Once upon a time there was a young man named Claro. He lived in a house at the top of a tall grassy hill. It was the same house his people had lived in as far back as anyone could remember. All the boys in the family were named Claro, and all the girls were named Clara, the story has it, because from their house on the hill they could see with absolute clarity for great distances.
It was said this lad Claro had always been blessed with the most perfect eyesight of them all. At night he could see the owl in the branch of the tree before the owl caught sight of him. They said that when he was growing up he had better vision than any of the hawks that made their aerie nests in the trees near the house at the summit of the hill. “Claro! Claro!” the hawks would cry, circling above, and he would look up at them and smile straight into the pupils of their eyes, and cry back,“¡claro! ¡claro!” The owls and hawks, who generally could see so much better than any man, respected him, for they knew Claro to be in some ineffable way their brother.
Moreover, the boy’s outward sight was matched by his insight. He was uncanny in his ability to understand what people were feeling, what their hopes were, and what would make them happy. It was even said of Claro that sometimes he would stand at the foot of his parents’ bed while they slept, and could see their dreams. He never abused these powers of perception, however, and generally kept to himself.
He was a good son, a kind brother, a strong friend. The hill was a better place for the fact that he daily wandered it, watching and remembering. Daylilies, spring buds, fish in creeks, lichen on stones—Claro was devoted to them all. He saw people in the valley walking through their years, and remembered who they had been and who they had become. He worked hard cutting firewood in winter and mowing hay in summer to feed the cattle. He helped his father plant the garden in spring and reap the last of the vegetables for the root cellar in fall.
Claro went through his life doing the best he could by anything and everyone he met. He had his shortcomings, to be sure. One of his legs was not quite as long as the other, and so he walked with a slight limp. For all his love of beautiful things in nature, and of the many beautiful things men had made, he never dressed himself very well. He slept in a bed too small for his frame. He sometimes forgot to feed himself properly. But more than not he was a survivor. He watched the people in the valley live their lives. He watched the leaves of grass grow and then be buried under the winter snow. He watched the foxes and ferrets bear their young and hunt in the woods. He studied and learned as best he could. He tried to be happy, though it was not, unfortunately, in his nature to be happy, as such. His eyes were always trained outward. He might have lived a better life if he’d been more selfish about what it was that would have made him happy. But he didn’t fare, by his own estimation, too badly except that, of course, he was lonely.
Now, one day a young hawk, who had watched Claro for many months from her nest at the edge of the woods, could no longer keep from herself what she knew had happened to her. She had resisted admitting that she had fallen in love with Claro, in part because she felt she was already quite content with her life at the edge of the woods and did not have any desire to open herself up to the problems that love can bring, and in part because she found it impossible to believe that Claro could ever find it in his heart to return her affection. No, she told herself, this was not to be.
And yet, as spring moved toward summer she discovered, for reasons she would never be able to explain, that her love of Claro had grown, so quietly in her heart she’d not noticed, to such a fullness there was no more setting it aside, no more resisting it.
”If only I could transform myself into a beautiful girl, then perhaps Claro would fall in love with me, as I have with him,” she thought. “Then my life would be well worth living. As it is now I have less and less use for it, no matter how high I can soar nor how many other hawks admire my plumage.”
So the hawk determined to visit a wizard who lived down by a waterfall in the deepest gorge at the bottom of the hill. She flew down through the maple and ash trees, then the green hemlock pines which grew thicker and thicker as she neared the waterfall. She had never been here before, and the forest’s canopy was so dense down at the bottom of the valley that though she’d soared over these woods many times she had never been able to see what lived on the damp forest floor.
What strange creatures glanced up to see her as she flew by! Creatures who had pearls for eyes lived there, as did others who had hundreds of wispy ears with which to hear. White toads with white eyes sat on white mushrooms, waiting for a white fly—then, flick! flack! out went their long white tongues and into their white throats the helpless fly would disappear. The flora was no less peculiar. Large luminous flowers grew in clumps, and breathed, and even seemed to talk among themselves in a musical kind of language the likes of which the hawk could not understand, One small fern waved its peaked tendril at her as she passed.
The hawk shuddered a little at the sights she saw, but her determination to visit the wizard overcame any fears she felt rise in her heart.
The waterfall was silver. The grotto was black and green. The cave was bejeweled with stalactites that resembled fangs, phosphorescent and sharp-tipped.
Still she flew forward into the depths of the wizard’s cave, knowing as if by instinct where to find him.
And she did. The cave opened up into a grand cavern that glowed with glorious golden light, and the wizard she saw at once upon entering this great underground room, where he kneeled, tending to his fire.
She alighted on an outcropping of stone opposite the wizard, and adjusted her wings, preened a moment, and then spoke. “Forgive me, wizard, for coming to you unannounced. But I have heard of your powers, and I seek your help.”
Good as her own powers of vision were, she could not see his face in the shadowy depths beneath his woolen cowl. His voice was low and melodious. “I know why you have come, and I am prepared to grant you your wish. I will help you to transform your shape into that of a young woman, if that is what you want, but must warn you that once you’ve walked the earth with human feet and have given up your wings, and afterwards are transformed back into the hawk which you were—which will happen in one week’s time—you will never be able to fly again. Furthermore, I can make no guarantee that this boy you love will return your affection. I can arrange for you to take the shape of a human girl, but my powers cannot alter fate. Are you prepared to accept these terms?”
Without hesitation she agreed, knowing that for her a chance to taste Claro’s love, even for so short a time, was preferable to passing an entire lifetime without him.
And the wizard transformed her.
The girl who appeared one evening at the door of the house that stood at the summit of the hill was more lovely than any Claro had ever seen before in his life. She was lost, and his family was pleased to take her in for the night. Claro admired her face which was honest, and her hazel eyes which were pure and seeing, and her voice which carried its words on the most lilting cadences he’d ever heard. After everyone bid goodnight, he found that for the first time in his life he could not sleep. He gazed out his window at the moon, and studied its craters and crevices, and felt troubled. He thought about her sleeping in a far room in the house and was content that she was safe, but knew that he must confess something to her in the morning.
When the sun came up over the far ridge, Claro arose much later than usual, having slept so fitfully the night before. He came downstairs to find that his family and the girl had already eaten breakfast and had gone down into the field to work together on finishing the planting of the garden. He sat at his place at the table but had no appetite. The piece of paper she had left under his plate he found at once, and the words “I love you” which were written there only made him more melancholy. Reluctantly, he went to join his mother and father and brothers and sisters and the girl down in the vegetable patch, and worked as best he could, making sure not to look the beautiful visitor in the eye. The next morning, after another sleepless night, he seized his opportunity to speak with her when they were left together in the tool shed for just a moment.
“I found your note,” he said. “And I am flattered that you would love me. But I have a confession to make, and that is this. I didn’t really understand how I felt until you came to our house the night before last. I’ve watched other people fall in and out of love, but I never knew what love is until you came. Please forgive me, I must confess I love someone else—I hadn’t known until now, but now I know. You have made me understand what love is, and for that I will always be in your debt.”
The girl did her best to hold back her tears, and having a strong heart she did. She could see that her love for Claro had never been directed at someone unworthy; he was as honest with her as he could be. She assumed she had taken her chance, and lost. The wizard had promised her nothing; Claro had the right to be in love with someone else. She had no complaint.
Five days later the girl left the house at the top of the hill, and became once more a hawk and returned to her nest, where she did her best to make herself comfortable, knowing that this was where she would pass the rest of her days. Once in a while, just to verify the edict the wizard had pronounced upon her which provided that having touched the earth with human feet she would never fly again, she flapped her wings a little. But they were useless. She stood up on her legs, clutching the sticks of her nest with her taloned feet for balance, and cried “Claro? Claro?” knowing she would never see him again. She looked up into the blue sky where the other hawks circled and soared and finally she could no longer hold back her tears.
Fall came. The leaves turned red and yellow in the maples and ash. The winds blew cooler. The nights brought frost.
One evening, after the sun had just gone down, the hawk settled down into her nest, pushing her beak into the feathers on her chest to stay warm. Not having been able to hunt so well without the use of her wings—she lived on the slugs and insects and the occasional lizard that came within her reach on the branch of the tree where she made her home—she had become more and more gaunt. She had begun to molt during this, the autumn, which was just the wrong season; she knew her chances of surviving the winter were slim. But then she heard a sound, and raised her head. The sound was at once familiar, and yet seemed distant, impossible.
It was Claro, and he was calling her—“¡claro! ¡claro!”—just as he used to when she could fly, and when she used to call down to him in the meadows below his house.
Was she too feeble, or else too embarrassed to answer him? She burrowed deeper into her nest, and hoped that Claro would not see her. But he did. And before she knew it Claro had climbed up into the tree and out onto the branch where her nest was built. He had with him a basket of provisions, of fresh food and water and a small, round down-filled comforter that one of his sisters had sewn to his specifications. The bird and the boy looked at one another in awe and not without some fear. “I know you can’t understand me, dear hawk, but I’ve seen you often from afar. I used to watch you when you soared overhead in the sunlight. I used to enjoy studying you while you hunted. It gave me the greatest pleasure to see you settle down in your nest at night. And now it gives me such pain beyond what I can describe to see you in your present state.”
She listened, rapt; although Claro had no way of knowing, she could understand his every word, for though the wizard promised her that she would never fly again once she took on human form, he never made mention that she would always be able to understand human language. She made a few attempts to respond to him, but nothing came forth from her beak but “Claro—”
The boy went on. “I’ve brought you this food and water and a quilt my sister made to keep you warm, and if only you could understand I would ask you to do one thing for me in return. I would ask you to wait for me, because I’m going on a brief journey. I will come back to you soon.” And Claro reached out to stroke her head and was suddenly seized with the thought that he had seen her somewhere before. Her eyes were so familiar.
He left the food and comforter, shimmied down the trunk of the tree and set off in a different direction from his house.
Need I say where he went? I don’t think so. As he walked rather than flew there, he saw the white frogs and beckoning ferns better than his beloved hawk did. And since he was a mere mortal, just as was the hawk, he was received by the wizard with no greater ceremony than she. He asked his question, and he got his reply. The terms of his arrangement were not so unlike the terms the wizard had set forth for the hawk. He was in love, and he accepted.
When he flew home to his girl he knew to bring with him twigs and reeds for the nest, because he had but a week to build it large and warm enough for them to make it through the oncoming winter and the rest of their lives.
Tale of a Tub
The waves came in at us, one after the other, at first sending us in our skiff way high on the water and then down into the trough before the next one caused the narrow boat to rise again, hesitate and totter some, then dip, and we clung to the sides of the skiff in the dark—there were no stars in the sky, and so the bay, the boat, the sky seemed continuous—and if we could have we would have prayed, though I’m not the praying kind, and neither, I believe, was Billy Boy, the mutt pup, nor was my dear friend Pajamas, the little elephant, and yet at the same time we knew that none of us could swim for the shore to summon help because we had never learned how to swim and besides even the best swimmer would have had a hard time of it trying to negotiate this nasty battering storm, and it was everything we could do just to hang on to one another—I had Pajamas by the trunk and Billy Boy had me by the tail (I was always rather shy about the length of my tail until now; now that its size has probably saved my life)—as wave after wave came crashing, crashing against our boat.
And how, you might ask, did Billy Boy and Pajamas and I get ourselves into such a mess?—how indeed! how indeed! It doesn’t seem fair because all we were out to do was to have ourselves a pleasant seafaring excursion during this our only vacation of the year, and here we had rented this small boat, for a modest fee I might add, being as neither Pajamas nor I nor Billy had ever made much money in the carnival, but that’s another story, and all we had wanted to do was to go a-sailing, and to witness the flying fish and see the Sargasso Sea, and be dazzled by the frolicsome dolphins and charmed by the sea lions who love so much to float on their backs while they break open abalone shells on their chests, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
You see this was Pajamas’ idea. I never wanted to go to sea. Neither did Billy Boy. Pajamas is the adventurer. I kind of resent it at this moment. I bet Billy Boy does too. But since we’re just silly characters in a story I know we will get out of this jam eventually, and that leaves me in a position not to get overly mad at Pajamas. He’s allowed. He’s allowed.
Meantime we are getting wetter and things in fact don’t look so great because for instance what are those sharp fins tracing their way in circles around us, aren’t those the fins of the famous nasty sharks, the kind of sharks that close in on helpless drowning sailors such as me, Billy and Pajamas, no I don’t like the looks of those blue-gray fins circling us any more than I like it that our skiff has begun to take on water—take on water indeed!—take on water to such an extent that we have to admit now that the boat is gone beneath us, drifted away into the murky brine, and that the three of us are floating, adrift now, and that what we had hoped was only a squall has turned out to be some kind of big-time hurricane, and that most likely all is lost!—and all would be lost, would truly be lost, but for the fact that we know, Mr. Pajamas and good old Billy Boy and I, that we don’t exist, and wouldn’t make a very good meal for a hungry shark nor very good victims for an evil storm at sea, and so while we float—seeing the shore coming upon us through the driving rain and the cresting and crashing waves—rather more confident about our fate than we would be if we did exist, we gather our wits about us for the briefest instant, and manage to say a prayer together for those of you who do exist, those of you who face peril and suffer and lose. We, mere cartoons, admire your strength and your humanity.
Still and all, we must admit—Billy Boy, Pajamas and I—now that we’ve reached this imaginary shore and are saved and can go back and join our friends at the carnival tonight after our great adventure, that we’re very happy we don’t have to be you, because we doubt seriously you would have made it to shore and safety. But then, on the other hand, you might not have been so foolish to rent that skiff in the first place, eh?
The Man Who Didn’t Know Any Better
—for Magdalena Mango
There was once a man who didn’t know any better. He was a poor man and could ill afford to be wasteful but, you see, he didn’t know any better. When his shoelace broke, he threw away his shoe. When his shirt and trousers became dirty, he burned them. When he took a bite off the carrot he had brought with him for his lunch, he found it impossible to take a second bite, because on looking at the carrot he recognized that it was no longer a carrot, since it wasn’t shaped like a carrot anymore, and therefore he tossed the worthless thing into the gutter. He was amazed to see a beggar seize upon it and gobble it down with such relish, and thought to himself how sad it was that the poor beggar didn’t know any better than to eat that orange stick which wasn’t a carrot. But, of course, it was he who didn’t know any better. This was how he lived, and this is why he was a poor man. And if you remember this, Magdalena Mango, you will never be cold in the winter, you will never go hungry, you will never be poor. No one will ever say of you that you were a person who didn’t know any better.
The Seven Sheiks
Long ago in a faraway place there lived seven sheiks. Because the people could not decide which sheik was the best sheik, all seven of these sheiks ruled the kingdom, one on each day of the week.
The Monday sheik was a quiet, hopeful sort of man who, though it was not widely known at the time, allowed his wives and scribes to make most of the decisions of state. He signed the decrees they presented to him for signature. He wore his most chic sheik robes as he took his afternoon stroll through the capital and visited with his people. He was a sleepy sheik and rested well at night, and remained hopeful that whatever mistakes he made during his day in power the Tuesday sheik could set right. He was very well liked by the people. And, in fact, it so happened that his wives were women of good judgment and his scribes were discerning, and nothing that the Monday sheik did brought his kingdom harm.
The Tuesday sheik, who was a cousin of the Monday sheik, enjoyed the sound of his own voice, and not without reason, for his voice was a beautiful basso profundo, perfect for the speeches he so loved to make from the palace balcony. No one minded that he said nothing of substance when he spoke because no one noticed, so convincing was his voice, and so laced with fascinating metaphors and fanciful rhetoric were his famous speeches. He stood in the white light of the desert sun and waved his hands and all fell silent while he orated for an hour or two or three. He never asked for the people to respond to these speeches. It was enough for them to lend him their ears. He knew that to ask them to lend him more than ears was to tempt fate. And the Tuesday sheik was not one to tempt fate. The kingdom fared well under his rule.
The Wednesday sheik was a bachelor. He had little time for affairs of state, and was far more concerned about affairs of the heart. The back door of the palace saw plenty of comings and goings on Wednesday. The people knew very little about their Wednesday sheik, who preferred to remain behind drawn curtains, a figure of mystery. Rumor had it he was not a terribly handsome fellow, but no one knew for sure. None of the many girls who had been seen leaving by the rear door of the palace was willing to say anything about this sheik, though a wise beggar who lived by the palace garbage bins swore he’d never seen the same girl come back twice. Since the Wednesday sheik had no time to attend to matters of government, he did nothing to bring mischief to his people.
Thursday was tax day, not because the Thursday sheik was greedy, but rather because he was illiterate—and not being able to read he took it upon himself to count. And oh, how the Thursday sheik loved to count! Early in the morning he would send out his tax collectors who went from door to door exacting the modest sums that were due from every citizen. By noon there would be stacked on the Thursday sheik’s table piles and piles of copper and silver and gold coins, and you may rest assured that there was no happier man in the kingdom than the counting sheik, who counted these coins one by one by one. By sunset he would be finished with his task, and the tax collectors were summoned once more and instructed to return all the money to the good citizens of the kingdom. Because the people knew that by midnight they would get back the coins they had surrendered in the morning—duly counted by the Thursday sheik—they made no complaint about these activities, and the kingdom remained peaceable.
The Friday sheik enjoyed eating. He enjoyed eating lamb kabobs, he enjoyed supping on tender goats and chicken vindaloo. He adored the exotic fare that visiting dignitaries sometimes brought to the palace as presents—the shrimp scorpio from the envoy of Athens, the duck Nivernaise from the minister of France, the tangy meatballs from the nuncio of Lebanon: these sent him into ecstasies. Now, of course, his weakness for tasty morsels was known abroad, and many were the heads of other states who devised schemes to trick this hungry sheik into making unwise concessions that would ruin his kingdom, in exchange for, say, unlimited supplies of deviled ham, or creamed pickled herring. All these plots, however, came to nothing because Fridays were not the time for negotiating treaties or signing documents. Fridays were for eating and drinking and then digesting.
The Saturday sheik was a deaf mute who was also blind and had no sense of smell. Little was accomplished on Saturday.
The Sunday sheik, on the other hand, could speak, could see, could hear, could taste, could smell. And, as you might have guessed, the Sunday sheik liked to get things done. He was made of different mettle than the other six sheiks, and rather frowned on the various ways they chose to pass their single day in power. Unlike the Monday sheik, he was not a hopeful man, and trusted no decisions made by any other person than himself. He was loath to make speeches, and didn’t see what good could come of communicating with the people, and thus more unlike the Tuesday sheik he couldn’t have been. Love he considered a nuisance, and he had neither wives nor eunuchs nor any interest in pitch and woo. He thought the Thursday sheik was a fool to give back the tax money he’d collected and so carefully counted. Unlike the Friday sheik, the Sunday sheik was ascetic—a tall, gaunt man who lived on rice and water because he was careful of his personal wealth and hated to waste money on something as fleeting as food. After all, he thought, once you’ve eaten it you no longer own your food. So, Sundays were days of tremendous activity in the palace. Battles against neighboring kingdoms were planned, as were laws to bring criminals and rascals throughout the land to justice. Plots against the Sunday sheik were uncovered—whether they existed or not—and foiled. Plans were drawn up to erect a great statue of the Sunday sheik in the central square of the capital, though the monument had never been built, since statue makers always rested on Sundays.
Indeed, everyone rested on Sundays except for the Sunday sheik, and this was the source of his single discontent. He enjoyed his day of ruling. He knew that he was the most able of all seven sheiks. It tormented him that for all his work and genius nothing much could be enacted because no one in the kingdom was willing to lift a finger on their day of rest. Try as he might to convince the other sheiks to trade their day with him, none of them would have it. They were all content with their days, and saw no need to change. So he was left to his own devices, and labored away in the palace right up to the final hour of the night, when he had to extinguish his lamps at the stroke of the clock that announced that Sunday was no more.
After the seven sheiks died, the handsome and aggressive son of the Sunday sheik assumed control over the kingdom, and before his generation were able to pass along the mantle of power to their sons and daughters, poverty, famine, hatred and grief had swept throughout the land. It didn’t take long for the kingdom next door to come across the blowing sands and defeat the son of the Sunday sheik. As the Friday sheik might have said, it was a piece of cake.
—for Emmet and Michal
We get on our guns and sperrs and amunishen belts and we get on our horses next. It is not so bad to be one of us cowboys.
The plains is a big place to ride on. Sure we got are cactus and sure we got are rattlers. But im a cowboy and sure as shooten I aint scerred of no snake.
So I get on my pony and I ride and ride. I got my saddle blanket, I got my knife with sheath, I got my gun and amunishen belt, I got my chaps.
I run into trouble. Cause theres awways trouble on the range.
I dont shoot cause im a peacable cowpoke, but I tell you I sure could have spit.
It was disgusting what I saw.
It was too disgusting to tell you.
Id rather disscribe to you my saddle thats so finely tooled. I got her down Mehico way. And my bandana is red juss like its sposed to be. And my bed roll is warm. And my bacon and corn bred and coffey tastes pretty darn good in the mornen. And my belts got a silver buckel.
And my rope is long, cause thats what kinda cowboy I am.
Obadiah and Them Ilk
They were a nasty tribe, them ilk. Oh, they were a piece of work. They plundered the tundra. They drank whole rivers. They smoked innocent Esquimaux over musty peat fires. They took no prisoners.
Their teeth were sharper than the icicles they used to stir their cool gruel. Fearsome of aspect, they clothed themselves in the pelts of pneuk who were plentiful in these high north regions, big oxenish animals, dim of wit and slow of gait, and easily slain by slayers as slaying as ilk. And, as ilk had appetites as big as icebergs, many was the poor pneuk that fell prey to a pack of them during the winter to which I make my reference in telling my little tale.
Picture an igloo alone on the ice. Picture contentment, if you would. There I was sitting by my small fire, roasting up a wee bit of seal flank, minding my own business after the long day at hunting, and outside the wind was whipping, and my dear babes were fast asleep under their piles of pneuk skins breathing their darling baby breath, dreaming their dreams in their mother’s arms in the certain knowledge that I, their papa, would protect them from the wolves and white bears and treachery that stalk under the crisp polar stars of our icy district.
Then I heard a sound that broke my peace like the arctic gull breaks the shell of a ming mussel. It was a yowl unlike any I’d ever heard before.
“What on God’s white earth were that, Obbie?” I asked myself, as I looked to see that my family slumbered on. Being as I was born in this ice-block hut and have never ventured farther than the need for food has taken me, I know the sounds and smells and sights of my particular cranny in the world, and I thought back in my mind to what all I’d ever heard before, and having done that, I told myself, “No snow musk ever bayed like that, no sea weasel chanting at the comets—as is the sea weasel’s wont—ever sang that strange a song. That was neither a freak of wind, nor a crack of berg. No, Obadiah,” I reasoned with myself. “Them is ilk.”
Now, I have always prided myself for my being a humble sort of fellow. I’m eager to please and I’m honest, as were my mother and my father and for that matter were all we Obadiahs stretching back into time immemorial before this land was sheathed in ice. And your Obadiah knows his measure, and knows that while he may not be possessed of schoolbook wisdom, he can show at times a certain courage. So when the yowl, like a screeching or scratching, kept coming, I thought of my pretty babes and my faithful wife, and I knew what I must do and set down my seal en brochette and donned my warmest pneuk djellabah.
The night was a half-light night. My igloo shimmered like pink roe under the moony brilliance. I walked forth, my sharpest knife in hand concealed beneath my heavy furs, and trained my eye over the wide flat land.
It didn’t take them ilk too long to find me. As I say, ilk know their business, and they’re forever in a rush. Them ilk was upon me before I could say blizzard, and a fouler lot you’d never want to meet.
How can I describe what I saw and smelled? I’m not certain my powers and capacities are equal to the task. When it is cold as it was that fearsome night nothing has the right to be rancid, and yet the breath of an ilk could only be described as rancid. When you are as terrified as was your honest raconteur, the blood in your body should not beat so hard without breaking your heart, and yet, somehow, I held my own, in my own fashion, as I am about to relate.
They was circling and laughing and cursing in their ilkish manner and, listening to them as best I could, my teeth chattering and my knees knocking, I was given to understand that they thought of me as not a man, but some helpless pneuk who’d lost his way from the herd, an easy snack for the taking.
”Well,” thinks I. “Here’s my only hope. Ilk!” I says in what pluckiest voice I could muster, “You can eat me if you like, but you’ll never eat again if you do, for tonight you have not just met your match, but your master!”
Them ilk ceased circling, and fell quiet, and edged away, and hung there hovering. In a voice that seemed as one, they said, “What kind of pneuk are you that you can talk to ilk in ilk?”
It was then I sensed that, yes, I had them. My mind raced. I knew at once what next to do. Huddled inside my massive pneuk pelt coat, I raised my arms, making myself seem much larger than I am, in the same manner the polar puff frogs do. I shook my pneuk djellabah and took a few steps forward, hiding my head deep under my furry hood.
Them ilk began to cower and shake. “A talking pneuk,” they marveled.
And now my fate was set. In order to protect my babies and my faithful wife, I led them ilk far away from my friendly igloo. It was your own Obadiah who was in charge now, and though I would have to make the sacrifice of leaving my happy home in order to save its inhabitants, I did take a certain pleasure in knowing that I’d prevailed without there having been a single drop of ilk spilled that frosty night.
The rest is history. Sometimes I tire of wearing my now quite ripe pneuk djellabah. Sometimes I long for a bath. Sometimes I would give anything to cast off this pretense and return to my family, who are so far away from me now. Your Obadiah never wanted to be a hero, but I had no choice. And I must say, with all modesty, that I’ve made substantial progress with them ilk. They don’t yowl so at night the way they used to. They’ve become all but vegetarian, feeding on tufts of tundra grass, and politely sipping a cup of tea from time to time. I have warned them not to question my authority, and to date they’ve been pretty good about it all. In some strange way, I think I’ve become their religion, and have even managed to train them to cook my seal meat for me in the proper fashion.
But still, when the moon makes the ice floes glisten pink, and I think of my dear ones, my loving wife and pretty babes who must all be grown up by now, honest and humble as all their ancestors ever were, I, Obadiah, wish my fate had been other than that which I’ve just related to you.
—for Malachy, who’s faithful
We used to live in the land of the faithless. The sky was yellow from cowardice, the grass was blue from melancholy, our homes were green from envy. We believed in nothing and in no one. Our skepticism did not even allow us to believe in our lack of belief. When it rained, many of us, myself included, would walk outside without our raincoats, so sure were we that it was, in fact, not raining at all. When it was warm, we bundled up. When we were paid for our labors, we knew that the money we’d been given was worthless, and thus many of us neglected to spend it. Having no faith in the laws of our land, we freely stole from our neighbors, and did not bother to voice complaint when our neighbors took from us. In the night, which was red from anger, we never bothered to go to bed, knowing that sleep would be denied us. In the day, which, as I have said, was yellow, we slumbered fitfully, knowing in our hearts that there was nothing better for us to do. Not trusting one another, we slept with one eye open. We all knew the proverb about how in a country where everyone is blind the man who has one eye is king, and so when we slept, in the light of the bright yellow sky, we dreamt, as best we could, that we all were kings. But on awakening, we knew better. We knew that we should never, ever trust our dreams.
Chili Pepper Man
Molleno was known far and wide for his skill in the art of eating chilies. His small white adobe was nestled in one corner of the canyon, and many were the afternoons when you could see Molleno sitting on his patio, in the shade of a trellis so laden with the bright red chilies that you would fear for his safety lest they all come tumbling down, a mountain of hot red peppers, on his head. And there he would sit, old Molleno, and sure as chaparral he would be engaged in eating chilies from one of the great big jars filled with pickled peppers he kept there by his favorite sitting chair for that very purpose.
Though he lived alone, he was not a hermit. All were welcome to dine with him, to make their way up the stony path through the chili fields to Molleno’s adobe, and sit by him on the pinon bench that ran the length of his patio, and watch the clouds build and make all kinds of different shapes out over the distant mountains—now a lizard, now a mesa, now a purple chili pepper—and sample the fruits of his fond obsession. If it so happened that you were a traveler, and had no place to spend the night, Molleno would, with the most gracious smile, invite you to join him for dinner and to sleep in the simple guest room in the back of his adobe.
And oh, the meal you would eat! It was well known among those who lived not just in this canyon, but on the buttes and out in the vast desert, that a chance to dine at the table of the chili pepper man, as old Molleno was known, was an experience you would not soon forget. There was nothing he could not make with his chilies. The fare ranged from simpler dishes such as chili tandoori and escabeche of chili, to more mysterious and complicated offerings such as chili sweetbreads perigourdine and oysters chawanmushi of chili. It was beyond anyone’s skill of reason to figure out how Molleno could produce such a succulent lamb chop, for he owned no lambs. And whence the mint sauce that was served with the chop, when the only ingredients at his disposal were his beloved chilies? And yet he was a wizard at everything he made. His English custard with poached pears was a work of art. His eggs in aspic were never less than delightful. Even a humble dish such as chicken in champagne sauce au Pavillon came forth from his small brick oven as if sent from heaven, it was just that delicious.
Now it so happened that one such traveler, a young girl whose name was Juana, was offered a meal and a night’s rest at the home of old Molleno, as had been so many others before her. It was a warm evening, and the stars burned like glazed onions out over the great distances of desert, and the old man took it upon himself to produce for Juana a grand paella the likes of which the poor girl had never beheld, let alone eaten, in her life. Juana feasted on the paella with a kind of enthusiasm her host had never witnessed. She supped with an indefinable understanding, as Molleno saw it, of the spirit and richness and glory that was the essence of his cherished chilies. They finished their supper, and Juana helped him clean up, and afterwards they sat out on the patio and watched for shooting stars, occasionally sampling a chili from one of the jars there.
When he went to bed that night, Molleno knew that finally someone had come to him who would be able to solve his problem, the problem that had haunted him throughout the course of these last years of his very long life. He said his prayers, and thanked the Lord, and soon drifted off to sleep with a smile on his tired face.
Upon waking up the next morning, Juana was overwhelmed by the smells of breakfast that filled the adobe. She could hear old Molleno whistling in the kitchen, and she smiled a smile that perfectly echoed Molleno’s own of the night before, a smile that a wandering orphan such as she had never smiled before. When she got dressed and came out into the little cooking room, she was amazed by what she saw. There were custards and kippers, there were omelettes and oranges, there were waffles and sausage. A cup of espresso di chili was waiting for her at her place at the table. She and old Molleno ate their fill, and hardly a word was exchanged between them.
By siesta time, Juana knew that long after old Molleno—who rested his head on his chest next to her, snoring mildly and now and then twitching his whiskers—was but a memory, she would still be here, in his house, growing old herself and taking in strangers from time to time to feed them magical meals and offer them a safe place to pass the night.
There was once a young bird who went by the name of Numb.
She was a pretty bird, and whistled and flew and got her share of worms and lived in the tidiest of nests.
Her life was perfect.
So perfect that about her there is no story to tell.