Vintage, Part Six

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Sorry for the delay on this one.  The balance of life is off-kilter lately and the real world must take precedence over the creation of the fantastical one.  Hope this was worth the wait.  It kinda wound up having some shades of Apocalypse Now

The headquarters of the Bureau Central Royale pour l’Enregistrement et la Réglementation des Questions Surnaturelles, or, “Bureau Centrale” for those who could not bring themselves to utter its feared full name, was an ugly building marring the center of a city renowned worldwide for its striking architecture.  The fanciful flourishes and artistic embellishments of the surrounding churches, hotels, even the supposedly illegal casinos, were utterly absent from the squat, squarish and functional concrete block lurching up from the north side of the otherwise picturesque Chemin des Fougères.  It was a building that no one walked by unless they had absolutely no choice, and the dour armed guards posted at the main doors atop eighteen flat gray steps certainly did not encourage the approach of visitors.  Despite its forbidding facade, every citizen was grateful that the Bureau, this gangrenous tumor jutting out from a thriving, inviting cityscape, was there.  It was the unyielding wall between their safe, happy and boring lives, and the looming chaos and anarchy the witches sought to wreak.  The solemn duty of protection could brook no indulgences for taste or style.

Etienne remembered the first time he’d taken his walk up the eighteen steps, recruited as a fresh and bright graduate of College de Calerre eager to begin serving his country.  He had paused upon reaching the top to contemplate the Bureau’s motto, etched in stone over the doors:  Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.  No mercy, for you shall have none.  A simple statement that codified the Bureau’s very reason for being, an ethos that had guided Etienne’s actions in the twelve years he had devoted himself to its cause.  And had been disproven that night outside Montagnes-les-grands.  The witch had allowed him and his men to live, when she had been more than capable – and some might have argued had the right – to kill them all without hesitation.  What was he to take from that?  The Bureau had driven it into him and every person who worked for it that their enemy was an implacable evil determined to see them dead and the entire country brought to heel.  Witches captured by the Bureau left its custody in one of two ways:  forever forsaking their abilities and condemned to make lifelong reparations to the Crown, or, as headless corpses.  So stubborn were most of them that the former was an option rarely selected.  There was, admittedly, a degree of insanity about it that Etienne had been content to overlook, until now.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.  As the guards opened the doors for him this morning, Etienne, hungover and bruised and feeling terribly aged from the young man of so many years past, wondered if he was to find himself finally on the receiving end of that notorious threat.  Even the presence of Corporal Valnier at his side did little to quell his nerves.  He tongued the scab that had formed on his split lip, an unwelcome souvenir from the previous evening’s escapade at the Splendide.  The neck of his dress uniform felt tighter today, like a hand ever at his throat.

The lobby was always so damned quiet, nothing but boot heels squeaking and tapping on polished granite tile.  The air smelled of paper, stale ink and dust.  The starched, uniformed, axe-faced woman who manned (not a sexist term in her case) the reception desk, looked up, did not smile and spoke without a trace of pleasantry.  “De Navarre,” she said, purposely omitting his title.  “Salle 1401.  You are expected.”

Etienne attempted to tame his obvious discomfort.  1401 was used only for disciplinary hearings.  If you were to be expelled from the Bureau, or worse, 1401 was where it would occur.  Etienne suspected that the Directeurs derived some perverse enjoyment from forcing their subjects to pay homage by climbing the long flights of stairs and arriving before the tribunal breathless and unable to defend themselves.  It was also high enough from the ground that the adjacent windows offered a convenient fourteen-floor route to oblivion for those who could not bear the shame.  But Valnier had said they were giving him an assignment, so why they had summoned him to 1401 was a mystery.

By floor six his legs had begun to ache.  By floor nine sweat had flooded his skin, and finally, by floor twelve his mindset had evolved from trepidation to a resigned sense of getting things over with no matter what they turned out to be.  He was panting by the time they reached the fourteenth, but Etienne swallowed his heavy breaths and willed his heart to slow its loud thumps against his ribs.  As he and Valnier crossed towards the carved mahogany double doors of 1401, Etienne eyed the ornate lead-lined windows at the end of the hall.  He permitted himself a smirk.  After the wearying ascent, out there did not seem such a bad way to make the return trip.

Depending, naturally, on what was said inside.

An oddly welcoming scent of rich, roasted café caressed his sinuses as the doors cracked apart.  Despite the humidity baking the streets outside, the room was cold and dry.  It was sparsely furnished and decorated of course, in keeping with the strict non-aesthetic aesthetic of the building.  The walls were bare and painted in a distinctly unmemorable shade of bureaucratic taupe.  But the ceiling was high and vaulted, magnifying whispers and squeaks into shouts and roars, and in entering, supplicants were forced to step down into a recessed floor, position themselves at a tiny podium and look up with deference to the raised, varnished oak table at which those presiding over the meeting were privileged to sit, flanked on either side by flags bearing respectively the ensign of the Bureau and the royal standard.  Etienne understood the architectural trickery at work, that the room appeared more imposing than it actually was thanks to clever use of forced perspective, but knowing that was irrelevant; the illusion had its desired emotional impact, and all the café in the Lower Continent would not assuage the diminishment he felt, particularly in the presence of the three men waiting for him.

A formal meeting with a Directeur was standard duty for a Commissionaire, if infrequent, perhaps only four or five times yearly.  Meeting with two Directeurs could be hoped for once every other year, or perhaps by happenstance at a social gathering.  Stepping into a room and seeing all three of them, the triumvirate of executive power that commanded the behemoth that was the Bureau Centrale, was not only unprecedented, it ran contrary to the safety protocols embedded in the Bureau’s very constitution.  For security’s sake, no more than two Directeurs were permitted to be in the same physical location at the same time, the conceit being that should two of them be killed the third could serve to operate the Bureau alone while successors were swiftly recruited and installed – a sort of pre-emptive defense against the notion that you could kill the body of a serpent by cutting off its head.  Just ensure the serpent had three heads and keep them each a good distance from the axe.

On the left was the elderly Directeur Theniard Preulx, the last, lingering bastion of the old guard and the old ways.  One might say he wrote the book on the Bureau, but given his age it would be more accurate to say he must have painted it on cave walls.  It was customary for a Directeur to stand down once they reached a certain plateau of years of service, but Directeur Preulx had made his name by defying custom, and it was expected that natural causes would claim him long before the thought of resignation would dare cross what was suspected (by Etienne at least, and not an insubstantial number of others) to be a mind teetering ever nearer the threshold of dementia.  He was relied upon now more for matters of counsel rather than day-to-day operational decisions.  Those fell to the younger men sitting with him, Directeurs Michel Ste-Selin and Kadier Duforteste.  Ste-Selin was Etienne’s chief contact for his assignments; it was he who had ordered Etienne to Montagnes-les-grands and had personally screamed at him and suspended his rank following the disastrous outcome.  The Directeur had also made the mistake of revealing to Etienne in less heated, more liquored moments that he considered Preulx a senile old cretin and Duforteste a paragon of incompetence, and that the Bureau would function better with a single source of authority – himself, of course.  Etienne did not know Kadier Duforteste well enough to make any judgement as to Ste-Selin’s opinion of the man; he supervised the more lawless, backwoods, southwestern portions of the country where Etienne had little experience and even less reason to wish to visit.

Opposite the presiding table, and behind where Etienne was presumably meant to stand, small carrels accommodated the clerks and recording secretaries – that is, if there had been any present.  The Bureau was humorless about its note-keeping; at least three floors were devoted exclusively to the storage of records, where, if one had a few decades to spare, one could browse a copious written reconstruction of every action taken by its personnel since the Bureau’s inception, details stopping short only of the amount of time each man spent in the lavatory.  Every meeting was minuted by at least three secretaries keeping independent accounts, every sou expended or accrued was audited and re-audited on a clockwork schedule.  Even actions considered highly confidential were documented to the last inflection of the last syllable spoken in the room, just in case someone, somewhere, sometime, should need to know.  Clearly, no one beyond himself, the three Directeurs and Corporal Valnier was to know anything of what was about to transpire.

Dénégation plausible?

“Etienne,” said Directeur Ste-Selin matter-of-factly as he hoisted a porcelain cup of café.  “Entrez.”  He gestured to the podium in the sunken portion of the floor.  “Corporal, fermez les portes, s’il-vous plait.”  Valnier did so as Etienne took a few tentative steps towards his assigned position.  He paused to wonder, as he stood behind the podium, how many of his predecessors had seen their careers evaporate on this very spot, how many once-proud and respected Commissionaires had been reduced to nothing with a few words and signatures scrawled upon executive decrees.  Abruptly Etienne did not know what to do with his hands.  They needed to go somewhere, but balancing himself on the podium would make him look weak, in his pockets would make him look sheepish, and at his sides would make him look like he didn’t know where to put his hands.  Etienne opted to clasp them tightly behind his back.  He straightened his spine and kept his gaze steady.  The damned uniform would not stop choking him.

“Merci for joining us today,” Ste-Selin said.  “Been making the most of your time away, I trust?”  The Directeur nodded at the bluish jaundice of the bruise mottling Etienne’s jaw.

“Somewhat,” Etienne replied simply.  The scab on his lip itched, and he wrestled down the impulse to tongue it again.  Behind his back, he gripped his hands tighter in silent reaction against Ste-Selin’s superiority and hypocrisy rather than rise to the obvious challenge.

Ste-Selin affected an air of disappointment that he did not.  “Well then,” he began again, “in those fleeting moments of sobriety I’m certain you have been pondering the outcome of our deliberations regarding your status.  I need not remind you, monsieur, that this is not a matter the leadership of the Bureau takes at all in light vein.  Out there the Commissionaire is more than just himself, more than merely a man:  he is the living embodiment of the integrity of our institution, and just as the building cannot withstand a crack in its foundation, neither can the institution suffer the slightest failing in its most prominent representatives.  We do not live in a time when errors can be easily forgiven, nor are we pitted against an enemy who will overlook them in the name of good sportsmanship.  Would you not agree?”

“Of course, monsieur le Directeur,” said Etienne.  Ste-Selin’s words always rang a touch clumsy in Etienne’s ears, as if the man did not fully understand the meanings of the polysyllabic vocabulary and metaphors he peppered his syntax with in the hopes of appearing smarter than he actually was.  It was a revealing sign of insecurity and vulnerability on the Directeur’s part.  Of course, whether one was being condemned by a genius or an idiot, the outcome remained the same.

“You should understand that the purpose of today’s meeting is not to discuss your case,” added Ste-Selin.  “Our judgment has not changed.  The invalidation of your rank and your suspension from the Bureau shall continue indefinitely.”

“Thank you, monsieur le Directeur.”  Rien à faire.

“We’ve been looking over your last report and comparing it with our own findings,” said Directeur Duforteste.  A much more casual, disinterested tone from him, blended with his distinct regional accent.  He had his own fiefdom in the south stretching from Delprice to Ville-des-Cinq-Lacs, and the goings-on in a northern flyspeck like Montagnes-les-grands, to him, would be the apex of tedium.  “If you would indulge us, we’d like to hear more about the subject responsible for the attack on your caravan.”  Never witch.  Always subject.  Standard Bureau terminology.  “Your official filing is a bit vague on that portion.”

Etienne drew a long breath.  What would you wish me to say, Monsieur le Directeur?  That she was the most beautiful and most enticingly powerful woman I’ve ever encountered, and that not a minute has passed since then, in sleep or in waking, that I have not found myself thinking of her?  “The subject represents an imminent and significant threat to our civil order,” he said instead.

“We agree,” said Duforteste.  He gestured toward Etienne’s podium.  Only then did Etienne notice the file folder tucked on the lower shelf.  It was black – a color he had never seen assigned – and bulged with at least a hundred pages of different stocks of paper and parchment, suggesting a collation of years’ worth of reports and other data.  A drop of red wax embossed with the Bureau’s ensign barred further perusal.  “Go ahead and open it,” advised the Directeur.  Etienne did so, breaking the seal and lifting the folder with fingertips, as though it was made of glass.  The top page bore the Bureau’s letterhead, the warning “HIGHLY CLASSIFIED,” and a single, puzzling word.

“Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.

Etienne looked up.

“What you have there before you,” Ste-Selin explained, “is a complete history of the subject under discussion, whom we have been aware of for over two years, and who was generally conceived to be a myth until she accosted your company outside Montagnes-les-grands.”

Duforteste picked up the narrative.  “For some time now we’ve seen an alarming drop in the rate of apprehension of subjects and their secure delivery into custody.  They have been able to defeat our usual methods and escape beyond our jurisdiction.  Subjects who, logically, should be the easiest to catch… old women, young girls, even those whose threat level–” meaning the extent of their magic, more official Bureau terminology “–is admittedly negligible.  We’ve established, from interrogation of those subjects we have taken in, a patchwork of compelling evidence pointing to the existence of a single, highly empowered individual who has been responsible for the liberation of these enemies of the Crown.  Her official Bureau designation is ‘Nightingale.’  We believe this is the subject you encountered.”

Etienne’s eyes fell to the file again as the Directeurs talked on.  He turned pages, browsing through what in the incident reports and correspondence he might once have dismissed as wild flights of fancy, but was instead instantly familiar:  tales of potent magic, bizarre flashes of violet light, trained soldiers rendered as helpless as kittens in a matter of seconds.  What he did not see in the reports, however, was any description of the witch herself; only half-remembered, half-formed swirls of shadow indiscernible from the dark.  But that meant…

“As you have no doubt divined,” said Ste-Selin, nodding to the file in Etienne’s hands, “you are the first person to have encountered this Nightingale in the flesh.”

Etienne closed the file folder.  The Directeur made it sound like such an ordinary meeting, as if they had brushed shoulders on a busy street.  Etienne wondered if any words could capture with the faintest hint of accuracy the experience of being wrapped in an impossibly seductive presence, with magic wreathing itself about him like exotic perfume, and nearly losing himself to it; of being a garden for a seed of longing and obsession that had taken root and grown unimpeded ever since, despite his efforts to drown it in wine and gambling and a general disregard for his own safety.  Nightingale.  The moniker was suitably poetic for her:  a mysterious bird singing beneath the moonlight.  He wondered if it was at all close to her real name.

“I am uncertain as to what Messieurs les Directeurs wish of me,” he said.

Ste-Selin and Duforteste shared a look.  Preulx seemed half-asleep.  “From your description,” said Ste-Selin, “and those in the other incident reports, it is clear that Nightingale possesses powers that might very well succeed in undermining the order this Bureau has worked to maintain for so many years.  Worse still, she is becoming a symbol for others of her kind that the Bureau Centrale can be defied with impunity.  You will agree that such a dangerous subject cannot be allowed to roam free.  The security of this very nation and the lives of all its people are at momentous risk.”

“Of course,” Etienne said.

“We believe, however,” said Duforteste, “that we have an opportunity to reclaim the advantage.  Nightingale has kept her existence secret from all.  She has defeated three other Commissionaires who never knew what hit them.  Yet for whatever reason she chose to reveal herself to you.  This, combined with your current status, puts you in a unique position.”

Etienne’s throat filled with sand, and he swallowed.  “Unique?”

Ste-Selin frowned.  “We grow concerned that Nightingale may have compromised the Bureau itself, that she may have an informant or multiple informants within these walls sharing with her our movements and tactics, and that we are seeing only the beginnings of a targeted campaign against us, and against the Crown.  A disgraced Commissionaire, for all intents and purposes operating outside the Bureau’s purview and without its official sanction, will be better equipped to root out the corruption and locate the traitors within our midst.”  The Directeur shuffled the papers in front of him.  “Corporal Valnier shall accompany you as usual, and we will assign you a fresh detachment of men.  We shall also provide you with new weapons that should better balance the odds against Nightingale’s powers.  But as you can see by the absence of secretaries in this room, this mission will exist in no records, and will be disavowed by us should any inquiries be made.  You shall be as a rogue, operating on your own, with no support from the Bureau.”

“And what, unofficially,” Etienne asked, “is the mission?”

“Kill Nightingale,” barked Directeur Theniard Preulx, springing to creaking, doddering life.  The creased, tooth-spare mouth spat out the name with a venom that seemed to ooze up from the depths of a hate-wracked soul.  “Better yet, bring her to us, broken, so that she might be re-educated.”  Yellowed, foggy eyes gleamed over the last word with an unnerving sense of mirth.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

Etienne looked down as he stifled a laugh.  “And my incentive for taking this assignment from the Bureau that has labeled me a disgrace?”

“I have had a long and storied career,” said Preulx, “and the flesh willing, I would carry it on until the last witch and the last traces of magic are purged from this world.  Time, however, shows as little mercy as does our Bureau.  I can think of no prouder legacy than to be succeeded by the man who defeats this evil sorceress and restores the Bureau’s good name.”  Ste-Selin and Duforteste both nodded agreement.

Directeur Etienne de Navarre.  Quite a carrot to be dangled before him.

He knew, as did they, likely before he had even walked into the room, that he would say yes.  The alternative was to retreat to the tables of the Splendide and watch his money evaporate into the caisses of the barmen and the beautiful croupiers.  They were offering Etienne the chance to redeem himself and advance to one of the most prestigious and most handsomely-rewarded positions in the Kingdom.  To secure for himself his entire future, and all he had to do was what he did best – find and catch a witch.  Catch Nightingale.  There was, he foresaw, only one problem with the entire scenario.

He was fairly certain that he was in love with her.

*  *  *

Part Seven coming soon…

Vintage, Part Five

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Happy Halloween!  As you can gather I’ve had something of an explosion of productivity this past week.  Please enjoy part five, which takes its inspiration from one of my favorite stories.

“Encore une autre, monsieur?”

Etienne shook his head of the haze that had been creeping over him for the forgotten accumulation of hours he’d been idling at this table.  He blinked hard to clear his view of the exhaustion-and-boredom-crafted filter of muddy glass and swung his attention to the decanter in the white-gloved clutches of the server, who was far too young and chipper for this late in the evening, or was it early in the morning?  Etienne tossed him the barest of nods and turned back to his disappointing cards, shuffling them in his hand in the futile expectation that a different physical arrangement would somehow improve their value in the game.  The server, sensing that this was not a customer who should be pestered overmuch, refilled his glass with the Cabernet Forêt Haute whose bold tannins and ripe underpinning of oak and currant long been a favorite of Etienne’s but to which he now found himself utterly indifferent.  He let the glass sit untouched.  The server noted quickly that the odds of a gratuity were not favorable, and he retreated with haste.

The croupier glanced at Etienne from beneath long lashes.  “Ouvreurs?” she asked.

Etienne sighed as he contemplated his diminishing pile of chips.  He stacked two hundreds’ worth and slid them across the baize.  “Ouvert,” he replied.  “Avec cinq.”

“Fermer,” said the thin, greasy man to his right, laying his cards face down and leaning back from the table.  The bland, timid man next down the row did the same, and the loud, sweaty man on the end shoved an obese pile of chips forward and belted out “Ouvert avec sept.”

“Deux joueurs,” announced the croupier.  She began to shuffle the cards.  The loud man sucked on an ivory pipe and exhaled a withering stream of blue smoke over the green baize, making it plain with his leer that he would enjoy having the girl suck on something else of cylindrical shape.  Etienne winced at the nauseating odor, which worked to exhaust him further.  He finally sampled the wine, its precise flavor tainted by the stench of tabac wafting through his nostrils.  Of all the tables available to play route de perle, the boor chose this one.

The Splendide was one of the seven major establishments lining Calerre’s Rue de la Reine, or “rue des casinos” as it was known (informally, because although technically gambling was illegal, a regular schedule of bribes, preferred tables and free drinks ensured that the law had not been enforced in over a hundred years).  It was not the largest or the most finely gilded of the “Lucky Seven,” but Etienne had always preferred it for one simple reason:  where its competitors hired male dealers and female servers exclusively, the Splendide had cleverly reversed those roles.  The Splendide’s proprietor solicited the most attractive and capable women he could find, and spent a fortune tidying them up, focusing on their hands:  dousing skin in expensive creams to soften away the callouses of hard living, shaping and lacquering fingernails so they gleamed beneath the crystal chandeliers and the flicker of the thousands of candles replaced fresh each morning, training them in the art of movement and music and grace.  The effect was, of course, to distract the gamblers; to fixate their stares on the refined female fingers shuffling the cards and not on the cards themselves.  (Low-cut uniforms supplying generous glimpses of cleavage did their part as well.)  It worked.  Beguiled, oafish men seeking to preen for the comely presence across the table bet more, stayed in the game longer, and lost big.  The house at the Splendide made more money than the other six major casinos combined.

Etienne had identified this scheme years ago, and he could mark players whom he knew would be especially susceptible to the Splendide’s formula, leading him to a significant run of luck at its tables.  Tonight, though, he was losing, badly.  He was down two thousand in the last hour alone.  Three times he had lost count of the play, letting his eyes against better judgment be entranced by the balletic flourishes of the croupier’s fingers as she spread the cards about the table.  Her name was Sylvette, and she was young and new but carried herself with the confidence and poise of a seasoned professional twice her age.  She spread the deck in a fan shape and trailed the tip of a wine-red fingernail over the back of each card, laid out precisely one half-inch from the next.  “Vos choix, messieurs,” she said.  “Grand ouvert premier.”  The pipe-smoking man grinned and leaned forward to take his card.  A smug grin exposed a row of brown teeth as he appraised his selection.  Hardly the most effective gaming tactic, and Etienne should have noticed it, but he was distracted by Sylvette, a luminous thing even framed in the smoke.  He gazed at her hands, folded in front of her on the table now, and studied the precise shape of each long, tapered digit, the clean pores in her unblemished skin, the brushstrokes of the rich paint decorating her nails.  His mind was lost back on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands in the frosty night, on the sparkling purple glow winding about the equally delicate hands of the witch as she decimated his regiment with effortless finesse.  On her devastating beauty, on her captivating smile, on the kiss that defeated the mighty Commissionaire.

It had not, much to his regret, been a dream.

He had awoken from her spell into the stark midday heat, the wintry air the witch had carried with her vanished along with both her and any trace of the other one, Genvieve.  His men, he was frankly shocked to discover, still lived to the last of them, though most had broken bones and so many cuts and scrapes that they looked as though they had been dropped from an impossible precipice onto a sea of rocks.  Corporal Valnier was wheezing through cracked ribs, his temper flared beyond its regular level of merely foul.  Their horses were long gone, so they salvaged what they could from the carriage, mended their wounds with the field gear as best possible, and resumed what was now the humiliating long walk to the district garrison.  Etienne had said nothing on the voyage, leaving Valnier to marshal the others and maintain their morale, what little remained of it.  He retreated into his thoughts to ponder his failure.  Should he have left Montagnes-les-grands earlier?  Had it been truly necessary to stage the theatrics of the dinner?  Should they have chosen a different route to the garrison?  Had it perhaps been needless to pursue Genvieve in the first place?  No, as to the latter he had no choice.  It was a directive from the Bureau, and no matter your misgivings, you did not disobey those.  The realization was sobering; Etienne had grown complacent with his record, his indefatigability.  The witch had shown him just how miniscule he truly was.

“Monsieur?” said Sylvette.  She giggled and gave his distracted face a coquettish wave with her perfumed hand.  He saw the witch sweeping his men from the road with hers, saw her touching a flirtatious kiss to her fingertips and unleashing her power against him with a breath.  That face.  Its hypnotic perfection was burned immutably into his vision like that of the child who despite his parents’ warnings stares at the sun too long.  It haunted each step along the endless road to the garrison, hovered on the fringes as the patrolling constabulary happened upon his bedraggled band, manifested in the hearing room days later as his superiors in the Bureau castigated him for his negligence, suspended his rank and ordered him back to Calerre without pay while they considered further sanctions and possible expulsion from the Bureau itself.

Etienne had not argued the decision.

Calerre usually felt like home, but not this time.  The restaurants did not sate his appetite, the operas did not stir his soul, the gambling offered him no joy in victory.  His sleep was sparse and shallow.  Tellingly, he had not gone near any of his customary venues in search of temporary companionship.  The witch’s beauty had been such that it had destroyed his capacity for perceiving it in any other woman.  Those many local belles who had once enchanted him and lent their fire to his nights had become second-rate reminders of the sheer awe that he had been fortunate to witness in a moment ever too fleeting.

Enough of this foolishness.  He was Etienne de Navarre, a decorated Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, dedicated to hunting down witches wherever they lurked and practiced their evil deeds.  The hunter was not meant to long for, let alone lust after his prey.

“Monsieur,” said Sylvette again.  A red fingernail tapped the table.  “Ces gentilhommes attendent sur vous.  S’il vous plaît, choisir votre carte.”

The fog in Etienne’s mind broke, and his face soured.  Deliberately, and certainly taking no pains to avoid inconveniencing his frowning, bourgeois pipe-smoking table-mate, Etienne reached for his glass and drained it in one gulp.  He winced at its bite, coughed hard, and groped at a card from Sylvette’s pile.  It was a seven of moons.  Etienne shuffled it into his hand and mulled over the possibilities.  He pushed another pile of chips forward.   “Augmenter à neuf,” he said.

Sylvette cast eyes to his competitor, whose confidence was abruptly rattled.  “A vous?”

At the least, the unexpected move on Etienne’s part motivated the man to crush out his infernal pipe.  He had the option to fermer now and lose only half his stake.  If he stayed in, the house would double the pot, so a possibility of a large win loomed, but a far more probable loss would claim his entire pile of chips.  Yet men loathed appearing cowardly in front of gorgeous women, and Sylvette’s appeal to this fellow was palpable.  The man sighed, mumbled “dupliquer,” and matched Etienne’s dangerous bet.

“Le jeu continue,” said Sylvette.  She gathered her fan of cards into a single pile, cut them and selected five from the bottom half.  They snapped as she lay them in front of the two players and the lingering two spectators who had already opted for fermer.  An eight and three of ships, a nine of moons, a pair of captains of oceans and a solitaire of stars.  The boor looked mollified, at least for now.  Those two captains in the croupier’s hand combined with the solitaire were a potential threat, but they were undercut by the weakness of the other two cards.  It was all betting and odds now.

“Augmenter à douze,” said Etienne.  He had placed far more chips in the center of the table than remained in his reserve now.  The other man had no option but match him again.  Sylvette spread the rest of the cards in another fan and invited them both to choose.  Route de perle favored boldness, but it had an equally nasty tendency to punish the faint-hearted.  Etienne drew a five of stars.  His opponent did not seem pleased by what he had taken.  Sylvette collected the cards, cut them again and laid five more next to her original draw.  She had added an admiral of oceans and commodore of moons to her hand, along with two useless deuces and a four of ships.

The smart move here would be to end things, to montrer rather than risk the dealer complete what she was very near to achieving.  On another night, in another mood, Etienne would have done so without hesitation.  He smirked, and pushed the last of his chips into the center of the table.

“Augmenter complet,” he said.

Gasps circled the table.  More sweat pooled on the boor’s forehead, seemingly enough to drown a small bird.  His hands were shaking.  With a complet, there would be only one more draw of a single card for both the players and the dealer.  The pot would now be trebled by the house, but it required all players to bet everything they had left.  The other man looked down at the large pile of chips next to his trembling fingers.  Etienne watched greed and sense play out their ageless duel across his opponent’s expression.  If only he could wager on that particular contest.  The man shoved his chips forward and buried his face in his cards.  “Complet,” he repeated.

Sylvette spread the cards out once more.  Etienne and the other man both drew.  Six of stars for the Commissionaire, and again something obviously unappealing for the boor.  The croupier touched a card in the center of the fan and pulled it slowly towards her.  Etienne grinned.  She was just as gifted at drawing out moments as he.  Sylvette slid the tip of her lacquered nail beneath the side of the card, paused for one interminable second and flipped it over.

Mermaid of moons.

“Flotte,” announced the croupier.

“Putain merde de diable!” exploded the other man, confirming his loutish tendencies by slamming fists on the table so hard that drinks spilled, neatly arranged stacks of chips scattered into heaps and both spectators jumped.

“Désolé, monsieur,” said the fetching Sylvette, though not without a perceptible hint of bemusement as she swept his and Etienne’s chips into the receptacle on her side of the table.

“You!” spat the man, redirecting impotent rage at Etienne.  “You made us lose on purpose!”

“Garçon,” said Etienne, lifting his finger to summon the server and ignoring the taunts.  “You could have fermered at any time, mon ami.  Don’t fault me for your inability to read the cards.”

The thin, greasy man and the bland, timid man sensed trouble and tripped over each other attempting to withdraw themselves from the field.  The server approached and Etienne gestured at his empty glass for a top up.  He winced at the odor of the boor, a fetid mix of onion and tabac smoke, as his opponent lurched over him, trying to intimidate Etienne with bulk.  “You owe me ten thousand,” the man wheezed.

Etienne waited until his glass was replenished and he’d taken a cleansing sip.  “Tell you what,” he replied.  “I’ll give you half the money and use the other half to purchase you a decent bath.”

He wasn’t sure what he heard first:  the shriek from Sylvette, the shattering of his wine glass on the marble tile, or the crack of the boor’s chubby, wet fist connecting with his face.  But ending up sprawled on the ground was becoming something of a habit for him.  A gaggle of bodies – Splendide workers, the other man’s allies, and random drunken toffs spoiling for an excuse for a fight – piled on top of him, crushing out the light and the air.  Etienne felt blow after blow land on his body, and he simply closed his eyes and let the assailants have at it while he awaited the inevitable passing out.  He craved seeing the witch once more, and in unconsciousness, his visions of her were the most vivid.

…With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.  Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips.  Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing.  The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.  Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…

The whine of rusted hinges creaking to life startled his eyes open and admitted awful light into his throbbing head.  Ache seized every muscle.  The iron tang of blood filled his mouth from a swollen and split lip, and wafts of stale urine from a cold, lumpen floor floated into his sinuses.  Definitely not the Splendide’s Suite Royale.

“Monsieur,” he heard a wry voice say much too loudly.

Etienne forced his head to turn.  Corporal Valnier was standing at the opened entrance to the jail cell, grinning from ear to ear.  Etienne permitted himself a deprecating laugh.  “I’m sure this is not how you expected to see your Commissionaire again.”

The corporal shrugged.  “Seen worse,” he said.

Etienne groaned as he attempted the impossible feat of sitting up.  He rested his head against the pitted brick wall.  “You have come to liberate me from my path of self-destruction, have you?”

Valnier shook his head.  “The Bureau.”

Etienne felt a chill.  He swallowed razor blades.  “What do they want with me?”

“An assignment,” said the corporal with an eagerness in his eyes more suitable to a child handed a new toy than a grizzled hulk of a man with an uncountable slate of kills to his name.

“What kind of assignment?” asked Etienne.

Valnier took a step forward.  “Retribution.”

*  *  *

Hope you are enjoying this tale!  It seems to be sprawling a bit beyond what I had originally thought, but hey, as long as one derives fulfillment from crafting it, there is surely no reason to stop.  Unless, you know, it becomes boring, but I’m sure you’ll advise me of that.  Roll on Part Six…

Vintage, Part Four

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A flash of inspiration has allowed me to present this next installment to you on a much shorter timeframe.  Hope it was worth the (shorter) wait!

People often talked of time seeming to slow during an instant of extreme crisis, but it was a phenomenon that Etienne had, up until this point, never himself experienced.  By contrast, he prided himself on being the man who could subjugate time to his will and take control of moments.  This particular moment, however, was bombarding his senses with information he couldn’t process fast enough, let alone contemplate reactions to.  Each impulse required dragging his limbs through a morass of glue.  Breaths themselves had to be forced.  He gulped at frigid air and tried to concentrate on the simple action of putting one hand in front of the other, hauling himself along the ground as the world went mad.

He heard yelling, but it too was stretched and deepened by elongated seconds such that he could not decipher the words.  He tried to follow the line of sound to its source, but could see nothing but blurry shadows slithering beneath a sky too old for the sun and too young for the moon and stars.  Sparks and clashes of metal were next, followed by screams.  Etienne kept pulling himself forward, out of the thorns and branches that stabbed into his flesh like probing, skeletal fingers.  He winced at the unfamiliar sensation of pain.

“Valnier!” he heard himself call out, hollering through the soup.  Where was his reliable corporal?  He could not distinguish any of the voices out there in the dark; he knew that they had to belong to his men, but he could not recall ever hearing them so full of panic, chaos, and worst of all, fear.  Etienne needed to take command again, to unite them against whoever – whatever – was attacking them.  Yes, that was it.  It was an attack.  Perhaps a company of thieves, waiting in the wilds for a wealthy company to blunder by.  But how could that be?  Mere thieves couldn’t swing the temperature from sweltering to freezing in a heartbeat.

He needed to reach the road.

More yelling now.  The shrieking of escaping horses, apparently the only ones in their company with any sense.  Boots trampled the ground near him.  Shadows had graduated into silhouettes, and Etienne could see outlines of his soldiers, the cut of their standard uniforms comfortably familiar, blades raised as they hurled themselves into the fray.  He watched them run towards the road, back up the hill the company had just descended before they were besieged.  Etienne tried to glimpse who they were charging, each logical part of him expecting to see an opposing line of cutthroats with swords and bows, perhaps even a catapult judging by the level of destruction the enemy had been able to wreak thus far.

And each logical part of him denying the truth of what was actually there:  a solitary figure, shrouded in hood and cloak, arms raised and held out, and pulsating bands of eerie purple energy swirling and sparking about each extended hand.

A witch.

Etienne’s men converged on her, but the slightest motions of those glowing hands were adequate to sweep them effortlessly from her path.  Her fingers twitched and Etienne watched the bodies of veteran soldiers contort as they were sent careening away over the treetops before they could get within ten paces of her.  The witch was not even granting them the courtesy of a straight fight.  Etienne froze in place and fought to keep his teeth from chattering at the cold, lest he give away his position in the scrub.

Etienne did not remember offhand, and certainly would not have if asked then and there, how many witches he had captured and delivered into the custody of the Bureau Centrale in the course of his brilliant career.  They all had their tricks and their unusual abilities which made oftentimes for a challenging hunt, but he had never seen a witch with this much power.  Someone who could dispense with a full platoon of soldiers as if she were brushing dust from a table.  This was why the Bureau Centrale existed, to prevent witches with such powers from tearing their country asunder, but Etienne wondered if his superiors back home in their comfortable suites had vastly underestimated the reality of the threat out here.  What were soliders, indeed, what were entire armies against such overwhelming magic?  True, she might be unique, but worse still, she might only be the first.

He could not have admitted it to himself – indeed, a Commissionaire’s pride would never dare allow it – but he was afraid.  Raw cold dispersed into his veins by a frenzied heartbeat stole all mobility from his legs, and he tucked his arms into his chest to retain his few lingering shreds of warmth.  And he wondered, probably for the first time in his life, whether he would survive the night.

Another soldier ran towards the witch, confident sword poised to slice her in two from shoulder to thigh.  Etienne wanted to warn the fool, but his jaw held shut.  With a gesture she immobilized the man and hoisted him into the air.  His head lolled back and yelps of pain became choking gurgles as she lifted him higher.  The sword fell from his hand and clattered upon the frozen ground.  She swatted her fingers and tossed him aside.  Visible adversaries dispensed with, the witch proceeded along the road, toward the overturned carriage, her stride unbroken and casual, more of a stroll than a tactical advance.  Etienne watched her pass directly in front of him, the light enveloping her hands like twin beacons draping the night in shadows of amethyst.  Did she know he was here?  Did he dare risk revealing himself?

From bleak prospects suddenly arose a sliver of hope in the form of a single word spoken in a hushed tone by a familiar voice:  “Monsieur.”  Accompanied by a leather-gloved hand laid on Etienne’s shoulder with an atypical reassurance.  Corporal Valnier.  “Restez ici,” he barked, and he was gone again, sword drawn, making a bold line for the witch whose back was to them now.  Valnier did not seem to care whether she heard him.  His steps were heavy and defiant, characteristic of a man who from the day he learned to swing his fists had never backed down from a fight.  Etienne dared to begin to think that his reliable corporal might in fact win the day for them.

He was disabused of that notion in the fraction of a second it took for the witch, without showing the barest acknowledgement of the brute closing in on her, to nonchalantly lift her right hand as though tossing a superstitious pinch of salt over her shoulder, and consequently fling the esteemed Corporal Valnier, arms and legs flailing against invisible forces, into the distant woods like a limp chunk of unwanted carrion.  Etienne did not hear him land.  He could not see any more of his men anywhere, not that it would have mattered now.  If Valnier could not handle her, then what chance did any of the others have?  Especially himself?

The battered carriage lay on its roof in a gully not far from where Etienne was crouched.  He could see everything now.  Again, the witch made a simple flicking motion with her finger, and wood and metal cracked and whined as component fibers and filaments rent themselves asunder and the entire rear section of the carriage helpfully detached itself and tumbled out of the way – revealing the bound and rattled form of the young Genvieve, Etienne’s ostensible prisoner.  She was slumped against one side of the carriage and had a fresh gash across her cheek, a result of the crash.  She and the other witch did not speak.  Instead the witch posed her hand over the magic-inhibiting manacles, and the purple light sharpened into a quick, direct blast from her fingertips that seared the metal instantly into ash.  The collar also sizzled into nothingness in short order, and Genvieve rubbed her throat in disbelief.  Task accomplished, the witch let the energy fade from her hands, and ceded the duty of illumination of the scene to the rising moon.

Freed, Genvieve rose from the wreck.  White light wreathed itself around her, reshaping her body into another feline form, this time much larger than a stringy tortoiseshell, and one Etienne had only ever seen in illustrations of animal life on the jungles of the Lower Continent:  a panther, sleek and black and indistinguishable from the night into which it promptly raced away.  Etienne’s failures were compounding upon themselves with each passing second, and yet it seemed like it had only been a handful of minutes since this had all started.

Perhaps he was dreaming.  Perhaps he had fallen asleep on the long road to the garrison of the maître provinciale, and soon he would be roused by one of his men and see that all was as it should be, the caravan in formation riding quietly south in the hot and still night air.  But the pain in his lacerated legs, the ice making his teeth clack and grind, and the growing desperation seizing his thoughts left little room to wish that this might be resolved only by opening his eyes.

They had lost their prisoner, their custom-bred horses had all fled, the Bureau’s valuable property had been destroyed, and his men were beaten and probably dead for all he knew.  Etienne was his detachment’s last chance to salvage some honor from this near rout.  Drawing upon a depleting resolve, Etienne stood.  He had no sword, and he could spot none within easy reach.  He had only a small dagger tucked inside his uniform jacket, and it was mainly for ceremonial purposes.  Etienne did not recall the last time he had it sharpened, if ever.  He loosened a button and reached in to wrap his fingers around its jeweled hilt.  Touching a weapon usually provided comfort, but this felt to Etienne like the ultimate gesture of futility.  A scary old butter knife with which to challenge the most powerful magic he’d ever seen.  Even the most crooked oddsmaker on Rue de la Reine would not dare touch that wager.

Etienne held the dagger next to his waist, the blade pointing forward.  The Commissionaire swallowed a rock in his throat.  Frozen air filled his lungs.  He took a step.

The witch turned.  She looked straight at him.

Etienne stopped.

His training, and his years of experience, had taught him to hate witches, to mistrust every last thing about them, no matter how innocent it might seem.  His adult life had been devoted to the eradication of their blight upon his cherished country, for the greater glory of the King and the people.  So he knew better than to allow himself to be beguiled.  He knew, as indelibly as words chiseled into stone, that a pretty face was merely another deadly weapon, and that the briefest hesitation in the sight of beauty could mean the difference between triumph and death.

Yet years of training and experience vanished tonight in a breath as he beheld the witch’s face, revealed beneath the hood of her cloak.

She was that beautiful.

Monsieur le Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre admired poetry, though he could not compose it himself.  He had forgotten more literature than the average thousand ordinary peasants combined had read, but the ability to describe the sublime perfection of the face looking back at him was beyond even his highly educated means.  Calerre had so many attractive women floating about its societal echelons, and each could boast of a particular feature of her visage that might elevate her above her kin; the sly, sharp, artistic arch of a dark eyebrow, the deep shade of rose upon a sculpted cheekbone, lips that blossomed like spring flowers and ran red with the hottest blood, to name but a few that had crossed his path.  It was as if someone had measured and catalogued the highest attainable degree for each of these rare and becoming physical traits and bestowed them all into a single woman.  And here, beholding this inconceivable objet d’art made flesh, Etienne could not muster a move.  He looked back at her, stupidly, like a boy touched with the first stirrings of puberty and beginning to comprehend the depth of his helplessness before this most feminine of all imaginable worldly and otherworldly powers.

With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.

Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips.  Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing.  The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.

Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin.  Each extremity seemed to disappear in turn, the sensation of numbness racing through his body until he felt like nothing but eyes and a mouth floating in space.  Then even that was gone, and he fell into slumber with the witch’s face etched into his dreams.

*  *  *

There’s more, honest!  We’re just getting going.  Stay tuned!  In fact, just tune in here!

Vintage, Part Three

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The following is brought to you by the letter V, the number 3 and a soulless multinational defense conglomerate that may or may not have been responsible for the MK-Ultra program.  Hope you like it.  If you’re new to this tale, Parts One and Two are just a scroll down away.

About a year ago, a traveling opera company had staged a production of La Sirena Ridere at Calerre’s Palais des Printemps, which Etienne had been terribly excited to see, coming as it did in a well-timed and well-deserved sabbatical from his regular duties.  La Sirena was famed for the magnificent and demanding multi-octave-spanning aria by the female lead in the second act that few sopranos were capable of achieving.  Even a sublime talent like the radiant Chelys Anjour – Etienne’s longtime favorite performer – could only execute it successfully on perhaps every third attempt, if she was having a good day and the acoustics in the venue were favorable.  The foreign troupe in question had none of these factors working in its favor; still, sitting in his box on that night, Etienne had commended them for their audacity in the attempt and held out hope that he might find himself pleasantly surprised.  However, as Act Two drew to a close, the Commissionaire’s discriminating ears were lacerated by what he now considered only the second worst thing he had ever heard.

Neck locked in Corporal Valnier’s seasoned grip, the cat screamed and hissed and flailed its paws, curled claws sinking into the thick, hewn leather of his glove.  Valnier hoisted the cat into the air, and, holding it a safe measure outside swiping distance of his face, carried it howling away from the table as Etienne dabbed his mouth politely with a napkin and rose from his chair.  The old woman began wailing and weeping as well, and though her arthritic arm flails weren’t quite as frenzied as the cat’s, they still merited restraint by two of Etienne’s men.  No one else in the room, particularly the rotund Maire Bernaud Joyal, dared move, intimidated at every turn by the soldiers eyeing their merest twitch.  Valnier pressed the cat against the back wall, the brutish man taking care not to injure its fragile head even as his fist was but one nervous impulse from crushing its spine.

Etienne pointed at the old woman.  “Quiet,” he said simply, and stared at her, unblinking and even, until she ran out of breath and her cries shrank to whimpers.  He then joined his corporal at the wall, where the cat too was squirming with far less vigor as each second slid by, its screeching fading from incessant and grating to halting and merely distracting.  Controlling time, Etienne had discovered, was the best way to take command of a room.  The patience to allow your opponents to wear themselves out was a skill that took longer to hone than any particular proficiency with a blade, or incisiveness with one’s wit.  Too many were eager to try to win such battles with haste.  Patience was most certainly required in a scene such as this, which, Etienne could admit, would look quite ridiculous to a passer-by.  A mighty detachment of the King’s soldiers, led by a distinguished Commissionaire, capturing a cat.  And it was not by any stretch the strangest assignment Etienne had ever found himself leading.

Said feline was mewling weakly now, its paws resigned and limp.  Its tail hung straight down.  Corporal Valnier kept his hand locked around its neck.  Etienne allowed himself a smirk.  “Cats are renowned for their sense of self-preservation,” he said.  “I have heard tell that when their owners have died and left them to starve, cats will not hesitate to eat the flesh of the very hands that once fed and cared for them.  Loyalty, it seems, cannot conquer the cries of one’s stomach.  I suspect, however, that this situation is somewhat different.”  No one answered him.  “Well then.  This has gone on quite far enough, don’t you think, my dear?  I suggest you save us all a great deal of bother.  Or, you can watch your friends’ entrails spill onto the floor in turn.  Your choice.  But I don’t imagine you’re that hungry yet.”  He nodded to his detachment spread about the room, their swords drawn, herding the villagers into manageable clumps of quivering flesh.  Blades edged nearer to necks.  Etienne removed his watch from his pocket again and flipped it open.

It took only a fragment of time for the maire to lose his nerve.  “Gen!” he hissed.

The cat stopped moving.  Panicked round eyes narrowed to calm slits again.  If one did not know better, one might have even noted a shrug of its shoulders, an acceptance that all was lost.

A white shimmer began to gleam from beneath the cat’s fur, spinning into the air around it like dust motes hovering in a beam of sunlight, caught and whisked into a tizzy by a sudden breeze.  Strands of light layered tenderly over themselves and grew into a cocoon shrouding the cat’s form, yet the unflappable Corporal Valnier kept his grip tight, even as the light expanded beyond the silhouette of the animal and extended to the floor.  It reshaped itself into the more familiar and logical contours of a human being and began to withdraw into ether, each tendril slinking into nothingness like a wave shrinking from a shore.  Left in the wake of the transformation and the vanishing rush of white was the terrified shape of a girl, edging past her teenage years.

“Salut, mademoiselle minette,” Etienne said.

She was pretty enough; witches usually were, in Etienne’s experience.  But he had long ago conditioned himself against the pull of base instincts.  He could sate his appetites for feminine companionship back in Calerre; on assignment, he was stone.  His dedication to his work, his devotion to the Bureau, his appreciation for the romantic aesthete’s life the pay allowed him to lead at home crushed any logical inklings of temptation he might feel.  It was drilled into them in training:  beauty was only another weapon in a witch’s formidable arsenal.  Few of her spells could be as potent as a mere whispered plea from a pair of soft, inviting lips.  More than one Commissionaire had been undone in that way, and Etienne had no intention of being the next addition to that embarrassing list.  He focused immediately on the flaws:  the limp, stringy hair, the squarish chin, the overlong, gawky neck straining beneath Valnier’s grasp.  And he avoided the eyes.  Eyes invoked sympathy.  Instead, he turned away to address the rest of the people.

“Behold, mesdames et monsieurs, the creature you have risked your lives to protect,” he said. “Had you exercised some prudence, had you not desired to use her talents to fatten your purse…”  He narrowed his focus to the pathetic visage of Bernaud Joyal.  “Who knows how many years you might have scuttled safely out of reach of the vigilance of the Bureau Centrale.  Yet you all know the law.  And you know the consequence for breaking it.”

“Please, monsieur,” interrupted a meek, shaking voice, new to the exchange.  “They have not done anything wrong.”

“Well, that is certainly more palatable to the ears than anything else from you so far this evening, my dear,” Etienne said.  He allowed himself a glance at her, yet it remained in motion, flitting across her body, never meeting the eyes that he could tell were beginning to tear up, based on the trembling evident beneath the forced steadfastness of her begging.  Staying clear of a look was more than just preventing any hint of empathy, it was also showing her that he did not acknowledge her as a person, let alone as the remotest semblance of an equal.  Yet another tenet of the Bureau Centrale.  “And you will forgive me for disagreeing.  The village of Montagnes-les-grands has indeed done wrong; it has committed treason by harboring a weapon that might be used against the interests of our King and great country, as egregious an offense as giving aid and comfort to enemy combatants.”

“My magic harms none!” the witch said.  “All I can do is help plants to grow.  I have only tried to help this village survive the drought.”

Etienne laughed.  “All you can do, hmm?  Apart from being able to transform yourself into any number of creatures that could infiltrate our most secret installations?  Spy on our senior officials and compromise the confidential proceedings that keep our country safe and secure?  Get yourself near enough to the royal family in order to to carry out an assassination?”

“I would never–”

“Mademoiselle,” the Commissionaire said, “Gen, is it?  Short for something?”

The young witch’s eyes fell to the splinters in the floor.  “Genvieve.”

“Genvieve.  The hour is growing late and I have not wish to tarry in this dunghill of a village any longer than my assignment requires.  Therefore I present you with two options, admittedly neither of which you may find overly favorable, but the preferred choice will see each man and woman walk out of this room alive.  That is, if you surrender to my men and I.  The other path involves you attempting to use your powers to extricate yourself from this predicament, which, talented as you undoubtedly are, presents at the least the possibility of a temporary reprieve.  It does, however, ensure that we will kill everyone here, beginning with this gnarled creature who seems to hold you in such high regard.”  One of the men restraining the old woman touched the tip of his blade to her throat and pressed against it just enough to draw a single drop of gleaming red blood.  It trickled a snaking path down the polished metal, pooled and fell to the floor, landing with a tiny plosh that everyone could hear, so taut the silence as all waited on the next move.

Genvieve looked to the old woman, wrinkled skin stretched smooth as she cringed at the touch of the soldier’s blade.  The witch’s own neck chafed in the grip of Corporal Valnier, who, unlike Etienne, had no problem with staring into her eyes, as his black pupils were dead to a concept as foreign to him as mercy.  Etienne attended with arms clasped behind his back, affecting indifference as to her ultimate decision.  For him it was merely a question of how much blood would be joining that solitary drop lying on the floor.

“I will go with you,” the witch said, tears drying from her eyes but filling her throat.

The old woman began sobbing as the soldier removed the blade from her neck.  Etienne nodded to another of his men, who fetched a satchel from beneath his feet and dropped it in the middle of the table.  Etienne broke the seal on the top flap and extracted a pair of metallic items, fabricated by the Bureau’s engineering section:  one large, dinner plate-sized locking ring and two smaller ones connected by a chain.  Etienne had never been certain what kind of metal it was.  It resembled fine silver, but it never tarnished, never even absorbed the oils of fingerprints.  It was effective enough, however, that Etienne had long ceased wondering about its origin.  He motioned to Valnier to bring the witch over.  “Your hands, please, mademoiselle,” the Commissionaire said.

Genvieve held them out without protest.  Valnier took the manacles from Etienne and snapped them into place.  Etienne retained the task of attaching the collar around the witch’s neck.  “Certainly more fashionable than the good corporal’s glove, n’est-ce-pas?” he said.  Genvieve had no rejoinder.  She was a young woman utterly defeated.  And now, wearing the Bureau’s custom collar and manacles, she would find herself incapable of casting any magic.  Quite harmless.

“Monsieur Valnier, you will see to Mademoiselle’s traveling arrangements?” Etienne said.  Valnier seized the witch by the arm and forced her towards the door.

The old woman screamed again, and the soldiers held her back.  “Where are you taking my granddaughter?” she howled.

“Fear not, my dear lady,” Etienne said.  “Your young one is just in need of a little re-education in the ways of polite, law-abiding society.”

The woman collapsed into a torrent of grief and pain, her pitiful sobs shaking the walls.  Etienne stepped past her to the frozen face of Bernaud Joyal, a man just as condemned as the witch being marched out of the salle.  “Monsieur le maire,” Etienne said, “an officier from the Bureau will be arriving tomorrow to take charge of this village and supervise the reparations due the King for your actions.  He is not a subtle man, and he has no taste for cuvée.  I would strongly urge that you place your affairs in order and give due consideration to abandoning your post.  I hear Fauniere is quite lovely this time of year, if you succeed in making it that far.”  Without giving the man an opportunity to answer, Etienne spun on his boot heel and exited the salle with the rest of his men, and never again wasted a further thought on Bernaud Joyal.

Outside, the afternoon heat had scarcely abated a blink, even as the late sun began to dip at their backs over the crest of the Araquogne Escarpement.  The persistent drone of cicada wings cut the thick air, accompanied by the first hint of crickets emerging for the night.   Efficient as ever, Etienne’s detachment had already loaded the witch into the cell at the rear of the carriage and readied his horse.  With dispatch, he climbed into the saddle.

There was a garrison about two hours’ ride south of here, where they could discharge their young prisoner into the custody of the maître provinciale for this district, and find a quiet night’s rest before setting out on the three day journey back to Calerre in the morning.  Etienne sighed at the thought.  He had been too long away from the tables, the opera, the restaurant where his rank afforded him the best table and a complimentary selection from their cellars.  He was tired of holes in the ground like Montagnes-les-grands and the snivelling types who squatted there like so many filthy moles.  And he was tired of the heat.  The drought had weighed upon the country for what seemed like years now, but at least Calerre had the benefit of cooling breezes blowing across it from the neighboring sea.  He remembered his father taking him to the harbor to watch the great masted cargo ships coming and going, and the smell of the brine and the salt and the sound of the almost musical patois of the sailors.  And his father cautioning him against repeating the profanities he heard in front of his mother.

Corporal Valnier’s horse edged up alongside his.  “All ready,” he announced.

“Valnier,” Etienne said, “is it possible you might ever have more than two words for me?”

The corporal shrugged and spat.  “Doubt it.”

Etienne laughed and shook the reins.  A chorus of hooves signaled the departure of the detachment from Montagnes-les-grands, a place destined to be forgotten the moment it vanished from view.

No one talked as they made their way south.  The carriage cell had no windows barring a small slit at the very top to keep the occupant from suffocating.  Usually, whoever was in there would scream and cry for at least an hour until their lungs gave out and the promise of hope went with them.  By contrast, this witch, Genvieve, did not utter a sound.  Etienne had never encountered one so seemingly indifferent to what was happening to her.  She did know what being apprehended by a Commissionaire for practicing witchcraft meant, did she not?  Etienne was half-tempted to climb aboard the carriage and ask the girl himself, but he quickly thought better of it.  A little longer and she would be someone else’s problem, and he would be on his well-earned way home.

Etienne felt the hairs on his arm stand as a shiver touched his back.  Odd.  He was too tired, he reasoned.  The heat refused to abate and here he was suffering a chill.  He did not relish the notion of voyaging back to Calerre and waging a battle against a fever at the same time.

The shiver returned, this time snaking its way into his boots and bracketing his sides.  Etienne yanked back on the reins and brought his horse to a stop.  Corporal Valnier, bringing up the rear, noticed and hollered at the rest of the caravan to halt.  He trotted to his Commissionaire’s side.  “Monsieur?” the corporal inquired.

“Shh,” Etienne said.  Apart from the occasional whicker of one of the horses, the oncoming night had gone completely silent.  No animals, no insects, not even a fragment of wind rustling through a bush.  Etienne blew out a long breath and watched it condense into icy mist in front of him.  It was as if they had crossed a threshold into deep winter.  “What the hell is going–”

A clap of thunder exploded next to him as something hurled him from his horse and sent him sprawling across the hard, dry earth, which tore through his silks and ripped away patches of his skin.  He came to a merciful stop in a web of dried thickets, and he gathered himself enough to look up for a moment and see his men flung through the air like discarded toys, the horses squealing and flailing in the dirt and splinters of wood and iron bursting from the massive carriage as it went tumbling end over end.  And a sudden, instinctive thought that a true Commissionaire would never, even in his darkest moments, lower himself to thinking, flashed through his mind.

Quelqu’un nous sauver…

*  *  *

To be continued… right here!

Vintage, Part Two

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To read Part One, scroll down past this post.  Otherwise, soldier on.

Only a poor man would have called it a feast.  Etienne had attended enough lavish banquets back in Calerre to have etched his expectations for that honorific far too high for a modest, forgotten place like Montagnes-les-grands to even approach.  He was not, however, so closed off that he could not at the least admit that Maire Bernaud Joyal and his gathered citizenry were trying their best to keep him and his detachment sated with the meager selection it was within their capacity to offer.

They sat at the long, plain, pitted dining table in the salle publique, the venue here most suited to accommodate a visiting Commissionaire and his entourage, even if it reeked of horse and a hint of years-old vomit.  Etienne leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, sipping at a red served inelegantly in a glazed wooden goblet, and grinning at the mortification souring the put-upon maire’s round face to his immediate right.  They were fourteen at the table, swarmed by twenty hurrying to clear used plates and replace them with dishes fresh and hot.  The din of base conversation and the constant clanking of cutlery was troubling Etienne with the beginnings of a headache.  Or it could have just been the cheapness of the wine.  EIther way, Etienne winced and took another sip – in for a sou, in for a livre.

Amuse-bouches of spiced bean soup with ginger root and appetizers of tartes flambée with smoked bacon and caramelized onion had been first, followed by a small mid-meal dish of brandied pears.  Valnier and his men were gobbling the food down as fast as the villagers could ladle it out, with the crass single-mindedness – and flagrant ignorance of table manners – one would expect from career soldiers.  The aging villagers were not the most nimble in keeping up, either, and three times the persistent hum of the meal had been shattered by an errant plate spreading shards of itself over the floorboards, followed by Joyal’s effusive apologies.  A stringy tortoiseshell cat roamed the mise-en-scene, wandering amidst legs and licking at the occasional scrap tumbling from crude forks.

“You are not a young village, are you, Bernaud?” Etienne said to the maire, with a nod toward the sun and year-scarred cracks in the face of the hunched man who refreshed his cup.

“N-no, Monsieur le Commissionaire.  Many of our young were lost in the war, and the rest do not stay.  There is very little to fire a young man’s soul in Montagnes.”

“Oh, come now,” Etienne said, lifting the goblet to inhale the bouquet, which reminded him distinctly of a charred, wet bucket full of rotting apples.  “Opportunity is where one creates it.  Did you know that Gysbert Lashace composed fifteen of his greatest arias before he had set foot outside Fauniere?  And Fauniere has not the fortune to reside in the shadow of the Araquogne as you do.”  Fauniere had little fortune at all; it was a backwater slum of maybe a hundred bedraggled peasants cobbled from the remnants of a remote border garrison that had not had the good sense to be overrun during the war ten years prior.

“W-with respect, Monsieur,” Joyal said softly, “Grand Duc Lashace grew up at his family’s lakeside summer retreat ten miles from Fauniere and was apprenticed by esteemed composers who had studied at the Conservatoire Royale.  He did have a certain advantage that we here do not.”

Etienne smiled at the maire’s impressive display of trivia.  “Yet would he have been able to invest his work with such a poignant sense of melancholy from amidst the velvet and frills of the capital?  The nobility of the suffering he portrays could only come from having walked with the common people, listened to their stories, shared in their prayers.”  Etienne set his cup down and leaned forward.  “You see, my fellow Commissionaires often miss this point.  They are slow to volunteer for the assignments that take them far from home.  I tell them, the true spirit of a people is found not in its cities, but in the farthest reaches where convenience is but a dream and ceaseless toil the ultimate measure of one’s life.  Out here is where one finds the honor one professes to seek.”  He leaned back and cast a glance toward Valnier, seated next to the maire.  “What say you, Corporal?”

The gruff soldier looked up from his soup bowl.  A bead of thick amber trickled from the corner of his mouth.  “Good food,” he grunted.

Etienne grinned.  “There, you see, Bernaud,” he said, “praise does not come any higher.  And Valnier has been with me for five years now in our journey across the country visiting communities like this one, serving the government of His Majesty the King.  Occasionally having the opportunity to enjoy a fine meal in good company.  Speaking of which–” He slid his disappointing cup toward the maire.  “When are you going to open your better selections?”

Joyal swallowed hard, looked over his shoulder and threw his arm into the air.  Half the servers crowded forth to tear away the remnants of the tarts and brandied pears while the others retreated to the kitchen to bring out the mains.  Etienne watched Corporal Valnier fume silently as his soup bowl was taken from him; the man was as deliberate in eating as he was vicious in swinging a sword.

The kitchen doors swung open and the aroma of braised meat filtered into the salle.  “Entrecote marchand de vin?” guessed Etienne.  Joyal nodded.  “Splendid,” said the Commissionaire, and he leaned back to watch the procession of elderly servers try to stay vertical as they slid the heaping plates in front of his eager men.  The servers were a nervous lot, with a hefty dose of fear driving their arthritic limbs past capacity, apart from one:  a short, plain-faced woman with wild, wiry gray hair, reminding him of brambles.  Her movements were languid where the others were rushed, her demeanor placid where her colleagues could scarcely contain their desperation for the night to end.  Curious.  The hag seemed to be without fear.  Etienne might have even guessed that she was bored.  Bernaud Joyal could stand to take a cue from her; he might gain a few more years of bureaucratic ennui.  Right now though, Etienne preferred the maire where he was; teetering on that precarious edge of complete nervous collapse.

Etienne felt the cat brush past his boot.  It wandered beneath the table, tucking its tail away from the threat of stumbling old feet.  Lucky thing to be residing here instead of a town like Fauniere, where the drought might have seen it carved up and served with a tumbleweed as garnish.

Joyal located a modicum of courage beneath his hairless pate as the last of the servers withdrew from the table.  “I-if I may be permitted to inquire as to the purpose of Monsieur le Commissionaire’s welcome visit to Montagnes-les-grands?”  Etienne glimpsed the bramble-haired woman, standing back by the now-closed kitchen door, watching them with an even, expectant stare.

The Commissionaire looked to Corporal Valnier.  Valnier stopped eating and threw a glare at his men, who responded as they had on scores of similar occasions.  Silence cut the conversational din as swiftly as a knife far sharper than those which could barely hack through the leathery cuts of meat on their plates.  A nerve pulsed beneath the pink skin of Joyal’s forehead.

All attention was on Etienne now, and he knew how to play it as well as any performer he’d seen on the stage.  He often joked to himself that watching opera in Calerre had taught him more than the reams of texts the Bureau had thrown at him in the course of his official training.  People were predisposed to be an audience; easily manipulated by theatricality, desperate to bestow their admiration upon someone they considered famous, or merely their superior – even if that person wasn’t.  The rank of Commissionaire was mere formality, really.  Etienne could have limped into this village on the back of a manure cart and still had them begging to listen to him.

He met Joyal’s frantic gaze, locked and directed the maire’s eyes to the empty wine cup sitting between them.  Joyal shook his arm into a waving blur and the bramble-haired woman stepped forward, a glass decanter clutched between gnarled fingers.  Etienne sat back and allowed her to pour.  He could tell by the color alone as the decanter emptied that this was what he had come to sample, not whatever glorified donkey urine they’d fobbed off on him earlier.  The maire probably thought he was being clever by choosing this moment to lavish gifts upon the Commissionaire.  It wasn’t an unrealistic ploy; certain less scrupulous bearers of the title had been known to look the other way when a sufficient bribe crawled into their pockets.  But here, Joyal was merely sealing his village’s fate.

“M-may I present the fruits of our summer harvest, our cuvée speciale,” the maire said.  “I h-humbly hope Monsieur le Commissionaire will find it a bold, inspired choice.”

The old woman took a discreet step back to watch Etienne lift the cup to his lips.  The bouquet had the expected frame of oak surrounding a distinct flavor of plum.  He allowed the first taste to slide over his tongue and into his throat, evaluating each of its nuances as a man of science would pore over the results of his experiment.  Searching for commonality, for contradiction, establishing connections, analyzing those elements that remained separate.  Testing his hypothesis to its limits and arriving, presently, at the inescapable conclusion.

C’est vrai.

Etienne set the goblet back on the table.  “Monsieur le maire,” he said, abandoning both familiarity and any semblance of a regional patois, and reassuming the scholarly tones of upper class Calerre, “there is but one purpose for our visit to Montagnes-les-grands.  Indeed, from the instant you glimpsed the approach of our company you would have known our purpose, and it is something of an exercise in pedantry for you to ask me to state aloud that of which every person in this room is already quite cognizant.  The time we are granted to walk this world is brief, and I am not renowned for my patience with having mine polluted by unnecessary conversation.”

“M-monsieur–”

Etienne slammed his hand on the table.  Plates and glasses and people alike jumped – it was as if for half a second the contents of the entire room suddenly shifted upward, and came to rest again, slightly off-kilter from where they had been before.  A change that could not be reversed.  “Don’t interrupt,” the Commissionaire said evenly.  In that instant, Joyal looked to have lost a few inches from his height and a few dozen more hairs from the limited reserve upon his head.  The indifference on the old crone’s face began to wither as well, usurped by the creep of dread.

“So,” Etienne went on.  “This country, of which we are proud to call ourselves citizens, is a land of rich and noble traditions, protected by a fabric of laws and governance which protects those traditions in much the same manner as a blanket protects the sleeping child on the winter’s night.  So long as the blanket remains intact, the child remains safe and warm.  Yet as any weaver will tell you, the finest cloth will be reduced to tatters in time, if it is not mended with vigilance and care.  Threads may snag on the edge of the bed frame, moisture and dirt may rot it from the inside, moths may devour patches greedily until the blanket is destroyed and the child freezes.”  He glared at Joyal.  “You are the moth, Monsieur le maire, and I… am the needle.”

“Monsieur le Commissionaire, I truly must protest–”

“You’ve lost your stammer, Bernaud,” Etienne noted, “if not your capacity for interruption.  Valnier?”  The corporal stood.  “If our benevolent host speaks again before I give him leave, kindly break his face.”  Joyal’s protests turned to water and fell silent once more.

“There is witchcraft in this country,” Etienne said, raising his voice to ensure he could be heard even by those cleaning pots in the kitchen – though they dared not move now.  “It is a merciless, clawed and fanged demon, tearing relentlessly at the blanket which keeps us safe, seeking to leave us naked before the storm.  And no matter how many demons we slay, more rise to take their place.  Why?  Because of villages like this one.  You, who think that you are too remote to be noticed, that the matters of the rural communities mean nothing to the bureaucrats sitting on their silk-swaddled culs counting tax revenue in Calerre.  You think you are exempt from the law.  From reason.  From sanity.  The Bureau Centrale, and its Commissionaires, are the first defense against what you would seek to spread across our homeland like the plagues of centuries ago.  Like expert winemakers, we are tasked to separate the rotten grapes and ensure that the resulting vintage is of the most impeccable quality.”  He removed his timepiece from his pocket, exposed its face and placed it on the table between himself and Joyal.  “Now, Monsieur, you have sixty seconds to explain to me why I am wrong, and I why I shouldn’t have you and the entire population of this village macerated into must.”

The tortoiseshell cat chose that moment to leap onto the table, startling a few of Etienne’s detachment into snickers of accidental laughter.  It parked itself in an empty section between half-finished dinner plates and tucked its paws beneath its belly, diamond-shaped eyes following the room’s only conversation.  Etienne kept his eyes on the movement of his watch’s second hand, each passing tick one fewer chance for Bernaud Joyal to save his community from a torrent of sword and flame.

The flushed red in the maire’s cheeks approached that of his cuvée.  “This is an outrageous accusation,” he said, jowls shaking out flecks of spittle.  “We are a poor village.  There are no witches here.  The law is the law.  We would not dare offend His Majesty by offering harbor to such people!”

The Commissionaire closed his watch.  “With thirteen seconds to spare, no less.”  Etienne cast his glance to the bramble-haired woman standing just behind the maire.  She was attempting to inch back to the shadows, clearly out of hope of escaping notice.  Her look of boredom had been replaced entirely with fear.  “I’ll take another glass, my dear,” he said to her.  Joyal eyed her nervously as she took a halting step forward and tilted the decanter over Etienne’s cup, spilling more than she poured.  “Oh, shame,” said Etienne.  “Fitting, however, because this is what tipped your hand.”

Joyal’s stammer returned.  “I-I don’t understand.”

“The life of a Commissionaire affords one the privilege of travel across the entire country, the chance to sample selections from vineyards both majestic and meager.  To develop a palate that can identify the origin of wine down to the singular patch of earth from which its vines sprang.  Your cuvée, monsieur, bears the signature taste of plum that marks every wine from the southern slope of the Araquogne, as indeed it should.  Yet you are remiss in thinking a seasoned connoisseur cannot tell the difference between a grape grown in a wet season and one in a drought.  When vineyards are drying out left and right beneath this punishing sun, you present me with a wine from soil so damp it might as well have been cultivated at the bottom of the ocean.  Bold and inspired indeed.”

All color washed from Joyal’s complexion like an ebbing tide.

Etienne favored the maire with a smug grin.  “Your village is using witchcraft to boost the productivity of your fields.  How many harvests did you enjoy this year?  Four?  Five?  Wines from Montagnes-les-grands are turning up in towns and bourgs as remote as Leunais and Doyen, providing you with a steady stream of revenue to see you through the drought, and fulfill your tax obligations to the last sou.  A fine scheme, worthy of a grandmaster.  Yet painfully obvious to anyone who knows his wine.”  He raised his cup in a mock toast, and drained the last dregs.  “Alors, monsieur, like the habitual gambler we find ourselves down to the last of our chips and only twos and threes in our hand.  Shall you reveal the witch to me and my men, or shall we put each of you to the question in turn until severed limbs drag the truth from bruised lips?”

Joyal’s voice cracked into the whisper of a mouse.  “M-monsieur, I-”

“No matter,” Etienne said.  “In point of fact, the witch is here in this room.  Too curious by half, it seems, to safeguard herself.”  He slipped his watch back into his breast pocket and rose.  Valnier and his detachment followed suit.  Etienne turned to the bramble-haired old woman standing behind the maire.  “Corporal Valnier,” he said.

“Sir.”

The crone was trembling now.  The corner of Etienne’s mouth turned up into a smirk.  “Arrest the witch,” he said.

A wail tore through the room as the corporal’s gloved hand coiled itself around the neck of the cat.

*  *  *

Much more to come.  In fact, you can read Part Three by just clicking in this tender spot.

Vintage, Part One

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This will be unlike any post you’ve read here before.  A brief digression by way of preamble – this is a concept that has been kicking around my brain for a while.  My fiction muscles are a bit rusty and they need flexing, so I thought it might be worthwhile to try them out on you, my cherished and loyal readers.  Mostly, I need to prove to myself I’ve still got the chops.  This piece is tangentially related to my novel in that it is a side story, set in the same world (i.e. same rules), though a thousand miles removed, in a different country, maybe not even at the same time.  And the tone is significantly different, as is the protagonist, the style and so on.  My thought is posting this as an ongoing saga, with new chapters released periodically (shamelessly cribbing the strategy from Amira Makansi with her wonderful “Porous” tale); a story unfolding in real time, witnessed by you, evolving as it goes.  I’m eager to hear what you think.  So, without further ado, here is VINTAGE.

Allons-y encore.

A sour tincture of desperation and manure reeked from the village, the same aroma that permeated every meager settlement from here to the abandoned ports on the Delprician coast.  It was the pungent signature of squandered potential and wasted life – of poverty, if he was being frank – and it spewed from the cracks baked into the earth by a misanthropic sun.  Etienne began to smell it a mere five miles out; a parasite borne by afternoon zephyrs, slithering up and into his nostrils, daring him to retch at its familiarity.  He had trudged through too many of these villes, bourgs and communes in the course of his work, and each one had the distinct gift of making him miss the perfumed pale flowers lining the stone-paved streets of Calerre with pangs ever more acute.

Sweat trickling over his brow for the first time today, Etienne tilted his head down and grasped at a whiff of the starch and fresh cotton of his cravat and lapels.  The rank of Commissionaire granted him the privilege of riding in the more palatably scented carriage at the rear of the procession, but he’d always spurned that nicety in favor of riding ahead, of watching the road unveil itself before him and the locals ducking out of his way.  They were a small detachment, as always, just him and a dozen armed escorts, but it was all they’d ever needed.  Everyone knew what a Commissionaire was, what he represented, what they risked in defying him.

“Damned heat,” spat Corporal Valnier in his customary manner, which could charitably be called minimalist restatement of the obvious.  A roughened palm found the corporal’s brow and came away coated in wet, salty sheen.  He rubbed it against his horse’s neck and the horse tossed its mane in protest.  Etienne permitted himself a silent smirk.  It was rare to elicit more than a few words from Valnier at any given time, but Etienne had not hired him for his skill at badinage.  None of the men in his company were talkers; he preferred to think of them not as men but as extensions of his will.  To secure the coveted position with the entourage of a Commissionaire, one needed only to be adept at taking orders, and when required, breaking bones.  Valnier was particularly skilled in the latter discipline, and Etienne was glad for the heat; it would render the corporal especially irritable and eager to demonstrate his facility with the shattering of limbs should this approaching venture go sideways, as it occasionally did.

Plus de joueurs?

The briefing had been short, as usual.  The Directeur had summoned him from his habitual seat at the green baize-draped tables of the Splendide on Calerre’s Rue de la Reine and given him the name of the village and a rundown on the smattering of oddities that had led the Bureau Centrale to focus its suspicions on it.  In the last months, since the executive decree increasing the penalties for collaboration, a rush of informers had sprung up everywhere, like weeds defying the ongoing drought.  Not here, however.  All Etienne had to go on was a list of circumstances that did not add together.  He preferred these cases, as they were opportunities to flex his deduction.  If it was a straightforward arrest to be made, there was no need for the deft, literate touch of a Commissionaire.

The village was called, apparently without sense of irony, Montagnes-les-grands; a pretentious moniker for a collection of huts carved into the dry slope of the Araquogne Escarpement.  Until today, Montagnes-les-grands had been one of the innumerable communities through the country that had largely escaped notice of the government and of the Bureau, remaining consistent with their tax payments and demanding nothing back.  It was the former that had raised eyebrows at the Bureau; seven months into the drought now and where every tiny hamlet the kingdom over had struggled in arrears, with desperate letters swamping the capital requesting extensions and compassionate exemptions, Montagnes-les-grands stayed on schedule and nary a sou short.  In the present climate, uninterrupted prosperity was something to distrust.  It would be incorrect to suggest that Etienne had been assigned to find out why – he knew why, and the Bureau knew why, but the Commissionaire’s task was to expose the evidence and parade the guilty as a cautionary tale.  The appearance of adherence to the law needed to be maintained, even if it would ultimately have been simpler to kill everyone in Montagnes-les-grands and be done with it.  But then, as Etienne reasoned, he’d be out of a job.

The first of the village homes emerged into view now from behind an outcropping of parched brush.  With a jab to its ribs, Etienne quickened his horse to a trot, followed by Valnier and the rest.  Clouds of dust billowed from beneath the pounding of hurried hooves, and a sound akin to fist-sized drops of rain pelting against glass echoed ahead into the main road dividing Montagnes-les-grands in two.  As they crossed into the village proper, heads poked out of doors and ducked back inside just as quickly at the recognition of the gold-and-black trim of a Commissionaire’s uniform jacket, of the ensign stitched to the banner trailing from the empty carriage in the rear of the company.  There could be no doubt in any of their minds why he was here, and while they may have thought themselves immune, much too far from Calerre, much too rural to be noticed, that naivete ended the instant Etienne reined his horse to a stop and planted his polished black boots on the dry earth.

The ambient noise in the centre of the village fell away as those who had not managed to flee in time froze in place and directed their eyes toward the Commissionaire and his convoy.  The level of deference amused Etienne, but his face was a practiced monolith.  He took a step forward, separating himself from Corporal Valnier and the other soldiers.  “Mesdames et monsieurs of Montagnes-les-grands, I am Commissionaire de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale.  Authority is granted me by His Majesty the King to conduct a… survey of your village.  Your cooperation is expected, and appreciated.  Please have your maire present himself to me.”  Behind him, Valnier snorted and spat.  Etienne heard the crack of a new brushed leather glove as the corporal adjusted his grip on the hilt of his sword.  Valnier’s cohorts likewise straightened themselves and returned any errant glances in their direction with soulless glares.

A squat, disheveled, somewhat porcine man shuffled forward from scattered ranks of the two score-or-so villagers still lingering nearby.  He was hairless, but for a few tufts of gray still clinging behind his ears like old soldiers who never received the message that the war had ended, and sad-eyed, with the weight of the cares of hundreds pressing down upon him every day.  “Monsieur le Commissionaire,” he stammered from a splintering voicebox.  “Welcome to our loyal community.  I am Joyal, Bernaud Joyal, Maire of Montagnes-les-grands.”

Deux joueurs.

Etienne waited, extending the drama, and watched sweat beads run unhindered over the freckle-dappled eggshell that was the top of the man’s head.  Then he broke into a warm, oily smile and reached out to clasp Joyal’s shoulder.  “Monsieur le maire,” he said.  Etienne began to walk ahead, his arm draped around the confused local official’s shoulder.  “Such a delight to be here, finally, in Montagnes.  You have no idea the wonderful tales I’ve heard of your hospitality.”

“Y-yes, of course,” replied the maire, clearly vacillating between his justified fear of the Commissionaire’s plans and a leader’s duty to welcome new business.  Etienne had seen it so often; they always held onto a small sliver of hope that they might escape unscathed.

“Indeed,” he went on, gushing with the banality of a sycophantic opera critic, “the gourmands in Calerre speak ever so fondly your tapenades, and pieds paquets.  A dear friend advised me that I should not dare leave until I have sampled the gibassier, that it left him in absolute fits of ecstasy.”

“Naturally, we would be happy to serve you whatever you–”

Etienne firmed his grip on Joyal’s shoulder, drawing him in a little tighter.  “Magnificent!  My men, too, are quite famished from the road.  I expect nothing less than your best, my dear Bernaud.”

“I shall have the kitchens prepare immediately–”

“Poetry, my friend, poetry to a soul parched of fine verse.  And you will of course supplement this feast with a bottle or two from your prize reserve, yes?”

“If it would please Monsieur le Commissionaire–”

“I can think of nothing greater.”  Etienne stopped walking and let his arm fall from Joyal’s side.  “My men and I will speak to your fellow citizens while you make the preparations.  Let us say, seven o’clock this evening?”

“S-seven o’clock,” said the maire.  He effected a clumsy bow with hints of a curtsy and hurried off on little piggy feet.  Etienne held his practiced smile not a second longer than he needed.  The Commissionaire had no interest in talking to the rest of the people of Montagnes-les-grands.  He would learn nothing from them.  Despite themselves, despite their fear of his office, they would protect their own.  He needed to let the knife linger in the side of this village a little longer, and then twist it at just the right moment.

Les jeux sont faits.

Etienne reached into his breast pocket and extracted the golden timepiece etched with the insignia of the Bureau on the reverse of its face.  He read the position of the hands, and squinted at the sinking sun for confirmation.  Ten past five.  A little less than two hours to sample the limited, questionable charms of the village that dared call itself Montagnes-les-grands before he executed his ultimate play and left the place gutted, terrified, and ever more reverent toward the implacable Crown it was the Commissionaire’s duty to serve with unwavering zeal.

Commissionaires, of course, had but one duty.  And Etienne had two hours left to perform it here in Montagnes-les-grands.

Two hours, to find and catch a witch.

*  *  *

Part Two can be found by poising your cursor ever so delicately upon the following words and applying the gentlest pressure of a click.

Why I Write

Tag!  I’m it!  So there is something called a “blog hop” going on amidst my little community of fellow Internet scribes in which each of us is tasked in turn to devote a few paragraphs to what drives us to arrange letters into words and sentences and fling them out for the world’s amusement.  I was nominated by the awesome Siofra Alexander, whose online collection of her poetry, dream journals and other assorted thoughts is one of the most imaginative and unpredictable places I’ve encountered, and boasts the most unique titles you’re likely to see.  Check it out for yourself, and see if you don’t agree that if Christopher Nolan had tapped her to design the dreamscapes in Inception, it would have been a much wilder ride.

On to the meat of the question, then.  Why do I write?  It seems tantamount to asking someone why he breathes.  But everyone’s answer is going to be different, as there is no perfect mold in which we can all be squeezed.  I have wondered, though, over the last couple of years as I’ve really entrenched myself in the blogging world and been exposed to the craft of so many others who seem so much better at it, and far more dedicated.  I don’t really seem to fit the model – can really call myself a writer in that vein.  I was ruing yesterday, as I hit publish on my Blade Runner entry, that I have only posted three entries in the last two months (and after Siofra lauded me for accomplishing the 30-day blog challenge back in April, too!)  Some writers can scarcely contain the bajillions of ideas for novels, short stories, poetry and so on percolating in their minds at any given time, and their sites are accordingly bursting with fresh content published daily, while they work on their eighth novel and read a dozen new books a week.  I can only wish that was me, though I’m at an utter loss as to how they fit it all in with (presumably) jobs, relationships and families to consider as well.

There is a purpose and clear path I see in others that feels muddied in myself.  When I started this blog back in 2011 I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, and I kind of flailed around for a few months (am I a political blogger?  Am I a movie reviewer?  Music critic?  Comedian?  Feminist?  Travel expert?  Dispenser of dubious advice on how to write?  What are these blasted widget things anyway, and why haven’t I been Freshly Pressed yet?)  Eventually I established something of a template, and a style, and contented myself with writing just whatever the hell I felt like writing about that day, without worrying overmuch about the generally accepted notion that you should confine yourself to one subject if you want to build your audience to Bloggess-esque levels.  It’s the same reason why I don’t aspire to become more like the folks I noted in the paragraph above – the journey has been about realizing that it’s okay to just be who I am without struggling to ape somebody else.  And that particular me cannot be pigeonholed as one distinct archetype; rather there are many facets and shades and contradictions to explore.  From an external point of view, this blog may read like an attempt to make sense of the world, but from this side of the keyboard, it’s about figuring meself out, and establishing something of a record of who I was and what I believed.

It’s perhaps the height of ego and arrogance to assume that anyone else gives a tinker’s cuss, but at the same time, it’s obvious that I want you to, otherwise these 299 essays would remain locked away, for my eyes only.  Self-effacement to the contrary, nobody writes to be ignored, and the endorphins that fire upon the receipt of the alert that someone has liked, commented or shared something we penned cannot be replicated by any chemical substance out there.  The validation we feel when someone tells us they enjoyed something we wrote is magical, as much as it may be bad form to admit that.  The reverse, when a post goes ignored, or a rejection email arrives with the dreaded “not quite right for me,” is gutting.  Though it is farcical to tie one’s self-esteem to the appreciation of, or indifference to, the creative work we produce, we do it anyway, against our better judgment.  We write to be loved.  We write to make ourselves worthy of love.  When my wife tells me something I wrote brought tears to her eyes, I feel lifted.  And I feel like I earned it, and no matter what else happens, that moment can’t be taken away.

I’m not sure when I started writing.  It’s amusing to note how many successful writers will relate stories of how they got terrible marks in English.  Mine were always pretty good (except first year university, which was something of an eye-opener), and on creative assignments, it wasn’t rare to score 100%.  I will never forget a Grade 12 assignment to do an updated version of Catcher in the Rye, essentially speculating on what Holden Caulfield would think of the modern (eg. early 90’s) world.  I asked whether profanity was permitted, and was told yes, no problem.  So at one point in the narrative I had Holden encounter a couple of roughs listening to the most vile, misogynist, pornographic song lyrics I could come up with (to provide some context, this was back when 2 Live Crew was in the business of offending Tipper Gore, so it was topical material.)  My friends were all convinced I was going to get suspended for submitting it, but, hands shaking and stomach churning, I did anyway, and got back a perfect grade with about a page’s worth of handwritten, single-spaced comments as my teacher went back and forth on whether or not I should have included those lyrics – calling them disgusting, dirty and inappropriate, but ultimately recognizing what I was trying to do (that it was fiction, not an endorsement or reflection of my actual attitude) and that ultimately I was writing at a level far beyond that of my peers.  I know that’s not how the story is supposed to end – it’s supposed to end with me failing the course, being told I’m an embarrassment to the written word and only much later blossoming into a revered, bestselling genius, right?  But that’s not my story.

My story isn’t Hollywood or even novel-esque, but it could not have gone any other way.  I’m not going to be the bespectacled book blogger who crashes Goodreads with tomes of reviews and lands a six-figure deal for a debut novel.  I won’t be the literary thought leader with thousands of Twitter disciples hanging on the next 140 characters of brilliance to come tumbling from my thumbs.  I won’t be the guy who was always annoying his friends by yammering on about the stories he wanted to write and one day wound up executive producing a hit television show.  I’m just going to be me, whoever and whatever that is and turns out to be.  So one has to set that aside and get back to the bare essence of what it’s all about – arranging letters into words and sentences in a manner that will hopefully find its way to someone else’s eyes, mind and heart.  Taking the victories where they come and shrugging off the slights.  Keep on keeping on, because I honestly don’t know what else I’d do with myself.

And that, ladies and germs, is why I write.

In the spirit of the blog hop, I hereby nominate Raishimi and Nillu Stelter, both stellar smiths of words whose passion and raw talent has managed to dislocate my jaw for the sheer number of times it’s dropped when reading their stuff.  Looking forward to your take on what drives you to pursue this crazy craft.

Deckard’s Not a Replicant: Blade Runner revisited

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I haven’t watched or even thought about Blade Runner in a good while.  The other day on the tweet-o-machine, my old friend Tadd reminded me of it by pointing me in the direction of an essay on the timeless, Ridley Scott-directed 1982 sci-fi classic, which dared to tackle the question of whether or not its lead character, grizzled replicant-hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) was in fact one of the very same androids dreaming of electric unicorns it was his duty to gun down on sight – a debate that has raged among fandom for thirty-two years, with contradictions as to the answer offered depending on which of the movie’s creative partners you ask.  (The director says yes, absolutely, that was always the intention; the star says no, that’s not what I agreed to.)  Anyway, if you haven’t the time to peruse the linked entry, the thesis presented therein is that not only is Deckard a replicant, but he carries the memories of the enigmatic Gaff (Edward James Olmos), his flashily-dressed, patois-riffing colleague who has a penchant for creating origami out of random bits of trash that display a preternatural insight into the mindset of our hero.  Brian, another good pal from the old hood, ruminated over this for a few days and offered his own persuasive rebuttal, arguing that Deckard might indeed be a replicant but that he’s merely an artificial reincarnation of the original human Deckard, Gaff’s dead partner.  Admittedly, I’ve always leaned toward the notion that Deckard is as constructed as the beings he’s chasing, but in the course of a single series of tweets, I’ve had something of a revelation on the subject.  And it’s not just born of my fascination with contradictions, or a hipster-esque need to go against the grain.  But I’m satisfied now that Deckard is as human as Gaff, Bryant, Holden, Tyrell, J.F. Sebastian and the old sushi master from the beginning of the movie – and that to insist otherwise is to rob Blade Runner of much of what it is trying to say about humanity, and about the nature of the soul.

A lot of the evidence for the Deckard-as-replicant theory is drawn from the Paul is Dead school, where coincidence and editing errors on the part of the filmmakers are selectively interpreted by the audience towards a predetermined conclusion – notes such as the number of replicants mentioned by Captain Bryant not adding up, the peculiar glow in Harrison Ford’s eyes in one shot matching that of the replicants and so forth.  The idea that Gaff’s memories are informing Deckard’s actions fits very neatly into this conceit.  However, Gaff is not the first character to exist within the world of a narrative and possess an omniscient awareness of what is going on within the mind of the protagonist.  For a more recent example, look at Sam Elliott’s Stranger in The Big Lebowski:  a character within the film who is impossibly aware of events in which he does not take part.  Gaff, it can be argued, fills the Stranger’s role in Blade Runner.  (The owner of the all-seeing eye glimpsed in the opening sequence is never revealed, but interestingly, it is the same ice blue as Gaff’s – ponder that for a moment.)  Granted, his “insights,” at least at first, are not terribly revealing – the chicken origami reflecting Deckard’s reluctance to take on the job, the erect matchstick man keying in on Deckard’s growing feelings for Rachael.  But then, Deckard is not exactly living a life that is immune to prediction and analysis, either.

In examining the nature of the soul, Blade Runner questions whether the humans, who are born with souls, are truly deserving of them, while presenting us with artificial beings who want nothing more than to possess this most uniquely human trait.  The humans of Los Angeles, November 2019, are living essentially soulless lives, having carpeted their planet in concrete and steel and even driven the sun from the sky, shuffling about as both rain and advertising pelt down on them in a constant, depressing drizzle.  Compassion and empathy are as extinct as animals here (otherwise the penalty for finding a replicant on earth wouldn’t be death without due process).  Until summoned by Gaff, Deckard meanders through the world, eating in public yet shunning company, getting drunk alone each night in an apartment full of relics of a past, more fulfilling life.  His actions, then, those supposedly illuminated by Gaff’s origami, aren’t programmed memories – they’re merely predictable responses from a man irrevocably plugged into the system, a system that Gaff, like any good omniscient narrator, can recognize even if the rest of the characters in the movie can’t.  Although, Captain Bryant seems to at least understand his role as well, with his line about Deckard’s option to go back to work for that same system or be crushed under it (“if you’re not cop, you’re little people.”)  In this context, Deckard is indeed subject to a kind of programming, yet the ASCII of his soul is written in the slouching language of age, circumstance and apathy, instead of ones and zeroes (or the GCAT of genetic design, as befits the Nexus 6).  Ironic that the test the humans have devised to detect replicants, the infamous Voight-Kampff, works by stimulating emotions, when those administering it seem to have none themselves.

Though lost in the decayed urban hellscape, Deckard still finds idle moments to dream of something better, something elusive, something magical to break him from the drudgery.  His unicorn, literally.  In Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, that something seems utterly unobtainable, hence the use of a unicorn to symbolize what Deckard craves is apt.  We are led to understand then that Deckard’s unicorn manifests itself in the shape of Rachael.  She is introduced in film noir tones, in the shape of a femme fatale:  dark hair, long red nails, wreathed in cigarette smoke; enticing, untouchable.  Her manner, however, is as far from Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck as Rick Deckard is from Han Solo.  Rachael is innocent, scared, trying to cope with the revelation that everything she thought about herself was a lie, that the soul she thought she possessed was the invention of her boss, her memories those of his niece, implanted to provide a cushion for her emotions.  Yet she does feel, moreso than any other character in the movie.  Her challenge to Deckard, when she asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, is less an insinuation that he’s a replicant than it is a plain statement that for someone lucky enough to be born human, he certainly doesn’t choose to act like one.  Contrasted with Deckard, Rachael is, indeed, as per the Tyrell Corporation’s motto, “more human than human.”  The uncomfortable scene where she and Deckard kiss for the first time is less Deckard trying to evoke emotions in an artificial being than it is him trying to stimulate the dormant soul within himself – making himself feel something, the way he’s supposed to, latching on to the tiny flame she’s managed to stir inside him and blow gas on it.  The evolution of the relationship between Deckard and Rachael, his learning to develop compassion for someone considered “lesser” by the system that controls his life, is meaningless if he is also a replicant, if fundamentally it’s just two robots trying to figure out how to mash circuits together.

Of course, theirs is not the only human/replicant relationship in the movie:  Blade Runner‘s ultimate expression of the emotional capacity of the creator versus the created comes in the often less than subtle Christ allegory present in the character of replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the ostensible villain of the piece.  With his time about to expire, Batty risks the return to earth to find his designer/deity, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel, poised at the top of the world’s tallest building and dressed all in flowing white robes, naturally) and ask for an extension to his four-year lifespan.  There’s a line spoken by Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (released three years earlier) that well encapsulates the Batty-Tyrell dynamic:  “Each of us, at some point in his life, turns to someone – a father, a brother, a god, and asks, ‘is this all that I am, is there nothing more?'”  Batty isn’t really looking for more time in terms of minutes and hours, he’s searching for a vindication of his existence.  In the words that ultimately doom the “god of cybernetics,” all Tyrell can offer his prodigal son is the bromide that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, “and you have burned so very brightly, Roy.”  Roy then betrays himself with a kiss and crushes his father’s head in his hands.  As he descends from the top floor of the Tyrell Corporation, back to the decayed cityscape (a literal descent into Hell, one might say), the psychotic look on Batty’s face suggests that without the resolution he wanted, he has accepted the system’s role for him as the villain.  You made me to be a soulless monster, I will now become that nightmare.  I will show you all.

Which leads to his first and final encounter with Deckard – if one will permit drawing from Apocalypse Now, yet another film released three years prior (and one featuring Harrison Ford, no less) – an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.  To Batty, Deckard is dirt beneath his shoe, a nuisance to be disposed of, not to mention the man responsible for the death of two of his replicant friends.  Batty owes him nothing but an unpleasant death.  But on that rainy rooftop, as his life-clock dwindles to its final ticks, Batty makes a choice to become more than the limits of his design, of his programming.  He sees, ultimately, in Deckard, something to which he can relate – the feeling of being trapped, being a slave to a system he had no hand in creating.  From that seed springs compassion, and, with nail through palm, Batty saves Deckard’s life, finally achieving what he most desired – a soul – by creating it himself.  Becoming more than the sum of his programming, exceeding the flaws of the designers who assembled him in a lab, demonstrating to the man in front of him that he is, finally, more human than human.  And then, in one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes in all of cinema, delivering his own eulogy.  Speaking about the incredible things he has seen, showing Deckard what is possible given the wondrous gift of life, and giving Deckard a chance to make the most of his own, with the life Batty has returned to him by pulling him off that ledge.  “Time to die” – for the sins of humanity.  And as the dove in his palm flies free, so does Roy Batty’s new soul, at peace now.  Deckard, the Roman centurion, can merely marvel at what is transpiring before him.  If he’s just another replicant, as so many want to believe, then the impact of Batty’s sacrifice is blunted.  It becomes in effect merely a rah-rah moment for robots, rather than the transcendent, evolutionary note it needs to be.

Gaff’s return and the film’s final five minutes are where one has to make the decision on whether to accept the idea of Deckard as replicant.  Gaff says “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.  I guess you’re through, huh?”  He answers Deckard’s response with his lingering parting thought, echoed just before the credits roll, as Deckard contemplates the tinfoil origami unicorn:  “It’s too bad she won’t live; then again who does?”  At this point, Deckard’s sins have been cleansed, and he has been given the opportunity to break free of the system and begin a new life with Rachael, one that will be rich and fulfilling, and in the film’s most potent irony, it is the artificial beings that have shown the human being how.  When the preternaturally aware Gaff says “I guess you’re through,” what he means is, I know I’m stuck here, and I’m okay with that, but you’ve found your way out – good on you, pal.  The origami unicorn is the reminder – you’ve found something rare and precious, now don’t cock it up.  Don’t waste your second chance.  Burn brightly.  Live.  Follow Batty’s example and create your own soul, grow beyond the limits of who you think you are and what you think it is your fate to be.  That’s much more powerful and impactful a message than a literal indication that we know what you’re dreaming about because you were assembled in a lab and you have someone else’s memories.  Deckard in this moment is Everyman – us – and we need a human being with which to identify, so we too may take up that torch.

I hardly expect, in meandering about here today, that this will be the final word on the Deckard-as-replicant debate.  In struggling to bring this piece to a conclusion I realize I could probably go on until the word count stretched into the 100K range, so deep are Blade Runner‘s facets, how it too overcame its genesis as a sci-fi action movie about Harrison Ford hunting robots to become an endlessly rich, meditative statement on the nature of what it means to be human.  And in order for that to work as intended, Deckard has to have been human all along, merely enslaved by a different form of self-imposed programming.  That contrast, human versus artificial programming, and the capacity to grow beyond it, is the heart of Blade Runner‘s moral debate.  A debate needs both sides.  Make Deckard a replicant and you’ve lost the distinction, you’ve diminished the meaning, you’ve made the extraordinary a bit more ordinary for the sake of feeling clever for having discovered something that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with.

So, in summation:  Deckard’s human, Batty is Christ, Tyrell is God, Rachael is more Disney’s Ariel than Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, Gaff is the Stranger from Lebowski with a different hat, the unicorn dream is a longing for magic in a world cleansed of any semblance of it, and the comments are open as always awaiting your polite dissent.  I’ll be over here in my spinner, ruminating on what to do with my next four years.

Seven things learned from seven years of marriage

Mickey and Minnie pancakes

A week ago I celebrated my seventh anniversary of life as a married man.  Truthfully, if you’d approached me around the time George W. Bush was accepting his re-nomination for a second term and said that ten years hence I’d be happily settled with a wife and a teenage son, I’d have inquired, pointedly, as to the quality of the copious reams of narcotics you were obviously inhaling.  Yet here we are in 2014 with seven years of the formalized partnership at our backs and by all indications prospects for many decades more – in an age where divorce is increasingly common and societally accepted, tipping from “end of the world, what will the neighbors think” into “no big deal, plenty of fish out there.”

What makes a marriage work?  Hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest have been whacked to print books and articles by experts, both credentialed and self-proclaimed, identifying specific strategies by which every marriage should endeavor to function – in effect, taking the complex, evolving narrative that is the relationship of one human being to another and putting it in the more digestible language of business; boiling it down to key messages primed for PowerPoints and pie charts.  “Do these five things every day and your marriage will always be happy,” and the like.  Rather than rehash the bromides of Cosmo articles past, like “communication is the most important thing” or “make time for intimacy,” instead I’m going to share what I’ve observed these past seven annums, and you, dear reader, may take or leave as you will.  Nor will I dare to suggest that I get these right all the time, or try to hold myself up as exemplar of the ideal husband.  As always, they’re just my thoughts for your consideration, and maybe somewhere amid the flotsam and jetsam of our mutual experiences we’ll locate the truth of things.

1.  There is no such thing as a successful marriage.  Why?  Because “success” implies something you’ve finished.  The goal of a marriage should be like that of the U.S. Constitution:  forming a more perfect union – but – you need to know from moment one that you’ll never actually get to “perfect.”  And why would you want to?  There would be nothing left to do; nothing left to learn from one another, nothing left to share.  You’d be ready to move on to the next one.  Accepting that you’ll never achieve “success” is not an excuse to throw up your hands and stop trying, it’s a reminder to get up each day and keep working on it, keep thinking of ways you could improve your relationship, keep doing the little things that make yours a true partnership.  Marriage is not a destination where once arrived you can kick up your feet, crack open a brewski and watch the game.  It’s more like acquiring the world’s most awesome traveling companion for the road ahead, and she knows all the best places to see along the way.

2.  Write things down.  When you’re first with someone you document everything; souvenirs from every restaurant or movie or concert or stroll along the beach you experience together, chronological photo albums with the story of your courtship captured to the very minute.  The longer you go on, the more settled you become, you find it less necessary to take the camera when you pop out for a drink after work on a warm summer night, and she looks amazing, and you share a belly-aching laugh over something trivial, both little realizing that in a month, that precious slice of life will be lost in the background noise of daily drudgery.  You will come to regret not being able to remember so much of what reminds you how much you love her.  I know exactly where we went for dinner on our first anniversary:  TAO Nightclub in Las Vegas.  I ordered grilled ahi tuna.  But I’m pained to recall what we did for our second, third, fourth.  I know we didn’t sit around doing nothing, but because I didn’t write it down, I have no trigger with which to activate those memories.  There’s a balance to be found before you start needing terabyte-capacity external hard drives to store all your selfies, but even a few spare details jotted in an easily accessible notebook will be enough to activate your recall and let conversation provide the rest.

3.  Always get out of bed first on weekends.  It’s the smallest gesture, but it shows that you respect your partner’s time, are aware of what needs to be done around the marital residence and are taking initiative on getting to it instead of giving in to the temptation to be lazy.  We all love curling up underneath the covers as the sun pours in on a Saturday morning, especially after a long, cold work week, but getting up first is giving the gift of rest to another and proving that you’re taking charge of the day and not expecting to be waited on.  It’s simple math, really – an extra half hour of sleep or a happier spouse for the whole day?

4.  Don’t take the day for granted.  It is far too easy to get lulled into the repetition and sameness that can plague domestic married life.  Get up, go to work, come home, eat a dull dinner, pay bills, clean bathroom, watch a few hours of TV, go to bed.  Repeat ad nauseum.  And yet you should still pull yourself out of the complacency for a few moments each day and remind yourself of the fortune that has favored you with health, stability, security, and an irreplaceable partner.  Because on the morrow something may happen that will upend everything and you’ll find yourself longing for the predictability of routine.  Even a boring day is a day that you are alive and safe and free to choose.  And it’s one more day spent in the company of the greatest person you’ve ever met.  Not bad at all, really.

5.  You don’t have to have the same taste.  When my wife and I are having trouble figuring out a movie to watch, I find myself envying those couples who have found each other through a shared love of geek culture, particular sports franchises, Mesopotamian basket weaving, what have you.  There are times, in fact, when it seems like we have very little, if anything, in terms of common interests.  But in many ways it’s been a blessing, as it’s given us the chance to discover the other’s passions, and find commonality we might not otherwise have noticed had we just stuck with the same interests we brought to the relationship.  I spoke a bit back in my A-to-Z series about how meeting my wife deepened a love of jazz and the Great American Songbook – would I have had this were she just a Beatles and U2 fan like myself?  Though on much of the cultural zeitgeist we still do not agree (after nine years together she remains unconvinced of the merits of the Lord of the Rings franchise and spectacularly indifferent toward James Bond) our connection remains solid and strong.  Common interests answer the question of what to do on a Saturday night, but they’ll never be the foundation of a lifelong relationship.  A genuine caring and admiration for each other is what’s needed.

6.  Spontaneous musical numbers are always in fashion.  We aren’t the first to joke that the world would be a much happier place if people on the street and in the malls would break out in impromptu singing and dancing more often.  Short of the arrival of that demon from that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode a few years back, I’m afraid it’s left to us to bring the Sondheim, and most folks would rather guest lecture on macroeconomic theory at Yale in their birthday suits instead.  It’s truly a shame that this potent arrow in the human mirthmaking quiver doesn’t get strung and loosed more often, as few moments of melancholy can’t be improved by even an off-key rendition of the perfect chorus.  Whether it’s in the proscenium of the kitchen as the pasta boils or the grander scale of the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, pull your sweetie in for a rumba or a cha-cha whenever you get the chance.  And if you can throw in a few half-recalled verses of a Tony-award winner or even Weird Al’s latest – onwards, musical soldier.

7.  Never underestimate your spouse’s ability to surprise you.  As I mentioned earlier, routine and complacency are two of the greatest adversaries of marriage, inasmuch as they dampen the spark that is needed to maintain a human being’s interest in anything over a long period of time.  But if you’re with the right person, those nemeses won’t even get to step onto the field.  There have been many moments when I’ve found my spirit beaten down by the unfairness of things, by reversals of fortune and bleak prospects for progressive change (both in my own life and in the world at large), and my wife will go and do something utterly unexpected, reminding me of the innate wonder and capacity for good that lies at the heart of humanity.  It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly grandiose – it can be as little as a smile found amidst heartbreak.  There is one moment in particular that I will share.  One cold January night I found myself, after a brutal phone call, jobless, rudderless and not sure how to get through the next hour, let alone commence the next phase of my life.  My wife offered some words of comfort, but I wasn’t in the mood to have it, brushing her aside with a half-hearted “yeah.”  I stepped outside for a few minutes to take the trash to the curb.  When I turned back to our front door, she was standing in our foyer looking out at me.

Dressed as Minnie Mouse.

She was wearing the ears with the red and white bow, waving with the oversized white gloves and doing a better than average impression of Minnie’s giggle.  I don’t know how she’d managed to gather those up and don them so quickly, but in an instant the storm within me broke, I laughed, and I knew that things would be okay, because she was with me.  It’s a gift I’ve never forgotten; a memory that I can dig out of the box and hold whenever I need it.  And tomorrow she’ll come up with something even more spectacular.  It’s who she is.  An inexhaustible reservoir of strength, kindness and generosity, with a heart as big as the moon, a singing voice to shatter the stoniest facade, and a positively contagious laugh that makes the corners of my mouth inch up even to think about it in passing.

There you have it, for whatever it’s worth.  Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, just a few simple truths that help me find my way on the long road.  Above all else, seven years of marriage have taught me to be excited about what I’ll learn over the next seventy years, and to be grateful for the journey I chose to take and for the amazing woman who agreed to come with me.

Au revoir, Robin Williams

geniefree

Blessed are the mirthmakers.  Watching my Twitter feed yesterday and today run over with warm anecdotes about Robin Williams, shared by both his celebrity friends and everyday people whose circle he might have wandered into one happenstance moment, was a testament to the inimitable imprint he will leave upon a troubled planet hungering for the levity that lets it aspire to a brighter day.  He was a treasure we didn’t often stop to realize we had; star power having waned somewhat in recent years, movies no longer top box office draws, forays back into television cancelled after a solitary season.  Now that he is gone, we recall only the highlights, the best of a legacy burned into collective memory and visceral lines of brilliant, often improvised dialogue we’ll appropriate for our own.  Williams’ unique rapid-fire, free-associating comedic patter was like a brain overloaded with all the world’s data, obsessed with identifying the connections in pursuit of a grand design just one perfectly-timed quip out of reach.  “Genius” was not hyperbole for describing his talent.

The outpouring of good feeling seen across all forms of media is reassurance, one hopes, that Williams will be remembered for the man he was and not only by how he died.  Hundreds of articles and blog posts have already appeared attempting to reconcile the contradiction of a man who could quite legitimately be labeled the funniest person on the planet being consumed by depression.  It seems that so many of our jesters are.  They understand on an analytical level why the joke is funny, they can see other people expressing the expected reaction, but they can’t join in the feeling, because an illness bars the way like the world’s cruelest bouncer behind a spiked red velvet rope – this far and no farther shall ye come.  The clown who does not know laughter himself is one of our greatest tragedies; so too it seems would Robin Williams become perhaps the most literal example of this archetype, struggling with the dual demons of mental illness and substance abuse throughout the decades of a career dedicated to lifting the spirits of millions.

When my family bought our first Betamax VCR, for what seemed like a good year, we had a mere two movies, on the same cassette:  Caddyshack and Popeye.  The former I could take or leave, but I loved Popeye, as silly and as ill-conceived as a grownup’s eyes can see that it is.  The opening scene where the titular squinty-eyed sailor rows into the seaside town of Sweethaven, inquires at the Oyl residence about a “room fer rink” and tucks himself into bed while looking fondly at a picture of his father (which is an empty frame with the words “ME POPPA” scrawled on it) was by turns funny, weird, and ultimately endearing, somewhat emblematic of Robin Williams’ work.  Rolling on the floor at the zaniness and the audacity and moved to gut-wrenching sobs in the next.  Ironically, for someone who made his name in comedic mugging, Williams always knew when to pull back and let someone else have the spotlight.  In Awakenings, he dialed back his charisma to let Robert De Niro drive the movie with a touching portrayal of a recovered catatonia patient experiencing a new world.  He let Matt Damon become a movie star in Good Will Hunting and won an Oscar in the process, crafting a gripping performance with subtlety and rigid control of that inexhaustible manic energy.  Williams himself might have admitted that some of his movies over the last few years have been less than stellar, but you’ve never gotten the sense that it was because of a lack of trying on his part.  In his acting roles, no matter the genre, he left it all out on the field.  Perhaps it was this incredible commitment to put out so much energy for everyone else’s benefit that there wasn’t enough left for himself.

His passing brings into light as well our ongoing inability to equate the frequently invisible illnesses of the mind with the obvious illnesses of the body, in how we treat them and even how we think of them.  As Alistair Campbell illuminates so well in his HuffPost piece, we regularly laud cancer patients for their courage while in the same breath telling people with depression to suck it up – or express incredulity that someone who appears to “have it all” could ever find anything to be depressed about.  I’m beginning to wonder if it’s simply a question of etymology, where depression the illness is negatively impacted by the non-medical concept of feeling depressed.  Maybe if it were assigned some elaborate sciency-sounding moniker like “Fleckstein-Johner reductive cerebral neural syndrome,” individuals suffering from it might receive more empathy from those who don’t have it.  And yet so many do – one in five, according to recent statistics.  (According to WordPress, as of my writing this there are 3.357 people following this blog, so 672 of you likely suffer from some kind of mental illness.  That is enormous, and saddening at the same time, and evidence that there is so much work to do to alleviate the stigma.)

The lexicon around the ending of one’s own life is similarly tinged with judgments.  “Committing” suicide draws the implied comparison to perpetrating a crime; as does referring to someone as a “victim” of suicide.  Thinking of suicide as “giving up,” or that the person “just couldn’t fight anymore,” and that they made a conscious choice to die.  In no other example of an illness do you hear offensive phraseology that assigns blame to someone who has suffered.  When Amy Winehouse died a few years ago there was no shortage of people claiming with clucking tongues that “well, she was clearly headed that way.”  Try saying that about someone who dies of leukemia (and then duck).  Yes, depression can be a fatal disease, and as much as we might enjoy comforting ourselves with fantasies of last-minute interventions (insisting over and over again that “it’s not your fault,” as in a famous example from Williams’ own work) the plain ugly truth is that those triumphant hug-filled finales are for the movies.  Just as some cancers can’t be cured, many cases of depression aren’t either.  Robin Williams tried his best, working through treatment throughout his life, but in the end, he died from an illness, just as if he’d had a particularly virulent physical tumor.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Those who knew him and the millions more of us who merely admired him from afar and relied on him to make us smile when we were down should simply celebrate who he was, and be grateful that we were able to share in his gifts for a short time.

Apparently there are three Robin Williams movies in post-production awaiting release, but it’s strange to think that after they have come and gone, we will not see any more.  His is a legacy of goodwill, of being a force for hope, kindness, and charity; of giving to his fellow human beings far, far more than he ever took.  As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put it yesterday, the Genie is free now.  We will miss him, but we’ll always have the laughs.  So instead of black armbands, let’s don red clown noses, jump up on our desks and recite a few lines of “O Captain!  My Captain!”  That’s probably just how he’d want it.

Parables on publishing, politics, pop culture, philosophical pondering and pushing people's limits.

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