Sadder than any person I’ve ever seen, Madam Ostelinda greets me with a weak handshake before taking the seat across the table and begins to remove the cloth from her crystal ball.
“That won’t be necessary, “ I say. “Your sign out front says you’re a dream interpreter as well, is that right?”
“I am,” says the fortune teller and I’m surprised at how much her accent doesn’t match her garish Roma garb, as if she can’t be bothered putting on the full routine anymore. In fact, her office or workspace or inner sanctum or whatever you call the place a woman in her line of work plies their craft seems a bit underdone, like a cheap curio shop that isn’t ready to open for business because it’s not fully stocked.
“I’d like to tell you about this dream I’ve been having.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” she says, repositioning the deep velvet cloth over the glass orb and locking eyes but still not properly seeing me.
“Okay, so, I’m looking up at this crescent moon in a night sky filled with stars and it’s too big, the moon, like I can almost reach out and touch it, except my arms won’t move. Then I realize I can’t move my entire body because I’m tangled up in some sort of giant spiderweb which for some reason is at the mouth of a cave. And before I can make sense of it, I hear a noise, a scrabbling or scratching sound that’s getting closer and it’s clear that something is approaching behind me and because I’m immobilized I can’t see it but I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it’s the thing that made this web.
“I try calling out for help but my lips and my teeth have these hooks and hollows that have been locked together like a flesh and bone zipper. All seems lost when out of the corner of my eye I spot a pair of scissors stuck to the web near my right hand and if I can only reach it I can cut myself free…but try as I might my fingers just aren’t long enough and the creature is right behind me, and just when I sense it’s about to strike…I wake up.”
I study Madam Ostelinda’s face, who is clearly preoccupied with other matters, and I do not rush her interpretation so we sit in her shabby mystic lair in silence for a long moment until the time the impatience I attempt to tamp down forces a biological urge to clear my throat.
The faux gypsy returns from her woolgathering and asks, “How many times have you had this dream?”
“There have been at least eleven instances in the past two weeks,” I reply. “Any idea what it all means?”
It is now Madam Ostelinda’s turn to clear her throat as she leans forward on the table, lacing her fingers in an academic professorial manner, and explains, “Well, a crescent moon indicates cyclic changes, renewal, and possibly progressing smoothly toward a new life path. The web could either suggest that you’re being held back from fully expressing yourself or you feel trapped and don’t know what to do or where to go. The scissors could denote a need to become decisive and take control in the real world, or you need to cut things or people out of your life.”
“I suppose I can agree with some of that,” I nod. “Not to change the subject but you seemed a little distracted after I finished telling you my dream. What were you thinking about?”
“You noticed that, huh? My apologies. It just seemed familiar to me, that’s all, like I’ve heard something similar to it before.”
“From your daughter, perhaps?”
And there is the look I have been waiting for, the dawning
“Amy?” she says my name and I am triggered, losing my footing in the present and falling back through the calendar of my life to the days when my younger self delighted in having my mother’s undivided attention.
“Hi, Mom,” I say, smiling despite myself.
This woman, who looks nothing like I remembered; who looks nothing like me because I take after my father, struggles to find words and when she eventually does, all she can muster is, “How did you find me?”
“A private investigator. Dad told me it was a waste of money and time but sometimes I’m like a dog with a bone, a trait he says I get from you. It took the private eye a while to find you because you did one hell of a job changing your identity.”
And any satisfaction I thought I’d feel at finally confronting her is lost when ages-long regret strips away the gypsy mask to reveal the sad, small woman beneath.
“You must think I’m a horrible person,” she turns away as she says this as to hide the tears welling in her eyes.
“I did, for a long time,” I admit. “But now, all I want are answers.”
“You’re not going to understand.”
“Try me. And as for the scissors thing, I’m not trying to cut you out of my life,” I say and proceed to ask all the questions a parent who abandons their child dreads.
By the time you read this, this version of me will be dead, but your version will just have been born, but before you become dismayed, know that I have lived a long and prosperous life, just as you had. I realize how unbelievable this will seem to you in your present, but in my past and your future, time travel has/will become a reality. I wish I could tell you more, but although time has opened for humankind greatly, my own time is extremely limited.
There are many blessings to being a member of The Time Guild, but the most important to me has to be the ability to tell you the things I never had the opportunity to say while you were alive. I admire your ability to be both mother and father to me, as well as my best friend, and so I wanted to let you know a few things.
Encouraging me to be an outspoken independent thinker was the best thing you could have done for me. Thank you very much for that. The money that you hide in that ratty old sock in your sock drawer, take a portion of it and invest in a startup company called ReTempus. I know this will put a financial burden on us in the short run, but it will pay off when we need it most. Not to mention ReTempus will eventually become the Time Guild. Please be discreet in your investments as feeding you this information is a strict violation of the Guild’s bylaws, but it should be fine if you fly under the radar.
My final gift to you, embedded in this chronal parchment, is a holographic image. These are your grandchildren, born after you passed away. My daughter is named after you. I am sure I do not have to warn you to keep the letter and its contents hidden from everyone, including me. Just raise me to the best of your ability and time will sort out the rest.
My father died when I was young and I was the last person in the family to find out. Everyone thought they were protecting me, shielding me from the bad news and the sorrow and pain that would follow, but I knew something was wrong, even though I didn’t know what had happened. It’s like Nana Bettie used to say, I felt it in my waters.
When my mother finally broke the news to me, I didn’t cry, trying to prove that I was a big girl. I just shut down, and I think that scared my family more than if I had gone into hysterics. I didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, refused to go to school, and ignored every therapist that came to see me. The brilliance I had once appreciated in life began to fade, colors running together like a painting left out in the rain.
I was wasting away, and not just physically. My soul had begun to atrophy to the point where no one or no thing held interest for me anymore. And that was when my body finally gave out and I collapsed, finding myself falling, falling through stages of grief, which was actually like falling back through time, back to when my father initially sparked the kindling that would ignite the flame that would eventually become my passion.
I landed on a white beach with sand soft as clouds and an endless aquamarine ocean, and standing at the very edge of the shoreline was my father. The entire universe lay open before me.
“Is this heaven?” I asked.
My father laughed and said, “No, sweetheart. Paradise is much cooler than this.”
“Is that where you live?”
“Can I stay there with you? I promise I’ll be good.”
“You will one day, but not until you’re older, much older.”
“It’s not fair!”
“Life isn’t fair sometimes,” he shrugged. “But what if I make you a promise?”
“What kind of promise?”
My father held up his right hand. “Do you see this? It may not look like much to you, but I promise this hand is strong enough to protect you all the days of your life. So, while you may not be able to see me, you can trust that I’ll always be with you.”
And before I could plead my case to stay with him again, he leaned down and gently kissed my forehead, and I woke up in my bed, eyes filled with tears and surrounded by my family. I never told them what I saw because I didn’t want them to try to explain it away.
And whether you believe me or not, there have been times in my life where I survived circumstances that were impossible to bear because I felt I was in the grip of the protective hand of love.
The Universe expanded just wide enough to allow worlds to form. And those worlds were meant to spawn beings. And those beings were meant to learn the ways of the Apparatus Universi in order to keep the universe running, for The Universe was not a living thing, as most intelligent races postulated.
The Universe was a machine constructed by the Vetus Mundi Tinkerers, a race of cosmic free-thinkers and craftsbeings who, though long-lived, were not immortal, and eventually succumbed to the end fate that awaits us all, while waiting for their successors to arrive to remove the heavy burden from their weary shoulders and carry on in their stead.
But the changing of the guard never occurred. Somewhere down the line, the sacred knowledge meant to be handed down the generations until the various races sufficiently evolved to the point when they were ready to transition into tinkerers, had been mistold, mangled and eventually forgotten.
Now The Universe was winding down, beginning to fail because a piece was missing. Some small, yet vital part had somehow come loose during millennia of daily operation and was set adrift on the spaceways, with no one to find it, no one who even knew what to look for.
He really did try his damnedest to live his life in a productive manner, the only bit of advice he retained from his absentee father before he faded like the memory of a dream upon waking, but despite his efforts, it seemed as though he hadn’t made one definitive move in the right direction. There had been baby steps, to be sure, all down the vaunted paths less traveled, but for every baby step forward, life managed to push him two adult paces back, which racked up a ton of negative miles on his life odometer pushing his right direction destination so far forward it blinked out of existence on the horizon.
He heard that knowledge was power and he was very knowledgeable in the fact that life was what happened to you when you made other plans but of what use was that now? What was the answer? To grin and bear it? To roll with the punches? To play the hand he was dealt? Not exactly proactive, was it? And when he discovered knowledge did not necessarily mean answers, he was left with another riddle to heap upon the compost mound of riddles he accumulated over the course of his misbegotten life: When did the real answers come? Answers that counted for something?
Did they come in the middle of the night, when the pillow whispered his dreams back to him, or was the house creaking an Aramaic Morse code about his destiny as it settled each night? Or was everything realized the moment he awoke from a nightmare, in that flash second when he didn’t know where he was or what was real from what was illusion and the fear gripped him like a tangled, sweat-soaked bed sheet?
Then he began to suspect the answer didn’t exist within us, not singularly, anyway. What if each and every human being contained some small piece of a larger puzzle and all it took was the connection of communication to fit the pieces together? There was a saying acquired from a passing acquaintance that went, “You were never more than five minutes driving distance from an absolute stranger that had the ability to care for you, perhaps they could not offer love unconditionally, but they honestly cared about what happened to you.”
But he destroyed that somewhere along the way. He made strangers out of relatives and friends and instead of concentrating on what made people alike, he focused on what made them different. And there really wasn’t a great love for people who were different from the vision he had of himself.
He wasn’t what anyone would call a spiritual being, nor did he reside anywhere in that neighborhood, but he knew that there was a tremendous energy that existed in this moment. Right here. Right now. He just couldn’t seem to tap into it. He was far too busy shrugging off the past and contemplating the future to focus on how he was feeling in the moment, or alarmed at the lack of what he was feeling at present. And perhaps that was the real issue. Perhaps he overthought his existence instead of simply existing.
But who wanted to merely exist? To live life on cruise control? He wanted to be consumed in a fiery passion of–of…well, therein lay the problem. He didn’t know what he should have been passionate about anymore. It was like someone or something blew out the pilot light of his passion so that even the things that used to fascinate him barely held his interest anymore. It was like he outgrew his old life and emerged into a void. Waves of ennui assaulted him daily and though he realized that he must accept thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations as they came (accept, surrender, observe, and then, let go)…this didn’t change the fact that this existence, in this incarnation, had grown tiresome.
The ennui of this moment was overwhelming. He had the urge to deaden his senses with the mindless distraction of television, but instead, sat silently and surrendered. He submitted to what was. He allowed himself to feel himself; to truly experience the exactness of this infinite moment without judgment or ridicule. The difficulty of this task reminded him of a college professor’s eloquent analogy of The Tao:
“The current in a river carries you. If you try to swim upstream, you break the flow, you struggle. If you see a rock and you attempt to hold tightly onto it, the water will shove, thrust, push against you until your arms weaken and your body aches. Work with the current and the current works with you; work against the current and the current works against you. The only way to avoid the struggle is to simply flow; allow the river to carry you, surrender to all that is, and your course – even when rough – will be tranquil.”
He needed to learn to give up the struggle. Or rather, he knew to give up the struggle, now he needed to practice doing so. Upset by what was, angered by what wasn’t, worried about what would be, and anxious of what strife may come, he couldn’t even see the now, let alone feel it, taste it, touch it and live in it.
He couldn’t just flow. He couldn’t stop swimming upstream, or clutching to all that was inconsequential.
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At first, his world was consumed by the sounds of the sea. Rolling waves smashing against rocks. The shrill caw of seagulls from somewhere high above. Then a noise. A song? Four repetitious notes that began on the lowest frequency sound perceptible to the human ear that rose to an ear-splitting wail. Roland was pulled into consciousness sometime around dawn. His eyes fluttered open and he thought he was blind for a moment, his vision refusing to cooperate, but as sight gradually returned, for an instant he wished for darkness again. Emerging from the haze of blurry blobs and shapes were the after effects of a shipwreck, thrust upon the shore by the relentless crash of waves.
He pushed the wreckage of broken wood and fabrics off of himself and stood unsteadily in the scattered aftermath that was once a vessel. The morning mist began to burn off and Roland could see for miles in the sunlight reflecting off the sea. The beach was quiet and uninhabited, polluted with ownerless possessions, jagged spires of twisted metal and wood pointing at odd angles towards the sky.
Combing through the debris for other survivors, all he uncovered were bloated bodies clustered in puddles of black blood. It felt like a long, sharp blade slowly being driven into his heart. A great weight of hopelessness settled on him, getting heavier and heavier. Although he was the only living thing on this deserted strip of an uncharted island, he felt like he was dead. No, it felt like he was dying, over and over again. Unliving forever.
He was lost. Roland wasn’t a mariner, the furthest thing from it, stranded without a map, without the slightest idea where the waters had washed him, without a means of communicating to another living soul. He was surrounded by gritty sand that irritated his already raw skin, a few trees that bore no fruit, and a great body of water that uttered waves of mocking laughter at his uncertainty of it being safe to drink. At first, he collected containers of seawater and strained it through fabric, but he soon acknowledged he didn’t know what he was doing and truth be told it was too time-consuming and he had always been an impatient man, even with so much time on his hands. If it was saltwater, so be it. Better than dying of thirst.
He was lonely. Over the course of several days, remnants of the ship washed ashore. He tried to occupy his mind by building a makeshift camp from flotsam and foliage. He also created signal fires from bits of wood he placed in the sun to dry and spelled out giant SOS messages in stones on the sand, but none of this was enough to dull the ache for companionship that swelled within him and nearly outweighed his ever-increasing hunger.
During the early mornings before the sun set itself at the hottest point in the sky, forcing him to find shade, Roland explored the shoreline and picked through the mostly useless debris. It was a futile effort and he wasn’t sure why he kept at it. Most of the litter had been committed to memory, but on the morning he swore to himself that he wouldn’t explore any longer—
Roland came upon an enormous whale beached on the surf.
Elated that his food worries were over, he scrounged around and found a bit of metal with a sharp enough edge to be used as a knife and wrapped a length of cloth around the other end, fashioning a handle that ensured he wouldn’t cut himself in the process. But before Roland drove his blade into the beast, the whale regarded him with its great eye, and something in that momentary exchange of glances struck a strange sort of empathy in the man’s heart. It turned out his need for a companion outweighed his need for sustenance.
Roland gathered up all the cloth he could lay his hands on, dipped the fabrics into the sea and draped them over the cetacean. He then dismantled his shelter and rebuilt it nearer to his new island mate. It was the hardest relationship he ever had to maintain, constantly gathering water in containers to keep his friend wet and spearing fish to feed it, most of which he was forced to eat when his friend declined. But it was worth the price of not being alone. Of having someone to talk to, even if the conversations were all one-sided.
The following day Roland heard a sound. A vocalization of four notes that registered on the borders of his perception. He wasn’t sure if it was whalesong, wasn’t sure that whales possessed the ability to speak out of water, but whatever it was, it was a sound. And the whale made it.
Among the many things he knew nothing about, whalesong ranked high, but somehow he understood what the whale attempted to communicate. It had said to him:
let me die
Saddened by the prospect of being alone again, Roland argued with the whale, tried to reason with it, pleaded his case. The whale did not respond, apparently resolute in its decision. He had no choice but to abide by his friend’s wishes and formed a pact with the massive marine mammal not to leave its side, not to eat until the whale died.
For two days the man recounted the story of his life. He spoke of accomplishments and regrets in equal measure and tried to calculate the good he had done in the world and the legacy, if any, he would have left behind. And at the end of the second day, when all the stories worth telling had been told, the whale, skin dried and cracked rattled the notes for:
Roland mourned the passing of his friend and tried to no avail to commit the whale’s body back to the sea. His appetite never returned.
One morning, a week or so later, he spotted a ship on the horizon. He dragged his weakened frame across the sand over to the kindling of the signal fire and set about to light it but paused instead and looked over his shoulder at the decaying whale.
“Don’t think they’d be anxious to take you along, would they?” he sighed. “No. I guess they wouldn’t.” Roland turned his back on the ship and returned to his shelter.
He released his grip on life that very same evening.
A commercial fishing trawler, more rust than boat, bobbed across the heavy chops of the sea. The hard, beaten-faced crew hoisted up nets filled with their catch. A shadow suddenly fell over the deck and the fishermen looked to the vast spill of stars in the night sky and for the briefest of moments spotted the silhouette of a man riding on the back of a whale against the waning moon.
About Beached: Growing up I created my own characters for my favorite TV shows and fantasized about how I could make the story different and in some cases better. When I returned to reality, the characters and plots were radically different from where I had begun.
There was a teacher I had a crush on, I didn’t have her in any of my classes and I can’t recall how we became acquainted but she always made time for me between classes. Anyway, she once told me there hadn’t been a new plot created in over two thousand years, but it’s the way the writer perceived the plot and created the characters that made the story unique.
Most of my work is inspired by the wisps of dreams and despite keeping a dream journal—that I don’t update quite often as I should—I don’t remember the precise details surrounding how I’m immersed in the story I wind up writing about. If I’m able to remember anything at all it’s usually only one aspect or detail that vividly sticks in my mind.
This single aspect becomes a what-if question that I strive to answer—the what-ifs of life are the basis of the best stories ever told.
So, I do with my dreams the same as I did with the TV shows, in this case, I took a dream about being stranded on a strip of sand out in the middle of nowhere and this is what it became.
Once there was a kindly woman who was known all about the town as Lovely Lucy, not so much for her appearance, for she was endowed with plain features—which wasn’t a bad thing at all—but she was called this because she was arguably one of the sweetest people who ever walked the face of the planet. The only parts of her life that suffered were her love life and her inability to bear children.
One morning, Lucy went to market and spoke with the town sculptor, who made statues large and small, some for himself and some which he sold. Lucy hadn’t much money so she explained what she wanted to do and begged the sculptor to spare some clay and promised to pay him another day. The sculptor remembered how Lucy had brought soup and sat by his bedside when he had taken ill, and gladly gave her as much of his special clay as she could carry, free of charge.
Thanking the sculptor for his kindness, Lucy rushed home and began working on a life-sized statue of a boy, aged five. She made the little boy perfect. His reddish-brown features depicted an unblemished beauty and innocence such as no real boy had ever possessed. Although she had no skill at sculpting, she crafted the statue with such love that upon first glance it seemed to be a live boy standing still. She took great care in painting her little angel, making his eyes blue like the sky, his lips and cheeks pink like the sunset and his hair black as twilight.
Lucy marveled at her creation. She held his little clay hand, kissed his rosy cheek, and told him many times a day how much she loved him. When she went out to market, he was always in her mind, and she searched for presents for him – flat, smooth rocks for skipping across the lake, seashells for tooting like horns, and twigs and vines woven into a ball. She bartered her baked goods for hand-me-down children’s clothing and dressed him in different outfits each day. She even brought him a puppy from the neighbor’s litter for company while she was away.
Lucy was not able to manage the other part of her suffering as easily. For reasons unknown to anyone, she attracted the wrong sort of suitors and was far too kind of heart to dismiss them, despite their many transgressions against her. It pained the townsfolk to see a woman so intelligent in all other respects remain so foolish in love.
Her most recent failed relationship was with a traveler who suspected her of being unfaithful one day when she had gone out to market, so he barred her from her own house and drew obscene pictures of her and posted them about town. Lucy begged and pleaded with the traveler and after a week or so, he changed his opinion and let her back into her home to be reunited with her clay boy.
That evening the traveler fixed her dinner and his mouth was sweet with words of love and a possible reconciliation. Cautious at first, Lucy finally let her guard fall, assured that his feelings and his intentions were genuine. That was the last thing she remembered before she awoke the following afternoon, face down in her bedding. She felt groggy and her body ached in unspeakable places as though she had been violated. She knew she had been drugged.
Lucy reported the incident to the authorities. The traveler confronted her in public, on the road from the market, after the authorities questioned him. Wishing to avoid an argument, she simply turned to walk away. Her next waking recollection was being bound to a chair in her home. The traveler had struck her a cowardly blow to the back of the head. She was helpless as he raged against her with rock and branch. But fortune smiled upon her when a neighbor heard her cries of anguish and contacted the authorities. This time, he was imprisoned.
From his prison cell, the traveler requested an audience with Lucy, and she, having a forgiving nature, went to visit. And his tongue was dipped in honey and he spoke sweetness and there was yet again talk of a possible reconciliation, which she honestly considered.
All was calm and happy between Lucy and the traveler when he was once again a free man. They sat together and talked, went out to the seashore and walked, and the traveler also lavished attention on the clay boy. All seemed right with the world and Lucy’s life was as close to being perfect as it had ever been.
Until one night she bolted upright out of a sound sleep and found the traveler standing over her, eyes doused in rage.
“I know you play me for a fool!” He spat through gritted teeth. “I know you have taken a lover! Who is it? The neighbor? The sculptor? Tell me who it is or you will never know a moment’s peace ever again!”
When she did not answer, he stormed out of the room and Lucy hoped he would leave the house but instead the sound of his thunderous footsteps headed in the direction of her private room—the room where the clay boy lived.
“No!” she cried as she dashed from her bed.
In the private room, she found the traveler with the wood axe resting over one shoulder. He stood next to her perfect little boy.
“Shhh,” he said. “If you wake him up, I will have to kill him.”
Lucy hadn’t a clue what to do so she started begging for the statue’s life, whispering as not to anger the traveler.
“What can I do?” she kept asking him. “What can I do to make this right?”
The traveler commanded her to her knees and she did this without a second thought. “Down on all fours.” And she complied. Then he made her crawl from the room backward, back into her bedroom.
“Now, on your knees,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Close your eyes and smile.” She was nervous, of course, but she obeyed. The next thing she felt was the ax handle as it smashed into her mouth, shattering her front teeth.
“Your life is mine! Your sad statue is mine! You both will cease to exist if I so wish it!” the traveler ranted.
She felt his foot on her shoulder, pushing her over, toppling her flat on her back. She wanted to look at him but was afraid, so she squeezed her eyes shut as he straddled her and beat her. Her head swam with pain, but Lucy knew she couldn’t scream for fear of this madman destroying her little boy, so she took the beating until she passed out.
Lucy dreamed that she was an eagle soaring through clouds misted with morning dew above a river where children frolicked and although she was too high to hear the sounds of their tiny voices, she knew they were happy and having fun. But something tugged at her tail feathers like a dragging weight, pulling her back down to a place she did not want to go, a place of pain and sorrow—
When she woke up, regaining consciousness piece by piece, she was surrounded by the sharp claws of searing pain that pawed at her like a hungry animal. As her mind struggled for clarity she wondered where she was. In her bed? But how did she get there?
All around, the walls were covered in blood, so much blood. Too much to be her own. Then she saw the bits and pieces. Parts that belonged at one time to a whole, red soaked clumps of the remnants of the traveler. Divided from one another and from life itself by the wood ax buried in the man’s severed head.
She looked at her hands. Had she done this terrible thing? Then she heard a voice, tiny tingly, that chirped in song, “Not to worry, not to fear, everything is fine, Mama, I am here.”
She stared at a living boy whose eyes were blue as the sky, cheeks the color of the sunset and hair as black as twilight.
He hugged her neck and kissed her cheek and whispered, “I love you, too.”
About Strong Roots Amongst the Clay: As a kid I never had much interest in fairy tales. In fact, I hated them. My mother told me that someone had given her a book about Squanto, also known as Tisquantum—the Native American of the Patuxet tribe who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World—thinking it was a book of fairy tales. And where Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm failed to put me at rest at night, the adventures of Squanto did the job nicely.
And I wouldn’t fully appreciate the cultural richness and power of fairy tales until revisiting them in the 1980’s. For the longest time I searched for something to spark an idea for a fairy tale story that I probably would never bother writing—there’s a difference between the wanting of a thing and the doing of a thing.
Then one day a story was relayed to me about a coworker at a retail job that I absolutely hated and the first thought that popped into my mind—after showing proper concern for my coworker, of course—was to give my fairy tale story a spin.
At the time I wrote the story, I wasn’t a fan of the fairy tale narration. I didn’t like reading it and I didn’t like writing it. I’m still not a big fan of a lot of the story’s voice, but finally sitting down and writing a fairy tale piece taught me appreciation of it.
I’m still not sure if I like the ending or not. There’s a fine line between chilling and cheesy and I’m not sure which side I’m on.
Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that was removed and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.
The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, as patient as the lamb she was in life.
She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that was mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.
Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure — she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture — getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in heaven.
While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little of the time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.
Finally, an angel arrived, tall and thin with black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he no longer needed. A remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.
The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the uns — undertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.
“Hi, I’m Modestine.” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.
Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.
Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you…” and she tried her best to match the noise he made… but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.
Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”
Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?” she asked.
“Heavens no,” Phil replied. “That’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”
“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”
“I’m here to take you to class.”
“Oh, okay.” Modestine followed behind Phil, a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.
Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.
“Here you are.” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.
“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”
“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh look had a sting.
“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”
“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.
“Oh, no… no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”
“It’ll come to you as you need. Heaven’s cool that way.”
“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”
“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”
“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.
The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”
Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.
“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”
The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.
The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several icebreaking games before the class broke for recess.
As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.
“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.
“Just Modestine, and, yes… ?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.
The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”
“You’re not? Then who… ?”
“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”
Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch… what is it you want?”
Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”
“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”
“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”
“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”
“And do my superiors know you’re here?”
“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”
Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.
“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”
“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may ask me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”
“Just Modestine, and why me?”
“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you.” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat and read the agreement more thoroughly. Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word “No”. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.
His job made Joseph MacDonal II, Joey Mac to his pals, the enemy of the world and a target for assassination. He was one of the few people on the planet trained and licensed to butcher unicorns and prepare their meat for consumption. This also put him at odds with PAUTU (People Against the Unethical Treatment of Unicorns) who accused him of unicorn genocide.
The thing that stuck in everyone’s craw, more than selling unicorn steaks, chops and burgers, was the butchery aspect, though that was the bit they all had gotten wrong. Yes, Joey was technically a unicorn butcher, but the proper definition was:
/ˈbo͝oCHər – NOUN
A person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.
which he did. What most folks failed to understand, though it was a matter of public record, was that his license hadn’t included or even allowed the hunting or slaughtering of unicorns or any other animals. In fact, Joey never killed a thing in his life. Insects that crossed his path were the subject of a strict catch, relocate and release system.
At this very moment, Joey sat across from a field news reporter undergoing makeup in preparation for the live broadcast. He found her cute in a cable news presenter sort of way, and probably would have been more attracted to her if she hadn’t had that I’ll make my bones off this story hungry look in her eyes.
She ignored him completely, even brushing off his initial “Hello” until the cameraman counted her down. When the station anchor threw to her, the field reporter beamed a smile so unnaturally white, it would have stood out in a blizzard.
“Thank you, Sylvia. I’m here with noted unicorn slaughterer, Joseph MacDonal,” the field reporter said, finally locking her predatory eyes on him.
“Actually, I’m a unicorn butcher…”
“Same difference, isn’t it?”
“Actually, there’s a big dif–‘
“What made you decide to embark on this horrible profession?” she interrupted.
The economy had been in the crapper since before God talked to Moses and Joey hadn’t worked in forever. And even though he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to do what analysts suggested and set aside six months worth of salary in a high yield account before he was made redundant at the meatpacking plant, now going on his tenth year, all that money was little more than a distant memory.
A Christian in name more than practice, it had been years since the soles of his shoes touched the floor of a church and that time was his best friend’s wedding, a wife twice removed. To say Joey was out of practice with the proper act of prayer would have been an understatement. His first attempt came off as more of a bitch session, with him blaming his parents for his rotten upbringing and lambasting society for its prejudice of gingers, which, he reckoned, was the chief reason for his being kept down by the man. Surprisingly, he saw no results.
His second attempt at prayer was akin to a letter to Santa, in which he listed all the positive things he’d ever done in life and expected a little compensation for his good behavior. Again, results were not forthcoming.
Third time was the charm, however, when he realized that he should have admitted his sin, expressed thanks for the things he had and humbly requested the one thing he needed most: a job.
He put no expectation on the prayer and went about his normal daily existence, when, a week later, he received a phone call. Seemed that a friend of a friend knew a guy who knew a guy who had a roommate who was related to a woman who owned her own business was looking for someone in his line of work.
Joey arrived at the interview, résumé in hand, and launched into his well-rehearsed spiel when the business woman waived him off and ushered him into a small kitchen area.
“Show me what you can do,” she gestured at a section of the animal carcass, a shank, by the look of it, that rested atop a butcher block countertop.
Joey inspected the meat before touching a utensil. Not beef, nor pork, nor lamb, the texture was something he had never encountered before. A grain like beef, yet soft to the touch like flan, and it shimmered without a light source as if it were bioluminescent. “What is this?” he asked.
“Are you interested in the job or not? I don’t have all day,” she drummed her fingers on her crossed arms.
Joey sighed, selected a knife from the butcher block and approached the slab of meat, much in the same manner a sculptor would a block of marble, envisioning the cuts before blade touched flesh. With no idea what type of animal he was dealing with, there was no way of telling how this woman expected it to be prepared, so he simply followed his instincts and let the meat talk to him. And in a way, it did.
Every time the stainless steel edge portioned the strange meat, Joey thought he heard a high-pitched tone, like the sound of a moistened finger running along the rim of a crystal goblet. A sound that broke his heart. But in the aftermath, when the tone was just about to become inaudible, he heard a voice inside his head. It said two words:
and he felt a permission granted. This had not relieved the wave of guilt that flooded over him but it gave him the desire to do something with his own life worthy of this unknown animal’s sacrifice.
When he was done, the business woman nodded her approval, “Every bit the professional you claimed to be.” And it was a professional job. Every cut was perfect, none too generous, nor too small, and there were absolutely no scraps. He utilized every last bit of the meat.
“I’m curious, what type of meat is this?”
“Unicorn,” she said very matter of factly.
“You heard me.”
“I don’t get the gag,” Joey inwardly chastised himself on his tone. If his dumb mouth cost him the job, he’d…
“I’m quite serious,” the woman took him by the upper arm in a grip tighter than he was comfortable with and led him through a maze of stairwells and corridors, down, down, so far down beneath street level that he expected to see passage markers scratched into the walls by Arne Saknussemm.
Their destination was a room designed to look like a field, complete with grass, trees and rocks. Had he been blindfolded and dropped here, Joey would have sworn he was outside. The room was so vast, he couldn’t see the far wall. The only telltale sign this was, in fact, an indoor facility were the track lights that provided sunlight, positioned incredibly high overhead, but even they were mostly obscured by the clouds of the room’s self-contained weather system. But as fascinating as all this was, by far the most mindblowing thing were the unicorns grazing in the field.
“They’re real?” Joey asked.
The woman couldn’t suppress her chuckle, “Our organization, as advanced as it is, isn’t able to manufacture live unicorns.”
“But how is this possible?” Joey took a cautious step into the room and felt the spongy grass beneath his shoe. He moved slowly as not to spook a unicorn no more than ten feet away. The unicorn paid him no mind.
“Some trapper with an overabundance of dumb luck caught the last pair in existence by accident. Fortunately for him, and us, they were a stallion and mare. We made him a very wealthy man in order to breed them in captivity.”
“For food?” there went his tone again, but this time he didn’t care.
The woman shrugged. “There’s nothing else we can do with them. You can’t ride them. Young, old, virginal, virtuous… it doesn’t matter. They simply won’t allow it. Utilize the horn for its magical properties? It’s only magical for the unicorn, there’s no transference of power. Grinding down the horn and ingesting the powder for immortality? Turns out the human body is unable to digest the powder.”
“Then why not let them go?”
“Not until we recoup our investment. And we can’t risk one of our competitors getting hold of them and creating a revenue source we haven’t managed to think up ourselves… yet.”
“This is going to sound strange,” Joey said. “But I don’t know if I can do this.”