Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chapter Eight

A little boy cries near a well.

They hear him, of course, the monsters that sleepwalk through the cobblestone streets, and they shamble ever faster toward the center of town, toward the well.

The boy doesn’t care. The scuffling, dragging footsteps approach, but he remains seated. Let them come.

He’d been traveling for so long, trying so hard to return, only to find his village empty, his home shuttered, his family gone.

And he no longer knows what to do. For weeks he’d hoped, believed, wished that if he could only make it home, everything would be all right. The deserted, dusty roads, the few frightened refugees (who had no time for a little lost boy), the monsters, none of it would matter once he was in the arms of his father.

Only now there is nothing, no one, not even a candle in the window.

He’s come to the conclusion that because he left home, all of this, the lifeless town and the monsters and his missing family, is somehow his fault. If he’d only kept his promise and been brave and truthful and unselfish, none of this would have taken place. This, he believes, is his punishment.

It’s a very big burden for such a small child, and there is no one to comfort him and let him know that he’s wrong.

Broken shadows descend upon the town square. He recognizes a few of the faces (some were even schoolmates), but none of them belong to his father. Hope flickers painfully in his chest. Though he isn’t here, his father might still be alive.

They dreamily approach the well, drawn toward the boy’s tears, and place their groping, rotting hands about his face, on his eyes, in his mouth. He shudders and flinches, but they abruptly let him go.

The monsters stumble away, directionless and lost, until the boy hiccoughs a sob. Then, surprised by the sound, they return, poking and prodding at his face for a moment before losing interest.

More than anything, they hunger for flesh and blood. And though they’re drawn to the boy’s tearful cries, he means no more to them than a creaking door or a rustling tree. They have no use for a little puppet made of pine, and so Pinocchio, alone, is spared.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Chapter Seven

“Father! Father!” The voice of Jane rings through the camp, an enclosed, cluttered abode of tents within the jungle of the Wildlands.

The Professor looks up from the plaster cast of a footprint that the Hunter had found earlier that morning. “Yes, Jane, what is it?”

“Look,” says his daughter, and she points a gloved finger at the intruder in the clearing.

It is a gorilla, a juvenile by the size of it, with an unusual tuft of hair atop its cranium. The old man gasps and oohs and quickly gets to his feet. He sets down the magnifying glass carefully, so as not to scare away the animal, and slowly picks up his camera.

“Hush now,” says the Professor in a soothing voice. “There’s a good fellow.” He forces himself to move slowly and not startle the creature. The opportunity to take a photograph of such a reclusive animal is too great, and in his excitement, he doesn’t notice the irregularities of this particular specimen.

“Father,” says Jane. “His stomach.”

The Professor looks through the viewfinder and snaps a photo. It’s too dark under the jungle canopy, and he musses about with a flashbulb.

Alerted by the movement, the gorilla turns toward the Professor just as he takes another photograph. The old man is surprised when the flash doesn’t scare off the creature. It pays no mind to the light. It doesn’t even blink, actually.

Then he notices its stomach.

Once he can find his voice, the Professor whispers, “Back away, Jane." He himself doesn’t move. Fascinated, he takes another photo, this one focused on the creature’s abdomen.

It is gaping, slashed apart by some animal. A leopard, by the look of it. The predator apparently took off with most of the entrails, leaving the rest to crust over and blacken with mud and blood. A nasty, fatal wound.

And yet, the gorilla staggers forward, very much alive, though it walks with difficulty. Most of its right thigh is gone, eaten away, and it leans heavily on its other limbs.

“Back away, Jane," says the Professor once more.

Without taking his eyes from the dreadful and fascinating beast, he shouts for the Hunter. “We need your rifle, man! Quickly!”

The svelte Englishman had been napping in his tent, but he is out and awake almost immediately. He looks around carefully, spots the gorilla, and raises his rifle.

“What the devil?” he asks himself, and empties a bullet into the creature’s heart. It shudders backwards with the impact, but still drags itself unceasingly toward the Professor.

The Hunter wastes no time. Before it can take another step, he cocks the rifle and fires again, still at its heart, still with no effect.

“Bloody thing won’t die!” he shouts, with a bewildered look at the Professor.

“It’s already dead, man!” the Professor shouts in return. He takes another photo. “Kill it!”

The Hunter analyzes the gorilla, focusing quickly on whatever weaknesses might be discernable. Perhaps it no longer needs its heart, since it would’ve lost most of its blood through its open, empty stomach.

But its leg… He takes aim at the gorilla’s unwounded leg, right where its knee should be, and with an echoing bang, the gorilla collapses.

And yet it still does not stop. It drags itself forward by its knuckles and silently exposes its yellow fangs.

“By Jove…” murmurs the Hunter. He takes a cautious step forward –
a normal animal would have fled at the first shot – but cannot bring himself to look into its dark, dull eyes.

The Professor takes a final photograph, and then the Hunter fires once more, this time at the gorilla’s head.

The mess spatters against the foliage, and the damned thing finally stops moving.

He puts his rifle over his shoulder and steps toward the Professor. “What manner of hoodoo is this, old man?” he asks, confused and angry.

“I don’t know,” admits the Professor. He reaches for his magnifying glass and carefully, cautiously, steps toward the gorilla’s corpse. “It’s scientifically implausible…”

Jane screams, and the two men look up. The camp has another intruder, a jaguar this time.

Earlier in their expedition, the Hunter would’ve only considered the animal’s hide, and how he could kill it with as little damage to the pelt as possible. Good money in jaguar skins, after all. But his priorities have suddenly changed.

The jaguar's rear legs have been practically flattened by something with blunt, broad teeth. And its neck is a ruin of open, ravaged flesh and dried blood. It snarls a bubbly, foul snarl, and tries to pounce at Jane, but its wounded legs prevents it from going too far.

Without thinking, the Hunter fires at its brainpan.

The jaguar crashes to the floor, its face destroyed.

“What the blazes is happening?” asks the Professor.

“The animals,” says Jane. “They’re… they’re dead.”

“Rabies?” asks the Hunter. He hates rabies.

“I’ve never heard of rabid animals behaving like this,” says the Professor. “Look at this wound!” He gestures toward the jaguar’s neck. “Nothing would get up from that. It’s impossible. Its throat was crushed.”

They hear the rustling of leaves and the loud cracking of trees as something – something large and stumbling – approaches the camp.

“There are more coming,” says Jane. “We have to get out of here!”

The Hunter is inside his tent before Jane can finish her sentence. He grabs some boxes of ammunition and stuffs his pack. “Let’s go,” he says, strapping a machete to his belt.

But then the Professor is screaming. A meerkat hangs from his throat. The Hunter hesitates with the rifle, as he cannot get a clear shot.

As the Professor clutches at the meerkat, four more emerge from the undergrowth and scuttle quickly toward his flailing body. They jump onto the Professor, clutching with their tiny, human-like hands, and bite at his legs, his arm, his groin. He rips the one from his throat and hurls it away. Pearl-like drops of blood splash onto the jungle floor.

“Father!” screams Jane. She rushes forward to help him, but the Hunter grabs her by the arm. If the animals are rabid, we have to be careful, he is about to say, but then a nearby tree collapses, and he forgets all words.

An elephant, gray, fat, one-eyed, stomps over the tree to the screaming Professor. It grabs him with its trunk and tosses him, along with the meerkats, into its gigantic, yawning mouth. The screaming abruptly stops.

“Elephants don’t eat people…” whispers the Hunter.

Jane looks at him with half-crazed eyes. She can’t block out the wet crunching sounds coming from the elephant’s mouth. “Do something!” she screams, and he does.

He turns and runs. As Jane screams after him, he does not look back.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Chapter Six

She does not like oversleeping.

What is wrong with the two of them, not calling and letting her sleep until nearly noon? Don’t they know she has a schedule to keep? As if these puppies and their lack of spots hadn’t already ruined her plans enough.

She screams for both of them as she enters their moldy hideout, forgetting that the fat one isn’t even in – he’s taken ill since that damned whelp bit him. Probably rabies, but she’ll be damned if she’s going to pay any hospital fees.

The Dalmatians had been a devil of time, really. The two idiots were covered in bites, and the puppies didn’t respond to any threats or punishment. Too many pelts had been wasted by throwing them in the incinerator.

She’s beginning to regret the whole thing, but the worst should be over by now - the remaining puppies were to have been skinned last night. Except the thin one never called this morning to tell her the job had been completed.

Still, the house is quiet - a good sign. It had been almost impossible to hear one’s thoughts with all the whining and barking, and she smiles grimly at the silence.

It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark, dusty shadows of the kitchen, but eventually she can see movement in the cages and crates.

They’re still alive. Silent, but alive. Some, the ones who are being eaten by their brethren, don’t move, while the others patiently scratch at the bars.

She screams in frustration - so much fur has been shredded by sharp, little puppy teeth. The lot of them look up at her angular form in the doorway, then continue to paw at their cages.

“What is going on here?” she shouts into the stillness of the mansion. “I gave you one simple task! One simple, easy task, and you manage to botch that up!”

Her rant stops short as she enters the living room. She half-expected to see the thin one drunk on the sofa, bleary eyes glued to the television set.

Instead, his body lies on the floor, face down, an empty bottle of gin near his bloody hands. At least a dozen of the filthy beasts, the ones who’d overturned their crates, loudly chew on his neck and hands and shoulders.

“Ugh, you wretched things!” She kicks at the nearest puppy with one stiletto-shod foot. It flies across the room, thuds against a dusty cabinet, and then wobbles back to the thin man’s body.

Another of the Dalmatians bites her ankle as she attempts a second kick. She shrieks a curse and falls against the sofa.

She takes off her shoe to examine the damage. The leather is ruined with tiny puncture marks. “Filthy bastard!” she shouts, and swats at her attacker with the now-worthless stiletto.

The thin one’s body begins to twitch. At that moment, the others stop feeding and look at her. They begin stumbling on their pudgy legs toward the couch. So many of them. A pack, almost.

She throws her stiletto at the nearest one, but it doesn’t seem to notice the resulting wound. The shoe bounces into the corner, forgotten, as the puppy’s dripping mouth continuously opens and snaps shut.

Mesmerized by the palette of black, white and red, she slowly backs out of the living room and bumps into a familiar, flabby form. The cheesy stink of the fat one is almost welcoming.

“It’s horrible!” she sobs. “Do something, you fool! They’re eating him, they’re...”

The fat one wraps his arms around her, and for a sickening moment, she thinks he’s going to try to kiss her. And even after all the times she’s made it clear that she finds him revolting.

She tries to break away, but he holds her head in a clumsy, powerful grip. His mouth is open, his eyes are open - not at all the proper way to kiss someone - and she is screaming, struggling, crying, and blood spurts and her eyes are closed and she is eaten.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chapter Five

The terrible thing about him is that his bottom is made out of springs.

Thus, he moves quickly.

Faster than anything in the Wood, surely, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to escape. Not when her child is still alive.

“Faster, Mama, faster!” cries her son. In a way, he’s lucky. Safely tucked in his mother’s pouch, he can’t see behind them, can’t see what his dearest friend has become.

He’s never known his mother to leap and run, let alone at such a pace. If he didn’t know any better, if he hadn’t experienced the nightmare that has been the past few days, he might’ve thought this was some new game.

In a way, it is a game, a deadly game of tag. She changes direction, jumps over a bush and squeezes through a thicket of trees. Fortunately, her pursuer has lost most of his coordination, and he has trouble with changes in the terrain. She might not be faster than him, but she can maybe outmaneuver him.

He bounces over the bush with ease, still hooting and chortling in a cruel perversion of his former laugh, but he doesn’t think to sidestep the thicket, giving her a few seconds of precious time.

“Where are we going, Mama?” asks her son. He still strains to look behind her, but she keeps one arm wrapped around his small body.

She only shakes her head. It’s too much to endure the strangled, dry burning in her lungs, and she cannot spare the breath to speak.

With one heavy leap, they are across the stream. She hopes he won’t think to use the bridge only a few feet away.

They come across a small trail of burrowed earth – a sign that Gopher’s recently passed by – and she changes course to follow it. Apparently, Gopher had the same plan. He was digging to the edge of the Wood. Toward the Door.

Water splashes behind them. He didn’t use the bridge.

Her son cries as the giggling grows louder. Soon, too soon, they can hear each wet bounce of his tail as he chases after them.

She turns and desperately jumps over a cluster of thistles. Some of them dig into her tail, but she ignores the pain. Hopefully he’ll be distracted by the drops of blood.

Only when she hears the crash and crackle of thistle stems does she change direction, reuniting once more with Gopher’s path. After several painful leaps, they reach the edge of the Wood, and she is greeted with a sight that hurts more than her lungs, more than the spikes of the thistles, more than the loss of all her friends.

It’s a field. A sunny, breezy, balmy field, wide enough for a dozen picnics, just right for flying kites, the perfect place to spend one’s summer afternoons.

A field that is impossibly too large and too open. No trees, no rocks, no bushes to hide behind. As the hungry chuckles creep through the air, she knows that she isn’t fast enough to reach the simple wooden Door at the end of the field, at the end of the Wood, at the end of the world, before he catches them.

But with a heavy, sorrowful heart, she bounds forward, eyes focused on the Door, ears ringing with that poisoned laughter.

Maybe that’s why her son notices it first. “Mama, look!” he says, and points to the sky.

“Can’t,” she manages to say. It’s maybe a dozen leaps to the Door, plus a second to open it. Not enough time.

“It’s Owl!” says her son. She still doesn’t waste a moment looking upwards, though she catches the plump shadow cast on the field.

It doesn’t matter, though. His laughter is too near. A dozen leaps are too many, and he rockets onto her back. She falls forward, instinctively putting down an arm and turning to her side so that her son isn’t crushed.

She knows what it means to be bitten, has seen it happen to her friends. He rips into her, and though it hurts, she doesn’t allow herself to cry out in pain. She only screams for Owl. Surely he will notice them with those far-seeing eyes.

The shadow, already plummeting, pulls itself out of a dive-bomb maneuver. Relief washes over her, blissfully numbing her ruined body.

“Owl, save him!” she screams. With her good arm, she holds up her crying son, hoping that he won’t look back at what’s happening to her. “Please!”

Her head grows heavy and drifts slowly into the grass. She smiles as she sees the shadow grow wider with Owl’s descent.

Their eyes meet briefly for one final time, his shiny with tears, hers serene and resigned.

“Thank you, Owl,” she says in a tone that is so calm, the voice she’d often use to soothe her son when he’d had a nightmare, the voice he would always remember.

And the weight of her son grows lighter as his jumper is snatched in Owl’s claws.

“Mama!” Her son holds out his hands to her, but he is too quickly pulled away into the air.

And she smiles to herself (her attacker never noticing the departure, so intent is he on the feast) and lays her head on the soft meadow.

“Love you,” she whispers. The words are lifted away by the breeze, and that is enough. He’s heard her. Nothing else matters.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chapter Four

The third little pig was the wisest. He built his house of brick.

That’s the only reason he is alive right now. He sits at his coarse wooden table, hands flecked with drying mortar, thinking of what to do next.

Outside, it’s a beautiful night, the kind you can only find in a land such as this, where the moon always shines brilliantly and beautifully, and the stars glitter in anticipation of answering wishes.

Not that he’s the kind of pig who wastes his time wishing upon a star. His younger brothers, possibly, but not him. He’s much too practical for that.

But even if he wanted to, the night sky is hidden from his beady eyes. All his windows, already protected by stout and sturdy shutters, have been bricked up.

He thinks about bricking up the fireplace as well, but decides against it. Should his brother somehow climb onto the roof (unlikely), he probably couldn’t fit down the chimney. And if he did, he wouldn’t get past the iron grate.

His middle brother, the pig of sticks, sleeps fitfully in the corner... if you can call it sleep. He’d collapsed earlier, his tiny body finally giving in to the unexpected outburst of adrenaline. It wasn’t the first time he’d run for his life and sought refuge at his elder brother’s house of brick, but this was a different type of fear than the kind brought about by the Big Bad Wolf.

At least the Wolf was a familiar enemy. They knew him, respected him, feared him, certainly, but they knew the way the tale was told. And as long as the eldest of the three Little Pigs kept his head, the Wolf would always be outsmarted.

But the one who chased the pig of sticks wasn’t the stinking, lean, hungry Wolf they’d fought for ages on end. It was their youngest brother, the pig of straw.

He doesn’t like to think about his youngest brother.

The pig of brick considers filling his pipe to keep his mind off what’s happening outside, but then decides against it. Best to conserve his tobacco for now. With the way things are going, he doesn’t know when he’s going to be able to purchase more. In fact, it’s probably wisest to just stop smoking the thing anyway, so he won’t have that desire hanging over his head.

His dwindling tobacco pouch makes him think of other supplies. He's always kept his larder well-stocked, especially since his gluttonous and irresponsible brothers frequently make surprise visits at mealtime.

One good thing, at least: his sleeping brother seems to have lost his appetite.

Outside, the pig of straw continues to scratch and flail against the front door. He’s been doing so for a good four hours - he’s never shown such dedication - and he shows no sign of tiring. He never will again.

It’d probably be best to stop thinking of him as his brother. It’s just easier that way.

The pig of brick isn’t the most imaginative of his family, so he doesn’t think much about what might have happened to his youngest brother. A house of straw, though comfortable during the mild summers and winters, was still a terrible, lazy idea. And its owner usually spent his days napping outside in a hammock. If something came for him... well, his usual method would be to escape in the swirling mass of hay and make haste to the stream, near his brother’s house of sticks.

Only this time, obviously, that plan had failed.

Oh, to be sure, the youngest had made it to the house of sticks, but not in the way he normally did. Not in the way the tale’s always been told.

(A house of sticks. Another awful idea. Is gathering sticks that much easier than chopping wood? A good, stout log cabin would be some means of defense… maybe not against the Wolf’s decaying breath, but against most of the other villains that preyed throughout the forest.)

His middle brother had been fishing – an excuse to laze about beside the stream - and he never would’ve heard his younger brother’s approach, had he not set up a net for darning (a chore that had been ignored for months).

Anyone with half a mind would walk around the net, but the pig that was no longer his brother stumbled into it and fell, thrashing and groaning.

The pig of sticks had laughed to see such a sight, and sang a teasing song as his younger brother struggled to escape from the net. But he then tried to help, so they could laugh and sing together, and maybe use the net to play a prank on their ever-so-serious brother.

The pig of brick reflects on his brother’s sleeping, snuffling form. To put it plainly, the pig of sticks was never very bright. He could never tell if the Wolf was wearing sheep’s clothing, after all. Was it any surprise that he didn’t notice his brother’s uncharacteristic silence? Or realize that he didn’t laugh and sing, only thrash and moan?

He’d asked his entangled brother if he was all right, if he’d like a cup of tea, if he was all right, if he should summon the doctor, and it wasn’t until the pig of straw lashed out and bit him, actually bit him, that his brother finally noticed anything was amiss.

It was the eyes that he noticed first. They were different, no longer lively and sparkling with laughter. What’s more, they were flecked with dirt that he didn't bother to blink away.

And that’s when his middle brother ran, as he always did when the house of sticks came clattering down, down that well-worn path to the house of brick. Something was wrong, and his eldest brother would know what to do. He always knew what to do.

In times before, the foolish brothers had always fled together, but today the pig of sticks ran alone, his younger brother slowly shambling behind him, net dragging and catching on the many jutting roots and bushes along the way.

The eldest brother didn’t know what to do, other than bandage up the pig of sticks' hand. He calmly stood in the doorway, hands on his hips, waiting to see his youngest brother. He’d heard stories of a similar sickness – the village was dark with rumors – and treated the possibility of plague or pestilence very seriously.

When the pig of straw finally arrived, he found the heavy brick door closed and locked. He didn’t try to turn the knob. And because he couldn’t answer any questions, he and his tangled net remained outside.

After a quick look through the peephole (a marvelous invention – simply being able to peek through a locked door allowed him to see through roughly half of the Wolf’s plans), the pig of brick quickly closed the shutters. And after a few moments of his youngest brother slamming against them, he decided to brick up the windows entirely.

Now, the pig of sticks whimpers in his sleep. The pig of straw hits and knocks and groans. And the pig of brick waits.

This isn’t the way the tale should go, he thinks. Not at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chapter Three

“Max! Max! Come back, boy!” The Prince laughs and jogs after his dog.

It is a beautiful morning, clear and brisk, the kind of morning that's called a sailor’s delight. This brings a smile to the Prince’s face, because he is at heart a sailor, and will be off with the tide on another adventure.

Secretly he dreads the inevitable – that he will one day become king and be too important to sail away whenever the whim takes him. But that’s a long time from now, surely.

Max continues to bark over by the shore, and the Prince strides over the small hill to see what's the matter.

It isn’t a crab or a flock of seagulls or any of the usual distractions that Max finds so exciting. It’s something different, so different, in fact, that the Prince shakes his head in disbelief, as if he could shake out the mirage he must be seeing.

There, crawling with difficulty over the wet sand, is a mermaid.

He takes a second look, and it is indeed no mirage. A mermaid! A real, live mermaid!

Max is now growling and slowly backing away. The mermaid continues to crawl after him.

“Max?” says the Prince. There’s something not right about the way the dog is growling – he’s never like that. The only time in his memory that Max was anything less than lovable was when they ran across those cursed pirates two years ago. Max had been growling then, too.

The Prince slaps his leg, the command for Max to heel. But the dog continues to growl and snarl at the dark-haired mermaid.

A mermaid, thinks the Prince once more. Amazing! He’d always hoped to see one, but this scenario is not like the one from his imagination.

She isn’t beautiful and fair-skinned, nor striking and tanned. Her skin has a deathly pallor to it, probably a more accurate color for one who lives in the depths, and blue veins spiderweb across her face.

And her eyes… they stare vacantly ahead, not full of life and curiosity like in the paintings and storybooks, just blankly focused on Max. Deep under the sea, perhaps, there isn’t much need for eyesight.

And then the Prince notices something else. “Back away, Max,” he says quietly, and grips his walking staff tighter.

She, the mermaid, is missing most of her torso. The Prince has witnessed many shark and barracuda attacks, but never anything like this.

Such a wound would be more than fatal, and yet, she still crawls toward Max with an intensity that is anything but natural.

“The drowned ones…” whispers the Prince.

As a child, he thrived on tales and legends of the sea, and so he knows the drowned ones well. Pitiful creatures, those who were lost at sea and cursed to roam the ocean forever, pulling sailors into their clutches to join their ranks.

Nonsense and tall tales, of course. Even as a child, the Prince knew that. But it still frightened him. And if he always secretly hoped to see a mermaid, then wouldn’t it be true that secretly he always feared encountering the drowned ones?

Of course, the legends never spoke of mermaids finding this fate, but that could be true, too.

“Back away, Max,” he says in his most stern voice. The dog whines, then finally obeys his master.

Motion from the shore catches the Prince’s attention. Crawling out of the water are two more mer-people, both of them men, both of them similarly dead. One is missing its entire tail, ripped apart by the same creature that could not be a shark.

Max barks again, this time a yelp of pain. The dog jumps backward, and the Prince looks down to see a small, mangled crustacean has nipped at Max.

He stomps it flat with one heavy leather boot and surveys the drowned ones crawling toward him, and idly, the Prince thinks that he won’t be sailing this morning.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chapter Two

Everybody has a laughing place, and on this dusty country road, it seems that Brer Fox has finally found his.

“We done caught you, Brer Rabbit!” he cackles triumphantly. Behind him, Brer B’ar nods dumbly and chuckles. He casually holds a gigantic club (more of a tree stump, really) in his massive paws.

Doused in honey, Brer Rabbit struggles weakly, almost absently, to free himself from the smashed beehive, as if the syrupy prison is nothing more than a skeeter bite.

“You hear me?” says Brer Fox, and he leans in hungrily. “We done caught you, Brer Rabbit, and there ain’t no escapin’ this time.” For added effect, he grins foxily and licks his lips.

“Yup, yup,” adds Brer B’ar. “Ain’t no escape.”

“Thass right,” says Brer Fox. “We ain’t gonna throw you in the Briar Patch this time, nosirree. We just gonna eat you up.”

Brer Rabbit says nothing.

The bees continue to buzz happily, and Brer B’ar still chuckles dumbly, but there’s no sound from Brer Rabbit. He isn’t shaking or shivering or begging for mercy, and worse still, there’s no sign of that delicious fear in his eyes.

“What’s a matter? You got honey in yo’ ears or somethin’?” sneers Brer Fox. He grabs the sticky scruff of Brer Rabbit’s neck and tries to turn him ‘round and face the proper way.

“He done got honey all over him, Brer Fox,” observes Brer B’ar.

“I kin see that, dummy,” says Brer Fox.

With his other hand, he pokes Brer Rabbit square in the chest.

“Listen, you, and y’better pay attention. We gotcha and we gotcha good. What you got to say to that? Huh, Brer Rabbit? You in a stew now, ‘cause we gonna stew y’up!”

Still Brer Rabbit says nothing. He looks blearily at his enemies, trying to recognize them, and though his mouth slowly opens and closes, no words come out.

“Brer Rabbit look sick,” says Brer B’ar.

With some effort, Brer Fox unsticks his hands from the honeyed mess. He eyes his prey, who continues mouthing silently.

“I hate to admit you’re right,” says Brer Fox, “but you may be right... Naw, what am I saying? He, he’s foolin’!” Nodding at his own suggestion, Brer Fox slugs his larger companion for believing another of Brer Rabbit’s tricks. “He tryin’ to trick us so we let him go!”

And before he can convince himself otherwise, Brer Fox picks up the still-silent rabbit and carries him over to the waiting cauldron.

“You ain’t sick, Brer Rabbit. You just up to your old tricks. But they ain’t gonna work this time! I don’t know what you was thinkin’, just dodderin’ around here, play-actin’ like you’s sleepwalkin’. This is one trick we ain’t gonna fall for!”

Both fail to notice Brer Rabbit’s missing tail, torn off by Brer Tarrypin not too long ago. At first, the only thing that had been wounded was Brer Rabbit’s pride, as he had the fluffiest tail this side of the big river, and he was pretty sure it wouldn’t grow back.

But as the hours passed, he started to feel not quite right, until he was wandering around, barely conscious, right under the hungry eyes of Brer Fox and Brer B’ar.

Now he can’t even distinguish the constant drone of the honeybees from Brer Fox’s singing about rabbit stew. Slices of carrot, celery, and potato are added to the cauldron, and even when the water starts to boil, Brer Rabbit doesn’t scream.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Chapter One

She does not like to be woken up early.

She has screamed at the fat one time and time again, but the thin one should know better - he’s only made that mistake once, and after receiving stitches to his head because of a thrown ashtray, he’s always been sure to let her sleep in.

But if that’s the case, then why is that idiot knocking on her door at this ridiculous hour, before the sun’s even up?

“Miss?” His voice is hesitant, his knock just soft enough to annoyingly, relentlessly pull her from the clutches of sleep.

She opens one crusty, makeup-hardened eyelid and scans the darkened room for something to throw at him. Her hand reaches out, claw-like, for the mostly empty bottle of sherry on her nightstand.

“Miss, I…” He flinches back as the bottle thunks into the doorway.

Usually, this would be enough of a hint for the gangly thug, but he doesn’t even close the door. If anything, it sounds like he’s stepping foot over the threshold – a forbidden rule!

“Just what,” she says in a surprisingly calm voice, “do you think you are doing?”

“I’m beggin’ your pardon, Miss, but it’s them puppies. I think you should come see. I mean, well, there’s something wrong.”

“The puppies?” She wakes up. They’re her latest investment, dozens and dozens of Dalmatians. Now that their spots are coming in, they’ll soon be ready to be harvested. “What about them?”

“Well, d’you remember the one that was sick, the one who kept fightin’ wiv the others?”

An angry sigh hisses from within the plush, mink-covered bed. “I told you to drown the little beast. I told you that last night.”

The puppy had been bitten, badly, in the tail, foot, and ear. Dogfight, most likely. Most natural, she assumed, for the strongest of the litter to pick on the runt.

A pelt like that would be no good, and she, being a savvy businesswoman, had decided to cut the loss early.

“I know, Miss…”

“Then what is the problem?”

“Well, we did drown ’im!” He shifts from foot to foot. “We drowned ’im good. But he, he didn’t die, Miss. So we brought ’im here, we thought maybe you could…”

“You brought it here?” she snarls. She slithers from her bed and into her coat and slippers. “What were you thinking? What if you were followed? You imbecile, I told you to keep them away from here!”

She continues cursing all the way downstairs to the kitchen, where the fat one is bandaging his hand. His stink of cheap cheese and lunchmeat mingles with the detestable odor of wet fur. She lights a cigarette to clear the air.

The drowned puppy, still in the sink but too small to climb out, bares its tiny teeth and growls.

She stares down at it. The other animals have learned to fear her cruel eyes, but this one doesn’t whimper or avert its gaze. It only looks back, blankly, as it scrabbles at the walls of the sink.

“Throw him in the oven,” she finally says.

“But mum,” says the fat one. “The li’l bugger bit me!”

“Bite him back,” she says absently, and returns to bed.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


The sun rises over the horizon of the Wildlands, a brilliant and delightful red, the color of births and beginnings.

So much lighter, more auspicious, more hopeful, than the dark entrails that steam up from the baboon’s gnarled hand.

He is the Shaman, perhaps the wisest and most ancient creature in this world, and he is troubled.

The blood of the sacrifice should be, has always been, red and pure, giving glory to the rising sun. But this day, this bird, this blood, it is black and foul. A thundercloud, a shadow of prophecy.

The Shaman surveys the empty plains with a hooded, sun-wrinkled gaze. The land is still quiet at the day’s dawn. The Wildlands are at peace, at least to the eyes, ears, and nose.

But something is not right.

He sees with a different sense, a gift not given to most. And his morning sacrifice promises that Death is approaching.

It would be one thing if the divination foretold of marauding predators or the uncaring force of Nature, which can kill with too much water or with none at all. It would be a small matter if the entrails warned about the spread of red fire, that which preys on friend and foe alike, or even if Man, the most murderous creature of all, was making a rare visit to this world.

No. This is different. He hears it whispered by the spirits who sing in the East-born wind. He sees it in the mournful twinkle of the evaporating stars. He smells it in the dark blood of this lost and once-noble bird. Every sign repeats: Death is coming to the Wildlands.

And had it been one of the natural pitfalls that occur again and again on the Circle of Life, weather or fire or disease or Man, he would have done nothing. Perhaps, if it seemed reasonable, the Shaman might warn the young king to hoard food or to scout out new lands, to prepare.

But the signs paint a picture far too different, things he had never witnessed nor even heard of in tales long told, and alerting the king will not be enough.

There are others. Some, like the Tiger, will most certainly not listen, will merely scoff at his senile, superstitious nonsense. And some, like the Elephant, will take it very seriously indeed and insist upon a great plan to stave off the coming enemy.

The Shaman looks down at the jumble of bones and feathers he has scattered to the earth. They fall and bounce and lay in patterns that only he can read.

They take the image of both predator and pestilence, a beast that will consume the young and old alike, those of claw and fang and those of foot and wing. None shall be spared.

And it will not follow a course like the stars or the river. It will spread like red fire, like ants escaping from an anthill, until it covers the Wildlands as fully as the light of the sun.

The Shaman trembles. He knows in his heart of hearts that death cannot be fought, cannot be avoided. For all his long life, this has never bothered him. Its presence is as natural as birth. It is part of the circle, after all.

All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. And that is what troubles the Shaman, for this smell, this Death, it has not happened before.

And what does it mean when the circle is broken?