I found the fox on the far side of the river. At first, I took it for a kitten—it was young, too young and slight to mistake it for a dog. With all the leaves about it, colored to its shade by the passing touch of winter, I probably never should have seen it, but some motion caught my eye. A twitch of the ears or a flexing of the bushy tail.
Either way, it was already dying by the time I got across.
A child’s thought: someone hit it, someone left it to die. My first dog, a chocolate lab named Rufus, had been not long in the ground by then—a passing memory of love that ran until his hips gave out, disease rattled his bones, and it would have been crueler to let him live than to let him die. I had not come to terms with that yet, and there, then, another animal lay before me on its side, curled into its haggard self.
Leaving it was not an option. Though the words of others rattled my head like wind in the trees—“If it’s wild, don’t go near it; it might have rabies, it might be angry, it might…”—they were about as effective, and I hunched over it and pressed my hands into its fur. What I realized then was that there was no blood, no open wound—just a child in the grass. It stirred at my touch. A little thing—its paws moved, like my dog’s used to; like it was dreaming of a hunt time denied. Nightmares maybe, dampened with earthen sweat.
High noon beat down on us, teased the frost away from the rot. The fox’s eyes looked at me, little gold slits leaking liquid light. I started, sat back on my heels. There were many things I might have done. I had my backpack, and he was small enough to fit inside. Still, I hesitated—my mother, I thought, would know.
Instead, I gathered a pile of leaves and sticks, made a bundled pillow of the earth that I could balance between my outstretched arms. I do not know what I thought to do with it. Mother loved animals—by that logic, she could help him. She would know what to do, by needle and thread or a doctor’s hand. Wildness mattered nothing. Its body still held the warmth that endears life to a child.
Lethargy benefited no one. I slipped both arms under it, careful to come between its sagging claws as I lifted the fox off the ground. Our world thrummed with the passing thunder of a car on the roadway, maybe a few dozen feet over and away—worlds separated by a hill and some trees. It was enough to waken me to the coolness that slicked from the lipless breaths. Water, I said. Frost and dew and whatever else condensation wrought.
Blood, by the stain, leaking from the pointed, open teeth—teeth as small as mine had been, for the tooth fairy’s gifts.
It took a moment to sink deeper than my skin. The head could not remain risen into the crook of me—it flopped against the side of my arm, drooping down as if to reclaim the lost soil.
A haze of freedom carried us forward, past one tree and another. Another car brought the wind through the trees and I realized for the first time that afternoon, truly realized, that I was alone. Shade clung to the leaves still drooping from the canopies above our heads, silent as statues and every bit as cold. Even this close, the cars were muted, lessened for what stalked the trees. One might have believed themselves in a different world, with their toes in this heady soil.
It was dead in my arms. Slowly, I came into that reality. I think the shadows had moved by the time I set it down again, laid it at the foot of an ancient oak overlooking the river, where time and erosion might one day wash both into the rest of something else. Something bigger. I had nothing with me. Nothing that meant anything. So I buried it in leaves that crumbled in my hands, weighted them down with sticks someone might use for a bonfire.
Yet I dared not touch its eyes. Instead, I closed my own as I sat beside the river and began to wash my arms. It took a long time.
Somewhere north of nowhere, past a road fueled by rumor, where merchants but rarely travel and music seems to stretch on forever beneath the sky, a woman walks. In her wake is a train of sycophants—those who traveled here just to seek her, or those who were left here to whither under an endless cosmic array of appetites no belly could contain.
Yet come she does. Out on the parched dunes, far beyond the oldest ruins. The dunes, after all, cannot be bothered to rest on foundations. They eat and eat, savage as wolves and greedy as leeches, gorging on wind and earth alike. They know no names, unlike the hills they consume, and neither does she. She shuns those who ask one of her. She slaughters those who demand one of her.
Such is her right.
Her silence has as much to say as a thousand words sputtered from drunken men. It has turned folk to contemplation, deep in the caves where faith has become a palace only as great as the heart.
“You will only hear her on the full moon,” a caravanner whispers after drinks one night. “She will wear a crown of peacock feathers, and you will know her by the beat of a pellet drum.”
He has never heard it himself, of course. Those who do rarely choose to leave it behind.
North beyond the last tavern, north beyond the final well, north so far the rivers have turned back for fear of being forgotten, the world parches. Wind grinds the skin to pulp, wearing all to gold. Even prayer beads bleach, a bead for each prayer the desert does not hear.
At this point, there is no turning back.
When the desert wears the sun for a mane and walks between rest and sleep, the world loses meaning. A bell that rings, rings on forever, inviting the rain, calling to wisdom, and receiving no answer. In such a moment, it is as wise as any sage.
All that is left to do is to feel the tapping of a heart’s demands. It counts the seconds, minutes, hours, inexorably pressing toward the moment.
A hand closes its fist about the blazing heart of the world and she appears.
Her drumming is a conjured echo of the bell. She is as unquiet as the howl of the wind, and as ancient. Wrapped in skins and cloths dyed as if by iron, she swirls through the contours of her starlight hammered realm. Incantations pour from beauty glowing with the alchemical crescendo of the world, and for once, there is no deceit to be sensed.
About her the hungry ghosts dance in an endless parade, without malevolence or concern. Every strum of the woman’s hands sign words for them, sign voices for them, and it can be felt all the way to that tapping of the heart. It becomes the beat of it, wailing in tune.
For a tick, all is reborn and unborn, a hollowed out train of eyes pouring from the darkness. It stains the world. There is no escaping it. Only then does the drum settle and the woman cup her palm instead to the distant mountain. Her other hand hovers, as if waiting to clap it—but the sound never comes.
It is at this moment one might bear witness to the henna birds on her hands. They circle her, rising into the clouds of her garments, and one cannot be sure where they end and she begins. Other stories tell of men and women that can become birds that fly and fly until they find their hearts’ desire, somewhere in the green that exists beyond the sand. This is the birds’ favorite song when they fly.
Tears track the woman’s face, and she begins to call to ignorance.
“Leave me!” she cries. “Be not shackled by your lust and your hate and your pain. There is peace beyond the limbo. There is magic yet to be found in the emptiness of existence. There is a silhouette of a cage just beyond a rainbow. Tears will rust it. You would break it.”
From the unborn expanse, the ghosts mewl until no line can be found in the sand. The woman sinks, drifting through fog and silence, to the finest dab of dew on the ground. In this light, her garments are a prism, and the faint slants of light make her polychromatic. It just so happens the gesture is a bow to the full moon.
There is nothing for it but to bow with her. The gesture scatters and compels, until there is no chasm between the world and its ghosts. She looks up on approach, waiting for the hiss of self-interest.
But the perch is empty. Love has made another summit, somewhere closer to earth.
She had always wanted to live on the moon. People called it barren, but in its dryness, its isolated streets, she saw endless possibility—untouched, untainted. When she got there, she walked the streets every night, reborn under the reversed sky. She drank in the scents of abandonment and stale, recycled air.
Somewhere off of Main Street and Liberty, though, she caught herself absorbing the rotating waves of the blue satellite above her head. People looked at her oddly, called her out of place. And it was just so cold, here. The moon disappeared from her dreams one night, leaving her in darkness.
It wasn’t so long before she began to dream of living on the earth.
Daniel has never been much of a gardener. Yet he knows what his lover likes. He clears and tills a space near the back fence, out of the way, where people might miss him between all the pot plants and strawberries (the two go well together). When he pauses to breathe and to sweat, he can feel the tingles where she kissed him, like poison ivy spreading, out in the national forest. It’s evening before he can plant her seed, but it doesn’t take long after that.
Drunk on pollen, he could wait all night. Her vines scrabble in the dirt, inch by inch, awaiting their crown of flowers. A dryad can sprout wherever her tree takes root.
So this here is one of those good news, bad news situations. I won’t beat around the bush: publishing efforts on my two outstanding standalone novels have stalled. It’s why I have been so quiet on that front since making all those less than subtle announcements a few months back.
While I find my footing in literary limbo, though, it’s my pleasure to announce that on Monday–yes, this Monday, October 2–I will be releasing a collection of fantasy shorts set in days well before the events of my Haunted Shadows novels. Which means that the month of Spooktober will begin with sword duels, rabid gryphons and some good old fashioned bounty hunting, care of: THE COMPANY OF THE EAGLES–the first part of a two part collection. There will be six short stories in total, though their lengths vary significantly, with the second collection of seven to follow in early 2018, if everything goes according to plan.
It’s only going to be coming out in ebook form, though, at least for the foreseeable future. That has less to do with an aversion to ye olde classic forms–I have enough bookshelves to disprove THAT–and more to do with number crunching. Nearly all my previous sales have come from ebook purchases, leaving little reason for a print run at this time. If any of you are interested, though, write me, and I’ll see what I can do.
Additionally, in honor of the release, the first book in the aforementioned series (The Hollow March) will also see a price drop to $0.99 for the first week! If you’ve been waiting to pick it up, on the fence, or just want to be able to grab two books for less than two dollars, now is definitely the time.
And remember, if you want to help my little book get out into the world, spread the word anyway you can! Every RT, share, review or chit-chat at the local drinking establishment helps.
I hope you all enjoy! I’ll post links when the book goes live.
(I’m feeling energetic and adventurous for both the weekend and for the newly minted summer, so here, say I, is a most short tale of the fantastical persuasion. Tattoos, rejuvenation and dogs follow. Put it up on your phone or tablet, wander outside, and have yourself a picnic of words!)
Kalesh was somewhat out of his element here. The cool tiles beneath his feet were the closest he had come to home in months, a relief from the pungent, sticky weather waiting to clobber the first stride out the door. Still, it seemed a welcome oppression compared to the utter silence of this room. Stillness was an art he had never perfected and never wished to learn.
Back home, in the well-preserved confines of his native lands, there was never a chance for silence. Everything was about the people—they flooded the air with smells, packed broad streets, filled waves with cobbled ships, ate the trees which hemmed them in, and spat out the ringing tunes of war. Silence, for them, was the demesne of death, and Kalesh’s people spent their whole lives wielding or fleeing from that. They had no interest in rooming with it.
He breathed in the air of Ha Tram Kas. Every now and then, he thought he could still hear it: the steady trickle of droplets that were his life, dribbling out onto the cobbles. Months ago, it had almost brought his steady descent into death’s realm. Morning after morning, he still woke with the phantom pains sorry men said would haunt him until that final day.
Kalesh was missing an arm. It was the final memento of a warlord’s life—a mockery of the path he had always taken to be the only truth. After he had refused to die, his lord had thanked him for his service, and kindly let him go. There was no need for a one-armed warrior in his world.
The tap, tap, tap of a bamboo stick roused him.
A dozen other heads did not so much as lift. They were quiet, complacent—trained in a different path. At their fore, the room’s focus swished her stick around, but remained otherwise jovial, focused, but serene. Everyone here awaited her attentions. Though Kalesh had but limited practice with the language, he had picked up enough to know: not all had come for spiritual reasons; for some, this was nothing more than an expression of art, but all gave the act a spiritual reverence. Their focus was a monk, though as far from one as Kalesh had ever known.
She was young, and fit, and had she been born over the mountains, her parents would have been working ever so hard to see she kept the bloodline going. Here, that did not even seem to enter into consideration.
The bamboo stick rose and fell in fluid motions, dotting skin wherever it dipped. Word on the street was that it was an act of unity between man and earth—that each drop was distilled from some piece of nature, and that by its embrace and a bit of magical aid from the crafter, man was brought closer to nature. Depending on whom he asked, that took the form of protection from violence or spirits, good luck, or healing. It was the latter which caught his interest.
It had also been something Kalesh dismissed as rank superstition, not so long before. A chance meeting with a traveler in the mountains between worlds had changed all that. At the time, months spent wandering wherever his feet carried him meant Kalesh had been down to his last coins and looking for a proper place to drink even those away. Followed by a rock from which to throw himself.
The traveler had stopped him. Literally held him down and forced him to see reason.
“Life takes many forms,” that man had said. “This is not one.”
The man had been covered head to toe in tattoos, all black and white, lending him a balanced, if terrifying complexion that seemed suitably inhuman. He wore no armor, though an axe dangled from his hip.
“I, too, am a soldier. Battles bled me. I have wept with fear at the darkest of thoughts.” His back, Kalesh was shown, was little more than a rictus of scars. By all accounts, he should hardly have been able to walk, let alone clobber him. “Since I took this ink upon my flesh, I have not bled. I have not known a blade’s weight. I am safe as a man can be, led to a path devoid of death.”
It took some time to make a pattern of the scars, but as he had sobered up, Kalesh became aware of the colors linking them, ink mingling with pink flesh to form a bizarre geometric pattern that shifted with each crease of the traveler’s skin. It was like a series of round circles each within the other, all tipped by eight distinct spokes. It dazzled.
“Not all paths are ended by blood. Ha Tram Kas reveals this.”
The man’s words had led him to this temple, which, as it turned out, was a place of pilgrimage in Tajalik—the land which he now walked. Unlike the array of needles and brands which accompanied the art in his own land, Kalesh felt scandalized by the wooden stick the monk waved around here. It seemed so…primitive. Yet if it would bring him bring him back to his calling, if something in the inks or the process could make him the man he had used to be, Kalesh would put up with anything these backward savages could muster.
His head jerked at the bumbling of his name. The person who had knelt beside the monk a moment ago was shuffling out a back way, eyes forward, not meandering. Many had made the point clear to Kalesh: ritual was strong here. One did not look back when the art was done, for in the art was transcendence. A path forward. To look back was to insult the art, the artist, and cling to the past at a time when they were supposed to be reveling in change.
Somewhat nervously, but not unsteadily—he had months of practice at moving now without the extra limb—Kalesh inched forward across the floor. As he looked across the sea of souls between him and the monk, he felt a moment’s hesitation. Sweat actually tickled the back of his neck. He cursed himself for a fool, to come so far only to doubt now. No one looked up. No one examined the foreigner in a strange land. By all reason, he should feel honored this temple was giving him the opportunity to participate in something so far beyond his ken.
The monk was steady at his approach. She smiled absently and extended a hand, though not to shake.
“Kalesha ka?” She repeated. “Khun ca nang kab pohm wela hurushimi?”
As he had seen countless others do before him, day after day, Kalesh took this opportunity to touch his head to the floor two times, grunting only softly at the effort involved. It was supposed to be a moment of prayer and final contemplation. The woman watched it all.
When he was on steady feet again, he met that gaze and inclined his head.
He started, thought better of it, and bulled forward in the woman’s native tongue. The smile widened slightly as he did, until it touched her whole face. Kalesh blushed at that, for he could feel the laughter behind it. This was a fool’s idea.
The woman’s voice switched tack with seeming ease. “Would sit with me, friend?” She asked in his tongue. Startled, Kalesh was certain he gawked, but if the woman noticed, she had the grace to say nothing. The monk gestured to the pillowed step settled beside her bare knees and he, swallowing the last of his doubts, obliged. Kalesh leaned over, back facing the monk, and waited for the bamboo stick to puncture his skin.
Carefully, she pulled the tunic from his back. Then she unhooked his belt and shimmied it down his waist just so. He started to stir with offense at the latter, but either sensing this, or having no need of further descent, the woman ceased the effort. Then her hands floated above him by mere inches—enough to warm, but not close enough to make any appreciable impact on his skin. Kalesh shuffled, restless, uncertain of the purpose of this.
“Bare,” the monk observed. “Tell, what bring you Ha Tram Kas?”
For a moment, he weighed the virtues of lying. His eyes flicked down and settled on his missing forearm, and he reckoned there wasn’t much point.
“I have spent…months with this wound,” he said haltingly, raising his useless limb for emphasis. “I have been told Ha Tram Kas holds the means for revival. Without my hand, I am nothing. A warrior with no weapon to wield. I would have you work your magic, to make me whole.”
The hands moving up his back stilled, hovering. “We are no doctors,” the monk observed.
“I met a man.” He swallowed. “On the road. He told me—he said that he had been wounded, before. That he too had thought that he would die, but Ha Tram Kas helped him overcome. He showed me a marvelous tattoo—”
The woman nodded and her hands fell away.
“Turn so shoulder toward me,” she said. He started to turn his good arm that way, but she shook her head and tapped the other. “Turn.” So he turned, letting his arm hang pointlessly at his side. Tiles dug into him. It made him shiver.
Unlike in his own nation, Kalesh had no control here. There, a man pointed and the artist obeyed. Here, the pilgrims had no means to choose their tattoo’s design or location. It was implied, well before they had ever been allowed to step into the temple, that as this act had no cost, the sole burden upon them was to release the notion that they had control.
When the bamboo stick hissed, Kalesh flinched despite himself. He followed its arc, like a scholar’s quill, as it flicked across his arm. Blood welled at its passing and a strange warmth flushed beneath the thin wound. After each passing, it dipped into a darkening bowl of translucent liquid, then intova separate bowl filled with the actual ink. It had a slightly green tint to it, that ink, putting him in mind of grass waving beneath the spring sun.
In one of the local bars, he had heard that each monk made their own blend of ink. What exactly they used was thus a matter of some conjecture. Some spoke of nuts or berries. Others referenced oils and even venom. All had spoken of it like a stream, though, gently pressed into selected ridges of the flesh. Some surprise came, then, when he saw the monk’s bamboo stick sprouted a grooved metal spike at its end, more accustomed to a stiletto than a workshop.
When he had first arrived, Kalesh had been instructed to bring an offering of incense and local flowers—purple, and rather fragrant themselves. He smelled the former, cinnamon sweet, as the blade whisked lines down his shoulder. He was dizzy by this point, but still had the sense of mind to wonder when the monk had time to retrieve his offering.
The stick punctured him, but never delved too deep. It was exact in its measurements, and though it was difficult to make out through the initial press of blood, Kalesh watched as a dual swirl of infinities began to take on a blade-like shape. At the end of every flourish, the stick tapped the right side of his back, as if to claim his attention.
The monk worked quickly, without pause. She had been doing this for hours, but she showed no sign of fatigue. Even concealed as her lips were behind a cloth façade, Kalesh realized she was lovely, though not in any traditional sense. It was something in the ease she exuded.
She whispered something as the clack of the stick on the cobbles announced its journey’s completion. Kalesh tried to catch a proper look at the end result, but she had leaned over him, and with a gentle effort, blew on the settling ink. Already it dyed the skin. As it healed, he knew, it would overtake the body’s natural knitting.
Out of habit, he flexed his nonexistent hand, but felt nothing answer him. It was impossible to keep the disappointment at bay. In truth, he hadn’t known what to expect.
Desperation made strange dens in the mind’s eye.
“I have settled spirit in this,” the monk said, after. She settled back on her haunches and stretched—the most human gesture he had seen her make over hours of labor. “In time you forget.”
He should have risen and made himself scarce, but in this moment, Kalesh could not work up the effort for ritual. He swallowed hard, staring.
“Does something confuse, friend?”
There was no bile in the asking.
Kalesh replied, “I expected the ghost might leave me. Or my hand might…” He breathed hard with exhaustion. “I do not know what I expected.”
Gentle fingers settled against his elbow, stirring a different sort of warmth. This, too, was something he had not felt in many long moons.
“It is a making thing. All life is making. Is possibility. You must see.”
“And the healing?”
“Like ink,” she said. “It stirs within.”
There was no religious ecstasy, no all-consuming trance. He rolled to his feet, tugging up the bundle his shirt had made while craning to study his tattoo. It was something he had seen etched into a road outside a burned village, not far from this place. When he had inquired, a merchant had told him it was meant to be a talisman against “the black magic of the soul.”
It was not a soldier’s purview to understand. Just now, though, he thought he grasped the meaning. Overhead, the temple’s polished stones yawned into the heat beyond. Nothing echoed. He looked skyward, closed his eyes, and put the stone firmly beneath his sole again.
Halloween is and has always seen, at least in part, a time to gather around and share some of the things which nibble at our unease. Years ago, Neil Gaiman solidified that with a delightful tradition known as “All Hallow’s Read,” in which writers are encouraged to spread the fear with free tales from the dark for a day, a week, however they want to do it, really…
Last year, for me, that included an ode to the dead. This year, it takes a slightly different tack. The story which follows is unpublished, brief, and just spooky enough, I hope, for Halloween. It’s called “Dusk.”
And if you prefer to have someone read to you by the campfire instead, well…you can also hear my own reading of it at Soundcloud. Just turn off the lights and wait until dusk for full effect.
Dusk. I can hear them in the walls. The chitter of their legs rattles plaster.
Their poison stains the floorboards. My own is still with the fear of it, of the slow wine burn of their drink. They cannot be bated. Everywhere, the traps lay; they ignore them, build new roads into the dust and dark.
Mother takes them for the creak of trees in dead of night. She cannot hear them. Will not hear them. Heavy lies the whispers: do not be afraid, little fly, we just come to play. Can you hear the whispers? The world is walking by.
I weep for the dark, for the shadows of their web. Another moonless night. Do spiders know our words? Because they tell me things. The shameful things brother watches. I hear them scuttle through the laughter of their claims: have you heard what teacher says of his students behind their backs? I don’t want to know, but all the same they whisper.
They weave it into their webs.
I close my eyes to blot out threads winding through the cracks. Breathe in. Breathe out. Drift. They are playing games with me.
Another whisper wraps me tighter. They are here. I am awake, but I will not open my eyes.
Simpering spiders, they say I do not understand. Secrets pour from the walls and their fangs lick my veins.
Year after year, the data points get smaller, but the wealth of information they hold, from pictures to stories to numbers to black hole calculating formulae grows exponentially. At the same time, the addiction to that informational high, the ability to be everywhere at once, increases, and for many, there exists that well trod notion that “We’re never disconnected.”
I long ago learned that when short stories come out, people are often torn on what constitutes a weak tale and what makes a strong tale, and since it is the nature of short stories to mingle with others, people are never quite certain what to make of the whole, if they pay attention at all. Which is, of course, my way of saying that I’ve written a sci-fi short story (“High as a Power Line”), and I hope some of you find it to be one of the stories in the library of like-minded tales at Evil Girlfriend Media that you do indeed enjoy.
“High as a Power Line” is not a story of redemption, though, or breaking free from the chains of connection, if that’s what you took away from my little intro here. Sensation is key. Would you really want to escape it?