The Snail (Woolf)

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Slowly to the lighthouse she went,
yet she never really arrived,
like a sea snail so wholly spent
in the sun, she never survived,
oozing over pebbles of thought
and undulating like the waves,
wandering slowly while she sought
other shells, like clefs on the staves
of a song without any words,
yet awash with colors and sound
while down swooped the shrieking seabirds
to feast on thoughts she thought profound.
Nought remains of the languid snail
tossed to and fro along the beach
except her opalescent shell
tumbling within the frothy reach.

Shattered

He smoldered within the mirror
while the late evening drew nearer,
a Summery Saturday night
after a long stretch of daylight.
The mirror was a wedding gift
from his parents, before the rift
that had ruptured in its due course,
bleeding out as a bad divorce.
His wife watched as he primmed himself
in her mirror, nearby the shelf
where their old wedding photo stood,
the two of them framed in fake-wood
and kissing in front of a crowd,
all of their parents very proud,
but now he dabbed on some cologne
and combed his hair, (full but two-tone),
while flashing his straight white teeth
rounded by a beard, like a wreath
that was finely trimmed, each hair snipped,
and, not noticing her, he quipped,
“Still lookin’ good, you handsome stud.”
His wife waited, feeling like mud
while he got ready for “Poker”,
a word spoken like a Joker.
She said, “That’s lots of cash, Jason.”
But, being like a Free Mason,
he never spoke about his games
or any of his friends’ real names.
He would just say, “I sure will win
with a little help from some gin.
Then I’ll get in the scoring zone.”
Despite the cash, there clearly shown
packs of rubbers through the leather:
things they never used together.
The rings reminded of the ring
on her finger, a gaudy thing
he had exchanged in a Pawn Shop
for money he earned with a mop
in an old fast-food restaurant—
the place they met, their Friday haunt
now closed down, its windows broken
and its name nevermore spoken.
“Can you stay home tonight?” she said.
“I’ll make some fresh banana bread.”
Adjusting his belt, and his crotch,
he then checked his true Sterling watch.
“Sounds good for breakfast,” he replied.
“And how about eggs on the side?”
She saw herself past his shoulder:
the wrinkles now looking older
than he looked in his corduroy
and cowboy boots, dressed like a boy
ready for a good do-si-do
and maybe, too, a rodeo.
He could have passed for his thirties,
strutting despite his old hurt knees;
like a rooster touring his coop
and crowing loud atop the stoop
while all the hens gazed in wonder
as they felt his booming thunder.
Whereas her figure had swelled plump
long after she had lost her bump
to a sharp scalpel that had left
her cute navel a scar-crossed cleft.
Marginalized in the mirror,
she saw things now brighter, clearer,
and knew that the once happy Past
passed like a young boy, running fast
to the end-goal, to be a Man,
while yearning to shorten the span
so that he never grew wiser,
becoming too soon a miser
who forgot birthdays on purpose
and treated life as a circus
eager to pack it up and go
leaving her behind, a sideshow.
Anyhow, he prepared to leave,
buttoning up each cufflink sleeve
and putting his wallet up front
to bulge his pocket, give the runt
the outline of a bigger hound
to be picked up from the dog pound.
And yet she was in the doghouse,
knowing he left to hunt the blouse
at another girl’s street address,
something that, if he did confess,
he would do without any shame,
saying, “It’s just a Poke-Her game,”
all the while grinning with an air
debonair—so Devil-may-care.
She glanced at his wallet laying
on the bed, its stuffed folds splaying
to reveal a lot of money.
Her tone pleading, she said, “Honey,
I hope you and the guys have fun,”
while her world was coming undone
as she watched the man she married
grin at himself, his face varied
from the face he wore with his wife
in a normal day of his life.
This rare face came alive
and he hummed just like a beehive,
its combs brimming with sweet honey,
or a day in May: warm, sunny,
the fields alive with flowers,
Though those colors had not been Ours,
she thought, since the day we married.
No, our colors have been buried
deep in the Past, deep in the earth,
just after our son’s awful birth.
My colors wilted in their bloom,
uprooted, torn to make some room
for the fruit of our Love, the child
he hated, abused, and reviled.
But it was my body that died!
My body ripped apart inside!
Then we couldn’t make love at all
and his love became very small.
After all, it’s true, what they say
about Love and how it won’t stay,
but fades over time, no matter
how perfect the daily platter.
He just never valued something
if it couldn’t warm his dumpling.
“There’s a good movie on tonight,”
she said, clutching the pistol tight.
“It’s about a second chance…”
He did not give her a first glance,
turning away from the mirror,
checking his watch, the time nearer,
and so, heading to the door,
he said, “Good night, babe…” and no more.
She heard him start his king-cab truck
and leave the driveway, her eyes stuck
on her reflection in the glass—
eyes wide while completing a pass
up and down her war-torn body;
all used up, her forlorn body.
She aimed the pistol at her heart
and, at the bang, she broke apart.

The Highwayman

The stagecoach had been overturned on its side, laying like a dead beast with its gut split open at the door. The driver lay dead, next to the yet-dying horses. Hopping down from his own horse, the Highwayman approached the dying horses on foot, noting the whinnying and the spittle on their mottled lips. Their legs had been broken from the crash, and maybe even their backs. He lowered the muzzle of his revolver to one horse’s head, just above the bulging eye. The gunshot cracked the sky, echoing up through the ravine. That sandy depression was strewn with the garments and suitcases that had been bucked and battered in the chase and the ensuant crash. The horse was silenced at once. He did the same for the other horse, and the ravine was a dead quiet thereafter.
“Ain’t nothin’ I hate more than creatures sufferin’,” the Highwayman said. His eyes were shaded by his black cowboy hat, eclipsing the hot Nevada sun, yet the perpetual squint never left his gaze. As a consequence, the Highwayman always appeared angry, or in pain, his dark eyebrows like black wisps of fire beneath his crinkled brow.
He turned his attention, now, to the dusty cab. Its single occupant had not yet emerged. So, taking both revolvers from their holsters, the Highwayman approached the cab slowly, guns raised. He should have known he had nothing to fear, for his horse was absently grazing on some patchy tufts of grass. And the piebald never relaxed so much when there was danger lurking nearby. She had an instinct for such things.
Looking over the stagecoach, and peering over the sights of his revolver, the Highwayman saw a young woman crumpled in among the cab like a baby in its broken crib. She was a fair-haired comely little thing in a blue dress, flecked here and there with blood. A golden cross lay upon her chest, the latter of which rose and fell with her breath. So she was still alive; only scraped and bruised. He put the revolver to her gashed forehead and readied to pull the trigger.
Her eyes flashed open, full of terror. He withdrew his gun.
“Get yourself on up outta’ there,” he told her.
The woman glanced around, her eyes scuttling every which way as if they meant to flee from their sockets. Otherwise, she did not move.
“Come on, now,” the Highwayman said, not unkindly. “Get yourself out.”
Grimacing, the young woman tried to rise, and then gasped in pain.
“I believe my arm is broken,” she said. Her voice was high, and not only from the pain. Had she been a singer, she would have been tenor. It was more a girl’s voice than the voice of a woman more mature in worldly matters.
“All right then,” the Highwayman said.
He holstered his revolvers, then climbed atop the stagecoach, standing with his boots to either side of the open door, stooping down to offer her his hand. She took his leather glove with a blue satin glove. He groaned, and she winced and gasped, but gradually he pulled her to her feet within the toppled compartment. He then lifted her out, carrying her as a groom would his bride across the threshold. He set her under a bristlecone pine tree, the twisted specimen offering some shade with its smoky clouds of green needles. He then pillaged the body of the coachman and gathered up whatever things he thought worth saving from the disarrayed contents of the young woman’s suitcases. There were silken gowns and makeup bottles and various jewelry of silver and gems. When he returned to her, he demanded her earrings and the coins in her purse. He did not take the golden cross hanging from her neck.
Meanwhile, she stared at him hatefully with her blue eyes.
“You’ve killed a good man,” she said.
“You’ve a city accent,” he returned. “New England, I’ll bet.”
“You’ve killed a good man and robbed a woman who has never harmed you,” she said.
“God giveth and taketh away,” he said, crouching down in the shade next to her. She shifted uncomfortably, and winced when she attempted to lean on her arm. He shook his head.
“It ain’t broken,” he said. “You just banged it good.”
The young woman looked away, toward the piebald. The Highwayman followed her gaze, and snorted, or laughed, or both.
“You were going to kill me,” she said, warily. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you were sufferin’,” he said. “Like ‘em poor creatures over there.” He tipped his head toward the dead horses.
“Suffering is a part of life,” she said, absently clasping her cross. “But you seek it out for others. This is not right, sir.” She scowled at him beneath her crumpled bonnet. “This is not becoming of a Christian!”
“Well then,” he said, standing. “That’s how it oughta’ be.”
He went to his horse and took a sack from aside the saddle, returning to the shade of the bristlecone. It was well into the evening, and the shade was stretching across the ravine like a dark hand.
Opening the sack, the Highwayman began to stuff all of the woman’s belongings into its gaping burlap mouth. When he had finished, he tied the sack tightly with twine and set it beside the twisted trunk of the tree.
“Are you now satisfied, sir?” the young woman asked bitterly.
The Highwayman regarded her now silently, his eyes dead in the shade of his leather-brimmed hat. He slipped his rifle off his back, doffed his leather duster, and then took off his holstered revolvers. Putting them aside, he approached the woman as she shrank against the tree.
“What do you want?” she gasped, her blue eyes agog with terror.
He said nothing, but knelt down in front of her. She pressed herself against the tree, turning her face away and trembling, holding her one good arm out against his chest. His denim shirt was unbuttoned to the navel.
“Are you not a Christian man?” she wept. Her arm bent and buckled beneath his urgent weight.
He paused, staring at her cross grimly.
“What good would that be?” he asked. “It ain’t of any good to you, is it? Not now. Not ever. I could take you as I want and nobody’d do anything to stop me. How’s it any good, then?”
She began to sob. “God will protect my soul, if nothing else.”
The Highwayman snorted in contempt, then sat down beside her, leaning against the tree.
“He’s a helluva devil, ain’t he?” he said. “Making us the way we are and then blaming us for it.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What do you mean?” she said between sobs.
“The Engineer,” he said. “That’s what he is, ain’t he? I mean, when you got yourself a locomotive and it runs off the tracks, you could blame the tracks or you could blame the workers in the locomotive. But only sometimes. Sometimes there’s something wrong with the locomotive itself. Wrong from the get-go. Innate’s the word. And then you gotta’ wonder why nobody’s blamin’ the Engineer. He’s the one that designed the locomotive. And sometimes the only thing that goes wrong started long before the train was ever put to tracks.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Course you don’t,” he said, appraising her balefully. “You never stopped to think none about it. Like this trip of yours through hostile territory. Somebody told you everything would be just fine, and then it weren’t, and now you can’t believe that it’s gone all awry on you.” He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “But things have been goin’ wrong since forever.”
“You are speaking like a soul willfully damned,” she said. She traded her tears for anger. “And I bet you blame God for everything wrong in your life. But look at you! You kill innocent men and threaten innocent women! Steal and kill and your bounty is an eternity in the Lake of Fire!”
Again, the Highwayman snorted, or laughed, or both. It was a contemptuous sound. He took off his hat, revealing hair that was as black as an Apache’s.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about you sheep,” he said. “You’re always blind to the knife that’s comin’ for you. That’s how you die happy. It’s the only way you can die happy. Bein’ blind. Me, I can see. I see it all.”
His eyes squinted more tightly, as if he was suffering a great hatred, or pain.
“I had me a brother long ago. Fifteen years dead now, I think. Back then, when Daniel was alive, he was like you, Ma’am. Believed in God and Angels and Devils and Good and Evil and Right and Wrong. He went to church every Sunday, prayed in the morning and at night before bed, and never spoke a cross word against nobody, no matter how much they might of deserved it. And daddy, well he deserved a cross word or two. Hell, I knocked some of his teeth out before I left home forever. He was a mean ol’ drunk and he’d beat us something fierce when he was divin’ in the bottle. But Daniel only ever prayed for daddy’s soul, and mine, and momma’s, whose death came shortly after Daniel’s birth. Anyhow, Daniel’d get these fits sometimes. Like the Holy Spirit ragin’ through him. Like a Holy Roller, you know? Just dropped to the floor and would shake all over as if struck by lightning. He liked to think it was God humblin’ him, or givin’ him visions, or whatever which way he liked to fancy it. Me, I thought it was something wrong in his brains. He was a good boy, and a kind boy, but he wasn’t the smartest of boys. Met a man who was, by all accounts, a decent man till he took a donkey’s hoof to the head. Afterwards he was a cruel sonnabitch. The brains are the key, I think, and we don’t really have no say-so in how they’re made. That’s up to the Engineer, see?”
He nodded at his own words when she refused to, then placed his hat atop his head again.
“Well, one day Daniel was out mindin’ the chickens, just like he was supposed to. Daddy and I was digging a hole for a new shitter. Pardon my language, ma’am, but that’s what we was doin’. What happened was Daniel was doin’ as he should and the next thing you know he went all limp and fell down with one of his fits. It happened once a week, mind, so it shouldn’t have been such a bother, but the problem was when he fell down, shakin’ and talkin’ in tongues, he struck his head on a rock. Now, this was through no fault of his own. The Engineer had seen it fit to give him a jolt, and that jolt did him in. He weren’t the same after that. He was lazy, and tired all the time, and was downright mean. Like he was drunk, though he never drank nothin’. Daddy got tired of it quick, bein’ now more alike than ever they was, and so daddy beat the piss out of Daniel. I beat the piss out of daddy, then took off with Daniel, lookin’ for a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with ‘im. But I was told was I already suspected. Daniel was gone. Only the shade remained, cold and without substance. And so I ended his sufferin’, too. Sent that shade on ward into whatever dawn might await it.”
The Highwayman was silent now, staring inwardly at some far-flung shadows that the young woman could not see except in the black pupils of his eyes.
“But the Lord gave us Free Will,” she said. “He let’s us choose for ourselves if we are Good or Evil.”
“Did you not hear a damn word I just said?” he snapped. “Daniel never got to choose nothin’! Got knocked over because of something wrong in his head, and then knocked his head worse than before. He didn’t choose none of ‘em things!” He struck at the tree with a fist. “No more than this here tree chose to be planted here. The Engineer designs, if he designs at all, and when things go off the tracks…well, you are the mess that’s left over afterwards. And so I thought to myself, ‘Well Hell, what good’s there in bein’ Good if it just gets you dead or worse anyhow?’ None of it matters. Not you. Not me. Nothin’. We ain’t got no say-so in anything.”
“But you can choose to be Good,” the young woman said, pleadingly.
“No more than the train can choose its own tracks,” the Highwayman said. “Or this here tree can choose to go plant itself somewhere else. Ain’t that somethin’, though? To know that you got as much freedom of choice as a goddamn tree?”
“You’re crazy,” she said, clutching at her cross again.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I know it. But knowin’ it don’t change nothin’.”
He began to look at her again in that intense, urgent way, and leaned toward her.
“But what about Christ?!” she shrieked. “He died for our sins! He made a choice to save us!”
He tilted his head to the side, bemused. “Yes, ma’am, I once was a Christian, too. But then I reckoned that the Christian faith was just another one of the Engineer’s jokes. He is a notorious jokester, ya know? Sayin’ one thing and doin’ another. High and low, everything in this world is contrary to the Word. I saw it in his dealings with Daniel, and I see it every day in his dealings with the world. The hare is taken up by the eagle. The mouse is eaten by the snake. Ain’t no mercy or love in it, except if it happens to be a swift death. And even that’s a matter of chance.”
“But you can choose better!” she said, as if to convince herself as much as himself. “You can! Please! Let me go!”
The Highwayman considered her for a long time, his gaze steady and unblinking. At length, he stood up and put on his holstered guns, his duster, and his rifle. He gazed to the West, where the sun was setting, stretching the shadow from the lip of the ravine over the hollow groove below it. He and she were standing in what was once a river, now long dried to dust. The Highwayman grumbled to himself for a few moments, as if thinking aloud,. He then addressed the young woman.
“If you go five miles South from here,” he said, “then you might make it to a small military outpost by sundown. They’ll take good care of you. They’re gentlemen there. Christian men. They’ll see that you get food and will tend to your hurts.”
The young woman stood up with her blue eyes gleaming brighter than the rarest of diamonds. She clasped the golden cross as if in prayer.
“Oh thank you, sir!” she said. “God bless you! I knew you couldn’t be too eager a Devil’s foreman!”
“You can take my horse,” he said, nodding toward the piebald. “She’s a good-tempered thing. She never bucks, even when bullets are flyin’ like gadflies.”
The young woman nodded, then hurried toward the horse. She could not get up in the saddle by herself, her arm too injured. The Highwayman helped her up, then, and then led the horse out of the ravine. Dusk flared beyond the ravine. It was an apocalyptic war of red fire and dark clouds beyond the horizon. The mesas looked like the gigantic headstones of dead gods long forgotten.
“Keep goin’ South,” the Highwayman said. “And you will find your Salvation.”
“Bless you, sir!” she said again, weeping with joy. “Bless you, and may you find peace and Christ in this life!”
He wacked the piebald on her rump, sending her in an easy gallop across the wasteland. After a few moments, he unslung his Remington rifle from his back. He aimed with a slow, aquiline regard at the blue figure on horseback.
“Let her die with hope in her heart,” he muttered. “It’s all any of us can aspire to.”
The aim of his eye, like the aim of his mind, was given to him by his Engineer, and it never hit amiss of its mark. He pulled the trigger and the crackling was as of lightning promising rains for the desert. And it was not a false promise. The Highwayman returned to the bristlecone tree for his burlap sack. He then went to fetch his horse back to him.

A riddle

Studded veil of widowed Dawn
gleaming on a moonlit lawn
like clear crystals in a crown
or sequins on a dark gown,
these jewels spangling the flowers
in the early morning hours
dissolve clean in daylight air
neath the sun’s incessant glare,
yet return with mist-blurred night
like earthbound stars, twinkling bright.
Small and fleeting as a kiss
from the fairies—what is this?

Lafcadio Hearn, Mr. Kwaidan

hearn

Given nothing but lumps of coal
and extreme pressures all his life
Hearn forged in the depths of his soul
fine diamonds into a keen knife
with which he cut loose from the past
and traveled far, a refugee
from West to East, devout outcast—
a lotus flower floating free.
Scholar of suffering, he knew
what others felt as the Other;
short of stature, of olive hue,
and abandoned by his mother.
An orphan of so many lands,
he was a boy born from two climes
and tossed between so many hands
to become a man of the Times.
Blind in one eye, yet he could see
more clearly things that mattered most,
despising modern industry,
and mourning Japan’s ancient ghost.
Loathing the Old Testament creed,
his heart leapt at pagan creatures,
seeing in them the ideal breed
of human joy with wild features.
He was said to be of those men
aloof and adrift in his ties,
yet tried to avenge a kitten
when a man blinded its eyes.
Some claim he stole tongues from the dead
whereby to tell tales not his own,
but storytelling is well-read
in itself—nib of ancient bone.
What stories had been given them
that gave him in turn, came ago,
extending thus from sleeve to hem,
till he wrote them for us to know.
Should we judge from utopia
a wayfarer of unfair fate
when, steeped in myopia,
living well at a later date?
Is he an appropriator
of cultures belonging to those
who gave him his nomenclature
and his set of kimono clothes?
Who faults da Vinci his paintings
of the Madonna and her child?
It is, in life, of the plain things
that motifs are copied, then styled.
What privileges did he boast
(which critics have afterwards claimed)
when as an orphan, coast to coast?
Not more than “gender” can be named.
Before the fortune and the fame
he lived many years in a barn,
laying upon hay, cold and lame,
and only frayed daydreams to darn.
A Greek, he witnessed the Banshee
faceless upon a flight of stairs;
a Celt, he saw Persephone
rising from Plutonian lairs.
Born to love a well-told story,
his soul was half Irish and Greek,
he sought what was grim and gory
being small, but not at all meek.
Like Hearn himself, Japan did take
and borrow from other countries,
their tales oft of meaning and make
as in China, and its sundries.
Why should that be a jackdaw flaw
for him to know good seeds from bad?
To replant a seed breaks no law
when fertile crops are to be had.
Should we let all be so fallow
that all seeds should wither and wane
when someone who is not callow
should grow the crop with his rain?
As for his much-beloved wives,
he learned from them of tastes and tones,
living as a man of odd lives—
a soul reborn which dharma hones.
He had a freed-slave wife back when
it was a grave crime in the States,
but he was a radical then—
a rebel against such mandates.
True, his ambition would end it
and he would leave her all alone,
but destiny chomped at the bit
and there were yet fields to be sown.
Fate took him faraway, not done
with his strange life and its strange ride,
to the Land of the Rising Sun
to find his Mama Sama bride.
Soon adopted into a clan
of Samurai, to which his wife
was a noblewoman, the man
found for himself a peaceful life.
This is why today he is yet
celebrated in Chicago
for every gory vignette
of that city’s vast crimson glow,
and why his cookbook of Orleans
is used by Creoles and Cajuns,
a French tongue for all tastes and scenes
he was loved like other Bay sons,
and why, in the land of Japan,
he is still respected today,
known as the learned Western man
who heard what their ghosts had to say.
And so Hearn traveled very far, 
floating like a leaf on the wind,
living a story as bizarre
as a Kwaidan tale by the end.

Pandemonetized Death

The token of our holy creed
bears the seal of our fickle breed
which thereby reads, “In God We Trust”,
and so we must, for boom or bust,
forfeit lives of those sickly few
so the Devil may get his due,
for Mammon is our true god here,
crisis or not, year after year,
and we take less stock in those lives
when the Stock Market yo-yo dives—
the bottom line we must all serve
cares not for flattening the curve,
so live and let die at what rates
the Dow Jones index thus dictates,
projected profits meaning more
than elders hastened to Death’s door.

Tears From A Stone Part 1

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

The Offering

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I have smiled at him, but my sweet Nie has not smiled back. He has eyes only for pretty little Uba, that Ganguro slut with her blonde wig, caramel tan, and sparkling pearlescent eyeshadow. What can my plain lips do against her glittering white lips? And those scintillating stars at the corners of her eyes? Those long black eyelashes that would make a horse wince in envy? Oh, my sweet Nie! You belong to me, not to that painted-up whore. But do I even have a chance?
“Do you like the lanterns?” Uba asks him.
“Yes,” Nie says, but he cannot see the lanterns as they line the streets. He is too dazzled by her red eyes. The orange lanterns hang all around the town. It is the lantern festival, the Obon time of the year when a young man’s heart is at its fullest and can be stolen from his true love by a devilish yama from the mountains.
“Do you want to hold my hand?” Uba asks him.
He chokes on the word “Yes” and holds his hand out as if he is touching a sacred shrine. She takes his hand, and takes his heart, and they walk farther along the lantern-lit streets. The glow around them that turns the starry night into a lurid dusk. I follow, for he is my Nie, not hers, and I will not let her take my Nie for herself.
“I like to hold your hand, my Golden Boy,” she says.
He blushes and I feel my hair rustle with anger. It tingles all the way to the beads and barbs.
“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she says. She slips her overly tanned arm around his waist. Her fake fingernails are gaudy with glued-on jewelry; a kitschy coral reef capping every fingertip.
Can he not see how fake she is? She is but a wile—a glamor and guise in complexion and bearing and fashion. Whereas I am traditional; very traditional. Pale-skinned, raven-haired, and wearing a respectful kimono for this festival, as is only proper. My sweet, sweet Nie! Please look at me and see me smiling! Please smile back! That is all I ask.
They stop by a charm shrine. Nie buys a silver ofuda amulet and tries to give it to Uba. Ah ha! You stupid hussy, what will you do now? She turns away and my poor Nie is crestfallen. He does not understand. Of course not! How could he? I see my opportunity and wave to him. He sees me, sees my smile, but turns away, following that Ganguro slut as she slips away— never far away from him, but always in sight among the throngs of people lining this street. Dear Nie! Do not follow her! It is but a game, and she will lead you on and on.
He has dropped the amulet. I dare not pick it up. It is meant for Uba, and I will never accept secondhand gifts.
But I will accept you, Nie!
Beneath the spherical lanterns Uba and my Nie reconcile. They stand in front of a Niomon, the two wooden warriors standing guard before the shrine. The warriors’ expressions are fierce, unflinching, and Nie wants to go inside to pay respects to his dead. Again, she drifts away, aloof, pretending at upset. He follows her like a forlorn puppy— follows her golden thighs and hot pink skirt and flower-blasted tanktop. It is an illusion, Nie! It is all an illusion!
They slip farther away from the shrine, and the center of town, nearing the outskirts. Here the lanterns are like full moons along the streets, hanging from the eaves of shops and shrines and restaurants. Nie and Uba move through the throngs of people as if they are moving through figures of mist, whereas I am caught in the torrential flow. Too many charms here. Too many ofudas. I am snagged on every little bauble, my hair unruly and my barbs and beads tingling with panic and terror and excitement. Tonight was supposed to be our night, Nie. How could you abandon me for that gaudy Ganguro slut?
A woman approaches me, blocking my view of Nie and Uba. She smiles widely— a jagged-lipped smile that is too wide.
“Do I look pretty?” she asks.
“Get out of my way, slut.”
I shove past her. I don’t have time for silly games. My Nie is escaping me, and the night is fleeting.
The woman stoops to pick up her scissors, but they are lost in the crowd.
I am distraught. I cannot see my Nie! My hair is disheveled, and quivering. Nie! My scalp tingles for you! This lantern festival was supposed to be ours to share!

I spot Nie and Uba down the street. Relieved, I slip closer and follow. Nie is walking toward a vendor of sweets.
“Want some mochi?” he asks Uba.
No, my Nie, neither of her mouths eat sweets.
“Yes, please!” Uba says, chiming like a bell. Her voice is sweeter than any ball of sugar and gelatinous rice and red bean paste could ever be. But it is a wile. It is as false as a demon’s bell of summoning.
Sweet Nie buys a large mochi so they can share. Uba pretends to eat it, but does not truly swallow. When they continue down the street her other mouth spits it out from beneath her blonde wig. Oh my naive Nie! You are not meant for her! She is a thief aglitter with gold and stars and pearlescent makeup all stolen. It is an artifice! Do not trust her smile, either! It is falser than a Noh mask of lacquered wood! But my smile, Nie, is genuine, and it is meant only for you. See my smile, Nie, and smile back.

As I follow them I can feel the thunderous drumbeat of drummers down the street. They beat their drums like a storm and I fain think it might rain. But the night is clear, the moon is bright, and the stars sparkle lustrously; far more beautifully than those painted-on stars adorning Uba’s rounded cheeks. It is Obon season and the air is warm as if it, too, is celebrating the lantern festival. But I only feel cold. A chilly fear consumes me. Nie, please! Come back to me! I only wish to see you smile.
A handsome man in a tuxedo steps in front of me, grinning. I do not like grins, especially those with sharp teeth. I like smiles, but only Nie’s smiles.
“Hello beautiful,” he says. “Are you lonely tonight?”
“Shut up, dog-face,” I say.
His grin slides into a frown. He has his black hair oiled backwards into a pompadour. He is dashing, or at least he is to some women. To sluts.
“I am not a dog,” he says.
“No, but you’re not my Nie, either,” I say.
He nods, considering me up and down. “Very true,” he says. “Nor would I wish to be.”
“Your tails are showing,” I say.
When he twists around to look behind himself I shove him into a group of schoolgirls that happen to be passing by. He falls down upon one, groping for purchase like a clumsy idiot.
“Pervert!” they scream as he scrambles to get off of their friend. The handsome man tries to apologize as he rises, but grabs one of the standing schoolgirls by the skirt to try to pull himself up. He instead pulls down her skirt.
“Help!” the girls scream.
Several men and women come rushing, striking at the man in the tuxedo. He has so many tails, and yet is still a fool. I walk away. He is not a pervert, but he is desperate. We are all desperate in Obon season Even so, he deserves to be ran out of town, if only for lack of tact. He could have at least followed tradition by wearing a kimono, like me. But he is too conspicuous. Just like Uba, that slutty hag. They are cheating. Breaking the rules. It makes my hair stand on end, like a cat’s. It is quivering in disarray atop my head, trailing down my shoulders and covering part of my face in perpetual shadow. Those people who see me are dismayed and move out of my way.
But not my Nie. He will be able to see my smile, if he would only look. And then he will smile back and all will be well.

I have lost sight of Nie because of the tuxedo fool. I stop by a vendor serving strange meats on sticks. He has a big smile, but not the smile I am looking for. His smile is a mask.
“I am looking for my Nie,” I tell him. “Have you seen him?”
The vendor never blinks, and his smile never falters. His lips never move when he speaks. “Nie, you say?”
“Yes,” I say. “He was with Uba.”
“Lots of young men are with Uba,” the vendor says. He holds up a stick of pork-like meat to emphasize what he means. He does not sweat, even though his food stand is as hot as the underworld itself.
“He is not with her yet,” I say. “That is why I am looking for him.”
“I see,” the vendor says. “Does he look like this?”
He wipes his long kimono sleeve across his face, removing his eyes and nose and mouth. His face is as blank as an egg.
“No,” I say. “Don’t be stupid.”
If the vendor had looks, he would look disappointed.
I walk on, searching for my Nie.
There are two lions loose near the temple. They have silly faces, but they will kill me if I go near them. So I go around the long way, hiding behind a group of children holding a large lantern of Pikachu. The lions do not pay attention to the children.
“Komainu,” I hear someone mutter beside me. I turn and see a bald, turtle-faced man wearing a straw hat over his head. He looks green, like he might throw up at any moment. He swoons now and again, water trickling down his face. “I should have never ventured so far from the water,” he says.
Feeling irritated at his presumptuousness, I shove him out toward the lions. The water under his straw hat spills out almost completely upon the street as he tumbles to the road, frozen in a paroxysm of helplessness. He pleads for help, but people ignore him. The lions circle him and then pounce, tearing him apart. No one tries to help him. Why would they?
While the grimacing lions are preoccupied I go further down the street, looking for my Nie among the countless celebrants. I happen upon a group of children. They are wearing lanterns on their heads— all except one. He is in the middle of them, his head covered with green leaves. He beats a drum. Or at least I think it is a drum at first. Then I realize it is not. He is not even a child. And he has no sense of shame. He leads the children in a crude song:
“Tan-Tan-Tanuki’s balls. No winds ever blowing, but still they go swing-swing-swing!”
The chorus leader beats his hairy drums with a mischievous gleam in his dark-ringed eyes. He thinks he is so funny.
I see my Nie and the slut Uba watching a Bon dance down the street. The dancers are little girls all dressed alike in kimonos colored like pomegranates. My Nie smiles widely, waving to a little girl among the dancers. She smiles back at him.
“She is my sister,” he tells Uba. “She has been practicing the dance for weeks. She wants to do it perfectly.”
“She does it so perfectly!” Uba chimes, smiling widely. Her red eyes sparkle. “Such a sweet little treat she is!”
My Nie nods innocently, not understanding what she means.
“Come, my Golden Boy,” she says. “Let’s go someplace more private.”
Angry now, my hair tingles and twists, tress against tress. I must stop her! He is my Nie!
A trio of priests wade through the crowd. One is dressed in red and the other two in white. They see Uba and Nie walking together. Good! Perhaps they will repel her back into the mountains. They are looking at me now? No! Go after Uba! She is the monster! She must have put a spell on them. I must flee them into the crowds near the sea, then into the trees. And so I do just that. Kneeling down in the undergrowth, I watch the priests. They look around, then stick charms upon the torii gates leading into town. They leave. I weep because I do not see my Nie. Where has he gone? Where has that star-cheeked slut taken him now?

There are people on the seaside, setting their lanterns in the water. The lanterns glow to lead spirits away, or to reconcile ancestors, or to help find young people love, or whatever it is humans think the lanterns do. What it really means is to make an offering. But where is my offering? Where has he gone?
A presumptuous woman waves to me. She is carrying a red peony lantern.
“Hello, Hari,” she says. “Any offerings yet?”
“Uba has my Nie!” I confess to her.
She nods sympathetically. She is pretty, but only in a certain light.
“Then you should let her have him,” she says. “And find another. Anyone would be delusional to think they could take anyone from Uba.”
“You are delusional!” I cry, shoving her aside. She almost drops her lantern. I do not care. I would not care if she turned into a pile of bones in front of all the celebrants.
I walk along the shore, feeling very upset. The sea is serene, but my heart is a tempest. Where has my Nie gone?
I fall to my knees, steeped in bitterness like an overripe tea. What more can I do? My Nie forsakes me. I could have done what Uba has done— I could have painted myself up like a whore. But if he does not want me for me alone, then so be it! I will not even carry a peony lantern to falsify my beauty. Love me, as I am, Nie, or let me rot!
I sit upon the shore, and look out at the languid waves. It is a black sea, but calm. I realize there are two moons in the sky. Gazing indifferently, I sigh. The two moons move closer to the shore, riding a mountainous surge of dark water that rises over me as if it will crash upon the shore. It does not crash, however, but lingers, its two luminous eyes glowing sullenly from within dark torrents. Its shadow engulfs the beach.
“Go away, monk,” I say. “I am in no mood for company.”
The gigantic wave does not leave. It lingers, watching me with its large, luminous eyes. I stand to leave, and the head from the abyss follows me along the shore, its eyes unblinking like an apoplectic pervert. I stop and shout at him.
“Leave me alone!”
“Do you have a ladle?” he asks. His voice gurgles like a drowning man’s, and vibrates like a storm at sea. Otherwise there is silence. Even the wind is as still as a dead thing.
“No!” I say.
“I have a ladle,” he says. “I used it to sink a ship for my offering. The sailors made sweet music as they sank into the sea.”
“I do not care!” I shout. “I only want my Nie!”
The giant head turns left and right, its eyes searching the shoals. “Does he like to swim at night? Take him for a swim tonight and I will show him beautiful wonders at the bottom of the sea.”
I ignore him, leaving the shore behind. I feel upset and lost, for my Nie is lost from me. Oh, how I hate stupid monks!

I walk for a while, feeling dejected. Moaning, I glance up at the forested mountains. There are lights floating in among the trees, like lanterns in the middle of town. They are onibi; lights from souls. A few flare here and there, white and yellow and blue. They remind me that time is fleeting and I must hurry to save my dear Nie from that Gungaro slut. The lights lead the way, trailing up the mountains. They might lead someone else astray, but they will not fool me. They know better.
An onibi moves to block my way— flaming large, like an orb of fury—but when I walk through it, it dissipates and extinguishes like a snuffed cigarette butt. It had likely been a man in its former life; a man both dramatic and ostentatious and empty. Unlike my dear Nie. Nie is not shallow. He has depth to his whole being.
And I yearn to explore those depths.
There she is! I could see that gaudy glow from the other side of Japan. She glows among the shadowy forest path, eclipsed here and there by trees, but unmistakable. She is heading up the mountain with my Nie. If she takes him up to the craggy summit then he will be lost from me forever. All will be over. All will be wasted in this world, and the next.
I hurry to follow them. Passing under the torii gate, I creep up the path, staying far enough away that they cannot see me.
“It is much more beautiful at the top of the mountain,” Uba says. “The stars are closer and the moon brighter. We will be able to see the fireworks much better. It will be so kawaii.”
Her voice chimes again, like the daintiest prayer bell. I want to shove a giant bonsho down her throat and hear what her voice sounds like then.
Toro are on either side of the mountain path, their stone angles gray and green with moss. They are lit, but not by human hands. They burn with the light of the onibi. Farther ahead I see a procession of men and women carrying lanterns up the mountain. They are only kimono phantoms to me, but they all turn to watch that slut Uba with her gilded face and her meretricious getup. They speak to each other like the rustling of leaves. Stupid gossips. Their heads are as empty as their eye sockets. I push my way through their throng. They part like mists, and then become as a mist girdling the mountain. Their lanterns flare off and on like fireflies. What airy-headed fools!
The mountain is high, like a stairway to the stars. I do not know when I can rescue my poor Nie, but it is not right now. I must free him from Uba when she is most distracted, otherwise all will go wrong for me and my Nie.
I pass an abandoned shrine crouching within the woods. Its wooden eaves are covered in lichen and moss and fungus. Its eyes are hollow and dark. Faces— barely discernible from the darkness—stare out from the scrolled eaves of the shrine.
Suddenly, a monk appears out of the mountain mist, grinning.
“Hello, lovely,” he says. “Would you care to…”
“I see past you,” I tell him absently.
He cranes his long, slender neck up, up, up, grimacing, but does not bother me, walking by on his footless stumps. I am so tired of monks today!
Trailing behind Uba and Nie, I listen to their idle chatter.
“I want to go to Tokyo University,” Nie says. “Become a physician. Help people who need it. That is my dream.”
“Wow!” Uba says, her voice like a koto string plucked, its notes lingering on and on. “Cool!”
“You think so?” he asks.
Uba nods emphatically.
You have such a big heart, my Nie. But you waste it on Uba. Give it to me. Please. One smile, my dear Nie. One smile and you will open your heart to me! My hair quivers at the thought of it!
“What do you want to do?” Nie asks the false-faced slut.
Uba pouts. “Oh, I do not know,” she says in a melancholic tone that is still too bright and cheery. “I’m not as smart as you are, my Golden Boy.”
“Sure you are,” he says, rending my heart. “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.”
“I really just want to be a mother,” she says, batting those paste-on eyelashes. They flap like bat wings. “Raise a Golden Boy of my own.”
My dear Nie laughs nervously. She keeps her arm around his waist, holding him close to her lest something take him away from her. But she has taken him from me! The thief! I will win him back, though! She will not have you, my Nie!
A bothersome badger walks in front of me, grinning. Before he can say anything I kick him off the path. The fat little busybody wails as he rolls down a fern-cluttered ravine. I hope he gets stuck and cannot transform himself a way out of it. So many nuisances today! I almost lose Nie and Uba in the woods. I follow fast, but stay silent. I do not want Uba to know I am following her.
My dear Nie. I love you. I yearn for you. No woman can desire you as this heart desires you. Your dark hair and your warm brown eyes—warm as sesame oil over a flame— are mine. Your flesh, though not so pale as mine, is mine, and so delicious in its tone. Come with me! Forsake Uba and her golden makeup! I need you.
I am not so out of touch to know that young Japanese men are jaded now. Black hair and pale skin do not attract like they once did. Such features were once enough to lure a monk from the Path with a wink and a smile. But now? So jaded. So spoiled. They wish for blondes. They wish for fashionistas. No one cares for a drab traditionalist like myself. But Nie…my sweet, sweet Nie…you were supposed to be different. Why do you follow her faux-glow around like an apprentice monk enthralled to a kitsune? You are special to me. Can you not see? Uba is not worthy of you. But I am. You belong to me.
A hairy man leaning on a crutch approaches from down the mountain. He is very old and has only one eye. Perhaps he fought in the War.
“Help me down the mountain, child?” he asks.
I help him down the mountain by kicking his only leg out from beneath him, sending him tumbling to join the badger in the ravine. I have no patience for mischief-makers, especially not on this beautiful Obon night.
Even so, I am squandering my Obon night. This is the night I was supposed to spend with my Nie. I am becoming tired. I am becoming disheartened. Like the moth among the heavy smoke, I grow heavy-headed and drowsy as the bonfires burn on. I will return to sleep soon, but I cannot let that happen until my Nie is mine.
“You could come with me to Tokyo,” my Nie says. “My parents have connections. You could live well in my apartment while I go to school. Would you like that?”
“I like you, my Golden Boy,” Uba says, her elated voice like a clanging bell amidst the silence of the mountain. “What you want, I want.”
“That is wonderful!” Nie says, mincing my heart with the happiness in his voice. “Of course, I can’t let my mother and father know. What would they think? We must keep it a secret for a while. Maybe a year, and then I can let them know we are dating.”
“Whatever you wish, my Golden Boy,” Uba says.
That manipulative slut! She teases him too much, and is unworthy of him. Kabuki harlot! It is all a show to her. But Nie’s feelings are real, and I want him to feel my adoration and know that it is not false like hers. His heart is important to me.
They continue the ascent, and I continue shadowing them. The night grows chilly and Uba holds Nie even more tightly against her. I wish to cry out. To shriek. To rage. But I must not.
I become more disheartened and start to fall behind. Dispirited, I walk more slowly up the mountain, trudging dejectedly beneath all the weight of my languid hair. It no longer tingles. It no longer floats buoyantly. My head hangs low with the weight of it and I stare down at my bare feet as I walk the path with a slowing pace.
Sensing something nearby, I look up. The moon is caught in a web spun wide and vast between two trees. It looks like a large wispy cluster of eggs. A voluptuous woman hangs down from the tree to my right, her breasts falling out of her black kimono.
“What do you do here?” she asks.
“I am fetching my Nie back to me,” I say.
“Oh really?” she says, licking her lips. “Is he handsome? Is he…delicious?”
“He is mine, you slut,” I say. I grab her by her cobwebbed hair and tug her down to the ground. She lands on her head, collapsing into a spasmodic sprawl of many legs. I kick her fat, hairy butt before she can right herself up on her many legs, then I continue through the forest. I have no time for a spinner of lies. She reminds me of Uba, that bitch that has stolen my Nie.
Uba, I may not be able to overpower you, but I will not let you take my Nie. But why would you want him? You are older than me and could have anyone as your Golden Boy. It is sad. It is pathetic. You are always trying to reinvent yourself now. For modern Japan. Whereas I am true to tradition. You have prostituted yourself out with blonde wigs and fake nails and glued-on glitter like some Barbie doll tramp. And you will not steal my Nie. My hair tingles and writhes at the thought of it!

My hair drags behind me, collecting twigs and grass and rocks in its tresses. It is more disheveled than ever now. I feel no hope for it or for my Nie. Obon is ruined! The festival is nearly over!
It is at the summit, beneath a solitary Cherry Blossom tree, that I find my Nie and the Ganguro slut. She sits down upon a flat rock, not unlike a bench. Her pink skirt shrinks away to reveal more of her smooth, caramel-tanned thighs. The conniving harlot!
“Kneel before me, my Golden Boy,” she tells my Nie.
Dutifully, my Nie kneels in front of her. She spreads her knees, drawing my Nie to her with one hand while her other hand pulls her flower-blasted tanktop up, a large breast plopping out. The slut is not wearing a bra.
“Suckle from me, my Golden Boy,” she says, her voice sweet with cheery cadences.
No! My Nie! Don’t! You break my heart! That slut! That harlot! That disgusting bitch.
I circle around the Cherry Blossom tree, entering its shadow to conceal me from the bright moon. Uba is too enthralled with my Nie to notice me. Quietly, I sneak behind her. I am as silent as the unmoving wind. Only my hair makes a sound, and even that is but a soft sibilance unheard beneath the distant music of the lantern festival.
I wait but a moment, steeling myself, and then I leap forward, snatching Uba’s blonde wig away from her hoary head. She gasps and tries to clutch it back, but I hold onto it triumphantly. Her makeup melts off her face like molten gold, revealing her withered old face. Her breast shrivels in Nie’s mouth, along with her thighs and her whole body, until only her true self remains—an ugly old mountain hag.
Nie cries out in terror, flinging himself away from her. I go to his side, helping him stand. His sesame oil eyes are agog and all he can do is point and tremble. Sputtering, he says only one word.
“Yamauba!”
Uba sneers at me as if she will bury me beneath her mountain. Then she looks at Nie and, smiling shamelessly— the old, stubborn crone!—she holds a hand out toward him while with the other she offers him her saggy, pendulous breast.
“My sweet Golden Boy,” she says, her voice now a harsh wind skirling through mountain crags. “Please be my Golden Boy. Please watch the fireworks with me tonight…”
My Nie staggers backwards in horror, gasping. “No!” He turns toward me for strength, and I embrace him and soothe him, scowling at Uba through my lank black hair.
Uba realizes she has lost. I can see it in her red eyes. Glaring balefully, she turns away, leaping down into the nearest ravine, caterwauling wildly while her second mouth atop her head screams in hungry rage from within her scraggly white hair. The valley below echoes with her screams and laughter.
My Nie begins to sob as the fireworks bloom in the night air around us. He sniffles, then wipes his sesame oil eyes dry. He looks at me now, and the fireworks sparkle in his eyes.
“Thank you so much for saving my life,” he says. “My name is Eichi. I owe you…owe you everything!”
He weeps again, his whole body rattling with sobbing terror. My poor Nie!
I wipe his tears away with my sleeves and caress his face. From up above, in amidst the pink-and-white glory of the Cherry Blossom tree, I hear the caw of a crow. It is like the laughter of a tengu. Encouraged, I smile at my Nie with the fullness of my devoted heart. At long last he smiles back.

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My heart hammers in my chest, brimming, and my hair tingles all over my head, now at last fully alive. Nie! My one and only Nie! I want you so much. I want all of you.
My black tresses flail wildly and entwine him, lifting him into the air above me. His screams are lost beneath the thunder of the fireworks. I open my mouth, smiling, and it finally rains as my sweet Nie opens his heart to me.

 

(This story features a lot of Japanese myths and I wrote it as my own “Nie” or “offering” before I stop posting. Blogging encourages me to write, but have I really made any headway as an established writer? Not really. I am once again going to brave the yokai of the traditional publishing world and see if I can submit something a legitimate publisher will want to publish. I have had very bad experiences in the past when attempting to publish anything and, being somewhat thin-skinned, I chafed at the criticisms (sexist against women and men, really?) Anyhow, no more poems or short stories or art. I am disillusioned. Maybe I will post in the future when I gain more traction. Maybe not.

Haiku Haunts

Yamauba
Beware the mountains—
a mother suckles children
to fatten supper.

Kappa
Hydrocephalus
as it steals drowned souls downstream—
good manners prevail.

Umibozu
Though the seas are calm
the ships sink to the dark depths—
lend not the ladle.

Tengu
Coarse, cawing laughter
shakes the trees near the temple,
mocking monks who pray.

Oni
Fearsome, flaming beard
and thirst for bloody battle
as befits a beast.

Komainu
Protectors of shrines,
male and female together,
guarding gates with grins.

Kasabake
One leg to stand on
and only one eye to see,
hiding in plain sight.

Kitsune
Like rain in clear skies
they arrive unexpected,
playing tail-tell tricks.

Jorogumo
Spinning many lies
within silken-threaded beds,
a love to die for.

Venom Pies Part 12

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Hand-in-hand they followed the mysterious woman. Iadne, the Lady of Lorwynne, Edea, her many grandchildren, and her three daughters behind them— they formed a long throng that trailed the radiant woman. She brought them safely through Beggar’s Bog along a path made of mossy flagstones which shimmered like will o’ the wisps. Creatures swarmed hungrily around them, but scattered at the radiance with which the mysterious woman lit their way. She was as a spirit through the darkness, and they cleaved closely to her.
“Where are you taking us?” Iadne asked.
“Unto a tower beyond ages,” she said, “which is mine withal in the present age. ‘Twas built in times of old, before memory of Man, and will remain thus long after Man be no more memory than furrow upon field long neglected.”
The answer did not ease Iadne’s mind, but she had no choice and so resigned herself to whatever lay ahead. Beside her, hand-in-hand, the Lady of Lorwynne trembled and wept. She had, by now, realized that her son was not following their throng.
The swamp gurgled and growled and gibbered menacingly. The children cowered and huddled close to their mothers as the trees crowded them, hung heavily with moss and shadows. In time, however, the stone path led to a stone door in the base of a rounded tower whose height loomed inestimable above. The radiant woman touched this stone door with a pale hand. The door creaked, and screeched, scraping stone upon stone as it opened inward to allow the throng to pass into its inner mysteries. Pausing only to glance back once— as if she, too, hoped that Eseus would suddenly appear from down the path—Iadne led the Lady of Lorwynne within, followed by Edea and her children and grandchildren.
There was no fire in the tower; no hearth or candles for light. Yet, the tower was warm, holding off the chill fog of the swamp. Its air was clear of the miasma that choked with the foul breath of the decaying swamp. The circular stone interior was also illuminated pervasively, though from no visible source. Light simply existed in its vertical tunnel. A staircase spiraled up the flanks of the tower, ascending to the height of the edifice. There were no other rooms or floors—only the bottom floor and the balcony at the uttermost height. The base level had a chair, and a flowery carpet to soften the stone floor. A bed lay in the corner, simple and unadorned, and a table afar from it, burdened with books and scrolls and inkwells. A rack of spices stood near the table, a few iron-cast pans hung from its wooden beams. Last, but certainly not least, was a large cauldron that stood upon squat legs over a pit where ash smouldered. In the pit of the cauldron’s fat black belly there was a liquid that smelled of ginger and lemongrass. The cauldron was large enough for a man to easily boil inside it.
“Verily must I apologize for my meager furnishings,” the radiant woman said. “This tower ‘twas not meant for humanly habitation, nor accommodated by necessity hitherto. Indeed, this tower ‘twas root and stem but an instrument to channel powers beyond Man’s reckoning, now derelict and abandoned by slumbrous minds wherefrom such means were forged.”
The newcomers stared in awe at the edifice looming up around them. Iadne directed Eseus’s mother toward the only chair, easing the weeping woman into the soft leatherback. The Lady of Lorwynne still trembled and wept, and held onto Iadne’s hand, unwilling to let go.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Iadne said to the radiant woman. “My friend is harrowed with woe.”
“Thou be welcome to all hospitality thou seem fittest,” the woman said. “Thy suffering be vast, and aspireth vaster still afore thy fates be consummate.”
“Thank you,” was all Iadne could say to that, for she had difficulty understanding the meaning of the woman’s antiquated words.
“Hither warmth resideth,” the woman said, walking toward the cauldron. She stirred it with a ladle, and the liquid steamed faintly. Raising the ladle to her lips she sipped from the liquid, then gestured for her guests. “Soon thou will sup, yet at present moment refresh thy hearts and health with mine simple brew.”
Edea stepped forward, the first among the guests. She did not seem distrustful of their hostess, and, indeed, approached quite willingly.
“I doubt it is so strong a brew as Spidergrass beer,” she said, “but I will be thankful for any drink to comfort a soul beset with loss.”
Edea sipped from the ladle proffered, and nodded; pleased with the brew. “A goodly tea,” she said. She waved her children and grandchildren over. “Come. Do not be rude. It will chase the chill from your bones, if nothing else.”
Her children and grandchildren formed a line and, in turn, drank from the cauldron. Iadne, too, took her turn, bringing the ladle carefully to the Lady of Lorwynne. The bereft matron drank reluctantly, and her sobs subsided enough that she might speak.
“Thank you for your kindness,” Eseus’s mother said to their hostess. She said nothing else, but leaned back upon the chair, closing her eyes and seemingly falling asleep. Tears still streamed down her cheeks.
“She is the Lady of Lorwynne,” Iadne said. “She has suffered much.”
“I, too, was once the Lady of Lorwynne,” the radiant woman said. “Long ago. Now thou may simply call me Lady Mourningstar.”
Iadne glanced about the tower, then stared at the sole inhabitant of it. This woman— Lady Mourningstar—shined even here, beyond the darkness of the swamp. But Iadne still wondered if it was the shine of a will o’ the wisp leading victims astray.
“We are all grateful for helping us escape our captors,” she said, “but I must know who you are and why you live alone.”
“Alike thy friend I am but a wretched widow in the waning years,” Lady Mourningstar said. “Mine husband long ago lost himself to those greatest of dragons which lurk and hunt and prey upon mischief. Ambition. Pride. Power. Afore him I was contented with my Sisters. Yet fallen I have become, through Love’s bewitching wiles, and hence serve penitence as becometh the All Ways.”
Iadne stared at the radiant lady, and doubted that she could be any older than herself. She was tall and stately and beautiful, her face faulted by no blemish or crease or wrinkle earned by years gone by.
“Momma, I am hungry!” one of Edea’s grandchildren complained.
She was a little girl with her grandmother’s shrewd eyes, and her grandfather’s wild eyebrows. She could have used a brush for her lovely hair, or those eyebrows. The girl’s mother— Edea’s eldest daughter— attempted to hush her, but Lady Mourningstar only smiled and beckoned the child follow her to the stone door.
Lady Mourningstar opened the stone door, without even a touch, and gestured toward the swamp. Soon enough there came frogs and footed fish and lizards and such in a strange throng, hopping into the tower— to the amazement of all, and the suspicion of Iadne—and then further they hopped in a throng very much like the refugees’ own throng had been when coming to the tower. They hopped up into the cauldron and lounged in that herbal broth while the flames were stoked with unseen hands. The broth roiled gradually, simmering at first, then, as the fish and frogs and whatnot succumbed, the broth bubbled to a riotous boil. Lady Mourningstar added fragrant spices— some of which not even Idane or Edea knew the origins of— and stirred the cauldron. The little beasts all died contentedly, it seemed.
Iadne was beset with a fear that such a fate would befall them, too, in this strange tower. She watched these proceedings with growing apprehension.
Lady Mourningstar bid the women to use the ladle and scoop out the food, setting them upon her pans. The children all gathered around and, once the morsels had cooled enough, chewed at the bulging-eyed little creatures. They were Spider clan children, after all, and so were used to such untamed fare. And hunger was always the most appetizing ingredient of all. They indulged with relish and satisfaction.
The children ate until they could eat no more. The women ate, too, excepting the Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne. Afterwards, the ordeal and the tea and the food overcame the refugees. Some laid on the bed while others laid on the comfortable rug. All slept well, except Iadne. She could not sleep. She was tired, but she was also wary. It was not only a wariness of Lady Mourningstar, but also a general suspicion that things were conspiring against her. It all seemed a trap, nor was she, in the coming days, ever certain she escaped the trap. She wondered, increasingly, if she had aided it in ensnaring her.

***

The Lady of Lorwynne regained her spirits enough the next day to eat. She was not as happy with the fare offered by the swamp as Edea’s family, but she thanked her host nonetheless and ate what she could with the gratitude remaining in her. She did not talk, but she did listen to the children play in the tower. Their laughter spiraled up the tower like a flock of birds, nesting there in a gaggle for a happy hour or two. Listening to them, she wished that Eseus had had more time as a child to play games— more time for games and laughter and happiness.
Duty had been an omnipresent tyrant worse than any Valorian emperor.
Meanwhile, Iadne held the clew in her robe, and awaited its growth. It swelled, as did her silent rage. She wished she knew how she might steal Eseus back from his cruel cousin. Yet, she had no standing army, nor could she convince Eseus to abandon his people. All she had left was his child, growing within her womb alongside her rage.
Edea attempted to console Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne with the help of her children and grandchildren. Such attempts allayed the pain and the rage for a time, but the ebbing of such tides always gave way to flow afterwards in Iadne’s heart. When she had no other recourse, she turned the clew over and over again in her hands, Willing upon it wrathfully.
Days passed slowly, and the nights even slower. Iadne recalled what Percevis had said about the labyrinth that was time, and she could feel the walls slowly pressing from all sides.

***

All of the Oxenford peasants were arranged on either side of the Road to greet the caravan as it arrived. They cheered as if their very lives depended upon such a raucous display, and so their lives did. Though they smiled and shouted jubilantly, fear haunted every visage, gleaming in each eye like daggers readied at their throats. Pomp and pageantry abounded as if to further humiliate Eseus, but he was too dejected to be indignant as he was marched toward his cousin, sitting exultant upon her silver throne as four large men carried her into the Oxenford courtyard.
Eseus hated her, but he hated himself more. He had betrayed his mother and Iadne. He only hoped they had made it safely away from the soldiers without injury. He knew Iadne would see to the rest, being wise to the moorlands. He hoped both would forgive him in time.
His father had warned him that to rule was not a privilege, but a needful sacrifice; or so it should be for any noble and just ruler. He hoped his father would be proud of him, even as his son was held by his enemy, steeped in his shame. Swallowing his pride, Eseus knelt before his cousin and pleaded for the lives of his people.
“Dear cousin,” he said, “though I have raised arms against you, it was to protect my people, and now that they are hither brought to you, please pardon them for my misdeeds.”
Kareth wore a tiara upon her brow, woven of a whitish silver found only in the Sinking Mines of the moorlands. It was intricately molded in beauteous facsimile of flowers and vines. Opals, like glittering poison berries, were entwined among the spiraling leaves and stems.
“You have accomplished much,” she said, her smile never faltering. “So much to oppose me…and yet, a pebble was never a dam against the river. The waters carry it away as well, overlooked in the rapids. Thus, Fate cannot be overwritten. So. Here we are. Heir to Oxenford and heir to Lorwynne. Do you wish to parley? I believe you have earned that much. Indeed, I was quite surprised at your resourcefulness.. And you were quite the warrior in the battle. But you were destined to be overtaken, cousin, and regardless of your best efforts you achieved a mere protraction both needless and vexing. But vexing to yourself, for it amounted to little more than suffering. Take, for instance, the fact that had you simply allowed my preliminary party to assume control of the castle, not one father, son, brother, or grandfather need to have died. You needed only allow Commander Vant free rein and spared countless lives. But, no, your stubbornness prevailed and because of it over a thousand men are now dead. A thousand men that could have served me loyally had their Lord been possessed of more insight into the truth that towered over him like an ill-tempered god.”

***

Kareth’s coronet sparkled with diamonds like stars, and the silverwork was finely beaten and molded to delicate arabesques. Below the coronet, her green eyes sparkled, and yet there was no warmth in them; they sparkled like the green ice of the Aurora shores—that cold waste where nothing grows and nothing lives and is the immaculate domain of death.
Her silky dress conformed to her slim figure unabashedly, dyed deeply a dark vermillion as if soaked in the blood of the slain. The surety of her walk, and her gaze, was evidenced in every lax gyration of her stride and bespoke power and doubtless certainty of control over all whom she lay eye upon or spoke word to. Only her shadow seemed amiss in this, for she had none; though a candlelight night etched black shade upon hard stone from the most fleeting of specks, it issued nothing cast in semblance of her contours, nor did silhouette dare parody her form through curtain or draper. She had control most absolute, and not even her own shadow mocked her. Such was the way of a true sorceress steeped in her own vanity.
“The time has come for your Queen to wed,” Kareth said. “And it has often been said by my dear, departed father that the heir of Oxenford and the heir of Lorwynne should join together, united their houses. Yet, that was before the betrayal that stole my father from me.” Her voice was icy indifference. She did not attempt to guise it with feeling of loss or grief. “Thus, breaking from tradition I wish to set a new precedent. Now I ask all of my cousins—“ She turned toward the entourage of nobles. “—I ask who among you would dare to take up arms against the slayer of my father and, thus, save me from the ignominy of joining such a wicked heart to my own?”
Eseus looked among his kin, and saw many with angry visage, yet none with actionable courage. His grandaunt spoke to his dandy cousin, but he dared not budge. Eseus thought it a pity, for he would have gladly slain the foppish fool, even if for Kareth’s idle entertainment.
“Shall I have none to defend my honor?” Kareth asked, a hand to her heart and the imitation of a woeful brow. “Very well then. I will set another precedent. I extend this offer to anyone, regardless of birth. If you slay my treacherous cousin then you will find a lifelong wife in me.”
There was an immediate bellow among the crowd; deep and bellicose and beastly.
“I shall split him head to groin and feed his craven loins to the Crows of the Moor!”
There stepped forth Kareth’s handmaiden— that broad-shouldered, towering figure of unfeminine bulk and bravado. With large, meaty hands she unwrapped her head of her scarf and wimple, and let her frumpy frock fall from her burly body. Men and women averted their eyes, but when the frock fell away there stood before Eseus now a large man with cruel eyes encircled in blackened blood. He wore black vestments over chainmail, and a cape of black feathers.
“He is your rival,” Kareth said. “Lord of the Moor, Crovanus, heir to the Crow clan. With him will you fight for my honor. My father is not here to disapprove. But to think that the Lord of the Moor walked beneath father’s very nose! Many a laugh have I had to think of it.”
Kareth spoke freely of the ruse, and no one among the crowd dared to question her; not her family or her serfs or soldiers. When she ordered a soldier to return Eseus’s sword to him, there was no hesitation. Eseus held once again the sword of Lorwynne; that sword with which his father entrusted him. Crovanus, too, claimed a weapon. It was a barbarous thing to behold, as were all Crow clan weapons.
Crovanus circled around Eseus with a hefty stride, each ponderous step promising violence.
“I have changed my mind,” Crovanus said. “I will not kill you. I will geld you and render you a dog to feed on scraps from beneath my table. You shall be my Fool. When I am angry I shall kick you and beat you and grab you by the scruff of your neck and shake you until you piss yourself. And then I shall laugh at you. Everyone will laugh at you.”
Eseus said nothing. Talk was a distraction. He focused on the weapon the Crow’s heir gripped in his hands: a triple-bladed scythe with a handle like a crow’s foot. The weapon was large, and would have been encumbering for a smaller man, but Crovanus swung it easily one-handed, resting it against his shoulder.
Eseus leapt forward into the slash, catching the handle on his shoulder, the impact shuddering throughout his body, and then he thrust his sword toward Corvayne’s heart. But the Lord of the Moor caught the blade with his naked hand, turning it aside with his bleeding fingers. At first Eseus was too taken aback to react, but as Corvayne raised his triple-scythe to cut Eseus down, Eseus wrenched his sword free of Corvayne’s grip, severing his fingers to rain upon the floor while Eseus ducked below the sickles’ savage slash. The Lord of the Moor was never daunted, even at the loss of his fingers, but rather was enraged, flailing his sickles wildly with one hand, his renewed vigor waxing while his other hand bled from its stumpy bones. Being much larger than Eseus, Corvayne would have soon overpowered the Lord of Lorwynne had the former not had a defter hand and greater patience. Turning aside each blow, Eseus circled and resumed the center of the room, commanding it while deflecting and parrying the Crow’s crude weapon. Kareth stood by her vanity, her habitually calm composure now transmogrified unto childish glee. To see her so utterly rapt infuriated Eseus.
His shoulder was knitted with catgut and salved with honey, then padded with cloth. He was not allowed time to rest or recover. His terrible destiny awaited him.

***

The marriage ceremony was brief. No one challenged Eseus thereafter; not even those among the Crow clan that were doubtlessly present, disguised among the peasantry. The Oxenford family scowled as Eseus and Kareth were wed before the Matharist priest. Fear stayed their tongues, nonetheless, and they were was impotent to stop the ceremony as they were to stop the sun rising and falling. Kareth took pleasure in the outrage so visibly etched on their silent faces. She would marry the man who allegedly conspired to slay her father? Yes, she would, if only because no one else dared to challenge him for her hand. Even wounded, Eseus intimidated them all. Their shame, too, seemed to please her, and she smiled to see their chagrined grimaces; their eyes averted in confusion and humiliation.
Thereafter came the festivities, including the Flight of the Bulls. Several young peasant men and soldiers stripped to their undergarments and were led into a large pen of palisades, their sharp stake teeth pointed inward. There awaited them a large bull antagonized by whips and canes. It charged about wildly, snorting and bellowing as it rampaged in every direction. Seeing the men, its fury found focus and charged them. The young men had to leap over the horned heads of the raging beast, or aspired to do so. Many young men were gored or trammeled, or gashed themselves upon the palisades. Those few who managed the acrobatic fear of leaping over the bull were crowned with berry stems and given a mushroom wine to drink. Those who were injured were tended and treated by healers. Many died before they could be tended to. Eseus never learned how many. And while he was not grateful that the men of Lorwynne were dead, he was glad they had not died for his cruel cousin’s idle amusement. Even so, it shamed him to sit and do nothing while Kareth giggled at the grotesqueries of the barbaric tradition that had been outlawed by his own father.
Kareth saw the horror on his face and smiled with pleasure.
“You disapprove, dear husband?”
“It is…a waste of brave men,” he said.
“Not so brave, half of them,” she said lightly. “Did you not see how they fled from the bull? That was their unmaking. You must not flinch or flee, but must surmount the obstacle directly. Without hesitation. There sit three young men who managed the simple feat. A goblin could have achieved it, had he the inclination, and so it is no great thing for mortal men.”
She turned to face him, then, staring into his eyes, her green-ice eyes unblinking and focused, yet empty of any feeling at all except, perhaps, the demand of obedience.
“But for you and I, Eseus, the bull we face would trammel the world were it not tamed by the steadiest and most ruthless of hands. You understand my will. You comprehend my aims. Will you be beside me on my chariot of Empire, or will you be detritus beneath its wheels?”
She did not give him time to answer. She simply turned away and raised her goblet, clearing her throat, impatiently, as a servant hastened to pour more wine, like blood, into the gaping mouth of the goblet. She sipped from it, staining her pink-petaled lips a darker crimson, then clapped her hands to call attention to herself, the soft impact of her dainty palms killing the festivities and music unto a solemn, wary silence. She then pointed to the bull still raging within the palisades.
“Tame the beast,” she said. “Make cold its heart.”
Oxenford soldiers hurried toward their task, carrying long spears. The bull was impaled all at once, then butchered for its meat and hide; its breath not yet vanished from the cooling Moor air. The head Kareth took for her own, esteeming it as a centerpiece for the wedding banquet table. Its eyes were still apoplectic with rage. It stared at Eseus, and he bethought he could see auguries in such dead, yet still somehow hateful, eyes.