Queen’s Gambit

I was wandering through a dense forest where shafts of morning light occasionally broke through the trees, and as I came to an open clearing I saw a white castle high up on the hill.  There was a procession of knights and horses and banners coming down the hill from the castle, and there was a princess with blonde hair and a long purple gown at the head of the procession.  From the other direction, a crowd of common men were approaching, an unruly mass of burlap and black leather.  They met in the middle of the field, as though for a duel, and they stood waiting as an old white-haired man, the personal attendant to the princess, scuttled out from the procession and set up a table and a chessboard in the space between them.  As the attendant laid out the board and the pieces, the princess stared with a cold and haughty expression, as though holding eye contact with every man in the crowd.

The princess was an extremely skilled chess player, and it had been ordained that a man would have to beat her in a game of chess before he could ask for her hand in marriage.  No one had decided on this stipulation; it was simply the way that it had to be.  Certainly neither her mother nor her father had wanted it this way.  They wouldn’t have wanted any unnecessary obstacles in the way of their daughter’s happiness or their kingdom’s stability.  And the princess herself hadn’t asked for this stipulation either.  In fact, it was quite clear from the way that she took her seat at her side of the chessboard, pouting and petulantly shooing away the attendant that kept fussing over her, that she resented the whole arrangement.

However, despite her resentment, she could not throw a match out of disinterest or from an inclination to let one of her suitors win.  They had to beat her fairly and honestly.  This was either part of the stipulation or it was simply due to the fact that the princess was such a naturally skilled player that she was incapable of not seeing through the game to unravel the most brilliant strategies and calculate the most complex moves with the meer flick of a piece.  In either event, it was clear, as the day wore on and one opponent after another was dismissed from the table in defeat, that she was growing impatient with the whole ordeal.  She lounged sideways in her chair, not even facing the board and barely bothering to look at it, making her moves with the thought of a moment and rolling her eyes.  And yet, she won match after match.  If she could have thrown a game, she would have, just to be done with it.

A variety of men came to take their place on the opposite side of the board.  They came with a variety of attitudes and demeanors. Some scratched their heads, bewildered by the game, and they stared at the board with their mouths open, shocked and crestfallen when the princess eliminated them with four or five easy moves.  Others came smirking, sly and cocky.  They would make their moves and then sit back with arms folded, holding their gaze steady on the princess.  They tried to sneak their pieces around her.  They would lay subtle traps.  She flicked aside their pawns and rooks and bishops like they were clothes pins.  They blinked at the board in disbelief before the attendant ushered them away.  Then there were the older men in the crowd, the ones who had studied with the greatest grand masters in the realm.  They pushed their way to the front, eager to display their skills before their peers.  The princess laughed out loud at every one of them and she sighed impatiently as she countered all of their obvious textbook maneuvers.

The crowd thinned as more and more men left in defeat until, finally, there was just one man left.  He had blonde hair, much the same shade as the princess herself.  He took his place at the board with with a simple, openhearted expression on his face.  He gave the princess a bright, warm smile and then he bent to scrutinize the pieces laid out before him.  The princess cast a knowing look at her attendant and shook her head.  But after the man survived the opening exchanges and matched her ploys move for move, she began to sit up straighter.  She turned to face the board.  She leaned forward, her eyes narrowing in on her pieces, plotting her moves.  And from time to time, she looked up at the man across from her, studying him as well.

With the crowd gone and only the players and the procession remaining, it was quiet on the field.  Bees buzzed among the scattered wildflowers that had sprouted up here and there in the grass.  The knights in their armor had dismounted and they stretched lazily on the ground, while their horses occasionally knickered and swung their heads.  The banners stirred in the breeze.  The attendant tapped the princess on the shoulder and hesitantly broached the subject of taking a break for tea.  The princess just glared at him until he finally nodded and slunk away.

The game went on with long pauses between moves, as pieces both white and black fell from the board one by one.  It was the princess plying her strategies now, probing for weaknesses, trying to get an angle on her opponent.  The blonde-haired man matched each of her moves easily, as though he had anticipated them, as though he knew her heart and her mind.  Something like hope, maybe even love, stirred in her eyes as she gazed across the table at him.  She placed her knight and he slid his rook out of harm.  She maneuvered her bishop and he blocked her play with a pawn.  She made a fatal mistake with her queen and she gasped as he plucked it from the board.  She looked at her remaining pieces, struggling to formulate a defense.  Her pulse quickened.  He had the advantage.  There was an actual chance that he might win.

But then he made the wrong move at the wrong moment and he left his king vulnerable.  She saw it immediately.  She didn’t want to see it, but she couldn’t help but see it.  Tears formed in her eyes as she moved her piece into position and whispered under her breath, “Checkmate.”  He shook his head in denial.  His fingers flexed over the board.  There had to be a move!  There had to be something!  It couldn’t be over just like that!  But it was.  She was right.  The tear rolled down her cheek as the attendant came and took her from the table.  I saw her look back one last time as the procession started away, and then the horses and banners streamed back up the hill to the castle and out of sight.  And the blonde-haired man was left alone on the field, sitting before the chessboard, wondering how he’d lost it all.

For Some Amusement

I went down to the amusement park with a group of friends.  We walked there on foot.  As we rounded a corner, the park loomed before us like some grand metropolis of whimsy.  There were bells and lights and freshly painted airplanes, ice cream towers and huge spinning pinwheels.  The most prominent sight was a ride called “The Zeus”, a roller coaster that wound around a bronze statue of the Greek god that was a few hundred feet tall.  He stood at the center of the coaster, scowling and gripping a lightening bolt in his fist.  I pointed at the statue and told my friends, “A thousand years ago, it would have taken them centuries to build something like that.  The project would span generations.  They would have ended up beating half the workers to death for stealing morsels of bread before the thing was done.  Now, they probably just flew a few helicopters over the site and squeezed the whole thing out of a giant tube.”

Inside the park, we somehow all got separated from one another.  I explored the place on my own.  To my surprise, there weren’t really separate rides with people standing in long lines.  It was more like a playground of interconnected oddities.  I climbed a ladder down a blue metal tube, feeling like I was descending into the bowels of a submarine, and I found myself among a choir rehearsing in the stands of a baseball game.  I navigated a hall of mirrors and ended up behind a circus tent where I peaked under the canvas and saw an acrobat doing tricks and handstands on the head of an elephant before a breathless audience.  There were truly amusements at every turn.

At one point, I came to a dead end.  The path that I had followed led me to a round courtyard that was closed on all sides, except for the way that I had come.  I turned and followed the path back to a library of dusty story books that I had just passed through.  There was a man in a black top hat behind the desk, and he lifted his head as I approached.  He pulled his face into a long, exaggerated frown and said, “Excuse me, young man!  You simply cannot come through this way!” From the exaggerated expression and the way that he was drawing out his words, I could tell that he was trying to do a very crude impression of a stuffy librarian.  Still, he was serious and steadfast in his refusal to let me pass.  I would have to find another way.

So I took another path.  This one took me through a sort of grotesque parody of a hair salon with warped, distorting mirrors and hairdressers with giant scissors.  As I got to the back of the shop where a bunch of women were sitting under the hair dryers reading magazines, one of the women, wearing what was clearly a very fake curly blonde wig, lifted her head and started shrieking at me.  I recognized the face of the man in the top hat.  In fact, he pulled away the wig and replaced it with the hat as stomped his way towards me, shaking his finger and saying, “No!  No!  No!  Not this way.” I stumbled backwards and ran back out of the shop.

Down every path, I eventually met with the man in the top hat.  He was wearing a monocle as he conducted an orchestra.  He twisted the ends of a fake mustache into sharp points as he baked a cake for a cooking show.  He blew a whistle dressed as a referee, kicking dirt at me and driving me back.  I had no other way to go.  I kept ending up back at the round courtyard.  I had only one more way I could try.  It seemed normal enough.  It was an abandoned office building, filled with dismantled cubicles and wires hanging down in places where the ceiling tiles had been removed, like someone had been working on the electrical system.  The prosaic nature of the place gave me hope.  I thought that maybe this was some neglected part of the park’s administration, rather than part of the park itself.  Maybe this could be my way out

But already I was on guard when I saw a maintenance man in blue coveralls standing on a ladder, working on one of the light fixtures with a screwdriver.  I tried to creep by him, but just as I was about to slip by, he yelled, “Hey!” My heart caught in my throat.  But then he just said, “Can you hand me that five sixteenths wrench?” Slowly, carefully, I handed it up to him, my fingers trembling.  He took it without looking back at me.  He just said, “Thanks” and started loosening a bolt on the light fixture.  I took a long breath.  But as I started to walk away, I could hear him laughing softly under his breath.  I stopped in mid-step when he said, “Not a chance buddy,” and I knew it was him.  I knew it was the man in the top hat.

I backed away and the man’s laughter got louder and louder.  I shook my head.  There was no way out.  The top hat appeared from no where and the man slipped it onto his head as he climbed down from the ladder, turning back to me and literally grinning from ear to ear, his teeth gleaming and his mouth opened to cartoonish proportions.  He stomped towards me, pounding each foot down for exaggerated and menacing effect.  I back away, still shaking my head, until I butted against a wall.  There was a window beside me.  It was open to air the room.  It was the only path I had left to take.

I closed my eyes and hurled myself from the window.  I felt myself falling free out into the air, my stomach gripping with nausea as I dropped.  I saw the concrete ground rushing up at me.  But just as I braced myself, a giant umbrella suddenly popped open below me.  It spread wide, spinning with blue and yellow stripes, and it caught me as I fell.  I landed with a bounce, and then I slid off the side of the umbrella and landed feet first on the ground.  I found that I was near the entrance to the park.  There was a gift shop there, and I saw my friends inside, browsing the racks of souvenirs.  I wanted to go in there and see them, find out what had happened to them and how we had all gotten lost.  But I just stood there shaking, the light glinting off of every surface, the crowds flowing past, everything, everything spinning around me.

Out to Sea

I had a job in an office and I couldn’t stand my boss.  There was a woman I worked with who hated the boss even more than I did, and she had managed to steal the boss’ briefcase containing all of his important papers.  She wanted to dump the briefcase in Lake Erie where he would never find it.  We drove out to the lake, and I pulled the front of the car right out into the edge of the water.  It was a cold winter day.  The beach was deserted and the sky was overcast and a rough wind swept in across the lake.  We climbed out onto the hood.  We had put a few bricks into the briefcase to weigh it down, and I held it out past the front of the car, dangling it from the tips of my fingers.

I was just about to drop it when the woman stopped me and said, “Wait!  It will probably just wash right back up onto the beach if we dump it here.  You should take it farther out.” I suggested taking it out just past the point where the bottom dropped off sharply, where the water was much deeper.  The woman agreed, so I swam out into the frigid water, dragging the briefcase behind me.  I could see the woman on the edge of the hood, waiting for me to swim back, waiting with her heels perched on the bumper and her chin resting on her hand.  I waved to her when I got out to the right spot, and she waved back.  The buoys that usually marked where the bottom dropped off had been taken down for the season, and I had to feel the way to the edge with my toes.  I didn’t want to stray too far over the line.  I inched my way as close as I could, and then I held the briefcase out into the water as far as I could stretch my arm and I let it go.  I could feel it’s weight drop away as it drifted down into the cold depths.

I turned to swim back to the beach, my feet teetering on the edge of the drop off.  I regained my balance, and I was just about to lunge forward into the water, when a big wave came and pulled me back hard.  I knew I had been washed out past the drop off, and I was flailing about wildly now, trying to get a foothold, trying to swim back to where I could still touch bottom.  But every time I gained a few feet, another wave would come and pull me farther out.  The woman was standing on the bumper now, straining to see me out there in the water.  I gripped the surface, trying to swim back to her, but she just receded smaller into the distance as I got washed away.  Finally, I gave up the struggle and the water seemed to grow calm around me.  The land was completely out of sight now.  I rolled over on my back and floated and drifted with nothing but the expansive water around me and the grey sky above.

The Caravan

I was lying on a bed under the shade of a canopy tent that had been set up on the desert plain.  I was recuperating after a traveling caravan had found me wandering in the desert, lost and nearly dead from thirst.  Every time I awoke there was a fresh glass of cool water perspiring on the table beside the bed next to a paperback book someone had left for me to occupy my mind with.  I took slow, drowsy sips of the water, and then I usually drifted back off before I was able to take much interest in the book.  Little by little, I took stock of my accommodations.  The bed had a thick frame with gold spires for posts.  It seemed a bit too permanent and cumbersome for the makeshift shelter of the canopy tent.  There was a large area rug spread out on the ground beneath the bed.  There was a long oval dressing mirror nearby, and a number of steamer trunks had been stacked up behind the bed to form a barricade against the sand and the southern wind.

Beyond the foot of the bed, there was an old weathered piano that was only partially under the cover of the canopy.  Once, I woke up to find three young men at the piano, one of them seated on the bench and the other two hovering over his shoulders.  They all wore white shirts and brown suspenders.  The young man at the piano played a short lullaby.  The keys fell with a dull thump as dry and dusty as the desert itself, but the sweet and soothing melody was still faintly discernible.  The young man to left of the piano player remarked, as a matter of passing trivia, that the song was famous for having no meaning.  The young man on the right said that the song had meaning just by virtue of being a song, and he insisted that all songs had meaning.  The piano player thunked a few random keys, and then he settled the debate by saying that the song had no need for meaning.  It had a feeling, and that was enough.  I was content to leave the argument to them.  I just lay there listening to their chatter and the flapping of the canopy in the wind.  I was weak and tired and down to simple things.

When the time came for the caravan to move on, I was deep into the paperback novel that I had been given.  My strength and energy were coming back to me.  Everything was being packed up all around me, but I hardly paid any attention.  I only noticed that the canopy had been taken down due to the new light that fell across the pages of the book, simmering gold against the black ink.  The bed was disassembled, the frame stacked in three separate pieces and the mattresses loaded onto a truck bed along with all of the steamer trunks except for the one I’d taken for a seat as I huddled over reading.  I lay in the back seat of one of the cars as we pulled away leaving no traces in the barren plain behind us, and I turned another page.  The book was a classic comedy of manners, playing out in drawing rooms and on verandas over endless rounds of tea.  I was engrossed in the subtlety of it, the sly hints, the covert gestures, the spare glances.  I felt like I was going to meet these very people somewhere on the road ahead, and I had a sense that I had been given the book to prepare me for this meeting.  I had to study.  I had to get all the moves down, all the right words.  I had to be ready.

Grandmother’s House

My wife and I were driving through the old neighborhood and we passed my Grandmother’s old house.  It sat empty and abandoned among the bustling community of stores and shops and offices that had sprang up around it.  It was an isolated spot of desolation, a lingering smudge of the past.  The rotted boards were falling off the house and the paint had nearly chipped and peeled off completely.  Even the leaves in the trees were dark and wet with decay, and the yard was a mire of mud and debris.  I was amazed that the place was still standing, that it hadn’t been swept aside by the progress surrounding it.  It was like a piece of death with deep, tenacious roots, something fixed and stubborn that they had been forced to build around.

I pulled up into the dirt driveway and insisted on going inside.  My wife was reluctant to go in.  She leaned forward and stared up through the windshield at the forbidding facade of the house and the cracked boards near the peak of the roof where bats were probably making their home.  I told her that we’d just be a minute or two, and I was already climbing out of the car.  The front door was unlocked.  The knob was rusted and it nearly came off in my hand.  We passed through empty rooms pervaded with dampness and mold.  We could hear voices coming from somewhere in the back.  I heard my grandmother’s voice, saying something about the inevitability of death and despair.  We came into the room and found her sitting around a table with some friends, playing cards, like some afternoon gathering of the dead.  She looked younger, younger than I’d ever seen her, younger than I remembered her being even when I was a child.  There was color in her hair.  Her face was bright and clear, bearing none of the lines of age.  She looked up and smiled warmly as we walked over, and everyone else at the table turned and looked at us.

I felt like I was put on the spot.  For lack of anything else to say, I remarked that even though I’d heard her saying something about death and despair being inevitable, her being so young, her being here at all, would seem to prove otherwise.  All the ladies at the table rolled their eyes and made a bunch of sighs and dismissive gestures, as though I were putting them on, and they all turned back to their cards, waving me away with their hands.  Only my grandmother got up from the table.  She said she had something to show us.  She led us out the back door and off the back porch.  She led us out into the back yard, and we stopped a few paces from the house and turned around.  It appeared that the house had been resurrected, as well.  There was a fresh coat of yellow paint.  All the boards were straight and even.  Everything had been repaired.  The weathervane had been replaced.  It stood like a masthead on the peak of the roof, the rooster and the arrows mounted against the clear blue sky.  I stood gaping at it, baffled.  Were we seeing it all from some new angle?

But we went back inside and found new life there as well, new carpet, new furniture.  My whole family was there, preparing for a party in the dining room, hanging up streamers and lighting candles at the center of the table and laying out plates and silverware on the white table cloth.  They were all younger versions of themselves, years stripped from their faces, ages of disappointments cleared from their minds.  The house was the way that I remembered it now, and I showed my wife around.  I showed her the place where I would always hop the bannister rather than walking all the way to the end.  I showed her the hidden back stairway, the one that we all thought was some kind of secret passage.  I showed her all the best spots upstairs where we would hide whenever we played hide and go seek.  I showed her my favorite spot in the guest bedroom with its slanted roof and gabled window.  I showed her the high view of the town from the window, told her about watching the distant lights out there in the dark.  I showed her how I would hide under the bed, feeling the heat blowing up through the vent.  I could feel it even still.

As we came back down the main stairs, I saw a young blonde-haired boy sitting in a huge plush chair that had been placed in the hallway in front of a small black and white TV.  I knew this boy was me.  He sat there watching cartoons, totally absorbed.  He didn’t even notice us there on the stairs.  I could hear voices coming from the living room across the hall.  My mother and brother were in there, sitting at a table by the window.  They were arguing about something.  I could hear it in their voices.  I could hear the stress and frazzled nerves along the frayed edges of their sentences.  But the boy just sat there watching his cartoons.  I could remember that.  I could remember sitting there on a Saturday morning, catching snatches of adult conversation.  I could remember people at the window just like that, like a snapshot of strangers from another life, never knowing what it was all about.  I remembered this being the shape and shade of my earliest impressions, everything a whisper along the peripheral edges of a world of cartoon honks and rattles and whistles.  I remembered being that boy.

It was time to go.  Our minute or two had long since passed.  I went to the window, and I could see that one of the new stores that had grown up around the area had a flea market with stands and shops set up along a thoroughfare paved with red bricks.  One of the stands was selling sunglasses on a revolving rack.  My wife and I went over to check it out, and we stood at the counter, goofing around with the sunglasses, holding them up to see the evening sky through their tinted lenses.  I looked over and the house was still there, still freshly painted and new.  The sun had dipped behind the house now, and the weathervane stood sharply black against the rich medley of clouds and colors.  I felt like we had stepped out someplace else.  I felt like it would all be different now.  It would all connect back to this, leading on to endless fascinations, embarking from some exotic bazaar somewhere on the surface of the Earth in the darkening shadows of the day.

Something Furry

I was walking along a dark road at night when I spotted a small matchbox on the pavement at my feet.  There were soft mews and other plaintive little noises coming from this matchbox.  I knelt down and scooped the thing up in my hand.  There was a little clump of grey fur sticking out of the end of the box where the cardboard tray protruded slightly.  This clump of fur looked very dry and stiff and dead, but I could still hear the sounds coming from the box and I could feel a slight tremor from something moving around inside.  I began to carefully slide the tray out with the tip of my fingernail.

Doing this caused a great deal of agitation inside the matchbox, enough to knock it from my hands.  As it landed back on the pavement, I saw a dark little form skitter away from it.  It was just a shapeless lump of grey fur.  It was hissing angrily now, making sharp snorts and wet snarls.  It skittered all over the pavement and it kept circling around my feet in a way that was making me break into my own agitated dance there in the road, simultaneously trying to stamp on it with one foot while avoiding it with the other.  The thing latched onto my shoe and I could feel it scurry up under my pants.  I could feel the tickle of its feet moving up my ankle, and then the sharp sting of its teeth as it bit into my calf.

Pickets & Pitchforks

It was a quiet afternoon.  I was sitting in my chair watching TV when I heard an excited murmur outside.  I went to the window and peeled back the curtains and saw an angry mob of protesters filing down the long walk to my front steps.  They bore cardboard banners with all sorts of angry slogans; some of them even had their faces painted for war.  I met them at the front door, and the leader at the head of the herd just screamed a bunch of garbled noises in my face.  I shrugged and waved my hand through the door, inviting them all in.

I led them through the front rooms to a door off the side of the kitchen which led down to the basement.  I pointed the way and told them they’d find the people responsible for all the problems of the world down there.  A forceful growl roared through my kitchen.  They all stamped their feet on the tiled floor, rattling the silverware in the drawers and the pots and pans hung over the stove.  The leader rallied them all to the cause and they all went stamping down the basement stairs behind him.  When the last one had gone through, I shut the door behind them and then propped one of the kitchen chairs up under the doorknob.  Then I went back to my chair to watch my TV.  I could still hear their angry rumbling in the basement, but it either faded away as time went on or I just eventually got used to it.

Inscription

There was the briefest flicker of sleep, as brief as the intervals between the shafts of light passing through the barred windows of the boxcar as it rumbled along the tracks.  For a moment, the space was open around me and there was no one else in the boxcar except for an old man squatting down in the far corner, huddling close to himself and glaring up at me with one eye from under the brim of his dirty brown cap.  There was a glint of gold as he bared his teeth in the dark.  Then I was jolted awake by a sudden bump on the track, and again there was the tight crowd of bodies crammed into the boxcar all around me with barely room to stand, everyone dressed in rags and smelling of oil and diesel and sweat.

The train came to a stop with a screech and a scrape as the guards tore the doors open and everyone began to pour out.  We unloaded onto an open muddy field beside the tracks, and the ground rose to the gate of the camp far across the field.  The inscription over the gate was wrought in black iron against the grey sky, and my eyes rose to it like a beacon.  Work would keep me free.  Work would keep me alive.  I had to find work in this place.  The guards flanking the doors of the boxcar fired their guns into the air as a warning to urge us all to make our way up the hill.  People were crying and confused; a few slipped and fell into the mud never to rise again.  The guards hollered inarticulate noises at us, but we understood well enough that the next shots wouldn’t be fired into the air.

We gathered together into a loose group and struggled through the mud up towards the gate.  A woman next to me was fiercely gripping a handful of the back of her husband’s coat, trying to drag him up the hill with her.  He coughed and groaned, trying to keep up.  One of the guards fired a bullet squarely into his back.  He grunted and dropped to his knees and spit a mouthful of blood into his white beard.  The guard yelled at the woman to let go of the coat and keep moving.  In shock, she let go of her husband and his body dropped and everyone scurried over him, the soles of their shoes and boots smashing his face into the mud, until he was left in a heap behind us.  I kept my eyes on the gate and tried to stay focused.

There was a big open yard inside the gate.  I passed a cluster of sick inmates.  They were extremely emaciated and they were pale to the point of being white and they had purplish rings around their eyes and bloody gums and lips and teeth.  I covered my mouth with my hand and steered clear of them.  I wouldn’t be able to work if I got sick.  Across the yard there was smoke from something burning, and as I came closer, I saw that it was a pile of burning bodies.  There were inmates with handkerchiefs over their faces shoveling up body parts that had fallen loose and tossing them back onto the pile to burn, severed arms and feet still wearing tattered shoes.  The smoke hung low over the yard, creating a fog that obscured its edges, and everywhere loose groups of guards and dejected inmates wandered in and out of the vapors.

Only a few feet from the burning pile, there was a long table that had been brought out and set up in the yard.  There were a number of young ladies sitting around this table attending to the camp’s paperwork.  They all wore dark skirts and grey sweaters and they had short bobbed hair.  They looked like they were young students, perhaps.  They seemed indifferent, or maybe even unaware, of the burning pile of bodies or any of the general misery surrounding them only a few feet from where they sat, as though they were untouched by it, as though there was a wall between their lives and ours, as though it was all happening to creatures of an entirely different species than their own and they could simply look at it and shrug.

I approached this table with my hat in my hand and I asked about work.  A girl at the head of the table was filing index cards into a metal box.  She glanced up at me briefly with contempt and she called out to someone and then she went back to filing her cards without looking up again.  Another girl came out of a small barracks hut nearby, and she told the girl at the table to show me where the living quarters were at.  The girl flung the cards down on the table and yelled, “Come on!” at me as she got up and started away without looking to see if I was following.  I fixed my hat back onto my head and shuffled after her.

She led me down a gravel road to a large brick building near the fence line at the back of the camp.  It was getting dark now, and the yellow arc lights had turned on.  I could see the loops of barbed wire along the top of the fence.  The gravel road descended down a sharp slope as we came around the back of the building, and here the girl stopped and flipped her hand at the building and said, “Over there.”  I hesitated for a moment, glancing between the girl and the brick wall before me.  I wondered if I should say something to her, reach out to her in some way, ask her for help, make some sort of human appeal to her.  She waited for a second, I suppose to see if I could manage the rest of the way, and then she grunted and rolled her eyes and turned and trudged back up the road away from me.

I circled around the back of the building and climbed up the hill on the other side.  There were two old men in rags sitting at the top.  They barely noticed me as I passed them.  They just stared at the grass and rocked back and forth clutching their stomachs.  There was a dark alleyway along the side of the building and I could see the stone steps that led up to the door down at the far end.  As I was crossing down the alley, I heard noises from within the building, things being knocked over and someone screaming and whimpering in pain.  I stopped with my hand on the door.  I didn’t want to go in there, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I cowered there in the dark alley, not wanting to be seen, and I listened to the beating going on inside.  The sound was moving from room to room, and I followed it back down to the other end of the alley.  There was a metal vent protruding from the corner of the wall there, and I came close to it to hear.  There was a sharp crack and a thump and this horrible wet hacking sound, and a sudden gush of blood and vomit dumped out of the vent and went all over me.  The two men from the hill rushed over and started ripping my coat off of me.  Once they had it off of me, they each took an end of it, and they started licking and sucking the vomit off of it, eagerly tugging the coat back and forth between them.

I backed away from them and ran back down the alley to the steps and the door to the building, no longer caring what was waiting for me in there.  Inside I found myself in a small dim room.  There were guards sitting around a table.  There was no light in the room aside from the arc lights outside shining through the window beside the door.  I froze for a second.  They all stared at me.  I felt like I might have gone through the wrong door, but there was no question of turning back and leaving.  So I told them that I wanted work.  They laughed, as though I had made a joke, but they consulted among themselves, and finally one of them told me to follow him up the stairs.

The stairs spiraled around and led to a door at the top.  The guard opened the door and put his hand on my back and pushed me roughly ahead of him into the room.  Inside there was a dark, low-ceilinged chamber, softly lit by a yellow nightlight plugged in near the floor.  There was a man sitting on the edge of the far side of the bed, getting dressed in a uniform.  He glanced back over his shoulder at us.  The yellow light gleamed at two small points in his eyes.  The guard who had pushed me into the room addressed the man as “Commandant”, and he told him that I was there to be his new aide.

The Commandant indicated an armchair near the window and told me to sit and then paid no more attention to me.  He finished buttoning his sleeves and straightening his uniform and then he rushed out of the room with the guard and locked the door behind him.  I could hear them descending the spiral stairs.  I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do now.  They hadn’t left me any instructions.  It was a nice room, though, comfortable and warm, high above the misery below.  There was a canopy around the bed decorated with moons and stars and there was a spiral rug on the floor with a discarded pair of slippers on it.  Down in the yard, music suddenly started pouring from the loudspeakers, faintly covering the crack of gunfire and scattered sounds of people screaming.  I came away from the window and started poking around the room.  The closet was stuffed with different suits and uniforms, and tucked away in the back was an old cigar box filled with discarded medals and other mementos.  I sat down cross-legged and laid each piece out on the floor.

The Bird Show

On a bright cool morning I went down to the city park with a small wooden table and a wooden chair under my arm.  There were already a few curious onlookers watching as I set up the table and chair at a spot where a couple of the foot paths came together, where I knew that a lot of people would pass by throughout the day.  I placed an old cracked coffee cup at the head of the table as I sat down in the chair.  There was a little show that I would put on here at the park every day.  The coffee cup was filled with black flower petals and I would dump them out and scatter them across the table.  Before long, a bird would land on the table and set to work picking up the petals one by one in its beak and dropping them back into the coffee cup until it was filled again.  Then it would turn to me, dancing back and both from one foot to the other, until I gave it a little piece of cracker from the inside pocket of my coat, and then it would fly back to the trees holding the cracker in its beak.  Then I would dump the coffee cup back out onto the table and go through the whole thing again.

People stopped throughout the day to watch.  They weren’t expecting to see anything like this.  They would slow down and be drawn in as they went by.  Some of them would give me a few dollars.  Some would give me the change from their pockets.  Some just watched and nodded and moved on.  People with kids would always stop.  They would hold the kid back by the shoulder and they knew they all had to stay perfectly still so that they wouldn’t spook the bird.  The kids would watch without blinking, holding their breath, peeking out from the tails of their mothers’ coats.  The only real trick on my part was that I had developed a rapport with the birds here at the park.  I was always gentle with them and they had learned that I would never hurt them and possibly they had passed the word around to all the other birds.  It was always different birds that came and went.  I hadn’t trained any of them, but they all somehow seemed to know.  The news had gotten around.

In the afternoon an older woman, passing by alone, stopped to watch.  She waited until the show was done and the bird had flown, and then she shook her head and said that it was amazing and that it reminded her of how she had met her husband.  When she was a child she had seen a bird outside her window picking up petals and fallen leaflets, just as my bird had done, and somehow she knew that this was an omen.  She knew that someday her future husband would be as careful and industrious as this bird had been at its work.  Years later, when she was a young woman, a violent storm had blown through her town.  She went to the house of some friends to take shelter, and the man she was dating was supposed to meet her there, but the hours went by and he never showed up.  She was worried about him, but she was angry too.  She stayed at the rain lashed window, watching for him, feeling her throat tighten as she saw the broken branches of a tree blow down the street. Finally, the storm began to subside and a few of her friends ventured from the house, and one of them came back telling her that they’d found her boyfriend.  He knew she was mad and he was afraid to come into the house.  She found him in the yard, standing sheepishly under a tree.  She started tearfully yelling at him, asking him where he had been, asking him how he could do this to her.  Suddenly, in this middle of her tirade, she noticed that he had perked up and he seemed to be looking at something just past her.  She turned and noticed that there was black bird on her shoulder, pecking at her sweater trying to get her attention.  It had stayed there all the while that she had been yelling.  She knew that this was the sign, and that this man was her future husband.

She was a bit teary eyed as she finished her story.  She gave me five dollars and patted me on the head and moved on.  I took up the coffee cup of petals again, gave it a little shake and then poured it out on the table.  It wasn’t long before another bird came.  Sometimes the birds would even let me pet them, and I gave this one a little scratch on the back.  He was a tad smaller than some of the other birds and he had to perch on the handle of the cup to reach over the lip of it and drop the petals in.  As I watched him hop on and off the handle and gather the petals one by one, a cloud passed overhead and the day dimmed for a moment and brightened again as the cloud passed by.  A breeze blew through.  There was no one around.  The bird paused and jerked his head and turned his dark eye on me, regarding me as I watched him.

Just as he had hopped back onto the handle of the cup, a piercing squeal rang out behind me.  Two girls had come down the path, and when they saw the bird perched on the cup, one of them had let out the squeal because of how cute the bird looked.  The squeal threw the bird completely off balance.  He teetered a little bit on the handle, and as he flew off, he tipped the cup over and off the edge of the table.  The cup shattered into pieces as it hit the ground.  There were petals scattered among the broken pieces.  There were petals still scattered on the table.  There was a great deal of commotion and tweeting in the trees.  The news was getting around.

View from a New World

The Earth had exploded, and a new, smaller planet had formed in the solar system.  A small group of children and I were the only survivors, and we had managed to somehow migrate to this new planet.  We lived simply, in tents and around campfires.  All the skills of humanity would have to be re-learned.  The oldest child was named Adam.  He had a bright smile and a dark face and curly hair.  I called him aside from the rest of the camp to show him the cosmos and our new place in it.  We could see it all laid out at our feet.  The sun was more distant than before, and the broken remnants of the Earth had formed into a halo of debris around it.  It was like an obscurely glowing bulb shaded in a cloud of dust.

But the orbit of this new planet was more elliptical, almost like that of a comet, and as we gazed at the cosmos, we watched ourselves fall in towards the sun.  It brightened as we approached, and the sky lightened to blue and then almost white, and the trees around us shot suddenly into full bloom, ranging through the seasons in moments.  We could almost feel the planet shift under our feet, and the sun tilted in the sky, and then we were flung back out away into the darkness of the solar system.  The planet rolled on its axis and the dimming sun fell below the horizon.