gifts my enemies gave me

gifts my enemies gave me:

money; war; a keen sense of the ironic, you know

but also blankets, mugs, a spice rack

that over-the-door hanging shoe pocket thing

a coffee maker

a tassel from graduation ceremony

6 albums

that every single one of you left behind

including that one from the dead one

a lifetime of bad dreams

a taste for scented tabacco

one of those dumb alternative indie band shirts that i hate

but i wear it when i’m cleaning

ironing out the creases

and listening to techno, fuck you

i left you and you left the entire fucking solar system

did you hear Jeff Bezos tried it too?

what a goddamn poser, right?

oh my god you’d be laughing

and spearing me with some latest unlistenable track

that turns into yesterday’s new music

your chin jutting out below a halo of

curling black locks

your wild stupid hair

that every single person made fun of

and you liked it

because it made you different

more different than the heroin

thanks, by the way,

and sorry to be, like, so obvious,

or whatever

but your mom didn’t even cry at the funeral

maybe she didn’t want to even give you the satisfaction

would you?

didn’t you feel how much we all wanted you

beckoning against the traffic

sweating it out anew that you’ve crossed over and we’re all just stuck here waiting

down and out and trapped in a maze on the 405

and it’s hard

it’s hard for us

you sore loser

why didn’t you call me before you did it?

Yes and What If?

The year is 2031. A popular new podcast format has swept the audio media space: Podcast hosts describe, at length, still images provided to them by their listenership. One image per episode described in painstaking detail. These images can be works of fashion photography, paintings, screengrabs from film and television, memes, or “vintage” physical print media. The descriptive format is soon referred to popularly as “Photo Pods.” The length and style of any given photo pod is unique to each podcaster and can vary greatly in both length and intention. Some are comedic in nature, rapid fire newsy revues while others are more academic recapturings. A seemingly infinite range of niche and fringe subgroups among this legion of content producers emerges. One such show is hosted by Norrid Matrice, an amatuer art collector and voiceover actor. His photo pod focuses mainly on unappreciated amateur work from the San Francisco art scene. In episode 91, “Humidity from My Clattering Bowl” he describes a work of art by lithographer Jenni Xi, who is deceased by the time of the recording. She was hit by a car and killed 4 years prior to episode 91’s broadcast.

Due to Matrice’s dazzling review of “Humidity from My Clattering Bowl” there is a sudden interest in Xi’s limited collection of work which spawns a proliferation of forged lithographs in her name. Noticing the strange market bubble, Xi’s more business minded sister, Bina, takes action. She purchases the secondary resale market of the forgeries, opens an art gallery in Oakland, CA with an accompanying photo pod of her own, describing the minute differences between all of the forgeries compared with his sister’s originals. Critiqued for its bland style and unoriginal premise, Xi’s photo pod soon fails and the collection’s notierty dissipates. The gallery is shuttered and both the forgeries and the originals are then sold to collage master Daniel McCrupsky who binds all of the lithographs together, both the forgeries and the originals, to create a single work of art called “46 of Xi, Smaze.” To formalize the piece, he takes a series of photographs of “46 of Xi, Smaze” which he later repurposes into a textile print. He submits the textile print to a corporate contest with an entrenched international retail distributor where it wins first prize. The textile print is now commonly found on many disposable paper products.

unrepeating words

“Well, we’ve finished downloading them all. Each and every word. All computationalized and routed. The techie team calls it ‘purged’ though I guess that isn’t a very nice word to use around the patients. I’m so sorry, Miss Lewis. I wish the prognosis were better.”

“Dehische!” exclaims the bandaged patient, coming out of a stupor.

“Yes I understand. Water for the patient, please? Thank you. Now now settle down, dear. We know things are confusing. But you can point out what you need for the moment. I assure you I’ll understand the gist of it.”

Miss Lewis, the patient, brings a jittering finger up out of her bed and points meaningfully at a nearby table where there is a pen and some paper.

“Cacoethes!” Miss Lewis sputters, drooling a bit in the process. The talkative nurse cleans her up with a napkin.

“Yes very good, that’s a table. Did you want something on the table?”

Miss Lewis’s head jolts around on her neck but she becomes fatigued. Instead of saying anything, she places her head back down on the fluffy, crisp pillow of her sick bed. She swallows a few times.

“That’s right, all better now. A nap will be good for you. Now don’t worry. You’re not expected to make a full recovery. Doesn’t that take some of the pressure off? You can rest easy now, knowing exactly what you’re facing.”

Miss Lewis begins exhaling powerfully and then begins to thrash and scream in her bed.

“Oh dear!” frets the nurse. “What have I said. Doctor? Doctor!”

“Steatopygic!” the patient screams.

A doctor scurries in, “Ah. The purged one?”

“Qualtagh!” the patient shrieks directly at the nurse, her pupils begin dilating like those of an animal about to attack.

“Yes doctor. Fresh out of recovery. She’s in the disoriented state.”

The doctor surges towards the patient and holds her down. The patient manages to grasp the doctor by the sleeve. She attempts to pull him closer to her, gnashing her teeth. “Abacinate,” she hisses at him.

The doctor ignores her and manages to find a vein. He spikes her with something tranquilizing.

“Digamy…” the patient murmurs. Then she is asleep.

The talkative nurse holds the patient’s hand and then tenderly brushes a few hairs from the young woman’s forehead.

“So sad,” says the nurse getting a little choked up. “Just so sad when they turn out this way.”

“Yes well,” the doctor takes the chart down and makes a note. “Millions of words upon words on thousands of pages upon pages. And all for what? Some imagination game? What did this one publish?”

The nurse checks the file and frowns a little. “Nothing. Just a blog.”

The doctor rolls his eyes and sighs. “Frankly, I’m surprised there haven’t been more cases like these through history. They seem to fill up entire wings these days. How can anyone stand it? Typing and typing like bent over scribes. And not even to copy down anything useful. Just regurgitating their own personal thoughts and feelings into various, interrelated scenarios. I can’t believe past generations of medicine couldn’t see it for the mania that it was.”

“Still,” sighs the nurse. “It’s sad when they go total corruption. She’s a stage 10, too. Can you imagine? Total deletion of every word you’ve already used? It’s unthinkable.”

“Yes,” agrees the doctor bringing a thoughtful finger to his chin. “Astonishing, the power of the brain. Almost like some kind of rejection. As if it knows, somewhere in its feisty little coils, that repeating oneself over and over again is an evolutionary glitch. Well, in any event, she’ll be alright. It’s only the words she’s written down anyway. Those she’ll never grasp again. But she’ll get some new ones. After all, dogs only know about 45 words, don’t they? And they do just fine. Best friends and all that.”

The doctor chuckles and squeezes the nurse’s shoulder. “Take heart. You’ll see. She’ll be gushing with gibberish again in no time.”

Yes and what if?

The year is 2048. Encyclopedia Britannica’s online traffic has slowed to a point where the company decides to formally rebrand . They lean into the current way their users are interacting with the site and officially change the primary function of the platform to become a dating site. For additional payment, subscribers to Britannica’s new dating platform can also opt into the “user-addendums” package where all of the Encyclopedia’s entries have been augmented by self-described authoritative sources. Due to mass appeal and low staff, Britannica’s criteria to register as an authoritative source has a low threshold. As a result, these user-addendum sections are notorious for being contradictory, arcane, and, therefore, entertaining. One such augmentation is a user-addendum primer by a biology professor from University of Wisconsin. This primer meticulously describes the manifold aesthetic properties of human anuses and has become a viral sensation far beyond the Britannica’s user platform. The professor who posted the addendum had his identity revealed, lost his tenure track at U.W. but has managed to salvage his career by monetizing his own online humiliation with a line of apparel. He is currently trying to found his own university to teach an experimental, technocratic ethics program which promises prospective students “a learning plan that will demolish the rotting carcass of our present society.”

the embankment

She was sprinting through the darkness, careful to keep to the the well-worn footpath. She had left the stone and her sled behind. She had only her knapsack. Everything felt weightless now. She felt her body rippling through the breeze, all her muscles alighting and rejoicing in their regained liberation from exhaustive labor. Her senses were also heightened and she could smell the narote cacti which were in bloom. She knew in her mind’s eye how this cactus gave forth great bursts of tiny white flowers, dozens of them, bunched together in perfect orbs. She felt her breaths come in the same pattern. Shallow, delicate puffs, evenly spaced and vaguely humid in the night’s chill.

Her conscience, on the other hand, was still bound to the stone. She was abandoning a sacred vow so close to its completion. It was going to gnaw at her, she knew. But it was not forbidden to do this. In fact, it was necessary. She had to alert her people that the Vicious had violated their territory. That she had killed two of them. Political action would be swift and they had to be prepared.

Both the adrenaline and her discordant thoughts carried her far. Before she even realized it, she was approaching the embankment. The same embankment she had been thinking about all day. The one she had been anticipating. Meeting it now, without her stone or her sled, she had the impression that this was the final violation that truly ended her pilgrimage. Up until this moment she could tell herself that the stone was safe where it was and she could return for it. Now, faced with the embankment, she suddenly felt angry. She was angry with herself for all of the time she had spent imagining herself hauling her stone up its slope. How she might have noticed the Vicious locusts stalking her sooner if she had not been so focused on this single task. A chasm opened up in her mind between two thoughts. On one side, the intention she had set for herself and on the other, the events that fate had delivered instead. She slowed her pace and instinctively knelt down. Both to rest and to pray.

Her prayer consisted of a series of reflections. Angry and ironic. How stupid she had been to spend time planning her approach to the embankment. How things never turned out as you might expect. How severe fate was that she had been forced to murder two of those pestering locusts before they even had their wits about them. Why had the stone brought her such an ill passing? She thought back to the moment she had first seen it, embedded in the fallen mountain’s face. It had seemed so imperious among the rubble. A noble acquisition for her order. Was it instead possessed of an evil spirit? Or a hex? What if those pestering locusts had actually spared her people from receiving a cursed stone? Soon, it all felt too much to consider. She began to mistrust her own thinking. She concluded that she would need to speak with her spiritual master regarding the meaning of the encounter.

This resolution put her mind at ease. In the end, she would still eventually have to retrieve her stone. Some day she would return here, harnessed to her vow, and make the arduous and tricky trek up the little incline. That little smirk on the earth. It would all be waiting for her.

She stood up again and hiked up the embankment with relative ease. At its summit, she continued her sprint back home through the night.

sorcerex

“Get up,” he said and kicked her hard in the thigh with a knobbed leather boot. She roused quickly and was on her feet faster than any of them anticipated. Instinctively, he bashed her knee with the broad side of his machete, sweeping her back down to ground, banishing her thoughts of yabba root.

“Not that fast,” he cackled and his four companions laughed along. Finally, she was able to focus and perceive them. Five teenaged locusts from the Vicious. A loosely federated gang of hooligans, the Vicious weren’t usually active this close to her cloister’s lands. Then again, there had been several seasons of flooding in Qathtar, a notorious indicator that a breeding glut would take hold of the Vicious. These boys, no doubt, were new footlings. Freshly pushed out of the proverbial nest. They were eager to prove themselves as aggressive as their parents and older cousins, jealous that the newer brats were getting all the food and attention.

“I’m a stone worker,” she addressed the lead locust. “And you shouldn’t be here.”

The leader, sprouting all over with new hair like the desert spurts flowers after first season’s rain, guffawed in her face. His voice clashed with low melodious notes and the high, shrill markings of a man yet unmade.

“We are the Vicious,” he told her, pointing to the insignia stitched into his red dengo. “We go anywhere. Everywhere.” He spat.

“These are stone lands. We have agreements with your people,” she continued. “This spot is only a three day’s journey from my cloister. If you want tribute, we can arrange for that. We have plenty.”

“Plenty,” the lead locust repeated, arching his mouth into an angry smile. “No one out here has plenty of anything.” To enunciate his point, the lead locust squatted down and prepared to spit again, this time in her face.

Instead, she punctured his cheek with her stone chisel, which was always at the ready in her front pocket. His blood sputtered out and he made a high sound like the vermin sometimes do in mating. He attempted to unsheathe his machete but she had already brought his entire arm under her control. She disarmed him with a jab to a sensitive point in his wrist and brought his own machete to his neck.

The other four locusts stood completely still. They were caught off guard by her swiftness and confidence. Usually the traders and pilgrims gave in quickly and softly to their threats.

The lead locust’s blood continued to ebb out of his face. “Sorcerex!” he screeched. “Do something!” he egged on his compatriots.

“No,” she said. “Go back to your leader and tell her you encountered a stone worker. Tell her that the stone worker invoked her territorial privileges.”

A long silence prevailed between them all. The sun had already met the horizon and the stone’s shadow was melting away. A waking chill blew through as night began to temper the air.

One of the locusts charged her. Immediately, she slit the leader’s throat and thrust his body to the ground. She stumbled her way around the stone, evading the charge.

“No!” she could hear the younger boy scream. She retrieved a pair of deadly knives from her knapsack. The handles were carved with the mythos of her people and gently worn from able use. She turned just as the charging boy was at her. She blocked his clumsy attempt to mow her down with his machete and then killed him with a single, punctuating stab to the chest.

She let his body fall and quickly approached the remaining three of the Vicious. They, however, did not wish to meet her and quickly withdrew. They streamed away into the darkness and clambered back over the rocks.

She would have to leave the stone behind for now. She didn’t know how many more of the Vicious were scrambling around in the scrub. Nor was sure how arrogant the rest of them might be, feverishly ready to break a hard won peace.

yabba root

It was a great slab of granite, misshapen and glinting in the evening sun. Its sides erupted with pairs upon pairs of heavy shoulders, the suggestion of a stone gut, and long sloping edges that sealed into elegant points. Contemplation of the stone’s relief could invoke a vague sense that, perhaps, the stone was alive, torpidly imposing its will over time and space.

She had rigged it up on her sand sled. Constructed consciously with weighted factors and capable of being towed long distances by a single person, the sled had been crafted in accordance with her knowledge of the trade. This stone would impress her order. The physical ordeal of returning home with it was an enormous privilege and a rite that she had earned.

She had been with this particular stone for four consecutive lunar weeks but it had taken her a year to find in the first place. Great distances had to be traveled these days to find stones of the correct size and density for her order’s purpose. The scouting of stones was mainly assigned to the new initiates and was a serious responsibility. She, however, had found this stone herself, fatefully, it now seemed, on a hunting expedition for yellow scorpia. She had claimed it as her own and vowed to return once the hunt was over.

When two full moons had waxed and waned, she felt she was physically and psychically prepared for her mission. She set back out across the desert to reunite with the stone. There, she had carefully removed it from the open toothed mouth of the fallen mountain. The chiseling took days and included a meditative practice observed by her people. Once free of its womb, she had a rigged pulley system to move the stone onto her sand sled. Thus she began the long journey back to the cloister.

She wiped sweat from her brow and took a swig of the tea she had brewed from desert needles. They contained an energizing property which had taken her this far. She could tell however, that a more profound exhaustion was beginning to take hold. The needle tea was hydrating but not enough to bolster her strength any longer.

She stopped hauling. She disengaged herself from the oiled leather straps of the sled and began massaging her shoulders. Exhaling, she sank down on the shady side of stone, still atop her sled to evade scorpia and other groundlings. She leaned back into the cool, shimmering flank of the stone.

The journey was more than half over. She knew that the cloister would become visible on the horizon after she cleared the small embankment just south ahead. The embankment itself, however, would take her the better part of a morning. As good as the sled was, built lightly and framed to distribute weight as perfectly as a rabbit’s ear disperses heat, the task of heaving her stone up the small incline would take a great deal of skill and negotiation with the earth. She would have to rest up for at least one day before the encounter.

She had plenty of tea in reserve but decided to build camp and find food. Yabba root was common here and roasted simply and well over an open flame. A faint smile tugged her chapped lips. Smoky yabba root always reminded her of her grandmother. The charred meat of the root was savory, oily, and slightly bitter. Its outer layers would curl away from the heat, creating a beautiful, peeled branch that was packed full of nutrients and wet flesh. She remembered chewing these quietly, one after the other, while her grandmother powerfully resituated stones on their old sand sled , the one that her grandfather had built.

Without meaning to, she soon began to doze.

Her breathing became more shallow and her head tilted with sleep. A pleasant dream of yabba root began to conjure in her mind. There was no way for her to know that she had been spotted by a raiding party. Already, a small pack of the Vicious were picking their way towards her over the exposed, red rock.

cellar door

“It was painted green,” the prisoner insisted. Nodding his head. Wagging his finger. He remembered. He knew. He remembered the cellar door.

“We carved our initials. Una and I. We did it with my knife. I had a knife. But only so big,” the prisoner demonstrated the small nature of his childhood pocket knife. No doubt it had come in handy numerous times. To pin lizards. To take investigative samples from the sides of buildings. To threaten those boys slightly larger.

Vadash inclined his head slightly to prove that he was listening.

The prisoner continued, “I was a twin. One of a kind. But the left handed version, you know?”

Vadash didn’t know.

“We exchanged once. As people. He for me and me for him.” The prisoner bit his lower lip. He exhaled several times in quick succession. The thrill of being his own twin brother, a maddening leap in his mind’s eye.

“Nothing happened, you know?” the prisoner insisted again. But he laid the fulcrum of his skull on the cinderblock walls in a way that seemed far away and enviable. “Nothing at all.” He took a sharp intake of breath and Vadash felt his tongue twitch inside his mouth.

“Another man. I was him, you understand? An entire sunlit moment.”

Vadash sneered. The prisoner saw.

“What? What you think it was wrong?”

Vadash sneered harder. He sneered inward and away from the prisoner.

“It wasn’t wrong!” The prisoner glared at Vadash. “We both knew. It was innocent. Shut up. Stop talking. You’re hurting me!”

Vadash bared his teeth. He felt an anger. The primal anger. It consumed him.

“I will kill you tomorrow,” Vadash spoke, meaning it.

“Fine,” gloated the prisoner. “Fine. Do it then” the prisoner said it again and turned his chin away, still eyeing Vadash. Nothing was said between them for a minute.

“I was another man,” the prisoner reminded Vadash. “I felt his skin on my skin. I felt his boots on my boots. I felt the sunlight on a different cheek. You hear me?” The prisoner began screaming. “Do you hear what I say to you!”

Vadash nodded. His sneer melted into a sneer more sour. Embittered. A sneer not meant for anyone in particular.

“I escaped myself and I will escape this and I will escape you,” the prisoner rushed to exclaim. He ran his fingers through his hair. Over and over again.

Vadash knew. He would not kill the prisoner in the morning. He would remain. He would remain and listen to his fellow prisoner about the cellar door. About Una and the pocket knife. About living as his own brother for a single day. They would have this conversation over and over again. Because Vadash knew nothing else.

Gifflodean of the Useless Hoard (aka the Other Nazgûl)

“The nine…” Gifflodean thought to himself and snorted through his noncorporeal yet shriveled nose. It had once been a proud nose. A high nose. A nose that middle earth had feared and cowered before. Back when Gifflodean was a captain of the sword and giant among his people. A king renowned for his megalomania and bloodthirst. But now, he was only a shadow.

Gifflodean spurred his evil horse’s flanks. The evil horse grumbled and lost its footing along the rocky shoreline. The water here was brown and scummed voluminously in large pools between the boulders. As the ironclad powers of Mordor had corrupted this ancient valley, so the absolute power of Sauron’s return had polluted this riverway absolutely. It was unlivable and stinking. Gifflodean would have spit on the ground if he still had a mouth. Instead, he moped along on his black stallion, looking for a small hobbit named Frodo who — he was certain — was not here and never had been.

“Sire!” hissed one of Gifflodean’s associates. It was Malkalite, another Nazgûl, approaching from behind a rock formation.

Hundreds of years ago, Malkalite had been a beastly king in his own right. In addition to burning down peaceful villages, levying unmeetable taxes and destroying temples, he had also demanded payment in virgins, oftentimes selling his own offspring into slavery in foreign lands.

“Sire!” Malkalite repeated, trotting on his own bastard steed towards Gifflodean. “We’ve found no evidence of hobbits here.” Malkalite’s ghostlike body was undulating with anxious energies. His silken black shroud seemed to waver uncontrollably.

“You won’t find them here. There’s nothing here at all.” Gifflodean retorted.

He hated Malkalite. He hated all of the six riders who had been assigned to him. The so called Banner of the Anklets, they were. Seven Nazgûl, unaffiliated with the more impressive “nine” who had actually been ring bearers in their day. Not so for Gifflodean and his ratpicking, second rate cavalry. They had all sold their souls for jewelled anklets from Sauron. Jewelled anklets had been much more in vogue for marauding kings 700 years earlier. These days, his missing anklet brought him much pain. Every waking moment — which is to say, every moment as he was now a sleepless ghoul– he could feel the searing, phantom touch of his lost anklet. It was heavy and made the gait of his riding a bit lopsided.

“Speak!” shrieked Malkalite, who was prone to emotional outbursts. “How can you be so certain we won’t find the hobbit and the great one’s ring! We have information from the high inquirer!”

“Smeagle said all manner of things to the high inquirer.”

“Smeagle — you mean, the little fishman?”

“Yes. The little fishman. Who was beaten with iron rods and whipped and choked and starved for days to learn the secrets of the missing ring.”

Malkalite hesitated for a moment but then burst into a cacophonous laughter. His laughter thundered and made the surrounding cliffs quake until their brittle tops crumbled. Rocks rained down into the brown, thick water. In the chaotic downfall, Malkalite reveled and reared up his red-eyed pony for emphasis as she pounded her hooves down to the earth. “Gone soft, have you Gifflodean! Feeling sorry for the little squirt!”

Gifflodean sighed tremendously and several patches of dried scrub brush all but shriveled and died in the immediate aftermath of his exhalation.

“No, you foul accumulation of voidum” Gifflodean said, folding his gloved, invisible hands over each other. “I am saying that the little fishman said all matter of things because he was was not made to suffer blows. He shouted out all kinds of names. Places. Memories. Useless grombolar that all the sworn allies of Sauron must now systematically eliminate. Just in case. It’s a duty for dust maids.”

Malkalite stopped laughing. He turned his empty hood in Gifflodean’s direction and seemed to stare at him. He stared for a long time. Because Malkalite didn’t have a face, it was difficult to tell what thoughts were ranging through his hideous, old mind. After a time though, he spurred his horse and rode on ahead of Gifflodean. Gifflodean imagined that Malkalite would go off and eaglery tell the other Nazgûl about their exchange. No doubt Malkalite would cast aspersions on Gifflodean’s grit and willingness to serve The Great Eye. Gifflodean wondered if some kind of mutiny might be in store for him now.

“Well it hardly matters,” Gifflodean thought. He pulled the crown of his hood down further over the blank space where his head used to be. “What can they do? Kill me again? And anway, they’ll see. When the ring turns up, it will not be here. It will be shown to have never traveled through these parts.”

Gifflodean wound his horse’s reigns tighter in his riding gloves. For the thousandth unfortunate moment, he reflected on the short, invigorating time he had spent among the living. It seemed so small and inconsequential now compared now with the inexorable curse that eternal life was turning out to be. Like a single bead of water at the center of a breathless desert.

Thoughtlessly, Gifflodean kicked his horse savagely in the ribs, causing it to whinney and shriek. The evil horse reared up on its hind legs in ferocious protest of its rider. Gifflodean turned the horse back towards some rock dens which he had already explored. Accompanying him — as always– were both the immense burden of his phantom anklet and the icy, weightless feeling inside his heart.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin

As much as it shamed her, it felt good to rest. What choice did she have, really? Marrionetta’s entire body was taken apart and parceled across Doctor Lorelei’s desk and some of her was also laid out on the table in the center of the room. She had so looked forward to getting away from here. To escape back into dancing, performing, being alone. No such luck.

A tidy man, Doctor Lorelei he set about her repairs. If he was going to utilize all her bits and bobs, he wanted a clean, fresh specimen. He filed down her splinters, re-stained her limbs the color of brilliant cedar, and used a tiny scalpel to sculpt away all the forest grime that had accumulate in her joints. It was a meticulous task. Mindless in some sense. He found himself singing as he cleaned her. That proud, operatic baritone gliding along melodies originally composed for conquest.

He had ducted her head directly into a tinctured mixture of joy and relax. It kept them both on task through the long, untalkative hours of her repossession. They were rainy days. Blue outside and dreary. Heavy droplets popped the glass roofing of The Emerald House all day and all night. In its own bleak way, it was peaceful. One day, however, he finally said something.

“Overexertion.” He said it mostly to himself, apropos of nothing that had come before. Marrionetta remained quiet, calm in the cooling bath of soothe he had concocted for her fresh that morning. “Overexertion,” he repeated, “Clinical, really. How many days in a row are you accustomed to performing?” She didn’t answer.

With tenderness, he rubbed her cheek with the tips of two fingers.

“I do it too,” he said. “Work work work.” There was a wicked glint in his eye and he pinched her nose like a grandfather might. She tried to wag her face away from him. It was a difficult move, given that her head was no longer attached to a neck. Lorelei pet her hair instead.

“The doctor prescribes a brief interlude for the star.” He grinned at her. “You have a different role to play. Tomorrow, we’ll begin.”

cudgel, back in its block

Violet hurried around the room. She wrapped Marrionetta in plush blankets. Found a pillow for her head. She put a pot on the little stove and began boiling broth. She worried. She hesitated. Tears leaked from her eyes. Her tongue fluttered with meaningless questions and expressions. Her heart fluttered with the idea of fainting. Marrionetta’s body was a bizarre mess, indeed.

Her joints were broken. Her head was askew. She breathed like Augromme during his worst, most fractured nightmares.

“We’ll sew you up,” Violet said. “Ungulen will know what to do. I’ll get him. You’ll see. It’s alright. Just breathe. Don’t move. I’ll get someone.” Violet had no idea what to do next. She searched desperately for ribbon or spare pegs. Anything to begin rebuilding Marrionetta.

Shift employ knocked urgently on the door. “Is Miss Mary alright? Can we see?” Violet shut the door and locked it in their faces. The vultures. She hoped Ungulen would be by soon. He would kick the door down and tell her what to do.

Instead though, Violet heard a key in the lock. The sound of it surprised her so badly that she froze. Who in the world would have a key?

The door swung up. It was Lorelei. The curious faces of the shift employ loomed behind him but he was just as dismissive of them as Violet had been. Perhaps even more so. He too closed the door and locked it behind him.

“You have a key,” Violet said stupidly.

Lorelei’s eyes drifted over Violet. She was as inconsequential to him as bush.

“Lovely performance tonight, darling.” he crooned to Marrionetta. Even in the gasping violence of her pain, she attempted to spit at him. The projectile went nowhere though. It rolled down her lips and onto the floor. Lorelei laughed. He was mirthful. Violet shrank from him. A moment later though, she recognized her position. Their position. She stepped towards the doctor.

“Leave us alone. Miss Mary doesn’t want you here.”

Lorelei smashed her across the face with a fist. She spun across the room and blood entered her mouth.

“Time to come home,” Lorelei teased. He scooped his arms under Marrionetta’s broken body and was about to lift her to his shoulder when he suddenly felt an explosion of pain on his brow.

“KURST!” He didn’t even have to wonder though. Instinctively, Lorelei wrapped himself around Violet who was attempting to ball change her way towards the door. A jar of jam fell from her hands. With his free hand, Lorelei picked up the jar and began beating the young dancer in the head with it.

Violet collapsed to the floor and was unable to rise. Lorelei observed her on the floor. Once he was satisfied that she was totally dispatched, he turned his victorious countenance back towards his prize.

Lorelei scooped up Marrionetta and carefully arranged her over his shoulder. Thus equipped with his lovely little experimentress, he opened the door and exited her dressing room. Not a soul dared stop him. He carried her through the halls, up the back stairs and straight into night air. On their casual, late night stroll back to The Emerald House, Lorelei whispered all his sweet, malicious plans in her cracked and broken ears.

cudgel, part iii

The crowd was hungry for Marrionetta. They guzzled on moonshine, fractured peanuts in their eager fingers, shifted their sweating haunches and gazed with frustration at the stage wings, waiting and waiting for their favorite to take the center spotlight.

At last, she did. She rose from a lorry in the floor. Tremendous applause tended her upwards and she threw her face skyward with a triumphant arm stretched out as if to say Hail to thee, loyal worshipers.

Lorelei, the long wedge of his face looming in the crowd, smirked at her feeble attempt to project control. Inside his breast though, something twinged. She couldn’t possibly be alright, could she? No he stifled the idea. She would be weak. Patience, patience.

She had already sweated through her costume. Each breath came as a rattling rasp, her lungs barely able to contain the oxygen she desperately craved. The lorry halted. She was on stage. The organ stopped its tumbling drone. Close at hand to the stage, Mingey took up her seat at a harp The metal of the harp’s frame was well oxidized and mishandled. She strummed a false, angelic note. It cringed with irony.

With noticeable effort, Marrionetta lashed herself to the beams of the stage. Members of the audience gasped at her strange grace. Once aloft though, she gave a bow as languid as a dew drop. The appreciating crowd cheered again and with this swell of appreciation, Marrionetta began to whirl.

Supreme dissatisfaction darkened Lorelei’s brow as he watched her swiftly wind herself through the air. It was mesmerizing. With her body, she charted out the contours of an unknown satellite. Like a distant planet or a sphere conjured through sublime magic, something unseen was made visible. Her sequins flashed, adding a sense of radiant beauty.

The trick distracted. Even Lorelei could not keep his focus on her face as it sweated and darkened with effort. The sloping movement helped preserve her energies but nothing could be done about the constant, draining fatigue. Her cold and hollow bones seemed to leech energy from her very spirit. She bore down on herself. CUDGEL she thought. CUDGEL or die. Tears streamed down her face. They flew from her cheeks, winking bright in the air but their luminescence was softer than the sequins and no one saw them at all.

But the ruse could only go on for so long. Her abdomen cramped. Hard. She yelped in pain and an attendant gag of nausea escaped her throat. It felt like her stomach might collapse in on itself. She lost the flow of her arc. Her trajectory became strange and harried. She became a tousle of uncollected movements as she moved through the canopy of the big top.

The audience waited for resolution. This was, without a doubt, one of the most complex and intricate performances of hers they had ever seen. None suspected that the spidery cacophony above them was a performer on a collision course with fate. It all appeared rehearsed, meaningful, and practiced. Beautiful. She was beautiful even in the beginning throes of disaster.

Lorelei’s groin leapt in anticipation. He knew what it meant. Or if he didn’t know, he felt it all the same.

Marrionetta attempted to regain control. For several breaths she felt certain she could do it. Harder. CUDGEL. Die! Die! but her berating words were of no use. Her body was not her own and had not been for some time. She became entangled in her strings. The torque of her swings and the weight of her body stretched a bundle of them in just the wrong way. There was a sound like crunching grass. A handful of her strings broke in midair.

She fell so hard and so fast that it was almost invisible. Several moments passed while the gaping audience sought to find her. Wasn’t she still in the air? Where had she gone?

Like a broken insect, Marrionetta lay on the floor. What an image it was. She bit down on her mouth, hard to make no sound. She raised an arm to try to rise but the strength was not there. She was a buzzing, piled squander of limbs.

The audience screamed with pleasure. “She’s fallen! She’s fallen!” Peanut shells rained down on her. Her loyal worshipers embraced each other, crying, hysterical. A vile thing had befallen their nightmare queen. They thrilled and thrilled. Never before could such a thing had ever happened or been imagined.

Violet rushed out to her. With enormous effort, Violet dragged Marrionetta back into the subterranean refuge of the big top. The shrill and delighted screams of the audience echoing in their ears.

cudgel, part ii

“Miss Mary, this isn’t necessary.” Tears stood out in Violet’s eyes. “Send me out in your place. I’ll make something up. Send the twins. Send anyone. You can’t possibly go on like this.”

Marrionetta bared her teeth like a bear. She was quaking all over. Large beads of sweat dewed her bark as if she were dotted over with fairie’s pearls.

“Shut up you heel trotting little bitch,” Marrionetta seethed. Then she began dry heaving in the empty vomit bucket.

Outside Marrionetta’s dressing room, they could hear the pitter patter of circus employ and performers as they traversed the subterranean halls of the big top. The gathering audience up on the surface was cheering, stomping, drinking and crying out for the show to begin. The organ was grinding itself loudly with its lascivious and inviting melodies and its bellows reverberated everywhere. Violet had the impression that she and Miss Mary were sitting inside the empty belly of an iron pot; a quiet abscess puncturing a world that was otherwise composed of endless, pitiless sound and activity. Here in the tense knot of the dressing room, there was only a strained silence and slow, laboriously movement.

“Give me my costume,” Marrionetta said wetly.

Violet handed over the leotard. Marrionetta stretched it over herself. It was pink and tight, shiny with silver sequins. To Violet’s eyes, her mistress appeared as the totality of a courtly funeral. She was the trimmings, the trappings, the officiant, and the primary attendant, all in one.

“Assist me,” Marrionetta said. Violet took her arm and lead her mistress lurching up the stairs to the stage.

cudgel, part i

It was opening night. Lorelei grinned at himself in the greasy mirror. His sharp teeth and narrow eyes were a beautiful match for his new, pin striped cravat and jacket combination. Baby blue. His favorite color.

He stroked pomade through his hair with a trusty comb, streaking back his clipped hair into an angled sweep. The peak of fashion he arched an eyebrow at himself. If only those snot nosed Viennese petit bourgeois could see him now. His smile faded slightly. No. They wouldn’t understand if they saw now. He was still hunkered down in the mud slick of this insolent circus. But his mood changed again things would soon be different.

Lorelei strode down the hill and headed for the big top. It was already after sunset and the croak of crickets and toads blended with the approaching din of the audience gathering around the main circus tents. Lorelei could scarcely keep a chortle out of his cheeks and he whistled a little tune to himself. It was the puppetress’s big night and he couldn’t wait to see how the hell he had wrought for her was affecting her physique.

According to the private notes in his diary — for he always kept meticulous notes on his experiments — she should be totally clear of the last implants he had given her. She would be at the absolute nadir of her suffering. He delighted to imagine the physical pain it must have caused her. To fly that high and then to crash his mind was twittering like blood thirsty birds who trace and follow the beast, waiting for it to stumble one last time and expire into carrion.

He approached the big top and walked among the crowd — they were mostly dreaming damned. A Marrionetta headline was always sure to bring a good and seasoned crowd of haunted adorés. The crowd was large tonight, Lorelei noticed. A boon to circus finances, no doubt.

He pushed easily through the mesmerized hoards. With a confident flick of his inventive wrist, he sent the side flap back and let himself inside the tent.

Ossip and Lorelei, best of friends

“What a clever boy you are,” Lorelei set his long, tapered hands on each of Ossip’s developing shoulders. Ossip shrugged out from under the doctor’s touch. Still, he beamed into the man’s face. Not even Ungulen had called him clever before.

The truth was that Ossip was a clever boy. He could while away for hours on circuitry, building little models, designing mechanical improvements for circus operations. But a clever boy still has many years to go before he becomes an experienced young man. In the realm of choosing mentors, Ossip had no prior experience.

Ossip was a orphan like all the rest of the lever boys. He had no parents. His place of birth was incidental and far away. He would never return there unless by accident. He was a wayward son of circus life now. Still, he was intelligent and had accrued many lessons of life during his employ at the circus. He knew how to spot a cheat at cards. He knew which of the dancer girls were merely teases and which were genuinely affection and worth picking flowers for. He knew instinctively how to string a series of gears. He knew when and where to hide a tin of meat so none of the acrobats could find it. He fashioned mechanical parts for the circus and, in turns, the circus had fashioned him into one of its mechanical parts. He was like well oiled piece of its machinery, spinning happily, confident with his place in the world. Because of the nestled, uncomplicated nature of his being, he knew not the properties of an interloper. He had no way to measure the hidden dimensions of Lorelei.

Lorelei’s attentions were novel to Ossip. Privileging. He garnered favors, coin, and even the occasional smile from Herr Doktor’s tense jaw. It made some of the other lever boys jealous. Ossip could tell and he knew enough to protect his newfound status with an air of authority. He began posturing himself in much the same way he had seen Lorelei do. Stiff in the back. Unflinching in the gaze. He had learned the power of leaving a word unsaid where an eyebrow’s flick will suffice.

Ossip had been spending more and more time at The Emerald House and he was becoming accustomed to its comfortable interior. It was very messy, he noticed. Ungulen would never allow the barracks to become so unclean. Still, the furniture was nicer here. The snacks the doctor provided were always fresh. There was music occasionally as well. But the biggest draw was Lorelei’s magnificent array of tools. Ossip had only read about some of these gadgets and devices in his worn manuscrips and texts. Ossip never saw, not even for an instant, that he himself was slowly becoming one of Lorelei’s instruments. It was one of the easiest seductions Lorelei had ever orchestrated.

Marrionetta’s big act

Marrionetta staggered around the stage area in the big top. The staff hands exchanged weathered and weary glances among themselves just behind the thin veil of stale cigarette smoke. The dancer girls arched their snarling mouths, prettying up their stockings and waving their shoulders around in mocking shadows of Miss Mary’s preeminent case of the shakes. Everyone at rehearsal assumed she was drunk.

Only Violet could see the strength. Just hours before, Marrionetta had been raked as a bean stalk, doubled over in her voming bucket, a splintered and desolate version of herself. Now, at least, here in the big top, she merely appeared graceless. At least she was standing on her own two feet. Violet couldn’t imagine the effort it was taking Miss Mary to stand relatively tall and proud. She wondered additionally how badly things might go this evening if Marrionetta really intended to put in a full day’s work of rehearsal. That was to say, half a day, in her case.

Marrionetta skipped up the walls and strung herself up on the ceiling. Her weight sagged and not performatively. A few of the teenaged lever boys looked away with disgust. A female form so tortured was beyond their ken to appreciate, in any dimension.

Marrionetta wrestled her tired scoop into a more agréable stature. She inhaled deeply and, to Violet’s astonishment, hurled herself in several beautiful circles. She turned and glided along an unseen axis. Her ankles flew back over her head. Her hair whipped out of its braids. She was like a wild thing, contouring out a celestial shape. Her momentum carried her faster and faster until she was in a silken orbit. One could almost see the object she conjured out of negative space. A round nothing. A planet. A moon. Something full of life and rotating violently just beyond the dullness of common sight and visual meaning.

She managed this silhouetting display for several minutes. A few of the dancers’ sneers opened up into gapes of interest. An observant acrobat lit a new cigarette, one that burned brightly as his eyes followed her calculating rotations. Marrionetta, the unhinged puppetress. What a find she really was.

Then, one of her strings caught sour on an old hook. She jerked off course. Her flank collided forcefully with a beam and she screamed like an angry dog.

“Miss Mary!” Violet immediately approached the stage area. Marrionetta was already letting herself down in a spidery tantrum of her strings.

“After all your mincing and hill spiking shrieks!” Marrionetta gestured rudely at all of the attending circus staff. People backed away from her. She kicked a box of nails and they scattered in a tremendous wave. “Everyone begs and pleads for Miss Mary to come back to work and you crabbing munchers can’t even hook it up right!”

Marrionetta threw on her coat and spat on the ground. The observant acrobat bowed and moved quickly out of her way. She flicked her hand at him. A command. He gave her his glowing cigarette and she dragged on it angrily. She she smote it under her pink, velvet slipper.

“If Ungulen or Mr. Hargus asks for me,” Marrionetta shrieked at the top of her lungs, “I’m in my dressing room until you brackish piss drinking, dandruff huffing hooligans gets my stage rigging done up correctly!” She began slowly marching her way out the big top. Violet attempted to offer Marrionetta an arm but she haughtily refused. Each foot stomped strangely over the next, like a cross eyed hen.

Once she was out of the big top, Marrionetta slung herself over a low fence and began dry heaving. Violet joined her outside. They walked home very gently.

tinsel spring

Marrionetta extruded more chlorophyll slime into the bucket beneath her chin. Violet patted her forehead and neck down with a cool washcloth. The pupptress’s hair was tied up in pretty french braids — safely away from her mouth and sweating temples. The braids were Violet’s handiwork.

“Were they in here?” Violet asked, gingerly pushing in on one of Marrionetta’s little body drawers. There were three drawers inside Marrionetta. One in her neck that pulled out long. A slender vertical cabinet that opened laterally down the length of her arm. The last was a small, round pocket in her lower abdomen. They were all pegged tightly shut. Using her finger, Violet lightly outlined their silhouettes. Marrionetta nodded. Yes, that’s where the organ plugs were stored.

Violet had been keeping herself in the dressing rooms with Marrionetta. Marionetta slept almost exclusively on the ruby red sette. She didn’t seem to mind that Violet had taken the bed on the platform. There were a few other unspoken rules and ideas that had emerged between the two of them. Violet went and fetched her meals, braided her hair, and changed out her vomiting bucket every hour or so. Marrionetta had begun sharing little favors of her own with Violet, insisting she try some of her expensive perfumes or treating herself to a silk robe for the day.

During a long stretch of afternoon, the two dancers had touched on the exploratory idea that Violet might be able to remove the implants inside of Marrionetta. They could use Marrionetta’s various pries. Marrionetta had collected many good quality tools over the years — mostly gold plated or decorated with small gems — to open and close her private drawers and to cinch open her pegs. She didn’t like to do it though. Lorelei had used his own tools. They were cold, she recalled. For the removal, it all just depended on when Marrionetta could work up the nerve. Violet hadn’t pressed the issue once it had been delicately floated during one of their many oblique conversations. Marrionetta was still feeling extremely sick and they both wondered if removing them altogether would hasten an even nastier outcome.

There was a rapid knock on Marrionetta’s door. “Mary!” came a sprucing command. “It’s Goren! Let me in, please?”

“Priggin’! Foo!” Marrionetta’s mouth turned into a layering frown. Then, her stomach upturned and she quietly spat a long, silken strand of green mucous which hung forever and a day from her mouth before depositing itself into the bucket. “Make him go away.”

Violet moved towards the door. “Miss Mary isn’t feeling well at the moment.”

“Violet?” asked Goren. “Thank god. Open the door. Mary’s needed at rehearsal. The major is in less than three weeks. We have to stage out her latest choreography.

Violet’s hands traced up her forearms. She looked at Mary with questioning eyes. Marrionetta waved her hands irritably. No.

“Maybe later?” Violet asked through the door.

Goren started pounding on the door. “Marrionetta, you selfish, wayward, dolly! If you don’t show up for rehearsal we can’t lay out the stage rigs! Nobody else can get rehearsed. The shifts will spend all of opening night crashing up against each others’ noses and your very own cherished, stinking act will be a lousy, hazy mess just thanks to everyone’s inability to sort out the operational trim! So quit lying around like a useless bunch and get your shaven sticks to the big top!”

“Tinsel spring!” Marrionetta shouted back through the door. Violet looked confused.

“What?” said Goren.

“Tinsel spring! The year we put on the silver tinsel and Ernt had the elephants dressed as fairies. I’ll do that one. So set it up that way.”

There was a long pause on the other side of the door.

“Fine,” Goren said at last. “But you had better be there tomorrow!”

They heard Goren stomp away down the hall. Marrionetta cinched her nose at Violet, a finely tuned enmeshing of spite and laughter. Violet smiled back, nervous that she had somehow won Marrionetta’s momentary favor. Then Marrionetta stuck her head back in the bucket and vomited threefold.

“cercle!”

Far off from the circus, there was an autumnal chill in the woods. Leaves were draining out their greenery and rusting out matte. A bitter little wind hushed its way through the trees tops. Rustia and Mingey tooled around the perimeter of a dilapidated barn. They were quite snug in wooly, cable knit sweaters. Mingey, of course, was looped around Rustia’s shoulders as Rustia pedalled the unicycle.

Mingey peeled off her sweater and threw it on the ground close by. Immediately, she began shivering. She retrieved a black, wooden hoola-hoop off the siderack of their unicycle and brought it to her tapered, shrunken waist. She swang her hips around and around, building a soft rhythm.

Rustia continued to cycle slowly around the barn. She was patiently practiced in attending to Mingey’s mis-en-place. Rustia put her arms out to their full spread. Mingey tip toed gracefully out onto the left arm. She placed one careful footfall after the next. Her hooping was in a full and graceful largo. She reached the terminus, which was Rustia’s upturned palm. In the palm of her sister’s hand, Mingey set both her feet en pointe, balanced now only on her toes. Once she found her breathing point, Mingey bent her waist at an angle, and lifted up one foot. She was now balanced on a single toe, hoola-hooping gently in her sister’s outstretched hand.

“Attends-sautee!” Mingey squeaked in her over pronounced accent from a country she’d visited only once. Rustia’s arms stiffened and broadened with musculature.

Mingey hopped! She landed softly on her opposite toe on Rustia’s cramming shoulder.

“Attends-sautee!” Mingey squealed again. She hopped into Rustia’s opposite palm.

“Cercle!” Mingey announced, a grin poking the bones of her cheeks. She wound herself, almost effortlessly, in a perfect circle, hoola hooping all the way.

“We should get that parasol in the act,” Rustia barked. “That should get Mister Doctor’s attention, alright.”

“Mmmmm,” Mingey smiled.

go away

Marrionetta, recently returned from her arduous walk in the woods, moaned and curled herself on the sette in her dressing room. The various plugs of endocrine tissue within her were fading out. As the cold swallow engulfed her, it left behind a hollowness that was was familiar and freshly unbearable.

Her joints were all splintering. She pricked herself all over, leaving scratches on her unpolished surfaces.

There was a knock at the door. A female voice ventured, “Miss Mary?”

“Go away,” Marrionetta humidly breathed into the sette.

“Miss Mary?” they hadn’t heard her.

Marrionetta rallied herself and rasped, “Go away!”

There was a pause at the door. “It’s Violet.”

Violet, Marrionetta thought. She had meant to see Violet’s elephant show but hadn’t quite gotten around to it in the depths of her lolligag. Hadn’t she thrown jam jars at that poor girl? She had impressive posture, Marrionetta remembered. She liked that. Not all the dancers cared about their appearance the way Violet did. Most of them slouched around, smoking like chimneys, obscening their ways into various pairs of trousers. Violet was a bit more walled off. Discrete, maybe.

Marrionetta’s stomach churned and she puked quietly on the floor. She wiped her mouth and took a long, hard look at her reflection across the room in the vanity mirror.

At last, Marrionetta croaked “It’s open.”

Ungulen’s ribs

Ungulen is a superstitious creature. Superstition is hereditary for goats and is a common linguistic underpinning of their bleating languages. It’s challenging, however, for goat people to put these ideas into the words of human languages. So even though Goren Hargus and Ungulen had developed mutual suspicion of Doctor Lorelei in connection to the disappearance of the lever boys, Ungulen struggled to convey the depths of his feeling. This despite the fact that Goren Hargus was a trusted friend.

Perhaps even more than that, Ungulen was hesitant to say what he thought out loud. There is a potent, spellbinding aspect to giving voice to one’s deepest fears and intuitions. Disturbing the fungus, after all, can only provoke spores. Any woodland creature knows this rule as a matter of course. Ungulen instinctively kept his private feelings between his sturdy ribs.

Privately, in those ribs, he felt that something violent must have happened to the missing lever boys. They had been threatened, maimed, scared off, something. Fear was in play. He hadn’t seen or heard anything definitive so all was speculative at best. Conversely, he also couldn’t ignore the fact that his chief assistant, Ossip, was apparently friends with the doctor. Whatever was happening, it had dimensionality. Ungulen didn’t want to play his cards too quickly.

exchange rates

Goren Hargus had seen the silverbacks. He knew they were of southern Germanic origin. Land of cows. He had weighed several examples of the coins in his office on a small but highly accurate scale. They were genuine and very valuable. He had seen too many of them for his liking but prior to his conversation with Ungulen, he hadn’t realized that their distribution might be even more widespread than previously thought.

Foreign currency is like a weed. It can choke out the beautiful flower of a perfectly sound and harmonious economy. The circus economy could be quartered out neatly among booze, cigarettes, gambling debts, and shift hours. The latter two being more weighty than the former but all their relative exchange rates usually remained quite steady. Goren credited himself with this fine tuned modulation of the circus market. He was a controlling stock owner in all four quadrants, after all.

Ungulen’s question about the doctor’s character had spurred Goren to compose a full treatise on how much of this silverback slime might have worked its way into the circus’s lifeblood already. His conservative estimates were well within standards and didn’t threaten too much of anything. But now he had to take the leaving off of seven lever boys into more serious consideration. Ungulen had confirmed in his social way that the missing boys had not left any kind of sentimental trace or reason for their sudden disappearance. So, Goren’s calculations had to be adjusted. Seven lever boys, at a full month’s wages apiece, this strongly indicated that Lorelei had major cash on hand to coax employees away from their duties. The more Goren calculated, the more certain he felt that poaching was afoot.

eyelets in payroll

Goren Hargus cinched his pants up further, constricting his artichoke thighs. On tip toe, he numbered among the skittering creatures — most of them crabs — down by the lake shore.

“Quit yer tight ropin’!” Ungulen threw his head back and brayed with laughter at Goren’s fear of the ooze and general wetness. All around them there was a fleeing pasture of tiny claws. Muck crabs.

“Buckets for bread you said,” Ungulen chided. “It was your idea in the first place to restock the mess from the land.”

“Land, precisely.” Goren complained. “I don’t like getting my slippers wet.”

“Then don’t wear your pussing slippers!” Ungulen rattled his bucket at Goren, alighting droplets of murky, unctuous water onto the man’s face. Goren whipped out a ready handkerchief and cleared them away.

“I don’t want to muddy my leathers either.” Goren sighed, “You’re right though.” He took his slippers off and set them aside. He finger-tucked his pant legs in and over themselves to keep them aloft. Then he made his way barefoot through the slime and chased a few crabs around. He pincered one or two into his bucket.

“Ungulen,” Goren said presently. “There’s a matter I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”

“What’s that.”

“I was reconciling payroll last Sunday to see if there were any opportunities for forestallment.” Finding opportunities for forestallment was one of Goren’s favorite things about reconciling payroll. “But I noticed something peculiar. More than half a dozen of the lever boys have dipped out as recently as last month. Three alone since I last did the totalling.”

Ungulen shrugged. The shift employ were always running off. Working for a circus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I know. I know. At first I thought they were probably just waywards too. But usually when a lad’s about to duck, he tries to collect his wages early. It’s all pleadings ‘Mr. Hargus this and Mr. Hargus that’ for their train tickets home or one last rose for Dahlia. That sort of thing.”

“And none’s collected?”

“None. Not a one. And where’s the sense in absconding if you don’t make a grab for the church funds?”

Ungulen’s ears twitched. That was peculiar. “So what’s yer theory?”

“Well my first idea was perhaps they’re all traveling through the woods together. Some kind of ritualized hubris. You know how the midranged ones can get when they’re spoiling for dancer crush. But then I looked at the boys who were missing. They didn’t really fit together companion like. All disparate, you know?”

Ungulen moved towards understanding. “Popular or unpopular?”

“Un. Very unpopular.” Goren paused. “And no one’s said anything to you about them? I thought maybe you’d have a version of this through the social vines.”

“No,” said Ungulen, straightening himself to his full height. He fixed Goren with the stern attention of a troubled herd animal. The horizontal slits of his pupils burned with millenia’s worth of experience in identifying predators.

Ungulen asked, “Mr. Hargus, what do you think of the doctor lately?”

Goren was momentarily thrown by this apparent change in topic. Then his mental abacus adjusted.

“I’m not sure I like him,” was the accountant’s reply.

the i love you i hate you machine (part 2)

Herr Doktor Sinvarius Lorelei could not control his erection. It nearly punctured a hole through his slacks. Lorelei knew he was working on his magnum opus. But, what’s more, he knew this was only the first of many opuses to come. The Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator was his first great work. Commissioned by a Baron no less. And its manifestation would set him free.

The puppetress had gone back down to her circus kin. At least for the time being. This was just as well. He’d grown tired of her, skulking around, nodding off on the floor, and demanding greater and greater dosages of hormonal injections. Still, he knew he’d need her again in short order. What a find she was. The repeat experiments with her reusable body had been a glorious boon to his work. He had found exciting new techniques through the application of her favorite moods. His observations of her had also answered many lingering questions that had persisted in the margins of his research. Marrionetta was the ultimate test subject for his work concerning the chemical compounds dictating emotionality. His lips twisted into an ugly smile. It made him laugh to think that such an ignorant vagabond like her should be so integral to the final stages of the Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator. She would never know, of course. And even if she did, how could she possibly appreciate her little role in history? Genius he thought to himself, is the ability to transform that which is inconsequential or even vulgar into a work of art. He marveled at how he always seemed to find exactly what he needed exactly when he needed it. He could only conclude that he was a great creator blessed by the Great Creator himself.

Once this machine was completed he would be flush with capital and state protections. No more circuses. No many stiflingly hot squats in the tropics. No more tinned meats and sour grain. The Baron had made these assurances and even though Sinvarius never trusted anyone farther than he could stick his knife through them, the prospectus seemed certain in this particular case and for this particular machine. Politicians the world over would pay handsomely for a device that transforms hate to love and back again. It was the ultimate tool of social control. And he would be a godlike figure, the only one capable of deploying the thing and improving upon it. They’d bring him tubs full of bodies: human, animal, insectoid, whatever he liked. He’d never have to dig another grave or abandon another laboratory midstream ever again. A life of grand experimentation and luxurious accomodation awaited him just on the other side of this swiftly approaching precipice.

Now all he needed to procure were the underripe hearts of 11 happy children. None of the lever boys would do. They were, as a rule, far too old and far too orphaned to have the delicate tissues required to make his sublime vision into a pumping, cranking reality.

the i love you i hate you machine (part 1)

“Aus hass, liebe,” the Baron intoned quietly, stroking a finger over the face of the woman in the daguerreotype. It was his daughter. His frequent worship of her picture had blurred her face away. He regretted doing this but was unable to stop himself. He had not seen or heard from her in many long years.

The Baron tucked his body further into his massive cape. The room was cold. He jangled softly with dominating heirlooms, unable to separate his personhood from his statehead, even this late into the evening. The room was saturated in candlelight and infused with the lingering odor of roasted game.

He set his daughter’s picture back down into its shrine on his imperious receiving table. He turned his attention to a stash of letters, all of them from Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei.

The letters ranged in date, spanning a decade. He thumbed through, paging to the one that contained the schematic. It was done up in graphite and in Lorelei’s horrid handwriting. The doctor’s penmanship was absolutely diseased, especially when he was excited about anything. The man was too enamored of his art form. It made the Baron queasy to think of the small examples he had seen over the years. Fascinating yes, but there is something phantom, folkloric and fearful about watching the slender arm of a dead young lady suddenly spring to life and gesture submissively to her creator. He still wondered sometimes who that arm had belonged to. He never did find out.

He had met Lorelei that spring at a gala. He was one of the soon to be graduates of the imperial university. The student body of the medical school had several annual occasions to rub shoulders with the nobler blood of the empire. It made for good conversation, connections, and occasionally fruitful business partnerships. Many good examples were available for citation. The hospitals, research groups, private miracles of personal doctoring. On the whole it was a societal good.

But the Baron did not fool himself. He knew his patronage of Lorelei was a sin. One that incurred itself over and over again, with every bucket of currency sent out across all four corners of the planet. Each and every crime of mutilation Lorelei might commit abroad was, certainly, on the Baron’s conscious. He had considered many times what would happen if he simply stopped sending Lorelei the money. It wouldn’t absolve him exactly but it would help. However, in that scenario, the Baron would never see the end result of this project he himself had commissioned. Furthermore, it’s not as if Lorelei would or could ever stop his violent craftsmanship, patronage or no patronage. More likely, the doctor would simply go and entrance some other benefactor. In fact, maybe he already had. The Baron laughed wryly to himself. If anyone could serve two masters, it was Sinvarius alright.

He turned his attention back to the frenetically conceived letter. Lorelei had sent it nearly a year ago. It was from somewhere in the tropics. The machine’s design was in a more finished state than the previous installments. But it didn’t mean anything to the Baron. He had no formal education in the sciences. He was bred to be a leader and, as such, had no use for technical knowledge. This would all be delegated to those who served him. So Lorelei’s excited diagramming was for the doctor’s thrill alone. The only thing the Baron could really distinguish was that the machine was slowly becoming a reality. The I love you I hate you machine the Baron thought to himself, aware of its sing song and childish nature. That is how he conceived of the awful thing. He knew once he had the prototype in hand, he would be able to recoup many times what he had spent on it. Those warlike brutes up in the mountain states would kowtow to his small dominion, despite their economic and military superiority. The machine would secure his lineage and protect his people for centuries. But that was not its foremost purpose. The Baron had one idea in his mind. To recapture his daughter’s affection and maybe — just maybe — to see his grandson again.

Woozies!

Marrionetta woke up in a daze but couldn’t get her bearings. Night had fallen. For a few head turning moments, she couldn’t discern anything through impenetrable black. The sensation made her feel like the billiards of her eyes were rolling weighty around in her head. She had to stop moving and find a point. A star.

Once her center of gravity returned she made a fuller assessment of where she was. Woozies! She thought I must have dropped off right velvetine!

She rose from the ground and brushed dirt off herself. So much for the lavender bath. Crumble and clod clung to her green dress. She felt out some leaves in her hair. She was hungry and her stomach panged. The pang grew larger and seemed to spread throughout her body. She realized that everything ached. Surprising herself, she vomited a babyish amount of stomach fluid onto the ground. She couldn’t see it but it was green, of course. Chlorophyll.

Sick she worried. She always worried when she was sick. A loner’s instinct. Her dressing room, a faithful retreat, was only a few miles away but the distance opened up in her mind like the channel itself.

“Ungulen?” she cried out feebly. The black woods rustled back at her. Then she felt like an imbecile and stamped her foot. The show of force put her off balance and she nearly fell over.

Just like the quiet years she thought. The quiet years were her childhood. Abandoned and orphaned in the woods for an unknowable number of years and seasons. No one to talk to, everything to fear, it was the origin of her acrobatic self-tutelage. A natural and wild apprenticeship totally devoid of self-conscious feeling. In her well furnished adulthood, she had tried to count it all out. To try and figure how many years it must have been. Seven hard winters stood out meaningfully but she couldn’t be sure if she was collapsing a few together, like braiding fingers.

She took a long, impatient breath and prepared herself for the long, long journey home in the dark.