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Bringing a shovel to a pen fight

Although it may be unwise and unrealistic, I am going to attempt this LJ Idol madness again.

Sacrifice

When I joined LJ Idol, I think I had a little case of recency bias. "I am currently very unoccupied, and will continue to be unoccupied for quite some time, and joining a long-term writing competition would therefore be a great idea," I thought. Not in those words, precisely, but you get the idea.

Well, I was wrong. I did not remain unoccupied. I have become very occupied with an archaeological dig, and starting next week (barring unfortunate circumstances) I will be starting another archaeological dig that involves a lengthy camping trip without internet access. Posting to LJ Idol will be quite impossible. I have therefore decided that rather than simply being obliterated by missing the next deadline, I will throw myself on the sacrificial altar.

When I joined LJ Idol, I think I actually had more than one case of recency bias. "Up to this point, I have been inexperienced in creative writing, and therefore I expect to get booted out quickly and remain inexperienced." I figured I might last 3 weeks if I got lucky. I actually lasted 6 weeks, not counting week 1 when votes were for practice. While that's nothing compared to those in the 100 week club, I consider it an achievement.

I've enjoyed the chance to play around with creative writing, and I appreciate what I've learned from the other writers in the community. So thanks everyone, and best of luck! Hopefully when I come back from my archaeology trip, I'll be able to tune back in to read and vote and maybe play the home game!

Barnaby

Rebecca had already started lighting the candles for the evening when her youngest, Josiah, arrived home. As he rushed into the house, he brought a gust of wind with him that caused the small flames to dance and sputter.

"Slow down, boy, or I'll have to re-light every candle in the house!" she chided him. But there was laughter in her voice.

"Look, Mum!" Josiah held up a string with nine plump fish on it. Their scales glittered in the candlelight.

"Goodness, Josiah! That's a handsome catch for a day. How lucky we are to have such a fine fisherman in the house! As good as your father was!" Truly, it was a great help to their livelihood now that Josiah was old enough to go fishing in the river on his own. Their steadily-growing supply of salted and dried fish meant that they could pass this winter a little more comfortably than the last.

Rebecca took the string of trout from Josiah and followed him into the kitchen. He tossed his dinner pail onto the wooden table, and she winced slightly at the empty thunk it made as it landed. Growing boys, she thought ruefully. Nothing but raw appetite bound in a human skin.

As if on cue, Josiah made a beeline to where his older sister, Matilda, was tending a pot on the hearth. "What's for supper, Tildy?" he asked while peering excitedly into the pot.

"Stew," replied Tildy. "Fish stew, looks like, if Mama will spare one or two of them from salting."

"Take two. Josiah, go shake the crumbs from your dinner pail and hang it up where it belongs."

"Yes, Mum, but there aren't any crumbs. I et them."

"Ate, Josiah. You ate them, not et. Did you enjoy the apple pie?"

"No, Mum, I didn't."

Rebecca looked up in surprise. "No? Why ever not?"

"I didn't enjoy it 'cause I didn't eat it. I gave it to Barnaby."


"Barnaby?" It wasn't a large community, and Rebecca had never heard of anybody named Barnaby.

"He's a ghost. I met him at the river."

"Oh, a ghost is it?" Rebecca laughed. "A ghost who eats apple pie?"

"Yes! And he can change into a bear, or a wolf. And he has yellow eyes with red in the middle and he can use them to do magic. And he eats people, too, only he likes apple pie better."

Tildy rolled her eyes. "That's foolish, Josiah. There aren't any such things as ghosts that eat people or shape shifters or magical eyes. You're telling lies. It's wicked to lie, isn't it, Mama?"

"Tildy, you know well that there's a difference between telling lies and telling stories. Josiah has an active imagination, as is normal for a child his age. As did you when you were his age, I might add. Don't torment your brother."

Tildy sighed. "Yes, Mama."

"Mum?" Josiah asked. "Can I have a pie in my dinner pail again tomorrow? Barnaby said that if I give him another apple pie, he won't eat any of the townsfolk."

Rebecca was shaking so much from trying to suppress her laughter that she had to set the boning knife down on the table. Such a tale, all to finagle another apple pie! "I do believe there may be an extra pie that could find its way into your dinner tomorrow, dear fisherman, but only if you'll go bring in some more wood for the fire." she told Josiah with merriment in her eyes.

Josiah's face lit up "Thanks, Mum!" he shouted as he ran out the back door, setting the candles to dancing again.

*****************************

Thud. This time, the dinner pail didn't sound hollow when Josiah set it on the table. A little puddle of water that had sloshed over the side formed under it.

"Gracious, Josiah, what did you do? Drop your dinner in the river?" Rebecca joked.

"No, Mum. There weren't so many fish today, so I dug up clams instead."

The pail was indeed full of clams. They wouldn't do anything to add to the winter stores, but they'd make a good supper for the night anyway. The pail would need to be cleaned.

"Did Barnaby enjoy his apple pie?" she asked Josiah.

"Yes! And he let me ride on his back while he was a wolf. He said he'd like another pie tomorrow.”

"And do you think I pull pies fresh made out of my apron pockets? That was the last one. Tell Master Barnaby he'll get stomach cramps if he eats naught but apple pie."

"I can tell him, Mum. But if he gets hungry, he might eat a person instead."

Rebecca considered while she shucked clams. Pies were not a luxury they could afford often. But harvest time was a good season.  The branches in the orchard behind their house were heavy with shiny red and green apples. It was a mercy that Andrew had left her the orchard when he died. Without it, she’d have undoubtedly needed to remarry just to keep Tildy and Josiah fed. But with it, Rebecca could trade apples for goods and services she and her children needed. She enjoyed this short season each year when they had plenty, and she could allow her children a little extra.

"Josiah, your birthday is only a few days off. Would you like it if I made you some apple pies then? I'll give you a half dozen of them. You can take the day off from fishing and chores and share your pies with whomever you like."

"Truly, Mum? Half a dozen apple pies? Truly?"

"Truly. Do you think Barnaby can wait until your birthday without getting hungry enough to eat the townsfolk?"

"I think so, Mum! Thank you!"

Dear boy, thought Rebecca. If I hadn't any foresight, I'd give up every bushel of apples I had to see him smile like that.

*****************************

Rebecca set the heavy bushel basket down on the cellar floor, wiped her hands on her rough woolen skirt, and breathed a heavy sigh. These were the last of the apples this year’s apples. Josiah and Tildy came down the stone steps behind her carrying smaller baskets laden with the last of their harvest of onions and turnips.

After depositing her basket of turnips, Tildy plopped down onto the cellar stairs. "I am so glad to be done digging turnips. I think there must be more turnips than last year, because I don't remember being so weary when we finished digging last year's garden."

"Quite so, Tildy," Rebecca said. "Last year I wrote in my diary that we had put away three bushels of turnips, but this year we have four and a half. It has been a mild season, and you've grown more skilled with the gardening." Tildy beamed.

"And thanks to Josiah, we have also a fair supply of salted fish that we did not have last year. We are blessed in our provisions for this winter."

"Mum," Josiah spoke up, "since we've finished and have such a good harvest, might I have some more apple pies for Barnaby? It's been weeks since my birthday pies. He's very hungry."

Rebecca sighed. Perhaps she had gone too far in humoring Josiah's Barnaby tales at first, for he had been asking after apple pies near daily for the past fortnight. "Between the apples for Barnaby's pies and the apples I would have to trade for the sugar and flour, we'd have no apples left for winter. We'd all get scurvy."

"What's scurvy?"

"It's a sickness born of not eating vegetables and fruits. First you'll become weak, then you'll take fever and your skin will yellow and spot. Your teeth will loosen and fall out. Would you like that very much, Josiah?"

"No, Mum." And then more quietly, "But it would still be better than being et by Barnaby."

"Eaten, Josiah. Civilized folk don’t say 'et.' Now go wash the turnip dust from your hands, and say no more of apple pies."

As Josiah trudged up the stairs, he reflected that when Barnaby got them, civilized folk weren't likely to care whether they were being ‘et’ or ‘eaten.’
*****************************

"Will you come in and take tea, Martha?" Rebecca asked of the sturdy older woman who had just brought three sacks of flour to her door. Martha had charge of the operations of the town’s mill and bakery. In truth, the business belonged to her son Henry now, but Martha had been the one to operate the shop even when her husband Ephraim had been alive, and Henry was content to let things continue that way. Rebecca had a standing trade agreement with Martha. Each harvest season, Martha received several bushels of apples, and in return Rebecca was supplied with flour.

"Would that I had the time for tea, 'Becca, but half the autumn wheat's still in the storehouse waitin' to be milled, and the millers won't be diligent in turnin’ the stone if I'm not lookin’ at ‘em." She nodded toward Josiah, who had just come around the corner of the house with an armload of firewood. "That boy of yours has done me more help these few weeks than any of the louts I pay."

"Josiah's done you service? What do you mean?"

"You didn't know? He's been in my shop every few days sweepin' the floors, fetchin' wood for the oven, an’ takin' the ash bin out to be emptied." She grinned. "Never met a lad with such a nose for apple pies. Every time I put a batch of ‘em in the oven, I turn ‘round and find him at the door offerin’ to work."

Rebecca's face went pale. "I had no idea, Martha. I only noticed that he was coming home with fewer fish, but I reckoned it was the cold weather at fault. I do apologize for him. He'll be hearing some words when you've gone, and he won't trouble you in your shop again."

"Truly, the lad's no trouble, 'Becca. I like havin' a worker with some industry, even a little one. And a pie or two's no great price for the work he saves me."

"All the same, Martha, it isn't proper for him to go without my leave, and I can't have the townsfolk thinking I’m sending him out like a vagrant to solicit work and food, as if I didn't have enough of both for him here. And he's been badgering me for apple pies for two months, with a story about a creature named Barnaby who eats pies so that it doesn't have to eat people. I thought it naught but a harmless game, but he won’t let it go and I fear he thinks about pies more than his prayers."

"Oh, 'Becca, growin boys are powerful hungry creatures. My own Henry used to hound me for roasted beets until I thought he’d turn red. Once I told him he'd had enough, and he told me it was for a hungry beggar in the street. They'll tell all manner of tales to get an extra bite to put in their gapin mouths. Yet Josiah's comin' to me without your knowledge is a trouble, and it's best you do as you see fit to correct him."

"Thank you, Martha. Perhaps when he's set straight, I'll send him back to help you again. But not in return for pies."

"If it comes to that, I'll be glad to have him again.”

*****************************

Martha stepped up to Rebecca’s hearth to hang her snow-covered cloak. Tildy came in just behind her and deposited a small parcel on the table before hanging her cloak next to Martha’s.

“Ah, a fire’s a fine thing after ridin’ from town,” sighed Martha. “Though if I’d known Tildy was to town this morn, I could’ve saved myself the journey. By the time I caught up to her on the road, I was near here already.”

“What could bring you this far in the snow, Martha, without need of bringing me flour?” Rebecca asked as she carefully measured the precious tea leaves from their little chest. “Josiah, the kettle’s aboil. Fetch it for me, and take care not to burn yourself.”

“Yes, Mum.”

“News,” said Martha as she eased herself onto a chair. “Grave news, I’m afraid. Old Man Crawley’s died.”

“God rest his poor soul,” Rebecca said. “Was he ill?”

“Nay. Henry went with some loaves of bread a week past. Crawley wasn't at home, so he left the loaves on the table. When he went again yesternoon, last week’s loaves were still sittin’ where Henry’d left ‘em, frozen solid. Henry an’ a few of the millers went lookin’ for the old man, an’ they found his body a way into the woods.”

Josiah was listening, wide-eyed. “He got et by Barnaby. Eaten.”

“Josiah!” Rebecca snapped sharply. “A death is a grave matter and no fitting time for your tall tales.”

“Besides,” interjected Tildy, “he wasn't eaten. He was just dead. Like he lay down to sleep and never got up again.”

“That’s ‘cause Barnaby doesn't eat bodies. Just souls.” Josiah whispered.

“That is enough, Josiah. If you are so inclined to speak wickedly, then you no longer have leave to speak. You’ll go to the loft and you’ll lie in your bed until I give you leave to come down.” Rebecca shook her head sadly. “Old Man Crawley’s death needs no Barnaby to add to its woe. He was old, and senseless of mind, and wandered too far in the cold. He ought not to have been left living alone so far from the town.”

“Aye,” Martha nodded. “But if a widower wants to keep to himself after losin’ his wife, it isn't the business of other folk to say differently.”

“Aye,” Rebecca sighed. Would that the same held true for a widow, as well.

*****************************

Rebecca was in a foul temper as she scraped the mud from her shoes and hung her rain-sodden cloak up to dry. She and Tildy had just returned from the town’s second funeral this week. The first, two days ago, had been for young Thomas Warren. Today’s had been for Susannah Howe. The two young folk had been sweethearts, but old John Howe had said nay to their marriage. A fortnight later, Thomas and Susannah had been found in the river, drowned.

Tildy was still hiccupping and wiping her red nose on her handkerchief. Susannah had been only a year older than her, and they had been good friends. But as if this dual tragedy and Tildy’s misery weren't enough woe for the day, Rebecca’s ears still echoed with the concerned words that Martha had whispered to her in a private moment.

“Josiah!” she called sharply. “Come to me at once.”

Josiah appeared from the kitchen. “Yes, Mum?”

“I talked to Martha Griggs in town today. What do you think she told me?”

“I don’t know, Mum.”

“I think you do, Josiah.” Rebecca’s eyes seemed to crackle and spark. “She told me that three days ago, she set out a dozen apple pies to cool in the bakery and then went back to the mill for more flour. When she came back, half the pies were gone. And we know someone who as an unhealthy fondness for apple pies, don’t we, Josiah?”

“Barnaby,” said Josiah.

“Don’t you speak to me of Barnaby, young man. Tell me now. Did you steal Martha’s pies?”

“I did not!” Josiah nearly shouted. “Barnaby took the pies, and Mrs. Griggs is lucky she had pies out or he’d have eaten her or one of the millers instead, just like he ate Thomas and Susannah and Old Man Crawley!”

Rebecca spoke quietly, but the intensity in her voice was such that even Tildy began to back into a corner. “Josiah Post, you are a thief and a liar, and you speak wickedly of the misfortune of those recently departed. You bring me shame. I fear I have been too lenient with you until now. Tildy, please go to the kitchen and fetch the large wooden spoon.”

“Yes, Mama.” Tildy ran out of the room and quickly returned with the spoon. “Here you are, Mama,” she said with a quaver in her voice.

Rebecca didn't like what she had to do, but she set her jaw determinedly and turned Josiah over her knee. She brought the spoon down on his rear until he began to howl, and then added a few more blows for good measure. By the time she finished, there were tears hiding at the corners of her eyes. She set Josiah back on his feet.

“It does not please me to give you a beating,” she spoke over his wailing, “but if you utter the words ‘Barnaby’ or ‘pie’ to me again, you’ll receive another. From now on, you’ll not leave this house without Tildy or me to keep you on God’s path. It will burden us, to not have you fishing or doing errands, but since I cannot trust you I have no choice. Furthermore, since you've glutted yourself on pies, I do not think you’ll be needing supper this night. You will go to bed, and if I see your face before morning, you’ll forfeit your breakfast as well.”

When Josiah’s wailing had faded into the sleeping area in the loft, Rebecca slumped onto the nearest bolster as though her bones had turned to jelly. She buried her face in her hands. She did not make any sounds, but Tildy could see the tears trickling down her wrists.

“Mama?” Tildy asked quietly. “Surely it’s not so bad? Mrs. Griggs said herself that there’s not a man in town who never snatched a pie or two when he was a boy. It doesn't seem like such a great cause to worry.”

“It would ordinarily be no great thing, Tildy, were I not a widow still of childbearing years and willfully unmarried. It’s a great mercy that Martha’s a friend and won’t speak of this to anyone else.”

“I know many of the townsfolk think it improper that you've not remarried, Mama, but why would a few stolen pies make a difference?”

“So long as I show that I’m able to provide for you and Josiah, and raise you with Godly principles, we’ll be left to live in peace. Folk will gossip and prod me to remarry, but they’ll not take action to force the issue. But if the townsfolk think I can’t feed you properly, or if Josiah’s known to be thieving and telling tales about devils, they’ll question my ability to raise you without a husband’s guidance. They may gather the church or even the court and force me to marry, or they may remove you from my care and indenture you to another family that has means and needs more working hands.”

“Mama, why are you so against remarrying? I know the widower Nathaniel Bridges has offered for you more than once. He’s a decent and industrious man, and not so terrible to look upon. Would our lives not be easier with his support, and without the public eye judging us unkindly?”

“Tildy, how is it that we’re able to make do, now?”

“Because of the orchard, Mama.”

“And why do we have that orchard?”

“It was Papa’s, and he left it when he died.”

“Yes. It was your Papa’s, and his Papa’s, and his Grandpapa’s before him. And what do you think will become of the orchard if I marry Nathaniel Bridges? Who will it belong to then?”

Tildy thought for a moment. “I suppose it would still belong to you in name, but Nathaniel would have the right to tell you what to do with it.”

“That’s right. And if I die before him, then the orchard is fully his in name and deed. Who do you think he would leave it to?”

Tildy’s eyes lit up with understanding. “He’d leave it to his son, James, most like.”

Rebecca looked up, and some of the fire had returned to her eyes. “Tildy, this land is your father’s, and James is no blood of your father. I intend for it to pass to you and Josiah, and I’ll not chance otherwise. That is why I will not marry, and why we must work so hard to keep up the appearance of doing well. Josiah doesn't yet understand, but he will need to learn quickly lest his words or actions damn us.”

But Josiah, stomach rumbling from lack of dinner, was listening from the loft. “I do understand,” he thought to himself.

*****************************

Rebecca sat down on the grass and breathed deeply of the mild spring air, faintly laced with the scent of apples from the clouds of blossoms above her. She had sent Tildy and Josiah together on an errand to Martha’s shop, and was now taking a rare opportunity to enjoy the weather and her own company. She was not usually prone to idleness, but in the spring, she liked to sit in the orchard and look at the blossoming trees. She enjoyed the beauty, but she also enjoyed the promise of another harvest this autumn that would keep her little family secure. This orchard represented safety.

“Ah, the scent of apple blossoms is lovely, isn't it, Rebecca?” a voice behind her hissed. The safety of her orchard shattered, and she flew up, looking for the source of the menacing voice. She could see nothing.

“Of course, it is not quite so appealing as the scent of your fresh, juicy apple pies. You’ll make me another one soon, won’t you?”

Rebecca’s eyes followed the sound of the voice. There! Against the trees, she could see a faint outline of a creature. A bear? No, a wolf? As she stared, the translucent shape seemed to change form, until finally it looked like the silhouette of a tall, thin man, with the orchard still fuzzily discernible through it. In its head area, she found two deep yellow eyes with red pupils. She tried to run, but those eyes held her in place as if she’d grown roots.

“Now where would you want to be going, when we've only just made our acquaintance, dear Rebecca?” Below the yellow eyes, a crack appeared that broadened into a hideously wide grin.

“Barnaby!” Rebecca rasped through her suddenly parched throat. “You’re Barnaby. You’re what Josiah’s been talking about all this time.”

“Yes,” Barnaby hissed, with a sound that might have been laughter. “And you didn't believe him.”

What Am I?






I dress in the uniform dictated for me,

   but I will only wear my own face.

I can swing a hammer,

    but nails escape my notice.

"X" marks the spot,

    but does not signify my destiny.

            I don't bake buns in my kitchen.

What am I?

[Answer]

No true woman. I wear women's clothes but not makeup. I don't do my nails. I don't prefer "feminine" activities. I'm biologically female, but I don't want to have children. Therefore I'm not a "real" woman to some.



I went to the Wars,

    but I haven't been Trekking.

I've found serenity,

    but I don't know the Lord.

Knights, thieves, kings and villains share my table,

    but my gatherings are mundane.

            I only own one set of dice.

What am I?

[Answer]

No true geek. I'm a fan of Star Wars, but haven't seen much Star Trek. I love Firefly, but not Doctor Who. I've played D&D, but never Magic the Gathering. Apparently that's not enough to fulfill some people's "geek" qualifications.



I love the flavor of fresh apple pie,

    but I hate how the baker slices it unevenly.

I enjoy great liberty to speak,

    but I wish listening held more value.

If you give me an inch,

    I will take a kilometer.

            I wish I spoke another language.

What am I?

[Answer]

No true American. I'm a citizen of America and like some things about it, but I don't like our social inequalities. Freedom of speech is great, but sometimes we should shut up and learn from other countries. I wish we'd switch to the metric system, and I don't think English is the only "true" American language.



I've lived many full lives,

   but I've never had half of one.

I've crossed countless universes,

    but never approached the edge of the sky.

The Lords of Hell have perished by my hand,

    but there is no redemption for me.

            My baked goods have never deceived me.

What am I?

[Answer]

No true gamer. I enjoy video games, but haven't played several that apparently "real" gamers MUST play. Referenced here are Half Life (line 2), Skyrim (line 4), Diablo (line 5), Red Dead Redemption (line 6) and Portal (line 7).



Voynich

For a room containing a dead body, it's remarkably tidy, was Moreen's first impression on entering the scene. Aside from the small crowd of white-gloved technicians combing the small study, and the body of Joshua Huber lying face-down in the center of the floor, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. With a practiced eye, Moreen scanned the room.

No divots in the rug. Furniture hasn't been moved recently.

Nothing broken. Books all lined up neatly. Desk drawers closed. Papers not even ruffled.

Clean walls. No marks, no blood.

Wood parquet floors. Unscratched. No shoe scuffs. No blood here either. Nothing wrong. Except that one tile that's rotated the wrong way for the pattern. Ugh!

Everywhere she looked, there was zero indication of any violent struggle or tampering with the room's contents.

"You were first on scene, Officer Tyler?" Moreen inquired of the man who had showed her to the room.

"Yeah, me and the paramedics," Tyler answered.

"Who called it in?"

"Stephen Huber, the victim's dad. Sounds like the rest of the family was away for the weekend, and when they came home the victim's door was locked and he wouldn't answer.  The dad finally came around the side of the house and looked in the window and saw the body laying there. Door was still locked when we got here."

"From the inside or the outside?"

"The handle could be locked from either side. But there's a sliding bolt, too, on the inside. We had to break it."

Moreen turned around to look at the door frame behind her. There was a splintered hole in the door frame, and both sides of the bolt now hung uselessly on the door just below the handle.

"How about the window?" she asked.

"Yeah, that was locked too," replied Tyler.

"Have you found anything else worth noting? Notes, weapons, medications, things that seem odd?"

"Nothing yet, except for the victim's key to the room was laying on the floor near the body. The forensic team's still looking for prints or hairs or what have you, but nobody's turned up anything so far."

Moreen sighed. Probably a suicide. If we can find the weapon, it's cut and dried. She called over the paramedics who, once they'd confirmed death, had moved themselves out of the way to wait for an investigator before moving the body.

The victim was lying on the area rug, face down and completely nude.  Moreen took a moment to note that the back side of the victim's body had no trauma markings.  However, judging from the red stain in the rug around his head area, she suspected she wasn't going to enjoy looking at the front side. "Turn him over," she told the paramedics.

"What in the…!" Moreen gasped as the front side of the body became visible. Every eye in the room turned to see and every sound in the room stilled.

The blood in the rug had prepared her for the sight of the deep puncture wound through the victim's right eye. It was unpleasant, but she'd seen worse before.

What she hadn't been prepared for were the lines of symbols in black ink that curled sinuously over the skin of the victim's forehead, chest, inner arms, and the palms of his hands.

*********************************

Moreen dropped the pages of the most recent forensic report on her desk and rubbed at her aching temples. This one had informed her that despite reanalysis, all of the DNA samples from the crime scene matched to the victim, Joshua. This case had hit nothing but dead ends. They'd nicknamed it the "Voynich Case," because both the strange symbols on the victim's body and the case itself seemed as indecipherable as the famed Voynich manuscript.

Nobody had a motive to want to kill Joshua, and nobody could point to a reason he'd want to kill himself. Everyone around him agreed that he was lucid and sound of mind. He had no identifiable mental disorders and took no medications. The only oddity was that he had claimed to occasionally see things that other people couldn't. In his journal he described seeing people and objects that were there one second and not there when he looked again. Having been cleared by doctors for any mental, visual, or neurological disorder, he'd sought the advice of a priest from the local parish. Father Douglass thought that the visions were spiritual in nature, but not a cause for worry. Joshua and Father Douglass kept in regular contact and became good friends.

Father Douglass had been called to the crime scene to administer the last rites belatedly before Joshua's body was hauled away on a gurney. Not knowing what to say to someone who had just administered last rites to a close friend, Moreen had found herself avoiding his eyes as she spoke to him. Instead she stared awkwardly at the smudge of ink that had come off on his hand when he anointed Joshua. She counted the row of black buttons on his cassock. There were thirty-three.

Nothing about this made sense. There was the locked room; aside from Joshua's own key, found in the room with him, the only other key was on his father's key ring and that had been with his father in the next town over at the time of death. But even if there had been a hundred keys, the bolt could still only be locked from inside. The forensic techs had found no fingerprints, no hairs, no DNA other than the victim's own, no clothing fibers, nothing at all to indicate that someone other than Joshua had been in the room. All of that pointed to suicide. But if Joshua had stabbed himself through the eye, the weapon should have been nearby. Instead, it was nowhere to be found. And there wasn’t blood on his hands, either. Murder didn't make sense. Suicide didn't make sense. And the night-black runes on his body especially didn't make sense. There was no trace of any similar ink anywhere else in the room or the rest of the house. The phrase "perfect murder" had been tossed around the office a lot lately.

There's no such thing as a perfect murder, Moreen thought ruefully. There's a crack in every case, and if I can't find it, it just means the perpetrator is smarter than I am. She couldn't help feeling that the crack in this one was probably right under her nose, and she just wasn't astute enough to see it.

*********************************

Moreen sat at the desk in Joshua's study. She had sat there many times in the past several weeks, hoping that being in the room where his death had occurred would help her find insight into the case. There was pressure from her superiors to label the case as a cult-related suicide just to close it and get it over with. Her conscience wouldn't let her do that. She was in danger of being taken off the case, in danger of losing her job, maybe. She was frazzled. She felt like her reason and sense had melted. She couldn't keep track of anything. It seemed like every time she turned around, the things on her desk weren't where she thought she'd put them. She greeted people walking  into the room only to look up and realize nobody was there. So she got away from her desk, and sat at Joshua's instead. She'd already looked the room over a hundred times. She knew the sequence of the books on the shelves, had memorized the wood grains in the top of the desk. She counted the checkerboard pattern of the parquet floor  tiles over and over. She knew it by heart, but her eyes and mind needed something to do while she thought, so she counted the pattern again.

Vertical. Horizontal. Vertical. Horizontal. Vertical. Vertical. Vertical. Horizontal.

That break in the pattern drove her mad. She wanted to find the contractor who'd laid the floor and clobber him. The out-of-sequence tile was right in front of the door, for heaven's sake! Right in the goddamn front of…

...the door.

Moreen frantically searched the desk for a sturdy, flat object, and settled on a letter opener. She tried several times to wedge the tip of it in the cracks around the offending tile, not caring that she was chipping the wood. Finally she got it in far enough to pry the tile out of place.

There was a hole in the plywood subfloor, and in the darkness a few feet below she could see dirt. A crawlspace!

On her second pass around the exterior of the house, Moreen sighted the entrance to the crawlspace, partially hidden behind a forsythia bush. Ignoring the dirt and spiders, she crawled inside. It was dark, but one point of light told her where the hole in the floor above was located. She crawled over to it and looked up. It was far too small to be used as an exit from the room, but big enough for a knife, or an arm…

So that's it. Enter the room. Stab the victim. Drop the weapon through the hole in the floor. Take the victim's key. Lock the room from the outside. Enter the crawlspace. Toss the key up through the hole and back into the room- that's why it was on the floor. Reach up through the hole and slide the bolt into place. I can't, but someone with a longer arm could. Pull the tile back over the hole. From the bottom, you can't tell which way the pattern goes. The crack in the case wasn't under my nose, it was under my feet.

I know how, but I still don't know who or why. Scanning for any further clues, she detected a small area where the dirt floor looked less packed than the area around it. Something buried, maybe? Too anxious to delay for getting a digging tool, she started clawing at the dirt with her hands.  She felt something smooth and flexible under the dirt and tugged on it. A bundle of fabric popped out of the ground with a little shower of dirt. The fabric was white, except where it was covered with the same snaking black patterns that had been on Joshua's body. Moreen cautiously unfolded the fabric, and two items fell out. The first was a slender knife that glinted silver in the scant light coming from above. The blade was coated in a dried, dark substance. Blood.

The second object was a black button.
 

A Backpacker's Guide to Exorcism

The reflection in the window tells me that the pack strapped to my back is small--  far too small, in fact, for someone who is on her way to a different country for two weeks. It's hard to believe my eyes, because I feel like I'm carrying a mountain.

Most people could carry three of my pack without trouble, but I'm adding it to an already-massive load. With all the ghosts riding on my shoulders, there's hardly room for a backpack. There are the ghosts of Worry About the Future and Self-Doubt, the ghost of Personal Failure, the ghost of Life's Unfairness,  the ghost of Fatigue, and more. They take turns riding piggyback, wrapping their gaunt arms around my neck and digging their fingers into my collarbones. They like to whisper nasty things into my ears. Some of them wear spurs. There's an ache between my shoulder blades that never goes away, and my reflection in the glass shows a slouch that's too pronounced to be explained by the small bundle of things I'm carrying.

In a moment of hot panic, Worry and Self-Doubt begin to quarrel. "I won't have enough things!" collides with "I can't carry this for two weeks!" But it's too late to do anything. The bus leaves in three minutes, and Worry is flogging me and shouting that if I don't make this bus, the next one won't get me to the airport on time.

By the time I check into the first guesthouse late that night, I feel as though I've been beaten. Fatigue hangs on my neck like a ballast stone, muttering quiet obscenities at me. My feet and joints ache from the extra weight. The skin on my shoulders is chafed where the straps of my backpack rubbed all day, and the muscles underneath feel bruised. The constant ember of pain in my back has flared into a bonfire. It's hard to even sleep.

In the morning, Fatigue and Self-Doubt clutch at the straps and try to stop me from putting my pack on again, but finally I wrestle them down and the weight settles unkindly onto yesterday's bruises. I haven't even left my room yet and I want to cry. The pace of the entire day is dictated by my need for periodic rests, and the sightseeing agenda is chosen according to which locations will have a locker or a place to leave bags. I feel heavy and slow and old and Personal Failure keeps whispering that I'm getting in everyone else's way. This night, even the inferno in my back can't interfere with my bone-weariness, and I sleep the sleep of the dead.

On the third day, the weight of my backpack is familiar. Deep sleep has erased some of the bruising and tamed the blaze in my back to the size of a small campfire. My body has started to adjust its balance for the weight of the pack. I can move without knocking into things, at least. The ghosts are tired from sharing their space with my bag, and their grip is lazy. The day is filled with historic temples and street food, and the cherry blossoms floating down everywhere are so mesmerizing that I forget to listen to Worry's whisperings. At night I dream of fantastic foreign landscapes sweeping past my train window.

"I am a turtle," I think on the fourth morning. "This backpack is my home. All the things I really need are inside it, and I can carry it wherever I want to go." On this day I can stand up straight, because I have discovered how to be a little more self-sufficient and that makes me proud of myself.  Self-Doubt loses his clammy grip as I bump down the stairs, and I leave him sitting alone on the bottom step.

By day five, I can't hear any whispers, and I strap on my backpack without any cadaverous arms or bony fingers getting in the way. When I'm carrying home on my back, there's no room for ghosts.

Geese and Grenades

To Mister Fendall Burchard of Pinesbough Lane in Glasspond

Dear Mr. Burchard,

Thank you for your application for the position of Director of Concealed Defensive Measures at Fairedge Castle. It is my regret to inform you that we do not presently have such a position, nor does His Majesty King Danin find it appropriate to create a new title at this time.

Although King Danin was intrigued by your suggestion of using realistic goose decoys equipped with explosives to defend the castle moat, Queen Odelia fears that the decoys may attract a greater than usual number of living geese to the castle grounds. Goose droppings do no favors for silk shoes and the hemlines of royal garments.

You may wish to submit your application to King Roelde in Port Kerral. Their castle is presently without a Queen or any Princesses and they may not have the same qualms about soil from waterfowl on their grounds.

Sincerely,
Mistress Amicia Morley
Head Steward to the Royal Household of Fairedge Castle



Fendall Burchard
Pinesbough Lane
Glasspond
Fairedge

Mr. Burchard,

King Roeld put your letter in my hands since as Captain of the Guard I’m in charge of defenses here at Port Kerral Hold.

Truth be told, duck decoys that explode on enemy troops when they cross the moat could be pretty effective. I think your plan needs more work, though. How do the decoys know who’s an enemy and who’s not? I can’t just have random explosions every time a real duck sees the decoy and tries to make friends. I don’t think the groundskeepers who clean the moat would much like it either.

You might try Sangerfeld Keep. I hear Queen Edyta has some right smart scientists on staff. Maybe they could help you improve your duck bombs.

C. Jorn Yerard
Captain of the Guard at Port Kerral Hold



Mister Fendall Burchard
Residing in Pinesborough Lane, Town of  Glasspond, Fairedge Province

Mr. Burchard,

I can’t imagine what possessed that lout Captain Yerard to recommend you to Sangerfeld Keep. I can’t think of any respectable royal court that would instate such a post as “Director of Concealed Defensive Measures.” The idea of incendiary artificial waterfowl is so absolutely ludicrous that I don’t even find it prudent to bring your petition before the eyes of the Queen.

I suggest you take your addle-brained notions to a province whose rulers have less sense. Perhaps that oaf King Ivo in Moorwind would be willing to accommodate your absurdity.

You have our utmost gratitude in advance for abstaining from future inquiries.

Signed,
Prince Aurel , First Heir to House Enaris of Sangerfeld Keep
Under the authority of Her Great Excellence Queen Edyta of House Enaris, Second of her Name



Mr. Fendall Burchard
Pinesborough Lane, Glasspond, Fairedge

Dear Mr. Burchard,

I read your letter to King Ivo, but I’m afraid I must admit that we do not quite understand the nature of your request. I gather that you wish a position working on the castle defenses. However, from the rest of your message I can only suppose that Rianthan is not your native tongue and your ideas were poorly translated. Surely “autonomous detonating swan decoy” can’t be what you meant to say?

There is a foreign language expert on staff at Castle Quendale who can translate at least six different tongues. Perhaps he can help you explain your defensive plans more accurately.

Sincerely,
Madame Tealla Linet
Secretary to King Ivo and Queen Kassia of Moorwind Province



Mr. Fendall Burchard at Pinesborough Lane, Glasspond, Province Fairedge

Dear Mr. Burchard,

I wish to congratulate you on your rare comedic talent. King Emmer found your piece on loon decoy moat missiles to be of great amusement. I do not believe anyone has seen His Majesty in such fits of mirth in at least a decade. I even detected a small smile trying to escape from the visage of Queen Sybilla.

Sadly, our post of Court Jester is not open. Gousk is nearly blind and his wits are failing, but he has served us for many years and it would be uncharitable to replace him at this time.

I am sure you are aware of the festival that will take place at Fairedge Castle in two months’ time to commemorate Queen Odelia’s birthday. They will be hiring a multitude of entertainers and performers. Perhaps you could try your luck there.

Yours in good humor,
Sir Belden Oshale, Scribe to King Emmer of Castle Quendale

P.S. The young Princess Frena wishes me to ask you if flamingoes might work as well as loons.

The Last Step

It happens to everyone once in a while. You’re walking up a staircase in the dark, and at the end of it you put your foot out to step on the last stair.  But your foot doesn’t make contact where it ought to. Your entire sense of balance is pitched off and for a split second you have no idea where your body is located in space. Then your foot comes down on the floor with a jar, your heart skips a beat, and everything teeters madly while your brain and your body try to synchronize their signals. When you finally return to proper orientation in reality, your heart is pounding and you have a sensation that you’ve just narrowly avoided a potentially fatal disaster. All because you lost count and thought there was one more stair where there really wasn’t.

In truth, however, the missing stair is an illusion. You see, the extra stair really does exist, just not strictly in the physical realm. Ordinarily you don’t know it’s there. When the lights are on and you can see where you’re going, your physical senses are in control and you only sense the steps that have a solid physical form. But when it’s dark, or you’re carrying a large object that obscures your view of your feet, or your attention is simply elsewhere, then your subconscious awareness of things that are not purely physical can become engaged. The stair you tried to step on isn’t really missing- it’s just hidden from the physical world.

That heart-wrenching feeling of impending disaster that you feel when you try to step on that extra stair and pass right through it is not a lie. Every stair step leads to somewhere, and this one isn’t an exception. If you were to succeed in stepping on that extra stair, you would step up into a different dimension and cease to exist in this one. Although these dimension doors can exist in many places, they tend to show up in stairways because stairways are by nature liminal spaces- that is, they are transitional, in-between, neither of the floor below nor the one above. The dimension that the extra stair leads to goes by many names- the Ether, the Great Beyond, the Afterlife, the Spirit Realm, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the Happy Hunting Grounds- what you call it isn’t significant. The main point is that if you step on this stair, your life on this earth is no more. When your feet are both solidly on the ground again and you feel that you’ve just had a near-death experience, it's because you really have.

Even so, there’s no reason to fear the extra stair. Though our occasional encounters with it may be startling, there is little risk of accidentally stepping out of this world and into the next during a routine trip up the stairs. There is a specific time appointed to each person when passage between the dimensions is permitted. If it isn’t that time, then your foot will simply fail to contact the extra stair, and you will stay in this world.

When your appointed time does come, and you step onto the extra stair and find that it is solid beneath your feet, do not fret. It’s only a small step up to a floor you haven’t yet explored.

Author's note:
This piece is inspired by the following quotation, which I found to be of great help when my Grandma took the final step up.


“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
-Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room
 
   

Translation (T)Error

Not all cross-cultural encounters are friendly ones, and not all students enjoy being in a classroom. When these factors are combined in a classroom where the teacher is foreign and doesn't speak the students' native tongue, tensions can run high.

I've just been handed a student's completed work. A postcard, written in English, to be addressed to the student's favorite person. Except on the address line, this one says "Osama Bin Laden." In the corner, where there should be a drawing of a stamp, there is a drawing of a hand giving the middle finger.

A little part of my faith in international goodwill dies. This kid hates Americans, or at the very least resents being forced to learn English. His postcard is meant to offend me.  I hand it back to him.

"No. You can't write this. Do you know Osama Bin Laden?"

"Yes, teacher! Many American kill!"

"That's right. He's a very bad person. You can't write your postcard to him."

The kid grins at me. He thinks his insolence is funny.

"No, teacher. It's ok, because I say FUCK YOU!"

I'm thunderstruck. This is the first time a student has cursed at me. I don't even know how to respond.

The student points to the middle finger drawing in the stamp box. "It's ok, teacher," he repeats. "I say FUCK YOU Osama Bin Laden!" He's still grinning.

The gears in my head finally resume turning. This is not at all what I thought. Rather than expressing hatred toward me and my foreign culture, he is actually bidding to earn my favor with clumsy and moderately offensive show of solidarity against Osama Bin Laden. Still, profanity in the classroom is a discipline problem. I have to be stern. I have to educate him that it's not polite to say FUCK YOU in English.

By the time the teacher assistant picks up the group at the end of the class period, I still haven't stopped laughing.

On the Contrary

Introductions are difficult, because they are never true, not in the strictest sense of the word. For one thing, they are always biased. I can tell you what I believe about myself, but others may disagree. For another thing, introductions are always incomplete. I can tell you what I like, what I do, and where I live, but I could never write something that would encompass all that I am. So for the sake of being contrary, rather than attempting to tell you who I am, I will attempt to give you an idea of who I am not.

Although accomplished in academic writing, letter writing, and grocery list writing, I am not a creative writer, at least not yet.

I am not a person who is ever content to stay in one place for very long, whether it be in a chair, in a house, or in a city.

I am not someone who thrives in a crowd or a large social gathering.

I am not a veterinarian. My 12-year-old self would be shocked and disappointed at that fact, but I'm not terribly upset over it.

I'm not generally up to date with music, television, and current culture in general. I'm not sure who that guy on the screen is, and I'm not convinced I care.

I am not conventional, and I'm not fond of standards and expectations.

I'm not going to finish all the projects that I have ideas for, because I'm not going to live for three thousand years.

I'm not a milkmaid.

I am not Spartacus.

And I'm not sorry. Not even one little bit.