Author Archives: crushthisworld

About crushthisworld

I...CAN'T...STOP....WRITING! So what's the problem? "I hate science fiction" "That's NOT science fiction!" "That's not original enough!" "Take out all that swearing." "Why does sci-fi/fantasy always have to have a smart-ass hero character?" "You should write children's books." "Write what you know!" "You should write about depression." "You aren't tech-savvy enough." "What's with all the foreign words?" "You're just copying _______." "Who reads anymore?" "That's been done before." So I write a few hundred pages and stop, because what's the point? But recently, I realized, there IS no point, except to tell the stories I've been given. So my purpose is to finish what I've started, to build this shabby Taj Mahal of words, and to maybe entertain some people who are adventurous enough to crawl under the barbed wire of preconception... Oh, yeah. "Those metaphors don't mix." Yep, but they make damn good salad dressing.

The Day I Killed My Brother or how a cup of tea can change everything

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We all start carrying things with us as children. It’s like we have this bag we haul along with us all our lives, filling it up with all kinds of stuff – bright and glorious and stained and ugly. Most of those ugly things aren’t really important, just something we remember as a mistake, or when someone hurt us – the kind of life experiences that we look back on and laugh, perhaps feel embarrassed, or maybe regret, but they tend to lose weight and power to affect us as the years pass. But some of those items grow heavier with time. Some of them are poison.

Accidents happen. They really do.
– Accidents where people die, killed without intention, but they are still just as dead. A woman is killed because her son, in the next room, is momentarily careless with a gun.
– Accidents where a bit of joking around doesn’t kill, but someone suffers. Students in a chemistry lab are goofing off, acid is splashed in a young woman’s face and disfigures her for life.
– Accidents where no one is at fault, but someone shoulders the blame. A child’s hot drink is a little too close to the edge of a table, and a toddler reaches up and spills it on himself.

I was sure I had killed my brother. His skin peeled off as my mother held him. He was screaming. I was told I had killed him, that I might have killed him, that I had always wanted to hurt him, that I had threatened to hurt him since he was born. Then he was in the hospital because of me. He would live, but he would be scarred for life because of me. Because I had to have a cup of tea.

My friend’s parents looked at me differently after that day. Could they trust me? Would I try to hurt their child? I don’t know what they were thinking, but it showed on their faces. I began to be afraid. I began to hurt myself.

My brother did not die. He came home from the hospital, skin dyed black by silver nitrate treatments. I was not allowed to touch him. People said that maybe I had tried to hurt him. Maybe I would try again. I became bad, tainted, somehow. After all, my brother would have sensitive skin for the rest of his life, and this was because of me.

I grew afraid to touch a baby. I was afraid I would do something wrong. I never had liked baby dolls, so I was unnatural. Not normal. Even as a teenager, then as a young adult, I did not want to hold or touch a baby. I still don’t. I never will.

All that time, no one ever told me this was not my fault. If they did, other things they said outweighed the sincerity of that reassurance. Maybe people still thought I had purposely hurt my brother. Maybe they forgot, or thought it was over and didn’t matter. The volume of the reassurance was never loud enough to drown out my brother’s screams, or the other things said in the awfulness of the moment.

They make horror movies about children like me – the beautiful child, somehow a little “off”. Pets go missing, and then other children. Suspicions are raised, but nothing can be proved. Years pass. There are strings of unsolved murders, odd ritual dismemberment, tortures – you know the story. I never did any of those things, but I guess I could have. I fit the profile.

Get over it. Get over yourself. No one blames you. It was an accident. Life isn’t fair. You let one little thing dictate the course of your life. Don’t be stupid. Stop using this as an excuse to feel sorry for yourself. Everyone has bad things happen to them.

How casually people reproduce. How casually they allow little children to hold a newborn. Not me, no. I might drop them, I might hurt them. The only children I really remember holding with any level of comfort were the babies I was assigned during my nursing school pediatric clinical rotation.

Childhood is full of traumas. Some childhoods are nightmares of abuse, war, starvation, poverty, disease, disaster. Other children are blessed by better circumstances. Either way, accidents happen. Sometimes no one is at fault, but someone shoulders the blame, and they carry it. People say things they don’t really mean. People forget and move on. They don’t notice the ugly weight on another person’s back, because they can’t imagine why someone would carry such a thing.

Do I want forgiveness? No, because I did nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. Do I expect an apology? No, because there is nothing for anyone to apologize for.

I want to go back in time and push that cup of tea back to the middle of the table where my little brother could never reach it. If I could do that, I would not even have the mundane memory of how he tried to get that cup because he wanted something his big sister had. He still would have cried and screamed then, but only because that’s what toddlers do when they don’t get their way. I would have been no worse than any other child. Even though I was no worse than any other child.

That day is always with me, how he stood on tip-toe in his stretchy terrycloth one piece outfit, the kind with nonskid footies, how his head tipped back as he pulled up as close as he could to the kitchen table, how he reached impossibly far for that cup of steeping tea, how I was too far away to stop him, how his fingers caught the cup, how the tea poured across the table and down onto his neck and shoulders, how he paused for a moment before he started to scream, how my mom carried him into the bathroom, how his skin peeled away when she tried to get him out of the onesie.

Even though he lived, there is a day I killed my brother. Even though it was not my fault, it somehow became my fault. There is nothing I can do, no amount of sorry from anyone makes a bit of difference to something held so long it bends the bones. Maybe someone reading this will realize they need to tell someone THIS BAD THING THAT HAPPENED WAS NOT YOUR FAULT, and they will say it and do things that prove it over and over until the message replaces the burden. Life is unfair enough, our deserved burdens heavy enough. Help someone make more room to carry good things with them on their journey through life. The poison taints everything.

I WANNA PERFECT GARDEN!!!

What we wait all Winter for.... Spring bounty!

What we wait all Winter for…. Spring bounty!

Every year around the bleak days of early January, even in the illest parts of the ill-tempered temperate zones, gardeners look out on their soggy, muddy, frozen, snow-covered dirt-patch of dreams, and fantasize. In the hangover of holiday cheer or the dreary slog of mid-winter, we remember the wonder and joy of Spring, of Summer. We yearn for the taste of tomatoes warm from the sun, for fresh green peas, for sweet corn and zucchini squash grown right here, from seeds we planted in soil we tilled ourselves. We are hungry for things that can not come from California or Mexico or Florida or any hot house anywhere. We are starved. Ravenous.

Every year, the seed companies know just how to bait the hook.

The bait.

The bait.

And every year, I am helplessly lured in, not so much like a shark to blood, but like a toddler to a birthday cake.

The bait is taken!

The bait is taken!

Yes, when I should be splitting more wood, getting the barns ready for lambing well ahead of time, cleaning up around the house a little bit so it doesn’t look like The Hoarder Hotel, I am looking at pictures of yellow and purple carrots. And admit it, you are looking at those carrots too. Or maybe the orange seedless watermelon or Bloody Butcher corn or green and yellow striped tomatoes or multi-colored sweet peppers…

I am done hauling wood, the seed catalogs are here!!!

I am done hauling wood, the seed catalogs are here!!!

Over the years, I have planted and grown – or attempted to grow – a wide array of vegetables, fruits, grains, and whatever looks good in the pretty pictures in the catalogs and on seed company websites. I have been seduced by glorious descriptions of taste, by photos showing stunning colors and perfect fruits of someone’s labor. I have been wooed by testimonies of taste, by heirlooms passed down for over a hundred years, by exotic names like Amish Rainbow, Moon and Stars, Caribe, Hon Tsan Tai, Deer Tongue, Oaxacan Green, Red Noodle, True Lemon, Purple Viking, Five-Color Silver Beet, Rouge Vif d’Etampes, Prescott Fond, Rosa Blanca and so many more.

Always plant more than one kind of everything and you'll be happier!

Always plant more than one kind of everything and you’ll be happier!

I should be ashamed of my weakness. I would probably feel sick and go into denial if I knew how much I’d spent on this stuff over the years. I have failed miserably – the buckwheat incident is most memorable. I have triumphed hugely – the amazing honeydew and muskmelon year, the ton of fingerling potato year, the incredible Asian greens year, and the five-foot tall basil year. There have been other defeats and other victories, like most determined gardeners, I don’t give up.

Who needs lettuce when there are Asian greens and chard? Row cover makes Summer-long harvest possible and keeps out most pests.

Who needs lettuce when there are Asian greens and chard? Row cover makes Summer-long harvest possible and keeps out most pests.

Even when the sheep break down the fence and eat twenty or so mature Thai Orange (HOT!!!) pepper plants absolutely loaded with ripe HOT!!! peppers. (You will be surprised to learn that I didn’t have to worm them for a while. That, at least, was a bright spot in that tragic episode.)

But mom! We were only thinking of you!

But mom! We were only thinking of you!

Even when every single tomato plant is plagued by blossom end rot.

Even when the entire crop of winter squash mysteriously turns to mush overnight.

Even when small burrowing creatures dig like enemy sappers and leave hollow places where sweet potatoes once grew.

Even when in one night, raccoons ruin every single ear of sweet corn – the ripe and unripe alike.

No, We don’t give up. Those incidents make us harder. We become clever, inventive and determined.

I've taken just about all the crap I'm gonna take, so look out, fool!

I’ve taken just about all the crap I’m gonna take, so look out, fool!

See this row cover and tremble, flea beetles! Look upon this crushed oyster shell and weep, blossom end rot! And squash bugs, you shall feel the wrath of the hungry sparrows who will feed upon you daily because I let them nest in the horse barn! Ha! And you succulent garden weeds, growing happily in that perfect composty garden soil, didn’t anybody ever tell you that you provide an excellent treat for chickens and goats, so there is great incentive to pull you out by the bucketload?

Some people find success with pesticides – organic and otherwise – but the stuff has not really ever worked for me, except on fruit trees. So I don’t even bother. It helps to have enough space to practice crop rotation, an endless supply of manure and no neighborhood regulations regarding the appearance of our property. Mylar strips and shiny silver Christmas tree garland, orange plastic baling twine, twisted old cattle panels and bungee cords aren’t exactly Martha Stewart garden hacks, but they work for me.

The most kickass scarecrow ever. Ganga kept the deer out of the yard for 2 years. He was exceedingly creepy and moved in indescribable ways in the slightest breeze.

The most kickass scarecrow ever. Ganga kept the deer out of the yard for 2 years. He was exceedingly creepy and moved in indescribable ways in the slightest breeze.

I realized that I didn’t bother to take pictures of my garden this year, and that’s a shame. It was nice. Not perfect, not without failures. Tomatoes planted a bit too late – most of them anyway. I got amazing tomatoes from seeds that were sprouting inside (yes, inside!) a grocery store tomato. Stellar mangle beet crop. Really good winter squash, and LOTS of them. Zucchini that kept producing until frost. Good sweetcorn plots. Potato surprise with leftover fingerlings. The okra sucked horribly, and the fennel rotted. I have a problem with planting too much in too small a space. My plans are bigger than my gardens, and when my gardens are big, taking care of them properly is impossible. Sigh. One can’t have everything. Not without loads of minions and loads of money, anyway…

Why grow mangle beets? Your goats love them, and people driving past your place will think your goats are eating flesh. A 25# beet is a scary thing!

Why grow mangle beets? Your goats love them, and people driving past your place will think your goats are eating flesh. A 25# beet is a scary thing!

No, you can’t have everything. But you can dream about it. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seedsavers Exchange, Territorial Seed Company, Burpee and so many more wondrous bedtime stories to read! So grab a cup of tea or hot chocolate or Irish coffee or a beer, even, cuddle up with a blanket and a cat, and all those catalogs/websites, and start planning for this Spring. No gardener wants to be caught seedless! Happy gardening dreams!!!

See the beautiful, well planned garden? The secret is to only take pictures when it looks good.

See the beautiful, well planned garden? The secret is to only take pictures when it looks good.

Yes, my gardens always look this good. Would I lie about something so important?

Yes, my gardens always look this good. Would I lie about something so important?

Link

two-ingredient goat cookies, a simple treat for goats, chickens or dogs

two-ingredient goat cookies, a simple treat for goats, chickens or dogs


Every year we grow a lot of winter squash. Usually butternut squash because it is resistant to vine borers and squash bugs. I always gave the cooked skins and seeds to our chickens and/or goats, and they gobbled them up. I started putting an extra “chicken and goat” squash in the oven any time I was baking or roasting something. Then I decided to make some less messy treats, and these cookies were the result. Remember that these are TREATS, I’m not saying they are anything else. These cookies are ridiculously easy, and depending on how you handle the ingredients, entirely edible by humans, as well as goats, horses, dogs and chickens. My barn cats even grabbed a few.

Since I posted a link to this article on some horse sites, I have received some feedback from horse people who said these cookie treats were “not a good idea” for horses. You can feed your horses as you believe correct, but I give these to my horses and they LOVE them. They enjoy them so much, we get the evil eye if they don’t get their cookie, and I feel perfectly fine about feeding them these treats. After all, there are only TWO ingredients, and both can be organic, as you choose to grow or purchase them. Here’s a link to a site regarding natural feeds for horses:
http://www.lavsage.com/articles/winter-feeding/

Ingredients:

1 or 2 butternut squash (you can use any winter squash or pumpkin, or even canned pumpkin, but fresh is better)

Whole grain flour (I use this excellent organic sunflower/millet/flax/wheat flour from Great River Organic Milling – purchased in 25# bags off Amazon, I get it for me, not for goats, but I share. You can add oatmeal, cornmeal, brown rice flour, dried apple, whatever!)

The dough should be sticky, but firm enough to be formed into balls. You can place them fairly close together on a greased cookie sheet as they do not spread during cooking.

The dough should be sticky, but firm enough to be formed into balls. You can place them fairly close together on a greased cookie sheet as they do not spread during cooking.

Instructions:

– Heat oven to 350F
– Wash the squash because you will be using the WHOLE thing. Stab the squash a few times to facilitate cooking and allow steam to escape.
– Place prepared squash in a roasting pan and roast the squash in preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until soft enough to be easily pierced with a fork. It should be easy to mash/smash/tear apart. Alternatively, you can cut the squash into chunks to roast it, or you can steam the squash, but roasting concentrates the natural sugars, no juice escapes into the steaming water, and the end result is naturally sweeter and tastier.
– When squash is cooked, remove stem if there is one, cut squash in several pieces and let it get cool enough to touch.
– When cool, slop the whole squash into a large bowl, skin, seeds and all, (unless you are making these for a dog, then you may want to leave out the seeds) and don’t forget the juice that seeped out of the squash during cooking – it is sweet!
– Add some flour. Start with half a cup, mixing into the squash, adding more flour until you have a dough that is slightly sticky, but can be formed into a squishy ball. There is no “correct” amount of flour to add, so you just have to wing it. The dough should have the texture of a classic “drop” cookie, not too stiff, not so sticky it can’t easily be formed into individual cookies.
– Drop by tablespoon or form tablespoons of dough into balls and place onto a greased cookie sheet. (coconut or palm oil is perfect) Flatten dough slightly with damp or oiled hands.
– Bake in a 350 F oven for 15 to 20 minutes. This temp. and time always works well for me and results in a cookie that holds together very well but is still soft, not crunchy, although there is nothing wrong with crunchy cookies, but you can buy loads of crunchy treats for your animals. Our goats/horses/dogs love the soft ones.
– Cool on a rack. Store in a bag or container. They will keep nicely for a week and extras can be refrigerated or frozen. I’ve never had problems with cookies going bad.

I have to be very careful when feeding these by hand because the goats try to take my fingers off!

I have to be very careful when feeding these by hand because the goats try to take my fingers off!

My goats LOVE these. LOVE. The soft cookie doesn’t crumble when they chew it so there is little waste. You can add any extra ingredients as long as the dough holds together. My chickens love them too, and so do my horses and dogs. I think they are ok, but I’d prefer a little brown sugar and cinnamon in them. But they are NOT for me. NOT. Hmmmm…

Maybe I’ll make another batch.

I WANT MY COOKIE!

I WANT MY COOKIE!

What’s up With Santa?

I’m not the nicest person, so I’ll just come out and say it: Why do (most) Christians lie to their children about “Santa”? Ever since I was a child, and came to understand that “Santa” was just an idea. not a real living being that visited our house via the chimney, I have wondered – and asked – how otherwise good parents could tell this lie. And it IS a lie. Children don’t understand that Santa isn’t real in the sense that they think of “real”. They don’t get it that Santa is part of the supposed “spirit” of (secular) Christmas. They certainly don’t expect the very people who tell them not to tell a lie… to tell a lie.

Bah, humbug?

Actually, yes, thank you, humbugs are a real type of candy, and I like candy.

Santa? Not so much.

Friends with children/grandchildren tell me things like “Santa makes Christmas fun for the kids” and “They are so excited on Christmas morning” and “It doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s so much fun!”

Well, yes, it is fun. It’s fun unless Santa doesn’t come down YOUR chimney. It’s fun unless you remain gullible for years longer than your peers – because parents don’t lie, because parents don’t want an older child to “ruin” Christmas for their younger siblings. It’s fun unless you’re forced to sit on an unhappy stranger’s lap for pictures and he isn’t the least bit interested in your Christmas wishes and you can tell he hates his job.

Maybe I was just an overly sensitive child. well, yes, I was an overly sensitive child. Department store Santas were, in my little mind, in the same category as circus clowns – nasty men in make-up who enjoyed scaring children while putting on a show of kindness-happiness-playfulness for the parents.

I remember seeing a news story about clothes and toy donations for needy children so that they could “have a visit from Santa, too.” I wondered why people would need to donate clothes and toys for the kids when Santa just brought those things to me and my friends. I wondered why my friend down the road only got a few things in a stocking “from Santa” when I had a stocking full and many boxed presents labeled “from Santa”. I wondered why another friend got very expensive presents. There seemed to be no equity or reason to how Santa dolled out the goods.

And no one ever got the threatened stocking full of coal.

But I do know a story of some children who did get coal on Christmas. My mom’s best childhood friend and her brother had done something rotten several days before Christmas – oh, this must have been around 1940 or so. When my mom excitedly ran up the road to show her friend the new doll Santa had given her, she found a house in mourning. Stocking full of coal were hanging from the mantel, and no presents were under the tree. Santa had been watching, and the naughty had felt his displeasure.

My mom was mortified. Even telling this tale many years later, it’s obvious how bad she felt that day. She cried along with her friend. She couldn’t understand why Santa had been so mean. She was ashamed of getting gifts when her friend got only coal.

That story does have a happier ending, though. Several days later, after what their parents deemed adequate penitence – or more likely when their parents couldn’t stand the morose pall any longer – the gifts appeared.

Ho ho ho.

Every year, people rush out for last minute gift-buying. People tussle over limited numbers of “hot” toys that their kids just have to have. Parents worry that they didn’t buy enough. Parents watch their kids enjoy the boxes more than the items they contained.

Santa doesn’t do any of this shit. The elf on the shelf is a silly little doll who sees and hears nada. And speaking of elves, there are no elves at the North Pole laboring away over their cheap plastic crap extruders. Reindeer do not fly pulling a magic sleigh. It’s all a lie.

Except for the Grinch. The Grinch is real. There are multiple Grinches, and I am one of them.

“It came without packages, boxes or bags…”

Christmas isn’t about Santa. It is about so much more, and I don’t just mean “the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ”. Christmas is as much a pagan celebration as a Christian holy day. We have passed the darkest days – now light begins to conquer darkness. Days become longer than nights. The promise of Spring is made. We see hope ahead. No wonder ancient people celebrated this time of year. Santa didn’t come into it at all – it seemed magical none the less.

I will never understand the logic behind the lie that is perpetuated in the guise of “fun”. If Santa is not real, how can Jesus be real? How can anyone who is worried about “taking the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas” work so hard at making him compete with Santa?

Bah, humbug. But think about it. In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Scrooge did not “find Santa”, he found the spirit of Christmas.

And there is no lie in that.

The Wrong Trash Service and other social blunders of Back-To-The-Land(ing)

It was a dream of mine, as a child and an adult, to have a “place in the country”. Not just a house on an acre, or five acres – but a REAL place, a barn, pasture, fields and woods made up of enough land to wander and get a good hike out of. You know, a Currier and Ives kind of setting down a Robert Frost divergent road-less-traveled. Lots of people have this vision, but most of us slam into obstacles and the dream becomes a mirage of a place we can never find. Things like money, a job, good schools, etc. and etc., can make “a place in the country” impossible. But usually, if a person is willing to work at it, make a few compromises, and have patience, it can be done. I know. We did it – twice. How we achieved this goal is really another story, but I need to relate a little bit of it…

Not being made of money or willing to borrow nearly as much as the banks and brokers said we could afford, finding a place that matched my ideal was impossible. Nice old farm house, but no land. Nice land, but no house. Shit house on shit property. Shit shit shit. One place we looked at had a gutter that ran from a hole in the roof, through the upstairs bedrooms, through the floor into the downstairs and out a hole in the wall. (I guess it was kind of the po’ redneck feng shui fountain.) Another place had great property and a nice big old house – but it was auctioned off two ways – as a whole and in parcels, and the parcels won. Another place had an overflowing open sewer right outside the back door. One place had water like tomato soup. Another was perfect but too far away. Another place was perfect, but a couple with children put in an offer at the same time we did, and guess who the sellers chose? Another place was very nice, but again, another buyer with children was chosen (it seems sellers loved the idea of someone else’s kids growing up in the country, not ever considering that I might someday have kids). It seemed all hope was lost. We either had to settle for a few acres or borrow a LOT more money than we considered prudent. (These were the days when lenders were basically throwing money at mortgage-seekers.) So we were out of luck.

But wait!

Our realtor friend happened across a property that had been on the market for over a year. Close to 100 acres, mostly hilly and wooded, not too far from highway access, but in a sparsely-populated low-tax county. So why had this gem been left unsnatched for so long??? Well, anyone – most anyone – who’s been here can answer that in a jiff. The house. I describe it to people needing directions as “An old white farm house that’s had bad things done to it”. That’s about all that one needs to know once they are on our county road. Poor old house. It’s like a wheezy, scabby, incontinent old cat that just wants a little love. People were living there, but it was just for show. They couldn’t wait to get out.

Ok, you may know someone who sits in an apartment or suburban home and dreams of living in the country, having a place to run the ATV, a big garden, some chickens, a horse. They say to themselves ‘I could rough it, fix up an old house, dig my own well, make goat cheese and craft beer and spin wool into gold!’ That person may be you. You many have even looked at this property or one like it, and for all your brave talk, decided to go back to your apartment and keep dreaming. Most people would, because if they can’t have the bouquet of roses, they won’t settle for the wilted wallflower. C’est la vie. (I do wonder how many “Dream Farms” were lost to foreclosure in the late 2000’s. It seems a lot of places went on the market at that time.)

No, I won’t bore you with the details of just how “bad” the house was. Is. Still. That’s not the point of this prose. First, let’s state that the sellers and their extended family expected us to let them continue to use the property as their own private hunting reserve with the bonus of not having to pay property taxes. Let’s also just say that everyone else – neighbors and our own families – expected us to fix it up into a showplace. Let’s just add that neither of those things happened. Much cursing and many threats were issued after we refused to allow a few dozen people to hunt here whenever they felt like it. And as for the fix-up… Oh, some stuff was done – furnace, wood burner, plumbing, electrical upgrades, chimney liners, metal roof, concrete garage floor. But mostly we built barns and fences and other animal-related projects. Yes, I’d rather have milk goats than a new front porch. Horses are more fun than a remodeled kitchen. And chickens mean more to me than an indoor toilet. I’d rather go hunting than shopping, and there are other people like me. “Normal” people tend to avoid us. Our houses creep them out. Our plucking a chicken for dinner frightens them. Our lack of big screen tv, prime internet service and I-Max around the corner becomes a dank swampy graveyard with the brain-starved undead clawing up through the muck. They run back to their nice homes, consider how blessed they truly are, thankful they escaped our poxy shacks without disease or injury. And in a way, we’re grateful they’re gone. We are resigned to the fact that people are uncomfortable when they visit. We’re aware that nieces and nephews won’t be coming to stay for a week or two in the summer. We just go about our business of living on our imperfect property, fulfilling our dream as closely as we can.

So what could possibly be the problem if we got what we wanted – close enough anyway – and we have accepted that friends and family are unlikely to visit?

Neighbors. We still have them.

Believe it or not, I didn’t move to a rural place so I could maintain a perfect lawn. There is no ordinance regarding lawn grass. My lawn is nowhere near a neighbor’s lawn. If I don’t cut the grass every week, it does not hurt them or decrease the value of their property.

But it does vex some of them.

House paint. This house isn’t an eyesore, not really. And if it was, again, there is no ordinance regarding paint. But our house does have nasty old fiber board siding over the original wood siding. The nasty old fiber board is no longer in the mood to stay painted. It’s like an old person with dementia who has decided to throw off the conventions of society and walk around naked. It does not care anymore what anyone thinks. Besides, no matter what we painted it with, it would peel, chip and flake off in less than a year. Why not just have new siding put on??? A four-letter word. Cost. And there are other reasons. But our old siding is nowhere near a neighbor’s house.

But it apparently causes them stomach problems.

Cats. Specifically, outdoor cats. They are not “feral”, nor do they breed up a storm of kittens. We have barns. They are barn cats. We feed them plenty. They kill mice, rats, voles and chipmunks. Occasionally a sparrow or starling, but rarely. Somehow, those cats make us “strange”. Cats are “filthy” – or so I’ve heard. Never mind that we have those cats because nice people drove up, opened the door of their vehicle and dumped them out. One of those people was a neighbor and her friend, who, when confronted, tried to make me believe those kittens were ours. Fat chance of that when the kittens were calico and our cats are all solid black and none had been pregnant. Well, I did take a class in genetics and had sex ed in middle school, so I’m pretty confident in my assessment of those kittens.

My cats DO NOT kill full-grown chickens. I have never seen a cat kill a chicken. I am sure that somewhere, a cat has killed a chicken. A cat would probably kill a baby chicken. But not my cats. My cats are very wary of chickens, even baby chicks, because those chicks come with mother hens, and those hens will rain down Hell upon anything that threatens their babies. Our chickens will take the cats’ food. Even our smallest hen can bully our largest tom cat away from his food. So I am totally confident when I say that my cats did not go after a neighbor’s chickens. Not unless they have a convincing fox costume. If they do, I’m a YouTube millionaire, and I will buy all the replacement hens anyone could want after I get the video of my cat getting into that costume by itself. Righto.

No, my cats aren’t evil. But they do make me an irresponsible person for allowing them to roam outside, and since they look like tiny black panthers, they strike terror in the hearts of all chicken owners. Plus, they are bad luck and witchy-ish.

Which brings me to the trash service. The WRONG trash service. Most people don’t understand our trash service “problem”, because in most places, there is one trash removal service, and you either pay them, or you find your own way to dispose of your disposables, and good luck with that in the suburbs. We rubes may not have three shopping malls, three organic grocery stores, three movie theaters or three museums, but we damn well have three trash removal services to choose from.

And damned if I didn’t pick the wrong one.

I like our trash removal service. I like the guys who drive the truck and pick up the trash, I like the people who I’ve talked to at the main office. I liked the people that delivered the dumpsters we rented both times we needed them, and how careful they were dropping them off and picking them up. I had no idea my choice was causing awful consternation for some of my neighbors….

I do not have the big, roll-down-the-driveway, neat and tidy looking, trash-service-provided trash can – the kind the truck can automatically dump and that coyotes and raccoons can not (usually) get into. (We have no bears here. Bears would probably roll the whole thing off into the woods as neatly as a person rolls it down the driveway.) We mostly put our trash out in feed sacks. We can put out as much trash as we want (within reason) – not just what fits in one container. (Note: We almost never have more than 1 -2 bags, and honestly, a lot of it is cat poo from the indoor cats.) We don’t put out the trash until the morning when it’s going to be picked up. No critters get into it and no one has to look at those horrible feed sacks sitting by our driveway for very long.

But they do have to look at our makeshift trash bags, apparently causing migraines and cataracts. However, that’s not what really gets them.

Our trash removal service truck backs onto a gravel road to turn around and “might damage the road”. Once there was a lot of ice and the truck slid and had to be towed. NONE OF THIS WOULD HAPPEN IF I USED A DIFFERENT TRASH REMOVAL SERVICE! Global warming would probably stop, too.

This stuff actually bothers people on a road where there is a quarter mile or more between most driveways. I can not imagine what these folks would be like in a gated community. There would be measurements made of lawn grass, reports made of weeds in driveways, committees appointed to determine appropriate exterior home modifications and outbuilding appearance. Laws would be in place to make outdoor cats illegal. Only approved dog breeds would be allowed. Clothes must be clean and free of tears or patches. Autumn leaves must be removed with a leaf blower, not manually raked. Houses must have air conditioning systems and ice makers in the refrigerators. Well, it would probably be worse than that, but I’ll never know, because I’d never live in such a place.

I never thought people would look at our chicken house and determine we were slobs. It never occurred to me to spend all our time and money turning our house into someone else’s idea of “nice” instead of building barns and having goats and sheep and horses. And when I suggest to someone who complains about having to mow their 10 acres of pasture a couple times each month, that instead of treating pasture like lawn, they could put up some fence and raise their own beef, why, I am “telling them how to live”. Huh.

Now, I am a social loser/failure/misfit, I am an octagon in a world of triangles, an ostrich egg set among tulips. I realize how I see things isn’t the way most other people would see them. I guess if someone wants to live with the creed “I Will Have Perfection Or Nothing”, that’s their business. I don’t fall under their jurisdiction, and I’m glad. But I also fall outside of their circle of social acceptance. There is no hope of old-fashioned country neighborly interaction. People roll their eyes and shake their heads when they see us using the horses to haul wood, tapping maple trees, or cutting tall grass with a scythe.

I’m not interested in making them happy. That’s not why we moved here. We moved here to make us happy. We don’t harm anyone by not painting our house.
We just have different ideas of what is important in life, and my mom used to say “If everyone was the same, just think how boring life would be!”

And mom was always right.

Only Bad People Hunt: The Real Problem Behind the Omnivore vs. Vegan Debate

If you eat meat, I’m sure you’ve heard it – the angry rustle of the vegan forest, accusing you of barbarity, cruelty, unnecessary and inhuman behavior. If you’re a vegetarian, or more specifically, a vegan, you’ve heard it too – the angry growling of the meat-eating masses, accusing you of wimpery, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, bleeding-heart liberality and desire to force your lifestyle choices on others. You’re all fools.

I write this as I sit here in my rural farmhouse, dressed for hunting turkey, a box of 20 ga. shells by my computer. I write this as I think about the squirrel I shot the other day, how bright and black her eyes were even as I picked up her small, warm body from the snow. I write this as I remember the Brunswick stew I made with the squirrel – a wonderful old-fashioned dish you just can’t believe until you’ve tasted, and you can’t even come close to the taste without the squirrel. I write this as I remember my grandfather, standing in the winter woods somewhere around Tionesta, PA, cursing the ineptitude of the idiot who butt-shot a beautiful 8-pt buck and left it to die slowly and painfully because the idiot was too ignorant to wait for a clean shot and too lazy to track the badly wounded deer. I write this as I remember my grandfather shoot the head off a rabbit with a .22 pistol about 30 feet away off to his left side and he wasn’t even looking at it. I write this as I remember my grandmother angrily recounting how someone she knew cut the breasts off of the quail they shot and threw the rest away because the small birds were “too hard to pluck”. I write this as I remember the deer that have come close enough to touch, the great horned owls, the raccoons, the woodpeckers, the porcupines, the foxes, the hawks and eagles and turkeys and grouse and woodcock and songbirds I have seen when I’ve been alone in the woods. I write this remembering my father teaching me how to bait a hook and cast a rod, how to clean and pan-fry bluegills and catfish. I write this as I recall many, many meatless meals we’ve had, a lot of those entirely from our own garden and orchard. I also know that despite loving roasted butternut squash, fresh pesto, corn salsa, eggplant and zucchini and all the other great vegetable stuff, I like meat too much to give it up. And I am willing to kill for it.

If you are against harming animals, you might be cursing me and might even send me hate mail and threats. Go to it, if that’s all you’re capable of. Most vegans (assumption as to ‘vegan’, more on that later) are not like that, though. And if you’re a certain type of hunter, you may get upset when I tell you that I am entirely against “trophy hunting”, “canned hunting” and hunting on stocked game preserves. I’m also against fur farms and most of the current factory farming methods. Most hunters would either say “that’s ok” or “I entirely agree”. The small percentage who believe they should be able to pay to blast away at a captive-raised cougar or think shooting quail released from cages in the brush is fun, or who use doves and crows for target practice or who ‘only shoot the biggest and best’- well, they probably have some choice things to say to me. They can just stuff it like bad taxidermy.

I hear some vegans applauding. Less people eating meat is good, yes it is! Some of you are pretty proud of “eating nothing that has a face” and eating no animal products like dairy and eggs. And so, because you eat no animals, maybe you wear no leather or wool or are against domestic animals entirely, you think you harm no animals. Oh, so sorry to step on that delusion. Do you wear anything made of petroleum based materials? Have any plastic? Do you heat your home with electricity? With propane? With natural gas? With hydropower? With wood? Do you live in a housing development that was once farmland that was once forest? Do you fly anywhere? Drive a car? Do you use any palm oil? Are you sure none of your purchases have a connection to slash’n’burn or other environmentally devastating practices? Do you have a dog or cat? Are you feeding that carnivore pet a vegan pet food manufactured and sold by a pet food company with their “assurances” that it is a complete diet? Do you use a sewer system? Do you eat anything grown with non-organic methods, and/or with irrigation water taken from a disappearing river or aquifer? Do you eat crops fertilized with manure (composted or fresh) from livestock animals? I could go on for a long time. You may still say “But how am I responsible for harming animals if I don’t eat them?” or “Well, I’m not EATING animals, and that’s the point!” Really? Well wake up. You may not be eating animals, but you are probably oblivious to all the ways your lifestyle is still harming them. Yes, you harm animals. We all do. Most of us are just not aware of it. Those “vegan leather” shoes you’re so proud of? Chances are they’re petroleum-based. Got coal-based electric? Ever see what coal mining does to the area where it’s mined? Get off your high horse, you look foolish up there. We all look dumb up there.

So who is right? What is the answer?

Most people who hunt have loads of stories to tell about the animals they didn’t kill. Most people who hunt will speak of the animals they kill with appreciation, respect and admiration. Most hunters have wonderful recipes for their game, and little is wasted. There’s nothing wrong with most hunting, but there is something wrong with being nasty to people who don’t share your passion, assuming they are “Obama-loving liberals” (?) or liberal wimps or pussies or cowards who don’t support our veterans, want to take away your guns and are unpatriotic moochers sucking away your hard-earned money via taxes to pay for abortions. Oh yes, I’ve read these comments – and much worse – in the comments section of various blogs, articles and facebook posts somehow related to this debate.

Most people who don’t eat meat aren’t militant haters, and they are living their chosen lifestyle, and they aren’t eating factory-farmed animals, so they get off the hook with me on that point. There’s nothing wrong with being a vegan, but there is something wrong with telling people who don’t share your views that you hope they die horribly, that they are monsters, that they only hunt because they are “too retarded to have a job and buy their food”, that they are evil or that you want to kill them. Etc. Yes, I’ve read all that too, and worse.

The real problem are the people in the middle, the great big bulk of the population – the meat eaters who think chicken is just a kind of meat, and that meat comes from the store in a nice package. If they can conceptualize the chicken as a living, breathing animal, maybe they think the chicken lived on a story book farm with a grassy barnyard and a big red barn and a smiling man in overalls sitting on a tractor.

Maybe they think the chicken was gently euthanized. Maybe they think the chicken committed suicide.

In reality, they don’t know, they don’t want to know, they don’t care. They eat meat, but have no connection to it. In a way, they are the clueless drivers of the factory farm industry. The farmers are simply raising the animals in the cheapest, most efficient way possible because that’s what our culture demands – cheap, plentiful meat, milk and eggs – without any real thought about how those products are produced. Thoughtless omnivores, you don’t deserve cheap, plentiful meat, milk and eggs. You don’t deserve expensive variations of it, either. Oh, wah! You want animal products on your table? Raise your own steer or lamb or pig or chicken, then kill and butcher it. Or if you live in town, visit a factory farm and then a slaughterhouse, and if you’re ok with that, well… kill and butcher an animal yourself. Know what eating meat means. Look at the creature and know you are taking its life away so you can have meat on your plate. That’s right. YOU swing the hatchet. YOU pull the trigger. If you can’t do it, not even once, you shouldn’t be eating meat, not even if you’re wealthy enough to buy Texas. You don’t deserve it. If that standard was applied, a lot of Americans would be on a vegetable diet. A lot of Americans would stop throwing away leftover turkey or pork chops or meatloaf or ham salad if they personally had to kill an animal in order to have those things in the first place.

I’m sure the ugliness will continue between the pro-hunters and the anti-hunters. I’m sure thoughtless omnivores will continue to eat chicken nuggets. But some people understand…

Years ago, a woman I worked with bought a rooster from me. She was from Nigeria, had come to the US as an adult. Her children were born here and had a typical upper middle class life – Dad a doctor, mom an accountant, private schools, etc. She bought a rooster from me because she wanted her children to understand the culture she had come from, how she had grown up – if you wanted to eat chicken, you went to the market, bought a live chicken, killed and dressed it yourself. She wanted her children to understand that the chicken was not just a package of skinless, boneless breasts from the supermarket, that it was a real living thing, and if they wanted to eat chicken, or other meat, they had to understand what it meant.

Here’s the take-away from this: Every time you eat meat, think. Think about the life that steer or chicken or pig had – did it ever see the sky? Did it stand in the sunshine? Was it born into this world and never set foot on the earth? Was it denied the ability to turn around, or run or flap its wings or nurse from its mother?

Hunt, don’t hunt, be vegan or not – but don’t be a thoughtless omnivore.

Now The Spammers And Scammers Come Calling

Since I started this pitiful blog, I have received attention. Thanks for that. It probably happens to everyone who goes a little bit public on the internet – the predators pop out of the slime and drool over the prospect of new meat while they set their tired traps. I’ve been tracked and hassled by phishers, by “nice” folks wanting to offer me their services such as software that will write articles for me – because I must spend a lot of time writing, why not make my life easier??? Why not, indeedie!

Thanks for the threatening phone calls from “Unavailable”. You idiots! I was getting nasty phone calls before people were allowed to own their phones, from people who would actually try to corner me in the locker room and beat me up. Fuck you all, you morons. Like an IT department for Microsoft would tolerate such awful phone systems or incompetent employees? Like I believe you’re stuck in another country and a friend of a friend had sent you $500 and suggested I might be able to wire you the other $500 so you could get your passport and other belongings back so you could come home? Like I WANT followers on Twitter who just want me to buy stuff from them??? UNFOLLOW ME NOW, because no, I’m not interested in your stupid offers, and I bet very few people are. I’m tired of you, and a lot of other people are, too.

AND –

No, I’m not paying $50 for any amount of followers. No, I’m also not reviewing a book unless I can truthfully say something good about it. Stop asking. Grow up.

Yeah, I’ll probably get hassled more. I’m polite. I pretend I don’t understand. And I don’t, not really. I don’t understand why anyone would think I would fall for this stuff.

I HAVE AN OFFER OF MY OWN! I charge money to critique manuscripts. You’ll find my advice helpful. Get in touch for specifics. Hard copies only, no exceptions, that’s why they make printers – communication thru email, etc.

When All The Sky Is Darkened – half a tale is told

“Do you think they ever missed me?”
The fuzzy-faced sprite looked down at his toes. “Yes, my liege. Surely they did.” His tiny voice quavered, and he hoped the Queen didn’t notice. She was depending on him to be strong, but the field of neatly-kept stone sentinels distressed him. How awful, to secret an ancestor’s bones from the life-giving sun! At any moment the angry ghosts would appear and demand sacrifice.
And who is the practical choice, Petty Tom?
He clutched the fur over his pit-pattering heart. Purrdrowl! Ancient ones save me…
The Queen had no such concerns, and she wandered like a sleepwalker through the stones, her mayfly-wing cloak dancing on the timid breath of new summer. Petty Tom felt a pang of pride-tinged misery as he watched her. The mayfly wings he’d gathered himself, stitched them on a webwork of black widow silk, reinforced the whole with soft sighs of true love. But it was a garment not meant for this world, with its noise and stink and ignorant eyes. Even the sacred ground they stood on now was not protected from the profane! Again, he shuddered. The unnaturally thick grass reeked of chemicals. And just beyond the secreting hedge of hemlock and yew, gartered ’round by the high iron fence, hundreds of hard-carapaced vehicles droned by, spewing their corrosive death-breath.
Maybe that is why the ancestors here are put beneath the dirt, so they will not see and smell what this world truly is… Damn depressing. Now how much longer are we scheduled?
He reached inside his mooncalf-skin breeches, fished around. Needles. Waxwings. Pots’n’pans. Emergency fire. Purrhum! Time!
The time-keeper was all cut crystal and gold, although a little smeared from riding under his waterworks. It was as big as his palm, as small as it could get without compromising functions. Three horizontal dials and one vertical, another one on Sun’s Axis. He polished away the smudges, peered closely. There was only time left on the Fleet-As-Sparrow dial. He looked up for the Queen, to warn her, only three sparrows till Nevermorn, three sparrows, Majesty – but the words never left his throat. Only a silver cry of horror.
This unmagical world had a slinking magic of its own, one his senses were not accustomed to, and it had slunk right up and affronted the Queen. In what other place would so regal and lovely a girl be so brutally considered? For surrounding his Queen were a half-dozen common scoundrels, their thoughts ill with lust. One of them lifted her gossamer cloak, the others made rude, appreciative sounds. The cloak was, after all, the only thing Her Majesty wore.
Petty Tom cursed himself and the silly fear that had allowed his Queen to walk alone, out of the protection of his magic. Now the beasts were pawing her, starting sport that could only end one way.
Purrdrowl! And they weren’t even princes! That would at least have been acceptable. Commoners, mere commoners, raping a Queen! In his world there were laws, dreadful laws, to prevent such depravity. Magic to make any fiend cower content with fantasy. Even a rapist prince would awake to find his genitals in knots and spend small fortunes on counter-spells to make himself right.
Purrdrowl! What could he do? There were laws in this world too, and the Queen, being of this world, was subject to them. Her magic was forbidden here, had been left in her keep, locked in a unicorn ivory box guarded by a basilisk of her own design. Of necessity, he had brought his magic, which was formidable by spritely standards. He possessed Hanging Death and Stropped-By-Tree-Limbs, Hawthorn Impalement and Briar Garrote, but there were no trees or briars close enough. And there were the Rules of Braggory and Display. “Dare not thy crow-black magic do, in ignorant worlds or without fair forewarning, ‘lest the darkest power strike at you, and mark you out for vengeful harming…” Something like that, anyway. Half in panic, he sifted through his other magic. All sprites have lots of petty trouble-magic. Candle-In-The-Pants, Stone Shoes, Hair-of-Gold (most troublesome, as other, less alchemisticly talented folks were constantly creeping up on the victim from behind, with cudgel and scissors), Bed-Be-Wet, Gorgon-In-Mirror, Tail Mange…
Use of those magics would probably go unnoticed by Braggory and Display, but what good would they do the Queen? Purrdrowl! One of the ruffians was already on top of her, flashing his bare buttocks shamelessly to the sun. If she called out, cried or screamed, Petty Tom reasoned, he would find a way to do something, even if it meant his life. His appearance alone might cause them to flee. But the awful buttocks rose and fell, rose and fell, and the Queen didn’t fight, remained silent. Could it be that she wanted the hoodlum? If not, why didn’t she scream? Perhaps this was an assignation she had planned? Maybe she was waiting for him to save her, testing his loyalty! Or maybe she was doing this to test his ability to obey the Rules! His mind spun with possibilities, and he remembered something else. He checked the time-keeper.
Oh Ancient Ones! Less than one sparrow!
“MAJESTY!”
The ruffians looked up from their prize, all but the one who moaned over her. A large cat-kind-of-thing in stiff, spotted hide breeches ran toward them on its hind legs, waving a glittering orb and yowling. The stupid lust drained from their faces, replaced by confusion, apprehension.
One of them pulled a shiny 9mm from the top of his pants, aimed, but didn’t fire. Instead, he looked at the ground. Hands had sprouted through the thick, too-green grass, hands and arms diaphanous as Her Majesty’s cloak, grasping for the living with angry strength. Two of the villains went down, spasmed on the sod as their necks were heartily snapped. A third managed a few steps before the hands tripped him, pulled him face first into the smothering earth. The last two ran, screaming high as infants, and disappeared through the hedge. But Petty Tom ignored these things. Trivial, insignificant! Nevermorn was coming! Nevermorn was almost on them! He leapt over the twitching bodies half-sunk in the chemical-fed ground, over the ghostly hands extracting bloody revenge, squeezing flesh and blood and marrow-bone to shapeless pulp. No time to think where that magic had come from, or why. He leapt, feeling the shield of his innate magic billow around him, spinning the spell to call him home.
Nevermorn! Let it dawn and you never go home.
The last sparrow struck.
Nevermorn! Wake there and…
Petty Tom landed on the rapist’s back, dug in with all his claws. He saw the Queen smiling up at him over her defiler’s shoulder, her hair like a pool of blood beneath her head. And then the magic worked.
***
“Her Glory could have procured a toy in the usual way. This… this… situation” Archchancellor Vem Vaddoc paused for emphasis as he regarded the formal assembly, “will only cause trouble.”
Some of the younger chancellors and knights rolled their eyes, all dug impatient fingernails into their carved armrests. Old Vem was such a dotard! The young human man locked in the tower of Queen’s Second Keep was hardly a toy. It did not amuse the Queen to keep him. She took no pleasure from his captivity. He was just there. They doubted she ever even looked at him. If she toyed with anyone, they would have known. They had long been in line to be toys themselves.
“Her Majesty’s otherworld visit to her ancestral tombs was ill-advised, as was her choice of… companions.” the Acrhchancellor’s lip curled back from the last word, as if he found it particularly vile. “Everyone knows how cowardly sprites are!”
Under the long, burled-holly table, Petty Tom watched Vem’s fancy pointy boots pace and bristled at the insult, but he dared do no more. Queen’s Favorite he may be, but he was still just Petty Tom, Bastard son of Petty Po Small the Dairymaid. But wouldn’t it pique all those highborn sprite-snubbers to know just what went on in the Queen’s Private Chamber?
Someone rapped the table thrice for attention.
“A word, Grace, if I may.” Osander ne Willow, Knight of Dim River and of the Queen’s Keeps, Champion to Her Majesty. The perfect melange of diplomat and warrior, he often begged pardon for his superior skills before running his enemies through, and they always pardoned him. “Sprite or no, I believe our little Tom displayed untenable courage and good sense in the face of terrible circumstance. I would be proud to have him at my side in similar situation. So, might I suggest that we refrain from insults and move on to the long-ignored business at hand?”
Long-ignored, indeed! Petty Tom smiled smugly and consulted his time-keeper. The Confluence of Unassignable Magicks was a serious topic, and Vem Vaddoc had avoided it for a full turn of the Crow.
“It has long been considered fact that the Queen found her Otherworld existence intolerable and called for Removal, even as a child. We have performed such services before, where there has been mutual benefit. Humans are easily bewitched, and make excellent slaves.” Vem was taking a circuitous route they’d all heard before. Not-so-well stifled groans rose from the assembly, magnified in the high, echoey chamber, along with some blatant expressions of “You’re joking!” and “Well, I never imagined that!”
Vem ignored them. “Some humans prove more useful. Our Beloved and Estimable Queen is one such person. Her wisdom led us out of thrall to the discordant Western Alliance, and enabled us to live free for the first time in the close thousand years. Who assembled here does not remember the Dark Times? Who here did not witness a relative impaled on the Thorn Road?”
Black Lily Pike, the Lady Knight sitting just above Petty Tom, elbowed the chancellor next to her and whispered theatrically “Who here has not almost pissed themselves waiting for Vaddoc to get to the damn point?” The chancellor, Brig Tawny of Swanfeather Loch, snorted laughter, had to cover by pretending a fit of coughing. He and Lily had both watched their mothers die on Thorn Road, and didn’t want to think about it ever again.
Vem heard the insult, turned on an emerald-studded heel. “Woe the disrespectful!” he wailed. “Woe their misguided, ignorant laughter!”
“Whoa his stumbling war-nag, so that the ill-seated rider might fall off!” Black Lily shouted, and with a clang of scabbard to fine plate-mail, stood so suddenly her massive carved chair overturned behind her. “I mean ALL disrespect to YOU, Vem Vaddoc! I do NOT NEED child’s tutelage in history!”
As fists pounded, and shouts rounded the table, a bevy of spritish servants scurried in with trays of lavender mead and sugared wine. Osander ne Willow’s doing, Petty Tom thought excitedly, picking a louse from his ankle and flicking it away. This was turning fun. He could hardly wait to tell the Queen. How she’d laugh when he imitated Vem and Lily! She delighted in tales of how the others behaved out of her presence…
The clank of tankards and wine-cups being set on the table reminded him of something else, a duty he had promised.
The Queen’s Rapist must be fed.
***

Petty Tom laid on the cool flagstones, peeping under the iron door. The human man crouched on his pile of sleeping straw, eating the last of the black-speckled frog-egg pie. Devil’s marks were tattooed on his arms and chest, a crucified dragon of sorts covered his back, along with twelve triangular claw-holes. His skin was of a swarthy hue, not unknown in the Realm, but he seemed dirty somehow. No. Not dirty or sooty or grimy or slimy, Petty Tom thought. His hair needs washing, but that isn’t the problem. Crying, he’s been, eyes swollen like that. But… it’s as if a storm-cloud sticks to his skin. A dulling. A tarnish…
Every now and then, the man snuffled and sneezed, rubbed his nose. Then he looked right at the place where Petty Tom crouched, as if he could see more than a shadow, and tossed a bit of crust under the door.
“For you, gato. I am glad you come. This place got nothing familiar. Maybe I got sent upstate?”
Petty Tom said nothing. The tarnished man (a half-grown boy, really) didn’t expect him to. It was kind of disappointing, the way this man stayed fairly calm. As if he’d seen it all before. As if a stone and iron cell with a bucket for shit and frog-egg pie to eat and straw to sleep on was normal where he came from.
Petty Tom knew it wasn’t. He’d seen human people go crazy from less. The man had wept, but had kept the tears private.
Maybe I should talk to him, open the speak-easy, let him see my face. Maybe I should give him Candle-In-The-Pants… Deliberating, he sniffed the crust, all buttery-flaky, gobbled it down. No. The Queen, for private reason, did not want the man tormented on her behalf.
“I want him strong, my Tom-sweet, not bewitched,” she’d said when they’d come home. “There is breaking to do, and it will come by my hand. But for now, I want all his wits about him. He must accept what is happening. Time enough there’ll be to test his nerve.” What her full meaning was, he didn’t know, but he would do as she asked. Candle-In-The-Pants would be more fun on Jack Solemn-Robin. Petty Tom giggled out loud thinking of Jack’s long, pouty beak clacking as his wing-arms flapped smoke signals from the butt of his oversized teasel-fluff drawers. Hmmm. Time wastes! Other things need doing! He stood to go.
“Hey! Wait!” There was a sound of hands and knees on stone as the tarnished man scuffled to the door. “Stay with me, gato, I… I… ACHOO!” he sneezed, snuffled back the snot. “I don’t understand this place. No one comes but you and whoever puts pies under the door. No one comes to ask me questions, so I ask myself.
Why? That pretty girl. I keep thinking. Why did I do that? I don’t know why. I done many bad things, gato, but never… that.” the man snuffled again, and when he spoke, his voice bled with tears. “It was like… I got possessed. Like… a devil was pushing through my skin. I got a sister, gato. A mother, too. I keep seeing their faces on her…”
Purrhrrmm! Regret won’t stop the arrow, will it? Petty Tom dug in his pants for the time-keeper. He’d listened to foolery quite long enough. Six sparrows until the Queen expected him. He had to run.
***

“How fares our captive, my pretty Tom?”
Petty Tom laid on the Queen’s couch, his head on her lap. Her fingers tweedled the curl of hair behind his ear in a way that made his eyes go cross. He smacked his nose to set his senses straight.
Prrum. The prisoner eats and sleeps, Majesty, but attempts no escape. Captivity he questions not. He stews with inner torment for his crimes.” Petty Tom rolled over and gazed up upon his Queen. “What execution have you planned? If I may offer a suggestion, a good Drawing on Spire Rock followed by the Long-Gnaw Pixie Death would do much to re-establish relations with the Grimghast Redcaps. The general populace would also be pleased.” He flexed a fist of claws as he looked to the bruises on her tender arms, marks made by the otherworld devil himself. “I should like to see his spirit be forced to stay inside his grisled corpse in a cage outside the castle gate. I should like to taste his life for what he did, for what I allowed!”
The Queen just giggled and tickled Petty Tom’s furry belly so he squirmed with squint-eyed delight. “Oh, no, my little love, I did not take all that trouble merely to leak out his life! I care naught for the politics of Grimghasts. My brave little Tom, you were most perfect that day. You allowed nothing that I did not sanction.”
Petty Tom stopped squirming. His eyes went full round. “Sanctioned, my Queen? You… he… your… purrhumph! deflowering sanctioned?”
“There was only one way to bring him back unannounced, Tom. Only one way your magic would carry him.” Garnet-red hair slid to hide her bruised shoulder. “He had to be joined to one of us, and I preferred that one to be me.” She smiled at him, merriment lively on her lovely lips. “It was crude and cheap, but far easier to accomplish than any spell that would have coupled you and him.”
Petty Tom gulped. Ug! And oh! So many implications! What had the Queen done? And why? Was Vem Vaddoc right? Was the otherworld man merely a Queen’s Toy, procured at great price to the stability of the Magick Writ of the Realm?
“Your Majesty speaks of spells that were done,” he squeaked. “But your magic was left behind, locked in the Keep! Your magic cannot go with you to your original world!”
“The spell rode on my cloak, Petty Tom, tied to the sighs of True Love. When he lifted my cloak, the magic possessed him. I am glad he lasted long enough to be the one we carried back. He was the one I truely sought, and had he finished sooner, another would be here in his stead. And that would be tragic, for in the others I sensed an inate… stupidity. This one, had he been born here, would be a Knight to rival ne Willow or Pike. But had he been born here, he would not be able to accomplish what it is I must ask.” She yawned against the back of her hand, ending the discourse. “Time for bed, Tom-sweet. Shall I summon the sweetgrass nymph for you again? You cause her to sigh so prettily…”
***

A night spent in the arms and lips of a nymph can spin a magic of its own, and Petty Tom hummed as he smoothed out the fur on his stump of a tail. He’d smell of sweetgrass all day, and all he passed, from Knight to chambermaid, would wonder. Bastard Petty Tom, wetting his works with the prettiest nymphs! Ugly sprite! Queen’s Favorite!
Hoodie-hoo to all of them. Soon there’d be fuzzy nymphs born in Moonwash Glade, and no denying he’d do for them, not like his father. Proud he’d be, and Queen’s Favorites all of them!
The Queen! He consulted his time-piece. A seventh part of the Crow to go. On with the mooncalf pants and out the door!
The Queen requested he meet her in the Second Keep tower, and he sauntered to the appointment, passing as many people as he could, giving them time to smell the sweetgrass. Purrhurrum! He turned heads this bright newmorn, indeed! Jealous glares, stares of wonder.
“Vex not yourself, Jimmie Birchwood!” He smugged to the gape-gobbed pewter-smith. “There are plenty of toadies in Burklemuck Pond wanting kissed! I’ve a Waxwing that can fetch you one!”
Outside the Keep, Black Lily Pike bent down to sniff his head. “One from the Glade, Petty Tom?” She winked. “Be a good man by her. She comes of fine stock.”
His chest puffed with pride as he climbed the tower stairs. Good Man. Fine Stock. Queen’s Favorite’s, all!
Her Majesty appeared just as he stopped at the prison door, come her own secret way by Mist and Rose-Dew. She wore an amethyst and gossamer chiton under the Mayfly-wing cloak this time, he was glad to see. The tarnished rogue could certianly not harm her, but the thought of even his stained black eyes upon her tender body! GrrrPurrdrowl!
“Fine newmorn, sweet Tom,” she greeted, her words far more cheerful than her countenance. She gave him not a chance to ask what was wrong, but turned to the stout door, and with a wave of her hand and some small lip gesture, the iron disappeared. Across the cell, the man seemed to sleep, his tarnished, dragon-etched back to them. But as he watched, Petty Tom could see the man trembled, could hear stifled sobs.
The Queen had no fear, entered boldly. Petty Tom scurried to follow. “We are not visible to him, Tom-dearest,” she said, “not yet. Sleep failed me last night, so I took to my courtyard. New developments I saw there in the tea-leaves and stars that necessitated aggression on my part. I sent him a special present, and now he wallows even more deeply in distress for his perceived crime. I tell you, Tom, discomfort I feel at the darkness of my deeds, but he must always believe his actions were his own. He must feel such unmercied regret he will willingly do the task I must set.”
“Task, Majesty? But you have Knights and Chancellors a-plenty, and a full realm of subjects that will do or die upon your word! What can this unmagicked otherworlder possibly do?”
The Queen bent over her captive, traced soft fingers over his devil-marked arm as if it were treasure. “He can steal without magic, Tom,” she whispered. “He can burgle by wit alone. He carries no tinge of power to alert those he must take from. He is the Realm’s Perfect Champion in this Cause.”
What news was this? “A Cause, my Queen? Has ne Willow been alerted? Vaddoc consulted?” An ass Vaddoc may be, but he was a wise package to have once the Queen properly clipped his pompous strings.
Before she could answer, an unsettling wail of misery leaked from the man, trailed by an odd-sounding litany. Petty Tom growled. Was this some otherworld magic?
“His forgotten faith, my sweet Tom, that is all,” the Queen soothed. “He calls to its martyrs and virgins to ease his torment. But they will not. He begs forgiveness from his mother and sister, but they only know he is dead, and weep for his wasted life.”
A funny feeling left a sudden sting in Petty Tom’s chest, a sting he would not have noticed before last night, when Frondlark had whispered to him of the four fuzzy egglings. Theirs. His and hers. What would it be like if one of those egglings hatched dead? What if one of his tenderlets turned to Devil’s-Work, disappeared into dread Nevermorn? How would that sit on his Frondlark’s heart?
“Is his world lost to him, Majesty? Family too? Can he not go back?”
“All lost. He cannot ever go back. And soon, he will not want to. He will find me a kinder Master than Remorse and Regret, the rewards I offer far more fulfilling than any of his world. Now watch. I will allow him to see us.” She stood back from the man, spat onto her palm, clapped her hands twice.
The man jerked around. Straw stuck in his longish black hair and to his skin. His face seemed pale and sickly despite his swarthy hue. A small, gilt-edged looking glass was stuck to his right hand, and it angled automatically to give him best view of himself. He gave a little cry and stuck the offending hand down his pants.
Then he saw Petty Tom and the Queen. His mouth worked as he stared at them, but not too well.
“Dios…” was all he could manage. “Oh, Dios…” And then he could not look at them, or more specifically, at the Queen.
“Foolish man thou art,” the Queen frowned, wiping her hands on the chiton. “If it pleased me, I would gut you right here, leave you flop like a damselfish on this flagstone. Or perhaps use a spell that creeps hedgehogs into your stomach whenever you sleep. Or I could let my Knights have sport with you.”
Purrdurrum!” Petty Tom exclaimed in surprise. The last victim of Knightish sport had been kept breathing to suffer forty-five newmorns before being hided alive. Black Lily’s favorite bustier was made of that hide, and sometimes still screamed. But the Queen had need of this miscreant to Champion a mysterious and unnamed Cause. There would be no sporting spectacle.
“The sparrow is fleet in this world, and my patience with fools fleeter. I have a task for you. Complete it, and I grant you full pardon. Fail, and if you are not killed in failing, you shall be bound for a thousand-thousand years in this prison, with only the Mirror of Remorse and Regret for company.”
If the prisoner understood, he gave no sign. His red-rimmed eyes met Petty Tom’s great green ones and clung there, horrified. “Gato, gato, now I see her! She is just a… a little girl! How could I do that thing? Maybe this is Hell and I am already dead… Oh Dios! A fucking little girl!” he collapsed into a quivering heap, forgot about the Mirror and pressed his hands to his face. Whatever he saw so close up in the flat silver surface made him scream and pound his head on the stones.
“Little girl?” The Queen had truly lost patience. A dark orange haze hovered over her head. “Little girl! Little girl!” She spat out the words like poison as a wind whipped ‘round her, made red snakes of her tresses. A flick of her wrist, a stomp of her foot, and the weeping prisoner was thrown backwards, chained tight to the wall. She stalked toward him, kicking straw out of her way.
“I will come back nextmorn,” she glowered, “And next-next morn, and everymorn after until you can behave like less of a wet-diapered babe! Little girl! Little girl! Paahh!
Petty Tom followed quick as the Queen left the cell. She spelled back the door so hard dust puffed from the mortar. Purrdrowl! Something rings wrong! His heart drummed double-time as she stumbled, fell hard to her knees.
“Majesty! Oh!” Petty Tom caught the Queen as she swooned, caught her and held her strong. The anger-haze was gone, and she was so pale, so cold. He brushed back her red tangle of hair, and cried out in dismay. Blood streamed from her nose, her ears, the corners of her slackened mouth. “Oh, Majesty!” He couldn’t think what to do, his magic dried in his mouth, blew away on his breath. “What is wrong! What has happened! Please!” He finally thought to summon the Queen’s Guard when her eyes fluttered open. She smiled weakly.
“I shall be fine, precious Tom, fine in a while. It’s just that I forgot his ignorance, I gave not fair forewarning. Even the Queen cannot disregard Braggory and Display.”
***

Braggory and Display! The words rang in Petty Tom’s ears like the Death-Bells over Thorn Road. Braggory and Display! The rules had been breached and the Queen paid the price in her own blood! She’d dismissed the Royal Physicians, the Knights and Chancellors, ordered them sternly away. Only Tom she allowed. Queen’s Favorite. The proud designation now felt more a millstone of responsibility. She depends on me now, I dare not fail! Oh my poor Queen!
He carried a tray to her Private Chamber, set it softly on her bed. Carrot broth, violet wine, a tiny nettle-seed cake. All she had asked for. All she would take.
Gently, he fed her, one silver spoonful at a time. Then Petty Tom stroked the Queen’s hand, pale as milk against the white counterpane, and waited. Finally she opened her eyes.
“Tom-dearest, I fear I must ask you to act in my stead, and more, for the Cause will not wait.” She held to his furry hand with remarkable strength. “I told you that he is a thief most clever and accomplished, untinged by magical ability. In the West, beyond our Realm, the Magi concoct spells to undo us, to bring the Dark Times again to our land and return the Thrall.” She laid back exhausted, panting for breath. “To live by Crow-Black magic alone is to be hollow of heart, to have emptiness that can only be filled by foul measure. ‘Some of each,’ the True Law reads, ‘Find thee a balance between the extremes, and your world will be well. Too much Dark or Light is the most frequent cause of indigestion of Spirit…’ The Magi choose only the Dark, and suffer for it. We are their cure…”
Petty Tom nodded fiercely. So the prisoner must steal a cauldron or crystal from the filthy Magi, or some manner of magic implement, prehaps a Vengence-Staff or the dragon-bone chalice from which they once drank the Life of our Land…
“No, my dear! You don’t quite understand. Listen close, Tom, my weariness grows. The Magi are old and need to drink our Life again. I could send Knights and Warriors against them, but so many would be lost, and the foretellings favor us not…”
“What must he then spirit away, my Queen? What thing needs taking from that loathsome place?”
“What thing…” Her wan smile warmed his heart, for a moment. “Oh Tom, sweet Tom, the Tongue of the Magi, their own daughter must he take! In trances she speaks the spells that will be our undoing! But her black-hearted fathers keep her in pieces, to prevent her from running, for wild and lovely as the spotted hind she is, and as timid, with no understanding!”
“The Tongue of the Magi is real?” Petty Tom gulped. “Oh my. Oh Ancient Ones! Ohhhpurrdrowl dear!”
“Oh yes, my Tom. Terribly real. Her head they keep on a table in their library, with ink-pots in the eye-sockets and spare quills in the mouth. Her eyes one keeps in a pouch on his doublet. Her tongue one wears on a Harpy-hair ‘round his neck. Her arms and legs are strung on a garland over their thrones. Her limbless body they… pass between beds.” She shuddered, took up the wine-glass and sipped the last purple draught. “He must procure all the pieces, our thief, bring them back each wrapped separate in crowskin, lest they flee. Then…” the Queen shuddered again, her milky hands flew to her face and she began to weep. “Oh Tom, these are such Dark things as needs be done! Not to my liking, but no choice have I!”
No choice but to do, or a bloody war, and Darkness and Thrall and the wailing that would line Thorn Road. And four fuzzy egglings in Moonwash Glade…
***

“I say it was not the Queen’s use of The Mirror of Remorse and Regret alone that caused Braggory and Display to take action.” Fiffit frowned as she stirred the mandrake down in her cauldron for the hundreth time. The tiny, mannish root only scurried panting up the side again, so she knocked his wee poll soundly with her stout briarwood spoon. He splashed face-down in the simmering, mud-colored, venomously peppery brew. She grabbed quick for her mandrake knife, sliced him stem to stern as he floated. “Where did Frondlark come upon these impossible beasties? Half Pixie they are, and near twice as vexing!”
Petty Tom squatted patiently by his dear Frondlark’s auntie, trying not to sneeze. Fiffit was renouned among the countryfolk for her poultices and potions, and her great store of wisdom. Age had not bent her back and never would, for even half-nymphs wear beauty ‘til death. But she kept to herself and her cauldrons, inside the hollow old cypress, stirring and muttering spells, straining and bottling her products. (“Same old stuff,” she often complained. “Folks are so boring. Love philters! Fertility enhancers! A little something to help the old pickle gone soft! What most of ‘em need is a good dose of Wise-Up!”)
“What is the reason then?” Petty Tom asked, wiping his watery eyes. The fumes were most distressing. He’d not told Fiffit the details, or of the Queen’s Cause, and wondered if he should before he fainted. No, best wait and see what advice I can get with as small an expenditure as needed…
Fiffit saw his discomfort, threw a hickory twig at her ventilation fans. “I don’t pay you to dawdle! Get busy!” she snapped, “Or back to larvae you’ll turn!” The three giant luna moths sighed, unrolled their probosci in lewd gesture, but all flapped faster. Fiffit grumbled about the lack of conscientious help, then turned to her visitor. “The reason, I’d guess, is the original enchantment on her cloak. If she gave no fair forewarning, such as ‘touch me not, brigand’ or ‘most sorry you’ll be, scoundrel’, and you said she gave not even a cry, the use of her Crow-Black on an ignorant lad was raised to the worst of crimes. I fear, Tom-dear, our Queen will most likely pay with her youth and health for her rashness, if not her whole life. For by the Law, he was the one suffered rape and torment…”
***

Though the Mirror was removed and the captive released from his chains, the Queen fared no better the next day, or next.
“But at least she is no worse,” Petty Tom whispered to Black Lily Pike outside the Queen’s Chamber door. “The inhalant from Fiffit eases her pain.”
Lily nodded. She’d no use for Physicians and their Chemical spells. Many of Fiffit’s best potions she carried in her saddlebags – one for arrow-piercings and sword-gash, another for bad bruising. Several she had for depression and soul-weariness, for those things can trouble even the most pureblooded elf. It was one such potion she sipped upon now, lest a tear betray her.
“Walk with me, Petty Tom,” Lily said, and they followed the early-eve shadows down the empty courtyard. Lily stopped by the fountain, lively with water-noise. “She is my Queen too, Tom, and helpless I feel. Secrets she shares with you, I know, and I would not ask you to break Queen’s confidence in normal matters.” Lily swigged again from her indigo flask, then stoppered it, resolute. “But Tom, I beg you, allow me to help. If my help would mean naught, I’ll forget what you tell me, on all my Honor. I think maybe the Queen fears Knightly foray, all bravado and blood. But I have seen the Thorn Road run with innocent blood, lives spent there for evil sport, and there, as a girl, I vowed to protect this Realm with my life. So Tom, please…”
“Sir Lily, this is a delicate matter…” Petty Tom was embarrassed. A Knight begging him ‘please’! But he was just a sprite, and so much now on his heart and shoulders.
“Delicate? Yes, that had occurred to me. And I am not the delicate type.” She sighed, tucked her long braid into her gambeson, knelt to splash her face with cool water. “Fiffit tells me that Frondlark tends four fuzzy egglings.” She wiped cuff ‘cross her brow. “Fiffit knows you are heartsick with worry over much more than the Queen. For the sake of those precious egglings, let me help! Let not another generation keen and wail on Thorn Road to the death-throes of their dearest-loved! For the sake of the Realm, Tom! Tell me only enough so that by sword or by brains I may help in some way!”
All the potions in Fiffit’s power could not stop the Knight’s tears. Petty Tom made bold and embraced Lily Pike, tears of his own dripped into her ear. Black Lily had given word on her Honor. True, ne Willow she was not, but Honor and Valor came in no better a Knight…
“Oh, noble Lily!” Tom bowed, then lowered his voice so the words scarce heard themselves formed. “The Magi…” he began.

***

“Awake, Otherworlder!” Black Lily knew she needn’t have shouted. The bucket of water she’d thrown was icy enough to put an ache in her fingers, and her victim cried out and scrambled to his feet in the now-sodden straw. He blinked in the meager dawn light and shook himself like a dog, muttering strange curses. Then he blinked again.
“Dios…” She was the most unusually striking woman he’d ever seen, coal-black hair pulled into a braid, a long, narrow nose, huge slanted eyes glittering blue and green under high-arched brows. “Good morning. Nice shower. Are you an attorney?”
“An tourney? Befuddled you be, lad. A tourney is an event. I am a Knight.” She tossed him a shirt, heavy hose, boots, gambeson and brigandine. “Attire yourself,” she prompted as he studied the hose. “and be glad we no longer use points.”
“Can’t I wear my own pants?” One leg was green, the other black, like loose carnival costume tights with a drawstring, and made of some kind of wool.
“Your otherworld clothes reek of otherworld stink. They’ll be burned.” Black Lily’s sword hand flexed. “Now take off and put on!”
Seeing she meant business, he took off his pants, (and when Lily half-drew her sword, his underwear too) hopped clumsily into the hose, quick as he could. Truth be told, he was glad for fresh clothes, would have liked a hot, soapy shower, but Lily’s demeanor was not one of a person much concerned with the comfort of others.
The door eased open, and Petty Tom peeked inside. “The ponies are ready, Sir Lily. Three from the high moors where they’ll not be missed. Good newmorn, man. The hose fit, I trust?”
The man had stopped dressing, one boot half-pulled on. “The gato can… talk…” He stared in wonder, as if Petty Tom were a marble cherub come to life. “Curado!”
“Get thee dressed, man!” Lily seethed. “We haven’t much time. Rude be it to gawk at others! Hast thou never seen a sprite?”
Still staring, the man finished booting. “Sprite? Like an elf?”
“Imbecile! I am an Elf! BrightMorn and ShiningRide! Daoine Sidhe and Sith by my sire, Rusalky and Seligen by my dam!” Lily stormed. “Petty Tom is of spritish stock, distinct from elven races as korsk from a zogga! He is of a most noble line. Queen’s Favorite is he, and master to you in this Realm!”
Mention of the Queen cowed his spirit. “Right. Sorry, Senorita Knight, Senior Tom.” He slid into the brigandine. “I thought you were a cat. You got fur like one. Makes my eyes itchy.”
Petty Tom considered his fur, touched his ears. No one had ever compared him to a cat! But then, the man had been driven almost insane. Purrhumph! Let him see a cat in pants if he wants…

***
“I never considered he could not ride!” Black Lily dug through her saddlebag for a suitable unguent. “He held to the horse with all the art of a drunken cockle-burr! Champion? Paugh! What Champion can not ride?”
They’d traveled all day along back trails and deserted tracks roughly parallel to Thorn Road. Now, as the sun set, they camped in a nymph-free glade. Even though they were still well within the Realm, Lily had cast an anonymous Surround spell for protection, Eyes To The Dark, a Knightly bit of work. The hobbled ponies cropped grass and drank from the sweet stream. Petty Tom tended fat sausages sizzling over a fire. Stripped down to long shirt and hose, the man groaned in a ball on the soft grass.
“Babe is he!” Lily scoffed, tossed aside a packet of Carbuncle Cure. “Let him try with lance or sword and find what ache is!”
“He’s been nearly a fortnight confined to the cell,” Petty Tom diplomatically observed. “No wonder he aches.”
“The Magi will take pity, I’m sure!” Lily unstoppered a black bottle and sniffed. “Ug! This is it! Reeks of helichrysum and clary sage and salamander slime. Fiffit’s Seat-Mender. Bare thy buttocks lad, and take thy cure!”
Petty Tom gawphed. The Champion grinned up from his misery. “So nice of you, Seniorita Knight.” He began to untie his hose.
Lily threw the bottle at him. “Put it on yourself! I’m not game to your fancies!” This time she turned her back with the pretense of washing up in the stream.
“Maybe – Ow! – one of you could tell me where – shit! – we’re going,” the man asked as he rubbed on the salve. “Maybe you could – fuck that stings! – tell me why I’m here.”
“You are here -” Lily flipped back her wet hair, “to help right the wrong you did to the Queen.”
“The wrong I did. Raping a little girl. You take me to my death, then.” He hitched up his hose. “Good. This must be Purgatory. It’s too nice to be Hell. Whatever you do to me, make it hurt.”
Lily had removed her brigandine, chainmail and gambeson, and looked surprisingly smaller as she fluffed her hair by the fire. “Self-pity does not impress me, lad. There is a thing you must do. The Queen, who is older than I, and no ‘little girl‘, says you are an excellent thief.”
Sudden anger darkened the man’s face. “How does she know anything about me? You people know nothing about me! Who are you? Where am I? Until this morning I could believe I was in some weird prison with new rules. They got all those private-run places now. But then you dress me up, make me ride a damn horse all day? I am beginning to think you played with my mind. Some drugs or something. You, Seniorita Knight! Knights have honor, right? So if I raped your Queen, little girl or no, you should take that ugly sword at your side and make my death right here!” Winded from his vehement speech, the man glowered at Lily across the fire. The sausages were done and the smoke smelled delicious, an incongruous detail in the tense evening air.
Petty Tom said, rather small, “We must each know our purrhem, purpose, Sir Lily. Into our confidence he must be let. After all, it is he on whom so much rests.” He could sense somehow that the Queen had been wrong to fool this one. The perceived crime had changed his spirit, made him sick at heart, sick of life. All his faculties he’ll need in the Magi’s Palace, and we need all his loyalty, for he may be tempted there… He reached into his pants for three forks and pewter plates. “Eat before it’s overcooked, and I will tell you why you are here. Then you may ask any questions you want of me, and I will answer as best I am able.”
The man looked from Petty Tom’s breeches to the plates of sausage, his expression an odd mixture of hunger, anger, amazement and disgust. “Alright, gato Tom, tell me your story. But please don’t pull nothing more out of your pants.”

***

“Well.” The man looked from Lily to Petty Tom and back. “You could have just asked me for help.”
“Not so simple as that,” Petty Tom said as he gathered the plates. “The Queen had to bring you back without anyone knowing why!”
“And besides, would you have said yes?” Lily arched an eyebrow even more.
“How will we ever know what I’d have said?” The man eased to the ground, laid out by the fire. “I always wanted adventure. But where I come from, life gets in the way. You got an accent, some people look at you funny, think you’re stupid. So you learn to talk like them, but it isn’t enough. Your skin is different. Your family is poor. My world’s full of morons that think because you look different or you come from a certain barrio you aren’t as good as them.”
Petty Tom nodded. He understood. If it weren’t for the Queen, he’d still be slopping privies for Johnny-Towne Pit Muckers. They were all quiet for a while, watching the stars wink, and thinking.
“You explained the magic,” the man said. “I don’t understand your kind of magic. Crow-Black and what else?”
“Crow-Black causes true harm, intentional or not,” Lily blurted, as Petty Tom started to answer. “Swan-White is used purely for good, and always with good intent. Boring stuff. Most magic lies between the two, from Dove to Darkling Owl. Laws we have in this Realm to prohibit surreptitious Crow-Black. ‘Too much of midnight leads to the Magi’, we were taught. Life needs balance.”
“So the Queen didn’t mean to cause me harm, but she did,” the man pondered. “And now she is dying because she wanted to do something good? That is a fucked-up system.”
Petty Tom caught the look that crossed Lily’s face. Knights didn’t take well to their Realm’s Law being disparaged. “The Magic Writ of the Realm works well most of the time. All laws have flaws, as I’m sure you can attest.”
The man snorted. “Where I come from, that’s because rich men decide the law. You got money and connections, you can do about whatever you want, no matter what the law says on paper.”
“The Queen is rich,” Petty Tom observed. “And she is the sovereign of this land. Connections all lead up to her. Yet she is not above the Law.”
“Well, the Law should be able to make case-by-case distinctions. Crow-Black, Swan-White, damn magic by the birds…” He sat up suddenly, causing the others to jump. “No!”
Lily’s sword was out, and Petty Tom’s dirk, but the man wasn’t alarmed by an intruder. He peeled out of his shirt.
“Look at my back!” he pointed over his left shoulder. “See it? Don’t you see?”
“The… dragon?” Lily asked, thinking him relapsed into crazy.
“Dragon? That is no dragon, Seniorita Knight. Don’t you recognize it? I forget that it’s there, I’ve had it so long and who looks at their own back all the time? But this is why,” he thumped a finger over the tattoo, “Why I am here! Don’t you get it?” He craned around to see their faces, hoping for some sign they understood. There was none. “Oh Dios mio. Look past the color of it and see what it is! In the world where I come from, there is a great and beautiful bird, the swan, like your swan, and they can be white, or they can be black. There are black swans. This is a black swan, no dragon! Swan-Black, don’t you see? I brought Swan-Black to this place!”

***

All the next day, the companions traveled quietly, each brooding over the implications of the previous night’s events. Conversation was accomplished by taciturn exchange. The squeak of leather tack, snort of ponies and the soft thud of their careful hooves blended hypnotically with birdsong and leafrustle. Black thorn-trees were more prevalent than the day before, and once in a while the riders glimpsed long silver spikes among the shorter natural thorns, a sign of a tree born of a tree that had fed on blood. A sign they drew closer to the Borderland.
They encountered no one, and for that, Black Lily Pike was glad. She had chosen this route for its lack of inhabitants. Not many cared to live among the awful trees.
She halted her mount where the trail entered a dense, thorny thicket, the beginning of the trees that lined Thorn Road to the North. I remember what happened here, how many were killed just the hour before the Queen came into her magic. She was not Queen then, merely an Otherworld girl brought here to serve. And serve she has. The entire Realm owes her, for what price she paid for the magic. And now a new one has come, with strange ideas. A twisting of Black and White that does not blend to Grey…
“Wait, Otherworlder!” Petty Tom cautioned from behind. Lily turned to see the man dismount and duck into the thorn-trees, where a horse could not go. “Some of the thorns carry poison!”
They thought at first he merely meant to relieve himself, having ridden many turns of the Crow without stopping. But Lily jumped off of her horse when he began to climb one of the trees, a thick-boled oldster whose close-set branches formed a sinister, thorny grotto. A cusp of fat silver spines, as long as his forearm, shone where the trunk split in three. A true place of impaling, that tree was…
“Stop where thou are!” Lily warned, rushing in, her sword flashing gold as she severed a path through the hated thorns.
But of course, the man did not stop until he had hold of a silver spine in each hand. He wrenched with all his might, and the spines cracked loose, and he tumbled to the dank, sun-starved ground.
“Fool! Knowest thou these foul trees have fed upon blood? The lives of our countrymen have been leaked out on those thorns!” Lily wrenched him off the ground, drug him roughly out of the thicket. “You risk poisoning! You risk awakening the thorn-tree’s memory!”
No sooner had she spoken, than a whisp of a moan shivered out of the thicket. Lily’s face went white, and all three of them looked to the source of the sound. There, sure enough, on the cusp of silver spines, a ghostly figure writhed.
Not one, Petty Tom realized in horror, Purrdrowl! There are many! Everyone the tree slew!
And true, ghosts juxtaposed upon ghosts hung impaled on the spines, how many they could not tell. And where the two spines had been ripped out, thick sap poured down, dark red and stinking of death.
With a growl of anger, the man pulled from Lily’s grasp, ran back to the tree. Before his companions could react, he leapt up and plunged the sharp ends of the spines deep into the heartwood.
There was a great CRACK! as if lightning had struck, and the man was thrown backwards. The tree shuddered, the ghosts disappeared. And then white fire rose up from the ground ‘round its roots, white fire winding through the black branches, Black wood feeding White flame.
As he scrambled back from the fire, Petty Tom and Lily were quick to his side.
“Have you been harmed?” Lily questioned, kneeling beside him, seeing no wounds but fearing internal harm.
“The thorn-tree, Sir Lily!” Petty Tom gasped in wonder. The branches bent, seemed to twist in the fire, until there was nothing but a swirling conflagration of Black and White.
Then the great fire simply winked out.
The gnarled old thorn-tree was gone. Not a twig of it remained, not a bit of ash, just a deep black pit where the main root had anchored. Even the small roots had been burned to black tunnels. But aside from a thin layer of scorched earth, only the tree itself had been touched by the flames. Moss that had grown around the roots was still grey-green and living. Worms and beetles tumbled and crawled in the bared dirt. The companions circled the hole where the awful tree had been, open-mouthed, but not a word between them.
“There!” the man suddenly exclaimed, laid down and reached deep into the blackened hole, so far he almost slid in. Would have, but Petty Tom grabbed his ankles.
“What did you find?” Lily leaned down as he hefted out of the hole.
In the long-shadowed evening light, dozens of long silver spines gleamed in his fists.
“This is Swan-Black,” he said.
They were staring not at the spines, so bright-sparkling silver, but at the man, whose dark skin and eyes shone wonderfully pure, as if some inner fire had burned the tarnish away.
***
As power goes, the power contained in the spines of one Thorn tree was no great thing. But the man was not content with the demise of one tree. Over and over again he repeated the deed upon every murderous Thorn tree they came across. Bundles of long silver spines he soon had, tied to his saddle, many more and the horse would be given in to them entirely, and he forced to walk, but still he killed the trees and gathered their shining death-spears. And with each spine came a small sip of power, burning like sparks through his spirit, converging, collecting inside of him. At night, he would wake from tangled dreams, heart pounding so loud he would mistake it for foot-falls down an echoy hall. He would wake to the star-dark night, steeped in cricket song and the snorts of sleepy horses and the shimmer of Black Lily’s Surround, and he would watch for a while his sleeping companions. He would try to remember his name, but could not, Swan Black was all he could think. Ghosts would whisper ‘Avenge me, avenge me!’ and the spines would wink from their bundles, silent silver laughter.
You are too weak, otherworld man, no match are thee for the Magi! Flay you forever, they will, without end your death will be! the spines taunted. You are no more than the ghosts whose blood we drained!
Swan Black. He thought of the ghosts that gathered around him, crying for vengeance.
“You shall have your revenge,” he pledged to the wraiths. “And I will use evil against evil for good. I am the mirror who reflects blinding darkness back into the eyes of those who cast darkness…”
Awake with her back to him, Black Lily listened, and knew not whether to love him, or fear him with all her heart.
***

“Look, Zaiauthug, what the mists reveal!” the Shellman cackled, clacking his mandibles. Beneath him, drenched with moat water and slimed with fine, long algae-hair, a crystal-waif’s flesh slowly dissolved, filling the damp stone chamber with the miasmic ruin of her stolen soul. Long had she been kept drowning in the Waters of Nodding, twined about with Death’s loving fingers while Life mocked her. Now nothing was she, but swamp-mist to a third-rate necromancer, all her soul a passing canvas for his third-rate spells. But this time, Luck had kissed him. The mist swirled with Showing and Telling.
“Mother Trees murdered. How came this?” The Leach Zaiauthug fingered his garland of skulls, picked a snail from an eye socket and tucked it beneath one of his tongues. “Three ride from the Cursed Lands, fools, that is plain-” (here the snail screamed as he sucked it) “but in their wake, dead Ancients, stripped of their Thorns! Show me more, crab!”
But the mist was fading. One crystal-waif’s soul could write only so much. The Shellman grumped and shook her bones, but she was spent, and rattled to pieces. He considered her brothers and sisters, still chained in the murk. Expensive, they were, and forays to the Cursed Lands to capture replacements grew ever more dangerous. “Cost there is, Zaiauthug, cost in what you ask.”
The Leach grinned, a terrible expression. A snail husk swung on bloody drool from his fourth lip. “Really?”
Into the murk slid the Shellman, mandibles sensibly shut tight lest any protest leak out. Oh, would that Luck might kiss him again! Zaiauthug was some minor Foist to the Magi, a grasper and toe-kisser of the farthest periphery always hoping to gain greater favor. Plain it was how hoped he to use what was Shown and Told by crystal-waif mists! The Shellman hoped that the Leach got his desire. Few ever returned from the Magi’s palace…
By hand and claw the Shellman made way through the waterweed, to where the Water of Nodding flowed cold around a row of drowning waifs. Some were yet so fresh algae had just begun to dim their shining hair and skin. Their eyes met his, their frantic pleading filled his mind.
He snatched the oldest, snapped her chains with one claw. With his small legs, he bundled her tight to his body, scampered back to his chamber. What pleasure it was to feel her cling, gasp first air, believing he was her savior, only to sink his claws into her belly as his spell began.
Quick he found her trembling crystal, sorting through viscera as she writhed, and smashed the brittle thing in her pale blood.
Mist sang from her mouth. The Shellman whispered into her melting flesh, kneading his legs in her guts.
Miracle above miracles, Luck kissed him again. The mist became the Thorne Road, the Queen’s Keep, and in the Queen’s Keep…
“Oh!” the Leach gasped. “My fortune, indeed! The Very Bitch dies! See the henchmen!”
As if I am as blind as you are slimy! Shellman thought, the waif under him fast fading. Plain as Newmorn before him, Crow-Black itself perched on the Queen’s canopy, Braggory and Display danced dark footprints over her counterpane, drinking her blood!
“What tidings I have for my Lords!” the Leach slobbered. His twenty eyes goggled and jigged on their stalks like bog melons half taken with rot. “Rich the rewards for those who serve well!”
He would have capered if capering could be done on one leg. As it was, the Shellman scurried to get out of his way, mandibles pulled to a frown. The mist might have shown more, but Zaiauthug had ruined the delicate substance with his blobbing about.
Yes, clear it was that the Queen had used Crow-Black without Fair Forewarning, almost sure death to one of her pretentious, high-perfumed ilk. But to what purpose? That’s the important bit, the part Leach won’t know. And the Magi reward knowledge, not the lack thereof…
“Off now I go!” Zaiauthug proclaimed, and slid through the mudroom door. He hadn’t offered to pay.
The Shellman looked around his disheveled chamber. Slime dripped from the walls. Waif remains littered the floor.
“The crow flies slow for those of us satisfied with our lot!” he said aloud to no one who might be anywhere and listening, as he fetched a scrubbery bucket from the scullery cupboard. Third-rate necromancers were their own housekeeps and cooks, but stupid they were not. So as the Shellman scuttled about cleaning his chamber, cursing the tenacity of Leach-slime and his own inability to afford a gimpy Asrai or Glashan to help with the chores, his thoughts followed quite another path indeed.

***

The three down-trodden nags carried no riders, but plodded the road heavy-burdened, led by three peddlers of questionable character. Their leathern saddlebags were strapped tight, contents hidden from sight – except for a few copper pots, strings of tiny carved pixie skulls (their chattering jaws wired shut), and bundles of fat pickled mandrakes and koboldes and waxed porcupine hides, all things common and welcomed in low sorcery circles.
The three peddlers spoke but little, plain it was they were but one step above common cut-throats in their scabby patched coats and cracked boots. When they stopped for the night by a small orchidy bog, even the Portunes doused their musty frog-roasting fires and took supper inside, a-feared the peddlers might catch and string them along with the pucker-mouthed mandrakes.
Purrdrowl, lady, our bug-eyed watchers be gone!” Petty Tom whispered, scratching himself. Wearing the mooncalf pants inside-out may have provided disguise, but the out-side was itchy, his magic rattled uneasy and the waxwings complained.
“Dare I a Surround, itchy Tom?” Lily looked haggard, a hard thing for her, so normally jewel-eyed and luminescent.
“No, fair lady.”
Lily and Petty Tom both turned, startled. The man had been silent all day. Now a smile glittered on his rough-stubbled face. In his hands were four spines, gleaming in the day’s lastlight.
“Your Surrounds are foreign here, Lady. A strange taste on the wind. And I’ve seen how the magic wears you. Tonight, I do the first turning of Black on Black.”
He paced out a circular space, once, twice; the third time he stopped by instinct at the first cardinal point and drove a spine deep.
The air in the circle stirred and moaned. Mist formed, twisting ‘round them, weaving sickly cold that clung to their bones. Tom slunk closer to Lily, and she took his hand.

 

FLYOVER THIS! a view from America’s cheap seats

DISCLAIMER:

You might as well know this upfront: I’ve lived my entire life in a part of America that usually only gets noticed during close presidential elections or when a  bad comedian is grabbing for a quick laugh. Our rivers burn, our jobs travel to exotic locations without us, we vote to ban gay marriage, there is no IMAX and the Google Earth views are 4 years old. Yes, that’s right, I come from the place under a thousand jet-johns, the place that has already experienced a dystopian future, the flatish sort of middle place bereft of ocean.

Yes, it’s FlyOverville, USA, the butt of jokes and derision by the people who really matter.

In the quaint, Rockwell-esque tableau of my childhood, it never occurred to me that folks from The City (New York) or That Other City (Los Angeles) would mentally file me (and my fellow FlyOverians) in the same category as an old hound dog with gummy eyes and a drool pendulum. Or if they liked me (for all my corn-cobby home preserved naivete, I suppose) speak to me as if I were a Bonobo with a credit card – “That’s Gooo-Cheee, hun. It’s exx-penn-seive.” Or assume I would be killed by espresso. Or act like my knowledge of “The Arts” was limited to hand-print turkeys on yellow construction paper, an 11th grade production of “Our Town” and a dvd of ‘Riverdance’. Or be so worried that I’d mispronounce Pouilly-Fuisse that they’d blurt out in a pretense of chivalry “We’ll take a bottle of the House chardonnay!” Or whisper at a party “Over there? The tall one in the orchid mini with the big hat? That’s a man dressed up as a woman. You’ve probably heard about them on tv. I just didn’t want you to be scared when I introduce you.”

I never point out, as I’m doing here, that I actually met Mr. Gucci at a seminar in Rome years ago, where I also had espresso that would make the Starbucks version seem like baby formula and saw a transvestite in the grocery store when I was 10 and my mother explained it to me way back then. Or that I started going to museums and art galleries and The Theatre with my parents at a very young age. That would be like saying “Hey, my mom knows a guy who saw Bruce Willis getting gas for his motorcycle at the Shell station across from the Gibsonia Post Office!” Or “Yeah, I see George Clooney and Chris Pratt at Spago all the time.” Or “Hahaha, well then Viggo Mortensen says to me…” No one is impressed. Weird Al Yankovic calls it a Lame Claim to Fame. Al not only “nails it” (gah) with that song, he (as we said in high school) sets its feet in concrete, wraps it in chains and throws it in the Marianas Trench. Done.

So what’s the point of this tantrum-y rant besides making a fool of myself with these exaggerated/obsolete scenarios? Uh, I just wanted you to know where I’ve been sitting. Up in the nickle seats. But I’ve been paying attention to things besides banjos and recipes that begin with “Mix 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup with half a block of melted Velveeta…” I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the East Coast media still talk about this part of the country like we hang around the trailer park drinking six-packs and handling snakes and dreaming of getting on the Jerry Springer Show. Or like we should be “OUTRAGED” all the time. Hell, I don’t know anyone who dresses in thrift store spandex and poses with their ass blocking the snacks aisle at Walmart in hopes of becoming viral. And Hollywood? At best, we’re like the simple, comical inhabitants of The Shire as viewed by a thoroughly stoned Gandalf. Oh, we also preach intolerance from our meth labs and drive shotgun-loaded F-250s plastered with Confederate flag decals and Nobama bumperstickers, but mostly we’re plain and simple folk.

The truth is – shhhhhhh! – hardly anyone outside of the Unimportant States of America knows dick about what really goes on here. Or cares. But that’s wrong, and so very dangerous! It’s like getting a facelift and a brand new pair of Prada heels and then strutting around town in torn granny panties and a Winger tee shirt. Nothing good can happen.

But why bother to care? Spiderman lives in New York, not Fargo or Racine or Sedalia. And even though Garrison Keillor makes a good living from Lake Woebegone, he is very clear that in real life he prefers an urban setting. So what difference does a rotting city in Michigan make, or a rural county in Ohio suddenly flush with new millionaires, or another American manufacturer moving overseas, or another family farm turned into a housing development? Here’s why: we’re an increasingly divided country, more connected than ever before, yet more polarized. We increasingly watch and read and listen to only what the internet algorithms select for us. We connect to an even wider group of “like-minded-thinkers” so we can feel right and good and justified in whatever we choose to believe. We mistake entertainment for news, disagreement for hatred, privileges for rights. We wave the Constitution and then wipe our feet on it. We spout variations on history seasoned to suit our agenda. We hold people today responsible for what happened generations ago. We slap away attempts at friendship. We feel justified in keeping “those people” out of our schools, our neighborhoods, our country. We tell our kids not to be bullies, then we teach them that bullies win. We want the world to respect and fear and love us, but we balk at the idea that the respect should be mutual. We think that “thanking” people for their military service by re-posting a tired meme is enough. We let veterans come home to be homeless. We let them be told they’re “not real men” if they report PTSD, or depression, or anxiety, etc. and then are “shocked” that so many commit suicide. We tell females in the military it’s too bad if their C.O. does nothing to stop sexual abuse; hey, that’s the culture they chose to enter so they should take it or get out! We claim that Christianity makes us right, and we set the ACLU after every symbol of Christianity in sight out of pettiness and spite. We want to live high on the hog but not pay for the tenderloin. We want to blame someone else for the world’s problems while not lifting a finger. We have children we can’t afford. We don’t care about bad schools and substandard education as long as it’s not happening in OUR school district. We pay teachers crap and expect them just to be grateful for having a job.  We pay CEO’s and Wall Street people millions and millions and say they deserve that money even when they lie and cheat and bankrupt millions of Americans. We mistake lifestyle for education, financial worth for value as a person. We take credit for the heroic actions of ancestors. We are spoiled, whiny, indignant and self-righteous. You are in this, so am I, and we have to share this country with a lot of other people who are not just going to shut up and sit down because we think they should. Pretending that other points of view are merely inconvenient things to be flown over on the way to your personal destination in life is a selfish, shallow way to exist. It’s lazy and requires no education, and all the seats are in first class. But they are not free.

Casual Serpent Handling

When not handling snakes, Kris Sayers is busy taking a good look around.

Waking up in another world…

Ever wonder what it’s like to wake up in a totally new reality? A place where you must fight for survival, use your wits and skills to survive? A land that challenges you with harsh and hostile terrain, where strange creatures lurk under every rock, and inside every cloud there’s not a silver lining but a vat of acid? Do you watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and think “Oh sweet Jesus, I wish that was me!”? Well, if you want to live it, you’ll be overjoyed to learn it’s as easy as commenting on a friend’s Facebook post. Yeah, Facebook, which you joined to “keep in touch” and “catch up” with old friends, family members, co-workers and fellow gamers in a fuzzy-wuzzy kitty-cat baby pic Farmville kinda utopia where everything is rainbow hugs and unicorn giggles and videos of dogs doing omglols? Oh wonderful cuddly heartwarming send prayers for Aunt Judy happy graduation social media! Luv, luv, smiley huggles!
And then someone you like/love/care about goes and posts a politically/racially/socially charged half-assed piece of propaganda meme that they obviously think everyone should agree with. “What is that supposed to mean?” you wonder, trying to figure out why anyone you ‘FRIENDED’ would be ignorant enough to ‘SHARE’ such crap. You sit there, looking at that chunk of half-digested vomit disguised as righteous indignation, or common sense, or Christian values, or patriotism – and you know you could ignore it.  “Scroll On!” your inner Miss Manners Angel of Etiquette warns, pointing down the screen to a video of a German Shepherd eating a couch. But your inner Troll of Justice grumbles “You ain’t gonna let that go, are you? Know what that makes you, ya damn spineless sack of mud? A spineless sack of shitty mud, that’s what you are!” and the Troll of Justice spits at your feet, crosses its tattooed Longshoreman’s arms and glares down its thrice-broken nose at you. Fluffy-bunny-saving, lol-ing don’t-rock-the-rowboat-ing YOU. Wringing your hands, you look from the Angel to the Troll; they’re both getting impatient with your hesitation. You have to decide, right then and there, what kind of a person you really are. Turning away is easy. You can ignore the meme and go on – but that just feels wrong, akin to telling yourself “Separate but equal is ok, why, they’re just making sausage at that work camp up the road, we brought Christianity to those pagans, why shouldn’t Jews wear a yellow star on their sleeve?” AND SO YOU ENTER YOUR COMMENT. After all, the post has a place for comments, so whoever posted it must be expecting a comment.
Dear God/dess. You have just found your portal to another Reality, and man, you open the wrong door in that dragon city and the angry birds will peck your eyes out.
You will lose “FRIENDS”. You will make relatives mad at you. You will hurt feelings. You will cause arguments. You might even win the grand prize of having family members never speak to you again! You will be misunderstood, “BLOCKED”, and ignored.
And you will be hurt. Oh, most assuredly, you will be hurt. But all who would adventure must face adversity. All who Try To Be The Change they Wish To See In The World will be knocked down by some of the very people who post the same sentiment on their Facebook page.
The “COMMENT” click-on awaits.
But be aware, Beyond here be ugly dragons.
Go slay them.