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Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

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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Feeling the chill of winter? Here’s something to make it worse.

Writer and activist Jack London (1876-1916) became famous by writing stories about life in the frozen wilds of Alaska and the Yukon. He is the author of “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and a host of memorable short stories.

One of his most famous short stories is “To Build a Fire,” which tells of a lone man’s struggle to survive in the wilderness after he falls through the ice and into a creek.

London wrote two versions of the story, one in 1902 and one in 1908. The 1908 story is longer, more detailed, and better known; the original is shorter and simpler, apparently written for a juvenile audience.

Here’s the original version.

———

To Build a Fire

By Jack London
Published in Youth’s Companion, May 1902.

For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential. But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience.

“Never travel alone,” is a precept of the north. He had heard it many times and laughed; for he was a strapping young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands.

It was on a bleak January day when the experience came that taught him respect for the frost, and for the wisdom of the men who had battled with it.

He had left Calumet Camp on the Yukon with a light pack on his back, to go up Paul Creek to the divide between it and Cherry Creek, where his party was prospecting and hunting moose.

The frost was sixty-degrees below zero, and he had thirty miles of lonely trail to cover, but he did not mind. In fact, be enjoyed it, swinging along through the silence, his blood pounding warmly through veins, and his mind carefree and happy. For he and his comrades were certain they had struck “pay” up there on the Cherry Creek Divide; and, further, he was returning to them from Dawson with cheery home letters from the States.

At seven o’clock, when he turned the heels of his moccasins toward Calumet Camp, it was still black night. And when day broke at half past nine he had made the four-mile cut-off across the flats and was six miles up Paul Creek. The trail, which had seen little travel, followed the bed of the creek, and there was no possibility of his getting lost. He had gone to Dawson by way of Cherry Creek and Indian River, so Paul Creek was new and strange.

By half past eleven he was at the forks, which had been described to him, and he knew he had covered fifteen miles, half the distance. He knew that in the nature of things the trail was bound to grow worse from there on, and thought that, considering the good time he had made, he merited lunch. Casting off his pack and taking a seat on a fallen tree, he unmittened his right hand, reached inside his shirt next to the skin, and fished out a couple of biscuits sandwiched with sliced bacon and wrapped in a handkerchief — the only way they could be carried without freezing solid.

He had barely chewed the first mouthful when his numbing fingers warned him to put his mitten on again. This he did, not without surprise at the bitter swiftness with which the frost bit in. Undoubtedly it was the coldest snap he had ever experienced, he thought.

He spat upon the snow, — a favorite northland trick, — and the sharp crackle of the instantly congealed spittle startled him. The spirit thermometer at Calumet had registered sixty below when he left, but he was certain it had grown much colder, how much colder he could not imagine.

Half of the first biscuit was yet untouched, but he could feel himself beginning to chill — a thing most unusual for him. This would never do, he decided, and slipping the packstraps across his shoulders, he leaped to his feet and ran briskly up the trail.

A few minutes of this made him warm again, and he settled down to a steady stride, munching the biscuits as be went along. The moisture that exhaled with his breath crusted his lips and mustache with pendent ice and formed a miniature glacier on his chin. Now and again sensation forsook his nose and cheeks, and he rubbed them till they burned with the returning blood.

Most men wore nose-straps; his partners did, but he had scorned such “feminine contraptions,” and till now had never felt the need of them. Now he did feel the need, for he was rubbing constantly.

Nevertheless he was aware of a thrill of joy, of exultation. He was doing something, achieving something, mastering the elements. Once he laughed aloud in sheer strength of life, and with his clenched fist defied the frost. He was its master. What he did he did in spite of it. It could not stop him. He was going on to the Cherry Creek Divide.

Strong as were the elements, he was stronger. At such times animals crawled away into their holes and remained in hiding. But he did not hide. He was out in it, facing it, fighting it. He was a man, a master of things.

In such fashion, rejoicing proudly, he tramped on. After an hour he rounded a bend, where the creek ran close to the mountainside, and came upon one of the most insignificant-appearing but most formidable dangers in northern travel.

The creek itself was frozen solid to its rocky bottom, but from the mountain came the outflow of several springs. These springs never froze, and the only effect of the severest cold snaps was to lessen their discharge. Protected from the frost by the blanket of snow, the water of these springs seeped down into the creek and, on top of the creek ice, formed shallow pools.

The surface of these pools, in turn, took on a skin of ice which grew thicker and thicker, until the water overran, and so formed a second ice-skinned pool above the first.

Thus at the bottom was the solid creek ice, then probably six to eight inches of water, then the thin ice-skin, then another six inches of water and another ice-skin. And on top of this last skin was about an inch of recent snow to make the trap complete.

To Tom Vincent’s eye the unbroken snow surface gave no warning of the lurking danger. As the crust was thicker at the edge, he was well toward the middle before he broke through.

In itself it was a very insignificant mishap, — a man does not drown in twelve inches of water, — but in its consequences as serious an accident as could possibly befall him.

At the instant he broke through he felt the cold water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: Travel with wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.

He knew, further, that great care must be exercised; that with failure at the first attempt, the chance was made greater for failure at the second attempt. In short, he knew that there must be no failure. The moment before a strong, exulting man, boastful of his mastery of the elements, he was now fighting for his life against those same elements — such was the difference caused by the injection of a quart of water into a northland traveller’s calculations.

In a clump of pines on the rim of the bank the spring high-water had lodged many twigs and small branches. Thoroughly dried by the summer sun, they now waited the match.

It is impossible to build a fire with heavy Alaskan mittens on one’s hands, so Vincent bared his, gathered a sufficient number of twigs, and knocking the snow from them, knelt down to kindle his fire. From an inside pocket he drew out his matches and a strip of thin birch bark. The matches were of the Klondike kind, sulphur matches, one hundred in a bunch.

He noticed how quickly his fingers had chilled as he separated one match from the bunch and scratched it on his trousers. The birch bark, like the dryest of paper, burst into bright flame. This he carefully fed with the smallest twigs and finest debris, cherishing the flame with the utmost care. It did not do to hurry things, as he well knew, and although his fingers were now quite stiff, he did not hurry.

After the first quick, biting sensation of cold, his feet had ached with a heavy, dull ache and were rapidly growing numb. But the fire, although a very young one, was now a success; he knew that a little snow, briskly rubbed, would speedily cure his feet.

But at the moment he was adding the first thick twigs to the fire a grievous thing happened. The pine boughs above his head were burdened with a four months snowfall, and so finely adjusted were the burdens that his slight movement in collecting the twigs had been sufficient to disturb the balance.

The snow from the topmost bough was the first to fall, striking and dislodging the snow on the boughs beneath. And all this snow, accumulating as it fell, smote Tom Vincent’s head and shoulders and blotted out his fire.

He still kept his presence of mind, for he knew how great his danger was. He started at once to rebuild the fire, but his fingers were now so numb that he could not bend them, and he was forced to pick up each twig and splinter between the tips of the fingers of either hand.

When he came to the match he encountered great difficulty in separating one from the bunch. This he succeeded in managing, however, and also, by great effort, in clutching the match between his thumb and forefinger. But in scratching it, he dropped it in the snow and could not pick it up again.

He stood up, desperate. He could not feel even his weight on his feet, although the ankles were aching painfully. Putting on his mittens, he stepped to one side, so that the snow would not fall upon the new fire he was to build, and beat his hands violently against a tree-trunk.

This enabled him to separate and strike a second match and to set fire to the remaining fragment of birch bark. But his body had now begun to chill and he was shivering, so that when be tried to add the first twigs his hand shook and the tiny flame was quenched.

The frost had beaten him. His hands were worthless. But he had the foresight to drop the bunch of matches into his wide-mouthed outside pocket before he slipped on his mittens in despair, and started to run up the trail. One cannot run the frost out of wet feet at sixty below and colder, however, as he quickly discovered.

He came round a sharp turn of the creek to where he could look ahead for a mile. But there was no help, no sign of help, only the white trees and the white hills, and the quiet cold and the brazen silence! If only he had a comrade whose feet were not freezing, he thought, only such a comrade to start the fire that could save him!

Then his eyes chanced upon another high-water lodgment of twigs and branches. If he could strike a match, all might yet be well. With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch of matches, but found it impossible to separate them.

He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends projecting, somewhat in the manner the blade of a hunting-knife would project when clutched in the fist.

But his fingers stood straight out. They could not clutch. This he overcame by pressing the wrist of the other hand against them, and so forcing them down upon the bunch. Time and again, holding thus by both hands, he scratched the bunch on his leg and finally ignited it. But the flame burned into the flesh of his hand, and he involuntarily relaxed his hold. The bunch fell into the snow, and while he tried vainly to pick it up, sizzled and went out.

Again he ran, by this time badly frightened. His feet were utterly devoid of sensation. He stubbed his toes once on a buried log, but beyond pitching him into the snow and wrenching his back, it gave him no feelings.

He recollected being told of a camp of moose-hunters somewhere above the forks of Paul Creek. He must be somewhere near it, he thought, and if he could find it he yet might be saved. Five minutes later he came upon it, lone and deserted, with drifted snow sprinkled inside the pine-bough shelter in which the hunters had slept. He sank down, sobbing. All was over, and in an hour at best, in that terrific temperature, he would be an icy corpse.

But the love of life was strong in him, and he sprang again to his feet. He was thinking quickly. What if the matches did burn his hands? Burned hands were better than dead hands. No hands at all were better than death. He floundered along the trail until be came upon another high-water lodgment. There were twigs and branches, leaves and grasses, all dry and waiting the fire.

Again he sat down and shuffled the bunch of matches on his knees, got it into place on his palm, with the wrist of his other hand forced the nerveless fingers down against the bunch, and with the wrist kept them there. At the second scratch the bunch caught fire, and he knew that if he could stand the pain he was saved. He choked with the sulphur fumes, and the blue flame licked the flesh of his hands.

At first he could not feel it, but it burned quickly in through the frosted surface. The odor of the burning flesh — his flesh — was strong in his nostrils. He writhed about in his torment, yet held on. He set his teeth and swayed back and forth, until the clear white flame of the burning match shot up, and he had applied that flame to the leaves and grasses.

An anxious five minutes followed, but the fire gained steadily. Then he set to work to save himself. Heroic measures were necessary, such was his extremity, and he took them.

Alternately rubbing his hands with snow and thrusting them into the flames, and now and again beating them against the hard trees, he restored their circulation sufficiently for them to be of use to him. With his hunting-knife he slashed the straps from his pack, unrolled his blanket, and got out dry socks and footgear.

Then he cut away his moccasins and bared his feet. But while he had taken liberties with his hands, he kept his feet fairly away from the fire and rubbed them with snow. He rubbed till his hands grew numb, when he would cover his feet with the blanket, warm his hands by the fire, and return to the rubbing.

For three hours he worked, till the worst effects of the freezing had been counteracted. All that night he stayed by the fire, and it was late the next day when he limped pitifully into the camp on the Cherry Creek Divide.

In a month’s time he was able to be about on his feet, although the toes were destined always after that to be very sensitive to frost. But the scars on his hands he knows he will carry to the grave. And — “Never travel alone!” he now lays down the precept of the North.

To Build a Fire

———

London’s more intense 1908 version of “To Build a Fire” is a bit long for the confines of a blog post. No worries. You can read it here.

 

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Richard Matheson (1926-2013), the award-winning author and screenwriter, produced some of the best-known sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories of our time.

Films based on his works include “I Am Legend,” “Stir of Echoes,” “Somewhere in Time,” “The Legend of Hell House,” “What Dreams May Come,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and “Duel.” He wrote episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery.” He wrote dozens of short stories, including some westerns.

The short story below, written when Matheson was 22, was his first professional sale, and it made him famous.

Be warned, it’s a horror story and shocking to read, and you won’t forget it.

————

Born Of Man And Woman

By Richard Matheson
Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer 1950

X — This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.

This day it had water falling from upstairs. It fell all around. I saw that. The ground of the back I watched from the little window. The ground it sucked up the water like thirsty lips. It drank too much and it got sick and runny brown. I didnt like it.

Mother is a pretty I know. In my bed place with cold walls around I have a paper things that was behind the furnace. It says on it SCREENSTARS. I see in the pictures faces like of mother and father. Father says they are pretty. Once he said it.

And also mother he said. Mother so pretty and me decent enough. Look at you he said and didnt have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it is alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldn’t reach.

Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. Thats how l saw the water falling from upstairs.

XX — This day it had goldness in the upstairs. As I know when I looked at it my eyes hurt. After I look at it the cellar is red.

I think this was church. They leave the upstairs. The big machine swallows them and rolls out past and is gone. In the back part is the little mother. She is much small than me. I am I can see out the little window all I like.

In this day when it got dark I had eat my food and some bugs. I hear laughs upstairs. I like to know why there are laughs for. I took the chain from the wall and wrapped it around me. I walked squish to the stairs. They creak when I walk on them. My legs slip on them because I dont walk on stairs. My feet stick to the wood.

I went up and opened a door. It was a white place. White as white jewels that come from upstairs sometime. I went in and stood quiet. I hear the laughing some more. I talk to the sound and look through to the people. More people than I thought was. I thought I should laugh with them.

Mother came out and pushed the door in. It hit me and hurt. I fell back on the smooth floor and the chain made noise. I cried. She made a hissing noise into her and put her hand on her mouth. Her eyes got big.

She looked at me. I heard father call. What fell he called. She said a iron board. Come help pick it up she said. He came and said now is that so heavy you need. He saw me and grew big. The anger came in his eyes. He hit me. I spilled some of the drip on the floor from one arm. It was not nice. It made ugly green on the floor.

Father told me to go to the cellar. I had to go. The light it hurt some now in my eyes. It is not so like that in the cellar.

Father tied my legs and arms up. He put me on my bed. Upstairs I heard laughing while I was quiet there looking on a black spider that was swinging down to me. I thought what father said. Ohgod he said. And only eight.

XXX — This day father hit in the chain again before it had light. I have to try pull it out again. He said I was bad to come upstairs. He said never do that again or he would beat me hard. That hurts.

I hurt. I slept the day and rested my head against the cold wall. I thought of the white place upstairs.

XXXX — I got the chain from the wall out. Mother was upstairs. I heard little laughs very high. I looked out the window. I saw all little people like the little mother and little fathers too. They are pretty.

They were making nice noise and jumping around the ground. Their legs was moving hard. They are like mother and father. Mother says all right people look like they do.

One of the little fathers saw me. He pointed at the window. I let go and slid down the wall in the dark. I curled up as they would not see. I heard their talks by the window and foots running. Upstairs there was a door hitting. I heard the little mother call upstairs. I heard heavy steps and I rushed in my bed place. I hit the chain in the wall and lay down on my front.

I heard mother come down. Have you been at the window she said. I heard the anger. Stay away from the window. You have pulled the chain out again.

She took the stick and hit me with it. I didnt cry. I cant do that. But the drip ran all over the bed. She saw it and twisted away and made a noise. Oh mygodmygod she said why have you done this to me? I heard the stick go bounce on the stone floor. She ran upstairs. I slept the day.

XXXXX — This day it had water again. When mother was upstairs I heard the little one come slow down the steps. I hidded myself in the coal bin for mother would have anger if the little mother saw me.

She had a little live thing with her. It walked on the arms and had pointy ears. She said things to it.

It was all right except the live thing smelled me. It ran up the coal and looked down at me. The hairs stood up. In the throat it made an angry noise. I hissed but it jumped on me.

I didnt want to hurt it. I got fear because it bit me harder than the rat does. I hurt and the little mother screamed. I grabbed the live thing tight. It made sounds I never heard. I pushed it all together. It was all lumpy and red on the black coal.

I hid there when mother called. I was afraid of the stick. She left. I crept over the coal with the thing. I hid it under my pillow and rested on it. I put the chain in the wall again.

X — This is another times. Father chained me tight. I hurt because he beat me. This time I hit the stick out of his hands and made noise. He went away and his face was white. He ran out of my bed place and locked the door.

I am not so glad. All day it is cold in here. The chain comes slow out of the wall. And I have a bad anger with mother and father. I will show them. I will do what I did that once.

I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry they didn’t be nice to me.

If they try to beat me again Ill hurt them. I will.

chained

 

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This well-known short story by Fredric Brown has themes aplenty — taking responsibility for your actions, for example. Usually, it’s considered an allegory about atomic weapons in the hands of the volatile, fallible human species.

To elaborate further would involve spoilers, so I’ll let you do your own analysis.

Please note that the text below features Brown’s original ending. In some versions out there, the last sentence is modified, for reasons I will explain at the end.

——————

The Weapon

By Fredric Brown
Published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1951

The room was quiet in the dimness of early evening. Dr. James Graham, key scientist of a very important project, sat in his favorite chair, thinking. It was so still that he could hear the turning of pages in the next room as his son leafed through a picture book.

Often Graham did his best work, his most creative thinking, under these  circumstances, sitting alone in an unlighted room in his own apartment after the day’s regular work. But tonight his mind would not work constructively. Mostly he thought about his mentally arrested son — his only son — in the next room.

The thoughts were loving thoughts, not the bitter anguish he had felt years ago when he had first learned of the boy’s condition. The boy was happy; wasn’t that the main thing? And to how many men is given a child who will always be a child, who will not grow up to leave him? Certainly that was rationalization, but what is wrong with rationalization when — The doorbell rang.

Graham rose and turned on lights in the almost-dark room before he went through the hallway to the door. He was not annoyed; tonight, at this moment, almost any interruption to his thoughts was welcome.

He opened the door. A stranger stood there; he said, “Dr. Graham? My name is Niemand; I’d like to talk to you. May I come in a moment?”

Graham looked at him. He was a small man, nondescript, obviously harmless — possibly a reporter or an insurance agent.

But it didn’t matter what he was. Graham found himself saying, “Of course. Come in, Mr. Niemand.” A few minutes of conversation, he justified himself by thinking, might divert his thoughts and clear his mind.

“Sit down,” he said, in the living room. “Care for a drink?”

Niemand said, “No, thank you.” He sat in the chair; Graham sat on the sofa.

The small man interlocked his fingers; he leaned forward. He said, “Dr. Graham, you are the man whose scientific work is more likely than that of any other man to end the human race’s chance for survival.”

A crackpot, Graham thought. Too late now he realized that he should have asked the man’s business before admitting him. It would be an embarrassing interview — he disliked being rude, yet only rudeness was effective.

“Dr. Graham, the weapon on which you are working –”

The visitor stopped and turned his head as the door that led to a bedroom opened and a boy of fifteen came in. The boy didn’t notice Niemand; he ran to Graham.

“Daddy, will you read to me now?” The boy of fifteen laughed the sweet laughter of a child of four.

Graham put an arm around the boy. He looked at his visitor, wondering whether he had known about the boy. From the lack of surprise on Niemand’s face, Graham felt sure he had known.

“Harry” — Graham’s voice was warm with affection — “Daddy’s busy. Just for a little while. Go back to your room; I’ll come and read to you soon.”

“Chicken Little? You’ll read me Chicken Little?”

“If you wish. Now run along. Wait. Harry, this is Mr. Niemand.”

The boy smiled bashfully at the visitor. Niemand said, “Hi, Harry,” and smiled back at him, holding out his hand. Graham, watching, was sure now that Niemand had known: the smile and the gesture were for the boy’s mental age, not his physical one.

The boy took Niemand’s hand. For a moment it seemed that he was going to climb into Niemand’s lap, and Graham pulled him back gently. He said, “Go to your room now, Harry.”

The boy skipped back into his bedroom, not closing the door.

Niemand’s eyes met Graham’s and he said, “I like him,” with obvious sincerity. He added, “I hope that what you’re going to read to him will always be true.”

Graham didn’t understand. Niemand said, “Chicken Little, I mean. It’s a fine story — but may Chicken Little always be wrong about the sky falling down.”

Graham suddenly had liked Niemand when Niemand had shown liking for the boy. Now he remembered that he must close the interview quickly. He rose, in dismissal.

He said, “I fear you’re wasting your time and mine, Mr. Niemand. I know all the arguments, everything you can say I’ve heard a thousand times. Possibly there is truth in what you believe, but it does not concern me. I’m a scientist, and only a scientist.

“Yes, it is public knowledge that I am working on a weapon, a rather ultimate one. But, for me personally, that is only a by-product of the fact that I am advancing science. I have thought it through, and I have found that that is my only concern.”

“But, Dr. Graham, is humanity ready for an ultimate weapon?”

Graham frowned. “I have told you my point of view, Mr. Niemand.”

Niemand rose slowly from the chair. He said, “Very well, if you do not choose to discuss it, I’ll say no more.” He passed a hand across his forehead. “I’ll leave, Dr. Graham. I wonder, though… may I change my mind about the drink you offered me?”

Graham’s irritation faded. He said, “Certainly. Will whisky and water do?”

“Admirably.”

Graham excused himself and went into the kitchen. He got the decanter of whisky, another of water, ice cubes, glasses.

When he returned to the living room, Niemand was just leaving the boy’s bedroom. He heard Niemand’s “Good night, Harry,” and Harry’s happy ” ‘Night, Mr. Niemand.”

Graham made drinks. A little later, Niemand declined a second one and started to leave.

Niemand said, “I took the liberty of bringing a small gift to your son, doctor. I gave it to him while you were getting the drinks for us. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course. Thank you. Good night.”

Graham closed the door; he walked through the living room into Harry’s room. He said, “All right, Harry. Now I’ll read to –”

There was sudden sweat on his forehead, but he forced his face and his voice to be calm as he stepped to the side of the bed.

“May I see that, Harry?” When he had it safely, his hands shook as he examined it.

He thought, only a madman would give a loaded revolver to a retarded child.

Weapon

——————

When you find “The Weapon” in print these days, it usually ends with the phrase, “… only a madman would give a loaded revolver to an idiot.”

The change is made because, in these enlightened times, the term “retarded” is considered offensive. Dated. Terribly uncouth.

Perhaps it is. And maybe, had Mr. Brown written the story in 2016, he’d have worded it differently. But “retarded child” is what he wrote in 1951, and “retarded child” it should remain.

Rewriting an author’s work is offensive. Terribly uncouth.

 

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A Christmas fable by Jane Tyson Clement (1917-2000).

————

He huddled in the cold outside the kitchen door. The black night was pierced with stars but he couldn’t see them. He could only feel the thin chill of the night wind, and loneliness, loneliness, and not knowing where to go, what to do, for he could hardly see.

He was so small his eyes were scarcely open. His soft gray coat was rumpled and he trembled. He had no mother, no brothers and sisters; the cat had got them all, finding the nest in a heap of rags behind a water jug, but he had squeezed into a crack in the wall and the cat had missed him. He still felt a terror, a desolation, a sort of numb blindness.

But that was long ago — or so it seemed to him — and he had been hiding, scuttling from place to place, so hungry he was weak with it, and the noises all about him, the comings and goings, made him tremble — camel bells, shouts, loud human voices, the bleating of goats, the barking of dogs, rude comments from the donkeys in the yard.

He had known nothing of all this. He had never been out of the nest, where his mother had cared for all her young with painstaking concern, cleaning them and cleaning them, teaching them to wash themselves, watching for every intruder, warning them of dangers, of the cat.

“And the owl at night,” she said, “if you stray from the wall. Stay, stay, stay by the walls; never, never, never in the open lest you be seen. And keep clean, keep clean, so you will give no scent.” And she had licked them and taught them to wash their whiskers with their paws and behind their ears and all over, even their little long tails. But that was long ago, was over, and he was lost and alone.

There were heavy steps inside, approaching the door, and in an instinctive frenzy he moved, scuttling along the wall and ducking into the nearest opening, the entrance to the cooling room, with a cistern and jugs of milk set in it to chill. A low pan of milk was left to sour on a bench just inside. He ran to the bench, up the leg, following his nose — and put his forepaws on the sill of the pan, and his silvery whiskers quivered, his tiny pink tongue licked, he stuck his pointed face in, he drank and drank.

Then a lantern flashed. In terror he leapt — into the pan — and crawled out all milk, to run wildly along the bench, down the other side, along the far wall, through a doorway, and he was, had he known it, in the stable.

There, it was suddenly quiet. He sat, a milky little mess, against the wall inside the door. His heart beat wildly, and he trembled all over. Still, there was a quietness, and a strange light, no glaring lantern, yet he could see.

The wide arch of the entrance was open to the stars, and they quivered in the sky. On the far side the oxen stood in their stalls, shaking their heads now and then, munching their suppers, and next to them the sleepy goats had folded their legs and lain down. Overhead the doves sat in a row on the rafters; he had trouble seeing them, his eyes were so stuck up with milk, but he could make out white forms in the dark and hear coos.

Doves — his mother had said — were not to be feared — and on another rafter perched the hens, muttering softly to each other now and then. They will come at you if you steal their corn — she had said.

At the back of the stable there was an empty stall freshly filled with hay, and a manger. He could see that. He wondered if there was feed in it. The animals ate from mangers. Maybe he could too. But he was all stiff from the drying milk. How could he possibly get himself clean!

Frantically he began to wash himself, little paws sweeping down over his head, feet wildly scratching to free the sticky tufts of fur, tongue and teeth working on the matted white of his belly, all to no avail, but he must — he must!

So he didn’t hear at first the humans coming in the door, and the slow step of a tired donkey. It was the sudden brightening that stopped his frantic efforts, and he froze in his alarm, huddling against the wall. It was a woman person and a man person, and another with a loud familiar voice, saying, “This is all I can offer.”

The man answered softly. Then the lantern was hung on a hook on a beam. The donkey was tethered with the goats, who made no comments for once. The woman sank onto a bed of straw in the empty stall, after the man spread out his cloak for her. He said in a low voice he was going to fetch water and some supper, and he went out into the night.

Now the quietness was filled with brightness — not the lantern, something else. And it didn’t glare, and one didn’t want to hide from it. It did not threaten, it did not taste of danger but of peace.

The light seemed to come in from the sky, as if an enormous star hung outside, but he could only see the dark sky and little stars winking. The doves cooed softly now and the hens ruffled their feathers and made musical conversation with one another, while the rooster stood up on his perch and kept his silence — this was no dawn light, he knew: this was star light, though most astonishing star light, and he would not be deceived.

Then the man came back, and the mouse huddled against the wall, exhausted by his efforts to clean himself, strangely at peace, and after a while he slept, his head tucked down and his tail curled around him, looking like a little sticky burr rather than a soft mouse, and smelling of goat’s milk…

When he awoke, he did not know where he was. It was as light as day and yet the light was not daylight. (It was heaven light, he used to tell his grandchildren and great grandchildren.) The animals were all awake. The doves peered down from their perch, the hens for once were silent and cocked their heads to see better.

The rooster stood guard right above the stall where the woman lay. The goats were all kneeling and so were the oxen. And there was a strange crying sound, sad yet sweet, afraid yet full of vigor.

It was a new Baby, a new Being in the world, it was the Baby, the longed-for Child, the Messenger from Heaven — and the creatures knew it even if the world did not.

A big moth fluttered in to settle on the woman’s shoulder. She stirred and gave the Child to the man. He folded Him tenderly against him, and then laid Him in the manger.

The owl floated in on silent wings and found a watching place above the oxen — no one flinched, no one rushed to hide, no one feared.

Then the archway was full of shepherds. Off came their hats and down on their knees they went. The lady smiled. The man beckoned, and they came to see the Child.

They laid bread and cheese, and a wooly fleece, beneath the manger. They left, quiet as they had come, but their running footsteps could be heard on the road.

After that villagers began to come, in twos and threes, shyly, quietly, in awe, bringing milk, and porridge, a soft blanket woven of fine wool, a circlet of little bells to jingle in the Baby’s hand, apples, an orange for the mother; all these lay at the foot of the manger.

When they had all gone a deep hush fell, the light winked down a little. Then the mouse looked round. Beside him sat the cat.

The cat was not looking at him. The cat was looking at the manger where the Baby lay. The mouse did not feel even a quiver of fear. He looked back at the manger. He looked again at the cat. He looked at the owl in the rafters. He thought, “I am not afraid.”

Finally the cat spoke: “Why were we chosen to witness this? Out of all our kind, why were we chosen — you from the race of mice, I from the feline? I am cursed with the lust and need to kill in order to live or else be subservient to man, and you to be hunted all your days. Yet here we witness the dawn of the new Paradise, would men only see it and believe it!”

The mouse crouched, speechless, beside the cat. He could not put in great words all that crowded his heart. Finally he said: “I would like to see the Baby. But I am all stuck up with goat’s milk. I am sure I smell most unseemly. And I cannot clean myself.”

The cat turned his head and looked at him. He sniffed the air. Then he spoke very softly and tenderly: “Would you grant me the privilege of cleaning you, oh Mouse? It would cleanse me of a little of my guilt. And while I don’t favor goat’s milk, I would gladly clean you up.”

The mouse crept around in front of the cat. He looked at him fearlessly, then he bowed his head meekly and submitted. With rasping yet gentle tongue the cat began to lick.

The little mouse toppled left and right under the licks. The cat laid a soft paw on the back of the mouse to steady him, and worked his way carefully all the way to the end of the little long tail. Then the mouse fluffed up his fur and the cat washed his own face and paws vigorously.

At last they were done. They sat side by side against the wall. Then together they moved, right across the floor, to the manger. The cat made one graceful leap to the foot, where he stood, staring in awe at the Child. The mouse scurried up the end and sat beside the cat, and they both looked and looked.

They were there when the Kings came, but they did not know it. They were there all night, till finally the cock, not to be fooled by anything, knew that the everyday dawn had come, and filled the stable with his crowing.

“That cock is a conceited fellow,” said the cat, as they climbed down together.

They went off to the same place by the wall and sat in silence for a long time.

“You look and smell much better,” said the cat.

“Thank you,” said the mouse.

“Where are you going to live?” asked the cat.

“I don’t know. I have hardly begun,” said the mouse.

“May I make a suggestion?” said the cat.

“Please,” said the mouse.

“That manger,” said the cat. “If you would set up your domicile in or near that manger, then never, never would the old lust seize me and the old power overcome me. Dear mouse, I bear guilt enough. In this place, by that manger, you will be safe, that I promise.”

“I will do that gladly,” said the mouse.

Then he was quiet for a moment. Finally he said, “I am a small mouse, and very young. But what we have seen, we have seen. Does it not speak of a Day to come, when the Dawn breaks, and a new Time is born, and we need not fear? Is there not Eden waiting for us?”

“Yes,” said the cat. “Of that, I am sure.”

They sat in silence for a while. Then the cat rose, stretched, and quietly went away.

The mouse pattered across the earthen floor to the foot of the manger. There he carefully dragged together bits of hay and straw, making a little round nest quite neatly disguised. He crawled in and turned round and round.

The lady reached over and laid some crumbs from the new loaf, and a bit of cheese, in front of his door. He lifted his head to thank her, then laid it down again.

The manger mouse was asleep.

Manger Mouse

————

Merry Christmas.

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More winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for pretentious writing — the best of the worst.

Snoopy-4

2013

GRAND PRIZE WINNER

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palpable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

— Christ Wieloch, Brookfield, Wisconsin

GRAND PANJANDRUM’S SPECIAL AWARD

“Don’t know no tunnels hereabout,” said the old-timer, “unless you mean the abandoned subway line that runs from Hanging Hill, under that weird ruined church, beneath the Indian burial ground, past the dilapidated Usher mansion, and out to the old abandoned asylum for the criminally insane where they had all those murders.”

— Lawrence Person, Austin, Texas

WINNER, ADVENTURE CATEGORY

“I told you to wear sensible shoes, but no, your vanity would not allow it!” he yelled at me, as if that had something to do with the airplane crashing into the jungle and all the bodies draped in the trees, but it was just the sort of nonsense I was used to from him, making me wish one or the other of us was hanging dead above us, instead of Rodney.

— Thor F. Carden, Madison, Tennessee

WINNER, CRIME CATEGORY

It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.

— Tonya Lavel, Barbados, West Indies

DISHONORABLE MENTION

The dame was stacked, both conventionally and in that she was the third of five bodies piled against the wall, the wall’s earth tones reminding me of Grandmother’s house, which figured, since it was her house, she having stacked the bodies there after poisoning them, so I studied the bodies as I munched on Grandmother’s ginger snaps and felt a twinge in my stomach.

— Kenneth Bennight, San Antonio, Texas

DISHONORABLE MENTION

The dame that walked into my office was statuesque and looked like she ought to be standing on a bed of roses… in other words, she looked exactly like the garden gnome my ex-wife had stuck in our flower bed, next to a bird bath that attracted a whole lot of bills, much like my in-tray, which was lousy with them.

— Jackie Fuchs, Los Angeles, California

Snoopy-5

2014

GRAND PRIZE WINNER

When the dead moose floated into view, the famished crew cheered — this had to mean land! — but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear-headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.

— Elizabeth Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, Washington

WINNER, ADVENTURE CATEGORY

“Listen, Control!” snarled Captain Dan McMurdo across the ether, “I’ve got one engine shut down, the other running on fumes, a seriously wounded co-pilot who won’t last an hour, 53 refugee orphans down the back, and a nun for a radio operator, so turn the goddam landing lights on goddam pronto — sorry, Sister.”

— Gavin Dobson, no address

WINNER, PURPLE PROSE AWARD

He was a stolid man, prone to excessive and extended bursts of emotionlessness; but when Maurice loved, he loved with the passion of a dog itching its face against the grain of a firm-pile carpet.

— Stephen Sanford, Seattle, Washington

DISHONORABLE MENTION

My name is Caroline, and if you’re reading this I’m either dead or I’ve gotten lost in some alternate dimension where Liverpool has exploded and been replaced with a fancy water park… though it’s probably the first one.

— Aiko Baker, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

DISHONORABLE MENTION

I will not repeat what she said when she came home and found out I’d been straying Endust on her dog and throwing treats under the bed to get him to harvest the dust bunnies, but you wouldn’t think a young lady would even know any words like that.

— J. Andrew Cleland, Gray, Tennessee

DISHONORABLE MENTION

“One cannot easily shake off old habits,” was all that retired Detective Tim O’Hara could say when, after rifling through the dead old man’s pockets (which, as he expected, were all empty), inspecting his throat, and forcing open his cold, stiff hand to get fingerprints, he was gently but firmly pulled away from the coffin by his brother Harry and piloted out of the parlor under the perplexed stares of Uncle Mel’s friends and relatives.

— Jorge Stolfi, Campinas, Brazil

Snoopy-6

With that, you are fully up to date on the BLFC. The winners for 2015 will be announced soon.

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