September 4, 2009

From "Caipho and Erasmus": Act II, Scene i.

by Susannah Mandel

[Enter CAIPHO, with GAMALFIEL [the cat].]

Gamalfiel, tell me, what shall I do?
Two days gone by, and I've not made reply
to that last message of Erasmus'.
I doubt not but he wonders why I stay,
and why my answer cometh not.

[She sets down GAMALFIEL upon the bed. GAMALFIEL goes to the pillow
and makes as if to sleep.]

Great good you are to me, you lazy thing!
Sleep then. And I'll kindle the terminal,
and see if there is fresh word from Camille,
some new report to help me understand
what I had best to do.
you don't know how I envy you your rest!
My nights have been broken with misery
since Wednesday. Oh, if only love
were not such agony! If only trust
could be made sure! If only I could know
that Erasmus is true. But no; I've lacked
all surety since Camille made report
that he was texting Andrea while I
was at Grandma's in Margate.
                      Well, let us see
if there's fresh news tonight. Come, come -- turn on!

[Divers noises and the COMPUTER grows light.]

Ah, here’s word from Camille. What does she say?

[She reads.]

Alas! More further proofs -- if I had need --
of his deceitfulness. Oh, who would be
a woman? Who would have a tender heart,
and see it broken by man's perfidy?
Especially a young girl, and a heart,
so tender, and so pretty, as mine is
and as I am. Gamalfiel, it's hard!

[The COMPUTER shaking, as if in a wind.]

What's this? Erasmus wants to chat with me?
Who would have thought that he would be online!
I will not speak with him, I'll tell him no,
I'll set him to "Ignore."

[LIGHTS as of a storm. ERASMUS appears standing on the floor rug, in
green light, as a HOLOGRAM. Gamalfiel, wakened, looks on.]

Erasmus! But how come you here? I tried --

I overrode your chat-room block. You know
I have your password.

'Tis true -- I forgot.

What's all this nonsense, Caipho? Am I blocked
from chatting with you? I, your boyfriend! Why?
And why no answer to my messages?

Hear him complain, as if ‘twere he’d been wronged!
And why not chat with Andrea, if you
need company?

Andrea? What mean you?

I mean only that I've heard from Camille
what you were up to while I was away.
I should have known before I gave my heart
to thee! Alas, poor Caipho!

This is naught.
You know Camille has never liked me.

I won't hear my friend slandered to my face
by a poor gormless craven who’ll deny
the truth he stands accused with!

Aye, I'll go!
I won't stay here and be abused by you;
I see I have no chance against Camille.
Answer my email if you like, Caipho,
but till you're reasonable, rave alone!

[He disappears. The green light vanishes.]

And he is gone.
Oh, who would be a girl? Gamalfiel,
my heart is breaking! Let me spend my tears
on your soft fuzzy chest!

[She throws herself upon the bed and embraces GAMALFIEL. GAMALFIEL meows.]

'Tis true, my friend, but that kind word you say
cannot ease my regret. Alack the day!
My heart governs my head: I love him still,
despite the wise persuasions of Camille.

[Exeunt ambo.]

July 24, 2009


by Susannah Mandel

"So have you decided yet?" Becca asked. "What you're doing Friday?"

"Oh, God knows. Last-minute house party with the boys, probably." Selwyn rubbed absently at her temples. "At least if the apocalypse comes there'll be plenty of gin in the house. You're invited, of course."

"Thank you,” said Becca.

"And you? First Night again?"

Becca snorted. "Once was enough, thanks," she said. "Especially this year, with freezing rain as a bonus!"

"You think it'll still be coming down on Friday?"

"It's been two weeks, hasn’t it?" said Becca. She nodded toward the window. "Does it look to you like it's planning to let up by then?"

Selwyn considered the thick, cottony light filtering through the glass. "Not likely," she admitted.

Becca watched her rise and walk to the window, watched her face shade into silhouette. Behind it, runnels of rain made bright worms on the pane.

"Do you think," Becca said, quietly, "that everything's really going to blow up?"

The shadowed face was silent. "Depends what you mean by that," it said at last.

"You know what I mean. Everything really stopping working. Lights going out all over the world."

"A technological apocalypse,” Selwyn said, slowly, “seems to me unlikely." She paused. "What people do, of course, that’s more unpredictable.”

“There’s all kinds of doomsday predictions going round,” said Becca. “I’ve never felt so medieval.” She hesitated. "I could almost believe, at moments, that it really is going to end.”

"Do you really think that will happen?" Selwyn asked in her low voice.

"I don't know," said Becca. "I – you know I wouldn't, ordinarily. But this is such a strange time. What if something really is coming that will change the world? Again?"

"A singularity," said Selwyn. "You can't see it coming, but before and after it, history is different."

"Yes, like that," said Becca. She shuddered a little. “You think you’re in the real world, and then something impossible happens. And you say, Oh! The world was like that, all along."

Selwyn came over to her, touched her gently on the head. "Don't kill yourself over this. You'll find out in three days what the end of the story is."

“I guess we will,” said Becca. Her hand closed and opened upon the desk. "Stay a little longer, please."

Selwyn leaned one hip on the edge of the desk, and stroked Becca's hair again. They stayed there together some time, in silence, looking out at the rain.

July 9, 2009

End of the Line: A Puzzle

by Susannah Mandel

Note: This story is a game of skill. Can you help Thad and Elizabeth solve it?

"Which door should we open? Help me think."

"I have no idea..." Thad let himself sag against the wall. Even with the support, he could feel himself trembling with fatigue and fear.

"Which one?" she murmured, studying the doors; back turned toward him, hands on hips. "Hell," she said, "there's a clue here somewhere. I'm positive. There has to be."

"Elizabeth," he began. "What..." His voice came out rasping and thin. It shocked him.

"This clue," he said, groping for steadiness. "Explain this, please. What exactly are you looking for? How will you know it when you see it?"

"It's obvious, I'd think," she said. Turning to face him, she seemed to loom, then suddenly recede. Expect disoriention, he thought, you're dehydrated.

"We've been kidnapped by parties unknown -- my vote's still for aliens, by the way. Held, then dropped into this... labyrinth, or whatever it is. Inched our way through. Tackled games of skill, of wit... and learned that, incidentally, our captors aren't above penalizing us for a wrong guess -- "

"Exploding thresholds," he muttered. "Weight-dropped arches, and that napalm thing --"

"Horrid stuff, yes. It's clear they'd let us die here, and want us to know it. ...That brings us to these doors."

"Exactly." Which stood before them now in a neat row. Heavy, simple, solid. Identical, except for their color. The smooth surface of the first shone with a green luster; the second, white; the third, a warm gold.

Eyes throbbing, head pounding; dehydration and low blood sugar were taking him down. "Why don't you just pick one?" he said, feeling despair wash through him. "Hand on knob, shove it open. It'll blow us up or it won't. That's better than waiting here to starve to death!"

Elizabeth scowled. "With due respect, Thad, no. Help me think this through instead. I can find the clue --"

"There is no clue, Elizabeth!"

"Everything can be understood if you look closely. We can find the key. Help me think! It's here if we look hard enough... They can manipulate everything in our environment, Thad. Examine everything. Where would an alien put the pattern? How would they hide the key?"

It's here somewhere. Think like an alien. Everything can be understood....

White, green, gold. How would a master manipulator hide the clue?...

Impossible. Thad closed his eyes. Elizabeth stood, silent, still staring at the doors.

Which is the right door? If you can find it, post your answer in the comments. But don't explain how you solved the puzzle: let others test their wits.

June 10, 2009

Extracted from Godmother Python's Bestiary of Wonderful Flowers

by Susannah Mandel

Regional Myths Surrounding the Giant Bellflower.

- The Sunken City: The people of Sesin Town, on Crescent Bay, speak wistfully of the music of lost Mirnaville. Here bellflowers adorned the city crest, and children played in the public gardens in their melodious shade. History verifies that on Saint Sembert's day, a flood from the sea rose and engulfed the city; folklore alone claims that, in calm weather, the wind carries its chiming from under the waves, bearing it up to the sunlit gardens of Sesin Town, where no bellflowers grow.

- The Cruel Father: A tale local to the Abernath Forest tells of a man who, having allowed his children to starve, was condemned to serve consecutive seven-year terms as a robin, an ocean-going monster (variously described as a dragon, horse, or sea-goat: the Abernath Forest is landlocked), and the clapper-tongue of a bellflower. This, it is said, explains why the father's voice may be heard mingling with those of his children in the Abernath's lugubrious vespertine chorus. (While this account is usually considered folkloric, some historians of jurisprudence claim to be able to fit it into the Abernath’s ancestral systems of justice.)

- The Gardener’s Beautiful Daughter: On the Yayang Plateau, the heads of Cithera, a highly respected Botanical Clan, cherish an account of their ancestor the Cleya of Cithera, who was tasked by the Yayang Censorate with producing a bellflower purer
of tone than any yet bred. To protect her mother from the consequences of failure, the Cleya’s oldest daughter, after consulting with the Sepeng Oracle, mixed her own blood with the soil. Though debate surrounds the mechanism of the spell, the Yayang bellflower is an undeniably clear-voiced plant, whose ochre markings are (moreover, on occasion) reported to spell surprising words.

- The Three Sisters: In the Culleham Moors their house may still be seen. These women -- variously described, according to the storyteller, as having been lovely or plain, reclusive or magnetic, and brilliant or cracked -- were unable to get anyone to publish their books. Thus they practiced a form of wild moors magic that is said to have transformed them into either ravens, bellflowers, or men. According to the latter version, the sisters took new names, married, and lived acclaimed and productive lives. According to either of the first two variants, they still dwell on the Culleham Moors, abiding near their former home and confiding their stories to the wind.

May 18, 2009

May 18th’s “Under the Weather”: Record Reviews From a Warmer World

by Susannah Mandel

Riddle Sieve, Rain Shadow
Both cooler and darker than Sunshower, the omnipresent party hit of two summers past, Rain Shadow marks a return to their roots for the Birmingham-based moodmizzle group. This understated rubba speaks to the kind of afternoon when everything just feels too scorching and awful, even with the Lens on at full, and you think you’d like to sit under a Traditional English Drizzle to have a bit of a mope. (We’ve never seen a real Drizzle either, but we’ve all heard your Grandpa go on.) At 2B/W, the Wind Scale rating is low enough that you can play it outdoors in a clearance zone as small as 3x3x3m -- no need to check with the neighbours! Knowing the band, though, expect a creepy surprise or two to manifest out of the fog.

Nymph Load, Warm Occlusion
The ladies (and one gent) of NL are at it again, this time putting out a wet and sensuous late-summer experience. Plenty of cheap but sultry exoticism here, with a tinkly backing and high humidity index bringing the smells and bells of that South Asian monsoon holiday you never got around to taking. Probably best enjoyed in the Weather Room; at 3M/XX you could take it outside without drowning the zinnias, but the Moist Succubi are better in private. (We know, no subtlety at all, but what would a Nymph Load jam be without them?)

The Thousand Natural Shocks, Intertropical Convergence Zone
This one’ll be a biggie. The long-awaited magnum opus from the established masters of symphonic-system mayhem, the ICZ promises to wreak chaos, equatorial-style, in cloud ballrooms across the nation when it finally debuts this weekend. We could tell you all about it, since we’ve already ridden it out, but we don’t like to dangle our privilege. So we’ll just say that you’re going to love it. Violently, tornadically, hurricane-force. Pull any strings you need to get into a riding party: this is one you can’t play at home without shorting the systems and probably your lungs. (That 19V rating is there for a reason.) Bring your waterproof, and hold on to your skin…


March 17, 2009

From Godmother Python's Bestiary of Wonderful Flowers: Vice Gardens

by Susannah Mandel

The Vice Garden, as many gardeners know (and many more do not), is commonly found tucked into the corner of a temple or monastery’s vegetable plot.

Unlike the sections put on show to the inquisitive public, the Vice Garden is reserved strictly for the use of the monastic community. While the species commonly found here (e.g., the fameflower, the beauty bush; loosestrife; rue) may seem out of place in such a setting, the abbots have a purpose for everything.

Consider, for example, the fameflower (genus Talinum, numerous species). These plants bear small, star-shaped blossoms of a pleasant, if unassuming, lavender or pink. Their leaves are thick, fleshy, and, in some species, edible. The various cultivars of the fameflower have long been prized in certain kinds of “social magic,” mainly in spells intended to attract renown or to enhance personal prestige. (Effects that have largely, in the past, been handled through summoning demons; the herbal approach is considered more ecologically friendly, and avoids questions of exploitation.)

As one might expect, the cultivars found in Vice Gardens are of the less potent varieties. Most commonly, according to the closely-guarded gardening books of the Abbots (to which, nonetheless, Godmother Python has her methods of access), their flowers, when picked and eaten in salad, create the mere hallucinatory illusion of being famous and well-known.

The theory of the Abbots is this: once the vivid tactile fantasies -- which include the usual accoutrements of fame, including its opportunities for sexual and chemical overindulgence -- have run their course and worn off, their users will awaken having been reminded why they decided to retire from the world in the first place. The principle, as the informed reader will recognize, is that of aversion via over-indulgence.

There are, of course, some among the cynical who raise questions about the uses to which the fameflower is actually put. On the other hand, in line of defending the monks, one might mention a secondary use of the plant – one with, perhaps, more convincing benefits to a melancholic initiate. This takes the form of a salad composed from the plant’s leaves alone.

When consumed, it invokes no fantasies of overindulgence; no hallucinations tactile or otherwise. Instead, it has the mere and simple property of convincing the eater that -- however isolated one’s cloister may be, on whatever far-flung mountaintop or spumey sea island -- out there in the world, however far away, somebody, somewhere, knows your name.

February 16, 2009

Excerpts from Goodwife Python's Bestiary of Wonderful Flowers

by Susannah Mandel

Sixth Ed., Vols. A-C.

Aconitum (Aconite). Also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, leopard's bane, women's bane, or Devil's helmet.

An unassuming cousin of the buttercup, aconite thrives in mountain meadows and is much sought after by herbalists for its defensive properties. As its nicknames suggest, it is viewed as effective in warding off the dangers of a) wolves; b) leopards[1]; and c) women -- thus its popularity among monks.

As with all mountain flowers, aconite may be less potent at lower altitudes. If it fails against a woman, the wielder can resort to force-feeding her the virulently poisonous root. This method is of questionable effectiveness against leopards or wolves.

Aconite is contraindicated in confrontations with the Devil. Do not give him back his hat.

[1] Or possibly giraffes. The Latin tractates are unclear on this point, and practical experiments have yielded inconclusive -- if interesting -- results.

Alopecurus (Foxtail).

Foxtails thrive in many climates, from the semidesert plains of North Africa (A. fennecus, notable for its large ears) up to the Arctic tundra (A. thulensis, which is buff-colored throughout the short summer months but produces white spikelets in winter).

Alopecurus is a gregarious grass, and travels in large packs, hunting by night. During the day it digs a burrow for resting, presenting in the tail-upward position for which it is known. Although not normally aggressive toward humans, Alopecurus will bite if disturbed. Therefore pulling it up is not recommended, unless provision has been made to anesthetize it first.

Creamcups (Platystemon californicus).

This New World poppy is densest on the American west coast, especially on the littoral between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Traditionally, the flower is harvested for its thick, rich juice, which can be added to coffee (north of the Oregon border), used in cooking, or whipped.

Recent report has it that new uses for the creamcup have developed in the California pornography industry, but Goodwife Python has no further details on this. (Much to her regret. She welcomes updated information, and video, via the usual channels.)

January 21, 2009

Day Street

by Susannah Mandel

(From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed Of That City We Almost Know)

It will probably be dusk by the time you turn onto Day Street. The brick house-fronts will be darkening with approaching evening; between the chimney-stacks, the blue is draining out of the sky. The lawns are converging, with the brickwork and the trees, into a mass of indistinct purplish-gray. Out of that dusk, the legs of lawn furniture gleam fitfully; the white fences holding in the back yards; the curtains in the windows. The pavement, stretching before you down the street and trailing perpendicular paths up to the stoops, luminesces faintly under your feet like a phosphorescent wake.

The air is soft along Day Street. Past your ears float breezes, and the sound of voices talking; not out here, on the sidewalk empty except for one walker, but coming from somewhere very close, just over a white fence, just around the corner.

As you pass the house, a light comes on behind the translucent curtains. There is a movement of shadows in the window; a barely audible clatter of silver, a muted murmur of conversation. Up and down the street, just like in Magritte’s painting The Empire of Lights, the streetlamps are flickering on.

Above the roofline, the chimneys and the satellite dishes have been reduced to silhouettes. Above them, in a band of limpid blue, one bright star is coming out in the west. Very high up, a curve of light has pooled, like a rim of salt along the edge of the world.

A person could stand here for quite some time, looking at the streetlights, the sky. But it is possible that it may be time to lower your eyes, to move on down the street. It is possible that you have someplace you need to be.

The air you move through down Day Street is grey and gentle, cool and faint, suspended between the darkness and day. The pavement is an auroreal glow beneath your feet. In the darkened houses, all down the street, the lights are beginning to come on in the windows. The silver is starting to clink.

In the dew-laden grass, the flowers yawn. The wind is bright and silent: clear, cool, clean-smelling, as the air is just before dawn. Seeping upward from somewhere behind the houses, behind the one bright eastern star, the sky is beginning to turn blue. As you pass beneath them, following the pale line of the madrugal pavement, the long row of streetlamps, one by one, begin to flicker out.

December 17, 2008

Our Lady of the Sands

by Susannah Mandel

They say Our Lady of the Sands first showed herself on a seashore. The people there venerated her, and prayed to her for fair winds. She was kind to them, and when the storms came, she stood on the point in the rain-lashed darkness and shed her light over the sea to guide lost fishermen home.

Then something happened. Maybe she was displaced by another Lady, arrived in the traders' ships, or maybe by an usurper risen from the sea. Whatever it was, Our Lady of the Sands fled inland -- away from the fishing coasts, across the farmlands, over the corrugated goat-bleating mountains -- and inward to the desert.

Once Our Lady was peaceful. Now she has gone bad. She brings sandstorms, and the people fear her.

The oasis folk will tell you this story -- though you may be surprised by the calm in their faces. After all, the oasis people lead modern lives, with their date farms and their televisions. They keep up the shrines, but if you ask them what Our Lady really does, they will probably shrug. Sand in the air conditioner? A hard time starting the truck?

The caravan merchants have more to say. They maintain their traditions, even if today they drive ATVs instead of camels, and they will tell you the warnings and tales. Watch for Our Lady’s shadow: a threatening figure on the horizon, a woman veiled in curtains of flying dust. She tails behind her the simoom, the haboob, the khamsin. Once folded inside, you will never find your way out.

In the end, of course, if you wanted the real story about Our Lady, you would have to go to the nomads. It's too bad they are such a private people. For the stories they tell about Our Lady are different again. They too center on sandstorms, yes, and on someone lost as the terrible wind whips up, the dust rising to choke off sound, light, breath.

But at the end of their stories, sometimes the lost person is found again. What they recount is always the same. A sense of being caught up in arms, clutched, for a few minutes or endless hours, to a blowing heart. A seeking, as of reaching back toward a home where they have never been. And in their noses an unfamiliar tang: the strange, salty, lost smell of the sea.

November 26, 2008

Our Lady Underground

by Susannah Mandel

The scuffed-linoleum halls of cabal central echo with one more set of approaching footfalls. One last set, at least for the time being. Another new author steps forward today. Susannah Mandel's mark in the world of words has, so far, been largely nonfictional, but she's also quite adept in the fictional mode, as we're sure you'll discover when she takes us beneath the surface of things in today's story...

Our Lady Underground is a mystery of the earth. She lies in chthonic dignity under the hill at the center of the island, awaiting her oblations.

Obediently the inhabitants lay their offerings on her monument. Usually, they send the young people to do it. In winter, that means cold; in spring, they slog up muddy paths lugging the baskets. But one has not the right to pick and choose. Our Lady demands her rituals all the year round.

Everyone understands what Our Lady provides in return. In the shallows off the coast, she holds back the waves from surging and flattening the fishing villages. She keeps the cliffs from sliding down and burying the harbor. She grips the soil tight in her powerful arms, preventing it from bucking like a terrified lamb, overturning cradles and trapping young mothers under their tumbled roofs.

What does Our Lady look like? No one knows. There are no effigies on her monument, no pictures on the tiles sunk into earth at the tidelines. Rumors exist of secret cliff-side carvings; of an image cut in chalk on a hidden hill. By the fireside, the nannies tell stories about Our Lady in battle, rising, in vast and terrible beauty, to defend her faithful people against Our Lady of the Landslide, Our Lady of the Earthquake, Our Lady of the Tidal Wave.

(But the young people murmur mutinously, to each other: Has Our Lady ever stirred from under her hill? Does she even know how to stand up? To walk? Fight? Dance?)

Though they live by the sea, this island's inhabitants bury their dead. The words of the traditional funeral homily, passed down through centuries, imply less a rapturous moment of reunion with Our Lady than a slow growing: a knitting together, as with the roots of trees. The nannies and old men sink into deep calmness, as they approach their eventual rendezvous. Children, whispering in the night, thrill each other with horror.

But the young people conduct their own investigations of Our Lady Underground, up on the hillside's winding streets, in the basement nightclubs that bear her name. Among the shadows and pulsing music, they seek to answer each other's questions: about what lies underneath; about where to find the secret hill; about what their elders have always thought to be so dangerous in the rising, shuddering and crashing of avalanches, earthquakes, tsunamis, waves.