Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Stolen Unicorn

The dragon’s roar shook the earth. Mylan’s hooves thundered in its direction. His horn was low, aimed directly at the brute’s midsection.

The great lizard rose on its haunches and launched upward into hovering flight. The warmth from its wings singed the grass into dry yellow curls. Mylan tore past at breakneck speed and snorted with rage. He turned quickly, kicking up small chunks of mud in his haste, and began speeding back the other way. When he reached the spot where the beast had been, he halted, looking upward, and neighed fiercely as if he were plainly saying, “Come down here!”

The scaly beast hovered a minute, considering. Its wicked head turned sideways, its red eyes blinking and sweeping the landscape side to side. Suddenly its glazed goggles caught the glare of something hidden in the bushes, something that sparkled.

Mylan’s colt.

A sly smirk stretched the corners of Berty’s mouth.

“You thought you could hide him from me?” he purred.

“You’re a coward to fight colts and not grown unicorns!” shouted Mylan with all his might.

“Yes, yes, I’m a coward,” cooed Berty. “And I’m taking him with me. Feel free to stop me.”

The dragon very gently scooped the glittering colt into its jaws and flew off over the mountains and out of sight into the sunset, leaving the bereft Mylan staring at the ground in silence.

Something rustled. I came out of the bushes and held up my acquisition: one dragon’s egg.

“How did you get it?” said Mylan.

“I’m sure I couldn’t explain it,” I replied. “Suffice it to say I have talents unbeknown to many. Will Berty consider a trade?”

“How would I get word to him that we have it? Will he notice it’s missing in his glee over kidnapping a unicorn’s foal?”

“I know exactly how to get word to him. I know two or three gossips who can never keep their mouths shut about anything. I will tell them I have it, and tell them not to tell anybody. That will get the message out into the open, and sooner or later Berty will catch wind of it.”

“A good plan,” said Mylan, chewing the air. (He often did this, and as he explained, it is a great stress reliever to all creatures equine.)

Three weeks later the ground shook with an enormous thumping on the door of my dugout.

I opened it to see a very large dragon hovering outside.

“Ho hum,” I yawned. “Another dragon.”

“It’s Berty,” he hissed, “and I want my egg.”

“I don’t have it,” I replied.

“Don’t mess with me,” he hissed.

“I don’t have an egg,” I repeated. “I have a dragon.”

“Give me him,” he growled.

“Return our colt,” I spat.

“You would not be wise to make a dragon angry,” he glowered.

I waved my hand, and instantly he began sneezing uncontrollably. Tears boiled out of his half closed eyes, and he zoomed away toward the mountains.

Three days later a gentle knock sounded on my door. A quiet and lessoned dragon offered a bundle of roses in its miserable clenched fist with a “sorry” note attached.

“What do you want?” I said flatly.

“May I please have my dragon back?” he cooed.

“May I please have our unicorn back?” I shot back.

“I ate him,” he confessed.

I tried to keep my poker face flatlined and without showing any feeling, although the pit of my stomach wrenched at this.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. “Prove it.”

He pulled one silver horn from beneath his wings and laid it on the ground.

“Fine,” I said,. “You’ve proved your point. And you don’t get your dragon back.”

Forward three years.

The young dragon, raised by me, housebroken, mannerly, and trained to flame upon command, was a grand and spectacular addition to our stable, because, unlike all my unicorns and horses, he could fly.

Berty stayed away. Mylan’s grief made him less fit for service, and I often gave him small jobs just to make him feel useful, while sparing him from anything involving stress.

This day I was hauling firewood (for a mundane job must be done regardless) with the help of three from my stable: a draft horse, a pony, and a younger unicorn named Dane. Every once in a while Dane would stop and sharpen his horn on a log, which annoyed the draft horse, although the pony was frisky and did not mind the sound.

The sun shone and the clouds were merry white crystals that occasional made a rainbow colored circle.  My spirits were high and my work was coming along well.

As I expected when things are going so well, I looked up and saw the thing I least liked on the edge of the forest. Berty.

Anger boiled in my gut and I leaped between him and my equine with one hand raised, ready to sicken him.

“Hold your fire,” he ordered.

“Strange statement, coming from you,” I retorted.

“Very funny,” he said. “I have something you might want.”

From behind him stepped a beautiful bluish white unicorn, with a diamond tipped horn and a silver chain around its neck bearing the emblem of a skull.

I frowned.

“It’s Mylan’s colt,” he explained. “I raised him as my own. I have come to my senses, and want to trade.”

“What of the horn you showed me?” I said.

“Taken from my hoard of silver, gold, and jewels. I don’t know where I got it, but it’s been in the collection. From some unicorn that bit the dust ages ago.”

The young animal blinked innocently and padded quietly up to my draft horse, touching noses.

“Now. Now, where is my dragon?”

I must admit I had grown attached to the dragon I’d raised, since I thought I was making the best of a bad situation. Although glad to have Mylan’s colt back, I did not want to give him up.

“I’ll bring him to you tomorrow,” I said. “Meet me here at ten in the morning.”

Under the circumstances I cut my wood hauling trip short and got everybody home. Mylan was ecstatic, but the young unicorn was without emotion. It calmly informed us its name was Fireball, and asked us for something to eat.

“Help yourself to the hay in the large shed out back,” I said, allowing the other animals to show him the way. I had to talk to Lamech right away.

He was sleeping in a circle with his head on his tail. Tiny smoke lines curled from his nostrils. Happy sighs escaped him as he dreamed.

“Lamech,” I said. “Get up.”

He raised his head, smiled sleepily, and waved in recognition.

“Lamech,” I said, finding it difficult to force the words out of my tightened throat. “Your father wants to meet you. Tomorrow.”

He turned his head sideways like a big green scaly dog, and considered what I’d said. Then he shook his head contentedly.

“Uh uh.”

“Lamech,” I repeated. “I understand your reluctance, but he really wants to meet you, and he brought my unicorn back.”

“I grown up now,” he replied. “I make my own choice. Not meet him.”

“Lamech, will you please listen? Maybe you can tell him that yourself. Tell him you don’t want to live on the other side of the mountains.”

Our conversation was interrupted by a loud scream outside. I ran, with the now awakened dragon close behind me.

“It’s coming from the hay barn,” I said. I leaped onto his back and he floated into a graceful glide. He landed abruptly and I tumbled off into a pile of spilled hay.

Fireball was leveling kicks at anyone who came near him. It was feeding time, and all the equine knew they were free to come and go and get all the hay they pleased. One large quarter horse was dripping blood from her nose.

“What is going on here?” I said.

“You told me I could eat here,” said Fireball. “These others were trying to take my food. It’s mine! Get away from it!”

“It’s for everyone,” I said. “Not just for you. Yes, for you, but for everyone also. We all share. We never run out of food because we all work to contribute to the supply.”

Mylan rushed up to the angry Fireball. “Never!” he neighed. “Never need to hurt to obtain goods here.”

“What do you know, old nag? You weren’t even able to keep me from being kidnapped, were you?” Fireball stamped the ground in disgust and headed toward the sleeping quarters.

“He is more dragon than I am,” Lamech said quietly in my ear.

I was afraid Lamech was right.

My fears were soon confirmed. I didn’t get any sleep all night. When the new unicorn wasn’t causing fights or breaking things he was badmouthing others, including me.

Morning came, and I accompanied Lamech to the edge of the woods.

Berty appeared with a big flash of wing and smoke, sailing in circles as if showing off, and landing between us. He snaked his neck around and sniffed at the young dragon, who was snaking his own neck and sniffing at Berty.

“It looks as if they’ve fed you,” said the older lizard. “You look well.”

“Yes, I am well, and I want to stay with my friends,” Lamech replied.

“They can’t stop me from taking you,” Berty laughed.

“But I can,” replied Lamech.

Mylan came up close behind us, prodding Fireball along with his horn.

“Take him. He’s your son, though and through,” he said regretfully.

“I don’t want him!” wailed Berty. “He’s just as miserably uncooperative as I am!”

“Nevertheless you will take him and leave us alone,” I said, gesturing my hand to remind him what I could do.

“Make me sick if you must, but I will not have anything to do with that--that--”

The dragon flew away swiftly without bothering to finish, far and fast out of reach of my abilities.

Reluctantly we all went home, glad of Lamech’s still being with us, and sorrowful that I had to keep a unicorn I didn’t like. It wasn’t that I couldn’t try to mend his ways, but rather that he did not want to be mended, that made me wish he would have gone back where he came from.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Resting Place

I approached the desk with purpose, taking in the scent of furniture polish and pine cleaner. A sliver of light came in through the curtain’s edge and illumined a small slice of the rich mahogany desk. The receptionist approached, a tall man in a suave black suit. His dark eyes sparkled with delight as he offered to take my jacket and cap. I declined.

“May I ask your name?”

“Howard,” I said simply.

“And the nature of your visit?”

“I got hurt,” I said, pointing to the sling on my left arm. “My boss said I should recuperate.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied with a twitch of his dimpled mouth. “We’ve got everything you need. Would you like a tour?”

Something about his demeanor unsettled me. He was too eager, too expectant, too glad about something he wasn’t telling me.

He seemed to detect my hesitance.

“Of course, the doctor would be glad to show you around, as I have several tasks to complete,” he purred.

As if on cue the doctor appeared in the doorway, a rotund figure in a pale blue coat with a stethoscope around his neck and a pocket bulging with pills in packets. A shiny bald head peeked out from the center of a bushy white coronet. Years of experience had lined the sides of his eyes and completed the look of a very knowledgeable gentleman.

“Ah, come in and view the facilities,” he chirped. “You look like you could use a good rest.”

I followed him to the staircase, treading lightly upon a carpet of deepest blue, trying not to make a sound. The house somehow seemed alive, and I got the feeling it did not take kindly to disturbance.  I had half a mind to bolt out the door right then and there, but I needed a valid reason to give my employer and his insurance agents. They had seemed so insistent that I obtain therapy.

I was pleasantly surprised to find several large, empty rooms, each with a large, empty bed covered with fluffy down comforters and feathery pillows.

“These are our finest resting rooms, but we have so much more to show you!” chuckled the doctor.

The hallways ended in three huge white cavernous dormitories. One was filled with shiny silver poles, attached to which I saw huge hammocks in shades of green, brown, and gray. Here and there a man or a woman was resting in one, flipping the pages of picture books and drinking from glass decanters filled with ice and a thin brown liquid.

I approached a young lady. Half awake with a dreamy expression, she glanced at me and went back to her pictures.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you like it here?”

She nodded and smiled weakly, then let her head drop back into a peaceful snooze. The doctor smiled in satisfaction and motioned me to see the next room.

“What were they drinking?” I asked him.

“Sleep draught,” he said. “It’s our own special mixture. Chock full of nutrients!”

In the next room we saw bean bag chairs so huge you could not get into them without a stepladder. Fortunately there were stepladders placed by each and every one. Several people had curled into a deep slumber, others were lazily looking at the ceiling, and still others were attempting to look at pictures while drinking the sleep draught I’d seen in previous rooms.

“Anything for the clientele!” he laughed. “They deserve the best!”

The last room was packed from wall to wall with hundreds of recliners. Half of them were filled, half were waiting for occupants.  Each client had an extremely large picture book and a huge decanter of the elixir I’d seen everyone else imbibing. Workers were going around faithfully and attentively giving free refills to everyone.

I exited. The doctor had lingered to settle in a new patient. The hallway was dark. At the other end I saw a narrow door that looked very old. I touched the worn steel handle. A shock of icy cold shot up my good arm and seemed to tingle in the cords of my heart, slowing its pace ever so slightly.

“Don’t touch that!” the doctor called from behind me. That made up my mind. With a huge heave I wrangled it open. The hinges snarled screaming protests but gave way because I demanded it.
The room beyond was bigger than all the others combined. The beds were on the floor and had high sides and velvet linings. A door beyond it beckoned me. I ran down the aisle in the dead quiet and stared out the rectangular window to see the sky, the clouds, the grass, and acres upon acres of headstones and graves.

“You see,” began a startling voice behind me. I leapt backward to face the source of the sound. It was the receptionist, no longer in his black suit, but wearing a hooded cape that swept the ground as he walked in my direction.

“You see,” he repeated, “where this ends. Our clients rest so long and so well that they don’t realize their lives are passing them by,” and here he breathed out a deep, bone chilling whisper, “second--by--second.”

The doctor had now caught up with me, but his jovial expression was gone and his countenance had been gripped with an ashen pale shade.

“Doctor Quivious, you have failed to live up to my expectations. Again.”

“I-I-I-I….” began the helpless doctor. His knees began to quiver uncontrollably.

I tried to comprehend it. Death. Rest. Sleep. Recuperation? None of these people would ever return to work of their own accord, not when it was more pleasant to remain asleep. Had they no will, no self-discipline, no burning desire or purpose?

“And you,” said the receptionist, turning to me. “You have messed up my plans. You are supposed to be resting in a bed, not investigating my secrets. I’m going to have to destroy you.”

I tilted my head back and laughed at the sheer absurdity of his assertion. He took a step towards me, but I remained unmoved and unafraid. Suddenly his visage shifted, and he became even more disturbed than the trembling doctor. I raised my eyebrows and glanced at the door. He obediently opened it and let me out.

I could still hear their conversation from the other side of the closed door.

“Why did you let him escape?” said the doctor.

The black cloaked menace now threw his costume aside and resumed his pleasant demeanor and his handsome suit. He adjusted his tie and spoke slowly and distinctly, watching me carefully navigate the stone path that led to the street and freedom.

“I cannot hold one of those,” he said.

The doctor scratched his bald spot.

“One of what?”

“Go back to work!” snapped his boss.

I returned to my employer and reported that I neither wanted nor needed rest, but that I would rather take a desk job until my arm had healed. She offered the position of chief information assistant, which was a fancy way of saying I would shred all the unneeded documents and dispose of them appropriately. I accepted.

I tried to tell everyone I could about the dangers of the Resting Place. Out of 100 people, only 25 took me seriously. The rest said I had made it up, or that I was making more out of it than it really was, or that I must be crazy.

The real trouble started when my sister’s son fell and broke his hip. Somebody said he should go to the Resting Place, and I vehemently expressed my objection. But because she was his mother and had all the say in what he did, she succeeded in sending him there. Imagine, a fifteen year old kid, slumbering uselessly for the rest of his life!

I went to visit him. The receptionist, with his usual suave grin, allowed me to enter and see Tony. I found him in a beanbag, staring at new sort of picture book. You could push buttons and control the picture, even making it dance or jump or wage war. It was very amusing, or at least it appeared to be, because he refused to acknowledge my presence until I reached in and blocked it with my hand, at which time he very resentfully told me to leave him alone. I glanced over my shoulder and observed the smug satisfaction on the face of my nemesis.

“Let the kid go,” I said.

“Make me,” he said, leaning his hand against the doorway.

I thought of my options. Punch him out? He’d press charges for assault. Kidnap the boy? The boy didn’t want to leave, which would make his rescue very difficult.

“Ten thousand dollars,” I said. “I’ll pay you to let the kid go free.”

“Nope,” he said with a delighted grin.

I glanced up at the boy, who was now lifting a cup to his face and smiling at the sweet savor of sleep draught.

“Of course,” began the entity, sauntering around me in a circle, “we might be able to arrange a trade.”

My eyes snapped open wide. If there was one thing I didn’t like, it was idleness. I hated it. Couldn’t stand the thought of being benched and having no real purpose or genuine sense of accomplishment.

The owner now looked at me as though he were sizing me up for a coffin.

I couldn’t stand the thought of Tony throwing his life away. Nor could I stand the thought of throwing my own life away. For if I knew anything, I knew this: each person has his own choice, and evil entities are prone to lying. If I gave up on everything I’d lived to gain, striven to create, and essayed to accomplish, what good could result? For even if I set Tony free, he might end up here again of his own accord. He might throw away such an exorbitant gift. It would then be for naught.

A sudden burst of inspiration went from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

“I’ll catch you later,” I said, and it was more than a figure of speech.

Shopping. I had to go shopping. I headed out the front door and withdrew fifteen hundred dollars from the bank.

Fifteen hundred dollars can almost empty the craft and hobby section. By the time I was done I was struggling to manage a cart heaped with sewing kits, yarn and knitting needles, latch hook rug kits, weaving looms, scrapbook supplies, colored drawing pencils, notepads, stampers, floral arrangement sets, modeling clay, beads, woodburning supplies,  paints,  hot glue, and rolls of ribbon.
I exited the craft section and proceeded to buy a well fitted black outfit and a ski mask.

The next night I crept through the graveyard with a large sack, looking much like a burglar and feeling much like Santa Claus.  I didn’t expect to get in without resistance, but I had a plan.

The night watchman came to the door.

“I’ve got something for you,” I said. “Come out here and see.”

He lazily shook his head and returned to his post in the hallway, secure in the strength of the door locks and eager to look at more picture books.

“He underestimates you,” said a voice behind me. I knew that voice. My stomach tried to tie itself in knots, but I told it to behave and whisked about to face him. The nice suit was gone, as was the black hooded cape. The handsome gleaming eyes and winsome smile had also faded into the darkness. All that remained was a skeleton, with a dull red glare residing behind the eye sockets. Somehow it didn’t surprise me. Evil cannot sustain its own existence, and even preying on others is not sufficient subsistence. It is a rottenness that eats away, an unwholesomeness that picks itself to pieces given time. The night brought out the worst in his demeanor. He drummed his bony fingers on the door.

“Can’t get in?” it said with a permanent smile.

I leaned back beside him and acted in no particular hurry.

“Not particularly. I mean, it’s no use, right? You’re here to stop me.”

I slipped my hand in my pocket and out again.

“What’s that? A gun?” he said.

I held it up in front of the hideous face.

“No,” I said. “Just a glue gun. It won’t hurt you,” I smiled.

Ah, but what he doesn’t see, I thought.

I let my hand drop down beside me, still holding the glue gun.

“So why do you keep on dragging people down?” I said. “What’s in it for you?”

“I shall not discuss my business with the unimportant and the worthless,” it sneered.

“Okay, okay,” I condescended.  “You don’t want to talk about it. Well tell me this: is there any cure for you? Any hope?”

“Cure?” it huffed. “You’ve got it all wrong. You’re the one that needs a cure. All this slavery to rules and doing all your goody goody deeds, refusal to rest and insistence on work. My victims are much happier in their slumber.”

“Are they happy when their lives are past and they find out what you’ve done?”

“I? I did this? You’re so mistaken! They did this to themselves. I simply made it easy for them.”

“Oh, yes, I see,” I said. “Now I have another question for you.”

“What?” he growled.

“How does a skeleton get itself unglued from the ground it stands on?”

He jerked his neck downward and stared at his foot, which was fairly surrounded with a puddle of cooling glue.

“My own mixture,” I smiled. “Extra strong.”

He pulled and rattled and leapt on one foot, trying with all his might to free himself. I immediately kicked the door with all my strength. It shook and started to give. I kicked it again. I kicked a third time. With a fourth mighty release of angry energy, the door popped open and pieces of splintered doorframe scattered into the nearby coffins. The watchman saw me and dropped his mouth open in incredible alarm, more so because his boss behind me was lividly animated with inexpressible rage.

“Get him!” it seethed between its teeth.

The sluggish watchman reached toward me, but I dumped a tangled mess of yarn on his fingers and slammed a knitting bag upside down over his head, then kicked him into the coffin room. I smeared a quick ribbon of glue to the doorframe and slammed it shut.

Gifts quickly landed in the bed of every resident.

“Mind stimulating usefulness!  Wake up! Do something for a change! Quit staring at picture books and tap into your creativity! You were meant for so much more, people! Wake up!”

Some threw their gift on the floor and continue snoozing. Some looked them over sleepily, hugged them, and went back to sleep. But some, a bona fide few, got up, realized what they’d been doing (or not doing), and followed me to the front door. Thankfully, Tony woke up and joined us on crutches.

“Not so fast!” The doctor strode to the front of the group and stood between us and our intended exit.

“What are you doing? These people are sick. They need to rest. Now all of you, back to your beds. Doctor’s orders!”

“I think you need a taste of your own medicine, Doc,” I said. His eyes grew wider. I snatched up a flask of the stuff he’d been drugging the people with and grabbed his nose. Tony poured it in his mouth in small amounts till he had accumulatively swallowed a large dose. Then as one we all proceeded to the door, broke the glass, and dispersed into the city. Some were running for sheer joy. Some were staring at the stars. Some reached out and touched a leaf or a twig or a stone, wondering at the world they’d been so long ignoring.

I made sure Tony arrived home safely. I made sure he told his mom he did not want to go back again, and that she agreed he could rest at home.

I arrived home very tired from a long night’s work. It was good I had the day off tomorrow. I needed to rest up before I went back to the office. Rest was a good, good thing, I thought, as I drifted away into a dreamy silence and slumbered till the dawn. Till the dawn, and not beyond.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Canary Cage

Jim was a good storyteller. In three villages, no, in three hundred villages could not be found such a weaver of tales, a purveyor of dreams, a painter of colorful yarns.

Children and adults alike pursued him. Open evening campfires drew instant crowds when word got out that he was reviving his craft once again at the behest of every influential person in the town and at the insistence of every eager youth.

Once of these evenings began in a particularly pleasant way, which is often a sign of impending turbulence. One would not have guessed from the way it began that the night would end as it did.

A gentle breeze swayed the limbs of an ancient apple tree against the backdrop of a deep blue sky spaced with final sunset streaks shot between the night's first and boldest stars.

The words of the storyteller drifted out above the hush and the hickory smoke. The enthralled crowd hung on every word. Imagination lit every animated expression. Behind them a golden coach led by golden horses came to an abrupt stop. The insignia on the door was a star intertwining a crown. A young man, hardly more than a youth, strode out with a kingly gait and listened silently with fire in his eyes.

The weaver's tale came alive as though he were creating real and living worlds with the depth of his imagery. Every brushstroke of vocal intonation conveyed unrivaled passion and sincerity. Nobody breathed for fear of missing a single syllable.

Jim paused. His eyes opened widely. The crowd had parted to allow the stranger's approach, and they were shyly ducking their heads and looking away.  Some were bowing.

The stranger looked him in the eyes.

"Why do these people listen to you?" he said.

"Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but I seem to have a knack for spinning a tale," he replied with a modest blush.

"You're hired.  Come with me," said the prince.

"Begging His Highness's pardon again, but I have a shop to run, a home to tend, and a pet canary to feed..."

"Sed," called the monarch-to-be over his shoulder.  A muscular servant appeared from the direction of the coach.

"Sed," repeated the prince, "escort this golden tongued word weaver home to fetch his canary. Have them both at the palace by morning."

With a slightly arrogant parting glance the prince was gone, leaving a disappointed dispersing crowd and a stunned storytelling storekeeper.

"Why me?" moaned Jim. The servant rode a horse slowly beside him as he made his way down a graveled path.

"You'll be paid well," said Sedrick. "Good food, too."

Jim held his forehead and groaned.

The shop was set in order and locked. The storyteller packed a few clothes and removed a wicker canary cage from its hook. Its yellow occupant flittered excitedly inside it. He hooked up a cart to a brave little donkey and set off with the tall guard towering alongside on his steed.

It was extremely late when they reached the palace gates. Sentries let them in and took their conveyances to the stables. Jim was shown to a small room with a single window and a sofa with red velvet cushions.

"Have a good night," said Sedrick. "And don't try to leave," he added. "The doors are guarded, and so is your window."

The next morning dawned gray and foggy. Jim found himself wearing stiff new clothes and sitting in the billiard room among a crowd of nobles. Some were smoking enormous cigars. Some were feasting on pie and pastry. Some yawned and stared blankly out the window.

"Gentlemen," said the prince. Every eye looked his way.

"I have endeavored to bring you, at great expense to myself, some enlightening entertainment. This peasant, a mere shopkeeper, has the gift of a golden tongue. Let us listen."

He promptly seated himself on a rounded royal blue silk cushion and proceeded to help himself to a small portion of roasted corn.

Jim missed his home. He missed his freedom. He felt as trapped as a canary, with the exception that a tame canary could never fend for itself in the wild.

Neither could these nobles. Jim told himself that he had never seen people more lonely, more bored, and more completely helpless than these overfed, underworked, pompous men.

He fired his imagination to full steam and took them on a journey through forests, over valleys, past flowing rivers, across plains, into the midst of dragons and sword fights; and by the time he'd finished every mouth gaped in utter astonishment at his skill. They rose and applauded as the last phrase fell on grateful, enlivened ears.

Jim was paid good wages through the years. Generations of noble children learned both traditional tales and new ones. He was a walking library of literature, as beloved and respected a figure as ever had walked the halls before or since.

He kept many generations of canaries in his room, and they always reminded him of the life he'd lived before. He missed his freedom, but he recognized that by accepting his post as the "royal canary" and bringing life into the palace through his ideas and words, he was setting others free. The nobles, the children, and all servants within earshot were enabled to look forward to life with courage, kindness, and contentment. This in turn trickled down to all the rest of the people, who had a much easier lifetime under rulers that were well educated in things like morals and empathy for others.

When at last his stories were no more, and he awoke to the gracious freedom for which he'd always longed,  those left behind mourned respectfully and deeply, and buried him with honor among the graves of valiant knights. A large aviary was built for his canaries, with a servant assigned to attend to them. They live there to this day, and the notes of their songs still cheer and comfort the lonely and sore of heart who pause to listen and observe.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Legend of Firebelly

Deep in the dimness cast by craggy rocks lay a cavernous expanse filled with smooth pebbles. Nestled in among the warm, sheltered bed of gentle gravel lay three eggs.

They were large eggs, as blue as a robin's.

Within this cavern stood someone who played flippantly with the cords of his life just by being there. Standing beside him, someone who did not want to be there. His servant had done many menial tasks without complaining, but this time he wished to do so now more than he ever had in his life. Great self-restraint kept his lips muzzled and barred the exit of the words that demanded they vacate the place.

It was not for fear alone that Albert wished to be going. Sure, he did not fancy being alit with dragon's flames, nor did he especially treasure the notion of being its lunch. But there was another reason eating at him from the inside.

"Carry two under your arm and let's be going," instructed his superior in clanking gold-plated armor. (Whenever the gold plating scratched in battle, Sir Douglas would simply have it refinished. He would have made the pieces of solid gold if it had not been for the fact that gold is such a very soft metal.)

Albert lay his hand gently on an egg. It was extremely warm, and the gravel held the heat well.

"Might die if we move them?"

"Good," came the reply.

"What good are they to us dead?" said Albert, trying to appeal to the nobleman's greed on behalf of saving these most unusual somethings.

"They will harm no one, and I can display them in my parlor."

A lump rose in Albert's throat.

"No," he said for the first time in his entire life, and because it was the first time, Sir Douglas dropped his jaw in gaping surprise.

"Albert, you are obligated to help me wherever I request it."

"If the Creator didn't want dragons to live he wouldn't have created them," replied Albert.

"I'll pretend you didn't just say that," said the knight generously, scooping an egg out of the ground with his leather gloved hand.

The pebbles below their feet began to tremble and hop.

"C'mon!" said Sir Douglas. "Grab those eggs and run!"

Albert could not bring himself to disturb the remaining two eggs. He sat down in the empty space left by the first egg and put his head in his hands.

"Okay, fine," said Douglas. "You're finished. Don't come back home anymore."

He lifted one leg and then the other arrogantly out the entrance, and was gone.

Screams pierced the air, wild strange animal screams mixed with those of the knight. Albert froze with surprise. The screams bled into quiet, and the egg that Douglas had displaced returned through the opening, followed by his armor, one piece after another. Then a head, a long, narrow head lit by two orange and glowing eyes, looked in. It surveyed the lair with satisfaction, blew fire on the armor one piece at a time, and entered. The long, scaly tail was the last to come in, and took longer than anything else.

Once inside it stowed the armor pieces in an overhead hole that reminded Albert of a cabinet. He noticed a glint of more than just the armor where the lit eyes of the dragon reflected in the hole. Seemingly satisfied, it turned back to its egg, which it now clutched to its heart.

Albert dreaded being noticed but could not wait to get it over with, so he deliberately moved out of the space where the egg belonged, feeling sure this would grab the beast's attention. It seemed not to notice, however, and it carefully replaced the egg into its warm socket of earthy heated pebbles.

"You been here long?" it said.

Albert jumped in surprised, but he promptly recovered and spoke.

"Not long."

"You know how medicine?" it said.

"Yes," he replied.

"Medicine this," it commanded, pointing to a gash beneath its left arm.

The servant removed a clean handkerchief from his pocket and soaked it with wine from a little canteen. He pressed and dabbed very gently at the ooze between the missing scales till he was sure it was quite well disinfected by the alcohol.

"Smells good," it said. "Good medicine."

Albert hesitated.

"You should do this again tomorrow," he said. "Every day for a week."

"You do good medicine tomorrow then," it said. "Stay right here."

With a swish of its tail the dragon turned about and reached inside its storage hole. When it returned it held out a glittering diamond as big as a hickory nut.

"You keep this," it said. "Good pay for good medicine."

It's a test, said a voice from somewhere in Albert's head. He thought he'd heard that voice before, but he couldn't remember where. He began to reach out.

It's a test, came the voice again. Don't take it.

He closed the dragon's scaly hand over the gemstone and gently pushed it away.

"No, thank you," he said. "I don't care much for those."

A curved smile played upon the giant toothsome mouth.

"Me treasure's safe, then," it said, putting it back.

"You sleep," said the dragon, turning itself round about and curling into a ball. It rested its head on its tail, but he couldn't be sure if it was asleep or awake because the glowing eyes remained open.

With the shock of all that had happened, Albert quickly found himself void of energy, and he gradually succumbed to the sleepy warmth of the cave.

He was awakened by a small stirring. Something nearby was pulling at him, pinching him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and saw two tiny coals glowing up at him. At least, that's what they looked like. The baby dragon had been trying to get his attention. He held out his hand to it, and it climbed up in his lap like a puppy and fell asleep. After a few short blinks Albert dozed again, thinking himself to be in a very strange dream.

Near dawn he was again awakened, this time by all three dragons pulling at his legs and feet. He chuckled and tolerated the pinching, although their teeth felt like pins.

Two years later, tales arose and circulated of a hero who rescued the downtrodden, riding through the sky on the backs of dragons. He was said to breathe the fire himself, although this could not be confirmed. He was known by all simply as, "Firebelly."

He persistently defended the innocent. All the knights said he was evil and pledged to kill him, but he was far too wary to be caught. Whenever he'd been in the vicinity, food somehow showed up on the porches of poor houses. Prisoners who'd been jailed unjustly would be routinely freed. Those who'd put them there were often found to have been placed in their cells instead, alive and mad as hornets.

If you, however, find a large blue egg in a cave surrounded by warm, smooth pebbles, I would suggest that you leave it alone.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Lioness

It wasn't possible that the she-lion's eyes looked so familiar. Elizabeth had been lost eleven years ago, yet somehow this animal's gaze reminded him of her. It padded silently ahead, urging him forward with its unspeaking eyes. The glare of hundreds of torches lit the valley below and reflected like gleaming gold through the retinas of this large and soundless creature. The rock ledge was easy enough for a cat's paws to negotiate, but his clumsy human stride knocked rocks and sticks down at every turn. She had long since quit giving him reproachful glances, knowing that he couldn't help it.

The ledge turned a sharp corner and abruptly ended. Here, it seemed, was their destination. A large cave stood five feet above. She leapt in, then peered over the edge.

"I can't jump that far," he quivered.

The lioness sighed. He heard rustling up above him, and with a thud a large stick landed at his feet. It was quite thick, and at first he didn't see the use of it, but presently he leaned it against the rock, carefully balanced one foot upon its end, and hauled himself upward while grasping into the cave for something to grab onto.

Soft breath and a wet tongue took hold gently of his wrist. He felt his weight move forward as easily as if he were a rag doll. Kyska couldn't believe the terrible size of her teeth, which did but barely touch him.

Just as though his entry into safety had signaled it, it started to rain. Thunder split the sky into shards as the torrential hot water drops flashed in the oft lit night. The lioness lay undisturbed among a heap of rabbit skins, breathing gently as her great sides fell and rose.

Cautiously he crept nearer as the urge to sleep overcame his sense of fear at the sudden loss of his freedom and his pride. He didn't think that sleep would come to him in such strange surroundings, but come it did. In the morning he'd be able to tell them all he'd spent the night with his back to a lion.

When the evening rains had passed, the blazing tangerine dawn echoed with the raucous calls of many brilliantly colored birds. Kyska rubbed his eyes sleepily and was surprised to find a large red parrot, dead, before his nose. He arose with a start. The lioness was busily consuming what was left of a green parrot. Her translucent fiery eyes stared at him. He picked up the bird.

"Uh--um--thank you."

She purred softly and began to wash the finished meal from her paws.


The lioness paused in mid lick, her eyes once again fixed on him.

"I can't--that is--I need to cook this," he said, holding up the bird, beautiful but stiff, by the tail.

As if to shrug she went back to her washing, leaving him to figure out his quandary. He piled dry twigs and strips of old moss together and struck two white stones upon each other again and again until the numerous sparks lit them. After pulling out the quills and down as best he could, Kyska held the bird by one long tail feather over the flames.

Breakfast done, the lioness seemed to think that he also needed a bath, which he did not enjoy, especially the time or two he squirmed uncomfortably and received a scratch for doing so. He began to wonder if this was really Elizabeth, or if he had wandered into the custody of a truly wild beast that would eventually consume him. He kept his thoughts to himself, however, and clambered clumsily out the entrance where she'd signaled him to follow.

The trail led into the mountains. They were warm, weepy, full of trees. No where was there a hint of any snow, and the trail went only upward. Finally they stopped to rest in a treehouse that had been made by some villagers ages ago. Kyska shuddered at the runic carvings on the tree supports, for he knew what they meant, and what they meant was ugly. He tried not to think about it.

There was scarcely room in the treehouse for both him and his companion, but somehow they arranged to sit and rest a while. Kyska dozed with his chin buried in fur.

Suddenly he sat up. The lion's fur bristled. Green eyes glowed from the shadows below. A hundred black wolves appeared and encircled the tree. They made no sound except for the scratching of their paws against the dirt and rocks below.

Kyska stood sadly and readied to venture down to them. He could not ask one lone lioness to fight a hundred wolves. He knew they'd come on his account, for it had been this way in the past, whether they be villagers with spears or elephant tusks.

Sharp claws grabbed him between his shoulder blades and threw him flat on the floor of the structure. He tried to protest but was soundly slapped by her weighty fur paw.

Her growls seemed to imitate the tone and spacing of human speech, and the tallest wolf looked up at her and barked out a reply. She leaned again and assured him with an earnest huff that she hadn't seen any other humans that day other than the one she intended to eat (that's what it seemed like she was saying when Kyska listened hard). The wolf leader thanked her cheerfully and bounded out into the surrounding bushes, followed by his avid frisky pack.

The journey resumed. Slowly their ascent seemed to reach some sort of plateau near the top, in the middle of which stood a structure made of brass in the shape of a giant box. When they drew near he ascertained it had a door, and the lioness disappeared inside it. A moment later she reappeared and signed for him to follow. The inside was dimly lit, with a terrible reeking haze that stung his nose and limited his view. He kept his eyes on her steadily rising and falling shoulders and tried not to succumb to the smell all around him.

The ground inside seemed to rise, and he soon found himself stumbling wearily up a golden staircase. Occasionally his foot slipped because the strange haze made everything moist, but he persisted with the determination of a hundred heroes. And now, it seemed, they were at the top.

A single tree made of glass glimmered in the misty cavernous dusk. At its base rested a serpent coiled as if at rest. The lioness stepped over it and went up the trunk in a single bound. Her gaze rested on him as if she expected him to follow.

"Same problem as before," he said. "I can't climb or leap like you can."

She growled at him insistently, and to his surprise the glass was not slick. He ascended with ease as though magnetized by the tree, and followed her into a little glass canyon inside the trunk.

A little old man with a wrinkled face and a very long beard sat in the midst of it, and he seemed to be deep in thought.

"What you say is true," he said to the lioness. "They do exist."

"What do?" said Kyska.

"Good humans," he replied. "I was afraid there were none."

Kyska blushed.

"How do you know if I'm good?"

The old man smiled.

"There is little, if anything, that I don't know about humans. Your soul windows tell me everything."

"Are you a human?" he ventured.

"Alas, I am. It was a terrible burden to be the only living virtuous human."

Kyska was quiet for a moment. Then he began anew.

"The snake sleeping outside..."

" old and toothless," the wise man finished for him. "He will only harm those who lend him an ear."

"And now?" said Kyska.

"And now I will return Elizabeth to human form. You and she will be permitted to go back to wherever you came from, provided you stay there."

"You changed her into a lioness? But why?"

"So she could defend herself against the villagers. It worked, didn't it? And now she's brought you to me to prove there is someone I can trust to send her home with. But as I said you must stay where I am about to send you, and never come back."

"Stay there? How can I stay there if I don't even know how I got here?"

"Stay out of those books," the old man glowered. "They were not supposed to be read by human eyes."

Kyska hesitated.

"Books, books..." he muttered to himself. "I can't remember any books."

"Go!" the old man thundered. "And remember what I said."

Everything faded. Soft sun poured through the tree limbs onto a large green hammock where Kyska dozed lazily.

"Tea time," Elizabeth called cheerily, waving her hand towards the house.

"Books," he moaned, half asleep.

"Oh, yes!" she replied. "Those first edition magic and conjuring lesson books arrived today in a big box. Shall I open it?"

Kyska gasped.

"No!" he said, then more calmly, "No, thank you."

Elizabeth tilted her head back and laughed. She slapped him through the hammock and grinned.

"Up, you lazy thing, and come drink your tea."

As they walked hand in hand towards the waiting refreshments, Kyska thought he heard the faintest hint of a lion's purr. He looked all around him. There was no one but Elizabeth, and she was smiling warmly. He would definitely destroy those books, and soon.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Concert

"Should we call Bumblebees With Migraines?"

"No, Mangy Wolves are my favorite!"

"New Stiff Shoes, they're the greatest."

"What about The Bad Eggs?"

The Fourth of July was to be a celebration to top all others. They were to have a carnival, a dunking booth, several concession stands, and a singing group. The council couldn't agree on what singing group to invite. A decision was finally voted upon by some extra and impartial tie breakers, whose opinions were that all four rock groups should be called, and that the lowest priced one was to be hired without further discussion.

Bumblebees were called first, but it turned out their manager was buzzed and unavailable.

Mangy Wolves were then tried, but the curt and surely answering service said they were completely booked through August.

New Stiff Shoes had a very polite office manager who very politely told them that there was no way a group as great as they would play in such a very small town for anything near what they were offering to pay.

The Bad Eggs said they had a previous booking for that day, and that it was unlikely they'd be able to make it on time.

A real fuss and flutter arose among the council members, and some said there would be no music at all or that they would have to use recorded music instead of a live band.

One lowly man suggested that they ask some local high school talent, four kids who played in their garage, to do the honors, while also explaining (with much adjustment of his glasses) that the kids would probably not ask for money, and would be glad just to gain a little recognition.

Once agreed upon, the youths were solemnly greeted by the aforementioned bespectacled fellow who visited their hangout while they were in the act of their weekly practice. The idea was accepted with cheers, hoots, and slaps on the back, and they promised to show up early.

The holiday came, and the kids played their hearts out. Everyone paused many times to hear the prodigies share their united sound, even amidst the browsing of many other attractions. All but their parents and teachers were astonished, and the ones who knew their abilities were nearly bursting with pride at such accomplishment. A steady beat, full of pep and attitude, swept the whole town off their feet.

Then, and only then, did The Bad Eggs arrive. They had been told by their manager that a small town had offered decent pay for their services, and that since their previous engagement canceled they may as well make their way down to the area. They stood around watching the kids, and the unshaven spokesperson for the group, a certain Lee White, mentioned that the group would require a kill fee of 50%.

"You'll get no such thing," said the atypically short-winded mayor.

The music continued to tap in the feet of the listeners, and the Egg group got another bright idea. Lead guitarist Melvin Y. Oak decided they needed to add this talent into their own mix and offered to hire the kids to go with them on the road.

The kids, when a break came, were motioned over to speak with the group's manager, amid many sighs and cautioning glares from those who knew them.

"No way," said Ken. "I'm going to be a doctor. Music is for the weekends and such."

"Me neither," said Brent. "I'm already half owner in my ranch, and I've got stock to raise."

"I'm going to law school as soon as I can," added Gus. "I can't go on the road."

"Culinary arts are my practical side," chimed Oliver. "Musical arts are an additional plus, but I'm going to be a chef, thanks the same."

So The Bad Eggs, disappointed and without recourse or contract, slid off in their bus to help someone else enjoy the afternoon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My New Best Friend

It was a very dark night and the moon was hidden, but I found the cool of the outdoor bench to be a soothing relief from steamy indoor laundry work. I had grown up in the country, so my eyes were quite used to seeing in very low light. Chores on farms (as you know) are done before dawn.

It was not unusual to take my break alone. The other ladies sometimes joined me, but this time their shifts kept them busy. Sometimes also they skipped their midnight meals, but I needed the energy boost, so there I sat enjoying the late picnic and admiring the stars.

An odd fellow with a limping gait sat down beside me. In the dim light his extremely pale features made his face sort of glow, and his empty eyes stared gloomily ahead into space.

I ignored him and proceeded with my snack. The steaming smell of soup from my insulated food container wafted into the air. My silent companion sat bolt upright, a puzzled expression visiting his face.

"What..." he began. His voice was deep and mysterious.

"Go on," I said. "I won't bite you."

Again an odd look crossed his face, and he choked slightly like there was something stuck in his throat.

"What..." his voice whispered hoarsely, " in that bottle?"

"Oh, it's just my soup. It's my breaktime, and I must finish my late evening snack before returning to work in that hot old laundry room."

"What kind?" he persisted. A faint breeze picked up the ends of his long, lightweight coat and made it flutter.

"Chicken and roasted garlic," I said. "Want some?"

He looked like he was going to be sick.

"No," he said.

I ate in silence for a while, and studied my neighbor curiously between bites. He had deep red lips and dark outlines around his eyes like he was wearing eyeliner. Maybe he's into goth culture, I thought. It was not my business to judge, however, so I continued to sit and eat.

Continued, that is, until I accidentally spilled it. Spilled it right on his leg. I was so embarrassed! I apologized all over myself and began to soak it up with napkins. The man seemed to be beyond anger, though, and bit his lip in delirious pain.

"It's not that hot, is it?" I said. I handed him some napkins. "Be a man," I continued. "Don't be such a baby."

The strange person dried up the mess, adjusted his position, and sighed deeply. He wrapped his black cloak around him and rested his chin upon his hand. I noticed he was still biting his lip, however. I noticed also that his teeth seemed a bit long and sharp.

"You know, they can do something about that overbite," I said. He looked at me curiously.

"I don't mean to make personal remarks," I continued, "and you might feel just fine about how your teeth look, but I used to have the same problem and braces helped considerably."

He smiled saucily without answer.

"Here, let me get you the number of my orthodontist," I said, rummaging through my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him watching the back of my neck, but I was already beginning to get used to his oddness, so I didn't pay it much heed.

"Shucks, so much junk in this purse," I muttered. "Here, hold this for me." I handed him some makeup compacts, my empty keychains, and the crucifix necklace I carried with me at all times. (It had been a gift from a very dear friend.)

The man rose straight up off the bench with a yelp as though his posterior had discovered a very large thumbtack. I was afraid he wasn't going to return my belongings, so I gave up the search and threw my stuff back in the bag.

"Sorry," I said. "I must have left it at home."

"That's all right," he said stiffly.

"So much at stake when one leaves for work in such a hurry," I said.

The man again became rather alarmed.

"What did you say?" he said.

I shrugged. "I said I had to hurry to get to work, and I may have dropped my phone book out of my..."

"No, the other part. What was that about stakes?"

"No, I don't like steaks at all. They're too tough and tasteless. I much prefer chicken or fish. I still think you should try some of this soup. It's great stuff!"

I pulled a very strong flashlight from my pocket and began making sure that my effects were in order. My companion squinted in the bright light and seemed to become very annoyed.

"Well, I think I've got everything. My break's almost over. It was nice meeting you."

He nodded sullenly and remained on the bench, staring off into space.

"It's so nice to meet new people," I added as I arose to leave. "I hope we meet again. Let me tell you though, those laundry rooms can suck you dry. Leaves you void of energy. I don't know how I do it sometimes."

A rustling of leaves answered me. Somehow he had left in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Furballs

The first time I found a furball I was not the least surprised, although I should have been. The morning paper hit my door at approximately 6 a.m., and I was there to answer it.

It was pink, about the size of a softball, and covered with thick fur.

"Some kids lost their toy," I muttered to myself. I kicked it off the doorstep.

It whimpered.

"Oh, great," I said. "What have I done now?"

I picked it up cautiously and turned it over. It had two yellow eyes that blinked at me sadly, and a small, flat, toothless mouth. The creature appeared to be breathing through two tiny holes in the place where one might expect ears, and it didn't appear to have any sort of feet. I rather liked it, and wondered where it had come from.

While I wondered, a tremendous rustling of leaves in the maple tree overhead suggested that I step aside, and another one plunked down into the grass. It was light brown with white spots, and its eyes were bright green.

"Two of them!" I said, scooping it up.


Every few minutes I looked up from my newspaper to see what these creatures were up to. I had left them on the floor mat near the door, and I had given them each a sweet roll which they were devouring eagerly.

"City pound? I have two furballs... What? No, they're not cats. No, not dogs, either. They're round and look like a tennis ball... Hello? Hello?"

I began to ponder what to do with them.

"Where'd they go?" I said out loud to myself.

Though they seemed to have no feet, both things were crawling up the wall in a snail-like fashion.

It occurred to me they might be some new exotic pet that escaped from a pet store, so I boxed them up in a dog carrier and took them in the front door of the nearest shop and marched right up to the service desk.

"Here for grooming services?" asked a softspoken, pleasant young man.

"No," I said. "I've found these creatures outside my house, and..."

"Wild animals or tame? You're not supposed to keep them if they're wild. If they're tame and you don't own them, the pound..."

"I've already called the pound, and they won't listen to me," I interrupted.

I opened the cage and dumped the contents on the desk: three furballs! The new one was a sleek black with bright blue eyes that glowed cheerily.

"Eek!" yelled the clerk while making tracks for the nearest exit. I sighed, packed them back up, and left the store with a shrug.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ugly Convention

The highway passed beneath the car no faster than it ever had, and I grew impatient. Tim, half asleep, sat beside me. He was supposed to be helping, but I knew I'd be doing most of the work.

"We're almost there," I said, hoping to wake him up a little and maybe inspire him to get his camera ready.

"Mmph," he said. Tim always said "mmph". It must have meant something on the planet he came from, I chuckled silently to myself.

Two merry guards talked briskly at the gate and asked to see my pass. One frowned at the other and said something in his ear.

"Mr. Gruffy said I had permission to do a story on this place," I explained, hoping they would remember and not bar me from entering.

"Gruffy, the owner of the Daily Satellite," Tim put in. They looked him over carefully and nodded to one another in approval. The gates swung wide, and I drove on through.

"Wonder why they were questioning me. Thought we had this all set up."

"Easy," croaked Tim. "You're not ugly enough."

I had decided not to wear makeup, and instead of fixing my hair I had just tied it in a lazy ponytail. I had dressed in my oldest clothes for the occasion, but I guessed that it hadn't done enough good.

Tents and campers lined up for many aisles. Everyone was out milling around, talking and laughing, playing games, eating refreshments, and watching me park with critical eyes. I strode right up to one man who seemed particularly good at lawn bowling and opened my notebook.

"What's is it you like best about this convention?" I asked. "I'm Laney Brown from the Daily Satellite," I added with a smile.

The man frowned a bit. "I liked it just fine until you showed up," he said. I turned and walked away to find another person to interview. A senior citizen was walking her dog, so I pulled a treat biscuit from the pocket of my coat (an old trick I had learned for getting dog owners to talk), and introduced myself. Tim followed, camera in hand, typical lazy attitude afoot.

"Hello, I'm Laney Brown..." I began.

The woman picked up her dog, went into her camper, and slammed the door shut.

I went for a walk and looked around. Everyone here was definitely in the lowest 2% of the population as regarded external looks, but none of them seemed to care too much about it. They were a community of ugliness, but at the same time many of them seemed to be hard working, clean, friendly, and intelligent. Farmers with holes in their gloves waved at Tim as we went by. Broad shouldered, sensible women were chatting about sewing and cooking. Dog owners were petting their dogs and comparing notes on breeding and nutrition. Everyone had something to do, and no one saw his or her life as useless. I put all this in my notebook as I walked. Then I thought of something.

"Tim, these people seem to like you better than me. It must be your friendly appearance."

"You're not fooling me, Laney. I know why they like me better," he said with a pout.

"No one's going to talk to me," I insisted, "so maybe you can get them to talk. Especially if I take the camera and hide behind it so they can't see my face. See?" I held up the camera as a mask and smiled.

"Yeah," said Tim, swallowing the last of his coffee and stowing the cup in his shoulder bag. "Okay, what do you want me to ask them?"

"Here's the list of questions Mr. Gruffy gave me." I handed over my list and notebook.

We got several fine interviews that day, and I witnessed a depth of humanity that I personally will not forget. It seemed that when society had thrown them out, they took each other in. When no one met their need for comfort and friendship, they were there for each other instead. The rejects in turn rejected those who rejected them. The doors that got slammed in my face made me wonder how many had been slammed in theirs. Inner beauty and wisdom were prized by those who couldn't win the game of good looks. I envied them, although I knew that I didn't particularly want to change places. They had something automatically given to them that the rest of us had to work harder for: that something escaped my attempts to name it, so I just wrote it up as a "unique and mysterious quality."

My article won an award. I named Tim as co-author for the first time ever. Lazy or not, I couldn't have gotten it done without him.

"Where are we going now?" said Tim as we climbed into my car.

"To cover a beauty pageant," I replied.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Unscripted Script

"I can..."

The stage echoed.

"I can..."

The director and assistants watched from the front row.


The dark, empty theater waited.

"Well, Cecil?" said the director.

The young actor threw his hat on the floor and stomped defiantly.

"Who wrote this script?" he demanded. "It's ridiculous!"

"Many scripts are," the director assured him.

"Find me one that isn't!" he snapped.

If he hadn't been blessed with unnatural good looks he might not have said that. The fact was that in a town of 1,800 Cecil Drifter was the only man for the job, and Cliff knew it.

"Be reasonable," said Cliff. "No one could do this play as well as you."

"No one would want to," replied his employee.

"Okay, fine," said Clifford in an easy tone. "Let it go. Let the whole town miss the production. Theater and art aren't so important, right?"

"Of course they're important!" thundered Cecil. "My kid sister's in the ballet, my big brother's paintings are on half the walls in town, and my mom teaches sculpting. Art's in my blood whether I like it or not."

"And drama is an art, right?"

"An art. A fine, precise art. A delicate rose."

"And does this not include comedy? That which produces laughter and great happiness?"

Cecil's arms hung loose and limp at his sides in surrender.

"Yes," he sighed.

"Then please read the script. I promise this will be the last rehearsal. Next Friday's for real."

Cecil shifted his feet to a more steady stance, blinked twice, took a deep breath, and resolutely spoke.

"I can just taste that blackberry pie right now!"

Instantaneously a large pie splattered his countenance. The assistant cheered his own good aim, and all broke out in smiles.

"Thank you, Mr. Drifter."

A muffled mouth of berries managed, "You're welcome," and with a great sweeping distinction, he bowed.

Friday night opened with a full house. Cecil's eyes twinkled extra brightly as he took the stage and winked at the assistant director, who winked back.

The curtain rose, the audience clapped, and the play commenced. There were many good punchlines, and Cecil delivered them all with skill. He interacted naturally with the cast, and when the final act arose he stood tall with pride, eyes still twinkling, wearing a handsome grin.

"Well, boys, it's time we headed home. Auntie Jo said she was going to bake today."

Cecil glanced downward. Just as planned, the chairs on either side of their beloved director were empty. He continued.

"Cliff can just taste blackberry pie right now!"


Clifford, now drenched in pie, joined the cast up on the stage. With half the town on Cecil's side there was but one thing to do: play along. He scraped a glob of fruit from above his ear and plastered it against Cecil's forehead. Cecil laughed.

Auntie Jo bounced heavily across the floor boards and set five more pies on the table. Both men's eyes gleamed. As one they rushed for the stack. The curtain slowly lowered on the trembling stage, awash in flying purple pies. The comedy's new ending brought loud cheers and uncontrollable laughter from the crowd, who vowed to return and see it again next season. Seven cast members later headed for the dressing room, warm with laughter and covered in purple splotches.

In time Cecil did get to do more than comedy, and in time bigger companies offered him roles. Cliff stayed with the small town theater until he passed away, and though no one could replace him several kept his shows alive for younger generations to enjoy.

Oh, and one more thing: Cliff wrote that script.

Friday, August 28, 2009


"Don't make him mad," she whispered.

"Why not?" I said. "I'm not afraid of him."

"It's not him," she continued softly. "It's things."

"Things?" I said, getting louder. "What sorts of things?"

"Shh!" she cautioned, glancing back at Werner, who was busy busing tables.

"What do you mean?" I insisted, more hushed.

"Things will happen to you if you make him mad," she said.

A bucket splashed dingy gray slop water all over the entrance. I turned just in time to see Werner stepping clumsily away, his leg soaked to the knee.

"Werner!" I said. Annette grabbed my elbow in begging restraint, but I shook her off.

"Now look," I continued, marching in his direction. "I'm not going to fire you on my first day as manager, but we can't have the patrons slipping. Clean that up!"

Werner nodded, mouth open, and began hurriedly throwing large amounts of the customers' supply of napkins into the pine scented wash water, which did nothing to remove the spill and wasted the napkins.

"Werner!" I said sharply.

"Shh!" pleaded Annette.

"Werner," I continued more evenly, "please go get the super absorbent disposable mop kit from the supply closet. Do not ever waste napkins."

Werner slowly shuffled to the closet, leaving a trail of wet footprints all the way.

"Werner!" I hollered after him.

"Shh!" warned Annette.

"Annette, what's he going to do? Quit? Why should I be afraid of that?"

"No, he never quits."

"Why shouldn't I show him how to be a more efficient employee? What harm is in a little scolding now and then?"

"He doesn't mean to," she said.

"Doesn't mean to what?" I insisted.

Werner returned with an armload of supplies in his same slow deliberate gait. He passed me without a word and began mopping up the floor, this time correctly.

"See?" I said to Annette. "He's making himself useful. He doesn't appear angry in the least, and it's getting done."

I turned confidently toward the grill. The scent of warm, inviting food was still fresh in my mind when I saw stars upon stars eminating from a central focal point. I landed on the floor in a sitting position and held my head, too breathless to speak.

"Ms. Flare, Ms. Flare!" said several employees.

"What happened?" I mumbled incoherently. I looked beside me and realized that a ceiling fan is really quite ornate, especially when there are stars dancing upon the blades. I also realized it had fallen on the floor amid a crumble of ceiling pieces.

Next morning I was back at work with a head bandage peeking out from under my visor. Everyone went about business as usual, including Werner. He seemed to bear no ill grudge for yesterday's incident, but neither did he seem to have learned anything. When he knocked over a customer's drink with his sleeve, he immediately piled napkins in the mess and wasted them. He also ignored the customer--policy was to replace the drink.

"Werner!" I said sternly. "Go apologize and offer to replace what you spilled."

He shuffled to the table and proceeded to speak in a thick but distinct voice.

"I'm sorry your drink got in my way."

"Werner!" I shouted. I smiled appeasingly at the very large unhappy man and his hungry family.

"I'm sorry," I said to them. "New employees don't understand things. I'm going to replace your drink with the same thing but in a larger size, on the house."

I turned to Werner.

"Go get the mop kit!"

The family continued eating until at some point Werner poked one of the children in the eye with the mop handle, resulting in a black eye. Our insurance costs would be going up.

"I'll fire him!" I roared from the break room.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Marie, another good worker who was freshening her hair and makeup at a small corner mirror.

"Why not?" I asked.

As if in answer the mirror fell off the wall. I rushed to catch it, did so, and hung it back on the peg.

"He's a jinx," she said, "The real thing."

"There's no such thing," I laughed.

"That bump on your head would say otherwise," she warned.

"This is serious," I said soberly. "There are no jinxes."


"What is it that makes him that way, Dr. Travis?"

"Some people were born with mental wavelengths that we don't yet fully understand. They have used them accidentally, but some have learned how to direct them, how to focus them. These are the people who pose the greatest threat."

"And Werner?"

"No. He doesn't know how. I am convinced he is benevolent. But somewhere inside him is a deep residual rage. Contact this, and his talent awakens. Make him angry, and it will point in your specific direction. I don't think it is something he can help, or even knows about. But it is real, and you're going to have to find ways to deal with it."

I sighed, picked up my crutch, and went back to work.

Miss Lacey's Good Sandwiches

Her peanut butter was never dry. Her bologna and cheese was perfect. Her ham, with pickles and mustard, was famous. There was no sandwich that passed her butter knife without her complete attention, nor was there a recipient of such work that did not appreciate her talent.

Parties called her for a tray,
Weddings had her in their plans.
No one let her get away
Without introduction.

Beef tenderloin was the central topic, and all adored her delicate handling thereof.

Many were fed by her unrivaled skill,
Ranch and cold chicken rejoiced at her touch.
Long were the orders she scrambled to fill,
While crowds gathered where there were rumors of lunch.

In time she was noticed by famed Big Bucks Bill,
Who tried in his time every marvel to buy.
He told of a restaurant he wanted to build,
But when he asked Lacey, his quest was denied.

He flaunted his money in large waving fans
But still Lacey's gifts were for little or free.
If anyone asked for more food than she'd planned,
She'd offset the cost with a nominal fee.

And so she continued, the talk of the town,
Until she expired at age 93.
And still ever after for miles around,
They talk of Miss Lacey, the legendary.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Incredible Power of Soap

It was neither storming nor sunny when the wide wheeled jeep rolled around the dusty corner and into the unmarked driveway. Grass patches stubbornly claimed their territory despite being driven on, and the inhabitants of the jeep didn't bother to tell them otherwise. Chickens roamed about behind a fence that kept them more or less behind the house, although an occasional escape went unnoticed by all except the neighbor's dog.

A flabby, slovenly woman emerged. Her jeans were torn, and her feet were black with grime atop her minimal foam shoes. Her over sized shirt besmirched with food completed the ensemble, and her short, greasy hair hung in clumps atop a pimpled and unwashed face.

She waddled lazily to the porch, followed by two overweight and very dirty children. Her grocery bags were full of airy new packages of sweetened, flavored, oil-soaked chips upon which they would all feed for the rest of the afternoon.

The cluttered house gave one the feeling of being in a pack rat's den. Crooked window hangings, caked with dust, let in a small amount of daylight, and the dim glow of the television allowed them to see what they were eating.

A knock at the door brought one of the children to see whom it could be, for her laziness did not yet outweigh her sense of curiosity.

A saleswoman, brightly dressed, stood beaming a smile through freshly applied red lipstick.

"Would you like a sample?" said the lady.

"Who is it?" bellowed the woman on the couch.

"A pretty lady," said the girl.

"What does she want?" grunted the woman.

"What do you want?" echoed the girl.

A look of extreme compassion washed across the saleswoman's face.

"I'll be right back," she said.

She disappeared to her car for a moment, then returned with a heavy looking paper bag.

"Here," she said, handing it to the girl. "You can tell me how you like these the next time I come."

The young girl closed the door and began to peek inside the bag.

"What did she want?" repeated her mother, not looking up from the talk show.

"She left," said the girl. "She wanted to sell perfume."

"Ain't got money for it," grunted the woman, who filled her mouth full of chips beside her son who did the same.

The girl looked in the bag and tip toed to her room. There was a bar of soap, a small bottle of shampoo, some powder makeup, and some earrings. She carefully placed them in the corner of her top dresser drawer and covered the bundle with a wrinkled handkerchief.

The next school day the girl held her head up high. She was still overweight, but her whole outlook had changed. She was clean for once, cleaner than she'd ever been in her life, and it felt good. She made her mind up then and there: she would grow up to be like that pretty lady.

She began to try harder at some of her school studies, and found that she really was smarter than she'd formerly realized. Her grades were noticeably higher--noticeable by colleges who scouted scholars.

She left her mom and brother when she turned eighteen and rented a small apartment, which she kept clean--not pristine or spotless, but clean. Her weight problem was never perfect, but it did go down several sizes. She stayed busy and got several job offers when college was finished. The pretty lady kept in touch with her and they often exchanged short notes. Eventually she became involved with politics and ran successfully for a local position several times.

She never married, although she'd turned down a few dates. In a joint project the pretty lady and she raised a large sum for medical research.

She felt fulfilled in life, useful, a valued community member; and when she retired, she often visited houses in poor districts at Christmas time, bringing gift baskets composed of shampoo, bath oils, and soap.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Stubby Pony

The others all rushed ahead, looking back at her with gloating. Sara cantered quietly on her fat, ungainly pony. She was not that far behind, and couldn't figure what they had to gloat about. She had not tried to be first, furthermore did not want to be first. Being first must be fought for with undignified pushing. By contrast, the last one in the group could take more time to notice things.

Cinderella could not help that she had a broad build and short, stubby legs. She was a reliable horse full of good sense, and that was all Sara cared about.

Their daily group rides were always the same: rich kids on fast, long-legged horses fought each other for the lead. The trail was crowded near the front, sparse at the rear. Sara and Cinderella paused to nibble berries and clover (respectively), still able to catch up with ease.

Pretty soon the rich kids began noticing Sara's complete antipathy toward them. They began calling her names and insulting her pony, sometimes even slowing down to make sure she could hear them. Sara, however, was gifted. She could tune them out completely or act like their words never registered. Her mind was so full of flowers and meanderings that she had no room for their boring words.

One day someone threw a rock at her horse. It bounced off the hindquarters, but the reliable pony only sidestepped a little and continued.

Several now began to bedeck their steeds in rhinestone breast collars and embroidered saddle blankets, but Sara still paid them no mind. She rode with the group, happy in their company though excluded from their highest circles.

Kids that were not able to be first or had tried and failed at it began keeping their ponies with Sara. She didn't like crowds but understood why they did this. It was too beautiful to ignore the sunlight on the leaves, which could be glimpsed but not soaked in when one goes fast.

The rich kids could not make her jealous on any level; she simply did not want what they had. They could make her sad, lonely, or hurt, but they could never force Sara to be truly and genuinely envious.

After several weeks most of them slowed down. The few that hogged the front no longer had to fight for it. The last place was now coveted, and some started arguing about who would get to ride there.

Sara moved her horse to the middle. It was quieter. The stops for clover came less often, but it was a small price to pay for breathing space.

I could say that one day all the flighty ponies scampered, throwing their riders. I could say that the avalanche of baseball sized rocks left several on the ground, and that the remaining riders, including Sara, went for help. I could say her patience, which seeped into everyone else, made her and others into heroes.

I could say it, but modesty forbids.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reevari Run

"The eyes of a reevar are drawn to light. They cannot look away."

The sage's words replayed themselves inside his head. He threw the ball down the hill--the one that blinked each time it bounced--and prayed that the reevar would look away for just one second.

It did--his only opening. His sword swung whistling through the air.

It missed.

Tentacles grabbed him by the leg and dragged him toward an open mouth of humongous teeth. The horrible smell of its breath made him start to vomit. It paused, curious as to this never-before-seen behavior. It admired him, turning him every which way and suspending him to see if he would do it again. He did.

The creature made a sound that was half like a warble and half gurgle. It set him on the ground again and patted him on the head with one clumsy limb, then left abruptly.

It was gone. He tried his best to survey the valley and see if the way he'd come (now buried in loose shale) could be unblocked. He dug away several loose pieces and with some persistence made the path usable. So much for reward money, he thought. If only he weren't so desperate to pay the doctor bills for his best friend's ailing father.

The ground rumbled. One, two, five, ten...fifteen reevari were following the first one! They were coming straight at him! He made a desperate dash up the newly cleared exit but was caught by the leg.

All of them sat down in unmonsterly order and formed an audience while the first reevar shook him and gurgled.

"Put me down, please!" he said.

Sixteen reevari roared disapprovingly. The first reevar shook him again and warbled.

"I can't do it again," he explained. "My stomach's empty."

More shaking followed. The audience was getting restless, and some were opening and closing their circular hungry mouths.

He hated to do it, but he reached for the only comfort he felt he had left: cigarettes. He'd been trying to quit. He lit one up, difficult while up-side-down, and began puffing greedily on what might very well be his last.

"Oooh," the reevari warbled. The first reevar put him down and gargled proudly, taking credit for the wonderful display.

He got an idea. Quickly he pulled the somewhat crushed remainders from his pockets, lit them all at once, and passed them out to the reevari, who, imitating him, puffed on them heartily to see the ends light up like coals. The smoke made them cough, but their fervor for light was indomitable and drove them to keep at it. When the ends burned down to the filters they promptly ate them. Then all the reevari curled up for a nap, snoring loudly, and our hero crept away.