Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Eldest Sister

This upside-down fairy tale leapt out of the dark and moldy recesses of my brain without a warning or explanation.


The Eldest Sister

~ A Fairy Tale ~

Anastasia wished she were an only child. And an orphan. Her father died when she was seven. She vaguely remembered the funeral; being stuffed into uncomfortably stiff clothes and suffering through a boring and tedious ceremony. At the time she had a hard time understanding why she was required to feign grief over a man she barely knew. It was not in the custom of her class for parents to be personally involved in the upbringing of their own offspring; that was strictly for the lower classes. Anastasia and her younger sister Drizella were dolled up like miniature adults and trotted out for major family occasions a few times a year, but they did the majority of their growing up under the watchful eyes of the hired help.

The only person who ever truly cared for Anastasia, who was there for her when she was sick or heart-broken, who hugged her and read her bedtime stories, was Rosario, her nanny. Rosario secretly indulged her many un-lady-like impulses, like climbing trees and running barefoot in tall grass. She even sneaked books out of Anastasia's father's library - books deemed unsuitable for the delicate sensibilities of young ladies. Anastasia liked reading adventure stories, tales about monsters of the oceans, faraway lands, and the strange people who inhabited them. She especially loved maps, and could pore over them for hours on end. At first she tried to share her daydreams of fantastical adventures with her sister, but Drizella was only interested in fairy tales about princes and princesses.

Anastasia's own mother only began to take notice of her when she turned fourteen, and thus became eligible for marriage. Once her mother had taken care of her own future by re-marrying to Lord Tremaine, her main goal in life became to find advantageous matches for her two daughters.

Anastasia's fourteenth birthday was also the day when Rosario was sent away. She would have been let go sooner if it were not for Drizella, who was two years younger. Anastasia pleaded with her mother to keep Rosario for the sake of their stepsister who was only ten at the time, but Lady Tremaine drew petty joy from slighting her stepdaughter. From then on Anastasia was entirely in the care of a herd of tutors who taught her how to twitter and prattle in French, draw, play the piano, sing, dance, act like a proper wife material, and hide any evidence of possessing a brain or personality. Of course, this sort of education started years previously, but at least before she had Rosario to turn to for solace.

While Anastasia kept giving their tutors headaches and paroxysms, the two younger girls were model students. Especially the youngest one. Her name was "Cinderella" – a fittingly frilly name for a frilly girl. Cindy was fashionably thin and pale, flaunting the delicate and anemic look that was widely considered proper for young ladies of their social standing; no doubt, thanks to her picky eating habits and her regular "purges". She was also a complete airhead who liked pretty dresses, pretty flowers, pretty songs, pretty animals - mostly from the distance, and as long as their smell and dirtier habits didn't intrude upon her.

The death of Lord Tremaine - he choked on a rabbit bone - passed almost unnoticed by the women of the house. He was a doddering old man to begin with, who had spent most of his days napping in his study. His passing only affected Cinderella, who was now even less shielded from the trifling slights of her stepmother. Lady Tremaine considered her stepdaughter as an unwelcome competition to her own daughters. She expressed her dislike by denying Cinderella her own maid, limiting the number of new dresses she could have each year, and other similar petty insults. Of course, listening to Cinderella you'd think she was made to scrub the floors, or live in the attic. Not that she complained - oh no! Cindy was the master of suffering in silence. She raised passive aggression to an art form.

Years passed in mind numbing boredom of learning fatuous skills, and not learning any useful or interesting ones, going to balls and garden parties with people who had mastered those very skills, following the latest changes of fashion. Anastasia's only confidante and escape from the tedium was her maid Rosa, the very niece of her beloved Rosario. They were of the same age, and similar temperaments, but while Anastasia's flights of fancy were only limited by her own imagination, Rosa's were tempered by the practicality of her own class.

Whenever she had the chance Anastasia stole away to spend time with Rosa, or invented activities that required the presence and service of her maid. During their many conversations Anastasia discovered that there was a whole another world she knew little about, that was almost as foreign to her than those distant lands.

As Anastasia came to realize, Cindy was a drama queen - life to her was a never-ending melodrama in which she played the central role, and everyone else was relegated to be supporting cast. The current play was "The Grand Suffering of the Beautiful Young Maiden". Needless to say, her theatrics eventually caught the attention of one "Prince Charming" at one of the many balls the Dowager Lady Tremaine ushered the three girls. By this time Cindy was fifteen, Drizella seventeen, and Anastasia the ripe old age of nineteen - and all unmarried! Drizella had numerous suitors, but unfortunately all of them too low in social standing. Anastasia who had no intention of marrying did her best to discourage young men without being too obvious about it.

Naturally, when it was Cindy who caught the eye of the young royal, Lady Tremaine was spitting in rage, and did her scheming best to steer the amorous attentions of the young man from her stepdaughter to one of her own. Alas, her machinations came to naught.

The Prince was "charming" by default of his rank and marital eligibility, just as ladies of Anastasia's standing were considered "genteel" regardless of their true personal virtue or quality of mind. Anastasia found the Prince rather a bore, with the face and laugh of a horse, soft, effeminate lips, and a weak chin. His main interests were hunting, riding, and going to balls - all the necessary qualification for a future king. As a result, he and Cindy were perfect for each other; they were equally superficial and vacuous. They had the makings of a happy couple. Cindy no doubt would enjoy her next role as the "Beloved Queen of the Land".

The kingdom itself comprised of a handful of towns, a smattering of villages, mostly farmland, and a section of a river shared with five other "kingdoms".

"There's no greater royalty than the rooster residing over his rubbish heap," Rosa repeated the folk saying to Anastasia in confidence once. The truth of it hit Anastasia with a sudden brilliance: her mother's ambition, her stepsister’s soon-to-be domain – they were all nothing but rubbish heaps to the greater world outside. She knew without a doubt what it was she really wanted, and would be a fool not to pursue it.

The busy chaos of the wedding and the ensuing party provided the perfect opportunity. Anastasia had already had stolen a couple of coin purses from her mother. A few well-chosen words to Drizella would ensure that their mother would be distracted for the whole night. Rosa took care of the necessary supplies, men's clothes, and the two fast horses. By the time anyone they were discovered missing they were be far past the borders of the Seven Kingdoms, on their way to the distant shores of the sea. They were travelling as Sam and Bill, sons of a tradesman, out to make their own fortune in the world.

They lived adventurously ever after.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Bowl of Dust

I'm cheating again. A while back the prompt was:

Charles Dickens: American Notes for General Circulation

'He had ordered 'wheat-bread and chicken fixings,' in preference to 'corn-bread and common doings'.'

I got halfway through with my story then got stuck. I saved it in my folder of bits and bobs, and promptly forgot about it. I was today looking through that folder, reread the piece and realized it wasn't too shabby. I also saw right away how it could fit with the latest prompt:

H. G. Wells: The war of the Worlds

'There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.'

So here we go:

A Bowl of Dust

Sam could feel the weariness down to his soul. He’d been driving all morning, but was still many miles from Canaan when he felt his skin prickle with that familiar and terrifying anticipation. He glimpsed into the rearview mirror: The darkness behind him stretched out over the horizon and was gaining on him fast. He couldn’t outrun it. He pulled over and killed the engine. The air was deathly still, but it wouldn't last. He cranked up the windows, though that would help little.

The storm overtook him with a deafening rumble, and there was darkness all around. Sam imagined hell would be like this - far worse than fire and pitchforks. He held a rug to his face and squeezed his eyes shut, but there was no escaping the coarse dust. It was everywhere; in the creases of his clothes and skin, in the marrow of his bones, in his lungs. As if the barren earth was trying to reclaim him one breath at a time.

Maybe he passed out, maybe he dreamt, but when he opened his eyes, the storm was gone. He clambered out of the truck, slapping his overalls, brushing dirt from his hair. He hawked and spat up mud.

The sun was high in the sky by the time he reached the edge of town. He stopped at the gas station to fill up the truck. Attached to the station was a dining establishment. The few patrons inside were men with worn faces. The menu was written with white chalk on a blackboard behind the counter. He had ordered 'wheat-bread and chicken fixings,' in preference to 'corn-bread and common doings'. Once he finished his lunch he didn't linger. He still had his errand to finish, and get back to camp, preferably before darkness.

The address led him to the wrong side of the tracks, although, they were both wrong, this one just more so. An older Mexican man opened the door. He'd been waiting for Sam. With a jerk of his head he motioned to the shed deep in the junk-filled yard.

Sam peered through the door first dubiously, then appreciatively. Finally, one of Shorty's leads was paying off. The boy was an honest to goodness freak. With his twisted limbs and deformed hands he could be their star attraction - more popular than the Dog-faced boy, or Violet The Human Torso. Sam crouched down to take a better look at the shuffling figure. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Yeah, he'd work out all right. All the good folks in their Sunday clothes will line up to see him, to shudder and gasp in revulsion, and then tell all the other good folks, who’ll line up too.

After a brief haggle with the older man, Sam and his new acquisition were on the road. Lobo The Lobster Boy would have a long and lucrative career ahead of him in sideshow business.


I must admit I was hugely inspired by the HBO show Carnivàle. By the way, I know the person who made the drawing for the Devil card for the opening sequence. I have a signed, limited edition print of it hanging on my wall.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Man Who Was Out Of Sync

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana

'Wormold felt an enormous bewilderment.'

It started on Monday. In the whole regrettable affair that was the only thing that made any sense at all. Mondays jarred and jolted, they were jagged around the edges. If the world was to end - as The Crazies and Hollywood would have you believe - it will certainly happen on a Monday. All for the better.

Wormold woke up fifteen minutes late. It was inconceivable. He woke up at seven on the dot, every morning, Monday through Friday. His alarm clock was set to seven, it was loud and obnoxious, and Wormold was a light sleeper. There was no possible way he could sleep for full fifteen minutes under that high-pitched beep-beep-beep. Yet there he was, staring at the digital display stubbornly glowing 7:15.

The horror of the situation made him lurch out of bed, and stumble hurriedly into his kitchen. He had led a measured, meticulously timed life that was now thrown into disarray. His brain was feverishly counting minutes and seconds that could be excised from his morning routine to make up for missplaced time. He decided to skip breakfast. However when he stepped into the kitchen the context of his existence turned upside down.

Wormold felt an enormous bewilderment. His favorite coffee cup that he had left on the drying rack the night before was now sitting dirty in the sink. A plate, lightly dusted with toast crumbs sat on the kitchen table, where it had no business being. The coffee maker was switched off, but still warm, moist grounds sitting in the filter.

Wormold watched incredulously as the plate floated to the sink, joining the cup, and the two washed and rinsed themselves off. Suddenly, the sound of running water from the other end of the house drew his attention. He rushed to the bathroom and found the shower on, filling the small space with steam. With a shaking hand he touched his toothbrush – it was wet. He stumbled back to the bedroom and slumped down onto his bed.

For a few minutes the only movements in the room were the shudders running through his body, but then the closet door flung open and his grey suit marched out. Wormold watched agape as his Monday suit teamed up with one of his twelve identical white dress shirts, and affixed a somber blue tie under the collar. The suit joined company with Wormold’s Oxfords and headed for the door. He trailed behind as the suit picked up Wormwold’s briefcase and walked out of the house exactly at 7:45 - precisely the time Wormwold was supposed to. He stood in the doorway staring after his self-determined clothes.

To his amazement, nobody seemed surprised at the sight at an empty suit walking down the street. Staggering back to the house he finally understood: he was out of sync. Somehow he slipped fifteen minutes behind, and the world went on without him. At this very moment his suit was undoubtedly sitting on the bus, headed for the office.