Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Part I : http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/08/tall-tale-tuesday-ill-be-home-for.html
Bristol did not proceed to the principal’s office. She did not return to the classroom. Instead, she walked out of the bathroom, down the hall, and through the creaky double doors into the schoolyard, alighting upon an icy metal bench near the playground. The sky was a deep shade of slate gray, the sort of color that takes Winter captive and doesn’t relent until Spring’s raised a healthy ransom.
“ ‘Find Jack, he knows what to do. Find Jack Frost?’ What on Earth does Holly mean?” Bristol spoke to the whispering wind. “And who is Him?” Her mind was fluttered with ideas and questions as she grappled with the reality of what had transpired minutes ago. She found herself stroking the golden locket absentmindedly, just as Holly had only hours earlier in the lunchroom.
It was when her teeth were chattering she became aware of the cold and regretted not returning to the Mr. Lawler’s room for her winter coat. A warm, numbing sensation flushed through her face, now bright red, and she felt the cool sting of the breeze slicing at places of exposed skin. She cupped her hands to her mouth, breathing heavy to warm her nose. And that’s when it struck her. It seemed so simple, almost too easy to be right. She sang the refrain every Christmas at least a dozen times.
“Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” she sang softly. She closed her eyes. Bristol clenched her jaw, waiting for her nose to tingle once more. “Jack.” She curled the corner of her mouth to let the name slip out in a soft intonation. “Jack. Please find me.”
“Oi, what are you going on about?” The voice was harsh and low and accented. Bristol raised open one eye, then the next. Sitting next to her on the bench was a small boy bundled appropriately for the weather with his legs dangling back and forth above the ground. His chubby face jutted out from under his scarf and hat, his skin like golden brown clay. “What’s that you’re whispering?”
“Nothing. Just talking to myself while I wait for a friend.”
“I’m no friend of yours, not yet leastways, but her I am all the same. So, what’s your trouble?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s any of your business. You really ought to head back into the school before you get into trouble.”
The little boy laughed. “Dearie, don’t go on scolding me for absconding from school. I’ve more education than anyone in the last two centuries. Now, I can tell you’re a touch thick, so I’ll lay it out nice and plain-like, yeah? I’m him. I’m the chap you was calling to while you sat there trembling with a fit of the chills. Given name Jack, surname Frost; first and only of that lineage. I’m very much obliged to make your acquaintance, Miss, er-“
Bristol told him her name and they shook hands. “Here, take this. Innit much, but should do the trick,” and Jack took the yellow scarf from his neck and handed it her.
“Thanks,” said Bristol, taking the scarf.
What happened next was most surprising. As she draped the scarf around her neck, Bristol felt the chill slip from her body, like sweat dropping from one’s brow. It fell first from her chest before extending out to the tips of fingers, nose, and toes. But it went beyond that. Soon it felt as though she was sitting in warm sunlight, washed by the rays of a springtime Sun. Even the whipping winter wind was transmuted into something like the golden gusts of a May breeze, cool and refreshing. Bristol stretched languorously and yawned before continuing. “You caught me by surprise. You aren’t exactly what I expected,” she said.
“Best not to delve into expectations, love. That way you’re never surprised,” said Jack, producing a copper coin from his pocket and turning it over his knuckles. A tall pine tree adorned the face of the coin, but the image was marred by deep nicks and scratches. “So, what’s the bother?” and Bristol told him the unabridged truth of the day’s events.
Jack gave a low whistle. “That’s a mess of difficulty and no mistake. There’s not a great deal to be done, I’m afraid. Frightful for my sister, though, ole – what’s her name again?”
“Holly,” said Bristol indignantly, “She’s your sister. How do you not know her name?”
“Well, I’m the eldest and I have a lot of siblings. It’s a bit troublesome keeping all their names straight.”
“If I had brothers and sisters, I’d have no trouble remembering their names.”
“Even if there were three hundred or so?”
“Of cou-,” Bristol balked, “three hundred? How is that possible? How old are you, Jack?”
“Old. Old enough to sometimes forget I had a family, an honest to goodness family before Father took me in.” He paused. “Father is a bit of a collector.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is what I says. Our father, that is, mine and Holly’s and the rest of the litter’s, he looks for discarded children, either ignored or orphaned, sometimes both, and brings them with him to cloister away in that clandestine ice mine he calls home. That’s why Holly was here, I’d wager; away from the compound doing some reconnaissance. Remember that bit you told me about Holly saying you are ‘untapped potential’?”
“Well, let’s just say there’s a high likelihood of our relationship becoming familial.” His words gave her alarm. The air around them was silent save for the sound of Jack’s coin scraping across his fingers.
“But I have a mother, Jack. I’m not an orphan.”
“And she’s always attentive to you, yeah? Never off working a second job or with friends or pawning you off to a neighbor for a few hours?”
“Well, she’s busy. It’s complicated.”
“Right. Well, regardless of the intricacies and dynamics of your relationship, you are a prime candidate for Father.”
“Who is Father, Jack?” Bristol danced around asking this question for awhile, but could not hold back any longer.
Jack inclined his head away from the coin and looked into Bristol’s eyes. “Father Christmas,” he said. “Saint Nicholas, Papa Noel, Sinter Klaas, Santa Claus.”
“I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” Bristol knew it was a foolish thing to say as the words left her mouth.
“How does belief measure into this?” said Jack, returning his attention to his coin tricks. “People are hurt and abused everyday by the very things they don’t believe in. It doesn’t make a lick of difference to a predator if their prey acknowledges them. It might take the sport from the hunt, but at the end they are still the game all the same.”
Bristol’s breath grew steep and stunted. “But what does he want with me or any other kid? He’s supposed to bring presents and candies and joy to us, not snatch up children.”
The coin stopped. Jack cocked his head to the side. “What he wants with kids is easy enough: Life. Immortality. All that rot about bringing confections and toys and bliss to little ones is part of his mythology and like most myths, it’s founded in bits of truth. He was a good and proper man once, long ago. But he’s no longer a man, just as I’m not a child. Smoke and Mirrors, you see.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s like this: Father was at the end of his life and afraid to die, like so many men. Only he didn’t slip into that next great adventure. He found a way to skirt Death.”
“It’s simple enough, really. He takes a touch of what he needs from a host in exchange for small baubles and trinkets; presents on Christmas day. A doll for a pinch of athleticism, a bicycle for a sprig of cunning, a puppy for a dash of soul. That’s from all children in the world, mind you, and he steals in amounts too infinitesimal to notice.
“But he gets his mind bent on the imaginative sort of children, like you; the ones with little more than their minds to occupy their time. Those are the children he collects and sets to work in his factory, using that whimsy to establish new products, more sleek and appealing toys. No holidays, either. He practically invented child labor.
“He’s an old mystic, laboring through life by dint of rigorous dark magic, expending the youth of others. Whatever you do, don’t accept any gift from him. It’s how he gets his hooks into you. Payment for receipt of goods and services,” said Jack, holding up his coin between finger and thumb, then reaching out and touching Holly’s locket. “You’re marked, no doubt.”
A chill so deep that not even Jack’s scarf could parry stole down Bristol’s spine. The world beyond the bench was a doleful, unyielding white, bereft of gaiety and hope. Then a thought flitted into her mind. “Hang on. If Santa is so unbeatable then how did you get free, Jack?”
He shook his head. “You haven’t been listening properly. He uses us until he’s milked all imagination from our minds. I didn’t escape. He cut me loose. My mind is all dried up.”
Bristol gasped. She considered what a day without fanciful thoughts and daydreams would be like. It wasn’t a pleasant imagining at all. Her eyes swelled with tears, hot and salty.
“Cheer up, love. It’s not all bad. In some ways, I’m better primed for certain vocations, like finance and insurance. I’ve made quite the living at it over the last couple of centuries,” Jack forced a chuckle, but there was no mirth in his voice or in his eyes. From the vacant glaze in his eyes, Bristol understood Jack to be in a moment of deep introspection.
“Jack, I’m sorry. I really am. Please help me. Please help Holly. Let’s find a way to make it end. There must be a way to undo it all?”
He laughed again, this time with true amusement. “He takes what he wants and doesn’t think twice. I hate painting a grim picture, but no one’s ever overcome him. It’s impossible to avoid.”
“I try to believe impossible things everyday,” said Bristol, half remembering something she once read.
“Suit yourself,” said Jack, shrugging. “but take this.” He pulled from his jacket a small snow globe. Within it was a small cottage amid a snowy wood with wispy tendrils of smoke creeping from the chimney. “The snow flakes will flutter of their own volition and the orb glows green whenever Father is approaching. This way, you’ll at least be given some sort of warning to enact whatever scheme you hatch.”
Bristol took the snow globe from Jack. It was no larger than a goose egg and felt weightless in here palm. She shook it hard and stared into the glassy forest, but the scene remained unchanged.
The bell in the schoolhouse bonged, marking the end of the school day. Only moments later, the loud murmur of elated voices reached their ears as an explosion of children fresh on holiday spilled into the playground and parking lot.
“Thank you, Jack,” she said. “I need to go now or I’ll miss my bus.”
“Right. Well, remember, he’ll show up in the wee hours of Christmas morning, so you have a week. There is something about the newness of the day that makes the magic more potent.”
“Also, you summoned me once by another’s power. I don’t come twice in the same way.” He rubbed his dark hands together. It sounded like sandpaper against wood. “I’m rooting for you. Good luck.” He flicked his coin high into the air. Bristol followed its arc as it tumbled and turned. When it fell even with the bench, Jack was gone. In the snow at her feet was an indentation the size of a coin, but the coin disappeared with Jack.
With the schoolyard now near empty and the buses full, the girl in the yellow scarf called Bristol hoisted herself from the frozen bench and marched toward her bus, the number 28, thinking about Holly, thinking about Christmas, and thinking about what to do next.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
I got a call from her this morning, collect from Tijuana, asking for money. She was out west in Los Alamitos visiting some distant relations, enjoying copious pina coladas when things got muddled and hazy. Long story short, she woke up in Mexico without a dime to her name and an I.D. belonging to a grinning man called Banuelos. Anyway, I've wired funds to her via Western Union and she's crossing the border and hopping a Greyhound home. She promised to drop by here once she arrives, ETA Saturday the tenth.
Come greet her with cheers and jeers! Peacelove.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Her face contorted into a confounded expression. “Of course she’s my grandchild. They all are. Red. Hansel, Gretel, Snow White, Rapunzel. All of them. That’s what makes the magic difficult, but it’s my part to play. Why deny what I am?”
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
I sat at the bar in the dim and the dank of the Rusty Trough, nursing a double of Jameson’s and a desiccated heart. The past few hours were the crumbling of my world. When I arrived home from the office that evening, Lily wanted to talk. “I’m in love with Peter,” she told me, matter-of-factly. It was her nonchalance that conquered my heart so long ago. Nothing had changed; it was still mesmerizing.
We met at the university in our junior year, when the Kent State shooting stood fresh on the forefront of the nation’s conscience. She was an English major slash beatnik poet. I shambled about with roguish good looks and a put-on, devil-may-care disposition slaying the hearts of the fine and fetching co-eds. Except Lily. She was impervious to me, neglecting my advances with a spurning swish of her black tangles. I was rankled and defeated and sounded the retreat.
I have Annie Hall to thank for our relationship. I slipped into a matinee one breezy spring afternoon, clandestine and alone, afraid of how sullied my prefabricated persona and hard earned reputation would become should someone discover that I enjoyed Woody Allen. I was alone in the cinema, or so I thought. In the buzzing darkness there came a high and lilted laugh in chorus with my laugh, exalting the mixture of neuroticism and jubilance on screen. It was Lily. She was as beautiful and enchanting as ever. It was the only moment in my life where I empathized with Adam, shared in his temptation. When the lights came up, I asked her to dinner. She said yes.
After burgers and beer at a greasy spoon, she invited me back to her dorm room. We made love as the crisp and simple stillness of a May night wafted through the open window. In the years since, when the world seems out of focus, I recollect the healthy expanse of tantalizing tawny skin that blossomed forth as I peeled away her green blouse. Somehow that snippet of memory centers me. It was the best day of my life; the Willie Mays of days. Three weeks later, say hey kid. Lily was late. The rest is history. Thirteen years, two kids and a few acres on a re-financed mortgage: Domestic bliss. Until Pete.
“Peter who?” I asked.
“Peter who? Peter Pan, sweetheart,” she said sardonically. “Your friend, Pete Kensington.” She never looked up from the stove as she stirred the pot of spaghetti noodles.
“What the hell, Lily?”
“Where are James and Matthew?”
“The boys are over at the Barrie’s until after the ball game.” Still stirring. “I feel bad. I really do. Pete took me out for coffee a couple of months ago. The coffee became drinks and dinner. From there it was an easy transition into sex. I didn’t mean for it turn into love. I am sorry about that.” She drained the noodles in the sink before saying, “could you move the sauce off the burner?”
I didn’t touch the sauce. I put back on my navy pea coat and left for the enticement of a near empty bar.
Tom Waits was warbling out of the derelict speakers of the antique jukebox in the corner when I walked in. I downed a whiskey and chased it with a whiskey. I was on my third round and times were a changing when Pete sauntered into the bar. He took a seat on the barstool next to me. His untidy mop of blonde hair was matted down with the drizzle of an autumn sprinkle.
“Lily tells me you’re having a rough day, buddy.”
He scoffed. “The next round is on me,” and he motioned to the bartender. “She might have apologized, but I’m not going to.”
“Good to know.”
“Hey man, ever since Eloise from accounting gave you that hummer last year, I thought it was over between Lily and you. Or least on life support. I just assumed you’d given up.”
Ransom the bartender, a brawny bald man, brought over the green bottle of Jameson’s and a couple of stained glasses.
“Just leave the bottle,” I told him. He shrugged and unscrewed the top before resigning back to the end of the bar nearest the television. The Phillies were about to win game one of the World Series.
“Here’s the thing, Pete. I know I’m a piss-poor husband, and yeah, sometimes I like a little action on the side. But how did that lead you believe it was ok?”
“I didn’t say I thought it was alright. I only said I’m not apologizing. I’m not sorry we fell for each other. I’ve loved Lily from the moment you introduced me to her. She’s amazing.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I married her.” I swilled back the last of my glass and poured another. “I came here to be alone, Pete, not to be patronized by the man screwing my wife. Please get lost.” Then the booze interjected, “Asshole.”
Pete stood, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture, and walked out of the bar. The roar of the crowd at the ballpark on TV rose over the dull waning of the music. I had to piss.
In the bathroom there was another man, a younger man, tall and gawky, almost as though he stood on shaky stilts. He leaned with one arm against the wall in the dirty luminescence, urinating hard into the basin, groaning occasionally and massaged his brow with his free hand. He looked so young. I sidled up to the urinal and went about my business.
When the young man finished, he shook and stepped towards the sink, forgetting to zip up his fly. The rush of the sink faucet gurgling began to work on my brain and stomach. The world was becoming insubstantial and nauseating.
“Reminds me of a joke, this does,” said the young man.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Us being in here together, reminds me of a funny joke I heard,” he said, stopping to quell his own gag reflex. “A sailor and a soldier are using the john at the same time and the sailor finishes first. He steps away and makes for the exit when the soldier yells, ‘in the Army, they teach us to wash up after we piss.’ The sailor says, ‘in the Navy, we’re taught not to pee on our hands.’ And he leaves.” The young man guffawed at his joke. I gestured my amusement with a smile, prim and tidy. I’m a cruel and cold drunk. The joke is an old standard, common fare of bar bathroom prattle.
“I thought you could use a laugh after hearing what Pete did to you,” said the young man. “He’s never been a nice fella.”
“Y’know Peter Kensington?” I asked.
“Only too well. I grew up with the jerk. He never really grew up, though. A while back, he took a fancy to my older sister; led her to believe it was love. It wasn’t. He took what he needed from her and just left. That's the thing about Pete, he's only looking to surround himself with expendables. It’s a world of feeders and eaters. Peter’s an eater. ”
“Well, anyway, I’m scooting. Listen, if you have a predilection for escapism, for getting lost, check this,” said the young man, placing an Altoid tin on the jaundice sink counter.
I laughed. “My breath’s that ripe, yeah?”
But the young man just walked out.
I took special care to ensure all my parts were neatly stowed and that no leaks had sprung before stepping away from the silver basin. Once, fresh out of college, in a state of heavy inebriation, I neglected to remove the underwear from the line of fire. I spent the remainder of the evening lurking in the bathroom, sodden and stinky, like a troll. Ever since, I’ve been keen to take my time and ensure no more mishaps foil my binges. After a once over, I approached the sink and washed my hands. In a moment of rashness and impulse, I slipped the Altoid can into my pocket and walked into the bar.
The payphone in bar was as antique as the jukebox only much less reliable. It took some cajoling and pleading with the Graham Bell gods. Eventually the line connected. Lily answered.
“Lily, it’s me. Listen, don’t talk. I just want you to know that I’m still crazy about you. I want us to be forever. I don’t care what it takes. If you want me to reinvent myself or develop some panache or whatever, I’ll do it. You’re worth it. I love you, Lily.”
The line crackled with static before she responded. “I used to be at a place where all I wanted would’ve been to here you say those things. But I’m past it now. You’re just not fun anymore, sweetheart. You’re old. You can’t change that.”
“Peter’s my only a year younger than me. And he's a rube,” I protested.
“You’re missing the point. He understands true living. He possesses virility and spontaneity. You lost those things along the way. I’m sorry, honey, but I’m resolute in this. I did love you. Once.”
“Go to hell, Lily,” and I replaced the handset. I turned back to the bar. “Ransom, a whiskey.”
My imbibing came to a crescendo with a few more glasses of whiskey. The bartender cut me off at a quarter past eleven. I slung expletives at him like arrows and stones and stepped into the zesty autumnal air. The air slinked around me with brisk fingers and icy breath. It felt invigorating and good. The cold kept the infidelity from my mind; a frosty October night to stamp out Lily. And so I walked.
I walked from the outskirts of town into the old town and the municipal gardens, thick with dormant brambles and brown leaves cascaded in the pale light of a chilly full moon. I sat on a bench in the long shadow of the church bell tower and beheld the glory of white stars adorned about its steeple, so bright and bold. My buzz was beginning to run thin and dissipate. I stamped my feet to stave off the cold. A slight jingle from my pocket tinkled in the night as a few coins clanged against the tin of the Altoids container. I removed it from my pocket.
The tin was ordinary, decorated in the signature red rimmed outline with the bold print letters. I tugged on the top until it loosed. A small bit of paper fell from inside the container and into my lap. By the white moonlight I could only just make out the remaining contents of the tin. Inside was a thin layer of amber dust or powder, finely granulated and twinkling golden in the pallid light. I had experimented with narcotics and hallucinogens in college, but what sat before me now was nothing I recognized. Still, my high was fading. I didn’t want to be sober. I took a pinch of the dust between finger and thumb and gave it a couple of quick snorts. The powder stung, like tiny daggers piercing the inside of my nostril, leaving it raw.
It was then I saw the crumpled bit of paper sitting in my lap. I grabbed it and smoothed it out as best as I could. Scooting to the far side of the bench where creamy moonbeams alighted, I hoisted the paper into the light. It read:
Catch a pinch of the fairy dust,
Fly to a place of brilliant trust.
Think a lovely wonderful thought,
And the pain will be naught.
No hurtful adult in this land,
Come to join a merry band.
Second star to the right
And straight on ‘til morning.
I smirked. The dust was coursing through me now and my heartbeat elevated to a dangerous pace. My heart surged and pumped and thrusted to keep up with the demands of this foreign taskmaster. I inclined my head against the back of the bench and thought of Lily, thought of her making it with Pete, thought of her playing with our children, thought of her telling me she didn’t love me any longer.
Then, I thought of that night long ago when her golden body was bare against mine and how right the world was with her asleep in my arms in the twinkling of a May night. That felt good. It was a lovely wonderful thought. In that moment, I wanted to fly. I had only to spread my wings and wait.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Now, here's the final episode. Enjoy!
We walked on. We walked on and on with the dark river to our left, the silt from her swell beneath our feet. The water's rush and the clopping of shoes treading through mud were the only noise. I spoke. “So are we not going to discuss what happened back there? Do you expect me to just let it pass?”
“What happened back there? It’s simple, really,” he said, dabbing his slick brow with his handkerchief, “ Owen was killed and Brand deserted.”
“Beyond that, though. I’m more concerned with the bit Brand was yammering on about. About the defenses not being undone. What sort of resistance are we up against, Winston? Booby traps? Snares?”
"Of a sort, maybe,” he said, halting. His left hand hefted the oil lantern to eye level as his unoccupied hand crept across his plump gut to his hip where the sword hung. Winston drew Excalibur from its sheath. “William, do you believe this is what I say it is?” The blade glinted silver and glossy in the lamplight.
I laughed. “I don’t know what I believe. I don’t know. I do know if Excalibur ever existed, that's her. And I do know that Brand and the boys are right about you. You are an utter crackpot and an old duffer. But that doesn’t make you wrong.”
A wide smile spread across the old man’s face. “That’s m’boy. Now let’s get moving again.”
After a handful of minutes, the darkness began to recede. Deep in the distance shone a dim radiance, soft blue or clean white. Winston left the shore side and walked toward the light. I stepped in right behind him. Soon enough the rumble of the river weakened in my ears until all trace of the water's roar faded and wash out, only to be replaced by the rhythmic echo of trickling water droplets plopping into shallow pools.
The muted light ahead was spilling down from the ceiling of the cave, perhaps through a sinkhole or chasm. It was too high to spot the fissure. It shone upon a wall of exposed rock slicked indiscriminately with patches of green moss. The light was great enough that Winston stifled the flame of the oil lamp. His face was old and disproportioned in this pale glow; an ugly thing with a profile like a hatchet. As I stared at the vast and wet grey-green wall, I saw Winston in my periphery wheel around to face me. “There’s something I need to know, William, before you and I go a step further; something that’s left me confounded and befuddled,” he said. “If you aren’t convinced that my scheme is legitimate, why have you come this far without a deeper explanation?”
“Hope,” I said, shrugging. “Reckless and unadulterated hope.”
“How do you mean?”
“I’m here for hope that a merciless tyrant can be stopped; that Hitler will, for once, find a Britain united in arms and courage.” I paused, considering whether or not I could trust Winston with the full truth. I continued. “But it’s something more than that. What you are proposing, that is, what you’re after lends itself to truth and decency; that tales from of our childhood are more than mere dreams or silk turned to cobwebs as we grow old. It’s comforting to think that supreme good is a pervasive force and very much alive. Even if it takes believing in fairy tales, I choose to side with absurdity over realism every time, if those are the masquerades Good and Evil don.
“But more than anything, I’m standing here with you right now because it’s what my wife would want of me, I think, to stand on the side foolish hope instead of knee deep in the shambles of resignation.” I sighed.
Winston gave me a hard chuck on the back. “William, lad, I’ve grown fond of you in the few hours we’ve had together. You’re a smidge naïve, but I like you. Now, stand back.”
With the word, I shuffled my feet and withdrew from the wall. Winston raised the sword over his head and brought it crashing down against the wall in a dexterous flash of fury that contradicted the visible limitations of his bent frame. He let out a loud shout as the blade met the boulder, the rasping shriek of the steel twined with his own shout. He let go of the haft of the sword, its bright reflection wobbling in the pallid light, and stepped nearer still to the wall. Placing his hand over the point of incision, Winston began to whisper in a tongue wholly foreign to my ears. Moments later, it became clear those alien words were the recitation of a glamour or cantrip, for as the last syllable vacated his mouth, the wall deliquesced and melted away. The sword fell to the cave floor with a resounding clatter when it dislodged. Winston picked it up and sheathed it.
“What just – I mean – how did you do that?” I asked, stepping to his side.
“It’s probably best just to remember that bit about siding with absurdity and not ask for particulars.” He gesticulated with a waving hand my entry into the passage. He fell in behind me.
Before long, Winston and I came out of the narrow cavernous corridor and onto a balcony overlooking and grand hall, much like the one at the entrance of the cave. Only instead of thick and custardy blackness, our eyes met a most dazzling and familiar sight. The hall was filled with the warm and dancing luminescence of firelight. The colonnades and walls were adorned with huge torches, each burning red and hot.
“Wha– Yes!“ cried Winston, half hugging me. “We did it! We found Avalon!”
We found a small staircase against the back wall at the edge of the balcony and descended it hastily.
From the ground level, the High Hall of Avalon was a precious beauty to behold. Around us were tables and chairs and chests, all formed of the purest gold. Silver statues as tall as elephants stood about the perimeter, each depicting dryads or fawns or sundry forgotten creatures lost in the chasms of time. There were mirrors ornamented with white diamonds, cabinets and armoires fashioned of fine oak and inset with amethysts, washbasins hewn from fire opals and carbuncles. The wealth of Great Britain above could be matched in the topaz cutlery of the dining hall alone. My eyes glinted with amazement and furious desire.
“To the very back, William,” said Winston, “no doubt King Arthur’s sepulchre is there." Each step deeper into the golden hall gave way to sights more opulent and rich than before, until at last we found ourselves standing before a large stone door inlaid with a gilded crucifix upon which was scorched an inscription: Sepultus Rex Arthurus. Below this sat an indiscernible scrawl. Winston stepped forward and read the inscription in a whisper to himself, running his finger over the the engravings as he went.
Winston retreated from the stone door and unbuckled the baldric before handing me Excalibur, a candle and a book of matches. “Well, m’boy, this is where I owe you an apology,” he said placing his hands into his pocket. “You see, I expected this. The inscription says only one, the one, carrying the regal sword may enter and present it to Arthur. The door will yield to none other. And furthermore, it sa–“
“I’m not coming back, am I?”
His smile reappeared. “No. Reanimation isn’t a pleasant science. Concessions must be made if victory is to be achieved. Ever played chess?”
“Not with regularity, but I get the analogy.” I contemplated the situation for a moment. “Let’s say I refused. Let’s pretend I’m not on board with this bit of the scheme. I mean, my lot seems rather grim. You’ve just handed me a weapon and the leverage. But you’ve already thought of that, haven’t you?”
I heard a sharp click in the right pocket of his waistcoat, like the cocking of a handgun’s hammer.
My assumption was spot on. Winston pulled a Walther PP, standard issue, from the pocket and pointed it at me. “You’re not so naïve as I imagined. Well done.”
“Alright, alright. I was going through no matter your cowardly threat, but at least now I understand of what ilk you are. I’m going through that door, but not because of that,” I said, inclining my head toward the handgun. “I’m going because I meant what I said back there, before Avalon, at the edge of sanity. And even though we’ve slipped into some sort of madness, I still hold to it.
“But you, you’re nothing more than a cheap and rotten magician who’s out of his depth, meddling with spell book magic and necromancy and mind you, all come to a just end in due time.”
Winston tried to retort, but I clutched tightly to the sword and turned back toward the stone door. It slid aside as I approached, at the behest of the power of the sword I’d venture, and I strode through the door and into the blackness of the crypt beyond. The stone door banged shut behind me.
The room I stood in was small and was devoid of anything save a marble throne in the middle. The candle burned brightly, showing no exit or entrance but the door I came through. I laughed, a deep mirthless laugh. I crossed the room, pulling from my pocket a small journal and my fountain pen and alighted in the chair. Laying Excalibur across my lap, I took in my surroundings for a moment before opening the journal and beginning to write. This is what I wrote:
May 2 or May 3, 1945
I am writing to you far sooner than I expected because everything did not go as I might have hoped. I will write for as long as the tallow lasts and the candle gutters. This will be my last letter.
I’m in the burial chamber of Arthur, King of the Britons, sitting in his throne and the chap is nowhere to be found. His sword is near me, but the mysticism is quelled. Our king under the mountain is lost and I’m buried alive. What a blow this will be for that sod, Winston. It turns out he’s a fiend, a devilish sorcerer of black enchantments. I wonder how long he’ll wait outside that door before he realizes his malevolent desires are foiled.
But already I grow bored of detailing my failed exploits and my mind turns to you. I am so lonely, Gwen.
Death is the great emancipator. It is he who leads folk to lands where the deep call to deep, to places where ages and eras meld into one glorious existence. It is by his somber vessel I will find passage back into your embrace. It is very hard to fear such enticement.
It is my hope that my life without you was a perfect reflection of the joy and courage you instilled within me.
After your death, there were moments when I believed you to be so close, only a street corner or cab ahead of me, just beyond my grasp. One day in '42, I chased you through Fleet Street all the way to Parliament, only to find a college student with your chestnut hair and curls. I never mentioned it previously because I was ashamed, but now is the time for honesty.
It’s also a proper place for apologies, as the candle is fading. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to keep the bombs away. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to lay you to rest. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to keep our baby girl after you passed. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m coming home.
All my love,
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Part I: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/05/following-are-excerpts-from-journal-of.html
Part II: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/06/tall-tale-tuesday-william-and-winnie.html
We came the rotting wooden door of St. Michael’s undercroft atop Glastonbury Tor as the sun sank, a burning half circle on the western horizon being chased from view by the puce expanse of a twinkling sky. Dr. Owen stepped up to the door and produced a small black key from his trouser pocket , fitting it to the keyhole. He turned the lock. A sharp clacking noise rang out as the key rolled the tumblers. We each strode through the doorway.
Once inside the undercroft and down a steep flight of steps, Winston and the Doctors made their way to a cylindrical white pillar at the back of a dank room, behind which they found three very large rectangular blocks of limestone stacked vertically in the wall. “Alright, William,” said Winston to me, “make a way for us. Move the stones.” I don’t remember if I truly did scoff, but I very much felt like doing so. Nonetheless, I stepped toward the stones and gave the topmost of the three an earnest shove. It swung open on a hinge, just like a door. The two stones below folded out of the way in turn. Winston laughed, no doubt at the flustered expression on my face, and handed me a silver torch. “Lead on.” And so I did.
Beyond the door was a cavern of such depth and height I could not fathom. It was black in that high hall, dark as the nights conjured in one’s nightmares. The black was so intense and pure, it seemed thick, nigh impregnable. The torch could scarcely cut through it, as though it were shining into a treacle pudding. The blackness receded slightly with the lighting of Dr. Brand’s oil lantern, but visibility was limited. The others seemed at ease with the surroundings, but I was nettled by it all. It’s the pilot in me, I shouldn’t wonder. Visibility is the only ally of pioneers in foreign lands. We were without instruments.
We walked for what felt like hours, though without the shifting of scenery, I can’t be certain of time. The darkness in the heart of a cave looks very much like the darkness just past its mouth. This is a most disheartening and deflating truth, as one might walk for miles and days and not expect to find the hint of light or variation.
I hadn’t realized the immense and eerie quiet that hung in the air until some noise was in my ears. The clatter sounded like the distant thrumming of harsh strings, a harp or a lyre. The noise grew louder and louder with each footfall until the din was unmistakable: water. Rushing, spilling, lapping water.
“Let’s wash up right quick?” said Brand when we reached the banks of the underground river. He was asking Winston’s permission. The old man grunted his approval.
I approached the water’s edge, eager to invigorate my bones and muscles with the cool wash of the river. Cupping my hands, I splashed my neck and face. The water was warm. Not steaming or hot, but tepid. There is little one can do that is less refreshing than having a long draught and bath from lukewarm pool.
“We’ll bivouac here for a few hours,” said Winston. “Owen, you’re on the first watch.”
It was a most curious thing to fall asleep in such acute darkness. For one, it is never comfortable to sleep underground. The floor of the cave was like the floor of any cave, rocky and uneven. It gives a chap frightfully painful backaches when he wakes. Secondly, the sound of water as it rills past is a sound I’ve never been able to dismiss. It hangs in my mind, tormenting me. I shouldn’t doubt that had I been any less fatigued, I wouldn’t have caught a wink. All the same, I slept.
I stirred when Owen screamed. By the lamplight I saw his eyes wide, watery, and glinting brightly. When we rushed to help him we found his body belly down and face upturned toward us. How he howled. A slender and serrated stalactite was driven like a stake into the base of his neck. As best as I can reason, he fell asleep on watch and befell into some poor luck.
Brand tried to give Owen sips of water while Winston examined the wound. The old man's eyes met mine and he shook his head.
The screams rose into mad ululations before slipping into soft gurgles, his ruddy cheeks begrimed from writhing about facedown in the dampened muck. Soon, all noise ceased and Dr. Owen fell still forever.
Brand stood silent and made the sign of the cross with his right hand. Both he and I turned to face Winston.
“Frightful fit of foul fortune,” said Winston. “Well, shall we crack on?”
“Oi! Crack on?” said Brand. “Are you raving mad? Owen’s dead. I’m not going any farther into this mine.”
“You knew the risks when you signed on, as did Dr. Owen. Now, let’s soldier on,” said Winston with a smile.
“And you swore the strong defenses were rendered ineffectual and weak. Get tossed, you old crackpot. I’m done.” With that, Dr. Brand made an unseemly gesture, picked up a torch, and marched into the darkness.
“Well, Brand is a brick of a chap,” said Winston and I asked him how so. “Well, he's left us his lamp. Most chivalrous. Let’s forward on.”
I followed Winston, headlong into the madness or the misery without speaking so much as a word.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Author's Note: I've removed the Post Script from the previous part and incorporated into this second part in an attempt to create a more comfortable flow. My apologies. Read On!
May 2, 1945
Should everything go as planned, this will be my final entry for a very long while. The briefing adjourned only moments ago. Winston told us what he seeks in the caverns below the green grasslands of Glastonbury. It’s Avalon. I mean, the Avalon. A few moments of silence passed after Winston shared his intentions before Terry, George, and Charlie let out a peal of exasperated laughter. The Doctors Owen and Brand stared at them reproachfully. I think they were apart of our company under no pretense or shroud, but in full awareness of the proposed mysticism. Charlie told Winston he had lost his marbles and that he wasn’t about to be taken in by some paunchy old duffer. He left the barracks for Lord knows where. Terry and George took their leave with him.
That left the four of us. I asked Winston what it was he after in Avalon. “The person to whom this belongs,” he said smiling, and he took a parcel wrapped in a thick brown cloth from a rusty footlocker at the end of the bunk adjacent to him. He undid the wrappings.
It sat for a moment, glinting like a bright ribbon of quicksilver in the pallid morning light, before Winston continued. “This is the sword Excalibur, Arthur’s cold brand, sometimes called Caledfwlch. We make to reconcile the two, the Sword and the Sovereign, so that upon its swift sharp sting our quarry, and Hitler himself, will meet Lady Justice!” Winston’s eyes flared with an innate bloodlust and it startled me. His demeanor swings wildly and he speaks of things as though he’s calling into the deep and ancient hollows of the world.
The sword was a most extraordinary thing. Its haft crafted with an intricate design of fire opals and ice diamonds. The blade shone and hummed in the pale rays of morning, refracting the light, making me dizzy and drunk with desire. Winston let the sword’s seductive enchantment sluice my mind before sheathing it in the golden scabbard and placing it out of my vision. My heart was bent on it and I began to sympathize with Tantalus.
This was Excalibur. One glance was enough to slay my inflexibility and to slake my skepticism. The blade was, all at once, otherworldly and familiar. The only thing I can liken seeing this sword to are the still moments of recurrent dreaming in which your sleeping mind is sure the world is flat and though your conscious mind interjects and warns against such scientific sedition, saying the world is globe and has been for hundreds of years, practicality is dismissed and your inevitable destiny is to sail over the horizon’s edge and slide down the dark sky with the ocean’s cataract through the stars and the cold for all of eternity. Nothing could be more enticing and true. Seeing Excalibur was like never waking, letting the adventure manifest and taking the stars as your inheritance.
I was left suspended in astonishment for a while. When I did come around, I asked Winston who he was and how he came into possession of the sword.
“Like I said, I’m Winston and that should be enough to suit you. As for the latter bit, well, let’s just say I’m well connected and highly motivated.” He told me. “Dr. Brand and Dr. Owen will discuss the schematics of the underside of the Tor, if you’re still game,” but he damn well knew of the inexorable magic the sword invoked and set to work on me. I acquiesced. “Good,” he said.
Our point of entry is the undercroft in St. Michael’s Tower on top of the hill. That’s all they’ll divulge to me at the present. We wait for sundown.
I’m not entirely sure what I’m in the middle of here, Gwen. My world has grown chaotic in a matter of hours and now I’m trekking on the fringe of sanity with no perceptible notion of which way leads out of the murk. That’s one of the most miserable things about not having you near. You always made certain I was set upon solid ground and had my wits about me. You gave me traction. Now I’m spinning my wheels.
I’m not frightened, but I’m beginning to feel very much like some dispensable cog or pawn in a scheme beyond my awareness, like Aladdin. Fortune favored him in the end, but I’ve no magic ring or genie to afford me aid and succor. Please watch over me. Be my genie.
All my love,