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Archive for the ‘Notable Prose and Poetry’ Category

May

By Sara Teasdale

Teasdale ST

Sarah Trevor Teasdale (1884-1933)

The wind is tossing the lilacs,
The new leaves laugh in the sun,
And the petals fall on the orchard wall,
But for me the spring is done.

Beneath the apple blossoms
I go a wintry way,
For love that smiled in April
Is false to me in May.

———

Fog

By Carl Sandburg

Sandburg

Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

———

Winter Morning Poem

By Ogden Nash

Nash O

Frederic Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

Winter is the king of showmen,
Turning tree stumps into snow men
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes.
Smooth and clean and frosty white,
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young,
Catching snowflakes on your tongue!
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing.
I’m sorry it’s slushy when it’s going.


———

Legacies

By Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni-n

Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr. (B. 1943)

her grandmother called her from the playground
yes, ma’am”
i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old
woman proudly
but the little girl didn’t want
to learn how because she knew
even if she couldn’t say it that
that would mean when the old one died she would be less
dependent on her spirit so
she said
i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

———

Autumn

By T. E. Hulme

Hulme-te

Thomas Ernest Hulme (1883-1917)

A touch of cold in the Autumn night
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

 

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The classic sci-fi short story below is a source of minor, but lingering controversy.

The title character is an android, upgraded until she becomes, in effect, a sentient non-human person. Because she is the project of two somewhat immature men, many say the story is sexist, chauvinistic, and offensive. According to another line of thought, the story is satirical and explores what constitutes self-awareness and personhood.

I say give the author some slack. The story was written 80 years ago and shouldn’t be judged by contemporary standards. I also say that the idea of lifelike, self-aware androids needs to be addressed.

According to the law, only a natural person (okay, or a corporation) has legal rights and protections. But the time will come when androids will be able to mimic human appearance and behavior very precisely, à la Helen O’Loy and the replicants in “Blade Runner.” What legal rights will such beings have?

Frankly, if the time comes when humans can’t tell the difference between plastic and protoplasm, we have to decide to what degree the difference matters. If it matters at all.

——–

Helen O’Loy

By Lester del Rey
Published in Astounding Science Fiction, December 1938.

I am an old man now, but I can still see Helen as Dave unpacked her, and still hear him gasp as he looked her over.

Lord, isn’t she a beauty?”

She was beautiful, a dream in spun plastics and metals, something Keats might have seen dimly when he wrote sonnets. If Helen of Troy had looked like that the Greeks must have been pikers when they launched only a thousand ships; at least, that’s what I told Dave.

Helen of Troy, eh?” He looked at her tag. “At least it beats this thingK2W88. Helen… Mmmm… Helen of Alloy.”

Not much swing to that, Dave. Too many unstressed syllables in the middle. How about Helen O’Loy?”

Helen O’Loy she is, Phil.”

And that’s how it beganone part beauty, one part dream, one part science; add a stereo broadcast, stir mechanically, and the result is chaos. Dave and I hadn’t gone to college together, but when I came to Messina to practice medicine, I found him downstairs in a little robot repair shop. After that, we began to pal around, and when I started going with one twin, he found the other equally attractive, so we made it a foursome.

When our business grew better, we rented a house out near the rocket fieldnoisy but cheap, and the rockets discouraged apartment building. We liked room enough to stretch ourselves. I suppose, if we hadn’t quarreled with them, we’d have married the twins in time. But Dave wanted to look over the latest Venus-rocket attempt when his twin wanted to see a display stereo starring Larry Ainslee, and they were both stubborn. From then on, we forgot the twins and spent our evenings at home.

But it wasn’t until “Lenny” put vanilla on our steak instead of salt that we got off on the subject of emotions and robots. While Dave was dissecting Lenny to find the trouble, we naturally mulled over the future of the mechs. He was sure that the robots would beat humans some day, and I couldn’t see it.

Look here, Dave,” I argued. “You know Lenny doesn’t thinknot really. When those wires crossed, she could have corrected herself. But she didn’t bother; she followed the mechanical impulse. A woman might have reached for the vanilla, but when she saw it in her hand, she’d have stopped. Lenny has sense enough, but she has no emotions, no consciousness of self.”

All right, that’s the big trouble with the mechs now. But we’ll get around it, put in some mechanical emotions, or something.” He screwed Lenny’s head back on, turned on her juice. “Go back to work, Lenny, it’s nineteen o’clock.”

Now I specialized in endocrinology and related subjects. I wasn’t exactly a psychologist, but I did understand the glands, secretions, hormones, and miscellanies that are the physical causes of emotions. It took medical science three hundred years to find out how and why they worked, and I couldn’t see people duplicating them mechanically in much less time.

I brought home books and papers to prove it, and Dave quoted the invention of memory coils and veritoid eyes. During that year we swapped knowledge until Dave knew the whole theory of endocrinology, and I could have made Lenny from memory. The more we talked, the less sure I grew about the impossibility of Homo mechanensis as the perfect type.

Poor Lenny. Her cuproberyl body spent half its time in scattered pieces. Our first attempts were successful only in getting her to serve fried brushes for breakfast and wash the dishes in oleo oil. Then one day she cooked a perfect dinner with six wires crossed, and Dave was in ecstasy.

He worked all night on her wiring, put in a new coil, and taught her a fresh set of words. And the next day she flew into a tantrum and swore vigorously at us when we told her she wasn’t doing her work right.

Dave refused to turn her on. “Wait until we’ve slept and rested,” he advised. “I’m as eager to try her as you are, but we can’t do much studying with our minds half-dead. Turn in, and we’ll leave Helen until later.”

Even though we were both reluctant to follow it, we knew the idea was sound. We turned in, and sleep hit us before the air conditioner could cut down to sleeping temperature. And then Dave was pounding on my shoulder.

Phil! Hey, snap out of it!”

I groaned, turned over, and faced him. “Well…? Uh! What is it? Did Helen

No, it’s old Mrs. van Styler. She ’visored to say her son has an infatuation for a servant, and she wants you to come out and give counterhormones. They’re at the summer camp in Maine.”

Rich Mrs. van Styler! I couldn’t afford to let that account down, now that Helen had used up the last of my funds. But it wasn’t a job I cared for.

Counterhormones! That’ll take two weeks’ full time. Anyway, I’m no society doctor, messing with glands to keep fools happy. My job’s taking care of serious trouble.”

And you want to watch Helen.” Dave was grinning, but he was serious, too. “I told her it’d cost her fifty thousand!”

Huh?”

And she said okay, if you hurried.”

Of course, there was only one thing to do, though I could have wrung fat Mrs. van Styler’s neck cheerfully. It wouldn’t have happened if she’d used robots like everyone elsebut she had to be different.

###

Consequently, while Dave was back home puttering with Helen, I was racking my brain to trick Archy van Styler into getting the counterhormones, and giving the servant the same. Oh, I wasn’t supposed to, but the poor kid was crazy about Archy. Dave might have written, I thought, but never a word did I get.

It was three weeks later instead of two when I reported that Archy was “cured,” and collected on the line. With that money in my pocket, I hired a personal rocket and was back in Messina in half an hour. I didn’t waste time in reaching the house.

As I stepped into the alcove, I heard a light patter of feet, and an eager voice called out, “Dave, dear?” For a minute I couldn’t answer, and the voice came again, pleading, “Dave?”

I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect Helen to meet me that way, stopping and staring at me, obvious disappointment on her face, little hands fluttering up against her chest.

Oh,” she cried. “I thought it was Dave. He hardly comes home to eat now, but I’ve had supper waiting hours.” She dropped her hands and managed a smile. “You’re Phil, aren’t you? Dave told me about you when… at first. I’m so glad to see you home, Phil.”

Glad to see you doing so well, Helen.” Now what does one say for light conversation with a robot? “You said something about supper?”

It’s a lie,” she yelled, shaking a suction brush. “You’re all liars. If you so-and-so’s would leave me whole long enough, I might get something done around the place.”

When we calmed her temper and got her back to work, Dave ushered me into the study. “Not taking any chances with Lenny,” he explained. “We’ll have to cut out that adrenal pack and restore her to normality. But we’ve got to get a better robot. A housemaid mech isn’t complex enough.”

How about Dillard’s new utility models? They seem to combine everything in one.”

Exactly. Even so, we’ll need a special one built to order, with a full range of memory coils. And out of respect to old Lenny, let’s get a female case for its works.”

The result, of course, was Helen. The Dillard people had performed a miracle and put all the works in a girl-modeled case. Even the plastic and rubberite face was designed for flexibility to express emotions, and she was complete with tear glands and taste buds, ready to simulate every human action, from breathing to pulling hair, the bill they sent with her was another miracle, but Dave and I scraped it together; we had to turn Lenny over to an exchange to complete it, though, and thereafter we ate out.

I’d performed plenty of delicate operations on living tissues, and some of them had been tricky, but I still felt like a premed student as we opened the front plate of her torso and began to sever the leads of her “nerves.” Dave’s mechanical glands were all prepared, complex little bundles of pansistors and wires that heterodyned on the electrical thought impulses and distorted them as adrenaline distorts the reaction of human minds.

Instead of sleeping that night, we pored over the schematic diagrams of her structures, tracing the complex thought mazes of her wiring, severing the leaders, implanting the heterones, as Dave called them. And while we worked, a mechanical tape fed carefully prepared thoughts of consciousness and awareness of life and feeling into an auxiliary memory coil. Dave believed in leaving nothing to chance.

It was growing light as we finished, exhausted and exultant. All that remained was the starting of her electrical power; like all the Dillard mechs, she was equipped with a tiny atomotor instead of batteries, and once started would need no further attention.

Oh, yes. I guess Dave ate downtown again, so we might as well go in. It’ll be nice having someone to talk to around the house, Phil. You don’t mind if I call you Phil, do you? You know, you’re sort of a godfather to me.”

We ate. I hadn’t counted on such behavior, but apparently she considered eating as normal as walking.

She didn’t do much eating, at that; most of the time she spent staring at the front door.

Dave came in as we were finishing, a frown a yard wide on his face. Helen started to rise, but he ducked toward the stairs, throwing words over his shoulder. “Hi, Phil. See you up here later.” There was something radically wrong with him. For a moment, I’d thought his eyes were haunted, and as I turned to Helen, hers were filling with tears. She gulped, choked them back, and fell to viciously on her food.

What’s the matter with him… and you?” I asked.

He’s sick of me.” She pushed her plate away and got up hastily. “You’d better see her while I clean up. And there’s nothing wrong with me. And it’s not my fault anyway.” She grabbed the dishes and ducked into the kitchen; I could have sworn she was crying.

Maybe all thought is a series of conditioned reflexes—but she certainly had picked up a lot of conditioning while I was gone. Lenny in her heyday had been nothing like this. I went up to see if Dave could make any sense out of the hodge-podge.

He was squirting soda into a large glass of apple brandy, and I saw that the bottle was nearly empty. “Join me?” he asked.

It seemed like a good idea. The roaring blast of an ion rocket overhead was the only familiar thing left in the house. From the look around Dave’s eyes, it wasn’t the first bottle he’d emptied while I was gone, and there were more left. He dug out a new bottle for his own drink.

Of course, it’s none of my business, Dave, but that stuff won’t steady your nerves any. What’s gotten into you and Helen? Been seeing ghosts?”

Helen was wrong; he hadn’t been eating downtown—nor anywhere else. His muscles collapsed into a chair in a way that spoke of fatigue and nerves, but mostly of hunger. “You noticed it, eh?”

Noticed it? The two of you jammed it down my throat.”

Uhmmm.” He swatted at a nonexistent fly, and slumped further down in the pneumatic. “Guess maybe I should have waited with Helen until you got back. But if that stereo cast hadn’t changed… anyway, it did. And those mushy books of yours finished the job.”

Thanks. That makes it all clear.”

You know, Phil, I’ve got a place up in the country… fruit ranch. My dad left it to me. Think I’ll look it over.”

And that’s the way it went. But finally, by much liquor and more perspiration, I got some of the story out of him before I gave him an Amytal and put him to bed. Then I hunted up Helen and dug the rest of the story from her, until it made sense.

Apparently as soon as I was gone, Dave had turned her on and made preliminary tests, which were entirely satisfactory. She had reacted beautifully—so well that he decided to leave her and go down to work as usual.

Naturally, with all her untried emotions, she was filled with curiosity, and wanted him to stay. Then he had an inspiration. After showing her what her duties about the house would be, he set her down in front of the stereovisor, tuned in a travelogue, and left her to occupy her time with that.

The travelogue held her attention until it was finished, and the station switched over to a current serial with Larry Ainslee, the same cute emoter who’d given us all the trouble with the twins. Incidentally, he looked something like Dave.

Helen took to the serial like a seal to water. This play-acting was a perfect outlet for her newly excited emotions. When that particular episode finished, she found a love story on another station, and added still more to her education. The afternoon programs were mostly news and music, but by then she’d found my books; and I do have rather adolescent taste in literature.

Dave came home in the best of spirits. The front alcove was neatly swept, and there was the odor of food in the air that he’d missed around the house for weeks. He had visions of Helen as the super-efficient housekeeper.

So it was a shock to him to feel two strong arms around his neck from behind and hear a voice all aquiver coo into his ears, “Oh, Dave, darling. I’ve missed you so, and I’m so thrilled that you’re back.” Helen’s technique may have lacked polish, but it had enthusiasm, as he found when he tried to stop her from kissing him. She had learned fast and furiously—also, Helen was powered by an atomotor.

###

Dave wasn’t a prude, but he remembered that she was only a robot, after all. The fact that she felt, acted, and looked like a young goddess in his arms didn’t mean much. With some effort, he untangled her and dragged her off to supper, where he made her eat with him to divert her attention.

After her evening work, he called her into the study and gave her a thorough lecture on the folly of her ways. It must have been good, for it lasted three solid hours, and covered her station in life, the idiocy of stereos, and various other miscellanies. When he finished, Helen looked up with dewy eyes and said wistfully, “I know, Dave, but I still love you.”

That’s when Dave started drinking. It grew worse each day. If he stayed downtown, she was crying when he came home. If he returned on time, she fussed over him and threw herself at him. In his room, with the door locked, he could hear her downstairs pacing up and down and muttering; and when he went down, she stared at him reproachfully until he had to go back up.

I sent Helen out on a fake errand in the morning and got Dave up. With Helen gone, I made Dave eat a decent breakfast and gave him a tonic for his nerves. He was still listless and moody.

Look here, Dave,” I broke in on his brooding. “Helen isn’t human, after all. Why not cut off her power and change a few memory coils? Then we can convince her that she never was in love and couldn’t get that way.”

You try it. I had that idea, but she put up a wail that would wake Homer. She says it would be murderand the hell of it is that I can’t help feeling the same about it. Maybe she isn’t human, but you wouldn’t guess it when she puts on that martyred look and tells you to go ahead and kill her.”

We never put in substitutes for some of the secretions present in human during the love period.”

I don’t know what we put in. Maybe the heterones backfired or something. Anyway, she’s made this idea so much a part of her thoughts that we’d have to put in a whole new set of coils.”

Well, why not?”

Go ahead. You’re the surgeon of this family. I’m not used to fussing with emotions. Matter of fact, since she’s been acting this way, I’m beginning to hate work on any robot. My business is going to blazes.”

He saw Helen coming up the walk and ducked out the back door for the monorail express. I’d intended to put him back in bed, but let him go. Maybe he’d be better off at his shop than at home.

Dave’s gone?” Helen did have that martyred look now. “Yeah. I got him to eat, and he’s gone to work.”

I’m glad he ate.” She slumped down in a chair as if she were worn out, though how a mech could be tired beat me. “Phil?”

Well, what is it?”

Do you think I’m bad for him? I mean, do you think he’d be happier if I weren’t here?”

He’ll go crazy if you keep acting this way around him.”

She winced. Those little hands were twisting about pleadingly, and I felt like an inhuman brute. But I’d started, and I went ahead. “Even if I cut out your power and changed your coils, he’d probably still be haunted by you.”

I know. But I can’t help it. And I’d make him a good wife, really I would, Phil.”

I gulped; this was getting a little too far. “And give him strapping sons to boot, I suppose. A man wants flesh and blood, not rubber and metal.”

Don’t, please! I can’t think of myself that way; to me, I’m a woman. And you know how perfectly I’m made to imitate a real woman… in all ways. I couldn’t give him children, but in every other way… I’d try so hard, I know I’d make him a good wife.”

I gave up.

Dave didn’t come home that night, nor the next day. Helen was fussing and fuming, wanting me to call the hospitals and the police, but I knew nothing had happened to him. He always carried identification. Still, when he didn’t come on the third day, I began to worry. And when Helen started out for his shop, I agreed to go with her.

Dave was there, with another man I didn’t know. I parked Helen where he couldn’t see her, but where she could hear, and went in as soon as the other fellow left.

Dave looked a little better and seemed glad to see me. “Hi, Philjust closing up. Let’s go eat.”

Helen couldn’t hold back any longer, but came trooping in. “Come on home, Dave. I’ve got roast duck with spice stuffing, and you know you love that.”

Scat!” said Dave. She shrank back, turned to go. “Oh, all right, stay. You might as well hear it, too. I’ve sold the shop. The fellow you saw just bought it, and I’m going up to the old fruit ranch I told you about, Phil. I can’t stand the mechs any more.”

You’ll starve to death at that,” I told him.

No, there’s a growing demand for old-fashioned fruit, raised out of doors. People are tired of this water-culture stuff. Dad always made a living out of it. I’m leaving as soon as I can get home and pack.”

Helen clung to her idea. “I’ll pack, Dave, while you eat. I’ve got apple cobbler for dessert.” The world was toppling under her feet, but she still remembered how crazy he was for apple cobbler.

Helen was a good cook; in fact she was a genius, with all the good points of a woman and a mech combined. Dave ate well enough, after he got started. By the time supper was over, he’d thawed out enough to admit he liked the duck and cobbler, and to thank her for packing. In fact, he even let her kiss him good-bye, though he firmly refused to let her go to the rocket field with him.

Helen was trying to be brave when I got back, and we carried on a stumbling conversation about Mrs. van Styler’s servants for a while. But the talk began to lull, and she sat staring out of the window at nothing most of the time. Even the stereo comedy lacked interest for her, and I was glad enough to have her go off to her room. She could cut her power down to simulate sleep when she chose.

As the days slipped by, I began to realize why she couldn’t believe herself a robot. I got to thinking of her as a girl and companion myself. Except for odd intervals when she went off by herself to brood, or when she kept going to the telescript for a letter that never came, she was as good a companion as a man could ask. There was something homey about the place that Lenny had never put there.

I took Helen on a shopping trip to Hudson and she laughed and purred over the wisps of silk and glassheen that were the fashion, tried on endless hats, and conducted herself as any normal girl might. We went trout fishing for a day, where she proved to be as good a sport and sensibly silent. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and thought she was forgetting Dave. That was before I came home unexpectedly and found her doubled up on the couch, threshing her legs up and down and crying to the high heavens.

It was then I called Dave. They seemed to have trouble in reaching him, and Helen came over beside me while I waited. She was tense and fidgety as an old maid trying to propose. But finally they located Dave.

What’s up, Phil?” he asked as his face came on the viewplate. “I was just getting my things together to

I broke him off. “Things can’t go on the way they are, Dave. I’ve made up my mind. I’m yanking Helen’s coils tonight. It won’t be worse than what she’s going through now.”

Helen reached up and touched my shoulder. “Maybe that’s best, Phil. I don’t blame you.”

Dave’s voice cut in. “Phil, you don’t know what you’re doing!”

Of course, I do. It’ll all be over by the time you can get here. As you heard, she’s agreeing.”

There was a black cloud sweeping over Dave’s face. “I won’t have it, Phil. She’s half mine and I forbid it!”

Of all the

Go ahead, call me anything you want. I’ve changed my mind. I was packing to come home when you called.”

Helen jerked around me, her eyes glued to the panel. “Dave, do you… are you

I’m just waking up to what a fool I’ve been, Helen. Phil, I’ll be home in a couple of hours, so if there’s anything

He didn’t have to chase me out. But I heard Helen cooing something about loving to be a rancher’s wife before I could shut the door.

Well, I wasn’t as surprised as they thought. I think I knew when I called Dave what would happen. No man acts the way Dave had been acting because he hates a girl; only because he thinks he doesand thinks wrong.

###

No woman ever made a lovelier bride or a sweeter wife. Helen never lost her flair for cooking and making a home. With her gone, the old house seemed empty, and I began to drop out to the ranch once or twice a week. I suppose they had trouble at times, but I never saw it, and I know the neighbors never suspected they were anything but a normal couple.

Dave grew older, and Helen didn’t, of course. But between us, we put lines in her face and grayed her hair without letting Dave know that she wasn’t growing old with him; he’d forgotten that she wasn’t human, I guess.

I practically forgot, myself. It wasn’t until a letter came from Helen this morning that I woke up to reality. There, in her beautiful script, just a trifle shaky in places, was the inevitable that neither Dave nor I had seen.

Dear Phil,

As you know, Dave has had heart trouble for several years now. We expected him to live on just the same, but it seems that wasn’t to be. He died in my arms just before sunrise. He sent you his greetings and farewell.

I’ve one last favor to ask of you, Phil. There is only one thing for me to do when this is finished. Acid will burn out metal as well as flesh, and I’ll be dead with Dave. Please see that we are buried together, and that the morticians do not find my secret. Dave wanted it that way, too.

Poor, dear Phil. I know you loved Dave as a brother, and how you felt about me. Please don’t grieve too much for us, for we have had a happy life together, and both feel that we should cross this last bridge side by side.

With love and thanks from

Helen

It had to come sooner or later, I suppose, and the first shock has worn off now. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes to carry out Helen’s last instructions.

Dave was a lucky man, and the best friend I ever had. And Helenwell, as I said, I’m an old man now, and can view things more sanely, I should have married and raised a family, I suppose. But… there was only one Helen O’Loy.

Helen O'Loy

Original illustration by Ed Emschwiller for “Robots Repaired While You Wait,” Galaxy Magazine, September 1954.

 

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Having grown up on a diet of science fiction from the Golden Age, I usually don’t pay much attention to sci-fi written after, say, the 1980s. The classic stuff is all I need, thank you.

But once in a while, I stumble onto a contemporary story that measures up, such as the short story below.

“Evil Robot Monkey” was nominated for the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. It didn’t win, but the author snagged a Hugo in 2011 for another story.

Her accolades also include the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer. And her debut novel was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. And she won a Hugo in 2014 for Best Novelette.

Talent will out.

———

Evil Robot Monkey

By Mary Robinette Kowal
Published in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2

Sliding his hands over the clay, Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers. The clay matted down the hair on the back of his hands making them look almost human. He turned the potter’s wheel with his prehensile feet as he shaped the vase. Pinching the clay between his fingers he lifted the wall of the vase, spinning it higher.

Someone banged on the window of his pen. Sly jumped and then screamed as the vase collapsed under its own weight. He spun and hurled it at the picture window like feces. The clay spattered against the Plexiglas, sliding down the window.

In the courtyard beyond the glass, a group of school kids leapt back, laughing. One of them swung his arms aping Sly crudely. Sly bared his teeth, knowing these people would take it as a grin, but he meant it as a threat. Swinging down from his stool, he crossed his room in three long strides and pressed his dirty hand against the window. Still grinning, he wrote SSA. Outside, the letters would be reversed.

The student’s teacher flushed as red as a female in heat and called the children away from the window. She looked back once as she led them out of the courtyard, so Sly grabbed himself and showed her what he would do if she came into his pen.

Her naked face turned brighter red and she hurried away. When they were gone, Sly rested his head against the glass. The metal in his skull thunked against the window. It wouldn’t be long now, before a handler came to talk to him.

Damn.

He just wanted to make pottery. He loped back to the wheel and sat down again with his back to the window. Kicking the wheel into movement, Sly dropped a new ball of clay in the center and tried to lose himself.

In the corner of his vision, the door to his room snicked open. Sly let the wheel spin to a halt, crumpling the latest vase.

Vern poked his head through. He signed, “You okay?”

Sly shook his head emphatically and pointed at the window.

Sorry.” Vern’s hands danced. “We should have warned you that they were coming.”

You should have told them that I was not an animal.”

Vern looked down in submission. “I did. They’re kids.”

And I’m a chimp. I know.” Sly buried his fingers in the clay to silence his thoughts.

It was Delilah. She thought you wouldn’t mind because the other chimps didn’t.”

Sly scowled and yanked his hands free. “I’m not like the other chimps.” He pointed to the implant in his head. “Maybe Delilah should have one of these. Seems like she needs help thinking.”

I’m sorry.” Vern knelt in front of Sly, closer than anyone else would come when he wasn’t sedated. It would be so easy to reach out and snap his neck. “It was a lousy thing to do.”

Sly pushed the clay around on the wheel. Vern was better than the others. He seemed to understand the hellish limbo where Sly lived — too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans. Vern was the one who had brought Sly the potter’s wheel which, by the Earth and Trees, Sly loved. Sly looked up and raised his eyebrows. “So what did they think of my show?”

Vern covered his mouth, masking his smile. The man had manners. “The teacher was upset about the ‘evil robot monkey.’”

Sly threw his head back and hooted. Served her right.

But Delilah thinks you should be disciplined.” Vern, still so close that Sly could reach out and break him, stayed very still. “She wants me to take the clay away since you used it for an anger display.”

Sly’s lips drew back in a grimace built of anger and fear. Rage threatened to blind him, but he held on, clutching the wheel. If he lost it with Vern — rational thought danced out of his reach. Panting, he spun the wheel trying to push his anger into the clay.

The wheel spun. Clay slid between his fingers. Soft. Firm and smooth. The smell of earth lived in his nostrils. He held the world in his hands. Turning, turning, the walls rose around a kernel of anger, subsuming it.

His heart slowed with the wheel and Sly blinked, becoming aware again as if he were slipping out of sleep. The vase on the wheel still seemed to dance with life. Its walls held the shape of the world within them. He passed a finger across the rim.

Vern’s eyes were moist. “Do you want me to put that in the kiln for you?”

Sly nodded.

I have to take the clay. You understand that, don’t you.”

Sly nodded again staring at his vase. It was beautiful.

Vern scowled. “The woman makes me want to hurl feces.”

Sly snorted at the image, then sobered. “How long before I get it back?”

Vern picked up the bucket of clay next to the wheel. “I don’t know.” He stopped at the door and looked past Sly to the window. “I’m not cleaning your mess. Do you understand me?”

For a moment, rage crawled on his spine, but Vern did not meet his eyes and kept staring at the window. Sly turned.

The vase he had thrown lay on the floor in a pile of clay.

Clay.

I understand.” He waited until the door closed, then loped over and scooped the clay up. It was not much, but it was enough for now.

Sly sat down at his wheel and began to turn.

Evil Robot Monkey

Original illustration by the author.

 

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

———

Now We Are Six

By A. A. Milne

Milne AA

Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956)

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

———

Ebb

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.

———

I Am the Song

By Charles Causley

Causley C

Charles Stanley Causley (1917-2003)

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

———

The Rainbow

By Christina Rossetti

Rossetti C

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Boats sail on the rivers,
And ships sail on the seas;
But clouds that sail across the sky
Are prettier than these.
There are bridges on the rivers,
As pretty as you please;
But the bow that bridges heaven,
And overtops the trees,
And builds a road from earth to sky,
Is prettier far than these.

———

Hug O’ War

By Shel Silverstein

Silverstein S

Sheldon Allan Silverstein (1930-1999)

I will not play at tug o’ war.
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.

 

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Author Basil Wells (1912-2003) began writing fiction in 1940 and continued well into the 1990s. He published 88 short stories, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, but also occasional westerns and mysteries.

Wells was from northwestern Pennsylvania, and he once helped his mother research a book she wrote about frontier life in the region.

The short story below is about frontier life, too — on Mars. You have to wonder if the research prompted the story. Or maybe vice versa.

———

Moment of Truth

By Basil Wells
Published in Fantastic Universe, December 1957

She had been asleep. Now she stretched luxuriously beneath the crisp white sheet that the vapid August heat decreed. From memory to memory her dream-fogged mind drifted, and to the yet-to-be. It was good to remember, and to imagine, and to see and feel and hear…

She smiled. She was Ruth Halsey, fourteen, brunette, and pretty. Earl, and Harry, and Buhl had told her she was pretty. Especially Buhl. Buhl was her favorite date now.

The room closed around her with its familiar colors and furnishings. Sometimes she would dream that she was elsewhere, unfamiliar, ugly places, but then she would awaken to the four long windows with their coarse beige drapes of monk’s cloth and the fantasies were forever dispelled.

Her eyes loved the two paintings, the dark curls of the pink-and-white doll sitting prissily atop the dresser, and the full-length mirror on the open closet door.

The pictured design of the wallpaper, its background merging with the pastel blue of the slanted ceiling… Almost as they had blended together that first day when she was twelve. Yet not the same, she corrected her thoughts, frowning. Sometimes, as today, the design seemed faded and changed. The gay little bridges and the flowered, impossibly blue trees seemed to change and threaten to vanish.

She laughed over at the demurely sitting doll. Essie had been her favorite doll when she was younger. Of course now that she was fourteen she did not play with dolls any more. But it was permissible that she keep her old friend neatly dressed and ever at hand as a confidant. She smiled at the thought. Essie never tattled.

“It must be from that polio,” she told Essie, knowing all the time that she was almost well now and needed plenty of rest and careful doses of exercise. “It makes my eyes — funny.”

Essie smiled back glassily and Ruth laughed. It was good to awaken and see the thick black arms of the maple tree outside the windows. It was good to have the cool green leaves waving at her, and see the filtered dapplings of sunshine cross and recross them.

She loved that old tree. She had played among its long horizontal branches from childhood. Her brother, Alex, who had been killed in the Normandy Landing during World War Three, had loved the tree too. He had built the railed, shingled-roofed little nest high up in the tree’s crotched heart where Ruth kept some of her extra-special notes and jewelry and a book of poems.

One of the two paintings on the bedroom walls was of the old tree. The tree dominated the old story-and-a-half white house with the green shutters that was the Halseys’ home. Her home. Alex had painted that picture as well as the other showing the graceful loop of the river and the roofs of the village of Thayer in the distance. Ruth had been with him as he painted that second picture from the jutting rock ledge five hundred feet above the river.

“I was just ten then, Essie,” she chirped gaily. “I remember how afraid I was of the height and how Alex scolded.”

But Alex was dead now and all she had to remember of him was the paintings and the photographs that Mother kept in a battered brown leather folder. For a moment the bright sunlight in her beloved maple tree’s leaves seemed to dim and the room wavered about her. She wondered about that. She must tell her father or her mother.

Perhaps the polio, light touch of it or not, had hurt her eyesight. Glasses! She shuddered at the thought.

The room shimmered and blurred — and suddenly broke apart to reform into something… She squinched her eyes shut to the hideous vision. And then opened them the merest slit.

Nothing had changed…

“MOTHER!” she cried. “Daddy!” she cried. “What has happened?”

She heard the door to — to this hideous travesty of a room opening. Her eyes darted around the shrunken metal-walled shell, even the ceiling curved overhead, and she saw two grotesque daubs taped to the walls that parodied the paintings of her dead brother Alex.

The coloring was ugly and the proportions out of line. And it was not canvas but curling sheets of paper taped and painted to resemble frames!

A big man, sandy-haired and with vertical wrinkles deep between piercing blue eyes, came into the room. She shrank into the bed, seeing that the sheet she tugged taut across her breast was ragged and blue.

“Ruth,” he said, a slow smile making his face almost handsome, “you’re better. You haven’t spoken in weeks.”

Ruth wanted to giggle. As though they could keep her quiet. Daddy was always shushing her… But who was this big man in his dusty drab coveralls and dropped dust mask dangling upon his chest?

“Don’t you know me, Dear? It’s Buhl, your husband.”

Buhl was fifteen and only a couple of inches taller than Ruth. Of course he had sandy hair like this man. But this man was old enough to be Buhl’s father. This was crazy — like one of the dreams that always made her unhappy.

So? So it was a dream. She felt warmth and release. Why not see what this dream had to offer that might be amusing to remember and tell Buhl sometime soon. Wouldn’t he laugh when he heard she had dreamed about him? And been married to him.

She saw the strip of shiny metal that masqueraded as her mirror, and where her four long windows, with their thick, loose-woven drapes, had been there were only four taped strips of paper with crude pictures of draped windows daubed on them. There were even green dabs of paint and black splashes to stimulate her beloved maple tree.

“Ruth! Do you feel better now? Please don’t smile at me like that. I know you loved the baby, but this Martian atmosphere is tough even for men. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Go ahead and talk,” Ruth laughed gaily. “This is just another bad dream and I know it. I’ll wake up in a little while and be back in my cool old room.”

“Blast your room and your dreams!”

The man went across the room in a swift rush and tore down one of the false windows, the painted strip of paper. And beyond, through a dusty oval glass window, Ruth could see a reddish brown wasteland, where dust clouds spun and shifted slowly, and a dusty huddle of what looked like Quonset huts or storage sheds of metal.

“That is reality, Ruth. You must face it. This pretense, this sleazy imitation of your old room is wrong. You’re strong enough, and I love you — you can accept truth.”

His face changed, all expression sponged from it in an instant as he looked into her eyes, and then it seemed to dissolve into something ugly and yet childish. She saw tears burst through and furrow the dust on his cheeks.

“Dear Lord,” he cried, almost reverently, “must this go on forever? Will she ever come back to me?”

His voice choked off and he stumbled across the room and out the door. She heard it shut behind him, and she was hunting for Essie, already having forgotten the ill-mannered intruder.

There was no Essie, only a mannikin of cloth-stuffed white nylon and lipstick, with black nylon for hair.

And then the room shimmered and broke apart and reformed and she was back in her bed with the sun on the slowly dancing green leaves outside the four long windows. Essie was smiling down at her from the dresser, and the paintings were as always, soft colors and perfectly drafted.

Had she thought there were four windows? How silly of her. The second from the right was a small oval of glass, or rather, a glass-covered picture of desert scene. Odd that she had forgotten about that picture. Oh well, what did it matter.

In a few days she would be well enough again to climb out on the giant limbs and into the tree nest that her brother, Alex, had built. And the boys would come to see her and take her to the drugstore for sodas and sundaes.

Yes, she was sure now. She did like Buhl Austin best…

Mars colony

Depiction of a Mars colony comprised of modular structures from the 2016 TV series “Mars.”

 

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

Here Dead We Lie

By A. E. Housman

Housman AE

Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936)

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

———

Good Bones

By Maggie Smith

Smith-M

Maggie Smith (B. 1977)

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

———

The Rose Family

By Robert Frost

Frost

Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963)

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose —
But were always a rose.

———

Invisible Fish

By Joy Harjo

Harjo-J

Joy Harjo (B. 1951)

Invisible fish swim this ghost ocean now
described by waves of sand, by water-worn
rock. Soon the fish will learn to walk. Then
humans will come ashore and paint dreams
on the dying stone. Then later, much later, the
ocean floor will be punctuated by Chevy trucks,
carrying the dreamers’ descendants, who are
going to the store.

———

Harlem

By Langston Hughes

Hughes-L

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

   Or does it explode?

 

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Here is a delightfully eccentric science fiction story that, as far as I can determine, first appeared online about a decade ago. The author is from Yorkshire, England, attended Cambridge University, and aspires to write fiction professionally.

Fiction of the humorous and quirky variety, I assume.

———

Professor Panini

By Matthew Grigg
Published online circa 2010

Before my many years’ service in a restaurant, I attended a top science university. The year was 2023 and I was finishing the project that would win me my professorship. In the end, it resulted in my becoming a kitchen employee.

My forty-second birthday had made a lonely visit the week before, and I was once again by myself in the flat. Like countless other mornings, I ordered a bagel from the toaster.

‘Yes, sir!’ it replied with robotic relish, and I began the day’s work on the project. It was a magnificent machine, the thing I was making — capable of transferring the minds of any two beings into each other’s bodies.

As the toaster began serving my bagel on to a plate, I realised the project was in fact ready for testing. I retrieved the duck and the cat — which I had bought for this purpose — from their containers, and set about calibrating the machine in their direction. Once ready, I leant against the table, holding the bagel I was too excited to eat, and initiated the transfer sequence. As expected, the machine whirred and hummed into action, my nerves tingling at its synthetic sounds.

The machine hushed, extraction and injection nozzles poised, scrutinizing its targets. The cat, though, was suddenly gripped by terrible alarm. The brute leapt into the air, flinging itself onto the machine. I watched in horror as the nozzles swung towards me; and, with a terrible, psychedelic whirl of colours, I felt my mind wrenched from its sockets.

When I awoke, moments later, I noticed first that I was two feet shorter. Then, I realised the lack of my limbs, and finally it occurred to me that I was a toaster. I saw immediately the solution to the situation — the machine could easily reverse the transfer — but was then struck by my utter inability to carry this out.

After some consideration, using what I supposed must be the toaster’s onboard computer, I devised a strategy for rescue. I began to familiarise myself with my new body: the grill, the bread bin, the speaker and the spring mechanism.

Through the device’s rudimentary eye — with which it served its creations — I could see the internal telephone on the wall. Aiming carefully, I began propelling slices of bread at it. The toaster was fed by a large stock of the stuff, yet as more and more bounced lamely off the phone, I began to fear its exhaustion.

Toasting the bread before launch proved a wiser tactic. A slice of crusty wholemeal knocked the receiver off its cradle, and the immovable voice of the reception clerk answered. Resisting the urge to exclaim my unlikely predicament, I called from the table: ‘I’m having a bit of trouble up here, Room 91. Could you lend a hand?’

‘Certainly, sir. There’s a burst water pipe on the floor above, I suppose I’ll kill two birds with one stone and sort you out on the way.’

The clerk arrived promptly, leaving his ‘caution, wet floor’ sign in the corridor. He came in, surveying the room in his usual dry, disapproving fashion. I spoke immediately, saying I was on the intercom, and requested that he simply press the large button on the machine before him. ‘This one, sir?’ he asked, and before I could correct him, the room was filled with a terrible, whirling light, and he fell to the ground.

A minute later he stood up again, uncertainly, and began moving in a manner that can only be described as a waddle. The duck, meanwhile, was scrutinising the flat with an air of wearied distaste. I gazed at the scene with dismay.

Suddenly an idea struck the clerk, and with avian glee he tottered towards the window. I spluttered a horrified warning to no avail. He leapt triumphantly from the balcony, spread his ‘wings’ and disappeared. I would have wept, but managed only to eject a few crumbs.

***

Hours of melancholy calculation and terrible guilt gave no progress, and left me with a woeful regret for the day’s events. Determined not to give up hope, I began to burn clumsy messages into slices of bread, and slung these desperate distress calls through the window. I sought not only my own salvation, but also to account for the bizarre demise of the clerk, who must no doubt have been discovered on the street below. I soon found my bread bin to be empty, and sank again into a morose meditation.

A large movement shocked me from my morbid contemplation. Before me, having clambered up from the floor, stood my own body. It regarded me with dim cheer.

‘I have been upgraded,’ it announced in monotone. The room was silent as I struggled to cope with this information. Then:

‘Would you like some toast?’

The truth dawned on me, and I wasted no time in seeing the utility of this revelation. I informed the toaster, which was now in control of my body, that I wished it to fetch help. It regarded me warily, then asked if I would like that buttered. Maintaining patience, I explained the instruction more thoroughly. I watched with surreal anticipation as my body of forty-two years jerked its way out of the flat. It rounded the corner, and there was a hope-dashing crash. It had tripped up on the ‘caution: wet floor’ sign. To my joyous relief, however, I heard the thing continue on its way down the corridor.

Minutes passed, then hours. I entertained myself flicking wheat-based projectiles at the cat. On the dawn of the third day, I concluded that the toaster had failed in its piloting of my body, and that help was not on its way. Gripped by the despair of one who must solve the puzzle of toaster suicide, I resigned myself to my fate.

Pushed on by a grim fervour, I began igniting the entire stock of bread. As the smoke poured from my casing, and the first hints of deadly flame flickered in my mechanisms, I began the solemn disclosure of my own eulogy.

Suddenly the fire alarm leapt into action, hurling thick jets of water across the flat, desperate to save its occupants. A piercing wail erupted from all sides, and a squabbling mixture of annoyance, relief and curiosity filtered into my mind.

***

Once the firemen had visited and deactivated the alarm, I was identified as the fault, unplugged and hauled away to a repair shop. The staff there, finding nothing to remove but a faulty speech chip, apparently put me up for sale. I only know this because, on being reconnected to the mains, I found myself in a shiny, spacious kitchen.

Missing my electronic voice, I could only listen to the conversation of the staff, discussing the odd conduct of their new cook. The end of their hurried discussion heralded his arrival. I gazed at the door in silent surrender, as my body stepped proudly onto the premises, displaying its newly designed menu. At the top of the list I could discern ‘Buttered bagel.’

Panini

Original illustration for the story by Christine McMullen.

 

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