. I live for Song, and I live for whatever it provides me, whether it be coin or rack of lamb or the bed of a married woman. Song is my one and only mistress.”
She rose to her feet quickly and turned, but hesitated, wringing her callused hands in frenzied indecision. She almost looked at him, but her head halted in turning upon her slender neck. All at once, she plopped down beside the fire once more.
“It does not matter to me how many women you have had…” she said. “What matters is what Mathara wills.”
“I do not believe Mathara wills much of anything,” Arnady said. “For better or worse, we all drift without grand purpose through this world. Life is not a song formed in rhyme and reason.”
“But you are a bard,” she said. “You sing songs of rhyme and reason. How can you not believe in how you live your life?”
“That is a good question,” he said, surprised by her intelligence. “But I suppose Man craves rhyme and reason for things. So bards earn their keep in providing such false assurances, as do priests and kings. We create rhyme and reason out of chaos to ease the anxious hearts of the world.”
“With the help of chance and coincidence,” she countered. “You could not rhyme without words working the way they do.”
“True,” he said.
“And so Mathara wills them to work through chance and coincidence,” she said.
“I do not know about that,” he said, stroking the hair on his chin thoughtfully. “There are many times when I wanted to use one word, but the rhyme scheme forced me to use another. Sometimes I have to butcher whole stanzas just to satisfy the sound at the end of two lines. It can be maddening.”
“That just keeps you humble,” she said.
He regarded her for a moment. “You know, I tend to like feisty women who think for themselves. It makes their bedding that much more enjoyable, when they finally surrender to me.”
“I will not give you my maidenhead so easily,” she said, looking very cross as she crossed her arms defiantly.
“Nor would I expect you to,” he said. “I was just speaking to you openly. Opening my maidenhead to you, if you will pardon the comparison. It may sound strange, but while a bard shares part of his soul in a song, he does not share much else of his heart. Perhaps we covet our private selves so much because we have to share so much of our public selves when we perform. What remains to us, hidden away, we guard.”
“I think I prefer your public self,” she said, giving him a scrutinizing look.
He laughed. “Most people would. I can be quite lewd.”
“But you sing of such grand things,” she observed. “How can you be so…so…contradictory?”
He shrugged. “I have seen the loveliest monuments built by the cruellest men. I have seen the most pious people commit the most heinous acts. I have seen the prettiest birds tear apart bugs and lizards and even other birds, and with beaks still smeared in blood they sing the most beautiful songs. I sing songs, too, and have killed a man who tried to wrong me. I have wronged many men by sleeping with their wives. I have seduced with my songs and my charms, and, so far, have not been killed for the wrongs committed. You, Abby, are innocent and pretty and dedicated to your parents. You work hard and you are devout, praying to Mathara every day…”
“Three times a day,” she interjected in earnest.
He chuckled. “I do not doubt you,” he said. “But even you could work horrors upon the world. If your father told you I was evil, or your mother said so, or you thought you heard Mathara, in her flames, telling you to slit my throat, burn me alive, or poison my stew, you would do as you were told, would you not?”
“I…no…you…” she stammered.
“And you might even enjoy it with religious zeal,” Arnady said. “And so the beautiful, pious flower known as Abby would bite with a poisonous thorn, killing the man she wished to pluck her from her soil.”
A war of emotions and thoughts erupted along Abby’s brow. She stared into the flames, then into Arnady’s eyes, then back to the flames, then toward the shadows, out of the castle, eyes searching for the valley where her parents waited and prayed and hoped that she did what they had bidden her to do.
“I do not feel well,” she said.
“You need something to cool your thoughts,” he said. He reached for a flask, found the wine flask, gripped it momentarily, then set it down and grabbed instead the water flask. He handed it to her. She took it, gratefully, and held it to her puckered lips. Arnady looked away as she drank from it, pushing his blood down lest it run riot and claim what guilt and regret would tax him for later. When she had finished drinking, she corked the flask and returned it to him.
“Neither my parents or Mathara would wish me to harm you,” she said. “This I know to be true, so your question makes no sense.”
Arnady pretended not to hear her as he set the water flask in his satchel once again. He did not wish to argue with her anymore. He was tired.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“To conceive a song,” he said.
“Why here?” She was leaning toward him; whether out of curiosity for her answer or to come closer, he did not know.
“Songs are only the echoes of empires,” he said. He did not lean away from her. “For Man makes empires for himself, large and small, and bards like myself, sick of empires, become as mockingbirds repeating those vainglorious echoes throughout the ages. Mocking them forever, as ghosts do a previous age.”
She scooted closer to him. He never realized how short her wool frock was. Her thighs were bare in the firelight, and honed by years of walking and working. Small flecks of golden hairs lined them. They were not unattractive.
“And you listen to the echoes for your songs?”
“I hear the echoes, yes,” he said. Her legs touched his own. Through his pantaloons he could feel the warmth of her skin. “The ghosts of empire tell me what they know, and I put it to song.”
“But you sing of more than ghosts and death,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “The lands speak to me, too. The harmonies of life. The dissonances, too. Birds in flight. Squirrels in trees. Fish in creeks. The silence, too, hums in between as needful spaces, reminding me to punctuate what I say with breadths for contemplation; gulfs to underscore what I play with breaks, like the hushing pause between the receding and the returning of the waves on the beach.”
“Then let me be the hushing pause between the waves,” she said. “Let me be the needful space. Just for tonight. Please?”
He said nothing, nor did he move away from her as she put her arms around him. They huddled together in the shadow of that ruined edifice, their little flickering flame flecking light like a carrion tongue against the carcass of an empire.