Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tall Tale Tuesday :: William and Winnie (Part I)

The following are excerpts from the journal of flight lieutenant William Pullman, a British pilot of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force in the European Theater, addressed to his late wife, Gwendolyn. She was killed during the London Blitz of 1940:

June 6, 1944


The Americans joined the battle today.

I was assigned to reconnaissance of the Utah beach insertion site with orders to make regular reports on the progress of the campaign inland. All manner of watercraft collided with the waves into the beachhead, slopping their contents of infantry in every direction and igniting a clamor like you would not believe. Beyond doubt to be on the ground was terrible, something far beyond the imaginings of one’s worst nightmare. From my seat aloft in the Channel’s grey gloom, however, it looked as though a most dazzling and brilliant orchestra of motion was commencing an overture. Quick stints of flashing lights and billowing, slate plumes of smoke burst into vision, buttressed at the back by a long ribbon of scarlet saltwater lashing itself against the yellow sand of the shore and the heaps of fallen soldiers.

It took awhile to rend a hole in the German line, but as soon as a fissure opened, all their entrenchments and fortifications fell in swift succession. I relayed all the activity to command, but my mind could do little more than to marvel at the revelry. I wonder, how many families were torn apart below me today? How many honest homes were splintered and shattered like dry firewood with each German bullet finding its mark?

We are such fragile things; delicate creatures with infinite ingenuity and limitless cunning bent toward demolition. Back home, our mothers and sisters stand in front of machines, crafting death and manipulating metal brought to them by conveyor belts. Each piece is constructed with fierce pride and feeble hope that these bombs and bullets will quell the hostility and bring everyone home.

Wars are beastly affairs. Though I miss you, I am thankful you are not here to see this.

All my love,


October 28, 1944


Allied forces penetrated within a day’s march of Paris before the German resurgence overtook us. I could just make the city on the horizon before Squadron Leader Davies ordered the retreat. The Americans abandoned the campaign only last week. Their vacation of Europe extinguished the likelihood of British victory in France. We are left with only the most meager outfit of allied forces. One can hardly blame President Wallace for retreat. The march of the Mexican and Japanese troops into the Texas rangelands was without warning. Defenses were minimal. Now nothing but sagebrush stands between the enemy and America’s heartland.

I gazed at Paris for a moment, glinting bright in the crisp morning light, before I fell back. I thought of you all the while, remembering that afternoon long ago, when we traipsed through the Louvre. Somewhere between Bacchus and St. John the Baptist I fell in love with you. Then we slipped into the brisk and bustle of the Champs-Elysees and in that glimmering Parisian night we kissed long and full. You conquered my heart.

I suppose a full British retreat is imminent as well. Droves of German Panzers advance upon a green patchwork of the fertile French fields below me. It’s only a matter of days before Prime Minister withdraws all military presence. He never possessed the gumption to stand for what is right in the face of wickedness and no one expects him to find the courage now.

The World's hope now lies in the east. The Soviets must stem Nazi tide. Stalin should be regarded as no less a tyrant than the enemy at his doorstep, though.

All my love,


December 27, 1944


The world is changed. Moscow fell on Christmas day. Stalin is dead.

The evening paper boasted a picture of Hitler standing in front of the Grand Kremlin Place atop a podium adorned with the fatal red flag of the Nationalist Socialist Party. The swastika stands obscene against the cheery yellow palace walls.

I spent Christmas at Mother’s house in the wet cold of London. We cooked together and laughed and gave thanks for all the good and decent things the world has forgotten.

The high wail of the air raid sirens sounded as we sat down for supper. Christmas dinner became an abbreviated sort of thing. We spent the evening underground in the bomb shelter, feasting on tinned pears and loaves of hard bread and mugs of small beer instead of the spread of roast turkey and potatoes and plum wine. Mother cried throughout the night. I don’t suppose it was in fear, though, so much as pining for Father. This was her first Christmas since his passing. I consoled her and made assurances that the pain subsides eventually. Perhaps it will ebb if she is fortunate, but there is no waking hour in which I do not consider you.

I dreamt strange dreams that night in the shelter. I can only recollect shapes and colors, impressions of Briton and peace, like looking into kaleidoscope while running a high fever.

The whole of the city was scourged with explosions. The Luftwaffe targeted the Houses of Parliament, turning the clock tower into a smoldering pile of grey matchsticks. The blasts decapitated Lord Nelson.

All my love,


March 22, 1945


I love you. It should have been our seventh anniversary today. Instead, the world will remember this as the day of American surrender. Britain is still unconquered, but defeat is inevitable.

Happy Anniversary,


May 2, 1945


I am sitting in the officer’s quarters of the vacant RAF base in Somerset as I write this. It was an air base devoted to experimental avionics before being decommissioned some years ago. The funding became too great to sustain with a war-riddled economy.

Allow me to provide a brief summation of the events leading to this juncture:

P.M. Chamberlain addressed the Isle late last night, making known his intention to deliver Britain’s capitulation to Germany in a week. Furthermore, he ordered a full stand down of all military personnel. “We shall no longer fight for king and country” or so I thought. The Prime Minister was not off-air for more than a half hour when a courier arrived with a dispatch ordering me to report to the Somerset airbase post-haste. The missive did not have the familiar gilded eagle insignia of the RAF. For reasons I will never fully comprehend, I consented to go with the courier (after saying farewell to Mother) and he drove me to the local airfield.

At the airfield, a paunchy elderly fellow in a dark felt dress hat walked out of a huddle of a half-dozen men and shook my hand. He called himself Winston and claimed to be the benefactor of this midnight rendezvous. He explained his need of an able pilot for an expedition to Somerset; someone to transport these gathered men. “My desire is to seek out that which will defend king and country. My most fervent wish is to restore all the good and decent things this world has forgotten,” he said to me.

I consented to pilot his plane. After a short flight, I landed with Winston and his men at the abandoned airstrip and we all slept. Upon waking, I learned the other’s names. There is Dr. Owen, a slender balding geologist and his corpulent colleague, Dr. Brand, an archeologist. The remaining three, George, Terry, and Charlie, are decorated soldiers.

It’s now 7:00 a.m. and Winston has asked us all to reconvene in the barracks in thirty minutes for a briefing. The most any one of us could muster from the old chap was that our objective is to find an undercroft in Glastonbury Tor. When I pressed Winston to divulge further information, he smiled and assured me he means to set out and save God’s most sovereign state from the clutches of tyranny and evil. It’s too little too late.

All my love,


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tall Tale Tuesday :: The Tale of Tom Cabbage

I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.

~Oscar Wilde

Amid the foothills of the Poconos sits a rural town often overlooked, omitted by History. This is the town of Hollow Creek. The community is perched with its back against the exposed and ancient juts of dead mountain granite. It is flanked on its western edge by the village’s eponymous brook, a long and sinuous stream clambering down from the crags high above and pooling into a small lake, placid and pristine. Groves of oaks and hemlocks form a colonnade along the bank. The trees loom daunting, sheltering the creek and providing it sanctuary. The eastern fringe runs parallel with the mountain pass while the southern border opens into an expanse of verdant meadowlands, in which the farmers cultivate their livelihood, hopes, and dreams. Green and gilded stalks of corn speckle the fields, intermingled with the lush, violet grapevines and the indiscriminate sprouting of russet and grey-capped mushrooms. The remainder of pasture is left for the flocks of sheep and cattle ambling aimlessly, grazing.

The village itself is a remnant of fine colonial architecture. The homes upon the high street, hewn from the rocks of the mountains, stand tall and gaunt as they slant against one another like books upon a shelf that is not entirely level. Hollow Creek is a quaint village left unmarred by the resolution of progress, a tranquil country town harboring innumerable stories. The Stories of Hollow Creek range in their quality; there are narratives of great deeds, of men and their good nature, somber tales of love, unrequited and wayward, accounts of odd happenings and mundane existences, legends of the supernatural. All these stories are told whenever the townsfolk congregate, be it to celebrate matrimonial unions or lament the passing of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Stories crop up upon the eve of the fall harvest, when Dr. Ambrose Archie hosts his annual soiree in the quiet comfort of his apple orchard. Tales flow unreservedly in the local watering holes, frothy and full like the finest ale the barmen keep behind the counter. Most frequented is the Rusty Trough, a dank tavern where, on many a blustery and bitingly cold night, one might find Nathaniel Trotter, proprietor of the town Apothecary, or Ulysses McKinley toasting the barmaid as she endures his propositions of an unsavory nature, or even Dice Loman, the town mayor, stoic and as unchanged as the village. Though occupational titles vary, the residents of Hollow Creek are Bards, one and all. These tales, rehearsed and recounted upon request, are precious treasures of the town, a rich endowment more regarded than rubies or sapphires. There is, however, one story no man or woman of Hollow Creek will indulge. Children of the village often speak of it, the Tale of Tom Cabbage, in stifled voices as they huddle together outside the schoolhouse before the day’s instruction. But the village is privy to only a morsel of truth concerning Tom Cabbage, a Swiss cheese comprehension of his time at Oak Manor across the glen. Only I know the truth. I share the story with good will.

* * * * *

It began when the tousled brown-haired boy Tom Cabbage first came to Hollow Creek in a June many years past. His father, Thomas Cabbage, was a man of political aspiration, or what he referred to as “limitless horizons”. This, of course, also meant he was a man without scruples and a power lust insatiable. Cabbage, Sr. came from money. He bought influence. With the influence, he garnered respect, which is a discrete adage for he levied tyranny. Small community district courts provided the opportunity to exact his cruelty with impunity.

When the Hollow Creek judicial seat was left vacant following Judge Forrester’s death (a nasty bout of consumption did him in), Thomas Cabbage filled the post. He uprooted his wife, Emma, and son from their New England townhouse and gifted them with the palatial Oak Manor, a grand mansion adorned with high gables and a veranda buttressed with Mahogany beams, all accompanied by the stillness of nearby Old Man Lake.

Being bad-tempered and belligerent on the bench, enemies of Cabbage, Sr. were varied and many. Rumors began to swirl amongst the village. “He is a product of New York City and no mistake,” Sarah Pendleton told her bridge partners during their weekly game, “Louise’s boy, Eugene, claims to have overheard Judge Cabbage discussing his days as Tweed’s personal bodyguard at Tammany H…”

“And Samuel Baker over at Hollow Trust & Fidelity has it on the highest authority that Cabbage was at the heart of Standard Oil’s conception,” said Emma Whitaker, sitting bolt upright. “He was right hand man of J.D. Rockefeller. He seems well connected, indeed.” Such was the manner many a tale found invention in Hollow Creek; the misguided ramblings of biddies chirping happily like nightingales before dawn’s arrival.

More often than not, both Mr. and Mrs. Cabbage were away from Oak Manor. They spent their time frolicking throughout the Northeast without a care in the world, including their son. Tom had his nanny, which was more than enough adult interaction, or so thought his parents. Also, they required Tom to attend an all boys’ boarding school in Maine. Cabbage, Sr. felt it outlandish to leave something as paramount as education to the simple hill-folk of Hollow Creek. While his father meant well, the result was an utter lack of any local friends. This, in turn, spawned a progression summer months spent away from his school chums in the seclusion of the town library. There was one day in the thick of July, however, that wandered far afield from the ordinary.

Tom sat at his preferred table amid the stacks in the library, reading from The Inferno (his father insisted upon reading significant literature exclusively) when he became aware of a man peering at him through the bookshelves across from him. Tom met the skulking man’s gaze. His eyes were wide and misty, almost the color of rainclouds. The man stepped out from his cover and strode confidently toward Tom’s table.

“You are Thomas Cabbage’s boy, are you not? Young Tom Cabbage?” asked the man.

“Yes, Sir.” Answered Tom.

“Mayor Dice Loman, Tom.” said the man, removing his beige bowler hat and extending his right hand.

Tom shook it. The Mayor’s fingers were calloused and rigid. “Pleasure, sir,” said Tom, fighting the impulse to recoil his hand.

“What is a young man such as yourself doing cramped inside the library on this resplendent day? I would have assumed it to be difficult to keep a boy away from the amusement of the great outdoors. Aren’t the shoals of Old Man Lake within your father’s estate, Tom?”

“ I dunno, sir. Father’s forbidden me from walking to the lake unattended. Neither Mother nor Father is available to accompany me. They are away on holiday, you see. And my old nanny is too arthritic to walk for very long. Besides, Father made it quite plain the library was the only acceptable location to visit while they are away.”

“It’s a shame, that is. Beautiful shore side. And water so cold it could chill winter, I’d wager. All the same, it’s probably best you mind your father’s admonition.”

He stroked his bushy beard with his hand, caressing the swaths of whiskers gray as January’s dead sky. “Have you come across the story of Old Man Lake, by chance?” Tom shook his head. Mayor Loman’s left eyebrow inclined slightly, reminding Tom of a caterpillar, fuzzy and wriggling. Tom had seen this type of reaction upon his nanny’s face while playing chess. She would furrow her brow whenever he slid a bishop or knight into a position that left his king vulnerable. It was a tell. Mayor Loman wanted to share the story. Moreover, he has someone to gain, thought Tom.

“Would you like to hear it?”

Tom’s father discouraged listening to the anecdotes of the townsfolk. “Don’t fill your head with those yarns, boy. They’re fairy-tales; stories people of lesser intelligence cling to out of ignorance. ” He heard his father’s voice, laden with disdain. Though he was certain Mayor Loman was working an angle, he was curious and his father was nowhere near to stop him.


Mayor Loman cleared his throat before beginning. “Local legend maintains a creature, maybe a god even, called Old Man Ice lived high up in the mountains. He spent centuries laying about, lounging mostly, before he grew weary of the lofty crags,” a raspy cough interrupted him, “having developed acute backaches from resting on his stony bed for so long. He sought more cushioned accommodation and found it in the valley far below. He clambered down the mountainside with a few steps and surveyed the stretch of the dale. ‘It’s only the first moon of winter. All is well,’ Said Old Man Ice. ‘I’ll return to the high rocky places before spring’s first blossom.’ And without another thought, Old Man Ice rested his head upon some springy heather and drifted into a deep sleep. He awoke to the sound of a pernicious chuckle and had only the time to realize his head was the last of his body not to have melted. The Sun laughed at pitiable Old Man Ice as he shone brightly down upon him, until the last of his face melted like a dollop of butter upon warm toast. The irreverent buzzing of summer locusts was the only Requiem of Old Man Ice.”

Tom, a reticent boy by nature, stood stock-still. The Mayor was not finished. The pause was for dramatic effect. It worked. Tom feigned disinterest.

“That’s how the lake was formed. Old Man Ice still haunts the mountains and the lowlands. Or his disembodied spirit is said to, leastways. People, mostly spelunkers and hikers, still search within the caverns of the crags for his forsaken sanctuary. It is said to be unspoiled; as the Old Man left it upon his ill fated descent.” Mayor Loman sighed. “But if you aren’t allowed near the water’s edge without a chaperone, the mountains are beyond your boundaries. It’s a shame concerning the lake, though. Beautiful shores.” With that, the Mayor inclined the brim of his bowler to Tom and slinked between the stacks and out of sight.

Tom returned to Dante, but hell and damnation no longer held his interest. He pined after the lakeshore. He yearned to sprint barefoot through the cool shallows, skim rocks across the face of the water, and shrug off the general displeasure of being boarded up in stuffy rooms. While his mind grappled with the consequences of disobedience, the allure of being a child prevailed.

It was midday, and Tom’s nanny would not be expecting him back from the library until early evening. He strolled out from the library with a casual gait, taking great care not to dash. Adults paid little mind to multiple children scurrying about, but a solitary child going at a sprint often drew concern. Nearing the end of a row of houses on the high street, a brisk wind began to gust at Tom’s back. The leaves on nearby trees whipped and flitted like pennants of a castle caught aloft in a gale. The wind strengthened Tom. He knew one had to run with a wind like this. He lengthened his stride into a full gallop. The breeze enveloped Tom like the love of a mother he had never known, urging him forward, influencing him to take risks, encouraging him to feel alive.

The wind dissipated as Tom Cabbage reached the shoreline of Old Man Lake. He beheld in astonishment the land encircling the lake. It approached the water with heavy veneration, as though it were prostrating itself before the holiest of natural sanctuaries. Few trees had sprouted amongst the shoreline. The groves that did crop up gave reverence, never stretching so high as to obscure the water’s reflection. The surface was a glossy pane of undisturbed abyss, dark as void but as vibrant as the Northern Lights. It reminded Tom very much of the dark marble floors he pictured his mother and father danced upon whenever imagining the stately dinners they often attended.

He wrestled his socks and shoes from his feet and stood at the edge of the lake. He lifted his right foot over the surface, lowering it very deliberately, as though testing its solidity, certain he would be able to tread across to the far side. His foot broke the plane of the water. The chill was startling, but Tom never flinched. Instead, he merely smiled with a sense of failing accomplishment, or accomplished failure; he was not entirely sure which. Bright sunbeams pierced the cloudless day, bearing down upon him, and Tom was glad to have the cool refreshment of the shoals as he stood calf deep. He contented to himself to merely stand, tentative about disturbing the waters any further. Tom’s attention turned toward his submersed feet. Something brushed his left ankle. His hand plunged into the water and gripped what felt like a rock. Retracting his hand and opening his fist, he beheld a brilliant blue stone, its shape akin to that of a potato, but without weight, or so it felt. The shell of the stone was smoother than porcelain and without blemish.

Tom Cabbage held the stone in his hand. He craned his neck while his eyes explored the sprawl of the sky, searching for a chink, a seam in the bright cerulean fabric from which the stone might have come unstitched.

It was an object of great power. Energy swelled into his extremities as he caressed the stone, smooth and frosty to the touch. He perceived whispers emanating from the stone speaking in a multitude of tongues, foreign and enticing, familiar and obscene. Though he held the gem in direct sunlight, shadows and shapes crept across its surface, amalgamating, folding in upon one another like the colored shapes of a kaleidoscope. A trick of the eye, thought Tom.

He felt odd, examined almost, as though a host of nations were glowering at him, their collective animosity penetrating the base of his neck and sweeping into the chambers of his soul, eviscerating all warmth. A strong chill stole down Tom Cabbage’s spine. “This is not intended for me,” he said aloud. Lowering his hand to deposit the stone back into the water, an abnormal greed welled up within him, rising quickly like the mercury of a thermometer in the mouth of a fevered child. Walking back to the manor, he clutched the cobalt stone to his breast, savoring the synchrony of the stone’s pulse with his own heart.

When his nanny inquired about his damp clothes, Tom fabricated a story in a flash, blaming it on the bullying children in town. “They had a pale of water. They threw it on me as I left the library,” he said. reminding her she would do better to draw a warm bath for him rather than ask questions until he was fitted with a cold. “I’m sure Mother and Father wouldn’t be at all pleased to hear you let me fall ill.”

“ Of course, young sir,” the nanny replied, and went to prepare bathtub. Tom seized her absence as an opportunity to stow the stone in his room. Whispers continued to spill from it, unintelligible yet forewarning, like hearing another person’s conscience. He packed the stone deep into the downy depth of his pillow and made for the washroom.

Following his bath, Tom feigned illness, hoping to bypass dinner and proceed directly to bed. The ruse was successful.

The sunlight waned outside Tom’s bedroom window and his eyelids grew heavy. He kept the stone clenched in his hand against his chest, once again savoring the synchrony of the stone’s pulse with his own heart. The whispers grew more insistent. Still, Tom embraced sleep’s blissful approach. His eyelids mimicked the Sun’s, both closing in harmony. In his failing consciousness, he assured himself the stone was safe, the stone was his, the stone was everything…

Tom Cabbage is cold. It is always cold on the mountain. The blizzard will not relent. Serrated snowblades slice and slash his skin. “I’ll wait this out in there.” He points to a fissure barely visible in the granite wall. He takes notice of his arms. They are broader than he remembers, more muscular. Not the arms of a child. Tom enters the hole in the mountain. It provides relief from the sting of swirling ice. The wind howls unabated into the cave. Its echo is nefarious. There are voices, too. They began with the wind but now are separate, distinct. The wind is gone. The voices remain. They scream within the belly of the mountain. Indiscernible. Tom Cabbage’s eyes compensate for the dimness. Light. A radiance trickles to his retinas from further in. Tom walks on. The walkway widens. The walls are sleeted and the ice reflects a soft radiance. No stalactites. No stalagmites. Only ice. The voices are nearer. They shout in horror, in fear, in agony. Tom tries to recall the proper name for an entryway. Vestibule, is it? The path opens into a room of frost. No. An ice cathedral. The entryway was a narthex, not a vestibule, then. The sanctuary is cylindrical, floor to roof, and washed in a painful blue glow. The walls glisten and sparkle, twinkling like stars. Are they stars? “God, the voices! If they would be quiet I could figure ou…” comprehension dawns. “The voices are the sparkles, the stars.” They are people, wreathed in rime, entombed in ice, like crystallized caricatures one finds in snow globes. “They’re alive. Son of a bitch, they’re alive!” Tom sees a Form in the center. Androgynous. Arctic. Alarming. Frost in its beard. Fog in its eyes. The blue light filling the chamber emanates from a hole in its chest. Tom Cabbage reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the cobalt stone. He fits it into the hole. White assaults Tom Cabbage. It could be light. It could be snow. It could be the absence of everything. He yells. He wails. He shrieks. He hears the voices again. Oh, the voices! He joins with them. He screams the Requiem of Old Man Ice. All he knows is White.

Tom’s nanny knocked on his bedroom at seven o’clock the following morning, as she always did. When he did not answer, she let herself into the boy’s room. “It’s time to rise, young sir,” she said, “your mother and father will be arriving this afternoon.” The nanny threw aside the bedcovers. She gasped.

The bed was wet and empty, save for a blue gemstone. She hefted it in her hand, examining it. The stone melted in her hand like a dollop of butter upon warm toast.

* * * * *

The story the schoolchildren tell to one another is a tale of a timid boy with tousled brown hair who wet his bed and, out of embarrassment, ran away from home. The boy’s parents vanished almost as mysteriously, though all their possessions were moved from Oak Manor. It was thought they must have returned to New England. Sarah Pendleton maintains Thomas Cabbage was commissioned to oversee the installation of Standard Oil’s new headquarters in New York City. If only the villager’s account were true. I am Tom Cabbage. Only I know the truth. I share the story with good will.