Steele & K. – Nov. 10
Dave K. and Karen Steele traded work. Dave gave Karen this short story:
Dr. Cornelius brought his cigarette to his lips and left it there. It bounced from the corner of his mouth as he spoke. He shifted his weight between legs and leaned against Crisp’s chair. It reminded him of a joke.
Resolving to surprise her husband, an executive’s wife stopped by his office.
She found him with his secretary sitting in his lap.
Without hesitating, he dictated: “In conclusion, gentlemen, shortage or no shortage,
I cannot continue to operate this office with just one chair.”
“Have you ever been to a sawmill, Mr. Crisp?” he asked. Mr. Crisp had not. He didn’t see how it was relevant.
“I have,” Dr. Cornelius continued. “Many times. Fascinating work.”
“Is it?” Mr. Crisp asked. He still wasn’t following; this wasn’t a thought stream he had expected to ford.
“No one can drop logs into the river one at a time. They all tumble out at once. All together, it’s a mess that cannot be shored. That’s what progress is, Mr. Crisp. It’s messy, and putting it all in order is, too. Deadline driven. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Mr. Crisp said, relieved that the sawmill business went somewhere he understood. He preferred the direct approach. Dr. Cornelius paused to drag on the cigarette. The lit end was chasing the filter, and gaining on it. “This is a simple test of pressure. Relax, and you’ll be fine.” He exhaled sharply and left.
Mr. Crisp watched him go. He was strapped into a chair that sat on top of a copper panel in the floor. Someone in a wrinkled boiler suit had attached copper electrodes to his temples and wrists, and then he’d sat alone for half an hour before Dr. Cornelius had appeared. His restraints were tight, but not to the point where they cut off circulation. The straps for his feet were tighter, though. He hadn’t figured that one out, but he would. Considering the pace of things this morning, he’d have time to think it through. He was a smart man.
* * * *
In response, Dave wrote this story:
Tobias craned his neck up to the sky and, flexing his gills, remarked how much the nightbirds resembled fish.
“Yes, I know that,” Phinegan said, “now get back here and stir.” His reprimand slurred around the clay pipe he kept in his mouth at all times, even when he wasn’t smoking it. “This crap makes my eyes water. Wife’s gonna have my head if I don’t help with the kids, too.” He twisted his back until it and his knees popped, then went back to spooning a greasy liquid in and out of itself as foul steam rose into his face.
“That’s an odd thing to worry about,” Tobias said. Under the circumstances, it was. But that didn’t stop Phinegan’s head from snapping up, a sharp look on his face. Not that Tobias didn’t think before he spoke, but his thoughts weren’t subjected to any kind of quality control.
Tobias didn’t look back at Phinegan. In this rare instance, he felt the full weight of something he’d said on his own shoulders. His friend’s reaction would only make it worse.
The children had been asking questions as their parents herded them into the silt-house. Simple, reasonable questions like “why are we up so late?” and “why are we all stuck in this smelly barn?” and “why aren’t you coming too?” The answers were complicated and gruesome, and would have to wait until the children found the etching, wrapped in kelp and buried next to the town’s filtration pumps by their parents. These were hardscrabble people, with faces mottled by bog winds and wiry arms accustomed to rolled-up shirt sleeves and the dewy dappling of sweat and clinging mud. The webbing between their fingers had shirked its childish elasticity for the texture of old leaves. Problems were things to be picked at and dug through and swept out of mesh filters into the compost pits, with time not so much a factor as a witness.
But that was before Lionel and Estrelle and Timothy and so many others, unbedded like oystermeat and dragged to their dark, screaming fates. About the bones floating in the lake that some of the children had used to dam feeder creeks, not knowing where – or who – they came from, and why their slime coating stung and didn’t wash off. They never saw the jumble of eyes and teeth where the tentacles met, the twisted staircase jaws gnashing mothers and fathers and friends into pulpy foam. Some of them never saw their parents again. They had to make do with whoever would claim them.
In light of all that, the plan sounded immeasurably cruel. But the mayor had taken a vote at the last meeting and the yea’s had it. After calling for a best-two-out-of-three and being refused by those assembled, the mayor – presently securing his own three children in the silt-house – had collected himself and told a rising tide of anxious faces that “with our votes today, we have conceded that life is unfair, that it is random and that good deeds and lives dedicated to hard work reap a harsher wind than they are due.
“However,” he’d continued, and Tobias had remembered this clearly, “we have taken the bold and all-too-rare step of making sure that our children will not suffer our fears, that theirs will be a better lot. And if that means removing ourselves before we can change our minds, then so be it.” A strange tone for his last mayoral pronouncement, but Tobias had still found it inspiring. Nervous sweat still beaded his gill-slits and stuck his shirt to his back, and Phinegan’s hands shook as he stirred, but that was kinetic evidence that they were doing the right thing.
And the nightbirds really did look like fish, the way they wriggled and finned through the air.
He took over stirring for Phinegan after a while, keeping the color cloudy and making sure no skin formed on the surface. When the bubbles reached the lip of the pot, he took it off the fire and carried it over to the meeting house, hoping none of it spilled over the side.
They each got one spoonful in their tea. The married ones traded it back and forth with trembling kisses.
Years later, a diving team from across the sea found what they later described as a “floating mass grave.” It was so saturated with poison that they had to burn it, and the bodies inside, in an airtight shed to keep the fumes out of the wind.