The Cloud Building

English: Painter preparing balcony surface for...
English: Painter preparing balcony surface for painting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a painting of clouds.  It was done in an impressionistic style, with every stroke of the paint clear and dark.  The painting was enormous, and the painter used his whole body to make a great arc of paint that made up just one tiny portion of a cloud.

The painting was on the side of a building, and it was to be immortalized by placing a great plexiglass plate over the finished painting.  It would be sealed from the elements and exist forever.

It was to be the painter’s masterpiece, and he labored long and hard, hanging from a narrow scaffolding for days at a time.

But things happen, and the building needed a new sprinkler system.  They cut the painter’s budget and he could no longer buy paint.  Then they cut his budget entirely and sent him home.

From his tiny apartment far away, the painter could look into the city and see his unfinished painting on the side of the building.  He was embarrassed, frustrated, and finally depressed.  Every morning he would look out of the window of his tiny apartment and feel sad and angry all over again.

Then one day someone sent the painter a picture of his painting up close.  The rainy season had come, and the paint was beginning to run, to creep down the side of the building.  It was the final straw, and the painter fell into deep despair.

As the rainy season progressed, the pain seeped down the building.  It crept into every crevice and slid along the slight depressions in the building’s surface.  Gradually the paint descended the entire building, forming the outlines of shadows and strange shapes that could have been clouds.

When the painter at last looked out of his window again, he saw that the entire building had been covered with clouds.  To this day, all the people of the city call the building the Cloud Building and refer to cloud painting as a masterpiece of nature and art.

The Skulls

Skull on the crown of Lord Shiva at Hoyseleswa...
Skull on the crown of Lord Shiva at Hoyseleswara temple, India (Photo credit: Rohit Rath)

Once upon a time there was a carriage rut on a London street.  It wasn’t wide enough to fit new cobblestones, and it was constantly getting filled with water, so it hadn’t been repaired.

It was the ideal place for a boy with a quick wit and quicker hands to idle a day away.  Sometimes carriages would bounce into the hole and nothing would happen, but sometimes things fell off the top or fell out the window.  In that case, a quick lad might grab the thing and be off around the corner before the carriage could stop.  It wasn’t a great living, but it was better than some.

Sammy was the sort of boy who hung around the carriage rut.  He’d won it from another boy in a game of marbles, and now it was his until someone else won it off him.

Today was a good day.  A carriage came rumbling past with way too much luggage piled on top.  It hit the rut, and a black case slid out of the pile.  Sammy caught it on the way down, and it never made a sound.  He was gone around the corner, but from the sound of the carriage it wasn’t even slowing.  This was his lucky day.

Sammy hid back in his alley and opened the case with shaking fingers. Maybe there were clothes he could pawn, or maybe even some jewelry.

The hinge snapped open, and Sammy got a shock.  Inside the case were two human skulls!

Sammy snapped the case lid down quick.  The initials on the outside read C.D.  Probably a madman who carried his victims around in cases after he done them in.  Sammy remembered with a shiver how much luggage had been on top of that carriage.  Was it all victims?

Doing what every good street boy should do, Sammy buried the case under some garbage in the back of the alley and tried to forget about it.  He figured the carriage rut might not be safe, so he took a job as a newspaper boy for a few days.  At the end of the day you kept any papers you didn’t sell, and Sammy used them to line his cubbyhole.  One morning he woke up and read a little advertisement.  “Lost, black case, reward.  C.D. “ and it gave an address.

Sammy tried to ignore the advertisement, but it shook him that C.D. was looking for his case.  How far might such a desperate man go to find his victims?  Wouldn’t it be better to plead ignorance and return the case?

After a sleepless night when every noise sent Sammy to the back of his cubby, Sammy took the next day off and dug up the case.  He hiked his way across London to the address in the advertisement.  It was a great old house, with a long, shadowy lawn and a great dark door with one of those glowering lion’s head knockers.

It looked spooky enough, but Sammy wanted his reward, and he wanted this C.D. character to be off his trail.  So he marched right up to the door and lifted the knocker.  Before he could let it fall the door opened.

A wisp of a fellow, old enough he should have been dead already, stood in the doorway.  He was all in his Sunday best, tie and tails.  “How may I help you?” His voice sounded like a rusty hinge.

“I-I’m here about the case.” Sammy held the case between them as if the old fellow would spring out at him.

“Very good, sir.  Please come in.”

Sammy was having second thoughts about this plan.  Maybe it was better if he dumped the case and scarpered it. But then maybe this C.D. would hunt him down like a rabbit.  Better to stand his ground and have it out.

The old fellow left him in the hall.  Like every smart lad, Sammy saw a door open a crack and went for it.  No telling where a spare piece of jewelry might be lying about.  He creaked open the door and nearly lost it.  Something was staring right at him!  He closed the door right quick and stifled a scream by biting on his knuckles.

An old man came out of the room down the hall.  He walked funny and he had a big old beard that stuck out from his head.  Despite his white hair, he bore down on Sammy pretty quickly.

Sammy stuck the case out before him.  “Here’s your case.” He really wanted to get clear of this house in the worst way.

Great, great.”  The old man laid a heavy hand on Sammy’s shoulder and steered him toward the door where the thing had been staring.  Sammy tried to back pedal away, but the old man had a fierce grip on his shoulder.

“Really, sir, I don’t need a reward.  I’d best be going.”  Sammy tried his best to twist away, but the old man held him fast.

“Nonsense, young man.  Let’s just make sure this is the right case.  Then you’ll get what is coming to you.”

The old man opened the door and Sammy stifled a shriek.  The eyes behind the door belonged to a stuffed monkey.  Inside the room other creatures stared at Sammy from high on the walls.

Taking the case from Sammy, the old man clicked it open.  He turned to Sammy slowly with a wide smile and froze Sammy’s bones.  “These are my skulls!  This one is a Neanderthal  and this one is a Cro-magnon.  Still in excellent condition.  Thank you lad.  Here’s a crown for your reward.  Charles Darwin always remembers his friends.” Sammy bowed, a bit in awe,  to the old naturalist.

The Coward

English: A cleft chin
English: A cleft chin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He had a great black helmet, covered with swirling lines of ocean current.  At the top was a great bush of the creamiest, whitest horsehair.  Below the horsehair were the best curling golden locks that any maid would die for.  He had a sharp nose, thick lips, and a cleft chin.  Below the chin was an enormous barrel chest and arms as thick as your thighs.  His thighs were as thick as your waist.  He had golden armor that gleamed and a great sword that he could swing about and make the air sing.

Stephen looked the very picture of a warrior.  It was such a shame that he was a coward.  Since he was a little lad, Stephen had never been in a fight.  He always gave up or ran.

The trouble was, Stephen was in a military academy.  Every time he sparred, he ran.  But at everything else he was pretty good.  So he was passing.

All the way up through the ranks, Stephen flunked sparring class.  But he got high enough marks in everything else, so he kept getting passed.  All the instructors knew the stories about sparring class, but Stephen was so impressive they had trouble believing them.  His classmates knew Stephen was a coward, but they also knew his father was a major general and kept their snickering to a low murmur.

So it got to be graduation day, and all the instructors knew that Stephen had never been in a fight.  He’d never even sparred.  But he could do sword work, he could throw a spear.  All the coursework was based on Stephen’s ability with a weapon, not on his ability to use that weapon in combat.  So even though the sparring teacher flunked him again.  Stephen graduated.  The academy had never had such a proficient coward before.

After graduation, Stephen looked around for a job.  He had some inkling of his shortcomings as a soldier, so he took a job as a bodyguard.  He was a very good bodyguard, because bodyguards are supposed to look ferocious and not really do anything unless their charges are attacked.  Stephen looked so terrible his charges were never attacked.

Ten years passed, and the war came.  All the bodyguards were called up first, because they were experienced fighters.  But Stephen’s charge was very high up in government, so he got a pass.  And for the second call, and the third, and the fourth.  By the time they got to the seventh call, Stephen was by far the most experienced soldier they had.  So they put him in charge of a rabble of young apprentices.  He was leading a band of untrained boys into almost certain destruction as the invading army moved over the land.

Stephen was pretty good at marching and teaching other people how to fight.  He was kind and a good listener, and he inspired his troops.  It was even fair to say he taught them about three good ways to kill someone, which was all they could remember anyway.

But Stephen was a coward.  So rather than wait until dawn and charge against his enemy, Stephen had his troops march through the night and attack his enemy at the ungodly hour of three a.m. The seasoned enemy troops were so used to the way things should be they took a long time realizing that things had changed.  By that point their general was captured, their horses were gone, and Stephen’s apprentices had beaten them most soundly with their own weapons.

Stephen hadn’t been in the battle.  He’d been up on a hill, about as far away from the battle as possible.  But when it was done, he was made a general.

Now no one wants Stephen to fight.  They want Stephen to talk to people and to avoid another costly war if at all possible.  And Stephen is very good at his job.  He really doesn’t want to fight, ever.