Imprints

I bear the imprints…

I bear the imprints,
deep and broad,
of the strap he wielded
with his words.
Sliced into the dura mater,
dribbles, runnels, rivulets,
channels course and creep
through each thought,
trenching a path for patterns
in actions and deeds,
written and spoken
verbiage like locusts
cutting through wheat,
leaving grain and chaff
alike fluttering in dust.

Like most elders,
he lunged at shadows,
wraiths imagined,
yet real to him,
he fought reflections,
crisp, bright fragments of light,
the blood he drew,
at times thick, dark,
often a spiraling vapor,
figments flecking amber,
in motion and frozen,
always a mystery—
to him and me—
their intent or effect
never known, not to know.

Each time he spoke,
it was a choice
between speaking at all
and regretting the attempt,
carefully selecting each word
from his enormous intellect,
then stumbling forward,
reflexively placing his hands
before his face
so his nose and brow
would go unscarred.
His discussions about
the burdens he shouldered
during an accomplished life
an example to us all
of feet poorly placed
on a gravel fundament
shifting in dry sand
on a dim and windy day.

Gray

Pattern

Featured image by James.mcd.nz

On The Day

On the day…

On the day the whole sky was filled with rainbow light,
someone said “I don’t like the color red,”
another said “I don’t like the color green,”
another said “I don’t like all these colors lighting up the sky,”
and another said “I wish rainbows came in more natural colors,”
but most people just stayed quiet and smiled
at the beautiful sky full of rainbows
and wished for another day
as beautiful as this.

On the day it rained honey in glimmering drops while the sky shone,
someone said “this is sticky! I need a bath!”
another said “this is too sweet! It should be in a jar for later!”
another said “if this stuff is so good, why do bees let us have it?”
and another said “I like my sugar in tiny parcels I can open as I need them,”
but most people opened wide and
let the golden dew fall into their hearts,
course through their blood, infusing them with
the essence of flowers and sunlight.

On the day the air smelled of jasmine and roses in all its parts,
someone said “what happened to the smoke from burning forests?”
another said “I liked the air better when it reeked of oil,”
another said “I want that stench of cattle farms back!”
and another said “nothing smells better than that new car smell,”
but most people just filled their lungs and let it out,
and did it again and again, relishing the way their chests,
filled up with all the invisibility of delicate scents,
then emptied to prepare for another gulp of what the day had in store.

On the day the earth had mountains and valleys and rivers and oceans,
someone said “what are these lumps? They are too high to climb!”
another said “if I walk into this valley, I have to walk back out!”
another said “the water in this river is cold and the fish bite!”
and another said “the ocean is not a good color and the waves are too large!”
but most people saw the beauty around them
and were astonished that they found themselves alive in such a place
with eyes to accept light and mouths that could gape in wonder
and a brain that kept impressions and memories when the wonders weren’t there.

Fortune 
Enthusiasm 
Calm 

Featured image: Sam Valadi Rainbow uploaded to Flick April 2, 2015

Young John and the Farm

In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile.

1

In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile. It was always moist with night mists and brief, frequent showers but the sun favored it as well, even in the cold months. A family had purchased their freedom from serfdom and found this patch of ground and told a few friends they could trust. They had all had saved and garnered favor from their stewards and gained freedom as well. Those friends passed the message to a couple more. A few modest huts rose at the ragged edge of the land just where the young yews, hazels, rowans, hawthorns, hollies, and birches spread their roots. Older walnut, chestnut, poplar, elm, and oaks grew denser as the forest spread in all directions, regularly interrupted with a spruce or pine, favoring the forest with dense foliage throughout the year. Flocks of redstarts, robins, and warblers fluttered in, calling each other by name and singing praise to the trees which kept them safe. Butterflies flitted about, helping the bees keep the flowers well-tended each season of every year.

At the far edges of this mysterious realm were other villages, a day or more by foot along shaded, lightly rutted roads down which carts could barely pass. Several men had lost their hats to a branch plucking them bare-headed as they rode to market. Continue reading “Young John and the Farm”

Princess Jin and the Tower of Vines

Princess Jin lived deep in a thicket of…

Princess Jin lived deep in a thicket of vines covered in enormous thorns. The thorns glistened with sap with an odor so profound that one breath would send any male into an impenetrable sleep. For some reason, Princess Jin was not affected by the perfume and conducted her daily business with a song in her throat and a smile on her lips.

Princess Jin did not just live in a thicket of vines, though. She lived in a tower created from vines that had twisted themselves upwards and fashioned a glorious green room at their lofty tip. Vine leaves had matted together to form a roof and ceiling through which no rain could fall and no wind could blow. When it was cold, the vines pumped warmth from its roots into the walls of the tower, and when it was warm, the leaves and tendrils breathed a bit and parted so breezes could keep her cool.

Jin (for she did not like to be called “Princess”) spent her days weaving diaphanous garments from the silk caterpillars delivered and from webs spiders left behind with their blessing. Her gowns were iridescent, catching the simple light of the sun and turning them into a spectrum of colors that gleamed out from the oriel windows, oilettes, and loopholes the vines made for her, then were sealed over when the vines shielded her against weather. On top of her golden braided hair, worn like a crown, she placed a circular lace cap inscribed with lessons she had learned from her life in a language secret to all but herself.

The vines oversaw her bed-making as well. When she rose each morning, tendrils reached in from the walls and refreshed the leaves they had placed the day before with new ones, long and wide, stacked one upon the other until the mattress rose to Jin’s waist. The bed was firm, though, and gave way just a little when she composed herself for a night’s rest, the top leaves folding over her peaceful form and keeping her warmth close in.

In the morning, a small leaf bearing a miscellany of berries had appeared on her table, just a pedestal bearing a plateau of petals at its top, poking up out of the tower’s floor, itself a seamless interlacing of thorns covered in soft, warm leaves. She had never seen how the berries and nuts arrived, but they were always there, her needs expected before she thought them, her hunger never more than a dim fear hidden away in her history.

When she was five and living a sheltered life in the nearby lands of King Conor, he had imprisoned her mother Queen Isa in the dungeons of the palace. She remembered visiting her mother there. She had only been visible by torchlight, which always burned webs and dust from the passageways she navigated with her guard. Queen Isa’s cell was smaller than a horse stall in the royal stables. There was a bed of straw, which smelled of mildew and offal, and a hole cut in the floor which allowed the Queen to answer nature’s call into a stream that trickled by below her. A crust of bread sat on the floor next to a wooden bowl of water. Her mother, the woman who bore and raised her—and who had married the King when she had turned fourteen to unite his kingdom with that of a neighboring lord—was clothed in a burlap sheath. Her face, arms, and legs protruded from her garment like broken kindling from a bundle on a forester’s back. Her eyes, sunken and dry from weeks of weeping, were gray in their hollow sockets. Her death was a certainty and, on the twenty-first anniversary of her birth, she was carried to the throne room and beheaded before the courtiers and the father of her child. Her head fell from her shoulders much like a petal does from a dry flower, not so much severed but free from the burden of imitating life for one more day.

Jin was raised by a series of tutors who would last for days or sometimes weeks, then disappear as completely as if they had never existed. From them, she learned courtly manners, including the proper way to address the multitude of courtiers whom she might see whenever she left her room. She was taught that knitting and crocheting methods kept demons at bay. They shared their belief that God was wise in selecting her father as monarch and the church showed its respect in supporting him above all other lords, ladies, and commoners, domestic and foreign-born. Most importantly, they ensured that she understood the importance of honoring her father first in all matters, public and private, even if she were to marry nobility from a distant demesne.

Her only friend, aside from her maids and ladies in waiting (who were not friends but sycophants and spies in her father’s employ), was one of the court jesters. Nature had been cruel to Arguello. He was a dwarf, bow-legged and hunchbacked, with huge, gentle hands and crooked fingers. Large, blue eyes peered out of his wart-embossed head. His smile seemed frozen in place when he was in the court pulling pranks at the behest of the head jester. He was treated worse than the court hounds by most, including the other jesters, but Jin had seen through his flaws into his funny and loving soul. He was just a child like her, after all, no more than a few years her senior when they first met, but they knew that their friendship and loyalty was steadfast from the start. Arguello would provide the latest court news and rumors, and she would share her fears and nightmares. He brought her books and helped her to read them, as she had not been taught to read by her many tutors, who always told her it was not necessary for a princess or queen to learn such things. He had learned to read by pretending to nap in the monastery library while secretly reading the sacred books as the monks read them aloud to each other to to prepare for the abbot’s test of their piety. It was in this way and no other that the princess discovered the outer world of cruel facts and wonderful magic.

When the court alchemist declared Jin fertile on her thirteenth birthday, her father summoned her and told her that she was to be wed to a noble within a year or two. Slowly, then with increasing frequency, earls, marquises, squires, princes, barons, knights, kings, and dukes came courting. They would visit her in a private chamber set aside for visitors. It was several stairways, corridors, and rooms away from the king’s court, ensuring privacy but also reminding her that she was just a princess, a pawn in the king’s quest for increased wealth and power, the daughter of a forgotten queen. The knights, squires, lords, and supplicants of all shapes, ages, languages, and descriptions would enter the room, bow, and tell the princess of their lands, riches, and plans for their future together. None of this mattered to her. She knew that several scribes were hunched behind the tapestries to her left and right, scraping down every word the visitors said to her. As her visitors completed their presentations, a set of guards would appear from a hidden door and escort them away before she said anything that might embarrass the king and his court.

And it continued, week after exhausting week, her time with Arguello’s books diminished by these annoying men and their tales laced with outrageous lies.

One day, a man so fat and oily he made all others before him seem profoundly beautiful by comparison came to make his case. His face was ruddy with excess drink and his clothes smelled of smoke and weasels, for they were the pet he allowed to run freely in his ducal manse. After he had bowed, he waddled up to her throne and grabbed the front of her gown, ripping it away from her chest in one sweep of his arms. He clutched her by the hair and pulled her face to his, sticking his tongue past her lips, sweeping it about in her mouth as if he thought he had left his scullery key in her gullet. As she retched, coating his face with her breakfast, the hidden guards pulled him off and hurried him through passages she did not know. The dumbfounded scribes sat with their pens suspended in mid-air, useless and mute as always. As Jin screamed and started crying, Arguello appeared and threw a prayer shawl over her torso, hiding her from any other eyes that might arrive. He guided her from the throne and back to her bedroom, where she threw herself on the bed, sobbing and screaming into her pillow the rest of the day until she slept a disturbing sleep.

No other suitors came for a month after that. No word was ever spoken of the corpulent duke and his breach of propriety. Arguello knew that the duke’s life had been foreshortened and shared this news with her. She did not want to speak of him and her first kiss, so Arguello shared no more about his painful end at the hands of the kingdom’s cruelest hands.

Her father brought her to his court one day and told her how her life would be. Only a couple of guards and a gaunt monastic advisor was there to hear his announcement. She was to wed within the fortnight to a rich man from a nearby land. He was a duke with more acres under plow and ox, forests under bow and ax, lakes and streams to fish and row than could be visited in a week of riding. It was thought by all the king’s advisors that he would one day be king of his own lands if he were not to marry Princess Jin and merge his property with King Conor’s.

Jin was horrified. Was she to meet him?

“On your wedding day,” said the king.

Was he old, young, fat, thin, handsome, ugly, kind, or cruel?

“You will only know the answers as his wife,” said the king.

Can we go back to accepting suitors in my chamber?

“The duke will be your husband, daughter. Let us hear no more questions” said the king, and dispatched her from his presence.

“Arguello, what am I going to do?” asked Jin of her only friend.

“I know of a place on the edge of these lands that will keep you safe from your liege and his whims,” said Arguello, a grave look on his face as he held her shaking hands in his firm, soft hold. “We will leave tonight. The moon was new last eve and this night is clouded over and foggy. I will take you down a guard’s passage to a tunnel below the moat. It will not be a long walk, but we must go tonight!”

“I will come willingly, dear Arguello. What should I bring?”

“Bring your favorite books and simplest clothing. All else will be cared for; you will never know want again.”

Just past the midnight bells, they escaped down one of the poorly lit stairwells spiraling down to a narrow hall beneath the castle. A thousand steps later and another spiral staircase led them up into a copse of trees that hid a stone mound with an iron door. They emerged here, where the forest was thickest, but Arguello knew every step to take as they slipped, tree-to-tree through the wilderness, moving farther with every footfall from the king and his realm of bootlicks and pretenses.

After some hours, with the sky and air still hidden by fortuitous cover, they arrived at a thicket of tendrils covered in vines. As they approached, Jin heard a strange crackling sound amongst the undergrowth. The vines parted slightly, pulling the thorns into their thick, dark green surfaces and allowing them both to pass. They wandered another thousand steps into the broad leaves and spikes as the vines opened before them and closed as they moved ahead. Finally, they reached an area where a bed of leaves and petals had been placed as if by one of her chambermaids. It was thick and soft to the touch.

“Lie down, dear Jin. You have nothing more to fear from your father. You will be safe here in perpetuity. If you need anything, just say my name three times, and I will be here within a day. If you fear anything, say it backward twice, and I will be by your side.”

“How is that possible, Arguello? Are you a wizard?” said Jin, in awe of the powers Arguello had just revealed to her.

“No, dearest Jin. I am a servant to any who grow up in fear of those who should love them, as you have. I am a protector for all those who have known cruelty. I am a teacher of all those who were raised to be ignorant of the world’s ways, yet who were intelligent enough to learn. I am your knight errant and have wandered the earth saving those who need my skills since long before your father was born. Most importantly, I am and always will be your friend, simply and without explanation. Lie down, dear princess. Rest your eyes.”

Jin curled up on the leaves and petals and was soon in a deep sleep. When she awoke—although she did not know how long it had been—she was in her verdant tower in a bed much like the one they had found in the clearing. Her new life had begun. Slowly, with greater certainty each day, she put aside the fears that had grown within her as she had aged from infant to adolescent. She was unsure of her age but felt like many years had been left behind. Her life was a pleasant dream as she did only what she wished.

Every so often, she would say Arguello’s name three times, and he would be there within the day, always with new books and a basket filled with strange fruit and vegetable varieties; she could never empty a basket as it always seemed at least half-full. Best of all, he never told of the palace, of the king, of the duke to whom she had been betrothed, or the courtiers who had spied on her and told their lies to curry favor with their sire.

And he never told her his secret either. With her freedom from the palace had come his as well. While he had other charges to fulfill, other children to protect, other missions to complete, he was as done as she was with King Conor and his realm.

And that reward would suffice, the eternal friendship of Queen Jin being bountiful as well.

Featured image: United States Department of Agriculture via Flickr (some rights reserved)

Mythical

Vegetal

The Troll Mirror

In the land of mirrors, there lived a troll.

In the land of mirrors, there lived a troll. His cave was damp and narrow just like every troll cave. It was as cluttered as other caves, smelled of the creatures the troll had dragged there for his meals and was marked by the trails of crusted blood smeared by rains that led up to the opening and into his lair.

The cave mouth was plugged by a boulder, smoothed by the rolling it had done at the hands of its owner. The troll had pushed it out of the way to squeeze by when he went on hunts, then eased it back again as he left so other creatures would not mistake it for their cave and set up housekeeping while he was out strangling bears and skewering dragons. The whole boulder rolling thing would have been tiresome to most creatures but not to trolls. It was just what was done with caves and boulders and legs and shoulders. They even had a song about rolling boulders. The words were much like the grunts and flatulence that composed most of their sounds, so no one else knew when they were grunting or singing.

The elder trolls told stories of how the ancient giants had walked along the earth, smashing mud together to make ranges of hills and mountains, then poking their fingers four at a time to make caves. The elder trolls did not know why but the elder giants said their ancestors were creating places for the giant birds to nest and raise their young. The birds and the ancient giants felt a sense of kinship to each other. The birds brought them back fresh gifts from distant fields and seas. The giants made them nests so the gifts would continue. The huge birds were gone now, and the giants were less fearsome than they had once been. The birds’ nests were troll homes and they hunted with the giants for their meals.

The land had become the land of mirrors when the lightning had come and turned swathes of desert into glass and then into silvery surfaces that gleamed back up at the sun. These made the days all the brighter and the nights glow with an eerie, omnipresent light that made them more frightening than the blackness had ever been before. Creatures that once could see better at night, had counted on that time for foraging, were blinded and needed to be careful whenever they left their holes. Creatures attracted by the reflective surfaces and the glow that emanated from them were eaten in scores by the beasts who had seen them gather around the ominous light the mirrors cast back at the moon.

In no time, gremlins had seen an opportunity in the silvery surfaces. They had created a market for these other-worldly objects. Working carefully, they had created hundreds, then thousands of mirrors from the sands in which they had been formed, making them tall for the giants, medium sized for the trolls and ogres, and a series of short sizes that met the needs of dwarves, elves, gremlins, and fairies. They carved them out of the hardened sands with shark tooth saws and polished them with the gritty flesh of bottom feeders—oysters, clams, abalones, and snails. They had placed them on their goat carts, lashing them on with the dried tendons of mammoths, and trundled their stacks of mirrors around to caves, to burrows, to under-mountain places, and to the forests that lay between ranges. Everyone they visited was spellbound by the radiant surfaces and had to have at least one, either through barter for whatever the gremlins could coerce or through promissory notes that would come due when a newborn was spawned. For a bit more recompense, they could purchase a custom frame for the sparkling pool of light, returning within a fortnight with the composite that held the mirrors so perfectly they enhanced what had already been the most beautiful thing any of them had ever seen.

Within a few years, all the homes in the world held a mirror. The mirrors held the faces of the world’s creatures, who stared into them endlessly, thinking they saw something they had never seen in the selves they saw staring back, something they never knew before the mirrors came. Some saw laughter they had not heard. Some saw sadness they had not felt. Some saw family members from the past and future appear, then run beyond the edges of the frame. Some saw the beginning of time (or the illusion of it) while some saw their fears or their end of time.

The troll who lived in his own cave just like the others had a bright silver mirror like every other beast in the world around him. He was a young troll, barely a couple hundred years old, and had inherited the mirror from his birth trolls who had long since been picked off during their hunts by something larger and fiercer than they were. He had not felt the same way about the mirror that they had felt and had stuffed it away in one corner behind some dusty animal skins and well-gnawed bones. Every so often as he rolled his boulder to the side, he saw a twinkle of light knife out from the forgotten thing. This would make him think about it for an instant, but he then forgot just as quickly. That is the way with trolls and their memories.

One day, he left his cave before dawn. He had heard from the slow grumbles of other trolls that it might be good to go to where the remaining sands held those silver lights, carved up by the gremlins to be sure but still there and still entrancing night creatures to gather around and stare, fixated by the mirror glowing. He had loped out with a herd of his neighbors and come back with several rare treats he would devour once they had dried hanging in the sun outside his hole. He finished hanging them and the sun came up just as he rolled the boulder aside and slipped in.

The mirror winked at him from behind the skins and bones, back in the tight grasp of the finger-long burrow he called his home. He remembered that it had done this before and stood wondering why it winked.

One by one, he grabbed a skin from a dragon covered in the rare metal scales used for plates and swords, grabbed a skin from the hairy mammoth his fellows had helped him kill a couple of years before, grabbed a pile of feathers from some long-forgotten bird. He grabbed the thigh bones from a sloth he had found in a tree and the arms from an ape that had run from him as he galloped in its direction. He grabbed skulls he could not recall from creatures that had no name. All were tossed aside, and the mirror shone as if it had never been lost in the depths, hidden behind trophies of hunts that had kept him fed. He peered into its luminescent pool and saw himself as he had never imagined a troll could appear. He saw a troll that was like no other troll on his mountain, like none in the caves as far as his deep voice could bellow.

The troll that stared back at him was not the angry, raw, red-skinned creature he had thought he was… to the extent he thought about such things at all. The troll he saw had no jutting jaw, sharp teeth, clawed fingers, sharpened toes, sinewed arms, tree-trunk legs, barrel chest, hunched back, and matted hair. The troll he saw stood upright, had a patch of hair on the top of his head and was a healthy pink color from face to foot. The troll he saw smiled back at him. His mouth showed white teeth that were evenly spaced and all the same size, a jaw that closed with his upper jaw, a nose that was like a tiny pink plum in the middle of his face, not a gaping set of bleeding nostrils with no discernible shape. His eyes were blue, not a distant black, and his ears were like two flowers rather than the flimsy flaps he saw on all the other trolls. He began to weep at his own beauty, moved in a way nothing had ever moved him over his couple hundred young years in a world of eating and sleeping and rolling the boulder back and forth.

As he wept, the mirror glowed more, as if the tears revived it from a long, silvery sleep. As he cried, the mirror captured his weeping face, pink and well-proportioned, smiling through the tears (for they were happy tears) and cast it out across the world to all the other mirrors in other caves and burrows, branch and root, grass hut and hideaway. The transformed troll appeared in all his newfound beauty in every mirror in the world, and the other creatures marveled at this thing they had never seen in all their days and nights of staring.

For days, gathering and hunting were not performed. Creatures were safe, clustering around the moonlit surfaces in the desert where the gremlins had not carved every silvery surface for their own gain. Other trolls and all the dwarves, ogres, giants, gremlins, fairies, and elves looked upon this new, pink visage staring out at them. What was this odd thing standing upright in their mirrors with its tuft of hair on top, confident smile, toothy grin? Where did it come from and what did it mean? Quiet murmurs filled their air as they traded their pointless queries, answering with slow shakes of their heads and a renewed silent staring at their precious silver mirrors, radiant with the light of moons. They had fallen under some powerful spell, far stronger than those ever conjured for anyone they knew, against anyone they resented. And it was a peaceful spell all the same, not one that called for the blood of enemies or a full harvest.

Finally, the grip loosened and families shook themselves free of the enchantment. They headed out to find food, water, nectar, and fruit (for the elves and fairies did not hunt). They were all as hungry as if they had never eaten in their lives. The creatures who had gathered so meekly at the desert, who were just beginning to relish what they might be possible if they were not going to be a meal for the ravenous predators that stalked them day and night, were grabbed where they were cuddling and cooing with their other creature friends.

The troll broke away from the mirror as well and joined his companions in one of the most devastating hunts ever engaged in their troll cave community. Flesh was ripped, bones were gnawed, and pelts peeled from carcasses all around the desert with its shiny pools of reflected light, beacons beckoning them to the prey, spotlights illuminating them for the ease of their predators. But they all eventually tired of filling themselves and fell asleep, bellies bloated with bubbling gasses, heads filled with what they had seen in the days under entrancement of their mirrors.

When they all woke, they stumbled back to their caves, huts, branches, tangles, hideaways, and burrows. Their elders knew that there must be a discussion of what had happened in the mirrors. Two elders from each tribe of trolls, giants, gremlins, ogres, and dwarves came to the valley to meet the elves and fairies.

What had they seen in their mirrors? Did everyone see the same thing and did it have the same transfixing effect on everyone? As the conversations went on into the night and the next day, as everyone was given a chance to speak, it emerged that, yes, everyone had experienced the same effect and, no, never had anything similar happened to them recently or in any story from the ancients.

After more talk—and a bit of refreshment, for all of them looked forward to the fermented nectar prepared in the valleys (and kept secret from their tribes)—they decided that the figure in the mirror must be an emperor who had come to rule them all. But why had he only appeared in the mirror? And what was this pink thing standing upright with the big, toothy smile? Never had they seen such a thing! The smile was a beautiful thing. They all agreed it was a friendly look for a stranger’s face, even if they did not know what kind of creature it was.

Each elder decided that they should all send scouts out from their regions to find the new Emperor and bid him return to speak to the council in the valley. And with that, they returned to their homes and chose representatives with the keenest sight, fastest feet, and greatest strength to go in all directions, within and beyond their regions, looking for the creature who had appeared in the mirrors.

When the elders returned home, they discovered that their families—indeed all relatives of all kinds in all the regions—were transfixed by the mirrors once again. The pink creature with the tuft of hair on his head and the charming smile was looking back out at them, and they were all feeling at peace with themselves and with each other. While the elders grumbled a half-hearted protest, they all were soon drawn into the mirrors’ clutch and could not break free.

The troll, of course, was doing the same but there was no one else in his cave but himself. His boulder was drawn across the entrance, and he was alone with the pink reflection smiling back at him. He vaguely heard some pounding at the boulder and was compelled to ignore it. They would think (to the extent they thought at all) that he was out hunting and leave soon enough.

When the scouts returned from their worldwide search, they reported that no such living thing had been found. The elders gathered to consider this news—and fill their bellies with nectar. Could there be an Emperor who had not presented himself for their consideration? There had never been an Emperor. None of them knew whether this was the usual state of things for Emperors as there were no stories that spoke of such a being. After a day and night of talking too much, drinking too deeply, and snoring that scared all animals in the valley with its scraping sound, they woke and decided.

The pink thing was Emperor, and that was that. He had appeared to through the magic of the mirrors. He smiled, stood upright, was pink, mostly hairless, and different in appearance from all the beasts they already knew (although the fairies were the pinkest of the beings they had known so far). He was given the power to gather meetings among all the elders and to settle disputes when they came up (which was, in truth, rarely).

As they had no idea where the Emperor lived or how to contact him, life went on very much as it had… with one crucial difference. If an elder failed at achieving a goal for his tribe, he would blame the Emperor for not guiding his hand to a wiser decision or a more satisfactory outcome. He would tell his people—and the other elders—that it must not have been what the Emperor wished it to be.

Soon, all the elders were blaming the Emperor for everything that went wrong, although they all agreed they were all simply fantastic at achieving their goals whenever they completed them.

And all the while, between hunts and forages out from his cave, the troll spent his days staring blindly into his extraordinary mirror, thus transfixing the population of the world with his upright pink self, a tuft of hair on his head and the big smile. What he did not appreciate was the effect he was having. No one knew it was only him and his mirror.

He had become Emperor, ruler of all and the reason for misfortunes.

Eerie

Copycat

Lofty

Featured image (©2008, Jarek Tuszyński)

The Three Mouse Chieftains

There once was a field as large as a nation.

There once was a field as large as a nation. The field had tall grasses, medium grasses, and short, finely groomed grasses. Among the three kinds of grasses lived a nation of mice and among the mice lived three mouse chieftains.

One was from the tall grasses, wore his fur long and his yew leaf trousers hiked up high around his middle. His mice all tried to imitate their chief, some with matted fur and droopy pants, some with slicked fur and tight shorts where trousers should have been.

One was from the short, well-manicured grasses. His shirt was made of the finest inchworm silk. He wore a top hat refreshed from flowers each day. The top hat was widely found on his mouse followers, although none kept their flowers as fresh as he managed.

The third mouse was from the grasses that were well-tended, planted in rows and not left to grow wild. She wore a vest knitted from dandelion fuzz and wore shoes made of nut husks. While her shoes were made from a rare nut found only in the short grasses, other mice in her region wore any old nut husk they could find. Their unsteady gaits led some to speak unkindly of their silly shoes but this did not deter them.

They were all admired in their grasslands for their fashion sense and ridiculed by mice in the other regions for their silly costumes.

Each of the chieftains had allies in all three grass zones, although each chief drew most of their support from the grasslands of their birth. But this is where they found their differences, although they were all indisputably mice.

Each of the three mice believed in a different being that would save the mice in their mousey realm from predators, save them from being the bite-sized morsels they so obviously were to any creature with fast feet, fluttering wings and sharp teeth or beak.

Each being in which they believed was as difficult to discover as the wind on a still day or the sun at night, yet each mouse believed firmly that theirs was the being that would protect them.

Each chief had known a mouse who had seen or spoken to or heard from the being in which they believed, although none of them had seen or spoken to or heard from the beings themselves.

They were all completely devout in their beliefs and privately ridiculed the other chiefs for believing the fantasies they believed.

The mice overall were a mixed bunch. There were black, gray, brown, and white mice, each with their various shades of fur to make them unique to their families and friends and some of their acquaintances. There were also a lot of mice with mixed furs, gray patches on their white bodies or white patches on their gray bodies, white noses on brown mice and black noses on white mice, mixed colors on their tiny toes too.

The mice did what mice had always done.

They visited each other in their separate grasslands and had cups of tea with their tiny chunks of cheese and nibbly bits of nuts.

They talked to each other about what their relatives and friends and neighbors were doing and spent too much time sharing their suspicions about the mice from other regions, their silly beliefs in laughable magic creatures, and their illogical love for the tall, medium, or short grasses in which they made their homes.

When they visited, some of them secretly fell in love with different furred mice than their own fur kind and, with a rapid wriggle of their noses, whiskers, and chubby flanks made baby mice a dozen at a time.

When their neighbors and mates were not looking, the females would eat some young but that was an accepted practice, although no one wanted to discuss it except in whispers.

Every five years, the mice in all three grasslands would start talking about expeditions to find their protectors.

The mice in the short grasses wondered where the Golden Mole might be. It was said to be as large as one hundred mice and so heavy with gold that it crawled through its tunnels laden with its riches and with its compassion for the mice it shielded from enemies everywhere. Conjecture rose to a heated level, with certainty emerging from all quarters and confusion being the only sure thing. The chief heard all the stories and smiled to himself, preening his shirt to ensure that it was as lustrous as new. He kept his thoughts tucked behind his tongue.

Talk amongst the mice in the tall grasses started as whispers among friends and became a cacophony of speculation: where might the flying squirrel be hiding and how might it be found? The mice known for the finest long fur and best trousers swore amongst themselves that they had seen a shadow hover between the moon and their burrows only last month and that the shadow, rather than being dark was suffused with silver light as if the moon had been amplified by the squirrel’s wide wings and powerful frame. The less fortunate tall grass mice doubted these rumors but said that they had heard the wings slip through the night wind like a sigh and heard a celestial chirping like raindrops on rose petals or the high burbling sounds that come from a brook.

The chieftain in the middle grasses gathered all her wisest, all the silliest, and all the most reasonable mice together in a giant circle. It was time for a chat about the black swan that guarded them. Of course, all of the mice had seen the wonderful swans flying above on their mysterious missions to wherever they went. They saw the lovely white swans on the ponds among the rushes and on the lakes among the rocks. But they had only heard from their ancestors about the black swan that had graced them with its presence at some time in the remembered past. It was the size of a standard swan but so black that light disappeared around it. When it flew, its wings sang a melody so long and so deep that it took a week for it to echo off distant mountains and return to their ears. Or so the stories went.

The mice in the short grass posted sentries at all the holes that could hold a mole.

The mice in the tall grasses kept their eyes peeled for shadowy squirrels and ears keen for sighing wings.

The mice in the middle grasses surrounded the ponds and lakes, dipping their bare feet in the cool water and watching beyond the rushes and around the rocks.

Many reports came in about shadows and sounds, golden rumbles and silver flight, long melodies and disappearing light. But none of them spotted anything they could distinctly say was their protector beast, the one who would keep their predators at bay, during night and day.

A faction grew among all the mice in all the lands that were sick of the promises of a sighting, saddened by the stories from long before they were born, stupefied by the huge number of rumors without any proof.

As happens when factions form, there were factions within the factions.

Some of the mice from the tall, middle, and short grasses now believed in a gryphon (although there were as many spellings as there were regions), a ferocious creature with the body and tail of a lion, the wings, talons, and head of an eagle. Why they believed that such a creature would protect them is unknown to this day.

Some of the mice from the tall, middle, and short grasses now believed in a gorgon, a pale, hairless monkey with a head covered in snakes instead of hair and the tusks of a wild boar. If the gorgon saw you looking it in the eyes, your little mouse body would become a stone and wear away into pebbles and sand as time went by. Why any of them thought that a creature with serpent hair and tusks ten times the size of any mouse would be their friend was unknown… or those who once knew were now stones and could not say.

And some mice from the tall, middle, and short grasses now believed in a unicorn, a beautiful creature with the whitest fur, a silver mane, and a spiral horn growing out of its forehead, a gossamer beard growing from its chin. It was said to be a shy and peaceful creature but some said they admired it for its temperamental nature and fearful stamping of the ground, capable of crushing to tiny pancakes scores of mice with a single cloven hoof during a single tantrum. But its believers believed and that was all there was to it.

While it was clear to all the mice that the ancestral protectors were quite peaceful, even to the factions that embraced these new creatures with their alarming potential for causing harm, a vote was called to see how many of the mice from all the realms wanted to do away with the old myths and start fresh with the new ones. The vote was set for the day and night between the full moon and the waxing first quarter moon.

The full moon came and days were counted down to the waxing gibbous moon, four days out.

When all the votes were counted across the short, middle, and tall grasses and the chieftains, who had been reluctant to have the vote in the first place but relented to a popular notion like most chiefs will, had been informed of the results, a meeting was called in each region.

The tall grasses had voted overwhelmingly to embrace the air as their new protector, for it was everywhere and already sustained them (well, except for the hawks and eagles who swooped through the air and took them off to be pecked at by their young).

The short grasses had found a supermajority wanted the earth and all its stones to be their new protector, for it supported them as they scampered about and gave them places to hide from all their predators (well, except for the snakes who found them wherever they were).

The middle grasses, who believed their chieftain the wisest and most respectful of the three chieftains, had voted for water as their new protector, for it was safely contained in ponds and lakes and provided them with vegetation for their meals and sustenance for their bodies (well, except for the fish and frogs who lived within it and would grab them from land or as they swum and gulp them down in one bite).

And so, it came to be that the old protectors were set aside and the new protectors became the friends of all the mice, for they all saw the wisdom in these choices.

Until, one day, the golden mole, the flying squirrel, the black swan, not to mention the gryphon, the gorgon, and the unicorn, all showed up and demanded to know why they had been abandoned to these elemental beliefs.

While the old triumvirate watched, the gryphon leaped into the air, swooping wherever a mouse could be found on open ground, which was quite common in the short grasses. Soon, all the mice with top hats and silk shirts were torn with claws and gnashed in beaks and only a few mice remained in the short grasses. White, brown, black, and gray, mottled fur and solid fur, white noses, and black toes, all were consumed with the same fury by the ferocious new creature while the golden mole sat by on its fat belly with glistening fur and smiled.

The gorgon, with its monkey legs, snaky hair, and boar-like tusks scuttled about in the tall grasses, turning mice to stone, then picking them up, one by one, throwing them far into the air, watching them crash to the ground and turn to pebbles and sand and memories. The flying squirrel skittered about in the air above, dodging the stones thrown skyward and chirping to itself about the mayhem it saw below, its silver shadow the last sight of many mice.

Then the unicorn pranced through the middle grasses, rearing back, whinnying like lightning and stomping like thunder, turning the terrified mice into pancakes and blending them into the mud that unicorn hooves make of the earth around ponds and lakes. His spiral horn, silver mane, and gossamer whiskers were the last sight the poor mice had before becoming nutrition for the next generation of middle grasses. The black swan grimaced a little as fate was revealed but it quickly became numb to the squeaks that emerged from the well-kept rows of middle grasses. She took to tucking her head beneath her light-consuming wings and napping until the dreadful noise was done.

When the disaster was done and the six protectors gathered to survey what had happened, they realized that no mice were left to believe in them. They were shocked by what their precipitous actions had wrought and felt regret growing in their breasts, for none of them were bad as such, just as none of them were really quite as good in the way the mice had thought them to be.

As they stood, their heads bowed in thought, the earth shuddered, the sky became dark with clouds, and lightning pierced the air. It rained, not in drops or torrents or buckets of water but in nations of water falling all at once. The earth opened in jagged tears and hot, gooey rock poured from within, meeting the water and rising in steam to block the sun and the light from the gibbous moon.

The grasses were all drowned—tall, middle, and short—and the mud became rock through which no grasses would grow. The mole, the squirrel, the swan, the gryphon, the gorgon, and the unicorn were all struck by lightning as they drowned and the world became a place with only three living things remaining: the air, the water, and the earth.

Or

Hyperbole

Tiny

Ancient

(nota bene: As I was searching for an appropriate mouse photo for the featured image, I discovered that a parody version of Homer’s Illiad was written in ancient times called The Battle of Frogs and Mice or batrachomyomachia. The German translation is called Froschmäusekrieg or The Frog-Mouse War. Many other translations exist of this “epic” and there are some terrific illustrations of the frogs and mice going at each other. One complete translation can be found here and on other sites. This did not form the basis of my tale but I found it fascinating nonetheless and thought I would share.

His Majesty, The Ogre

There once was an ogre…

In the center of a forest of very tall, very gray trees lived an ogre with a skin of iron and mud. His palace was grayer than the trees and rose above them, a jagged stump among their gray needles and lifeless branches. He had once worried about the look of his palace. To make it more festive, he had grabbed some birds from the air and lizards from dark corners and leashed them to the sharp heights so that they would entertain him with their furtive and futile attempts to escape. When they died, he left them there, warnings to other birds and lizards to keep their distance, for the ogre was not to be mistaken for a friend.

The ogre’s scowl kept thunder clouds above his palace and an oily rain drizzling over all his lands. Tornados broke branches in the forest around him, and lightning pierced the air with dark bolts that sent long shadows scurrying through the forest.

The gargoyles who lived in the eaves and on the ramparts of his palace saw his scowl and knitted brow and thought he must be smiling. They were gargoyles, though, and all other creatures in the land knew his was the deepest frown they had ever seen.

The ogre became bored with his tall, gray palace and thought about what to do. He considered painting his face on all seven facets of its walls. He grabbed a branch from a tree, which then withered in shame for its part, and dipped it in a puddle of molten gold he kept in his treasury. With an impatient hand, he slashed at the walls of his palace, thinking how majestic he must look to all the creatures in his lands. As he walked around the ramparts, splashing gold from his tree branch brush, he made himself over seven times, each one different from the others. All his faces grimaced as the gold hardened into masques of despair, yet he saw them all as works of glory, works of perfection adorning his palace in the forest on his lands.

The ogre had lived in the palace his whole life through no fault of his own. His father, a frowning, fearful ogre in his own right, had built the palace by smashing the forest that once lived there and lashing the trees together with their own wilting roots and branches. His father had done all the work himself and the creatures in his lands had cowered to see the awfulness that had risen from what once had been green and living. So, the ogre’s son had grown up in the grayness and relished it as his own, a stark realm in which all color but gray and gold was banished beyond his sight.

Eventually, the ogre realized that the lizards and birds, the gargoyles and rats, the spiders and slugs who were his constant company among the gold chairs and tables within his shattered palace were not enough to keep him amused. He thought of a project to keep him busy as he plotted his next steps.

“I need a wide and deep moat to protect me in my palace from any enemies that may wish what I have earned!”

He spoke to the lizards and rats and birds and gargoyles and told them all he needed a grand moat and a broad drawbridge to keep them all safe, for it was in all their interests to be safe in the palace among his closest friends.

“I need this moat to be 20 fathoms deep and 100 yards wide. I need the fiercest fish in the seas to swim the moat and eat any swimmers who may try to pass. I need the edges planted with thistles so that any who try to enter the moat are cut by the leaves and stung by the sap. I need the drawbridge made of 20 fresh trees from beyond this sad forest that surrounds us and the 20 trees must be renewed every month so that the bridge is always young and supple when any visitor crosses it… with my permission, of course! Go make this so! You will be paid with coin of my realm beyond your deepest dreams.”

And the lizards and the rest of his crew set to work, night and day, making the moat 20 fathoms deep and 100 yards wide. As they felled the first lengths of fresh, green trees and filled the moat with water from the seas in which the fiercest fish would swim, the ogre came to them, one by one, and pushed them in, where they were gnashed by the sharp teeth and swallowed by the deep gullets of the fish they had placed there. The ogre scowled a long, satisfied scowl and went back over the drawbridge, pulling it up with golden chains he had fashioned from his stores of hidden gold.

He was safe now. His creatures, though, had been depleted as he pushed them all into the moat. He thought about this and knew what to do. He would marry a lion. He had never seen a lion but he had dreamt one in a dream and they were ferocious creatures that matched his own fearsomeness.

He sent his favorite gargoyle out beyond the gray forest to find him such a creature. The gargoyle, happy for the relief from his perching, searched for forty days and forty nights, then searched another forty days and nights just to make sure that the lion he had met on the first day was the most pleasing of all.

He brought the lion to the ogre and presented her. “This is a wondrous lion!” said the ogre, “but are you sure it is the most beautiful lion there is in all my lands?”

“Yes, your majesty” gargled the gargoyle in reply. “She is the most beautiful I have seen in all my travels, which took me through all your lands.”

“Very well then, I shall marry her” said the ogre. He did not ask but he married her all the same.

“You must learn to stand on your hind legs” said the ogre. The lion looked at him and snarled. He took this as ascent and leashed her front paws together, lifting them in the air towards the top walls of his palace. “Stay there until you learn” said the ogre. As she stood on her hind paws, roaring and weeping with the humiliation of this treatment, for she was a majesty in her own right, he sat in his gold chair with his hobbled feet up on a gold table and admired her underbelly, embellished as it was by eight teats ringed with golden hair. “You are a treat for my cruel eyes!” said the ogre as he continued to stare.

After a long while, although he lost track of the time as he lost interest in the lion, he unleashed her from the walls and let her stand on her own, which she did not. She fell to the ground on all fours and curled up in a ball. “Let me leave, hideous creature!” she howled in pain. “Why have you treated me so poorly, I, a majesty in my own realm and your superior in every way!” she roared.

“Ah now! That’s a problem” said the ogre as he flung her out the closest window into the moat.

The ogre wondered what to do next, for this first attempt at companionship had not gone as planned. Eventually, although it took some years, as the ogre was not as quick at thinking as he thought himself to be, he dreamt of another creature who might be his mate.

“Gargoyle,” for they were his most trustworthy assistants, “bring me a golden bear. Before you come back, make sure the bear walks on her hind legs. I don’t want to be disappointed again!” said the ogre. The gargoyle shuddered a little and loped off into the wilds for another long look around the vast lands beyond the gray forest. He found the perfect bear on the first day but spent a year looking everywhere just to make sure he had found the most beautiful bear of all.

“Bear, you must do as I ask and I will only ask once. You must walk on your hind legs when you are in the presence of the ogre. If you do not, this will all take a nasty turn which neither of us want to see.”

“I can do that, gargoyle, as I am a golden bear and my people have walked on our hind legs long before you loped along the ground.”

They returned to the palace. As the ogre saw them coming and saw that the bear walked on its hind legs, he lowered the drawbridge and let them in.

“Ah gargoyle! You have done well this time! You have found me a golden bear that walks on its hind legs. I shall marry her and she shall rule beneath me and raise young ogres to inherit my wealth!”

The ogre and the bear married and bore young. They were misshapen creatures with gray fur where golden fur might have been and knobby flesh where the ogre’s blood had its way but they were the spawn of this marriage and were raised so by the gargoyles in the palace. As they grew, they learned to speak as the gargoyles spoke and learned to lope as the gargoyles loped. When it came time for an audience with their father, the ogre was not pleased.

“Speak to me, young man!” commanded the ogre.

“I speak when the gargoyles ask” said his eldest son. The ogre threw his eldest out of the closest window and the fish below swallowed him in one bite.

“Gargoyle, I will give you a chance to correct this issue” said the ogre.

“We will do so” said the gargoyle, speaking for all of them at once.

The gargoyles returned to the nursery and spoke to the two young ladies and two young men who played there.

“You must speak to your father with reverence and love. Learn his language and his way of speaking and you will live to inherit his wealth and power” said the gargoyles, taking turns with the words as it would take too long for any one of them to say them all.

“We will do so” said the young ladies and men.

Soon, it was time for the ogre to see his spawn. He sent for them and spoke.

“Speak to me, young ladies!”

The young ladies spoke in their best ogre slur, complimenting their father on his wealth and power. The young men spoke as their sisters did, pronouncing their father the richest and wisest ogre in the world.

“Gargoyle, you have done well. You may take them all back to the nursery and continue your work. You have honored me with your tutelage!” said the ogre. They all returned to the nursery and continued to play and practice their ogre-tongue with care.

After a few years, he summoned his spawn and his spouse to the golden room with the golden furniture. It was time for them to go and tell the lands of his might and majesty.

“Young ladies, young men, dear spouse, and all my gargoyles! It is important that all creatures in my land understand my importance, my wisdom, my power, and my wealth. You must all go among them and inform them of these facts. When you have returned, we will feast on whatever we can pull from the air and whatever we can fish from the moat that surrounds us. Go! Return when all know what I have told you!”

The ladies, the men, the spouse, and the gargoyles all headed out of the palace and crossed the drawbridge. Before they crossed, as they always followed the ladies, the men, and the spouse in their travels, the gargoyles unlinked the golden chain from the drawbridge so that the bridge sat across the moat as a fallen tree sits across a stream. When they loped across behind the family, they lingered behind and, working together, one hundred gargoyles all at once, pulled the drawbridge from the palace. One end sunk into the waters of the moat. The fierce fish, thinking it was feeding time, set upon the trees, eating them from one end to the other until their bellies were full of splinters and bark and the drawbridge was no more.

With that, the ladies, the men, the spouse, and the gargoyles set off into the world to regale the creatures in the sky, on the land, that burrowed and swam and scuttled about, that the ogre was the wisest, most powerful, richest, and most important ogre in the world and that his palace was the most majestic in the land.

And if they wished to be as wise, powerful, rich, and important as the ogre, they would do well to keep their distance from that fetid, gray stump rising among the gray trees.

Second Thoughts

Irksome