Monday, January 30, 2017

Story Time: "The Bonsai Master's Gift"

The bent figure with the cane was older than the sidewalk, older than the cold concrete buildings that lined the road. The squat brick houses of his childhood had crumbled or been torn down in the ninety years he had been away. His leather bag contained a few necessities including his glasses, a pad of paper, a pencil and a small sharpening knife. Carefully stored in a side pocket lay a tattered drawing of “the tree,” the one that had set him on the path that now finally led back here.

He had been inquiring all day, but no one remembered the bonsai master who used to live in this town. By now, several generations had come and gone. New neighborhoods had become old neighborhoods only to die away and be reborn as industrial shops or shopping centers. The chances that he would find the master’s tree still here were probably slim, but this was the only place he could think of to start. He showed people the drawing. Some thought they recognized the tree, but no one could be sure.

“They all look alike, don’t they?”

A tea shop offered some relief from the early winter chill. The old woman who brought him hot water seemed familiar, but how would he know? He was only eight when he left.

“Has your family lived here long?” he asked, hopefully.

“A hundred and fifty years,” she said.

“Mine, too,” he replied; “but they’re all scattered now.” He looked up at her. “Do you remember the old town square? I can’t find it.”
“I do,” she said. “You wouldn’t recognize it. They rebuilt it when I was ten.”

“If you don’t mind, how long ago was that?” he asked. “Pardon the impropriety.”

She smiled. “Seventy six years ago.”

Gingerly, he pulled out the drawing and laid it on the table by the steeping tea. “Did you ever see this bonsai tree behind a gate in the little alley just off the square? Was it still there when you were a girl?”

She put on her glasses. “No,” she said. “I was very young when they tore down that neighborhood.”

He sat back, deflated.

She touched his arm. “That rock—the one that juts out over the little pond—the old hotel used to have a beautiful tree in a pot with a rock just like it, but that tree was taller than the one in your drawing.”

The old man brightened. “Is it still there?”

“The tree or the hotel?” she asked. “Neither, actually. They put up a new hotel after the earthquake, and I don’t know what happened to the tree. Why are you looking for this tree? Are you a bonsai master?”

“No,” said the old man. “But I used to visit the bonsai master when I was a boy. I watched him caring for his trees, day after day. I used to pester him while he watered and pruned them, while he pinched the new growth from the tips and brushed the moss off the roots. Though he was a quiet man, he laughed a lot. I liked him very much.”

“Surely, he’s no longer here,” said the woman. “Why do you look for this particular tree?”

He smoothed the edges of the drawing on the table. “This one was his favorite, a tree that was even older than he. ‘A majestic, unruly mess,’ he called it. A farmer was going to rip it out and burn it, but he allowed the bonsai master to dig it out carefully and replant it. The master had to go deep into the mountains to find the rocks on which to plant it, and he commissioned the pot just for this tree. It took three men to move it to its proud position behind his front gate.”

“The tree in the hotel was grand indeed,” she said. “You have told me why it was special to him. Why is it special to you?”

“The bonsai master loved to draw trees,” said the old man. “He might draw the same tree many times before deciding how to train it. He would lend me a bit of charcoal and some paper, and we would sit together and draw. At first, my tree drawings looked like sticks in the ground, but he encouraged me to look deeper. He showed me how the trees reached around to grip the rocks, how they sought the water down below and stretched skyward for the light and the rain, how they grew strong in one direction and died off in another, how one strip of cambium was enough to feed the branches far, far from the roots. My thin sticks became trunks, limbs, bark and foliage. My rocks morphed from shapeless lumps to boulders, crags and talus.”

He took a sip of tea and she poured the last from the pot into his cup.

“I was eight years old when I drew this,” he said. “I had drawn this tree many times and was never satisfied. This time, I was satisfied. I brought it to the bonsai master. I wanted to give it to him, to say goodbye.”

“Why goodbye?” she asked.

“My father was moving us to the city,” said the old man.

“Did the bonsai master accept your gift?” she asked. “Why do you still have it?”

The old man shook his head. “He would not take it. ‘Keep it,’ he said. ‘Guard it as a reminder of who you are and where you came from. Remember me whenever you look at it. Imagine me sitting on that rock under that long bough, enjoying the shade and the reflections in the water as the breeze rustles in the branches. I’ll be laughing at something you said.’”

He looked up at her again. “So I’ve kept it all these years,” he said. “Since then, I have drawn thousands upon thousands of trees both large and small, each of them unique, each of them a reminder of the bonsai master. My love of these sacred beings has taken me all over the world, up into the high mountains, along the rugged coastline, and deep into ancient forests and steamy jungles. My drawings have filled gallery walls and can be found in beautiful homes and grand lobbies. They have made a good life for me. I wanted to find the tree that inspired it all, just to say thank you.”

She helped him out of his chair and into his coat. “Come with me,” she said. “Maybe we can find your tree. My grandnephew works at the hotel.”

They waited in the hotel lobby while the young man made a few inquiries. When he returned, he was escorting a well-dressed businessman whom he introduced as the owner.

“I think we have what you’re looking for,” said the owner. “If you’ll follow me, please.”

He led them around behind the hotel to a fenced-in area filled with potted plants and landscaping tools.

As they passed through the gate, the man said, “The pot is too fragile to be moved, so this tree has been kept back here for as long as I can remember. Our gardeners love it, and they have cared for it the best they could. It’s a pity, really: such a beautiful bonsai out of the public eye. Is this the one?”

The old man trembled as he came to the far corner. There it was, ninety years older, still strong. Even in the cold of winter, it seemed to sleep with quiet vitality.

“May I have a chair?” asked the old man, putting on his glasses.

“Certainly,” said the owner. The grandnephew returned with two chairs and bade the old man sit in one and the old woman in the other.

The old man positioned his chair thoughtfully and sat down. Out of his leather bag, he brought his sketchpad and pencil. After a few moments of silent contemplation, he began to draw. Stroke by stroke, shade by shade, the tree appeared on the page.

He looked more deeply. Yes, the bark was more wrinkled, the roots more gnarled, and the trunk even burlier. A few of the old limbs had died off, but others had grown thicker and longer. It was taller than before; another tier of branches now reached for the sun. He drew them all. He drew each crack and crevice in the rocks, each bit of moss, every shadow on the water in the old, fragile pot.

Then he paused. He took out the knife and sharpened the tip of his pencil, just a little, not too much. He studied the tree again, studied the rocks. Taking one more look at the water, he resumed his drawing.

As the pencil scratched along the surface, the image of the bonsai master emerged, looking up at him from the shady spot on the rock under the long bough, quietly laughing.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Berlin, 2016

It's Monday night, December 19, 2016. I'm standing in the lobby of a Frankfurt hotel, staring at a TV monitor. The Berlin Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm church is on the news. Strings of Christmas lights shine behind the flashing red and blue of emergency vehicles. I try to decipher the German headline scrolling by on the bottom of the screen. Something has gone terribly wrong. Not much later, I find out about the truck.

Two days before, Ping and I had passed through that very spot several times, happily wandering from stall to stall, enjoying the holiday spirit in the Christmas market. A few yards away, we had sipped warm cups of Glüwein. Pictures of the scene on the internet today make my heart ache. We'd been there--right there--and nothing bad had happened. Not on that day. Not to us. It wasn't our time.

Being in Berlin was already an emotional experience for me for other reasons. 

A little background. In my early teens, I was obsessed with World War II. As I struggled with everything from the confusion surrounding Vietnam to zealous religious beliefs to my own deep internal conflicts, WWII offered a simple dichotomy. Evil had raised its ugly head, but Good had emerged victorious.

Hitler, Himmler, Mengele, Goering and Goebbels conceived and carried out some of the worst atrocities in recent history. Auschwitz, Dachau, Mauthousen and Ravensbrück actually existed. The miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of the Bulge, and D-Day actually happened. Good people did amazing things against impossible odds. It's also true that IBM, Kodak, Standard Oil, Chase Bank and others made fortunes supplying both sides. The United States remains the only country ever to have dropped an atomic bomb on someone else. We did it twice. Things weren't so simple even then.

In Berlin last week, I got to go inside the preserved wreckage of the Kaiser Wilhelm church. I saw what it looked like before and after the Allied bombing. The blasted out rosette remains empty. I walked in Tiergarten Park, whose towering trees are all younger than 71 years old. Every one of their predecessors had been chopped up and burned for firewood after the war. We crossed the street.

Tears welled up as the setting sun lit the inside of the Brandenburg Gate and I realized what I had just done: I had casually crossed the street from West Berlin to East Berlin! No papers had been scrutinized, no looks of suspicion had been leveled at me. I could walk back anytime I wanted. No shots would be fired. All I had to watch out for was traffic. 

A double row of bricks embedded in the pavement marks the line where the Soviet-built tank barrier once walled off the Brandenburg Gate. Cars drive across it all day.
This city had suffered under one tyrant only to be divided up, dominated and isolated by another. What struck me was how free it felt that day. People of all ages hung out at the Christmas market, laughing and talking over steaming mugs of mulled wine or hot cocoa. Locals smiled and joked with us in two languages, counted out my coins for me when I forgot my glasses, and cheerfully waited to pass while Ping took a picture of some new delight. A peaceful demonstration blocked traffic, escorted fore and aft by the Polizei. The only order barked was the one that stopped a car trying to squeeze in a right turn after the intersection was closed to let the demonstrators proceed safely.

Two days later, a hijacked truck plowed into the crowd at the market by the bombed-out remains of the church.

I wasn't around for WWII. I was in a different hemisphere during most of the Cold War, but I remember listening to the radio with rapt attention as the wall came down in 1989. Crossing the street to the Brandenburg Gate brought me full circle. And having wandered through that Christmas market in Berlin made the truck attack all the more real.

Would I go back? Absolutely. I would go back to Berlin, just like I would go back to Istanbul and Ankara. These are special places. Why? Not only because I've been there; that just makes them special to me, personally. They're part of the world, part of this planet. That makes them special in their own right. That's enough.

This is the world in which we live, but that's the point: we LIVE here. We LIVE. So does everyone else with whom we agree or disagree, whom we understand or do not understand, who hold us in high esteem or in contempt--these are the people of this planet. This is our home. These are our times. 

The same questions that have been asked of every human being before are now being asked of us: "Who will you be in these circumstances? How will you respond?"

May I answer not with a fist, a creed or an ideology, but with open eyes, a clear head, a strong backbone and an open heart.
On one of the sections of the Berlin wall left standing (directly translated):
"You have learned what freedom means and never forget."

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Story Time: The Ride

The Ride

By Mark Ivan Cole
December 6, 2016
"The Ride" - Illustration by Mark Ivan Cole

The gas station just off the highway was closed. No surprise at this time of night. It was Christmas Eve, after all. I found a spot by the dumpster, mostly out of the wind and snow. Folding my creaky bones into the corner, I barricaded myself in with my backpack. Lots of gaps, but it would have to do.

I was finally dozing off when I heard the jingling of tire chains. A battered old SUV turned off the road and pulled into the empty gas station lot. Fresh snow crunched under the treads as the vehicle slowly came to a stop a few feet away from me. The driver’s window rolled opened.

“You going somewhere?” asked an old man’s voice.

“Provo,” I said. No reason. It was just somewhere to go.

“Perfect,” said the old man. “I’m going there, myself. Want a ride? Heater still works.”

That was tempting. “No gas money,” I said.

“All the same to me,” he said. “Wanna go?”

“Sure.” I brushed the snow off of me and came around to the passenger’s side.

The driver was a wiry old fellow with a beard that was much grayer and even bushier than mine. The deep creases around his eyes crinkled when he smiled. I didn’t smell alcohol, so that was good.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, hoisting a couple of grocery bags off the floor. He piled them into the backseat on top of a bunch of other stuff. “You’ll have to hang on to your pack up front here, at least for now.”

“No problem,” I said. I prefer to hold onto my backpack anyway, partly because it carries everything I own, and partly because it’s a nice buffer if I need one.

“Chris,” said the driver, holding out his hand.

I reached over and shook it. Good, steady grip for a skinny old man. “Steve,” I said.

“Nice to meet you, Steve.”

“Is that Chris with a C or Kris with a K?” I asked.

The old guy cackled. “With a C!” he crowed. “Nice of you to ask. Is that Steve as in Steven, Stephan, or Stefan?”

“Just Steve,” I said.

“That works!” said Chris.

He pulled back out onto the road and we set off at a decent pace. In a couple of minutes, we came to the edge of town.
“Listen, I gotta make a couple stops as we go, is that okay with you?” he asked.

“It’s your bus,” I said.

“Nice,” he said. “I like that. Here we go.”

We turned down a dark side road and came to a stop by a small house. Reaching behind me, he picked up the two grocery bags he’d put in the back.

“Be right back,” he said.

I watched him limp through the snow to the entryway of the little house. He fiddled with the knob a bit before opening the front door, put the bags inside, and then carefully shut the door, checking to see if it was locked. Satisfied, he limped back to the SUV and climbed in, grinning from ear to ear.

Without a word, he put the truck in gear and made his way back to the main road. We hadn’t gone more than a mile when he pulled down another side road and stopped in front of another little house, even more run down than the first. He grabbed another couple of grocery bags and set those inside, just as he had done at the last place. As he limped back to the SUV, I saw him shaking his head. He gave a heavy sigh as he dropped the transmission into drive and pulled away.

Another half a mile and we pulled off the main road again, this time stopping in front of a trailer park.

“What are you, Santa Claus?” I asked.

“Ha! Now that would be a fine trick, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Listen, can you help me with these? I’ve got four places here and if you’ll grab a few bags, we can do them all in one shot. It’s cold out there, but we’ll warm up again before the next stop.”

I grabbed a couple of grocery bags out of the back.

“Oh, not those,” he said. “Sorry. Shoulda been more specific. You take these and I’ll get the other ones.”

I shouldered my backpack and stepped out of the SUV.

“Quiet with that door, okay?” whispered the old man. “Folks are asleep already.”

I nodded, picked up my grocery bags and carefully bumped the door shut. He pointed his chin off to the left and I followed him to a little covered porch. We came up the steps and I waited while he fiddled with the knob before opening the front door. He put one of his bags inside. After he shut the door, he checked to make sure it was locked, just like last time. He nodded at me and limped back down the steps. I was right behind him.

We went to another trailer a few lots down and did the same thing. This time he left two bags. A few trailers further, he left another bag. Each time, he fiddled with the doorknob, and each time, he checked to make sure it was locked before we left. We crossed the street to a double-wide trailer and quietly approached the steps.

The old man was about to try the doorknob when I reached out and stopped him.

“Dog,” I hissed. I could hear scratching on the inside of the door.

The old guy just grinned. He clucked his tongue twice. The dog inside whimpered and scratched all the more. The old guy slowly opened the door and reached inside. A huge German shepherd licked his hand happily and ducked under it to be petted. It didn’t seem to mind me being there. Old Chris nodded his head to tell me to put the bags inside. Very, very slowly, I set the bags inside the door while Chris pet the dog.

“Good boy,” whispered the old guy. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to the German shepherd or me.

I backed away slowly while Chris scratched the dog behind the ears. Then he shut the door, checked it, and limped back to the road.

Once inside the warm cab of the SUV, he put the transmission into reverse and backed out to the main road again.

“Thanks,” he said. “That was easier with your help!”

“You certainly have a way with dogs,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I like dogs. Cats, too, only they don’t show up as often.”

“You have a way with locks, too,” I commented; “unless everyone leaves their front door open for you.”

“Well, we just make sure to leave it buttoned up properly, one way or the other,” he said.

We drove on through the night, stopping in town after town to drop off more stuff. The SUV held a lot, apparently. It was kind of fun. Felt sort of like ding-dong-ditch, but with a happy twist.

“What’s in these bags anyway?” I asked, as we pulled away from a darkened row of apartments.

“Oh, this and that,” he said. “Stuff people need.”

“Like what?” I persisted.

The old guy shrugged. “Take this next place, for instance,” he said. “It’s not much, just a cake mix.”

“A cake mix?”

“Devils Food Cake,” he said. “No nutritional value, maybe, but sometimes you just need a good chocolate cake, you know? Sometimes it’s just the thing.”

 We drove on through the snow. The long night was getting to me.

“How do you know these people?” I asked.

“Same as anybody does, I suppose,” he said. “How do you know me?”

“You stopped and asked if I wanted a ride.”

“Yup. You cross paths with a lot of folks. Just got to pay attention,” he said.

“How long till the next stop?” I asked, yawning. The heater made me drowsy.

“Pretty far this time,” he said. “Nod off if you want. I’ll let you know if I need help.”

I was already half asleep by the end of the sentence.

  --  --  --

When I awoke, it was getting light out.

“Steve,” said the old guy. “Steve, we’re in Provo.”

I rubbed my eyes. We were in a strip mall parking lot. The place was deserted.

“We’re near the train station,” he said. “Will that do?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “I gotta keep moving, so I’m gonna take off, but you take care, eh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You, too.” Sleepily, I opened the door and sort of rolled out of the old SUV. I pulled on my backpack. It seemed heavy. “Thanks for the ride, Chris.”

“No problem,” he said, flashing me that big, crinkly grin. “Oh, one more thing. Could you drop off this bag for me? It’s just a couple blocks from here, up that way.”

“Um, sure,” I said, taking the grocery bag he put on the passenger seat.

“The address is in the bag,” he said. “And read the note before you go. See ya, Steve! Nice talking to you. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas,” I said. I shut the door and waved good bye as the SUV crunched away in the snow, tire chains jingling.

Thick white flakes were still coming down. I found a dry spot under the awning of one of the stores and took the note out of the grocery bag.

Dear Steve,

Great to have found you there at the gas station! Thanks so much for your help tonight. I don’t usually have company so this was a treat. Hope you got some good rest.

Mrs. Jackson at 1770 Birch is a nice widow in her eighties. Used to cut hair for a living but she doesn’t get out much these days. There’s six bucks and a new pair of scissors in the bag. She probably won’t take the six bucks but she’ll appreciate the scissors and I’m betting she puts them to use right away. Let her.

Also, it’s not much, but there’s a couple cans of stew, a few cans of vegetables and one of those boxes of cake mix. It’s enough for two people for lunch so you might as well stay because she’s gonna invite you anyway. If she needs eggs and milk you can get them just around the corner from her place. They’re open on Christmas, bless their hearts. Six bucks ought to cover it. Make sure you thank Julia behind the counter for working today.

By the way, Mrs. Jackson has a few things around the house that could use some fixing. Her husband’s tools are still in the corner closet. Just saying.

Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho and all that!  —Chris K.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Story Time: The Shortcut

By Mark Ivan Cole
(Stream-of-consciousness illustration by the author)
Why do we assume that abandoned amusement parks are haunted? It’s a cliché, really, a trope, a cheap setup. Just say “abandoned amusement park” and we instantly expect cannibalistic clowns, feral Ferris wheels, horrifying halls of mirrors, and murderous merry-go-rounds. The ease with which these things alliterate is a dead giveaway.
Surely, this particular abandoned amusement park was not haunted. Surely the age-old “it was a stormy night and my car broke down so I took the shortcut” was just a plot device for a campfire tale. But it was storming, and my car had broken down, and going through the abandoned amusement park was a shortcut. Of course it was.
I probably shouldn’t have bothered with the shortcut since I was already soaked to the skin. Climbing the wall wasn’t too bad, but I landed in the brambles on the other side. I tore my pants and shirt and was pretty scratched up by the time I extricated myself. Now I wasn’t just cold and wet; I was muddy and bloody, too. Quite a sight, I suppose, considering I’d just come from what was supposed to have been a nice, quiet Halloween party.
I don’t drink much. Anything that messes with my head makes me nervous. I steered clear of the spiked punch after one small glass. Still, parties deteriorate quickly for the only sober guest. I hung around for half an hour, hoping the storm would subside, but when the host wheeled out some clothes racks, and costumes started getting passed around, I quickly made my escape. Nobody noticed me driving away in the rain. I should have been home free.
Did you know that lightning can fry the electrical system of a modern automobile? It fried my cellphone, too. I suppose I shouldn’t have been charging it but I didn’t expect to get struck by lightning. Who does?
I sat in the car for a long time, waiting for the storm to die down. It didn’t. I got impatient. I figured if I wasn’t electrocuted when I touched the door handle, I was probably okay. I didn’t die, but I was drenched almost as soon as I exited the vehicle. By the time I got over the wall, I was a walking disaster.
They say misery loves company. I disagree, especially inside an abandoned amusement park on a stormy night. I just wanted to get through there without meeting any ghoulies or ghosties or long-leggedy beasties or things that go bump in the night. I used to run steeplechase back in college, but I can’t go that fast in the dark. It’s hard to see anything close by when the nearest streetlights are all the way on the other side of the park, outside the wall. I doddered forward like a decrepit zombie, uncertain where to step next. Periodic lightning strobe-lit everything, giving me random fleeting glimpses of rusted-out thrill rides and decaying concession stands. One doesn’t realize how garishly these things are decorated until their peeling paint is illuminated in a flash like that.
I kept reminding myself that this was all some cosmic joke. I reminded myself again after I lost first one penny loafer and then the other in the sucking mud. The socks were next. It hardly mattered. I was getting close to the gate now.
After my wall-climbing debacle, I wasn’t sure how I would get out. The huge, iron gate was locked from the outside, of course. The chain hadn’t rusted enough to be yanked apart, and I didn’t happen to have any bolt cutters. I had to climb again, this time without shoes.
That proved difficult. They don’t make gates to be climbed over easily. One would think that they might be less concerned about people trying to get out, though. I suppose the few horizontal supports on this side were evidence of that. I tore some tender skin trying to get purchase on those little toeholds. Desperation overcomes all kinds of pain.
Once up there, though, I had to negotiate the spear tips on top. I could see a bit better now that I was within range of the streetlights’ sulfuric glow. There was just enough room for me to ease over the spiky bits while hanging, sloth-like, from the skeletal arch that used to support the welcome sign. I almost made it. My wet trouser leg got snagged and ripped stem to stern as I crossed over. I suffered a bit of a gash, too, but I was glad to be mostly out of the park.
Shaking, I clung to the gate, looking for a safe way down to the sidewalk. There wasn’t one. My grip failed and down I went. If my feet hurt before, they hurt worse now. So did my knees, my hip, my elbow and my palm. Somehow, I avoided slamming my head on the concrete. Lucky me.
I limped to the streetlight, hoping to hitch a ride. Apparently, everyone smart enough to stay home had done so. I seemed to remember there being a bus stop near here somewhere, so I staggered on down the sidewalk.
Headlights coming up from behind threw my shadow ahead of me. I pivoted awkwardly and stuck out my thumb. The car slowed a bit, but before I could be grateful, the engine roared and the car zoomed past, spraying me with roadside runoff. I think I cursed.
I don’t know how far I dragged myself. At some point, I remember a pickup truck pulling up beside me.
“You need a ride?” someone yelled. A guy. Sounded all right.
I made noises to the affirmative.
The passenger door opened and the light came on inside the cab.
I couldn’t see the driver. All I could see was the passenger holding the door open. Bright orange, frizzy hair rimmed an otherwise bald head that was too white, even for a Caucasian. Wild eyebrows arched wickedly over heavily shadowed eyes. A bulbous, red blotch of a nose hung above a nasty, toothy grin that split the face literally from ear to ear.
“Get in!” yelled the clown, still holding the door open. “Get in!”
Did I mention I ran track in college? I came in fourth in the steeplechase my junior year. That was the closest I ever got to the winners’ stand. On this night, though, inspired by such an invitation, I probably would have come in first. For all I know, I outran a pickup truck. Not until I was standing in my apartment, still shaking, did I remember it was Halloween.
Hell of a costume, buddy. Hell of a costume.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Story Time: Troll Hunter

Troll Hunter

By Mark Ivan Cole

I don’t hate them. I do find them ugly. They’re big, mostly, and inconvenient. Dangerous? That depends.

I hunt trolls because I can. I have to.

Grandma used to say I was the strongest milkmaid in town. I probably was. The Great Famine took everyone in the village but Pa and me. When Pa died, I strapped on his sword and ax and started walking.

I walked a long way before I found a town untouched by famine. They had a different problem. A troll blocked the pass. No one could get through. The mayor offered a sack of coins to anyone who would rid them of the scourge. I was hungry, so I went. When I came back with the severed head, the bounty was mine. I ate my fill, drank my fill, found a room and slept like a queen.

The money lasted three months, but when it was gone no one wanted a milkmaid who could kill trolls. I had become a troll hunter.

Another town, another bounty. A troll had taken over the bridge. The span had been built at great expense, and not being able to use it meant traveling days out of the way. Trade was suffering. Wealthy tempers were short. Every local braggart claimed he would win the prize. I slept on the streets and bided my time. When the braggarts failed, the bounty was doubled. I delivered the head and earned enough for six months’ lodging and victuals. When that was gone, I was back on the road.

This is how I’ve lived in the years since: like a hero or like a dog, well-fed and comfortable or alone in the cold. The difference depends on finding quarry. Trolls are not common; I must always search for trouble. When I find it and fix it, the money flows, but once the flow stops, no one wants me around.

Which brings me to last week.

I heard rumors of a particularly bothersome nuisance near the main road. Much property and not a few lives had been lost. My own purse was nearly empty and I did not want to spend another winter in a cave.

“How much to clear the road?” I asked the pumpkin-faced nobleman in the velvet chair.

He scratched his double chin. “We are a poor people,” he mumbled.

“Not all of you,” I said, eyeing his rings; “and I suspect it’s worth more than what’s on the table to get the trade going again. When was the last time a wagon load of salt from your precious mines was delivered safely and paid for? How much longer before your store shelves go empty? No goods, no buyers.”

He winced. “What makes you think you can do it?” he challenged, collecting himself. “I’ve half a mind to reduce the reward if a woman thinks she can claim it.”

“A bounty is a bounty,” I said; “no matter who collects it. I need no one’s faith. The task is the same, whether or not you believe.” I leaned forward and spread my hands on the table. “A decent offer might make it worth my trouble.”

He pursed his lips and shrugged.

“I can wait,” I said. I left the door open behind me.

Two days later, the last local hero failed to return, and the offer became more reasonable. I secured a small advance, filled my belly and got a good night’s sleep before heading into the hills.

Which brings us to tonight.

I’ve spent several days just watching. This troll is not that big but it’s wary. Skittish. Easily spooked. Sniffs the air all the time. For now, the wind is in my favor, but a storm is coming. Yet I delay.

I know my line of attack. I know the troll’s pattern, weakness and blind spot. That’s not my problem.

My problem is that this troll is not a “he.” And she’s not alone. I’ve seen the tousled top of the young one’s head.

Delaying this kill has nothing to do with any motherliness on my part.

My dilemma is twofold. First, the bounty pays for one dead troll. Just one. If I kill the offspring as well, the rich bastard in town gets a sweet deal he did not negotiate. There will be no bargaining with him after the fact. If I kill the mother first and then say there’s a young one, I will have earned the bounty but not solved the problem. That will not be taken kindly.

Second, trolls are rare enough as it is. If I kill the young one now, it cannot grow up to be the sort of menace that I can kill later for a better price.

I’m the best troll hunter this side of the Western Divide. It’s a hard-won reputation. I make a good living. I eat well because I collect a bounty, and I collect a bounty because I kill trolls. Every dry bed I ever slept on cost some dumb being its life.

I need this troll. I need the next troll, too. I am killing the very thing I need.
The rain has started. Water drips from the boughs over my perch. Every day that goes by without a kill means another night in the cold. In a month it will be snowing. In a moment, the troll will come out, looking for food. I have a decision to make.

Here she comes. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls. She fears it, but she’s hungry, and so is her little one. She must hunt. She heads downhill, as always.

I ready myself. The thunderstorm is my friend. The troll is distracted by Thor’s hammer-falls.

As always, she turns the corner here and hesitates. I am on her in an instant. My ax finds its mark, splitting the seam of her skull, burying itself in her brain. Whatever thoughts she once had are gone. Her body reacts, mindlessly defending itself, arms and torso jerking wildly. If I just stay out of the way, this thrashing will fizzle out in a few minutes.

I leap from her shoulders and slip down the muddy hillside. It’s wet now, and steeper than I realized. I almost slide into the ravine, but I catch myself before I go over. Ignoring the mayhem going on uphill, I claw my way back to solid footing. I stand up only to see the dead troll tumbling toward me. I scramble sideways. As the carcass rumbles past, its flailing arm knocks me off my feet and over the edge.

Face up, eyes open, I feel nothing. I hear nothing. I lie as still as the stones beneath me. High above, lightning silhouettes a tousled head peering down into the ravine.

Go on, little one. A dry bed is no use to me now.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Queen of the Sands - by Mark Ivan Cole

The faint, broken trail was marked by scattered bones, sun-bleached to a brilliant white. Few who ventured into the desert ever stood before the throne.
The Queen of the Sands had ruled this land for time immemorial. Those who preceded her were immortalized in stone, great statues that stood silently on their pedestals in the courtyard outside the palace gate. Day after day, she sat upon her throne, gazing out over her domain. Only the wind breathed on the barren landscape. All was peaceful and still.
The sentinel stood at his high post by the gate, waiting, watching, his eyes scanning the valley that led to the great white palace. He had guarded this place since before the Queen of the Sands came to power. Though visitors were rare, some did come to ask a boon of the Queen. No one escaped his sharp eye. No threat escaped his spear.
Today, he saw someone in the distance, staggering under the unrelenting sun.
“A man approaches, your majesty,” said the sentinel.
“If he means no harm, let him in,” said the Queen of the Sands.
“Yes, your majesty.”
The man wended his way unsteadily between the statues of the ancients. When he finally reached the palace steps, he quailed under the gaze of the sentinel. But he was determined.
“I…I have a request…of the Queen of the Sands,” he croaked, his tongue so dry it could hardly form words.
The sentinel looked him over. “Proceed,” he said.
The man nodded and struggled up the steps. When he passed between the gates, he did as all the others had done before him: he fell to his knees before the throne of the Queen of the Sands. He could hardly look at her for she was as fierce as she was beautiful.
“What is your request?” asked the Queen of the Sands.
The man’s throat worked but there was naught to swallow. “Rain,” he whispered. Indeed, this was the only request ever heard in the throne room of the Queen of Sands: rain.
The Queen answered with another question: “Why?”
The man fought for control of his tongue. “My lake,” he gasped.
“Why?” she asked again. He could not answer.
The Queen of the Sands reached into his mind where she saw a lake, sparkling and blue, and beside it a great city filled with people. Here and there along the waterfront stood glistening palaces, all of which belonged to this wealthy man. The rich clamored to spend even a day in one of his opulent estates. But now the lake was dry and no one wished to stay there.
“Denied,” said the Queen of the Sands. “Go back the way you came.”
The man trembled before the throne. His eyes pleaded with her, but she would not be moved.
“Go,” said the sentinel. “Go, before I throw your body to the winds with the others.”
The man crawled away from the throne, out the gate and down the steps. The sentinel watched him struggle to his feet and stagger back down the valley. This one may last the night, he thought; maybe not.
Decades passed, each day just like the others, interrupted only by the rare appearance of another supplicant. Each wanted the same thing: rain. Each was driven by a burning desire. One wanted a river on which to sail great ships laden with goods. Another wanted vast farmlands for his crops. Another wanted an orchard; another, a mighty forest.
“Denied,” said the Queen of the Sands. “Go back the way you came.”
Those too weak to obey were thrown lifeless to the winds. Years passed, each day the same as the last.
Then one day, the sentinel spied a small figure trudging slowly across the dried red rocks and onto the white clay that led to the palace. When the Queen inquired “How does the desert look today, my sentinel?” he answered: “We have a visitor, your majesty. But he moves slowly. We shall see if he arrives at all.”
“Indeed,” said the Queen of the Sands.
The day passed, and still the figure moved ever so slowly across the parched ground. After the sun set and the moon rose, the sentinel watched as the figure lay curled in a ball on the hard earth. Maybe he is dead, thought the sentinel.
But the next morning, the small figure stood up and proceeded once more toward the palace. The sentinel was intrigued. This one did not stumble or strut; it appeared to be looking around, admiring the view.
As the figure drew nearer, the Queen asked “Will our visitor arrive today?”
“I believe so, your majesty,” answered the sentinel. “The traveler has persevered and will approach the gates today.”
“If he means no harm, let him enter,” said the Queen.
“Yes, your majesty,” said the sentinel, his eyes fixed on the slowly moving figure.
By mid-afternoon, the traveler had reached the statues of the ancients. He looked up at each one as he passed by, neither intimidated nor afraid, only curious.
The sentinel watched him closely. This visitor was nothing like the others. Most of the supplicants were heroes or warriors, men of strength and power. Some were women of great endurance. All were ambitious and determined. This frail old man seemed hardly capable of making such an arduous journey, much less of offering a compelling request of the dreaded Queen of the Sands. His back was hunched and his withered hand gripped an equally withered walking stick. Despite his shriveled appearance, he was still moving.
The frail old man reached the gates and smiled. Turning to the sentinel, he asked quietly: “May I enter to see the Queen of the Sands?”
The sentinel looked him over once more. Certain that the bent old man could do no harm, he bade him enter.
The frail old man passed between the gates, putting one gentle hand on a great carved pillar to help him cross the threshold. Instead of falling to his knees as had all the others, the old man merely bowed and smiled up at the Queen of the Sands.
Never had the Queen beheld such a kind face! She could not help but smile back.
“What is your request?” she asked him, her voice soft like sifting sand across a dry dune.
“I wish for rain,” said the frail old man.
The Queen of the Sands’ smile faded a little. She had hoped for a different answer. Still, she would ask him the same question she asked all the others.
“Why?” she asked, her voice now more like stone sliding against stone.
The wrinkled old man simply smiled back at her. “There is only ever one reason for rain,” he said; “to support life.”
The Queen of Sands sat back in her throne and regarded him quizzically. “Go on,” she said, her voice softening again, a breeze among the rocks.
“There is another question, even more important, that you should ask,” said the frail old man. “Only by asking this second question does the first answer make sense.”
“And what is that?” asked the Queen.
“The question is ‘how much?’” said the old man.
The Queen smiled again. Today was different. This was more enjoyable than the other days.
“Then I will ask the second question,” she said. “So tell me, old man: how much rain do you wish for?”
At this, the old man’s cracked and wrinkled smile grew even more broad. He shut his eyes and turned his head this way and that, as if looking across a landscape seen only in his mind.
“Only a little,” he replied; “and very rarely. Only enough for the wildflowers which will wait patiently, and then bloom in profusion at the slightest kiss of moisture. Only enough for the beetle, the spider and the scorpion; they don’t need much. Only enough for the yucca which will stretch forth its long neck and offer rich blossoms while defending the ground with spear-tipped leaves. This is all I ask,” he said. “Only a little.”
The Queen of the Sands reached inside his mind and there she saw her domain radiant with life! She could feel the old man’s joy as he imagined this rich land.
“But why do you request this?” she asked him. “You are old. Even if I granted your request today, it would be years before this vision came to pass. You gain nothing.”
“Ah,” said the frail old man. “But I need nothing. I am already blessed. I have seen many seasons of beauty over many miles, many lands. But this is the first in which I have found no creatures with whom to share it. By the time this desert is a garden, I will be long dead, but perhaps in some way, my request will have made this world a better place for life that can thrive only here, Queen of the Sands. For that, I would be grateful. Besides,” he said, opening his eyes; “I have already seen it in my mind; so for me, the reward is already in my grasp.”
The sentinel became alarmed. “Your majesty!” he called out from his station. “Do not listen to this old babbler! If you bring the rain, your palace, your throne and your very life are in mortal danger! I have failed you, my Queen. I have allowed admittance to the very one who could harm you the most!” Then, with all his might, he flung his heavy spear at the old man.
The Queen waved her hand, instantly shifting the old man out of the way. The spear tip caught just the trailing edge of his tattered robe and tore it off, nailing a piece of it to the floor.
The Queen of the Sands stood to her feet and bade the sentinel stop. “No, my dear servant,” she said. “You have admitted the only one who has offered me the key to immortality.”
The sentinel looked up, anguish on his honest face. “I do not understand, my Queen.”
The Queen of the Sands held her arms out wide. “Let it rain,” she said. “Let it rain only a little, and very rarely. Let this palace wash away. Let the waters carve channels between the rocks. Give life to the seeds blown on the winds, but let only those who love this place survive.”
She looked down at the wrinkled old man. “Old master,” she said; “may you live in this garden forever. May you find shelter in the rocks and grasses. May you be quick, agile and fearless. And should anyone seize you, may you always escape.” With a wave of her hand, the old man became the lizard who leaves his tail behind in the grasp of his bewildered attacker.
The Queen of the Sands held out her arms to her faithful sentinel. “Your work here is not over,” she said. “May you serve me still when this palace no longer stands. May you always remind those who come to this land that they are to tread carefully and disturb nothing.” And with a wave of her hand, the sentinel became the snake who rattles his warning to the unwary, and bites those who trample incautiously.
“But what about you, my Queen?” asked the snake. “What shall become of you when all this is gone away?”
At this, the Queen grew radiant. “I shall love the rains most of all,” she said. “For I shall be the glory of the desert every year. I shall store the precious rain carefully, never wasting it, and every Spring I shall revel again in the richness of my choice.”
Then the Queen of the Sands called the rains, and they swept the land, though only a little, and only very rarely.
Slowly, over eons, the palace began to melt away. The statues in the valley were reduced to broken rocks perched on pedestals that grew thinner and weaker as the years went by. The great hall and its gates wore down, bit by bit.
But if you know where to look, you can still find the wash where the rains first fell, and you can follow it to the red rocks that lead to the great white palace of the Queen of the Sands. And if you persist, you can find the courtyard where remnants of the statues of the ancients still tower over your head. And if you wish, you may freely walk through the ruined gates and stand before what is left of the Queen’s mighty throne. Off to the side, you will see where the sentinel kept watch. You may even see a lizard scurry past, for he still lives here, just as the Queen decreed.
And if you come in springtime and you’re very lucky, like we were, the Queen herself may appear to you as a cactus with a bloom so rich it will take your breath away. But tread softly and gently as you go, for the sentinel still watches, and he will not abide carelessness

Paria Rimrocks Toadstools, UT - Where we found the palace of the Queen of the Sands
Ping standing on the remains of the Queen's throne
The view from the sentinel's watch
The Queen of the Sands keeps her promise

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Whole Story" - by Mark Ivan Cole

("The Whole Story" Pastel, Graphite and Digital)
Sit down, lad. It’s time you and your Grandpa had this talk.
Your Pa didn’t tell you everything. Not entirely his fault. He didn’t actually know everything. For one thing, he wasn’t there for some of it, and for another thing, I never told him everything either. But anything he might have told you and didn’t, well, that’s going to have to stay in the grave with your Pa.
What I’m gong to tell you surely isn’t everything either. Some things happen for reasons we just aren’t privy to, and there are personages and forces at work that we’ll never meet—not all of them, anyway.
And this is where the tale gets a little strange, which, if I guess correctly, is partly why your Pa never told you everything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all starts with your Mum. Actually, that’s not really where it starts. By the time your Mum came along, the story had been going on for maybe a hundred years or more, I don’t know. But it was your Mum coming along that brought your Pa and Grandma and me into the story. Just one look at those smiling green eyes and your Pa’s destiny found a home. From the very first day when he came racing in from the field, breathless as a horse and flushed red as a strawberry, your Grandma and I knew our future would include this beautiful young lady with the long, red hair and befreckled cheeks. Ah, but we didn’t know how short that future would be. Nor could we know the fates would bless us with you, so no one could ever forget the lovely girl with the clear, green gaze.
But I’m going on and on and not telling you the whole story, aren’t I. Maybe it’s harder to do than I realized, but I’ll keep trying.
Bless you for not minding an old man’s ramblings. You’re as fine a man as your Pa. Everything he’d hoped you’d be, and more.
You didn’t know your Mum, and that’s a pity. Had you known your Mum, you might have understood your Pa better. You might have understood why he never looked at another woman, though you know as well as I there were plenty interested in your Pa, especially once you were no longer a babe underfoot. You might have understood why he spent so much time in the woods with you, teaching you how to fend for yourself, how to listen to the forest, and how he insisted you practice with the knife and the ax and the bow until no one in the village could match you. Maybe, too, you might understand better why he never let you rest, even when you bested every contender who came up that long road to challenge you.
Maybe if you’d known your Mum, you’d understand why you never felt like you belonged here.
See, I’m putting it off again. I’m not telling you everything. I’m sorry.
Here’s the piece you need to know first. The fact is, it’s true: you don’t really belong here. You’re not exactly one of us—not just like us, anyway.
No, it’s not that your Pa isn’t your Pa, or that your Mum wasn’t your real Mum. She was. They were. It’s just that, see, your Mum, she wasn’t from around here. It’s not like it wasn’t obvious, to be sure. No one had ever seen the likes of her in our little town. No one had ever heard such singing as that girl could do. I’d venture to say it was the sound of her voice that carried the most of her magic. Yes, probably her voice, I’d say, though I think your Pa loved her eyes the most.
Did I say “magic?” Did I already? Oh, well, then the secret’s out, I suppose.
You may have suspected. I don’t know. Something in your face tells me you’re not surprised. I suspect you figured this out on your own. Your Pa was adamant that we never tell you, but he’s gone now, and, well, there are signs that you’re going to need this information soon.
Yes, your Mum was as fay as any in stories told around the fire at night, as fay as ever danced a jig to the tune of the unseen fiddler who visits fairy rings on a midsummer’s eve. Your Pa knew it the moment he laid eyes on her, but he couldn’t help himself. How could he? All his young life he’d talked of some day meeting a fairy. Grandma told me to stop scolding him and let him believe if he wanted. I’m glad I followed that advice, especially since one of the fay came to live under my own roof and brought me the grandson I’ve enjoyed so much in my old age.
You are an amazingly patient fellow, I must say. Bless you for that.
Now, back to the point.
Not everyone was happy about your Pa and Mum choosing each other like that. Besides every girl in the village being heartbroken, some in town called your Mum’s heritage into question.
“Where are her parents?” they asked. “Why does she not say where she comes from?” they asked. “Aren’t her eyes just a little too green, her hair a little too red, her step a little too light, her voice a little too clear?”
Aye, now you see why they ask these same questions about you, fair boy, why people both shun you and stare at you, fascinated. It’s because of your Mum. There are those who do not appreciate fairies. They treat you as if your touch were poison. They talk behind your back, blaming your fine skills on fairy art, not giving you your due for your hard work, endless training and practice. Aye, such people can do you harm, for they believe, but they do not understand. And because they do not understand, they are afraid and will misuse and mistreat. Your Pa kept you away from them, and so have I. But you have to make your own way, my boy.
Many simply do not believe. Their lives are filled with work, a little pleasure, a little pain, a little hope, a little joy. But for them, there is no magic. I know, lad, because I was one of them. The closest I came to magic was when I met your Grandma. Yes, it even happened on a stormy midsummer’s eve when she arrived at this very door. You might not think a bedraggled, sodden little girl might bring in something akin to magic, but this wet kitten of a lass, all wrapped in a blanket, smiling shyly at me by the fireplace—ah, for me, that was magic enough.
Your Grandma opened my eyes to the world of magic. See, she was a different kind of person; she believed in fairies, and, by some grace, she understood them. Your Pa, he was another. Somehow, he always knew they were out there, though your Grandma never taught him directly, and I discouraged him. In the end, they were both right. I’m just lucky I got the chance to have it proven to me. Even I could tell there was something special about your Mum, lad. It was just the way she carried herself when she walked, like any movement of her feet was a kind of dance. It was the singing, maybe, as if every wind, every birdsong inspired some lovely melody for which words would not suffice. It was how the sunlight seemed to live more brightly in her smiling eyes than it ever did up in the sky, even on a clear day.
Did you know this, lad? Did you know your smile is like your Mum’s? It is, it is. There is no overcast that can withstand it, no darkness that can overcome it. There, see? The room is brighter just because you smiled!
But I’m not getting to the point, am I? No. I suppose I’m not. Well, I guess it’s time. After all, you’re no longer a boy, and that’s when this story takes a turn that I always thought your Pa would be here to make with you. I don’t know why I’m all that’s left to tell you, lad. Just a broken down old man with little strength left to help. But maybe you don’t need my help. I think not. “We always have exactly what we need when we need it.” That’s what your Grandma used to say, and I think your Pa believed it, too. I’d like to think they’re right again, since…well, let me get to the point.
I guess I’ll just have to come out and say it: your Pa and your Mum didn’t upset just the townsfolk when they chose each other. There are personages more powerful than the mayor, the constable or the priest could ever dream to be. These personages descended upon this house on the very night you were conceived, and an argument ensued the likes of which I have never seen before or since, and I don’t care to.
Anyone who says the fairies know nothing but bliss and mischief has never felt the depth of fear, the height of anger, the breadth of the arguments, or the strength of the determination shown by all sides that night. Back and forth the battle raged, though no one ever drew a bow or unsheathed a blade. Up in the loft, your Grandma and I heard nothing but words, most of which were in a tongue we couldn’t understand. But the meaning was clear: your Pa and your Mum had transgressed some ancient law, and these grand personages were none too happy about it.
If I could wish you one thing, though, lad, it would be to have seen the faith your Mum and Pa gave each other in the midst of this great battle of words. He stood by her and she stood by him, never wavering, even as accusations flew in all directions.
It seemed it would go on forever, but your Grandma flung herself from the bed and dashed down the ladder. I followed. I can’t properly describe everyone who was in this room that night. But your Grandma—in her dressing gown, mind you!--strode right up to the mightiest personage of them all and told him in no uncertain terms to lay out his complaints and describe what justice demanded. Not only that, lad, but she had the ginger to insist that he say it in plain English! Aye. That she did, lad, and she never looked more fearsome or more beautiful than she did at that moment.
Well, what I have to tell you next will explain several things, but it may leave you with more questions than I can answer. I’ll give it my best try, lad.
According to this mighty personage, the law separating humans and fairies cannot be violated except on pain of death. For your Pa and Mum’s transgression, they must pay with their lives. Now what I tell you next is not so that you’ll think me a hero, because my action had no effect. I’m just telling you the whole story. See, at this point, I pulled a cleaver from the drawer and rushed in. What I expected to do, I don’t know, but I tried. The blade simply flew from my hand and clattered harmlessly into that corner over there.
Then it was explained more clearly. This death would come at its own time, visiting the person of its own choosing.
Now I understood better what the argument was about. These mighty fay were not there merely to mete out the punishment for breaking the law. We were arguing with Death himself, because he had chosen you, and your Mum had offered her life in place of yours.
Yes, lad, that she had, and when we knew she’d done it, there wasn’t a one of us who hesitated to offer ours instead.
But Death would have none of it. A king among kings is Death. With but a breath, he can snuff the candles of a thousand soldiers. He chooses whom he will take, and when he moves to strike, none can delay him.
None that is, but, perhaps, your Mum and your Grandma, lad. None but they.
Maybe it was the fierceness of their faith, their belief in the rightness of their cause. Maybe no one had ever stood on that boundary between the worlds with the strength of Motherhood as did this fay and this human. Your Pa and I stood fast with them both, but Death paid us no heed. He knew our power to produce life was limited to but a small seed, and that part, however necessary, had already been played.
All eyes were on your Mum.
“At least let me raise my son,” she said, but to our ears it was a song of the most achingly beautiful yearning. The notes of your mother’s plea lingered in the air long after she had ceased to sing them.
Death himself stopped to listen.
But then he shook his head. The answer was “no.”
“Then at least let me bear him,” she cried.
I tell you, lad, the desperation in that plea nearly broke the heart of me. The song that sailed out to the bitter wind was sweeter yet, and stronger, and full of such pain as would make a man wish  that either he’d never heard it, or that he might hear it forever. Aye, lad, I’ve wished for both many times.
In the end—and it’s the end I’m coming to, the long way round as usual, so I do appreciate your indulgence, lad—in the end, a bargain was made.
Even Death, it seems, has a heart. He agreed that your Mum could bear you, but nine months only, and then he’d come for her. Your Grandma insisted that the child should have his mother till he was weaned, and Death granted this as well, but in return, he would take your Grandma first.
And so it was that the day you were born, your Grandma held you bright and smiling until she handed you back to your Mum. And then, lad, she bid us all good bye. She left us with a smile on her face, lad. She had no regrets.
And then, when you were old enough to reach for solid food, your Mum left us, as she agreed. Aye, make no mistake; she had no regrets, though our days seemed darker then. Yet your smile brought the sun back in and the breeze still wafted through the window, so your Pa and I took to raising you as best we could.
But you see, Death is never finished. Your Pa had broken the law separating humans and fairies, and now he would never leave your side, so what was Death to do? We never know when Death will come—at least most of us don’t—and we didn’t see him coming for your Pa. But your Pa knew his days were numbered. He knew better than most that each day was a gift, and he poured them into raising you to be strong, clear-headed, capable and independent.
And you’ve become all those things, my boy. You’ve become them all, even though your Pa was taken before you became a man. But here you are, a man. And a good one.
So now you know the whole story, though, well, I suppose it’s not quite all. Your Pa could not have told you this last because he wouldn’t know.
See, after your Pa died, Death came back for you, my boy, looking for you in this house. You see, in Death’s mind, you break the law daily, just by virtue of who you are. In your very body, you join the human and the fay. You cannot take a breath without bringing those two worlds together.
But every time Death comes a-knocking, I ask him in, and pour him a drink, and I tell him again how the world is changing, how his bargaining has made it so, and how he, himself, has broken many laws. And then I say that maybe just this once, he can let it pass again, and give it another day or two.
And perhaps he is amused, or perhaps there is enough truth in what I say that he just finishes his drink, slaps me on the back and takes his leave once more.
But the reason I’ve had to tell you this, lad, and the reason it’s taken so bloody long, is that my old friend Death is sitting over there, just now, warming himself by the fire, waiting for me to finish. You see, he agreed to let me tell you the whole story first.
And I have, I guess. So that’s done. He’s held up his end of the bargain. Now it’s time for me to hold up mine. It’s only fair. He let me pay my bit last, and he gave me many years to do it.
Just one more thing before I go, though. One more thing: that green-eyed lass who’s visited here these last few days—treat her well, lad. She’s from the same place as you.
You never know how long you’ll get.
Every day’s a gift, lad. Ah, and that smile of yours is the perfect ending to this story.
Good bye, lad. It’s been good being your Grandpa.