Review: “The Book of Lost Things”

 

“The Book of Lost Things,” by John Connolly, is a fairy story about fairy stories—and not the kind that necessarily turn out happily ever after. More the Grimm kind, where virtue isn’t always rewarded, but evil is always savagely punished. It shows again that fairy stories are primordial, ancient, bred in the bone.

David, our protagonist, is a 10-year-old English boy who loses his beloved mother in the opening days of WWII. His father and he do as well as they can together, but then David’s father marries Rose and they have a baby boy, Georgie. None of this goes down well with David, who is grieving, angry, jealous, resentful and lonely. He also starts seeing strange things like a crooked old man lurking in his brother’s room, and begins having fits.

The one solace David finds in his new situation is the books in his room. They are fairy stories, but different from the ones he has read before—darker and more disturbing. He asks Rose about them, and she tells him they belonged to a great uncle who had loved the books, but he and a young female relative had disappeared one day and were never seen again.

One night David is awakened by his mother’s voice calling him. He knows his mother is dead, but his desire that this not be true is so powerful that he wanders into a neglected sunken garden. The voice seems to be issuing from a hole beneath a great tree there. As David hesitates, he hears the screaming of a bomber overhead, disabled, on fire, and heading right for him. He dives into the hole beneath the tree and discovers himself in a strange land as the bomber crashes through and David’s escape route is blocked. Just to let you know that the story to come will not be about sweet little creatures with butterfly wings, the pilot’s head bounces by David after the crash, blackened and bloody.

David soon discovers that a great evil is growing in this new land. A wolf army is gathering, led by the Loup, half man, half wolf. The Crooked Man is here as well, and seems to want something from David. The dangers here are genuine and they are deadly. The author doesn’t flinch at detailed descriptions of some truly grotesque and bloody deaths.

Amid the growing darkness, David also meets some good people who help him. One of them tells him to seek out the king of this land because he has “The Book of Lost Things” that will help David to return home. “The Book of Lost Things” doesn’t help him to find his home, but it does clear up the central mysteries of the story, pointing David to the truth of the Crooked Man and his agenda.

David proves he is brave, loyal, and resourceful. He discovers that not everything is what it seems, and learns to be discriminating about whom he trusts—a single misstep could be fatal. In the process, he solves the mystery of what happened to Rose’s great-uncle and his young relative, and of course realizes his mistake in rejecting Rose and Georgie. By the time David finds the way home, we feel he has earned his return many times over.

The book follows David’s life after this event. It was not a life free from pain or unhappiness, but he finds love, comfort and a purpose in life. At the end—I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens at the very end. Like a good fairy story, the end wraps everything up in a most satisfactory way.

I would have to say that ‘The Book of Lost Things” is not for the faint of heart. Although the protagonist is a child and the source material is fairy stories, it is definitely not a children’s tale. I might even hesitate to recommend it to a teenager, particularly if they were going through a Goth phase. There is a lot of violence, a pervasive sense of creeping evil, and many adult themes. I would have to say that it cleaves to the original tenor of the ancient stories, though. The old fairy tales are dark and primeval. They have nothing to do with living happily ever after or marrying the prince. They teach us to beware the evil in the dark and the forces we do not comprehend. “The Book of Lost Things” is that kind of fairy tale.

Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

My Christmas Gift to You. (Sorry About the Vampires.)

The following short story is my Christmas gift to you. We’ve all had a tough year, and I hope this little parody will make you laugh and forget for a brief time the troubles of our mixed-up world. It’s not exactly a Christmas story, but it’s what I’ve got. Sorry about the zombies, too.

The Lady Sheriff of Gristle Creak

The first thing I noticed about Lili Darkling was that she was alive. Now, no woman, be she ever so homely, rides through the Territory all by her lonesome. Apart from it not being proper behavior for a woman, she’d wind up raped and dead within the day even if she weighed 400 pounds and had bearded warts all over. Not only did Lili ride into town alone, she rode a shiny black horse almost as pretty as she was. If I’m any judge of horseflesh—and I am—that steed of hers was a purebred Arabian, about as common as diamonds in these parts.

To be honest, I would have noticed her anyhow, being a man in the prime of life and kind of hankering after a wife. Lili was a mighty striking woman. Tall and slender, with that whippy look. Black hair, done up under a hat that was more suited to a cowhand than a woman. And blue, blazing blue eyes. A sweet sight, for all she was dressed a bit mannish.

Later I heard she was applying for sheriff. We’d never had a female sheriff before—nobody had—but there wasn’t any real doubt about hiring Lili. We desperately needed a sheriff, and if some woman wanted the job, I guess that made her about the only human being that did. The town council voted before Lili said a single word, and it was unanimous.

But I have been forgetting my manners and have not introduced myself. I am Doctor William Cantrell. Call me Doc. I am the only physician here in Gristle Creak. (That’s pronounced “Grizzly Creek.” Our founder was a great man, but he could neither spell nor abide any criticism.) Despite the town’s small size and our remote and undesirable location here in the Territory, there is more than enough work for a sawbones, alas. More than ever lately, what with the vampires and zombies.

Which is why we needed a sheriff. We went through about one sheriff per month for a while. But I guess the word got out, and the stream of applicants dried up like spit on a griddle. It turns out the techniques that succeed pretty regularly with bandits and bar brawlers aren’t near as effective when dealing with the undead. Townspeople had taken to betting how many days it would take for each new sheriff to wind up either drained of blood or missing his brains. The one before Lili held the record, I think. Fifty-eight days before they found him hanging from a meat hook down at Hanson’s Butchery.

The trouble started about three years back. I was riding back from Jed Holstrup’s place outside of town. Jed didn’t live out there, but he had some cowpokes running cattle on his land, and one of them had turned up dead. Brainless, in fact. I’d been called out there to certify the death, but I was stumped, never having seen a man without his brains before. In the normal way of things when a man’s brainpan gets opened up, the brains might spill out, but they don’t disappear. In this case, the man’s skull was smashed open and the inside of his head was as innocent of gray matter as my pipe was of tobacco, me having run out some time before and Smith’s General Emporium not expecting any for another fortnight.

So I was ambling back to town on my old horse, puzzling over the brainless cowboy, when I saw the zombie. At first, I thought it was Jake, the town drunk—one of them, anyway. He was a real skinny man, staggering along like Jake on a Saturday night after he’d caged a few drinks down at the Gristle Creak Saloon. I rode up to him, intending to say howdy and make sure he was all right out there on his own, drunk as I thought he was. But I got a little closer and saw the gray-green, peeling flesh, the bones showing through, and the lipless mouth exposing brown, broken teeth. Jake ain’t the prettiest thing you ever saw, but he’s a sight better than the thing that was stumbling along the dusty road into town. I wheeled my mount around and lit out for town as fast as poor Jupiter could gallop.

That’s when we lost the first sheriff to the zombies. All it took was one. I thundered into town and swung down in front of the sheriff’s office, screaming my head off. Sheriff Yurnameer must’ve thought I’d gone off the rails, but he mounted his horse and went down the road to investigate.

When the zombie finally slouched into town, he had fresh sheriff all over him. A bunch of us surrounded the zombie and tried to kill it, but it wasn’t easy. He was perfectly comfortable losing a few limbs or his innards so long as he could smell human flesh. It was Miss Prinkett from the upstairs part of the saloon—you know what I mean—who brought a bucket of kerosene, doused the zombie, and set him on fire with someone’s stogie. That seemed to solve the problem, and we all went to the saloon to toast Miss Prinkett and congratulate her on her quick thinking. The congratulations went on all night as I recall.

But the zombies kept turning up. We could handle the singles pretty effectively—we started calling it the “Prinkett Fix”—but if someone encountered a zombie on their own, or if there were more than a couple of them, we were in deep trouble. We soon ran dangerously low on kerosene.

We could’ve held our own, though, if it hadn’t been for the vampires. It started on a fine spring day so bright and sweet I almost didn’t mind that that the mud in the main street was halfway up my shins. I was talking with Jed Holstrup, the ranch owner whose cowpoke started the whole thing. Jed was doing awfully well for a rancher, and we were all proud of him, because everyone else was pretty much scrabbling just to get by. But Jed—he was our golden boy. He’d acquired some mighty pretty suits all the way from San Francisco and I heard tell he was planning to build a big new house now that he and his pretty bride—she that had been Annie Whitethorn—had produced one beautiful little girl, with another on the way.

Anyhow, Jed and I were talking about the zombie problem. Jed was saying he thought they wandered in from the badlands. Nobody really knew what was out there, Jed pointed out. I was arguing that someone must bring them here a-purpose. Why anyone would do that was beyond me, but a man’s got to have a point of view, or there’s nothing to argue about. That was when Pearline came pelting down the street from the saloon, shrieking like the devil was snapping at her heels.

Pearline under full sail is a sight to behold. She is a woman of enormous and abundant charms, if I may say so, and most of those charms were fully evident now because Pearline had departed her place of employment without pausing to dress. She had a few filmy tatters streaming behind her like a wake, but that was all. Jed found a tarpaulin to cover her while she sobbed out her story.

“It’s Miss Prinkett!” she wailed. “She’s dead! Somebody musta kilt her!”

“Does she still have her brains?” I enquired, fearing another zombie attack.

“Yes! But, but, but …” and Pearline was off again like a siren and I couldn’t get one more sensible word from her. Nothing for it but to examine the body, so I trotted down to the Gristle Creak Saloon to take a look.

Sure enough, Miss Prinkett still had all of her quick-thinking brains. She wasn’t going to be using them anymore because she no longer possessed any blood. Cause of death was straightforward: complete exsanguination via two puncture wounds in the carotid artery. On the surface, it was a classic case of vampirism, but I was reluctant to note this on the death certificate. Adding vampires to zombies as the leading causes of death in Gristle Creak could completely discredit my reputation as a man of science. I noted cause of death as “vam-pyric attack,” hoping if the papers were ever audited this might be taken for some sort of systemic failure.

After the vampires started showing up, the town was under siege. Turns out a lot of the things we thought we knew about vampires and zombies just weren’t so. Garlic, for instance. Vampires appear to appreciate a good garlicky blood feed, judging by their preference for those who turned to the stinking rose for protection. Crosses and silver were useless—I told everybody that, but no one believed me until it was too late. You couldn’t shoot, stab or bludgeon a vampire or a zombie to death. We began to bury exsanguinated townspeople with stakes through their hearts, and that was wonderfully effective—I never saw another one of them again once they’d been planted. Of course, the brainless ones never posed a problem, but each new corpse meant one less person to help us fight against the forces of darkness.

So I was happy to see Lili Darkling step out of the sheriff’s office her first day on the job, six-shooter on each womanly hip, brass star twinkling in the sun. I walked over, stuck my hand out, and said, “Sheriff, we all wish you the best of luck. Let me know if there’s anything a-tall I can do to help.”

I was only trying to be polite—I was already up to my elbows in doctoring. But she fixed those mesmerizing blue eyes on me and said, “Why thanks, Doc. I could use your help, now you mention it. I deputize you in the name of the law.”

I spluttered a bit, but she paid me no mind. In the end, I saddled up Jupiter and drifted glumly over to the sheriff’s office. Turned out she wanted me to help her get the lay of the land. Maybe if we rode around outside town we’d see something useful. I had my doubts, but followed her obediently.

We had plenty of time to talk as we rode. Lili wanted to know how it got started, so I told her about the first victim, that cowpoke out at Holstrup’s place. She nodded and said, “Let’s start there.”

“Why? That was three years ago.”

“Just show me the way, Deputy,” she replied, so I did.

As we neared the Holstrup place, I asked, “Why’d you want to be sheriff of Gristle Creak?”

She was silent for a bit, head bowed and the creak of saddle leather and the clop of our horses’ hooves the only sounds. “I don’t rightly know,” she said at last. “I saw the advertisement in the paper. Gristle Creak sounded like my kind of place. I sort of felt I had to come.”

I was satisfied with that, and by now we had reached the little ranch house. We swung off the horses, tied them to the corral railing and hailed the house. Out here in the Territory—especially these days—you don’t just walk up to someone’s door and knock—not unless you want to get shot, that is. The polite and safe thing to do is to stand well away from the door in plain sight and halloo. That way they can take a moment to decide whether to shoot, so the odds of surviving your visit are a deal better.

A head poked cautiously out the door. It was Petey, one of Holstrup’s boys. I greeted him, and he said, “Hi, Doc. Who’s the little lady?”

“I’m Sheriff Lili Darkling,” Lili said, her face stern. “Doc here’s my deputy now. We’re investigating these … murders, and I understand the first one was right here.”

“That’s so,” Petey said. “C’mon in. We got some coffee going and it ain’t too burnt yet. What can we do for you?”

So we drank strong black coffee out of blue-enameled mugs and asked Petey, Eb and Zeke a lot of questions. They didn’t mind. Truth to tell, they were pleased as bull-pups with a marrowbone to have some company out there. Then the sheriff asked Eb if he had seen any zombies on the ranch since his partner had been killed.

Eb, a long, dried-out string of a man, bobbed his Adam’s apple and nodded. “Yes’m, I sure have,” he replied, fear at the back of his worried eyes. “Every now and again I have to go looking for strays up in the box canyon. That’s where I seen ‘em, mostly. Zombies, I mean.”

Lili’s eyes lit up, making her beauty nearly lethal. She’s going to have to learn to tone that down, I thought, or there’s going to be mayhem in the streets. Then I recalled there was already mayhem in the streets. “You ever see them anywhere else on the spread?” she asked eagerly, leaning forward. I reflected that she probably shouldn’t lean forward, either.

Eb looked like someone had just clobbered him on the head with a branding iron, but he replied, “No’m. Yes’m. I mean, no, I don’t see them anyplace else, Ma’am.”

Lili patted Eb’s knee, nearly causing him to lose consciousness. “You’re a good man, Eb! C’mon, Doc. Let’s go explore that box canyon.” We got directions from Petey, who could still talk, and we set off. Three heads poked out of the little house’s windows, staring after us.

“Y’all be careful now,” Petey called, but the other two just gawked. They don’t see womenfolk out there too much, and Lili was good for a couple hundred of the usual kind.

The ride up to the box canyon took maybe an hour or two, but the sheriff and I didn’t talk much. I guess we were both pondering what we would do if we got there and encountered zombies. I didn’t know what Lili had in mind, and she wasn’t saying. For my own part, I had brung along a bottle of kerosene and some lucifers—the Prinkett Fix. I wasn’t worried about vampires—they always attacked at night. We hadn’t figured out why, because they could walk around in broad daylight just like regular citizens, but night was the only time they ever attacked.

It was a mighty pretty day for a ride. Birds were singing their little hearts out, and there were buckets of wildflowers. The air was warm and sweet, for the scorching heat of summer hadn’t gotten its feet under itself yet. I watched a pair of butterflies courting and thought what a grand day this would be for a picnic with my sweetheart. If I had a sweetheart. If I weren’t riding around looking for brain-gobbling ambulatory corpses.

Weathered pillars of pink sandstone, layered like a cake, concealed the entrance to the box canyon. But Petey had told us the way, and we had no trouble winding through the narrow passage into a lush little canyon. There was a stream flowing through it, fed from a waterfall spilling down the cliffs at the back of the canyon. Cottonwoods and willows grew thickly by the water, and there was plenty of pasturage. I could see why some of those strays wound up in this canyon; it was a tiny paradise.

Except possibly for the zombie. This one was female, but that makes no nevermind when you’re talking about the walking dead—they’re all bad eggs. Anyhow, this one was standing under a cottonwood tree, staring at us. Well, her one remaining eye was staring at us, though from what I’d seen, they didn’t really need eyes. She wasn’t moving.

We were maybe a quarter of a mile away from the zombie when we saw it, and our horses’ nostrils caught the stink of deliquescing rotten flesh. They began to crow-hop and whinny. “Maybe we should stop here, Sheriff,” I said. “The horses ain’t hankering to get any closer.”

She agreed, and we sat in our saddles, regarding the motionless zombie. “Looks harmless from here,” Lili said.

“I got some kerosene with me,” I told her.

“Naw. Not yet. Let’s see if there’s any more around,” Lili said.

I was disinclined to seek out more of the walking dead, but I kept my peace. We waited for a good half-hour, the zombie standing there like a war monument, and us on our skittish horses. Then there was movement in the trees behind that unmoving figure. A line of zombies emerged from the undergrowth along a well-worn trail. They were hefting burlap sacks, like the kind you store potatoes in. When they sighted us, they set the sacks down on the ground all at the same time like they were rehearsing a dance-hall routine, and began shuffling toward us in the now-familiar zombie attack mode: arms extended, heads lolling, feet stumbling.

“Boss, I don’t have enough kerosene for that mob,” I said, but Lili was already wheeling her horse around.

“Hyah! Back to town!” she yelled, and her fancy black horse sped off toward the canyon entrance. Jupiter needed no encouragement, and I caught up with her easily. Once we left the canyon, we stopped to see if the zombies were following. We waited maybe an hour because zombies are powerful slow, but nothing ever emerged from the canyon.

We rode back to town in the late afternoon, the shadows of the mountains stretching purple across the chaparral. Lil was thoughtful and quiet for a while, but finally she asked, “Doc, what d’you reckon those things are carrying around in those sacks? Even more interesting, why are they carrying whatever it is? And all those zombies together. You ever seen that many in one place before?”

I shook my head. “No, Sheriff, I surely have not. As to the sacks—well, I kinda hate to speculate on that.” I repressed a shudder. I was afraid to imagine what might be in those burlap bags.

“I’m thinking maybe we ought to call on Mr. Holstrup. That box canyon is on his property, so might be he has some notion of what’s happening,” said Lili.

I turned in Jupiter’s saddle to face her. “You’re a brave woman, and that’s a fact. You haven’t been in Gristle Creak very long, Ma’am, but you should know right now that Jed Holstrup is the richest man in this town. He pretty much runs this town, for all he ain’t an elected official. I’d advise caution.”

Her delicate black brows frowned, looking somehow enchantingly like a moth’s antennae. “Well, I’ll take that under advisement, Deputy. Night’s coming on and we’d best leave it to morning. Good night.”

I went home and blocked all the doors and windows, as usual. I even had the chimney blocked off. I had run a narrow stovepipe from my cast-iron wood stove out through the wall, making sure that there were steel mesh blockages several places along the pipe just in case someone tried to get clever and enter as a bat. We had discovered that while vampires were greedy and vicious, they were also lazy. If you made it really hard to get at you, you had a better than average chance of waking up in the morning and still seeing your reflection in the mirror. Yes, that particular bit of lore is true; vampires have no reflections. Of course, that was no good to us. All it meant is that the females always looked like sinister circus clowns; they wore a lot of cosmetics but couldn’t use a mirror to apply them properly.

Next morning Lili was still hell-bent on seeing Holstrup, so we both called at his home. Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, opened the door to us after peeking cautiously through the curtains, her thick blonde hair piled high atop her head like a proper matron (though I recalled it used to tumble down her back in a waterfall of gold). I introduced the sheriff and asked if Jed was to home. He was, and Mrs. Holstrup showed us into the sitting room.

Jed strode in, wearing one of his pretty suits. He had a shirt of whitest linen, set off with a Chinese silk cravat, and a yellow brocade vest under a black frockcoat. His black kid boots gleamed like wet tar. He shook my big paw, but stooped over Lili’s little white hand and kissed it like he was Sir Water Raleigh. I snorted audibly, but Lili didn’t react at all. She just said calmly, “Mr. Holstrup, we want to ask you a few questions about those zombies on your ranch.”

He continued to smile, but somehow, it was no longer flirtatious. “I know nothing about them, Miss Darkling.”

“Sheriff Darkling,” Lili corrected.

“Sheriff. Nonetheless, I can tell you nothing. I go out there only a few times a year, and I have never personally seen any zombies on my property.”

“Me and Doc were out there yesterday. We saw a whole passel of ‘em in that box canyon north of the ranch house,” Lili said, her eyes fixed intently on his. “Any idea what they were doing out there?”

“I haven’t any notion, Sheriff.”

“Do you know what’s in those bags?”

For the first time, Jed looked nonplussed. “Bags? What bags? No, I haven’t the slightest idea. Wish I could help—I’d love to see those devils gone for good myself, you know.”

Lili looked at him for a full minute. Then she said, “Thanks for your time. Let’s be going, Doc.”

Lili didn’t say anything about this conversation, but she told me we were going back to the box canyon. That very day, no less. I filled several canteens with what kerosene I could find. I checked to make sure I had my lucifers. Lili brought her supply of kerosene as well, so I figured we were probably in for some action.

I tried talking to Lili on the way to the canyon, but she wasn’t much inclined. Finally I asked, “Why’d you pick me as deputy, Sheriff? Seems to me there’s other men better qualified, but I’m the town’s only doctor.”

She looked round at me from atop her pretty horse. “Took one look at you and I knew you were the man for the job. Knew you wouldn’t let me down in a tight spot. Think I’m right about that, Doc?”

Well, there wasn’t but one answer I could make to that, so I nodded and we continued on, the clopping of our horses’ hooves the only conversation between us. When we reached the entrance to the canyon, Lili silently dismounted and secured her horse’s reins to a cottonwood. I did likewise. Taking our canteens of kerosene along with our pistols, we walked the rest of the way, careful to tread quietly and keep to available cover.

Once inside the canyon, we moved cautiously through the trees along the little stream, heading for the back of the valley. We made slow progress, as we had no desire to inform the zombies we were on the way. The path the zombies used seemed too risky, so we moved through the underbrush, making it rough going. At one point, an impenetrable thicket forced us back to the path, which was fortunate, because otherwise we never would‘ve seen the gold.

Lucky that Lili had such sharp eyes. It was just a little chunk, lying to one side of the trodden dirt trail. She picked it up and it shone like pure sunlight in the palm of her hand. We stood there for some minutes, gaping at it.

“Fool’s gold, d’you think?” I asked.

“Naw,” Lili said, and pointed a slender forefinger at the rounded shape. “If it was fool’s gold, there’d be sharp crystals, maybe layers. This here’s rounded. It’s a real bright color, too. It’s gold.”

I didn’t think to ask how she knew, but I was sure she was right. “Think that’s what the zombies are hauling around in those bags?”

Lili gave the gold nugget a last, loving look and tucked it into her pocket. “I sure do, Doc. Let’s take a closer look at the back of this canyon.”

It took a long time to get back there because we knew if we were sighted by the zombie gang, we’d have a hard time getting out of there alive. We crawled on our bellies and snuck through the bushes and tiptoed like little girls playing at hide and seek. When we finally arrived at the back of the canyon, we saw a line of zombies staggering in and out of a cleft in the cliff wall. Further observation revealed the cleft to be the opening of a cave. The zombies would shuffle in with limp, empty bags. Then they’d shuffle out again, each with a laden bag.

I felt a deep sense of revulsion, watching these things go about their strange business. The only sound they made was a slow dragging as their feet shuffled along over the earth, with an occasional nauseating splat when a random part fell off and hit the ground. The smell was beyond anything a civilized man would’ve encountered, unless maybe he was a grave robber. Being a doctor I am no stranger to bad smells, but this lot had it beat all to Kingdom Come for pure, unadulterated stench.

“Follow,” Lili hissed softly, nudging me. I deduced she meant follow the zombies with the gold, and began edging away from the scene. We did a lot more belly crawling as we tracked the undead, but they didn’t go to the entrance of the little box canyon. About halfway to the entrance, they veered sharply off, following another trail. They shambled in silence toward the west wall of the canyon, coming finally to a small, windowless shack hidden among some piñon trees. Each zombie entered the shack laden with a full sack and exited a moment later with an empty one.

Sitting a ways off hidden by trees and brush, I whispered to Lili, “Want to use the Prinkett Fix on ‘em now?”

She shook her dark head. “I’m more interested in who’s gonna come and pick up the gold. I never heard tell of a zombie that cared anything for gold. Or money. Or anything. ‘Cept maybe brains.”

I had to admit she had a point there, so we waited all that blessed afternoon, as the walking dead marched painfully along, depositing their precious burdens in the shack and then departing. As the shadows lengthened and the canyon began to darken, shaded by its walls, no more zombies appeared. Apparently, production had ceased for the day. But we waited, still hidden nearby, making as little noise as possible.

To amuse myself during the long wait, I tried to identify birdcalls. I identified quail, scrub jay, roadrunner, mourning dove, and pygmy owl, but I was having trouble with a new one. The call reminded me of the squeak of new leather boots, a sort of constant creak creak creak like a cricket. By the time I felt the rifle barrel poke me in the back, I had just about figured out that it actually was the creak of a pair of new boots and that someone had been stealthily creeping up behind us.

“Afternoon, Sheriff, Doc,” said Jed Holstrup. “I can’t say as how I’m too happy to see you, though. Get up, now, and let’s move on back to the mine. ‘Bout suppertime for my … men. Throw your pieces on the ground.” He grinned. We complied.

Lili looked up at him. “Thought it might be you, Holstrup,” she said. “So would I be right in thinking that you brought the zombies here? That’s a pretty sweet berth you found yourself here—gold mine, free labor, no losses. Run some cattle to pretend you got a legitimate operation out here. Am I right?”

“That’s about the size of it,” Holstrup agreed. “They’re hard working, too. Feedin’ ‘em has been my most pressing problem. Only reason they wander away and bother folks is if they’re hungry. Otherwise you’d a never known they was here.”

“Bothering folks.” That’s what he called cracking people’s skulls and sucking their brains out.

“So how do you feed them, Jed?” Lili asked sweetly, for all the world like she was taking tea back in town and making polite chitchat.

“Well, now, that’s where the vampires come in,” Holstrup said, puffing his chest out like he was a proud daddy. “I ain’t really had too many runaways since I invited the vampires in—yes, that’s true, you really do have to invite them. Anyhow, the vampires provide a regular supply of fresh brains. Zombies don’t mind rustling up their own dinner.” I pictured the newly turned graves in the cemetery outside town and shuddered.

After a bit Lili pipes up again, “I know you’re gonna kill us, Holstrup. But we might as well go in comfort. I need a drink, and I bet Doc here does, too.” She hefted one of her canteens and looked at me.

“I could use one last smoke,” I responded. “Jed, you’d let a condemned man have his last pipe, wouldn’t you?”

Holstrup didn’t even look annoyed or impatient. “Sure,” he said. “I got all the time in the world.” He kept his rifle pointed at us, but leaned comfortably against a cottonwood.

I pulled out my pipe and filled it. As Lili pretended to take a swig of water from a canteen, I lit a lucifer.

“This water tastes terrible,” Lili commented as she poured the canteen’s contents on the dusty earth near Jed’s feet. I flicked the match before Jed had the opportunity to react to the smell of kerosene. The resulting fireball would’ve startled a man with better nerves than Jed; he dropped his rifle and leaped away, cursing and shouting. Of course, by that time I had the rifle and Jed was on the wrong end of the argument. Once he’d put out the flames I examined him and he wasn’t hardly burned a-tall.

Which is more than I can say for the zombies. Lili and I pretty much Prinketted the lot of them right there in the mine. We gathered up all the loose pieces and burned them, too, just in case.

So that was all right and satisfactory, except that now it was well past sunset. We decided not to attempt the ride into town at this hour, as there was too much risk of vampire attack. Also, we wanted to make sure there was nothing left of the zombies but ashes. So we decided to camp in the box canyon for the night.

I fetched the horses, our two and Jed’s handsome bay. There were enough emergency rations in the saddlebags to feed three people, plus more lucifers and canteens filled with actual water. We tied Jed up to a tree, built a campfire and commenced to jawing about the day’s events.

“Why’d you want to go and bring a mess of zombies in here, Jed?” asked Lili. “Couldn’t you just work the mine with a few of your ranch hands? You’d have to pay ‘em, of course.”

Jed didn’t seem especially neighborly, but he replied right enough, “Cain’t trust them boys. They’da stole me blind. You can trust zombies. They work hard and they don’t ask nothing in return. ‘Cept brains. The vampires, though, they been a bit of a problem. I can see that.”

“A problem no longer,” said a new voice, and it wasn’t Lili’s. It was a rich, dark, oily voice, and it came from the darkness beyond our circle of firelight.

It was a female vampire, and as she stepped into the light I saw she was a looker, too. Although her cosmetics were apparently applied with a trowel­­, they weren’t smeared all over her phizog like circus paint; her face was perfect. She was tall, and like all vampires generally, thin as a knife blade. I guess an all-blood diet is what does it, but it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the female population at large. Modern womanhood will smear poison on their faces and smash their innards into mush with corsets, but they won’t drink blood for breakfast. Anyhow, what with the tight, low-cut black dress, eerily floating long, black hair, curved black nails, and eyes that were somehow both black and fiery, this lady was indisputably difficult to overlook.

I broke the silence. “Does this mean you’re clearing out of Gristle Creak? All you vampires?”

She turned her white face and huge eyes to me. Her lips were a bright, fresh, wet-looking red. “Yes. That is exactly what I mean. We came at this man’s invitation,” she looked scornfully at Jed, sitting on the ground, bound to a tree and looking at her with horror. “But it is time to leave. We are very old”—she looked no more than a muslin miss, despite her provocative clothing—“and we can predict how humans will behave. Your little town is dangerously close to the torches and pitchforks stage. And this one”—she nudged Jed with the tip of her dainty black boot—“won’t be paying us in gold anymore, if I’m any judge.”

I stared at her with the fascination of a small bird for a large snake. “But what do you need gold for? You’re immortal, aren’t you?”

Her dark eyes unblinking, she slowly nodded. “Immortal, yes, but we still need money. It’s so much easier to hide from the authorities when one has plenty of money. We do what we can to avoid the torches and the sharp stakes, you know. Well, this has been amusing and profitable, but we have overstayed our welcome, I fear. Farewell.”

And she was gone. She didn’t turn into a bat and fly away. She was there, and then she was not there.

We sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, I turned to look at Jed. I had intended to ask him if he wanted some coffee, but Jed was slumped against his restraining ropes, perfectly limp. I checked all his vitals, but no luck. Jed, host to the undead, was now a potential member of that club himself. And all she’d done was flick at him with her little boot.

We burned Jed’s body, not wanting to take any foolish chances. After we finished up this chore, Lili turned to me and smiled. It was a triumphant smile, stretching from ear to ear in a manner that seemed unnatural to me—the widest smile I’d ever seen, so wide it seemed like she could swallow me if she had a mind. She seemed to gleam and glow in the light of the campfire, so full of some kind of energy that her body could scarcely contain it. She stood straight and tall like the goddess of victory, smiling at me.

“I am Ardat Lili, daughter of Lilith, demoness of the Western Wastes. I have triumphed in battle, and this town is now mine by right of combat,” she said, eyes blazing in the firelight.

I squatted down by the fire and poured myself a cup of coffee. “Yes, I know. Have a seat.”

It’s hard to use a word like “deflated” when you’re talking about Lili, but she did seem taken aback.

“How … how do you know?” Lili asked, puzzlement knitting her fine brows together.

“I am the wizard who summoned you here, Demon,” I replied equably. “By the laws we both obey, you are my servant. Sit.”

As I had commanded, Lili sat, looking like she’d just been kicked by a mule. I went on, “I was weary—weary of dragons and meddlesome priests, weary of kitchen maids wanting love potions. I settled in Gristle Creak as the town sawbones some years back, and everything was just fine. I healed folks and they paid me. Then all these incomers started up—the undead, you know—and I knew we needed a demon. It’s all very well burning the undead and shoving stakes into them, but when you’ve got an all-out infestation, the only satisfactory cure is a demon.” I drew on my pipe and sipped some coffee.

Lili’s eyes burned a feral green in the firelight. “So now that the undead have cleared out, I suppose you’re going to put me in a lamp for a thousand years? Seal me into that gold mine back there? Or did you have it in mind for me to be your slave, is that it?”

I looked up in surprise. “Oh, no. That would be poor payment for your assistance. You were compelled to come here, and you couldn’t help chasing after the undead because that’s what I brought you here to do. But you did your job, and a mighty fine performance it was, too. No, I have it in mind that you and I should marry. Settle down. Maybe have some children.”

“And be your lawfully wedded slave? No thanks!” she snarled, her dark hair all down around her face like smoke.

“Well, I won’t compel you. I don’t want a slave, I want a wife. Pretty difficult finding a wife when you’re a wizard, you see. It’s just hard to explain certain things that most ladies would find kind of peculiar. A demoness wouldn’t need any explanations, and she’d be right handy at times, too, helping out with a bit of magic here and there. But if it don’t appeal to you, I guess I can’t change your mind. You can go any time. With my sincerest gratitude.”

Lili didn’t say anything. We settled down to sleep. The next morning, she was still there, though I had freed her. We made some coffee, saddled up and rode back to town, stopping at the ranch house to explain to the hands that Mr. Holstrup had a terrible accident and wouldn’t be around no more, but Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, would no doubt want them to stay on with the cattle, so they should just keep on as they were. They didn’t seem any too cut up about Holstrup’s demise.

We reported back to the townspeople about the improved undead situation. Out of respect for Jed’s wife, she that had been Annie Whitethorne, we didn’t tell anyone about Holstrup’s wholesale importation of the undead. I borrowed a leaf from Jed and said they’d wandered in from the badlands, but they were all gone now, and no more were expected from that quarter. We opined the vampires had departed in disgust on account of the poor quality of blood nowadays. As for Jed, he had died gallantly fighting zombies and had gotten himself burnt up on accident. We advised Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, to put an armed guard out at the gold mine, and to find workers she could pay in actual money.

Lili relieved me of my deputy duties and I went back to doctoring. She didn’t say anything the next week nor the week after. Finally, I went to see her one quiet afternoon. She was in the sheriff’s office, doing paperwork. She looked up when I knocked and walked in.

“Howdy, Doc. Help yourself to some coffee, and I’ll be right with you.” I did so, and then sat at the empty deputy’s desk, waiting patiently. We hadn’t any need for another deputy since the undead skedaddled.

Lili signed her name on one of the documents with a flourish and gave me her attention. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“Well, Lili, I was wondering if you’d given any more thought to my proposal?”

Lili looked thoughtful. “I have. And it was a fine and generous offer, to be sure, Doc. I like it here in Gristle Creak. I’d like to stay on as sheriff.”

“That wasn’t my offer, Lili. You’ve done an excellent job as sheriff, but you can’t be sheriff if you’re going to be my wife.”

“Whyever not?”

That stumped me. I had thought it obvious. “Ladies aren’t sheriffs, Lili. Especially not married ladies. What would people think?”

“Do you care?”

“I care what folks here in Gristle Creak think of me, yes I do,” I said defensively. “It’s my home.”

“Well, I don’t think we’re especially suited, Doc. Seeing as how I want to be a sheriff, and you want me to be a wife. Why don’t you go ask Mrs. Holstrup, she-that-had-been-Annie-Whitethorn?”

I was positively thunderstruck at this suggestion. Annie was a married woman! Then I remembered that Jed’s ashes were blowing around the chaparral like the memories of youth, and that Annie was indeed a widow. A rich widow. With a gold mine.

Well, I reckon I can talk the hind leg off a donkey and you’re probably itching to be on your way, so I’ll make this short. Me and Annie have got four adorable little ‘uns—if you’re counting Jed’s two, and I am—all with curly blonde hair. Annie’s hair is as beautiful as ever, though there’s more silver in the gold now. I’m doing about the same. Wizards tend to age kind of slow. If they’re careful.

But Lili—well, some in the Territory think it’s a scandal that Gristle Creak employs a pretty lady sheriff. But I’m telling you, when it comes to enforcing the law, why, that woman’s a real demon.

The End

© 2017 K.D. Keenan

 

Cover Reveal: Fire in the Ocean

As I have mentioned before, my second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” is coming out from Diversion Books in February 2018. Diversion’s art department came up with a spiffy new cover for “The Obsidian Mirror,” which will be re-issued along with the debut of “Fire in the Ocean”:

New cover for “The Obsidian Mirror”

“Fire in the Ocean” is the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” and features the same cast of characters. New twist, though–the book is set in Hawai’i on the islands of Moloka’i and Hawai’i (the Big Island).

Why, you might ask, Hawai’i? When I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror,” I drew upon strictly New World mythologies, folk tales and traditions–Native American, MesoAmerican and Voudún, avoiding the supernatural traditions that essentially migrated to the Americas from Europe. I started it as a kind of experiment after reading one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I just wanted to see if a fantasy could be crafted that entirely eschewed the standard fantasy tropes of caped adventurers, swords and sorcery–elves, vampires and trolls need not apply.  To my surprise, the experiment turned into a book.

Although I wanted to continue the adventures of Sierra and her friends, I didn’t want to repeat the setting, plot, or other key elements of “The Obsidian Mirror.” So I picked Hawai’i as the venue for the sequel because: 1) I love Hawai’i ; 2) Hawai’i is also “New World,” and therefore fit into the strictures I had placed on myself; 3) it was an excuse to go back to the islands to do research. (And an amazing and wonderful trip it was, as those of you who have followed my blog for a while know!)

Why Moloka’i? Well, it turns out that Moloka’i in ancient times was known as the island of sorcerers. The island has its own take on the mythology and its own unique legends. Moloka’i proved to be a rich source of information and experiences, most of which were incorporated into “Fire in the Ocean.” As for why I chose the Big Island for part of the story–you’ll have to read the book.

Diversion Books just sent me the cover design for “Fire in the Ocean.” What do you think?

Cover Design for “Fire in the Ocean”

Review: “Doc” by Maria Doria Russell

I first encountered Mary Doria Russell when I read  “The Sparrow.” It is one of the most memorable books I have ever read. Beautifully written, it is a science fiction story on the surface; a Jesuit priest who is part of a mission to a planet inhabited by intelligent beings finds himself weirdly seduced by an alien culture and eventually agrees to something he has no way of comprehending. The result is catastrophic for him, both physically and spiritually. He is accused of murdering one of the aliens under very sketchy circumstances and is returned in disgrace to Rome. The book is a meditation on how we view and deal with the “other,” and how actions can be viewed through many different lenses, some distorting one way, some another.

So when my husband recommended “Doc,” I was eager to read it. Apparently Russell is as versatile a writer as Jane Smiley, because “Doc” is as different from “The Sparrow” as can be imagined. It’s a fictionalized version of the life of Doc Holliday, the famous gambler and gunslinger of Dodge City, Tombstone, and the shootout at the OK Corral.

“Doc” is as beautifully written as “The Sparrow,” and in some ways as evocative and touching. Russell did her research, reading autobiographies and biographies of the principals and bit players alike, mining contemporary newspaper accounts and the penny dreadfuls, and the surviving letters that passed between Doc and his family and friends.

What emerges is a very different man than the legend of the pitiless gunslinger. Doc acquired his nickname because he was a trained and licensed dentist. Hailing from an aristocratic Georgian family, John Henry Holliday was a well-educated Southern gentleman with rarified tastes in music, art and literature. He also had tuberculosis, contracted from his mother, whom he nursed until her death. He became ill at the age of 22 and died at the age of 38. “Doc” takes us up to the age of 28, when he was still living in Dodge City and before the famous shootout.

The book is an exploration of the man’s friendship with the Earp brothers, the woman who shared his life and bed, Kate Horony, and others, showing him to be a true friend and a kind man who stuck with his profession as much and as long as he could, until the disease destroyed his ability to continue. He gambled to earn money, and spent it lavishly on his friends. Waging what he knew was a losing battle, Holliday stayed true to his upbringing. The stories about the men he had gunned down turn out to be primarily fictions, perpetuated by post mortem accounts penned by people who badly needed money.

I was also fascinated by Kate Horony, his off-and-on lover. Kate Horony was a well-ridden prostitute, a stereotypical figure in Old West literature.

Except Mary Catherine Horony started life as the daughter of a Hungarian-born physician. When Dr. Horony and his wife died within a month of one another in 1867, Kate and her younger sister were left to the care of a lawyer, who seemed not to have cared very much. Kate ran away at the age of 28 and probably became a prostitute shortly thereafter, there being few other positions for women on their own at the time.

Curiously, Russell perpetuates the myth that Kate was the daughter of Hungarian aristocracy, ruined by the fall of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Russell attributed to her a facility in many languages and an appreciation of music, art, and the finer things that would have appealed to Doc Holliday’s refined tastes. Maybe Russell knows something I don’t know, or perhaps she just liked the way Kate’s mythic past fit so neatly into Doc’s actual history that she couldn’t resist.

I found myself really caring about the characters in “Doc,” especially Doc himself and Wyatt Earp, so I was all the more startled and displeased by the way the book ended. Chronologically, the story ends before the shootout in Tombstone. After a lyric, heart-wrenching scene where Doc plays the piano for the first time in years, Russell suddenly switches from telling the story from within the characters’ points of view to a summary of what happened to each of the principals in later life. I found this sudden switch from intimate to remote to be abrupt and almost hasty, as though the author couldn’t be bothered with telling the tale to its natural conclusion.

I understand that a sequel is on the way that finishes out Doc’s miserable, pain-racked life to the end. This is no excuse for dumping the reader by the side of the road and telling him that he has to catch another bus. Will I read the sequel? I might, but I ached for Doc’s suffering so completely throughout the first book, I may have to skip Russell’s no-doubt skillful portrayal of his anguished and impoverished death.

Let Me Tell You About Gigi

Gigi as a sweet young thing.

 

I had a bit of a scare recently. My dog Gigi developed a fever, lost her appetite and began to act lethargic. She’s 12 years old, so I wasted no time taking her to her vet. Dr. Good, who rolls around in a mobile clinic, did a thorough exam, took blood and urine and an X-ray—and found nothing wrong other than the obvious presence of an infection. So Gigi went on antibiotics.

I’m happy to say Gigi recovered and is doing fine. But while she was sick, I began to dread the possibility of losing this amazing creature with whom I share my life and my home. I thought I would write an obituary about her when she dies—because she will die, and at this stage, who knows how long she’s got? She’s a big dog, and the big ones don’t tend to live as long.

So I decided to write about Gigi now, while she’s still with me and I can discuss her unique characteristics without breaking down in floods of tears.

On the surface, Gigi is just a very doggy dog. She’s half Labrador and half German Shepherd, with maybe a dash of Doberman. She’s black-and-tan and shorthaired, with floppy ears. As much as I love her, I do not share my bed with her because she’s 75 pounds of elbows and she farts and groans all night.

Gigi used to adore playing with water from the hose or a sprinkler. She doesn’t do that anymore.

I wasn’t looking for a dog when Gigi came to my attention. I had lost my last dog, Ringo, a year previously and was still in mourning. My daughter Kerry saw an ad on Craig’s List that said, “Sweetest dog in the world needs a home.” I looked at the picture. This dog was much larger than I wanted. She was black-and-tan, which is not a color scheme I admire. And she lived about 65 miles away.

I called her owner. Apparently, they rescued her when she was about six months old, and loved her dearly. But the landlord of the house they had just moved into said the dog had to go. I asked question after question, because living with Ringo taught me the right questions to ask. (Loved that dog, but he was a hot mess when we first got him.) The answers seemed good, so my husband and I drove 65 miles to meet the dog.

The dog’s name was Gertie, a name I knew I couldn’t live with. She greeted us with kisses and a wildly wagging tail that slapped against our legs like a baseball bat. I observed her with a baby and with cats—completely calm. I did everything I could to elicit a dominant or aggressive response—grab her collar, squeeze her paws, roll her over, and so forth—all of which she responded to with kisses and wags.

I decided I wanted her, but we had five houseguests with a sixth on the way and I felt it was unfair to plop an adopted animal down in the midst of all this chaos, so I said I’d come get her when the house had cleared out. Her owner agreed, but later told me that the landlord had threatened to evict them if the dog wasn’t gone by a certain date. On that day, I drove back to collect her.

In the interim, we had a lively family discussion about what to call the dog, as Gertie just wasn’t going to cut it. I thought we should pick a name that was similar to Gertie so she would adapt to it quickly. I suggested Gigi. My daughter said it sounded like a stripper. After a two-hour discussion, Gigi it was, though still over my daughter’s objections.

When I picked her up, her owner burst into tears and rushed us out the door, handing me a ceramic jar for dog treats. It was clearly a painful parting. I put Gigi in the back of my car and headed home. Gigi rested her chin on my shoulder for the entire trip home, which I thought was a good sign.

It turns out I needn’t have worried about the abundance of guests or about the name. Gigi walked into the house and acted as though she had lived with us her entire life. She also responded to her new name instantly. As a matter of fact, as the houseguests began to go back to their own lives, Gigi seemed to miss the party atmosphere of an overcrowded house. She still loves a good party.

Then we began to get to know her. First of all, Gigi is an extremely obedient dog— except when she isn’t. For example, if she needs to go outside to go to the bathroom or check out the gophers, she will go outside. If she doesn’t, she will wag her tail and refuse to move. I have learned to trust her on things like this and will only insist if there is some compelling reason. She has a stentorian bark that wakes the eldest grandchild from her nap, so I put Gigi out when Jessamyn is napping so that if the doorbell rings or there is a package delivery, she won’t sound the alarm. Gigi goes reluctantly, but she goes.

She can make friends with just about any other animal. I have seen her buddy up to:

  • At least two coyotes
  • A bunny (kisses were exchanged)
  • A feral cat
  • A cat that was so terrified of her that it refused to come into the house until Gigi performed her ambassadorial work
  • Innumerable other cats and dogs and humans

The feral cat is my rescue kitty, Inca. When I first acquired Inca from a rescue organization, they told me she was one of a litter of feral kittens. They were considered too old to domesticate, but they seemed to be adapting to humans, so the rescue decided to place them with families. Inca was okay with me as long as I kept her confined to a bathroom, but she was horrified by Gigi. When I let her out of the bathroom, Inca disappeared for two weeks, flitting about in our peripheral vision like a bat.

Gigi and her cat take a nap together.

One day, I saw Inca and called to her. To my astonishment, she strolled over and climbed into my lap. After a bit, Gigi came into the room and lay down. Inca trotted down the length of the couch, mewing at Gigi. I had no idea what would happen, as I hadn’t had either of them for very long, but Gigi came over as though Inca had been calling her and proceeded to kiss her. Inca adores Gigi. It’s pretty funny to watch her try to give this enormous dog a bath with her tiny pink tongue.

I give Gigi a lot of credit for the rapidity to which Inca adjusted to domestic life and became an affectionate pet. She never used to let me pet her tummy, which I longed to do (best part of a cat). One day, I gave Gigi an extensive belly rub. Inca watched intently nearby as Gigi groaned with happiness. When I finished with Gigi, I turned to pet the cat. Inca flopped down and presented her own belly for a rub, and she has enjoyed it ever since.

Inca and Gigi have seldom been parted, but there was one weekend when I had to use a pet-sitting service. Gigi went to the sitter’s home, but the service had a large enclosed cat area for feline borders, so they were separated for about four days. When I went to pick them up, Inca was there, but the sitter had not returned Gigi. I told them to have the sitter bring Gigi directly to my house as soon as possible, and left with Inca.

When we got home, Inca shot out of her carrier and began searching the house. She went from room to room, mewing loudly, but of course, Gigi was nowhere to be found. When the sitter showed up with the dog about two hours later, Gigi made for her water dish immediately because it was a sizzling day. She put on the brakes when she saw her kitty friend, and the two of them checked each other out carefully, kissed, and then Gigi got her drink.

You might be wondering about the coyotes I mentioned earlier. I am familiar with the coyote trick of sending a fertile female to lure a male dog to its doom (the original femme fatale.). That wasn’t what was happening here. The first time, I noticed Gigi making play bows along the fence enclosing our yard. Something was moving around vigorously in the tall grass and weeds on the other side of the fence. When I got closer, I saw it was a small, young coyote. The two animals were playing with each other, each on one side of the fence, play-bowing and running, then bowing again. They seemed to be having a lot of fun.

In the second instance, my son-in-law Mike came home and saw Gigi in the back yard with what he thought was a fox, just hanging out together. He videoed it, calling Gigi in, so we were able to see it was a young female coyote that had found a way under the fence. Apparently, Gigi and the coyote had been chilling together in the back yard for quite a while. We don’t really want her socializing with coyotes, so we fixed the fence.

There is an exception to Gigi’s long list of friends. My daughter’s dog, Hendrix, is a Japanese Chin. He’s one of those fluffy, goggle-eyed little dogs. He annoyed Gigi at first acquaintance by biting her ankles. Gigi responded by squashing Hendrix flat with one big paw, but unfortunately, this triggered Hendrix’s bad back, requiring expensive meds. Although he has lived with Gigi now for four years, Hendrix has not improved his behavior and sometimes still bites her ankles. Gigi has learned to ignore/not squash him, but she cannot overlook it when he steals her chew toys.

Gigi with prized new toy. She almost always has something like this in her mouth.

Gigi loves to carry toys around in her mouth, usually a stuffed animal, but sometimes a chew toy. Hendrix isn’t allowed bones or chews because of major, life-threatening allergies, and he steals her toys out of jealousy. One night, Kerry took a bone away from Hendrix and returned it to Gigi. Gigi took it with her customary gentleness, but never stopped staring at Hendrix. Finally, she turned her back, walked away a few paces, turned around, and THREW the bone at Hendrix with a snort worthy of a teenage girl.

Gigi has been wonderful with the grandkids, gentle and protective. She permitted all kinds of indignities, though we tried to spare her and teach the children to be gentle with animals—which they are. When Tom and I aren’t at home, Gigi sleeps in Lilah’s room, squeezing completely under the bed. She’s so big I’m not sure how she gets out again. Both the grandkids learned early to dodge Gigi’s lethal tail. It smarts when her tail connects with human flesh.

Gigi on duty.

While I don’t doubt that if anyone threatened us, Gigi would rip his throat out, I trust her 100% with children, guests and pets. She is one of the most utterly trustworthy personalities I have ever encountered. It’s not like having a dog around so much as having an odd-looking grandmother. A grandmother who might attack burglars.

Whenever I have had to treat Gigi for an ailment, she is the soul of cooperation. She will do anything the vet asks, patiently enduring indignities such as rectal thermometers and intrusive examinations. Once both her ears became infected. I had a bottle of liquid that I had to flood both ears with twice a day—something most dogs would strenuously resist. When Gigi saw me coming with the bottle, she would lie down on one side and present an ear. When I was done treating that ear, she would roll over and present the other one. She’s that way with every medical treatment—including acupuncture, which helps with her arthritis when it get bad—apparently understanding that we are trying to help her even if she doesn’t understand what we are doing. (Although I wouldn’t take any bets on her lack of comprehension.)

We live in a beach town. It’s also a dog town, and many people bring their dogs to play at the beach. I took Gigi frequently when we first moved here, but after a couple of years she started coming back limping and sore. Age, alas, is catching up with her, and her once-black muzzle and face are now frosty. She has arthritis and some old joint injuries that cause her problems. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t understand moderation. If I take her to the beach, she runs around and greets and plays with every other dog present, and most of the humans, too. We have had to curtail her beach visits, which is sad, because she used to have a blast.

It’s hard to express this without sounding kind of woo-woo, but this animal is enormously spiritual—more than most humans I know. She’s kind, gentle, intuitive and loving. I respect her as much as I would respect another human because she is her own creature. She knows who she is. She has a presence. Don’t get me wrong—she’s still a dog. She begs at the table. Sometimes she pees in the wrong place (but only if desperate). She barks at nothing and she barks at everything. But looking in her eyes, I see a kindred being who communicates with me without words, respects me, and loves me.

And when she goes (may it be many moons from today), I will be as grief-stricken as I would be for any family member. That’s why I’m telling you now, while I can, that I have in my keeping a great and beautiful soul. It’s a beautiful soul that farts and groans all night, that’s all.

Friends

 

 

Interview with Oliver Chase, Author of “Camelot Games”

I occasionally review books and interview other authors on this blog. Here, I interview Oliver Chase, who recently published a political thriller, “Camelot Games.” Given the current political situation, I thought “Camelot Games” was incredibly insightful, as well as a great, fast-paced read.

In the interest of full disclosure, Oliver Chase belongs to a very exclusive group of which I am also a member—authors who were formerly published by AEC Stellar Publishing. AEC Stellar, once presided over by publisher Ray Vogel, featured a number of new authors that Ray took under his wing. The pressures of his “day job” and the need to give more time to his family forced Ray to give up his dream, and our little group of diverse authors was scattered to the wind. I think we all still have a collegial feeling for one another—I know I do. I’ll always be grateful to Ray for publishing my first novel and launching me into my lifelong dream of being a published novelist.

KD:                  In “Camelot Games,” you’ve written a fast-paced political thriller, complete with back-room skullduggery, betrayal, misdirection, an attack on the nation’s infrastructure, and an attempt at secession. When you wrote this book, was there something in the political atmosphere of the time that inspired you? Or was it something else?

Oliver:                   What a fun question. Several years ago as I waited for the editor to return one of my novels, I read about the 2003 Northeast blackout. As catastrophes go, only a small part of America and Canada were affected. If you were there, it was awful. If not, the whole affair was someone else’s problem.

The financial losses impacted millions of people. Elevators stuck between floors. The NE corridor’s trains stopped on their tracks. Fire departments and first responders worked for days to help people only to find many could not hold on.

I read about the computer glitch, a bug that kept an alarm and a notification at bay until it was too late. The bug was not intentional, but what would happen if it was?

What would happen if a kingmaker decided his little pond was not big enough, or that he wanted to be more than just a footnote in the history books. Why not use a handsome front man and a lovely ambitious wife at a time when an unhappy nation had grown distrustful of its leadership and clamored for a savior.

Scott and Angie McHale waited in the wings, poised to save a nation, a gentle guiding hand for the ages, and born from the ashes.

K.D.:                Are you surprised by how many elements of your novel came to the fore in recent politics, such as the Calexit movement?

Oliver:                   “Camelot Games” came about in two starts. When a jury convicted a wife killer in San Francisco, I was amazed at the man’s steadfast denial in the face of overwhelming, though circumstantial evidence. I read his testimony and wondered if he could hear himself. Where was his attorney? I haven’t an opinion if the killer sitting on death row today is justified. Or, if the real killer still runs among us. But, I note the man’s refusal to concede or ask forgiveness is pretty unique.

The second story that brought both halves of the novel together involved an early agent provocateur railing against the haughtiness of industrialists who believe their own press. He pointed out they paraded naked, and refuse to listen. Such egotistical ham-handedness of the less powerful might cause temporary pain for citizens, but to do such a thing on a national scale, could prove disastrous.

Hence, “Camelot Games.”

K.D.:                This story required a thorough knowledge not just of politics, but of military protocol and procedure and law enforcement. Do you have a background in these fields?

Oliver:            I’m hardly apolitical, either in my personal beliefs or my actions. The story however does not identify one party or the other. I’ve scrubbed my convictions clean of the characters and let each either damn or exonerate themselves without regard to a modern political party, organized religious principle, or ethnic background. The book does take place in America, takes a swipe or two at other countries, but pits people and not organizations against one another.

BTW, people suggesting the secession of states, cities and communities has been around since the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. No one is ever completely happy, even in America. We’re just not wired that way.

K.D.:                Your protagonist, Scott McHale, is a strong character, though flawed. Unusually for your genre, his wife Angie is also a strong character and she plays a significant role in your story. Did you start out intending to have a strong husband-and-wife team, or did it just work out that way?

Oliver:            I’m a staunch proponent of partnerships. I’d like to think stalwart individuals forged civilization from the Stone Age, but that didn’t happen. Partners happened. Sometimes a community forms an enterprise, sometimes its two people. Like in a marriage. My personal experience finds love a terrific motivator and the glue when the going gets tough. Respect, belief, vision, dedication are important and have their place in partnerships, too.

Does anyone ever wonder why a love-interest in a book appeals to readers? Rocky or rock-solid, I think we innately recognize we humans do better when burdens and happiness are shared.

K.D.:                Did you have any trouble writing the female characters? Is Angie based on any real person or persons? Is Big Jim based on a real person, or is he an amalgam of shadowy kingmaker-types?

Oliver:                  Trouble writing female characters? Hmm. I suppose the reader will have to tell me if I missed the mark with the females in Camelot Games. Obviously, the book centers around strong women. Several are not just important, but are vital to move the story along. Each possesses a unique voice, philosophy, and view of the story. Each will reveal themselves by their actions and their words. I’d have to admit one or two were easier than others. All the females are fictional. Some I’ve known in my imagination, some I wanted to know. Some I hope, I’ll never to have to meet.

K.D.:                What were the aspects of the plot that gave you the most trouble? How did you work past it?

Oliver:            Since we first started telling tales around campfires in caves of animal drawings, we the storytellers tried to capture the imaginations of our audiences. A plot must be in mind when we begin the story, the stronger and more solid, the better. Otherwise, we’ll lose the reader, shaggy dog stories notwithstanding.

The plot of “Camelot Games” makes clear the book is not a techno thriller. The general pleasure reader likely has little desire to be wowed by my grasp of technology, aerodynamics, or frankly, the inner workings of senatorial subcommittees. What I hope the reader will see is that unbridled ambition by any name changes the dynamics of our most important relationships. Whether it’s marital love, dedication to country, or a lawmaker’s connection to those who elect him, aspirations left unchecked have a way of eating us from within.

K.D.:                Did you have to do a lot of research for this, or were you already very familiar with what you were writing?

Oliver:            Research is always a tricky, little devil. As I spent time piecing together the elements of the book, I read and researched quite a bit that never made its way into my pages. For instance, Scott McHale sat on several subcommittees, at least two of which had a direct bearing on nuclear energy. In order to make sense of the mysterious buildings that suddenly began populating western United States, someone had to clear the way. Be he willing or unwilling, the task needed to be completed. Not much of my self-education on legislative process appeared in the book. If however, a teacher or even a congressman in the know happens to read “Camelot Games,” I needed to make the process of approvals and financing believable.

As a side note, one of my tools was to have been the now illegal “ear marking.” When that went by the boards, I need to go back to my studies and find another way to fulfill Scott’s mandate. When we use a story-vehicle, authors must insure there’s air in the tires. Otherwise, the story will go flat, too.

K.D.:                Which writers have been your primary influences?

Oliver:            Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Leon Uris caught my attention and imagination early in my life. They encouraged me to seek out the more difficult writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck. I’m pretty conventional, I know, and I’ve never grown too far from that apple tree. Today, I like Craig Johnson, Helen Wecker, John Sanford, Stephanie Meyer, and Karen White. I find myself listening to as many books as I read, but still look forward to that twenty-minute sweet spot, under the bedroom lamp, just before I fade to sleep.

K.D.:                Will you be using the Scott and Angie McHale characters in a sequel? If so, when will the book be available?

Oliver:            I had not thought about Scott and Angie in a sequel. To tell the truth, I’m so busy with my noir crime series, I hadn’t considered it. But thanks for the question. I’ll have fun toying with the idea.

K.D.:                You made it clear in “Camelot Games” that America’s electrical grid is vulnerable to attack from within. Do you also see it as vulnerable to attack from abroad? What should be done about that? 

Oliver:            America’s vulnerability to an attack on the electrical grid is a scary reality. In the last few years, more and more is written about how we should be protecting ourselves. Like anything else in government, unless the priority rises to a level where one’s votes are in jeopardy, I doubt any legislator will lean too far forward. The loss of power for even a short time will be catastrophic.

A year after “Camelot Games” went to the publisher’s dark hole, I happened across “One Second After” by John Matherson. Newt Gingrich didn’t write my preface, but he did Matherson’s, and what he said, and believes, is downright scary. Perhaps different stories, but the same frightening result.

Before I say adieu, please allow me to make a shameless, self-serving pitch. Oliver Chase’s Take on Life contains a couple short stories, tiny vignettes about people I once knew and serves as a testing ground for my 2018 anthology. Interestingauthors.com is a place I go weekly to let off a little steam. A couple other authors do the same. I enjoy reading their stuff as much as writing my little bit.

By the way, Olivechase.net is a place to buy my books. If you’d like signed, paperback copies, and we can’t catch up with one another in a Barnes and Noble or Indie bookstore, drop me a note. We can try to work something out. I’d rather go in the red and have you read the book, than try to hold anyone up for a couple of bucks. Besides, I really enjoy readers and writers so please don’t be shy. I’m not that hard to find.

Oliver Chase Biography

Oliver Chase, author of “Camelot Games”

Oliver grew up on military bases throughout the country and like all boys, played good guys and bad. Coaxing him into an afternoon of baseball along Lake Erie, hiking the Southern California’s hills or paddling a canoe in the North Carolina backwater didn’t take much unless a book found him first.

His best friend and he joined the Marines and took a deferment to attend college. Herb left school finding stumbling blocks that seemed insurmountable at the time. A year after graduating, Oliver stepped onto a sweaty tarmac with a manual Smith Corona typewriter not far from where Herb had died. Fate usually finds a way of putting day-to-day frustrations into a cruel perspective, especially when lost in the haze of an ugly war.

Thirty-one young men flew days and nights in the mountains trying to keep the world safe for … well, says Oliver, that’s not really true, is it? The only reason we ever went into those dark, frightening places was to save our friends, most of whom we’d never met, and never would. That they lived however, meant others died and that still haunts to this day.

He spent time wandering after he got home. Lots of young veterans did, some on foot, some on the rails. Many like Oliver make stops along the road life gave him. He never slept in the park or a bus station, although many did. Most eventually found a way out of the maze from that crazy period of time, yet too many others did not. Oliver promised he was never truly at risk, but still believes pulling the right ticket is mostly a matter of circumstance and luck.

He did a bit of teaching on the Navajo reservation, spent a few years with the cops and a couple alphabet agencies and never quit writing. The old manual typewriter became a memory when his first computer came along. A Lenovo notebook travels with him now, the wanderlust never completely leaving him be. Today, he spends days on the family farm and occasionally still follows the season around when a bookstore bids welcome. Sometimes he wonders if the old Smith Corona found a home, too. He hopes so, wishing his old friend happier days.

Oliver Chase Links

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Blog Post That Is Not about Politics

This is my favorite illustration so far. Paul, the little boy wearing bear pyjamas, has run away to the woods at night. Suddenly, he realizes…that he is in the woods. At night.

I know that as a writer, I’m supposed to be producing blog posts every few days about compelling topics such as … I don’t know. Compelling topics, anyway.

My problem is that the political turmoil gripping this country is so frightening, so horrific, that I can barely think about anything else. But I’m sure most of you would welcome reading something that has nothing to do with politics. I know I would, but I’m having difficulty tearing myself away. Long story short, I have fallen woefully short on blog post production, sparing you my agonized ruminations on The State of the Nation.

So I’m going to tell you what I’m working on now, in case anyone wants to know. I finished the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror” last fall. It’s called “Fire in the Ocean,” and it is set primarily on the Hawai‘ian island of Moloka‘i. Long-term followers may remember that I blogged my research trip there in the winter of 2016—and what a trip it was!

The blurb: What would you do if you found yourself marooned on a tropical island with a shape-shifting demi-god who has lost his powers—and another shape-shifting demi-god who has not?

Naturally, you make friends with the local monster and get the heck out. Sierra Carter, newbie magic worker, does just this but finds herself caught up in a web of greed, deception, good intentions and the deep magic of ancient Moloka‘i, the isle of sorcerers. A few meddlesome gods and goddesses complicate the situation even when they’re trying to help.

“Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” continues the tale of Sierra and her friends (including a mannegishi and a part-time coyote) as they battle with an energy developer to protect the precious natural environment of Hawai‘i.

Diversion Books has given “Fire in the Ocean” a February 2018 launch slot, so you’ll be hearing more from me about this book in the future.

I am also re-writing and re-illustrating a children’s book. When I was in my Master’s program at college, I took a course in children’s literature (I was getting a degree in teaching). I asked my professor if, instead of writing a mid-term and final essay talking about some aspect of children’s lit, I could just write a couple of children’s books. He was delighted with this idea, and I produced “I Am Not a Bear” for four- to six-year-old children. (I also wrote a novel for older children that I will not be revisiting.)

Growf, the little bear, sleeps in Paul’s bed.

The story is a simple one about a boy who wants to be a bear and a little bear who wants to be a human. They try trading places only to discover that they were happier in their own homes.

At the time I wrote the book, I was living in a house trailer on a farm that trained sulky racers—thoroughbred horses that race with a lightweight cart and driver behind them. I have a vivid memory of being curled up on the couch, painting the illustrations for the book and listening to the horses clopping by outside. I got an A in the course, by the way.

I read “I Am Not a Bear” to my children when they were little, and thought about redoing the book. By then, having grown as a writer and as an artist, I thought I could improve on them quite a bit. But I was raising kids and running a business, and time was what I didn’t have.

Now that I have grandchildren and time, I am actually doing it. I have no plans to try to get it published—publishers normally want to pick the illustrators for stories, and I’m sure they are usually right, but this is my story, and I want to do it my way. I intend to have it printed on demand, a couple of books for the grandkids, one for a new great-niece, and a few extra in case more come along.

Of course, Paul wouldn’t leave home without his teddy.

I am also helping a friend write his autobiography. It’s a rags-to-riches story, quite literally. We have worked on it for the better part of two years, trying to accommodate his busy schedule as a Distinguished Engineer at IBM Research and my fiction writing and travels. I think his story is fascinating, but it is a challenge to translate someone’s life experiences into coherent and gripping prose. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but I’m enjoying it.

I started a writer’s critique circle recently. I joined one that someone else started and enjoyed it enormously, but then she moved out of the area. I tried to revive the one she began without much success, but the new group is fully booked, and I hope it will be as useful and enjoyable as the one my friend started. All writers need editors and readers, and a critique circle can be incredibly helpful. I’m calling it Writers Square, partly because everyone calls these things circles, and partly because one of my favorite mystery series has a writers’ critique club called Writers Square. (I have always been a sucker for bad humor. Good humor, too.)

So that’s my blog for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief respite from politics. I know I did.

Bathroom Chickens

Four years ago, my husband and I and our daughter’s family bought a house together and moved in. We had a nice big yard, and Kerry (our daughter) decided we should have backyard chickens.

I wasn’t opposed to having backyard chickens, as long as there were no roosters, and superannuated hens would be comfortably retired instead of popped in a stew pot. I did not grow up on a farm. I am unabashedly sentimental about animals. Yes, I know where my food comes from. No, I am not going to start killing my food unless the P45 administration sends us all back to the Stone Age and I somehow miraculously survive. And I most definitely will not kill something that has a name and has trusted me. (I hated the episode on the PBS reality show “Frontier House” where one of the dads shoots a pig named JoJo and makes his son watch—the son who had raised and loved the pig.)

There was a delay in the acquisition of actual chickens. Kerry bought a chicken coop (some assembly required), but she got pregnant almost immediately. The next three years were chicken-free. But the new baby inexorably became a toddler, and the toddler is rapidly becoming a little girl, so the topic of chickens resurfaced. Kerry and her eldest child went to a daylong seminar on raising backyard chickens and returned home with a box of five fluffy baby chicks of assorted breeds.

You have to keep chicks protected and warm, and in any case, we didn’t yet have a chicken coop. So they wound up in a plastic brooder in the upstairs bathroom, warmed by a heat lamp. The bottom of the brooder is covered with a layer of wood shavings that drift everywhere—the floor, the sink, counter top, the toilet, the guestroom carpet. My shoes.

So there we were with five baby chicks. They ate voraciously, pooped abundantly, and appeared to grow before our very eyes. A scant four weeks ago they were downy little peepers. Today they are half-grown, with their feathers grown in and nascent combs. The brooder is getting a tad crowded in my opinion, but they don’t seem to mind. They were christened Ruby, Chix, Zippy, Sunny, and Henrietta. Henrietta is my contribution to the naming. She is the largest, calmest and (Kerry swears) the most intelligent of the lot. Kerry says Henrietta is the Boss Bitch of the flock. I am desperately hoping that Henrietta doesn’t turn out to be Henry. But not to worry; Kerry has located a rooster rescue organization. Who knew?

Kerry, being a force of nature, soon had her husband Mike working on a larger chicken coop because it turned out the previously purchased poultry palace was too small for five birds. Neither Kerry nor Mike had any carpentry experience, but they were undeterred. Armed with a borrowed circular saw, they began construction. Their friends (the ones who owned the saw) pitched in, and within a few days, they had most of the coop constructed, painted and reinforced against predators. It isn’t quite finished yet, but looks very professional.

Good-looking coop, right?

Predators are a real threat in our neighborhood, at least to chickens, and cats and small dogs occasionally go missing as well. We have a fenced yard, which should keep out the coyotes, but it won’t keep out raccoons, weasels, gray foxes (gray foxes can climb and we have seen them in the yard), rats, bobcats, or mountain lions. Yes, mountain lions. There’s one that lives somewhere behind us. We know because a neighbor saw it early one morning, and another neighbor ran across a deer carcass the lion had killed.

Then spring break came along, and Kerry and family have departed for a week, leaving me home as chicken curator. Someone has to check on them at least three times a day. Despite the fact they see humans so frequently, the same thing happens every time. As I approach the bathroom door, it is quiet inside, but as soon as I touch the door, a chorus of anguished chirping starts up. When I enter the bathroom, the chirping becomes louder and more intense as all the chicks huddle into one corner.

Our chickens do not, as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, “… look at us with dry eyes as though we were unimportant.” No. They look at me the way teenagers in a horror flick look at the chainsaw-wielding mass murderer who chases them around the haunted house they were stupid enough to explore. As I move them from their brooder to the bathtub, the chickens shriek and flap and run away. When I succeed in catching one of them, always holding it gently in two hands, the screaming is bloodcurdling. The captured one shrills to her companions that she is being murdered! MURDERED! And the others increase their despairing screeches until I have rounded up every one and carefully deposited them in the tub so I can clean up their current mess without panicky chickens running around the bathroom floor as I work.

They all crowd together in the brooder when I enter the bathroom.

I have to clean out the water dispenser every time. Once they got big enough, the chicks started perching on top of the dispenser, which would topple over, letting all the water drain out. Although I have found a way to prevent it from falling over (packing tape), the chicks pile shavings on top of the drinking area and the shavings wick away all the water. So every chick-check is accompanied by some form of cleaning and disposal of wet shavings, even if I don’t have to move them to the bathtub.

While they wait in the tub, the chickens poop. Everywhere. In huge quantities. Then they step in the poop and leave chicken-foot-shaped poop marks all over the tub. Once I set their living quarters to rights and restore the chickens to their brooder, I have to clean the tub. As I sluice water in the tub, the chicks loudly discuss their ghastly experience with each other. I recognize complaining when I hear it.

Kerry tells me they can finish the coop with one more day’s work. Of course, I will have to wait until the family returns home. I am breathless with anticipation.

 

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Day 5: The Bat Tornado

Temple at Chicaana

Temple at Chicaana

We were actually scheduled to go to three Mayan ruins this day, but I wimped out after two, Chicaaná and Bécan. The third, Xpuhil (shpoo-heel), was the last and smallest, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was sweaty, tired, and not sure I’d be able to tell one from the other.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it's also called "la tourista" because of its red, peeling bark.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it’s also called “la tourista” because of its red, peeling bark.

Chicaaná, Xpuhil and Bécan were vassal cities of Calakmul, which was the big cheese in the region. As these cities are many miles apart and the jungle in those days must have been denser and more difficult to navigate back then, I asked Roberto how they traveled between cities. These cities were located many miles from Calakmul and from each other; if Calakmul didn’t have local representatives or surrogates at these cities, it would have been hard to maintain control. Roberto said they had paths between cities called sac-be—the white road. All paths and unpaved roads hereabouts are white due to the limestone that makes up the earth.

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This is one of the sleeping platforms for the elite that I mentioned in the past post. It is located in a small room in one of the palaces at Chicaana. There are two small carved faces on either side of the recess in the platform, which is speculated to be for personal possessions. The palace rooms were very small, as even the elite Maya lived mostly outdoors.

Bécan was unusual in that it had a moat surrounding the city, just like a medieval castle. There were seven entrances into the city across the moat (seven being a magical number). There were no drawbridges. Roberto said that the entrances were narrow enough that invading warriors could be picked off more or less one by one as they invaded the city but there is no evidence of invasion ever occurring at Bécan.

Temple at Becan.

Temple at Becan.

The temples here are larger than at Calakmul, and have two towers. There is a ball court at Bécan, unlike Calakmul. The ball game was central to Mayan spiritual life. It was played at least partly in tribute to Hunapu, one of the two sets of hero twins of the Popul Vuh, the Mayan origin story. Hunapu is decapitated by the lords of the underworld (Xebalba). His twin, Xbalanque (shball-ahn-kay), uses a squash as a substitute for his brother’s head, which is being used as a ball by the lords of the underworld. Xbalanque rescues the head and replaces it on his brother’s shoulders. (His brother is apparently none the worse for the wear.) Xbalanque substitutes a ball of chiclé sap for use in the ballgame. Ever after, the lords of the underworld do not receive human sacrifice, but instead must be satisfied with offerings of fragrant tree sap.

Not every Mayan city has a ball court, but the later ones do. They were not intended as a public entertainment but as a religious event, and were witnessed by priests. The captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice, and it was believed he went directly to the Mayan version of paradise. I would have been a lousy captain.

Both cities were impressive, showing increased sophistication in stone working techniques compared to Calakmul. They had attractive bas-relief carvings that are still quite crisp and clear. We went inside the palace (or one of the palaces). In the large space inside, a tiny bird was flying about from beam to beam of ironwood, a wood so hard it can last for many centuries. Roberto told us it was a red-capped manikin, and quite rare. I thought about the British birders back at the hotel, and considered walking by them, casually remarking, “…and I looked up, and there it was–a red-capped manikin!” But I didn’t.

On the other side of the palace was another long, low building. The front entrance was surrounded by elaborate carving which Roberto pointed out represented the face of a jaguar. It was so abstract that I might have thought it was just stylized patterns if he hadn’t pointed it out to me. So to enter the building was to walk into the mouth of the jaguar, and it was a statement of the king’s power. The first dynasty at Calakmul was the Bat Dynasty, but they were overtaken at some point by the Jaguars. Jaguars trump bats, I guess.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teetch, and you can see stylized eyes and ears to either side of the doorway.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teeth, and you can see the nose over the door, and eyes above that.

I have forgotten a lot of what I saw and heard of Bécan and Chicaaná because I didn’t journal every day. We were busy all the time and by the time I got some alone time, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. A lesson for future research trips not to move around so much and schedule so much. I need the writing time or it all flies away.

The night before, the hotel manager stopped by our table in the restaurant to chat and asked if we had seen the bat cave. We hadn’t heard about it and were interested, so we decided to visit it this evening, as it was our last night and the cave was an easy walk from the road. Roberto pointed out the exact location to us on the way back from the village of Xpuhil (not the ruined city), where we had stopped for sundries, so we were confident of not getting lost. Besides, there were signs with bats on them when you got close to the turnout for the cave.

A little while before sunset, we pulled into the tiny turnoff and hiked a short distance up a hill. There was an enormous hole in the earth, probably 100 yards across and 250 feet deep. The sides were sheer, and Tom, who is acrophobic, grabbed the back of my shirt every time I went near enough to the edge to actually see the cave, which was a vertical gash in the rock about 200 yards down. On the rocky overhang of the cave, I could see little brown shapes. Dead bats.

Several other people joined us, some with kids. A Canadian couple next to us set up some complicated-looking equipment. It turned out they were bat experts on vacation–a lucky turn of events for us, as they provided a lot of information. The equipment was intended to record the supersonic squeaks of the bats and identify the species. There were a number of raucous birds calling in the area, and the bat experts said they preyed on the bats. Mrs. Bat Expert perched jauntily on the edge of the chasm, making Tom nervous.

By the way, here as everywhere else we went, you are expected to take care of yourself. There are no railings separating you from the edge of the great pit in the earth–not so much as a sign. If you are careless enough to break your neck, it’s just too bad.

We all sat around chatting quietly. I flirted with someone’s baby, who was delighted with touching my hand and playing peekaboo. As twilight set in, a few bats emerged from the cave. Then more. And more. And more. Hundreds of thousands of little bats flew out, circling in a great clockwise spiral, forming a literal bat tornado. My video doesn’t do it justice, and still photos didn’t show it at all, really, but it was an awe-inspiring phenomenon. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear their calls, but the sound of those thousands upon thousands of tiny wings was like a spring breeze stirring the leaves, or the sound of a gentle rain shower.

The bats circled in their spiral for a long time, each individual rising imperceptibly higher until streams of them began to break away, veering off above our heads. Several of them flew through the trees and came quite close to us, but of course never collided. The bird noise stopped as the hunters got serious and began to go after them, but I couldn’t see them.

There was something hypnotic about that spiraling tornado of tiny bodies—enormous and overwhelming, yet delicate, gentle. We watched until the great spiraling cloud had dissipated, the bats flinging themselves on the night wind, seeking food and to avoid becoming food.

Our bat experts said there were too many species in the cave–maybe six different species or more–for the equipment to identify, but they had visually identified hoary bats and ghost bats. It was a memorable experience unlike any other, and I’m grateful for it.