Plugs

In the clearing between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the morning sun like a needle one cannot spot in the carpet unless the light catches it or he steps on it.  The mountain, though short, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had stood so long.  It would not bar him from his lost father.

Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which crumbled to powder.  Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes.  One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped on his throne:  like God after the sixth day.  Then the beam moved, and the old man fell back into shadow.

Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests:  Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?  Quests Yul had never had his heart set on.  He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump.  Days passed like a clock’s pendulum.  Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.

Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Hours:  “Hours could tick without a death if you positioned the necklace right.”  Of course it would fail, but had they held it right?

The Ruby had never given Yul the confidence he needed to start his own life.  Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on.  It was only late in his third decade that he, questing, paused by a village, found a gangly girl drawing water, and when he asked for a drink, she gave without reservation.

Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines.  Yul stood behind his father–the old man’s white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on his right hand.

“What’s that?”  The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room.  “Is that you, Spot, old boy?  I’ve a tasty biscuit.”

Yul held his breath.

“I shouldn’t have let you go.”  The last word came out in a sob.

Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.

The old man’s body shook so violently, his ribs rippled beneath his robes, coming and going.  “I loved you like a son.”

Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.

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.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: It’s been a long bloody week. You have been warned.

There is no Santa.

Sleeping Beauty.  The medieval inability to diagnose narcolepsy.  You do the math.

Think about Cinderella.  Think about Anna Nicole Smith.  Think about how you just  thought about the same story twice.

A woman shows up promising you can go to the ball if only you complete several bizarre tasks for her first.  Fairy godmother or spam e-mailer?

Did Jack’s magic beans grow a magic beanstalk to a magic castle and magic gold, or did his mother sell him into slavery and  lie about where she got the cash?  Seriously?

A prince being able to take Snow White’s corpse out of its coffin and take it back to his castle for a “happy ending” simply highlights the fact that the only difference between madness and eccentricity is

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“Once upon a time..” was your mother pushing you out into the world with a scream and prayer.  All the fairy tales got right is the big bad wolf.  There is no fairy godmother, no prophecy, no destiny.  All you have is yourself, and the people you can con, cajole or genuinely charm into accompanying you along the way.  It’s up to you to live happily ever after.

Sweet dreams.  Sleep tight.

Maddy was asleep, a smile on her face. Cliff slid out of bed and padded, naked, to the hall. Curiosity always got the better of him in a new place, and most girls didn’t seem to mind. He had already seen every room of Maddy’s small apartment except the spare room. Maddy was … perplexing. Tall, dark, her face oddly proportioned, as if she had been made by someone who had had women described to him but who had never seen one. Different in bed too. Earlier he had felt like his entire body were about to explode. Afterwards he had patted himself down, just to make sure he was all there. Her décor…. Her books had never been opened, the TV was dusty. Only the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen had seen any use at all. He eased open the door of the spare bedroom and slipped inside. The only light came from the hall.

He took a few steps in, waiting for his eyes to adjust. There was not a sound except his own breathing, but he felt as if the room were crowded. This might have been a bad idea. The door closed with a snick and the light came on. Maddy pressed herself against him from behind, pinning his arms with hers. He was staring at a stone idol that almost brushed the ceiling. It sat with legs crossed and arms curved forward as if to catch whoever stood in front of it. Its teeth were large and sharp. Eight eyes, or, rather, empty sockets where they should be, seemed to stare right at him. Masks, censers, diverse weapons, and other paraphernalia lined the room, but he could spare no attention for it. The idol seemed to be flexing its muscles. Maddy was flexing hers too. She whispered in his ear.

“It’s me or the god,” she said. “Join me, worship him, or join him a different way.” She turned him around and stared into his eyes. “Choose.”

“You’re freaking me out.” He pulled back and she let him go.

“Goodbye Cliff,” she said sadly.

“Wait.” He licked his lips. Rough hands seized his shoulders. The nails were sharp and long.

End

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