Pictures of ?

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” – Antonio Porchia (1886-1968

A strange item among my mother’s remains:
A manila envelope labeled, in a bold print scrawl,
“Pictures of ?” askew on its container,
starting roughly at a level where an address might be
and heading upwards toward where a stamp belonged.
Neither an address nor a stamp are here,
just the scrawl begging for some resolution
not found during her life, except when she acquired it—
the pictures—contained within,
secured with a metal clasp common to these envelopes
(is there a company that makes these pliant fingers
meant to bend, while the other digits grasp the sallow weave
in a death grip, protecting both mysteries and the irrelevant
with the same reverence, a clutching finger and thumb
expecting to be pinched away and hoping all the same to remain
in place?).

Bent away, the clasps don’t break, they yield and reveal
pieces of cardboard holding tight to a well-shot black-and-white
of “?,” a young man in a well-tailored double-breasted suit,
right hand in pants pocket, left hand dangling, fingers curled in
towards the thigh, photographer’s imprimatur low in the right-hand corner:
“Rice,” then “Montreal,” an artist’s signature and culture
cut into the print in a practiced, stylish statement
of artistry, ownership, pride,
enhanced on the reverse by “Rice Studio Limited—For Duplicates No.”—
and then the number “73356-7” on a stamped line, followed by “Montreal, Can.,”
all in an oval, except for the penciled numbers,
graphite as durable as the ink upon which they sit,
a good seventy or eighty years since they were placed there with care
by James Rice, or an assistant (who knows?),
but in the hopes that “?” would call now and then and order
one or two, maybe more, for his family, friends, the people who knew him,
knew he was not a question mark on a manila vault,
but a young guy in a new suit, looking a distance past the querying lens,
past whatever immediate future he faced into a time when everyone he knew
would welcome him back into their homes, into their rituals
of waking, working, eating, sleeping, speaking of life and its hardships,
partnering with the people he cared for,
living an anonymous life in the presence of everyone else.

And here he is again, sitting (this time), in the same studio,
but in a uniform of some type, a left shoulder patch with the word
“American” embroidered into a rectangle, an ellipsis into other,
unknown words, fading off into a past of service to some endeavor.
The young man smiles deep into the lens this sitting,
peering past the convex glass clenched in its mount,
his face, shoulders, arms, and chest contracted into a pinpoint of light,
then inverting, blossoming, and arriving at the emulsion
for sufficient time that the chemicals capture a part of his soul
within whatever device the photographer wielded,
into whatever film was selected for that man, that day,
for another fine portrait of an unknown fellow—
a fresh enlistee? on leave? duty fulfilled?—
smiling with confidence that good things were yet to come
or had already treated him with the kindness he deserved.
Like so many young men before and after these “Pictures of ?,”
this one has gone into the pantheons of memories
held by other people who, in their turn, have disappeared
among all of those hundreds, thousands, millions, and billions
who were everything they hoped they could be
or nothing they ever expected to become
or most usually, I suspect, something in between,
when a photo or two was planned and stored, perhaps forever,
perhaps for those who knew them,
perhaps for those who would wonder someday
who they could have possibly been,
and will we all fade, not like an indelible photograph,
but like a memory held precious by those near
and forgotten, like our own births and deaths, by the rest of the world.

 

Create

Natty

Uniform

Distant

It is a remote possibility that someone will see this and know who this is. I did an image search using several image search engines and came back empty. The photographer (I believe the same photographer took both) was James Rice who is well-known in Canada and in Montreal for many portraits of hockey players (or so I discovered in my searching). I have no reason to believe that this guy was a hockey player, but aside from a suspicion that he served in the “American… (maybe Red Cross?),” I haven’t been able to find an identical shoulder patch that confirms this. Anyway, dear readers, puzzle away. If you know something, please share your knowledge below. I hope the fellow and a long and happy life.

Space/Time

In a place without time
there is no story to tell

In a place without time
there is no story to tell,
all persons, places,
firm and free,
transfixed and stubborn
in the silent still.

That which would move
does not flinch a fiber,
those who would try
cannot move a muscle,
particles that spin and bounce
do neither in their torpor,
rusted through the core,
the rust can creep no more.

Motion needs time
to step through its dance.
Time needs motion
until the clock stops.
Think of one,
you’ve set them both
racing towards
a distant goal.


This thing popped into being while I was reading the sixth “brief lesson” in Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. That sixth lesson is titled “Probability, Time, and the Heat of Black Holes.” The tiny thing I’ve presented above addresses the unimaginable and, thus, is a paradox.

Timely
Continue reading “Space/Time”

The Crown and Hill Country Summers

Have you noticed that we sometimes inter an idea before it’s actually dead?

Have you noticed that sometimes you stumble into a pattern in your film and television viewing without having a conscious intent to do so? This can even extend to what you just happen to be reading and what music you are favoring as well, but I found myself watching two shows, one on NetFlix, one on Masterpiece Theatre, the U.S. show that mainly imports shows produced in the U.K., sometimes Europe, and packages them as aesthetically and intellectually superior (less true in the realm of contemporary streaming options than in years gone by).

This happened to me recently when The Crown popped up on NetFlix and Indian Summers was running through its second season on PBS. To put reviews to the side, I “enjoyed” them both, although my tastes are suspect in this matter.

(1) I tend to gravitate towards productions that peer into British subcultures (in this case, the ascension and early years of the current Queen Elizabeth’s reign and 1930’s colonialist behavio(u)r in the Himalayan foothills);

(2) I am very interested in how colonialist behavior (“u” implied) continues to permeate so much of how white people behave in their own countries and around the world.

In The Crown, the principal colonialist behavior is seen in how Prince Phillip behaves in Kenya and Barbados, how he speaks about other countries that once were under the none-too-subtle boot of British rule, and how this attitude is seen in other court and government attitudes. Whether accurate or not, it is not shown to be an important aspect of Elizabeth’s thinking, although she is shown to be laughing off Phillip’s boorish comments (and what an ass he is portrayed to be!), which is a complicit form of acceptance in my view.

In Indian Summers, the blatant racism permeates virtually every aspect of the story. Here is a country that has astonishingly deep roots in pre-history (that would be India, or the agglomeration of principalities, etc. that comprise “India”) having to defer to Anglo-Saxons, who started their dominance of the British Isles in around 400 C.E., after the Romans had to end their own colonialist incursions through much of their empire. The British had moved into India, following the Portuguese, Dutch, and others, to establish an import/export relationship in the early 1600s. Once they figured out how profitable these markets could be, they brought their military and seized the whole country. The Indians, when they had to contend with them at all, deferred to the British under threat of imprisonment, violence, and death. The Indians were called all manner of insult to their faces and behind their backs, were treated as less than human, were viewed as incapable of managing their own resources, people, and country. Of course, the Raj ended, India gained “self-rule,” an astonishing concept all on its own, and the grim and unresolved process of partition occurred over the next 30 years (creating Pakistan, Bangladesh, and whatever Kashmir is/should be—no dog in this hunt, just reporting).

The key issue here is this attitude of cultural, economic, moral, national, ethnic, and racial superiority imposed on other cultures. It is this brimming suitcase of beliefs that made subjugation of nations and people possible. The British were by no means the first to do this, of course. They weren’t the last. It’s all too human to come up with a list of rationales for why “some of us” are better than “those people,” and we sort these differences in whatever way suits our needs. We pretend we are better than other family members, near or far. We pretend our family is better than another family, our neighborhood is better than a nearly identical one built one street away, our community holds some superiority to others that are demographically identical, our town is better than another town, etc. When it comes to matters of religion, race, gender, national origin, those of “us” who consider ourselves superior impose a kind of colonialism on anyone we can, particularly if we are reasonably confident that our new “subjects” (use here in the general sense of “those who are subjugated) would not fight back.

What an utterly disgusting and morally bankrupt way for we humans to behave!

In The Crown, it is almost comprehensible how a young lady, raised in the self-aggrandizing hothouse of the British royal family, “destined” to rule after King Edward VIII abdicated to pursue Wallis Simpson, could allow herself to be surrounded by racists, nationalists, colonialists who believed that they were God’s chosen family to rule over the Empire and could tolerate these behaviors. At least until she matured in her thinking.

It is not acceptable in the least how a bunch of expatriated English from non-royal families could settle in the Himalayan hill country and treat everyone around them as inferior. If these people were a hive of bees, they would be the drone bees, male bees whose sole function is to mate with the queen bee (not to be confused with the popular contemporary singer with this nickname). The worker bees, as their name implies, actually do the work, including feeding the drones, that helps the entire hive exist. I have no idea whether drone bees “think” the workers are inferior due to their distance from the queen and their lives of endless labor, but I am sure you get the metaphor here. “I represent the Queen” versus “I work for a living” somehow allows for the superiority of the royal-proximate to those who work.

In the U.S., we seem to be in the throes of embracing this kind of differentiation between our citizens (and non-citizens, for that matter). This morning, I saw the following item in an email I receive from fivethirtyeight.com, a website that is predominantly focused on statistical trends (and also sits on WordPress.com).

$9.5 billion

Total wealth of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees so far (including cabinet-level positions). That’s more money than belongs to the 43 million least wealthy U.S. households combined. Quartz

The odd thing is that the U.S. chose in the late 18th C. to become something other than a monarchy. It chose a republic system of government, that is a government in which the hopes of the population are represented by elected persons. They chose to break with the non-representative, monarchic, imperialist government of King George III. I suppose it can be argued that we have often elected representatives from our own elite groups to serve as our leaders, but we’ve also elected people from impoverished families who won their battles with inequity and became very effective leaders. In a monarchic system, people from the “wrong” classes do not become leaders… full stop (as the British say). In representative systems, they can and sometimes do rise to the challenge.

A difference between leaders from these two backgrounds—and I’m aware this is a rhetorical difference, as leaders also come from all backgrounds in between—is that the leader from meager beginnings is less likely to forget their past, while a leader from elitist beginnings has no other past than of wealth and privilege. Either can be a great, mediocre, or poor leader. , but I would prefer that I am represented by someone who remembers whence they came.

We are increasingly “represented” by lobbyists for various interests. The more powerful interests wield the most influence in legislation, and so on until we reach the individuals, families, communities, towns, regions, that have no power because they have no resources worth considering, no jobs worth protecting, no money that will buy them a seat at the table. Often, people who have these traits don’t educate themselves to understand how the global economic and political systems work and don’t vote because they believe themselves powerless to make a difference. When they do vote, they often think about what might be, rather than what is. They might win the lottery. A plane carrying money to Fort Knox or a Federal Reserve bank might crash in the woods near their home, making them imaginary billionaires (imaginary because how are they going to spend that money without revealing themselves). A meteor composed entirely of platinum might crash through their outhouse and make them rich.

The odds of each of those happening are roughly the same, give or take a couple of orders of magnitude: for Powerball, the odds are 1 in 292,201,338 (two hundred ninety-two million). If the payout is about $200 million, somewhere around 50 million tickets are sold; only 1 of those people is going to win and have to deal with instant wealth. As the jackpot rises, even more tickets are sold, investing the payout with more “loser’s” money, yet the odds of winning (and losing) remain the same. I actually have no idea about the probability of the plane crash and platinum meteor scenarios, but they are both entirely chance circumstances instead of driven by a particular behavior.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 58% of eligible voters exercise their right to do so; 42% (over 90 million people!) did not, thus deferring their right to the ones who did. Of those who voted, about 48% voted for Clinton and 46.6% voted for Trump. The winner is determined by the electoral system, which assigns exclusive party-designated representatives from each state to cast their vote for whoever wins the most votes in that particular state. Electors are selected through a crazy-quilt of state-specific laws which can be reviewed here, along with other pertinent information. The key factors are that (1) the electors are not given their responsibilities in the popular vote, they are designated by political party rules and are as often as not people with the money/power to get noticed by their parties (i.e. donations, friendships, corporate interests, family interests, etc.) and (2) the electors from each state do not end up representing the popular vote in that state so much as they overwhelmingly represent the internal machinations of their political party.

There are 538 electors nationwide, which is the number of U.S. senators and representatives BUT senators and representatives cannot be electors. So, in 2016 when roughly 129 million people voted, their votes will be “represented” by 538 people, none of whom received a single vote.

Finally, back to my overall point here, we will have an incoming government “elected” by 538 people who did not receive a single vote but who are supposedly representing the 129 million people who did vote (for those of you who enjoy percentages, (538÷129,000,000) x 100 = 0.0004% of the voting population) PLUS (one could argue) the 96 million that chose for reasons only known to them to not exercise their right to vote AND all the other folks who, for whatever reason (and there are many, including youth and various levels of conviction, depending on state) could not vote.

The U.S. population has a lot of that colonialist superiority vibe going on at the moment. “We” elected Trump (although “we” most certainly did not!) because he promised to do all sorts of stuff that pretends to a superiority that just doesn’t exist in the real world. We are all, quite simply, human beings. There are →7.4 billion of us. We all have the same general list of problems because we all live in the same neighborhood. Those problems are health, shelter, livelihood. Sure, a very small number of our fellow citizens have insulated themselves from one or more of these, but they are still affected by those who have desperate issues with one or more of them. There is no U.S. There is Earth, upon which a huge number of biological entities do something called “life,” which varies in its scope so enormously that it fills shelves and shelves in museum warehouses and on overburdened journal shelves at academic libraries around the world—and we still don’t understand it all!

It is a little mind-boggling that all of this thinking came out of watching a couple of dramas on television. For me, though, I watch stuff that MAKES me think, MAKES me consider the world in which I live. What I thought was that our world is still rife with colonialist thinking. Corporations, who still attempt to alienate resources from various countries, who still pay their foreign workers the least they can manage, who still object to the unification of workers whenever they can hire other workers at cheaper rates, are running a colonialist scheme on us all. In this country, they are powerful due to their profits, wrested from foreign soil and foreign labor, and the influence those profits purchase from our government.

The attitudes on display in The Crown and Indian Summers are those of people who believe that everyone who is not them is inferior. Is this who we are? Is this who we are becoming, are we already there, or have we always been this way in spite of our pretenses to being otherwise?

I fear that we have always been this way and that it is not getting better.

Featured image: For no particular reason, the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, except that it looked misshapen, gaudy, and had a rather unsubtle cross sticking out of its front. By the way, you can rest assured that it is worth quite a bit more than the miners who found the gold and gems were paid for their labors.

Conundrum

Folly

Maddening

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 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.

Come One, Come All!!!

Step right up!

I can’t remember exactly when it was or how old I must have been but my mother took me to (I think) the state fair in (probably) Columbia, South Carolina when I was (let’s say) ten. If I’m wrong on any of these, it was either Columbia or Beaufort, either a state or county fair and I was either ten or somewhere in the twelve to fourteen range. Additionally, if I’m wrong it doesn’t matter much or at all. With all of that out of the way (this is a factual bit rather than a bit of fiction or it really wouldn’t matter), I will describe what might have been a pivotal incident in growing up less gullible than I might otherwise have been.

We wandered around the fair, wherever it was and however old I might have been. We might have gone on some fairly tame rides or into the “Fun House” (also known as “House of Mirrors”), perhaps a haunted house. By the way, and as a courtesy service to those who are unaware, these rides are neither in a house nor haunted (inhabited by the ghostly remnants of the previously living). On the other hand, you do get to ride in an uncomfortable cart that jerks back and forth, side-to-side as it makes its way along an electrified track past tableaux vivant that are meant to horrify but are usually just cheesy.

We arrived at the time-honored sideshow area of the fair, a place where P.T. Barnum and other impresarios before him once displayed genetic anomalies as a source of amusement for paying customers. Well, and social anomalies like naked women. This was a fairly tame sideshow area as both the year (the early-to-mid 1960s) and the location made truly tasteless sideshows a bit much for the population.

For some reason, my young eyes were drawn to a sign that said “The Cardiff Giant” and I was instantly intrigued. I can’t tell you why but the sign triggered something in my reptilian brain and said “ooo – a real-life giant! a huge person! I must see this person!”

Some of you know the tale of the Cardiff giant and know what I saw next but don’t whisper it to your friends and neighbors. Let this play out….

It didn’t take much work to get my mother to shell out for two tickets—I think they were a dollar each—and we went into this particular tent. A large, or rather long, plaster figure of a male human was supine in a wooden box just a little below the level of my eyes. The figure was not particularly well wrought, not entirely evocative of something that might have ever been alive, and not so huge, even by the dubious standards of fakery, to result in much other than disappointment from me. I had been duped and had caused good money to be spent for the duping! A dollar apiece was, to my young mind and to the times in which we lived, a good chunk of money. I think it may have been equal to my weekly allowance and might have been more that my parents allowed—I can’t remember.

I probably sounded a little comical in my petulance and disappointment. My mother undoubtedly knew that it was a hoax—a rather famous hoax originating in the mid-19th century—and played along as an object lesson for the young and credulous version of myself. But I was beyond disappointed, I was also pretty furious (in a well-behaved way, of course) and let the barker who had taken our money know that I felt cheated.

“That was fake!” I might have said. I certainly said something equally appropriate to the occasion and I said it a bit loudly too. I think all the response I got from the barker was a grunt of surprise that I was surprised but that annoyed me even further. In some way, it clouded a perfectly good day and cast a pall over me whenever I thought about it for some time afterward.

I never went in a sideshow again. I became less gullible. Eventually, although not immediately. Perhaps I even became somewhat less cruel. After all, a giant is nothing for anyone to ogle, living or dead, factual or concocted by hucksters. Neither is a hirsute woman or an elephant man, a human being dwarfed by genetics or a naked woman disrobing because economics have not been kind.

In a way, the sideshow was nothing more than a house of mirrors. Staring back from the box that contained this poor representation of a 19th-century hoax was an image of my own perverse, albeit immature, interest in oddities, a reflection of my own gullibility, a mirroring of an inner self to learn from and leave behind.

Many of us may have had similar experiences, although not always at the enticement of a sideshow sign or a barker’s call. Some of us learn from our experience. Some of us don’t. Some of us steer away from a cruel interest in “otherness,” some are always intrigued.

When you looked in a box containing a mirror, what stared back at you? Did you learn or did you laugh?

Featured Image: Rob and Stephanie Levy (Some rights reserved, 2008)

Giant