Saturday, December 19, 2015

On Star Wars, the Force Awakens, and Sharing Bad Literature with your Children

Warning: Herein lie spoilers for The Force Awakens. Proceed at thine own risk!

Yesterday I finally saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. While it was not, in my estimation, a particularly good movie, it is a good Star Wars movie. A series of discussions I had with Chloe (regular readers of this blog know of Chloe, the now-nine year old with whom I've been sharing my love of fantastic literature), I was pondering how some (but not all) of our beloved classics are, in various ways, deeply flawed. Can you still love something with problems?

The initial discussion was about Return of the Jedi, particularly the revelation that Luke and Leia are brother and sister. Her question (as she saw a part of it out of context) was WHY this was. It lead to a nice chat about the love triangle between Leia, Luke, and Han along with what a love-triangle does in fiction in the first place. I then pointed out that making Luke and Leia siblings after teasing the relationship for the first two movies can be read as a cheat. It resolves the conflict without having to have one of the two rivals "lose". It was a nice discussion that lead to more of a chance to teach about the shape of stories. And this brings us to The Force Awakens.

The biggest and most obvious weakness, to me, is how closely The Force Awakens tracks the plot details of the first trilogy. It's almost as if someone made a checklist:

  • Black-masked, lightsaber-wielding supervillain
    • Killing a beloved mentor (repeated in Ep IV, I, and and now VII. With a scream of "NO" each time)
  • Stormtroopers
  • Young dreamer on a desert planet
  • Hot-shot pilot.
  • Death Star. Even bigger death star!
    • With a small vulnerability
    • Destroyed moments before obliterating the Rebel base.
    • (Death Stars were destroyed in Episodes, IV, VI, and VII. A droid command ship was destroyed in similar circumstances in Episode I)
we also get Han Solo, the Millenium Falcon, Princess Leia, a new Emperor-like figure. It is, in its way, a better film than A New Hope; most notably, the acting and dialog are far better (although there are a few parts - especially near the beginning - in which it's a bit too far on the snappy side). Kilo Renn is a more interesting character than Darth Vader, yet he's less menacing. Vader was, in some ways, more of a force than a character. He had no facial expressions, showed no emotion, existing as a pure threat to the heroes. Renn, on the other hand, is emotional. In the Star Wars mythos of the "Dark Side" of the force being fueled by negative emotions, he's the first we've seen really feed on uncontrollable anger. It also makes him less of a credible threat, but more of that later.

As in all Star Wars films, the plot in  The Force Awakens relies heavily on coincidences. Landing in the one part of the planet where another important person lives. The one dessert scavenger who can use the force stumbling across the macguffin. Etc.

It's not without its charm. I LOVE the new "Jedi to be" character Rey; there was a moment early in the film in which she was in danger and it appeared that the male lead was going to rescue her. He then watched, almost slack-jawed, as she fought off multiple attackers on her own. Less convincing is her emergence as a budding force-user. We see some tricks from the standard Jedi playbook: the Jedi mind trick, the grabbing something from a distance with her mind, fancy lightsaber fighting.  Where it breaks suspension of disbelief (for me) is that she does all of these things almost instinctively, after revealing earlier in the movie that she didn't even believe for certain that the Jedi were real. We even saw her sneak through an enemy base in a scene very reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi on the Death Star in Episode IV.  It was, from my mind, too much from this character too early.

This was echoed in my mind later when she fights Kilo Renn. It's a great lightsaber battle in which the untrained, young woman who has never before held a lightsaber defeats a foe who had destroyed the new Jedi order and sent Luke Skywalker into hiding. It's a moment which, to me, not only did not feel "earned" but is the wrong shape for the story; I'd rather have seen the hero defeated in a hard-fought battle rather than emerge triumphant. This leaves something more to which to build for their next encounter. As things stand, he's been beaten once. That will make it mean less when he is beaten again. 

Was the movie fun? It absolutely was. It looked like Star Wars, with all the rough edges and beautiful decay we've come to expect. Harrison Ford gave a very memorable performance as Han Solo and, sentimentality aside, did an excellent job showing us the once-swashbuckling hero as an older man, hanging on to the things he knows how to do after facing a tragedy. Ditto for Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Overall, though, what bothers me the most is how safe it felt. It's like a once-great band on a reunion tour playing their greatest hits from back in the day. Yes, we still like them. And yes, it's fun while it is happening. At the end of the day, though, it's not "art" so much as a package: as what we expect wrapped up in a pretty box for us. Disney spent four billion dollars on Lucasfilms. 
 What they got is a cash cow to milk, nostalgia to sell back to us. 

Was it a good Star Wars movie? Ultimately yes. A good movie? For that it would have had to take more risks, break more new ground, give us something to say.

And that is today's lesson: it's one which would be harder to tell with a better movie. To look critically at film and literature and see it for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

So endeth the lesson.

May the force be with you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Flash Fiction: Small Flames

A bit of flash fiction to light your way this winter season.

Small flames, and a callback to an old, old story. These stories are our heritage; they only live so long as we remember them, retell them, reinterpret them.

Small Flames

by Leonard C Suskin

Winter, still,  is a time for small flames. That serves as a small blessing to me, me who left this world through the comfort of the smallest of flames. It's grey here between, so very grey, but sometimes I can see backward through a small flame.

Yes, it's true, what he wrote about me. Are you surprised that I know? People did once read by dancing candlelights, or even gaslamps. But now, as I learn more and grow into a flickering shadow of what I might have been, now candleflames are for lovers, for birthdays, for mourning. Yes, time still passes here and my innocence has faded but still I was never a lover. The dance of flesh in counterpoint to the flickering candleflame holds little longing, little interest for me. Perhaps a small measure for the closeness, the touch.

I do so miss touch.

Sometimes I glimpse a birthday. Through the flickering lights of the slenderest candles I can see their eager faces, see families whole and in love, see sweet cakes stacked on garish-colored plates. Everything smells of smoke and soot, but I can still see and, sometimes, still remember. If I listen closely I can hear a child's wish.

A bicycle.

A pony.

A reunion with a parent, sibling, or even beloved pet who's passed on.

Fear not, small child. The last wish will be the one granted. Not in this life, but the next.

Sometimes I show them. I still carry with me the image of the Christmas dinner that never was with my grandmother and hers, that one scrap of warmth that eased me into the cold. To show it again to a small, sad child is no hard trick, and I think they always see theirs at the banquet. I think it's comforting.

Anyway, like I was saying, winter is the time for small candles. For years I'd look forward to it, to a chance to linger about Christmas trees strung with popcorn and adorned with flickering tiny flames. Then more and more the candles went away, replaced by cold, dead, electric fire encased in hard glass. To look through no longer brings comfort, but an icysharp pain, a view of a world too sharp and too hard and too real. It breaks my heart to be driven from Christmas.

But it is winter and it is, as I said, a time for small flames. They aren't my people, but there are some who light candles, one more on each day, tiny flickers of living fire. Tiny windows for me to peek into the world.

There's a part of my story they never told, not in any of the times I read it by candlelight.

When I passed, I clung to the dead matchstick like a talisman and, even in this place, I still feel it with me. I drift, drawn to the small flames, have not yet joined the banquet myself.

I've yet to meet Him.

Very few stop here to stay with me with the candles, in between. You're the first in a long time. I'm sorry, but thank you.

Anyway, like I was saying, there are still candles, and still people who light them. I don't know the language, but I know they're calling to Him when they light them. I know they do because I can feel the light getting brighter, I know because I feel an unnatural warmth spreading from the flame. I know because for a moment - just a moment - the scent of beef stewed all day in root vegetables and the oily smoke scent of cooking overcomes the ashes and soot. For that moment I can step into the flame and join the banquet myself.

It might be soon time for me to leave this place between, to join Him and all who came before me and lose myself. To cast off this dead matchstick I carry.

Perhaps soon.

Will you take my hand? Will you come with me?

Or will you linger for a time beside the small flames brief flickers dancing across all too brief moments of life?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lovecraft, Defoe, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

This contains politics again, but also discussion of fantasy fiction. Fear not, this is not becoming a political blog! Some things are important, and sometimes thoughts on fiction and the real world intersect. This is one of those times.

The HPL bust won by
For those not in the know, the World Fantasy Convention annuals gives the World Fantasy Award to a distinguished work of fantasy literature from the previous year. Up through this year (but no longer!) the award took the physical shape of a bust of early twentieth-century horror writer HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft is tremendously influential in the world of horror fiction but also, in both his personal life AND in his work, horrifically racist, even by the standards of his time. 

After winning the WFA, African-American writer Nnnedi Okorafor shared the following poem of Lovecraft's from 1912 as a shockingly blatant example (you should read Okorafor's words on the topic here; as both a WFA winner herself and a Nigerian-American writer she is far more qualified to speak on the topic than I):

by H. P. Lovecraft

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

Not someone whom we should choose to honor, and racist even by the standards of the early twentieth century. What's nearly as bad to me, the main theme within Lovecraft's fiction is fear of the outsider. Not only are the most famous of his creations otherworldly creatures barely comprehensible to (and completely inimical to) us humans, Paired with the author's racism, we are left with an oevre  focused on protecting "our people" from "others". To read Lovecraft uncritically is to exercise that part of ones mind which seeks out the familiar and sees anything foreign as not only incomprehensible, but dangerous and degenerate.

Yes, Lovecraft was influential. I see his influence in much the same way I see that of Daniel Defoe; both cast long shadows, the works of both are important historical artifacts. Both stand - to one extent or another - as works of art. Both are also dreadfully problematic and contain major themes far outside the way we would like to think today. They are to be read, respected for what they added to culture, but not honored uncritically.

This brings us to recent events. Last week the city of Paris suffered several terrorist attacks, which seem to have been carried out by French and Belgian nationals with ties to the Syrian militant group ISIS. The response here in America was the same response our own Lovecraft would have made: keep the others out. In this case, it served not only as an pretext to halt our policy of accepting Syrian refugees, many of whom are fleeing the very terrorists claiming responsibility for this action, but it also escalated already high levels of rhetoric against Muslims. Much has been made of the parallel between refusing to accept Syrian refugees now and refusal to accept European refugees on the eve (and in the early days of) the second World War, including the following official statement by the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial:

WASHINGTON, DC—Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.  
The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.
I say that today's response, tragically and shamefully, is well within certain aspects of our historical character. It's the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow and, yes, the legacy of Lovecraft. To not only accept such works unquestionably but also to honor them is to embrace this part of our legacy. There's no proof that Syrian refugees are any more dangerous than anyone else, or at all responsible for acts of terror. Yet they look different. They speak differently. They worship the same god as most of us in a slightly different way. Their culture is different.

Lovecraft knew. Different is scary. It's what he continues to teach us.
Are we, today in the twenty-first century, the same people we were a hundred years ago, when we saw those from other continents as half-human degenerates? Are we the same as we were two centuries before that, when we saw non-Europeans as savages over whom we needed to take our rightful dominion? Is this who we choose to be?

Part of the choices in who we are is who we choose to honor, how we choose to honor them. Yes, Lovecraft was an interesting prose sylist (once he got past his early adjective-laden career phase) and created some memorable imagery which casts a long shadow on the horror fiction genre. He was also a racist and a xenophobe. Is this a legacy we should choose to honor uncritically? 

It is not what I choose. It is shameful that it took a half-decade after Okorafor's personal essay for the World Fantasy Award for the bust to change. It's shameful that our first impulse is still to fear those other than ourselves.

It is shameful that it is 2015 and we are not yet better than this.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

On Welders and Philophers, Certification and Education

Warning: This post contains politics.

Last week I engaged in an interesting discussion across several blog posts with Mark Coxon and Gary Kayye regarding the CTS (certified technical specialist for those not in the know) certification from Infocomm, the audiovisual industry trade group. It was an interesting conversation on what certifications mean, why we seek them, how they can be better valued or made use of. I was quite ready to put this discussion to bed and move on when I saw this statement from Presidential hopeful March Rubio:

"Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers"

I'll set aside my grammatical pet peeve about allegedly educated adults not knowing the difference between "less" and "fewer"; as less and less value is given to education as an end to itself, fewer and fewer people will take the effort to make this distinction. What struck me most is that Mr. Rubio sees education as a whole as akin to a certification process; education is the process of learning how to do something which will earn one the most money. In this context, it is quite easy to measure the value of education: see what graduates earn, see what it costs to get a degree, compare. It's the same process by which one would measure ones investment in a mutual fund.

It's also a poor and reductive way to look at such things.

In the title I mentioned Dr. Carson. There's no question that Carson is a bright man with as impressive a set of educational and professiona, credentials as one could expect: Yale, University of Michigan,  and, finally, Johns Hopkins where he served as the head of neurosurgery. What fascinates  - and terrifies - me is that a man with such an obvious education can hold bizarre, couterfactual beliefs:
  • President Obama was born in Africa
  • The earth is 6000 years old.
  • The Great Pyramids of Egypt were built for the purpose of grain storage.

The last one is truly head-scratching, and pretty much wilfully ignores literally everything we know about the pyramids except for the fact that they are large and located in Egypt. How can an educated man think this way? I know because, a long time ago, I was on the path to that sort of education.

My education wasn't to be in medicine, but electrical engineering. The school to which I went was small, selective, and very technology-heavy. We studied math. We studied science. We studied chemistry. And, each semester, we took one humanities course. One. As a freshman, it was a two-part "Western Civilization" survey. That's right, all of "Westery Civilization" in one year. History. Literature. And, yes, philosophy. One. Year. After that, there was a requirement for one elective. That was it. If one had to design an education to create the kind of stereotypically anti-social, narrowly focused technologist-nerd completely lost in the larger society one could do no better. I wasn't the greatest student and never graduated, but it was the parts of an education which I was never offered that I missed most and have, on and off, been chasing through my adult life. It's been poetry, it's been literature, it's been philosophy. Yes, I'm glad to have learned the math I did, but that is, as I say about technical ideas, just "stuff".  

What have  gained since trying to broaden my education? I feel that I can think better and more broadly. I can understand people who think differently than I do, and why. In the realm of literature, I read more mindfully and learn more from a good book and, I hope, can communicate more and better in my own writing. More to the point - and this is a harder thing for which to find a metric - it's bought an element of joy and pleasure to my life as well as some much-needed depth. I see knowing more as an end in and of itself, and one which I hope to continue to pursue throughout my life. I only wish I'd had more of the foundation sooner.

I've gained a measure of humility in seeing the very edges of the depth and rigor of thought which lie behind various worldviews. Philosophy is not just the caricature of robed figures in an ivory tower gazing into their navels; it encompasses many schools of thought which I accept that I'll never have the time to deeply understand. That doesn't stop me from reaching for, at the very least, a broader appreciation. 

My technical education, of course, is also a life-long project. The difference is that this is results-oriented as much as concept oriented; I need to know what IGMP protocols are so I can design network-based audio-video systems. I educate myself on arts so I'll be happy (and yes, I've neglected that over the past months; time gets in the way, but it's a luxury on which I should spend more time). 

People like Rubio, on the other hand,  see only the technical "certification" part of education: as a means to an end and naught else. That is valuable, but it is not the highest and best use of higher education. I'd even argue that it isn't even the best use of primary and secondary education; we've become so fixated on STEM, on economics, on winning the next big tech race that we don't pay enough attention to know the destination to which we're racing. 

The irony? Rubio is talking about how to allocate scarce resources, what skills and knowledge we should value, how one should live ones life. These questions are, at their heart, philosophical. What's more, his beloved welder is, by casting a ballot, going to be making these choices for all of us. In a democracy we don't merely need philsophers, and we don't merely need welders; we need welder-philosophers, versed in the theory and practice of how to think about such things. We need philosophers to help us learn to navigate an ever changing world, and answer the big questions of what it means to live a fulfilled life. We need artists and writers to make the journey worth living. 

We do not live on bread alone. 

This is not "The Treachery of Images"
I'll close with an anecdote: one of my very well-respected colleagues was shopping online for a present for himself: an art print. When I asked what, he gave a guarded "I'm going to have to explain this" look and told me it was a print of a painting my Magritte called "Treachery of Images". Fortunately, I was aware of it and we were able to even discuss it a bit; it's an interesting statement about what art it, what communication is. A thousand-word restating, perhaps, about the aphorism about the finger pointing at the moon. Can I draw a line between his appreciation for surrealist art and his creative and sharp thinking in technical matters? Perhaps I can, perhaps not. Either way, it is a small thing which enriches his life. 

Yes, we need welders and mechanics and brain surgeons. We also need artists, philosophers, and those who appreciate them.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Eighteenth - The End

A sweet little deal with the devil story.

Inspiration slightly from Goethe, but mostly from the Simpsons. 


"The End"

It's near the end now, now question. And I'd have had a good run were it not for the constant fear.

I thought I was smart. I hadn't asked for incomparable wealth, to be king of the world, anything like that. Just a full life, health for my wife and children, comfort. What we had didn't seem like much out of the ordinary; the house with the white picket fence, two kids who grew into healthy adults themselves, jobs that were fulfilling and challenging enough without being a grind.

A few years after work ended to enjoy ourselves and eachother, living out the rest of our years as empty nesters, still always learning, exploring hobbies, still engaged. The one thing I'd failed to wish for was health for our pets, but they did OK; we always had cats living in the house and the heartache as they passed on always healed. I wish they'd lived forever, but they, too, had full lives.

And now it's almost over. 

I read a great deal in my later years, and took solace in the number who tricked the devil himself, who left with their souls intact. Even Faust himself ascended to heaven at the end. 

And now it's ended. 

My modern trip to hell is like a long elevator ride, far past the sub-sub-sub basement. As it travels I feel younger, feel the years and decades fading as I recede from the world.

I wrack my brain for a loophole, but can't think of one. Ah well... at least my family enjoyed the comforts I wished for them.

Soon it will be over.

At long last the door opens. 

I see dark shapes moving in the halflight, at knee level. Demons? Devils? The crawl about on all fours, their motions smooth and predatory.

Cats. Sleek, healthy, young housecats.

Ever pet I've ever lost and buried.
They languorously wander about, rubbing against eachother. One enters the elevator, rubs against my leg. 

Now I feel claws on my back as one jumpclimbs up by spectral body, leaving deep scratches before it alights on my shoulder. The elevator fills with small furry bodies. My soul now intact, the elevator door closes and heads back upward.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Seventeenth - The Girl in the Lake


No commentary on this one; I much like this image, and might return to this with some more detail. 

"The Girl in the Lake"

You don't know to use the word ritual, but that's what your trip to the lake is.

Every day you endure the words.

You're ugly.
You're stupid.
You're worthless.

So every afternoon in what you don't know to call a ritual but most certainly is you walk to the river.

The other you is waiting there, on the otherside of the water, looking sadly up at you, tears welling up in her eyes.

You turn your head, not able to look directly at her, but you see her there, watching you through the corner of her eyes which are yours. 

And there at the river, in what you don't know to call a ritual, you pass along all the small cruelties. After all, there's not meant for you, not for meek, quiet, calm you. They're meant for the girl in the river.

You half-whisper:
"Why can't you be more like your brother?"
"You're useless."
"You're just like your mother."

She always does her part, in what you don't know to call a ritual, staying the whole time, as meek as you are, until you walk slowly away from the river. 

You wonder where she goes when you're gone, what the world is like across the river, but you don't wonder for long. After all, you can return from the lake, quietly, to gather another day's worth of petty hatreds for the girl in the lake. 

Until one day, in what you never knew to be a ritual, you blink and find yourself looking up, looking through the calm water,  up at her face backlit by the sun and unreadable.

You feel the weight of all the petty cruelties you've cast into the water dragging you down and away, as she turns and walks away, looking as meek as you but hardened by years underwater. 

You tell yourself that you'll meet her eyes when she returns, but you never get the chance.

You fade, reflecting nothing but the angry-red sun, pain wearing smooth like a river-stone, 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Sixteenth - At Sea

Again, the sea-witch. I adore the sea-witch. I'd like to do more with this, and with her. It's an interesting topic.

This one is just a fragment, and I don't much care for it. I'll perhaps return to the image later.

"Fragments of a Dialog At Sea"

There was a surge of interest, about 25 years ago now, but that faded. It was the wrong kind of interest anyway; men (almost all men) thinking they'd slay the big bad monster of the deep.

Oh, not much interest. After all, it was told as a children's story and who takes them seriously? Nobody but the children.

The children are a bit older now and some of them have looked out to the sea. It's the sensitive ones, the dreaming ones, the ones who never learned to stop taking stories seriously. Some of you started lookat the older tellings of the tales, to try to drink in the truth. 
Some of you don't bother.

You talk about duress and trickery and unholy power, but you don't really believe that, do you? 

Do you?

No, you think I'm a monster because I'm fat, because I have tentacles instead of legs, because I've found comfort and a home in the dark places far from where you live, in the places you fear.

Anyway, it isn't that lonely out here. After all, I still have her voice. I sometimes use it to whisper into the pulsingbright veins of light your people have stretched across the seabed. It's how I lure men here still, now that ships have gone all automatic.

Oh, you didn't think I still had it? That's what you get for reading the children's version of the story.

I gave her something much, much better. I could give you the same.

Or not.

I am, after all, the sea.  And I can be fickle.

And you no longer amuse me.

Don't worry. You'll get another chance.

The stories don't say it, but I'm fair. I give people what they need. And what you need most of all now is to start over.

May the taste of saltwater remind you of your failings.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fifteenth - Girls' Armor.

We've reached the midpoint! Don your armor - boys' or girls' - and read on.

"Girls' Armor"

Girls's armor is different from boys' armor.

I  learned that at a very young age from the covers of the books Dad leaves on the coffee table, but also from the clothes Mom buys us. It's why parents with a boy/girl set of identical twins don't do the matchy-matchy game; boys have to learn to wear boy armor, girls to wear girl armor.

He got little miniature Timberland knock-offs. I got mary janes and white socks. Always the black Mary Janes, except the times they were purple. We don't talk about the white ones.

It was the black ones I wore the year of the fairy infestation.  My eyes were still young enough and innocent enough to see them, but still I towered over them; the fey are cruel and, in their way, powerful, but small. They hid under the forscythia bush, they hid in the wildtallgrass against the back fence, they hid in the privacy hedge between our yard and the neighbors' (old man Hiller and family, always the first to bring their trash cans to the curb, and always trimming those hedges with near-military precision. Still, there were always hiding spots beneath).

We couldn't always see them, but they'd whip us with brambles as we ran through the ragged weeds into the grassy area beneath the powerlines, they'd throw clouds of dirt and mud at us, pelt us with tiny rocks. And we'd run and brandish sticks and laugh, and our laughter would drive them off, back to whence they came.

And I fought wearing my girls' armor, he in his boys' armor.

Sometimes at the end of the day I'd roll my sock down just a bit, revealing the softwhite skin creased from the pressure of wearing socks all day, but unmarred by the dust and dirt and debris. That little ring of skin beneath the armor, unscratched and unharmed. He in his boys' armor never had that layer of dust and brambles and scratches go so far along his skin; the hardened faux-leather and tall athletic socks keeping his legs clean and pure. He wore boys armor, and it protected him, coddled him.

We beat the infestation, because kids always win. It's a rule. We didn't eliminate all the fairies, because battles never truly end. That's also a rule. 

When summer came, I swam in a belly-baring two piece suit, the bottom part of which covered little more than underwear. Girls' armor.

He wore mid-calf shorts and a swim-shirt. Boys' armor.

It was as if Thetis had chosen to swaddle her son first, before anointing him in that faithful river, and annointed her daughter completely nude, tossing the tiny body freely into the flowing rapids before snatching it out.

Because we love our boys more, they never grow a hardened skin.

Boys learn to wear boys armor, and grow up fragile and weak. They can't see the fey anymore, but we all know that they still linger, still throw barbs and darts from hidden corners. Those of us who'd worn boys' armor all our lives will feel the pricks on delicate pale skin, the prickles drawing them slowly to anger.

It's why men are so quick to rage. Now that we can't see the fey we can't really fight them anymore. So I put on my woman's armor, knowing that my bare ankles have been toughened by a lifetime as a girl.

An d someday, when my children grow to challenge the monsters I'd not slayed, I shall array them both in girls' armor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fourteenth - A Lifetime Later

This is not really a prompt which spoke to me, but I managed to wrestle something out of it.

The stories appear to be getting darker as the month wears on. Enjoy!


"A Lifetime Later"

Sometimes you go back.

It's not "back", not really. After all, they replaced most of the building. How could they not? Even if not the practical matter of damage, there's the memory.
There are ghosts.

So you go back to visit them. Never on open school nights, never when classes are in session. You visit as you did when you were a kid, when you could climb a tree overgrown too close to a fence, slip through a carelessly open window, and wander halls empty and deserted. It felt otherworldly at times like that. It felt like somethign from a dream, or a story.

So you slip through, into the past.

The new building rests on the same foundation.

You remember that you were mad that day. There had again been too much homework, you'd again not done it. It had been a bright autumn day, the kind for riding bikes and running through the yard. Not the kind for homework. It wasn't fair.

So, you were mad. Mike had shoved you on the way out at recess, and Stacy, she of the long black hair and bright blue eyes, Stacy had laughed. Your ears and face burned hot, your stomach tightened. You remember tears coming to your eyes, the chant of "baby". You remember that part. It's the last time you'd ever felt that.

You don't remember much more, but you remember that day.

You already had the trick of being places you shouldn't, of finding secret paths into the muskywet basement room behind the boiler, with the faint scent of oil and mildew.

You remember the smell.

You remember, because it sometimes helped you, whispering your hate into the cool cinderblock walls. Whispering your anger.

You hate Michael.
You hate Stacy.
You're not a baby.

Not a baby.

You don't know how they say the fire started,  but that doesn't matter. You know you called it. You know that whatever spirit lived in the building answered.

You didn't see the bodies of the younger kids, kindergarten kids, carried out, but you'd learn later.

Learn that Michael and Stacy were near the door and among the first to escape.

And learn that your body, hidden behind the boiler, would be the last found. That your parents would pin sad, hopeful fliers to lampposts, that even after they found you your mother would secretly hold out hope that you'd gotten out, that it was a mistake, that it was some other dead kid that looked like you.

And so, you go back sometimes. More often once your parents finally cleared out your room, finally moved away.

It is, after all, the only place that feels familiar, even if it is rebuild and nothing but the foundation remains.

When you see the ghosts of the kindergarten kids you tell them you're sorry, but they don't seem to understand. They just cry and cry for mothers who have long since moved on with their lives.

So you leave them and lurk beneath the shiny new building, beside a new boiler not yet smelling of spilled oil and rust, whispering to whatever spirits live within the walls that they were wrong.

That you're still mad.

That you've not forgiven them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the 13th. The Mourner

The idea of "stunt blogs" is a novel, digital form of performance art; it's turning a facet of ones life into a performance, it's audience interaction, it can be a statement.

Think Julia and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, Zero Impact Man. The latter two especially sought to make a statement, while the former was, perhaps, more of an explanation.

The following tale is of a stunt-blogger, with a darker subject matter. 

"The Mourner"
Some deaths I knew would be better than others.

When I had the idea for the blog, I'd not thought about that, but it seemed obvious. 

Really, it's a great idea for a stuntblog. 52 weeks of mourning. Every week I pick an obituary at random, attend the funeral, talk to the family if they'd let me. 

And I'd mourn.

Week 30 now, nearly six months dressed in black. Six months of open caskets and closed, of shiva calls, of weeping, red-eyed widows and widowers and children and parents.

The children's deaths are the best.

I know it sounds monstrous, but there are never more hits on the blog than after the funeral of a child. There've been five so far, two girls and three boys. The girls really brought my little community of internet mourners together in grief. It really is what I'd hoped for when I started this project; an English poet once said that the death of each man diminishes him, for he is involved in mankind. We should feel that way. We should. 
Their deaths are making the world a better place.

And, through my words, perhaps some of us do.

How much better and kinder would we be were we all like that, if we all mourned each death, each life lost?

Such are my thoughts as I drive home after another awkward-strange lunch at a stranger's home, talking about another human brother. That one won't be a good death; too old, too undistinguished, I know he'll not capture the audience's imagination, yet I'll still mourn.

Such are my thoughts as I navigate the suburban streets, far from my home. As headlights illuminate the young girl carelessly darting into the street, I see a flash of bright blond hair, of tiny tennis shoes, slender bare arms. Young, beautiful.

I gun the engine, turn the wheel a bit.

This one will be a much better death. Senseless, brutal and sudden, it will help bring the world together in love.

Flesh and bone crunches against steel, the sticky wet sound of brotherly love.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Twelth - A Bug in the Code

It's an even dozen days! 

This is another quick sketch, and a riff on an interesting idea in modern physics: what if the universe as we know it is a simulation, created in another universe? What if that universe is in turn a simulation?

Is there even a "real world"? Does that phrase mean anything?

And if you learned for sure that the world wasn't as it seems, how would you act? Below lie, perhaps, a cautionary tale.

"A Bug in the Code"

They say the universe might be a simulation.

Because you're knowledgable, you realize that this could explain all those old stories about gods and goddesses, about the ages of miracles. Adjustments to the parameters, the implementers tinkering and, perhaps, playing.

Because you're clever, you now know weird happenings, feeling of deja-vu, and that moment you walked into a room and forgot why for what those moments are.
  • Glitchy programing.
  • Partial reboots when patches are installed
  • A bug in the system.
Because you're not smart, it never occurred to you to wonder what this world could be other than a computer program, to wonder if this metaphor would seem naive to your grandchildren as the idea of gods and wizards appears to you.

Because you're cunning, you know that exploits can exist, they do in all code. No simulation is perfect, after all. There are always cheats, rough edges, loopholes.

Because you're ambitious, you go searching. Out in the world, looking for incongruities. Things that don't appear as they should. An ancient tree growing in the wrong climate. An inexplicable door in the very living rock, far from where hands could have built it. Glitches, oversights. Perhaps the hiding ground of secrets.

Because you're naive, you expect to find these in places a human can reach, you expect doorways and portals on your scale, not tiny as in insect or tall as a mythical giant.  You expect a simple wooden door you can open, and you expect something you can use on the other side of it.

Because you're self-centered you think the simulation is about us, about people. It never occurs to you that we could be an artifact, a bi-product, a mistake.

Because you're not wise, you don't think about what an implementer would do with a rogue element tinkering from inside at the edges of the code. You don't think to carry your metaphor far enough to think that, if we were a programmer, you might be a bug which the implementers might choose to del---

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nightmare Fuel - Day the Eleventh - FAQ for a Damned Soul

Another day, more bleary-eyed flash fiction after staying up way too late to watch a baseball game which left me, to be honest, more angry than a baseball game should.

"Guide for Those Newly Damned to Endlessly Walk the Earth"

So you've been cursed to walk the earth, until the ends of time.

Join the damn club, or the damned club. I've done this too many times. I should write another self-help book, or a FAQ, or a maybe even "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Eternally Walking the Earth as a Damned Soul". 

First thing to know is that you're not alone. Oh, there aren't many of us, but there are a few. I usually meet the new ones because I'm the oldest, but the other ones are still around.

That is, after all, kinda the point.

First thing to remember is that almost nobody's story is what you think it is. 

If the story is about rebuking a god, remember that history is written by the winners; it's likely as not the old god throwing one last hissy-fit as he dies. Some say the endless walkers really ARE dying gods. You'll get to know us eventually. We do like to meet every hundred years or so for a drink, but try not to let the Eternal Huntman have too much. He's rowdy when he's in his cups, but if he has just enough he'll tell you the real story. I'll not give it away, but let's just say it's not one you'd tell to the children.
Funny thing, my story is the oldest one and closest to true. Just know it was long ago. I thought I was the smart one because I'd just figured out agriculture. My idiot brother figured out what gods want in terms of a sacrifice. You see where that got us.

It wasn't a bad gig at first, walking the earth. You could drift in with no history and they'd all assume it was a fight over a woman or something in some place nobody had heard of. There weren't many people yet, but there were still places nobody heard of. You could make friends in a way, then when you drifted off they'd all assume something. Sometimes you'd even come back a generation or two later and learn a story about the mysterious stranger. Then more people knew more people, places built up, and it got hard. Then came the Wild West and it got easy. And now? It's damn near impossible, pardon the phrase.

How do we do it? All differently. You might want to talk to the Wandering Jew. He's still mad at being made a cautionary tale about rejecting Christianity - remember what I said about stories being written by winners? Oh, anyway, he's always been a forward-thinking type. He picks up names and identities in the new online world the way I used to walking town-to-town. It's quite clever, really. He can make himself a free-lancer in something or other, earn a little coin, forge bonds as tight or loose as he wants. Then he'll fade and start over. It's a trick I should learn.

What else can I tell you? Get a dog. There's lots of walking in this job, it's almost part of the description. Somehow you'll always end up walking. You can still find quite spaces, and, on a foggy day still pretend that the earth is young. In the early-morning fog near farmland it's the same as it was a thousand or so years ago. So, you'll get a dog and it'll remind you of the wolf you trained a thousand years ago. You'll sometimes call it by the wrong name, sometimes wonder if the same dog-spirit has been following you for millenia. You'll tell it secrets about the world.

And if you see one of us wandering, carrying a lamp in the daytime or a book of prayers or an old tarnished horn to call the hunt that never ends, when you see one of us you'll know that whatever secrets we've learned in our eternal wanderings are shared by our eternal companions. And that when those eternal companions pass, there'll be a new one, as constant as time, as changeable as the weather. 

We were, after all, the first to train wolves to become dogs so we'd not walk alone.

It is our gift to the world that has cursed us. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the tenth - Chapter 19 And A Half

This is a "what happens next" kind of story. Today's image is a beast of salt.

Stories have echoes, and salt can go many places. I went back a few thousand years for inspiration, both in content and style.

"Chapter 19 and a half."

And Lot awoke to knowledge of what he had done, and felt shame.
Still he was a righteous man, yet he felt anger at the Lord.
And so, he did an unrighteous thing.

And so Lot left his daughters with children and took up the great salt-pillar
In small wheeled cart and left the place where he and his daughters had hidden.
And so Lot called out to the Lord, but the Lord answered not. And so Lot travelled

And the sun was set upon the earth when Lot left the places of men,
coming at last to a distant and deserted shore.

And the sun rose upon the sea as Lot arrived at the ocean shore
And the cart with the great salt-pillar was at his side.

And Lot called upon the Lord. He sayeth unto the great and empty ocean
"Oh Lord, who liveth in all places, why must I suffer so?

I strive to be righteous and holy, yet my wife is turned to salt,
yet my daughters are great with child
I am alone.

And the Lord sayeth nothing.

And the waters grew angry, and great waves crashed upon the shore
At the feet of Lot and the base of the salt-pillar.

And from the maelstrom Leviathan revealed itself
And it was an ancient beast with many arms like tree-trunks,

And Leviathan regarded Lot with a great eye, wider than the span of his hand.

The Lord saw into the heart of Lot and judged him as righteous, for his wish of penitence.
The Lord saw into the heart of Lot and judged him as unrigteous
for he had fled his charges.

Lot would not be father to the Moabites.
Lot would not be father to the children of Ammon

The Lord ordered Leviathan to give Lot the punishment and mercy of the sea.
To rend his flesh from his body, to drink in all that he was.

To this very day Lot swims the sea within Leviathan
To this day something of the righteous man lies within the beast.
The madness of Leviathan grows.

To this day Leviathan returns to the secret place at the short
A place far from the homes of men.

And so Leviathan carresses the great salt-pillar with tentacles like tree-trunks
Yet gentle as a lady's fingers.

It has fashioned the salt-pillar into a reflection of itself.
A great tentacle beast reaching to sea
Praying to the Lord for absolution.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Ninth - Enter the Immigrant, With Bananas

Cartoonist Alice Glytxh said - with context that I honestly don' t understand - that "bananas are the most vile thing on the planet". 

Ray Comfort said - showing a complete lack of understanding of the basic history of agriculture - that bananas are proof of the existence of god.

Todays image contains bananas, which are tasty, nutritious -- and a horrifying symbol of the evils of colonialism and the horrors inflicted on our neighbors to the south.

Today's story follows.

"Enter the Immigrant, With Bananas"

I'd not felt this way in a long time.

That's not true. I'd never felt this way.

I know that I should have, that it should be part of how I was birthed, but I didn't yet know then, didn't understand. They say I drove the ox-cart, but that wasn't true. I was the oxcart, the skeletal beasts lumbering forth under the power of invisible spirits pulling at a decaying yoke, harnessed to a polished-wood cart, open inside for the carrying of treasure.

I was an invader. I took. Not as many as they feared, not as many as they thought, but I did take. If they heard the clatter of the wheels on hard-packed earthen streets, heard the rattling of the oxen in their harness, heard hoofsteps... they knew. I was coming, and I'd take. Shamefully their fingers would move brow to breast, shoulder to shoulder, invoking the protection of another invader from the same shores.

It never helped.

But that, I said, was long ago.

I'd seen, perhaps,  score of generations live and die here. This shore soaked into the bones that are all I am. Then, the tallyman, then the soldiers.

They were new, as I once was. They took, as I once did. They killed, as I do.

It's enough. These people, this place, is mine to reap. Not theirs. So, I ride the oxcart down streets now paved with stone, come in the nighttime hours to the homes of the ones from another distant place, those seeking a different kind of gold than I once sought. I taste in their spirits from where they came. I'll follow.

The journey is a long one. I could go overland, but follow the great boats under the sea. Oxcarts are not made for the seafloor, and generations rise and fall as I travel.

Generations are born and die on the world above. The oxcart, now lined with straw for the safe transport of bananas, rumbles undersea. I begin to forget my home, my history, even my name. There is only the drive forward, only the fire burning in my bones, still unquenched by the sea.

Sometime along the way I meet a stranger, walking the ocean floor. A very young spirit, some sort of hero-warrior travelling from near where I'm going to to near where I started. He wields a  wooden club, calls himself a pirate. I wish him well, but he is young, so very very young. The smooth ash cudgel still loosely grips in his hand, he continues on his way as I continue on mine, whispering words of mercy as I whisper words of vengeance.

I wish him well.

At long last I arrive. Not at the golden door with its welcome lamp, not even at the working entrance with loaders and unloaders, the kind of place the tallyman would favor. No, I arrive at the white sands where the grandsons of the grandsons of those I came seeking go to play. It's been a long time under the sea. Impossible multitudes of bananas spill forth from the oxcart as I leave the ocean, littering the shore as wooden wheels crunch against rocky sand.

I leave the green fruit behind to ripen, to rot, to feed the gulls. It doesn't matter. On each bundle is a sticker,on each sticker an accusation for those who understand.

I am far from the land which birth me, yet I've arrived. I'll leave the banana-choked shore behind me, my cart empty. I am empty.

I hunger.

I will take.

The ones who live here deserve no less. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nightmare Fuel - Day the Eight: Creating Monsters

A quick touch of horror for today's Nightmare Fuel stories.

Remember that the only monsters are the ones we create.

This one starts with an image, but the monster wasn't the part of the image which I found most frightening; to me the horror is on the whiteboard in the background.



"The Bad Lady"

Every night as I sit in my empty bed, I have the same thought:The stories are always about women.

Have you noticed that? It's a witch who threatens to murder and eat the young walkers in the wood.
A witch who freezes a young beauty in time, behind walls of briar.
A stepmother and stepsisters who keep the little ash-girl in rags.
A woman to tempt, a woman to trick, a woman to imprison.

I read too many of those stories to him, still read them to him. I really thought I was doing the right thing; they say reading to your children is important.

They say folklore is our heritage.

It's true.

My mother read the same stories to me, when I was a girl.

Is that why I blame her and not him? Is that why I told another story, one not penned by the Germanic brothers or the Dutchman? A story told through misheard snippets of conversation, not  intended for too-young ears?

No, that's not fair. He heard perfectly well what I my mother taught me, what I taught him. He heard what I believe.

I've come to expect his scream at night, almost to long  for its arrival just as sleep begins to take me. Every night I pray that this night I might sleep, but every night I know I won't.

It is, in its a way, my penance.

I find him always, in his bed, bolt upright, clutching the worn teddy bear his father had given him. Little heart pounding, eyes focuses on a shadow, a dark corner, an irregular pile of blankets.

"BAD LADY! The BAD LADY is coming to take me!"
Image source:

After all, he overheard time and again that the bad lady had taken his father.

So every night I sit awake in my empty bed, every night I listen for his scream, knowing that I'll come to his room to hold small boy and teddy-bear, guarding the darkness against a monster I birthed.

My throat is dry and my heart pounds, fearful of the stories he'll tell his children someday, the monsters he'll create for them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Seventh - Happy DeathDay!

This is another literal take on an image which could just as easily be metaphor. 

It is true: we celebrate some things and not others.

"Happy Death Day!"

You're Invited!

When:        November 1, 2015, 10PM to 2AM
Where:       Spruceyard Cemetary
What:         DeathDay Party
Why:           We celebrate the beginning of the life's adventure, but never the end. Come join us for a deathday celebration! Games! Slides! Bouncy-castle! Drinks! Food! Good times!

RSVP by October 7th, 2015

NO BLACK ATTIRE PERMITTED! THIS is a Deathday celebration, not a funeral!!

We all have that one friend, don't we? Not just the manic crazy one, but the quiet-crazy. The one who seems normal to outsiders, but comes out with really odd thoughts. Like a DeathDay party at a cemetary, the day after Halloween. It's the kind of event that feels weird, uncomfortable, and wrong yet strangely compelling. The kind of event that you just know if you missed you'd be missing out on some great stories.

So, I go.

I dress casual in  khakis and a button-down shirt, mindful of the "no black" admonition, arrive a late to find the party in full swing. And "swing" is the operative word; the promised bouncy castle is nowhere to be seen, but some enterprising soul has relocated playground equipment, including a slide and a full-sized metal-frame swing set - to the graveyard, the slightly rusted metal sharing space with the old stones, their markings long faded by the winds of time. How he got permission for such a thing is beyond me but the crowd - mostly too young and mostly too drunk - is eating it up, playing and laughing like the children they were all too recently.

I am not young, but not yet old either. There are, God willing, still a few more years before me than behind me. I'll admit it; there is a physical joy in taking a turn on the swings, in the juxtaposition of playfulness and death. The host himself follows me up the slide, our, small talk given weight by the venue: "It's a nice party, but I'm confused. Is someone dying? Are celebrating a specific death-day, or just death itself?"

He leaned close to me as I sat atop the slide, gazing down a smooth metal tracki toward the grave-markers below. His whisper in my ear was breathy, smelling of alcohol. "We're all dying. Perhaps... yours."

A shove in the small of my back sends me down, the bumps, rivets, and seems in the cool metal jabbing and poking my body as I slide inexorably and quickly toward the humble graves below.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Sixth - "Root"

I cheat at these.  I was early one day, so didn't use the photo prompt, which puts me a day behind.

This makes it a bit easier for me; I have nearly a full day after I see the image to ponder what I can make of it.

It also means that I can peek at others as soon as I'm done (I don't like to peek first, because it makes it too hard for the prompt to speak to me without crosstalk from their inspiration. Today, Erin Vataris had a lovely piece (she's quite good at this - possibly better than I am) which dovetails interestingly with this one. Read hers here, then read mine. Or the other way around. 



Out here, where the world is still not quite tamed, we can still see a bit ahead. Oh, not clearly as our mothers' mothers did, but we can still see, as through a mist. The path is, after all, always there.

You'll be among the last of us, and the first. You'll not leave the untamed places so much as the untamed places will crumble away beneath your feet. Paths worn through the wilderness by footfalls gave way to blaze marks scratched into trees gave way to shinyhard reflective disks, fixed with iron nails.

Always it is iron. Always.

You'll hang on for a bit, here at the edges. The iron will, for a time, be weak. Little more than scraps, scattered through the shrinking wood. Perhaps you'll lure one of their pets away from the iron world, take the half-tamed creature as your companion, letting its wildhalf run free with you.

You'll not take a child, as we once did. The tame parts of the world are now too tame, too fenced in. You'll know that to steal even one child, even an undersized girlchild with no future in the land of iron - you'll know that even that would begin a great hunt, and end as such stories always do. It's never a good end for us and ours.

You'll live for a time on the edge, and watch the edges blur and creep. Watch even the untamed places grow less so, become as gardens. See the river - your river - spanned by ropes of copper, humming currents of power and thought crossing the ancient flow of water. You'll hear the voice of the wilderness, of the world growing fainter, you'll not know if the voices are being muffled or your hearing is failing as you age.

You'll age.

You'll hear tale of a city built on swampland, a city that still reveres the land. You'll bit me farewell as you begin the journey.

When you get there your heart will quicken as you see old roots of ancient trees breaking the surface of dirty water, gnarled shapes reminiscent of clawed hands, of old men, of life. The sight will speak to you so loudly and clearly that you'll not realize until you're upon them that you can't hear their voices, that they're silent.

Image by Mike Delgaudio, shared under a Creative Commons
You'll cry when you realize that the roots are a dead thing, a manikin of resin and shadows and trickery.

Far from the wild places of your home, which are wild no longer, you'll carve a home for yourself in the city, this dreadful iron city with its artificial heart of ersatz trees. There, after a time, you'll meet a man who carefully tends an artificial plastic houseplant, carrying it from windowsill to windowsill to follow the days' sun, whispering words of encouragement to it.

From him you'll learn how to love the empty shell of the city which you now call home. You'll visit the resin facsimile of roots and come to love it in your way, to finally, to hear the faint and mechanical voice of the iron, resin, and steel notwilderness.

Your love will only go so far; you'll never tend to it, never touch it, barely speak to it.

When you die, they'll burn your remains, and store them forever in an artificial urn, cunningly crafted to look like the roots of an ancient tree.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fifth - Two Work Orders Issued in The City

A true story about how the world works. Were there a secret organization ruling the world, this is how they'd function.

Of course, the details and reasons never make their way to those on the front lines. We destroy our cities quietly, one step at a time, in the name of the greater good.

The prompt, in fairness, informs my thinking here but that's about it.

Work Request 427B
The City
Reported issues:
Nonconformance with Standard Cultural Practices. Unsavory Atmosphere NOT SAFE FOR CHILDREN
Actions Requested:    
Bring into conformance.
  • Rezoning to dislocate undesirable commerce
  • Clearing of "broken windows" and similar
  • Introduction of approved merchants.

Variance accepted:   
Allow single "local character" to remain. Maximum suggestiveness level 13+
Completed, 11/9/2010.


Work Review Request
Request 427B
Reported Issues:           
Local disruption to image. Unsavory atmosphere. NSFC. Suggestiveness Factor increasing unacceptably
Actions Requested:      
Review Conformance and begin remediation
  • Elimination of high suggestiveness-factor performances
  • Review of standard characters for compliance with accepted practices
  • Protection of sanctioned merchants and commerce
  • Introduction of approved and sanctioned public works.

Variance  accepted:     
Grandfathered "local character" pending review of permit request and confirmation of payment.
Review in Progress

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fourth - On the Train

So we continue. This is yesterday's prompt, offsetting me by exactly one day.

In terms of process that's good for me because it gives me a day to ponder and reflect, then an hour the next morning i which to write.

So, without further ado:

"On the Train"

You knew it was a magic pen. Don't give us any of that nonsense pretending that you didn't. The old man selling it on the streetcorner was clearly too well dressed, too healthy to be a typical ne'er do well down on his luck, and... you've never quite admitted it, even to yourself, but you have something special about you. You could always see when someone has something special about them, when they're perhaps touched by something from outside the world. A flicker? A shimmer? Nothing like that. It's just that some people appear -- more solid. More real to you. So from him you bought the pen.

It's a heavy thing, but you've always had large hands. It's old, made of some kind of bone or horn material worn smooth from decades of handling. It's tipped, of course, with a gold nib, inkstained by still with a comfortable flex. Who had written with that instrument? WHat had they written? You always wonder when you acquire an old pen, this time you remember double.

You knew it was a magic pen. You still knew when you write the few lines about the old man on the sidewalk:

He takes a nibble from the sidewalk, the ragged-edged cardboard spread before him a marketstall with no doors, bric-a-brac carefully arrayed, aligned perfectly with the sacred flow of traffic. Dreadlocks spill around his face, a rough halo crowning skin faded to the color of urban dust.

Not much yet, but it's a start, will be part of something bigger. It always will be.

Were this a fairy tale, he'd be gone when you walk passed his spot the  the next day, his role in the story over. As it's not a fairy tale,  he's still there, but less. The solidity has faded. You tell yourself it wasn't there, that it was a mistake, but you know better. It was there, it now isn't.

No matter. You're a creature of habit, one of many who write and scribble on the anonymous commuter rail. There are the sleepers, the newspaper-readers, and - like you - the writers. Not many, but one woman catches your eye. A youngish Asian woman holding a ballpoint pen in bright-red nailed fingers, scribbling something in a notebook in her lap. It's not creepy to look and look twice if you're gather material, is it? This is, after all, what you do.

On silvergrey patched blue vinyl seat
she lights, glowing rectangle flat on
her lap, redpainted nails dance as fingers
clutching the stylus make tiny gyrations, as if
self-ministering and old-time cure for madness.
Write and erase, write
and erase, write
and erase
write and
a tiny tremor of joy ripples
through her whole body.
I look away from the upturned
corner of her lips, leaving her
in the afterglow.

You're rather fond of that one. The next day, in the same car,  is the same woman with the same red-painted nails. She doesn't look magical the way your second sight sometimes shows. She seems, if anything, faded. Less real. And so you write on someone else.

And so it goes, until you find yourself in a car full of what look to be ordinary commuters to anyone but you but are, in fact, desiccated husks, of increasingly blank slates where human bodies once were.

Seeing the world like this sickens you just a bit, but you know what to do.

You draw a fresh load of ink into your magical horn pen and sit down to write your memoir.