The Serpent’s Smile

Long ago, when the land was young and strange, a tribe of people lived in rough huts in the foothills of this place. They lived in the hills because of the great water serpent.

The great water serpent was a fearsome beast many times larger than a man. It spoke as men did but had a cruel and cunning intellect. Worse than its intellect, though, were its eggs. The serpent had laid eight of the things. When the first one hatched, it produced waters that drowned everyone living below the flat plains. Each subsequent egg hatching sent the waters higher and higher until only the hill people were left. They knew the last egg would drown them as well, so they pleaded with the strongest man to do something about it.

The strongest man was only that, a man. He knew he could not best the great water serpent in combat, its hide was too tough for even the sharpest spears. But perhaps the snake’s cunning had rubbed off on this last tribe of men because he came up with a sly plan to steal the egg. After luring the beast from its lair and swapping the egg out with a mound of packed ash and animal dung, the man and his companions rolled the egg to the village. The serpent noticed the deception after returning to its lair, however, and set off across the hills fast as a whip crack. The serpent reached the village just as they closed their sacred gates, carved from the only wood to survive the past floods. It stood outside the gates and lashed its wicked black tongue but could do nothing.

“You must think yourselves very cunning,” the serpent said, “but how do you plan to keep the egg?”

The tribe’s strongest man knew the snake’s cunning and shook his head. “We will not tell you. Go to your lair, you great beast. This is the age of men now, and there is no room for monsters like you anymore.”

The serpent pressed a great golden eye to a gap in the fence. “You think you have tamed the whole world with this one action? Mark my words, I will be back for your people.”

The serpent slithered back underground. The people buried the egg in a sacred spot, and a small lake formed in the depression.

In the people’s minds, the story ended there. But it didn’t, not really.

Many generations later, that man’s descendant was the headman of the tribe. The land had changed drastically since those days. People came from far and wide to live in the hills and valley, people who had never seen a serpent as long and dark as a river. The hill people lived in homes that had not changed much over the many generations, while their new neighbors had air conditioning and lawns like little patches of green on a quilt. Though the headman lived in the largest house in the village, it was still a house as poor as his neighbors.

Change came in a long, black car that wound through the dusty hills like a trickle of water. A man from the city stepped out, suit black as fireplace soot. This city man wanted to build a dam at the mouth of the forbidden lake. He brought plans and photo mockups and written testimonials and spoke for hours to the people. But the village headman turned him away, saying the people had no need for a dam.

The man came back the next year. He brought gift baskets full of trinkets and a toy for the headman’s son. He spoke of social growth and small town die out. The headman turned him away.

The third time, the man brought an engineer with him and spoke of hydroelectricity and improvement. The headman saw some of his people swayed to the idea, but still banished the city man.

In his fourth visit, the city man asked, “why are you so dead set against building at that particular spot?”

The headman chose his words carefully. “That is a place mapped out by our people in long ago times. It is a place of misfortune. Calamity would befall our people if you dug there.”

The city man visited the site with the engineer and came back all smiles.

“Well no wonder you don’t want me to build there,” he crowed, “there’s a large underground gap right about here—” he tapped the map right at the spot the egg was buried “—where limestone eroded away over centuries. I’ve spoken to my engineer, and we have several workarounds.”

The headman declined and sent him on his way.

A drought built among the hills, each year hotter and drier than the last. Dust became such a menace the people walked with cloths over their nose and mouth. Crops withered despite their best efforts. And every time, the city man sounded a little more persuasive.

“You’ll forgive me for this,” he said, producing a water bottle frosted with moisture, “but it’s so darn hot out there.” And he drank it loudly, glug glug.

“Your people are in a time of need,” the city man said between frosty sips, “your irrigation techniques aren’t enough.” glug glug. “But this new dam would fix all that. You could have water whenever you want, and a whole slew of other things too.” glug glug. “With the money you get from the city for use of the hydroelectricity produced by the dam, you could send every one of your children to college.” glug glug. “This place is so dry. Don’t you think it deserves a drink?”

And the headman sat in his home where the only air conditioning was the occasional breeze, and he looked at his wife with a scarlet cloth tied around her mouth and nose, and he looked at his children who were small with famine. He watched the city man’s adam’s apple bob with every gulp, glug glug, and he felt thirst parch his body as if he and the village were one and the same, glug glug, and suddenly the waters were a welcome thought.

The headman agreed. Perhaps not right in that moment, but he agreed.

Plans were drawn up and materials hauled from far around until the dam stood tall and sturdy-looking in the sun. The sacred trees that had survived the floods so long ago were uprooted for construction. The people smiled as they irrigated their crops and walked around without face cloths. The headman sent his children away to a school with a good reputation with the money they received for electricity generated by the churning turbines within the dam. The people prospered as they one had.

Then one day, something shifted underground. Something cracked and broke. Half the dam stayed sturdy, the other sank fifty feet. Water spewed from the fissure until the bricks were sent flying out like comets.

The dam broke.

Water deluged the hills. It drowned the people living in the bright modern city below, the farmers that lived in the land just above that, but most of all it churned under the people of the hill tribe, who had been first in line for the water’s path of destruction.

And somewhere, a man in a serpent-black suit smiled.

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Night Light

It’s hard to sleep.

I have chronic migraines. The slightest hint of a glow sets off this piercing tone in my head, which makes my eyeballs throb in their sockets, which makes my jaw clench until it aches, which makes my scalp pucker and bristle, on and on in a domino effect. You can imagine the work I had to do to eliminate light from my room. No electronics. Blackout curtains. I even wear a sleep mask for good measure. It worked.

Until the street light.

I rolled over one night and found a new needle of agony driven into me. Bright, halogen-white light leaking through my blackout curtains no matter how I adjusted them. Even turned to my other side with my sleep mask firmly tamped down, I could still see it or imagined I could. The glow shuttered shortly after sunrise, and I managed to catch a few winks out of sheer desperation.

After too much morning coffee, I walked up and down my street, trying to determine the position of the usurper. If I could find the culprit, I could call the city service number on its base. Hours later, I despaired of any solution. None of the street lamps were positioned closely to my house (and this had been a selling point for me) or at such an angle that I could easily see it from my window. It looked like another night of agony for me, and it was.

I didn’t even try to sleep, but it didn’t lessen the pain. I tried pushing the curtain aside, but the deluge of light shot through me like a bullet and I had to fall back. I had seen flood lights with less wattage. What possible bulb could the city be using in the lamp?

I admit, I must have sounded like a raving madman on that service line. I was out days of sleep, and my already fragile nerves were shot. I think I begged them to come and take the bulb out because the light was too sharp. I sat on the porch sipping endless rounds of coffee until the city worker came out. He looked sideways at my disheveled appearance, but walked me through the plan nonetheless.

There were six lamps in my neighborhood block, he said, three on my street, three on the street behind my house. He brought out the block blueprint and talked about light pollution, power saving, and many other topics I was too exhausted to untangle. It was nearing sundown and he held up a hand.

“Now watch,” he said, “and see if you can tell me which one shines in your window.”

One by one, the bulbs flickered on. Orange. The same dull sodium orange that shone from every other lamp in the city.

I thanked the worker for his time and walked home. The second I closed my bedroom door behind me, the light returned. Of course.

Even with my prescription sunglasses, I could not determine the source. It was as if the light was a solid block against my window. What’s more, I found something else as I pushed the curtains aside. Despite the harsh power of the rays, I noticed the vase on my desk did not cast even a thin shadow. Nothing did.

So now I sit here, sleepless. In the diffusion around my blackout curtains, I can see the light staring into me relentless as an x-ray. The source, purpose, and means of it are all mysteries I have given up on. I no longer fear that it will keep me from sleep.

I fear the day I will be able to sleep, and what will happen then.

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The Fishermen’s Bend

The old man sat on a barrel of salt pork with his head bowed as if in prayer. A checkerboard with a game half-played sat on the pickle vat in front of him. Dust cemented the pieces in place, not one of the men filling the general store had posessed the courage to challenge him to a game in years.

The old man was known as Murphy. No one alive could tell you if it was surname or given, as it was preferable to know as little about the man as possible. Though each man who owed livelihood to the sea relied on him, they crossed the street when they saw him shamble by.

Murphy was a master of knots. Age had tightened the muscles and chords in his hands until they were knots themselves. His shoulders were stiff as stone in a monkey’s-fist formation. His hair was a tangled mass no brush could brave. His mouth was a blood knot puckered in the worn fabric of his face. He alone brokered a seat in the store, which was packed to standing-room only by fishermen. They gave him a healthy berth.

Murphy opened eyes as sharp and grey as the sky outside. “You be wanting something?”

Which was a considerable outburst from the man.

“Tide’s going out,” one man ventured. He hid among his fellows when Murphy’s piercing gaze combed the crowd.

“Tide’s going out,” another man said. Paddy Keane, a meaty giant of a man who had sired a healthily crowded family. He commanded a crew of six men and did not flinch at Murphy’s gaze. “Time for leaving is past gone. What do you say?”

Murphy grunted and swallowed a load of phlegm. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”

The men grumbled. Paddy crossed arms sinewed as steel cable.

“Seven days, we been waitin’. Seven days the market’s asked for fish, and we’ve said no. Seven days we have hungerin’ babes and you say an eighth?” He stepped up to the barrel and set his hands down hard in the fossilized checker game. “We’ve had it, old man. I’ve had it.”

Murphy eyed the new contender. “Piss off, Keane. I knew your father when he were in short pants. You don’t frighten me.”

Paddy stood, retrieving a billhook from his belt. As the men made another empty space around him, he pulled an oilcloth from his pocket and set to cleaning it.

“I don’t frighten you? You don’t frighten I, either.” The metal sounded like a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass as he polished it. The surface was dulled from years of beating pollock  and flounder into submission. “You haven’t been out on a boat in years. You’re an old wive’s tail, you are. I’ll kill a black hen at sunrise before I ever believe in you.”

The store had fallen achingly silent. Outside, the wind made the wooden shingles creak. Murphy scanned the store and found a crowd of faces turned to the ground.

“You set your hat with him?” No answer. “Who taught ye the knots every sailor needs to know? The hitch that stoppered your backstays? The secret fishermen’s bend that calls truce with Neptune?”

“I’ve not seen a new sailor in a hen’s age,” one man timidly spoke up. He did not shrink before Murphy’s gaze either. “I’ve seen you sit here and run up credit with the store, but I haven’t seen you school anyone.”

“Your son. Or his son, maybe.”

“I’ll teach him.”

The crowd began muttering assent, reeling out their own anecdotes in defiance of the old man.

Murphy stood from his barrel, and the talk fell away.

“It doesn’t take a sailor to read the wind,” he said, “and it doesn’t take a brave man to start a brawl. I say no-one sails.”

Paddy broke out in a rolling guffaw. “How will you stop us, eh? Will you knot the air?”

Murphy, faced by a wall of derisive faces, sat on his salt-pork throne. “Watch me,” he said.

His swollen hands suddenly became like water, years melting away as he moved his hands in a graceful dance. The men could practically see the bight in his hands being twisted and looped this way and that. The sky outside darkened as the old man muttered and sweated and worked his fingers on empty air. Finally, he let his arms fall on the checkerboard and pushed his breath out in a long sigh.

It was a long while before one of the men said, “he’s not moving.”

Murphy sat, sharp upright as he ever had, dead at the pickle barrel with his eyes staring straight forward at nothing. Paddy grimaced and rolled his lids down with the palm of one hand. They sprang open again.

“Ghastly. Get the sawbones.”

The men piled out of the store on their way to the town’s doctor/coroner. It was only then that they realized the wind had sucked in like a heavy held breath. Above the cove where their boats lay on pebbled sand, helpless as fish without the tide, above the tarpaper shacks where their families burned fires to keep away the sea-chill, above their very heads was a maelstrom that roiled in a thick knot of clouds that spanned the width of the sky.

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The Diabolical Book

The bookmaker sat on a blanket in the open air market. His front teeth were worn to nubs from gnawing at linen thread. His hands were deeply callused from generations of papercuts. He alone merited the shade of the market’s lone tree, for he could not afford a canopy.

His ears picked up the tap of shoes arriving at his blanket. The old man wiped patiently at a book. Nine times out of ten, footsteps approaching meant merely he was an oddity being observed.

The stranger spoke: “you are Prindl, yes?”

“That is what most call me.” Prindl’s face tracked the root of the voice, tilting like a sunseeking flower.

“You are blind?” The stranger sounded oddly delighted. The mild scent of tobacco hit the bookmaker’s nose. Nothing else. How odd.

“Too many nights working over tallow candles.” Prindl straightened his charges, running his hand over covers as if caressing sleeping children. “My output is not what it once was, but please take your pick.”

The stranger did not hesitate a moment before saying, “you have nothing that strikes my fancy here, my good man. I have a special order in mind.”

Prindl grimaced. “I only make custom books on rare occasions now. Please, I’m sure what you want must be here.” He proffered a red leather-bound Octavo volume.

“In truth, nothing of what I want exists in tangible form.” The stranger squatted on his heels. His shoes creaked oddly, as if his feet did not fill the soles. “I have need of a book to write in. I have many things to write.”

“Suna near the entrance is a journal-maker.” Prindl was irritated now. “Complete with pens. Her wife makes the pretty marbled endpaper. Those should suit you.”

“Now now, not every record is a journal. This would be massive.” The strangers voice had a kind of charm that picked at one’s head. “May I at least tell you of the book I want?”

Prindl said nothing.

“It must be a volume of nearly infinite capacity. Therefore the spine would have to be a core of 360 degrees. Each page must be as thin as you could get it, and fold out to another, even thinner page. No cover would be needed, of course.”

Even in the daylight, Prindl grew cold. “No such book can exist. Here—” he pushed a maroon volume forward. “A birds-nest binding, very popular with lovers back in my youth. The pages are good rag linen.”

“That won’t do, I’m afraid.” The stranger was mildly amused.

“Well then here—” Prindl picked more books up. “A ladder binding. The cover is dolphin leather. Gurt the embosser did the interior before he died. Anything you’d see on the market now is his son. Or how about this?” He held up a small, sleek quarto. “Tuck-fold binding. The cover itself could be a writing surface.”

“My man, no other book will do. No other artist will do. I’ve asked around, and only you seem to possess the skill I need.”

Prindl frowned. “A circular volume is…blasphemy.”

“I didn’t take you for a believer.”

“And I’m not…save for a few select areas. This is one.”

The stranger clasped his hands together. They were covered in kid leather gloves that squeaked oddly. Prindl had to wonder at the shape of the man, like a profane volume bound in plain leather. What did the other bookmakers see, he wondered?

“It goes without saying your reward would be handsome.”

“And it goes without saying that I am old and earned my right to be contrarian. Goodbye, sir.”

Prindl stood and limped to the refreshment stall, not waiting on his potential customer.

 

The next week’s market. Prindl sat on his blanket. His hands were puffy with the sting of errant pinpricks. His sightless eyes wept with exhaustion. His hunched back ached as he sat on a cushion he’d brought from home.

There was the lopsided creak of a familiar set of shoes approaching.

“God damn you,” Prindl said without preamble.

The stranger, at least, had the good manners not to laugh. “I told you I chose you well.”

“You knew my curiosity would not let me rest.” Prindl stifled a yawn. “You didn’t ask around, did you? I was your first and only choice.”

“Curiosity is about the only reliable thing with people, I find.” The stranger’s body now carried the scent of lit tobacco. Nothing else. No meat, no eau de cologne, not even a hint of body odor.

“I have not even begun work on the signatures, I cannot find satisfactory material for the spine.” Prindl held up his shaking hands. “I know I am not up to the task. No mortal hand is. But I cannot stop.”

“Your reward will be handsome.”

“What good will handsome rewards do me in my grave? This book will be the end of me before I end it.”

“Ah, well put.” The stranger’s smile was evident in his voice. “Most folk don’t even get to that level of reasoning. They can only calculate the measure of wealth offered them. Do you know, my man, that for every ounce of surplus there is a slightly larger amount of deficit offered? One of the unsung rules of the world, I’m afraid.”

Prindl sweated. He had come late to the fair, and some beggar had taken his spot in the shade. “You won’t be back.”

“I will not need to collect the goods in person, no.”

“Neither will I.”

“Well, ask yourself this.” The stranger squatted before Prindl. With his fingertips, Prindl could pick out the leather tip of a shoe, collapsed and empty as a glove. “Were you fulfilled sitting here, hawking books as all your talent fled your fingers? Perhaps not a dozen men in the history of the world have had your skill.”

Prindl retracted his fingers. “It wasn’t fulfillment I was chasing here.”

The stranger laughed. It was a merry laugh that beckoned you to join in. “You have it by the right end. Goodbye.”

 

After no one had seen his blanket at the market for weeks, the other book sellers and binders and printers began to worry. They had always looked out for Prindl, of course.

Prindl, being a taciturn man, kept his home secret, but it did not take the world’s best minds to figure out the small shack leaning up on the fore side of the derelict paper mill was his.

Prindl lay on the floor, posed as if he still intended to fetch just one more thing from the workbench. His tools were scattered around, along with the skeletons of half-formed books he had abandoned.

On his bench was a strangely ellipsoid globe that rustled with the passing breeze. It was a circular book bearing hundreds, no, thousands of pages from a spine that sat like an apple core in the middle. If it was one or two signatures shy of completion, they were unable to see before a stray elbow knocked the globe from the bench and it plummeted right through the floor. Such weight, they said, was unheard of for a book, and a few uncouth figures joked that the book probably punched a hole right down to hell.

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Thirty Rules for Dating Our Daughter

  1. You will be chaperoned always. No exceptions.
  2. Do not touch her bare skin.
  3. She eats only what we give her.
  4. If she is cold, do not offer her your jacket. She cannot be warmed.
  5. Do not pick at the stitches. Her voice is not for your ears.
  6. You sacrifice your time to us from now on. Your waking hours are no longer your own.
  7. There will be no photographs, etchings, portraits, video recordings, or any other attempt to reproduce her likeness.
  8. Sometimes she will go away and return with the blood of some small animal on her face. It is on you to clean it.
  9. Her hair must be brushed every day.
  10. Her teeth must be picked every day.
  11. Her nails must be clipped on the hour.
  12. Don’t cry. The salt of your tears is harmful.
  13. Other women, even those in your family, are now forbidden you. Walk veiled through the town.
  14. Daylight is a privilege. Privileges can be revoked.
  15. Tell her you love her, right now.
  16. And again.
  17. Her eyes can no longer stand sunlight. You must smoke the glass from now on.
  18. At times, her shadow will gain features and make sounds. It is on you to burn it back.
  19. There will be a yearly toll. We will instruct you which animals to bring.
  20. You cannot go back. Not ever.
  21. If she shows you the pit in her chest where her heart once beat, do not stick anything inside it.
  22. You cannot mourn the man you once were.
  23. If you ever feel the urge to flee set in, remember: we can only dig one hole.
  24. Occasionally you will bleed. It is because she cannot, and you must provide for her.
  25. You are her sustenance now.
  26. You will love her, even as you begin to hate her.
  27. You will love her long after the spark fades.
  28. You will love her long after your body withers to dust.
  29. Your love will be a flower sprouting in a sea of black sand.
  30. If you even manage the miracle of children, this list will be passed on to you.

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Bedtime Rituals

“Check the closet,” the young boy said.

His mother rattled the knob and flapped the door open and shut. “Clear.”

“And the chest.”

She lifted the heavy cedar lid and led it slam down on its own. “Clear.”

“The curtains.”

Mother twitched aside the floor-to-ceiling drapes, revealing only empty window panes.

“Now the bed.”

She approached her son, bent over, fingers curled into claws. She gave a little play-growl. The boy was not amused.

Down on her knees among the toys, she only found errant dust bunnies beneath her son’s mattress.

“Clear.”

“Are you sure?” Which he said every night.

“Sweetheart, there’s nothing.” She kissed his forehead. “Lay down and go to sleep. Morning will be here before you know it.” Which she said every night.

She tousled his hair and hit the switch for his bedroom light and left the door to the hallway ajar. But this time her foot was stayed halfway down the hall by a piercing whistle-shriek of  “mom!

She broke land speed records to get back to her son’s doorway. “What?”

Silence. She could see by the hall light that the bedclothes still lumped in the same way, she could see a vague silhouette of a head (or was it another pillow?) if she let her eyes adjust a bit.

When her son finally spoke, it was not a attitude of panic. It was a flat, dead tone that sounded too adult for him. “You missed somewhere.”

“Where? I’ll start again.” She flipped the lightswitch, fruitlessly. The hall still shed its insufficient light through the doorway, so it wasn’t a power outage. The light in her son’s room had just decided to burn out.

“No. It’s too late.”

“Not for mommy.” Flick, flick. Her finger was getting tired. “Tell me where I missed. I checked in the closet.”

“You did.”

“I checked behind the drapes for nightmares, didn’t I?”

“Yes, mommy.”

“I checked in that box for the pop-up monster.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Is it the bed?” she sighed. “I can check under the bed. Just let me get the flashlight.”

Her son’s “no!” stopped her in the doorway.

“It’s too late for that. Anyway, that’s not what you forgot.”

Mother looked to her son’s bed, where the bedclothes rose and shifted just beyond her range of sight. “What?”

“You forgot to check on top of the bed.”

Her hand went to the lightswitch, where it flicked up and down, up and down. The room remained dark, her son remained an ambiguous mass of shifting dark shapes, but still her hand flicked up and down, up and down. Surely if she kept trying, surely, surely

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Death Records

For many decades, Solomon recording studio sat on Fuller street between a used bookstore and a storefront that was called Sal’s Fish Market long after the building became empty. The interior was no more than 600 square feet, not counting the recording space, almost all of it taken up by floor-to-ceiling shelves of plain wrapped records. The sign fell off the building facade about five years into its tenure, so for years the colloquial name for the store came from the errant graffiti sprayed in the cavity left by the sign: death records.

To truly understand the recording studio, one must understand the man first: Zachariah “Scratch” Solomon started his career as a recording technician for the city’s jazz and soul population. What made his fame was the day bebop singer Cal Benson came in to record what would have been his fifth full album. Benson, 43 years old, had a massive stroke and collapsed in the booth without singing one note. Solomon ran to call 911, leaving the recording equipment running untended. In the 25 minutes it took for emergency services to find the studio, Cal Benson lay dead in the booth. It was only when his body was removed that Solomon noticed his error. Curiosity led him to play back the recording of what would become the first of Solomon’s famed “death records”: a solid 25-minute track of what is undoubtedly Cal Benson scatting in his signature style, all recorded after he had ostensibly stopped breathing. Solomon smuggled the recording home and quit the studio by phone the next day.

The process starting at Cal Benson’s death leading up to the only posthumous recording studio in existence is a mystery known only to Solomon, but somehow he managed to scrape up enough capital to open the space on Fuller. He took out ads in Fortean Times and other similar publications, hoping to draw the occult crowd. What he got was a deluge of hate mail from people who found his idea tasteless. His first client came not from the believer side of things but from the private sector: Hyman Grande, a man of some means who owned a real estate block near the store, was dying of bone cancer. He amended his will so that Solomon would be present at his death bed…which he was, a mere seven months after the decree. The record, labeled H. Grande, contained eight minutes of an unidentified voice singing “You are my sunshine”, shuffling and repeating some verses, and inserting heretofore unknown verses in other places.

This was the event that made Solomon’s name. Long after the storefront sign was replaced by graffiti, the curious could check in and make death dates for the studio or, if they so wished, sample one of the many records under the listening bell. Not all records contained music. One labeled “E. Jones” contained a recitation of the opening sonnet of Love’s Labor Lost in the original middle English. Others contain a candid conversation between two unidentified individuals, a man with a stutter attempting a tongue twister, and an animal growling.

Solomon remained a cipher throughout the years. What few people counted themselves among his friends did not know much about him besides his name and profession. It was understood that his family emigrated from somewhere in Europe in the earlier part of the century, and that he had pursued music study until an injury cut his budding career short. Solomon was notoriously tight lipped about a scar that was usually hidden by long shirtsleeves, a burn in the shape of two saxophone keys. The closest anyone came to an answer of why he chose to pursue such an odd niche in the music industry was Norbert Cane, a local jazz pianist and drinking buddy. Norbert once overheard Solomon remark that he had picked up something in the way Cal Benson had breathed shortly before his stroke, and that his ears were “better than most.”

The recording studio struggled on for nearly seven decades. The rent was 12 months in arrears when Solomon died, quietly and suddenly, in the space above the storefront. There had been no sign of poor health. Solomon had not given any indication he was in pain. Yet in the interval between locking up for the night and the hour when his assistant came to open the store, Solomon had time to tidy his bed into a sort of funeral bower and dress in his only suit before dying of unknown causes. Clutched to his chest was an unmarked vinyl record. Interpreting the gesture as his final wish, the attendant brought the portable recording equipment up to Solomon’s death bed. At his poor and city-funded funeral, Solomon’s friends gathered to listen to the posthumous recording of the man who had provided the service to countless others.

From the point when the needle hit the outermost track to the point where it slid into the run-out groove, Solomon’s record was completely silent.

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In a Dark House

It was the age-old story: one girl stuck in bed over winter break in an ancient sorority house. Sandra curled liked a shrimp under her layers of quilts and granny-square blankets and listened to the house creak with a sort of fascinated terror. Despite the coiled heater that split the room between her and Cindy’s beds, despite the layers of fabric and polyester batting and goose-down she could feel the cold leak in from every corner of the room. Snow pattered against the windows with every new gust. She had to wonder whether it was very much colder outside than it was in.

Cindy’s side of the room was as empty and neat as a magazine spread, her David Cassidy poster lined up perfectly to the edge of her nightstand. Cindy was a snowbird. Unlike other girls she hadn’t fled south of the equator for the break, she was in the Poconos. Imagining her skiing down a white mountainside sent Sandra into a coughing fit. It was, she reflected, pretty unfair to blame the other girls for being rich enough to afford getaways. Or having somewhere nice enough to go back to. It was all bad luck. Bad luck that she caught this from Brent, who was probably agonizing alone in his studio apartment across town. Bad luck that the blizzard blowing in made any potential trip to the store a trek like the Scott expedition. Just a series of random happenstance piling one upon the other until it weighted her chest like mucus.

Sandra hocked a little.

The house groaned like it was tired of the wind. Sandra didn’t trust a house this old. It talked too much. It sang when they descended the staircase for breakfast, it shrieked in the pipes in resentment of their hot showers, it hissed when they tried to start fires in the ancient chimney.

It would prove an unhelpful ally if she ever had to sneak away from anything…

Sandra sat on that thought and smothered it. She’d already had to endure countless jokes from the others as they packed and left, like she had any choice in the matter. She wasn’t becoming a cliche, she wasn’t—

There was a squeak and hiss as a faucet came on downstairs.

Sandra tried to force herself to breathe normally, because hyperventilating brought on a coughing fit. It was winter. Probably someone forgot to leave the tap on just a bit and the pipe burst. She would have a mess in the morning, but that was it.

The faucet turned off.

Okay. It was probably something that sounded very much like water flowing. Perhaps the scrape of a tree against a frozen windowpane, followed by the cool rush of wind. She wasn’t used to old houses. The sound she heard could just as easily be the crack of joists settling as someone creeping one by one up the stairs—

“Sandy?” The voice was young and female. “Sand? You still up?”

Sandra tried not to let her voice crack as she answered: “yeah.”

Miranda opened the door, poking her head in. Her long, blonde hair tumbled in like an afterthought.

“Man, you look like death warmed over.”

“Well, I feel fan-tucking-fastic, Randy.”

The girls laughed over an in joke.

Sandra spoke quickly to cover her relief. “Thought you’d gone already.”

“I was. I did. Came back because I forgot some things.” Randy looked over at Cindy’s side of the room. “Man, what a pigsty.”

“I wish she’d mess my side up sometimes.”

Randy clicked her tongue. “You should talk. The dud I got stuck with hasn’t said two words to me since she got here.”

“Oh right, you got the foreign girl, Svil…Svet…Svetlana?”

“Yeah, Svet-head only told me her grandma was coming over after the house mom left.”

“Grandma?” Sandra entertained visions of some old babushka creeping up the snow-crusted sidewalk.

“Yup. But get this, just a month ago she got out of classes because she said her grandma was dead.” Randy picked up one of Cindy’s magazines, thumbed through a bit, then tossed it untidily down again.

“That…that doesn’t sound right.” With effort, Sandra sat up. “Does she mean the same grandmother? Where is she, anyway?”

Randy shrugged. “Be honest, I thought she’d be bunking over break, like you. But I woke up one morning and she just…” Randy shrugged again. “Who even knows. Anyway, who invites their grandma over and then leaves?”

“Something I’d do if I could get away with it.” Despite the brevity, Sandra felt miserable. There was something here, something she couldn’t quite untangle in the flu-fogged depths of her brain.

Randy sat on the end of Sandra’s bed. “Anyway, kid, I’m checking out of here in a minute. You sure you’re okay? Got tissues? Water?” 

Sandra held up the ancient delft pitcher that was probably original to the house.

“Puke bucket?”

Sandra held up a mesh wastebasket. Randy laughed, giving her hair that little flip that drove the boys wild. “Far out. Well, don’t invite anyone inside and you’ll be set.”

As Randy stalked out into the hall again, Sandra called out, “wait, invite?”

“Vampires, baby.” Randy was shouting from the bathroom. “If granny’s up and around after her own funeral, it’s the only logical explanation. You think Tara will notice I swiped her toothpaste?”

There. That was the irreconcilable thing. Sandra tried to picture Svetlana. It was hard, the girl was shy and barely even spoke to the house mother. Had she ever spoken of her family? All Sandra could picture was the girl studying at breakfast while they chatted, white-blonde hair sheltering her face like an iced-over waterfall.

“Also, I think she ordered something for her granny. Some kinda food. Wark—Were—Wurdulak? She said ‘the wurdulak is on its way.’

“When did she say this?”

“Tuesday, I think. Right after she asked when I was leaving. I think she didn’t want to be alone when it came here.”  

“Weird.” Sandra frowned.

“Anyway, if someone buzzes the intercom, just ignore it. No one’s supposed to be here, right?”

Randy sang a Dolly Parton song as she rooted through the bathroom. Sandra took a drink of water, which had gained an unpleasant earthy tang from the pitcher. The pained half-consciousness that passed for sleep was setting in. She wanted nothing more than to take a dose of medicine and knock herself out, but couldn’t bear the thought of being unconscious if someone visited the house.

“Randy?” Did her voice carry very far at all? Randy still sang. Maybe she’d try again in a minute. She just needed to lie there and rest, just for a minute.

Like any good thief, Sandra didn’t know sleep had robbed her of time until it was over.

The house temperature had plummeted even more than normal. Utter black filled every window. Sandra woke with her whole body aching and her mouth dried from breathing in her sleep, nose firmly stoppered by mucus. She spluttered and coughed and tried to budge the obstruction, finally managing to gain one nostril’s partial function.

The boards between their rag rugs were icy. The space heater might as well have been off. Had a window broken?

“Rand—” Sandra coughed at the thinness of her voice. Something cracked downstairs.

Even sitting up took too much effort. The room swam and her back ached as Sandra threw off the covers and set one unprotected foot on the floor. Maybe Randy had turned the heat off before leaving, following force of habit. Dumb, but understandable. All Sandra had to do now was travel the cold distance to the thermostat and give it a bump.

Sandra stood and found herself falling backwards quickly. She grabbed on her bed and half-slid to the floor, where she sat in an untidy heap. She could not walk.

Hands numb with cold, knees aching in protest, Sandra crawled.

The distance from bed to door was the worst, until she had to cross the hallway. That was the worst, until she came to the head of the stairs. Gathering herself like a child going down a slide, Sandra bumped her way down to the first bend in the steps, where she could get a clear view of the front of the house.

The front door was wide open.

Panic overtook Sandra and she half-slid, half-tumbled to the first floor. Snow had blown in to dust the front hall, it crunched and squeaked as Sandra pushed her body against the door to close it. By steadying herself on the doorknob, she could just get up enough strength to throw the medieval-sized deadbolt that crowned the door.

How could Randy have left the door open? Turn the heater off, sure, a momentary oversight bred by weeks of routine. But to leave the door swinging wide open like that…and how long had she been gone?

Sandra peered at the den clock, which had stopped at 10:20. Great.

Well, at the very least, the door had hung wide open for hours. Anyone walking along the sidewalk could have seen it and come right in.

What kind of a person would be out walking in the middle of the night during a snowstorm?

Sandra tried to picture that and then quickly tried not to.

Get upstairs. Brace the bedroom door (the ceramic knob had no lock) and pray for the morning to come.

The tinkle of something falling in the kitchen startled Sandra. She crawled up the stairs two at a time, fear giving her a speed boost. There was someone in the house. No there wasn’t. But then what made that noise? Had Svetlana lied about going away, and just hid out until the others were gone? But if it was Svetlana, why hadn’t she revealed herself yet?

A metallic crackle made her hands slip on the last step. Sandra fell, chest-first, onto the old oak stairs. She was too winded to scream when the crackle sounded again.

“Hello?” The female voice drifted through buzzing interference. Sandra crawled elbow-and-knee up to the second-story hall, where the house’s doorbell intercom lay. “Hello?” The voice had a slight slavic tinge to it.

Sandra crawled to the intercom and hit the button. “Svetlana?”

There was a long, empty static as if the winter wind blew through the wires. “…yes.”

“Crap, I just locked the front door.” Relief flooded her. “I’ll be down to open it in a sec. You have to come up to my room, chick, it’s too damn spooky out here.”

Sandra was halfway down the stairs when she heard the low groan of a deadbolt bending out of shape, and a creak as if a massive amount of pressure were being applied to the thick oak door. She wondered, in her terror-scattered brain, how long the door would hold against the inhuman strength of whoever was outside. But in the long run, it didn’t really matter, did it? It would be weeks and weeks before anyone came back to the house.

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Spores in the Wind

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

These are the words that came to Fabrizi Bello on a balmy day in May, roughly 1567, as he sat at his writing table. He produced almanacs for farmers and the like. Halfway through a paragraph on rye, Fabrizi had put his pen down and stood up. Stretching a little, he walked but a short ways from the table when he paused. Returning to his papers, he penned that sentence and the deluge of others that followed. He did not stop for another 15 hours. His wife Rina discovered him on her way to build the morning cooking fire. Vellum sheets bearing his minute cursive littered the table and surrounding floor. Fabrizi’s ink had run dry at some point and, rather than get up and walk the few steps to the supply cabinet, he elected to stab into his palm instead and use his own vital fluids. Attempts to drag him away ended only in Rina Bello’s head striking the table edge until she moved no longer. Fabrizi wrote until blood loss stilled his hand as well. The Bello household lay dormant until a cousin of Rina’s dropped by to borrow thread. By the time the city guard stumbled upon the scene, Rina’s cousin had absconded with the manuscript beneath her skirt.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Pietro D’abo was sorting through a lot his firm had made a winning bid upon. He was looking for sturdy, little-used paper that would be bleached and made into palimpsests. Beneath two contracts and a recipe for cinnabar, he found Bello’s manuscript.  Pietro’s limited Italian carried him through the first paragraph, fascination through the rest. Only a third of the total piece had survived to grace Pietro’s hands, and he dedicated the remainder of his life looking for the rest. Over the next thirty years he would bargain, steal, barter, and trade for any information on the remainder. Once the Catholic authorities of the day caught up with him, the manuscript (minus a few pages) was burned beneath his nose. When given opportunity to renounce his ways just steps from the executioner, Pietro said only: “I am but a spot on the back of a jungle cat. Who the hell are all of you?”

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Konrad Dehmel worked as a typesetter for a print press. His eldest son worked as a punch-cutter, his wife as a woodcut artist when not caring for their younger children. All lived in a single room above the print workshop. Among a single month’s orders and contracts, he found a small sheaf of paper. He knew no Italian, he could barely read his own language. And yet, when his wife came into the workshop to fetch a chisel, she found him in a pile of discarded work orders with the papers in hand. He would say nothing but that he must be the one to set type for the book, fixating his whole attention on the pages. He forewent sleep, bathing, even food. The thing that finally stopped him was the sleeting bullets of melted lead type when the town grew paranoid about his leanings and set torch to the workshop.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A single page turned up in London. The artist who found it painted a massive mural incorporating the words “jaguar”, “spots”, “stars”, and “beyond”. The mural languished in a country that had yet to even embrace the Art Nouveau movement, and the artist died of a laudanum overdose some weeks later.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A newsboy to a Manhattan office found a photograph taken of the ill-fated mural, along with a single piece of paper bearing a single sentence in archaic Italian. Both were in his pocket when he leapt from the empire state building later that year. Examination of his apartment found endless stacks of paper, a vast treatise on jaguars, astronomy, pareidolia, and language.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Victor Aguilar rose in the early hours of the morning, making himself a french press coffee. His flat overlooked the Plaza de Mayo, which served as a continual source of inspiration for him. Victor had been struggling with an idea, a short story of a man going through his late father’s belongings for auction. A chance glimpse at the muddy blue sky with its few remaining stars made the story sputter and die. Now he thought as he looked over the the plaza, a peculiar twisting thought that came to him as complete as if it had been written into his genes at conception.

He sat at his table and clicked his mechanical pencil until the lead came.

There is a jaguar, he wrote, in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky. Like spores borne unto the wind, no idea is truly dead when one finds its echo across the universe.

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But Anyway

—like I said, I’m never going back there again. But anyway, did you hear about Claire? Mmm-hmm, keeled over in the middle of a manicure. Just like that, they said. Popped her brassiere in the process, couldn’t you just die? Janine says she said she stopped drinking, but Alice says she saw Claire sneaking one of those mini-bottles out of her purse. Can you imagine? Janine swears it wasn’t the booze, Claire just up and died with the most horrified look on her face, but Janine also swears Frank stopped sleeping around when she caught him five years ago so you know how much weight her word carries. Claire just started flopping around and frothing at the mouth, kind of like your mother that one time on St. Paddy’s’ day, but anyway—

Poor Claire just hasn’t been right since that thing at our old highschool, mmm-hmm. Dean humiliating her like that and all, I mean, couldn’t you just die? Where’s a woman her age going to find another man? And the scandal! Was anyone surprised when she started drinking again? Janine said it was something else, of course. Mmm-hmm. Said she went out to that old supply shed on the other side of the baseball diamond, came out shaking like someone just passed a death sentence on her head. Place is gone now, but Janine says she said there was something written on the wall in there, something that killed her in the end. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Like a cootie-curse, at her age! Alice was too polite to say it, but Claire had been going downhill all week and this was just the capper. Who cares if Dean jumped in front of that car, her social life was murdered right then and there (kind of like your mother on St. Paddy’s day, but anyway—)

Alice says there was someone living in that shed, mmm-hmm, some kinda bum who went around with their face all bandaged up. Whole neighborhood’s gone downhill since we were kids. Disgusting. They say the thing written on the wall wasn’t even english. Some whatsit—called it a wormword? So silly, have you ever heard of a word you can catch like a cold? But that’s what they said it was, written all nasty on the wall like that. And then right after that she finds Dean who jumps in front of the car like he’s chasing a leaf that looks like a $50 bill (again, like your mother.) Too neat if you ask me. I’ll bet their marriage has been on the rocks for ages and Dean just got tired of keeping up appearances—no I am not jealous! Can you imagine me next to that has-been in his little power tie? My Brett might have his ‘gentleman’s weekends” but he’s never humiliated me in public. And even if he did, you wouldn’t see me sneaking Shandies in a sunblock bottle. I mean, the scandal! Couldn’t you just die? ‘Head cheerleader marries quarterback, falls into the bottle.’ It’s worse than your mother with a snoutful, but anyway—

Claire had the sweats and shakes. Delirium tremens, just like my uncle Pete. He thought he had bugs crawling under his skin, used a chisel to try and get them out. Claire said her words burned her mouth, said it hurt her not to say the thing that made Dean jump in front of that car. Mmm-hmm, so terribly sad. When Sherryl started on menopause and kept screaming that the kids were leaving threatening chalk drawings on her sidewalk, that was the saddest old thing. But Claire was worse. The way she kept dribbling all over people just trying to help her, screaming that she was cursed. I know she said something nasty to Harold, that’s why he keeled over and had that stroke. Poor deluded Claire just thought it meant it was all real. It’s a scream, couldn’t you just die? She actually begged us to find the bum from the shed! Like we’d stomp through shantytown for her imaginary problems. I’m sure Janine felt very sorry for her, but if you ask me Claire just basked in the attention. First her husband dies, then she claims magic powers? Please. Next you’ll be telling me the scratch on that war monument isn’t from the night your mother went spinning down the main drag with a pickax she stole from the mining display, but anyway—

Shame about her. Mmm-hmm. Of course I’m sad, don’t I look sad? …damn botox. Anyway, it was a long time coming. She really started to lose her noodle towards the end. Said the wormword infected something, a phrase we use all the time. Called it her killing word. But when Alice asked her what it was, she wouldn’t answer. Clear schizocotic break, if you ask me.

Bitter? Of course I’m not. Claire lived her life however she lived. If she chose to end it as an embarrassment, that’s up to her.

…of course I don’t mind getting lunch. Again. Unlike Claire and all, we aren’t having money problems. Say, you two were close, weren’t you? Did she hint at anything? Some little hint that might let you know what she was talking about? No? All right, just dotting my i’s and j’s. She was clearly beyond help, but you never know…

Of course I didn’t visit her before the salon, when have I ever visited in the morning? And if I had, why would she tell me anything? Your imagination is running away with you. No, I’m wincing because of my sciatica, that’s always been a problem. I don’t have some wicked little wormwood burning a hole in my tongue. Imagine, me with magic powers. I mean, couldn’t you just die? Couldn’t you just die?

Couldn’t you just die?

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