British, 2002, 105 min. – Rated R
Writer/Director: Neil Marshall
Starring Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, and others.
There seems to be a slow (read: glacial) realization going on in the collective hive-mind of horror directors. After years of dreadfully over-the-top gore-fests, endless sequels to movies that should never have been filmed in the first place, and enough dead teens to fill Forest Lawn, a few young upstarts over the last few years have rediscovered some of the basic tenets of the Good Horror Movie:
1) It doesn’t take a big budget to create big chills
2) CGI is not the Holy Grail of monster creation
3) Just because you don’t have big stars doesn’t mean you won’t be noticed, and
4) It’s the thing that isn’t seen that really scares the crap out of people
Thus we have horror movies that worm their way into the public consciousness every now and then: The Blair Witch Project, Ringu, May, Ginger Snaps, 28 Days Later…. This is not to say that these movies are not without their problems, and I’m not sure I’d even consider them classics of the genre. But they DO get reviewed by even the most Genre-Deprived critics, usually in glowing terms, and more importantly, they get seen. By fairly large numbers of audience-goers — ones who previously thought the ultimate bogey came equipped with a standard-issue goalie’s mask — or possibly a bladed glove.
Neil Marshall not only took the GHM lessons to heart, but he found a way around the flaws that usually bedevil a neophyte director’s first foray into the darkness. Dog Soldiers is a stunning start to a (hopefully) long career in the movies. Dark, nasty, clever movies with very sharp teeth, if we’re lucky.
After a small teaser of an opening, the movie gives us Cooper (Kevin McKidd), a soldier being tested for the Special Forces, and Ryan, the officer who has the final say about his qualifications. Cooper fails, not because he doesn’t have the chops to play with the Big Boys, but because, in a tense scene of mental brutality, it turns out he has just a bit too much humanity about him to pass the final hurdle — he won’t shoot a dog.
When we next see Cooper, he’s on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands with a squad of typical grunts, led by Wells (played wonderfully by Sean Pertwee). During their maneuvers, they stumble across the bloody remains of a Special Forces unit, all dead but for its commander — Ryan, the homicidal bastard from Cooper’s testing.
And then all Hell breaks loose.
Oh. Did I mention the werewolves? Yes, this is a werewolf movie, certainly the best one since the eighties, when An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and The Wolfen all vied for the honors of “Best Treatment Of A Lycanthrope In Film.” Ultimately, they each failed (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your frame of mind): The first two because they were too campy to be truly spooky, and The Wolfen because it tried too hard to recreate werewolves as a sentient race of uber-wolves, rather than true shape shifters. Dog Soldiers evades the failings of the earlier movies by shifting the focus — to paraphrase the director, they didn’t make a werewolf movie with soldiers in it, they made a soldier movie with werewolves in it.
This seemingly minor shift in point-of-view pays off in spades. The first squad-member to die, for example, doesn’t fall under the hands (well, paws) of the enemy; instead, he panics when his rifle jams, and instead of following his training — clear the jam, keep your head, continue firing — he turns and runs blindly into the forest, only to impale himself on a broken branch. Death comes, not from the supernatural powers of the werewolves, but the all-too-plausible failings of the untested soldier. He forgot his training, and paid for it with his life.
It’s that military-minded attitude that keeps this movie tightly-focused. When the men need to split ranks in order to better ensure their group survival, it usually comes at the likely cost of individual life. Too bad, soldier. This is the Army. And the actors play the parts with just that mentality, that commitment to duty. The individual is nothing. The squad lives on.
The werewolves are not CGI. They are guys in masks, products of some makeup man’s tireless work. Which is exactly as it should be, because when they finally appear, they never overwhelm the essential story with the ‘ooh, aah’ complications of a grand special effect. They look real enough that you don’t start counting the stitches in the seams, but they don’t look so amazing that you are taken out of the story by their presence. They exist.
Which is the whole point of horror in the first place. To convince you that the legends are true….
I’ve made this comment elsewhere, and I’ll repeat it here: Dog Soldiers does for werewolf movies what Near Dark did for vampire movies. It makes us reinvent a standard trope in our own minds, and it forces us to readjust our conceptions of what we consider a werewolf movie to be.
The Pease family hands are hands in motion. The Pease family mind likewise wanders and flutters, arranging things. Elizabeth Profitt Pease is standing on a chair; she has just wriggled out from under the piano, her mother’s piano.
“Anyone passing will see a placid old lady moving lamps and standing on the furniture and think what a life well lived,” says Libby Pease. “See that lady full in the comfort of her sunset years. A drowsy afternoon reverie, this placid creature is reliving lost moments standing on the furniture. God forbid they should catch me under the piano.”
Elizabeth Profitt Pease has grown through all and past most of the stages of life as demonstrated by an illustration in The Essential Shakespeare, her high school text, and she is wondering what will be next. At sixty-three, as she sees it, not much has thus far happened to Libby Pease. She has grown up, aged in place and hardly noticed it. Her days trail out behind her to an invisible vanishing point. “The place where I was conceived,” says Libby Pease, meaning a point in time, rather than the venue of conception itself. A well-plotted project, a nine-patch variation, is defying her. The furrow between her eyes appears and disappears like a flashing caution light, the only outward sign of a quilt gone wrong, a quilt ungratefully turned against its maker.
Geometric perfection and precision stitches are Libby’s gifts. She is a quilter much celebrated for her execution of traditional designs. But she has misplaced something.
“I have a cat,” says Libby Pease.
It is not the cat that is missing. Something smaller, something tantalizing is escaping her.
Libby Pease sets down her 27th quilt block. The planned effect — a velvety pastel wash as of petals falling in a spring garden — is an ugly smear. She pulls a squared-up stack of blocks from the window seat and picks off some cat hairs. Her connector blocks, the nine-patch variations as the pattern books called them, do not cascade with color no matter how she shifts their positions.
There was a war in Europe and the Pacific and Libby’s mother played the piano, her Chopin nocturne that she had by heart. Six-year-old Libby hides behind the pedals, a haven from Charles Wyndham Pease, her younger brother. Hoagy Carmichael sings Old Buttermilk Sky from the parlor radio. There had been a gentleman caller once when Libby was sixteen — a date for the movies at the Willipaq Cinema. Libby Pease still loves the movies as she loved them when she was a child.
“I should get out more often,” says Libby the grown-up.
Trotting like fuzzy yellow ducklings behind their mother, the Pease children, Elizabeth and Charles, arrange themselves into outings. Libby’s father does not really trust the big talking faces high up on the elevated screen; when he goes to the Willipaq Cinema it is for the buttery popcorn. They go to the movies as a family but eventually without their father. At first Profitt Pease tags along to the matinees but the big lips, big teeth make him uneasy, he says.
The Willipaq Cinema’s rich butter-slathered popcorn is what once brings Profitt Pease to an evening showing. “Get it wet,” he tells the concessionaire, meaning extra butter. He brings along his own shaker, the girl being known as stingy with the salt. The hulls get caught in the interstices of his long, brown teeth. He sucks at the hulls, usually during love scenes. Libby’s father does not trust ephemera in general and the movies in particular.
“Oh, Profitt Pease, please,” says Elizabeth Wyndham Pease, Libby’s mother.
“Profitt Pease does not please,” says Profitt Pease, chomping away. But after that Libby notices her father eats his popcorn during the battle scenes and cowboy gunfights. Profitt Pease is not a free spirit like his wife and children and takes his comfort from solid, tangible things. He gives up on the movies and simply stays home.
The traits of the father are passed along to his son who gets to watch the movies while staying at home.
“Charley loves the movies, too, on TV,” says Libby Pease, meaning her brother, now grown.
Libby recalls the label on a can of green peas high on her mother’s pantry shelf. On the label a pixie in a green tutu admires himself in retreating mirrors, the images gradually shrinking. Charley and Libby play grocery store with the cans, stacking them, putting her selections into her mother’s net shopping bag. Charley gets to be the grocer because he is the boy. Libby has to help him make change.
“But, I… what?” The elusive missing something is teasing her again. The pixie’s mirror reflects in a second mirror looking back at itself again and again in reflections running to a microscopic infinity, reflected tessellations cascading backward in time to, she supposes although she cannot see it, an invisible point. In a celebration of canned peas, the pixie holds his harvest high, one green pea the size of his head. Things becoming smaller, going backwards.
Growing up in a small town, bigness is where important things happen, meaning somewhere else. Movies are big — big heads, big bodies, grand gestures, finer nuances. Elizabeth Wyndham Pease, Libby’s mother — Charley’s too, though she has less enthusiasm for her younger child — with her fuzzy duckling children takes in the matinees at the Willipaq Cinema where, eight rows past the loge, William Powell as The Thin Man speaks directly to young Libby Pease, aged six. William Powell debonairly gestures, a long-stemmed martini glass casually depending from his sensitive artist’s fingers, never, never spilling a drop.
“Dry, dammit, dry dry dry. Nora my delirious cupcake, you are the most beautiful, charming, cosmopolitan woman in the world, the mother of my children-to-be and I love you passionately and as often as possible we can escape the servants; but in spite of all this my passion flower, my night-blooming cirrus, my succulent eucalypt of desire, why, why, why, are you the only woman in the so called civilized world who knows how to make a dry martini? It is not enough to tell Daisy the correct proportions; these things require the hand of the artist, finesse. Make a full silver shaker for us yourself for I feel a case coming on…”
The angle at which Libby the child holds her head is a posture of awe. The angle allows her jaw to gape unattended, but the theater is dark and after all, she is there to see the stars not they her. Libby the adult reflects on this. All great art was meant to be up there — up there with William Powell and Myrna Loy — not locked up in a fusty Vatican basement. The Church of Rome hoards art; Libby has heard this. Art is splendid and not for hiding in a crypt. Not as lying at her feet now in the form of a shabby, failed nine-patch. The Ohio Star was the nine-patch all beginners did.
It is Libby’s habit to watch the ongoing parade of Willipaq, Maine from her parlor windows. When Libby is six, peering on tiptoe for the iceman with his horse, her chin barely reaches the sill. The iceman feeds his horse what Libby figures are oats from a nosebag attached with leather loops behind the horse’s ears. The horse climbs the hill to the Pease house by memory. Libby runs to the door past the hall coat rack with the peg reserved for her mother’s net shopping bag. She waits as she will later wait for her cat’s announcement of self. There is no cat here today — this is the iceman’s door.
Libby the child holds the door for Vern Lightfoot and his billowing aura of horse and man smells, the huge square cake tight in his tongs high up on his stained shoulder apron.
“Iceman.” Big booted feet clump up the wooden steps. A whinny from the street. What was that horse’s name? What was the name on the can of peas with the pixie and his mirrors?
Libby remembers her girlhood as a litany of lost visitors. First the iceman stops his deliveries, then the coal truck stops coming to the Pease house. Profitt Pease, Libby’s father, owns a modest woodlot where he cuts and splits the winter wood. Her father puts in an oil tank and then there is a new visitor, the oil man come to fill it.
The cat interrupts Libby’s recasting of her quilt. He meows outside the door, his nose placed at the nick in the weather-stripping to make sure he is heard.
There is a dog once, and a father who does not go with his family to the movies. The dog and the father have been dead for years — Libby’s father, Profitt Pease, dead for twelve years, the dog for ten. The cat sleeps on the cushioned window seat. Brother Charley sleeps on the sofa in front of the television. The cat and Charley live on.
“Ladies and gentleman, the cat,” says Libby, holding the door.
“Maworr,” says the cat, stepping in.
This is to be expected from a cat: that he be on time for his appointments. Charley does not arrive early for anything, when he arrives at all.
Kneeling on the floor, Libby rolls back the Persian carpet and begins to set out her finished blocks. So sure was she of her design that she had done the sewing by hand. “I should have used my old Singer Featherweight and cut my time from weeks to days,” says Libby.
“Oh, Libby, dear, you don’t just sew, you make Art,” had been a pronouncement by a member of the quilters’ guild.
“Not this day.” Libby shuffles her squares, turns lamps on and off, stands again on the sofa to study her congeries of blocks, hoping for something wonderful.
“Oh, Libby, you can put anything together and make it sing,” said the sister quilter, “from yard sale rag bags to the blanket off the iceman’s horse.” The two were girls together and remembered Vern Lightfoot’s horse.
From behind a radiator, the cat strolls out into the center of her blocks, leaving disarray it its wake. “You, O cat, are offering me a fix, are you?” She cradles him in her arms.
Libby pulls in the halogen floor lamp from beside her sewing table and squints through a screen of eyelashes, then stands on the kitchen step stool for an elevated view. She has hoped for a miraculous intervention from some ancient well of cat wisdom. The cat’s quilt is no better than hers, only different. Perhaps from another angle.
“Pardon me, Mr. Cat.” Elizabeth Profitt Pease ducks her head and slides under the piano. From this oblique perspective Libby still has a plain old serviceable Ohio Star, very traditional, just as she had turned out forty years before. And the colors are still a smear, not a spring garden in bloom. The cat dives back under the radiator. Well, the damned thing was a quilt; that much she had gotten right.
Darwinism, as it is called in Willipaq High’s sophomore biology studies, teaches Libby that all creatures are preoccupied with sex. This is, after all, why the spring gardens bother to bloom. This is a survival mechanism. No love, no next generation. Love without passion creates no new life. All the movies, the songs are about love. The creatures that loved without sex never made any movies; they just had hobbies. They were extinct.
“Charley is extinct but there he is, walking around,” says Libby, sharing this joke with the cat. The cat understands Charley. Once Charley forgets and leaves the TV on to wander off with his friends. Caves of the Buddha, a pictorial exploration of religious art is playing. Yellow-robed shaven-headed monks are painting a holy picture by dribbling colored sand in intricate floral shapes. When they are through, they sweep it away.
“I am not quite ready to be swept away,” says Libby Pease. Libby worries about not remembering the name on the label of the can of peas, the can with the pixie and his retreating mirrors. In the sand paintings of the Buddha every grain demonstrating the evanescence of life, its transitoriness, was precious and without that single grain, all the myriads of others would remain meaningless.
“Libby,” says Libby addressing herself, “Have you ever felt you are preoccupied with the mechanics of sex? Just where thingies go?”
Or where the thingies went when they were no longer thingies. The Old Thingies Home? Libby is tickled at the thought; her question has surprised her. “Libby, dear,” Libby replies, “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way. It makes you sound so common.”
She surrenders as laughter starts someplace inadvisable, deep inside, below her diaphragm. Pain announces itself, much as the cat. Libby holds the door shut. She feels at the catch in her side but is by this time laughing so hard she doubles over with laughter and pain, holding onto the back of a chair until the spasm passes. Her eyes are wet and she is breathing in short gasps.
“I am the pain of annoyance, Elizabeth, not the Big One, only a minor agony. Pleased to meet you, roll with me and enjoy.”
“Well, Pain,” says Libby, pondering thingyhood, “the ‘place where the thingies go’ might well describe a saloon.” There are trendy watering holes where Willipaq’s summer people meet and mingle. If the summer folk asked her she would tell them, yes, I am aware of thingy placement strategies.
“Thank you Libby. My pleasure.” The pain withdraws.
The great screen stars of her girlhood, William Powell and Myrna Loy, do not have babies; they have love. They are The Thin Man and The Thin Lady; they solve mysteries together. The movies showed people who felt passion, Lust. Lust is a Deadly Sin. She is therefore curious about it.
Feelings of desire Libby Pease has come to associate with being in the theater, sometimes her favorite seat itself — eight rows back from in the loge at the start of the smoking section where a gentle slope inclines into the retreating thirty rows of plush seats. Velvet ropes, popcorn smells, and always a sore neck after the show.
Tickets for the section with the velvet seats cost a dime more. Libby pays the dime.
She turns off all the lamps but one and picks up her basket of redwork embroidery. Thirteen-year-old Libby buys the squares at McCrory’s Five and Dime fifty years before. Overall Sam and Sunbonnet Sue are red lines on yellowed muslin squares, twelve squares — a set for the months of the year. Sam pushes over a privy for October; Sue carries an umbrella for April.
With her hands in motion, Libby Pease feels anchored, safe to consider passion as spoken of by the big, fine-featured faces in the movies. The great shining faces on the tall silver screen could not know her yearnings; they speak to each other, not to Libby Pease. She feels her first passion in the seats beyond the velvet ropes.
There is a seasonal reverse entropy to the Pease house. Spring feels warmer than the spring of Willipaq really is. Windows and doors are propped open. Libby’s father’s coal stove, when it had heated the winter chimney’s bricks hot enough for a holding heat was, while never any more cool than the summer afternoons in the Pease parlor, cold in summer. After the war the new oil heat eats away at the coal suppliers. Coal becomes expensive and Vern Lightfoot retires from the ice and coal business. Vern’s horse dies. Her father’s concession to modernity is an oil furnace, new thirty years ago. Libby now augments with firewood to hold down costs. Vern Lightfoot’s son delivers.
After the war, the Thin Man movies likewise come to an end, William Powell and Myrna Loy grown old in the service of comedy and crime while Libby is still a girl. For years after the Willipaq Cinema still shows the Thin Man on the first Sunday of the month and Libby comes alone. Libby feels her first yearnings watching William Powell and Myrna Loy. She checks Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books out at the library but finds the prose clipped and arty. The movies are mellow and smooth, just like the Thin Man himself.
Libby recalls her single completed sexual adventure, writhing on Harry Trott’s beige velveteen Plymouth seat covers feeling the funny stubbly tickle of the upholstery material as she wriggles her panties down by rubbing her knees, calves and ankles about, freehandedly undressing, his hands in her blouse, their mouths sucking at each other in a tangle of tongues. Libby volunteers her maidenhead to her escort after an evening of mesmeric craning, her neck stiff with delight. They have seen Rebel Without A Cause. Libby’s soldier lover is posted to Germany where he is killed on maneuvers one afternoon at 2:30, crushed between a tank and a medieval city gate.
Pausing to adjust the embroidery hoop to center Sunbonnet Sue’s face — no, hat, for the charm of the Sunbonnet Sue is that she has no face — Libby wonders if Gilbert Roland, in The Desert Hawk, when the woman was finally in his tent and his burnoose flung to the carpeted sands, mounted his love slave in the scenes they must have filmed but somehow never included in the final film. Sand and sweat, implied and tasted but never projected. Had he mounted her with the same hand-to-hip elegance as he sat his horse? The practiced passing of hands over silk, over flesh and silk. The connoisseur’s hand weighs a tender virgin breast beneath the fabric; an extreme close-up fills the 40-foot high screen, full lips parted wordlessly in passion soon to be consummated. Small gestures magnified, little things mean a lot, a perceptible rising of a single eyebrow says, this is good, you are fine, I will have you now.
He mounts her in full stride, a galloping horse, laughing, his breath smelling of cloves. She surrenders her virgin bloom joyously, and unyielding rises to meet his thrust. He takes her like a walled city falling to a charge of gallant cavalry.
Actually, thinks Libby, it is artillery that takes walled cities, but artillery is so noisy. Sex is noisy, all lubricity and suction, gratification. But passion fulfilled remembers the susurrus of skin to skin to silken sheets and gasping breaths close to the ear. Libby Pease remembers the Plymouth seat covers.
“I have seen slides of great art. I have had a sample of life and read about the rest. I have lived sixty-three years. I have had all the experiences that make a person.”
Libby thinks — The past is rewritten daily by those who were not around at the time, sanitized by the growing feebleness of its surviving participants. Were you there? I was. Libby feels her mind picking up speed as her hands slow.
In the Book of Life, Libby realizes, the answers are not written in the back. She must make them up as she goes along. The past is not subject to change and therefore better organized than the present. She wishes Mister Lightfoot or somebody could be here to uncomplicate things.
Out of the Willipaq coastal fog a limousine, dark as lampblack, long and polished, pulls to a stop at the Pease house.
Libby’s caller is dressed for an evening at the theater. He is broad shouldered, slim waisted and his tailored jacket has silk lapels. Barbered and manicured, brilliantined and brushed, the man’s hair and hands gleam perfection. A scarf of spotless white silk is carelessly hung from about his throat.
“Hello, Elizabeth.” It is William Powell.
“You must be looking for my brother.” No one important ever calls on her; it must be for Charley. Charley is gone half the year, working on the boats of summer people. Crewing, he calls it. Charles Wyndham Pease knew people who had been places and done things. Libby Pease expects the unusual where Charley is concerned.
“I am Charley’s sister.”
“You are Charley’s sister.” The elegant man bows ever so slightly and holds out his hand, as though it were important to him to make a good first impression. “So happy — no, delighted — to catch you in, Elizabeth. You are all you are and Charley’s sister, too.”
“Yes I am. Elizabeth Pease, that is. And you are William Powell. And you are talking to me. That is rather nice. Won’t you come in?”
“Fabulous. I’d be delighted. It is you I am here to see, Elizabeth.”
On entering Libby’s front hall, the light goes away somewhere. Some is sucked into the floral print wallpaper. Dimmed by crocheted openwork curtains stretched drum tight onto brass rods anchored top and bottom, much more light stays outside on the porch, past the beveled lead glass in the century-old oak front door. The Pease house has the charm of an abandoned depot, lovingly restored.
“Hmmm, rather understated, don’t you think?” William Powell executes a half turn that accentuates his profile. He observes the concentric circles under a fluorescent ceiling ring. “I mean the 40 watt bulbs, the sepulchral darkness and the mustiness of storage? An interesting motif.”
Libby’s hands are never still, always moving to some good purpose. Gelatin dessert — red or green, diced chicken white meat embedded in a ring mold with green grapes and elbows with a whipped cream topping — is a Libby specialty bring-along for covered dish suppers.
Libby and William Powell are now in the kitchen. Libby tends her redwork. The Thin Man sits on the table, a long, thin cigarette between his fingers. He has declined the chicken-macaroni-fruit gelatin ring but looks hopefully at the oven where a scallop casserole is in progress.
Libby’s stitching picks up its pace, red satin thread doing a czardas through the hoop. She remembers all the movies she has ever seen and replays them in her mind, mingling the plots and inserting herself into places foreign and wonderful.
“Do you ever do that, Mister Powell?”
“All the time, Elizabeth, just like in the movies. We call it the dream sequence.” The debonair man is comforting. “Call me Bill.”
Libby pictures herself dressed in the high-waisted corded twill riding pants, the kind that show off a woman’s body while at the same time saying she means business. Jodhpurs, they are called, smelling of horses and desire. Libby dreams a life of danger and intrigue, awaking each dawn languorous and satisfied by the thrusts of a sloe-eyed, brown skinned, courtly lover — not Negro, surely, but foreign, manly and exotic. Arabian, perhaps, or Javanese — a shared cup of hot, sweet, aromatic tea, then off to explore some temple ruins.
A quirky native cab driver, just like in the movies, pulls up as she opens her tent flap for an amble out into the relentless noontime sun. The mezzogiorno the Italians called it, this relentless midday pounding of heat.
“Good guide, Sadiki Bin Amin is me.” A captive macaw screeches from Sadiki’s shoulder. “Nice lady see sights?”
Mezzogiorno. Temple ruins. Libby feels good knowing these things.
The parrot squawks, “Libby Pease, Libby Pease. Libby, please.”
“I should be most happy to,” says Libby. She climbs into the desert taxi. “Show me the sights.”
Open-throated silk shirt and a small automatic pistol in the glossy patent leather holster worn high up, she enters the whitewashed mud brick arches of the native quarter. In The Street of the Ostrich Plume Dyers a tall hooded figure who smells of cloves speaks to her.
“Hi, Lib. It’s me, Harry.” The cowl was brushed back with a careless gesture. The speaker is handsome, swarthy and the age Harry had been when he eloped alone to join the Army in Germany.
“Harry Trott, I had hoped you might be dead.”
“Tell me you still love me.”
“You look a lot better than I remembered. But I have a gentleman caller. You’ll have to go.”
“Stay with me. Surrender to me. Forget William Powell.”
“The Thin Man is a gentleman who appreciates a well-turned macaroni salad,” says Libby.
“Is he frisky with the waitress?” The stranger is amused.
“Harry? You ran off, and here you are finding fault with William Powell’s manners. And besides I haven’t asked him to stay for dinner yet.” Libby studies the handsome foreign features.
“I was stationed in Germany,” says Harry Trott. “I was killed. Would you have felt better if I had ‘run off’ with another woman?”
“You ran away. From me. That hurt me more than another woman. William Powell will do just fine.”
“So he will.” The odor of cloves grows close and intimate.
Libby Pease has been gradually leaning ever more forward. She catches herself up with the small snap of the daytime drowser. “I have been asleep. Harry was a dream,” thinks Libby Pease.
William Powell is speaking. “Libby dear, I believe you will find you have given Sunbonnet Sue a face. Sue does not have a face; she has a hat — the apotheosis of the low-maintenance debutante. You have surpassed the instructions in that magazine you have lying open on the table.”
He flips the page back to where Libby has marked her place with a paper clip.
“Sorry about reading ahead,” says The Thin Man. “I wanted to find out if Overall Bill and Sunbonnet Sue ever get together. I have an affinity for Bill — same name and all. I know all this sounds bizarre, but just look at the movies.”
“Try me out. You may be surprised by what I can accommodate.”
“All possibilities exist at the same time and all are equally real. Would you rather discuss quantum physics? Or wallow in your clove-scented nod-offs? Sorry, that was rude. Try the nine-patch again. Give it a chance. God, I miss Myrna Loy!”
“I thought she was only your wife in the movies.”
“She is a beautiful woman and I therefore miss her. Fix the quilt. The pattern you desire is there, you just don’t see it yet. Is that a scallop casserole?” The Thin Man sniffs, registers rapture and rises to check the oven.
“If Myrna Loy is thinking of you, you are bound to link up,” says Libby reassuringly. “Eventually.” Her needle is flashing again. Red embroidery thread bounces from its skein. Places too distant and glamorous to be visited by her in life dance behind the screen in a darkened movie theater.
The Thin Man delicately digs a little finger into his ear.
“When you have an itch it means someone is thinking of you.” Libby has heard this. “Myrna Loy, I mean. You will see her soon.”
“If somebody bites you on the ass it means they are thinking of you, too, dear Libby. Eventually the Earth will fall into the sun,” says The Thin Man.
“Forgive me for the greeting card sentiment; I was just trying to cheer you up.” Libby yawns. “Almost nap time. I have seen enough of life and art from my parlor window. I have been in love and made love. I would be happy to have you here if you cannot get back together with your wife. I realize you are not the usual thing in a middle-aged lady’s companion. You are different. It would have been ill bred to mention it.”
“Fix the nine-patch, Libby. Promise?”
“The Singer Featherweight can do it.” William Powell knows his classic sewing machines as well as his martinis.
“I will. I promise.” After all, William Powell had cared enough to spend an afternoon away from Myrna Loy. Libby packs the hoop with its redwork into her workbasket and curls up on the window seat. The cat jumps up beside her.
“Perhaps I am an old lady and not middle-aged after all. Excuse me for half an hour.” Something missing from her reverie slips from her mind at the moment of realization, that mote so irregularly shaped that without it being in place, she would lose her whole life. “The pixie and his pea? No, it is something else,” says Libby.
Hoagy Carmichael sings Old Buttermilk Sky from the parlor radio as Vern Lightfoot’s horse pauses unbidden at the Pease house. Libby catches a waft of heady horse smell with a touch of cloves.
“Pixies? Peas? Libby, dear, we were speaking of dreams and desire, I believe,” says the Thin Man.
“Ooh! There it is,” Libby exclaims.
More momentous than the itchy, salty butter-slathered hulls the popcorn left between her father’s teeth, the Thin Man or Harry Trott, her lost lover died too young, Libby has recovered that grain of sand without which the whole puzzle of her life is meaningless.
“Buttermilk — that was the name of Mr. Lightfoot’s horse.” She pulls an afghan up to her chin.
“Sweet dreams, Libby, dreams of horses and desire,” says William Powell, the Thin Man. “My God, how I miss Myrna Loy.”
My brother and I flew recon over the gray Santa Monica beach, half-frozen rain striking our black feathers. Below, a skater swaddled in Gor-Tex swished around the curves of the bike path, while surfers in wetsuits bobbed in the dark waters.
It was the coldest winter on record in Southern California. It was the coldest winter everywhere.
“Hey,” said my brother. “Down there.” Without waiting, he dove toward the sand where a dead Rotweiller rolled in the white foam. It had been a long flight and we were both ravenous. I angled in to follow, and soon we were absorbed in our feast.
A big gray gull challenged our salvage rights, screaming and beating us with his wings, but we tore him to shreds, ate him, then returned to the dog.
Later, my brother would be able to report every minute detail of the incident. He’d describe the precise markings on the gull’s bill, the way he favored his left foot over his right, the iron and salt taste of his blood.
But he wouldn’t be able to say why we’d killed him. He’s expert at the whats and whens and wheres, but he leaves the whys to me.
His name is Munin, Memory. I’m Hugin, Thought.
Our hunger satisfied, we took to the skies again and continued south over the T-shirt shops and sunglass stands of Venice boardwalk. When we reached the storm-shattered pier, we turned seaward, onward, away and beyond.
We heard a blue whale sing its last song before dying of old age. We watched an undiscovered species of fish go extinct. And we saw something enormous on the ocean floor, slithering on its belly and churning waves hundreds of fathoms above.
We flew and flew, carefully observing and cataloging so that later we could give Odin, our boss, an accurate report. But first we had a special appointment to keep.
Well past the horizons of Midgard we came upon the shores of the dead. Hel is a dry place. It’s a land of gray plains and twigs and dust. And in the center of this land there lived a pair of slain gods. We found them reclining atop the roof of a great timber hall, passing a cup back and forth.
The poets used to say that Baldr was so good and pure he radiated white light, a sun compressed into human form. There used to be something about him, something that, when he walked by, made a man put down his drinking horn or stop hammering trolls for a second and just be glad he was alive to witness the moment. You knew that Baldr, somehow, was what the whole thing was about.
He was still beautiful, but not the same. Now he was cold and magisterial, a god of glaciers and dark stone mountains. He rose to his feet and announced our arrival to his brother.
Höd was a much humbler creature, thinner in the shoulder, longer in the face, his shriveled eyes lost in dark sockets. You really didn’t want to look into those sockets. They went a long way down.
We landed on Baldr’s outstretched forearms and dug our talons in a little to see if he’d flinch. He didn’t, of course. Even exiled from the realms of the living, he was still a god. “Just when I was thinking you wouldn’t come,” he said. “I’m glad to see you. Let’s go inside.”
Getting welcomed to Hel isn’t such an enormous thrill, but I politely thanked him anyway.
His hall was cold and dimly lit. Pale flames wavered in the hearth, their light barely pushing back the shadows. A long table bore a modest feast — a few loaves of bread, a pair of emaciated roast pigs.
Munin perched on the edge of the table and appraised the fare. “I guess it’s a good thing we already ate.”
Höd’s jaw muscles clenched. “If you’d like to contribute to the meal, I can start plucking feathers right now.”
Baldr laughed. “Brother,” he said in his gentle voice, “we observe hospitality in my house.”
I think Höd would have rolled his eyes had he been capable.
At the end of the table sat a plump old woman in a purple sweatshirt. The shopping cart beside her was filled with empty soup cans, magazines, rotting batteries, a sword hilt, a broken car antenna. Over her matted gray hair she wore a Minnesota Vikings cap. She clutched a long twig in her left hand.
“Sibyl,” I said, nodding respectfully. I hadn’t seen the witch-prophetess in a long time. Not since the world was younger and greener, when, in exchange for a meal, she’d told Odin how the world would end.
“There is an ash tree,” she said now. “Its name is Yggdrasil. Lofty Yggdrasil, the Ash Tree, trembles, ancient wood groaning.”
Not knowing if she was uttering an incantation or just making conversation, I indicated the twig with my wing. “Is that part of Yggdrasil?”
She shook the stick. “Yggdrasil’s an ash. Does this look like ash? Stupid bird.”
Same old sibyl.
We sat around the table and picked at the skinny pigs for a while before Baldr asked us about affairs back in the land of men. Normally we report only to Odin, but how often do you get invited to Baldr’s house? So Munin spoke of the weather on Midgard. Three winters, each colder and longer than the previous one, with little summer between. Floods, bad crops, people freezing in the streets, hoarding and price gouging and rioting and looting.
Munin didn’t say the word.
He didn’t have to.
We all knew where this was heading: Ragnarök. The great monsters would do battle with the gods, and most of the gods would be slain. Heimdall. Hermod. Frey. Thor. Even Odin. A world without Odin. And the world itself would burn and crumble, and the ancient chaos that preceded us all would return. But from the ashes would rise the younger gods, and Baldr and Höd would end their exile in Hel to help them rebuild.
Munin went on and on, citing wind chill factors from CNN until Baldr put an end to his chatter. “Thank you, Munin,” he said. “Most thorough. My father is lucky to have your counsel.” He turned his gray eyes to me. “And you, Hugin, what will you tell Odin when next you see him?”
As if you didn’t know, I almost said. But being Odin’s agent has taught me to reflect before I speak. I’d play along for now. “I can tell you of two brothers,” I said. “Like you and Höd, two sons of Odin.” And there, in a vast dry hall situated at the center of Hel, with the sibyl worrying her twig, I told Baldr about an attempt to end the world.
Munin and I had watched the godling sons of Odin sail for many days and nights before they came to an island between worlds. As they neared the shore, Vidar threw the anchor over, jumped out and waded toward the beach. He was much like his father, lean and rangy with a voice that rarely rose above a dry whisper.
Vali was different. Forever a toddler, he scrambled over the gunwale and belly-flopped into the waves, thrashed about as he realized his feet couldn’t touch the stony sea bottom, then gave a mighty kick that sent him flying through the air and onto the beach.
“Did you see?” he said, delighted. “I almost drowned!”
Vidar brushed sand off his half-brother’s bottom. “I saw.”
“I could have been killed!”
“Yes, you came perilously close to an untimely demise. Please follow, Vali. We have a task.”
The beach sloped up sharply from the tide toward a towering wall of jagged basalt. The gods began to hike up the rise.
“Vidar, I’m hungry.”
“Possibly because you didn’t eat your supper?”
“Dried fish. I hate dried fish. I hate all fish.”
“If I give you a piece of candy, will you be quiet?”
Vidar sighed and gave him a piece of candy anyway. All the gods in Asgard knew it was easier if you didn’t anger Vali.
They reached the rock wall and began to climb.
“Vidar, tell me a story.”
“Now is not the best time.”
Vali pouted. “You better tell me a story, or I’ll rip open your tummy and pull all the tubes out, and then I’ll choke you with the tubes, and then I’ll make you eat the tubes, and then I’ll — ”
Vidar closed his eyes. “Once upon a time there was — ”
“There was a god named Baldr,” Vali cut in. “And Frigg, his momma, loved him, and everybody loved him, and he was always very nice. So Frigg got everything in the world to make a promise — all the animals and flowers and birds and everything — she asked everything to promise to never, ever, ever hurt Baldr.”
A gust of wind picked up an unpleasant scent. Fur. Damp animal fur. Vidar continued the tale. “As you said, Vali, Mother Frigg exacted an oath from fire and water and metal and stones, and from earth and trees and beasts, from ailments and birds and poisons and serpents. She wrung promises from every conceivable thing that it would do Baldr no harm. All except a young plant growing on the very skirts of Asgard, a small sprig of mistletoe. She felt it too small to be of any consequence.”
Vali’s grip slipped and he tumbled until a rock broke his fall. Vidar climbed down and retrieved him. “We don’t have time for this. Climb on my back.” They renewed the ascent, Vali riding piggyback.
“And so a game arose around Baldr’s invulnerability,” said Vidar. “He would stand at the highseat during assemblies, and the Aesir would hurl objects at him. Stones, spears, cauldrons of boiling water, wasp nests — all bounced off him and did no harm.”
“But then Loki got all mad!” interrupted Vali. “And he put on ladies’ clothes and tricked Frigg into telling him about the mistletoe. And there was Höd, and he was blind, and he couldn’t play along, and Loki said, ‘How come you’re not playing?’ And Höd said, ‘I’m blind! They won’t let me play.’ And Loki said, ‘That’s not fair.’ And he gave Höd the mistletoe and said, ‘Throw it! Throw it!’ And Höd goes, ‘I’m blind! I can’t aim good.’ But Loki helped him throw, and…and….”
“Catch your breath, brother. And try not to choke me.”
Vidar crested the wall and peered over the summit. In the center of the island loomed a great, dark shape. The son of Odin swallowed and began his descent down the other side of the wall. Vali leaped off his back and scrambled after him.
“I said it’s your turn, Vidar.”
Vidar’s mouth set in a grim line. “The mistletoe pierced Baldr’s breast,” he said. “And it was…it was horrible. How can I tell you what it was like? You never saw him, brother. The skalds say he was beautiful, but it was more than that. You know how when you look at Thor, he’s like a great dark thunder cloud stepped down from the sky to assume human shape. And Njord, he’s like the sea itself, tidal waves crashing in his eyes. Baldr was like that. Only he personified everything that was…I don’t know, good? Worthwhile?” Vidar paused there, hanging off the side of the rock wall, his face haunted. Even Vali took notice and preserved the silence. Then, finally, Vidar said, “He died. Right there in front of all of us. You could almost see the world change color. Nobody knew what to say or what to do. And the next day, we put him in his ship and sent him off to Hel. That’s the last any of us saw of him. And ever since, we’ve been living out the sibyl’s prophecy. We, the great and mighty Aesir. Puppets.”
Something at the foot of the wall made a noise. A low growl, a clank of metal.
“Come on,” said Vidar. “Let’s cut some strings.” They jumped the rest of the way, a twenty-foot drop. Vidar drew his sword and led the way to a shadowy, massive form chained to a boulder. It turned its blue, liquid eyes to the brothers and watched them approach.
“But you didn’t tell the good part of the story,” Vali wailed. “The part when All-Father Odin got mad at Höd for killing Baldr, because he loved Baldr best of anybody, so he and my momma had me, and when I was just one day old I jumped on Höd’s chest and I put my arms around his throat and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, and then he was dead and he had to go to Hel, too. You didn’t tell that part.”
“You told it very well, Vali. Now let’s finish our job.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Was who pretty?”
“My momma. Was she pretty?”
“Vali, she was a giant.”
Vali stopped walking, his lip curling into a snarl.
Vidar sighed. “All right. All right. Words are insufficient to describe her gigantic beauty. She was the most lovely giantess that ever was. Yes? Will that do?”
That satisfied Vali. The little god squared his shoulders, puffed out his chest, and took the lead toward the monster at the center of the island.
Viewed head-on, the wolf was merely the size of an adult grizzly bear. But if you squinted just so and looked at it through the corner of your eye, it was larger. Larger than the island that contained it, large enough to dwarf the mountains, to swallow the sun and the moon.
Vidar put a hand on his brother’s shoulder, holding him firm. “This is Fenrir Lokisson, the wolf. He and I are destined to do battle at Ragnarök. And I will kill him. But not before he destroys the sky.”
The wolf’s jaws were propped open by a sword, and its legs were bound by a silky ribbon connected by a chain to a boulder.
Vidar raised his sword high in the air. The wolf stared at him placidly, his slow breaths sending clouds of steam into the gloom.
The ribbon binding him was made of six true things, from the roots of a mountain, to the breath of a fish.
But Vidar’s sword was made of seven.
He brought the sword down, parting the air with a thunderclap and sending up a shower of sparks as the blade cut through the chain. Then, gently, he sliced through the ribbon, removed the sword gag from the wolf’s mouth, and Fenrir was free.
“Kill him!” screamed Vali. “Give me the sword!” The child god lunged at the wolf, but Vidar grabbed him by the arms, restraining him.
Fenrir bowed his great back, stretched his forelegs out and yawned. He shook dust from his tail, then turned to Vidar. His mouth formed something of a smile. “That was unexpected. Why set me loose?”
Vidar shrugged. “We’re tired of sitting around waiting for Ragnarök to happen.”
“Ah,” said the wolf. “I think I get it. Why wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy when you can ignite it yourself? Hasten the destruction of a few billion men, trolls, elves, giants, gods, horses, dogs, what have you. Usher in a sea of blood and fire and pain the likes of which not even Odin can fully imagine. Just so you and your brother and the other little godlings can step out of the wings and take charge of the remains now. A plot worthy of Loki.”
“Actually,” said Vidar, “I was just anxious to get to the part of the story where I kill you.”
“I’ll see you later, then,” said Fenrir with a laugh. He leapt into the sky, momentarily eclipsing the moon, before vanishing into the dark.
The gods started back to the boat, and Munin and I circled overhead for a time, watching them.
“Well,” I said to Munin. “What do you think about that?”
He flapped his wings twice to gain altitude. “Thinking’s your department.”
With the shadows deepening in Baldr’s hall, Höd picked at the scant remains of the pig on his platter and shook his head. “It seems entirely unacceptable to me that a psychopathic little toddler is due to inherit the world after the Great Battle.”
“Is that an objective opinion?” I asked. “That has nothing to do with the fact that Vali slew you?”
“It has everything to do with the fact that he slew me! If I wrung your feathered neck today, would you want to sit in council with me tomorrow? What kind of working relationship would that be?”
I turned to Baldr. “Maybe you could answer that question. What do you make of it when Aesir try to bring about the end of one world, just so they can hurry up and start ruling over the next?” I so badly wanted Baldr to say he found it reprehensible. I wanted him to be angry with the young gods. I wanted him to tell me he wasn’t like them at all.
He regarded me with an almost cynical smile. On his face, it was a sad thing to see. “Those gods are Odin’s progeny. The same as Thor or Höd or myself. They’re doing what we’re all doing, what we’ve done for thousands of years — playing their role in this hideous prophecy. Only they realized it was possible to accelerate the process. I admire their initiative. It’s something we’ve lacked for too long.”
My feathers bristled. “They should be patient,” I argued. “All they have to do is wait and they’ll get what they want. Let things happen in the way they were meant to happen. The world ends, the gods and monsters fight, and the young gods inherit a new earth. They don’t appreciate what a privilege that will be, to rule over something new and fresh and green. They don’t appreciate what an honor that is.” And now I looked hard into Baldr’s gray eyes. “It’s wrong to interfere with the prophecy.”
The corners of Baldr’s mouth curved up in a small smile. Folding his ice-white hands on the table before him, he said, “What do you do, Hugin?”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and cocked my head sideways. “What do you mean?”
“I mean what do you do? You fly around and watch and analyze and calculate, and you whisper intelligence in Odin’s ear. But do you actually do anything?” The hall had grown colder by many degrees as Baldr spoke. “Why do you judge those who have the courage to act, when you, Thought, have only the courage to think?”
Before I could devise a response, he turned his attention away from me and spoke to Munin. “Do you remember my funeral?”
“Of course. I’m Memory. I remember everything. Odin came with his Valkyries, and Frey came in a chariot drawn by a boar, and Freyja was there with her cats. Her dress was very pretty. And there were the trolls and elves, the mountain-giants and frost-giants. Everyone showed up. The Aesir wept. Thor kept blowing his nose, and it made a great schnoork sound that shook the leaves from the trees.”
Leave it to Munin to remember the thunder of Thor clearing his nostrils. I remembered something else.
Odin the All-Father frightened me. In the dark hole left behind by his sacrificed eye, I saw his fear. He remembered the sibyl’s prophecy from so long ago. She’d told him that Baldr would die, that his death would be the first step towards the doom of everything Odin had ever known. He’d always hoped that somehow the sibyl would be wrong. Sometimes witch babble is just witch babble. But now there was the shocking white corpse of Baldr, whom Odin loved not in the way a war god loves a warrior, but in the way a father loves a son.
That day, everything started to die.
I thought about some of the things Munin and I had seen recently. The world-spanning Serpent who churned the waters, brewing tidal waves and hurricanes. Thor’s son, Modi, had loosed him a week ago. And there was the Ship of Dead Men’s Nails, freed of its moorings by the young god, Magni. I thought of the bloodbath Midgard was becoming, with people killing each other over a can of ravioli. All the portents were coming true.
Bent over her twig, the sibyl muttered softly to herself. “And the serpent rises, and children drown in its wake, and the blood-beaked eagle rends corpses, screaming. Ragnarök, doom of the gods, doom of all. Battle-axe and sword rule, and an age of wolves, till the world goes down.”
She spat upon the twig, and now it wasn’t a twig at all, but a spear with smoking runes burned down its side. I didn’t recognize them. She put the spear in Höd’s hands.
Baldr nodded. “Tell me what Odin did at my funeral, Munin.” He wasn’t looking at Munin. He was looking at me.
“He laid the gold ring Draupnir on your chest,” Munin said. “And then he knelt at your side, brushed the hair off your forehead, just like he used to do when you were a boy. He whispered something in your ear.”
“What did he whisper?”
Munin opened his beak, paused, shut it. He looked at me, and I shrugged. I didn’t know either. On that awful day, Odin used his cunning and spoke in a voice not even I could hear.
The sibyl snorted. “I know what he said. I’m the one who gave him the words. And he had to say them, too. Didn’t want to, but he had to. No choice. That was my price for giving him a heads-up about the future.”
“Tell the ravens, please,” said Baldr.
“This: The sibyl’s magic can give you true death.”
Baldr stood at the head of the table. “Now, Höd,” he said.
“Wait,” I squawked. “You’re not really going to do this.”
Stupid, stupid bird. Baldr wasn’t working with Vidar and Vali. He wasn’t interested in freeing monsters. He wasn’t trying to accelerate Ragnarök and end his days in Hel.
With a slight shudder, Höd rose to his feet. He fingered the mistletoe spear. “I don’t want to do this,” he said. “Not again. It’s not fair. The prophecy says we get to live! That’s what’s supposed to happen. Not this.”
Baldr’s face darkened. “I thought we were agreed. Who are we to build a new world on the corpses of others?”
After a very long moment, Höd lifted the spear over his shoulder. He sighed. “I just…I just want to say thanks. For not ever being mad at me. Everybody else hated me for killing you. But you always treated me like a brother.”
“It’s alright,” said Baldr. “You are my brother.”
“This has all been for my benefit,” I said to Baldr. “Mine and Munin’s. That’s why you sent for us. That’s what this whole thing has been about.”
Baldr nodded. “I wanted Odin to know what happened here tonight. I wanted him to know why I did it. I was always the first link in the chain. The most important link. Remove me, and the chain shatters. Send me to a true death, end my existence.” Baldr closed his eyes. “Munin can tell Odin of my deed. But you, Hugin, you have to tell him…I don’t know. You’ll think of the right thing to tell him.”
“I could tell him something right now,” I said. “He’d never allow this. And if I don’t stop to observe the world as I fly I can be at his side before Höd lifts a finger.”
“I know you can,” said Baldr. “It would be very easy for you to do that.”
I felt a tightness in my throat.
How often do you see a god defy the universe to save a world? How often do you realize that you can let it happen, or you can stop it? And how long do you have to think about it before you figure out the right thing to do?
Höd pulled the spear back a little farther and took a deep breath.
I took a deep breath, too.
“Your aim’s too far right,” I told him. “A little left. A little more. There.”
Baldr smiled at me, this time with some of his old magic, and the hall seemed to warm, and I basked in him.
“Hey, wait!” said Munin. He was just now figuring it out. “Can they do this?”
I shushed him. “I think it’ll be alright.”
And Baldr stood there, his arms stretched out to his sides. And when the rune-burned mistletoe spear punched through his chest, he was laughing.
The world changed color again.
Munin and I left them there, Höd staring blindly at his hands, the sibyl reading her magazines. And Baldr, not just exiled from the living, but truly and finally dead.
Later, after the long flight home, when we perched on Odin’s shoulder and he asked us what we’d seen and heard, Munin told him everything in detail from his perfect memory. He told him of the break in the leaden clouds and the melting of the snow. He told him how we saw the great Fenrir wolf slink back to his rock, frightened for the first time of an unknown future.
And me, Hugin, Thought, I told him that he had better start making some plans.
Because Baldr had given us a whole new tomorrow.
And today, anything was possible.
Janós shuffled down the hall. His uniform pulled and tugged at his body like the hands of an ill-tempered lover. His reflection rippled on the polished granite floor, interrupted by brass ridges every yard and odd stains he could never quite buff out.
Something boomed sharp and loud along the corridors of Geminus High — kids throwing firecrackers in the dumpster behind the cafeteria. Janós heard that almost any other night of the year.
This night was different.
A gold tooth sparkled in his reflection as his smile, a rara avis in its own right, cracked open.
Tonight they would try to burn the school down. Just like every New Year’s Eve. Tonight he would hold the doors against them. Just like every New Year’s Eve. It was a tradition as old as the Empire.
He arrived at the south closet on the first floor, which had been Old Rennie’s back when Janós first returned to Geminus after his own graduation. Set free to fend for himself, the old slave had kept coming around and bothering Janós until he’d been run off by the watch. Rennie had finally starved to death under the Sulispont.
Now Janós was old. He’d been smart, stayed free but never become a citizen. Citizens had rights and duties. Slaves had nothing at all. Little bondsmen like Janós who stood in the middle were the glue that held the Roman world together.
Another boom echoed, this from the front hall. Battle had been declared. Janós took his strongest-handled mop in one hand and his enormous key ring across the knuckles of the other and headed for the racket.
There was crowd of juniors and seniors outside, barely visible through the narrow, wire-reinforced glass windows of the main doors. Janós rapped on his side of the glass with the key ring. “Go home, pukes!”
An inarticulate roar arose outside. Young shoulders battered against the metal doors. Fists pounded on the narrow windows. The door frame groaned as the locks clicked under the pressure.
“I won’t tell you again,” he shouted.
They didn’t listen. Kids never did.
As the crowd drew back for a concerted rush at the doors, Janós slipped the lock. The kids spilled into the main hall, tumbling and shouting. A Molotovian cocktail shattered on the granite, blue flame racing down the hall toward the first bank of lockers.
Janós set to with mop handle and key ring. The spirit of the year moved him, gave him the strength it always did at this time. Even the hulking gladiatorial lettermen were no match for him. He shattered teeth and splintered ribs, careful never to kill. Their nerve broke when a wiry junior varsity wrestler caught fire and ran shrieking into the night like a blue comet.
Breathing hard, Janós shut the doors. “They close for peace,” he said to the empty hallway, “and open for war.” After dousing the flames, he knelt to pray in the New Year, taking his joy of the change. Tomorrow, everything would be as it always was, until some year when a younger man would finally take the south closet away from him.
He looked forward to the day.
January. Out with the old, in with the new. Time to recover from the giddy festivities that define the end of the old year; time to break resolutions in record time and revive the dearly-held bad habits that caused us to make those same resolutions in the first place.
More importantly (although I’ll admit I’m a bit biased), time for a new issue of Ideomancer. My issue. That’s right, the slave has become master, the inmates have taken over the asylum, the proletariat revolts, baby! This issue is mine, all mine, and —
Sorry. For a moment the power became too much…
Still, we are playing around with the springs and gears that make Ideomancer tick, and I have endeavored to give some hint of what’s to come — my own personal take on the magazine and the type of story we try to present. There will be other, different views as the year slides away from us, but I get to be first. Heh-heh.
Consider yourselves forewarned.
Rob Hunter dazzles us with the inner workings of a unique mind in “The Nine-Patch Variation”, Samantha Henderson sinks her irony-coated claws into “The Legend Of St. Ignatz The Provider”, Greg van Eekhout graces us with a reprint of his poignant fantasy “Wolves Till The World Goes Down”, and Jay Lake, in the first of a series, performs janitorial duty with his take on “January.” And there’s even a movie review for those of you who are despairing of finding good genre fare in the cinematic realm.
Enjoy! (That was a command, not a suggestion…)
I‘ll just slot my comments under a ton of megalomania. 2004 brings Ideomancer into its third year in this format and we are again endeavoring to progress the magazine through the coming twelve months. Each editor will add their voice to the magazine as we bring you more original fiction — gone are the classics this year.
We continue our Featured Author slot and welcome Greg van Eekhout as the first of the New Year.
Our guidelines have changed slightly again — we are now introducing reading periods — and as a consequence will be closed to submissions through January. I would also like to welcome Meredith L. Patterson and Lori Ann White to the editorial staff.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue