July 03, 2009
Some that I know enfold belief in warm
Embrace, like an over-stuffed teddy bear;
Recline there comfortable and free from harm,
As though faith were a harbor, safe; secure
From fear or questions, shallow source of joy.
A relic from childhood, perhaps. A toy.
Others clutch it desperately, knuckles white;
A lifeline from an unseen ship amid
A sea of doubts. They peer but catch no sight
Of hope to justify their trust; just dread.
This soggy rope might be adrift. No source
Of life, an anchor on a downward course.
Then there are those who wield it like a sword,
A hacking, slashing weapon made to crush
Both infidel and heathen with The Word.
And handy, too, for slicing through thick brush,
Overgrown hedge of bothersome debate
And arguments from people that they hate.
My faith resembles none of these. It is,
Abides. Not blanket, opiate or crutch.
A story that I feel and know and prize,
Sweet music, metaphor made flesh, a touch
Of the divine, I think. Belief, here now
Then gone; a sometimes absence I allow
Like bitter parting from a cherished friend.
More true than real: an authentic fiction.
Doesn't quite break, no matter how I bend.
A mystery that offers benediction.
The part of me that knows how to transcend
And sees strange meanings in a crucifixion.
April 20, 2006
The Master of the Monstrous
At the tail-end of the Late Middle Ages, in a provincial town in a corner of a conflicted region of the Holy Roman Empire, a boy was born to a family of painters. Establishing himself as an artist in his own right at around the age of thirty, he stood at the very threshold of the Early Renaissance period. But, although his art clearly influences and is influenced by the painters of his day, Jeroen van Aken went his own way when it came to the subjects of his paintings. A deeply religious man, he produced wild and fantastical visions of situations and creatures which have never existed anywhere but in his imagination. His work, with its bizarre figures, allegorical messages, and moralistic underpinnings, appealed to admirers among the nobility located as far away as Spain. He became quite famous for his distinct style by the time he died, but not under the name Jeroen van Aken. He was well-known, and still is today, under the name that he eventually took for himself, the name he attached to the few paintings he actually signed: Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch was born in 1450 in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in what is now the Netherlands, about fifty miles from Amsterdam to the northwest, and the same distance from Antwerp to the southwest. At the time, ‘s-Hertogenbosch was within the Burgundian union (governed by the Duke of Burgundy), a territory which included the majority of Belgium and the Netherlands (History). Bosch would spend most (possibly all) of his illustrious career in the town of his birth.
Bosch was part of a long line of painters, beginning with his great-grandfather Thomas, who had migrated from the town of Aachen, from which the family’s name, van Aken, was derived.
Little, however, is known about his early life. In 1463, when Bosch was thirteen, an enormous fire destroyed thousands of houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, an event which may have helped to shape his apocalyptic perspective later in life. Aside from this major event, which may or may not have impacted Bosch significantly, the first significant documentation of his existence as an artist does not appear until he is thirty years old.
In 1481, Bosch married the wealthy daughter of a small-time aristocrat, ensuring that he would be able to paint whatever he wished rather than having to take every possible commission. Also around this time, Bosch became a member of the Brotherhood of our Lady, a religious organization only open to prominent members of society. Most of the members of the organization were prominent for reasons connected to either religious or social position. At only 38 years-old, Bosch was the only sworn member who was a craftsman.
Although a great deal of Bosch’s original artwork is lost, much is known about it from copies, tracings, and the records of those who purchased his paintings. Bosch painted five altarpieces for the Brotherhood, receiving some of his first commissions from its membership. Bosch painted a number of traditional religious pieces for the local upper middle-class, but his most famous paintings were commissioned by the nobility. Beginning in the late 1490s, Bosch received requests for various paintings from Flemish, Dutch, Burgundian, and Spanish aristocrats, among others.
Bosch’s paintings are notoriously difficult to categorize. They cannot be found to follow any particular chronological development, particularly since so many have been lost, and those that remain can rarely be dated. Even attempting to divide Bosch’s works into themes is an imperfect solution because first, those themes often overlap, and second, many of his paintings are packed with smaller scenes which often do not seem to pertain immediately to the picture’s central theme or themes. In the broadest of terms, Bosch’s paintings can be said to depict a religious scene (either from the Bible or Catholic tradition), a religious scene with a specific moral message, or a secular scene with a moral message. A fourth possible grouping would include paintings with eschatological themes and concerns.
Bosch’s strictly religious scenes were virtually all drawn from one of two sources. One source, as previously noted, is biblical narratives. Examples of these are found in his paintings of the stories of Noah, Job, and Jonah, as well as his numerous paintings of the life of Christ, largely from Christ’s childhood and the Passion. The second source consists of scenes from the hagiographies of saints. These include paintings from the lives of St. Jerome, St. Anthony, St. Dominic, St. Martin, and St. Giles.
Bosch’s religious art is much more conventional than his other work. One example of this type of work is his painting Christ Carrying the Cross. Bosch actually painted more than one work with this title, but this particular painting was produced in 1490. The painting shows an extreme close-up of the scene. Only Christ’s face and a single beam of the cross are visible among the crowd that presses in around him. As was common with such paintings, all of the people in the crowd are dressed in the clothing of Bosch’s time rather than Christ’s. Christ’s face in the painting is extremely tranquil. He might almost be sound asleep. The crowd around him, however, is full of grotesque, distorted faces, full of rage, wicked glee, and even blank apathy. This painting is typical in that it reveals Bosch’s preoccupation with the omnipresent evil of the world, but it contains none of the weird, impossible figures that the artist is most famous for.
Bosch’s depictions of saints are somewhat different from his paintings of biblical stories as he almost exclusively adapted his scenes of saints to the purpose of teaching a moral message. Many of the saints he painted were hermits, and he never painted some of the more common subjects of his day, such as the Virgin Mary, and St. Anne. His paintings of hermits were not, for the most part, drawn from the story of their lives in any way, but rather the way of life they stood for was used to represent whatever message Bosch wanted to convey.
Among the most notable of these paintings is Temptation of St. Anthony, a triptych (three-panel painting) depicting, on the left, physical torment, in the center, a horrific Black Mass, and on the right, the double allure of lust and gluttony. The “outer wings” (which fold over the front of the painting) depict Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane on the left side, and Christ carrying the cross on the right. The figures drawn by Bosch, particularly in the terrifying central portion, are fantastical and surreal in the extreme: plant-like humanoids, fish with human heads and hands, and weird creatures impossible to describe. And yet, the figures are invested with a strange realism and sense of life, as if it would not be impossible to conceive of their existence in the real world.
Bosch’s secular paintings draw their subjects from well-known folktales, scenes of everyday life, and the like. Bosch’s fixation on the evil of mankind plays a fundamental role in this art as well. The paintings depict his condemnation of excess in anger, consumption of food and alcohol, and especially sexuality. Other prevalent themes include the evils of avarice, idleness, and waste. Tying all of these various vices together is the role that folly plays in leading men astray. Paintings like Ship of Fools serve as allegorical representations of this concept. The painting depicts a group of men and women sailing in the ship of humanity across the sea of time, eating, flirting, and generally wasting their lives away. A number of figures in the painting have additional symbolic meanings. An owl and Muslim crescent represent heresies, a lute and bowl of cherries represent lust, and additional symbols refer to gluttony and madness.
Ultimately, though, the paintings which are the most central to Bosch’s vision of the world, and those for which he is most famous, are his eschatological works. Scenes of judgment and apocalypse were nothing new in the 15th and 16th centuries, but somehow Bosch’s visions of them capture the human imagination in a unique way. His Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things and the triptychs Last Judgment and Haywain all reveal a union between Bosch’s pre-eminent fascinations: man’s fallen state, the overarching plan of God for human history, and the terrors of judgment and hell for the wicked.
Grouped among paintings of this type, Bosch’s best known work is Garden of Earthly Delights. Painted near the end of his life, the work is a triptych containing the progression of human history and sin in three panels on the inside and the creation of the world on the outside. The leftmost panel shows Adam and Eve in paradise with Christ, in a state of innocence and bliss. They are surrounded by all sorts of animals, both real and imagined, including various birds, small mammals, lizards, elephants, giraffes, and unicorns. The landscape is dotted with fanciful structures which are strangely reminiscent of works of modern sculpture.
The right panel contains a depiction of hell. As in Bosch’s other paintings of diabolical torment, this portion of the work is full of surreal shapes and figures, some terrifying, many indescribable. Some believe that the large head appearing near the center of the painting is self-portrait of the artist himself. If true, this would be an interesting commentary on his view of the state of humanity, and of his own spiritual walk with God. Another hallmark of this type of scene is the striking resemblance it bears to more modern works. The style is very similar to something that an artist like Salvador Dali would produce in the twentieth century, and it is difficult to picture such a work existing over five centuries prior to this.
The central portion of Garden of Earthly Delights, however, is of even greater interest. This is the main scene of the painting, holding the two outer halves together. At first glance the center appears to illustrate the same thing as the left panel on a grander scale. The entire scene is full of very bright colors, nude (but happy) people, and animals. The same whimsical structures appear here and there, and everyone seems to be having a good time. Closer inspection, however, reveals that all is not as well as it might appear. All of the people are busily engaged in the most fantastic excess, including a variety of sexually deviant behaviors that reveal a startlingly active imagination. On the edges of the picture, shapes that are vaguely similar to those we see in the “Hell” portion of the work are beginning to appear. This “Garden of Earthly Delights” is nothing less than a glimpse of humanity fully in the grip of sinful behavior. Nothing good can come of it, however happy they may be now.
After Bosch’s death in 1516, he remained quite popular among the nobles of Europe for at least another century. His paintings influenced the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose work appeared during the mid-1500s. During the 17th and 18th centuries he lost his appeal for most of the world, but remained extremely popular in Spain (Garden of Earthly Delights still resides in Madrid). Finally, at the end of the 19th century, he began to regain popularity for different reasons.
Bosch continues to be both popular and controversial in the art world today, inspiring a great deal of scholarship regarding the true meanings of his paintings and what inspired his art. Theories involving strange psychological causes and secret heretical sympathies abound, but mainstream scholarship tends to agree with the traditional view that Bosch was an orthodox Catholic whose paintings were inspired by a combination of unique vision and conventional medieval themes.
Either way, his work remains not only a fascinating sample of the art that bridges the medieval and renaissance periods, but also an eerie foreshadowing of thematic work that would not seriously enter the art world until centuries after he first dabbled in it.
Final Personal Note: I ordered a print of Garden of Earthly Delights a few days ago. Rachel said I could hang it in the bathroom. I am pleased.
November 08, 2005
Notice of a Brief Sabbatical
Some time has passed since my thoughts surfaced here,
And more time still must pass ere I return.
For heavy still weigh loads of work so drear.
'Tis far I am from done howe'er I yearn.
The academic stress is almost tidal:
Calling for my attention undivided
(Thinking on't makes me feel suicidal)
Still papers (three) and journals (ten) are wanted.
Yet due dates come and due dates go, as always,
Quite unlike fun which waits 'round every corner.
It follows me through Liberal Arts hallways,
And during times with friends I'll keep forever.
Reader, please, keep coming back to visit.
When stuff happens, you'll certes hear all about it.
October 21, 2005
The Idiot's Guide to Job . . . For Dummies
by Daniel and Jared
(Here is our "epic limerick" from last night's Reading the Bible as Lit presentation, complete with scripture references where relevant for the material we drew from the book of Job.)
NARRATOR: There once was a legend named Job. (1:1)
To shun evil and fear God, he strove. (1:8)
Then Satan went up, (1:6)
And said to God, "'sup?"
GOD: "Consider my servant Job." (1:8)
NARRATOR: So Satan began to connive,
Not one of Job's kids did survive, (1:18-19)
His cattle were gone, (1:13-17)
His burdens piled on,
And servants alone now survive. (1:15-17,19)
WIFE: What a foolish old man you are!
To let all of this go so far!
Curse God and die, (2:9)
JOB: Never! Not I!
Not even when life is sub-par. (2:10)
I wish that I'd never been born (3:3)
My life would not be so forlorn
With sores I'm accursed. (2:7-8)
Man! This is the worst! (9:21)
And even my clothes are all torn! (1:20)
ELIPHAZ: Such wonderful friends this Job has.
Now let's see, there's me, Eliphaz. (4:1)
Zophar and Bildad, (11:1,8:1)
Those two aren't so bad,
But they can be a pain in the . . . butt.
Can a man be more righteous than God? (4:17)
Yeah, that might be true, only NOT!
So repent of your sin, (8:4-6)
Whatever it's been,
And God will improve on your lot.
JOB: I haven't done anything wrong (31:1-40)
I don't even sing bawdy songs.
Your theory is flawed,
I've never cursed God. (2:10)
Have you guys been hitting the bong?
ELIPHAZ: Come on, dude, that cannot be true! (8:2)
God can't just be picking on you. (8:3)
So stop belly-aching
We know that you're faking
Repent and all this will be through. (8:4-6)
JOB: So God, what is all this about? (7:17-21,10:1-22)
Some children are calling me 'lout.' (30:1,9)
You've known all along, (31:1-40)
I've done nothing wrong.
ELIHU: So you're just gonna sit there and pout? (32:2-3)
I am a young man, but a wise one (32:6-9)
You old guys stop talking; you're done. (32:18-33:2)
The words from my mouth,
Are coming right out,
They're right on the tip of my tongue.
What do you think? That God's sleeping?
His answers around you are creeping. (33:14-22)
He could speak through a quake,
Or a cake your wife baked,
You might hear him if you could stop weeping.
So hearken ye now to this lightening. (36:27-37:24)
It's terribly, terribly frightening.
I see you're all balking,
GOD: Are you guys still talking?
Oh, now my frustration is heightening.
Who darkens my counsel today? (38:2)
Now I'll ask, and you'll answer, OK? (38:3)
Now you'd better get comfy,
Get your cushions all fluffy,
Because I'm gonna be yelling at you for the next four chapters or so, sound good? (37:1-41:34)
What?! God can't change the meter? *ahem* Excuse me.
Do you think you can argue with me? (40:2)
Well go right ahead, and we'll see!
JOB: Well, gee, I don't know, (40:4-5)
GOD: That's right, you don't know!
You think what I do is so easy?
You think you can rouse the Leviathan? (41:1)
You think that you can? Try again!
AUTHORS: But we had no idea
About what to write here,
Because nothing rhymes with Leviathan!
JOB: "Who darkens my counsel?" you asked. (42:3)
In your glory I never had basked. (42:5)
So now that we've met,
To convey my regret,
I'll break out the sackcloth and ash. (42:6)
NARRATOR: Job's story now draws to an end.
He offered up prayers for his friends. (42:9-10)
And God took his trouble, (42:10)
And gave him back double.
To God be the glory. Amen.
March 11, 2005
Hic Sunt Dracones
Yes, I know I went awhile without laying out a story again. I got distracted with various things, and then there was this one entry that I wanted to get done and it didn't get done, and between one thing and another . . . Well, here it is.
Anyway, during the Fall semester of my Sophomore year here at LeTourneau I took an Honors class which had a profound impact on my worldview by bringing a number of things into focus and giving direction to a number of latent interests. This class was Only Inklings taught by Drs. Woodring and Olson of the Bible and English departments respectively.
This story has only one thing to do with that class: It was an assignment. At one point we had to write a short faerie story or fantasy of some kind after learning about Tolkien's and Lewis's principles of mythopoeic subcreation and whatnot. I wrote the story that appears below the fold.
And that's really all you need to know, but for one thing that I'd like to mention. If the story (in particular the expository portion) seems a bit rushed or condensed . . . it is. I had an upper limit which I was not allowed to exceed, so that portion of the story in particular sounds more like the synopsis of a novel than anything else. That's just the way it goes. Enjoy.
Hic Sunt Dracones
With a loud snapping and cracking of the underbrush he finally broke through the tree line and gazed, a bit disgustedly, at the view spread out in front of him. The land was desolate as far as the eye could see, flat and charred. He kicked experimentally at the fine, gray ash and it rose in a thick cloud which dissipated immediately. He stepped back and sat on a fallen log which jutted out from the edge of the forest and gave a weary sigh. Next, he extracted an inkwell and a quill pen, the tools of his trade, from a leather pouch at his side, and selected a single, rolled-up parchment out of the several protruding from his rucksack.
The Cartographer unrolled his half-formed map across his knee and carefully added to it the latest information gleaned from his travels. He sprinkled a handful of sand across his work and then carefully poured the sand back into the small container it had come from and put it away. The map he rolled up again, gently returning it to his backpack before he put everything else away.
Rising to his feet again, he looked out across the waste ahead and wrinkled his nose with distaste. He was sorely tempted to leave this portion of the map blank and simply turn around and plunge back into the forest in search of another region to explore. As he debated this in his mind, he spotted an anomaly on the featureless plain somewhere off to the right and almost out of sight beyond the horizon. It was much too far away to make out any detail whatsoever, but his interest was piqued and his feet were already moving in that direction before he had consciously commanded them to do so. If there truly was anything of interest out here, it was his solemn duty to investigate it and record the results.
It was nearing twilight before he could get significantly closer, and he could tell by now that his destination was farther even than it had looked when he first started out. Now, with the sun about to set at his back, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he wouldn’t even be able to see which direction he was supposed to go. Cursing his earlier enthusiasm, he picked up his pace a notch or two. After nearly another hour of brisk walking, the objective seemed as far away as it had before, and he was beginning to despair. The prospect of a night spent here in the midst of this ash-covered expanse of open country did not appeal to him in the slightest, but he did not see how he could avoid it.
These were the thoughts that were running through his mind when a sudden bellowing roar erupted to his left. He whirled to face the source of the noise and his jaw went slack. Streaking towards him was a creature straight out of the myth-shrouded past. It was a great winged dragon, longer than a sailing ship and redder than a blacksmith’s furnace in full blaze. Smoke billowed from its huge nostrils and fire streamed forth from its open mouth, both of them cascading back behind it as immense leathery wings brought the monster shooting towards him with incredible speed. In the time it took for him to absorb these few details, the thing was practically on top of him. He was just beginning to realize that he was about to be incinerated, or devoured, or both, when something just as unexpected as the dragon’s sudden appearance happened instead.
A bolt of crackling blue electricity from the clear blue sky struck the dragon’s wings and a shockwave of energy came rumbling swiftly in from the creature’s left like an invisible fist, catching the huge behemoth across the side of the head and sending it spinning and tumbling wildly through the air for a brief second before it hit the ground with a reverberating thud that seemed to shake the earth. The dragon grunted in pain, stunned for the moment, but already attempting to struggle to its feet. A massive waterspout erupted directly onto the large, scaly body, and the dragon thrashed about wildly for a few seconds before collapsing into a heap with a last drawn-out groan.
The Cartographer could not immediately tear his eyes away from the smoldering body stretched out on the ground before him less than a hundred yards away. It was easily fifty feet long from snout to tail, and only now could he make out the wicked claws and teeth which until then had been eclipsed by the beast’s fire and smoke. Suddenly, a bit of movement at the corner of his eye broke the spell and caused him to wheel around, on the edge of panic once again, to face the new threat. Only it wasn’t a threat at all.
Four perfectly ordinary people dressed in simple clothes . . . he shook his head in disbelief and looked again. Four beings were approaching him, hovering several feet off the ground. They were each held aloft by four bright, clear, rapidly-fluttering wings, each with a span of about seven feet. They slowly dropped towards the ground, alighting a few feet away. Each landed on one foot, the other rapidly stepping forward into a brisk walk which slowed after a few short steps until they came to a stop just in front of him. Even as they came to a halt, their wings were folding in on themselves until suddenly they disappeared, leaving no sign that the four had ever had any.
There was a brief silence as they examined the Cartographer. It was a very diverse group. An elderly woman stood at the forefront of the group and seemed to be more-or-less in charge. Flanking her stood a man and a woman; the former looked to be in his fifties, the latter in her thirties. A young man, barely out of his teen years, if that, stood quietly behind the rest of them. The old woman’s hair was a brilliant white without a hint of color in it. Now that she was on the ground, she stooped just slightly and the Cartographer was surprised to notice she had a shawl around her shoulders and carried a cane to help her stand. Her green eyes were sharp and knowing, and they narrowed slightly as she gazed piercingly at him as if she were unsuccessfully trying to fathom the significance of his presence among them.
After a brief second she spoke to the others, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on his. “Get the creature back to the Vorpal Gate and find out where he got out.”
Apparently no further instructions were necessary for, with a curt nod from the other woman, the three spun about and moved towards the huge body. As they stepped away their wings were already unfolding and before they were ten feet away they had stepped up rather than forward and were aloft. This the Cartographer noticed on the edges of his vision as he found himself quite unable to tear his gaze away from the woman in front of him.
Then she too turned around and began to take off from the ground, gesturing slightly with her hands as she moved. A sudden, firm nudge at the back of the Cartographer’s knees shoved him into a sitting position on top of something solid and before he knew what had happened he was several feet off the ground himself, coasting along beside his escort. He couldn’t contain a yelp of surprise when he discovered that he wasn’t actually sitting on anything . . . at least, nothing he could see. If he closed his eyes, which he quickly proceeded to do as nausea tugged uncomfortably at his stomach, he could almost have imagined that he was sitting in a rather comfortable armchair if it hadn’t been for the breeze in his face and the unmistakable sensation of speed.
After a few seconds he managed to relocate his center of gravity and he ventured to open his eyes. He risked a quick glance back over his shoulder and gave a gasp of surprise. There was no sign of the other three people, and he could only just make out the enormous form of the dragon twisting and turning in the midst of a maelstrom of blowing sand. The entire churning mass was moving off, he couldn’t tell where, and picking up speed as it moved. The woman at his side gave no indication that she realized he was still there, and she certainly didn’t turn around to see what was happening behind them.
They had been picking up speed as well, and when he finally turned back around he spotted their destination just ahead. It was obviously the strange feature that he had been unable to identify when he first set out from the edge of the forest. Now, of course, he saw immediately that it was a small, simple village . . . an apparently insignificant grouping of thatched huts with a few larger buildings scattered here and there amidst the rest. Everything within the boundaries of the village clashed vividly with the surrounding waste. The walls of each hut were whitewashed neatly and each of them had doors and shutters painted in bright greens, blues, yellows and reds. Several of the huts boasted flower gardens, most had vegetable gardens, and all of them had a well-kept patch of grass somewhere at the very least.
There were trees here and there, none of them overly large, but all in full leaf and a few even in bloom. As they began to fly over the outermost edges of the town, he noticed that the ground sloped down at a slight angle and that the village was actually nestled into a hollow crater that appeared to be as low as thirty feet below the surrounding flatlands in some places. At one end of the village he could make out a natural spring of decent size bubbling merrily and a gaggle of various types of fowl, and at the other there was a small, lush meadow with a flock of sheep grazing peacefully.
As for actual human residents, the streets were not crowded with them, but neither were they deserted. A few isolated groups of children ran laughing here and there, and the sheep and poultry were obviously tended by a few older people. At this point the resemblance to a normal, quaint, self-sufficient village ceased to exist. No one older than adolescence was to be seen . . . on the ground, that is. There were quite a number of them flitting about over the village, going about what otherwise appeared to be fairly ordinary and everyday business.
The shadows were growing long indeed by this time, and it was obvious that everyone was on their way home. Women guided baskets full of produce through thin air, while men were flying in with their axes laid across their shoulders and small bundles of chopped wood bobbing merrily along behind with little or no visible means of support. The few who actually seemed to notice the Cartographer did little more than give him a strange look and fly on with a backward glance at the old woman. She gave no sign that she noticed them at all, but continued purposefully towards the opposite end of the village. At last they appeared to be descending. The Cartographer found that he was moving forward slightly, and landed just ahead of his companion.
“You’d best stand up,” she said briskly, but not unkindly, from behind him. “Your support won’t be there much longer.”
He was already climbing to his feet as she spoke and he felt a small puff of air ruffle his clothing. He gingerly took a short step backward and felt nothing there. Whatever he had been sitting on was gone.
“Hmmm . . . well, well,” this from the old woman. “What have we here?”
He felt her reach swiftly into his pack and extract one of the precious scrolls and he turned quickly to face her, intending to protest. The slightly amused expression on her face stopped him and he simply watched as she unrolled the parchment and glanced over it rapidly.
“I see,” she paused and looked up at him. “Been in the trade long?”
“M-my whole adult life,” he managed to stammer. The question had been unexpected, although he had no time to consider the full oddity of discussing his career choices with this person after the events which had just transpired. It was far too ordinary, and ordinary had ceased to happen well over two hours ago.
“Well known then, I suppose?”
“N-not really; No one pays attention to who drew the map, after all.”
“Very true, but do people buy them?”
“Oh, yes! The publisher is always very anxious to receive them whenever I come back from one of my expeditions. I fancy that I draw them well enough, but I expect it’s the embellishment he likes best.”
Her lips quirked slightly as she looked down at the map again, “Yes, I can see how he might. The drawings are quite good. Have you actually encountered everything you have pictured here?”
“Oh, heaven’s no! Why, look at some of those creatures! One might just as well claim that one had run into a dra” He cut off rather abruptly as he remembered the obvious.
At this she laughed and rolled up the parchment, stepping past him as she handed it back. “I wonder now . . . People have a tendency to believe that which is placed before them.” She trailed off, “Well, let’s not stand on the doorstep all day. Come inside; I’ll feed you a hot meal and we can talk this over.”
The Cartographer followed her inside and found her to be quite true to her word. The food was excellent, especially as he hadn’t tasted a properly prepared meal in quite some time. The talk, which didn’t truly begin until the meal had been finished and the table cleared, lasted for rather a long time indeed.
For hours the Cartographer sat, mesmerized, as the old woman told him a story which had begun decades earlier, when she herself had been very young. The first parts were entirely second-hand, a sweeping epic of two opposing forces (she called them Light and Darkness, at first) doing battle in a place utterly outside of our own. Darkness was being beaten rather badly, and had actually been routed utterly by the Light, until the merest chance discovery turned the tide.
Darkness found a portal into this world, a portal which was located just a few short miles from the village, and this became the rallying point. It was discovered that Darkness took on a form even more powerful in our world than in it had in its own. It became something very much like what we would recognize as dragons of immense strength and ferocity. Darkness also determined that it could draw energy from our world, carry it back through the portal into theirs and use it against Light.
Suddenly, Light was fighting for its very survival again. Meanwhile, the effect of Darkness drawing energy from our world was manifested by the ever-growing blight of ashy waste around the Vorpal Gate (as it came to be known). It wasn’t long before the villagers noticed this during their frequent trips into the forest around their homes. It soon seemed that the village would be swallowed whole by the destruction, and the villagers made ready to leave if it should become necessary. The dragons had not yet discovered the presence of any other beings within the world they were invading, but it was only a matter of time.
For a time it looked as if Darkness would win on both sides of the Vorpal Gate. And finally, Light found the gate. Light also took on a different form in this world, but their power was neither enhanced nor diminished. A poorly captured likeness of one of these beings with no attention to scale would have revealed something very like the beings we call fairies, or pixies. The reality, of course, was as different as an acorn to an oak tree.
They were tall, taller than almost any human, and well-built. Where our fairies are mischievous and a bit silly, the faeries were noble and more than passing fair to look upon. Their wings, quite different from the insectile things we patch onto our own fairies, were unlike anything that has ever been seen. As wispy and ethereal as gossamer, they were at the same time more durable than steel. Each facet of each wing caught and refracted light at a thousand different angles, sending brilliant beams of color in all directions, especially when they were in flight.
The lone scout that came forth discovered the nearby humans almost immediately, and this brought yet another factor into the Light’s councils of war. It too had the ability to drain energy from this world and use it in battle against Darkness, however to do so would annul the entire original purpose of the war. Knowing, as it did, that our world was inhabited, Light could not allow the wholesale devastation to continue.
A solution was reached, and it was at this point that the old woman and her fellow villagers truly entered the story. The faeries needed to bring the destruction of our world to a halt, or at least slow it down, in order to save us and to stop the flow of energy back into their universe so they could rally successfully against Darkness once and for all. Unfortunately, this very flow of energy prevented them from freeing up any of their own considerable resources to this side of the gate, all of their energies being required to hold Darkness at bay on their own side.
One faerie (which was still one more than they could safely spare) traveled back into our world and appeared to the villagers. He explained everything and offered the answer which Light had finally put forward. The faerie would grant a portion of their powers to the humans, and in return the humans would take on the task of keeping the dragons on the proper side of the Vorpal Gate. He made a very convincing case, the villagers agreed, and the faerie spent as much time as he could teaching them the use of their newfound powers.
The first thing he instructed them in was the formation of boundaries. The Vorpal Gate was immediately sealed off, and soon after the immediate area around the village was surrounded by a protective barrier. The blockade around the gate was sturdy and well-built, but it couldn’t be perfect. The dragons assaulted it constantly, testing for weaknesses, and whenever they found one they broke forth and had to be driven back through the Gate and the opening sealed off and reinforced.
The waste continued to grow, but slowly. Updates on the state of the war were infrequent at best, but Light was slowly regaining the upper hand as the humans continued to shore up the boundary on the gate and dragons had a harder time breaking through. When they did, there were always patrols roaming about the area, just waiting to pick a fight. Dragons couldn’t be killed on this side of the portal, but enough force could stun them and bring them to the ground long enough for their fires to be temporarily quenched so they could be transported back to their own world. The duty of the villagers demanded constant vigilance, but there was a steady flow of reinforcements as the children grew up and gained the powers which came with adulthood. The young man the Cartographer had seen in action that day had been on his first patrol.
“So you see,” the old woman finally concluded, “this is our purpose for going on as we do. It is our duty and privilege to protect and serve humanity and our own future generations until such time as it is no longer necessary. This can best be accomplished if the rest of the world stays ignorant. And until now, it has been. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . at least, that is what I thought at first.” She smiled knowingly, “Perhaps your stock in trade can be of more use than your silence.”
The Cartographer’s face brightened. “You are more than welcome to any aid which I have to offer.”
“Do you understand what I am asking of you? Are you willing to do what you can?”
In answer, the Cartographer drew forth a scroll and unrolled it on the table, unpacking his equipment and setting to work on the spot. An hour later, it was finished, and the old woman inspected it with a grateful smile.
“I suspect that you have been of greater use than you know. Come now, a good night’s rest will do you no harm, and in the morning we shall return you to the edge of the forest where you appeared.”
They both stood and she showed him the spare room and bade him good night. The map still lay unrolled on the table showing the forest and the lands the Cartographer had traveled from to reach it. Beyond the borders of the forest lay the blank portion yet to be completed . . . Blank except for a drawing and three words. What the drawing consisted of I shall leave entirely up to your imagination. Under the drawing, written in a fine, flowing hand, were the words “Here Be Dragons.”
March 02, 2005
The story for the week appears a little late this time . . . hard on the heels of the current week's story, in fact. I had a few other posts in the works that I wanted to complete first and I had a bit of trouble getting them cranked out, and . . . Well, here we are.
Anyway, speaking of cranking things out, that's pretty much what I did with this story. During my first year here at LeTourneau, I roomed with a great guy named Bryan Durkin (his blog is linked at right: "El Marinero"). Bryan will be shipping off to join the Navy within about a week, but at the moment that's kinda beside the point. Bryan and I got along very well together because we both enjoyed reading (lots of the same books, too), we both loved computer games, similair types of music and movies, and writing. Bryan is an amazing writer and always puts me to shame (in fact, he's already been published in an anthology of short fantasy stories).
During our first semester, we were extremely bored one Saturday afternoon and decided that we would each sit at our computers and write a short story, then trade, edit, and comment on each other's work. Bryan wrote something that would have served as an excerpt of a larger work involving a chase scene on futuristic motorcycles. I wrote the story that appears below the fold. We had a pretty good time, and I often wish that we had written together more often, but it wasn't long before we found other ways to spend Saturday afternoons . . . *insert ominous chord here* . . .
Be that as it may, here is the story that I spat out over the course of a couple of hours. It's probably a bit rough, and almost certainly predictable, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope everyone enjoys reading it.
The wind whipped through the area wildly with nothing to impede its progress. Frustrated at finding nothing larger than a mesquite tree or livelier than a horny toad, it viciously began to throw dust devils high in the air. Metal glistened on the horizon and the wind died down once again as if waiting to see what was coming . . .
The black ribbon of highway stretched to the horizon. It seemed to shimmer and weave as light refracted off of the waves of rising heat. That was the only visible sign of the temperature for me, sitting in an air-conditioned car, (the AC was thankfully working for once) and doing at least 85. I hadn’t seen a sign of civilization for nearly an hour, barring telephone poles, connected by tendrils of spidery wire and stretching forever in both directions. The road ahead was as empty as the road behind.
My eyes fell reflexively on the road map at my side, but I tore my gaze away and watched the road. I wasn’t lost. Roads in Texas are supposed to be empty. I pressed the gas pedal in a little bit harder and held it there; time was of the essence. No cruise control, which was kind of a pain, but the foremost thought in my mind was my destination. A quick glance at the dashboard clock told me that it was almost 10:30 in the morning. It’s midmorning, February, and it’s already an oven outside. I shook my head wonderingly, glad that I lived in the Rockies instead of the arid Southwest.
My eyelids started to droop and I reached for the radio: nothing but country music and a whole lot of static. With nothing else to keep myself awake with, I re-reviewed the facts. I applied the word “facts” very loosely, of course. It had all started with this dream, this vivid dream. I’m not much of a dreamer, but night after night it came back to haunt what should have been a peaceful sleep. There was a certain sense of urgency to the dream, but that was hardly what made it stand out. Many dreams are like that. In fact, I couldn’t really understand exactly what caused it to fill my conscious thoughts as surely as it filled the subconscious. Perhaps there was the nagging feeling of truth to it. Every aspect, every detail, every nuance and thought and action was strikingly lifelike; certainly striking enough to spook me.
In my dream, I was running somewhat frantically down a street I had never seen before. This street was in a town I didn’t recognize, in what I felt like was an area I had never visited. I was holding a piece of paper in my hand and as I held it up to look at it I spotted the date and time on my watch: February 29th, 5:00 P.M. I suddenly became aware that the sun was, in fact, setting, and the light was beginning to fail. The piece of paper had a lot of writing on it, but only the words at the top stood out. They formed a name: Norman Viscle. Didn’t spot a surname like that every day. The rest of the words, I believe, were blurred out, but somehow I got the sense of directions or perhaps a number of addresses. As I ran like this, I began to feel two things: first, that I was approaching my destination. Second that I no longer had time to get there before . . . I didn’t know; something bad.
Sure enough, as I sailed around the corner I spotted a man who had apparently just stepped out of one of the doors to the shops and buildings along the street. He stood nearly the length of the entire block away from me, not far from the corner at the next intersection, but suddenly I knew that he was important. He was the key to whatever motivation had brought me here. Even as I watched, he stepped off of the curb, his attention fixed, either on me, or something directly behind me. It didn’t matter what, because whatever it was, it took his concentration off the street he was crossing. He didn’t even see the car that flew around the corner behind him and plowed into him.
Dreams are soundless, but I could easily imagine the tremendous screeching of brakes and squealing of tires that followed. Time slowed down to a tenth of its normal speed. Burnt rubber left angry black streaks in the car’s wake. I could almost hear bones shatter as the car hit the man and his body folded around the shape of the bumper and hood. And then the body was in the air, twisting in unnatural ways, turning over and over and over. It hit the ground loosely some ten feet away, like an odd-shaped, lifeless sack and didn’t move anymore. The car had already stopped and the door opened by the time the body landed. And, predictably (particularly after I had lived through this some dozen times), I woke up.
Dreams are often quite mysterious, usually exceptionally weird, and always nearly incomprehensible in some way or another. Many was the time that I had woken up, often unsure whether to simply chuckle or have myself examined, shaking my head at my latest forays into dream land. This one was no exception. I consider myself to be a levelheaded individual, and I wouldn’t ever let dreams bother me, or so I thought.
This one, however, did.
For two straight weeks I dreamed it. The first time was February 12th, and after nearly a week I realized that this was, in fact, Leap Year. My subconscious might easily have known that and inserted it into the dream, but at the same time, that became just one more unusual fact tugging at the back of my mind. After seeing that rare date approach closer and closer with every night that I dreamed my dream, I . . . wasn’t sure what to think. I became obsessive and preoccupied. I started to lose sleep and become stressed. Slowly, as that fateful day and hour approached, I became more and more convinced that a man would die unless I acted. I don’t believe in fate. I never have. But this . . .
And so I found myself driving down a lonely road somewhere in central Texas at almost 11:00 on Leap-day. The name on the paper had been unusual enough to investigate. There turned out to be only two Norman Viscles listed as living in the United States. Even finding that many surprised me. One lived in Vermont. I knew that, wherever the dream took place, it certainly wasn’t Vermont. Not in February. The other Norman Viscle lived in a small town in Texas. That had to be it. It had to be. If my dream was going to become a reality in just a few days, this would be the place where it happened.
I briefly considered a simple phone call. That idea didn’t last long. “Hello, Mr. Viscle,” I imagined myself saying. “You don’t know me. I’m calling you from Colorado to warn you that you’re going to be run over at 5:00 in the afternoon on Leap-day.” If he managed to trace the call, he’d have me committed or imprisoned. No, if I was serious about this, I would have to go myself. I “arranged” to be called in sick to work for the 29th and went to bed early. I was on the road by 3:00 the next morning. And that was how, eleven hours and two states later, I found myself driving into Abilene with three hours left to find Viscle and save his life.
I pulled out the piece of paper that had his name, phone number, and address written on it. Fortunately, Abilene isn’t huge. I explored most of it before I finally found his house an hour later. I drove down the shady, tree-lined street, wondering what I would say to him face to face. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to say anything. Maybe I would find him at home and make up some excuse for ringing his doorbell. Then I could return to my car and merely keep an eye on him for a few hours. I hoped it would be that simple.
I parked next to the curb right in front of the house. It was a small, yellow, wooden affair, which I suppose was taken care of fairly well . . . considering that its owner was single (an incidental piece of information that turned up in my search for him). There was no car in the driveway, but the door was closed. Not a good sign, not a bad sign. I tried to walk casually up the sidewalk and mostly succeeded. My mind whirred, thinking of something to say as I took the three steps to the porch in a quick double hop and took hold of the handle on the screen door.
I paused there for a second and let my brain take a step back and regard me critically. Was this man standing in Abilene, Texas, with his hand on the handle of a stranger’s screen door, really me? I nearly turned and walked away right there, but I hadn’t come this far to drive back without at least knowing. I pulled the door open. The squeaking and groaning of spring and hinges sounded like a shotgun blast in the heavy silence of the sultry afternoon. This was definitely prime siesta weather. I knocked, and waited. There was movement inside. Slow, shuffling steps approached the door. The knob turned, and the door grudgingly came open with a wrench, loosing little showers of dust all over the porch.
Whatever I may have been expecting of Norman Viscle, I hadn’t expected this. Long, wavy red hair that looked like a cheap dye job, fat bulging out around an apron, mop in one hand, feather duster in the other . . . he was a she? All of this was the first thought that leapt into my head, then reality took over, and so did Viscle’s cleaning lady.
“Norman ain’t here right now.” At least, I think that’s what she said. She spoke around a large wad of chewing gum and through a heavy accent, and most of the speech didn’t really make it out of her mouth. This particular scenario hadn’t occurred to me, for some reason. The thought that he might not be home hadn’t entered my calculations, but I realized that I was lucky that someone was home, at least.
“When will he be back?” I asked, crossing my fingers.
“Five-thirty, maybe six.”
Too late. “Where can I find him?”
“He’ll be getting off of work before long, I reckon.”
“Where does he work?”
“Listen, mister, I don’t believe I know your name. And I sure don’t know whether Norman knows ya. How’s about some I.D. or something?” She obviously enjoyed making the request. Suddenly a boring afternoon had become interesting. I didn’t really have time for her to give me the run-around, so I pulled out my driver’s license.
“Bailey . . . Fitzgerald,” she read haltingly, leaning into the card and squinting. Her eyes flicked suspiciously from the picture up to my face. “That you?”
I nearly rolled my eyes. This was ridiculous. Having Viscle’s cleaning lady play cops and robbers with me was getting old fast. I held my peace and nodded.
“D’you see the picture?”
“Yeah, I saw it. Don’t mean nothin’ though. You can have one o’them printed up fer ya if’n ya know where to go. I knew a feller once that”
“Look, I have important business with Mr. Viscle, and I really need to find him as soon as possible. Could you tell me where he works so I can go?”
Abruptly she seemed to grow tired of the whole thing. “He’ll be down to the Liberty High School, maybe grading papers or getting ready tomorrow’s lesson.”
“Great. Thanks.” I turned on my heel and headed back to my car. About halfway to the street I turned to thank her once more, but she had already retreated to her cleaning and, I had no doubt, soap operas.
The high school wasn’t far - nothing in Abilene is - and I had already seen it on my brief tour of the city. I didn’t have to look far for “him” either. There was his sign, right as I walked in the door: Norman Viscle, Vice-Principal. Fifteen minutes and one more encounter with a gum-chewing female later I emerged, having missed the man by about five minutes.
By now I was growing frustrated and desperate. The secretary knew that he was going to run errands, and no, she didn’t know where and wouldn’t have told me if she had. All of this was communicated in a slow, measured, and surly tone accompanied by a frigid glare. I had wasted precious time to no avail and the woman thought I was a loony and probably some kind of criminal to boot.
At this point I really did not know what I was going to do. It was 3:45 and Viscle was wandering loose and unprotected through town, small comfort to me that my fears were not unfounded after all. I clumped angrily over to the cluster of reserved parking spots to the side and stared at the empty space that had contained Vice-Principal Viscle’s car scant minutes before. I didn’t know what to do and suddenly I just didn’t care. I was a fool and at that moment I was all too painfully aware of it.
I turned to go, aiming a kick at the ground, and suddenly froze. A crumpled piece of paper skittered between my legs, pushed along by a light breeze and I dove for it. It was a list of errands. It didn’t have a name on it, but I knew . . .
I should have already foreseen the events of the next hour as I roared from place to place on the list, missing my quarry every single time. I couldn’t confirm it, but I was certain that I was missing him by a matter of seconds now. He had had a twenty-plus minute head start, but I had to be gaining. Anything else would be inconceivable.
In retrospect I am fully aware that I should have gone directly to the last place on the list and waited. Any thinking person would have done exactly that, but in my state of mind I couldn’t be classified as anything of the sort. I was just so certain at each stop that this one would be the place I found him. At ten to five I walked out of the next to last stop on his list empty-handed. I noticed that I was standing in shade that hadn’t been there when I entered the store . . . The sun was on its way down and I was well on my way to being too late for what, after all of my dreams, felt like the 15th and final time.
I sprinted for my car, started it, and roared out of the parking lot at a very unsafe speed. I could make it; I knew I could make it. And that was when it happened.
The car died. It just . . . died. The needle on the gas gauge was sitting several millimeters below empty. My first instinct was to slump over the steering wheel and start cursing, but I’m not a quitter. The street signs told me that my destination was a mere three blocks away.
I leaped out of the car and I was halfway down the block and picking up speed when a totally overwhelming sense of déjà vu hit me like a flying piano and froze me dead in the middle of the street. This was my dream. I don’t mean that I was dreaming (if only!), I mean that this, this was exactly what I had dreamed. I was running down an empty street. The sun was setting. My watch told me the date and that I had three minutes left. I had a piece of paper in my hand. Everything was falling into place and there was just nothing I could do about any of it.
The sound of the motor brought me back to reality. I only had time for one quick, informative glance to my right before instinct took over. I dashed up to the idling car, dove inside, and peeled out. I had one clear picture of a shocked man framed in the open door of the building, where he had gone in “just for a second.” Nothing was going to stop me now. Norman Viscle would be saved. The clock told me that I had a whole minute to spare! I was going to make it! I was actually going to make it!
Hope flooded through me like a warm mug of hot chocolate downed all at once, and brought with it a sense of relief and euphoria. Nothing would or could stop me. My watch beeped. The clock struck five. I pushed the pedal down farther. I took that last corner in a way that clearly said a life depended on my speed and driving ability.
And Norman Viscle exited the office supply store, stepped off of the sidewalk, and walked right in front of me . . .
February 23, 2005
The Sudden Demise of the Devlin Gang
Well, it's that time of the week again. Thanks to everyone who commented on my last story. Your feedback is much appreciated, as always.
This week's story is unique because I wrote it on something of a dare. When I was in high school Asa and I were always in the midst of some intellectual or pseudointellectual debate/discussion. When it came to our discussions of various authors and their writings, Asa had many positive things to say about the works of Louis L'Amour. Naturally I was extremely derisive of any such opinions, and after reading through a book of short stories by the guy, I stated positively that I could outwrite him.
This, of course, was just me talking, and was really more on the level of being a tongue-in-cheek figure of speech rather than a serious statement. I really don't think L'Amour is a good writer, but whether I am one or not remains to be seen, and making such assertions in earnest is just tacky. Anyway, to make a short story long, I was taken up on my challenge.
I went home that night with an idea floating around in my head, and the story that appears beneath the fold is part of the result. The story I actually wrote is extremely short as I ended up trimming out the majority of the background material I had worked up. (Someday I might want to write that back in . . . because as it stands it is really short.) I returned to school the next day, story in hand, and shoved it in front of Asa. He read it through, and looked up at me with a huge grin. As nearly as I can remember, this is what he said:
"It's good, but it's not like Louis L'Amour. Too many big words."
Random aside: In my first draft I somehow spelled "sheriff," "sherrif" throughout the entire thing. I was so annoyed with myself when I discovered this.
And now, without further ado, my attempt at a Western.
The Sudden Demise of the Devlin Gang
Obviously it was High Noon when they rode slowly into town. It was the Devlin Gang, the current gang of bad men going about their chosen profession of terrorizing the west. There were six of them. Six lean, tough men with hard stares and itchy trigger fingers, all of them meaner than a sack of diamondbacks and twice as ornery. Old Doc Svenson was the first to notice their arrival as he left the saloon after his midday meal and strode across Main Street. He didn’t need a second look to tell him that trouble was riding towards him at an easy trot. He hightailed across the street without looking back and slammed the door of his office behind him. The sound of locks and bolts flying into place resounded all over the street, tipping the bandits off to the fact that their presence had been noticed.
Inside the saloon the slightly off-key music continued, totally oblivious to the outlaws that were stalking the vicinity. The six men stopped their horses in front of the building and flipped the reins casually over the hitching post before strolling easily up onto the wooden boardwalk. The heavy thud of their weighted boots striking the wood mingled with the jangling of the metal spurs they wore as they strode up to the swinging doors.
Inside the saloon a few poker games were just hitting their stride. The bartender peacefully wiped the counter and the organist played an easy melody, both were feeling lethargic after the lunch “rush.” The weather was hot and dry, sweaty weather that made shirts stick to sticky chests and brought out the flies in droves. It was an afternoon that should be used to take a leisurely nap. No work would get done on such an afternoon as this.
A thick, booted foot crashed through the doors and they flew back on their hinges with a bang that shattered the peaceful silence like a shotgun blast. A beefy gunslinger strutted in followed by his five sidekicks. The music quit. The poker games froze. The bartender quit wiping the counter and gulped audibly.
“Clear out! All of ya!” the big guy slurred with a tongue that was thick from thirst. He needn’t have asked, and he certainly didn’t need to say it twice. Chairs hit the saloon floor like lassoed cattle as their occupants shot out from the tables and slid out of the doors as quickly as possible. The organist and the bartender were right behind them.
One of the other outlaws, a skinny bowlegged young man stepped in front of the bartender before he could leave. A long, sharp finger jabbed the terrified man’s chest as the bandit sneered, “Not you, stupid. You’ve got to pour the drinks.”
The bartender turned without a word or a sound and shot back behind his bar, ready and willing to serve. All six men ambled over and leaned up against it. “Whiskey,” one of them ordered. “Six rounds. Straight.”
The bartender looked like he wished to melt into the floor and never come up again. They could almost see his knees smacking against each other underneath the counter as his bone-dry mouth tried to form words. “I . . .” he began before hesitating again. “I got my orders. I cain’t s-serve ya.” His eyes pleaded silently, Please don’t kill me. It ain’t my fault. There was a loud creak as six hammers cocked on six six-shooters, all of them pointed at various spots on his torso and head. He didn’t put up much of a fight. In fact, he didn’t put up any fight. Like any intelligent hombre he took hold of the whiskey bottle and poured six rounds, shaky hands spilling nearly half the bottle in the process.
“Where can we find the sheriff of this town?” the big one asked after downing his drink in a single shot.
The bartender tried to speak again, and was unsuccessful. The Devlin gang was known for sheriff killings, twelve in the last two months had died with their boots on under the guns of these men. The bartender’s struggle finally yielded some results and he managed to get out a quick “I ain’t rightly sure.”
“Well, you just get yourself out of here and find him for us. Tell him we want to see him . . . outside. We’ll take care of the whiskey for ya. Heh, heh, heh.” The laugh was dry and without humor, as from a man who rarely exercised it. The bartender left before the outlaw’s hand had found the whiskey bottle, which is to say, pretty quick.
Nobody watched him fly across the street and pound on a door, and so none of them noticed that he wasn’t knocking on the jailhouse door. He wasn’t anywhere near it, in fact. He was pounding away at Doc Svenson’s. He came back about fifteen minutes later, pants pocket bulging. Again, no one noticed.
“Sheriff said he’ll be seeing you boys pretty soon,” the bartender managed and busied himself with a new bottle of whiskey. He turned his back on the men, presumably afraid to look at them, and popped the fresh bottle open. Six more rounds were poured and downed.
“We’re much obliged to you,” said Slim, with a nasty leer. “And I’m sure that sheriff will be too, once we’re through with him.” Raucous laughter filled the room as the gang toasted another round “to the sheriff”. The mood was becoming downright festive.
“Alright you greenhorns,” said the big one, finally. “Let’s get on out there before you’re all roaring drunk.” He stood and led the way towards the door. Not a single one made it that far.
Slim went down first, hitting the floor halfway through a heavy snore. Three more dropped like flies after him as the last two swayed unsteadily on their feet. Another one fell, leaving only the largest of the six still standing. He turned slowly back around to face the bar, leveling an accusing finger at the bartender.
“You!” he said in helpless fury. “You put something in the whiskey, you yellow-bellied sidewinder.” His groping fingers found his gun and dragged it painfully out of the holster. He swung it up over his head and started to bring it slowly and inexorably to bear on the object of his anger. “I knowed I shoulda shot you the second I laid eyes on ya, you miserable . . .” A shot cut short whatever he had been going to say and the gun flew out of his hand, shooting sparks before it dropped. With a muffled groan, cut short by a loud snore, the bandit crumpled and dropped after it.
Doc Svenson strolled through the doors, holstering his gun. “Nice work, Sheriff,” he said pleasantly.
“Thanks, Doc.” The bartender headed over to the pile of sleeping men, shedding his apron to reveal the shiny, five-pointed badge underneath. “Looks like we caught ourselves a pretty nice-sized reward here. What price are their worthless hides up to now? Was it $5,000 apiece alive and $2,500 apiece dead?”
“I believe it was, Sheriff. We can do some mighty fine things in this town with $30,000 dollars.”
“We surely can, Doc. We surely can. Now help me get these wild desperadoes over to the jailhouse and I’ll shoot off a telegram to the District Marshall.”
The two men each grabbed a couple of limbs and started dragging men across the street to the jail. The Devlin gang had just experienced a nasty reversal of fortune, sudden demise, so to speak. Who would ever have expected a bartender to be the sheriff?
February 17, 2005
Fate Worse Than Death
Well, thank you all for your encouraging comments regarding last week's fictional submission. I enjoyed writing it, and a few people seem to have enjoyed reading it. At the moment, that's all I really care about. I wish I could say that all of the above would be true of my second completed endeavor.
Thinking back, I am virtually positive that this story was not written for a class assignment. However it was written during a time when Asa and I had spent many an hour discussing the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and I was actually working my way slowly through his Complete Works. So, naturally, I decided to see if I could write something Poe-esque.
The result scared the bejeezes out of me. I came up with a plot, and then I promptly started thinking like someone else. Never, before or since, have I been so lost in what I was writing (which may explain why, in my opinion, the story fairly drips with outrageous melodrama). When I finally finished, I was shaking. I felt dark, morbid, depressed . . . I decided, first, that I now understood something of why Poe was such a frigging nutjob, and second, that I would never try to write like him again.
Anyway, not really my best work. Far from it, actually . . . But I said I was going to try to avoid criticizing myself, didn't I?
One final note: The very last sentence of the story is a paraphrase of an actual line from Poe . . . I believe it was the description of the gallows from "The Black Cat" . . . which Asa had been quoting somewhat obsessively for a few weeks.
Fate Worse Than Death
My name is . . . You see! I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Not now. Nothing really matters now. How long have I been in this cell? Weeks now? Months? Maybe even years. It is impossible to tell time in this windowless shoebox. Nothing here but a bed, a table, a chair, a small pot in the corner, and these four gray walls. I have stared at them for many an hour. They never change. Artificial light bathes my little cubicle, coming from somewhere I can’t see up in the ceiling. And there’s the door, of course. It blends in perfectly with the wall. There are no openings in it, just a small slot in the bottom for my food to enter.
Why am I here? If you asked I couldn’t tell you. I’ve spent whole days trying to discover that myself. As I said before, though, that point is now moot. I’m about to leave. An escape? No, of course not. There is no escape from this nightmare, save by one route. Death. And so, to death I shall go. I have known that for several hours now, ever since I woke up and saw It.
It was the first thing I laid my eyes upon as I opened them. That little piece of rope, hanging so innocently from the ceiling in the center of my tiny room. Its single eye was staring at me then, even as it does now. The eye of a noose. We stared at each other for a long time before I knew for certain that here, at last, was my escape. Here was the manner in which I would be free forever. This time my salvation will not be snatched from my grasp as it has so many times before.
And so, confident of my success, I’ll bide my time a while. I can leave whenever I wish, but first there is a small matter I wish to take care of. Perhaps it is only vanity, I do not know, but I should like to leave a small record of myself behind. Maybe no one will ever read it, but it will be here for the reading nonetheless. I’m using the end of my spoon, saved from the meal I think of as “breakfast,” the first meal I eat upon waking. The paint on these walls is thin, only a single coat. The words I am writing show up clear and strong in shining white relief against the cold gray.
Until just three days ago I had not an inkling of what I was doing here. Still I do not, but ideas begin to suggest themselves to my mind. I do not know how or when or why I came to this awful prison. I am sure that I asked many times, begged, screamed, pleaded when I first arrived in this place. I no longer remember. Every detail of my capture or arrest, whichever it was, has been erased; wiped out by a deadly fever that nearly claimed my life some weeks ago. Would that it had, but somehow I pulled through and the recovery process was as long as it was lonely.
Enough! I digress. Those prolonged three days ago, on that morning, (for morning I call it when I first wake), I beheld It. Not the It which hangs now from the ceiling, beckoning me, but another It, with a purpose no less clear. It was a small revolver.
I examined it immediately, of course. It was loaded with a single bullet. For a long time I contemplated this instrument of Death, even as it seemed to be contemplating me. Fool that I was my first thought was to take it, and to hide it, and to use it as an aid in escaping. It took very little time to see that that plan would never aid me in any way. I had not seen a living soul, that I could remember since the fever at least. The probability of a decent opportunity was slim, perhaps nonexistent. Besides, my jailers, (I still thought of them as such before I recognized them as fiends), obviously had a purpose in placing this weapon here. I was sure that that reason was not to see me escape. What other purpose might it serve? I racked my brain repeatedly. Nothing came to mind. Surely it was not placed here for my amusement. My captors cared little enough about that. At long last my mind lit on the only possible answer. The gun was there to assist in my own death. Not an execution, but rather a suicide.
My first reaction was, of course, resistance. The self-preservation instinct of the human body is strong, but I soon realized the futility of resistance. What would my instincts be preserving? The miserable, trapped existence of a captive soul? I did not wish to travel that road any longer. Better to submit to the will of whatever entities held me here. Better to travel the road they had chosen for me, rather than a road I did not wish to choose for myself. Once all of these thoughts had turned themselves over in my head, I resolved firmly to end my existence. I resolved to end it with courage and fortitude, being unable to think of a more fitting way to succumb to the devilish machinations of my foes.
Once resolved, the act was an easy one to carry out. My body acted for me. I placed the revolver against my temple. An involuntary flinch at the touch of that cold, steel finger warned me that there were rebel elements in my being. But I would not be deterred. I pulled in a deep breath and fixed a defiant gaze at the uncaring doorway. My finger pulled the trigger almost without conscious thought and the deafening roar of the shot filled my world.
I needn’t even relate that I failed in my attempted suicide. How else might I still be here, my soul a hostage of my body even now, had the gun succeeded in ending my misery? Alas, the gun was not armed to kill in the way that I had thought. The bullet was a blank, and succeeded only in raising a false hope of release. With a cry of dismay I hurled it against the door, which remained deaf and uncaring. A sudden exhaustion overtook me, and I slept fitfully once again.
When I awoke, yet another It had taken the place of the first. My eyes had naturally gone to the spot where the revolver had come to rest, but instead of a revolver I beheld a knife, a dagger rather. Ornately and intricately fashioned, it caught the light from overhead and sent it back with a polished brilliance which enchanted the eye. I was taken aback at the sight. What was this new device, no doubt meant to increase my suffering all the more?
Once again, more strongly this time, my very soul rebelled against the thought of taking my own life, especially in such a grisly fashion! The slitting of the wrists was not as clean and neat and quick as a simple pistol shot to the head. I circled the dagger slowly, unwilling, even afraid, to touch it. It shone all the more dazzlingly as its sleek surface reflected the light from all different angles. I finally bent slowly to retrieve the dreaded instrument of my demise, recoiling suddenly in horror at the thought of what I must do. This blatant show of cowardice on my part served to strengthen my resolve and I grasped the hilt firmly. It fit the contours of my fingers as if it had been made to be held by such a person as I. I weighed it carefully in my hand, tossing it up a few times to get the feel, but I soon grew tired of wasting time. Whereas I had spent many hours meditating upon my doom the day before, the appeal of using such a blade on my person did not grow with superfluous contemplation.
Without hesitating further I pressed the knife to my flesh and drew it sharply across the wrist with a swift, efficient jerk. Nothing came of it, not the slightest droplet of scarlet blood nor even the merest twinge of pain. Nothing. The knife was dull, too dull to cut melted butter, let alone my calloused flesh. The fury of a beast came upon me and I sawed and hacked at the wrist in a kind of desperate insanity. I believe it might have raised a welt, but nothing more came of that exercise in futility. At last, worn out from the exertion, I collapsed on my bed, breathing heavily until my struggles overwhelmed me and I slipped once again into a form of rest akin to sleep, but not nearly so refreshing.
I knew not what to expect when I left my repose this time, but I did not have long to wonder. The lights in the cell had gone out, for the first time that I could ever remember. They had always been on before, whether I was waking or sleeping the light overhead had kept up a silent vigil on my wretched form. And now it was gone. The room was lit by a soft, orange glow. A dim flickering that cast grotesque shadows on the walls. I stood carefully in the faint light, which came now from the floor, and shuffled forward to get a closer look. In the middle of my microscopic prison some unknown tormentor had created yet another escape for me. This one would require me to leave my cell, although I would not stray far from it.
A well had opened up in the ground, perhaps twice the height of a man in width and the same in length. It was perhaps some twenty feet deep, perhaps even more, and waiting on the bottom to receive me I saw Them. Long, sharp bayonets with razor tips pointed directly at me. And around Them, the source of the flickering illumination: number of bales of straw in the process of being hungrily consumed by a starving flame. Even as I stood over that ravenous red flower I could almost feel the heat of the open fire bringing thick beads of sweat to my forehead. The intent of this little device was even more revoltingly plain than that of the two which preceded it. Even had the events of the previous two days not transpired I would have been certain of my keepers’ intent. Their wish was that I throw myself into that all-devouring blaze. Although this fate appealed to me as would a descent into Hades itself, I was not inclined to contest with my spirit yet again. This time there would be no internal struggle. I was determined to unfetter my tightly bound soul so that it might at last fly to its eternal repose. The thought of any sort of relief was so sweet that without further thought I threw myself eagerly forward into the open arms of the inferno.
Again my hearts desire was maddeningly held before me, just out of my reach, and this time worse than before. My body hit a solid barrier with a bone-crunching finality that told me I would continue no farther down the road of Death. I had yet to even descend beyond the level of the cell floor before encountering a smooth, non-reflective, totally undetectable glass wall barring the way. Oh cursed, tortuous monsters who devised that hellish illusion! Why did they insist upon torturing me thus? What had I done? Was I in fact the perpetrator of some hideous crime so unspeakable that the rest of my days must be spent in pursuit of something I didn’t want, but must have? Was this the sight of a fiendish experiment in the nature of human suffering? Why had I been chosen for this fate and who or what had brought me to this place?
For a time which I had no desire to monitor I lay there on that crystal clear window, my body racked with sobs and the intense desire for relief from the troubles I had fallen upon. At long last I dragged myself over to the bed once again and faded back into restless sleep, not daring to think of what I might find when I woke again, wishing that I might never again wake. But wake I did, and to a welcome sight. That other eye, the noose, staring at me, contemplating me in the same somber attitude that I am contemplating it. Here at last is an end of which I will not be robbed. Here at last will my trials reach their final end. Here at last will I find peace . . .
“How is he?” the speaker was a quiet, serious-looking man in a white lab coat.
“The same,” his younger colleague replied, peering through the small window in the door of the padded cell. Both of their tags had “Psychiatric Ward” printed under the names and MDs and PhDs.
Inside the cell a forlorn figure of a man was moving about very carefully and deliberately. The cubicle was totally empty except for him, but he held his arms in a peculiar manner as if he was dragging something towards the center of the tiny room. He stopped in the middle and stepped up onto . . . nothingness. His feet were still on the floor but he ducked his head slightly as if to avoid brushing the ceiling. His hands took hold of something in front of him which only he could see and pulled it towards his head, over his head to his neck. He stared blankly forward, drawing a deep breath, and suddenly kicked outwards with his feet. For the barest of milliseconds he appeared to be suspended there in midair, but the illusion disappeared as he came crashing face first to the floor. He lay there, stunned, for a moment and turned onto his back. A single tear rolled down his cheek, followed by a veritable flood of them as he cried like a little child.
“Poor devil,” said the younger man and sighed sympathetically.
“I’m afraid he’s incurable,” said the older man, shaking his head.
“What’s his trouble?”
“I’m not sure. Some sort of massive guilt complex, but more severe than anything I’ve ever seen before. He’s obviously suffering from extreme delusions of some kind.”
“Poor devil,” the young man sighed again and shook his head slowly. Inside the cell the man was still sobbing disconsolately.
The rope broke! It broke! Oh that I could see the face of the demon spawn who torture me so! Men they cannot be! No man could treat his fellow thus! Oh, God! Take me! Take me where you will, so long as I may leave this place! Hell holds no fear for me anymore! Perhaps I am there already. Could that be where I am? That place of eternal suffering? It could be, for eternal suffering is what I experience even now! Take me! Take me from this hellish place before my sanity departs and leaves me with nothing! Oh this place of horror and of sorrow and of despair and agony and torment and of a DEATH which will never, never be mine!
February 09, 2005
Everyone Is Entitled to One Fatal Mistake
For quite some time I have toyed idly with the idea of posting some of my dabblings in the realm of fiction, and I always talked myself out of it. I both love and despise my own work at the same time, and I never read it without fixing something. I just couldn't bring myself to subjecting something I like, but that I think is horrible, to the criticism and commentary of others. But I love to hear what people think, good or bad.
Anyway, due to my general slowing down of posting content, and the desire to improve on my work and perhaps write something new (I haven't written any new stories in at least two years) I think I'll post some of these. I don't have many that are both short and complete . . . four or five at most, I think. And I'm going to force myself not to include any apologetic or over-explanatory commentary about the stories themselves, as difficult as that is.
They are what they are. Most of them were written about three or four years ago and have had limited editing since. If you care to sit still long enough to finish them and then offer criticisms/compliments/suggestions . . . whatever, then I will be thrilled. If not, this is still just me posting random things I've written. The only difference is that this stuff was composed years before I had a blog instead of on the spot. I don't think any of my short stories are longer than ten pages in MS Word (double-spaced).
This particular story was written during the first semester of my senior year, for English class . . . I am painfully aware of certain flaws in it, but I don't dare read over it thoroughly right now. I'll never get to bed.
The assignment, if I remember correctly, was to write a story that included irony, but it's possible that I just wanted to be ironic and end a story with . . . Well, you'll see. Read on. If you dare.
Everyone Is Entitled to One Fatal Mistake
With a loud snap the time clock punched Hector Bingley’s time card on the “Out” blank. He pulled it out listlessly and slid it back into its slot before trudging out the door and making his way through the factory gates. A sharp, shooting pain in the sole of his foot reminded him once again that he wasn’t getting any younger. Far too many things were reminding him of that these days . . . far too many. The years of long, boring hours on the assembly line were taking their toll on his body, and at age forty-seven he felt sixty years old. And living where he did, that was entirely inappropriate. Florida was a place to go after you aged, not a place to live while you were aging!
Without warning he slipped into his favorite daydream, his only daydream if the truth were known. He imagined himself as a great explorer and treasure hunter, just like his hero, Juan Ponce de Leon of Spain. He had been combing Florida for months, seeking the ultimate prize: The Fountain of Youth, and he had just found it. Laughing and yelling he dove into it, splashing and swimming through the healing waters. Decades of life slipped from his shoulders like so much dead weight, and he could feel the wrinkles of his face smooth. His shiny, balding head sprouted thick crops of hair once again and his false teeth hit the ground with a satisfying crack beside his now useless bifocals, he wouldn’t be needing those anymore. Finally he stepped out of the fountain. He was young again, and he always would be.
A blaring horn brought him back to reality with a jolt as a teenager in a hot rod swerved to miss him. He was standing in the middle of the street several blocks away from the factory, a goofy smile plastered on his face. He sighed, a deep, heavy, hopeless sigh, and made his way back to the sidewalk. If only . . .
He knew the Fountain of Youth existed . . . somewhere. It had to! And Ponce de Leon had found it, right here in Florida. The history books claimed that he had died, but Hector didn’t believe it for a second. Juan had just been keeping his discovery quiet to exploit it for himself. Who knew? The man might still exist somewhere in his eternally youthful state. After Ponce de Leon had faked his own death he could have gone anywhere to live forever. Hector had a theory that if he was still around, he’d be in Florida, guarding his prize. That might explain a few things, such as the number of old people who retired there, for example. Maybe Ponce had ways of quietly advertising to certain aging people, and his income came from their retirement funds. Hector would never tell anyone his theory, of course. They’d have him committed, but you never knew . . .
He walked by a five-story apartment building on the opposite side of the street and paused to listen to a beautiful melody that was wafting down from above. The building looked like an old, converted villa from Florida’s colonial days. A magnificent balcony crowned the top floor. It was square, which was odd for a balcony, and each of the four points held a statue of a wizened human being, bent double from rheumatism or some such thing. There was no railing, another strange feature, and slightly off the balcony’s center there sat a huge black grand piano. An elderly man was playing it, the wild shock of white hair on his head flying crazily in every direction as he threw himself into his music. It was a very good piece. Hector had never heard it before. Suddenly, in the middle of a rising crescendo, the music stopped. The pianist’s hands crashed down on the keys in frustration, producing a sickening cacophony. It didn’t look like he would be playing more anytime soon, so Hector, with another of his famous sighs, continued his painful shuffle down the street. He didn’t even notice the peculiar face peering at him from behind a white lace curtain on the ground floor of the same building. As he rounded the corner the curtain fell back into place again.
Maestro Dietrich Stradivarius was upset, angry, frustrated . . . the works. His opus, the finest composition of his life, was lying uncompleted on his piano on the balcony. He could feel the music, beautiful music, marvelous music, floating maddeningly about his head, just out of reach. Now matter how he grasped at it, it wouldn’t come to him. It always stayed in the same place; close enough to make its presence known to him, but too far to be taken hold of. He had spent the last several months hard at work on the first pages of the Concerto. The notes had come slowly, but they had come, feeding themselves from his brain to his fingers as one feeds string to a kite, but he now he was out of string. The rest of the Concerto was trapped up there in his head, buried deep in a corner beyond his reach, and he couldn’t remember ever feeling so maddeningly helpless as he did just then. Perhaps the remainder of the great work was doomed to stay there, stuck up in his head until his dying day and beyond.
With a groan of despair he wheeled the piano through the open French doors and back into his apartment. He told himself once again that he could still hope. The rest of the music would come to him, probably when he least expected, as it had in the past. Granted he had never experienced Writer’s Block before, at least not like this, but he was confident that the music would come. He closed the French doors and bolted them, leaving the room to get himself something to eat.
He tripped lightly down the stairs in an effort to be cheery, and as a pleasant reminder to himself that he could still do that. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, but the years had been kind to him, and he didn’t suffer from most of the ailments that afflicted the ancient.
A voice from behind stopped him as he trod out the door. His landlord’s door was open a crack and his hand poked out holding a letter. The landlord was a quiet sort and kept to himself mostly. In fact, the Maestro couldn’t ever remember actually having seen his face. He probably had . . . surely he had, but his memory was one thing that certainly wasn’t what it used to be. The landlord’s hand was smooth and pale, the hand of a younger man who didn’t get much sun and didn’t work, or need to.
“Mr. Stradivarius? Could you do me the service of mailing this letter. I would be very much obliged if you would.” His voice was high-pitched and thin.
Dietrich plucked the letter from the man’s fingers and mumbled something about “my pleasure.” The landlord didn’t respond, he just shut the door. Dietrich shrugged and walked out. Without any conscious thought his eye fell on the envelope he was carrying. It was addressed to a “Hector Bingley.” The name meant nothing to him, but he noticed from the address that the apartment building where Mr. Bingley lived was only a few blocks away, on the way to his usual dining place. He passed a mailbox, but didn’t insert the letter. He could drop it off on his way by the building, maybe save someone else some time. The day’s mail had already been picked up anyway.
Hector walked out of the supermarket with a small bag of groceries, turned the corner and finally arrived at his building. The street was deserted except for a single old man walking ahead of him. The man looked vaguely familiar but Hector wasn’t sure where he’d seen him. He stepped inside his building and popped the mailbox open with his free hand. A pile of bills greeted him, as usual, and he scooped them up and somehow made his way slowly up the stairs.
Going through the mail once he was inside his apartment, he noticed a single envelope which stood out from the rest. The name and address were hand-written, unlike the printed bills and junk mail, and there was no visible return address. Hector tore it open and let the empty envelope drop to the floor. In his hand he held a single page, almost blank. Two words graced the top in a flowing script. “A Gift,” they said. At the bottom, in the same flowing script, there was an address, and in the center there was a small, clear crystal container with a minute amount of water. It was plugged with an equally small crystal stopper. He lifted it up carefully, almost reverently and examined it. The crystal was thick and not easy to break. It, or maybe the water inside it, acted as a prism, catching the white light from the setting sun as it passed through the window and splitting it into every color of the rainbow. The water sparkled alluringly and he unplugged the stopper and took a closer look. The glistening liquid inside begged him to drink the few drops the vial contained. Hector shrugged and guzzled it down in a single sip.
Jolts of electricity shot through his body, tingling in every nerve and pore. He went rigid as the water burned all the way down, finally stopping in the pit of his stomach were he could feel it boiling away. Seconds later the warm glow faded, taking with it every single ache he had. Hector’s eyes went wide with surprise and he rushed over to the mirror. He had to whip off his glasses to see himself, they distorted his now perfect vision. The heavy lines on his face, even though they had felt inches deep a few moments before, were now almost invisible. The silver flecks that had begun to mar his once jet-black hair were gone, fading back into their original color. A sizable chunk of bald spot was now covered too. He looked and felt ten years younger . . . for a few minutes. He was still admiring his young self in the mirror when the first pains returned. A hand went to his back as the familiar ache reappeared unceremoniously. He looked back in the mirror, but his vision was blurred. He put his glasses back on, and immediately noticed his lines fading back into wrinkles and creases. Within a few seconds he felt no different than he had before drinking the water. Somehow, though, he didn’t much care.
Hector had finally found what he wanted: The Water of Life. In fact, it had found him. And he knew where he could get more. He went for his coat. He wouldn’t waste one more second.
After supper Dietrich felt different, better even. As he had walked back to his apartment he kept thinking about the Concerto, and he finally decided that the best course of action would be to not think about it at all. When he got back home he wheeled the piano back out onto the balcony, shoved the unfinished Concerto under the bench, and started to play. He played the first thing that came to his head . . . Chopsticks.
A familiar song was being played on the balcony when Hector arrived at the villa he had admired a few hours before. He double-checked the address. This was place. He hurried inside quickly as the sharp, lively rhythm of Chopsticks continued above.
A few minutes later he found himself inside a room unlike any he had ever seen before. Wall-to-wall antique art of all kinds was stacked to the ceiling. An old, high-backed chair sat in the middle of the room, turned away from him. A smooth, pale hand appeared from behind it and beckoned. Hector stepped forward, walking around the side of the chair. A young Hispanic man was sitting in it, dressed in a style that was older than most of the art in the room. He had long black hair and a thin dainty mustache which he was stroking lightly with his finger. He gestured to another chair in front of him and Hector sat.
“Greetings, Señor Bingley. I am Jose Ponce de Leon, only son of Juan Ponce de Leon. Do you know who that is?”
“Yes!” Hector gasped breathlessly. “He’s my hero! I have volumes and volumes of books about his exploits!”
“I see. In that case, you understand a great many things already. That is good. I will not have to explain much.” He paused. “I suppose you know all about the Fountain of Youth, then.”
It was not a question, but Hector answered anyway. “Naturally. It is the reason your father is my hero.”
“Hmmm . . .” Jose murmured thoughtfully. “Do you see that door?” He pointed to the right. “Open it and look inside.”
Hector rose unsteadily and ambled up to the door. His shaking fingers found the knob, turned it, and pulled the door open. He stuck his head through the doorway and an involuntary cry of shock escaped him.
Five flights up, Dietrich uttered the exact same sound as the rest of his long-awaited Concerto flowed through him and sprouted into his fingers. The music poured from the piano like a waterfall in a rushing stream. He closed his eyes in heavenly bliss and let the music carry him away.
“You have the Fountain of Youth in your bathtub?” Hector shrieked in disbelief.
“Nice camouflage, isn’t it?”
“But . . . but it’s a bathtub.”
“I’m aware of that. Take the glass by the sink, fill it full of the water and come sit down.”
Hector did what he said quickly and impatiently.
“I know you’ll want to be on your way to enjoy what I’m giving you here, but first, a warning. My father and I learned the hard way that the Fountain of Youth does not provide eternal life, merely eternal youth.” Jose’s voice was strained and sad.
“What’s the difference?”
“My father, even though he looked like he was twenty-five, was killed by an arrow in a fight with Indians in 1521.”
“Oh . . . I’m sorry.” Hector tried to sound sincere, but after all the guy had been dead for 400 years.
“From this I learned that the gift of life that this water gives is not a gift of invulnerability. You can still die, but you’ll never die of old age.”
“I see.” Hector’s face fell.
“Don’t look so down. You’ll still be young again. Besides, if you take care of yourself you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. I’m still here, aren’t I? Now drink up!”
Hector grinned and tossed off the whole glass in a single massive gulp. The change was evident immediately as the same transformation as before took place again, and then kept going. First ten years dropped off, then twenty. His body melted into the man he had been some twenty-five years before, and he felt even younger. He felt invigorated like he hadn’t felt since . . . well, since he couldn’t remember when. He didn’t remember ever feeling better. An overwhelming joy overtook him as he shot to his feet and pumped Jose’s hand gleefully. With barely a word of thanks or a farewell he was out the door.
Dietrich drew out the final chord of his masterwork and drew in a deep breath of contentment. It was perfect, utterly and totally perfect. He reached under the bench and slowly and deliberately drew out his music sheets. He arranged them carefully on the stand in front of him and drew out his pencil, ready to transcribe the fantastic music onto the paper. He placed the pencil on the paper . . . and nothing happened. His finger couldn’t find the note to draw. He stared at it wonderingly. Why wouldn’t it obey? And then his thoughts caught up to him. He couldn’t remember . . . anything. Everything he had just played was utterly gone and there was nothing he could do about it.
Hector bounded out onto the street and paused beside the curve, drawing in a deep breath of fresh air. He felt alive again, at long last. Nothing would stop him now. Life’s troubles would never disturb him again.
With an animal cry of utterly helpless fury Dietrich lashed out at the mute piano. His hands struck it full force with the strength of months of frustration and anger. The piano took off across the balcony, propelled swiftly along over the slick marble floor. Dietrich gasped in realization and made a lunge for the escaped instrument. He missed.
Hector’s head came up at the sound of an anguished scream overhead. He peered upward questioningly. A large dark shape popped over the side of the balcony above him and plummeted straight down. There was a sickening crunch mingled with the discordant din of a smashing piano and Hector crumpled unceremoniously under the weight of the 400 pound music maker.
A crowd gathered quickly. It was not a pretty sight. Two legs stuck out from under the shattered piano, which had its own legs splayed outward. One of the onlookers felt a drop of rain and looked up, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Only an old man peering disconsolately over the edge of a balcony high above, one of his hands stretched pleadingly in the general direction of the piano. The spectator moved out from under him and returned his attention to the scene of the accident. No one in the small crowd noticed a pair of white lace curtains drop back into place over a window just a few yards away.