Times New Keeferton Keef shows no signs of lethality or psychosis

15Dec/170

THE MAN WHO COULDN’T STOP TALKING

When his alarm rang on a Tuesday morning, Andrew Vandergriff groggily turned it off, rolled over, and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. When he opened his eyes, he was startled to see a small mouth on the back of his left hand, mid-yawn. The mouth hadn't been there when he went to sleep, and yet here it was: about an inch and a half wide, with full, fleshy lips and perfect small teeth.

"Good morning," said the mouth, and smiled.

"Good morning," said Andrew, but the mouth didn't respond again.

"Hello?" Still nothing. "Did I imagine that?" asked Andrew. The mouth maybe smirked, but remained silent. Andrew probed the lips and teeth with his finger, and then called his primary care physician. "It's... well, it's a small... wound on my hand," he said, and made an appointment for the following Monday.

Andrew had a toaster waffle for breakfast, covered the mouth with a gauze bandage, and went to work. On the way, he stopped at Starbucks. When the barista handed him his latte, the mouth on his hand chewed off the gauze and spit it out. "You should smile!" it hollered at the barista. "You'd look really pretty if you smiled!"

a hand reaching for a coffee. the hand has a grotesque mouth with puckered lips on it.

Andrew clapped his right hand over the mouth, sloshing coffee on the counter. "Oh god I'm so sorry," he said. The barista stared after him with disgust as he ran out.

At the office, he tamped a paper towel gag into the tiny mouth and wrapped his hand in duct tape. It took him a half hour to calm down, but he was relaxed when he went into the morning meeting. A consulting expert was visiting the company to demonstrate and explain their new filing system. While she was explaining the benefits of the switch, a new tiny mouth sprouted in the crook of Andrew's right elbow. "Well, actually," it bellowed, "our old system was better at--"

"Aaaa!" said Andrew, and clapped his left hand over the new mouth.

"Please don't interrupt me," said the visiting expert.

The tiny mouth bit Andrew's fingers, and he yelped and pulled his hand away. "Calm down!" yelled the tiny mouth.

"Oh my gosh I'm sorry!" said Andrew, and ran out of the conference room. Back at his desk, he tamped another paper towel gag into the new mouth and wrapped duct tape around his elbow. Once that was done, he closed his door and decided to try to stay in his office for the rest of the day.

As he sat at his desk and ate his lunch salad, his boss knocked on his door. "No eating at your desk," he said. "You know that. Take it to the employee lounge." Andrew sighed and gathered his food.

In the lounge, Andrew sat alone at a table and tried to eat as quickly as possible. At the next table, two women were having a conversation. One of them had just had a bad date, and was describing it to her coworker. As Andrew crunched down on a crouton, a new mouth sprouted on his neck. "Not all men!" it said. "Not all men!"

"Oh, shit!" screamed Andrew, and crammed a forkful of lettuce into the tiny mouth while bolting out of the room.

Back at his desk, Andrew applied another paper towel gag and wrapped duct tape around his neck. He called his doctor, demanded an emergency appointment, and left work early.

On the way to the train stop, Andrew found himself in the middle of a crowded protest outside City Hall. All around him, people waved signs, chanted slogans, and marched through the streets. As he walked through the crowd, one of the protesters smiled at him and handed him some reading material. As he took it, another mouth sprouted on his belly, beneath his buttondown shirt. "You know," it shouted, "I'm of Irish descent, and I don't know if you know this, but--"

Andrew punched himself in the gut and tried to walk faster through the crowd, which was starting to turn and stare at him. He started to run.

A new mouth sprouted on his forehead. "If I could just play devil's advocate here for a second..."

Another one, on his knee: "Please, consider both sides."

Andrew ran as fast as he could, screaming at his new mouths. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!"

The illustration for this fable was provided by the delightful and talented Mike Edrington.

14Mar/172

ANDREA AND THE CHICKENS

There once was a woman named Andrea whose family kept four chickens in a small coop in their backyard. Andrea's wife Stephanie had convinced the family that keeping chickens was a good idea, and it had been good, by and large. The eggs were delicious, and the children loved watching the birds peck and scratch.

The family took turns feeding and watering the chickens, spreading diatomaceous earth to keep the smell down, and replacing the straw. Andrea hated taking her turn with the chickens: their beady eyes, so vacant and yet so expectant; their sharp claws, ever scratching at the dirt; the pungent tang of their droppings. She always tried to trade chores with the other members of the family. Most of the time she was able to avoid chicken duty, but not always, and so it was that one morning her alarm clock went off before the sun came up and she had to rise for chicken-tending.

Andrea sighed and went out into the dewy dark backyard to feed and water the chickens and gather eggs. She put the eggs (only two this morning) into her little basket and squatted down to fill the chickens' water. As she was bent down, Doris-- a beautiful black-and-white Barred Plymouth Rock hen-- hopped up onto the shoulder of her purple robe.

"Bok buk bugok," said Doris.

"Agh shit," said Andrea, and quickly stood up. Doris came up with her, and shifted her head to look Andrea right in the eye.

"Bok," said the chicken.

"Uh, hello, Doris," said Andrea. She regarded the chicken on her shoulder, and Doris regarded her right back.

Slowly, Andrea reached into her robe pocket and pulled out her phone. She opened the camera and lifted it up, taking a few selfies in quick succession, while thinking about potential captions for the internet. Tough-guy face for the first one, maybe with the caption "Who you callin' chicken?" For the second, Doris looked kind of sad, so Andrea grinned big; "The Egg-ony and the Egg-stasy." For the third, Andrea licked her lips and stared wide-eyed at Doris. Caption: "My Dinner With Andrea." She could look at the selfies again inside, and post the best one. As she slipped the phone back into her robe pocket, Doris darted forward and buried her entire head in Andrea's ear.

Andrea screamed and fell backwards into the straw. Doris scrabbled for purchase and maintained a grip on the robe, but let out a startled "BUK BOK BUGOK!" The clucking echoed, unbearably loud, inside Andrea's head. Immediately, a horrible burning and itching started; Doris pecked around inside Andrea's cranium, and little neck feathers brushed maddeningly against Andrea's inner ear. Doris, in all the thrashing, yanked down the collar of the robe and buried a set of talons into Andrea's bare shoulder. Andrea screamed again and reached up and around, wrapping her hands around the bird's neck and midsection, lifting it away.

The head stayed put, and Doris' body stopped short. "BUK BUGOK," Doris hollered into Andrea's head, and shat all over the robe. Andrea closed her eyes and tried not to panic. If she freaked out and yanked too hard, she could kill the chicken, and then she'd have a dead hen wedged headfirst in her ear. Worst of all, if she pulled hard enough, the chicken head might actually detach, tick-like, and remain buried, dripping its own thick blood down Andrea's neck.

The other three birds watched calmly from the yard.

Andrea reached up with the arm closest to Doris and held the bird's body down tight against her shoulder, preventing further clawing and scrabbling. With the other hand, she reached up and followed the chicken's neck as far as she could, until she hit her own ear. The entire skull was inside her head. The clucking continued unabated. Andrea carefully folded her fingers over the top of the chicken's neck and pressed the meat of her thumb against her temple, applying gentle but steady pressure out and away.

After thirty seconds of itching and crowing, there was a loud popping sound, almost exactly like squeezed bubblewrap, and Doris' head came loose. Andrea threw the chicken onto the ground, where it looked at her with an expression as close to surprise as a chicken's face can muster. Doris' head was caked with viscous yellow earwax.

Immediately, Andrea decided that she could tell no one. She wiped Doris' head off with a paper towel as best she could and went about her business. She brought in the eggs. She put the robe, bloody and spattered with Doris droppings, into the washer. She showered, spending a lot of extra time with a Q-Tip, and pulled out three large feathers and five small ones. She deleted all of the chicken-selfies. She vomited and got dressed; got the children up, fed, and clothed; dropped them off at school, and went to work.

While listening to a PowerPoint presentation that morning, Andrea heard a single muted cluck. She yelped and shoved her chair back from the table, scuffling backwards and drawing glances. After coming to her senses, she played it off as an insect crawling up her ankle. She tried to resume learning about the benefits of a particular bookkeeping software, but her mind was elsewhere.

The clucks kept coming, each one slightly different; there were long pauses between them at first, but the intervals grew shorter and shorter until they rang through her head every few seconds. Andrea left work at noon. The closer she got to her home, the louder they became, until she found herself in the backyard staring at Doris.

"What did you do to me, Doris?"

The chicken looked at her, then pecked at the ground.

"How do I stop this, Doris?" asked Andrea.

"Bugok," said Doris, and the sound echoed like a fart in a cathedral, resonating and filling Andrea's entire awareness. She fell to her knees.

Something needed to be done. As soon as she could stand, Andrea got a hatchet out of the shed. She carried Doris, seemingly-unconcerned, over to a stump, and braced her with one hand. With the other, she quickly brought down the blade. Doris' head flopped onto the grass, and her thin little legs kicked and flailed in the air. The clucking in Andrea's head stopped immediately.

"Oh, thank goodness," said Andrea. She couldn't bring herself to pluck Doris-- just the thought of eating her caused an awful bout of heartburn-- so she gently placed the corpse in the garbage on the curb, and went inside for a bubble bath and two bottles of wine. She was pretty well recovered by the time Stephanie and the kids came home. No one had yet noticed Doris' absence.

Andrea couldn't even look at the beef in the fridge, and so she and Stephanie made vegetarian dinner: quinoa and lentils in spicy red sauce, with broccoli on the side. The family watched an animated movie, by the end of which Andrea felt almost normal (despite finding a feather in her hair). The kids went to bed. Shortly thereafter, Andrea and Stephanie did too.

Andrea half-woke in a sweat at two-thirty in the morning. The bottoms of her feet itched and burned red-hot, as though she'd walked through poison ivy barefoot. Under the covers, she reached down and scratched, her long nails digging at her soles, trying to find some relief but not wanting to enter full wakefulness. God, it felt good. She scratched and scratched, the relief intensely satisfying, until her fingers slid under the calloused flesh of her soles and touched the dozens of scaly chicken feet beneath.

Illustrations by the lovely and talented Bill Latham. Special thanks to Grace C. R. and DW Fitzgerald, and their bizarre dreams.

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. Read that one first, if you haven't.

Many years ago, a man 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 given a long prison sentence. 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, and continued 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 scratched 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 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.