Times New Keeferton Keef shows no signs of lethality or psychosis



There once was a traditional herbalist who ran her own shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall 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 with food.

Despite her relative success, she was disappointed by the infrequency with which she was 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 ingredients, and instructions for their preparation. 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 when it's good and hot. 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. The man came in the next day and bought some prayer candles and incense, and he thanked her, telling her that he'd never felt better.

This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would come in with specific needs, and told her what to give them. These were 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.

In addition to initial successes, 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 returned because now that she could sleep, she 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 universe." 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 head of 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 what's left of me 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, went home, and looked at the grains of gold. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.



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 and gathering them in his wicker basket. 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.



Once there was a woman who shared a life with her husband and their baby, and they lived happily together for a long time.

One day, the husband became very ill and died; 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.

Still, 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. I love that stuff." The woman agreed, and was both 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?"

"Oh, sure," said Grandmother Spider. "Put the toe of your shoe in the hole and jiggle it around."

The woman was frightened, but she put her toe in the hole and moved it in a circle. 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. "Oh, that's good tea. Thanks. What can I do for you?"


The woman sat and explained her situation. Grandmother Spider sat silently, sipping the hot black tea. Finally, when the woman's story was told, Grandmother Spider nodded and said, "I got you. I need to make you something, and then I'll tell you what to do with it."

The woman nodded.

"Don't look at me," 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 dammit, you looked," said Grandmother Spider. "I told you not to look. Now I have to start over. Close your eyes."

This time, the woman closed her eyes and kept them squeezed shut, even though the clicking was louder (and joined by metallic clanking and some sloshing), 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 handle three feet long.

"When your husband was dying," said Grandmother Spider, "you poured all your love into him. He clung to it, because he needed it, but he kept it all when he died. Kind of a jerk move. He left you nothing to give your daughter. Take this butterfly net. Go to the cemetery where your husband is buried. When you're close to him, love will come out of his mouth in a big 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, and gave the black tea thermos back to the woman. "I filled it with a special salve. Before you go in the cemetery, smear it all over your eyes. If you don't, you won't be able to see the cloud so you can catch it."

As soon as the woman stepped over the threshold of 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 dark unguent from the thermos into her hand and smeared it across her eyes. As soon as this was done, she noticed many colored 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 husband's 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 salve smeared on her eyes, and about the bright and shining black eyes of Grandmother Spider, and she continued to her husband's grave.

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 moved by itself straight into the net, where it sat and shimmered. The woman collapsed and sat with her back against the headstone, gazing into the netted cloud, which seemed to gaze back.

Eventually, she reached in and 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.



There is another America just a few dimensional hops away from ours, where no one campaigns for the highest office in the land (which, in that America, is God-Emperor). Instead, they are nominated by the electoral college, and they spend their time actively campaigning for the other God-Emperor candidates and denouncing their own views, accomplishments, and visions. During the last electoral cycle, a woman named Brenda was nominated to become the new God-Emperor; she had successfully been the governor of a the Gulf-Coast megalopolis, and was well beloved by her constituents.

"Do not vote for me," Brenda said into a microphone during the first debate. "I would be an awful God-Emperor, because my brain is riddled with worms. I am addicted to painkillers, and I am a sexual deviant. My paltry, weak, old, diseased body would be rejected by the souls of the Founding Fathers. Vote For Andrew-- he is as strong as a horse, all of his hair is real, and he is in no way beset by madness, as he claims."

Despite her protestations, Brenda was elected to the God-Emperorship in a landslide. She immediately attempted to flee to Cuba (which in that dimension is a socialist republic without a figurehead), but was stopped at the border and forced to return to the capital, where she was kept secure under guard. While sequestered, she underwent the rituals necessary for the coronation and inauguration: memorization of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights; full-head laser hair removal; ritual botox, facial tattooing, and branding; and one-on-one interviews with all media outlets, current cabinet members, agency heads, and international world leaders.

At the God-Emperor inauguration, which took place at the end of December, Brenda was fitted with the new God-Emperor crown, a full-head mask made entirely of platinum, gold, and titanium, set with precious stones, and decorated and filigreed to the utmost degree. (It is not removable, as the locking mechanism is placed behind the right ear, inaccessible once closed. There are openings at each orifice large enough for physicians and dentists to aid with any ailment or infection.)

Brenda had been kept awake for thirty-six hours prior to the inauguration, and had been given psychotropics and amphetamines by the handful in preparation. Even through all this, she performed the torch-passing admirably. In accordance with the Constitution, she leaned over and listened to the whispers of the outgoing God-Emperor; then brought the sledgehammer down, crushing the old crown and accomplishing the Founding-Father Soul-Transfer with a single blow. She had been well-trained by the priest-senators, and was carried through by rote muscle memory. Once this was complete, she was no longer Brenda. She was only the God-Emperor.

She held the bloody sledgehammer high to massive applause.

God-Emperor is an honorable role, and a six-year term as God-Emperor is full of earthly pleasures and all-encompassing power. God-Emperors reside at the top of the Capitol Ziggurat at the center of the national capital megalopolis, surrounded by hedonistic pleasures: only the finest cuisine, prepared by the finest chefs in the world; the most beautiful and/or handsome courtesans; servants by the score to fulfill every whim and desire; and the leadership of the most powerful country on the planet.

If she wanted to meet with the governor of one of the nation's megalopoli, she would clap and they would appear within the hour. She could speak with any head of any country on earth via videoconferencing within ten minutes. If she disagreed vehemently enough with a senator or representative, she could have him publicly flogged or beheaded; she chose to do this infrequently, and preferred tempered debate, although there were times when a display of power was necessary.

In this way, the God-Emperor was able to affect positive change, pass new legislation, and accomplish several longstanding political goals.

She took lessons to become a helicopter pilot. She personally murdered and replaced the lead singer of her favorite band, and went on a month-long world tour. She became very good at racquetball, despite the limitations in peripheral vision caused by the crown. She spent a week hiking Yosemite Valley. She worked with the World Wildlife Foundation and the National Institute of Science to clone the extinct Megatherium from soft tissue discovered in Bolivia; she created a refuge for them in South Texas, her home district, and ate the first one.

The God-Emperor never wanted for anything.

On the eve of the torch-passing, O children, the God-Emperor sat atop the Capitol Ziggurat and gazed across the megalopolis, sipping her hot mint tea (as tradition dictates). She pulled her Megatherium-fur coat tighter against the chill, and looked back over her life.

Not bad for a dumb street kid from Houston, she thought.

The next day, bound to the stone slab altar, she watched as the newly-elected God-Emperor took wobbly steps up the brick steps and slowly approached. As he bent down, she noticed the small differences in his crown-- the filigree beneath the eyes was a different pattern, the cheekbones were more pronounced; a small chain dangled across the forehead, where hers was encrusted with emeralds.

With his face inches from hers, she quietly whispered the ceremonial words that had been passed along from her predecessor, and his predecessor, all the way back to America's first God-Emperor.

She closed her eyes as he lifted the sledgehammer.

Image by the inimitable Bill Latham.



When she was forty, she flew up North to help her father move out of her childhood home and into a smaller condominium. Now that he was by himself, he didn't need the space, and besides, he wanted to start wintering in Florida. Moving out allowed him a lot of freedom, but she was still sad to see the old place go.

They filled hundreds of boxes. Donated some things, threw some away; put some in storage, moved some to the new condo.

The day of her flight back, her father first drove to the old, empty house. "I'll be right back," he said. "You wait here." She got out and leaned against the car, and her father walked in through the front door. She had walked with him through the house the day prior and seen that it was empty; she assumed that he just wanted to walk through one last time and revisit old memories.

After a few minutes, her father came back and handed her a horrible thing. It was about the size of a camping backpack, rising to a triangular point at the top; it was covered in what appeared to be a thin, short-haired, light-brown animal pelt, unmarred and unstitched, with no apparent pockets, zippers, clasps, or buttons. Some mysterious structure inside maintained a more-or-less rectangular shape, appearing hollow at the pointed top, and heavy and dense at the bottom. As she handled it, it seemed that it was filled with a thick, viscous substance, like honey, or molasses, or very fine sand; its center of gravity shifted as she moved it. It weighed about forty pounds.

"This is for you, daughter," the man said. "It is very important to me that you have this."

"What is it?"

"Your inheritance. Take it."

"Dad, I don't have room for this thing. I don't know what it is. It's hideous."

"That's fine. Just take it home with you. Make some room, put it away somewhere. The attic, the basement."

She lived in a condo that had neither of those things, but she didn't correct him.

"When you need it," he said, "you'll be glad you have it."

She paid the extra forty dollars to check it with her other bag, and watched the woman at the counter turn it around in confusion before finally slapping a sticker on the side of it and throwing it onto the conveyor. She got on the plane, slightly worried about what would happen when they X-rayed it, or if the TSA decided they needed to open it and inspect the contents.

When she landed, she sat in the baggage claim for two hours, just watching the strange furry bony thing go around and around on the luggage return. Finally, she hauled it onto her cart, and then loaded it into her trunk, where it sat for two weeks. Eventually, she hauled it into her home and shoved it into a storage closet.

That's where it sat. Periodically, she would remember it. When she did, the thought of it was always accompanied by the hope that she would never find out what it was, and that she would never need to.