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.

Look out it’s poetry

oiled bikini reflections

outright. no bullshit

with The Pixies murmuring somewhere faraway

good afternoon, Los Angeles

how are you; how was the drive; would you like a mini bottled water?

just take it, come on

it’s for you; plus we don’t even really recycle

i mean we do but not really

on this sunshine glorious day

in the autumn afternoon

that’s freezing cold everywhere else but isn’t here because

it’s full of sound and vertical lines and vectors

and a recipe for vegetarian sushi leftovers

from that place down the street

you’re invited by the way, forever

in glistening, reverberating ripples

on the pooling, liquid surface of Stanley Kubrick’s first idea

that is still echoing in the fibres of myriad clawed tentacles

it’s our patented Idea Machine

plastic pink and full of forgiven tears

it’s not recyclable

sorry but it comes that way

not unlike that bottled, bottled water we handed you

not unlike this editing platform we have

free of charge

that is so

so

annoying to use

that we predict you will upgrade

to the bikini edition

for that pink sereness and time by the pool

like Jim Jarmusch’s saturated black and white

that is still somehow pink , due to the content

Content

you have Content that we want

that’s pink and black and white all over

that’s alright with you, right?

right?

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.

a sublime union

Marrionetta’s brain-tongue had escaped The Emerald House. The immediate peril was over but the long night’s struggles had only just begun.

The brain-tongue had a few things going in its favor. In the first place, it had her brain. And her brain was both fiendish and forceful. It had survived Visigoths, centuries of forest wanderings, and countless rivals at the circus. Next, this determined brain was attached to a major muscle, her tongue. A tongue that had worked tirelessly all her life to get her the things that she needed. The tongue was also — potentially– still capable of speech. She would need to remember to test that later. Overall, not a bad start given that the rest of her body was locked up with a psychotic pervert who couldn’t decide if he would make her into firewood or not.

The other good news was that the next part of the journey was downhill. Some of the green muck had come back, slicking the path forward rather nicely. The brain-tongue slipped and swam down the incline and came at last to the foot of the hill in a cool patch of grass.

Then it rested.

“What should I do now?” thought her brain-tongue, writhing to expunge the splinter. “Who can help me?” Drutherstone must be absent from the circus. There was no other explanation for why he hadn’t come to check on Lorelei or perceive why she had been missing for so long. There was no way Drutherstone would have allowed Lorelei to conduct things as he had been for the past several weeks. Suddenly, she had a personal insight. Drutherstone, she realized, was a Maker. He was not a Dead Lempi as she had always considered him. Drutherstone knew how to run things smoothly and he had the power to protect others. She had never appreciated this before. While he was not impervious to the Visigoths of the world, she recognized now how necessary he was to the good operation of the circus. She tucked that idea away for a less urgent time.

In terms of others she could count on for assistance, the pickings were running slim. Poor, sweet Ungulen was dead. She had to put that out of her mind and keep thinking. She wasn’t sure she could trust any of the other carnies at this point. She had seen so many at Lorelei’ beck and call. Hargus was probably still loyal but he wasn’t going to be any help as he was too fearful and small. She needed someone useful.

A perfect solution glowed inside her mind. But there wouldn’t be much time. It was a race against the sun. Caught in its heating rays, she felt sure that she would dry out and die from exposure.

With a jet of determination, her brain-tongue sludged its way across the fairgrounds. Bugs tossed around her. A half moon lit her way. More than twice she had to stop and remain completely still as an errant lever boy or the unicyling twins swang by. They were all on their ways to secret midnight appointments. The brain-tongue came very close to being trodden upon but was able to contort herself to shelter just in time.

At long, long last she reached the elephant pen. One of the sows was awake and sucking at a salt lick. Her brain-tongue found its object though: Augromme, the undead elephant, who was fast asleep, nightmarishly quivering and stinking of the grave.

Rolling through the sawdust, her brain-tongue snooched itself up his peeling face and inside one of his enormous, whipping ears. She piled down his canal and wrapped herself around his brain.

Augromme woke with a start and began to panic. Something was in his head. But the something felt gentle. It whispered to him. It was sweet and lullablylike. He closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

a cinch

 

Lorelei was fast asleep, lost in dreams of dripping flesh and coiled organs he could stick his dick into for ever and ever. Sleepless Marrionetta remained ensconced on the wall, parceled out in her many fragments like a model ship or an anthropological inquiry.

But she had concocted her own plan. Perhaps not so elaborate as the sketches, files and blueprints that Lorelei treated himself to every evening. But hers was elegant in its simplicity.

“Be free,” she thought and, with concentration, she popped her head open. Her tongue wagged furiously until it came loose from the cinches of her jaw. Then, brain and tongue together, wiggled free of her skull and fell with a liberating SPLAT to the floor.

Marrionetta’s brain-tongue held still for a few moments on the floor. Anticipating. But Lorelei just snored away.

With effort, her brain-tongue lurched across the floor like a massive slug. In a few paces, the brain-tongue found a convenient undulating pattern to affect good pacing. The brain-tongue then tried to speed up, only to run afoul of a large, wooden splinter from the floor.

The tongue gurgled with pain. The brain gasped. Luckily, the tongue was the part that had been skewered. No brain damage this time. The escape had to continue.

The splintered brain-tongue slowly crawled out of The Emerald House.

 

maggot eating, velvet stricken

“PUT ME BACK TOGETHER THIS INSTANT!” Marrionetta’s voice pierced Lorelei’s inner eardrum. Several of his favorite flasks exploded. A shard cut his cheek in a low arc.

He brought his hands to his ears after the fact. He squidged around inside them with his fingers. “Ahh,” he whispered in pain.

“I mean this instant!” Marrionetta followed up her demand with a rasp. She was dismantled on the wall. Her legs open at contorted angles. Her hands disconnected from her wrists disconnected from her fingers (a safety precaution). He had mapped out her ribs along the wall like a museum display. Every part of her wriggled towards freedom. So much so that the walls were as alive as soil germinating with earthworms. He made a point to remount her pieces every morning and every night before he slept.

Her pelvis was sitting on his desk. He had hooked it up to several wires. Prior to the ear piercing scream, he had been sketching out an elaborate electrical blueprint with her pelvis at its center.

He menaced her with a screwdriver but it was useless. She was free to scream and rage and he was not able to restrain this one part of her. Anytime he got close to her mouth to unpeg her tongue from the incessant jaw, she would bite him with such force that he had already had to resew some fingers. He had even tried to stuff her mouth with cotton but she had worked free of it each time and he no longer valued the effort. Still, the power of her shrillness needed dealing with.

She spat at the screwdriver. “I’ll take you apart, love. I’ll take you apart in ways you never thought possible. You think I’ve got seams? I’ll show you perforation as its never been attempted!”

“For the last time, be silent.”

“Last time! Last times! He wants to talk about last times! I’ll show you end times, you maggot eating, velvet stricken, sodden splatch laden filthy evil urine drinker! I’ll feed you to hairless moles and strap your mother in a briar’s patch of dildos as big as tree trunks!”

“If I’m learning anything, dearest, it’s that I should never put you back together again. In fact, when I’m through, I think I’ll just toss you in for kindling.”

Marrionetta fell silent for the first time in weeks. Kindling. Is that what would become of her? Ash at the bottom of a fireplace? Perhaps he’d make tea with her. The idea was so undignified. So preposterous. Everyone would know it was him. Blame clearly didn’t bother him but he did not even fear being caught? So he meant to flee then. He would use her, destroy her, and then take off to some other spot, a different circus maybe, leaving behind a signatured murder of an acclaimed performer such as herself. What a colossal bastard, she realized. He really thought his actions would never catch up with him.

Her extended reflection turned the room a deadly chill. Lorelei noticed her vibrations had changed. He became agitated.

“I won’t use you for kindling,” he blurted and then immediately wondered why he would say anything to comfort her. He wasn’t even sure if he meant it. Then he felt uneasy. He hadn’t felt anything less than certain in….in…. the unease gave way to a panicky, quickend pulse. Momentarily, he felt faint.

“Unless I want to,” he asserted and took a deep breath that he hoped was inaudible. He furiously dedicated himself back to his work to put the strange atmosphere out of his mind.

But something unspoken had already passed between them and Marrionetta remained frighteningly silent for the rest of the evening.

big top electric

 

“The generator…!” Rustia stalked up a down a row of terrified lever boys, “is the only thing any of you should be focused on!” Mingey weaved and coiled around Rustia’s shoulders and neck, glaring at each of the lever boys to emphasize her sister’s words. Above Mingey’s head, she was opening and closing the white lace parasol they had stolen from Marrionetta. It was a rather chaotic scene, the two of them marching back and forth in the big top, the opening and closing an umbrella over their heads with no particular rhythm.

Rustia snatched a pumpernickel roll out of one of the boy’s hands. She chewed a great morsel of its end and then spat the rest of it in his face.

“There will be no eating. There will be no horseplay. There will be no talk of any kind except what’s necessary to get this generator operational! Those are instructions directly from Mister Doctor Lorelei! Is that jamming its way through your tiny skulls?”

From the back of the group of adolescent laborers, a rustle of whispering was suddenly audible.

“What’s that!” shrieked Mingey. “Whot are you tweedleheads saying about my sister’s direction?!”

Rustia shoved her sleeves up to the elbows and stalked through the lever boys to the whispering pair. In an instant, she had the boy’s slender, beautiful neck in her fist. His speaking companion tried to move away but Mingey tripped him with the parasol and stomped on his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.

Rustia shook the talking boy around a few times and then released her thumb from his larynx. “What did you say?”

“N-n-nothing. I didn’t say nothing.”

“What did you say!” Rustia boomed. The boy was too frightened then to even speak. Mingey went to work on the other boy who was still lying on the ground. She pinched his wrist against the floor with the rounded tip of the parasol.

“What’d your friend say?”

“Ouch ouch ouch that hurts…” the boy on the floor began sucking air through his teeth.

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what he said!” Mingey puts her face very close to the boy’s and doubled down on the parasol tip.

“Ahh! He said he wished Ungulen was here, miss!”

Rustia pursed her lips and nodded. She released the boy. She scanned her eyes over the group of workers.

“Ungulen, ey? Is that who you miss? That great incompetent slope of goat? You know that electrifying the big top is the only thing standing between you and your next paycheck? This entire circus is likely to be nothing more than a picked scab on the carpeting if we don’t move ourselves right along into the next century. Who do you think was in charge of getting us there? Hmm? Was it your precious Ungulen with his chocolates and his stupid jokes in the morning? Is that the one you want back? For how long has he been saying that we need to build the generator to get the big top on electric power? Hmm?”

Many of the lever boys looked at the ground. Ungulen had been talking about getting the generator project going since before most of them had ever even heard of the circus. The oldest boys knew what it meant. Their boss and friend had betrayed them in his disorganized approach to circus business.

“Alright then,” Rustia concluded. “Back to work.”

 

Violet Burnout

Rustia and Mingey teetered around the big top’s inner perimeter, screeching and slapping one another. They had already been there for several hours and were becoming bored.

“Figure it out already!” Mingey menaced the others present in the tent. Violet, tired and beet red from arguing with everyone, covered her face with her hands. Ernt Rauchebaum was trying not to nod off to sleep, while a few simpering members of the braintrust were scratching their heads in unison, making perfectly incomprehensible edits to a blueprint.

“If we begin the parade near the outskirts of town,” said one of the braintrust, “we could have it march all the way along the service road. Does anyone still have the keys to Drutherstone’s motorbike? I could head up the entire processional!”

“You!” One of the other braintrustees jabbed his friend in the chest. “What about the rest of us! We all want a ride on the motorbike. Who said you would be the flag bearer anyway?”

“Since when is there a flag bearer?” another inquired.

Violet dug her thumbs into her temples to stave off her migraine. Ernt Rauchebaum suddenly awoke from his nod.

“Right,” he said sleepily. “So what’s the plan?”

“They don’t know!” squawked Mingey. “And little miss elephants doesn’t have a single good idea!”

Ernt looked at the braintrustees carefully. “Have you worked out how to link up the generator to the big top?”

“That’s Ossip’s department,” said one of the brain trust.

“Then why isn’t he here?” asked Ernt.

The brain trustees shrugged. “Because he’s assisting Mister Doctor on an important project?”

“This is a nightmare,” said Violet.

Ernt let out a huge sigh. “Alright, lads,” he addressed himself to the brain trust. He snatched the blueprint out from under their noses.

“Hey!” protested Samedi.

“Meeting adjourned. Committee is out of commission. Violet will plan the whole thing now. Here you go, love.” Ernt mashed the balled up blue print into her lap. He rubbed the circus dust from his hands and stood up.

The brain trustees attempted to take the blueprint back from Violet but, seeing an opportunity to jettison out and eat lunch early, Rustia and Mingey bore down on the boys with their unicycle. They scattered in fear.

Before Violet could lift an ironic eyebrow, Rustia had piled two of the screaming brain trustees onto her back and carted them away out of the big top. The remaining brain trust boys stood, uselessly by, mouths agape in silent protest.

“I’ll handle it,” Violet assured them, also standing to leave. “I promise.”

a battery of tests

It was dawn and it was moist. Green droplets clung to everything. Ossip spied a beautiful spider web, laced in dewy pearls. He hugged his jacket tighter about himself as he trotted behind Lorelei’s long legs.

Ossip was handling an enormous suitcase. It hobbled him as he tried to keep up. The doctor too was carrying a suitcase, even larger than Ossip’s but he carried it as if it were empty and not full of bespoke equipment that he had built just for the occasion.

They arrived a the portal. The slit Lorelei had taken to calling it. Ossip noticed that Lorelei was angrier lately. He had been snapping at everybody and occasionally mutilating Marrionetta when she said things he didn’t like. Ossip hoped that a day of running experiments would put the doctor in a better mood. Ossip himself was excited about the tests. He could put the trials and the braintrust and the whole maggoty situation he felt overwhelmed by aside. He could focus instead on logging read outs, measuring currents, notating only what was provable.

Ossip had always been aware of the portal. Everyone on the circus grounds knew that it was somewhere. He was surprised when the doctor told him that he had identified its exact location. He knew vaguely that it was somewhere near the big top. He had always assumed that’s why the big top had been erected where it was. The steady stream of Dreaming Damned was such an ordinary part of circus operations that he had never thought to locate or study the portal itself. Ossip had always been more fascinated by the people who came through, rather than the medium supplying them.

The Dreaming Damned were haunting and marvelous, in Ossip’s opinion. They were graceful. Everything they did was a smooth, uninterrupted gesture. Like the little ballerinas in a lady’s jewelry box. They never seemed perturbed by anything, although a few would come through with ghastly expressions on their faces. Still, no matter their apparent demeanor upon arrival, they always seemed to light up at the circus acts. Their vacant eyes would glow. Their gapes and horrors would turn to creasing joy and wide smiles. The strangest part was how quickly they could unclasp their hands and applaud, even as everything else about them was placid and still. Ossip loved the Dreaming Damned. They were so curious and strange. And they paid his meal ticket.

Lorelei was unloading his suitcase. He produced a number of small contraptions that were meant for scientific observation. There was a photo-scatter spectometer, a sono-echo collector, open diodes, conductive pigment,  telescopic binoculars, and a combination claw-crowbar.

Ossip opened his suitcase. Inside was a large, leather bound ledger, a pencil, and an electric generator with a hand crank. To Ossip, the generator appeared to have a face. It looked upset.

Lorelei took a palm full of the conductive pigment and gently blew it towards the portal. The pigment was silver and glittered in the air. To Ossip’s amazement, bits of pigment clung to the portal, making it more visible than ever.

Both man and boy were momentarily stayed by the enunciated appearance of the portal. It — the slit– had a jagged configuration. Its line shifted this way and that as if had been torn through the thin air. Very subtly, it seemed to billow and undulate. It was mesmerizing, shimmering in the cold cling of morning.

Lorelei smirked and selected a diode. He also had a clothespin. He attempted to clasp the diode to portal, pinching at either side of the portal, trying to make the diode stay. Ossip felt himself perk up as he watched the doctor’s hands move about the seam of the portal. It was taking a while. Every time the doctor seemed just on the verge of getting the clothespin to stay, the fold of the portal seemed to slip out of his grasp. Evidently there was a silken quality to its membrane that made it difficult to work with.

“Hmmm,” Lorelei sniffed the air and put the diode back in his tool kit. “Interesting.”

Next, he took out the photo-scatter spectometer. “Ossip,” he said. “Get the ledger. I’ll need you to write down some numbers.

Lorelei began pointing the spectometer at the portal. It pulsed flashes of light. First, white light. Then blue. Then red. Lorelei called out numbers as the colors rotated through several times.

Once that was done, Lorelei picked up the crowbar with the claw at the end.

“No,” said Ossip instinctively. Lorelei looked at him. Ossip hunched his shoulders, certain that he had irritated the doctor. He expected a tongue lashing.

Instead, the doctor looked at the crowbar for a long time. “Perhaps you’re right,” said Lorelei. “No need to get carried away so early.” Lorelei set down the crowbar and instead picked up the telescopic binoculars.

The binoculars’s shaft was as long as Lorelei’s arm. It widened towards the lenses, creating immense magnification at the other end. So when Lorelei peered through the binoculars, to focus the lenses, Lorelei’s blue eyes appeared sensationally enlarged at the other end. Ossip stifled a laugh. The doctor did not notice.

Once he was satisfied with the focus, Lorelei turned the telescopic binoculars towards the portal. With care, he nestled the end of the binoculars into the portal. It was an exciting moment. Lorelei, forgetting himself and the entire stupidity of the insolent circus, looked at Ossip with genuine feeling. Their eyes met in a passionate salute to scientific observation.

Lorelei then proceeded to push the binoculars through the seam. They entered despite a snug sense of resistance.

Lorelei’s insane face lit up with emotions that Ossip had never seen in him before. With an open mouth, Lorelei peered through the binoculars. His breathing became heavy.

Ossip felt freshly the morning dew clinging all over his face and hands. He stood at attention for a long time but the doctor just proceeded to look without speaking.

“Can I see?” Ossip asked quietly.

in chambers

In chambers, Violet confronted her accusers. They consisted of Lorelei, a trembling Ossip, and the lauded “braintrust” that had come to represent law and order on the circus grounds. Everyone except Lorelei appeared uncertain and nervous.

Chambers was in the kitchen of the mess hall. It was crowded and piled high with dirty pots and pans. Lorelei and the braintrust arranged themselves in the narrow galley, with Violet seated against the wall at the end. They had provided her with a chair.

Ossip spoke first.

“Miss Violet,” he attempted a half cocked smile but it withdrew from his face almost immediately.

Ossip knew Violet quite well. She was a few years older than him and was already a veteran member of the circus when he had first arrived five and a half years ago. She was an essential part of the dancing corps. Ossip had always known her to be kind, witful, and a fairly dedicated performer. She was perhaps given to a fit now and again but more often she was regarded as an absolute peach by everybody. Especially compared with some of the other dancing girls who could really rub the trouble in.

So it troubled Ossip now, here in Chambers, that she was sitting all alone at the end of the galley, ostensibly friendless in the face of such wild conjecture on the part of Lorelei. Ossip didn’t really think that Violet had tried to undermine the circus, even if she did appear to have some kind of special relationship with Goren. Then again, he couldn’t think of anyone else who even seemed friendly with Goren. Ossip had to trust Lorelei’s assessment. After all, the doctor seemed so far ahead of him on so many other topics.

Ossip’s guts twisted unexpectedly. In reflecting on his history with Violet at the circus, he suddenly recalled that he used to have a crush on her. It had been when he first joined.  He remembered the time when he was 14 and she had asked him if he wouldn’t run an errand for her in town? He remembered her silver blouse that day, how he had stopped breathing momentarily. Eventually, he had grown out of it and moved on to some of the other girls so this memory hadn’t been top of mind. But now, facing her down in this accusatory fashion, he again stopped breathing momentarily.

It’s just that everybody loves her, Ossip thought and the idea surprised him. Everyone here’s got a thing for Miss Violet. How had he never really reflected on this before? Practically every other lever boy and circus performer he knew had a secret smile they kept just for her. Ossip shifted uncomfortably. Why were they ganging up on her like this? How had all of this come about? Ossip wondered if, somehow, he had actually been born only yesterday and all these charming memories were nothing more than a storybook someone had read to him. Was this charming dancer girl a traitor requiring punishment or was he sitting on the wrong side of the kitchen? He wasn’t sure which version of reality was real.

Ossip coughed and started again. He was sweating. “Miss Violet. You are hereby accused of participating in anti-circus activities at the behest of Goren Hargus alongside his evil lackey and compromiser of facts, Ungulen, man of goat blood, who is still at large.”

A tense moment passed. To everyone’s surprise, Violet burst out laughing. It made Ossip’s entire nervous system cringe in confusion. He wanted to laugh with her but felt Lorelei’s taut physique close at hand. Ossip was scared for her.

“Compromiser of facts?” Violet chirped back. “Ungulen? Ossip, what are you talking about? He’s your friend, isn’t he? Mr. Ungulen? He’s all our friend’s.”

Ossip attempted to swallow the hard lump that was gathering in his throat. Ungulen had been good to him. Ungulen who had found him at the docks so many years ago when he was a lost little urchin. Ungulen who had handed him the flyer that day in the rain. Come by, laddy! See if you don’t like the crash and fancy of that old circus life! 

Ossip retreated into an impossible stagger of wits. Lorelei gracefully uncrossed his legs.

“I believe what Mr. Balichenko is trying to say, Miss Smythe, is that you owe the circus a great sacrifice and debt. To prove once and for all that you are not in collaboration with those who would seek to undermine the free operation of this institution.”

Ossip and the braintrust began nodding. This was a hopeful turn.

“Yes,” said Samdi. “Violet can prove herself. She’s not one of them.” The braintrust nodded more forcefully. This was sounding correct.

Violet was not convinced. “I live and work here. I’d call that sacrifice aplenty. And anyway, who’s brilliant idea was it to start calling what we do here ‘ an institution ?'”

“Hold your tongue,” anger flashed in Lorelei’s eyes, effectively silencing everyone “Or I will hold it for you.”

A rat stirred in the kitchen. There was a metallic sound that set everyone’s teeth further on edge.

“Here is what we need from you, Miss Smythe. We would like to create a children’s parade.”

All members of the braintrust looked at each other. A what? Violet too was utterly thrown.

“You,” Lorelei continued. He was smiling now. He leaned towards Violet in a friendly way that made her skin crawl, “You are uniquely qualified to produce such a thing. Given Drutherstone’s abandonment of his own organization, Ungulen’s being at large, Goren Hargus’s many many crimes…”

“What about Marrionetta?” Violet cut in. “She knows how to put a show together quite well. In fact, I’d say she knows this circus better than anybody.”

Violet looked at Lorelei meaningfully. The braintrust seemed abashed and Violet couldn’t understand why. She hadn’t seen the other day the way they’d mocked nasty old Marrionetta’s head on a leash. Privately, Ossip wondered if Marrionetta’s head wasn’t still hidden under one of the pots here in the kitchen. However, the next part of the conversation swept this thought from his mind.

Lorelei gritted his teeth rather loudly and continued. “Your work with the elephants has been exemplary. You will help us start fresh. You will organize the children’s parade. This will help restore the coffers, demonstrate the circus’s break from the old, dark ways, and renew morale among the staff. So we will be seeking to elicit maximum attendance. Children, that is. Dreaming damned or living, it makes no difference.”

Violet was exasperated. “I’m hardly qualified to make a parade that I don’t know the first thing about! And we can’t control who sees the shows! That’s up to…Goren somehow. Or Drutherstone.  I don’t know how the tickets work.”

“Organize the parade,” Lorelei menaced, “Or there will be no more need for elephants.”

Violet leveled a firm gaze at Lorelei. The threat towards her silly old elephants gripped her. Finally, she was seeing how deeply things had gone wrong by his hand.

“But…” Ossip started to say and Lorelei placed a soothing hand on the back of his neck.

“It’s alright, Ossip. Miss Smythe will make the right decision.”

waste of string

“What an absolute waste of string you are,” Lorelei slapped Marrionetta’s hand away from the machine. The hand, which was disconnected from the rest of her, lost its grip on the small metal file it had been holding. The hand had been using the metal file to painstakingly chisel grime from the small gearing inside of the Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator. 

The hand whizzed through the air in a perfect circle. It was still leashed to the stake in the desk. After several rotations, it was wrapped painfully against the stake. It writhed silently in pain. 

“No no no this is all wrong!” Lorelei screamed and began tearing into the gearing. He removed parts from the machine. Out came long strings of entrails, webbings of nerve tissue, and other human plastics that were tied among the gears and rods. Lorelei had successfully replaced many of the machine’s delicate operations with human tissue and the electrical capacities had been greatly improved in this manner. The entire machine became faster, more precise, and far more sensitive. 

Lorelei had become extremely agitated since the trials of Goren and the other circus employ had begun. He seemed strung out. Not just on coffee and amphetamines but also on his own anticipation and stress. He would spend hours, usually long into the night, pacing and talking to himself. Cursing his machine. Cursing the Baron. Cursing Marrionetta’s slow and stupid hands. He had spent so many long years working on the models for this contraption. Formerly, it had consumed him, enveloping him with a feeling of destiny. It had been a passionate love affair between creator and creation. Now the entire project seemed useless and fussy. It was in the way of his next endeavor. More than anything, he wanted to study the portal. 

The problem was money. He had to finish the Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator. The Baron was becoming impatient. He could only survive for so long on a final coin bucket. Lorelei cursed himself for never developing a second stream of income. He had tried to a few times in his younger years but the incessant pursuit of Berthold Fregt had prevented him from putting down roots. Reflecting on this lack of foresight, Lorelei would become enraged. He blamed his parochial medical school. He blamed the idiotic circus. He blamed the invention of sleep. He blamed the stars. He blamed everything but himself. 

Marrionetta had learned to quietly observe him for long stretches of time. She wasn’t accustomed to playing second fiddle for such an incredible length of time but she found that the part of passive observer suited her to some degree. It reminded her of her wild youth in the forests of Finland. When she had been a slight and frightened wooden doll, tottering about in the freezing woods with nothing but her own mental alacrity to rescue her from danger. She let the doctor use her. She let her hands cooperate. She saw that Lorelei was reaching a breaking point and she knew that would be her time to strike.  

I’ll fix it all in Hell (trial […] pt the last)

“Order! Order, please!” Ossip brought his gavel down over and over again against his small table. The feeble sound was lost in the screaming din of overly excited circus folk. The crowd was thirsty for blood. Goren’s blood.

“Order, please!” Tears leaked from Ossip’s eyes. Samedi attempted to yell something but his teenage lungs lacked the broad, sonorous abilities of a man.

A group of circus employ towards the front had descended upon the cage where Goren was housed. The cage rattled as it was wrenched violently from where it was chained in place. From within, Goren Hargus seethed like an animal.

“You’ll get yours!” Goren rasped inside the cage. He was so frightened he became unafraid. His bloodshot eyes darted about from person to person. He tore at the hands interlacing his bars. He lashed at them with his nails. With his teeth.

“You treacherous cretins!” Goren barked with total abandon. “I’ll fix it all in Hell! You’ll see! Every last one of you’s! Every last one of us will be on fire, alive, inside and out. Burning and smoking until our skin sloughs off and grows anew. And I’ll own every circus in the bowels of Satan’s playground! You’ll all get yours!”

From up on the dais, Ossip lost composure. He began to quietly weep into his forearm. As a sensitive and intelligent young man, he saw that he had not brought about justice or deliverance for his fellow man. He had only brought a shameful exudation of human filth.

As Ossip softly wept, he felt a familiar, silken presence envelope him. The comforting pressure of two large hands pressed down upon his shoulders. He knew it was Lorelei before he even wiped his eyes.

“May I?” Lorelei’s sweeping gesture was all Ossip needed. The power his mentor wielded over him had been established long before this moment. It was all very simple and clear for Ossip. So what happened next was the inevitable. In an intimate moment — noticed by no one — the entire fate of the circus was quietly transferred to the Interloper.

Lorelei drew himself up to his full height. “Gentlemen and ladies,” he said with a grand swivel of his mouth.

A few heads turned.

“Please,” continued Lorelei. “Mr. Hargus’s fate has already been sealed. There’s no need for violence.”

The logic of this seemed to penetrate. A wave of calm swept over the room. Even at the cage, the most embroiled members felt themselves take a step backwards, even as they continued to scream and threaten Goren.

As Goren viewed the change in atmosphere, he suddenly felt exhausted. He slumped down in his cage and — incredibly — he fell asleep.

Lorelei continued speaking. “Mr. Hargus has been found out. A true enemy to your cause. His execution will be both swift and just.”

Execution Ossip mouthed the word to Samedi. They both froze with the import of the word.

“But,” Lorelei smiled and wagged a fatherly finger around the room. “There are other enemies. Those who worked in concert with the accountant.”

Murmuring clusters broke out all over the mess. Other enemies? What could he mean? Who could he mean?

Lorelei stretched a long arm and pointed to Violet Smythe.

“Her,” he said simply.

Violet felt every nerve in her body turn to ice.

a barrel and a braintrust (Trial pt1)

The mess hall shuddered in the din of shouting, foot stomping, and clanging of pots and pans. The entire circus employ was in attendance. The clowns, the acrobats, the dancers, the jugglers, every last lever boy who cared a cent about his vocation, various speech-able creatures, and a few stray townsfolk who had heard about the trial and were curious to bear witness. Only a few of these people held Judgment Ballots in their hands.

“Get into your circles now, please” admonished a small lever boy named Samdei. He was one of Ossip’s braintrust, one of the original electors in the young man’s promotion to judge. He was marking off the groups in accordance with their pre-ordained system — heavily influenced by Doctor Lorelei — of grouping circus folks into quorums with each quorum represented by a single ballot.

Enormous horseflies bandied about the room. Attendees waved fans, newspapers, and their double jointed hands to wick away whatever heat they could. It was damp and oppressive inside the mess with so many persons. Violet and Binter found themselves trapped somewhere in the middle of the claustrophobic space but, happily, in the same quorum. Rustia and Mingey were in an adjacent quorum. Violet caught Mingey looking at her intently in the crowd. Mingey snarled and looked away. Violet wasn’t sure what to make of it.

A makeshift dais had been erected in the center of the room. On a little placard somebody had penciled in the phrase “HIS ONORABBLE, OSSIP P. BALICHENKO, JUDGE, JURY, EXECUTIONER OF LIBBERTIES FOR EQUAL CIRCUSES”

Samedi and the other members of the braintrust cried themselves hoarse, asking for the hundreds of circus people to quiet themselves. When the din had reached an acceptable nadir of muffled speaking, Samedi cocked his head towards the rafters.

A small pack of lever boys unloosed a length of rope, lowering Ossip P. Balichenko from the ceiling in a whiskey barrel that had been sawed in half and sanded down to outstanding, shell-like perfection. The craftsmanship of the barrel did not go unnoticed by all attending. Ossip was dressed in a suit he had found in a costume trunk and had brushed his cheeks with silver powder, believing it to add a sheen of authority to his young face.

Ossip alighted from the barrel and took his seat upon the dais. The circus employ cheered at Ossip’s grand entrance. Members of his brainstrust ferreted various items up and down the steps of the dais to Ossip and back out again to various tables and members of the crowd. They brought him a pen, some papers, a glass of apple juice, and a gavel in the form of a polished stone from the lake. The stone had a brilliant streak of quartz through it that had been coaxed through long hours of shaving and polishing.

Ossip gripped the gavel and brought is down twice upon his little table. A hush went over the crowd and things actually fell silent for a moment or two.  The braintrust, upon this practiced command, suddenly lined up beneath the dais like carved soldiers in a stone mason’s frieze. All except for Samedi who rushed up onto the dais and took the stance of a daily caller.

“Here ye! Here ye!” Samedi beamed. “Our trial begins! Ossip the pure, free of bias or complaint, will oversee the proceeding inquiry into the crimes, wrongdoings, malpractice, and misparlances of Goren Hargus!”

The crowd lifted into a cry of excitement. Feet stamped. Hats were thrown. Ossip cleared his throat. He became nervous. Never before had so many important people been paying attention to him. Samedi bowed and left the dais.

Ossip lifted his chin, he closed his eyes. He tried to take in this moment forever. His voice came out squeakier than he had intended, “I call the first witness to the stand!”

 

 

Augromme’s second act

At first, Augromme had liked how much attention he was receiving from his jellybird. She would come frequently to see him. Far more often than the bucket-man ever did. In the mornings, jellybird visited the elephant pen. He knew it was morning because it was always cooler. He came to associate the cool and dewy fog of morning with her clapping, playing music, and interacting with the the other elephants. They seemed to be learning things all together but he wasn’t really focused on how or what it was. Sometimes too, jellybird would take him out on special trips to the pasturelands. This was always in the afternoons. It was hot and muggy. He hated the mugginess but he liked the wide open space. Also, jellybird always brought him extra jams and treats, just for him. He didn’t have to share with the other elephants. She always brought the stupid music box with her and then spent a lot of time listening to it and stomping around.

And then one day he had an epiphany. He came to understand that he was also being trained. It happened when, out on his own, he found himself doing little steps. One! Tra-la-la! Two! Tra-la-la! Three! and ball change! It came naturally. As if he had been doing it all his life. The practice and the exercises. The clapping and the music. He realized he was being included in whatever it was the other elephants were doing with jellybird. It was all related somehow.

It had stunned him when he first put it together. Normally his thoughts were so swirled and uncontrollable that the continuity alone was startling. Once he became accustomed to that, though, he became enveloped in a warm and beautiful feeling of inclusion. It was overwhelming. He started nuzzling the other elephants more and charging them less. His nightmares settled down. The world — still a bizarre collage — began to have longer and longer stretches of clarity.

He still had incredible mood swings. He was violent with the equipment in the elephant pen. He threatened jellybird sometimes though he always felt shame afterwards and cried himself to sleep. Sometimes when he became very disoriented, he began doing the steps that jellybird had showed him. One! Tra-la-la! Two! Tra-la-la! Three! and ball change! He could do it forever, he felt and — indeed — forever was a common measure of time for Augromme as entire days could slip by without any real comprehension.

The trouble started when jellybird began to change the steps. He only wanted to do the first steps. The regular steps. The steps that made him feel good. One! Tra-la-la! He would dance for her, show her he knew what she was saying to him. But then she would clap and make a disapproving sound. One! and Two! la-la she would say, completely shattering his sense of connection with her and, by extension, the outside world. He felt he was losing his tenuous grip on a perspective that he had only just begun to reclaim. Why was she doing this to their steps? Why was she destroying them? He felt that she was severing him from everything and it frightened him.

So Augromme refused to do the steps. Whenever jellybird came with her magic blanket full of sweets, Augromme would roll back on his haunches and pointedly turn his head away from her. His crazy, small eye would drift back down to see if she noticed. From this askance posture he would watch her try and try again to coax him, to please him, to berate him, to offer jam, to withhold jam. She would become angry and curse at him. His eye roved all over her but he would not stand and he would not dance.

“Fine!” she shouted one day “You want to quit! So quit! I’m sick of this anyway!” Jellybird was marching away from him. She was a speck on the horizon. She was gone.

She had left the jam behind. He didn’t even want any though. It no longer tasted sweet to him.

 

 

the honorable Ossip P. Balichenko

“Now far be it for me,” said Lorelei as he bowed graciously to the host of lever boys, “to tell you young gentlemen your business. I see myself purely as a consultant in this matter.”

“I don’t think we could do any better, as consultants go!” Ossip spoke proud and plain. He thrust his chin in the air and the others smiled. The lever boys followed Ossip’s lead and nodded, grateful that such a worldly and experienced man as Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei was there to help them plan an honest to goodness trial against their unjust employers.

“Let me just set this down somewhere,” Lorelei continued. He fetched a large metal bowl and overturned it on Marrionetta’s head. He stacked 6 cans of mackerel on top of the overturned bowl to keep her from scurrying about.  He knew the strength of her feet, even if she didn’t presently have any legs.

“Now it seems to me, what you ought to do is make sure there is a large gathering at this trial. A vote of confidence from your fellow laborers. And you’ll want to elect a judge. Someone who respected for being objective, level headed, and has a great deal of knowledge about the situation. Somebody known for not having any particular grudges or axes the grind. That way, they can rule fairly on the subject.”

“Well Ossip, no doubt,” piped in one of the youngest boys.

“Yes I say Ossip fits that bill,” said another.

“Why don’t we put it to an informal vote, right here and now. We can — or rather you all can — agree at a later time if a change is required.”

The boys all nodded and put their hands in the air. A unanimous vote made Ossip P. Balichenko the circus’s first ever elected judiciary. It was a solemn and proud moment for these 11 young men. Intuitively, they each felt that this would be an important moment in their lives. Ever the more so as Ossip was only 19. His 20th birthday was still a month away. History was unfolding before their eyes.

“Congratulations my boy,” Lorelei beamed at his protege. “Please, let me be the first to shake your hand.”

Lorelei demonstrated both to Ossip and all others present how an official handshake might look. The other boys in turn wanted to shake Ossip’s hand. After all, they too had played a meaningful role in his ascendancy to power.

“Now then,” Lorelei continued, “if I may continue to offer my services. I have some additional notes and ideas on how to arrange such a trial. But only if you feel I’m not intruding?”

From beneath the overturned bowl, Marrionetta listened intently as the meeting went on.

Visigoth extraordinaire she thought and she exhaled wrathful humidity in great blasts onto the cold steel of her prison.

 

football among the lads

Marrionetta gasped for air. She had been tucked away in a trunk for nearly an entire day. Coffins! For the worms! she had concluded and vowed to be burned away in a kiln before anybody confined her in such a way again.

Doctor Lorelei retrieved her head from the box and promptly muzzled it. In protest, Marrionetta let all the musculature in her carved face relax so that she looked like a foul, drooping animal. The doctor however, paid her little attention.

Marrionetta noticed that it was morning. Business hours. Lorelei had already finished a pot and a half of coffee. She could tell from the light tremor of his hand that he had probably overdone it, both on the coffee and maybe on something else more stimulating the night before. She also noticed that he had bruising about the hands. She wondered if he had murdered anyone while she had been stuffed away in the trunk. The trunk must have been soundproofed because she hadn’t heard anything through the night except the cacophony of her own manic reflections. This confused her as Lorelei had already murdered plenty of people in front of her. Why the sudden need for privacy?

Doctor Lorelei retrieved another box. From this box sprang Marrionetta’s feet. The feet excitedly kicked and flexed themselves in hopes of achieving freedom but alas, that was not their destiny. At least not today.

Lorelei affixed the feet to the bottom of Marrionetta’s head. He then attached her muzzle to a lead and began dragging her out of The Emerald House. She squatly plodded along behind him. At first she tried to keep up with his long, loping stride. It was in vain. He did not care that he was effectively dragging her. She screamed through the muzzle but found — after a time — that it was not worth her energy. By the time they got to the bottom of the hill, she was caked in grass and dirt clods. Her eyes were daggers, gleaming with hatred.

After a jeering personal parade, Marrionetta and the doctor finally arrived at their destination. The mess. In front of the building stood a stockade. It surprised Marrionetta to see it although she immediately recognized what it was. She had seen many stockades throughout the many centuries she had lived. What shocked her though, was who was in this particular stockade. It was Goren Hargus.

Goren was purple and glistening with fresh pain. She knew immediately that this was who Doctor Lorelei had treated the night before to his special and unseemly profession of torture.

All her previous peevishness towards this Goren melted away in an instant. Goren and Marrionetta’s eyes met. She noticed his expression change when he recognized her, head and feet and all, rolling along behind the doctor. Even in the state he was already in, it seemed to reduce him even more to see her on a leash.

She didn’t like the look that came into Goren’s eyes. Instinctively, she arched an undaunted eyebrow at him. Almost straightaways she was dragged further along by the doctor. Still she felt sure she had detected a smile forming in the creases of Goren’s eyes just before she was carried off. It was as if he had something to her. Like, If only Drutherstone could see us now. Or something like that.

Still, it alarmed her that Goren was imprisoned and on display. She tried think why or how things could have happened this way. She could think of no exact reason but it occurred on her very keenly that the doctor appeared to be eliminating any person who had the vaguest semblance of control or authority in the circus. This seemed to go beyond typical visigoth behavior. She felt a creeping sense of dread that the doctor apparently had depths of talent she had not previously understood.

I was scouting fare she realized. Somehow, she felt that the circus was doomed. Or at least at least as a commercial enterprise it was doomed. But why us? Why us and our second rate little circus? Couldn’t he have left well enough alone? Her mind pounded over trying to connect her circus with the machine he had been building for months. How were these two events so converged upon each other?

Lorelei had been speaking with a few of the other circus employ outside the mess but now turned his attention back to Marrionetta. He bowed down and prepared to scoop her into his arms. Before he did it though, he spoke very briefly into her ear.

“Bite me, love, and I’ll leave you out here for a game of football among the lads. You wouldn’t like that, would you?” He didn’t wait for an answer and promptly picked her up like a small dog and carried her into the mess hall.

Inside, there was a gaggle of lever boys. Many of them were acting impatiently, Marrionetta noticed. Tapping their feet, running their fingers through their hair. Impatient for what though? Presently, the lever boys recognized her and became uproarious at the spectacle of seeing bold Marrionetta reduced to a head on string. A few of them tried to put their fingers in her mouth and she promptly bit them, drawing blood. Lorelei laughed with the younger boys for a time but finally he prohibited further molestation of Marrionetta’s head in favor of better plans.

“Enough of that, boys. We have a trial to plan.”

the many, many crimes of Goren Hargus

Many people run away to join circuses. That is a matter of public record. It is unknown, however, just how many persons run away from circuses. They are an uncounted lot who are at liberty to disappear in a rather permanent way whether they want to or not.

Goren Hargus was born Goren Hargus, which is a rare continuity in the life of a circus worker. His father was an accountant. So were his uncle and his grandfather. His mother was a seamstress and once a week on Fridays, she would bake shortbread.

It was fine shortbread. Certainly the finest Goren had ever tasted or would ever taste, no matter the fame or reputation of the bakeries he would encounter later in adulthood. Goren was raised well, sent to school, and it was always expected that he would be an accountant. It was also assumed that he would find a wife who knew how to make shortbread. There was nothing terribly exciting in store for him, as far as Goren could tell. Only a good and straightforward life.

The needle, however, wavered on its third trip around the disc of Goren’s life. For bunched up reasons he couldn’t — for the life of him — tell you now, he broke with his family’s expectations, the hindrances of his office life, and left a girl whom he had been instructing in how to make shortbread.

As if waking from a dream, Goren found himself one day sitting up in his cot on the grounds of Drutherstone’s circus, smiling in the cold fog of his 5am rounds to double check the infrastructure, pleased in his new life and his new work. Never a dull moment he would joke to himself, as this was a very queer thought for an accountant to partake in.  As accountants went, Goren Hargus was something of a libertine.

Nevertheless, Goren was still a competent accountant. He knew which corners to cut, how to blur the true meaning of a thick ledger, whose secrets were precious to them, and most importantly he was skilled in the art of price fixing. Goren knew how to artificially enlarge the price of cake, pressing its seductive value against the soft backbone of desire for a long but justifiable length of time. He knew also the moment when the circus employ had become too aggrieved of his meddling and when it would be time to pull back, allowing for a season of cakes to grow on trees.

Goren felt that the barracks and living conditions at Drutherstone’s circus were satisfactory. The mess provided good food. The work was difficult but then again, all these circus folks were there of their own accord, were they not? They had run away from unbearable lives. Surely they could see the value and cunning in operating an enterprise like this one on such a modest allocation of funds?

Goren trusted both himself and the fundamentals of economic theory to successfully tinker with the volatility of circus finances. He also didn’t see the harm in turning a tidy profit for himself in the process.

He was not the most popular member of the circus employ although to say he was despised might be overheated. Goren managed well enough with a few close friends, a growing bank account back in town, and the company of custard pies from the mess. He also observed a small tradition. Every year on his birthday, Goren would place a personal order to a catalog for 3 pounds of sweet, buttery shortbread. He always ate it privately and wondered each year if he shouldn’t order any for his mother but he never got around to it.

 

the inquiry

“You really aren’t any fun,” Lorelei exhaled hot air onto his blade and began cleaning it.

Goren caught his breath. He was covered in long, bleeding cuts. His bones were bruised. He was tied to the same chair he had sat down in to tea, the previous day.

“I always thought that large people were more buoyant of spirit. You’ve very much disappointed me in this realm, Mr. Hargus.”

Goren spit. A piece of his tooth came out. He looked Lorelei in the face and spit again, just for spite.

Lorelei frowned and shook his head.

“Well perhaps you really don’t know anything.” Lorelei chuckled and was quickly overtaken with an unstoppable peal of laughter. “You really don’t know do you? How the portal works? Incredible. Now, if I were an accountant and worked in a wrecked, pathetic circus full of nothing but gnomish mediocrity and slime, I personally would take special interest in something apparently miraculous like a portal to a new dimension. But I suppose we are all born differently. I have my predilections and you have, well, you have your pies to focus on.”

Goren continued to focus on his painful breathing. With each breath, his ribs ached.

There was a knock on the door. Goren looked wildly at the door but Lorelei did not seem perturbed at all.

“Ah. There they are. At long last.” Lorelei spoke to Goren. “Sir, I have tired of you as a guest. You will be more useful to all of us in a slightly new capacity.”

Lorelei stuffed Goren’s mouth with rags. Then he turned to the door and opened it. It was Ernt Rauchebaum and a very large lever boy who towered in the door frame. They looked in at Goren. They both seemed a bit nervous.

“Nothing to worry about,” Lorelei patted the larger boy on the back. “He’s secured up tight. Now take him down to the mess and we’ll begin the inquiry tomorrow morning. Mr. Hargus has many, many crimes he needs to account for.”

“Ernt?” Goren tried to say, muffled through the rags.

With a knitted brow, Ernt approached Goren, his former employer. A rapid unfolding of memories exchanged between the two of them. There was nothing to say.

Ernt and the lever boy took either side of Goren and hoisted him out of  the chair. Goren moaned, in pain. They dragged him out of the house and into the solid, green night.

the blasted hill

Goren took off his hat and took several laborious breaths. He sat down in the grass. He felt he was baking in the sunshine. This blasted hill he thought to himself and looked up the last length he was going to have to climb to get to The Emerald House.

Goren knew it was a power play. Goren understood the angles. He knew he was fat and appeared ridiculous to most of the circus crews. He knew that Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei did not respect him. He also knew that, in its own way, this was often an asset. Chubby little Goren with his single minded fixation on the ledgers and ticket sales. He would play right into Lorelei’s game. Arriving late, out of breath, and ostensibly three steps behind whatever the doctor thought he was getting away with.

Goren settled his breathing. He felt certain that this meeting would shed necessary light on what was happening to the young boys disappearing from the circus. He would report back to Ungulen and they could ready from there. Goren prepared himself to play the part of the absurd little man who couldn’t see more than three feet in front of him. Once he had gathered his nerve, he trudged the rest of the way up the hill.

 

“Doctor Lorelei, it’s nice to see you,” said Goren stepping over the threshold as the doctor bowed deeply, inviting the accountant inside with his massive, outstretched arm. Goren noted the doctor’s posture and wondered how this insane individual could pass unnoticed through the world.

“Do you ever deal in fireworks?” Goren asked.

“What? No.” Said Lorelei, shutting the door behind them.

“That’s too bad,” Goren ventured, trying to counterstroke the man’s ego. “You strike me as someone who could have done wonders in the field of pyrotechnics.”

Lorelei’s eyes slid all over Goren’s face. Goren remained cheerfully neutral and, presently, Lorelei smiled a great cushion of a smile and bowed again. Goren felt uneasy. He decided not to pursue that approach.

“How’s Marrionetta lately? She’s staying with you these days, I hear?”

“She’s out at the moment. Please, come sit down.”

Goren and Lorelei sat together at Lorelei’s workbench. Lorelei had prepared tea. Goren noticed that the place was strikingly clean. This surprised him. By all accounts, The Emerald House had descended into absolute squalor. He was also aware that Marrionetta had not been seen out or anywhere for months. He concluded that she was, in fact, still somewhere in the house. Possibly listening in on the conversation. That little tart he thought disdainfully.

Lorelei quietly poured tea. “Lemon?” he asked.

Their eyes met over the proffered wedge of lemon. Goren gave the doctor an impatient twinge of his eyebrow. Lorelei smiled again and set the lemon aside .

“I wanted to speak with you,” began Lorelei. “About certain economic and anomalous realities of the circus. Since you are the chief of circus finances, I thought you would be just the man I needed to speak with on such a delicate, manifold subject.”

“Oh?”

“I am a man of science. And the first rule of science, really the most paramount, is to be an open and insightful observer of natural facts.” As he spoke, Lorelei dug a spoon into a porcelain jar of sugar. He offered a great heaping mound of sugar for Goren’s tea. Goren refused it.

Lorelei continued, “Now it has been my observation that many of this institution’s patrons are, how shall I put it?” Lorelei pleased himself with a fanciful gesture. “From abroad?”

Goren said nothing.

“And so many! How is it that they travel here? There’s no nearby train station. No port. I have yet to see any particular kind highway?”

Goren’s mind raced as the doctor was speaking. Where was all this going? What did it have to do with the missing lever boys?

“It’s true,” Goren contributed in his circumspect way, “that our circus attracts a very wide audience.” He then gently replaced his teacup to its saucer. “Does that interest you for any particular reason?”

Lorelei swallowed his tea down. A bit greedily, Goren noted. “Purely for the sake of scientific observation, Mr. Hargus. How can I explain it? There is such nobility in the art of discovery. Such excitement in the power which is required to wrest secrets from nature’s tight, maternal grip.”

Goren was quiet for a moment or two. “Are you comparing scientific observation to kidnapping?”

Lorelei caught himself and rocked back gently in his chair. The two men observed each other.

“I know,” a strange tension began weaving itself into Lorelei’s voice, “that you are a patient and intelligent tally marker. Coin for entry. Coin for payroll. Coin for tit and coin for tat. Surely a man of your appetite knows that midnight pies don’t bake themselves.” Lorelei began slapping at his own belly.

The taunt was only the tip of the iceberg. Goren felt disrobed in some way but couldn’t say why. “What are we talking about?”

“Where does the portal go?”

Goren felt a chill go down his spine. He had not anticipated this avenue of inquiry.

“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully.

“But you must have some idea. I find it hard to believe that a ledgermaster is content to be dependent on an essential asset he cannot predict or understand. How does the portal work? Is it seasonal?”

“It’s not for us to know,” Goren felt both rooted in place and panicked to leave.

“Are they not dead? Or are they dreaming? Is it an in between state?”

Goren attempted to stand but Lorelei was faster. The doctor pushed the small, fat accountant back down into his chair. Lorelei stood over Goren, his huge open palm crushing Goren’s sternum. The two men breathed in each other’s stink. Goren, sweaty from his uphill climb and Lorelei perspiring in a blossoming pique. A tiny gleam caught Goren’s attention. It was only then he noticed the small knife protruding from the sleeve of Lorelei’s other hand.

“Please, Mr. Hargus. I beg your patience. After all, there’s still tea. And so much more to discuss.”