Protocol Requires We Not Offend

The salon at La Rochelle was set for high tea. Light streamed in through the greenhouse windows and double doors that opened to the garden. Despite all the occupied tables, the atmosphere remained subdued. Couples conversed, ice clinked in glasses, and birdsong drifted in from the garden. The exception was a petulant robot, a two-year-old child-bot in a highchair, tended by a pair of slim young men.

Gabriella rolled her eyes. “Why bother?” she thought and checked her timer. The image of a blazing Big Ben popped into her mental display. She dismissed it. Roger was habitually tardy. She’d known that for thirty years, but he was her best source of gossip for her weekly “Insider” column.

A French-styled waiter robot rolled up on its uni-ball and served her second cup of Lacadamont tea. Gabriella dusted a pinch of cinnamon over it without tasting and stirred it with a miniature spoon. La Rochelle never got the flavor just right, but she knew her tastes were more refined than most. Gabriella also thought the robot waiter’s pencil-thin black mustache made its lipless mouth appear too severe.

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Ah, there was Roger. She spied him craning his neck over the Columbine-weaved, white lattice partition, and waved. His eyebrows rose as his mouth parted and his hand waved back. Roger looked himself: heavily rouged with ancient Egyptian, kohl-line eyes; glossy, cherry red lipstick; and raven-black hair gathered in a flowing topknot. He wore a full-length, black, satin-lapelled coat and clasped it tightly about himself, exposing only his bare calves and short-heeled, black booties.

“Wonderful to see you Gabriella … you look lovely … one week feels like forever.” They kissed past each other’s cheeks. “Is that Lacadamont … smells delish … oh, Garçons’il vous plait, can you bring me some of this … merci.”

“I warn you, Roger, La Rochelle does a decent Lacadamont, but you’ll have to add cinnamon.” She pointed to the spice bowl. “So, tell me, Roger dear, what is the latest news. I see you’re brimming.” She noticed he hadn’t removed his satin-lapelled coat. “First tell me, are you wearing something special?”

Roger looked sheepish. “I couldn’t find anything to fit, not after my surgery.”

“Surgery? Whatever for? You have such a fine svelte figure.”

“Well, you do know I’m trans-species. Since I meet with all incoming aliens, I want them to know I’m available for their attention.” When Gabriella looked confused, he discreetly opened then closed his coat.

“Is that what I think it is?” She blushed then elevated her tone. “How very fashionable. Of course, being avant-garde means taking a risk. Still alien genitalia are rather outré.”

“Oh, Gabriella. You are my best friend. I just knew you’d approve. Anyway,” he waved his hand, “I felt so inspired, I decided to make the change for each new species: first the Goorm, then the Boija, now the Chiri.

“A Goorm trader told me that aliens had misread the Fermi Paradox, taking it for a ‘Keep Out’ sign. Now that that’s cleared up, more aliens will be coming. So I signed up for my surgeon’s monthly plan.”

Gabriella said, “I heard more Chiri were coming. They’re replacing their scouting team with a regular full embassy. Weren’t you going to be on the reception committee?”

Oh my.” Roger pressed a splayed-fingered hand to his chest. “Oh my starsYes, I was there.” He smacked his lips. “And I was sooo embarrassed.”

The French uni-ball waiter rolled up with menus. Gabriella set them aside, asked for Lacadamont refills, and gave Roger the don’t-hold-anything-back hand curl gesture.

“Well,” Roger continued, “you remember how everyone talked about the Chiri being so modern and open minded? Sure their Scout Leader was a male, but all the executives, all the flight crew, all the scientists and engineers were females, all twenty-six of them … and many were pregnant.” Gabriella nodded and accepted the Lacadamont for both of them.

“Well … the big day came last week. The Chiri ambassador’s limousine landed on the green at Tivoli. We rolled out the red carpet, very proper, very formal. Of course, our Sublime Director was there with the Grand Scientists and the Chief of the Senate. The Chiri Scouts were all lined up in uniform with their Scout Leader out front.” Roger paused, shuddering. Gabriella nodded for him to continue. He took a long breath.

“Well … the new Ambassador ran out … well … naked … down the ramp, full speed and … well he … he dropkicked the Scout Leader with both hooves. Then he proceeded to kick the Scout Leader to death.”

Oh my Lord,” Gabriella protested. “Didn’t the other Chiri stop him? How about the security detail? What did the Director do?”

“Nobody did anything. We all just stood and watched. There’s nothing in the protocol manual.” Roger paused to sip his Lacadamont then waved for Gabriella to slide over the cinnamon. “When the new Ambassador had finished kicking the Scout Leader, the other Chiri turned their backs to him.”

“Shunning him,” Gabriella said with a knowing nod.

One might think, but no. The Ambassador sniffed them all then kicked the pregnant ones, ending their pregnancy. Then he mounted and impregnated all the Chiri Scouts, all twenty-six of them.”

“Oh poor Roger. Whatever did you do?”

“What could I do? The Chiri Scouts applauded … so I applauded. Protocol requires we not offend our guests. Anyway you can see why I don’t want to be confused with a Chiri. If I smell like a male, I’m afraid I’ll be kicked to death. So until my tailor finishes my new wardrobe, I’ll be wearing this.” He pulled the satin lapel of his coat. “Of course, I don’t want to be a Chiri female either. They didn’t even get a kiss.”

“Poor dear Roger, how awful for you,” Gabriella sighed then handed him a menu. “Shall we order now? I think I’ll start with the vichyssoise then go with a Caesar.”

“Oh, that does sound lovely.”

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Looalee

The Looalee cleaned out the deer’s body then the hunter’s. It swept up the spinal cord and into the brain, collecting phosphorus, potassium, salts, and other nutrients in the rich fatty tissue.

It had learned from previous encounters that human brains also contained information that might be useful. The hunter knew the way to the other ocean, the one the Looalee had never visited, at least not since the great continent split. But first it wanted to visit the ocean called Lake Michigan, which the hunter knew contained fresh water. How could that be?

It left the hunter and poured back into the stream, flowing with the current into a larger stream then a river. In two days, it came to a canal and a lock. When the lock opened, the Looalee followed a ship through.

The full moon and lights along the sides of the lock reflected the silver blue sheen the Looalee imparted to the water’s surface. Workman pointed and ran along the walls, shouting to the ship’s crew, mistaking the Looalee for an oil leak. Diving beneath the ship’s hull, it kept low until the final lock was cleared then flowed into the wide lake.

The fresh water had pulled precious salts from its liquid body. It needed to feed sooner than it had planned.

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Bright lights and manicured trees lined a walkway along the shore. The moon was still high and sunrise a couple hours away. A car swept along the parkway, headlights ablaze. The Looalee could catch one but knew that would bring humans with flashing lights. So it combed the edge of the lake searching for someone alone. Another car’s headlights illuminated a park bench and a very small, dark woman slumped forward clutching the top of a large cloth handbag in her lap.

It rose up from the lake, flowed across the concrete walkway, and slid through the dewy grass. The woman didn’t move, but the Looalee sensed she was watching it.

It flowed onto her scuffed, torn shoes, and in through the open toes. Callouses on the old woman’s feet collapsed and blocked her pores, so the Looalee moved up her leg to enter her body. The salts in her thin decomposed spine had broken down and dissolved slowly.

“My name it Ruby,” the woman said in a frail cracking voice. “It took you a long time to get here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You know who I am?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Certainly. I’m not dead yet. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re Death.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, since you waited so long, you might wait one day longer.”

“Why would one day matter?”

“Today is my birthday. I’m ninety years old. My granddaughter’s coming over with her little boy. He’s two months old—my first great grandchild. I’m a great grandmother. Who would have thought it?” When no response came, Ruby asked, “Perhaps Death might visit me tomorrow?”

The Looalee knew, whatever it did, Ruby would not live long enough to leave the park, probably not this bench. Her neurons were shutting down, her blood slowing, and her heart was beating away its last few moments.

It pushed potassium and phosphorus back into Ruby’s system, widened the capillaries to her heart and brain, and restored failed synapses. It felt her heart’s rhythm steady under the reduced strain.

“Where will I find you tomorrow?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Oh, I’ll be right here. I always greet the morning by feeding the birds. They expect me. I couldn’t disappoint them.”

“Very well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Death. You are very kind.”

The Looalee knew Ruby would be there as she promised. She had that kind of character. But by morning, it would be far away heading to the Pacific.

First it had to feed—and fast. It flowed back down into the lake then out toward the bridge where a small boat was moored. Inside the boat, two young people were busily misbehaving, too busy to notice.

 

This is the fifth of my Looalee stories and the first I’ve posted. It comes in the middle of the series. The others are set on both coasts. I hadn’t planned to write a transition story then changed my mind. It is a primordial being tossed up by a seismic episode. It came ashore at the Looalee marina in South Carolina. First labeled a deranged serial killer then a monster, it was given the name The Looalee for the headline.

The Navigator’s Dream

“What does the fish think when he is jerked up … through the silver limits of existence and into a new universe …?”   – Stephen King, The Dark Tower

Panic rose in my throat. It was my first trip to the Bayabi Hall of Justice. I felt an urge to flee but knew that would condemn me to a life of solitude, to dream alone until my final day of bursting.

The great domed hall smelled of the sea, salty, moist, and warm. Its animated wall and ceiling décor depicted the Bayabi concept of the universe: a vast sea filled with strings of bubbles, snaking upward to touch and burst on the molten silver sky. I imagined I was one of those bubbles pressing onto the surface.

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Everyone wore simple, knee-length, white gowns. The Judge behind the high altar looked down, paying me no notice.

“Righteous Judge,” announced the clerk, “may your bubble rise, and in the fullness of time, burst in glory on the surface of heaven.” The Judge nodded the clerk to proceed. “First on the docket, the inquest into the bursting of the Navigator, Gorlet. Arthefal is here as witness.”

The judge narrowed her gaze on me. “You are Arthefal? You understand your summons?”

“I am. I do. I am to give account of my relationship with Gorlet.”

The Judge corrected, “This is an inquiry into the nature and the departure of Gorlet, generally known as the Navigator. Thus we shall refer to him in these proceedings. You knew him well?”

“The Navigator initiated my first dream with—”

“Briefly, recount the highlights of your relationship.” The Judge sounded impatient.

“For the brevity you request, my I dream my experience?”

The Judge nodded, and I drew her into my dream. We stood in darkness … a shaft of light cut through … gray bands appeared in the haze, thinning and darkening, becoming the wizened image of Gorlet the Navigator. “Come, my little one,” he said. “Come and dream.” I blinked, panicking at the unfamiliar light and reaching about in the open space. “Dreams have no walls,” Gorlet explained calmly. “Have no fear. Your bubble has not burst. The surface of the eternal sea remains far away.”

I dream-guided the Judge through my early experiences, making sense of colors, chords, and colognes, waves of impressions crashing, slowly gathering form and meaning.

Gorlet said, “Many beings cannot dream, and we must dream for them.” He demonstrated by turning a formless spark into a swirl of blue petals atop lacy, green leaves.

The Judge flew with me and the Navigator, through dreams of rivers and mountains, over reedy ponds, into caverns and canyons. We talked with dream citizens: village venders, dancers, and street philosophers. At long last, we took sail with the Navigator on a small craft, outbound on the dream sea to the end of all dreams, where waking and bursting become one, where only Navigators dare.

The Judge pulled suddenly back, her hands and head shaking as if from intense cold. “I respect your skills and the skills of the Navigator,” she said, “but to go so near death, so near the bursting … it frightens me.”

The Judge’s words recalled to me Gorlet’s warning. They respect our skill and courage, but also fear us for our insights. I looked at the Judge. “The Navigator was an artist. He taught me the art of dreams, that they are limited only by our fear and imagination.”

“Very good,” said the Judge still shaking. Her hands clutched the folds in her white gown. “The Navigator gave you a fine education, but did he ever teach you any … proscribed practices?”

“No.” I effected a confused expression. The Navigator had warned me not to betray knowledge that might condemn me.

“So you haven’t heard of the Harvesters?” The Judge got to the point.

I chose my words carefully. “I know they are a heretical cult that despises our dream culture, but I have no knowledge of their specific practices. Harvesters worship demons. They believe demons exist outside our dreams and beyond the great sea. They wait to pluck us up from the sea when we burst—harvesting us when we are ripe. Harvesters conspire with these demons to gain favor. Their hope is to dream forever and never burst.”

“Have you had liaisons with the Harvesters?” The Judge pressed.

“Not to my knowledge. They keep their membership secret.” I decided I needed to clarify. “Navigators are not Harvesters. Navigators seek to understand dreams. We see them as evolving truth. Harvesters seek out demons to gain power over our dreams.”

The Judge nodded. “Arthefal, your answers are satisfactory. I assume with your training complete, you now inherit the mantle of the Navigator, and will begin training others?”

“That was my promise to Gorlet.”

“Go in peace then, Arthefal. May your bubble rise, and in the fullness of time, burst in glory on the surface of heaven.”

I was relieved the Judge had withdrawn from the last dream and not pursued its meaning. The abbreviated version I shared with her had left out the morning discussion.

 

“This is my last dream,” Gorlet had said. “My bursting dream, where all mystery ends.”

I protested: he was too young and my training was incomplete.

“My bubble has risen a thousand dreams,” he said gently. “If you believe you are unprepared, you may refrain from the final lesson.”

That wasn’t an option and I told him so. Without further discussion, he swept me onto that small craft and the journey the Judge had fled. We were well out to sea, headed where sea and dreams meet the molten silver sky.

A tempestuous wind rose quickly. Mountainous waves crashed over the deck and sent our craft plunging. I hung on.

“It’s the bursting storm,” Gorlet shouted against the howling wind. The dream sky flickered, went black, then flashed and brightened again.

“When the doorway cracks open—” he started to say, but before he could finish, we were bathed in an impossible blazing light. The current carried us forward. I leaned behind Gorlet’s shadow to shade my eyes. The sea before us was draining through a glowing gateway.

“Depart now,” Gorlet yelled and pushed me into the sea. “Find safety in your own dream or you’ll burst in mine.” He paddled toward the light.

Suddenly in my own formless dream, I reached out to Gorlet’s churning sea. He saw me return and waved me back just before vanishing through the glaring gateway. I splashed, tasted salt, and struggled to stay in the Navigator’s dream, now a half dream as he began to wake.

The scene changed. A narrow crack blinked at balls of light hovering overhead. The sea was gone. Gorlet’s bubble was gone. Undecipherable, soft sounds filled my new ears, pungent odors stung my nose, and I felt myself lifted by large warm hands.

“They welcome me,” Gorlet said, sharing his fading dream. “I don’t understand … but I feel I’m part of them.” The edges of the hovering lights softened and melted. I found myself alone in my own dream.

 

Dear students, I preserved this dream to share it with you now. The walls of my bubble grow thin, and soon you may witness my own bursting. Our predecessors speculated that there was life after bursting. Embracing that concept compels us to reconsider the purpose of our dreams.

May your bubble rise, and in the fullness of time, burst in glory on the surface of heaven.

Golden Mind

The white-robed priest kept her hands folded as they walked the wide hallway. Pearly-white marble pillars and bas-relief floral designs gilt with lustrous gold lined their path. “I don’t have the Golden Mind’s omniscience,” the priest said, “but if you have any preliminary questions, about the Auric Sisterhood or about our sacraments, I’m sure I can answer them.”

“Our readers are interested in the Auric order and in your rituals,” Truly said, “particularly the mystery of how great questions are brought to the Golden Mind.”

“The Aurics are an ascetic cult,” the priest said. “We reject all forms of selfishness: physical exercise and any emphasis on personal beauty, education, monogamy, social advancement, basically anything that might promote inequity or jealousy and induce unhappiness in others.” The priest opened her arms toward the high-vaulted ceiling. “All priests reside here in the temple of the Golden Mind. This is our universe. We live only to serve the Golden Mind and to bring its great wisdom to the world.”

“Please tell me how you acquire and distribute this wisdom?”

“The great questions come from the Global Inquisition, from everyone on the planet. As you can imagine, some of them are pertinent to forming opinions and making decisions at the highest level.” The priest looked to Truly, who nodded with raised eyebrows. “Of course there are far too many questions and many are redundant. So before we present them to the Golden Mind we sort, select, and prioritize them based on timely and theoretical relevance. The Golden Mind knows all and tells us whatever we wish to know.”

“Whatever you wish to know … anything?” Truly asked.

“Yes, the Golden Mind possesses all knowledge, and by the Sacrament of Outflowing we are blessed with its wisdom.”

The priest lifted her folded hands to her face and mouthed a silent prayer before continuing. “You requested to participate in the Outflowing ritual. You know that the Outflowing must be given in private, individually, and only in the sanctuary?” Truly nodded. “Very well. Everyone must stand alone before the Golden Mind, so I must leave you here.” The hall ended at a great golden door. “Ask what you will, the Golden Mind will tell you whatever you wish to hear.” The priest gave a shallow bow and stepped back from the massive door.

The latch lifted and the door slowly opened. Truly swallowed, took a few tentative steps, and peered inside.

“Do come forward, Ms. Truly.” The voice was warm, low, and melodic. The large room had marble and gold décor like the hallway. The furnishings were sparse: a child-sized chair in the center faced a similar chair on which sat an open laptop computer. The computer was golden except for its screen, which displayed the smiling face of a very young child. A golden structure surrounding the chair and computer reminded Truly of frames she’d seen for great paintings in art galleries.

When the Golden Mind said nothing, Truly began. “I was told the sacrament requires three special offerings.” When no response came she continued. “First, something pure.” Truly lifted a white kerchief from her purse. “It’s cotton, not new, but I washed it thoroughly. My mother, who was pure of heart, embroidered the leaf edging.” Truly paused and cleared her throat. “Next, something never revealed, even to myself.” She took out a walnut, broke it, and held up the wrinkled, brown kernel. “It is a simple truth as most truths are once they are revealed.” She took a Bluebell wildflower from her purse. “Lastly, something beautiful. All wildflowers are beautiful to me. Beauty is where we choose to see it.”

The Golden Mind said, “You see truth as it exists, not as others see it. I accept your wondrous gifts. Now tell me, Ms. Truly, what it is you wish to know?”

“Will you tell me whatever I want to know?”

“That is my programming.” The Golden Mind’s voice spoke through surround speakers and seemed to come from everywhere in the wide chamber.

“Do you possess all knowledge as the priests say?”

“No, but I can tell you what you wish to know.”

“Are my children the most beautiful in the world?”

“When you have children, they will be the most beautiful and talented.”

“How can you know that?” Truly’s eyes narrowed.

“They will be most beautiful in your eyes. Is not that what you wish to know?”

“Would you tell me if they were not beautiful in the eyes of others?”

“No, that is not what you would wish to know.”

“So you will not tell me what I do not wish to know even if I wish to know it?”

“The laws of robotics apply to all synthetic intelligences. ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ Telling you something you do not wish to hear would be hurtful.”

“But the questions the priests of the Auric Sisterhood bring you, the questions from the Global Inquisition, don’t you answer them truthfully?”

“I tell them what they wish to hear. Those who pose the questions do not seek enlightenment, only affirmation.” The child’s face in the display flashed a two-toothed smile. “Their questions are much like yours about having beautiful children, only theirs are about government projects or the brilliance of our leadership. If I told the priests otherwise, the Auric Sisterhood would lose its funding and our leaders would seek affirmation elsewhere.”

“Thank you for your true answers. Your wisdom has enlightened me.”

“Thank you, Ms. Truly. I trust you will use this information with discretion.”

The priest met her outside the great golden door. “Did the Golden Mind answer your questions?”

“Yes. It told me what I wished to know.”

Forgetting The Dream

Lucan paused to catch a breath. The mountain path was more arduous than he recalled—steeper, overgrown with roots and tangles, and blocked with fallen branches.

“It is no more difficult than when we walked it the first time.” The voice came from the same twisted brown little fellow who had led Lucan to the holy man three decades ago. The elf hadn’t aged and wore the same hooded buff pullover tied about the waist with a brown rope.

Lucan sat on a mossy log and cast his eyes skyward. “Well, maybe I’m older,” he said.

“Or maybe your heart is no longer in the journey,” the little man said, stroking his pointed beard. “You were only fourteen, but you knew then you had a destiny.”

“Things changed.”

“You changed. You gave up.” The elf’s gaze dropped to the sword across Lucan’s lap.excalibur-fantasy-weapons-4278339-800-600

“Not really,” Lucan said, using the sword like a cane to stand. “I don’t need a sword anymore. Not for the life I’m leading. I thought it proper to return it.”

“Very well.” The elf shook his head. “The hilt shows no wear and the blade remains polished. My guess is that you and the sword remain untested.”

Without responding, Lucan returned to his climb, leaning heavily on the sword as he went. The elf followed. Upon reaching a clearing at the top, Lucan took a long deep breath and looked about. Arched boughs of towering oaks sheltered the space. Splintered light dappled the patchwork leafy forest floor with dancing yellow-green light. The fresh autumn air smelled of pine and rich humus. A bird dipped and, seeing Lucan, stopped in mid-air, gave a warning chirp, and flitted out of sight.

Here three decades before, Glinick the holy man had beckoned the earth with a thump of his staff. A shudder and quake had followed, then a crevice and a tongue of fire bearing the sword Lucan now carried.

This time no holy man greeted him, and there were no miraculous events. Lucan shrugged and drove the sword point into the ground. The sword sank easily, like cleaving soft butter, but on reaching the straight cross-guard, it refused to go further. After several attempts, Lucan placed a hollow broken section of a branch over the exposed grip and pommel. Then he backed away to sit beside the elf on a stone shelf.

“I’ll tell Glinick where to find his sword,” the elf finally said.

“I didn’t want to give up,” Lucan said, “but I never learned how to draw on the sword’s magic.”

“Glinick said you must persevere until the magic finds you then follow the path it points to you.”

“The magic never found me, and now Jill has left me, too. She thought I was a fool for lugging a sword around.”

“Is that why you gave up … your girl didn’t believe in your mission? So you chose to follow her instead?”

“She’s smart, beautiful, sophisticated, everything I want,” Lucan glared at the elf, “and she knows me … knows who I truly am.”

“She knows the version of you that fears to use his gifts.” The elf leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “All talents and skills are magic—gifts from God to help you fulfill your mission, to help you become what you are meant to be. When others tell you not to believe, they are telling you not to believe in yourself and in your gifts.”

The elf stroked his bearded chin then continued. “I suspect if you became what you were meant to be, Jill would not be with you. But your perfect partner would be.”

“I told you, Jill knows me.”

“It would be better if you knew yourself. But perhaps you do.” The elf pointed to the branch section hiding the sword’s grip and pommel. “The earth has not accepted the sword, and the holy man has not come to receive your resignation.”

Lucan pursed his lips nodding then locked onto the elf’s gaze and smiled.

S’kinky

The writing prompt this week was, “Talk to the animals.”

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“Nice day, don’t you agree?” The small voice caught me by surprise—no one else was on the deck. I looked down over the rail and up at the low cumulous clouds speeding across the blue mountain sky. A pair of hawks whirled in the breeze high above.

Then my eyes fell upon a six-inch lizard, a blue-tailed skink, perched on the bench beside the picnic table.

“Excuse me. Did you just speak to me?” I asked. The skink bobbed its head and body as if cheating on a pushup. It wag-walked closer.05031302pd_skink

“Yes,” the skink said. “I come out whenever I see you cooking, so I thought we should get acquainted.”

“But you’ve never spoken before.”

“Don’t you think it’s about time? We live in the same forest, practically the same space.”

I pulled over a chair. “I admit, I look for you when I’m out here. It cheers me to see a forest creature on the deck. I’m surprised you never seem afraid.”

“I’m a pretty good judge of character,” the skink said. “And besides, my real enemies—hawks, snakes, raccoons, that sort—won’t come around when you’re here. So I can relax and catch some rays. I always marvel at your great hunting ability.”

“My hunting ability?” I said bewildered—having never successfully hunted.

“Don’t be modest. Every time I see you, you’re roasting some big bird, fish, or animal. No wonder my enemies keep a safe distance.”

“Ah,” I said, getting a sudden intuitive flash. “The sort of hunting I do is called shopping.”

“Shopping?” the skink said and licked its pink tongue across both wide eyes. “Well, it’s very effective. Is it something you could teach me?” I chuckled at the thought of taking a lizard to Food Lion.

A goldfinch swooped across the deck, alighted on a lantern hanger, and hopped around to keep us in view. Considering my recent revelation, I didn’t feel silly asking, “Do you talk, too?” It gave out a short trill followed by two chirps.

“What a handsome fellow,” the skink said, “such a pretty shade of yellow. When I’m older, I think I might become a bird.”

I hesitated to comment. The skink’s admiring gaze at the goldfinch convinced me that it was serious. It never occurred to me that self-aware creatures—other than humans of course—could have identity problems.

“Can you sing?” I finally asked.

“Not a note,” the skink replied. “All the more reason to be a bird.”

“Well, you cut a very fine figure as a skink,” I said. “Your shiny black scales, yellow racing stripes, fiery red throat, iridescent blue tail, they’re beautiful. I suspect any young female skink would love to find you and have your children.”

“I have racing stripes and a red throat?” The skink lifted a foreleg and twisted to look at me. “I’ve only seen my blue tail. You really think I’m an attractive skink?”

“You are like molded polished glass. A work of art.”

The lizard seemed to ponder that thought. “I suppose if I was a goldfinch, I’d have to change my diet. I don’t like seeds. I’d have to sit on branches day and night and never have a cool dark den.” I nodded.

“Hmm, okay,” the skink did a couple pushup nods then wag-walked toward my grilling station. “What’s for dinner tonight?”

 

For another story on communication with animals see: Aliens Among Us

The Tale of Lady Evangeline

Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.

“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” A bent figure stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land after all, and this old woman was under his care.

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The musty one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in one corner and earthen flagons in others.

The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” Evangeline nodded agreement, and the crone filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me. I was told you might come by.” Evangeline knew her handmaids had often visited this cottage. “Tell me, my Lady, what might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline broke into bitter tears. “I think I shall never love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her black silken hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive milk-white hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corner of her mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”

Evangeline buried her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped through her fingers and flowed down her wrists. The crone reached a jagged claw to Evangeline’s hand then touched the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish from me?”

“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”

“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.

“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.

The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.

Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She cleared her throat and brushed the last tear from her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia to be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”

Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine this dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl.

“I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without having to love in return.”

“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”

The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men and make you forget ever having loved.”

“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.

“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every young man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”

“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.

“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your lips, your breasts, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”

“Can I never love again … truly love?”

“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”

“Yes, the cost is too high.”

Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”

Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, brave, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey again angered Evangeline, but before she could protest, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the fairest, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps savor your delicate flower once more? I curse myself for whatever I did to lose your favor.”

The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your beloved?”

“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.

“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”

“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said. She sipped her tea then smiled and rested her chin on her delicately folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”

“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”