I made her swallow it, just before she died. Her blue eyes washed pale with fear.
‘So you’ll come back,’ I said.
She was frail, so light she made no dent on the mattress. Her hair was bleached by the surf, from the days when she would ride the swell, thinking of ways to leave me. It fell out in clumps on her pillow when she tried to move, to relieve the ache wading through her bones.
When finally her eyes rolled back, I picked her up. She was bird-light.
Four years together. We were perfect. She’d loved me for so long without my knowing; when she declared, I was amazed, grateful, bewildered, ecstatic. Eventually I believed in only us. I had not truly seen her before. Everything became peripheral to my obsession: her taste, her touch, her voice, she became breath to me.
Then she decided to leave. Said I smothered her, that she no longer recognised the woman she had loved. That, in being so immersed in her, I had become less than I had been. She thought I didn’t hear the furtive phone calls, didn’t see the flirty emails.
She stopped noticing me. I tried to speak of the clever things I once knew and embraced, but I’d forgotten them; or they had forgotten me and were not forgiving. And I had cast aside my friends long ago.
I carved it from wood, hollowed out the small oval, stuffed in clippings of my hair, dripped in menstrual blood, sealed it up with bees wax and whispered over it. I cooked all her favourite dishes. When she started to get sick, she needed me again.
Six months ago I laid her in the ground. I’ve bided my time, letting the need build until tonight. I whispered her name, spoke the words to the earth so they’d seep into her bed of dirt.
It’s a moonless night. I hear the door creak, familiar and sad. The bed moves. I smell decay and things best left alone. The bitter taste in my throat may be regret, may be fear. I thought the arsenic would have preserved her better. She slithers across the sheets and settles her rotting flesh against mine, her fetid mouth pressed to my ear and whispers, ‘I’m home, my love. I came when you called and I’ll never leave you.’

Many thanks to Faye Levine, whose page on parchment amulets from her Practical Kabbalah site helped provide information in this story. Any gross inaccuracies in my story or failings on my part to understand things fully are, of course, her fault.

Far across the city, we heard the screech of metal and the first concussive roars of the Robot Insurrection. My daughter Leah and I sat on her princess bed and watched through the window as the night sky across the river grew orange with flames. She reached out and touched the leather case I was holding, inside which, she knew from demanding the story of it many times, was the special Parchment Amulet, prepared by a very learned Shofer.

“Are you going to go fight the robots now, daddy?”

“Soon,” I said. “First we need to wait for Aunt Alice to get back. You’ll go stay at her apartment, and then I’ll go.”

Her face scrunched up. “Those robots are bad! You should make them say they’re sorry and clean it all up.”

“I’ll try to. I’ll be very happy if we can do that.”

“Can you?”

I frowned and squeezed her hand. “No use trying to tell the future, Maideleh.”

She stroked the leather case softly, as though it were a pet. “Is your special paper more powerful than the robots?” she said.

I think it is.”

“Why didn’t it keep mommy from going to heaven?”

“Because it’s only for one person. When they wrote it, they wrote the name right down on it. It doesn’t help anyone else.”

I heard the front door, and my sister Alice’s hurried steps through the living room.

“OK, you have to put it on,” she said.

I smiled. “You think it’s my name on it?”

“It’s not? Whose is it?”

I lifted the amulet case up and settled the chain around her neck, over her Tinkerbell nightgown. It hung down almost to her knees.

“It’s my name?” she said breathlessly. “It’s my name is on it?”

“Who do you think?” I said. “I don’t need it anyway. I have chutzpah.”

Alice came in and swept Leah into her arms, looking at me broken-hearted over my daughter’s shoulder as I picked up my taser gun.

“Do I have huspoppa too, daddy?” she said, her voice muffled in Alice’s shoulder. I walked with them to the door.

“You will, sweetheart,” I said. “For now you have protection. All the rest comes later.”

Then we went our separate ways in the alley, and I took the exit down the stairs as the lights flickered out and the city was plunged into darkness.

At the mouth of the Cave of Endless Hamsters stood two squat dumpy smoke-colored creatures, each the shape of a bowling pin. The one on left was slightly taller, and it shook with mild internal tremors. Both creatures seemed to waver in and out of existence, as if simulataneously there and not there, and their eyes glowed redly. They held short wicked-looking spears.

“Toll,” said the shorter one on the right.

Anya slid down from the back of the Turtle (who had promptly fallen asleep after they had stopped moving), and her feline companion leapt down smoothly to land beside her feet.

“Toll for what?” Anya asked.

“Whatchu mean? For passage through the cave o’course.”

“Is this cave really so important that it merits a toll?”

“Um.” The shorter one scratched its head and the taller one shivered where it stood.

“Do you enjoy your job?”

“What? Why you ask that?”

“It seems to me,” Anya said, “standing at the mouth of a cave in the middle of a forest waiting for people to come by so you can extort them would be quite boring. Yes?”

“Being punished,” said the taller shivery creature.

“By whom?”

“The Green Empress. She’s still sore at us.”

“Why? What did you do?”

Neither creature answered, and their body postures indicated sheepishness.

“Look, my name’s Anya.” She motioned to the cat. “This is my reincarnated father. We’re just looking for a way to get home. If I can offer you payment, will you be our protectors?”

“What? Us?” The two creatures turned toward each other and appeared to communicate, whether subvocally or telepathically, Anya could not tell. After a moment they turned back and the shorter creature said, “What about the empress?”

“Let me deal with her.”

“What payment you got?”

Anya reached into the pocket on her jumper and pulled out the black tri-cornered tooth she had extracted from behind the ear of the Olifanz. Previously dull, it now glinted in the filtered light of the forest. The two creatures started forward, their forms abruptly shifting completely into reality, the tooth somehow solidifying their existence after exposure to the light.

She held the tooth behind her back and said, “Payment after we’ve found the way home. Deal?”

“Yes, yes, o’course,” the creatures said in unison.

“Great. So what are your names?”

“Mister Hopeless,” the shorter creature said. “He’s Mister Shiftless.”

“Right,” Anya said, scratching the Turtle underneath the chin to wake it up. “So, are you excited to see the Cave of Endless Hamsters?”

“Dunno,” said Mister Shiftless. “Never been in.”

“Well, now’s as good time as any, right?” And she led the motley group inside.

Creative Commons License

01: Mini Buddha Jump Over the Wall
02: The World, Under
03: Androcles Again
04: Look Into My Eyes, You’re Under

You are standing at an existential crossroads, a wasteland at your feet and a song on your lips. Overhead, a trio of mechanical vultures have begun circling, and the red dots of their laser-sights are crawling across your bare chest.
To the west runs a dank near-motionless river, and every now and then something thrashes around in the water. The way east is blocked by an endless sense of ennui. South is a burning city, and an ex-wife to whom you owe alimony. To the north stretches an endless desert, with rumours of a herd of undead camels. There is a gleaming muscle-car parked here, but passage to it is blocked by an enormous white bull.
There is a set of tubular bells here, and a three-legged stool. There is a sign on the river bank.
Obvious exits are North, South, and Angst.
It says “Do Not Swim”
Your wife’s divorce lawyer is eyeing you from the city outskirts. Are you sure?
You are carrying:
Divorce Papers
3 Bullets
Your Sense of Self-Respect
Wet Towel
A Mid-Life Crisis
Toasted Cheese Sandwich
The bull paws at the ground and snorts. Are you sure?
I’m sorry, I can’t understand that command.
You hit at the bells. You haven’t been trained in the musical artistry of tubular bells, and the sound seems to anger the bull. You now regret torching the Tubular Bell Academy.
Your pistol is unloaded
You try, only to discover that these are chocolate bullets.
Blocking your passage to the muscle-car is an enormous albino bull. This powerful creature towers over you, with blood-stained horns and a piercing gaze that speaks of great intelligence. It is looking at you expectantly, but warily.
It sniffs at your cheese sandwich with disgust.
You pick up the three-legged stool.
You sit down on the stool and rest.
What are you, some kind of wise guy?
The wet towel has soaked everything in your pack! The papers are ruined.
The towel is now dry, and should be safe to put in your pack.
The bull is satisfied with your offering, and leaps into the river to fight with the unseen water-creature. It’s an epic battle of the titans, and will likely go on for hours.
You open the driver’s door and climb in. It smells good.
The muscle-car roars into life, and the fuel gauge leaps to full. “Born to be Wild” is playing on the stereo.
You floor it.

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