She sways in the warm summer breeze like a sheaf of wheat, her bare feet planted in the spent soil. The moon is just a wink and her eyes have not yet adjusted; she wonders whether she’ll be swallowed by the dark earth beyond the oval of thin porch light, whether it is thirsty enough to open up and drink her down, down. It would be cool in the earth, and firm. Quiet.
The house, too, is quiet beneath the hum of cicadas and the whisper of breeze, but its quiet is anticipatory. Its quiet is a held breath, the suspended moment between booted footstep as they draw near to you: One. Two. One. Two.
The house knows how to swallow her into its silence. Many times it has opened its maw around her, and in eating it always grows hungrier. She can feel it now in the prickle of her neck, can feel the jaw opened wide behind her, the teeth poised to draw her back in and swallow her down, down. She wonders if this time it would crush her first with its dull molars, if this would be the final digestion.
The thirsty earth shivers at her just beyond the porch light, its grains of parched dirt rustling in the breeze. “I’ll drink you down, down,” the earth promises, “I’ll sip you like a glass of cool water.”
Her foot lifts, and then the other: one, two. “Alright,” she tells the earth as she steps into darkness, “okay,” because it sounds better to be sipped. She’s tired of being eaten.
Fashion Faux Pas Cost Her the Prince
Cinderella’s knuckles were raw and bleeding
why, oh why, did her father marry that witch?
evil to the core. And her step-sisters – mean
and nasty, threw clothes on the floor in heaps
Cinderella picked them up and spit on them
little bits of drool speckling their garments
even had to clean their filthy bathrooms
used their toothbrushes, replaced in holder
what had she ever done to deserve this?
Well, she’d get even – she would get the prince!
Some weird fairy godmother came to visit
waved her wand, poof, and there was her dress
Cinderella carefully washed ashes from her spirit
slipped on diaphanous gown so fine and fancy
kissed new slippers good luck, slipped them on.
Her candle had waned and no flicker remained
to see that she had chosen one perfect slipper
and one ragged one that her evil sisters
had handed down to her, faces in sneers
she scampered to the ball with fast feet
it was a long way but, alas, her fairy godmother
had forgotten to arrange transportation
even an old pumpkin would have done
she lifted the hem of her dress and wiped
the tears from her eyes and worry from body.
she was flabbergasted when she saw the prince
across the room in his fine woven gold raiment
and oh, that body, she’d lie with him for sure
the minute she got her chance, forget about marriage
the tingles of her want began low and coursed upward
she could hardly walk, her lust was boiling over
I want his royal tongue exploring my every secret
I’ll show those wicked step-sisters. I’m prettier than they
who do they think they are? Her anger bubbled out.
I’ll have to put my hostility on the back burner for now.
The charming Prince eyeballed her from across the room
protocol was to ask her to dance but he’d rather bed her
taking her in his arms, he whirled her around dance floor
heat and shape of her body enticed him, but King was looking
beady eyes following his every move, but he stealthily
managed to slip his hand under the hem of her gown
alas, she knew her fairy godmother had told her
to leave by midnight or she would be naked at the feast
and her underwear was different colors, didn’t match
it would be a catastrophe if she had to go to the hospital
she remembered that her dead mother used to tell her this!
She ran outside but, again, the godmother had slacked off
on the transportation, so she had to run all the way home
lost one of her shoes which the prince held high.
But drats, it was the ragged one –the one for everyday
it didn’t really fit her because it was a hand-me-down.
Later, the prince tried to fit the frayed slipper on her foot
“She’s cute,” he said, “but if it doesn’t fit, I must acquit”
She ran home in tears and sobbed all night in her misery
she had committed an extreme fashion faux-pas
her shoes didn’t match, the fashion police wouldn’t approve.
The next morning, she returned to normal, fixed oatmeal
for her step-sisters and stepmother, stirred in poison
lucky for her father, he thought oatmeal was for peasants
but as for the rest, they all died a perfect agony of revenge.
The moral of this story is be careful who you faux-pas!
Downfall of the Monologue
The villain always wears a suit. You ever notice that? Every villain you ever meet looks damn good. It’s a representation of power, I suppose; of prestige. An Armani suit sends a message, and the message is: I know what I want, and I know how to get it.
And yet, we always root for the other one. The scraggly underdog who shows up in a hoodie and an old pair of sneakers and not a single business course under her belt. Just snarky comebacks and maybe a convenient superpower granted to her by the cosmos. And seriously? What the hell is that?
I wasn’t born with super-speed or invisibility or laser-eyes. I didn’t stumble into an abandoned science lab in Ohio and contract some virus that turned out to be the gift of levitation. Or however the hell it happens these days.
I built myself from the ground up. I worked my ass off all through tech school, learned to build whatever I didn’t have. I earned people’s respect through nothing more and nothing less than my work ethic, my unflinching ability to look at a problem and solve it. And yes, sometimes solving it means making sacrifices. Sometimes people get in the way, and you do what you have to.
So here I am, suddenly the villain in the Armani suit (though I prefer Burberry), doing what’s necessary and getting condemned for it. And now here comes the doppelganger of Little Red Freakin’ Riding Hood, rolling up twenty minutes late, on foot, in her dumb, red hoodie with a damn hole in her sneaker. It’s insulting, is what it is.
And even now, I can tell you’re rooting for her. You haven’t even said anything, but I can tell. Granted, it might be the tape over your mouth, but still. It’s in your eyes. You want her to win. But the thing is, even if she beats me, she won’t solve anything. I’m the problem solver, and the problem is one that can only be fixed by someone who has my resolve, someone who is willing to make the hard choices.
You think Little Red over there could wipe out half of Cincinnati just to protect the few, non-infected people who are left in the world? No. But Cincinnati is ground zero. That’s how we stop this infestation. I know you don’t see it that way. You call them heroes, genetic miracles. I don’t know why you think this isn’t a disease. Just because the symptoms happen to be super-strength and mind-reading doesn’t mean it isn’t an infection that needs to be snuffed out before it spreads. Humanity is in danger, and I seem to be the only one who understands the gravity of the situation and...holy shit, did Red bring friends? Okay, now I’m insulted.
I specifically told her to come alone. You heard that, right? I said “Come alone, or your brother dies.” I was very specific. Very clear. Guess she doesn’t value your life much, huh buddy?
Look, I’m not happy about having to kill you, believe me. Despite your feelings to the contrary, I am not the bad guy here. I’m only trying to do what’s….
Did you hear that?
Wait wait wait.
No, this cannot be happening!
I planned for this! I planned for all of this! You can’t…
Fred shuffled his deck of cards. He had his game face on. This was his time to beat his roommates at their own game. He smiled and then placed his deck on the table once he had finished shuffling it.
Sam: Okay. Let the game begin.
Fred: Yeah, here~ feel free to use my deck.
Sam looked at Fred, and nodded. Sure, he would still win this game. Using Fred’s cards instead of his own was not going to make him easily destroy his winning streak.
Martin: Come on already. Sam take the cards. We don’t have all day!
Sam: Sheesh. Fine.
Fred watched Sam pick several cards and he passed them to Martin. Martin thanked him. Then Sam picked some for himself, too.
Sam picked one more card and placed it in the center of the table. It was an eight of hearts.
Martin carefully held on to his cards, and checked to see what he had in his hand. He smiled and placed one card down. An eight of spades.
Fred shook his head. He didn’t have any good card to place down. Sam laughed.
Martin: Hey, Sam don’t take so long. Place a card. (sighs)
Sam: Oh. (looks puzzled at his card and then slowly places it down)
Fred picked up a new card from the deck and stopped to stare at the card Sam placed in the center.
Martin: Yoh. Sam- why did you place that card in the middle?
Sam: Hmm, it’s the Joker.
Fred: (gasps) Uh, let’s not use that one.
Sam: Guys, stop acting weird. It’s the one card I had that worked for my turn.
Fred moved his hand and reached for the card. Sam slapped Fred’s hand.
Martin: Could you two please behave?
The Joker started to glow right before Fred tried to grab the card again. Sam’s eyes became wide in awe. What was going on with this strange card?
Martin rubbed his eyes, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing—
A pair of hands emerged from the card and soon the Joker was standing on the table right before the roommates eyes. Fred had thought that he had removed the Joker from the deck, uhm, this was not good.
The Joker cackled & clicked his heels. Then stared at the three pairs of peo before him.
Sam stood up from the couch slowly and moved his hand closer to the Joker.
Fred screamed and told Sam to stop. But it was too late. The Joker twisted aorund and formed a whirlwind that Sam got pulled right into.
Martin took a tight grip of the couch, not wanting to be carried away like Sam. Fred stood up and faced the Joker. He was not going to let him take the fun out of this round of the game.
The Joker stopped spinning when he heard Fred tell him to bring Sam back. Martin was too scared to even nod in agreement with what Fred had said.
Fred waited for a response from the Joker. All he did was continue smiling and tilting his head from one side, to the next, staring at Fred.
The Joker shouted and placed his hands in the air. Fred couldn’t take it anymore. He was playing tricks.
Fred jumped onto the table and pulled out another Joker card, but this one wasn’t dark, it was a light blue Joker. The dark, and crazy Joker looked at the card & panicked. The Joker begged Fred not to use the card. Martin, now that he saw Fred facing the Joker screamed and told him to do what needed to be done.
The Joker snapped its fingers and the rest of the cards flew around Fred, he couldn’t see past all the cards zooming & spinning about his body. When the cards stopped flying and fell to the table, some on the floor, and others across the living area, Fred wondered where the Joker went. Even Martin was missing.
This was really bad. Fred jumped to the floor and went to the window. He opened it and checked if there was anything out of the ordinary outside. Nothing. No Joker, things there seemed to be in order.
Wait. He looked out again. Fred spotted a well not too far from where he stood. He stepped out of the place through the window and ran to the well.
Once there he peered in. There was no water in the well, only an endless pit of darkness. Then he heard the Joker’s laugh.
There was only only one thing he had to do. Fred held onto the other Joker card & jumped into the well.
In the well went Fred, a burst of light shone bright. Was he on his way to heaven? No, he didn’t even say goodbye to his lovely next door neighbor, Catherine. He had planned it all out in his head. She would go take her dog for a walk. But he would offer to do it, she’d say yes. Then..eh, too late for him to think about the next step/s.
He saw a different place at the end of the light. Fred moved his hands in front of his face, he needed to get ready for a hard landing.
When he arrived at the end of the trip, he bounced onto solid ground. Right on his bottom. He squinted his eyes and looked aorund.
There was a waterfall, that actually had water going in an upward motion and not down. So, it was some sort of waterrise. Huh.
Fred checked for the other Joker card, he couldn’t find it. Oh no!
He got to his feet and bumped into someone. Fred looked up and saw Catherine. How did she get here?
Was this really her? She did look like her. But this Catherine was in a blue Joker’s suit. She placed her hand on Fred’s shoulder.
Fred felt his knees become weak. He lost his balance and almost fell to the ground.
He cleared his throat and looked into Catherine’s eyes. Her lips were moving, she was asking him a question. Fred shook his head and pulled himself together.
Fred: Right. Sorry about that. Catherine?
Blue Joker: Where is he?
Blue Joker: Him. (She pointed at the Joker who was running about the moment he saw the Blue Joker).
Fred: Yes, the crazy Joker. Please, don’t let him get away.
The Blue Joker swung her slingshot and shot a load of gems at the Joker. Pieces of gems rained down on the Joker. The Blue Joker reached for a pair of ropes and swung the ropes with a great force. She tossed them at the Joker’s feet. The Joker landed on his frontside. He grunted and moaned. Fred leaped for joy.
The Joker was lifted off the ground. The Blue Joker threw him over her left shoulder.
Fred: Where are Sam & Martin?
Joker: (cackles) In the meadow, lies a fellow. Only there, you might find a hare. O, Sam, or is it Pam? Martin, maybe he’s now gelatin!
Fred hated this Joker. So full of many tricks. He ran to the meadow and found two piles of hay. Fred called out for his buddies. He felt lost and thought it was too late. Then the bundle of hay moved, and the other one did as well. Fred rushed to check the bundles. Right in the center of the bundles of hay were his pals.
He pulled them out. They smiled and both thanked Fred for saving them. Then they went back to the well and soon were back right at their place.
Sam: Fellas, who wants to continue the game?
Fred: (smiles) Nah. I’m good. I think I’ll stay clear of the game. Its time I try to stick to maybe dominoes.
Sam: Yeah, okay. Sounds like fun. Let’s play.
Martin: (laughs) you never cease to amaze me. As long as there are no Jokers in that game, I can join you guys.
I told her I was in town for a couple of days then I was going back up north. She told me to have a nice weekend. I never had a chance.
Copyright to Middle-earth Enterprises
Thorin has more cause than most, to hate orcs.
After the dragon took the Lonely Mountain, King Thror tried to reclaim the ancient dwarf kingdom of Moria. But our enemy had got there first.
Moria had been taken, by legions of orcs, led by the most vile of all their race, Azog the Defiler. The giant Gundabad orc had sworn to wipe out the line of Durin.
He began, by beheading the King.
Thrain, Thorin's father, was driven mad by grief. He went missing, taken prisoner or killed. We did not know. We were leaderless. Defeat, and death, were upon us. That is when, I saw him -
A young, dwarf prince, facing down the Pale Orc. He stood alone, against this terrible foe - his armour rent, wielding nothing but an oaken branch as a shield.
Azog, the Defiler, learned that day, that the Line of Durin, would not be so easily broken.
Before he was here.
It is Sunday when she tells him.
He knows this because on Sundays, she speaks to him thrice, when on the other days, he can only hear her voice once. That makes him sad, but no matter how big of a fit he throws, it is always the same.
You’re not going to make it, she says, and he thinks he could hear her voice wobble . She shifts, adjusting her weight from one side to another and exhales.
He cannot see her of course, not in the darkness that clouds his world. But he can feel her, it’s strange, but he can. When he is bored, which is often, he would try to imagine how she looks. Oddly enough, all he can think of is a big black mass. Or perhaps that is becuase black is the only thing he could see. Thinking about this makes his head ache and so, he stops.
He can hear a strange sound now- several sharp intakes of breath and then a loud, shaky exhale, again and again, accompanied by an odd whistle.
She is crying, he realizes.
He wants to comfort her, but she won’t listen. He tries to expel the words from his mouth, but they get lost in his mind. He breathes out the sound with his tongue, and they disperse down his throat.
You’re not going to make it, she says again, less shaky this time. A small pause.
That’s what they’re telling me, and I don’t want to believe them, but what do I know, right? She laughs, tentatively. David tells me it’s for the best, she continues, that it’s not worth the risk. Another pause. I wanted to slap him when he said that, believe me, I was so angry. He thinks to himself that he can feel her smile.
He is happy that she is angry at David, and he tries to smile too. He doesn’t like David. David takes up far too much of her time. Time she could have been spending with him. David can go to hell. He smiles again with the self-indulgent satisfaction at having imitated an expression she uses quite often.
It is a Sunday, and she has talked to him thrice, and everything is alright. If what she has said bothers him, he cannot remember.
When he sleeps, he dreams of obsidian eyes and a woman dressed in white scrubs, except they are not really white, he only knows that they are white, inherently, in the way you know that the sun is hot and that ice is cold. She is saying, over and over again: you are not going to make it.
Days pass, uneventfully, or perhaps it is months, he does not know. She tells him of the small, insignificant details of her life, those tiny details that make up a life. He is content, but there is always something lurking under the happiness. A certain anxiety, a fear, of something he cannot remember.
But then, he cannot remember a time without the fear either, so it blurs into the background, just white noise.
The voice comes, day after day, predictably, the only other constant in his day, apart from this fear. For those few minutes with her, he can relax.
It is the days when the voice doesn’t come that it truly disturbs him. Something is wrong. She has not talked to him yet, even though it is time: it is the day after Sunday, and she is about to go to sleep, and she has not spoken. She shifts from one side to another, the same jostling movement that usually precedes their time together, but the voice does not come. Not a single caress, not a single murmur.
He thinks perhaps she has forgotten, and he shakes her, gently, trying to catch her attention. She does not respond. Harder now, faster, faster, anger clouding the fear, and he likes this sensation better. When he cannot move anymore, he stops, and waits for the sound of her voice. A gasp, and then the same whistle, the harsh outtake of breath, a succession of nasally breaths.
He feels bad now. He shouldn’t have done that.
He lies as still as he can but seems like forever before the crying stops.
When she finally talks to him again, she tells him that she is sorry, and there is finality in her voice, a passiveness, an absence of any emotion.
He is filled with an overwhelming , inexplicable panic. It flutters inside of him, this strange, desperate sensation, like a moth beating its wings against a glass cage.
But the next day, she is crying, and there is relief in her tears, and happiness. When she speaks, she seems almost angry, but not at him, it is a positive anger, brimming with energy, she is alive. He does not understand what is going on, but he cannot help but feel that something big has happened, something metamorphic.
Afterwards, he does not remember any of this, except a lingering sensation of solace, and the absence of an emotion he cannot place.
In the Lilac Birth Suite, London, she lays on a bed lined white, dressed in white scrubs, in a room tiled in white, white everywhere. With each contraction, there is a pain that dominates her entire being, precious seconds stretching into eternity, primal agony drifting in waves towards her. When she closes her eyes, she can see only red and then flashes of white bursting into being. She hears nothing but a high-pitched, irksome scream, and she wishes it would stop, and then she realizes it is coming from her.
One last guttural push, the heat of stretching flesh, and that is it. There is a flurry of white around her, like geese, she thinks, though she cannot remember whether it is geese that are white, or something else. It seems important, now more than ever, to decipher this.
She breaths out, and the sound seems eerily loud to her ears.
The room is deathly still, she realizes, the sharp tinge of held breaths straining the air. A second passes, maybe two. A tear escapes out of the corner of her eyes, and she cradles her arms around her, desperately, too exhausted to do anything else.
David steps towards her, hand hovering above her shoulder. There it is, she thinks, bitterly. The I-told-you-so. This is what they’ve all been waiting for.
And then, they hear it.
The sharp, keening cry of a newborn.
He has arrived.
Brenda told Michael she’d been married five times on the night she met him, but she could tell he didn’t believe her.
Unfortunately, it was partially true.
Brenda knew there was something about her eyes, a quirk of birth or genetics, which gave a man the impression that all of her attention sat centered on him and him alone, despite the fact she might be thinking of nothing more exciting than the grocery list. Men, or rather their egos, found that type of wholehearted attention utterly desirable. She’d discovered that everything usually escalated from there and most times she was powerless to halt the galloping trajectory towards the inevitable. An engagement ring soon followed, then the altar, and then… well, everyone knew what happened next.
And now here she was, trapped in her indecision; sit and wait for husband number six bearing her glass slipper in the form of a sparkly new engagement ring or flee with escape and freedom in mind. After all, it could only end badly.
She’d been so full of hope at her first wedding. Ronnie was a lovely young man with an earnest overbite and a nervous twitch. She knew he harbored a few mother issues but she was sure she could sort those out quickly enough. After all, they were young and in love and the world was their oyster. Unfortunately, that oyster turned out to be a rather stagnant cockle and the longed-for pearl nothing more than a worrisome piece of grit in the form of Ronnie’s mother. She’d marched into the registry office just as the happy couple were about to say their I Do’s, grabbed the shrinking, cowering Ronnie by the collar, and hauled him away muttering something about unsuitable unions, brainwashing, and marrying one’s own kind.
However, husband Number 2 had quickly appeared to dry Brenda’s tears. Charles was an older man with a penchant for wearing built-up shoes and a monocle in his left eye. Charles’s mother had passed away, which gave Brenda a modicum of reassurance after the whole Ronnie debacle. Charles had proposed quickly, swept up in the wonder of Brenda’s attention-giving eyes, and he had insisted on a short engagement. This time it was Charles’s undercover lover, a public school mathematics teacher named Ian, who’d marched up the aisle and demanded that she hand his man back.
She wasn’t in love with husband Number 3, but all the right conditions for love to grow were there. Luciano was a handsome Italian man with a handlebar moustache and a loud, booming laugh that sometimes frightened small children. Luciano said she was bellissimo with a kiss of his fingers to his lips and told her he wanted to feed her pasta and spaghetti until she grew round, pretty, and plump. However, the unexpected appearance of Luciano’s irate wife as Brenda’s father helped her out of the limousine on their wedding day soon put paid to that prospective marriage.
Husband Number 4 was a radiant burst of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy year. Patrick was a robust, round-bellied, redheaded man with an engaging accent and no shortage of bawdy jokes. Patrick loved social events, meat pies, fried chicken, and draught beer – and he loved Brenda. He promised her a life full of good times and laughter and she believed him. His heart attack at the altar as he fumbled with sweaty fingers for the wedding band was both unexpected and devastating, but Sam the handsome paramedic helped Brenda through her loss.
Brenda was genuinely in love with husband Number 5 and she thought that Sam held the key to ending her run of marital bad luck. Dark-haired, dimpled-smile Sam was outgoing and adventurous. He dedicated his Instagram feed to breathtaking, toe numbing shots of himself leaping from planes, swimming with sharks, and walking along narrow ledges on the tops of tall buildings. Sam was afraid of nothing and Brenda felt safe and protected in his arms. However, it ultimately turned out that the one thing Sam was afraid of was marriage. She discovered that sad fact as she waited forlornly for him to arrive at the church as the clock ticked, her bouquet drooped, and the wedding guests awkwardly shuffled their feet and peered over their shoulders at the door.
She now sighed and looked at the time on her watch, the rose gold watch that Michael had given her. Michael was fond of gift giving. He’d showered her with sumptuous bespoke jewelry, exotically fragrant blooms in crinkly purple tissue paper, and svelte, satiny dresses that made her think that he imagined her to be a size smaller than she actually was almost since the first moment they’d met. He’d brushed off her sad tale of failed marriages past, declaring that fate had intervened at last to bring him and Brenda together.
Michael was an Elvis impersonator, a heavy-set, jowly man who performed a hip shake in a white sequined suit and sang Jailhouse Rock at work functions, birthday celebrations, and Christmas do’s. It was at one of those work functions where Brenda had first met him, catching his eye as she sipped watered down wine out of a paper cup and picked listlessly at the pastry shell of a tiny custard éclair. He was at her side in an instant, offering her a refill from a glass pitcher held in fat, be-ringed fingers and telling her she was the cutest little jailbird he ever did see.
They’d been dating eight months now, which was a long time for Brenda. Generally by this stage of the relationship she’d received a ring or been stood up at the altar. However, she was almost certain that tonight would be the night that Michael would propose. He’d asked her to wear her favorite dress and he’d paid for her hair appointment, a standard trim and premium blow out, at Madame Cassandra’s this afternoon. All signs were pointing towards a proposal but she didn’t know if she had the strength to go through with it. Not again.
Michael was a very pleasant man and she did see a future with him, but that was the problem. She’d seen a future with each of her five previous one true loves and where had that got her? Jilted, that’s where. Besides, it was time consuming to return all the wedding presents and some of her relatives, especially her uncles, had begun to make bad taste jokes that they thought were funny but Brenda certainly didn’t.
She’d toyed with the idea of leaving a note on the front door and heading off to drown her sorrows somewhere dark and dive-y, of avoiding Michael’s proposal altogether, but she’d now wasted so much time prevaricating that here he was pulling up at the curb in his orange Toyota with the double black racing stripe. She could almost feel his sense of excitement from here, radiating off the man in waves.
She pasted a smile on her face and wrenched open the door, aware that the evening could only go downhill from here. He’d propose, she’d coo over the ring, they’d make plans for the wedding and for a life that could never be… “Hello, Michael.”
“Darling! You look ravishing.” He scooped her up in his arms and pressed her to his spongy belly, covering her face with kisses until she giggled and began to think that tonight might not be so bad after all. He let her go at last, giving her a wicked grin accompanied by a very un-Elvis-like cackle. “I have a surprise for you.”
“How sweet,” Brenda murmured as she prepared herself for the inevitable.
“I’ve brought my friend Mr. Jaxon along.” Michael opened the back door of the Toyota with a flourish and Brenda was perplexed to see a wizened little man with a hooked nose and a superior attitude step out.
“Errrr.” Brenda waited for her surprise with some trepidation. Mr. Jaxon vaguely reminded her of Ronnie’s mother and that wasn’t a good sign.
“Mr. Jaxon is a marriage celebrant and he’s prepared to do the deed tonight.” Michael gave her a most out-of-character anxious look. “If you’ll have me, that is. I know your previous marriage attempts haven’t ended well and I thought I might try to circumnavigate all of that palaver, skip the engagement and the frothy white dress, and marry you now.”
“Oh.” Brenda felt her knees quiver, her heart race, and her future beckon to her with a prankish smirk.
And right then and there, in her favorite black dress that matched her eyes and with her hair coaxed and shaped into perfection by a premium blow out, Brenda said I Do to her sixth husband and finally stepped into her happily ever after.
“ Numerical superiority is of no consequence.
In battle, victory will go to the best tactician.”
George Custer (1839-1876)
* * *
Dawn came early as the troop broke camp on the slow trail to The Hollows. The winds of an early winter rustled the surrounding trees, high up on the valley’s ridge. The weather pattern was changing with the rising sun; but on the valley floor, shielded behind a blanket of early morning fog, the men were quiet as they continued their duties on empty stomachs. The camps gray surroundings looked ominous, an omen,— gloomy as the desperation the men felt packing their animals without even benefit of coffee,— their remaining meager supplies, after an accident, had dwindled out the previous day. The company’s scouts never returned from the last night’s reconnaissance, perhaps abandoning them to a fate of starvation, lost among the rocky hills of this empty wilderness.
Late for their rendezvous and without escort, the commander was determined to valiantly continue the journey, but unfamiliar with the territory and without the benefit of a guide, the Captain was in a precarious position.
The Gatling gun they were moving was awkward for the hilly terrain; a .30 caliber ten barrel design, that could shoot up to 1200 times a minute, won the approval of the Ordnance Department in 1866 as a weapon of promise,— an improvement over Dr. Richard Gatling’s 1862 model,— a .58 caliber hand crank machine gun that had only six revolving barrels and fired on average, about 400 rounds a minute. The earlier version never won acquisition by the U.S. Government because of numerous problems; but in the post war era, Richard’s later achievement was adopted officially and deemed a valuable asset in the continuingly, increasing conflicts with hostile Native Americans.
Captain Jenkins was a man of moderate temperament and a stiff manner of control that held an unnerving power over the men under his command. He was under strict orders to move into the Northwestern region with his small contingent and support the failing efforts of the cavalry to suppress the escalating skirmishes.
The Gatling was the pride of his company, but after a week of pulling the weapon over the rocky terrain, limiting their advancement to a mere 20 miles a day, the men longed to dump the wagon wheeled monstrosity,— wishing they had dropped it over the narrow gorge where they lost the chuck wagon the previous week.
Captain Jenkins was of a different mindset and ordered the riggings set for another day when a call went out, and a panic erupted throughout the camp. Two men on horses thundered into the site yelling, “They’re dead,— they got um... they’re dead.”
At first, because of the fog, it could not even be determined where the riders were coming from. Men scrambled to their horses not sure if the enemy was advancing, when Captain Jenkins’ strong voice of authority resounded over the chaos, assembling the men in a large circle: a man about every ten yards apart, each with his animal by his side. A crew of four men wheeled the Gatling to the center on the higher ground, and prepared the magazine.
The riders broke the line, turning the heads of the nearby linemen and dismounted by the captain; their horses agitated and lathered, pulling at the reins wanting to continue their flight. With a quick salute, both men spoke at the same time in a panic, struggling to control their mounts.
“Gentlemen! One at a time,” exclaimed Jenkins. “One at a time.”
Corporal Sandgum, a small mouse of a man looked at his companion and nodded, quelling his excitement as best he could and reported: “Sir... we found the scouts on our recognizance this morning not a mile from here.” Sandgum took a deep breath and expelled it quickly. “Someone skinned them,— Sir.”
“What!” the commander barked in disbelief.
“Kettle and Oggal are hanging in a tree just over the next set of ridges dressed out like a shot deer,” squeaked the man, pointing in the direction they had just come from.
“Was it hostiles?”
“Sir,— I’m not a tracker. We found them fellers and broke it fer here.”
Suddenly, all the horses in the configuration spooked. Their charges, distracted by the confusion, broke formation when a crack like thunder erupted; and one of the men at the Gatling slumped over the axle.
“Corporal, man the gun!” The Captain directed, while placing his left hand on his saber. Turning his attention to his command, he paced the top of the ridge and yelled, “Mount up.”
A second crack dropped a horse soldier.
“Watch the left flank,” Jenkins barked in a manner of full control while drawing his sword.
Sandgum and his crew spun the weapon preparing for a charge.
“Blanket that pocket Corporal!”
The Gatling exploded into operation, showering lead over the left bank as an almost white flame whistled from the opposite side dropping another warrior.
“We’re surrounded men,— fire at will!”
Carbines spit and popped, but the fog limited even the simplest sighting of their attackers.
Two more soldiers were cut down by streaks of white lightning when the silhouette of a giant slammed through the lines and a private’s head spun to the ground at the commander’s feet. The ghostly form faded in and out with wisps of fog, rendering death in its wake.
The captain tried to understand the nature of the attack. In disbelief, he watched as a second phantom breached his left flank amid the hand-cranked, rapid fire of his company’s pride.
The outlined form that appeared without substance danced along the borders of the cavalry’s resistance,— then disappeared completely, only to spring back into view as the heavy moisture of the lowland cloud seemed to condensate about the specter’s features. The captain drew his pistol and fired instantaneously at the seemingly substance-less form which sprung lightly away, only to reappear behind Corporal Sandgum. The little man never knew what hit him as he slumped over the revolving barrels and was thrown into the spokes of the wooden wheels of the weapon. Horses bolted from their dead charges as the Gatling went quiet.
The captain called for his men to regroup, but an eerie silence dispelled any hope as the commander walked along the top ridge of his last stand. An unknown enemy had leveled his forces in mere seconds; and now he stood alone amid an invisible death that appeared to haunt this wilderness like a ghostly pack of ravenousness demons, bent on war with flesh-and-blood. Could these wraiths even be killed?
“Show yourselves you bastards!” The captain screamed as he stumbled over his fallen. “Cowards,— show yourselves!”
Jenkins spun as a glimmer of movement raked his right field of vision. He raised his sword and parried a savage blow. The clashing of metal resounded over the lonely hill; but the man could see no physical form, only the empty shadow of an outlined embodiment. Strange that a ghost could exert such force against a steel blade.
The captain raised his pistol — shooting center of the shape and the specter lurched backward with the impact of the bullet; but immediately sprang to its feet apparently unharmed. The silhouette crackled, as a blue web of netted light, etched around its giant frame and in a twinkling of an eye the monster appeared,— dressed in what the officer guessed was battle armor. Bulging eyes with a deep red glow, burned behind the stone features of the insect shaped head. Curved horns pointed at the officer like Lucifer himself selecting a soul for special torment.
“What manner of demon are you?” screamed the captain taking a savage swing with his saber.
The beast jumped to the side and deflected the blow against a stout gauntlet with multiple blades that extended, forming hooks down its entire forearm. As it spun, it twisted sideways, backhanding as it moved.
The punch went wide as the officer ducked the sweeping swing, and locating a gap in the armor of his enemy lifted his colt and shot.
His opponent reeled under the impact, as a purple phosphorous fluid splattered from the wound and the creature howled in pain.
Captain Jenkins stabbed at the beast with his sword, but his antagonist easily rolled away and sprang back to its feet.
Two more of the creatures appeared as spectators around the life and death match, standing like chiseled forms of stone.
The commander was startled by their appearance and staggered backward to brace himself for a charge, but the enemy just looked on. The captain raised his pistol when his wounded enemy’s forehead lit up with a small red light and the horns on the creature’s head sprang to life spitting a streak of white flame that struck the commander’s left hand taking it off at the wrist; his pistol dropping to the ground a few yards away.
In shock, the captain stared at his injury when the beast unexpectedly charged, swinging a brutal blow with its strange bladed arm. Jenkins, with the grace of a skilled swordsmen, parried the strike which deflected off to his right, dropped to one knee and plunged his saber into the soft tissue of the creature’s left thigh, just behind its armor. Howling his enemy spun and swung again, but the captain stepped back as he pulled his sword free and easily dodged the mindless attack, again stabbing his enemy in a gap of its armor at its right side.
Bewildered, the creature paused with some distance between his opponent — seeming to examine its wounds as its pasty phosphorous blood flowed over its battle garb.
The captain took advantage of the break and looked at his own injury. It was strange to him. The initial impact felt like a hammer had smashed his hand, but now there was no pain or blood. In fact the captain wasn’t even sure if the events happening were real because it still seemed like the appendage was there,— just invisible and he was controlling and moving his fingers at will.
Noise interrupted the commander’s inspection as he raised his eyes back to his assailant. The creature was lifting off its headpiece, amid hissing gas, and dropped the mask unceremoniously to the ground. The giant was the ugliest thing the captain had ever seen. Wiry locks of stiff black rope that looked like a tangled weave of disjointed black widow legs. The matted and twisted jumble draped the contours of the small head exaggerating the appearance of the limited forehead. Its eyes were unusually large under the deep brow of a steep ridge that conveyed the thought of evil to the mind of Jenkins. But the most unnerving thing about the creature’s appearance was the tusks that lanced downward from the beast’s mouth. Like a saber tooth tiger’s fangs, the dagger like appendages, dripping with foam, — seemed to salivated like a disembodied soul hungry for blood.
“What manner of demon are you?” Jenkins spat with disgust.
“What manner of demon are you?” echoed back from the creature’s position, mimicking exactly the captain’s voice, followed by an eerie clicking and chirping.
Jenkins snarled and readied himself for attack. “Let’s finish this!”
The monster raised its left hand as the second gauntlet’s set of blades engaged with the grating sound of metal on metal. Then the creature paused crossing his weapon bearing arms over his chest and then dropped them to his side.
“Let’s finish this!” Repeated the captain’s words from the creature’s position and the demon charged.
The captain backed up gracefully dodging and parrying every blow even catching his enemy twice more with stabs in the right arm and left abdomen, but the creature seemed unaffected by the injuries and kept up its onslaught of blows in a mastery of a controlled attack. The commander was quickly learning his opponent’s moves, gauging his strikes and understanding his defenses when he tripped over the body of one of his fallen men. The blunder was disastrous. The creature jumped in for a final strike. The captain was able to jab his saber into the back of his enemies left ankle severing its large tendon, but as the demon fell it pinned the commander’s sword arm to the ground and plunged its right forearm into the man’s chest.
Captain Jenkins lurched foreword staring at his conqueror for but a moment,— spit in the demon’s face,— then fell back weakened and gasping for air.
The giant then peeled the vanquished’s flesh under the agonizing screams of the torture. The fiendish mouth seemed to revel in the atrocity. The demon’s fangs dripped of froth, as if salivating in the helpless terror of the dying man’s eyes.
Do you believe in angels?
There is a little prickly feeling on his arms where the grass touch his bare skin, but after a while, he manages to get used to them. He is not one to complain; especially, when the meadow turns out to be a nice retreat in the thick of noon. Thanks to the wide-reaching branches of a lonely oak tree, the malignant rays of the sun cannot reach him. He can feel the soft wind rustling his hair, offering consolation for another undifferent morning.
He closes his eyes, thinking how much sleep he loses every night without ever getting the chance to make up for them. It's a difficult undertaking. To sleep in the day. The world is so much alive, so so much more than he could catch up to. And here he is, taking another step back, lying down and letting the hours drift by.
He doesn't know when he has fallen asleep but he wakes up to the earthly scent of a leaf tickling his nose. He brushes it away, blinking at the slim and thin figure of a lady. It is her again. Like it was her yesterday. She comes when he least expects her to.
"Why would you do that?" He exclaims, without any intention of getting to his feet any sooner.
She smirks widely, her eyes laughing what her voice does not. "Do what?"
"Why do you have to wake me every single time?"
"Well,-" she begins but he stops her with a hand.
"Just... What do you want?"
She wears a white shirt today, that she pulls over her knees as she sits next to him. Too plain compared to what she wore last time. It was all polka dots. It didn't suit her and he could not stop chuckling. Sometimes she looks like a clown, sometimes a hag and mostly, stupid. Today, she looks peaceful. "I just want to watch the clouds with you, can we do that?"
The clouds are coming in fast, crowding the sky above them. He would love to get more sleep, yet there is no helping her as he had learned before. "What good could watching the clouds do us?"
She instinctively tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear, shrugging, "I don't know, pass the time? Look! That cloud looks just like me." She behaves like a child most of the time. She is impossibly erratic. Got a screw loose, maybe. Not a care in the world, like she is the childhood he never had.
"How? How is that cloud like you? It doesn't even look human to me."
She huffs with indignation, "It does! Those are arms, see!" She keeps pointing to them. The mass of cloud is quickly shredding apart and whatever form it had a second ago is to be blown away in the next couple of seconds. Just like that.
"That's more like a frog to me."
She nudges him on the side of his chest. "Why do you have to be so mean?"
He shrugs," Guess that's how I'm wired. Can't help it." She looks pretty dejected. Or she could be feigning it. Nonetheless, he says, "There, that one's a dragon."
She looks up, searching for it. "I can't see it."
"The wings, right there. Yeah, there. And the head, it's monstrous."
She puts her palm over her eyes, squinting to see. "I see a bird."
"That's not a bird. A bird doesn't have teeth. Or huge legs."
"Alright, you spotted it first, so fine, it's what you think it is," she agrees bitterly, cocking her head.
"That's not fair. A while ago, you insisted..."
"It's the rule of the game, alright? Now, my turn. That right there is an angel." She points to a blue void in the sky, smiling as though with triumph.
He peers his eyes heavenward; he can see nothing. "I can't see any angel."
"You're not looking hard enough."
He peers his eyes harder against the glare yet all that there is is a speck of cloud that his naked eyes can barely make out. "There's only like a small feather up there." He is lucky to even spot it.
"Exactly," she beams with childish pride, "it's a real angel, you know."
He shakes his head in amusement, "How did you know that? Did you ask him?"
"Well, I can, but will I hear him down here when he answers? Look, he isn't changing shape isn't he?"
It isn't. The wind is blowing, but the speck remains a speck. Faint yet never fading.
"Okay, it's the rule of the game. It's an angel as long as you say it is."
Out of the blue, she asks, "But hey, do you believe in angels?" Her eyes look into his as she too lies down on the grass.
"No," he sighs without the need to think, "I don't believe in the unreal."
The smile stays there on her lips even as she says, "But, you believe in me..."
He reaches out and ruffles her soft hair. "Of course I believe in you."
She is the only real thing in a world that feels unreal to him.
She snuggles closer to him, resting her head on the meat of his arm. "It's time for me to go," she says.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know." It is her response right now. Just like it was her response last time.
"I must tell you, there is no such place as 'I don't know'," he yawns out.
"Close your eyes," she tells him.
"Please don't wake me up tomorrow. I don't want to wake up ever again," he utters with a little jape.
She chuckles a bit. "I will certainly do, Mr. Sleeper. Even when it's the last thing you want."
"I'm afraid I might not make it 'till tomorrow," he mouths - this time, with sadness - unashamed to speak his soul out to her listening eyes. He feels like a cloud always about to change shape, and dissipate. It's hard to describe the feeling. But the world does not seem to want him around.
"You'll see this face tomorrow. Now close your eyes," she insists, sweetly pinching him by the cheek.
He does as she told him. And when he opens them again, all that is left of her is the earthly scent of grass and leaves and that speck of cloud drifting across the sky.
Image from topalski.com