Fish ‘n Stinks

from Dogs n Cats n Us

Karel Jaeger

“What the hell is that smell?” Pat gagged as he spoke. The smell was rancid, cloying, so rich it clung to everything in the vicinity. He leaned down closer to the dog. “It’s you, isn’t it? What did you get into?” He held two fingers tight to his nose. “Into the bath with you, young lady, until that stink is gone, gone, gone. Or you’ll be living in the tool shed for the rest of your natural life.”

The tool shed was El’s favourite place, so it wasn’t a threat, but at night she slept in bed with him. If she wasn’t there, he got the bad dreams and the sweats and the ghosts. So he had to get her clean. And it was already late, nearly dark.

He’d only just got home from work – late again. And that dark oily substance had the smell of rotten fish, or whale blubber, or … Pat couldn’t think of anything worse. And he knew there was a whale down on the back beach. And he knew El got out of the yard during the day when he was at work.

The neighbours told him about her exploits; they fed her and patted her and made a fuss of her. Most nights, Elaine brought her home, skulking along in an obedient, head-lowered con by the side of Elaine’s wheelchair.

Not like he minded. Elaine was … Well, she was better than he deserved, so he couldn’t think like that. It was always a good chat when El was brought home. The highlight of his day.

He wasn’t allowed to take a dog to work with him, but he would if he could. Poor El probably needed the extra attention to stay strong against the dream demons. He was sure the dog didn’t sleep at night, that she watched him all the time for the first sign so she could lick him and cuddle in next to him, so he could feel safe and loved. Alive. Not buried under tons of earth. Not crushed.

He carried her into the bathroom, realised he’d got the stuff all over his blue work-shirt and the new logo-tie. Too bad if he stank at work – maybe it’d be enough for them to sack him. He waggled his head at El as she began the struggle against the known enemy of bath-time. It was warmer than the sea and she loved that, but …

“If I could, sweets, I’d do it, you know. I’d leave that place and spend the days with you. We’d go to the beach and fish and swim and run around like kids.” He slid the plug into the bath with his toe as she wriggled harder. The tap gave him grief as he pushed with his whole foot against the faucet until the water gushed out and splashed everywhere.

Pat lifted his foot higher to push the spigot back to the centre. El shoved her back legs against his stomach. His upper torso unbalanced. His foot slipped on the now wet floor. The dog went up into the air, all fur and claws and yips as Pat went down. He heard it when his head crunched on the tiles; wondered who would turn the tap off. El landed on his chest, rolled, yelped and leapt off.

He lived alone, except for El. No one would turn the tap off. No one would find him. Pat tried to move, first his hand, then a foot. Nothing happened. At least he could still think – could he speak?

His mouth opened, but not enough. The lips were barely separated. She was there; she licked his lips, whined. He heard the clicker-click of her claws on the tiles as she ran away.

It’s what he would do. Leave the mess behind. Not look back. Not think back. Not go back. He prayed El would go to someone who could love her with all their heart, and not use her like a dream-catcher, like their own personal angel or fairy-mother or whatever it was that he made of her loyalty. He wanted her to be free of the needs he had.

Pat closed his eyes when the blackness of night filled the room. He felt the burn of tears as they trickled down the side of his face. The only thing he’d miss would be that dog.

“El,” he tried to speak. “El, girl, I love you.” It was the best he could do as the cold settled in his limbs. Maybe this was what it felt like to let go. Maybe this is what happened to …

 

A loud white light burned into his skin. He heard words, but they didn’t make sense. It was as if hundreds of people were trying to speak all at the same time and their voices were bright white lights. Pat wanted to tell them to shut up, but he sensed something else. Well, smelled it. That stinking rotten whale smell. El!

“El,” he whispered, as the tongue rasped his face, wiped the tears away.

“It’s alright, Pat. It’s me, Elaine, from down the road. We got the medics here. You’ll be right. The dog came and got me, didn’t you, girl?”

“El,” he said; the sound more solid in the cold air. “Her name’s El. I love her.”

“I know, Pat. You love El.”

“El, I love you,” Pat said.

“And I love you, too,” Elaine said. “We both love you.”


zorba

 

The Wall

A way through the crowd opened up. Issa kept her eyes up and stared straight ahead; she walked into the gap between the scrabbling, stinking bodies. If she didn’t get out soon, it would be too late. Lunch would end up on the shiny, slippery linoleum. Then there’d be a gap, wouldn’t there? Maybe she should go through the motions, see what happened. That was something she wouldn’t do because every face in the whole mall would turn towards her, would make sounds of derision, laugh or pity or … attract their attention.

No, keep going, get out into the wide spaces, where no opacity existed – not to her view. The people who walked the malls, who shopped ’til they dropped, who took up the air she needed with their perfumes and frowns – they stayed inside, in the cool, air-conditioned controlled environment while she needed to get outside to smell the dust, and the eucalypts, and the way home.

Each week the court-assigned counsellor exhorted her to go to somewhere that held these ‘others’  so Issa acclimatised. The escort took her into the concussive crush of people who had no mind open, no eyes to see what stood before them. People who consumed, but never became. Issa could have objected, she could have fought the control, but …

Their plans had yet to work on her. Issa hadn’t even touched the devices she’d been given; she wasn’t blind. She could see through them all, in the mall and in the offices, as if they were pieces of glass. The outer coverings, the layers of labels and colours and aromas didn’t cover up the inner core.

What lay inside each of the shells was an emptiness that lit up with a little spark of light only when the plastic card was offered to the line of AI. A tiny spark, but it was an addiction no other living soul seemed to see.

Issa couldn’t even touch the plastic. She felt the links it had into the very hearts of all these people in her community. Links that manipulated and pushed, that rallied to a cause – or not, that shone guilt or shame on some things and not others. The little pulses that created pleasure or pain – whatever floated the boat – for the shortest time.

How many people walked in the mall with their accessories glowing with a connection to that thing? No, wrong question – how many people did she see who weren’t connected to it?

Her eyes blazed along the lines in the air – millions of little zings of energy zapped through, in, around, over, under – she felt them on her skin when she had to walk through them – millions, even if there weren’t millions of people there were millions of connections. Never turned off. Never out from under the influence of the over-brain that no one knew existed.

And she was the last of the no one tribe, wasn’t she?

Copyright Karel Jaeger 2017.

The Music of Death

spiderweb2 007.jpg“It was the music,” he said as I leaned over him. “The music touched me, emptied me out, filled it back up.” His voice softened at the end. I had to lean forward to hear the last word. “Different.”

Binit wasn’t the first one to go through it, but he was the most spectacular. On death’s door, waiting for the Whites to collect him for burial. No heart beat, no colour, no sign of life at all, and then the music came for him. Apparently.

We all heard it from the chapel. My heart pounded because I knew what it was. I ran through the shocked and silent bodies who didn’t move fast enough.

I was the first one in the door, saw him sitting up and wiping the wisps of flaking skin from his now pink body. Naked. Pink. Eyes bright blue. As always. My vision blurred. Was it real?

“The music,” he whispered in my ear. “It’s the passport to a second chance,” he swung his legs over the side of the gurney-table and stood. He smiled. “I have a second chance, just like him,” he pointed at Eric, “and her,” he pointed at my mother.

“We have a task.”

And the three of them reached out to each other through the crowd of white-faced onlookers, clasped hands to elbows in the way of a greeting in triptych – a painting of movement, in this case – and grinned so hard at each other the creases in each face outlined the depth of something other, something different. Obscene.

But he was alive.  I should be glad of that, shouldn’t I? Alive. Eric too, I suppose; he was – is – my friend. And my mother, although she’s too different now, and she doesn’t live with us anymore. I don’t know where she lives; I don’t know if she sleeps at all, or if she walks the forest each night and the village each day. She never stops.

Would this happen to Binit? Would he be that different? Too different for me to understand?

The crowd separated as Binit – still naked but for the soft white death-cover – Eric, and my mother walked through the villagers and down the green track towards the river. They didn’t look back. They didn’t stop smiling.

I ran after them, called to Binit, tried to remind him of the life we had, but he either didn’t hear me or wouldn’t.

When they reached the river and walked in, deeper and deeper until they disappeared and didn’t come back out – on either side or on top of the fast current – that was when I knew. They weren’t alive anymore. They had a task.

Would I ever know what the task was? Would I ever share those lives again? Did I want to, if they were so different to the people I once knew?

Yes.

I walked into the river after them, felt the pull of the water as my legs flew out from under me and my head sank below the surface. I didn’t close my eyes – I didn’t want to miss them – and I looked and looked.

What I saw was … I don’t think I can tell you that, but the doorway, the light to … somewhere else – it wasn’t what I expected. And it wasn’t what I wanted!

The darkness reached out with a cold hand, touched my heart and my ears, sang to me in a voice that compelled, with instruments that tingled every muscle and sinew in my body. I heard the music, I felt the pull, felt the emptying; I wanted to join in, to sing, but I saw that hole for what it truly was, and …

 

Copyright Karel Jaeger 2017

 

 

The Truth About RumpledStiltedSkin

A Very Ugly Old Man.

The Story was twisted out of all proportion, and now he needs us all to know the truth, so here it is, from his own mouth.

That young girl, she was cryin’, see. Doing all that weepin’ and wailin’ and wringin’ of hands – an’ I could hear her all the way down where I was. That’s the dungeons to any what ain’t been there. That’s where they keep such as me, who don’t like the way people’s looks ats us.

All night, right up ’til when the bloomin’ moon snuck her light in my grate and I sees her face at the winder – an’ she was a beauty, alright. Black hair, dark eyes, pale skin. Tall, most likely, or she wouldna been able to lean out like that. I couldna do that – too short, too stumpy – tha’s why they calls me Stilty, ya knows – the legs that goes all bandy-like an’ twisted.

An’ I was hooked. Like any normal man is hooked by such a pretty face an’ such a dire problem.

So I went to her, through the pipes an’ drains and runnels, until I stands before ‘er, an’ her reaction to my being there or the way I looks was the same as all the others. But she’s in trouble and when I offers meself to help – if I can – she don’ look at me so harsh.

An’ she tells me the problem. A big one. Her Da – silly man – been heard all around that his dotter can spin straw inter gold! Yea! What a man to lie so bad about his only family – and she had nuttin’ to do with it, did she? So I says I can help, but what I didn’t say was that magic has a price, an’ it has to be a fair price, or it won’t play. Instead, I tol’ her that I has a price, an’ it has to be fair ‘cos I be the one awake all night.

She offers the trinket, an’ I take it an’ stick it in my pocket. I thinks to meself that I’ll give it back later, when she be freed.

An’ I works the whole night, happy to be able to help such a pretty girl, such an innocent. An’ in the mornin’, when she wakes, I aint there, but the spindles are full of gold thread, as she needed. An’ I was far below, catching up on me own sleep in the quiet of a town roaring with her success.

But that night it comes again, the howlin’ and ballin’ and tearin’ of hair, and when I goes to her – a bit sooner, this time ‘cos I think she won’t hate the sight of me now – she tells me the King has ordered her to spin more, or he will execute her father for failing to offer her skills to the king as soon as he knew of her gift. Nasty man, this king, I tells meself. Nasty. An’ of course, it’s not her fault. She is still innocent.

The gift is the only piece of value she has left. Her final offering. The jewel gifted to her by a mother who died so long ago. The thing in her life of greatest value. I takes it and does my task, callin’ on the magic to help me – ‘cos ye know I canna do it on my own; I’s only a man, an ol’ man, an ugly man with bumpy skin – who wants to help a pretty young girl; who wants this girl to smile at him, to see him as a real person and not a rumpled bit o’ dirt.

An’ in the mornin’, as she wakes to the room full o’ the gold thread – so much more of it than the night before – an’ I hasta sleeps the whole day in a dead slump. It took all’s I had – an’ I didna have enough in me to even go for food; had ta call in the rats to get stuff so’s I could rise from my rag bed. But when the rats tell me tha’ she’s still a prisoner, that now the King’s edict is to ‘marry the girl, make her Queen, if she can spin enough gold thread to save his kingdom from ruin’ – well, tha’ makes me sad.

Of course, it happened. She cried and wailed and hung outta tha’ window, an’ I goes to her, all hunched over and miserable – ‘cos I knows the truth of it all now, and she be lookin’ at bein’ queen, while I got no one, an’ no hope. An ol’ ugly, short man with no hope of marryin’, of findin’ the woman who be bearin’ the child necessary to become apprentice to the ways of magic. An’ I’s the last, ye know. The last who can pass it on.

This time, I asks for the only thin’ what’s gonna have value to me – an’ the magic, o’ course. I asks for her to give me the first child she bears. I don’ have all that much time to be able to wait; it has to be the first, or could be too late. An’ I watches her face to see if she’s not sayin’ the whole truth. An’ there’s a worm there, that I sees, but not an untruth. She agrees, but not with a whole heart. An’ I thinks to meself ‘when I comes for the child, I’ll tell her the why.’ Still I was sure she would unnerstand.

But tha’s not how it happened, is it? She did what they all do – men and women and children, rulers and teachers and parents and friends and enemies.

They say what they think will get them what they want, an’ tha’s the end of the obligation. An’ look what it cost the world. The Magic is gone because the eyes see only the outside of a thing and think is a reflection of the inside.

 

Copyright Karel Jaeger 2017

The Garden of Souls

The noise echoed and rolled within the tight confines of the severely overcrowded Inn of Loca. Every resident shouted louder and louder to be sure Ol’ Stumpy heard their call on the desired number. Arms waved and hands clapped, heads thumped and spittle flew in exclamation as the tall, narrow-necked jar lit up a single square for each bet.

Ol’ Stumpy sat as calm as a well-fed Inn-cat as he scribbled on the black slate when a voice chipped in with the number or word or a shake of jowl. How he knew which name-sigil to put against the number was impossible for Livia to see. She didn’t need to – Stumpy did it as he always did, and the magic wouldn’t work for him if he did it wrong or cheated.

Each scrape on the slate was accompanied by a nod and a lit name-sigil appeared above the person, followed by a gold coin which flew through the air to clink into the large jar that sat on the very edge of the raw timber bench. A few more coins and it’d be all over for the year.

Roars erupted on the far side, amid the smoke and crackle of the large fire-pit. Two more sigils, two more coins appeared and dropped into the neck. One more. The last. Voices calmed; spittle dribbled down chins with mouths closed. Like a roll of thunder in reverse, the sounds decreased, then ceased as every head in the overflowing, crowded, hot and steamy room turned towards Livia.

She crossed her arms, scowled, sneered – nodded as the outer ridges on the jar lit up with her sigil and the last empty mark in the grid pattern of squares. The room erupted in another roar, hid the chink of her last piece of gold as it stoppered the neck. Hot glass melted from the top and sealed it.

It was done.

Livia turned to leave. The heavy iron-studded door tried to resist her efforts to open it, but relented when the tears began to burn down her cheeks. Cold air hit her as she stepped out into the last night of Winter. Her last night.

Cold. Bitter frost. She pulled her sheepskin coat closed, curled the wool scarf over her head and neck, and wrapped the tail end over her mouth and nose.

The yellow moon shone her glorious light of fullness on the signboard, newly erected for the season. The words weren’t visible; they were painted on the other side, towards the direction where the strangers would come from. Livia didn’t need to see the words; she knew them as well as she knew the path to her home on the edge of the gorge. She wrote the same words every year, the same warning to the pilgrims who would begin arriving on the first day of Spring. Tomorrow they would read the words she’d used to try to stop them.

 

‘Venture Not Forth to the Garden of Souls
‘For it Feasts on your Hope
‘Leaves nought but Holes
‘And your welcome to the World Beyond
‘Is Doomed.’

 

A smaller line at the bottom laid out the only written law of Loca: ‘We hold your belongings for one Moon only.’

Of course, the pilgrims were always offended; they seemed to think the villagers of Loca wanted to keep the Garden to themselves. The pilgrims didn’t appreciate the sign, the warning, or the lack of accommodation – it was their right to expect the courtesy of the towns where they paid in gold. Many times Livia heard the same words: “A hand with a gold coin is the hand that should be shook with welcome.” But those words belonged to the low-landers, not here.

Here, the only inn, the Inn of Loca, offered no food or drink or rest to those weary from the path to the Garden. Stumpy always offered to show them to the path that led back down the hill – to anywhere Away.

How many took his advice? How many took seriously the words on the sign? In Livia’s lifetime, not one. The betting on how many hours would pass before the sign was ripped from the ground and tossed down the ravine was an annual event. Pilgrims with rage, offended at the polite warning. They should come and live with the Garden; maybe that would change their mind.

Maybe not.

They kept coming. Someone or something kept sending them. And because they kept coming, this would be her year to tend the Garden of Souls.

Another sign. She needed a new sign – a Truth Sign they couldn’t ignore – and put right at the edge of the path of No Return.

She ran home.

The cupboards were bare of food, but she had paint from the work on the main sign; she had timbers to hold it up at head height; she had a pre-finished black background flatten to put the words on. White words? Or red? Both?

Yes, both. Red centre, white edges. Red for the blood of souls, and white for pure of intent.

She set up her work space in the middle of the small main room. Sat on her stool. Listened for the right words to come to her mind – words of Power were what she needed. Her black slate slid onto her lap with the last piece of white chalk. Wrote a few letters, rubbed them away; wrote some more, rubbed them off.

Tried again.

‘No words pass this way’ – No, she rubbed it clean, wiped a damp cloth across the surface before putting the chalk back to the surface. Moved.

‘No words are to be spoken
‘Hum or sing or chant
‘No words – do not whisper or giggle or run or play
‘This Garden of Souls offers falseness
‘It is not the Well of Wellness to swell the senses and soothe the soul
‘There is no peace
‘No tranquillity within
‘Do not pick the Sage or Marjoram
‘Do not lean forward to sniff the lavender or rosemary
‘Do not crush the verbena or rose
‘Beware the hedge that borders the Garden
‘Beware the thorns and aroma and touch
‘Walk not upon the path of white shell
‘Walk only upon the grass verge
‘Or on the muddy sludge of the run-off ditch.
‘Do Not Let Them Hear You Breathe
‘Unless in Song or Chant or Hum
‘Pray for your life and your soul and your sanity
‘For if you come to worship in the Garden of Souls
‘You had best make your peace with All.’

 These were the words she painted onto the black flatten sign. The tears came again as Livia placed her belongings in caskets and boxes. Clothes neatly folded, tools packed in wax-coated, purpose-shaped tombs of timber, words of magic-doing and herb lore sealed closed until her death.

On her last look around the Cottage of the Gardener, she saw her end. The end of her journey or the end of her life? Only time would show if a pilgrim came to force the Gardener through the Gate of Offering to accompany them to the Rites of Passage.

If she survived her season as Gardener of the Soul, she would return to this cottage.

Sometimes, the Gardener returned, but usually not. Of those who did return in the husk of dried out skin and crackly bones that barely held them together, no words escaped, no smiled lifted lips or eyes, and the people of Loca swallowed their pain and pity and turned away.

The hut of the Gardener was banished to the outer edges, to the point of the cliff path that had no end, far enough away from the palisade of the village that the howls could not be heard, that the overwhelming sadness did not penetrate. The hut was both refuge and doom of the one chosen to tend the Garden, to stop the Resident of the Garden of Souls from walking beyond the hedges that held it.

A new jar would fill with gold for the demise of the Gardener. Or the return. Would Livia return? If she did, and a new betting jar was opened, would she last one day, one quarter moon, one half moon, one full moon? Would she last until the dark moon hid the yellow moon?

Would she be able to open her mouth to eat or drink. Would she have the will to add new words of knowledge to the tome of the Gardener?

Faded words in the tome of the Gardener Task said that to survive until the Dark Moon passed over the face of the Light Moon would break the curse of the Gardener of Soul Magic – would Livia be the first to bear the burden and live through the Sadness of All Souls?

Or would she join her predecessors in the end that came with the madness of the task? Would she take the final walk along the path that led to Nowhere but the bottom of the Gorge?

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Copyright Karel Jaeger 2017