Hearken to me

It was always a challenge to control the mist.  It really did have a mind of its own.  Well, not really a true mind of its own it was mist after all, but it wasn’t predictable.  And that’s what made it hard to control.  Not as hard as water – that was for the really talented ones.  The gifted ones.  Sasha wasn’t a gifted one.

But controlling the mist, that was pretty good.  And Sasha was pretty good at the theory of it, full marks and everything.  But actually doing it?  That was harder, it took a lot of concentration.  Steady, fine concentration, a moment’s slip and it would evaporate.  But that wasn’t Sasha’s problem, Sasha’s problem was that it also took a lot of time to call the mist.  Needing ten minutes to call up some mist from a lake, in the morning, wasn’t going to help give Warriors cover.  The Warriors always needed cover.  Sasha often wondered why – it was like a herald to their coming but the Warriors wanted it, it was tradition.

Sasha’s use to the Warriors depended to the speed in which the mist developed and cloaked the ground.  If it took too long, there would be no use for it.  It had to be fast, it had to unnerve, it had to bring fear, it had to…  Tradition, tradition, tradition kept rolling around in Sasha’s head.  A slow creeping mist was useless.  Beautiful to watch but utterly useless.

Sasha drew a deep breath and focused.  Maybe today…?

Making News

In the workshop of Trotex Engineering, Brackenfell Industria:

Excuse me. Could you stop a minute Sir? Are you Anton Cilliers?

Well ja, maybe. Who’s asking?

I’m John Miller, an investigative reporter from the Sun. It’s great to shake the hand of the guy who took the first picture of the visitors.

Is that a fact?

Doctor Paul Pienaar said that you took this photograph yesterday.

The only thing Paul is a doctor of, is bullshit.

Well he is a character; the good doctor said that this photo heralds the coming of a new age.

So you know he works at a panel shop in Salt River?

With a PhD in particle physics? This depression.  Let’s sit in this office and talk.

That’s my boss’s office.

So we can’t sit there.

No.

No problem, just tell your story quickly and I won’t waste any of your time.

Too late. Okay, I was out yesterday just after dawn up by signal hill; it was lekker misty and as I run down I see this weird disk in the mist – like a giant washer you know; my meisie always asks what happened on my jog so I take a picture with my phone – something to talk about over coffee.

And that’s how you photographed the first alien spacecraft to visit Cape Town.

Actually, I thought it was a reflection off a roof.

So only over coffee did you recognise its importance and sent it to Dr Pienaar?

Ja, my girl knew that oke from college, she said he was into this stuff, so I sent it to him, these new phones … got email and everything.

How did you feel about the historic moment?

You know, I can’t tell if you’re plain stupid or, how do they say, disingenious – just messing with me. But your time is up buddy; voetsak!

Four hours later, a telephone call:

Hi, I’m Anton, we met this morning.

Oh, the chap with the UFO picture.

Yeah. Well, I was talking to this guy at work, he says people like you sometimes pay bucks for photos.

Well yes, we do reimburse people for the time and effort. I know a guy in talk radio who might do an interview.

And they pay too? Well my bru, I think I saw visitors from another world during my run yesterday – and I only just realised its significance.

Theme

Greg stared at the photographs. They were not what he had been expecting. Quite the opposite in fact. They were a series of cats in various positions with money thrown on or around them. He took a closer look at the one currently in hand. It was of a black cat lying on a rather comfortable looking bed. Large notes scattered around.  Though the cat did look like it was about to attack the money.  The bed was a step in the right direction. And maybe the money but the cats? Greg chewed on his lip as he worked his way through the series of photographs. Cute little cats to be sure but still cats.

He looked up at his photographer, his features becoming mildly amused.

“Well,” he started, and then shuffled through a few photographs as he tried to remember the man’s name. “David, these…”

“I tried to interpret what you said as best I could,” said David eagerly. “My teacher said I had a unique way of viewing themes.”

“Yes,” said Greg slowly, again shuffling through the photographs.

“And the advert in the paper said photographer for unique magazine,” continued David.

“Yes, it did,” agreed Greg. But he had had something else in mind when he used the word ‘unique’.

“Did you speak to Sam like I said?” asked Greg finally putting aside the photographs.

“Oh, yes,” said David leaning forward in his chair. “He was very helpful, he gave me many tips about lighting and shadows. He suggested the cats.”

“Did he…” Greg was quite sure Sam hadn’t said the word ‘cats’.  He was quite sure Sam had used something cruder.

“Yeah,” grinned David. “Otherwise I would have been quite lost with a theme of ‘money shot’.”

Vitae

His name is Jerry and hers is Christine. Every Thursday they book a table although they never ask for a particular one; for the last few weeks I’ve made sure that Cassiel seats them on the balcony.

They arrive around 7pm and watch the sunset. But something is different tonight: Jerry is tense, from what I cannot tell. Christine seems her usual self and smiles at the waiter, asks for water and a glass of the house white. Jerry mumbles for the red; his fingers tap staccato on the table; he stares out across the town, across the city lights below us.

I send Cassiel over to deliver their drinks. Cassiel is amused at my interest — and then humours me. She brings two bottles of wine and uncorks it in front of them, pours each the drink of their choice. I understand that having the owner do this is a compliment, in this case more for me than for them.

But they don’t notice.

Jerry is imagining a man’s face, cleanly shaven, thin, with a well-defined jawline and high cheeks, full eyebrows, no lips. It’s a beautiful face, except for the lips.

Starters are deep-fried corn cakes with plum sauce. He orders more wine, a whole bottle. Next, a butternut soup with coconut milk instead of cream, garnished with cilantro; and then the orange-glazed duck and the roast rosemary potatoes. He chews the corn cakes, barely tasting them; the soup he almost drinks and he ignores the bread; he tears more than cuts, packs into his mouth more than eats. Christine has picked up on his tension; she no longer dips bread into her soup and spoons it up instead. She’s eager to finish, to leave. She stares at the table.

I nudge Fluffy — with some work I can make her understand that I want her to visit their table, but Jerry kicks at her while she twines between his chair legs. Her pain is small, but her anger and fear intense.

She hides herself in the rafters where I let her be. Her anger towards me will pass. When my attention returns to Jerry and Christine they have already left, leaving money scattered on the table.

I wonder if they will return. Cassiel shakes her head and tells me no.

Communication

“This one.” I show him a blank sheet of paper.
“Fish, in a balloon.”
“This one?”
“The funeral of an astronaut.”
“Hm. This one.”
“Fingers with angry faces.”
“Angry?”
“Scowling. Little noses, twitching.”
“Right. What about this one?”
“Cat, lying on a bed of money. It wants to talk to you.”
“Oh. Good.” Progress at last.
“The bills… sort of… flutter up. Fold up. Wait, they are spelling something out. In origami.”
“Spelling out what?”
“L – I – V – E – R. Is that good?”
“It’s… not bad. It’s not too bad.”

Casey was a good receiver, if new. I liked a fresh mind for a new project. Give me a Jack Keller and we will get there, sure, but the guy is primed. He’s top notch if we are talking to the Centurions, or the Glue. If one can ever really talk to the Glue, there’s some debate about that. But all that just gets in the way when you’re tuning into something brand-frigging-new.
Behind the screen, things like mandibles twitched. I shook out of it. We had to move on.

“Casey, can you try and – change something? Affect the picture?”
“Um… Okay… There: the money’s on fire. I think that was me.”
“Good. What’s the cat doing?”
Casey stared at the paper. “The cat is… it’s throwing up.”
I thought that was a good sign.

From what I can tell, we’re the laughing stock of the Galaxy. As far as that can be established, what with the whole concept of laughter being pretty much untranslatable, and us having only met seven species so far. Eight, if you count the mandible guys we were all trying not to call anything yet because those nicknames stick: just look at the Fishfingers. But anyway: mother Evolution has not been kind. Humans were at the wrong end of the wrong queue when they handed out telepathy.

Well, most of us.

“Casey, you’re doing great. Keep talking.”
“It’s hacking something awful – ah, there is something. A furball… no, it’s a little guy, a tiny, furry man.”
“And?”
“He says…’We-come-in-peace.’ In, like, a robo-voice.”

I was right, Casey Wheeler was a wiz. Six months later, there’s still no other telepath who can understand the Mandible Guys.

I know, I know. But I swear I never said “Mandible Guys” out loud. Bloody psychics.

Surprise

She lowers her heavy backpack onto the ground outside the window, swift but silent. Her ears prick up at the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway. She pours herself out the window and eases it closed again. It clicks into place as the front door clicks open. She allows herself a brief smile before hoisting the pack up onto her back and heading off at speed down the alley.
*
He peers in through the window, the wool of his mask pressing against the glass. The lights are off; the house is empty. He clicks open the window, tosses his backpack in, then jumps in after it. He scouts around the house to make sure: he is first. He smiles. He drags his bag with him towards the bedroom. He will prepare a surprise for her. He hopes she will like it. He dips a gloved hand into the pack.
*
She pulls off her mask and gloves as she rounds the corner, pushes them into her pockets. She grunts, readjusting the straps again. A good haul in quantity if not quality. She wonders if he fared any better. The bag squirms on her back. She picks up her pace.
*
He smells her coming and he bounds towards the door to greet her. She opens the door and chops him hard on the nose. She was not expecting anyone to be standing there, with the lights off, in a mask and gloves. She apologises and helps him up off the floor. He assures her that he thinks the nose is not broken, despite the amount of blood. He takes off his soaked mask, she turns on a light. He is smiling like a loon, she is frowning.

Keeping one hand on his nose, he uses the other to pull her down the corridor to the bedroom. She sees the surprise he has prepared for her. A fresh kitten. She thanks him, but says she is confused by the money. He says he saw it in a movie once. She removes her pack, kneels down, shows him her night’s work. A puppy. A fancy rat. A box of frogs. They pull them out and toss them on the bed. He says it is a magnificent feast. They close their eyes, concentrate, and the constraining human shells drop to the floor. They dine.

Church

We should never have called him Church. We thought it was clever to name him after the cat in Pet Cemetery: it wasn’t. He was cute enough as a kitten (all kittens are) but once he could roam the neighbourhood things changed.

That’s when he started bringing things home: found things.

At first they were small: an odd sock, an old toothbrush, half a porn magazine. He would lay them reverently on my bed; carefully consider the final position and then meow once. We all laughed about it. It was cute; we even encouraged him.

Inevitably, the situation got worse.

I wasn’t really worried when he brought in that huge bath towel, it must have weighted as much as him. I took a photograph of him lying among the fluffy folds of pink before I returned the towel to my neighbour’s washing line. At least I assumed that’s where it came from; and the neighbours never said anything so it must have been theirs.

That summer I began to suspect we had a serious problem.

It was one of those perfect orange suburban afternoons, still with a hint of braai smoke and the far off shrieks of children in the air, when I heard Church noisily entering our kitchen window with a chicken. Not a live chicken; nor even a dead pet chicken: a beautifully glazed and roasted chicken – fresh out of the oven.  A fine sage and onion stuffing aromatically teased the senses. I could have gone door to door among my neighbours, but I could hardly return their lunch (Church had helped himself to the best part of the left breast and my housemates had eaten most of the rest). And a sincere apology does little to replace your family’s Sunday lunch.

It was the day we found the money that I started to sweat.

Church brought it back wrapped in a dirty yellow plastic bag. There was about R6000 in all; neatly bundled with elastic bands; the serial numbers in sequence. By the time we realised what it was he had strewn it about my bed and rolled in it with near human glee. We considered calling the cops. We discussed it. But I couldn’t imagine them believing my story and we really needed the money that year.

I suppose we should have told someone; it would have made things easier the next month when Church dragged home a human hand.

The Third Task

She wore brown angora and carried folded paper bags from Macy’s. A shawl cascaded down her back, a profusion of warmth. She peered at me over oversized sunglasses. “David?”

“Ma’am.” She was magnificent, in an Audrey Hepburn sort of way.

“Would you…?” I took her bags and held them as the elevator creaked its way to the fourth floor, her shoulder pressed softly into my chest in the tiny space. Her flawless skin smelled like powder.

The apartment was stylish, furnished in dark woods and dusky velvets. Intricate lanterns cast complicated shadows, revealing little of the cabinets which lined the walls. Behind their thick glass, darkness moved.

The woman settled into a deep armchair with a sigh. “How are you getting along so far then?”

The bags smelled like mushrooms and fresh bread. I set them down, careful not to look inside. “It’s… not bad. You are the third – “

“David, David. Never tell a lady!” Shadows deepened around her as her brow creased. My face fell, but she added: “You are sweet. I will take you on.”

And so the third task began.

* * *

I looked after her moths.

After the first week, my eyes adjusted to the perpetual twilight. The glass terrariums, alien and strange at first, gleamed with dark colours: blue like starlings’ wings, red like dried blood. Moths are a glory of muted tones, of subtle expression, impeccable taste. I learned to discern their moods, to tend to their whims. I brushed them and stroked them, carried their messages; sorted discarded scales by colour and size. They were pleased with me, taught me their ways: to disappear in darkness, to discern certain scents.

* * *

The woman came and went in her own ways. She did not speak to me, but the moths said she was not displeased with my work. One day, without warning, she looked at me.

“That will be all, David.”

I shied away, surprised at the sound of a voice.

“You have done well.” She held out her hand, gloved in silk. Two emperor moths fluttered from her fingertips into my cupped hands. “They will be your guides. Beware: the fourth task is hard.” She smiled at me.

I did not know what to say.

The moths, familiar friends, wove through my fingers, whispering wise words.

Anthrophobia

That, darling, is a grotesque idea! There is no way I’m touching that.

You’re being silly dear, just because they look different to us you’re scared of them – your great uncle says we’re all part of the same biosphere.

Those things excrete through their skins. They’re dirty; and they have diseases.

Now try to be rational, that is simply prejudice! It’s not urine, it’s just water and some salts. It’s how they keep cool. It’s perfectly natural.

I don’t care: it’s still nasty. All those gooey drops squeezing from their pores; the mere idea makes me twitch.

Well if you weren’t so afraid you’d know they’re not gooey: it’s more oily actually. It makes their skin feel smooth and pleasant to grip; they aren’t nearly as rubbery as they look.

How would you know anyway, you’ve never touched one either!

Well, I’ve heard about it – and I’m not scared of them. Actually I think they’re kind of beautiful – smell the heat shining off them – there are little suns inside them.

Living things should be cool and soft like us – warm is just creepy.

Well, I’m not afraid of it. And I want to touch it.

I can’t believe you’re doing that. You’re insane! It’s so huge: that hand could crush you any moment.

What? No – they might be big but they’re very slow. Fly over here, it feels smooth and silky. You’ll like it – stop being such a ninny.

Oh my, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I really can’t believe I’m doing this.

There you go dear, not so terrifying is it? Look at the big guy: so majestic, so gentle. I think he likes us.


Moths

I saw you first in the dance, the bright flame to which I was drawn, helplessly fluttering. I saw him first as my enemy, a rival. We were both young, strong, manly: we locked glares across the torchlight while you twirled out of reach. When the dance stopped we reached your side together. You laughed and took his hand as the music started once more, but your eyes watched me over his shoulder to tease me with your choice.

I struggled through the brambles to your house, and heard him crashing stubbornly through behind me. You gave us wine, admiration, the gift of your gaze; you set us tasks. You flirted, but we never knew which of us you preferred. I was the first to return with the tree’s teeth, the hound’s crystal bell, the sparkling dust from the floating stones; he brought the giant’s shoehorn, the malachite harp and the blood of the wayward knight. We fought, shoulder to shoulder, the bristled, sinuous creature which guarded the grotto, and staggered back together with the sacred pestle, jewelled and heavy with gold. Our blades became strange and scintillating, bathed in blood and ichor and spider-silk. I never knew what enchantments you wove with our trophies. It didn’t seem to matter.

By then we were brothers, fellow captives. We beat our wings against your indifference, and were burned. For you we overcame the doughtiest foes – the invisible basilisk, the earthquake owl, the twelve shrieking ghost-damsels escorted ruthlessly back to you while we spelled each other in wincing, ear-stoppered shifts – and in reward you allowed us to touch your fingers, no more. We would have it no other way.

But our quest was always for this eventual respite. Our wings are dusty, now; that last tangle with the thorned phoenix left us tattered and lame. And tonight I watch you shine in the dance, while the eager young chevaliers challenge each other, drawn inexorably inward in hopeless rivalry, fuelled by desire. I hope they are strong and determined. We have taught you to demand much, and have it fulfilled.

Outside the glittering circle we flutter our wings in the darkness, and hope only to be allowed to alight for a moment on your fingers one last time. Perhaps you will pause for a careless instant of gratitude or even tenderness before we are burned utterly away. It will be enough. We ask for no more.