August 2010


Preston’s writing grew more elaborate as the pages wore on, even as his handwriting declined in quality.

I have finally begun to approach this with the correct conceptual framework. Dragons are merely the visible part of a greater–one might say inconceivable–organism. Like an anglerfish’s lure, they represent the barest part of a whole, but the only one we can comprehend. As for the larger organism…words like ‘magic’ and ‘pandimensional’ scarcely do the concept justice. My head aches as I think about it.

A variety of diagrams followed with intersecting parabolas and terms I couldn’t pretend to understand–then again, it’s possible that Preston, in his madness, had made them up. He reverted to prose some pages later:

As projections they have no inherent form. They’re no more giant lizards than I am. But you can see how such a monstrous visage would have proven useful, give the revulsion that people greet reptiles with even today. Primitive man could easily be frightened by such, or coerced into obedience, but the rise of nations and creeds that could seek to shun or slay such ‘monsters’ explains why such forms are rarely encountered.

It also explains why they’ve never been found. If a diver could see only an anglerfish’s lure through a cloudy sea, they’d perceive only a worm and go mad trying to locate it on the ocean floor. But if the lure could be anything it wanted to be, unbound by the laws of physics…the implications stagger me.

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The consistency of the earth between his front door and his Toyota always irked Rodney to no end, but he could take solace in the fact that his path would be shortened by the absence of his children, who were celebrating that institution of youth known as the ‘Saturday’ by sleeping in.

Additionally, the road to the University was paved, which was more than could be said of many of the local roads. The country was actually quite well off as African nations went; the U.S. State Department had informed Rodney that the people were in fact the most privileged and wealthy people on the African continent. This helped Rodney to avoid leaning out his car window and dispensing buckets of quarters to the downtrodden masses, as had once been his fantasy.

The tough, warm concrete floors University-side also helped shake off the red earth that always caked Rodney’s dress shoes on his brief walk to the car each morning. Rodney vainly tried to knock the crimson soil from his shoes, but the damn stuff was caked on with a consistency that only a trained shoeshine boy could dent it.

It so happened that there was once a student. Like many of his kind, he was buffeted by the powerful forces of Scheduling, such that one day of his week stood apart from all the rest in its rigor. Such was his Hell Day, and his Hell Day was every Thursday.

Such was the nature of this day: at the hour of ten, there was a project group meeting, and yea it did last several hours. Though optional, it was not to be missed for fear of incurring the wrath of a Poor Grade. This was followed by an hour for lunch, which the student took at home, as the vendors in the student union charged prices that were muchly unjust, and fit only for those with parents of richness.

This was followed by a class, which did last exactly two hours and never a second more or less, for its teacher was of the punctual type who, in a less enlightened era, might have run a bank. Annoyance was thusly caused, as another class began immediately thereafter, lasting not less than three additional hours, and yea it was across campus.

Following upon this second class was work of the student kind, which was like unto slavery but with a worse health care package. It was not until break time at this job, which came not earlier than ten of the PM, which the student was able to eat the meager dinner he had deposited in the fridge earlier.

As such, the snack during the second of the two classes was of utmost importance. For its salty or sweet snacks, coupled with a liquid candy bar of the soft drinky kind, would provide the badly needed energy to see the student through to dinner. He would always set aside not less than two dollars and twenty-five cents for this feast out of his meager budget.

But yea, there came a time when the student did approach the snack machines in the lounge and inserted his currency, only to find a most distressing prospect. For his dollar bills were rejected, though they be crisp and new as the day they were printed. The machines demanded of him an offering of EXACT CHANGE instead.

It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

“Grandpa,” Jimmy said. “Kids are always daring each other to go out to Old Town Island to bring back the ‘Feynola Siren.’ What do they mean?”

The old man leaned back in his rocker. “They say the old Feynola City Hall had a warning siren put on it during the war to warn citizens of a U-boat attack.”

“Yeah?”

“In late August of 1951, the siren blew for four and a half minutes at 10:23 am, causing many of the 3000 residents to take shelter, despite clear skies and nothing ill in the forecast,” Grandpa continued. “It was written off as a fluke until the following week, when the siren rang out again at 10:23 and lasted four and a half minutes. Maintenance crews could find nothing wrong with the siren assembly, but it continued to sound once every week, always at 10:23, always lasting four and a half minutes. During the last week of September, the siren was finally disconnected due to complaints.”

“What happened then?”

“The following week, the siren somehow rang as usual. Many have speculated how it managed to do so while ostensibly disabled, but one thing was clear: the siren was heralding a massive Category Five hurricane that was bearing down on Feynola, having suddenly deviated from its predicted course. The storm surge was so fierce that is created a new tidal lagoon inland from the city, trapping most of the residents. Nearly 2500 died or disappeared that day, and the survivors declined to rebuild thereafter. And do you know what?”

Jimmy leaned in. “What, Grandpa?”

“The hurricane had struck at exactly 10:23 am, with the fiercest part of the flooding and destruction lasting only four and a half minutes.”

A cigarette flared to life between her fingers. Technically smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere on school grounds, not even on the loading dock. Then again, the rock keeping the battered door to the teachers’ lounge open wasn’t technically kosher either, and it had been placed there by the principal.

Gene lit his own coffin nail after Weatherby proffered her lighter. “Not exactly being a role model for all the kids, are we?” he said.

“You know damn well they’d smoke whether we did or not. It’s all they have to tide them over before dope and meth, after all,” Weatherby sighed.

“I can see that the beginning of a new school year has you nice and uplifted,” Gene countered.

“Seeing the new wave of children come in…all so young, all so beautiful,” said Weatherby. She coughed. “And then looking at myself–never beautiful, no longer young–frankly, I can’t think of anything so depressing. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grumpy, Mr. Ulrich.”

Gene fiddled with his cigarette, unsure of how to respond. He’d been warned about Weatherby, but he also had to get along with her if he intended to continue smoking out back. “There’s always what you teach,” he said. “Advancing the state of knowledge ought to count for something.”

“You’re an art teacher, Mr. Ulrich,” said Weatherby. “You get to talk to the children about finding their inner voice, expressing themselves, following their dreams. I teach mathematics. I doubt even a Harvard statistician had youthful dreams of solving equations all day.”

“The kids still make mistakes, even in my class,” said Gene. He flicked his ashes into the football helmet-cum-ashtray provided by Hanretty in Phys Ed.

“When your children make mistakes, it’s cute. It may even be modern art. But when my children make mistakes, they’re just mistakes. I get to mark with red ink because no new school of mathematics was ever founded by someone who thought two plus two equals twenty-two.”

All night I’d felt the beginnings of a panic attack…that lightness of head and tightness of chest, that feeling of being closed in no matter how wide-open the space, that sudden spasm of dread for things that shouldn’t be fearful.

Television didn’t help. I trembled too much to write. Pacing only made things worse. On the theory that fresh air might do the trick, I strolled all of five feet outside my front door to watch the cooling remnants of the sunset and watch Venus rise. It didn’t have the intended effect, especially not when one of the neighbors brought their unleashed rat-dog by. Having tiny, ceaselessly aggressive creatures about one’s ankles is only slightly less relaxing than the stoned twentysomething behind it who insists the squealing monster is friendly.

It wasn’t always like that. The last panic attack I could remember was at summer camp when I was fourteen; a violent tornadic storm blew in and I was convinced we were all going to die. We well might have too–a nearby housing development was ravaged by the twister that only brushed us. Compared to that, my house in the PM was a picture of safety and stability.

Maybe that’s what the rising bile in my throat was trying to tell me. It may be that, for the first time in my comfortable life, I felt suffocated by the very atmosphere I’d long sought to cultivate.

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