Category Archives: microfiction

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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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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Ink Sting

There are tattoo artists who are wizards of pigment, skin painters whose work is so beloved their subjects voluntarily tan their own skin after death. There are those who sculpt with white ink, transforming scars into masterworks of lace.

Then there was Juliet. Her mastery was not of the ink and tattoo-pen, but of her pets.

Juliet lived in a little village not too far from here. She was not an artist by trade, but an apiarist. Her hives were great house-sized mounds that only she dared approach. She sold no honey at the local market, the excess wax she burned without ceremony. They were unsalable because they were tainted with the byproduct of her real goal: the bees themselves.

By some unknown alchemy, Juliet had bred her bees to sting color. Her pets lacked the barbels that marked the death of other bees, so they could sting again and again with impunity.

The process for getting a tattoo was this: one made a reservation months to years in advance. Juliet would plant a special bed of flowers in the shape she wished to tattoo and train her bees to it again and again. One hive to one color, the next to another. When the time finally came she marked out a pattern on the customer’s body with a pheromone pen and trained the bees on the skin. Each session was spaced out by weeks so the subject would have time to recover from the venom.

Was it worth it? Juliet had her detractors, like any artist. They called her command of imagery clumsy, that she relied on novelty to make up for her lack of mastery. But she was popular enough to make a tidy enough living, right up until she died.

The first deduction of the scene judged her pets responsible for her death, for her corpse was swollen with stings and the scene reeked of pheromones. After a deeper examination, they found that someone had probably doused her in the concoction hoping the stings would disguise the knife wounds in her torso. 27 stabs in all. The motive of the killer was probably the deepest mystery. Juliet had her detractors, but no one who hated her enough to stab her 27 times.

Lacking closure, the case languished. Her cottage fell into disrepair. The bees thrived on, because no bear or badger wanted honey so tainted with pigments as theirs.

It was predictable that the bees would become a menace, unmanacled from their keeper as they were. But the shape this menace took was a surprise to all. The bees began clustering around a man who made salves and creams for the nearby market, a man who had always lived below suspicion.

It came trickling through the village’s gossip stream that he’d made overtures towards Juliet a time or two, though no one could decide if they were romantic or professional in nature. Perhaps he harbored a secret scorn that had led him to deprive the bees of their keeper. Perhaps the bees only smelled their own product, the wax he melted with various oils for his salves, and hated it. No one felt strongly enough to accuse him, or intercede when he became so plagued by the bees he was forced to wear beekeeper’s attire at all hours.

When he was found dead in a field a year after Juliet’s passing, no one could be sure if it was justice or mere happenstance. The only thing that was truly clear was when they rolled his sting-swollen corpse over, it revealed a perfect portrait of Juliet herself tattooed on his chest.

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A Poem of White and Gray

There were 15 centimeters of snow hushing the wheels of the train that came for Mariko, only for Mariko. Part of an arrangement with the government. She was the only child living in the village; the train only ran twice a day, ferrying her to and away from school.

Mariko stamped her feet. Red boots. White snow. Red boots. White snow. For today’s writing exercise, she wrote the words “my life is a white poem.” The snow from afar looked like the coolant foam they had sprayed on reactor 2. Mariko squeezed her eyes shut until the snow was gray through her black lashes.

The train slid to a stop, snow squeaking beneath its wheels.

Mariko boarded the train, taking with her the only color to be seen. Red boots, floral winter coat, pink scarf.  Far away she could see the plant like a gray brick dropped in the middle of a while pile of fire-extinguishing foam.

It had been June, the day Mariko’s father left her at home and went into work on his day off. Seven years. She had been eight then. She did her homework and listened to the radio and when night fell she made dinner for herself. Her father had taught her to be sufficient on her own, perhaps knowing even then what must become of him.

The heat of the train car melted the snow on her lashes and in her hair. Mariko took off her gloves. The train started again. It was an old line, built in the days when the plant had been new and ferried workers to and from the village. Sometimes she sat swaying in the heat, dozing, dreaming of simply sitting on the train as it ferried her away and never coming back.

“You have yourself to think of,” her father would say. Sometimes he would cough after he said that, and in that cough would be blood as red as the snow boots they both wore. And in that blood was the reason she could not leave yet. Her father may have been tied to the village, but she was tied to him.

The way the track looped, Mariko was forced to see the plant twice. The reactor that melted down had not been unlucky number four, but number two. Steaming away its coolant, throwing poison into the bodies of the men working that day. They had died first, and violently. That violence was easy to understand. The slow decline of the workers that were left was something no one understood. Other students avoided Mariko. The coach made her shower before and after PE.

Her father had gone back to work. Her father, Shigeta, Yamashiro, and several others. They worked there still. They walked along the path from their houses to the plant, to tend to the functioning reactors like eggs in a phoenix’s nest. The slightest misstep and they would all burst into fire.

“You have yourself to think of,” Mariko’s father would say, older than his years. He walked with the stoop of a grandfather and his hair fell out in clumps. He and the other men could not think of themselves. No one else would hire them, they could live nowhere else. Each day they shuffled to the plant, and each evening they ran a geiger counter over their bodies before they went home. Sometimes they would simply fall where they were, as if suddenly remembering their own mortality. They could even go  back to their families to be cremated. Their fate was a gray lead coffin that would seal their poison away.

A white man-made hill cut between Mariko’s gaze and the plant. She thought of leaving sometimes. Her mother’s family beckoned her out, writing letters full of pleading and appeals to logic. There were more easily accessible schools where they lived. There would be no drench showers, no Geiger counters. Mariko could eat vegetables grown from the garden and the well water would always be pure. What kept her in the village?

The letters were stuck, unanswered, in an old cedar box where her mother had kept her festival Yukata. Their white dinged with years until it too became gray.

Too soon, the plant was back in sight.

The block building, sinister in its ordinariness. The gray of the concrete sucked all the warmth from everything surrounding it. The gray weight of it pinned their lives to this place, buckled her father’s back and knees so that he stooped. Mariko averted her eyes, tracing the trodden snow from the plant’s entrance down to a knot of people who stuck like grey flags in the white. Shigeta. Hayashi. All the plant workers struggling through the snow in their aging bodies…

Mariko stood, rocking against the train’s sway. The plant workers, like gray ants, clustered in the dirty white of the snow. Mariko looked and looked, but could not help her gaze retreating with the train, could not remain as the train bore her away from the gray plant and the gray body lying prone in the snow. The body grew smaller and smaller until it was indistinguishable from the snow around it, all that remained in the distance were two boots red as blood on a white handkerchief.

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Before the Fairy Tale

This is not how you get a happy ending.

First, you must cast aside every blessing given you. Slam the door on everyone who was present at your christening. Grind luck beneath your heels.

Fortune favors those who set off in search of nothing. So you must look for something. Make it unsavory. Vengeance, perhaps. Spite. Scorn everyone you meet on the road, every fairy in disguise. Steal from beggars. Trick innkeepers so you rest on feather beds while the seventh son of a seventh son slumbers in the barn outside.

Leave to a country where no one knows your face. Invent a life for yourself. Lie frequently and boldly. Care not who you hurt, this is the callous you must form on your soul.

Is there a wonder nearby? Perhaps a flaming bird comes to rest in the tallest tree in the forest. Or a giant buries the eye that can see through rock under a church every night. Or a prince lies wreathed in iron thorns, awaiting the gentle kiss of an understanding woman.

Take this marvel in your hands and warp it so that none can lay hand on it but you. This is power, now. You are feared, whispered about.

In every forest trail, take the most well-lit fork because the easiest path always leads downhill. Yield to temptation. If a fox bids you to bite from a wicked apple, bite. Shun mirrors, because they will tell you the truth. Covet finery. Grasp at debauchery. Pleasure is fleeting so you must dose yourself with increasing highs.

There will come a day when you find a path that does not split but rambles into the darkness. Follow it. Through the muck and the mud, through thickets and brambles and beasts, through all sorts of indescribable horrors…

Until you find a cottage. It will be empty.

Fill it.

Open the door and step inside. Light a fire in the fireplace. Seize the nicest chair for yourself and draw it close to the heat.

Sit.

Notice how time has taken the flush of health from you, how you’ve bargained away the tautness of your skin.

You are the hag now. And the only fate you have is one you made with your own two hands.

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Le Masque Blanchâtre

The three surviving reels of Le Masque Blanchâtre reside in a vault of the Cinémathèque Française, and with good reason. The film has been lost, found, dropped, stolen, set on fire, eaten, and buried underground. The fact that any of the highly flammable nitrocellulose stock remains is nothing short of a miracle. But why is this film so frequently targeted for demolition?

Because it holds the dubious honor of being the only known film adaptation of The King in Yellow.

The film itself is not the only “lost” element. The director Louis André disappeared in Vichy France in a suspected political assassination. Greta Ors, at one time set to be the European Louise Brooks, made only one other film before dying of a morphine overdose. Jean Fleuret, cinematographer on every single André production, was one of the film’s first detractors when he kidnapped the reels just before the aborted premiere. Similar tales of woe afflict the assorted cast and crew; if a film can indeed be cursed then you could find no better candidate than Le Masque Blanchâtre.

The production itself was no stranger to misfortune. Plagued by setbacks, mishaps, and funding troubles, the fact that the film was even finished is a testament to the sheer doggedness of its director. Even before reading the infamous play, André was a man possessed by his own ambition. Yvette Andréyor called him “a nightmare of a man” after contracting pneumonia on the set of his historical biopic Alexandre. But once he laid hands on the mythic text, he was a man bewitched.

Little remains of the shooting script, but a vague summary can be pieced together from scraps and secondhand references. The film expands the role of a nameless courtier who delivers news to Cassilda towards the end of the first act that causes her to run shrieking into the empty streets. Filmed entirely from his perspective, all the established beats of the first act are there, from the return of Cassio from battle to the preparation for the bal masqué. Other, murkier elements from the second act are hinted at. One screen direction calls for Cassilda being shot “[…] through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, her hollow-eyed image retreating in all directions until there is nothing left but the empty face of the glass.” From costume orders we can infer that the bal masqué took cues from Rococo design with a sleek modernist flair. Of note is a single edict, two words dashed off in André’s increasingly manic handwriting: “no yellow!” Greta complained that her role(which combined elements of Cassilda and Camilla) required hours on end of “lying…beneath a great fish tank as they filmed me through the water.”

These snippets do two things. One: they paint the picture of an ambitious shoot filled with offbeat techniques.

Two: they make almost no mention of the plot at all.

The play itself is quite infamous for its disjointed format; the banality of the first act almost farcically belying its infamous (but never summarized) second half. André took it one step further, eliminating nearly all spoken dialogue from the script save for a single exchange near the end, the famous “mask” dialogue shifted from the first act to the final.

Had it survived its own premiere, it most certainly would have been revered as a masterpiece. But alas, dissent built even as early on as the editing suite. Fleuret wrote in his journal “[the film] has changed him. He is no longer my beloved Louis but a beast with wide, staring eyes and no heart. I fear his ambition may doom us all.” These two cryptic statements are the only clue as to what led Fleuret to kidnap the film and attempt to incinerate it. He succeeded only in destroying the final reel and was taken to jail laughing that he had “lessened that monstrosity’s taint on the world.” Indeed, without its final reel, Le Masque Blanchâtre could never be screened for the general public. André would attempt smaller private screenings, leading to the incidents listed in the opening paragraph.

André was a man broken in the years after. He never attempted to film another movie, but spent his remaining days carting the surviving reels around, screening for whomever he could. It is rumored that this is what led to his disappearance in occupied France, lugging around canisters of “entartete kunst” was practically signing his own death warrant.

The film eventually resurfaced after the war. André did not.

The film was available for private screening up until 1988, when a film critic ate 23 feet of the second reel. Time and wear will diminish the remaining film, as no attempts to preserve it have gotten past the fundraising stage. Le Masque Blanchâtre languishes in the safe, the greatest unseen masterpiece in the world.

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In Pursuit of Red

Illustration provided by the excellent Bill Draheim

The story of China’s first true red glaze is a well-known and probably apocryphal tale: a rooster wandered into the vent-holes of a royal kiln. The smoke from its cremated body starved the fire of oxygen, creating the first recorded instance of the fabled “ox-blood” glaze. The emperor was struck by the color and demanded more. The potter did all he could to replicate it but in the end, despairing, flung himself into the fires of the kiln. Thus was ox-blood obtained.

That is where the tale, apocryphal or not, ends in most tellings. But there is a further chapter that is not often repeated. For there was another potter.

This potter rivaled the man who flung himself into the kiln, coveting the color that dripped red from the funerary pots. Now ox-blood was all the rage in the imperial court, and so this potter set out to replicate it. After careful examination of the circumstances around his rival’s death, the potter concluded that human sacrifice was needed.

In the country there was no shortage of beggars, vagabonds, orphans, human detritus that would not be missed. The potter’s first experiment buckled under his enthusiasm; too many bodies stacked like kindling put the fire out. His next attempt, a single beggar, yielded only three ox-blood specimens.

The potter’s mania grew like a rash. In his haste to fill the kilns, his craftsmanship became sloppy and haphazard. The potter began insisting he heard a voice coming from the kiln itself, the cracks and pings whispered to him over the sleepless nights he fed it with firewood. The kiln he had was not enough. He must build a more magnificent kiln, one that bit into the hillsides like a dragon. The potter dug and plastered and bricked until his fever dream was made flesh and the dragon-kiln stretched 2½ li into the surrounding countryside. He had servants fill the kiln to bursting and, as the last man delivered the last cup the stack, he bricked up the entrance and set fire.

They say the heat from the kiln boiled a nearby lake. They say the agonized wails of the servants reached the capitol. When the potter cracked open the kiln, he found half the pieces were ox-blood. Not good enough.

The potter continued his experiments until the country was stripped of passer-by. With diminishing outside influence, the potter grew deeper into his mania. No longer content to speak, the potter claimed the kiln beckoned him with shapes in the fire, indicating the next sacrifice. His eyesight dwindled as he stared deep into the white-hot belly of the kiln, pots exploding from the thermal shock each time he removed the spy-brick. Each new setback only strengthened his determination. He finally made his most audacious claim to date: he would deliver to the emperor an entire kiln-full of blood red pottery. Audacious because if he failed to deliver he would forfeit not only his but the lives of every single member of his family.

The allotted interval passed. Officers of the crown set out to the pottery works to find the compound devoid of all life. Curious and malformed lumps of clay occupied the stands that should have held elegant vessels. The officers followed a large patchwork bloodstain to the rear of the compound, where the last bit of motion remained.

The kiln had been bricked over not with stones but skulls. The potter complained that he could not yet make the delivery as the kiln would not reach temperature, sightlessly tossing log after log into the cold firebox.

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