Astro Pulp

Throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, writers outside of the mainstream saw their work published on the cheapest possible paper, i.e. pulp. Today, we carry on that tradition through the cheapest of all publishing mediums: the Internet. Updated Mondays.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Arkansas Gothic: Part Three

    Points of light broke through the outer darkness. The clouds of unconsciousness dissipated to reveal a brilliant panoply of stars in an endless sky. As thoughts took form and reality reasserted itself, Esmeralda's eyes focused on the twinkling crystals of the living room chandelier. The simple rhythm of the busy signal brought her attention to the phone lying next to her, knocked off the receiver by whom? The questions mounted and became a foundation for her to build upon. She had fainted? Did someone hit her?

    She gently felt around her head, afraid of what she might discover. Nothing hurt and that was a good sign. Finding no lumps or bleeding, she got up and put the phone back on the end table from which it fell, smoothing out the wrinkles in the pink tablecloth in the process. While she readjusted the hem, she wondered whom she was talking to when she must have passed out. Esmeralda couldn't think of who would call at such a late hour. Maybe she called someone? The police?

    The shot rang through her memory. Trembling, she sat down on the floor and hugged her knees. How long had she been out? She closed her eyes and listened for sirens. That Betsy girl may not have taken her seriously most of the time, but she couldn't have missed the gunshot. No, she would have sent someone, but with that terrible storm outside? Esmeralda found herself wishing John was still around. No, he was gone and she needed to be strong.

    She stood up and grabbed the poker from the fireplace. She felt a little silly carrying it towards the mudroom to get the flashlight. "I'm sure the bad guys are going to be real scared of an old woman. Hear that, bad guys? I'll give you a good poking for scaring me," she said to her fear.

    A cascade of thunder rumbled in answer. Esmeralda moved more quietly now, shuffling down the hallway in fuzzy slippers that only added to her sense of helplessness. She swapped them for her gardening boots and threw on one of John's old jackets. The worn denim felt like armor and his lingering scent, still familiar as it ever was, formed a miasma of strength protecting her, as though the old ghost held her close like he used to when the storms got ugly.

    It took a bit of digging around the top shelf in the closet, but she managed to find the emergency flashlight he'd given her for a birthday present. Always the practical type, he beamed when he showed her how it didn't need batteries, just shake it around a few times to power it up and you'll always have a light handy. He saw it on an infomercial late one night when he couldn't sleep; thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    Of course, she had never used it before. When the power got knocked out during a really bad storm, Esmeralda wouldn't dare try to wander down to the mudroom in the dark with the wind howling like it did. She'd just hide under the covers like she did as a girl until morning. "Now look at me," she thought, "ready to brave the night and God knows what else out there. Just little ol' me. Guess it's easier when you don't have much reason to stay."

    The flashlight worked as advertised. In fact, it was comforting to have a machine that worked better the more you shook it in frustration. Fully armed, she opened the door into the garage. The muffled patter of rain hitting the roof was soothing, its power softened like a bear's is by adding the name 'Teddy'. She left the light off in the garage, hoping to slip out unnoticed by the people she imagined lay siege to her house. "Aren't you a devilishly clever one? They won't see Granma comin' up behind 'em to give 'em a good thump on the head!"

    The side door creaked as she snuck out of her house. A stream of water poured out of the rain gutter to her left, making an impromptu fountain out of the drainage ditch that ran alongside the driveway. Most of the rain was blowing away from her and she managed to keep mostly dry by hugging the outer wall. She kept the flashlight off for now, relying on the light shining out of the rear window. The wind shifted and drenched Esmeralda as she approached the backyard. Wiping away the water with her sleeve, she looked up to see the branches of the giant sycamore out back sway violently. "Well, I'll be. That young tart was right. Guess my mind is playing tricks on me. That sure didn't sound like thun-"

    A great sheet of purple lightning ripped across the sky, illuminating dark shapes in the clouds that weren't there a moment before. The thunderclap felt like it would snap her in two and she fell against the house in shock. She sat there for a moment in awe as if the Almighty had just called her name, but the rumbling died down and the only noise left over was the static of rainfall. Esmeralda got back to her feet, feeling her age, when a thought pushed through the confusion. "Wait a minute. Looked like something was down there."

    She turned the flashlight on and walked out towards the gulley behind the house. The beam made a cone of light reflecting off the downpour. It was hard to see through so she walked closer until her foot slipped on a fallen branch and sent her tumbling down the hillside. Thankfully, the earth had softened plenty, cushioning her as she rolled to a stop on a lump in the ground. Then again, she didn't remember there being a mound like this at the bottom.

    Her hand pushed into something warm and slick. It wasn't mud, that much was certain. The flashlight was still at the top of the hill, slowly dimming without kinetic input. Esmeralda felt around until she happened upon what must have been...

    This time she didn't bother to scream. Her mind fled to the warm embrace of oblivion. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and never wake up.


    “That is without doubt the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

    “Show a little respect, Carl. We’re witnessing the god damn miracle of life here.”

    “Eww, she’s licking the gunk right off of them!”

    “That’s how dogs clean themselves. If you’re gonna be sick again, let me get you a bucket first.”

    “What about that? That ain’t look like no pup to me.”

    “It’s the afterbirth. Jesus, Carl. You have kids. Didn’t the doctor tell you about that sorta thing?”

    “Hey, I wasn’t the one delivering ‘em. There are some things a man’s better off not knowing. Oh God, is she eating it? Ugh, better get that bucket, Harry.”

    Harry turned back towards the bar just as the ringing bell on the door announced another visitor. Watching Tulip give birth to her new litter, he’d forgotten to lock up. Not bothering to look up as he grabbed the bucket, he shouted, “sorry, friend, but we’re closed for the night.”

    Deputy Reynolds eyed Carl hunched over across the bar. The smell filled the entire bar by now and he couldn’t help but gag a little himself. Harry popped back up with the bucket. “Oh, hey Mike. Didn’t see you at first. What can I do you for?”

    “Looks like Carl’s had a little too much tonight. You need me to drive him home?”

    “Oh, he ain’t drunk. He’s just got a weak stomach for the beauty of creation. Tulip just squeezed out a coupla pups.”

    “She did now? This I gotta see.”

    Mike walked over to the bathroom. Sure enough, there were six little puppies all fighting over a spot to suckle. “Now ain’t that adorable. Really, Carl, where’s your appreciation for the beauty of creation?”

    “I like the creating part just fine. It’s the delivery that does me in. Thanks, Harry.”

    Carl made good use of the bucket. Deputy Reynolds motioned Harry over to the bar. In his quiet, professional tone, he asked, “any chance you see a tramp come in here earlier tonight?”

    “Tonight, no. Some stranger came in around noon, didn’t see him leave though. He was gone before six for sure.”

    “You talk to him at all?”

    “Just took his orders. He sat down in that booth over there,” Harry pointed out, “didn’t talk much. Smelled foul too. You catch him getting into trouble?”

    “We found him up behind Mrs. Watson’s place. Fellah ate both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun underneath that big ol’ sycamore. Esmeralda was the one who found him. Poor thing is a nervous wreck.”

    “Strange place to go off yourself. Figure out who he is?”

    “Nope. No ID, no identifying marks. We’ll run the dental records but there’s not a whole lot left to run. By the way, I don’t suppose that stranger tried to pay with a check?”

    “Nah, paid with a twenty. Wouldn’t accept a check from someone like him.”

    “Just thought I’d ask. The only thing we have to ID him besides the dentals is an old carving on the tree. Reads “P.D. + R.O.” inside a heart.”

    “Esmeralda know anything about it?”

    “I don’t think so. She was pretty shook up, but she said that carving was there when she and John bought the house, as far as she could remember.”

    “Well ain’t that tragic.”

    He shook his head in emphasis. Mike was silent for a while, listening to the quiet yelps coming from the bathroom. Harry interrupted, “looks like it’s finally starting to clear up.”

    “Guess that’s my cue to hit the road. Say, you need any help finding homes for those dogs, my kid’s been bugging me for months.”

    “Will do. You have a nice night there, Deputy.”

    “Heh, you too. Hey Carl, get some sleep.”

    “Will do, Mike. Will do.”

The End

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Arkansas Gothic: Part Two

    Betsy was beginning to nod off when the switch lit up. It felt like something in her head snapped as she bolted back alert, but it was only the office line. That'd be Carla, she figured, bringing bad news over the non-emergency line for a change. Sure enough, the first words over the line as she punched it up were, "I'm so sorry, Betsy."

    She only half-listened as Carla made up new and fascinating excuses as to why she wouldn't be able to make her shift at Dispatch tonight and would Betsy please stay on because she couldn't overcome her electro-hydro-whatever phobia and the weather was really nasty and if she would, she would totally repay her and- Betsy got bored and interrupted, "cut the crap, Carly. That trucker boy of yours just rolled into town and you want to keep him warm by the fire, right?"

    "Um, well, now that you mention it..."

    "Listen, bitch. I do this, you owe me double, y'hear?"

    "Oh my God, thank you so much! Give me a call sometime."

    The line dropped and she resumed her dozing. She didn't really feel like driving home in this weather anyway.

    In her head, she was skinny dipping with that Thompson boy when the angry red light of the emergency light started flashing. Before she even realized, she answered, "911, what is the nature of your emergency?"

    "This is Mrs. Watson of 1031 Larkspur Lane and I hear something pounding on my window."

    "Jesus, Esmeralda. You damn near gave me a heart attack," Betsy was beginning to regret taking on the extra shift.

    "How do you think I feel? Someone is trying to break into my house!"

    "Damnit, Esmeralda. Ain't no one trying to break in. It's just the wind shaking that old sycamore. Just like last time... Yes, I did get the scarf you sent me. It's very nice... No, I'm not sure if Deputy Reynolds can come by... Yes, I know the weather's terrible tonight, that's why I'm not sure if Deputy Reynolds can make it up there," Betsy wondered if Thompson liked to do it from behind.

    "Listen, Esmeralda. If you hold on one minute, I'll radio Deputy Reynolds to see if-" she stopped and listened.

    She wasn't sure if she heard it at first, but then the gunshot echoed off the hills, through the phone, and into Betsy's earpiece. She heard Esmeralda scream and drop the receiver. After a few frantic cries of "pick up the phone, Mrs. Watson," she flipped on the radio.

    "Squad 12, this is Dispatch. Shots fired at 1031 Larkspur. I repeat, shots fired."


    A blue pickup truck sped past the bushes where Deputy Michael Reynolds had concealed his patrol car. The radar clocked it at 83 mph, well over the posted limit, and started beeping until he set the sports section of the paper down long enough to flip it off. Before getting back to his reading, he paused long enough to notice the thunderhead rolling in eastward. "God damnit. Why's it always got to rain during my patrols?"

    Deputy Reynolds contemplated this cosmic injustice while driving over to Maud's Diner for a fresh cup of coffee before the storm hit. As Maud filled his thermos, Mike's eyes scanned the diner as they were trained to do, eventually finding the drifter in back munching on a large stack of pancakes. "What's his story?"

    "Strolled in about half an hour ago, sat down and ordered coffee and cakes. Smells like he's been drinking, but I ain't seen him before today."

    Mike was about to fill the cup on his thermos when Maud got him one from behind the bar. Technically, he was still on duty, but small towns are like that. Taking a cautious sip, he asked, "Drinking, eh? He sass you?"

    "Nah, barely said anything at all beyond his order. Can't say I blame him. If I looked half as beaten as him, I probably wouldn't have much to say either."

    "Well, better have a word with him just in case. Let him know what's what around here."

    The bell on the front door gave a muted ring just as Deputy Reynolds turned off the barstool. The table in back where the stranger was sitting stood empty save for a small wad of bills and a half-eaten platter. He thought about chasing the stranger down to find out what he was doing, but took one look at the rain beating against the windows and decided to sit back down instead. Maud raised an eyebrow as he went back to his coffee. "Eh, I'll let Tom know about it tomorrow."

    Mike sat back and nursed his coffee while Maud updated him on all the local gossip. He wasn't really listening to her, but then again, no one else did either. After politely reminding her that he was still on the clock when she tried to top him off, he thanked her and ran back outside to his patrol car. He set his drenched hat down in the passenger seat and revved up the engine. He wasn't too worried about the stranger; tramps came in through the depot all the time. They usually moved on after a day or two, dividing their time between Harry's and looking for work that wasn't there. Still, the department liked to keep an eye on them, just in case.

    The lights of his patrol car scanned past the tin shacks behind the depot that often served as shelter for drifters once Harry kicked them out. Deputy Reynolds didn't see anyone inside and, truth be told, probably wouldn't have seen anyone even if they'd been standing out in front waving their arms, what with the rain coming down in sheets and all. He could barely make out the road in front of him while the windshield wipers struggled to hold back the deluge from above.

    He had given up on finding the stranger when Betsy's voice crackled over the static on the radio, "God... patch... fire... larks... Pete."

    Deputy Reynolds smiled at the nonsense language of disrupted radio communication, "Didn't get that, Dispatch. Please repeat. Over."

    Mike's smile died when he finally made out the words "shots fired." The patrol car rocketed down the highway as Betsy's frantic voice cut through the EM band, allowing one more word to slip through the interference:



Monday, December 12, 2005

Arkansas Gothic: Part One

    It was a dark and stormy night. Esmeralda was busily crocheting a new scarf for her second cousin Albert. She had already made scarves for her immediate family and was working her way through the extended. Why she never learned how to make anything more complicated than a scarf is still a mystery. She says it calms her down when she's scared, and Esmeralda spooks easily.

    The weather lady on channel 9 had warned Esmeralda of the coming thunderstorm earlier that day with ominous looking Doppler radar time progressions. Esmeralda watched in horror as the wall of green, yellow, red, and yes, even black crawled across rural Arkansas and promptly drove to the Yarn Barn for the night's all too necessary supplies.

    Driving along the backcountry highway, Esmeralda was filled with a strange sense of dread she attributed to the omnipresent kudzu. What malefactions might be found within a plant she knew not, but marveled at how the chaotic green mass grew so rapidly in the warmer months. It was the rain, she told herself, while trying not to think about the impending storm.

    Mr. Carl Appleby, proud owner of the Yarn Barn and citizen of some esteem, greeted Esmeralda with a warm smile as she entered. "Esmeralda's fixing for some yarn," he said with a sly twinkle in his eye, "guess that means rain."

    "Oh, it'll be a doozy. The weatherman says there's a tornado watch startin' at 9 o'clock."

    "Uh oh, I won't have time to get home after I close shop. Guess I'll have to weather out the storm at Harry's. I'm sure the missus will understand."

    Esmeralda smiled at Carl's small act of rebellion. Mrs. Appleby could be a bit much at times. Carl's subsequent drinking problem was one of the town's poorly kept secrets. When Esmeralda asked the local Deacon if someone should do something about it, the Reverend reminded her that sometimes a little vice can help out with the bigger virtues. Two Sundays later, Esmeralda presented him with a scarf in a touch of mischief.

    She left the Yarn Barn with three hundred yards of Lion Bouclé. It was expensive, yes, but she thought the bright colors would cheer her as the wind rattled her windows. Esmeralda may not have been the most gifted of creatures, but she knew herself well enough to get by. It's hard for old people to live alone, and seven years had passed since John did.

    She resolved to make a scarf for John. Another one.


    The sparrows sang their secrets to the wind as the eleven o'clock train pulled into station. A bell announced its arrival since the shriek of the steam whistle was long ago silenced by the advances made in diesel engines. The sound of the stranger's feet landing on the gravel train tracks was as meaningless as that of a fallen tree's in a zen koan. No one saw him wander into town that day.

    Harry disliked the man who sat down at the bar around noon. He was a transient as near as Harry could tell, with matted, unwashed hair and an unkempt beard to match. The stranger's clothes were as worn as can get while still retaining the basic properties of clothing. And the smell coming off him was something else entirely. Still, his money was just as green as anyone else's and he kept to himself in the corner, watching the game on the old black and white Harry had set up by the pool table. He didn't even seem to notice when Harry moved the fan to blow his stink towards the bathroom.

    The stranger didn't say much beyond what was necessary to order, seemingly content to stare at the flickering box and nurse one beer after another. Harry would have forgotten about him entirely except for the occasional grunt signifying that his bottle was empty. Eventually, Harry brought over a bucket of ice and a six-pack and told the stranger he could settle it when he leaved. After that, he did forget about the stranger until Carl popped in about six, first friendly face he'd seen all day.

    The corner was empty save for the bucket, six empty bottles, and a crumpled twenty-dollar bill. The television was quiet but Harry couldn't recall when the stranger must have turned it off. He let it slide as Carl threw his damp jacket over a bar stool and said hello. Harry already had a bottle of Jameson in his hand when he asked, "Howdy, Carl. What can I get for ya?"

    "Same as always, Harry," who poured out three fingers over ice.

    "Looks like you caught yourself some rain out there."

    "Oh yeah, it's a doozy. Esmeralda even dropped by."

    "She did? Well, I better go let Tulip in then. You know how she gets during a storm."

    "I hear that."

    Carl polished off his drink while Harry went around back. Not wanting to trouble the barman, Carl poured himself another glass of whiskey and walked over to the pool table. He turned the television on to check out the latest weather report when the stench hit him. "Jesus Christ! Harry, when was the last time you cleaned the toilets in this dump?"

    Harry stomped in from behind the bar, soaked to the bone. "Damn dog musta chewed through the gate latch!"

    The weather lady said something about flash flooding, but Carl wasn't listening. "Hey Harry, do you know why the hell it smells like dead possum over here?"

    "No, I cleaned them bath-"

    He remembered the stranger from earlier and stopped cold. The beep-beep of the severe weather alert echoed through the small bar. Harry started for the bathroom muttering, "that stinking bastard. That no good, rotten son of a bitch!"

    Harry slammed the restroom door open and both men were inundated with the odor of an open septic tank on a warm day. Carl doubled over and retched right there on the floor, dropping his whiskey in the process. Harry just stood there, wide-eyed and blubbering like a schoolgirl.



Monday, December 05, 2005

Essom's Wrath: Part Three

    Some are born to rule. Others born to serve. Which shall our children be?
    The generations cower.
    The son kneels beside the father.
    The slave worships power, uttering shameful obsequies with humble entreaty.
    Will power share its bounty?
    Will it worship the slave?

    They were arguing again.

    Resah addressed the assembled conspirators. "We shall fire the granaries, let flames eat the fields of the Empire so that all shall know our hunger!"

    "And what do you propose we eat when all is turned to ash and cinders? Or do you think the Emperor will invite us to use what is left when it becomes known that we have done this thing?" countered Haduj, "Or maybe we should just set Eliv and Osmeni against his army. Surely they are enough to overthrow the Empire!"

    The proud brothers were not amused. "At least we would not shrink from that duty were it the council's will, Haduj."

    Shepoj intervened before the quarrel grew violent and called for a recess. Essom grew tired of their bickering and excused himself that he might walk alone beneath his beloved stars. He had not been idle in his time of exile. From the moment he put down his stakes, Essom gathered those slaves who would be rid of the imperial yoke. They spent what time was theirs to plot and make mischief against the Empire. Much of the time was spent training and planning for future attacks. Thus they would sit in council in the late hours, when the Emperor's spies lay fast asleep.

    The Emperor was no fool and sat uneasily on his throne as reports of unrest among the slaves came from all parts of the Empire. Though wise enough to know danger, he spurned the advice of his former counselor, setting heavier burdens upon the slaves in the hopes of breaking their spirits under the weight of labor. Essom welcomed every new demand with a smile, for he had wisdom and knew that with every passing day, the slaves saw their destruction coming ever closer. There is only so much a man will tolerate before lashing out in defiance to his master. It was only a matter of bringing order to the rising fury of the slaves.

    Essom returned to Haduj's house to find the counsel resumed. Shacarsi was speaking, "let us take our flocks to the mouth of the Great River and there spill their blood that the waters of the Empire will run red with our vengeance. We have no hope of keeping them; they are doomed anyway! Let them serve to make the Empire tremble!"

    At this, Essom spoke. "Those flocks are all we have, Shacarsi. You of all should know that. How long has your family shepherded them to the valleys to eat and to the hills to escape the ravenous wolves? How many lambs have you delivered that you would slaughter for spite?"

    "Then tell us what we might do," Nerube demanded, "What wisdom have you culled from your precious stars?"

    "Friend, are we not slaves? Let us then do what slaves do: we shall serve our masters. Is it not our burden to husband their animals, to prepare their meals, to provide them counsel? Do we not keep their fields, their houses, their monuments?"

    Essom paused, and the council was quiet, for they saw the rage in his eyes, grown giant-like from years of feeding from the hand that wronged him. Whatever terror he had in mind, surely it was great enough to swallow an empire. Essom continued.

    "Do we not suckle their children?"

    What is a man without comfort, without compassion, without joy?
    He is an empty vessel.
    He is a bowl
    Into which the wrath of God is poured
    Until the cup runneth over
    And his enemies are made to drink.

    A fast was declared.

    From dawn until dusk, the slaves did not eat. At night they ate the simplest fare. The Empire marveled at this, unable to understand why a people so abused would further abuse themselves. When pressed for an explanation, the slave would turn to his master and say only, "we fast to give glory and honor to our Lord the Redeemer."

    In no other way did the slaves act differently, performing whatever task demanded of them as they had done before. The Emperor was deeply troubled by this and sent for Essom to be returned from exile to explain this fast, for no one in his court knew the ways of the slaves. Rumors spread throughout the imperial court while the Emperor awaited the counsel of his servant.

    Before the sun rose on the sixth day of the fast, every slave household slaughtered a yearling lamb and with its blood marked the doors of the house. The Empire trembled at this, for they knew how much the slaves loved their flocks. When pressed for an explanation, the slave would turn to his master and say only, "we mark our house with the blood of the lamb so our Lord the Redeemer may know where His servant dwells."

    In no other way did the slaves act differently that day, performing whatever tasked demanded of them as they had done before. The Emperor was deeply alarmed by this and demanded that Essom be brought at once by chariot. As the Emperor finished his order, a voice came from outside the court, "Essom is here."

    The court was silent as Essom walked before the throne. He offered no salutation to the Emperor but stood as a slave does awaiting his master's command. The Emperor rose in his anger, "what prophecy have you for us? Shall we be plagued by flies and gnats as you have promised before? By frogs? Shall the locust rise up to devour our crops? Shall man and beast be stricken with disease? Are we to be frightened by your storms, or shall you rouse the Crocodile and blot out the sun again? That was a nice trick, Essom. Tell me, why did the Crocodile return to its slumber before you dismissed it?"

    "It is not mine to command, nor insect or storm or sickness. These things answer only to our Lord the Redeemer."

    At this, the Emperor hesitated. Such was the name of the slaves' god as told him by his spies. The Emperor continued, "what of this Redeemer? Why do your people fast and paint their doors with blood?"

    "They fast that the Lord might heed their suffering. They paint their doors because the Lord has heard their cries."

    "And what would your Lord have me do?"

    Essom's voice rose, "let my people go."

    The Emperor laughed. The entire court rose in laughter so loud that Essom could hear nothing else. He was unmoved, and waited for the Emperor's reply.

    After some time, the court was again silent and the Emperor spoke, still chuckling, "what doom awaits us then?"

    Essom spoke louder this time, so all the court could hear, "for what you have taken from us, the Lord shall take away that which is most dear to you. And since your guilt is shared by all the Empire, so shall the Lord take away that which is most dear to them."

    The court resumed its laughter and Essom returned to his father's house.

    That night the laughter ended. After the sun rose on the seventh day, the fast ended as the slaves roasted the lambs they slaughtered the day before. They did no work that day as their masters were all in mourning, for every free household in the Empire had awoken to the death of its firstborn. Essom returned to the court to find the Emperor cradling the body of his only son and heir. He said nothing save, "go, and take your people and your Lord with you."

    Thus were the slaves of the Empire redeemed, and though the Empire fall to ruin and his people scatter to the four corners of the Earth, the world shall not forget Essom's Wrath.

    As it is written.

The End

Monday, November 28, 2005

Essom's Wrath: Part Two

We are ruled by fear. We fear death and pain. We fear uncertainty.
Fear is difficult to overcome.
But it can be redirected.
Let us fear something greater than death. Let us fear the eternal. Let our fear be infinite.
And we shall be certain in our fear.
We shall fear God.

He was orphaned.

The Emperor did not wish to lose his warrior, yet blood shall answer blood, such was the way of things. Therefore, for Eshmech's fault, Ramam was doomed to die. If any felt the Emperor was unjust in this, they said nothing. After all, Eshmech was a soldier, and Ramam a slave. This left the child, Essom son of Ramam. The Empress, moved to pity by the child's sad fate, adopted him and gave him over to her servant Haphrish to raise as her own. Thus was Essom raised in the Royal Court.

That he was not her child one could not tell from the way the Empress doted upon him. She had yet to produce an heir for the Emperor, only daughters. A thousand princesses would not satisfy him, and so neither was she. It was whispered that she expressed her desire for a son through Essom. For his part, he regarded her as though he had no other mother.

It was forbidden for slaves to bear arms or wage war, so Essom was taught how to read the stars. The night sky is said to hold many secrets; knowledge of things past, of things present, and of things to come. He delighted his adoptive mother with tales of the various constellations; the Hawk that soars above the peak of Heaven, the Giraffe who ever gazes up at it, the Worm that does not die, and the Dark Road encircling it all. On clear nights when the Emperor was with one of his concubines, they would sit atop the palace while Essom recited the whole history of the world from the First God to the Last Emperor.

As he neared the age of manhood, he attained renown for his abilities. This the Empress encouraged by having him entertain the court through the telling of fortunes. For his part, he turned his studies towards the natural cycles of the seasons, of the sowing and the harvest, of the tides in the sea, of the clouds in the sky, of the beasts of the field, and the kingdoms of men. As each day the sun rises, so did his wisdom grow until his knowledge confounded the eldest sage. Thus, when he completed the rites of passage and became a man, the Emperor appointed him as his chief councilor.

Soon after it was discovered that the Empress was with child. As his first task befitting his position, Essom was charged to divine the gender of the child, for the Emperor was great in years and still without heir. By day he administered potions to the Empress and later examined her excretions. By night he studied the stars and made calculations based upon the times given as to when the child was likeliest conceived. For three days and three nights he strove to uncover the mystery, knowing full well his head would be the price of failure. When he finished, he discovered two things, one of which he shared with the Emperor:

The Empress would bear him a son.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
So it is written.
So it was said.
I say that God is with us, and that God has given us the Word, and that we shall speak the Word.
All that remains is a question:
What shall we say?

The Empire rejoiced.

To celebrate the birth of his son, the Emperor declared a week of festival. The granaries were opened so that the entire Empire might join in feast. Even the slaves were allowed at the table, such was the largess of imperial joy at the founding of an heir. That joy was not limited in origin to the royal family, for memory of failed succession and the strife it entailed still lingered in the hearts of the people. Indeed, for the Emperor there was grief amidst his joy, as the Empress did not survive the birth of her son.

Essom was nowhere to be seen in those days. His love for the Empress transformed to mourning kept him from the gay feasts and merriment. Instead of consolation, he was given responsibility to rule the Empire while the Emperor delighted in his son. This he did with wisdom and fairness, having no interest in his own advancement. While he wielded authority, he remembered his people and life for the slaves was made easier in those days. That the Empire grew in peace and prosperity under Essom's hand, no one bragged, for despite his power, he was still a slave.

When the Emperor's son reached the age of manhood, the Emperor reclaimed authority from Essom. Now secure in his legacy, he turned his attention towards his monument. While all men die, the proud seek immortality through fame, and the Emperor was no different. Seeing the greatness of the Empire after Essom, he swore that his monument would be equally great. Indeed, he called for a mausoleum fully sixty cubits in length, twenty cubits in width, and forty cubits in height. For this great labor he turned to the slaves.

For generations since they were brought to the Empire, the slaves were made to toil over the fields. This they did from the sowing to the harvest, after which they were free to tend their flocks until the time when the crops had to be resown. The Emperor ended this, declaring that upon completion of the harvest, the slaves would cut and lay stone for his monument. This was a great burden to the slaves and their flocks dwindled.

Seeing his people suffer, Essom beseeched the Emperor take pity on them and divide their labor, half toiling the fields and half building the mausoleum, but the Emperor took no notice of his entreaties. This embittered Essom, who began to prophesy against the Emperor and the Empire itself. He foretold catastrophe and searched the skies for signs of calamity and ruin. In his rage, he promised death and destruction to everything the Emperor held dear while the court snickered, comfortable in their derision. Eventually, the Emperor grew tired of his outbursts and sent him away to the farthest corner of the Empire.

He was banished.


Monday, November 14, 2005

Essom's Wrath: Part One

    They say hope is the only luxury of the poor. That those who have nothing have at least this one comfort. That hope is nothing.
    They say a lot of things.
    Let me say something.
    I say the poor have neither hope nor comfort. Nor do they have joy, nor love, nor faith.
    But they are not completely destitute.
    They have one thing, and that they have in abundance.

    She knew it was over before it began.

    The baby woke her up three times that night. When the sun finally rose, she could barely rouse herself out of bed to make breakfast. Morning wasn't her favorite time of day. Not only did she have to wash, cook the flatcakes, and prepare for work, she had to do all this while nursing their son. Ramam was a good husband, but he had his own chores to do and his own work to prepare for.

    They were both slaves. Of course, back then most people were. Neither thought much of it; they were born slaves, they would die slaves, such was the way of the world. Like any other day, Ramam would come in from cleaning the stable, kiss his wife and his son, and give thanks for the humble meal she prepared. After breakfast, he would take the horses out to graze. Despite his station, he was held in some esteem, enough to be entrusted with the Emperor's steeds.

    As for her, she cleaned up the dishes and left to wait on the Emperor's soldiers. There were worse jobs, certainly, but part of her labor was to put up with the taunts and jibes of the men. Being married, they were forbidden to touch her; slaves were accorded some rights. Instead, they stung her with words. There was one soldier, Eshmech, who taunted her more than any other. He was young and highly regarded for his battle skill.

    For all his prowess in war, he knew nothing of love. While fate had made him strong of limb and keen of eye, it cursed him with a visage both coarse and mean. Even the temple prostitutes refused him. The other men would joke that he had a face not even a sheep could love - though never within Eshmech's hearing. In essence, he was a man of hate. This quality served him well when doing hateful things, and the employment of soldiers is hateful indeed.

    She knew all this about him, so she was not at all surprised by his response when one of the other soldiers thought it would be funny to trip her while she carried a pitcher of beer to their table, when she fell forward and spilled the entire pitcher into Eshmech's lap. She was surprised by the deep shade of purple that passed over his face as the other soldiers suggested the widening stain on his crotch was the result of premature ejaculation; she always thought that was just an expression.

    Those soldiers and their jokes.

    It is said the oppressed are free from responsibility. That their only concern is for themselves. That slavery is careless.
    I might agree.
    But let me retort.
    Freedom is responsibility. Instead of being responsible to our masters, we are responsible to ourselves.
    We should punish ourselves for our misdeeds.
    And we should punish others for theirs.

    It wasn't her fault, but she apologized anyway.

    She was getting to her knees as he bent over to pick up the pitcher. She was trying to wipe off his pants when he smashed it against the side of her face. The pain was stunning, but not enough to knock her unconscious. She fell on her face and prayed he thought otherwise. Eshmech did not. He picked her up by the hair and dragged her over to the bread oven. He shoved her head inside.

    The wounds opened by the clay pitcher pressed against the hot brick, instantly cauterizing. She put her palms against the side of the oven, which burned also, and pushed with all her strength. The skin of her cheek tore away as her head slid out. She could smell her own flesh cooking, her hair burning. She screamed, the soldiers laughed, and Eshmech said nothing.

    He casually filled another pitcher from the keg while she vainly tried to pat away the flames. A small smile played across his lips as he poured its contents over her head, dousing the fire. The smell was sickening, all the more so knowing its source. She was coughing and retching on all fours when his smile disappeared. His boot connected with her stomach, sending the morning's flatbread across the floor. Eshmech snorted and stomped on her back, pushing her into her own sick. This time his face resolved in a sneer.

    Nodding to his compatriots, he walked over to her feet, picked her up by the legs, and began mopping the floor with her. The soldiers howled. One fell over clutching his sides while the other two pounded the table, trying to breathe. She was choking on vomit, unable to scream, only gurgle. Almost blinded by tears, pain, and panic, her eyes frantically searched the room.

    She knew she was dead, but that didn’t matter anymore. The pain had moved on to shock and all that was left was the pure animal instinct to fight or flee, of which she could do neither. All she could do now was cry for help, for mercy, for anything to anyone who would listen. The soldiers, whose duty it was to protect her, were too busy laughing at her misery. The whole of her world against her, she turned to the only other creature there.

    Hiding underneath a table, a small child watched in horror as she reached out, beyond prayer or reason, to him. Eshmech saw her struggling towards the child. He let go of her legs and went to drag her by the hair again, only to have it and the attached scalp peel off. For a moment he regarded the scrap of burnt flesh, only to throw it aside in disgust. He then grabbed her arm and pulled her to the child.

    Eshmech propped her up next to the little boy, waving her blistered hand at him as one does with a doll. She raised her head to look at him and tried to speak, but retched instead. All he wanted was for someone to explain why this was happening, but all he could hear was her gurgling cough and the laughter of strangers. The child stared at her ruined face, half of it burned off, the rest of it blackened and smeared, blood and bile dribbling down her chin.

    It was his only memory of his mother.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Reason: Part Two

    “Well, how’d it go? Was I right or was I right?”
    As things stand, I am too stunned to react as I normally would. There are no words to adequately describe the depths of my newfound malice. Even now, my thoughts are not quite correct. And so I do the one thing that occurs to me: I laugh, but not for mirth. Something else moves me.
    “Uhh... how about I call you again later.”

    She seemed rather off-put. Oh well, things are sometimes too amusing for her. Who could imagine the power of the act, from which a peculiar form of pleasure derives? Her tears, though saline, seemed so sweet to me. I wonder if, amidst the many desires involved, others are driven by this same reason in the deeper wells of their souls? Though it may not be acknowledged, does it still exist for everyone, or am I alone in its appreciation? Let my vanity wax full, for I’ll be relieved by this delight.

    “Can you talk?”
    “Of course I can. Whatever made you think otherwise?”
    “I was worried. You see, the last time you tried, all that came out was psychotic cackling.”
    “I feel it got my point across eloquently enough.”
    “Well, some of us require a little more content in order to properly call it speech.”
    “‘More matter, less art’?”
    “Never mind. So what do you want to hear?”
    “That’s better. Tell me what went down at the club, and remember: use your words.”
    “For starters, you happened to use an appropriately inappropriate set of words.”
    “Shut up. You’re kidding, right?”
    “By Gis, I am not. Nor will I be able to continue ‘speaking’ by your definition.”
    “What? You can’t leave me hanging like this.”
    “In that case, I shall cut you down.”

    Now we find the predator in the den of his prey. More specifically, he’s in her bathroom, amusing himself with the contents of her medicine cabinet. Maybe you’ve considered the question of medical privacy in terms of greater government oversight, but you may as well shout your ailments from the rooftop if you keep your prescriptions above the sink. Of course, you probably don’t expect your visitors to rifle through your possessions at the first available opportunity. People can be so trusting.

    Aspirin, Tylenol, Sudafed, boring, boring, boring... wait, what’s this? Lithium? Jesus Christ. And here’s the Wellbutrin right next to the Celexa. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Hmm... iron supplements. Let’s do some arithmetic children: weekly bloodwork plus anemia equals track marks. That would explain the long sleeves. A pity I didn’t notice earlier, but then again I was somewhat distracted. Perhaps this girls isn’t so tedious after all.

    “I think I’m in love.”
    “Really? Are you going to tell her?”
    “Why would I? This doesn’t concern her.”
    “Okay... care to explain?”
    “Oh! You thought I was in love with her. I forget myself sometimes. To explain: I’ve fallen in love with myself.”
    “Well, that should do wonders for your ailing self-esteem.”
    “Indeed it does. Though I suppose I owe you and her thanks, but don’t hold your breath or anything. After all, I pride myself on ingratitude.”
    “You’re saying I had some part to play in this?”
    “Of course, without your sage advice, I would have just crawled back into my dark cocoon. Now this butterfly will soar.”
    “I think I would have preferred more thyme.”
    “Oh look, you made a pun! An old dog can learn new tricks.”
    “Are you calling me a bitch?”
    “Wow! See how wit grows.”
    “Fuck off.”
    “Couldn’t have said it better myself. You’ll be sad to hear I’m leaving my little mistress, but not before a nice goodbye romp. I believe she’ll be much more entertaining without me.”
    “But why? I thought you were having fun.”
    “Oh, I am, but I’ll have a lot more fun dumping her. You see, it turns out the dear little thing isn’t quite right in the head, and you know how I like to giving things teetering on the brink a solid shove into the abyss.”
    “I think you’re not right in the heart.”
    “Au contraire. Look and see for yourself: there’s nothing left in there.”

    Now we watch as the lion strides away from his kill. He’s still smiling, but this time the display is genuine. Having consumed his pride, he is sustained by her destruction, emotionally speaking of course, for our hero is no criminal. One need commit no crime in such commitments, or the breaking thereof, and still leave his victim committed.
    One should also note the warmth in his smile and the honest comfort it reveals. Here is that rare moment when no guileful tactic obscures his feelings and the full measure of his heart is made plain to all who would see. The predator, now fulfilled with the main course of his prey, waits patiently for his desserts, which, just or no, he shall devour eagerly.

    “What now?”
    “Now we sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor.”
    “You say that as though it were difficult.”
    “Hey, just because I thoroughly enjoy my exploits does not mean they are without effort. Have you any idea how hard it is to keep a straight face when doing the whole ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ routine?”
    “Isn’t that normally the other way around?”
    “Whoever said I was normal? Anyway, given her mental state, I doubt she even noticed at the time. I suppose it may occur to her later though.”
    “Which, let me guess, was exactly what you planned.”
    “You continue to astound me with your observations. Have you ever considered a career in profiling?”
    “You really get off on this, don’t you? I’m beginning to regret my words of encouragement.”
    “In all fairness, I do believe I gave you full warning.”
    “Are you trying to hold me responsible for this?”
    “No, you were merely my inspiration. My actions are my own. But feel free to take what credit you like, especially for her latest correspondence.”
    “She wrote you a letter? I can’t believe she’d actually want to communicate with you in any way that didn’t involve expletive-laden screaming.”
    “Oh, the content of the letter wasn’t all that interesting. Basically, she wanted me to know how I hurt her and all that rot, making the naive assumption that I don’t already know exactly what I’ve done, but that’s not what I found so amusing.”
    “Well? What was so special about it then? Spill it.”
    “There was blood on it.”

    If you’re interested, the letter is currently residing in my trophy box, carefully secured in plastic. I still take it out and read over it, savoring the bitterness and betrayal it contains. I often fantasize about burning it in some pseudo-ritual of forgetting, but the memory is too dear to part with. Of course, destroying the letter would be a wonderfully dramatic show of contempt, but one must cherish the treasures one has.
    By now you may have reached the conclusion that I’m some kind of monster; a sadist whose exploits are less than admirable. I really can’t blame you for such an analysis. It’s not like my actions were terribly constructive or beneficial to anyone except possibly myself. What you need to understand is that I’m not the sole bearer of responsibility here. That same reason that drove me to a simple act of malice is no different than the one that served as basis for her desire for me. Sure, the particulars were different, but never forget her complicity in this charade. I never employed force of compulsion with her. In all honesty, she came to me. Remember?
    I’ll forgive you for blaming me. It is only too easy for the one who gets hurt to assume the mantel of victimhood. Take a moment to think about it and you’ll realize who is really to blame. Is the one who cuts herself the victim simply because she is the one to bleed? Certainly, my actions influenced her decision, but the choice was ultimately her own. People find it so difficult to take responsibility for themselves, especially when they are forced to endure the consequences.
    And feel free to examine her part in this fiasco. If you look closely and without prejudice of her injury, you’ll see that she was as manipulative as I. Well, she tried to be at least. Of course, her goals differed greatly from mine, and you may even think of hers as admirable, but that does not excuse her means. We both wanted something and we both were willing to abuse the other in order to get it.
    This is why I cannot hold myself accountable for what happened. You would feel likewise were you in my position. This is not to say that I did not expect things to turn out as they did, but as she suffers the consequences, so too does she suffer the blame. And so when I drive past her house and see the ambulance parked in the driveway, I know it’s not my fault.

The End