The Grim Reaper of Frozen Hell

Thanks; that mug of hot cocoa is most welcome. Preferable to the weak, sweet wine I was expecting. Sorry, bad joke. This is the first time I’ve felt warm in days. Those days in Alaska chilled me to the bone, especially the last one. I didn’t think I’d ever feel warm again. It was a total whiteout — a face freezing blizzard coming out of the north east. Our thick coats and gloves kept us comfortable, and our goggles stopped our eyelids freezing to our eyeballs. But the roar of the wind and the hailstones pummelling against our bodies slowed us to a crawl. The Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness has glaciers and rocky terrain so vast that the most experienced explorer would be crazy to trek through it alone.

We kept moving, silent; unable to hear each other above that dreadful din. All I could think of was the mug of hot soup laced with gin waiting for us back at the hut. That and the thick, coarse blankets warming over the stove. My heart pounded in my chest, and my breath was punishing my lungs. But those thoughts of warm comforts kept me going. Trudging over the hundreds of yards. Until that black, wedge-shaped block of redwood greeted us in the heart of deep, Alaskan winter. Hours seemed to have gone by since we abandoned our snow cat. Stupid of us to decide to trek on foot. Rather than wait for the others to come out in the other cat and rescue us. In reality, it was no more than thirty minutes. Had to be, because more than an hour in that blizzard, and we’d be dead. There was no way of telling how long it would be until we finished scrunching our way through the drifts. And emerged into the moonlight, a short walk from our base and safety.

And then I saw it.

It took minutes to make it out. The first thing I saw was a big, black, shapeless shadow moving rapidly ahead of us. It’s difficult to gauge size in a blizzard, and at first I thought it was a man in a long fur coat; a man with a skull like face. I didn’t think it was a bear, because it was too angular, and it walked with a spring in its step. Then, I saw its fierce, blazing eyes and vicious looking teeth. Its long, reptilian head was white and fleshless so that the bones of its skull showed through. It was only when I saw what was in those teeth, that I got the scale of the thing. From its jaws hung a caribou. At first I thought it was only a baby, then, I saw the antlers on it and realised it was a full sized adult. Those beasts are big. The thing holding the caribou must have been huge, much bigger than a bear — bigger than a bison. When I realised it was bigger than the snow cat I said: “Saints preserve us,” under my breath and dropped down flat on my belly. I hoped Fairfax was doing the same. Whatever it was, it was over ten feet high.

“What the hell’s that?” said Fairfax, crouching by my side.

“Quiet!” I said, as loud as I dared. “I don’t think it’s seen us. Whatever it is.”

Up until then it was the blizzard saved us. Snow blinded, the beast didn’t see us. Otherwise, it might have dropped the caribou and made a meal of us instead. Predators gorge themselves, then sleep it off. And, I guessed that was no less true of the thing we saw.

God knows where it came from. There are things hidden in the mountains of Alaska that we’ve never seen. I’m certain of that. Well, I am now.

We’d gone to investigate cries for help on the Canadian border, following on the quake the day before. We discovered we were leaking gas and had to stop. Fairfax suggested making it back on foot. If only we’d sat tight. Green and Pauli would have picked us up soon enough. And then we’d never have seen that — thing. I must have lain there several minutes, hoping Fairfax had stayed put too. And in those minutes, I saw it again. It had changed direction and was lumbering back, tossing its skull like head in the air, swinging the caribou, and dropping it to the ground so bits shredded off. It picked the carcass up again again, repeating the process. Swallowing new chunks of flesh every time.

That could have been me it was swinging around. It could have been either of us. Hell, it could have been us both. The classic, flesh eating dinosaur — with little hands in front no bigger than a man’s. But the creature’s ass was impressive. A massive tail, swinging left and right — like a giant’s club. It could fart in your face and bash your brains out in one move, that beast.

“I know what to do,” whispered Fairfax in my ear, “ You freeze, you don’t move. I saw it in a movie.”

“You’re nuts,” I said. “I saw that movie too, and you’re nuts, I tell you.”

“No, it’s true,” he went on. “It can only see moving prey. It can’t see you, if you’re not moving.”

The beast loped forward. Seen head on, there was a weird foreshortening of its long, white skull, and that’s why it looked almost human. And the rest of it, black and shapeless, hung from it like a long black cloak. The beast was nothing more nor less than a huge grim reaper, hurrying towards us through the blizzard. Messortorva nix, I thought, absentmindedly naming my discovery. The Grim Reaper of the Snows.

“Keep still, keep still,” Fairfax whispered, but I didn’t stay to listen to him. Panic seized me, and I ran. As I ran, I heard Fairfax’s voice going through my head. I knew he was right; yes, I’d seen that movie too, and reason told me to freeze and wait till the beast stopped sniffing at me, unable to get my scent in the freezing air. But the beast’s roar blasted my reason to the winds. I ran as I’d never run before; my chest aching and my throat on fire.

Then I heard Fairfax scream. I looked back and I screamed too. But that broke the spell. I got my second wind and ran harder than ever — terrified by what I saw. The movie was wrong. Movies often are. Ridiculously wrong. They tell things how they should be; how we want them to be. Wish fulfilment fantasies. Rationalisations. My panic saved me from misapplied reason. No; not panic — instinct. What I had seen in that brief backward glance was the beast’s teeth gutting Fairfax in a single movement, while its eyes fixed his with a heartless, cruel stare. It could see him all right.

And then all at once it was gone, swallowed by the whiteness.

And ahead of me, glowing with warmth and friendship was the hut, with the other snow cat alongside.

“What you say is impossible,” said Green, as I sat shaking and sipping my soup. “Apart from the fact that tyrannosauruses are way long extinct, dinosaurs were tropical creatures. No way could they live in this climate.”

“That’s what we assume,” I answered. “But that’s because we think of them as cold-blooded lizards. That thing’s blood was hot as hell. And as for being long extinct, maybe it’s from that deep fissure that opened up behind us. Maybe the quake flushed it out.”

“You’re sure Fairfax is dead?”

“His head went on screaming seconds after the beast ate the heart out of him,” I said. “But he’s dead all right. He coughed up blood, then…”

“Puh-lease!” said Green. “Spare me the details — at least out of respect for…”

“I respect him,” I said. “Of course I do. But he was wrong about the t-rex’s eyesight being based on movement. That’s all I’m trying to say. We need to let people know before anyone else comes up here.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Green, “let’s suppose it is a t-rex, which I doubt. It would be as good as dead…”

“And,” I said, “there are limits to doubt, and scepticism.”

Green shook his head. “There’s always room for doubt. I once saw a UFO, and it was a doozy! I followed it for a mile. Turned out it was a hot air balloon. Now you say this thing is a t-rex,” he chuckled. “My money’s on it being a bear. A big bear. Maybe a very big bear; but nothing to be too afraid of. Fairfax must have spooked it, and it went wild.”

“It was too thin and angular…”

“OK, a starving, angry bear. Bears look totally different when they’re starved half to death.

He’d not been there. He’d not seen it. “We’re talking,” I said, “about a bear big enough to carry off a caribou in its jaws.”

Green smiled a grim little smile. “You misidentified an adult caribou,” he said. “Easy done in these conditions. You saw something you couldn’t quite make out. And your brain filled in the gaps with stuff you’d seen in movies.”

Pauli took a swig of gin and considered. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe you’re — kind of — both right. The Inuit talk about a creature; ‘angulalanuk’ or something. It means, ‘Bear of bears’ — or ‘big-bear’. This is angulalanuk country. No Eskimos comes near it. Maybe it’s time we civilised folk got down off our collective high-horse, and learned a bit of their humility.”

“There are more things in heaven and earth…?” I said.

“Exactly,” said Pauli, sipping gin. “Whatever the angulalanuk is, it’s not a bear. Not as we know bears. Eskimos saw these things and, ‘bear of bears’ was the nearest they could get to hanging a name on it. Their actual descriptions sound nothing like any bear I’ve ever seen.”

“But nothing like a t-rex,” Green insisted. “I’ll bet anything you like on that.”

“Well,” said Pauli, “just try to keep an open mind.” He walked over to the other side of the hut.

Outside, the wind whined and screamed. If it was the wind.

Away from the stove, Pauli’s breath turned to mist, reminding me of the cloud around the beast. I shuddered.

“I’ve got a book with a picture of one somewhere,” Pauli went on. He walked over to the little bookcase. There, after a brief forage, he pulled out a large volume and walked back. He held the book out to me, showing me the title-page. It was called: ‘Dinosaurs and Man’. And it was published by something called, ‘The Cryptozoology Press’.

Green looked over my shoulder, groaned: “Cryptozoology — pseudo science!”

“Not necessarily,” said Pauli. “They keep finding new species around the world. But anyway, look…” He turned over a few pages. And there it was, as if drawn from life. The bony skull-like head. The shaggy black body with its tiny fore-legs. And, it walking through a snow covered landscape.

“They gotta be kidding,” said Green and rolled his eyes. “It’s the boogyman!”

The caption underneath said: ‘The angulalanuk, as it might appear in life as a large theropod dinosaur.’

Green laughed. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Cryptozoology; dragons mammoths, and mastodons, and great sea serpents! Fairfax is lying dead out there, mauled by a bear of some kind — fact — and you two are swapping ghost stories! ‘Angulalanuk’ indeed. Go home Cryptozoology, you’re drunk! And so are you; the pair of you.”

The wind — if that’s what it was — howled louder outside. As much to take my mind off it as anything, I looked at the book.

“ No, look,” I said. “It says here: ‘The idea that dinosaurs may have braved the arctic snow and ice is not so far-fetched.’” I pointed at the paragraph. “‘Not now we know they were the warm-blooded ancestors of modern birds. They may well have been covered in feathers as depicted here. Some of the descriptions of the angulalanuk obtained from the Arctic Circle Inuit may…’” — here Green laughed — “‘just may even point to these creatures having survived into our times’. And that beast outside proves it.”

Green snorted his derision. “A dinosaur could not have survived being frozen for sixty million years — not even sixty thousand. Cooling it enough to preserve the body for that length of time — the tissues would have imploded.”

“Now hang on,” said Pauli. “I don’t buy that sixty million years crap. I don’t even buy sixty thousand years. Maybe six thousand years.”

“What are you talking about?” snapped Green. “There were no dinosaurs six thousand years ago.”

“You can’t prove that,” said Pauli. “There were mammoths found buried in ice in Siberia that had drowned in the Great Flood and frozen as the water turned to ice.”

Green gaped. “What? Are you crazy? Great Flood? There was no such thing!”

Pauli lit his pipe just so he could gesture with it, I guess. “People have believed in the Great Flood for thousands of years. There must be something in it.”

Green shook his head, “Oh my God!”

“That’s what Noah said,” Pauli observed, with a solemn, almost reverential nod.

“I’m prepared to go along with the idea that dinosaurs survived in some hidden valley up here,” I said. “But not that they were frozen.”

“Even that’s bat-shit crazy,” said Green. “What you saw was a bear. It must have been a bear.”

“It was too big for a bear,” I insisted.

The howling outside was louder now.

“In the snow,” said Green, with no reference points, you have no idea what size that thing was.”

“Maybe, they did survive in a hidden valley,” said Pauli. There are plenty of tales of dragons. Like the ones in the mountains of China, for instance. Then there are the dragons of Medieval Europe. And in the Bible too. Again, there are fossil dinosaur tracks in Arizona with human footprints right alongside them. That proves early man hunted dinosaurs in the beginning. We only think they’re a gazillion years old because we’re misled by the fossils we found. But those human footprints prove that they’re not. And, as any honest, up to date geologist will admit, the radiocarbon method of dating fossils is highly suspect.”

“I’ve never heard such mumbo jumbo,” said Green.

“Listen,” I said. “I think I hear something.”

“Just the wind,” said Pauli.

“No, the wind’s dropped.” And it had. Something else was out there.

“Can you prove dinosaurs are extinct?” said Pauli. “Can you prove your ‘millions of years’? No, I didn’t think so.”

“It’s getting louder,” I said.

“Science doesn’t work like that,” said Green, with an air of finality.

“Then perhaps it’s about time that it did — seeing as it’s not working at all right now.”

“Shhhh!” I said.

But Green ignored me. He held up his fingers and counted off the points, “One; folklore is not evidence — and that includes the Bible. Two; the radiocarbon method of dating fossils has been proven to work thousands of times. Three; the footprints you talk about are all dinosaur footprints — eroded dinosaur footprints. Either that or they’re forgeries.”

Pauli has started shaking his head at point one. Now he said, “There you go again, changing the facts to fit your outdated theory. Folklore’s fine when it suits your case, like when Schleimman used it to locate the ruins of ancient Troy. And if something spoils your nice neat picture-book of the world, it has to be a forgery.”

“‘Nice neat picture-book of the world’?” said Green. “That’s rich, coming from a Bible basher like you!”

“Keep your voices down,” I hissed. “I’m telling you. I hear something.”

It is difficult to describe what I heard. There was a deep ‘Crump! Crump!’ that sounded like someone — or something — walking through deep, drifted snow. There was also something like a snorting breath, and a snuffling, deep and loud. And then there was the growl.

“That’s a bear!” Green said.

“Will you keep quiet?” I said, starting to panic.

“It’s OK!” Green insisted, “It can’t get in through the door.”

“You don’t know that,” I said. After all, I was the only one who had seen the thing. I was the only one who knew what it could do.

“It’s prowling around outside,” said Green. “When it realises it can’t get in, it’ll go away.”

It started moving again: ‘Crump crump’.

“Don’t forget the windows,” I said.

“The shutters are closed,” said Green.

‘Crump crump crump crump’.

Silence.

I was just about to suggest we turned out the light when the whole hut shook. Something had crashed against the wall.

We waited for the best part of a minute.

There was another crash.

“That’s no bear,” said Pauli.

And at that moment, with a terrific bang, the shutters on the window cracked from top to bottom.

“Definitely no bear,” insisted Pauli.

It was then something that none of us were expecting happened. There was another crash, the shutter broke away from its hinges, and — surreal though terrifying that it was — a huge, grizzly-bear’s head came through the gap.

“That’s a bear,” said Pauli.

It was dead; its fur matted with blood. We had scarce time to register it before the whole animal was lying at our feet. But none of us were looking at that. The huge, elongated skull like head of the beast was through the window and gazing at each of us. It had used the dead bear as a battering ram. Now it looked at us as if selecting us from a buffet.

“It’s a giganotosaurus,” said Pauli.

The giganotosaurus — if that’s what it was — uttered a low, growl. We were in a weird, dreamlike moment. Time stood still. Nothing seemed real. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

“But, but,” said Green, “it can’t be a giganotosaurus. Giganotosaurus was a carnosaur. And carnosaurs didn’t have feath…”

Whatever-it-was lurched forward and — with almost a studied air of nonchalance — bit Green in half.

Pauli stood there, looking around him in a panic, just like a little boy who’d been caught smoking. He backed away, whimpering. The beast watched him, curious, but only for a moment. Then, almost playful, it nudged him so that he fell over. His spectacles fell off too, and he let out a big wail. He was so short sighted, without his specs, anything more than a yard away was invisible. Maybe that was just as well for the moment. But then the beast opened its mouth and flicked its tongue along Pauli’s body.

Pauli screamed. And went on screaming.

I didn’t wait any longer. I opened the door and ran outside.

You know, life consists of a series of choices. If I’d taken my coat off when I entered the hut, I would have frozen when I went back outside. If we had not decided, at the last minute to only take one of the snow cats, we might never have encountered the beast. But more important: the other cat was waiting, fuelled-up and ready. And I was well insulated against the cold. At the back of my mind, was a movie. But not the same one that Fairfax had seen.

I had to put as much distance between myself and the beast — whatever they called it. I ran outside and got my first good look at its back three quarters. Most of its length was tail; a gigantic question mark of solid muscle arching high into the air. Its body was huge and covered in a long cape of black feathers. I supposed it was adapted to a colder climate. But I hadn’t time to wonder. For even as I tiptoed past, it jerked its head out of the hut and looked straight at me.

And Oh, the horror! It still had Pauli in its gaping maw — and he was alive. The beast was rolling him around on its tongue like a toffee, savouring the taste of his body. And as it did so, Pauli screamed, over and over.

When it saw me, the beast despatched Pauli with a single crunch that cut off his scream. And his head! It came rolling in the snow towards me. Hitherto the blizzard had blinded it. Now the blizzard was over, it saw me plain. I started to run and it turned round to give chase. I think I owe my life to the beast’s massive tail. It was like a Rolls-Royce chasing a scooter. In the short term, the little bike has the advantage. Before the beast had turned round to run, I reached the snow cat and wrenched open the cab door. The beast’s teeth scraped against the cab as I climbed inside. I tried the engine, but it stalled. And then the beast brought those shark like teeth down on the windscreen. I think the glass confused it. It must have never seen anything so hard yet so transparent. “Stay calm,” I said to myself. “Be ready to drive as soon as the engine starts.”

I tried the starter again, and this time it worked. While I was revving the engine the beast was all over the cab. Now we exchanged roles. I was the cumbersome one. I had no choice but to move forward. But I couldn’t move until the engine was up to speed. The second the revs hit fifteen hundred, I knocked off the parking break and the cat lurched forward. The beast was startled, and moved to one side. I put the cat back in neutral and the beast looked down. It was working it out. Is it good to eat? Is it dangerous? Will it break if I bite it?

Now to drop the blade.

“That’s it,” I said out loud. “You’re curious; you don’t know what it is. You can see me inside, but you can’t get at me. Yes, you can climb on that blade and get closer. Closer. Closer.”

I raised the blade the minute the beast climbed aboard it. It overbalanced. For a moment I thought it was going to fall off. “No, don’t fall off — yet.”

The cat shot forward. Got to be quick, it could still jump off.

We hit the incline. It was all uphill from now on. The beast scrambled about on the blade as it overbalanced, and fell backwards. It let out its angriest roar yet. We chugged up the hill. Only minutes to the top. If it managed to swing its bulk to one side I was done for. The sides were the cat’s weak points. And the beast could outpace me, even uphill.

‘Chug chug chug’ went the engine. I couldn’t see past the beast, maybe I could risk a look out of the side window? I opened it and looked out. Yes: five, four, three, two one.

I dropped the blade, and the beast fell forward. But it grabbed hold of the blade and hung on. I put the tracks in reverse and they held. But the beast was climbing up on the front.

Only one thing to do.

I opened the side door, banged the tracks into forward. And jumped.

By some miracle, I managed to land safe by the fissure’s edge. Some foolish bravado made me stand, shake my fist and shout: “Go back to the frozen hell you came from!”

And for one awful moment, I thought the beast was going to climb over and get me. But at the very last minute, the snow cat with its monstrous burden rolled over the edge of the cliff into the deep fissure the earthquake had opened up. it disappeared from view.

But it was some minutes before I dared look down. I was nervous the edge of the precipice might give way. At last, I plucked up the courage to crawl over there, and look.

There was nothing there. It was too dark. But the snow cat and the dinosaur were both — to coin a phrase — extinct.

I stumbled around for hours and completely lost my bearings. Then, through frost bitten eyelids, I made out a dim ‘someone’ walking alongside me. As I turned to face him, he grabbed my arm and pulled me to the right. I looked at his face. And, to my amazement, I saw that it was Pauli.

“This way,” Pauli said. “It’s not far to the hut. Then you’ll need to radio for help.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Nah! I wouldn’t die till I knew you were safe.”

“I killed it. I killed the giganotosaurus.”

“It wasn’t a giganotosaurus.”

“Oh? I thought you said it was?”

“I only said that to annoy Green.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s a do-you-think-he-saurus.”

“That’s a joke, right?”

“No, its vision is based on motion.”

“Isn’t that a myth?”

“No, ith a mythith. They’re all female. Like in the movie.”

“Well, I should name it,” I said. “I discovered it, the discoverer gets to name it, and I name it ‘messortorva nix’ — the Grim Reaper of the Snows.”

“Catchy!”

Our conversation went on in this inane manner for some time. I only remember fragments of it. At last we reached the hut. “I’ve got to go now,” said Pauli. “Look after yourself.”

And he walked off into the night; just faded away.

Nobody believed me, of course. They laughed when I said the dinosaur had feathers; said I was just trying to be trendy. And when I told them the bit about Pauli’s ghost helping me find the hut. Well that only made things worse.

So, they charged me with three counts of murder as, I guess, you know. They even threw in the theft of the snow cat. But they couldn’t make that one stick. And Alaska not having the death penalty, and Pauli coming from Texas, I was extradited and put on death row here in Austin.

So, your reverend, worshipfulness; here endeth the confession! And no, I will not retract one word of it. And, don’t try to scare me with hell. For you see, I’ve been there already.

And the angel of death and I are on very good terms.

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Savage Echoes

The new constellation sparkled like a phoenix as it rose from the embers of the setting sun. Most of the people who saw it wondered, but did not worry, seeing only a beautiful addition to the autumn sky. Only the Hubble telescope painted a more sinister picture. And by the morrow, the media were declaring, not only that it was not a new constellation, but that it was a clear and present danger to the world.

There were a great many who either did not hear the astronomers’ pronouncement, or did not believe it, and continued to delight in the new pattern in the heavens. Then, as the days passed, the glowing points of light grew further apart, and more significantly, glowed brighter and more baleful with each passing hour.

Now the papers carried the headline, “Meteor Shower”. And astronomers on the news tried to quieten fears by saying they would — undoubtedly — miss the earth and go spinning down into the sun.

But the meteoroids did not fall into the sun. They made a course change that specifically targeted the earth.

Only one kind of meteoroid changes direction like that. The glowing orbs were intelligently guided. “Extraterrestrials of Unknown Origin” was the established code name for them: “E.U.O”s, usually rendered as, “Echo Uniform Oscar” or “Echoes” for short. And privately; indeed secretly, preparations were soon underway to deal with what the world leaders perceived as a true menace to life on earth.

Missiles were launched under the cover story of a new series of communication satellites being parked in a geosynchronous orbit. The missiles knocked the Echoes out of the sky in minutes. And a public statement was quickly released that told only half the truth: that a number of ‘bogies’ had been destroyed by the earth’s “Asteroid Missile Elimination Network” or “AMEN” for short.

But when more missiles took the place of the ones destroyed by AMEN, it became impossible to keep what was really happening a secret. Now the media openly admitted that the earth was under attack.

No one knows how many of the first wave attackers burned up before they got better at navigating in the earth’s atmosphere. Soon, a few got through. The first anyone paid attention to was destroyed on impact. It came down in a blaze of golden fire and when the American army task force went to look at it, they found only a burning heap of twisted metal.

Another fell the following night –- intact this time. But by morning the army had shelled the crater and completely obliterated it.

“A very crude construction,” said Professor Heinz Zeit when the CBS News asked him to comment. That was the consensus in the scientific community, apparently. The ships were huge, but simple hollow cylinders — hardly more than that. The short, stubby wings slowed them down. So, at first, they lost hundreds. But hundreds more got through.

Soon there were more getting through than even the united armed forces of earth could deal with. When there were no more earth defence missiles left, the surviving cylinders opened up and the aliens came out fighting… Carrying only spears, bows and arrows.

“Tell me, Professor,” said the news anchorman, “how could primitive aliens like these develop rocket propulsion?”

The professor polished his spectacles (he only wore them for show, of course, Heinz Zeit’s eyesight was twenty-twenty.) “The answer is simple — they did not. We have examined the rockets, and it is clear that they are an obsolete type, very similar to the ones that were once used by the Russians during the Cold War. Many of these were fired off into space in those days, you know. These aliens — it seems — found some and made copies of them. They may be primitive, but they are good at making crude yet serviceable copies of technology. They do not have to understand it, and they do not need all the electronic monitoring equipment and safety devices NASA uses for life support, and getting the crew home again. It is clear that for these aliens, life is not at all valuable. They are probably considerably overpopulated. And so they are hurling their surplus population at us. Inevitably, they will either use up all their surplus population in a war, or find some living-space on another planet –- ours for instance. From their point of view, they have nothing to lose either way. In killing the invaders, we are rendering their leaders a service.”

And so it was, that the aliens perished in their thousands as the planes of the combined earth air force strafed them into the ground. Yet, still they kept coming.

The head of the task force, General Man was incredulous: “They’re deliberately coming down in and around heavily populated areas! We can’t nuke them. We have to evacuate the area before we can shell them. There are so many that we can’t manufacture ammunition fast enough to maintain a steady barrage!”

Flame thrower tanks were brought forward, and only then did the tide of battle turn — until hundreds of spear waving aliens began to fall on the tanks, bogging them down in a swamp of burning flesh.

“They haven’t even got parachutes!” the General cried, thunderstruck, as wave after wave of aliens jumped out of their missiles in mid flight to splatter their remains over the front line, while the cylinders themselves crashed into airbases, pock marking the airstrips with craters.

“There is a risk,” said General Man, mopping his ample forehead as he faced the notoriously pugnacious US President. “There is a chance that if they keep up this kind of attack, that is, if they keep dropping on us in these numbers, we might not be able to stop them overrunning the earth.”

“Liberal defeatist commie crap!” shouted the President with his customary eloquence. “Kick ass, General! Nuke them if need be. But if I don’t have their asses by tomorrow, I’ll have yours for a trashcan!”

And so it was that, inevitably, with the President’s disturbingly eager ascent, nuclear weapons were deployed on domestic civilian targets. First New York, then Washington DC were fire balled out of existence. Other major cities followed them into oblivion –- and still the aliens continued to drop out of the sky.

“Do you want your cyanide pill now, Mr President?” said his Aid. “Or do you want to make a speech first?”

“Is there anyone left to make a speech to?” asked the President.

The Aid buried his face in his papers. “Nobody sane,” he mumbled. “Most people are too busy looting and fighting and killing each other to care anyway.”

And so it was, with increasing desperation that the armed forces released powerful biological and chemical weapons. Millions of aliens died, and still more kept coming. The remaining human beings were few in number and mostly sterile or dying. The army retreated behind a wall of firepower all the way back to the hills.

“Mr President,” said General Man to the late president’s white-faced successor, “Our intelligence informs us that the number of aliens hitting the ground has halved in the last few days. The tide is turning! Hallelujah!”

“You mean we can win this thing?” gasped the President.

General Man spat tobacco into the fire and slapped his thigh for emphasis. “Hell! We are winning, Mr President.”

The new President relaxed his grip on his cyanide pill. “Are you sure?”

“Yessiree, Mr President. I have every confidence in our boys. We now have the requisite firepower — and the enemy has none!”

“As you say, General –- Hallelujah!”

But their triumph was short lived, for with the dawn came a new wave of attacks, considerably smaller in numbers, it is true. But with an important difference. These aliens were firing weapons and driving tanks. They had fighter planes and bombers.

“What?” quavered the President. “General Man, you said those aliens were primitive savages! What does this mean?”

“I’ll tell you what it means, Mr President. It means that Capitalism has prevailed even if we haven’t. Someone’s been running guns to the enemy. The arms dealers have sold us down the river!”

The president opened his mouth to speak. But his reply disappeared into a mushroom cloud of burning ash as his blood boiled in his veins.

And so it was that the earth became the first colony of the race that has now conquered the galaxy — by using borrowed technology.

As they conquered planet after planet, the invaders tempered their warrior ways. Gradually, they developed a technology of their own.

And as the need for expansion and war faded, they became more curious about the people they conquered.

And out of this curiosity came ethical sentiments and even compassion.

Now they are the great civilising force of the universe, although, great saviours as they undoubtedly have become, they learned their lessons far too late to save the earth.

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Astrology Is Nonsense

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ix_DEto6nH4#t=2786.554603061

Randi, Stephen Fry, and the professional astronomer are right, I did an academic study of astrology at University in the late seventies, early eighties and it is absolute tosh and an insult to the intelligence. I don’t know why the video is so chopped up, though. The best part where the astrologer gives a totally ludicrous analysis of Hugh Laurie that had everyone laughing their little cotton socks off has mysteriously vanished. Perhaps the spirits whisked it away, but it looks more like a clumsy effort on the part off the uploader to edit the piece to make it appear more favourable to astrology. This backfires when another astrologer attempts to line up married women with whom they are really most compatible, and when it all goes pear shaped, the women ‘shown’ to be compatible with men other than their husbands, she stupidly says: “Well that just goes to show that people can get along with anyone if they make the effort!” So what use is astrology if people can get along with anyone regardless of their horoscopes? It’s also a terrible recording. And if you’re going to believe Nina Myskow I despair of you! She was so obviously trying to make her reading fit. “An important relationship?”
“Yes, I found a new therapist that year who I stayed with for seven years.” Crap, all of it.

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The Myopia Paradox

1

Cobras do not strike in sunlight, rattlers never rattle when they’re wet. That’s all you have to know about council officers. Fionnghan MacIain, the assistant curator fell into the second category. I should have slipped him a quart of Glen Fiddich, beforehand. “The trouble is,” he waffled, “we’ve not got the time, let alone the space. And, if I were to leave your work in our storeroom, gathering dust, until someone could look at it, there’s a risk it might get damaged. In which case, according to the manifest, we couldn’t afford the higher insurance premium.”

All gobbledygook. If the Mossback Gallery wanted to do something, they did it.

I suppose I’d better tell you who I am. Pat Bart is my name, though lately I’ve taken to calling myself Giselle Bartleby. I’ll keep you guessing why, for now. You could call this my autobiography. Legend has it I died when I finished it; turning up my toes as I finished the last page. There. Where  it says copyright MMXV. And don’t you forget it. Pinch any of my scintillating prose and I’ll haunt you till your hair falls out onto the ground like horse shit — plop.  Yellowbrown and steaming, falling on the floor in great, hot lumps. All right, that last bit about steaming lumps was exaggeration, poet’s license. Well I renewed my poet’s license this morning, for five of your Earth pounds. So fingers off, or I’ll bite them off, and spit them in your face like dumdum bullets.

I’d better paint a bit of a picture so you don’t go thinking I’m tall and svelte and comely. You’d like as not think me the opposite of those three. That’s why I don’t ‘do’ glamour, as a rule. But I did intend the peach-blossom silk choker to bring out the cerulean of my eyes. And that is my one concession to femininity. My gunmetal dungarees were bought for the occasion. My mahogany hair close-cropped to a sensual, finger-tickling velvet an hour before.

That’s enough about me for now. Back to Fionnghan MacIain. “So,” he continued, a purring wasp in his nest of paper, “if you could have them picked up again, ASAP, we’d appreciate it.”

Thinking of something else I’d like to pick up — and throw off the roof — I nonetheless managed the ghost of a smile. And even nodded in quasi agreement. They could all stay till I got George to pick them up in his four by four. He’s a little treasure, is George. He took my pics there in the first place. He was a bit openmouthed when he saw how many, but helped me heave them into his four by four. To be honest, he did most of the heaving — my back was playing me up. The porters hadn’t complained about carrying them to the lift. They lugged pictures about all day. And to the unlearned, one art treasure looks no different from another. It was this so-called ‘expert’ that was the buggeration factor.

“I’m not saying, don’t bring any more,” MacIain insisted, “just better if you bring them one at a time.”

Then he got snidey.

Cheek of it. They refused to show my work. Well, that’s their loss. But that snide remark was the limit. I mean, fancy saying they won’t show it because I don’t have a degree in fine arts. That’s just snobbery, of the intellectual kind. Can’t they recognise an authentic, self-taught genius when they’re looking at her? What’s that you say? Modesty? No place for modesty in this world. You’ve got to blow your own ophicleide, (a trumpet’s too small these days). And you’ve got to put your shoulder to it. Especially if you’re a woman. And double-top on life’s dartboard.

“I mean,” he said, taking hold of ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and turning it this way and that, “what’s it supposed to be?”

“That’s a horse,” I said. And it was: a real horse; with fetlocks and withers and mane. How could he not appreciate the beautiful, sweeping curve of the horse’s neck with the man’s arm following it round. Had he no soul?

I could see he was working himself up to say something uncomplimentary. It was time to go. He was not in the mood for anything that wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite, or neo-classical. No spirit of adventure, that’s him.

“And that sky,” he said. “What colour do you call that? Snotgreen?”

Time to leave the gallery, time to go home. I picked up ‘The Horse Whisperer’ (pearls among swine, it was) tucked it under my arm and made a dramatic sweep of an exit.

2

To cheer myself up, I descended on the students’ art show in the Hays Building next door. Most of our University was glass, steel and concrete. But the Hays was Gothic and inherited from the Freemasons who had moved to the suburbs ten years ago. I was homeless at the time they moved out, and I joined a squat in there for a short while. There was no lecky, and we used to tell ghost stories in the dark featuring the masons and their human sacrifices. Nowadays, the interior was much brighter for its trendy makeover. The weird Egyptian symbols were still there, though; chiseled into the stonework. They still cast spooky shadows on the floor when the sun shone through them.

I entered through the grandiose arch. But instead of going into the main gallery I turned right into the area reserved for the 2.2s — unofficially.  Was it bound to be nasty? It was, indeed it was. A young man of impetigous appearance quite blended in with a metal table, splattered with dried paint. Close to, I saw it was also covered with rough-cast, unglazed porcelain Buddhas. The scabious young man lowered his Morning Star, stood up, and touched a button. The table began to vibrate. The pot Buddhas jigged around. One of them fell off the edge of the table and smashed to pieces on the floor. The young man smiled. Another two pot Buddhas fell off the edge and smashed. He switched off the motor and bowed from the waist like a Japanese. Was I supposed to comment? The young man went back to his ‘Morning Star’ and I walked off as my headache intensified. If that’s anything to go by, they can keep their degrees. Wankers, the lot of them. I will admit, a few of them have technique. But none of them have originality. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you’ve no originality you might as well try whistling down the wind. That’s the thing you can always say about a Giselle Bartleby painting. ‘Originality guaranteed’. Of course, sometimes it’s the dyslexia coming out that brings the originality. Like the times I get the hands and feet mixed up. But I always paint over those. If I spot them. Anyway, I’ve evolved a special technique to avoid that happening again. “Note the distinctive Bartleby sweep,” future critics will say. “The continuous line enclosing the figure.” A pity I didn’t think of that before. As long as I keep my charcoal on the canvas, I can ensure everything’s where it belongs. And the outcome’s picture-perfect. And effortless. Every time. More or less. Being blind in one eye doesn’t help, when you’re an artist. But being a bit deaf does, sometimes.

They know me too well, that’s their problem.

I used to be a life model in the Mossback Gallery. That bunch of tossers can never admit one of their own meat-loafers has talent. Apart, that is, from the usual, physical one of enduring the same position for a thirty-minute stretch.

It was for my debut as an artist I decided to try using a different name. ‘Giselle’ is from the ballet. Pat Bart just didn’t sound like anything. But when you are eighteen stone, it’s hard to be invisible. They still say, “Hello, Pat,” as soon as I walk through the canvas jungle, my paint box underneath my arm. I’ve tried to suppress ‘Pat’ ever since I heard someone referring to me as, ‘that Cow Pat’. Only jealousy, of course, but still not polite to call someone that.

Let’s see them make something of ‘Giselle’. Or Bartleby, if it comes to that.

Another reason I use ‘Giselle Bartleby’ is to stop the DSS finding out about my professional pittance — if ever it arrives. You see, most times we barter. Suzie at the health emporium balances my chakras in exchange for drawing lessons. Then there’s George, helps me do a moonlight flit with his van, every so often. I did his portrait the last time. He came off best because the painting cost £30 in materials alone. If I’d bought them new, that is. In real terms, it’s worth about £300. Maybe more. A real investment. I might buy it back, one day. He said I could take it, if I wanted. It worried him that it might get damaged in his own, forthcoming move. And  anyway, he’d run out of wall space. But just taking it, without a payment, wouldn’t be fair on him. I’ll give him a fair price, when the time comes.

That awful snob MacIain doesn’t know what he’s looking at. “If you had an art degree,” the smug bastard said, “I would at least know that someone had put some value on your previous work.” So forty-five years of life experience doesn’t count? They’re all in it together, is what he really meant.

#

3

On my way out, I was pleased to see Rex Gallivant, on his way in. Rex was a history of art lecturer who used to have his own little gallery in the backroom of a remaindered-book shop. He was going to exhibit some of my paintings. Until the bookshop closed down, that is. “Hello, Rex,” I said. “I was hoping to bump into you.”

He frowned at me.

“Giselle,” I said.

“What about it?” he answered. He’s forgetful, as well as long-sighted.

“I’m Giselle,” I said. “Giselle Bartleby.”

Still no response.

“Pat Bart.”

“Oh yes,” he said, with a smile, of sorts. “How’s the modelling going?”

“It’s not,” I said. “I haven’t modelled in months. I’ve become a professional painter.”

“Ah, right,” he said. “How’s that going? Have you got a full order book? Of course, you’ll need your own van and ladders…”

“Not a house painter,” I said, holding up ‘The Horse Whisperer’. “I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve launched myself on a new career as an artist.”

“Have you really?” he said, squinting at me through an invisible lorgnette.

“Yes. I’ve already sold one painting.”

“Have you really?” he said, again. I could tell he had something else on his mind.

“Tell you what,” I said, linking my left arm with his right and butterflying my lashes like a bad un. “I saw a vacant shop on Cathedral Mount — the old secondhand food shop. You know? ‘S & M Foods’. And naturally, I thought of you.”

“Naturally,” he said, distracted by a pigeon or something, over my right shoulder. Men should not try to multitask.

“I checked, and it’s dirt cheap rent. Because of the hill, I expect.”

That pigeon must have been doing something pretty acrobatic, because he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He reached into his pocket, excavated a silver snuff box from his hip pocket and transferred a pinch to his hairy nostrils. This action meant he had to unlink his arm from mine and it would have been too cheeky to grab onto his again.

“You know,” I said, bringing my voice down to Thatcherine depths, “you could afford to rent it, and start a new art gallery. ‘The Gallivant Gallery’. It has a terrific ring to it.”

“Yes,” he said. That was a good sign. “I suppose I could.”

So I pressed on. “And if you did, I could have a studio in the backroom.”

“Yes, I suppose you could,” he said.

“And, I could teach people to paint, to contribute to the rent.”

“Yes, I suppose you could,” he said. If Rex had his own TV show it would be called, ‘I suppose You Could’.

“And sell my paintings, of course,” I said, more to fill the silence than anything.

“Of course,” he said.

“And we’d both be quids in,” I said, with what I hoped was an encouraging wink.

“Yes, I suppose we could be,” he said. He looked at his watch, a gold Rolex. I could tell it was genuine because the second hand didn’t jerk as it swept round the dial.  “If you don’t mind,” he added, “I’m a little pushed for time. In fact, I must dash. I’ve got a train to catch.”

“So, do we go ahead?” I asked.

“We could do,” he said, backing away.

“And store all my paintings at your place until…?”

But he had already swept off into the crowd.

He didn’t jerk around either.

#

4

It being Saturday, I decided on a walk home by the river. It’s a wondrous varied route. It winds its way through sparkling woods and grey old factories, ending up by an industrial museum that combines the two. A decrepit, brick and stone-built edifice wherein an ancient water turbine is preserved. Here the fluvial force powers an old drop hammer and various other Victorian appliances of science. The trouble was the trickling water was soon calling to my bladder. So I made haste for the horrible little public lavatory tucked away behind what was laughably called the café.  And on my exit, I bumped into George Meek, ambulance driver of this parish. “Hello George,” I said. “You off somewhere?”

“Erm, not really. It’s my day off. Just had coffee here and now I’m going home.” Peculiar, that. I’d swear he had the distinct look of someone just arriving.

“Ah, good,” I said. “I’ll come with you. Got a job for you, George.”

“A job? What do you…?”

“Driving job. Taking my paintings up to Rex Gallivant’s place. I’ll explain on the way.” I decided to advance the right arm this time. It stayed put.  Less intimidating, perhaps? Must stick to the right in future, when linking arms with men — and talking business.

“Any payment for this…?”

“Oh, same basis as before. Payment in kind.”

“You see, I don’t really want another painting,” he said. “I mean, it was good, sort of. But I just don’t want another portrait cluttering up the place.”

“I’ll do you a landscape this time. I’m good at landscapes. It will be like having another window. Open the room up.”

“Ah, I see,” he growled. He unlinked his arm and thrust his hands deep into his pockets so that his arms made twin exclamation points. “I don’t know when I could.” He went on, quieter now. “Honestly, Pat, your ‘jobs’ tend to turn into ‘mini adventures’. Like that time we ended up pretending to be Arab diplomats at that trade delegation…”

“This one won’t,” I said, cutting him short. “I’ve already talked to Rex about it. It’s quite straightforward.”

“Yes, well,” he went on, “I don’t know when I could…”

“We’d best do it now,” I said. “Before Rex has a chance to change his mind. Just joking. He’s really enthusiastic for us to go into business together. I want to show him how keen I am, by taking my paintings over there straight away.”

“Your paintings?”

“Yes.”

“Not anybody else’s, then?”

“Who else’s could I take?”

“Are your paintings actually worth something?” he said. “I ask purely for information. I mean, no offence. Most people’s aren’t.”

“Mine are.” I played my trump. “The Mossback Gallery think they are. I left some with them, to be appraised. They said the prices I put on them were too low. They told me to increase them tenfold.”

“What? Frank Raphael said that?”

“Not Frank Raphael,” I said. “One of his minions. I had to fill in a form. There were boxes for the titles and value. I thought I’d price them low. You know, enough to cover the cost of materials, plus twenty percent. But he said, ‘You need to increase your prices. Put a nought on the end.’”

George reflected. “Ah, for insurance purposes,” he said. That pigeon had come back and was bothering him, now.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s what made me realise that I was undervaluing my talent. And, that I could make a living from painting.”

“So is the Mossback exhibiting your paintings?”

“Probably; I’m waiting to hear,” I said. “But I’m really talking about the ones I’ve got at home. Come on. Help me carry them downstairs and up to Rex’s and I’ll cook you supper.”

His brow furrowed as he said, “But he may not be in. Have you thought of that?  All that way for nothing.”

That was a point. Rex had said he needed to catch a train. Always going somewhere, Rex. Every time I met him. Envied him, in a way. Big family and always in demand. Suppose you’d call that charisma. But if you’re not born with it, you have to work at it. That’s harder for a woman, in the current climate. “It’ll be all right, George,” I said. “He’s got a big garage, and he never leaves it locked. We can leave the paintings in there. I’ll sleep on the garage floor till he comes back and lets me use his sofa. Don’t worry about me. I’ve done it before.”

And I’ll do it again.

“Look, I haven’t enough room in my car…”

“That’s all right. We can always make two journeys.”

We made three.

 

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The Man Who Ate The Ocean

Every day, with the noon-tide, Andre continues in his plan to eat the ocean. Grasping, clutching, sucking, licking his way he moves from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. No sea is safe from Andre’s probing tongue, nimble fingers, tearing teeth.

Day by day: anchovy; bass; cod; eel; hake; lobster; mackerel; octopus; prawn; scampi; tuna; whitebait; all slide into Andre’s gullet’s boiling depths.

Today he is emptying oyster beds — a peculiar departure from his itinerary.

Moving slowly and methodically, he slices each shell in turn and licks at the insides. The relentless suction of Andre’s moluscine gut rumbles over serried, rapidly emptying shells, his questing tongue — a pseudopod — slopping along rows of mother of pearl.

The orphaned spats along the banks grow fewer every year. Now only thirteen remain, under a bridge by the waters edge. An early sunrise blinks them open, and they rise up, becoming boys.

One of them is Jesus. He is not their leader, but there is something about him, something greater than an empty stomach.

“The ocean is nearly gone,” says Jesus. “Andre is eating it all.”

Tomas sneers. “Says who?”

“Listen, it’s true. My Papa told me as he died: ‘Andre is eating the ocean, that is why he is here.’”

Pedro jeers: “Your Papa died loco. How can anyone eat an ocean?”

“How do you eat up anything? One bit at a time. I tell you, every day he eats a little piece. She is getting less and less.”

“It is true,” puts in Juan. “Why else do our fathers’ boats rot in the harbour?”

“My Father’s nets were not worth inheriting,” says Jesus. “Before Andre came this way there was fish for anyone.”

Somewhere, a street organ jangles a fandango. Our boys turn towards its sound. With nothing better to do they walk, hands in pockets, in search of it.

They turn into Calle San Jose and there stands a street minstrel, ancient beyond his years in a faded, embroidered bolero, crumpled shirt and frayed pantaloons. He is turning the handle of a decrepit wooden organillo much bigger and much stronger than himself. The contraption jangles and rattles out the same fifty bars of the one Spanish tune every foreign tourist knows, over and over again.

“No monkey,” says Pedro.

A murmur of disappointment hovers in the dusty air. Disappointment is all that ever relieves boredom. But a monkey would make a nice change.

Pablo, the youngest, howls. “I want to see a monkey!”

“Whoever heard of an organ grinder without a monkey?” says Juan, indignant.

Instead of a monkey, a Catalan woman, gaudily dressed, but fading, dances an amazing fandango, not fast but graceful. Arabesque calligraphy made flesh in the movement of her arms and legs, and the click of her castanets. As her feet slam down, thick clouds of dust surround legs already black with dirt from neglected streets. Her face is streaked with grime and sweat and her ragged dress is stained and patched so much that little remains of its beauty. But there is a hint of grace.

“Look at her feet,” whispers Pedro.

The others stare. There is blood on her feet but her fingers bleed too, from her castanets.

This is her Sacre du Printemps.

The sages have assembled.

Through her glazed eyes she counts thirteen of them, gathering to witness her dance herself to death.

Her movements increased in frenzy. Faster. Faster.

“She is dancing to save our ocean,” says Jesus.

A passer by drops a few coins into a tin mug on top of the organillo.

“I have an idea,” says Juan. “I will hide behind the organ. Pedro, you throw a stone at the mug, and I will catch it when it falls.”

“He will see us,” says Marcos.

“The rest of you must distract him,” says Juan. “Play football. Pedro — you be the striker.”

So it is agreed. They have no ball, only a stone. They kick the stone between them, falling over each other in the excitement of the game, their footfalls a noisy counterpoint to the rhythmic stamp of the dancer.

Round and round she whirls — and the rabble of boys breaks ranks and runs towards her, jostling and shouting. The old man looks up sharply.

An elbow hits Jesus in the ribs and he falls, gasping for breath. He looks up and he sees the Catalan woman balancing on one leg in frozen fright, and a twenty legged monster bearing down on her.

“Stop!” shouts Jesus.

But, miraculously, the tide of unwashed faces parts and surges past on either side. The old man is shouting and shaking his fist.

Jesus runs off to join the others where they gather in Calle Generalissimo Franco, dividing up the spoils.

Juan picks out a few coins. The pesetas, he keeps. “What are these?” He cannot read, and he has never seen nor heard of Euros before. “Foreign coins!” he says with disgust, and tosses  them away. Tourist money. He spits. “Five pesetas each,” says Juan. He is their accountant because his father was a shopkeeper before he died.

“I think that we should give it back.”

The others stare at Jesus, with empty eyes and empty bellies.

Juan is appalled. “What? You must be loco!”

“The Catalan Woman; she is dancing to save our ocean. It is a sin to steal from her.”

Juan throws a single coin down at Jesus’ feet in disgust. “Here. Give it back yourself.”

Now the boys disperse, shouting, “Loco! Loco!” They leave Jesus, staring at the coin before his feet.

The old man comes shuffling round the corner. Jesus is petrified, rooted to the spot.

The old man is coming straight at him, his face a mixture of anger and despair.

There is the tin mug lying on the floor. Jesus snatches it up, drops the coin into it and runs up to the old man and holds it out to him.

There is a long moment while the old man stares first at Jesus and then at the mug. Jesus holds up the mug, clutching it with white knuckles until it is level with the old man’s face. With a snarl of confusion rather than anger, the old man snatches the mug. He takes out the coin, and throws it at Jesus, who turns and runs.

Jesus walks down Calle Generalissimo Franco, clutching the worthless coin, stomach empty as a fishing net. Some men stand on ladders, they are removing the street sign and replacing it with one that says: Calle San Francisco. Jesus stops to stare and scratch his head. He cannot even read, let alone appreciate the irony.

He walks up to a hamburger stand and offers the coin that the old man threw back in his face. The man at the hamburger stand scratches his head. “That is no good,” he says. “Euros only. Pesetas are no good anymore.” Jesus walks away, not understanding what has happened.

It is noon and the street is alive with tourists. Even their clothes laugh in daring colours that flash and chase Jesus like a firework display. Sunglasses sparkle and media players hum like bees. Jesus stares up at them, wanting to tell them that Andre is eating his ocean. But not knowing any words they would understand, he can only open and close his mouth — a beached turbot.

Sometimes there are the remains of hamburgers in the streets, but today some dogs got there first. Jesus sees some stragglers, ribs sticking out, on their way to rejoin their pack. He thinks immediately of his friends: Marcos; Juan; Pedro; Pablo; Tomas; Jose; Miguel; Anton; Gomez; Vincente; Carlos; and Francisco. They would be eating somewhere. Jesus does not know how much they have between them. He knows that they have five pesetas each. Five pesetas would not buy much, but multiplied by twelve, Jesus thinks, it would be at least a hundred pesetas — maybe even two hundred — a small fortune. Enough, maybe, to buy a big slice of pizza, or a chicken, or a hamburger and French-fries. They would not be hungry when they went to sleep under the bridge tonight.

Jesus looks about him, drinking in brown limbs and shining teeth. The Catalan woman’s teeth were black and brown, and her skin white and parchment dry though streaked with dirt. Her smile was not like these others either. When they smiled it was the pop of a wine cork that Jesus had heard so often passing by their cafe tables. The Catalan woman’s smile was a great wave surging up and breaking over jagged rocks in a frenzy of despair.

Today, Andre is eating the Pacific, moving northward up the Alaskan coast, devouring crabs with a sideways movement of his head between his grasping, pincer claws. He pauses, his antennae alert for danger. Someone is watching him. He looks up, his eyes focus and for the first time he sees Jesus.

Rain is streaking the window distorting a small boy’s face pressed against the glass, mouth opening and closing straining to eat food right off Andre’s plate.

Andre calls a waiter and points at the glass. “That one!”

Hands grasp Jesus’ wrists and draw him up, stretching him out, crucified.

Deep within him, something breaks and he goes limp. Sometimes, waiters smile kindly and give him scraps from the kitchen, but not this time. Andre is too important a customer.

So Jesus goes to sleep beneath his favourite bridge, hungry, beaten and alone.

Loneliness adds to Jesus’ hunger. Next day he tries to steal from cafe tables but is too slow and too weak with hunger and is driven away. Now there is little he can do but sleep and drink sea water. Even so, it takes him a full week to die.

Between the gulls and the crabs, there is nothing much of him left, and the tide takes that.

Andre leaves the coast. Ahead of him stretches sheep and cattle country. Flocks of whippoorwills erupt from sun scorched trees. Deer raise fear-filled eyes, seeing on the horizon an emerging blight. and a ravenous lion’s roar is edged with hunger and despair. Game too: duck; pheasant; grouse; even the humble chicken cannot escape him. Wide open spaces surrender and fall beneath his tearing, grasping claws and gluttonous maw.

The ocean finished, Andre begin to eat the land.

Copyright 2017: Zoë Nightingale; 2007 Zoë Elizabeth Butler

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Don’t Go There.

It was a dare. And a very scary one. St Tibulus’s church with its crumbling stone walls was fenced off and signposted:

“DANGEROUS”.

Most people haven’t heard of St Tibulus — except for an episode of Father Ted — and he’s widely believed to be fiction. But the old church had existed since medieval times, becoming a ruin a century ago. ‘Tibulus’ is a strange name. It translates from Latin as ‘bits’ which doesn’t help. But at least no one can claim the name had a pagan origin, can they? These recondite matters were not in my nine year old head as I stumbled and weaved through the neck-high grass around the ruin. I wasn’t even worried about tripping over a hidden rock. I was more concerned about the stories I’d heard of children going missing; ‘dragged down into the earth” — so the story goes. Of course, I didn’t really believe that, did I? Not believing didn’t remove the fear. But I so wanted to join Pete’s gang. There was honour at stake. The first girl member of ‘The Skeletons’! All I had to do was go into that ruin and bring back the proof that I’d been there. The grass grew even taller near the church. I couldn’t see over it. Mummy’s voice rang in my ears: “Don’t go there — ever!” The grass sprang back in my eyes, bringing tears, and I panted for breath, nervously fingering my inhaler in my pocket. And “Don’t go there! Don’t go there!” rang in my head, over and over. But then at last, I was through the long grass looking at the ruin; horrible in the gloom of the setting sun. I took out my inhaler for a quick hit just in case.

“What are you doing, young lady?”

An old man was sitting on a broken bit of wall, wearing a kind of black smock over his clothes: probably from the council; a caretaker or something.

“Er, I’m lost,” I lied. Best I could come up with.

“You certainly are if you’re here,” he said. “What’s your name?” ”

“Candy.”

“Sweet. Well, my name is Brother Robin. I’m a monk of the order of Viribonus; one of the titles of St Tibulus. I’ll show you around, if you like.”

I was amazed to find this kindly man with a jolly manner and a big smile in such a fearful place. I liked him.

He led me inside the ruin. I was amazed to find it was nowhere near as derelict inside. Indeed, it was a well appointed little parlour. “If I’d known you were coming,” said Robin, “I would have made tea for you. You should have rung up the office.”

“Office?” I said, uncomfortable. “What office?”

“Well, it hardly matters now. I have some honey cake that I can give you later. This is my little living space. The really magical place is the crypt. I’ll show you.” He smiled, and I saw that like most old people his gums had shrunken so that his eyeteeth seemed quite long and pointed. “It’s where I keep the honey cake.”

“Don’t go there, Candice! Don’t go there, don’t go there, don’t speak to strange men,” Mummy’s voice went round and round in my head. But I needed a souvenir; if I was going to join The Skeletons. On the chimneypiece, I saw a silver framed photograph of Brother Robin. It was even engraved: “Brother Robin Goodman of the Order of St Tibulus Viribonus”.

“Come along, my dear! The cake’s downstairs, in the crypt!”

I snatched the picture and legged it to the door, the monk’s angry howl echoing in my ears.

I was crying as I fought my way through the long grass. I tried to keep to the path I had trampled before. It was still a struggle. Any second I would feel his hand on my shoulder, his breath in my ear.

But for some unknown reason, he did not follow me.

§

Mummy sighed, then said: “I shall not punish you. I think you have been punished enough. Just show me the picture. I only hope this club is worth the misery they put you through.”

She told me there was no such Order of St Tibulus Viribonus and no record of a ‘Brother Robin Goodman’. But children have gone missing in our area. And ‘Viribonus’ means ‘good fellow’. Mummy knew a thing or two about folklore and told me that ‘Robin Goodfellow’ was an old name for that evil sprite — ‘Puck’. She also told me that St Tibulus was indeed not a real saint, but one adopted from a pagan figure — ‘Cobalus’, Latin for ‘Goblin’.

And when I held up the picture frame, my blood ran cold. It was old, battered and with no sign of a picture ever having been there.

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The Lost World of Fahrenheit 451

I clutched the telephone receiver in my hot, red, white knuckled hand. My iPhone was no longer working. The computer had stopped working too. Only the old fashioned telephone was still crackling out a voice into my ear. And now even that had gone silent.

“Jerry, are you there?”

I pressed the receiver harder to my ear. It was beginning to hurt. It was ages since I last used one of those old telephones. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable they were. “Jerry! Jerry!”

There was a loud crackle and then — blessed relief! Jerry’s voice came back. “I was reading that book, the one you bought me,” he said. “Here, I’ll read some to you.”

“You don’t have to,” I said. If only he’d not insisted on driving home to find that damn book he’d be with me now, instead of stranded with a car that would no longer run.

“Something to do,” he answered. “Something to hold on to while I talk to you.”

“But we’ve so little time, Jerry.”

“I know, and there’s so little point to anything.”

“How long have we got left?”

“Hours? Minutes? I don’t know. The temperature rise is running away. New York is dead, now. Come on, I’ll read you some of this. It’s beautiful poetry:

“We are the hollow men,

We are the stuffed men…”

“Not that one, Jerry. I don’t like how it ends.”

“But it’s more relevant now than it ever was…”

“Anything you say to me is poetry, now, Jerry.”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Marion. But it’s so hard to think straight in this heat.”

“Just say the one thing you never said to me. You know what that is, Jerry? I’ve longed for you to say it. I know you wanted to. Can you guess what it is I want to hear?”

“Just tell me, Marion.”

“Stop teasing, Jerry. You know what I mean. Damn you’re shy! And at a time like this. This time of all times. Just say it, Jerry. It doesn’t even matter any more — whether you mean it or not. Just do this one thing for me, Jerry. Say those words.”

“Yes, I’ll say it, but I need to clear my throat first. So dry.”

The line went quiet. For a moment I thought he’d gone. But then he spoke again. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. “Just getting a drink of water. So thirsty.”

“Oh Jerry!” I said. “For God’s sake, hurry, my darling.”

The first light of dawn crept between the blades of the shutters. If it got any warmer I would pass out.

“Hurry, Jerry. Can you hear me? I love you Jerry. Please hurry back and say you love me too.”

“I’ll be back in a minute,” he had said. But the minute had long gone and there was no sound of him.

“Jerry,” I said. “Jerry!”

The line was noisy again, crackling.

No it was not the line crackling.

It was the book, he was reading to me. It was the pages catching fire and crackling as they burned in his hand.

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