A Library in the Wilderness

It is the last day of a week-long Bordewieck family reunion. The illusion of our own little utopian commune is fading. Everyone is packing up reluctantly to head back to the real world.

I propose a last distraction: an afternoon hike into the hills. Lisi and Sara and I walk in the lead, my father and Udi behind, everyone else straggling along at their own pace. It’s hot; fern and blueberry bake in the sun along the trail, filling the air with heavy, tangy sweetness. The light washes out colors; pupils narrow down to pinpricks. Lisi’s curls gleam like a halo. My walking stick is slick with moisture from my palms.

After a mile, slabs of red-brown standstone begin to emerge from the brush of the hillside. I point out whitish scorings in the faces of the slabs: lines and circles of unknown meaning, appearing more and more frequently as we progress. “Petroglyphs.”

We turn left onto a side trail, ascending steeply now. Beads of sweat roll down my temples. Lisi and I pause to debate the nature of a peculiar set of glyphs; I recognize them as recent forgeries: four English words inscribed in a tall, narrow mirror script. I have walked this way before; a vague memory of the astonishing profundities that lie ahead is only beginning to arise in my thoughts–yet I know implicitly, the moment I set eyes on this particular stone, that the strange array of inscriptions to be found in these woods is representative of a phenomenon unheard-of anywhere else upon this continent–a seat of ancient North American learning and culture continuously occupied since before the era of the conquerors. Lisi is understandably incredulous. But a gasp and an exclamation from Udi and Sara interrupt our argument.

On the trail ahead of us is a hulking, weedgrown structure of adobe and standstone, like an Anasazi ruin lifted from the deserts of the southwest. Awed, disbelieving, yet half-remembering, I lead the way forward, through a long, arched corridor, open on one side to shadowed woods scattered with boulders.

A doorway opens in the left wall. Beyond it, a stairway leads steeply down into a dim, high-ceilinged room like the nave of a Spanish missionary church. At the foot of the stairs, the room is a ruin; the stone walls are bare; drifts of dead leaves cover the floor. But the sounds of muffled, distant conversation pull my attention to the right. Through another entryway I can see into a larger room, furnished in thick persian rugs and woven tapestries, where craggy-faced, raven-haired gentlemen in comfortable clothing lounge in upholstered armchairs, discussing esoterica in muted tones. Parchment-colored light filters down through lofty windows. And beyond this quiet study, I can glimpse a room wider and brighter still–a room dominated by books.

I turn to my family, who stand dumbstruck around me. “This,” I tell them, “is the Library of the Wampanoags”.

Like a tour guide, I show them single-file through the study and into the stacks. Wonderful, ancient, moth-nibbled books overflow the three-story shelving, drifting into immense heaps across tables, bins and floor. Every book is bound in cloth or leather, yellows, browns and muted reds–there is not a single work here less than twenty years old. The aisles and tables are fairly crowded with the strangest array of researchers; dusty miners, trappers, native men and women of clear eyes and inscrutable expressions. The air is full of the soft buzz of whispers, pages turning, pens and pencils scratching paper. We receive strange looks, some curious, some hostile.

I realize our time here is limited; I lose interest in the tour, let the others wander off to browse. There was a book I found, the last time I was here–a book no other library I’ve ever found has carried. I had never expected to see this place again. I had nearly forgotten it. And that book–well, if I could only have ten minutes to skim through its pages…

Alas, I am allowed no such chance. A frontiersman beside me snarls and grabs my arm; he draws a revolver. My gaze tracks frantically across the shelves, but already they are falling away, fading, washing out with light.

I awake.

Gang Mentality Aboard the Ruined Corsair

Myself, my cousins, friends and others fall into Lord of the Flies tribalism when we find ourselves adrift at sea in a ramshackle three-masted corsair. We scavenge the ship for weapons, supplies, caches of cigarettes and alcohol. Those first aboard, among them John and Nick Manseau, are the dominant clique: those who managed to get their hands on the AK-47s. They mostly fire the guns in the air for effect, especially since the ship is so damn rickety a good double-row of .30 caliber holes in the hull might just be enough to snap the whole thing down the middle.

After a good half-hour of fleeing from the guns like monkeys with our heads cut off, I figure this out. I make my way down through the holds, encountering pockets where other refugees have already gone into hiding. The pirates appear to have targeted a lot of cruise ships in the seventies, as mostly everything down here is in the vein of yellow polka-dotted canvas suitcases covered in mildew. In a cache beneath a false floorboard beneath the very prow of the ship, however, I discover somebody’s hoard: several dozen oversized kitchen knives, a couple of utility razors, a crowbar and a couple of bottles of Bass ale. I choose one of the razors and a heavy, serrated bread knife. I of course lay claim to the beer, but distribute the rest of the weapons among my fellow stowaways.

Possessed of a newfound self-assurance and disregard for my armed enemies, I am soon to be found lounging in a cargo sling dangling from the yardarm, an empty beer bottle cradled in my lap, trying to pry the cap off a second bottle with the blade of the razor. John and Nick and their crew stand around on deck, guns against their shoulders, cursing me roundly.

Alas, when I get the second bottle open I find it has been compromised by age and sea, full of foamy white mold.

My shiv-toting compatriots arrive from below decks; a brief battle ensues. I tumble from the comfort of my hammock for fear of flying bullets, and barely manage to save myself from the waves by grabbing onto an open porthole as I plummet past the hull. The breadknife and the last of the beer tumble out of my lap and disappear with a splash. I duck through the porthole, back into the safety of the hold.

Above the sporadic sounds of gunfire choke to a stuttering halt; either the mutinous assault has been subdued, or the idiots are finally out of bullets. Either way, the contest is now rather moot. The damage has already been done: the shooting has irrevocably compromised the hull and the hold is filling steadily with froth. The last stragglers of the kitchen-knife clan scramble to salvage what they can of the cargo, then slosh with their spoils across the swiftly tilting deck towards the hatch that leads topside.

I, however, am in need of a weapon to replace the one I lost. I take a deep breath and plunge underwater, heading for the deepest innards of the ship.

Close against the keel, in a broad, low-ceilinged space now gray and murky with the inrushing sea, I take my sweet time, rummaging through more rotten suitcases, piles of spare timber and tackle. The lack of oxygen, the fear of drowning, is only an abstract concern. This is dreaming–here I don’t need air to breathe. Alas, I make no more opportune discoveries. I don’t know what I was hoping for–a nice, compact nine-millimeter would be useless now anyway, soaking wet. I settle on a five-iron from a rust-encroached set of golf clubs, kick free from the flotsam and head back the way I came.

My head breaks the surface back in the forward hold just in time for a wet, rending crack as the rotten wood of the hull tears asunder. Light and sea spill in through the hole and beyond it, I see–

“Land! We’re coming up on land!”

A jagged shoreline of pines, broken up by rocky outcrops, sliding by fast. I grab hold of a trailing rope and swing out onto the hull’s outer surface. Up on deck everyone is shouting and scrambling about pell-mell, wailing about how we’ll be smashed against those rocks. The pines slide away and suddenly there’s a marina in sight on shore not fifty yards away, pristine white pleasure yachts bobbing at anchor, and a crowd of people sitting at some quayside restaurant all standing up and waving. I pitch away my hard-won golf club, get a good grip with both hands on the rope and kick off away from the ship, out over the water. “Swim, you idiots!” I shout, then let go of the rope, plunge in and follow my own advice.

Somebody pulls me out of the water onto the dock. “What the hell’d you do that for?” he asks.

“Are you kidding? That ship is a wreck. It’s going to sink any second.”

“Doesn’t look like it to me.”

I turn, and he’s right. From here the ship looks as though its still on an even keel, moving along at a decent clip despite its lack of sail. The people on deck don’t look happy, though, and even as I watch the ship lurches, the stern lifts up out of the water and the whole thing starts to slide down beneath the surface. People are leaping off like mice.

“See?” I say. “I told you.”

A Vast, Indoor Mockup of a Sleazy Medieval Slum

A vast, indoor mockup of a sleazy medieval slum, shrouded in perpetual darkness, in which a vast and perpetual game of live-action D&D is played. I stumbled upon this phenomenon somewhat by accident, joining with a band of six or seven adventurers including Charlie Finlay as human ranger/party leader and Toby Buckell as disgruntled halfling thief. (Note disturbing parallels to Order of the Stick throughout.) I played (surprise) a dwarf fighter pretending to be a burglar.

In the absence of moderators or DMs, the adventuring and combat systems were based on a set of tradable cards printed with objectives and spells and combat regulations. These cards also functioned as currency; accomplishing an objective was worth certain stated quantities of gold and XP.

On my first attempt I rather made a mess of things; my objective was to retrieve some pulsing blue orb from the hoard of a rival band of adventurers who were hoarding it. The card was worth quite a lot, but what with my clumsy misunderstanding of the rules and my general roleplaying rustiness I severely fucked up my group’s chances, leaving Tobias, if not the rest of them, rather resentful.

I vowed to improve.

I returned the next night with a newfound resolve and a black cape lined in red silk slung over my shoulders. Again my allies made sharp remarks about my poor performance, though Finlay, being a good leader, remained diplomatic. I kept silent, resolving to prove my worth by actions, not words. Our objective that evening was an ambitious one: to infiltrate and loot our rival band’s very lair: an expansive set of apartments next door to a popular and thoroughly raunchy cabaret theater.

As our band made its way through the evening’s crowds, I jostled my way to the front, paying only half attention to their debate of the strategies of frontal assault and subterfuge. Being the newest member of their band, I knew I was the least recognizable, and relying on my high charisma and dashing black cape, I figured I could infiltrate and scout their stronghold without their ever catching on to my malicious intent.

In retrospect, I should have given my fellows more credit and let them in on my plan. As it was, I assumed they wouldn’t give me the chance, and anyhow they’d probably still be arguing by the time I got back. Alas, I failed to anticipate how well my ruse would work.
I was making for a side entrance to our enemies’ compound, running over plausible excuses for my intrusion in my head, when one of their number reached over the railing of a low balcony to pluck at my cape. I recognized her: a low-level witch draped in flimsy black gauze (played here by Natalie Portman), who, by her dress and demeanor, seemed to have taken advantage of her proximity to the cabaret by offering her services as a lady of the evening.

She invited me to join her. Not wanting to seem too eager, I declined. “I am going to the cabaret,” I told her. She made a pert face and released me.

I strolled on to the cabaret box office and made brief perusal of the bills pasted in the window. Then I returned to the foot of the stair that led to Ms. Portman’s aerie. “This evening’s show has already sold out,” I told her.

“What a shame,” she said, and held out a hand.

As she led me in through the balcony door, I craned my neck behind me to search for my allies in the crowd. They were nowhere to be seen.

Our arch-rivals’ lair resembled one of Tufts’ Hillside Apartments. Every available surface was cluttered with pizza boxes, empty two-liter soda bottles and fake weapons. A television flickered in the common room; a few of her housemates lay sprawled on the couches, oblivious to our presence. Realizing I was as-yet unarmed, I plucked a plastic basket-hilted dagger from a countertop and slid it through the back of my belt.

Natalie’s room was actually on the ground floor; at the top of the stairs she turned to me, wrapped her fingers in my cape. “So I hear you’re a burglar,” she said.

“Not tonight,” I answered. “Tonight, I’m a kidnapper.” I lifted her up in my arms and carried her down the stairs.

Near the bottom, an enormous foam-sheathed broadsword leaned against the wall, as tall as Natalie herself. I set her on her feet and reached back to grab it; just as I did so she caught me by the other wrist and pulled me into her room.
She kissed me.

My response might have been more convincing had there not at that moment been a loud crash, followed by shouting and the clash of plastic swords. Over her head, through the half-open door, I saw Charlie and Toby and the rest of my crew battling their way past. Apparently they’d chosen the brute-force option.

Natalie pushed me back towards the bed. I sat down, resting the broadsword on the floor between my legs. The plastic dagger in my belt dug into my back. She got down on her knees, wrapped her hands pornographically around the hilt with an utterly mischievous expression on her face.

Then the door swung wide, one of her housemates toppled through it to the floor with Toby roaring on top of him, and I started awake.

It was quarter to seven. I went back to sleep, and found myself seated in the lair of my own adventuring party with Charlie and Toby. It was morning, with sun streaming in through the windows. They were about to critique a short story of mine. I was nervous because basically what I’d done was a complete retelling of one of Toby’s old stories. But we never got the chance to discuss it, because just then another member of our party burst in with some kind of security tape of what had happened the night before. It showed the melee in Natalie’s room, just after I had woken up. It showed me pulling the dagger from my belt, grabbing Natalie around the waist and slitting her throat. Absurdly bright red blood flooded everywhere.

I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. I had no memory of what I was seeing, and I couldn’t believe I would have done such a thing. We fell to arguing. Every few minutes somebody else from the group would arrive and the argument would escalate. Before long everybody but Charlie was shouting themselves red in the face.

Then Natalie herself came in, and there was silence.

A Bunny and a Monkey Vie for My Soul

I am writing/reading/experiencing a story/film/dream written by Neil Gaiman/myself/a mysterious third party, in which the main character, a college student played by myself/Tom Cruise, is haunted by by a series of increasingly intense and insidious specters, including a befuddled, gray-bearded homeless man, a guy in a white bunny suit and a guy in a black gorilla suit.

Part of the action of the dream was contained in a nondescript black hardcover book/manuscript whose text veered wildly with the turning of the pages between a pleasingly large, semibold serif font, neat, almost feminine handwriting, and a dense, ash-black, angular block-print that looked as though it had been carved into the page by a fiery claw.

As I pinballed about campus between classes and dorms, library and bed (I was taking five classes all loosely related to science fiction, writing and literature, one of which was taught by John Fyler of Tufts), I would in any spare moment I could find take up this book to read or write.

Nate Gurevich was my roommate. We shared a room with twelve other guys, who slept all crammed in a row in one long bed. Because there was so little space in the room, I kept my walking-sticks (both the dragon-engraved Purpura staff and the Blackthorn cane) leaning in the hallway outside my door. They seemed always to be there when I wanted them, but it became apparent others were borrowing the sticks for their own purposes. Every morning I found the purpura staff in worse and worse shape, until one day it appeared that someone had snapped it into quarters over his knee, then pathetically attempted to reassemble it using rubber bands and splints. It resembled one of the Roman fasces, the rod-wrapped ax symbolic of enforced peace and grand authority.

The alarm clock which awoke me for classes every morning was a magical pint glass with a radio somehow embedded in the glass. At the appropriate, and often other, inappropriate times, it would begin to emit the strains of anthemic rock songs, which could only be silenced by pressing the red ink decorations on the glass, causing them to dilate or contract. It angered my fellow-roommates to no end.

At one point I passed a mirror and realized my hair had grown long again.

The book was about transformation. It conspired with the specters of the bunny and gorilla to goad its reader/protagonist towards some monumental change. At its climactic moment I was lifted up out of my university setting and deposited on a rutted road of worn, cracked asphalt that led across a windswept highland field. I was chasing the gorilla, which had itself been transformed into a massive, faintly iridescent black geological being reminiscent of the Thing and the Spirit of the Forest from Princess Mononoke. It could fly, or rather it could jump as though it weighed nothing, as though the Earth’s gravity was to it as that of the Moon was to men. Its sheer power taunted me; in my present form there was no way I could catch it, yet everything about this place, about the ashen text that had preceded it, told me I could take another form if I only had the strength of will. The man in the bunny suit appeared beside me, trying to explain this, trying to prod me onward and upward. I shrugged him off. I didn’t want his help. Yet when I did so he seemed to fall right out of existence. His body, or what was left of it, crumpled to the fallow ground by the roadside among the stumps of last year’s corn. And I realized he had left his bunny suit behind. I picked it up, put it on and resumed the chase. Still, I couldn’t close the gap. But I was motivated now. I engaged the full focus of my consciousness on the task. I envisioned myself changing, my body growing large and dense and yet weightless, ascending into the upper air. But with the bunny now my ally, I realized a direct transformation wasn’t the way. My path must be unique.

An infinitely long chain of hobo circus clowns (evoking the homeless graybeard of the university) descended towards me out of the clouds, each gripping the ankles of the next.

The nearest one gripped me by the hands and drew me upwards into waking.

Practicality in the Face of Destruction

A ramshackle, dust-coated world filled with tradition and suspicion, a la that of the inestimable Cathy Perdue. In the woods, dark and choked with clutter as though long abandoned, a brown clapboard house, low to the ground, but many-gabled.

I’m lost, wandering, with no idea where I am or how I got here. I find the door hanging loose from the hinges, clear myself a place on the floor in the living room and take up residence among the mice and spiders.

I’m careful. I know that people in this age (whatever age it may be) don’t take to strangers. I only go out at night. In the woods, in the dark, in some abandoned ruin, I figure I ought to be safe.

But I get caught. A fat bald guy with a shotgun and a giant flashlight warns me off his land, suggests I get out of town altogether. I’m ready and willing to take his advice. It was a nice place, a relief from wind and waking up with frost on my clothes. But these things are temporary, as are all comforts. I walk on–or I start to.

My dad steps out of the wooded shadows and stops me before I get 20 yards. He points out an even more ramshackle, even more ruinous outbuilding to the dark ruined house–just a shack, really. A single room. Inside, however, is a stairway leading down into a vast, high-ceilinged basement. A gas lamp casts unsteady light across drifts of abandoned crap. My dad shuts the door, leads the way down, and gets back to work.

I find myself helping him to clear space, to clean and organize and forge some kind of living space from the chaos. He has found an old upright vacuum cleaner and is tinkering with it, trying to make it work.

“So what happened here?” I ask him. “Is this supposed to be some kind of post-apocalypse?”

He gives me a look that says “No kidding,” and sends me off scavenging for power cord.