Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Le Passage - Kay Sage, 1956

When it finally happened, all was very still.

I watched the doe run from across the distant road, through the trees, bounding across the grass towards the yard where I stood with the dog on the end of the sliplead. The dog hadn’t seen her; or maybe he had, but didn’t care. He’s fairly inscrutable.

Hooves made a careless thumping sound as she leaped across the twilight field, apparently heading for the University of Phoenix building, perhaps to pursue a certification in phlebotomy. Though I was standing in a wide swathe of light, she hadn’t noticed me, hadn’t noticed the dog, and she moved erratically, like a child entertaining itself. You could practically hear her humming, off-key and unthinking.

When she finally saw us, she was only ten feet away on the other side of the iron fence. She stopped, did her very best impression of a lawn statue, as deer will do, and regarded us with a quivering black eye. I held very still and tried to look non-threatening, because I’m that kind of pathetic person. She seemed less than convinced.

I looked down. The dog glanced up at me, over at the deer, then returned to sniffing some other dog’s feces. Priorities, I suppose.

I looked back up at the deer, or rather, the deer’s white backside, as the deer had turned and fled back the way she’d come, disappearing between the soft pines across the road. That bitch.

This deer obviously has no mythic sensibilities, no romance, I grumbled to myself. I’d have liked a little animal communication moment; a glance that told me she wasn’t afraid, that she knew who I was. As someone who takes care of animals for a living, I felt I was owed at least that much. Didn’t this deer realize who I was? I have a connection, dammit! I was even a Wiccan for, like, two years, which is a really long time for someone with any semblance of sense! I have mad cat-wrangling skills! Do you not know these things, random deer who was taken by surprise by my presence?   

Of course, she never came back, instead choosing to scale the hill and trek across the backyard lawns of houses in the kind of neighborhood where they don’t allow you to put up a fence. Maybe she made her way to the golf course up there, and left her adorable little deer droppings all over the twelfth hole. The one with the dog leg. Hah.

Well, that was a waste, I thought as I took the dog back inside (he’d grown bored of poop-sniffing). That could have been an omen, could have been a sign. Instead it was nothing. Ridiculous nothing.

Even nothing is something, I reasoned.

Except, by definition, it isn’t, I countered. Must everything have a deeper meaning? Can’t some things just be?

By virtue of existing and occurring, all things must mean something. Right? In that sense – nothing is indeed something. But not necessarily a very important something. Do you see?

… Brain, we’re going to have to have a heart-to-heart here very soon.

Night dropped down on me like a cheap chiffon scarf: softly, quietly, with sparkles. The deer was long gone, as were most right-thinking human beings. Crickets creaked. Cicadas hissed at volume, seemingly unaware that their last call had passed long ago. Moths bumped blindly into my face as I closed the door, turned on the alarm, and wandered to my car. The whiff of woodsmoke in the air was bizarrely out of place in this suburban flatland, but it evoked distant memories of mountains and pine forests and clear lakes that may or may not be mythical, and I was grateful for it. 

Grateful for inscrutable dogs, grateful for darkness, grateful for drives home alone along winding roads.

When it finally happens, all becomes very still.

The great turning over; the great shedding; the greatest loss. One emerges changed, new, but necessarily lessened; for one can never completely reclaim what was lost. Poets and other malcontents make much of the broken heart, the broken mind, or the broken spirit; just as cutting is the closed eye, or the closed hand, or the turned shoulder.

Inhale; exhale.

Deer in the purple evening light. Moths like ashes in your mouth. The stink of woodfire curling along the asphalt. The burn in your belly of too many arguments, too many dirty looks, too many nights sleeping head to toe, staring at the wall. All omens, all nothing, all greater than the sum of the parts.

Open your eye, your hand, and drive the dark and winding road road; hope for the grace to see the right moment as it approaches, watch as it passes, and recognize it for what it was as it grows smaller in your rearview. An omen, a spirit, nothing at all. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Choice; or, Two Doors Stood in the Desert

Two doors stood in the desert, side by side. Pale sand had drifted and mounded on the thresholds and settled gently on the hinges.

Not doors to anywhere; just doors, plain and of average door height, standing upright in the sand, equal parts bizarre and unassuming.

Harden stood before the two doors, looking from one to the other. Something cicada-like and unseen buzzed in the air. His exhausted body throbbed with the heat inside his armor.

He sighed, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his equally sweaty hand, and muttered to himself, “Really?”

Always riddles. He didn’t join up with the Guild to solve riddles. See, this is why you always travel in a well-balanced group – someone to solve the riddles, someone to slap poultices on wounds, someone to swing a sword, etcetera. Everyone in their place. And Harden’s place was to swing the sword – honest bloody steel. Nothing mystical about a blade, most of the time, anyway.

But things don’t always work out to be ideal.

Lenzo, the silver-tongue with a creepy penchant for sneaking around in the shadows sniping folks with poisoned crossbow bolts, had been incapacitated just two weeks into their journey. Sneaking around in the shadows with no armor on isn’t such a great plan when fighting a pack of werewolves, who, it turns out, can see in the dark, and are, it turns out, immune to most poisons.

The dwarven cleric, hilariously enough, had found a new calling at the White Crane, the best bordello this side of the Winders: “ministering to the young ladies,” he’d said, glassy-eyed. Ministering, indeed. It would have been nice to have Curolo around last week when Harden’s knee had taken a head-butt from a particularly short and nasty goblin. The twinging was almost unbearable when it rained.

Thankfully, the insufferable elven mage had stormed off several days ago, arcane jewelry rattling furiously, insisting she was far, far too talented for this kind of pissant work. Even her – ahem – considerable assets and the fact that she wore only what appeared to be a few carefully-arranged rhinestones were not enough to make up for her godsawful attitude. Also, she had a face you could chop wood with and a mouth like a cat’s bottom.

So now Harden traveled alone. He went carefully, hoarding health poultices and information as he went; every night before he slept, he pulled out a many-folded piece of paper, carefully unfolded it, read his orders a few times, then re-folded the paper and replaced it in his pack. He spoke to innkeepers and merchants, who always seemed to be in the know; he was slowly learning how to suppress his natural awkwardness, and it was amazing how much people told you if you weren’t awkward. He supposed that was what “charisma” was all about. He’d never had to worry about that kind of thing before; a large, sharp weapon had always had its own special kind of charisma.

But charisma couldn’t help you solve riddles, he’d discovered. It may help you solve the one who asked the riddle… but not all riddles were actually asked; some, like the doors, simply were.

The desert had been a welcome respite from dealing with people, but desert creatures were hard to kill, and this journey was really starting to wear.

Keep going for Cass, he would repeat to himself after every exhausting battle, when he was sitting on a rock panting and spitting blood, exploring his wounds with a non-broken finger. Keep going for the baby. It was his thin mantra, the driftwood that buoyed him up just enough. So he’d bind his broken fingers together, swig a foul-tasting tincture, hammer the largest dents out of his armor and check the bodies for anything of value before moving on, on to the next town, the next fight, the next bloody gods-damned riddle.

Knowing what he would see, but unable to stop himself, he looked around to the back of the doors.

Yep. Doors from nowhere to nowhere. That’s lovely.

And where… ah, yes, there it is. The inscription. I hope it doesn’t rhyme. I can’t stand any more bad poetry.

It didn’t rhyme. It read: “Traveler, be it known: choose one door, and only one. What lies beyond the other, you will never know; that alone is the price of passage.”

Harden was rather taken aback. Was that all? Choose one, go through, that’s it? No enormous, angry gelatinous cubes? No pits of spikes and alligators? The only unpleasant thing that could happen to you is that you’d never get to know what was beyond the other door? Wasn’t that what people did every day, essentially, if you wanted to get philosophical about it?

He shrugged, shouldered his pack, and reached for the nearest door’s handle.

He hesitated.

There was nothing in the inscription about certain doom, true, and usually these things made themselves known (why go to the trouble, after all, and not advertise?), but… who was to say what, exactly, was through the doors? He hadn’t gotten this far without being careful.

After a moment’s thought, he pulled out the well-read set of orders and scanned them again. No help there. He frowned, stifled the suspicion that his employer was a creepy sadistic bastard who hadn’t stepped foot out of doors in fifty years, and pushed his blonde hair back off his forehead.

Right, well, let’s see what we can see.

He scanned both of the doors with care, running his hands over every surface, looking for the smallest hint as to what lay beyond. Both were completely, frustratingly smooth wood, carved with decorative squares; the handles were iron or some similar metal, a bit tarnished, but otherwise unremarkable.

There were no keyholes of course, but Harden did get down on his hands and knees and scoop the sand away from the thresholds, trying to get a glimpse underneath. His squinting eyes were met only with darkness.

A little embarrassed, and not sure why, he put his nose to the gap and sniffed. He pulled back, coughing. Just sand. Stings when you breathe it in.

He sat back on his heels, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Nothing.

Let’s think about this.

Say I pick a door. The door on the right, for argument’s sake, and through that door lies, say, a beach that borders a lagoon wherein lives something with lots of rage and too many tentacles for its own good. That’s all fine and good. What if, then, though the other door, there was a path through a pleasant wood leading, after a nice little jog, directly to the tower containing the particular artifact after which his employer was lusting.

But I would never know, having chosen the other door. The one with the tentacle monster.

He wondered if there was some way to cheat the system. Probably not. He could try to open both doors at exactly the same time… nope, of course not. Just too far apart for both handles to be reached by someone standing in the middle and reaching both arms out as far as they could go.

Harden’s arms dropped sheepishly to his sides, discomfited by the silly show they’d just taken part in, and he stood there, sweat dripping into his underpants.

What if I open one door, but don’t go through it? Ah… I know. Then the other one will open to show only the sand behind it. That’s how these things go. Putting a hand on the knob and turning it will signify that the choice was made – there can be no opening and closing.

Well then, what the hell does it matter which door I choose? Harden shrugged for his own benefit, and that of his cresting frustration. If there’s no way to know where either door leads, and I can only choose one, why does it bloody matter? I mean, there may as well be only one door. Why does the choice even exist? Simply to drive someone like me completely bonkers? If an obnoxious enchanted riddle door falls in the desert because an angry, tired swordsman has kicked it over, does anyone give a small turd? And does said swordsman still get paid?

It’s not a riddle, it’s a bloody menace, Harden thought to himself darkly, glaring. He crossed his arms, pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath and scoured his memory for anything that may be useful.

His brain settled on a conversation he’d had with his companions at a filthy black-kettle tavern a few weeks ago, shortly before the werewolf incident. He’d just found a new sword, enchanted steel, a definite step up from his Guild-issue butter knife which bent when it was yelled at, and he had bought several rounds to celebrate. Everyone aside from Cat-Bum Axe-Face was well into it. 

“Have you ever thought… that we might be going about this all wrong?” slurred Lenzo from the far side of his mug.

Harden and Curolo had glanced at each other, then at the thief. “What are you even talking about?” giggled the dwarf, his bald head shiny with sweat in the lanternlight.

“Right, I mean, like, right… hang on. I mean. Well, there’s a certain way things are done, isn’t there?” Lenzo said, pushing his greasy black hair out of his eyes and weaving through unfamiliar territory. “I mean, it’s like… someone tells us to do something, and we do it.”

“That’s how the Guild works, you moron,” snapped Cat-Bum, doing her damnedest not to let her skin come into contact with any surfaces, a difficult thing given the amount of skin that was exposed. Her real name was Zalthea Star-Eye or some nonsense, but to Harden she would always be Cat-Bum. “People approach the Guild with a contract, we accept. We get paid.”

“Yes, thank you so much, I did know that, in fact,” retorted Lenzo unsteadily. “I meant… I meant. Ah. I meant that we follow the directions to a letter. Riddle this and outsmart that and battle this and hack-and-slash that. It’s all a bit of a show, isn’t it? I mean. Couldn’t we just ignore all those damned fire-fountains and owlbears and sphynxes and just, you know…”

“… Go get it?” finished Harden thoughtfully.

“Yes! ‘It’ being the prize, the inevitable object at the end of the long and wind-y road. It’s what I call the Third Choice.”

Curolo shook his head, the braids in his beard bristling. “You’ve been thinking about this a lot, then?”

Lenzo shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I, well, yeah. It’s always ‘kill this troll’ or ‘help this troll.’ It’s never ‘swing it wide to the East to avoid the troll completely and incidentally try this great curry place that’s down that way.’ I mean, what are they going to do? Come find us and say we’re not doing it right?”

“The Third Choice. Just get the shit done,” said Harden, with a touch of awe.

“But. But! But then what about the treasure?” insisted Curolo, hugging his stein to his chest, his face creased in inebriated concern.

The thief waved his hand. “Pah! What treasure? It’s all random, anyway. Who can say for sure there will be treasure? I’ll tell you where the treasure is – it’s in the purses of those merchants who travel up and down the safe highways, in the chests in the tax collectors’ offices in the city square, in the fat bags of the innkeepers who… er, well, you know.” He coughed to avoid the sharp glance of the innkeeper, just within earshot.

There was a malty silence as they all digested the thief’s words.

“But what about the glory?” said Harden suddenly. He wasn’t sure what had made him say that – drink, probably.

Lenzo laughed raucously. “Glory! My muscle-bound friend, there is no greater glory than to be alive to tell your employer to kiss your sweaty arse, and that of the horse you rode back on.”

The Third Choice. Harden had scoffed at Lenzo for that. What was the Quest if not a journey, an experience, a chance to hone one’s skills and see the world?

Gods, just a few short weeks ago, and he had been such a boy. If he had known… well, he wouldn’t be here now, that was for certain.

Harden regarded the doors before him, their shadows stretching over him in the dusty and increasingly purple light of the desert. The sun was starting its lazy descent towards the horizon.

A locust fluttered erratically across the sand and settled on his left pauldron, where it rocked back and forth a few times, regarding him with large, fractal eyes and twitchy mandibles. He stared back at it. It defecated on him unceremoniously, then jumped back into the breeze, disappearing over the dunes in a flurry of glassy wings.

“Bugger this for a lark,” Harden muttered, and made the Fourth Choice.

Home was far away, but every step took him closer to Cass, closer to the baby, closer to rainy evenings by the fire, mornings on the farm, closer to the smell of fresh hay and the sound of scythes swishing again and again across the fields… and further away from the desert and its infernal doors, and thus every step became just a tiny, tiny bit lighter.

He passed through the White Crane, where Curolo was minus his trousers in the kitchen and so addled with ruby ale that he didn’t recognize his own hand in front of his face. Harden relieved him of his dusty alchemical supplies, selling them for better boots in the nearby village, though he did leave behind the packets of medicinal salve that he assumed the dwarf would be needing.

 He passed the spot in the woods where they had buried Lenzo, and found the shallow grave no longer occupied. After the initial panic, he reasoned that scavengers were most likely to blame, but jogged out of the woods at a healthy pace just in case, listening hard for anything vaguely wolfish, leaving behind him at the grave seven gold coins: six to settle a debt, and one to help pay the ferryman, the way his Gran had taught him.

He went to the Guild in the capital, where he saw Cat-Bum arguing with another mage about something arcane and no doubt beyond the ken of mortal man while trying to surreptitiously hike up her flimsy jeweled bra. She did not deign to notice him. He marched up the stairs to his contract manager, and asked politely but firmly for an address. He made his way across town to a small, dark house, beat on the door until it cracked open, and thrust the map and directions at the slice of pale, underdone face that appeared, followed by some advice to get a dog, a girlfriend, and a different hobby, preferably one out in the fresh air.

Harden then went home, hung his sword and shield on the wall, and held his wife and daughter for a long time. That’s where his story really begins, he would always tell people, and it was true – Harden had many adventures over his many long years, exactly none of them involving mysterious doors in the desert.  

Because that’s the thing about life: the choices are all around you. You make them, they make you, round and round, passing through door after door… and in the end, may we all be so fortunate as to make the Fourth Choice, and arrive back home in good time, with good boots on our feet and good tales in our mouths, and hang our swords and shields on the wall to gather dust.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012


This strange little thing undoubtedly reveals more about me than I intended, but... oh, well.  


I have never been afraid of snakes. Not even when they started going in and out of the walls.
It’s not as though there’s even a chink for them to get in and out of. They just come and go as though they own the fucking place.
I say “them” because there’s more than one, although the final count remains a mystery. Maybe there’s one that is two at the same time – I get that impression. Of one inhabiting the body of two. Of ripples in a still pond that from one angle appear to be separate, but from another reveal themselves to be just parts of one never-ending wave.
I never even understood people’s fear of snakes. Spiders? Sure, creepy little bastards. Bats? Okay. Rats? Scratchy claw hands. But snakes? Just a long tube of muscle with teeth at one end; it would sooner slither away than be caught dead by you. They eat mice very slowly and become sluggish in the cold. They can hardly be considered sentient beings.
These snakes don’t slither away. In and out they go, just as though they own the goddamn place.
The day I first saw one I was alone in the house, although there’s nothing so unusual about that anymore. I was standing in the middle of the dusty front room on the south side of the house, also optimistically called the music room, though no music had been played there in years and ages, since my sister had abandoned her harp to design costumes and write post-by-post Star Trek fanfics. The only sound was the ringing of silence, and then I heard it: a sigh, a long-drawn whisper, a susurrus, as of a soft cotton sheet being drawn over the edge of a table. And there it was – a long streak of mottled brown, moving effortlessly over the dentine, like a pinstriping brush. It flowed over the white woodwork in open defiance to gravity, never once pausing to look at or acknowledge me, then plunged its head into the paint and burrowed smoothly into the space behind the crown molding, leaving no scar behind it.
I stared, then walked out of the room. If I could only get away from the room, I reasoned, it will never have happened.
The next time, I was in the kitchen, alone, making dinner. The skillet was cold and empty, and I couldn’t remember what I was about to do with the wad of mustard greens in my right hand, when I heard it again: like the death rattle of the space inside a seashell. Above the sink, above the horrible gingerbread wood panel that we always swore we would change when we got the chance and never did, a colorless snake dripped from the ceiling to the counter like a blob of paint. It was an albino thing, eyes pink as rubies, like pomegranate seeds, scales translucently white, so pale that I could almost make out the pulsing arteries and veins along its length. It flicked a baby-pink tongue in my direction, then crawled into the sink, insinuating itself rather obscenely into the black hole of the drain.
I looked into the disposal, expecting to see a snake curled there – there was a rush of movement, but weather it was the snake or the disposal itself, I couldn’t tell. I put my left hand out to touch the switch for the disposal – the hand not holding the greens – but I couldn’t find it in myself to flip the switch.
My foot moved of its own accord, and I glanced down. The albino snake had appeared from the base of the cabinets, muscling his way along the terrible gray and pink vinyl floor, tasting his way through the air, with no apparent goal in mind. (Not sure why I’m calling it “he;” this one always seemed like a male to me.) He found the large pantry cabinet, newer than the other cabinets but not by much, and slid inside, passing through the wood with no apparent difficulty.
Suddenly my appetite was gone, and did not return. I haven’t opened the pantry since, though I know I won’t see the albino snake in there. It’s alright – I needed to lose weight anyway, right?
After the snakes came, I tried to leave the house to visit other people – family, mostly, like Grandma. I try to fill up the days, her voice rasps over the phone, thick with sixty years’ worth of tears – I try to fill up the days but they’re just so long. She hadn’t been the same since the doctors in the ICU split her in half over a ten-day period. She always blamed herself for not understanding sooner. When that other half died, she could still feel it, feel the death of it sucking at her, feel it trying to speak to her, but she couldn’t listen, wasn’t strong enough to. I try to fill up my days, she said again and again, but the day is so. Long.
She’s never been alone, not in her whole life, but she’s alone now. More than alone. I can see it, but I can’t touch it.
So I try to visit her, to chase away the alone, but the house turns and turns and keeps me from finding the door. Just like Baba Yaga’s chickenfoot cottage in the blackpine woods, this ill-placed suburban pre-fab keeps the world and I apart. Even when I get a good hold on the knob, round it spins and I look down and in my hand I hold a balled-up snake.
Why are you doing this? I ask that question all the time, and never get an answer. The house was born mute, and never learned to speak, except in sighs, creakings, scratchings and drips. Just like you, it could never make a scene, just a pastiche. No great failure; just a series of small ones.
The snakes come and go, just the way you think they would. Once I watched one flatten itself to no thicker than a razor blade’s width and stroke itself between the cherry floorboards, disappearing after only a minute or two of inhaling and exhaling. I never much cared for the cherrywood floors the way you did, but they don’t deserve that.
I would love to tell you about this, but the majority of you has been gone for a long, long time now. There are times, and I’ll be honest here, when I feel like crying, but then I remember how much you hated it when I cried, and I’m able to stop myself. You’d be proud.
I think the snakes have eaten the dogs. I’m sure they’ve eaten the cats. They were fleabags anyway – the cats, not the dogs – always begging for milk and ham when we opened the fridge, always mincing around as though they didn’t have tiny white tapeworm segments clinging to the fur of their haunches. Dead, but a sign of what was misplaced inside. The dogs, though… I do miss having them around, in spite of their barking. I remember how they made you so mad you’d have to stomp into the garage to stop yourself from kicking them.
Shut them up! Quiet! Shut them up!
They were sweet, in their way. They would curl up on me, beside me when I used to sleep, all bony elbows and pointy little feet, fishy breath, black eyes and black noses, watching. I think the house spins more now that they’re gone.
Yes, I’m certain they must have been eaten.
My palms ache now, thinking about them. That’s where my heartache goes, into my palms, and into my throat, but it never goes out. I keep it in. You taught me that well. You’d be proud.
I stopped laying down to sleep because I was sure the snakes were crawling into one ear and out the other, laughing as they crept down my throat and out through the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet; finally, I stopped sleeping altogether, which seems to have made the world a bright and crystalline place. The darkness at the edge of my eyesight is easy to ignore.
I remember – and that seems to be all I do anymore – the black snake that haunted the campground at your brother’s trailer by the little pay lake. It always seemed to be in different spots, without having moved.
I remember the snake that curled itself around the metal pole in the garage in the desert, and froze there – how you prodded it into a box and left it on a hill of dirt in the Wayback, as we called the no-man’s-land of sagebrush and cattle skeletons beyond our backyard. It warmed to life there, and wriggled away without thanks, and then we realized we didn’t know if the snake was poisonous or not. Was it red and yellow, friendly fellow? Or kill a fellow? Red and black… well, the snake was gone now. Maybe we should have killed it while it was frozen.
The windows don’t open in this house anymore. I can’t even see out of them. Maybe the windows are just a memory.
Baba Yaga had a magic lamp, didn’t she? It illuminated all that was unknown. I find myself searching for this lamp in all the closets, shifting the towels and the ancient shampoo bottles and the dusty-smelling curlers in rose-printed cosmetics cases (my hair has never been long enough to hold curlers). Once we locked a cat in the linen closet for half a day – her maiowing led us to her when she was hungry enough, and though we were guilty she never forgave us.
What was I looking for, again?
I look down to find my legs have become two snakes, thick like pythons or boa constrictors, disappearing into the ugly cherry flooring like a mangrove into the still coffee surface of a swamp.
I remember the dead green snake on the side of the road, its pink and orange guts squirted out through its genitals. You laughed at me when I pointed it out. It was rolled pale side up, belly to the sky, ready to backstroke down into the storm drain, and only doing so when the rain washed it down with the leaves.
I look up at strands of my hair growing upwards into the ceiling – long brown snakes, hanging down, waiting to catch a bird. As though there were birds living here.
I remember what you said when I mentioned I wanted to visit New Orleans – It’s filthy, you said, greasy and filthy. As though the air was oil and the people made of mud, like reverse snowmen. I never did go.
The house spins. I wasn’t even trying to find the door. I stopped trying a long time ago.
Why are you doing this? I ask. The words flow from my mouth like tiny, thin snakelings, dropping to the floor, scattering like newborns, like earthworms towards the shade.
I remember how the dogs used to love hunting snakes. They were never afraid of anything.
In my hand, a balled-up snake. No – my hand, a balled-up snake.
I want to open my mouth wide and let out the snake in my heart, but I keep it inside. You would be so proud of me. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Horses, and the Smell of Snow

For those interested, this is my Dragon Age: Asunder Creative Writing Challenge entry - placed in the top five, yay! I was a bit reticent to post it prior to Bioware announcing the winners, but here it is. All are welcome to enjoy, comment, tear to bits. 


Horses, thought Martin suddenly. Horses, and the smell of snow.
He stared at the book before him, frowning, black eyes running over the same sentence again and again, snared in a memory. Around him, the Library bustled with the processes of teaching and learning, the rules of silence kept really more as guidelines; apprentices muttered to themselves, jotting down notes with one hand, turning pages with the other; groups of mages argued and bickered round and round about the minutiae of magic, never ultimately seeming to achieve anything other than mild laryngitis.
It had been… Maker, it had been over twenty years now, since he had even been around a horse, or seen snow. Snow never came to this part of the Free Marches – too close to the ocean, and on the wrong side of the mountains for anything but clouds and constant rain. And horses were no good here: if you wanted to commit suicide in Kirkwall, they said, ride a horse: if the fall down the cliffs didn’t kill you, the horse landing on top of you certainly would.
Twenty years, and still he could smell the sweat of the beasts, feel the shifting heat of them under his hand, against his cheek, see the breath of them fountaining into the frozen winter air. He glared through the page, at the unwelcome memories, breathed deeply, and shut the book sharply.
Martin was a Ferelden in the Free Marches, but more than that, he was a mage. At age five he had been sent not to the Ferelden Circle of Magi at Lake Calenhad, but to Kirkwall, across the sea, for reasons unbeknownst to him. He suspected dryly that his family simply wanted as much distance between them as farmer’s money could buy. He no longer remembered his surname, like so many others in the Circle, and had long passed the point of caring. The Gallows was his home now, his fellow mages his siblings, the Chantry his mother and the Templars his ever-present father.
Self-invention, that’s what mattered here. You could become anything you wanted. Almost anything.
So why did he feel so bloody hollow?
A flutter of turquoise movement across from him brought his attention back to the present. Faelta.
Martin needed Faelta for everything she did, for the patience she showed him, for the judgment she never passed on him, for the innocence that she miraculously never seemed to lose… and he hated her for what she was.
“Why do you wear your hair that way?” he muttered, glaring at her long, sharp ears jutting through her pale blonde hair.
“I like it back,” she said breezily, seating herself diagonally from him. “Hello to you, too.” Faelta had grown up in the Alienage here in the city, though she never spoke of it. She was beautiful, but he couldn’t stop himself from thinking how much more beautiful she would be if her blue eyes were not quite so large, if her pretty nose was not quite so high-bridged, if her chin was not quite so daintily pointed. Her beauty was animal, alien, but he saw the looks she drew from other men, and felt a smug, fierce sense of protectiveness that was the closest thing to love he felt towards another creature. She was the most valuable thing in Martin’s life.
Faelta gently laid an armful of antique scrolls across the table. “There’s been word from Ferelden that a Blight has begun,” she said with an edge of caution.
Martin shrugged. “Let the whole place burn,” he said distractedly. “May every one of them be slaughtered.”
The elf cocked her head, frowned, but said nothing. An escalating argument a few tables away concerning the differences between inversal and oversal repulsion hexes highlighted the solid silence between them.
Martin shifted in his seat, leaned forward, looking down at the pointless book between his hands; his dark hair fell across his troubled face. “Do you believe the Maker punishes you for your sins?”
She stared at the table, then sighed.
He persisted. “Do you?”
“Of course… I suppose. Doesn’t it say so, you know, in the Canticle?”
“The Chantry says a lot of things,” he said guardedly. “It all seems like driftwood, after a while.”
Faelta looked away. “Sometimes driftwood is all you have to keep you afloat, and there’s nothing so bad about that,” she said, her voice softened by sadness.
Martin, enthralled with his own crisis, failed to notice. “I know. I know. I just can’t bring myself to cling to it. It’s just prolonging the inevitable. I think I’m being punished.”
“What for?”
He answered without hesitation. “For being a mage.”
The elf’s long hands began to pick through the yellowed scrolls. “You’re talking nonsense.”
He shook his head in rising frustration. “If you don’t understand, I won’t be able to explain. It’s as though I’m tied to a thousand lead weights. It’s like I’m deep, deep under water. It’s like being wrapped in wool, stifled. I don’t know how to get out of this. It’s killing me, but I can’t leave.”
“Martin, you sound like you’re depressed.”
He laughed scornfully, explosively. “That may be the least helpful comment I’ve ever heard in my life, ever. Of course I’m depressed, you stupid, useless idiot. This is fact. It’s not something I have proven able to deal with on my own. And if you can’t help me, then leave, or find me someone who can.”
“There’s no reason to get hostile!” Faelta whispered sharply.
“There is! Do you know why? Because anger and discontent are the only emotions I can still actually feel! Because this hot, sinking sensation is better than the numbness I feel most of the time! Being pointlessly angry is a thousand times better than the knowledge that in order to function outside of my own skull I have to encase myself in a shell of, of…” He stopped, faltering, stumbling over the weight of his own emotions.
She stared, being, he felt, purposefully obtuse.
Martin pushed on, as though the thoughts were poison that needed to be purged. “We were born wrong, you and I. They tell us that we were born wrong. Why? How can power be wrong? I’ll tell you Faelta – power can only be wrong when it’s in the wrong hands. You and me – we are the wrong hands. When mothers tell stories to their children, we can never be the heroes. We were built wrong.”
The elf closed her eyes, then opened them a crack, staring at the ancient scrolls in her hands.
“You feel the pain of it, don’t you? The ache? The pain has… it’s alchemized me into a numb being. I’m a shadow! I can touch nothing, anymore. I give nothing meaning. I’m a slave to my birth, a shadow of a man.” He paused. He halfway wanted to cry, but no tears came. “Barren land,” he whispered. “A shadow over barren land.”
Faelta shook her head ever so slightly. “I didn’t come here to have this kind of conversation with you.”
“No. But you’ll stay, and you’ll listen, because you’re you.”
“You’re very self-centered, you know that?” Faelta’s nostrils flared, though she continued to stare at the scrolls before her.
“I would rather be dead, than what I am right now,” he muttered, and meant it.
“So why not kill yourself, like all the others?”
“I’m afraid to.”
“Then stop complaining.”
“I don’t know any other way to ask for help.” Martin could scarcely believe the words that were pouring from his mouth in fits and starts, recognized them as near nonsense, but they were the truth, and as such he could only be mildly ashamed of them.
Faelta stood, her turquoise robes fluttering. She tried to gather the scrolls into her arms again, dropped several, tried again. “You… you’re… you have no idea what you’re asking,” she murmured, not looking at him. “You wouldn’t know help if, if it grabbed your arse and kissed you hello. Shut up, Martin. Kirkwall’s different since Guylian was hanged, since the Viscount was replaced, and if you’re wise you’ll shut up.”
“Don’t leave,” he hissed, threatening. “Don’t you dare!”
But she was gone, the silence solid between them.

News arrived that evening of his mother’s death. Laughter rose in his throat, but he swallowed it, barely keeping it down. The Templar who had brought him the letter watched him carefully. “Are you alright? Do you need a moment?”
Martin stared blankly at a point just above the Templar’s left ear.
The Templar seemed nonplussed. “You may petition the Knight-Commander for permission to attend the funeral, if you wish,” he said, almost encouragingly.
The mage smiled suddenly, a flash of light in a dark room. “No, I don’t think I shall, Ser Sullivan,” he said politely. “But thank you.”
When the Templar had left, Martin read the letter again. Death by water buffalo. This time the laughter could not be stifled, and he buried his face in his pillow, his mad guffawing sounding almost like sobs.

Ser Sullivan was losing at Diamondback, but drunk enough that it didn’t bother him much.
“Firault, you bastard! I’d swear you’re cheating!” he chuckled, throwing down his paltry hand with the others as the Knight opposite him raked in his winnings.
“Cheating!” exclaimed Ser Firault, his swarthy face split with a winner’s grin. “Watch what you say around here, Sullivan, you never know who might be listening.” The table’s other two occupants snickered in agreement.
Sullivan finished off the dregs of his ale. “Be careful what you hear, as well, I say. Listening can make you as guilty as speaking these days.”
Firault sat back, counting coins and shaking his head quietly in the manner of one who agrees but doesn’t necessarily want to be seen agreeing. “Indeed. Only yesterday I was on duty in the library and overheard a rather unfortunate conversation between that dark-eyed Ferelden fellow, apprentice, what’s his name? Face like an underdone egg. Always a bit mopey.”
“Oh – Martin, I think.”
“Yes, between him and that pretty elf girl he’s always got at his elbow. Faelta.”
Sullivan began thumbing tobacco into a pipe. “Huh. I took Martin a letter just last night. Turns out his mother’s dead. Trampled by a raging water buffalo.”
Firault shook his head. “Only in Ferelden. If there truly is a Blight, it’s no small wonder they picked that Maker-forsaken place to start.”
Sullivan looked thoughtful. “He is a bit of an odd bird, though, that Martin. He didn’t seem too put off by the news. He almost… seemed like he wanted to laugh, you know?”
Firault shrugged. “Well, that’s not uncommon. Many of them are orphaned or sent away from home at young ages. Why should they have an emotional connection to the people who dumped them like dirty laundry on the Circle’s doorstep?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Sullivan said, running a hand through his red hair. He blew a series of smoke rings at the wooden ceiling beams. “What did he say, out of curiosity?”
“Oh, this and that. Lad needs some guidance, if you ask me. Seems depressed. Talked about,” Firault sighed heavily, “power being in the wrong hands, and all that.”
“Ah. Too bad. Your deal, by the way.”

A heavy hand on his shoulder woke Martin from a deep sleep just before dawn. He sat bolt upright, gasping into the darkness. A man’s voice, kind but businesslike, shushed him.
“Easy, lad. Up with you now. There’s been a decision. This way.”
Without further explanation, the hand took Martin firmly by the upper arm and urged him out of bed. Martin had no choice but to slide from the warmth of his sheets, onto the cool stones, and follow the Templar, shivering in his nightshirt. In the darkened hallway, another Templar fell into step on Martin’s other side, and Martin began to feel panic blooming inside of him, choking his questions.   
He was led through a series of locked doors and unfamiliar hallways, to a large, high room with no windows. Candles flickered at intervals along what may have been the outer edge of a spell circle, though it was impossible to tell in the darkness. The scent of magic put an edge on the air; Martin’s face drained of color as they led him to the center of the circle of candles, and held him there, trembling.  
“Martin Killbourne,” a woman’s voice boomed from a dark balcony above him. Martin realized with a jolt that she had used his family name. “You have been judged by this Order, and the authority vested in it by the Divine Chantry, to be of too weak a nature to undergo the Harrowing, and therefore it is determined that you shall be made Tranquil, as is your right and your duty.”
“Tranquil,” he repeated numbly. No laughter, no tears, no danger, no dreams.
 He became aware of the sound of weeping. There, by the wall, Faelta sat with her knees to her chest, shaking with tears. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I just told them the truth. I’m sorry!” A shadowy figure lifted her, led her away, her sobs silenced by the slamming of a door.
Martin noticed suddenly that the Templars on either side of him had backed away, leaving him alone at the center of a growing, brightening beam of white-blue light. “No… there’s been a mistake,” he mumbled, panic making his vision blur. “I’m not weak, I j-just need a little help, I…”
“Yes, Martin. You do need help. We’re helping you.”
“Why?” he managed, his dark eyes wide, staring hard into the shadows. “Why?”
“The weak mage becomes a target for demonic possession. A possessed mage is an abomination, and abominations cannot be allowed to live. By making you Tranquil, you will no longer need to concern yourself with such a fate. You’ll be safe. You know these things, Martin,” the woman’s voice chided gently. “You know you are not strong enough to resist possession. Let us help you.”
His sweaty hands balled themselves into fists; his heart was beating hard at his ribs like a caged animal, desperate.
“Please, don’t struggle. We don’t want to have to take measures, now do we?” The voice was calm, soothing, delicately patronizing, the way he always thought his mother must sound. He found his fists loosening, his muscles relaxing into the steel grip of the strange white light; urine ran down the inside of his leg, dripping from his toes to the floor as the strange magic lifted him, held him, inside the glow.
His final thought, as the white-hot light burned into his wide-open eyes, branding him, filling him, spilling from his fingertips, his nostrils, his gaping mouth, was of horses, steaming and stamping, and the sharp, metallic smell of snow.
Killbourne! a voice screamed in his head. My name is Martin Ki –

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Patient O

Here's a short story I wrote several years ago (2004) - I re-read it recently, and it still resonates. Thought I'd get it out there.


“Doctor Reinhardt, I really think I have a problem.”
The doctor pulled out his chair, looking calmly at the patient he’d always thought of as Patient O, who was twittering on the modern and slightly awkward sofa.
“A problem you’d like to talk about?” the doctor asked antiseptically.
Patient O refrained from speaking, though words were obviously straining to be loosed – her lips jerked and contorted against each other like, yes, like mating snakes, thought the doctor. He didn’t bother wondering what words were causing such a stir in his patient; he knew he’d hear them eventually. It was only a matter of time and careful prying.
“Would you like me to unplug the phone?” he asked gently, slipping into his Patient O spiel. He had a spiel for every one of his cases. The doctor prided himself on his many faces, and on his ability to use each one as the situation demanded.
Patient O nodded.
The doctor did so, as he had done many times before for Patient O, though not before phoning his receptionist to inform her that he was not to be disturbed until further notice. He knew what the receptionist thought he was doing, isolated with Patient O, but he had it on his calendar to explain the situation to her once Patient O was no longer a patient.
Once the phone line was impotent on the carpet, the doctor seated himself in the chair he had pulled out earlier and gazed with what he was certain was an open, non-judgmental expression at Patient O. “Would you like to talk now?” He was a picture of honest intentions and attentiveness, legs crossed casually but with a hint of tension, not really able to relax until he had learned what was bothering his patient.
Fingers drumming a fast tattoo on the sides of her thighs, Patient O looked at the doctor, her chin down, her eyes wide. “Yeah.”
Doctor Reinhardt waited patiently, nodded just slightly, sniffing someone’s coffee, the scent of it leaking under the door with the light. He allowed his mind to wander briefly, and wondered if he should buy more coffee before he made his way home tonight.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Patient O.
The doctor segued into active listening mode, his face falling into empathetic quietude.
“Actually I haven’t,” Patient O corrected herself.
“Haven’t been… thinking?”
“No. The thoughts just come. I don’t think them, they’re just there, without having been thought.”
“What kind of thoughts?”
Patient O flashed a nervous grin which disappeared like mist in the sun. “Fantasies.”
Inside, the doctor chortled. Outwardly, he said, “You’re willing to share them?”
After a pause, Patient O pressed her hands together and said “Yeah. I’m pretty sure they might be a problem.”
The doctor nodded a complicated nod, which consisted of a strong backwards movement of the top of the head, accompanied by a slight forward thrust of the chin, and followed by a gentle bouncing of the entire skull. The meaning of the nod – the doctor had worked on this for a considerable time in the mirror – was: feel free to continue, you will not be judged, you will be respected no matter what you say. It really was a brilliant nod, and skillfully executed.
Patient O took a deep breath, as she had been taught to do, and inched a little closer to the edge of the sofa cushion. “Well,” she began with a sigh, the way everyone begins a story, “when it starts I’m in an office, a little like this, and the doctor is there.”
Active Listening Mode On.
“We’re discussing something, I never know what, but it doesn’t matter, I think. So here I am talking, and there the doctor is, listening, only he’s not listening, he’s just switched on this feature he has, with his Listening Face and his comments like ‘Please go on’ and ‘Mmm.’ In his head he’s laughing at just about everything I say.”
The doctor blinks, once, with care, and begins to listen, but not too closely. Occasionally a patient will come up with this, and it never pays to panic.
“So I sit there talking and all the while I’m feeling something build up inside.”
Indigestion? wondered the doctor.
“It builds and it builds and it causes me pain in my heart. I have no idea what it is, I’m thinking, is it frustration? Is it rage? Loathing? It could be any of those things. It could be all of them. At first I think it matters, but then I realize it doesn’t – it doesn’t make one bit of difference what that pain is. What matters is that I know why it is.”
Her face is so blank, the doctor observed. This isn’t her usual emotional outpouring.
Patient O slid a tiny bit closer to the edge of her seat. The movement was sudden and it caused the doctor’s eyes to jump up and down from Patient O’s face to the sofa and back again. Damn.
Patient O continues, her voice never rising above conversational level, her open face revealing nothing more than an earnest desire to share a problem. “Yeah, I know exactly why. Because, you see, I have some problems, maybe more than other people, but when you look at me, I’m not so bad. There are people out there who are much crazier than me.” Patient O smiled again, briefly. “This is all in the fantasy, you understand. … When I’m sitting there in the office talking to the doctor, I can feel my problems inside me. They live there. But I can also feel my sanity and my… normalcy. It lives there too. So I’m talking and at the same time I’m realizing… I’m whole… and I’m pretty damn well off, considering. There is nothing inherently wrong with me. Only there is, because the doctor has told me so.”
The doctor refused to allow himself a nervous shift of the legs, focusing instead on his expression: he was trying for attentive and calm yet concerned, which was one he hadn’t really perfected.
He found his eyes repeatedly drawn to Patient O’s hands, lying folded in her lap, the nervous drumming gone. The fingers were shortish and slender, with small knuckles; the nails were moderately well kept, and were painted bright red, the red of forties movie stars and the fire trucks young boys see in dreams. The hands themselves were deadly still.
“I’m off because I was told I was off. I feel off because I was told I should feel off, because the things that go on in my head are not the things that go on in normal heads” Patient O looked down at her lap suddenly, her eyebrows knitting.
“I can’t tell you how much that hurts me,” she said softly. “That’s where the pain comes from. That, and seeing the doctor who is listening to me for what he really is.”
Patient O looked up, sadness in her eyes.
“He’s a monster.”
The doctor stared, his expressions running on automatic.
“He feeds off of us, those of us who are crazy but not so crazy that we piss in the corners or can’t pay or be controlled by words and ideas, not so crazy that we won’t take the pills he feeds us by the shovelful. Here is the man who listens, but doesn’t feel. He’s doing nothing but eating my words and spitting out garbage. He pollutes me. To him, people like me are nothing more than… things. We are nothing more than numbers and diagnoses to him. And this causes me pain.”
The room was not quiet – it was rimmed with ambient noise from the hallway, voices, footsteps, shuffling clattering – but to the doctor it suddenly seemed as though the rest of the world was a thousand miles away. He was on a deserted island with Patient O and her red-nailed hands, sitting so still in her lap; but he put a stop to his imaginings, reminding himself of his need to maintain control of the situation. A doctor is nothing if he is not in control.
Patient O took another deep breath. “But I know what to do.”
And she stood up. Moving towards the doctor, she said with a dreamy confidence, “In my fantasy, I know what to do.”
The doctor’s legs uncrossed themselves in a hurry and he said loudly, “Please sit down!” This will not do, his brain said. Do not lose control! But his arms twanged with tension from his hands gripping the arms of his chair.
Patient O did not sit down. He screamed her name. “Sit down!” he barked, pleased with the force and authority in his tone.
“I know what to do,” Patient O said again, and leapt.
Sprawled across his desk, just as his fingers closed on the receiver, and just as hers closed around his neck, the doctor remembered he had unplugged the phone.
It was no use to scream. She’d found his trachea almost immediately, her short fingers like steel bands. His limbs flailed uselessly in the air, against the pressed wood of the desk; he felt his bladder evacuate, hot urine streaming down the inside of his thigh.  
“… And in my fantasy, the doctor can’t make a noise, he can only listen to the sounds he makes as he dies, and to the blood pumping in his ears. I wonder if he knows it’ll take minutes – minutes – for him to die, and that no one will come running because they all think he’s fucking me. And I wonder if he knows these are the last words he’ll ever have to listen to, and if he’s laughing anymore.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Zen of Shoveling Shit

What the hell am I doing here? It’s ten degrees outside. The ground is frozen, wisps of week-old snow pocketed in the grass. My hands are the lovely pale periwinkle of an amateur sunrise; my teeth are chattering uncontrollably; I may have had ears at some point, but they have become holes through which the icy wind finds passage into my skull.

It’s fucking cold. And what am I doing here?

I’m shoveling dog shit, that’s what.

They told me never to work with children or animals. Children, okay, no problem there – never could get the hang of micropeople, anyway. Then there are the dogs.

There have always been dogs. Years ago, the first day I walked among them, I knew there would always be dogs.

And with dogs, comes shit, and shit must be shoveled. So here I stand, shivering, trying not to get cold poo on my hands as I transfer yet another shovelful into the ubiquitous and life-saving used grocery bag.
Sometimes – more often lately, it seems – I ask myself in desperate tones, Why do I do what I do? Why don’t I get a job doing something that doesn’t involve bodily waste or the handling of angry animals? Why don’t I get a nice career in a boring, lucrative field like accounting, or geology, and perhaps go one week without coming home smelling of cat urine? Making money… and no long discussions about diarrhea? What’s that like? Is that even real? Did you know there are people out there who don’t know how to spell diarrhea, because they never have to? What’s that like?

Scrape, scrape. Loose stool is the worst. It’s like trying to scrape jelly from the table with the edge of your toast. Gah, yuck. You can never get it completely out of the grass, you can only move it around until it dissipates.

Why do I do what I do? None of the answers I’ve given myself over the years have been satisfactory. I look down at my scars – my many scars, crisscrossing my arms and hands, mostly, with a few on my knees and one particularly good one on my right bosom – and sigh, because I can put a dog or cat to each one. I remember the name of every animal I’ve come across, and I realize that that, right there, is why I do what I do.

Scrape, scrape. Almost done. It’s all in the slight flick of the wrist, or would be, if my fingers weren’t like frozen sausages around the metal handles of the scooper.  

… Because to me, each one is worth it. Even the really bad ones, the ones you dread seeing on the schedule – the cats who scream and fling their waste at you, the dogs who snarl and snap at you, and roll like gators in the catch pole. Every one of them is worth my time and my remembrance, and why shouldn’t they be? The scars they leave on my skin may be the only lasting impression they leave in this world, and I will gladly bear them – as long as I live, an echo of you will live also.

Sigh. I tie the bag shut and toss it into the dumpster.

The yard is clean, my friends, my crazy dogs. So I’ll sit with you, like I used to: staring into the setting sun, calm and undemanding, waiting to go home. The cold wind blows my hair; you lift your noses to it, and everything is, for the first and maybe the last time, alright. I stink like a house full of dogs, and one of you is about to cop a squat after all my hard work, and someone is about to walk through the door and get everyone riled, and damn my hands are cold, and I’m fairly certain that I have poo somewhere on me… and still, the simple perfection of this moment outweighs the infernal push and pull of the day, and hold us all in stillness.

Help me to remember that, my friends, when I’m in tears scraping hardened liquid feces from the concrete floors and walls of your runs, or getting piss paw-prints smack in the middle of my scrub top, or getting my softest parts clamped down upon by your unsympathetic jaws. Help me to remember the stillness, and the rightness.

They told me never to work with children or animals, and I defied them. But with dogs comes shit, and shit needs shoveling. And that’s alright – a little shit is a paltry price to pay for a cold wind, a lifted nose, and a brief glimpse of perfection.