Monthly Archives: July 2018

Swallow’s Tallow, or: Hubris Deferred

They called the place Hillport, because it was exactly that. It was a port built on a hill, a cityship that clung to the sea-rock like an ugly whelk. Save for one gravel causeway that was the city’s only lifeline to the shore, the city was an island unto itself, building up layers of architecture over the generations. At one point it had been a seafaring city, but their fishing practices left much to be desired and now the bay around them lay as bare as the face of the moon. Struck by such ugly serendipity, they sidestepped the obvious conclusion and invested themselves elsewhere: tallow. The city rendered the tallow from butcher’s blocks for miles around, with such skill and industry the smoke from their fires painted the sky black at times.

They called the place Hillport, but that was not the proper name. The given name to the rock on which the city was built was Swallow’s Crouch, owing to the little birds that flitted in and out of the seaside caves on the far side of the island. The birds were the only thing left uneaten within arm’s reach of the city, owing to their nests being build on sheer cliff-sides (and sometimes on the ceilings of sea caves) that no man-made ladder or crook could reach. What they ate was anyone’s guess. The cityfolk hated the chattering they made and set out poisoned bait, perpetually untouched.

What makes the swallows remarkable is the very thing that kept the city alive. Tallow. The fat from animals does not entirely burn up in a fire, you see, and year-round tallow frosted the roofs and windows of the town. The swallows daubed the fat into nests and by some unknown alchemy the fat became hard as stone in the sea air.

The city of Hillport grew rich, because tallow was quite valuable. The rosy fat from a bull, the white bounty of a whale’s skin, the delicate oils necessary for perfume making, Hillport traded in them all. They grew wary of hubris, because they had grown so skilled at dodging consequence. So when a stranger came along at low tide, picking his way along the sharp rocks, they knew they looked at no mere man. They hauled him up in chains, scraping him against the sheer cliffside until his scholarly glasses broke. The city’s Autarch was unamused at the sight.

“I suppose you’re here to warn us of some great calamity,” he said, “or to beg us to mend our ways.”

“I am not.” The young man reeked of sea mud and his features were raw from scraping against rock. He proffered one of his books. “I am a man of the sciences. I’m taking stock of this countryside. I heard about your swallows from another town.”

The Autarch snorted. “Do you think me a swaddling babe? You’re here on some divine errand, here to hold a mirror up to our city.”

“No, no!” the man protested, throwing a few books at the Autarch’s feet. Pen-and-ink sketches of seabirds and snails spilled out. “I only want to see and to know! Your city is entirely your business, I care only about the swallows.”

The Autarch put a hand to the ripple of flesh at his chin. He prodded a book with his toe. “The swallows?”

“Yes.” the man smiled in relief. “I only care about observing them. So unique are they, I’ve never found a bird like them.”

The Autarch nodded. “That sorts it, then. You’re here to find the true nature of the swallows, and once this purpose is fulfilled they’ll depart. And once they’ve departed on their own terms, some calamity will befall the city.” He nodded to a guard. “See to it that he meets an unglamorous end.”

The protesting young man was pulled from the Autarch’s chambers and to the city square, where a vat of tallow had been heated to the smoking point. In he went, and afterwards they strained him out in bits. No reason to waste good tallow.

The Autarch waited for some sudden, symbolic comeuppance, but none came. The young man did not appear in the smoke of the rendering fires, his bones were tossed unceremoniously into the sea and that was that. That year they rendered five times the fat they normally did, and every inhabitant of the city grew rich with tallow.

Every inhabitant.

It was not that year or even the next, but a brief enough interval of time that certain folk could make the divine connection if they wished, that the weight of the swallow’s nests pulled Hillport in half. The city cracked and slid into the waters, the sea hissing as it was deluged with hot fat. The rock lies bare today, even the swallow’s caves are now deserted, but globules of fat still roll on the tide, some say. Impacted and magicked by sea, they are hard as ice.

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The Dangerous Adventures of Mutt & Mike

I can paint you an exact picture of where I was when The Mutt & Mike Thanksgiving Special aired, even though it’s identical to countless other Saturdays from my childhood. I was sitting at the dining table at an angle so that I could still see our old two-dial Magnavox, shoveling sugary cereal into my mouth. My mother worked the night shift back then, so she was still snoring away on the pull-out couch. I could describe the rip in the wallpaper from when I tried to put up a tent in the living room. I could tell you how many pillows we had (five) and how the birdcage at the window held not a bird but a yellowed peperomia, that the front curtain was not a real curtain but an old sheet from my bed bearing characters from an old scifi show.

But of the cartoon I can tell you so little, so very little.

Mike was a pink blob, Mutt was yellow. The background was cyan, maybe. They lived in a house, or perhaps a formless void that was the home of so many other cheap cartoons. It’s a blur. The cartoon left a vaguely pleasant film on my mind, like the fuzz the cereal left on my teeth. I’m not sure what compelled me to get down from my chair, push in the tape that was mainly used for recording Night Court episodes, and hit the record button halfway through the special. The end result was that a whole 28 minutes and forty seconds of Mutt & Mike was preserved that day due to my childish interference.

And it should not exist.

The lost media wiki has no entries on it. I’ve dipped my toe in forums that call its existence a hoax, a delusion, an attempt to spread viral advertising for some upcoming movie. Promotional stills have been dissected by internet experts who call a matter of pixel blurring hard proof.

I’m not the only one who’s seen the show. Believe me, I would be only too happy to chalk it down to a misremembered event, if not for the others. A user calling himself xXterrytoonsXx claimed to have fifteen of the first season’s episodes and made plans to upload them to youtube. He ran into increasingly high hurdles as his video capture equipment broke down, as he accidentally damaged some tapes in the process. The vlogs he released in-between upload attempts showed his deteriorating state. He slurred words, mumbled, moved increasingly like a broken marionette as his coordination went. His last contact with the outside world was a badly-misspelled plea for a competent video editor and then…silence. Not one of the thousands of internet sherlocks were able to dig up a family or even an acquaintance. He had never even answered one of my messages begging him to respond.

I check my email first thing: 94 new messages since I checked before falling asleep four hours ago. Angry missives from trolls who want to see the tape. Skeptics quizzing me on exact details. People who claim to have seen Mutt & Mike too and want to reach out to me. Those are the hardest to deal with. I want to share this with someone else, I want to commiserate with other people, but I’ve been through it all before. These people are the wooden horse left by a retreating army. Once they’ve breached my defense they’ll start asking if I remember this or that, and can I describe this scene exactly, trying to loot the cursed treasure of my memory.The concept of people who want to contract a virus on purpose is entirely new to me. I say this because Mutt & Mike is exactly that, a virus.

My mother gave me the tapes when she moved down to Florida with her husband. Most of our TV things had been damaged in a flood, only this little box had remained snugly upstairs because it held the auxiliary remotes. I received a whole lot of tapes with nothing but Night Court, Murphy Brown, and THE tape bearing my childish scribble. I couldn’t make out the words I had written down so long ago, deciding to plop it in my VCR/DVD combo. Maybe if I hadn’t been so eager to hold on to the past, none of this would be this way. I could have gotten the solo DVD player, or just dumped the tapes on a thrift store. I popped the black plastic lozenge into the mouth of my VCR instead. Halfway through Harry Stone’s legal antics, the picture changed. Familiar and garish colors filled my screen and I was transported back to our old apartment for a brief moment.

I woke up four hours later to a blue screen and a screaming headache. I had urinated on myself.

Before he fired me for failure to show, my boss had often told me I always seemed like I was searching for something. When I was on the phone to clients, my eyes didn’t go off into the middle distance but glanced around me seeking something or someone. I didn’t seem like I’d be happy, he said, until I found the thing I was looking for.

Was Mutt & Mike that? God, I hope not.

Why don’t I dispose of the tape, you might ask? I’ve thought hard about it, believe me. VHS tapes are practically engineered for self-destruction anyway, wearing out with each successive viewing. I’ve thought about eviscerating the tape’s guts and pouring acetone over them. I’ve considered fire, hammers, even the garbage disposal. But…

And this is where I get stuck. I don’t know why I stop there every time, but I do. I look at this plastic rectangle and realize I am the only person in the world who has this. My hands stop and my body fails and my mind goes blank. It would be very easy to attribute this all to the tape but it’s me. I know it’s me. I want to look away. I can’t.

I haven’t gone outside in a while. I get my groceries online, have them delivered. I have triple locks on my door and a doorbell camera. Multiple threats on my life, you see. Some people are so eager to see the abominable they feel entitled to it. As if I’ve stolen something of theirs. I didn’t even know. I stumbled into a TV forum, innocently asking if anyone had heard of this cartoon. My head was still buzzing (perhaps I had hit it in the seizure) and all I wanted was to make sense of my situation. I didn’t know. I’d take it back if I could.

One of the more threatening emails I’ve gotten pledges “you can’t keep this secret forever.” And they’re right of course. I know I am not enough to hold it back. I am Pandora, and each night as I lay in bed I feel my fingertips burning with curiosity. Perhaps, the worm whispers, perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. What if I’m wrong, just this time? What if this has all been a dream and I’m simply choosing to stay here?

Back then, on that Saturday, I had no notion that things would ever be anything but the way they were. That we would lose the apartment and that television. That I would wind up sleeping on that pull-out couch with two step brothers that came too quickly and too close together. That my mother would lose job after job, that I would relinquish the last of my childhood in a misguided effort to ease her suffering. Perhaps the cartoon knew all this, knew I would push myself to revisit that time, knew I had never abandoned that moment despite the years.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The tape sits on the last table left in my apartment. As my savings go, I must sell off the other furniture, but the table must remain. And the television. And the VCR. And the electricity to run them both. And who knows, some day when everything has been sold that can be sold, when I can no longer keep the bills at bay, I will take that black rectangle and put it into its slot and hit play. I will watch the bright shapes bounce across the screen, I will hit all the same beats one last time and just…let it be the end.

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Ascension

“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”

Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.

“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.

“Because mommy said she’s down below.”

In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”

“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.

Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”

The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”

“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”

Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.

“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”

The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”

Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”

“No. Just wondering.”

Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”

“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”

Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.

Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”

“I don’t think so.”

Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”

“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural  stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.

“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”

“Abso-tutely.”

“Are we in heaven?”

Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”

“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”

Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.

For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.

Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.

Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”

“How was it shaped?”

She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.

“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”

“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”

Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”

“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.

“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”

Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”

Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.

“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.

The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.

They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.

The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.

At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.

“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.

Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.

“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”

“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.

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