Undreamed shores: Part 1

One joy scatters a hundred griefs.   – Chinese proverb

Living in a family of ten to twelve (sometimes fifteen) people, you learn quickly to adjust to chaos, welcoming the unexpected as a coal miner embraces sunlight.  Dad of course exhausted from plugging unexpected leaks and implosions among his contractors and clients attempts to impose some order on both home and family: clean this mess, fold these clothes, file those papers, make those beds. Indeed he’d have an easier time driving off a thundercloud with a leaf blower.  For on those rare occasions when the day’s events unfold according to some loose plan or schedule, you feel almost isolated, unnerved by the sudden immersion of order, the lone working gear among the scattered piles of monkeys and wrenches.  What is this sensation, you say to yourself, this . . . calm?  The absence of fear and anxiety, of noise and confusion only proves to make you anxious and confused until you knock over Mom’s prized Belleek vase to regain your sanity.  The cycle begins anew. Continue reading

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Shots After Midnight: The King’s Diet

shots_after_midnight-copyAs night falls here at the pub, Jameson and Bailley’s fill our glasses and loose our tongues.  Tales emerge to accompany us on our long walk home through the darkness . . .

Brigid and Kevin were fighting again. No one knew the argument began: a touch on the shoulder, a misplaced word, a subtle insult intentioned or not (doubtful). “Loser,” “idiot,” “moron,” “freak.” The words avalanche as the afternoon fades into the night.

I find the two sitting around the sofa fighting over the remote control. Bree demands her favorite crime drama citing the age old maxim, “I was here first.” Kevin counters with a “But this is important,” compounding his argument by reminding Bree “You always get it!” The television flickered mournfully between the two stations, trying vaguely to decide which child it loved best.

“Dang it, Bree! Give it to me! I have to watch this game!”

“So go find another TV! I was here first!”

“I was in here at 3:30. It’s still mine.”

“Then it’s my turn.”

“Losers don’t get a turn.”

“Do too. Wait a sec . . .”

“Do not.”

“Alright, you two,” I say turning off the mildly schizophrenic screen. “Let’s cool it with the TV for a while.”

This gambit pleases neither. Bree slams the remote to the ground, a portion touchdown spike, a portion lightning strike.

“Geez, Kevin, look what you did. For once in your life, why can’t you be less of an idiot?”

“Hold on,” I say to the bickering siblings. “Lets cool down a bit. Bree did I ever tell you the story of the King’s Diet?”

“Uh, no,” Bree sighed.

“Sit down with me,” I say sinking into an armchair. “After the story’s over, I’ll let you watch TV again.”

“Is it stupid,” Kev asks. “I don’t have to like . . . know anything to understand it, right?”

“Not at all,” I smile.

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A lion woke one morning to look at his realm, a wide savanna teeming with life. The lush jungles to the west where trees grew high nearly reached the sky. The dense marshlands to the south, a paradise to insects, frogs, and amphibians. The dense mountains to the north, snowcapped and shrouded in mystery. Then the veldt to the east, where his pride hunted, occasionally shading themselves beneath dense tree groves, which cast long cool shadows long after the sun dips behind the jungle gardens.

This contemplation soothed the mighty lion. As he sat atop a large rock, the King’s Seat he called it – once the germ of a small volcano, which long ago had risen from the earth and then as if Nature herself had grown unsatisfied with the location ceased its ascent, the Seat marked the center of the large valley – considering the days meal (zebra or antelope, he could not decide), his tranquil thoughts were interrupted by the loud trumpeting bellows of the elephants, splashing themselves with mud in the nearby pits. The king turned his nose up at such disgraceful behavior.

“You would not see me or my kind act in such a manner,” he scoffed. “Fortunately the other members of my kingdom are far more dignified than to be caught playing in the mud.”

As you well know, the elephants cover themselves in mud to protect themselves from the intense heat of the sun, like sunblock your Mom rubs on your back. The lion did not know this however, and continued to mock the elephants without restraint. As he considered several spectacular insults concerning pachyderm hygiene and the size of their rears, a foul stench drifted through the air. A migrating herd of wildebeests had ventured into the king’s territory from the south, their coats now stained with unctuous marsh gas and globs of slime. Of course, wildebeests like most creatures that travel together in groups have accrued a hearty stench after journeying together without food or water for several hundred miles. After a long road trip, I would challenge you to sniff yourself and see how clean and fresh you smell.

Nonetheless the ignorant lion, disgusted that other members of his kingdom could reflect so ignobly on himself, began to decry the worthlessness of these creatures as well. Escaping the fecund smells and disgusting smack of mud on skin, the lion strode closer to the shade of the jungle. There he rested beneath a tall fruit tree, breathing in the fresh air and engaged in a mid-morning nap. Just as his dreams began to take shape, forming fields of antelope and fat zebras (lions as a rule think of nothing else), the tree began titter and rustle with the chatter of the monkey clan, who being social creatures talked effortlessly among themselves. The irritated lion immediately awoke.

“Will you foolish creatures, please silence yourselves?” the lion shouted. “Your king is seeking rest.”

The monkeys stopped their discussions to stare at the enraged lion. Silence filled the jungle, even the largest and proudest monkey – named Chi – stopped his argument concerning jungle politics and disappeared into the foliage. The others followed.

“Thank you, many apologies for losing my temper. Foolish though you may remain, of all the creatures I have met today you have . . . Ack!” A large rotting mango had struck the lion in the snout. Then suddenly other fruit – both fresh and not-so-fresh – flew from the tree, along with sticks, rocks, and other material much more disgusting.

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“Did they throw poop?” Kevin asks with a smile, earning him a quick slap from Bree.

“Ewww . . . Kevin, don’t be disgusting!” she shouts. “I bet the lion was quite angry about that.”

“As mad as anyone,” I said, twisting myself more comfortably in the seat. The leather screeched as if agitated. “Anyone who is barraged with sticks, rocks, and . . . well worse things. After all more so than money, power, or fancy parties nobility love respect and admiration. When you take that away well . . .”

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“Ah what horrible habits,” the lion roared. “Rude though I was, such a reaction is uncalled for. My subjects squander their talents for such mean gestures. How can the kingdom survive in the future without more noble spirits like me to guide them?”

The revolted lion ran from the jungle and returned to his cave at the center of the valley. There he ruminated on why the creatures under his domain were so foolish, so disgusting, so weak, and incapable of nobility.

Even the delicious zebras are mere food for us larger stronger animals, he thought. They exist only to be eaten. The other prides to the north, south, east and west must think me an idiot for babysitting such repulsive subjects. Why can’t they be more like me: proud, strong, agile? And wise too. Surely such a king as I can solve this trifling problem for my subjects.

The lion thought about this for three days and two nights. Then while nibbling on the broken leg of a well-fattened antelope – the poor creature had twisted its ankle not three days prior at the exact moment the lion had unripe fruit tossed onto his snout, a day later – he had an idea. A brilliant idea, fit for a cat of such high lineage.

“Maybe, it is the food they eat. Indeed if all my subjects ate meat like myself, then they would be stronger, braver, more courageous and thus more refined. Too often have they relied on the bounty of the trees and leaves of this kingdom. My subjects have grown lazy. Yet virtue is the key. I shall weed out their weaknesses simply by changing their diets.”

The next day the lion gathered all his subjects from the four points of his territory. The elephants, the wildebeests, and the monkeys arrived along with many other animals both large and small to hear what the king decreed.

“All creatures seek to improve themselves, to become stronger. We in this valley have grown too soft over the years, weakened by this continued peace. The land has taught us to remain ignorant beasts, unaware of our hidden potentials. This no longer must continue. We must change our ways or fall prey to greater threats.”

The animals listened to the words of the mighty lion. Many felt troubled, unsure of what threat the king spoke, worried that their happy lives might end. They pleaded with the lion for protection and wisdom in these dark days to come. Others like the antelope and the monkeys who frequently joined the lion on his dinner plate grew skeptical of the lion’s plans.

“Worry not citizens. For though I cannot protect all of you all the time, I can train you to be like me, strong and brave, unafraid of any threat. We must make sacrifices, abandoning our old habits and traditions so that we might grow stronger and wiser in our ways. We must adopt the code of the hunters, feasting on weakness and building a nation of virtuous warriors. All of us must learn to eat meat. Only then can we cease to be mere prey, but transform ourselves in noble lions regardless of age, sex, or species.”

A loud cacophony of applause, shouts, brays, and trumpets met the lion’s speech, as the animals cheered this new way of life. For all creatures desire to be strong and great and noble. If a change in diet was all that was necessary to protect themselves, to rise in stature, what is a minor sacrifice or two? The animals listened in rapture as the brave king and teacher concluded his speech:

“Meat is the one food that keeps us lions strong. Our daily hunt requires that we continue to grow and improve our mind and bodies, for the hunter is his own master, not a slave or someone else’s meal. Through hunting we lions become noble and great, like kings of old that have ruled this land by the grace of the Mother Spirit herself. Thus, go forth and hunt. Be strong!”

More applause followed, and the lion grew pleased and confident in his decision. Yet there was silence among other members of the crowd. Other animals did not applaud the lion’s words. To the zebras and antelopes, a nation of hunters was nothing to applaud. They looked to the far jungles, marshes, mountains, and valleys, wondering if any would survive the next week. Yet none spoke up; all remained silent except for one brave monkey, named Chi.

“Mighty lion,” said Chi. “You speak of becoming strong like you, but are we not better as we are? The great Mother Spirit gave us monkey’s hands to grasp fruit and tails to swing from tree to tree. Might we already be strong enough for our own kind?”

The lion looked upon the monkey, the leader of those that assaulted him not three days before. Quick as lightning, the lion pounced on the helpless monkey and swallowed him whole.

“Hands and tails might be used better to protect yourselves,” gulped the lion, “than eat fruit. If you wish this to be your fate, please remain the same, change not. Skills are meant to be used not wasted on fruit and trees. Yet if you wish to be strong and be the victim of no creature, then follow my advice. Hunt!”

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“He ate the monkey!” squealed Bree, whose nicknames was also ‘Monkey.’ “Poor monkey.”

“Good,” grinned Kevin, who was also aware of Bree’s nickname. “Stupid monkey, he deserved what he got.”

“Ah,” I said. “Well then, I wonder what the lion deserved . . .”

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The following weeks saw great change in the valley as the animals all followed the lion’s advice, learning in their own ways how to hunt. Bloodlust has a way of changing creatures, you see, affecting even the most docile into . . . well, into something else altogether.

The elephants sharpened their dull tusks into razors, honing their hunting skills as they gored the weaker members of the herd for their dinner plates. Other small creatures were trampled by their thick legs, served as appetizers or kneaded into mouse-pudding.

The wildebeests possessed no such size but departed deep into the fume-filled swamps, surrounding their bodies with thick horribly-smelling ooze and slime. They ate from garlic plants, skunk weed, and rotting onion bulbs; using their tails like paint brushes they lathered their coats with poison ivy, rag weed, and methane gas. Such they experimented with these stenches until the revolting stench from their breath and bodies could incapacitate the most powerful skunks in the land. By night they would emerge from the north like a foul wind, descending into the woodlands and jungles, allowing their ooze and stench to drift into the trees. As the sleeping animals fell to the floor unconscious or dead, the herd scooped the inert bodies into waiting jaws.

True to the lion’s words, the monkey clan as well strengthened their own hands and tails. Grasping tree and fruit no more, they sharpened their teeth instead. With stick and stone, they hunted their feathered brethren in the treetops and fell zebra from hundreds of yards away, hurling their spears like a deadly rain. The laughter of the monkeys once full of mirth now chilled the hearts of all who entered the lofty tree tops.

Slowly the land grew silent.

More weeks pass. After a long slumber, the lion emerged from his cave to look upon his paradise, his newly improved kingdom. The air smells sweet, the lion thinks, like . . . like Sunday breakfast. A new wind carries the promise of a changed land. With a roar he calls forth his subjects from the four corners of the land. Slowly his subjects approach, three great hunters knell before their king and teacher, all that remains of the kingdom’s citizens. The lion stares at his subjects, the monsters before him. The air, he realizes then, is soaked through and through with blood.

“Greetings, great king,” bellowed the first of these creatures. The lion looked down and stared at the speaker, a monster of great size that once might have been a elephant. About its body draped bones of its own kind, sharpened to fine points like thorns upon a dried rose. Hides of various animals replaced the mud of old, making the creature look almost prehistoric, a living corpse returned to life.

“You spoke true,” said monster. “We do indeed feel strong. Like demons in fact, no trouble or danger do we now face ever again.”

“Yesss,” laughed the second monster, whose body remained hidden behind whirled smoke and gas, a living smog wrapped around rotting flesh. Ooze dripped down to floor, a slime trail marked the creature’s descent from the northern marshes. “For you are fat and no other animals dwell now in this valley. The grass is soaked in blood and littered with bones. We need to feed if we are to become stronger. . .”

“Wait!” shouted the lion, staring into the creatures’ eyes. “This is not what I intended. This is not what I proposed.”

“Too late,” spoke the third monster, an ape . . . no, ape-like, stretched and contorted into fantastic and horrid shapes, like melted clay doll. One long sinewy hand absently choked the air about it, while the other gripped a long barbed – unclean – spear. “We can do great things now. Great and terrible things. What are skills if we do not use them? Potential cannot be wasted . . .”

And with that the three monsters descended on the poor lion, dethroning him piece by piece.

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The kids seemed visibly scarred from the stories I told. Both did not sleep for a week afterwards and it would be a month before either ate their ham sandwiches again. Mom and Dad kept me on a strict Dr. Seuss diet for an even longer interim.

Brigid and Kevin don’t fight as much anymore; Bree doesn’t call Kev a loser and he in turn seems more willing to watch the crime scene shows. Yesterday I found them crying together on the sofa. The control had accidentally changed channels. The screen flashed to an golden savannah where an animated lion prince practiced his roar.