Igms issue 43, p.8
IGMS Issue 43, page 8
It wasn't my scream though. It was Wai Tat's.
Then everything changed.
It's not easy to describe what I am now.
I am one branch in a tree, one refrain in a concerto, one movement in a dance -- and yet, at the same time, I am the tree, the concerto, the dance.
I am a collective of minds -- minds from the belt of Orion and the brow of Sagittarius and all the corners of the cosmos.
We roam the heavens seeking to neither wage war upon, nor liberate those whose paths we cross. We merely seek talented minds. Minds that cannot be built or programmed or grown. Minds that climbed from their primordial slime eons ago to be shaped by the light and wind and rain of a million days. Minds that can enrich the colossal, glittering tower of knowledge that we carry -- a stupendous Tower of Babel besides the edifice I used to have.
Perhaps we will discover the mind of Allah.
Perhaps we won't.
The most important thing is that I am no longer alone. I am part of a tribe again.
Sometimes, when I get caught up in the wind, caught up in the beauty, I take a moment to remember where I came from, who I am.
I remember the generosity of the sheikh when Professor al-Wahab came to our tribe. I remember the loyalty that my mother and father showed when they let the dearest part of themselves be wrenched from their hands. I remember my cunning in escaping from the Chinese, but most of all I remember the honor I felt, and still feel, at representing my clan.
I remember that I am -- and always will be -- Bedouin.
Meat and Greet
by Jamie Todd Rubin
Artwork by Scott Altmann
* * *
So there he is, Borges, returned from the dead and sitting across the table from me smelling of dust and moldy books as if he'd spent the last quarter-century scrambling through the stacks of an old and cavernous library. Gone from this universe and now returned, to a pitch-an-agent event, and seated at the table representing the Billy Morrow Literary Agency. He frowns when he sees me and then wastes precious seconds by asking for good old Morrow himself, perhaps not realizing that the dead are not typically resurrected and that when an agent dies he has the honor and integrity to stay dead. In death, as in everything else, authors are never that reliable.
Two more sessions of this, I think. Today. And next week. The large hall is filled with the sounds of desperation as a thousand would-be writers give their spiel to a few dozen agents who have the misfortune of drawing the short straw. I give the resurrected Borges a wan smile.
Flummoxed for only a moment, Borges says, "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Vance." He extends a gray hand. There is an empty look in his eyes. I am uncertain of the protocol in these situations, shaking hands with the formerly dead and what have you.
"What do you have for me," I say, somewhat ashamed that I am asking this of the immortal Borges.
"Imagine if you will," he says, licking his gray lips, "the story of a famous writer, returned from the dead and pitching his next masterpiece, which itself is the story of a famous writer, returned from the dead." He grins awkwardly, his breath exuding decay.
The buzzer startles me. Borges' two minutes are up. "Hits too close to home," I tell him. "Try one of the small presses." I feel compelled to offer these feeble suggestions to the great Borges. "Consider self-publishing."
The floor of the conference center has erupted into momentary chaos and the blind old man nods his head and shuffles away, lost in the crowd.
His seat is filled instantly by Mark Twain. I glance quickly to my left and right. The people sitting across from the other agents seem in no way extraordinary; or rather, they seem perfectly ordinary and more specifically, alive. Twain has that same empty look in his eyes, that same sallow expression in his cheeks that Borges had just a moment earlier. His hand, when he extends it in greeting, feels like recently defrosted sirloin.
But time is wasting and I say, "Let's have your pitch, then."
Twain is an old pro and gets right to the point. "It's a reboot," Twain says, "much like me. I want to re-imagine Tom Sawyer, tell the same story, except that Tom drowns in the river, only to come back to life, as a kind of empty husk of person, soulless, to witness his own funeral."
Of course, now I am suspicious that this whole racket is a put up job, but there is something about Twain and Borges, undead as they are, that is visceral. And besides, the agency is in real trouble and despite the fact that their pitches are universally awful, their names alone might carry us through to the next set of royalty statements.
The buzzer sounds and I ask Twain to leave his pitch with me for further consideration. I'd like to talk to him some more, but already he is being shoved out of the way by Edgar Allen Poe, who reeks not only of moldy flesh but of whiskey. I had no idea that the recently dead could drink.
He starts his pitch, and his breath is flammable. I already have a glimmer of where this is going. Poe says, "A man murders another man, and to cover up the crime he buries the body under the floorboards of the house." He speaks in a slurred monotone, his soft voice barely audible over the din of a hundred simultaneous pitches. I have heard enough and I try to stop him, but he continues. "But the murdered man returns to life, and he slowly chips away at his grave, scraping and clawing at the floorboards, and driving his murderer insane in the process."
He finishes his pitch with time to spare and there is an awkward silence as the two of us face one another. This theme is a dead-end, and fame or not, I'm not about to go in for anymore of it.
Finally the buzzer rings and I nod politely at Poe who fades into the crowd. The other agents have stacks of manuscripts. They are handing out business cards. My table top is empty, save a coffee cup, and the lingering odor of rotten meat and Jameson.
I feel like slipping away, like coming here was a terrible mistake, but before I can stand, a slender, pale woman takes the seat across from me. She has striking features, is dressed in tattered black, and is, of course, recently dead like all the rest. However, unlike the others, she seems happy.
I'm having trouble placing her until she starts her pitch, which she describes in pleasant monotones as a collection of poetry about the joy of death. And then it hits me. This is Emily Dickinson. She glances around the auditorium, distracted.
"Isn't this wonderful?" she says. I think I see a glimmer of something writhing at the corner of her lip. "I've never been happier. I don't really care all that much about the pitch, you know, which by the way centers around the theme of death and rebirth. And rebirth in death."
I am relieved when the buzzer rings. There is only a single two-minute session left. I simply cannot take this anymore. I don't understand the appeal of these stories and I will not tolerate it further.
And yet there is the agency to think about, old man Morrow's final legacy. I sit frozen, nerves frayed, wondering who will be next, Kafka? Sartre?
The final buzzer jostles my very bones. The bearded man who sits across from me is easily recognizable, despite his disheveled appearance. He nods calmly at me and begins speaking at once with an Irish brogue, "This is an epistolary tale --"
I shudder at the words. "Mr. Stoker --" I try to interrupt, seeing at once where this is going, but he flaps a crumbling hand at my objection.
"Think fangs," he says. "Creatures that drink blood. That require blood for their immortality. Vampires!" He exclaims this last word with a proud force. "Very popular with teenage girls, too," he adds, as if I needed a further angle.
And though he is right, the timing is all wrong. All is wasted. He has missed the point, has come back for nothing. And though I hate doing it, I am forced to plant the verbal stake firmly into his heart.
"Mr. Stoker," I say, "I'm sorry but this meet and greet is centered around zombie stories which, for whatever reason, seem extraordinarily popular at the moment." With a sardonic smile creeping across my lips, I add, "The vampire meet and greet is next week."
The Ghastly Thing
* * *
The ghastly thing too dreadful to gaze upon lived under a stone footbridge in the swampiest part of the Land of Rain.
The ghastly thing preferred under the bridge to on top of the bridge. The darkness suited it. A creek gurgled along, containing an abundance of swamp-fish and scaly critters, so the ghastly thing never went hungry. A thick arch provided shelter from the constant rainfall, so its possessions -- clothing and trinkets taken from unfortunate travelers, hides and bones taken from unfortunate swamp-beasts -- remained dry.
Few travelers crossed the bridge anymore. Dangerous creatures lived in the swamp. None more dangerous than the ghastly thing, of course. To gaze upon it meant instant death.
The ghastly thing knew the girl stood on the bridge because it could smell her -- a sweet, fresh scent not of the swamp. It thought she would be quite tasty.
When the girl began to sing, the ghastly thing sat on the boulder it used for a seat, comfortably worn to the shape of its rump, and it listened.
Her singing was horrendous, more painful than if the ghastly thing passed a swamp-fish spine directly through one ear and out the other.
Her tone was off-key.
She bungled most of the words.
She sang loudly, as if desperate for every raindrop to hear what she had to say.
After a while, the girl stopped. She heaved great breaths in and out. A little after that, she returned the way she had come.
The ghastly thing let her go.
The girl returned the following day and repeated her performance.
Her singing had not improved.
The ghastly thing lounged in the darkness under the bridge and bounced one hoof in an attempt to find the rhythm.
Then the singing stopped.
"Is there something under the bridge?" the girl asked in a soft voice.
The ghastly thing held its breath. It listened to the girl's footsteps as she approached the edge of the bridge to peer into the darkness below.
"I heard something tapping," she said.
The ghastly thing didn't speak. It just listened to the splash of puddles as the girl ran away.
Soon, it smelled nothing but swamp.
The girl came back.
When the ghastly thing caught her scent it pulled a thick, leafy bush out of the ground and held it in front of its face. It watched her approach from behind the bush.
The girl was plump, a little wider at the bottom than at the top. A reasonably-sized meal. She wore a ratty brown dress, ragged at the hem. With nothing to keep the rain off, she was completely soaked, and her dark hair lay flat against her head. She walked slowly. Her eyes stayed focused on her shoeless, mud-caked feet.
"Is there something under the bridge?" the girl asked when she reached the center.
The ghastly thing cleared its throat. Before it could change its mind, it said, "Yes."
"Are you a dangerous thing?" the girl asked.
"Are you going to hurt me?"
The ghastly thing considered her question.
"No," it said, surprised by its answer.
One day, while the girl stood on top of the bridge, she asked the ghastly thing what it was called.
"I don't know," it said.
"Then I'll give you a name."
From the sound of the girl's footsteps, it could tell she paced from one end of the bridge to the other. "What about Hillary?" she asked.
The ghastly thing found a still pool of water, sheltered from the rain by the bridge, and studied its reflection.
"Know any Hillarys with razor sharp teeth and a snout that looks as if it has been twisted in a swamp-troll's fist?"
"I don't," the girl said. "Not in my village, anyway."
She paced some more.
"What about Lester then? I know a Lester and he's quite homely. Got even worse when he came down with rain rot."
It considered the name for a moment, trying to get a feel for it. "In your village do the Lesters have six arms, all strong enough to crush a stone the size of a swamp-cat's head?"
"No," the girl said. "But six arms seem to be an awfully useful number to have. Although I don't think I'd crush heads with them, even if I could."
The ghastly thing heard her sit on the edge of the bridge. Her feet hung over the side. It watched the girl's tiny feet swing back and forth.
"My name's Beatrice," she said. "In case you wanted to know."
Beatrice came back often.
Sometimes she sang, and the ghastly thing would sit under the bridge and listen.
Sometimes she talked, and the ghastly thing would sit under the bridge and speak with her.
She explained she was nine years old. The ghastly thing didn't know how old it was.
She told it that she used to have two parents, and that one of them had recently died. The ghastly thing didn't know if it had ever had parents.
"Is your village a long way from here?" the ghastly thing asked.
"Half a day to walk here and home. I don't get back before dark."
"Why do you come then?"
"To the bridge?" She sat on the edge. Her muddy feet hung down, and she scissored her legs lazily. "I don't know."
The ghastly thing moved from its boulder and stood close to Beatrice's feet. It remained in the shadows.
"If you don't tell me, I'll eat you."
Beatrice giggled, then stopped. She spoke in a quiet voice. "I don't like living in the village without my mother."
The ghastly thing scratched the fur on its belly. "Is that why you sing so loudly?"
Beatrice's feet, which had been washed clean in the rain, stopped swinging.
The ghastly thing wished it hadn't asked her any questions.
It reached out one of its clawed paws and gently held her foot.
Another day, after they had spoken for some time about nothing in particular, Beatrice dropped a bright yellow flower over the side of the bridge. It landed on the edge of the creek.
"It's a gift," she said.
The ghastly thing reached out from under the bridge and picked the flower up by its long green stem. It was the sort of flower that didn't belong in the swamp.
"You're supposed to say thank you," the girl said.
She laughed and ran off in the direction of her village before the ghastly thing could say anything at all.
The flower smelled like Beatrice.
"I want to see what you look like," Beatrice said.
It was a particularly unpleasant day. Thunder boomed. Lightning crackled. The rain pelted down violently from the black clouds above.
"You can't," the ghastly thing said. "You'll die."
She raised her voice. "You can't kill me, because we're friends."
Over the next few days, the ghastly thing became uncomfortable with Beatrice's persistence.
"It's okay if you're ugly," she said. "I don't mind."
"I don't mind, either."
"And it's okay if you're really scary looking because I've been practicing being frightened. I ran in front of a horse-cart yesterday. It almost crushed me."
The ghastly thing tugged on one of its horns. It couldn't understand why she would want to do a thing, or look at a thing, knowing it could kill her.
"Why risk it?"
Beatrice was silent for a time. All the ghastly thing could hear was the patter of the falling rain.
"I don't know," she said finally. "Living is risky, isn't it?"
The following day, Beatrice acted oddly. She paced the top of the bridge from one side to the other. Her breath came in short bursts. Under her normal flowery scent, the ghastly thing detected an anxious odor similar to what swamp-rats gave off when they knew they were being hunted.
Then Beatrice rushed down the grassy embankment. She slid in the mud and stumbled over a rock, halfway down, rolling to the bottom. The ghastly thing ducked behind the large boulder it used as a seat and held the thick bush it had uprooted in front of its face.
Beatrice stood in the rain, several feet away. Her ratty brown dress had torn up the side and dark blood trickled down her shin.
"Stop hiding from me!"
"Please," the ghastly thing said, crouching as low as it could. "Don't look at me. We're friends."
The ghastly thing sensed that Beatrice was not happy. She stood in the rain on top of the bridge and never dangled her feet any more. She hadn't sung for several visits.
"Why don't you do anything?" she asked.
"I do things."
"What kind of life do you have living under a bridge?" she asked. "You ever think there's something better out there? You ever wonder if there are more of you?"
The ghastly thing felt the answer should have been clear.
"The darkness suits me," it said.
"It's cloudy and dark everywhere."
"There's plenty to eat. I never go hungry."
"You're strong. You could get food anywhere."
The ghastly thing thought Beatrice should have understood. What kind of life could it have when everything that gazed upon it died?
"It's dry," it said. "The bridge shelters me from the rain."
Beatrice raised her voice. "What's so bad about getting wet?"
Beatrice should have died.
There were dangerous things in the swamp, and one had Beatrice's scent. The ghastly thing smelled the beast as it stalked her.
"Close your eyes," the ghastly thing said.
"Are you giving me a present?"
"Just close your eyes."
The ghastly thing climbed the embankment. Beatrice's eyes were squeezed shut. She had a grin on her face and held out her hands as if expecting it to place an object in them. The rain collected in her empty palms.
A swamp-cat the size of a horse-cart crouched at the far end of the bridge, ready to pounce on Beatrice. The ghastly thing stepped into the swamp-cat's line of sight, and the beast toppled over, dead.
"Go back to the village," the ghastly thing said. "It's not safe for you here."
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