Friday, August 19, 2016

The Evil Book

The Evil Book
by
Bobby Derie

It was springtime in the dark lands. Poisonous flowers blossomed, blood-sucking insects swirled in their mad mating dances and screamed out their chittering cries, sharp-beaked birds filched ripe berries from among the thorny bushes, and the snow was melting on the mountains of doom, swelling the streams that trickled down to the pestilential swamp that bordered upon the bitter sea. In his stone tower, built on a foundation of ancient, blood-caked stones on an islet in the middle of that strange, treacherous river, the would-be-prophet worried over her manuscript.

"It's harder than it looks," she spoke aloud. The worn brown skull on his mantle said nothing, but a shadow flickered in its empty sockets. "It is very easy to say, 'oh that is an evil book,' but what really is evil when you get down to it?"

Books filled most of the shelves, and were stacked in piles upon tables and chairs around the first floor; even the narrow, crooked stairs that led to the second floor were lined with their fair load of tomes, leaving only a thin path between them that permitted her to pass by. The only surface without books downstairs was the work-table, and that is because it was where she had determined to assemble the book.

The prophet suffered, she knew, from a certain pragmatic nature which rather undermined the evocative nature of her work. When she had set out at the task to create the evil book - not just an evil book, but the evil book, the kind of thing that would be whispered about for centuries and cause the doom of generations of necromancers and innocent souls, if not nations and, with luck, the entire world - she had immediately begun to draw up a list of desirable characteristics, and begin to study and work out how, exactly, the book should be constructed and what should go in it.

This had entailed a period of long study, including a protracted internship at the university library and an internship with a local bookmaker. Durability was one of the key things she'd been keen on, and this demanded a few experiments with regards to which materials were most resistant to water, mold, and fire; she'd even published a monograph on the subject which had been short-listed for an academic award, though she had lost out to a doctoral student who had spent three years learning how to properly bake Sumerian cuneiform tablets. The prophet did not begrudge him the acclaim.

In the end, she'd decided on rather traditional vellum and leather. Granted, human vellum and leather - and only the first twenty leaves or so were from virgins, because she got tired of checking after hitting the syphilis victim - and she'd boiled the glue down from human bones - which had taken quite a bit of work; there was a shed around the back of the tower which she'd built to handle all the chemicals as far as tanning and whatnot, and she'd had to build it to catch the breeze or else she couldn't breathe in there. Experiments with using sinew to bind had been a bust - it looked rubbish - and she'd gone for silk. Not, silk spun by blind spiders in darkness or any of that, because sourcing that would have been a nightmare, and she'd already put most of her student loans into this project as it was; she'd settled on silk thread used by certain oystermen who hadn't switched to nylon yet. She'd also managed to use quite a bit of polished bone for the spine and fittings, which she thought looked well, no matter how traditional iron or gold might have been.

She'd left off the traps for now - you had to reapply poison, since it went bad, and all of the sheer mechanical options were prone to wear and had to be reset by hand- and assembled the dummy book; a full-sized mockup, basically - which sat on the work table in front of her. It was to be her inspiration.

Unfortunately, that was about when the writers block had hit.

What do you put in an evil book?

Most of the books in her tower were grimoires of one sort or another, and she had initially conceived of a sort of greatest hits album, a compendium of the powers of darkness. A brief survey had quickly revealed that even an index to the existing demonologies would take over a thousand pages, and involve much cross-checking and redundancy. Few of the witches and warlocks of old, it seemed, had been content to verify their work by consulting with someone else. More than a few of the better, more systematic ones were actually written by The Other Side, as she tended to think of the holy water-and-thumbscrew crowd. Actually, they had better indices to forbidden arts than most of the actual necromancers did.

The prophet had briefly flirted with practical manuals on poisons, weapons of murder, engines of war, how to brew drugs and that kind of thing, because the various anarchist manuals and guerrilla warfare pamphlets were usually dubious, but it was debatable whether mere criminality constituted evil, at least in her mind. Worse, it was the type of information that tended to go out of date rather quickly. Strategy and tactics of warfare too would probably be received a trifle too enthusiastically. Marketing flittered up briefly in her brain, but this was merely lying writ large as far as she was concerned.

No, sheer practicality wouldn't do. It would lack the je ne sais quoi of true evil. She needed to get creative. She stared at the blank pages before her.

"Any ideas?" She asked the skull again. The runes carved into the skull made her forehead itch in sympathy. "Oh, you're so helpful."

She consulted her notes again. These were, more or less, all the things that had come to her in her visions - the creeping episodes when she opened herself to the infinite, and things answered. The diary of her travels in various cults, their initiations and forbidden rites; the formulas that worked. Some of it was obscure even to her; even on a good day the prophet needed something to dull her senses to the floating consciousnesses, just to get through the day. Fortunately, no one at university cared if she smelled a little funny or refilled her "tea" from a thermos that smelled like thyme, basil, and kerosene. In one particularly lucid episode she'd roughed out a sort of outline - figuring it would be easier if she could figure out the structure of the thing. There were headings for Sex Rites, and Prophecies; Forbidden Feasts, and Incantations After Death; a True History of the World and the Cosmology of the Old Ones.

It all seemed rather too prosaic. It was the sort of thing a comic book writer might have come up with, but they would have done it in four colors, with some underground comix guy doodling obscene alien figures in the margins. Hieroglyphs that made boys get strange erections when they saw octopi, Sigils that burned the brain of whoever opened a random page...

She felt herself slipping then, another episode coming on. The prophet eased herself to the floor, hoping this would prevent her from spilling anything on the manuscript as her jaw locked up and the lake of piss in her bladder seemed to freeze into a solid block that would never pass. Snakes danced down her spine as she quivered on the rough flagstones of the tower, eyes rolling into her head as the unseen things re-familiarized themselves with the primitive neural system they were colonizing once again.

This is all wrong. Was her last coherent thought for a while.

Cold alien logic seemed to swamp her understanding. There was this perfect image in her mind of what the book should - must be - a sort of programming document for evil. A system of systems, each page, each paragraph, each word and rune and diagram designed not to offend, but to fulfill a terrible purpose. She saw the illusion of time vanish before her, the infinite spiderweb of dark knowledge a single black spiral. But how the hell was she supposed to write that?

Without conscious thought, her hand grabbed a quill. And began to write.

Consciousness came to the prophet shortly after pain. Her hand was a frozen, withered claw, the calluses worn off and locked around the broken quill. The arm it was attached to didn't feel much better. Hunger clawed at her stomach, and she began to tremble in that weak, shuddery, fevered way that said her blood sugar was low. The smell and unpleasant squishiness in her pants told her she was laying in her own filth. Her head hurt, and arc of pain across her forehead. Gingerly, she tried and failed to get up off the floor - she had been asleep on her side, the writing arm numb and dead, and her hair and face seemed glued to the stone work. She shifted and gave another effort.

With a sticky, painful, hair-pulling exertion she tore herself free of the floor. Her numb right arm felt rubbery and senseless. She looked at the black scab on the floor, long gray hairs embedded in it, and gingerly reached up a hand to touch her scalp - and screamed at the open wound there. Well, at least I know where the blood came from. Then the pins and needles her her arm, and she began to flail around at the long-delayed pain.

It was quite a while before she was quite fit for anything.

When, eventually, she returned to the work table, she found that the dummy book lay open. Its pages were covered by her careful scrawl. She flipped idly through it. There were pieces that had been literally cut out of some of the books around her. Illustrations. Random letters. Yet it all seemed to fit. Her eyes lit on a word here or there that seemed to just have the right meaning. A few things she recognized from her copious notes, but not her outline. She turned to the beginning, and found that the first three pages consisted entirely of an elaborate book curse, one that drew the eyes and prepared one for the great revelations ahead...

There were little obscene doodles in the margin. It was, she knew, a sexual position you could only undertake with a corpse, and had certain necromantic usages that not many people knew. On the skull, next to the bloated pecker poking through the eye socket, was a number in brown ink. She took this to be a page number, and turned to it. The illustration on that page included a skull with a cantrip connected with the practice on the first page...and another number. She flipped through a few few more. It quickly became obvious that the text had at least one code enciphered within it - she recognized the outlines of a treatise on necromancy and necrophilia, sort of filling in the spaces between things, connected to them by numbers...

The prophet closed the book. Out in the dark lands, sharp-beaked birds were singing. It would need editing.

###

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bonus dormitat, Alhazred?

Bonus dormitat, Alhazred?
by
Bobby Derie

"Why did he write it?"

I had asked the question aloud, though I had not meant to. I meant, of course, Abdul al-Azrd, and his most famous work, the Kitab al-Azif, which had been rendered into the Greek as the Necronomicon. This work, in its various recensions, has been the subject of my studies for some years. I have accumulated something like seventy-five editions, fragments, and commentaries on the work in various translations. Stacks of xerox copies of blackletter pages, scans of manuscript pages from university libraries, cheap paperback editions from New York, London, Prague...

Most of my work is not about the text itself, as such. The cosmology, the prophecies, the formulas, and history...I am more concerned with the context of the work, the transmission. I compare sections of text from different manuscripts to the extant editions, compare the wording, the time and place and circumstances of the the content. Parallels in gnostic scriptures, poorly sourced hadith, fragments of stories retold in collections of the Thousand and One Nights.

Yet that day, at the coffee shop in the lobby of the library - is no place sacred? - I had been working my way through the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá - the librarians hadn't been willing to scan or photograph any of the pages, so I had to arrive in person at the special collection, present my credentials, and sit quietly as they went through the whole instructions on handling the manuscript - complete with white gloves! - and I was allowed only a pencil and notepad for my notes. Four hours of that and my ass was numb, my bladder was fit to burst, and I was getting that slight tension in my temples that presaged a caffeine-deprivation headache.

The question, muttered as I sat down in the coffee shop, hands wrapped around my personal lifegiving grail, came out of the depths of my consciousness. It was the kind of thing I could have meditated on for hours and days, but as often happens in any serene moment of contemplation, I was interrupted.

"Because it was what he was expected to do."

The voice belonged to a face, the face was studded with bits of metal in each lip, in each nostril, in each eyebrow and ear. It was carefully assymmetrical, the ragged cafe-au-lait birthmark over one eye juxtaposed by the dark black lines overlaying the other one, black ink on chocolate skin. The sides of her head were shaved, hair faded into something more involved than a high-top and too short and broad to be a mohawk. He smile was gap, toothed, broad, and immediately attractive.

I didn't say anything, but a wordless querulous gurgle buzzed into my throat.

"Alhazred, right?" I didn't correct her pronunciation, just nodded. "Mona told me you were looking it up in SC. Yeah, he did it because he had to."

My eyes tried to focus on her again. "You've been studying al-Azrd?"

She slurped her ice coffee through a straw, swallowed and nodded.

"Yeah. Dual masters in history and library science. I've been working a thesis on Manichean textual tradition, you know? Like, taking John C. Reeves' work and reworking it with the new manuscripts and archaeological sources we have now, right?"

I nodded.

"The thing is, in the Middle East back then, you couldn't just have a divine revelation. I mean, you could have this reputation of being very wise and a great magician and everything, but if you wanted people to take you seriously, you needed a book. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Manichaeans were all ahl al-Kitāb, People of the Book. The people didn't just want a prophet, they wanted scripture."

She sucked back at the iced coffee. I felt mine getting cool in my hands.

"There's no real information on Alhazred's followers, right? But he had to have them. Who else recorded the details of his life, his death? The Al Azif, that's a serious book, right? Takes a lot of money for that much vellum, more money for artists for all the diagrams and illustrations, the illuminations, the scribes to copy it. You think a poet is going to have the coin for all that? No, he had his own little cult. This mad poet. Okay, maybe not a cult cult, but you bet he had some rich merchant's widow or something footing the wheels - and that's who he wrote the book for. They wanted a scripture. They wanted a book to refer to, copy, pass on."

"That's...very interesting, actually." The wheels were spinning. "You're not the first to suggest al-Azrd had followers and assistance in preparing the manuscript. Some of the earliest extant fragments show different colors of ink, some of it silver or gold..." Her brown eyes were wide, the glasses pushed down on her nose. "But what makes you so sure it was some sort of scripture, not...an historical work, like the Kitāb al-Așnām, the Book of Idols written by Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi? Or a collection of forbidden materials, like the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt?"

"Parallel construction," she popped out, flashing the smile again. "The way the Al Azif is ordered, it's informed by the structure of Judeo-Christian-Islamic texts, right? Because the manuscript copies, the original organization of the Al Azif texts wasn't fixed until way later, when it was printed in Toledo, right? The early handwritten copies, you've got your Genesis-parallel clumped together, and your psalm-parallels grouped together, but it wasn't ordered like it is today in the printed; the Al Azif's contents might be way alien to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic milieu, but it was written like a latter-day gospel, right? You can tell because some of them work the parallels really hard - the whole thing about the rebellion in Aldebaran or whatever it was - its all like the Enochian literature of the Manichaeans again, the stuff that the Yahwists redacted and tried to minimize in Genesis, but Mani was all over that stuff, and the texts like the Book of Enoch and the Book of Giants. Secret scriptural history! That's what it's all about."

She sucked on the straw again, dark lip gloss shiny against the clear plastic straw, quickly giving way to a slurping as the iced coffee ran out of coffee, leaving just a thin brown film clinging to the half-melting ice.

"Miss...I'm sorry I don't even know your name...this is actually really fascinating, and I'd like to talk to you about it more...maybe over dinner?"

She shot me that gap-toothed grin again. Her canine teeth bit down on her lower lip a little when she smiled. "Cthulhu fhtagn, baby. I get off at eight. Meet you here?"

###

Friday, August 5, 2016

War Story

War Story
by
Bobby Derie

"Kent, you're on the human interest piece," the cigar had puffed at him. "Oldest veteran in Metropolis just hit a hundred. Bring me back a thousand words, we have space to fill on page three, and I'll by Great Caesar's Ghost I'll be damned if I fill it up with kittens in trees again..."

Three hours later, the reporter walked softly through the halls of the Rock Memorial Veteran's Hospital. He didn't like these places. The smell of death and industrial antiseptics clung to everything like a fine layer of dander. He could hear the heart beats falter, the organs fail, the breaths sputter and stop. The worst part was, there was nothing he could do about it.

The halls were clean, clear, and wide: pastel hues with wood and plastic rails, big enough to admit two hospital beds abreast, floors a harmless off-beige, walls hung with pictures of the people and machines of war: planes, tanks, black-and-white shots of smiling young men in their uniforms on the front. Old men sat in their wheelchairs, or shuffled down halls in their walkers. Kent stopped at the room the nurse had directed him to, knocked quietly at the open door.

"Mr. Shapiro? I'm Clark Kent from the Daily Planet..."

The room was dark, and the old man sat in an overstuffed easy chair, a little tray on wheels at his side. A blanket covered his bony lap, and a striped tiger cat lay on it, playing with his beard, which reached down almost to his waist.

"Kent? Kent! Right. Come on in, Smallville."

The Kansan gave a double-take. "What did you call me?"

"Smallville." The old man wheezed. "Sorry, force of habit. He was one us, you know. In Easy Company, during the war." The old man pointed to a faded company photograph on the opposite wall. Names had been written over or beneath each man with a pen - "Four Eyes," "Lonesome," "Farmer Boy,"...and a bespectacled young man with a familiar grin had "Smallville" written next to it. The reporter raised a hand to caress the dirty glass.

"My father served in Easy Company during the war." Kent said. "Johnathan Kent."

"Be damned." The old man gave a gap-faced grin, dentures slipping a little. "Smallville's boy. Went home and married Martha did he? Good for him, good for him." He harrumphed, which turned into a cough. Kent turned around to the old man. A blink peered through wasted muscle and liver-spotted skin. The lungs looked dark and ragged, the heart thumped irregularly. "They called me Wildman. It was Rock's idea."

"Rock?" He blinked, looking at the man again, focusing on just the surface of things.

"Rock. Our topkick. He liked to give folks nicknames. It was part of the way of war...did your father ever talk about it?"

"Pa didn't talk much about the war, Mr. Shapiro," the reporter surprised himself, lapsing back into Kansas dialect. "A few stories here and there. About Sgt. Rock, not much about the others. Said he didn't do much during the war - nothing to brag about."

The old man leaned back, stroking his cat. "Rock knew that a man's actions in war, were different from what a man had to do at home. The nicknames, it was a way to get people used to being someone else. Your father, I think, washed the blood and mud from his face and went home. Left Smallville somewhere behind him in France or Belgium. He'd served his purpose, then." He seemed lost in reverie for a moment, and Kent remembered his purpose, took out his notepad, pencil, and a pocket recorder.

"Nothing to brag about, is that what you said?" The old man started up again, killing the first question on the reporter's lips. "Not all courage is rewarded with a chestful of medals. Your pa should have told you that, if nothing else, I remember..."

The snow was six inches deep on the frozen ground, the men moving through the trees, feet frozen. An advance, in this weather. Somewhere out there, just as cold and lonely: the enemy. Starving wolves, cut off from the rest of their unit, and Easy Co. was sent ahead, to sweep them up maybe turn the flank.

From the trees, a rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun. Snow kicked up in little puffs as the burst swept through; three men went down, far to his right. The sharp pangs of return fire, rifle cracks echoing off the trees, causing a light powder to fall. Smallville had hit the ground as soon as the first shots rang out, face first into the snow, not even daring to let his teeth chatter as the ice crept up along his neckline. All around him, helmets buried behind fallen trees, snow drifts, men lying prone, not sure where to point their rifles.

Then he was on the move, crawling forward, looking for shelter, looking for anything. Lead flew over him, knocking chips off trees. He kept going forward, forward. There was a spot up there - a red spot in the snow, where no bullets were falling. Smallville made for it. Then he heard them - prayers. Not in English, but he knew a prayer when he heard it. Ahead, to his left. He raised his rifle in front of him, eased into a crouch. Crept forward. The fire had mostly gone off, there was shouting to his right, Rock yelling orders, cries for the medic...

It wasn't shelter. It was just some branches bent down to make a kind of tent against the tree. Three Germans were huddled there, bandaged and bloody. One had a crucifix. Another had a potato masher. Kent had his rifle. They stood there, staring at each other...

"...now another man, in that situation, he might have fired. He would have been right to do so. Cornered wolves, hurt bad, but still dangerous. Smallville though, he laid his rifle down. In full view, you understand? He didn't speak any German, but he motioned for them to come out. Now if he'd have shot them, well that would have been war. If he'd have taken them prisoner at gunpoint, he might have been in for a bronze star, something like that. But he didn't do that. He set his rifle down. Your father showed more guts then than many men I've known. Those Krauts were in a frozen hell you or I can't imagine, and he showed them a bit of humanity...and they responded to it."

The old man smiled that gapped-tooth smile. "Rock gave him hell about it, of course. Not for want of respect for his kindness, you understand, but that kind of behavior could get a man killed in war. Still. Your father is a braver man than I ever was. Takes a brave man not to kill."


###

Friday, July 29, 2016

Homework

Homework
by
Bobby Derie

The chickens were put up in the coop, the feed buckets mucked out, and three big potatoes picked out for dinner. Clark washed his hands and face and ears, and they had dinner together as the sun came through the dining room window - pale corn and okra, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with thick brown gravy, washed down with milk and water. Ma took the dishes to the sink to wash, while the boy dried them with a towel and set them in the rack, and Pa got dressed. He returned just as the sun was a red disc on the horizon, and gave her a kiss, his American Legion hat tucked under one arm, and headed out to his meeting.

Ma came out to the dining room and switched on the light - the only light in the darkened house, and Clark came in with his schoolwork. Tonight was fractions and vocabulary. They sat at the table beneath the pale yellow light, working with flashcards and a pencil that had been sharpened to a nub.

"You're not paying attention tonight Clark," Ma said, tapping a nail against a backwards 'S'. He never knew how she could spot those from across the table.

"Ma...what did you do during the war?"

She shuffled the fraction cards in her hands, and leaned back in her chair.

"I was a newspaperwoman."

The boy waited expectantly. She flashed a card.

"One-sixteenth."

"I met your father in highschool, but we weren't married after we graduated. Not yet. He joined the Army. Many men did. The newspaper office was short-handed, and I'd done well in my typing courses - once thought I might be a stenographer in a law office. Mother was sick and we needed the money, so I answered an advertisement for the Smallville Ledger."

A card. "Nine...sevenths?"

"Which is?"

"One and...two sevenths."

"Good. I was a typist, at first. Not even a secretary. Farm news, mostly. It came in on the wire, sickness in crops and animals, bad weather, bad water. New scientific farming. Advertisements for seed catalogs, that kind of thing. Sometimes I even came up with the ad copy, for the personal ads. Hands needed, old tractors for sale, rooms for rent. That sort of thing. Used to spend hours going through the musty old archives, these big books, each page of newsprint laid out flat, never folded, to find out when someone was born or had died."

A card. "Six-twelfths."

"Divide by six?"

"One-two...one half."

"That's right. I was never quite a cub reporter, but as things got on I did more. Once, I went out to get the scores for a ball game, and came home with such a story the editor insisted I write it up - my first article. I'd done well enough in composition in school, but it was a different type of writing. I stayed up well after midnight working on that six inches. They printed it. I cut out a copy and mailed it to Pa with my next letter. He kept it, all through the war. 'That's my gal' he said."

She shuffled the cards.

"Parts of it I didn't care for. The lists that came back, of the dead and wounded, the missing in action. There were women that came around, asking for news from the front. Men looking for work - the newspaper wasn't an employment office, but we put the job listings up for free, and would read them to anyone that couldn't. And of course, there were those that didn't think much of a girl running around with ink on her hands, or driving out to Kansas City or Wichita on her lonesome."

Ma put the cards back in the pack.

"Then the war was over, and Pa came home. Before you know it we were married - I kept up the job for a while, because we needed the money; but there were old newspapermen coming home and the Ledger had me back to typing up copy for others, and I didn't like that. One day the editor announced we were getting a pay cut - and I left. It wasn't worth my time."

She looked at the clock. "Oh Clark, your program is starting. Why don't you go catch it? I'll tidy up."

The grin split the boy's face from ear to ear, and he bolted for the front door. He jumped down the three steps of the porch and landed on the soft dirt, then launched himself straight upwards...higher and higher. At a few thousand feet he hung above the Earth and closed his eyes, focusing his hearing as a thousand radio sets tuned in to the whistling intro and "...nothing wrong Mr. Templar..."

###

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sunday Funnies

Sunday Funnies
by
Bobby Derie

The morning's chores were done. Ma had gone off to visit with the church women's group, and Pa was in the garage with the Ford, replacing a belt. Clark was in the house, having just laid down the brightly-colored comics page. He tied an old red towel around his neck for a cape, and cocking an ear to make sure that Pa was still hard at work, he floated quietly an inch about the ground into his parent's bedroom, and carefully opened the door to the closet, wincing at every almost audible squeak of the hinges.

Behind the good suits and winter jackets, way in the back the boy pushed his way to where Pa's old uniform stood, a wall of green with pockets full of moth balls. Underneath it were his boots, the black leather cracked and stiff, and tucked into the right one the long thin length of the mystic sword. Clark took it out with exaggerated care, holding it by the hilt, scabbard and all, and then put the clothes back as they were, and made his way back out of the closet, and the room, shutting the door so Ma and Pa wouldn't be any the wiser.

Outside, in the sunlight, the boy pulled the length of sharpened steel out of its sheath, and marveled at the length of it, holding it at arms length. "Flamberge," he whispered, and sticking the scabbard into his belt ran off into the field, slashing about, the red cape billowing behind him. He stood with Sir Gawain against robbers, and tracked the dread Viking Ulfran from isle to isle, fighting dragons and monsters. Then at last he was the Prince of Thule, alone in a strange land, with stranger people...

"Clark," Pa's voice rang out, though the old man knew he could call him with a whisper. He stood at the edge of the field, the sun shining off the round panes of his glasses, wiping his oily hands with a rag. "What have you got there, son?"

In an instant, the singing sword disappeared behind the boy's back. "Nothing."

"Son," the old man said. "You know better than try to lie about all that. Come on, I'm not mad, let's see it."

So the boy came forward, the red cape no longer billowing behind him, and held up the bayonet. The moment he saw it, the boy could hear the old man's heart skip a beat. The old man took it from his unresisting hand and seemed to consider it for a long time.

"What were you doing with this son?"

The boy tumbled out a torrent of words about Singing Sword, sister to Excalibur, and how it was enchanted...

"All right, I get the picture. Come with me into the garage for a minute, Clark."

The wandered into the garage, where the Ford was nestled in between benches and hanging tools, shelves full of solvents and paint and all sorts of other chemicals whose strong odors made the boy queasy if he got too close, though Pa never seemed to pay it much mind. The old man took a seat on a chair, and indicated a stool, which the boy sat on, letting the cape dangle around him.

"I'm not upset with you boy," Pa said, "the truth is that I haven't thought about this in a long time. You see, it doesn't rightly belong to me."

Pa's eyes regarded the blade without really seeing it.

"Some men find religion in war; others lose it. There was one in our company - a chaplain, name of Lamansky. Rock used to say he had a smile bright as a copper penny, and that he could play any psalm on his harmonica - and threatened to, on more than one occasion. It was a hard thing to be a priest during the war - they weren't supposed to fight, most weren't even allowed to carry a weapon. Lamansky was a brave man, and a good priest. I saw him give last rites under fire more than once, and he was often the last voice anyone heard. He had three armed chaplain assistants that were shot and killed during that winter in Belgium...and after the last one he said he wouldn't have another, but took the bayonet off his rifle and stuck it in his belt."

"I don't want to say that something broke in him then. War can strain a man's faith without breaking it, and some come through a test stronger than when they went in it. Lamansky he got distant. Smiled less. Played no more psalms on the harmonica - played it hardly at all, really. There was a stiff formality as he said the words over the body bags, and there are times I'd see him holding onto this bayonet in a way I saw other men hold onto crosses or Bibles. Rock noticed it, and Lamansky noticed Rock."

Pa turned the blade over, showed Clark the letters etched along the length of the blade.

VADE+RETRO+SATANA

"Lamansky carved that in there himself. I won't claim to know the depths of any religion. Lamansky, he lost his way. Got it into his head that there was something about Rock - I don't know whether he thought the man was angel or devil, saint or sinner. Maybe a bit of all of it, rolled up together. Rock had been the one to drag Lamansky out of that last fight, when his assistant had been killed, the one that kept him from picking up the dead man's rifle. It was a damned thing to do, but I knew why Rock had done it - we all did. We needed a chaplain more than we needed another killer. It takes a special man to refuse to kill, in the middle of a war. To go unarmed except for faith."

"It happened near the end of that winter - the Germans had about had it, though we didn't know that yet. Things had been quiet for about three nights. Long nights, when you can't see the enemy but know he's there, long and cold and dark, when you don't dare light a fire or even a match for a smoke - they had a superstition even then, about lighting cigarettes. You just wanted to curl up somewhere warm and sleep, but you had to keep awake, stare out at that darkness, keep your eyes and ears peeled for any flash, any sound that they might be coming."

"On the third night, just before dawn, they came. Right over the hill. The call came up, we were bunkered down behind a stone wall, Rock and Lamansky and I. Rock was picking them off, I was so cold I was mostly wasting bullets. The chaplain had his head down, and for a moment I thought he was going to say a prayer...and then he pulled that bayonet out, this bayonet, as easy as you please. I could see what he was going to do with it. Rock's back was too him, too busy with soldier's work."

"The butt of my rifle cracked against Lamansky's helmet. I hated to do it. You can kill a man like that, easier than most people think. I was hoping just to stun him - and I did. Quick grabbed the bayonet and stuck it into my belt. Then it was back to the Germans. I don't know if Rock ever quite knew what had happened; he didn't ask any questions when it was all over, and Lamansky when he looked at me - it wasn't hate exactly, but hurt. Like when a dog is kicked and it can't understand why. He was transferred out of Easy Company after that - they claimed he had a concussion, then that he'd been in the field too long, time to get rotated out. Never saw him again."

The boy looked at the blade. He watched pay spray a little gun oil on it, wipe it down with a rag and put it back in its sheath.

"Don't want it to rust," he explained. "Oil from your skin, if you let it get on the steel, can cause corrosion. That's all I really wanted to tell you. You go on and play now, Clark."

The boy climbed down from the school and left Pa in the garage, still holding on to the bayonet. The red cape billowed in the breeze as he walked back to the fields, swordless.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Farm Lessons

Farm Lessons
by
Bobby Derie

The boy began to float at three months; Martha didn't dare take him outside until he was near old enough to walk, and could be trusted not to go off out of sight, or when company was around. Even when he stuck to the ground, the boy was a rambler and a climber. John took the precaution of moving the shells from off the top shelf, and into a locked cabinet. Six years after they'd found him, the boy accidentally ripped the handle out of the door. The old man reckoned his son needed a talk.

Out back behind the barn, John set out an old folding work table, with the oil and cleaning kit. The boy watched as the old man disassembled the rifle and cleaned it, named each of the parts, explained the action, the dangers of it, how not to point it at any one or any thing you didn't want to shoot. A mop of dark black hair over piercing blue eyes drank in every movement.

"Pa," he said, as the old man finished reassembly and checked the action. "What's it for?"

On a Kansas farm, a gun was a tool more than a weapon; shotguns were often used to shoo away birds and ding foxes and coyote more than anything else. As they walked out to the far acres, the old man told the boy about the pioneers days - remembering the stories Grandpa Kent told him of rustlers and thieves surprised in the night, and the last Indian in the county, shot and scared and bleeding out against a rail fence...

...and Private Kent, on the quiet farm in the Ardennes Forest. It was a thin forest, but big enough to get lost in; frost on the ground every morning that fall, then snow as the winter came on, the coffee beans so cold he had to crack them open his rifle butt. Rock was restless, staring out at the trees. Ease didn't come easy in Easy Company; it was a pause between pushes, battlefront troops rotated out for a bit of rest before being thrown back into action.

Rock wanted his men primed, had them out at the old stone wall at the edge of the field every morning, shooting at paper targets on the trees...charcoal silhouettes of the Bosch, shadows on faded French newsprint. Pvt. Kent sometimes wondered if the man knew what was going to happen, like a dog could feel a twister coming before you ever spotted the cloud, scratching at the door to the cellar.

We never heard or saw the first Germans, that cold morning. Pvt. Kent was down there with his rifle, smashing the coffee beans as usual when the tut-tut-tut started, maybe half a mile a way. Then the long shadows were marching through the snow, through the line of the trees, right towards the farm house. He went right up to the front door and looked out at that stone fence, the faded, pockmarked targets still up on the trees, and in the overcast dawn the shadows moving between them looked just the same. Automatically he brought up his rifle, could almost hear Rock in his ear as he adjusted his aim, to squeeze the trigger...

...the tin can, on the wooden fence, went flying with a ping. The crack of the .30-06 echoed under the brilliant blue sky. The old man lowered the rifle, flicked the safety into place.

"Did you have to kill 'em, pa?" the boy asked. The old man felt like those blue eyes could see right through him, sometimes. He didn't dare lie.

"It was war, son. I never wanted to kill any man. I wish I could say you'll understand it when you're older - but to tell the truth, I'm not sure I understand it all now, or ever will."

The boy picked up a pebble from the ground, whipped it hard in the direction of the fence, the hand little more than a blur. A familiar ping sounded, as the last of the target cans went flying off the fence.

"I don't reckon I like guns, pa."

The old man ruffled that jet black hair, still warm from the sun.

"You don't have to like them, son. I just want you to respect them - the danger that they represent. There's a responsibility that goes along with owning a gun. You understand?"

"I think so, pa."

"Good. Now, I'm going to ask you not to ever play with my gun, or the ammunition. They're not toys, you understand?"

"Yes, pa."

"That's alright then."

The boy looked back at the house. "Ma's calling."

The old man didn't hear anything. "Anybody visiting?"

The boy shook his head. "No pa."

"Then why don't you take the sky back. I'll be along shortly."

The boy grinned, took three steps and then a flying leap. The old man didn't seem him land, exactly, but the arc took him toward the house. Quietly, he picked up the spent brass shell casings from the dirt, and put them in a pocket before heading back.

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Hero to Heroes

Hero to Heroes
by
Bobby Derie

The boy looked up at the stars, and wondered which one he'd come from. He could hear the old man come down out of the house, walk across the yard to the fence. The boy could hear the whole farm - and the next farms over. It got to the point he didn't even have to think about it any more.

The old man leaned on the fence. "You did well today, Clark. Saving that girl, I mean. Bet you liked it when Mr. Lang called you a hero."

The looked up at the stars for a while.

"I wasn't always a farmer," the old man went on. "Grew up in Kansas, of course, and it's where I met Martha. Yet when the war came, I signed up along with almost every other young man of my generation. We mustered out to England, then France...and then there we were in the mud of it."

"There's a lot of people that talk about heroics during war, but it's hard to see it when you're on the ground. Watching people dying. Shooting at people just because they wear a different uniform, speak a different language. The government - they know that people don't like to fight and kill each other. It isn't our instinct. They have to whip men up to go and kill each other. Some of them got real good at it. Yet those men aren't heroes."

"The only true hero I ever knew was a man named Rock. He made sergeant, but he was a corporal when I first knew him. There was a man that earned every stripe he ever got, and paid for it in blood. He wasn't about killing people, you see. He'd do it - he did it, going over the top, charging up the hill or through the woods. That man never led from behind, never sent men out to die without putting himself on the line. Rock had an understanding of war - he knew it chewed men up and spat them out. He wanted his men to survive. He wanted to do his duty to his country and humanity, but those were big, far away concepts compared to the men screaming unheard against the barrage of explosive shells."

The old man traced a small scar on his hand. "I wasn't there when he died. Got my wound, my medal, and mustered out. There are stories I could tell you about him...maybe another night...the things he did for his men. Above and beyond the call of duty, they like to call it, but it wasn't really. Rock had a higher calling. He was soldier's hero, what men need when they're at war, though I doubt he got a chest full of medals for it. But in the end he was only a man, and he could only do what a man could do."

There were tears in the old man's eyes as he talked about the man named Rock.

"I tell you these things because I want you to understand - it's not about being thanked. It's not about being called a hero, for what you do. It's about doing the right thing because that's who you are. You understand what I'm saying, son?"

"Yes Pa," the boy stared up at him with those big blue eyes, that little shock of black hair curling down over his forehead.

"Good. Now c'mon, Martha has a pie out of the oven, and I reckon we could both use a slice."

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