The Bleak Outlook

Photo: Bleak HouseDawn comes in fits and starts. Tatters of grey cloud hang diagonally across the bottom quarter of the pale sky ahead as I’m driving away from the warmth of home; as the road swings me southward, that ragged hem rises into an ever darker, flatter cloudbank and it seems I’m reversing time as I go. The world gets smokier looking with every mile.

Have I driven all day, already? It looks less like dawn, more like dusk, every minute. A ground fog is rising from the pavement, narrowing the gap with those shredded clouds in a slow, relentless re-closing of the curtains. Approaching the city, I watch the tops of the towers fade into the growing dark and finally disappear, enveloped.

The rain begins. It’s thin and dirty at first, but with every mile I drive, grows denser, heavier. The whole world around me turns to molten lead. I am driving, now, into a contracting twilit vortex that soon enough will pull me undersea, it seems. I’m grateful to be exiting the freeway, exhausted from gripping the wheel and blinded by the bleary flow of rain that has outpaced the windshield wipers’ meager strength.

The exit ramp swings in a slow, wet arc up and over the freeway to take me back in an east-northeast crawl, and suddenly it’s as though the rainstorm has been turned off and dawn restarted. The last miles to work see no more precipitation except for that being shrugged off of the trees, and daylight brightens at every intersection, with every car’s-length I drive, and then with every foot. The office building is sparkling like a freshly scrubbed, dazzling beacon, haloed by the rising sun.

And as I walk through that phalanx of security arches toward the windowless interior where my work awaits, I go from brilliant morning into the dim, unhealthy crepuscule of artificially lighted night.Digital illustration from a photo: Into Each Life

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

It was Only a Dream…

Photo: Waking UnderwaterA short meditation: The Oarsman

When I opened my eyes, I saw a cedar boat ahead, a craft of sleek and patinated wood; I was ashore, looking, watching without knowing why, standing on the verge with the clear salt sea touching my feet and on its cold breath casting up an offering of tide-polished stones and shells moved into patterns like a prayer shawl.

The cedar boat drew near, and in the boat, a man whose solemn joy preceded him and made my thoughts lie still.

Only the scent of cedar broke the salty air. I waded out to catch the prow and saw the oarsman watching me, and I was humbled but not afraid. He said nothing. I didn’t think to say a word, myself, but caught the boat and slowly pulled it ashore.Photo: The Scent of Cedars

The oarsman wore a long superlative braid that rose and fell on his breast; I made fast the boat to a spike of driftwood at the verge, tying the painter in a braid as like his own as I could make it.

When he stepped from the boat, the oarsman put his broad hand on my head, wordlessly, and I felt, too, his solemn joy.Photo: Solemn Joy

Hot Flash Fiction 9: Shall We Table It for Now?

digital illustrationThe lovely lady Alexandra wears a perfect pair of gleaming white kid gloves; for tea, we all sit in perfect posture and pose with poise, making our astute and marvelous and dreamlike commentary, our remarks about seemingly innocuous and polite ideas and topics far above reproach; the lady Alexandra is so ideal and beautiful and perfectly correct and her kid gloves so white, her manner of nibbling on the fresh strawberries so flawless, her tea so perfectly hot and sweet, I’d like to lean across the lace tablecloth and smash her like a roach.

Hot Flash Fiction 8: Out of His Family Tree

Beau Bretagne has a twelve-gauge shotgun on the porch and has a ladder-back chair with one short leg, a chair in which he leans against a big old sycamore tree; he has fourteen perfectly good teeth and a wonderful, spotless complete set of the Great Books, and he has read the complete bindings of them more than once. He has the gift of playing the squeezebox in the Gilded Crescent’s Big Dog Zydeco Band so beautifully that dancers have passed out as often from dancing all night as from the vast quantities of moonshine they are drinking at the same time. Beau gets a lot of pleasure out of all this wealth, but most impressively, he has the envy of the entire county ever since he had the brainstorm to name his baby boy Xerxes Junior Bretagne so that he truly has something that no one else in that whole county has. Unless you count Beau’s two cousins Billy-john and Bart, whose sons also share this magnificent combination of names (modified for the Bretagne family’s convenience as XJ2 and XJ3), but since Beau doesn’t count these, why should you?digital illustration from antique photographs

Hot Flash Fiction 6

Once Upon a Time in a Shaving Mirrordigital illustration from a photoMartin was a great gentleman. The man he saw in his dusty and slightly foxed mirror every morning was the man inside, and this was the same man he was to all others at all times. A gentleman, Martin, but his exactitude and propriety were also devoted to things quite other than mere manners. Behind his clear and guileless face was a world of fathomless seas and lacy cobwebs, untranslatable illuminated manuscripts full of spells, and the cries of birds never seen on this side of the stars.digital illustration from a photoMartin was punctilious, generous, carefully correct, guileless, and surprisingly simple, all things considered. Behind his shaving mirror, as behind the unruffled perfection of his face, lay surprising things. In the medicine cabinet, it was tinctures and potions, a collection of oddments that might please an old-time apothecary or perhaps, equally, a fine magister–a romantic necromancer, if you will. Martin, pure of heart and innocent as only a strangely experienced elder man of the world could be, had no inkling that mere proximity to this particular concatenation of goods made his inner being as wild and unpredictable as the outward man was clean and Ordinary.digital illustration from a photoThe truly remarkable thing in all of this is that anyone at all was even mildly taken aback when, one particular and strangely normal morning, the man behind emerged. No one will ever really know whether it was the workings of that alchemist’s secret-recipe hidden in the medicine cabinet upon him, or that the being in existence already right behind Martin’s mask of perfect humanity simply came into its own just as it was always going to do.digital illustration from a photoThen again, perhaps the most remarkable element of the case was really that what emerged, this inner Martin, was even better than the original. The true remaining problem was just how the rest of the world was supposed to handle the new man. Especially and particularly, how his physician Dr. Telemachrius, who had prescribed a uniquely heinous combination of the potions and tinctures expressly to turn the exceedingly unremarkable Martin into a bizarre and deadly living puppet for his own purposes, was supposed to respond. What an unfortunate turn of events for Telemachrius, after all. Health was such a precarious thing, even in those early days of rapidly improving modern medicine.

Hot Flash Fiction 5

The Duchess was inordinately fond of animals. Though her courtiers would never dare say so to her face, they imagined she ought to have been born a zookeeper, or at the very least a farmer. This idea was strengthened, especially, by the fact that it always fell to the housekeepers and servants to make the palace tidy enough for Her Ladyship’s dainty passage through life and to freshen the air when the royal menagerie had pranced, prowled or otherwise paraded through its rooms and left unseemly gifts along the way. The Duke, who was as allergic to all things animal as the Duchess was attracted, considered for some time whether he oughtn’t to have a team of expert taxidermists and artisans solve this problem once and for all, creating a large display of preserved zoological beauty that might be both lower maintenance and less powerfully scented than the living creatures populating his estate indoors and out, day and night.digital collageUnfortunately, the Duchess’s sisters who lived in the east wing of the palace did not support the Duke’s enthusiasm for the design, making noises of disapprobation at least as loud as the Duchess’s favorite dogs’ barking or donkeys’ braying. Perhaps, the Duke thought, he had been a little incautious in discussing this artistic concept with his secretary while within earshot of the sisterly ladies-in-waiting, for they both appeared quite ready to dash off squealing with rage to their unsuspecting sibling, or at the least, to imitate the household fauna in some other impolite fashion.digital collageAs it fell out, the Duke, however incautious he may have been in heat of the moment, was not without the wit born of hard experience. Working swiftly with his retainers, was able to resolve the situation quickly and suitably merely by shifting the subject of the new art to a slightly different one featuring the Duchess and her sisters. As an added benison of this resolution, it was discovered that he wasn’t allergic to winged or four-legged pets after all. The palace staff found maintaining the menagerie surprisingly less onerous afterward as well, even with the added curatorial duties of dusting off the Duchess and polishing her sisters from time to time.