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January 31, 2008

Ghost Writer

A late 20s Arts & Crafts bungalow sits on the corner in a disused neighborhood, its yard overrun with weeds. The shingled roof sags in the middle and the windows are boarded up with plywood. The porch stretches wide like a smile with missing teeth.

They already tell stories about this place. It is a perfect canvas on which to work your craft.

You break in through a basement window to do your work. The beams are exposed here, and your ink seeps deep into the grain of the wood. You write the ghost's story from north to south, using each crosswise beam as your carriage return. You write:

Susan Beech was an old maid who went mad and strangled neighborhood children in her attic. She lured them into her home with the promise of cookies and sweets. The neighborhood caught on to Susan's hobby and murdered her in the attic among the bones of her victims.

The backstory is set simply, and the plaster walls shiver with anticipation. Now, the postscript, so to speak.

The ghost is dowdy, cold, white, with long bony fingers that make frost on glass and chill the spines of the young with an invisible touch. Her doors open at midnight and the smell of fresh baked goods beckon to the late night passerby. The scent comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. When a passerby steps through the threshold, the doors close, and the ghost does her dark work. Hair whitens, hands tremble, evermore.

The ghost is a variation on a theme, the woman driven mad by a lack of love. All ghost writers have a theme, and this is yours. Write what you know, they say.

The pain fades with each haunting story until one day when the hurt is all but gone, you will write yourself into the hard oak frame of an ancient Colonial. You will lay down beneath the foundation in the sandy clay and write no more. Your bones will rest. Your words will wander the rooms above. The only afterlife is the one we write for ourselves.

January 30, 2008

Space Invaders

The little cannon had lost the war. The last coin chinked its way to oblivion in the depths of the arcade and the space invaders kept on landing, unopposed.

The little cannon didn't think it was fair: he should be given the opportunity to fight the pixelated creatures on land, even if he had lost the game when the first one succeeded in landing. He knew he didn't have a chance, but he would have liked to die protecting his two dimensional home-planet.

“Hey! Come back!,” he shouted at the player. “INSERT COIN you moron. Quitter!”

But the player was twelve and didn't like to lose. Besides, the little cannon doubted that the player could hear him.

The screen changed and was substituted by INSERT COIN. Alone in the dark, the little cannon could hear the music of the simulacrum game designed to attract a new player. It seemed so far away, as if it came from another planet, another machine even. He scuttled off to a corner and readied his weapon. He still had a couple rounds in there. The green aliens disembarked and converged. They waved their horned green heads and scuttled about like over sized spiders. The little cannon could see the teeth inside those flat mouths, the teeth the players never saw.

He aimed. At least, he would go down swinging.

January 29, 2008

The Storyteller is Swallowed

Rajab stood still while the monster approached, despite the way its dun and ochre hide blocked the view of pastures and trees behind it, despite the size of its maw as it spread dark brown lips wide. That's larger than any of the arches in the palace, he thought. It must have come from far into the mountains. And he thought, also, about the pain in his legs from running so quickly from the palace and from the city. He couldn't go any further. The soldiers chasing him had stopped too, but did not stand still. Fearful gibbering filled the air in-between the monster's thudding steps; two of the men fled. Their captain didn't call them back. "It is right that you should die in such a filthy manner!" he called out to Rajab, his voice shaking. "And then the city guards will come to destroy the beast, and you will be twice-killed. Just as you twice broke into the harem, twice distracted the women with your presence. I am sure the Sultan will agree that this is more fitting than any death a lowly captain could have devised, and he will clap his hands in delight!" A moment later the monster was upon Rajab, its great lips around him, its tongue drawing him inside.

In the mouth of the monster, Rajab told the story of the first spice farmer to the broad, dark uvula. It quivered in delight and only let him pass to the oesophagus when he had told it another tale. On the way down that long passage to the stomach, he spoke of dark-eyed wizards who together raised the first city from the sand--a long, convoluted tale with monologues on the making of laws and the design of plumbing, and nested anecdotes about the people who came to live in the pale houses. And in the stomach, where he came to rest, he told many tales. He entertained the walls and the acid with stories about djinn, animated carpets, sand-beasts such as the creature in whose stomach he rested, palaces that teleported and palaces that were no larger than a peppercorn, and countless more.

The city guards never did destroy the beast. Instead they joined Rajab in the stomach, along with women and children and livestock. Though some passed through to the intestines, many remained with Rajab, and their numbers were replenished regularly. Rajab, who had won the favour of the stomach and was not digested, was content. He possessed what he had been seeking all along: greater audiences for his tales.

January 28, 2008


“Be careful,” Natalia says. “The shark doesn’t bite, but it’s jagged down there.” Her boyfriend gathers her up like a possession. I shrug this off and grab my mask.

It’s an eight-foot nurse shark just sitting there under the broken hurricane wall just like she said. To see it you have to dive about nine feet or so and hold onto the bottom of the concrete, pull yourself down and hold your breath long enough for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

The guy next to me is trying to get my attention. Pointing at me. A trail of blood trickles up to the surface. It takes me a few long seconds to realize it’s coming from my hand. I must have cut it on the barnacled, rusty piece of rebar I’d been holding on to. Before I let myself go up, I sense the shark is not alone. Something is with it in the darkness.


That night, I’m in my room, listening to the night sounds of my happy neighbors as I drift asleep. Soon as I turn the lights out, I sense that presence.

My eyes adjust and I see a shark in the corner, standing upright, like a man. It’s saying something. All garbled. Lost in translation. But I get the sense it’s a command. I turn on the lights but it doesn’t disappear. I can see its jagged teeth and jaw moving as it repeats its command.

My cut hand is throbbing. I look at the bandage, then I’m alone in the room. Except for dozens of ants chaotically fleeing the corner instead of marching to my waste basket in neat lines as usual.
I go outside for air. Natalia is alone on her steps having a smoke.

“You too.” she says. It isn’t a question.

“Yeah,” I say.

They’re leaving tomorrow. I have another few weeks on the island planned. But what about everyone else?

In my head I hear the sound the shark was making. Was it saying, “go”?

My throbbing hand tells me it’s a warning.

January 25, 2008


It was a big glass thing on Richie's barber table what give me the idear. It was full a blue stuff like blueberry Kool-Aid an combs an stuff. I say, "Richie, what's that bar-bi-cide" an Richie says "That's a kinda special soap for my combs so they don't get the lice."

I says "Somebody comes in for a eight dollar haircut they shoulden get some other fella's lice," an Richie says "Nope, the lice cost extra!"

I like Richie. He cuts my hair ever second Thursday a the month. One time it was Easter an he dint but mostly he always does.

"You know," says Richie "There's regicide, that's killin a king, an there's genocide, that's killin a bunch a people with the same religion--"

An I says "There's homocide that's killin a homo" cause I knowed that.

An Richie says, he says, "So I figure barbicide must be killin a barber!" an then laughs. Richie's real ugly, his face is like you crumpled it an left something greasy on it but his hair is cut real good. His wife cuts it. He cuts everybody's hair but his wife cuts his hair. Anyways he laughs real good.

He dint know I know about murder. One time this guy told me about murder an I remembered it hard as I could. He says you need the motive, that's why you kill him, an method, that's the way you do it, an opportunity, that's when you get your chances.

Richie hands me the scissors an he turns an gets the razor like he always does an I had those means an that opportunity cause he always does that every second Thursday when he cuts my hair. I just needed a motive so I thunk an thunk but I couldn't think a one.

I tried to think a one fore that next second Thursday but I couldn't so when I was gettin my next haircut I says to Richie I says real joking about the opportunity an those means an I says I just need a motive an Richie says that's easy an I said I couldn't think a one an he says that's easy an I said what.

He turns to give me the scissors like he always does but then he give em the wrong way, he sticks em right in me an Richie says, he says


January 24, 2008

Request for Proposals

I have to start with some ancient history.

It began with medicine, of course. Our lives were extended from an average of 25 standard years to 50, 60, then a hundred, and then several hundred. Gradually, we stopped taking chances. Laws were passed to prevent activities society deemed dangerous. Then those too young to reproduce were forbidden all sorts of behaviors once typical of childhood. Remember rollerskates? I loved them once... The laws weren't the most insidious change. Soon we voluntarily stopped sliding down slopes, swimming in water, and eventually even going outdoors. Nanotechnology accelerated the process. You might think that replacing the human body with self replicating machines would have reversed our growing obsession with safety and preservation of our lives. After all, if you broke your neck skiing and you were a nanoman or nanowoman healing was a cinch. But we had already gone too far. We now had the potential to live for millennia. The old joke

Q: Do nanofolks live thousands of times as long as biological people?
A: Yes, but it doesn't feel like it.

wasn't funny anymore. It was true. People began obsessively calculating probabilities and avoiding anything whose probability was greater than this or greater than that. Soon, anything whose probability was measurable at all. Giving up pets was hard. I almost still miss my last cat. He was affectionate in a self-centered way, but when he died I could not risk replacing him. Finally, even sex became too dangerous. Progeny were all engendered in vitro. After a while, no one bothered with that. The drive to propagate had been replaced with the drive to prolong the self.

And that's why I'm contacting you now. I'm sitting here, inside my personal event horizon, having a radical thought. If I'm NOT the only one left, and I might be, maybe I should go out into the universe and try to find some other people. It's time for a new research program, one that I'm sure we can all get behind. See, we need to find a way out of this universe fast, before entropy snuffs it out. Because our black holes won't last forever. When they evaporate we will be gone. And I'm not ready. I've hardly had time to live!

The end

January 23, 2008

The Apprentice’s Tale

Unlike the rest of the apprentices, who swan about in dark-colored and inevitably muddy-hemmed robes of plasticky synthetic velvet, Eyve Aerial knows magic and fashion are inextricable. Thus the macrame Mobius scarf. Thus the jester’s motley diamonds she inks all over her jeans with antique ballpoints. Thus the six-button waistcoat covered in mirrors etched with tiny warding hands that she always wears under the Anorak of Power. Only her gloves are purely practical, worn because things tend to catch on the Medusa-cursed iron of her left hand's fingertips. The clothes make the magician -- and a good magician, thinks Eyve, makes her own clothes.

It's not like the other apprentices don’t dismiss her out of hand anyway. They're all from named houses or ambitious parents at least, while she used to live on the street and work as a courier, and there are whispers she should have lost that job after losing a valuable parcel. They don't know that Eyve's seen a couple dozen glimpses of the future, and even remembers some of them.

So when, on an inauspicious Thursday, the apprentices are ambushed by a pack of husk-zombies, and their tongues are all tripping over the syllables of the repelling chant that they’re trying to repeat as many times as possible, none of them expects Eyve to step forward and push her gloveless hand into the chest of the lead zombie.

“You used to be somebody,” says Eyve, “somebody who doesn’t deserve this.” She snaps a spark from her rusty fingertips. The zombie is all flames above the waist as it stumbles after its fleeing companions.

“Let’s find out who sent them,” says Eyve. She’s bouncing on the toes of her monkey-boots.

Huddled in a nearby doorway, her classmates just stare at her.

“The lines of power will be faint,” says one, and another adds, “We can’t see them anyway.”

“You can’t,” says Eyve, as she zips up her anorak’s snorkel hood. She’s embroidered eyes on either side of the hood and woven charms and amulets into the fur of the opening around her face.

January 22, 2008

Delayed Appearance of the Monkey God

Here was how it was supposed to happen: every forty-nine years, we march down the Sacred Avenue from the temple to the Grove of the Holy Fools, then to the cliffs over the ocean, and we're supposed to walk on across the sky and into Paradise. But instead, the Monkey God sends a stampede of water buffalo across our path and we have to turn back. Then we go to our homes and eat the New Year's feast, and we have music, and all the unmarried girls dance the coin dance, and everyone has a wonderful time.

This year there was more mischief to be done than usual, and the monkey god was busy. The Americans were visiting, and the monkey god had to teach them humility. The university had started courses on atheist philosophy, and the monkey god had to teach them that even seemingly well-built university classrooms can be overrun with army ants sometimes. And there were all the perfect kisses to interrupt and haughty civil servants to bring low and all of the many things the monkey god normally does, and I suppose he just got busy and didn't notice the time. When he arrived, he was more than three hours late, and the only one left in the city was me, because I was too sick to be moved farther than the roof garden.

The Monkey God found me on the roof garden and stared at me as he wandered through, irritably eating flowers. Finally he spoke, which he doesn't like to do.

"And?" he said.

"You're too late," I said. "They went over the cliff."

"And what happened?"

"I couldn't see from here. You'll have to go look for yourself."

He said he didn't want to. Then his eyes went wide and he pointed past me to the Grand Square. "There they are!"

I looked, but nobody was there. There was a lurch, and I fell to the ground. When I looked back, the Monkey God was gone, and so was my bed.

I hope some of them decided not to try the cliff. It will be getting cold in a couple of hours.

January 21, 2008

The tree on the shore

A prince put an apple on the orchard wall by the river. He told the apple, "Wait here until I get back."

He didn't come back. A bird ate the apple and dropped a seed on the riverbank, where it did what seeds do best.

The third king of the Two Lands camped under the apple tree, on his way to a campaign in the East.

The Emperor of All Between the Rivers rode under the apple tree. He took one heavy, yellow apple in his heavy, ringed hand, and kept riding.

The twelfth Queen of the Three Oceans hung a target from the apple tree. The Queen hit the target, but an assassin had better aim.

A boat came down the river. A young woman stepped out of it and came to the dying tree.

She bowed to it.

"Thank you for waiting," she said. She picked the last apple and ate it, swallowing one seed. She waited until she was sure. Then she said, "When you are born, we will come back here and plant a tree."

January 18, 2008

Ibis Rises

After a lunch of chicken tikka masala and palek paneer washed down with the most fragrant rose lassies from that little red place on Bank Street, Maia and Jocelyn were walking to the bus stop heading back to their dorm. Jocelyn, having grown up in Brissy, paid the sticky heat and everything else no mind. Maia was quite happy not to be in the London winter and was taking in the Jacarandas and cute houses on stilts when she spotted an elegant white bird. It rummaged through the trash with its long, hooked, black beak, dwarfing the pigeons poking around alongside it.

“Wow, what’s that?” Maia asked.

“You mean the Ibis, love?” Jocelyn said.

The word Ibis conjured images of ancient Egypt into Maia’s head.

“I’ve never seen one before,” she said.

“We have birds from all over.”

“Ha. This is the closest I’ve been to Egypt.”

Powered by Maia’s focus and belief the Ibis’s attention shifted from picking apart the rubbish bags.

Where am I? Where are the pharaohs, it thought. These buildings are not the glorious works of Thoth. This river is not the Nile.

Filled with god-consciousness, the Ibis lifted its head, sensing how the energy of world had changed since it last manifested and letting knowledge flow into it.

So many new mysteries to learn. Such great wonders to uncover. To protect.

The Ibis noticed Maia and Jocelyn watching. It gave a little squawk and thought,

All this time and their kind is still just stuck in the muck.

Then it craned its head higher.

I sense so many seekers, so many yearning to worshippers, just waiting for me to rise and lead them. I shall start by-

Maia looked away, her attention caught by a big Jacaranda near the bridge over the Brisbane River.

“Can I take your picture, Joce? Its so lovely,” Maia said.

“Yeah, they’re in full bloom this time of year, doll.”

With the power of her focus and belief gone, the god-aspect faded from the Ibis. The bird went back to picking garbage as if nothing had happened, while Maia snapped a picture of Jocelyn under the purple Jacaranda.


January 17, 2008

What are we going to do with Mary Ann?

Mary Ann sat down at the dining room table. She waited for her father to say grace. He did not. He said "Mary Ann." She was so surprised that she dropped her fork.

"Yes father," she said demurely, eyes down.

"Mary Ann," he said again, "I hardly know how to say this. Have you been... talking to... that young habilis boy?"

Mary Ann's face turned red as her hair. Her brother giggled.

Her mother gasped. "They're animals! That's disgusting!" She jumped up from the table and ran out of the room. Soon she could be heard in the bathroom.

Mary Ann jerked her head up and glared straight at her father. "Pastor said two weeks ago that they are people just as much as we."

"That ape has more hair than your dog," her brother said, and laughed. "Does he use dog shampoo or people shampoo? Does he have to take walks twice a day? Do you pick..."

"William!" Her father said, "that is enough."

"If you must know," Mary Ann continued, "Peter is helping me with geometry homework. But he has asked me to the dance. And I said yes."

William started making ape noises.

"I'm trying to be understanding," her father said. "He's 3 feet tall and covered with as much hair as a retriever. He is as strong as a gorilla, as smart as a chimpanzee, and probably won't live past 40. Where did we go wrong?"

"Don't you see dad? You taught me to see people as people. You should be proud."

"Proud that my grandchildren will need to shave their entire bodies before they can go out in public?"

"No! Proud that they, or their children, will be accepted as equal, because you taught me that a man is a man, no matter what he looks like."

Her mother, standing in the doorway, turned white and disappeared again suddenly.

"Dad. Peter and I are friends." Mary Ann flicked a lock of hair off of her forehead.

Her father sighed deeply. "So. When are you going to invite him to dinner? Is he allergic to anything?

"Does he eat pork?"

The end

January 16, 2008

The New Language of Masks

In the city of sticks and glass, a girl sits bridgewise and trails images through the air with bone-thin fingers. Under her stony seat, gondoliers steer the city's hidden ways, singing hexes for safe passage. Past her step the city's people and the world's people come to visit, unseeing of her fingers' work. Their bodies brush the air-patterns, send them folding eyewards, and in bursts like the flashed sun-reflection of a coin dropped to the ground she sees their masks.

Alphabets of colour and shape, a language of dreams and futures, paint their faces.

"Beware spiders," the girl whispers, sibylline, to a woman whose silvery hair clings silken to her neck.

A hitch in the woman's step, the only indication that she heard more than wind, kicks other air-patterns into spirals.

"I see…"

Something new. The girl blinks. "Music on your face, sir." New language, of quavers and halves, written barwise across polished white cheeks-paper. She reads, and does not like it. "Bad music, sir." Fingers draw handkerchiefs in the air, and the two men with music on their faces pause and stare at her until the church clock's chime draws them onwards.


She sees it everywhere, now she has noticed; it baritones into masks and the skin beneath, trebles in the air between shoulder and shoulder.

At twelve chimes the architect comes to her, bearing a plate of food and a question: "What do you see?"


But not in her images. Laughing suddenly, she twitches her fingers in curves and in their wake forms a cat, mirror-image of the one hopping after a butterfly across the bridge. Then she sees a semi-quaver sneaking up the tabbied tail and looks away. "Too much music."

The architect is smiling.

Fingers shaking, she tugs her hip-long hair in front of her face. Black curtain. She doesn't want to look at him. Music stains his face, his clothes, his hands.

"It's in my food. You've put music in my food."

"Tell me what it tastes like."

Fingers tangle a quilt of No into her hair. She tips the plate, watches spaghetti twist and fall and plop into the canal. "Bad music, sir."

He laughs and walks away.


There is music in the water, too. The gondoliers' songs are different.

The girl sits bridgewise, trailing images from her fingers, and waits.

January 15, 2008


Annette Prescott shares her dreams. All performers do these days. Most sign up with the majors, some distribute through the smaller indies, a few post them on their websites. Little dreams--ones about flying or eating a scone--those are often free. It's the big dreams that cost, particularly the ones about acting or dancing or singing.

Annette has a YouDream account. She gives all of her dreams away for free. Sure, they're lo-res, but the pure thing. One where she's young and this looming parental figure forces her to practice violin until her fingers bleed. One where she's in a high school play and walks onstage naked by mistake. One where her voice instructor tells her she'll never amount to anything. One from her first speaking part in a movie where she almost flubs a line but ad libs a better one and they use it. One walking down that red carpet, everybody cheering.

Dreams. Some are horrific. Some are wonderful.

I take them straight, just plug in, drop off, and daydream. I've watched some of them so many times that they play again and again in my own dreams at night.

I've seen some of the mashups, like the guy who matched the visuals from her "Riding the Blue Horse" to that song "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder. Or the one where somebody spliced together one of her dreams with one of Bambi Alexander's, and it's like they're having a conversation in the bathtub. Or that sick one where somebody cut together all the nude bits with images of... never mind, I don't even want to think about it.

Like most people, I record my dreams, too, but I don't post them anywhere. I had this one with Annette in it last week, and I've reviewed it a few times since then. It's pretty good, nice colors and it has a plotline and all. I thought about sending it to her on a chip, or posting it on her fansite's forum. It would suck, though, if everybody thought I was a stalker, or even just one of those people everybody else laughs at.

But I can dream.

January 14, 2008


My father wakes me before he has stoked the fire. I pull on my clothes as quickly as I can, then my boots and helmet. While my father checks the line and tackle, I put a log under the chimney and stir the coals. I have a minute or two to warm my hands before he coughs to me. I put on my gloves.

Today, we go fishing.

We walk the snaking path down the mountainside. The rising sun glints off the rapids below, dazzling me, and I nearly trip. My father steadies me with a bear paw of a hand. I feel embarrassed.

We reach the rocky banks, out of breath. We do not speak. We can barely hear our voices over water raging against the rocks. Our breath makes white clouds. I buckle my helmet and cinch my gloves tighter.

The sun rises another hand’s width into the sky before we begin. My father weaves the line through my harness, knots it. I pull away as hard as I can. His knot holds. I look out at the fast-moving water as he feeds the rope through the pulleys that hang from the pines. I plan my steps.

He gives me a nod, and I walk into the river. The cold shocks me. It numbs first my short legs, my scrotum, then my chest. My father feeds out more line. The current sweeps me from my feet, and I play out into the deep middle. I pray we don’t wait long for a bite.

Minutes pass. I dimly feel hands grasp my leg, and then I feel as warm as if I am sitting by the largest fire I can build. I shout wordlessly, and my father begins to haul on the rope. The hands walk up my leg. Thin arms wrap around my waist. We’ve hooked our catch deeply. She fights the line, but my father is stronger.

I breach the water onto the bank. The mother clings to me still. I examine the catch. She is beautiful. Sleek black hair, long graceful limbs, and cherry red lips.

“Can’t we keep her?” I ask, shouting, as I always ask.

“Ah, this one will fetch far too much at market,” my father says. As he always says. He begins to pry open her fingers, and the warmth fades. I shiver as my father dresses the mother in a simple robe and binds her to the leading line.

He shouts, “Ready?” I am already walking back into the water. Maybe he will let us keep next one.

January 11, 2008

Toe Testing Time

The farm has done much better since we started growing baby heads. They'll grow anywhere, but more sunlight makes them grow faster. The plants set more fruit, and we can take the heads to market sooner. They spend less time in the babbling stage and Marie, well, that part drives her crazy. My favorite part is harvesting. They say the strangest things. Stuff like "midnight's noon/and noon midnight/bright flash of darkness comes." I write the good ones down. I figure I'll publish them, be famous someday.

One winter we nearly ran out of food. All we had left in the cellar were some heads rejected by the conglomerate the previous fall. We'd already put them in the back room, they made such a racket. You wouldn't believe the language they used when we dumped them into the hot water.

The end

January 10, 2008

Hugo Dreadnought in Love

Hugo Dreadnought loved Captain Harriet Sanguine for three reasons:

1. She hated war.
2. She was too damned smart for her own good.
3. She forgot her stylus behind her ear at least once a day.

He thought the trouble had started during the Battle of Trafalgar Loop, when the good ship Protector had assisted the Navy. Later everyone had said, heroic service, above and beyond, etc., but veterans knew it for a darting, shark-and-sardines dogfight, with enormous carriers and tiny junks chasing each other into the dark.

While the enemy ships were still a distant glittering line, First Engineer and Helm had asked him and Second Helm to plot six courses for every maneuver. First Engineer had explained, "If our course isn't working, you see, we simply must have more than one way out. And as soon as we adjust, you must start all over again. Six more. Good study."

Helm had added, "Yes, and you might save our lives."

So Hugo and Toyohara Chikayoshi, Second Helm, had strapped themselves to the navigation table so that no blast or fall would dislodge them. They taped bits of paper beside screens and made notes with Navy issue ballpoints, knowing that at any minute they could lose power. They did, twice. The second time, in the silence on the bridge, Hugo realized something must be very wrong and, yanking free of the straps, dove down the hatch to the engine room. He saw what he hadn't wanted to see, and came back to Second Helm, saying, "We've lost them." First Engineer relayed the news up to Captain Sanguine where she sat in the dark. Up ahead, a ship was struck and her face was lit up in the glowing flash, serene and sad.

"Can you cover it, Dreadnought?" she asked.

"I can," he had replied with all his heart, and had spent the rest of the battle dodging back and forth between the engines below, while calculating breathlessly into his headset every time Second Helm needed him.

He and Toyohara had come out of it feeling like brother and sister. Then the Captain had come picking her way through the Engine Room and set a hand on his shoulder and said, "Well done." She'd stopped then, frowning, and felt above her ear.

"Must've lost it in all the fuss," she'd muttered, and kept on with her tour of the ship.

January 9, 2008

Boon of the Monkey God

The road to the shore winds down the mountainside, a narrow snake covered by lush green canopy, alive with birds and butterflies. A troop of monkeys swings above paying us no mind. Our little hotel room offers nothing but a ceiling fan as respite from the midday Costa Rican heat. So we trek to the beach, a bag with left over fruit for the monkeys that live there.

A resonant howler cry joins the song of the lazy afternoon.

“Make a wish,” Connie says. “They don’t do that during the day!”


“So?” she asks.

“I’m saving it.”

She smacks me, playfully.

We’re just about at the bottom when a four hundred horsepower roar decimates the tranquil buzz of animal sounds and gently breaking waves.

A candy-apple red sports car speeds down the hill, convertible top up. The tinted passenger side window rolls down revealing the innocent face of a pretty Costa Rican teen. She’s done up in god-awful make up and wearing a whore’s dress. A man in a dress shirt and tie leans over.

“How the hell do I get to the beach?”

“You can’t,” Connie says.

“Come on. She wants to see the beach.”

This ass makes me ashamed to be an American.

“No vehicle access,” I say. “Cars aren’t allowed.”

We leave him to spin his wheels, literally, and go for our swim. We move farther and farther up the beach but we can’t escape his shouting and revving engine.

“That arrogance must serve him well in his life, but its not going to do him any good here,” Connie says.

Not yet. I think, afraid of what the future might bring.

We take another dip then trudge to our room. A breeze from the waves below blows the thin drapes. I turn the ceiling fan on. Its lazy spin accelerates and then it is rocking in its loose anchoring. We lay on the bed. Kiss. Take off our clothes. Soon we are matching the fan’s rhythm.

As sleep takes us, I hear the sports car on the road. A monkey howls. This time I make my wish.

Connie is still asleep when I wake. I go outside to the communal kitchen to find ice crackling in glasses on the patio bar, but no patrons. Our host is gone from her eternal post, lip-sticked cigarette still burning. I glance down the mountain to the shore, not a human in the waves or the beach. A boat, unguided, crashes into the rocks.

A howler jumps from the canopy to the table and joyfully smashes an empty glass. His eyes full of acknowledgement of my selfish wish.

I walk back to the room, with a mischievous smile.

“Hun, want to go for a swim?” I call.

January 8, 2008

Tales of the Future #2: The Actuary and the Mothman

Once upon a time, some years after the Unified Realities treaty opened up immigration from one dimension to another, an actuary and a mothman were neighbors. They got on well enough, nodding and saying “hi” when they passed each other in the hallway or in the hovercarpark, occasionally trading opinions on the weather or the local sports teams.

One day, the actuary’s vendo/disposo unit broke down and, as he was wrestling with all the very, very tiny parts and swearing very loudly in the dialects from several alternate realities, he was interrupted by a knock at his apartment door. It was the mothman, carrying a toolbox.

“Heard trouble,” said the mothman. “This always work for me.” He handed the actuary a nanospanner the size of a particularly skinny hair.

The vendodisp was soon fixed. The actuary was so grateful that he invited the mothman to come over for dinner and he made his specialty - a stew with precisely cubed vegetables.

When the mothman was leaving, he said, “Very good. Grant three wishes.”

The actuary hadn’t expected this, and puzzled over the mothman’s words while he vacuumed vaguely luminous dust from the chair where his neighbor had sat. He’d heard that the mothpeople could influence reality - the mothman must have been saying that he’d make some changes at the actuary’s request.

That night, the actuary tossed and turned, trying to decide what to ask for. By the time his alarm rang, he’d narrowed it down to eight things. He had it down to five by the time he heard the mothman’s door close. The actuary threw on his clothes and ran up to the roof, just in time to see the mothman getting onto his car.

“I can’t decide,” said the actuary.

“Not worry,” said the mothman, with a twinkle in his multifaceted eyes. “Already do.” And off he went.

While the actuary watched the mothman merge into traffic, the building super came up behind him and said, “Wishes?”

The actuary nodded.

“Don’t stress,” said the super. “Mothfolk live outside of time. Whatever it was, was likely taken care of before you were born. You’ll probably never know what it was.”

That all made sense, but the actuary knew that he still had to make lists of what he’d wish for. He might not sleep for a week, but he’d figure it out.

January 7, 2008

Behind the Girl's School in the Piazza Pescivendoli

Plinio had fallen in love with a statue, and it wasn't even a pretty one. She, the statue, stood in what had been part of a small piazza but was now a funny, abrupt little alley where a warehouse and the back of a girl's school touched roofs. She was in corner between the two buildings, where for hours after every rain, water drizzled onto her upraised forehead.

She was no historical figure, just an anonymous seller in the fish market, holding eels in one hand and looking up with an expression of wonder as though the sun had just come out after a storm. She was not a young woman, although she still looked young enough to bear children.

Plinio taught Latin at the girl's school to girls who didn't like Latin and weren't good at it, and he had been driven nearly crazy seeing the statue at the end of the alley every morning and evening, often with old rainwater drizzling onto her face. So he had gotten in the habit of going to her before going home and standing there beside her for a while. It was peaceful to watch the shadows climb the rough gray walls of the warehouse, to listen to the distance-garbled laughter of the girls, sometimes to feel a gentle evening rain gradually weigh down his clothes.

The girl's school closed during the war, but after a few decades it was thought a good idea to start it up again. The new school did not teach Latin, but did teach sex education, which the girls didn't like any better.

Sometimes, when they were let out to play in the afternoons, a group of the girls would gather to sit and talk and chew gum by the statues in the little alley behind the school. The statues always made them think of romance, and boys, and how far apart those two things were. It wasn't that the figures were beautiful, or that they were kissing or anything. It was just that the skinny gentleman was holding his book out over the eel woman's head so that when it rained and water dripped down from the roofs, she was kept dry. And she, for her part, looked up at him with an expression of wonder.

One of the girls, Antonia, said she thought she was falling in love with him. The other girls laughed with embarrassment and delight.

January 4, 2008

New Year's Wishes

Wishes fluttered around us with the snow. I held out my hands, cup-curved, and tried to catch one. Throughout the square, men, women and children did the same--hoping they would catch their own, which was the best luck of all, or that theirs would fall into the hands of someone who would understand, someone who would say Yes and grant it.

I had little to wish for this year. My son grew strong, my husband’s back had recovered and when the ground thawed he would return to our spice fields. War had not come to our province in five years. Perhaps I should have wished for my sister to fall pregnant again with a baby that would not die only days out of the womb; but no, that was her wish to make.

War would come and go regardless of wishes. We all knew that.

Looking down at my snow-flecked and spice-stained hands--red and orange and yellow between the grooves in my palms, and the colours would not fade no matter how hard I scrubbed--I saw a wish. Black letters in the curves and dots of our script covered the paper-scrap.

A final kiss, before I depart for Aratavi.

My hand shook, a little.

I imagined the person who might have stood in line earlier in the day, waiting to write his or her wish so that it could be scattered by our town’s priest. Knowing that soon the journey to Aratavi must be begun--a journey to search for the remains of a loved one. People went to Aratavi during peace-time for no other reason. And in the marshes and pools, rife with the stream-women and algae-men who had killed so many of us, many found only their own grave.

Yes, I thought.

I rubbed paprika on my lips.

One by one, I kissed every person in the square. I left red marks in my wake. That way, I knew who I had yet to step up to, smiling kindly before I pressed my lips against their cheek, their brow.

An hour after the priest scattered our wishes, the bell tolled again, signifying that the previous year had transitioned into the current. I had kissed every man, woman and child.

I would never know whose wish landed in my hands. There was the man who touched my hair, briefly, before I moved on; the woman who whispered Thank you when I kissed the fist-shaped bruise on her chin; the man who wept silently through the hour. Perhaps it was one of them, but perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. I granted the wish.

And my own wish, also: Happiness, in whatever dose possible.

January 3, 2008

Finer Cheeses of the Late Cretaceous

Dear Moms and Dads,

I am not about to admit that you were even slightly right, but the second half of the summer is not turning out to be quite as terrible as the first half. The difference? Red Freya, who used to lead the tours, forgot to charge her ionic shield before one of her jumps back to the milking era and got bit by some kind of proto-mosquito, so now she’s got a lump the size of a grapefruit on her leg and I get to herd the tourists around while she sits on my stool in the gift shop and looks out at the gray snow in the dino skeleton garden.

It's a long day, because the Motaris are cheap, and only pay us by shop-relative time and have all the tours come back right after they leave, even though it takes at least forty minutes to hop from the kollikodon barn to the remote milking traps -- some days we don’t actually find one with a repenomamus in the harness until the third or fourth try. And if one of those feathered dinos runs by, forget it -- we won't be back in under an hour. Like every zoo back up in home time doesn’t have dome where you can trip over the things. We're not supposed to log more than half our time in eras with carnivorous megafauna or the insurance company will raise the rates, but the Mrs. Motari who assigns the tours doesn’t seem worried.

Me, I like being more in a time where everything’s alive and growing than a time where everything's dead except us in the creamery and the shop, even if it’s alive and dangerous, even if I know it won’t last, at least not in this worldline. I still want to visit one of the no-K/T-extinction lines on my way home, just to see how it all comes out. (And no, Mom2, it’s not because of S'ksth'sks -- I mean, he’s sweet, with his big eyes and the way his crest is always ruffled in the morning, but he can be sarcastic, too, and if I go to his line, I'll have to spend some time with his hatch-mates, and there's twenty-five of them, so I’ll be totally outnumbered, and I don’t think any of them have travelled off-line or have any mammal friends.)

But we can talk about that later. I've got to go now -- the 3:00 group is getting bored with the way the kollikos bump around in their pens -- or maybe they’ve notice that special giant platypus reek.



January 2, 2008

A Lamu Story

Once, in Lamu, a small island off the coast of Kenya, I stopped for lunch in a small restaurant near the center of the island. The place was empty, except for a stern looking Islamic man with a grey-streaked beard who I took to be the proprietor. I took a seat, and he joined me in at my table and smiled. “I would like to tell you a story,” he said.

“That would be nice, thank you,” I said. It is not often that strangers approach you and offer such a thing. I was curious.

“When I was a boy, I traveled to a neighboring island as part of a football team. We sailed in three dhows down the coast, for three days. It was a big deal then, to go so far from home. I had never left our island before.”

“On the second night, we beached our boats on a tiny island, not much bigger than my shop, and built a campfire from driftwood. We slept under the stars, and talked about the victory we were sure to have when we arrived the next day.”

“I was the last one awake. The ocean was calm, so when I heard splashing, I knew it wasn’t just waves. I searched for the sound. In the starlight, I could just make out the shape of some thing, large as a man, heaving itself out of the water and onto the beach.”

‘Its shape was like no shape I’ve ever seen. It had eyes in places where eyes should not be. And the breeze brought its smell to me; like a rotting corpse. Yet it moved, like a living thing, towards our camp.”

‘I could not scream, or shout at the sight of it. It paralyzed me. Do you know what happened next?” He smiled at me again, but this time, the smile did not look friendly at all.

“What are you doing here again?” suddenly shouted a young man, beardless, from the door of the kitchen. Before I could utter a word, the old man was up from the table and darting out into the hot street, laughing madly. The young man apologized to me for taking so long in the kitchen, and asked what I would like to have. I had forgotten to read the menu.

“Who was he?” I asked.

“A mad man,” was all he would say on the subject. “A very sick person.” He pretended not to understand any of my further questions. I searched the island for the remainder of my stay, looking for the old man. I needed to hear how his story ended. I never found him. I was left to imagine how such a strange story would end. What troubles me is, have I imagined something worse, or less so, than the truth?

January 1, 2008

Happy New Year, Said the Rooster

The rooster took it philosophically. "I've always thought I had a spiritual calling," he joked to the ducks.

The mallard drake, a half-wild resident of the dome wall wetland, didn't think this was funny. "Why do you choose death when there is swimming and flying? Run away!"

The rooster cleared his throat with a delicate "ur-uhrt!" and the mallard was embarrassed to recollect that the rooster could neither swim nor fly. "Anyway," said the duck, "they won't kill you when they realize you're a Speaking Animal."

The rooster jerked his head back in that way chickens have when they want to be contrary. "If chopping off the head of a dumb rooster will bring luck to the farm, then chopping off the head of a Speaking Rooster should be much more luck. So I won't tell them."

The farm had been running a little short of luck. It was a serene and verdant little farm, five square kilometers under a bubble on an asteroid that drifted through the Jupiter Rim Mining Territories. Lately the miners had been doing badly, and the farm had been doing worse. No one had been able to afford eggs in almost four months. The bubble had grown a crack that crept further every week, and if they didn't get the funds to fly in engineers soon, it might break open entirely, leaving Farmer Hwang-Bernstein and his family to cower in their survival shelter and hope for an evacuation mission while the livestock drifted away into space, bug-eyed and frozen.

So the rooster said nothing when 8-year-old Verita Hwang-Bernstein strode out and grabbed him by his taloned feet.

"You're making a mistake!" the mallard quacked as she walked away, but Verita never talked to ducks, and the rooster didn't know whether the mallard meant him or the girl.

Dangling upside down, the stars wheeling above him, the rooster began to feel unsure, and his marble-sized heart beat double time. When Verita laid him out on the old stump and the rooster glimpsed the farmer striding out with the axe, he began crowing and screeching and jerking around for all he was worth.

There was a kind of thwack. All his fears, suddenly, left him.

When his feet touched the ground he ran, heedless, unthinking, unburdened. He couldn't see, nor hear, and he wasn't even sure the ground was beneath his feet. "Ah," the rooster thought. "So this is freedom."

He might, he thought, be running in circles on the stars themselves.