March 2013


Grandma Kuzemchenko was, in many ways, already gone. She didn’t speak often, and even then only in the Ukrainian of her youth. She would sometimes violently spit and curse the Soviets, not realizing that the revolution that drove her family from their home had collpased in failure over 20 years ago. She often failed to recognize her children and grandchildren, which was perhaps the most distressing for her large and extended family, which refused to allow her to be placed into a home.

But she still remembered the traditions and skills that had been instilled into her at a young age. Cooking, cleaning, sewing…Grandma Kuzemchenko could be found doing all those things even if she no longer remembered where she was. But the pysanky, the traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs…those were the most special.

Every Easter–for Grandma Kuzemchenko did check her Orthodox calendar with its photographs of illuminated saints–she would raid the fridge for eggs and the emergency candle cupboard for wax. The old metal wax-pot and stylus were kept under her bed, just where they had been during her girlhood near Kharkov, and the family would awaken to see Grandma Kuzemchenko huddled over a carton of eggs and bowls of dye, with wax softening on the stove.

Using the stylus, each egg would be painted with bold geometric patterns or expressive and angular Orthodox motifs. Sometimes both. Grandma Kuzemchenko would work on the eggs in batches, drawing on the wax designs, dyeing, and wiping the wax away with a warm cloth, until fantastic pictures of haloed angels trumpeting Cyrillic blessings amid bold background patterns began to emerge. She wouldn’t stop, save to eat or sleep, for days.

When the pysanky were done, Grandma Kuzemchenko would carefully divide them up: this many for the priest, this many for the children, this many for the graves of loved ones, this many for a living room basket to ward off misfortune and bring good luck. Her family, as much as they were able, distributed the eggs according to her hand-written Ukrainian labels.

But when asked to share the secret of preparing her dyes and drawing her designs, or when asked if anyone else could join in, she would only say, in her mother tongue, “It is a secret to be passed from mother to daughter, and I have no daughters.”

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People tend to think, as the ancients did, that animating essences can only be generated by nature. The dryads inhabiting trees, the naiads submerged beneath bubbling brooks, the fickle spirits of wild and desolate places.

People tend to be wrong, as they so often are.

Any object with a purpose can serve as a physical anchor for something in the metaphysical world. Perhaps it’s best to think of them as emergent patterns in the code of life, ones perhaps not intended by nevertheless embraced by the great Programmer. They tend to come into being attached to older, well-used structures, the ones bathed by the psychic output of many vibrant lives passing by. Places like that have many lingering and lost pieces of life’s code to incorporate and evolve.

So that streetlight you see on the corner–the old one, ornate, from an age of craftsmen–may play host to a dryad of its own. A being of electricity and light, coming forth only on the darkest and hottest of summer nights, illuminating all in her footsteps.

You may also encounter the broken spirits, the lost, whose links have been severed through accident or demolition. Cursed to wander aimlessly until their energies dissipate back into the Universal Code.

In either case, you will never look at a humble streetlight, parking meter, or bus stop in the same way ever again.
Inspired by this.

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“It’s a note from the Boss.” The courier needed say nothing more as he handed over the note.

Nervously, Konstantinov and Polzin looked at each other and unfolded the missive.

Konstantinov & Polzin,

Join me in the Kremlin theater tonight for some movies. We’ll be hearing Commissar Bolshakov translate the new Howard Hawks cowboy movie Red River. Bring an appetite, as there will be dinner afterwards. We start at 10 o’clock sharp.

-JS

“Should we go?” Polzin said. “It’ll be well after midnight when the movie is over, and I hear that you get forced to drink Georgian wine at the dinner to make sure you don’t blurt out anything reactionary. The Boss will understand if we send our regrets, won’t he? He was a poet in his youth, surely he understands that, as ‘engineers of the human soul,’ our writing comes first?”

Konstantinov sighed. “You should know better than that. Do you know that the Boss put a stop to a translation of his poem into Russian? Beria had Pasternak–Pasternak!–translating it, and the Boss put the kibosh on it. I hear that he keeps Bukharin’s last note in his desk for sentimental reasons, but that didn’t keep the Boss from having him shot.”

“So if we know what’s good for us, we’ll go.”

“If we know what’s good for us, we’ll be the first ones there and the last ones to leave.”

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Recently paroled convict Emmett “Blue” Blumenthal hitched a ride as far as Noxtub, and walked the rest of the way under the summer sun. The field, the elm, the fence…it was all as his friend Tim had described in prison.

It was a long, low wooden fence with a big old elm tree about halfway through. Tim was right; it was like something out of a poem by Wordsworth. “It’s where I proposed to my wife,” Tim had said before his escape. “I need you to make me a promise, Blue: if you make parole, if you escape…find that tree.”

Blue followed the fence and then paused near where it passed by the elm, as crickets and katydids jumped before him. He poked around in the roots, looking for what Tim had described…a piece of wood, West Indian mahogany, that had no right to be among Massachusetts alfalfa.

Luckily, mahogany withstood the elements better than most woods; Blue found it, mossy and wormy, and pried it up. “I buried something under that wood,” Tim had said in prison. “It’s something I left just for you.”

Sure enough, there was a Zeppelin-brand cigar box there in the soil; Blue pried it open, shooing away pillbugs and earwigs and a Massachusetts Jumping Spider. Inside was an envelope with some cash and a letter.

Dear Blue,

Hopefully you’ve gotten out and are reading this. I hope that, since you came this far, you’ll come a little farther. I could use your help on my new project.

You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

-Tim

Blue stared at the piece of paper, even turning it over to make sure there was nothing else on the other side.

“Aw, shit,” he said. Tim had told him about that town over ten years ago, once. Blue had no goddamn idea what it was called anymore.

With apologies to Frank Darabont and Stephen King.

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He remembered, all right. Dr. Carlsson had left a garageful of books to the library, but his illness meant that the only living things that’d set foot in there for five years were rats and roaches. Half the books had to be thrown out—including some more than 200 years old—because they’d been chewed to pieces for rat nests or smeared with droppings and mold. Even so, the donation had been a treasure trove, with books dating back as far as 1697 in excellent readable condition.

“He took it out with a community user card. The card was real enough—we issued it—but the address is bogus. This street only goes up to 750 and the address is a 902.”

“Those kids at circulation dropping the ball again?”

“Don’t be so hard on them. This guy obviously went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the thing; you can’t be prepared for that sort of thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

“So where does that leave us? ‘On Symbologie’ has walked off with this Mr. Richat.”

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The shades–perhaps they should be capitalized Shades, given their ubiquity–relayed a dizzying amount of data to his eyes. Compass directions, friend codes of passersby, a GPS line leading to the last destination he’d forgotten to clear. Billboards and paper with a special reactive coating appeared animated through the shades, piping their accompanying musical jingles into his earphones. There were blips on the compass that corresponded to sponsors–fast food places, mostly–and the occasional augmented reality pop-up that was projected in the shades as if it were a living person (albeit one that could disobey the laws of gravity and space).

It was too much, right now. He hated the shades at the best of times, but they were necessary tools of modern life and they corrected his astigmatism for free–a real pair of ground-glass lenses, ad and augmented reality free, would have cost thousands of credits that he simply didn’t have. He pulled his shades off, wincing at how blurry and bright the world was without them. But he wasn’t trying to find fast food or the nearest organic food store.

He was trying to find the girl who had floated into the city from the hilltop park.

Acting like a piece of augmented reality, and yet being visible without the shades…it was intriguing, maddening, enticing. But he’d lost sight of her in the warren of shops and eateries that surrounded the green space. No one else had noticed, no one else was looking so desperately skyward. If they’d seen her, she’d been dismissed as just another ad.

Misty rain began to fall, blurring his vision still further as he wandered among the steel and glow of a city alight with information and yet desperately empty. People walked by singly, eyes focused to infinity behind their shades or looking down at a more sophisticated digital device. It was liberating, he thought, to look up for once outside of the bubble presented by the park. But he feared that he’d lost–or worse, hallucinated from the very start–the girl in white.

But there was a flash of pure prismatic colorlessness in an alley he passed, and there she was. Serene against the sky, pinched between two buildings, twenty feet off the ground. The neon light of the city and its hurrying people below cast itself on the girl’s dress, while a stiff breeze kept the fabric billowing behind her.

She seemed to notice him as he shyly approached, but also seemed to be looking through him, as if distracted by shades that she was not wearing.

“H…how are you doing that?” he whispered.

Her voice was soft, melodious, sad. “I don’t know.”

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227. If you think the book was bad, you should have seen the query letter.

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