Times New Keeferton Keef shows no signs of lethality or psychosis

31Oct/160

DEATH AND THE KERBEROXEN

qiviut-merchant

Gray clouds swirl in the sky above the land of the dead, but never part. Sunlight never touches the bones strewn across the countryside. Warmth never melts the soft snow that falls to blanket the gentle hills and valleys, copses and dales of Death's freehold. Bitter wind creeps through walls and flesh just the same, sowing ice and salt as it goes. Despite the lack of sunlight, blighted stalks of arctic willow grow from shallow tundra soil, up through ribs and mandibles, up through eye sockets and collarbones, straining above the snow cover by force of will alone. After all, Death's herd must eat.

The kerberoxen move in small groups, shaggy, gray-brown, and asymmetrical. They mar the bleached landscape: hot tears on blotter paper. Their hooves punch down through snow and bone, raking and scraping to reveal willow, or crowberries, or lichen that has managed to take hold on a half-buried cranial plane. When a kerberox finds food, its central head lowers to eat, while the head on each side either rises to keep watch for competition if the patch is small, or begins calling out to neighbors in a low baritone if the food source is large enough for other members of the herd to eat.

Some of the kerberoxen are molting. Every Sunday, Death walks across the estate, inspecting the animals, checking to see which are ready for combing. Because there are no changes to the weather, there is no molting season. Each animal molts regularly, but not en masse. Death combs all the qiviut-- the fine, downy woolen underhair-- by hand, and works it with thin quick phalanges, keeping only the softest and finest fibers.

Each kerberox only molts once a year, but Death is nothing if not patient.

Death lives in an old wooden house in the center of the estate. The house is very warm. It's connected to Death's hothouse mulberry grove, where Death raises silkworms. Death knows the precise moment when each silkworm is ready to hatch, and is prepared. One eyedropper of warm water, squeezed onto the cocoon; nimble slender fingerbones, spinning the silk thread off in one single long strand; spindles, to collect the silk. The cocoon turns quickly in Death's deft hands, until the last of the thread winds off, and the new moths-- heritage Bombyx mandarina-- fly off in little circles, dizzy but unharmed, until Death releases them.

Death is a vegetarian.

The house creaks and groans and squeaks in the constant wind, which Death finds to be a comfort. Sometimes late at night, lying in an old wooden bed, Death relaxes and allows the clouds to dissipate. Moonlight performs a slow dappled waltz across the walls and ceilings of Death's home, diffused by empty trees and reflected by snow, and the sound of a steam train engine calls across the grange, though there is no outbound traffic. Death's angora rabbits shiver in their sleep on the quilted bedspread, and Death knows peace.

Death combines the kerberox qiviut in a particular ratio with the rabbit angora and fine silk to make thread. Death alone spins this thread, and then, in the evenings, Death knits. A single kerberox combing can be used to knit enough thread to make seven square feet of cabled cloth, but Death is nothing if not persistent.

Sometimes at night Death lies covered by the quilt in the moonlight, surrounded by small warm sleeping rabbits. Death remembers what it was like to have been alive. Remembers the fear of abandoning one's body, the dreaded impending revelation of the mystery. If Death had eyebrows, they would raise in sympathy; if Death had lips, they would curl up in a small smile: recognition of shared experience; remembrance of crossing universal thresholds.

For Death knows: we are all ghosts temporarily thrust into living bodies. There is evidence in every coffin, every x-ray, every sugar skull, every Halloween night. When we go, everything that we are-- every intention, every desire, every love, every hate-- is woven into Death's great darkness. Death gathers it all. Death remembers. And Death will knit until all of the knitting is done.

Death is knitting a shroud large enough to encompass the earth.

Art courtesy of the excellent Randy Ortiz.

8Apr/160

THE CELLMATE AND THE RABBIT

This fable is a continuation, of sorts, of this one.

Many years ago, O children, there was a man who was arrested with less than a quarter-ounce of substandard marijuana. Although he was a nonviolent drug offender, it was his third conviction, and so he was sentenced to prison for a very long time. He calmly and good-naturedly tried to serve his term in a low-security level prison. While he was unhappy to be incarcerated, and very much looked forward to his eventual release, he tried to make the best of his time; he used the library, and the weight room, and did little meditations, and wrote little songs.

One evening more than halfway through his sentence, the jailors came to his cell door and unlocked it. "Got a new cellie for you, pal," said a guard, and ushered in an old man.

The old man was unlike any cellmate the prisoner ever had. He was very old, with skin like papyrus. His skin was all white, whiter even than the skin of prisoners coming out of solitary confinement. His eyes were pink and very bright. He wasn't wearing a standard orange jumpsuit, but instead a finely bespoke suit and hat made of pure white unmarred fabric. He carried a large white rabbit in his hands, and he walked into the cell and sat down on the bottom bunk, making eye contact with the prisoner the entire time, and stroking the wide-eyed rabbit in his lap with one gnarled hand.

"Hey," said the prisoner.

The cellmate did not respond, except by staring at the prisoner and petting the rabbit.

"What's your story, man? What you in for? How come you get to wear a suit?"

The cellmate did not respond, except to scratch the rabbit behind the ears with his long white fingernails.

The prisoner went to the bars of his cell and called out to the guard. "Hey, who the hell is this guy? Why's he get to wear his own clothes? Why's he get to bring a pet?"

The guard calmly walked over to the cell. "Temporary arrangement. For his safety. He ain't like you, he'll be gone after tomorrow. You were just the only one who had a vacancy. Don't do anything stupid."

"Okay," said the prisoner. "This is fucked up, though."

"You're tellin' me, pal," said the guard.

The prisoner leaned against the bars for a minute, then turned around. The old man was still staring at him.

"Well, that's my bunk," said the prisoner. When the old man didn't respond, he said, "But hey, that's cool. One night, you take that bunk. I'll sleep up top."

Eventually, the prisoner lowered himself and sat cross-legged on the floor across from his new cellmate. He stared back, and counted his breaths, and kept quiet. He fought down his deep sense of unease, and rubbed down the hairs on his arms, which had all risen of their own accord.

The sun eventually went down, and the cell darkened. Neither man spoke, and after a time, the lights in the cell went out, leaving only moonlight streaming through the bars of the cell's only window.

The old man raised his free hand and held up three fingers (pinky, ring, and middle). "Have you ever been on a deserted island, with no way back and no place to sleep, and watched the sun set over the mainland?"

The man paused and remembered an incident from his past, when he was young, and made many mistakes. "Once, yeah."

The old man dropped his middle finger and nodded. "Have you ever been alone in a house at night and seen a herd of cows gathered at the windows to look at you?"

"How the fuck you know this shit, man? I never told anybody about that."

The old man nodded again, and dropped his ring finger, leaving only his pinky raised. "Have you ever seen a pack of wolves bring down a stag?"

"What? No. What the fuck are you even talking about, man?"

The old man smiled, not unkindly, and lowered the remaining finger, making a fist. "It's quite a thing to behold. A single wolf could never do it alone, not a big stag, full-antlered, but a pack could, if they work together. If they're hungry enough. They start by tearing at the legs." He scratched the top of the rabbit's head. The rabbit chewed something unseen. "Go to sleep," said the old man.

Hesitantly, and not unafraid, the prisoner climbed up into the top bunk and rested his head on his pillow. He had every intention of staying awake all night in order to protect himself, but found himself almost immediately asleep.

His dream was dark, and full of shadows and swirling black mist. The prisoner tried to move through his murky blindness, but found that he could only move slowly. He heard a rhythmic thrum, the persistent desperate knocking of an unwanted and dreadful but ultimately ecstatic revelation. The prisoner turned around to run from it, but he could not tell one direction from another, and the pounding got louder and closer no matter which way he moved.

The prisoner awoke as the sun was rising and the first rays of the day peeked through the bars of the window. Although he'd slept all night, he felt more exhausted than ever. He groaned, and lowered himself slowly to the floor, and made his way to the steel privy in the corner, where he relieved himself.

The old man still sat on the lower bunk, one hand folded over the other. "Good morning," he said, and smiled wide, revealing a set of small red-stained teeth.

"Morning," said the prisoner softly. The lights in the cell slowly flickered to life. The guards unlocked the door and led the old man away, leaving the prisoner alone once again.

Art by the incredible Dragan Bibin. Used with permission.

19Feb/160

THE HERBALIST AND THE MANDRAKE ROOT

There once was a traditional herbalist, O children, with a shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall spa and nail salon in a small Arkansas town. She had painted a small sign that hung in the window of the nail salon, offering her services: traditional herbal health treatments, aromatherapy, prayer candles, country incense, homeopathy. She had a steady trickle of customers, to whom she sold a lot of prayer candles and incense, and in this way she was able to keep the lights on in her small house, and keep her refrigerator stocked. She was disappointed that she wasn't often asked to perform her traditional herbalist medicine. She had been taught in the ways of country remedies by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, and so on up the family tree as far as her heirloom Bible went.

In her backyard, she maintained the family garden: sumac, whole cloves, cubeb, prickly ash, a patch of ginger; an orange tree; angelica, peppermint, caraway; coneflower, foxglove, black-eyed susan. She used these infrequently in her shop, but often for personal use, and it was important to her to continue the family tradition.

One night during a full moon, when the plants were at their most potent, she harvested ribwort and hazel and lavender, and other things. As she did so, she heard a muffled high-pitched whine, like a small child screaming into a pillow. She stopped picking and listened, and followed the sound to its origin beneath a bough of her rowan tree. Carefully and slowly, she reached into the soil with her fingertips, and pulled out a screaming mandrake root. "How curious," she thought, as the mandrake shrieked into her face. "I have never planted mandrake." She placed her thumb over its wee little mouth, so as not to bother the neighbors, and took her harvest indoors, where she began preparing the plants.

Some went into an infusion, some were ground in a mortar and pestle, and some were laid out to dry. As she worked, the mandrake root sometimes coughed. As she broke up rowan bark, it started to loudly clear its throat, and as she zested oranges into a small jar, the mandrake spoke to her. "Tomorrow, a woman will come in to the shop. She will have rheumatoid arthritis." Then it rattled off a list of instructions and ingredients. The woman quickly gathered the materials, and put the mixture into a jar to soak overnight.

The next day, a woman came in for arthritis. "I knew you were coming," said the herbalist, and handed her the jar with a small label stating what it was for. "Tonight, heat up a cast-iron skillet on your stove. Put a towel over your head, and pour this into the cast-iron skillet. Put your head over the skillet, and breathe the smoke and vapor for thirty, forty-five seconds, or until it starts to really burn. Then stop. That'll be forty dollars."

That night, the mandrake root said, "Tomorrow, a man will come in with a broken heart. Here is what he will need." The mandrake listed ingredients and instructions, and asked the woman to cut off a chunk of its own mandrake root body, to include in the mixture. The woman did as she was told, and the next day she sold it to the man and gave him instructions for inhalation with his cast-iron skillet. The man thanked her the next day, telling her that he'd never felt better.

This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would coming in with specific needs, and told her what to give for them, always mixtures to be burned, steamed, and inhaled. For certain customers, the mandrake demanded that she cut off parts of it to be included and breathed in by her customers. The woman became much more successful, and had to order many more prayer candles and much more incense. Also, the herbalist started getting repeat customers.

The broken-hearted man came back in, for an inflamed liver. "I can feel it pulsating inside me," he said, "like a great black prune, a hungry prune." She gave him more mandrake infusion.

An insomniac woman came back because she now had terrible dreams. "A combine chases me through a field of wheat under bright moonlight," she said, "and I can feel that my feet are broken, but I must keep running, as the machine chases me and chases me." She gave the woman more mandrake infusion.

A man haunted by his father came back because he missed the presence of the ghost. "It was bad, hearing him moan and drip blood onto the floor while I lay in the dark, but it is much worse to not hear him moan and drip blood onto the floor, while I lay alone, in the dark, in the middle of this galaxy." She gave him more mandrake infusion.

The business kept coming. The woman's savings account grew plump. The body of the mandrake root dwindled until all that was left was its head.

One night, the mandrake root said, "This is the end. Two days from now, an old man will come into the shop. He will not speak, but his breath will smell of honey, and shit, and saffron. You must muddle an herbal concoction to exact specifications." The mandrake root gave her a very specific list of ingredients, with multiple steps for muddling, infusing, powdering. "Now, you must place my head in your mortar, and use your pestle to grind me into mush. I will go into the jar last. Bury the jar beneath your rowan tree and leave it there overnight."

The herbalist did as she was told.

She thought she was prepared, but when the man arrived, she was shocked. His skin was all white, and his beard and hair too. He wore a suit made from the brightest white cloth she had ever seen, including a white leather tie and hat. His eyes were bright pink and rapidly moved back and forth as he looked at her. When he opened his mouth, all she could see was a deep ruby red, and the shop filled with the deep sweet permeating stench of honey and saffron and shit. Silently, with shaking hands, she handed him the soil-caked jar. The man reached into his inside vest pocket and brought out six small grains of gold, the size and shape of rice, and dropped them, tinkling, onto her counter.

Then he left.

The woman closed early, and went home, and looked at the grains of gold in her hand. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.

5Feb/160

THE FARMER AND THE NOSE

There once was a farmer with several acres of land. He sowed and tended and reaped, and in this manner he fed himself and his family. He grew wheat, and turnips, and potatoes. He grew strawberries, and asparagus, and carrots. He traded with the other farmers around him, giving his fruits and vegetables in return for meat, and milk, and other good things. He and his husband and their daughter were all very happy.

One day while picking strawberries, the farmer found a nose, half-buried in the dirt. "How curious," said the farmer, and picked the nose up. He brushed the black soil from the nostrils and thought, "I don't think I know anyone who would have lost a nose." As the last bits of black soil fell from it, the nostrils of the nose flared to life, sniffing and wheezing. The farmer was startled, and dropped the nose back to the ground, where it continued to breathe and sniff and huff and puff. The farmer moved on and picked strawberries on the other side of the nose, but at the end of the day, he returned, picked up the nose, and brought it back to the house.

"Look at what I found in the field today, when I was picking strawberries," said the farmer to his husband and daughter. None of them could think of anyone who could have lost a nose, and all three stared in wonder at how the nose appeared to be sniffing and flaring in such a lifelike manner. "Well, we had better keep it," said the farmer's husband, "in case we meet someone who has lost a nose, so that they can use it." He put the nose on the mantel, and there it sat, occasionally sniffing or sneezing.

The next day, the farmer went out to pick tomatoes, as they had just turned a beautiful deep shade of red. He spent all day picking the roundest tomatoes from the vines, gathering them in his wicker basket, and part of the afternoon besides. A few hours before sunset, he looked down and discovered to his dismay that he had almost stepped on a set of eyes, which quivered and stared upwards at his bootheel. The farmer quickly moved his foot to avoid the eyes and bent down to take a closer look. As he moved, the eyes followed; as he gawped, the eyes blinked.

That night, the eyes joined the nose on the mantel, and they rolled and followed the farmer and his husband and their daughter as they moved around the house, cooking and eating, singing songs and preparing for bedtime.

The next day, while harvesting apricots from his small grove, the farmer found two ears tucked amongst the flower blossoms; the day after that, he found two lean cheeks on a peach tree. After a week of this-- a shaggy brown scalp betwixt the peppers, a neck and chin buried with the sweet potatoes, and finally a chattering skull mixed in with the cantaloupes-- the farmer had assembled a near-complete head on his mantel. The eyes had gone in the sockets, the ears on the sides, and so on. That Saturday night, the head stared down at them, occasionally cocking to one side to hear them better, sniffing at the bread as it came out of the oven, and staring down with them as they ate, grinning its skeletal toothy grin.

"I am so curious," said the farmer's daughter. "What is it doing? What does it want?"

"I am also curious," said the farmer. "Who does this head belong to? Do they want it back? It seems to be personable enough, although I do wish it would stop showing us its teeth." When it heard this, the head looked down and tried to turn away.

"Oh, hush," said the farmer's husband. "It can't help that, dear. Now you've gone and made it worry. Don't worry, head, don't worry."

The next day was Sunday, and the farmer and his husband and their daughter went to church. When they returned, no sooner had they started preparing for lunch when they heard a moist slapping sound at the front door.

"Whatever could that be?" asked the farmer. When he opened the door, he discovered a mouth laying on the welcome mat. "Ah," he said, and quickly placed the mouth over the head's skully grin. Now the head was complete. The whole family gathered around the mantel expectantly.

"He's almost kind of handsome, in an odd way," said the farmer's daughter.

"Burton," said the head on the mantel. "Burton, burton, burton burton. Burton burton burton burton burton."

"What on earth does that mean?" asked the farmer.

"Burton burton burton," said the head, with eyes lowered.

"Maybe he doesn't speak English," said the farmer's husband.

"Burton burton?" asked the head.

"Perhaps it is dumb," said the farmer, and when the head's eyebrows raised in dismay, he quickly added, "Mute, I meant to say. Not stupid."

"Burton," said the head.

"Hush, dear," said the farmer's husband. "Burton is our guest. Daughter, please make sure to roast enough beets to feed Burton as well."

The head smiled down at them beatifically.

That night, as the farmer and his husband and their daughter prepared for bedtime, the head opened its mouth and sang a soft, low, wordless lullaby, a repeating melodic phrase, and everyone slept easily and deeply.

8Jan/161

THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER LOVE

Once there was a woman with a husband and a baby, and they were all happy. One day, the husband became very ill and died, and after he was gone, the woman lived in a dark place. She found that she no longer enjoyed spending time with her friends. She did not enjoy the taste of food or drink. And she found that she could no longer love her daughter.

The woman went to her therapist and described her symptoms. The therapist tried many things, medicines and rituals, but nothing the therapist tried did any good. Finally, the therapist sat down and sighed. "It is beyond my abilities to help you with this," she said to the woman. "However, all is not lost. There is something I can recommend, but it is a bit unorthodox."

"I'll do anything," said the woman.

"Return to your home," said the therapist. "Retrieve your phone book, and find the listing for Grandmother Spider."

When the therapist said this, the woman gasped, for she knew what this meant and was afraid. But she went home and did as she was told. She scheduled an appointment with Grandmother Spider, who said, "Bring me a thermos of hot black tea, because I love that stuff." The woman was excited and worried, and she found it very hard to sleep.

The next day, she went to the address listed in the phone book, but saw nothing. She kept looking, and finally saw a small hole in the ground.

"Hey, down here," said Grandmother Spider from inside the hole. "Come on in."

"I am much too large," said the woman. "How will I get inside such a small space?"

"No problem," said Grandmother Spider. "Wedge your foot in the hole and jiggle it around a little."

The woman was frightened, but she put her foot in the hole. As soon as she did, the small hole grew very large-- or the woman grew very small-- and she stepped inside. Grandmother Spider took the thermos of hot black tea from her and took a long drink. "Ahh, that's the good stuff, all right. Thanks for the tea. Now, what can I do for you?"

grandma-spider-ink

The woman sat and explained her situation. Grandmother Spider sat silently, sipping the hot black tea. Finally, when the woman's story was done, Grandmother Spider said "I think I know what you need to do. I have something I am going to make for you and give to you, and instructions for you to follow. Do you agree?"

The woman nodded.

"Don't look at what I am doing," said Grandmother Spider.

The woman closed her eyes, and shortly she heard a frenzied clicking sound. After several minutes, the clicking grew louder, and eventually the woman could not withhold her curiosity. She opened her eyes, and saw Grandmother Spider hurriedly weaving an intricate net. "Whatever is that for, Grandmother?" she asked. As the words left her mouth, the net crumbled to dust.

"Oh, goddammit, you looked," said Grandmother Spider. "I told you not to look. Now I have to start over. Close your eyes, for real this time."

This time, the woman closed her eyes and kept them squeezed shut, even though the clicking was louder (and joined by metallic clanking), until she was told to open them. When she did open her eyes, she saw that Grandmother Spider had woven a beautiful and strong butterfly net, with an opening two feet in diameter, and a strong woven handle three feet long.

"When your husband was dying," said Grandmother Spider, "you poured all your love into him. He was a selfish jerk and kept it all when he died, leaving you nothing to give your daughter. Take this butterfly net, and go to the cemetery where your husband is buried. As his body returns to the earth, love will come out of his mouth in a big weird colored cloud. Catch the love in the butterfly net and eat it, and then you can give it to your daughter."

"Yes, Grandmother," said the woman.

"Also, hey, take this back," said Grandmother Spider, presenting the thermos to the woman. "I filled it with a magic liquid. Before you go in the cemetery, smear it all over your eyes. If you don't, you won't be able to see the big weird cloud so's you can catch it."

As soon as the woman left Grandmother Spider's house, it shrunk-- or she enlarged-- and she was back on the sidewalk. She quickly drove to the cemetery as the sun began to set behind the trees. In her Volvo, she poured some of the magic liquid from the thermos into her hand, and she smeared it across her eyes. As soon as this was done, she noticed many clouds floating in the cemetery. She quickly got out of her vehicle and ran towards her husband's grave.

Along the way, the woman saw a bright blue cloud come out of the grave of a stranger. It darted back and forth in the air above the headstone. "It would perhaps be wise to get some practice before I need to capture my own cloud," the woman said to herself. She planted her feet, squared her shoulders, and as the bright blue cloud hovered toward her, she swung the butterfly net. The cloud passed completely through, not even wavering in the breeze of the passing air. "Oh, dear," said the woman to herself, but she thought about the magical liquid smeared on her eyes, and about the bright and shining black eyes of Grandmother Spider, and she continued to her husband's gravesite.

As soon as the woman stepped onto the foot of the grave, a billowing pink and red cloud, filled with dozens of little sparking firelights, poured forth from the grass at the head, as if being exhaled. The woman took a halting step forward and held out the net, worried that she wouldn't be fast enough, but the cloud slowly moved by itself straight into the net, where it sat and sparkled. The woman slumped down and sat with her back against the headstone, overwhelmed, and just gazed into the netted cloud, which seemed to gaze back. Eventually, she reached in, pulled out a bit of the cloud, which felt a bit like warm damp gauze, and put it into her mouth.

It tasted like slightly salty cotton candy, and melted in her mouth.

Immediately, she felt love for her daughter well into her heart, like blood from a pricked fingertip; she rapidly scarfed down the rest of the cloud, and wept.

Grandmother Spider drawn by Rob Eagleton.