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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

Considering the vast resources of the Internet, I thought Googling a name as distinctive as Albert Hernhuter would be fast and fruitful. I was wrong.

Albert Hernhuter is the author of a bunch of science fiction short stories from the 1950s. For reasons unexplained, he published them under five different names: Albert Hernhuter, Al Hernhuter, Albert Hemhuter, Albert Hernhunter, and Bert Ahearne.

Online, I found almost nothing about the guy. I learned that an Albert L. Hernhuter was born in Los Angeles in 1934; that an Albert Leopold Hernhuter published an “aviation weather study guide” in 1967; and that an Albert L. Hernhuter, age 84, now lives in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Is this our Albert Hernhuter? Is it three different Albert Hernhuters? It’s a puzzlement.

Anyway, with that meager introduction, here is one of the Hernhuter short stories, a quirky tale about the line between fantasy and reality, published under his apparent real name.

———

Texas Week

By Albert Hernhuter
Published in Fantastic Universe, January 1954

The slick black car sped along the wide and straight street. It came to a smooth stop in front of a clean white house. A man got out of the car and walked briskly to the door. Reaching out with a pink hand, he pressed the doorbell with one well-manicured finger.

The door was answered by a housewife. She was wearing a white blouse, a green skirt and a green apron trimmed with white. Her feet were tucked into orange slippers, her blonde hair was done up in a neat bun. She was dressed as the government had ordered for that week.

The man said, “You are Mrs. Christopher Nest?”

There was a trace of anxiety in her voice as she answered. “Yes. And you are…?”

“My name is Maxwell Hanstark. As you may already know, I am the official psychiatrist for this district. My appointment will last until the end of this year.”

Mrs. Nest invited him in. They stepped into a clean living-room. At one end was the television set, at the other end were several chairs. There was nothing between the set and the chairs except a large grey rug which stretched from wall to wall. They walked to the chairs and sat down.

“Now, just what is the matter with your husband, Mrs. Nest?”

Mrs. Nest reached into a large bowl and absently picked up a piece of stale popcorn. She daintily placed it in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully before she answered.

“I wish I knew. All he does all day long is sit in the backyard and stare at the grass. He insists that he is standing on top of a cliff.”

Hanstark took out a small pad and a short ball-point pen. He wrote something down before he spoke again. “Is he violent? Did he get angry when you told him there was no cliff?”

Mrs. Nest was silent for a moment. A second piece of popcorn joined the first. Hanstark’s pen was poised above the pad. “No. He didn’t get violent.”

Hanstark wrote as he asked the next question. “Just what was his reaction?”

“He said I must be crazy.”

“Were those his exact words?”

“No. He said that I was –” She thought for a moment — “loco. Yes, that was the word.”

“Loco?”

“Yes. He said it just like those cowboys on the television.”

Hanstark looked puzzled. “Perhaps you had better tell me more about this. When did he first start acting this way?”

Mrs. Nest glanced up at the television set, then back at Hanstark. “It was right after Texas Week. You remember — they showed all of those old cowboy pictures.”

Hanstark nodded.

“Well, he stayed up every night watching them. Some nights he didn’t even go to sleep. Even after the set was off, he sat in one of the chairs, just staring at the screen. This morning, when I got up, he wasn’t in the house. I looked all over but I couldn’t find him. I was just about ready to phone the police when I glanced out the window into the backyard. And I saw him.”

“What was he doing?”

“He was just sitting there in the middle of the yard, staring. I went out and tried to bring him into the house. He told me he had to watch for someone. When I asked him what he was talking about he told me that I was crazy. That was when I phoned you, Mr. Hanstark.”

“A very wise move, Mrs. Nest. And would you show me where your husband is right now?”

She nodded her head and they both got up from the chairs. They walked through the dining-room and kitchen. On the back porch Hanstark came to a halt.

“You’d better stay here, Mrs. Nest.” He walked to the door and opened it.

“Mr. Hanstark,” Mrs. Nest called.

Hanstark turned and saw her standing next to the automatic washing machine. “Yes?”

“Please be careful.”

Hanstark smiled. “I shall be, Mrs. Nest.”

He walked out the door and down three concrete steps. Looking a little to his right, he saw a man squatted on his heels. He walked up to the man. “You are Mr. Christopher Nest?”

The man looked up and stared for a moment at Hanstark. “Yep,” he answered. Then he turned and stared at the grass again.

“And may I ask you what you are doing?”

Nest answered without looking up. “Guardin’ the pass.”

Hanstark scribbled something in his notebook. “And why are you guarding the pass?”

Nest rose to his feet and stared down at Hanstark. “Just what are you askin’ all of these questions for, stranger?”

Hanstark saw Nest was bigger than he and decided to play along for a while. After all, strategy…

“I’m just interested in your welfare, Mr. Nest.”

Nest shrugged his shoulders. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a sack of tobacco and some paper. Holding a piece of paper in one hand, he carefully poured a little tobacco onto it. In one quick movement he rolled the paper and tobacco into a perfect cylinder.

He put the sack of tobacco and paper back into his pocket and took out a wooden kitchen match. He scraped it to life on the sole of his shoe and applied the flame to the tip of the cigarette. He puffed it into life and threw the match away. It burned for a few moments in the moist grass, then went out. A thin trail of smoke rose from it, and then was gone.

“Why are you guarding the pass?” Hanstark asked again.

Nest resumed his crouch on the grass. “News is around that Dirty Dan the cattle rustler is gonna try to steal some of my cattle.” He patted an imaginary holster at his side. “And I aim to stop him.”

Hanstark thought for a moment. Strategy — he must use strategy. “Mr. Nest.” He waited until Nest had turned to him. “Mr. Nest. What would you say if I told you that there was no pass down there?”

“Why shucks, pardner. I’d say you’d been chewin’ some loco weed.”

“And if I could prove it?”

Nest answered after a moment’s pause. “Why then, I guess I’d be loco.”

Hanstark thought it was going to be easy. “Mr. Nest, it is a well known fact that no one can walk in mid-air. Is that not true?”

Nest took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke out of his nostrils. “Shore.”

“Then if I were to walk out above your pass you’d have to admit there is no pass.”

“Reckon so.”

Hanstark began to walk in the direction of Nest’s “cliff.” Nest jumped to his feet and grabbed the official psychiatrist by the arm.

“What’re you tryin’ to do,” Nest said angrily, “kill yourself?”

Hanstark shook free of his grasp. “Mr. Nest, I am not going to kill myself. I am merely going to walk in that direction.” He pointed to where the cliff was supposed to be. “To you it will look as if I were walking in mid-air.”

Nest dropped his hands to his sides. “Shucks, I don’t care if you kill yourself. It’s just that it’s liable to make the cattle nervous.”

Hanstark gave him a cold glare and began to walk. He took three paces and stopped. “You see, Mr. Nest. There is no cliff.”

Nest looked at him and laughed. “You just take one more step and you’ll find there is a cliff!”

Hanstark took another step — a long one. His face bore a surprised look as he disappeared beneath the grass. His screams could be heard for a moment before he landed on the rocks below.

Nest walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the mangled body. He took off his hat in respect. “Little feller had a lotta guts.” Then he added, “Poor little feller.”

He put his hat back on and looked down at the entrance to the valley. A horse and rider appeared from behind several rocks.

“Dirty Dan!” Nest exclaimed. He reached down and picked up his rifle.

Bye-2

 

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It occurs to me that I haven’t posted a story by W.L. Alden in a coon‘s age. (The lifespan of a raccoon is several years, so that estimate is about right.)

If you aren’t familiar with William Livingston Alden (1837-1908), you can correct that by reading his stories I posted in 2014 and 2015.

Alden was an interesting character from an era that, to us thoroughly modern folk today, seems decidedly quaint. As quaint, in many ways, as Alden’s humor.

———

The Explosive Dog

By W. L. Alden
Published in Chapman’s Magazine of Fiction, Christmas 1895

I had shut up my own house, and was keeping bachelor’s hall with Professor Van Wagener one summer while his wife was away on a visit to her mother. Whenever Van Wagener went in extensively for chemical experiments, Mrs. Van Wagener always went to stay with her mother.

She used to say that she never knew from one minute to another when Van Wagener would blow himself up; and to sit in her room waiting for an explosion, and wondering whether there would be enough of her husband’s remains left to satisfy the life insurance company that he was really dead, was more than a weak woman’s nerves could bear.

There was nobody in the house except the Professor and I, and his big St. Bernard dog. We used to get our own breakfast with a spirit lamp, and go to the nearest hotel for our dinners. Van Wagener was in his laboratory nearly all day, and as my room was in another part of the house I was not much disturbed by the small explosions that I heard now and then.

One evening the Professor came into my room while I was smoking my after-dinner cigar, carrying a tea-cupful of a sort of thick bluish paste. He set it down on the table, and then, dropping into a chair, informed me that he had just succeeded in perfecting the greatest invention of the age.

“I have known you to do that at least thirty-four times,” said I. “What sort of an invention is it this time?”

“I have invented,” said Van Wagener solemnly, “the most powerful explosive in the world. As compared with nitroglycerine it will explode with at least two hundred times greater violence. You see that teacup. It holds just about an ounce of my explosive. Well, sir, if that was to explode at this minute there wouldn’t be a piece of this house left large enough to submit to chemical analysis.”

“And you calmly bring the diabolical thing into my room and put it on my table!” said I. “Van Wagener, I must bid you good evening. I’ve an engagement down town, and I shall probably have to go to Chicago tonight.”

I meant what I said, for I hadn’t the least confidence in Van Wagener’s inventions, and I was expecting that his tea-cupful of the new explosive would get its work in before I could escape from the house.

“That’s all nonsense!” said the Professor. “My explosive is absolutely safe. You can set fire to it, or you can pound it with a hammer, and you can’t make it explode. The only thing you have to be careful about is not to bring it into contact with any animal fat. Drop the smallest particle of lard, or butter, or anything of that sort into that teacup, and you’ll see the most tremendous explosion that has taken place since Krakatoa blew up.”

I didn’t make any reply, but I just took that teacup and its contents and carried it out to the extreme end of the backyard, and set it down under a gooseberry bush, saying my prayers meanwhile. Then I came back to the house and told Van Wagener that if he didn’t manage to get rid of it the first thing next morning, I would not only leave him, but would have him arrested as a dangerous lunatic.

I will say this for him, that he was the sweetest tempered man in the world. He only laughed at me, and promising to dispose of the explosive in some safe way, proposed that we should walk down to the post-office, so that he could mail a letter to his wife.

We were gone about an hour, and when we returned I went with Van Wagener into the backyard to see him bury his explosive where it would be perfectly safe, and where he could dig it up after Mrs. Van Wagener had returned, and I was out of the house.

We took a tin can and a spade with us, but when we came to the gooseberry bush we were knocked all in a heap, as you might say, to find that the teacup was empty, and as clean as if it had been washed in hot water.

Van Wagener couldn’t understand it, but he was inclined to think that some rival scientific man had got wind of his invention, and had stolen the explosive in order to analyze it.

I didn’t take any stock in this theory, for I knew that if any one had stolen the explosive he would have stolen the cup as well. Even a first-class scientific man would have sense enough to do that, so I made up my mind that no man had stolen the thing.

“Has your explosive any taste?” I asked.

“It tastes very much like warm ice cream,” said Van Wagener, though where he ever saw any warm ice cream he didn’t condescend to explain.

“I suppose you mean that it is soft and sweet?” said I.

“Exactly,” he replied. “I think you’d rather like the taste of it, and it wouldn’t do you any harm to eat it — that is, if you didn’t eat any fatty substance at the same time.”

“Then I can tell you what has become of it,” said I. “That idiot of a dog of yours has eaten it up. I’ll run over to my house for a gun, and we’ll shoot him at once, before he explodes.”

“You won’t do anything of the kind,” said Van Wagener.

“Why, my wife thinks almost as much of that dog as she does of me, and I’d as soon commit murder as kill him.”

There wasn’t anything more to be said, and the Professor and I turned back towards the house. There on the front step was sitting that infamous dog, licking his chops and wagging his tail with the general air of having earned a good dinner by hard and honest labour.

Van Wagener stopped suddenly, and said:

“Come to think of it, there is a possibility that the dog may explode. If he were to get hold of a bit of butter, or a greasy bone, before he digests the explosive, he might manage to blow himself and all the rest of us into the next county.”

“If you won’t kill him,” said I, “at least chain him up as far from the house as possible.”

“You may chain him up if you can,” said the Professor, “but he doesn’t like me, and will never let me touch him.”

“No, thank you!” said I. “You don’t catch me meddling with an explosive dog. I prefer one with the hydrophobia. Let’s get into the house and lock the brute out, and hope that the stuff will poison him before morning.”

It was very easy to propose to get into the house, but the dog didn’t see it in that light. There he sat on the step, and we didn’t dare to go near him, for Van Wagener kept remembering that he had seen the beast licking a greasy plate sometime in the afternoon, and even while we were talking about him he began to lick his paws, to which it was very likely that something of a fatty nature had adhered.

So we sat down to wait till the dog should get good and ready to come down off of the front-step, and permit us to go into the house.

We waited for at least an hour, and that dog made himself comfortable on the doormat, and never paid the slightest attention to our wishes. About eight o’clock, however, the idea seemed to strike him that perhaps he had not been quite as sociable as he ought to have been, and that possibly he might have hurt our feelings.

So all of a sudden he got up, and came running over to us to make his apologies. We didn’t stop to listen to him, but seized the opportunity to make a run for the house, telling the dog to “get out, you brute!” in a tone that would have convinced any sensible beast that we didn’t wish for his society.

But he was a forgiving animal, and affecting to regard our manner towards him as a mere joke, he trotted after us, and squeezed by us into the house. I didn’t care to kick him, for I wasn’t by any means sure that the Professor’s new explosive couldn’t be exploded by concussion; and as for the Professor himself, he knew that the dog would pay no more attention to his requests than would Mrs. Van Wagener herself.

We managed to get upstairs and into my room a yard or two ahead of the dog, but no sooner had we shut the door and bolted it than he sat down, began to paw the panels, and whined for us to let him in.

“How long will he stay there?” said I.

“Probably all night,” replied my friend; “that is, if the explosion doesn’t take place in the meantime.”

“We’ve got to get him downstairs and outside of the house,” said I. “He’s your dog, and you ought to brace up, and make him mind. Try him with one of those biscuits that are there on my table. Walk in front of him and show him the biscuit, and the chances are that he will follow you downstairs, especially if he thinks that you prefer to have him stay here.

“If that plan don’t work we must just let ourselves down out of the window by tying the sheets together. It would be bad enough to be blown up by an Anarchist, but to be blown up by a fool of a dog would be simply disgraceful.”

Van Wagener said he would try the biscuit game, but that he hardly thought it would be a success. It wasn’t. No sooner had he opened the door with a biscuit in his hand than the dog snatched it away from him, and then, being full of gratitude for what he supposed was an act of kindness, he jumped on the Professor, knocked him over, and sprang over his body into the room.

Van Wagener picked himself up, remarking that he hoped there was nothing of a greasy nature about that biscuit, but he rather thought that it felt as if it had been slightly in contact with butter. Then he came over to the corner of the room where I was crouching behind the sofa, and said he was most sincerely sorry for the annoyance he had inadvertently caused me.

The dog meandered around the room in a most genial frame of mind, upsetting small objects with his tail, and now and then barking in a cheerful and friendly way. Presently he caught sight of Van Wagener and myself squeezed together in the corner, and he came and sat down in front of us with his tongue hanging out, and an expression of imbecile goodness in his face that was simply sickening.

“We must get out of this house at once,” said I. “If that brute explodes here we won’t have the ghost of a chance, but an explosion in the open air might not be as certainly fatal as you say it will be. Come along, Professor! Perhaps we can manage to set the dog on a stray cat, and slink away from him while his mind is occupied.”

So we went downstairs again, and out of the house. The dog kept close to us, running around us in a circle, and trying now and then to jump up and put his paws on our shoulders. Nothing I could say could hurt his feelings and depress his spirits. When we came to a street lamp I took a newspaper out of my pocket, and read out loud part of a speech made by an Irish Congressman, showing the ease with which the American-Irish could send two hundred thousand men to England and exterminate the entire English population.

The speech would have sickened any ordinary dog, but that dog of Van Wagener’s never turned a hair. I even made Van Wagener sing a verse of a funeral hymn, but it had no sort of effect.

We walked about a mile away from the house, but we didn’t meet a cat, or anything else that might have distracted the dog’s attention. So at last we gave up all hope, and sat down by the side of the road to rest, and wait for the worst. The dog sat down close beside us, and tried to lick my face. He was the most infernally affectionate brute that I ever saw.

We had been sitting there about ten minutes when I saw the light of a bicycle coming down the road. Now if there was one thing that the dog hated more than another it was a bicycle, and he had got Van Wagener into no end of rows by chasing every bicycle that passed the front gate. I called the dog’s attention to the approaching machine, and when it was close to us, I remarked, “sic it!” in a low tone.

For the first time in his life that infamous dog looked at the bicycle in silence, and never moved a muscle. However, the man on the bicycle made up for the dog’s want of interest. He had heard me say “sic it” to the dog, and he informed Van Wagener and me that we were a couple of murderous tramps, who had tried to set a dog on him; and that he should recognize us the next time he saw us, and have us arrested for trying to upset his machine in order to rob him.

By this time it was getting pretty late, and I was getting tired and reckless. I told the Professor that I was going to my own house to get my gun, and that I would shoot that dog, no matter what he or anyone else might say. Van Wagener made no objection. He was a sensible man in some few things, and he recognized the fact that our only chance of saving ourselves and New Berlinopolisville from an explosion was to kill the dog.

We walked rapidly back towards Van Wagener’s house, which we had to pass in order to reach my own house. The dog trotted along with us, keeping close to my legs, and trying to rub his nose against my hand. It did seem a little cowardly to kill an animal that was so full of affection and confidence in me, but it wasn’t the time to lavish sentiment on an explosive dog. Besides, other people’s lives were at stake as well as mine and the Professor’s; for if the dog should explode within range of the nearest houses, they would be wrecked, and their inmates would perish in the ruins.

But when I got to my house a new difficulty turned up. I had left the key of my door in my room at Van Wagener’s house, and in order to get my gun, I must first get my key. So I gave up the idea of shooting the dog, and being pretty angry with myself, and all the rest of the world, I told Van Wagener that I should go to my room and go to bed, and that if he survived the explosion, and I didn’t, he should put on my tombstone an inscription, saying that my life had been fooled away by a stupid dog and a mad scientific person.

Van Wagener said that of course he would be happy to comply with any wish that I might express, and we opened his front gate and went in without any further words.

We had hardly entered the front yard, and had not yet shut the gate, when a big black cat rushed out past us, and bolted down the road with the dog in hot chase of her. Hope sprang up once more in the bosoms of the Professor and myself. We made haste to shut the gate, and to get into the house. Thanks to that cat there was a chance that our lives would be spared!

The dog was safely outside of the yard, and the fence was so high that we knew he could not jump over it. At the worst he couldn’t explode within thirty yards of our front door, and proud as the Professor was of his new explosive, he admitted that an explosion at that distance would not be absolutely certain to destroy the house.

My own hope was that the dog would chase the cat for a mile or two, and then blow up at a safe distance from any house or person. It was what he owed to us after his idiotic conduct that night, but of course I couldn’t feel any real confidence that he would do his duty.

I sat down in my room to smoke another cigar and calm my nerves a little, and Van Wagener sat down with me, and made no end of apologies for his dog’s aggravating conduct.

I let him talk on for a while, and was on the point of telling him that I wasn’t in the least alarmed, and didn’t believe his new explosive would explode at all, when there took place the most tremendous explosion that I had ever heard — and I had heard a good many tidy explosions in my time; having once been blown up in a powder-mill; and having been quite near to Butler’s powder-ship when it blew up opposite to Fort Wilmington.

This explosion was like three powder-mills and half-a-dozen tropical thunderstorms rolled into one. It broke every pane of glass in the house, and made the whole building rock as if an earthquake had shaken it.

The Professor’s face was just beaming with delight.

“That’s the dog at last!” said he. “I do hope nobody has been killed; but you must admit that an ounce of my explosive is the only one in the world that could possibly have made such a tremendous noise.”

“We’ll go out and see what damage has been done,” said I. “If you’ll listen to me, Van Wagener, you’ll not say a word to anyone about your explosive. There won’t be dog enough left to be identified as yours, and if you keep quiet no one will suspect that you have had anything to do with the explosion.”

We opened the front gate to go out, and nearly fell over the dog, who was sitting there waiting to be let in, and looking as innocent as if no explosion had ever taken place.

“I see it all now,” said Van Wagener. “That poor dog never touched the explosive. It was a stray cat that ate it, and has paid the penalty, and we have been suspecting the dog wrongfully all night.”

That was just what had happened. That dog was as innocent as a child unhung. He was no more liable to explode than a frozen Eskimo, and yet Van Wagener and I had been living for the last eight hours in mortal terror of him.

I didn’t know whether to apologize to the animal or to kick him; I did know, however, that I should have liked to kick myself, if it had been feasible.

That explosion made a great deal of talk in New Berlinopolisville. It didn’t do any harm, for when the cat exploded she was at least a mile from any house, and she merely made a hole in the ground about as big and as deep as the cellar of a house.

The police made an investigation, and decided that the explosion was the work of Anarchists, and that in all probability the wretches had themselves fallen victims to their own dynamite.

Well, I don’t know that they weren’t right, for as a general rule a cat is about as thoroughgoing an Anarchist as can be found, with the single exception that a cat washes herself.

St. Bernard

 

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When he was growing up in Philadelphia, Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) aspired to be a writer. His father, a Methodist minister, strongly objected. Writing? A frivolous pursuit.

So, young Frank became an engraver in the printing business. He pursued that profession until his father died in 1860.

Immediately, Frank began a writing career that lasted for 40 years and made him a nationally-known author, primarily of stories for children. Stockton often used humor to ridicule negative behavior — greed, violence, etc. — as a lesson to the kiddies.

The Lady, or the Tiger?” is his most famous story. The title has become an allegory for a problem without a solution; an impenetrable ambiguity.

———

The Lady, or the Tiger?

By Frank Stockton
Published in The Century Magazine, 1882

In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric.

He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts. He was greatly given to self-communing; and, when he and himself agreed upon any thing, the thing was done.

When every member of his domestic and political systems moved smoothly in its appointed course, his nature was bland and genial; but whenever there was a little hitch, and some of his orbs got out of their orbits, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight, and crush down uneven places.

Among the borrowed notions by which his barbarism had become semified was that of the public arena, in which, by exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured.

But even here the exuberant and barbaric fancy asserted itself. The arena of the king was built, not to give the people an opportunity of hearing the rhapsodies of dying gladiators, nor to enable them to view the inevitable conclusion of a conflict between religious opinions and hungry jaws, but for purposes far better adapted to widen and develop the mental energies of the people.

This vast amphitheatre, with its encircling galleries, its mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic justice, in which crime was punished. Or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance.

When a subject was accused of a crime of sufficient importance to interest the king, public notice was given that on an appointed day the fate of tile accused person would be decided in the king’s arena, — a structure which well deserved its name; for, although its form and plan were borrowed from afar, its purpose emanated solely from the brain of this man, who, every barleycorn a king, knew no tradition to which he owed more allegiance than pleased his fancy, and who ingrafted on every adopted form of human thought and action the rich growth of his barbaric idealism.

When all the people had assembled in the galleries, and the king, surrounded by his court, sat high up on his throne of royal state on one side of the arena, he gave a signal, a door beneath him opened, and the accused subject stepped out into the amphitheatre. Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space, were two doors, exactly alike and side by side. It was the duty and the privilege of the person on trial, to walk directly to these doors and open one of them.

He could open either door he pleased: he was subject to no guidance or influence but that of the aforementioned impartial and incorruptible chance. If he opened the one, there came out of it a hungry tiger, the fiercest and most cruel that could be procured, which immediately sprang upon him, and tore him to pieces, as a punishment for his guilt.

The moment that the case of the criminal was thus decided, doleful iron bells were clanged, great wails went up from the hired mourners posted on the outer rim of the arena, and the vast audience, with bowed heads and downcast hearts, wended slowly their homeward way, mourning greatly that one so young and fair, or so old and respected, should have merited so dire a fate.

But, if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady, the most suitable to his years and station that his majesty could select among his fair subjects; and to this lady he was immediately married, as a reward of his innocence. It mattered not that he might already possess a wife and family, or that his affections might be engaged upon an object of his own selection: the king allowed no such subordinate arrangements to interfere with his great scheme of retribution and reward.

The exercises, as in the other instance, took place immediately, and in the arena. Another door opened beneath the king, and a priest, followed by a band of choristers’ and dancing maidens blowing joyous airs on golden horns and treading an measure, advanced to where the pair stood side by side; and the wedding was promptly and cheerily solemnized. Then the gay brass bells rang forth their merry peals, the people shouted glad hurrahs, and the innocent man, preceded by children strewing flowers on his path, led his bride to his home.

This was the king’s semi-barbaric method of administering justice. Its perfect fairness is obvious. The criminal could not know out of which door would come the lady: he opened either he pleased, without having the slightest idea whether, in the next instant, he was to be devoured or married.

On some occasions the tiger came out of one door, and on some out of the other. The decisions of this tribunal were not only fair, they were positively determinate: the accused person was instantly punished if he found himself guilty; and, if innocent, he was rewarded on the spot, whether he liked it or not. There was no escape from the judgments or the king’s arena.

The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan; for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?

This semi-barbaric king had a daughter as blooming as his most florid fancies, and with a soul as fervent and imperious as his own. As is usual in such cases, she was the apple of his eye, and was loved by him above all humanity. Among his courtiers was a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens. This royal maiden was well satisfied with her lover, for he was handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in all this kingdom; and she loved him with an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it to make it exceedingly warm and strong.

This love affair moved on happily for many months, until one day the king happened to discover its existence. He did not hesitate nor waver in regard to his duty in the premises. The youth was immediately cast into prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the king’s arena. This, of course, was an especially important occasion; and his majesty, as well as all the people, was greatly interested in the workings and development of this trial.

Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of a king. In after-years such things became commonplace enough; but then they were, in no slight degree, novel and startling.

The tiger-cages of the kingdom were searched for the most savage and relentless beasts, from which the fiercest monster might be selected for the arena; and the ranks of maiden youth and beauty throughout the land were carefully surveyed by competent judges, in order that he, young man, might have a fitting bride in case fate did not determine for him a different destiny.

Of course, everybody knew that the deed with which the accused was charged had been done. He had loved the princess, and neither he, she, nor any one else thought of denying the fact; but the king would not think of allowing any fact of this kind to interfere with the workings of the tribunal, in which he took such great delight and satisfaction. No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of; and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events, which would determine whether or not the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the princess.

The appointed day arrived. From far and near the people gathered, and thronged the great galleries of the arena; and crowds, unable to gain admittance, massed themselves against its outside walls. The king and his court were in their places, opposite the twin doors, — those fateful portals, so terrible in their similarity.

All was ready. The signal was given. A door beneath the royal party opened, and the lover of the princess walked into the arena. Tall, beautiful, fair, his appearance was greeted with a low hum of admiration and anxiety. Half the audience had not known so grand a youth had lived among them. No wonder the princess loved him! What a terrible thing for him to be there!

As the youth advanced into the arena, he turned, as the custom was, to bow to the king: but he did not think at all of that royal personage; his eyes were fixed upon the princess, who sat to the right of her father. Had it not been for the moiety of barbarism in her nature, it is probable that lady would not have been there; but her intense and fervid soul would not allow her to be absent on an occasion in which she was so terribly interested.

From the moment that the decree had gone forth, that her lover should decide his fate in the king’s arena, she had thought of nothing, night or day, but this great event and the various subjects connected with it. Possessed of more power, influence, and force of character than any one who had ever before been interested in such a case, she had done what no other person had done, — she had possessed herself of the secret of the doors. She knew in which of the two rooms, that lay behind those doors, stood the cage of the tiger, with its open front, and in which waited the lady.

Through these thick doors, heavily curtained with skins on the inside, it was impossible that any noise or suggestion should come from within to the person who should approach to raise the latch of one of them; but gold, and the power of a woman’s will, had brought the secret to the princess.

And not only did she know in which room stood the lady ready to emerge, all blushing and radiant, should her door be opened, but she knew who the lady was. It was one of tile fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court who had been selected as the reward of the accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of aspiring to one so far above him; and the princess hated her.

Often had she seen, or imagined that she had seen, this fair creature throwing glances of admiration upon the person of her lover, and sometimes she thought these glances were perceived and even returned. Now and then she had seen them talking together; it was but for a moment or two, but much can be said in a brief space; it may have been on most unimportant topics, but how could she know that?

The girl was lovely, but she had dared to raise her eyes to the loved one of the princess; and, with all the intensity of the savage blood transmitted to her through long lines of wholly barbaric ancestors, she hated the woman who blushed and trembled behind that silent door.

When her lover turned and looked at her, and his eye met hers as she sat there paler and whiter than any one in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her, he saw, by that power of quick perception which is given to those whose souls are one, that she knew behind which door crouched the tiger, and behind which stood the lady.

He had expected her to know it. He understood her nature, and his soul was assured that she would never rest until she had made plain to herself this thing, hidden to all other lookers-on, even to the king. The only hope for the youth in which there was any element of certainty was based upon the success of the princess in discovering this mystery; and the moment he looked upon her, he saw she had succeeded, as in his soul he knew she would succeed.

Then it was that his quick and anxious glance asked the question: “Which?” It was as plain to her as if he shouted it from where he stood. There was not an instant to be lost. The question was asked in a Rash; it must be answered in another.

Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.

He turned, and, with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?

The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way.

Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have him?

How often, in her waking hours and in her dreams, had she started in wild horror, and covered her face with her hands, as she thought of her lover opening the door on the other side of which waited the cruel fangs of the tiger!

But how much oftener had she seen him at the other door! How in her grievous reveries had she gnashed her teeth, and torn her hair, when she saw his start of rapturous delight as he opened the door of the lady!

How her soul had burned in agony when she had seen him rush to meet that woman, with her flushing cheek and sparkling eve of triumph; when she had seen him lead her forth, his whole frame kindled with the joy of recovered life; when she had heard the glad shouts from the multitude, and the wild ringing of the happy bells; when she had seen the priest, with his joyous followers, advance to the couple, and make them man and wife before her very eyes; and when she had seen them walk away together upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous shouts of the hilarious multitude, in which her one despairing shriek was lost and drowned!

Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for her in the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity?

And yet, that awful tiger, those shrieks, that blood!

Her decision had been indicated in an instant, but it had been made after days and nights of anguished deliberation. She had known she would be asked, she had decided what she would answer, and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to the right.

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door, — the lady, or the tiger?

Lady or the Tiger

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This obscure short story by a little-known writer is a fantasy/allegory that makes a small point in an agreeable way, leaving you pleased to have discovered it.

———

Mr. Chipfellow’s Jackpot

By Dick Purcell
Published in Imagination Science Fiction, April 1956.

“I’m getting old,” Sam Chipfellow said, “and old men die.”

His words were an indirect answer to a question from Carter Hagen, his attorney. The two men were standing in an open glade, some distance from Sam Chipfellow’s mansion at Chipfellow’s Folly, this being the name Sam himself had attached to his huge estate.

Sam lived there quite alone except for visits from relatives and those who claimed to be relatives. He needed no servants nor help of any kind because the mansion was completely automatic. Sam did not live alone from choice, but he was highly perceptive and it made him uncomfortable to have relatives around with but one thought in their minds: When are you going to die and leave me some money?

Of course, the relatives could hardly be blamed for entertaining this thought. It came as naturally as breathing because Sam Chipfellow was one of those rare individuals — a scientist who had made money; all kinds of money; more money than almost anybody. And after all, his relatives were no different than those of any other rich man. They felt they had rights.

Sam was known as The Genius of the Space Age, an apt title because there might not have been any space without him. He had been extremely versatile during his long career, having been responsible for the so-called eternal metals — metal against which no temperature, corrosive, or combinations of corrosives would prevail. He was also the pioneer of telepower, the science of control over things mechanical through the electronic emanations of thought waves. Because of his investigations into this power, men were able to direct great ships by merely “thinking” them on their proper courses.

These were only two of his contributions to progress, there being many others. And now, Sam was facing the mystery neither he nor any other scientist had ever been able to solve.

Mortality.

There was a great deal of activity near the point at which the men stood. Drills and rock cutters had formed three sides of an enclosure in a ridge of solid rock, and now a giant crane was lowering thick slabs of metal to form the walls. Nearby, waiting to be placed, lay the slab which would obviously become the door to whatever Sam was building. Its surface was entirely smooth, but it bore great hinges and some sort of a locking device was built in along one edge.

Carter Hagen watched the activity and considered Sam’s reply to his question. “Then this is to be a mausoleum?”

Sam chuckled. “Only in a sense. Not a place to house my dead bones if that’s what you mean.”

Carter Hagen, understanding this lonely old man as he did, knew further questions would be useless. Sam was like that. If he wanted you to know something, he told you.

So Carter held his peace and they returned to the mansion where Sam gave him a drink after they concluded the business he had come on.

Sam also gave Carter something else — an envelope. “Put that in your safe, Carter. You’re comparatively young. I’m taking it for granted you will survive me.”

“And this is –?”

“My will. All old men should leave wills and I’m no exception to the rule. When I’m dead, open it and read what’s inside.”

Carter Hagen regarded the envelope with speculation. Sam smiled. “If you’re wondering how much I left you, Carter, I’ll say this: You might get it all.”

Hagen strove to appear nonchalant but his eyes widened regardless. Sam enjoyed this. He said, “Yes, you’ll have as much chance as anyone else.”

“You mean as much chance as any of your relatives?”

“I mean what I said — as much as anyone. I’ve given them no more consideration than anyone else.”

Carter Hagen stared, puzzled. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you.”

“I didn’t expect you to, but that will come later. I’ll tell you this much, though. No one will be barred. The winner will take all, and the winner may be anyone on this planet. My one regret is that I won’t be around to see who gets the jackpot.”

Carter Hagen dutifully pocketed the will and left. He returned on other business a week later. Sam Chipfellow’s first question was, “Well, what did you think of it?”

“Think of what?”

“My will.”

Carter Hagen straightened to an indignant five-foot-six. “Mr. Chipfellow, I don’t like having my integrity questioned. Your will was in a sealed envelope. You instructed me to read it after your death. If you think I’m the sort of man who would violate a trust –”

Sam put a drink into his attorney’s hand. “Here, take this. Calm down.”

Carter Hagen gulped the drink and allowed his feathers to smooth down. As he set down his glass, Sam leaned back and said, “Now that that’s over, let’s get on with it. Tell me — what did you think of my will?”

The attorney flushed. It was no use trying to fool Chipfellow. He was a master at that damned thought business. “I — I did look at it. I couldn’t resist the temptation. The envelope was so easily opened.”

Sam was regarding him keenly but without anger. “I know you’re a crook, Hagen, but no more so than most people. So don’t sit there cringing.”

“This will is — well, amazing, and getting an advance look didn’t help me a bit unless –” Hagen looked up hopefully. “unless you’re willing to give me a slight clue –”

“I’ll give you nothing. You take your chances along with the rest.”

Hagen sighed. “As to the will itself, all I can say is that it’s bound to cause a sensation.”

“I think so too,” Sam said, his eyes turning a trifle sad. “It’s too bad a man has to die just at the most interesting point of his life.”

“You’ll live for years, Mr. Chipfellow. You’re in fine condition.”

“Cut it out. You’re itching for me to shuffle off so you can get a crack at what I’m leaving behind.”

“Why, Mr. –”

“Shut up and have another drink.”

Carter Hagen did not have long to wait as life-times go. Eighteen months later, Sam Chipfellow dropped dead while walking in his garden. The news was broadcast immediately but the stir it caused was nothing to the worldwide reaction that came a few days later.

This was after all the relatives, all those who thought they had a faint chance of proving themselves relatives, and representatives of the press, radio, and video, gathered in the late Sam Chipfellow’s mansion to hear the reading of the will. Carter Hagen, seeking to control his excitement, stood before a microphone installed for the benefit of those who couldn’t get in.

He said, “This is the last will and testament of Samuel Chipfellow, deceased. As his lawyer, it becomes my duty to –”

An angry murmur went up from those assembled. Exclamations of impatience. “Come on! Get on with it. Quit making a speech and read the will, we can’t wait all day!”

“Quiet, please, and give me your closest attention. I will read slowly so all may hear. This is Mr. Chipfellow’s last testament:

I, Samuel B. Chipfellow, have made a great deal of money during my active years. The time now comes when I must decide what will become of it after my death. I have made my decision, but I remain in the peculiar position of still not knowing what will become of it. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that no one will ever benefit from itthat it will remain in the place I have secreted it until the end of time.

A murmur went up from the crowd.

“A treasure hunt!” someone cried. “I wonder if they’ll distribute maps!”

Carter Hagen raised his hand. “Please! Let’s have a little more order or the reading will not continue.”

The room quieted and Hagen’s droning voice was again raised:

This place consists of a vault I have had erected upon my grounds. This vault, I assure you, is burglar-proof, weather-proof, cyclone-proof, tornado-proof, bomb-proof. Time will have no effect upon its walls. It could conceivably be thrown free in some great volcanic upheaval but even then the contents would remain inaccessible.

There is only one way the vault can be opened. Its lock is sensitized to respond to a thought. That’s what I saida thought. I have selected a single, definite, clear-cut thought to which the combination will respond.

There is a stone bench in front of the vault door and I decree that any person who wishes, may sit down on this bench and direct his or her thought at the door. If it is the correct one, the door will open and the person causing this to happen shall then be the possessor of all my worldly wealth which lies inside.

Because of the number of persons who will no doubt wish to try their luck, I decree further that each shall be given thirty seconds in which to project their thought. A force of six men shall be hired to supervise the operation and handle the crowds in the neighborhood of the vault. A trust fund has been already set up to pay this group.

The balance of my wealth lies awaiting the lucky thinker in the vaultall save this estate itself, an item of trifling value in comparison to the rest, which I bequeath to the State with the stipulation that the other terms of the will are rigidly carried out.

And so, good luck to everyone in the world. May one of you succeed in opening my vaultalthough I doubt it.

Samuel B. Chipfellow.

P.S. The thought-throwing shall begin one week after the reading of the will. I add this as a precaution to keep everyone from rushing to the vault after this will is read. You might kill each other in the stampede.

S. B. C.

There was a rush regardless. Reporters knocked each other down getting to the battery of phones set up to carry the news around the world. And Sam Chipfellow’s will pushed all else off the video screens and the front pages.

During the following weeks, millions were made through the sale of Chipfellow’s thought to the gullible. Great commercial activity began in the area surrounding the estate as arrangements were made to accommodate the hundreds of thousands who were heading in that direction.

A line began forming immediately at the gate to Chipfellow’s Folly and a brisk market got under way in positions therein. The going figure of the first hundred positions was in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars. A man three thousand thoughts away was offered a thousand dollars two days before the week was up, and on the last day, the woman at the head of the line sold her position for eighteen thousand dollars.

There were many learned roundtables and discussions as to the nature of Chipfellow’s thought. The majority leaned to the belief that it would be scientific in nature because Chipfellow was the world’s greatest scientist.

This appeared to give scientifically trained brains the edge and those fortunate in this respect spent long hours learning what they could of Chipfellow’s life, trying to divine his performance in the realm of thought.

So intense was the interest created that scarcely anyone paid attention to the activities of Chipfellow’s closer relatives. They sued to break the will but met with defeat. The verdict was rendered speedily, after which the judge who made the ruling declared a recess and bought the eleven thousandth position in line for five hundred dollars.

On the morning of the appointed day, the gates were opened and the line moved toward the vault. The first man took his seat on the bench. A stopwatch clicked. A great silence settled over the watchers. This lasted for thirty seconds after which the watch clicked again. The man got up from the bench eighteen thousand dollars poorer.

The vault had not opened.

Nor did it open the next day, the next, nor the next. A week passed, a month, six months. And at the end of that time it was estimated that more than twenty-five thousand people had tried their luck and failed.

Each failure was greeted with a public sigh of relief — relief from both those who were waiting for a turn and those who were getting rich from the commercial enterprises abutting upon the Chipfellow estate.

There was a motel, a hotel, a few night clubs, a lot of restaurants, a hastily constructed bus terminal, an airport and several turned into parking lots at a dollar a head.

The line was a permanent thing and it was soon necessary to build a cement walk because the ever-present hopeful were standing in a ditch a foot deep.

There also continued to be an active business in positions, a group of professional standers having sprung up, each with an assistant to bring food and coffee and keep track of the ever fluctuating market in positions.

And still no one opened Chipfellow’s vault.

It was conceded that the big endowment funds had the inside track because they had the money to hire the best brains in the world; men who were almost as able scientifically as had been Chipfellow himself but unfortunately hadn’t made as much money. The monied interests also had access to the robot calculators that turned out far more plausible thoughts than there were positions in the line.

A year passed. The vault remained locked.

By that time the number of those who had tried and failed, and were naturally disgruntled, was large enough to be heard, so a rumor got about that the whole thing was a vast hoax — a mean joke perpetrated upon the helpless public by a lousy old crook who hadn’t any money in the first place.

Vituperative editorials were written—by editors who had stood in line and thrown futile thoughts at the great door. These editorials were vigorously rebutted by editors and columnists who as yet had not had a chance to try for the jackpot.

One senator, who had tried and missed, introduced a law making it illegal to sit on a stone bench and hurl a thought at a door.

There were enough congressional failures to pass the law. It went to the Supreme Court, but was tossed out because they said you couldn’t pass a law prohibiting a man from thinking.

And still the vault remained closed.

Until Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, farm people impoverished by reverses, spent their last ten dollars for two thoughts and waited out the hours and the days in line. Their daughter Susan, aged nine, waited with them, passing the time by telling her doll fairy tales and wondering what the world looked like to a bird flying high up over a tree top. Susan was glad when her mother and father reached the bench because then they all could go home and see how her pet rabbit was doing.

Mr. Wilson hurled his thought and moved on with drooping shoulders. Mrs. Wilson threw hers and was told to leave the bench. The guard looked at Susan. “Your turn,” he said.

“But I haven’t got any thought,” Susan said. “I just want to go home.”

This made no sense to the guard. The line was being held up. People were grumbling. The guard said, “All right, but that was silly. You could have sold your position for good money. Run along with your mother and father.”

Susan started away. Then she looked at the vault which certainly resembled a mausoleum and said, “Wait — I have too got a little thought,” and she popped onto the bench.

The guard frowned and snapped his stop watch.

Susan screwed her eyes tight shut. She tried to see an angel with big white wings like she sometimes saw in her dreams and she also tried to visualize a white-haired, jolly-faced little man as she considered Mr. Chipfellow to be. Her lips moved soundlessly as she said,

Dear God and all the angels — please have pity on poor Mr. Chipfellow for dying and please make him happy in heaven.

Then Susan got off the bench quickly to run after her mother and father who had not waited.

There was the sound of metal grinding upon metal and the great door was swinging open.

Jackpot

Original illustration from Imagination Science Fiction, artist unknown.

 

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More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…

———

I Stood Upon a High Place

By Stephen Crane

Crane S

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

———

Not Waving but Drowning

By Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith, March 1966

Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead.
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

———

Trees

By Joyce Kilmer

Kilmer-J

Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

———

I Am

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Wilcox EW2

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

I Know not whence I came,
I know not whither I go;
But the fact stands clear that I am here
In this world of pleasure and woe.
And out of the mist and murk
Another truth shines plain —
It is my power each day and hour
To add to its joy or its pain.

———

Invictus

By William Ernest Henley

Henley WE

By William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

 

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This vintage sci-fi short story by a little-known author is, in so many ways, silly and unrealistic. On the other hand, it’s friendly, pleasant, and charming. I say that makes it a winner.

———

Say “Hello” for Me

By Frank W. Coggins
Published in If Worlds of Science Fiction, May 1953

This was to be the day, but of course Professor Pettibone had no way of knowing it. He arose, as he had been doing for the previous twenty years, donned the tattered remnants of his space suit, and went out into the open. He stood erect, bronzed, magnificent, faced distant Earth, and recited:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world happy,
And bring us good cheer.”

It was something he had heard as a child and, isolated here on Mars, he had remembered it and used it to keep from losing his power of speech.

The ritual finished, he walked to the edge of the nearest canal, and gathered a bushel or so of dried Martian moss. He returned and began polishing the shiny exterior of the wrecked space ship. It had to really glitter if it was to be an effective beacon in guiding the rescue ship.

Professor Pettibone knew — had known for years — that a ship would come. It was just a matter of time, and as the years slipped by, his faith diminished not a whit.

With his task half completed, he glanced up at the sun and quickened the polishing. It was a long walk to the place the berry bushes grew, and if he arrived too late, the sun would have dried out the night’s crop of fragile berries and he would wait until the morrow for nourishment.

But on this day, he was fated to arrive at the bush area not at all, because an alien sound from above again drew the Professor’s eyes from his work, and he knew that the day had arrived.

The ship was three times as large as any he had ever visualized, and its futuristic design told him, sharply, how far he had fallen behind in his dreaming. He smiled and said, quite calmly, “I daresay I am about to be rescued.”

And he experienced a thrill as the great ship set down and two men emerged therefrom. A thrill tinged with a guilt-sense, because emotional experiences were rare in an isolated life and seemed somehow indecent.

The two men held weapons. They advanced upon Professor Pettibone, looked up into his face, reflected a certain wary hostility. That the hostility was tinged with instinctive respect, even awe, made it no less potent.

One of them asked, “Fella — man came in ship — sky boat — long time ago. Him dead? Where?” Appropriate gestures accompanied the words.

Professor Pettibone smiled down at the little men and bowed. “You are of course referring to me. I came in the ship. I am Professor Pettibone. It was nice of you to hunt me up.”

The eyes of the two Terran spacemen met and locked in startled inquiry. One of them voiced the reaction of both when he said, “What the hell –”

“You no doubt are curious as to the fate of the other members of the expedition. They were killed, all save Fletcher, who lasted a week.” Professor Pettibone waved a hand. “There — in the graveyard.”

But their eyes remained on the only survivor of that ill-fated first expedition. It was hard to accept him as the man they sought, but, faced with undeniable similarity between what they expected and what they had found, the two spacemen had no alternative.

“I hope your food supply is ample — and varied,” Professor Pettibone said.

This seemed to bring them out of their bemusement. “Of course, Professor. Would you care to come aboard?”

The other made a try at congenial levity. “You must be pretty hungry after twenty years.”

“Really — has it been that long? I tried to keep track at first…”

“We can blast off anytime you say. You’re probably pretty anxious to get back.”

“Indeed, I am. The changes, in twenty years — must be breathtaking. I wonder if they’ll remember me?”

A short time later, the Professor said, “It’s amazing. A ship of this size handled by only two men.” Then he sat down to a repast laid out by one of the awed spacemen.

But, after nibbling a bit of this, a forkful of that, he found that satisfaction lay in the anticipation more so than in the eating.

“We’ll look around and see what we can find in the way of clothing for you, Professor,” one of the spacemen said. Then the man’s bemusement returned. His eyes traveled over the magnificent physique before him. The perfect giant of a man; the great, Apollo-like head with the calm, clear eyes; the expression of complete contentment and serenity.

The space man said, “Professor — to what do you attribute the changes in your body. What is there about this planet –?”

“I really don’t know.” Professor Pettibone looked down his torso with an impersonal eye. “I think the greenish skin pigmentation is a result of mineral-heavy vapors that occur during certain seasons. The growth. As to my body — I really don’t know.”

But the two spacemen — though they didn’t refer to it — were not concerned with the body so much as the aura of completeness, the radiation of contentment which came from somewhere within.

And it was passing strange that nothing more was said about the Professor returning to Earth. No great revelation, suddenly arrived at, that he would not go. Rather, they discussed various things, that three gentlemen, meeting casually, would discuss.

Then Professor Pettibone arose from his chair and said, “It was kind of you to drop off and see me.”

And one of the spacemen replied, “A pleasure, sir. A real pleasure indeed.”

Then the Professor left the ship and watched it lift up on a tail of red fire and go away. He raised an arm and waved. “Say ‘hello’ for me,” he called. Then he turned away and, from force of habit, he began again to polish the hull, knowing that he would keep it shining, and be proud of it, for many years to come.

Almost beyond reach of the planet, one of the spacemen flipped a switch and put certain sensitive communication mechanisms to work. So sensitive, they could pick up etheric vibrations far away and make them audible.

But only faintly, came the pleasant voice of a contented man:

“Good morning, bright sunshine,
We’re glad you are here.
You make the world…”

Sunrise on Mars

 

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There was a time a handful of decades ago when people read newspapers. They did it because newspapers (and magazines) were primary sources of news and entertainment. Imagine that.

Back in those days, the syndicated humor column “At Wit’s End” by Erma Bombeck was hugely popular. It appeared three times a week in 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. A staggering level of readership.

Nowadays, people may know her name vaguely, but probably haven’t read any of her stuff. I aim to fix that, because everyone should read themselves some Erma Bombeck.

Someone wrote that “motherhood was her beat.” Well, she covered it with remarkable insight and wit. Bombeck had a knack for finding and sharing the humor and absurdity in the life of a typical suburban mom. Her columns, whether biting, ironic, sardonic, sentimental, or a combination thereof, rarely disappointed.

Here is a sampling.

———

Waking Up Momma (1966)

How I am awakened in the morning usually determines how I feel the rest of the day.

When allowed to wake up in the natural way, I find myself quite civil and reasonable to cope with the routine. When the children do the job for me, I awake surly, uncommunicative and tire easily. (I once fell asleep while I was having my tooth filled.)

It all begins at some small hour in the morning. The children line up at my bedside and stare at me as if I’m a white whale that has been washed onto the beach.

“I think she hears us. Her eyelids fluttered.”

“Wait till she turns over, then everybody cough.”

“Get him out of here.”

“She’s pulling the covers over her ears. Start coughing.”

I don’t know how long it will be before one of them discovers that by taking my pulse they will be able to figure out by its rapid beat if I am faking or not. But it will come.

When they were smaller, they were even less subtle. They would stick their wet fingers in the openings of my face and whisper, “You awake yet?” Or good old Daddy would simply heave a flannel-wrapped bundle at me and say, “Here’s Mommy’s little boy.”

(Any mother with half a skull knows that when Daddy’s little boy becomes Mommy’s little boy, Daddy’s little boy is so wet he’s treading water.)

The imagination of children never fails to stagger me. Once they put a hamster on my chest, and when I bolted upright (my throat muscles paralyzed with fright) they asked, “Do you have any alcohol for the chemistry set?”

Probably the most unnerving eye-opener was a couple of weeks ago, when my eyes popped open without the slightest provocation. “Those rotten kids have done it again,” I grumbled. “How can I sleep with that infernal quiet? The last time it was this quiet they were eating cereal on the front lawn in raggy pajamas.” I hurried to find them.

I found them in the kitchen intent on their cereal. No noise. No nonsense. “Go back to bed,” they yelled. “We won’t want any lunch until nine-thirty or so.”

It was going to be another one of those days.

———

The Paint Tint Caper (1965)

Once… just once… I’d like to be dressed for an emergency.

I don’t mean like my grandmother used to warn: “That is not underwear to be hit by a car in.” I mean just to be glued together, so you’re not standing in a hospital hallway in a sweatshirt (PROPERTY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETIC DEPT.) and a pair of bedroom slippers.

In a way, it’s almost as if fate were waging a cruel war and you’re in the middle of it. Not only are you (a) bleeding to death, (b) grimacing in pain, and (c) worried half out of your skull, you are also plagued with the fear that the nurses in East Wing C are passing the hat to adopt you and your family for Thanksgiving.

Take our Paint Tint Caper, for example. Our small son climbed into bed with us early one morning and smiled broadly. I’m intuitive. I’m a mother. I sensed something was wrong. His teeth were blue. He had bitten into a tube of paint tint. Now if you’re visualizing some sweet, tousled-hair boy in his fire-engine pajamas, forget it. This kid looked like he was being raised by werewolves!

In addition to his blue teeth, he was wearing a pair of training pants and his father’s old T-shirt, which caught him loosely around the ankles. This was obviously no time to be proud or to explain that I was a few years behind in the laundry. We rode like the wind to the emergency ward of the hospital, where the doctor checked over his blue teeth so calmly I thought there was something wrong with mine because they were white.

“What kind of paint tint?” he asked clinically.

“Sky blue,” we said shakily, pointing to the color on his T-shirt.

“I can see that,” he said irritably. “I mean, what did it contain chemically?”

My husband and I stared at each other. Normally, you understand, we don’t let a can of paint into the house until we’ve committed the chemical contents and their percentages to memory. This one had escaped us somehow.

While they were pumping his stomach, we took a good look at ourselves. My husband was in a pair of thrown-over-the-chair denims and his pajama top. I was wearing yesterday’s house dress with no belt, no hose, and a scarf around my uncombed hair. I was clutching a dish towel, my only accessory. We looked like a family of Okies who had just stepped into the corridor long enough to get a tin can of water for our boiling radiator.

There are other stories, other dilemmas, but the characters never change. We’re always standing around, unwashed, uncurled, harried, penniless, memory gone, no lipstick, no hose, unmatched shoes, and using the dirtiest cloth in the house to bind our wounds.

Makes you want to plan your next accident, doesn’t it?

———

When God Created Mothers (1974)

When the Good Lord was creating mothers, He was into his sixth day of “overtime” when an angel appeared and said, “You’re doing a lot of fiddling around on this one.”

And the Lord said, “Have you read the specs on this order? She has to be completely washable, but not plastic. Have 180 movable parts… all replaceable. Run on black coffee and leftovers. Have a lap that disappears when she stands up. A kiss that can cure anything from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair. And six pairs of hands.”

The angel shook her head slowly and said, “Six pairs of hands… no way.”

It’s not the hands that are causing me problems,” said the Lord. “It’s the three pairs of eyes that mothers have to have.”

That’s on the standard model?” asked the angel.

The Lord nodded. “One pair that sees through closed doors when she asks, ’What are you kids doing in there?’ when she already knows. Another here in the back of her head that sees what she shouldn’t but what she has to know, and of course the ones here in front that can look at a child when he goofs up and say, ’I understand and I love you’ without so much as uttering a word.”

Lord,” said the angel, touching His sleeve gently, “Go to bed. Tomorrow…”

I can’t,” said the Lord, “I’m so close to creating something so close to myself. Already I have one who heals herself when she is sick… can feed a family of six on one pound of hamburger… and can get a nine-year-old to stand under a shower.”

The angel circled the model of a mother very slowly. “It’s too soft,” she sighed.

But she’s tough!” said the Lord excitedly. “You cannot imagine what this mother can do or endure.”

Can it think?”

Not only can it think, but it can reason and compromise,” said the Creator.

Finally, the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek. “There’s a leak,” she pronounced. “I told You You were trying to push too much into this model.”

It’s not a leak,” said the Lord. “It’s a tear.”

What’s it for?”

It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”

You are a genius,” said the angel.

The Lord looked somber. “I didn’t put it there,” He said.

———

A Mother’s Love (1985)

Someday, when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I’ll tell them…

I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom, and what time you would get home.

I loved you enough to insist you buy a bike with your own money, which we could afford, and you couldn’t.

I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your handpicked friend was a creep.

I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your bedroom, a job that would have taken me 15 minutes.

I loved you enough to say, “Yes, you can go to Disney World on Mother’s Day.”

I loved you enough to let you see anger, disappointment, disgust, and tears in my eyes.

I loved you enough not to make excuses for your lack of respect or your bad manners.

I loved you enough to admit that I was wrong and ask for your forgiveness.

I loved you enough to ignore “what every other mother” did or said.

I loved you enough to let you stumble, fall, hurt, and fail.

I loved you enough to let you assume the responsibility for your own actions, at 6, 10, or 16.

I loved you enough to figure you would lie about the party being chaperoned, but forgave you for it… after discovering I was right.

I loved you enough to shove you off my lap, let go of your hand, be mute to your pleas and insensitive to your demands… so that you had to stand alone.

I loved you enough to accept you for what you are, and not what I wanted you to be.

But most of all, I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.

———

Are We Rich? (1971)

The other day out of a clear blue sky Brucie asked, “Are we rich?”

I paused on my knees as I retrieved a dime from the sweeper bag, blew the dust off it and asked, “Not so you can notice. Why?”

How can you tell?” he asked.

I straightened up and thought a bit. Being rich is a relative sort of thing. Here’s how I can always tell.

You’re rich when you buy your gas at the same service station all the time so your glasses match.

You’re rich when you can have eight people to dinner and don’t have to wash forks between the main course and dessert.

You’re rich when you buy clothes for your kids that are two sizes too big for the one you buy ‘em for and four sizes too big for the one that comes after him.

You’re rich when you own a boat — without oars.

You can tell people have money when they record a check and don’t have to subtract it right away.

People have money when they sit around and joke with the cashier while she’s calling in their charge to see if it’s still open.

You’re rich when you write notes to the teacher on paper without lines.

You’re rich when your television set has all the knobs on it.

You’re rich when you can throw away a pair of pantyhose just because it has a large hole in it.

You know people are loaded when they don’t have to save rubber bands from the celery and store them on a doorknob.

You’re rich when you can have a home wedding without HAVEN FUNERAL HOME stamped on the folding chairs.

You’re rich when the Scouts have a paper drive and you have a stack of The New York Times in your basement.

You’re rich when your dog is wet and smells good.

You’re rich when your own hair looks so great everyone thinks it’s a wig.

Brucie sat quietly for a moment, then said, “I think my friend Ronny is rich.”

How can you tell?” I asked.

His mom buys his birthday cake at a bakery, and it isn’t even cracked on top.”

He’s rich, all right,” I sighed.

———

No More Oatmeal Kisses (1969)

A young mother writes: “I know you’ve written before about the empty-nest syndrome — that lonely period after the children are grown and gone. Right now, I’m up to my eyeballs in laundry and muddy boots. The baby is teething; the boys are fighting. My husband just called and said to eat without him, and I fell off my diet. Lay it on me again, will you?”

OK. One of these days, you’ll shout, “Why don’t you kids grow up and act your age!” And they will. Or, “You guys get outside and find yourselves something to do, and don’t slam the door!” And they won’t.

You’ll straighten up the boys’ bedroom neat and tidy — bumper stickers discarded, bedspread tucked and smooth, toys displayed on the shelves. Hangers in the closet. Animals caged. And you’ll say out loud, “Now I want it to stay this way.” And it will.

You’ll prepare a perfect dinner with a salad that hasn’t been picked to death and a cake with no finger traces in the icing, and you’ll say, “Now, there’s a meal for company.” And you’ll eat it alone.

You’ll say: “I want complete privacy on the phone. No dancing around. No demolition crews. Silence! Do you hear?” And you’ll have it.

No more plastic tablecloths stained with spaghetti. No more bedspreads to protect the sofa from damp bottoms. No more gates to stumble over at the top of the basement steps. No more clothespins under the sofa. No more playpens to arrange a room around.

No more anxious nights under a vaporizer tent. No more sand on the sheets or Popeye movies in the bathroom. No more iron-on patches, rubber bands for ponytails, tight boots or wet knotted shoestrings.

Imagine. A lipstick with a point on it. No babysitter for New Year’s Eve. Washing only once a week. Seeing a steak that isn’t ground. Having your teeth cleaned without a baby on your lap.

No PTA meetings. No car pools. No blaring radios. No one washing her hair at 11 o’clock at night. Having your own roll of Scotch tape.

Think about it. No more Christmas presents out of toothpicks and library paste. No more sloppy oatmeal kisses. No more tooth fairy. No giggles in the dark. No knees to heal, no responsibility.

Only a voice crying, “Why don’t you grow up?” and the silence echoing, “I did.”

———

Plenty of Erma Bombeck’s columns are in print, and many are available online. Do yourself a favor and read some more Bombeck.

Bombeck E

Erma Louise Bombeck (1927-1996)

 

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