The understudy

(Originally published as Bewitchery)

We kids always called it The Last House in Town, but really it was just outside of town limits.  With its old red brick covered in summer’s ivy, its hot tin roof for the cats, and its perimeter fence of spear-topped wrought iron, it looked suitably forbidding.  Especially at dusk on a foggy night.

Edna Bligh had lived there since birth, and was now its solitary inhabitant, as far as we knew.  She and her brother Herman had lost their parents to a vehicular accident some twenty years before.  After inheriting the house free and clear, they had stayed there, never having married.  Herman was the town’s sole solicitor, and Edna had earned her keep by her skill as a dressmaker.

In the spring of nineteen hundred and forty-nine, Herman was murdered by the father of a man he had sent to jail.  Edna had seemed to be in perpetual mourning since that day.  On her rare visits to town, she could be seen riding her Schwinn bicycle.  Garbed in black, with lace-up leather boots, she wore a pillbox hat with a net veil covering her sharp features.

We were in awe of her, not only because of what had happened.  She seldom spoke, had the aspect of a dangerous bird, and seemed to rush wherever she went, as if in disdain for the whole of mankind.  The large wicker creel strapped to her back fender reminded us uncomfortably of a certain Witch we had already heard tell of.

In the first days after Herman’s death, Edna costumed herself in the endless black of her future.  For his burial, she paced slowly down the line of mourners to his graveside, cloaked in charcoal, even to the velvet mask that covered her eyes.  Evoked were the bats of Dracula, and a wedding to the dead.

Edna was not seen for ninety days from that stilted graveside walk.  In that time, the fall of the year burned down to winter’s ash.  At the Last House, men and machinery could be seen.  Men with hoods who did not speak to any outside of that boundary.

We curious kids, with borrowed binoculars and too-big sweaters, skulked behind the poor brick partition of my front walk, making a nervous party out of the Watching.


Our old town’s Main Street business district was less than a mile long.  It was intersected by First, Second, and Third Avenues, and many businesses had come and gone in its decades of history.  Aside from the Post Office, there was one that remained in memory, and indeed it still occupied its rarefied space.   Its plate glass window had once been destroyed by an angry but cowardly man and had been renewed with a double pane of “safety” glass.  This had a slight tinge of greenness and was curiously embedded with many crisscross strands of wire.  Brand new letters of gold leaf had been applied to its inner pane, reading “LAW OFFICE- H. BLIGH”

Herman, after the first shock, and having to wait for the repairs to be effected, decided it would be a good time to “update” the office a little, and so he brought in painters, carpenters, and carpet layers.  He was not long settling into the new place when he was called to represent the Crown in a case of armed robbery in a neighbouring village.  It was one of the Baker Boys, whom he knew (and detested) from his younger days.  Mark Baker was not one of the actual triggermen, but it was alleged that he had driven the getaway car.  Evidence was largely circumstantial, and the outcome was in doubt until Herman, who was very well connected within the town, managed to drum up two credible witnesses who would testify.  In the end, Mark was sentenced to five years.
Three days later, as Herman was locking up after a long night at the office, he was shot to death through the safety glass of his office window.  Several tenants had remarked on the dark pickup that had sat in the rain that night, but they could not give a positive i.d. of the attacker.

Howard Baker had been very careful.  He knew that Herman had earned a few enemies in the county, and he knew also that he himself would be a prime suspect.  To that end, he had stolen a pickup from a nearby farmer who was away at auction and had waited in the dark downpour until Herman had decided to call it a night.  He wore dark rain gear with a hood that shaded his features, and with his leather gloves, slip-on rubbers, and the heavy silencer on his .38 , he thought to leave little evidence of his presence that night.
When the deed was done, he drove off into the darkness, ditched the truck in a wooded area, and, using the bike he had brought with him, pedalled through the rain to complete the nearly ten mile journey to his house.

It was not long before he had a visit from the law.


Something curious was happening at the old Bligh house.  There had been many comings and goings of workmen in the weeks that Edna had been gone.  The heavy iron fence with its spears had been uprooted and taken apart in sections.  Along its outline, a deep and narrow trench was dug.  We kids were on watch every second we could spare.
At last, the queerest thing of all took place right in front of our eyes.  A truckload of stone slabs and red brick arrived, followed by a cement mixer.  Into the trench, stone and cement were laid, and, over several days, a brick wall some eight feet in height and a foot thick took form.  It surrounded the house completely, save for a heavy oaken door, which was domed at its top and framed and buttressed with black iron.  When the wall was done, the old fence of spears was installed upon its top.  The men and machinery finally left, late on a foggy and cold afternoon.

Edna had not been idle during that time.  It had been quite a while since she had paid a visit to old Verna, the woman who had mentored her in something more than dressmaking.  Verna was another confirmed spinster who had lived, with minimal help, in the house of her birth, and was now alone.  Twenty years Edna’s senior, she had often looked after Edna and Herman when their parents had been otherwise occupied.  Verna was delighted to see her, in spite of the circumstances, and insisted that Edna stay with her awhile.  And so, from Verna’s home, Edna made arrangements to have Herman’s old office repaired and secured, once the Police had quit the premises.
She also learned and partook in things that might give you and I a chilly feeling up the back of our spines.


Howard Baker had never been an excitable man. Fact was, not much scared him. He was slow to anger, but when brought to that state he would lose all reason. It had led him to do murder, and in his self-righteous mind he was a hero for its doing. Guilt was an emotion somewhat foreign to him. When he slept, it was the sleep of peace.

On that night in late fall, he had retired early after an exhausting day of haying and mucking out stables. The forecast promised a nasty storm, but that was no bother to Howard. By 9:30, after a couple of beers, he was snoring.

A short time later, the rain came on with a vengeance, and distant lightning woke a muttering of thunder. A black pickup truck stopped at the entrance to Howard’s long driveway. A tall thin figure got out and, not minding the streaming rain, walked slowly towards the darkened house.

In his dream of accolades, Howard’s heart swelled now that he was finally getting his due. He smiled and waved at the adoring crowd, and the happy ending brought him peace and the quietude of expiated sin. But soon a black hand, palm outward in token of rejection, disturbed and troubled his art.

He awoke suddenly to explosive lightning and immediate thunder. In the afterglow, a face in his window. Raven-like eyes, sharp hooked nose, and a small tight mouth contorted with hate. Howard was paralyzed and thought with hope that the face was but a nightmare. Indeed, when the next flash came, the face was not there. He thought to get out of bed to collect his wits but found that his body would not obey.

Hoping that sleep would take him, he tried to calm his jumping nerves by using a mantra that he had once heard a hypnotist employ.  Something about intentionally relaxing your muscles, one by one, starting at your toes.  Howard was just getting to his knees when, in the next strong flash of lightning, a tall figure could be seen standing in his open bedroom door.  It was the owner of the face, and as they locked eyes, it was upon him.

With its thin strong hands and sharp nails, it grabbed onto his ears and drew its grim countenance to his.  All the while looking straight into his soul, it whispered these words:  “Howard Baker, ye are the one.  You gave to one of mine their own private Hell, and then their death.  I am inside ye now.  Your soul is mine.  You will walk my walk for the time left of your life, and it will be long.  I have sold my own soul for this, for I have rejected my God, who said that vengeance was given to him only.”  And then, dry crusted lips laid a cold kiss upon his trembling forehead.  Howard had soiled himself.


If one had awoken early enough, they might have seen, at the site of Herman’s law office, a smart looking and very erect old woman dressed in red.  With a confident mien, she brought forth an iron key from her bag, and made entrance to her new world.  In gold leaf, the letters in the window spelled out VERNA MARTIN- FASHIONS FOR THE TIMES.

If one had stayed up late enough, they might have seen (if they didn’t mind the rain) a tall thin figure in black who also produced an iron key from her bag, and unhurriedly gained entrance to the Bligh house.  There was a booming slam as the door closed, and the sound of tinkling chains.

One of the Bakers’ neighbours had noticed that there had not been much activity on that farm for a few days and decided to pay Howard a visit.  Along his dusty driveway, they saw some sick cattle, and became more alarmed.  At last, they pulled up to the house.  There was Howard, sitting on his front stoop, naked except for his socks.  He was eating a cob of raw corn.  He did not look up.

The Police, who had been “keeping an eye” on Howard while “gathering evidence”, arrived at the homestead, together with a paddy wagon.

Howard did indeed have a long life.  He was pronounced incurably insane.  Herman’s murder was never solved.

Image: The Yorkshire Post

One way to Mars

(This is a complete story that was once presented in serial form )


We started a joke…

In June of 2067, the world finally ran out of 12-year-old Scotch. It was also the 100th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This had many people wondering why we had ever sent a Beatles song across the universe all those years ago, as part of a message of peace, and, effectively, to say “Here we are!”

No more Scotch, no more Beatle nursery rhymes, no more of anything that we took for granted in May. They came, they saw, and they conquered. We were subjugated. There was little warning, and it would have done us no good anyway.

No negotiations, no need to surrender. We could not touch them. The weapons with which we had efficiently killed one another were not effective at all.

There was much death and destruction. We all lived in fear and prayed for our mortal souls. But, as it turned out, we were an afterthought. They wanted the Earth. Its minerals, its water, its unsullied atmosphere.

But, you see, the Big Joke had already been unfolding for decades before they came. Our peak population of 8 billion had been in steady decline because, in our wisdom, we had already raped the planet, poisoned the air and oceans, and killed ourselves by the millions, fighting over what was left.

They stayed long enough to discover this and left without saying goodbye.

The Joke was on them, and on us.

Those of us who were left crawled out from the rubble, thankful for our lives, but weeping for the future.

Those who are left…

Around the world, we buried our dead.
Quickly, quickly. Summer temperatures were reaching over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and the risk of disease was high.

Catastrophic weather events were occurring with increasing regularity. Massive flooding, huge and powerful storms, earthquakes, and forest fires were commonplace. Power grids across the globe had been damaged or destroyed by the invaders. In our zeal to repel them, we had resorted to atomic weapons. Their only effect was to instill yet more radiation into the environment.

Governments were disintegrating, along with national boundaries. The mortality rate was climbing. Those of us left were in desperation. Over the course of months, the remaining leaders of the world formed a cooperative coalition to build shelters and provide food and medical aid. We were no longer at war with each other. The enemy now was our own folly, having set in motion the inexorable process of planetary destruction.

But all was not folly. In the forty years preceding the arrival of the invaders, the wise among us, both government and private, had carried on with plans to build the necessary ships and machinery to make the leap across space to the planet Mars. It had begun with ships carrying robots, whose task it was to build rudimentary settlements for the succor of the first pioneers. Once it was known that this had been a success, the building of ships began in earnest. In those four decades, many were launched. Some were lost. We learned from our mistakes.

At last, over two hundred pioneers had embarked on the final frontier. Most were successful and became the first in history to set foot on another planet.
There is an old story or legend about the 300 Spartans who defended their homeland against impossible odds. With the launching of our last ship, in the fall of 2070, our numbers on Mars would match those of the Spartans. We were not fighting a tangible enemy, but our struggle to survive and to thrive on a hostile world would be the stuff of history.

I know. I am one of the three hundred.

The first Martians…

Eight months within the confines of a 21st century spaceship would try the most hardy of souls. Think of a trip of that duration in your family car, without being able to get out into the wide world and stretch your legs, smell the fresh air, or see a sunrise. Add to that an eerie feeling of driving your car at night without headlights.

One of the prerequisites for us, as astronauts, was a close to perfect mental and emotional stability. This was sorely tested, and, when we did arrive, there were more than a few who had had enough.
Yes, we did arrive, and, my friends, I want to tell you many things before I go on my work detail.


The most glorious thing that had ever happened to me in my life occurred after waking up one “morning” with a fellow crew member’s hand upon my shoulder turning me towards the window.

Through the layers of quartz glass, I saw the Red Planet in all its magnificent splendour. This would be home for the rest of my life.

Our incarceration was coming to an end. As we grew slowly nearer, and I was able to see features, I could make out the canyon of Valles Marineris, our target landing site. It is a monstrous formation that stretches along the equator for nearly 2,500 miles, reaching depths of 5 miles. I fancied I could see plumes of smoke or steam concentrated in a small area, which could mark the location of our settlement.

Our atmospheric entry and landing were very tricky and difficult, but as close to perfection as we could have hoped for. We were safe, and within an hour, we saw signs of the Welcome Wagon. Our comrades, some of whom had been here since Day One, came out to greet us and bring us home.

They hadn’t yet invented skin-tight spacesuits, so it was a challenge to embrace our new neighbours. I recognized some of them as being children and was struck with the realization that I was looking at the first native Martians. I was in awe.

As we approached the settlement, I could see what had been accomplished in the forty years since the first robotic teams had arrived. It was built in a series of geodesic domes of different sizes, with some Quonset style structures that were likely the greenhouses. The main portion of the settlement covered, I would say, about a square kilometre. A mere dot on our approach, but truly impressive on arrival. A sense of security, of home, and of endless possibilities came to mind.

The People…

On the trip to home base, I had been in a dream.  I think most would have been.  We moved slowly and picked our way through the dull red twilight towards the cheery artificial light that I had known in my old home, seemingly years ago.  I will never complain about electric lighting again.  It represented a warm fireside glow to me at the time.

Inside, more than a hundred people awaited us, almost everyone who could be assembled who were not at their workstations.  Curiously, but naturally, we were introduced to the children first, some of whom had formed a small welcoming committee.  Their leader, and eldest, was a girl named Ylla, pronounced eee-lah.  It was explained to me later that this name was taken from an old novel by Ray Bradbury, a fanciful story about the first men on Mars.  Another girl named Oceaxe shared in the formal welcoming speeches.  She spoke Russian, but, with her halting English and winning smile, she and Ylla welcomed us Home.  The origin of Oceaxe’s singular name was a mystery to me, perhaps to be explained later.

As part of the ceremony, they presented us with two odd looking sculptures they had made from the Martian rock.  They looked expertly done, and I was about to make a comment about them, when the ceremony resumed.  There was laughter and embracing, and introductions all around.  My head spun, what with the rapid-fire names that I heard, not knowing who to talk to first, and with the natural weariness of our trip.  The promise of a real bed and an approximation of actual gravity was welcoming.

The people were of many nationalities and professions.  Not all spoke my native tongue of English, which I shared with most of my crewmates.  Aside from the Martian children, there was an almost equal division between men and women.  There was a team of seven, four men and three women, who were introduced as being the governing committee for the settlement.  After that, and pleading our weariness, we were shown to our quarters that had been prepared for us.

I slept for what seemed like a long time, better than I had in the last eight months.  It was a promising start to our new life.  In the deepest part of this healing sleep, the two sculpted figures appeared in a dream.  It was not a sinister or foreboding dream, but one of inquiry and intense curiosity.  They were presented here as if I stood before them, and the niggling thought that came to me was that they had the styling and aspect of nothing else but the figures and royal etchings of Earth’s ancient Egypt.

New found land…

After our grand welcome, and the ceremonial presentation by the First Martians (odd to call them that), we spent a couple of days being brought up to date on the settlement, its goals and procedures, and something of its politics.

We were introduced to the Committee of Seven, and several of us were asked to attend a private meeting with them.  In the more than three decades since humankind first set foot upon Mars, much had been accomplished in the development and maintenance of the outpost.  New methods for food and water production were devised, communications with Earth had been improved, medical care had advanced from its modest beginnings, lives were saved, and lives were indeed lost.  The first people to die on the Red Planet were now buried beneath its sands.

Serious exploration had only been started less than ten years before my crew’s arrival, and we still had not ventured very far beyond the plateaus surrounding the incredible canyon of Valles Marineris.  What we did find out, in our meeting with the Committee, was dissembled by its chairman, Mark MacInnes.  There were two main reasons why the canyon had been chosen as the site for the outpost:  Temperatures there during the day often reached a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero Celsius, and, most importantly, it had been judged to be the likeliest spot for us to find water.  There was, as well, the added benefit of considerable shelter from the worst of the Martian storms.

Our attention may have been wandering a bit during some of the technical presentations, but Mark brought us back with the following:  “There are caves.  We first discovered them on one of our furthest forays into the canyon, some three years ago.  Some of the older kids went with us to help carry equipment etc.  Most of the caves are empty, as far as we can tell, but the third one we entered held two things I think we can describe as historic.  We went in in file with our lamps, and each of the kids was paired off with an adult.  One of them, Oceaxe, gave a shout when she shone her light into a small side chamber.  In the dimness, it seemed to have a flat shiny floor.  Oceaxe was ordered to stop until a careful examination had been done.  What had appeared to be a floor was actually a thin sheet of ice covering a sizeable pool of water, which we found out later was indeed pure H20.  This all but ensured the survival of the settlement.  Our earthbound scientific team had been correct in their estimations.”

At this point, we were about to offer our congratulations to the team, when Mark again called for our attention:  “I said there were two things found in the cave, and you might think that water was the winner.  There was something else.”  He walked over to a locked cabinet at the corner of the meeting room and brought out some small crates, which he placed upon the table in front of him.  He invited our group to see what they contained. When they were opened, my stomach jumped as if descending in a fast elevator.
Skulls.  Bones.  Well preserved items of metal, whose purpose was hard to discern.  We looked back and forth at each other, speechless.  Mark broke the silence:  “You will note that the skulls are like ours in some respects, but they are elongated and have larger eye sockets.  The bones themselves are like ours, with some subtle differences in size and girth.  The metal items we are still guessing at, but it’s clear that some of their composition is of gold.”


Oceaxe was an odd girl.  Now, at 15 years of age, she was of middle height, but somewhat gaunt and bony looking.  Long jet-black hair partly obscured her eyes, which were remarkable in themselves.  A little too large for her small face, they had the darkest irises I had ever seen.  She had cultivated the habit of glancing sidelong at people, and seldom looked at anyone directly.  My first impression was one of shyness and avoidance, and perhaps the way she had her hair cut served to reinforce this.  That was soon put to rest, however, when she seemed to take a shine to me at times.  Although something about her caused me to like her, I did feel a little uncomfortable under the open gaze of this enigmatic fifteen year old.

Oceaxe was something of a celebrity at the outpost, because of her discovery in the canyon caves, but did not have any close friends that we knew of. Most were a little put off with her strangeness.

Her singular name was explained to me by her mother, one Eleanor Ariana.  She and her husband Carlos had arrived on Mars some seventeen years ago.  Although they were not permitted large quantities of personal effects on the voyage, Eleanor did bring some of her precious books with her.  She had been in love with space since childhood, and it had meant her life to be selected for this grand theatre.  The book in question was entitled
A Voyage to Arcturus, a romanticized and stylized account of a spiritual journey by a group of individuals from Earth, under the thralldom of two charismatic men who had a mysterious connection with a planet that circled that star.  The plot is not sanguine to this story, except to say that one of the “women” they met on this distant world was named Oceaxe (pronounced Oh-see-AKES). Aside from being a shape changer, she was beautiful in her simple form, resembling what we think of as an Amazon.  Extremely strong of personal magnetism, she as well had the capacity to read the minds of those around her.  Add to this her ability to “absorb” the souls of those she determined as weak, we are asked to believe that she had selectively imbued her own with many masculine characteristics, meant to make her the complete person of power.

Eleanor had been sufficiently moved by this character that she chose that strange name.  Her husband Carlos had raised some mild objections, wanting something more conventional like Jane or Joanne, but he went along, thinking that they would not, when she was born, have much to worry about in the way of schoolyard bullies who would surely latch onto something like this and run with it.

The name proved eventually to be fateful, and the girl strangely grew into some of her namesake’s qualities.

Some important questions..

Sasha Hendriks was the co-chair of the governing Committee.  She was a tall sparely built woman, sharp-nosed, now in her mid 40’s.  Her brilliant grey eyes had slight circles underneath them, and her sandy hair seemed always to be hidden beneath a plain military style peaked cap.  I do not think I have ever seen her smile, but that is not to make any comment on her character.  Rather, she was very serious about anything she undertook.  She had considerable scientific and engineering knowledge, had been a psychologist by profession, and was entrusted with much of the responsibility for the outpost’s operation.

After Mark’s revelations about their discoveries, Sasha presented a series of dilemmas to us in the form of moral / ethical questions.

A few things should be noted here:  After nearly four decades of the operation and expansion of this colony, it was becoming more self reliant in its functioning, and less so on guidance and supplies from Earth, as long as the status quo was a given.  Meaning that its present population and internal growth estimates were to be maintained.  What was still needed from Earth was more excavation and welding equipment, raw materials of steel and other metals, and medical supplies.  Food and water had become self-propagating, especially since the discovery in the canyon caves.  Before Earth’s catastrophe in 2067, plans had been made for the necessary supply ships, and for further teams of colonists.  Much of that had changed after June of that year.  The population had been decimated, leaders had fallen, borders and nations were no more.

After introducing herself and bidding us welcome once again, Sasha continued the meeting:

“The things you have seen and heard here today have not yet been communicated to our base on Earth.  Yes, it has been some time.  You might think that we have abdicated our responsibility, and question why we have not made the report.  When we heard about the cataclysm back home, communications were disrupted.  We were talking to different people, and more sporadically.  Some did not have the expertise to answer questions that we had.  The last contact was some weeks ago, during which we made a formal request for supplies needed.  We were given assurances that a shipment was being readied and would be sent on its way in three months.”

We have been reticent in informing them about what we have found for several reasons:  The confusion and ineptness of those in charge there.  The desperation that they must be facing.  The possibility that they may be planning a mass exodus to Mars, especially if they hear that we have confirmed a water source. The question of the usefulness and intentions of any new arrivals, once our secrets were out.  The uncertainty surrounding our discovery of intelligent life forms that once existed here, and what it will mean to our new home and to those on Earth.”

This gave us pause for thought.  Some of these questions had already been forming in my own mind, but her disclosure of the non-reporting was unexpected.  I felt a nagging fear for our future here and realized that there was now a delicate balance between continued deception and having our needs fulfilled from Earth.  That there may even be a doubt as to their capabilities of sending anything further.  Would an exodus get underway, even if we did not tell them?  Would they send hundreds more people and supplies, without appropriate expertise, out of desperation?  What kind of chaos would it cause there if we did disclose?

The empath..

A day after our momentous meeting, I was having lunch in the dining hall, and Sasha joined me.  I didn’t know where to begin a personal conversation about the things we had seen and heard.  Instead, she broke the ice with a rare smile, and said “I see you’ve been having the odd chat with Oceaxe.  She seems to have put you on a pedestal, because it’s not often she says more than a few words.”  I said that I had indeed found the girl fascinating, and not a little unsettling, and wondered how she had felt when making her accidental discovery.  Sasha said “She is one of a kind, certainly.  You should know that I have been her confidant, of sorts, and she has said that you are a person to be trusted.  It may not seem like much, coming from a 15-year-old, but she is different in this way:  Very intuitive, and, I think, a perfect empath.  It is a little unsettling that she seems to know what people are thinking, or at least what their strong feelings are.  This likely accounts for her withdrawn demeanor.  We take her with us on expeditions because some of us feel that she is a good luck charm.”

I asked why Oceaxe had been included on the fateful expedition in question.  Sasha said “She, of all the children, came with us because her parents were required, and because, contrary to what you might think, she is very strong for her size and build.
She is disciplined, will take orders readily, and does not muddy things with unnecessary chatter.  Something she has told me in confidence, I will share with you.  It has to do with the objects of metal that were found in the cave.  As you know, they are very oddly shaped, and we are still speculating as to their purpose.  She came to me one day, averted her eyes, and said “They are keys”.  I was taken aback for a moment, and the question, of course, was forming in my mind.  Before I could get it out, she said “The pieces from the cave.  They are keys”.  When I asked what she meant, and what these keys would be for, she said she did not know, but that we would find out.”

There was going to be another search expedition within two weeks’ time, and Sasha asked me to attend.  I was tempted to say “You couldn’t keep me away”, but just concluded our conversation in a businesslike way, thanking her for the invitation.

We take to the caves..

The day came for our trek to the caves.  Besides myself, there were two committee members:  Sasha and a man named Alexei Nedev, who was the father of Ylla.  Mark and the other committee members stayed back for security reasons.  There were also a couple of the outpost’s counsellors, and, of course, Oceaxe.

We took two motorized transports, which had been charged from wind turbines, and they took us most of the way along the shelf where the famous caves had been found.  Alexei led the way.  There was some climbing involved, but without great difficulty in the lower Martian gravity.  Flagged markers had been placed at the cave’s mouth, so it was not long before we stood upon the threshold.

With lamps glowing, we walked carefully into what appeared to be the main chamber, unremarkable except for its size.  Oceaxe tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to the side chamber where she had been the first to find water on that singular day some time ago.  It had other tributary alcoves, along seemingly convoluted tunnels.  The one where the bones and implements were found had been flagged as well.  In single file, we threaded our way via a narrow tunnel and entered a room where there were bound chests or caskets, made of metal, and kinds of shelves that had been cut into the chamber’s walls.  Behind me, and second last in line, Oceaxe looked in my direction and smiled.  All of the shelves and chests were empty, as they had left them.  I felt a strange sensation that we were invaders, and marveled at the pool of ice water that could be seen further in.

A more detailed examination of the chamber was undertaken.  No further artifacts were found, but Sasha, having shone her light upon one of the shelves, discovered some curious glyphs that had been carved or etched at its base.  They had almost been missed, due to an overgrowth of some lichen-like fungus that seemed to thrive in this moist environment. As she carefully scraped and brushed, then took pictures, I stood behind her for a better look.  I had seen these, or something similar, before.  We all exchanged glances as to what this could be about, then decided to quit the chamber and explore further if possible.

Along another of the winding tunnels we went, Alexei leading.  After we had progressed some 100 yards, the tunnel straightened out.  We heard Alexei calling for a stop and beckoning us to catch up.  He reached up to just over shoulder height and ran his gloved hand along the tunnel wall.  What showed in the lamps’ radiance was a wide band of solid metal, some twelve inches in width, that was embedded in the stone.  He got out some small scraping implements that they used in their Martian archaeology, and tested the metal, which seemed, remarkably, to be soft and malleable.  It was a dull silver in color, and, upon further examination, looked to be the flat edge of a larger structure.  We shone the lights further down the tunnel, which stayed straight as far as we could see.  Then the lights were directed along the flat top edge of the metal rail, or whatever it was.  What we found, over the next hundred yards, was that it protruded from the rock further, as it went along, and then curved back in until it disappeared.

Sasha had been busy taking some metal samples.  Oceaxe was chipping away at the rock underneath the metal.  The others had gone further down the tunnel to see if there was anything else of note.  We stayed for another half hour, and they returned, saying the tunnel came to a blind end, with no side chambers.  I heard Oceaxe in my earpiece, and she called me over, looking at me and pointing sharply to where she had been digging.  On the underside of the metal rail were more of the glyphs, clearly visible and uncorrupted by fungus.  She gave me a puzzled look, and the others gathered around.
I now knew where these had been seen before:  On Oceaxe’s famous “keys”, and, more strangely, in the carved figures we had been presented with upon our arrival on Mars.  The significance of my dream, perhaps, was being made clearer.

Another country heard from…

We got back home without incident, bearing with us the curious photographs and metal samples. There was much discussion about the metal rail or rim that was found within the long tunnel. Obviously, it was a tooled surface with familiar markings etched into its underside. And, yes, the markings were of the style of those seen upon Oceaxe’s keys.

It was agreed that we would revisit the place with an eye to doing a proper excavation from above, with the drilling and blasting equipment still at our disposal and try to determine what the size, shape, and purpose of the object was. The tunnels below were not even wide enough to use a pickaxe.

In just over a month after our return from the caves, we received a communication from the authorities on Earth.  Many of the space agency’s staff had been lost in the invasion or had died from climate related events.  Our committee, in the preceding weeks, had decided that we were still too dependent on Earth to hinder any plans they may have for further settlers.  Medical supplies were crucial, and we did not have the means to manufacture them ourselves.  If Earth announced that they were sending thirty ships and the necessaries to expand the settlement, our obfuscation would do no good.  All we could do was give them our expertise as to what was needed, material and personnel-wise.   Mark MacInnes took the call.  He spoke to one Robert Mueller, the “interim” commander.

Robert painted a grim picture.  One robotic ship, carrying supplies and materials for new structures was to be launched within two weeks.  There would be no room for any excavation equipment or other raw materials.  There were only three more ships that were in the process of construction, designed to carry crew, for a maximum of 25 more people.  These of course would have to be the most qualified for the job of survival and terraforming on a hostile planet.  There was news that the remaining resources on our home world were being directed toward saving lives and building shelters against the elements.  Our people, once in the billions, were now in the millions.

Then we made the formal announcement to them that we had discovered water, and evidence of past intelligent life here.  We also had to admit that this was known for some time, and our reasons for not disclosing it.  There was a few seconds’ silence.  Robert was aghast.  He said that they may have to change their plans, delay the cargo ship, and send a commander with it who would assume authority over the settlement, in view of our effective insubordination.  Also, that resource allocation on Earth may be rethought, in view of our revelations.  More ships and greater might be built, now that they knew Mars could support life, of a sort.

His last remarks were telling.  What he said was “For good or ill, you have changed the course of human history”.

Then, he was put on the phone to Oceaxe.

A time of uncertainty…

With about a fifteen-minute radio delay from Mars to Earth, Robert made sure that he said his piece to Oceaxe, really just to offer congratulations on her discovery of water on the planet, and to wish her the best.  Nevertheless, she was pleased, thanked him in a formal tone, and gave the com back to Mark.

It would be something between six and eight months before the supply ship arrived, if it did, and we had adequate resources for that time and then some.  The manned crew ships were more indefinite, and their personnel still in question.  The future of the colony hung in the balance, and we could but do what was needed to carry on life as normal.  Oceaxe had her own private thoughts as to what would transpire on Earth, but she was still a child in status, and had yet to grow into her confidence.

We still had material to build additional limited shelters, and work went ahead on that.
The photographs of the cave glyphs were compared with the ones on the “keys” and, although of different characters, they were very similar in style.  The shavings of metal we took from the object were analyzed with our basic equipment and were found to be an alloy of lead.

On a certain day at lunch, I asked Oceaxe to join Sasha and me for refreshments, and I steered the conversation around to the sculptures that she and Ylla had presented to my crew on our arrival.  I was curious as to where they had gotten the idea for their design, for I now knew that there were connections between them and what we had found in the caves.  The markings on the sculptures were too like the artifacts we found to be a coincidence.  The figures also had headgear that was exaggerated in size and elongation.  Oceaxe said that she had “dreamed” the design and had felt that it had “belonged” here.  When I asked her what her thoughts were about the skulls and bones that had been found, she demurred, and I knew that prodding her further at that time would do no good.

Two months from the time of our last communication with Earth, we organized our expedition to investigate, and hopefully excavate, the large metallic object we had seen.  It was a long arduous process to get above the caves with the rudimentary excavation and blasting equipment we had.  No children came with us this time.  We expected a certain depth of sand and pithy soil before our blasting cores could be packed into bedrock.  What we found was a much deeper layer of sand and soil, which slowed us down considerably.  When we felt we were getting close to being able to drill, we were stymied by the approach of a sandstorm of surprising size and had to abandon our dig for that day.  It was a disappointment, because we did not know how much of our work would be in vain if our excavation was filled in with sand once again.

Sasha came to me a week later.  She had tried to dig a little deeper into Oceaxe’s thoughts about the skulls in the cave and was told that the head dresses on her peculiar sculptures had been designed “for those people”.  As to the glyphs, she had copied the style from the “keys”.  When Sasha asked her what she meant by “those people”, Oceaxe would only say, with certainty, They were people.  I know they were people.

Strange days…

We made another trip to the site of the excavation, and, indeed, our previous labours had not been rewarded.  The frequency of sandstorms had increased, and the digging we had accomplished was for naught.  This was only a scouting trip to check on feasibility for continuing the dig.  We were able to ascertain one important thing, with sounding instruments:  The covering layer of sand and soil at the site was much deeper than we had thought.  The actual rock covering the artifact was but a few feet thick and could conceivably be blasted with some hope of removing it.

About three months after our communication with Robert, he contacted us once more with the news that the supply ship had been launched some weeks before, with a change in its payload:  There would indeed be a new commander on board, one Sergei Bratya.  He was accompanied by an additional medical officer to spell those at the outpost.  There was a smaller payload of structural material for new shelters, but more excavation equipment was on board.  Earth command had thought this important, and Bratya was to take charge of its deployment, and of the outpost as well once he had established himself.

We now had little to do, exploration-wise, because of the increased weather activity, and the weather maps we received from satellite transmissions were not encouraging.  More attention was given to analysis of the skulls and bones that were found in the caves.
Aside from having an elongated shape and outsized eye sockets, they were larger than life, in terms of our own.  Oceaxe said that in her “dream”, she had seen figures assembling in front of a building.  Figures that would give flesh to these bones.  With nothing to compare their size against, all she would say was that they wore head dresses, and that she had modeled her sculptures after them.  There was some amusement as to her descriptions, and her halting demeanor when she spoke about them, but Sasha thought otherwise.  She knew that Oceaxe never jested about anything, and, although it was a child’s dream, she gave it more credence because of her study of the girl.

One clear and cold night, as most of us were preparing for slumber, there was a call from one of the outbuildings.  It was an alarm, of sorts.  An observation party was needed, because something had been spotted above, in the starry darkness.  We treated it seriously, and Mark organized several of us to don suits and head out into the clear night air.  We met the other personnel halfway and were directed to a certain quadrant of the heavens.  There was a deep darkness outlining itself against the stars.  With complete silence, it moved slowly and obliquely away from us.  Without a reference point, it was a guess as to whether it was very close up, or further away and of considerable size.  We watched until it was no longer visible.

The mysteries deepen…

Not one single person involved in the Mars missions ever considered that weapons might one day be needed by the first settlers.

What we saw that night, in starlit silhouette, could not have been a natural heavenly body, as it appeared to slow perceptibly above us for something less than a minute, before veering away with a change of speed and direction.  It was then lost to sight, and we made our way back to base.  Our satellite feed could find no trace.

We were confounded, and not a little scared.  A call was placed immediately to Earth headquarters.  Robert Mueller assured us that nothing secretive had been launched from there.  The information we imparted was disturbing to he and his colleagues, and he begged time to set up important meetings on its implications.  We were virtually defenseless against anything hostile, and we had to assume the worst.  We had but two things to do:  keep ’round the clock observation and take shelter if necessary.

In the planning of the first forays to this planet, decades ago, it was deemed of great importance to excavate and build an underground refuge for use in the event of an unforeseen menace.  Mars has a thin atmosphere, and any meteors would come through it almost unscathed.  The dig and construction of the shelter had taken years with our limited capabilities.  Now we were glad that it had been done.  Nothing further happened for several more days.  We had been directed not to make any unnecessary excursions.

In the night, we felt, rather than heard, the shock of a minor tremor beneath us.  An alarm was raised, and our sleepy citizens were sent to the shelter.  Those who remained above were Mark, two more committee members, myself, and some service personnel.  We honored the directive from Mueller and his boys, and so were handcuffed as to our options.  The satellites spied nothing except the usual weather events, and we were not in a great vantage point to see a very wide area.  No further occurrences were noted, and, after 3 days, those in the shelter were allowed a return to normal life.

After a three-week period of calm, Robert directed us to set up a scouting mission to get a better view of the canyon and surrounding area.  It was to be composed of only three of us.  Besides himself, Mark chose me and Alexei.  We waited for a clear forecast, then took the route that led to the plateau above the caves, which afforded a good view.

There were a few dust devils obscuring our vision.  When they had subsided, we were very near the site of our old excavation above the caves.

What we found was a massive crater-sized hole in the cliff side, where we had begun our dig months ago.  Bare bedrock was exposed in about a one-hundred-yard radius.  Sand and soil were still dribbling down into the hole.  The crater was empty.  Its bottom was a perfect geometric shape of a half sphere.  The rock was as smooth as glass.  Towards the top of the crater could be seen the perfect shape of a curved rim that conformed to the dimensions of the bowl beneath it.  There was no evidence of blasting.

We lowered Mark down into the crater and within a minute or two he signaled us to bring him back up.  There was a rock outcropping that overhung the inner edge of the bowl, and he had ventured a quick exploration underneath it.  He reported that what he had found was unmistakably the narrow tunnel that we had once walked along and discovered the glyphs.

Events conspire…

The “artifact” was gone.  The space it had occupied was astounding.  We had no idea.  Loose rock and sand had fallen into the bottom of this massive bowl-shaped cavity.  The tremor we had felt in the night had to have been related to this anomaly.  The smoothness and sharp contours of the crater suggested that the object, aside from being massive, had been in the shape of a bowl, or more likely a disk, some hundred yards in diameter.  How could something of this size be removed so quickly, and without any signs of excavation or blasting?

Mark, Alexei and I had ventured a search of the area.  We chipped out some samples of the smooth glasslike rock and investigated the tunnel that we had explored so long ago.  There was one more shock of surprise.  The chest that had contained the skulls, bones, and metal objects was missing.

Earth command was informed that we were not alone on the red planet, or, at least, another had been here.  We were in lockdown.  We could not look to them for help.  The only ship on its way to us carried two officers and a cargo of machinery and materials.

The rock samples we had taken contained, as expected, traces of the same lead alloy we had found in the tunnels.  The whole settlement was abuzz with our revelations, which could not reasonably be kept from people who were effectively locked in.

Several days later, Robert Mueller informed us that plans had been changed for the remaining ships that were under construction.  There would be fewer people, but there would also be a shipment of weaponry.  It seemed that those left back home were banking on us to carry on the flame.

I had joined Sasha and Oceaxe at the dining table one evening.  There was an air of apprehension.  Sasha had tried to keep things light, but Oceaxe was morose and brooding.  She had just stood up and begged her leave when she passed out and fell, hitting her head on the table.

The end times approach…

In the decades since the first humans set foot upon Mars, many important things had been accomplished.  The first habitations, built initially by robotic missions, had been rendered functional.  The extraction of water and oxygen from the soil and thin atmosphere had evolved to a livable level of efficiency, and so had the production of bio-engineered foods.

The long-term plan for Mars settlement was to eventually begin the terraforming of the planet, to be theoretically accomplished over decades or longer.  With the catastrophic events that had taken place on Earth, irreversible changes had been set in motion.  The space program had been all but destroyed, and, even with our discovery of at least a limited supply of water on Mars, and the increasing desperation back home, we could not realistically hope for further aid beyond the two remaining ships that were scheduled for launch.  The future of our kind was not looking good.

Our girl Oceaxe had suffered a nasty gash and swelling to her forehead and was being watched over in the medical wing.  She had been sedated and was being checked for concussion symptoms.  Sasha had been at her side whenever she could.  The day after the accident, Oceaxe awoke and seemed fully alert to us.  When asked if she could tell us anything about her loss of consciousness, she said she had had an intense vision and had felt that there was a presence who knew about our settlement and wanted to communicate with us.  She had not sensed any threat.  We were to send a party to the plateau above the “excavation”, about a day’s journey.

In effect, and without prejudice as I say it, we were now taking direction from a sixteen-year-old.

When she had recuperated fully, we set out with the original group that had made the tunnel discoveries, with our new leader in tow.  Passing the site of the crater, we still had two hours or more to get to the far uplands of the canyon.  We made a stop for equipment adjustments.  Oceaxe was visibly excited and showed impatience to get to our goal.  About an hour before twilight, we crested the last of the hills.

Partially obscured by blowing sands, and with nothing to gauge our distance from it, we witnessed a phenomenon straight out of folklore and ancient theorists’ visions.  A pyramidal structure which, from our vantage point, looked as big as the one at Giza from our distant past.  Our young guest was crying and smiled through her tears.

Life to Life

We stood stock still.  Starstruck.  In front of us was an obsidian pyramid, the late light glancing from it in spitted reflections, directionless.

The building, if such it was, might have been within two hundred yards of us.  We judged this by the activity seen along its perimeter.  There were figures moving slowly and deliberately.  They looked tall.  Slender.  Graceful.  When we had held our position for upwards of five minutes, this assembly, as one, brought their long arms up from their sides to form a “V” above their shoulders.  The gesture, together with their tall head dresses, reminded me immediately of our sign of “Peace”, but inverted.  They then bowed for a full thirty seconds and stood erect.

Taking this as a sign to approach, we did so.  Weaponless, we were at their mercy.
Oceaxe had a confident smile and bade us to go on.  In a short time, we stopped, and looked upon the first advanced beings that modern humanity had ever seen.  Less than twenty feet separated us.  They were indeed as we had perceived them from a distance:  Seven to eight feet in height, over ten with their head dresses.  Slender limbs, with long bony hands seeming to have extra knuckles.  But their faces. Their faces.  Olive skinned, oval, with startling almond eyes set at an acute angle.  The lids, when they did blink, flicked from the center of the face to the outer edge.  Their mouths seemed an afterthought.  They were truly alien to us, but we, all of us, did not feel a menace.  They made no sound.  Oceaxe was trembling and did not blink at all.

Without a seeming invitation, she stepped forward to the center of the assembly and performed the same gesture of greeting, then lowered her hands in front of her, palms up.  Two more figures came from within, bringing a chair and easel of sorts.  There still was no sound.  Oceaxe was seated, and a figure on either side of her began showing tablets and charts of undetermined meaning.  A third figure was behind her and at times laid its slender hands upon her shoulders.  She was not alarmed, nor did she seem to notice.  She sat in rapt attention, occasionally nodding at her guides.  At last, the two began to draw what might have been a story of sorts and made gestures to her.  We knew instinctively to hold our peace and wait.

The ceremony having ended, Oceaxe returned to stand with us, bowing her head.  The assembly once again performed their welcoming gesture with grace, then turned toward the imposing structure before us.  Without the smallest sound or quiver, it rose majestically until it was three feet from the Martian sands.  There we stood, transfixed, until it settled once again.  The figures faced us, then filed inside, through an area of deeper blackness.  All was quiet.

Oceaxe seemed to slump for a moment, then raised her head and told us we must go.  As we prepared to leave for the outpost, there of course was a flurry of questions, but Sasha raised her hand sternly and told us to save them.

Oceaxe’s only words:  I will sleep.

Hard choices, hard farewells…

Through our sleeping girl, the Tall Ones had told us a story of years in the millions, of civilizations lost, and the seeding of worlds.  And, they had asked a question, the answer to which would change our lives and those remaining of humankind.

Immediately upon our return to base that night, we were informed that a communication from Earth had come.  The supply ship that was on its way had been lost. Sergei Bratya and his fellow officer were dead.  The three ships remaining on Earth were still in a state of flux with their construction and projected launch dates.  It could conceivably be years until they reached us.  Mueller was informed that an important discovery had been made, and that we would present it to him after consulting with our own people.

On the second day after our return, a meeting was held, at the request of Oceaxe.  At her bedside, she was surrounded by her parents and we who had shared in the journey to the plateau.  She then began her story.

The Tall Ones were a truly ancient race.  Some of their ancestors had lived on what we know as the Earth, up until the great disaster at the end of the Cretaceous period.  Most had died off, but some had escaped.  To Mars and further out of our system.  The ones that came here had found a world with good soil, free flowing water, and vegetation.  Its atmosphere was livable to them, and they had decided to stay and settle.  They had stayed for many millennia when the atmosphere began to deteriorate.  The lost magnetic field of the planet had made way for deep penetrations by solar winds, gradually stripping the chemical essentials from the air.  Along with this, meteors, unimpeded by a thick atmosphere, were bombarding Mars with greater frequency.  Abandoning the planet was no longer an option for them.  During their mass exodus, accomplished over hundreds of Martian years, some of their ships were lost or disabled.  One such vessel had crashed in the Valles Marineris.  Two of the crew had survived for a time and had taken the bodies of their shipmates into the caves for interment.  Knowing that their own fate was at hand, they enclosed the bodies in cases taken from the crashed ship, carved some crude funereal glyphs in the chamber, and left some signatory artifacts in the chests with the bodies.  They then made their way into the wild and were presumed to have died of exposure.

The people that we had met with, and their ship (for such it was) were part of a return mission to Mars to collect their dead and search for any surviving descendants.  They had detected the downed ship and had extracted it from its rocky cradle.  Upon searching the connecting tunnels, they had found nothing further but the empty chests.

Here, Oceaxe paused.  The exchanges that she had had with the aliens had exhausted her, and much more information had passed between them than we had guessed.  They now knew that our colony of some four hundred souls was in danger of extinction.  She had disclosed to them the events on Earth and the uncertainty surrounding future missions from there.

With unmistakable warmth, they had offered succor to us.  They would take us with them to their home world, beyond our solar system.  We had but to say the word.

At this point, she began to cry and looked to her parents.  They were embracing one another but were silent.  The meeting was called to an end.  Mark, Sasha, and I stayed back.  We would have to break the news to the colony and wanted to know the intentions of Oceaxe and her family.  They asked for time and privacy.

At last, we had our general meeting.  There was much uncertainty and emotion, of course.  To some, it may seem like an easy decision.  Life versus an uncertain future, isolated on a hostile planet, producing the basics to survive, and waiting for news from a disintegrating home world.  But those who would leave were heading into an unknown future as well.  Not pioneers, but hangers-on in a sense, but at least assured of survival.
Oceaxe had cried because she knew that if anyone went, it would have to be her.  Her parents would go as well.  So would Sasha and me.  Mark, Alexei, and about one hundred of our people would stay, carrying on with what hope there was.  Mueller no longer had any control over our decisions.

Within a few days, the split would be made.  There was no help for it.  The one hundred that would stay were the real pioneers, secure in their confidence they would make it.
They could not help our old world in its distress, and Earth’s story remained unknown.

We two hundred were headed for the Universe.


The folding of Cain Coven

Down a choked and muddy stream, through dense thickets, warrens, and vine curtains, lay the charmed coven of Cain.  None knew it, as it was bound with a spell of bewilderment.  Through the attrition of years, most of its first thirteen souls had gone to grass, their bones and plasma powdered and cast into the blue.  Only the strong, the hale, and the powerful remained.  Being different in the extreme from common men and women, these tall but stooped creatures shunned the light of the wide world.  Known only in legends and wives’ tales, they were called Witches.  Never were they found by purposefully looking, though legends had sprung from chance encounters in deep dusk.

In the second century of Cain’s existence, a singular event occurred there.  A baby was born to one in the coven.  Its mother Merylyn had been held in awe, suspicion, and fear when the changes to her body had begun in earnest.  She was made a pariah and was cast out of their hovels to do for herself.  But Merylyn had a knowing, and instinct was seeded within her.  The birthing was hard, and she came nigh onto dying, but lived to suckle and to warm her daughter Elfeena.  In the fragrant warmth of a rotting oak, she stayed thus, wrapping the girl to her breast and sleeping for two days.

In want of food, and still with some pain and bloodiness, Merylyn swaddled the girl in what fabric she had, and covered her somewhat in the oak’s leafy mold.  Risking the light of late afternoon, she went abroad in the dense wood, unprotected by any hiding spells. Her cunning and her patience soon brought her two coneys, and she sacked them in her canvas bag, thinking to reach her bower by half-light.

Those at Cain Coven, numbering now only four, were aware of her, and sent a fetching spell to the ravens of the valley.  With dusk coming on, the birds began an assault on the unfortunate woman, hitting her in thuds and tearing at her flesh and hair.  All defenseless and streaming from many cuts, Merylyn was at last close to her home when she suffered an attack from the largest raven of the black flock.  As it went for her head, grappling with sharp talons and marring her face, her terrible rage was aroused, and she fled no longer.  With swift motions, she broke the beast’s neck and tore off its ebon wings.  The rest of the flock took flight.  With her warm quarry still in its canvas sack, she found the ancient oak at the close of day.  Too weary even to tend her wounds at first, she gathered Elfeena to her.  Her breast would suffice until morning light.  The red blood she could staunch with a poultice of wet leaves and vine.


As was said, those of Cain Coven differed greatly from common men and women.
Now the girl Elfeena, born of a Coven witch, might have elicited fear or revulsion if seen by an ordinary person.  Approaching three years of age, and learning eagerly from her mother, Elfeena was all spindly, with skeletal limbs and fingers.  Her tallness (for her age) was achieved, in spite of a short torso, by very long legs and neck.  The roundness of her large head was made more startling by her widely set eyes, by a mouth that was barely more than a slit, and by the strange appearance of her tiny ears.  All of this set within a complexion of perfect albinism.

With Elfeena’s willing help and surprising strength, mother Merylyn had gathered sufficient deadwood to build them a small but comfortable shelter.  Walled on one side by the roots of an enormous fallen tree, then cleverly disguised as a green hill, it served them well, having been favoured by whatever oaths that Merylyn could lay upon it.

Elfeena had proven to be a quiet child, and her mother despaired at times of her slowness of speech.  Whenever they went for their dusky walks, Elfeena would wear a faint smile and would reply to Merylyn in monosyllables, all the while keeping a firm grip on her gown.

On the sixth day of the sixth month, Elfeena’s sixth birthday, Merylyn had made them a nice stew of roasted rabbit, mushrooms, and leeks.  When they were done their supper, she gathered her daughter to her.  Stroking her hair, and having kissed her forehead, she spoke in low tones:  We need help, and you will need more than I can give you.  Our walks have been a little longer each night, to a purpose.  I have had a visitation in the night, a guidance.  We must go, many miles, over the tall hills.  There, we will be welcomed.  The people are Others, like us.  They know we come.  It is called Coven Gryndal.  It will take many days, and we must shelter as best we can.

The little girl raised her face to her mother.  There was that faint wistful smile.
“It is all right” was all she said.


Gran of Gryndal Coven had been expecting them.
In a carved-out clearing she had waited since mid morning.  Peeping through fronds and foliage, one would have seen her resting on a stump, holding onto a string that curiously disappeared upwards. Clothed in a sagging fabric of shabby brown that resembled cheesecloth, she seemed to be fighting sleep, nodding every once in a while. This was exaggerated by the tall but squashed hat that she wore, seemingly strapped under the chin.

Indeed, she was fast asleep at an hour past high noon when Mother Merylyn and her odd little daughter came to the clearing.  They had seen the bright kite that Gran was flying, fashioned from dyed and scraped skins.  Not wanting to wake the old woman, Merylyn motioned for Elfeena to stop, sit, and wait.

It did not take long.  When Gran had snored a particularly loud one, she woke herself and sat bolt upright, blinking her eyes.  Merylyn and the girl stood up and walked slowly into the sunlight.  Gran rose to her full height, adjusting her wayward cap.  “My Meryl” she said.  “Ye I have not seen for too long.  I see grayness, Meryl.  Come to me.”  With Elfeena still clutching her robe, Merylyn moved to meet Gran’s outstretched hand.  The old woman cradled both of Merylyn’s hands within hers and turned them palms upward.  “You’ve been alone and without Sisters for years.”  Looking for the first time at Elfeena, she said “How comes this one?  Why was it not killed?  For it is an abomination.”

Merylyn stepped back, struggling to control her anger.  “SHE is of me.  She came from my body, six years ago.  I was nigh unto death.  You will please call her Elfeena.  She is my child.”  “Does it speak?” said Gran.  Merylyn took her daughter by the hand.  “Come. We go.”  “Mother, it is all right.  We have come so far.”  But Merylyn was unmoved and made as if to leave.

“Stay” said Gran.  “I spoke out of turn.  I have not felt fear in a very long time, but she has a look that disturbs me.  Please give me your hand, Elfeena.”  Even in Gran’s old and wrinkled hand, Elfeena’s looked so small and white.  “Sit here a moment if you will.  I must talk to your mother.”

Gran spoke quietly to Merylyn by the clearing’s edge.  “We will keep you safe here if they get over the shock.  How was she fathered?”  “I don’t know” Merylyn said simply.
“I see by your eyes that you believe this”, said Gran.  “Were you perhaps sick for a time, and losing your faculties?  Laying unconscious?”  “No.  And you know that none comes to Cain of their own free will.”  “But this child is not of our kind, nor of other kind that I have seen in my long life.  She has spoken but ten words here, and yet I feel that she can command.”

“Please, if you will, Meryl.  Come with me.  Our hold is some distance away, but you have come many times that much already.”

Merylyn knelt to her daughter.  Saying nothing, she searched her eyes and found encouragement and assurance therein.  And so, they turned to follow the old woman, Merylyn maintaining a suitable haughtiness and silence for a time.


Gran Gryndal was not to be denied at her coven.  Nonetheless, she had gone ahead to prepare them for the shock of the peculiar visitors, and to caution them sternly about hasty assumptions and liberties they may have thought to have taken.  She apprised them of the pair’s circumstances, and of how Merylyn had been banished from Cain.
They were to help in the care and upbringing of the strange and white daughter.
Her last words in private to her women were “She is not of us.  I know it.  But she was born to of one of ours.  We will see her colours soon.”

And so, the three made entrance, through a land of confounding dimness, to the hidden coven of Gryndal.  The forms of seven cloaked women stood waiting in a semicircle, some looking grim, and others displaying a keen curiosity. They had ornate headdresses, fashioned from vines and the flowers of summer.  On Gran’s right hand was Merylyn.  Her headdress was of simple black, crowned with the wings of a vanquished raven.  Elfeena had broken her habit of clinging to apron strings, and held gingerly onto Gran’s fingers.  Her big round eyes did not blink as she looked unabashedly from one face to another.  A keen observer would have noted that her small thin lips moved as if with words while she studied them, though she did not speak.

“Come.  Lay on your hands.” said Gran to her coven.  “These are ours, now.”
And so they did, without waiting, though more than one averted their eyes in the embracing.  “Speak, Elfeena.  I know you can.”  So, as each of them knelt to embrace her, the girl said, with her simple shy smile, “Thank you.  Thank you.  It will be all right.”

Though tired from their long journey, Merylyn and Elfeena spent their night around the fire, hearing stories of Gryndal.  Speaking but little, they began to feel, even on this first night, the tentative beginnings of acceptance.  As the dawn glow crept upon them, and they were preparing their beds, Gran took Merylyn aside and asked a strange question.
“I had asked you whether you were ever in a bad sickness or had lost your faculties for a time.  Please think, Meryl.  Has nothing odd or out of place happened to you that you could not explain?”
“Yes, I have thought on it, Gran.  My sleeps are at all times the same.  Except that one day I awoke some two hours later and did not know why.  One of our women said to me “Where did you go?  I did not see you in your bed and went out to look, hurting my eyes. And now, here you are, back where you should be.”  “I ridiculed her, saying that I could not sleep and took a walk.”

Merylyn and Elfeena became used to the customs and people of Gryndal and helped as they could with the coven’s work.  Some few of the women were slower to accept the girl than were others, but her mild manners and willingness at chores served, in the end, to endear her.  She had, at times, some curious ideas as to how things should be done or could be improved, but was never ostentatious or arrogant in presenting them.  Indeed, her quietness sometimes made one listen to her more closely, and she had a way that made the women think that these new ideas were their own.  The girl smiled her smile when a group discussion took place, and the ideas were bandied about.

Merylyn did much of the hunting for game, since she was an accomplished trapper, and many days they had fresh rabbit or even a wild turkey or two.  On a time, she spotted a large hare and resolved to trap it.  It was amazingly fast, and she had laid out a number of snares before it was finally caught.  She was home in time to clean and dress it for their supper, when, on close inspection, she felt an oddness about the animal.  Its eyes were not right, but it was not from illness.  As she made her cuts to do the skinning, its veins and arteries stood out more than they should have, and, most peculiar, its blood had a greenish cast to it.  The gutting gave her the real shock, for the rabbit’s stomach held a hard object.  As Merylyn rinsed away the offal, she saw it:  a small golden medallion.
It was the symbol of Cain Coven.  She quickly stowed it away, and told the sisters that her catch was diseased, could not be eaten, and was to be burnt in the fire.


And now Merylyn knew that the Sisters of Cain had placed a spell of finding and of withering in the gullet of a hare, for they had seen Merylyn’s changes as the work of the devil, and were in fear lest she return.

Seeing that her mother was quiet and withdrawn at the night’s fire, Elfeena sat by her, stroked her hair, and drew her pale lips to Merylyn’s ear.  “Mother, I see you have a sickness.  You shall tell me, for you know who I am.  Tonight, I will not leave your side.”


“Those at Cain have hexed me” said Merylyn to her child.  They were in their bed chamber, and Elfeena was helping her mother with her dressing gown.  “Mother, why do you make fists like this?  Let me see your hands!”  Merylyn, shaking with emotion and with weakness, sat down on the edge of the bed and unfolded her hands.  Elfeena gave an exclamation of shock.  Her mother’s hands were red and blistered in the palms and fingers, as if burned.  “It was in the hare that I caught today.  My hands were bathed in its cursed blood before I knew what it was.  At the last, there was something I was meant to find.  A thing of gold with unique design.  A proof from Cain.  Its handling has burned me.  The blood of the hare has mixed with mine.  I wither, Elfeena.  They cast me away, saying I was under thrall of the Devil.  And now, they have done this last evil.”

Elfeena slowly closed her round eyes and bowed her head.  Quietly, she said “and where is this thing now?”  “I have stowed it in a rag underneath the bed.”  “Give it me, that I may see it.”  “NO!  You are not to handle it!”  “It will be all right.”  Elfeena reached and found the knotted rag.  Undoing it, she held up the glinting gold.  Merylyn, crying, said “What do you do?”  “Mother, see.  It will not harm me.  You know who I am.  I must keep this.  I will have need of it.”  To comfort her mother, Elfeena tried salves that the coven had for the treatment of cuts and burns.  Helping her into bed, she lay beside her until sleep took them both.

In their morning, Merylyn was in a fever of delirium, and Elfeena ran to get Gran.  She begged two things of her- that Henna, Shaman of the coven, should care for Merylyn above all else, and that the women should swiftly prepare a travel pack and make ready the pony for her, as she meant to leave as soon as could be made possible.  Gran balked at this, saying “Where do you mean to travel, girl, by yourself, leaving your sick mother?”
Elfeena said “I go to Cain.  Please get Henna, and I will tell you both.”

And this eldest sister of Gryndal coven, long accustomed to command, turned on her heel and went to do the bidding of a tiny pale girl.


She ran once more to the bed chamber where her mother lay sleep talking.
“I may be a fortnight” she said to Henna.  “May you be blessed in what you do.  Her blood is in mine, and I hope that I may do honour to her grace and courage.”

Elfeena kissed her mother upon the forehead and was startled to see her awaken from the talking dream.  With bandaged hands, Merylyn gestured to her nightstand.  “Wear my wings.  They were for you, all along.”  Elfeena did not cry but closed her eyes once more with bowed head as Henna set the raven crown upon her.  And so, uplifted to see her mother lucid, at least for a time, and in Henna’s good care, Elfeena kissed her once more and made ready to leave.  All of the sisters stood to watch as Gran finished loading up the pony. “Wait a moment, girl, before I wish you Godspeed”, she said, and went into her private quarters. She returned with a long parcel wrapped in linen. “I do not know your full purpose at Cain, but I know what you carry. I do not know how you will find your way, for they have confounded the airs with a hiding spell. If you win through, they will fear you, small though you are. They may even guess the import of the raven’s wings. Carry this staff, and at least they will know from where you came. Its crescent moon is the symbol of Gryndal.”

For six days, Elfeena made her slow passage through hillside, bush, creek and thicket.  On three of the nights, she faced a cold and torrential rain, a tent of oilcloth her only protection.  The sad looking pony grazed despondently on wet grasses. They came upon predators in the forests, but the beasts kept their distance. On the seventh day, they came to a choked and reedy stream and followed it up current. At last, a dense thicket blocked their progress, and here Elfeena tied the pony. From her mother’s tales of the place, she knew she was close, and so left all behind save for the staff of Gryndal. The keening of cicadas grew stronger as she cut her way through clinging vines and undergrowth. The very air grew warmer and crackled with the noise and feel of static electricity. She felt as if she were breathed upon by some hot-blooded beast. But Elfeena and her ken were not known to the spell-makers, and fear of earthly artifice did not come to her.

In an hour’s work, she had climbed through the coarse bush, and stood upon a rise with an open view ahead. She saw, as though wavering behind a heat curtain, the thatched roofs and fencings of a compound. Her mother’s home of old. There was no one about, only a few sheep in a pen. Elfeena rightly guessed that the inmates had not arisen yet. On a stump she sat, some few hundred feet away, and waited. One could see the whiteness of her face, the roundness of her eyes, and her slightly open mouth as she read what she could of this haven and divined the scriptures of its shut-in inhabitants.


The airs about Cain still wavered some and would have vexed an ordinary seeker.
The four crones who abided there had never seen an intruder during their lifetimes, and, coming and going as they chose, they caught game and harvested what fruits the forest had to offer.

Elfeena had camped upon her stump since mid afternoon, and now the slant of late sunrays made long silhouettes on the greens of the pasture.  In heightened alertness, she spied the coven’s four come trooping out for their morning chores.  She did not move, for she wanted them to discover her.  This did not take long, as her whiteness was in stark contrast with the darkening trees.

One of the crones was surely their leader, shown out by her stature, her age, and her habit of command as she moved about her work.  Of a sudden, she spotted Elfeena, dropped her rake, stamped her foot, and let out a scream of alarm.  The others rushed to her side and stood abreast, blinking in the half-light.

Elfeena, sitting until this moment, now stood and began her slow approach.  Appearing as a bent old woman, she leaned upon Gryndal’s staff.  “STOP!”  said the tall crone.
“What are you, and what do you do here?  This is forbidden ground.”  But the small and stooped creature walked on, head bowed as if in supplication.  Thinking it was either deaf or quite brazen, the mother of Cain signalled her brood to join hands.  All was silent until they began the feverish uttering of a seldom used but long-practiced spell of banishment.  One of separation, with no return.  They feared indeed the touch of this creature and would not lay hands upon it.

Having stopped just a few paces away from the Sisters, Elfeena stood erect, and each beheld the other.  Her round eyes seemed to grow larger as she studied her adversaries. Fear, hesitation, and confusion were betrayed in their faces.  Their spell was left spinning in the crackling air.  Head Mother spoke once more in a wavering voice.  “Who are you?  What is your name, pale one?  What is your purpose?  Know that I have hexed you, and soon you will be banished from this earth.  Your staff says you are from Gryndal, but they do not wear raven’s wings, and they do not suffer such things as you.”

Elfeena gave a short and unsettling laugh.  “Yes, I have a name, dark one, but I will not suffer such things as you to know it.”  Reaching into her gown, she brought forth a small thing of gold.  “I bear another token.  You will know it, as it was in your employ.”  Looking quickly to her cronies, the Mother said, “and what is this to you?”

“You have done the unforgiveable to one that has my blood.  She lies now in a death fever.  LISTEN NOW” And her voice rang suddenly within their minds.  “Today we will have two reversals.  Take ye this thing in your hand and put upon it your voiding spell.” The Mother, shaking with a desire for control, nevertheless reached out her hand. Taking the medallion, she bowed her head and muttered so none could hear.  Returning it to Elfeena, she said “It is done.  I care not for your mother, and I see that you stand here as proof of her contract with the Devil.  Now go!”

“I said that we would have two reversals today.  Take ye the second one.”

A witch’s spell stays not unused for long.  The four Sisters doubled up, as if from a gut punch, and began their lament, for now they knew that their cruel spell had been set upon them instead, at the behest of this queer and vexing creature.  As if guided by a puppeteer, they started their long walk of fate, each to a compass point, their pinched faces looking back, looking back on the author of their misfortune.


Upon Elfeena’s return, Merylyn was still walking through forests of fever.  Drenched in sweat, she had become even more thin and delirious.  Henna had only been able to try and cool her and to give her drink.

Rather than come to her mother directly, Elfeena gave the token to Gran, asking her to bestow it.  And Gran came and put it into Merylyn’s hand.  The sleep talking trailed off and was quieted.  “My Meryl” said Gran as the breathing slowed and became deeper.  Elfeena came into the room and saw her mother’s eyes open in recognition.  “More cold cloths!’ said Gran.  Merylyn began to cry as she saw her daughter, raven-winged and road weary.

Elfeena bent down by her ear, and said these things:

Mother!  You will be healed tonight.  By tomorrow, your strength will begin to come.  Then, we are to go, Mother.

“To go?  Where, child?”

Oh, Mother!  We have many meetings!  You know who I am.  We meet the Others!


[Art by Scott Radke]

Joe’s Diner

You know a Joe. Lots of us do.

My Joe, well, he’s got it bad. Back in the day, my Joe was kinda livin’ the Dream. With a nice young wife, a good job that he liked, and, with it all, a beautiful little daughter growing up fast. A bit too fast. Young, impressionable, sullied by the sordidness of high school cliques, she lost respect for her doting parents. Emotional scenes at home, exasperation over her rebellion, lost nights of worry over her increasing absence.

Joe drank a little too much. His wife Mary had a health scare, and they decided to get life insurance. Over two hundred bucks a month it was, but they kept it up. Joe was working sixty hours a week, and thought he was a lucky guy to get it. A few more drinks when that blessed weekend came. He deserved to relax. Their girl left home at seventeen, and went God knows where. Mary’s diabetes medication was getting expensive, and secretly she stopped taking it. Joe was getting depressed and anxious, and got some sort of under-the-tongue pills from the Doc. They levelled him out pretty good. A month shy of two years of her insurance payments, Mary went to coma and died. The insurance company would not pay out the policy.

Broken now, Joe began to bumble through his job, but always made sure he had enough of those funny pills and something to wash them down with. When he forgot to pay the rent for a while, and made too many mistakes at work, his fate was sealed. Now my Joe sits under a bridge. He’s got the goddamn shakes ’cause there’s no more booze. He pats the pocket of his smelly jacket, and yeah, that plastic pill bottle’s still there, the last of his three months’ supply he begged from the Doc. Just to check, he shakes it. Oh please, God. Oh please. Two left. Fall is in the air. My Joe rises, takes his grocery bag, and in the city twilight, walks his well-worn path to McDonald’s dark dumpster.


She saw this mincing figure doing a comic amble toward her, stumbling as if drunk.  Couldn’t have been, though, ’cause that silver platter he was balancing never tilted an inch from level.  In dirty tweed and tacked-on tails, our Joe, with a toothy grin under several hats, presented Ella with the finds from his daily dumpster dive.  Cups of Coke or root beer (half empty or half full), some straggly fries, uneaten nuggets, questionable lettuce.  Fine fuel for tonight’s stomach ache.  With a flourish, he set down his garbage can lid and cozied up beside her, doing a quick study of her person. 

Ella of the red-rimmed eyes, the broken nose, the several teeth.  But, most of all, Ella of the Mona Lisa Smile.  She had been gone these recent days, and Joe had feared for her.  He said nothing, but returned her smile, then stood up to stretch and scratch. “Garçon!  A bottle of your best house wine!”  says she.  This cheered him some, seeing her old sardonic sarcasm, but he did not laugh.  The winds of late October papered them with leaves in crispy flight, and he felt the chill. 

Bumping hips, as if to shove her off the broken bench, Joe tried to be playful, to coax some more of that smile, but Ella hung her head and looked away.  He gathered her to him, cradling her head, angling her shadowed face up to his.  Ella, that hard-bitten girl, that leader of the old rat pack, was giving up.  With her face bathed in grudging tears and runny nose, she bade him “Get away.  Just get away!” They were two of the same.  Finding only ugly hurt in their lives, they did not know how to accept love.


It would not be long for old Ella, Joe thought.
Slumping, with hunched shoulders, she rocked gently on the hard bench.  With her only warm garment being a bright red scarf, she averted her eyes from him, hummed a broken tune, and shuffled her feet in an effort to outrun the cold.

Joe said to her “I’ll be gone for about half an hour, Ella, but I will come back with something to keep us warm.”  Used to empty promises, she chuckled sardonically and idly waved him away.  Joe was hoping the last dumpster he had seen on his travels had not been emptied yet.

True to his promise, he returned with a sheet of dirty foam rubber and a discarded reel of wire.  These he spread out on the sidewalk.  “Ella, I want you to lay down here.  I’m gonna keep you warm for the night.”  “You crazy?” she said, but, before she could protest further, he picked her up, laid her down on the foam sheet, and rolled her up as neat as you please, her scarlet scarf visibly entwined between the layers.  With the wire, he tied up the package in two places, just below her feet and around her shoulders.  “There you are, the human Jelly Roll!  Or….or….a winter cocoon, soon to be a summer butterfly!  You warm now?”  Her sad eyes said a thank you, and there was a thin-lipped smile.  She made as if to sleep.

Joe boxed himself in the thick old appliance carton he carried as a backpack, did up the buttons that still remained on his jacket, and tried to settle in for the night.  Within ten minutes, he knew it was no good.  The wind had picked up, and fingers or toes would be frostbitten by the morning.  He got up and went hunting down the steep slope of the ravine not far from them.  As Heaven would have it, someone had ignored the NO DUMPING sign and he found a green garbage bag full of discarded clothing.  It was his turn for a wan smile, and, before long, he was snoring in his own cocoon.

Our curtain now closes on the darkling scene:  A sleeping jellyroll dozing on the park bench, grateful for the warmth.  A crude igloo of cardboard beside her, all hands on deck, all blinds drawn.  If one peered into the waning light, one would see, through glittery snowflakes filtering down, the word REFRIGERATEUR on his side door, shown out by the fizzling beam of a faulty streetlight.



Melrose 3- five oh eight eight

Karla had just turned 42, three nights after Christmas. At a brisk pace, she hurried back home from the corner store in the cold dark dribbling rain. Up the six steps of cracked concrete, she turned her bent key to the apartment lobby.

Still dripping, she heard the same old squeal of her very own dented steel door, unit number 11. She had tied her plastic shopping bag against the rain, so tightly that her cold achy hands grew impatient with the knot, and so she grabbed the dull scissors that hung above the sink. The six-pack of stale cupcakes, each of a different color, and the mini sparklers, would be her party tonight.  In fact, she had two good reasons for this solitary celebration.  Ten years ago, on this exact date, her divorce had come through.  Not an imbalance of blame on either side, really.  No abuse, but not enough caring.  It had taken them three years to find out they were each looking for someone else.  Since that date, Karla had found her way into three different relationships with men, and all had ended in rancor.

Happy Birthday, you four-time loser.  A little chuckle as she lit the sparklers.  Haha, I ain’t blowin’ these things out, but I’m sure as hell gonna eat every one of those cupcakes tonight.  Her “loser” comment was only a repetition of something she had overheard, an ex-friend’s vitriolic comment to another, supposedly out of her hearing.  That kind of thing hurts the worst.  She had lived the ins and outs of these sad tales, and knew well the foibles of everyone involved, herself included.  She knew also that she was not a bad, evil, or false person and felt, in her heart of hearts, God damn.  We just can’t forgive each other our trespasses.

A little bloated, and on a sugar high, she pushed in the last cupcake in one go, washing it down with a glass of milk. The spent sparklers went into the trash bin. God, only ten o’clock? Ah well, let’s go to bed with a book, ’til the sugar wears off. Brush the teeth, take a pee, on with the nightgown, jump into those covers.

At 10:03, her old green wall telephone, with the kinky coiled cord, rang three times.

Paul, in those doldrum days between Christmas and New Years, had returned to his flat after a couple of days up north with his folks.  He had always liked to visit them, (sporadically, that is) even though lately his Dad had been making a few innuendos about his decidedly single life of late.  At 45 now, he had not been in any kind of relationship for over two years, since his wife Patty had been killed in a crash.  The time was coming soon, though, that he would tire of the solitary life, and he was feeling it tonight.

Two weeks back, he’d been out for a drink with some of his buddies, and somehow the conversation had gotten ’round to what their lives were like when they were kids, or teenagers growing up.  One guy had said Hey, you know something? I’m forty-seven goddamn years old, and you know what?  I can remember my goddamn phone number from the house I lived in on Calvington Drive until I was sixteen.  How many of you schmucks can say that?  Paul had asked him what the big deal was, we all had things we remembered from our childhood, then was sorry he had said it.  His wobbly little buddy was nonplussed, but not belligerent, and got up to go home.  That had ended their night.  The thing was, Paul thought, yes the funny thing was that he had found himself remembering exactly the same thing on his way home.

Tonight, in the quiet cold rain of December 28th, as he lay in his comfy recliner watching some brainiac show on television, he didn’t realize that he was smiling as the number surfaced once again, as if it had floated into view on one of those old Magic 8-Ball toys. I’m gonna have a little fun tonight. This’ll be just like being a kid and playing Nicky Nicky Nine Doors. He slid his phone out of his pocket and dialed the number: *** 743-5088. Melrose Three, Five Oh Eight Eight. He had to see what soul was now at the end of this nondescript number he had held in memory for thirty years. He was uncertain as to what he would say to them, or how they would react, but his curiosity was in high gear now. ………At 10:02, he dialed.

Three rings, no answer.  He suddenly lost his nerve and hung up.  Sat there reproaching himself for being such a chicken, lit another smoke, then took the plunge.  Three more rings, then a woman’s voice.  “Hello?”  Hi.  My name is Paul.  I…..  “ I’m not interested, thanks”……..No no, I’m not selling anything, please give me a sec.  “Who are you?” I know it’s a stupid thing to say, but I had your phone number growing up, until I was fifteen.  I just wanted to see if it was still around, and who it belonged to.  “Well, that’s a bit crazy, right?”  Yes, I’m real sorry.  To have bothered you, I mean.  No more questions.  I’ll let you go, and have a good night.  And, haha, please don’t report my number.  “Now, how would I do that?”  Well, it must be showing up on your phone, right?  “Showing up?  Haha, no, buddy.  I’ve got a green wall phone from the 1960’s.  Don’t worry about that.” Ok, well, goodbye, and sorry once again.

Paul, red-faced, lay back in his chair again, an annoyed squint upon his face. Why so nervous, old man? It seemed that serendipity had done its ellipse back to him after his time of grief and loneliness. He remembered once again how he had met his wife of fifteen years. It was over the telephone. He had called to make an appointment with a dentist. She had answered the phone. If an electronic signal can convey spirit, it did on that day, in both directions. Something in her voice, her inflections. They had started to chat, at first haltingly, then as if they were long lost pals. He had gotten up the nerve to ask her out, with freezing still in his cottony mouth, after he had come out from his root canal. She had thought it was hilarious.

Something about this voice tonight. He dialed the number again.  Boy, this time I am going to be in hot shit. The line was busy.  He hung up. Dude, go to bed. Then his own rang. *743-5088 is calling you.*

“Hello? Listen, I’m sorry, I ….”
It’s okay. Don’t worry, Paul. You didn’t wake me up or anything. I just don’t normally get many phone calls. The more I thought about your little request the more I laughed about it. It’s something that I would probably do myself. What made you do it, anyway?”

“Oh, Just something stupid. One of my buddies was bragging that he could remember his childhood phone number, and it made me think about the same kind of thing. It was just an affectionate thought that came to my head because it was a nice time in my life those first 15 years. Stability, same place, same friends, happy parents. Good time. I just got curious if the old number was still around, did not mean to upset you.”

“You’re a bit strange, aren’t you? Maybe kind of like me. By the way, my name’s Karla.”

(Paul is thinking “maybe I’ve got a live one here”) “Are you kidding? Your name is Karla?”(pause on the other end, then “something wrong with my name?“) “No. No. It’s just…haven’t you heard about the infamous couple Paul and Karla who went around killing people?”

“Oh, for Chrissakes, yes. And we’re not a couple.”

“Forgive me presuming, but it feels like you’re alone.  Would you like to go out for a coffee sometime?”

Forgive me for not assuming, but are you alone or attached?”

“Okay, touche.  I’m two years a widower.”

“Oh Jesus.  So sorry.  My mouth gets me in trouble once again.”

“That’s okay.  But you didn’t answer my question.”

“More alone than you might think.  Divorced ten years ago.  A few short relationships since then.  I guess I’m just a bitch.”

“Well, meeting for a coffee can’t hurt….unless you think I might be one of those internet stalkers.”

“What’s Internet?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Listen, buddy.  You’re talking to somebody who still has a wall phone and gets two channels on her television”.

“Hah!  This might be fun, you know?  I could pick you up on Saturday.”

“Um, you’re scaring me a bit.  Could I take a raincheck and call you?”

“Sure, Karla, I’ll keep the afternoon clear.”

(She is thinking “Boy, I’ve got a real live one here.”)

She lies in bed, lights out.  The bitchy old TV staring at her with its snowy screen.  Finishing her chocolate milkshake and chips, she wipes the crumbs away.  I’ll vacuum later.  She wrestles with conflicting emotions.  Lonely too long, but comfortable in her penury, like an old shoe.  Her long-time job as a cashier, just enough to pay the rent and eat a little.  This guy just might be one of those internet creeps.  And, am I gonna go through this stuff again, for the fifth time?  The very last thing that worries her to sleep is her broken tooth, on the front, of course.

As for Paul, he has no such worries.  He sleeps the sleep of the dead, probably the best one he’s had in years.

Thursday morning found Karla at the local butcher.  Well, actually, dentist.  She and her friends had called him The Butcher because of his reputation for bad jobs or not enough anesthetic.  But, he had filled the need for someone affordable in this sad neighborhood.  “Can you make this look more like a tooth?”  He assured her he could, but it would cost her five hundred, cash on the line.  “Three hundred.  I can have it by Friday”.  Four hundred would do it, he said, but the price would go up next week.

Thursday afternoon found her at the local Coin & Stamp shop, toting a plastic bag containing a large album.  It had been her father’s.  He had been a collector, and she was certain that some of the things in it had value.  The short grey-haired man behind the counter began to leaf through it, paused a couple of times, took a closer look, then said: “I’ll offer you two hundred”.  She knew then that there was something he wanted, and said “I just came from the library, and I looked some of these up.  Just some of them.  And it looks like this whole thing is worth at least five.”  “Ma’am, those stamp catalogs are just guidelines.  The market fluctuates.”  “Okay.  I’m going somewhere else.”
She walked.  “Will you take three hundred?”…….sold.

By Friday afternoon, she had taken half a mouthful of Tylenol for the pain and was scratching her top lip and itchy nose.  She took one more look in the mirror.  It would have to do.  She hoped the glue would hold out as long as he had said it would.  He had taken the three hundred, with a promissory note for the rest.

She made the nervous phone call to Paul.  Great.  He would pick her up tomorrow afternoon.  They would go for their coffee and wherever else she wanted to go.  Everything would be fine.  She searched her closet and dresser for her Sunday best, and found some pantyhose, a tartan pleated dress, a white lacy blouse, and a pair of her sister’s hand-me-down shoes, in navy blue.  Then spent an hour ironing each one of the pleats in the kilt.

It could be said that Karla was close to being as blind as a bat without her glasses.  Horn-rimmed and sturdily built to last the ages, they had a thick lens on one side and almost plain glass on the other.  While she was bent over the ironing, they fell to the tiled floor with a click.  Oh God.  Oh God.  She panicked and stumbled about looking for them.  Then, crunch.  She found them.  In two pieces.

Now, almost in tears, she remembered the tube of glue the butcher had given her, to be used in an emergency in case her new tooth broke again.  Went to the dresser, pulled out the old magnifying glass, and set to work.  That, my girl, is enough for one day.  We’re going to bed early tonight.

“No, don’t come to my building. The lot is full and they’re parking on the street. I’ll meet you at the diner. It’s right at the corner of Main and 5th. Oh shit….how will I know you?”

“I’ll be the only one wearing a hat that says HI KARLA on it. Don’t worry, we’ll find each other”

So, Paul is there about 15 minutes early, after ripping a page out of his calendar in the glove compartment, penciling her name in big block letters, and sticking it on his hat band. He sits and orders a coffee, fidgets a bit.

Karla takes one last look in her closet mirror and slumps a little. Jesus. This whole outfit just screams 1960’s Bag Lady. Oh well, it’s a good test. If he can’t take me as I am, I’ll know it right away. No sense in wasting time.

She’s 15 minutes late. He’s on his second coffee, when he sees, through the slits in the blinds, a woman kind of peeking in the front window. He doesn’t know if she’s looking for something inside or studying her reflection. At any rate, it’s a little comical. A crooked pair of glasses rides on a face that squints a little as it studies its own teeth. She walks on, and a few seconds later, makes an awkward entrance.

He’s a bit stricken. Is this her? A tartan skirt with neat pleats, only a few folded over on themselves. Nylons….nylons? who wears nylons anymore? Shoes a little too big, making for a mincing stride as she walks towards his table. But, bright eyes. Yes. Bright eyes. One a little bigger than the other with those peculiar glasses. Full of spirit.

Paul stands up and smiles. What Karla sees, aside from the ridiculous hat, is a nervous guy dressed in Sunday best blue jeans, a suit jacket, and construction boots. But, he was clean.

Good. We’re both nervous. And he hasn’t laughed at me yet. Perfect start.

Paul pulls out a chair for her and smiles diffidently.  Then does something that neither he nor Karla is expecting.  Impulsively, he picks up her hand and puts his own over it.
“I’m Paul”.

“I thought you must be.”, she says, looking at his hat.

(Here is a real original, he thinks)

“What can I get you, Karla?  I’m all coffeed out, but we can have lunch”.

She orders, then sits primly, with fingers entwined in front of her.  Her eyes move quickly up and down, then she turns her head to the side with a little embarrassed smile.

All at once, he is charmed.  She has said only five words, but, in a flash, he has taken in his first impression:  Shy, but playful.  An unconscious batting of the eyelashes, like Betty Boop or Mae West or one of those.  He thought that kind of thing had went the way of the Dodo.  The glued cockeyed glasses.  The unwillingness to smile openly (wonder why?)  The baggy socks pulled on over her nylons, but not enough to cover the run in them.

She sees him as a guy who’s going a little grey (he’s taken off his hat).  Someone with a quirky sense of humor, maybe? (The note is still sticking out of it).  Someone who has had a great sadness settle upon them.  What has touched her the most is the sudden gesture he made, taking her hand like that.

He tries for the humor once again, saying “You know, I am not used to having strange women just walk up to my table and sit down.”

“And I’m not used to having someone pick up my hand like that.”

“Did I offend you?  The devil made me do it.”

“Well, no.  It’s like something out of the movies.”

“Hah!  Funny you should say that.  Just now, I was thinking the same thing about you.”

“Okay.  Now I know you’re buttering me up.  The last thing I look like is a movie star.”

“Now, this may sound weird.  Smile for me a second, Karla.”  (She does, but just a grin)
“No, smile the way you felt when I picked up your hand.”  There we go.  He sees the funny crooked tooth, a little bit off color from the others.  She looks down at the table.

“That’s it!  I know!  You’re somewhere between Carol Burnett and Mae West.”

“You better not be making fun, ’cause I don’t know either one of them.  I told you, I only get two channels.”

“Both charming women.  Don’t worry about that.”

“I was waiting for you to say something about my clothes, and then I thought you had better not.  You came to a date wearing work boots!……sorry, Paul, it’s just funny, that’s all.”

“So, I have two things to tell you.  First, madam, I came in jeans and work boots because they called me in for a couple hours this morning and I had no time to change.  The sports jacket was an afterthought.”

(Karla has a sheepish look, thinking she has offended him)

“Secondly, I see in you someone who has maybe disrupted her own life just to come and see someone like me, and I am touched by that.”

“Yes, well.  You cost me three hundred bucks so far”


“Oh Geez, never mind.  It looks like we’re both glad we came out, eh?”

“I am, Karla.  (he leans over to her).  “Come with me, and I’ll show you my etchings”.


“Never mind.  It’s something from the movies, I think.”


When I wished upon a star

There’s a small cabin in the pines by a secluded lake in north Ontario. I had rented it for two weeks every summer for twelve years. The Belvedere it is called. When its owner passed, his wife wanted me to have it, so we made a deal and it is mine now. Its shingles are puckered and mossy, and the mortar between the cut logs is crumbling away. I’ll fix it though, because one day I hope to live in it.

I have furnished it with esoterica from my cluttered mind. Mementos from the movies, books, and music that I adore. A stuffed raccoon with a ray gun and ammo vest. A Palantir, its globe of glass ensconced in carved briarwood. The mother ship from Close Encounters. Cellophane flowers. An onion made of glass. A parking meter, and a guitar with a face painted on it (crying). Many more where those came from.

Some of these things had cost me dearly. Others I had bartered for. One that I got for nothing was a broken park bench. Its frame is of cast iron, still intact. All that was needed was some good stout lumber to fix it up. This I have done, and it is bolted solidly onto a flat rock near the shoreline.

At the time of this story, it was early fall, and I had arrived quite late the night before, straight from my job in the city. I had not slept well, even though the peace here is immutable. I awoke, still in darkness, then stoked the fire and relit a couple of kerosene lamps (I am pretending to be a pioneer). Putting the percolator on the stovetop, I waited for the precious cup to warm my hands and my spirits.

As soon as the soft glow of dawn gave shape to my flagstone steps, I put on a warm sweater and jeans and went down to the bench by the still lake. It was that enchanting moment when the sparkling stars settle more deeply into midnight blue, and are then chided by our own star into cerulean.

A shallow blanket of mist hung above the waters, and I heard the eerie tremolo of loons conversing. Feathery breezes, competing for direction, were like warm caresses, and I wished a yearning wish to be part of some great story.

Just before full light, as I was searching out the singing loons, I spied a dark thing that seemed to swim quickly and aimlessly. Now in a line, now in wide circles. Noiseless, making little disturbance to the placid waters, it approached the sandy shoreline near me. When it rose from the lake, a scant distance away, I was surprised and taken aback by the silhouette of a woman both tall and lithe.

She came toward me with purpose and, as I rose in inquiry, she stood next to me, uttering not a word. Stupidly, I said “hello”, expecting a reply. Instead, she searched my face. I felt not a little discomfort, but could not help but return her gaze. I am usually good at telling a person’s age. With her, it was different. Dressed in a cotton shirt and shorts that had curious designs on them, her body appeared to be that of someone perhaps thirty years old, in the bloom of health. But her eyes, at once haughty but kind, gave one the feeling that they had seen many lives.

“Can I help you?” I said. Her eyes softened, and she gave a smile. “No” she said, in a silken basso voice. “But I may help you. May we sit?” As if in a dream, I remained standing, thinking, thinking. All at once I realized my rudeness and motioned her to sit. I had seen this person before. The long blonde hair. The tan legs. The inscrutable eyes. But, I thought, it is ridiculous. That was thirty years ago, and still she looks the same.

“I am Sarah”, she said, and I knew. I did not say my own name, for she knew.
“I will tell you some things”, she began. I knew not to speak, neither to answer nor to ask, as my night’s wishing grew in wonder.

“Scoop up some sand. Let it fall slowly between your fingers. Know that each grain is different from its brothers. Now, as you sit in this world with its wonders and its wars, its loves and its hate and its beauty, consider the sand. I tell you that there are as many worlds of life in God’s great galaxies as there are single grains of sand on every beach of this old Earth.  Those that believe otherwise are mistaken.”

“Some of the peoples have been here.  Some walk among you.  Many more know of you, but do not come because of the savagery.  Know that your Earth is on a knife edge between survival and cataclysm.  There are many here that would give their very lives to save her.  Find them.  Join with them.  This is your great story.  Have courage.  Prepare.  The day is coming.”

With those words, Sarah rose to leave.  Putting her hands upon my shoulders, she touched her forehead to mine.  I could say nothing, but cupped one of her hands within my own.

And so she turned, and went back into the water.  In the full day, she dove into the gentle waves.  I never saw her surface.

for another Sarah story, click

[Photo by


When they went to clean out the dead man’s room, one could see their noses wrinkle from the smell of his cigar years.  There was sweeping and wall washing to be done, but the first thing was to get that stuck window open.  Brother John was dispatched to the hardware for a crowbar.  Their old man had really been a slob.  Floors, furniture, and nearly all other surfaces were rimed over with a thin coating of smoke-embedded grease, and the tile floor was cracked and puckered.

A fold-up easel leaned against the wall by a closet door, and a battered metal case stood beside it.  Since his retirement at age 60, Henry and his loosely-knit family had fallen away from one another.  When it became clear that all he wanted to do was smoke and paint, mother had cut her losses and ran. Henry took this dim little room above a second-hand store. He had enough money to provide each of them with a meagre living and to buy himself unhealthy food and have it brought to him.

And he painted.  Once a month, in summers, he would slide some of his canvasses into the back of his Ford pickup, and set up shop in the pothole parking lot of a small plaza. His stuff was different, oddly pleasing, and a cut above what you would find at Woolworth’s or Kresge’s.  John and Sheila had seen his work, and thought it strange but mediocre.

This night, as they aired the place out and began scrubbing, Henry’s landlord came to the door to see how things were progressing.  Sheila asked him if he knew of a key that their father might have kept for the lock on his closet door.  “No, and that will need fixing too, once you get it off. And no, I don’t have no bolt cutters.”  John nodded, and made another trip to the hardware store.

The deed was done, and the door creaked open with a musty smell.  Dad’s old football jacket, a beanie, some mitts, and a pair of snow boots.  A half dozen shirts that looked as if each might have been devoted to a day of the week, and one worn twice on weekends. And, on the floor in the darkest corner, some rectangular bundles wrapped in towels and tied with twine.

The two kids, having no tools of their own, used the bolt cutters on the heavy string.  When they unfolded the towels, they found Henry’s treasures.  Three paintings as real as photographs.  The first depicted a man’s shirted shoulder, and his hairy arm with a rolled up sleeve.  A leather belt dangled from his fist. In the background was a blurred shadow.  A small figure cowering on the floor with its hands protecting its head.  The second, in stark relief, was of the man’s fist, held up in a threatening manner. A gold signet ring leered back at the viewer.  John and Sheila knew that ring.

The last was a portrait of a boy, barely into his teens.  His bruised face and contorted mouth told all that was needed.  The boy was Henry.  Besides his cuts and bruises, he had one other thing to remember his father by.


Photo by Brett Hurd.

Harvey and the flying machine

Ahhh..I am so tired. But, a story I will tell you,  for your little ones.

Harvey, of rabbit fame, thought himself a rakish Jack of Knaves. Such a suave countenance should by no means go unheralded. He built himself up to be a legend in his own mind. “I am Legend”, he said, having heard that somewhere before. He made himself a hat of green felt with a snakeskin band and a feather stuck into it. “Hah! A feather in my cap! Always knew it!” he said, as he carefully fitted it and pulled it down over one eyebrow. Then, clapping his hands gleefully in front of his full length mirror, he gave his moustache a Dali twirl to complete the picture.

Just last night, he had had a dream in which a thing instructed him in the building of a contraption that would endow him with the freedom of flight. What is more, it suggested to Harvey that, if he embarked on his maiden flight at a certain hour on a certain night, he would gain the means to become The Power, and would rule over all the hamlet of Glynn, neatly nestled on the shady side of the mountain and down into the Valley of Dim.

As we know, Harvey was an excitable lad, and grandiose dreams such as this one do not happen all that often to us earthlings.  “Yes.  Yes!”, he said to himself.  “I can build the machine.  But what am I to do in the middle of some godforsaken night while putting around the rooftops of Glynn?”  Three more days went by, and The Date was but a week away, when Harvey was favored with chapter two of the machine dream.

The marvellous contraption, if built correctly, would provide Harvey with more lift and hovering power than he would need, and, best of all, it would fly in absolute silence.
That was important, as you shall find out in a minute.  The dream thing told Harvey that he was to build a small box of brass with a hinged lid that could be locked.  He was to take this with him on the flight.  “And, at three of the Wee” it said “Ye shall touch each tree.  And then, ye shall light on each chimiNEY.  Open ye box, collect a second of its smoke, see?  Close fast the lock on the lid, then go ye to the next, ’til all is done.  Aye, it is thirty and nine, hear me?  I’ll tell ye more, the night before.”

Harvey went into Glynn in his finest outfit, feather in hat, smiling and saying Halloo to everyone he met.  He collected all of the peculiar things he would need for his tinkering, and pedalled back home, pulling his little cart behind him.  By Caturday’s Eve, all was ready, and Harvey indeed was surprised and excited because he had piloted his “Dragonflyer” on a short maiden flight.  He went to bed early, without tea, for he knew he had to be alert and ready in the wee hours of the morning.  Besides, and more importantly, a dream story was yet to be told.

¶n the chimney smokes of Glynn (his dream master said) dwelt the darkest secrets of every man and woman therein.  Harvey’s box of brass would be the collector of those secrets, and he would hold The Power of their knowledge.  He need only speak discretely to a few of the townsfolk.   When it became clear that Harvey knew things, it would not be long before he could install himself as The Grandee of Glynn, or so he thought.

In the darkness of Caturday’s Eve, the flight of his Dragonflyer was true, and before dawnlight, Harvey’s deed was done.  All was still, until the mutterings of thunder were heard.  A seed of panic was planted in Harvey’s mind, and he set off homebound with haste.  But, as we know, persons who have bad intentions seldom succeed.  The dragon contraption flew as promised until the sizzling bolts of lightning shot their spears at the unfortunate pilot, and one could see his panicked progress in the strobelights of the storm.

All at once, a stray bolt struck the brass box! Harvey was stunned but not electrocuted, because of the thick gloves he had worn against the soot and heat of the chimneys. But the force of the bolt threw him and his box out of the craft, toppling them a hundred feet into a mound of hay bales by his barn. The dragon flew away, doing crazy pirouettes in the dawn sky.

Sore and disheveled, Harvey found the box and went into his house.  The box was still locked. He set it on his kitchen table, then decided to go upstairs for a much needed rest (even though it was broad day).

That same morning, while Harvey was snoring upstairs, the people of Glynn were waking up a little later than they usually did.  Their little children were, of course, up at their normal time, that being the crack of dawn, but they could not wake their snoozy parents until some time later.  That was because something curious had happened during the night.  For some reason, all of the Moms and Dads felt strangely light, as if a weight had been taken from their shoulders.  They were happier than they had been for many a year.  Of course, that was simply because not one of them could remember the secrets they once held, or the sins they might have committed.  When they went out into the streets, they greeted neighbors they had not spoken to for a time because of remembered grudges that were now swept away.

As for Harvey, well… he smelled smoke, and then he began to feel very peculiar.  Downstairs he went, to discover that the brass box had flipped its lid.  Its secret smokes had inundated his house, and he had already breathed in too much of them for his own good.  He ran for the door and threw it open, then the windows!  Harvey slumped into his old livingroom chair and, if you were a little mouse or a fly on the wall, you would have seen his eyes bulge, his hands quiver, and his head shake back and forth.  He muttered strange words that were like a foreign language, then ran out in his striped pyjamas.

It turned out that his flying machine had, after doing various accidental manoeuvers ,
fallen into the same pile of hay that had saved Harvey.  Still shaking and muttering in his blue pyjamas, he got onto it and took flight into the wild blue yonder.

Harvey was never seen again, and Pandora rolled over in her grave.


Darlene and Dave,
they had a love.
On grandfathered land,
they built a house of modesty,
high under the evergreens.

Neighbours flocked to raise the roof.
Each brought shingles, cedar shakes
of secret colours, ’til unboxed.
The coffee, the tea, the hot chocolate.
The joy. The laughter. The promise,
in that snowy October.

First came Darlene’s gardens,
with care-woven roots.
Then, a son and daughter, a year apart.
Never the holiday they took.
Never did they want for other lands.
But the boy and the girl,
they went to good city schools,
and soon they had a hankering.

With their earned degrees, they wanted the world.
There were stoic farewells, in time.
The house of modesty had a change in its airs,
too many spaces in its purpose.
And Darlene plied her trade in the summer gardens,
trying to grow what might fill.
And Darlene took a room
and made tapestries of delicate beauty.
Quilts that had no rival.
And Dave took a room
and tied fishing flies
and made soldiers and cannons of molten metals
and hammered copper story scenes for the walls.

And they did go to a hidden summer lake
to swim and to collect things that drifted.
And even after their middle age
they skated on that lake,
sequestered in the snow.

On a summer, Darlene was kitchen-bound,
baking for a lakeside lunch.
She wondered at the change in the timbre of the riding mower.
Dave never left it running, she knew.
Rinsing her floured fingers,
she went out the back screen door to call him,
but her Dave had died. His heart.
These ten years now,
I have delivered Darlene’s groceries.
Waiting on her visitors from foreign lands,
she was soured to the world.
Took up with the smoke and with the drink.

Today, as I drive the muddy road,
I have a companion with me.
The nurse that will tend to my old friend.

The cedar shakes of the bowed roof
still show a checkerboard of colour,
even in this grey streaming rain.
I have always thought that each one was signatory
to a day in the lives of those two.
A smattering of their joys, their fights, their triumphs, their sadness.

Darlene had called this morning
to tell us not to knock.
To just come in the front door,
take off our wet boots.
She sits in the back living room now,
in a fluffed robe,
with her tobacco.
Sequestered from the gloom,
but part of it, too.