Tag Archives: cosmic horror

The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

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Islands

“Take deep, calm breaths. Push your self down into a knot, gather its ends until it is a uniform sphere.”

Sturgess complied. In his mind’s eye a lens developed and grew with an ease borne from months practice. Like the people occupying the folding chairs all around him in the E street Protestant church basement, Sturgess was creating a peace. An oasis of cool thought in the roaring inferno of his reality.

Purefoy paced the aisles, adjusting limbs and closing eyes when necessary. Sturgess snuck a look through lashes, closing his lids swiftly as the other man turned around.

Purefoy paced to the front of the room. Standing beside a chalkboard written with a set of phrases designed to loosen the psyche, he called on random people throughout the room. He snapped his fingers and spoke a name, needing no more instruction than that.

“Linsky?”

“Atoll in the south pacific. Coconuts and fig trees. Lagoon big enough to swim in. Maybe a blonde or two.”

“Ito?”

“Tiny city. Buildings on buildings on buildings. Enough room for me and everyone I know.”

“Roberts?”

“Big enough for a house, no more. Brick walls, gabled roofs. A flock of geese in residence.”

“Sturgess?”

Sturgess replied naturally, having weighed and measured his words long before being called on.

“A tree,” he said, “that fills the whole island. No treehouses, branches big as the arms of Gaia to cradle me every night. The birds for company.”

There was more, so very much more. Sturgess had created hummock grass, berry canes, a shore of glass shards that had been turned smooth by the tide. His mind’s eye moved like a documentarian’s camera through his inner landscape. His island had progressed so much that he was comparing soil PH when Purefoy called an end to the session.

Purefoy cocked a single foot up on a folding chair and rested an elbow on it.

“You are closer with every waking breath,” he told the group, “solidifying your longing into something tangible. It isn’t enough to want. You’ve got to need. You’ve got to split yourself wide open and go diving.” Purefoy smiled. “Continue the exercises over this next week. Peace, my friends.”

The group (officially dubbed the “Mindfulness Meditation Hour” on the church schedule board) scattered at his dismissal. They bumped shoulders, made niceties at one another, but remained isolate even when speaking. They were islands, all of them to the last. Sturgess preferred it that way. If it was up to him, it would remain so up until the next meeting. Like a dragonfly skimming a pond.

But the contradiction jarred his shoulder roughly as he walked home through the capitol park.

“Croft,” Sturgess said icily.

Croft latched onto his upper arm, grip unpleasantly moist. “Sturgess.”

“I have no wish to justify myself to you, Croft.” Sturgess attempted to walk forward, but the smaller man’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“Still following that old fraud, then?” Croft laughed humorlessly, making his throat wattles jiggle. “I can’t help but feel sorry for you. I’ve made my own path, Jeffrey. You might join me?”

Sturgess twisted his arm out of the other man’s grasp. “I’ve heard everything you’ve had to say, Croft, don’t repeat yourself ad nauseum. Purefoy may not have spoken for everyone in group, but he spoke for me.”

Croft colored indignantly, trotting to keep up with the pace Sturgess set. “You have not, to your embarrassment, heard everything I have to say. I won’t take back what I said to him. You’re all dreaming your potential away. I’ve struck oil, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

And Sturgess could have very well kept on walking, leaving Croft and his delusions there beside a donated bench and the drinking fountain…but for the inflection in that last word.

“Am I supposed to know what this it is?” Sturgess said lightly.

Croft took a step forward. His collar had come undone and sweat shined his cheeks. “The mirror, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

 

Sturgess looked at his reflection in the silvered glass. Streaks of tarnish distorted his image, making it seem like he stood in the midst of a web. The looking-glass had a bronze frame embellished with a greek meander, stopping only at a flat plaque that sat at the bottom of its oval shape.

Orbis Tertius, Sturgess read.

“You don’t know what I had to do to lay hands on this.” Croft sloshed down another whiskey, ice clinking in the glass. “I spread my web thinly across near the entire globe. The problem with out-of-place artifacts is that oftentimes they conveniently resemble an errant bit of cultural detritus. An amphora in the Yucatan. A shipman’s nail entombed with a mummy. The charlatan who sold this to me said it was part of a noble Roman family’s collection. Ha! The pittance I paid for it should be punishment enough for his ignorance.”

“So you’ve bought a mirror,” Sturgess said slowly.

“Not just any mirror. The mirror. The seeing-glass. That which allows man to view what he wishes.”

“You realize the mirror our founder spoke of was a metaphor?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Croft waddled up impatiently. “Only short-sighted philistines like Purefoy would think it so. This mirror sat in the lounge of the Club Jaune, Crowley himself had many a glass of absinthe beneath it and was never the wiser.”

“And the founder?”

“Oh he knew. Not much, but he knew. He was gazing into it when he first thought of his meditation scheme. You remember?”

Of course he did. Sturgess had committed the passage to memory: on settling myself upon a lake of dream-silver, I see my self reflected in the glass and a diminishing series of my dream-selves.

Orbis tertius. Sturgess traced the engraving with his finger.

“So this is the mirror he described. What’s the significance?”

Croft smiled. It was the question he’d been baiting Sturgess into.

“Forget your islands,” he said, “imagine a world. An entire planet of thought. A dream so strong it drowns out all else. Look.

Sturgess looked. And was held captive.

The mirror was no longer a mirror but blank glass, and it moved much the way his mind’s eye did over his own mental garden. Rising up from a lavender sea, Sturgess was confronted by a city of packed earth. The residents dressed in shockingly blue robes, save for a select few men who roamed the streets in red loincloths and golden body paint The view shifted to an Islamamorphic country, whose residents wore not taqiyah but a spiraling headdress that seemed to mimic organic structures that coiled high above their heads. Again, a shift in vision. A species of aquatic horses gamboled by the shoal as preteen boys made a game of leaping off the rocks onto their backs. A temple built to honor a four-tusked elephant made entirely out of a porous yellow stone. A city that hung from a cliffside like a swallow’s nest. A lone shepherd who looked over a field of buffalo so massive it swallowed an entire plain.

Sturgess started when Croft shoved a tumbler of icewater into his hand. He gulped it greedily. Fifteen minutes had elapsed  while he’d been swimming in the well of the mirror.

“You see what I mean by limited? Purefoy keeps you tethered because he knows the power of pure thought. But I—” Croft tapped his breastbone with a finger, “—have slipped that tether.”

Sturgess forced himself to think, to breathe, to be calm. Again and again, his gaze wandered back to the mirror. How wicked! What was the saying; copulation and mirrors are abominable, for they multiply and disseminate the universe? Sturgess could feel himself thinning in the presence of the mirror, and simultaneously felt a longing to be thinned.

Croft had a longing too. Sturgess had seen it from the first, his pathological need to be considered, deferred to.

“And what?” he said as drily as he could, hands trembling, “you’ve made your own island. A bigger island, to be sure, for isn’t every planet an island in the vacuum?”

Croft’s color rose again. He jabbed his finger sharp as knife at Sturgess, emphasizing each beat of his speech. “I haven’t just thought up an island, Sturgess. I’ve willed it. And mine is the will that supercedes all else.”

Sturgess felt his stomach fall away. “You mean…”

“I will make it real, rather, I will make it real to all beside me. It will start with the artifacts. Zippering into history, we will rediscover a long tradition of a sister planet running back to antiquity. Languages will alter, etymology will skew towards the new-old world. Soon we will have guests, residents of my world here on gold-stamped passports. Tell me, do you think it too forward to refer to this world as Croft?”

Sturgess made himself a blank, a human mirror that cast only Croft’s reflection.

“And tell me,” he said carefully, “would there…perhaps be room for a continent…or an island, not to be greedy…called Sturgess?”

Croft smiled. They were finally speaking the same language.

“That’s why I’ve brought you here,” he said eagerly, setting his tumbler down. “I have some papers you need to see.”

How terrible that the thinker of the century was easily vulnerable to the old cliche of a bookend to the temple. Sturgess winced at the meaty sound of the hit, pausing between strikes. He stopped when Croft ceased movement.

The mirror sat on the wall, blank eye echoing the whole ordeal. The right thing would be to smash it. That it existed at all was a deep perversion of some natural order.

Sturgess found the cold surface with his fingertips. The mirror demurely faded into a seascape, a blank blue canvas. As he watched, a dot on the horizon grew in detail as his vision loomed nearer. He could see branches, a beach, and a multitude of birds.

One island. Why be greedy?

Sturgess smiled.

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Dave’s Blue Hole

Dave’s Blue Hole is an unusually deep freshwater spring located outside of Gunsmith, Colorado. The actual measure of the hole is unknown; the last attempt bottomed out at 115 meters before the surveyor ran out of line. The water becomes anoxic at about 43 meters. After the incident of 1988, the spring has been capped indefinitely by a metal gate. Dave’s Bait & Wait remains standing beside the entrance to the pool, abandoned after tourism dropped off completely.

The first recorded description of the spring comes from a Spanish traveler’s diary dated 1796. The writer, a Franciscan friar on his way to San Carlos, detailed a stop at a place sheltered by high bluffs. Within the cliffs, they found an unusually round spring that produced clear, crisp water. Another member of the traveler’s group fell into the spring and sank out of sight almost immediately. The group cast lines into the hole to no avail. What’s more, they found through experimentation that the water had almost no buoyancy. Light things like sticks and even folded paper would not stay on the surface for more than a moment.

The traveler also noted the existence of a petroglyph on the bluff immediately above the spring, depicting a whale-like creature. The petroglyph has been all but worn away in the intervening centuries. The rock where it sat now contains only a few faint lines.

The parcel of land where the hole lies was purchased by one David Killigan in 1860 for the princely sum of $.35 per acre. He initially intended to mine for silver but found the novelty of the hole too striking to pass up. He built a store in hopes of attracting travelers en route to the rockies, touting the supposed restorative powers of the spring. The place became a local fixture, Killigan a tolerated eccentric that added color to the countryside. When he disappeared in 1876, it raised a mild furor. Killigan’s lantern was found placed beside his shoes at the rim of the spring. A line was secured to the nearby horse-hitching post and led down into the water, upon retrieving the line they found it had been tied into a series of knots to serve as a ladder. Neighbors in town had heard him complaining of mild temblors coming from inside the spring just a few days prior. He had possibly entered the waters in hopes of discovering the source of the noise and fallen prey to a thermocline.

The shop passed from hand to hand over the years. It was a solid tourist draw, so the operation was run by an official town trust. The spring drew no more unusual interest until the onset of recreational diving as a pastime.

The spring had long been a draw for thrill-seeking divers when Mark Boyle attempted his descent on June 5th, 1988. The anoxic nature of the spring meant that many animal skeletons littered the walls of the hole. Divers who ventured past the indicated safety zone spoke of human skeletons glimpsed at greater depths, in numbers that might suggest human sacrifice. The spring had been equipped with a submerged gate that warned divers that venturing past that point was unadvisable. Mark’s plan that day was to do exactly that.

Mark had brought along two friends and a safety line as guards against a possible accident. Neither friend was diving-certified, nor did they have diving equipment.

At 3:07pm, Mark went over the side of the spring.

At 3:46 the safety line began trembling. Mark’s friends became alarmed.

At approximately 4pm, the safety line went taut. Mark attempted a rapid ascent, too rapid. He showed signs of decompression sickness when he surfaced, slurring his words and lacking coordination. As one friend raced to call an ambulance, the other attempted to administer first aid. Mark rambled about something that lived in the waters of the spring, that the spring was really just a small outlet of a much-larger subterranean body of water. He was incoherent when the ambulance arrived. He fell unconscious on the way to Gunsmith’s only hospital and died a few hours later.

After an inquiry, a second gate was set on the mouth of the spring and welded in place. Through possible corruption due to metals fallen into the spring, the water has taken on a corrosive effect. Seismic activity in the region has increased steadily since 1988.

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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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Scenes from an Unaired TV Show

The reality television show Roughin’ It was meant to follow a typical fish-out-of-water format, as various c-list celebrities attempted to live on a ranch according to frontier restrictions. 1200 hours of raw footage, roughly equating to 10 episodes, was shot before the network pulled the plug. Due to the near-total death of the cast, the footage was shelved indefinitely following criminal proceedings. Repeated viewing of the footage has allowed investigators to construct a rough timeline from the inciting incident to the final episode.

 

Incident #1

[exterior. The cast had gathered for the day’s challenge: assemble an ancient wash-mangle and do laundry. Celebrity chef A_____ and actress J_____ are conversing as they sort through machine parts. P_____, contestant from a previous year’s reality show, is sitting on an overturned trough attempting to roll his own cigarette.]

A:—and I mean, it’s not that I, like, hate it—

J: —no, you don’t really know enough to hate it—

A: —right. It’s just that I haven’t had a good experience so far and I need, like, a manual or something—

[P_____ drops his rolling papers and swears.]

A: *laughs* gonna have to bleep that one.

J: *joins in the laughter.

[K___, a transplant from a reality show about vintage cars, approaches the two women]

K: Okay, so we’ve got, like, thirteen moving parts, and then we’ve got this gizmo—

J: Oh. Hey. [She is looking somewhere off camera.]

[K stands up and follows her line of vision. He appears to follow the approach of another person with his gaze. K nods affably.]

K: Oh, hey [inaudible].

 

This footage is notable as containing the first appearance of what is most likely a shared delusion of another contestant. The cast would continually refer to a figure that did not appear on camera as if it had been part of the cast from the beginning. No microphone, whether it be worn by a cast member or fixed to a tripod, was able to pick up a name. The figure’s appearance marked a dramatic and ultimately violent turn to events, as cast members began acting upon orders not issued by the network but by said figure.

 

Incident #2

[The “cow pie toss.” Actors were encouraged to toss “cow pies” fashioned from wet clay as far as they could. The winner, predetermined by the network, would win a phone call home and a sports drink. Y___, a runner-up in a national singing contest, was the predesignated winner. The event director was coaching her on her performance in the contest.]

Director: Okay, now I really want you to play up the smell of these things, okay?

[Y___ makes a noncommittal noise and tosses some hair behind her shoulder.]

Director: Like, really—pretend it’s doggy doo.

Y: So are cow pies, like, poop? I never knew *director speaks, rendering the rest of her sentence inaudible.*

Director: Look, honey, I just want a lot of “yucks” from you, okay?

Y: Should I take off my heels?

Director: No, leave ‘em on. It’s better—it’s good for the show, okay?

[the director turns to instruct P_____ on something. Y___ relaxes slightly, shifting in her stance. Y___ stays in neutral position for 23 seconds before appearing to notice the approach of an unseen figure. She mouths “hi” and holds an inaudible conversation with her back turned to the camera. The Director calls for all cast to take up their positions. Y___ appears to finish her conversation, smiling and nodding. As soon as “action” is called, Y___ trips P_____ and presses his head into the mud.]

Director: Stop! Stop! Are you crazy?

Y: I know what I’m doing, jeez.

Director: Let him up, he’s—man are you okay?

P: *coughing* What the fuck, Y___?

[Y___ shrugs.]

Director: Look, sweetie, improv is not your strong suit. So just stick to the outline, okay?

[Y___ shrugs again.]

Director: okay, are we all on the same page? Action!

[Y___ promptly repeats her previous actions, this time crawling on P_____’s back to press his face into the mud.]

Director: Cut! Cut!

 

The cast began to deviate from studio-issued orders on events. Due to the hectic nature of the shooting season, the bulk of the footage was shot by stationary cameras hidden in various points around the ranch while live crews were called in only for supervised events. Behaviors that might have called for an early end to the show went undetected, perhaps facilitating the breakdown of order within the group.

 

Incident #4

[“Campfire” segments were shot as a sort of break between scripted activities. Cast were allowed to set up the camera as long as they made sure they were all visible in-frame. Cast members T___ and R__ were seen to have a budding relationship spark and encouraged to play it up during shooting hours. During this campfire segment, T___ and R__ sat off to one side, sharing a blanket.]

P: *holding a stick and digging into the fire* …and I just wonder if it’s all worth it, sometimes.

K: You can’t think that, man. Like, if everyone thought like that, like, no one would get anything done, ever, you know?

[T___ and R__  simultaneously look to a point off camera. They hold their gazes for ten seconds. The couple then turn back to one another, blank of all expression. They hold a rapid-fire conversation that does not slow or stop once for the entire segment. Their body microphones pick up no audio.]

A: So, what, I have to just keep chugging along, just because I need to?

K: Well, yeah. You have to think of it like—

[K___ suddenly undergoes what appears to be a seizure. He drops his ams to his sides and makes a buzzing intonation in his throat. Drool can be seen escaping his open mouth. His face is tilted roughly up to the night sky. During this period, A_____ and P_____ behave as if nothing remarkable is happening. The entire event lasts three minutes.]

K:—holistically, like, we’re all connected, you know?

[Conversation resumes as if the pause did not happen. In the background, T___ and R__ sit facing one another, mouths hung open, for the rest of the footage.]

 

Incident #5

[The cast was instructed to milk a cow. Instead, after conferring with the unseen figure, they slaughtered the cow and skinned the body. The cast continued to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary, assuming the playful nature they used for scripted events. J_____ picked up a femur and pretended to play it like a flute. T___ and R__  began a splash fight with cow viscera. Once the cowhide was completely removed and put into a barrel to tan, the cast stood still and faced the open doorway of the barn, uttering the same low intonation. This went on for an hour.]

 

The cast’s behavior became increasingly erratic. However, because they did not shed their on-camera personas, they largely escaped detection by the live crews. One noticeable shift was that P_____ became a whipping boy of sorts. Everything that went wrong was jokingly blamed on him. Other cast members would frequently point to him and make a throat-slashing gesture, which he would return with a thumbs-up. The filming crew did not think this odd. P_____ had been set up as a martyr from the planning stage: his departure in the mid-season finale was meant to be a ratings boost. However, crew found the cast’s increasingly sadistic treatment of P_____ disturbing.

 

Incident #6

[A simple relay race, played with lumps of coal. Y___ can be seen horsing around with T___ as  R__, confined to another team, looks on with a slight frown. P_____, back to them, turns around and accidentally knocks a piece of coal out of Y___’s hand.]

P: Whoops! *chuckles*

Y: Boy, looks like you better eat what you spill, P_____!

[P_____ laughs as he gets to his hands and knees. The director can be heard shouting as P_____ cracks the lump of coal with his teeth. The cameraman zooms in long enough to catch a small amount of blood trickling from his mouth before the director calls cut.]

 

Incident #7

[The cast’s assignment is to draw a map of the surrounding area. Instead, they gather at a granite formation and hold an extended conversation with the unseen figure. Having discarded their body microphones, the only evidence of this occurrence is a camera set up on the barn roof to capture establishing shots. The cast returns after three hours. The paper that was suppose to be marked with the map instead holds a 27-point star. The cast insists that it is a map of the area.]

 

Incident #8

[A gaffer is setting up for a scene. K___ is lounging off to the side, holding an idle conversation. The gaffer is apparently only half-listening during this exchange.]

K: …and it’s just like, it’s always been there, you know?

Gaffer: Mmm.

K: Like, east and west, those are just human determinations, you know? The only real direction is inside.

[The gaffer puts a length of tape down and scatters straw over it.]

K: I could die tomorrow and I wouldn’t really be dead. Just shed another layer. I want to eat the dead skin from the outside of me, give me life for my new rebirth.

[The gaffer checks off points from a clipboard.]

K: P_____’s the one. He will open the way for the rest of us. I’d like to sup his misery and call it wine. The only way out is inside. The only way inside is through. Like [inaudible] said. Got to cut, cut, cut away the fat.

Gaffer: *finally appears to tune back into the conversation* Wait, what?I

 

The cast’s erratic behavior finally began garnering attention. The director called a meeting and informed the cast that they must behave in line with the contracts they signed with the studio. The cast greeted this with puzzlement, claiming they had been. P_____, despite having to get medical attention for injuries sustained during the coal-eating incident, denied any wrongdoing.

 

Incident #9

[R__ and J_____ are preparing a dinner of shoo-fly pie and boiled potatoes. R__ is kneading dough. J_____ peels potatoes while speaking at great length in a monotone.]

J: They lived here 12,000 years ago, when man was still sucking at the teat of summer. Slipped their skins every solstice and made wild. Descartes was wrong. There is no sun, there is only the illusion of light reflected in the moon. Man is a peach in the eye of god. God is a leaf in the eye of [inaudible]. 12,000 years is nothing to the stone. Man is carved from his own excrement. Life is a face laughing at the mirror. When I die it shall be to plant my own future. I will slip my own skin and slither into eternity. *she drops her peeler into the boiling pot and reaches in to grab it without hesitating or flinching. After retrieving it, she shows no sign of pain despite her skin visibly reddening on camera.*

R: I want to be sliced like a pear. My blood a gown. My entrails the crown.

J: *puts a hand on her shoulder* Time is the flight of a dead sparrow.

[the two women finish dinner without further comment.]

 

Due to increasing disquiet with the cast, network handlers were dispatched to supervise the remainder of the shoot. They arrived to find the ranch empty.

 

Investigating the surrounding area, they found the cast at the nearby granite formation. The cow hide they had tanned had been cut into a single strip of rawhide, which was then used to mark a 27-point star over the whole formaton. After setting up a stationary camera, the cast then ritualistically sacrificed P_____, who continued to smile and laugh during the entire process. The footage past the point where they began flensing his torso distorts almost irretrievably, repeated viewings have only been able to pick out several images. R__ stabbing J_____. K___and T___ painting an intricate symbol on the granite in blood. Y___, bare breasted and seizing in what appears to be religious ecstasy. P_____’s skin, hung up on a crude framework, flapping in a sudden breeze.The entirety of the cast staring at a single spot in the camera lens.

 

The cast was found dead, having attempted to flense their own skin off. The only survivor, oddly enough, was  P_____. The actor was flown to a nearby hospital where he was put into a medically-induced coma. His body lingers on, despite repeated rejection of tissue donations. His family is currently fighting a legal battle to withdraw life support.

 

This footage was compiled as evidence and promptly shelved after the trial. Do not reproduce.

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Creepypasta Cookoff 2016

Another year, another batch of spooky goodness, cooked up by the finest minds of the internet. This year’s entries are:

The Daddy Face

What the Sea Leaves

Homo parkinsoni

Grasshopper Glacier 

All this and so much more in the 2016 cook-off. Multimedia entries as well as traditional text stories, all more than worth a look!

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The Plutonian Shell

It was a shell. She got one for every birthday. It was a bit of a family joke at this point, “Michelle loves shells.” Truthfully, at this point she did not love shells any more than the next person did. It had simply become so entrenched in their family that she didn’t know how to stop it without kicking up too much of a fuss.

The shell was oddly shaped, looking more like a bit of volcanic glass than the regular calcium structure she’d become used to. When she found the opening, instead of being blush pink on the inside like most other shells in her collection, it was a cobalt hue.

“What do we say to aunt Maria?” Michelle’s mother said.

Maria looked over her cup of punch. “I didn’t bring that.”

“Oh. Well then, uncle Hubie?”

Her father’s brother was too far across the room to confirm or deny, so Michelle shouted thanks and he waved deferentially.

Long after the other presents found homes, the shell fascinated her. It did not look like something that came from any normal beach. She turned it over in her hands, thumbing the jet black exterior, wiping her finger across the jagged blue lip of it. They said you were supposed to hear the ocean inside a shell. Michelle put her present up to her ear and listened. Rationally, she knew what she was hearing wasn’t really the ocean but some internal sound she couldn’t detect unless she blocked out everything else. But it was still one of her favorite things to do.

With the shape cupped snugly over her ear, she heard nothing at first. Then, as if from a distance, she could hear the cries of some creature. Michelle cocked her head. Was it really…yes, she could hear the buzz of life.

Michelle took the shell away from her ear and curved her finger through the opening as much as it would allow. She felt nothing, not even some hitchhiking crab. She put the shell up to her ear again.

Silence. Then, again, the cries of something. They were almost metallic, and she could not place them to bird or beast. The whispering sweep of something scuttling over sand. Then—

Michelle pulled her ear away from the shell as the crash of a wave almost deafened her. She dropped the shell in her lap and stared at it, ready to throw it from her at the first sign of movement.

Eventually her mother poked her head in through the door. “Lights out, sweetie.”

Michelle looked up the shell everywhere, even the book encyclopedia her father doggedly insisted on retaining. Nothing. It wasn’t a cone, it wasn’t a cowrie, it wasn’t even a crab shell.

Michelle turned it over and over in her hands. The shell did not look like it had come from a regular beach. No, it looked like it had come from a Plutonian shore. That was something she’d read in an Edgar Allen Poe story and had troubled her ever since. What did a Plutonian shore look like? Well, Pluto was cold and dark. So the beach was probably black sand. So black it shone blue under the light of the moon. No sun, not ever. Just a moon, maybe even two, providing cold light to an even colder shore.

“Where did this come from?” Michelle asked her mother, “could I call them and ask them something?”

Her mother was eyeing the flour heaped in a measuring cup. “It was uncle Hubie, we settled that.”

Michelle didn’t think it settled, not at all, but she said, “so can I call him?”

“About your present? Don’t be rude.”

“I’m not being rude. I want to thank him,” Michelle lied.

Her mother rolled her eyes and dialed the phone. Michelle knew he answered when mom’s fake hospitality smile contorted her face.

“Hubie? Hi, it’s Lonnie. Listen, Michelle just loves your present and—” she started pacing. “Yes. She’s already got it up in her window. And the shell—” she stopped, nodding. “Yes, the shell you got her. Really? Well then, I guess we were wrong.” She took the receiver away from her face and mouthed, ‘it wasn’t him’ at Michelle. Michelle nodded, though she’d long guessed that. She dutifully received the phone and thanked her uncle for his present.

“Now can we call the person who gave this to me?” she asked, holding the shell aloft.

Her mother frowned, first down at the shell, then at the batter half-formed in the bowl.

“That will take a while, sweetie.”

It took one and a half hours. Nana had been away from her house on a walk, Michelle had to play musical phones until she found her. Aunt Trisha was away at lunch with her cell turned off. Her father’s friend Josh worked at an office with at least two other Joshes. As Michelle made calls, her mother stirred her batter and a tiny frown line formed between her brows.

“Sweetie, why are you so concerned about the shell?” she asked.

“I just can’t figure out what kind it is,” Michelle said, “I can’t find it anywhere online.”

Michelle’s mother said, “oh, sweetie,” like she’d done something wrong.

Michelle looked over her present in the privacy of her own room. The shell stuck out like a sore thumb in her collection, dwarfing the tiger cowrie that sat beside it. Only the conch beat it for size, as well as weight. Michelle hefted it in her hand and realized how light it was for a shell that size. Maybe it wasn’t a real shell at all, but some kind of sculpture?

Hesitating, she lifted the shell up to her ear again. Yes, the sounds of a beach were present. The metallic cries of a bird or beast. The dry scrape of something heaving itself across sand. A thousand and one unidentifiable noises. She tried to imagine the shore that generated those sounds, a dark beach full of squirming, writhing life. Sea birds with dinosaur eyes that lived on sheer cliffsides. Crabs the size of a man, venomous blue and foaming at the mandible. Large, white worms that bored into rocks, waiting for the unsuspecting to pass by so they could strike.

On a whim, Michelle put the shell up to her eye. She knew that it was just a shell, a cast-off home for an invertebrate. She’d done her fifth grade science report on them, after all.

Peering into the blue depths of the shell, something moved.

Michelle’s heart skipped a beat. Without thinking, she clicked off her desk lamp and plunged the room into darkness.

Yes, she could see movement. She could see dark waves licking an even darker shore. Birds flying out from a cliffside home and kiting higher and higher on sea drafts. The sickly fingernail of a moon illuminating something churning the sea just beyond her range of vision.

“…it’s not like it came with a card,” her mother was saying as Michelle crept to her parent’s room. “No note, no wrapping paper, it was just there.”

Good, they were talking about the shell.

Her father sighed. “She’s alone too much. Too much time to obsess over that damn thing.”

Ire sparked in her chest.

“She didn’t even have school friends over for her party. What kind of girl has a birthday without any kids her age?”

Michelle wanted to scream, ‘you’re the ones who invited all your friends!’ But no. That would net her a punishment for eavesdropping.

Michelle crept back down the hall as her father started in on her supposed antisocial nature.

The shell was where she’d left it, sitting between a sand dollar and a turban snail. Michelle picked it up and cradled it in her hands. Reluctantly, she brought it back up to her eye.

The beach was very vivid. It was like she was peering through a window, not a shell. If she stretched out far enough, she could touch the bronze dune grass that grew nearest to her.

Michelle found she was reaching out her hand and stopped herself. The shell remained glued to her eye.

The dance of life on the beach was revolting as it was entrancing. A lopsided crab fed on some kind of carcass until one of the birds descended, hammering at the shell until it broke. Some creature she couldn’t see clearly dragged itself along the sand until a worm slithered out from the rocks and speared it with a set of tusk-like bristles. A seabird dove to the water, overtaken at the last second by something that lunged up and swallowed it.

It was coldly fascinating. Michelle found goosebumps raised on her arms and legs. She wanted to stop watching, but she couldn’t. What was this shell, really? Maybe it wasn’t the shell of anything at all. Maybe it was the container for this beach, this cold world lit only by moonlight. Maybe it was a key she’d inadvertently turned, and now the doorway was swinging wider and wider. The line of thought was like a stretch of freezing water she couldn’t stop herself from wading deeper and deeper into. The seabirds screamed their metallic din and the waves crashes deafeningly and she was turned like a piece of driftwood or sea glass and made smaller and smaller and smaller…

 

Her mother knocked on her open door. “Michelle? Baby, it’s morning.”

The bed was empty, rumpled sheets cast haphazardly over the mattress. Michelle’s mother frowned and pulled the sheets back.

“Todd?” she called.

Michelle’s father, tie half-knotted, came trotting up.

Michelle’s mother gestured to the bed. “Look at this! She left black sand everywhere! Where is she? You go find that girl and tell her this is not how we leave our beds in the morning. Where is she?  Don’t tell me she’s off with that stupid shell again.”

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The Automatic Writings of Lydia Hai Huang

I have only ever known one automatic writer, and that was Lydia Hai Huang. She was a public servant for thirty-six years before a stroke downed her, three more took her speech and mobility. I can still see her clearly if I think hard: lying in bed with her immaculate blue cardigan, hair trimmed into a pageboy bob, skin wrinkled as ancient parchment.

Lydia resided in the same hospice where my great-aunt came to rest after a car accident. The stroke had left Lydia with limited mobility. The thing she could move the most was her left hand, and boy could she use that hand. I would watch her write, no pauses, no hesitations, while her dead left eye drifted mindlessly in its socket.

Lydia’s convoy to the material world was the executor of her will, a woman named Helen Mears. Lydia had no children, and her siblings were either dead or back in China. I don’t know if they were lovers or acquaintances, but Helen doted on her like a sibyl at a temple. Helen was the one who introduced me to the writing. She had overheard me speaking Polish to my aunt and assumed I could read Cyrillic characters. My curiosity turned to fascination when I examined page after page of dense scribble, all coming from a woman who could not lift her own head.

Lydia had not received much in the way of education. Struggling with the language barrier, she barely managed an associate degree in accounting. Yet foreign languages would pour from her pen without cease. Helen said that Lydia always wrote. When she took the writing utensil away for the day, Lydia’s hand would remain twitching and jerking on the covers, inscribing invisible characters on the air itself.

Yes, Lydia was in an article or two. Fortean Times. Nexus. Small publications of dubious reputation. All these articles helped to do was further push away the skeptics who accused Lydia of faking the severity of her disability. I heard it all. Lydia was a closeted eidetic learner who absorbed books when supposedly on her own. Helen was the one who really did all the writing. The supposed writing was just gibberish.

I will tell you(and you don’t have to believe me) that I watched her carefully inscribe line after line of Greek letters and then took those pages to a linguist, who dated them as mid-sixteenth century.

I don’t know how Lydia felt about her gift. She was non-verbal, due to the stoma in her windpipe. Half her face was perpetually slack. Sometimes I wondered if Lydia was even present in her body, if she wasn’t just a conduit, a hollow tube for spirits to whisper through.

I don’t know what was on a few of the papers. Most were translated as best we could manage. I was a poor college student at the time. Helen had only a little money from the estate, as well as a small stipend from caring for Lydia. Some papers must still be moldering in Helen’s storage, awaiting a knowing eye.

I do remember one of the rare English writings. It was a woman from Maine on her way to an arranged marriage. It was a babble of her day-to-day thoughts, musing on her life and her future husband and the world around her. It ended abruptly when her ship crashed, the writing turned into a panic loop about the rocks—the boat—the rocks—the boat. It’s my understanding that most of the writings were like that: simple, stream-of-consciousness narratives.

Not the last ones.

I came in one day, bearing my customary tupperware of soup for Helen. By this time we had formed a sort of team with a few others: a linguist from the college, an old acquaintance of Lydia who was an amateur polyglot, a semi-professional historian. Lydia was wearing a thick mohair sweater and three blankets. I remember she was breathing erratically, and sweat was spotting her face. I remember asking if she wasn’t uncomfortable under so many heavy layers. As a response, Helen put the back of my hand against Lydia’s cheek. It was clammy.

Lydia wrote in a sharp, angular alphabet that looked like viking runes. Almost as soon as her writing neared the bottom of the page, Helen would swap that paper out for a fresh one. She had been writing nonstop for three hours, they told me, in a flurry that they had never seen before. Her temperature was slowly dropping with every letter.

I took the few pages they gave me to the university, in what had become routine for me. I learned it was in old Turkic script long before I even knew what was on the paper. While I was waiting for translation, Lydia died.

The pages I handed over were from the point of view of a fisherman on the shores of the Aral sea. He spoke of men who had arisen from the sea, lead by a golden madman, of a new religion that spread like a sickness among his fellows. His increasingly frantic words described the clouds boiling, hot rain that smelled of dead fish filling the lake. He pled the end of the world on the very last page.

When I went to retrieve the other pages, that was when I learned of Lydia’s death. Helen was investigated by APS for her role in the demise, how she waited until the bitter end before fetching a doctor.

Was she culpable? She cared for Lydia much, in her own way. I, like everyone else, can’t speak much for Lydia’s quality of life. Perhaps she wanted this, wished for this every day she was stuck inside tabulating other people’s finances. Perhaps she begged for something mystical and special to strike her, even if it came in her last days. Perhaps the skeptics were right, and death was merely an end to Helen’s manipulations. All that we have is on those pages, that question that is her parting gift to the world.

The last few pages were almost nonsense. They were like the beginnings of hieroglyphics, pictographic symbols whose context had long since become extinct. When Helen went to trial, the papers disappeared forever. Maybe they are in a safe. Maybe they have been destroyed by something ignorant.

Lydia was pronounced dead at 6:08pm. Her lungs were full of salt water.

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The Birdcatcher

He was a birdcatcher. He caught birds and gave them to pet shops and zoos and private animal collectors. He fished the skies with invisible nets, and kept his quarry in bamboo cages. The place he fished was a migratory path, so he never wanted for variety.

He did not think himself a cruel man. He would pull each bird from the net by hand, shushing them, cradling them, making sure they knew he would not hurt them. He called the birds “sweetie” and “darling” and spoke to the caged birds as he did his household work. He ate simple meals and lived in a modest hut far away from other people and thought his a fine life indeed.

He caught tropical birds and native birds and introduced birds and admired them all equally. He did not own a single book, but he knew some birds by sight. He had to. One could not sell a shrike like a finch. Sometimes he could not identify a bird by sight alone, and sometimes he released those. But some were far too beautiful to pass up.

On this day he thought a piece of colored foil from a candy wrapper had flown into his net on the wind. Even when he laid hand on the golden bird he barely believed it. The thing was not just a bright color, its feathers had precious iridescence. There was a small comb on its beak, and its talons were long and unkempt. A male, he thought. The king of birds.

That tickled what little fancy he had. He collected the other bird in the net, a plain brown little thing, and brought them inside in the same basket.

He had a large cage for parrots and the like, he put the golden bird there. The brown bird went into a cage with others of its size, finches and tanagers and on. They immediately clustered together in the corner. The golden bird (the bird-king, he decided) had nowhere to hide. There were no nests in the cages because he liked to see the birds from all angles. Bird-king’s plumage was too big. It couldn’t move well around the cage. He fed it a mixture of dried insects he gave to all birds and poured water in a dish and left to go tend to his nets.

A storm was darkening the sky. On his small motor scooter, he suddenly felt very small. He hadn’t seen the storm brewing that morning. Compassionately, he thought of the birds still in the nets and revved the motor.

A medium-sized black bird was halfway through an opening in the net. He had never seen anything with such oily black feathers.

The bird twisted its head to look round at him. Its blind white eyes gave him a start. The bird let out a chuffing distress call as he twisted it out of the net. He held it carefully, afraid of its serpentine neck and sharp beak.

The bird surprised him in another way. It puffed out its breast feathers, revealing white reflective patches that mimicked a face with bared teeth. He nearly dropped the bird. Instead, his hands slipped and the bird’s wings were free. Now as it flapped he could see more iridescent patches, something that looked like slashing claws as it flapped. The shapes made an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He let the bird go, watched it fly erratically as it chittered like a bat.

Moving down the net, he saw a flame-bright bird with a small, nondescript grey head. No, he realized as another head rose from the opposite end, two birds.

The smaller clung to the bright bird like a small child, nearly invisible in the plumage. The larger bird had bright yellow eyes and violet cheeks, and it fanned out a bright red crest as he approached.

The smaller bird was not stuck in the net, he realized. It clung to the larger bird, but it would not leave. Was it a mother and child?

No. Years of experience had taught him that it was the males who flaunted bright plumage, to attract and distract from their plain mates. He laughed as the little lady flitted away and back again. He had never seen such a pair before. Perhaps if he set the male in a basket, the female would follow.

No. As he lifted the male from the net, the female flitted out and back again. Her beak must have been razor-sharp, for she opened a gash on the back of his hand. He cried out, dropping the male. Both birds took wing, the female orbiting her mate.

The next one was a duck. He rarely sold a duck as a pet, and he would never sell a bird as food. So he had no intent to capture it as he drew closer.

The duck was pudgy, with teal plumage and mad little red eyes. It hissed at him. He made shushing noises as he drew close. The duck began sounding in its chest, a low rumble better suited to a large bird. When he did not withdraw, the duck began extending its neck. And he saw that it was not a duck.

No bird had ever had a neck this long. He had seen flamingoes, herons, storks, and shoebills. This one was almost all neck. Its little body would have been comical if it hadn’t started thrashing wildly about, hissing the whole time. He backed away, but it continued thrashing until it broke free from the net. It flew away with a piece of netting still necklacing its throat.

The next bird was very nearly at the end of his nets. Its black and white plumage made a disc-like crest around its whole head, so that it looked like a coin. He approached it with caution.

It did not knife him with its long, straight beak. It just stared at him with its white eyes, pupils expanding and contracting as he worked to free it. He cautiously took it from captivity, one hand pinioning its wings, one hand grabbing its head just above the neck.

The bird looked at him through one eye. Its beak curled back, curling open outwards like a steamed pea-pod, opening to reveal comb-like rows of teeth.

He shouted a little and threw it. The thing recovered marvelously, tucking into a dive before swooping back to dive-bomb his head. He ran for the scooter as the thing followed, screeching. He didn’t bother to cover the scooter when he got home, just killed the engine and ran for the hut with the thing close at his heels.

Once the door was shut, he breathed easier. The first drops of rain hit the roof. He lit a fire and heated water and prepared for the storm.

The birds huddled in their cages, the finches in their little cluster, the bird-king in his corner.

He rested hands on the cage and felt sad for the bird. What kind of home could such a magnificent animal hope for? Would it fall into the hands of collectors? He had a vague notion that someone might like to study it.

As thunder rolled across the sky, he decided that science was better suited for other things. The bird-king belonged with someone who appreciated it, who would feed it and take care of it for the rest of its long life.

He made tea as wind shook the hut. Today had been a strange day. Strange birds. Strange weather.

The afternoon grew dark as night as he lit a lantern and sat with his birds. The finches he would sell to a pet shop. The tanager had a private collector waiting for her. The Treepie had a place at an aviary.

Something knocked on the window. He looked out and found the disc-headed bird, beak deceptively straight again.

It knocked.

He sat in place because he did not know what to do.

Something knocked at the door.

Before he could get up, knocking started on every surface of the hut; the tin roof, the thin walls, even the door.

He flattened himself against the back wall. The caged birds became agitated, sounding and flitting from perch to perch.

All except for the bird-king.

He looked at it long and hard, the kind of look that drinks in every detail. Then he opened the cage.

The bird-king cried out and struck his hand. He did not curse or strike back, because that was not his way. Instead he shushed it as he firmly but gently pressed its wings to its body.

He tucked it under one arm and walked to the door. Beyond the screen door were hundreds of little mad eyes. All different sorts of birds, all clustered together on every available surface.

He considered the moment, that all men must hold a precious thing for just a little while before they must free it, before he opened the screen door.

The birds surrounding his house immediately took flight. He let the bird-king go and it followed, sounding.

For one single moment, the wind ceased as the golden bird flew with bedraggled feathers. Light broke through the clouds, and the bird-king swam through them as it called. Then it was a yellow spot on the horizon. Then it was gone.

The wind picked up again.

The birds were back, sounding trills at every window, every door. He backed into the hut.

He had let the king go. Surely they would see his good intent, forgive the blasphemy?

Something trilled behind him.

The finches stood apart now from the little brown bird, such a dull, plain brown that it might lie for days in a field undiscovered. It moved its head from side to side, studying him from wise, black little eyes.

And he considered, in that moment, about how sometimes the more important things are hidden in plain sight until the wind tore through the hut like the downdraft of some immense pair of wings.

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