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.”

 

unwitting-like

Violet sat on one of the warped wooden benches inside the empty big top. It was a warm, humid afternoon. Grounds muck had begun collecting in little pools at all the circus corners and crannies. There was a haze of dust hanging in the air, refracting all the slanted sunlight as it streamed in from the open flaps.

Violet hunched over her rucksack, digging around for an item she could not find. In frustration, she balled up her fists and began slamming them down feebly on the wooden bench. In response, the bench wobbled according to its distorted geometry.

“Ouch,” Violet drew back her hand. It smarted with a tiny splinter. She  was upset because she couldn’t find the little golden figurine she was so sure she had packed away in the rucksack. It was meant for Augromme. She had started bringing him little gifts in addition to jams and foodstuff. She felt sure that a better bond was forming. For a time, his training had been going extraordinarily well. Until it wasn’t anymore. He has ceased to pay attention and was increasingly ornery. She had been sure the little golden figurine would recapture his attention but now it was missing.

Violet rested her chin in her hands and closed her eyes. I’m exhausted she thought to herself. Once she thought it, she realized how true it was. All her limbs ached and the all the chambers of her heart felt squeezed with urgent hopes. The added pressure of Ungulen’s warning about the doctor was also growing as a storm cloud in her mind. She exhaled. It was so quiet in the big top. So still. She decided to light a cigarette.

The tiny cigarette was neatly rolled. She felt the world melt away as the tip of the paper caught with embers burning a resilient blend of orange and yellow.

“Lonely, Miss?” The question startled Violet. She turned and saw it was Binter, the youngest of the Keurmite brothers, the triplets with the removable heads. He had his own head tucked under into his elbow. He smiled at her and put his head back on. His jaunty trousers plumed pleasantly at the thigh. She always thought how charming and silly it was that all three of them went around shirtless in suspenders.

She laughed, “Hi, Binter. No I’m just thinking. Were you looking to use the rehearsal space?”

“Naye,” said Binter sidling up to her. “But I was looking to bum one of those cute little ciggies of yours.”

Violet rolled her eyes at him and handed him one of the other cigarettes from the inside of her jacket.

“So,” Binter’s face was alive with winking, dimpled suggestion. “How’re the oliphants?”

“They’re just grand,” said Violet, not making eye contact.

“I thought your last show was pretty good. All sea shanty like. It was different.”

“Well thank you, Binter. Nobody else seemed to think so.”

Binter saw that she was moody. He set down the cigarette and stood up abruptly. He put a hand in his pocket. With the index finger of his opposite hand he poked Violet directly in the center of her forehead.

“Seems awful congested up here. I think we need to do some weeding.”

Binter took his other hand out of his pocket. With a sleight and a trick, Binter began pulling a great sheaf of pink ribbon, seemingly directly out of Violet’s forehead.

“Well would you look at that,” he said.

Violet laughed.

“Wait, hang on. There’s even more over here.”

Binter cupped Violet on the ear, making her shrug away from him with a ticklish smile. Binter, however, was persistent and began to stream yellow, blue and green silk from out of her ear.

“Would you just look at that, Miss! No wonder you’re gloomy.”

Violet batted him away. “Shut up,” she giggled.

Binter sat back down next to her. He picked up his cigarette from the bench and stuck it back in his mouth. “Our mother was a painter, you know.”

“Really?”

“Yes. In addition to having four children, we three ugly mugs and a sister. My mother was pretty alright with it too. The painting I mean. Landscapes mostly, you know. Haystacks, cliffs, horses with a white spot on the forehead. All that sweet country living.”

Violet ashed carefully and looked at Binter.

“All I’m saying is,” Binter continued, “paint’s probably an easier medium to work in compared with the willful nature of an oliphant. Kind of a hard palette you’ve chosen.”

“Well some people are born with elephants and others have elephants thrust upon them.”

Binter burst out laughing at this. It was very loud but also very pleasant. They both ashed out their cigarettes and took little drags.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Binter said. “Have you seen Ungulen around lately? I feel like nobody’s seen him in quite a while.”

For the briefest moment, Violet went stiff. It passed through her mind that Binter Keurmite could very easily be taking money from Lorelei. He wouldn’t even need to be loyal to the chaotic doctor in order to be passing information along. Unwitting-like.

Binter, for his part, detected a change in carriage in his female companion. He, however, assumed a different reason for it.

“Not to pry into your business,” Binter said hastily.

“No no,” Violet quieted him. “It’s just…I haven’t seen him either and it’s making me a little on edge. With Drutherstone gone away you know? Who does that leave us with? Goren Hargus at the helm?”

“Heaven forbid,” laughed Binter.

Violet shrugged ironically. “Well, I should get going.”

“So soon? Me and some of the gang snagged a great barrel of ale from in town. You could come have a drink with us?”

“Maybe next time, Binter.” Violet showed herself out.

Binter sat a few moments longer, puffing on the cigarette. Absently, he took his head off and began passing it back and forth in his hands.

a conspiracy among friends

Violet rolled her eyes. Ungulen gestured emphatically on the other side of the small window. Taking direction from his flailing hooves, she picked up a bucket and filled it with water, pretending in her overall posture that she was busily preparing snacks for the elephants. With nonchalance for anyone around who might care to notice, she picked up the filled bucket and opened the door to the walrus house.

“Oof,” Violent brought her hand to her nose. The overpowering odor of the kept walrus was stunning.

“Did anyone see you?” asked Goren Hargus from a dark corner of the room. Violent shook her head no and closed the door behind her. The walrus house flooded with cool, afternoon darkness.

“Good,” proclaimed Ungulen and gestured for all of them to be seated at a little card table. The meeting began.

“Violet, I’ve asked you here because you and Goren are the two people I trust most on the grounds.” Ungulen looked over his shoulder towards the door. “Now, Goren and I believe that there may be some misfortune amiss with the doctor.”

Both Ungulen and Goren fixed Violet with an expectant look.

Violet scoffed, “Well of course there’s something wrong with him. He punched me straight in the face and kidnapped Marrionetta, which by the way neither of you really did anything about at the time or after, thank you very much. So much for a young lady’s delicacy. ”

At this, Ungulen blushed deeply through the fur at his nape.

Violet continued, “He’s paying off half the staff with coin to fetch him little machine parts and the like. He eats all the chocolate and sardines at the mess, and actually he’s been very keenly peculiar since the very first day he showed up here.”

Ungulen and Goren each began nodding deeply. There was certainly nothing untrue in Violet’s pronouncements.

“Is that all?” Violet asked, angry. “He’s a mean, strange man and you just wanted to talk in secret about it? How is this cause for a secret meeting in a smelly old walrus closet?”

The walrus moaned quietly at this and slapped his bath water. He was insulted. Violet took no mind as she had not developed the same communicative sensitivity to the walrus as she had with the elephants.

“No no this goes beyond that,” Ungulen began chewing his long, flapping goat lips. “We think he’s taken to killing some of the younger lever boys.”

Violet drew back, astonished at this claim. She was very familiar with many of the lever boys. Several had tried to bring her daffodils. She began to reflect on which of them she perhaps had not seen in a while but stopped herself. The thought was too chilling to partake of.

“Ungulen, that’s just wild thinking. Surely nobody is…is…” she searched for a word other than murdering. “Surely it’s fine? They’re just run aways? Don’t you think, Goren?”

“I’m not sure just yet,” replied Goren. “But there’s a logic to it. Too many of these so called runaways never bothered to collect their last circus cheques and several of them left behind rather essential belongings, I would say. Boots, cigarettes, little Cormac left behind the walking stick he carved last spring. Had it mounted it with a bit of pyrite too.”

Violet took a moment to absorb this.

“So,” Ungulen sank closer into the table and his two friends. Goren and Violet drew in closer as well. “We need to begin spying on our good old friend, mister doctor, and see what he really gets up to in the meantime.”

 

all the work still unfinished

“KURST!” yelled Lorelei, throwing down a small instrument. It clanged to the floor and rolled toward the desk where Marrionetta’s head was still floating in the chemical bath. She only blinked at the doctor as she was accustomed to his outbursts.

But then in a flash, he rose wildly out of his chair. The chair fell over. This was new. He stalked towards her head and in a single jab, plunged his arm up to the elbow into her bath and dredged her head out. The chemical bath waters got in her mouth and nose and she coughed and sputtered all the way to his work desk. He banged her down upright, so they could have a conversation.

“I’m sick of this, you know.” He was referring to the general progress he had made on the Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator. The progress had been slow. His myriad experiments on Marrionetta had been painstaking and exhausting for her. She was sick of it too. So, in solidarity, she spat in his face.

Lorelei bared his Viennese teeth at her. An incredible rage beamed from behind his eyes but he did nothing. He didn’t even wipe the spittle off his face.

He continued, “Sick to death of it. Of the entire thing.” Absently, he gripped another small metal instrument at the desk and pointed at her with an accusatory mien. “Do you know that I have discovered something beyond the comprehension of man? Right here in this godforsaken circus? No. Of course not. Why would you know.”

“Right again as usual mister doctor! “screeched Marrionetta. “How would a head left in pal of your little piss and gravy experiment water, wrinkling to ages like a royal prune, know what the dog hair’s breath is going on anywhere and anyhow!”

Her angry outburst seemed to soothe him. He licked his lips. Finally, he wiped her splat from his cheek. “It was beautiful. A portal. Probably into another world. Can you believe it?” He wasn’t talking to her at all. She used the opportunity to survey the items at his desk. Maybe there was something she could pick up with her teeth and stab his hand with.

“I need you to assist me with finishing up my experiment. It has to go faster. It must. But I can’t concentrate. It’s beneath me now, I can see that. The celestial forces have summoned me to a greater project. I must finish this confounded machine and move on to the next and more spiritually freeing part of my journey.” The reverie on his own destiny brought him back to his former self. He looked younger somehow in the throes of forwardism. Then he frowned, remembering all the work still unfinished. He locked eyes with Marrionetta.

“You will do the tasks I assign to you. They will be simple. A child could do them.”

Marrionetta began to hack up another expectorant missile but Lorelei grabbed her with both hands and shook her entire head rather violently until she half choked and had to swallow it back down. The spit hack leaked out the bottom of her open neck.

“All done there, I see?” Lorelei placed her head back on the desk and started patting down her hair. Marrionetta was dizzy and angry.

“I will release your hands,” continued Lorelei, taking a locked wooden chest out from a shelf. It was deep red and had a crest on top. It was the width of his torso. The chest rattled once he began handling it.

He set the chest down on the desk a little ways away from Marrionetta’s head. With a key on a ring of keys, he unlocked the padlock and opened the box. Inside were both of Marrionetta’s writhing, disembodied hands. They were separated by a thick divider of wood. Each were attempting to escape the confines of the chest but were unable to. Lorelei had fastened each hand at the wrist with a metal ring (installed painfully some months ago), and each hand was leashed with leather cord to the box.

With minimal difficulty, Lorelei quashed one hand and separated it from its cording. He fastened a leather leash to the ring. He put the chest away with her other hand still inside.

Lorelei staked the leash of Marrionetta’s hand to a mount on the desk. The hand greeted its mistress’s face lovingly. I miss you it seemed to say.

“You will direct the hand and make it obedient to my wishes. In this way, I will train them,” he explained. “They will be instruments of my artwork.”

 

flat fish bowl

Everything on my monitor is underwater. People and places track by, leaving a brief wake of turbulence and are, afterwards, forgotten. I could stare at it all day and I do. The meaningless drift of content: fish, fake plants, the filter burbling down into the pebbly bottom. I mean for crying out loud, it glows. What else am I supposed to look at all day?

Anyone who has spent enough time with a fish tank can attest to its ability to mesmerize. It’s a gentle hypnosis and one that seems to justify itself. Like a piece of performance art meant to signify relaxation as a platonic ideal. Or maybe the fish tank’s many occupants and their activities are an observed demonstration of the unpredictable but ultimately insignificant arc of biological life. Or maybe it’s a controlled exercise in affirming the validity of Ooooh! Shiny! In any event, from the moment you first laid eyes on a fish tank, its inherent value was obvious to you and you’ve most likely never questioned them since.

But what about the cyberdigital fish tank nestled in my hand? It glows. It contains things both fake and real. I stare at it all day. Things drift by that amuse or delight me and then are promptly forgotten within moments. The major difference between this fish tank and all fish tanks is that the fish seem to swim only vertically. Great long films of fish, unspooling upside down and reverse, cut and copied, edited all together with marketing glue as my thumb streaks by on the silky soft interface as soft as lake water. Every once in a while I bob up for air and think How long have I been here? 

Jozef

He was a tall man. Thick. Dressed completely in black pinstripes. He looked like a circus freak. A dark one. A circus freak in chains. The clown perhaps. But the clown who dares you to keep on looking. To take a step closer. Entrances you with his invitation  to heavy burdens and to sorrow. The clown who laughs and makes you feel clattering inside.

He played the lute. An electric lute. How contemporary. In case you’re wondering, a lute is a rather large instrument. Larger than you’re imagining. Especially when it has about 24 strings. It looks more like a guitar than you’ve been led to believe and it is not a guitar. It is a moaning instrument. A lute suffers at its players hand. It is a strange and evil instrument. It is on fire. Rome is burning.

The name lute is an etymological derivation from an Arabic word. I didn’t have to look that one up. I remembered it from a few years ago when I first discovered the musical tradition of the oud. Yes I’m bragging but I’ll stop right now. The oud is a guitar-like instrument that predates the guitar. It has a shapely bodice like a pear or a pear shaped woman. I am not a musicologist but I gather that the oud has more strings than a modern day guitar and never had any frets. As an instrument, the oud  was open to interpretation, as any pear shaped thing should be. Half steps break what you think you know about music. Then come the fourth steps. Then eighth steps. All the sorrowful, undeclared, unresolved feelings that the string of a heart contains but never materializes in those “four-to-the-floor” beats and lurid pop songs about pussy shanking or whatever is in vogue these days for bankrupt western audiences.

So the oud. What does it sound like? It sounds like you’re by the ocean. It doesn’t have to be a pleasant day by the ocean. It is perhaps windy and rocky. Five centuries ago, a ship broke into a million pieces on that particular rock over there. Do you see it? The great black one with white crustacea foaming on its brittle back. If you listen closely you can hear the dead of the wreck singing their favorite love songs. They may be dead but they are singing if your oud player is skilled enough.

So, al-oud takes a little trip, she does. Pear shaped and all, across the abbreviated Mediterranean. Do you see where this is heading? Why Spain, of course. Al-oud to el oud to l’oud to –aha!– our lute in question. It’s a rather quick dissolve of salt in water. Could have happened over the course of a single port deal. Hands shaken, blessings said, mi casa es al-oud.

Fast forward only about 500 years. A few more ships have crashed. Planes were invented. Those crashed too, incidentally. Near the same rock. Can you believe it? A very strange chorus has erupted in that exact spot of the double ship wreck and plane crash. It’s difficult to categorize the genre exactly. Sort of a dirge meets rock opera ballad. In any event, I went to a concert in Los Angeles a few weekends ago.

There he was. The Dutchman. Sitting cross legged in his black, pinstriped clown suit. His lank hair falling in his face. Everything about him looked so greasy. His hair, his pants, his slick and beautiful red lute. You couldn’t look away. You wondered, is this guy for real? And then he started playing.

He’s playing the lute. The electric lute. A gross contradiction in terms if you’re just reading about it. And yet. Is painful feeling — when it’s truly felt — dulled in its magnification? Or is it simply louder? Louder than all the plane crashes. Louder than pop songs raging their insolent substitution for substance. Louder than Spain. Louder than al-oud. Loud. Loud. Loud as we want to feel about our own private, drowning love songs.

 

inspired by moving day (originally posted 7/2013)

A little thing I wrote in 2013 that seems very of The Now

All hail great nation of Cardboardistan whose number 1 export is the fabulous cardboard from their ancestral cardboard tree forests. Some of the people in this wonderful nation, known for its lustrous vistas, beautiful women, and rich culture also to farm cork for their shoes.

But let us not forget the plight of neighboring country, Kitchensinkistan with its many problems. This once mighty people is beset by so many problems that you cannot even count them all on your ten fingers. You must borrow a neighbor’s fingers to count more of the problems but even then you will fail to name all of them. Nation of Kitchensinkistan is appealing for aid to its Model United Nations in order to resolve at least a small fraction of the problems. Not proper United Nations because first task set to the many brave students of Kitchensinkistan is to determine what the name of the number should be called that describe how many problems exist in the country.

But surely no country suffers more than the regrettable nation of Insertnamehere-istan who is experiencing great national emergency when red tape factory exploded. Our hearts go out to brothers and sisters of Insertnamehere-istan who are struggling even to buy a newspaper to read and understand what has happened to them.

brine

Sit in your house. Sweat. Come on now, sweat it out. Droplets form all over your skin in the oppressive heat of your un-aired room. The laundry gently bakes at the low grade convection of 75 degrees and the natural humidity of you and your other housemates. There may be sourdough naturally occurring in all the peripheries of your room.

Sit down harder. Sweat it out. Think out loud. Harder. Yes, that’s it. Now you’re getting it. You’re a concentrate. You’re stewing in and of yourself.  You’re in brine.

What ingredients are you adding to your brine? Everyone’s different. Me? I like a little garlic. Not too much. I know some people spoil for garlic. If given half a chance they would whip up toxically garlicky mascarpone to slather everywhere, all over their bodies, laying down scent trails to attract every other garlic nut for miles around for an indulgent orgy of pungency. Now, I wouldn’t say no to a morsel from the garlic of earthly delights but I’m not about to hand over my golden apple either. Sorry, where were we. I hope I haven’t lost you yet? At least, not on account of the garlic?

I like peppercorns in my brine. The jagged little black spheres always remind me of asteroids. Like space rocks collecting and spacing themselves out in an elegant ring around Saturn. A crackling spice loud enough to be tasted in the vacuous dark. So, a half dozen whole peppercorns into the boil.

Next, red pepper flakes. Mostly for color. They are just so darn autumnal. And how like leaves they are, drifting lazily to the bottom of the mason jar. Like a salty, spicy snow globe, enveloping an untouched little domicile.

Of course there’s other things you could put in: Bay leaf, coriander, a hot chili or two. But what are you pickling? Is it cucumbers? Is it mushrooms? Is it a vegetable that shares your name which contains multitudes? That’s interesting. A vegetable with unknown properties. Untested mettle. One that has never had to stew so long in its own juices, in such a tight and compacted space as this one? Hmmm. What will we be at the end of our brining?

Human person. Beautiful and strange. Combine with several heaping tablespoons of coarse or Kosher salt. Lightly boil and seal it all inside. We shall see in 18 months.

Day I at gymnasia

Socrates sidled into the main theater of the gymnasia. He felt awkward. He felt acutely that his unstructured teenaged body was in unfavorable contention with the polished marble walls. Their smooth white gleam seemed an imperious reproach of his red, pimply skin. His eyes couldn’t help but roam over the tawny golden hued tiling and the resplendent blue mosaics which all sparkled in brilliant harmony with the wide cooling pond at the theater’s center. Men and boys, nude and slicked with olive’s oil, were squatting, jumping, tying off the ends of their cocks with wool string, warming their muscles for the morning’s pursuit of attainable divinity.

Socrates gulped back a large swallow of mucous. His mucouses had been acting up quite a bit lately. Ever since he had noticed he was ugly. It happened one day out by the lake in the eastern part of his family’s wood plot “By Zeus,” he’d muttered, scowling into the Greek cerulean surface that could only reflect truth. He was so ugly he couldn’t believe it. His mother had always intimated that he wasn’t an attractive young man. Even as a child she had cherished his more hard-won characteristics, like an early proclivity to discern rancid almonds.

His mother had helped in delivery for hundreds of country children in her time and never hesitated to praise and celebrate when the gods deigned to summon a beautiful face for Greece. For her adult son — for indeed at 17 he was firmly a man — his mother rarely had praise of his features. She usually complimented him on his great ability to make sturdy walking sticks. “Such a clever craftsman,” she would beam and then sharply elbow his father, the stone mason, an indication that Socrates really should be getting on in his vocational training, lest he sit idle.

Socrates felt the cool marble against his bare back in the gymnasia. His already fine and feminine waistline shrunk back towards his spine, making him appear more gaunt and unmanly than ever. Could he possibly make friends among these athletic specimens? He recognized a few from the market stalls. Sons of sandal makers. Uncles of his fishing team. The patrons here were all thick with muscle, wild haired, and sexually avaricious in a way that made Socrates wonder if he had actually been born unsexed in some odd jest between Olympian scoundrels.

“No,” Socrates thought to himself, a painful expression overtaking his face and vexing his shoulders. “I will never be one of them.” His mouth swiveled into a pout and he headed back for the egress, firm in his belief that he wasn’t good for anything.

Eggs Neptune with salt on the side

“That’s the way Rick Royal eats ’em so that’s the way we serve it,” the fat, cheerless waiter explained to the tiny man. The waiter plugged his short pencil behind his ear and crossed his arms, waiting impatiently for the man to order.

Goosemander, the tiny man, was seated in the blinding vinyl yellow of the booth which was several feet too tall and also too wide to comfortably accommodate him. He quivered slightly, under the haughty gaze of the waiter and his trembling energy migrated up and through the enormous, laminated menu so that it wobbled a great deal in his hands.

“But what’s Neptune got to do with it?” Goosemander ventured. He fixed the waiter with a look, pushing up his glasses with the knuckles of his right hand. “Is Ricky Royal from Neptune or something?”

“It’s Rick Royal. Not Ricky. Come on, hurry up. I’ve got tables to charge.”

Goosemander licked his thin lips and looked out the megadex windows of the diner immediately adjacent to the parking flats. Beyond the parking flats was the horizon of the planet with an astonishing view of outer space including three attractive planets with their attractive magenta sun, a pirouetting refueling structure, and all around, the streak of travelers burrowing their ways through the unknown.

Goosemander could see his maroon vehicle still sitting in the parking flat. Space #26-J. He nervously bobbed his head around, checking the flats.

“If you’re looking for flat weevils, we don’t have that kind of problem around here.”

“What’s that?” Goosemander turned back to the waiter, knitting his brow.

“We’re a clean and family friendly establishment.”

“Such a relief.”

“So quit lookin’ out the window like that.”

Goosemander shoved his hands under his arms and scowled at the waiter. “I’ll look out the window however I want! I’ll do it backwards if I like!”

“What are you ordering?”

“I don’t care. Eggs Neptune. No salt.”

“It comes with salt on the side.”

“I don’t care!” Goosemander threw the menu down feebly on the floor. He tucked his head into his arms and began sobbing.

The waiter rolled his eyes and the enormity of his body rolled with them. With crucial force, he bent down his knees and picked up the menu.

“Eggs Neptune with salt on the side, no salt, coming up.”

Once the waiter had lumbered away, Goosemander stopped crying and looked around the restaurant.

His peevish face lit up as he examined the diners. Most were families clearly on their way to vacation spots. Ravenous fathers and pissed off wives with their space sick children. A few business people eating efficient meals of protein slips and caffeine cake were also present. In the middle of the restaurant, at the very long table, was a freight crew enjoying some R&R from some kind of dirty mining operation. They wore blue and yellow jumpsuits, ate loudly, and kept smacking each others’ heads in good humor. Their tremendous blast of a ship took up several spaces out in the parking flats.

Goosemander looked out over the top of his booth. He was on tippy toes. Like a peeping Tom with only his eyes and the top of his head showing, he scanned the restaurant. He was still licking his lips.

A touristy family got up to leave, touting their screaming brats like luggage.

“I won’t go! I won’t go!” one of their numerous children screamed. The father took the struggling child by the shoulders and began stuffing him into a child cooler. Overpowering his offspring, he pressed the child down by the head and zipped him up. Then the father put an arm around his wife. They both breathed a sigh of relief and heaved the rest of their children back out to the parking flats.

As this group passed by Goosemander’s table, he swiftly turned, slid down, and reclined back into a sitting position. Goosemander’s eyebrows bristled as he watched the family exit.

Once they were gone, Goosemander rose from his table like a breeze. With a gait that was neither fast nor slow, he made his way over to the table where the family had been eating. With glancing attention, he pulled the tip money off the table and pocketed it. He made a slow circle back to his own booth. Nobody noticed him.

Inside the booth, he furtively produced the money from his pocket and began counting it. He counted faster than a banking bot. It was two and 6-thirteenths credit.

“Bazingo!” Goosemander whispered and then he quickly pocketed the money again.

A relaxed mood came over Goosemander. He stretched out in the booth. He breathed in the scent of freshly frying oil. He gazed out the window at the three attractive planets. His ears perked up at the sound of the angry waiter returning to the front of the restaurant. Without turning around, Goosemander followed the man’s every step in his mind’s eye.

When he heard the moment he waiting for, it aroused him.

“Junk munchers!” boomed the waiter. The din in the restaurant dulled for a moment. Everyone — except Goosemander — turned to look at the angry waiter who was huffily stacking plates and emanating a series of boondock expletives that the freight team would repeat to one another for years to come.

“Oh, sir?” Goosemander held out his tiny, quavering hand so it stuck out from the booth like a little flag. “Sir?”

The waiter stormed over to Goosemander.

“What.”

Goosemander’s head swirled around on his neck. “Do you have any champagne?”

Just then, out in the parking flats, a gleaming white spacecraft touched down in an empty spot.

“We do not serve champagne here you freakish, little rimmed-out nitwit. Bug juice or get the hell out of my restaurant.”

“Bug juice,” Goosemander repeated, as if it were his favorite card game.

Two persons stepped out of the white spacecraft. They wore reflective masks and carried long, roping, lassos. The stouter of the two produced a small silver box and began to make a pictorial survey of the parking flat.

Inside the diner, Goosemander was fixated on the waiter as he lumbered to the back bar and grabbed a wide ceramic mug from a collection of mugs on a shelf. He placed the mug under a gargantuan silver tank that stretched so far up that it may have touched the ceiling of the diner. The waiter pulled the tap and a jet stream of blue burbling liquid surged into the mug.

Outside, the masks with lassos were taking special interest in Goosemander’s vehicle parked in Space #26-J. They pointed at it. They pointed at each other. They pointed at the restaurant.

The waiter was coming back with Goosemander’s drink. Goosemander bounced up and down in his seat, his fists were balled up in silent, screaming anticipation. The waiter hesitated for just a moment at the booth, holding the bug juice and really seeing Goosemander for the first time. The excited little man was close to rollicking. The waiter decided he must be a mental case, slid the bug juice before him, and left again.

The masked persons entered the restaurant.

The bug juice steamed with sugary richness. Goosemander inhaled tremendously over the steam and then stuck a furtive, swirling finger into the bug juice. He stirred it thoroughly before downing the entire thing in a single gulp. 

When he was done with the beverage, he looked up to find two masked persons towering over him.

The masks did not have faces. So when they spoke, it was from an electronic voice box located on the right shoulder. The leaner of the masks said,  “Tiberius Ralpheinnes Goosemander, you are in violation of the 749 Time Travel Law of the Citadel. You are under arrest for crimes you have knowingly yet to commit.”

It was very loud, as if through a bull horn.

“No,” Goosemander surged out of the his booth and clambered over the heads of the people in the booth next to him, making them yelp out in pain.

“Stop,” voice boxed the stouter mask. “You will stop.”

But Goosemander did not stop. He raced and tumbled through the diner. The waiter, only too happy to assist, attempted to snag the tiny man and succeeded in catching him around the waist. Goosemander, however, was more muscular and frightened than the waiter had anticipated and he wriggled out of the larger man’s grip, causing the waiter to fall forward onto his stomach.

Goosemander sprinted for the door. He pushed it. The bell jangled. But just as he was heaving the mass of his small body against the weighted door, the stouter mask struck out, precisely, with their lasso. Goosemander was ensnared.

“Never! No! Not today! I’m innocent! Innocent I tell you!” Goosemander screeched and then he began jerking and hissing, baring his little white teeth.

“Your trial has been prescribed,” said the lassoer. “Guilty.”

The lasso lit up blue electric like a nebula.

Goosemander jerked and spat but this time without intention or control.

All over the restaurant people gasped. They dropped their forks and cups. Mothers covered up their children’s eyes.

Goosemander disintegrated into a pile of grey dust on the floor.

The lassoer retracted his lasso. With menacing slowness, the two masked persons calmly left the diner. The door’s bell jangled behind them. All present watched silently as they returned to their gleaming white vehicle, stepped inside, and jammed it directly out of there. Their white craft was visible for a few short moments as an arcing streak in the airless black of space. Then they were gone.

After a few moments of silence in focus, one of the freight crew absent mindedly slurped his bug juice. A few of his team nodded and they also began slurping their bug juice in solidarity.

“Order up!” a fry cook bellowed from a subterranean kitchen, unaware of what had transpired topside. “Eggs Neptune with salt on the side, no salt,” the fry cook specified as the dish slid out onto the serving bench.

The waiter stood back up again. He drew himself to his full height. Everyone in the restaurant turned to him.

“Rick,” said the waiter, addressing himself to the slurping freight crew, “is never going to believe this one.”

The freight crew laughed and saluted the waiter as he retrieved a broom from the corner. Rolling his eyes, the waiter brushed up Goosemander into a dustpan. With the dustpan in one hand, he made an easy glide to the serving bench, scooped up the order of eggs in his other hand and headed towards the back door.

He stepped outside the back of the restaurant. Here too was an astonishing view of outer space, a moon, and a murky purple asteroid belt. He made his way to the dumpster and unceremoniously dumped out both Goosemander and the eggs into the bin.

a confident, exploring hand

It was a cool evening, green and textured as a crocodile’s tail. The big top was open and torches threw off a dancing glow that had its own musicality and strangeness. The returning groundsmuck glinted with its own fecund magic.

A second rate clown show was churning away inside the big top, much to the delight of ticket holding suckers. All around the circus grounds, children and lovers fetched in and out of lightness and shadow. The evening was perfumed with a burbling sense of mischief and anonymity.

Lorelei strolled through the night air. He had an object in mind but wanted no one to observe him. His task tonight was scientific and stealthy. He had dressed down for the occasion in a woven shirt, commoner’s suspenders and brown trousers. He attracted no special attention except for the occasional lever boy who doffed a happy cap to him. Lorelei’s coin had bought him snaking threads of appreciative staff.

Lorelei approached the big top. Instead of entering through the flaps though, he made a mild and dispassionate circumference around its loud canvas stripes, picking his way among puddles of groundsmuck. He was looking for something. He knew it would be there, close at hand, even though the object of his interest was — technically — invisible.

Invisibility — as a foundational characteristic — is of particular significance to those in possession of a scientific mind. The scientifically uninitiated can only appreciate invisibility in two ways: as power or as perversion. Usually both together in the service of soaking in ladies at their toilet or in states of dressing. But to a scientist, invisibility is not just a matter of utility (though its utility is undoubtedly powerful). Invisibility as a characteristic challenges notions of what is possible or impossible. Something invisible implies a wider and greater universe than what has already been catalogued.

Absently, Lorelei touched his fingertips to the big top’s canvas tent. He traced a line, enjoying the gentle thrill of thick, acrylic paint. He swept his eyes through the dark, focusing on nothing in particular, waiting for the invisible thing to give up its secrets. He carried on this way for a few minutes, milling around the flanks of the tent until something caught his eye and he halted.

It was already over but Lorelei knew the gist of what he had not seen. A vacant-eyed and expressionless woman was gliding towards the circus tent’s open wings. An indigo ticket was clutched in her gloved hand.

Lorelei strode past her without giving her a second look. He settled near a patch of briar, prepared to wait for as long as necessary.

So it startled him somewhat when, nearly immediately, a lank young man materialized in front of him. The young man had the same, drugged appearance. His eyes were glowing, distant, and absent of thought. With an eerie grace, the young man slipped past the doctor, also in the direction of the circus tent.

Now Lorelei could see it. The vein. It was so effervescent, so slight, it would be impossible to detect during the day time. Even here in the dark, it’s ghostly seam was masked by the interlocking branches of the briar patch.

Lorelei licked his quivering, lower lip. He felt the unmistakable prick of arousal beneath his vestments. He approached the seam and raised a confident, exploring hand.

The seam of the portal was icy to the touch. Undeterred, Lorelei pressed on. To his roaring excitement, his hand dipped through space, disappearing from sight as into a freezing, rushing river. In pain, Lorelei snatched his hand back. All his fingers were still intact, however they were burning and itchy, as though covered in stick pins. A deep and sideways smile gripped the doctor’s face, almost as if he were having a stroke. But he was not. He was consumed with desire. His eyes flashed and his breathing pulsated.

He pulled out a graphite pencil from his breast pocket and gently ran it through the freezing, ghostly sliver. The Hasse-Lieber Reverse Induction Contabulator receded from his mind like a station recedes from the barreling train. Marrionetta too was spiritually obliterated from his fantasy world.

“Darling,” he purred to the portal. “You and I have much to learn from each other.”

Augromme in the Box

Augromme thrashed and roared. He scraped around the enclosure, trying to turn around but was unable. He was sore and he was thirsty. He kicked with his back legs. He stamped with his forelegs. He trumpeted and the result was gargling and expectorant. His flanks and his legs were skinned and scabby, punished and weeping fresh sores that were discernible even in his repudiated, zombie flesh.

This tumult caused quite a stir on the other sides of his encasing walls. Small, roving eyes crowded up the darkness of several peeping holes. There were several peep holes, all drilled in at strange, titillating angles of the creature in the Box. The patrons scored in, keen to catch a glimpse of the ornery beast whose massive whole they could only extrapolate from bits and pieces.

“He’s got horns!” one child imagined aloud.

“I see spots!” Another chimed.

The crowd was a healthy melange of local peasantry and the occasional dreaming damned with their precious indigo tickets. Ungulen was taking tickets today and the line worked itself at a slow and steady pace that required the oversight of an adult. The lever boys, Ungulen had noticed, did far better under the pressurized intake of crowds on an opening night or a particularly popular sideshow. Afternoon work was no good for their bucking spirits.

Violet lingered nearby in the grass and Ungulen waved to her. She came over.

“Long faces leave traces,” Ungulen scolded her gently. She was unmoved by the sentiment. He tried again. “Something amiss?”

“It’s just that he’s upset.” Violet kicked a dirt clod and pulled a slim, homemade cigarette from the inside of her jacket.

Ungulen took a few more tickets from excited farmhands and then fixed Violet with a quizzical eyebrow. “Who’s upset?”

“Him. The elephant. Doesn’t it bother you?” Violet took a teensy drag on the cigarette and coughed delicately into her elbow.

“Since when do you smoke?” Ungulen observed.

Violet pointedly took a longer pull on the cigarette and suppressed a growing nausea.

“Alright” Ungulen shook her off, hoping the topic would turn.

“How can you listen to that? Don’t you have any feeling for him?”

“Ah.” Ungulen finally understood her complaint. “Because we’re cousins of some sort? Herds of a feather?”

“You’d think,” Violet shrugged and it was pert and irritable. Ungulen couldn’t hold back a smile and gently took the cigarette off her. He took a long drag of it himself.

“If yer going to start smoking, you could do with making ’em a bit less lumpy.” And then, after a moment, “Is this to slim down some? You’re already fit enough to do jumps. What’s this fer? Got yourself a new fella?”

Violet scoffed and took the cigarette back. She went to drag on it again but instead became entangled with retrieving a piece of grass from her tongue. Presently she continued with her accusation “So you don’t think anything of his pain? Of that poor creature stuck in a box to be mocked and looked over. Inspected like?”

Ungulen sighed deeply and turned his massive, shaggy head towards the Box. “I suppose I could. Except I know him quite well. He’s a mish mosh upstairs, love. Never knows where he is or why. Creatures that old should be expected to die. But this one can’t. Brought back from the dead for some wicked warlock’s purpose and then forgotten about once the ritual was all said and done. He’s just a remainder. Like the last speck of porridge in a pot.”

“So, hopeless.”

Ungulen shrugged. “I feed him kippers now and then. He earns his keep. Just like the rest of us.”

Violet blushed in anger. She couldn’t tell if his words stung her or if the cigarette had suddenly induced a sharp headache. She suddenly flicked her cigarette to the ground.

“Maybe one day, Drutherstone will put you in a box,” she seethed.

Ungulen turned that one over with care. “Doesn’t seem likely,” he concluded, scratching his neck scruff but Violet was already marching away.

rat trap

“Hand me that,” Lorelei gestured absently towards his tools. Ossip fetched the implement and directed it to his mentor’s long and agile fingers.

Lorelei pursed his lips as he worked. It was a looming Sunday, full to brimming with idle hours and coffee. Ossip hopped around the Emerald House in a doused state of caffeination. Even at age 19 he was a seasoned coffee drinker but Lorelei’s brew was darkly energizing. Ossip was excited, curious. He was open wide to everything.

The little project they had elected to work on together was nothing of consequence. It was an inverted rat trap. A machine that squealed at a frequency far above those detectable to human ears. It was a mechanical irritant to ward away circus vermin. Lorelei made a few final touches to the massive circuit board and then, with a magnanimous smile, slid the contraption across the work desk to his pupil.

Ossip grinned. So strong was his desire to please and to work at something new, the smile stretched his face until it nearly cracked open for a moment. His teenaged fingers set to work at the wiring, soldering the diodes together in alternating crosses like stitching up the corset of a beautiful woman.

It was careful work. Painstaking and satisfying. Hardly a word was shared between them as Ossip fulfilled his mentor’s instructions. The boy was certainly thriving with the special attentions of “mister doctor.” The newly won envy from his peers had put an imperious slant to Ossip’s jaw and a raptness to his work. Doctor Lorelei’s eyes roamed over the boy, making inventory of his talents, his weaknesses, and the manifesting bond between them.

Ossip looked up from the wiring and indicated a more complicated looping of copper wires and switches. Lorelei tapped his index finger on the work desk, very much pleased with his handiwork.

incessant rhythms

Marrionetta’s head bobbed gently in the center of the chemical bath. Her head, geometrically an oval of Finnish pine, weighted out evenly in the bowl which lent her days an incessant rhythm of gentle turning. To and fro. Back and forth. She had to shut her eyes for great lengths of time as the routine of it became nauseating, infuriating, depressing and, at long last, merely dull. Once the dullness set in, it made it easier to think.

She did not know what the doctor was planning to do with her. He spent boorish hours singing his southern operas, going over the crevices in her torso with a fine toothed instrument, cleaning, oiling, and testing all her joints. She had to assume he had some sort of death in store for her but it was taking an awfully long time. She wondered if he had done something bad to Violet, that poor little dancer girl. Marrionetta knew she didn’t deserve the girl’s sympathy but objectively it didn’t seem likely that the dancer would have so quickly abandoned her mistress like this. Things must be going very, very wrong at the circus down below.

She bobbed to and fro. Back and forth. She kept an eye on the insane doctor with a practiced neutral face. If he planned to murder her, she planned to surprise him but there was nothing she could do at the moment.

The long days in the chemical bath were the longest she had ever experienced. A creature of passions, Marrionetta was unaccustomed stillness, the quiet of mind, or the restrained nature of being unattached from her body for so long. Blinking began to feel new and significant. She rediscovered all of her teeth again, one at a time. Slowly a very profound sensation began to dawn on Marrionetta. She began to sense and feel the artistic influence of her Maker’s hand. It seemed present in the curvature of her face and wooden skull. In the long and echoing hallway of time, she suddenly sensed that she was truly a designed being. It almost gave her a sense of nobility. The doctor wasn’t the only one with some kind of pedigree.

She had always known that she was a rare thing. A survivor. A consummate performer. But she had not spent much time in her life reflecting on the fact that she had been sculpted. Someone had preconceived of her. Before she was, she had been. At least in the chamber of someone’s heart. A feeling overtook her and she could not shake the idea that perhaps some of this intentionality has been transferred to her during the process of her construction. Was there a lingering spell of the toy maker still ingrained in her? It gave her an odd sense of pride. Most of her life had been a propulsive drive to threaten those who would harm her or impress someone to give her money. Look what I can do she had spat at the world countless times since her mean and furious childhood. Look what I can do and then some. But this idea of the toy maker and his originating intentions towards her gave her a new idea. Look what someone else wanted for me. It was a warm feeling that had become lost for so many years. The chasm between his intentions and her reality were great but the differences did not anger her. Instead, it felt like interesting knot in a tree. A perfect shape that made the world seem more full of possibility. It was perspective. She wondered if creatures made of flesh ever had these kinds of thoughts.

In her dreamings on her origins, it also began to occur to her that, in a way, Doctor Lorelei wasn’t just stealing away her life, vitality and time. He was also stealing the toy maker’s original warmth and intentionality for her. Whatever Marrionetta might choose to do with the life that was crafted for her might not suit what the toy maker intended but there wasn’t a chance in circus hell that the doctor’s inspired plans were anything legitimate for her. An image came to her. A chain of hands, each taking and receiving from the next. A line of gifts being passed down and modified. Some of the exchanges were willing. Some were not. Some of of the modifications were improvements. Some were not.

She bobbed. To and fro. Back and forth. She continued to watch the doctor silently, paying special attention to his hands.

 

 

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.