Pen

LJ Idol Free Topic: Semper Fi

So, I just got eliminated from the game, and I wanted to say a couple things, and this topic works kind of perfectly for it.

alephz is one of the most awesome people I know. He's the first person I go to when I'm bummed out about things. He's incredibly positive and optimistic even when he is being curmudgeonly (which is also adorable). He's loving and thoughtful and listens to pretty much anything. I mean, he's the kind of dude who you can tell that you're upset with him, and he takes it all in stride and listens.

He sticks up for people when they can't stick up for themselves. He's honest and loyal and kind and generous and his heart is so full of goodwill that just knowing him makes the world a happier place. And a place more full of giant robots.

Last week, I emailed Gary and told him that I wanted to save yachiru if she was in danger of being eliminated. Actually, I sent him a list of a few people to save the week before, but none of them needed it. Then I decided it was better to narrow down my pick to one person.

We had a long, agonizing conversation about saving each other. Several. He made me promise I wouldn't sacrifice for him. Then he asked if he could sacrifice for me. I told him the only reason I would let him was because I loved doing it last season and it just makes everyone so happy to see.

He ended up deciding not to do it. Which I sort of preferred anyway, because otherwise we would have had some clusterfuck gift of the magi thing going on, because if he HAD done it, I would have written to Gary and told him to drop me for Aleph, too, promises be damned :-P

But then our poll in our little four-person tribe was really close, and I was fretting to alephz about how if I got eliminated, I couldn't save her.

So he wrote to Gary and offered up his spot if I got eliminated.

Do you know how awesome that is? To have a friend who is not just loyal to you, but is loyal to the idea of saving someone just because you like their writing? It is kind of heartachingly awesome.

Sometimes I tear up just from the fact that I know someone this awesome.

I am going to tell you all a secret: Playing like this is so much more fun than playing to win. Everyone should try it.
Pen

LJ Idol Topic #29: Sobriquet

The sound of a shattering windowpane punctured the stream of conversation; the Deans of the College turned toward the now-amplified sound of shouting in the streets.

A rock lay on the floor, surrounded by tiny, shining splinters, and wrapped with a piece of parchment and a fine pink satin ribbon.

The Chair of Fine Arts stooped over to pick it up. “For a group called the Dainty Dissidents, they’re hardly living up to their name,” he said irritably.

“Don’t touch it!” exclaimed the Chair of Forensic Science. “It could be poisoned!”

“Poisoned?” The Chair of Philosophy scoffed. “Some of us can’t get our heads out of our courses of study.”

“It’s a list of demands,” said the Chair of Fine Arts, as he untied the ribbon and flattened out the sheet of parchment to read it. “One: that women will be permitted to—“

“Well, they already know that we’re not going to accept their demands,” said the Dean of Students. “Women. At an establishment of higher education. It’s nonsense.”

*****

Outside the high spires of the College, a small detachment of police officers stood, staring at the legions of well-dressed women, young and old, their skirts starched and their hair pinned back beneath comely little bonnets, all carrying signs and chanting.

GIVE US ACCESS! LET US ENROLL!”

MEN USE TEN PERCENT OF THEIR BRAINS! WOMEN USE FIFTEEN!”

The Chairs of the various departments had drawn straws to send one of their own out into the fray, The Chair of Mathematics had drawn the short straw.

“What are you doing?!” he demanded of the Police Captain. “Arrest them!”

“Sir, I’m afraid we can’t,” said the Captain. “There isn’t enough room in the Women’s Prison. And these are Ladies of Quality,” he said. “I can’t put them in with the beggars and the prostitutes!”

“Well, you can at least disperse them!” the Chair of Mathematics replied huffily.

“We’ve been trying to,” the Captain said, gesturing to where the police were trying, very timidly, to ask the women to leave.

“That’s not working!” said the Chair of Mathematics. “You’ve been authorized by the Chief Minister to use force!”

The Captain was sweaty, red-faced and frustrated. “But they’re ladies.”

“No lady would have the audacity to demand entrance to a University!” snapped the Chair of Mathematics.

“You’re not even accredited as a University!” said a slight, redheaded young woman who was carrying a sign that said “IF WOMEN ARE NATURAL CARETAKERS, LET US PRACTICE MEDICINE!” “You’re only a four-year college!”

“Well, do something about her!” the Chair of Mathematics demanded, pointing at the young woman. “Make an example of her, or something?”

The Captain sighed and directed two officers toward the red-haired woman.

“We’re very sorry, Miss, er, Ma’am,” one officer said, uncertain about how to handcuff a lady. “We, ah, we’re going to have to arrest you. Would you be so kind as to hold your hands out like so?”

The young woman looked properly scandalized. “Arrest me?” she asked. “Is heckling a crime now? If it is, I suggest you will find a good number of felons in Parliament.”

“Sorry, Miss,” said the officer, and he held out the handcuffs.

“What is taking you imbeciles so long?!” demanded the Chair of Mathematics. He shoved between the officers and the young lady, and grabbed her by the shoulders. “You look here, you!”

“Ey!” shrieked another woman, who was holding a sign that said “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE LECTURE HALL.” “You get your hands off her!”

The red-haired woman swatted at the Chair of Mathematics with her sign, smacking him squarely in the chest. He fell back, winded. “That’s assault!” He shouted.

“I’ll assault you, you pervert!” cried a third woman, who was carrying a sign that said “LET MUMMY STUDY MATHS BEFORE I COUNT TO TEN.

“I’m afraid it is,” the officer told the red-haired woman, apologetically. “We’ll have to take you in, Miss, for real now.”

She scowled at the Chair of Mathematics before holding out her hands to be cuffed. “It was worth it,” she said.

*****

“Wot ‘ave we ‘ere?” asked Syphilis Rose when they very gently led the red-haired woman into the cell. “Ow, et’s a pretty lay-dee! Wot did ye do t’get trown in de brig?”

The red-haired woman allowed the police to take off her handcuffs, and she rubbed at her wrists, making certain to keep them covered by the lace cuffs of her dress. “I assaulted a college professor in the valiant struggle for women’s rights,” she said.

The cell was hot and damp, and the walls and floor were thick with mold and lichen. There was a bucket in one corner that emitted a very strong stench, and a single window, too high up to see anything but the sky.

“Ye’re one o’dose suffrawhatgits, den?” asked Syphilis Rose.

“One of the Dainty Dissidents, and yes, in a manner of speaking,” said the red-haired woman. “Although this particular battle was for enrollment in institutions of higher education and not women’s suffrage.”

“It’s awl too much fer me,” said Syphilis Rose. “Ye come back t’me when ye want t’help yer sisters make whorin’ legal. Ye get yerself a name, luvvie?”

“Louisa,” she said, as she, very reluctantly, sat on the floor.

The prison was sweltering in the summer heat, and Louisa could not have slept even in a bed. As things were, she was on the floor, and Syphilis Rose was snoring loudly and contentedly, and she was certain she had seen a rat.

Her hair had come out of its bun, and her dress had gotten badly stained. She had been trying not to cry, but she could feel her eyes stinging and beginning to tear.

So, she wasn’t certain at first if the flickering was tears in her eyes or a light outside her window. But the flickering became steady, and grew, until a golden glow swam in, casting shadows across the floor.

And then the singing began. Soft and low at first, it swelled to full strength: dozens of women’s voices singing the words of a familiar hymn together in unison. The comforting voices wrapped around her like a cloak in the night.

Then there was a loud creaking sound, and a man’s voice. “What’s this?” he asked. “Shouldn’t all ye hens be back in bed?”

“You know why we’re here!” came a woman’s voice in return. “We’re here for her!”

“For who?” asked the man’s voice.

WHOM!” corrected the crowd.

And then a single voice spoke up again. “We’re here for her! Our dissenting angel!”

And then they started to chant. “Free her now! Free the Dissenting Angel!”

Louisa fell asleep, finally, to the sound of voices shouting for her freedom.

*****

In the morning, the prison guards awoke to a frantic knocking at the door. It took them a moment to answer, since they’d been kept awake half the night by women chanting something about angels and dissidents and they had no idea what, all on account of that one well-to-do lady back in the cell with Syphilis Rose.

When they greeted the well-dressed gentleman at the door-- with a very fashionable walking stick-- they exchanged a look.

One of them squinted. “Excuse me, Guv’nor, but ain’t ye the spittin’ image of--”

The well-dressed man grinned. “I get that all the time,” he assured the guard. “No, no, no, Bertram Buxton the Third, over on Doppelganger Street, you should come by our shop...”

The guard tipped his cap. “Probably out o’ our price range, guv. I reckon ye’re ‘ere about the Missus?”

Bertram Buxton the Third nodded. “I hear she got herself into a bit of a pickle.”

When they brought Louisa out of the cell, she ran to her husband and embraced him fervently, slumping in his arms.

“Oh dear,” he said. “It looks like you’ve had quite a night.”

She nodded, gripping the front of his coat. “I hate the entire male sex,” she said.

“Including me?” he asked.

She scowled at him, her eyes red and bloodshot. “That depends on whether you bring me breakfast in bed.”

As the couple left the Women’s Prison, the two guards exchanged another look. “I could’ve sworn that was--” said one.

“Nah,” said the other. “What’d his wife be doin’ in ‘ere?”

*****

Safely in their carriage, Louisa’s husband handed her that morning’s paper. There, emblazoned on the front page was an engraving that looked much more attractive than Louisa herself did in person, with wild curls flying in the wind and a much bustier silhouette.

The headline said,

DISSENTING ANGEL BREATHES FIRE INTO FIGHT FOR LADY SCHOLARS.

“Darling, I had no idea what had become of you until I saw this,” he said. “I was frantic half the night. I thought you’d been killed.”

“Oh, no,” said Louisa. “But I did meet a prostitute.”

“Love, you must be more careful,” he said. “Someone might have--”

Louisa let out a little cry. “Look here!” she said, and showed him the second page of the article. “There’s going to be another demonstration! They’ve given us a permit! For a proper rally!”

He sighed. “I don’t suppose I can convince you not to go, can I?” he asked.

“I promise not to hit anyone with a sign,” she said, and lifted her head up a bit. “I’ll even promise not to carry a sign, if it makes you feel better.”

****

Louisa was sitting at her writing desk three days later when her husband walked in, looking a bit white.

“Louisa?” he asked. “They want you to give a speech.”

She looked up at him. “What?” she asked.

“It’s all over the city,” he said, and showed her another newspaper. The illustrations of her were getting more and more idealized every day, and this one she could not even compare herself to. She supposed that was a blessing in disguise.

DAINTY DISSIDENTS DEMAND DIVULGEMENT OF DISSENTING ANGEL

The article said that the organizers of the rally were looking for the woman who had become a figurehead for the movement (and here the article made a rather lewd comment that made Louisa blush) . It explained that they were hoping that she would speak at the rally organized for the next Tuesday in front of Parliament.

“Oh, my,” said Louisa. She looked eagerly at her husband.

“I’m not sure if you should go,” he said.

She scowled. “Why not?” she asked. “Of course I should.”

“The wife of the Chief Minister?” he asked. “Scolding Parliament? I’d never be elected again.”

“Maybe you deserve a little scolding,” retorted Louisa.

He took a deep breath. “I’d never stop you,” he said. “But think of it this way. You know I support you. Which of us has a better chance to change the law?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Which of us gets elected by men who don’t want their wives getting funny ideas?” Her expression softened, and she smiled adoringly at him. “Darling,” she said. “I have one.  An idea.”

“Doesn’t one of your pamphlets say that women with ideas are a threat to mankind?” he asked.

She gave him a humoring look. “Trust me,” she said.

*****

On Tuesday, the Eleventh of August, the doors to Parliament were blocked by hundreds of women waving signs. The turnout for the rally was so impressive that the Ministers who were supposed to be attending that day’s legislative session simply could not get into the building.

The Chief Minister, who was coming to the session from a pleasant brunch with several of the ministers from the southern part of the country who were very concerned about legislation regarding cheese and fish oil, turned to his companions and shook his head in resignation. “I suppose we might as well listen to what they have to say, mightn’t we, gentlemen?” he said to the others. “We’re all used to being nagged by wives by now; we can take a little more of it.”

The others chuckled, and agreed to watch the rally.

*****

The rally organizers were distressed. They had received a letter that promised their Dissenting Angel would prepare a speech, but they had five minutes to start, and she hadn’t appeared. And now, here were half the ministers of Parliament gathering to watch.

“We can’t look disorganized!” said the rally’s hostess, Emma Gray. “These men will all say it’s because our sex can’t manage this sort of thing, and it will set us back-- oh, I hope that letter wasn’t a fake.”

“Well, we can always sing the national anthem first,” said Penelope Anderson. “That will give us a good three minutes. Five if we do the verses no one sings.”

Then a little boy appeared, carrying a letter that was tied up with string, and he looked around very timidly, holding the envelope out to whoever would take it.

*****

Emma Gray approached the audience with her megaphone and the papers in her hand. The women let up a cheer.

“Ladies,” she said, considering for a moment whether she should add, “and gentlemen,” as this was the first time any gentlemen had bothered to listen to what they were saying. “Ladies, I have received word that our Dissenting Angel will not be joining us today.”

Murmurs of dismay spread through the audience.

“Because,” said Emma Gray, “her husband has forbidden her to come.”

Gasps of shock and shouts of anger rose through the crowd.

Emma Grey waved the papers in the air. “But she sent her speech along.”

Emma Grey read the first paragraph of Louisa’s address. And then she passed it on to Penelope Anderson, who read the second. Penelope passed the speech on to Grace Barker, a schoolteacher. Grace Barker passed the speech to Daniela Edmonds, a dancer who had dreamed of being an ornithologist. And Daniela passed it on to another woman, and then another, and another, and together they read Louisa’s speech as the crowd listened on.

A woman named Susanna Corwin read the second-to-last paragraph. And as she finished it, she squinted at a small note scrawled in the margins.

She raised the speech in the direction of the Chief Minister. “Sir?” she offered.

He blinked. “What?” he asked.

The other ministers chuckled and pushed him forward. “It’s obvious,” said one.

“Yes,” said the other. “They want you to read, and we’re plenty used to being nagged by you, too.”

So the Chief Minister read the closing paragraph of that speech, imploring his own parliament to open the colleges and universities to women, to a crowd of hundreds of women, and several dozen ministers who found themselves incapable of reaching the doors. And when he saw the note in the margin, just above his cue, he couldn’t help but smile, and pick Louisa out of the audience, where she stood, trying to look as nondescript as possible, and smiled back at him.

Note: The concept for this entry was inspired by the story of my great-great-great grandmother, Lydia Jane Pierson, editor of the Lancaster Gazette, and her 1850 Letter to the Ohio Women's Convention in Salem, Ohio. (That's a very large PDF for people who are interested in reading about the early history of the battle for women's rights in the US.)
Pen

LJ Idol Topic #28: Here There Be Dragons

In a particular bustling, modern city, there is a green and verdant park, where, if you allow yourself to become very lost indeed, you may find that you feel more as if you are in a lush meadow of wildflowers blooming in a little-known valley, or in a dark and mysterious woods that hearkens back to tales of gnomes and elves and witches who eat small children. And if you happen to take a particular turn down a particular path, you will find yourself at a large archway topped with a most peculiar clock. And if you happen to come to that clock at the chiming of the hour, a parade of wild beasts will dance around the clock in a circle, twirling and spinning and playing the most charming music.

On this particular day, little Natalia Mendolino was watching as the manticore and the unicorn marched by, too transfixed to follow her family beyond the archway.

“Natalia,” called her father, noticing that the child was missing. He hurried back to her and picked up her little hand in his, and marched her back up to where her mother was pushing the pram that held her baby brother, and her older sister was poring over her little zoological field guide. Natalia strained to look over her shoulder, to watch the end of the clockwork parade as the music faded and was replaced with the sound of Lucianna buzzing happily about her school assignment as they made a beeline for the Bird House to see the phoenix molting, which was a very special and rare occurrence indeed.

But of course, they didn’t only stop to see the phoenix molting. They stopped to see the selkies splash playfully in their tank, and to see the sphinx as it tried to trick the visitors with riddles. Lucianna had to translate for their parents, who had only come to this country when Lucianna was a baby, and who still felt much more comfortable speaking Campanian to more common Latin.

They stopped to see the unicorns, of course, and the hippalektryon, which was butting and kicking and generally in a foul mood. And then, as Lucianna ran on ahead to see the water show at the hippocampus tank (every half-hour, fifteen and forty-five minutes after the hour), Natalia noticed something gleaming in the corner of her eye, in the midst of an exhibit of charred earth and black rocks.

There were no visitors at this particular exhibit, although the prettily illustrated signs along the fence seemed to indicate that it was an exhibit, and that it was open. There was a double fence, set apart by several feet, and beyond that, hills and a small cave.

And something that was in the cave, glimmering.

Natalia frowned and looked at the sign. Hic Sunt Dracones, it said, in a cheerful script, and beneath that were little etchings of many different species of dragons common to the region, and an activity for children, showing them how to tell the male and female dragons apart.
There was also a very large sign warning visitors not to feed the dragons.

But there was also no one close by, so Natalia took the brass dupondius her father had given her for pocket money, and crept over to the nearest vending machine, and bought a handful of food pellets.

She crept back to the dragon exhibit. She could hear the splashes and tinny music that signified that the hippocampus show was beginning, and she hoped her family hadn’t noticed her absence.

The space separating her from the dragon’s pen was a good four cubits. She wound up as if she were throwing a bocce ball, and tossed a little bit of the food across.

Her first try fell short. Of her second try, the pellets clattered against the fence, but most of them made their way through the opening and fell into the singed grass.

There was another glimmer from inside the cave.

“Come out,” she begged, in a whisper. “I won’t hurt you.”

A boy a few years older than her let out a snort as he passed. “He won’t come out,” he said. “No one’s seen the dragon in weeks. It’s stupid, now, anyway; nobody wants to see just one dragon. The zoo in New Torino has four.”

He kept walking.

“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Natalia whispered, and she turned back to the pen.

The dragon was right there, in front of her-- well, six cubits away, in front of her, as close as she had ever been to one. She could see its muscles rippling under its gleaming iridescent scales, she could see the flutter of its folded, leathery wings, and the barbs on its tail that glowed with a red heat. She could see the tiny curls of steam that rippled the air above its nostrils, and she could see its sad, sad eyes.

She was stunned silent. First, by the proximity, and then by the fact that she had never seen such a sorrowful creature in her life.

“Hello,” she said, and she put a hand up to the fence.

Now, of course there are breeds of dragons that can mimic speech, much like their distant avian cousins, but this was a much less flamboyant species of dragon, as wildlife protection laws had curtailed the trade of the more exotic species in the past few decades. So the dragon did not speak in return. But it did reach its pearly claws up, and curl them around the fence on its side of the pen.

“You look so sad,” she said to the dragon. “Are you lonely?”

It eyed her. She remembered the food in her hand, and she tossed a little more of it. The dragon caught it in the air, on its serpentine tongue, and munched it, never taking its eyes off of her.

“The sign says there are two of you...you...” She squinted at the sign. There were a lot of big words on it that were beyond her reading ability, but she knew enough to tell the male dragon from the female, based on the barbs on his tail. “There’s supposed to be you, and your lady friend,” she said to it. “Where’s the lady dragon?”

But of course, the dragon couldn’t tell her. It only looked at her, and licked its lips.

“You still look hungry,” she said. “But I gave you all my food.”

She put her fingers under the words on the sign, to make them easier to read, and tried to make out more of the words.

“Oh,” she said. “She’s very old. You’re very old. For dragons, I mean. In capti-- in-- I don’t know this word.” She looked back at the dragon, and he seemed to nod in understanding.

She nodded back. She understood, too. “She’s gone, isn’t she? Like my Nanny. When Nanny went away, Mama was sad for days and days.”

The dragon blinked.

“It’s all right,” Natalia told him. “It’s all right to be sad. You were here together a long time.”

She frowned. “Do you think they’ll get you a new friend? Do you want a new friend? Once I lost my doll in the park, and they got me a new doll, but it wasn’t the same as the first doll. You know?”

The dragon seemed to know. He lowered his paw, and turned, and lumbered back toward his cave.

Natalia could hear the cheering and clapping from the hippocampus tank, and thought she’d better try to find her family before they noticed she was missing. She ran ahead, sparing a glance over her shoulder to see one last glimmer from the darkness of the dragon’s cave.

this is dedicated to Ida and Gus, the Central Park Zoo polar bears.
Pen

LJ Idol Topic #27: Noumenon

There was a motel with twenty-six rooms, behind twenty-six doors all in a row. The manager’s name was Mr. Locke; he sat at the desk around the clock. In night, in day, in rain or sun, as if he never required sleep. He greeted guests with a smile and a key, until one fateful night, when the sign read:
Sleepy Time Motel

Air Conditioning

Pool -- Able TV
(Somewhere along the way, they had lost a “C”)

And after that bit,

NO VACANCY

Aurelia Anton from Aubergine, Arkansas was staying in Room One. She’d come in with one truck, two suitcases, three valises, a make-up kit and a little dog in a sweater. Mr. Locke had put on his little bell-hop cap and changed the desk sign to say “Will Return in 15 Minutes” so that he could help her bring her luggage to her room, but she only tipped him a dollar for his time.

It was round about nine-thirty PM when Miss Aurelia walked back into Mr. Locke’s office. Mr. Locke was reading the newspaper. Miss Aurelia was wearing a frilly bathrobe.

“You must so something about that wailing infant!” she said, as shrilly as her bathrobe was frilly.

“Infant?” asked Mr. Locke. He looked at her with an expression that suggested he didn’t know what she was talking about. “Wailing?”

“Yes, it’s upsetting my Alfonse,” she said. “He’s on pills for anxiety.”

So Mr. Locke switched his office sign to say “Will Return in 20 Minutes,” and went out to see what the fuss was about.

Bugles blared bombastically from Room Two. Mr. Locke rapped at the door. A man poked his head out.

“Pardon,” said Mr. Locke. “Could you please keep that down?”

“Keep what down?” asked the man at the door, as he pulled plugs from his ears.

“Err, we have guests trying to sleep,” said Mr. Locke. “Quiet hours are from nine until nine.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to be quiet when nine o’-- heavens!” the man exclaimed. “It’s dark out. Why, yes, I’ve got to put Betsy to sleep.” He thrust a hand out in greeting. “Barnaby Bix, of the Beiderbecke Six. We’ve got a very important concert tomorrow!”

“Six?” Mr. Locke asked worriedly. “Betsy? You only registered one guest in this room, Mister Bix.”

Barnaby Bix chuckled. “Oh, Betsy’s just my horn,” he assured Mr. Locke, but Mr. Locke couldn’t help but notice the way Mr. Bix blocked the entry way to the room.

Mr. Locke could hear crying as he approached Room Three. He was greeted by Cassie Cornell, and her cacophonous cat, Cuddles.

“She can’t help it,” said Cassie. “She has colic. Poor thing.”

“She’s disturbing the guests,” Mr. Locke apologized. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”

Cassie frowned. “Do you have any cough syrup?”

Fortunately for Casse, Room Four was occupied by Dr. Donald Dookey, who had spent most of his adolescent years being mocked for his name. He was a people doctor, but once Mr. Locke had coaxed him into muting his documentary on death by dysentery (which depicted many moans of despair), he happily administered to Cuddles, pro bono.

Esmeralda Edgington in Room Five was eager to speak with Mr. Locke about maintaining an easement on the East side of the motel property for the purpose of her elocution school. Mr. Locke said he would bring it up with the owners. Esmeralda returned to her mirror, holding her teeth together and her lips apart to sound “EEE EEE EEE EEE.”

The emanations from Room Six came not in the form of sounds, but fumes.

Fred Furniss came to the door, his fist curled around something fetid.

“I’m afraid this is a no-smoking room,” said Mr. Locke.

“I’m sorry,” said Fred. “My foot scrub caught on fire. I’ll put it out right away.”

Mr. Locke, dubious that that scent was foot scrub, but not at all eager to engage with the local authorities, nodded and thanked him, and went along to Room Seven, where the gregarious Glenda Garwood gave him a gingersnap.

“I don’t know what that sound is,” she said to Mr. Locke. “I heard it too. Definitely not a baby. More like a gaggle of geese.”

The lady in Room Eight had paid in cash, and wouldn’t give her real name. She explained that she was dressing as Helga Hufflepuff for a Harry Potter convention and was trying to stay in character.

“Geese?” she said. “Dear me, no, our house animal is a badger.”

Mr. Locke heard a low growl from underneath the bed. “Well, as long as you clean up after yourself,” he said, uneasily.

Ichabod Irving seemed irate at the interruption. Mr. Locke left quickly. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “Don’t lose your head over it.”

“I was just on my way to see you!” exclaimed Jennifer Johnson of Room Ten. “Some jackanape has jolted with my jewelry!”

“Did you see anything?” asked Mr. Locke. He was very concerned, because in all his days of motel management, nothing of value had ever gone missing before.

“No!” said Jennifer. “I was doing my nightly jumping jacks when there was a loud cry outside my window. I turned to see what it was, and when I turned back around, my jewelry box was just....jacked!”

Mr. Locke gave her a pat on the back and some jasmine tea, and now set off to find two culprits.

Room Eleven was occupied by Kevin Kenneally, a collector of knick-knacks.

“Knicks-knick-knacks,” he corrected, when Mr. Locke questioned him. “That is to say, any knick-knacks to do with the New York Knicks.”

“The what?” asked Mr. Locke.

“The basketball team,” replied Kevin Kenneally, with the kind of resignation that suggested this was a frequent question. “Anyhow, unless her jewelry had something to do with the Knicks, I would have no interest.”

Room Twelve, naturally, was Lionel Locke’s own room, where he was permitted to stay, gratis, as part of his compensation package as manager of the motel. He let that one lie.

Rooms Thirteen and Fourteen were adjoining rooms, currently inhabited by twins Molly Malone (née Naderwaller) and her brother, Ned.

“Are you identical twins?” Mr. Locke asked, curious.

“Only twins born of the same sex can be identical,” said Molly.

“The rest are fraternal,” said Ned.

“I did hear some meowing,” Molly answered, when asked about the disturbance.

“Yes, there was quite a lot of noise,” agreed Ned.

“And some music,” said Molly.

“It was a rather nice record,” said Ned. “Jazz, I think.”

“Would you like to buy some mussels?” asked Molly.

Ophelia Oliver in Room Fifteen answered him rather obtusely. “Oh,” she said. “It’s a joy to go somewhere where you can have ordinances instead of laws, order instead of chas.”

“You mean chaos,” corrected Mr. Locke.

“No, I mean chas,” said Miss Oliver. “That’s the trouble.”

Percival Polsky, PhD., was much more to the point. “I didn’t hear anything,” he answered. “I was postulating on a very problematic piece of physics involving parallel paradoxes.”

“Quite a phenomenon,” agreed Mr. Locke, glancing at the pendulum swinging from a pedestal.

“No, not quite,” replied Professor Polsky.

Quentin Quigley merely queried Mr. Locke in return. “Why are you the one doing the questioning?” he asked. “Where are the authorities?”

“The Passamaquoddy Police have been having dragon problems,” Mr. Locke explained apologetically. “I’m sure they’ll be here as soon as they sort out the ruckus at the lighthouse.”

Ruckus was quite the word to describe Room Eighteen, whose occupant likely would have been fascinated by dragons, as Rosamund Revere was a reptile specialist. The room was alive with ribbits, which definitely did not sound like a baby’s cry, but were very loud nonetheless.

“Would you like to see my Rana regina?” she asked, holding up a very large, rose-colored frog. “She’s a new species; I’ve just discovered her in the rolltop desk.”

“I did hear the screaming,” she assured him. “But I suspected that Roger encountered one of the other guests. Roger, my python?” she explained. “He’s quite reserved, but he is rather long. Hm! And he does have a fondness for rubies. Do you know what kind of jewelry it was?”

Room Nineteen was silent.

Theodore Tawson of Room Twenty was quite timid about the whole tumult. “I’ve been typing,” he explained, and drew back to reveal his typewriting. “It’s a treatise on treacle. Quite tasty. But I was quite taken with it. I don’t think I took notice of any kind of ...”

He reached for his thesaurus. “Turbulence.”

Ullala Ulfsdottir was under the bed in Room Twenty-One. “Sh,” she said. “I’m undercover.”

“Quite literally,” agreed Mr. Locke, although he couldn’t really see anything behind the dustruffle.

“My name is Una Uland. I have been traveling in Uruguay as part of my career as an underwear model. I returned home after my uncle died, as I was unsensible with grief.”

“I’m pretty sure you mean insensible,” said Mr. Locke. “Unsensible is something different entirely.”

“No, I’m unsensible,” answered Ullala-Una. “In fact, now that you mention it, it might have been me crying. My uvula is quite dry.”

“I’m not a vampire,” Vlad Vorobiev insisted, as he opened the door. He had pale, bluish skin, and yellow eyes. “People always asked that. They think it’s funny. In act, I’m a vegetarian. Practically vegan. Not a vampire.”

Mr. Locke asked about the stolen jewelry, and the crying.

Vlad shook his head. “Well, I’m not fond of anything with a reflective surface, so you won’t find any jewelry in here. And that wouldn’t be the screams of any victims,” he assured him, as he hastily pushed his elongated incisors back into his mouth. “Seeing as I’m not a vampire.”

In Room Twenty-Three, Wanda Willonsky was waging war. “I’m a Womynyst,” she explained. “With a Y. Two Ys, in fact.”

Mr. Locke checked the room number, and then explained about the wailing.

“No, I haven’t heard anything like that,” said Wanda. “Unless it was the suffering of my sisters under the shackles of the dominant patriarchy. Are you a member of the dominant patriarchy?” she asked Mr. Locke.

“No, I’m just the desk manager,” Mr. Locke assured her.

“A man!” she exclaimed. “Asserting his position of power!”

“Not willingly,” Mr. Locke informed Wanda, but he crept out of that room very deferentially, just in case.

Xeroxes lined the walls of Room Twenty-Four, although the occupant was nowhere in sight. There, taped up to the stucco, were the photos of all the other guests.

Mr. Locke noticed that one was missing. There were only twenty-four images. on the wall.

Yuriy Yanovich was yelling when Mr. Locke got to Room Twenty-Five. “The yellow-- the yellow--” but he never finished the sentence. He yawned loudly, and dropped off into a deep slumber.

Which left Zara Zizmor, zookeeper. “I can tell you one thing,” she said to Mr. Locke. “It was definitely...”

You Solve the Mystery!

--What was the noise keeping Alfonse awake?
--Who (or what) jacked Jennifer’s jewelry?
--Was Vlad really a vampire, or not?
--Whose picture was missing from the wall of xeroxes?
--What did Zara tell Mr. Locke?

 
FOLLOW THE CLUES TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE!
Pen

LJ Idol Topic #26a: Turtles All The Way Down, Take 2.


Six days before I left for boarding school, Gran tried to make me leave Doggy Bear behind. She kept telling me that girls my age didn’t have stuffed animals and everyone would think I was a baby if I showed up with a raggy-eared dog-bear-thing. Eventually, I hid him at the bottom of my trunk and figured that if that was true, I’d hide him under my pillow or something like that. I’d had him since I was three; I couldn’t just leave him home. As much as I felt like I was ready for the independence of not having any parents to tell me what to do, I wasn’t quite ready to face being alone for the first time in my life. I had to have somebody come with me, even if somebody was a stuffed animal.

It was suppertime when I arrived, and I was shuffled off to a dining hall which consisted of several long tables of girls, all chatting in low voices as they ate off plastic trays that once again betrayed the modernity that the building’s edifice tried so hard to conceal.

I went up to the kitchen, where a woman heaped a plate with chicken, green beans, and tater tots, and I found a spot at the empty end of one of the tables, feeling very out of place among all these girls who were so clearly already set in their friendships. I felt suddenly uneasy as I saw them, all pink-skinned and pale. The blondes easily outnumbered the brunettes. I could count the number of girls who weren’t white on two hands. There were two black girls. There wasn’t anyone who looked even remotely like me.

Another girl, blonde and blue eyed, with curls piled high like a beauty pageant contestant, kept looking at me from down the table. I tried to keep my eyes on my food, not wanting her to think I was staring.

“I have a Buddha statue in my room.”

I looked up from my food. “What?” I asked.

“I think I’m going to convert. Buddhists are just so much more spiritual than Methodists.” She was standing right in front of me, pink cheeks, blue eyeshadow, and all.

“That’s...nice?” I tried. “Um.” I held out a hand. “I’m Amy. I just got here.”

“I’m Laura Jean. Amy?” she asked. “That’s not a Chinese name.”

“I’m not Chinese,” I answered, almost feeling as if I should apologize for disappointing her.

“Oh!” she said. Her cheeks flushed pink. “I’m sorry! You look Chinese. What are you?”

“Duh,” said another blonde girl. “She’s Mexican. Can’t you tell?” She flashed a brilliant smile at me and said, “Como esta, nueva chica?”

I had no idea what she'd just said. “I’m not Mexican,” I said. “I’m Choctaw.”

“You’re what?” asked Laura Jean.

By now, a small knot of five or six girls surrounded us.

“Choctaw,” I answered. “Native American.”

“Oh my god!” said one girl. “Do you live in a wigwam?”

“Are you a squaw?”

“Do you wear moccasins?”

“Do you really say ‘How?’?”

I frowned at my remaining tater tots. “No, no, no and no.” They kept asking me things, like whether I lived on a reservation, or whether my relatives wore feathers and hunted buffalo. I didn’t bother explaining that their questions were kind of offensive. I didn’t want to be that kid who everyone thinks is touchy about everything right on the first day.

After dinner, one of the teachers gave me my room assignment. I climbed up three flights of stairs to find Laura Jean in cute plaid shorts and a tank top. I considered my own frilly flannel nightgown, packed in the bottom of my suitcase.

“You’re going to be my roommate!” Laura Jean squealed happily. “Jesus, we’re going to have so much fun. Do you like Twilight? There are Native Americans in that. They’re werewolves.”

I tried not to sigh. Instead, the necklace she wore caught my eye. “Is that a turtle?” I asked.

She stopped bouncing, and clasped her charm. “Oh! Yes! You would know the story,” she said. “It’s a Native American one. About the turtle and the scorpion?”

I didn’t know that one. “Maybe it’s a different tribe?” I tried. “We don’t all have the same stories. What is it?”

“It’s like...” She turned the turtle around in her hands. “Well, see, there’s this turtle who lives on the banks of a mighty river. And one day, a scorpion comes to the turtle, and the scorpion says it needs to cross the river. But the scorpion can’t swim, so it asks the turtle if the turtle will let it ride across the river on its back. And the turtle says to the scorpion, ‘but if I let you ride on my back, you will surely sting me, and I will drown.’ But the scorpion says, ‘Where is the logic in that, my friend the turtle? If I sting you, we will both drown. So that sets the turtle’s mind at eain se, and the turtle lets the scorpion ride across the river on his back. But halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the turtle, suddenly and without warning. And the turtle begins to drown. And as the turtle is drowning, the turtle says, ‘Scorpion, why have you stung me? Now we will both surely drown!’ And the scorpion says, ‘I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.’”

Laura Jean was still twisting the little silver turtle on its chain when she finished the story.

“So why do you wear a turtle?” I asked. “Why not a scorpion?” I didn’t want to tell her that I was pretty sure that story was from the Middle East.

“Well,” said Laura Jean. “It’s the Christian thing to do, right? To give people the benefit of the doubt, beyond all odds. Even if you think they might sting you. I wear it as a reminder.”

I smiled at that. “Even if you’re thinking of becoming Buddhist?”

She laughed, and petted her turtle. “Even if.”





I wasn’t sure of Amy at first, but she was a really cool girl. I mean, secretly, when we were alone in our room. She was a little weird, and a little babyish. Like, she slept with a stuffed dog bear thing, and she had little girl clothes. So it wasn’t really a surprise that the other girls made fun of her, even after I told them that she was my roommate and I didn’t like it.

I felt bad explaining to her that I couldn’t sit with her in the cafeteria, but it was really bad for my image. I mean, all those other girls coming up to her and saying ‘How!?’ and talking about big wampum and stuff? She didn’t even tell them off, and it made it kind of hard, you know, when she wouldn’t defend herself. I couldn’t do it, because they would have made fun of me, too.

Then there was the day that I had this idea.

When Amy got back to our room, I had everything set up. A chair, in the middle of the room, in front of the full-length mirror. A towel draped over the chair.

“What’s this?” she asked.

I showed her the scissors. “I’m giving you a makeover,” I said.

“A what?” she asked.

“A makeover,” I said. “I’m going to cut your hair and do your makeup, and then we’re going to pick out some new clothes for you from my stuff.”

She frowned. “Why?” she asked.

“Because,” I told her. “I don’t like when they tease you. If you...I don’t know. If you looked more like the other girls, they might stop.”

She took a deep breath. I could tell she didn’t like the idea. “Laur,” she said. “I’m still not going to look like them. I’m still not going to act like them. A haircut won’t fix things.”

“No, no,” I assured her. “It’s at least worth a try. Look, I know about looks. In my old school, I wore flannel shirts all the time and I was a huge loser. Here, I’m one of the most popular girls in the school.”

Finally, she relented. She still seemed skeptical about it, but she let me drape the towel around her shoulders and rinse her hair.

“We don’t have that story,” she said, after many minutes of silence.

“What?” I asked her.

“The scorpion one. It’s not a Native American story. I Googled it. It’s a Sanskrit story.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what Sanskrit was, but I guess it wasn’t Native American. “Sorry, that’s what my dad always said.”

“We have a story about a turtle,” said Amy, as I snipped into her thick, dark hair. “It’s...do you know the story of the tortoise and the hare?”

“Of course I do,” I said. “Everyone knows that one.”

“It’s like that,” said Amy. “But different. The...it starts with Turkey.”

“Turkey the country or the animal?” I asked.

“The animal. There was a wild turkey. And one day, when Turkey was flying, he took a nasty spill, and suddenly, he was falling right into the middle of the river. Well, as much as turkeys can’t fly, they really can’t swim, so Turkey was fearful of drowning, but then he saw Turtle in the middle of the river, and he landed right on Turtle’s shell, and cracked it into a dozen pieces. And that’s why Turtle has a segmented shell today. But Turkey felt so bad about what he had done that he got all the spiders to spin silk to hold Turtle’s shell together, and when he was finished, Turtle was so grateful, he told Turkey that Turkey could wear his shell for a day.”

“What?” I asked. “So you had a turkey in a turtle shell?”

“Uh-huh,” said Amy. “Anyway, just as Turkey put on Turtle’s shell, along came Rabbit. And Rabbit was still in a bad mood from losing a race to the slowest animal in the animal kingdom. So, thinking that Turkey was Turtle, he challenged Turkey to another race. And of course Turkey agreed, and the race was on. But no sooner had Snake given the signal for the race to begin, than Turkey rose up into the air and flew so fast there was no way Rabbit would ever catch up, and so Rabbit lost again.”

“And then?” I asked, after Amy was quiet for a long time.

“And then nothing,” she said. “That’s the end of the story.”

“Where’s the moral?” I asked her. “It’s not like...I mean, the scorpion story is to remind you that people don’t really change, or something.”

“There isn’t a moral,” said Amy. “Not all stories need morals.”






The day after my haircut, I went downstairs to breakfast. My hair looked gorgeous. Laura Jean’s mom was a hairstylist, and Laura Jean had cut my hair with long layers so it was full and shiny and I looked like a model in a magazine, especially after she’d loaned me her makeup and her skinny jeans.

She waved to me, and ushered me over to sit with her at the table with the popular girls. I hesitated, but moved to join her.

“Ew,” said Sandra. “What is she wearing?”

“I wore that yesterday,” said Laura Jean. “You said you wanted to borrow it.”

“So, what, now she’s just a wannabe you?” asked Eileen. “Why are you telling her to sit with us? Is she, like, your new pet project? Are you trying to rescue her from the reservation or something?”

They talked to Laura Jean, and not to me, like I wasn’t even there standing in front of them. Finally, I took my tray and went to the corner table where no one ever sat.

I could see the disappointment in Laura Jean’s eyes. It was almost as if she was more upset about it than I was.

When I got back to our room that night, my hair was still gorgeous, but it hadn’t exactly done anything for my social status. Laura Jean was already there, sitting on her bed, staring at the door, as if she’d been waiting for me to come back.

Her blonde hair was black.

“What did you do?” I asked.

She didn’t answer my question. Instead, she held out her hand. “I have something for you,” she said.

It was her turtle charm.

I shook my head. “I can’t take that,” I said. “You wear it every day. It’s like...it’s like part of you.”

She thrust her hand out insistently. “I got myself something else,” she said, and she pulled back the collar of her shirt. “I think it’s something I need a better reminder of.”

Glistening against her collarbone was a tiny silver scorpion.


Pen

LJ Idol Topic #26c: Open Topic

The Ducal Council Chamber of Volterra was a sea of grave and stony faces.

“Iacapao DiLoncello has seventeen hundred men!” lamented the Captain of the guard. “It will be a slaughter.”

“Four to one,” the Duke agreed gravely. “But our walls will hold.”

“For how long?” asked his Chief Steward. “We cannot outlast a siege forever. And if he takes control of the water supply...”

Andrea, the Duke’s eldest son, squirmed nervously in his seat. He was two weeks shy of eighteen; he had only just been permitted to join the Council meetings, and he found that all they did was give him nightmares.

His mother, the Duchessa, glanced at him, sensing her son’s unease. “He has children of his own, does he not? Is this the world he wants them to inherit?”

“Of course not,” said the Duke. “He wants them to inherit a world where the House of Loncello controls all of Toscana, too. You’ve met Iacapao, cara mia, does he seem like the kind of man who listens to reason? In the blessed virgin’s name, he shut his own daughter up in a tower.”

There were murmurs around the room at this. The Duchessa shook her head. “Then we prepare for the worst,” she replied. “But surely that does not mean we give up hope.”

*******

There was a knock at Nunzia DiLoncello’s door.

“I don’t see why you knock,” she responded. “You’re the one who has the key. Come in or don’t; I don’t care.”

“Have you considered my proposal?” asked her father. “You haven’t eaten in three days.”

“I have three other sisters. Get one of them to marry a Sforza or a Medici or whoever it is you want to pawn me off on.”

“Your sisters don’t have your strength of will,” said her father. “As evidenced by this most recent little stunt. You should be grateful I’m asking your permission.”

“Coercing permission from me, is more like it,” said Nunzia.

Her father chuckled. “Coercion? You have everything you could wish for. My only requirement is that you stay in this room until you either choose a husband or I receive a sign from the Heavenly Father himself to the contrary.”

“Then I hope you receive a sign before I starve,” Nunzia said nicely. “What kind of sign are you looking for?”

Her father was quiet for a moment. “A miracle.”

“And if there is a miraculous sign,” Nunzia said, cautiously. “Do you promise to release me?”

“For a miracle?” asked the Duke. “Yes, for a miracle, I promise.”

*******

The guard who approached the Duke of Loncello had the angst-ridden, twitchy expression of someone who expected to be sentenced to death at any moment.

“Your Grace,” he said, keeping his eyes pointed at the floor. “There is a young man who wishes an audience. He says it is...in regard to your daughter’s el--el--eligibility for marriage.”

“And who is the young man?” asked the Duke

“Andrea DiVolterra.”

A smile spread slowly across the Duke’s lips. He was silent for a long moment. A long, uncomfortable moment.

“W-what message shall I take him, Your Grace?” asked the guard.

“Tell him to come back tomorrow.”

*******

Nunzia whirled at the sound of the knock on her door. “I don’t care what it is, I’m not eating it!” she snapped.

Her younger sister answered meekly. “Nunzi, it’s Lucia,” she said. “I came to check on you. And to...I thought you might want to know. Papa is plotting something.”

Nunzia snorted. “When is he not plotting something?”

“Something new,” said Lucia. “There’s a new young man. He came today to ask for your hand. Andrea of Volterra.”

Nunzia frowned. “Volterra? Papa wants to invade Volterra, and they send a marriage proposal? So what did Papa say?”

“He said he’d see him tomorrow. He wouldn’t even put the young man up in the castle; he sent him outside the city to stay in the inn.”

“That sounds like Papa,” Nunzia said bitterly. “Thank you, Luci. I have to think about this. Oh,” she added. “Tell Papa I will take a meal again.”

*******

Andrea, cloaked against the sharp winds that blew down the hills of Loncello, stood peering up at the silhouette of the dark tower against the deep midnight sky. He could see a pale light flickering in the window, and he squinted, trying to make out movement within, wondering about the girl imprisoned there.

He stood carefully hidden by a copse of trees and brambles. He dared not move closer; the tower was ringed by guards who were armed with swords and crossbows.

He heard a snap behind him-- a twig breaking-- and he turned to look at the source of the sound. Before he had a chance to see, there was a knife to his throat.

“Hands where I can see them,” whispered a woman’s voice into his ear. The scent of her filled his lungs: cinnamon, cloves and crushed velvet, and he drew his breath in deeply as he raised his hands to shoulder height. He saw the sparkling rings on her fingers as she slipped her hands into his pockets.

“No money?” she asked, a note of derision in her voice.

“It-it--it’s back at the inn,” he stammered. He managed to crane his neck to see her, but her face was hidden by a white silk scarf and a wide-brimmed hat.

Her knife pressed lightly against his back. “Take me there,” she said, a sound like a cat’s purr coming from the back of her throat.

*******

Andrea stared at the way the bandit’s trousers graced her slender legs; the fabric of her men’s clothing betrayed the curves of her body in a way that a gown never could have, and he tried to stop himself with the reminder that she very well might kill him as soon as she had his gold.

Clumsily, he followed her instructions-- and the urging of her blade-- to scale the wall of the inn and enter his own room by way of the rooftop. She followed up after him, as agile as a cat.

His throat was paper-dry as he fumbled beneath his mattress for his purse and the few coins inside it.

“You are the young man from Volterra, are you not?” she asked. “The one they say is here to marry the Duke’s daughter?”

He nodded. “Not that the Duke has yet deigned to see me,” he replied.

“Better for you,” said the bandit. “You do not want to be married to a woman like that.”

Here, in the soft, flickering firelight of his room, he could see her deep brown eyes, large and rimmed with long lashes. “And what would a thief like you know about it?”

She removed her scarf, and then her hat, letting them fall to the floor, her raven locks spilling over her shoulders. “You are still young,” she said, smiling rakishly at him. “Boys your age, they all think they want the same thing. A pretty princess, locked away in a tower. She reached for his hand, and led it up to trace the curve of her breast.

He swallowed hard, and stepped back. “I don’t think--”

“You shouldn’t think,” she retorted, before she kissed him.

She stayed with him until just before dawn. When the sky began to turn from black to grey, she pried herself gently from his arms and dressed swiftly. She returned to him, bending down to kiss him one last time.

“I will come back tonight,” she said. “If you are still here.”

*******

That afternoon, Iacapao DiLoncello agreed to see young Andrea. But the youth seemed distracted, dreamy, his attention far off even as he presented his suit.

“My daughter refuses to wed,” the Duke of Loncello told Andrea. “You have a choice: you may accept her answer, or you may come back tomorrow and ask again.”

Andrea nodded. “Then I will be back tomorrow.”

*******

That night, Andrea paced agitatedly across the floor of his room, well into the night, and just as he was about to give up hope, a breeze blew in through his window, and with it came his bandit once again. This time, he met her with eagerness and fervor, and they lay awake in each other’s arms until he knew it was time for her to leave him again.

She rose from the bed, and he began to speak, but she put a finger to his lips. “No promises,” she said. “No oaths. I know you are here to wed your maiden in a tower, or none at all, and I will not hold you to any fevered words of love that cannot be.”

*******

That day was the same as the day before, and then the day after was the same, and the day after that. It was soon a routine: Andrea would go to call on the Duke of Loncello. The Duke would tell him that his daughter refused to be wed, and he could come back the next day. And then Andrea would wait up half the night for his bandit to appear.

*******

After two months, Iacapao DiLoncello’s patience was wearing thin. “This is the last time, Nunzia,” he told her, when he brought her her morning meal. “The boy from Volterra comes every day, asking for your hand. What do you say?”

There was a long silence.

“Nunzia?” the Duke repeated. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Of course I am, Papa,” said Nunzia. “I’ll meet him. Today.”

*******

It had been three nights since Andrea had seen his bandit, and he had long since given up any hope of moving the Duke or his elusive daughter. Truth be told, he had only stayed so long for the bandit girl, and now that there was no trace of her, he was wondering if he shoulder turn back for home.

So when Andrea arrived at the castle that day, he was taken by surprise when the Duke told him that he had arranged for a meeting.

It was lucky that he was sitting down when his bandit walked into the room, in a richly bejeweled gown.

He stood, of course, out of courtesy, and barely managed a bow to her, before her eyes met his, dancing with merriment, and she returned his bow with an elegant curtsey.
She took her seat. He took his seat.

“I understand you have come here with an offer of marriage,” she said to him.

He nodded, unable to form words, barely able to even respond.

She shook her head. “I’m afraid I can’t accept,” she said. “You do not want to be married to a woman like me.”

“But--” started Andrea.

“Believe me,” she said softly, and then she gave him a very pointed look. “I think you should leave tomorrow.”

*******

Confounded and heartbroken, Andrea left the Duke’s castle and returned to the inn. He very nearly left that very afternoon, but the innkeeper reminded him that the trip was very long and he would find himself in a most deserted spot at the very darkest time of night. Better to rest and get a fresh start in the morning, the innkeeper said.

Andrea did not know what he had done wrong-- this was why his bandit had not returned, and never would! He could not sleep for it; he tossed and turned and agonized, at once over his lost love, and over the fact that with all this sleep lost, he would be in no shape to travel.

But at the very darkest time of night, a familiar figure appeared in his window.

He leapt from his bed. “What makes you think I want to see you now?!” he demanded of her.

She put a finger to her lips, even as she removed her hat and scarf. “Shh,” Nunzia whispered. “Do you want the whole house to hear?”

She nodded to the bed. “Sit down,” she said. “You deserve an explanation. An explanation you will get.”

He sat, but still he protested. “But I love you,” he said. “Why would you refuse me?”

She shook her head, and sat beside him, taking his hand in hers. “You don’t love me,” she said. “You don’t know me. I meant it, when I said you don’t want to be married to a woman like me.”

“Why not?” he asked.

She took a deep breath. “If you marry me, you will never escape my father’s grasp. He wants your city, he wants Volterra so he can use it to conquer the rest of Toscana. Do you see? If you marry me, he will use me to keep his claws in your father’s city.”

“But you could leave,” said Andrea, pleadingly. “You could be free.”

“I wouldn’t be free,” she said. “My freedom would always be at the hands of some man. My father, my husband. I would resent you for it, in the end. And I’ll be free anyway,” she said, and she moved away from him, back toward the window. “My father made me a promise, that I would be released when I agreed to wed, or when the Lord sent him a miraculous sign.”

“And what?” asked Andrea. “Don’t tell me you’re depending on a miraculous sign,” he said. It took all of his effort not to rise, not to go to her and beg her to come with him.

She smiled then, tipping her head as she regarded him, not without affection. “I’ve been locked in a tower for two months, and my father has the only key,” she pointed out. “I think he’ll have to accept a virgin birth.”

“A--” But before the implications of her statement fully dawned on Andrea, she was gone into the night for the last time.

This entry is loosely based on the song Darkest Hour by Arlo Guthrie. (link to video)
Pen

LJ Idol Topic #26b: Grip

It was our first night in the new house.

Well, new-old-house. Jared called it a "fixer-upper." I called it Thirteen-Thirteen Mockingbird Lane. It was big, drafty, and creaked with every step. The wallpaper was faded and torn; the ceiling corners were dusted with cobwebs. The basement was one of those cold, damp, dirt-floor cellars, and it smelled like something had died down there.

I kept expecting to get in the shower and find myself face-to-face with Norman Bates' mother, if you know what I mean.

We had gotten all the big furniture moved in and arranged, and now we were starting on the little stuff. I was sitting on the sofa, sorting through boxes to try to find the television remote, when I felt something brush my neck.

I reached up. There was nothing there. I figured it was either a draft, or cobwebs, or my own ponytail. I bent back over the boxes, rummaging with a little more purpose now.

This time, when something cold and clammy ran over my neck, I let out a high-pitched shriek that sounded like something from a slasher movie.

Jared burst out laughing. "Gotcha!" he crowed, and giggle-snorted his way around the couch, with two steaming bowls of wonton soup. "I'm back."

"I see that," I observed, as I took my bowl. I gave him a dark, threatening, no-sex-for-you look.

"Aww," he intoned, but his focus quickly moved to his soup. "I thought it was funny."

"Right," I agreed. "For that, you get to clean out the basement."

I didn't quite get him to clean out the basement, but I did manage to get him to do the dishes after we'd finished out take out.

Meanwhile, I went into the dining room to start putting the china back in the cupboard. We had my grandmother's old china-- fine, fancy frilly stuff that we hadn't used in three years of marriage, and probably never would. Service for twenty-seven. Who has service for twenty-seven people on china that nice?

I consoled myself with the thought that in this room, we actually had space for a dinner party of twenty-seven. Thirty-four, if you counted the bats that were probably lurking up there in the vaulted ceiling. Ugh.

I don't know when I dozed off, but the next thing I remembered was Jared's hand on my arm. "Hon, you have your face in the gravy boat."

I did. I rubbed my cheek. I could feel the imprint of scalloped china in my skin. I sighed. "Bedtime?" I asked.

No sooner had I brushed my teeth and pulled down the covers, then I heard a familiar ting-a-ling coming from Jared's bedside table.

His shirt was halfway off. He groaned, and pulled it back on. "Work," he said, picking up his phone reluctantly.

"At this hour?" I asked with a moan. "Tell them to call someone else. Jesus, we just moved."

Jared leaned down and kissed my temple, and turned off the lamp. "I'll call them back and see what they want," he said. "You go to sleep."

I don't think twenty minutes had passed when the door opened again. I let out a satisfied sigh as he climbed into bed beside me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders.

"Thank god," I said. "They didn't need you?"

But he'd dropped off to sleep as soon as his head had hit the pillow. All I could hear was light snoring.

I tried to wriggle out of his arms. "Get offa me," I muttered. "You know it's too hot to sleep like that." Finally, he relented, and I drifted off to dreamland.

But then, a few hours later, there he was again, squeezing me like he wanted to get juice out of me or something. "Jared," I groaned. I could still hear him snoring. I was tempted to slap him awake, but he was the one who'd gotten up at five that morning and driven up here to the new house. So I very gingerly took his arms off me and went back to sleep.

I woke to an empty bed, the first rays of sunlight shining through the dusty old lace draperies that we definitely needed to replace. The phone was ringing. "Jared?!" I called. "Can you get that?"

When it kept ringing, I reached over and picked it up. "Hello?" I asked, with some trepidation. A call that early in the morning couldn't possibly be good news.

"Hon?" Jared's voice sounded exhausted on the other end of the phone. "I'll be home in twenty?"

"Home from where?" I asked, surprised that he was out so early. "You didn't go running without me, did you?"

"From work," he answered. "Remember? Last night? That call? They...sorry, honey, sorry I didn't wake you. They had a guy call out, and then the cops came, and they needed a manager, and...oh, Jesus, all I want to do right now is sleep."

"What?" I asked. "You were where?" I felt a chill run over me. I looked back at the as-yet-unmade bed.

"Work, honey. Look, I'll tell you everything when I get home, all right? Mwa. Love you." The phone clicked silent.

Only one side of the bed was turned down.
Pen

LJ Idol Topic #26a: Turtles All The Way Down






There was once a mighty river.

Turtle spent his days happily crossing the river. But Scorpion could not, for he was made for stinging, not swimming.

He said, "Turtle, oh Turtle, will you carry me on your back?"

"What?" asked Turtle. "Do I look stupid to you? You will sting me, and I will drown!"

"I wouldn't!" said Scorpion. "If I sting you, then BOTH of us will drown!"

So Turtle considered, and agreed to let Scorpion ride on his back. But when they were halfway across the great river, Scorpion stung Turtle very fiercely.

"Why have you done this?" asked Turtle. "Now we shall both drown!"

"I could not help it," answered Scorpion. "It is in my nature."


"I thought it was a frog," I said. "Frog and Scorpion. It's the story from The Crying Game. And Mr. Arkadin. It's a frog."

"It is a frog, sometimes," said my father. "And sometimes, it's a fox. But if you go back the farthest, to the earliest version of the story, the Sanskrit version of the story, it's a turtle."

"It doesn't make sense," I pointed out. "If it's a turtle, how does the scorpion sting it, anyway? It has a shell."

"Ah," answered my father, his eyes twinkling. "Well, you see, they only tell you half the story."

My own eyes narrowed. "This isn't one of your made-up stories, is it?"

"Oh, no," said my father. "I didn't make this one up."

You see, it was in Scorpion's nature to sting Turtle, but like everyone who cannot help what he does, he instantly regretted it. So he called to Eagle, who was flying high in the sky.

"Why should I help you?" asked Eagle. "You, who stings my eaglets."

"I'm reforming," said Scorpion. "Please! Please help. If you do not help, I will surely drown."

"And wouldn't that be a boon to us all?" asked Eagle. "You do nothing good for anyone."

"But Turtle will die with me!" pointed out Scorpion.

Now, it was just at this moment, that Rabbit came hopping along. Remember Rabbit? It had not been a week since Rabbit had challenged Turtle to a race, and he was still feeling the sting from losing to the slowest creature in the animal kingdom.

"If I save you," he called to the drowning animals. "Will Turtle agree to a rematch?"

Turtle, of course, was reeling from the venom of Scorpion's sting. "Yes, yes, of course!" answered Scorpion, hoping Turtle would forgive him later. "Anything, so long as you pull us from this terrible coursing river before we drown."

Now, Rabbit could not swim. But as he was very practiced in hypocrisy, he also was very quick to point it out in other people-- or, as it were, animals. "Eagle!" he called to Eagle. "How can you fault Scorpion? You have plucked more than one of my kits, and you are complaining because Scorpion here has stung a few egglets?"

"Eaglets!" corrected Eagle.

"Who cares?" Rabbit replied, shrugging blithely. "Come down here and rescue them! You should be ashamed of yourself. I'll tell your wife on you!"

Well, there was little in the forest that could threaten Eagle more, so, grudgingly, Eagle flew down to rescue the two drowning animals, and lay them gently on the side of the bank.

"And now!" said Rabbit. "In return for my brave rescue--"

"Whose brave rescue?" demanded Eagle.

"As I was saying, in return for my brave rescue, I demand a rematch."

But it was quite clear that Turtle was still dazed from the poison, even if it would not kill him, and was in no shape for a rematch.

Scorpion was mightily tempted to sting everyone, because, love it or hate it, he was a creature who stung things, but recognizing that it was stinging that had gotten him into this mess in the first place, he very valiantly put up an effort not to sting anything at all.

"As I am to blame for our need of rescue, and as I am now a reformed Scorpion," said Scorpion, "I shall offer to run in Turtle's place, for the glory of Turtle's name."

Rabbit looked Scorpion up and down, considering. "You're one of those scuttley critters, aren't you?" he asked.

"Why, yes," said Scorpion. "And I am very proud of my scuttle. You shall find no better scuttle in the animal kingdom."

Rabbit nodded in agreement. "Very well," said Rabbit. "Name the time and place."

So Scorpion named it, and then they all went to see that Turtle would not die from the poison.

The next day, they met at the appointed time and place, and Scorpion and Rabbit lined up at the starting line.

Turtle was much better, and so they asked him to call the race.

"On your mark!" said Turtle, and the two racers took their places.

"Get set!" said Turtle. Rabbit made a very big show of stretching his long haunches. But Scorpion didn't really have much to stretch.

"Go!" said Turtle.

And Scorpion promptly stung Rabbit.

"Sorry!" said Scorpion. "I'm...you know. I'm trying!"