The Dark Crystal: Fantasy, Animism & Subversion

dark crystal promo 3What might one say of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance? Lovers of the original, like myself, appear to be blown away by it, and even those who didn’t like the original movie have nothing but good things to say about it. So if you haven’t watched it, don’t waste time reading this and go check it out by whatever means necessary….

I am naturally assuming that you’re a fantasy fan at this point, and that even if you haven’t actually watched any Dark Crystal, you’ll still know that there is a beloved place in people’s hearts for Henson’s movie. So much so, that when you see something that was beloved to your childhood being revived, there is a fear that maybe it wont live up to the desires you’re cradling in your heart, the desire to see the old magic you once felt revived.

Yet seeing what little I did of the painstaking attempts to accurately recreate the world of Thra, a little light of hope was kindled, and when the time was right I sat down to watch the whole thing over the course of a couple of evenings.

And once again I was totally enthralled by the world of Thra.

It wasn’t simply the beauty of its crafting, nor the spectacular settings, nor the fantastic puppetry that brought the characters to life, no, it was also the grotesquery of the villains, the horror and subtle implications that underpinned the nicely paced and plotted story. It spoke to me at a deeper level, igniting that little spark which lives deep down where my inner child dwells, just waiting to be amazed and terrified by the awe and mystery that wild flights of the imagination can induce.

And that is perhaps why the first episode caught me off guard, needling me when I had lowered the defences that we all learn as we grow older. It was the sudden shift to horror, to a spectacle that went beyond just straight up murder to something worse. When the Skeksis drained the essence from the Gelfling guard I was…. deeply disturbed.

Because Mira isn’t just slain by physical violence (one assumes that the lack of blood might be a good reason to give it a PG certificate), but rather her soul, her vital essence, her living connection to the world of Thra is drained out of her and consumed by the villains.

This prompted visceral disgust in my gut. If one’s soul is the essence of our being, if it is our connection to the universe, was this not a crime worse than just murder? Was this not a perversion of the natural cycle of birth, life and death because her energy could not return to cosmological substrate of creation? As her soul cannot return to Thra, one assumes that she became nothing, that whatever made her unique was assigned to oblivion.

Reflecting on why I felt this way became a thing of curiosity, and two days later I posted a reply to a Reddit thread regarding the series. I offered the notion that the original movie, and fantasy at large, had certainly informed my world view as a child, that it had contributed to my animistic view of life – that is, the sense that all living things are connected through some fabric, be it spiritual, quantum, or just as physical matter recycling through birth, death and decay.

Fantasy is filled with quests throuh natural worlds, through rolling forests with their myriads of strange, exuberant flora and fauna, and perhaps that’s why I came to love the woodland with its trees and fungus, it’s birds and insects. Out on the local heath in the tall Summer grasses with the crickets singing…..

And up on the hill, watching the clouds….

By the ocean, listening to the sound of the waves lapping the beach….

It all seems to have…. soul.

So I suppose it is no surprise that I find myself at odds with the very society that spawned me, that I would spend most of my adult life resisting it in some fashion or the other; from avoiding the exploitation of a corporate career to being given dirty looks when saving a worm from the pavement, from the dystopian unease that sometimes grips me when at the supermarket to the long term goal of getting off grid.

NB: I lived in a yurt for five years now….. and if you stick around I’ll tell that story another day.

So the question arose: if these natural, animistic representations had a profound infuence on me as a child, and if animism is a core component of the Dark Crystal’s cosmology, might such notions be considered subversive? After all, an animistic approach to life surely stands in stark contrast to what might be considered the society’s dominant ideology…..

THE WHAT? (A HISTORY LESSON OF SORTS…..)

industry-1752876_1920What I mean by this is the guiding outlook that has come to dominate the world, the attitudes and approaches of human superiority and the maintenance of authority’s wealth and power.

For example, how do the captains of industry, the CEO’s of global corporations, and the rulers of nations maintain what they have acquired under the civilisation project over the past 6000+ years? How do these institutions view the natural world?

So…… a brief history (or rather, “a hideously over simplified historical narrative of the rise of the dominant ideology”).

Let’s go back to the roots of the modern era with the start of farming and civilisation. These newly forming city states shifted society away from the traditional hunting and gathering societies who were low impact, more egalitarian (judging by extant tribes and communal burials) and had a deep knowledge of their world: they lived within the natural cycles of their local ecology, had a knowledge of game animals and gatherable plants, berries, nuts etc. They also worked to lunar cycles – I think the earliest known lunar calendar is 32,000BC – and they typically only took what they needed each season.

But with the first city states and the rise of farming the new urban cultures cleared the land and raised walls against the natural world, separating themselves by increasing developments in hierarchy, technical specialisation (such as priesthoods, architects and military), and urbanisation.

Key to maintaining this burgeoning hierarchy was an abundance of resources to feed the new administrations, their religious experts and the soldiers who expanded territories under state sanctioned conquest. However, over-reaching the boundaries of their local resource limits made these city state vulnerable to collapse, and in conjunction with warfare, climatic shifts and cultural factors many did indeed fall into ruin.

Meanwhile the rise of state religions helped build legitimacy for the ruling order through new myths and ever evolving pantheons of gods and goddesses that embraced a new solar logic, but which retained hidden lunar motiffs. Over time Pantheism would be eclipsed by Monotheism, but the essential purpose remained the same: to legitimise man’s stewardship over the earth, his “dominion”, thus placing man (and I mean man) above nature, in charge of it, to do with it as he would.

Integral in this shift was the creation of paradises and heavens for good behaviour. Heaven is not of the Earth, a far cry from hunter and gatherer religions that tied human life cycles to the land. Instead of the ancestors returning in cyclical rebirth via the earth they now resided in heavenly abodes and there they stayed.

If they didn’t go to some hellish underworld that is…..

Eventually these beliefs would form the underpinnings of capitalism in Europe where the hereditary land system (under feudalism peasants had rights to their own piece of land) was broken up by Enclosure and the work force was transformed into itinerant labourers for the benefit of land owners. The new Protestant work ethic held that the reward for a back breaking life of toil was a place in heaven. This formed the stage for the burgeoning of the industrial revolution.

At the same time the influence of the church on how society viewed the world was being challenged with new philosophies that mirrored the rise of industry. The likes of Descartes and his contemporaries began to refine the workings of creation into an image of the machine, thus rendering what was left of Nature as nothing more than a bio-mechanical object.

The nascent sciences embraced objectivity, the cold detachment that probed the working of nature via acts like live vivisection, and with it came incredibly high levels of technical specialisation – the progress of civilisation’s technical mastery until it had built the atomic bomb and iPhones more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon. God as the prime motivator was moved aside and the beginnings of psychology took root, perhaps best summed up by Descartes’ motto, “I think, there I am.”

With the rise of science and industry, and the consolidation of the first world’s nation states into relatviely stable rival blocks (often at each others throats), the scene was set to fully make Nature into a soulless resource. The emergent global networks of civilised hierarchies began to extract resources at a much increased rate and shifted it out of sight by exporting all the problems to their colonies.

The final wave came with the rise of late stage capitalism that has now succeeded in taking control of most of the global centres, from Europe to the USA, to China and Russia (state capitalists masquerading in the costume of revolution). These massive blocks of world power have consistently degraded the world to build up their armies, their industries and placed an unprecedented amount of wealth into the hands of a minority who have waged a campaign to utterly disenfranchise the poor from any rights to their own lands via state bureaucracies, the rule of private property and corporate ownership of resources.

We now live in a world where mass resource exploitation is essential to capitalist production, from wood for furniture and paper, to the vast mines of ore and minerals for steel and microchips, to the trawling of the seas and the farming of the land. Nature has been effectively enslaved, devalued and striped of its right to exist as a living thing for itself. It is now something to be owned by private institutions.

This process of commodification sees its final expression in the opinion of neo-liberal capitalists who claim that if nature can be turned into a product, and someone owns that product, then they will care for it. For example, this has been proffered as a solution to air pollution: if someone owns the air (the air your breathing for free!) then they will clean it up. The same for other essentials such as water – companies such as Nestle are infamous for their claim that water IS NOT a human right. It is a product, and you should have to pay for it.

When social responsibilities to the air are only seen through a profit orientated lens, that is not progress, it is a form of insanity. It is the final act of Enclosure, barricading the natural world behind a wall of money.

That is what I mean when I say dominant ideology: a form of human supremacy over the living world, and not just of humans over plants and animals, but also the civilised human over the rural human, of the rich urban banker over the coffee shop worker.

It is a pyramid of importance with nature right at the bottom.

THE BAD GUYS…. (FANTASY REPRESENTATION)

darkcrystal-promo-4

Obviously the above is an attempt to squeeze 6000+ years of history into a partial narrative, a sort of story that eschews the usual back patting of the myth of progress and which would require a series of books to cover.

But it will suffice for the purposes of my argument as we now turn our attention to the portrayal of villainous traits in our pop culture.

I think we can safely say that many are the villains in fantasy (and sci-fi) who wield the power of authoritarian regimes and empires that can only survive through resource harvesting, although more often the depiction focuses on their use of force in the form of secret police and military, as well as the structural violence of impoverishing the populace.

They are warlords and sorcerers or galactic tyrants and ominous corporations. They are are demons, necromancers and other power hungry, anti-social characters.

The two genres have also often invoked images of environmental decline in relation to the machinations of these overlords, often in conjunction with a love of death and violence – these tyrannical overlords are anti-life. Look at Donaldson’s Lord Foul and his Sunbane which cycles nature through the seasons so rapidly it causes it to break down, or the Land of Mordor which is a wasteland. Or the dominion of Rakoth Maugrim of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy.

Or R. Scott Bakker who goes overboard with his No-god who employs a horde of psychotic rape monsters who have scoured the northern lands of Eärwa, or the draconic power in Priory of the Orange Tree that has burned the lands of Yscalin where the lavender grew. In Erikson’s aborted Kharkanas prequels there is also subtext of how the Tiste Andii people have depleted the land of resources.

Going further back, there is the aspect of kingship that can be found in Arthurian legend which ties the king to the land, and when his health fails the land declines, found as a theme in numerous books like Tim Power’s The Drawing of the Dark. If the Fisher King fails then the West will fall to the evil sorcerer Ahriman.

Science fiction has also represented the decline of modern society in regard to civilisation and the environment, from Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Philip K Dick’s dystopias to Wendig’s Wanderers (see last weeks review). Judge Dredd’s Cursed Earth immediately springs to mind as well, the human populace enclosed in mega cities and subject to the harsh, totalitarian rule of the Judges. Beyond the walls of the mega city is nothing but an inhospitable, radioactive wasteland filled with mutants.

And when tyrants get pissed in sci-fi, they can often deploy weapons that don’t just scour all the life from a planet but destroy the whole world à la death star levels of annihilation. They don’t bat an eyelid at the wanton destruction.

So it’s no surprise that when it comes to the Dark Crystal we are presented with the Skeksis. They are wonderfully grotesque, twisted and morally revolting. As the unelected heads of society they also employ the same tactics as modern day authoritarian systems of governance:

  1. They hide behind notions of tradition which infer that the status quo is a good thing, that it is stable and just.
  2. They are hierarchical, placing themselves as superior to the populace they govern.
  3. They will ultimately employ violence to get what they want.
  4. They disseminate false rumour about those that might reveal them (whistle-blowers will be persecuted).
  5. They demand tribute without actually doing anything – such as dismissing the farmer’s claim that his crop are blighted. Instead of being interested the take a family heirloom as tribute because….. well, tradition.
  6. They are abusing their position of trust for their own ends and….
  7. …. and are in fact draining the life from the ecological infrastructure of Thra.
  8. They appear to have committed genocide against the Gruenaks (“I thought we had wiped them out”) as well forcing the Arathim from their ancestral home.
  9. They then try to play the Arathim against the Gelfling to hasten the death of both groups.
  10. They are completely callous to the suffering they cause (and are in fact often seen revelling in it).

Moreover, they are the ones ultimately responsible for the Darkening: it was a Skeksis who chipped the Crystal, a secret that they have kept to themselves (much as, say, the fossil fuel companies kept their impact reports to themselves for decades). They do not care for the world, they stand beyond it, outside of the concerns of those that live in it.

Of particular note is the scientist. What does he do? He contrives to find an ever better way to drain the life from the Skeksis’ subjects, the Gelfling, and he also performs the unnatural splicing of two living creatures to manufacture an obedient super soldier. The science presented here is not the myth of wondrous advancement, but the ominous manipulation of matter and energy into ever greater use to the hierarchy – not so much an honest inquiry into the workings of the universe, but rather the exploitation and violation of spirit and life.

These villains mirror the worst aspects of our own real world authoritarian/hierarchical power structures and their questionable morality. It is their callousness that is ultimately responsible for the decline of both fictional and non-fictional worlds, a decline which will ultimately lead to the same result: Thra and the Earth will become barren, lifeless worlds.

BUT WHAT IF…..? (ANIMISM)

dark crystal promo 1But what if, instead of this callousness and separation we were to look at the world through a different ideological lens? What if, instead of pretending to be separate and in charge of the natural world, we were to embrace an alternative, contrasting way of being in the world? Of recognising our part of the whole natural, living web of life?

Animism is not a new concept. It has often been used in fantasy and spirituality to explain how a person is connected to everything, the most obvious example being Obi Wan when he gives Luke the explanation of the force as an energy field that binds everything in the universe together, be it a rock or a tree or an X-wing.

But animism in practice entails a slightly more complex appreciation of the world than simply asking if a rock is alive or hugging a tree, and has a physical quality that doesn’t deny the needs of the body (as opposed to Yoda’s “luminous beings need not this crude matter”).

As Tim Ingold highlights:

“Life is the temporal process of its ongoing creation. The world of this ‘animic’ understanding is home to innumerable beings whose presence is manifested in this form or that, each engaged in the project of forging a life in the way peculiar to its kind. But in order to live, every such being must constantly draw upon the vitality of others.

A complex network of reciprocal interdependence, based on the give and take of substance, care and vital force – the latter often envisaged as one or several kinds of spirit or soul – extends through the cosmos, linking human, animal and all other forms of life.

Within this network, the generation of animate form in any one region necessarily entails its dissolution in another. Vitality must be surrendered here so that it may be reconstituted there.

For this reason, no form is ever permanent; indeed the transience or ephemerality of form is necessary if the current of life is to keep on flowing. All of existence is suspended in this flow. Borne along in the current, beings meet, merge and split apart again, each taking with them something of the other.”

The Perception of the Environment by Tim Ingold (2000)

It should be clear that there is a foundation of animism to the cosmological order within the Dark Crystal: life as a flow, a balance of vital forces, and the merging or splitting of being. The world is alive with “innumerable beings”, a world in which we are specifically shown examples, such as Deet’s connection to the natural order when she feeds the Murlocs and where we are shown the sharing of being through the Gelfling’s dream fasting.

Indeed the Gelfling civilisation feels more in tune with nature than our own ancient civilisations – there is an almost organic feel to places like Stone-in-the-Wood with its woodland setting and mushroom-brewery-waterfall (I seriously don’t know what to call it) and houses made within the trunks of trees.

There is a gentleness to their society, and although they acknowledge the existence of violence, it is something not to be revelled but is seen as an act that diminishes society – we are shown the Crucible in the centre of Stone-in-the-Wood, “a tall cylindrical forge…. where The Stonewood Soldiers placed their weapons after each battle to be melted down believing that once a battle was over they should discard aggression to help those that were injured.”

pachamama1And then there’s Aughra….

She appears to me as an earth mother figure, a sort of Pachamama. She errs when she is beguiled by the orrery the Skeksis gift her, and swaps her duty of care to the crystal for the wonders of the universe. This might be regarded as an allegory for the neglecting of the natural world around us, either by setting our sights on a heavenly reward, or perhaps the stars as destinations, or even as simply the distraction of entertainment.

Yet the plight of Thra as it tips out of balance brings her back and she is distressed that she can no longer “hear the song of Thra”, the song that emanates from the network of living beings in both substance and time. Aughra sees the imbalance of forces, the detriment to life and the threat that this entails.

Once she reawakens her connection to Thra, her third eye is once more able to observe the flow of time, and so she attempts to guide the flow of events towards a restoration of harmony. She does not force them. She advises, she gives warning but she never makes anyone do anything, such as when Seladon is going to the castle and Aughra warns her to no avail (and which results in another disturbing scene suggestive of a gang rape – PG, really?).

Lastly, Aughra is attuned to the rise of the resistance and, during the convergence of characters via a spiritual networking, she intervenes as Thra’s avatar. It is like a natural reaction where the cosmological forces of Thra have acted like an immune system, the Gelflings becoming a counterforce to the effects caused by the Skeksis.

Speaking of which, what is one to make of such beings as the Skeksis? Firstly, they are intricately involved in the animistic principle as beings whose essence has been divided, yet their life force is entwined with their other halves (the Mystics) so that one cannot exist without the other. They are essentially linked through a spiritual bond.

But…..

The Skeksis also act in defiance of the animistic principle. They wish to live forever and so they thwart the “surrender of vitality” that would be teturned to the natural cycle of time and instead only take living force, both from the land (via the crystal) and then from Gelflings directly (extracting their essence). There is no reciprocity, there is no respect.

The effect of this is to render the Chamberlains appeal to Rian during their carriage ride hollow. When the Chamberlain says that life must feed on life, he is being disingenuous because the Skeksis do so outside of the natural order and in fact subvert it for selfish purposes.

Moreover, they do not wish to be recombined with their split selves. Their whole existence stands in opposition to the animistic principles of life force as ever changing, as mutable. But they are not only placing themselves outside of Nature, they are also placing themselves outside of time as well through their desire to live forever. To attain immortality they will sacrifice all life to their aim and deny the transformative process within the cycle of birth, life, death, and decay.

Yet ultimately the Skeksis cannot exist outside of the system of life indefinitely. Once they have killed and drained all the Gelfling, once they have drained all the life from the planet, they must eventually succumb to death. But this fact does nothing to change their behaviour as they are completely hostile to the acceptance of mortality.

They are in a state of total denial.

This couldn’t be more like our current political and economic rulers. The fear of losing their authority, the fear of change within a closed system that will eventually lead to the complete demise of the very system they are so invested in. In this respect, the Skeksis and our leaders are self defeating. Only by acknowledging our need for balance and harmony can we hope to resolve the dilemma.

Nature is the very foundation of the pyramid I mentioned earlier. Without its life supporting systems everything, society, knowledge, imagination will perish.

Such are the dangers of placing oneself outside of Nature, where as animism as a natural philosophy embraces our position within the cycles of life, makes us part of the whole world without recourse to pseudo-spiritual guff.

THE POWER OF IMAGINATION

dark-crystal-promo5

When I think of where fantasy really shines, it isn’t in the depiction of another patriarchal, medieval feud between royalty that’s like old Europe but with a dragon. Rather it is where flights of the imagination can really take us off to explore brave new worlds.

So for me Age of Resistance really excels as a work of the imagination. Great care and thought has gone into crafting something wonderful, something that asks you to witness both the wonderful and the terrible, and as it draws you into its reality you are awed by its power.

Of course, there is no conscious need to watch it as a mirror to our own struggles, no need to try and see analogy when we are simply invested in its wonder. I certainly didn’t sit down and watch it with the idea that I would write this article. I was enveloped in the narrative and it was only as I talked about the experience of viewing it that these ideas bubbled to the surface.

But that is what prompted me to ask how much had I been influenced by the original movie, and by extension the fantasy that subsequently appealed to my burgeoning imagination. I suspect that it fed a sense of wonder that inversely brought about confusion and unease with the world around me, and through those chaotic years the need for answer which ultimately lead me on my own quest that took me into anthropology.

Anthropology (the study of humanity) has a maxim, that it serves to “make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic”. It too requires a stretching of the imagination to understand different cultures and their world views, and through doing so see the strangitude of our own culture. It is, in essence, much like fantasy, the stranger in the strange land travelling amongst new worlds.

And as they say, travel broadens the mind.

In the broadening we awake our imagination to greater possibilities, and as we travel in world’s such as Thra we are absorbed into its cosmological reality, a reality that gives us the power to compare our own world with that of another, letting us see that maybe some of our attitudes, some of the things that we take for granted, might be strange or maladjusted when viewed from without.

Given that, the question might be asked how The Age of Resistance isn’t subversive to the dominant ideology of our civilisation?

At this point the cynic might point a finger and say that fantasy is a pretty niche genre, and that, amongst the deluge of media we are fed, the message of one or two alternatives might be lost. That is likely true, just as true as the fact that fantasy might be nothing more than escapist entertainment – the orrery that distracts us from the reality around us.

I could go further and say the media requires subversive ideas to not only refresh its creative palette, but because the system at large needs to cater to a diverse audience, and if a media system wishes to claim that it is “free” then it must include counter narratives, just as long as those counter narratives never actually threaten the structures of power.

But…..

We are living at a time of greater uncertainty, a time when the new generation is increasingly aware of what a difficult future they face, and these young minds are not necessarily completely submerged in the dominant ideological narrative. They have embraced modern media, yes, but that has allowed them access to levels of information and perspective that older generations didn’t have. No longer are we just watching “the news” but are able to find alternatives, new ideas and possibilities, new ways of doing things.

And it is the effect on the developing imaginations of this generation that is the key point, because Age of Resistance is categorised as child/young adult viewing, and if it works the muscle of the imagination that in itself is subversive to the institutions as they stand.

The powers that be require thoughtless, unimaginative people to fill their ranks of power, and without resistance they will simply continue to satisfy their own selfish needs at the expense of the whole world. The old institutions will themselves resist the change required, just as they are doing now.

In reply, let us not dismiss fantasy as foolish, or silly, for it grants us a chance to think differently, to envision different realities where alternative ideas might prove to be more beneficial than banging our heads against the same old brick wall.

As Ursula Le Guin said of sci-fi but which I think equally well applies to fantasy:

Science fiction lends itself readily to imaginative subversion of any status quo. Bureaucrats and politicians, who can’t afford to cultivate their imaginations, tend to assume it’s all ray guns and nonsense, good for children.

Good for children.

Need I say more?

DJC


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Brain Boil: Mind-Thistle Reloaded

desert-2435404_1920

Heads turned to see me, arms raised to the sky and imploring existence to “give me a goddamn notebook!”

School mothers quirked worried smiles at me as my son stopped his bike and said “are you alright daddy?”

No! Not at all, for my brain had caught alight and I had no means by which to write down the idea that had bloomed, fully fledged, into my mind.

Damnation!

Long experience has taught me that if you delay, you shall be lost: there you are, sitting in bed when this idea comes to you and you say “I’ll remember that in the morning,” the reality is that, no, you wont.

And you don’t…..

Balanced on a knife’s edge I had to keep the idea in my head.

I dropped the little one at the school gate and then, mumbling like some mad monk reciting a litany, I strode home without delay to unburden myself with pen and paper.

But what was it that triggered this incendiary brain boiling?

THE ACCELLERANT

I was wasting time browsing the hot guff that is Facebook when I came across an advert for Spire’s End, a card game based on the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. Intrigued, I did a little digging: it starts with a mysterious spire popping up in town, so you pick an adventurer and an ally and you play through the story by working through the deck of cards, making decisions and fighting monsters.

Awesome!

It recalled those old Choose Your Own Adventure books – I had some hazy memory of one about giant robots with a basic RPG element. A little more digging and I found that many of the old books are being reprinted (a moment later and I’d bought a cheap reprint of Deathtrap Dungeon), and that there are authors who are writing modern takes on it.

In fact, there’s a whole, thriving community of CYOA writers and readers!

And I’m thinking, “maybe I could do that?”

But first I would need a setting and a story……

As if in answer to my half formed thoughts, I got a review posted on the Fantasy Writers Forum for The Mind-Thistle Run:

“This smashes it in my opinion. I loved the character development, and the combination of Dune meets The Odyssey. The Mind-Thistle desert was a brilliant concept, allowing your characters to grapple with their inner demons and the reader to get a beautiful, non-info-dump insight into their back story. I love the way you built the suspense as it unfolded – the deadly Sweep impelling their actions.”

Not only did that make my day, but it solidified the idea that I was going to rework the flawed swashbuckling tale into something totally awesome.

GOT A MATCH?

Excited about the prospected, the fuel was on the fire. The ol’ grey matter was beginning to do it’s thing. I could see the end result, but how would I get there?

First I checked the obligatory “how do I……” search engine results for writing a CYOA. The online sources showed me that it was feasible – I would have to write maybe five plot lines, then problem solve where they intersected and be careful of contradictions.

But what was the actual story going to be? I couldn’t use the narrative as it was……

Next morning I went about the morning routine: caffeinated the wife and fueled the boy. Everyone was set to get to their place of labours, and I was looking forward to getting to the office.

But without any warning BOOM!

Like a fermenting bottle of moonshine it just popped as I was walking down the road.

The story would be this:

At the port of Irongate several ‘interested parties’ have learned of the secret temple (from the priest in the original whose secret was never revealed). It lies on the other side of the Mind-Thistle Desert. They set out to reach it, but the cyclical flooding of the desert low lands is about to occur (The Sweep). It’s a race against time, and each other, to cross the desert and reach the Temple to find its mysterious treasure.

Along the way there are all manner of choices, decisions and monsters. What started as a story was now getting game play elements – a race against time meant a system. What about items? Statistics? Adversaries and allies?

An image of game card sprang to mind, and if I could keep it relatively simple I could easily make demo versions for a play test. The game element, after all, would be solo play anyway.

So, a stack of cards that represented the Mind-Thistle, filled with its hallucinatory dangers that drained time and stamina…..

This was going to take planning.

Getting into the office I did some more research. If there were five stories, what would they be, and what kind of choices would there be? Etc. I would have to sketch the structure out, make connections and dead end.

It wasn’t long before I chanced upon a wonderful diagram maker – SimpleMinds Pro.

With a free trial and an hour or two of playing around I had this:

Screenshot (1)

(Sorry the screen grab might be a bit small)

Starting on the left you make your initial choice. This takes you into the adventure via one of several groups attempting to reach the Temple. The completion of this first section determines how much time you have to cross the Mind-Thistle Desert (the big purple square).

Next you take X number from the Mind-Thistle Deck and play through the stack as time starts to tick down, facing the mental horrors to confront, the strange time dilations and the monsters that lurk in there. A bit of RPG thrown in with some basic stats for attack, defence and health.

As you proceed your time counters run down. Run out and you get washed away by the Sweep. Make it out and you enter the Temple for the finale where you play through a variety of endings – a boss perhaps? Some treasure, a surprise and a twist.

It was still early days at this point and it’d all need developing, but since I had other work to finish, it would have to sit on the shelf for a time.

SPLASH OF COLD WATER, APPLY ALOE

In that interim, and with the waning of the initial rush of enthusiasm I realised that there was one problem: I was making a shit load of work for myself.

And what with all the changes happening around me, I was forced to cool my head and ask “do I have time to work on something like this?”

The answer is, I just don’t know.

That was when I reined it in a little. It was a sobering effect, damping the flame. Executing on an idea like isn’t going to be easy.

Enthusiasm pushes you one way, but practicality pushes the other.

COMPROMISE

Let me be clear. I’m not giving up on the idea. I’m going to earmark it for a future project, and right now I want to make sure this blog has consistent content.

But as a compromise to both blog and swashbuckling pulp in my head, I had an thought: What if I wrote a Mind Thistle Reloaded as a Nanowrimo project for November?

I’m going to set that as a challenge for myself and develop the story into a serial published monthly over 2020. Once delivered, and if gaining some interest, then I can look to developing it’s sister, the CYOA book and game.

And that, dear readers, is the state of the project at this time. I think it’s a good idea which would be great if I could get the traction required, but I’m going to need some encouragement to make it work.

So let me know what you think – how does it sound? Is it something that you’d be interested in? Would you like to become a supporter?

Leave a comment and let me know.

That’s all from me for this week, but as I’ve outlined elsewhere, I’m looking forward to bringing you fresh content every week. 

All the best.

DJC

COMING NEXT WEEK: Review For Wanderers by Chuck Wendig


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Cassandra Says Hi, Dickhead

desert-279862_1920

This one was a little bit Bukowski (*so you want to be a writer?), sort of warts and all. It just popped out and I posted it after being inspired by the decidedly irrational comments section of Radio Leicester’s Facebook page.

A friend had posted how great it was to see people rallying to the climate protest. Hers was, at the time, the only positive comment in a litany of ad hominens against the protesters, many of which repeated the sentiment offered in the text by one particular gentleman who saw fit to hurl the phrase in some sort of verbal drive by.

In honour of such a stylish rebuttal and cutting with I penned this in a flurry of self satisfied mania. It made me smile because if you’re a sci-fi fan you’ll no doubt recognise things that were being discussed way back in the 60s – I think my first experience was Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up.

But anyway, here it is without recourse to endless revisions and edits. It is as it is.

So beware, there may be mistakes ahead……

CASSANDRA SAYS HI, DICKHEAD

Protesters besmirch the roads, weary from carrying their placards of misplaced concern. There is no emergency, and our hero knows it. With a sneer of disdain he swerves into the other lane and tries to by-pass all the delays. Don’t these people have anything better to do? Bloody hippies! They should be fined! Who do they think they are? He takes his Landrover over the curb and throws a gesture at another road user with the temerity to beep a horn. All this just because of some misguided and trivial notion that its END OF THE FUCKING WORLD.

Don’t they know that it’s just an excuse so the government can put the tax up?

Alone, weeping at the curb, is a woman. She is Cassandra. She has been telling people for decades that there is a problem, but as our hero drives past he winds the window down and shouts, “I bet you drove here.” He is too busy making a living to tolerate all this cultural marxist bullshit about the end of the world. There’s always been climate change, and don’t they know it’s just the Sun stupid!

If there was really a problem the newspapers would have been trumpeting it all the time, and oh god! These hypocrites who drive to protests and who eat food from supermarkets and who use electricity are saying that he shouldn’t be doing any of that himself! The nerve! Who do they think they are? He worked hard for this! Worked for his villa in Spain and his big house and his huge TV and his swimming pool and five bedrooms with en suite. EN FUCKING SUITE! This isn’t the Dark Ages! People aren’t grubbing in the dirt like cavemen.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away children are used as slave to mine the raw materials that will go into our heroes new mobile phone.

And things begin to change.

Slowly at first, then quicker, the world slips a bit further. The third world dries up and civilisations dependency on mass production starts to strain. Riots break out and people begin to eat the food they grow for export to western supermarkets. Yet the world is drying quicker and quicker now, and they are forced at gun point to work like prisoners in death camps just to feed the civilised.

Wars are fought over liveable land, but more importantly over water as it becomes even more precious than oil. Water is the gold standard now.

Meanwhile, there are a few who have chosen wisely, but their foresight is hampered by the state’s monopoly on violence. Those that choose to resist are swept aside as martial law becomes the standard. The military soon takes complete control and even the rich are finally put against the wall as their money becomes worthless. The chain of command breaks down and the soldiers become marauders, enthroned in the palaces of the wealthy.

The refugees who fled to the wealthiest of civilisations have long been exterminated because their numbers threatened to overwhelm the last defenders of the husk that is civilisation. In the English Channel bodies clog the water after boats were sunk and families left to drown. At the borders mass graves were filled with those who wouldn’t be turned away because there is nothing to return to.

Was the world spared atomic warfare? Who can say any more…..

Our hero, meanwhile, is holed up what’s left of his house, eating another can of baked beans and thankful that the looters weren’t able to break into his garage. He’d made sure it was built like a bunker to keep anyone from thieving his beloved car collection. Now it was more a prison as his food supply dwindles. The power is out and he amuses himself by weakly jerking off to tattered old porn mags and drinking the stash of whiskey he murdered some looters over.

He is the alpha male, and he will survive.

But soon the food will be gone, and he might have to drink his own piss to survive because the bottled waters running out. After six months of fear, isolation and occasional hysteria he decides that it might be safe enough to venture forth and find help. There must be survivors out there. His teeth are falling out from malnutrition. He has a large can of petrol, perhaps the last can of petrol in the country.

Desperation forces him out into the world, hopeful that he can find other human beings who will help. So he fuels up his Landrover and takes off through the end of the world. The sky has turned to a pale orange and the plants are all dead.

It is hard to breath.

The world he knows is gone. Civilisation collapsed in on its own ruinous corpse. The poor have eaten the rich, and then the cannibals turned on each other and consumed what was left of the cadaverous society. Skeletons line the streets, fires smoulder and the crows now rule. Out of this charnel house of despair rides our lone hero in his Landrover, searching for signs of humanity.

Eventually he finds a cove where survivors have fortified one of the final pockets of viable bioscape, a land base that ekes out drinkable water and meagre sustenance. Armed with bows and liberated shot guns, these are the ones who chose to work together to prepare for the future. They have made this place their last bastion against all others; they were the ones who stood on the pavement and demanded action, they were the ones who quickly understood that greed cares nothing for life, they were the ones who activated and formed networks, the ones who learned full spectrum resistance and built future proofed communities to stand against the horrors of a world dying.

Now, as our hero rolls up to the fortified compound he is tired and weary, barely able to keep the wheel straight. Ahead he faces the slings and arrows, the hand made spears and civilisations final bullets sitting in their barrels. Surely they won’t turn him away?

A masked, apocalyptic warrior approaches. She steps closer, pulls the scarf from over her mouth and smiles. It is Cassandra, and she looks our hero up and down in his big car, then leans in closer and says, “I bet you drove here.”


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Crumbs For Crow #3: Apocalypse Disco

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.
 

Apocalypse Disco

Pfff! The dust is settling and everyone’s suddenly playing the existential blues on a vintage guitar with two strings while some journalistic hack bangs away on an old, broken piano tuned by an establishment that can only summon enough cognitive prowess to think in black and white.

The proverbial arse has fallen out of the universe it seems, and what else can us ne’er-do-wells do but sniff it up like a line of cheap rate coke cut with a dose of tranquillisers and prance around like getting trashed is somehow rebellion.

Welcome, welcome one and all to the Apocalypse Disco, first Extermination Event where humanity’s vaunted superiority is nothing more than an odious old bastard wheezing the last drag out of a dirty roll-up, a cancerous old clot of a human being who’s about to put his history on the prayer wheel….

And behold! Such prayers are blasphemies I tell you! What will you do when you return, eternally cycled over and over like a broken record that never gets rid of that irritating little pop, crackle, pop…….? You pray that the effluent of your spirit will be poured back into the vessel of another chance but you won’t even take the time to brush the fluff from your spinning platter of revelation!

Who is the fool? And who, who is the deity that possessed just the requisite tool for the removal of spiritual lint? Heed now and await the dance of the dead as I, the almighty and impeccably tasteful Crow become DJ to your inevitable demise.

[You take me aside, indicate that I should perchance cleanse the white tracery of excess from about my respiratory nozzles and ask just what in the name of the Seven Hells I’m prattling on about.]

Prattling? I never prattle, I just provide preamble to the party of all parties, the final party at the End of Creation itself. A wise man once said that Death is but Sleep being shy, so for the love of music, put your party pants on and just pretend that when you lay your head down tonight, exhausted from exertions, you aren’t just practising for the inevitable.

Meanwhile the eternal PA is playing all of the divine’s favourite tunes, for pre-Destined or un-Destined, whatever your destination, you’ll end up on my floor – even if you’ve no eyes and ears like an almighty, vengeful thunder bastard who’s begging the question of just who the hell stole his damn boom box?

You must be ever so sly, my friends, if you wish to purloin the pure beats of Heaven, and even while you raise your hands to the celestial jungle boogie that rises over the horizon of the Anthropocene you must fend off the sense of mortality, that fragile thing we are subverting in the name of hedonistic nihilism, and instead cavort like chimpanzees scratching our posteriors in search of relief. Or belief……

Give it a sniff because you think no one is looking.

Humanity at it’s most genuine! For even the greatest of apes can chuck shapes. Most of the time, that is, and you might dance oh-so-well when compared to that fellow over there who just doused himself in petrol and stepped outside for a cigarette. The room is on fire, and so are you! Hit me one more time! That’s the Apocalypse Disco. Keep on keeping on and let the mood move you towards the revelation!

Oh sweet revelation!

What did it cost? The mere shrug of an accountant! Listen to their plaintive coos of delight as they tally up the GDP of a global funeral: treatment, caskets, urns, and don’t forget the buffet! Business looks goods as the scales of eternity slip slide about and the prayer wheels fire up like damn Catherine Wheels on the rioting bonfire night of self actualisation. You’re getting it on like Guy Fawkes, moving, doing it, you know, like a sex machine man: the lame politics of sexy disco, lights flashing like wicks set sizzling by the matches of ignorance until sweet surrender is a detonation that lights up the face of a pyromaniac at an arms fair.

Dance, sweet flames, dance!

And in the fire of epiphany we shall discover that we are all soul stuff, the spiritual tar upon which temptation’s feathers gather as we fly too close to a nuclear furnace of civilisation! It all makes sense! You came here, again and again, like self-aware water poured from vessel to vessel, but so is begged the question: who turns the tap?

And what becomes of life when the reservoir runs dry?

Can we reasonable assume that there is only so much held in reserve of that metaphysical love juice? You are but one drop in an ocean, but what happens when drop after drop arrives wanting to be human? Are you just the artichoke that rolled the loaded dice and was delivered into another ape suit? No wonder the natural world is in decline! there is nothing to spare!

What? You can’t see yourself as a snail? No? The old bastard takes another wheezing lungful on his turgid rollie as he wishes only to be human again and again, draining the last kick out of the cigarette that is the material world. It’s not to even be considered how beneath them it might be to take the form of worm, or fungus, or blade of grass!

Oh to be green, small and bend in the wind, accepting the bare foot of the mystic upon my dew lined blade! Touch me, oh Sun!

Don’t cock your eye at me like that!

Let us cut to the chase, cut the mustard, nip the bud. Every living thing wants to go to the disco, so as the nulldozers are levelling the lungs of the earth and the cybernetic trans-humanist autolung draws the tainted air from the capitalist crack pipe, you shall be reincarnated as the greatest of species, homo saltatorus! And to hell with you Google Translate! No public school boys were harmed in the writing of this screed! What is the world coming to? You! You, the dancing apes at the end of the world!

You’re all here! Recycled like soylent green soul stuff that only wants to party like existential, phenomenological witnesses of the Apocalypse Disco!

We reach the Climax! The crescendo of a spiritual burden brought about by the ever-so-populous bum scratching ape, flinging what they find into the transcendent scales as they tip, precarious upon the edge of the Void, the living essence of the earth pouring out like a punctured wine sking while the incarnations of endless, cavorting dancers continue to sniff bemused fingers with the sole intention of waking up in a puddle of their own excretion after a clandestine romp through the hinterlands of promiscuity!

That’s right, this party is about to implode! Prayers can be sent via the great porcelain telephone!

Pff!

As the dust settles, the crooked dancers at the end of time light up and watch the smoke rise, content to know that they partied hard and all it cost was everything.


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Short Story: The Mind-Thistle Run

Short story written for Fantasy Writers Forum August Challenge, 2019 – this was written pretty quickly and subject to a limit of 5k words, so apologies in advance for the rough edges and confusing ending.


Ankles, so called because he still bore the scars from his manacles. It was common amongst prisoners forced to march the dunes at the height of the Swelter, when the Sun burned so hot the metal scorched the flesh. What was uncommon was to survive the march.

Now he stood at the gunwale as a free man, the desert air still hot but cooling the sweat on his face.

He fancied that he could taste a hint of brine.

The Sweep was coming……

Beside him Captain Carolhano lowered her spyglass and passed it to him silently. Ankles scanned the desert for the object of her interest: a convoy of three transports. Strange.

“What do you think?” she asked. He gave her a wry smile. They both knew she had already decided.

“Well,” he said slowly as if ruminating, “We don’t have much time, Captain.”

“I know, but…..”

It was a juicy target, but was it worth drowning over? The Sweep had begun, judging by the position of the second moon; Udarik was growing larger by the hour, his pale yellow face upsetting the normal motions of the oceans beyond the Keshmon Tide Canyons. They would soon fill and overspill. They had maybe two or three days before the desert flooded.

Meanwhile a lonely convoy trundled across the Iyarpi Hot Pan. “They don’t appear to have any guards with them,” Carolhano added.

“Odd,” Ankles remarked. Of course, any guard would tell you it was no time to be out on the sand. “Think they’re just stragglers?”

The captain flashed him a smile, the kind made the pit of his stomach tingle. “Why don’t we go ask them?”

“And make it quick?”

She nodded. “Then we’ll head through Shooters Gully, around to Irongate.”

Ankles cocked an eyebrow. “Irongate?”

“It’s closer.”

“But we’ll lose half our loot.”

“True, but….” The Irongate Syndicate was renown for its loose morals and the high price that came with them. Corsairs such as themselves would find harbour at a cost, but the Aurai’s Gift needed repairs. “We better hope these rubes have something worth taking. Set sail Mr. Ankles.”

“Aye aye, Captain!” and Ankles swung into action, bellowing orders and rallying the crew as they prepared to catch the winds of the blue desert skies.

Meanwhile, high above, Udarik continued on his relentless path.

*   *   *

They approached low and fast across the flats, and by the time the convoy spotted the Aurai’s Gift there was no escape.

Carolhano stood on the foredeck as Spool worked the gunnery pod. His first shot crippled the engine core of the lead transport, and one by one he popped the other two. No one could beat an Imperial gunner when it came to this kind of work, and Carolhano had never regretted taking the disgraced soldier on board. His crimes, as heinous as they were, stayed in the past. He was crew now, and he was worth every penny of the share.

Through her eyeglass Carolhano grinned as chaos engulfed the convoy.

“Perfect,” she muttered.

Coming up from midship Ankles passed her sword with mock reverence. “We’re ready, Captain.”

Carolhano gave him a nod, noted his smile. It was a smile to win hearts and it belonged to another disgraced outcast she’d recovered, another stray who’d become crew. It was a smile she was very fond of.

She belted her sword, checked her pistol and went to the gunwale with her band of corsairs.

“On my mark!”

Closer.

“Ready!”

Closer.

“Now!”

*   *   *

Chaos whirled around the blue robed Holy Pillar of Shastan.

“What’s going on?” demanded the priest as people ran about him like headless chickens. He rubbed rheumy eyes, and cursed the damned heat again. Why had they stopped? And what were those damnably loud noises that had roused him from his slumber? Were they under attack? Out here?

“You! Stop!” he cried as he tried to collar a menial rushing past. He was roundly ignored, leaving him blustering to no one other than the wind.

“The impertinence! I’ll have your hides! Tell me – ”

But chaos had no ear for the Holy Pillar.

*   *   *

Ankles took a deep breath and charged down the ramp, his captain on one side and the man mountain they called Bunches on the other. The thrill of the charge swept him up, and he was at full pelt into the midst of panicking men and women dressed in blue robes…..

……who promptly surrendered, on their knees and crying for mercy. A few had taken off across the sand, heading for the mountains. The bloody fools!

“Where they going?” Bunches grunted as he shaded his eyes with a great slab of a hand. Ankles shrugged, deflated. He’d battled haggling merchants with more fight. He eyed the gaggled of menials who appeared to be from one of the temples, their robed marked with sigils from…..

“Pillars of Shastan,” said Carolhano, sheathing her sword beside him. “Blessed luck!”

“How so, captain?”

“Let’s just say that, unlike some temples, they’re happy for people to buy their forgiveness.”

“Wages of sin, captain?” Ankles grinned.

“Aye. Nothing sweeter than the coin of salvation, eh? Find me the fattest, sweatiest one of the lot.”

“Aye aye, captain.”

*   *   *

Carolhano braced herself. She could hear the sound of coin approaching, a sound remarkably akin to the self important blusterings of a pampered functionary. A moment later Ankles appeared, followed by Lewd and Bunches flanking a big man in a blue robe. He was a Pillar of rank, judging by the tattoos on his bald head and innumerable beads about his wrists. That and the fact he was carrying enough weight for three people. She knew the type well enough, had seen plenty of them in her past as a young woman serving in the temples…..

But that was another life.

She watched in amusement as the corpulent priest shot forward, shoving Ankles aside and bustled toward her, sandals slapping.

“He looks…. annoyed,” remarked Crapper, her mechanic.

“I shall no doubt have to apologise for the inconvenience,” Carolhano snorted. They were still chuckling when the priest arrived.

“I demand – ” but the Holy Pillar didn’t get any further as Carolhano slapped him across the face. He blinked in surprise, then turned red and erupted. She let him blow off a little steam for a moment with irreverent boredom.

“…… never in my life have I been so disrespected! It shall not stand! I will have you flayed and hung from the Gates of Yesh! I will – ”

“Ningen’s Balls! Does he ever shut up?” asked Ankles.

Laughter erupted, bringing the priest to a stammering halt. Carolhano took the opportunity to set him straight about a few things. “Listen priest, no ones gives a good goddamn! We’re just here to alleviated your burden of coin, so I’ll make you a deal. If it’s on my ship in the next five minutes I might find the mercy to take your people out of here. Or I can leave you all to the Sweep. The choice is yours.”

More bluster shot forth. She slapped him again, hard, and motioned to Ankles who kicked him in the back of the knee. Suddenly he found himself staring up at her with a sword pressed against the jowls of his neck. (Ankles would later recount to the crew how she was so fast he hadn’t even seen her draw it!).

“Perhaps I wasn’t making myself clear,” Carolhano growled. “Now blink once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that?”

Blink.

“Good. You might just make it out of this with you skin still attached to your body.”

*   *   *

Compassion, a rarity in the desert, but then the captain wasn’t the typical corsair either. Ankles had served her for two whole years now and learned that just as she could be hard as nails when needed, she didn’t revel in senseless violence like some of their compatriots, or indeed, other authorities: he’d seen enough during his time in an Imperial garrison to know the way their minds worked.

Bad times, bad memories….

No, his captain wasn’t like that. She was someone you could respect, someone with honour. Yeah, they were going to unburden the priest of his riches, but she wasn’t going to leave a bunch of hapless menials out here to die. They were corsairs, not monsters.

Standing beside her he felt a tingle of pride as she surveyed the blue robed menials lined up before her, the priest bound and gagged to one side. She took a breath, and began to speak: “I don’t know how you got here, nor do I care why you chose to cross the Iyarpi Hot Pan so late, but the Fates have seen fit to bring us together. While I confess that I am relieving your priest of his hoard, you can at least be thankful that I am unlike my fellow corsairs who would leave you to the Sweep, assuming you still had your heads on your shoulders. We, however, are a little more grateful for the wages you’ve brought us. As such I will offer you a place in the hold until such time as we reach Irongate. If you behave we wont throw you overboard. When we reach Irongate, you’ll be free to leave. What say you to this?”

There was some muttering followed by a relieved: “Aye!”

“Very good! Bunches, Lewd, Spool – show them aboard.”

As the menials filed away Ankles followed her to the priest.

“What are you gonna do with him?” he asked.

They looked down at the man. He was much quieter with the gag in, even if it hadn’t cooled his vigour for protest.

“If he keeps on like that he’ll probably do himself in,” Carolhano noted with a wry smile. “Perhaps we should just leave him here.”

In response the priest threw himself to grovel at her boots.

“No?” Carolhano asked, then gestured to Ankles to remove the gag. “Speak.”

“I-I’m worth m-more to you alive.”

Carolhano arched an eyebrow. “Go on.”

What he told them made the captain’s jaw drop. It was the first time Ankles had ever seen her truly surprised.

“Damn.” She turned to Ankles. “Find him a seat. Looks like he’s catching a ride to Irongate with us after all.”

*   *   *

Nightfall came and they were making good time, a little heavy but nothing that was going to get them drowned. The next day Tornie interrupted the Priest and his litany of complaints about the food, the taste of the water, the cramped conditions etc, etc. Carolhano was glad of the distraction as she followed the dark and willowy Tornie to the stern.

“What is it?”

Tornie, silent as ever, put a hand on the captain’s shoulder and pointed. Carolhano stared. There! Just a little too far off to be clear, something kicking up sand in a small cloud, something trailing them. A chill of suspicion ran up her neck, another bad memory.

And all she could think was that damned priest!

As if in reply a shudder ran through the ship and the deck jerked. The Aurai’s Gift began to slow, gliding on nothing but momentum. Carolhano cursed and left Tornie to keep watch as she rushed off to find her mechanic, Crapper. He was in the engine room with his head inside an open panel, monkey wrenching something technical. When he withdrew he looked vexed.

“Let me guess,” said Carolhano, “Sabotage?”

The mechanic nodded. “Nothing fancy, but enough. Damaged the power transfer regulator.”

She chewed her lip. Clearly someone in the priest’s retinue wasn’t just a menial and had no intention of letting them reach Irongate. She blew out a deep breath. “Can you fix it?”

“Of course,” Crapper almost laughed, “But we’ll be stuck going slow.”

“How slow?”

“Let’s just say that we ain’t gonna make Irongate via the usual route,” and he gave her a meaningful look.

“You mean….?”

He nodded. “We gotta cro – ” but she cut him off with a raised hand.

“Just do what you can, okay?”

He nodded. “There is one other option, captain.”

“I know what you’re going to say Crapper. Save it.”

“But we don’t owe them – ”

She spun around and the look in her eye told him everything.

“Just fix the rig. Fast.”

She turned and walked away.

Behind her Crapper returned to his task. “Aye, Captain.”

*   *   *

Ankles threw back the liquor’s and its warmth descended to his belly. He wasn’t much of a drinker but the look on his captain’s face told him that it’d be impolite to say no. He waited in the gloom of her cabin as she cradled the cup.

“We have an assassin on board,” Carolhano said. She put the cup down and poured another. “One of the priest’s people.”

“Assassin?” Ankles replied with a frown. “What kind of assassin?”

“The kind whose job it is to make sure that certain big mouthed priests don’t let any secrets slip.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, threw back her next drink. “Fairly sure. There’s something else; I think we have a tail.”

“Any idea who?”

“An idea, but right now we have a more pressing concern. With the rig damaged we’re not going to make Irongate by the usual route.”

Ankles watched her as he processed the information. “So, what are we going to do?” Even as he asked realisation was dawning.

“We’re going to have to make a run through the Mind-Thistle.”

What was the reasonable response to that? Freak out? Demand that there had to be another way? The very fact she was saying it meant there wasn’t. The Mind-Thistle Desert. It had many other names: Rapesands, The Wrack, the Sea of Nightmares, the Warp-Dunes etc. It was a part of the desert sunk in legend, a place said to be ancient and it did not welcome visitors. It was a place of visions and delusions, and whatever they were, they were sometimes real enough to kill.

Or worse…..

“Is there nothing else we can do?”

“Can you guess what Crapper’s idea was?”

“I think I can guess,” Ankles smiled. “Lighten the load?”

She nodded, the grave look on her face reaffirming everything he knew about her. She’d once told him that to retain your humanity in a place like this, you had to hold yourself up to the highest of standards. It was a matter of honour.

“You sure about this?” Ankles asked for want of anything to say.

“No.” She poured again. “But what choice do we have?”

“And the tail?”

“Let’s see if we make it out first.”

He gave her a foolish grin and threw back his drink.

“Aye, captain.”

*   *   *

Have you lost your mind?”

Carolhano regarded the priest with cool eyes. “Not yet.”

“But-but-but…..”

“There’s no argument. Consider yourself lucky I even bothered to inform you of my decision.”

“It’s madness! We shall not survive!”

“It’s the only way,” Carolhano replied levelly.

“There must be something you can do? If we are slow then jettison the unnecessary weight!”

“If you mean the coin, we need it to fix the ship.”

“I mean the servants!”

She smiled with all the warmth of a rockviper. “I thought you might see it that way.”

“It’s the logical thing to do! They’re – ”

Expendable? Say it…..

“ – expendable!”

She was across the table with the speed of a rockviper, slamming his head against the wooden surface and holding it. The knife that slammed down before his eyes bit his cheek.

“Out here,” she hissed in his ear, “We all take the risks as one. No one gets left behind, although I might be tempted to make one exception.”

“But…. you need….. me,” croaked the priest.

“More’s the pity.” She let him go and moved to the door as she sheathed her knife, sparing him one last glance. Tell him about the assassin? She decided against it. He’d only redouble his complaints.

Outside the door she spoke quietly to Bunches. “Take care. Someone wants him dead. Don’t trust anyone.”

The big man’s brow beetled, but he nodded his understanding.

“Aye, captain,” he growled.

*   *   *

The Aurai’s Gift crawled into the Mind-Thistle desert just after dawn. From the foredeck it looked no different, but Carolhano knew. She’d done this once before, and the first effects had started. First the heat began to subtly rise until it was almost suffocating and you thought it might burn you alive. She’d seen a man lose his mind, convinced that he was burning to a crisp. As a precaution she’d had Mend, the ships part-time medic, hand out sedatives just in case.

As they went deeper the next illusion began to form. The day came on fast, as if time was speeding up. While the chronometer ticked over without alteration the blaze of the sun arced with sudden speed across the sky and there was a desperate rush to pull googles on.

The sand-glider lurched forward as if sucked forward into the brilliance.

“Whath happenin’?” shouted Tongue, his voice strangely thin and high in the overload of the sun’s light.

“It’s just an illusion,” shouted Carolhano in reply, her words equally distorted. “Keep us full ahead!”

They ploughed on into the heat and light, feeling as if they were going to boil, their minds eclipsed into white emptiness until suddenly it was gone. Darkness swallowed all the light and heat, sucked the air out of your lungs as ice raced around your veins. In the blink of an eye they plunged into frigid darkness where no stars speckled the sky.

“Cahptaan!” Tongue was shouting, his voice now heavy with bass as if underwater. “Cn’t thee hhit!”

“It’ll pass!” Carolhano cried. “Just maintain course!”

Into the endless, disorientating dark the Aurai’s Gift crept on, floating in a silence where there was no up, no down…..

….. and then reality gasped! and the world returned. Rocky escarpments ringed the horizon and mesas rose like islands in the still, rolling ocean of wind sculpted sand dunes…..

*   *   *

. And nothing happened.

In some ways that was worse.

Ankles wiped sweat from his brow and probed for some oddity, some inconsistency that would signal the onset of mad visions or a bending in reality. His senses found nothing. They rode on over the sand, and he was pleased when Carolhano joined him. She said nothing, her dark hair blowing in the wind. He fancied that she was staring the desert down, taunting it to do it’s worse.

“Do you see it?” she asked.

He followed her gaze. There was something…. no, someone standing on the dunes ahead.

“Who…..?” but the words trailed away as they came close enough to see that it was a statue. It was made of sand. As they sailed past he caught its expression of staring horror, the mouth opened in mute anguish.

And there were more. He could see them forming up, growing out of the sand. Worse, there were faces he recognised. Here an old friend, dead, and there a man he had shot during the Scar Gap raid. The man had been unarmed, but Ankles had pulled the trigger a split second too soon. He hadn’t meant to kill him. He looked away to see Carolhano staring, eyes fixed with faint horror.

“What are they?” Ankles asked in a near whisper.

“Bad memories,” and her eyes snapped to his. “Just bad memories.”

They ploughed on beneath a clear blue sky as Inari continued to climb towards his zenith.

Somewhere, someone was sobbing.

*   *   *

Carolhano slipped and a strong hand caught her. She looked up into the face of the man she had been sent to kill. The Imperial regiments might keep the peace, but it was the priesthoods that controlled the populace. So when a temple tried to make a bid for power it threatened to upset the apple cart. Here was one such man, and she had come to slip a knife into his heart.

His crime? He actually gave a damn! Imagine, a leader who thought that maybe there was a better way for everyone to live. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but then who was?

She’d still killed him. He was a dead man anyway, from the moment he made his stand, and it was her love for him that made it quick. The alternative was a slow, drawn out and dehumanising torture that would have robbed him of the very dignity he sought for others.

In the year that followed she had deserted the temple, gone rogue and found safe passage on a sand-glider much like the Aurai’s Gift.

“It’s been a long time, Carolhano,” said the ghost.

She turned away.

“Will you say nothing?”

“There is nothing to say.”

*   *   *

Ankles understood now. “Mind-thistle”. It was lodged like a barb, some invisible tendril piercing his skull and leaching his thoughts. It was a cold splinter in his head…..

….. he was in a market, not long after the captain had freed him. His ankles were bandaged, clean clothes on his back and a small roll of coin in his pouch. It had been his first share and while the Aurai’s Gift was in dock getting serviced, he was freed to roam the town at leisure.

A flurry of activity drew his attention and for a moment his instinct was to resist the flow of people, but this was not hostility, and he was not being taken away. He went with it and found himself in a square covered with brightly coloured awnings. At it’s centre people crowded a machine, whooping with delight. Intrigued, he pushed his way toward the spectacle.

It was a machine that turned precious water into ice. He paid his coin and received a cup of crushed ice, flavoured with fruit syrups. It was a delight. Sweet and cold, unlike anything he had experienced, just as the pain that came with it was unlike anything else. A burning cold clamped his head, thrust a finger into his brain, then passed away…..

…..it was a sensation that plagued him now as they sailed on through The Wrack.

It was torture.

*   *   *

Carolhano blinked. They were lost, she was sure. She looked around to see if she could find Tongue, but he was not at the tiller. The Aurai’s Gift roved on, unmanned. She had no idea how far they had travelled, no idea if they were even heading towards Irongate. Somewhere she thought she could hear someone calling her name…..

Turning, she looked out and saw nothing but endless sand. Where were they? The statues were gone, but there! What was that? A plant? Was the air thickening? Confusion crept around the edges of her mind. The desert was changing hue. Everything swayed and in a moment of panic she thought she couldn’t breath. They were underwater, and she should be drowning and by the gods! Fish! Fish were swimming past and all manner of bright and colourful things bobbing and darting and weaving….. little silver bullets that moved like flocks of birds, sleek and dark shapes that kinked and flexed with mouths seeking prey as frilled orbs with tendrils pulsed through the currents.

And she was not drowning……

She stared in wonder at a world both alien and beautiful, a world that had long since vanished. This was all just another memory, the memory of the desert itself……

Fading……

With a gasp, she was back on deck, and the sound of voices calling her name.

“Where are we?” she croaked as a hand pulled her up. She looked into the smiling eyes of Ankles before her eyes roved to where Tongue held the tiller. The helmsman’s body was rigid and his eyes closed even as his lips moved. He might have been praying.

“Did you see……?” Ankles asked, his voice trailing as he sought to find the words.

Carolhano nodded. “It was an ocean. Or the ghost of an ocean.”

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.” She straightened and brushed herself down. She could feel it. It was fading, the whole damned freak show of a mad god’s desert was fading. They were out. She began to shout orders. “Check the instruments! Where are we? How long until the Sweep? And find out if anyone’s missing!”

*   *   *

Amid the disorientation they found Lewd bled out down below, but judging by the colour of the wound it was poison that had done him first. Bunches picked him up, almost delicately, and took him to the deck. Of Tornie there was no sign and Spool was actually asleep in the gunnery pod.

“Hey,” Ankles poked him, “Wake up.”

“Whas’ up?”

“Seriously? You sleep through that?”

“What?”

Ankles was about to explain, but instead just shook his head. “Look sharp. We got a back stabber on board.”

Spool sniffed, fished out a cigarette. “Damn.”

Ankles left him smoking and carried on. Crapper was still trying to fix the rig, and Mend was checking on one of the priests entourage who’d become catatonic. Three others were missing, presumed lost in the Wrack. He told Carolhano as much as she stared off the stern where a gout of sand was following them.

“What the hell is that?”

“I thought the Mind-Thistle might’ve put it off,” she said absently.

“Captain?”

She threw him a look, took a deep breath. “It’s a Farlight.”

“I thought those were just stories,” said Ankles. Farlights were said to burrow through sand and rock, their name derived from an eerie star light exuded from their mouths.

Carolhano turned to him. “They’re real alright. I’ve seen one before….. I…..”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she waved it off. “Listen. The assassin has a lure hidden in the ship. When it gets close enough, it’ll attack.”

“You got a plan?”

She smiled at him. “Of course.”

“Then what are we waiting for?”

*   *   *

On deck Carolhano waited as her remaining crew corralled the priest’s blue clad menials with whatever weapons they had to hand.

“I really must protest!” the priest was shouting as he mopped his brow. “This really isn’t necessary, and furthermore…..”

She let him prattle on for a moment, then held up a hand. “One of your people is an assassin.”

“What? Preposterous!”

As Carolhano explained, she enjoyed watching the bluster leave him like a leaking air bladder. “Someone wants your secret kept that way.”

“But – ”

She ignored him and spoke to the throng: “One of you is a killer. Luckily, you’re also an incompetent saboteur.”

Glances were exchanged as Carolhano scrutinised them.

“Of course, it didn’t take much to learn which one of you it is.”

She held up a small, emerald pendant that sparkled in the light. It bore an assassin’s sigil.

“Looks like you lost this.”

And there! She saw the surprised reaction, and so did Ankles, just like she’d told him. He had the woman up, arm behind her back while Bunches and Spool trained weapons on her. As Carolhano descended, the woman watched her with burning eyes.

“Where’s the lure, my dear?”

“I’ll never tell,” the woman snarled.

“You don’t have to,” Carolhano smiled. “It’s obvious.” She called Ankles over. “Check the priest’s donation box. The lure is in the box.”

The look on the assassin’s face was confirmation that her instincts had been right.

“How – ?”

“Just a hunch. I guess the delicious irony was just too much for you, so you hid it in the one thing we weren’t about to toss overboard. That’s twice today you’ve given yourself away.”

With a kick the woman broke free and sprang, blade out. The captain’s own dagger met it and their blades pressed together. As her men backed off Carolhano was face to face with the assassin.

“We should all be dead,” hissed the assassin.

“Speak for yourself,” Carolhano growled as the blades started to scrape.

“Especially you…. traitor!

Carolhano shook her head. “I made a choice when I had to kill a man I loved. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

Their arms strained, locked together. The first to give would be at the disadvantage.

“I don’t know how we made it through the Mind-Thistle, but you won’t reach Irongate.”

“You certainly wont,” Carolhano grated. She forced their blades into the air and gave the woman a hefty boot in the chest that sent her over the gunwale.

She and Ankles were already running to the stern where they caught a glimpse of the blue robe bright against the sand. The raging sand cloud behind went straight for it. A moment passed before a faint scream was eclipsed by something erupting from below, an ethereal light that winked out as jaws clamped shut.

The Farlight began to thrash the sand as it dwindled into the distance.

“How…?” said Ankles.

Carolhano flashed him a smile. “I snagged the lure on her robe when she attacked.”

“Will it follow?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s drawn to the lure.”

He nodded, and a grin of joyous relief split his face.

Together they began to laugh.

*   *   *

An hour later Ankles stood beside Carolhano on the foredeck, enjoying the wind on his face.

“Where did you get that pendant?” he asked presently.

The captain gave him an enigmatic smile. “Just another bad memory I had locked away in my cabin.”

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t press further. They were alive, and that’s what counted. The rig was running again and they would just beat the Sweep. Irongate was only an hour away, and once safe, they would get the Aurai’s Gift repaired.

And then, he thought, we’ll find out if the priest was telling the truth.

Judging by recent events, he’d put money on it.


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Crumbs For Crow #2: Everything’s Ruined/Nothing Works

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.

Everything’s Ruined/Nothing Works

Hello my delicious sinners. You look sad. What’s the matter? Still languishing in the horror of your own samasarian nightmares? Poor you. You have my sympathies, you really do. It’s not, after all, your fault so why pressure ourselves unnecessarily with personal responsibilities? I mean, look around. It’s not like you weren’t being used like a tool from the very day you were born, wrapped in darkness like a boiled sweet before being thrown into the maw of reality and instead of sweet suck the molars of Fate chewed on you as if you were nothing more than a second hand piece of bubble gum.

Or was it? Don’t shake you head at me. You know what I’m talking about. No, it’s not dirt in my eye, and I only flash my smile when I sense a kindred soul.

Ah, that’s right, there are so many reasons, aren’t there? There is this and there is that. But what does “it” all mean in the end? Oh, you wonder, or you doubt, and you question or you accept. You build frameworks that are like towers with weak foundations, and sometimes you bother to rebuild after inevitable catastrophe, other times you just stare at the ruin and pop a handful of medication.

And so you don’t even see the quicksand, either way.

Or do you? I don’t know. Perhaps you can, perhaps you can’t. It’s all academic really. Perhaps you believe that you have an immortal soul. Perhaps you think you’ll be coming back – although one might ask if, given the current rate of extinction, what you’ll be coming back to.

I can see you shrug and play your get out of jail free card as you tell me that you’ll just reincarnate backwards. Clever stick. As for those who are going to Heaven, or Hell, depending on just how guilty they feel, perhaps you’d like to place a bet on whether it looks like a white collar office – I mean, after all, isn’t modern, western society the pinnacle of the evolutionary process? The great chain of being and all that guff?

Yeah, I’d be thinking about maybe fixing that……

Because all I hear is about how everything is ruined, about how it used to be better in the old days, how nothing works any more. Perhaps that’s a problem with nostalgia – you know, from the Greek – nostos (to go home/return) and algos (pain/ache). You want to go back but it hurts. Doesn’t this tell you something? Perhaps you’re just holding yourself back. Perhaps you’re living in the past.

A bit like those silly suppositions of political leanings and cultural stances and history and tradition. Nothing is set, it’s all fluid. Look what happens when you can’t keep up the pace, you fall behind and start blaming that huge cheeseburger you had for lunch for the cramp in your foot that’s keeping you from passing the baton to the next runner who wants to step up on the podium and fix everything.

Well, that’s not how it works. Or is it? I confuse even myself sometimes, but that’s okay because if I break myself, I’m just creating my own problem, and then I just tell myself that I’m the cure to my own madness. Crow, I say to myself, if you weren’t half as intelligent as you pretend to be then you’d be twice as thick as you could have been.

I give myself a wink, ruffle my feathers and clear my thoughts. It’s all bullshit, of course, but then that’s what we’re all really good at: filling our minds with bullshit and then flinging it at each other in an attempt to solve problems that didn’t really exist until someone else told you they did.

And like a broken record the public speakers go on and on about how everything is ruined and nothing works.

It’s all so tedious.

But just stick your fingers in your ears and ignore me. Most people do when they’re walking along and see me stooped on a park bench, talking to the air. It’s probably a no smoking area, but my clouds come from the gift of fire. Sure, it’s easier to ignore me, rather than letting me pierce the veil of cotton wool that keeps you from living instead of worrying about every little detail.

You don’t want me to set you on fire.

Carry on. After all, no one’s paying you to read this, are they? And if they are then how about slipping me a a few coins while I disingenuously proffer awkward solutions to those that listen while paradoxically claiming everything is where it is supposed to be and everything is fine.

It is, isn’t it? Look out your window. Is the meteor coming down? Wait a moment while I try to pull them back…..

Oh bugger….

There goes the curtain rail. No shutting it out now.

Hmmm? What’s that you say? The sky is looking a little orange?

Oh, I’m sure that’s just a nice, rich sunset. After all, it must be getting on for tea time and I hear that book burnings are coming back into fashion.

Why, it really does look perfectly fine out there to me.


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Crumbs For Crow #1: The Hardest Step

smoking crow
© Larry Vienneau.

The Hardest of Steps

It is never, nor ever has been, the Universe itself that causes you to weep my child. With these words, and through the staunch bastion of determination within you, you have become a seeker. You and I are not unalike, but child, I see that the tears are welling up even now, before we begin. Do not let the recourse to the infantile pseudo-emotional reactivity blur the singularity and purpose of this, the most persistent of conundrums, for it is in your heart that you have come to with the burning desire to unravel that which condemns you. Stand strong, and we shall aim with alacrity to release a salvo of piercing intellectual propositions that course straight at the heart of the suppurating mediocrity of the modern day discourse and expose the wranglings of malicious fools and those serendipitously blessed with a fortune unearned.

Through everything, remember, it is I who understand and answer your call.

Thus, let us not rein in our multitudinous hail of arrows, for they are guided by the power and tenacity of our will and purpose to strike true to the arrow butt of existential and tangential purpose. In this fashion, and by good order, so shall ye reap the munificent bounty of the true sight, the unveiling of your direction via the ever expanding compass of quasi-samsarian egalitarianism vis-a-vis the expansion and contraction of the ineffable and never ceasing continuum of the cosmic purpose that has hitherto remained occluded to your dim vision.

I too, was once like you, accursed, but as one hand pulls another up, so too will you pull those others of misfortune forth into the light of understanding.

Yet beware! For there are critics who raise unambivalent objection to the proposition that there is, not only purpose, but that there is actual significant meaning in one’s pursuit of the enlightening realisation that one can attain a modicum of orientation against the prevailing notion that such a pursuit is merely the recidivistic retreat, nay escape, from the contours and colours of a reality that lies beyond the recourse of individual determination.

Such are the arguments of fools, and if I am any judge of character, you are no fool.

So let us rejoice, for such arguments are exposed as the futile fabrications they are due to their endless repetition ad nauseam, not to mention ad populum, as the enemies of true understanding are forever utilising the inherently self-serving components of expansive relativism, their number established in quantity but not quality, and via the network of methodical information relays they are able to disperse these pseudo-philosophical inaccuracies regarding the endeavours of those such as ourselves who seek until, as previous supplied, the notions that allow us to become insusceptible to infiltration by populist and conformist nonsense.

Thankfully, the true seeker stands above the gathering and decrepit malaise with the proud bearings of warriors ancient and indomitable, those noble of heart who thrust forward with certitude at the uncaring spectre of nihilistic materialism to boldly proclaim that theirs is the right by divinity and dint of acceptance of spiritual burden.

In this way we find each other, and although there must be acceptance, or at least reasonable doubt of knowledge regarding the possibility of the universe which can never offer obeisance, it still remains that we shall possess the singular right of those that may demand such, no matter the futility of such demands, for it is an act of cosmological resistance that one can attain a level of profundity against the enveloping causality of apparent meaninglessness without attributing their stance to the realm of the fearful nor the ignorant.

For if there is one thing alone that the universe is moved to condemn, it is wilful ignorance. Nothing could be clearer to those such as ourselves who move toward unveiling, and rest assured that it is by these very words that we are reassured in the understanding that what is sought is to remove themselves from such callous condemnation, for how could anything be clearer than the reading of these very words?

Now, rest child. There are many steps to take, but it is the first step that begins the journey which will cross the world.

And you have braved that first, and hardest, of steps.


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The Cosmic Highway (Early Writer’s Circle Work 2002)

charger

During my years at college I was introduced by a friend to Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett, and now looking back I can see how Pratchett was a big influence on my style, particularly the way in which his dialogue was structured to provide comic effect, as well as the way in which his storytelling was separated into small, interweaving sections (for example, check out Irrevenant Pt.1). During college this first manifest itself as some rather tawdry, comedic attacks on people who I didn’t like as everything within the narratives got destroyed, even the protagonist by part 3.

But spin on a couple of years and I was beginning to build up a style and a focus. This was the interim of years between college and university – although I actually had no interest in further education at the time – and through another friend I began to attend a writer’s circle in Woking.

With the structure of regularly having a deadline I began to write some shorts that would form the basis of my later writings.

One of the very first was the Cosmic Highway…..

Vanishing Point (1971) And The ‘Other’

I must have watched Vanishing Point dozens of times, and let’s say that back then more than a few of these were under certain herbal influence. During these somewhat psychedelic sessions movies became something almost shamanistic – I use what is a loaded term loosely here to denote movement from one reality to another – and there is a certain narrative structure to this movement that relates to Joseph Campbell et al.

While I certainly can ramble on at length about shamanism, and mythic structure in movies, that’s a post for another day. What is important here is that while watching a movie one becomes immersed in the experience – one transitions into the reality of the movie – and at the same time there is a movement within the movie where the hero goes from real to unreal (the ‘other’) and back to real.

In Vanishing Point the hero is blocked from his goal on the road and heads out into the desert where he meets a mad old man who is collecting snakes. Out of this sequence the hero then gets back on the road, armed with his mystical truth and ready to face the forces of oppression.

Whilst this was certainly one of the things that drove me (aha, pun) to the study of anthropology, it was more immediately tangible in stories such as The Cosmic Highway, not just because it had a Dodge Charger in it, but because it contained the fundamental element of movement between worlds, from the real to the ‘other’. Within this frame-work there is also the mysterious figure (the “shaman” or trickster) who is able to convey one back and forth between realities. In this respect the driver is just a reflection of later characters such as Crow (see Crumbs For Crow).

What I present here is the original short about a muscle car driving, inter-dimensional taxi driver. While I have edited it to smooth out the reading, I have otherwise refrained from altering it so as to give an example of the little stepping stones that make up a writer’s journey.

Eventually the character and the idea would be reworked and incorporated into a wider thematic of a privatised afterlife: the car is actually Chiron’s ferry in a different form, and the driver’s powers were gift to him by the ferryman after he was laid off by the new corporate management of the Underworld™.

The Cosmic Highway (story)

It’s early, or maybe late, depending on who you are in the cosmos.

For me it’s well into Limbo, that liminal time between realities, and my foot’s all the way down to the floor because right this moment I got troubles weighing heavy like a ten tonne weight across my shoulders. Call it a scoop I’m giving you now, so stick around and I’ll fill you in on the sequence of events, introductions first.

Most folk just call me Driver, plain and simple. But names aside, you can call me anything you like. All you gotta know is that I’m no ordinary joe, and this ain’t no ordinary taxi that I pilot. Sure, outside it looks normal enough, an Earthworld Dodge Charger from nineteen hundred and seventy, one of America’s gifts to the environmental lobby, from the era when they made ’em cool and fast for the sake of it. She’s mean and sleek with curves to die for, four wheels of supercharged lean-burn muscle dressed in the purest velvet midnight that blazes on through the stop signs of the imagination. Under the hood there’s more than horsepower too, but it isn’t the personal modifications alone that makes the difference.

No, what’s special is on the inside, or in other words me. I’m the one who’ll get either you or your package to the destination of choice. Anywhere you want in space or time, you name it; I’ll drive it there, and boy I’m telling you some have named stranger than the boggling mind can conceive. I don’t cruise the usual highways see? And I make handbrake turns around reality. You dig? Maybe not eh? Sometimes I ask questions, but I don’t remember no truths. If I decide to take the gig you pay my price and unlike the rest, I’m not into cash, cheques or credits cards. That kinda credit doesn’t cut any mustard in these parts.

And I know you’re still dyin’ to get a good look at my face right? Well, see I’m kinda edgy about that, and in all fairness these features could be one amongst hundreds that you see in your day. Easily vague, shadowy perhaps, wrapped in the blackest shades and instantly forgettable.

So, introductions aside, you must be getting hungry for the scoop right? You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Well, it all started a few hours back and I’m settling down in this cozy back-street place I know, the sort of one in any million ,low light joints where the barkeep flaps a beer sodden bar-towel with vague ineffectiveness at some fly that only he really sees and hears. In the corner some a shady blues three piece are taking the denizens down into twilight with a seedy rhythm.

I’m blowin’ a smoke ring, contemplating this and that, when all of a sudden there’s this guy stooping over me, and I’m tellin’ you he’s got the mysterious robed stranger thing down to perfection, the whole deal with the weird eyes, deep hood and menacing voice. He’s laying out the gig, whisperin’ the details in these hushed tones, what and where and when. No problem, but I’m tellin’ him to beat it. I’m really not in the mood for a weird one tonight. Naturally he’s got it covered, knows just the thing to make the fish bite the bait. An original, very rare and served with a garnish of assurances. My instincts are spelling danger in big red letters, but I turn a blind eye.

I deal and hit the road as soon as soon as I’ve taken another swift drink, my fare on the seat beside me riding shotgun. He fits nicely in his box and I feel sort of honoured, although secretly I’m glad to say that he’s seen better days. There ain’t a soul around these ways who hasn’t heard about this dude and the heavy baggage he’d been swinging. A real unsavoury, into the sort of thing that you don’t ask too many questions over. See, you never know who’s listening at the door, so most folk here nod in silent agreement that they’d all rather be keeping their eyeballs. Still, judging by the sneak peek I took of him I’d say that those days are well and truly over. I’m doubting that he’ll be taking part in any more clandestine ceremonies, other than perhaps as a candle holder.

So, everything’s cool for about the first hour, the deserted highway scenario mixing with the heavy fog shroud while the radios playing some smooth road tunes as we eat up the miles. We’re making with the good time between Limbo and the There and Then and I’m making the mistake of thinking that this gig isn’t gonna be such a weird one and how I’m gonna get a nice Mogadorian breakfast when all of a sudden it’s the fright of the night and the guy next to me is awake and really rowdy, asking in shades of a blue tongue where in the Hell he is and what in the Hell’s going on.

“I thought you were dead!” I intone with exasperation. It’s an understatement to say that I’m less than impressed by this revelation.

“Dead? Ha!” his voice is heavy with the contemptuous tones as he starts down the whole beyond Death routine like all these cultist nut jobs do. “I am He that Death cannot bind, He who is beyond the Veil of Mortality, the eternal servant of Lashu Froom!”

I cut in before he gets further into the powertrip about how everyone’s gonna be bowing before him.

“Yeah yeah yeah, that’s why you’re here and some other guys wearin’ your fancy robes and getting it on in the inner sanctums with the sacrificial virgins right?”

That strikes a nerve I can tell you and the tense silence that follows can only be described as ominous. I take to considering how risky it might be to mock this particularly afflicted individual, but then I say to myself no one gets shirty with me, not when I’m behind the wheel. His next sentence has the leaden effects of doom down to a tee that breaks the atmosphere like a walnut under a hammer.

“Your impertinence is noted foolish one. Know that soon I shall reclaim my rightful place as the Right Hand of Lashu Froom and upon my return you shall be the second voice raised in the exultations of agony, singing my eternal praises from the torture chambers of Eleria!”

“Uh-huh. Same old same old then? You probably don’t even let me die right?” Man, I really could have done without this tonight.

“You’re getting the idea I see. Prolonged suffering, endless torment and merciless torture awaits!”

I yawn, putting as much indifference into it as I can. This riles him even more and he’d be spitting if he had any saliva.

“Maybe you didn’t notice,” I say cooly, “but you’re not exactly in the best position to be dealing out threats. Your box fits you real good doesn’t it?” Now that’s got him seething.

“They shall flail the skin from your body! They shall draw the marrow from your bones! They shall…….”

It goes on like this for some time. When he’s quite finished his frenzied little routine I respond with the usual calmness. “Don’t you think this hideous torture bit is getting a little dated now? I mean, have you ever been to Earth? Man, it’s quite literally been done to death. You should keep up with the times.” An eruption of static punctuates the moment and I’m twirling the dial. Ther’s a burst of Reggie Dixon and I shudder before continuing, “There are worse things in Heaven and Earth Horatio……”

“And you shall know them! You shall be hunted down to the ends of time itself if need be!”

I don’t reply and that’s when I glance in the rear view mirror. A sight most unwanted grabs my attention. Curses.

“Something awry?” he inquires after a painful pause and I feel the smugness radiating from the box beside me as I imagine the expression on his desiccated face.

“Nope,” the word comes out wrong and he’s just loving the fact that my cool is well and truly blown! Thoughts of the eternal torments spring up fresh in my mind with a new, urgent vigour I find most unpalatable. Oh man, what a night. I’m wishing that I’d taken note of what my instincts had to say. Like I said, I could have done without a weird one. In response I make my foot more intimate with the accelerator.

“Ha ha, do you know who follows us foolish one?” he says, laying on the mocking tones like sickly thick syrup.

“I could probably take a wild guess. Something along the lines of the dread servants of the almighty Lashu Froom?”

“Yes! he cried, the box actually jolting with the ferocity of his exclamation.. “They are my eternal hordes! The decreed sent none other than Lashu Froom himself to retrieve me and return me to my rightful position!”

“Eternal servants huh?” I muse aloud, scratching the rough stubble at the end of my chin as I ponder whether it’s not too late make some sort of apology…..

The end…..?

Last Word: Over To You Super Soul

Well, that’s all for today folks. Feel free to leave me a comment or ask me a question.

And hit that like button to let me know you care – it makes all the difference!

DJC

©2019

Crumbs For Crow: A Solstice Fairy Tale

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[This was another quick writing project that was done for the monthly challenge on http://www.fantasy-writers.org. I kept the working title as I liked it, but if anyone has a more appropriate one let me know. But first, sit back and have yourself a little slice of my dark, festive offering……]

Through the shifting halls of dream Sarah chased the echo of a small, tinkling bell. On and on amidst slumber’s oil-on-water realities until she cornered it in a hall of stone where logs crackled in a fireplace. She bared her teeth and growled, suddenly wary that what she pursued was behind her……

Her eyes snapped open and the dream shattered, fragments evaporating to leave only a trace of unease clinging to her like cobweb. She gritted her teeth and hugged her pillow, willing herself back to slumber even as she knew it was to be denied. The echo of that ringing bell played in the back of her mind. It would not be ignored, taunting her like a mocking gremlin.

Well, there was a way to deal with such gremlins, wasn’t there doctor? Her hand quested out toward the bedside table where a small plastic bottle stood lit blue-green by the digital clock. It was three minutes after midnight.

Sarah knocked back a couple of pills, swallowed them dry with a sense of vengeful satisfaction. The gremlin would rue the day as she settled to watching the minutes tick by. At some point her eyelids grew heavy, calm wrapping itself around her mind like a warm blanket. She drifted towards unconsciousness…..

Something creaked. A floorboard? Her ears pricked up, straining to detect the tiniest of hint of sound as a primordial instinct overrode her weariness. This intrusion she tried to force back down, telling her treacherous brain that it was just the house settling. To no avail

Sarah rolled onto her side, wide awake and angry. The numbers on the clock were fuzzy. She watched as they flick round, minute by minute, increment by increment. When it became unbearable she cursed and slipped from her bed, crossed the room and cracked her door open to listen. The house was still, but….. was that a voice? Someone in the living room? Maybe father…..

With no way to lure back the elusive spectre of sleep, Sarah slipped into the hallway and tiptoed along the plush carpet to where her sister’s door stood ajar. Sarah smiled. Mary must have snuck downstairs to check the presents. Her little sister was always worrying that they might disappear overnight, or that Santa might come early.

Sarah took a step down, then paused as she whispered to herself, “But who is she talking to?”

*  *  *

“What are you doing?”

Crow paused and looked over his shoulder. A girl in striped pyjamas stood behind him, a plate of mince pies held in her hands. These she promptly dropped as her hands went to the ‘O’ of her mouth. “W-what happened to your face?”

“My face? Nothing,” Crow replied, puzzled, then continued to sort through the brightly wrapped presents which lay overspilling from beneath the skirt of a grand Christmas tree. As he sifted, he stuffed his selections into a tattered sack. “It is the face I was born with.”

“But…. but you’re dead,” the girl whispered.

Crow laughed. “Dead?”

“L-look! Your hands!” She pointed.

Crow held up a long-fingered hand for inspection. “They appear perfectly normal to me.”

“Normal? But they’re all…. bony!”

“Ah, so you say,” said Crow with a dismissive wave, “But from where I stand, I am alive and you are dead.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” the little girl replied, then added, “And it’s not very nice.”

“Nice has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of perspective.”

“Per… perspive? What’s that?”

“It means that things are not what they appear to be.”

He stood and looked around. The room was a plush paradise of Christmas cheer, everything tinsel edged and bathed in the soft glow of red and green and gold lights. An infinite loop of festive songs played softly from some unseen device. Crow cocked his head at the little girl, then crossed the room to her. She shrank back, but it was only mince pies that he sought.

“Why are you wearing that old suit?” asked the child as Crow took to perching on an arm of a large leather sofa. He crumbled a pie into pieces and pecked at them. “And how did you get in here?”

Crow tapped the side of his beak. “Trade secrets my little one.”

Then he froze, his attention fixed just beyond the girl’s shoulder. She turned to see her sister standing with a kitchen knife levelled at the intruder.

“Hello Sarah – ”

“Stay behind me Mary!” ordered Sarah as she pulled her sister behind her.

“But – ”

“W-who are you?” Sarah demanded. Her eyes widened.“And wh- what the hell is wrong with your face?”

“It’s alright Sarah,” said the little girl. “He says he’s not really dead.”

“Dead? I-is that a mask?” Sarah asked, reviled. The knife shook in her hand. Fear rode up her spine, yet did not surface. She knew her father and other family were close. Just up the stairs. There was no way this….. man could get away. She had been about to shout for help but the twinkling stars in those empty eye sockets fascinated her, drawing her towards their light……

“No, it’s the face he was born with,” Mary explained, “And he’s taking our presents!”

“You’re a – a thief!” Sarah shot at him. She felt giddy. It was surreal, and that mask was just so revolting. Perhaps it was the medication? Adrenaline? Sarah whispered to herself, “This must be one of those waking dreams.”

“Ha!” Crow snorted. “Waking dream. Why not take that sentiment back to bed with you? It was all just a dream.”

“Because,” stated Mary, “I’m waiting for Santa.”

“Who?” Crow frowned. The girls stared at him, but his question seemed quite genuine.

“Really?” Sarah asked, knife still pointed at Crow. “You’re not joking, are you?”

Crow shook his head. “Should I know?”

“He comes down the chimney,” Sarah said, “And leaves presents for the children.”

“Oh, him,” Crow said and rolled his…. eye sockets. “He’s just a story, a fable.”

“No he’s not!” Mary stamped a foot. “I saw him.”

“No you didn’t,” sneered Crow. “When?”

“At the shops.”

“That wasn’t him.”

“I know that.”

“You do?” Crow cocked his head. “Then you know he’s just a story?”

“Don’t be silly. The one at the shops works for Santa. He can’t be everywhere at once until Christmas Eve.”

“Well that explains that then,” Crow drawled. “And thanks for the mince pies.”

“Those were for Santa!” Mary stormed.

“They’d only have gone stale!”

“I can’t believe this,” Sarah muttered as they argued. It was madness.

“It’s not your Christmas Eve yet,” Crow was saying with sad condescension. “It’s the holy Solstice, and the only one abroad tonight is me!”

He rose from his perching and hefted the sack over a shoulder.

“You’re not very nice,” Mary shouted at him.

“And you’re not taking those presents,” Sarah added as she stepped forward with the knife pointed at his chest. “There are several people up stairs. All I have to do is shout!”

“Pah! You think you can stop me?” Crow gave a nerve-wracking cackle.

“P-put the sack down and I might let you leave before I call the police.”

“I think not,” Crow snorted. “These gifts are for a special child. Besides, it’s not like you don’t have enough, is it now?”

“But they’re ours!” Sarah snarled.

“Listen children, what’s yours is mine tonight,” Crow said, taking a step towards Sarah so that the knife pressed against his chest, “But the child these are destined for shall praise the benevolence of your giving.”

He knocked the knife from Sarah’s hand with a quick slap, then swept an arm to encompass the room, the house. “Look at this place. This is an edifice to the modern day paradise achieved by your – ” and he coughed into his hand “ – civilisation.”

“Paradise?” Sarah frowned with a shake of her head. “What are you talking about?”

“Poor children,” said Crow. “You have no idea, do you? Of course not, you have been incubated in this little den without a want or a care. Fed three times a day, entertained and pampered.”

“You’re not very nice!” Mary said, her lip trembling.

Crow considered. “Not in your world I’m not.”

“And what the hell does that mean?” Sarah snapped, reaching the limit of fear and frustration. “Our world?”

“Like I said, you have no idea.” Crow grinned at them, cocked his head on one side. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to the real world.”

“This is the real world,” Mary protested. “You’re a liar!”

“Never call me that!” Crow hissed and the twinkles in his eyes sockets flashed a cold blue. They both took a step back. “This is a world of falsehoods and deceptions! A world of mundanity and logic, a world of superstition and ignorance!”

The trembling lip broke, tears welled up and the little girl sobbed. “Why are you so mean?”

“Look what you’ve done,” Sarah sneered, pulling Mary close. “What kind of a man are you?”

“Man? I am far from being a man, and you may call me Crow.”

“You’re insane!” Sarah flung at him.

“Like I said, it’s a matter of perspective,” said Crow with a shrug, then he cocked his head in thought. “But perhaps I can show you, if you like? After all, I suppose I do owe you something for the presents.”

“We’re not going anywhere with you,” Sarah retorted.

“Well, I doubt you could handle it. The little one maybe, but you are getting a little old.” He cackled. “Would you like to come and see Mary? Just quickly though.”

“See what?” asked Mary.

“Why, the real world of course.” He extended a hand to her and the light in his eye sockets grew brighter with a twinkling lustre. As if in a dream Sarah saw Mary’s hand reach for Crow’s outstretched palm. She reached to grasp Mary’s shoulder just as the skeletal fingers wrapped around the tiny hand.

A little bell tinkled, and everything turned inside out.

*  *  *

Sudden cold. It was a slap in the face and Sarah went to her knees. Her stomach lurched and she retched into the snow.

“What…. what the – ”

“Here we are,” said Crow, pulling her to her feet.

“Where…..?”

“Sarah!” gasped Mary. “Look!”

Sarah stared at the hand holding hers. It was flesh and blood, and Crow’s face was no longer a bird’s skull. He was richly feathered in black plumage that contained faint traces of green and purple iridescence. His eyes were now full orbs, shining with intellect.

“Welcome,” smiled Crow, and as arm swept out to encompass a crepuscular winter’s woodland, “To the real world.”

Sarah gazed out across undulating waves of snow from which skeletal trees reach for the grey wash of the sky. The sun was a pale disc of silver low on the horizon. Occasional snow flakes drifted down.

“Now, bear with me,” Crow said, patting his tattered shirt until he found a key, gnarled with verdigris. He turned and popped it in the lock of a huge wooden door bound in blackened iron. As he did so, Sarah and Mary stepped back from the threshold to take in a large stone-rimmed arch set into a hillside, its rising flanks thick with trees.

Crow pushed open the door on protesting hinges and a wave of warmth and cheer flooded forth, immediately enticing: a feast was in progress, the air thick with the sounds of revelry and song, with laughter and the smell of roasting meat over wood fires. Fluttering notes swirled on the festive atmosphere and the throng within bobbed to its sweet melodies. Sarah and Mary were lured, pulled forward, but Crow suddenly barred their way. “Wait! I assume you know the rules?”

“What rules?” Sarah snapped with impatience.

“The rules,” Crow said. “Everyone knows the rules, yes?”

They shook their heads.

“Of course you don’t,” Crow sighed in exasperation. “Listen very carefully. These are the rules: Number one, do not drink anything. You’ll be tempted. Don’t! Second rule: Don’t join in any singing, especially if you feel you know the words. Got it?”

They both nodded, half hearing for eagerness to get within.

“Okay, last, and most important of all: Don’t eat anyone.”

“Anyone?” Sarah asked with a frown.

“Did I say that?” Crow looked suddenly shifty. “I meant don’t eat anything, even if you feel a ravenous hungry. Do you understand?”

They nodded again.

“Good.” Crow slung the sack over his shoulder. “And never let it be said that I didn’t warn you. Come on.”

Hand in hand the sisters followed Crow into the chaos. They bumped and shoved their way through the room, bedecked in gold and green and red, just like home, but if you had asked Sarah what made it different, she would have said that it was all so…… alive. There was no other way to describe the vivid richness, the overpowering lustre of everything. The gold on the candelabra, the jugs and plates and furnishings, it all shone like the sun while the evergreen of the great tree in the heart of the room blazed with indescribable vivaciousness. Everywhere flowed deep reds, from the drapes and upholstery to the garb and adornments of the strange assembly. It was the very colour of blood and danger, vigour and passion.

Sarah, breathless and giddy, lead Mary through the horde as Crow barged and elbowed forward, throwing greetings and replying to jests. She saw men with gnarled faces like tree bark who danced arm in arm with spry young women, their slender forms adorned in translucent green frocks and who sported delicate wings like lace. A man in a torn shirt turned a wolf’s head as she passed, his tongue lolling between sharp teeth. He winked with a lewd grin and Sarah felt a flush of heat upon her cheeks.

On and on they pressed until Mary’s hand slipped free and Sarah turned to see her sister giggling at the antics of a frolicking fool. He tumbled, shaking his bells, then conjured a red ribbon from behind the little girl’s ear. With a merry laugh the fool capered away through the gathering and Sarah pulled her sister after Crow, only to find him arrested by an old woman. Her face was hatchet sharp, her skin taut around a crescented nose while the deep set eyes blazed with the fire of knowing.

“Dear Crow, I see you have guests, hmmm?”

“Crone,” Crow gave her a curt bow. “Rest assured, they are here only for a brief visit.”

The crone scrutinised Sarah and Mary. “And just why are they visiting, hmmm?”

“Aha! It was merely a Solstice whim Crone.”

“As good a reason as any I suppose,” she cackled and waved them on. “The King awaits you.”

Crow nodded and moved off, but as Sarah followed the crone caught her arm to whisper quickly. “Be careful my dear, hmmm?”

Sarah mumbled a reply that was lost in the clamour as she stumbled after Crow, her senses reeling from the festive maelstrom around her. The heat, the noise, the commotion was overwhelming. When a small boy with little horns darted from behind a pair of furred legs and grabbed Mary’s hand, there was nothing she could do.

“Come dance with me!” he cried and Mary’s hand slipped away.

“Mary!” Sarah shouted, but her sister had already disappeared into the throng. She tried to pull Crow up but they had emerged from the press before a huge throne of carved wood and bone. Upon it sat the most corpulent man Sarah had ever seen, his skin a rich and vivid green, his eyes shining with mirth and delight. He scratched beneath his loin cloth and tore another chunk of meat from a long bone.

“Crow! My dear friend!” he boomed, laughing as he tossed the bone away.

“Sire,” Crow bowed. “I have returned as promised.”

“I see you have brought gifts! Pray tell me,” and the king leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin to whisper, “What have you brought my queen this year?”

“Surprises and oddities from the unreal world, my lord.”

The king boomed his laughter. “You never fail dear Crow.”

“One tries my lord,” Crow replied with a smile. The king turned his gaze upon Sarah and his face split in a lecherous grin.

“And what do we have here?” The green king licked his greasy fingers.

“My guest, sire,” said Crow. He drew Sarah forward. “A human woman.”

“My my my,” said the king. “She’s certainly a dainty little….. morsel.”

“Alas sire, she is not for the eating.”

“Ah, shame! And with her looking so young and tender!”

“Just so sire,” said Crow, inclining his head in agreement. “I thought she might benefit from some perspective, and thus did I deliver her to your magnificent court.”

“Ah, and rightly so dear Crow!” Then to Sarah he asked, “And how do you like my merry little gathering?”

Sarah sought words, found Crow’s elbow jar them out of her, “Er…. very much my lord. It’s…. er, very festive.”

“But of course!” boomed the king. “It is the Solstice, after all! The longest, darkest of nights!”

Sarah nodded and smiled vaguely. The Solstice….. she’d never really thought about it. Christmas was a time for family and food and presents, and she knew it got dark at winter. The longest, darkest night…. it seemed so obvious now.

“I didn’t know…..” she mumbled.

“Didn’t know?” and the king boomed his laughter again. “How strange you humans are!”

“As you see sire,” Crow explained, “She is pitifully ill equipped to understand the importance of such a time.”

“Alas, a sad fate for people who are so short lived,” the King nodded sadly, then brightened. “Still, I am sure that she will enjoy her time here! ‘Tis the Solstice after all!”

And he set about quaffing and gorging with fresh vigour. Crow steered Sarah away and let out a long, slow breath. “Well, that went well.”

Sarah rounded on him, nettled. “What do you mean, pitifully ill equipped?”

“Just a figure of speech,” Crow replied and rolled his eyes. “And after all, you really don’t know what the meaning of Solstice is, do you?”

“And why should I?” she snapped. “No one’s ever told me that it was the longest, darkest night.”

“Such is the fate of the civilised,” Crow replied as he skilfully lifted a steaming cup of wine from a tray borne on the raised hands of a very small waiter. As Sarah watched him drink, her anger subsided in the warm fluff of the gathering’s atmosphere. There was something that she had forgotten…..

“Mary! Where is she?” She grabbed Crow by his lapels, spilling his wine. “Where’s my sister?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s quite safe,” Crow said gently, prying Sarah’s hands from his jacket and finishing his drink. “Come, you must meet the All-Mother.”

“The what?”

Without answer they were once more whirling through the heaving mass of strange folk, those with horns and more than one set of eyes. Sarah passed a woman with six arms bedecked in charms and bracelets who combed the beard of a strange, stick thin man smoking a pipe while he described arcane gibberish with flourishes of his long fingered hands. Everywhere were such fascinating distractions that as Sarah sought the memory of something important, her thoughts became elusive starlings wheeling into the sky as she tried to grasp them. As she made another attempt they stepped clear of the crowd.

“All-Mother?” Crow asked, and Sarah’s focus landed on a large woman who reclined in indolent beauty, tumbles of golden hair rolling around her radiant face which shone with matronly warmth. She wore a soft, white nightgown that rested upon a landscape of curves, full and fruitful, her belly swollen with child.

“Crow, my dear,” she said in a voice like morning sunshine, “You have returned.”

“I have indeed my lady,” he beamed, dumping the sack on the floor, “And I have brought you’re progeny gifts of most outlandish oddity.”

“Oh Crow, why must you show off all the time?”

He bowed with a laugh, then pulled Sarah forward. “I have also brought a guest.”

“Ah, such a delight,” said the All-Mother who cast her benevolent gaze over Sarah. In those ancient eyes was such a depth of aeons that Sarah gasped.

“Oh, but isn’t she is a pretty one!” The All-Mother gave Crow a wry look as she added, “If perhaps a little unripe for your tastes. Still, I was wondering when you would take a wife.”

Sarah’s protest was cut short as Crow interjected. “Alas, she is merely my guest tonight.”

“Pity,” said the All-Mother, then addressed Sarah. “And how are you known worldly daughter?”

“Sarah,” and as Crow’s elbow sought her again she added a small curtsey, “My lady.”

“Welcome Sarah. Please, take you fill of our meagre fare. I would see you fed and refreshed.” She looked Sarah up and down. “Yes! You must eat heartily, for you are far too thin for the bearing of children.”

Crow laughed as Sarah’s mouth flapped in shock. “C-children?”

The All-Mother’s expression was all benevolence as she explained. “You have a rare gift, the gift of youth and a body that will give you great pleasure. Treasure it, but guard it well!” – and she beckoned Sarah closer with a finger as her voice went low – “for there are many abroad this night that would covet such a delectable prize.”

Then she lit up with laughter as soft as a silky thigh, as warm as fresh bread. Sarah felt her face flush with heat.

“Oh my,” said the All-Mother, taking Sarah’s hand.“You are a tender little one, aren’t you? Beware the appetites of one such as Crow. He can be a charmer when he wants to be.”

Sarah shot Crow a glance. “Er… yes. I’ll be careful.”

“Well then my worldly daughter, I fancy that you will enjoy the revels tonight. Eat, drink, be merry!”

And the All-Mother threw back a cup of wine and rubbed her belly with a smile of pure satisfaction. Crow drew Sarah away.

“Come, as much as she her hospitality is in earnest, it is nearly time to leave.”

“But……” Sarah tried to focus. “We can’t go yet.”

“It’s not a matter of debate,” Crow replied.

“But…. but….”

“But what?”

“I can’t remember.”

Crow shook his head and tried to lead her away. Sarah yanked her hand free and slipped into the mass of strange folk. She had to remember before it was too late…….

*  *  *

Sarah fled as the crowd pressed close, snatches of conversation in strange voices crowding her ears while the warmth was a haze that seeped into her very marrow. She was thirsty and giddy and she had to remember…..

A body, tall and wide, stepped back and she bumped into the posterior of a particularly rotund….. person? It turned around and said something from between curved tusks, it’s small eyes bright with curiosity.

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah.

“Ah, you… speech other?” the creature said haltingly. It frowned. “You are speak?”

“English?”

“Ah. Speaks English,” said the creature with a smile as an elfin lady laid a hand on its arm and inclined her ornate helm to Sarah. “Sorry my dear. It’s been a while since he was in your world.”

“N-no problem,” Sarah replied with a nervous smile.

The fey gave her a small nod. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’ve…. I can’t remember.”

“You look troubled. I find that a glass of spiced wine always helps me feel better,” and she plucked a steaming cup from one of the small waiters, then passed it to Sarah. She stared at the liquid within. There was something she had been told…..

But she was so thirsty. She took a long draught of the glorious liquid, felt the sweet liquor glide down to her stomach and her first reaction was to gasp in delight. Her second reaction was to hear her stomach rumble and she looked around for food. The succulence of roasting meat reached her and without another word she cut through to where attendants were slicing meat from something like a suckling pig. A platter appeared in her hands, and she was ripping at meat so delicious she thought she would never be satisfied…….

And all the time, in the back of her mind, a desperate need to remember something played over and over. Yet the revels had now swept away her fears, had swept away time itself and she lost herself to dancing, her voice lifted in a song that she had never heard but to which she knew every word. Her heart thundered, intoxicated with awe and madness and freedom as the crowd drew inwards to the great festive evergreen. It was the heart of the room, a magnet, a sink hole around which swirled the revellers. As they moved in rapturous dance they looped something long and bloody like a string of sausages over the branches. Sarah laughed at the blood on her hands, on her face. In her mouth she felt sharp teeth prick her tongue…..

Sudden silence, but broken almost instantly as a shuddering moan split the air. It was neither pleasure nor pain, but exultation! A great cheer of joy filled the room to the rafters, and Sarah howled with all her heart until someone grabbed her wrist.

Crow spun her around, his eyes bright with anger.

“I told you not to eat anything!” he hissed. “Come, we must leave now!”

“Oh Crow, leave me to the revel! Let me dance, let me sing!”

But Crow would not release her. “No! We must go. The All-Mother is about to birth the New Year!”

With a savage tug he pulled her away from the throng, back to the door as she struggled, but his grip was like iron. She wailed and thrashed as they reached the threshold of the hall, even as a great roar shook the very foundations. A sensation of pure awe and terror rode Sarah’s spine all the way to the tip of her tail.

“What is that?” she asked, but Crow wasn’t listening as he fought to push the great door open. A split second later Sarah was hurled into the cold, and her head swam so hard with the shock of the cold that she near fainted.

Overhead a great winged shadow blotted out the sky.

Then a bell rang, and the world turned outside-in.

*  *  *

Sarah didn’t retch, instead finding sudden sobriety like a hundred cups of coffee. The fog in her mind started evaporating and beside her Crow was muttering something about “damned time dilations.”

“W-what…?” she tried to ask, then stumbled into something large and red. It went over with a shout of surprise, arms and legs flailing.

“Must be Christmas Eve,” Crow remarked with a wry grin as he helped the fat man to his feet. To Sarah he shrugged and said, “Looks like I owe you an apology.”

But Sarah wasn’t listening, wasn’t looking at Santa with awe and surprise as anyone might have at such a moment. No, that expression was reserved for herself as she looked down at her own body.

“My…. my stomach!”

Crow shook his head. “Well, I did tell you not to eat anyone.”

Sarah, wide eyed, ran a hand over her swollen belly where it was rounded with child.

“Ho ho ho!” boomed the jolly fat man. “Congratulations!”

He rummaged in his sack and brought forth a lovingly wrapped gift box. “Looks like you have a bun in the oven my dear! Good job I’ve always got a spare present for those surprise moments!”

She took the gift from him in mute shock and he patted her hand with paternal care. Then with great gusto and laughter he swirled into a red vapour which disappeared into the fireplace. As he went up the chimney he gave a final, merry, “Ho ho ho!”

Sarah stood stunned. She had eaten….. a platter of meat. She recalled it’s taste, it’s succulence! Her memories were bubbling up into clarity. She had danced and feasted, and she could recall the sharpness of teeth…….

The words of the song sprang into her mind:

Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Tonight for the Midnight Sun!

Here are the earthly sisters, oh! Come to us for some fun!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Solstice night for a little girl!

Here she is a sweet sister, oh! On the spit and all a-twirl!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

Here she comes our sister oh! Pieces on a plate for you and me!

Here she is our earthly sister, oh! Wrapped around our tree!

Da-la-la – dilly-dee!

The meat…..

It hadn’t been a suckling pig, had it?

“Mary?”

“Well, it appears that Santa forgot his pies,” Crow said, picking up the plate. “Waste not want not, eh?”

“Mary…..?” Sarah’s lips quivered. The meat, the ribbon on the meat, the decorating of the tree. Her head turned to the family tree. The tinsel looked like it was…. glistening. Sarah sank to her knees, eyes wide, mouth slack with shock but no matter the revulsion and nausea she could not vomit.

Crow swept the crumbs into his hand and threw them into the dark maw of his beak, then came to Sarah. He pulled a small bell from his pocket, then patted her belly and gave a cackle.

“Blessings of the Solstice to one and all!” he cried with hearty cheer, and gave his bell a little ring. He vanished, leaving Sarah amid the soft glow of red and green and gold light as festive tunes played softly in the background.

On and on, in an infinite loop……

THE END

© David J Cambridge 2018

Happy Solstice!

DJC


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The Wonderful Mr. Valentine

If I may, I’d like to take a break from the usual today, and instead ask for a moment of your time to tell you about my dear friend Paul Valentine who recently passed away.

In the tapestry of one’s life, there are many threads, and some are dull and some are necessary, but there are also those that shine all the brighter for the mundanity of the rest. Paul was one of those bright threads in my life, and although his parting might leave a hole, his influence will always be intertwined with my past.

I first met Paul as a lecturer of anthropology at the University of East London, and if memory serves me correctly he started us on the introduction to theory. Little did I know what I was in for back then. I’d set out on a quest to understand humanity and just what the hell was wrong with us. To that end Paul would come to surpass dry academic theory, but it would take a little time before we became friends, and at first there were times that he totally bamboozled me with his attitude. I’d never met anyone quite like him.

I once turned up at his office to ask him a question, and he totally ignored what I was saying and proceeded to make a great show of exchanging a proper greeting. It was awkward, but as I thought about I realised that he was right. There was always a reason and a meaning behind his actions, and I think that he was at his most pointed with you when he felt you weren’t living up to your potential. This started out academically, and as one of my fellow anthropologists pointed out, “I could handle him being angry at me, but just not his disappointment.”

He could be a hard task master, but he was a great lecturer and although theory can be dry and boring, Paul had a way of bringing it to life by launching into explanations of “now you’re his brother, and imagine that she’s his sister and you want a wife.” Then there were the stories he would impart to us. One day we were sitting in class, going through a reading, when Paul puts the book down and says, “Listen, this is really important…..”

And he launched into a story of when he was doing field work in South America, amongst the Kuri Paca (sorry, that’s probably totally wrong but I can’t find the correct spelling anywhere), armed with a Samsonite briefcase to keep everything dry, clad only in a pair of speedos due to the humidity. He lived in one of the catholicised villages which carried on more traditional lives compared to the protestant villages.

So, every now and then, a priest would come down the river in a little boat and visit the village, and on this one occasion he was accompanied by two nuns.

According to Paul the Kuri Paca women walked like men, from the shoulders rather than the hips, but in observing the gait of the nuns soon caught onto the more alluring style of locomotion. The men of the village all approved.

Then the priest would launch into a lecture, telling the village that he came from this big world “out there” and that they should stop smoking (as it was bad for their health) and they should build more fish traps (so they had a surplus). Then he and the nuns got back in the boat and went back up the river.

As the priest sailed away the shaman of the village got up and said, “Everyone knows the world is small.” Heads were nodded and everyone went back to doing what they had been up to before the priest arrived. Paul explained: no one was going to quit smoking because the native tobacco they used was thought of as sacred medicine, and they wouldn’t build any more fish traps because they had no way to store excess produce, and with the rains on the way the fish traps usually got washed away, so it woud all be a waste of effort.

So they tolerated the priest, thinking him quaint. Sadly the FARQ guerillas didn’t like westerners and the priest was one day found floating in the river. A sad end for a man who had been regarded as mostly harmless. So Paul was forced to leave his fieldwork and his field work and the people he had befriended.

Such were the stories he had to tell, a treasure trove of life experiences. I never got tired of hearing about his adventures as over the course of two years Paul became more than just our lecturer, he became our friend when the core of the class organised an after-term holiday. We booked a Cornish B&B in the summer of the second year and invited our lecturers to join us.

Paul accepted and came along. Of that time I remember so clearly walking along the Lizard with him, an ice cream in his hand and a huge smile of total satisfaction on his face at just being out in the sun, strolling along. He looked like a school boy, but sometimes it was that love of life that could make him turn suddenly and stop you cold, and he’d tell you directly that you mustn’t waste your life being unhappy. He wanted you to strive to make the most of it, and he’d tell you straight to the face even if it hurt your feelings.

Over the years that followed I learned many things about life in general, and Paul taught me about humility and intellect and direction. He always had a deep fascination for  people, about what was going on and had a keen mind for probing them. When he met a contortionist the first thing he asked her was “what’s the smallest thing you’ve ever got inside?” Turns out it was a washing machine.

I recall at the same solstice camp he asked me for pen and paper, then drew out an economic diagram highlighting the fallacies of austerity all the way back to when it first started. He would smile and say, does that make sense? I nodded. Totally. “Pity,” he said, “because  the Chancellor doesn’t seem to understand it.”

Then one year at the solstice he was attacked by a Druid. A Druid! We were at Avebury and they were having some sort of internal political conflict about leadership, and one of them wanted to bust into the performance circle. Paul, dressed in a tiger suit/onesie, told him he couldn’t let him pass, and so the druid bonked him on the back of the head with his staff. Assaulted no less!

Camp was a focal point for my time with Paul, and I find it hard to believe that so much time has passed since Paul gave a talk there about cannibal practices because some of it found it’s way into the series I’m still writing now. Well, it was a topic Paul had been reluctant to discuss because of the stigma that went with it, but he was preparing for a presentation and so wanted to do a run through of it. We were a willing audience who came down to the fireplace to sit and listen to him. It was fascinating. The tribe would make whistles out of finger bones of their victims and play them, a proclamation that they were in possession of the deceased’s “rotten soul”. They believed that people have multiple souls, and the rotten soul was responsible for seeking revenge. Essentially it was a way of saying “you’ll never get me back.”

Yet, for all that he could be a serious and consummate scholar, Paul had this mischievous side to him, and a devilish way of saying the most outlandish things. It was almost as if he were conducting an experiment to see how someone would react, like telling the waitress at the cafe we were at about his startling encounter with the hand dryer which had been inconveniently triggered in the confines of the lavatory, his tone totally earnest and innocent. He was so cheeky and impish that there was no way to take offense. Somewhat taken aback, she apologised for the inconvenience, then started laughing along with us.

At other times he would catch you by popping out a question that had come to him, probing you with an existentialist question like “there’s got to be something more beyond the end of life, don’t you think?” and you would be in the middle of some mundane thought, suddenly caught totally off kilter as you tried to catch up. 

As to the answer to that question, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that it’s just a change of state, a change in being, and that part of us goes ever onwards, exploring.

And so where ever Paul is now, I can see him journeying through the stars, a huge smile of boyish delight on his face, rejoicing at the wonder of it all…..

Until we meet again, farewell. None of us will forget you.

Peace.