Once upon a time there was a creature. He was of no species, and perhaps looked like several other animals, but only from a distance. His furry, scaly back looked like the floor after a barber had finished his work and then threw old snake and fish scales in among the hair. The creature’s belly was white and dripped a slow ooze of slime like a snail or a slug. He had three legs, which were short and stubby and might have resembled miniature elephant’s feet.
The creature lived under a log at the edge of a swamp forest. He had lived in a suburban hedge after escaping from the zoo, but there was no food there and the sprays on the hedge made him sneeze. So here he was at the edge of the swamp, where there was plenty of dead matter full of grubs.
When the creature wasn’t rooting around with his giraffe nose for grubs, he would sit on his oozing belly and hum to himself. It was a tuneless sort of humming, with his dog lips closed over his shark’s teeth.
After everything he had been through, and given the way he looked you would have thought the creature would have been dangerous or at least depressed. But the creature saw things differently. According to him he was unique, a one-of-a-kind. So he figured he had something special to give to the world and was just waiting for the world to tell him what it was.
Days passed and the creature found himself molting. His fur was coming off in clumps and his scales littered the hole under the log. Even his oozy belly seemed to be puckering up. One day his giraffe nose just fell off, leaving a little pink nose underneath. It was just a few weeks before the creature had transformed into a little boy. He still ate grubs but now he used his little pink fingers.
A couple walking by the swamp found the boy and, after a search for his parents, raised him. The boy grew up and had a very good life. He became a therapist, because very soon he realized that while he had shed all his scales and fur and shark teeth in the swamp, most everyone else had kept all of theirs inside. So he helps other people shed like he did.
Moral: Sometimes people who look strange on the outside are better friends than those who keep all the strange inside.
(In honor of Earth Day)
Once upon a time there was a whale. He wasn’t a great white whale, or even a blue whale. As far as whales go, he was kind of shrimpy. So at whale parties, which are the world’s best karaoke, he rarely got to sing lead. The top whales would sing lead, and he would occasionally get to do a background grunt, which are the whale equivalent to do-wop, do-wops.
Other mammals might think that being a non-alpha male whale is just peachy, but our whale, who we’ll affectionately call shrimpy, didn’t find his whale life to be particularly rewarding . Shrimpy never got the first pick of the plankton, and forget about mating season.
What other mammals don’t remember is the battle scars of most male whales. That’s right, battle scars from getting hit, really hard, in the water. If you’ve ever tried to hit someone in the water, you know just how much force it would take to hit somebody hard enough to leave a cut that would be visible from a boat hundreds of yards away. That’s right. Those babies have got to hurt something fierce.
Shrimpy wasn’t covered in battle scars, so he wasn’t likely to be anyone’s mate. And forget about being someone’s “primary escort,” which is the name of a whale that stays near a female and her newborn calf. Shrimpy wasn’t primary escort material.
It should come as no surprise that Shrimpy was a humpback as well. This wasn’t really a problem for Shrimpy, because his entire whale species is humpbacked. But I thought I should mention it because it just adds insult to injury.
So what Shrimpy needed was some way to climb the social ladder. Other mammals may use other talents to gain status in their tribe. Shrimpy needed something other than brute strength and size to gain a mate. Maybe even a better place in line at the banquet table of the ocean.
What Shrimpy needed was a new way of relating, a new song.
Shrimpy had lots of time to work on his new song. He practiced far away from other whales, because whale songs can reach for twenty miles underwater. What many other mammals don’t know is that at any one time all the male humpback whales sing one song. It changes, but then they sing another one song. Forget your top forty. What you need is a number one hit or you don’t make the humpback whale charts. So it wasn’t enough for Shrimpy to release an intro. Album or a you tube video or something and wait for some fan following to build. He had to hit the mark right on with his first try.
Now, if this was a story, then Shrimpy would have a hit single and make a change in his social status. But that would be ignoring the fact that the song charts that Shrimpy was trying to break into were male dominated. These were war songs, songs of challenge and triumph. Deep, manly songs about losing your dorsal fin rather than letting another male get near your woman. How well do you think Shrimpy did at writing those songs? That’s right, he pretty much sucked.
So after two failures at setting up the dominant mating tune, Shrimpy was close to giving up. Then he heard another sound. It wasn’t the booming military voice of the males. It was the gentle crooning of a mamma for her calf. Other mammals don’t think this sort of song even exists, because all they can hear is the loud macho songs. But while the primary escorts are flexing and posturing, it’s up to the mommas to calm the calves. Shrimpy had been chilling in some coral when a momma passed by, and that’s the only reason he heard it. Her escort would have kicked his butt if he’d been seen.
So Shrimpy started practicing some quiet songs, gentler songs. He had a lot of quiet time on the edge of the big pods of humpbacks. When he thought he had one down, he played it out during an off-mating time. The other male humpbacks were all like: “what is this girly-man singing about sand and coral and sea flowers for?” But the female humpbacks were all bopping along to the beat and loving it.
Come that mating season, Shrimpy got picked out for a mating season. When a female humpback gave him the come hither, he was there. Some other mammals even got it on film, and posted it all over the internet. The amazing thing is that it isn’t even rated PG-13, which is definitely showing some mammalian prejudice over what qualifies for what rating.
The next time someone listens to a humpback whale pod, they should tune out the loud manly sound and listen in to the gentle, higher lullabies. That’s Shrimpy’s work, and the mommas and the calves all love his number one hit lullabies.
Moral: If your box doesn’t work for you, change the box.
(I thought this was great, but the kids panned it. They’ve never watched a western.)
Once upon a time there was a man. He walked into the sunset, his long coat whipping in the wind behind him and his large hat silhouetted against the dying sun. Once again the town was safe, but it always managed to attract new outlaws, or corrupt sheriffs, or greedy, powerful politicians.
The man walked on to his farm. It was in disrepair. He was always so busy fixing problems in the town he never had time to deal with the farm chores or fix the roof. The only part of him that got used every day was his trigger finger.
It would have been different if he’d had a family, but while the local villager’s daughters were all aflutter over their hero, he had no time to go wooing.
The man collapsed on his bed and wondered how he’d get through this year. Old man Lawrence had already planted his crops for him in exchange for half the harvest. And the reward money was almost gone from the last three bank robbers. The villagers were grateful, but that didn’t extend to credit or discounts.
When he woke up in the morning, the man heard footsteps on the porch and that imperious knock of some young bucko gunning for a reputation. He sighed, and rolled out of bed. He’d slept in his clothes, waiting just such an occasion as this one.
The boy on the porch couldn’t have been more that sixteen. But he looked quick, and he spoke the speech with feeling: “I’m calling you out, Jeb Parker. You killed my daddy, and I’m looking to make things right. So come out here and we’ll settle this thing like men.”
Jeb looked down at the kid, and glanced out at the kid’s horse and gear. That saddle and the open road looked mighty inviting right now.
“You looking to be a hero, kid?” Jeb looked at the kid. He had the right build for it, and a nice cleft chin forming up.
“I’m looking to be a better hero than you.”
“You reckon your daddy had it coming to him?”
“A man’s daddy has to be avenged even if he was a no good who left before I was ten.”
“How’d you like to take over the hero business for me?”
“How’s that?” The kid looked confused.
“Here’s how it’ll go,” Jeb paused as he thought. “I’ll sign over the farm to you, on account of you being the better shot than me and bettern’ me in every way. Then you go into town and tell them that I turned yellow and took off when they come calling for you to do some heroing. You take care of the problem, and suddenly you’re me.”
The kid paused. “That don’t seem right, somehow. Don’t I got to shoot you dead to avenge my pa?”
“Which is a better vengeance, kid? You shoot me, you got nothing. You let me turn coward and live, and you get my farm and my job. Plus you get me telling everyone there’s a new hero in town. Saves ya a lot of killing to make up yer reputation.”
The kid thought about it, but nodded. “Shouldn’t we have a shoot out to prove who’s better?” Jeb nodded. He didn’t see a way around it. So they shot at thrown bits of wood, at tree trunks, and at Jeb’s old frying pan. Jeb didn’t even have to cheat, much. The kid came out on top. “See,” said Jeb. “You deserve the hero’s job.”
Jeb signed over the farm, and got the kid’s horse and gear in exchange. He settled into the saddle and rode off into the noonday sun. When he found a village that didn’t know him, he resolved to become another scared villager, complete with a wife and family. He could always pick up the gun again, but it was a lot harder to pick up a life.
Moral: Sometimes being a hero is harder than it looks.
(This story got away from me and the kids loved it. It’s longer than the others, so start reading earlier.)
Once upon a time there was a hillside. It had scrub shrubs and a little stunted tree fighting its way out of the dry brown earth. The hillside came to a flat top, like a miniature mesa, and its sides were mostly dry earth that fell away from beneath our boots like thick sand.
Over the top of the hillside stretched the bowl of a valley, flat and shimmering in the heat of mid-day. The heat waves made the facility sitting in the middle of the valley waver in the air like a mirage. Maybe it was, this manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere. We’d had to track its power supply and water lines for more than fifty miles underground, and through several different kinds of traps, before we reached here.
It should have been visible from the air, a plant this size. But nothing showed up on overhead passes or satellite images. Didn’t make much sense, because there it was, and we had the water and power flow readings to prove it was there and was pulling enough power and water to fuel a small city.
I looked over at my commander. He was doing the readings and scanning data for our home base. Another scout, Parker, was taking pictures. “Look sir!” he held up the digital camera to our commander, “there’s nothing showing up.” I looked over his shoulder. The camera showed an empty valley.
What was it, mirroring technology? Did these yahoos have something perfected that we were just starting to experiment with? And if so, why didn’t it work on the human eye, which should have been the most susceptible to deception. But our scanners also picked out infrared, and whole spectrums I didn’t even know the names of. There was no way to completely conceal a plant of this size. But they had.
It was me, the commander, and Parker on this “fool’s errand in the desert.” Higher command agreed that there was a power and water drain, but they couldn’t spare a whole lot of men to go on an extended desert hike to see where it was going. And they had a good point, there was nothing out here or they would have seen it. I suspected that this was the commander’s last command, tolerated only because he’d been worked around the clock for as long as anyone could remember. So when he got back they’d ship him stateside, and then ease him into retirement or a desk job because he’d finally blown a fuse.
“Jackson.” The commander called to me. “You see it as well as we do, right?” I nodded. “Yes, sir. It looks like a fully functioning weapons facility. I don’t know how we missed it.”
The commander looked unhappy. “I just talked to home base. They don’t have anything on their scanners and satellite is negative. So they’d like some sort of evidence that they can see before they call in an airstrike.”
I nodded. I’d seen the maps of the area before we set out. The satellites could map down to a few feet. There was no way we could see anything they couldn’t .
“Could it be a mirage, sir?” I bit down on my lip the second I said it. The commander looked like he wanted to punch me, but he nodded as well. “Could be. Check it out and we’ll cover you. I haven’t seen any movement or anything on the ground.”
I shouldered my weapon and hiked up over the top of the hillside. There wasn’t much point in trying to hide on that valley floor. If I’d wanted to, I could have colored myself like the dirt and belly crawled out to the facility without anyone seeing me. But I didn’t know if the facility was even there. I’d have to trust my body armor and helmet to deflect any initial attack and my buddies to give me some cover. If home base decided to act, we could have eight aircraft over the top of this thing in ten minutes, each with enough firepower to flatten the place. But it wouldn’t be in time for me if there was a sniper watching me.
It made me itchy, thinking of a sniper. I’d gotten a bit of shrapnel under my helmet a while back during a convoy explosion that took out the truck ahead of me. They said they’d gotten it all, but the scar itched whenever I got nervous.
Snipers made me nervous. I’d known one back in basic training. Could take the wings off a fly at a hundred yards, but spent most of the rest of his time twitching. It was like the only time he could stay still was when he had a rifle pointed at something. So thinking of snipers made me think of tall, twitchy guys who couldn’t quite look anyone in the eye.
The valley floor had looked like a couple hundred yards from the hillside, but once I was out on it the distance got considerably longer. I kept my head down, scanning the facility for any signs of movement. With every step, the facility seemed to get farther away. Could this thing really be a mirage after all?
Twenty minutes later, the facility disappeared. I must have walked into the middle of the mirage and it just evaporated. I could see little puddles of mirage around me, looking like water on the sand. I felt bad for my commander. It was his butt on the line for getting us all the way out here. It still didn’t answer where the power and water cables went, but I doubted home base would waste any more time chasing power cables in the desert.
I tripped over something. Went face down in the sand and scrambled away from it. We’d had too much landmine training to get too close to something in the sand. Then I looked back at the thing and it winked at me. A camera projector, disguised under a chunk of desert grass, shining the light back at me.
I bent closer to the camera, and it whirred slightly, turning toward me. I froze. The camera stopped, looking up at me. I had a very bad feeling about this. If I was on top of an underground bunker, they knew I was here and were looking right at me. Something this size definitely wouldn’t be defenseless, and right now I probably had a dozen remote-controlled guns pointed at me.
But then I thought a bit more. Whoever it was couldn’t take on all of us. They didn’t want to riddle me with bullets and let me lie on top of their little bunker as a marker for an airstrike. So all I needed to do was walk away and call in the strike. As long as I was alive, I could tell home base about the camera, in the middle of the desert, underneath the factory mirage.
I played that one through in my head. There was no way home base was going to call in a bunker buster airstrike on a patch of desert based on the word of a grunt who had just admitted he’d walked through a factory mirage. I needed proof.
The camera might be proof enough. I reached down and grabbed a hold of the camera stalk. It was steel, but if I bent it back and forth, I bet I could break it off. All I needed was a little piece to prove something was out here.
When you get a lot of electrical current through you, it makes you grunt. I grunted like a pig as the camera pretty much fried me where I grasped it. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll wear gloves. Then I blacked out.
Whoever it was must have put me under for a while, because when I woke up the three of us, commander, Parker, and me, were all lying in a cell. It was one of those white cells, with the sanitized clear glass doors like they wanted to put us on display. The other two were still out.
We were dressed only in our boxers, so I figured whoever it was had a pretty good chance to go over us. I got up and looked around the cell. There wasn’t much to see, but they had a sink and a toilet, so I used both. No point in not feeling comfortable while you wait.
A couple of hours later, both my buddies woke up. Commander said they’d seen me bend over to get something through their sights and then somebody had dropped them both with tasers and some kind of gas blown in their faces.
A white coated man came up to our glassed in door. He opened a slot, and deposited three sets of paperwork and pens into the slot. His face was covered in a white hood, and when he spoke he had a voice modulator that masked any accent. “Please fill out the paperwork, and you will be fed.” Then he left.
We got the paperwork. They were complete medical records sets, one for each of us. We discussed whether or not we should fill out the paperwork. The man in white came back, wheeling a flat screen television. He turned it on, and we got to see three men, dressed in our fatigues, picking their way through a rocky landscape. “Three men enter the valley. Three men leave.” He said to us. “Fill out the paperwork.”
The commander chewed his lip. “Maybe satellite was watching you when you went out there. Maybe it got an image of the guys who attacked us. They might be coming for us right now.” We watched the three men leaving the valley. “Maybe,” I said. “But maybe nobody at home base really cares about this mission. The best they’ll do is track us occasionally. And there we are, happy as clams, so what’s the issue?”
I started filling out my paperwork. The commander and Parker tore theirs up. When the man in white came back, I deposited my paperwork in the little drawer. “Thank you, Mr. Jackson.” The man was expressionless. I could hear gas seeping into our vents. While Parker and the commander pounded on the door, I lay back in my bunk. I figured it was knockout gas and the worst thing we could do was fall over and injure ourselves.
When I woke up again, I was out of my cell. I was in a room with a nicer bed, and my own television. On my arms and legs were bracelets. A note by the bed explained that the bracelets were water resistant but that any attempt to tamper with any of the bracelets would generate a possibly fatal shock.
I turned on my television. It only played a snippet of a local news story. The announcer was talking about my commander’s fatal stroke, and speculating about what had happened to my commander mentally before he shot both of the soldiers under his command. Parker had been killed, and my bloody footprints had been found at the edge of a deep ravine. The body would be retrieved in the next few days. I shivered. Whoever had me here didn’t need me anymore. I was hungry, and wandered out of my room looking for something to eat.
The man in the white mask, or maybe someone else, met me in the hallway. “Come with me, Mr. Jackson. I wanted to throttle him for my buddies. “Resist your impulses, Mr. Jackson. The bracelets have been calibrated to your heart rate.”
I grabbed him. If I was going to get shocked, so would he. When the shock hit, I crumpled and the man waited for me to recover. “I wear rubber undergarments, Mr. Jackson. And you have used up your one chance. A second attempt will make you an unsuitable candidate.”
I followed him down a corridor, and into a mess hall. The room was filled with bracelet wearing folks. I saw soldiers I thought I recognized, but also guys with civilian haircuts and a number of women sprinkled through the crowd.
Getting my food, I saw that even the servers had bracelets. The whole place ran on borrowed labor. Even the rations I was getting served were standard issue. Everything about this place had been taken from our own supplies.
I sat down to eat and asked the guy next to me: “So, what’s the deal here?” He looked over at me and put his finger to his lips. I looked around and saw all the cameras. “So what?” I said. “They know we’re going to…yowtch!” My bracelets shocked me. I swore. The man next to me nodded. I grimaced. “So, how long you been here?…YOWTCH!” The man looked over at me sympathetically and held up a three fingers. “Three months or three years?….Oouch!” The last time the shock got both of us and the man moved away from me at the table.
That last shock did something weird. While I was getting shocked it was like I wasn’t dressed in a nice white suit after all. I was still dressed in my filthy boxers. And the room around me didn’t look like a nice mess hall. It looked like a big cave, dimly lit by a string of bulbs along the wall. Then the shock ended and I was back in the mess hall.
I moved down the table. The guy on the other side of me didn’t look too happy. “You don’t have to talk..Ouch!” I took the shock and spent the second looking around. We were in a big cave, and everybody else was dressed in their underwear. We were eating standard, cold, survival rations out of the foil. Then I was back in mess hall with the guy, who was also getting shocked for just being near me.
I looked across the way at the guy, who started getting shocked just because I made eye contact.
When I looked behind me, the man in the white mask was walking rapidly toward our table. Only now he didn’t look like he was dressed in white, he looked like he was dressed in a black robe with silver stars? “I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson, it’s time to die.” He said it without emotion.
As he said it, I reached out and grabbed him by the throat. I felt the shock going through me and saw that it wasn’t going through him. I could feel the skin of his throat. There was no latex nothing between us. My heart hurt in my chest, but I fought it off. As I fought, I could see the mess hall fade and the cave resume. The white mask faded away and the man in front of me was a hooked nosed little man with graying hair and an absurd magician’s robe. I was dying, but I had him by the throat. He winced as my grasp tightened. Then his eyes got very round and he waved his hand. Immediately, the shock ceased.
I struggled to stay upright. “Come with me, Mr. Jackson.” The man’s voice was quavering, but clearly more Mediterranean than Middle-Eastern. I came with him, still trying to figure out why I wasn’t dead, and what had happened to the mess hall. We threaded our way through a bunch of filthy people hunkered down on the floor eating survival kits in a cave. All of them had strands of what looked like human hair tied around their wrists and ankles.
The man brought me to a cave and set me down on some army issue blankets piled in a corner. “Sleep, Mr. Jackson. We will talk in the morning.” I faded out without a sound.
In the morning I woke up in the cave. When I got up, the little man was there, dozing at the cave mouth. He got up with a start when I did. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited, Mr. Jackson! It’s so rare to find anyone these days, anyone at all.”
I resisted the urge to strangle him. “You killed my buddies.”
“Oh, no, Mr. Jackson. You just think I did. Come and see.” The little man led me down the caves until we came to a closed cave mouth. Both the commander and Parker were bloody and bruised, asleep in the entrance. When they heard us coming the commander got groggily to his feet. He saw me and swore. “Traitor! What, did they make you a commander already? Going to lead the strikes against home base? I’d kill you if I could get out of here!” He threw himself against the cave wall, striking his already bloody hands against the rock. I looked down at my filthy boxers. What was he seeing?
“Commander, don’t you see? It’s just me. You’re in a cave.” The commander glowered at me. “Threaten me all you want. I’ll never switch. Take your threats and shove ‘em.” He collapsed back to the floor with his back to us.
The little man walked me away a short distance. “I’m terribly sorry. There is nothing we can do for them. If I remove the hair, every time they go insane. It’s better to let them live out whatever they are living in now. It makes them happy, in a way.”
“What are you, a magician?” I looked at him. “An illusionist,” he bowed. “At one point my family ran much of Europe, but I fear we are out of fashion. Currently three other families control much of the globe.”
“How is that possible?” I looked around me. “You’ve seen for yourself.” Said the illusionist. “With the advent of modern technology, everything magical has become believable once again. Your dragons breathe smoke and exhaust, or hover in the air as silent saucers. A man may appear in one place and then another without causing suspicion. Commands and information come through the ether, manifesting disembodied voices without any inkling of disbelief. Watch.” The illusionist stopped a young man who was passing us. He held up a hand to the man. “You may talk with your family.” I watched as the young man accepted something in the air and started talking animatedly with his empty hands. Evidently that conversation went badly and he was soon in tears. Eventually he threw something against the wall and stormed off.
The illusionist explained how the illusionist families had created empires for themselves. “Once you start an illusion, it takes hold,” he explained. “For example, there is a stock exchange in the Midwest that is simply an empty room. But people buy and sell there every day, and see their fortunes made and lost on empty walls. Nothing more needs to be added to the illusion. It self-perpetuates.”
How did we end up in the desert? He told me the long version, but the short version was that he was afraid that one of the other families would find him so he retired to the desert. Then the rest of us showed up and started blowing things up. He started taking in lost soldiers out of pity, and then needed supplies, electricity and water. So he did enough illusion to have workers lay down the lines. “They thought they were building a weapons facility,” he explained.
Seeing through the illusion is the illusionist’s greatest trick. So when he found me, the illusionist was overjoyed. He’s been training me in how to do the tricks, but they are fearfully easy. Create a series of online images, add an interview, and you’ve got a minor war. The three major families keep everything in chaos, and have gotten more desperate in recent years. So we need more people like me, trying to set things right.
(Voted too dark for my younger one. We did a Lego town story on the spot instead.)
Once upon a time there was an addict. It had started when he was a child, and every time he did a certain kind of picture his mother would praise him. But when he did anything abstract, anything strange or dark or disturbing, she would just nod and look away. Soon he learned to do only the sort of pictures that got him her praise.
As he grew up, the same rules applied to everything he did. When he wanted to become an artist, his mother pursed her lips. But when he talked about accounting, she was all smiles. His father even chimed in at times for that one. “Good money,” was all he’d said, but he might as well have blessed the position.
So the addict spent all his time reading books that would make his mother smile and his father nod occasionally. As he grew up more, the addict would bring girls home. Some of them got a slight nod, but it wasn’t until he found the right girl that his mother was all smiles. So the addict married the right girl, and got the right job.
At his job, the addict found himself doing things he knew were wrong. They were cooking the books for major corporations. But when he brought it up with his mother, she refused to believe that his big name accounting firm would do such a thing. When he brought it up again, she pursed her lips and asked if the addict needed to see a doctor about his depression.
So the addict went to see a doctor. When he explained about the anxiety he was experiencing, he was prescribed a medication. That medication did make him feel calmer, but it gave him restless legs and he needed another medication for that. Both the medications let him feel calm and let him sleep, but after a while he developed occasional explosive gas, which also gave him anxiety. So the addict started going to another doctor who talked to him about his mother.
What the second doctor said was that the addict was too dependent on others for approval. The addict agreed, but explained that everything in his life had been built on that approval. Without that approval, he wouldn’t be in the job he was in, he wouldn’t be married to who he was married to, and he honestly didn’t know what his life would look like.
The doctor thought it would be helpful for the addict to spend some time in various therapies. So the addict did a number of strange things, some of which made him feel better for a short time. But the underlying reality was that every part of his life fed on him being exactly the way he was, and didn’t allow him to change.
Then the accounting firm corruption was uncovered. The leaders of the corruption quickly pointed the fingers at the heads of departments, who singled out individuals who were responsible for the unauthorized changes. The public, looking for someone to blame, fastened onto those responsible people and the addict was one of them. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to two years in a minimum security prison.
While he was in prison, the addict lost everything. All his money went to pay for the civil suits brought against him by angry people. His wife filed for divorce, and his mother stopped talking to him. She was so embarrassed she refused to acknowledge he was even her son.
When he left prison, the addict lived in a half-way house, full of people who were recovering from various addictions. He spent time with lots of people going through twelve step programs and got a part-time job typing numbers into a computer. In his spare time, the addict drew dark shapes and stories, all in ink. One day one of his buddies saw the stories and asked the addict to start doing the art for his local band. The addict did some good covers, and a local tattoo artist asked him for some original work. Customers liked the addict’s dark sinewy figures, and he became part of the tattoo set. Pretty soon he could make more money designing original art for people than he could putting in numbers.
But the idea of giving up the numbers left the addict feeling shaky and strange. He thought back to all the different therapies he’d done, and realized all the emotions tied into numbers for him. So he did a series of drawings encapsulating what each number represented for him. He showed it around and a local art dealer did a little display for him. The display matched what a reporter wanted for a piece by a major paper, so the addict got a nice write up. His numbers got bought out, and the addict did another set. Then a collector wanted a complete set of his own.
The addict never stopped being an addict. He does seek approval from others. But now he’s doing what he wants to do and finding the people who will support what he already likes. Now that he’s a success, the addict’s mother has decided to grant interviews where she takes credit for his amazing talent. But she’s right, she is responsible, just not in the way she’d like to think. After years of not being expressed, the addict’s art is deeper, darker, and richer than it might have been.
Now the addict is a sought after artist, doing installations and major pieces. It is hard for him to remember what it was like to be that other person, the one who never did anything he wanted. If you ask him what has changed, he’d shrug. But something did change, and when the addict draws he smiles with happiness.
Moral: Sometimes you have to lose everything to gain that which is important.
Once upon a time there was a hermit. He lived with his garden along a hilltop in a desolate area of Shandong province. Every morning he would rise up and look out at the horizon, seeing the weather for the day and wondering about eternity.
At least, that was the purpose of his mountain retreat. Often the hermit awoke thinking about what chores needed to be done around the house, sighing because he needed to weed the garden and go down and see if the wild plums were ripe for drying.
And try as he might, the hermit couldn’t lose sight of his ragged clothes and wonder what the latest fashions were down in the valley.
Before he had been a hermit, the hermit had been a successful merchant. But when a fire took everything he had and his family had been forced to live with relatives in shame, the hermit had taken to the mountaintop to find enlightenment. So far, it had been elusive.
Every day the hermit would sit in meditation, grasping for peace and good will. Instead he got an angry stream of thoughts about the injustice in the world. When he angrily forced the thoughts aside he missed his family and felt great shame at not being able to provide for them. At no time did he feel peace or a sense of oneness or anything like that.
At long last the hermit left his mountain top in disgust. Nothing had been gained. He descended again into the valley, on his way to the sea to drown his worthless self in the sea. He stopped by to visit his family, and cherished every minute with them. Nothing pleased him so much as to look on his family, and he felt again the shame of his inability to care for them. With much weeping, he left his family and went on to the sea.
The hermit was hungry and cold when he reached the ocean. He had brought only a length of rope with him to tie around his middle and to wrap the other end around a heavy stone to take him to the ocean’s floor.
As he was selecting a suitable stone along the beach, a fisherman called to him. “Hey, can you give me a hand?” The hermit considered for a moment, and thought it would matter little if he died in an hour or two. So he lent the fisherman a hand and helped him unload his catch. “Thanks!” said the man. “I could sure use a fellow like you tomorrow. We have a big haul to do. What if I paid you in food to pull it in with me?” The hermit explained his situation, and the fisherman nodded. “A man’s honor must be fulfilled. Let me help you find a rock, then.”
The hermit was grateful for the man’s help, as the rock they selected was very heavy. The fisherman helped him up the hill and then asked that the hermit wait until he could make it back to his hut and say prayers for the hermit. “Wait until moonrise,” said the fisherman. “That is an auspicious time to die.” The hermit nodded and waited by the stone for the moon to rise. He meditated intensely, waiting for enlightenment. Surely at this critical time it would not fail him. But nothing came.
The moon rose. In despair, the man grasped the stone with both hands and fell with the stone over the high cliff.
As he struck the water with tremendous force, the man experienced true terror. Nothing about his honor, his shame, and his guilt mattered at all. He struggled for air, and thrashed against the rope holding him to the heavy stone. With a snap, it separated, and the hermit struggled to the surface, gasping for air. He was still in a terrible situation, with the high rocks threatening to crush him and the restless sea dragging him outward into its depths.
The hermit saw a light on the water and struck out for it. He came up to the fisherman’s boat, and tread water until the fisherman peered over the side at him. “Hey, it’s a dead man,” said the fisherman. “What to help me pull in my catch tomorrow?” The hermit climbed heavily onboard and they rowed back to land.
For the next few months, the hermit helped the fisherman. He thought about climbing the cliff again, but when he did he remembered his terror as the water swallowed him. It wasn’t bravery that kept him alive, it was a fear of death.
They did well together, and the fisherman talked to the hermit about his family. Together they set about building a second fishing hut, and when it was finished, they sent for the hermit’s family. The family was overjoyed that the hermit was still alive and, although the fishing hut was shabby, it was better than relying on the charity of their family.
Over the years the hermit and the fisherman became like brothers. They worked every day together, and often knew what the other wanted without speaking. At long last, the older fisherman came to the end of his life. As he lay dying, the hermit talked with him at last about his own fear of dying. “If that rope hadn’t parted,” he told the fisherman, “I would have died in terror.” “I know,” said the fisherman. “That’s why I cut the rope as we climbed.” In that moment, the hermit felt at one with the fisherman, his family and even the stars in the night sky. He knew that this was finally the moment of enlightenment, and hugged his friend as he died.
Moral: Some find oneness on the mountain, others need the sea. Still others need other paths to see.
Once upon a time there was a mist. It crawled along the ground like some blind creature, sniffing out places to fill and to swallow up. Within the mist everything seemed more silent, hushed as if expecting something, or perhaps muffled by the tendrils of fog.
Nothing lived in the mist, and was hungry. It sought out light and sound, scenting them on the air and lured by their sparkle and the taste of warm light sliding down the back of its nothing throat. Within the swirl that might have been its mind, it consumed all that around it and wanted more.
How do you fight nothing? No armament, no sturdy shield, dripping with moisture and strapped to a sinewy arm. Nothing swallows these without a sound. There is no light that can withstand it, no way to see it, for there is nothing to be seen.
But the hunters of nothing are not men of might. They wander the world armed with only laughter and hope. Many do not know the creature that they hunt, only the things they abhor and seek to brighten. Such a man was the minstrel Alderill, a wandering fool who sang for his supper and told old jokes that might seem new in the retelling.
But Alderill had lost his way in the mist, and felt the chill of the night on his neck and in his bones. The hair on his body stood up, as if something in the mist was whispering of danger. Tree trunks loomed up out of the mist like ghastly phantasms, then faded just as silently as they appeared. Alderill thought he might find a path if he walked long enough, but nothing stalked his path and hid his way, brushing the mist thickly across the path as he crossed it and obscuring it from view. Nothing scented Alderill’s lute, an early guitar, and licked at its strings for a taste of their sweet music. When Alderill turned, nothing was there, breathing heavily, but invisible with its background of mist. Nonetheless, Alderill’s skin crawled. He felt its presence as though he could see nothing.
Without thinking, Alderill began to hum to himself. Just a little something to pick up his spirits. But nothing stole the tune from his lips and left him feeling emptier than he had a moment before. He turned in a circle, peering into the mist, and could not shake the sense of being shadowed. Nothing began to steal his heat, savoring every drop.
Alderill shivered, and on an impulse unslung his lute and began to play. Nothing was delighted, and lapped up the music as soon as it left the strings. Alderill had the eerie feeling of playing with no sound. He kept his mouth closed firmly, fearing that whatever enchantment had stolen his music would creep down his throat and take his voice. For now Alderill felt that he was enchanted indeed. Lost and being drained, some foul creature at work on him.
What had the old enchantress said about this sort of spell? Alderill racked his brains. The only way out was to find its weakness. He opened his belt pouch and took out flint and steel. Striking them together he watched as the sparks were swallowed up before they left the flint. Not fire. And not music. Alderill shivered again. When he wasn’t playing the nothing settled down on him and took his body heat. So Alderill played silently, giving the nothing what it craved while he thought to himself how this creature could be beaten.
There was nothing all about him, and Alderill’s head was empty of a solution. He stumbled and righted himself, trying to keep the tune from skipping. Here he was, a dying minstrel in a misted wood, playing silently for some monster and afraid he might mess up the tune. Alderill laughed at himself, and the nothing shrank back. For a moment he felt lighter, and even a little warmer.
Alderill smiled. The beast feared laughter. He tried to tell a joke, but nothing stole his words and he could feel the coldness of its passage creeping over his lips and into his mouth. So Alderill gave out a barking laugh, unreal, but enough to startle nothing out of his mouth.
Nothing crept in closer now. It could feel the light within this man, and wanted it, all of it. Alderill saw his hands begin to turn blue from the sudden cold. He laughed in a panic, and the color faded a bit.
Alderill threw back his head and laughed at the absurdity of the world, at the hopelessness of his plight, and at the raging darkness all around him. He guffawed at the wretched state of his clothes, his purse, and his prospects. He bent double over the one about the miller’s daughter and that silly limerick that had always tickled him. Alderill laughed at obscenity, absurdity and maturity. He laughed until he couldn’t breathe, then laughed at his gasping, hacking, coughing and spluttering attempts to keep laughing. He laughed until he was hoarse and then kept laughing until all that came out was a hacking whisper.
Only when he could laugh no more did Alderill notice the mist was gone. It had gradually dissipated into the ground as Alderill had shriven it to pieces. The nothing was gone, replaced by gentle night breezes who did not notice its absence.
Moral: Laugh at yourself, and keep nothing at bay.