A Teenage Girl in the Garden of Eden
“Gosh, guys are so frustrating! It’s like I’m not even here! I wish that I could just be in a place were things were a little simpler,” she screamed into her pillow.
After screaming a few more times, she decided that she would call her friend and vent to her. Maybe they could make up some juicy gossip to spread around school about Dan. He was just making her life miserable, and he deserved anything that they could come up with. She lifted her head, and was shocked to see that someone had redecorated her room.
“Horrible motif,” she said, getting up to look around the room. “This is just creepy. How did my room change so drastically? Those leaves look almost realistic.”
A bird came by flying beside some butterflies.
“I must be on one of those reality shows. This isn’t funny guys. I want my boy band posters back now!”
But no one seemed to hear her.
“This is really bizarre. Mom would have normally been up here to tell me to stop screaming by now. I would have already slammed the door in her face, too. Where is my door anyhow?”
Nowhere in the vegetation could she find her door.
“This place is just bizarre. Let’s see what is here.”
As she walked, she was taken with the beauty of the place. It was nice, in an outdoorsy, earthy kind of way. A mall would have been far better. But there were plenty of animals. It was like a zoo without cages or annoying little kids and horrid smells. Plenty of fruit hung on the trees. As she wound her ways through this paradise state, she ran into a man. Boy was he gorgeous.
“Hi, who are you?” he asked.
She didn’t know what to say at first. She was still in shock. Here was the most handsome man that she had ever seen. But he wasn’t wearing any clothes. She was sure that she was four shades of red.
“Are you okay?” he asked again, obviously worried about the color-shifting creature.
“I, um, yes. I’m okay. I just wasn’t expecting to find anyone else here in this naked, um, neck of the woods.”
“Oh, I know what you mean. I wasn’t expecting to see you either. Usually it’s just Eve and I. So, you’re new here then?”
“Yep. Just got off the boat.”
“There was a boat?” he said, his eyes getting wide. “Can I see it?”
“No, not really. It’s just an expression,” she said, still trying to keep eye contact.
“Oh, that’s too bad. What’s your name?”
“Hi, Yurisa. That’s a nice name. My name is Adam.”
“Adam? Your name is Adam? Is this some kind of joke?”
“No, it’s really Adam. Have you heard of me or something?”
“Oh, uh, yeah. I’ve heard of you and Eve.”
“Are you an angel?”
“You sure are sweet.”
“Oh, never mind. It’s just an expression.”
“You sure are different,” Adam said. “Nothing like Eve.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure we have some things in common.”
“Oh, I guess. But Eve doesn’t talk funny like you do. She doesn’t have whatever it is that you’re wearing either. What’s it called?”
“Oh, this?” Yurisa asked, pointing to herself. “These are clothes.”
“Why would you want clothes?”
“To cover yourself up, so you won’t be naked.”
“Doesn’t seem like it’s too necessary to wear clothes. You don’t seem to be covering up much more than I am.”
“Well, I’m covering up what’s important. There are some things you just don’t walk around without hiding. You just can’t go around naked!”
“Why not? It’s comfortable.”
“Yeah, but it’s bad. You can get into trouble for being naked.”
“Really? I better tell Eve. Do you want to stay here and pet my sheep?”
Yurisa giggled a bit, and Adam looked at her like she was strange. She decided to follow along to meet this Eve. She’d heard a lot of things about her, mostly bad. When they found Eve, she was just coming out from behind a tree.
“Whatcha doing, Eve?” Adam asked.
“Oh, just irrigating,” Eve said.
“Oh, great idea. I need to go irrigate, too. Eve, I’d like you to meet Yurisa. She’s new here. She’s got something to tell you about clothes.”
With that, Adam sprinted off to find a tree.
“Hi, Yurisa,” Eve said. She was easily the most beautiful woman that Yurisa had met.
“Hi, Eve. You’re beautiful, you know that?”
“Well, I don’t know about that. God doesn’t make anything ugly, but I don’t know about beautiful.”
“No, you’re beautiful. Hasn’t Adam ever told you?”
“No, he just talks about the animals and such.”
“Oh, well there’s the problem. Do you know why he doesn’t tell you how beautiful you are?”
“Because he’s a guy and doesn’t like to express his emotions?”
“No, it’s because you’re not wearing any clothes.”
“Oh, what are clothes?”
“Clothes are like the things I have on now.”
“And it makes you look beautiful to guys to wear clothes?”
“Yes, if they’re fashionable, because it makes them think about you not wearing any clothes.”
“That sounds confusing.”
“Yes, but it’s just how guys’ minds work. They’re complicated.”
“Tell me about it. He likes petting his sheep more than he likes spending time with me.”
“We’ll change that. But first we have to find something to go with your eyes.” Yurisa began to look around. “Ah, yes, fig leaves will do quite nicely.”
Adam had returned by this point, and Yurisa shooed him off. She told him she’d go find him later. They set to work with the fig leaves, determined to make Eve beautiful. After some time had passed, Yurisa went looking for Adam.
“Adam, Adam, where are you?”
“Over here petting my sheep.”
“Ah, figures,” Yurisa mumbled to herself. “Adam, we’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Really? What is it?”
“Well, I can’t really tell you. I have to show you. We made Eve some clothes.”
“Oh, well, that’s nice. I’ll see them later.”
“No, Adam, you have to come now. Just leave your sheep alone for five minutes. It’ll be okay. Eve needs you to tell her which outfit looks best. She’ll try them on, and you’ll pick. But remember, no matter what it looks like, you have to tell her that she looks beautiful. Okay?”
“I guess. It sounds like a lot of work, though.”
“It’ll be worth it. Besides, if you don’t come, you’ll make Eve sad. You don’t want her to cry, do you?”
“Fine, I’ll go,” Adam assented.
They made their way over to where Eve was. In the time that they had left. They had built a runway of sorts for Eve to walk down. Yurisa had taught her how to strut and turn. She told Eve that it would make him think that she was beautiful. She sat Adam down in front, whispering to him to act impressed. Then, Eve came and tried her best runway walk. It was laughable to Adam. The clothes seemed pointless. But he couldn’t tell her that.
“So,” Eve said as she finished her runway debut, “Which outfit did you like best?”
Adam thought hard. “Oh, um, the one with the fig leaves.”
“They all had fig leaves,” Eve replied.
He remembered what Yurisa had told him, “And they all made you look beautiful.”
“Really?” Eve said.
“Yes. May I go now?” Adam said, twitching uncomfortably.
“Yes, because we need to have some girl time,” Yurisa said.
“Okay,” Adam said, fleeing hurriedly away. It didn’t matter where, he just wanted to leave quickly before they tried some other sort of nonsense. Little did he know that they would make him fig leaves to wear later.
Yurisa sat on a lion, combing Eve’s hair.
“See, Eve, I told you the clothing thing would work.”
“Yes, you did. He told me I was beautiful. Each outfit made me look beautiful to him. I wish I would have worn clothes before.”
“Well, there’s more to being beautiful than just clothes. I have plenty I’ll have to teach you about being mysterious. I also need to teach you how to pout, and how to flaunt your body.”
As she was teaching Eve how to steal Adam’s heart, she heard some bushes rustling. When she looked around, expecting to see Adam, she saw Satan holding an apple.
“It’s about time you showed up!”
“Ah, a fan I take it?”
“Believe me, you’re no Justin Timberlake. I don’t want your autograph. Just get back to what you were doing, we don’t have all day.”
“Oh, right. Eve, eat this apple.”
“You’re doing it all wrong, buddy. You have to tempt her. It’s like this. Eve, if you want Adam to fall madly in love with you and bring you a million gazillion presents every day and write poetry about you and treat you like a queen, then you must eat of this apple,” Yurisa corrected him.
“That’s not bad, I’ll have to take notes. Where did you learn stuff like that?” Satan asked.
“Buttering up my parents as a child. It gets easier with practice,” responded Yurisa.
“So, Eve, you heard what this girl has said. Will you eat this apple?”
“Well, I don’t know, we were told not to eat apples…” she began.
“Eat it, Eve. Trust me,” Yurisa told her.
“Yes. It’s the only way to make Adam show his love for you. If he eats, too, then it’s because he loves you and he wants to be with you. He’ll do it, too. It’s the only way to take your relationship to the next level. You’ll live happily ever after and have children. Besides, have I ever been wrong?”
“Okay,” Eve said. Then she took a bite of the apple. “It’s not bad.”
“Good,” Yurisa commented. “Now, let’s get Adam to eat, too. That’ll show that he really loves you. I’ll go find him, and bring him here, okay? You just keep thinking about what I was telling you about how to make him fall madly in love with you and worship the ground you walk upon. Remember the pouting, guilt trips, and kissing bits.”
“Okay, thank you for everything, Yurisa. I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
“Eden,” Yurisa mumbled. Then she spoke louder, “Oh, don’t mention it, Eve. You can thank me later. Oh, and if you have a son named Cain, you probably want to drown him at birth. Trust me.”
“You’re silly,” Eve giggled, but she was innocent, after all.
Yurisa went off and found Adam. He was with his sheep, naturally. She tossed him a pair of fig shorts.
“What are these for?”
“To wear. You have to match Eve.”
“Oh, if you say so.”
“Speaking of Eve, she has something important to tell you.”
“Oh? It doesn’t involve more clothes does it?”
“No. But remember, you have to tell her she’s beautiful if she mentions clothing and such.”
“Fine,” he groaned, as they went back over to Eve’s place.
“Adam, do you know what I’ve done?”
“Combed your hair?”
“I’ve been a bad girl.”
“Combing your hair’s not that bad. It actually looks…” he looked over at Yurisa, “beautiful.”
“No, I’ve done something else.”
“I ate an apple.”
“But we’re not supposed to eat the apples.”
“I know, but they taste good. You should have one.”
“I don’t want one.”
“But, Adam,” Eve pouted. “You do think I’m beautiful, right?”
“And you do want me to be with you, right?”
“Yes, but I feel the same way about my sheep.”
“But your sheep aren’t as beautiful as I am, are they?”
Adam hesitated, then he looked at Yurisa, who was about to pull a muscle from shaking her head no.
“No, of course they aren’t.”
“You hesitated! You don’t think I’m beautiful?”
“Of course I think you’re beautiful,” Adam said. “You’re more beautiful than all the sheep in the garden combined.”
“And you do love me, right?”
“Well, if you love me, you’ll eat an apple.”
“But I don’t want an apple. If I eat an apple, then I’ll get into trouble.”
At this point, Eve burst into tears. Adam was confused. Why was she doing this to him? Women can be so difficult. He thought about it. He could live with her, or live with is sheep. His sheep were a lot less complicated. But he wasn’t married to the sheep. It was a shame, really.
“Fine, I’ll eat the apple.”
“You will?” Eve said, ceasing to cry.
“Yes, I’ll eat the apple.”
“You really do love me, then. I’ll make it up to you later.”
“I’ll make more clothes.”
“Oh, okay.” Adam caught Yurisa’s evil glare. “I mean, that sounds wonderful, I can’t wait.”
Adam took a bite. He looked like he was expecting sudden death. But it didn’t come. He opened his eyes, which had been squinched closed, and looked around.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad.”
Eve ran up to him, and gave him a kiss.
“I like that,” Adam said, already beginning to lose his innocence.
“I thought you would,” Eve giggled.
“Adam, I think I want another one. Can you get that for me? It’s just too high for me to reach.”
“But there are a million of them right there. They all taste the same.”
“But I want that one. If you loved me, you’d get it for me.”
Adam looked at Yurisa, certain she’d put her up to this. Life was definitely a lot simpler before she showed up. She mouthed the words, “Do it.”
“Yes, dear. Just to prove that I really love you, I’ll get you this.”
Yurisa gave him two thumbs up, and He got it down for her.
“Here you go, beautiful.”
“Thank you, Adam,” Eve said.
“Aren’t you going to eat it?” Adam said.
“No, I just wanted to see if you’d get it for me.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I’ll be back in a second. I need to irrigate.”
“Okay, bye honey.”
“Eve, you’re a natural. You’ve got him wrapped around your pinky,” Yurisa said, commending her.
“And that’s good?”
“Yes. That’s perfect.”
“So, what do we do now?”
“Well, we ought to play a game. Ever heard of hide-and-seek?”
“No. What do you do?
“Well, you hide, and you wait for someone to go find you. Even if they call your name, you don’t come out, because it’s a trick.”
“I’ll be it first. You and Adam go hide together. Explain the rules to him, will you? I’m going to count to twenty, and then I’m coming after you.”
Eve ran over to Adam, who was just emerging from behind the tree. She grabbed his arm and dragged him off. He looked like a frightened, confused puppy dog. They played several rounds. Then, they heard another voice in the Garden.
“That’s God,” Adam said.
“He’s it now,” Yurisa said. “You’d better hide. Remember, don’t come out unless he finds you. No matter what.”
They all hid in their respective places. Yurisa watched from between the leaves of the bushes as God walked, looking for them. He was good at this. He was headed straight for them. He was probably cheating and had his eyes open while they were hiding.
“Adam? Where are you?”
Adam was about to respond when Eve elbowed him in the ribs. God heard this and caused the bush they were hiding behind to disappear.
“Adam, Eve, why are you hiding from me? Didn’t you hear my voice?”
“We heard thy voice and hid ourselves because we were playing hide-and-go seek.”
“Who taught you Hide-and-Go-Seek?”
“Yurisa,” Adam replied.
“What are these leaves you’re wearing?”
“They’re the latest fashion in fig leaves,” Eve replied.
“Why are you wearing fig leaves?”
“Because we are naked underneath them.”
“Who told you that you were naked?”
“The Girl,” Adam and Eve replied in unison.
God smacked his forehead and groaned. He turned and made Yurisa’s bush disappear.
“Yurisa, come here.”
She decided that now was not a time to disobey.
“Yurisa, what have you been doing here? You asked to go back to a simpler time, and I obliged.”
“Well, I honestly appreciate it. I mean, the Garden is nice and all, what with me being a vegetarian. But it’s frustrating. There’s no running water or electricity. There are no cell phones, cute boys, malls, TVs, movies, or iPods. There’s no MySpace, air conditioning, or makeup. Eve is just clueless. No offense, Eve. There are snakes and spiders and bugs everywhere! It’s like being in a weird nudist colony, and the only guy here doesn’t even notice me!”
“Are you finished?”
“Almost. There aren’t any cars. How am I supposed to live without a car?”
“I gave you feet. Besides, you don’t need them here. This is a paradise. You tried to distract me from the original question. What have you been up to?”
“Darn!” Yurisa thought. Then, she looked at God with big pouty eyes and lips.
“It won’t work, Yurisa. I already know what you did. I just need you to admit it.”
“Man, you’re worse than my mom.”
He shot her a look that put the fear of God into her.
“Fine, I admit it. I sabotaged the garden. I told Adam and Eve that they were naked. I made Eve clothes, and I taught her to be a bombshell of a trophy wife. I encouraged her to eat the apple, and I taught them how to play hide-and-seek. But Satan did give Eve the apple.”
“Satan, because you gave Eve the apple to eat, and listened to this girl, which she forgot to mention, you will be cast out. ‘Upon thy belly thou shalt go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.’”
“Loser,” Yurisa jibed Satan as he was leaving. She had little time to gloat, though.
“Yurisa, because you have done this thing, you shall be cursed worse than Satan. You shall be banished from this time that you had sought to be in. You will return to your own era with a bad case of acne!”
“No!” she began to scream.
Yurisa awoke, screaming madly. When she realized that she was back in her own room, she stopped. It had all been just a dream. Just a terrible dream.
“Oh, thank goodness! That was just a dream! How could people live like that!?”
She stood up and looked around, taking in her room. Her boy band pictures were on the wall, her electronics were where they were supposed to be. Her walk-in closet was full of exposing outfits. Her makeup and jewelry boxes were on the dresser. There was her vanity mirror, too. She couldn’t have lived with out that.
“Ahhh!” she screamed suddenly. “Acne!”
“Dad, what is the jar you keep next to your trophies from watching TV marathons?”
“Well, it’s a reminder of when I first fell in love. Her name was Grethel. I was in second grade. She was a girl, obviously, with pigtails and freckles. My how she used to terrorize me. I was hopelessly smitten. She would chase me around the playground at recess. I’d have to duck under tires, hide behind swings, and run like the wind. She kept telling me that if she caught me, she would pound me.
“It did me wonders. I loved every minute of it. I was getting chased by girls. After all, girls don’t fight fair. If one girl starts chasing a guy, then all the girls join in. That makes for interesting quarrels later on in high school, but in grade school it’s foolproof. Twenty or thirty blood-thirsty, fingernail-clawing, pigtails-wielding monsters pursuing you with the intent to kill puts a little umph into your step. Of course, knowing that you’re popular does, too. That’s just how grade schoolers flirt.
“Well, life went on like this for a while. Some days I’d manage to escape. Other days I’d come home scratched to pieces with holes in my shirt. Needless to say, my love for Grethel only grew.
“As the year went on, I kept thinking that there must be more civilized ways to express our love. After all, if I couldn’t wear a loin cloth and carry a club while on the prowl, I didn’t think that it was fair that she could use mob mentality tactics. After all, it was just a reversion to Neanderthal love antics. If there was anything that I knew about cave people, it was first that the cave men didn’t stand for the women’s lib movement. Suffragists were just clobbered and grunted at like all the rest. Cave men didn’t vote, so the suffragists were way ahead of their time. Besides, women had a workplace to occupy, staying at home and cleaning the caves while the saber-toothed tigers and the cave boys and girls played.
They did bend the line about grooming, shaving, and beauty, figuring that such nonsense wasn’t important. One woman was pretty much like the next big hairy brute. Many of their descendants have kept their traditions, like not shaving, alive, despite our beauty-centric culture. They’re called French. The other thing that I knew about cave people was that I was not allowed to wear a loin cloth and bring a club to school. I’d found that out in Kindergarten during show and tell.
“But running, screaming, and abuse were all that we managed to come up with. I wracked my little brain, but I was stuck in a rut. It’s not uncommon to see people who never got past this stage of this life from time to time. They’re caught in the lull of easy love. You can see them on Cops for domestic violence. Sadly, I felt like our relationship was stagnating. I wanted to spice up the affection. So, I went to the one person who would know.
“‘Dad, what do you do to make momma feel special?’
“‘I buy her pots.’
“‘Is that romantic?’
“‘Sure is. She cooks with them, doesn’t she? And you know what the only thing more romantic than a woman cooking is?’
“‘Uh, pencil break?’
“‘No, seeing that woman washing the dishes she cooked with.’
“In later years, I would see that my father was the poster boy for the adage, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I realized why washing dishes was so romantic-it meant that she could cook from them again.
“‘Well, dad, thanks…’
“‘Glad that I could help. It’s a sure-fire way to be a heart breaker.’
“I could tell I would get no help from his suggestion. First of all, I didn’t have a job to get the money to buy pots with. My allowance would barely buy the bubblegum that I wasn’t supposed to have because of my braces. Secondly, I didn’t know if pots were a good gift for a frenzied second grade lover. I doubted that she could cook, but then I could only burn water. More importantly, I could envision her and her screaming horde chasing me with my love offering of pots. Those would leave some serious bruises.
“I decided not to go with the pots, after all. It was a good thing, too. Years later, I gave them to your mom. I was just trying to be romantic like my dad. But she got all indignant and violent. Women.
“‘What am I supposed to do with these, cook?’ your mom screeched at me like a hoarse parakeet. Well, let’s just say that I got a taste of what kinds of bruises they leave. I’ll stick to buying her power tools.
“Instead, I borrowed a friend’s whoopee cushion. Not only does it make cool sounds, but it’s soft. I figured that even if she hit me with it, it would only leave a red mark. How much damage could it do? It could only improve our relationship. When she stepped out of the room to get some water, I was ready. I had it placed on her seat. She came back into the room humming and never once looked down.
“Everyone’s eyes were on her. Would she really sit on it? When she did, everyone snickered, and she glowered at me. I figured that must be a good sign. After all, there’s a fine line between love and hate. And the way that our relationship was going, the more that she tried to hurt me, the more loved I felt. Oh, as a side note, when you grow up, and you meet people that still feel this way, they have a special name. They’re called masochists.
“While we were taking a test later, something hit me in the back of the head. I looked around and saw a wadded up piece of paper on the floor. I leaned down and picked it up, trying not to make too much noise. Inside there was a love note, or what some would call a hate note. There was a picture of a girl stuffing a stick figure’s head down a commode. There were only four lines. They read:
I’m going to kill you.
How would you like to die?
? Slow ? Painful
“I looked around, and saw her looking at me like a lawnmower looks at grass-ready to tear me apart. I turned back to the note hastily, so that I could avoid her gaze. I’ve been told that women are supposed to be seen and not heard, but this was an occasion when neither applied. It reminded me of how my mom looked at my dad when he would come home, walk right past her, sit in his recliner, and turn on the television. She called it her, ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ look.
“As I was determining which answer would be the cleverest to mark and throw back at her, the teacher came by. I hastily tried to hide the note, but it made some noise.
“‘Cheating!’ Mrs. Nozy exclaimed.
“‘No ma’am, I was just trying to figure out the right answer.’
“‘That’s called cheating. Give me the paper.’
“‘But Mrs. Nozy, it’s private.’
“‘Give me the paper, and go throw your test in the garbage.’
“‘But Mrs. Nozy, it’s personal. I wasn’t cheating.’
“Don’t talk back to me. Go throw your test away, and give me the paper. I’m already going to talk to your parents.’
“I went and threw away my test. That didn’t bother me much, because I was going to fail it anyway. Then, I returned to my seat.
“‘The paper,’ she demanded, extending her eager, greedy little fingers with the anticipation of little kids who stand on tip-toes at parades trying to see beyond the wall of adults who block their sight and access to the showers of candy.
“‘Ma’am?’ I tried to play dumb. It usually worked wonders for me, since it wasn’t too much of a stretch.
“‘Give me the paper.’
“‘Oh, uh, yes ma’am.’
“Hesitantly, I handed her the paper. That did worry me.
“She opened the wadded mess.
“‘Is this all?’
“‘Hmmn. This is definitely a cheat sheet. It must be in a code. That’s just like you, to spend all your time learning secret codes instead of studying for school.’
“‘Oh, uh, yes ma’am.’
“‘Well, who’s it from?’
“‘Oh, uh, nobody.’
“‘Right. You expect me to believe that?’
“‘Yes,’ I said with as much wishful thinking as a kid who lives in an apartment begs to get a pony.
“‘Well, I don’t.’ Just like a teacher to play games with you like that. ‘This isn’t your handwriting.’
“‘Oh. I wrote it with my left hand, so it just looks different. But I wrote it, honest.’
“‘But you are left-handed.’
Mrs. Nozy was good. I was counting on her to forget about that little detail. She always seemed to forget whenever she passed out scissors to the class. It doesn’t pay to be left-handed in a right-handed world. She wouldn’t have understood me if I had said that I had written it with my right hand.
“‘So, whose is it?’
“I had only a moment to think. But that moment seemed like it was an eternity. Should I tell on Grethel? After all, she did write the note. She was the reason that I was in trouble in the first place. But, I didn’t want to get her in trouble. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get beaten up-that was inevitable. I just didn’t want to ruin our relationship. The last thing that I wanted was for her to choose a new victim. Girls have been known to be fickle.
“‘My friend Zack’s,’ I said, waiting for Zack to complicate matters worse with his denial.
“The whole class gasped. After all, no one is supposed to rat out a friend. They were just about as sure as I was that Zach would never speak to me again this week.
“‘So, Zack wrote you this note?’
“‘Yes, ma’am. ‘
“‘The one with the girl giving you a swirly?’
“‘Doesn’t that seem strange to you?’
“‘No ma’am. It happens all the time.’
“‘No, I mean that your friend Zack would make you an ideogram.’
“‘No ma’am. He calls me worse than that when we’re safely out of school.’
“‘That’s exactly why it seems strange, since you don’t even know what an ideogram is.’
“‘So, I’m not one? Well, my mom’s always told me that there were people worse off than I was in school. Maybe she was right. So, yeah, I guess that Zack shouldn’t have made me an ideogram. I know stuff.’
“‘Not idiot, idgit. Ideogram. It’s a drawing that people write with instead of using an alphabet.’
“Oh, like Cave Men did?”
“‘Then it is strange that Zack wrote me an ideogram like Cave Men used to put on the walls of their caves, since he knows that I don’t want to talk about my loincloth experience from Kindergarten.’
“‘Loincloth?’ Mrs. Nozy paused, obviously a mixture of confused and intrigued. ‘Oh, never mind. Tell me, what does this drawing mean to you?’
“Well, art is a very subjective thing. I could say that I see anything, and no one can disagree with me, not even the artist. It’s similar to when you sing the wrong lyrics to songs and not even the artist can convince you otherwise. Besides, even if you did believe the artist, the song is much less fun to sing. So, I decided that I would really sell this cheating bit.
“‘Well, this picture is you, Mrs. Nozy. It’s symbolic of how you’re going to fail me. You’re going to hold my head under and enjoy every second.’
“‘Well, there’s some truth to that. Now, tell me what the rest of it means, or I’ll go give you a swirly right now.’
“I could tell that she was serious.
“‘I’m serious,’ she warned.
“‘Well, let me hold it for a second. I was trying to figure that out earlier. But since idgits are no good with ideograms, I hadn’t figured it out yet.’
“She handed me back the paper. While I tried to figure out a story, I gave it my best blank stare. I had had plenty of practice with that before, so it came naturally. As the dust made laps in my brain, something remotely resembling a decent story hatched.
“‘Well, “kill” is our codeword for help. It seems like Zack’s telling me to check my answer for number one. I must have had it wrong. He’s telling me to take it nice and slow or the results will be painful.”
“‘Why did he say, “How would you like to die?’
“‘Well, he didn’t say it. He asked it.’ Her mouth puckered like she was drinking lemon juice concentrate-I’d know. I decided that I’d better continue before she spat any of that sour taste in her mouth on me. ‘It’s something that we invented. We make some random statement that doesn’t really have to do with anything else. That way it confuses everyone.’
“‘Well, your friend Zack’s definitely brighter than you are.’
“‘Yeah, that’s why I keep him around.’
“‘That’s precisely why I thought that it was strange that he wrote you this. Zack’s not here today.’
“That realization hit me like thirty second grade girls. I had been half surprised that he hadn’t denied his participation at first. And I thought that he was just a good friend!
“‘Grethel, go with him to the office for helping him cheat.’ My head whipped around like a hippo in a tilt-a-whirl.
“‘What! But she didn’t help me. I wouldn’t take help from a freckle-faced girl like that!’
“‘I would normally believe you, since I generally wouldn’t think that such a sweet little angel like her would get involved with trouble like you. But obviously you have corrupted her. There is no mistaking it. This is her handwriting. Both of you, go to the Principal’s office right now.’
“Well, I could see that this was not an argument that I was going to win. I got up, free from Mrs. Nozy. She looked at Grethel like Caesar when he was stabbed by Brutus. Then she looked at me as if I were Cassius, Cinna, and Casca rolled into one horrendous form. I was just about to reach the door, when Mrs. Nozy blocked my escape.
“‘Well, aren’t you forgetting something?’ she called.
“‘My manners?’ I figured that she was trying to remind me about letting ladies go first. Leave it to a woman to think of etiquette at a time like this! She’d obviously never been chased by Grethel before. I knew from experience that you needed a good head start.
“‘Yes, but no. The pass. Grethel, come get your cheat sheet. I want Dr. Nurz to see what you two have been doing.’
“‘Yes, ma’am,’ I replied, eager to get out of the room. She could still change her mind and make me take the test.
“At school there was a pass for everything, and I had to dig through them all to find the right one. I shifted the wooden underwear with Transformers out of the way, since I didn’t need the boys bathroom pass. The pink wooden panties with princesses on them were more useless, since no boy was allowed to go to that Holy of Holies known as the girl’s bathroom. The wooden onion we were supposed to use for the burp pass brought back fond memories of burping the alphabet backwards and forwards when we had a substitute one day. She didn’t know about the passes. Ah, sweet rebellion.
“My hands moved the wooden sneakers used for a hall pass, and found the deflated football. That was probably the dumbest pass that Mrs. Nozy had come up with. No one, besides Clumsy Klaus, ever wore it, since it was the incomplete pass. How were we supposed to know if we were going to catch the ball or not? Besides, the ball would never get passed to us if we held it. Just ask Klaus.
“By this point, Grethel had reached Mrs. Nozy. Our teacher gave her the note like it was Brutus’ dagger. She watched Grethel all the way to the door, perhaps fearing to turn her back on the armed traitor. Finally, I found the Principal’s Office Pass behind the free pass. It looked like a paddle that had “Please Spank Me” written on one side. The other side simply said, “Harder.” I took the paddle in hand and tried to make it out the door as quickly as I could.
“‘Wait for your girlfriend,’ Mrs. Nozy called after me.
“I thought that I could have died right then. No one was supposed to know that! Grethel walked up to me and looked me in the eye. This was not good at all. We shut the door behind us, and mumbled our way up the hall. I tried to touch as many of the lights, signs, ceiling tiles, and lintels as I could on the way. She just shook her head. When we were almost at his office, I calmed down and started walking backwards. I didn’t want to look like a suspicious character.
“‘Thank you for trying to save me,’ Grethel said.
“I was as shocked as the key on Ben Franklin’s kite.
“‘You seem shocked,’ Grethel said.
“Well, you’ve never been nice to me before.’
“‘Don’t expect it to happen again. It’s just that you were brave.’
“I didn’t get a chance to make a suave response, because about that moment the back of my head banged into a giant silver fire extinguisher mounted on the wall.
“‘Well, it’s good to see that you’re back to your dumb old self again.’
“Thinking to impress her with my bravery again, I asked for the note.
“‘What do you want it for?’ she asked, handing it to me as if I had more germs than a dog’s mouth. I probably did.
“‘To save you. If the note doesn’t exist, then they can’t prove it was your handwriting.’
“With that, I plopped the crumpled note into my mouth and started chewing like a dog on rawhide. I hope that rawhide is more enjoyable to dogs, because paper is not that great of a snack for humans. It is high fiber, though.
“‘You’re gross!’ she exclaimed.
“She sounded like she meant it. But I could tell different. Really, I could see that she was touched by my heroism. Women are always trying to deceive men. Look at what Eve did to Adam!
“I was still chewing when we opened the door to the office. I didn’t want to rush things. I’d had a papercut before on my finger. I had no desire to find out what they felt like on my tongue. Besides, mom always told me to eat slow, since it was better for my digestion.
“‘How may I help you?’ Mrs. Secretary asked. No one knew if she had a real name. She’d just been Mrs. Secretary for as long as anyone knew. We were certain that she was born in that chair with a pencil behind her ear and a phone in her hand.
“I made some kind of muffled, unintelligible sound. Mrs. Secretary looked at me like an Impressionist trying to understand Cubism. That is to say, she was confused and agitated.
“‘We’re here to see Dr. Nurz,’ Grethel said.
“‘You’re the cheaters?,’ Mrs. Secretary asked, not waiting to hear my garbled plea of innocence. ‘He’s been expecting you.’
“‘Dr. Nurz, the perpetrators are here; are you ready for interrogation?’ she asked through the intercom. ‘More water, a new flood lamp, and a saw? I’ll see if we can get one of the custodians to take care of that. Yes, Dr. Nurz. I’ll send them right in. Do you want both of them, or just the guilty one? Okay, I’ll send them both.’
“She looked at us, and motioned us forward. I was thinking about how to save Grethel again. After all, Mrs. Secretary already established that there was only one guilty person. Since she threw the note at me, it had to have been her. I defied my upbringing, chomped as quickly as I could, and swallowed the pulpy mass.
“‘Ah, Mr. Loincloth,’ Dr. Nurz, or Nurzy as I knew him, greeted me. We’d been on friendly terms since that incident in Kindergarten. We hung out once or twice a week, so I was sure that I could call in a personal favor to rescue her. That would certainly impress her.
“‘She didn’t do anything, Nurzy.’
“‘Of course not,’ Dr. Nurz said.
“‘We never thought that she did.’
“Nurzy caught on quickly. Now this was a true pal. Not like that Zach character, being absent when I needed to frame him most.
“‘We know that you’re the problem here,’ he continued.
“‘Nah, I ain’t never done nothing wrong to nobody,’ I said, winking viciously at Nurzy. I was quite proud of that quadruple negative, quintuple if you count nah, and it would surely help him see the errors of his ways. Grethel, the guilty, was innocent, but I was innocent the whole time. So there was no need accusing me. I was the victim, an innocent bysitter.
“‘Really? You were the one caught cheating with the note. We know Grethel is sweet and innocent. We figure that you threatened to beat her up, and that’s why she was helping you.’
“‘Yes,’ Dr. Nurzy continued, ‘We think that you were coercing her. Victims need to know that they are still loved and that nothing bad will happen to them.’
“‘I never threatened to beat her up. Have you seen her? She’s bigger than I am. All the girls are!” The said irony of being nine was that girls were bigger, stronger, and more boyish than we were with our falsetto voices. ‘Coercing? Never. That sounds dirty and bad! That’s gross!’ I retorted.
“‘Yes, it is gross,’ replied Nurzy.
“‘Yes, it is bad,’ agreed Dr. Nurz.
“‘Sometimes it’s dirty,’ continued Nurzy.
“Well, Nurzy was definitely getting part of it right. Victims should be free of consequences. Since I was the victim, that should be me, not her. He was still as kooky as the last time I talked to him this week. I’d asked him then who “we” were. He’d only replied, ‘Never mind that.’ I figured that he was only trying to do impersonations, because his voice would change depending on who was talking.
“‘Let me see the note,’ Dr. Nurz demanded.
“‘What note? There is no note,’ I told him. I wasn’t lying. The note had ceased to be.
“‘We’re sure Mrs. Nozy had mentioned a note,’ Nurzy said with a twinge of doubt.
“Yes, she told us that she was sending a note,’ Dr. Nurz responded a bit more confidently.
“‘Ah, there on your lip. A piece of paper.’ Nurzy cried.
“I wiped my mouth reflexively. Sure enough there was a scrap of paper. Grethel could have told me that earlier. I couldn’t even say that it was a remnant from where I had nicked myself shaving. She had a better chance of needing to shave than I did.
“‘So you’re destroying evidence, are you?’ Dr. Nurz accused, wagging a finger.
“‘You’re just like the government,’ Nurzy joined in.
“‘What, was it a state secret?’ Dr. Nurz asked.
“I figured that since Nurzy couldn’t play along, I would have to show my cards. I proceeded to take my baseball card from my socks. Those were my least favorite ones, the Indians, the Cubs, and some assorted cards. Then, I started to get the Yankees from my underwear waistband. Finally, I pulled out my mint condition, protector sleeve covered Braves from my wallet. With my club and its protector sleeves gone, my wallet was almost empty. All that remained was some Monopoly money and an Ident-a-kid card that I pretended was my license.
“Dr. Nurz was expecting my ploy, for he said, ‘It’s no good. You know I want the Nolan Ryan you keep taped to your thigh.’
“‘What about considering the ‘ Tom Glavine and Fred McGriff?’ Nurzy asked himself. Yeah, he’s strange.
“‘No, he can’t buy his way out of his crime here. This isn’t the criminal justice system. He will have to be punished,’ Dr. Nurz reprimanded himself.
“‘Wait,’ I tried to plead, ‘You’ve got this all wrong, both of you. We were never cheating. She was threatening to kill me.’
“‘A likely story,’ Nurzy chided.
“‘No, she is definitely too sweet to do something like that,’ Dr. Nurz agreed. Grethel looked at him sympathetically with her big cow eyes.
“‘Besides, you would probably deserve it even if she did threaten you, since you are a cheater,’ Nurzy continued. It was obvious that they believed her.
“‘But I never cheated!’ I cried.
“‘We’ll just ask the victim,’ Dr. Nurz stated.
“‘You just did,’ I retorted.
“‘Not you, the other victim,’ Nurzy scolded.
“‘Honey, did he make you help him cheat?’ Dr. Nurz asked her.
“‘It’s all right to say, ‘Yes,’ since we know he’s guilty. You won’t get into trouble,’ Nurzy prompted.
“‘No,’ she said. That surprised me. Here she was trying to save me. I could never let the guys know that a girl had saved me, though. I had a reputation to think about.
“‘But of course he did,’ retorted Dr. Nurz.
“‘Yes, tell us how he coerced you,’ Nurzy badgered.
“‘He didn’t. I threatened to kill him.’
“‘We’ll give you one last chance,’ Dr. Nurz began.
“‘We don’t want to have to punish such a sweet little girl like you,’ Nurzy said, trying to manipulate her.
“‘But I really did threaten to kill him. He wasn’t cheating.’
“‘Ah, so you are both liars,’ Dr. Nurz declared.
“’She’s suffering from battered schoolgirl’s syndrome,’ Nurzy muttered.
“‘No, we’re not liars!’ we exclaimed in unison.
“‘Really, then prove it.’
“That Nurzy was certainly a character with his ultimatums. We had just proven it. She was my witness. What better witness to have than your accomplice in crime? Not that we committed a crime. We were innocent. At least, I was. She was the guilty one.
“‘Just give us the note, and then we can really see which of you is lying,’ Dr. Nurz ordered.
“‘I can’t,’ I replied. ‘I ate it.’
“‘I’ll give you one more chance,’ Nurzy offered, ‘And then you’ll both suffer.’
“‘Don’t you mean, “or you’ll both suffer?”‘ I asked.
“‘That’s it, we gave you a chance, and you blew it. Since you have failed to produce the note, you’ll both have to stand with your noses to the wall during recess as long as I am principal here. Make sure that it’s the wall that they dust erasers on after school.’
“I didn’t know exactly how I felt when I left his office. I was wrongfully accused and convicted of a crime. I had a hit out on my head. A girl had tried to save my honor. The same girl had put the hit out on my head. The same girl was going to kill me. I would have to stand next to that same girl day in and day out, rain or shine, tornado drill or fire drill, for the rest of elementary school. That might not be too long, since she would have easy access to end my misery. I supposed that I could be best described as being devastated. I couldn’t flirt with her anymore. Our relationship was definitely doomed.
“‘Thank you for trying to save me,’ I said, trying to make conversation while we were still together. Supposedly conversation is important for grownup relationships. At that time, it was all about body language-hitting, kicking, clawing, slapping, and menacing gestures. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like adult communication at times.
“‘Oh, well, sorry I got us into this mess,’ she said.
“‘Me too,’ I replied. It was apparently not the correct thing to say, because she glowered at me and didn’t respond anymore.
“‘You know what I’m going to miss most about recess?’ I asked.
“‘Not having it?’
“‘Exactly. I’m going to miss being chased all over, running like a madman. It was fun.’
“‘Yeah. I’m going to miss chasing you and bringing blood.’
“‘Maybe we could do it after school?’
“‘It’s just not the same.’
“‘Yeah,’ I replied. As we walked, a thought occurred to me, which is a relatively novel experience in and of itself. But this thought was monumentally stupendously profound. ‘Grethel, you weren’t just chasing me for my baseball cards, were you? I mean, some of them are pretty valuable.’
“I waited for the answer nervously. Surely she hadn’t been leading me on the whole time. She wasn’t a gold digger, was she?
“‘No, not at all. Your cards are safe in your underwear as far as I’m concerned.’
“That Grethel sure had a way of comforting a guy. Conversation wasn’t that bad at all. It was almost pleasant. I had never used her name politely before. When I said it without a mean nickname right behind, I noticed something. It made me feel good. Of course, that didn’t mean that I would stop calling her mean names any time soon. Why change a good thing?
“So, it became our habit to stand on the wall with our noses turning white in the chalk dust like Michael Jackson’s. We’d sneeze occasionally, such as when a wind would pass by. But it gave us some quiet time together alone. After a couple of days of this, I tried to do that conversation thing again.
“‘So, what’s the girls’ bathroom like?’
“‘What’s the girls’ bathroom like?’
“‘Why do you care?’
“‘Because I’m a guy. We can’t go inside, and so I figure that it must be a wonderful place.’
“Well, it’s nice enough. It’s probably pretty similar to the boys’ bathroom, except with girls in it. Y’all do have swimming pools inside, right?’
“‘No. You have swimming pools? No wonder you girls take so long in there and always go with a friend.’
“‘You don’t have swimming pools? What about the waterfalls?’
“‘No, we’ve been robbed! The closest thing to a waterfall that we have is a urinal.’
“‘Oh, well if it makes you feel better, our miniature golf course only works at lunch.’”
“‘You have golf, too? They really spoil the girls. If our bathroom was like that, I don’t think I’d ever leave, except maybe to go to lunch.’
“‘Not really. We don’t have any of that. The girl’s bathroom is just a bunch of stalls and gossip.’
“‘Oh, then I don’t know what all the hype is about. Ours is better. We don’t have the gossip.’
“‘Well, it’s probably just because you aren’t allowed in. If you tell someone that they can’t do something, they’ll immediately go out and do it.’
“‘Oh. I never thought of that. You’re smart, like parents.’
“Somehow, despite the lack of running, our relationship flourished. We got to spend a lot of time together. Still, after a while I found that I wanted to take our relationship further. The only problem was that I didn’t know what to do. I was considering asking dad, but I’d seen where that had taken me. I figured that I would just have to wait for the answer to plop itself down in my lap like a big, stinky dog.
“It turned out that my dad was that big, stinky dog. In fact, he was so stinky with the answer, that he was like wet dog smell. For it just so happened that about the same time, my dad and I started spending more time together. It was great. I wish my mom would have just knocked the rabbit ears off the top of the set, bent them into aluminum pretzels, crushed them in a trash compactor, cut the coax cable twelve times, melted the splitter, and ripped the jack from the back of the TV-all by accident mind you-sooner.
“One day we were out walking in the park, when I saw two teenagers who looked like they were locked in a mortal combat to either suffocate or revive each other. My dad saw where I was looking and sighed with disgust.
“‘They must really like each other to be swapping spit that way, poor devils. I hope they brought some oxygen,’ he muttered
“That was the answer-not the bringing oxygen part. People who really liked each other swapped spit! I had no intentions of doing it the conventional way, though. That was gross. Recess was after lunch, you know. Instead, I figured that, just as there was ‘more than one way to skin a cat and more than one type of cat’, there could be more than one way to swap spit.
“When we got home, I headed for the pantry. I needed an empty jar. However, mom had used all of the empty Mason jars with one bottled vegetable or another. But there, at last, I spotted it. Its name was Smucker’s, and its flavor was strawberry. I stuck the jar underneath my shirt and headed to my room. A few minutes later, I snuck down to the kitchen to get a spoon. I took a couple of big, sweet mouthfuls. That was only bearable for so long, and then it started to make me sick.
“I still had over half of the jar left. What could I do with it? I began to think like a Smucker’s jar. If I were a jar of jelly, I’d want to be in the kitchen inside the fridge. Since this jar would not be making it inside, I figured that it would have to settle for the next best thing. Taking out some construction paper, I began to paint with the spoon. I knew that mom would be proud and hang it on the refrigerator. After all, my macaroni art hung up there for years.
“Well, there comes a point when you no longer feel inspired to paint with strawberry jelly. That point came after the first drawing. It looked like someone had bled everywhere. The last thing that I needed was for mom to send me to a counselor because she thought I was demented. With my luck, it would happen during recess. So, one jelly-paint masterpiece it was. Maybe she’d believe that we did it at school for Valentine’s day. Red and pink seem to be the themes for that day.
“There was still a good bit of jelly left. Dad never said that swapping jelly was a sign of like, just spit. I thought that swapping jelly would be more like teasing, especially if you didn’t give any peanut butter with it. Looking around, a window of opportunity opened up. It was my window. I stuck my head outside and made sure that no one was watching. Then, I began to shovel strawberry jelly outside. I should have considered that mom’s mums were underneath.
“After rinsing it out in the bathroom sink, I brushed my teeth. Then, I screwed up my face as if I were gargling. Making the face helped, because I produced my finest spit possible. After all, Grethel deserved the best. I looked at it in the bottom of the jar. There was a lot less there than I expected. I wondered if I should give a little more. But I didn’t want to overdo it. If I gave too much on the first time, then she would want more and more each time. It was best to start out small and build myself up to it. Maybe it would seem a little less weird with time.
“Nightfall found my gift hidden in my book bag. Thankfully, that was before mom started checking my backpack like she did later that year to make sure if I was really telling the truth about not having homework. It woke up with me in the morning, and sloshed its way to school. Just before we went out for recess, I stashed it beneath my shirt. Trying to be nonchalant, I went outside behind all the others.
“I joined Grethel by the wall. My heart was pounding like hammers at a construction site. I was so nervous that I couldn’t think of what to say. What can I say, I had never swapped spit with anyone? I didn’t know how you started a conversation like that. Not knowing, I just waited with my nose in the chalk dust, trying to act normal.
“‘What’s that in your shirt?’ Grethel asked.
“‘What? Oh, um, it’s funny that you should ask.’
“‘Why, what is it?’
“‘It’s a gift for you.’
“‘Really, can I see it?’
“I tried to stay relaxed. But I was trembling as I pulled it out of my shirt and handed it to her. Who knew that swapping spit could be such an emotional experience? The excited look on her face slowly melted into a look of disgust.
“‘That’s not what I think it is, is it?’
“‘Um, I don’t know. What do you think it is.’
“‘Spit. Please tell me that this is not spit!’
“‘It is,’ I said heartbroken.
“‘Why is it red? Are you bleeding?’
“‘No. There must have been some strawberry jelly left in the jar. I couldn’t let my mom wash it, because it was a surprise.’
“‘Lovely,’ she said.
“From the way she said it, it didn’t sound like she thought it was lovely. Why don’t girls ever say what they really mean?
“‘You don’t like it, do you?’
“‘No. This is just gross. Why would you give this to me? Why didn’t you just give me a Valentine’s Day card instead?’
“‘Because I, uh, like you. You like me, don’t’ you?’ I asked.
“‘Yeah, but in a kinda sorta disgusted way right now,’ she said.
“‘Well, if you like me, then you’re supposed to swap spit. I overheard my dad talking about that last night.’
“‘You’re so immature,’ she said, along with a few other words that I couldn’t comprehend.
“I was about to be indignant when the unbelievable happened. She leaned over quickly and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“‘Ew,’ I cried. ‘You’re gross!’
“She just smiled. Finally, she said, ‘That’s the dung beetle calling the butterfly gross. But, if that’s too gross for you, we can always hold hands.’
“I was shocked. A whole new world had opened up. She had kissed me. No spit was involved, and she wanted to hold hands. I tell you, that was one of the proudest moments of my life. But, leave it to a girl to go and ruin it.
“‘You know that you still owe me a Valentine, right?’
“‘My spit jar wasn’t enough? There was a lot of hard work put into the making of that jar!’ Girls! They’re never satisfied.
“Maybe our noses were white and our sinuses were always acting up, but we didn’t mind. We got to hold hands everyday. That was much better than swapping spit, as well as a whole lot easier on the stomach. I didn’t even care that her hands were bigger than mine. We didn’t get too ridiculed for it, either. Grethel had convinced Mrs. Nozy and everyone else that our handholding was part of the punishment Dr. Nurz had prescribed. There were three reasons why no one doubted her. First, she was too sweet and innocent to lie. Second, they thought I hated her. Third, they knew that she hated me. It was just a cruel and unusual punishment. Why else would a boy and a girl hold hands at that age?
“Eventually, we graduated from grade school. Ladies first, though. I had to visit her at her house, under the pretense that she was tutor for a whole year, since she had gone and left me to the mercy of Nurzy alone. But, I eventually made it to middle school. Since Dr. Nurz was no longer our principal, we no longer had an excuse to put our noses on the wall and hold hands. That was a big disappointment for me. Why else would I want to come to school?
“‘Do you think that you can write me notes that will get caught more often? I don’t mind going to the principal with you. It’s nice,’ I asked her at lunch my first day in middle school.
“She looked at me and giggled. Then, she said, ‘We’re big boys and girls now. We don’t have to hide it any more. We can actually hold hands without an excuse.’
“‘Really?’ That was a novel idea for me. I tried it. It felt good, brave, and adventurous.
“As our like progressed, so did I. She told me that she liked smart guys. So, I started to really try to learn. It’s sad though, since she left me for a real failure in the long run. The guy later became a cardiologist. He couldn’t spell ‘dadgummit’ or win a mudbogging competition if his life depended on it. What a real winner! I guess that she was just one of those women that always needed a project guy. When she patched me up and it was obvious that I would turn out right, she had to find someone else to improve.”
“Dad, you ramble a lot. You should have just said that it was a jar of spit you tried to give to a girl. You might have actually saved some of what little respect I have for you.”
“Well, it’s not just a reminder of Grethel. It’s also a memento of Mrs. Nozy, my second grade teacher. Those were some of the best years of my life.”
“I think I’m going to take this jar to get my DNA checked. I can’t believe that we’re really related.”
The Rites of Elzenakhim
Carl’s body trembled as much as the bonds would let him. It was dark, and the sounds of frogs calling for rain battled with the humming and stinging of yellow flies. The pall of night was nearly supreme with the new moon’s depression evident. Only a few twinkling stars managed to peep through the mist that lay upon the Okefenokee Swamp. The stars were brighter than he had ever seen, but there was no time to think about that now.
His captors methodically pushed the boat along with the pole. It was silent, this way. Silence was welcome for such a gruesome ritual as would be performed. At his side, a woman and a child lay equally as bound, gagged, and mortified. Whimpers could scarcely escape.
Nothing was spoken by the captors. This was a moment of reverence. A time to prepare for the task at hand. A chance to cleanse themselves before offering the sacrifices. Silence had crowned the group since they crept out onto the Suwanee just below the swamp’s southern border with the offerings in tow. That had been at least two hours ago, though it seemed far longer to the prey.
When the boat gently slowed and bumped into the peat moss shore, Carl was certain that he had no idea how he could return, even should he escape. He would meander around the stagnant waterways for days. But escape did not seem like much of an option at this moment.
Rough hands grabbed him by the knees and shoulders and hauled him ashore. He could feel the uneasy steps the murderers took while lugging him across the trembling earth. He was finally placed on his knees looking upon a wooden altar. The little girl was placed kneeling beside him. In the faintness of the candlelight, he could see the woman forcefully knelt before the altar. Her whimpering was more audible now, though not because her gag had been removed.
“It is customary to ask our sacrifices,” spoke a voice out of the eerie mist, “If they will forsake their heathen gods and serve the true God Elzenakhim, Lord of Earth and Water, Keeper of the Dead. Woman, will you abandon the foolish doctrines of your fathers and return to serve the true God?”
The figure had stepped out of the mist and into the light. It was a large man, though his face was not visible. A large mask fashioned out of the head of an alligator covered the features; its skin draped part way down his back. His torso was exposed to the night, and upon his chest and stomach strange runes had been scribed. Alligator skin had been fashioned into a crude kilt. His hand clutched a twisted staff, from which were hung strands of alligator teeth and black bear claws, like an evil rosary.
“You answer me not, woman? Will you abandon your false Gods and serve Elzenakhim?”
She shook her head furiously. This upset the masked demon. He bent down to her, chanting low, guttural tones as he traced her jaw with a finger. He straightened up, looking upon her with burning disdain. Then, he brought his staff upon her violently. As he did, the staff changed into a snake. Its bite shocked her as well as the captive onlookers. Just as suddenly, it changed back into a staff as it was raised.
More guttural tones were given, and the two others came to his side. They were also decorated in runes, however they lacked the headdresses. Carl recognized one of them. He was the sheriff. He had hoped that the sheriff had escaped, never realizing that he was part of the treachery. All this time that he had been pressing the sheriff for details on the strange occurrences for the newspaper, he had been led on. They had gone on a stakeout of the activity, since this was the new moon, the time of the traditional disappearances. Two men with guns had sneaked up on them. Helpless, they had begged for mercy. Those pleas had been quickly ended by the blow from a club, which brought on unconsciousness.
The sheriff took a stone dagger from the altar and cut the back of her shirt. He then began to carve a different set of runes into her flesh. The yellow flies and mosquitoes, which were already problematic, became a plague. When he finished, he lay the blood-tipped dagger onto the altar. The other man picked up the scourge from the altar and began his work. Carl closed his eyes, unable to watch as the pieces of bone and teeth and metal ripped flesh from the supple skin on her back, neck, arms, and face. He tried not to count how many times she was lashed, knowing that a similar fate awaited him.
The report from the scourge and its echoes subsided. The frogs and crickets who had ceased to invoke their blessings during the racket commenced their songs again. Their sad, plaintive tones were a fitting requiem. Her body shook in agony, and she whimpered as much as the small child beside Carl. The sheriff and the other villain stood her up, sending searing pain through her maimed body as they touched her. Then, they hoisted her onto the table, and stepped back to await orders.
The masked horror approached her again. He bent over her, and watched the terror in her eyes gleefully.
“Since you will not serve the true God Elzenakhim, we must purify you to prepare you for death, you insolent hag,” he said.
Then, he gave more unintelligible commands. His two henchman approached her at the altar. They cut the rope fastening her hands. She was almost too weak and tormented to fight, and her feeble attempts were easily quashed. Each arm was spread at a diagonal, and tied off to a spike extending from each corner. In like manner were her feet bound. The stone dagger once more left runic marks upon her once lovely flesh.
The masked leader began to lead them in a chant that congealed Carl’s blood. They paced slowly around the altar, repeating the same evil words. Both of the servants tossed what seemed to be dust upon her. The chant intensified, and the staff morphed rapidly between its snake and wooden forms. Blue flames began to rise from the runes engraved into her skin. They danced along her body, not seeming to burn her. Then, as suddenly as the chant ceased, a blue flame erupted from the staff’s head and scorched the victim.
Her bonds were loosened. She would not need them now. Elzenakhim had rid her of her insolence, and her form would never again take life. The sheriff and his accomplice lugged her body over to the water’s edge, where candlelight reflected upon the red eyes of the waiting alligators. The initial splash was followed by many others as they fought over over remains, tearing her apart in large chunks. Those fortunate enough to claim and defend a portion, returned to their wallows, where their meat would sit for a few weeks. When it was sufficiently rotten and tender, they would devour it in shredded gulps. The others waited, for ritual told them that there would be more.
“Carl,” the masked priest began as he approached. “The Sheriff tells me that you have had an interest in our worship. He also tells me that you are atheist. We commend you for not worshipping the heathen gods of those who surround us. Perhaps now you have seen the power of Elzenakhim, and now you know that he is the true God? We would like you to become one of our brothers. Will you accept our invitation into the priesthood of the true God Elzenakhim, Lord of Earth and Water, Keeper of the Dead?”
Carl nodded so violently that he pulled muscles. It was not his intention to die tonight. He would do whatever it took to get out of this swamp. Then, he would bring these murderers to justice. It would be a great story, too.
“We are pleased that you accept our invitation, Carl. Since you are atheist, you will need no scourging as a consequence of idolatry. But you will still need purification. As a warning to you, if you think that you will merely escape and make a mockery of the solemn, ancient priesthood order of Elzenakhim, know this: Traitors will have no altar when they are caught. They are not peacefully taken out of this life. They are maimed and bound.
“Early in the afternoon, they are suspended upside down from that tree limb. Their heads are easily submerged into the water. As they wait, getting a blood rush, they try not to drown. But it is inevitable. There is only so long that you can raise your head out of the water, especially after the torture that you will first endure. Normally they die long before the gators began feeding at dusk, but not always.
“In any case, the alligators will find you here, and they will rip your head from your body. The rest of your carcass will be thrown into the frenzy afterwards. These creatures will savor your bloody mass, as they take your houl down to the dungeon that Elzenakhim has prepared for those who mock him. This is the penalty of the traitor. Are you certain that you wish to join our ancient order, or shall you be sacrificed to Elzenakhim? We only need two sacrifices each new moon. But He would be pleased with a third in any case.”
Again, Carl nodded fervently. He didn’t put much credence in gods of any sort. Their cruelty and trickery wouldn’t deceive him. He would put an end to this cult.
“Then, brother, we shall seal you His. Then, you will have the power to help in these ordinances, whenever your turn shall come. There are normally only two priests that help the High Priest at any time. But you will be expected at our normal gatherings of brothers.”
With that, the High Priest gave more guttural commands. Carl was taken to the altar and placed on top. When they cut his bonds, he tried to struggle free, but they overpowered him. He was fastened in the same fashion as the first sacrifice.
“Ah, frightened are we, brother? Do not worry, you will not suffer the same fate as she did. You will soon understand,” the High Priest spoke as Carl struggled.
The stone dagger, still red with the previous victim’s life force, sank into his skin. His eyes bulged as the runes were cut into his chest. He tried to remain calm though. It was difficult, when the chanting began. It didn’t sound the same as the last one, but he couldn’t be sure. Still, they were circling him and chanting. The dust cast upon him seared when it hit the open, gushing wounds. Then, he saw the blue light coming from his chest. Doubtless it was now all about to end. So, maybe he believed a little in that mystic power after all. But when the chanting stopped, he was still alive. His hands were cut loose, as were his feet.
“There is much to learn, brother. But each new priest learns with practice, as you will now have.”
Carl stood up, and looked at his chest. It featured the same runes as the others. They seemed almost legible now. Indeed, he was certain that it represented the name of Elzenakhim. He had truly been sealed to him-not that this Elzenakhim existed.
“What practice am I to have?” Carl asked hesitantly.
“You will assist in the purification of this girl, the daughter of the idolatrous hag.”
Carl’s heart stumbled. Surely this was not true. He had forgotten about the girl in the midst of his own troubles. This group was good. They make sure that no new recruits could tattle, since they immediately made them just as guilty as the rest. What would he do?
“But first, you must be dressed in the official robes. It is customary that the new initiates receive their robes from those that introduced them to the order.”
With that the sheriff began to remove the kilt. As he did, Carl noted that he still had on his uniform bottoms and holster. He accepted the robes hesitantly, and began to fasten them on. He noted that this hide kilt was fastened with alligator teeth. It made him strangely wonder what Elzenakhim looked like, though naturally he couldn’t exist.
The little girl was brought before the altar, where she knelt petrified. The other henchman came to assist Carl. He crouched down beside the girl, prepared to show how the runes must be cut. Carl took the dagger from the altar hesitantly, but did as he was told. He stooped over, as if to cut the girl’s shirt, and instead jabbed the dagger into the neck of the henchman. It made a horrid sound as it slit his windpipe and continued around to slice a jugular. Blood spurted everywhere, and the now defunct collapsed against the altar. Several candles fell over from the force of this, and began to burn the rich peat. Carl shifted the knife to his left hand.
Carl reached over and grabbed the whip quickly, still banking on the sheriff and the high priest to be stunned. They were just beginning to recover from the shock, when Carl cracked the scourge on the Sheriff. Shreds of skin went flying, and he switched his target to the high priest. The alligator’s head was sent flying, and the staff fell from his hand. Carl had never seen the man before, as best as he could tell. But the scarred sheriff was beginning to reach for his gun. That precluded any further study of the high priest. He slung the dagger into the stranger’s chest, and the high priest collapsed with a groan.
His first blow sent the barely drawn gun crashing down. Lashing him several times, the sheriff recoiled, hands over head. Repeated blows sent the sheriff to his knees. Carl brought the scourge around another time, half trapping the sheriff’s hands around his head. He kicked the corrupt officer in the head, and panted forcefully as the sheriff collapsed. Carl ran over to the girl, still wielding the whip. She looked at him as if he were crazy. With pity, he grabbed the girl and his shirt and ran to the boat with her. He pushed off, eager to leave the scene behind him.
After getting a few feet from shore, Carl put the pole down. He took his shirt and wiped some of the unknown villain’s blood from her tear strewn face. Then, he removed her gag. She immediately began to scream, just like she had wanted to do ages before. Carl cupped his hand over her mouth.
“Quiet, girl. I’m not going to hurt you. We’re going to get out of here. We’re safe now.”
As he said it, a gunshot echoed across the swamp. Carl decided that there were better times to comfort little girls. He let her fall into a sobbing heap and grabbed the pole. He shoved as hard as he could into the night, trying to stay low. That was no easy task, but the series of shots aided him. He looked back to see a maimed sheriff standing on the banks of an island of fire. The light was good, for it helped Carl see. However, it helped the sheriff, too. The last shot sent wood splinters flying as a bullet entered the side of the boat and pierced the bottom.
Carl continued to push until he was sure there were no more shots coming. The sheriff was a distant figure now. His chanting could just be heard where they were at. He was sure that the stench of burning flesh would soon fill the air. The fire would no doubt spread to other parts of the swamp. It was a real shame, but out of fire’s destruction often came new life.
At the moment, Carl had little time to worry with new life. He was too intent on saving his. Water had begun to seep into the boat. He had not gotten this far only to drown. His body ached from the intensity of his recent adrenaline rush. Still, he forced his limbs to move. He took off his shirt and plugged the hole as best as he could.
“Child, what’s your name?”
“Suzie,” she managed between sobs.
“Suzie, I’m Carl. I know you’re real scared right now. I’m scared, too. But I need you to do something for me. Can you hold this shirt right here and make sure that it doesn’t leave this hole, please, Suzie?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“Good, you’re a brave girl. Now we’re going to get out of this all right, okay. Do you know how to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?”
“Can you sing it for me?”
Carl had Suzie sing several songs as time went by. It helped calm her nerves some. But he was still on edge. He wasn’t going to tell her that he could be going around in circles for all he knew. He wished he had learned to find the North Star and that he could use it to guide his way out. He wished that the mist would cease and that there was enough light to actually see. He wished that he had learned to swim when he was younger. He wished that the boat wasn’t half full of water. He wished that he weren’t in a swamp filled with hungry alligators. He wished that he had been a doctor instead of a reporter. In short, he wished a million things right then, but no amount of wishing would help his present situation.
His string of wishes was interrupted as they bumped into something firm. Carl, who had been standing to push along with the pole, almost fell over into the water. The water sloshed around inside the boat. Suzie quit singing.
“It’s okay, Suzie. You can keep singing. It’s probably just a cypress knee,” Carl said to reassure her.
“No,” Suzie said, trembling with terror. “Gators.”
The tick marks I have carved into the posts on the wall tell me that almost a year has passed since the world was plunged into darkness. I am one of the few fortunate devils as to be alive still, though I always wonder for how much longer. The Aurora Borealis still burns like the light at the end of the tunnel of death through the colloidal mist of mustard gas. I assume it was from a solar flare, else why should I see the green haze so far south?
Of course, not everyone believed that. A good many of the religious fanatics and apocalyptics thought that it was the hand of God, bringing us to the end of the world. Most of them are dead now, and if there is any writing on a wall or elsewhere, it is likely only mine. Those who are left pursue other passions. They are like Buck524 returned to his primitive self. Maybe it was God. Maybe it was not. Regardless, it was the end of the world as we enjoyed it.
By and far, most people thought at first that we were victims of some fantastic new weapon, or that atom bombs had finally rained in our nuclear holocaust. No one could tell them otherwise, because there was no news channel to broadcast them propaganda and the presses were electronic. The government itself didn’t half know. And when the planes started landing like meteors into the ground, the hysteria only intensified.
Not every plane crashed. There were some skillful pilots who were able to land even without their instruments and guidance. But the ones who did survive later wished that they had just bored into the ground at full speed right then and there. It would have been more noble than dying in the waves of hysteria. Hindsight is the only rational faculty of the brain when mob panic sets in.
The government tried to maintain control, calling in the National Guard, but martial law only incited the panic. The Guard could not quell the riots, and half of them honestly wanted to be partakers of it. People ran like mice to the supermarkets, not realizing that all along these stores had been their mousetraps. It doesn’t take long for three days of supplies to fly off the shelves in mass riots and pillaging. It takes longer by far to clean up the blood and dead bodies from those who vied for the last piece of beef jerky and the last tube of whitening toothpaste.
The people were too blind to realize that their loot would do them little good. These supplies would only prolong their suffering. After all, there would be no more supplies to come. Their credit cards would never work anywhere again. They could not survive in a world where you had to be resourceful, a place that you couldn’t purchase whatever you wanted or needed. This time, there was no Google or wiki to save them or tell them how to get by. Like it or not, they had become no better than domesticated animals that could not fend for themselves in the world.
The government didn’t outlive the supermarkets long. Where was the help? Where was the retribution on our attackers? Citizens didn’t care who we bombed; they just wanted someone else to suffer. The government tried to save them from themselves by preventing a nuclear holocaust. But the people were too blamed crazy to think straight. They wanted to taste blood, and so they did. The last shred of government order and civilization were torn apart like steak fed to a pack of starved Rottweilers. Then, it was every man for himself, which wasn’t the best of odds for the women and children.
The rich didn’t outlast the government long, which is not surprising since the government, though not in theory but in practice, exists to protect the rich. Some managed a noble Roman death525 before all of their inconsequential things were seized. A few even managed to put up a decent fight. But it was akin to a wounded gazelle trying to best a pack of rabid lionesses.
From there, man became a truly wretched thing. As they camped in the homes of the dead at night, burning the houses board by board for warmth, they finally began to think. Perhaps that’s why the bands of brigands formed then, because it was better to act in the most savage ways then it was to remember their acts.
It was easier to steal from a family you very nearly condemned to death than it was to think about the high incidence of infant mortality, often your own. It was more benevolent to snuff the lights out of eyes that secretly begged to die but were not man enough to do it, than it was to have dreams of the loved ones who were lost forever, charred, drowned by breached dams, or starved to death. At least at night you were together with a group of like-minded individuals, there was order, and there was generally beer.
Perhaps the brigands will be the salvation of the human species—the weak are nearly all weeded out. It’s a shame really. Humanity didn’t have to degenerate so quickly, but the government never fixed the electrical grid to withstand such solar radiation as I presume struck us. Our lives revolved around the electronic axis; we were completely dependent. When something did happen, the people didn’t give the government a chance to make repairs. They wanted to use the bombs that would never have worked any way.
How many were the kids and women living in tattered rags having to bury their fathers and husbands who just couldn’t go on living any more since the American Dream was dead? But as the brigands took the lives of those who struggled against them and enslaved, and worse, the defenseless wives and children, they knew well that the American Dream was very much alive. This was indeed a land of opportunity.
And where was our military during all of this? They were trapped overseas, far flung and abandoned to similar depravities. Those that did not assimilate quickly are likely dead. Precious few could return, and then who would want to? They had one of the few things that still worked—guns. That meant that they could create their own empires of sorts. And many most likely did.
I have seen among the faces of the robbers many who were police officers and soldiers, because, when it all boils down to it, a man’s deepest ambition is to have power over his fellow man. That is what these bands offer.
There is little mercy to be had in this new climate of loathing, while at the same time embracing, distrust. Just ask the elderly. Those who made it through the summer were not as lucky with the winter. Corpses lie rotting uninterred everywhere where people dependent on medicines had reached the ends of their prescriptions. The pharmacies were long before raided for street labs and razed to the ground. There would be no more manufacture of pills.
As Prozac and other anti-psychotics wore off, all of the crazies were unleashed onto the world in full force. But they were as easily dealt with as the naïve Christian fanatics that didn’t have enough sense to know when to shut their mouths. They called themselves martyrs when they were just idiots. In this new era, it seems, a firing squad or a good strong rope can solve all of the world’s ills.
Now, the only religion is violence. The only spirituality is oppression. Honour has long been subverted by theft, and friendship has been replaced by butchery. If you have something, you don’t let anyone know it. You take care to avoid everyone while out hunting. You make your fires in caves to hide the smoke, if you dare cook meat. But most of all, you sit and wonder and worry.
When will this barbarity end? Who’s coming to end it for you right now? Which nation will be the first to regroup and dominate the world? With all this blood on my hands and heart, all these commissions of cruelty and omissions of kindness, I don’t wonder if my soul will survive. I already know it’s too far gone to be healed. But, now, I sit alone beneath the dance of a mustard gas green sky wondering if I will survive this Anno Oscuri, the year of darkness, not of the skies, but of man’s soul?
“They think that they can keep me captive here. They think that I will die. But I refuse. There is plenty to eat down here, and there is water. I do not need sunlight. I have your company. That is enough. I will escape.”
He waited for a response, but found none.
“You don’t believe me, do you? You think that I won’t escape. But I will. I won’t take that kind of attitude from you!” he screamed into the pitch darkness.
Angered, he began to kick at something, and a sound was heard. Yes, there was definitely something trapped in the blackness with him.
“You scream now, do you? Now you respect me. Good. Remember, you need to respect me. You shouldn’t doubt me. After all, I am an no peasant to be spat upon. I am no rat to have my face trodden down in the mud. I have nobility in my veins. My vengeance is stronger than these walls. You will see.”
He moved back over away from his victim.
“You can stop blubbering now. I will not harm you any more, unless you further impugn my honor. Take your beating like a man. To think that you once called yourself a knight! Now you are not even worthy to be called a page. Be a man, I say.”
He waited a moment in the silence.
“That’s better. It’s good to see that you have taken back some of your honor. I will need you to be a man for our assault. I cannot have you afraid of what we must do, no matter how dark will be the undertaking.”
He started laughing hysterically.
“Yes, a fine pun. You could almost be a jester, were you not such a fine soldier. It can truly be no darker than our present undertaking. Nor could it be blacker than the undertaker.”
He paused, obviously in pensive thought, though there was no light on his face to show it.
“Do you remember the light? Yes, it was warm. It was warm indeed. It was nothing like this dungeon. I can almost feel it on me now. Do you remember, sir, how it was to go hunting? We’d see the sunlight come up together. Yes, I appreciate it more now, too. I always took for granted how the night began to change from purples to pink as dawn drew nigh. You could see well before the sun crested the horizon. It was almost a spiritual light, having no source or being.”
He paced to the other side of the room, and leaned against the wall.
“How long do you think it’s been? No, not since we’ve been hunting, though that has been some time indeed. Months, I would wager. No, no, how long has it been since we’ve seen the light? Really? It can’t have been that long? But it does seem longer now, kept down here. Kept from the light.
“Do you think we’re dead? No, you’re right. We can’t be dead. We never saw the light. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen light. Do you think the light has forgotten about us? Of course light has a memory, sir. Why else would it visit our land each day? Surely you can’t think it does it on accident over and over. Nay, ’tis as a maiden visiting a flower garden, she goes regularly to daydream, but she can’t very well live there. Or ’tis like a king sitting at feast, he cannot feast all day, and so from the table he goes away. Why did you have to mention feasting? Now I’m hungry! I most certainly did not mention it, sir. I’ll have thy hide, knave.”
He began to kick in the darkness again. His foot again collided with something solid.
“Bread? Yes, I remember it, too. I would like to have some. What? You have some there? Have you been hiding it from me this while?”
He moved back over to his kicking target, and bent down, rummaging for the bread.
“You’ve no bread. What a poor jester you make. You’ve nothing but meat, sir. I wouldn’t bother you now, sir. A rotten jester makes for rotten meat. I know from experience. You would be no less putrid now than yesterday. You tricked me then. I won’t fall for your deception again. You’re not fit for worms, with your puns and cruelty.
“Ah, but royal flesh, it is divine. Yea, it is the divine right. You catch my pun indeed sir. Why, He Himself made our flesh superior, which is why I have saved the best for last.”
He began to grunt a little as he gnawed at his arm. After he’d gotten a morsel to suit his taste, he regained his posture.
“No, you cannot have any. It is fit for the knights to sup with the royalty, but not of the royalty. You shall have to be content with your lot. Besides, what acts of valor have you done lately to merit such an honor? As I thought. You have been letting your bravery waste away into bravado. Beware lest the maggots take courage and vanquish thee.”
He had moved back over towards his silent vassal again. He licked his arm to tease the subordinate with the sound of a delicious feast. Then, he kicked him again for good measure.
“What was that sir? You must really speak up. It is not polite to mumble or whisper in my company. Ah. It would indeed have been a fine thing to have been able to finish it off with wine or mead. Yes, anything would have been better than what we have. Nay, sir, do not be silly. You cannot very well drink the dark, though the dark can drink you in. No, no, you forget there is something to torment our thirst and remind us of stronger, sweeter pleasures for our tongues and minds. Yes, this trickle of water. It will do. It will do.”
He moved through the darkness and began to feel along the walls for the moldy spring of which he spoke. Finding the dampness of the wall, he began to lick it repeatedly.
“They could have left us with some wine to pass the time, couldn’t they? Aye, it would indeed have made up in part for their lack of hospitality, since they were intent not to leave us with light or bread. But they’ll pay for that, sir. I warrant you that. We shall give them a taste of moldy water, and we shall acquaint them with the dark. No, it would not be a sin to treat them in the same fashion. Doesn’t it say in the law, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?’ Marry, you’re right again sir. I fancy that you were almost a man of the cloth, or that your maid was, for you to know such things. It does also say that those things have had an end. Then we shall have to be more generous in our dealings with them, and give them greater darkness.”
He went back to the wall to moisten his throat again.
“Do you think they miss us, sir knight? No, not the ones that have given us these gracious quarters. If they had missed us, then they would have come to visit more often. You really are a poor jester, sir. A poor jester indeed. Who then? Why, our maidens; our brethren. You don’t think they’ve noticed we’re gone? Come now, everyone knew we were gone. We went to battle, didn’t we? The whole of our kingdom bid us adieu. True, the whole of our kingdom save those as followed him. But they weren’t very well of our kingdom any more, were they? Truly, sir, you must think before you spout such nonsense.”
“You don’t miss them much? Come now! No, I fear you don’t miss much at all any more. It’s a pity this life you lead. You should find some renewed interest, like vengeance, hate, or love. Yes, I know that there is very little difference between them. You must have been a man of all three. Yes, I guess we all are. Yes, I blame it on love, too. The love of women breeds the vengeance and hate fair enough, as you say.”
“It was a fine charge wasn’t it? Weren’t the banners gallant? Their arrows fell into our ranks like raindrops into the ocean. How many did you take? That many? You were with me in the heat of battle, despite your wounds. I should call you Sir Faithful, since there was none as devoted as you were. You were always brave. At least before now. But I suppose you can’t help that, can you? There’s a certain bit of darkness that saps a man’s bravery. Who would have thought that you would be afraid of the dark when you were grown? Do not worry. I am with you. I am sure that you are not alone.”
He leaned over to pat the knight he had previously kicked.
“Do you think they are afraid? Well, I should hope that they aren’t rejoicing. After all, they did let me get captured. Yes, perhaps that was my own fault. But did you really expect me, to lead from behind the battle’s fray? What kind of king would I be? You’re correct. I was never such a coward. Not like you are now. No, I suppose war isn’t as pleasant as most of the maidens they left either. Do you think they still besiege the castle? They can’t have abandoned us already. You must have faith. These were devoted men. They were loyal to the crown. Not like my brother and his ilk.”
He pounded his hand against the wall. It was wet, and it reminded him that he was thirsty.
“Do you have any plans? Besides eating, sir knight. What other plans are there? I really wonder if your spirit has left. Where is that spark and fire that burned in your eye in the battle’s heat? Where are your mischievousness and scheming. Where is your strength? Your boasts and vaunted bravery? Have these left you only to be replaced with your indolence? Really, you have barely moved in weeks.”
“Well, if you are merely letting your soul fester, then let me not interrupt. I only wanted to know if you had determined a way to put your festering self to use. Have you developed a plot for our escape? Neither have I. I suppose that we may only wait. That gives us plenty of time to develop a plan of action. Sir? Yes, perhaps it will keep your brains from turning to mush, indeed, sir. Well spoke.”
“Soft, sir knight. Do not make even such a noise as would disturb the slumber of the dead. Something cometh. Yes, you are correct. Someone comes. It’s some roguish knave. Do you hear how he talks. Hear how he treats royalty with his brutish, unlearnéd tongue. Why, he says, ‘My lord said to bury his remains. Naturally he won’t do it. King thinks he’s too good to do a commoner’s work. Too good to bury his own brother. Won’t even let me have help, since he doesn’t want any witnesses. Shady business this. Shady enough for shades.’
“We will have to show him a shade or two. I shall have to teach him to hold his tongue. You don’t believe that I can? You shall see, good knight. I’ll get the first attack, as a leader should. You can follow me in glory. But for now, be still. We will give him a corpse or two to look upon. I will give him a spectre worthy of his shady business. We will take him by surprise. Yea, there is still honor in surprise. It’s a whining wretch who says otherwise; one that’s been beaten by being surprised.”
He stopped whispering and crumpled on the floor beside the knight, scarcely daring to breathe. The footsteps grew louder, and keys jangled. The man entered, passing his torch around. He bent low to look at the king’s body.
“Didn’t you learn not to disturb those at rest? Your light will pay for being so unwelcome.”
He pushed the torch back into the man’s face, burning him. Then he broke his neck.
“You will need to visit a healer after that, boy. But methinks that perhaps you are a delicacy.”
He bent, and ripped off the burnt skin.
“It’s good to have a cooked repast. But I warrant you that you were no king, from the taste of you. No, not even a king’s jester’s son. A poor delicacy indeed.”
“I have bested him, sir knight. Come quickly! You are too weary? Fine, stay here to rot if you like it so much. Then, I shall take all the glory, and let you sleep.”
He bent down over the body of the burned man.
“Now, where does he keep the keys? The robe does little to reflect my dignity, but we will try it. Now, sir knight, I have given you company. I would not have you alone and afraid of the dark. Yes, this light is horrible isn’t it. My eyes aren’t used to it yet. I much prefer the dark now.”
He shut the door, leaving the light behind.
“It must be night out, sir knight. You were well to be weary. No one will be watching for my assault. Rest in peace while you may, for soon I raise the battle’s cry.”
He crept up the stairs and out of the dungeon.
“Not a guard in sight. No doubt my brother has all let them all frequent a brothel or he has put them all on the wall. He was always a foolish man, eager to hide behind a false sense of protection, while never guarding what was closest to home.”
He continued to move through the castle.
“Ah, there is his room, if I am not mistaken. Let us see how he sleeps, and if he is afraid of the dark.”
He opened the door and entered the room.
“Ah, a mirror. It will not do me justice to look, for I have not bathed in some time. Still, I wonder if I still have a soul? Or am I just a creature of darkness bound to wonder forever? The mirror will show me. Who is this emaciated figure covered in wounds? Are those claw and bite marks on his skin? No doubt it is a denizen of hell. Surely, it is not me. But I digress. I did not come so far to be vain. My brother has to answer for his cold treatment. He was a poor brother’s keeper, if any.”
He moved across the room and bent down over his sleeping brother. His brother’s eyes shot open wide.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, sire. But I am worse. Sir Knight, he thinks his crucifix will save him now. It is laughable, isn’t it? I never took him to be a religious man, but his fondness for the rosary corrects me. Doubtless he has a guilty mind for his crimes. We shall have to put that to rest. He looks at me ghastly, but I am more than such. I will not suffer such dishonor. I am a demon. I’ve come to take the light from your eyes, as you did mine.”
He let the freshly strangled corpse fall back into the bed.
“Will there be as much gnashing of teeth in the hell I put thee in, as there was in the one in which you placed me? It’s a pity really that you have not yet married, brother. She would have probably liked a snack at this hour of night. As it is, too much will be left to waste.”
He called down to his vassal below.
“I shall discover the kitchen later, sir. I have found something far superior to your spoils. We’ve already established the divinity of royal flesh, and I have need to sup with my brother. Find me a good vintage for my feast.”
“It’s good to have you here tonight, Count Biscay.”
The figure that stood admiring the stained glass portrait of the family turned on hearing his host.
“Thank you, Lord Loyola. You know I wouldn’t miss coming. Your meals are always excellent, as is your wine. Besides, you promised me a surprise tonight. I do hope you won’t disappoint me.”
“Don’t worry, I believe that it is quite a pleasant surprise. But let’s continue to dinner first. We have prepared your favorite tonight, capon. Please, let us be seated.”
With that they moved into the dining room and were seated. Servants came and attended them at the table, taking their requests for wine.
“So, do you think that I shall like this surprise, Loyola?”
“I should say it will be enjoyable.”
“So it is an activity then?”
“Yes, but you have caused me to give up too much already.”
“Right, fine. I shall wait.”
The servants came back with the wine at this point.
“To the surprise,” suggested Count Biscay.
“To the surprise.”
They toasted, and Loyola watched Biscay devoutly over the rim of his goblet. Biscay passed out, glass still in hand. As the goblet rolled off the table and onto the floor in an attempt to escape the potion within, Loyola stood. He motioned to his servants, who lifted Biscay. They followed after their lord.
Biscay awoke with a headache. It was cool and damp. His vision was blurry. He tried to wipe his eyes with his hands, but his arms wouldn’t move. Was he paralyzed? He struggled to regain clear vision, and groaned. A figure began to approach him. It stopped a few steps from him, towering over him.
“Good to see that you are awake, Biscay. I had promised you a surprise. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“Loyola? You drugged my drink, didn’t you? This is funny, your twisted sense of humor. You can release me now. My wrists and ankles are sore. Your servants tied them too tightly. I need my shirt. I’ll catch my death down here like this.”
“Oh, but this is no joke. No more than catching your death. I won’t be releasing you just yet.”
“What are you talking about? Release me, Loyola.”
“Do you know where we are?”
“In your tower, I presume.”
“Do you know why we are here? We are here to talk.”
“But we can talk upstairs over dinner. The capon is waiting. You don’t have to bind me to talk. We are brothers-in-law. We are family.”
“Oh, but this way will be a bit more productive, I presume, brother.”
“Because I have ways of loosening your tongue,” he said, holding up a dagger.
Biscay drew his breath. Surely Loyola was jesting. There was no sense in killing Biscay. They were allies; they were family. But the blade was still glinting in the light of the sconces. The light was too bright. Biscay noticed just before Loyola continued talking, that the room was covered in mirrors.
“This dagger is dipped in poison. You will wish for me to use it by the end of the night.”
“Come, this is enough of a joke. Loose me. Let us finish our dinner. You are being too dramatic.”
“Ah, but the joke has yet to begin. However, I do believe that it is time for dinner.”
Loyola’s hand motion was repeated a multitude of times in the mirrors surrounding the room. It was to a servant out of Biscay’s sight behind his head. Biscay looked into the mirror towards his feet so that he might catch a glimpse of the purpose of the motion. The servant brought a bag forward. The man stood beside the count now, with the bag directly above him. The bag was swaying slightly, almost as if it were alive.
“What’s in that, Loyola? What are you going to do?”
“I thought that I was asking the questions. But very well, since you wished to know…”
Loyola motioned to the servant to empty the bag. A shower of angry spiders and scorpions rained down upon Biscay. Horrified, he began to shake as much as he could. He screamed and writhed almost futilely.
“Come, now. Surely you must have learned that the worst thing to do is make sudden movements. It only excites them. Besides, they’re hungry.”
Biscay continued to shake them off. This was difficult, as he was in a position to be drawn and quartered. His body was already stretched taut. The motions only served to pain his muscles more. He couldn’t twist over to completely rid himself of the creatures. He whimpered as bites and stings began to numb his mind with pain like the nails of an iron maiden. How he wanted to take his hands and beat at the blasted creatures.
But he was impotent. Few had fallen. He could feel them rustling the hair follicles as they moved over his skin. Some were burrowing into the warmth of his trousers. Itching sensations mingled with the pangs from stings. One began to crawl through his hair and onto his eye. He was hysterical with fear, trying to blow the creature off.
“Loyola, get these creatures off. This is no way to treat a guest. This is no way to treat family!”
“I agree. This is no way to treat family. I will leave you to think about how you have pained me. I will give you time to consider all of the rotten wounds you’ve given my soul.”
“But I have done nothing to you, Loyola,” Biscay screamed.
Loyola never heeded him, having carried full well the marks on his soul for years. He and his servant climbed the stairs circling the tower. They paused long enough only to douse the light of each torch. Slightly out of breath at the landing, he turned and looked on the figure stretched out a hundred feet below him. How he loathed him. He spat in his direction, then opened the iron door. Behind him, his servant snuffed the last sconce and departed. Biscay remained bound in the dark below as a feast for vermin wishing to have experienced the dagger.
“You don’t look like you’re enjoying the surprise, Biscay. But I am. I see necrosis has set in. Those sores remind me of the festering wounds that you have given me. Have you thought about your offense yet?”
Biscay opened his eyes to look with pleading hatred at Loyola. He was not sure how much time had passed. A few days perhaps? He had been visited by servants infrequently during that time. They had only come to bring a sponge full of water to him. They seemed to be checking something, too. What, he could not be sure. Whatever it was, it was not the gaping holes in his flesh left from the spider bites. They never cleaned the sweat or pus from his brow.
“Loyola, I have never done such an offense to you. When I get free, I’ll…”
“Ah, but it is not in your best interest or power to threaten me. You forget your place. You cannot escape your binds, either. You know that by now. Your muscles were lax when we tied your hands and feet. You will only get free, if I release you. Otherwise, you will remain with the spiders. I see that they have made themselves quite comfortable.”
“This is sick, Loyola! Release me. I need care.”
“Sick is it? Let us talk of sick. You know all about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“How long has it been?”
“Since she disappeared?”
“Yes, my sister, the wife you were unworthy of.”
“Five years. Five lonely years.”
“Lonely? I doubt that. I know something of the lonely nights that you have had with your peasants and ill-reputed. I know what really happened to those you had burned as witches. Lonely. No. Never for you. It is only lonely where she is.”
“Yes, I have profaned her memory with my actions since she has disappeared. But surely you cannot hold me accountable for that. I am a man. My flesh has needs.”
“You more than profaned her memory. You profaned your marriage.”
“But she is gone.”
“While Mari still was here, you were free with your affections. She told me. She told me of the way you treated her, the abuse.”
“Yes, I admit that I was a horrible husband. I was adulterous and abusive. Now please, set me free. I have had my comeuppance. I have suffered with these wounds. Is that what you want from me?”
“No. I want to know what happened to her.”
“Do you expect me to believe that she left and never tried to contact me? Do you think that my sister was the kind to abandon her commitments? If there is anything that you have learned from me by now, it should be that the Loyolas are dedicated to what they put their hand to.”
“She disappeared, Loyola.”
“No, she was killed. She was killed to get out of a marriage that was entered into only for her dowry. Can you honestly tell me that you loved Mari? Was your courting more than calculating lies to win her heart in order to win her money?”
“I did not love Mari. That is true. But I never killed her. I am no murderer, Loyola. You must believe me.”
Loyola paused to look at the feeble being before him. His fingers clutched the hilt of the dagger kept at his side. The knuckles were going white with the loss of blood.
“Naturally, I did not expect you to admit as much. You are a coward, a cur, a liar, an adulterer, a pig, a thief, and a murderer. You have no honor. And yet you impugn mine?” But I will hold back my hand. The best part of the surprise is yet to come.”
“What surprise, Loyola? This was not enough of a surprise already?”
“Oh, it is but a preparation for things to come. I had hoped that you would have talked by now, that way you would not have to be prompted anymore. I fear you will not enjoy what lays in store.”
“Loyola, please, I beg of you. Have mercy on me.”
“Like you had mercy on my sister? Are those the same tones she used when she begged you not to take her life?”
“I swear, I did not take Mari’s life. She disappeared. She was unhappy living with me.”
“I do not doubt that she was unhappy living with you. But as for her disappearance, the answer will shortly appear.”
Biscay looked about apprehensively.
“What are you threatening me with, Loyola?”
“You’re going to beat it out of me, then?”
“No, there will be no beating. I expect that a certain desire to confess will sprout in your heart, maybe not now, but soon. Tell me, what do you know of bamboo?”
“It is good to see that you learned something more than how to mistreat women and philander. Have you ever seen it grow before?”
“Well, I believe that you will have an intimate experience with its growth soon. You see, it grows quite rapidly. Sometimes as much as four feet an hour. We have a certain variety planted beneath you, that’s been waiting to educate you for some time. It’ll grow to a height of ninety feet in a year.”
“You’re not serious?”
“I am. It will start sprouting, and when it does it will grow through your decaying body.”
“You’re crazy, Loyola.”
“Only with justice and vengeance.”
“How long have you been planning this?”
“For five years, since Mari disappeared. I’ve been cultivating it all these years. You won’t see it until it sprouts, but it should be time. If not in the next hour, then certain in the next few days. We’ll keep you alive that long. We’d hate to disappoint it.”
“But I’m innocent, Loyola. You must understand.”
“I understand that you’re unwilling to confess now. Perhaps you want to test to see if I am bluffing. But you will find that I am not. I will keep you alive as long as possible so that you can confess your sin. It would be a shame for you to die with a guilty conscience. As the bamboo grows, we will raise you. At least, until you weary my patience.”
Loyola motioned and a pair of servants that were accompanying him went over to the pegs where the ropes holding up Biscay were fastened. They loosed them and began to raise him. Pus dripped from his taut body, and he screamed.
“The bamboo will be more painful than that. It will enter your putrid flesh. It will pierce your spine and organs. Your heart will still be beating and your brain working, at least until they are punctured. Or you can confess and be free.”
“But I have done nothing, Loyola.”
“Suit yourself, Biscay. We’ll set you at two feet. When it sprouts you’ll be able to feel it shortly. Call us when you are ready to talk. But remember that time is running out.”
Not too much later, Biscay’s screams began to echo through the hall.
“Ah, just as I expected. Let’s go see if he is ready to talk now,” Loyola told his servant. They descended the staircase to the bottom of the tower. It was evident that the bamboo was sprouting.
“You have done well,” Loyola told the servants he had left behind. “You’ve kept him just high enough for it to touch his back, exactly as I had requested.”
“Loyola, please,” Biscay began.
“You are fortunate that I have such obedient servants here, Biscay. If they had been shirking their duties, you would have been dead by now. But seeing as how you are not dead, you are fortunate enough to assuage your guilty soul. Are you willing to tell me everything that happened to Mari, or do you despise freedom?”
“Yes, yes,” Biscay groveled and weeped. “I’ll talk.”
“Good. Now tell me what happened.”
“I killed her. Now set me free.”
“That’s not good enough. I need to know that you are not just trying to get free. How did you do it? Where is Mari’s body, that it may finally be lain to rest?”
“Mari was going to leave me for another man. I found a note telling her where to meet him. She was going to slip out in the middle of the night while I was drunk and hie to their rendezvous. I couldn’t let her go. I couldn’t take that dishonor.”
“But you could dishonor her during your marriage with your revelings?”
“I was wrong. I admit that, Loyola. My pride bested me.”
“What did you do?”
“I left to carouse, as I was wont to do. But there were no festivities in my feasts. I waited until the time and ambushed her on her way. She wouldn’t tell me where she was going. She tried to run from me. She was my wife. But she wouldn’t come home. She fought against me. She never made it to her destination.”
“Where did you leave her body?”
“I took it and put it on the hilltop near where she was to rendezvous in the hollow. He could have her now. Then I returned to my estate to bury my sins in spirits.”
“Did you ever meet the man?”
“No, I never saw him.”
“That’s not so. You’ve seen him scores of times over the years.”
“You know him?”
“Yes, I am he,” he said, which evoked a gasp from Biscay. “She was going to return to my estate as a sanctuary. Mari would be safe from you. I was late to our meeting. When I arrived, I only found her body. Sorrowing, I took it back home and buried it here near the where the gardens grow. Then, I waited. There would come a time when you would have to reveal the truth. Who else would have wanted her dead as badly as you did?”
Loyola turned to walk away.
“Loyola, you promised. I would go free. Please, release me. I’ll confess. I’ll stand before the court. I’ll acknowledge my crime.”
Loyola spun around with his eyes burning. “Did you really think that I would let you go? There is no justice for those such as we among men. This is justice. You have tried to escape it for years, but you will pay.”
“Surely you don’t intend to this. You are mad. Think, Loyola. Your servants have seen. Will you kill them too? People will miss me.”
“My servants are good and devoted. I have treated them well always, and they know that nothing good will come from my demise. Besides, they are as guilty in this as I am. They loved Mari almost as much as I did. Who is to miss you? Mari? Your subjects you mistreat? For all we know, you have merely vanished with her.”
“Loyola, please. Let me go. I’ll forgive you.”
“I have no need to be forgiven of you, Biscay. You are a worthless cur. But we will feed your remains to the dogs, for that is all that you are worth.”
Loyola approached his servants.
“Raise him up to about ten feet. That will give him time to think about what he has done and where he will go.”
Loyola went to bed, now that his honor was finally cleared. He heard Biscay’s screams echo through the castle that night. He finally slept well.