If you ever feel displaced,
like you are upside down in a world that has everything together,
maybe it’s the world that’s upside down.
If you ever feel displaced,
like you are upside down in a world that has everything together,
maybe it’s the world that’s upside down.
The Scourge of the South and an emerald-green kraken that spreads its leafy tentacles out to overwhelm everything.
It is unstoppable.
* * *
“I think I have a way to stop it,” Dr. Freddie Combs said. He was sitting with a group of scientists at the Kudzu Fight Council. It was, somewhat ironically, located in Alaska. The feeling was that kudzu was so dangerous it was best for the Council to employ scientists who were deathly afraid of it. There was no chance of them sympathizing with the enemy that way.
“What’s your idea?” the Director asked.
“Special giant rats,” Dr. Combs said. “All they eat is kudzu. We set them loose in Kentucky and Virginia and soon all the kudzu will be gone.”
“Giant rats? Are you crazy? No one wants giant rats running around. And how do you know they only eat kudzu?”
“That’s all they’ve eaten in our lab tests.”
“What else have you offered them?”
“Next!” the Director said.
“I saw we just give the affected area up for lost,” another scientist said. “Let’s build a wall around the area, let the people inside deal with it.”
“Kudzu grows over walls.”
“Well, maybe we could put the giant rats on top of the wall . . .”
Another scientist stood up. “I’ve developed a new strain of kudzu that bursts into flames in hot sunlight. We just need to cross-breed it with the kudzu and the problem will solve itself.”
“These are all terrible ideas,” the Director said. “Do any of you have a half-decent idea?”
“I have one that is fool-proof,” a tall, dark scientist named Dr. Brawn said. He had a crazy look in his eye, which in scientific circles is referred at “that Nobel look”. The rest of the room hushed.
“Super kudzu,” Dr. Brawn said. “It is twice as strong as normal kudzu and as smart a brilliant dog, or perhaps a slightly dim 5-year-old. It is also fiercely territorial, so it will easily wipe out the normal kudzu for us.”
“But then what do we do with all this super kudzu?” the Director asked. “The problem will be worse than before.”
“No, because it is be intelligent,” Dr. Brawn said. “We can negotiate with it, then send it to go fight our enemies. We can turn it into an ally.”
“Does . . . it grow as fast as normal kudzu?” the Director asked in a shocked voice.
“Three times faster. However, it does have a critical weakness. It is vulnerable to bullets. One shot will kill 100’ of super kudzu.”
“That is a good feature,” the Director admitted. “Fine, we’ll try it. I can’t think of anything better at least.
“Excellent,” Dr. Brawn said. He patted the place on his chest where his Nobel Prize would soon hang. “This can’t fail. Trust me.”
* * *
Four months later, the continental United States was abandoned. Mexico was considering building a huge fence to keep out the super kudzu scourge. Canada had nothing but its cold weather and even that wasn’t an effective barrier anymore, thank you very much global warming. People tried to shoot at the rampaging super kudzu, but after it began to mimic a whimpering puppy, they found they just didn’t have the heart.
Finally, all the survivors who could afford it gathered in a huge underground bunker on the island of Newfoundland and waited, hoping that the kudzu would die out or simply go away. They waited for years. Their phone and Internet went out because no one wanted to go outside to maintain them.
After three years, the debate began: to go outside or not. Some argued that the super kudzu must have killed itself off by now. In any case, it couldn’t have made it over the water to the island. Some questioned why they were in a bunker at all, but more pessimistic individuals shushed them, reminding them of how quickly North America had fallen.
“It’s probably crossed the Atlantic Ocean by now,” some said.
One boy, though, had had enough. “I’m going outside,” he said. He ran for the hatch and began to spin the wheel to open it.
Outside the sun shone brightly and a single tendril of kudzu crept slowly up the stonework towards the soon-to-be-opened hatch . . .
(You can find more information about kudzu here)
Is Water Chess Nuts?
Two men sat on the bench in the park, a controller between them that changed the water jets streaming out of the stone chess board.
“Knight to E4. Check.”
“E4? How is that check?”
“Your king is on F6.”
“No, that’s your piece, and it’s a rook.”
“But the rook is only supposed to be 1.6 meters high, not 1.9 meters high like the king.”
“That is only 1.6 meters. And see? It’s a straight stream like all the black pieces. The white pieces are more of a misty stream.”
“It looks misty from here.”
“It’s not. See only those three pieces aren’t misty: your king, your rook and that knight.”
“I have more than three pieces. Don’t I?”
“No, I captured the rest. Don’t you remember?”
“Are you positive?”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
At that moment, a group of squealing kids ran onto the chessboard and jumped into the jets of water. In an instant, the game was over and the men’s friendship was saved.
It seems that after all these years, I have become a Spaniard, and a Sevillano at that. I have fallen in love with this city of luxuriant plazas and opulent cool groves—so similar and yet so different from my faraway home of burning sands and frigid nights of crystal-dusted skies.
I first came across the strait with Tariq ibn Ziyad, landing on the rocks that still bear his name. I was in the sparks that flew from his horse’s hooves and the light that flashed along the blade of his sword. I was the fire burning in his heart that spurred him and his followers on to victory.
I was with Jabir ibn Aflah as he planned and built the Giralda where I now live and look down on the city that I have adopted over centuries of residence. It has grown slowly but I always stay the same.
There are no other jinn here. Sometimes I think about returning to those hot, dusty expanses of my youth, far over water and sand and lands that have become strange to me. The moods come but then pass. Here, in my Sevilla, I carry on an austere companionship with the people. At sunset, when I come out to bid farewell to the Great Lady for another day, the people see my fire gleaming on the edges of the shield of Faith at the top of the tower.
“¡Mira!” they cry. “The spirit of the Giralda is shining.” That is what I have become: the spirit of the Giralda. And even when the tower is finally laid low, I will not abandon this city.
The Lure of Dark Gully
Stay away from Dark Gully, when the wind is rising in banshee shrieks and tearing at rocks and trees like a vengeful demon of the night.
Stay away when you hear the small coaxing voice come through the maelstrom, telling you to come closer; telling you there is shelter from the storm in the narrow knife-slash in the cliff face.
Flee when you see the faint glow dancing on the tips of the waves, moving slowly to the shore to rest on the storm-slick rocks.
Flee when the tiny glowing balls of mesmerizing ether begin to coalesce into a form that rises out of the surf and takes a step onto the shore.
Despair when the figure holds out its hand and you take a staggering step towards it, all warnings and common sense blown away by the gale.
Despair as your foot steps into the stinging, foam-flecked wave and you are led, unresisting, out to the place where waves pound and rocks break and life is sucked away like a match tossed into the dark abyss of space.
So when the wind rises in the east; when the waves begin their tramping march up the rocks of the beach; when the sky darkens in an ominous light, stay away.
I took this picture on a rafting trip I did last Friday. It was a perfect day for it. I’ll have to share more pictures later.
Call me a traditionalist. Others of my kind have moved on to more modern types of employment: collection agents, airport security screeners, marketing executives. Some have made a name for themselves commenting on Youtube videos. Not me though. I’m stuck here under this bridge, trying to make an honest living scaring people into giving me tolls.
They never stop nowadays though, roaring past in their cars and trucks at a million miles an hour. My first day on the job, I jumped out and tried to scare one into stopping.
It was a tractor trailer. I was in the hospital for a month. Thank God for the restorative properties of pixie dust.
I still try to keep up appearances. Every now and then I can get some pocket money from a kid on a bike, but even they have credit cards more often than not and I don’t mess around with plastic.
It’s just getting harder, you know?
It looked so close, he felt he could almost touch it. On hot days, the water looked oh so refreshing. He could be on the shore in an hour if he wanted to.
But this was his domain, up here on the mountainside, with only the snakes, chipmunks, and pheasants as company, and food when he could catch them. There were springs where he could drink but they were small, muddy trickles, fit only for a monster like himself.
His mother’s words spun repeatedly through his mind: “You have a curse, my son. People would not accept you, if they saw you.” She had never shown him to anyone. Even his father, who was an officer in the army and was rarely home, had never known he had lived through childbirth. His mother had made him run and hide in the mountains whenever his father visited. Finally, when she had died of the fever, he had run to the mountains.
He looked down at the water from the shelter of a rock that was cutting the scorching summer wind. He could go at night, but even then he would have to cross the road and there were always cars driving back and forth, as if guarding the lake from his cursed touch.
Someday, perhaps he would risk it, if fear gave him a reprieve and unchained him even for a night. Someday.
It just looked like a nice place to rest.
I came across the site while I was toiling through thick undergrowth on the side of a nameless Korean mountain. There was no gravestone to identify the person buried beneath and I barely thought about it as a grave as I threw my pack down and stretched my sore muscles.
Fatigue and a soothing bed of springy grass made me drowsy and my eyes closed on their own. All I could feel was the cool firmness of the grave under my back and the warm sun on my face.
Suddenly, it was night and I was standing in a village of houses with thatched roofs. Over the low, outer wall of the nearest house, I could see the door open and a woman was holding a newborn baby. It was crying and its face shone red in the lamplight.
The scene changed and I now saw a boy standing by the street, watching Japanese soldiers march into town. The boy was now in school, learning Japanese, whispering in Korean with his friends, and being beaten for it when he was caught.
The scenes began to move faster and faster. The boy was now a man, wearing the uniform of the South. I saw his name tag: Hong Deok-Jin. I saw him guarding a harbor, sneaking off to see his family, being caught and reprimanded, then sent to a small island as punishment. I saw him leading the counterattack against North Korean boats, then being rewarded for it.
The war was now over and the man lived in a small house with his growing family, his war medal tacked to the wall of the kitchen. I saw one fishing boat sink under him; watched him work with friends, saving money for years to buy another boat. I watched as one son and a daughter died and three more got married and set grandchildren on the man’s knees. The man’s wife finally passed on and I saw the man make his way painfully to the beach each morning to look out over the water, sitting on a rock with his wrinkled hands on his knees, looking and thinking.
Finally, I saw the procession of children and grandchildren carrying his body up the mountain slope to the grave. The family was too poor for a granite gravestone, but I saw them laboriously carry stones up the slope to build the wall around the site. Each year, family members would come to clean and maintain the grave, but then they stopped coming and the trees and undergrowth began to encroach upon the protecting walls.
I woke up with a start. Several hours had passed and the air had gotten chilly. I jumped up, suddenly apologetic about my careless use of another human being’s resting place. I was far behind schedule and needed to move on, but I couldn’t go right away. First, I cut a thick piece of wood and laid it on the grave for the next person who would come across the grave. On it, I carved in English and Korean:
Here lies Hong Deok-Jin. He once lived.
Robert Brouard rowed the old green boat, nicknamed the Love Boat, into the middle of the silent reservoir. The surrounding hills seemed to smoke with ragged cloud vapor and unwillingly, he thought of the crematory giving off smoke as it transformed his beloved Sandra’s body into nothingness. All he had left of her was an urn of ashes and the boat she had built long ago.
He reached the middle of the reservoir and picking up the urn, he started dumping the ashes out into the water. He didn’t feel sad—at least no sadder than he had for the last week. It was hard to think that the grey dust had ever been a part of her. He accepted it objectively, but he felt no need to say good-bye to it. The boat had more of her spirit left in it than that grey, dusty ash.
Sandra would always sit in the back when they went rowing together. She would smile lovingly at him and that would keep him going as he sweated and worked to row them out into the middle of the reservoir for a picnic, or to look at the stars, or just to be alone together. He thought of that first night in it, after she had finally finished and launched the thing that had taken up her spare moments for two years.
He had been so proud of her—I’ll bet I’m the only man in the world whose wife can build a boat, he’d said. It probably wasn’t true, but it made her glow with pleasure and when she was happy, he was happy. They had drunk the champagne instead of smashing it on the prow and then made love in the tippy little craft under the stars. It had been awkward and precarious but passionate, and forty years later, the memory was still electrifying.
Robert put down the urn and picked up the hatchet, prepared to chop through the bottom. “I’m going to come join you now, if that’s okay, dear,” he said. “Just you, me, and the boat.”
It wasn’t that he felt depressed. He felt none of that black cloud of despair that had sometimes afflicted him as a teenager. It just seemed natural, logical even, to go this way. He had no purpose without her; he was just a lonely old man waiting to die in order to be with his beloved again, so why wait? And he could not leave the boat to be sold off and used by others who did not know its significance and history. Memories were not for sale.
He closed his eyes and with a swift movement, struck the bottom of the boat. He chopped again and again, making a fist-sized hole while water flooded in.
It had covered his calves when the water stopped flowing in. He sat there for some time with wet shoes and socks, wondering why the boat wasn’t sinking. Wood floated, of course, but he had filled the boat with weights to make sure it sank. Still, it refused to sink, as if some of Sandra’s obstinacy had imbued the very timbers. Finally, feeling foolish and confused, he rowed slowly back to shore.
Later that evening, he used the truck winch to pull the boat onto shore and examined it to find what had caused the miracle. He pried off one of the sidewalls and found that it was filled with foam. He checked the others and every space was filled with foam: enough to keep the boat above water, even if it got a hole in it.
And he had never known. Back then, she had been a star swimmer, while he could barely do a lap. Just in case, he could imagine her saying. Just in case we spring a leak. Just in case we’re stranded.
Just in case I die first and you take the boat out alone.
“I’m going to have to fix that hole as soon as possible,” he said. And then, for the first time in that horrible, tragic, soul-crushing week, he began to cry.
Morning dawned on the world of green.
The inhabitants awoke from their verdant beds to find that the central ocean had been replenished, as it was every night.
“Dad, where does the ocean come from?” the boy asked his father as the family walked down one of the jade veins that radiated out from the center of the leaf.
“It comes from the sky,” the father said. “Every day it dries up and then is replaced during the cool of the night.” They reached the edge of the ocean, which towered above them, curving out of sight. They could see others gathering on the far side of the ocean, their forms skewed by the curved surface of the water.
The family drank, putting their mouths to the wall of water in front of them and drinking deeply. After several minutes, when all were refreshed, they began the climb back up the leaf to their home.
“Dad?” the boy asked. “What if the ocean stops being replenished?”
“Do you mean the legends, son?” the father asked. “The legends of terrible cold or burning heat? That is not likely to happen, but if it does, we will move to a different leaf. There are thousands of them, you know.
“What if it happens to all of them?”
The father only smiled and ruffled his son’s hair but the fear tightened inside him, the fear that he would admit to no one. It was the same fear that they all felt, in the private recesses of their minds if the night was long or the weather turned strange.
What if the ocean stops coming? What if extreme heat withers the leaf? What if cold freezes everything into an uninhabitable wasteland?
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