Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Benign Gods

The dogs were big, mangy things owned by the Merryman House and not particularly loved by any of the boarders. They had been bought by Mr. Wrongende when he was still around to look after the place and trained in the behavior of ferocity through every species of abuse and neglect by the Boss.

Mr. Wrongende named the dogs after the books he felt matched his personal philosophy. He'd never read these books, but heard them mentioned in enough conversations to figure he had the main arguments of the philosophers. Wrongende named the dogs Machiavelli and Sun-tzu. The Boss, who lacked his boss's pretensions, called them Sunny and Mac.

When Wrongende died under the wheels of a recycling truck on an icy morning in the first week of January, life began to improve for the dogs. It wasn't that the Boss was an especially humane man, but without Wrongende to spur on and inspire new tortures, a mellowing trend entered the dogs' daily regime. The Boss had new responsibilities, and the hounds had never figured high on that list. He assigned the care of Sunny and Mac to a boy named Samuel, who saw no reason why the dogs shouldn't have enough to eat and a chain long enough to let them run around the yard. The boarders hated the new situation, but the dogs loved it and the Boss could hardly be made to give a damn.

Now, Wrongende had owned the dogs and done his damage in the first weeks of their lives. Those of you who have raised a dog from birth know that these first-- usually six-- weeks are known as the imprinting stage of a dog's life. This meant that the dogs were broken, never to be fixed. Wrongende might be dead, but he was still worshiped and dreaded in the minds of Sun-tzu and Machiavelli.

The dogs, until the days they died-- of tetanus (Sunny), and starvation brought on by tooth-decay (Mac)-- could never be fully trusted. Even the boy, Sam, who never claimed the dogs' worship, but won their friendship and adoration, never spent an unguarded moment with them. He'd spent his life around enough broken men and women to sense the disquiet in the dogs, and though they might roll and whine like puppies when they spotted him walking up the road, he warned himself that one miscalculated movement could trigger the sleeping fury in their broken minds.

The Boss, seeing 'his' dogs well-fed and energetic for a change, made just this mistake. On that day he received a bite on the arm that penetrated flesh and muscle to bounce of bone. The jaws, however, did not lock, and when the Boss was finished with the dog (it was Mac) he turned on the other, his rage not yet vented, so that they both ended up heaps of shattered bone and blood-soaked fur and when Sam found them, whining and trembling in separate corners of the yard, he felt as though someone had stuck straw down his windpipe and he gasped until he was sick.

In their lives a veterinarian never once laid hands on either Sunny or Mac, but in the weeks after the attack Sam cared for them and realized what Nature has proven for thousands of years: a dog can come back from a hell of a beating. In the end, Mac took the worst from it. The Boss had done something to the dog's hips which left them twisted-- and gave him an awkward shuffle for a walk-- for the rest of his life. The one upswing of all this was that the Boss never again entered the dogs' yard, and left their care, after that point, entirely to Sam. So it was that he was with them the day that Mr. Rickett showed up with his dog, Sandwich.


Sandwich was the first to notice the dogs in the side-yard, moving slowly up and down the chain-link enclosure where they slept, played, fought and frequently shit. It was the smell of excrement that had alerted her minutes back that two sexually mature males had a territory not far from where she was walking. They were brothers, she could tell; neither one neutered. The virility in the smell jumped out at her, made her wag her tail and begin presenting.

Sandwich!” Mr. Rickett had barked, “Sandy! Calm down, sweetheart, we're gettin' there.”

Sandwich did calm down, not because she understood the specifics of Mr. Rickett's message to her, but because he had addressed her in his almost angry voice. Sandwich loved Mr. Rickett. He was her Pack Leader. She did not want Him almost angry with her. Still, she whined and tugged.
“We're getting there, baby girl,” said Mr. Rickett. “We're getting there.”


A few minutes away, Sam was playing with his dogs. Sam wore Steve Ranch every time he went to play with the dogs. When he fed them or hosed them off or screamed at them to 'shut the fuckup for Chrissake!' he forwent it, but when he decided that the dogs needed a little fun, he put Steve on.

Steve Ranch protected his penis and testicles. Sam had bought the device when he tried out for football. His older brother Jeremy had christened it later that year, when he'd come home inebriated and upset.

“The fugger,” his brother had slurred. “I do all the talkin', the real goddamn legwork, an' that shithead vulture swoops in on 'er. Every time we go out 's the same...”

In a fit of drunken inspiration, he had grabbed a marker and Sam's protective device from where it lay on the floor and scrawled Steve Ranch on the hard plastic casing. He tossed it to his brother.

“There,” he'd said. “Nothin' gonna get through that.”

This was important when Sam played with the dogs. He knew that they were prone to biting for reasons he couldn't decipher. He was willing to risk his face and hands to such an unknown threat, but there were some regions no man would imperil. This was especially important because Sunny was a relentless crotch-sniffer, often burrowing his face through Sam's defensive pushing to reach his prize.

Sam's crotch gave as much socio-sexual information to Sunny as his own territorial leavings gave Sandwich. Sunny knew that Sam differed from him in some very fundamental way, so it didn't bother him that many of the boy's smells were alien. He could still decipher quite a lot-- and the stranger information he continued to work on, like an American tourist in Europe.

He was working along like this-- his face buried in the boy's groin, wet nose pressed up against the hard plastic of Steve Ranch under Sam's jeans-- when Mac sent up an alert.

Sunny turned and raced to the fence where Mac was already jumping and sniffing. He saw the figure advancing slowly-- stopping, puzzled. Sunny and Mac were both letting out warnings now. Behind them, the Boy had also begun to make the high, keeling noise that He made when excited. This made them send their warnings out even louder.

Sam, in fact, was screaming at the dogs. Part of his job was making sure that they didn't wake up the boarders, half of whom slept during the long afternoons at the Merryman. Sunny and Mac were prone to bark at anything that climbed over the hill into their vision. Before too long Sam recognized what they had spotted.

Some kind of collie-mix, un-attended, stood with her head cocked towards the sound of Sunny and Mac's frantic barking. A moment later a second figure-- that of a man-- rose over the hill and began guiding the Collie towards the Merryman. Sam screamed at the dogs to be quiet, but this prompted them to lend their howls to his own. He would have laid his hands on their necks, except that the excited and abused dogs couldn't be trusted not to bite.

Instead, as the man and his dog came near them, Sam leaned down next to Mac, the more excited of the howlers, and began to bark the dog's name to him-- a clear sign that he was doing wrong.

“Mac!” barked Sam, “Mac! Bad dog!”

Mac turned his face to look at the boy with tremulous eyes.

“Yeah,” scolded Sam, “That's more like it.”

He turned to Sunny and the dog seemed to know right away, slinking with his head down and lowering his howling to a low growl. Now that they were calm, Sam put his hands on both dog's backs-- still far from their necks-- and murmured to them softly.

And then the man and his dog were standing in front of them.

“Funny looking dogs,” said the man. “Some kinda German Shepard mix?”

“Something like that,” said Sam.

“That the local squatters nest?” asked the man, nodding his head at the Merryman. He probably meant it as a joke, thought the boy.

“Yeah,” said Sam, and he got up to lead the new boarder inside.

That probably would have been it, if it weren't for Sandwich. The collie edged up to the chain-link fence and began to thoroughly sniff Sunny's snout. Sam held his breath, but Sunny just sat there, ears cocked back and a look of perfect canine confusion on his face. Then, after a moment of this, the collie began to gingerly lick his face from between the links of chain in the fence. Sam watched as the look in Sunny's eyes changed from surprise to a calm bliss. The dog stopped moving entirely, fixing his gaze on some distant point, and the new boarder laughed.

“Looks like someone made a friend.”

The new boarder, Sam soon discovered, was named Rickett. Mr. Rickett was a musician from back East. Sam liked him as soon as his dog licked Sunny's face. The other borders at the Merryman liked him as soon as they heard a few of his stories. Even the Boss got along with Mr. Rickett.

When Mr. Rickett asked Sam if Sandwich could be housed with Sunny and Mac, explaining that she'd been operated on to keep her from having puppies, Sam demurred.

“Those dogs have some kinda history?”

Sam nodded, but couldn't meet the new boarder's eyes.

“You can tell by the way the big one walks,” said Mr. Rickett, and he led Sandwich up the stairs to his room.


Mr. Rickett played the trumpet. It was a mean instrument in the right hands and Rickett played it to sound mean. Mr. Rickett drank whiskey with ice, even though gin was the popular drink in the clubs where he played. Like half the boarders at the Merryman he was out all night and slept like the dead through the heat of the afternoon.

Because Samuel took Sandwich outside to play with Sunny and Mac in the mornings, he learned Mr. Rickett's schedule quickly. The wiry man would stumble in around sunrise, immaculate suit now wrinkled, flower or silk cloth or other small token of affection hanging out of his breast-pocket, and his footfalls on the steps would wake Sandwich, who slept most nights next to his suit case. Mr. Rickett would put a single long finger up to his aching lips and snap gently-- twice-- then point toward the door. Without a sound, Sandwich moved past the sleeping boarders in the room to find Sam downstairs already, awake and preparing breakfast.

Sam, she knew, could be whined at and liked to play and would give her things to eat. And so the day would begin.

Though he was still reluctant to let Sandwich sleep with the other dogs, Sam couldn't think of anywhere else to keep her during the day. She was relentlessly underfoot and tended to wake boarders with yelps of surprise and little curious noises. Still, it was only after rooting through a man's pack and narrowly avoiding a steel-toed boot to the head that Sam decided to risk her out with Sandy and Mac.

When he opened the gate to the side-yard, the two brothers rushed the opening, straining against the chains that held them just inside the yard and barking as though to usher in revolution.

“Goddamnit, boys, shaddup!” screamed Sam.

Sandwich stood at the boy's hip, looking at the two rioters in the yard with her mouth closed. She didn't seem intimidated by the display, but more as though she was straining to remember something important. She yawned and Mac and Sunny broke into fresh peals of madness.

Then, without looking once towards Sam, she advanced towards the gate. Sunny and Mac broke ranks, charging back against the rear of the yard and howling like maniacs. The collie trotted towards first one brother and another and a long and formal round of butt-sniffing commenced, with each dog twisting and whirling to get a better angle from which to examine a new and foreign anus.

Sam watched the parade until he felt safe to leave Sandwich with the big mutts. Then he went to the kitchen to wash dishes. By the end of the third day, he wondered why he had ever worried. He still had the collie sleep upstairs near Mr. Rickett's suitcase, but during the day he left Sandwich, Sunny and Mac in happy friendship.


Finally, the day came when Mr. Rickett decided it was time for a rest. The regular night-life, when pursued with the zeal of a Spanish playboy or New York heiress for weeks on end, can be as taxing on the body and mind as the most strenuous of careers. Rickett wasn't much wealthier than when he'd entered town, but he certainly wasn't any worse off.

He was of the enviable constitution that can switch from nocturnal to day-time living with a minimum of fuss, and he did so now, waking early and taking Sandwich for morning walks before positing her with Sunny and Mac. He spent his afternoons drinking with the other boarders and playing cards on the porch. Occasionally he went with them to the race-track. To Sam, it seemed almost possible that Mr. Rickett might support himself thusly without end.

One afternoon, however, Rickett walked down the Merryman's porch steps with a heavy tread, making his way to the yard where Sandwich was chasing Sunny while Mac barked encouragement and hobbled after them. Sam noticed that Mr. Rickett walked more slowly than normally and wondered what was on the man's mind. He realized suddenly that Rickett was making his way towards the gate of the dog yard.

In a moment, Sam was standing beside the tall man.

“Come to make sure I don't get bit?” drawled the musician.

Sam shrugged his shoulders. “Those dogs can get mean, Mr. Rickett.”

The trumpet player nodded his head at Sandwich. “She don't think so.”

“Not towards other dogs, y'see, or women or probably kids, but they're scared of men, and that'll make 'em bite....”

“Because of their history,” finished Mr. Rickett. “Well, too bad. 'Cause I'm a man and my only friends in this boardinghouse are men, and those dogs need a walk. And we're going to walk.”

“We?” asked Sam.

“That's right. You, me an' Charlie the Mormon.”

“Charlie the wha-?” asked Sam.

“The new guy. Been here about three days. He needs a break from the cards and horses as bad as I do.”

Samuel shook his head. “The Boss'll never let us. He hates those dogs. If he didn't think they protected the Merryman, he'd cut'em loose!”

Mr. Rickett snorted and waved his hand dismissively in front of his face. “Let me handle Mr. Big Shot. You wrap up some leather on the end of those dogs' chains so you don't blister up your hands holding them back. An' meet me an' Charlie back here in an hour!”


"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” barked Charlie the Mormon. “JESUS wept, tits, whore!”

Sam couldn't help but stare. Charlie the Mormon, at five feet, four inches, stood maybe up to Sam's shoulder, but he was a sight. Bushy white hair and a long gray beard sprouted out of a face that fit comfortably anywhere from age forty to sixty. Thick glasses rested on an aquiline and protruding nose. He wore a cheap suit with the sleeves rolled up to reveal an anchor and bare-chested Hawaiian girl tattooed to his right and left forearms, respectively.

Charlie the Mormon coughed and spit. The whole process seemed exaggeratedly complicated to Sam as he watched the huge wad of fluid land on the ground at the Mormon's feet.

"The trick is not t' mind what comes outter me mouth,” said the Mormon with a wink. “Can't help half of it. Got the devil firm in th' head. Don' even know what I'm sayin'. Shit burger! SHIT-eatin- burger!”

He sighed. “Ah, there she goes!”

“Urmm,” said Sam, turning to Mr. Rickett, “the leashes are all fixed up...”

The musician smiled. “Alrighty! Let's get this show on the road!”

Sam led the party with Sun-tzu pulling hard. As soon as he was out the gate, the dog was nose-deep in everything they came across, so that Sam's arm was soon tired from reeling him back from a new scent and pulling him away from old ones.

“That boy's an explorer,” remarked Mr. Rickett.

“That he is!” chuckled the Mormon.

The two older men were having less of an upper body workout. Sandwich, a veteran of long walks, conducted herself with characteristic grace at Mr. Rickett's side while Mac's hobbling walk gave Charlie the Mormon little trouble. Because of the Merryman's peripheral location in town, it wasn't long before houses and roads were lost to memory. Mr. Rickett began to whistle a swing piece. Before long, Charlie the Mormon was singing along in a not unlovely voice, only rarely interjecting with a filthy word or suggestion barked from deep in his stomach. Sam swayed his shoulders to the music, beginning to enjoy the beautiful spring weather and this break in his normal routine.

“Alright,” said Mr. Rickett., suddenly. “This is as good a place as any. Let's let these boys off the chain!”

Sam froze where he stood, almost letting Sunny pull himself to freedom. He recovered, pulling hard back on the chain and turning Sunny's wheezy breathing into harsh chokes.

“No,” said Sam with hesitation, and then, “No. Mr. Rickett, we absolutely cannot let these two off the chain. If there were people around... If they ran off...”

But Charlie the Mormon had already unclipped Mac, and the big dog was hobbling around in circles, unsure of what to do with his new freedom. Sandwich was unhooked too, and sitting, poised, at Mr. Rickett's side. The change in things hadn't gone unnoticed by Sunny, who now pulled nonstop at his collar and whose choked breathing was causing Sam more pain by the moment.

“But I could lose my job...” said Sam.

“You won't lose anything,” said Mr. Rickett. “I talked to th' big Boss. He knows who'se leadin' this little excursion. Besides, Sandy's th' boss'v your two pups-- got'em cowed! She'll herd those boys away from trouble.”

Horseshit!” coughed the Mormon.

“The only folk these dogs'll come across out here 're tramps,” continued Rickett. “Tramps 're smart enough t' stay away from loose dogs.... ain't that right, Charlie?”

“Been my experience so.”

Sunny's coughing had turned pitiful, but Sam kept his grip tight on the chain.

“Hey, Sammy,” Mr. Rickett had turned his deep, chocolate brown stare on the young man. “This town's not too big. I've played the clubs 'an they were fun, played cards with the boys, an' had a real good time at the race-track. Me an' Sandy 'll probably be here tomorrow, but I'd be surprised if we were still here at the end of the week.

“Point is, these dogs have the chance to run aroun' free an' skippin' like they were in doggy Heaven this afternoon. They might get that chance again, but as a gambling man, I gotta say I doubt it.”

“Hukh,” murmured the Mormon, “Cunt.”

“I guess that's it,” said Sam, and he unclipped Sunny.

The dog squirmed for a moment and bounded out of reach. He stopped abruptly a few feet away and took several heavy, wheezing breaths. He sniffed a patch of grass, and Sam could've swore he saw the moment when the animal seemed to understand the extent of his release. Sunny turned to Sandwich and Mac and yipped his excitement, and suddenly Sandwich was chasing him across a warm green field that smelled of Spring, and even Mac was running, giving chase, and letting off the idiot barking of a happy dog at play.

Friday, December 17, 2010

I was younger then, and I took more risks.

Staff luncheon at the only restaurant in town that passes for upscale. I am hungover, possibly still drunk, from the Christmas party I threw last night. I wasn't planning to drink as much as I did, but everyone showed up, with cute Christmas candies and earmuffs and emotional stability, full of modesty and moderation.

I have to work tomorrow.

I have to get up early.

I have to drive home.

This, I thought, is what Christmas is really all about: that sense of dissatisfaction, of loathing, even, for these people you call your friends, with their mid-western ideals and notions of responsibility, that makes you want to get so drunk you forget this is your life.

But now I am sitting, napkin on my lap, nervously stirring my hot tea, squeezing lemon into my water, folding and refolding the napkin in my lap, surrounded by my co-workers from the church. Someone is passing around a bottle of hand sanitizer and everyone takes a dollop. When I refuse, the whole table looks at me as though I were personally responsible for their stuffy noses or bouts with the stomach flu. What is it with this damn country and their hand sanitizer, I think bitterly. My mind wanders, as it always does when I see people in a fit over hygiene, to the store where I used to buy my Bulgarian espresso sludge on the way to school. The woman would put down the slab of raw meat she was handling to make my coffee and grudgingly give me change. No gloves, no handwashing. I'm still alive, I say to myself.

I quickly snap back to what is currently passing for reality, to the snippets of banal conversation going on around me. Talk of gluten allergies and how much per plate one should spend on a wedding meal and whether or not the Christmas shopping is done. I look to the head of the table, at the pastor who, besides me, is the only one not donning a hideous Christmas sweater. He's a nice guy, probably the only one at the table I've ever had a real conversation with. The cleaning lady is giving him a hard time, jokingly (?) saying she doesn't like the Bob Evans gift card he put in the envelope with her Christmas bonus. He gives a forced smile and continues buttering his roll. I can't help but wonder what he's actually like, when he doesn't have to pretend to be in a good mood all the time. I think we would be friends.

One person discusses her loathing of vegetables, another complains she doesn't know what half the stuff on the menu is. The waitress comes around and I order the sashimi tuna sandwich with cucumber wasabe sauce. I don't even want it; I just want the inevitable questions that will ensue when it finally comes. When did my only form of rebellion become a tuna sandwich? I wonder. Sad.

I decide I am probably the only person in the world who goes to a Christmas luncheon and ends up thinking about aging and death. I wonder what these people used to be like, if they used to have any sense of adventure about anything at all. Do they have any tattoos, or do they smoke, or do they secretly not believe in God? Are their marriages happy or do they cheat on their spouses or do they have sex five times a day? Perhaps there were and always will be stuffy germaphobes, who never take a sip of alcohol or take the Lord's name in vain. I wonder if I will end up like them one day, botoxed, decked out in Talbots clothing, afraid of eating my steak rare.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


When I am an old man, I shall wear Hawaiian T-shirts
with a cap advertising a Chinese heavy machinery firm.
And I'll spend my savings on whiskey and dirty magazines
and knives made in Pakistan that I see advertised on TV.

I'll yell at customer service representatives over the telephone when I'm feeling confused and make up stories about things I've done to lend a sense of romance to the times in which I've lived and smoke foul-smelling cigars and eye ladies young enough to be my daughter.

I'll play chess in the park where the homeless are camped and say all the things I feared to when I had a career and there were beautiful women I thought I had a shot at, and my children will lower their heads in embarrassment and my grandchildren will view me with a kind of disbelieving awe-- especially when they are old enough to understand my jokes.

But for now it's best to play it safe and pretend an attitude the PTA would admire and not swear in the streets and kow-tow to the ones who came before.
We must stay sober in good company and volunteer our time at charities.
But could a little practice hurt that much?
So that the folks who know me as I am now won't worry so
when I am an old man and don my Hawaiian shirt.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Prompt The Fourth

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are trying alternating photo prompts with fragments, since it seemed that different people respond to the different styles. Let's see how this goes. The holidays are coming up, but let's try to get one more cycle in before the New Year.

Here you go!

Let's try to get this done by the 23rd. Is everyone comfortable with that?

I only speak the divinest truth, which others call madness.


You'd be interesting if it weren't for your personality.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ode to Pollution

Ode to Pollution
I do not concede that I live in squalor. I live in misery, to be sure, but this I tolerate. To be eternally miserable in a world made of filth would be intolerable, so I do not concede that all is filth. I walk along the waterfront, miserable but in good health, in the midst of sights and smells that are called odious and are called the unmistakable marks of human evil. This is industry, and industry has tainted all that is not a part of itself. My stomach turns, but I cannot concede that, between the sky and the ocean floor, my stomach is turned by evil. For is this industry not perfect in its foulness, complete in its adoration of waste and debris? Waste is the final, creative product: manufactured and useless.

I have tried, walking along the waterfront, to see the film of muck weighing heavily on the flight of pelicans. I have tried to see the black toxic water underneath the calm blue, and I have tried to see the caustic effect of smoke and metal borne by salt. This monstrous metal thing could rip apart the flesh of anything in its path, and endless refuse from the land accompanies it in its fury meant to rid the water of life. Life, beautiful life, and no less fragile, is met with this behemoth of human creation, sublime in its mindless bulk, and life is blindly destroyed.

I am, of course, wrong to approve of this destruction, but I do, just as I would approve the destruction of this same massive thing, bit by bit, in the beaks of seagulls. Perhaps then the seagulls would be the instruments of death, releasing that infinity of stuff into the bottom of the sea, where fortune and her fishes would take charge of the battle. Would not some other undying object become the final product then? And if the birds themselves should exude slime from their feathers, poisoning we who innocently use them for quills, no more or less magnificent would reality be.

Were all seagulls lost, as one day they must be, and all colors dimmed and dissolved by rust and oil, and all humans fallen ill from freely flowing acid, still I could not in good faith disapprove. On that day evil will assume some unknowably different form, and I or my messenger will walk along the waterfront in poor health. I or my messenger will compose an ode like this one, not to filmy pelicans and impure water, but to plastic and to all the shades of black and brown that there are on Earth. And the ode, for its composer at least, will relieve for a moment the real ache of misery, of the eternal absence of good, which is life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the Potomac

“Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Dear Brendan,

We've been encamped in Virginia for the better part of a month now. I can't say where-- the censors will take it out-- but I can tell you that I finally saw the sea. Saw it and floated on it and got sick and hope never to repeat! It's pretty though. Writing to you about it would be like writing about Heaven. I won't try.

They say Gen. McClellen won't move on Richmond till he has forty-thousand more men and that the President just plain refuses him. He's got to make due with the grand old army he's already got! Brendan, I've never seen so many men. I'd say they look like ants dressed in blue, except I never saw so many ants! If we need more boys than this, then I think the trouble is a long way from over.

I'm writing you on the chance that we are marching soon. I've seen some queer things since leaving Iowa, and met more strange folk than I could fit in ten letters. A lot of these boys have ideas about the world that would make us laugh back in Honey Creek. One man, in particular, keeps putting ideas in my head, where they twist and torment me like a fever of the brain!

This fellow-- a captain in my company named Sinclair-- doesn't look like too much. I think I told you about him in one of my earlier letters. In case I didn't, or the letter didn't reach you, here is Captain Sinclair once again:

He is shorter than most of the other officers, with a long face and drooping whiskers that make him look awful comical. He reminds me of your Pa's bloodhound, Terrence. He's got the same sad eyes that make you think he's slowly working out some great problem. His hair is red, but real thin on top, and because he's so short it's easy to tell. He usually wears his cap.

I thought, when I first saw him, that his men probably didn't respect him and that he must have the devil's own time getting his orders listened to. In fact, most of the men around here worship the Captain, and the ones that don't keep quiet about it.

I think it's because of the way he talks. Remember that fiery preacher that stayed in Honey Creek on his way across Iowa a few summers back? The one from New York City? Captain Sinclair talks a lot like him, except he never mentions our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he talks about Suffrage and Brotherhood till his sad, droopy face starts to move and turn red like he's just swallowed a hot coal. And when he's done, by God, Brendan, I think I'd walk alone into Hell for the Union!

Before the war, Captain Sinclair was a journalist in New York City and London, England. That must be where he learned to talk like such a gentleman. Even though he's an officer and a gentleman though, he's companionable and mighty fond of whiskey with the boys.

A few nights back it was rainy and muddy as ever, so a few of the boys opened a cask of O! Be Joyful! and sent me to fetch the Captain for a drink. I found the Captain sitting in his tent reading something by the light of a lantern. The book he held in his hands had been leather-bound against wear, but it was too thin to be the Holy Bible or Poor Richard's Almanac.

My curiosity was up and my manners undone by whiskey, so I asked the Captain the name of the book so important he had it bound in leather. Captain Sinclair was without his whiskey and I thought he'd be angry at my manner. Instead, he chuckled and tossed the book at me.

I opened it and tried to read the title for a long time.

Captain Sinclair asked if I could read and I told him I'd learned my letters, but I never came across these words before. The Captain drew a flask from his side and I realized he was already supplied with whiskey. He took a long drink.

He told me the book was something he'd picked up in London. It was a gift, he said, from a man who he'd gotten to know there. He was sent by the newspaper to interview this man, an exile from Prussia.

Why didn't they want him? I asked. The Captain just nodded at the skinny, little book in my hands. Ideas, said the Captain. Ideas that could bring down governments.

Like what the Rebels are fighting for? I asked.

Captain Sinclair made a face like he'd been bit by a snake. The very opposite, he said.

I tried to read the title. The Sommunist Manny...

Hard C, corrected the Captain. The Communist Manni--

--festo, I finished.

The Captain gave me a small smile and I felt his hound-dog eyes measuring me up and down like I was a young spruce tree and he thought there might be just enough wood in me to make a fine table.

That's right, he said, and then, Do you know what a Communist is Corporal...?

McPherson, I introduced myself. Then I made plain that before leaving home I'd never heard of a Communist, but that I'd come across a few when we were camped in Washington D.C. Most people in the capitol told us the Communists were against God and the Constitution.

The Captain looked at me with those sad eyes. They are, he said, against the Constitution as she stands, but not against what she should be. What she must be.

I could see preacher-fire in the Captain's eyes.

You're a Communist then, sir? I asked.

He nodded, saying, Since the day the Times sent me to interview Mr. Marx.
The Captain talked a good deal then about how you can think of all people, all society, as just one man. Early in every man's life, they say and do things that they'd never do once they get some experience under their belt. Sometimes they do things they'll sorely regret.

According to the Captain, the race of Man is still very young.

We are tiny parts in a great decision being made, said Captain Sinclair. This decision, he went on, this very war centers around the government's failure to recognize the Negro as the equal brother to the white man. It shows, he said, a 'willing blindness.'

Well, I sucked in my breath at that. A Communist was one thing, but the man was starting to talk like an Abolitionist!

I fight to preserve the Union, I told him. I can count on my left hand how many men here would fight and die for niggers.

The Captain got angry then. On my word, Brendan, he spit on my shoes! To Jeff Davis and the Devil with you! he yelled at me. You almost passed yourself an educated man!

I am educated! I defended myself. I know my letters, history, maths...

The Captain took another long sip of whiskey. Then he said, real slow, like to a child, We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men...

...are created equal, I finished for him.

As I said it, I thought about Billy Rivers, back home, who uses his trousers as a chamberpot and makes animal noises instead of talking. I thought about Danial Yetsman, who never came across a difficulty he couldn't lick and has his pick of all the gals in Honey Creek whenever there's a dance. And that old line about 'all men' seemed like the grandest and silliest and most dangerous lie a man ever told.

I'll tell you something though, Brendan. I held my tongue to the Captain. He had a look on that bloodhound face like you see on a man fresh Baptized when he talks of our Savior on the Cross, or I might see in the mirror when I think of my Rosie, and the son's that, God-willing, we'll have some day. There's no use talking to a man sporting that kind of look on his face. I made to return the book.

But that old devil was too clever by half. He pressed it right back into my hands. I've just about got it memorized, he said. You take it. Give it a read and when you're done, tell me what you think. It's not long.

Then he stood, patted me on the shoulder, and led the way to the campfire where the boys were drinking O! Be Joyful! and singing to forget the hardtack and the mud.

Brendan, do you remember that poem they used to read us when we were young? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The sailor kills a big, fine seabird, an Albatross, for no real reason other than he can. And after that he's cursed. That bird forces him to suffer mightily without a moment's peace.

I was always mighty perplexed by that poem, but now I fear I'm beginning to understand it. This little pamphlet has become the bird around my neck, Brendan. I take it in my pocket with me wherever I go. You will think me a fool, but you cannot see-- possibly cannot imagine-- the sea of men swallowing the banks of the Potomac. Nothing in this world could stop them, and they fight for an idea. What is the idea I hold in my pocket? What makes a man like the Captain fight, if not God and the Union?

I'm determined-- tonight I'll sleep sound and tomorrow I'll read the thing and put my fears to rest.

Your Brother,
Cpl. Sean McPherson
Grand Army of the Potomac

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prompt The Third

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are beginning the third cycle. Up to now, we've had a pretty weak showing, even from The Editors.

This cycle, we will try something different. Here are your prompts:





Please have entries on the blog by Dec. 1!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Casper engulfed by my rotting flesh
nothing's real, just memories
guesses as to how I'm supposed to act
in this in-between scene that's become my life

A creature of habit, stealing my fill
another Brer Rabbit whose lost the thrill
of a beautiful tomato, picked fresh
and how it used to smell just off the vine

A future served heirloom pink
waiting to be swallowed
into another carcass to serve a purpose
that all I can do is trust in my bones

that it is trustworthy, but
I'm afraid I can't help you
it's a matter of principle
I don't make deals with ghosts

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I wanted to use this cycle as an excuse to play with a poetic form I had never tried. The result is this poem, which is vaguely inspired by prompt choice V, and is in ghazal form. The salient feature of the ghazal form is that it is composed of at least five couplets that are autonomous except for the repetition of a phrase or rhymed refrain. Most of the examples I have found in English are more esoteric than anything I can manage; I think I ended up with a sort of ineffable, free-associative theme, despite the requirement of couplet autonomy.

More information here and here.

Again this year I run through many fallen leaves;
my heart won't open like it did. I was younger then.

My head turns to see you; turns again to see you gone.
Mind runs to find you, body sits, heart pains in hunger then.

Newborn song, straining to cross continents and oceans,
rooted firm in me. Still I couldn't make my lungs heard then.

A man stands in a field before an ancient house.
Door slams; a thousand birds fly, feeling the house shudder then.

Corpses of past lives have no peace in cemeteries.
We sent those decaying selves out to sea. We were younger then.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Prompt The Second

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have arrived at the beginning of our next cycle. Some of you have expressed dissatisfaction with our previous prompts. Please feel free to e-mail with ideas. They will be considered. Also, if you find yourself inspired by something else entirely, feel free to follow that. The prompts are just suggestions, not requirements. For this round, your prompts are as follows:

"It's good for what ails you. Trust me."

"The question concerning Nazism isn't how something like that could happen, but why it doesn't happen more frequently considering our nature."

"I'm afraid I can't help you. You see, as a simple matter of principle, I do not make deals with ghosts."

"A bet on the bookie's death wouldn't pay out anyway."

"I was younger then. And I took more risks."

Due Nov. 10

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Лудостта на пингвина

Казват, че когато пингвинът загуби своята любима, полудява. Върви сред останалите пингвини с невиждащ поглед, издава безумни крясъци, търси тази, която никога вече няма да бъде с него. А когато не я намери, се изкачва на най-високата скала и се хвърля оттам върху камъните долу.
Аз не скочих от най-високата скала. Когато разбрах, че Сара ме е напуснала, отначало не повярвах. Гледах бележката, която ми беше написала със своя изкривен почерк, и си мислех, че е някаква шега. Но постепенно истината стигна до съзнанието ми. Сара не беше от тези жени, които биха се шегували по такъв начин.
Просто беше избягала!
Но с кого? С оня шантав професор, който се изтърси в нашия град да чете публични лекции по сексуална психология! И къде? В оня от Бога проклет град, който по някаква недомислица носи несправедливото име Лос Анжелес. Откъдето се ометох още преди петнадесет години, като се заклех във всичките светии, че никога няма да се върна там.
Но се върнах. Защото не скочих от най-високата скала, но…
На вратата - лъскава месингова табела. На табелата – красиви готически букви: „Проф. Джейсън Ислас“.
Натискам звънеца и след малко отвътре се чуват стъпки.
Вдигам пистолета.
Колт, 45 калибър.


Бележка: Всяка прилика с действителни лица е случайна.


They say that when а penguin loses his beloved, he goes crazy. He walks among the other penguins with unseeing eyes; he gives out insane screams; he looks for this one that will never be again with him. And when he does not find her, he climbs to the highest cliff and throws himself down on the stones below.
I have not jumped from the highest cliff. When I realized that Sarah had left me, at first I did not believe it. I saw the note that she had written me with this rough handwriting, and I thought that it was a joke. But gradually the truth came to my mind. Sarah was not from those women who would joke in this manner.
She had just escaped!
But with whom? With that cracky professor who dumped in our town to read public lectures on sexual psychology! And where? In that cursed-by-God town that through some misunderstanding was christened Los Angeles. From where I got away fifteen years ago, and I swore to all the saints that I would never go back there.
But I came back. Because I did not jump from the highest rock, but ...
At the door - a shiny brass plate. On the plate - beautiful Gothic letters: "Prof. Jason Islas“.
I press the button of the door-bell and presently I hear steps from inside.
I pick up the gun.
Colt, 45 caliber.


Note: Any resemblance to actual persons is incidental.

Waiting For The Muse

My intention is for this to be a short story in three parts. I am making progress, but as of yet, it remains unfinished. In order to respect the deadline, I decided to post what I have up to now, like David did below. I will complete the story hopefully within the next week.


Tristan sat staring into the white porcelain mug in front of him. He had hardly touched it in the last half hour and the black liquid had become undrinkable. It seemed to have congealed as it cooled. Patchy stubble had sprouted on Tristan's otherwise youthful cheeks and his softly rounded chin.

"I'll have something for you soon," Tristan said to his coffee. The man across from him overhead Tristan and interrupted. "When, Tristan?" It wasn't so much a question as a plea, like an exasperated parent talking to a willful child.

"It takes time, Joe." Tristan's eyes darted up from the coffee when he pronounced the man's name. "I just haven't had anything yet, you know?"

"Yeah, I know." And he did know. This was less of a confrontation and more of a well-rehearsed scene. "The thing is, Tristan, I can't wait much longer. To you this is art. But to me, well, it's a business, Tristan. And if you don't work, I don't have a business. I have to go somewhere for results. This dry spell, this isn't good for business."

"You know I'm good for it, Joe." Tristan pounded the table and the silverware rattled against each other. Startled at the noise his fist made, Tristan gripped the table, as if to stop it from shaking. "I've never let you down, isn't that right?" He was whispering again. "I've given you the best stuff."

"You have, Tristan, but it's been too long."

"I'll have something for you." Tristan had grabbed onto his butter knife and was pressing the handle into the checkered table cloth, right next a small burn hole. The blade stuck straight into the air and he was twirling it between two fingers and his thumb.

"You've been back for almost a year now, and you've given me nothing, Tristan." Joe stared straight at him. He hadn't moved the whole meeting. His dark suit and black tie gave him the appearance of a pallbearer. His glasses rested low on his nose and his metal blue eyes peered at Tristan over thick black frames.

"I know, Joe. It's just ..."

"It's what, Tristan?"

"It's just this place. I haven't had any inspiration since I've been back. This place is dead."

"That's not my problem, Tristan. I need something. I don't care about how you feel." That wasn't true, Joe thought.

"Can you give me more time?"

"You've got another week, Tristan, and then you're on your own."

Tristan reached into the bread basket in the center of the table. He stuffed his knife into the bun, tearing it in two. He stuffed one half into his mouth and chewed on it violently. The pallbearer across from him smiled slightly.


That night, Tristan decided to go out looking for inspiration instead of waiting for it to come to him. If this city wasn't forthcoming, perhaps he just needed to look deeper into the crevasses and chase something out.

He splashed cold water on his face and dragged the blade along the skin of his face. A slight knick caused him to gasp and a red spot grew larger in the white foam on his cheek. Tristan ignored it and he rushed to finish up. It was getting late and he could feel himself getting impatient.

Stopping, he looked at himself in the mirror. "Relax," he whispered. "You need to be patient." He breathed the last word several times as he slowed the pace with which he drew the knife along his skin. Once he was finally satisfied, he splashed his face with warm water and buried his face in the white cotton towel to his right.

He knew the perfect place to go, an obscure dive called Oasis. He had been there once or twice when he was younger, before he had started his career. He hadn't known then that it was the type of place he would grow to rely on for inspiration, but now that he found himself back in this city, he immediately remembered it and decided to see what it had to offer.

A pink neon sign flickered above a metal door, the O had burned out. To the right, a squat, muscled man in a tight polo shirt perched on a black stool. He was chatting with two young girls. One, in a short, pink skirt and bright green pumps and the other in crimson fishnet stockings had forgotten their IDs and were mustering up their charms to try to convince the bouncer to let them in anyway. The one in a green skirt, who Tristan decided was named Pink, had cropped hair dyed to match her pumps and a lip ring. The other sported a fierce mohawk. He wasn't sure what to call her just yet. He wanted to talk to her first.

"I don't know, girls," the bouncer wavered. "If you don't have your IDs, I could get in big trouble for letting you in." Pink giggled while her companion jutted her hip out to the right and firmly planted her hand on it. She cocked her head to one side.

"Is this man giving you trouble, sis?" Tristan said as he walked up behind Pink. She turned her head and caught Tristan's steel blue eyes and hesitated. Even though he had just shaved, his tie and suit jacket gave him the appearance of age, especially next to the two girls. The bouncer immediately looked at him. "You with these two?"

"Yeah," Tristan said. "Pink here's my little sister."

"I can't let them in without their IDs," the bouncer explained. Pink studied Tristan's face for a moment, trying to pick up on the game.

She gasped slightly when he suddenly turned to her. "I told you not to forget your IDs, girls." He turned back to the bouncer. "Silly kids. She just turned 21 a few months ago and I'm back in town. So she was excited to take me out when I visited." His voice grew cold and he locked his eyes on Pink's. She shuddered.

"I'm sorry," she slowly exhaled. "I messed up again." She shrugged her shoulders and let her head droop. "Well, sis, you always seem to mess it up." Tristan's voice cut her and she held back an urge to hit him. Instead, she focused more intently on the ground and sheepishly wrung her hands together.

The bouncer was moved. "Look, I don't usually do this, but I'll make an exception. You guys can go in." He watched Pink as he said it. She clicked her shoes together and kissed the bouncer on his ample cheek.

"Thanks! My brother will be so happy!" Tristan put his arm around Pink and smiled at the man on the stool. He also grabbed the other girl's hand. She resisted an urge to pull back. She wasn't going to let her friend go in there alone. And have all the fun.

The three of them disappeared into the dark club.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Third Use of the Knife

When I turned sixteen, I fell in love with a boy from the city of Yiallis. He came to our village marching in a long line of soldiers dressed in blue, and when I saw him I felt the sharp corners of my vision soften. He was blond and tall, the way that they are in the highlands, and he carried his rifle as though he owned the world.

When I told my mother, I saw the fear that entered her eyes, but for me she made herself angry. If your father could hear the way you talk! she said, and sent me to speak with my grandmother. Grandmother made tea, her dark hands trembling as she poured the liquid into the small china, and she asked me about the boy. She has always been a woman I could talk to; someone to be trusted with secrets. I told her what I knew and what I hoped, and she smiled as though looking back on the oldest memory she had.

“Tall and exotic, eh?” she said. “And I suppose when he speaks it is like listening to a kind of music you never knew you needed. And I suppose his eyes are pools of blue that make your heart weep?”

I nodded and we both sighed. Grandmother smiled at me, but the smile turned sad, and she told me the story you are about to hear.

“Granddaughter, granddaughter, here is a story about boys from other villages. Listen close, and think on it:

“Akh was a little village on the western edge of the sea of sands. If you have not heard of it I am not surprised, for Akh was a lonely, dry place in a region of hard beauty and no great renown. And you are not of the Samui-- dark people, like your grandmother, living far north of here-- who call themselves the People.

“The villagers of Akh grew tall and straight as desert dwellers do. They ate almost no meat, for there was only rocky waste for pasture, and drank very little water. Because of this and because the wind of the place stripped the fat from their bones, their arms were brittle sticks upon which muscle would not affix, and their legs were those of a desert bird, stretching the impossible distance from buttocks to ground.

“West, in the lands they had been driven from, the other Samui joked about their unfortunate brothers. They called the people of Akh the Samui-shishi (desert people) and said you could not tell a grown man from his walking stick-- or from a grown woman for that matter. They told their children that the people of Akh had faces like the skulls of dead horses and that they ate their own dead for lack of lamb on feast days.

“Now, I say that Akh is not a place of great renown, and except for the macabre stories told by a few, this is true. But there was once when, for a few days and nights, great events took place in Akh.

“There was a girl-- better to say a maiden, about your age-- in the village, whose beauty and virtues had earned her a place in the stories of the tinkerers, peddlers, traders and soldiers who made their way through the village. Though she was tall and fair, they said, unlike the other Samui-shishi this girl's skin had not been robbed of its softness by the wind. Her face was proud and lovely while her eyes sparkled with wit and intelligence. Her hair-- black, like all of the People's-- lacked the wiry toughness that made every pull of the brush an agony. Rather it cascaded down her face and back like a gentle river. Her body, too, haunted the dreams of many a young man as he lay between a dying fire and his snoring camels in the waste. Imagine the poor man, robbed of his sleep, thinking perhaps that amongst the howling of the wind over his head he hears the call of the one voice he desires above all others.

“The girl's name then, if not the village's, spread west to the heart of things, and like Helen's would in another time and place reached the ears and stirred the blood of probably too many. Beauty, my dearest, is not a tool to be mishandled. It turns men-- and women-- into fools and puppets. You'll see that too soon, if you don't already.

“The name of this girl-- Tala of Akh-- finally reached the ears of a man who felt himself the equal of any beauty of the world. This man was Prince Amontisofaru-- heir of the dynasty that would make him lord of the Samui.

“The prince, himself, was a famous man. He was a great warrior and commander who had expanded the territory of the People through four long campaigns. Amontisolfaru excelled in boxing and swordplay; he was an unequaled shot with bow, pistol or rifle. He'd used shivs to kill bandits, short-swords to carve open professional soldiers and warhammers to brain giants. As a young man the prince, to save a traveler and her young child, had wrested a great tigress into submission. His dark, muscled back would always bare scars from the match, but once the tigress found herself beaten, she bowed her head to the stronger spirit and from that day on she would not be separated from him.

“Amontisofaru's armies had repelled, through courage and cleverness, every enemy who had ever threatened the Samui. He had sacked cities of wonder, ridden to the ends of his empire and led armies of men that covered the plains like a great inland sea. When those same plains were covered with the bodies of the dead and dying so that seagulls finally did come-- flying over miles and days to rip at the rotting flesh in the red sea that the prince had left behind him-- when Amontisofaru's name was spoken in the same hushed tones reserved for vengeful and jealous gods, then the prince decided to return to his capitol and enjoy the peace by looking for a wife.

“Though the capitol held the most talented and beautiful girl to be found amongst the People, they soon learned that their prince was fickle the way that only royalty knows. Amontisofaru casually found fault with all of them He dismissed eligible girls as too short or too fat; too dark, bad posture, too much body-hair. He disliked one girl's ears, another's lips, the breasts of a third. Nor were perfect beauties spared: maidens who had inspired the love-songs and statues of the greatest artists amongst the People were sent away for laughing a way the prince disliked or because they reminded him too much of his mother. Amontisofaru would, in the same afternoon, reject one earthly goddess he found too coldly calculating and a second he found too naively simpleminded. If a girl was too skilled a lover she intimidated the warlord; too innocent and she bored him.

“And so it went on.

“Amontisofaru's ministers began to worry that they would never appease their lord even as they sent the cream of Samui wealth and beauty to kneel at his feet. His commanders began conscripting peasants once more, thinking it would not be long before the prince called on his armies to relieve his frustration through bloodshed.

“Then, one day, the name Tala of Akh began circulating the halls of the prince's court. How it got there, no one can say, but by market day it had passed through the mouths of each and every one of Amontisofaru's servants and finally reached their lord's ears.

“Tala of Akh. It was a peasant name of the Samui-shishi and certainly not beautiful. The stories that accompanied it, though, were incredible beyond belief. The girl, they said, was so wise that she sat amongst the old men of the village to discuss philosophy and was called on to settle disputes within Akh. But is she beautiful? asked the prince. She is so beautiful, they answered, that when the sun descends towards the hills, her family must hide her in one of their huts. For if they leave her out to watch the sun set, it will hover just above the hills to take in her beauty, unable to tear itself away from such grace!

“At this, the prince sat back in his chair. Men told stories about his taming of the tigress, but imagine a beauty who could stay the sun!

“That night, the lord of the People didn't sleep. When morning came, he told his ministers to gather supplies and saddle his charger for a long journey. He told his commanders to send their men and boys home to farm. Then he sent for his royal cartographer and began to plan for the journey east.”

Sita sat in the afternoon sun and watched the sandstorm play off on the horizon. Her feet ached after the long walk from the village to the well. Nearer wells had dried up in the previous months so that the women and children of the village were now forced to walk for the good part of a morning to reach the southern well. For once, when she arrived she hadn't found a crowd shoving for position around the water-hole.

So she took the opportunity-- impossible in Akh with her neighbors always watching-- to sit and think. When the sandstorm hand picked up, she'd decided to stay and watch it run its course. There were old men in Akh who claimed that they could read the future through a sandstorm. Sita studied closely, looking for words, patterns, geometric shapes hidden amongst the whirling sands. She could decipher nothing-- not even the direction from which the wind came.

She gave up then, and began to sing to herself an old Samui song about a falcon who falls in love with the moon and other things that could not be. But when she finally looked up at the storm again, she noticed a pattern emerging. It couldn't be! Perhaps the old men had told the truth?

Sita stopped singing then and wondered what Grandmother Su would council. The old woman had taught all of the girls of Akh a little witchcraft at some point or another when they had come to her with tears or gifts, begging for futures told and love potions brewed. Witchcraft or none, the figure in the storm continued to emerge. Before long she made out a man on a great stallion-- larger then any that had ever passed through Akh-- leading horses across the desert. Beside the horses slinked something long and low.

The girl blinked and suddenly she saw the man and his horses weren't part of the storm at all, but a true vision headed straight for the well where she rested. Sita thought of running for a moment: lone village girls could be worth much in desert slave markets. But where could she go? The man had probably already seen her, could easily catch her on horseback, and the desert terrain offered no places to hide. Running at this point would be worse then useless. So she waited while the rider and his horses approached.

“Girl!” he hailed her from atop the monstrous steed, “Do you know the way to Akh? Can you lead me there or point the way?”

Sita nodded. “I'm from there,” she said. “A morning's walk north will take you to Akh. On your horse I'm sure it would take no time at all.”

The man squinted down at her. He was shorter and darker then the Samui-shishi of Sita's village. He had a well-fed, handsome face that studied her with interest. He asked Sita her name and when she gave it to him, asked if she would like to ride with him towards Akh. The girl looked down at her bare feet and ragged dress and felt her face warm.

Sir, she stammered. She had never ridden a horse; she didn't know how.

He laughed and she felt her face heat even more. Suddenly he was off the horse, standing in front of her. He grabbed her. Thinking that he meant to take her away with him, Sita began to shriek and struggle. When one of her elbows contacted his face with a hard cracking sound he laughed again.

“Stupid village dog,” he chuckled, “I'm not going to rape you.”

He led her then to one of the horses-- a cinnamon gelding-- and took her hand. He placed it on the horse's nose , so that she felt it sandwiched between the rough leather of his hand and the horse's wet breathing. Now he smells you, said the man. Now he's met you.

And he took the now-silent girl and placed her amongst the baggage on the horse's back, along with her buckets of well-water. We'll go slowly, he promised, and they did. Sita marveled at the ease with which the horse carried her and the water. What a wonder it would be to come home this way every day, returning to the village rested enough to work in her father's teahouse!

Eying the rider in front of her, she asked finally: “Sir, who are you? You are one of the People-- you speak our tongue. But you can't be of the desert...”

Just a man searching for a wife, he answered. To which he added: was she familiar with Tala of Akh?

Oh, said Sita to herself. Of course. “Everyone in Akh knows Tala,” she said.

The rider nodded. “It is true then that Tala's beauty stops the sun?”

Sita laughed. “I'm sorry?”

“Do you have to hide the girl at the end of the day so that the sun will remember his duty and fall from the sky?”

“I have watched the sun set many times with Tala,” sighed the girl. “Where do you come from that they tell such stories?”

“The capitol,” said the rider, and he gave a low whistle which brought forth the slinking, low form Sita had seen earlier. It was an enormous cat, and the dark stripes gliding down its orange back told Sita-- from the stories she'd heard-- that it was a tiger. Even in Akh, amongst the outcasts of the People, they told stories about the legendary warrior and his tiger. The prince of the Samui. Amontisofaru.

He cleared his throat then. “Is it true, at least, that Tala is counted amongst the very wisest in your village?”

Sita felt her tongue dry. “That, lord, depends very much on who you talk to.”

She saw the prince's back stiffen in front of her. “And who am I talking to?”

“Someone,” said the girl, “who knows Tala as well as anyone. Her sister.”

“When they reached the village, the hedman of the Samui-shishi was fetched to grovel at Amontisofaru's feet. The hedman was as tall and frail as any of the desert People. Amontisofaru let the old man spread himself and the ground before him and listened to the nervous greeting for a few moments before ordering the bony man to stand. It was like watching a praying mantis slowly rise.

“Village boys were already unloading the prince's horses, bringing forth chests of spices and silks; coins and salted meats and dates. The villagers watched this treasure being unloaded with unbelieving eyes. Young women had already been sent to bring the largest of the village's few scrawny goats to be killed and prepared in honor of their visitor.

“The prince of the Samui stood before his subjects and held out a bolt of the finest red cloth-- the making of a dowry for any of the daughters of Akh. The way he spoke was strange and formal to the villager's ears, but the understood the Amontisofaru's words. The man or woman who brought him Tala would be rewarded.

“He waved the cloth so that mothers and daughters were sent flying to every corner of Akh, screaming Tala's name. In no time she was brought forward, and the prince had his first glimpse of Akh's greatest beauty.
“She was, he reflected, no more lovely then any of the girls of the capitol and her dress and bearing were shabbier then any of them. She could, the prince decided, use a bath and more then a few good meals, but she had the height and the ripe fig skin he would like to see in a son. He took hold of her and studied her hands and eyes and pulled her lips back to examine her teeth.

“'Do you know who I am?' he asked.

“'Yes, lord,' said Tala.

“'And?' he asked.

“The girl looked as though she were about to cry. 'And, lord?'

“Amontisofaru let out a disgusted sigh. 'Enough time in the desert and a goat would look like a goddess. I see now. Well... let's go for a ride, just you and I, that this trip isn't a complete waste. I suppose you can't ride any better then your sister?'

“He put her atop one of the horses, showed her the use of the saddle and reins and leaped onto his own stallion. 'I'll return her to you in a few hours!' promised Amontisofaru with a lewd grin. They rode slowly north of Akh, while the prince's tiger settled herself comfortably between the staring Samui-shishi and the crates of royal treasures.”

The trouble started, as it often does, with jealous young men. They sat in the village teahouse where Sita served them as they yelled at each other about the unfairness of the world. Most of them had worked for years, traveling well outside the village in search of work and wealth that would put them in the position just to speak with Tala, or sit with her under the watchful eyes of her parents.

Now, in one day, the prince had come and ruined everything. He'd ridden in, casually insulted the village's greatest beauty to her face and simply taken her away from the gossip of the village as each of the young men had dreamed of doing.

And when she returns she'll be ruined! they moaned. Even if the prince has no use for her after today, she'll be spoiled for the rest of us!

There were men in the teahouse who wanted to kill the prince then and knives of bone and stone and iron were laid out on the table, so that finally the hedman was forced to stand and call them all fools. The hedman stood, quivering with rage, as the cacophony of the teahouse died down and the young Samui-shishi bowed their heads in respect and shame.

The three uses of the knife, said the hedman. To kill, to cure and to promise. The prince of the People is a master of each of them. Even if you pack of jackals managed to kill Amontisofaru (and you would not), the full might of his armies would burn Akh to the ground.

The hedman told the men in the teahouse a story then that they had heard often as boys. Not long ago, said the hedman, when I was a child, we were not known as the Samui-shishi-- we weren't outcasts-- but lived in a rich and beautiful country with plenty to eat. We were at peace with the other tribes of the People. Then Amontisofaru's grandfather came to power amongst the mountain Samui-- a short, dark folk seen rarely. The hedman of the mountain Samui wanted to unite each tribe of the People underneath him, and he conquered the tribes one after the other. Finally, said the hedman, our tribe was the last to stand against them. When the combined strength of the united People finally broke us, our lands were divided amongst the tribes and we were exiled to the sea of sands.

The hedman shook his head. “Amontisofaru's family is ruthless,” he said. “His tribe is ruthless. And he has the strength of the People behind him. How do you kill a man like that?”

“How did the mosquito kill the lion?” asked a voice from the door of the teahouse. Faces turned to watch Grandmother Su enter.

“She did not kill him,” said the old witch of Akh, “but drove him mad. And for our prince, we shall do the same.”

“Grandmother Su had as much reason to hate Amontisofaru as any of the Samui-shishi. When she was a young girl the mountain Samui had driven her father off the land his family had farmed for as long as the oldest stories claimed. Her older brother went off to fight them and never returned. Her older sister was carried away by a soldier and never seen again.

“Like all those who resisted, her family was pushed east. The land died. As it died so did the cattle and the hope of those who had stood against the new king of the People. Little Su withdrew. As the land truly withered into desert, the nights grew cold and Su sat far from the campfires of the refugees. Far from that meager warmth and those familiar voices, Su began making promises. She spoke alone to the darkness; she orated to the night. No one knew what the girl promised to whatever listened in the night, but all of the oldest villagers agreed that it was during this exodus that Su began to display the weird knowledge that made her a legend later in life.

“When the fleeing tribe began running dangerously low on water, it was young Su who read the wind to lead them to one of the rare freshwater pools that spotted the ever-drier lands. When a sand-storm hit the refugees unexpectedly so that the animals scattered and even the bravest of their soldiers lay with their faces to the earth to escape the cutting shards of rock and glass it was Su who shouted down the wind-- or really, screamed down the wind-- with terrible curses in Samui and some foul shrieking in a tongue no man or woman knew.

“And so what if none amongst them could recall exactly the last time Su's lips had touched water, although the rest of them thirsted endlessly for it? And if Su began speaking and laughing in the cold night, those amongst the refugees turned over on the hard ground where they slept and tried not to hear the girl's words. Her eyes were cloudy white with blindness by the time the girl grew breasts, but most had long since gotten out of the habit of meeting her stare anyway.

“The woman Su would never bare children, but she would gain the title 'Grandmother' at the age of twenty-five. The day she told the refugees to stop, that beyond the place they now stood lay certain death in the wastes, they believed her. That day they became the Samui-shishi, true and involuntary exiles. A village gradually grew up in the valley and the Samui-shishi called it Akh, after the coughing noise the bald desert birds made to each other in the afternoon heat.

“The blind witch, Su, lived for a time in Akh while things were most desperate. She found the Samui-shishi the wells which brought them water and screamed the desert storms away. She made medicine and she made decisions. When coyotes stole a baby girl, she killed one of Akh's few chickens and took it into the desert to parlay. The next morning she came back with the squirming, healthy baby in blood soaked hands and coyotes never stole from Akh again.

“As the years passed and the exiles truly became desert Samui, thin and expert dwellers of the wastes, Grandmother Su was seen less in Akh. She came for feast days and when asked for, but mostly the blind woman stayed away. She lived in a cave with a few cloth mats scattered across the floor and a large skin draped over the door for warmth. Young girls occasionally went to the cave as messengers or to ask Su's advice and found her home dark and dry and tidy. The air smelled of spices. They would find the witch lying in a comfortable heap on one of the mats, weaving complex and beautiful tapestries or just outside the entrance basking in the sun like a lizard.

“The villagers of Akh listened to Grandmother Su. The oldest among them knew what they owed her. If the mountain Samui had Amontisofaru's bloodthirsty dynasty, the Samui-shishi had Grandmother Su's cunning and unnatural power. The teahouse was silent as she began to speak, and even the old hedman would not interrupt her.”

Sita had ceased her movement with the rest of the teahouse when the old woman began to speak. Now she stood quietly and listened to the hatred build in Grandmother Su's voice. The rage and frustration of the young men had been nothing like this. That had been raw and fresh and blindly striking. Grandmother Su's voice held a hatred that had been nourished over the years into a sharp and calculated thing.

“Would you stab Amontisofaru in the gut?” she asked those assembled. “You could not. He would kill scores of you and you would never scratch that thick skin of his.

“Would you poison him?” she asked, raising an eye-brow.

“You might even succeed with that, though the prince has lived his entire life in a court amongst women and men more ambitious and ruthless than you might ever be, my children. Still, you might know a poison the prince has never encountered, a means of delivering it past even his seasoned intuition. And then what?”

Blind eyes studied their silent faces.

“The prince of the Samui is murdered in Akh-- that's what! Deny your hand in it and see where it would get you. Every army of every tribe of the People would come marching across the desert... you've never seen so many soldiers... and this time they wouldn't be content to leave us exiles! No....

“There's a better way. We can bring Amontisofaru endless misery. We can cripple his family and divide the tribes they rule. A more complete revenge can be had, for all that it will have to be secret. Because, in his endless endless pride, our prince has come amongst his last, defeated people without human escort. Without a single witness. We will never have a chance like this again.”

Grandmother Su reached then into her cleanly woven cloak and brought out something which caused the Samui-shishi gathered to draw in their breath. On her hand sat a fat, dark bug with wine-red wings and a tail ending in a long, wicked stinger. The hairs on the bug's six legs were clearly visible to Sita as the creature crawled slowly up Grandmother Su's arm to rest upon her shoulder.

Sita had stopped moving completely; she stopped breathing. She could feel the panic building around her. She wanted to cry out suddenly; to begin pushing her way toward the door and flee.

“Yes...” whispered Grandmother Su, and in the absolute silence of the teahouse the hiss of her voice could be heard by all. “Nako-nako-- the little demon. Don't worry, children. She is not here for any of you. She has agreed to help us... if we will help her. To lay her little eggs in the prince's mind. To bring him madness and the long, slow death.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Knife

I am perhaps being slightly over-eager in beating the deadline by so many days, but I could come up with no reason to wait.

I was not thrilled with any of the first set of prompts, but I did like the idea of writing about knives, so what follows is a poem (in vaguely Shakespearean sonnet form) composed in semi-response to prompt #1.

The knife's a cutting thing, as you have shown,
no matter where or among whom it lands.
The blunt end, you will say, could serve a blow,
but hold the blade and see how fares your hand.
Though, time permitting, you forget that cut
and notice not that now your hand's the knife,
don't be surprised the world bleeds at your touch,
for what you've done today you'll do for life.
Why rack the one who gave you such a tool
as you weren't unaware you'd use for that?
You yourself and she were desperate fools
to neither give nor take the weapon back.
The heart and love have no sharp edges, but
the knife was made for nothing but to cut.
The Death of Julius Caesar
[Image source]

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Prompt The First

To start things off, we'll do something simple, even if it is potentially dangerous. Here are a couple of options for your first prompt:

1. "It wasn't until that very moment that I finally understood what he had meant by the three uses of a knife."

2. Think of the title of a song-- this is your prompt, but you can't use the title explicitly in your piece.

3. "Have you observed instances of madness in penguins?"

We'll up the ante next time, but for now, this will do. Two weeks from now, try to have your contribution on the blog (Wednesday October 20). Looking forward to seeing what you produce.

Good luck,
The Editors

Friday, September 24, 2010


This is a creative writing and mixed media blog that we started with the intention of having a public forum to display our respective prowesses.

First, let us offer an explanation of our title. It comes from a quote: "'You're a gentleman,' they used to say to him. 'You shouldn't have gone murdering people with a hatchet; that's no occupation for a gentleman.'" (Crime And Punishment). In its ardor and its messiness, the creative process is quite comparable to murder by means of a hatchet. Neither are suitable occupations for a gentleman.

Good thing none of us fit that description.

This blog is structured around two points:

1. The Editors give out prompts once every three weeks. Contributors then do what they will with them: write, draw, photograph, etc. Then, two weeks later, the results are posted here for all the world to see. It is not required that contributors follow the prompts. Variations on, deviations from and neglecations of the prompts are certainly allowed. Sometimes, such things may even be encouraged.

What, you may ask, is the third week for? Allow us to quench your curiosity.

2. Being the hardworking creative-types that we are, one of our goals is to improve ourselves and our craft. In that spirit, contributors are expected to help one another. The most blatant manifestation of this principle is The Critique, that perennial friend and foe of the artiste. Contributors will be expected to offer their criticism of their fellow artists' work. There will be one week after the end of the writing period and before the giving of a new prompt reserved entirely for criticism. We will draft a guideline for criticism and post it here soon.

Welcome to No Occupation For A Gentleman. We hope you enjoy our work!

The Editors