A Good (Sleepy) Story

Well, I may be something of an optimist, but I am also no fool.  I knew perfectly well that attempting to get a solid night’s sleep while camping at a music festival would present some challenges.  But I could handle it, I gamely assured my brother, my traveling companion.  Here’s some earplugs, just in case, he said anyway.  I tucked the earplugs away in my bag, and we set off for the main festival, intending, and having, a good time.

Midnight was rolling around, and neither of us really cared about the final performance of the night, so we ended up turning in earlier than the majority of the crowd.  In the sweet near-silence of an airy spring night, with only crickets and the nearby gurgling brook as punctuation, I curled up in my sleeping bag and determinedly closed my eyes.  Perhaps, if I fell asleep soon enough, I’d be too sound asleep to be woken up by the returning revelers.

Alas, it was not to be.  The crowd returned, and their incessant “YAK yak yak yak” SCREECH “YAK yak YAK yak” SCREECH “yak YAK YAK yak” SCREECH woke me up quite thoroughly.

So it begins, I thought, grimly.  Oh get a grip, I told myself.  You lived basically across the street from your college town’s bar district for two years.  If you could handle that discordant noise Thursday through Sunday on a regular basis, you can handle this.  Yes, so I can, I agreed, and began to fall back asleep.

Of course, I forgot to mention, this particular festival encourages folks to bring their acoustic instruments and to initiate jam sessions with all and sundry. So it was that I soon heard a double bass player began a line of notes that, in the words of the Charlie Daniels Band, sounded something like this:

BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM

Repeat to infinity, or the closest thing to it.

“Well, if the player knew eight notes, that’s actually not so bad…” a friend, a bass player himself, later protested.

“Eight notes, exclusively in that order,” I clarified.

“Oh,” said my friend.

Still, thought I, staring at a tent pole, at least the bass is an acoustic instrument.  I really can’t complain all that much.

BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM, continued the bass player.  I closed my eyes…

…and opened them again when the violin began screeching along.  All right, perhaps that’s a bit harsh.  It actually sounded rather mellow, a soothing voice capable of swinging me to sleep, if I’d let it.  It worked, too, for a little bit.  I focused on the violin’s melody, and felt myself drifting away.

And that was when the trumpet started.

To describe its tone as “blaring” doesn’t quite cut it.  It sounded like a particularly peeved goose with a piercing array of pipes.  And I was going to wring its neck.

I sat up, disentangled myself from my tent, marched in the direction of the squawking trio, and in summary, Officer, that’s how I ended up wrenching a trumpet away from a complete stranger and tossing said trumpet in the nearby creek.  Now, can I go back to sleep, please?

Oh, all right.  In reality, Buttercup remembered the ear plugs her brother gave her, and managed to suck it up and doze fairly comfortably.  When she woke up a few hours later, the trio had ceased, and she actually slept fairly well.

She would have slept better, of course, if the solo bongo drum player hadn’t decided that what the world needed now wasn’t love, sweet love, it was his sweet solo bongo-ing. I think someone eventually told him to cut it out.  However, the fact that I didn’t toss said bongo drum in the creek first is, to be completely honest, a slight regret.  It would have made a good story, after all.

A Confession

Why did I do it, you ask?  Why is there now a corpse in the bedroom, befouling that soft, nice carpet?  What did you do to deserve it?  It’s quite simple, really.  Just a simple tale of revenge, with a bloody, deadly end.

You went away, again.  Leaving me, again, and again, like you always do.  You barely even said goodbye. Just a quick caress, then you shoved me aside and walked out the door, shutting it, locking it, making it clear I was not to follow.

You didn’t tell me where you were going.  Of course not.  You weren’t with me, so where else good could you be?

Sure, you were no kinder nor crueler the day before.  We ate breakfast.  We watched television.  I slept while you piddled with your instruments.  I’d tried to help make lunch, but you waved me away.  I tried again, but you wouldn’t let me near the sizzling meat.

You never like my help.  You like to do things yourself.  You want me near when you want companionship, but if I make too much racket you just chase me away.   You wander off, but if I do the same, you claim to “worry.”  Other times, you smother me, pulling at my hair and telling me what a mess I am.  You think I’m fickle?  It takes one to know one, wretch.

That’s why I did it.  That’s why I left that rat on the bedroom rug.  Let’s see you waltz in from a three day absence with a “Hey, kitty, kitty!” next time.  I will make you fear me yet.

As the Founding Fathers Intended

“I’m sorry to be so slow today, James, but could you please re-read Article 5 one last time?  I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around all that futuristic lingo.”  Mr. Lewis turned to his other companion.  “You don’t mind, Mr. Stevenson?  I’m sure your mind is quite made up, but I’m still coming to grips with how much technology will have changed in two hundred years!”

“Not at all.”  Mr. Stevenson nodded graciously.

“One moment, then, Mr. Lewis.”  James looked down at the paper in front of him, entitled the Technological Borders Freedom and Protection Act, located the section in question, and read it aloud.  He then looked expectantly at the two old gentlemen sitting across from him.

There was a pause, then the one who had first spoken, Mr. Lewis, sighed.  “I hope you’ll agree with me, Mr. Stevenson, but I, for one, never would have written a law like that.”

Mr. Stevenson nodded.  “Nor I.  I find it far too restricting, and I say have the good sense to leave well enough alone.”

“So, you did not intend a law like that?” James prompted.

“No, we did not intend that,” assented Mr. Stevenson.

With unconscious flourish, James clicked off the recording device next to him, turned to the computer, opened a document, and clicked print.  Two pieces of paper emerged from the printer slot, and he placed them in front of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Stevenson.  “Thank you, gentlemen, and you know the drill from here.  Please mark the box at the bottom labeled ‘Unintended’ and affix your signature on the line below that.”

“Where do these document go next?” Mr. Lewis inquired as he checked the appropriate item. “I know you’ve explained this process to me before, but I do grow so forgetful these days.”

“Well, gentlemen, I’ll send these documents and the transcript of your conversation off to our legal team, who will produce a nice, streamlined summation and amendment.  This will be sent onward to Congress for passage, though this, of course, is a mere formality, and then it will be officially added as an amendment to the Constitutional Volume, for our posterity to gratefully read and thereby direct their course of action by it.”  

Mr. Stevenson snorted as he passed his form back to James.  “Don’t be naive, James.  You know as well as I do that only half those reading it will be pleased, since they’ll now officially be on the right side of history and have the blessing of us, their forefathers.  The other half will be decidedly miffed and grumble about us old relics – quietly, of course.  It doesn’t do to speak too ill of the founders of your country, I imagine.”

Mr. Lewis also returned his paper.  “What year will this here Technology Act we’ve just read be passed?”

“In the year 3051,” replied James, “Exactly two hundred and five years in the future.  And now, gentlemen, it is time for lunch.”

“What are our afternoon engagements?” inquired Mr. Lewis.

“Another delegate, this time from the year 3052, and about the same topic, actually.  Apparently the representative who sponsored the act you just rejected tries to make another go of it the next year, with some modifications based on your feedback, of course.”

Mr. Stevenson sniffed. “Really?  This is his fourth attempt to craft such a law, and we’ve already shot down the other three.”

“I understand he is known for his persistence, sir.”

“Persistent does not equal mind-reader,” observed Mr. Stevenson, “for he has yet to correctly divine our intentions when we founded this country and wrote its laws.  I’m surprised his contemporaries don’t step in and cut him off at the chase, instead of wasting valuable resources sending delegates back in time to talk to us.”

“Quite so,” agreed Mr. Lewis.  “They’re just taking the easy way out.  But we founders aren’t getting any younger, you know, and our present time is not limitless.  One day they’re going to have to figure these things out for themselves, without sending travelers from the future to consult us.”

“I hope the day will not come too soon,” replied Mr. Stevenson.  “I must admit I do enjoy laughing at our posterity…they’d make such a mess without us.”

A Romantic Realist’s Valentine

First, the piano plays.  It’s a simple, delicate tune, with a touch of fancy added by one or two grace notes and a warbling little trill.  The listener is given a taste of the melody to come, and then a woman’s deep, deep voice begins.  Sings she:

I’ve heard of all those sad, sad songs where he and she are parted

And she dies for the love of him and he dies broken-hearted.

He lies in St. Mary’s kirk and she lies in the choir

And out of her grave grows a rose and out of his a briar.

So at last their souls entwine and now as one are climbing…

This, the final song on June Tabor’s album Rosa Mundi, a collection of songs concerning the titular flower, is called “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose.”  A violin will join the melody a little later, but overall, the orchestration stays simple and true. After all, what older, more classic trope than this, the two lovers that die for want of each other?  And that final rosy touch (pun quite intended) of the blossoming briars tangling together?  Why, I can think of two other ballads off the top of my head that use such a motif: “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” – depending on which version you’re listening to – and the penultimate track of Rosa Mundi itself, “Barbry Ellen.”  In both, circumstances and not a little pride keep two lovers apart, but only until death.  Now that’s love, no?

But then, in that last song, “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose,” as the melody soars with the climbing souls, Tabor sings:

Ten out of ten for true, true love, naught out of ten for timing.

And with that, we wryly land back on earth.

It’s true, you know.  We idolize the Romeos and Juliets of the world, forgetting that if the hero had just delayed his death by a few minutes – perhaps given another sobbing soliloquy – his lady would have awoken and all might have been well.  Truly, 0/10 for timing.  Tabor, or rather, the original poet, Les Barker, wants a different fate:

I don’t want that kind of love that grows so high on sorrow,

I want you today my love and I want you tomorrow.

A quick Google search for “famous lovers of literature” reveals lists of well-known couples, a good chunk of whom suffered unpleasant fates, often torn asunder and dying in fits of passion.  We read of them and sigh over them (well, some of us do, at least, and then only over some of them; others deserved their fates, in my opinion), but perhaps, as Tabor reminds us, there is nothing wrong with true love being happy.  I’m reminded of another tongue-in-cheek passage from the short story “The Stolen Princess,” by Robin McKinley, a favorite author of mine: “…they became the sort of lovers that minstrels make ballads about (although it was certainly unpoetic of them to be married to each other)…and the court became a more joyful place than it had been for many a long royal generation.  And minstrels did make ballads about them, even though they were married to each other.”

There is a time and place for roses, and many consider that time to be St. Valentine’s Day.  But I, the Realist, charge you, oh Romantic, to not idolize new roses growing from young graves; there will be time enough for them to blossom on old graves later on.

Here and now let’s drink the wine of life while life is ours.

Here and now my love entwine; it’s not just for the flowers.

And when time takes all away and death snuffs out this fire

Maybe then I’ll be a rose and you, my love, a briar.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I knew why my mother had come, but I still pretended to be surprised. Not moving my gaze from my watch on the valley, I spoke to her. “Careful, mother. This is the third time you have visited me in as many weeks. One would almost think us a close-knit family.”

“Olwen,” she simply said, coming towards me.

“I’m touched, of course, as much as I can be…”

“Olwen,” she interrupted me. “He is not coming.” She sat down next to where I stood, motionless, still looking down into the valley.

“Yes, he is,” I told her, clinging to the fading hope that the very next moment, or the moment following, or the moment after that, I would see him riding over the valley’s edge, coming to me.

“Olwen, it has been two full cycles of the moon,” my mother pleaded. “It is not meant to be.”

“Why not?” I snapped. “There is still time. He could simply still be mustering his forces, or maybe misfortune befell him on his quest to find me and he is still untangling himself, or maybe…” I broke off, for even I could hear the ridiculous desperation in my voice.

I expected her to offer a rebuttal, to tell me the road from his castle to my mountain was a short journey through pleasant country, and that the only calamity he might have met was that his horse could have thrown a shoe or a rain shower might have doused him. But she did not, for she knew that I knew.

She had always said I was the most cunning of all her children. I remembered the first time I saw him, how I knew instantly that he was the one I wanted. How I had used all my skills and wits to entrap him. I thought I had done everything right. I thought he would come for me, my prince, my knight in shining armor, and what games we would play before his end. And yet here I was, alone, spiritless and hungry.

I finally dropped my gaze away from the horizon, and stared down at the gray stone at my feet. “Why, mother?”

My mother let out a sound of contempt. “He is a coward, Olwen, plain and simple,” my mother told me. “He is afraid to face you, as he ought. He has always been afraid. Why else would he travel with so many guards, as you described? You told me that was why you did not go to him at once, when you first saw him. He is not worthy of your devotion”

I knew she spoke the truth, but I was not ready quite yet to let it go. “I thought I had done everything right,” I fretted. “I made myself known to his subjects, I displayed myself within sight of his walls, I even killed and ate his bride-to-be…”

My mother waved her claws. “He is a weak, fickle human,” she said, matter-of-factly. She rose on her hind legs and sniffed the air. “Come, my daughter. Let us go down into that valley of yours and catch us a deer, for I smell the scent of many on the wind.”

I got up and stretched, unfolding my wings. I let out an experimental breath of fire. Man or no man, I was still myself.

After the hunt, as we feasted on twelve of the deer that ran rampant through the valley, my mother turned to me and bared her teeth in a smile. “You will learn, my child. But in one thing you have done very well. You have chosen a good spot for your lair, my little dragonling.”

How to Get the Guinea Pig

“I suppose it would be too much to ask you to cook normally?” Beth pleaded, fiddling with the zipper on her jacket, with a hopeful face despite her despairing tone.

Linnie barely paused as she continued working grated yellow cheese into a pale dough, and she didn’t look up from the kitchen counter.  “I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.”

Beth, a normally congenial soul, had no patience with that kind of attitude.  “You do too.”

Linnie did eye Beth this time, but it was a glance with mischief behind it, and her answer, in Beth’s opinion, was not helpful at all.  “I am simply following the recipe I found for garlic and cheese biscuits, which is what you requested for the party tonight.  At this point I am to ‘gradually add cheese to the dough and toss with flour until no longer sticky.’  I grant you I am making a mess, but I am following the instructions, unless you can think of a better way to ‘toss’ dough.”

Beth frowned at her roommate.  “That’s a new recipe, isn’t it?  I know what you do to new recipes, I’ve lived with you for two years.”

“You don’t want to be my guinea pig?” Linnie inquired, in a falsely hurt manner.   

“I just want to eat garlic and cheese biscuits!” exclaimed Beth.

“Well, you don’t have to be the first one to try them,” replied Linnie, in that ridiculously reasonable tone that so infuriated Beth.  “Just wait until someone else does, then feast to your little heart’s content.  Or feed it to Rachel’s dog.”

“Rachel said she’s not letting us feed any more of your new stuff to her dog, as she’s not letting us torment her poor little ‘honey’ anymore,” complained Beth. “And everyone else who’s coming tonight also knows not to be the first one to try your new recipes, and the ones who don’t will probably be warned by Mary.”

“What was that?” came a voice from down the hall.  The third roommate, Mary, quickly bustled into the kitchen.  “I heard my name mentioned and something about a warning, and that scares me and I felt the need to be here to defend myself.”

Beth pointed accusingly at Linnie.  “She’s making garlic and cheese biscuits, out of a new recipe!”

Unfortunately for Beth, Mary had had a long day.  She’d had two midterm exams and the deadline for a grad school application, and thus, she had very little sympathy left and had become of Linnie’s ilk of reasoning.  “Didn’t you ask her to make garlic and cheese biscuits, because you just really wanted them?” demanded Mary.

“Yes,” admitted Beth.

“And didn’t you hear her say that she’d never made them before and would have to find a recipe?”

“Yessss,” Beth said again, exasperated.

“And you know what she does to new recipes,” continued Mary.  “You are the one who wanted garlic and cheese biscuits, and so you deal with this.  I’m going to my room to take a nap.  Call me when people get here.”

“But…” began Beth.

“No buts!” called Mary, disappearing with a slightly manic giggle.

After a short silence, Linnie spoke.  “Actually, I invited a new person tonight, one who won’t know any better.”

“Who?” Beth asked, surprised.

“Just a guy from Spanish class.  He and I really hit it off.”

Linn-ie,” demanded Beth, “Is this your weird way of vetting a potential boyfriend?”

Linnie began shaping the biscuits.  “Mayyybeee.”

“That’s terrible,” Beth said.

“Yes,” agreed Linnie, placidly.  “But if all goes according to plan, it will tell me a great deal about his character, in particular his ability to take a joke.”  

There was a pause, during which Beth wondered for the 999th time why she was roommates with Linnie.  

“Look,” continued Linnie, “it’s too late at this point.  The dough is already set and I used the last of the milk.  So unless you want me to throw out the dough and we can have no garlic and cheese biscuits…”  

Beth’s desire for said biscuits was stronger than her empathy.  “No,” she said, in a forlorn tone.  

Linnie gave a satisfied smirk, and continued her work.  Beth watched her for a bit, before interjecting: “Add more garlic.  There’s no such thing as too much garlic.”

“I already added plenty,” replied Linnie, absentmindedly checking the oven temperature, “and too much might counteract the sp…” She managed to grab the garlic container as Beth lunged for it.  “NO!” Linnie barked.  “This is my cooking.  Out of my kitchen, it’s small enough as it is.”

Your kitchen?” exclaimed Beth, as she retreated into the living room.  “My parents pay rent here too, you know!”

“Oh, suck it up, Buttercup,” growled Linnie, as she placed the biscuits in the oven.

Seven o’clock arrived, the hour when Beth and Linnie had told everyone to come over for “dinner and a movie.”  True to form, Ross arrived precisely on time, while everyone else showed up at intervals of five, ten and even thirty minutes later.  Linnie’s proposed conquest, who was introduced as “Trent,” knocked on the door at the ten minute mark.

“A ten minute buffer zone…could be better, but not bad,” murmured Linnie, as she answered the door.  Beth rolled her eyes.

But she made no protestations as Linnie – with a dirty look towards Ross, who was the most liable to spoil the trick – told Trent to help himself to some food.  She especially recommended the garlic and cheese biscuits, saying, “I’ve never made them before, so whoever tries them first will be the guinea pig!”  Eagerly, Trent thanked her, reached for a biscuit, and stuffed it in his mouth.

No one who knew Linnie was at all surprised when, with a soft pop, Trent transformed into a guinea pig.

Well, there was nothing to be done about it now.  With a sympathetic sigh, Beth stepped over the poor creature, who was squeaking in confusion on the carpet, and put two garlic cheese biscuits onto her plate.  Oh, he’d transform back into a human in a minute or two, and they’d see whether he was the sort of fellow who could stomach her roommate’s weird little brand of magic.

A Book About Magic

I was browsing Netflix one fine autumn evening, when there appeared, “recommended for you,” a miniseries by the name of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  I read the synopsis, and while I was skeptjonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverical of the screen cap, I decided to give the miniseries a shot upon discovering it was created by the BBC, which produces content of some quality more often than not.  I finished all seven episodes within the week, and I thoroughly recommend them.  However, this article will concern Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name upon which the series was based, a 2004 New York Times bestseller and 2005 Hugo Award winner for Best Novel.  Both the book and its adaption are nearly identical in overall plot, with a few minor alterations.  Of course, the novel has a depth of content and a winning style that cannot quite be captured on screen, although the series makes a valiant and very nearly successful effort.

Beginning her first chapter in 1806, Clarke presents what may be considered an alternate history of England.  In her world, England was once renowned for its magic, magic that has all but vanished from the land following the departure, nearly 300 years ago, of the mythical Raven King, who once held court in the North.  Enter Mr. Norrell, an extremely reclusive, pedantic gentleman of Yorkshire, who, as it turns out, is neither a “theoretical magician” nor a charlatan, but is actually capable of producing the magic he studies.

Mr. Norrell takes it upon himself to reestablish England as a beacon of magic –  using it to aid his country in the Napoleonic wars, among other services – but of a particular sort of magic: modern, respectable stuff, as admirable a field of study as the law or the Church, magic that is certainly not the wild sort employed by the Raven King and his kind.  Enter Jonathan Strange, a young man whose temperament is nearly the opposite of Mr. Norrell’s, but whose talent for magic is quite equal.  Mr. Strange is not as adverse to that ancient, uncivilized magic as Mr. Norrell would like him to be, and it is the relationship between these two magicians that forms the heart of the novel.

Yet, for all Mr. Norrell’s obsession with reinventing English magic as “respectable,” and the great trouble and turmoil this causes throughout the novel, it is a lapse in Mr. Norrell’s prized judgement that is ultimately revealed to have set the plot in motion.  For, early in the story, whilst still establishing his reputation as a practical magician, Mr. Norrell swallows his scruples and performs a bit of magic that requires aid from a fairy.  And, as those of you who are familiar with the old tales know, fairies are not to be trusted.

Spanning a thousand pages or more (depending on which edition you’re reading), Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a rather complex novel, to put it mildly.  But however thick a tome it may be and however many footnotes it may contain,1 I would not describe it as a “dense” read.  This is due, I believe, to Clarke’s superb sense of literary style.

How best to describe the tone of the writing?  I believe I read somewhere a parallel to the style of Jane Austen, herself of the Regency era, and I agree with this comparison.  The novel, though a serious work, has a quite a bit of Austen’s sardonic wit, revealed in such quotes as:  “It was an old fashioned house – the sort of house in fact, as Strange expressed it, which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.”  Or, “How quickly was every bad thing discovered to be the fault of the previous administration (an evil set of men who wedded general stupidity to wickedness of purpose).”

It really is rather like reading a Jane Austen fantasy novel.  And yet, as wry as the telling is, the novel is also at once fanciful and melancholy: “Woods were ringed with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of a colour – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts.”  Indeed, many spectacles are twinged with horror, such as is spoken by the enigmatic gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who nonchalantly relates how “I cleverly contrived to capture the little children of my enemy and we pushed them out of the belfry to their deaths.  Tonight we re-enact this great triumph…Of course, it was a great deal more striking when we used real children.”

Clarke likewise does an excellent job of immersing her complex characters within their worlds; nothing feels anachronistic. In fact, the characters espouse the backwards opinions of their time (Mr. Norrell, as well as being against street-magicians and vagabond-magicians, is also very much against “lady-magicians.”)  At the same time, Clarke is able to make use of her current perspective, exploring for example, the subject of slavery, a topic that authors such as Austen just barely mention; the son of an African slave observes: “…skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity – like a talking pig or a mathematical horse.”

Altogether, while picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may be a lengthy endeavor, I consider it quite worth the while for those looking to invest their minds in an elaborate, well-thought out novel, and for those who perhaps may have a great deal in common with the titular characters: “Books and magic are all either of them really care about.”

  1. Some readers complain of these notes, which generally provide “historical” context – often an account of magic – but I, as a fan of British fairytales and legends, found them enthralling.

A note about the title of this article: the title is derived from the layman’s rule of thumb concerning magical books: “…books written before magic ended in England are books of magic, books written later are books about magic.”  Of course, magicians find plenty of ways to quarrel over this maxim.


To Forget

One step, three steps, six steps, then turn. Ten minutes and fifteen seconds till time. Two steps, four steps, six steps, then turn again. Ten minutes and nine seconds till time. Three steps, four steps, five steps…

“Alex, stop it. You’re making me edgy. Besides, people are staring.”

“Sorry.” The boy ceased his pacing and leaned against the wall. Tilting his head backwards, he could hear another student playing through the wood, or whatever substance the walls of were made of. He heard the other student make a mistake. Nine minutes and thirty-three seconds till his time.

“They probably don’t want you doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Leaning against the wall like that. It’s not good for it. You get body oils all over it.”

“Shut up, Mary,” he said, but stood up.

Nine minutes and twenty seconds till his time. He began tapping his fingers on the books he was holding to his chest. Nine minutes and eight seconds till he would use them; or at least, the teacher would.

“Stop that.”


That. That tapping.”

“So what, I’m not allowed to do anything? Am I allowed to breath?”

The girl pushed back her hair. “Actually, taking deep, rhythmical breaths helps calm you.”

“Every time I do that I start hyper-ventilating.”

“That’s because you take them too fast. “

Eight minutes and three seconds until he would enter that room. “How come you’re not nervous?” he asked.

Her features arranged themselves into that complacent look he so despised. “Because I’ve practiced. I know my pieces. I wish I could say the same for you.” She sniffed, whether from superiority or the cold of the building he wasn’t sure, so he opted for the former.

“Well, if you wouldn’t hog the piano at home so much…”

She almost snorted. “You know you can’t use that excuse. I practice as soon as we get home from school from three-thirty to four-thirty, and you have plenty of time to practice after that to your heart’s content, but you don’t.”

Six minutes and fifty-nine seconds until all that not practicing paid off. “I’m just…not in the mood.”

This time she did snort. “In the mood?”

“Yeah.” Six minutes and forty-seven seconds until that mood had better come upon him. “I’ve got Chopin. He requires a certain…touch and…mood, unlike your Bach.” Six minutes and thirty-six seconds for his fingers to warm up.

She gave him that look again. “Contrary to your misguided prejudices, Bach does require a certain touch…” She stopped, and he didn’t pursue it. They’d had this discussion millions of times. Neither felt like bringing it up again here, waiting in the hallway for their turn before the judge. Five minutes until he actually saw that judge.

He thought of other Piano Federation-related arguments he could bring up. Why did their piano teacher book them such an early spot? Why was he going first? Was a man or lady judge better? Which had better handwriting? Why did he have to memorize his piece? Why was the building so cold? Would it be a good piano, or would the pedal stick like the one last year? What if they simply forgot their pieces? Four minutes until he would find out.

“That’s the seventh mistake that student has made,” she observed.

“Good for us.”

“It’s not a competition like that,” she reminded him.

He would have snapped back, but the sound of the piano in the other room had suddenly died. A long pause, and then the door opened, and the other student, a girl, walked out. She looked relieved, if flustered. The door banged shut. Three minutes until time. Two minutes…and then the door opened again, and the judge, a woman wearing glasses, said: “Alex Walker?”

He stepped forward, oblivious of the fact that it wasn’t exactly time yet. He walked in the room. He gave the judge his music and sat down at the piano. “Begin when you’re ready,” the judge said.

Begin when you’re ready, and just play, just forget, Don’t remember about the judge, forget about your teacher, your mother, your sister, forget about time. Who cares about time, or moods, or practicing? Ultimately, what you get is what your deserve. Just play, just do your best, and hope that God blesses you.

When it was over, he couldn’t glean anything from the judge’s expression, but then, he didn’t really want to. After all, who cared about such droll things as rhythms or beats or appropriate amounts of softness and loudness? Federation was over and gone, and wouldn’t come back to haunt him until next year.

“You only made two mistakes,” Mary noted as he exited, feeling extremely light.

“Yeah, well, could’ve been worse.” He was smiling, actually smiling. “Good luck.”

Small Adventure

Well come along, said I to me,

And let us see what we can see.

Let us find the top of that hill

That we can see from our windowsill.


Think what secrets could be found

Amongst those tall buildings way downtown,

What statues prance from street to street,

And quaint parks spring where corners meet.


What will I find once the path curves,

Following the way the green creek swerves,

As it meanders through the white, white stone

Setting its course to the lake alone?


I will test which stream is coolest,

And find which branch is longest,

And know which street is the brightest,

For when the times are darkest.


With so much to see, who could remain home,

Just fiddling with a silver comb?

For paintings and melodies bloom unknown,

And there are mountains still to roam.


So with what small time I may bend,

These little bits of the weekend,

Let me dip in the lakes and climb up the towers

And have a small adventure in my idle hours.

Peona the Peaceful

Peona, hovering about an inch in the air at the edge of the room, looked out over her audience and fervently wished she had stuck to her guns. She was more certain than she had ever been that she was not the fairy who should be leading this gathering.

Here she was, short, with a rotund figure that gave witness to her fondness for pints of ice cream, a knob of thin mousey hair on top of her head, and not even a gaudy pair of shimmering wings to compensate for anything. Peona was well aware that she was far from the most stunning example of magical power, and that commanding the attention of this group of thirty or so fairies was going to be a challenge.

To be sure, the fairies there came in all shapes and sizes, from small pixies to one or two whose horns reached seven feet or more.  They had two things in common: they were all munching on ornate cupcakes, and all of them, or at least, almost all of them, wore a decidedly peeved expression.

Well, at this point, there was no help for it.  This meeting had been her brainchild, and now she must see it through.  Fauna, fluttering on the other side of the room, gave her a thumbs up. Peona took a breath, muttered some magic words to help her voice project, and stepped onto the dais Pansy had constructed two minutes before, which still gleamed a bit—magic or not, Pansy was a terrible procrastinator.

“Ahem,” Peona began, almost silently.  A few other Unter-Faires like herself looked up respectfully, but most everyone else kept on munching and muttering to each other.  Well, she might as well just go for it.  “HEAR YE! HEAR YE!” she called out, much too loudly, considering her vocal projection charm.  Everyone in the room started, and one or two pixies nearly dropped out of the air.  Peona gamely continued: “Thank you very, very much for attending this meeting.  Um….”

Peona had, of course, spent most of yesterday constructing a speech for this occasion.  She couldn’t remember a word of it now, except that it had some very fine points about unity and common ground.  She could start there. “As you know, we have asked you to be here today because of a commonly concerned, um, because of a concern that concerns us commonly, a common concern we have, um, an issue that stretches between all of us and on which we have common ground, ground that is shared by all of us, and on which we have several mutual concerns, concerns that are common to all of us…um…”

She looked at the slowly glazing eyes of her audience, and then concluded that honesty was the best policy.  “Look, we’re here because we have a problem.”

Unfortunately, that was the wrong move.  A tall, beautiful lady in the front row raised her hand. She looked like the sort who would prefer to be called a “faerie.” She was also sipping a glass of wine, much to Peony’s annoyance, who had expressly not served alcohol, thinking this was the sort of discussion that would not benefit from addled wits.

“Yes?” Peony asked.  “I mean, the chair recognizes…um…” She could not for the life her remember the lady’s name, and she used a little magic to discover it. “…Maeve of the Autumn Locks.”

The lady obviously sensed the effort Peona had gone to, and the lady smirked as she spoke: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘we have a problem.’ I, for one, was invited here by the good fairy Fauna, who told me that my calmness and well-known magnanimousness would be a great asset to this cause.”

Peona would have shot Fauna a dirty look, but she remember both that she had told Fauna to use whatever means possible to get as many fairies, and that everyone in the audience would see said dirty look. She was considering how to reply, when another being, a fairly ordinary looking Unter-Fairy like Peona herself, interjected, the Unter-Fairy’s mildly bored expression intensifying to quite miffed.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so the high-and-mighty Miss Fallen Locks gets an oh-so-special invitation, while us Unter-Fairies are just expected to show up because one of our own is leading the charge?”

“No…” began Peona, but then a wrinkled, leafy fairy interrupted.

“Yes, it’s not like these Under-Fairies have enough magic to even merit the need for this…intervention.”

“Oh, go sit on a road and wait for some hapless youth to wander up, and turn them into a frog!” screeched another Unter-Fairy.

“So unimaginative,” scoffed one of the horned fairies. “I’d keep them human, but curse them with an insatiable thirst, or something like that.”

“I’ll give you an insatiable thirst,” growled one of the pixies, “And a cloud of stinging flies to nest in your antlers.”

“How about I just skip the thirst and drown you in a puddle right now,” suggested the horned fairy. She summoned an apparition of a large vase. “This ought to be just your size.”

The pixie was about to charge, when her pathway was blocked by an old woman brandishing a sparkling wand. “Now, now, you know it’s just a vision, the vase isn’t actually there; she doesn’t have that kind of magic.” The old woman turned to the horned fairy, “Don’t make me turn you into a deer again.”

“Which caused several questing princes to chase after her, if I recall,” mentioned Maeve.

“You stay out of this,” the horned fairy hissed, banging her staff on the ground.

“If I stayed out of things, the world would be a much worse place,” replied Maeve.

This time, Peona made her voice far too loud on purpose: “FAIRIES!” she bellowed. Everyone covered their ears.

Peona sighed. “This is exactly why Fauna, Pansy and I called this meeting. We fairies, as a whole species and as each subspecies, must get a hold of our tempers!”

The audience was still eyeing each other with enmity. Peona continued: “We are far too easy to offend. For goodness sake, if an eleven-year-old child doesn’t offer a stranger shelter for the night, don’t turn him into a beast. He’s just doing what his parents told him and being wary of strangers! If a maiden won’t give you water, maybe assume she’s having a bad day get over it; don’t immediately think of the craziest curse you can think of and cast it!”

Another fairy, with grass-green eyes, pointed at Maeve. “Her sister put a curse on an infant princess!”

Maeve protested: “And I fixed it!”

“Shush,” snapped Peona, in no mood to deal with this. “Who among us, Unter-Fairies too, has not crafted a hasty, angry spell, and then cooled down and regretted it later?”

Gradually, everyone in the room, Peona included, raised their hands. “Exactly. We are quick-tempered beings, and we have got to do something about that. That is why we have asked you to be here today. We, the thirty or so of us who are here, must be instruments of change amongst our sisters!”

Many of the other fairies nodded, even Maeve. But then another fairy, in glittering raiment: “There is no denying our good sister Peona makes an excellent point, but I, for one, have a few concerns. Where do you draw the line between quick temper and meeting just punishment? For example, suppose I am sitting in a wood, minding my own business, when a prince comes up to me seeking the legendary White Bear of the Dark Forest. Now, I can tell that this prince is a right arrogant fellow, so I…”

Peona sighed, but made sure it was not loud enough for the others to hear. It was going to be a long meeting, and hopefully by the end of it, she wouldn’t have turned every one of them into hop-toads.