Glass (*)

For many years, Erick toiled in a glassblower’s shop under his father’s supervision.  He learned everything there was to understand about the ancient art of shaping glass.  Just by watching the burning oven, he could determine if the heat was correct.  The sand was always properly measured and filtered.  With skill that rivaled magic, Erick could spin the molten glass while blowing a right amount of air.  His creations were smooth and nearly flawless.

The apprenticeship wasn’t easy.  Glass is a fickle medium.  Imperfections could not be sanded out or painted.  It would not bend – if put under pressure it would shatter.  Imperfections were common even under a skilled hand.  Erick found the skills difficult at first and tried to quit but his father, a man named Charles, refused to allow him to leave.  There were times Erick’s immaturity overcame him and he would purposely quench misshapen bottles.

Everything changed for Erick after his father crafted a special vase for him.  Other than a bold streak of violet beginning at the lip and pooling along the base, the vase’s structure wasn’t spectacular but its effect was profound.  When Erick looked into it, his eyes filled with images of wealthy commissions by royal houses.  Princes vied for this handiwork; offering him handsome prices.  Erick gazed into a future filled with promise and prosperity all because of his keen skills shaping glass.  The images were not imaginary; instead they were keen in detail.  The vision of the future seared away Erick immaturity and from that hour on, the boy worked tirelessly to master his craft.  He accepted his father’s training with zeal.

The next day the purple staining was gone and only days later the vase cracked and broke.  Clear shards covered the floor one moment and in the next they were gone.  The broken glass simply dissolved.  It was as if the earth absorbed them.  When Erick expressed dismay at losing the vase, Charles simply shrugged and moved on.  “When time is gone, it can never be reclaimed.”

During the next few years, Erick surpassed his aging father and became a true master in his own right.  And yet, he was never able to add to the magic allure that some of his Charles’s work had.  Some claimed the glassblower’s work allowed them to see the future.  Erick didn’t doubt them but was afraid to share the vision he had experienced – even with his father. 

“Erick, come.”  His father’s worn hand took Erick’s shoulder and pulled him aside.  “I have something I need to show you before the sands of time drag me under.  Follow me to the back room where we store the sand and coal.”

Both men entered a small, dark storage room.  Coal was heaped to one side and sand on the other.  The wooden floor was smudged black and worn smooth from years of shoveling fuel into a small kart and wheeling it toward the furnace.  Long, iron clamps and other tools hung from thick rafters.

“Take the sand shovel and move the entire pile near the door.  There’s something underneath you should know about.”

“What is it father?”

“Time, distilled and tangible.  Hurry, we must do this before your mother or sisters come back from the commons.”

Erick’s back and arms were sore from the day’s work but found new life with such an unexpected prospect.  His shovel didn’t slow or tarry until bulk of the sand was shifted close to the door.  With the last few scoops, Erick finally found something unusual.  Near the room’s corner, built into the floor was a door less than two feet square.  Along one side the top of an iron ring poked through the sand.  Erick tossed the tool aside.  His finger dug out sand inside the ring and he lifted.  It took some effort before he was able to pry the door free from the grit that had wedged between it and the rest of the floor.  Inside was a square gold plate.  It was engraved and each corner was being bit by what Erick believed were small snake heads.

“Lift it out.  There’s much more than you can see from above.”

Erick wrapped his fingers around the edge of the gold plate and lifted it out.  There was something heavy attached.  As it emerged from the hole, Erick finally understood what he was holding.  It was a massive hourglass almost three feet tall fitted with solid gold.  The upper and lower hemispheres were fashioned from crystal and clear to near invisibility.  Sand, almost as warm and deep yellow as the gold, filled both halves.  Even now, it trickled silently into the lower half.  The rods that affixed both the top and bottom plate were shaped into long snake coils with the heads biting into the top plate.

“Father!  This is a marvel!  It must be worth five times what we could make in a year!  Where did you get it?  Why did I not know about this earlier?”

Charles’s expression didn’t change.  “I don’t know how our ancestors came to possess it.  I was told it was made by the Biblical Aaron at the same time as he fashioned the Ark of the Covenant.  The sand came from the smashed tablets Moses first brought down from Mount Sinai.  After they were broken they dissolved from stone into sand.”

“How long does it last?  It was still pouring when I pulled it out.”

“No one knows.  It will not flip.  A force binds it and keeps it upright.  Is it set to run out at the end of the age?  Possibly the final judgment?  Sand just continues to run from the top to the bottom.”

Erick wiped a little grime from the top of the hourglass.  “What does this say?”  There was script etched into the top of the timepiece but he didn’t recognize the characters.

“It’s an angelic language.  I think the top portion reads, ‘Enta Socumal Demapola Jari Escosatia.’  Don’t ask me what it means.  Now set it on the edge of the crate over there.”

Erick lifted the heavy treasure and heaved it onto the wooden box.  He balanced one side against the crate and he continued to hold the opposite side up.  The old man reached underneath and slid something aside.  “There is a movable plate on the bottom.  If you try hard enough, you can move it slightly to one side.  A trickle of sand will escape.  It isn’t much but if you’re patent you can capture enough to work with.”

“Work with!?”  Erick finally understood the implications of such magical sand.  “You have fashioned glass from it?!  What happens!?”

“I think you know.”

“You mean the vase!  I saw a purple glaze and in it the future!”  As his father closed the plate, Erick pushed the hourglass completely on the crate.

Charles straightened and let the sand slowly spill though the gaps between his fingers.  “It showed you a portion of time that would make a difference in your outlook. Time teaches.  It forgets, destroys and advances without care or concern.

“I made a vase for you because I didn’t want you to lose the family’s skills.  The purple you saw was more than I expected.  It indicates grand prosperity.  As it turns out, your skill has far surpassed my own and soon you will gain the notoriety your abilities deserve.  I took some risk for if it had shown you black I would not have forgiven myself.”

“What does black mean?”

“The glass made from the sands of time take on shades based on what they have to show you.  Black will show you great sorrow, loss, even death.  Others I’ve discovered are purple for wealth, brown for poverty, pink for companionship, and white indicates peace.  Often the colors are blended creating a fortune that is more complicated.  Anyone can see the color but only the recipient can see the future.”

Erick was incredulous.  “How can you not make use of this power?  We should be crafting everything from this!”

“What it shows you cannot be controlled!  If you see time as God has fashioned it, you may not stand to bear it.  Do you want to know the coming suffering your children will endure or view your long forgotten grave?  How about seeing your wife after her beauty has long faded?  How can you enjoy your wine today when you know tomorrow you will suffer from a terrible fever?  The burdens of this life should not be assumed until you must.  Our lives are harsh and short.  Enjoy what you have today and take pleasure in it.

“Now put it back.”

Erick complied without another word.  He replaced the wooden panel and began moving the sand back where it covered the hourglass.

“One last thing…” Charles stood as Erick finished.  “You must promise not to disturb the hourglass until I am gone.  Even then, I would not use the sand.  Your work is as fine as can be found.  You will prosper; let it be enough.”

“As you desire father, it will remain here counting the seconds until eternity.”

Erick did as he promised.  The seasons of his life changed from spring to summer.  Nobles, mayors, and wealthy tradesmen sought his work.  They paid him and he was able to marry well.  His wife came from high blood and her father was an aristocrat from the neighboring province.  Two girls followed and Charles watched over the growth of Erick’s family with great pleasure.  He lived another fifteen years before his body was returned to the earth

All the while, Erick kept the hourglass near to his thinking.  He wondered about the secrets that could be revealed.  He wondered if the shape of the glass affected the fragments of time that would be shown.  Erick had plans for the sands of time and now that his father was gone he was free to test them.  The warnings were understood but for Erick it was madness to have such an opportunity and fail to try it.

Only a week after Charles was laid to rest, Erick returned to the storage room.  Very little had changed; the coal and sand were piled where they had always been.  It took him longer to move the sand then when he was younger but the excitement was the same.  After almost an hour of work, the hidden door was uncovered.  Erick took hold of the iron ring and forced the door free.
The gold hourglass was exactly as he remembered it – if feeling slightly heavier.  Erick set it on the floor and tried tipping it to one side.  It would not rock in any direction.  He brought the seats of two chairs together and hefted the hourglass between them.  Erick took a small pan and placed it under the hourglass, found the bottom plate, and pushed it slightly open.  The trickle of golden sand began piling up along the bottom of the pan.  It took three hours before Erick decided he had enough to work into a vase.

The sand was stubborn and was reluctant to melt.  Flames from the furnace were made strong making it difficult for Erick to get close enough to melt the sand.   When it did comply, the molten glass gave off light beyond the expected orange glow.  Instead it gave off a white light not overwhelming but steady.  Erick spun the solidifying glass on the ends of his rods working it into a narrow-necked flask.  It was an exquisite work by any standard.

When it was finished, Erick held the flask up by his fingertips.  Sunlight danced and wavered through the glass.  A few moments later, a strong green hue spread with slow fingers throughout the bottle.  “Hmmm, I had no one in mind as I shaped it.  Perhaps someone will see something in it that I cannot.  I’ll set it along my storefront for sale.”

The very next day the new cobbler flew through the Erick’s shop door.  He was a young man of marrying age.  “Master Erick!  Master Erick!  That green flask you have in your window!  It’s amazing!  It sounds like foolishness but I believe I saw something like a dream inside of it!”

Erick set down his tools.  “Tell me Timothy, what did you see?”

Timothy spread his hands.  “Well, I saw myself taking my entire inheritance and investing it with Kamron’s caravan group.  The man is a boar and once he found out my grandfather had died he’s been pestering me continually!  I’ve been ignoring him and was going to buy several sets of new clothes instead.  You see, there is a lady I’ve been working to attract.  However, I saw myself lending Kamron the money and six months from now receiving close to three times as much in return!  I saw it all and it felt real!

“I believe the vision and now I want to purchase the flask.  Tell me, how much?”

Erick couldn’t believe it.  This young man was given the benefit of a hard lesson before living through it.  His inheritance was saved thanks to the wisdom time’s perspective could bring.  Immediate pleasure delayed for much greater gain in the future – the benefit of time!
“Six months from now your new clothes could have been food for moths but now you have the right perspective.  Take the flask.  There is no charge.”

That night, Erick went back to the hourglass.  He siphoned off additional sand and the next morning he began work on a glass bowl.  Again, the heat necessary to work the magic sand was excessive.  Erick felt as if his skin cooked each time he had to approach the furnace.  The finished bowl was peach in color and completely level; a true marvel.

“I shall set this at the edge of my highest shelf, crowded by many other works.  It shall be a test of the hourglass’s unique power.  I wonder who will be able to next partake of the hourglass’s perspective?”

Erick did as he planned.  The bowl was even set behind a much more elaborate pitcher Erick had made.  For almost three days, those who entered his shop glanced about or spoke with Erick, but no one ever mentioned the glass bowl.  Some even commented on the glassblower’s other works, but nothing was said about the bowl.

On the fourth day, a young woman entered Erick’s shop.  She was dressed well but her clothes were dirty and it looked as if the woman had not bathed for some time.  Her eyes met Erick’s and filled the glassblower’s heart with pity.  He knew this woman.  Her husband and three year old son became sick over this last winter with a terrible fever.  Both had perished and she was left alone.  Her father and the church had tried to care for her but she could do nothing but weep over her loss.

She had come to beg him for a few glass needles.  They were once a specialty of Erick’s; now his apprentices made them from thin metal molds and open the needle’s eyes with a thin bit of wire.  Erick gave them to the poor to sell.  This young widow had been in many times.  Erick placed a few in her apron when something attracted her attention.  Her eyes were taken away from his almost as if they were pulled with strings.  Her gaze fell to the top shelf.  “What, what is…?”

Erick made a dismissive gesture toward the far wall.  “Everything you see is for sale of course, but are you sure you can afford it?”

She didn’t respond.  The widow took two steps toward the shelves then stopped.  “May I see that amazing peach colored bowl you have there?  Please let me see it.  Please.”

“The bowl?  Yes, you may see it.  Let me get it down for you.”  Erick took his step stool and took the bowl down.  The widow had her hands open and gently lifted it away from Erick.  Immediately Erick could see deep shades of violet and crimson swim through the cream color then slowly dissipate.

“Look!  Look, do you see it?!”  Her brows lifted and she smiled.  “There!  Between the reds and the violets!  I can see myself!  I am beautiful again and there are arms to love me!”  She had to close her eyes; tears zigzagged down her dirty cheeks.  “I have a family again!”  The widow clasped the bowl to her dress.  “How much?!  Please, how much do you want for this magnificent bowl!?”

  Erick studied her for a moment.  “The bowl is yours if you will tell me exactly what you saw in it.”

“Hope.”  The word came without thought.  It sounded like a reflex.  “The unrelenting ache of losing my family has worn into acceptance.  It is a bitter acceptance to be sure, but one I can live with.  There is hope.”

  Erick seemed perplexed, “I don’t understand.”

“I saw another man who loves me even more than my first husband and two little girls that follow me around town doing as I do.  They kiss my cheek and life is wonderful again – they give me hope.”  She paused to wipe the tears from her eyes.  “I believe this vision.  It seems so real!  It sings to my soul.”

  “Take the bowl.  It’s yours.”

That very hour, Erick returned to the back room and began moving the sand aside.  “The benefit of time!  Imagine!  Perhaps the sands will speak to me again blessing me with the wisdom of future experiences!  I will try again this time crafting for my wife.”

He removed the large hourglass and again placed it between two stools.  The slide on the bottom was reluctant to move but eventually it opened.  Bits of glimmering gold began pouring into the tin pan Erick had placed on the floor.  It took hours for the sand to finally accumulate enough for the tall vase Erick planned to fashion.  Then the sand suddenly stopped.  Erick looked under the hourglass to divulge the problem.  The plate had moved back into place without help and would not move again.  Erick had no choice but to replace the hourglass and the concealing pile of sand.  He then estimated the sand he had extracted.  “It will be enough.  I’ll make the vase first thing tomorrow and see what becomes of it.”

The next day was Saturday and the glass shop would not be open for business.  Everything felt quiet and empty as Erick began to work.  Before the sun’s new beams lit the eastern sky, the glassblower had the furnace to its hottest breath.  When the radiated heat felt as if it was blistering his skin, only then did the Erick begin his work.  He spun and spun the thin layer of glass molding in into a shape that was he could nearly make blindfolded.  It had a narrow base, gracefully swelled as it rose then closed forming a perfect lip.  As he finished the vase, there was a small amount of sand leftover. 

“The fire is still high – I suppose I can make a lamp globe.”

That afternoon, Erick’s wife quietly entered the shop to surprise her husband a half loaf of warm rye bread.  She was baking that morning and wanted Erick to enjoy the fresh bread while he worked.  She entered the shop quietly so that her husband wouldn’t know she was there. 
Erick was still putting the finishing touches on the simple globe when he finally noticed his wife.  She was handling the vase he had crafted – her eyes seemed transfixed.  “Julia, the vase…how did you know?”

But Julia didn’t respond – her eyes were locked on the vase.  Erick stepped beside her and watched as black pooled up then rose from the base swelling like a thundercloud.  As fast as he could, Erick knocked the vase out of her hands.  It struck the floor smashing into countless tiny fragments.

  “Julia, what did you see?!”

 Julia turned to him, eyes wide and filling with tears.  Her face became a terrible mix of sadness and anguish.  It seemed as if her soul was crushed – bleeding from some mortal wound.  She seemed to waver for a moment before running toward the back door.     

Erick followed begging for her to explain.  He caught his wife by the arm just as she shoved the back doors open.  Julia spun and as hard as she could – stuck him with her fist.  The blow landed on Erick’s shoulder and he did not release her.

 Julia began struggling wildly throwing her fists into her husband’s chest in an effort to get away.  Erick had one arm and refused to release her.  “What’s wrong!?  Julia, what did you see?!”
 She finally kicked her way free.  Julia was sobbing now.  “Why, Erick – why?!  You’ve found a younger tart!  I have always l-loved you and I, I believed we shared that, that love.”  Sobs came uncontrollably – she was choking on her words.

 “Julia, I don’t know what you’re saying!”  Erick stood before her with his palms outstretched.  “There’s no tart!  I have ever been yours!  What you saw in the vase was only a vision!  It’s not the truth – it’s…”

 “No!”  She cut him off.  “It’s as real as you standing before me now!”  Before Erick could get in another word or even approach his wife – she bolted for their home. 

That evening was the worst of Erick’s life.  Julia would not be counseled.  She was convinced that what she saw was the truth.  The next day Julia had saddled two horses, one for her and the other for their daughters.  As soon as the sun was up, she and the girls rode away even as the Erick continued to plead with her.

 During the next several months, Erick traveled to his father-in-law’s many times in an effort to win back his family.  Julia would not see him and Erick was given only limited exposure to his daughters.  A divorce was forced upon Erick by Julia’s father and he was no longer welcome in the halls of his wife’s maiden home.

 A year passed, and then another, Erick’s heart never completely healed but he did come to accept the destruction of his family brought about by the mystic glass.  Eventually he did marry again, and although it was impossible for him to know, his second wife was the woman Julia saw in her vase.  Erick loved his new wife, a woman named Helen, with as much vigor has he did Julia.  A little less than a year after their marriage, Helen delivered a son.  They named him Charles in honor of Erick’s father.  Charles developed quickly and spent much of this youth learning the glass blowing trade from his father just as Erick had done. 

 Erick grew frail and died only two months after Charles took full control of the shop.  The elder glass blower rejoined the earth without telling his son about the powerful relic that hid under the sand in the back room.  There was no warning only a hope that the hourglass would never be found again.

 One late summer evening, Charles was working late in the glass shop trying to rework the ledgers.  The long hours of summer sunlight had finally weakened to the point Charles could no longer see clearly.  He found the lamp.  With ink covering his fingertips, the globe slipped out of his hand and broke on the wooden floor.  “Very well, I’ll fetch another.”

 He pulled an old globe from the storage room and lit the oil wick before sliding the globe over the brass fittings.  Without warning, the glass flared with a piercing white light.  Charles fell back dropping the lamp.  It struck the floor and the second globe was broken.  The light went out with it.

 Charles rubbed his eyes.  He’d seen a vision of him uncovering the most magnificent hourglass he’d ever seen and then burying it in a forgotten corner of the woods.  Words he could not explain were emblazoned into his memory.  “Enta Socumal Demapola Jari Escosatia – God allows men to hold the future with only wisdom and hope.”

Cloud Weavers (*)

   In the land of sand and palms, was a kingdom named after the sun.  Its capital was Jinta a city carved from a series of rocky outcroppings.  It rested as the desert’s crown jewel in a sea of golden sand.  The city’s terraces and gardens were fed from a single river provided by the mountainous regions to the north.

   A family of sheiks ruled the kingdom and had overseen the endless miles of desert for almost a thousand years.  Other nations were forged and later undone but the Kingdom of the Sun remained protected by a scorching desert no invading army could traverse.  The kingdom’s stability attracted skilled craftsmen who in turn brought merchants and traders.  Business filled Jinta’s streets and they flowed with money.  The wealth created wide, open air markets and topped domes over the royal palace clad with copper.

   All of this wealth was brought in along one trade route.  It meandered through the narrowest part of the desert into the city.  It was a journey made many times by a merchant named Ephraim.

   The men in Ephraim’s family joined his father’s caravan.  They managed their own wagons and servants.  Each man bought and sold independently so there was no argument over who owned each shilling or camel.

   Each of his brothers and uncles had shown a great propensity for trading except for Ephraim.  He was the remarkable failure amongst his family.  They had an intuition for buying goods at low prices and finding the right buyers when the caravan reached its destination.  Ephraim would make purchases when the price was too high.  When the goods were to be sold Ephraim often had trouble finding anyone to purchase his wares.  Ephraim’s wealth decreased as the years passed.  His brothers and father allowed him to continue with the caravan but only out of family courtesy.  Ephraim had no servants only one packed camel and three sheep. 

   His goals for Jinta were modest.  Ephraim hoped to find a buyer for the perfume he had purchased on a whim.  If he could sell it for a reasonable price he could afford to buy silks to be sold later.

   Almost half way through the desert, Ephraim’s luck became poor once again.  His camel became ill and refused to continue.  The camel represented almost half of Ephraim’s remaining wealth and he could not carry his perfume without the animal.  Ephraim was forced to let the rest of the caravan pass in order to care for the sick camel.

   Instead of helping, his brothers mocked him as they passed.  “Ephraim!  I’ll give you twenty shekels for your perfume and another ten for all three sheep.  That’s much more than you would have received anyway!”

   Another says to anyone listening, “You know, I have servants who have accumulated more money than Ephraim.  The man has been given every opportunity and cannot gather anything but sand.”

   Ephraim’s face hardened and he refused to be baited by his brother’s harsh words.  “I will stay with my animal.  When it has recovered, I will catch the end of the caravan.  Proceed without me.”

   The brothers shook their heads in resignation and turned back to their own matters.  They knew Ephraim had traveled the route many times before and were not concerned about his well being.

   It took almost all of the merchant’s patience but he knew that there was nothing as hard to bend as the will of a stubborn camel.  The sun was merciful and the temperatures did not reach too high.  It took almost a full day for the camel to recover enough to travel. By that time, half of Ephraim’s water was gone.  He would need to catch the caravan to replenish his supply but he was unable to make his camel travel fast enough.

   Ephraim’s fortunes deteriorated further as the western sky began to darken and the wind grew strong.  “A sand storm is coming.”  Ephraim told his animals.  “We will not survive without shelter.”

   He hurried his camel and sheep toward a thick cluster of boulders a little less than a mile from the route he was traveling.  With even a slow pace from the camel, he would reach them before the storm gathered too much intensity.  As Ephraim reached the boulders, he discovered they were the footings to a short sandstone hill.  On one side was a shallow cave.  Thanking the gods for such good fortune, he checked it for scorpions.  Then he herded his sheep in followed by the reluctant camel and himself.

   Ephraim had never seen such a thick draping of wind and sand.  For another full day, the sands raced outside and sent swirling bits of sand and rock into the mouth of the cave.  Several times, he tried to peer into the raging maelstrom but was unable to see anything.  Desperation took hold of Ephraim’s heart and he prayed for the sands to rest.  On the second day, they finally did.
When Ephraim exited the cave, he and his animals entered a world that made no sense.  The sun was arching though the sky on a north to south pattern.  Wild gusts of wind seemed to change direction with the passing of each minute.  At once blowing into the trader’s face, then a moment later wind came from behind him.  Clouds crossed each other’s path and the landscape had changed noticeably as patches of hard packed earth spilt the shallow dunes.

   “Where…where am I?”  He looked around again.  “I don’t have time or water for further delays.  I can make it another day – maybe until tomorrow night on the water I have.  After that I am sacrificed to the sun.”

   A strong and somewhat high-toned voice came from above Ephraim.  “That doesn’t need to be.”

   Ephraim and the camel jerked their heads up and found a man perched on the rocks above them.  Bushy eyebrows and a wide beard masked the man’s sun-browned features making it difficult to place an age on the stranger.  The true surprise was the man’s clothing.  The very threads of his turban and robe seemed to be in constant movement like spider webs bound and swaying.  They shimmered and swirled with a beautiful restlessness.  Colors as vibrant as the green of new growth, blood red, and white so pure it seemed to glow crisscrossed the robe.
Ephraim was stunned and stood staring at the man.  “Where…where am I?  The sun fools me into questioning my own senses.”

   “No, your senses do not deceive you.  The place you find yourself is a place with a certain uniqueness.  The sun here charts its own course as does the much more temperamental wind.  And as you can tell, even the sand has a hard time making up its mind.”

   “Who are you?”  Ephraim asked as he pulled his animals from the cave’s shelter.
The man hopped down from his perch on the boulders.  He was not quite as tall as Ephraim expected.  “I am Ezra.  My daughter, son, and I make our home here in this most unique of places.”  He looked at the camel and sheep then back to Ephraim.  “You seem to be trapped in some difficult circumstances.  Perhaps we can make a deal.  Give me your thin sheep and aged camel and I will offer you a cool place to call home.”

    “I am like a ship on the waters.”  Ephraim replied.  “There is no one place I call home.  All I have is what you see with me, I know nothing else.”

   “Come then.”  Ezra turned and motioned toward the east.  “I have fresh melon and fruit that will make your throat burst out in song.  You may reconsider after you are refreshed.”

   They traveled to another outcropping of tall rocks next to a low hill.  Ezra led them between two of the largest.  Another cave swallowed part of the hill’s side.  The opening was framed by wooden door built specifically for the entrance.

   Inside, the walls and floors were covered with thick carpets of extraordinary detail.  There were worktables with bolts of the same amazing material that made up the swirling threads of Ezra’s clothing and just beyond that was a large loom.  The polished wood gleamed even in the feeble candlelight that lit the cave.

   Ephraim couldn’t help himself.  “Is this the magic loom that allows you to create the material you are wearing?  Do you realize what it’s worth?  For such as this, I will give you my sheep, camel, and all the perfumes I am carrying for just a single roll.”

   A short chuckle escaped Ezra.  “No, I sell to the Emir of the Sun Kingdom personally.  I have no need for a go between.  But I will show you what I do need.”

   They walked deeper into the cave and across further wonders.  Enfolded around poles the length and width of broomsticks were spinning bits of captured clouds.  Ephraim reached to touch one.   

   Ezra reached out and clasped Ephraim’s hand.  “Oh, no.  Do not spoil the small clouds I have captured.  There are so few in the desert of the other world and I cannot allow the filth on your hands to taint them.”

   “You are taking clouds and weaving them into fabric!?  How are you able to do such a thing?!”

   “A genie gave me a wish and I chose to have my happiness completed.  The wish gave me extended life, a son and daughter, this hidden home, the loom, and the ability to magically weave material taken from the heavens.  My son captures the clouds and brings them here.  My daughter spins the clouds along with colored smoke into threads almost lighter than air.  Finally, I use the loom the weave the fabric.  The clothes I make breath as you do.  They do not trap heat as wool does – it refuses to absorb warmth from the sun.  Though the clouds and smoke are bound tight they still swim within their constraints.  It creates clothing finer than silk.  Unfortunately, the material wears easily and once it begins to fray the entire garment can disappear within weeks.”

   Ephraim stroked his bearded chin.  “And so you again sell your material to the royal family.  It would seem you should be quite wealthy.”

   They reached the back of the cave and another door shaped to the entrance’s exact contours.  It fit so well it almost sealed out any sand from the outside desert.

   Ezra opened it and Ephraim needed to blink to readjust his eyes.  Outside in a small canyon, an oasis flourished.  Tall grasses covered the ground before him.  Healthy palms provided shade and guarded the clear pool in the garden’s center.  Built into the sloped walls of the canyon were terraces where large melons and other fruits were being cultivated. 

   “This is amazing!  May I drink from your spring?”

   Ezra made a dismissive gesture and Ephraim rushed to the pool’s side.  The trader drank until every limb in his body felt refreshed.  Then he threw water over his face and smiled as it trickled down his short beard.

   “Select a melon from the lower terraces.  They should be ripe by now.”

   Ephraim stood.  “Have my animals been taken care of?”

   “They drank long before you did.”

   Ephraim ran his fingers along his forehead.  The water collected along his fingers and was absorbed by his sleeve.  “You mentioned striking a deal with me.  What did you have in mind?”

   “Look beyond that far palm.  What do you see?”

   Ephraim leaned to one side and caught a glimpse of a girl taking water from the spring’s source.   “There is a young woman taking water.  Why is this important?”

   “That is my daughter Opal.  She is the one who spins the clouds to thread.  But with all the tasks needed to keep our garden up, she doesn’t have all the time she needs to finish her work.  My son spends his days hunting clouds in the other world.  I would like you to stay here with us to care for the garden while my children work for me.”

   Ephraim looked about the garden again.  It was huge and would take him many hours to maintain.  “I decline your offer.  I am a trader as my ancestors were and although I lack the business sense they have, that is my given profession.  You will have to find another.”
Ezra didn’t sound too disappointed.  “Are you sure?  The fruits and vegetables grown here will extend your life.”

   “Again, no.  I would like to offer you some of my scented oils as payment for helping me and offering me a night’s stay.  However, tomorrow I must make my way to the capital city of Jinta.”

   “You may find that difficult since it was my magic that brought you here and without it you will not be able to leave.”  Ezra’s voice still sounded pleasant.  “Come, let’s eat and wash.  Perhaps you will agree to my terms after a meal and bath.”

   After a long soak in a reed-sheltered portion of the pool, Ephraim went inside and sat down with Ezra and his two children.  The boy had returned.  Except for the darker beard and younger eyes, Ezra and his son Habib resembled each other very strongly.  Both were built as the common man with a small measure of added height.  As Ephraim approached, Habib raised his cup and offered a warm smile.  “Welcome Ephraim!  I understand you will be staying with us and helping with the garden.  That is good and I am sure Opal most certainly approves.”

   “Is that so?”  Ephraim swallowed his flux of anger.  “I was not aware I had completely agreed.  In fact, I have already declined your father’s offer twice now.”

   Opal sat down beside her brother.  “Father, you swore you would not simply take someone!”

   Ezra reached for his cup but his expression was unchanging.  “Ephraim, I will not keep you forever.  Work on behalf of my family now and when I see fit, I will return you to the natural realm with enough gold to buy ten slaves to serve you.”

   Ephraim looked at Opal and Habib for any sign that their father might be lying but their faces did not change.  “I will agree but only if you teach me the art of using the loom.  I have made a poor merchant.  Perhaps my skills lie among the threads and shutters.”

   Ezra crossed his arms.  It was the first time he’d shown any real expression.  “You know, you may be able to weave the magic cloth but you won’t be able to sell it without me helping you leave this canyon.”

   “I know.”  Ephraim was not dissuaded.  “Yet I wish to learn your craft and feel the magic of spun sky across my fingers.”

   Ezra eventually agreed to spend evenings teaching Ephraim the weaver’s skill.  For the next five years, Ephraim worked in Ezra’s garden.  The world outside the cave never changed.  The garden never experienced a shift of seasons.  The trader watered the plants each day from the spring that never ebbed in its flow.  Ephraim removed plants Ezra grew tired of and replaced their yield with fruits from other plants.  The cycle would change and so would the crops Ephraim tended.  Ezra spoke truthfully about the magic of the garden.  Ephraim never became sick.  His limbs seemed to fill with vigor.  The desert sun could cascade its heat over his shoulders and he would not grow weary.

   Other things grew in the garden as well.  The most important of which was a friendship between Ephraim and Ezra’s children.  When all had finished their chores, the three would sit and watch the stars dance in zigzags.  A breeze would enter the oasis followed by the call of strange birds.

   Habib traced the stars with his eyes.  “Father says you have become quite skilled with his loom.  He’s even thinking of letting you make some of the emir’s cloths.  Your use of the colored smokes has impressed him.”

   “That’s good to hear.”  Ephraim replied.  “But I have special carpets that I have woven on Ezra’s loom and I wish to sell them before the sheiks.  I have taken the wool from my small flock and the threads made from the clouds and blended them.  The results have been quite striking.  I have kept my work away from Ezra because I fear he might try to sell them himself.”

   Opal took Ephraim’s shoulder.  “You are wise.  My father does take whatever advantage he can.  Perhaps I should not mention this but my father has no real plans of freeing you.  The skill you have developed with our loom has made you much more valuable than a simple gardener.  He wishes to keep you.”

   Ephraim became angry.  “That’s not possible!  Ezra and I had an agreement!  He must release me soon!  I have done everything I have been asked for more than five years.”

   “Our father,” Habib began.  “He takes whatever he desires even the clouds.  The desert that surrounds the kingdom is so large because I harvest them.  When they are woven to thread the water seeps into the earth under the cave and feeds our spring.  Areas that are now the outer rim of the desert were once productive farms.  Now the land is being given to sand and dune.  We have more gold than three emirs and yet our father demands more at the expense of others.”

   “Then what must I do?”

    Habib replied, “After our father leaves for the capital city, I will take you and your rugs to the natural realm. While I spend the day hunting clouds you may sell your loom work.”

   “I will travel with you Ephraim.”  Opal spoke over her brother.  “Someone has to make sure you return and it has been too long since I have walked the streets of the city.  I look forward to tomorrow’s trip.”

   The next day after Ezra left, the three friends loaded a small cart with Ephraim’s rugs and walked to the small cave where the trader had long ago taken shelter.  They backed the cart inside then squeezed in as well.  Habib took a handful of sand and spoke to it in tones Ephraim didn’t understand.  The other man then threw it outside.  The sand didn’t fall to the ground instead the wind gave it life and it began swirling.  More sand was picked up and soon it was impossible to see out of the cave’s entrance because of the sandstorm.

   “This storm will only last about an hour.  My father and I have developed ways to speed the magic.  We will only need to wait a little while longer before we reach the Kingdom of the Sun.”
When the sand subsided, the three left the cave.  Ephraim immediately recognized the world he had left.  Everything moved correctly and in order.  It was like he had lived in a box of twisted gears for five years and was now in a working clock.

   Habib took three poles out of the cart.  “I’m leaving to gather the sky’s fleece.  I will meet both of you here one hour past sunset.  That will allow us to return home before father returns.  Good luck Ephraim.”

   Jinta was exactly as Ephraim remembered it.  The tall walls made of sun baked bricks funneling crowds of people and animals up and down narrow streets.  There were merchants everywhere under awnings of bright colors.  The temples with their wonderful statuary and glazed bricks filled Ephraim’s heart with joy.  In vain, he looked about for his brothers and found no one he recognized.

   As they neared the royal grounds, Opal spoke, “Ezra will be here today bartering the value of his magic garments for gold.  We will not want him to recognize us.  All I will need to do is keep a veil over my face but you will need more of a disguise.”

    She handed him a small sack and razor.  “Your beard has grown long.  Cut it short and dust your hair with fine ashes.  It will gray your hair enough to make you look older.  It should be enough to fool my father.”

    Once their disguises were set, they wheeled their cart up the slope to the palace gates along with other merchants hoping to sell to the emir.  A minor official approached Ephraim.  He looked over the rugs and nodded to the guards.  “This one may pass.  Let the vizier see these.”
Opal and Ephraim were allowed entrance into the grand hall.  Proud columns covered in turquoise spiraled upward from floors of smooth stone.  Gilded doors and banisters offered entrance to some of the palaces more private chambers.

   Ephraim was awestruck but Opal didn’t seem to notice.  “Ephraim, you cannot look around like a charmed snake.  You will embarrass yourself.”  

   A tall man with oiled beard and hair approached them.  His staff was set with small gems marking him as the vizier.  He listened to the official for a moment then looked at Ephraim with unfriendly appraising eyes.  Then he examined the rugs and his expression changed completely.  “Not once in my many years of service have I seen such exquisite detail!  The least of your carpets make the best we have into rags.  Wait here and you will see the emir.”

   Ephraim knew his work was good but his reception was unexpected.  He looked at Opal whose face also glowed with pride and another emotion Ephraim hadn’t seen in a long time.  Opal realized she was giving away her feelings and hurriedly pulled the veil over her face.

   The palace’s inner court shown with so much wealth Ephraim was sure the dust his sandals collected was made of gold.   Incense burned from the mouths of solid silver lions.  Life size calves of solid gold guarded the very steps to the emir’s throne.  The emir was dressed in Ezra’s heavenly garments with wide jewels adoring his brow and arms.  Other attendants surrounded Ephriam all dressed in the clothes made from spun clouds.  The emir looked on and said nothing as one of his officials bargained with Ezra over a beautiful cloak made with swirling patches of red smoke.

   When the haggling was finished, Ezra bowed and stepped away from the throne.  Then the vizier advanced to the bottom of the throne’s steps and called for attention.  “I have found a weaver of skill that matches Ezra’s!  This man’s work is so exquisite that I have brought him to you my master, without delay!”

   The emir straightened.  “Bring him before the steps.”

   Ephraim took three of his finest rugs and laid them before the emir and his servants.  Those in the court crowed in and a servant held them up for all to observe the amazing patterns.  Ezra also looked on but did not seem to recognize his daughter or Ephraim.

   Even the emir seemed impressed.  “Yes, these are outstanding.  Ezra, come before me and tell me why your work is superior.”

   Ezra stepped forward.  “Master, I fear that your court has grown callous to my craft for if I had walked in today and offered you my magic robes for the first time you would not look twice at this man’s trash.  As it is, I do have something special to show you.”

   He snapped his fingers and a servant brought Ezra’s sack to him.  He opened it and pulled out a sash that glistened then flashed.  He offered it to the vizier who walked it to the open hands of the emir.  “I have found a way to not only force the sky into my threads but now the lightning as well.  This sash is the first of its kind and it can gird a man with the power of the gods.”  Ezra smiled and bowed.  “I give it as a gift to you, master, that I will again find the utmost of favor in your eyes.  In fact, if you still find this man’s work superior to mine I will offer him three requests of his choice.  If not he will give me all of the rugs he has that I may sell them.”
The emir ran his fingers over the slow flashing sash.  “Merchant, do you accept?”

   Ephraim deepened his voice and replied.  “I do.  Master, you will find my carpets far superior than captured lighting for my work is not strictly ornamental.”  He stepped onto the nearest.  “My craft is also woven with the power of the elements.  I have used wool and spun it with the restless power of the wind as well.”

   As Ephraim raised his hands the rug floated up.  A cry of wonder escaped those gathered.  By simply adjusting his feet Ephraim controlled the path and speed of the rug.   He flew between the court’s pillars before coming to rest where he started.

   “A flying carpet!  How magnificent!”  The emir was on his feet and coming toward Ephraim.  When he was close enough he embraced Ephraim and shouted,  “Leave them here with me and take whatever treasures you deem as yours!”

   Ezra flew into a rage.  “Foul!  Merchant, how did you do that!?  How is it possible?  Only I have control of the magic loom!”  He stepped close to Ephraim.  Then he recognized the trader and Opal.
 

   “Ephraim!”  Ezra clenched his teeth.  “I saved your life and taught you the art of the loom and this is how you repay me!?  I will not accept this shame!  You will never leave my service now!  Never again will you set foot in my home.  From here forward you can sleep in the garden with the animals.”

   “There is nothing you can do now to control the path my sandals take.  In fact, it is I who has some measure of control over you.  After all, you owe me three requests.”  Ephraim calmly continued.  “I want freedom for your son.  I desire your daughter’s hand in marriage and you must cease stealing clouds from this realm.  It must rain again.”

   The emir’s brows knitted.  “The drought we have experienced since the beginning of my reign is caused by your weaves!?  The desert grows and threatens to further isolate us because of the clouds you have taken?!”

    Ezra looked about.  He saw in the court’s eyes a reflection of the emir’s anger.  There would be no way for him to leave without being caught.  Quickly, he jumped onto the third flying carpet and lifted off the ground.  With one final look toward Ephraim, he flew out one of the high windows and was gone.

************

   When Habib returned to the cave after sundown, the mouth had collapsed and only a rugged pile of rocks remained.  He set the staffs he carried and the clouds that quickly swirled around them against one of the boulders.

   “What happened?”  He mumbled to the night air.  “How will I return home?”

   From above his head, Opal replied, “You could travel with us.”

   Habib looked up and found Ephraim and Opal hovering on one of the merchant’s rugs.  “Brother, you may free the clouds you have captured.  Rain must again return to the desert and allow portions of her to bloom.”  She embraced Ephraim.  “Father has left us to this world but I have no doubt we will find happiness.”

The Ink & The Wing (Part Two)

 For Franklin the ebony birds had become a bad omen.  They were there each morning standing in small clusters near the lake’s shore.  The farmer had stopped feeding them in hopes they would go away.  He even fired his shotgun and hit several but the birds didn’t die.  They only flailed about for a few moments before righting themselves. Nothing killed them.  If Franklin or his wife approached the lake between sundown and sunrise, the birds would fly at their heads and try to remove their ears. 
 

That the loss of the song birds coincided with the disappearance of his two sons indicated to Franklin that the blessings he had so enjoyed in his life had been revoked.  It felt as if he were paying back the many good years with these weeks of misery and sorrow.  And there was no way of knowing how long the darkness would last.

 A full four weeks after Aaron and Ben’s disappearance, Franklin awoke during the predawn hours and dressed for the day.  His intuition woke him just before the sun rose.  Franklin began the short walk to his barns when a familiar sound hooked his ears.  It seemed out of place to his ears now but there was no denying the short chirp of a cardinal. 

 “What?”  Franklin stopped in his tracks.  “It seems so long ago like a memory suddenly remembered.  Is it true?”

 The chirp grew louder quickly.  As the first beams of sunlight brightened the fog over the lake, the cardinal Franklin heard flew downward from the eastern woods.  It fluttered its wings as it landed and disbanded the black birds.  The inky flock flew up and into the lake’s dense fog.  Franklin watched in amazement as the cardinal turned toward him.  It hopped near the front toe of the farmer’s boot and looked up. 

 A smile came over Franklin’s.  “Can I interest you in some seed little one?”

************

 Benedict sat in the darkness of his office waiting for the shutters to open.  It was pleasing to him to watch the black bird work.  He would doze all night and when the bird arrived, he would light a lamp.  The light didn’t seem to bother the animal at all.  The bird made no sound at all as it worked.  Its beak moved quickly over the paper leaving a thin trail of perfect script.

There was a flap of wings outside Benedict’s window and the magistrate jerked his body awake.  He turned to light the lamp.  Once it was lit he turned back to his desk.  The shuttered opened slowly but what came in was not the black bird.  It was a small blue bird with its breast of orange and its wings and head marked with a radiant royal blue.

 Benedict smiled.  “Hello little one, have you come in your friend’s stead?  What do you have to tell me that I may add another brick to the monument of my name?”

 The blue bird descended to the parchment with a quick single hop.  As the black birds did, it brought its beak down on the paper and scratched it over the surface.  It did not leave a black trail but instead it crafted characters of gold.  Its message was short and was out of the window within moments.  Benedict rose from his chair.  The gold wording did not mention a name or any specific crime.  It promised him the chance to catch the world’s greatest thief at the edge of Pire Lake at dawn.

 Benedict studied the words carefully.  It bothered him that the message was so vague when the others were so specific.  In the end, Benedict decided it really didn’t matter.  That a magic bird was writing him messages was what was important.  Tomorrow he would be ready to catch whoever this master thief might be. 

************

 Franklin had borrowed a boat from another farmer further south.  He used it to search the Pire Lake for signs of his sons.  It had been a fruitless search.  There was nothing to be found but sunken logs, turtles, and waterfowl.  Regardless, Franklin’s search spanned the lake several times over.  The cardinal led Franklin to the boat exactly where the farmer had left it two days ago.

 “Tell me my crimson friend, are you here to restore my joy and banish this curse that is taking my soul?”

 The bird turned its head away and faced its dark beak toward the lake.  It didn’t move again until Franklin stepped into the boat and began paddling.  With the sun just half raised and fog as thick as he could remember, Franklin couldn’t see where he was going.  The bird seemed to know.  From its perch on the front edge of the boat, the bird would flutter its wings a bit and point a different direction.  Franklin changed the boat’s course in accordance.

 Other than the predictable lap of the lake water there were no sounds.  Finally, Franklin’s ears picked up the whisper-like sound of wings.  In the span of only seconds, the beating became louder and hazy black shapes began moving through the air around him.  It was the black birds again.  The fog partially masked their movements but Franklin could still sense them.  Some small and others seemed too large to fly.  He brought his paddle slowly out of the water.  They would attack him soon and he had nothing else with which to fight.

 Then the cardinal moved.  It fluttered its wings then darted into the fog.  Franklin lost sight of the crimson crest and feared he had been abandoned.  He guardedly watched as the nearest black form circled closer.  The wings were discernable now.  Suddenly the cardinal shot through it.  There was a quick sound of tearing and a low moan.  Next, a splash as the circling bird fell into the water.

 The other winged wraiths seemed to come for Franklin a bit faster now but none reached the farmer.  Sometimes flying near enough to be clear ,other times a blur, the cardinal cut through each sending their bodies to the lake. 

 The fighting eased and Franklin continued paddling.  Before long it was only him and the lapping of the lake again.  The brave cardinal did not return.  Franklin looked about in a confused state.  He didn’t know where the cardinal was leading him or even what direction he was facing.  He was probably near the middle of the lake but there was no way to be sure.  Finally, the bow of the boat unexpectedly struck land.  Franklin stepped onto shore and walked inland.  There was no island in Pire Lake and it was impossible for him to have crossed the lake so quickly. 

 The farmer left his boat.  He walked for a short distance before he began seeing human shapes emerging from the fog.  Most were prostrate on the sandy ground but a few were sitting up.  Franklin and ran up to the nearest.  It was the girl Rachel.

************

 The next morning Benedict was on the shore line with five of his deputies.  They were all armed with revolvers and rope.  Three boats rocked on the lake’s surface.  It was still dark.  Benedict expected the sunrise to reveal the master thief.  The other men questioned him but he didn’t try to explain.  The bird’s messages had never been wrong and until proven otherwise he would do whatever they instructed.

 Each man sat near the shore staring blankly into the dense fog.  Benedict wanted it quiet and so almost nothing was said for almost two hours.  As the sunrise came about, a small bird sailed over Benedict’s head toward the lake.  It disappeared a second later but its wake opened a crease in the fog.  Looking on, Benedict finally saw something.  It appeared to be a small boat just a short ways off the shoreline.

 He stood which brought in his men’s attention.  “There just out ahead of me.  I see who we’re looking for.” 

 “Sir, I don’t see anything.  Are you sure?”

 The magistrate didn’t respond to the question.  He didn’t know how much time he would have.  Already it seemed as if his promised target was disappearing.  “Just like I told you, two of you paddle northwest and two of you go southwest.  It’s a small boat with a single occupant…arrest anyone you find on the lake.  Stay quiet.”

 A couple of the men exchanged confused looks but they complied.  The men were as quiet as they could manage but the boats complained by creaking.  Martin stepped into his boat with the youngest deputy, a lad named Martin, getting in just behind him.  At Benedict’s signal, the young man took the long paddle and began pushing away from shore.

 The thief’s outline darkened as he came back into view.  Benedict controlled the speed of their boat by giving his deputy brief signals.  Nothing was said and the paddle was moved with little splashing.  It looked as if they would catch the thief but Benedict could not close the distance to the other boat.  He took out his revolver then put it away.  As sure as he was that this was the great thief he was promised, he couldn’t take a shot without at least seeing the other person’s face.

 Then the thief’s boat unexpectedly bumped up onto shore.  Benedict didn’t realize there was an island in Pire Lake and they couldn’t have crossed so quickly.  He turned and looked at Martin.  With widened eyes, the other simply shook his head.  He was also surprised.
 The light had grown stronger.  The fog began absorbing much of the sunlight thinning it and spreading its illumination into an ivory glow.  Benedict could see the tall man step out of his boat pulling his long handled oar with him.  The end of the oar was not a widened portion of wood; what emerged from the water was the wide, curved blade of a reaper’s sythe. 

 Benedict broke the silence.  “You there!  Stop!  My name is Benedict, chief magistrate of Foresburg!  You are under arrest!”

 The other didn’t stop or even turn to look at the men.  He hoisted the sythe over one shoulder and slowly began marching onto the land.  Birds completely black against the filtered sunlight began descending through the fog. 

 “Sir, we…we can’t keep going.  This isn’t right!  There’s no island in the lake!  I don’t know where we are.”

 Benedict leaped out of the boat into the knee deep water.  With one hand he began pulling the boat onto shore with the other he removed his gun.  “Do you have your revolver?  Then take it out.  We’re going after him.”

 Martin took his gun out but didn’t stand.  “Sir, please.  We need to go ba..”  

 “Enough!  Get out of the boat!  He knows we’re here and we have to catch him before we lose him.  I was promised this!”

 Martin stepped out of the boat carefully as if the thick mud around his boots would suck him under.  His revolver was held before him but it shook almost uncontrollably.  Any shot he fired would be useless.

 Both men walked onto the short scrub grass and tried to peer through the fog that surrounded them.  It was still too dense to see properly.  Benedict knew that the sun should have burnt the fog away by now.  It must be close to midmorning. 

 A bird crossed Martin’s face.  It was darker than shadow and flying faster than any arrow.  The deputy cried out and went to his knees.  He dropped his gun as he brought his hand up to his face.  When Martin pulled it away there was blood.  Another winged blur went across Martin’s back and the deputy went to the ground.

 Benedict dipped to one knee and picked up Martin’s gun.  The other man was whimpering now.  Consumed by his cowardice; Martin was absolutely useless. 

 There was movement just ahead of Benedict; another black bird circled around to attack him.  Benedict raised his gun but before he pulled the trigger the blue bird reappeared crashing through the other bird.  There was a tear and low cry as the wraith fell to the ground.

 “That’s good.”  Benedict stood and began moving forward again.  “My special friend has returned.”

 The magistrate picked up his pace.  Short grasses gave way the small shrubs and stunted trees.  He was going slightly uphill and as he did the fog thinned.  He caught up to the dark reaper quickly.  The reaper had quit moving and was standing on a small rise facing Benedict.  The reaper’s hood was down showing a face that looked sculpted from coal.  There was no color either to hair or eyes, only blackness.  The same was true for the hand gripping the sthye’s shaft.

 Benedict didn’t pause long.  He brought his revolver up and put a bullet into the left side of the reaper’s face.  The head jerked backward and after the reaper straightened half of his face was shattered.  In response, the reaper raised his weapon with the shaft held parallel to the ground.  Five black birds of prey flew to the shaft from unseen perches.  The reaper then brought his arm down and the large birds came for Benedict.

 Faster than any blink the blue bird appeared again.  Its dive took it through multiple birds; breaking them and sending the inky creatures to the ground.  The evil birds seemed to explode this time with a curtain of black feathers obscuring Benedict’s view. 

 “No, I won’t lose him.”  Benedict stepped through the slowly descending feathers both guns raised.  The reaper was gone.  He quickly turned and the feathers that were still hanging to air reformed into the reaper’s tall body.  Benedict put four bullets into the reaper.  This time there was no reaction.

************

 Franklin had to touch Rachael before she responded.  Her hair looked wet and tangled.  When she looked at Franklin her eyes looked drowsy.  She was thin as if she had been starved.
 “Rachel, Rachel it’s me.  I’m Aaron’s father Franklin.  Where is he?”

 The girl’s brow slowly knit and her eyes narrowed.  She licked her lips then spoke in a slow voice.  “I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  I haven’t been able to move.”  Her chains clinked as she lifted her wrist.  The movement seemed like it pained her.

 Franklin reached over and grabbed the rusty chain with both hands.  He tried to pry it off of Rachel’s wrist but it didn’t give.  He pulled at the chain and it also resisted him.  Rachel looked away seemingly disinterested.

 After pulling on the iron fastenings for a few minutes, Franklin finally stood up and called out in a harsh whisper.  “Is anyone here free?  I need help.”

 The voice that responded was a familiar one.  “Father?  It’s me Ben.  Is that you?  Oh, please!”

 Franklin’s heart lurched in his chest.  Hope replaced all the feelings in his limbs as he moved toward the voice.  Ben materialized from the fog bound by the same chains but sitting upright and apparently alert.

 “Ben, are you alright?”  Franklin took his son’s shoulders and nearly shook them.  Then he hugged the boy unable to believe that he held his son again.  “What’s happened?  How long have you been here?  Where is Aaron?”

 “I don’t know how to answer your questions.  I do know Aaron is somewhere behind me.  But we’ve had to shout to hear each other.  A man in dark robes brought us here and walks by often.  He never says a word and the strangest part is his skin. It’s solid black almost like he’s been dipped in ink.  Most of the others fell asleep soon after they arrived here and haven’t woken up.  I spoke with Rachael for a while but she isn’t making a whole lot of sense.”

 Ben held his arms out.  “Father, can you get these chains off me?”

 Franklin and Ben tried the restraints together but they didn’t give.  The farmer looked around desperately for a rock or anything to smash the chain with when he heard a gun fire.

 “Son, I don’t know how to free you but I’m not leaving.  I’ll free you no matter what it takes.”
 The cardinal reappeared literally dropping down from the canopy of fog around the two men.  It landed on Ben’s first shackle which sprung open.  Then it moved to the other wrist and that shackle opened as well.  As father and son stood the bird flittered up to Franklin’s shoulder.

 “Father, where did the cardinal come from?  I don’t understand.”

 “It has brought me here presumably to help you.  I don’t know more.”

 They reached another man sleeping on the ground only steps from Ben.  The bird opened the shackles the second Franklin’s fingers touched the iron.  Ben shook the stranger but he did not stir.  They tried twice more to rouse the man but he would not wake.  A second gunshot quickly followed by three more keep them moving.

 Aaron was found and freed as well as Josie and two others who seemed not to be overcome with drowsiness.  They left those who were asleep.  Nothing they tried broke their slumber and the cardinal took no action.  A man’s scream ended their effort to free others.  Franklin began leading them back in the direction of his boat stopping one last time to free Rachael.   
 As Aaron hoisted Rachael to her feet, Franklin watched a tall form emerge from the fog near them.  It carried a long sthye slung over one shoulder and the other arm looked as if it were dragging two bodies by the collar.  It dropped the bodies and began coming for those Franklin had freed.  It didn’t seem to take steps.  Instead it seemed to glide over the ground.  The cardinal flew off Franklin’s shoulder and sped directly into the reaper’s chest.  The robes opened and seemed to swallow the bird.  Then there was the agonizing sound of tearing.  The reaper doubled over but it did not fall.

 Franklin pulled himself out of his stupor and turned away.  He sprinted back to the shoreline.  The small company had already crowded into the boat.  “Go!  Push it away!” 

 He trudged through the water crawling into the boat along with the others.  Aaron was sitting at the back trying to paddle away.  The boat moved slowly into the fog.  The shoreline dissolved and the heavy boat sat low on the lake by itself. 
 As they drifted toward shore, the fog lightened and the warm sunshine began burning the fog into wisps.  The lake cleared and the sky looked as if it were midday. 

************

 Franklin’s song birds returned along with his rescued sons.  Rachael, Josie, and the two others that were saved were returned to their families.  It was difficult for those who had been taken to describe their abduction.  They described time feeling slowed and haze the fog induced.  Within weeks, nothing was said about the reaper or what happened to those still missing.

 The appearance of the reaper and the songbirds that put an end to his gathering remained a mystery.  For Franklin, it was death attempting to extend his cursed hand into the natural realm.  The cardinal that turned the tide and destroyed death’s temporal power must have been something or someone holy.  Now that the cursed fog no longer clung to the waters of Lake Pire, it no longer mattered

 Benedict’s body was found drowned in the lake along with the young deputy.  He was given a hero’s funeral and on his grave stands a wide granite slab noting his heritage and the work he did bringing the thieves of Foresburg under the rule of law.

 As men before him, he could not bring justice to the greatest thief of history.

The Wing And The Ink (Part One)

The yellow speckled song bird glided over the lake’s still surface seemingly without effort.  As it neared Franklin’s farm the bird brought its wings back and stalled in mid air for a second before dropping to the cool grass.  Franklin swung his hand again casting seeds and stale crumbs to the small congregation of song birds that greeted him each morning just as the sun began rising.

There were thousands of birds living around the lake.  Some flew arching through the air like acrobats on the trapeze.  Others worked the water’s waves and ripples waiting for an opportunity to eat.  The larger birds glided far above the treetops masters of their cloud borne kingdom.  But it was the songbirds that filled the whispering trees with song and coaxed the sun to rise.

was a dairy farmer and cheese maker whose property bordered a northwest arm of Pire Lake.  The farmer was an older gentleman but still strong.  He enjoyed the pleasures of a sturdy, hardworking woman and the able hands of two healthy sons.  Franklin’s endeavors were profitable and his handsome family was well respected in Foresburg. 

Before the sun’s orb had fully crested the hills, Franklin had his cows herded into his barn for their milking.  The farmer kept the barn doors open preferring to keep the cows inside using only a narrow gate made using just three long boards.  Franklin didn’t want to shut out the bird’s songs believing it was their singing that brought the sun up each day.

Summer days were still new.  Franklin rose while some stars still shown through the first sunlight’s veil.  He began walking toward his barn with seed in his hand listening closely for the whereabouts of his faithful songbirds.  He heard nothing.

“That’s odd.”  Franklin peered about.  “Normally the birds come to me before I reach the barn.  Perhaps they have gathered near the lake shore.”

Franklin walked through dew clad grass to Pire’s shore and listened again.  There was nothing.  Even the sounds of night, crickets and frogs, seemed absent from the lake.  As light from the sunrise brightened the sky, Franklin noticed an unusually thick fog that clung to the water.  Fog wasn’t uncommon but the density this morning also puzzled Franklin.  He shrugged and turned back to his farm.

 “Well, I have a handful of bird food and no birds.  This has never happened before…a bad omen.”

He noticed the faint beat of flapping wings.  Franklin took a glance behind him and saw the steady flight of a solitary bird.  It flew far north then circled toward him.  Before long it reached Franklin taking to the grass only a foot from his boot.  Franklin had to look at the bird twice to be sure of what he saw.  The bird was small like his songbirds but it was completely black.  The eyes, talons, beak, and feathers were all like pitch.  He waited for the bird to sing but it said nothing.  

Another minute passed before Franklin surrendered.  “Aren’t you a strange one and no song to boot.  Very well, take the food.  It appears that no one else is interested.”
The next morning brought the same dense fog masking a silenced lake.  The black bird returned, bringing others of its ilk.  They brought no songs to herald the morning only the night’s residual stillness.  Franklin stopped feeding the small birds; he considered them a bad omen.  The birds however, did not leave.   

It seemed an entire flock of the blackened birds were clustered about on the third morning but Franklin was too busy to pay heed.  He and his sons were due in Foresburg to sell their cheese and milk, visit friends, and purchase other foodstuffs.  It was always a bit exciting for Franklin’s sons, Ben and Aaron, on days they went into the city.  The north road that circled the lake was a long one and they traveled it hardly once per fortnight or whenever there was cheese ready to be transported.  The draft horse was harnessed and the cart was loaded.  Franklin and his sons began the three hour trip listening to only the short squeaks of the wheels.

After the stillness of Pire Lake, Foresburg seemed more than alive.  They stopped at one of the inns to visit and sell to Olan then they went to the market and quickly sold everything else they had brought. 

With most of the afternoon still before him, Aaron hopped off the cart and looked into town.  “Father, I’m going to visit Rachel.  It’s been almost a week since I’ve seen her and I think I’ll ask her if she’d like to go on a picnic at the lake’s shore.”

 With only two years between them, Ben was also courting one of Foresburg’s young women.  He joined Aaron on the floor of the market square.  “A picnic sounds like a wonderful idea!  I’d like to join you.  I’ll bring Josie and we’ll play a game of cards.”

Aaron gave his brother a short look. “You’ll be nothing but a pest.  I’d rather have flies.”   

 “You know Rachel’s mother, the fine lady that she is, won’t let you two run off to the lake without a chaperone.  Little brothers make superb chaperones.”

 Franklin smiled and handed the boys a large piece of cheese wrapped in a thin cloth.  “I’m going home.  Borrow one of Olan’s horses and try to be home before it gets too late.  Remember, the cows don’t care how sleepy you are and neither do I.”

************

 When Foresburg’s old magistrate died, Benedict made a grand show of wanting the position.  It wasn’t an easy job but it did come with respect and power.  Foresburg was a bit unruly compared to many villages experiencing a persistent problem with thieves.  Benedict considered breaking these “thief rings” an opportunity to establish his name and make himself into a local hero.  Benedict was a tall man for this area with broad shoulders and a full beard.  Born from a family of minor nobles he had access to Foresburg’s reins of power.  He was determined, well organized, and intuitive.  It took only two days for the mayor to call upon Benedict to serve as the next magistrate. 

As soon as his powers were in place, Benedict wasted little time picking through the ranks of his deputies.  He sought out young men yet to be touched by the city’s corruption and he recruited older law enforcers with experience from other towns.  His early successes brought Benedict popularity and power that came from the people’s trust. 

That is why Calvin Bonner came to the courthouse door well after sunset.  He pounded on the door and demanded to see Benedict.  The night watchman initially thought to deny the man’s request before Calvin reminded him of his close association with the magistrate. 

Benedict was working through ledgers when Calvin was ushered in.  “What is it Master Calvin?”

The other man’s face was set with concern.  “My daughter Rachael and her friend Josephine were taken to Pire Lake earlier today and they have not returned!   They are never to be away from home after the sun sets!”

Benedict stood.  “Who took them?  Were they on horseback?”

“A farmer’s boys, two young men named Aaron and Ben.  They are sons of Franklin the cheese maker from across Pire Lake.  And no, all four left town on foot.  They couldn’t have gone too far out of town.”

“Very well,” the magistrate stepped past Calvin.  “I’ll rouse two of my deputies and go to the lake.  We’ll find the men and young ladies as well.  If anything has happened to your daughter or the other, Master Calvin, they will not go unpunished.”

************

 Franklin didn’t hear Aaron and Ben return from Foresburg.  He woke up the next morning and walked by the boy’s room.  The blankets were undisturbed and the lamps were cold.  Outside there was no sign anyone had been in the barn.  The black birds were the only ones about; silent observers watching Franklin search. 

  “Something’s wrong.”  Franklin woke his wife and instructed her to milk the cows.  He then saddled the draft horse and began the curving road around Pire Lake back to town.  Several hours later he arrived at the Foreburg’s city gate. 

Franklin rode by the inn and found Olan sweeping the old structure’s wooden porch.  If the boys had stayed at the lake too long it was most likely they spent the night with their old friend.  At the least, they would have asked to borrow a horse. 

“Olan!  Have you seen Aaron and Ben?  They didn’t return home last night.  Have you seen them?”

 Olan’s face twisted a bit.  “You don’t know?  The magistrate arrested both of them when they failed to return with Rachael or Josephine yesterday.  Your sons were coming back into town after sunset just as Benedict was riding out to find them.  Aaron and Ben claimed to have lost the girls which Benedict did not believe.”

 “What?!  Ben and Aaron would never have harmed those girls!  That’s ridiculous!”  Franklin turned toward the courthouse.  “I’ll need to free them.  There must be some misunderstanding.”

 “Wait!”  Olan wasn’t finished.  He stepped off the porch and approached Franklin’s horse.  “You won’t be able to get them out.  Benedict would never allow it.  He has said that since the boys were the last ones to see the girls that Aaron and Ben need to confess where the girls are now or the ladies need to appear on their own.  The families have already been out in the woods searching and have found nothing.  If you go to the courthouse, you will be confronted by many angry people.”

 “Then what do you suggest I do?”

 A grin broadened Olan’s face.  “He he, I served one of the young deputies the other day and the dolt left his keys.  Oh, he came back to see if he’d left them at his table but I told him nay.  Surely it is a good thing to have keys to the courthouse if needed right? 

“I’ll go into the courthouse’s cellar tonight and tell the night watchman that I saw the girls south of town.  If he leaves to alert someone for only a minute or two, I’ll have your boys free.  Go home and sometime after dawn tomorrow have a boat just off the piers.  Aaron and Ben should be there hiding.  Just be there to snatch them up.  Until the girls are found they need to go into hiding.”

 “What you’re planning is a crime and Master Benedict is a hard man.  Why would you do such a thing?”

 “Searching for the women is one thing but jailing your sons is a step too far.  Don’t waste worry on me.  I’ve enough pull to see to my own matters.”

  Franklin studied the ground for a bit.  Trouble this strong had never bitten his family before.  “Fine, I’ll go home.  I will trust in you Olan.  Free my sons and I will have my boat near the piers on the lake.” 

 There was no sleep to be enjoyed that night.  Franklin and his wife stayed up preparing food and packs for their sons to take once they arrived home again.  They would flee to one of the larger towns that existed beyond the mountain passes. 

That morning, as Franklin walked over a short rise to the lake’s shore and his small fishing boat, the number of ebony birds grew thick.  Unexpectedly, one flew near Franklin’s head causing him to duck.  Before Franklin could straighten it came back swooping for his head. 
Franklin stayed low and scurried to the edge of the lake.  “As soon as I retrieve my sons, I vow to kill these shadow spawn.”

The farmer looked about but was unable to find his small boat.  During the summer he kept it tied to a pine tree that grew unusually close to the shoreline even when it was pulled out of the water.  All that was attached to the tree was a bit of rope.  Franklin picked it up and examined the end.  The rope wasn’t chewed though by some raccoon or river rat it was severed by iron.

“I don’t understand.”  He looked around the edge of the lake using the weakened sunlight of the predawn.  He found nothing.  The haze on the lake was thick making it difficult to see beyond twenty feet.  Franklin finally spotted the boat out in the water a short bit from where he stood.  It wasn’t empty.  Someone propelled the craft forward with a long pole.  The figure stood erect barely moving as it worked the oar.

“Wait!  Come back!”  Franklin dove into the water and tried to reach the boat.  Instantly, more black birds the size of ravens came out to the predawn sky to tear at his head and arms.  Franklin cried out and went under the water in an effort to protect himself.  He came up again and sharp beaks went into his scalp.  Franklin vainly tried swimming to the boat until the birds finally forced him to turn back.

 Franklin ran out of the water and the evil birds turned back to the lake.  When he turned around his small boat and the thief in it were gone.  He returned home bleeding from cuts across his face and arms but he did not seek his wife’s help.  Instead he saddled his horse and again made the long ride into town.   

The farmer immediately rode to Olan’s inn.  His friend was there and stunned to see Franklin walk through his doors.  “Franklin!  What are you doing here?!  You are supposed to be on the lake meeting your sons!  I managed to free them but the night watchmen saw them run from the courthouse.  The deputies chased both Aaron and Ben towards the lake.  If you’re not there then I don’t know what will happen to them.  I barely escaped detection myself.”
Franklin left Olan and rode back out of town to the lake.  At the largest pier, Benedict stood with a contingent of his deputies. 

“Where are my sons?!”

“Are you Franklin?  I was hoping you could tell us.”  Benedict’s voice worked its way over those of the surrounding men.  “They somehow escaped from their cells in the courthouses cellar.  I’d like to know how.  You can begin by telling me why you are in town so early or why your face is covered in blood.”

“You didn’t answer me!  Where are my sons!”

 The magistrate took a deep breath.  “They fled into the lake.  In fact several people here saw a small boat though the fog on the lake’s horizon.  I was going to presume it was you.  So who was in the boat?  Your wife?”

 Franklin’s knuckles were white around the reigns.  “Someone stole my boat and is out on the lake!  I don’t know who or where my sons are!”

 Without addressing Franklin further, Benedict rotated to the nearest man.  “Take six teams of men and begin walking around the lake.  Two of these groups need to be on horseback so to arrive on the far side quickly.  Hammond, you and Martin escort this man back to his home and make sure the criminals aren’t hiding there.”

 After two days of searching, no one was found.  No bodies appeared in the lake.  The families of Rachel and Josephine continued to press Benedict about the whereabouts of their daughters.  The magistrate had nothing to offer them.  The girls were gone and so were his primary suspects.

 Then something mysterious occurred.  Benedict entered his office on the courthouse’s third level and found the shutters of the window near his desk open.  He walked over and examined the latch.  The metal had been cleanly snipped. 

 “But how?  The latch is on the inside and if the watchman wanted the window open he could just pull it…”

 Benedict looked to his desk and noticed one of his spare ledgers was covered in script.  The ink was dark and heavy but also perfect in its clarity and beauty.  The magistrate picked it up and turned the document towards the sunlight.  It was a list of names.  Beside each name a crime was listed and when it occurred.  The leaders of several thief rings were mentioned and information needed to catch them. 

 Without waiting for his breakfast to be delivered, Benedict tested the first name listed.  In a shanty house on the western side of Foresburg, he and his deputies found gold coins and several silks stolen from the brother of the mayor. 

It was the first step in making Benedict a legend.  Other arrests followed all played out in stunning fashion.  Within a week, the thief rings were smashed. 

A new problem developed.  The jail in the courthouse’s cellar filled and the prison was also filled to capacity.  Criminals were being arrested and housed faster than Benedict or any of the lesser judges could see the accused.

Benedict walked into his office and picked up the new ledger.  By now he knew who was writing the messages but he failed to tell anyone else.  A couple of nights ago he stayed in his office all night and watched the shutters.  A lamp was lit near Benedict’s chair.  Benedict himself hid.  Exactly an hour before dawn, a large black bird whose entire body appeared cut from the night sky, sprang the shutters open.  It hopped from the sill to the desk and began running its beak along the new parchment.  Benedict said nothing and he did not move until the bird finished.  Finally, the bird opened its wings and disappeared out of the window.
The day’s list contained only a couple names but the message at the bottom was more interesting.  It addressed the overcrowding problem at his jails with a simple solution.  Benedict pursed his lips and marched to the prison. The magic had been right so far.  He would try this as well. 

An offer was made to all inmates regardless of their crime or how long they’d been held.  Just before dawn each day, deputies would take any volunteers to Pire Lake.  If the prisoner could swim from the farthest pier to the other side he would be allowed to go free but would not be allowed to return to Foreburg.

 Many enthusiastically accepted Benedict’s offer.  The lake was very wide but in the darkness before dawn it would be easy to swim to one side and eventually get out early.  The prohibition of returning to Foresburg was laughable as well.  What would stop them from eventually coming back to town?

 Two days later, in the darkness before dawn, Benedict and his deputies led a long line of chained criminals out of town to the shores of Pire Lake.  Each was released into the lake and watched as they swam into the fog.  When the last man was released, Benedict sent a few riders to the other side of the lake to count those who succeeded.  He also posted two deputies on the roads coming back into town.

 When all returned that afternoon, they reported seeing none of the criminals.  Of the fifty that were given to the lake, not one was accounted for.  Benedict found this news delightful.  The messages had served him well again.  The thieves were gone and he wasn’t draining the town’s resources feeding them.  Some of his deputies and the families of the disposed criminals wondered what had happened but they were ignored.

 Each morning the black bird returned with more names and Benedict continued to feed the lake.

Nobo

In the jungle lives a large tribe of tree dwelling monkeys.  Their days were filled with lisirly naps surrounded by the rinds of juicy mangos and green banana peels.  Swinging from branch to branch and tree to tree they scattered birds while chasing each other about.  Other than pythons there was little to threaten the monkey’s easy existence.  Days blended together until their memories became pointless.
 

Among their number was Nobo.  He was a young male who enjoyed the highest branches never knowing the anchorage of a home or the burden of work.  His life was carefree just like his brethren except for one concern.  He had fallen in love with one of the chief’s daughters, a beautiful female named Oma. 

Her coat always seemed to glow with the dappled light that made it through the canopy.  It reminded Nobo of the waning sun and looked warm to the touch.  She had long lashes and slender fingers.  Nobo could spot her graceful movements past a hundred other available females.

Instead of approaching Oma, Nobo would sing her praises to his cantankerous uncle an old male named Crank.  Crank was one of the tribe’s elders and considered the wisest. “She stands out as a full moon among the simple stars. Yet on the occasions Oma has looked to my tree her beautiful black eyes never fix on me.  There is no look of recognition. I don’t think she can see me from the trees, sky, and the other monkeys.  I could be on the limb directly in front of her, my world tipping her direction, and she wouldn’t blink.”

 Crank looked up from his latest banana.  “Ha!  The solution to your problem is easier than peeling this banana!  Why don’t you leap over to her limb and say hello?  You’re agile with good teeth.  I’m sure she would at least talk to you.”

 “I can’t do that!  It won’t be enough for her to remember me!  Good teeth?!  Bah!  Nobo!  Listen to my name!  Even it sounds like so many of the other males.”  Nobo frowned.  “No, I must have a something marks me as different.  I’m not just another common suitor.  I must be unforgettable.

 “I know very little about being unique but I most certainly know creatures that are, two really.  In fact, they are the most unique creatures in the world and they live here in the jungle.”

 “Who?!  Tell me.”  Nobo couldn’t help but leap a bit.

 Crank raised one brow a sly look crossing his face.  “Well, the first is a powerful bird named Proud Cloud.  Really he’s a parrot but very, very large.  He flies between the earth and sun directing the path of both.  As he leads the sun over the jungle sky, Proud Cloud must beat his wings with extra force.  When he does, he loses feathers.  Now these feathers are made of a material softer than a newborn’s pelt but stronger than teak.  They ride sunbeams to earth and are nearly impossible to see.  As the feathers strike the earth, they are absorbed into the jungle soils where plants use the colors to decorate themselves.  The fantastic colors you see lacing the flowers are taken from Proud Cloud’s magic feathers.” 

 Nobo couldn’t contain himself.  “Perfect!  I’ll gather Proud Cloud’s feathers!  Tell me uncle, how do I gather them?”

 “You’re not listening.  They fall to the earth faster than overripe fruit and are absorbed faster than the rain.  You cannot catch them but you can try and communicate with Proud Cloud.  Flying to and around the sun is thirsty, hard work.  If you can reach him with a fresh juicy fruit, he may fly down to visit with you.  Now how do you toss a fruit that high?  I don’t know.”

 “I will find a way.”  Nobo didn’t wait.  He thanked Crank and went off into the dense canopy of the jungle to think.  “I need a way to reach the surface of the sun.  I can throw a mango the length of a lower tree limb but that won’t do.” 

He tested a trick he had done as a younger monkey.  He leaped near the end of a thin limb and it bent under his weight.  As he jumped away the limb sprang back giving Nobo an extra push.  “Yes, the trees are much stronger than I am.  I will use their strength and resiliency to throw fruit to Proud Cloud.”

 Nobo gathered mango and brought them to a thin tree limb.  He lightly wedged the fruit into a fork near the end of the branch.   For almost an hour he practiced jumping toward the end of the limb, grabbing the end, bending it over, and releasing his grip just as the branch reached its lowest.  Mangos flew among the trees careening into tree trunks and whipping through leaves.  One even landed on the head of a wandering elephant earning Nobo a rather loud reprimand.

 By sunset, however, Nobo had his tree sling mastered.  The fruit sat patiently on the end of the limb and when Nobo reached it, he would wrap two fingers around the fruit to keep in place.  The second Nobo released his weak grip the fruit went to the same spot in the sky with more speed than a springing cobra.

 The morning of the next day Nobo sat near the branch he had practiced with waiting for the sun to come into position.  Once it was, Nobo began launching mangos and other fruits into heaven listening as each eventually found its way back into the trees and down to the earth.  The little monkey was growing tired and frustrated when he noticed that his latest volley never returned.  He quickly threw another fruit up and it also did not return.
 Nobo used a large leaf to try and shade his small black eyes.  He searched for any sign that the magical parrot had decided to descend.  There was more waiting before the black outline of a very large bird could be seen spiraling downward.
 

“I did it!  I did it!”  Nobo’s squeal carried over the other busy noises of the jungle.  “Here he comes!”

 Nobo was unprepared for the heat that would accompany Proud Cloud.  The multicolored parrot was longer than the limb he landed on.  Steam and smoke rose from his vibrant plumage and tiny embers flecked away from his head and wings as he shook them. Proud Cloud’s beak wasn’t black like other parrots instead it was a brazen gold.

 “Hello, little one.”  Proud Cloud boomed.  When he spoke Nobo heard thunder.  “It has been some time since I had reason to return to the earth.  Thank you for the fresh mango.  How can I serve you?”

 The monkey could barely contain himself.  Nobo began swinging his arms wildly as he spoke.  “Proud Cloud!  What a wonder you are!  Thank you for coming!  Please, please, may I have a small cluster of your feathers?  I desire the affection of Oma and she may chose me if have such a prize.”

 Proud Cloud shook his head.  “No young one.  My feather’s are for another purpose but I can offer you something else.  If you will feed me again tomorrow, I will bring to you a gem of great worth.  These gems are called sun tears and they are only found of the surface of the sun.  They glow with the sun’s power and you will not find them on earth.  Will that do?”

 “Yes!”  Now Nobo was fully leaping in the air.  “Please!  Such a gift will be perfect for Oma!  No other male will be able to match it!  I will send you the juiciest mango you will ever taste!  Thank you!”

 “Then I will see you tomorrow when the sun is again in this position.”  Proud Cloud opened his wings and beat them once then again and the giant bird was airborne.

 Nobo flew into the forest gathering mangos for tomorrow.  He didn’t tell the other monkeys about Proud Cloud or even return to his tribe that night.  Instead he rested in the arms of the tree that would aid him in winning Oma.  Mangos, some of the best the jungle had to offer, sat nearby. 

 The little monkey was ready hours before he needed to be.  He spent some time practicing the mango throw but otherwise he paced back and forth on another limb. 

   When the morning hour arrived, Nobo leapt into the air, snagged the end of the opposite branch with just two fingers holding the mango in place, and just as his decent began to slow Nobo let go.  Whoosh.  The fruit was gone in the next instant.  Up it went directly toward the sun.  Nobo listened…nothing.  The monkey scampered up the tree and set a second mango on the branch.  He catapulted another fruit skyward.  It didn’t return.  His effort had not been in vain.  Proud Cloud would return with the prize he needed!

 The magical creature did return and he was just as striking as the day before.  His bronzed talons resting on the same scorch marks left from where he perched the day before.  Held in his beak was a  tiny stone that glistened and shone with its own light.

 Proud Cloud set the stone on a tree limb near his head.  Small trails of smoke immediately curled up from the bark.  “Here you are my little friend.  Your kindness has been rewarded and I thank you again.  May the sun tear please you.” 

The parrot stretched one wing.  Sparks scattered wildly in the wind.  “These trips to earth exhaust me and I will not return for many years.  Of course, you are always welcome to send me food.”  He cawed as if he was laughing and flew into the air again.  Soon he was gone having returned to the edge of the sun.

 Nobo shrieked with joy and scampered to the branch holding the sun tear.  The gem pulsed with a bright pure white illumination.  Long tails of smoke still twisted as they rose from the bark around the stone so Nobo blew on the sun tear to cool it.  He did this for several minutes before finally deciding to pick it up.  The sun tear immediately burned his hand.  The monkey dropped it and it bounced off several tree branches before landing in the underbrush below.

 Despite other efforts, the gem never cooled and Nobo had to use sticks to carry his prize.  “This will not work!  I can’t give Oma something too hot for her to handle!  Unless I can find a way to cool it, all of my work has been wasted.”

 Rain began falling.  As the raindrops struck the surface of the sun tear small bursts of steam mixed with smoke.  This gave the monkey an idea.  He scurried to a crescent shaped lake nearby and dug a small hole.  With several folded leaves, Nobo began scooping water into his depression.  The water filled hole and Nobo dropped the sun tear in. 

 “There, tomorrow I will return and pick up the sun tear.  By then the lake’s cool waters should have tempered the gem’s heat.”

 Unobo traveled back to his tribe and found his uncle Crank.  “Uncle!  You were right!  The Proud Cloud is amazing!  It’s beak and talons looked like they were made of blazing metals and his plumage was beautiful!”

 Crank tossed away a banana peel and turned his graying head.  “What?  You met Proud Cloud?  Is that what you’ve been doing?  You’re pulling my tail!”

 “No and he was magnificent!  Truly a unique being!  He gave me a gemstone from the sun but it was much too hot.  I filled a hole with cool lake water and will let its heat ease over night.  Tomorrow I will go and fetch it.  Perhaps I should wear it around my neck so Oma can see it and me.  Or do you think the end of my tail would be better?”

 The older monkey laughed out loud.  “Well then, if you thought the story of Proud Cloud was impressive listen to this.  There is another creature with traits that distinguish it from the other common animals of the forest.  It is a tortoise by the name of Lapis Luzy.  You see, this tortoise has a shell made from hundreds of beautiful gems.  All kinds…sapphires, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and all sorts of other gems of all different colors.  Lapis Luzy can crawl, dig, and swim like all tortoises but he prefers to live underground.  There he finds the roots of young tree saplings and wraps their roots around special gems.  The hard jewels allow the tree to take the soft soil it grows in and make it into strong wood.  With young ebony trees, Lapis Luzy places an onyx which makes the wood heavy and black.”

 Nobo’s eyes were wide.  “Uncle, have you ever seen Lapis Luzy?”

 Crank clenched his teeth and shook his head.  “No, of course not, he stays underground and comes out for swims only an during the darkest hours of the new moon.  He lives in darkness and prefers it greatly to the bright heat of the day.  Lapis Luzy is afraid of what the other animals would do if they ever spotted him.”

 The younger monkey rubbed his knuckles together.  “He has a shell made of sparkling gems and he stays out of sight?  Uncle Crank, that’s terrible!  What a waste!  He may be more beautiful than Proud Cloud and yet he stays out of sight by choice!  That makes very little sense.”

 “I agree.”  Crank plucked another banana.  “So listen to your own words.  When will you introduce yourself to Oma?  I believe you have traits that are special as well.”

 “Stop playing games with me uncle.  You know I have nothing to offer.  That will change after tomorrow.”

 Nobo slept with the other monkeys that night.  But unlike their carefree slumber he couldn’t contain his eagerness.  He imagined the many ways he would spring past Oma the next day and how hard he would have to work to get her attention.  He envisioned her bright black eyes and those long lashes focusing on him and the sun tear.

 Just as dawn began to cast its life giving radiance over the tops of the jungle canopy, Nobo made his way back to the crescent lake.  The hole was just where the monkey remembered but to Nobo’s surprise the hole was dry, completely dry!  The sun tear sat on the bottom with heated earth around it still flashing and still glowing with a steady light.

 “Now what will I do?!”  Nobo reached down and touched the sun tear.  It was still far too hot to handle.  “If water will not cool it what will I do?’

 A voice high in pitch and a bit unnerving came from the behind a nearby lacewood tree.  “You could trade it away.  I have never seen anything of its like amidst the gems of earth and I’m sure to know a few things about precious stones.”

 Nobo let out a shriek and jumped away.  He wouldn’t leave the sun tear but he needed to know what was facing him.  “Who is it?”

 A tortoise only as tall as Nobo stepped out from behind the tree.  He walked on two legs instead of four and his shell glittered even in the understory’s dim light.  Lapis Luzy’s shell was more magnificent than Nobo had imagined.  The gems were all cut presumably by the sharp nails Lapis Luzy had on his fore paws.

 “I am Lapis Luzy.  I help care for this jungle and especially the trees you see around you.  As I have said, I have collected all sorts of jewels for my shell but never have I seen one like that.  What do you call it?”

 “It’s called a sun tear.  I received it from a great bird known as Proud Cloud.”

 The tortoise looked confused.  “Proud Cloud?  Well, never mind, I will pull a gold plate from my very shell for a chance to own that sun tear.   If you will trade that bright gemstone to me, I will bulge it out as a mask to fit your face.  It will be crowded with many sparkling jewels.  I have little doubt that not one of your kind has ever had one.

That sun tear will give a sparkling light to each stone in my shell…even when I’m underground.  Please, kind monkey.”

Nobo tried to pick up the sun tear again but it was still too hot.  There was no way he would be able to use the stone.  Lapis Luzy had already pulled one of its gold plates off the bottom of his shell and was beating into a mask shape.  The magic creature was done within minutes and offering the valuable mask to Nobo.

“Here,” Lapis Luzy offered.  “Go ahead and try it on.”

Nobo took the mask and slid it over his face.  Holes for his eyes were there and it fit perfectly!  He trotted over to the lake’s surface for a look at his appearance.  The water reflected emeralds, rubies, and other colored stones perfectly arranged and forming an outline of the monkey’s face.  When Nobo turned around, Lapis Luzy was gone as well as the sun tear.

“Well, I was going to take his offer regardless.”  Nobo pulled the mask away from his face.  Even the gold along the inner lining was perfect and smooth.  “With this mask on, I will be impossible to ignore.  Everyone, even Oma, will become entranced.”   

Nobo raced back to his tribe with the mask tucked under one arm.  Crank was still sitting in the same familiar spot near a plentiful banana tree.  His back turned to Nobo’s approach.

“Uncle!  Uncle!  Look at what I have!”

Crank slowly looked up from his banana.  When the old monkey finally focused on what Nobo had his eyes went wide.  “What is that?!”

Nobo handed the jeweled mask to his uncle.  “I traded the sun tear I received from Proud Cloud to Lapis Luzy for that gold mask.  There’s never been anything like it!  Once I put it on, Oma’s eyes will be drawn to me as a heavy stone is to the earth!”

Crank didn’t say anything for a moment.  He simply rotated the valuable mask in his paws before trying to place it over his face.  When he removed it, he was frowning. 

“Nephew, where did you get this?”

“I’ve already told you.  A sun tear from Proud Cloud was traded to Lapis Luzy for this mask.  Do you think Oma will like it?”

“I didn’t think those creatures existed!  They were stories I heard as a youngling!  Yesterday I thought you were joking.  But how do you expect to attract Oma if she can’t even see your face?   Nobo, I had greater faith in you.  You ignore my real advice and chase after ridiculous frills like this.  Besides, what do monkeys care about gold or jewels!”

Nobo cast his gaze to the forest floor.  “Then uncle what would you have me do?”

Crank scooted closer to his nephew.  “Stop listening to my stories and do as I instruct. Go to the south end of the lake and pick an orchid that is white laced with pick.  Take her the flower along with fresh fruits and you will have much better luck.”

“How do you know this?  How can you be sure?”

“I spend time with her and her father!  That is how I know she loves white orchids laced with pink.  You will find yourself much better suited for gaining her attention if you will focus on her and what she loves instead of trying to make yourself more interesting.”

Nobo found the orchid Crank told him about and returned.  He offered it to Oma who leaped with delight.  She placed it behind her ear and Nobo thought she looked more beautiful than ever.  The young monkey spent as much time as he could with Oma asking her about her interests and even learning which end of the banana she preferred to peel first.

While monkeys do not trade in gold or precious gems, Uncle Crank did find a good use for the mask.  Not only did he still spend his time eating bananas and telling the younger monkeys stories but he also found opportunity to scare the tails off the younger monkeys using the mask.

Glass (Part 3)

This post is part of an archive.  To read the current version, we recommend  “Glass (*)”

“Hope.”  The word came without thought.  It was almost a reaction.  “The unrelenting ache of loosing my family has worn into acceptance.  It is a bitter acceptance to be sure, but one I can live with.  There is hope.”
 
 Erick seemed perplexed, “But what did you see specifically?”

 “I saw another man who loves me even more than my first husband and two little girls that follow me around town doing as I do.  They kissed my cheek and life is wonderful again they give me hope.”  She paused to wipe the tears from her eyes.  “I believe this vision.  It seems so real!  It sings to my soul.”

 “Take the bowl.  It’s yours.”

 That very hour, Erick returned to the back room and began moving the sand aside.  “The benefit of time!  Imagine!  Perhaps the sands will speak to me again blessing me with the wisdom of future experiences!  I will try again this time crafting something just for me.” 

 He removed the large hourglass and again placed it between two stools.  The slide on the bottom was reluctant to move but eventually it gave.  Bit of glimmering gold began pouring into the tin pan Erick had placed on the floor.  It took hours for the sand to finally accumulate enough for even a simple oil lamp globe.  Then the sand suddenly stopped.  Erick looked under the hourglass to divulge the problem.  The plate had moved back into place and this time, would not move.

 “A lamp globe it is and a thin one at that.”   Erick thought as he replaced the hourglass and the concealing pile of sand.  “I’ll make it tomorrow first thing and see what becomes of it.”  

 Before the sun’s tender yearnings lit the eastern sky, Erick was busy ramping the furnace to its hottest breath.  When the radiated heat felt as if it was blistering Erick’s skin, only then did the glass blower begin his work.  He spun and spun the thin layer of glass molding in into a shape that was he could nearly make blindfolded.  The glass cooled as a common globe open at both ends; one a bit wider than the other with a smooth bulge between the openings.

 That afternoon, Erick decided to test his creation.  He waited for his apprentice to leave and his shop to empty.  He covered the globe with a bit of tattered wool and rode outside of town to a windy rise.  He could see the countryside painted green with healthy crops alongside trees scattered into rows and groups.  The glass blower took out the globe and held in into the last strands of sunlight.  Nothing.  There were no colors; no visions.  The future did not unfold.

 “I don’t understand!  How can this be?!  I made the globe for my own use.  It should work for me.”

 Erick waited but nothing happened.  The sunlight faded and fell into the night’s dark abyss as Erick stood waiting for the enchanted glass to speak to him.  Eventually, Erick wrapped the lamp globe again and traveled back to his shop.  He would try again in coming days but each time the glass failed to activate.

 Erick did nothing else with the angelic hourglass until a week later.  He was frustrated with the results he reaped from the lamp globe.  It ended up in one of his cabinets.  He had decided to try again.  Erick was nearly finished moving the sand when he heard something moving behind him.  He spun and a short, round man wearing suspenders and breeches stood next to the coal.  The clothing had a very old-fashioned appearance.  The man’s mustache was so bushy it almost seemed to grow straight out. 

“Who are you?!  What are you doing here!?”  Erick took his shovel and swung it at the intruder’s head.  The man’s hand came up and knocked the shovel away.

“You can’t get rid of me that way.”

“Who are you?”

Erick was offered a smile.  “Do you know what Enta Socumal Demapola means?”  His voice was quiet but crossed Erick’s ears with authority.  “Roughly it means…Time determines men from God.  Or more clearly, God’s omnipresence extends even to time while the rest of us are trapped here and now.”

Erick wasn’t dissuaded. “Fine, ignore the question.  Now what do you want?”

“I think you know what I’m here for.”  The man picked up a piece of coal.  It ignited in his hand.  “Your purpose with the hourglass has been concluded.” As the man closed his hand, the burning coal crumbled and fell to the floor as ash. 

“Wait,” Erick stretched out his arms.  “There is so much more to be done.  Don’t you realize the good that could be done by letting me use the sand on others behalf.  There’s more good to be done!  Did you not see what happened to the young widow, the boy, or even to me?  I never would have taken up the art without time’s vision!”

  “Time like heat changes things.  Sand is worthless but with applied heat it is transformed, given shape by the Master, and the finished product is beautiful.  Yet it is fragile as well maintained by the Master’s hand and protection.

You cannot know time the way God does and his hourglass does not belong to you.  I’m here to take it.”

 Erick studied the other man for a moment longer. Anger blazed in his heart.  Why would he be given something so precious only to have it taken away?  What had he done wrong?  When he was told to leave it until Charles died he had done so.  Where his intentions not pure?  His was a mind that was knotted with questions and no answers.

“Very well!  Take it!  No doubt, you know where it is!”  He marched out of the room and did not look back.

 The next day, Erick returned to the back room.  Nothing looked out of place.  In fact, it looked as if the sand hadn’t been moved at all.  He cleared it away and opened the door.  There was nothing but shadows inside.  The hourglass was gone.  He spit into the hole and closed it for good.

  That night in their bedroom, Erick’s wife tried to confront him with his anger.  “Erick, all day and last night something has bothered you why don’t you tell me what it is?” 

She was carrying a candle, which she sat on their nightstand.  She took the globe off the oil lamp and lit it with the candle.  Then she replaced the globe.  Light from the glass globe erupted onto the walls and ceiling. 

 Erick cried out and covered his eyes but his wife seemed unaffected.  She apparently couldn’t see the vast images that played throughout the entire room.  “Erick, what’s wrong?  Are you hurt?”

 The blinding flashes of colors and now roar of a million voices had Erick crumpled to the floor.  “Where, where did you get that globe?”

 His wife’s voice broke through the pandemonium.  “I broke the old one today and I slipped into your shop to get another.  What’s wrong Erick?  Tell me.”

 After a few moments, the visions faded.  Erick reopened his eyes with his wife on her knees beside him. 

 “Erick, talk to me?  What’s wrong?”

 He blamed the incident on a sudden headache.  It was the best excuse he could conjure.

Erick’s vision completely returned but not his hearing.  For the rest of his days, he heard the gentle hiss from an unseen stream of falling sand.  He could feel the measured, unalterable passing of time.  The actions and words of men were sifted in the sand of eternity.  Erick deciphered pointless chatter and saw the end of useless pursuits.  Although he could never completely understand God’s hand, Erick could see its actions.  The glass blower knew the difference between what was temporary, lasting, and eternal.  It was wisdom to rival Solomon’s.

Glass (Part 2)

This post is part of an archive.  To read the current version, we recommend  “Glass (*)”

Note:Please read Glass (Part 1) before continuing / Charles is Erick’s father

“You mean the vase!  I saw a purple glaze and in it the future!”  As his father closed the plate, Erick pushed the hourglass completely on the crate.

Charles straightened and let the sand slowly spill though the gaps between his fingers.  “It showed you a portion of time that would make a difference in your outlook. Time teaches.  It forgets, destroys and advances without care or concern.

I made a vase for you because I didn’t want you to loose the family’s skills.  The purple you saw was more than I expected.  It indicates grand prosperity.  As it turns out, your skill has far surpassed my own and soon you will gain the notoriety your abilities deserve.  I took some risk for if it had shown you black I would not have forgiven myself.”

“What does black mean?”

“The glass made from the sands of time take on shades based on what they have to show you.  Black will show you sorrow even death.  Others I’ve discovered are purple for wealth, brown for poverty, pink for companionship, white indicates peace.  Only the recipient can see the color then it disappears.”

Erick was incredulous.  “How can you not make use of this power?  We should be crafting everything from this!”

“What it shows you cannot be controlled!  Do you want to know the coming suffering your children will endure or view your long forgotten grave?  How about seeing your wife after her beauty has long faded.  How can you enjoy your wine today when you know tomorrow you will suffer from a terrible fever?  The burdens of this life should not be assumed until you must.  Our lives are harsh and short.  Enjoy what you have today and take pleasure in it.

Now put it back.”

Erick complied without another word.  He replaced the wooden panel and began moving the sand back where it covered the hourglass.

“One last thing…” Charles stood as Erick finished.  “You must promise not to disturb the hourglass until I am gone.  Even then, I would not use the sand.  Your work is as fine as can be found.  You will prosper; let it be enough.”

“As you desire father.  It will remain here counting the seconds until eternity.”

Erick did as he promised.  The seasons of his life changed from spring to summer.  Nobles, mayors, and wealthy tradesmen sought his work.  They paid him well and he was able to marry well.  Children followed and Charles watched over the growth of his family with great pleasure.  He lived another fifteen years before his body was returned to the earth

All the while, Erick kept the secret near to his thinking.  He wondered about the secrets that could be revealed.  He wondered if the shape of the glass effected the fragments of time that would be revealed.  Erick had plans for the sands of time and now that his father was gone he was free to test them.  The warnings were understood but for Erick it was madness to have such an opportunity and fail to try it.

  Only a week after Charles was laid to rest, Erick returned to the storage room.  Very little had changed.  The coal and sand were piled where they had always been.  It took him longer to move the sand then remembered.  The excitement was the same as it was years ago but he was older now.  After almost an hour of work, the hidden door was uncovered.  Erick took hold of the iron ring and forced the door free.

The gold hourglass was exactly as he remembered it if seeming slightly heavier.  Erick set it on the floor and tried tipping it to one side.  It would not rock in any direction.  He brought the seats of two chairs together and hefted the hourglass between them.  Erick took a small pan and placed it under the hourglass, found the bottom plate, and pushed it slightly open.  The trickle of golden sand began piling up along the bottom of the pan.  It took three hours before Erick decided he had enough to work into a vase. 

The sand was stubborn.  Flames from the furnace were strong making it difficult for Erick to get close enough to melt the sand.   The molten glass gave off light beyond an orange glow.  Instead it gave off a white light not overwhelming but easy and consistent.  Erick spun the solidifying glass on the ends of his rods working it into a narrow-necked flask.  It was an exquisite work by any standard.
 
When it was finished, Erick held the flask up by his fingertips.  Sunlight danced and wavered through the glass but there was no color. 

“Hmmm, I had no one in mind as I shaped it.  Perhaps someone will see something in it that I cannot.  I’ll set it along my storefront for sale.”

The very next day the apprentice to the local cobbler flew through the Erick’s shop door.  “Master Erick!  Master Erick!  That green flask you have in your window!  It’s amazing!  It sounds like foolishness but I believe I saw something like a dream inside of it!”

Erick set down his tools.  “Tell me then, what did you see?”

The young man spread his hands.  “Well, I saw myself taking my inheritance and investing it with Kamron’s caravan group.  The man is a boar and once he found out I had been given my sum he’s been pestering me continually!  I’ve been ignoring him and was going to buy several sets of new clothes instead; there is a lady I’ve been working to attract.  However, I saw myself lending Kamron the money and six months from now receiving close to three times as much in return!  I saw it all and it felt real! 

I believe the vision and now I want to purchase the flask.  Tell me, how much?”

Erick couldn’t believe it.  This young man was given the benefit of a hard lesson before living through it.  His inheritance was saved thanks to the wisdom time’s perspective could bring.  Immediate pleasure delayed for much greater gain in the future; the benefit of time!

“Six months from now your new clothes could have been food for moths but now you have the right perspective.  Take the flask.  There is no charge.”

That night, Erick went back to the hourglass.  He siphoned off additional sand and the next morning he began work on a glass bowl.  Again, the heat necessary to work the magic sand was excessive.  Erick felt as if his skin cooked each time he had to approach the furnace.  The finished bowl was clear and completely level; a true marvel. 

“I shall set this at the edge of my highest shelf, crowded by many other works.  It shall be a test of the hourglass’s unique power.  I wonder who will be able to next partake of the hourglass’s power?”

Erick did as he planned.  The bowl was even set behind a much more elaborate pitcher Erick had made.  For almost three days, those who entered his shop glanced about or spoke with Erick, but no one ever mentioned the glass bowl.  Some even commented on the glassblower’s other works, but nothing was said about the bowl.

On the fourth day, a young woman entered Erick’s shop.  She was dressed well but her clothes were dirty and it looked as if the woman had not bathed for some time.  Her eyes met Erick’s and filled the glassblower’s mind with pity.  He knew this woman.  Her husband and three year old son became sick over this last winter with a terrible fever.  Both had perished and she was left alone.  Her father and the church had tried to care for her but she would do nothing but weep over her loss.

She had come to beg him for a few glass needles.  They were a specialty of Erick’s; now his apprentices made them from thin metal molds and open the needle’s eyes with a thin bit of metal.  Erick gave them to the poor to sell.  This young widow had been in many times.

Erick placed a few in her apron when something attracted her attention.  Her eyes were pulled away from his almost as if they were pulled with strings.  Her gaze fell to the top shelf.  “What, what is…?”

He made a dismissive gesture toward the far wall.  “Everything you see is for sale of course, but are you sure you can afford it?”

She didn’t respond.  The widow took two steps toward the shelves then stopped.  “May I see that amazing bowl you have there?  Please let me see it.  Please.”

“The bowl?  Yes, you may see it.  Let me get it down for you. “  Erick took his step stool and took the bowl down.  The widow had her hands open and gently lifted it away from Erick.

“Look!  Look, do you see it?!”  Her brows lifted and she smiled.  “There!  Between the reds and the violets!  I can see myself!  I am beautiful again and there are arms to love me!”  She had to close her eyes; dirty tears zigzagged down her cheeks.  “I have a family again!”

 The widow clasped the bowl to her dress.  “How much?!  Please, how much do you want for this magnificent bowl!?”

 Erick studied her for a moment.  “The bowl is yours if you will tell me exactly what you see in it.”

Glass (Part 1)

This post is part of an archive.  To read the current version, we recommend  “Glass (*)”

 For many years, Erick toiled in a glass shop under his father’s supervision.  He learned everything there was to understand about the ancient art of glass blowing.  Just by watching the burning oven, he could determine if the heat was correct.  The sand was always properly measured.  With skill that rivaled magic, Erick could spin the molten glass while blowing a right amount of air.  His creations were smooth and nearly flawless.

 The apprenticeship wasn’t easy.  Glass is a fickle medium.  Imperfections could not be sanded out or painted.  It would not bend; if put under pressure it would shatter.  Imperfections were common even under a skilled hand.  Erick found the skills difficult at first and tried to quit but his father refused to allow him to leave.  There were times Erick’s immaturity overcame him and he would purposely quench misshapen bottles. 

Everything changed for Erick after his father crafted a special vase for him.  Other than a bold streak of violet beginning at the lip and pooling along the base, the vase’s structure wasn’t spectacular but its effect was profound.  When he looked into it, his eyes filled with images of wealthy commissions by royal houses.  Princes vied for this handiwork; offering him handsome prices.  Erick gazed into a future filled with promise and prosperity all because of his keen skills shaping glass.  The images were not imaginary; instead they were keen in detail.  He saw it once then never again. 

The next day the purple was gone and only days later the vase broke.  Clear shards covered the floor one moment and in the next they were gone.  The broke glass simply dissolved.  It was as if the earth simply absorbed them. 

From that hour on, the boy worked tirelessly to master his craft.  He accepted his father’s training with zeal.  In time, he surpassed his aging father and became a true master in his own right.  And yet, he was never able to add to understand the magic allure his father’s work.  Some claimed to see the future in them and were called mad.  Erick didn’t doubt them but didn’t share the vision he once had with anyone, even his father.

“Erick, come.”  His fathers worn, scarred hand took Erick’s shoulder and pulled him aside.  “I have something I need to show you before the sands of time drag me under.  Follow me to the back room where we store the sand.”

Both men entered a dark storage room.  Coal was heaped to one side and sandon the other.  The floor was smudged black and worn smooth from years of shoveling fuel into a small kart and wheeling it toward the furnace.  Long, iron clamps and other tools hung from thick rafters. 

“Take the sand shovel and move the entire pile near the door.  There’s something underneath you should know about.”

“What is it father?”

“Time, distilled and tangible.  Hurry, we must do this before your mother or sisters come back from the common.”

Erick’s back and arms were sore from the day’s work but found new life with such an unexpected prospect.  His shovel didn’t slow or tarry until bulk of the sand was shifted close to the door. 

With the last few scoops, Erick finally found something unusual.  Near the rooms corner, built into the floor was a door less than two feet square.  Along one side the top of an iron ring poked through the sand.  Erick tossed the tool aside.  His finger dug out sand inside the ring and he lifted.  It took some effort before the he was able to pry the door free from the sand that had wedged between it and the rest of the floor.  Inside was a square gold plate.  It was engraved and each corner was being bit by what Erick believed were small snake heads.

 “Lift it out.  There’s much more than you can see from above.”

Erick wrapped his fingers around the edge of the gold plate and lifted it out.  There was something heavy attached.  As it emerged from the hole, Erick finally grasped what he was holding.  It was a massive hourglass almost three feet tall fitted with solid gold.  The inner orbs were fashioned from crystal and clear to near invisibility.  Sand, almost as warm and deep yellow as the gold, filled both hemispheres.  Even now, it trickled silently into the lower half.  The rods that affixed both the top and bottom plate were shaped into long snake coils with the heads biting into the top plate.

“Father!  This is a marvel!  It must be worth five times what we could make in a year!  Where did you get it?  Why did I not know about this earlier?”

The old man’s expression didn’t change.  “I don’t know how our ancestors came to possess it.  I was told angels owned it a tool taken from the heavenly realms and lost to men.  Angels and demons should be able to read it but it is beyond human understanding.”

“How long does it last?  It was still pouring when I pulled it out.” 
 
“No one knows.  It will not flip.  A force binds it and keeps it upright.  Is it set to run out at the end of the age?  Possibly the final judgment?  Sand just continues to run from the top to the bottom.”

Erick wiped a little grime from the top of the hourglass.  “What does this say?”  He tried reading the script but he didn’t recognize the characters.

“It’s an angelic language.  I think the top portion reads, ‘Enta Socumal Demapola.’  Don’t ask me what it means.  Now set it on the edge of the crate over there.”

Erick lifted the heavy treasure and heaved it onto the wooden surface.  He balanced one side against the crate and he continued to hold the opposite side up.

The old man reached underneath and slid something aside.  “There is a movable plate on the bottom.  If you try hard enough, you can move it slightly to one side.  A trickle of sand will escape.  It isn’t much but if you’re patent you can capture enough to work with.”

“Work with!?”  Erick finally understood the implications of such magical sand.  “You have fashioned glass from it?!  What happens!?”

“I think you know.”

The New Tree

There is a small apple orchard in Washington State on the framed by the beautiful peaks of the Cascades.  The vibrant greens of the orchard only vary in shade depending on the weather.  With dark skies filled with rain, the trees and grass take on a deep, quiet teal like that of thick mosses.  On days where sunlight glides earthward on brilliant beams, the orchard becomes an lighter, more active, vibrant green.

Through this place runs a mountain stream fed with the pure snow of the mountains.  It ebbs through the wild pines of an evergreen forest before quenching the orchard’s thirst.  And from the home of the orchard’s owner a dirt road stretches directly to the lazy town of Fruitcake, Washington.

In the middle of the trees, an old wooden house crowned a small rise in the grassy earth.  The farmer, his wife, and their two sons live there as caretakers of the apple trees.  When harvest time arrives every year, they separate the tasty apples, which are to be sold, from the few spoiled rotten ones.  It is tradition for the boys to play catch with the bad apples then throw them into the forest for the wild animals to eat.

Of course, the wild animals also have a yearning for the good apples.  To keep them in the forest, the family has employed a fearsome animal that resembles a dog but in temperament is more like a bear.  It was a Labrador retriever with long legs and a strong jaw they called Crank.

Crank slept during the day and patrolled the trees by moonlight.  For years, the dog protected the trees especially the fruit produced by a special tree called Grande.  Grande’s apples were the biggest, the reddest, and juiciest of the entire orchard.

On the very top of Grande’s branches lived two apples.  One was huge, red, and beautiful, catching the eye of every man and raccoon that lived near the orchard.  But the small one beside it lacked whatever the large apple had in excess.  The small apple was tiny, and ugly maroon color, and dented on one side.  Once the small one fell, it was sure to be tossed between the boys then cast into the forest for the raccoons.

The large apple thought little of the small apple, and usually teased the small apple about its size.  Other apples would join in the fun making the small apple feel worthless.  This constant teasing usually just made the small apple cover up with the biggest leaf it could find.

One day, a raccoon came upon the edge of the orchard and saw old Grande.  More important to him, however, was the treasure at the top.   His eyes grew wide and is mouth watered.  He imagined the scent and the tart sensations playing along his tongue.  That night he made an attempt to reach Grande but was chased back into the forest by Crank.  But the raccoon was smarter than the others of his kind.  He would come during the day.  When the sun lured other raccoons to sleep, he would try for the big apple.

Dawn came to the valley and with it weight came upon Crank’s eyes.  He trotted back to his house and fell asleep.

The boys and their father hadn’t made it out of the house yet and hence there was no one watching Grande.  It worked perfectly in the raccoon’s favor.  He quickly reached the tree and began skillfully climbing.  

By the time the raccoon was halfway to the tree, the apples noticed his presence.  The large apple yelled louder than any other apple because he knew he was the apple the raccoon would devour first.  The small apple was wake and filled with alarm as well but he knew that there was little danger of the raccoon taking it.

Being an expert climber, the hungry raccoon reached the top of Grande with surprising speed.

Seeing that the raccoon was inches away from seizing the large apple, the small apple made a choice that would cost him his only chance at being one the fine apples that would be shipped to Fruitcake.  As the expectant claws of the raccoon easily stretched for the big apple, the little one plucked itself from the tree.  It fell the raccoon’s nose with surprising force.  The raccoon lost its balance and was unable to recover.  He landed with a thump at the base of Grande.

This is the end of the story for the hungry raccoon, for within moments Crank had him in his jaws.

The story for both apples, however, had just begun.  The large apple eventually developed a terrible case of worms, and at harvest the old man’s boys could think of nothing better to do with it than to play catch.  The end for the tiny apple was quite different.

When it hit the ground, it rolled away from Grande and into an abandoned rabbit hole.  As the seasons went on, a new tree stood in the orchard.  The seed from the small apple had now grown into a tall, strong, and healthy tree, giving some of the best apples in the orchard, and providing the boys shade from the hot summer son to play catch.

The Coin’s Second Face (Part 2)

The dark shroud was finally broken by the dawn light’s growing wisps.  Even the beams of weak morning light allowed Dimitri to see again.  He had been taken from the old man’s chest and returned to the table in his study.  Removed from the second coin and placed in another.

“Twice now I have given the less fortunate a chance to change their lives and both times the power of my worth has been ignored.  This time I will not fail.”  He quieted his thoughts then, “Come.”

Upon his silent request, another pigeon, this one darker than all of the rest, swooped through the window. 

“Take me to a man clad with sensibility.  Take me to someone who understands money’s place as tool for growing your means but also as door to life’s pleasures.  Does such a man exist?”

With a last boob of its head, the dark bird took up Dimitri and flew from the window but it didn’t fly far.  It circled around Dimitri’s estate and stopped on the sill of his dining hall window. 

The hall was largely empty except for Dimitri’s son Costa and the spend thrift old man.  Both sat at the broad dining table talking.

“No you fool bird!  My son isn’t fit!  Besides he has the rest of my wealth and we’ve already met the old man!”  Dimitri felt like he was shouting.  “Take me away from here!”

The bird didn’t move.  It didn’t adjust its stance or even coo.

Dimitri tried to move on his own but he was still in the bird’s grasp.  Instead he looked upon his son and the tight fisted man.  Costa looked ragged and weary but it didn’t appear to be the look of a long night with his friends.  It looked as if he was in deep morning.

“Rinadlo what do you trouble me for?” 

The old man reply, “I am sorry about the loss of your father.  He was truly an amazing businessman and no doubt an upstanding father.”

Costa brought his hand to his forehead.  Invisible strings pulled down his countenance.  “You have asked to meet with me Master Renaldo.  Although I am not in the mood you were granted an audience.  What business do you have with me?”

“I have enough money now sir!”  Renaldo set his black chest onto the table.  “Finally I can invest on your next ship.  Do you have leverage for another investor?”

“We have a ship leaving in less than a month for the Palestine.  You may invest.  Do you have the binding receipt so that I may put my seal on it?”

Renaldo produced a parchment and Costa signed and sealed it.  The old man rolled the parchment and hurriedly left leaving chest of precious metals with Costa.  He didn’t move for a while then with a sigh he picked up the box.  A moment later he had left the room.

Before Dimitri could question what had happened, the pigeon turned and flew from the window.  It flew sharply up and perched at the very top of Dimitri’s villa.  For several minutes, it didn’t move.

Finally Costa’s form materialized from a side street.  He was walking beside one of the guild buildings.  Scaffolding bracketed the outside as masons worked to repair a damaged wall.

“Well, stupid bird what is next?  You haven’t followed my requests at all.  What are you to do with me?”

With a suddenness that startled Dimitri, the bird lifted from the villa and flew swiftly in Costa’s direction.  It stayed well above the scaffolding not allowing the young man or the masons to spy it.  Finally, it banked back toward Costa and dropped Dimitri.

The gold coin struck the stones near Costa’s feet and quickly rolled in the direction of another man following close behind.  He saw the coin rolling toward him and snatched Dimitri up.  Michael knew the coin didn’t belong to him.  When he looked up, he saw Costa still walking and gave chase.
“Sir!  Master Costa!”  Michael held the coin up and began running toward the other man.  “Master Costa, excuse me!  You have dropped this gold coin and I wish to return it to you!”

Costa was wrapped in his own thoughts.  The loss of his father was proving a very bitter loss.  It was now for him to maintain trade and build wealth yet he had given his father’s actions very little regard.  Business would need to be tended and ledgers checked.  His heart ached and suddenly he had no appetite for pleasure.

“Master Costa, Master Costa!”

Costa held Renaldo’s chest close to his torso.  He would take it to the bank he was now presumed to help manage.  He knew the other aristocrat’s names and nothing else.  Dimitri tried to teach him…

“Master Costa!” 

The latest shout pulled Costa from his thinking and brought him about.  At that moment, a small stack of bricks fell from the scaffolding above Costa.  The deadly missiles landed with hard breaking sounds and plumes of dust only a few feet away.

Michael caught up.  “Master Costa, I am certainly glad I caught you.  Even more so now that I stopped you from being struck by those bricks.  Here is a gold coin I believe you dropped near your home.”

Costa didn’t immediately reply.  He turned and looked at the broken bricks near his feet.  Two further steps and he would have joined his father in the afterlife.

From the top of the scaffolding, came the sound of cursing men and one voice blustered over them all.  “Benni!  Benni You fool!  You almost killed a guild member!  And you’re drunk again!  You no longer have a job here!  Go back to your tavern and never return!”

“Master Costa?”  Michael waved the gold in front of Costa’s face.  “Master you don’t appear to be well.  I know your father’s death had been hard.  May I assist you?”

Costa stepped away from the bricks and scaffolding with Michael in tow.  Finally he asked, “Who are you?”

“I am Michael Bortelli.  I am a minor bookkeeper with your father’s longtime assistant Angelo.  I was going to the bank to drop off these accounts when I saw the glint of a gold coin near your feet.  It quickly rolled my direction so I picked it up.”

“You could have kept it.”

“Not I master.  The money is yours I only help manage it.”

Costa took the man’s shoulder with his free arm.  “Do you know the names and dispositions of the aristocrats at the bank?”

“I should.  I spend much of my given daylight toiling in that dark, musty building.”

“And my ships?”

“Twelve here in dock and the manifests of all the rest are carefully recorded in the papers I carry with me.”

“Then consider the gold your first wage in your new position as my personal counsel.”  He placed Rinaldo’s chest into Michael’s arms.  “Whether it was your intention or not you have saved may life and proved your character all at once.  Come, we will conclude your business and mine at the bank together.”

Michael protested.  “Master I have done nothing yet to deserve this money.  Pay me after I have managed your accounts for some time and I am sure you will find that I am worth much more.”

Costa smiled.  “Well said, but what will you do with this coin?  As I have sworn, it isn’t mine.”

“If you will excuse me for a few moments, I will make it an investment on your behalf.” 

Michael stepped across the plaza to a to the busy stand of a bread seller.  “Sir, how much for a loaf?”

The baker replied, “But thirty lira sir!”

Michael looked at the wicker baskets filled with fresh loaves then handed the baker Dimitri’s gold form.  “I will have all that you have left.  Give a loaf to every young boy or girl that passes your stand.  Two if they look hungry.  Tell them it is a gift from Master Costa Trolli and if word reaches my ears of my master’s generosity then you will receive twice the business.”
The baker smiled and quickly agreed.  “Very well sir.  Gifts from Master Costa Trolli, I understand.”

Michael took a loaf and broke it as he strolled back to a waiting Costa.  He sprinkled the crumbs to a large group of pigeons gathered in the plaza. 

“Well done my friends.  There will much more business in the future for you as well.”

The baker slipped the gold into his pocket and Dimitri’s spirit was released.