Monday, 27 August 2007

The Bush: Short Fiction

Flies hummed with aggravating persistence around Derek’s head as he pushed through the brambles and syrupy ground. His shirt clung to his back and his scalp itched. The hawthorn branches through which he had just come remained as rune-like scratches stinging along his bare arms and shins, and the oppressive perfume of late August pollen assaulted him. Holding his hand to his brow and glaring at the sun, he wished he had never suggested coming out here.

“Where do you think they’d be?” Julie asked.

“No idea,” he said. “They have a fort over in the corner that way.” He pointed to the north. “And one in another hawthorn grove over there.” He pointed south east. “There are lots of rusted trucks they like to look at over there.” East. “Or they could have gone home without us.” Southwest.

Derek looked to see if Julie was paying attention. Sweat trickled down her forehead as much as his, and the spiky branches had laced her calves with many more oozing scratches. Dogteeth and burrs nestled in her socks and running shoes. She never came in here anymore, likely not since grade four, three years ago, and would not know how to walk through it properly.

“Anywhere Lynn would want to go?”

Derek came back to the surface to think. “What would she like to do? There aren’t many flowers to pick around here . . .”

Julie laughed. “Us Gerbers don’t waste time picking flowers. Lynn would spend her time looking for fairies and leprechauns, or something.” She stopped smiling quickly. “If she asked Mark or Louis where to look for fairies, where would they take her?”

The van. Exploded foam and fabric. And coon prints all around it. “The junk in the end. They’d take her to the pine trees across the fence, and they always wind up at a van when they go out there.”

Straight brown hair flapping as she nodded, she began to pick her way in the direction of the van. Derek forced his way around the thistle patch she was headed toward, hoping she would take the hint and follow. She did.

The Bush, as everyone who lived in the area called it, was overgrown and sufficiently wild after the recent hurricane aftermath that Derek’s brother Louis and their neighbour Mark had been drawn to it like the flies haloing Derek’s head. They had spent two weeks clambering over rocks, wading out into the pond, trying to catch leopard frogs and making forts of fallen branches, and Derek had been surprised that they had not automatically come out here when Julie and Lynn came over. The Gerber’s parents had gone to some reunion thing, and Lynn and Julie had been shuttled between grandparents and friends. Today, however, no one would take them. Since Derek was the closest in age of the immediate neighbours, the girls had come over to his house. Not that Derek’s parents were home, either, but adults seemed to think that it was better if they were all together. So the lot of them had trekked back to The Bush at Derek’s suggestion. Lynn had been watching frogs wallow, and the boys had been sword fighting with branches they broke off the trees, while Derek and Julie gossiped about schoolmates. It always amazed Derek how quickly kids three or four years younger than him could be lured away from him in The Bush if he was paying attention to other things.

It took only a minute or two of forcing through the tangled weeds and grasses to reach the derelict barbed-wire fence snaking between Derek’s property and the neighbour’s. Here the ground was less covered, so they walked along the fence silently until they came to a place where it lay close to the ground, posts long rotted out, and they stepped over it. Half a minute later, they saw the pine grove where Lynn would have looked for her fairies.

Soft deep moss covered the rocks and bare earth in the sunny opening, just large enough for three people to share, in the midst of the tall evergreens packed tightly around. There were only about a dozen of the pines together, but the air in the shadowed places felt cooler, older, and somehow cleaner than that in the rest of The Bush, almost as though a sort of magical preservation was on it, allowing the few who found it to be isolated from time and be, however briefly, in what was left of an era when the world was fresh and innocent.

Derek went naturally to the sunny middle and Julie followed him, squeezing beside him into the dappled light. They looked silently around them. Despite the likelihood that the younger ones were here a moment ago, they felt very alone together.

“I see what you mean,” Julie eventually said. “A place for fairies, if there ever were any.”
“They’re not here now, though. Ghost stories of goblins and things in the car will call them.”
They stood looking over each other’s shoulders for a little while, reluctant to leave the isolation, but with a joint sigh, they left fairyland for darker glades.

On the other side of the grove ran triple rows of hawthorn trees, ailing and bare, but possessed of wicked spines nonetheless. The branches of the hunchbacked trees raked low, and the pair had to weave through and duck in places. Derek once knew the various ins and outs of this line; in fact, the second fort he had spoken of could only be accessed without scrapes by going down the heart of this row and among thicker spines, and he had founded it when he was Louis’ age, but he had grown several inches since then. He could no longer fit in the gaps he once could.

Had they stopped to look when they were halfway through the hawthorns, they would have seen the boys creeping toward the van at the end, and Lynn watching from behind the first rusted piece of farm equipment. But Derek was busy holding thorned arms back for Julie, and she was busy keeping her hands near her eyes so that the spikes could not gouge them, and neither saw anything until they were through. Then Lynn ran up to them, babbling all sorts of things about the boys.

If seen from above, The Bush would appear to be the approximate shape of a swollen horseshoe, with the prongs facing Derek’s house to the southwest. There were a few irregularities, one of which being the thin finger of trees reaching from the base of the east-most prong and running at a right angle to it. This finger was about ten metres wide at the thinnest and almost twice that at the widest. The trees were farther apart and generally smaller in this area, and the ground underneath was covered in tall grasses instead of bush. It was here that the farmer who owned this bit of The Bush had years ago dumped all of his wasted vehicles to build up rust and filth, and the van in which Louis’ goblin lived was at almost the very tip.

Julie sat on her haunches to be level with her younger sister, and asked her what was wrong. Lynn stared wide-eyed and pale, but not altogether unhappy, and scared them with her answer.

“I saw something inside the van. Something alive.”

“The coon,” Derek muttered. Louder, “What are Louis and Mark doing?”

“They’re going to look at it. Lew says it’s a gremlin. They have to sneak up on it.”

“They don’t have to sneak up on anything,” Derek glowered. “I told them to stay away from coons. It’ll bite them if they wake it up.”

Julie looked worried. “Do coons get rabies?”

“Sometimes,” Derek told her.

“It’s not a coon,” Lynn told them. “It’s a gremlin.”

“Yo, guys!” Derek shouted. “Get back here. Don’t go bothering coons!”

Louis and Mark shot glances back from the wounded plow they were hunkering behind, but quickly decided to ignore him.

Derek turned to Lynn. “Did Mark dare him to go back there?”

“No,” she said. “Louis won’t do dares. He knows better than that.”

“Why are they going back there?”

“I saw it, it was looking through the window at me. I came running back and told them. Mark said it’s an animal, and Louis said no, it’s a gremlin. Mark said gremlins aren’t real, and Louis said that gremlins are like goblins. Mark didn’t believe him, and said he was lying, and that he should go up to it and look at it, if it was a gremlin. Louis said that Mark should go with him, and he’d see it was a gremlin and not an animal. I didn’t go. It’s scary.”

“That’s the same as a dare, Lynn,” Julie explained.

“No . . .” Lynn began.

Derek had already started to follow the boys to the van. Unlike them, he had no need to hide behind the metal carcasses on his way, so he could catch up with them shortly. In the brief time between deciding where to look and finding the boys, a wind hidden from them by the screening trees had carried a thick blanket of clouds over the sky. As Derek moved into the finger, this wind played about his legs, and he already regretted wearing shorts. The coldness soothed the scratches, though, and they felt less itchy.

He came to the boys just as they started to tug on the corroding door of the van, which had warped within the frame. A fitful groan came from the hinges and overlaps, and something inside moved. Louis turned and nearly shrieked with fear and anticipation. Eyes burning with a fierce hunter’s instinct, their neighbour Mark stared eagerly at the door and beat on the side of the van with his hawthorn branch, like a warrior rattling his spear on his shield.

Anger washed over Derek. He had never really liked the violent, untamed Mark, stomping on caterpillars and stealing Louis’ toys. Now the little brat, mud smears and hawthorn slashes streaking over his face like war paint and scars, was going to get his brother bitten.

“Guys, cut it out.”

“Shhhhhhh!” Mark hissed. “The goblin will hear you!”

“He’s already heard you two pulling on the door . . . Stop it, Lew!”

A hiss and a squeal burst from the van. Louis quit pulling on the handle immediately, now that both his older brother and the thing inside told him not to. Mark, however, attacked the door with a fervour.

“Mark, I’m warning you . . .” Derek growled.

“Don’t,” moaned Julie, who had come with Lynn to the boys.

All but Mark seemed to feel the aura of blind terror flowing from the van. A hundred swords of wind cut through them, and the clouds grew steadily heavier. Muttering and stuttering came constantly from behind the door.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Mark said, his usual war cry.

“I can when I’m supposed to be babysitting you,” Derek answered, grabbing his arm.

Mark’s pushing thumb finally depressed the button on the handle. With a grating protestation, the door opened. They all stared into the dark interior.

What looked like a small starving boy stared back.

He was thinner and shorter than the boys, and seemed younger by a few years. His eyes were set deep into his skull, nestled in a tangle of lines and wrinkles. Bunched and slack, his skin hung off his bones as though he had lost a lot of weight. Weak muscles and sinews moved visibly beneath his bare chest.

The children stared at the little boy crouching in the van, his bare feet curled under his dirty grey shorts and his skinny arms wrapped tightly around his torso. Derek looked over his sickly thinness and dirtiness, and wondered. Maybe it was all the talk of fairies and goblins, maybe it was the pent up fear of rabid coons, maybe it was an innate knowledge of the truth, but Derek felt that this was not a regular boy. There was something preternatural about this terrified little creature. What the others thought, Derek did not know or care. He knew that he was looking at something beyond any of them.

What felt like several minutes passed before anything happened. Then, suddenly, Lynn screamed, and time switched on again. The thing in the van let off a wail and a string of language-like gibberish, and rushed for the depths of the van, behind the chairs. Julie held Lynn’s hands in one of her own, and covered her sister’s mouth with the other. Derek grabbed both Mark’s and Louis’ shoulders, and tried to pull them back. Louis complied. But Mark, with a focussing of his predatory gaze, shook free and leapt up into the van, wielding his hawthorn stick. The creature in the van tittered and cried and screamed, mouth and eyes stretched wide in its deeply etched face, dodging about the strewn stuffing and coils of the van’s back. Mark cautiously stalked his way in, reaching and prodding with his barbed club. The back doors of the van were closed, and the thick metal of the van had not rotted out enough to allow for escape.

The creature was trapped.

“Open the back doors!” Derek shrieked at his brother.

Louis ran trembling to the back doors and pulled with all of his strength, which hardly seemed enough.

“Do something, please,” Julie implored of Derek, still stifling the ongoing wail of Lynn.

Adrenaline flooding his veins, Derek strode to the edge of the van and reached in at the flailing boy. He caught hold of Mark’s left arm. The vicious little boy yelped and thrust the hawthorn branch at his captor. Derek held tight and swung his neighbour up out of the van and down to the ground on his back. He did not heed the crack as Mark’s arm hit the roof of the van.

The starved child saw daylight, and with a piercing exclamation, leapt from the van and off into the forest.

“Owwww,” Mark wailed petulantly, his face clutched up as though he were about to cry. “Why? Why’d you hurt me . . . ohhhh . . .”

“You deserved it,” Derek spewed. “What’s wrong with you? Why’d you do that? Why’d you try to hurt that boy?”

“Owww . . . ohhhh . . .”

“Stop whining,” Julie said, her voice harder and colder than it ever had been before. “You like hurting other things so much, you should put up with it when you get it back.”

Her mouth free, Lynn increased the level of her banshee’s wail, now accompanied by the hiccoughs of tears.

Mark realized he would not receive any sympathy. Struggling to his feet, he spit, “I was hunting the goblin! It shouldn’t have been there, and you shouldn’t have touched me! You can’t tell me what to do!” As though to prove his point, he swung his thorned branch at Derek’s face.

The branch landed across Derek’s cheek. Julie gasped, and Lynn suddenly stopped crying. Louis watched uncertainly from his place at the back doors of the van. With cold deliberateness, Derek wrenched the hawthorn stick from Mark’s hand, and smote him in the face three times. He then grabbed his shoulders and threw him to the ground. “That was not a goblin. That was a boy. You were trying to kill a boy. Never come to my house again. Never come to this Bush again. Leave. Now!”

Sniffing furiously, Mark got up, and set off for home, muttering to himself and shooting dark glances back at them. They followed him to the edge of The Bush and watched him disappear across the fields in the distance. None of them spoke until he was gone.

A week later, Derek heard a story on the news about a boy who had been missing for two weeks in the area. He had Autism and had gotten lost on a school trip. That evening, while his father was reading the paper, Derek asked what Autism was. His dad told him that it was a kind of learning disability or something. It made kids smart and stupid at the same time, he had said, not bothering to glance up from his newspaper. They talked kinda funny and made weird noises and did weird things. For a long time, Derek wondered if the thing they had seen had been that missing boy. But could two weeks scrounging in the forest make someone look that malnourished?

In the few days after the episode, he had followed the crashing trail the boy took through the forest. It was easy to make out for a while, as he must have run blindly through all the bushes and weeds. Once it got near the pond, though, the path suddenly disappeared. At the edge of the pond stood a pine tree, and it had a hole at its base. Small footprints littered the muddy ground around it, the same marks they had seen around the van earlier in the summer. Derek was not a good tracker, though, and did not trust his own judgment.

The interior of the van showed little sign of inhabitation. Something had torn up the seats, and many little nose and finger prints marked the windows. Derek wondered how the marks got so high up the windshield. The boy must have climbed around a lot. He also wondered how the boy got in. Had he come through the door? But if the doors were so hard to open, why would a starving Autistic child bother?

Louis told his brother that gremlins were small gnome-like spirits that had a magical knowledge of machines and technology. When asked if the boy in the van could have been a gremlin, Louis looked away and would only say that the pictures were different, but that the people who made the pictures might have gotten it wrong. He said nothing more all evening.

During the next summer, Derek and Julie came back to the fairy grove, as they called the pines. They picnicked a bit, but mostly talked about school. They noticed that Lynn and Louis were growing up and that Mark was getting more violent toward the two. More often they enjoyed the silence. Once Julie mentioned the boy they had seen, but they abandoned the subject before long. They had nothing new to say.

After a half dozen visits, they stopped going to The Bush. Their parents said that they had grown out of it, but it was more the other way around. The hawthorns crouched lower, and the pine trees cast greater shadows, and thistles sprung up as barbed wire fences. Mosses in the fairy grove were not as soft, the wind bit harder at the finger point, and the mud was deeper around the pond. The Bush gained a defensive hostility that seemed to begrudge the human children for the violence that had happened that day.

Derek never saw the boy, or anything like him, again.

This is an old one I dragged out of my computer. I do like it, though.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The House on the Corner: Short Fiction

It was not made of gingerbread. Icing did not mortar its walls, nor did flat slabs of chocolate compose the walk to the porch. Dutch lquorice door knobs did not sit in a raisin-oatmeal foor. Neither did mint ivy cover candy cane posts and a gumdrop-tiled roof.

It had no turrets. The sky above it was not stormy, nor did a pale full moon illuminate it. Bats may have lurked in its eaves, but none chose to dine on human blood. Tombstones did not decorate the yard, and that yard was not fanced by iron fate nor sinister hedge.

But there was a cat.

I heard that charities were a good way to meet people. Girls, actually, were the people charities were good for meeting, but I was not looking to meet girls, or that is what I told myself.

Lei and I were assigned as partners. She had been quiet, but she opened once we got away from the group and on our own. I had noticed the way her jeans fit, and the way her black hair hung. She was a little too enthusiastic.

We were given a section of the surrounding residential area to canvas. It was poor, and proceeds to the Green Corridor Raffle were lower than we desired. One older woman in an older home had taken care to keep the paint new and the roses blooming. The pines shading the porch were dignified. She bought the first two tickets. Most houses had yellow signs warning of large angry dogs, or proclamations that the inhabitants did not wish to be disturbed: Ye who solicit here, abandon all hope. My partner cooed and bubbled anyway.

It was late in the afternoon, and we had just been turned away from another door. I was ready to return home. Lei smiled before I could suggest it, though, and bet me dinner that the next one would buy a ticket. We walked on.

And there it crouched: the last house on the street. My first thought was that it deserved to be on some southern plantation, an old dead house left to moulder in the swamp. Its windows were glazed with yellow cataracts of curtains, set it tea-stained siding. The steps lolled from the veranda. Set back in the throat of the porch was the battered, screened door. The garden was not cultvated by any rational mind; thick stalks filled the soil, which they seemed to have won out of sheer ferocity.

I would have been cheered by the thought of Nature reclaiming its own had it not seemed so ruthless about it.

Lei and I looked at each other.

"It's creepy," she said.

"It is," I agreed.

A pause.

One of us moved forward first, but I cannot remember which.

We walked together up the splintered rocks of the path, stepping more carefully than necessary. I glanced past her into the trees clumped in the middle of the yard. Perhaps there would be squirrels shuffling in the grass, or sparrows quarrelling over breadcrumbs left by children. A cream-winged skipper flouncing across the breeze would have livened the scene a little, but there was no life.

"Look," Lei cried softly, pointing.

Lying on the bent stems of the flowerbed, was a cat. She frisked her tail at the tio, and stared at us. One ear flicked. She did not blink.

I smiled and stretched my arm out, half-bent at the knees. The cat responded with only another flick of the tail. She stared. Eventually, I turned my eyes away.

We continued to the porch, the familiar watching us all the while. Lei was the first to mount the steps, and I followed her up. Something smelled like it was rotting. I looked first to the flowerpots, but they were brimming with crazy, dangling spider plants. As I traveled the length of the porch, I saw from the corner of my eye that the window curtains did not fit tightly; in the gaps at the edges and the bottom, the rooms moved as though following my progress.

I held open the screen door, and Lei knocked on the chipped wooden one behind it.

Somehow I doubted the door would open. Images came unbidden to my mind: an old woman, collapsed on the floor inside her house. Her nightgown hitched oddly about her knees; one red plaid slipper clinging on and one fallen off. The rest of her was obscured in my imagination, entombed by the presence of the house.

Then another image: a woman opening the door, friendly and confused. A sweet little lady with an open purse and willing heart.

And then a coupling of the two, some grotesque chimaera: a dead woman opening the door, buzzing with flies and offering not a donation, but hellish knowledge.

I prayed that the door would stay closed.

Lei looked uncertainly my way.

I turned again to the windows, with some pretence of seeing if anyone was home. Either fear or prudence kept me from looking past the curtains and into the room, but I did examine what was placed on the sill. Bottles and jars of all kinds nested together. Some were corked, and others left open. Some had fancy paper labels, and others clothes only by tacky residue. One was filled with stale water; another, a festering plant; another, a few fly carcasses. Thick drifts of dust banked against them, and they were draped with cobwebs from departed and beneficent spiders.

"No one's answering," Lei finally said.

I nodded. "Let's go."

We turned, and I could feel her eye on our backs, gazing from the peep hole. I could feel her gawking from the windows, wondering how we would taste all fattened up, wondering what infernal secrets would drive us mad, wondering how many years the Devil would give her for our souls.

Down the steps we went, out from under the roof of that porch. The cat was there again, still looking, not blinking. She did not mew; perhaps she had sold her voice for the chance to go outdoors, except that it was the cat who stole children's tongues. She continued to spy for her mistress.

As we walked down the path, I noticed the scent of sulfur fade from the air, and perceived the attention from the house weaken. From the sidewalk, I turned and met the house's eye. She glared back.

"Maybe we should go get dinner," said Lei.

I wrote this for a class once. If anyone happens to recall the particular event on which this is based, I'm sure that person will understand the artistic liberties I took with this are exactly that--artistic. They mean nothing.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Sonnet 2 - Saima

Saima, I with patience write this verse
Near the time that we will move away,
To try to tell how you improved the worse
Parts of tasks, events, the dragging day.
Standing by the microwave at noon,
You would tease my eye by showing shoes,
Make my tongue with sweet desserts to swoon,
And fake our romance, others to confuse.
I will miss our summer bonding weeks,
Tattooed thistle etch'd on shoulder brown,
Secret notes in bunks, your laughing cheeks,
And talks while driving home across the town.
So when I freeze in Kingston's winter cold
I will Saima's warm remembrance hold.

See other sonnet for explanation.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Books I Think People Should Read

This is a list of (fiction) books that I think people should read. I will add to it as I think of others.

EDIT: I screwed up and put some non-fiction in here by accident. Sorry.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: This book was recommended to me by a friend at one point, and I made a mental note of it. I was in Indigo a few days later, and couldn't find Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, so I bought this on impulse. It's an epistolary coming-of-age novel, and is quite insightful. In ways it reminds me of the movie Garden State.

It by Stephen King: I'm a King fan, let's be clear on that. I also don't expect others to like King as much as me. Regardless, read this book. Its characterization is magnificent and I know people who found it King's most terrifying book. It certainly draws you in, it has a full and real fantastic cosmology in the vein of Tolkein (only without the elves), and is also insightful. (I've also heard that you oughtn't bother with the movie.)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: In ways this book is profoundly disgusting, but it's also fascinating. When I think of the way it is written, the only word that comes to mind is 'delicious.' Nabokov's power over words is incredible. Of course, you have to be able to handle some seriously controversial subject matter.

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: I'm not about to say that I agree with everything Lewis says. I'm not about to say that he isn't profound, either. Overall, this is a thought-provoking book that makes some interesting claims for the behaviour of a practicing Christian and an intriguing attempt at an incontrovertible reason to be a practicing Christian. Even if you aren't religious, you should maybe read it to see what's going on and why some people would believe something you can't fathom. If you are religious, it's a positive must.

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis: Everything I said about Mere Christianity applies to this as well. The difference is that this is written in the form of letters from the devil Screwtape giving advice to his nephew Wormwood, who is in charge of the corruption, and damnation, of an ordinary man. The satire is very good, and there are some great lines.

The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pulman: These books are very heretical, but if this bothers you, I'd just do what I did and think of it all as mythology. It is mythology, after all. These are some of the most original fantasy books since Tolkein, and lack the cliche many books exude. The heroine is charming, the worlds are beautiful, and the story is heart-wrenching.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire: This is probably the other most original fantasy since Tolkein. It takes place in Oz, and gives the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. However, it revizes the story in remarkable and surprising ways, fleshing out her character and creating a cohesive, dynamic, and realistic Oz, while keeping with Dorothy's story so that we can understand how the people of Oz would believe what we think of as Dorothy's story is the truth and yet knowing that the Witch's is equally true. The sequel, Son of a Witch, is also engaging, and I hear that a third, A Cowardly War, is also coming out.
Edit Dec 1 2009: A Lion Among Men, originally titled A Cowardly War, was pretty good, better, I think, than A Son of A Witch. For those who disliked the ending of Wicked but liked the overall style, I'd encourage you to push through Son so you can get to Lion. You have to be able to handle weird sex scenes, though. (On a more literary note, I think I am detecting a tragedy-irony-comedy pattern in these three. If one more book came out in this series and it had a romance trajectory, I would not be at all surprised.)
Edit April 21 2013: I was right. Out of Oz is a romance, or at least as much of one as I'd expect Maguire to  write.

The Bone books: These are comics or graphic novels. I am up to the third one. I don't know what to say about them. They're kiddie lit, I suppose, but still good.
Edit Jan 15 2008: I have finished the entire series, and we're talking about Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials greatness here. I mean, this is incredible.

The Truth about Stories by Thomas King: Thomas King is a Cherokee-Greek author who examines the relationship between the stories we tell and our world-views. Only it isn't boring, like that sounds. The style is very interesting, too. I'm currently reading his Green Grass Running Water, which has an even more irregular style. I now want to de(in)form my writing as King does, but in my own way.

Cell by Stephen King: So this isn't exactly capital-L Literature, but I still liked it. This is King weighing in on the zombie genre, and doing well at it. These really are zombies as you've never seen them, and the ending is pure, classic King. Of course, if a revision of the zombie convention and the total melt-down of society are not elements you're interested in, maybe you'll be right to pass. It doesn't have the stylistic genius of some of his other works, notably It.

Edit Aug 25, 2008: The Grapes of Wrath: If I had to define one excellent book of the summer, it would be this. While obviously written for a time and place, it has gives insight into human suffering and is relevant to any society struggling with the knowledge that their wealth is another's poverty. It was very hard to get into, but once I muscled through the beginning, an excellent read.

EDIT Aug 30, 2009: Many Waters: Madeline L'Engle's YA novels are generally good, original fantasy. I think, like the Narnia books, there are things about them that would be more interesting to Christian than non-Christian readers, but I also think that no non-Christian reader would feel alienated or pressed upon by these books, as some feel when reading The Chronicles (which I think is an absurd readerly response, but not everyone can be expected to read properly when schools don't teach you that sort of thing). My particular favourite is Many Waters, in which Dennis and Sandy, the twins, go back to the time of Noah, and get hopelessly mixed up--both historically and emotionally--in the local community, angelic politics, and the history of mankind. There's sexual and brotherly tension, shape-shifting and beautiful angels (both of the fallen and of the loyal varieties), unicorns and mammoths, and science.

EDIT Dec 1, 2009: Jon asked me to recommend books, so I'm adding more to this list as I can think of them. I haven't been reading as much as I should be/would like to/usually do.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles: Haruki Murakami's surrealist dive into Japanese history and emotional politics, this book is unlike pretty much anything I've read before. First, of course, is the 'surrealist' part; to me it was urban fantasy, and I don't know how you'd go about constructing a definition which divides surrealism from urban fantasy. Most likely such a definition is impossible. Second, this is a translation of a truly 'foreign' book. I realize Japan is a lot like the West in many ways (it counts as the "West" in some of those break-downs), but it's still a different culture.
Anyway, this is a good book about a young man, Toru Okada (or, as the girl next door calls him, Mr. Wind-Up Bird), who is trying to rescue his wife from shadowy forces he doesn't understand or recognize. As the back describes, he "encounters a bizaree group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan's forgotten campaign in Manchuria." That actually doesn't cover it.
The warning I should give is that the book is a bit soaked in weird sex and in latent sexuality. Toru spends a lot of time with strange women (as in 'odd,' not 'unknown') and notably less time strange men. Just throwing that warning out there.

Neverwhere: This may not actually be Neil Gaiman's best book, but it's the only one I have with me right now. I liked American Gods and Stardust both very much, though they're in ways quite different books. What I liked about American Gods was how well it packed in and efficiently used so many different religious traditions. What I liked about Stardust was its whimsy. Neverwhere is different again: set in the forgotten parts of London, its perhaps-spineless protagonist Richard Mayhew (in some ways a reincarnation of Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's, but in the end he isn't) finds a bleeding girl on the sidewalk and stops to help her, unwittingly losing the life he knew in the process. He enters a world of magic and paradox, a world that has slipped between the ancient city's cracks, and he is now sitting in the middle of a conflict between an innocent girl and the shadowy forces etc. and so forth. If you've read American Gods, then you might see the end coming, actually, but other than that it's good.
For those readers who care, American Gods has a (much) higher prude rating than either of the others. They are all fun books, though.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville: This is just plain funny. You'll need a good translation (the original was written around 1357, and in case you're sense of history is fuzzy, that's a not quite two centuries before Shakespeare, which two centuries saw the most drastic change in the English language, up to and including the changes taking place today). And I should point out that I only skimmed the first half. It's the second half, when he gets to the islands, that's just wonderful. He meets and comments on all sorts of fabulous peoples and animals and plants and cultures, such as the dog-headed men who are valiant and noble and devour their enemies' bodies on the battlefield, or the desert filled with jewels but protected by colonies of dog-sized ants which only cease patroling for one hour during the hottest part of the day, or the plants which grow miniature sheep as fruit, or the island inhabited by communist, nudist, polygamists. What's even more fun about this book is that many mediaeval readers took it to be non-fiction.

The Faerie Queene: Yes, this is pretty esoteric stuff. Spenser was hard to read in his own day (Shakespeare's), let alone now. I'm used to it, but I wouldn't expect you to be. If you can get through his verse, though, I can tell you that most of the third book is worth it, and much of the first is pretty fun too. The others are likely quality as well, but I've never read them, so would't know.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories: This is a collection of some of H. P. Lovecraft's stuff, edited by S. T. Joshi. I suggest the short stories "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." That's not to say that the others aren't good, but I didn't enjoy them as much.
Anyway, what Lovecraft did is move away from the ghostly and toward the zombie-like or the cosmic. King's It comes direct from this line. I'll quote the back of the book again, because it's so apt: "Lovecraft reinvented the horror genre in the twentieth century, discarding ghosts and witches and envisioning instead mankind as a tiny outpost of dwindling sanity in a chaotic and malevolent universe." The interesting thing about Lovecraft's horror is that the climaxes have less to do with life- (or soul-) threatening situations but rather with dawning revelation of some horrific truth.
The prose is tough to manage, though. Not only were literary standards different in his day, I'd wager that he was more of an ideas man than a words man.

Through Black Spruce: Joseph Boyden's second (I think?) novel is a good one. Among other things, it's a Giller Prize winner, but I'll add that it's readable and engaging. It's a two-fold story: one stream follows a man in a coma, remembering the events of his life that led to that point; the second stream follows his niece as she tells her comatose uncle what happened to her in the last two years in the hopes that her voice will help bring him back. It has elements of both a drama and a mystery novel, as the niece tries to find her sister who went missing in Toronto, due likely to a bad encounter with an urban drug ring, and the uncle deals with tribal revenge spiralling out of control on the reservation. It's funny, intelligent, full of character, and full of heart. Also, Boyden is himself awesome, from what little I've seen of him.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Sonnet 1 - Kristy

Your absence, darling Kristy, rents my heart;
When you with inner eye I try to see,
In your missing space goes every part
That made that organ you had torn from me.
Morning opens clouded o'er in pain:
I seek your smiling face, my fleecy lamb,
Your laughter's lifting Nova Scotian strain,
And find the park a Kristy-lacking sham.
I know that you will still return some day
To flash your shutter, sealing moments rare
On film and heart with all-enchanting ray,
To whisper his, and here your beauty share,
Yet after peachy times, you leave
This park alone, and lonely me bereaved.

I dislike disclaimers, but know nonetheless that this is supposed to be ridiculous, and is laden with inside jokes. I wouldn't use 'peachy' if it didn't mean something else.

Eulogy for the Garden (A Hymn of Confusion)

The creek whispers
as I sit on the rough bark at the eve of summer;
it whispers secrets that I had long forgotten
and would learn again
if only I could remember the story.

Plump and regal snails
carry their castles on their shoulders
and hold their antlers high;
they keep their counsel
in their own shells
though no one has ever asked for it.

June's barbaric grass
and mats of moss and clover
stray onto the path of packed soil;
they hear the gossip in the creaking pines
to retell under winter's snow.

But the creek chokes
on the chemical phlegm that sticks to the rocks;
the snails are silent in this glade
because this is the wake of those lost in cultivation;
the forget-me-nots will be
forgotten in the frost as the
willows perpetually weep.

I cannot hear the water's tragedy
nor the shelled wisdom
nor the groans of the pines
because the furniture factory uncleanses the breeze
with a lathe, a sander, and a buzz-saw;
because the air-brakes of the transport trucks

And I remember
that the trees are tall enough to look on the hill
and see the headstones of the village cemetery,
as the momuments cover naked earth.

Psalm of Confusion (A Hymn of Confusion)

The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Psalm 23:1-2

The ones at church
have told me since I was young
that You
have a plan.
say that You have a plan for me
and it is part of the plan for the whole world.

You had a plan for Moses,
and for razing Saul who became raving Paul
and for Lazarus who came reeking from the dead.
These were all part of the bigger plan
of Israel in the desert
and of Pentecost on the hill,
and of the Sacrifice.

But Lord
the thing is
I don't get it.
How can I follow Your plan
if I don't know what it is?
You told Moses in the burning bush,
and John in a wild Revelation.
But how do I know?
Joan heard voices, and Clare saw the Virgin Mother.
I only hear voices through the apartment walls
and my visions appear on the TV screen.

say I should follow my heart
and the Bible
and I will be following the path You left for me.
But my heart and the Bible do not always go the same way.
In fact, my heart sometimes breaks itself in two
so that each half can want to do a different thing.
If the direction of my heart is Your direction,
then is it fair to think of You as a snake with a head on each end?

I also remember
that You had a plan for drowned Pharaoh
and for Adam who was ashamed
and for Job who tried to understand.
None of them would have liked what You had planned.
You must also have one for Satan.
Did Lucifer know Your plan?

So I wonder, God,
why You're not telling me.
If it because if I heard it
I would try to run away?

The thing is
it wouldn't matter if Your plan was like Lazarus'
or Job's
because I tried all of mine
and none have worked
so far
and I don't want to make another one
without asking You first.


what's the plan?

Intervention: Short Fiction

"They went ashore and looked about them. The weather was fine. There was dew on the grass, and the first thing they did was to get some of it on their hands and put it to their lips, and to them it seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted."

Vinland Sagas

The Aftermath of a Storm

Dampness hung in the air that night, left over from the incessant rains of morning and afternoon. Fat, heavy drops sat on the fabric of the tent, pulling its shape down into lethargic sags. Inside the tent, Sean felt the cool chill of moisture saturating his clothes, his sleeping bag, even his skin. While aware that the damp would distract his sleep, something about the world's immersion in a single, primal element thrilled him deeply.

He sat cross-legged on his sleeping bag, which he had folded open so that the soft, drier inside was on the top. The tent was small and cramped, but he spent little time in it. The weak, amber glow of his flashlight illuminated the letter to his parents, a rambling, unpracticed chronology of the events of his trip.

Yesterday we finished the portage from Lake Witika to Lake Red Trout. It was 3 1/2 miles long. Then we canoed down Bass River until I think about 5:00. As usual, we pitched our tents and had supper. After, we had a prayer meeting and then put on skits. Today it was raining, and the organizers decided not to go any further because the water is very rough and the campers are not used to fast water. Also, we are ahead of schedule, so we can afford a day behind. I hope it is not raining tomorrow so that we can keep going.

The tent glowed from within: a faded glow that splashed images and silhouettes on the canvas. There was a shapeless lump at the corner, the projection of his knapsack. There was the flattened, diffused giant of himself, spread out along the back of the tent. There was the sarcophagus of the guitar case opposite the knapsack. There was, near the top and above the door, the swinging cross, dangling from a cord attached at the very summit. Sean wrote obliviously in his warm cocoon, hardly listening to the sawing crickets and chorusing peepers.

His muscles burned slightly as he wrote. The day of rest had given his arms time to seize. He kept going in spite of this, as he always did. Though he had never practiced writing much, he had no worse than average marks in the local high school, and vaguely aspired to continued education. Quickly he ran out of things to say, and folded the letter up and pushed it inside an envelope. They would likely reach Little Creek in two days, and he would mail the letter once he was there.

Sean stretched a little, and suppressed a yawn. He shut off the flashlight. They were not allowed watches, but he knew it was still early, not time for bed. He unzipped the tent, stuffed his feet into the rubber boots propped outside, and moved out into the darkness.

Again he was struck by the perfect wetness of the air. The suffocating cologne of wildflowers, the rich chocolate of fresh earth, the ancient sting of pine needles, all were dissipated and cleansed by the clear smell of the water. He closed his eyes on the blackness and reflected on the water of his faith: the baptism as a symbol of purity and salvation, of starting clean with God. It felt good to be standing in God's world, standing with the baptism in the air. He began to pray thanksgiving.

The patter of some small creature returned him to the world. He had been tired, of course, and his prayer had lapsed into a sort of standing slumber. He opened his eyes, and looked toward the source of the noise. A shape, a little larger than a cat, was moving quickly about the gloom, exploring the area after the rains had let up. Sean squinted, and thought perhaps it was a raccoon. Hoping it would come closer, he stood quite still.

As it approached, he saw what it was. After a moment of blissful admiration, his driving arteries seemed to stir the nerves on his back and arms in to a disarray. Abject fear threatened to course through his blood and infect him with paralysis. Shutting his mind to these thoughts, he whispered a brief prayer, and began to back into his tent, into the arms of his Lord.

All his hopes collapsed when he heard the snort of the mother bear on his other side. He turned quickly, just in time to see her see him. She was smaller than he had thought a bear might be, yet she still loomed large, very large. Only her outline was visible, yet this leant her teeth a deadlier point and her claws a heavier fatality. She panted, a sound like a cough and a sigh which reverberated around him with the force of a full-lunged roar. She stood, and he cowered below her.

He knelt, thoughts of Androcles and St. Francis surfacing in his mind, staring up, up, at the moon of all things, and he was confident that his life would be saved by God.

The Windows of the Heavens

A heavy, brooding sky steatched above the sea that was once desert. Wooden boards and struts protested under the movements of the water, which swelled and swooned in great waves. The oiled deck was slick in the great, driving rain. He stood under cover of the roof of the upper deck, but still felt more water than air on his skin. Through the rain, Noah's son could see that the newborn ocean was rising steadily, and the peaks of two of the surrounding hills had already drowned.

He turned and stumbled into the ark, smelling already of straw and animal waste and fur. The noise from the inside, squawking and mewling and snorting and panting, almost competed with the volume of the tempest outside. One of the lurches earlier in the storm, when the water was lower and the disturbance higher, had sprung open the stalls of some of the animals. In confusion and fear, however, the great cats paced about the bleating sheep without causing any extra trouble: no creature was calm this night.

Twenty minutes of rocking and tilting, of herding goats and leading lions, of watching the wet steam off of his clothes, did not relieve his stomach's tension. He went again to the upper deck, to breathe fresh air and to get some glimpse of the horizon, perhaps. This was not all in vain, as his gorge settled after a while. Furious waves, though, tossed the craft from side to side, and he found himself moving closer and closer to the edge. Fearing that he would lose his footing, he caught hold of the raised lip of cypress, and gazed into the water.

No living thing, no errant fish or squirming eel came into his sight. A rough swell buffeted the ark, and he prayed fervently that He spare him even after all of this. Just as he uttered his conclusions, some moon-coloured flotsam fell over the crest of a nearby wave. He peered out at it, hoping to make out some sort of artifact, some thing to make this nightmare seem somewhat less horrific.

The next swell hid it for a moment, but then brought it even closer to the edge of the ark. Still he could not see it, so he strained his eyes again. It was not until two more waves had come and gone before he identified it, and then he wished he had stayed indoors.

It was the pale, pink flesh of a corpse from the village beneath them now.

He went back inside to tend to the animals, and to prepare his soul more fully for the journey to which he was committed.

"Throw Me into the Sea"

Amid the howls of the wind and the arguing voices of the mariners, the ocean's spray lashed the face of the captain. He led and pushed the Hebrew across the deck of the ship. Their skiff was crashing through the storm-tossed Great Sea, the hull quaking under the strain. Frustrated and angry, he cast the traveller to this crew. Perhaps this man could call on his god to spare them a thought a deliver them from perishing.

The superstitious men quarreled and debated in the darkness, and eventually drew straws. The short one chose the Hebrew, and they all turned on him. Afraid, recalling the passenger's entrance on the boat and his admission that he fled from his own god, the captain asked what they could do to atone for his grave mistake.

As great waves rocked the skiff, the Hebrew explained that he had angered his Lord and that he was the reason they were visited by this storm. Shouting above the wind, he said, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you."

Some of the seaman moved forward, but the captain waved them away. He shouted them to work, and took up an oar himself to row the ship back to Joppa. Leaden waves frothed over the boat and tempestuous winds drove against it. His muscles burned against the course of the water, but it was to no avail. The crew obeyed at first, but it soon became clear that the sailors' last act would be mutiny if he did not call them into action himself.

He muttered a prayer to whatever god it was that the Hebrew worshiped, and cursed that god with the next breath for giving them this task. Staggering forward, across the seasick deck, he glowered an apology, and hoped that the passenger would not haunt him later. Then, with the help of two crewmen, he took the traveler to the edge of the deck. They grasped the rail with one hand as they tried to put him into the waters, but the Hebrew struggled at the sight of the furious sea. Nearly wasted, the captain called to whatever divinity was out there that this murder would not be taken upon them, and forced the sinner into the deeps.

What shape loomed from those waters, the captain did not fully appreciate. His legs went weak and his insides liquified at the sight of the open, fleshy maw and black, staring throat that reached out of the waves and caught the Hebrew as he hit the water. That groteque apparition closed its mouth and sank beneath the iron wetness before the captain even understood what had happened.

He sank to his knees and prayed confusedly to many gods that the blood would not stain his hands, and the sea was calm when his eyes had opened.

A Strong East Wind

Briny drops were carried off the sea by the brisk wind that channeled across the muddy bed. They were passing between the mountainous, sheer walls of water on their left and right, each churning mass towering high above their heads and stretching behind them and before them for miles. The air stung with both its uncanny speed and with its saltiness. Above, the night sky was a tumbled mass of cloud, obscuring the stars.

The former slave stared and stared, unable to comprehend what surrounded him. The brooding, frothing waves seemed to threaten to fall, despite the mad shrieking wind. Ahead of him and along side him, he saw the confused and staring faces and his fellow slaves, the open-mouthed and crazy-eyed pack animals, the terrified and squalling children.

A flash of memories assualted him, a wave of understanding and context.

Glaring haughty from its place in the hard blue sky, the sun lashed a whip of heat far greater than those carried by the men urging him along.

Cracked and calloused, his hands felt relief in the shallows of the Nile for a moment, before handling the scythe again.

A prophet, a freedom fighter, called upon Israel to rise.

Ebony clouds of locusts, floods of red, armies of frogs marching from the water, all descended upon the sandy city.

Dry, dusty weeks of wandering blurred in the wilderness.

Gold flashed off the buckles and weapons of the Pharaoh's soldiers were beacons across the desert.

He was pressed forward by thos ejostling behind him, the multitudes of terrified peasants. Stumbling and tripping in the mud and clinging weed, he tried to catch up, but found himself falling behind. Thought of the marching, flint-faced warriors spurred him on. Donkeys hawed and chickens gossiped around him. A pushing cart knocked him sideways, closer to the foaming wall. He gazed transfixed at the oddity of nature, the water held back by the buffeting wind, turning on itself and swirling confusedly. From deep in the black waves, a pale fleshy carp swam toward the break. It nosed forward, curious and carried by the pressing current. Suddenly, it was swept back in a curling eddy, but not before giving an open look of fishy confusion. He understood.

Behind him, someone shouted out that the Pharoah was still approaching, had come into the sea behind them. A woman moaned and screamed. Another spoke words of encouragement. Some tried to wipe the splashing foam from their animals. Children queried. Men wept. None dared look back.

Above the wind, above the squelch of feet, above the curses and the prayers, he could hear another noise. It was the sound of nothing and of everything, and muffled the stomp of the approaching army. Something about its quality was like a sharp wind off a rock, or like the crackle of flames. Knowing and yet not knowing what he would see, he turned around to face it.

Obscuring the shore at the far end of the corridor of air carved through the sea, a swirling, spiraling pillar of fire, cloud, and smoke followed their progress. It towered upwards, climbing up to brush the stormy sky above them with volcanic orange. The grey and black plumes of ether that strayed outward were underlit by the bright flames inside the column. Lightning cracked about as it twisted and moved in the air, blocking the Egyptians, driving the Israelites, and holding the sea apart. He dropped to his knees, cowed and senseless by the sight of this awesome construction.

The water raged above him, flecked him with foam, as he stared with burning eyes on this piece of the heavens come down with terribly vitality. He could picture the soldiers marching into their watery graves, the fish whisked away, the confused people wandering forward, and knew not what to pray for.

The Aftermath of a Vision

Retracting from the vivid prayer and the rush of ancient memories, Sean saw the pale moon bob in the sky, peeking among the waves of clouds. He saw the moon, slightly waning, in the cycle that it moved along throughout all time. Wetness touched his knees from the grass, and his node and ears from the air.

The bear moved toward him, panting and huffing. He turned, and for a moment saw the bear illuminated as with fire. His prayers turned ashen on his lips, and he found that his faith did not fail, but his understanding did.

She was black on black, and her breath came out in white plumes like a dragon's. Lumbering, remaining on all fours but hopping up at times like she meant to rear back, she was nearer now than before he began to pray. Clearly afraid for her cub, clearly confused by the alien creature, she would no less follow thousands of years of blood instinct and not back down.

Sean remained on his knees. He turned toward her, and stared up into her eyes. He meditated on her claws, on the muscles bunched beneath the fur of her forepaws. He imagined the bare, black nose in her face, the coarse pink tongue between her teeth. He could not see her, could not understand her, but somehow he got closer to understanding her as he sat in the dark than he would have believed possible.

She came closer still.

He lowered his head, and brought to his mind the image of his family, and his friends, and his home. He thought briefly on what he was proud of, and what he was not. He gave thanks. And then he spoke.

"Not my will but yours."

For how long he knelt he never knew. At some point, he heard the crickets saw again, and the peepers chorus. The dampness was cold against his knees, and the stiff rubber of his boots pressed into his shins. No claws had come down on his back, and no teeth had scraped his head.

He opened his eyes and looked up. The bear was not there, nor her cub.

Above, the moon still winked from the sky.

Sean stood, and wiped grass from his pants. He tasted the water on the air, the water infused into the world.

Taking off his boots, crawling back into the tent, taking down his cross, trying to sleep, he thought and puzzled and prayed.

Mission Statement

It is the day after first starting my blog, and I think now would be a good time to really establish what I want to do with this account, beyond what is detailed in the 'Genesis' note.

First, I would like a place to publicly ruminate on various issues, pertaining largely to religion, philosophy, morality, and literature. I don't know that I will do this often, but I think it would be interesting to try. I'd be quite welcome if people who read this would put their two cents' worth in using the comments option.

Second, I would like to use this as a place where I can publish short fiction and devotional poetry. Among other things, I am gradually working on a series of Hymns of Confusion (the title piece, so far, being Psalm of Confusion) and perhaps a sonnet sequence.

Third, I would like to, perhaps, share interesting information and resources, on a variety of topics.

Regarding the Hymns of Confusion: I call them 'devotional poetry,' but they are not devotional in the traditional sense of hymns. As suggested in the word 'Confusion,' they chart more religious uncertainty and struggle than simple adoration, though I must emphasize that they are never meant to question Christianity. They are not always autobiographical, either. I dislike disclaimers, so I will stop discussing them here.

Regarding the sonnet sequence: I am maybe working on a sequence of sonnets, each sonnet dedicated to a seperate girl. I'm still working on the meaning, or pattern, of the sonnets. For the moment, it's in fun.

Regarding the short fiction: These will be disjointed and often unconnected.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Genesis: First Post


This is my first post (as you can tell). I'll flesh this out a bit more later, but my ideas for this blog are about as follows:

1) Publish fiction and (possibly) devotional poetry on-line.
2) Rant, rave, philosophize, and theologize.
3) Share news that I find interesting.

I don't think many people will read this, but I can still try, correct.

Oh, and I'm going by the name 'The English Clergyman.' There is a reason for this name, but I don't want to disclose it so that I can preserve my anonymity. Suffice it to say that I have neither lived in England nor joined the clergy.

Au revoir, mes amis,

The English Clergyman
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