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April 30, 2009

Prefaces from Failed Fantasy Novels

a) It was a troubled time for Gaul. The Dauphin, orphaned son of a murdered king, grew shackled to a gilded throne. While his powerful neighbours nipped at his heels, the sinister Magisters plotted against the boy, seeking to lure him into their sorcerous order. With one hand, the Regent guided the Dauphin’s rule, but the other was poised to snatch the crown from his head.

Little did anyone know how important tiny Outremer, a colony far across the sea, would play in the dark days to follow. This is an account of those days…

b) Between the time of the Old Masters and the Age of Reason, the Sons of Nesh rose up. Fought they did, and conquer and settle. The fires of war ceased, and what was once their prison became the spoils of war. By tusk and trunk, the Sons of Nesh ruled an Empire for time untold.

In a bloated and decadent Empire, Two Heirs arose, and all that came before was washed from memory, washed with blood and terror…

c) When I walked the earth as a man, I was a teller of tales, never short for words. It comes as some surprise to me that I find difficulty in recording this chronicle. I suppose it has been a long time though, over a lifetime since I was a cheerful young nomad, regaling the children of my Kaari tribe with clever and funny stories.

My name is Tok, and once I was a man. Once, but long ago.

For many decades, I have been more machine than man, little more than a brain and its supporting tissues, encased in a suit of steel. I am a cyborg, what my master calls “a robot with a dash of humanity”.

d) 'Lord Valiant! I do not fear your Hawk-Sword!' Sacre-Morte roared from his tower. 'You were deceived by the Lady of Blades. Nothing can harm me!'

'Come and face me then, coward,' Valiant bellowed. 'If thou art truly the Blade-Master that thine heralds and brigands declare that thou art, thou wilt not fear mine Hawk-Sword. Foul varlet, I spit on your Tower of Terror,'

The blonde-haired saviour of the realm turned his defiant chin to the Tower, and did just that. As the hero's spittle ran down the foul magical creation, Sacre-Morte screamed in rage.

Unleashing Vulture-Blade, he jumped from the parapet to join in a clashing and epic battle…

April 29, 2009

Parenthetical Visitors

The women in long white dresses (who weren't really there) said they were travelers. They'd traveled a long, long way.

They told Robert all this (without making any noise), and asked if he could turn over a moss-covered rock on the side of the road.

He was early. The Keeper of the Royal Signet probably wouldn't reach the field for another hour--another insult, added to those that had finally pushed Robert past respectful silence, and had, ironically, made the Keeper the injured party. He kicked the rock over with his heel.

The women in long white dresses (who weren't really there) were fascinated by what they found in the mud, pointing at bugs that scurried through their incorporeal fingers. Robert wanted to ask if there was anything else they wanted, but couldn't bring himself to talk to what he were just figments of his exhaustion, bits of dreams he might have had if he'd been able to get any sleep since the day of Carolyn’s refusal, the day he walked out of the Keeper's service, the day of the challenge.

The women either couldn't read his thoughts or were too busy to bother, so he tipped his hat slightly enough anyone would think he was adjusting it and continued between dew-soaked fields, past trees as laden with thieving birds as fruit, and over the bridge. The Keeper was there, early and impatient.

Then twenty minutes of waiting while Robert's second didn't arrive, the Keeper staring at Robert with a hatred undercut by frequent yawns, Robert trying not to look back. Then ten seconds that might have been a year while Robert chose his weapon. Then a time that hadn't seemed to happen at all: the burning in his chest crowded out any memory of turning or hearing the tenth pace called.

"I bet the Duke a dozen by midsummer," he heard the Keeper say. "This makes seven."

Robert saw that the women in long white dresses (who weren't really there) were there again, bending down over something even more fascinating than the underside of a rock. He went over to join them, and looked down at his own body (he wasn't really there anymore either).

The women in long white dresses said they'd traveled a long, long way. Would Robert like to join them? And perhaps he could show them some interesting things before they left this world?

April 28, 2009

The Origin of the Blue Bay

Long ago there was a man called Keha, the finest kite-maker in the kingdom. In his house was a small workshop, where he taught children how to make kites: how to assemble the wooden frame and cover it with handmade paper that he painted for them in intricate designs.

When Keha was an old man, he told the children to stay away from his house while he built them a surprise. They waited impatiently in their village until the day he invited them back. Daydreaming of kites, they ran through the rice fields to where he lived, but they found only one wall of his house remaining. The others had been knocked down to make space for his surprise.

Smiling broadly, Keha greeted them from the side of the largest kite ever built: larger than his house, painted blue like a clear, deep lake, with all manner of creatures swimming across its surface. Great fish with bright scales of red and yellow bared pointed teeth or held a wide tail above the waves. Serpents with green scales and wicked smiles waited beside small, fragile ships. Women with bare breasts and gold crowns around their topknots, and each with the tail of a fish, sat on rocks and held out lotus flowers to passing sailors.

The best thing about this kite, as far as the children were concerned, was not its beautiful decorations: this kite was magical and, with the right wind, the children and Keha could fly on it.

Many joyous days passed on its back, flying over the rice fields and jungles of the kingdom, even glimpsing the capital with the shining gold chedis and the multicoloured roofs of its palace and temples.

Then, on a day when the children were working for their parents, Keha watched fearfully as a great wind blew up. His massive kite tugged on its ropes, snapping one and then another. Not wanting it to tear apart under the strain, he cut the other ropes. He watched as the kite flew away and never saw it again.

But people from the far south of the kingdom are known to say that, once upon a time, a kite larger than a house fell, ripping apart the ground where it crashed, and that a great blue bay filled with fish and other creatures was formed.

April 27, 2009

The New Job

"You've never been up to my apartment before, have you?" Matilda asked, unlocking the modern lock on the door with a worn brass key. Juliet followed the old woman into the sunniest apartment she'd ever seen. The windows stood wide open. Juliet, from her place across the street, often saw Matilda leave without bothering to close them, a mad choice in a neighborhood full of dealers and thieves, let alone Juliet’s two baseball-crazed sons. Matilda just pitched the balls back.

A bird flew in, chirping at Matilda.

"Thank you," said Matilda; Juliet realized she was speaking to the bird. It flew off. "You can put the groceries on the counter," Matilda said to Juliet. "Thank you for lending a hand. I’ve gone and gotten old."

Juliet found herself staring at the countertop. She could see coiled shells in it, and, impossibly, tiny spirals of writing.

"Are those fossils?" she asked, and Matilda nodded. "And the writing... What language is that?"

"Hah! I knew I was right," said Matilda.

"What do you mean?" asked Juliet.

"I’ve been watching you. I'm retiring, my dear," said the old woman, "and I've chosen you to take over."

"Take over what?" Juliet stared.

"The world," said Matilda, laughing. "Sorry, my awful joke."

She gestured at the rug in the living room and suddenly Juliet could see that it was the ocean, with the chairs and couches as continents riding on it, clouds tugging and forming in the sunlight pouring in from the window.

"It all takes a while to figure out, like the writing on the counter," Matilda went on briskly. "My advice is to get your kids launched before you try anything serious. There are some books around the house, and a few rules, but it’s all pretty much learn as you go."

"Learn what as I go?" asked Juliet.

"Being God," said Matilda.

Juliet only stared.

Matilda smiled and asked, "Who did you think was in charge?"

"I don't know," said Juliet, adding, "And if I don't want to?"

"Believe me, there are days when you don't want to. It's like being a parent," sighed Matilda. "But once you’ve been chosen, that’s that. I’m quite sure I’ve chosen a worthy successor."

She chucked Juliet under the chin.

"It's a compliment," she prompted.

"Thank you," Juliet replied. Matilda laughed, pressed the worn brass key into her hand, and walked out the door.

April 24, 2009


An expansive secondary school gymnasium, stuffy, no aircon, but a single file of metal wall-mounted fans moved the sluggish air around. Four hundred students from 15 independent schools around the tropical island-nation, in a variety of uniforms, different colors, different cuts, but all a monument to homogeneity. Uniformity. Embedded throughout each uniform, no matter the school, arphids: tiny invisible spies measuring physical location, heart rate, respiration, perspiration, muscle tension, pupil tracking, and white cell count, the information uploaded to Test Centre HQ, collated and cross-referenced.

Four hundred pens scratched on blank foolscap. Boys and girls still, but labeled the future leaders of the nation, the creativity drilled out of them, replaced with perfect test-taking skills. Up and down the aisles stepped the invigilators, bleary-eyed government teachers "volunteered" into this unpaid weekend activity. Monitored from above it all by an expansive grid of scunts, spray-painted white to blend in with the concrete ceiling, though every student and teacher below took it for granted that they were up there, transmitting visual confirmation of the arphids' data mining.

No exterior information allowed in, no mobile phones, no PDAs, no unauthorized wireless transmitters, only a unidirectional flow of binaries, so that even though the outside world had begun falling apart three hours earlier when the exam began, the Obsidian Tower felled by green fire from the skies, panic and looting overtaking the streets, the normally docile and obedient citizenry reduced to an irrational mob, destruction of private and public property, and the government's paramilitary shock-troopers mobilized on the streets to enforce martial law without pity or prejudice, even though all of this was happening, the press-ganged teachers and studious young people were none the wiser. Isolated within a bubble of blissful ignorance, the silence only occasionally punctuated by a muted cough or a squeaking sneaker, the leaders of tomorrow's wreckage emptied neuronal interaction onto pressed dead tree.

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April 23, 2009


I got a letter from Grandma today. She's making butterflies on commission. The cafeteria is free, she says, but she can buy great ethnic food with the money she earns. She likes Jamaican meat pies. She says the ones she gets now are much better than those we used to buy in Toronto. She thinks they are more traditional. I said it stands to reason.

I told her about you. She doesn't really understand the Internet. I explained it is like a combination of writing letters and making telephone calls. Then she said she worried I was spending too much money on it. I told her money can't buy me love. But then I reminded her I just pay a flat fee every month. She was cool with you being so much younger. When she was coming up it was commonplace for women to marry much older men. Of course, then, they often had no choice in the matter. I didn't tell her you were bi, but I did say we hoped to meet someday.

She said she saw Elvis last week. He was singing at some kind of impromptu outdoor performance. I don't understand how they plan those without cell phones. Anyway, she said he sang Stairway to Heaven. Wish I'd been there. Not really, but I would have loved to see that concert.

It's so nice they can write us now. Heaven isn't what she expected, but she says her cousin Thelma shouldn't call it a sweatshop. Grandma worked in one before the Depression. The real one. She made shirts. Up there, they don't have to work at all, and of course they don't sweat. It's just that they need money if they want luxuries. I guess it's His way of making sure souls maintain a good work ethic even after death. Or maybe he just needs the help. She said she's made a lot of black swallowtails, so the next time you see one, it could be one of hers.

No, she could not get His autograph for you. All three of Them are working, like, 24/7. I know you were joking, but I asked anyway. The best she could do was Voltaire. She said he is easy to talk to, if you know French. I believe he thinks she's hot.

To answer your other question, you definitely should write your sister. Even though it's been years, I bet she misses you as much as you've missed her. Why wait?

The End

April 22, 2009

A Time of War

Detective Shale sifted through the fragments of the alchemist's shattered glass heart. “A rare thing,” he said.
“We all have them.” Collomb tapped flesh knuckles against a bronze chest. “Seems this man should have taken better care of his.”
“You think an accident was all this was, Sergeant?”
“Glass heart, sir? This was waiting to happen.”
Shale suddenly winced. A bead of his own blood stood sharp on his thumb. He examined the wound. Then he stood, dropped the glass shard and it split in two. “You're right Collomb. War is no time for fragility. Even if this was a fight. An accident. A lover's quarrel-”
Shale paused abruptly, placed his thumb in his mouth and sucked at the injury. For a moment Collomb thought he saw a tear in the man's eye. Then Shale blinked and it was gone.
“Ask if anyone saw anything,” Shale said, and left

Collomb stood at the market stall surrounded by hands of steel, eyes of malleable clay, jeweled intestines strung like cloth's lines, rows of hearts: gold, silver, jade, basalt, and bronze.
“Glass hearts,” Collomb asked the old man tending the stall.
“Only one.” The old man nodded, obsequious. “A recent acquisition. A rare thing.”
Curiosity rose in Collomb.
“Acquired from whom?”
“A sad man. Traded it below its value. Bought himself a heart of flint. A man looking for strength. Or hardness. Sometimes so difficult to tell the two apart. Especially in times of war.”

“What sort of heart do you have, sir?”
Shale looked at Collomb. Collomb was patient.
“Stone,” Shale said. “Why'd you think no woman would marry me?” He mounted a smile
“Strong heart,” Collomb said.
Shale shrugged. “Hard,” he said.
“Not easy to shatter. Not like glass.”
Shale paused, bowed his head. “No, not like glass.” He looked away, but kept on talking. “Did you know, Collomb, that glass is a liquid? It flows over time. Warps. Becomes something new. Not stone. There is no beauty in the permanence of stone. No fragility.”
“Easy for accidents to happen. Easily broken. A lover's wrong word. Better perhaps to protect yourself.”
Shale looked long and hard at Collomb. “For now, yes, perhaps. While the war lasts.”
Collomb weighed the words.
“Until then, then, sir.”
“Until then.” Again, there was a tear in Shale's eye.
Collomb nodded, turned, and for a while left the man standing alone.

April 21, 2009

The Impatient Dead

I know more about cemeteries than most people. My mother used to take me weekly to visit my father’s grave. My earliest memories are of stone angels and rusting fences. No real feelings beyond a vague sense of having missed out. I do remember my mother, her long dark hair draped around her shoulders like a mourning shawl. If my father was a ghost, my mother was a ragged Ophelia, begging the ground to give up the man she had loved so desperately.

She was mad – what sane woman would take her child to the cemetery with such determination? The unfortunate truth is that madness is hereditary, passed from heart to heart. So it’s really no wonder that sooner or later my heart began to resemble my mother’s.

She disappeared when I was thirteen. I suppose I lost patience with her. I slipped through life’s cracks and made my home among the dead. I grew thin. I ate sadness and drank tears, my soul growing fat and dark. I suppose I was happy. I didn’t know I was lonely until I saw him.

After his mother’s funeral he stayed, whispering secrets he thought no one else could hear. I lay on the roof of a tomb, listening enchanted, as he poured venom into the grave. Spite and hatred and rage moved in a torrent from his lips and I lost myself in the darkness he summoned.

Here was my twin, the balm for an ache I had not known existed. I wanted to lick him and see if he was poison-flavoured. I wanted him to stay with me and never leave. I thought he would feel the same. I was so convinced that I slithered from my perch and rose up before him.

And he was terrified. He threw rocks at me. One grazed my pale forehead and thick blood started. He ran.

No one takes rejection well. I brought him down before he reached the main gates. I know all the shortcuts – it was easy to play with him.

I dragged him back and threw him into the open maw of a mausoleum. I listened as the shouts grew weaker, the silences grew longer and the whimpering finally ceased. He will not leave me. The dead are impatient for company.

April 20, 2009

Got a Minute?

So it's 4/20, and you know you're supposed to be somewhere, maybe somewhere important, a meeting with someone significant, a major life event that decides the trajectory of the next decade, but you can't remember where the place is, who you're supposed to meet, whether you're supposed to show up in jeans and t-shirt or if the suit you're in is apropos.

Not amnesia or anything so dramatic, not that you're so stressed out you can't concentrate. It's just that date has rolled around again, when you feel you have to show solidarity with your alternative friends, be a good little strait-edge and not toke up for as long as you can handle it.

You're not stoned out of your gourd, and it sucks.

You didn't have your usual 11 a.m. bowl - third of the day - that takes you from a nice, chill buzz to a dizzying, awe-inspiring, almost-falling-down-the-fucking-spiral-staircase noodle-bag. Instead, you've got this vicious clarity invading your mind. Sure, you do this on occasion anyway, once in a while, at parties maybe, sometimes before sex if your partner is into it. But this is different. You wonder if someone can O.D. on abstinence. You’re getting paranoid.

So when Bob comes through the door waving and telling you you're late, won’t make it to the meeting, going to lose the deal, you just sort of stare at him. He stops mid-rant, eyes red, clothes disheveled.

"Dude," he says. "You aren't stoned."

"Hey, you know me. It's 4/20."

Bob smacks his forehead. "Man, I forgot. But...uh, the meeting, you know?"

It’s one of those circular dreams you've had a million times except this time you're not dreaming. Something important. No pot, the meeting, Bob. The meeting, that's it. You begin to panic.

"I need to change.” You practically rip off your tie and jacket, search for fleece or tie-dye.

"Look, man," Bob says. "You're freaking. I'm thinking you smoke some weed so you can prep for the meeting. After we get the account, you can detox or whatever, you know?"

"Just a joint, OK?" you say.

"Cool," Bob says. "That'll take the edge off."

So you're dressed down, light up in the elevator on the way, feel your mind wander. Familiar territory, and as you walk in the boardroom, you're greeted with a stack of charts, graphs, and a blown-glass bong.

You hit the points you need to and it only takes 5 hours. But as 4:19 hits, you get edgy. You can't take it anymore so you duck out of the smoke-filled room and into the hallway.

You check your watch.

It's time. You inhale.

April 17, 2009

The Mottled Disk

Jordan watched the glass disk in the street very carefully. He was pretty sure it had not been there a couple of minutes before, and he was also sure that he hadn’t looked away from the pavement.

Finally he nudged it with a dirty sneaker. It looked awfully thin, and he was afraid to break it, but when he touched it with the edge of his shoe, it didn’t seem to budge. He squatted down and looked into it. It wasn’t glass like a windowpane. It looked more like that piece of volcanic glass that Mrs. Gubner had brought to school, except bluish, and with weird spots in it, that swirled and rippled even though he couldn’t see them move. He just knew they did.

After a while he remembered that he had to go to school, and realized that he was looking up at the houses along the street with great relief—they are still here, they aren’t rotted away and gone like in a time travel movie, came the thought. So he walked over to his skateboard and his backpack and kept going.

After a minute or two the glass disk rose as if someone underneath it were opening a hatch, which was pretty much the case; a man and a woman emerged, wearing orange business suits.

“Well, that was close,” said the man. The woman examined the street.

“Still using asphalt. We should go forward about a century,” she announced.

“You know best,” said the man, and they lifted the glass disk and climbed under it again.

A house finch swooping down to look at the shiny thing was rather startled to find it gone at swoop’s bottom.

April 16, 2009

As You Know, Professor

"As you know, professor," said the earnest young man, "an Embry-dissipative microsingularity striking the earth would be drawn irresistably to its core, where it would cause a cataclysmic gravitational distortion, drawing all matter down into it until the earth collapsed in on itself like a rotten grapefruit."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I said. "I study acoustics."

"Professor," he said, leaning in, whispering urgently, the mothy smell of his ill-fitting suit coat forcing me to fight a sneeze. "Please don't ask me how I know about your top-secret government work, but understand that I have information of the greatest importance for you. A microsingularity is bearing down on Earth at this very moment, and the vector and velocity information I have for you--"

Top-secret government work? This fellow was a nut case!

"Just a minute," I said, picking up the phone. I dialed security. "Hi, I have a special package for you to pick up on the second floor," I said.

"Dr. Womack, is that you?" said Rob the security guard over the phone. "You're saying there's some kind of problem? What's wrong?"

"Absolutely, and you have a nice day, too," I said, smiling and nodding at the young man. I hung up, hoping Rob had gotten the idea.

The young man held out a thumb drive. "These are the coordinates--" he broke off as he heard the noise of feet pounding on the stairs down the hall. A moment later, Rob and the red-haired bodybuilder type, what's-his-name, burst in and grabbed the young man by the arms.

"Stop!" he cried. "You're making a terrible mistake! Please, professor, please!"

They dragged him away.

About ten minutes later, Dr. Fennelgrüb walked in with a latte and a chocolate pastry.

"You're in my office again, Womack!" he bellowed, pastry crumbs flying from his lips. "So help me God, the next time you blunder in here, I'll kick your ass!"

I looked around, and of course he was right: wrong office again. My mind had been on the impact of air currents on sound conductance in low-heat environments, and I just hadn't noticed. I meekly scraped together my papers and left. On the way out, I wondered if Fennelgrüb needed to be told the young man's news, but then I was struck with an idea about heat differentials that completely put the matter out of my mind.

April 15, 2009


‘It’s raiders,’ says my da, but I know what the big drum means. Last time the smith was bellowing and beating on it, a longship bore down on us from some distant land. The prow was carved into a serpent’s head, and the boat bristled with oars like a hedgehog.

I was too young, they sent me up to the wood to hide with the women and children. The raiders leapt from their ship with flame and axe. Butchered six men that day and burnt half the village down.

We were lucky. A passing company of the Duke’s men saw the smoke and drove the reavers back into the sea. This wasn't so much for us but to defend the monastery from pillage. Now the drum beats again, but the Duke is off fighting another Duke. Our luck is run out.

Da gets his sharp hatchet, passes me the pitchfork. Twelve years old and now a man.

‘That God-house brings them,’ my da says, ‘when they come driving across the seas for plunder and killings. They know the monks keep treasures in there.’ The abbey stands high, on top of the big hill. You can see it for miles. Will God help me today, when a raider drives an axe into my head? I’ve never raised a hand in anger.

I can see the long-ship now, the sail limp against the mast, torn in several places. They’re not even driving the oars. When the prow pushes into the sand I can see the raiders on the deck, their helmets reflecting the sun. There’s movement on board, but they don’t leap over the sides like last time.

The first of them falls over the railing, landing heavily in the shallows. He gets up, an axe tethered to his wrist with a thong. He isn’t gripping it, and leaves his shield bobbing in the water. He takes a teetering step towards us, then another. An almighty stink comes from the boat now, the worst thing I’ve ever smelt. Even from here the raider doesn’t look well.

‘Plague!’ someone screamed, but we’ve seen plague. There’s none can walk under the pox, let alone sail the seas.

Another raider slips into the water, and when they notice us standing on the shore they begin falling over themselves in a rush. We can hear their groans now, their excited slaverings.

Two dozen of the reavers are shuffling through froth and foam, groaning and gnashing their teeth. Now I can see the flesh fallen from their faces, yellowed bones where there should be muscle. They trudge out of the water, all reaching hands and hungry eyes.

‘Run!’ someone says, and by God we run.

April 14, 2009

Of Dances and Doors

He doesn’t remember being born and knows the woman on the other side of the door is not his mother; yet still she created him. He loves her and hates her for that.


He senses the hollow place in her gut. The place longing to be filled. The place that wants to let him in.

Every action born of this hunger feeds him. Misguided fuel and black energy streaming, streaming, streaming from her heart- shadowing her silver cord. It winds into the ether, flows through the door into the void where he sits. Waiting for grace to be forgotten. Waiting to be let in.

He feels her most when she is contemplating the hollow and thinks she might fill her heart with love.

And he wants her to. He knows every act from her higher self will cause him to wither.

But she will not rise in this way. Not tonight. She will invite him in. Invite him to dance. She opens the door…

He fills the hollow in her gut. The dance begins. He leads. She lets him. Bells are rung. Promises are undone. Voices are raised. Words fly- stinging little barbs with heart ripping accuracy. She feels full. But only for the most fleeting of instants.

Then the hollow returns. There is not enough room in there, even for him. The woman staggers- her words hanging in the air with a palpable weight.

Even though no one can see him, he hides. A place behind the open bedroom door that doesn’t swing fully. The space between it and the wall.

Something has happened. Other doors are opening. The air feels heavy as if with rain.

“Brother?” A voice calls out.

He always knew he’d had brothers and sisters, though he’d never seen them.

He can’t see the source of the voice. He imagines an androgynous white form. Moving closer to him.

“Yes?” he answers.

The form and heavy air rushes to him. It feels like a cloudburst. Front on front. Then the nether void blows in and reclaims him.


He doesn’t remember being born and knows the woman on the other side of the door is not his mother yet still, she created him. He loves her and hates her for that.


* This is a companion story to The Dancer, the Door, and the Ordinary Stain. Which can be found in the archives under my name, from March 27, 2009. http://www.dailycabal.com/daniel_braum *

April 13, 2009

At the Elephant Corners

It took Sylvie all morning, steering her motorbike through crowded market streets and up stairway alleys, before she found the corner and the four bas-relief elephants, right where the fortune teller said they'd be, sculpted into the stone of each building at the intersection. The second-floor balconies perched like howdahs on the backs of the elephants, and the doors were half-hidden in the legs that were the buildings' front corners.

Sylvie tugged the bell-pull by the knee of the blue elephant's door-leg, heard a faint chime and the sound of feet down stairs. The door opened; a woman bent from the second step. She wore a long dress, black and covered with tiny glinting beads, her hair wrapped in a white towel, as if just washed. She curled her hand in a gesture that seemed to mean Sylvie should follow, and led the way up.

The fortune woman had said Sylvie would die, soon and horribly, if she didn't stay in the elephant long enough to hear three things.

They came up into bright sunlight on the howdah-porch. Beyond it, the room went back into shadows. Sylvie saw couches and cushions on which more women in dark dresses sat or lounged. Incense so heavy she nearly sneezed. From below, the sputter-pop of her motorbike, someone stealing it, or trying to, and almost ran back down the stairs.

A life-size silver gorilla sculpture, on top of which someone had left a dusty bowler hat.

"For any who visit,” said the woman. "You can go no farther bare-headed."

Sylvie put it on. The thief had the bike motor rumbling close to the right note. Sylive's palms sweated; ever since the last accident, she knew every time she started the bike, every time made a delivery, it might lead to a final accident. That's why she'd found the fortune teller.

The whine of her bike increasingly distant as Syvie walked into the room, stepping around cushions. This must have been the fortune teller's plan. Send her here so her bike would be stolen, and she couldn't die in a crash.

"Not many find us," said the woman. That was two.

Sylvie had escaped death, but, without a bike, she doubted there was anything the fortune woman could to do to avoid Debtors' Island.

"What is this place?" said Sylvie.

"It is the fortune tellers' school." The woman spread her arms. Smiled. Women on the nearer couches looked up. "And you are our newest student."

April 10, 2009

Hermione’s Farewell

We buried her with a mirror pressed tight against her face, wrapped in place by a scarf.

She had been a queen of two empires. She deserved respect. I painted her face: white lead mixed with gold dust so she would forever be golden. I rimmed her eyes with kohl, then drew the red suns upon her cheeks and chin, so the gods would recognise her when she came before them and know she was one of their own.

Long ago, when she returned to us, she was still beautiful. I knew her by sight, but my own mother had to ask my father who I was. Menelaus himself barely knew. All his attention had been spent chasing her, intent upon dragging her back.

When I was young enough to want her love she was an indifferent mother. Later, she was merely dismissive, assured that I was not as beautiful as she was, that no man would launch a war in pursuit of my hand.

Thus I stayed in the shadows, walking quietly so my footfalls did not disturb the gods. My life was overshadowed not just by her loveliness but by its very legend. I hated her, quietly as I did everything, but hated nonetheless.

At last she became ill, felled perhaps by an ill-chosen dish. I sat by her bedside, dutiful and silent, watching for any sign she might recover. My cousin Orestes had arrived. We had been friends from childhood, and in truth I’d held him in my heart for a long time. But even he watched her, aunt though she was, and she glowed under his attention.

She was glorious still, though weak; inside she was old. A cushion over her face was all it took.

I tended her body, pressing the mirror to her face so she would see only herself. So she would not try to leave her body and walk the world once more. So she would not feel alone. Part witch, part goddess – what ordinary grave could hold her? Who thought bright Helen would ever be left in darkness.

As I prepare, now, for my wedding to Orestes, I’m tormented by one thought: no matter that she is gone, she is still in memory. Will always be in memory, mine, Orestes’, the world's.

April 9, 2009

The Patron Saint of Spring

Blossom covers the courtyard like snow, knee-high. The four trees cluster so closely together and their branches have grown so numerous, and the courtyard is so small, that the petals have nowhere else to fall.

The walls on either side are crumbling. The cherry trees grow without any person to witness them.

A folktale current in the land fifty miles south of the courtyard with the cherry trees tells of a woman who wandered the deserted northern countryside two hundred years ago. It goes like this:

She wore snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips in her hair, every day of her life. No one knew where she came from -- no woman admitted to birthing or raising a child with her yellow eyes. On a cold midwinter’s day, she walked out of the woodland with her hair full of colour, with only a flimsy dress the colour of newly budded leaves covering her pale body.

At first the townsfolk did not trust her. Fey creatures lived in those woods -- all sensible people knew that. Her unnatural eyes and the unseasonable flowers in her hair confirmed their suspicions.

One girl was not so fearful. When every door was barred shut to the strange woman, this girl held out a handful of stale bread.

They ate it together under an ice-limned tree.

By the time they finished the tiny meal, all the snow around the base of the tree had melted. The woman ran thin, pale fingers over the snow. It withered under her. The soil softened. A single snowdrop grew, unfurling its green stem like a swan raising its head.

Two men accused her of witchcraft. Another gently took her hand and led her to his shed where ice had ruined stores he feared to hold a torch near. An old woman led her to the lake so that a boy’s body could be brought above the ice for the proper rituals, and a younger woman showed her the earth to thaw so he could be buried.

Every step she took in the town brought snowdrops.

Crocuses followed, quicker than usual, and the first tiny daffodils as bright as her eyes.

It drained her. On the day a field of tulips flowered as red as fresh strawberry jam, she fell to the ground as cold as the snow she had melted. The townsfolk buried her in a separate courtyard on the edge of the church grounds.

The cherry trees that grew there never stopped blossoming.

April 8, 2009


When the light is just right, the wind behaving, the subject unaware, that's when you take the shot. When the shot is perfect, that's when it's art. When it's art, that's when there are reviews, maybe raves, maybe even fame.

I don't shoot art. I don't shoot porn either, but I definitely don't shoot art. Fame is not in my future.

Sitting in a tree at 11:30 pm you really get a sense of perspective. The house, the windows with no blinds or curtains, the bed in plain view and lit like a landing strip. Waiting for someone to walk past a window so you can zoom in and catch their faces.

A blond girl, topless and bronzed, walks past one window and aims for the bed. Her facial features are clear as a bell, so that means she's nobody. I get a few nice shots for shits and giggles. Yeah, I know. Sometimes I do shoot porn. So what? We're all perverts in one way or other. I view the images on my eyescreen and upload them immediately to the marketplace. The first offer I get in seconds. It's a good offer. Maybe she is someone after all.

I consider some close-ups of her tits, but that's when he enters the room. His face is so blurry I know this is a bigger money shot. These days, everyone truly important is obscured. Actors, politicians, rock stars, social media celebrities. Unless you pay their fees, royalties in advance. It's simple: aim and shoot, and a quick micropayment to clarify the image.

That is, unless your brother is a hacker who likes to circumvent DRM on general principle. I cycle through my eyescreen menu and pull up the special functions Johnny installed for me.

A message pops up in my vision. I don't know the sender. "I wouldn't do that," it reads. "You have no idea know what you're doing."

A moment's hesitation. The guy in my viewfinder could be anyone. He could be a rich executive, a senator, a film director. The message sender could be anyone. He could be a talent agent, a lawyer, a cop.

I take the shot, capture the image, transfer it to my eyescreen. It takes a second or two for me to realize who the guy is. Not a celebrity, not a politician, and yet both. You don't rise to the top of an organized crime syndicate without getting noticed. Not in the 21st century. It's hard to live in obscurity when you're that rich and infamous.

I upload the image immediately and wait for the death threats and offers to roll in.

Sometimes, yes, damn right it's art.

April 7, 2009

Protected Sex

The knock comes just after sundown. Melly gets up from the table and opens the door, laughing about it maybe being Flora back from her date early.

Instead, the taller of the pair flashes a badge. "Agent Blakely, SIAA," he says. "Amelia Ranning?" When she nods he pushes past her and sees me. "And John." He consults a photo on cheap printer paper. "He's the one."

The bottom drops out of my stomach. The chicken, the potatoes, the broccoli in front of me lose all their allure in a second. I stand. "What's this all about?"

"When it's us, sport," he says. "There's only one thing it's about." He looks me up and down with too much familiarity. "This you?" He holds out the photo.

I glance. He's got me, all right. I nod.

"John?" It's Melly. "John, what are they saying?"

"Copyright infringement," I say. Congress long ago criminalized copyright piracy. "They're with the Sexual Industry Association of America." Don't eff with the Mouse, as someone said back in the 20th.

"Sex?" she says. Melly and I only do it in the dark; it's safer that way in this age of ubiquitous cams.

"Not just sex," says Agent Blakely. "Protected sex." He laughs at his joke; he means 'protected' as in 'copyrighted'. Most sexual positions are public domain through long use; through prior display in various manuals and movies. It takes imagination or luck -- bad luck, in my case -- to get on these guys' radar. He whaps the photo with a couple of fingers. "Caught on webcam and posted to MyFace at fourteen-oh-two hours day before yesterday."

Melly frowns, looking from me to the agents. "Fourteen? That's, what, during the day?" She'll have it figured out soon.

"You've got me," I say to the agents. "Let's hit the road."

Blakely moves to the window by the front door, twitches aside the curtain. "It won't be long now," he says.

Melly and I hear it at the same time. The distinctive sound of Flora's motorcycle. Her date's over.

Blakely's partner moves a little to place himself between Melly and me. Blakely opens the door for Flora. He glances down at the photo, then back up to her.

April 6, 2009

Foiled Again

The red Honda cut in front of him. Charles hit the brake, afraid he'd be rear-ended. "Hope your car flies straight to the dump," he shouted, face suddenly bright red. Immediately, dark gray leathery wings unfurled, the Accord lurched into the air, and flapped heavily away. "Holy shit!" Charles heard screeching brakes and his car slammed into the space previously occupied by the Accord. "Not again!" He put his face in his hands.

No one mentioned the wings, and the police officer eventually wrote "unknown" for the cause of the accident.

That night, watching The Daily Show, Charles suddenly remembered the curse. Maybe he could get his car fixed the same way! "May all damage to my car be inexplicably repaired overnight," he declared aloud.

At 6 a.m. he looked out the window, but he couldn't see his car. A telephone pole was in the way. "Damn!" He ran downstairs and out the front door. The cumulative effects of 11 years of urban driving were all too obvious. Maybe he had imagined the day before. Everything except being rear-ended in traffic. Again.

He took the subway, got to work at 7:59, and found an inbox full of forms. "I wish these forms were all taken care of," he muttered.

"What?" Lisa asked from the next cubicle.

"I wish it was still the weekend," he said.

"Hear ya."

He wished for a lot of things throughout the day. Little things (his can of soda magically refilled), big things (a promotion), generous things (an end to war in the Middle East). Far as he could tell, none of the wishes were granted. About 2:30 in the afternoon Mr. Gordon came by and dropped 8 inches of forms on his desk.

"Evangeline is going on a cruise. You'll be doing her work as well as yours for the next two weeks."

"Yes sir," was what he said out loud, but not what he muttered under his breath. When Mr. Gordon got back to his office he went in and shut the door. A moment later he ran out screaming, surrounded by a cloud of furious hornets.

That was when Charles understood that wishes were different from curses.

Charles thought long and hard about world peace. Then he pronounced a long and complicated curse on weapons.

Too bad he couldn't change human nature.

World War III was fought with rocks and sharpened sticks.

The end

April 3, 2009

Trash Golem

When I woke for the first time I had a little trouble focusing, since my eyes seemed to be made of burned-out light bulbs. Soon enough, things began to come clear, and I found I was slumped in the corner of a weedy dirt lot between two shabby row houses. Crouched in front of me was a grubby little Rabbi.

"I know what you're thinking," said the Rabbi. "You're thinking, 'Where am I? Who am I? Who is this disreputable person in front of me? Why do I have light bulbs for eyes?' Don't worry. It'll all make sense soon when I turn you loose on my enemies."

"Something smells bad," I said.

"Smells bad? Smells bad? Never mind that, you have a job to do. You know what you are? You're a trash golem. I didn't have the clay and things they usually use, so I asked myself what we have a lot of here in this city, and I said 'Trash!' Of trash, we have plenty. Now, you'll need instructions."

I heaved myself to my feet, one of which was a dishwasher and the other of which was part of a rusted-out old street sweeper, with the brushes still on. I shuffled in the dirt, trying out the brushes. It kicked up a lot of dust on the Rabbi, who coughed.

"For crying out loud, never do that," said the Rabbi. "Are you ready for your instructions?"

"I'm ready," I said, although I didn't know if I was or not.

"All right. So, you're a trash golem. Why trash? It's ironic! Listen, all these people around you, in all these houses, with their rich families, they make more trash than you could imagine. They'll bury the world in that trash, so I want you to go and destroy them."

"The children too?"

"Well, not the children, but everyone else."

"The parents, but not the children?"

"What are you, a conversation golem? OK, you're right, not the parents with the children."

"Young couples?"

"You're giving me a pain, you know. Right here in my neck. OK, they're sweet, they're happy, they're in love, I get it. So no, not the young couples."

"So just the people on their own?"

The Rabbi sighed heavily, and I went over and put my lawnmower gently on his shoulder.

"All right, I admit it: the whole thing about the enemies with the trash, I made that up. It wasn’t even a very good lie."

"You're just lonely?"

The Rabbi kicked an old tin can across the lot. "Well," he finally said, "do you play chess? We could go to the park and play chess."

I followed the Rabbi out of the lot and along the river toward the park. The sun glinted on my metal parts and warmed my rusty parts, and I thought longingly of destroying someone.

April 2, 2009

An Incident at the Mars Debates

Captain Daneham met his wife in the following way.

He was at the House of Commons, watching the Mars debates; he’d gone alone, and the Shadow Minister for Space was wittering away about fuel sources, as if all that hadn't been sorted ages ago.

Two girls in moonsuits were standing nearby, and, unable to pay attention to the old windbag any longer, he watched them instead. They were whispering and laughing softly. The tall one was what he would call Junoesque, a regular Amazon, who wore her stars and bars as if born in a rocket, while her friend had close-cropped red curls, a naughty pixie face, and a shockingly careless way of wearing her uniform—sleeves rolled up and unpolished boots. When she turned his way he saw the Mechanics’ 101st patch on her chest pocket and understood. Posy bunch of know-it-alls, they were, but too good at their job by half.

He watched them, and they watched him, while down among the green leather seats of Parliament history was made.

Then came the quick, sturdy tap of boot heels, and a flash of brown leather, followed by the flick of a blue-black ponytail.

"Sorry we’re late—got held up," said the girl with the ponytail. "Miss anything?"

"Only old al-Rashid going on and on," said Juno, and the redhead laughed. "Where’s Sarah?"

"In the loo, she’ll be along in a minute. Literally, we got held up. Four lads and two guns in an alley."

"No!" Juno stared.

"Good heavens. Are they all right?" Asked the redhead.

Ponytail laughed; he could hear the adrenalin draining from her.

"One won't walk again, I'm afraid. The others are probably still up the station explaining things. You know what she's like."

Captain Daneham couldn't help but stare himself. And then she came around the corner, brown hair with a touch of red in it, checking her purse, looking up at her friends with the clearest blue eyes he had ever seen, as if she wondered what all the fuss was about.

He couldn't help himself. He stepped forward, saying, "I beg your pardon, but I couldn't help overhearing..."

The rest of his stumbling speech was drowned in the sound of shouts and roars from the benches below, the noise of history—but he did manage to get out for a drink with them afterwards, once colonization was decided upon.

April 1, 2009

The Lost Seed

Spring never really showed up when the calendars said it did. By April first, we rarely saw anything but solid-cloud skies and lumps of icy snow all over our frozen mud yards. But the pomegranate made us feel things weren't completely hopeless.

The Mentonville pomegranate wasn't as famous as that groundhog down in Pennsylvania. We'd stand in the sleet on the city hall steps, while the civil witch muttered the spell and the mayor tossed the fruit over our heads.

The pomegranate exploded at the top of its arc, and the seeds would drift, random as fireflies, red as taillights, and scatter.

Our parents would hurry us home to start looking for the seed we knew was somewhere. When we did, sleet would turn to warm rain, mud would thaw, and spring would arrive.

Some families, it took less than a week; for others, nearly a month. Spring came, eventually, to everyone.

Except, one year, for the Ziglars, who didn't seem to be trying at all. The rest of us mowed our lawns for the first time while they were getting their snow shovels back out. The rest of us were swimming down at the oxbow, while the Ziglar kids skated on the flooded patch beyond their backyard.

We all thought they were crazy, but, in the hottest days of August, we paid a quarter to shiver fifteen minutes on the winter side of the fence.

The adults didn't admit the Ziglars were onto something until the leaves started turning, and the Ziglars' lawn finally began to green. It was a long winter for the rest of us, but a balmy summer for them. So it was with a certain satisfaction that we all saw the unfound seed sprout to a whole tree in the waning days of their out-of-sync summer. A whole tree laden with fruit: there was no way the Ziglars were dodging the natural order of things this year.

We were right: when the pomegranate burst downtown, every one on the Ziglar's tree exploded. There was no way they couldn't find a seed. It was spring by sunset, and they didn't see another cloud for months, but roasted in the fiercest drought in memory.

Still, they did OK, their fields yielding more than anyone else's, watered as they were by meltwater from the properties on all sides, where the rest of us were trying the winter thing.