Rising (A Fable)

The first sinkhole appeared on a Tuesday in November and it swallowed City Hall. A raw and gaping darkness, spattered mud and jagged stones replaced the marble columns, wooden doors and framed diplomas. Stunned crowds hovered at the edges, hoping to wake up.

The Mayor climbed the rubble. He was mostly boils and bluster, having grown to manhood without a single book or proper hygiene. Still, he had a bag of tricks–false promises and sledgehammers, loaded guns and heavy sticks. He had purchased brand-new teeth, large and white and blinding.

“Follow me!” he bellowed. “City Hall was just a swamp!”

The crowd split. Some put the Mayor on their shoulders, not objecting when the guns went off or when his boils leaked pus.They led a boisterous parade.

Others gathered in a back lot, on the margins. They brought canvas, wire, bolts and poles. They started to assemble.

The second sinkhole took a mosque, and the third one ate a black church. In rapid fire, the City lost its crisis center, food bank and the women’s health clinic, all to gouging chasms. Journalists braved the fragile pavement, sending back reports, until they vanished too, a bleak and utter silence.

“Your fault!” the Mayor shouted. “No more! Sad!”

No one understood exactly what he meant, but he waved his hands and pointed fingers and soon enough, the hunts began. They rounded up the critics, then the doubters and the skeptics. The hunters photographed themselves, transposed the images into mandates, and took what they could take.

The margins seemed to shrink, to lose their air. A suffocation made of fear. As they built the bright machine, they heard the hunters’ boots, the shrieks. Stitch the wings. Compose the platforms. Tighten bolts. And breathe.

The colleges went next. Then the libraries, which was just as well since the hunters burned the books. Sinkholes guzzled music halls, museums and archives.

“What is history? Poetry? Truth?” someone whispered. Sails fluttered in the wind. Hammers quickened.

In the space left by the sinkholes, people starved and fought and hid in shadows. The hunters put up fences, threw the bodies in the holes.

The platforms were too small. Some argued for a lottery. Others cast their eyes against the weakest. But then the children said, “We will climb the masts. We will huddle at the junctions.” And the adults were ashamed. They widened all the platforms. They reinforced the wings.

The sinkholes gained momentum, like an avalanche of ruin. From their narrow island refuge, the Mayor and his hunters saw the builders haul the rigging, hoist the sails. They watched the rippling wings.

“Escape!” the Mayor howled. “Get me that!”

But there were no bridges left. He had burned them all.

At last, the refugees rose up and saw the devastation fade beneath them, growing smaller like the small man who, even now, spewed insults, clenched his fists. Then, across the sky ship’s bow, they found the long horizon, unwavering, intact. And their hearts broke into hope.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Not Nobody: A Wing-Feather Fable

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There were three ways to get out and the great barn doors weren’t one of them. Fifteen years ago, the leprechaun had sealed them in a fit of pique and temper.

He was always a bit growly. His roommates didn’t mind, unless his moods influenced his cooking.

“Dumping pepper in the eggs again,” the blind cyclops muttered to the broken ballerina.

The leprechaun slammed pots. The cyclops retreated to a corner with his knitting. He had a knack for unique tea cozies shaped like unicorns or dragons. The ballerina hopped, first on one foot, then the other. She did this furtively, testing out her strength. She also checked the exits, in rotation: sewer grate, vine door, window. There was a problem with them all. The sewer stank like death. The vine door writhed with ivy. And the window swallowed heartbeats.

“You’re not planning to go out there?” The cyclops scrunched his forehead.

The ballerina shrugged.

“Are ya daft?” The leprechaun pointed one stubby finger at each exit in its turn. “You’ve a choice between suffocation, strangulation and base obliteration. Help the giant make his cozies. Stay out of trouble, girl.”

“But,” she said, “I hear things.” She pointed at the large barn doors. Light broke through the edges, searing. “Crying,” she said. “Children’s prayers. Drowned wishes.”

“Curses,” spat the leprechaun. “That’s what I hear, night and day. Rage, out there. And violence. The world has gone to shit, girl. Stay inside. It’s safe.”

“Is it?” she cocked her head. She’d arrived a hundred years ago with every single bone inside her body shattered. Every one. She knew the cost of outrage.

“In/Out. Stay/Go,” the cyclops timed his words to match the clicking of his needles. “What’s the opposite of safe?”

“Drop the philosophical bullshit.” The leprechaun half-bellowed. “That missing eye of yours? It’s absolute.”

The cyclops merely chuckled.

“Alive,” the ballerina whispered.

The other two turned toward her.

“Alive,” she said again. “For us, that’s the opposite of safe.”

Whispers crept around the barn doors. Please. Help. Please. War. Please. Home. Please. Lost. Please.

The cyclops put his yarn down, set his hands onto his knees and stood. “Some will surely hate us.”

The ballerina nodded, but the leprechaun protested, “There’s no more room for beauty, strength or magic in the rough seams of the world.”

“Then we shall make room,” said the girl.

“I can’t undo the curse,” he pointed at the barn doors.

“Not a problem,” said the cyclops.

He rubbed his palms together. The leprechaun turned off the stove.

When the cyclops broke those doors down, the explosion echoed over rooftops, rifles, sinking boats, politicians, bombs and riots. Light and mourning crossed the threshold.

Thinking of the hero who had maimed him, the cyclops bellowed in a voice that woke the stars up: “Not Nobody is here!”

“And we shall change the world,” the ballerina whispered. Every single bone ached, always.

“Ready?” said the cyclops.

The leprechaun grinned wildly, and the ballerina danced.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

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Light Keeper, for Kate (A Wing-Feather Fable)

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

 

For Kate Arpano ~ March 13, 2009 – January 14, 2016 ~ always shining

The lighthouse keeper walked the borders of his island in a drizzling rain that smudged the edges of the world. The path he chose was crooked, spiked with rocks and sea-slick, but the keeper never stumbled. He knew the circuit well, had traveled it so often that his dreams would bring him here, the wave pulse like a heartbeat and salt rime on his tongue.

Still, he took his time, a wise precaution since the coast was humped and jagged like the boulder teeth of giants. From there, the land rose up in crumpled hills all seamed with grey rock. The only structure was the lighthouse rising in the north, its wide beam sweeping arcs across the ocean, warning ships to keep their distance. But he was not here for that light.

There! He saw a flicker deep inside a crevice where two blocks of granite leaned together. He knelt and cupped the small, translucent flame, radiant, in his palm. She was dazzling, luminous, stronger than the rain or wind or darkness. Still, he kept her close.

Soon enough, he reached the lighthouse, toed the kitchen door and slipped into a room so full of brilliance that it shimmered. Gold flames shone through sea glass votives. They covered every surface, from the floor up to the ceiling.

“Welcome,” said the keeper, as he gently set the newest light into a cup. He shucked his dripping coat off and poured a mug of coffee as the tower’s cats arrived from every nook and corner. There were too many cats to count, and too many lights to number, but arithmetic was not his job, and he had dwelt with the impossible for so very many years that its magic was a comfort.

In any case, the lighthouse amiably expanded to accommodate both cats and lights, as needed. Shelves appeared from nowhere. New rooms opened up. The flames arrived at odd hours and in unusual places, but the keeper always found them. After all, each small but splendid glimmer was the remnant of a life — not the body, nor the soul, but the good done on this earth, the generosity and warmth.

Take the newest flame, for instance. He could see she was a marvel, a miracle, in fact. Her starlight pirouetted, trailing sparks of purple-pink. The keeper caught at glimpses: a smile that never faded, laughter, hugs and music. Magic tricks and mischief. Flowers, games, and rainbows. Jokes. An iron will and easy temper. There was nothing small about her. And, oh, how she was loved!

“You are strong,” the keeper said, and he set her in a place of honor. He would watch the blessings of her light. He would see them ripple outwards, chasing shadows, bringing grace. Boundless joy swelled all around her. The keeper laughed, “To be sure, you’ll like the cats.” And the flame leaped like a bird song, unwavering and fierce.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

In Plain Sight: A Wing-Feather Fable

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

There was a dragon in the city, hiding in plain site, dressed up as a statue. It was a good disguise, effective. She looked like modern art, all angular planes and rivets. Very red, but harmless.

Edgar wasn’t fooled. He was twelve and, until recently, he’d been very good at disappearing into crowds and corners, folding down into himself until he wasn’t noticed. Then he hit a growth spurt that left him gangling and clumsy. Impossible to miss. All at once he was a tall boy holding onto baby fat, a boy with warm eyes, curved lashes and skin the color of good coffee. His parents called him Beau, because he was so beautiful. Everybody else just called him Mud because the boy was always reading, nose buried in a math book, apt to trip in puddles. It was worse out on the streets. There, he saw that strangers suddenly feared him, as if he were a hazard, a bomb that might explode.

The first time Edgar saw the dragon, he was so startled that he dropped his notebooks full of numbers and had to chase loose pages as they swished across the plaza. Then he looked around. No one else seemed bothered. No one was afraid. The dragon was inside the city’s largest courtyard, ringed with banks and mirrored windows. Cautiously, Edgar laid his palm against her crimson metal hide. He felt the rising heat, primeval breathing. He tilted back his head, caught the length and breadth of her, and wondered if the dragon liked geometry, the lullaby of shapes.

After that, he spent hours beneath the dragon, invisible again. Bankers, lawyers and brokers swirled like mites around them, but no one paid attention. And if Edgar listened closely, he could hear the dragon’s heartbeat. Once, he saw her blink.

He was happy.

Then Edgar grew again, six more inches, his legs and arms like wild scarecrow limbs. He had to crouch beneath the dragon and even then his feet stuck out, two gigantic canvas high-tops. People tripped on Edgar, and then there were complaints. The police came, hands poised on their holsters. No loitering, they said. Move along. Go home.

Edgar tried to show the men his math books. He got as far as, “But–,” before their hands were on his ankles, yanking, and Edgar’s head smacked back against the dragon, bounced against the pavement and his ears were ringing with such clamor that he almost missed the moment when the dragon shook itself and woke.

The earth quaked and stones cascaded as she pulled her body loose. Edgar’s ears were still messed up, and he couldn’t see well, but he felt the dragon nudge him. He sensed the wings above his head, the whiplash tail and talons. Before she picked him up, her metal arms a cradle, Edgar thought, Well, no more hiding, and then they were airborne, up above the city, the dragon’s cry so piercing that it shot straight through his heart.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here

Marvelous Reading: Erika Swyler’s, The Book of Speculation

Swyler

Early reviews have compared Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation to The Night Circus and Water for Elephants. While it contains elements of both — magic, marvels, love and mystery — Swyler’s book stands firmly on its own as a remarkable feat of storytelling. Bold in its plot, stunning in its language, The Book of Speculation kept me reading, thoroughly entranced, and hours past my bedtime. This is a book that comes alive, a book that stays, stitched like tattoo ink, enduring.

Simon Watson, the main character, is losing it — his house is tumbling into the Sound, his job is snared in budget cuts, and his days are tangled in the losses of his past. On the surface, he’s a young librarian, a dutiful brother, a quiet friend. But Simon is also a breath-holder, a swimmer who can suspend his breathing underwater for an impossible ten minutes. His mom could do eleven — before she drowned herself when he was young. Before she left him with a father paralyzed by grief and a two-year-old sister, Enola. When their father dies years later, Simon raises Enola on his own, holding his breath in life, as he can underwater, in order to support her. He remains suspended, stuck in time and place, while Enola leaves to join the circus as a tarot reader. A fortune-teller. But, in this family, fortunes are slippery and shadowed. Curses are real. And the future, like their history, is a swelling flood, capable of drowning.

As Simon’s present crumbles, he receives a book that drags him back into the past. Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is part circus-show account book and part diary, interspersed with sketches. It contains both the everyday details of a traveling show and a deepening mystery involving Simon’s family history — and his sister’s future. Simon and Enola come from a long line of breath-holders, mermaids, women who all drowned themselves on July 24th. As that date draws near — and Enola grows more fragile and edgy — Simon realizes that he can no longer save his sister by remaining still. He must solve the riddles of their past and break the curse that binds them.

These twin narratives, past and present, mirror each other with subtle brilliance, through plot, character, and theme. They are linked through family lines and repeating cycles of love, loss and betrayal. Both probe what it means to be present for someone you love, what happens when a love goes wrong, how to carry guilt and put it down, and how to reclaim history. There are many ways to drown, here, many ways to disappear, to curse, to heal, to make — and break — a home. These patterns weave an elegant bridge between reflected worlds. Swyler’s control of storylines is masterful and deft.

Her characters are vivid and enchanting: a lightning boy tattooed with tentacles; a scarred acrobat and thief; a mute boy who can vanish; a grandmother with a steel heart and wooden spoon; a Russian fortune teller on the run from Selkies; a boatswain with deep secrets; and a book dealer with a past that links them all. They are, at once, both magical and deeply human, flawed and striving. There are no easy heroes here, no cookie-cutter figures. Instead, Swyler gives us people strung with magic — some have “half a soul,” and others have too much, but all of them are daring. All of them are vibrant.

Early in the novel, Simon says, “All folktales have a price,” and there are many prices paid here. Swyler knows her history, and her fairytales — not the Disney brand, but older stuff. The witch, the woods, the water that devours. In The Book of Speculation, she chronicles the price, but reminds us to look deeper, to watch the story dazzle, to find something else inside the depths, the drowning: “a hope so bright it blisters.” The best novels show us not just who we are, but who we were and might become. They are mirrors that work to shove us from our skins — to live a different life, to imagine elsewhere. All the maybes. These books become a part of who we are and what we carry, what sustains us. Swyler’s novel works this type of magic. The Book of Speculation is a wonder, both marvelous and true.