The Wall

The Wall

by James L. Secor & Minna vander Pfaltz

Buck limped across the street, calling out, “Hellecchino! Hellecchino!”

It was a bright sunny day, as per usual in Chokepointe Piste, or anywhere in the Brazos River Basin, where the rain rarely came tumbling down to cleanse the air and the land. Acid rain here was disallowed. It had been comfortably moved northward to Dallas and Houston and southward to San Antonio and Mexico. This very point allowed the PR firm of Yabu & Son–there was no son but it sounded good and made for an increase in business, for it dripped respectability–to sell tourists on the “sun all year round”-ness of the country and the temperate climate conducive to tan and wind and open range freedom. The pitch hadn’t caught on yet but what’s time when profits are involved?

So. . .Buck was perspiring by the time he reached the boardwalk on the other side of the street from The Lone Star Inn & Bordello and began stumping–rump-TUMP, rump-TUMP–along the loose boards until he turned into The Hotel, where he raised his breathless voice again, “Hellecchino! Hellecchino!”

The desk clerk dumbly watched him. Anything was a welcome break from routine. Buck peeked into the lounge. No Hellecchino. Buck peeked into the restaurant. No Hellecchino. Buck peeked into the bar-salon. No Hellecchino. Each time, he called out, “Hellecchino! Hellecchino!”

Buck ran–ker-PLUNK, ker-PLUNK–up the stairs and knocked injudiciously on the door to Hellecchino’s room. No answer.

Buck descended the stairs and stood before the front desk catching his breath. Finally, he said, “Where’s Hellecchino?”

And the desk clerk answered, in all truthfulness, “He ain’t here.”

Buck nodded and stumped out of the hotel. He looked both ways before he stepped out onto the boardwalk. It was difficult to decide which way to go, right or left. So, he turned right and continued plunking down the boardwalk toward Fancy Dan’s where he knew Hellecchino liked to indulge in lip-smackin’, finger-lickin’, chin-dribblin’ bovine costae with generous dabs of Arthur Bryant’s Masterpiece Barbeque sauce shipped direct from wild and wooly Kansas City via Yabu Transport and thus an extravagant item. Import duties made sure that any competition to the famous Yabu Cactus Barbeque Sauce remained beyond the capabilities of the common man while the ribs themselves were cheap at half the price.

And sure enough, that’s where Buck found Hellecchino, face covered in a clown-like smile of reddish-brown sauce dripping from his chinny-chin-chin down onto a checkered bib, supplied by Fancy Dan’s as part of the dinner packet. After all, rib juice and barbeque sauce stained, and stains would limit Fancy Dan’s business drastically. But, he covered his ass, Daniel Bunesci did, by also owning and operating the Italian Ristorante a la Mexicali and the Chinese laundry that conveniently did a big business removing spaghetti sauce evidence. Wives and mothers were eternally grateful. So was Daniel Bunesci.

“Hellecchino! Hellecchino!” yelled Buck, clunking up to Hellecchino’s table and plopping himself down in the chair opposite his mentor and hero.

“What’s up, Bucko?” inquired Hellecchino, smacking his lips and showering Buck with little pinpoint splatters of sauce. “Better get a napkin,” suggested Hellecchino. “Oh, boy! Another napkin, please.” He snapped his fingers, sending a shower of sauce and juice into the air.

The napkin was brought. Buck wiped his face.

“So. What’s up, Buck?”

Buck wiped his face again. “Yabu’s back in town.”

“His town. No news there.”

“No. We got trouble.”

“We’s alahs gots trouble, Bucko. It’s de name o’ de game. It’s what brings me to dis part of the world.”

Buck wiped his face. “But he’s just back from seeing his guru.”

“You mean Master Hiram Evananda?”

“You know about him?”

“Shore do, Bucko. Ain’t nothin’ I don’t know ’bout. I’m a hero, y’know.”

“An’ yore magic,” chortled Buck, wiping his face yet again.

“Oh, boy!” and Hellecchino snapped his thickly wet fingers again, again spraying reddish sauce hither and yon. “I’m finished. Bring me the handiwipes and take this stuff away.” When the boy had done his bidding, Hellecchino said, “Put it on my bill. Now. . . what is it that couldn’t wait until I finished my noonday repast?”

“Well, Yabu’s returned from Big Chief Buttons Compound out on Merengue Montaña. An’ he’s shoutin’ and carryin’ on about bein’ enlightened.”

“What so new about that? So damned many people return from Peyote Pete’s Big Rock Candy Mountain claiming the same thing.”

“Ain’t none o’ them Gyorgy Yabu.”

“Well, now. There you have a point. What’s he on about this time?”

“It’s reported–”

“Who’s reporting this?”

“McTortle. He keeps a keen eye on these kinds of things.”

“Hmm. . .always some kind of shell game, eh?”

“That’s exactly right. How’dja know?”

“I’m a hero. I keep tellin’ ya, Buck. Don’tcha ever listen?”

“Huh?”

“What did McTortle have to say?”

“Yabu’s enlightenment is about separatin’ good from bad.”

“Wowzer! He’s got a way to tell the difference?”

“Seems so. He’s gonna build a wall to keep the bad out.”

“Oh, my. . .that’ll cost a bit.”

“Not so, Hellecchino. Master Hiram Evananda has ties to the asphalt and concrete business down the road at Ocee and he owns the grease and oil business out on Country Road 317 on the way to Old McGregor’s Farm.”

“I see. . .”

“So, we got a problem, Hellecchino. Let’s get to work and save mankind.”

“I think you’re being a bit hasty, Buck. What if mankind don’t wanna be saved?”

“Yore shittin’ me!”

“No. I’m not. We gotta wait til people start complainin’ and seein’ the error of Yabu’s ways. Y’know, if’n it ain’t in yore backyard, it ain’t worth doin’ nothin’ about. It’s the rules o’ the game.”

“Ain’t Chokepointe Piste yore backyard?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. But people tend to shrink the term ‘backyard’ to personal, private dimensions. Let me tell you a little story–”

“We got time for stories?”

“There’s always time for a story, Buck. It’s in stories that knowledge is passed along, as Wredgranny says.”

“Who’s Wredgranny?”

“An old Indian woman. An elder. A storyteller.”

“She fat?”

“Buck, I’m surprised at you!”

“Why? Ain’t all Indian old women fat?”

“You ever seen an old Indian woman?”

“Hell no. They ain’t allowed in Chokepointe Piste.”

“So, what do you base your opinion on?”

“The pitchers in hist’ry books.”

“Well. . .let me tell you, Buck. Those books are written by white men who don’t like Indians and so the pictures are what they want you to believe is the truth.”

“Go-awlly!”

“Right down the road there is the Educational Research Analysts, led by Mel Gabler, Hedda’s distant relative. Deborah L. Brezina rents the building out of which Gabler and the Educational Analysts regurgitate history. Y’see, Buck. All you know of fat old Indian women is what this organization tells you. They stereotype the Indians. Fat old women are not welcome in this part of the country, no?”

“Well, I’ll be hornswaggled!”

“That’s right, Buck. You’re the victim of political propaganda.”

“Old Indian women aren’t fat?’

“No. Not necessarily. The only thing that all old Indian women are is wrinkled.”

“Well, hell! That comes with age.”

“Indians are people.”

“Well, sure. But. . .ain’t they all got big noses?”

“You mean like Italians and Polish?”

“Sure. Like that.”

“Stereotype.”

“Ain’t stereotype something that comes outa two sides?”

“Buck. . .let me tell you a story.” Hellecchino pushed his chair back and crossed his hands over his flat belly. “To stereotype is to fix in lasting form.”

“Kinda like sculpture?”

“In a manner of speaking, stereotypes are writ in stone. Howsomever. . .a stereotype is also something constantly repeated without change–”

“Like a prayer!”

“Will you just let me get to the bottom of this?” Buck subsided, hung his head. “Alright. As I was saying. . .stereotypes come in phrases and X and factoids. . .”

“Factoid?”

“A factoid, etymologically, is ‘something like a fact.’ ”

“So a stereotype is something like a fact but it ain’t.”

“Exactly.” Hellecchino leaned back, looked up at the ceiling and began his story. “The blowback on stereotypes is that some people begin to believe ’em. That is, if you’re told something enough times, you begin to believe it. Like a fox. Foxes been told they’re cunning tricksters for centuries and they believe it now. But the trap is. . .it ain’t necessarily true. Now, somehow or other, Fox got his fellow woodsy denizens to work for him harvesting his fields. Fox, of course, was wily enough to get out of most of the hard work. But, along about mid-morning, Rabbit got a thistle stuck in his paw. He started hoppin’ and jumpin’ around and shoutin’ enough to wake the dead. You know how over-excited rabbits get. Anyway. . .Fox came trottin’ down the row Rabbit was workin’ and saw the thistle. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘go on over t’ the well and put some cool, clear water on it. But don’t be gone too long, y’hear?’ Rabbit didn’t say nothin’, just hip-hopped outa the patch and through the woods to the well. Well, when he got there, he found that the water was way down in there. He dropped a pebble into the well an’ it took some time to find bottom, as it were. There were a couple buckets sittin’ on the edge o’ the well, so Rabbit figured he’d just ride one down to the water, dip his paw in the water, take a little drink, it bein’ a hot day an’ all, and then ride right back up. So, he jumped in a bucket and fell downward, landin’ kerplop in the water. It was pretty cool down there but Rabbit knew he’d better get back to the vegetable patch before Fox came a-lookin’ for him. But when we pulled on the rope, the bucket up top lodged against the pulley and. . .Rabbit was stuck down the well. ‘Holy cow paddies,’ he said to himself. ‘I’m in for it now.’ There wasn’t anything he could do but wait for Fox to come stormin’ after him. An’, sure enough, Fox appeared at the top of the well. He knew all along that Rabbit was jus’ tryin’ to git outa work. ‘Hey! What you doin’ down there?” Fox shouted. ‘I’m fishin’,’ answered Rabbit. ‘Some fine fishin’ down here.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Really. Come on down ‘fore they’s all gone. Easy pickin’s,’ Rabbit encouraged Fox. How stupid of Rabbit, thought Fox, ‘to let me go down there an’ git all the fish while he’s up here starvin’. Okay,’ he said. ‘Just jump in that there bucket,’ suggested Rabbit. Fox did and he flew to the bottom, passin’ Rabbit on the way up. Rabbit waved at Fox, smilin’ kinda big, like a Cheshire cat. ‘I’ll come back later, when the farmin’s done,’ shouted Rabbit and hopped merrily along. Well, o’ course Rabbit didn’t come back an’ there was wily ol’ Fox stuck in the bottom of the well. Didn’t take him long to figure out who outfoxed who, let me tell you.”

Hellecchino paused.

“That all?” asked Buck, sitting up in his chair.

“Yep. Old wily Fox got himself stuck thinking he was outfoxing Rabbit.”

“Did he ever git outa that well?”

“Sure did. A thirsty hunter came by and hauled up a bucket full of water–only he got a bucket full of Fox. Well, Fox lit on outa there before he got a behind fulla buckshot.”

“Didn’t git no fish neither.”

“You ever heard of fish in a well?”

“No.”

“Pretty dumb Fox, eh?”

“An’ foxes are s’posed t’be so cunnin’.”

“Yep. Fox believed all that hype about foxes being cunning and got himself trapped.”

“So that’s how a stereotype works! An’ I was right to begin with–a stereotype is somethin’ that’s got two sides. There was two buckets there at that well. Boy! Yore ingenious, Hellecchino!”

They sat quietly at the table for some time, each thinking his own thoughts. Finally, Hellecchino got up.

“Okay. I’m digested. Let’s go out into the sunshine and see what Yabu’s up to.”

“There you are!” shouted McTortle from down the street. “I been looking for you.”

Along with McTortle was a young woman, tall and willowy with long, flowing black hair, black eyes and thin but ruddy lips. She was dressed in calico. Her hips jerked right and left as she hurried after McTortle.

“Lookie there! There’s my sister.”

“You got a sister?”

“Shore. Ain’t only Mexicans got sisters, y’know.”

“She always chase after McTortle like that?”

“Nah. McTortle’s married. Harriet’s her name.”

“Might pretty lady, your sister.”

“Yep. I s’pose so. Y’want I should interduce ya?”

“Don’t think you’ll have much choice.”

The sprinting couple came to a panting halt but a few inches from Hellecchino and Buck. They leaned over, hands on knees, trying to catch their breaths. Both spit into the dry, dry road dust. Both held up their hands, as if to speak. . .and then subsided into heavy breathing once more. Finally, McTortle straightened up. “Yabu’s done done it this time,” he said. “Don’t know how much longer I can put up with this.”

“How much longer have you put up with it so far?” asked Hellecchino.

“Oh, hell. I don’t know. Perhaps 10-12 years.”

“Where would you go if you actually ever decided to got?” Hellecchino seemed genuinely interested in McTortle’s dilemma, leaning in and peering at McTortle’s reddened face.

“Don’t rightly know. Haven’t given it much thought. My home is here. I’m kinda settled in. . .if y’know what I mean.”

“How are you, Miss Harriet? I’m Hellecchino, local hero,” smiled Hellecchino as he smiled down on the diminutive lady and held out his hand.

Harriet gripped his hand rather more forcefully than he expected and said, “You don’t look much like a hero.”

“Appearances are deceiving.”

“I’ll say.”

“Harriet!”

“Buck. . .what the hell you know? You’re drunk half the time.”

“No, I ain’t. More like two thirds’ the time.”

“And you’re braggin’?”

“Cain’t brag ’bout my leg, yknow.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t wanna talk bout it, alright? How many times I gotta tell ya, huh?”

“How come you chose Buck to be your sidekick, Mr. Hellecchino?” Harriet asked sardonically.

“He asked.” A bald-faced truth.

“Well. . .I guess that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Huh?”

“Have I got a piece of land for you!”

“I thought you was a hero.”

“I am.”

“So, what you goin’ about sellin’ land for?”

“Seemed like a good thing to do with Yabu’s wall going up.”

“You know about that?” startled McTortle chortled.

“Yep.”

“How could you? We haven’t told you yet.” Harriet creased her brow, one line between her eyebrows, and tilted her head off to the right.

“Harriet. . .I’m a hero.”

“I’ll be damned!”

“I doubt it. You’re too pretty. Care to take a walk?”

“Where to?”

“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not, all things considering. . .”

“You’ll take care of McTortle, right Buck?”

“Shore thang.”

“What about Yabu’s wall?!”

“What about it?”

“He’s gonna build it through town keepin’ out all the bad tings. The things he don’t like.”

“Just things?”

“No. People too, more’n likely.”

“I ‘spect so. But, tell me. . .is it built yet?”

“No.”

“Well, then. No worries.”

“But we gotta keep it from bein’ built, damn it! It ain’t right.”

“Why ain’t it right, McTortle? He was given the task by his guru, Dr. Hiram Evananda, Master of the race. Surely, Yabu believes in whatever he’s told.”

“But it ain’t right, shuttin’ good people out.”

“No, I s’pose you’re right. But Yabu doesn’t consider them good people and that’s what’s important.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, people don’t have to buy into it. If he thinks it’s important, let him build it. He’ll stop sure enough if nobody else thinks it’s important. I think what y’all oughta do it take up a collection to help him finance the building of his wall. He’s precious protective of his own money, y’know. Getting someone else’s to do the job would be mighty pleasing, don’t you think?”

“Ain’t that self-defeatin’?”

“Nope. If you donate to the building of the wall, you get to know where the wall’s going before it’s gone there and so you can organize yourselves. After all, sooner or later he’s going to need supplies, right?”

“Yeah. I ‘spec’ so.”

“Well. . .here’s a stack of money,” and Hellecchino dipped into his back pocket. “I want you to go on over to the real estate office and buy up a strip of land just outside of town. . .like right where the Chisholm Trail bends round to come into town. You buy up the land so it crosses that road. A half mile on either side and 100 yards wide. When you got title, come and find me.”

“Whatcha gonna do with a piddlin’ piece o’ land like that? Can’t hardly build a house on it.”

“Why you gotta keep throwin’ up blockades to success, Buck? We don’t have no need of a devil’s advocate here,” scolded Harriet, putting her hands on her shapely hips.

“I’m only tryin’–”

“You stop tryin’. You’re tryin’ to second guess a hero here. You can’t know what he’s thinkin’.”

“Yeah, but I wanna. Any harm in that?”

“I’ll tell, ya, Buck,” said Hellecchino, putting his hand on Harriet’s left hip hand, “if I tell ya what it is I’m up to, you’ll know too much. If you don’t know why I want a stupid strip of land for, so much the better. But it’s your land, Buck. And you’re already known for being kinda mindless, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, the agent will just put it down to another stupid Buck move and think nothin’ of selling you a useless bit o’ land ’cause his goal is to make money.”

“Y’mean. . .what I don’t know won’t hurt me?”

“In this case, yes. Though it might be more to the point to say what you don’t know won’t hurt me and alot of other folk.”

“Damn! I never knew ignorance could be so useful!”

“Y’don’t know everything, Buck.”

“Goddamn it, Harriet! Why th’ hell you always comin’ down on me?!”

“Come on, Miss Harriet, let’s go for our walk. I’d like to see the cemetery.”

“Which one?”

“There’s more than one?”

“Sure. One for us and one for Yabu’s men and one for the Yabu family.”

“Whatchu wanna go to the cemetery for on yore first date, Hellecchino?”

“‘Cause it’s quiet.”

And with that, Hellecchino steered Harriet down the street and around the corner, despite her quiet insistence that they needed to go the other way. Hellecchino told her, soto voce too, that there was more than one road to take to get somewhere and there was no more arguing. Buck when on to the real estate office, another DIY operation, while McTortle was left in the middle of the street spluttering and turning in circles over nothing getting done to solve the problem of the wall. Finally, he scratched his head and went on home, thinking that some heroes are really weird. . . and perhaps not worth their weight in salt.

Hellecchino, meanwhile, was banking on history. And psychology. How many walls have been built down through history to keep certain kinds of people out? Hadrian’s Wall. Didn’t keep the Picts out. The Great Wall of China. Didn’t keep the Xiangnu and other northern barbarians out. Flodden Wall. Didn’t keep the Brits out. Jericho’s walls. They came tumbling down. The Berlin Wall. This one came tumbling down, too. The Israeli Roadmap to Peace Wall. It was difficult to tell whether this was keeping its own in or out. Prison Wall. Nope. No good. Prisoners still got in. The Southern Border Wall, really a huge electrified barbed wire concentration camp type affair keeping Texans in and Texans out. It weren’t no good neither. So, what was one more wall? Certainly couldn’t be no worse than Frost’s Fence!

Well, Hellecchino had a plan. As all heroes do. It had to do with logistics.

Here are some questions to consider:

1) How’s Yabu going to get his wall built?

2) What’s Hellecchino going to do with Buck’s piece of land?

3) What if Yabu makes a mistake?

4) Does it really matter?

Well. . .a few days later, Buck found Hellecchino and Harriet sitting under a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g. And he was waving a piece of paper.

“Hellecchino? Hellecchino?”

“What is it, Buck? Can’t you see I’m busy cementing social relationships?”

“But I got the land. Here’s the title.”

“Good boy. Now go build on it.”

“Build what?”

“A block house. Cinder blocks. A door and two windows.”

“One on either side of the door?”

“Yes. So it looks like a mouth and two eyes.”

“And then what?”

“Move in.”

“But I got a house.”

“This is more than a house, Buck. This is a business. When you’re done with the house, you build a little three foot high pedestal alongside of the road, one on either side of the road, and you get a pole made that’ll fit into the slots you made in the tops of the pedestals. But you don’t use it yet. You keep it behind your house, where the ladder to the top of the house is.”

“What I need a ladder to the top of my house for?”

“Because up there you’re going to build a little garden with a little table and a couple three chairs. Maybe even an umbrella or something.”

“You want me to do all this?”

“Yep. I ‘spect there’ll be lotsa people wanna help a crip do himself up good.”

“I guess so. But. . .I don’t like pretendin’ and whinin’ an’ such.”

“The hell you don’t! Just gowan out’n do what you’re told for once in your life!”

“Now, Harriet, don’t be so hard on the guy,” soothed Hellecchino. “Look,” he turned to Buck, “you want to build this yourself?”

“No.”

“Well, then. . .play on your disability to get all those people who don’t really care about you to help you.”

“You think they will?”

“Anything to get you outa their hair. Besides. They’ll consider it fulfilling a debt to society.”

“Right!”

Buck hobbled off into town.

“What have you got up your sleeve, Hellecchino?”

“Buck owns that strip of land and the road running through it. He’s going to have to control traffic if he’s going to live a quiet life. So. . .once Yabu starts building his wall, Buck sets up a traffic gate and charges toll to get past.”

“So not only does he create a problem for Yabu, he makes a livin’ on his own.” Harriet smiled broadly and then kissed her hero. “My! You’re amazing, Hellecchino. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you were looking at the wall as a problem for you when, in fact, it’s a problem for Yabu. When people are the centre of attraction, they tend not to be paying attention to the periphery of life.”

“So, what happens next?”

“I think we outa get outa this heat and into some place more private and. . . comfortable.”

Some days later, there was a town meeting held out in the worker’s part of town. To be exact, in the minority meeting hall. Buck and McTortle organized it. Hellecchino was the featured speaker. It was all kind of hush-hush but that really didn’t matter as Yabu and his men stayed out of this section of town. It was considered not a good section of town. Especially not one to get into at night. Even the law stayed out. Although most people saw this as a slap in the face by a big three-fingered prejudiced hand, it was actually a very empowering situation. Hellecchino had a plan.

“Because certain people don’t like you and look down on you and could care less about you, you have power,” Hellecchino began. He was shouted and hooted but he held his place, held up his hand in time and continued on. “Y’all can organize. Y’see. . .these certain kinds of people don’t do the work themselves.” Murmurings of agreement on that, for sure. And then Hellecchino laid out the plan. It was very simple.

First, they hired themselves out, the unemployed or under-employed, which was close to 25% of these kinds of people, to build the wall. Being as there were always rabble rousers and unruly teenagers who liked to destroy things, they were to be enlisted in dismantling part of the wall every night, carefully restacking the blocks and whatnot alongside the wall. This way, it would take literally forever to finish the job. Yabu’d be terribly frustrated and would turn his energies to stopping the delinquency while the workers would be employed and making some kind of living, albeit, if everything when as per usual, not much of a one. But, then, something is better than nothing. . .and there was more to come. When the heat got up, the devilish social reprobate teenagers would cool it down and leave the wall building alone until vigilance became relaxed in the face of no threat and calm–and then they’d strike again. Only this time, they’d dismantle the beginning of the wall. There’d be enough work for everybody.

The next move was to move the shopkeepers’ families up to of their shops if their shops were going to be on the good side of the fence. This would force Yabu into rerouting his wall to exclude those particular shops–or buy them. In this latter instance, the shopkeepers were to bargain for the best price possible and then take the money and run, never to work in that shop again.

A few of the old boys began chuckling over this.

“Soon,” one of them said, “he gonna be needin’ what we got.”

“Exactly,” said Hellecchino. “If you’re on the wrong side of the wall, he isn’t going to get what he wants–”

“Or he gonna hafta rebuild his wall,” said another worker.

“An’ we ain’t gotta work if’n we been bought out,” said another faceless worker.

“An’ he ain’t got no bizniss sense,” shouted out a worker woman in the back of the hall.

“Shit! He kin jest import it,” countered another.

“Buck’s got a tollgate out on the Chisholm Trail. He owns a great stretch of land that the road runs through,” offered Hellecchino.

“Damn man! We set.”

There was a chorus of approval at this point and the evening was brought to an end.

Sometimes, all a hero’s got to do is kind of look at things a little askew.

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Social Studies 3

 

Social Studies 3

“Good morning, class.”

“Good morning, teacher,” appropriately answered the class in unison.

“My name is Mr. Kruztashun.” He fiddled with some papers on the little lectern on the table. He did not sit. “Mr. Drumpfelstilzchin is away on business.”

A hand went up in the back. Mr. Kruztashun nodded in its direction and pointed.

“Where’s our usual substitute teacher?”

“Mr. Braunesel has better things to do.” Mr. Kruztashun set his hands firmly on the papers on the lectern. “Today we are–”

“We hate this class,” said a little boy in the far corner. The rest of the class snickered.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to talk about! Hate.” Suddenly the class was quiet, so quiet the windows rattled with the breathing of the students. “This is Social Studies 3, is it not?”

“Yes!” answered the class in unison.

“Well, then! There’s nothing better to talk about in relation to social studies than hate.” Mr. Kruztashun put a hand on his left hip, bent forward from the waist and pointed out over the heads of the students, a good teacherly thing to do, for it kind of included everyone. “What do you hate?”

A great intake of breath in the classroom. They’d never been asked about this before. They’d been told that hate was bad and not to be disseminated out in public–and surely not toward parents, the greatest thing in the world to hate.

“I hate niggers.”

“I hate spicks.”

“I hate camel jockeys.”

“I hate girls.”

“I hate rich people.”

“I hate poor people.”

“I hate smarty pants.”

“I hate chinks.”

“And gooks.”

“And nips.”

“Injuns!”

“I. . .hate. . .parents!”

The class erupted into tremors of chaos. Girls and boys were shouting and laughing and generally whooping it up. Mr. Kruztashun did nothing to quell the uprising. After all, getting people, even little people, enthusiastic and involved was part of teaching. Only when you’ve got them on your side, as it were, interested in what you were teaching, could you succeed in teaching them the right stuff.

When the class settled down somewhat, Mr. Kruztashun put up his hand. “Wow! We’re doing so good! You hate a lot.”

The same hand that shot up at the beginning of class shot up again. Mr. Kruztashun nodded in its direction again.

“Hate is good?”

“You betcha. Before you can do anything about it, you have to get it out in the open. Then you can do something with it.”

“Like what?” asked a tow-headed little girl in the front row.

“Well. . .what happens when you hate?”

“You get left alone?”

“Right. And what’s the big word for being left alone?”

“We don’t know any big words, Mr. Kruztashun.”

“Well! Would you like to learn one?”

“Yes!” from the now enthusiastic class.

“Okay. Here it is. . .isolation.”

“Isolation,” the good students parroted.

“Right. Isolation. You hate it when people don’t leave you alone, don’t you?”

“Yes!”

These kids were good, Mr. Kruztashun thought. “So, that hate makes them leave you alone, right?”

“Yeah. We get sent to our rooms.” Lots of murmuring agreement.

“And you hate that, right?”

“But,” Mr. Kruztashun held up a knotty knuckled index finger, “when that happens and you are isolated, there are no more hateful people with you. They are all outside. Right?”

“Yes!”

“You are isolated.” Mr. Kruztashun leaned over the lectern. “And inside.”

“Yes!”

“What do you do when you’re left alone?”

“Masturbate,” said a little boy at the far end of the front row.

Everyone else snickered and giggled and held their breaths. To say such a thing in public! To say it in the classroom! What was Johnny thinking?

“Exactly!’ Shouted Mr. Kruztashun. “You win the prize.”

“What prize is that?” A smiley face? A star? A gold sunburst?

“You get to feel good!” Quiet reigned. “You do feel good when you masturbate, don’t you?”

Half-hearted assent.

“Sir?” a little blonde girl put her hand up. “You mean it’s okay to feel good when you. . .masturbate?”

“Of course it’s okay.” Mr. Kruztashun leaned over the lectern. “You do feel good when you masturbate, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then. How can that be bad?”

Lots of mumbling and rumbling and giggling.

“So!” Mr. Kruztashun brought the class round to him. “When you hate, you are isolated, right?”

“Yes.”

“And that’s a good thing, right?”

“Yes!”

“And it makes you feel good that all that you hate is outside, right?”

“Yes!”

“So, now you can hate all you want in your isolation, right?”

“Yes!”

“What better kind of place could you live in?”

“None!”

Yes!” Mr. Kruztashun wiped the wetness from his lips. “Now. You’re left alone.”

“Yes.”

“And you can hate to your heart’s content.”

“Yes.”

“That’s like masturbating til your hand hurts.”

“And you’re all sticky!”

“Ee-yew, Johnny! You’re dizgusting.” shouted a group of girls in the middle of things.

“What do you care?”

“Yeah!” shouted another antagonistic boy. “What happens when you tickle your moose?”

The class erupted in joyous laughter and taunting.

“I bet you wet your pants,” said a shy little boy.

“I want to watch.”

“Well!” said Mr. Kruztashun, clearing his throat. “When you’re isolated, you can watch because everyone’s masturbating.”

“Cool beans, Mr. Kruztashun,” said Johnny. “You’re the best teacher ever.”

“Oh, thank you, Johnny!” Mr. Kruztashun tried hard to blush but only got his eye lashes to flash up and down. He had short eye lashes, too. “Well! So. You’re isolated. What else can you say about it?”

“Nobody bothers you.”

“Right.”

“You don’t have to pay attention to what anybody else says.”

“Right. You don’t have to share.”

“Yeah. And you don’t have to do things like other people do.”

“Right.”

“You don’t have to share!”

“Exactly! You’re your own boss. You don’t have to trade with those others.”

“Trade?”

“Yup. Like, I’ll give you this and you give me that.”

“Does that mean, Mr. Kruztashun, that, like, I can, uhhm, wear things that are mine?”

“You mean, like things that are only made by you?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes. Only things made by you, for you.”

“Like. . .no Chinese stuff?”

“Right.”

“No Japanese stuff.”

“No German stuff.”

“No Mexican stuff.”

“And no African stuff.”

“That’s right. Only American stuff.”

“Then we’ll know it’s good, right?”

“Right.” Mr. Kruztashun rubbed his hands together. “Boy! You guys are great.”

“Yeah!” shouted one girl. “We can do what we want! We can do for ourselves. And we can keep it all for ourselves.”

“Masturba-aaation!” shouted little Johnny. “Uhn! Uhn! Uhn!”

“Yes. And. . .what happens when you’re isolated and everything is for you and by your and you don’t want or need anyone else and your masturbating to your heart’s content?”

The bell rang just as the kids raised their hands, clamoring to be the one with the answer.

“Oops! Looks like we’ll have to wait for next time to talk about stagnation.”

“What’s stagnation?”

“Time’s up. We’ll talk about that next time.” Mr. Kruztashun opened the door and held it for everyone. “See you next time, guys,” he said as all the students filed out. “You’re the greatest.”

“Hate!” said one boy, giving Mr. Kruztashun a high five.

“Isolation!” said another.

“Masturbation!”

“We’re the best!”

“It’s my land.”

“Right. Hey! See you next time.”

 

© James L. Secor, 2017

The Boy Who Would Be Hero

The Boy Who Would Be Hero

by James L. Secor

“Stevie-boy!” called Donald the Dragon Killer.

And like magic, as if he’d known beforehand, Stevie-boy was there, in the room, just inside the door. His hulking frame, his head cocked to one side, blocked much of the light. Donald had not yet opened or had opened for him his shuttered windows, whence the two streaks of light that tore across the floor and up the opposite walls.

“Saddle my horse. I’m going out and I’m going farther than before.”

“Whatever for, Sir Donald?”

“A hero’s job is never done, Stevie-boy.”

“Yes, sir. And what of breakfast?”

“I’m a hero, Stevie-boy.”

“As you say, sir. But even heroes must eat.”

“Oh, alright. Have me a tankard of ale and a loaf of black bread sent in. That’ll do me.”

“As you say, sir.” And Stevie-boy suddenly disappeared.

For the umpteenth time, Donald wondered how Stevie-boy did these appearing and disappearing things but it was no use trying to figure it out–the workings of these lower-downs was really quite beyond him.

Candy-girl brought Donald his breakfast and stood demurely against the wall til he had finished. Then, she took the plate and tankard away. Donald belched and rose from his table. His stomach rumbled a little and he was reminded of how long it had been since he’d had a decent meal. He liked black bread and ale but the sameness of the routine bothered him. It was, in truth, wearing on is nerves. As was the idleness–or, rather, the lack of encountering heroic situations. Surely it was not possible to have swept the world clean.

Sir Donald strode out into the bare courtyard, where even the grass refused to grow. He had his mighty bow and quiver full of arrows. Sean-boy stood by his horse’s head with his trusty golden lance, never broken during battle. But it did not gleam in the pale sunlight. Donald looked up into the washed out bluish sky with its straggly, used up clouds and wondered again at what had happened to the world.

Sean-boy watched from bland eyes as his master mounted his golden gelding. He handed Sir Donald his lance and stepped back. The horse groaned a bit under Donald’s weight but stood its ground. It took Donald several kicks in the animal’s side to get the beast moving. Off they went at a leisurely walk. Although Donald grimaced slightly, perhaps this pace was better until he’d passed through his demesne.

Once again, as he had for uncountable mornings, Sir Donald The Dragon Killer rode tall through fields of emptiness. Stubble there was and an occasional sorry stalk of some grain or other, but otherwise nothing. Not even vermin or insects roamed the dry earth. The trees scattered around, dotting the hazy horizon here and there, showed dull, dusted green leaves on branches that sagged earthward.

How long had the world around him been barren? Donald could not recall. A long time, that was for sure. Why it was this way was a conundrum the hero could not get his mind around. He consoled himself by telling himself that it was his job to do, not to think. That is what a hero did. A hero acted. He killed problems and since he had to eat, he killed his food as well. When there had been game, he’d been good at it. Unsurpassed. For his aim was unerring. After all, he was a hero. Sometimes he used his hunting as an excuse to keep his skills sharp. Sir Donald The Dragon Killer was proud of himself. His abilities never atrophied.

Yes. All in all, despite the lack of game, Donald had a good life, he thought.

It wasn’t til after passing through the once fecund now fallen fallow cropland that his horse began to canter. Donald felt better at this pace and so was not bothered so much by the lack of a view. But he did pull his steed up short upon spying a forest up ahead. This was a sure sign he’d gone farther than he’d ever gone before. It was a lush green forest with tall-standing trees and dancing foliage, for there was a breeze. That brought his head around: a breeze! He could feel the breeze. He could smell the air. He felt invigorated. Surely there was life here and he’d eat well tonight. Sir Donald’s mouth watered. He kicked his trusty charger into a gallop. Unlike earlier in the morning, this did not take much effort.

The forest was much farther away than it appeared and by the time they entered its cool shade, the horse was sweating and snorting and foaming at the mouth. Horse and rider slowed to a walk, savoring the smell and the feel. Donald’s exceptional hearing picked up the sounds of stirrings amongst the trees and in the underbrush. He knew, though, that it was small stuff so he didn’t bother to look. He was after bigger game.

It would be nice, too, if there were a stream or a well.

The time passed almost unnoticed and then Donald spotted a clearing ahead. And in that clearing, his keen eyesight espied a fowl. A partridge. A very fat partridge. He moved a little closer, steadied his mount and took aim. His arrow flew silently and swiftly through the fresh air and sank itself into its target. The bird keeled over without a sound. But as Donald was cantering in to gather up his kill, a keening cleft the air.

When Donald broke into the clearing, a skinny old lady dressed in rags stood over the fallen fowl howling her grief, hands raised in the air, a look of horror on her gnarled and crinkled face. The door to her lean-to stood open and her spinning wheel lay spilled on the ground, thread sprawled everywhere. She looked up at Donald’s approach.

“You bastard!” she cursed. “Look what you’ve done.”

Donald looked. “Yes! I’ve just shot my dinner. Excellent marksmanship, don’t you think?”

“It was my only laying hen you shot!”

Donald dismounted. He looked closely at the dead bird.

“Yes. You’re right. It is a hen,” he said.

“Damn right I’m right. What are you going to do about it?”

“Do? I’m going to take it home and eat it.” And Donald reached for the dead thing.

The old woman sprang between him and his goal. “Over my dead body!”

“Surely you jest. I’m a hero. I always get what I want.”

“Not this time, buster.”

“Who the hell are you to challenge me?”

“I’m the old lady of the woods and this is my bird.”

“Life’s tough, honey. Tell me about it.”

“You want to take my hen and leave me to starve to death. Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, that isn’t it. . .unless you pay me first.”

“Pay you? With what?”

“You haven’t got anything on you?”

“What good’s money when you’re out hunting?”

“You haven’t got anything on you?”

“What good’s money out here in the woods?”

“Well, then. You have to kill me to get the bird.” She pulled her scrawny self up to her full height, perhaps her head came up to Sir Donald’s nose, so she was not too terribly intimidating.

“Okay,” shrugged Donald The Dragon Killer and he drew his sword and cut off her head in one fell swoop. “Evil old lady,” he muttered as her head plopped onto the ground and rolled around, staining the spun thread red. “Dinner and one less witch in the world,” Sir Donald The Dragon Killer said to himself. He was quite satisfied. It had been a good day.

Sir Donald carried the arrowed trophy-hen proudly over his shoulder.

“Zippity-doo-dah, zippity-ay,” he sang.

He turned to look back at the forest before the long journey home. The color was not so green and the leaves did not rustle. Somehow, the woods had sunk in on itself, it wasn’t so big any more. Like all the life had been taken out of it.

Sir Donald the hero wondered why it is this happened wherever he went. He shook his head. And then he turned round and headed home.

“My, oh my, what a wonderful day,” he sang.

(c) James L. Secor, 2017

Old Country Baggage

Old Country Baggage, or The Making of America

by James L. Secor

We all know vampires suck the blood of the living to continue living, even though they are dead. The living dead. A curse.

We don’t know where vampires come from. They just suddenly appear in folklore. The most famous being European. Central Europe, to be exact. Though the Chinese had vampires, too, they did not travel to the West with their fabled RR builders and laundry entrepreneurs.

European vampires had not migrated to Britain before the 19th century, else they would surely have made their appearance at Salem, if not Jamestown or Roanoke Island, the Lost Colony. As it was, America had to wait for a later mass migration of Europeans.

George Calvin Brown and family and friends are prime examples of vampire baggage carriers. As always, the opening of the carpet bag was innocent, however traumatic. Very like Pandora’s box.

Ephemera Gladys Brown, George Calvin’s loving wife, died of tuberculosis one day. George and the children were crestfallen, as one would expect. Losing a caring, loving, thoughtful mother was not expected or wanted. While the family mausoleum was being built and readied, the family mourned. Mother Brown was en-coffined and discretely kept in a corner of the Ice House, which the Brown family owned and operated. With all but the carving of the alabaster monument completed, public mourning ensued with the requisite religious broodings and blessings.

And then life went on, albeit with Leonard Gardener Brown coughing a wee bit more than usual. The grocery store side of the business suffered as Leonard’s coughing increased in frequency and intensity. In fact, Leonard was excluded from both the grocery and the Ice House. Left alone, his coughing and whitish pallor led to a drinking habit that wormed its way into the family’s profits. Eventually, he, too, succumbed to the wasting away disease and was laid to rest alongside his mother. Another name was chiseled into the alabaster and life more or less went on.

Lena Mercy Brown was so distraught and beside herself and so very fearful of the future, specifically her future, that she became a frequent visitor to the grave site. Early in the morning just before dawn and late at night well past the waning moon, Lena Mercy could be found at the cemetery. So regular and spectral was she, she was spoken of as a ghost. Lena Mercy haunted the graveyard with an unhealthy obsession. So said the town doctor. But Lena Mercy would not desist, even as her pallor paled and her eyes reddened. And then she died. She told her father, one day, that she didn’t feel so good, coughed once into her white, white hands and died.

The doctor said that Lena Mercy Brown also died of tuberculosis, no history of coughing notwithstanding.

What kind of curse was this laid upon the Browns?

Surely, some townies said, this was the result of a prior life-sin. Others pooh-poohed such a superstition. Still others believed that the family was particularly susceptible to invasion by minute, even unseen animalcules. Animalcules being animalcules, this was difficult to deny. Invisible things forever manifest themselves into life. People breathe air, don’t they? And they dig in the dirt. And wash and bathe in the water. Everyone does. Some few were more susceptible than others to invasion by animalcules.

George sold the grocery business. People were wary of infection. As long as he ceased operating the Ice House, he was able to hold onto the business. The income was enough to keep him and his youngest, Edwin Prentiss. They could find no one to help around the house, though.

But tragedy again struck.

This new wrinkle to the family horror came via the cemetery grounds-keeper. This elderly gentleman began seeing the ghost of Lena Mercy wandering through the cemetery to end up hovering around the family vault, raising her hands and looking upward as if mourning her mother’s and her brother’s and her own demise or calling upon God. All in utter silence, of course, as ghosts make no noise, though their mouth holes be open. The old night watchman also reported the silence of the cemetery. That is, no scurryings of night denizens and no owl hootings. Not that owls tended to be very communicative to begin with or while hunting. The oldster’s repetitive sightings brought out the ghost hunters, ghost busters and ghost curious. The crowding of the cemetery brought about less Lena Mercy walking. This phenomenon led to a generalized exodus but for the curious, who tend to be quite persevering. Their nightly vigils paid off. Sightings were reported and substantiated. Though not by an outside, objective, uninterested individual.

Much to the discomfiture of the remainder of the Brown family, this ghostly appearance of Lena Mercy became a hot topic in the district. Curiosity seekers began visiting the Brown house. The worst of the lot were the various newspapermen. Rude and invasive, if they got no story they made one up.

Eventually, George and Edwin shut themselves up in their house. Groceries and sundries were delivered, ordered by messenger. Eventually, interest flagged somewhat. At which time the true tragedy struck.

It was here that the European old world baggage was opened and spilled out its contents all over the ground. The soil was fertile. The horror grew like kudzu, choking the hell out of reason.

How could this happen?

The mind’s job, as it were, is to make sense of things. Make sense of the world. Make sense of chaos. Make sense of the senseless. For this purpose, pre-laid pathways in the neural network of the brain are activated, for your brain forgets nothing. This is how we can remember how to walk without thinking about it. The baggage that sometimes ought not to be carried with us is opened like this; that is, habit of mind. We are creatures of habit. Habit helps us cope with the world. Habit helps us find meaning. Some of these habits are deep-seated and enduring, enduring like fairy tales, folktales, folklore.

How the mind does this is by putting various happenings together and coming up with an answer. It is this solution that is most often influenced by deep cultural memories. Memories of explication. Memories that are connected to an answer and a solution. Habits of mind. Short cuts for thinking.

First were the deaths of the Brown family. Three out of five.

Second was the ghostly sightings by all and sundry of Lena Mercy.

Third was the haunting of George by Lena Mercy. She became a nightly occurrence, dancing around George in bed, George at the kitchen table. Lena Mercy was insistent. According to George, she harassed him. Eventually night and day.

Fourth was Edwin Prentiss’s illness. The same as his mother’s and his brother’s and his sister’s, Lena Mercy not having suffered the coughing. Edwin began his coughing and increasingly wan coloring within two weeks of Lena Mercy’s haunting the house.

Surely there was a connection here.

Ghosts are not known to be benevolent.

George sought solace, sought answers with consultations of the town elders, the doctor, the various ministers and the travelling Chautauqua professors. Though not all were in agreement, those obsessed with their old baggage, those in the majority, convinced George that Lena Mercy’s hauntings and Edwin Prentiss’s advancing illness were connected. That is, Lena Mercy was responsible.

Something needed to be done. Proof was needed.

So it was that the Brown family tomb was opened. Of the three coffined bodies, only Lena Mercy’s was not decomposed.

A great cry rose up and it was decided Lena Mercy was a vampire.

What other reason could there be? Only vampires feed on the living. Edwin was declining while Lena Mercy was not. Not dying. So?

There could be but one conclusion.

The townies cut out Lena Mercy’s heart. They burned it, cringing somewhat as it sizzled. They made Edwin drink a concoction of ash of heart and red wine.

All was well. No more hauntings. No more coughing.

Edwin Prentiss died in silence two weeks later.

How could this be? Lena Mercy the vampire had been appropriately done in. Maybe Edwin Prentiss was too far gone by then. Maybe more needed to be done.

So, Edwin Prentiss’s heart had a Palo Santo wood stake hammered through it. Both the heart and the stake were burned. The remains were buried. Holy water was cast upon the ground.

Everyone waited, fretting. For lifetimes they fretted and worried.

Would it ever, really end?

Vigilance could not be relaxed.

And so it was.

(c) James L. Secor, 2016

 

Getting a Mouthful

Getting a Mouthful

by James L. Secor

People are isolated and isolated from themselves. They are alienated, from themselves and others. There is no knowing anything of anybody.

With this unbridgeable gap between me and you, commitment centres on me and what I want whenever. Life happens to me and I go with it. That’s all any of us have. So, what’s important is now because I only exist in the now. I don’t exist in the past tense. And, of course, I can’t exist in the future because it’s not here yet. I only exist here and now. I only feel things in the eternal now. One thing after another. Me and you. Separate but going along the road. On and on. Wherever it takes us. Just me bob-bob-bobbing along. Me. Because I have no idea about you and I have no idea where this  road of life is taking me.

Since I know nothing and am not an agent of anything in particular, I cannot be held responsible. Life affects me and I react: I have no choice. I can only go with what I’m given. Now. Events are not future. Events are now. We are all at the mercy of events. The nowness of life. Events happen to you and me but there is no connection between the events and no connection between us and we have no choice but to go along with it. Events are the stampede makers of life. Like grasshoppers or lemmings.

Take the case of Johan de Witt.

I, of course, did not know him. Personally. How could I, being of humble origin? But I knew of him. I had seen him in his numerous processions through town, through the province, though he progressed through more than just mine. The whole country, in fact. He was a handsome man with long dark locks, a thin moustache at his thin upper lip and no beard, though perhaps there was some peach fuzz right along the chin; heavy eyebrows and a long, thin nose. Aquiline? I don’t know. I don’t know what an aquiline nose is. Nor have I found it necessary to find out. What is important is that he smiled at us as he passed. He smiled and waved. Once, his eyes made contact with mine and I knew he was human. Acquired aristocracy be damned.

He was everybody’s hero.

But this was not to stand him in good stead. For who knows what will stand you in good stead since you don’t know where you’re going or what road you’re on.

Is there more than one road?

Isn’t it more like a delta where the river splits into myriad channels that inevitably lead to the ocean? And at the ocean what does it amount to?

Johan de Witt. A Republican, a man who believed in the people and the Republic of Holland and not a supporter of Holland as the aristocracy’s playground. The True Freedom.

Imagine that! A you-and-me type of person coming to rule the country. Stranger things do not happen.

Johan de Witt brought great prosperity to the land and, therefore, everyone loved him. He brought overseas trade–other than with Britain and the other European nations–though we knew these others were barbarians, barely human. But what does this matter when we should never have to meet them? Living off of their labor was no problem at all. We introduced them to civilization. We brought them need and the need for satisfaction. Which we held the key to. In the name of free trade. And the country became rich. And the people therein. More ours than theirs, as would be expected. Advanced countries need more, eh?

Could a born aristocrat have done as much? I dare say not, since an aristocrat would be interested solely in himself. That is, in fact, the definition of an aristocrat: self-interested. The rest of the world be damned. It’s the way of the world. And nobody likes it.

Johan de Witt was a breath of fresh air. New blood. And so his end is the more telling. Some would say, it says more about the people, the yous and mes, than it does about him. But he’s just like you and me. Just another human thrust along the event path. Just because he made something of himself doesn’t mean anything. Certainly not that he’s different than you and me. You and me aren’t what’s important. We are what makes the world go round. You and me. I. It takes a lot of I to keep the gears working. So many that we are faceless. All the more reason to celebrate Johan de Witt.

You might say, success went to our heads.

Johan de Witt cut quite a figure at the head of the armies. He wore the minimum of armor passing through town and countryside since the battle was down the road a piece. Thank goodness. I would not want to have it here. Me and you, we have lives to live. We are not soldiers. It is not our profession to fight. Though I think more come home than die. It doesn’t seem like it, all attention being lavished on the dead and wounded. But there it is.

In establishing the Republic, the Free Hollander Johan de Witt led us into wars to repel the greedy European powers that drooled over our riches. We would not be slaves to their appetite. A road we’d been on far too long. Mostly, we fought against the English and the French. The French had long belabored us and were petulant over losing their colony. The English were greedy barbarians who believed killing their rulers solved problems and proved their strength and worth. A land of slobs and rogues.

There were many wars against these English upstarts. Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelius were successful, though we lost New Holland during the second war. No great loss. Not much in the way of trade. Not really. We, in turn, sailed up the Thames River to London and demolished the English. No one had ever done this before. What a coup! In the end, we became richer and stronger until finally we Dutch could strut a bit.

Revenge. Justice. Judgment. It’s all the same. Control yourself? Where’s the rule of thumb? Where’s the standard? Where’s the proof that control orders anything? Things happen. First this, then that. Move on. Life’s like that. No telling what’s up next. So, what’s this control business? Controlling yourself does not control the world. And who are you to tell me, eh? You don’t know me. Can’t know me. I don’t know you. We are all separate individuals.

What happened to Johan de Witt was sad, though. I’d like to say no one deserves such an end, but who am I to make such a judgment? And what is it to say that it was due to the disaffected? We’re all disaffected. Isolated. Alone. Stumbling along as best we can. We are not responsible for what life hands us. If it says to go this way, we only go that way. Go with it.

One day Cornelius de Witt was arrested. No one knows why. Some malfeasance or other. Johan de Witt went to see his brother in prison. When he came out, standing a moment to suck in the fresh air, people attacked him, beating him with clubs and pipes and knotted rope. They kicked him. People flailed away, frenzied beasts. When Johan de Witt fell silent, his body was dragged to the square where hangings and other punishments were accomplished. Fires were built and set alight. We hacked Johan de Witt to pieces and roasted his parts. Several of the inns rolled kegs of beer before their doors so we could drink as we ate and carouse the night away. There was not enough of Johan de Witt to go around.

(c) James L. Secor, 2016

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship

by James L. Secor

David Longshanks was an entrepreneur, a self-made man. Not that he began poor or on the dole. He was the son of an undertaker, Dunns Longshanks. Dunns had made a single horse town concern into a thriving business, for people must die and they must be buried, appropriately or not. As civilization bloated the town into a city, there was little call for the inappropriate sort; however, there was the Green Pastures out on the far Northeastern edge of the city where the poor and penurious and unknown (usually street people) were buried with no to-do and little in the way of respect, respect being costly, even just moderately so. Dunns served anybody who had any money.

David, before taking over the business, expanded its purview to taxidermy, for he was a hunter who liked to display his trophies. As were his friends. People in the surrounding countryside heard of David Longshanks and his superior taxidermy skills and this end of the Dunns Family Mortuary grew in distinction as the hunting seasons became glutted with guns and displaced animals. Civilization with its unlimited development and expansion led to animals losing their habitat and food source and, thus, becoming easy targets for both the city slickers and the preying country folk.

Dunns Family Mortuary.

David’s Taxidermy.

David’s next entrepreneurial endeavor arose out of the immediate needs of the Mortuary business. The business had to expand, so more land had to be bought. Empty lots and old houses alongside the Mortuary were bought up. The lots were easy to acquire; the houses, more often than not, had to be condemned. The families were forced to relocate and David then waited to buy the property at auction. The houses came down. Some of the acquired land, what was not used for renovation and expansion of the undertaking business buildings, was turned into parking lot. As the winter wind could be icy and the summer sun blazing, David made sure the parking areas were dotted with trees. This also made the business more aesthetic and caring-appearing.

Which led to David’s landscaping business. There were no shade trees in any of the parking lots around the city and the city streets needed sprucing up. David made sure that both city and businesses saw the advantages of having trees, if for nothing else than the aesthetics of the place. From trees, general landscaping grew, as did a gardening and florist business in several locations around the city to forestall too much competition. Two of any kind of business in the same area was not good for either business, so David made sure he was on site first. On site and large.

Fortune Realty.

Longshanks Landscaping.

Emma’s Exquisite Floral Shop. Emma was Mrs. David Longshanks. Emma Sue Denniker Longshanks.

The Greenery.

Fortune Realty naturally grew into speculation which naturally led to the founding of a consortium focused on developing and building lucrative ventures. It did not matter if the venture was productive or not. The Ivy League Consortium owned the land and the buildings and managed to rent out the properties if, indeed, the original idea tanked. As happened with a couple shopping centres. They were interested in high end development. Of course, The Ivy League Consortium had nothing at all to do with the East Coast Ivy League colleges and universities. But it was suggestive.

Through it all, David Longshanks’ most engaging business was the Mortuary and the Taxidermy business. David loved embalming.

Despite his drive for neverending development and the furthering of civilization, David was also socially responsible. Socially active. Because of the fight to save his father’s life, David Longshanks became involved in organ donorship. His father had needed a liver. There were too few to go around or any liver available was too far away to make it a viable replacement. Thus, his father died a painful, wasting away death. David worked assiduously to make organ donorship a socially edifying behavior, albeit to begin with the religious battled against such heresy, until one of their own died in need. David made donorship a voluntary additive to licensing: if you joined the donor program and you were involved in a fatal accident, your organs could be harvested in order that another should live. Without advertising, David always gave the families of the organ donor program a discount on their casket and in-house services, if they were in the area.

So, David and Emma Longshanks became upstanding social citizens. They were asked to donate to this or that charity. They were asked to serve on this or that board of directors. They were sought out for this or that sponsorship. Life was good.

The first sign of a chink in the Longshanks well-tempered and lustrous armor was rather innocuous. Even a tad humorous. Sometime during prohibition, a notable area resident involved in rum running was shot and killed. Briskin Swipes, AKA Sousee. Not shot by the police, though they claimed the prize, but by a rival running crew. New Brummagem was not big enough for two such lines of transport. As New Brummagemens enjoyed viewing the unrepentant dead in proof that crime never pays, Briskin Swipes was exposed in a pinewood coffin, as per tradition, and photos were taken and displayed in various shop windows and church signboards around town. Before putrification set in, Briskin Swipes was turned over to David Longshanks for burial. But David wished to preserve, for posterity and example, the body. Briskin was not the most handsome of men and in death was downright gruesome looking. He was a modern day outlaw, revered by some, reviled by others. Face was important in this time of ignominy and David wanted to save this face. So, instead of embalming the man, pickling him, you might say, David decided to stuff him, taking especial care of the external taxidermy details. Perhaps, stuffed, Briskin Swipes appeared more real than real. Not surreal, super-real, über-real. Later, David began exhibiting his stuffed man in order to showcase his skills. Taxidermy was, after all, about preservation.

There was, however, a more offing aspect to the taxidermy: inside the stuffing was the real skeleton of Briskin Swipes. David did not tell anyone this. He found it, in fact, quite humorous and often giggled at his joke, assuming someone discovered the skeleton. How shocking! How ludicrous!

Dreams have a way of coming true in the most unimaginable ways.

The local New Brummagem film studio, Cantery Studio, borrowed the stuffed bootlegger for some independent science fiction film, The Forelanders by name. Briskin Swipes was a prop, a re-occurring prop. It so happened that during one removal and repositioning of Briskin, the arm fell off. The cast and crew were accordingly astounded and horrified.

The police were notified and the State Bureau of Investigation was called in to uncover the identity of the skeleton. They had a top forensic anthropologist, Necessity Bluffing—Nessy to her friends—who returned the diagnosis of Briskin Swipes. And so the history of the man rose up in the news. This could not be tolerated in the filming, so another dummy was found and the stuffed man—with skeleton—was disposed of. Apparently, a carny bought it, sewed the arm back on and displayed it in his Wonders of the World exhibit until the skin began to scale off and the joints to fall apart. By then, everyone had forgotten all about Briskin Swipes, except, perhaps, myth and legend.

In the meantime, David’s skill with a knife and needle did not go unnoticed. Even to David’s entrepreneurship. How could he make good use of these skills to enhance his businesses? Wealth, like development, was limitless. And his desire was unslaking. Emma did not know what he was doing but enjoyed no end the benison that accrued from it.

Now that organ transplanting had gained respectability and more and more people required new organs in order to continue living, cheating death, you might say, it was discovered that there were not enough organs to go around. The sick and dying were not being saved. People had to die in horrible pain, faces and bodies distorted. Organs could not be grown but could be harvested. David Longshanks was in a privileged position in this respect, as the newly accident dead came his way for embalming and assigned donation. But who was to know that a kidney or lung or liver or, less likely, heart was removed sans visé and sent on its way to someone in need. A secret social conscience is a self-satisfying thing. It is, too, delusional.

Fresher organs were needed even though David Longshanks had insinuated himself into the legion of organ rescuers. David beat his breast over the loss of life due to the shortage of good organs, as much by less death as by those who selfishly, in his eyes, kept their organs for themselves in death. Many still believed it was sacrilege to give away organs and for others to live with these second hand vestiges of humanity. Someone here was playing God, it was thought by these people. It was of little consequence that people died in the face of their superstitious intransigence.

And so David Longshanks got involved in illegal harvesting. It is true he would not kill the unwitting donor but, still, the donor was none the wiser until after the fact. The first inklings of this new business came via grisly newspaper and TV reports of bodies found in bath tubs full of ice water. The surgical-quality scars were, of course, suspicious and, while the recovering person was hospitalized, scrutinized and medicated into a stupor, the discovery of the missing organs was revealed.

This was worse than stories of Frankenstein monsters and mad scientist experiments. The grizzly details and gruesomeness, the inhumanity of the illegal harvesting was splashed everywhere. Investigations were initiated but never elicited findings. No notice was taken of the life saved somewhere in the land. David Longshanks was not, after all, after publicity. That kind of adulation was not soulful.

Stories began emerging of the sort of a person who meets someone at a bar and they have a few drinks, a few laughs. The unsuspecting tipster becomes inebriated. Together they go to a hotel room and the person passes out. Not solely from the alcohol. Knock out drugs were casually added to the drinks. The person wakes up in the morning in a bathtub filled with ice and an abdominal incision that was not theirs. Tales of injured construction or oil or mine workers waking up days later lying on a cold metal table without certain of their organs and writhing in pain. These latter unfortunates usually died. Though the two harvesting techniques were not related, they were conflated, adding to the inhumanity of the black market organ salesmen. Organ pushers.

The organ pusher is a monster. He’s not a natural man. The organ pusher will ruin someone’s body and leave its mind to scream, all in the name of goodness and right but truly for greed. God damn the organ pusher man.

As with criminals, organ harvesters—and David Longshanks—leaned toward repetitive behavior. Humanity is both blessed and cursed with such repetitiveness. It is comfortable.

It is in such wise that David Longshanks’ shenanigans were brought to light. This was, of course, the end of his entrepreneurship. The end of unending expansion and resource development. There is a limit to the things of life. A balance, the median way, must be found for continuance to be assured. David Longshanks was over-stepping his—society’s—bounds. Exposure and punishment was inevitable, though not by the outlaw. Was not David Longshanks a Robin Hood?

The fallout from David Longshanks’ greed, his delusion of social goodness, the lie he needed to tell himself in order to make life tolerable—the fallout was immediate and long lasting. Emma Longshanks became hysterical and would not wear any of the finery she had acquired secondary to her husband’s nefarious dealings. The mortuary and taxidermy businesses deteriorated and were, eventually, sold at great loss. Emma was attentive enough, however, to dispose of the landscaping, gardening and flower businesses before they became tainted beyond repair. She retired to a ghost town out in the middle of the plains along an abandoned railway line and lived out her life in seclusion. It was a miserable life. The David Longshanks family dispersed around the country, changing their name in order to escape censure and ostracization. The Ivy League Consortium dissolved in a hole-and-corner way, the assets being divided between the owners and then new venturisms begun.

New Brummagem faded away, turning into a historical village. A tourist trap.

And, then, there was nothing.

(c) 2015, James L. Secor

What’s My Story

Here is one of our favorite little stories. While it is a satire on the character oriented story–that any good story is built solely on a character (who never changes)–in that the protagonist has no character; it is a feminist piece because it is men who give her her character. I (Minna) was arguing with the editor of a now defunct feminist zine about the necessity of a character-centred story and set out to prove her wrong: she snapped up the story because of its feminist bent and totally missed the satire/slap in the face: the protagonist has neither name nor character.

 What’s My Story?

by Minna vander Pfaltz

Crashing flash! Throbbing pain. Burning. She held her breath. And then tried again. This time, little by little. She opened her eyes. Oh, lord, did that hurt! Screeching whiteness. No. She couldn’t maintain it. Closed her eyes again. In the pulsing darkness, she felt her body. She was lying on her back. Whatever she was lying on was hard. Very hard. There was a lot of noise around. Jarring her bones. Making her ears bounce and hurt a little inside. Great rumbling noises made her body vibrate–and then they were gone.

She rolled over onto her side and pushed herself up. She listened a little longer. The vibrations were not so drumming. Then she opened her eyes again.

Still bright. But there wasn’t so much pain. She put her hand over her eyes, shielding them from the brightness above. Where was this?

These. . .things moving, moving. Going this way and that. Big ones and little ones. All making noise. The big ones bigger noise. And blaring D-flats.

She was getting a headache again.

She was the silent one, the still one in this mass of movement and noise. Around her, paying her no mind, were people. People moving helter-skelter. Great masses of heaving color that hummed along. Clicked along. Lights flashing.

Over there. Trees and grass. A bench. A place to sit.

She got up and walked–stumbled would be more accurate–to the bench and sat down on its warm wood, feeling the spaces between the slats. Not a very comfortable place to sit but better than lying on the–street? pavement?

Where the hell was she?!

Wherever she was, it looked like something she recognized. Something that was similar to something she remembered. Something. . . .

But where did she remember it from?

She creased her brows.

Who was she?

Ahh. . .now there she was on firm ground: she couldn’t remember who she was. She didn’t know who she was.

Was this an alternate universe?

Was she one monkey waiting for 99 more?

She had to get away from this noise! It was making her hair shake.

So she walked. The more she walked, the longer she walked the easier it became until she was moving along rather fluidly. But where was she going? No direction. Anywhere.

No. This was not good.

She looked up at the sky, searching for the brightest glare.

How did she know to go to her left? Without thinking, she did it. And then asked herself this question: How did I know to go to the left? This place wasn’t anywhere she knew, despite the vast similarities, so how could she be sure left was the right way? This place, this world could be exactly the opposite of her world. The world she came from to be here.

How did she get here?

She didn’t remember falling. She did remember a thud, though. And then she was here. In this place. As if she’d been dropped into this world.

Why?

What was she doing here?

Who was she?

Lord!–she had to get to a quieter place so she could think.

The glaring sky told her nothing. The world around her blurred. Her body kept on pounding along. Numbed. Apprehending nothing. Just moving. And then suddenly the noise stopped. She kept on going. She kept going until she felt the difference in color around her. She stopped. She looked around. She turned back the way she had come. All the noise was over there, in that hazy bulging upward, vertical mass of. . . spires?

And she sat down. On the green. Grass? She didn’t know. She didn’t know if that’s what it was in this place but somewhere inside her it was grass. So she called it grass in her mind. She felt it. It felt the same as usual. Usual? How did she know it was usual, this touch? This kind of softness with hard edges. Pointy. Kind of cool. Was she feeling it make noise? She put her ear down to it. Leaned down. Ran her fingers over its roughness. Comforting noise.

How did she know it was comforting?

“Hey! What are you doing?”

She looked up. A man stood at the bottom of the hill.

She looked at him. She squinched her eyebrows together.

“I said, what are you doing?”

“I don’t know. Sitting on the grass.”

“I can see that. Who gave you permission?”

“I need permission?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?”

“No. I’m not. Where am I?”

“Here. In Havenwood.”

“Oh. Where’s that?”

Pause.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m not hurt, if that’s what you mean.”

“How did you get here? I mean, the way you’re dressed, you’re not usual, you know?”

“I’m not?”

“No.”

“I feel like I was dropped in.”

“Maybe you better come with me.”

“Can you help me?”

“I can take you somewhere.”

“Okay.”

She got up and walked down the hill. When she stood next to him, she found he was very much shorter than she was. Perhaps head and shoulders shorter. She’d never felt so tall before.

“You’re tall. We don’t make many tall women here. We don’t make many tall men, either.”

“You make people here?”

“You know. Not make as in machines but, you know, grow.”

“Like plants?”

“No. We get born.”

“Oh.”

They continued walking along in silence. He led her into a squat reddish building with greyish lines running up and down, isolating little squares of color. Flat glass doors like a mouth. Flat glass windows like eyes. The doors swallowed them up. The eyes did not change their expression.

“Where’s this?”

“The headman lives here. He’ll know what to do.”

“Yes.”

“You know the headman?”

“No. I don’t now anybody.”

Silently they walked through some halls.

“I’m tired. I’d like to rest. I’ve been through alot today. I think I came from over there.”

“Okay. He’ll find a place for you to stay.”

“Good. I’d like to lie down.”

And then they were in a small room.

“Hey. I’ve brought you someone.”

“Hey. Where did you find her?”

“Sitting in the park.”

“The park?!”

“Yeah. Imagine that. No one gave her permission.”

“Hey. Who are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where do you come from?”

“I don’t know. I just woke up and found myself here.”

“She said she felt as if she was dropped in.”

“Dropped in, eh?”

“Yes. And she’s tired.”

“Hungry, too?”

“Yes. Hungry, too.”

“We should let you rest and eat first.”

“Thank you.”

“Hey. Take her to Na’s place. She’ll take care of her.”

“Okay.”

“Then come back here. I’ll call the elders for a council.”

“Okay.”

* * *

Shoulder to shoulder around the oblong table the men sat. The Headman and the elders. And the finder man.

“What are we to make of this, then?”

“It is very strange. Very strange indeed.”

“There have been no strangers in a long time.”

“No. She’s very tall.”

“She dresses. . .differently.”

“She talks a little off.”

“And her skin color. . .”

“Yes.”

The heavy ticking of the clock pounded the walls. They looked around the table. A few coughed. A few looked elsewhere. The headman looked at the finder man.

“I think she’s the one,” said the latter.

“How can she be? She’s a woman.”

“Yes. There has never been a woman before.”

“She is a very tall woman.”

“Larger than life.”

“Where is she from?”

“That’s a mystery. She’s not saying.”

“She just. . .appeared.”

“Right when we need her.”

Silence.

“Yes. That seems to fit.”

“Fate is a funny thing, you know.”

“You can never be too sure.”

“Are we to continue as we are?”

“We cannot remain passive,” said the headman. “I am for taking action on this.”

Pause. The elders looked around at each other.

“Will she go along with us?”

“Why should she not? She is here. Nothing happens without a reason.”

“She may put up a fight.”

“Deny herself.”

“It’s part of the pattern.”

“She’s already denying who she is.”

A collective, “Eh?”

The headman and the finder nodded.

“Well, then.”

“We must proceed, it seems.”

“Tomorrow morning at Na’s. She has a nice courtyard in the back.”

* * *

She sat facing the group of men. She frowned and held her breath. This gathering was definitely unbalanced. She didn’t know who she was. She didn’t know where she was. And now she was confronted by this. . .tribunal. How was she supposed to act? She shifted in her seat. Crossed her legs. Crossed her arms. These men were obviously here to tell her something. Could it be they knew something about herself? She could only wait.

She looked at the group of men. They looked back at her and then away to each other. Focus came to the headman. She looked at the headman. He looked at her.

“I trust you had a good night.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“You are rested from your journey?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Good.”

She uncrossed her legs and crossed them the other way.

The finder coughed.

“We know who you are.”

“You do?”

“Yes. Yes. We do.”

“Who am I?”

“You are our hero.”

She uncrossed her legs. She uncrossed her arms. She beat on her thighs with her hands. She laughed.

“Surely you jest! I am no hero.”

“How do you know?”

She looked sharply at the finder. “Yes. You are right.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.” She leaned forward and looked at these men who seemed to know more about her than she did. This was perhaps reassuring. “Could this be illusion?”

“No, no, no. Nothing of the sort. What in the universe is not true?”

“We have dreamed of your coming?”

“So I am a dream?”

“Come true. A dream come true.”

“Dreams are part of life. Of the universe.”

“I could be a bad dream–”

“Not at all! You are just what we asked for.”

“Yes.”

“So, who am I?”

“Hero.”

“Our Hero.”

“What an odd name. Hero.”

“Odder still as that is what you are.” The headman giggled a little.

She smiled into the silence. A breeze disturbed the leaves. Gave them voice. Gave itself a voice, for otherwise it was just air. The passing of air was ever accompanied by a voicing. Without something standing in the way, the wind has no voice. Nor do the trees. Rain, too, is nothing until it demolishes itself upon trees and people, houses and streets. The sound nevertheless surrounds you like an orchestra and carries you away, protects you. All the world is one. Then. It was not one for Hero.

“I am who I am and I am what I am?”

“Why, yes, that’s the way it is.”

“My name says it all.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“The name you gave me.” Pause. “The role you give me.”

“Do you have a better one?”

“No. But–”

“Yes??”

“I don’t feel like a hero. I’ve never done anything to be considered a hero. What is a hero?”

“A hero’s life is in the making.”

“In the future.”

“I can’t do anything.”

“I told you! Didn’t I?”

“Shush! This is to be expected.”

“What is to be expected?”

“Well,” the finder began hesitantly, “you meet the criteria.”

“I’m getting a headache.”

“Na,” said the headman.

Medicine was brought. Everyone sat silent and still for a time.

“Do you feel better now?”

“I’m sure it will go away.”

“Yes. Havenwood is known for its drugs. We can even make a sick dog feel better.”

Nervous laughter.

“Tell me how I fit the bill when I don’t even know who I am?”

“We know who you are.”

“But I don’t feel like Hero. I don’t even know where I am or where I came from.”

“That is the way it is.”

“Heroes come out of nowhere.”

“When they are needed.”

“And they are more than we are.”

“You mean my height?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“But I am no one. I am not up to this.”

“You can be no one without others.”

“I have no character.”

“We are giving this to you.”

“What if I don’t want it?”

“Heroes usually do not. . .it is said.”

“You see. . .there are historical precedents.”

“I see.”

“Yes.”

“What is it I’m supposed to do?”

All of the men sat back heaving sighs.

“You are here to save us from ourselves.”

She laughed.

“Yes. It is laughable, isn’t it? But it’s true.”

“We have become inundated with a particular kind of pandemic. Passive Ignorance Insensitivity Syndrome. PIIS.”

“Piss?”

“No, no. In our tongue when there are two i’s in a row, the first is long, the second short. We say, then, Peye-us.”

Oh. I see. You are Peye-us. And who has visited this upon you?”

“An alien.”

“An outsider.”

“Not one of us.”

“His name is Gnome Nervt.”

“How do you know?”

“He has done this before and. . .”

“He leaves traces.”

“I see.” Pause. “I must rid the world of this. . .evil Gnome Nervt.”

“Yes.”

“Well. I suppose I have nothing better to do,” she said. She thought, though, that perhaps she might also discover her true self, her true identity now she had something to do. “You must give me some context.”

“Here is everything you need to know. Tomorrow we will come again.”

“And if I am not your hero?”

“You will fail and we will build another martyr’s monument in Memorial Park Cemetery.”

“But you will not fail. The life and well-being of thousands upon thousands of Havenwoodniks are riding on your shoulders.”

And then she was alone with herself. Whoever she was. To these men she was someone. She had a frame into which to fit. There was just one nagging question: What did a hero do? That is, how did a hero act?

Was fiction becoming reality?

An unanswerable question since she didn’t know what was real. Rather, she only had this reality to go on. Could she then live up to her given character?

She shook her head. Identity was a funny thing. How do you know when you’ve got it? And when you’ve got it, how do you know it’s yours?

There are some places where people are born with no identity. Later, they can buy one from the identity brokers. But, then, you may still ask, who is this character? All you have is a label. Made up by another. A handle upon which to hang a history. A history with no character to identify it is no history at all. So where does it come from?

This is a question I cannot answer. I am only a writer. I am a writer because I write. . .and because you read me. Therefore I have character because writers have a particular character, right?

I find myself much in the same situation as the girl in this story.

(c) 2002, Minna vander Pfaltz

 

Old Country Baggage: The Making of America

Oh, my! It’d been a long time since we posted! A combination of a wicked mixed type manic-depressive episode & shoulder surgery for Jimsecor. He’s a bear to take care of when he’s restricted. Rehab will begin on 11 Dec: daily manipulation. But, here is a filler:-

Old Country Baggage, or The Making of America

We all know vampires suck the blood of the living to continue living, even though they are dead. The living dead. A curse.

We don’t know where vampires come from. They just suddenly appear in folklore. The most famous being European. Central Europe, to be exact. Though the Chinese had vampires, too, they did not travel to the West with their fabled RR builders and laundry entrepreneurs.

European vampires had not migrated to Britain before the 19th century, else they would surely have made their appearance at Salem, if not Jamestown or Roanoke Island, the Lost Colony. As it was, America had to wait for a later mass migration of Europeans.

George Calvin Brown and family and friends are prime examples of vampire baggage carriers. As always, the opening of the carpet bag was innocent, however traumatic. Very like Pandora’s box.

Ephemera Gladys Brown, George Calvin’s loving wife, died of tuberculosis one day. George and the children were crestfallen, as one would expect. Losing a caring, loving, thoughtful mother was not expected or wanted. While the family mausoleum was being built and readied, the family mourned. Mother Brown was en-coffined and discretely kept in a corner of the Ice House, which the Brown family owned and operated. With all but the carving of the alabaster monument completed, public mourning ensued with the requisite religious broodings and blessings.

And then life went on, albeit with Leonard Gardener Brown coughing a wee bit more than usual. The grocery store side of the business suffered as Leonard’s coughing increased in frequency and intensity. In fact, Leonard was excluded from both the grocery and the Ice House. Left alone, his coughing and whitish pallor led to a drinking habit that wormed its way into the family’s profits. Eventually, he, too, succumbed to the wasting away disease and was laid to rest alongside his mother. Another name was chiseled into the alabaster and life more or less went on.

Lena Mercy Brown was so distraught and beside herself and so very fearful of the future, specifically her future, that she became a frequent visitor to the grave site. Early in the morning just before dawn and late at night well past the waning moon, Lena Mercy could be found at the cemetery. So regular and spectral was she, she was spoken of as a ghost. Lena Mercy haunted the graveyard with an unhealthy obsession. So said the town doctor. But Lena Mercy would not desist, even as her pallor paled and her eyes reddened. And then she died. She told her father, one day, that she didn’t feel so good, coughed once into her white, white hands and died.

The doctor said that Lena Mercy Brown also died of tuberculosis, no history of coughing notwithstanding.

What kind of curse was this laid upon the Browns?

Surely, some townies said, this was the result of a prior life-sin. Others pooh-poohed such a superstition. Still others believed that the family was particularly susceptible to invasion by minute, even unseen animalcules. Animalcules being animalcules, this was difficult to deny. Invisible things forever manifest themselves into life. People breathe air, don’t they? And they dig in the dirt. And wash and bathe in the water. Everyone does. Some few were more susceptible than others to invasion by animalcules.

George sold the grocery business. People were wary of infection. As long as he ceased operating the Ice House, he was able to hold onto the business. The income was enough to keep him and his youngest, Edwin Prentiss. They could find no one to help around the house, though.

But tragedy again struck.

This new wrinkle to the family horror came via the cemetery grounds-keeper. This elderly gentleman began seeing the ghost of Lena Mercy wandering through the cemetery to end up hovering around the family vault, raising her hands and looking upward as if mourning her mother’s and her brother’s and her own demise or calling upon God. All in utter silence, of course, as ghosts make no noise, though their mouth holes be open. The old night watchman also reported the silence of the cemetery. That is, no scurryings of night denizens and no owl hootings. Not that owls tended to be very communicative to begin with or while hunting. The oldster’s repetitive sightings brought out the ghost hunters, ghost busters and ghost curious. The crowding of the cemetery brought about less Lena Mercy walking. This phenomenon led to a generalized exodus but for the curious, who tend to be quite persevering. Their nightly vigils paid off. Sightings were reported and substantiated. Though not by an outside, objective, uninterested individual.

Much to the discomfiture of the remainder of the Brown family, this ghostly appearance of Lena Mercy became a hot topic in the district. Curiosity seekers began visiting the Brown house. The worst of the lot were the various newspapermen. Rude and invasive, if they got no story they made one up.

Eventually, George and Edwin shut themselves up in their house. Groceries and sundries were delivered, ordered by messenger. Eventually, interest flagged somewhat. At which time the true tragedy struck.

It was here that the European old world baggage was opened and spilled out its contents all over the ground. The soil was fertile. The horror grew like kudzu, choking the hell out of reason.

How could this happen?

The mind’s job, as it were, is to make sense of things. Make sense of the world. Make sense of chaos. Make sense of the senseless. For this purpose, pre-laid pathways in the neural network of the brain are activated, for your brain forgets nothing. This is how we can remember how to walk without thinking about it. The baggage that sometimes ought not to be carried with us is opened like this; that is, habit of mind. We are creatures of habit. Habit helps us cope with the world. Habit helps us find meaning. Some of these habits are deep-seated and enduring, enduring like fairy tales, folktales, folklore.

How the mind does this is by putting various happenings together and coming up with an answer. It is this solution that is most often influenced by deep cultural memories. Memories of explication. Memories that are connected to an answer and a solution. Habits of mind. Short cuts for thinking.

First were the deaths of the Brown family. Three out of five.

Second was the ghostly sightings by all and sundry of Lena Mercy.

Third was the haunting of George by Lena Mercy. She became a nightly occurrence, dancing around George in bed, George at the kitchen table. Lena Mercy was insistent. According to George, she harassed him. Eventually night and day.

Fourth was Edwin Prentiss’s illness. The same as his mother’s and his brother’s and his sister’s, Lena Mercy not having suffered the coughing. Edwin began his coughing and increasingly wan coloring within two weeks of Lena Mercy’s haunting the house.

Surely there was a connection here.

Ghosts are not known to be benevolent.

George sought solace, sought answers with consultations of the town elders, the doctor, the various ministers and the travelling Chautauqua professors. Though not all were in agreement, those obsessed with their old baggage, those in the majority, convinced George that Lena Mercy’s hauntings and Edwin Prentiss’s advancing illness were connected. That is, Lena Mercy was responsible.

Something needed to be done. Proof was needed.

So it was that the Brown family tomb was opened. Of the three coffined bodies, only Lena Mercy’s was not decomposed.

A great cry rose up and it was decided Lena Mercy was a vampire.

What other reason could there be? Only vampires feed on the living. Edwin was declining while Lena Mercy was not. Not dying. So?

There could be but one conclusion.

The townies cut out Lena Mercy’s heart. They burned it, cringing somewhat as it sizzled. They made Edwin drink a concoction of ash of heart and red wine.

All was well. No more hauntings. No more coughing.

Edwin Prentiss died in silence two weeks later.

How could this be? Lena Mercy the vampire had been appropriately done in. Maybe Edwin Prentiss was too far gone by then. Maybe more needed to be done.

So, Edwin Prentiss’s heart had a Palo Santo wood stake hammered through it. Both the heart and the stake were burned. The remains were buried. Holy water was cast upon the ground.

Everyone waited, fretting. For lifetimes they fretted and worried.

Would it ever, really end?

Vigilance could not be relaxed.

And so it was.

(c) 2016, James L. Secor

 

The Magic Mirror

 The Magic Mirror

by James L. Secor

 

I’ve come across the

magic mirror again, it’s

the same old story

you see what you want to see,

you hear what you want to hear

 

Steven was proud of himself. He had accomplished considerable, quickly passing all his tests to become the top student. It was good to be the greatest learner, the favored. So, he was not at all surprised when he was sent to undertake the comprehensive contemplative leg of his journey to knowledge and liberation. Appropriately wide-eyed and humble, Steven could not help but smile as he accepted the books and writing tablets from his master.

Yes! He thought to himself, I am on my way.

At his exultation at having reached this stage in his scholarship so soon, the climb up the mountain to retreat was not at all strenuous. He cruised along the narrow path, rushing past trees and bushes and vines with little to no hesitation. No thought was given to the skitterings of tiny animals or the twitterings of birds or the spider webs he tore through in his headlong rush to fulfillment. There would be time enough and then some to contemplate the sensual joys of the life around him when he had settled into his little hut. He had a year but assumed that it would take him less time to accomplish this task.

There is nothing to hold me back, he said to himself as he stood at the foot of the steps to his tabernacle.

The stoup was a temple-like affair snuggled up against the hillside and all but hidden by over-hanging branches from the ash and aspen and alder trees. Four tree-trunk columns marked the corners of the veranda, which ran around three sides of the hermitage. The low railing was missing a few posts yet refused to sag. To the right of the double doors stood a love-seat sized mourner’s bench worn smooth by prior sitters. There were no windows. The retreat was in shadow as the afternoon sun stood on the other side of the mountain. Steven was well-pleased, for this must be one of the grander cloister-houses that dotted the forested cordillera.

The old wooden stairs, worn from countless passing feet, creaked as Steven mounted them. The doors were, of course, not locked but they were swollen shut. He was forced to set his pack on the mourner’s bench and shoulder the warped panels open. A great musty sigh issued forth from the interior. The room was darker than he expected. It took awhile for his eyes to adjust. A table stood along the back wall, backed by a bench. At one end of the table, candles were piled. Steven set his bag on the table and lit a taper, holding it above his head to survey his new home. Along the right wall a sitting cushion lay bent and with stuffing protruding, wisps of it around the dusty floor. Next to the door, an old birch broom waited to go into service which it would need to before evening encroached much closer. Along the left wall stood the Hestia stupa, directly opposite the cushion. Its niche rose up to the ceiling, flaring out like a blossoming flower. Before it stood a large cauldron. Steven walked over to inspect it. Stones covered the bottom. Ashes covered the stones.

At the back corner was a narrow door. Beyond was a narrow room where Steven found a stone-recessed cook area, a small pot on a swing-arm suspended over it. Along a low table, various kitchen implements were neatly, if dustily arranged. In the farther corner, along the front wall, was a wooden bunk, the blankets tattered and, as would be expected, dusty. They would have to be aired out before settling down for the night.

Steven set the candle down on the low table and carried the bedding outside, shaking it out and draping it over the railing. He walked round the veranda to the right and found a small stack of wood and a small ax. Steven was astounded.

Surely, he said, they do not expect me to cut my own wood! I haven’t the slightest idea how to use a farmer’s implement.

Around to the other side were various pots and bowls and containers of one size or another. And it was then that it dawned on Steven that there was no water near-by. He would have to walk to the nearest river–and carry it back. How utterly rustic and uncivilized!

Steven sat on the mourner’s bench to mull over his present predicament. Whatever were they doing to him? Whatever did they expect of him? He as a scholar. A contemplative after liberation and supremacy. There was no reason for him to be reduced to such a state as this. Where had he gone wrong? He had done everything correctly. There was nothing for which he would be–could be so ill-used. There was not even a mirror in this place! How was he to maintain himself appropriately?

* * *

After several months of study and contemplation–and considerable loss of weight–Steven was sitting one day in rapt concentration of the Hestia stupa when he was interrupted by the chaotic chirping of a little bird. It flew into his refuge and perched precariously in the beams. And it would not remain quiet. An occasional tweet or cheep might not have been so ill-suited to the environment but this little creature lay about with ailing squeals spaced between thin, whistling pipings. Steven was necessarily quite annoyed at this. He had been progressing nicely when this cacophonous renting of the air disturbed him. He harrumphed and coughed and spluttered to himself, totally unable to reassert his previous contemplation. This fine feathered friend had no right to interrupt the exercises of so dedicated a man.

As this thought crossed his perturbed mind, Steven turned his scowl upward and, at the very moment, the bird dropped dead at his feet.

Steven was amazed. He sat bolt upright. This was a test! A sign along the road, for there were no such things as coincidences. Synchronicities, yes. Entanglements, yes. But unattended, disconnected coincidences? No. He had learned early on that there was a plan, an order to everything. Pre-destination was predestined only to be altered by free will, the next step, and the appropriate interpretation of events. This ability was, of course, part of his search for liberation and knowledge. This glance of power was telling him something. He would have to think on it–but not too long, else he’d lose the influx of energy.

Steven looked from the dead bird to the beam. From the beam to the dead bird at his feet. From the dead bird to the Hestia stupa, from whence his eyes rose to the top of the niche and, as it blossomed, the light blossomed in his soul. Astonishment and the greatest pleasure flooded over him. His little bothy became haunted with a suffused light as it dawned on him that he had to power to kill by some force or other within him. He had touched the core of life and death. It seemed to him that his body and mind, in a great unified field, exploded, flooding his little chancery with pointillist lights, each gleaming brighter than the sun, each assuaging his past privations.

I must indeed be great! bleated from his parched throat.

He rose, still embossed with his discovery of power and glory, and walked down the mountain and into the nearest town. It was time for another test.

The first house he came to was a rather elegant abode with colonnades and fluted roofing surrounded by colorful gardens. This would suit his purposes just fine, for the inhabitants must be of the upper class and unused to people of his ilk coming to their door, dirty and unkempt, with scraggly hair and beard. In truth, he did not know how he looked, so long had he been without a mirror to gaze into. But he had no comb nor had he fashioned one from wood or horn or bone, as many before him had done. He assumed, rightly, that he was a sight to behold, though he did believe that his new-found insight had somehow realigned the natural mountain ascetic appearance he had gained, a manifestation he had too often seen from those returning from their comprehensives, some broken, some not. The broken ones were pitiful to behold. Aside from their slovenly appearance, they were slobbering and crying in their desperate failure. Steven, of course, would surpass them when his time came.

He banged on the door. When it was opened, he spoke aloud for the first time in months. And, as with months of alcohol use, months of silence encrusted his larynx and his vociferation was strained and coarsened.

“Bring me some food. I am a liberated comprehensive contemplative.” He paused to catch his breath. Coughed. Continued, “Merit shall be yours for feeding freely those on this path to enlightenment.”

The woman regarded the beggar before her for a moment, not at all disturbed by his presence. She licked her lips.

“As soon as I can, reverend sage,” she said and shut the door in his face.

Yes! His plan was set in motion. Reward would be his, for her refusal would arouse his scowling approbation and all would be right with the world.

Steven waited a long time. And, of course, he became more and more agitated. Finally, as his impatience was about to overtake him, she returned with a small bowl of stew. Despite his mouth’s salivation, Steven was nonplussed.

“Consider yourself lucky that I do not direct upon you the withering gaze of a liberated sage. Ill-fortune can come through disobedience to our elect wishes.”

“Ill-fortune can come indeed, unless you are able to resist it through some experience that has come upon you.”

“How dare you answer me in such manner!” Steven spluttered. “What do you mean?”

“I am not a bird in a forest clearing.”

Steven was taken aback. He scowled hard at the woman, a common unenlightened person. He recoiled, for she continued to stand there looking down on him.

“My wrath is not harming you. . .”

“Nor does the wrath of my children harm me and they are wont to disobey at every turning. It is the way of things.”

“But,” gagged Steven, “I have done everything. I have obeyed my teacher. I attended all his lectures and did all the right exercises. My inner life was constantly expanded and I was chosen for comprehensive contemplation. I have studied and focused my energies and inner eye and touched great powers. . .” he trailed off in disbelief.

“Eat the stew, young nigh-saint, and return to your teacher. Leave the bowl on the stoop.”

The woman handed him the stew and shut the door.

So disconsolate and appalled was he that Steven did not bother to eat the stew. Nor did me leave the bowl on the step but immediately made his way back to his master’s anchorage. But Steven was not allowed to enter its precincts. His master took the bowl of stew and sent Steven away.

“Go to the capital city and find the scavenger Inkblot. You are only fit to study with him.”

What could Steven do? He had such reverence of his teacher that he could only do as he was bid, repugnant as it might seem. There must be meaning in this or it would not be happening.

So, off he went to find Inkblot.

He was not difficult to find. He was, however, difficult to approach. Inkblot stood, on the day Steven found him, at the foot of a mountain of garbage. He stank. He was covered with filthy rags, his skin darkened from sun and blackened by lack of soap and water. He sniveled and wiped it away with the back of his hand, wiping this on his rot-encrusted clothing. Steven recoiled, as if hit by a donkey’s kick.

Inkblot spit.

“What’s it to ya, Steven? Ya don’t look much better yourself.”

“I do not smell,” Steven squeaked.

“Nor do I. I been around myself so long, if you get my meaning.”

“I’m afraid I don’t–”

“What bird’re ya gonna kill today, Steven? Who’s gonna read your thoughts, Steven? When’re ya gonna get some other revolting duty, Steven?”

“How can you know this? You are just a scavenger!”

“I only look like a scavenger because that is the work that I do. It is inappropriate of me to wear a top hat and tails. Though I’d like to, it is true. I have felt such cloth and it is anodyne to the skin. But I’ve my duty to perform. I can’t be bothered with looking like something I’m not. No. I must concentrate on my duty. As you must yours. You are now the servant of the people and they will not show their thanks in any way, shape or form, for they do not like to think about their waste. If ya get my meaning.”

“I am not sure I can. . .do this. . .”

“Aye, I know. Make of it what you will.”

“I’m a scholar. A sage. A released contemplative!”

“So you say. I don’t see no one here telling you so, do you?”

“Who would want to be here?”

“Right you are, Steven old boy. Right you are.”

“I am not meant for this.”

“And why not?”

“I’m meant for something better.”

“And what is so bad about wiping the ass of mankind? You gotta wipe the ass of a babe to keep it from smelling so’s it can get on its business of growing up, don’t ya? It’s the duty of a good parent, Steven.” Inkblot pointed off to his left. “There’s a little kiack over there that’s yours. We go out scavenging tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure. . .”

“People know me for what I do, not what I pretend to be. The only mirror I got is that of a dutiful man.”

“But I don’t want to be a scavenger! I want to be a sage.”

“Scavenger. Sage. What’s the difference? Both require knowledge and you don’t get none of that unless you do your job. Learn your duty, boy.”

“I don’t want to be a scavenger!”

“You ain’t got no choice, boy! Besides,” Inkblot continued in a more calm voice, “what is it you think scholars and sages and whatnot do but scavenge through mankind’s outpourings?” He wiped his nose, sniffed. “Go on over to your cuddy and rest. I’ll see what I can get ya to eat.”

“I feel a little nauseous. . .”

“Get over it. You got a duty to do.”

“I might destroy my reputation.”

“What reputation have you got to lose?”

“I shall never rise above this, I fear.”

“Yeast makes the bread rise. That’s its job. You can’t talk bread into rising.”

“What are you talking about?”

Inkblot squatted on his haunches, ran his hand through his hair, scratched his head. He did not look up as he spoke.

“There was a man once who knew something. Granted, it was nothing new. But he knew it. Many people did not appreciate what he knew, only seeing the not-newness of it all. They could hear the words but they could not understand the language. But, never mind. There were always a few who heard.

“There was also a man who believed he was a scholar and academician. He had a title and some position. He criticized this other man no end. In fact, he ran this other man out of town, you might say. The scholar and academician could say those things he said just as well. And he was proud of himself, this scholar and academician. He was real interested in himself, y’see. People like this cannot see the Day of Calamity. Indeed, they cannot even see opportunity when it comes knocking on their door with a calling card on a silver platter that says, ‘Opportunity Knocking.’ So he did not know the difference between knowledge and a polished mirror. Like a giraffe, he took the glitzy thing. You could say he ate the tray and let the calling card fall to the ground. Calling cards are, after all, nothing new. Just pieces of paper, eh?

“This other man, the man who knew something that was not new, he became a beggar, a junk dealer, a scavenger. No one pays him any mind. But if he does not do his work, everyone knows it.”

The scavenger looked up at the nigh-saint.

“And the scholar?”

“You see? You hear the words but know not the language.” The scavenger stood up. “The scholar is sitting in his chair contemplating his navel and wondering again and again how clean he has made it. Now, go on over to your hovel and I’ll bring you what I got so you don’t starve to death.”

 

for Si Tang, Jan 2010

(c) James L. Secor, 2010

 

The Old Witch

 The Old Witch

by James L. Secor

The old witch lived in the inn at the edge of town. It was an old inn, run-down and nobody stopped there any more. She was an old lady, bent and crabbed with arthritis. There was a woman who went once or twice a day with food but she left it on the veranda. She would not venture inside. She had, one day, when curiosity got the better of her, looked in at one of the open windows. Most of the windows were shuttered. She saw, in the place of honor, a little bell with an oblong mirror behind it along with the little pine branches on either side. The name of the little tablet she could not read. Anshin she thought it said, “easy,” “relief,” “safe.” Or maybe it was anji, something suggestive. She saw the old woman sitting before the relics, the bell and mirror and pine branches. But she could not see the reflection in the mirror. The glass was too small and cloudy and, of course, too far away. She saw the old witch rise, so she ran down the path as fast as she could, only pausing to look back at the gate to be sure she was not pursued. But she talked a good story when she got back to town. It was a small town so word got around. In one form or another.

It was rumored it was best to be far away from this old witch. This old woman. It was rumored there was something disrespectful about her past and that is why she lived alone with no friends and no visitors.

No travellers bothered with her hostel, it was so unkempt. Indeed, the front gate looked to be falling down at any moment. The weeds in the garden had choked out the flowers and any trees that had grown there had been shorn of their leaves by the strangling vines that hung limply from the bare branches. It was indeed a desolate inn. Only the path remained clear and passable. No one thought this was strange but perhaps they should have.

The cracked and grained wood had lost its vitality and was pitted, water-rotted, almost black. The shutters, pulled all around but for the one window, were warped and falling in on themselves. But it was at the front doorstep that the food was left, a great slab of stone worn down from the feet of long ago travellers.

The tatami mat flooring showed weeds poking through in places. It was worn colorless where the old witch sat. A path led from the entranceway to the sitting place and from thence into the dark depths. The old witch dragged her heels when she walked.

One day, after years and years of silence and teasing stone-throwing by the neighborhood boys and girls, a traveler stopped at her inn. No one saw him go in but the next morning when the woman brought the old witch a morning meal, there was a memento attached to the falling down gatepost. It was red but had no temple’s name written on it. It was blank but for a little dragon crawling beneath a bell.

From that day forth, the old witch never touched her food and so people assumed she died. Because after awhile, the lady who brought the food stopped bringing it. If the old hag wasn’t going to eat it, it was a waste. There were others who could use it. No one visited her decrepit old abode to find out if there was a body there or not. No one was that crazy or brave. They just let the house rot and fall in on itself and the weeds grow over it.

Oddly enough, out of the mess beautiful flowers grew and, some years later, it became fashionable for lovers to traverse the path and pick a flower for their loved one. Never more than one flower was picked. The lovers always had happy fulfilling lives, so a truth was established.

One day, a traveler came to my house and though he could not pay for his keep, he said he had a story to tell. A strange story of love and deception. It was, indeed, worth his night’s stay. I thanked him and pondered on the tale afterwards.  . .

He came to an old inn one night. It was a new moon. The place looked very tumble-down but he nevertheless took himself to the font door. He opened the door with some difficulty–it stuck in its trough. He entered and shut it behind him. In the musky blackness he shouted out for the master. “Hello? Is anybody here?” There was no answer, so he moved further into the large room, stopping at the first set of sliding doors. “Hello? I’ve come for a room.” Pause. “It’s a desolate night.” No answer. Just as he turned to leave, he heard the shuffle of steps somewhere in the darkness beyond the doors. He spoke again, “I’ve come for a place to stay the night. Can you put me up?” A pale lamp and a face floated up before him. The shuffling stopped. The silence carried on. She stepped aside and let him enter. She moved ahead of him, then raised a hand to have him wait. She shuffled out of the room and returned with a second small lamp. She indicated that he should follow her. He did. Keeping close so as not to become separated and lost in the blackness. The rooms smelled unkempt, dirty. The meager light showed up walls wrinkled and wasted like old men. Perhaps they would fall in on him as they groaned into the night.

The old woman led him to a small room to one side of the house and indicated he should sit. The tatami felt damp. The table was dusty. She did not bother to clean it off. He looked up. She had disappeared. Outside the tiny circle of his little lamp reigned darkness and the sounds of the house trying to maintain itself. He took out a cloth and dusted the table. She appeared out of nowhere with food and set it down on the table. With a swift, jerked movement, she bid him eat. She stood to one side, holding her lamp, waiting for him to finish. When he finished, she took the tray away. He was finishing his tea when she returned and spread out his bedding. Then she left him to himself.

Not once did she speak. His lamp went out and he was lost in the oppressive darkness and creakiness. Dank and musty smelling and a little cold, he shivered and climbed into the bedding. Cold and dampish. Soon, though, it warmed and he fell asleep. He dreamed. . .

“Strange dream. Strange. . .even now as I’m telling you I’m not sure whether it happened or truly was a dream. It seemed that she came into the room about midnight and sat down at the head of my bed. She had her little lamp with her and was haloed at the edge of its yellow waxy glow. The apparition spoke: ‘I have a story to tell you.’ I looked up at her and suddenly the air about her began to glow and shine. An ellipse of brightness that cast no aura. She was a mess. Her clothes rotting from her frame, her hair falling about her shoulders like a ghost’s, her hands hoary with arthritis as they lay silent and polite in her thin lap. There was not much life left in her. The light seemed to pass through her making her appear diaphanous. ‘It’s late and I’m tired,’ I said. ‘Yes. It is late. Too late for me. I must tell you my story. You must hear me out.’ I nodded. She smiled a toothless smile without mirth or sadness, just an open widening of the thin lips. She licked her lips.

“‘This was also not a time when the clergy were as attentive to their vows as they are now. One day, one of them stopped by on his travels. I could hear his voice from within. I stopped my sewing and went to have a peek at who could have such an enchanting, warm voice. Rich and mellow and coming out of the depths of a body like a spring from the mountains. He was beautiful. If a man may be beautiful. A marvelously handsome man. I wanted him right away. I had never had a man before but I knew what the feelings that rose up in me were. I felt all wet and warm and perhaps a little dizzy and a pressure grew in me that fairly choked me. I went back to my sewing but was not at all concentrating on it–I stuck myself several times with the needle. Little pinpoints of blood stood out on my fingers. So I put my sewing down and went again to look at the lay monk. He was gone. I had expected him to stay the night. Most did. I was taken by some kind of hysteria. I immediately left the house and ran after him. My parents called after me but I did not answer. I could not answer. I felt my heart, my soul was leaving me behind and I had to catch up to it before I died. I ran and I ran but did not find him. I asked some travellers along the road. They said, yes, they had seen such a man, a monk, and that he had gone down the leftward road. I ran on. It is not easy running in long skirts. I felt they were breaking my legs. They were getting caught up and I could not abide them. I tried pulling them up and running but that was no good. They tripped me from behind. My clothing became quite dishabille and began to fall away as I gained speed. This urgency overrode my senses. My hairpins fell out, leaving a trail behind me. My hair flew about my face and stood out behind me in a wildly undulating wake. I ran into other travellers. They laughed at my appearance. Others pulled away, shocked and frightened–I must have looked a sight! Women simply did not run about as I was doing, hair falling all about their shoulders, clothing in disarray, where it still clung to my body. They, too, told me the monk had passed along this way. He had gone to the river. I grunted and flew on. And my legs began to feel very heavy. Great massive tree trunks. I was panting and my face was stretched taut with my straining. There! I could see him at the ferry. I called to him: Wait! I yelled: You cannot leave me! He looked up. He looked at me as if I were a demon. Fear contorted his face. Quick, he shouted to the ferryman, get me across the river before that demon catches me. For, you see, I had turned into a great dragon. My hair tangled in a mass round my head. My face pinched and pointed with bulging fiery eyes. There were nubs, like little horns, growing out of my head. Out of my mouth grew fangs and I lathered, my tongue snaking out over my lips. But I only learned of this later, on my return journey, when people told me of the vicious beast they’d seen pursuing a hapless young monk. At the time, I could not understand why he would look at me with such loathing, run from a woman as beautiful as I was–and I was beautiful. I was held to be the most beautiful for several counties. And he was running from that exquisite beauty! Why? I knew monks were not chaste. It was a well-known fact. They often strayed. Stray with me! I want some of your holiness! Some of his holy love. It had to be holy coming from a man so beautiful himself.’

“Here, she, the old lady glowing at my bedside, sighed. The sound was the exhaling of steam.

“‘I continued on. There was nothing for me to do but go on. Nothing to my existence but having this man. I accosted another ferryman but he ran away and jumped into his own boat screaming obscenities at me. Did he think I would eat him when I was hungry for another? He rowed like mad out into the middle of the river. I was left standing on the bank ranting and raging after my love. He was my love, you know. I had to have him. My love. My soul. My body cried out for him. My heart was no longer mine. Who was I? I was enflamed. I jumped into the river and swam. But my body weighed me down. I felt long and old and worn out. I looked back and saw my dragon tail, my dragon scales. And my tail seemed to grow as I swam. Only, I wasn’t swimming. I was undulating through the water. When I reached the other side, I ran on along the road. An unbearable chore. I grew slower and slower, heavier and heavier. I could hear him screaming ahead of me. Then I could see him screaming at a robed man, screaming and pointing down the road at me. I heard, later, that I was a great cloud of dust and fire that bellowed along. Everyone took flight, not even closing the gates to the temple compound. I plunged through the gateway into the barren courtyard. No one. There! On the bell tower! The bell was off its perch. It sat on the wooden flooring. They thought they were so clever–hiding him under a great bronze bell. This temple, Dojo, was known for its bell. It rang out over the hills when it was struck. But now it was impotent. I wound myself around the bell, squeezing tightly. I squeezed until I fused my body with the bronze behemoth. My energy turned me red and I heated up. Smoke rose round me. Heavy waves rose from my body. It was all I could do to hold him tight. Hold him to me. So I passed the night wound round the bell, holding his love. Keeping the silence. Just at sunrise I left and returned here. I have been here ever since.’ She licked her lips, relishing the memory maybe? ‘When the monks saw that the mighty dragon had gone, they tried to move the bell but it was too hot. Still glowing. They burned themselves for their humanitarian efforts. They threw water on it and waited until late in the afternoon. Then, as dusk began to descend, they raised the bell and. . . the monk had been fried. He was a pile of ashes. I had burned him up with my passion.’

“Her eyes looked down at me. They penetrated right into my body.

“‘You looked so like him. . .so I told you. I could not help myself. I had to say this. I am not a bad woman.’

“She got up and walked out of the room, leaving me in hazy, grey blackness. I’m not sure if I slept the rest of the night. When I rose the next morning, she was nowhere around. The sunlight somehow penetrated the dreary insides of the inn and there, to one side in the main room, I saw the little bell and mirror and the pine branches. I stopped. Took a deep breath. What was it had happened that night?”

It has been years now since the man told me this story.

I had once picked a flower in that old, overgrown garden but my love had not been so obsessive, so possessive, so overwhelmingly consuming. We had a good life, not the disaster that befell such an extreme woman.

(c) 2014, James L. Secor