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.