Category Archives: Complete

Gone Fishin’

Please forward all correspondence to SpaceJunk.

I’m wondering if there’s some web-parallel service to a Winter Caretaker, someone who could come by once a month and open the windows, dusting and airing the rooms out in the summer, then battening down the hatches come autumn, while keeping the water running a bit in the winter to make sure the pipes don’t freeze up, and then coming around to make the minor repairs needed in the spring…basically, someone to do the little bits of daily upkeep that prevent a structure from becoming a ruin.

I wonder this because I’m going to be moving on from here.  Pretentiously Eloquent Microfiction is closing up shop, boarding up the windows and putting in a change of address form.

A while back, I speculated on what to do with this site…it began as a novelty, a place to record my returning ability—and willingness—to write, and what was driving me at the time was short bursts of language, Pretentiously Eloquent Microfiction, as I originally defined it on day one.

I had realized that, over time, my work—fiction and non—had moved away from that structure, and was of two minds about what to do:  do I change things around here, reflecting the evolution of what I’m working on now and how I want to share it?  Or do I keep things as-is, a reminder of what’s come before, and a desire to maintain a realistic history, at least as much as you can online.

And I decided, then, to keep on keeping on.  P.E.M. is critically important to me, as much a part of what defines me in this last half-decade of my life as my family and my new career.

But the time has come for me to realize, and acknowledge, that the work begun here, lo many years back, hasn’t just changed in direction:  it’s complete.  As in, over.  Something new is come ‘round, and it just doesn’t fit here anymore.

So, I’m turning out the lights and locking the door behind me.  I may return to these parts at some point in the future—if publishing my fiction on the web ever again becomes something that I feel I need to do, it’ll end up here.  But it’s time for some new scenery.

So update your bookmarks, if you will:  SpaceJunk.

These are my new online digs.  Something shiny, with different places to arrange the furniture and a new view outside the windows.  I’ve migrated some of the least-fiction-related posts from here over there already, just so we have something to build from, and now that I’m getting comfortable there, and feeling somewhat freed from the original strictures that were built here, you may even find me posting there more often there than I have been here of late…though, of course, the Rules of Engagement still hold.

And in case this truly is the last post that will go up here, I want to end it with something that it began with, something important that reminds me—and I hope encourages you to do the same—that intent is everything, and the baggage and previously-existing conditions surrounding a thought, or emotion, or situation, can and must be re-evaluated, so that it becomes meaningful to you, and you’re not just absorbing the meaning that others have given it as your own:

“We’re deathly afraid of that stabbing word ‘pretentious,’ the word that students use to curse each other’s ambition.  It’s a young person’s word, a shortcut-to-thinking word. I’m a big fan of pretension.  It means ‘an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment.’  It doesn’t mean failing upward.  It means trying to exceed your grasp.  Which is how things grow.”

– Warren Ellis

 

New-to-you – Over

Woah, did I say in my last post that an old story of mine was going up “tomorrow”?  Which would have been, like, a month ago?  No, I couldn’t have.  I think, when I typed “tomorrow”, what I meant to type was “sometime in September”, I just spelled it really, really wrong.

So here’s the one I was talking about.  Posted exactly when I said I would.


Over

There’s music playing in the background, badly.  The selection could use some improvement as well.  We were speculating earlier that the musician is probably related to the restaurant’s owner—nepotism, that great equalizer.  But I’m into my third glass of wine—miles behind my rambling friend here—and the buzz is smoothing out the rougher edges nicely.  Even Barry Manilow on an out-of-tune guitar is bearable after your third Merlot.

It’s a small restaurant.  “Atmosphere” they advertise; cramped it is.  You can only apologize for so many inadvertent elbows for so long before it all descends into absurdity.  Or a brawl.  Thankfully, this appears to be a crowd of the former.  My knees, on the other hand, are black and blue and know the underside of our off-balance table too well.  I imagine I’ll be feeling them—and everything else—rather vividly tomorrow morning.  God bless Merlot—but God really loves two aspirin and a glass of water before bed.

It’s an Italian restaurant, supposedly.  The menu is in Italian, and there’s enough garlic hanging to invade Transylvania with, but there isn’t a pasta dish or a clam in sight.  It’s good, don’t get me wrong; in fact, it’s already gone.  It’s getting pretty late, and most of the new customers wandering in are wearing blazers and pearls—it’s time to go.  Except our second bottle’s only half empty, and we both know we’ve only got a few more of these Romantic Evenings left in us, so we’re lingering.

It’s over, almost, for us.  You couldn’t tell from the outside, and, hey, we’re doing a pretty decent job of ignoring it ourselves.  But we’re lingering, and we know it.  It’s not exactly devastating.  Oh, hopefully it’ll happen as a fight, so she can cry and throw things and I can yell and get righteously pissed-drunk afterwards.  But it’s coming regardless.  I can feel it lurking just a couple of tomorrows away.

So, we linger.

But we’re not the only ones.  Just across the aisle from us, actually.  She’s by herself, has been since we first came in.  I can only imagine the scene we missed.  Just as we were showing up, a big, burly man came storming out of the restaurant’s front door.  I hope to God I never have on my face the expression he had on his.  He looked damned.  Like whatever had been haunting him had finished its work and seen that it was good.  He brushed by us without noticing, and I probably would’ve forgotten all about it except, when we went inside, the place was silent, not a word or a clank or warbly Fmaj7 cord in sight.  And all eyes were on this woman, this woman we ended up sitting just across the aisle from.

If he looked bad, she was worse.  Still is, as far as my surreptitious glances can tell.  Her table is as small as ours, and was set for two, but—and this is what’s absolutely killing me, and probably her as well—along the edge of the table are four or five crayons, strewn across a half-finished child’s activity place-mat.  The man who left didn’t have a little one in tow behind him, and there’s no one else at the table with her now, and so the question I still haven’t been able to answer is:  where the hell is the kid? I don’t know and still don’t know.

She has a glass of wine—whatever plates and silverware she had were picked up a while ago—and occasionally she takes a polite sip from it, probably without realizing she’s doing it.  She doesn’t look like she’s paying much attention to anything right now.  I’ve seen couples waiting by the door for a table, and given how rude our waiter has been to us, I’d expected someone to ask her to leave a long time ago.  But they haven’t yet.  In fact, part of the crampedness at our table is a result of everyone who uses the aisle’s swerving around her, ending up in our laps.  And no one’s staring anymore.  Maybe there is some compassion left in this world after all, people who won’t kick you, no matter how gently, out of their way when you’re down.

Her make-up is still in place, same with her hair.  She doesn’t look like she’s been crying.  Her dress is nice but doesn’t look very expensive.  If I had to guess I’d say she was just the other side of thirty.  She’s wearing a bracelet and stud earrings but nothing on her fingers or around her neck.  If I weren’t still lingering, I might wonder if she was attractive.  Her napkin is folded in her lap, a streak on a dangling end showing that it’s done its job.  But I can’t get over those crayons.  They aren’t set so that she or the person sitting across from her would have used them.

What happened?

I think it’s time to go.  There’s still a little wine left, but I have some more at home if we need it.  No more lingering; dinner’s over.

New Fiction: “Purified”

Okay, the major pay markets have passed on this thing, so now it’s time to share it with you all.  There are plenty of sub-pro-rates magazines, both physical and online, that I could submit to, but I’m with Scalzi on this:  I know what this is worth, and if they’re not going to pay that, then they don’t get it.

It should shed some light on why the first book of the trilogy will be called Purified: Fire…this story takes place in the same universe, some 20 years before the events of the book.  There are some definite echoes in Chapter 7.  I may post later on how this particular story came about in the course of working on the book, but that’s not for tonight.

It’s long, but this is not a fragment or excerpt:  it’s the whole thing, so settle in and enjoy.

Oh, and some new music before I step aside:  Jets Overhead.  Like Radiohead if they’d decided to keep writing actual songs instead of trying to redefine what a song should be.


Purified

The salt crust, hard and brittle under his feet.  When he started off, he could feel every grain with his soles, breaking apart as he passed, but now, after so many miles, they are numb.  He at least has it easier than the men—their weight breaks through the crust, to the sucking mud underneath, while he is slight enough to walk upon the surface, as long as he does not follow in their footsteps.

His name is Samal, which means both Eagle and The Hunter in the holy language of his people, which only the tribal chieftains are allowed to use now, and this is the first time he’s been this far from home without his father and his father’s guard.  The men before him were selected by lottery, chosen by chance, to bear witness to this rite.  In the front is Aga-Narim, his father’s horse-lord and closest advisor, and they follow him, through the salt plains, to the steppes beyond.

The sun is a weight overhead, but there is a bitter wind sweeping down from the steppes that brings chills instead of cooling relief.  There are no oasis here, none this far east from his father’s camp.  There will likely be some water to be found once they leave the plains behind, but they plan and rely upon only what they can carry.  Samal’s skin is heavy, slung diagonal across his chest, the water inside resettled so the leather bites at his shoulder and presses at his hip.  There is pain, and the faint wet salt of blood in his mouth from broken lips, dried from the dry salt air blowing around him.  And this is good.  This he can do, this he can survive. He affixes each moment, before it comes, in his mind, accepting it, defining it.  And every step is proof, a victory over the barrier between this moment and the next.  He wishes his path was even harder, like the men he follows, the better to define each moment of pain, but he will not walk in their footsteps, will not fabricate a challenge that would not otherwise be there.  He did not ask to accompany Aga-Narim on this journey, would not have insisted on it; his father drew his own lots, to see which of his family would bear witness, and pulled Samal’s name out.  Which is as it should be.

As the day moves on, they near the end of the plain.  The men do not speed their pace, but it’s clear from their gait that their path is easier, as the salt crust becomes a dusty layer, thinning by the miles, and the ground beneath drier.  The stitched leather sandals on his feet did not protect him from the harsh grain of the salt, and do not now prevent the growing heat from burning through to his skin.  By the time the sun is nearly set behind them, and the sky before them the dark purple of old blood, he is fighting to keep his legs moving, the challenge of pain forgotten.  The moments have blurred, one into the other, until all he is sure of, all he can define, is his own passage through.

Aga-Narim reaches the first actual hill of the steppes, the thinnest layer of grass sparse across the crown, and stops.  A few of the men, heads bowed and numb by the day’s march, don’t notice this, and continue on down the far side until their companions call them back.  Others reach the first hint of an incline and fall to their knees, too tired to weep at the relief the halt brings.  Samal does neither, choosing instead to walk until he is beside Aga-Narim, standing tall (enjoying the burning spreading up and down his legs and back as he straightens to his full height), and looks off into the distance, trying to mimic the genuine and profound searching he sees on the older man’s face.  Aga-Narim does not notice him, not at first, and does not acknowledge him as he turns his back on the steppes and sets to making camp for the night.

There are nine of them, total:  seven witnesses from the tribe, all men, all fathers of at least 3 children (at least one male), owners of their own horses but not yet elders, bearing the Aba honorific to their names but not yet Aga; there is Samal, the witness of the Kigan’s own blood (whose own honorific awaits with his father’s death, hopefully many years hence); and Aga-Narim himself, who will likely die tomorrow, his success judged not in the details of the outcome but in the purity of the path he takes to get there.  He must make his own preparations tonight, but first there is food, and warmth, and helping those who have worn themselves too thin today to care for themselves tonight.  Samal follows him to help set up the camp.

While Aga-Narim begins laying out bedrolls and sorting through the food they have brought, Samal sets to lighting a fire.  Aga-Narim would normally handle this, but until the rite is completed the following day, he can touch neither fire nor water; he has brought a thin nectar in his water skin, and will sleep far from the rest of them and the fire they’ll use to keep warm.  Fire and water are agents of purity, though which both order and chaos reach their full measure, and Aga-Narim cannot allow himself to be nourished by either until his fate is decided.

Samal says the proper prayers as he mixes the dried horse dung they’ve brought with some of the picked green grass from the hill, to sweeten the scent, and concludes his prayers as he strikes the flint, waiting for a spark to catch.  The wind is still high, though, and no sparks fall close enough to light the fuel.  He crouches lower, creating a small indent on the side, trying to cast a spark into its slightly wind-guarded center, and then the cramps hit.  Both legs give out, bringing him crashing to the ground, then spasm straight, kicking the pile of fuel apart, scattering most of it to the wind.

The pain has been patient, attacked when he thought himself safe, and finally won.

He feels hands, holding him down, and others going to work on the muscles in his legs.  The pain is even worse now, almost beyond measuring, as strong fingers dig into the burning knots that, for now, have become the definition of the beginning and end of his world.  The knots fight back, the spasms worsening, and he’s finally overwhelmed for a moment, or three, passing out from the intensity of the pain.

When his consciousness returns, dust slowly falling away from his mind, allowing him to parse the world around him again, the pain is still there, rippling through his thighs and calves, but has mellowed to a steady background, allowing room in the foreground for him to think.  He stirs, raising his head weakly and opening his eyes.  There is the chaotic flicker of flames off to the side, far enough away that his eyes don’t have to adapt to the small, pulsing light it gives.

He tries to speak, but his lips, mouth and throat are too dry, and won’t work properly.  There is suddenly a hand at the back of his neck, helping to support his slightly-raised head, and then the nozzle of a water skin at his lips.  He opens, heart racing a bit at the expectation of cool, crisp water about to come, beginning the process of restoring him…and nearly gags as a liquid thicker than water, sweet and clinging, pours out over his lips instead.

He is allowed only a mouthful before the skin is pulled away, and after recovering from the initial shock, finds that the nectar helps almost as much as the expected water would have.  After a moment, he is able to raise himself up further, supporting his weight on his folded elbows, and whispers a question as he looks around to see where he is now.

“What happened?”

He can see the small fire in the distance, maybe fifty yards away, the shapes of men highlighted around it.  They are not speaking–it’s quiet enough to hear the dull crackle of burning manure even at this distance.  He can see the stars overhead, clear and brilliant, filling the sky, except for a small dark area to his side, a shape, answering him.

“Your legs cramped.  Too much, too far in the heat.  How do you feel?”

He can hear genuine concern in Aga-Narim’s voice, which is a new thing.  Before now, Aga-Narim has rarely spoken to him, and then only in formal occasions as the chief’s son, or to tell him to move out of the way, as a child.

“It hurts.”

“Can you stand?”

Samal pushes himself to a sitting position, stretching his legs out before him, making sure that they will respond to his intentions, then slowly bending them, bringing them under him, and rising to his feet.  There is pain, and a surprising amount of weakness; his left leg nearly buckles, and he totters on the edge of balance, but is able to hold himself firm, and finally is standing, happier than he would like to admit at being able to accomplish what should be such a simple task.

“Good.  Stay up, and walk a bit, or your legs will grow cold and stiff, and you’ll be in even worse shape tomorrow.”

Samal begins to tentatively move about, focusing on the basic act of placing one foot in front of the other.  He stays near to Aga-Narim, not yet venturing over to the other men and the fire, not until he’s sure of his own mobility…and until he can find out why Aga-Narim has brought him over here, to his camp, away from the group.

“Why am I here?”

To Aga-Narim’s credit, he makes no joke, and answers Samal directly.

“When the cramps hit, the fuel for the fire was scattered.  Aba-Binet decided it was a ‘sign’.”  Samal can hear the disgust in Aga-Narim’s voice.  Binet is not much liked in his father’s tribe.  He has earned the Aba honorific, but only barely:  he owns what is technically a horse, but only children can ride it, and only then if they’re gentle.  There’s certainly no risk that it will ever help Binet achieve the Aga honorific, which requires a full stable, born of a strong bloodline of at least three generations.  Were he a better man, this wouldn’t be cause for the tone in Aga-Narim’s voice (one that Samal has heard often when Binet’s name has been mentioned, even from his father).  Each man is entrusted to do what he can with what he is given, and good men have done great things with less.  But Binet is a gentle fanatic, finding “signs” in every inconsequential event in the course of a day, placing more faith in how a random shadow or a spilled cup reveals the true will of Fire and Water than he does in the other members of his tribe, and even–on a few memorable occasions–his Kigan’s will.  He would not have been any man’s choice to accompany Aga-Narim as a witness to this rite, but no man chose him.  It was chance, or the purpose of purity (depending on the devoutness of the observer) that chose him, and now he is here, fulfilling his role.

“He believes that the Fire has abandoned you, and thus you are to join me in tomorrow’s rite.  The other Abas were too weak to argue, and my voice is no longer heard by them.”

It takes a moment for the meaning of this to sink in.  Samal is the Kigan’s heir, and his role in this journey was supposed to be ceremonial, serving as a witness to the events but nothing more.  If he is to join Aga-Narim tomorrow, as a participant…he will die.  There is no debating this:  Aga-Narim will die, is expected by all (including himself) to die, and he is a full-grown man, a bound warrior and master of the Kigan’s stables.  Samal is barely thirteen, skinny and still somewhat awkward in his movements as his body grows, sometimes seemingly overnight.

“I…he…”

He holds his tongue before stammering any more; he knows the answers to the questions he’s trying to ask, even before they make it from his mind to his lips.  Yes, Binet has the authority to do this…the seven Abas chosen as witnesses are the final word, what they see and what they say they see is what happens, their observations defining the moment.  That is why the lottery is used, selecting them at random, and only from the Aba ranks–worthy of respect, but without a formal vote in the tribal council, and so hopefully without hidden agendas to pursue.  Once they, as a group, decided that he was outcast and a participant in the rite, there is no argument to be made.

He is going to die.  The words mean nothing to him, echoing off the sudden vast emptiness and shadow within him.  He reaches for the ground below him to steady himself, and finds he is still standing, somehow.  His head feels as though it is starting to drift off and away…though maybe it’s all a matter of perception, maybe he is still and everything else is falling away.

“I…what do I do?”

He has never spoken so openly, not since he was very young, and asking his mother this or that.  He is unable to help himself, though; embarrassment and weakness have ceased to be concerns.  While he cannot yet bring himself to believe that he will die tomorrow–rather, he is beginning to believe that those words are true, he is just unable to understand what they mean anymore, he might as well open his mouth and howl at the moon, for all the sense it makes to him now–he finds a quick and dramatic shift in priorities happening…embarrassment, weakness, pride…these are silly notions, when offered in alternative to truth, and life.

“You can eat this,” Aga-Narim tosses him a small object, an oat-cake, uncooked, mixed with honey, “and get to sleep.”

“Isn’t there–”

“No.  If you cannot do something as simple as sleep, even in the face of what comes in the morning, then nothing I could say tonight would make any difference.”

Samal begins to gnaw on the oat-cake, noting that Aga-Narim is eating one himself, and realizes that this is one of the first stages of the rite.  Nectar to drink, instead of water, and a meal to eat that’s been untouched by both fire and water.  In spite of himself, and the steadfast refusal of his mind to accept that this is happening, to even place value or meaning on the words, he feels a deeper unthinking part of him beginning to accept what’s to come…or, at least, what has already come to pass.  The small details of the night before—no fire, no water, physically separate from everyone else–are steps forward, small but inarguable.  He may try to deny what lies at the end of the path, but cannot deny the steps his feet have already made.

A certain boldness begins to rise in him.  He has always been deferential to Aga-Narim, and with good reason.  Beyond the simple protocol of child (regardless of his blood) to one with Aga before his name, and the obvious and constant respect that his own father holds Aga-Narim in…Aga-Narim is an imposing man.  Tall, broad shoulders, but possessing a surprising agility, even the most mundane efforts combined of movements far more quick and subtle than you could expect.  Since first earning his vote on the tribal council (nearly 20 years ago, at a very young age, the youngest in many generations), he has been the Kigan’s most important supporter, providing Samal’s father with consistent advice, unfailing loyalty, and an honor none would dare challenge.  Samal has never been scared of him, not specifically that, but he had realized a long time ago that Aga-Narim was worthy of great respect, had earned every bit of it, and was not to be taken lightly.  Not by the Kigan, not by any of the other elders, and certainly not by an awkward boy.

And now…now, Samal is just hours away from joining Aga-Narim in certain death, shortly after the next sunrise.  He is no less worthy of respect—if anything, his choice, this rite, has increased what he is due–but they share something now, and Samal thinks–is not completely sure, but thinks–that he has heard some respect back from Aga-Narim since waking, in the words he’s used and the way he’s used them.

And he is emboldened to ask a question he–and many others–have wanted to ask.

“Why?  Are you doing this?”

Only Samal’s father knows the answer–the Kigan must approve and bless any request of purification, especially one so dire, and rare–this is the first time the rite has been attempted since the time of Samal’s father’s grandfather–and in more mundane requests, like a burning or aid with new irrigation lines, there’s no need for secrecy, no point to it.  On this occasion, though–as those who came before him did–the Kigan has kept Aga-Narim’s reasons for seeking the rite to himself, allowing him to pursue his fate without public discussion or debate.  And no one has been able to bring themselves to ask Aga-Narim the question, until tonight.  Samal is hoping that Aga-Narim will decide that the two of them are now joined, together on the far side of the veil, already in the process of passing through.

He cannot see Aga-Narim’s face in the starlight, despite their multitudes, and so does not know the reason he hesitates before speaking…but after some time, he does speak, a full speech, one he has clearly given to himself, in his own mind, many times before.

“Ashadi.  I know, it should be more dramatic.  A rift between your father and me, and this is his way to get rid of me.  Or some secret, horrible flaw, making me hideous if anyone should find out, so best to die alone, quickly, far from the tribe.  But a wife dy–…dying?  That’s cause to drink, or take up new mistresses, unless I’d been the one to kill her, and wrongly so.

“Until today I had prayed that you would someday grow to find someone like her for yourself.  You’d have to marry outside the tribe…all the girls around you are vapid and mindless.

“She was the best part of me.  Every bit of strength I’ve given your father through the years came first from her.  She took every good part of me with her when she died.  Life is still–is always worth living.  But I’m not.  All that’s left in me is impure, incomplete.  My sons are their own, my daughters are married.  If I can’t find some way to purify what’s left of me, then the impurity that remains should not be.”

Samal pauses only a moment before asking the real question, the one lying at the heart of everything Aga-Narim has just said.

“Do you want to die?”

“…I don’t know.

“I don’t think so.

“I don’t think it matters.

“Do you?”

“No.”

“Good.  Drink of this once more, and then sleep.  I’ll wake you before the sun.”

Aga-Narim takes a short pull of the nectar from the skin, then passes it to Samal, who does likewise.  Then they lay, close together, preserving a small amount of shared heat, trying to rest as much as they can in the time they have left.  He thinks that sleep will be a long time coming, but the exertions of the day’s march were great, the needs of his body overwhelming the growing fear in his head and his heart, and soon he is breathing slowly, deeply.

*

Samal feels a shaking, light at first, then harder.  He stirs, opening his eyes and sitting up.  The sun is still down, but he can see a thin band of gold rimming the outline of the steppes to the east.  It is cold, and he is immediately shivering.

“Get up and move.  See how your legs are.”

Aga-Narim is already up and moving around, and Samal rises to join him, wrapping his arms tightly around his chest.  His legs ache deeply, but they work, responding to his commands, and he knows that with a bit more work they’ll be fine, he’ll be fine, for whatever is to come.

“Where is the fire?” he asks, and then remembers, all of it, sweeping in upon him in a sudden gust, and he freezes in place.  Aga-Narim sees this, and doesn’t bother to answer, instead walking over and handing him the nectar-filled skin and another oat-cake.

“Here.  Break your fast.  I’ll tell you what I know.”

Samal accepts the food and drink and tries to keep moving.  He feels a very strong urge to stop, to lay back down and close his eyes, denying what’s happened and what is to come with the child-like simplicity of pulling the blanket over his head, pretending it doesn’t exist.  But he’s old enough to realize that it’s too late for that.  His stomach contracts, and it’s an effort to choke down the mixture of oats and honey, but he does so, one small piece at a time.  His throat threatens to reject the sweet nectar, but he drinks anyway.

“All I know of this is what I’ve read.  Even that is second-hand, the record of the witnesses.  There has been no living Mashir in nearly five hundred years.  All I could find of him is his name, Mashir-Natal.  If he wrote anything of how he survived and tamed the Konjamal, it’s been lost.”

“But it has happened before?”

“Yes, twice.  Mashir-Natal, and another, well before him.  That first Mashir…even his name is gone now.”

“And everyone else who has tried…”

“Killed by the beast.  All of them.”

“…Well.  What do we do?”

“I’ve been thinking on that since last night.  I hadn’t planned for anything for myself.  Surviving this wasn’t the point.  You’ve made this a…challenge.”

“I could ask Binet to take my place, if that would help.”

Aga-Narim chuckles, shaking his head.  He is smiling, too, perhaps glad that, even now, Samal is able to make a joke.  He has not frozen yet, not completely, and should the worst happen today–as it likely will–perhaps the boy will at least acquit himself well.

“I’ve read of everything they tried.  And I don’t think any of it matters.  The point is not what we do.  It’s how we do it.  It is in our intent that we will be judged, not our actions.”  Samal notices that he doesn’t bother adding that none of what those who’ve come before them tried matters anyway:  they were all killed by the Konjamal.  And while Aga-Narim had come here for his own reasons, and surviving in purified glory was not among them, Samal is less interested in the purity of the rite than he is in finding himself still alive when it is done.

“Where will the Konjamal come from?”

“I don’t know.  No one has tracked them, or even tried to.  This land is no good for grazing, and no tribe has ever tried to expand this far east.  We don’t know where they live, if they have a den or just roam the steppes.  Nor do I know what will draw it here, to us, nor even what will focus it on us, instead of them.”  Aga-Narim nods his head towards the hill in the distance where the witnesses are only just starting to rise.

“So what do we do?”

“We walk.”  Aga-Narim points east, further into the steppes.  “They will follow us at a distance, close enough to see and hear.

“And…if the accounts are true, it will come for us.  Sooner rather than later.”

“So what do we do then?”

“You will stay behind me.  You cannot run.  If you do, that is what they will tell, and not even your own father will be able to welcome you home.  Not to mention, if the Konjamal is like any other beast that hunts, it will immediately give chase.

“No, you will stay behind me.  And when I fall, you will fall beside me.  There is no history to tell what happens if two attempt this…it has likely never happened before.  I am hoping that it will focus on me, and when I fall, it will go, leaving you behind with me, Aba-Binet’s ‘signs’ that you are an equal participant be damned.”

“…That’s it?  That’s the plan?”

“Save you have something better.”‘  Aga-Narim walks to Samal until they are face to face, placing his hands on the boy’s arms, looking him directly in the eyes.

“Understand this, if nothing else:  there is no ‘winning’ today.  A small band of warriors, fully bound, might be able to kill a Konjamal, if the stories of its prowess are to be believed.  And you know that would be a worse thing than running and living the rest of our days in exile.  Besides, we are neither enough to challenge it, nor bound in arms.

“My best hope now is to die clean, and find a way for that death to free you to return home, and live, and become Kigan when your father passes the veil.

“Do you understand?  There is no purity in trying to fight and dying with me.  You would undo my last good act.”

It is not hard for Samal to agree.  He is a fighter, a good one; despite the awkwardness that has accompanied the growth of his body, he can best most of the boys his age, and many older and bigger than him.  His own first sword hangs now in his family’s tent, alongside those of his uncles and cousins.  But despite this, he is also still a boy, and wants more than anything else–more than the pride of winning in battle, more even than purity–to live until he’s no longer a boy.  There is a small twinge of shame at the thought of feigning death in order to survive, and a slightly greater one at the idea of using the death of his father’s friend to hide his escape…but he will do as Aga-Narim asks.

He nods.

“Good.”  He releases the boy’s arms, and kneels to begin to gather the few items he’s brought with him, then pauses and looks back at Samal.

“There is one more thing I would have you promise me.  If you live, do not hold what happens today against Aba-Binet.”  The disgust Samal has heard before when Aga-Narim has said the man’s name and honorific is not there now.  “He is weak, and clings to signs and his beliefs like an old woman.  But he is not bad.  He is not evil.  What he has done, he believes to be right.  That can be misguided, and even dangerous, without strong hands to guide those who hear him.  But it is not a bad thing, of itself.”

This is harder for Samal to take.  He has given little thought to the Aba whose verdict the night before has trapped him in this, beyond the first flare of anger when Aga-Narim told him.  Since, he has been focused on accepting what has happened, and wondering if there will be an after during which he can afford to reflect on things.  But as he considers this request, he finds a surprisingly deep well of anger.  It appears to be for the Aba, a man who has no vote in the council, whose fanaticism would have gone unheeded under any other circumstances.  But what has happened, and whatever will, is not his fault.  Samal may as well blame the salt plains, for the moisture they robbed of him in his passing yesterday, leading to the cramps which lesser men read as a sign.  Or himself, for falling in such a way that his spasming legs struck the fuel for the fire, and not just slightly to either side.  Or even his father, for having picked Samal’s token from the box, instead of one belonging to one of his uncles, or cousins.

Samal does not believe for a second that the Fire rejected him, that there is any greater fate playing out today…but neither can he find a home for blame.  His anger is at the unfolding world, and its potential for cruel outcomes.  He has known this, in his mind, in his lessons, since he was very little, but only now, standing here on this hill, is he beginning to feel its impact.  Mysticism aside, there is truth in the battle between order and chaos, and neither is good and neither is bad.  The world is defined as each sees it, and acts upon it.  Aba-Binet has defined what is to come today; it is up to Samal to determine how he will face it, nothing more.

“Okay.”

“Okay.  Good.  The sun is nearly up; let’s make ready.”

Aga-Narim finishes gathering his skin of nectar and the small pouch of un-fired oatcakes, and then Samal allows him to check him over, as though he were a much younger boy, understanding the man’s need to assure himself that he has done all he can to prepare Samal to survive today, no matter how small the detail.  Then he stands and waves one arm at the other camp; someone there–not Aba-Binet, though all Samal can make out at this distance, in the glare of the freshly-risen sun, is long brown hair, tied back in a queue, which could be any of them–waves back.

“Come.  Let’s go.”

Samal allows Aga-Narim to take the lead, pacing him from behind.  They head directly east, towards the sun, squinting against its early light, focusing on the ground and only occasionally glancing up in the bright distance.  The steppes rise slowly, rolling hills of similar height for miles before they begin to rise into the mountains further on.  The sun is warming overhead, sweat starting to flow, coating him, oiling his movements, and his legs no longer hurt.  The ground is firm but not hard, making for easy travel on foot, and after a short while he falls into a steady rhythm, his eyes focused on Aga-Narim’s feet, placing his own one after the other, until an almost hypnotic trance falls over him.  He finds his mind is loose, disconnected, unable to focus on any one thing, like when he is trying to fall asleep at night, one thought leading into the next with no possible connection between them beyond their source.

His mind follows this winding trail, unsure of where it will land next and uncaring, until a new thought occurs to him, one unexpected.  It is not unusual, does not send shivers down his spine, or sound as though a voice from outside has spoken it to him.  It is his own thought, as natural as if someone had asked him where his boots were, and while he had not been thinking of them prior to the question, at the moment of asking, he knows where had left them.

As he knows, now, that the Konjamal is just ahead of them and to the right, in the hollow between two hills, laying in wait for them.

The thought is so natural that, for a few moments, he continues to walk, following Aga-Narim, unaware of how much things have changed.  His mind moves on from the thought, meandering as it had before the thought, thinking that these hills with their dips and rises remind him of the blankets on his bed when he is laying there, just after waking, the sun from the window casting shadows across the surface much like those he can see now, just larger, and the hills here are green with new grass, while his blankets at home are brown and red, which is similar, and probably how this place looks in the fall, when the nights are too cold and the days too hot to support their delicate growth…

And then he stops, and looks up, and calls out to Aga-Narim, the words incidental, as all he wants to do is stop, and trace down the thought that is now returning to his mind.

“What is it, Samal?”

“The Konjamal…it is ahead of us, maybe two hundred yards, slightly to the south.”

Aga-Narim’s head whips around, looking to the south-east, falling automatically into a fighting crouch, despite his admonishments to the boy earlier that there is no point in combat, in doing anything other than submitting.

“Where?  I don’t see anything.”

“It’s there,” and the boy points out in the direction of the beast, knowing that it’s not visible to the eye, just to his mind.  And as he thinks longer on it, like his shoes in another room, he can see more and more details, as though they were already in his mind, to be recalled easily at a later moment.

“It’s a male.  It is tired.  It–he–hunted all night, and found nothing, and can smell us, and is still hungry, but would be glad to let us pass by if he can continue to sleep.  But if we come too close, he will rise and seek us out.”

Aga-Narim continues to look in the direction Samal is pointing for a few moments longer, and then the full import of what the boy is saying occurs to him, and he turns slowly back to Samal, eyes wide.

“How do you know this?”

“I don’t know.”  It is a simple answer, but the most honest.  “I just do.  The same way I would be able to answer you if you asked me how many rooms are in my father’s tent.  It’s already here, in my head.”

Aga-Narim is a great man, given to both inspiring speeches in the council, and much briefer words of wisdom to his father and others when alone with them.  Words fail him now.  He had entered this rite, weeks ago petitioning the Kigan for the right to attempt this or die trying, finally purified.  He is not a particularly devout man, but this entire venture has been an act of faith, personal if not in something beyond himself.  For the last twelve hours, since Aba-Binet’s pronouncement, he has attempted to bring his mind back to full wakefulness, unwilling to accept that his friend’s son would accompany him to his own death, trying vainly to find a strategy that will allow the boy to live.  He has been disgusted by himself, and the feeble plan he finally settled upon, and is determined that his final act will be to make sure the boy falls unhurt beside him, and then to crawl over him, shielding the boy with his own dying body, making sure that the Konjamal will only get to the boy after it has torn his own flesh to pieces, and hoping that whatever mystic truth may exist in this rite will find his act pure enough to content the beast with his death, and spare the boy.

He does not know what to think now.  There is no way to explain what the boy is telling him, nor to accept it.  He hears no delusion in the boy’s voice…and makes a quick, surprising (at least to himself) decision.

“Take me to it.”  He turns to the side, allowing Samal to take the lead.

Samal begins to walk again, towards where he knows the Konjamal to be waiting, with Aga-Narim following closely behind.  As they get closer, he knows that the beast is realizing their approach, that they will not pass it by, and it gets to its feet, stretching in the early-morning sun.  Its stomach is empty, and rumbles, but though it has not fed in the last week starvation is still a long way off.  Its kind are accustomed to going great lengths of time without food, conserving themselves until prey happens close, and then feasting.  There are no other predators to threaten whatever food may enter its domain…his kind roam far and wide, clearly knowing where their own lands end and their neighbors’ begin.  Above all, they are patient, accepting what comes to them with no fear that it will ever not…and should it not, there is no fear in what may come after.

Samal rises the last hill before where the beast awaits, and there, in the small drop between this hill and the next, it stands, waiting for them.  Samal’s heart catches, as does his breath:  the beast is bigger than he could have imagined, far larger in presence than it is in his mind.  Taller and broader than any of his father’s horses, with a shorter head, longer tail, and legs curled and primed for leaping, rather than walking and pulling.  Its color is a deep, dark red, turned to a blood-bruise in parts where the shadows fall upon it.

It stares at them, fully aware of them, the muscles in its legs and neck primed, shifting slightly, its claws seeking greater purchase in the turf.

Aga-Narim stands beside Samal, and is undone by the sight of the beast.  All that he has lost, that drove him here, and the uneven juggling of his mind the last day and night between empty faith and determined thought, and then this new oddness that he has still not been able to parse…it all comes undone, and he reacts from a deep place, of loss and anger and the need to protect those near to him that he once failed to protect in the past.

He begins to run towards the Konjamal, teeth bared, arms raised, as though he would grapple with it, tear it from its place in this world and deny it the chance to upset his own.  A battle cry grows from his lips as he charges, rising in volume.  The beast begins to respond in kind, head tilting down, preparing for its own charge, which will easily win out over Aga-Narim’s most desperate wishes.

Samal watches this begin to unfold, unable to act initially, then seeing what will happen, and all his promises of staying quiet, staying behind, playing dead, vanish from his own mind, and he races after Aga-Narim, trying to catch up to him.  And he yells too, at the top of his voice, a deep undercurrent resonating more forcefully than his young lungs have ever been able to produce before.

“NO!”

He sees he is too late.  He sees Aga-Narim nearly past the point of recall, almost fully consumed with battle lust, and the Konjamal, just the breadth of one moment to the next away from its own attack, and he closes his eyes, driving from his mind thoughts of what will happen next, replacing it with thoughts of what he wishes would happen, Aga-Narim back by his side, the beast before them still, and still waiting.  He sees this in his mind with a purity of a child, defining it, pressing with all of his will to make the world he wants the world that will be.

He hears a loud thud, the crunching of bones, and Aga-Narim’s cry is cut off suddenly.  Samal braces himself for the attack that will surely now focus on him, and in the next breath is felled to the ground by a large shape.

His eyes open as he hits the ground, and in the same moment that he realizes the shape that hit him was too large to have been a clawed hoof, too small to have been the beast itself, he sees the back of Aga-Narim’s shirt, lying across his chest, and realizes that the man has been driven back, rebounded from his charge, and his flying body is what has knocked him down.

There is the warmth and wetness of blood, and Samal, again forgetting his promise, struggles to move out from underneath Aga-Narim’s body in the hopes of gaining his feet before the beast continues its attack.  He is too scared, to single-minded to pursue any more of the odd knowledge about the beast he had earlier, and as he uses his arms to push off from Aga-Narim’s body, digging into the ground with his heels to pry himself free, he almost misses two very important things.

The first is that Aga-Narim is still clearly alive.  There is blood, but not a lot, certainly not as much as if he had been seriously wounded–indeed, as Samal’s attention turns to this detail, he can see the broad but shallow grooves that have been cut into the man’s side–and he is groaning, semi-conscious but no worse than that.

The second is that the beast has not continued its attack.  It stands where Samal last saw it, posture changed, but otherwise unmoved.  As he considers this, he knows that the beast is–for lack of a better word–embarrassed.  It had meant to only deflect the charging man aside, but its claws are too big and sharp to have completely avoided the damage they caused.

Samal gets to his feet, and turns the man over, kneeling near his head.

“Aga-Narim.  Are you okay?”

The man’s eyes start to focus, then close in pain.  He reaches one hand to his side, pulls it away when he feels the blood on it, and then lets it fall to the ground.

“How bad is it?”

“They are shallow.  You’ve received worse on the practice grounds.”

“Some of my ribs are broken, too.”  As if to emphasize the point, he coughs, wincing in pain as he does.  “Is it gone?  Does it believe us dead?”  It is clear Aga-Narim has lost track of time, and how long he has been lying here.  There is hope in his voice, but it is cautious, not yet prepared to fully believe.

“No.”  Samal gets back to his feet, turning towards the beast, which still stands, waiting.

“How…how are you still alive, then?”

Samal does not answer him, and begins to walk towards the beast, until he has reached the bottom of the hill, and stands just a few feet away from the Konjamal.  He hears Aga-Narim call out to him from behind, desperation in his voice, but no longer listens to the words.  His entire attention is on the beast before him, and the strange knowledge he has of it.

“Come,” he says, motioning for it to move towards him.  The animal does not move.  Samal half closes his eyes, and pictures in his mind the animal approaching him, bowing its head so Samal might put his hand on the top of it.

He opens his eyes to see the animal approach him, lowering its head, waiting for Samal to place his hand on the top of it.  There is perfect acceptance in its mind, as in all things, that whatever this boy should picture in his own mind is what should be, and will be.

Samal reaches out his hand and places it on the top of the Kanjamal’s head.  The fur is soft, much softer than a horse, and short.  He feels the animal shift slightly at his touch, but not from nerves, more in preparing itself to be able to respond to whatever might come next from the boy.  Samal closes his eyes again, bows his own head, and stands there, focusing on his breathing, picturing this moment exactly as it is, trying to preserve it, affix its truth within him, and fully accept it instead of anticipating what may come next.

Overhead, though there is no cloud in the hot, blue sky, he hears a small rumbling, and then feels rain, light, clear and pure water, falling on to him and his Konjamal, cleansing them, the absolute chaos of each drop, the absolute order of its clarity, the purification of both washing over them.  He tilts his head up, feeling the water falling on his face, trickling down to cover him, knowing that the Konjamal feels the same, a sweet enveloping of the perfect purity of the falling water.

From the distance, he hears the voices of the witnesses, stuttering in strength and volume, as though escaping their mouths without any intentional will.

“Mashir.  Mashir.  Mashir-Samal.”

He opens his eyes to find Aga-Narim approaching him, but not too closely.  The man’s eyes remain on the Konjamal before him, hand at his side, wincing with every step.  He finally appears content that the animal will not attack him again, at least not right now, and then turns to Samal, and slowly falls to his knees, bowing his head.

Samal also notices that, as close as he is, Aga-Narim is still dry; the rain falling from the clear blue sky is falling only on him and his Konjamal.

“Mashir-Samal.”

Samal laughs, lightly and easily.

“Get up, my friend.   There’s no need to be formal.”

Aga-Narim looks up, and then slowly regains his feet, but the awe in his eyes will not go away, and it’s clear that he is standing not because he agrees with Samal, but because Samal ordered him to.

“You must tell my father what happened here.  I will not be coming back with you.  Not yet.”  The words come from him in the same way as his understanding of his new friend, unbidden and perfect truth as he gives them voice.

“Why?”

“I have things to do with him.  This…changes things.  We must ready ourselves.”  Samal turns to look back at his Konjamal, meeting its eyes with his own.

Aga-Narim looks at him, perhaps thinking to argue against this, but he cannot argue.  Things have changed, more than he can possibly comprehend.

He watches the boy walk to the side of the beast, sees the beast kneel so the boy can easily slide a leg over its back, mounting it, and then straighten up to its full height.

“Tell my father I love him, and will see him soon.”

“Yes, Mashir-Samal.”

He watches the boy turn and ride off, the beast exploding across the hills with leaps and bounds that seem impossible, even more so when they pass beyond sight and all that is left is the memory of their departure, and the gentle, pure water still soaking into the ground where they had stood.

###

New-to-you – Angel Wings

Another piece from the archives.  In reading through it…I’m not sure what I think of it.  There’s certainly a lot of pretension here.  Given the name of this site, maybe it’s a good time to balance out all the eloquence and microfiction and get some good old fashion pretentiousness up here too.

There’s no major crisis, no insight into areas of the human soul normally left in darkness…just a story.  Sometimes simplicity is the ultimate pretension, like walking out onto a stage in front of 250,000 screaming rock  fans and starting in with just an acoustic guitar.  Consider this my stoned Joan Baez at Woodstock set.


ANGEL WINGS

There are those happy people, who’ve found their place in life, comfortable, smiling, well-groomed, bothersome, distant, and always with important meetings after lunch.  Then there’s the rest of us, still searching for a place, hopeful, depressed, confused, hurting, loving, muddling along as best we can.

And then, there are those for whom a place is made.

Once upon a time, there lived an eccentric millionaire.  He lived in Los Angeles, so he never stood out much, though he should’ve, a rare camel with a real chance to pass the Needle’s Eye.  He’d spent most of his life poor, or at least payday to payday, like the rest of us.  One of the local aerospace companies—where he’d spent forty years as an on-call engineer, ready to look at some problem, something’s  broken, fix it quick there are a hundred and twenty-six drunk businessmen and crying kids backing up in the terminal, please just one more trip, then we’ll get the new jets (and we won’t need you anymore)—had ‘encouraged’ him to retire in 1986, and within six months he had become the victim of a con-game aimed at the double-A-R-P crowd.

A well-dressed young man with a ponytail had convinced him, and most of his neighborly peers, to invest their savings—five hundred, a thousand, or in our camel’s case, fifteen thousand dollars—to buy studio time for an up-and-coming rock band.  In exchange, they’d get ‘points’, a percentage of a percentage of all the money people paid for the album in stores.  And with the profit margin on these new compact discs, they were still guaranteed to make twice, even three times their money back, whether the album sold or not.

It sounded risky, but there were charts and graphs with projections and everything was so professional; they couldn’t help themselves.  It was supposed to get the band a good demo and the nice young man with the ponytail a kilo of cocaine and the use of the drummer’s girlfriend for a week.  It was supposed to end with fifteen people living on social security in worse shape than they had been before.  Instead, an executive thought the demo was good enough to release, as is.  He did, and it went on to sell over ten million copies.  And fifteen people had to rethink their ideas of retirement.

Vernon Adams was eccentric because he knew his new-found fortune wasn’t his.  He’d lived a small life, and enjoyed it—you weren’t supposed to get anything less or more than what you worked for, and Vernon had always worked hard, and was happy with what he got.  He liked it when the world worked the way it should.  And when he had realized that he and his neighbors had probably been tricked, his first thoughts hadn’t been of revenge, or despair, but instead that living on peanut butter and dried cereal and week-old fruit wasn’t luxury, but he’d done it before, and it wasn’t so bad.  Not when it was all you had.

And then, after only six monthly deposits, he had more money than he had spent on every home he’d ever lived in, combined.  Plus every car he’d ever owned.  More money in six months than he’d earned with hard work, total, in the past fifty years.  It was staggering.  It was unbelievable.  He didn’t know what to do with all of that money.  It wasn’t in him to even comprehend how much money he now had.  And that’s when he understood—it wasn’t for him.  God had dropped this gift out of the sky, into his lap, and if He had meant for Vernon to spend it for himself, He’d have made sure he knew what to do with it.  But what did he know?  How to take care of things.  Make them last.  Make them work so that others could make what they could of their own lives.

The money wasn’t his.  His job was to find out who it was really for.

That’s not to say he didn’t touch a dime.  His lawns grew green, under professional care, and a new import replaced the relic of American stubbornness in his driveway.  In a wild fit, he went to the store, bought every jar of peanut butter on the shelves, and gave every last one of them away to the homeless and hungry in the parks and alleys near where he lived.  But this was a lot of money.  You couldn’t nickel and dime a thing like this to death, though it was fun trying.  And Vernon didn’t try very hard.

For the first few years, he simply waited, hoping the answer would come the way the question had, with a mysterious phone call and a quick leap of faith.  Everyone he met suddenly became a candidate, whether they knew it or not.  Would this one know what to do with the money?  Would that one understand that it was for something, to be used well?  But no one fit.  Vernon was hardly a recluse—the few close friends he finally revealed his search to had spread the news within hours over three zip codes.  It wasn’t long before someone—several people, actually—hit upon the idea that they should give him a mysterious-sounding phone call.  Set up a time to drop by; introduce themselves; explain that they’ve always wanted to do just one thing, had a plan, if only they were to win the lottery, or something like that.  And, hey, if the old man was sincere. . .well, it was worth an afternoon to find out, wasn’t it?

Vernon became very popular.  And, the small, quiet neighborhood where he lived saw an increase in pure imagination so powerful, had it spread to cover an area the size of, say, Europe, it might have been its own Renaissance.  As it was, Vernon considered hiring a secretary to keep track of everyone (he settled for a new computer instead).  But, as even he had to admit, the old man was sincere, and maybe this was how God was going to bring the right person to him.

So day in and day out, from ten o’clock in the morning until five at night, he sat patiently, listening to the cures (there were numerous) for cancer; ends to world hunger and, therefore, war; plans for monuments for him, for America, for most of the forty-something presidents—though most named Elvis as their honoree.  He met hundreds of the most honest souls, telling it plain:  they were going to drink a lot, smoke a lot, eat a lot, and see every movie ever made twice, so how about some credit for not trying to pull the wool over the old man’s eyes?  He listened intently to every single one of them, looking for something, a sign maybe, to let him know that this was the one.  But years went by, one long confessional with people that weren’t any more deserving of the money than he was.

And then, she finally came.  She was young, no more than fifteen, a mix of most of Earth’s races, nervous as hell but feeding off of it at the same time.  She’d researched Vernon carefully, had spent a month writing and re-writing and burning and writing again before she felt she had something that would work.  And it didn’t matter one bit.  She walked through his front door (which he kept open during business hours), into his living room, and before she’d opened her mouth, he knew.  The money was hers.  He hadn’t even taken in her face, or how she was dressed, before he knew with the same certainty he had known that the money wasn’t his:  it was hers.  He nodded politely through her speech, not paying attention to the details—something about sky-writing and his name—and when she finished, he just sat there, staring at her, tears peering over the lower edge of his eyes, checking to see if it was safe to come out.  He thanked her, put her file on top of his desk, saw her out, and canceled the rest of his appointments.  An hour later, after a call to a lawyer to make sure everything went the way it should, he called her and told her the news.  She was on her way to his place when he had a stroke and slipped into a coma, from which he never woke up.

The money was hers; the lawyer had merely filled in the blanks on a document Vernon had already signed, and the next morning she awoke in her mom’s apartment and found no police, no government agents, come to take it back—someone like her wasn’t supposed to have that much money.  But there it was.

The girl’s story was infected with the same irony Vernon’s was.  She had been seeing a boy for the past six months, and her period had been only a memory for the last sixty-eight days.  On the sixty-ninth she had gone to see Vernon, and become a millionaire, as only the tiniest part of her (one afternoon out of eighty years) had been allowed to believe.  On the seventy-first, she had her period.  The boy was, needless to say, history, and with no more financial monsters looming (besides the day to day of ‘getting by’), she found herself in an awkward place.  She didn’t know what to do with it, any more than Vernon had.

And a month or so later, after every local mall had been terrorized at least a couple of times, she got a mysterious phone call.  From the lawyer, the guy who’d set everything up.  He wanted to know how her plan was going.  Which was funny, since she hadn’t thought about it once since the first meeting.  She was so stunned with memory that she actually mentioned this, that she hadn’t even thought about it since.  She was embarrased, immediately, but the lack of silence on the other end of the call suggested that the lawyer wasn’t surprised at all.  Had, in fact, been expecting this.

The lawyer asked her if she’d managed to read through all of the documents yet, if she had noticed the amendment Vernon had added.  She asked him to refresh her memory.  The original plan had been this:  she was to use the money to live a simple life.  She would finish high school and then take flying classes.  She’d learn to fly, and then learn how to sky-write.  She’d buy a plane, and equipment, and hire what help she needed, and spend every penny not maintaining her simple existence on the plane, keeping it flying.  And every day she would fly over the executive offices of the aerospace company that had so callously used him up and spit him out, and write his name in the sky.  Every day, until the money ran out or she died (or they shot her down), whichever came first.  It hadn’t been the plan that had convinced Vernon.

The amendment was a small one, but important:  never his name, and never within sight of his former employer.  Otherwise, full speed ahead.  And if she actually sat down and thought about it—which she didn’t do often—it occurred to her that she didn’t have anything better to do with her life.  She had done a lot of growing up somewhere between day forty and seventy-one of the lost period, and suddenly she didn’t have to, but it was already too late.  She was in a different place, seeing things through different eyes, and on a lazy afternoon she committed herself.  She would finish high school, she would take flying lessons, she would buy a plane, and she would. . .well, fly.  It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t productive, but it was a damn sight better than the other possibilities she’d faced.  She’d fly.

What if I’m scared of heights?

She wasn’t, thankfully, and after a few bumpy landings on what passes for a runway at the small, local airport, she found that she actually enjoyed it.  She had a new CD-changer, speakers and a sub-woofer installed, and would map her flight plan along the coast around her music.  And she’d fly.  The drone of the engines would fade into the background, and she could hear her heart, beating, always faster.

And then she discovered clouds.  The kind that drift in, off the ocean, like cotton candy all stretched out.  She’d find a way in, and hide, making tunnels, getting lost in the white, trusting that something would beep long before she was in danger of crashing into what she couldn’t see.  She’d swoop, and dive, and fly.  She’d build up speed, and come tearing out one side, a long trail of intangible cloud clinging behind her.  She’d shake it free, swerving the plane back and forth, sometimes taking her hands off the stick and holding them up high above her head, like on a roller coaster.  And behind would stretch a soft, wide blanket, rippled, curving familiarly to an invisible point at the end.

From the ground, looking up, the wings of hidden angels, watching over.

New-to-you – Saturday, June 6

I’m almost clear of it; the project is nearly done, all that’s left is the death spiral of closing it out, offering sacrifices to the great god First Party…there’s a clarity dawning, shapes protruding through the fog.

Work has begun again on something new, picking up the tools and materials and dusting them off, trying to remember where I was, what I was aiming for, when I set them down such a short while ago.

In the meantime, here’s another treat from the pre-drought days…I can’t pretend that I got it right, but my mom did read it, back in the day, and said she liked it, so I must’ve hit somewhere close to the mark.


Saturday, June 6

1

She figures it’s way beyond habit, much more than conditioning.  The day to day after day after week after month after…Christ, it’s been years.  How many?  From the top:  twelve of elementary and prep school, two of eight AM survey courses, five times a week, three years of getting to the office early enough to have the coffee ready when everyone else arrived, four years married (but with the same responsibilities), then the last fourteen with the kids.  Plus the last four months.  Just the three of them.  Even consciously trying, she can’t remember the last time she’s slept past six o’clock in the morning.  Slept in.  All week she’s been trying to convince herself to look forward to this.  As a reward, maybe, for making it to the weekend.  But here it is, the first Saturday in June, and it’s six-oh-three in the morning and it’s taking such a deliberate effort to keep her eyes shut that sleep’s already gone.

She tries to enjoy it anyway, but automated alarms start going off inside of her.  The kids’ll be up soon, and they’ll need breakfast and someone to break up the fights over the television.  Except they won’t.  Or, rather, will, but not here, not in her home, not today or any day until the end of the summer, when their father will pack them up (probably putting all of the expensive things he bought for them on top, where she can see them), and drive them back.  Then every other weekend with him, until the holidays, which is already looking like it’s going to get messy.  So they’re at his place, and probably already awake, and alone, and trying to fight quietly ‘cause they know better than to wake up their father before he does it himself.

But still, she can almost hear them, thumping lightly down the carpeted stairs, hitting the eighth and ninth square in the middle, thankfully (to her mothering heart) not yet knowing how to step on the edge of them to silence the creaks and gunshot pops.

Before she’s fully aware she’s doing it, she stands, grabs her robe from the chair in the corner, and follows their memory down the hallway and stairs.

2

There’s something wrong in the kitchen.  She doesn’t know what it is, if something’s missing or severely out of place or a different color—like the fridge, for instance.  She gets out the pan, the bacon first, then two eggs fried in the bacon grease.  Some orange juice and a couple of chocolate donuts for a chaser.  She gets the paper, finding it where she should, and sits down in the silence for her breakfast and Dear Abby, like she does every morning.  Except that’s what’s wrong.  It’s never this quiet.

She allows no time for thought, just lets the impulse take over.  By the time she’s on her feet she’s already made a mental note to call Anne and tell her to clear her couch all next week.  This is definitely getting certifiable.  But she won’t think about that now.  Just pick up the remote, change to channel nine, another super-hero battling another super-villain.  She turns the volume up to the earsplitting level where the kids would have it, and goes back to her food.  She eats in peace, enjoying reading about another bridal shower snafu, blessed for a bit, living without having to think about it.

3

There isn’t much she needs; she could, in fact, probably hold off until Monday and swing by the store near her office on the way home.  But nobody bothered asking her.  It’s Saturday morning, a little after seven-thirty:  it’s time to go to the store.  Q.E.D.  No question mark in sight.  And as such, it’s easy to tune out and let her autopilot take over.  She drives past the 7-11 two blocks down, gets onto the freeway, and drives for ten minutes, all the way to Playa Del Rey.  To the only supermarket in Southern California that carries a certain kind of chocolate toaster pastry which the kids are addicted to.  There’s no need to drive all the way out here for milk and wine and tampons, but again, no one’s asking.

She wanders the aisles slowly, leaning on her unneeded cart, following the regular route.  Occasionally her arm starts to rise as she reaches for one or another of the items she’d usually buy.  If the kids had been around to have used the old up.  It hadn’t been so noticeable during the week.  Work had been particularly hectic, and she’d only barely been aware that all of the little artifacts that the kids would leave behind in the course of their after-school lives weren’t popping up anymore.  The quiet had actually been nice, particularly after half a bottle of white wine.  What she is feeling now is subtle, almost devious.  It hits her like a bullet shattering her spine:  no pain, just a slowly dawning awareness that something significant has already happened to her.

She comes to aisle six, her autopilot steering a true course, and doesn’t notice the other shopper in the aisle until her cart runs into his.  She looks up, and even under the blanket of numbness she’s been knitting herself all morning, she can feel shapes moving, shock and surprise overwhelming the last parts of her worth taking.

“David.”

Her ex-husband looks, she’s sure, as bad as she does, if not worse.  He hasn’t shaved yet, and clumps of gray-speckled hair poke out from beneath an old baseball cap.  His T-shirt and sweatpants were probably slept in.  He’s staring feverishly at the shelf with the toaster pastries on it, the grinding gears of his memory nearly sending smoke out of his ears.  He hadn’t even noticed when she’d bumped his cart, but when she says his name he turns to her, the same compressed astonishment bringing his eyes briefly to life.

They look at each other for a moment, a long one.  This is no time for improvisation.  And then inspiration comes.  She motions with her head towards a section of the shelf he’d been staring at.

“Devil Bombs.”

He follows her gaze and finds what he’d been looking for.  He takes one, then thinks better of it and grabs another two boxes, dumping them into his jumbled cart.  A small smile hangs briefly from the side of his mouth, and for a bit they’re blessed.

“It’s hard.  To tell them no.”
“Isn’t it.”

The burning insults and threats that should follow dissolve on her lips.  They don’t mean anything right now.  She offers him a sad, wry smile, and continues on her way, trying hard not to look back and see if he’s watching her go.

Brief rant on rights

In an odd bit of reverse irony, I’m cross-posting something here that I initially put up as a note on my Facebook today.  But before I get to that:

No, my project isn’t done yet.

No, nothing new else to post here; when my project is done, I’ll have breath to write again…the worst part being that I know where it’s going, but if I’ve got an hour to myself when it’s quiet and I would normally write, I’m sleeping.

No, it does not affect progression nor stability, WNF.  (Those of you who’ve shipped a video game can laugh now.)

And so here it is (unedited and a bit awkward, as those things that are written in 5 minutes on a lunch break are wont to be); I’ll probably expand on these thoughts in the future…I have zero desire to be political on here, but this is more about philosophy than it is politics, and touches the core of some things that are most important to me…


Wasn’t going to respond to the health care meme going around today, until I realized why it’s been bugging me. Too much of the language being tossed around is calling health care a “right” (or implying it), as though it’s something that everyone is owed, just for being alive.

When I say that someone “has a right” to something, it’s something within their control, and the “right” to it means that no one can prevent the individual from exercising that something: the government cannot pass laws preventing it (like free speech or religion), and the government is obligated to protect private individuals when they’re threatened by other private entities (like assault or theft threatening the right to feel safe and secure).

Here’s the thing: health care isn’t something that an individual can do for themselves. Health care requires many, many skilled people to train and gain experience at certain skills, and then apply those skills.

And there’s too much of the objectivist in me to say “I have a right to other people’s hard work, regardless of whether or not they want to give it to me.”

That’s not to say I’m opposed to a publicly-financed health solution; I think it’s a good idea. There are other things that government is supposed to do beyond protecting your rights as a citizen, and providing services at a reduced cost and/or supplementing the cost of those services–particularly when they are as important as health care–is something I would be glad to see my tax dollars applied to.

And it’s not like most doctors need protecting; I don’t have any facts to back this up (always a fun way to start off a point), but medicine is a profession where the bottom-end of compensation is still well above the bottom-end of compensation in most other fields, and the high-end is virtually limitless. This isn’t about worrying about protecting the poor, helpless doctors.

Nor is it about being intensely anti-government-solution...the public-option plan doesn’t call for doctors to be hired by and trained by the government (which I think would terrify anyone who’s been to the post office or DMV lately)…that’s the true “socialist healthcare solution”.

My reluctance to jump with both feet onto any side of this debate–with today’s meme as just one example–comes from a desire to distinguish between supporting the use of my tax dollars to provide a way to help people gain access to a service that they couldn’t on their own, to the betterment of society as a whole (less sick people makes things better), and the idea that anyone, anywhere can have a “right” to a single moment of my time or effort, or anyone else’s time or effort.

edge – 8-19-09

Heard back from the final microfiction publisher that I submitted “edge” to, and as the ones before it, it’s a no-go.  I’m reminding myself that I’m not writing for publication anymore…so the hell with them, here it is.  My readership here is probably bigger than theirs anyway.


edge

Age occurring, edges, firming, definition increasing.  The essential kept, timeless embedded, the common abandoned.  Light marking where it ends, showing the lines of his face.

It was to be a birthday party, and at this exact moment, she can’t remember why.  Birth and day ceased to speak with breath and tongues.

The light unsteady as it fell and spilled, uneven and clinging, yellow in the afternoon.  The other guests were arriving well into night; this was just for them.

She moves closer, steps slow and definite.  He hasn’t seen her yet, his head down, slightly to the side-like, kenning something on the paper before him.

The air breathes for them, choosing the tone, the tempo, the pause and the gasp.  They rode, and abandoned.  He, still unaware, she, still, fully.

Rotations, a passing of one to the other, a passage, as eyes rotate, passing over.  A word pulling, paper falling, feet moving, moment crowning.

He gets to his feet, moving towards her.  Stretching, will enforcing, begging, a moment sliding aside, forgotten and cherished.  That moment, that specific moment, that air, and light, and moment, momentous, aside, and gone.

And for a while, for as long as they can, two of them, old and timeless, living there, giving life.

Two of them, sliced, branched, branching.  In this one of infinite nows, the wave is poised, the foot raised, the light still, spilling but unspoilt.  In this one of infinite nows, two of them, the word birthing on his lips, collapse imminent but eternally hesitant.  Two of them, now, now, and again, unseen with infinite ache, unfulfilled.  Fulfillment brings an end, and for this once, this now, the scent and first wetness upon the lips slips and hides between the length and width of now.

His foot reaches the floor, and they leave them behind.  Edges adapt, pressing in, pressure and change collapsing, wave crashing, love laughing, at the traces left before, behind, and now.