Ashling and Ember: Part III (The Crow)

The stone hit the last crow flying by. It fluttered to earth like a broken kite, its left wing bent at an odd angle. Stuart, stricken with guilt, rushed over to the fallen crow. The crow cawed, “No beauty killing me.” It closed its eyes and waited for Stuart to wring its neck.

Stuart carried the crow home and made a splint for its wing. He fed it grubs and worms, gave it water, carried it out to a clearing every day to let the wind stir its feathers. The bird did not die, but its wing never healed.

Stuart made a cage out of woven saplings. He hung it in the window frame of a broken window to let the crow watch leaves ruffle in a breeze, butterflies flitter, deer nibble, bears scratch their backs on tree bark, and the Dark Fairy to pass like a shadow between the gaps in the trees.

The crow learned to call Stuart by name. Stuart got used to hearing the bird chitter and caw and missed the noise when he left the hut to do chores. He began to carry the crow with him when he went deep into the woods to chop down dead trees. He sat the crow on a stump while he split cord wood. He let the crow perch on a shoulder when he bartered for food with a man who came every Tuesday to take the cord wood away. The crow had a sharp eye and a keen nose. It spotted and smelled the first signs of bread and meat going bad. Stuart always got a better deal when he took the crow’s advice.

Stuart rewarded the crow with the first taste of every meal. He stroked the short feathers on the bird’s neck. He wrapped a scrap of cloth over the crow when nights turned cold. Stuart loved it. The crow never looked away when a stray beam of light struck Stuart’s face.

Stuart called “Good morning!” every day as he rolled off his mattress. But one morning, the crow did not caw “Morning!” in return. Stuart found him lying at the bottom of his cage, his body stiff and cold. He tenderly lifted his friend and carried him to the clearing. He buried him in a spot where the wind always blew and the sun shone bright on clear days.

An ash tree had fallen near the edge of the clearing. Stuart chopped a thick branch off and carried it home. He carved the wood until he had shaped the rough form of a bird. He shaved and whittled until the wings, the feet, the neck, the tail and finally the head emerged. He smeared the carved crow with black paint made from ashes and grease. He set the effigy in the crow’s cage. He gave it a scrap of bread every day and talked to it whenever he felt lonely.

Ashling and Ember: Part II (A Friendly Visit)

Stuart Molp wandered aimlessly in the dark forest until he came to a ramshackle wooden hut. The roof had partially caved in on one side. An oak door hung on a tilt on two of its three hinges. The fieldstone chimney crumbled on one side. All of the windows had been smashed. Stuart muttered, “Looks like home.”

He found an axe and a set of carving tools lying on a rough-hewn table inside the hut. A hunter’s cap, a wool blanket and a thick coat hung from a row of pegs on a rack near the door. A bed frame missing its mattress crouched in a corner. A broom made of twigs bound to a crooked stick leaned against a wall. An iron spit in the fireplace and a rusty frying pan served as cooking utensils.

Stuart wondered for a moment whether he had intruded on a woodman’s home. But layers of dust on the window sills and table, cobwebs hanging from the rafters, shattered glass and leaves on the floor indicated otherwise.

Stuart swept the hut, collected twigs and fallen branches for a fire, made a mattress by folding pine needles into the woolen blanket, and went to look for water. He found a clear stream flowing from a spring trickling from the face of a crag. He bent over the burn to cup a handful of water. A voice called out from above, “Who dares to drink the waters of Clag-uillen?”

A women dress in a black, tattered dress stood on a tree branch of an ash tree. The Dark Fairy. Stuart spit a mouthful of water into the stream, backed away and ran to the hut. He needn’t have bothered. The Dark Fairy sat on the doorstep. She cackled when he turned to dash into the woods. She said, “Dear me. Are we going to do this all day? No use running away, Stuart. I’ve come for a visit.”

Stuart stammered, “I’m s-s-sorry about the water. I didn’t know the stream was y-yours.”

“Oh, it’s not. I just made of that Clag-uillen business. I like to pull a prank now and then,” the fairy smirked.

Stuart touched a prominent bump on his nose. He knew the story of his cursed baptism.

The Dark Fairy said, “How do you like your new home?”

Stuart stared at the ground and gulped.

“What’s the matter? Didn’t your parents teach you to answer when the Dark Fairy asks a question?”

Stuart shook his head. The fairy said, “Does that mean they didn’t?”

Stuart muttered, “Not talking to you.”

“You sound angry,” the fairy observed. “I wouldn’t recommend becoming angry with me. And how could a friendly visit from the Dark Fairy raise your ire?”

“You d-did this to me!” Stuart stammered.

“I made you run away into a dark forest?” the fairy teased.

“No. Y-you made me ugly.”

“Oh, that. Yes I did. It’s your blessing. In time you’ll thank me for it,” she replied.

“No, I won’t!” Stuart shouted.

The Black Fairy stood up. Her face turned blood red. She swelled to twice her size, shook a fist at Stuart, and disappeared in sulfurous cloud of black smoke. A painful boil suddenly swelled on the back of his neck. Two more bumps sprouted on top of a compound bump on his nose.

A flock of crows flew over his head. He heard them caw, “Beauty is as beauty does!” Stuart picked up a stone and threw it at them.

Ashling and Ember: Part I (The Ugly Baby)

The Dark Fairy swept through the doorway of the chapel and marched, boots clicking on the marble floor, to the baptismal font. A priest held baby Stuart Molp in one arm. One clerical finger dripped holy water, but the blessing had yet to be conferred. The fairy raised her cane and cried out, “Wait! I claim right of precedence!”

The priest opened his mouth to object, but the Dark Fairy thrust a hand at him, twisted her fingers as if snatching something invisible out of the air, clapped her hand to her mouth and swallowed. The priest moaned but couldn’t utter a clearly spoken word. The fairy grimaced and said, “Those words taste terrible, worst flavor ever from a priest!”

The Dark Fairy snatched Stuart from the cleric. She waved her cane back and forth, criss-cross-criss, to ward off Stuart’s parents. She looked intently in the boy’s eyes and said, “I give you the blessing of ugliness!” Smoke puffed out of the fairy’s nostrils, encircled Stuart’s head, drifted away. The boy’s face turned yellowish gray. Flesh shifted and burbled beneath the skin’s surface. His features morphed into a lizard’s head. He stuck out a long, narrow tongue to taste the air. Gills on the side of his neck puffed in and out. The Dark Fairy gasped and said, “No! Too much!” She puffed another cloud over the infant’s face. When it dissipated, the boy looked like a chihuahua: pointy ears, bug-eyes. Stuart barked. The Dark Fairy rubbed her chin thoughtfully and muttered, “Kind of cute, but prone to attract fleas.” She puffed one last time. Stuart turned into a strikingly ugly boy with a misshapen head, flattened nose, misaligned eyes and jug ears. “There!” the fairy exclaimed. “Perfect!”

She tossed Stuart back to the priest, spat at the cleric’s feet, and stalked out of the chapel. The fairy’s saliva spattered his shoes and returned his voice to him. But he could not summon appropriate prayers for healing ugliness. He smiled weakly at Stuart’s parents, dumped the child in his mother’s arms, and scuttled out a side door.

Stuart’s parents loved him from an ever increasing distance. They might have adjusted to his appearance if his disfigurement had remained stable, but Stuart’s ugliness grew with every year. Odd bumps formed on his nose. One ear grew larger than the other and sprouted long hairs. His nose sank flatter and flatter. The whites of his eyes flared in streaks of yellow, red, and gray. They fed and clothed him, taught him to read, gave him toys. But they often spoke to him from other rooms and asked him to play outdoors even during blizzards and hail storms. They gave him birthday parties but invited no one to them. They bought hats designed to cast his face in deep shadow, hoodies that sank low over his brow, scarves they insisted should cover his face up to and over his nose.

By the time he turned seventeen, strangers crossed the street when they saw him coming. Stuart had no one at school willing to be seen in his company. Even the bullies took pity on him realizing that no satisfaction could be found in torturing a boy already living in complete misery.

Stuart bowed to the inevitable after his schooling ended. He left his parent’s home one day while they worked in their orchard, trudged to the woods at the edge of his village, and disappeared into the shadows beneath its sheltering boughs.

The Breakdown of Cause and Effect

Edward Gorey, the author, illustrator, set-designer, playwright, and puppet-show master, thought that life occurred as a series of random events. He suspected that the principle of cause and effect had a cracked foundation. “The Object Lesson”, one of Gorey’s illustrated books, floats from one scene to another as a man crosses over a nearly deserted landscape. One thing happens. A second, third, fourth thing happens. But the only element tying them together is the man witnessing the events. The object lesson of the story: life is pointless. There are no connections. Events, people, things spring into being…then disappear.

I sat at a light this morning waiting to take a right-on-red. The heavy traffic gave me time to notice a man standing on a nearby corner. He wore a tailored coat and head phones. He gestured, pointed and gave directions to folks who apparently weren’t there. Then I noticed a man at his side. The man paid no attention to the “director”. Then a 30ish woman walked toward the director while holding the hand of a four-year-old girl. They stopped when they came to within fifteen feet of him. They appeared to listen to the director but would come no nearer. The little girl looked apprehensive. Two men bearing shoulder-mounted cameras and a third man holding an equipment bag joined the woman and child in a huddled group. They suddenly stepped forward to meet the director and his inattentive sidekick at the corner. The director continued to gesture, point and call out directions, but I couldn’t tell if his charges understood him. They milled around sluggishly like dispirited ants from a disturbed ant hill. The light finally changed. I turned right and left them behind.

I went to an appointment with my chiropractor. Everything proceeded according to normal routine in the doctor’s office. But when I tried to pull out into traffic to head home, a long procession of cars and trucks lumbered past. I finally got a break, but a yellow-painted mini-bus lurched out from a side street just to my left. I paused to let it pass. White letters splashed across the bus’ front hood. They read: “BONE-X”. I pulled out behind it and saw another slogan on the back: “The Power Of Woman”. A painted golden flower surrounded the word “ORGASM” on the rear window.

I drove home wondering whether Gorey had somehow pulled me into his world.

Harpy's Pets and An Ogre Beset

Harpy’s Pets

I’ve been working the last month on linocut and woodcut prints. A Valencia College curator wants ten prints by March 1. She’ll make a selection for a group printmaking show in June.

“Harpy’s Pets” is a three-color reduction print. Reductions involve printing white and the lightest color first, cutting out block so that areas designated for a second and third color remain, then removing everything but raised sections for the final color. “Harpy” started with white and yellow, followed by red, followed by black.

I had problems getting a clean, properly aligned print: sometimes I rolled the ink too thickly and filled in shallow, narrow cuts; sometimes odd protuberances unintentionally printed in areas intended to be bare; sometimes I failed to line up ragged edges of rice paper properly with registration marks on my printing guide.

An Ogre Beset

I grumped as I studied the flaws in “Harpy’s Pets”. But frustration led to a desire to do better. So, I started a new print. Took a stick of charcoal, made random marks on a wooden board and waited for images to emerge. The horned ogre arrived first followed by the dragon, followed by the foot (upper left), followed eventually by the flying elephant (upper right). I fixed the charcoal to the board with hairspray, began to cut.

The light areas have already been cut. I’ll gouge away the tan areas leaving raised black lines and dark patches. There’ll be nothing but black and white tones in this print. Keep it simple, stupid.

My older prints centered around domestic dramas and human conflicts. Now I’m starting to notice a fairy tale, mythological trend in latest images. Animals, monsters, human/animal hybrids keep emerging out of clouds and tangles of marks. Perhaps my unconscious mind is drifting toward magical thinking.

DNA-Programmed Robots

Read an article in National Geographic stating that DNA drives the process of making decisions and choosing preferences. The writer noted that genetic material from parasites as well as our inherited code determine our actions. Sexual orientation, taste in food, political leanings, and attraction to specific mates are determined, at least partially, by the peculiarities in the sequencing of amino acids in our cells’ nuclei. In many ways, we resemble pre-programmed robots.

The author acknowledges that this news seems disheartening. We’re not bold, free individuals making choices using informed free-will. We’re puppets dancing to tunes written, for the most part, before our births. Although we can respond to unique situations as they arise, we do so according to set patterns.

He offers a bit of comfort. He states that we will eventually be able to edit our codes to tailor ourselves to meet fashionable standards. We’ll be able to perform the equivalent of plastic surgery on our genes to produce more palatable (if artificial) versions of ourselves. He also wraps us in a thin consolation blanket: if our lives are dictated by accidental combinations of segments of DNA, then we’re not responsible for anything. (Yay!) He concludes with a homily: judgment of an individual’s faults is simple intolerance once we realize that none of us can help who she or he has become. No one can cast the first stone.

The author, a microbiologist, subscribes to a mechanistic view of humanity. We cannot exceed the sum of our parts. We delude ourselves when thinking otherwise. Our selfish genes seek their expression and propagation throughout a population, and we are meek automatons campaigning for their cause.

Religions hold up loving service and devotion to God as standards for building a worthy life. But a scientist can explain a saint’s self-sacrifice away. Our selfish genes not only seek to spread their influence throughout a population, they also seek the survival of related genomes. When a prophet dies for his fellow human beings, his genes are simply directing him to model activity beneficial for the survival of the assembled gene banks (men and women) in his coterie.

Oh my.

January is the New April

Mom wrote last week to report 60 degree temps in southwest Ohio. We played spring baseball in 60-degree weather when I was a kid. Times and weather patterns have changed: January is the new April.

Back when, the coldest days of the year in the Midwest clustered in mid January. 20-below temperatures persisted for two weeks in 1977. When a February mini-thaw arrived that year, folks basked in the relatively balmy, just-above-freezing weather. I also remember a January day in a mountain valley in Pennsylvania where college kids strolled around campus in shorts and t-shirts. The mercury read 36 degrees.

We had several harsh winters when I was an undergrad at the University of Dayton. One of my friends, a fellow biology student, spent his early years in sub-arctic Minnesota. He kept his thermostat set at 50 degrees and didn’t mind when frost formed on the floor beneath drafty windows. One particularly frigid night, he noticed my running nose and shivers as I huddled in a winter coat on his sofa. He took pity and offered some advice: he told me to shed my coat and stand outside on his porch. He said, “You’ll feel nice and warm once you come back in.” I didn’t follow his instructions but chose to go home where I sat near a register and sipped hot chocolate.

This same friend suffered the tortures of the damned during the summer. He worked in a factory with no air-conditioning. The most relief he could summon at home came from sitting in front of a floor fan. I felt tempted, when he chafed and moaned about steamy Dayton summers, to tell him to go stand out in the full sun until he felt faint. He’d feel much cooler when he came back inside.

This week, the Canadian Arctic reclaimed its normal dominance by sending waves of frigid air south. Miami had a low of 43 degrees this morning. Comatose iguanas fell from trees creating cold-lizard precipitation, a weather phenomenon occurring only in south Florida. Our temps in Orlando flipped from an 80-degree-high/60-degree-low to a 52/38 split. A blustery wind whipped by at 20 m.p.h. further chilling cold-averse central Floridians.

Judy and I drove to the grocery store this morning. Wind shuddered the car and sent plastic grocery bags and bits of paper (trash day in a neighborhood lacking in garbage can lids) drifting by like the jetsam in the tornado scene from “The Wizard of Oz”. I saw Judy shivering in the seat next to me, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. I took pity and thoughtfully echoed my college friend: I told her that when we lived in the frozen north, we’d consider a day like this a lovely spring day. I implied that temperature is a relative experience. Her discomfort was all in her head.

She didn’t agree. She turned the car heater to full red.