In Memoriam, National Geographic, July 2047

0309 - Anchovies via Flash-PromptMarine biologist and underwater photographer Jacqueline Casey, a frequent contributor to our magazine, found herself the subject of colleague Arnie Stein’s capture of never-before-documented occurrence: that of a school of anchovies and other baitfish coalescing into the shape of the oft-misunderstood White Shark.

 

Casey and Stein had been studying the aquatic phenomena for the better part of a year after watching such a group descend on an injured hammerhead and devour it in seconds.

 

The pair, who met on a post-doc project studying shrimp in the Gulf of California, were attempting to prove that the anchovies had developed a communication system, whether through behavioral cues or dispersed scents, that led them to take on the shape of an apex predator and work together to conquer other fish that would typically view them as prey. If you look closely at this image, you will note that many of the fish in this school are swimming in apparently random directions.

 

In a recent paper Dr. Casey presented as biologist-in-residence at MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), she theorized that the increased toxicity of near-shore ocean waters in tropical and subtropical climate zones had forced the former baitfish into new behaviors as a means of survival.

 

Sadly, this coalescent group chose Dr. Casey as their next target minutes after this photograph was taken. In his emotional report of the incident, Dr. Stein, who grew up in Texas and began his photography career documenting the end days of America’s last remaining cattle ranch, said it was ‘like watching fire ants strip a cow in minutes.’

 

Stein managed to return to the research vessel Zephyr unscathed.

 

We join him in mourning the loss of his partner in marriage and in work, and in celebrating Dr. Casey’s contributions to this magazine, and to our greater understanding of our oceans and their denizens.

 

RIP

Not In Oz Anymore

0202 - Not in Oz Anymore via Flash-prompt

 

No one knew there had been a fifth witch. Blame Lyman Baum, if you like, or just chalk it up to the fact that “Witch of the Midwest” sounds neither scary nor reassuring.

 

Seriously, it conjures the image of someone coaxing casserole after casserole out of an oven that couldn’t produce enough heat to roast a child. (Not that she would roast a child, mind you, but she’s heard there was a witch in this world who was famous for such things. )

 

It makes you think of an old woman in homespun hobble skirts and a ridiculous hat, and okay, her face isn’t green or covered in warts, and her tits still retain their youthful perkiness (she’s not a DAY over three hundred, after all). But no one’s going to accept that her cheery “Ya, sure, you betcha,” holds as much power as a charmed kiss, or believe that when she wields her wooden spoon and tells you to “Scoot away now, pesky child,” it has as much malice as a shaking broom “… and your little dog, too!”

 

Still, travel via cyclone is hardly reliable, and the one thing you learn as a witch – even the fifth, forgotten witch – is, “Ya gotta bloom where you’re planted, don’tcha know.”

 

And so she does.

 

But not in Kansas, because, really? Kansas? Grasshoppers and wheat fields are just NOT her thing. Instead, she settles in Minnesota, where she’s attracted to places called Blue Earth and Faribault. She finds love with a tall wizard named Paul who has a pet ox – odd choice for a familiar.

 

“That’s different,” she said, upon first meeting the creature. (Babe isn’t really blue, of course, he has the same coloring as a blue heeler, all silver-grey and kind of mystical.)

 

“You’re different,” Paul countered.

 

Well, that wasn’t far from the truth.

 

So, when he’d had his fill with adventuring, they settled down and started the first organic farm on the American prairie, with a first-year yield that was positively magical.

 

And if, during the summer when they ran their farm stand out on the Interstate, she had this tendency to loom behind buyers and demand, “So, whatcha doin’?” no one objected.

 

Because she might have traded her pointy black hat for a straw model with a wide brim, but they Knew – especially the children – that she was something other.

 

A witch is still a witch, after all. And she’s not in Oz anymore.

The Final Passage

0206 - Final Passage via Flash-Prompt“Are you sure we have to pass through the gates to get to the city?”

 

“Well, technically, we could pass over the gates, but, damn! I left my airship in my other cloak.”

 

“You didn’t tell me the city was guarded by vorpal bunnies.”

 

“Bunnies? Are you nuts? Those are serpents. See the scaly heads and the bodies that flow back, and the slitty red eyes?”

 

“I see the red eyes, of course. Clever the way the stone is chipped away just so. Just to let the light of the city shine through.”

 

“Pretty sure that’s not light from the city.”

 

“Well, how would you know?”

 

“Because everyone knows the stone serpents’ eyes shine with the light of Hell. Only the truly pure of heart may pass between them.”

 

“Pure? You? That’s hilarious. Why just last week you had two of the serving girls from the tavern sharing your bed.”

 

“I said pure of heart, you idiot. Anyway, the angle of the sun is wrong. That can’t be light from the city.”

 

“Oh. Well. There is that… You don’t really believe in all that hellfire nonsense, do you?”

 

“Oh, gods, no. Sounded pretty cool though, didn’t it?”

 

“Yeah. Well. Except for the bit about the bunnies being serpents.”

 

“That again? How do you even see bunnies?”

 

“Well, look at the soft noses and the super-tall ears.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“What?”

 

“I suppose they could be bunnies.”

 

“Told you.”

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“Well, no. I mean really, they could be serpents, bunnies, or the tits of Queen Matilda. We still have to pass between them.”

 

“Yeah. True…. So, how much longer, you think?”

 

“Hard to say. Objects carved in stone are often farther away than they appear.”

 

“Oh. Okay.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, it’s just that I have to pee.”

Just That

0220-Escher meets Okeefe - via Flash-PromptHe’d wanted to be an artist for as long as he could remember. He colored until his crayons were stubs, painted his way through canvas after canvas.

 

When natural talent couldn’t take him far enough, he performed magic on street corners, pulling quarters out of little boys ears and making bouquets appear from nothing to present to little girls.

 

In college his excellence at card tricks led him to the poker table, where he was careful to lose every few games so no one would accuse him of cheating.

 

He never cheated.

 

Magic and poker paid for art classes. Technique. Practice. Materials. He tried sculpting for one semester but it didn’t appeal. He liked turning lines into pictures more than clay into objects.

 

An art appreciation seminar gave him his heroes. He fell in love with Escher’s skewed reality – Möbius stairs and the like – mixed math and art, while O’Keefe made cow skulls beautiful and flowers sexual.

 

In grad school – an obscure private institution on an island off the coast of the northern USA – he found HIS art. He combined the math and the magic and the lines, but paper wasn’t big enough for his ideas.

 

He puts his art into the places where it’s least expected. Balancing on a log, he’ll sketch a shape in mid-air, suspending it on a fractal dream. Turn your head and it’s a flower. Blink your eyes and it’s a woman’s face.

 

When people caught him Making Art, they all asked the same question. “What is it?”

 

And he would counter, “What do You think it is?”

 

Whatever they said, so it became.

 

“But… how did you know?” They would demand.

 

“Art is subjective,” he would answer. “It doesn’t matter what I see, it matters that you see something, and respond.”

 

Then he’d make a balloon animal out of a piece of sky, and hand it to a little old lady. “Just imagine…”

 

Yes.

 

Just that.

 

The Tiger Inside

0241 - Inner Beast via Flash-Prompt“You know how Rottweilers think they’re really lapdogs, and chihuahuas believe they’re the most ferocious beasts ever?”

 

“Yes. What’s your point?”

 

“We all, every one of us, have our own inner vision, our own perception, of what we are. It’s sort of the reason Gran lies about her age. In her head, she’s still the dewy-eyed, smooth-skinned twenty-year-old Gramps fell in love with.”

 

“Okay, but Gran lies about her age for so long she forgot how old she really was, and got pissy when we all missed her 75th birthday.”

 

“Well…”

 

“And you can’t expect me to believe some wild rabbit living in a suburban hedgerow thinks it is a twenty-year-old virgin bride. I mean… do rabbits even get that old?”

 

“You’re missing the point.”

 

“Oh, please… Enlighten me, then, oh wise one.”

 

“We see a timid, little, bunny caught outside it’s burrow. But look at it – REALLY- look at it. Ears alert, paws flexed to pounce, nose twitching… in that bunny’s head, it’s not potential hawk-lunch. It’s a fierce lion. It’s the king of beasts, ready to defend its entire domain.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

 

“Well… either that, or it believes it’s Bunnicula. Seen any exsanguinated veggies in the garden recently?”

Conversations with Ghosts: Father and Son

0280 - CWG - Father and Son via FlashPrompt

 

“Kafka said that writing letters was like having a conversation with a ghost.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“Is it?”

“No. Yes. Maybe.”

“Come on, son. Be decisive. Tell me what you really think.”

“Dad…”

“No, really. I want to know. We used to talk, didn’t we? Sure, we told your mother we were going fishing, but I don’t recall either of us ever baiting a hook.”

“No. We didn’t. We’d come here, and you’d give me a couple of dollars for the pinball machine or let me blow my allowance on pool while you played old jazz songs on the piano and drank yourself into oblivion.”

“Ouch.”

“You said to be honest.”

“So I did.”

“Why…?”

“Why what?”

“Why didn’t you ever play music at home? Katie would have loved your music. You know she’s at Julliard now? And Mom… she kept that piano dusted and tuned for you, not for us. Why did you hide that part of you? Why didn’t you come to our recitals? What closed you off from this thing that you loved?”

“Life, I guess.”

“Ironic.”

“Well… life was the reason then. I wanted to be the next big thing. I studied and practiced, and I was rising… I had a label come listen to me play at a high-end club. I met your mother that night. I think she was attracted to the possibility of my success.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been your sparkling personality.”

“Son…”

“Sorry, Dad. Go on?”

“It’s the classic story. I met your mother. We started going out. Things got serious, she got pregnant. And I had to choose. Did I want to chase a dream that might not come true, or do the responsible thing and settled down, be a husband and a father.”

“So, you settled.”

“I chose, son. I looked at what I had and what I might have, and I chose the sure thing.”

“Mom would have supported your dream, you know.”

“I know.”

“Then why? Dad, I found your records – you were good. You had it… that thing… that spark. Your playing was transcendent.”

“Fear.”

“Of failure?”

“Of success. Isn’t that why you haven’t tried to publish any of your stories?”

“I…”

“You write them in letters to your mother, to your sister, but you should be sharing them with the world. Yeah, some of them are not so flattering to me, some are not so pretty, but that’s what artists do, son. We use our pain to make beautiful things.”

“You didn’t… well, you did… but you stopped.”

“No, I stopped playing gigs. I made – well, your mother did most of the hard work – two very beautiful things.”

“Dad?”

“You’re one of them.”

“Oh… I… ”

“So… is it?”

“What?”

“Writing letters? Conversing with ghosts? Are they the same?”

“I don’t… I’m not sure.”

“Well, when you figure it out… drop me a line.”

“Drop you a  – Dad? DAD?”

Knots

245 - Terminal via FlashPromptYou’ve heard other people say it, right? That life is a terminal disease? That the only two things every single being MUST do are to be born, and to die, and everything in between is subject to whims and foibles.

 

The threads of fate – yesterday, today, tomorrow – they’re a tapestry to some, an intricate weaving of experiences, great adventures and small, human moments.

 

But for others, those threads combine in another way. They are a knot, a noose, an ever-increasing feeling that life has you in a chokehold and the more you struggle, the more it constricts.

 

Pity those people. Love them. Be kind to them. Help them find periods of respite, if you can: minutes, hours, days when their feet are resting on firm ground, rather than balancing on the edge of a blade.

 

Depression. Disease. Destitution. We all have our own ropes. Even those of us with tapestries instead of braided twine have those glimpses at the ticking clock, its hands pointing ever closer to midnight.

 

Humankind. We’re such messy, crazy, wonderful, scary animals.

 

We have the potential to pull the lever, remove the footrest, jerk the rope. But we also have the possibility of weaving a piece of another’s tapestry. Patching a hole. Fixing a tear. Adding our color to someone else’s knotwork.

 

Human. Kind.

Choose kindness.

Because what we weave cannot be unwoven.

And every knot (noose) was once straight rope.

Applied Kinesiology

“You’re kidding, Jack. That’s what you want to do for our midterm project?”

296-Kinesiology - via FlashPromptJack nodded his head, forgetting he was still attached to the test equipment, which meant his classmates – teammates – nodded as well. “Glad we’re in agreement,” he teased.

 

Paul groaned. “Really?”

 

Marco was the first to really be on board with the idea. “Actually,” he said, his slight Italian accent softening the other student’s name, “Zhack may be on to something. The women’s team – they used a Ouija board for their first round.”

 

“They were debunking it, though,” Kazuo pointed out. “They were proving that the planchette is controlled by the group’s ideomotor response and not the work of ghosts or spirits.”

 

“Listen to Kaz,” Jack pleaded. “Kaz, don’t you think this is better than just moving objects or writing rude things on the blackboard?”

 

“Aww, c’mon,” Yuri piped up. “It’s our one chance to mock the prof and get away with it.”

 

“No,” Jack countered. “I mean yes, but it would be a cheap shot. This? This has an element of spectacle.”

 

The men, barely more than boys, really, continued to throw ideas back and forth – beach volleyball! Hot wheels! Making a sandwich! – but they eventually circled back to Jack’s original suggestion.

 

It took hours of practice, of course, out by the lake, out on the table rock in the college’s arboretum, and once in the dining hall to disastrous effects. And even so, they never managed to rotate the group target into a horizontal position.

 

Still, on presentation day it was agreed that the men’s team’s use of applied kinesiology to play the old party game “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” was both clever and innovative.

 

Jack made sure that they credited his little sister Amy for the idea.

 

And he never again grumbled about chaperoning her slumber parties.

Stranger Than Fiction

251 - Reginald via Flash-PromptReginald had always known life would be interesting when he’d gone to live with his uncle. After all, Commodore Franklin Giles-Whitton was known for the adventure tales he’d written after leaving the navy.

 

They were wonderful books, full of fantastic creatures the Commodore claimed he’d encountered during his decades of service to Queen and country.

 

In the first one, a little boy named Ronald befriended a creature that was half-leopard and half-snowy owl, taming it by giving up bits of his breakfast bacon each morning. Of course, the creature had befriended the boy, ultimately protecting him from the Stone Knights that came to life, literally, once in a blue moon.

 

Reginald had always suspected that Ronald was based on him. Certainly, the ink boy shared his features and the stupid fussy clothes his mother made him wear. He was eleven! Surely, he was old enough for long trousers by now!

 

But his suspicion wasn’t confirmed until he’d been living with the Commodore and his wife for three months. He’d woken to a murky sky and rolling thunder had arrived just after breakfast. Confined to the house, Reginald (no one ever shortened his name) began exploring the back hallways of the ancient mansion.

 

He found a stray feather at the bottom of a steep stairway – an owl feather dotted with leopard spots – and took it as an invitation. He was halfway up to the top when a red ball came bouncing toward him. He caught it – he was a decent athlete despite the stupid clothes – and tossed back.

 

This game of catch continued until he reached the landing. To his right was a foggy window. To his left – he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t seen the light flooding out of what was obviously his uncle’s workroom – but the bright space beckoned.

 

Also beckoning was – well, Reginald thought it was a bat at first – and it DID have wings – but the red, rubber ball in its mouth and the way its furry body wriggled with joy reminded him of his friend Anne-Elise’s Yorkshire terrier.

 

“Hey there, little one,” he addressed the animal. “Can I have the ball?”

 

And so, the game continued, and with each round, the bat-dog-thing drew Reginald further into the workroom until, finally –

 

“It’s about time you joined us, m’boy!” The Commodore’s booming voice preceded the big man’s appearance. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

 

And that’s when Reginald realized. All the creatures from his uncle’s books were REAL. All were in cages or on perches around the room – the white leopard-owl had a raised bed right near the old man’s desk.

 

“But… this… how?”

 

The Commodore laughed. “I had a feeling it was Tiberius here who would find you. Every boy needs a dog. And every man needs someone to follow in his footsteps, as it were. I’m drawing the new Ronald book’s first frame… care to watch?”

 

Reginald’s eyes were wide as saucers, but his voice had gone missing. He could only offer an enthusiastic nod.

 

“Catbird got your tongue?” The old man’s tone was full of amused affection. “No worries, lad. Take a seat over there. Tiberius likes his ears scratched, and his shoulders at the wing-roots, too.”

 

He knew a command when he heard one. Reginald went to the indicated chair and sat in it, and the bat-dog, Tiberius, landed on his lap. Dropping the ball, the furry creature darted out a rough tongue and licked the boy’s hand, then looked up at him expectantly.

 

Reginald understood that sort of command, also, and immediately began giving the animal the attention it was demanding.

 

Many more rainy days were spent in the workroom, often with Tiberius resting atop Reginald’s shoulders while the boy watched his uncle draw and write. He didn’t mind, except when the animal put its paws across the boy’s mouth. The tiny claws made his skin itchy.

 

On sunny days, the endless games of catch continued, in the house, in the gardens, and even outside the gates in the rolling hills. Their bond had been forged and was unbreakable.

 

Aunt Felicity worried and fussed over her nephew, but the Commodore brushed aside his wife’s concerns.

 

“He’s just a boy playing with his dog, my dear.”

 

“Yes, my love,” Felicity responded as the two gazed upon their sleeping nephew and the ball of wings and fur nestled at his side. “But the dog has wings.”

 

“That’s true, my love,” the Commodore said, guiding his wife from the room. “Then again, so do you.”

Just As It Should Be

284 - Doggie via Flash-Prompt

“Doggie!” My daughter cried as we entered the final wing of the pound. It was noisy, full of the sounds of clicking, whirring, and the occasional grinding of gears as the various cyberpets tried everything to get our attention.

 

“Actually, that one was originally a monkey / raptor hybrid.” The attendant seemed a little bit embarrassed. “He’s always been responsive, never harmed a staff member or another ‘pet, but…”

 

“But what?” I asked, as my daughter knelt in front of the creature’s cage. “Keep your hand flat,” I reminded her. “No poking fingers.”

 

“I know,” she said, with all the impatience a four-year-old could muster.

 

“You’d probably be better off with one of the actual dogs from alpha wing,” the attendant suggested.

 

But something about this poor creature, primate head, exposed skull, cybernetic attachments as well as prosthetic limbs, reptilian (well, almost avian) claws and a furry, wagging tail, pulled at the heart strings. Made you feel sorry for it.

 

“The truth, please?” I asked softly. “Why is he still here. Hybrids have been forbidden since – “

 

“That’s part of it. He’s licensed. You don’t have to worry about that, but his skull reads ‘human’ to some. It’s why primate hybrids were the first to be banned.”

 

“I remember,” I said. After the alien attack, life on earth had changed. Not just our way of living, but life itself. Something about nanites in the water and soil recoding our DNA.

 

Animals, humans, all had begun being born with cybernetic parts. It had taken a decade to restore the original gene sequences. Meanwhile, adoption agencies were full of these Adapted children, some of whom would never find loving homes.

 

And the animal shelters were just as bad. It used to be that big black dogs were the ones to languish. Now it was the cyberpets.

 

But the hybrids… those were the most pitiful of all. They were the results of lab tests gone wrong, and most were put out of their misery on sight. Too bad, really. They were good pets, even if they were disturbing to look at.

 

“He was originally a service ‘pet for a politician’s little girl, if that helps,” the attendant said. “She went to college and couldn’t take him, and he missed her so much… he would climb up on the roof and gargoyle for days. Rain, snow, heat. It was really sad. Rehoming him was the humane choice.”

 

“Those claws though…”

 

“We’ve had him in the staff lounge lots of times. He’s never harmed the furniture.”

 

“Katie? Wouldn’t you rather have the retriever we saw earlier?” I was pretty certain my daughter had already chosen, but I had to ask.

 

My daughter shook her head, her hair swinging to reveal the cybernetic reinforcements in her neck. They reinforced her whole spine, but you couldn’t tell when she was wearing clothes. “Doggie,” she said firmly.

 

I sighed. “I guess we’ll take him. Does he have a name?”

 

“Pierre,” the attendant said. “Previous owner was certain all monkeys were French. Even hybrids. I’ll fetch a leash, and she can bond with him while we do the paperwork.

 

“No need,” I said.

 

The attendant released Pierre from his cage and the creature went right to my daughter’s left side. She extended her hand, hovering it over the ‘pet’s back, and a cable snaked out of her palm, connecting to Pierre’s linkport.

 

I smiled looking at the two of them. Just a little girl and her monkey/raptor/thing.

 

Just as it should be.