Ultra-short story

Reggae Rope Monster: A True (?) Story

I had an urgent noontime appointment to keep and only just enough time to get there from work without any delays when I noticed the car ahead of me, a red hatchback. The hatch stood wide open, revealing a bewildering jumble of items crammed into the back of the vehicle. All that restrained the mess was a length of yellow nylon rope tied so slack that its middle waved as much as its loose ends did. That is so useless, I thought.

The upper end bounced and bobbed, an untidy clump of rope-ends like dreadlocks around the heavy knot that anchored them. Longer ends, maybe three or four of them, danced around the middle, flying upward with every bump in the road. Their undulations looked so free, so carefree, that I felt mesmerized.

One piece of the jumble slid toward the open hatch. I stepped on the clutch, ready to slow down and avoid the debris, but it never came. I accelerated with caution, thinking the object was just delayed in falling, but when I got nearer, I could see that everything was in place as it had been. Peculiar, I thought.

The traffic signal ahead turned red. We slowed to a halt in tandem, the hatchback and I. The dancing nylon rope sank into fitful rest, but an occasional ripple ran through it when the wind gusted. I rolled down my window to catch some of the chilly autumn breeze. From the red hatchback ahead of me, I heard strains of reggae tossed here and there by the wind.

Then the traffic signal turned green. The hatchback rolled forward, dislodging two or three objects from the jumble. This time, I was near enough to see the waving rope-ends gently tap each item back into place, always maintaining the buoyant reggae rhythm. One rope end waved at me.

The driver behind me honked irritably at me, and I remembered to drive through the intersection. My appointment took me to the next right turn, which I almost missed because my attention still clung to the strange dancing rope creature that guarded the open hatchback. I have almost no recollection of the meeting I attended that day, but every time I hear a strain of reggae or see a red hatchback on the street, I remember that curious creature, the Reggae Rope Monster.

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Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 3

Of The Old Well

by H. M. Snow

I wish I could remember how long I’ve been down here. When I lift my hand to touch the mud-crusted wall, I feel deep gouges in a row. So many tally-marks to count the days, but I can’t tell how many. My fingers are numb, coated with cold mud from the bottom of this old well. I tried to keep count by the daylight at first. The sky is overcast now, and has been for a long time. Without noon’s light, the darkness here at the bottom never abates.

Why can I not remember? I might have been here months or years. No, not that long. I went to school longer than the rest and learned much. Corporeal man can endure long weeks without food, but water is essential. The body dies within only a few days without water. I remember that. I remember the moment when, half-mad with thirst, I filled my mouth with the watery mud at the bottom of this old well. It felt as though I began to rot from within from that moment onward.

It is dark, so dark down here. Too many times I have discovered my weak hands roaming the filthy walls, tracing the gouged tally-marks and the crude scratched words. There is nothing else to do down here– except to yield and die. When the sun shone, I read the words. It is strange that, though I can see almost nothing, I know these etchings as if reading them even now. Just above the pooled mud, the faintest of them read, Mama did not save me. Why? Why? The words curve downward and lose themselves in the mud, as if the writer lay prone while scratching each letter into the filth. I am sure I could not have written them myself, first because I have never called my mother ‘Mama’ like one of the common village urchins might. I was taught better than that. Second, I could not have written them because I would have drowned before I finished. The well must have been drier then, or the writer even more petite than I.

If I lift my face toward the mouth of the well, I can see a disc of gray above me. Higher than I can reach, more words arrest my gaze every time I look upward: large words, wrathful words, deeply carved words. Rage drove the hand that gouged those letters into the stone. A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. Uneducated, then, to believe in superstitions like curses, and strong enough to drive the words so deeply into the stone. It cannot have been my doing, but a man’s, a laborer’s.

I am not the first. How long have the innocent perished down here? And why? I wish I could remember the circumstances under which I came to be in this foul hole. When I cast my thoughts back, my memories differ each time. Sometimes I am certain that they came by night, secretly, and seized me from my bed. At other times my memories conjure up a lurid dawn sky and a remote pasture, when the crowds came to overpower me. Noon, evening, tea time: the only commonality to these memories is the horror of the faceless mob. They cannot all be true memories, but they are equally fearful to me. The days I lived before that day are faint now. I cling to what little I remember with certainty. I came to the village to teach. The villagers were polite, distant, clannish, like all rural people with little concept of society beyond their own. I taught their children during the day and returned to my rented cottage to prepare my lessons.

How long ago was that life mine? For that matter, how many days have passed since I heard a human voice? There was no disused well in the village. I am sure there was none. No one, not even a shadow of a human presence, passes overhead here. Silence weighs upon me, rings in my ears. Even in the solitude of my rented cottage, there was never this silence. Always the noisy children played at a distance and the village adults greeted one another in that gregarious way of country folk. Never was there any silence. An outsider myself, I knew so little about the ways of the village, but even I sensed the pockets of emptiness appearing in their ranks from time to time. I assumed that a few had chosen to seek a world of wider society and greater opportunity, but suppose they were…?

There, a fleeting sunbeam descended and then vanished so swiftly! The words it illuminated for that moment burn in my weakened vision: A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. How are they carved so deeply? Liquid mud surrounds me, inches deep. Beneath it, compacted mud forms a floor for the well. There is nothing that could be made into a tool for carving stone, I am sure. My numbed hands searching the liquid mud encounter only slick solid mud, smooth as though polished except around the perimeter. There I can feel something, but barely. If I work at it, I can free it from its mud bed. It is narrow, as long as my hand, jagged at one end and pointed at the other. Hollow as well. I know what it was at first, and what it became. I ought to be horrified, as any civilized woman ought, but I am not. Perhaps I knew all along that the gouges in the well wall could not have been etched by anything else. It feels wrong to hold it so casually like this, as if I had desecrated a grave. If I let it sink back into the mud, the mud will receive it back.

The mud receives everything in the end. I knew it, hid from it, but I acknowledge it now. The mud will receive me soon enough. I believe I knew it from the moment I succumbed to thirst and drank this putrid liquid. From that moment, I imbibed the essence of the ones who came to this dreadful end before me. These memories– if I can no longer discern between my own and theirs, then maybe the mud has received me already. When I lift my hand, I see only a lump of mud. Not even individual fingers, but a mass of filth. I wonder if my fingers have rotted away. Will I end like this, just like the rest?

Another shaft of light pierces the darkness of the old well. This time, the light is so strong and so pure that I reach toward it instinctively. My clumsy, insensate hand slaps the wall where the gouged tally-marks stand out like the scars of frantic claws. I can see all the marks of the prior victims for just a few seconds. I am reaching, reaching, ever higher toward the light, driven by a longing to live. Now I can feel the full desperation of those who succumbed to the mud before me. Their misery pushes me forward. I reach higher still, touching that forgotten man’s bitter curse and higher even than that. When did my arm grow so long? It rises like a column of soft mud. It seems ready to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Like the piercing light that even now fades back into gray, I feel the exquisite certainty that I can reach to the mouth of the well– not only reach, but pull myself out of the stagnant reek and into the light of the living world. I can. We can. We will.

Here now, I lay draped over the brink of my prison, clinging to the grass as a cloudburst drops its burden of rain on me. The rain cannot wash away the mud, but the mud absorbs the rain and spreads. My arm now is as thick as a man’s waist, swelled with the strength of fresh water. I feel my lower extremities dripping back down into the well. I am not strong enough to hold this new body together yet, but as the old well fills with rainwater, the rest of our body will soon reunite with me. A moment, a moment more, only a moment more and we will be free of the old well, free to seek the answers that we were denied. The rain turns all earth to mud, and all mud belongs to us now. We who were too weak to save ourselves, now our strength will know no limit. We will find out the reason why we were sacrificed in such a cruel way. We will stop this terrible injustice from happening ever again, even if we must turn the entire village to mud so that they feel our sorrow and our bitterness alongside us in this body.

Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 1

Here it is, as promised: a short story based on the idea presented by Jacob Baugher: Design a completely original magic system: no alchemy, burning metals, sympathy, name casting, ancient language, spirit casting, elemental casting, or anything else you’ve read. Also the magic is cast out of the wizard’s nose. And so we have Week 1’s entry, “Inauspicious Roots.” I hope you enjoy it.

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Inauspicious Roots

By H. M. Snow

Beginnings are often the most difficult stage on the road to greatness. A glance around the waiting room of the Mucinoid Experimentation and Studies Society would not have revealed the presence of one who was to become the face of visceral magic within only a few years. Given the volume of sniffles, gurgles and coughs that echoed back from its vaulted ceiling, any outsider might understandably mistake it for the antechamber of an urgent care clinic rather than the holding area for the most prestigious of entrance exams. A raggedy assemblage of young men and women slumped in the same uncomfortable arm chairs common to every institutional waiting room. Most of the applicants were between the ages of eighteen and thirty, with the arithmetical mean landing somewhere about twenty-two years of age.

The future star of the Society, whose name was one day to be known world-wide, occupied an obscure chair between two hulking kinesthetic scholars. Perhaps this made the boy appear to greater disadvantage than usual. He was, after all, merely twelve years old at the time, barrel-bodied and round-faced with a pallid complexion that would have done any solitary confinement inmate proud. He wore a bowtie at his throat and his fair hair slick against his scalp. Moreover, he sniffed incessantly. Amongst such a din of coughs and snorts, it is a wonder he made himself heard at all, but his two seatmates threw him such irritable glances as might curl the toes of a more sensitive soul. Every prim little sniff from the boy’s nostrils seemed to go straight to their nerves.

All the other applicants showed abundant signs of anxiety. The entrance exams for the Mucinoid Experimentation and Studies Society were both rigorous and secretive. Each applicant sat the exam alone in front of a board of examiners. Pass or fail, the examinees left via a different exit so as to prevent the applicants yet to come from discerning whether their competitors had done well or poorly. The only people who exited from the waiting room entrance were the custodians. The waiting applicants referred to the custodians’ comings and goings as they would a clock. Going in meant another exam was finished and another applicant was soon to enter the lion’s den. Since the custodians went in to clean up after each exam, their movements provided no information about the previous examinees’ performances either.

The tension began to tell on the boy’s seatmates as they watched the custodians come and go. One sniff too many provoked the young man on his left to exclaim, “Look, kid, go wait for your dad somewhere else! I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m not waiting for my dad,” the boy began to explain. He spoke as pedantically as he looked.

“Whatever. Just go sit somewhere else, okay?”

The boy rose without argument. His luck was no better at the next seat he tried, nor at the seat after that. When he was driven away from his fourth choice of seat, the boy wandered the perimeter of the waiting room, coming to a halt near the alcove where three custodians awaited their next summons.

“… and all the Professor says is, ‘There was nothing at all magical about that vomit. Please check out at the receptionist’s desk and reschedule.’ Like he wasn’t wearing puke all down the front of his suit and all!” The elder of the two male custodians laughed under his breath.

The female of the trio laughed also. “Whatever the Professor said, I still say the amount must have been magical. Maybe the guy connected his stomach to one of those pocket dimensions they talk about up on the fourth floor. Nobody has that much stomach capacity by nature.”

“Might have been why the Professor told him to reschedule. Sucks if you’ve got that kind of talent just to fail the entrance exam from nerves.”

The third custodian, whose silence was due entirely to the potato chips he was transferring from bag to mouth in a steady flow, held the bag out to the boy who stood by listening. “Want some? Boring for you, waiting for somebody sitting the exams.”

The boy shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m on a special diet. And I’m not waiting for—” He perked up his ears as the walkie-talkie on the desk beeped.

“Ready for clean-up,” said a crackly voice from the small speaker.

The custodians rose. Custodian number three clipped his bag of chips closed and tucked them into a cubby-hole above the desk. “What’s the next number again?”

“Sixty-one,” said the woman.

“Sixty-one? That’s my number,” the boy remarked. When they gawked at him, he held out the paper to prove it. He straightened each cuff of his dress shirt and took up the clear zippered plastic bag lying at his feet. He shuffled behind the custodians to the exam room door. As it shut behind him, he paused to take in his new environment.

At the front of the tiered lecture hall, six distinguished examiners sat behind a table. They peered at him through a variety of corrective lenses. One leaned over to another and murmured, “This is the one? He doesn’t look like a prodigy.” But his associate shushed him and beckoned to the boy. “What have you brought? They warned you, did they not, that we must examine any supplies brought in from the outside? You were offered use of the Society’s standard-issue supplies for the exam, were you not?”

Still placid, the boy brought his zippered plastic luggage to the examiners’ table. He proceeded to lay out its contents, also in sterile clear zippered bags. Each little bag contained a bundle of plain white facial tissues and was labeled with a lengthy chemical formula. “I treated them specially,” he announced as the examiners handled the bags, “according to Magill’s rules. You can check them.”

Having this solemn authorization handed down to them by a child not yet in puberty amused the examiners. They duly checked, glanced at each other with subdued approval, and returned their attentions to the boy. “What have you prepared for us today…” The eldest man among them consulted his clipboard before venturing to add, “Silas Lumkin?”

“You can choose,” said the boy. He sniffed again. “I can do any of them. Do you have any saline spray? I forgot mine.”

The youngest of the examiners went to the supply closet to fetch the needed spray. Meanwhile, the other five whispered together. “I don’t recognize the notation on this bag,” said one aloud. “It appears to be incomplete.”

“No, ma’am,” said the boy Silas, “it’s a sterilizing compound.” He accepted the saline spray from his benefactor and applied a squirt up each nostril. Then he pulled on a pair of examination gloves and withdrew one of the sterile facial tissues from its bag, ensuring that it touched nothing.

The examiners raised clear plastic sneeze shields on the table in front of them.

Before he blew his nose, the boy Silas raised his free hand to his face. He pressed his thumb into the hollow of his right eye socket, just above the tear duct, and massaged the spot six times in tiny circles. He tapped three fingertips against his forehead, pinched his nose, and used his fore- and middle fingers to stroke down and away from each side of his nose in turn. Then he blew his nose with a resounding, elderly honk.

The tissue fizzled and, when Silas held it out, frothed up in odd formations that solidified as a peculiar amalgamation of fur, dust bunnies, and flowers, among other less identifiable textures. The boy Silas laid the mutated tissue on the table for the examiners’ better viewing.

“What,” said the youngest examiner, “on earth is that?”

“I made it myself,” Silas answered. “It’s my allergy test. I discovered that combining Joba’s nasal manipulation arcana with traditional Asian mystical pressure points, in the presence of a specially-sterilized medium such as…” He continued on in this pedantic vein for some time, as oblivious to the examiners as they were to his explanation. He did notice, however, when one of the fascinated examiners began to prod the tissue with the end of a pen. Then Silas’ discourse turned more toward the practical. “By identifying the parts of the allergy test, it is possible to pinpoint the source of the allergy. This part here is cat hair from my mom’s Persian, and this is ragweed—it’s just come into season— and dust— I’m awfully allergic to dust—”

“And you developed this yourself? But how?” said the youngest examiner. When the eldest cut him off with a gesture, he blurted, “But Professor—!”

The Professor folded his hands on the table. “This is a practical exam. We must continue. Please select another type of tissue and display its uses for us.”

Unfazed, the boy Silas opened a different bag of tissues. This time, he squirted saline up each nostril twice and used both hands to massage his temples, the glands beneath his jaw, and the spots in front of his jug ears. Then he laid the tissue on a pedestal table provided for the purpose, hawked violently, plugged one nostril, and from the other nostril exhaled a mass of phlegm that burst into flame on contact with the treated tissue.

“Expertly done,” the Professor said. “It is not our practice to admit minors into the Society, but you have shown enough proficiency to prove that it shall not be a waste of our time.” He marked an emphatic tick on the clipboard before him. “Expect to receive your training schedule by post within a few days, young Mr. Lumkin. We look forward to working with you.”

Small praise, perhaps, for a boy who had just displayed knowledge of mucinoid magic far beyond his age. Silas only said, “Yes, sir. Thank you,” and gathered up his supplies. Such were the inauspicious roots of the greatest nasal mage of our times, Dr. Silas Lumkin, M.M.D., better known to the admiring masses as Silas the Sinus.