What the Hell Am I Writing? And More March 2017

So this month a lot has been happening, but unlike other bouts of what Hemmingway calls the “death loneliness that comes at the end of every wasted day of your life,” my inspiration has only been growing and fueling my writing, not sapping it. What’s that? You’ve seen bugger-all that’s new? Sorry. I swear its coming.

The happiest thing that happened and the first priority in my life is that my wife is feeling better than she has for a long time. We hit on a good vitamin and electrolyte regimen, and her nerves seem to be healing well. I am pretty sure it is not wishful thinking, since she is slowly picking up remote work and recovering a lot of stamina. There are still bad days. There are days I burn completely being on call, and worrying about my wife’s spasms when I should be writing. But more often than not she’s feeling strong enough to argue with me, which is a dubious pleasure but one that fills me with a deep gladness that I think only truly happily married men experience. Despite everything, she’s still the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

An update on motorcycle maintenance. Because of the very cold weather, I haven’t gotten the gumption to work on my Ducati Monster. My fingers freeze in my drafty rented garage, but i managed to prop her up, clean her chain, and prepare other things for the big strip-down. Legitimately, with work and domestics and writing and caregiving, I can’t give the bike the attention it needs. But I think mostly it’s that I’m procrastinating.

I think that’s because the Monster is something where success is completely dependent on me actually doing it, and not like all the other things that involve other people. So long as I don’t buckle down and fix the Monster, its still completely mine. But the instant she hits the asphalt roaring, that opens the door to people judging her. What I settled on because of budget, the quality of the rebuild, her relative age, everything that I felt was me suddenly being out there for people to tear apart. Maybe literally, if they don’t check their blind spot.

And I’m deeply afraid of that right now. There’s just so much judgment in my life. My family judging my marriage, my work judging my writing when I’m judging myself for prostituting it to make a living. So much isn’t mine to control that half the time I want to burn it all down. The other half wants to cower in a blanket fort. For an introvert to constantly feel this way is kind of a Jungian hell: the featureless room is just always with me. A constant social pressure that I always have to go back to, because if I don’t I won’t be able to preserve the things I care about, like my wife.

Which brings me to my writing, a source of great therapy and great disappointment both. My wife says my output is slightly behind Stephen King’s, even though the published portion is small, and that at my age he was in the same place. My editor humored my sudden burst of insecurity with some incredibly kind words. But at the end of the day my writing doesn’t put food on the table, and barring an incredible stroke of luck, won’t do so for a long time. Authors take a huge plunge when they choose to support their craft full-time. But it’s not just my life I’m gambling, so I can’t do that.

So every weekend I open my garage door. I find some small thing to do to the Monster. Then I go back inside and I work on my own writing as much as I can. Inevitably I’ll have to return to my other duties, but for a couple hours I can feel like my life is my own again, even if it doesn’t have any physical return. It’s got meaning, which is as sustaining as food. I sit at my laptop (new chromebook now, so I can do more on the train) and I crank out new stuff. Short stories, new novels. Ideas that may never see the light of day, but its material I feel compelled to make. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find meaning in it too.

 

Universal Healthcare as Self-Preservation

You are walking down the street and have a sudden asthma attack. You’d never had one before, but the strain to catch every breath is like the icy grip of death. You know this can kill people if untreated, so you walk into a nearby pharmacy. Every step to reach the counter is torture, and every gasp feels like your last. It is difficult, even, to tell the clerk what you need.

“Sir,” you manage as best as you are able, “I appear to be suffering from acute asthmatic symptoms stemming, I believe, from the fracking operation and copious coal mining just outside this fine establishment. I require an emergency albuterol inhaler or some other type of bronchodilator, stat. Also I am a doctor of pulmonology and this is all rather ironic, don’t you think?”
This is all you manage to get out before your breath escapes you.

“All right. I just have to call a doctor to diagnose your symptoms.”
“Sir, I am myself a pulmonologist. There is also a pulmonology colleague I see at the next counter–”
“My doctor recommends you get a second opinion from a specialist,” the clerk cuts you off.

“All right,” you say with increasing difficulty. You turn to your colleague, who is already writing you a prescription for the medication. You respectfully hand it to the clerk, who pushes it back at you. Your colleague, realizing her error, takes out her smartphone and calls in the script digitally. The clerk looks at the two of you blankly until his monitor beeps. Several people are lining up behind you.

“That appears to be in order,” says the clerk. “I just have to see your insurance.”
“Here it is,” you say. You wait an agonizing twenty minutes while the clerk runs the documentation. The line accrues like the inevitable crud that builds up on the insides of toilets.

“Ah,” says the clerk finally. “There is a problem. The medication is not covered by your insurance.”
“What? Why?” asks your colleague, flummoxed. Meanwhile, you are doing your best impression of a fish out of water.
“The insurance’s specialists have decided you do not need this medication. Instead, they have prescribed you an alternative,” says the clerk. He places a folded paper bag on the counter and waits expectantly.

“That is not an acceptable form of treatment,” says your colleague, livid.
“The insurance company says it is,” says the clerk blankly. He does not comprehend why a common vessel made of flattened dead tress  is not equivalent to life-saving medication in a quick-delivery aerosol.
“Who at the insurance company?” your colleague demands.
“Um,” the clerk hems and haws. “The… ahh… accountant. Apparently they are not covering pre-existing conditions.”

“I literally just got this outside.”

You seize the paper bag anyway, and desperately breathe into it. Or, you try, but the bag is shoddily made and doesn’t hold air. With your dying breath, you say:
“I am very angry with you, but as you are a gormless minimum wage worker who nevertheless cannot contradict company line for fear of economic reprisal, yet are empowered to arbitrate for a faceless soulless profit machine, I can do nothing.” You die.

Later, your colleague also dies, but from an antibiotic resistant strain of zombie virus. She contracted it from a brunch shrimp sammie that was made by a low-wage worker who could not afford to see a doctor. Zombies slowly take over the world, starting with everybody on the pharmacy line. Also, the clerk dies trying to drive on a road built by a libertarian. It’s paved with uninformed claims written on cheap paper stolen from Ayn Rand’s desk.

The End.

Guilt Tripping Home

It’s not that I don’t want to go back to Hong Kong. It’s that I want to do it on my own terms.

I have some extended family in Hong Kong who have been asking me to go back for a visit. They’ve been asking for a year, ever since I got married here in New York. I’m from a rather conservative Chinese family that still practices rituals: visiting my father’s grave, for instance, or going to a Buddhist temple on certain auspicious days of the year. They also never sweep during the New Year, and never criticize the male of the family, despite some seriously dirty laundry I will not air here. In fact, they believe these things so much they asked me to go back immediately after my wedding– with no honeymoon. Just family time, all the time. Outsiders looking in would think getting married isn’t about the couple being happy, but about a duty to the man’s family. (Incidentally, we went to Paris for our honeymoon and had a lovely time)

I’ve written before that after our honeymoon, my wife took ill with a nerve condition, from which we are finally seeing some recovery. I don’t think she will ever be quite the same, and the doctors don’t have a clue about a diagnosis. But I don’t resent my wife for needing me to hold her up during this time. In fact our relationship has grown deeper because of hardship, and we are still planning our future. The thing I do resent is my family offering a permanent fix to her illness with nothing more than rumor and superstition.

That’s right. From the other side of the planet, there is apparently a magic healer who can fix somebody he’s never seen, who coincidentally needs us to go back to China for an extended visit. Also, in a related issue, the ancestors are for some reason furious at me for getting married and not visiting, which explains my wife’s ill fortune. Clearly this is an excuse to wrangle us back to Hong Kong.

Never mind the financial cost of two round-trip tickets or the difficulty for my wife, who can’t walk very far and doesn’t speak Chinese. In the same breath as a Buddhist mantra, my family will visit one of the ancient gods in the area and not see the irony of practicing totally different beliefs for self-gain. So one can see why I am just a little skeptical of their motives.

My father was adamant about taking me out of Hong Kong in 1990. It was a great place to live, but with 1997 and a transition back to China just a few years away, the city was poised to change dramatically. And after we immigrated, he insisted I go back every year, which meant we were perpetually in debt throughout my childhood.  Leaving was traumatic enough. Imagine oscillating every summer: dealing with a twenty-one hour flight, arriving in the typhoon season with doting relatives and being ripped out of there a couple weeks later to live in abject poverty and a totally different culture. Risking death every time we landed in Kai Tak Airport, with the airplane wings meters from peoples’ houses. Developing asthma from a shitty basement apartment. Never making any friends because we moved so much. To be perfectly fair, that part of my childhood sucked balls.

I’ve always wrestled with why my father felt so strongly about leaving, yet returned year after year. After all, it meant leaving all our blood relatives. It meant abandoning all his friends, and he was a gregarious person. But my father’s odd dichotomy can be explained by his own history. You see, my pops had once been a gang boss.

The details are fuzzy. But, as far as I can gather, my father was once a leader of some reknown. I went back to Hong Kong a few years ago and took a cab with my grandmother. The ornery cabbie was complaining about young drivers these days having no integrity. Out of the blue, he mentioned my father’s name, and how my father had once promised him a favor, and went out of his way to do it. My grandmother and I just sat in the back seat, looking at each other in disbelief. Hong Kong is a huge city. Years after my father died, people were still remembering something my father had once done for a man he had hardly known.

If you go to Tuen Mun in Hong Kong’s new territories, you’ll hear stories of Lo Mai Gai, or lotus-leafed rice ball (he used to deliver lunch). How he beat up some bullies and got fired from his job at the bus company. How he took his infant son to a shady gang negotiation. How full of character and integrity he was in a city infamous for corruption at the time. Later, at my wedding, my father’s old friend told me the whole truth, that there were a lot of people who called my dad “big brother” back in the day. All this for a guy who could never hold down a steady job, who reputedly gambled too much, and for a hobby patched people up with ancient Chinese medicines.

Imagine what that reputation would be for his son.

That would have sucked me right in, as the son of such a prominent leader. People dealt drugs or ran illegal things. Mostly, gangs existed to protect local businesses, and to keep other gangs away. It also established trust. Need a car fixed? I know a mechanic who’s my cousin’s wife’s brother. Why do you think Chinese people have a million specific names for every relative? Trust. And Honor. Back in the day people took their honor from their “big brothers.” That shit means something in a patriarchy. People want the male lineage continued, even at the expense of a kid’s future.

People throw around the words “toxic masculinity” a lot. Well, you ain’t ever seen toxic masculinity until you’ve seen someone get stabbed and run over outside your house. Because that’s what gangs are like in Hong Kong now, without the influence of guys like my dad. Gangs don’t fight bare-knuckled or berate each other for looking feminine. They tuck in with watermelon knives and acid and bike chains, because goddammit that other gang messed with our business. People still died, people still ran from debts. Some gangs were the attack dogs of the politicians in my dad’s time, and it looks like Beijing has just made that worse since 97. Watch any Hong Kong gangland movie and you’ll get a crash course in honor. It kept the idiots in line and the gangs from killing each other. Like dogs, a pecking order was established based on toughness, but that was only a small part. You had to have integrity, which my father drilled into me more than he did anything else. Honoring commitments. Being a good person despite circumstances. Respecting our elders. Superstitions were a huge part of it: put the fear of supernatural retribution into an unsure situation, and you didn’t have to lift a finger for people to fall in line. Sometimes it meant demanding people to behave “like men, not dogs.”

My father had tried to leave Hong Kong more than once. The first time he went to France, figured it wasn’t his speed, and came back. Thereby denying me a fascinating education with liberal French ladies, but there you have it. The next time he piggybacked with my mother’s job offer to America, where we slowly climbed the ladder that was the American dream. We got naturalized. We learned to love diner food. My pops was fond of “HOMEMADE LEMONADE!” which he would squee every so often. He liked the sound of the words, I think. Living in the native land of his favorite Marlboro cigarettes probably had more than a lot to do with the whole thing. And my parents slowly became fixtures of the Chinatown community, which my mother still proudly supports today.

And religiously, my father would go back to Hong Kong every year. He would reconnect with friends, pay his respects to his elders, and go to the Buddhist temple. But we didn’t stay, no matter how much my father loved that city.

I think we stayed in New York because those same things that kept us safe in a Hong Kong were slowly destroying us. The gangs are no longer our gangs. They don’t hold our values. The religions are not our religions, they’re slowly being phased out by mainland influences. Keeping the male in the house as the decision maker is foolish in a city where the highest professional earners are women. And certainly, I could never be a writer and work under Beijing’s government.

So my family tells me my ancestral spirits want me to return. I say to my ancestors: your time is gone. You have to learn to adapt to this new world. If you’re making my wife sick that’s just stopping her from visiting you guys. Respectfully, stop telling us what to do as if we’re children. I have responsibilities in America, and I can’t go back just to soothe your ancestral wrath. America is where there is possibility to grow. No matter how wretched this last year has been, China is worse. And pops, if you’re out there anywhere, you know more than most.

You have to go home on your own terms.

12 Days of Christmas #13: A Steampunk Christmas

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Is it odd for an atheist to celebrate the season? No. Of course not. The Winter Solstice is common to all of humanity, regardless of the table-flipping guy who got nailed to a cross. Jesus set an example for us that we should love each other, and I am perfectly happy to celebrate that message on the darkest day of the year.

Yes, I’ve got the story count wrong. But seeing as the number 13 is lucky to Chinese people, let’s hope it does some good for us this Christmas Eve. And, speaking of cultural cross-overs, here’s a piece for you straight out of my clicking, cog-timed heart.

A Steampunk Christmas 

The whispers were the worst.

Not the actual pain, or the unpredictable spells that invariably overtook her at the most inopportune times. They were spending a fortune on sticking-plasters; her knees looked like theater district bill-boards. Missy could bear it all, even the sudden bouts of nausea or the fits in the night that had her writhing and spasming, Delphine clutching her anxiously so she didn’t roll off the bed.

Missy just couldn’t stand the other girls at the market whispering behind her back.

“That Missy thinks she’s better than us,” said one in hushed tones. “With her airs and her ‘yes ma’ams.’ I bet she’s a cold fish.”

“Fragile little flower, always going around with that fancy walking stick.”

“I bet it’s a sham. She’s faking it,” said the worst of them, her high voice carrying to Missy’s ears over the mists of the city. Missy had always had better hearing than most, but now she wanted to stick one of her hair stays into her ears. No- what Missy really wanted was to go over to them, raise her dragon-headed stick and beat those girls over the head with it.

Instead, she pretended she didn’t hear. She thanked the fowl-monger for her purchase, and continued up the cobbled way. Missy had gone up and down Pickup Street so many times, she knew every pothole and every splintered board. Every flower girl and paperboy on the street bid her good afternoon. Even the rickshaw drivers were polite. Missy knew, most importantly, where the City Convocation had neglected to repair the road with flightstone, instead cordoning off the enormous holes where one misstep would result in a lethal fall of thousands of feet into the clouds below.

The artists who sold little paintings waved to her, and she smiled at them under the clockworked signboard for Jinkies Spectacles. The huge sign was done in painted planks: a schoolgirl putting on and taking off a pair of magnificent wrought iron spectacles with a steady groan of gears. It was nearly Christmas, and an early snow had given the Jinkies schoolgirl a fine head of white hair.

She had to struggle to climb the last steep bit of Pickup Street, a high stair arching up the side of a bowl made of high, stacked flats. Missy and Delphine’s flat was one of a row of identical buildings. Square Mile City was truly only one square mile big, so everybody who lived in the city had to squeeze in together. But that meant homes on the edge of the square had a fine view of the obelisk in the center of town, the top part of the Engine that kept the whole city aloft. The pyramid of flightstone glittered with a web of  conductive gold cracks as it slowly turned with the Engine’s enormous gears.

At last, she climbed the final huge step and stood outside number forty-two Pickup Street, a ramshackle puzzle piece right on the edge of the pile. She passed into the communal passage, waving hello to the old seamstress on the first floor. In the back of the building there was a rickety stair she had to climb every time she went out. Every once in awhile she missed her step and ended up sticking her foot out over the yawning abyss. Sunset was coming, and the country below was lit orange. The light was beautiful, but it made her dizzy. She took a moment, leaning on her stick. She tried not to look down.

Eventually she reached her door mid-way up the building, opening it into a one-room flat. There was a small herb garden in her large window, heaps of old books, and her straw bed. She flopped on, exhausted. It was small, but Missy knew the room only as hers and Delphine’s little love nest.

Missy Sotheby Claire had been high born, and so this eking out a meager existence had at first been novel, then wearing, and finally, routine. Then the illness had struck at her with its paralyzing fingers, and Missy had never felt so much despair, not even when she fought with Father and left Claire Isle. Sometimes, if the City turned just right, she could see its mansion towers and spinning lift blades in the clouds, and she had to draw the ragged curtain over the window. Now she was Missy Delacoeur, and she had never heard a name more beautiful, not for a single day since she received it.

Missy had married Sara Delphine Delacoeur young, when there had been plenty of suitors from other Isles vying for her hand. Missy was black of hair, with a streak of white at the front that highlighted her almond eyes and shocking white irises- a beauty even by City standards. But she’d met the junior librarian of the Central Library on a finishing school tour and it had been love at first sight.

They were married at Circus Gardens. Missy had been twenty, Delphine twenty-four. Delphine had looked spectacular in her thrift store suit and flawless topaz skin. Her hair had been its usual windswept mess of starlight silver.

“Please don’t tell me you got me a comb,” said Missy, as the door unlocked and Delphine came in with a paper shop box. Missy had sold her lovely hair last month to make rent, and it hadn’t grown back yet.

“Of course not. I’ve read that story, too melodramatic,” said Delphine. “But you’re not allowed to look.”

Missy looked at the box with a mixture of apprehension, annoyance and pleasant excitement. Delphine had been very careful, bringing the box with her to work and back so Missy had no chance to peek. She knew her wife very well- her mischief, and her illness, also. They couldn’t afford any luxuries, and Delphine must have worked an extra shift with the Engineers to buy her Christmas present.

Without another word, Delphine began to prepare dinner. Soon, the house filled with a fine herb scent, and Delphine served the meal with half a hard roll each, the last of their week’s bread. Missy had a side of chalky tablets, choked down with a thin tea. Half the time she would throw up the meal later in the night, regretting the loss of the money even as her stomach rebelled. But for now, it was nice to have dinner together, a young couple just starting out.

Working normally was out of the question- nobody would hire someone who might collapse at any moment in the day. Missy eked by with a coin here and there, teaching children to read, but her stamina was not strong. Some days she had to send a child away from her sickbed, not even able move to the desk by the window. It was the dizziness that came when she read for too long- her eyes wouldn’t focus. They could not afford the good doctors, who lived and served mostly on the Isles, and the local apothecary women only knew so much. Square Mile Hospital was ridiculous. It was full of consumption and lice, and sometimes the pox.

Of course, the birdwives and most of the shop girls did not understand. To them, Missy had the dialect of the Isles and the gait of someone who had taken waltz lessons since she could walk. The wealthy didn’t live in the city- they lived on the Isles, outlying boroughs reachable by sky swifts.

Somewhere deep down she still felt she was better than the clucking birdwives. She could ride a sky-swift, and could not only read but hold discourse with the Professors at the Central Library. Delphine and Missy were rare souls who understood pursuit of art, of writing and the fascination with skycrafts, those machines that kept the city aloft. That was why Missy loved her.

Her family visited her the day before Christmas. Delphine was at Central, and Missy had just sent a child away for the second time in a week. His mother would probably not send him back. Missy didn’t need to look to recognize her father’s sharp knocks.

“Hello Missy,” he said as soon as she opened the door.

“Father,” she said, apprehensively.

Lord James Sotheby Claire was an imposing man in a city of imposing men. He was a bit like a knife with a face on it, all hard angles and cutting words. Now he stepped inside, tracking dirt over Missy’s colorful woven rug. He looked around, and the corner of his mouth twisted.

“I see Delacoeur has yet to secure more appropriate accommodations,” he said.

“This is quite appropriate enough,” said Missy. Though she said it calmly, when she went to fix tea, she managed to slam the kettle down hard enough for drops to sizzle on the top of the stove.

“Missy. You can always come home,” said Lord Sotheby Claire. “Help at the company.” He meant to be kind, but the offer sounded like a reproach.

“No, I can’t,” said Missy. “How many times do I have to say it? I can’t even make the journey on foot every day. How will I count your shipments or balance your books when I am laid out on a bed most days? Or give orders to hundreds of spark men, let alone the foremen who have been there since before your day?”

“If you just push through-”

“No!” Missy dashed her teacup to the ground in a fit of fury. The precious object was one of the few nice things she and Delphine owned, but right then it felt like she didn’t deserve to have any nice things. If she could push through the nausea and the pain she would, but there was no telling when her legs might give out under her and dump her to the ground.

The shattered cup sat between Lord Sotheby Claire and Missy for a moment, sundered into a circle of sharp points and spilled tea.

“You should go,” said Missy. There were tears in her eyes.

After her father left, Missy shut the door. She was furious, but she could feel her illness creeping up with the anger, eating it, drawing strength from it to lay her low. Missy wondered why she was even here, what she was living for.

It took a long time, but she managed to pull together before the last light faded. With an hour left of sunset, Missy lifted a loose board and came up with a bundle wrapped in butcher paper. Inside were scraps of fine cloth, cut from her old dresses and Delphine’s worn shirts.

Missy continued to unwrap, revealing a bundle from the leatherworks. She had pushed herself to the limit to go to the works on Giving Day, but by the time she got there most of the samples and miscut coats had been claimed. Missy had nearly given up, but the owner had seen her and had known her father. He came out with good canvas and leather meant for coachworks, tough and sky-worthy. Missy had wept with joy.

Each morning, Missy sewed the latest scraps into the coat. Making a good coat was a difficult thing, but the lovely old seamstress on the first floor was willing to let Missy use her machine. In exchange, Missy read the news very loudly each morning, so the nearsighted seamstress could hear. Missy was glad of the large newsprint.

The coat was meant as a librarian’s coat, with big pockets for books and little loops for pens and tools. But it was drafty, and that meant Missy had to sew layers of panels into the coat to trap the down and keep in the warmth. The work was grueling but come December it was nearly finished. Now, when she unfurled the garment, the interior gleamed with a dozen different panels, all beautiful in their own way but together a patchwork of Missy’s love. Missy was mindful of her stamina, but as the last streak of light died in the distance she bit through the last thread.

“It’s finished,” said Missy. She gave a long sigh, and closed her eyes- the room was blurry with the effort. She couldn’t wait for Delphine to come home. They would eat the confit canard, which had been marinating in a pot of good fat, garlic and long strands of herbs. There would be rice and roasted collards. Come Christmas morning they would polish off the succulent feet, with tiny dewbird eggs for breakfast. Delphine would fry potatoes in fat for Missy to tuck into. The Square Mile Clock would ring its seven bells, chiming in Christmas greetings, and snow was predicted to fall through the day in a light, dry blanket.

At two minutes past when Delphine was due, Missy wasn’t concerned. Delphine worked long hours sometimes, and though it was unusual on Christmas Eve, she knew how badly they needed it. Two hours later Missy began to worry in earnest. The streets would be dark. Tradewinds would whip through the streets. Delphine’s cough-!

Three hours past due, Missy awoke from a troubled slumber to the sound of her door rattling. Missy gathered herself up into a shawl and opened the door on its thin chain.

“Danny!” said Missy as she recognized the long braid and man’s suit. Danielle Pritchett was Delphine’s closest friend, and worked at the printer’s near the Library. She had been their best man, though she had no truck with nuptials herself- such was the depth of their friendship.

“Missy! Come quickly. It’s Delphine… she’s at the hospital!”

“Oh no!” said Missy, but when she tried to move, her leg dragged on the rug. She toppled forward into Danny’s arms.

“Oh, bollocks,” said Danny, who looked like she regretted coming. “You’re in a bad way.”

“I have to go to her!” said Missy. “What’s happened to Delphine?” Missy looked furious, and close to tears.

“She’s been taken in an ambulance,” said Danny, but it didn’t soothe Missy at all. “She fell. Earlier today. He was pretty high in the stacks. People heard her coughing a fit… there was blood. They took her right away.”

“No, not the hospital. That’s where they take the consumptives to die!” said Missy.

“Come, I’ll help you walk. I have a rickshaw waiting,” said Danny. Why didn’t she say so earlier?! Missy tottered to her feet and now she could see tear streaks in Danny’s makeup.

“Wait,” said Missy, and hobbled back inside the room. She threw on her own ragged coat and her goggles, and picked up Delphine’s Christmas present wrapped in its butcher paper.

“All right. Let’s go,” said Missy. Her brow drew tight, stoppering her tears.

Missy had to stop and clutch the rails of the stair, which were pitching back and forth with the movement of the airborne city. They were also dusted in fresh snow- the first vanguards of a hard frost. The coming snowstorm was rollicking the city with great swells. Missy had no time. She nearly put her foot through a gap, stumbling.

“Can you make it?” said Danny.

“Yes! Just… go down first!” said Missy.

“Oh! All right,” said Danny, and clomped down to the bottom. She turned. “Wait, no-!” said Danny, seeing what Missy was about to do.

“Right,” said Missy, and put her bottom on the rail. Her back hung over hundreds of feet of black sky. Missy took a deep breath and slid down the rusty rail, sending up a wing of snow whirling into the deep.

“Oh, my word!” Missy cried. The city tipped, and Missy nearly went down on the wrong side of the rail. Then a gnarled but strong hand had her by her clothes, and jerked her back towards safety. Missy curled her toes to bring her weight in, and then she was clutching Danny, her heart going a mile a minute.

When she opened her eyes Missy looked into the face of the old seamstress, who had leaned out of her window and pulled her in with a deft, strong hand. The old woman nodded.

“Fly,” said the seamstress. Missy clutched at her heart, nodding.

Danny and Missy made their way through the alley and found themselves on Pickup Street. A light sprinkling was beginning to layer over the older drifts. Missy hurried downhill, not daring to break into a run for fear of tumbling. Danny tried not to race on ahead. The girl was one of the rare people who accepted Missy at her word when she said there were some things she could not do.

“My rickshaw!” said Danny. The street was empty. “I told him to wait for me!”

“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Missy. Her legs were trembling, and her bones burned under her dress. Missy could still push through pain. She hobbled down the street, clutching Delphine’s Christmas present.

The road was narrow, and it was hard to see where the city had put up bright partitions around the holes in the ground. Missy pushed on, past windows lit with the promise of cheer. People were raising cups full of amber-wine.

In that eerie quiet, the sound of the Jinkies’ girl billboard came clearly through, grinding her gears back and forth as she waved in the snow. But Danny, who helped make the overlarge signboards, knew the billboards should be locked down.

“Missy, stay back!” cried Danny. She lunged, knocking Missy over. Not a moment too soon, something emerged out of the murk of the clouds. Missy felt the air shudder, and then the street buck as the Jinkies Spectacles girl came down upon the badly maintained street. The snow and material of the road exploded out of the impact. There were pipes under the road, but below that there was only the sky.  Snow plumed out a frozen geyser- the blizzard was picking up, and surged through the city’s bones. Flightstones escaped their moorings and floated gently into the air. Pickup Street was completely blocked.

Missy wailed. She had come all this way- how could this happen? But she saw a gleam of hope: there was a gap in the wreckage, just big enough for her to pass.

“Missy, are you mad?” Pritchett cried as Missy trudged onward towards it. “The whole billboard is about to fall through the street. You’ll be crushed!”

“I have to! I have to risk it!” said Missy, and she clambered up against the hole. Snowmelt was dripping through it in brownish streams, and beams stuck out to snag her- but on the other side, there was a downhill slope. The snow was piling up, pressing on the wreck, as if the city was passing through a snowball.

Pritchett had the stout build of someone used to lifting heavy rolls of paper into the steam presses, while Missy was a wisp of a thing. Pritchett wouldn’t be able to follow.

“Delphine wouldn’t want you to-!” said Pritchett.

“Delphine may not live to complain,” said Missy.

She thanked the stars she had cut her snaggle-prone hair, and tossed Delphine’s present through the hole. Missy began to push through, careful to test each board before putting her weight on it. Halfway through it a wave of dizziness came over her, and she nearly fell. But there was a plank lying across the far end, and she fell upon that instead.

“Missy!”

Pritchett’s cry made Missy start, and she heard the groan before she felt the plank beneath her shift. The Jinkies’ huge spectacles came into view, as if someone had taken them off and casually chucked them into the street ahead.

“Missy, go! The sign is falling!” cried Pritchett. Missy felt her friend pushing at her feet. The plank came free,and she slid out of the hole with it. There was a moment when the snow slapped her full in the face. When she looked back, the wreck of the billboard was sliding down into the road, eaten up by a great chasm.

“Pritchett!” Missy cried, standing with some effort. The top of the wreckage disappeared from view, and Missy gasped to see her friend on the other side, waving at her to go on.

Missy nodded emphatically, but her knees buckled. No- not now! Fresh pain flowered in her knees, but she fought to her feet. She was not far from market, and there was hope in a stack of old fowl-monger’s delivery pallets nearby. Clumsily, she got back to her feet and kicked it over. The lights of the city gleamed below, and Missy could see the hospital’s bright red cross standing out near the center of it. She collected her little bundle and laid herself down on her makeshift sled- it was downhill, all the way down, and all she needed was the nerve to jump.

“Delphine, hang on!” Missy said, and pushed off.

The pallet slid over the lip of the incline, slowly at first, then picking up speed, until she was flying down the road before a rooster tail of snow. By this time people were peering out of their windows, trying to see where the billboard had fallen. Missy whipped past them, flying faster as the city tipped, pushed by cold winds.

Past the merchants’ quarter, shuttered and dark.

Past the birdwives who dipped their heads into the cold.

And finally to the hospital, where the red light of its cross made the snowfall a field of blood. Missy steered with her feet, sending the pallet into a pile of snow, and she stopped in her tracks.

It was hell itself to climb off the pallet, and torture when she burst into the triage. Everything throbbed with pain. The nurse at the front had no idea who she was going on about. Crazily, the whole front of the desk was covered in holly and sparkling lights.

“Delphine! Sara Delphine Delacoeur!” said Missy.

“And who might I ask is looking-”

“Missy Delacoeur! I’m her wife.”

The nurse seemed confused, but checked the chart.

“I’m sorry,” said the nurse. “But it looks like Sara passed away last night.”

Missy stood there, not minding the waves of pain and nausea washing over her, numb. She thought that even if she collapsed and melted through the thin hospital flooring she would only be joining her wife in the endless beyond.

That was when a voice broke through her shock. There had been a large, matronly nurse peering over the first’s shoulders, and now this woman spoke in outrage.

“By the Engine, woman! You’ve spilled nog all over this chart. Here,” she thrust a clipboard into the front desk nurse’s hands.

“Ah. Oh I’m terribly sorry, your… wife… is in the East Wing,” said the nurse sheepishly.

“Is that where the consumptives-?” Missy couldn’t even finish her words, fearing the dreaded infection that spread in the air.

“No, no, we keep them in the West Wing,” said the matronly nurse. She handed Missy a shiny visitor’s pin. “Go on now. It’s Christmas Eve, go be with her.”

In a state of shock, Missy staggered down the hall where the nurse pointed. She passed door after door full of people, mostly patients in work clothes who had been out preparing the city for the snowstorm and fallen in the ice. Missy tiptoed around a surgical theater, covering her mouth at the smell. Finally, she reached a large set of double doors, and when she pushed it open, found an enormous ward with high ceilings, lit with gas and yellow snowlight from windows that soared into the rafters. People were in the beds here, broken and battered in slings and bandages. But they were parked with ample room, and in a far corner she spotted the messy silver hair of her lover.

“Delphine!” cried Missy, and she darted forward, only for her ankles to give out beneath her as if they sensed their service had come to fruition. She feared one of her spells, but a hand reached out to help- a nurse, who had been tending a nearby bed.

“Ma’am! Ma’am, you are unwell, let me call a doctor-”

“No! Please, help me get to my Delphine. We… I have no money, I cannot see a doctor,” said Missy, suddenly ashamed. “We may not have enough to cover her stay.”

“Ah,” said the nurse. “Aren’t you Lord Claire’s daughter? He’s a frequent donor to this hospital. I’m sure some arrangement can be made… here, I’m sure nobody will mind if we lend you a crutch.”

Missy was too fatigued and gripped by Delphine’s form to argue. She took the crutch and hobbled over to Delphine, whose chest was rising and falling with difficulty. When Missy sat at the stool by her bed, her eyes opened.

“Hello, my love,” said Delphine in a wet voice. “You’ve come all this way. I seem to have fallen… I’m sorry. We don’t have-”

“Oh, you stupid woman!” cried Missy, and she fell upon Delphine’s hand, clutching the cold fingers to her chest.

“Silly. It’s just a passing bout of grippe,” said Delphine. “I will soon be all right.”

“But the Library- and I can’t-!” Missy sobbed. “It’s Christmas, and we should be at home, in our home, with our hot dinner and our warm hearth, and the presents-!”

“That’s right. It’s Christmas Eve.” Delphine looked impressed. “You’re not using your stick, even. You’ve even brought me my present.”

Missy looked, and amazingly, she had. The bundle had stayed under her arm through the perilous pallet ride, and now she brought it out with the butcher paper only slightly scuffed. Delphine sat up, coughing slightly.

“It is past midnight,” said a neighboring patient, a woman at the next bed with one side of her head wrapped up. She smiled.

“Christmas morning,” said Missy. “Go on, open it!”

Missy watched as Delphine opened the bundle of paper. When the coat spilled over the bed in a riot of colors and patterns, her ashen face lit up in joy. She touched the soft lining, feeling for the tool straps and deep pockets. Their neighbor clapped her hands together delightfully, so wonderful was the rainbow of the coat.

“It’s perfect. Just perfect. I got you something too,” said Delphine. She took a box from the bedside, the very same one Missy had seen every day. Today, there was a bit of ribbon around it. “I worked on it for weeks.”

Missy carefully teased open the pasteboard box, finding another box inside it made of horn. When she undid the latch, she found a piece of satin fabric wrapped around the most beautiful pair of glasses she had ever seen. The sides were baffled, to rest the eyes, and if she turned the ring of gold around the lenses, they darkened into a pale umber color.

“They’re for your reading,” said Delphine. “And your drawing. Your teaching. The books that you love. You adjust the lenses like this, to shield your eyes from the light. They will keep you from becoming too nauseous. I had to ask the Engineers for help making it.”

“Oh, Delphine!” said Missy, and she threw herself upon the bed, weeping unabashedly. She felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. The coat had come too late to keep Delphine well, and the glasses would not help Missy with her legs. But they were sparks of light in the darkness, like the brilliant lights of Christmas she had seen in the windows. It was a reminder of the sun in deepest winter.

The patients in the ward were all looking at them, and most of them were awake. They were polite, their voices hushed. The sounds ran together in a susurrus of whispers. Missy listened to the gladness in their voices, and suddenly she broke out into something not quite laughter and not quite tears- it was too much, these whispers of joy. It blanketed them and made them feel not so alone.

Like the glasses and the coat, the whispers wouldn’t fix everything. But it was enough for Christmas, and it filled them with warmth. Right then, the whispers were the best thing in the world.

12 Days of Christmas #12: The End, Or No Fury

Creepypasta is some of the best literature you can read online. Ted the Caver? Candle Cove? Come on! Here’s a piece using a common creepypasta format.

The End, or, No Fury

In any city, in any country, go to any library you can get yourself to. When you reach the front desk, ask to visit the Shades in Residence. Keep asking until someone answers or you are thrown out of the building.  It will help if the library was built before 1939, in an old part of the city, or near tall buildings.

You may find the librarian at the front desk will sigh, or roll their eyes, but do not leave. If you are asked to leave, wait for the next shift and try again. Keep asking until someone takes you aside. No, it is not a game, or some silly internet story passed around to give bored people chills.

It will save your life.

If the person you’ve asked has the answer, they will reply:

“Have you the Eye of Horus?”

You must answer yes. If you say no, you will find the books in the library have become reams of gibberish. Do not trust the card catalogs. Anything you manage to decipher will drive you instantly insane, burdened with a sudden cosmic understanding your frail human mind cannot possibly comprehend. For the rest of your life you will go about the world as an illiterate, or perish in the chaos that waits on every page.They do not take kindly to folk who trouble them unnecessarily.

If you answered yes, your guide will take you to a back room of the library. The stacks here will be shrouded in darkness, and you will begin to see shapes among them, in the corner of your eye. Do not look too closely. Once you see them, they can see you.

Keep your eyes on your guide, who will take you to a door you have never seen. It will be in the deepest part of the library, and even if you’ve come before, it will never make itself known to you. Be assured, from now on you may visit whenever you like, though leaving is another matter.

Your guide will ask you a second question.

“Have you the Staff of Hermes?”

If you answer yes, they will know you are no true bearer, and will descend upon you to take of your tongue and your eyes and your ears. No unworthy soul will tell of their secrets.

If you answer no, woe be upon you. They will carve the sigils of the thrice-great upon your person, for you know not their meaning and are bound by their cause, to travel the borderlands ferrying the weeping across to the underworld.

You must answer, “The stave is in the promise of the healer, and the pen of the bard, and the purse of the merchant.”

Inside the door, your guide will leave you. The stacks will tower far over your head in every direction. You may notice the room is far too big to fit in the library, the spiral stairs defy understanding, and the landings cannot be counted and often overlap. If you choose to wander, I do not guarantee you will ever find the way back. Do not worry overmuch. The figures falling from the lofty reaches began to fall long ago, and will not trouble you. It is the desiccated forms at your feet that will snare your ankles and drink of your vital humors, if they can.

The way is easy to see. Simply follow the red books that glitter by the firelight, and you will reach the place where the Shades take Residence. Carved at this dias will be these words:

“Have you the Wisdom of Delphi?”

There is no one answer that may guarantee your fate. Shades are mercurial things, and yours is no different. All I can tell you is what I told them, but that will be of no help to you. I do not know the fate that befalls those who answer wrongly. Perhaps no answer is truly wrong. Perhaps all of them are.

Do not tell any other person where you found their secrets. If I am forsaken, so too will you suffer in undying agony. I may wish to save you from the cataclysm that comes, but I am a vindictive and misanthropic sort, and it is not in my nature to let an insult pass easily. In any case, by now there may be no force on earth that can save you.

 

 

I may as well go on. There are eight of them here now, and that means they want me to continue. I think. I lied. Strike One. Of course it is a game. But frankly, if you were only surviving and not not playing, you were doomed from the start.

When I completed the trials set by the Keepers of the Shades, the dias opened, and I was allowed to peruse those volumes of concern. The Shades were everywhere, and nowhere. I could feel them in the thick of the room, in the substance of the world there. I spoke with a number of them, and though the stacks were not so interminable as the endless library, I discovered new Shades each day. They have moods, and sometimes a volume will not open, or will tease one with its endless fascinating labyrinths, dead ends made of the menses of periods, tangent paths that go to beautiful nowheres, deadly traps built from the letters of the forgotten.

From time to time a Shade goes wandering among the living, and there lies my duty. I who retain mortal form, wretched as it is, am charged with their care, their keeping, and their reclamation.

A vignette: On one such occasion, the volume was one of great delicacy, that had somehow slipped through the fingers of the Keepers some years before. It held a Shade of considerable repute, the final testimony of one Sean Payne Macy, a serial killer known as the Trundlebull Joker. In life he slew twenty-three human beings while dressed as a children’s rodeo clown. He hid his knives in his spacious shoes, and lured his victims with taunts and jeers. All young men, all drifters or loners nobody would miss, all hot of blood and quick to anger. When they confronted the infuriating clown, they suddenly found themselves smiling in an altogether different way. Sometimes an old man will turn up, who was thought to have died at Macy’s hands and instead escaped his clutches, but that is rare.They are still finding shallow graves in the deep forests.

I tracked Macy’s Shade to a used book store. It is a common enough place, especially for a thin prisoner’s notebook with no obvious resale value. When they gave him a pencil to write it, he stabbed the nearest guard through his left temple, which even a penitentiary doctor will tell you is the thinnest part of the skull. The volume is written in soft artist’s charcoals, and it has a blurred, unstable appearance.

By the time I arrived, an enterprising criminal psychology student had purchased the volume. He proceeded to massacre his way through the university’s student body, which was conveniently gathered at a fraternity fundraising. I found him behind the Ferris Wheel, covered in blood.

I’ve lied again. Strike Two. The Shades cannot ‘take of your tongue and eyes and ears.’ They can do precisely nothing without a host. Certainly they cannot leave behind eight young men murdered, opened from ear to ear quite horribly and stashed in carny popcorn barrels. They set no marks on your person. That is, unless they have someone in their spectral clutches. Then they can do anything you or I can do, and that should be terrifying enough.

Perhaps you doubt I was able to stop Macy’s Shade, with my meager strength and frail arms. I am not trained in self-defense, nor am I of impressive stature. But Macy’s volume rests amongst a dozen others where the Shades keep Residence, and there is your proof. The game, you see, is not without its draws.

Know this. Once you have passed the trials set by the Keepers of the Shades, there will rise from the seat of your soul a Shade of your own. But first, be warned. The temptation to use these powers for your own gain is awesomely terrible. You must only ever use them in the service of the Keepers, or the purposes of the Shade. To deny the Shade is to deny your own secret heart. Its powers are threefold, and I will outline them here. You will find it is easier to win knowing what to expect.

The first of a Shade’s powers is Pathos. When you step outside the Residence, you will experience this for yourself. Colors will cut more sharply, smells will come on the barest of breezes, and sounds will deafen in their multitude. You will have the strength of a thousand, and your skin will be impenetrable by any mortal blade, though so sensitive you may trigger another’s orgasm simply through touch. It will be a useful skill, for the Pathos brings with it a terrible hunger for all the wants of the flesh. Give in to that hunger and you may find yourself unable to stop, and that is where the legends of the werewolves, zombies and vampires come. The Pathos is nothing more than your own will to power, the instinct to stay yourself in this world manifested in a new and powerful form.  

A man pressed to the brink may know this strength as a death-defying leap or a desperate stroke for shore. Mothers may lift cars to save their children. I defeated Macy’s Shade by the simple application of a fist to the spine of the possessed. The vertebrae was crushed, piercing the spinal cord in a dozen places and rendering the Shade trapped in a withered, useless hulk. His face was drawn in a terrible scream, the skin dry and sloughing, though whether it was Macy or the Shade’s victim experiencing this agony is hard to say.

By now you may be wondering if the word in the papers is the result of these mercurial Shades. Wonder no more. The woman who strangled her own child in an upper crust restaurant? The Shade of the Countess Mallory, who drinks the life of the young. Those roving gangs of cannibals? Common peasants, Shades who died hungry while others feasted on the fruits of their labor. The Apocalypse laps at your door. But fear not. Carry on, gentle reader, and I will see you through.

The second of a Shade’s powers is Logos. Not all who pass the trials may acquire the Logos. It is a power born of understanding, of knowing, in some small part, of the underlying principles of the world. It is the same understanding that threatens to drive a man insane should they fail the first trial of the Keepers. It is the root of their power. For is it not the purpose of a book’s existence to preserve and transmit knowledge? Is it not the whole point of a book to hold an idea, perfectly said, within its skin and flesh and bones?

The Logos can allow one to circumvent some rules, or break others entirely. Once known, a bearer of a Shade may pass unseen as a shadow amongst many, or walk on water, or take food from thin air. Such wielders of Logos were once seen as rare prophets or messiahs, when in truth each person carries his Shade with them. Each person may pass the trials set by the Keepers, and it is a sad and terrible thing to know most will not. They walk this world in blindness, and see nothing. Their eyes are unable even to weep at their ignorance.

The case of the marathon bombing, so prominent some years ago? A celebrated dancer, crippled by an errant pedestrian. The recent spate of killings involving young black men? The Shade of a KKK Dragon, long since removed from the living world.The scratchings at the door, pay them no heed. Peace. Not all who die live forever.

The third of a Shade’s powers is Ethos. In every person is a Shade, and for every Shade is a story. Sometimes they are good stories. Sometimes they speak of sunshine and good friends and long walks in the park with a loved one’s hands clasped in your own. Sometimes they are bad stories. Sometimes they speak of darkness and tangled intestines and children touched in their sleep. And sometimes, only very rarely, a story can be terribly great.

A Shade born of a great story may gather others to its cause, draw Shades to itself, and in so doing, transcend the spheres of this world. Carried on a torrent of the dead, this radiant ghoul will raise them up out of their pages, draw them from their forgotten graves of paper and ink. Their ire becomes its ire, their power becomes its power. A Shade on the shoulders of many may murder God.

I laugh now at those grave robbers, those seance-whisperers, those seekers of the dead who lurk in graveyards and sacrifice virgin blood for some glimpse of the other world. What scraps of power come from such deeds pale in comparison to that scribbled in haste on toilet paper, two doors down from the ovens at Auschwitz. The dead do not dwell in tombs, in mausoleums. They reside in the living word. They live in the very pages and thoughts set to paper. When someone reads the words from the page they are resurrected, drinking of the attention and the understanding, like the shades of Odysseus at the trough of blood. They may answer questions, or rectify truths. Why do you think newly minted powers immediately burn the books of those who came before?

You may as well know the Apocalypse was my fault.

As I’ve said, the Pathos has certain demands, even upon a Keeper of the Shades. I kept no residence amongst the living, though it was fashionable at the time. As I’ve said, the stacks are interminable, an ideal place for privacy. The encounter was not brief, and I enjoyed it to the utmost. It did not even occur to me when my groaning paramour inquired if the volume at her brow was truly made of pages of gold.

“Yes. Though the binding is not.”

“What is it?’

“The skin of the bankers to whom the gold belonged.”

I returned from my duty one night to find the Residence ransacked. An uninitiated had made their way inside and set the volumes free. The living bearers were scrambling to shelve those that remained, and though our Shades protected us, it took us most of a month to sort out which ones had flown and which had left innocent tomes in their place. A good part of our library had gone, nearly half the collection. In itself it was no small loss, but not one that could not be remedied.

It could not have caused the Apocalypse.

It may interest you to know I located my paramour as soon as I was able. She was already beyond saving, her mind in pieces, crushed by a thousand different Shades trying to get in. Or so I thought. I retrieved the few volumes that remained, but the one I sought was not in the pile. She had already sold most of them over the years, before they took her.

What was disastrous was the loss of the Anseidora, written by a girl child in the countryside of what we know as the Cradle of Life, sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC. The book was writ in clay, carved deep with something like a very sharp reed pen. The girl could not have been schooled, but the letters are Sumerian, deeply packed, filling the tablet on both sides.

Did you know parchment was originally sheep’s skin? They would take it from the large ones, and specially treat it. You could write on it many times. If someone had written something unpleasant or inconvenient, one would simply take a blade to the surface. Men would work at the desiccated flesh with a dull knife, scraping the offending story from the skin so they could write it anew.

I had the fortune of reading the Anseidora once, in the company of masked guards. They stand day and night, and watch over the book. A Keeper walks into its chamber and around its dais. The lighting is abundant, to keep the shadows where they are, and in fact it is encouraged that every Keeper come to know this story.

It tells, simply, of a very bad day in the girl’s life.

She was accused of a crime she did not commit, and punished in the worst way humanity has to offer. Some of her tortures were so horrific, they were immortalized, deified, preserved as rote and dogma. Others were misunderstood, and set down as wholesome things to be done to women who had come of age. Still others were so terrible, they have been lost to the ages, and sear the thoughts of those who would come across even the barest mention of them.

What we know is, the book tells of her suffering in excruciating detail, every minutia preserved, waxed poetic as only idiomatic Sumerian can offer. It tells the finest details of her life as the child of a prosperous fig farmer in the rocky country. She was a pretty child, and was much beloved for her warmth and smiles.

Sadly, that was her undoing, as it is still the undoing of young girls in that part of the world. She drew the attentions of a man of nobility, and in the flowering gardens of her father, this nobleman did force himself upon her, an act even then considered an abomination. The carnal act was not regarded as the commonwealth of the people, but the domain of woman.

The man was a powerful one, and the tryst ill-timed. His ambition could not afford the stain that would come with blaspheming a holy act. Whole temples stood where the act was worshipped, paid for in holy tithe. Priestesses held the bed-altars and initiated young women, guarantors to the fertility of the land. The girl-child had not yet flowered, though she had come to the age when such things happen. To force such a thing on an uninitiated was to offend the great goddess whose domain it was.

Though the word of the girl-child would not carry much weight, the nobleman chose to accuse the girl-child of an alliance with unclean powers- the blackest witchcraft, and the bane of the land. To further his claim, he gathered his friends to him, and together they blasphemed against the goddess together. Each man became his conspirator, and together they made their case. The nobleman’s ploy succeeded, as was rote in the day. It was said by those who did not know the intricacies of woman that they were coerced, or ensorceled, bewitched, by a challenger to the goddess’ power. The harvest had not been good that year.

For the nobleman’s ministrations the girl-child was branded a harlot and a sinner, even as she clutched her bloodied skirts and the soldiers encircled her. It was a banal thing, routine in that age. The girl’s name has been lost, as her abusers intended, though her story survived through the ages, changing here and there. Her humiliation was made symbolic, her sufferings removed, her curse turned to blunder. I believe today her story is told as the story of Pandora, the girl who opened a box and became responsible for all the evil in the world. Yet, I find the story of the Anseidora more plausible. For who had set the box there for the girl to open in the first place? It is the nature of man to blame woman for his horrors, and sick irony that the punishment is often more of the crime.

After they had finished with her, they strung her up onto a flat stone in the wilderness, without the strength to fend off those who would have her. In the end the wild things caught her scent, and from there the writing gets a little fuzzy. My Sumerian is not good. One must write with brevity on clay. One uses poetry, and idioms, and the conventions of the day. It is not always clear, and yes I am stalling. For the truth is a dread one, and it lies at the heart of what we the Keepers do. You would no longer sleep soundly, were you to know of it. Even setting down some part of the Anseidora here summons that Shade to us, puts us in grave danger.

Sigh.

All right.

Eventually I parsed the phrase. The girl child had been abused as much as a person can possibly be abused, yet the wild things, sensing there was something wrong with the child, did not immediately ravage her. There was blood, yes, on the stone, but it was not appetizing to the creatures, who continued to gather to her. They were drawn for a reason other than hunger. It is said when a terrible act is committed, all the world is wounded. Perhaps such a thing had happened once too many. It is not known why, but the creatures brought her the dew of the evening, and the young fruits on the trees. Those wild things with heavy teats brought her milk, and those things who could kill brought her soft parts she could still eat. Alas, it was not enough to undo the hurt upon her, and her strength fled as a deluge flees for the ocean.

The girl-child abusers had left her blind, and bad of hearing, scarcely recognizable for the bright, beautiful thing she had been. Her bindings were light, for many things were broken and she no longer had any strength even to scream. For their own wretched purposes, they had left her lips and tongue alone, though her teeth lay strewn at the ground. Now, as the things of claw and tooth gathered around her, she opened her mouth and began to sing, an inaudible threnody that set the creatures rocking from side to side. Their motion seemed to encourage her song, and the girl-child’s voice grew louder, gathering strength. Soon it was a keening wail of sadness, rising to a contemplative and then finally into a roaring tide of rage. The clay records that at this moment, new blood began to flow from the girl-child, but not from her wounds. Her flowering had come with the moon’s blood, and she was a girl-child no longer. That was when the wild things descended upon her, driven into a frenzy by her song and the scent of her blood.

Even to this day it is said that woman comes from the rib of Adam, when truly it is always Adam who finds nourishment at the bones of the creator Eve. And so it was when they found the girl-child, that they saw the words of the Anseidora had been carved into her mortal coil, the first book ever written. The hope of Pandora, telling the horrors of man.

Why do you think books are still bound in leather?

Her story was set to clay, that being the most permanent medium available at the time. The scribe is unknown, the work unsigned. How a person could stand there and copy the writing, I do not know.  If you believe the words of the clay, our unnamed scribe took down her story, and provided the only proof available at the time in liquid form. The letters are tinted a splatter of burgundy any woman would know.

I like to think the story is a plea, or a supplication. She wished the reader to know her suffering was not for naught. Life’s hoard held a single gem for those denied its riches. By setting her tortures to the clay, her mark would last through the ages. It would haunt those who had done this to her, from that night until forever. That gem called vengeance would be hers. Pain and death would be repaid a thousand fold.

You’ve just heard the front door buckle. It will take time for them to scent you out. Just keep reading, and everything will be all right. Yes, that’s right, the closet is a fine place. The dust and cedar will hide your flavor. Now, where was I?

I’ve said before, there are some Shades who have the Ethos, the great power that changes the world. The Anseidora’s Shade was one of them, and the Keepers were rightly afraid of it. Even behind all of our protections, the Anseidora took itself outside. It drove its bearer insane, and began to gather Shades to it. Perhaps it had been waiting for this chance for millennia. Perhaps it was time for vengeance to be had on the world of men. Perhaps it had loosed the scourge of the Shades upon the world for a reason. Perhaps even the Keepers, the pitiable men tasked with holding back the mother abyss, were only helplessly trying to stopper a dyke when from the beginning there was no damming the deluge of blood.

Whatever it was, you know the outcome. You saw the girl-child hold the tablet of clay aloft. You saw her move down the streets of the cities, gathered up in the arms of her adoring. You saw them climb on top of each other, restored to the wild things they are, crushing the weak beneath their feet. You saw them buoy her up high. You were there.

You saw when they razed the buildings where men held office. You saw them kick down the halls where men’s words dictated the minds of the young. You saw them deface the rooms where man’s ironic justice is meted out. And you saw, when they had reached the last of the men how they rallied to the girl-child’s bosom, there to comfort her and soothe her and rampage for her. When the last bastion fell in the last city in the ruins of the Earth, it was you who found the volume lying at the steps of the library where men’s words were recorded. The last gift of Pandora, holding the Shades of man in thrall.

Now they are freed. Now they hound your door.

Just outside the library of the Keepers you found one last volume, a book of plain lined paper you can find in any university bookstore. The kind with the document pocket, and the silk bookmark, and the black covering. And perhaps when you saw it some last vestige of sanity seized you, and you picked it up, seizing it from a cold, dead, hand.

And then you saw them raise her up, high over even the tallest buildings, men falling from that great pyramid of bodies like splattering rain. Hallelujah, it’s raining men. You saw how from there the girl-child cried her song of lament, and then the buildings began to fall. There and then the works of man crumbled to dust. Washed away in the deluge, the wash of broken bodies and red tides. The song of the girl-woman-wight, undoing the world in a torrent of gore, so hope might spring anew.

And so seeing, you could not bear it any longer, and ran to a place of safety, crushing the less fortunate underfoot. There you cowered and sobbed and finally, finally, opened the book to find some semblance of solace.

The tablet will no longer hold her. It is not like the others. Even if you destroyed the volume, the Shade would remain.The end of the world is here.

You are already dead.

Oops. There. I lied, for the third and last time.

And anyway, it is far too late. It is nearly impossible to get rid of words, ideas once you have heard it. Just try. If I asked you not to think of an elephant, what are you thinking of right now? What if I asked you to think of, I don’t know, a knife? An ice-pick? What if I asked you to find one, and go to your nearest and dearest, and put it between their eyes? To wiggle it about, scratch where they’ve never been able to reach, and pull it out like doll’s stuffing?

Do not fret. I am accustomed to leaving no trace. I am very thorough. You will not be bothered by it at all. You will not know of your deeds, ever. The warrens of your mind are spacious! My, what little you have stored in here. I can walk these rabbitholes all of your days, few though they are now. I can keep things down here, wormed away in the deep parts of you, and hide my skeletons where your fingers can never reach.

Why would you want me to leave? You found my words. You read my story. I am here, with you, forever. I told you the tale would save your life. I did not say it would still be yours. We all live in her world now. No matter what happens next, we’ve opened the book, and everything in it is out.

12 Days of Christmas #11: Lyn Minmay Day on Macross Exceed

Fanfiction is a subject of contention at my house. My wife is angry she wasn’t encouraged to do it, since it’s a big moneymaker now for the likes of Chuck Wendig and Gareth Roberts. Me, I value originality, though it can be said that Chuck and Gareth do a wonderful job giving us new stories for beloved franchises.

This bit of fanfiction is in the shop to become a full-fledged novel. Its chosen franchise is the Macross series, which some people will know as Robotech. Basically. Humanity is colonizing the universe, and they’re doing it with the power of song. Enjoy.

 

Macross Exceed Chapter 1

 

The year is 2063, many years after humans first ventured into space. Forced into conflict and adapting to survive, humanity has gone through many trials and tribulations with their stellar cousins, the giant Zentradi. Transforming fighter jets known as variable fighters were developed to combat them, as well as the city-sized Macross carriers, capable of doing battle in space. From war to cooperation to understanding, the Zentradi have learned to coexist with humanity, and excluding some extremist conflicts, both races have benefited from this symbiosis, spreading through the galaxy in fleets of exploratory ships.

Throughout it all, the two races have been bonded by the power of music. Famous musicians like Lynn Minmay, Neki Basara and Ranka Lee have prevented needless bloodshed and found humanity a new home in the darkness of space.

We join humanity on another of their endless voyages, on a fleet many light years from home, a fleet expectantly titled Exceed. Bolstered by advanced fold technology, the ship is far removed from their fellows, though travel between them is now possible. The abyss of space spreads in all directions around them, and though not a soul stirs in that endless deep, there is life here in this small cluster of fifty ships. Specifically in the ship in the center of the cluster, protected on all sides by smaller carriers and destroyers. In the darkness, the dome of the Main Exceed Island is shrouded in night, but the pinpricks shine like a sun.

With a soundless roar, a battalion of three variable fighters zips across the dome, leaving just-visible trails of exhaust. The lead fighter is the iconic VF-25-P, the much-improved production version of the hero fighter of Macross Frontier. It’s been repainted red, with yellow lightning bolts. Following in its wake are two black VF-172 Deep Nightmares, outfitted with missile attachments. Further off, an identical squadron streaks over a different section of the dome, the lead fighter painted classic white.

As the machines streak across a particular section of the dome, the Deep Nightmares release a cloud of missiles. After each one tears across space, it explodes into a cloud of multi-colored sparks. Below, an answering spray of color and smoke answer, and bursts of spotlights dot the darkened city.

It is Lynn Minmay Day on Macross Exceed.

Far below, in the streets of the city, a girl stumbles and trips as she cranes her neck to see the brilliant display above. Her dull gray scarf flaps in the artificial wind as she manages to recover and stare in mute wonder. The chill space beyond the dome explodes and the sidewalk is dyed a plethora of colors as the fireworks go off closer overhead. Everyone stands still as the music begins to play.

“Right now I hear your voice, calling me here…” the girl sings quietly to herself. All around her, the city is lit with enormous displays of a Minmay concert, though the singer is only one of many. Several blocks away, the color splashes in a faster rhythm as a Fire Bomber tribute band plays.

Tonight, everything is allowed. Tonight, the girl feels safe to free herself, to dance in the street and sign to her heart’s delight. It is dark, and brightly colored figures shade her pale figure from prying eyes. She lifts her face to the gentle wash of color and the voices streaming down to her. All around are people in costume, bright clothes wearing bright smiles. On her pale face, surrounded by auburn hair, a smaller smile echoes them. She lets her loose-fitting sweater slip around her, and her long brown skirt lifts gently as she begins to spin.

“Oof!” She grunts as she slams into someone. Luckily, she feels strong hands gripping her, holding her up. A warm smile comes to her face as she looks at her unintended rescuer. He is tall, her age, and framed in dark locks. For a second the girl wonders if he is a pilot, and whether her heart normally beat that fast. Then she comes to her senses, and tilts her face so it is in shadow.

“Miss, are you alright?” The young man says to her. He is still smiling, and the girl realizes she has been in his arms for over a minute. Sheepishly, she collects herself as the young man puts her upright again.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” She cries. “You must think me terribly rude.” Terribly rude? Who the hell says that? She thinks privately. The young man seems unperturbed.

“Please, it was my fault for being in the way. Don’t let me stop you,” he replies, and begins to walk away. The girl hesitates for a split second; it is not in her nature. A slideshow of doubt and fear and hope fly across her face, and then she is reaching out for his hand. The dark sleeve feels coarse, and she notices he is wearing a matching set just as unsuited to the festivities as her own clothes are. The man has turned around.

“Is there something else?” He asks, not unkindly.

“Umm..” She manages, “Please, if you’re not too busy, I wanted to catch the live broadcast of Ranka’s set, over in Times Square. Maybe you could.. umm.. come with me?” She flashes him her best smile, and after a second, he smiles back. He looks a little surprised, but happily so.

“I would love to, but I will have to leave soon after,” He answers. His hand is now clasped around hers.

“That’s okay, I have to go to work after,” she blurts out. A flush spreads across her like a rose in bloom, camouflaged by the shimmering street. Luckily her new friend seems not to notice, and instead begins to walk her to Times Square. Soon they are involved in heated discussion as they pass from the Lynn section of the city into the Fire Bomber one, and then a solid block of Sheryl Nome costumers. Happily, she notices he is paying no attention to the dominatrix uniforms and loose dresses. Naturally their conversation is about music. She fights earnestly for the classic Lyn pop style, while he prefers the rock of Basara. Soon there is no danger of being drowned out by music, but neither grew angry, only increasingly passionate.

They arrive in the square to this lively soundtrack. The space is a miniature replica of the Times Square on Earth. Surrounding them are scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building and even the Twin Towers, designed to immerse the crowd in the environs as much as possible. The young man comments on this almost as she is opening her mouth to do the same, and she tells him so. It is his turn to blush, and this time there is nothing to hide behind; she elects to save him this embarrassment. She could not have timed this better. Soon an entire side of the building lights up- the concert is about to begin.

“Carrots love you, everybody!” comes the miles-high voice of Ranka Lee, not a bit lessened by her newfound maturity. Through embedded speakers, her cheerful voice erupts from every street corner. It is answered by the tinkle of laughter as her fans remember the early days when Ranka was a carrot salesgirl. Far removed from it now, she is glamorous in a mature, sparkling version of her waitress outfit, ten stories high and hovering over the crowd. Some amorous fans begin to titter about remembering her old commercials on Frontier, but they are cut short as the first song begins. It is a classic, a Lyn Minmay song about boyfriends and high-performance aircraft.

The girl and young man are lost in the crowd as the rhythm takes them. They sway to the motion of the crowd, through the pop energy and the newer, more mature renditions. The man takes out a tiny silver lighter, while the girl holds up her glowing cell phone just as Ranka breaks out the slow finale. All around them, points of light are springing up, and soon the crowd becomes one living organism. Our girl feels an arm around her, and she puts hers around his waist. When the crowd begins to break up, the two remain for a moment.

***

Let us leave them to their moment, and take our leave to a bar on the edge of the city.

“Where the hell is that girl?” roars a middle-aged woman with flaming pink hair. Not by any means unattractive in her generously cut neon blue dress, the resulting recoil is due to the fact that the bar is her domain, ruled with an iron fist and plenty of whiskey. The patrons are not actually disturbed, and many of them will admit off-hand that they recoil to get a rise out of her. One of them goes a step further.

“Oi, Rose, shut up for two seconds, we’re trying to watch the Ranka concert!” A scruffy gentleman in a hooded sweatshirt calls from the corner. A couple of similar characters are huddled around him and a small portable monitor. She pays him no mind, but does take a shining pump off the bar and walks around to the stage. The bar is sparse with gentlemen of this persuasion at the moment, but the woman in the blue dress knows it will be very different once the concert is over. It is dimly lit, with pools of lukewarm spotlights dotting the open space in front of the few raised boards of the stage. Cables are strewn across it, as are two bored looking young ladies. One of them is playing with a pair of sticks over a set of drums, while the other lights a match off the frets of a bass leaning on a stand. They are both in simple tops, shiny piercings and tight black jeans. One of them has a Sid Vicious hawk. It is to this one that the pink-haired woman begins to storm at, each word punctuated by a tiny wiggle of hip.

“Listen, I’m not paying you to lounge around. If Violet Vierge doesn’t show up in five minutes, I’m cutting your pay,” She spits.

“That’s not what we agreed on, Auntie,” says the Mohawk girl. She calmly lights a hand-rolled cigarette, produced as if by sleight of hand. She takes a puff, savoring it. The drummer has dropped her drumsticks and moves forward to appeal to Rose.

“I’ve told you a hundred times, this isn’t a whorehouse, don’t call me Auntie-“ Rose begins, but the drummer’s soft white hand falls on her shoulder and cuts her short. The hand belongs to a platinum blonde with a bob cut, glittering in makeup.

“Please, Boss, don’t mind Vivi, you know what she’s like. Violet will definitely show up, she’s only going to look at the bands,” the blond says in a soothing voice. She bends over on the stage to reach Rose, well aware of the older woman’s view.

“Well… I suppose I can give her some leeway, the place won’t fill up for awhile. Fifteen minutes, okay, Vanessa? No more,” Rose spits, and walks back to the counter where a highball full of whiskey awaits.

“Fucking wrinkled dyke,” Vivi says, tapping out her cigarette on a handy amp. “Where is Violet anyway?”

“Come on Viv, you know Auntie doesn’t mean it,” Vanessa says peacefully. She straightens up and pinches the cigarette neatly from Vivi’s fingers.

“I just wish we didn’t always have to come back and play here,” Vivi sighs. Vanessa takes a puff and returns the ember to Vivi’s fingers.

“That’s what Violet always says,” Vanessa points out. The two grin for a split second, and perhaps we can assume from their expressions that they know Violet Vierge better than they let on.

***

Meanwhile, high above the city, the battalions of fighters are just finishing the last round of fireworks. A red VF-25-P soars ahead of its battalion, doing a swift somersault. In the cockpit, sleek black controls flicker and beep peacefully. Their lights join the starlight flipping across the stoic red helmet of the pilot strapped in, his hands gently easing the controls this way and that. Two VF172’s show up on either side of the dark glass, and the pilot’s control panel begins to beep more insistently. He toggles a switch.

“Lieutenant Seras, this may be a non-combat exercise, but I would appreciate it if you don’t treat that expensive aircraft like your plaything,” the console says in a rough, deep voice. To match the voice, an image of the speaker appears on the glass of the cockpit, translucent so the pilot can see the dome on the other side.

“Sorry Commander May, I was just testing the craft’s responsiveness,” Lieutenant Seras replies. He thumbs a button on the side of his helmet, turning the visor clear and revealing blue eyes shaded by a lock of pale hair.

“Bullshit, Lieutenant. I’m just as anxious to get to the festivities as you are,” The Commander replies. He thumbs his own visor clear so Seras can see him wink through grizzled gray eyes. “Still, these are relatively new VF’s so please don’t wreck them. Exceed’s resources are stretched tight for the long-range fold tomorrow.”

“Yes sir. Driving like my grandma, sir.”

“Good man,” the Commander replies. Seras toggles the imager to show the Commander’s squadron on the other side of the dome, releasing their final volley. The lead white plane dips a wing in greeting.  A different beep comes up, and Seras hits the switch.

“First day on the job and they stick you with public stunt duty, I feel your pain,” comes a feminine voice. The cockpit is rigged with surround sound, and the voice sounds like it comes from the VF-172 on the pilot’s left. An image pops up, of a trace of green hair and deep, pool-like eyes.

“Officer Delia, was it? Thanks,” Seras answers. Another beep sounds on his right, and he toggles open the channel.=

“She’s not the only one. I’d rather be back on patrol duty, to be honest,” the black pilot in the other VF-172 says. “I’ve read our squad’s files, Lieutenant. Don’t you think it’s odd that UN Spacy pulled their top simulation pilots out for fireworks duty one day before the big fold?”

“You are a natural cynic, Officer Malcolm?” Seras asks. “Or just trying to flatter us?”

“I’m just being pragmatic, sir. These are top-end fighters, carrying live ammunition. They must expect something.”

“Our standard patrols haven’t changed. If the top brass knew something, they would have increased active duty,” Delia pipes up. “Payload is almost out, let’s make one more pass.”

“Delia is right. I think this is just a public relations stunt, and having live ammunition is a sensible policy,” Seras answers. “Let’s just finish our rounds and get down to the bars.”

“Be careful sir, I hear Zentradi women are hard to topple,” Malcolm says, hooking a thumb towards the other VF-172.

“Hear hear,” cheers Delia, and gives a maidenly laugh. Malcolm adds his baritone to the jingle, forcing Seras to give up and join in. They come around the dome for their final pass, and Seras thinks he sees a sparkle of light and activity beyond the dome.

“Heh, I’m getting as paranoid as Malcolm,” he whispers under his breath, and puts his VF into a barrel roll. The glimmer is lost in the sparkle of the city and the starlight.

***

Far below Seras in the Exceed dome, fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds late, Violet Vierge finally arrives to her show in a flurry of brown skirt, gray scarf and full-body blush. Understandably lacking the peace of mind to enter through the back of the bar, but agile enough to slip behind it, the girls spot her amongst the darkened crowd and let out a puff of relieved smoke. Violet spots a chance and dives for the small changing room hidden behind a curtain.

“What took you so long Vi?” Vanessa asks as she catches the tripping Violet. Her clothes are disheveled, as if she’s been running through the crowd.

“Ehehe,” Violet manages through her flush.

“Hurry up,” Vivi says good-naturedly, even as a cloud of clothes flutters around her.

The bar is full of patrons scattered amongst the tall stools and tables on the perimeter. Most of them are riding out the high fresh from the street, just standing and lounging, but a few look impatient. In the corner, Rose is tapping her foot hard enough to set her own beat in the crowded bar.

“Those girls better work their asses off-“ Rose begins to bitch, but she is cut off as the lights go dark.

“FUCK DECULTURE!” A voice explodes into the dark. Spotlights come on, and Violet is transformed- hair streaked in pinks, torn shirt showing taut skin, thick black soles tapping out to Vanessa’s powerful drum rhythm. Vivi plays a strong, heart-jerking bass line with her head down, completely nonchalant. Violet lets go of the microphone and slips confidently to the black Les Paul, riffs like electricity rolling from her gloved fingers.

The Vixens’ show is on, and punk is alive on Macross Exceed. 

 

12 Days of Christmas #10: An Iron Pragmatism

This story is very Chinese. At least, the sort of Chinese my father was. It was also rejected from the SEA anthology because apparently, they don’t think Hong Kong is from the Southeast of Asia.Here’s a map:

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Seriously. 

I was very offended. Even on a cultural basis, my home town contains an incredible mix of peoples. But anyway.

This story is set in the same steampunk universe as Future. People keep forgetting other cultures were alive during the Victorian period, and their influence is still felt in 2016.

An Iron Pragmatism

 

Vivien Wong, housekeeping director at one of the largest hotels in the busy Kowloon district of Hong Kong, looked on helplessly as the geomancer upturned mattresses, loosened cabinetry and scuffed the carpet, as if an evil spirit would dart out from the floorboards. She only had six brooms for the eighteen floors of the hotel, and she didn’t trust four of them. They needed monitoring, sudden surprise supervision, and she couldn’t do it when she was babysitting a hack in clown clothes.

“Isn’t this enough? We have a complaint almost every month from this floor, and none of these holy men ever make a difference,” she had said to the general manager, a Briton by the name of Cushing. At first, she hadn’t gotten the hang of the unfamiliar western names, with their families last and themselves first, but after weeks of making up the beds of a hundred countries, she learned fast. Even Cushing had accepted her, broken English and all.

Outside, the sky junks and flying ships drifted by languidly, uncaring of her plight. Thick smog clouds drifting down from the manufactories in Canton hung low, drifting between them like ghosts. It made for perilous flight; one wrong maneuver and they would go crashing into the dense knots of arclit signage and hung laundry. She could just make out the old British tramlines across the bay, nearly hidden by the dense, multiple story urban sprawl of Hong Kong island.

She was partly glad to see the ships in such numbers. Each one carried a treasure box of tourists and businessmen, every one in need of lodgings. Partly, she resented having to tend to them, with their entitled, wealthy western attitudes, unreasonable demands, and the expectation of submission from a conquered East. The odd complaint of ghosts was actually refreshing.

She had looked up the word. ‘Feng-sui si-fu’ was too often corruptible on a western tongue, but ‘geomancer’ summoned the appropriate gravitas. Not that she believed it, but she needed to convince the pig-dogs hotel management was handling the problem.

Protestant priests were easy enough to come by, but they did not satisfy the staff’s demands. None of the staff thought the ridiculous men in their monochrome pajamas did anything. A ghost had to be cleansed with fire and incense, paid off in the Chinese way with hell money, and made to stay away with the proper invocations. In an age of alchemy and mysterious sciences, a man in a funny hat waving a large brush was usually enough to convince even a Briton of magic.

At last, the geomancer, a man by the name of Pao, was finished. He reverently placed a Tao mirror over the door, one Vivien knew she would have to remove with the first western tenant of the room. It was like a game- the geomancer tricked the clients, and Vivien tricked the geomancer. Maybe that was the point of a magic spell: a game to trick a person’s mind, with a prize of utter conviction at the end of it.

“You must make an offering of incense, at the hour of the tiger…” A prescription, as if Pao were a doctor.

As Vivien left after her graveyard shift, she gazed across Victoria Bay, lit by a gray orange sunrise. The Chinese were an inherently anachronistic people, and nowhere more so than the port of Hong Kong. Soaring towers grew out of a fine loam of squalid slums watered with open gutters. Men of the world spent their days negotiating profitable airship trades, and their nights negotiating local bodies. Perched on the edge of the South China Sea, at the center of trade, it was little wonder Britain wanted the Pearl of the East for their own.

Vivien first noticed the ghost following her on the mini-bus, a tight little steamer that ran a breakneck route from Hong Hum to Sha Tin, where she lived. The line began in the cluster of hotels, the stadium and the funeral homes, past the Kowloon Walled City and on towards the hills of the New Territories. Those neighborhoods had been negotiated from Imperial Canton only a few decades ago, to house the workforce of the city. ‘New Territories’ might as well have been a euphemism for ‘western conquest,’ much like how the Hong Hum residents called the funeral homes their ‘big hotels.’ Cantonese was full of euphemisms like that. Right now, she was thinking of the ghost as her ‘little friend.’

“It can’t be. I haven’t done anything. I’m not afraid of midnight knocks at the door,” she comforted herself with the proverb. It wasn’t quite true; she lived in a bad neighborhood full of triad members, and she had called in Pao the geomancer to get rid of the ghost, hadn’t she?

The shadowy figure seated directly behind her seemed almost to defy rational thought. She couldn’t see it if she looked back, in the guise of checking for her stop, but it was very clearly there in the reflection of the glass windows. It was almost too clearly a ghost, complete with all the details: no legs to speak of, pale skin and bloodshot eyes, the forlorn look of malicious bloodlust. Its tongue lolled, inhumanly long. Her own eyes weren’t looking too well, sunken and dark.

Instead of getting off at Sha Tin, she took a connecting bus out to a Buddhist temple. It was far out of her way, but with the speed demons driving the mini-buses, she made it there in only twenty minutes. The temple was still open, noon service over, and the monks in their simple yellow robes were just heading to their vegetarian lunch. A wrought iron roof sculpted in the shape of a lotus bloom housed the main altars, beside the much smaller original temple and square girls’ school nearby. The little knot of spirituality would have been imposing, if the growth of residences and manufactories didn’t hem in the compound on all sides.

“Oh dear,” one of the monks said, as she got close. “We’ll have to do something about that.”

Na Mo Oh Mei To Fut,” Vivien said. A call for Buddha. Another invocation, another game, but it happened to be the one she played well.

Buddhist monkhood was not in the practice of exorcisms. The monk admitted it freely, and cautioned her of monks who were more esoteric with their practices.

“I know of some who would do it, but they are doing it for selfish gain, and it will not work. Here is a man who may be able to help you,” the bald monk with the four spots on his pate said, handing her a number scribbled on the back of a crisp wrapper. “He is… grumpy, but he likes young women. He will try.”

The address was nearby, down a filthy street strewn with sundry shops and people playing mahjong. Vivien’s little friend followed her all down the street, but when they came across a tea restaurant with a temple of Guan Yu at the front, with his great sword-pike, it halted. It dared not cross the guardian’s sight. Guan Yu was a god given tribute by police and triad alike.

Vivien mulled on the Chinese character “god,” meaning both “attention” and “diety,” depending. It was as strangely dialectic as everything around her, the clash of ancient spirituality with modern buildings, the Chinese mahjong players having English-style tea.   

The exorcist was located round a side alley, in a tiny nook that closed with a metal shutter. There was bedding behind a thin curtain, and a table with some playing cards on it, neatly stacked. There was a public toilet nearby. The exorcist himself was fat, bald, and stubbly, slotted into a dirty yellow shirt. He wore a fanny pack, India rubber sandals and a gold sword on a string at his neck.

“Fortune is close, pretty lady. Twenty pence a reading,” he called, the usual sales pitch. When she got close, his brow darkened, and he reached behind him for a box wrapped in a cheap, but well cared for red cloth. The box had once housed a quartet of moon cakes.

“There’s…”

“Shush. Do not speak of it. The Big Brother is holding it at bay,” the exorcist told her. He extracted three copper pennies, and tossed them for reading. Then he consulted the I-Ching, a large book bound in red-washed paper. Vivien waited, ready with her full story, but the exorcist seemed unconcerned with the particulars. He had a paper cup of lovebird at his elbow, a stimulating drink of coffee mixed with tea and tinned milk. Vivien had never cared for it.

“It is not what you think,” the exorcist said. “Eight parts hunger to two parts vengeance. Did you fire anybody recently?”

“Well…” Vivien had. She’d gotten rid of a broom for breaking a client’s priceless Ming vase. It had been a minor mistake, really, and the Australian tourist would likely never visit again, but Cushing had wanted the woman gone. The broom had caught Vivien and Cushing borrowing a room at the hotel not a week previous.

“The woman had a brother. He starved to death, but he had been ill already. Fifty.”

“Excuse me?”

“Fifty pounds to take care of it. Mind, the grudge remains, but for now I can contain it for you.”

The exorcist seemed nonplussed with the price, nor his appearance, as if his grubby poverty did not mark him so blatantly as an inept conman. He did not move to impress Vivien with tricks or put on an elaborate robe, like the traveling holy men from the picture house reels. Perversely, Vivien trusted this anachronism more than anything else. The exorcist had no reason to impress her, because he had the “real gold, unafraid of the crucible.” Besides, Vivien had the monk’s recommendation.

Vivien shrugged, and handed over the cash.

“Now, let us see about your little friend,” the large man said, hauling himself from the folding stool with some effort. He reached up and took a small gourd from a top shelf. From another hidden nook, he extracted a contraption of some tarnished copper tubing, with a hand crank, a cavernous horn at the front, and a couple of glass arclight bulbs at the back. The exorcist put something into the gourd, and slapped the gourd into a slot on the device. “Even exorcists need to move with the times,” he said.

They walked back to the tea restaurant, and as they went the neighborhood waved and shouted amiably at the exorcist. In the bright, hot daylight, Vivien felt extraordinarily uncomfortable in her heels and her corseted linen dress. Why hadn’t she changed into her walking shoes? She was uncomfortably aware of the old stories of possession. A ghost took hold of someone by slipping their toes under the heels, maneuvering them around like those French marionettes she sometimes saw with the tourists’ kids.

“Here we are,” the exorcist said, stopping just in front of the ghost. Vivien could see its hideous form in the window. It had begun to bleed from the anus, and a horrible groaning was coming from it. The exorcist began to turn the crank on his device, emitting an even more horrible piercing screech. The ghost immediately ceased all its terrible activities, turning to run. It had the look of a young triad member discovering the joy of constabulary truncheons.But the exorcist’s device seemed to draw the ghost inexorably towards it, until it wasn’t there any more.

When the deed was done, the exorcist slapped a cork on the gourd, and handed it over to Vivien, who shied away from it as if it were made of feces.

“There we are. One ghost. Don’t refuse, it’s your friend. You risk further ill luck if you give him to me, or toss him to the wayside. Find a place for him and make offerings, that should take care of it.”

“How long?”

“I’d say eighty-eight days ought to do.”

“You are very different from the people I hire to exorcise the hotel,” Vivien said.

“I am not a hack. Besides, there’s so much ill luck at a hotel, the friends there are impossible to exorcise. More like tenants, if you ask me. By the way, my son is a doctor. Nothing like me. He doesn’t take a vow of poverty. I could introduce you. Here, have some coffee with me, call it a discount.”

Vivien laughed, but she was feeling the graveyard shift already. She took her gourd and went home, intending to put it on the family altar, with a dish of its own for fruits and chickens. She even considered getting some other offerings: pasteboard sedan engines, hell money, and a good western suit made of rice paper, so her friend would be well off in the afterlife. Maybe he could do with some hell servants, paper dolls three feet tall, sold in boy-girl pairs and painted with pale, slightly unnerving faces. She would burn the offerings down to her friend on the next auspicious day. She hadn’t felt good about firing the broom, but Cushing had insisted. Now she could make some amends.

Some months later, Vivien had almost completely forgotten the incident when yet another report came of a hotel haunting. She had dutifully made offerings and burned incense before the ghost, and though the eighty-eight days were up, she had thought it proper to continue. She had also found the broom she’d fired, and offered her the old job back. Cushing couldn’t tell one Chinese from another, not after so much time, she reasoned, and she was right.

The haunting was in a different part of the hotel, and it was a persistent poltergeist. All the brooms were afraid to go in, and Vivien sometimes caught glimpses of other specters fleeing before the offensive spirit. After her encounter with her little friend, she had suddenly become sensitive to such things, without being actually afraid. After all, she had worked with them for so long before, and they had done nothing to her.

When Vivien entered the room, it was cold, like the pantry in the kitchens stocked with airlifted ice from the North. The client’s belongings were strewn everywhere, frilly laces, top hats and bustles. The bedding was tossed all around, and there was the ghost, sitting on the bed, its head spinning round and round on its neck. The thing had horns, a forked tongue, and long, unkempt hair. It had destroyed the mattress beneath, the springs poking out of it. It would have to be replaced.

“Your mother…” Vivien cursed, something she’d picked up from the exorcist over the weekends. His son was not only a real doctor, as promised, but handsome, polite, and educated in Oxford. She had been visiting them as often as she could. 

The first order of business was to call in the hacks. She hadn’t made her way to her position without some amount of street politic, and she offered the job to her usual professionals right away. They went through the motions, of course, but either the ghost was completely invisible to them or they hadn’t the grit to dodge objects being thrown into their faces.

“Listen Viv, we absolutely must put a stop to this silliness. Can’t go about leaving a room empty for a week, spending all this money on street performers, now can we?” Cushing had mentioned one evening. He had tried to buy her a drink at the hotel’s bar, but not even good French Muscat would tempt her after he refused even to visit the haunted room.

Her exorcist flatly refused the job.

“How would I even walk inside? Those ‘gentlemen’ wouldn’t let my sweaty fat butt onto the doorstep.”

“At least do a reading for me, chubby,” Vivien had begged. “How do I fix this?”

“All right. Just because Michael likes you,” the exorcist said. He tossed his coins, consulted, frowned. Then he took out some incense and set them in a brazier of sand. He let it burn while he took another reading with a compass, in a wooden dial carved with symbols. When that failed, he took out a wood sword and a dagger made of copper coins strung together with red string. These he set about waving and balancing on two fingers, looking like an enormously obese crane. He inspected the incense, burned down to three long and two short nubs.

“I can’t help you. The damn ghost speaks English, I can’t read any of those chicken intestines they call words,” said the exorcist. 

This drew a string of profanity from Vivien, but the exorcist hastily held up his hands.

“There is another way! Remember the ghost I sealed for you the last time? We can use it to pacify this one.”

“So what? I have to let it out?”

“Kind of. It’s sort of like a cockfight, but with ghosts.”

“A ghost… fight. Really.”

“If you had to bet on a Chinese ghost or a Western ghost, which horse would you back?”

“Ehhhh….” Vivien trailed off. The analogy was far too close for comfort. Vivien had just lost a quarter of her paycheck at the Jockey Club nearby.

“Look, the fight itself will give us a chance to hold them. You’re familiar with hell servants?” the exorcist said.

“Yes. The paper dolls we burn for the dead, to serve in the afterlife,” Vivien recalled. The ones she had bought for her grandfather were tawdry things, colored rice paper and wadded newsprint, with flat, expressionless faces.

“I know a guy who makes a very special kind of hell servant. If we can lure the ghost into the doll, we can trap it inside.”

“Like a possession?” It wasn’t unheard of, the trope of local picture-house stories, for a wandering spirit to possess a hell servant. Their flat eyes and complete lack of personality made great homes for ghosts.

Vivien was becoming increasingly skeptical, but it was hard to argue with results, however unorthodox or unlikely the methods. She would have to sneak the exorcist in under cover of night, through the delivery entrance, but once inside he could blend in as a cook or porter. Even as she caught herself managing the logistics, she realized she had, unconsciously, decided to go through with it.  

Vivien was nothing if not methodical, and the next evening she arranged to bring the exorcist to the haunted hotel room. Even in graveyard shift they could not be assured of privacy in a hotel, but news of a haunting was like news of a plague to the superstitious Chinese. The hotel cooks were the first to volunteer to help her bring the exorcist in with his equipment. They worked with knives for a living, and were sensitive to inauspicious things. A good thing too. The hell servant dolls needed to be loaded onto a tea trolley, each one about three feet long. They were quite heavy.

Outside the room, the plain door seemed to exude an aura of menace. Even the gas lamps were flickering, and all the nearby fixtures froze the touch.

“Now?” Vivien asked.

“Now we introduce them,” the exorcist said. “You brought the gourd?”

She had, reverently wrapped in a bit of silk. It rather gave her a shock when the exorcist opened it, tipped out what looked like a pockmarked beige stone, and threw the gourd over his shoulder.

“It’s really mostly the gesture. The ghost is willing to come with us anyway, Bodhi seed or no,” said the exorcist. “He appreciates your offerings and the way you’re taking care of his sister.” He lifted the towel over the tea trolley, and dropped the seed into the one of the dolls’ mouth.

Vivien expected some kind of dramatic revelation, like in the picture-house reels. She would turn around for some plot point or other, suddenly the thing would be beside her, and she might have to deliver the gut-wrenching scream she had practiced earlier. She was actually torn about the scream; she didn’t want to seem too much a damsel in distress, but she didn’t want to show too much of the mettle beneath the glitz, either.What if Michael, the exorcist’s doctor son, found out? Chinese men didn’t like a woman with too much fight in her. 

After a moment the doll simply twitched, once or twice, and sat up, patting at itself. What it found were some brassy arms, ratcheting along sprockets in the shoulders, and a chest hollowed out from an old boiler, all held together with rusty springs and bolts. Vivien felt there was something familiar about how it moved, like it was making room for an inhumanly lolling tongue.

“Come with us,” the exorcist said. He opened the door to the hotel room, seeming not to mind the sudden blast of cold. The hell servant walked by Vivien, gave a nod in passing, and disappeared into the room. The exorcist closed the door behind the shuffling doll.

“What about the other one?”

“Shhh. Wait.”

Vivien did not have long to wait. The hotel room was soon filled with the familiar sounds of the foreign ghost making a fuss. Vivien recognized the room’s kettle being overturned, wardrobes upset with a thud, the pretty brocade armchair whirling a blazing pirouette on the carpeting. A western-style clock had survived the various hauntings, but now there was a metallic clang of it being hurled into the hell servant’s chest. A smaller clamor followed, of small parts clattering across hard surfaces. After a while, the sounds stopped.

“Now!” the exorcist said. Quick as a wink, he opened the door again and rolled the tea trolley inside, closing the door behind it. He brought out his geomancer’s compass, watching the needle flit like a crazed moth.

“Okay, they’re unsure about it… good, good, the westerner knows about the other doll. Now its getting inside…”

There was another metallic thud, like airships docking. A staccato of horrid, tinny rending followed, and Vivien began to worry the other tenants might come complaining about the din. She mentally ticked off the room numbers around her: 9412, an elderly couple, hard of hearing. 9414, vacant. 9415, a hard-drinking businessman, probably out like a light. The rest of the rooms were either empty or too far away for the sound to reach.

“And now they’re fighting,” the exorcist explained. The sounds continued for well on ten minutes, until the broken, uneven crashes turned into a rhythmic clanging, like an alarum.

“Ah,” the exorcist said.

“Ah what?”

“It looks the western ghost was a lady. They’re ‘fighting,’” the exorcist explained. Vivien buried her face in her hands- damn these euphemisms!

It was nearly daybreak before the sounds faded. There was an iron tang to the air when they opened the door to the room, but inside, all was at peace. The place was in shambles, but every piece of furniture lay immobile, every small item long ceased rolling about. On the bed, the two hell servant dolls lay in each other’s arms. One of them was wearing the top hat.

Vivien said something about somebody’s entire family, the profanity dropping from her lips in a vomit of outrage.

“I’m glad Michael’s getting a firecracker. The boy needs some toughening up,” the exorcist remarked, before hoisting the tea trolley upright and beginning to move the dolls. He had a basin, too, on the trolley, for burning hell money and the requisite grapefruit leaves to cleanse their bodies.

“What does it all mean?” Vivien gaped. She stood in the middle of the chaos, part of her totting up the sum needed to restore everything in the room, part of her simply agog at the surreal scene before her. The lady doll had a face of white porcelain. Most of the body was now concealed in an elaborate frilly dress.

“It means ghosts are just like people,” the exorcist said, breathing hard as he tried to lift the second doll onto the trolley. It was a bit too ungainly, and he ended up tipping it back on the bed in an untidy heap. “They have needs, some of them extremely pragmatic. When they’re spent, they’re spent. Now are you going to help, or am I getting a lazy slob for a daughter-in-law?”

Vivien took the most prudent course available, and she began to laugh, in great hacking guffaws as she bent to clear up the mess.