It’s February, and while some people’s thoughts turn to love, Ideomancer’s turns to crossing borders — or at least coming close.
We begin with Jay Lake’s hunt and the insight that allows one to cross into enlightenment. Charles Tuomi follows with a haunting tale of a man determined to test the narrow border that separates him from his wife. Jeremiah Tolbert brings us a story of an old man, his axe, and mortality. In addition, Greg Van Eekhout, our Featured Author, polishes his city, giving us a glimpse of what lies beneath.
Finally, I dive into the field of YA in order to bring you a book review on the first volume of The Bartimaeus Trilogy. Why should kids have all the fun?
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue!
Vol. 3 Issue 2
“Storm Comes A’Calling” – Jeremiah Tolbert
“Clean City” – Greg van Eekhout
“The Leap From the Bridge is Ungainly” – Charles Tuomi
“February” – Jay Lake
Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand - Marsha Sisolak
I don’t read enough. Not anymore, at least. Gone are the halcyon days when I would whip through eight to ten books a week. Some of that time has been siphoned off by writing my own fiction; most, however, has disappeared by worrying about my own writing or lack thereof.
So it’s not all that often I can peruse the stacks at a bookstore and take the time to choose a book or a writer I’ve never heard of.
This month, I had the good fortune to hit both.
Mind you, the book is prominently displayed in Border’s; I can’t claim success in ferreting it out from a wrongly shelved location. However, it is considered YA, so don’t search for it in the adult speculative fiction section.
The Amulet of Samarkand is the first volume of The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. While I had my doubts as I scrutinized the cover— Bartimaeus? My brain took five days to assimilate that spelling— the opening pages convinced me it was a keeper.
Meet Bartimaeus, a sarcastic, wiseacre of a djinn, summoned to retrieve (that’s a nice way of saying “steal”) an amulet in the possession of another magician.
Who summons him?
Not just any boy, of course. This one is a magician’s apprentice.
This is London, familiar in many ways, but diverging from reality in a few notable ways. Magicians rule the government: running Parliament, in charge of the various ministries— why even the Prime Minister is one of the more powerful, but heavily blessed with Charm.
Nathaniel, the apprentice, was sold to the government at age five by his parents, who promptly re-submerged into their commoner lives. The government bestows him upon his master, Mr. Underwood, a fussy, ineffectual magician with a streak of cruelty. For the next several years of his life, Nathaniel’s joys are numbered in the caring attentions of the magician’s wife and the texts on magic he is allowed to consume.
And consume them he does.
Thus, when one of his master’s colleagues ridicules him in front of others, and his master does nothing to protect him, Nathaniel takes revenge.
But while his motives are simple, the effects are not. The amulet Nathaniel sends Bartimaeus after is a part of a much larger plot— this in a society where power can be achieved by killing off those currently holding that power.
Bartimaeus, constrained to help Nathaniel, battles imps, djinns, afrits, and, strangely enough, commoners who can sense powerful objects and upon whom magic has very little effect. The djinn becomes increasingly involved with the political turmoil, as does his master, Nathaniel. Nathaniel, being human, of course, has to worry about small things like death and mutilation. Bartimaeus, being a djinn, is far more preoccupied with whether he’ll end up in a magicked tim at the bottom of the Thames.
The writing here is excellent—clear and concise, no small feat in a book 642 pages long. Bartimaeus is a djinn of great wit. All his asides, noted in footnotes, the best he can do for the weak humans who have not the powers he possesses, are well worth reading for their amusement factor. Nathaniel, although a youngster, has flaws, and that makes him an interesting character to watch as he grows and develops.
This is not a philosophically heavy read, but it is delightful, and one that I urge you to check out. I know I’m waiting for the next two volumes to appear, to see when the Nathaniel’s and Bartimaeus’ journeys proceed from here.
Storm’s coming. Sky’s like a sack of rotten cotton overhead, and the air’s hot,
wet. Tastes like copper. My jaw aches where Too Slim Jake broke it in ’48.
Disagreement over a girl, of course. Always hurts with a storm coming, always
brings back memories heavy as thunderheads. Too Slim’s been dead twenty years
— shot robbing a liquor store in Chicago. Too many gone that lowdown way.
I ease on out of my chair on the porch, looking for it. The axe leans against
doorframe. Handle’s worn smooth by hard hands. Blade’s sharp though. Daddy
always said, never let a storm breaking axe get dull. Come to think, this axe was
his. Changed the handle, of course. Broke the old one God knows how long ago.
It’s so heavy in my hands, I can barely lift it. Wind’s blowing through the bottle
tree out yonder like a dying woman’s moan. Fool spirits want to play, but I ain’t
having it. No time. I half-drag the axe down the porch steps, ka-thunk, ka-thunk,
ka-thunk. Then I shuffle through the dry, red dust around back.
White linens flapping in the wind, shirtsleeves grasping for hold. Lightning flashes
off past the river, one, two, three, four… thunder rolls over me like a wave of panic.
Storm’s got a lot of anger in it, an old Mississippi monster burdened down with
God’s own tears.
I heft the axe. Lighter now, and warm in my palms. My old bones creak, I lift it
over my head. I stare at the groove in the ground, beaten into the land. Many a storm
been broke here. Too many, maybe. Lightning strikes again, then thunder before I
even count to one. Only afterimages left, just like family.
Mattie’s gone. Louis living in Detroit with his daughter. Brothers, dead. Sisters,
dead. I got a cousin somewhere, on the river. Storm’s the only company I got anymore.
Maybe I won’t break this one, I’m thinking. I could use a guest. Then it’s too late.
He’s walking out of the fields, crows flocking overhead like a swarm of night. Rain
drops splattering in the dust. Storm Man reaches out with his arms and lightning
dances between his fingers.
“Suppose you’ll be wanting some coffee,” I say when he’s there, breathing static
on my face and looking at me with old-bone-colored eyes.
“That’d be just fine,” he growls, shaking raindrops from his long overcoat like a
wet dog. Times were, he took that form. “How’s your sister?”
“She had some legs on her. Shame.”
“That it is,” I say, and shuffle back towards the house. “Come on then.”
Storm Man drifts behind me, bobbing up and down like a twig in the river while
he surveys the place. Been a long time since he’s been allowed here. All around,
rain’s coming down heavy; wind builds up and slants it sideways, tiny rat teeth biting
I set the axe down beside my chair, go into the kitchen and put the pot on, and
pour some of that instant garbage into the paper filter. I step back out. Storm Man
sits in Mattie’s old chair. I don’t have the guts to tell him off, but he sees the look
in my eyes and flashes teeth in a grin. Thunder rolls around like balls on a billiard
“What you been up to all these years?” I ask. I know where he’s been, but I got
to be polite to him. I get that Weather Channel. Too Slim’s grandson hooked me up
“Oh…bounced around the Caribbean for a long while. Got chased off by some
Haitians one day. Drifted out to sea and seen the Canary Islands. You ever been to
the Canary Islands?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Not missing much.” A blast of light burns my eyes, and the porch shakes beneath
my callused feet. The old apple tree behind the shed smokes up like a chimney.
Unripe apples fall down everywhere, sounding like hail. Storm Man laughs.
“What you?” He nods my way. I half expect another bolt to come crashing down,
but it don’t yet.
“I got myself married. We had children. Spend a lot of time going to funerals,
Storm Man is staring out at the river valley. Funnel clouds spin in the sky. “I
hardly recognize this land.”
“Ain’t that the way it goes,” I say. Only sound is rain and thunder. Sky’s getting
I get the coffee, bring him a mug with a chipped handle and pink flowers on the
side. Storm Man cups it in his big black hands and breathes in. Fog rolls in off the
“You still play?” he asks.
“Now and then,” I say. “Hey, if you’re gonna flood this valley…”
“Never you mind that. Where’s your old geetar?” I reach behind the door and pull
out the weathered black leather case. The stickers are faded. I can see a place name
here and there. Memphis. Detroit. London.
I take out Lou Ann and offer her to him. He shakes his head. He’s reaching down
inside that flapping coat and pulling out a silver and red harmonica. I remember this
from before, the old days.
Early early one morning, water was comin’ in my door
Early one morning, water was comin’ in my door
It was the old high river, tellin’ us to get ready and go
It was dark and it was rainin’, you could hear that howlin’ wind
It was dark and it was rainin’, baby you could hear that howlin’ wind
If I get away this time, I will never come here again
Ain’t heard Big Bill Broozy in years, but the storm’s got a memory a thousand
miles long. I can hear waves on the river all the way from here. Storm Man’s brother
slapping his knees to the rhythm. I pick along, best I can.
Hey my baby was cryin’, I didn’t have a thing to eat
Hey hey hey, I didn’t have a thing to eat
Hey the water had come in, wash everything I had down the street
Soon the river’s lapping at my porch steps. The power goes out with a bang. The
only light is in Storm Man’s eyes, in the flash of his grin.
I was hollerin’ for mercy, and it weren’t no boats around
Hey that looks like people, I’ve gotta stay right here and drown
Hey I was hollerin’ for mercy, and it weren’t no boats around
Maybe I’ll do just that, like the song says. My old house is shaking and rolling.
The old foundation just can’t hold against his song. We float down the river.
Ain’t been on the river in a decade, at least. I’ve forgotten him, but he hasn’t
forgotten me. Water up to my knees, Storm Man’s laughing and blowing. I keep
playing ’til the song is done.
Hey my house started shakin’, started floatin’ on down the stream
Hey my house started shakin’, went on floatin’ on down the stream
It was dark as midnight, people began to holler and scream
“Old man, if you could take my place, would you?” he asks. The music is still in
the air over thunder and rain and river water.
“And what? Rage up and down the valley? Destroy homes, blow hard and wet?”
I shake my head. “Why would I want that?”
“You know why.”
“You ain’t got long.”
A flathead big as me swims by, whiskers tickling my toes.
Down to Hell everlasting, or the river, the sea, and the great Mississippi River
skies. Not much of a choice he gives me, but Storm Man doesn’t play by rules.
“Who’ll be there to stop us then?”
Storm Man grins.
“That it? No more storm breakers. Get me on your side, and there’s nothing to
stop us blowing.”
He nods. “Either way, your time’s over.” The water is up to my neck. I can see
the great Gulf open up before me through the rain and fog.
“It’s been nice having you,” I say, “but I think I’m going to pass.”
He shrugs. Rain stops for a moment. “Maybe next time then.”
The axe is there when I need it.
Summer now. The grass is green, field’s growing tall, and the flies buzz everywhere.
I’m waiting, watching the horizon for the rotten-cotton clouds. Fall won’t be long
— never is at my age. Rain will come then, and maybe him. I don’t know what it’ll
be next time.
But I’m still here, for now. I’m still here.
Jeremiah Tolbert currently lives in Laramie, Wyoming with his
wife and assorted pets. He works as a technology manager for a
Wyoming’s third largest credit union and enjoys smashing old
hard drives with large hammers to protect member data.
“Storm Comes A’Callin” was inspired by a phtograph by Bill
Steber, award winning photographer.
Cloth Guy. Mr. Rags. The Cleaning Man. His turf was the corner of Summit and Spenser, and I would see him there when the bus spit me out at 8:45, and again when it swallowed me at 6:15. He’d always be there with his frown and grimacing smile, and a pillow case close to hand filled with towels and T-shirts. He scoured the city — the light posts, the mailboxes, the vending machines selling porn newspapers — moving his cloth in fast figure-eights.
After a year watching, I could no longer contain my manners or curiosity, and I approached him. “Do you think you’ll ever get it clean?”
He was on his hand and knees, giving the sidewalk a go. “There’s a clean city beneath this one,” he said. “I’ll find it, eventually.”
I knew my history. Before the financial district grew up around here, this was Butcher’s Row. Offal floated down the hill on rivers of blood. And before that, during the great cholera epidemic, the settler’s colony chose this place to bury their dead. Armed patrols were posted to prevent famished dogs from digging up the bodies. This part of the city had never been clean.
“Long time ago, it was clean,” Mr. Rags said, anticipating my objections. His cloth made tight little figure-eights. “Nobody remembers anymore, because the dirt’s covered it all up. You people track it all over the place, tromping around like Mongol hordes over the steppe. We can never have nice things.”
My bus pulled up to the curb with a concert of hisses and squeals, and the doors accordioned open. Mr. Rags looked up at me, his hand still in motion. “It’d go faster if you helped.”
“Can’t,” I said. “PTA meeting tonight.” “What about tomorrow?”
“Dance recital. Or is it gymnastics? I can’t remember. It’s always something.” I stepped onto the bus.
“Isn’t it, though?” he said, pleasantly enough.
The bus doors shut with a slap of rubber, and I waved at him through the glass. He lifted his rag to wave back, and on the sidewalk, where he’d been polishing, a dime-sized spot of something bright as gold caught the lowering sun. I tried to rub the light from my dazzled eyes as the bus pulled away.
That night I dreamed. I can’t tell you what I saw in my dream, what happened in it, because the images and memories had fled by the time I lifted my head from the pillow. I do know that, as I brushed my teeth, I kept looking into the mirror, as if I maybe I could see something better behind it, and I felt like crying.
The next morning Mr. Rags was at work in the same place. The little spot of brilliance that I’d seen the previous evening was gone. If anything, the sidewalk was now dirtier than ever. He saw me watching him. “Thursdays are the worst,” he said. “Or maybe it’s Tuesdays.”
I could think of nothing to say. The gold light had been so pure.
He nodded with his chin towards his pillow case of rags. “Sure you won’t help?”
I checked my watch. My bus had run late. It was 9:02. “Budget report due before lunch,” I said.
He shrugged and smiled, returning to work, making his little infinity patterns.
And I stood there for another hour before finally setting down my brief case and taking up a cloth. I started with a bit of soot-caked, vomit-glazed side curb a few blocks away from Mr. Rags.
In all my years of effort, once, only once, have I seen a brief glimmer of rich, honey-colored light shining through. It was enough. Every day, when the bus comes and exhales grime on my labors, I pick up another cloth and begin anew.
Greg van Eekhout has sold fiction to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Starlight 3, Strange Horizons, and a number of other short story markets. He lives in Tempe, Arizona, where he is currently working on a novel. “Clean City” came about during an eight-day span in which Greg was writing a short-short a day, some of which he’d gathered in a suite called Tales From the City of Seams. He felt “Clean City” stood well enough on its own that he separated it from its litter mates and forced it to fend for itself. Fortunately for him and the story, Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond took it in for their fine zine Say…What Time Is It? Thematically, the story stems from Greg’s belief that there’s always cool stuff going on around him, only he’s too dense to notice.
The leap from the bridge is ungainly. It is not at all the elegant diver’s pose
he has envisioned. It is a clumsy fall with pinwheeling arms. One moment
he stands on the ledge, and in the next he simply steps off,
With his stomach floating somewhere several meters above him, James squints
into the wind, focused on the rapidly approaching river.
Things begin to happen.
The phone rings. Rang. Whatever.
He lifts it from its cradle to find an unfamiliar, queerly accented voice occupying
the other end of the line. Speaking slowly, the voice tells him a story, about an
accident on Route 26 that could not have occurred. About a wet road, and a fictional
eighteen wheeler with bad brakes. About (after an awkward pause) a death. The
strange voice mentions only the one death. Apparently they do not count fetuses,
James thinks, whilst tallying the imaginary deceased.
A long time after the odd voice on the other end of the phone has stopped its
foolish talking, James lets the telephone drop to the kitchen floor.
He is about to die.
The river rushing to meet him teems now with human figures, clothed in white
and floating like buoys tethered to the bottom: a host of green-white faces raised in
his direction; tangles of serpentine hair wafting like seaweed; small round mouths
open as if in hymn. Some of the faces are familiar: his mother, his father, a coworker
whose name he forgets.
And of course Kim. She floats a little above the rest, her pixie face pale just below
the surface, arms opened wide as if preparing an embrace. Her emerald eyes sparkle.
A familiar smile curls her lips.
That’s when James realizes the bungee cord will not hold. It’s either too long, too
loose, or it will snap.
He squeezes his eyes closed, bracing.
Vacuuming their living room for the first time after the funeral (again), he pulls
the loveseat out from the wall, and a small paperback slips predictably from
somewhere, landing on the carpet with that same soft thunk.
James (re)reads the cover: Gateways to Other Realities. One of Kim’s books, one
of the myriad New Age pseudo-mystical texts lying, half-read, around the house at
He sits cross-legged in the middle of the living room floor, opens to the bookmarked
page, and the passage he reads, through vision blurred by tears, imprints itself on
his mind so vividly that he will conjure it up later (for instance, now) word for word:
“In Tibetan Buddhism there is bardo. Literally, the ‘in-between’. A transitional
condition or state, as may occur during meditation, or during the moment of dying,
or in the gap between death and rebirth. Also sometimes during dreams. Pivotal
moments, all, those upon which the direction of our lives, however many they may
be, largely depend…Certain forms of meditation are used to reach this threshold, as
are some hallucinogenic drugs. The point seems to be to go to the brink of death,
or perhaps a little beyond, returning with the ability to walk between worlds. To
bridge realities. To glimpse behind the curtain into the next room.”
And so it would and does occur to James, eventually and now, again: That there
is, that there might be, a Way. And that he might just try or have tried it.
He has perhaps two seconds left to live by the time he re-opens his eyes. His
bones, all of them, will snap like brittle twigs when they hit the water at this speed.
The faces are close to the surface now. They rise to greet him, holding out their
arms and smiling. Kim is positively beaming. She might be crying. It is hard to tell.
It all happens so fast.
James smiles, too, and opens wide his arms.
There are costs to his border walking. Physical and otherwise.
After-effects, he will find, include dizziness, vertigo, and a confusing mixture of
oddly combined tenses that leave him increasingly disoriented in his everyday life.
He will also experience vague inexplicable limb pain, spatial disorientation, and her
smiling face beneath a floppy white sun hat, specks of black potting soil dotting her
pink nose and cheeks like
Kim walks up the steps of their back porch, small and sunburned in a blue tank
top and shorts. The glittering lake and the late afternoon sun is at her back, and she
is, oh my god wasn’t she beautiful.
They kiss(ed): Lips gritty with dirt, sun-warmed faces, the exhaustion of a hard
day at work in the garden melting away. He touches, touched the softness of her
cheeks; breathes, breathed in the scent of her, deeply: damp earth, sweat, new life,
and her hair, like berries.
She pulls back at some point, gently, big green eyes expanding. He had never seen
eyes like this, before hers; perfectly round, huge, open.
“They,” she whispers, had whispered, always whispers, cupping her comical little
pot belly with two small hands, “were going to love this house.”
James knows this is wrong. Kim had said, dammit Kim says, “are”. But he smiles
and agrees, agreed anyway. He always agreed, agrees.
Then she dances awkwardly there on the porch, in the red-pink glow of the sun
setting across the lake, and he was dancing too and laughing, at the two small dirty
handprints on her blue tank top, on either side of her pregnant middle.
She is, was Kim: His very own, a pot-bellied gorgeous miracle with soft tiny
hands and enormous eyes and a smile that went, goes on forever.
The bungee cord holds.
It does not snap. It is not too long, and it is not too loose. An instant before he hits
the seething river, James feels a hard jerk on his ankles.
There is a fraction of a moment then, a bardo, an in-between, before the tautness
of the cord begins to pull him upward. In that measureless span of time, he is close
enough to feel the river’s icy spray on his cheeks, mere inches from Kim’s face in
the water below. Reaching out for her, he feels the river swallow his finger tips. She
stretches her hand toward his.
It is as if she is his reflection. Literally his better half.
Then he is being taken away again, yanked upward violently. His body begins to
spin and just before he loses sight of the river, Kim, her round face small now, purses
her lips and blows him a kiss.
“Once not enough fer ya, huh?”
A lanky, suntanned kid takes a little blue ticket from James’ hand. Spitting a
mouthful of chaw over the side of the bridge, the boy shakes his head and grins, like
he just knew it, like he had this guy pegged from the beginning. As he fastens the
gear to James’ ankles, he turns to his coworker, a girl collecting money and doling
out tickets a few feet away.
“Hey Joanie. I think we got ourselves another addict here,” he yells, gesturing at
their latest repeat customer with a long thumb. He winks conspiratorially at James,
gives him a hearty slap on the back. “You’re all set.”
James nods, steps onto the ledge, and takes a deep breath, looking straight down
into the river. Sunlight glances off the dark, moving current like the twinkling of
stars. There’s nothing unusual, no one else in the water; not yet.
“Hey I’s just joshin’ ya man,” the kid calls from behind him. “We all know the
No, James thinks, as he steps out,
I didn’t, don’t think that you did do.
Charles Tuomi holds these truths to be self-evident: That Tom
Waits is a genius; that video games do more harm than cigarettes;
and that speculative fiction readers are just plain cooler than
‘normal’ folk. If given one wish by an unbottled genie, he would
have a hard time deciding between everlasting world peace and
a World Series for the Boston Red Sox. Charles. work has appeared
online in Chiaroscuro and Flashquake. He lives, works and
sometimes even writes near Boston, Massachusetts.
Charles has always loved airports, train stations, even hospitals
— any of life’s way stations, where change is the rule and the
objective is primarily to, well, move on. “The Leap from the Bridge
Is Ungainly” may be a reflection of this interest, as it toys with the
idea of transitional states, emotional, cosmic and otherwise. It
also explores the dogged persistence of grief, and expresses Charles’
profound puzzlement as to how tragedies of a certain magnitude
can be coped with psychologically.