Via Slashdot comes the news that the TSA will be limiting the transportation of lithium batteries (like the ones in cell phones and laptops). It's a bit hard to understand why, unless they're concerned about the recent spate of exploding laptops. The problem is that if that is what they're concerned about (and, yes, incendiary laptops on planes are bad) then it beggars the imagination to understand why they're allowing any battery that's in use in a laptop, and only worrying about spares. All the cases (well, the really publicized ones, at least) of exploding laptops involved batteries in laptops and in use.
Now, it's possible that there has been a surge in detonating solo batteries, but it hasn't really made much news, if so. In any case, now we have to watch screeners scratching their heads and trying to figure out 'equivalent grams of lithium' ratings for various consumer devices while we're waiting in line to board.
So what's the point, then?
Original notice available here.
There were nine people at the grave site besides myself and the priest, who shook my hand last and walked away to give me time and space for a family goodbye. I waited until he was out of sight around the trees before raising my head to the surrounding woods. "You can come out now."
Dozens of shapes, some nearly human and some entirely not, emerged from the shadows. Some walked. Some drifted. Some simply weren't and then were, a moment later. Those I had known were there but had been unable to point to came to the graveside with me to pay their respects to my grandmother.
I had had no idea how many of the New York dispossessed knew her. As I moved in their circles, toes dipping in the pools of myth and immortality, I had come to understand that she was a Power among them. Perhaps not one of control, or retribution, or of wealth; but a Power nonetheless, whose presence they would miss.
The tall, ice-faced woman knelt before the grave, quickly, and did something with her hands before standing and walking past me. She spared me one glance of her sapphire eyes, but they flickered once with the persona behind them, something rare and gifted only to me on this afternoon in our shared loss.
A nondescript man with a cellular telephone headset and Middle Eastern features came forward to look at the tombstone. I didn't recognize him, but when he turned to leave, he nodded to me, once, and was careful not to touch me. I bowed to him them, and when our eyes met again I placed my right hand to my breast and the hard shape there. He smiled once, pleased, and hurried off.
There were dark shapes near the ground that sniffed about her grave and then scurried away without looking back. A glowing form hovered over the open cut hole for a moment before floating upwards and out of sight despite a moment when I could have sworn that it was looking at me. And so it went, the gods and demons of New York paying, if not tribute, at least acknowledgement to the passing of a human who had known them.
When the last of them had gone and the graveyard was quiet, I shoveled earth thrice on the coffin and went home.
In my apartment, the same small one near the Hudson where she'd raised me, I looked at the desk in front of me and the objects arrayed there. A pocket watch, gold and white and ornate; a crystal vial, and a stone spear point. The three of them, free of their leather prison, represented the most powerful of the talismans I had collected in my years of negotiating and conversing with the powers of New York. Two of them I knew intimately. The third, the spear point of Bobbi-Bobbi, I had little idea how to use. My talent could feel the power in it, crackling, different from the smooth ripples of the vial or the glow of the watch, but I had had no luck in releasing it or bringing it forth by demand.
The doorbell chimed once. I rose wearily and went to answer it.
On the other side of the fisheye lens was the Middle Eastern man I'd seen at the funeral. I gaped for a moment, surprised, then turned the locks and opened the door. He looked up at me, having been examining the lintel. "You have protection here," he said in an unfamiliar accent.
"That is good. May I come in?"
I looked at him carefully, then said "Please wait here a moment." He nodded. I closed the door and went back to my office, scooping up the talismans and placing them in my bandolier - save the pocket watch. With that in hand, I returned to the door. I opened it and opened my hand, the watch lying on my palm with the face up.
The man looked at it and smiled again. "Ah."
"Please pardon my caution. This is my home."
"I understand." He reached out, very carefully, and touched the watch's face without touching me, then withdrew his hand. The watch gleamed brighter in the dim incandescents of the elevator lobby for a moment, then pulsed a deep and brilliant gold, light flooding from it to wash down the crevices and holes of the old building.
I bowed and stood back to let the Djinn inside.
We sat facing each other across the scarred kitchen table where Nan and I had had our lessons those years ago. He removed the headset from his left ear and placed it deliberately on the table, pressing a button on it to still its bright blue blinking, before looking me in the eye. "What do you know of Irem Zhat al-Imad?" he asked me.
This wasn't what I had expected. "Irem of the Pillars?"
I frowned. "I've read of it. Please excuse my ignorance if this is incorrect. It was supposedly a city built in the Rhub al-Qali, the Empty Quarter of the Desert, by the Djinn. They built it at the behest of the lord of a giant race. It's a myth; no-one - that is, no mortal - has seen Irem."
The Djinn nodded. "Some of that is even true." He looked around my kitchen, then at his headset on the table. I had the sudden feeling he was trying to avoid continuing.
"Old One, do you have something to tell me?" I asked him quietly.
He looked up, the eyes in his vessel's head dripping orange flame down onto the floor. It hissed and vanished without harming anything. His face bore a rictus grin. "Yes, Michel. I need your help."
That was new. "If I can help you, Old One, I will." I looked into the silently flickering eyes as I said it, wondering idly if the man sitting across from me had a family and if so what they thought he was doing at the moment. Sitting in my kitchen discussing lost mythical cities probably wasn't it. "May I ask you to do something?"
"If you have a story to tell me, I would ask you to visit me and release this man."
The Djinn slumped. The eyes faded back to normal. "That was my intention, if you would allow it."
I reached across the table and laid my hand palm up on its surface. "What shall I tell him?"
"He is a taxi driver. Tell him he has delivered his package to you and he will leave. His cab is parked downstairs." The Djinn didn't move for a moment. "It has been a very, very long time, Michel, since I had a body."
"What will serve you more at this time, a body or your power?"
"My power." He laid his hand on mine.
There was a flash of soundless noise, of dark light. I felt his fingers clench reflexively around my own for a moment, and then release. I opened my eyes from the squint they had assumed to see the man across my table look around, confused, and snatch up his headset. "Where am I? Who are you?" He stood, quickly.
I stood as well, digging in my pocket for a bill. I held it out to him. "Thanks for the delivery." He looked at me, face wild for a moment. I worked to hold my face pleasant and slightly curious, the five dollars extended. He looked around again, then took it automatically.
"Uh. You're welcome. Package...?"
"Yes. I'd hoped you'd get this to me within the hour, and all set, plenty of time. Thank you." I walked around the table towards the door. He followed, still looking around himself with a confused look but willing to be led. I nodded to him and ushered him out without touching him before locking the door and returning to the living room and seating myself on the sofa. There was a mirror on the wall opposite, a tall thin one that might have passed for decoration. I faced it.
In the mirror, I nodded, my eyes glowing slightly. "Yes."
"Why don't you tell me what this is about?"
So I settled back onto my couch and listened to the tale.
* * *
The streets of Manhattan channel the flows of humanity, gutters of intellect and emotion on the feast of interaction that is urban life. Walking east towards Central Park from the One/Nine train I reached out with what senses I have and those I have stolen, but feel nothing out of the ordinary.
The Djinn's story has brought me here. He is gone, into a random commuter in the Fourteenth Street Subway Station without a backwards glance, merely an assurance in my head that he will know to find me if I am successful. I reached a hand into my coat to touch the talismans for reassurance, feel their energy slick and warm near me. Bobbi-Bobbi's arrowhead crackled strangely.
I pass the Museum of Natural History, settled in for the night in its small but comfortable block of parkland. The new Planetarium building was a riot of glass and light on the north side, drawing my eye as I walked on towards Central Park.
The Park itself was dark, but not completely. Not the lethal anarchy of even ten years ago, Central Park now held strollers, the curious, the amorous, and even tourists. I slipped into the interior, heading for the eastern side of the Reservoir, where the Djinn had said to look. Still nothing to feel, nothing to See or Hear.
But perhaps a half-kilometer short of my goal, all that changed.
I stopped short, there on the paved ribbon of the Park Drive, looking eastwards into the gloom. There was a presence there, somewhere a distance off, in the direction I was heading. I'd never felt its like, but it was muted, somehow. A muffled basso drone of power.
I continued on, reaching the Reservoir, and circled it until I reached the closed and locked access point, iron door solidly shut in masonry stone. A maintenance access only.
The pocket watch flared, once, beneath my coat. There was a groaning shriek of metal and the door opened to let me slip inside and struggle to pull it shut. No-one notices me inside my shield of ripples, the vial holding me invisible, but the sound might have gotten out. I hadn't thought of that. A few moments of waiting brought no response, however. I turned, pulled a mini Mag-Lite from my coat, flicked it on and headed down the narrow steel stairs.
The pumping station wasn't quiet. I can't imagine it would ever be; its silence would imply New York's death, the water stopped. A constant moaning roar pervaded the space, which is lit somewhat indifferently. Gigantic shapes of piping, valves and locks huddle at the bottom of the space, much taller than a person, creating valleys and hummocks of shadow and steel. I let myself out of the access stairway and look around. There was an operator's booth visible down the gallery, some fifty meters distant, lighted much more brightly than this sullen open space. I did't see anyone in it, but if they're there, they wouldn't see me out here in the dimness. I stepped to the middle of the room and look around myself at the pipes.
Then I Looked at them.
In my gaze, they changed. Sharply defined edges vanished; straight lines wavered. The ranks of industrial machined forms shimmered in my vision, settling into a row of gigantic squared stone shapes, no two alike, with the steel pipe visible at their heads and feet where it disappeared into the wall.
Sarcophagi, for what I could tell. The thought is chilling, more so than the billions of calories of heat energy stolen into cold water rushing through the chamber. I climb up on the middle of the seven visible shapes and examine the top. There are strange runes there, carved into the metal, which I can't read. At one end, the shape is higher. I caught a glint of reflection there and moved to that end, balancing carefully atop the shape which part of my mind still saw as a giant pipe. There was a portal there, some form of glass or crystal, set in the smooth surface.
I really, really didn't want to look. But I had no choice. The Djinn had charged me with a task, and I'd accepted, although I still wasn't sure why. I lifted the Mag-Lite to the window and shined the small beam through it.
Whatever was within was gray, and green, and filled the sarcophagus, unmoving. Water was rushing past it, bubbles indicating the speed of its passage and that whatever else this was, it was a pipe, still. I twisted the Mag-Lite's head to widen the beam.
An enormous head, perhaps a meter and a half in diameter, looked up at me above a mass of what could only be tentacles. My chest contracted in purely involuntary response, and I'm quite certain I would have screamed had I not been too terrified to move a muscle. I was only released from my terror when there was a flash of color as the shape beneath me opened bright yellow eyes the size of dinner plates.
Irem Zhat al-Imad means `Irem of the Pillars.' It's an ancient city of myth, lost in the deepest deserts of Araby, inside The Empty Quarter. Some say that `pillars' in this case doesn't mean pillars, literally, but is a metaphor for the Old Ones - ancient gods who are singularly unconcerned with the fate of mankind itself, being so far above Man in terms of their power than to them Man is nothing more than a slight pest, or infestation of the world that they are interested in. Some legends say that other gods united to banish them or imprison them so as to make the world a place safe for lesser deities to play in, and, coincidentally, for man as well.
Only one of those Old Ones had anything resembling tentacles. It had various names, but most seemed to center on the arab word `Khadulu' or `abandoner.' It was the most powerful of the beings left physically on our world - one who could open gateways to the Great Old Ones, and in whose power the fate of our world rested.
His name was corrupted many times. Only one thing was constant, in the various descriptions of him among the various tellers of myths and keepers of lore - Cthulhu didn't care much about Men, among whose number was I.
I awoke at the base of the pipe I'd been kneeling on. My head, right arm and left side ached sharply, indicating that they'd probably taken a hit on my way down. My gun was digging painfully into my ribs. There was a burning feeling on my chest.
I struggled to my feet and looked around. A pool of dim light indicated the Mag-Lite; I collected it (dented but unbroken) and pocketed it again. This surely didn't look like any form of Empty Quarter, but the Djinn had said that didn't matter. "The Rhub al-Qali is as much a place of the mind as of the world, Michel. It exists, or co-exists, with your own. It cannot be found on its own. It can only be found when it overlaps with yours, much as I can only be addressed when I overlap with Mankind."
The image of those enormous eyes filled my head, and I shuddered. The Djinn hadn't told me what I would find, here. He'd hinted there might be `gods' but for sure hadn't mentioned anything like that. Time to be elsewhere.
Have you ever heard a thunderbolt voice your name? I hadn't either. Until right then. I clapped my hands over my ears reflexively, realizing even as I did so that it would make no difference. "Fuck!"
MICHEL, FACE ME.
I looked longingly off towards the staircase. Then I reached a hand inside my jacket, cuffed away the sweat of terror with my other arm, and turned back to climb the pipe. It was easier the second time, knowing what I was about, and although I wanted to be absolutely anywhere else, I found myself looking down at the transparent portion again. There was a soft light behind it now, and the great gray-green face was there, eyes open. They tracked me as I came in view. There was nothing visible that resembled a mouth. If the rest of this fucker was in scale, he was probably around seven meters tall. I was uncomfortably aware, all of a sudden, that his presence in the pipe was possibly entirely voluntary, and hoped like hell that my discovering him didn't change that.
YOU KNOW WHO I AM.
I nodded. "I thought you were in the Pacific, somewhere. If you existed."
NO. I AM IN THE ABYSS.
"You're not in this damn water pipe?"
I AM ALSO IN THE PIPE. YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR ME.
I nodded again. "Uh, yes. I was charged to bring this message to you. Do I need to say it?"
IF YOU DO NOT SPEAK THE MESSAGE, YOU HAVE NOT FULFILLED YOUR CHARGE.
I thought furiously. Hopefully, that didn't mean it could kill me after I finished speaking. Hell, be realistic, I told myself - it can kill you anytime it wants. I turned my gaze downwards again. "Very well. I was sent by Azif. He wishes you to know he has not broken allegiance, and he remains in this place where he awaits your call."
YOU HAVE FULFILLED YOUR CHARGE, MICHEL. The great yellow eyes flared into brightness, briefly. I noticed that they had vertical pupils of greenish black, although not quite catlike. GO AND TELL HIM THAT I HEAR AND UNDERSTAND.
I bowed slightly. "I will." Wanting now more than ever to be gone, I turned away from the face and began to kneel in preparation to sliding down off the pipe. Before I could do so, the portal glowed briefly again.
FOR YOUR GRANDMOTHER'S SAKE, the voice tolled in my head, and my chest flared into pain. I cried out, sliding off the pipe. When I reached the ground, I frantically tore my coat open and pulled out the pocket watch, source of the burning. Its leather pouch was blackened around it, but by the time I retrieved it, it was cool again. The face was no longer white, however. Instead, the hands rested on a perfectly clear starscape, twinkling slightly. I brought it to my face and turned it, realizing that I could see past the watch's edge, as if it was a portal to deepest space. I swallowed once and placed it carefully back in the bandolier.
Then I ran like hell.
I made it to a wine bar on Columbus Avenue and was on my fifth drink when a hand fell on my shoulder. I snarled "What!" as I turned to find a woman standing there with her purse held defensively before her, wearing a leather jacket and middling-expensive jewelry.
She withdrew her hand and looked confused. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
I looked at her, the anger draining. "No, I don't think so. Sorry." She nodded nervously and drew back, looking around herself in confusion. I watched her leave the bar, trying to hide her frightened gaze up at the street sign, before turning back to the mirror behind the tender and looking into my flame-flickering eyes there.
"You didn't tell me."
"I didn't tell you many things."
"You didn't tell me HE existed, for Christ's sake."
"Would you have gone?"
"No." I sighed and finished my drink. My reflection cocked his head.
"What did he say?"
I looked back. "I want answers first. What the hell was that about? All the legends say his purpose is to bring about the return of the Great Old Ones, and damn any of us who happen to still be around."
"Yes, they say that."
"Then what the hell are you reporting in to him for, if not for that? Doesn't the legend say you were the first masters of Earth, and will be the last?"
The Djinn raised my eyebrows. "Your knowledge is extensive."
"Don't shine me on. I can fucking read." I waved at the bartender for another drink. "And answer the question."
"If you can't, then you don't get an answer either."
"Michel, you took the charge. You swore you would. You know you cannot withhold the information."
I rubbed my face with my hands. "Look, answer me this then. Am I doing something that will end up contributing to the death or harm of humans?"
My reflection cocked his head, eyes flaming brighter. "I would be lying if I said no."
"I knew it. Fuck." I told the Djinn what had happened. His face blazed with excitement and he nodded in the mirror.
"Ah, he was there. Yes. Yes! It will be, then. It will be."
"Whenever you're finished being mysterious, just fuck right off. I agreed to help you because I believe in talking, and that's what you wanted to do. I didn't know you were going to carry out some ancient evil that affects my race, and I don't want any more part of it."
The Djinn leaned forward in the mirror, a disconcerting sight since I hadn't. "Michel, I will go, but let me ask you this question, and please think about it in days to come. What makes you think one such as He, and one such as I, wish you ill? What makes you think, that if we were undertaking something which concerned you so little that your deaths would not be of importance to us, that He would be manifesting inside New York City public works, or that I would be using a human agent to converse with Him?"
Then my hand reached out of its own accord and brushed a man walking behind me on his way to the door. He blinked, then his eyes refocused and he continued on his way, turning his head once to wink at me.
-forgotten hope of flight and fantasy, denied us in these days of blunder. Solid fuel, (SIX MONTH MINIMUM SENTENCE, POSSESSION) pressed into a cardboard tube; ancient instamatic camera embedded in the nosecone (SENTENCING VARIABLE FOR HOMELAND SECURITY IMAGING VIOLATIONS) and small radiosonde in the module to call for help on landing (FCC VIOLATION TWO MONTH SENTENCE, MINIMUM).
Up it goes.
The blue of sky and white of clouds call to it, for just a second and then a second more as the craft reaches for a thousand meters (shutter height) and then there is a shadowed thunder from behind me, lethal shape reaching for the runway visible past the crowd of protestors. Fuselage blackened from friction and from weapons fire, the UCAV settles past me with its nose cribbed slightly to the south, correcting for ground winds, angling for home from its secret and illegal war across the waters.
There is no sound; rather, there is a sudden lack of sound, coupled with a flare of orange-white light, swiftly fading into dirty reds and black as the engine belches FOD out the rear. The shape, so lethal a moment earlier, staggers in the sky, then with a scream of throttles tries to claw its way onto safe home ground but instead falls from grace with the peculiar curving path of a craft gone past the limits of its control law.
The cheering from the distant crowd is barely audible when the harsher noise of metal and carbon aromatics settles into the desert heat.
Ten days of huddling in fear and worry. Not daring to leave the safety of routine and familiar paths, seeing vans and helicopters mumble their searching song to the legions of uniformed grim-faced men who quarter the neighborhood. Not even the plaintive peep of the beacon, heard in my earphones through the makeshift directional receiver, stirs me forth; not until the eleventh day when some fey whim snaps the bonds and I trudge out across the highway median with a trashbag in my hand. The small shape is barely recognizable in the scrub, but I pick it up anyway, walking slowly back to my beater van and gathering random aluminum cans for verisimilitude.
One image is pulled, in dripping flatform birth, from the film cartridge buried in the metal cylinder. One shot, showing the spiderwebbed flaming heart of a turbine intake mere fractions of a second before impact.
I'm not sure how long it takes for the truth to sink in, but some weeks later I find myself lying on a rooftop off past the end of the runway underneath a carefully arranged tarpaulin topped with scrap wood and iron. I can see out a narrow slit, directly down the centerline of the distant field, through a ten-power scope that I found in the basement which rests atop a match-grade Remington .22 long rifle.
The sound announces vision, the dark and blurry mass turning onto the runway's end some three miles away. It swims from side to side in my scope's eye, before the visible lengthening of the ejecta plume and the angled shape leaps down the centerline towards me. Still on the ground, no good. I wait, and wait, and just before I feel in my bones that the unmanned fighter is about to leap upwards I stroke the trigger.
One small metal-jacketed sting, sent caressingly off downrange. The last three times I tried this there was no discernable result, the bullet likely burying itself in the sand or tarmac with nary a puff to show its passing. This time, however, the prediction is spot on, and as the UCAV lifts its nose to the sky my bullet finds its open throat.
There is no effect for long seconds, the aircraft leaving the runway with its wheels folding into its undercarriage in one-two tango time, then suddenly there is a dirtying of the air behind it. Smudge of smoke and debris, metal cascade from the front to the back, tiny featherweight turbine blades snapped through by jacketed lead adding their mass to the cacophony of destruction as the jet engine scours its own innards out in a shriek of freed rotational energy. The UCAV staggers in its flight, then with an air of weary resignation lowers its nose to the tarmac and disappears into a cloud of smoke, flame and disturbed dust.
I lie beneath my tarp for seven hours as the rotor blades steep in the darkening night air.
Fuck you and your war. Fuck you and your robot whores.
Time the third I find myself sitting behind a window, looking not down the runway's length but out at its end. Along the roadway past the barrier lights, the empty soda cans strewn over five days of commuting. I wait and watch the small mirror on the windowsill, and when I see the rushing shape start down the tarmac I give it just enough time to reach V2, go/no go, no abort, the limits of adhesion, and then I press the button on my LED-strewn stereo remote control. X10 signals flood the highway's edge, amplified from my handheld by a horn some three blocks off, and at their touch the hundred cans awaken with small puffs of dust and light. Metallized balloonets, forcibly inflated by the small canisters around which they lay (FEDERAL AIRGUNS VIOLATION, TWO MONTHS SENTENCE MINIMUM) rise suddenly into the air. A wall of bright pink, purple and red shapes, trailing foil tinsel beneath.
For a flying killer that sees in microwaves, in the narrow visual slices of LIDAR, it is as though a wall has suddenly begun to grow at the end of the runway, moving upwards at some meters per second. I am on my feet at the window, now, able to see the final third of the runway directly; I can almost feel the dispassionate agony of the robot as it considers in a fraction of a second whether it can turn (no) or outclimb the wall (no) and finally decides to take the least damaging course of action and slams itself back onto the runway at takeoff speed without the time to lower gear.
By so doing, it stops before the fence, battered and broken beyond repair.
The crowd, made of protestors angry at the war, the waste, the government, anything at all, cheers thunderously as the crash trucks converge. I let myself out of the small apartment to walk briskly in the other direction, thinking of my next meeting with the adversary and wondering at the fact that my life (so useless) has a purpose now.
I don't like hospitals. I haven't since my parents passed away. This was altogether too familiar.
Still, I went in anyway and stopped at the receptionist. They eye you peculiarly when you wander around New York in a long Burberry's trench coat on not-particularly-cool fall evenings. The orderly behind the counter glanced up from his computer monitor, beige plastic stained with finger oils and unknown greases. "Yes?"
"Here to visit Nan St. Cyr." I had to spell it for him.
"Room 727. Have you been here before?" I nodded. He grimaced in apology. "Right. Elevators over there."
Room 727 was like all the other rooms I could see, but this one was bathed in a brilliant light, because my grandmother was in it. She was lying in a throne-like bed of medical technology, face peaceful, sleeping. I walked to her side and looked down at her. The machines muttered to themselves in their secret chatter, glyphs winking out furiously for those with medical training decoder rings to decipher. I just looked at the woman.
She'd raised me, those years in the west Village. Taken me into her small apartment when my parents were taken from us, and made me a part of her life and her a part of mine. The grief of those long ago years wasn't lessened, but it was countered with the love that she had lain over the wounds.
A nurse walked past and looked into the room, saw me, and leaned in. "Sir?"
"Oh, Mr. Wibert, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you."
"It's all right."
She came into the room and stood by me, looking down at Nan. "She's had that half-smile on all day. She looks very peaceful."
I didn't snarl at her, but it took a great deal of effort. Instead I swallowed and said, "She's dying."
The nurse patted my arm. "Yes, dear, she is. But she's at peace, with her family, and she's not in pain, and she's led a full, long life. Would you have her go any other way?"
I didn't answer. The nurse patted my arm again and slipped out. I just looked at the woman in the bed, because I knew something the nurse didn't know. I slipped one hand into my overcoat and rested my palm against the lump just over my breastbone, where the Baba's vial lay. I could feel the Power concentrated there. I knew it wouldn't diminish it in the slightest if I let it free. That's what the Water of Life did, after all - it granted life to a soul and to a body, if used for that purpose. That's what Baba Yaga did with it as a Goddess of Nature.
And she'd given it to me.
I turned away from Nan and found a chair to sit in, my arms trembling. I rubbed my eyes with sweaty palms and arranged my coat to hang in a more comfortable manner over the bandolier at my chest and the large gun at my side. I'm not all that small, and the chair was struggling to make it work, but I didn't care.
I have no real Power as a mage, or sorceror, or witch, or whatever word you'd like to use. I have one talent, one which is shared by many more people in this world than realize they have it, but which is discouraged by society and religions and science; discouraged to the point that most people who have it convince themselves that they're imagining things by the time they're teenagers. Some that don't do so burn their minds out later on drugs to make it go away, and nearly all the few survivors of that either learn to conceal it or end up in treatment for various esoteric forms of insanity. Some become charlatans for pay. One in a great many is like me.
I can Hear, and See, beings of power. Gods, deities, demons, whatever you want to call them; I can see through the veils that hide them from normal people. Veils that they place over themselves, and veils that humanity places there - a vast slumbering herd mind too disturbed to recognize the bright light that walks among it, unknowing of its own strength. Remember when Barrie's Peter Pan urged all you children to believe? Well, guess what. It works the other way, too.
The Djinn in his endless wanderings, Baba Yaga behind her ageless cold mask; I could See them where others saw only their vessels. Looking down at my grandmother, I could See her too, touched as she was with a Power much stronger than mine. I could Hear her as she lay there.
For my Grandmother wasn't peaceful. She was screaming.
* * *
I went to drink.
This doesn't help, but at least gives me a perfectly good excuse for feeling maudlin, useless and guilty. Nan was old. I didn't know how old, precisely, because she didn't know herself, but she was in her upper nineties. She had raised my mother in France before coming to the U.S. after the Second World War. She had some degenerative illness whose name I kept managing to forget two minutes after the doctors told me, one that despite my considerable financial resources I couldn't save her from. She'd known that, of course, and schooled me sharply about it before she'd closed her eyes some weeks before.
"Cher, listen to me." Her voice was thready but still had snap.
"This thing I am doing."
"Yes, impertinent boy. Dying."
"What about it, nan?"
She pushed the coverlet back a few inches and moved her hands about aimlessly before clasping them on her breast and looking at me. "It happens to us all, Michel."
"I know that, nana." I was sitting in the chair next to her bed, trying not to hulk in my overcoat festooned with talismans of magic and firepower.
"No," she said, reaching out one hand to touch my forehead. I bent my head forward. "You think you know that. But you do not. I will die, Michel. It is something I fear. But that, too, is something that happens to us all, fearing death." Then she'd patted my cheek and gone to sleep again. I'd spoken to her three or four more times before she'd stopped waking up.
I waved at the bartender, who brought me another whisky. It burned, going down. This was worse than my parents dying. Much worse.
When they died, I had no Power at all.
My fist clenched against the vial again. It pulsed once, gently, in response. It could give life. That was its purpose. It could take my grandmother and lift her from her suffering, the suffering the doctors couldn't see; the pain from destroyed nerves that she was no longer able to express, her mind still present enough to feel but her spine long gone and even her muscles unable to grimace. The machines did not need to keep her alive, for she was breathing on her own, and that was the curse.
Every moment, she screamed, and no-one could hear her but I. But I could restore her.
She'd never spoken of it directly. There were no rules, in Nana's world where she played cards and fenced with the Immortals. There were no judges, no codes; just manners. Manners, she told me, were what would save me if I chose to swim in those waters. Not with humans, who cared nothing for such things, but with those to whom the things which humans cared about were less than nothing - with them, manners were all, and sacrosanct.
Manners had gained me the vial.
But somehow, I knew, without being told, that to use my gifted Power to bring her life would be discourteous. I had never risked being discourteous in the steps of the immortals before. I had no interest strong enough to risk discovering the penalty.
I did now, I thought. But I wasn't sure.
I didn't know if I cared.
I went back to the hospital, stared down at her lying in the bed, thought of coming to see her after using the vial to wake her up from her torment. In none of these conjurings could I see her with any expression other than a loving but sad disappointment.
She was still screaming.
I don't know how long I stood there. I don't know if I was crying. I know that at some point I snarled something wordless, pressed my right hand to my chest, and willed the world to change.
It did. The machines' lights faded to green. The screaming stopped.
Later, I took the Six train uptown to Grand Central Terminal and sat down before the bar at the Cafe. A soulless-looking supermodel stood before me without my hearing her approach, and placed her hands on the bar. I looked up at her, tears still tracking down my face, and squinted at the light streaming through the tall windows that framed her. "Baba?"
She touched my face. "You're crying." The voice might have been reading a financial headline.
"Baba, I need to return your gift." I drew the glass vial from the bandolier and placed it on the bar, staring at its crystal haze of refracting light for a moment. Clear liquid sloshed in it. I looked back up, but the supermodel had gone. In her place was a twisted crone with brightened eyes, eyes like my grandmothers' which caused fresh tears to slide down my cheeks.
"Why, Michel?" Her voice was cracked and aged, but her tone gentle.
"I used it, today. I used it-" I shook my head and pushed the vial to her. She picked it up, unstoppered it and waved it beneath her nose as though sampling perfume.
"Ah!" Her voice was surprised. She held it, looked at me. "Your grandmother. Your own Baba. Is that why?"
"Yes." My voice was small. "I'm sorry, Baba."
"But why, Michel? That is what the waters do."
I looked at her, confused. "I killed my grandmother, Baba. I used your gift to take an innocent life."
She laughed. "You are forgetting who I am, Michel." Her form rippled for a moment, straightening into a crone no less hideous but taller and terrible with fury. Her voice went cold again, the voice of the bitch queen supermodel. "I am Baba Yaga, little man; I am the mother of the Earth herself, and I have killed more innocents than you can begin to imagine have existed. I am death itself, and life; life when it is cruel, and death when it is a release." With that, her shape slumped again into the kindly bright-eyed woman, and she took the bottle and pressed it, open to my face, once on each cheek, so that two tears ran down into it. Then she stoppered it and shook it again, and the ripples in the fabric of the world flowed out from her hand. I stared at her.
"Michel, Michel. The Water of Death. What is it for? You know this answer."
I recited from memory. "The Water of Death is to allow corpses to decay, to free souls from their bodies so that-" I stopped.
She nodded. "So that the Water of Life may bring renewal from the ashes and the soul may rise to heaven. Did you use the Water of Life?"
Baba Yaga patted my cheek, exactly like Nana had. "And that is why you yet survive, Michel. You did not seek to grant her life, or grant her heaven. You simply chose to release her from pain, and to ensure her body went to rest. That is what the Water of Death is for. It was her time, and past her time; in those cases, that is when Baba Yaga is sometimes called to hasten what must be." She handed the bottle to me.
I took it, still staring at her. She patted my cheek again. "I will miss her, Michel. She was a worthy opponent. I am glad she sent her grandson to me to help pass the time."
"What would happened if I had used the Water of Life?"
"Ah, but you did not. For that I am glad, Michel. It is a lonely life here, sometimes."
I don't know why I said it, but I did. "I've killed others, Baba."
"I know that, Cher."
"I'm not a good man."
"That is not for you to decide." She turned and produced bottles, and without a flicker the supermodel bartender was in front of me mixing a White Russian, the light and the dark blending into my glass. I picked it up, tucking the vial into my bandolier, and raised it to her.
"Thank you, Baba. Please call on me if you have need." I sipped the drink, set it on the bar with a bill and turned to go, but a thought grasped me at that moment, cold and hard. Something Baba Yaga had said. I turned back to her. She raised one eyebrow, waiting. "Baba," I asked carefully, "How was Nan an opponent?"
She looked at me for a time. And then, the ice queen bartender leaned forward-
-and winked, one eye briefly brilliant with life and mischief. Then she stood, disinterested, and I gulped my drink and shuffled off downtown to begin a proper wake for the woman who had raised me.
Because, as heavenly as her voice is, it is rude of me - mean, even - to assume it's the only good thing about her. I know nothing about the woman.
Imagine my happiness, though, to find that there are two remixes of the track on the project album Block Rockin' Boots, both by Copycat - "I Always Begin Without You" and "Where Do I Begin (A Copycat Remix)." Both preserve my beloved Beth's vocals. The prior is a mash-up of (obviously) "Where Do I Begin," and U2's "With Or Without You," among others, and the latter is a straight remix.
Because it's my blog, I'm gonna write it up anyway.
I ended up crying at the end. Noting that I was sitting alone in my apartment watching the movie on a Macintosh screen, wearing headphones, slightly too cold because I hadn't reset the thermostat and surrounded by junk from my ongoing attempt to move to another city, my first thought was "This frigging movie made me cry, and considering that I'm single, it's a fucking waste."
Stranger than Fiction is a metaliterary film. Note how I slipped that pseudointellectual term in there? Good, because it's a metaphor. No wait; it's a pun. The film is both, in fact, metaliterary and pseudointellectual. It's so damn pseudointellectual that Dustin Hoffman plays a professor of English literature whilst Emma Thompson plays an author of significant works thereof. The movie is about writing, and about living, and what to do when doing both when you have too much or not enough information about what you're supposed to be doing.
Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, is (at the outset of the film) the most routinized and boring individual ever seen, at least in this movie's world. True to form, he's an IRS auditor. Everything is going along fine as the narrator explains to us, over the movie's beginning minutes, what Harold's life is like over the course of one of his boring and identical weekdays.
The next day, Harold starts to hear the narrator too.
Not all the time. Just when he (as we the viewers know) is 'on script.' When he starts looking around for the voice's owner, talking back, or trying not to do things the voice is explaining that he's doing, it disappears, only to resume with a slight air of edgy impatience when he finally goes back to toeing the storyline.
This would be a run of the mill man-hears-voices story, save for two things. The quality of the cast (which, to my amazement at my own words, does include Will Ferrell) and the (ha!) writing. You see, Harold's in trouble. At one point, the narrator used the phrase 'imminent death.' While Harold (with the assistance of professor Jules Hilbert (Hoffman), to whom he was referred by a most bemused Linda Hunt, tries to figure out whether he's in a tragedy or a comedy and what he should do, the story - with the assistance of a pissed-off and meddlesome wristwatch - starts to loop about somewhat gleefully.
I won't say this is on par with or even in the same league as If On A Winter's Night a Traveller for metafiction; however, this is a movie. It's operating under a severe handicap of both form and time. Within that handicap's constraints, I must say, it does a really really nice job. The parallels between the ending of the story in the movie and the story of the movie made me smile while sniffling.
See, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), the author of this ongoing story/book/narrative, starts to have thoughts about what it means to live, as she thinks about what it means to write - and she starts to think about the characters that she's written and how they lived.
And it all changes.
I recommend this film for a good date movie. If you're a secret sentimentalist like me and weep buckets at a good Merchant/Ivory production, rent it with a bowl of popcorn and a good bottle of wine. Or whisky, which I can recommend from personal experience. Don't expect much that's important to come out of this. But as the film ends, think about what I just said in the previous sentence.