Diane Remained

Diane’s bitter coffee had long gone flat and cold, and the sun had only minutes ago lazily pierced the gray morning sky with middling beams of tarnished bronze. She was shadowless in the gloomy diffusion of early day, and the cold seeped from the metal frame of her chair and through the cushion. Winter had come and gone, but Diane remained.

Along the tops of silent buildings birds danced in flying ribbons and traced swirling eddies through the sky with their course. Diane watched them with mute detachment for some time, waiting. As the sun unfurled its fingers through the shroud of morning overcast, a distant black slash of shadow seemed to be quickly drawing nearer to Diane and the flock of songbirds. It drew closer, and Diane focused on its shape against the canvas of grey clouds.

A sparrowhawk.

She watched from her seat as the sparrowhawk glided towards the flock of swirling songbirds. They were at first unaware of the approaching harrier, and Diane thought for a moment the hawk would have no trouble seizing its prey. However, a silent cry must have gone up in the flock, because all at once the entire mob took a startling evasive action – the speckled cloud that made up the body of the songbird flock suddenly dipped and swirled away from the sparrowhawk. Seeing that stealth was no longer an option the sparrowhawk dove with raptorial grace and plunged through the scrambling ranks. There was chaos, and even at the great distance Diane was from the conflict she could hear the panicked songs of prey and a single sharp screech from the raptor.

From disheveled black mass the raptor burst forth and though far away Diane believed she could see the captured prey – heart beating, throat bursting – in the talons of the sparrowhawk as it flew to its perch on some unknown face.

The sun struggled to best the clouds as Diane rose from her chair and grabbed the long wrapped bundle she carried with her from its resting place in the frame of the coffee shop’s door. No one remarked on it, and no one commanded her to have a good day. She slung her bundle over her shoulder, gulped the last of her long stale coffee down and set off. It was time for her to go to work.

Diane trudged through the empty morning streets of downtown Flagstaff. The snow had melted just a few weeks ago, and the streets were only beginning to blossom with new green. The buds of her own garden had sprung new last week, and the sight of those vegetables beginning their early life on her exposed deck had filled Diane with joy. She had known that it would not be easy to go it alone, but she had not anticipated the satisfaction of a new crop.

Passing by the empty shop fronts and silent apartments of downtown, Diane felt her forehead tighten with anger as she reflected on her garden. She had come out of her shelter just three days after her garden had sprouted to find it massacred, every bit of green shorn to the soil line. Some of the vegetables might survive, and maybe she would too, but Diane was filled with boiling anger at the murder of her hard work. She had looked around for the perpetrator, and saw him bounding away in the distance – a whitetail buck with crooked antlers vanishing towards the steel and glass forest of the dead and silent city.

Since the day she woke up alone, Diane had avoided the city. That first day, she drove down the hill and into town and screamed and shouted for anyone to come out and say anything. Within an hour she had started sobbing when she found all the televisions were clouds of static. Unable to find a signal or Wi-Fi connection for her phone, she had already come to terms with the new world by noon of the first day. Everyone was gone, but Diane remained.

That was a year ago. Today, she was propelled by a mix of hunger and vengeance. She had not hunted since she was a teenager, those autumns spent with her father hidden in deer blinds and stinking of chemical deer piss. At the time, she had enjoyed spending the time with her father but hated the time spent hunting. Now, she wished she could have both again. Diane shrugged the bundle on her shoulder to distribute its weight and put the thought of her family out of her mind. She had a deer to hunt.

Turning the corner on Aspen, Diane sucked cool spring air through her dry lips as she came upon what remained of the Hotel Monte Vista. The winter had not been kind to the century-old building, and a stiff wind or heavy snow had yanked the neon marquee down from its perch atop the hotel’s roof. It now reposed in shattered illegibility, the only surviving script declaring “HOT MON STA” in mangled pagebreak. Every brick building in historic downtown Flagstaff had developed a cast of wear, but the Hotel Monte Vista slumped with a special degeneracy. The front doors, perhaps left open the day Diane found herself alone, remained open as she surmised they must have all winter. A wet smell like autumn leaves after a rain issued from the building’s mouth. Diane stepped towards the doors but suddenly froze at the sight of a collection of deer droppings on the naked sidewalk. She almost laughed aloud at that – the once bustling downtown now replete with uncurbed bucks – but caught herself. The deer was nearby, and the goosepimples crawled down her arms as she unslung her bundle.

Carefully and quietly, she unwrapped her recurve bow and her quiver of arrows. The bow was not the best or most professional kind for deer hunting, but she had it stored in the attic the day her garden was robbed. She could have wandered around town looking for a sports store, but she didn’t want to waste anymore time. After all, she allowed herself the small luxury of breaking into the ghostly coffee shop and boiling their old dry grounds over a fire in the shop’s fireplace. She’d wasted enough time. Diane affixed the quiver on her back and gripped the bow, stepping lightly into the hotel’s lobby.

The lobby was a wreck of weather damage, and it smelled as though the winter’s snow had blown in and melted across the hotel’s delicate patterned rugs and sleek black counter tops. There was pervasive fungality that seemed to permeate the hardwood floors. Diane stepped softly, her hiking boots placed one after the other across the creaking boards. In the corner of the lobby sat a baby grand piano, and for a moment Diane mused that she could theoretically drag it all the way back up the hill on its wheels. She was strong, that she knew, but she quickly dismissed the idea as preposterous – dragging something that heavy all the way home was certainly beyond her strength.

From somewhere beyond the blood-red hallway that lead to the cocktail lounge, something made a noise. Diane tensed and notched an arrow. There was little light that pierced down into the lower level that lead to the bar, and while she knew that deer were adaptable ruminants she found it hard to believe this one had taken to living in the cocktail lounge. Another sound, this one like the dropping of a bottle, caught her attention and dispelled her doubt. Diane crouched and edged closer, keeping the arrow notched in her bow.

As she entered through the open doors leading into the cocktail lounge, she was surprised to see that it was better lit that the hallway leading to it suggested. The long row of full-length windows along the street-side wall threw a silvery bar of light down across the empty bar. Other than the stink of animal and spilled liquor, the lounge seemed the same as Diane imagined it did before everyone disappeared. She scanned the small lounge with held breath, looking for the source of the noise.

Slowly, a pair of antlers rose from behind the bar and the bucks head and neck came into profile. The stag’s body was hidden behind the bar, and Diane was caught off-guard by it’s small size; She remembered it being larger, but there was no mistaking the creature as the robber of her garden.

The buck suddenly stiffened, sniffing the air and tightening the muscles in its neck. Diane quickly drew her bow back, but it was too late. The buck, alerted to her presence, panicked and whirled away in one spectacular motion . It leaped over the bar in a clumsy arc that left it momentarily sprawled across the floor, its legs kicking stools and a small table over.

Diane loosed an arrow, but it was deflected by a falling table and ricocheted off into the liquor bottles that lined the wall behind the bar. She muttered a curse and drew another arrow just as the buck staggered to its feet. With shocking speed it bounded away from Diane. An instant later, it burst through the glass window wall that faced the street with a terrible crash and call. The buck bellowed and turned broadside to Diane as it fled down the street. Diane loosed her second arrow amidst the chaos of breaking glass and it found purchase, the aluminum shaft passing through the deer’s chest and penetrating where Diane knew the lungs were.

The buck kicked its hind legs and continued to bolt, veering off into the distance with the arrow piercing it in a manner Diane found surreal for a moment. The deer flashed the white flag of its tail as it bounded some one hundred yards down the street before collapsing.

As Diane walked slowly up as the deer gasped its last through pierced lungs. She watched with detachment as the buck passed on. The fire of her anger was fading as the life cooled in the deer’s eyes, and she felt a pang of regret. She had come down out of the mountain for blood, but the deer had just been looking for food. The buck wheezed and made a wet sound.

When the deer was finally gone, Diane went to where she had set her bag down and brought it to the buck’s final resting place. Diane decided to begin the messy business of field dressing the buck, and drew a knife and rope from her bag. She spilled the deer’s entrails right on the sidewalk where it lay and its blood pooled in the gutter and disappeared down a storm drain. When she finished with the grisly work, she tied the rope around the buck’s antlers, jaw, and forelegs to pull it by and began to drag it back home.

As she pulled the lifeless carcass towards the mountain, she passed the front of the hotel. From the street, she could see the small piano in the lobby she had noticed earlier. Choking up on the rope that lugged the heavy weight of the deer’s body, Diane laughed to herself – she’d be back for the piano after all. Alone, Diane pulled the buck down the empty streets of Flagstaff towards her home up in the hills, where she would butcher the deer and plant her garden and survive another year. Though everyone else might be gone, Diane remained – and she planned to keep it that way.

In The Wake of Revolution

“All hail king sparrow” quake the eagles who must now cleave to their nests, a people dethroned by the new monarch of the Seed. Vassaled into subservience by the small beaked army, the raptors cling to their aeries in docile clouds and broken-spirited flocks. They whisper to their eaglets of the time the wicked sparrow came and with great numbers swarmed the rocky precipices that once enshrined the noble parapets of order and truth. Justice, they say, and the right of the high-borne predator were both overwhelmed in the mutterings of ten thousand soft sparrow warsongs.

Now the once mighty linger at the edge of the avian kingdom and wonder when the revolution’s tide will shift. When will the great horde take flight and depose the false deity of the small-winged and small beaked?

“Never,” cry the sparrows in terrible union in their parliaments secreted in the groves — never again the tyranny of the mighty over the will of the many.

“Each sparrow a flock unto themselves, a free bird, never to be caged by man or beast or swift-taloned harrier again.” This doctrine unwavering, this song forever lusty and spoken from fluted breast and golden beak unto eternity and beyond.

Below, the pigeons watched the shift in the winds with the mute disinterest they always possessed. It mattered not who claimed the mighty mountains or sacred groves, for the urbane pigeons knew that where men coalesced was where true power lay. There, fat and happy, the pigeons watched the teeming mass of the sparrow insurgency with a mix of disdain and disinterest.

“Let them take the ashen seeds and vertigo places of the world,” they cooed. “The bread is forever ours.”

Let this as a lesson stand to us all- better to be the dove that clings to the rock than the eagle or sparrow at war.

“Expatriate!” the murmur goes out to all our brothers in grey. “Take to the land of cats and cars and trash and boots and live as pauper kings free of the turmoil known to those who fly in the harsh softness of the unforgiving clouds. Stand with us on asphalt and concrete as secret gods and mad saints with scraps in our mouths and all the world of glass and steel as our nest!”

Baba Yaga

“BABA YAGA”

CAST:

NARRATOR

FATHER / SKULL

STEPMOTHER / BABA YAGA

CAT

GATES

HUT (X2 Multiple people?)

[In darkness, enter NATASHA, seated on floor. Lights Up.]

NARRATOR

Once upon a time there lived a girl named Natasha. She was the daughter of a widower, and though they were lonely, they were happy together, playing in the endless forest that surrounded their little hut. Such is the way of fairy tales: it always seems as though nothing will ever change and that everything is eternal, until something does, in fact, change. Natasha and her Father never wanted for anything, until one day, her father came to her with strange news. So such stories always go.

[Enter FATHER.]

FATHER:
Natasha, we need to talk, my dear.

NATASHA:
Yes father?

FATHER:
Well, it has been a long time since mother died, and we both miss her very much, but there are… some things…that only a mother can do. So, I have decided to remarry.

NATASHA:
You mean I’ll have a new mommy?

FATHER:
(Nervous Laugh) Yes, a new mommy. I met her in the forest while collecting firewood, and she comes here today to be my wife. I know it seems sudden, but it is not unusual in stories such as these.

Enter STEPMOTHER.

NATASHA:
Hello, Stepmother–

STEPMOTHER:
(interrupting) Little children are to be seen, not heard. Now, Natasha, my dearest…I need a needle and a thread to mend your father’s shirt. Go fetch me them.


FATHER:
Do as she says.

[Natasha exits backstage.]

STEPMOTHER

My dear, handsome, strong, brave husband- would life not be better if we were free of your little one? Then you and I could be alone, where I could sink my teeth into you.

FATHER

I love Natasha, my dear. Please don’t make me choose between the two of you.

STEPMOTHER

You think I mean to make you choose? How insulting- I need to be alone. Now, Go!

FATHER EXITS

STEPMOTHER

One might wonder what a man could see in a verbally abusive woman he found wandering in the woods one day, but this is the way such stories always go.

NATASHA ENTERS


NATASHA:
We have no needle and thread.

STEPMOTHER:

(interrupting) Seen, not heard, Natasha! (sizes up Natasha, pinches her cheek) Well then…Could you go to my sister Baba Yaga’s house and get it a needle and some thread for me?

NATASHA:
Baba Yaga? Baba Yaga, the witch who flies through the night in a mortar and pestle? Baba Yaga, who lives beyond a gate of skulls in a hut with chicken legs? Baba Yaga, who has iron teeth and eats children? Your sister is Baba Yaga?

STEPMOTHER:
Hold your tongue, you little savage. My sister is sweet, beautiful, and kind. I’ll hear no more ill talk of her. Take these little scraps of food and go!


[STEPMOTHER hands NATASHA a handkerchief with food in it. NATASHA takes it, and turns. STEPMOTHER exits. LIGHTS DIM.]

[NATASHA looks into the BINDLE]

NATASHA:

A lump of greasy bread, a hard acorn, and a salted fish? A trio of items, that, at first glance, will have no use to the protagonist in such a story.


[NATASHA moves to STAGE RIGHT. ENTER GATES, SKULL. HUT enters CENTER STAGE, BABA YAGA is obscured by HUT.]

NATASHA:
Hello, is this the gate of Baba Yaga?

GATES:
(Groans) These are the gates of Baba Yaga.

NATASHA:
I’m Natasha, I came to get a needle and thread for my stepmother.

GATES:

(Groans)

NATASHA:

Is something the matter?

GATES:

(Groans) I haven’t been oiled in so long, my joints are aching. I have been neglected by my master, and in need of the kindness only children know in stories such as these.

NATASHA:

You poor thing. I have this greasy bread, let me see what I can do.

[NATASHA rubs grease into the joints of the GATE]

GATES:

I shall remember your kindness, and perhaps you will be rewarded for your selflessness later on. Such it always is, in stories such as these.

[The GATES swing open, and the SKULL steps forward. His eyes are closed.]


SKULL:

Halt! Who goes there? (pause) No, seriously, who goes there? I can’t see a goddamn thing. No eyeballs, amiright?

NATASHA:

I-

SKULL:

Why Baba Yaga wants to hang a skull on her door and use it like some kind of doorman is beyond me, but hey, what do I know? I’m a blind, brainless, reanimated piece of a rotten human corpse, amiright?

NATASHA:

Well, I-

SKULL:

I mean, Witches, amiright? Can’t be happy with a simple door knocker, Nooooo, need to go and dig up a corpse, rip its skull out, boil it in some mystic bullshit and then hang it up as a grisly totem to ward off visitors. Who taught this bitch to decorate, Vlad the Impaler? Not that I’d be any better, not having eyes and all, Amiright?

NATASHA:

Well, I might be able to help with that- will this acorn make a serviceable eye?

[NATASHA stuff the acorn into SKULLS eye. SKULL opens one eye, looks around with it]

SKULL:

Hot DAMN! It’s good to see again. You’re all right, kid, and a little heartbreaker, too. I’ll remember this. You want in? Just tell the stupid chicken-hut to sit its mythological ass down and it’ll do it, but make sure it’s in the form of a rhyming couplet. Huts love that shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to stare out into the forest and count squirrels. Uh…as it always is in stories such as these, or something.

[SKULL moves over to GATE’s position and waits. When NATASHA approaches the HUT, it moves and trembles, and its legs dance around.]

NATASHA:

Hut Of Brown! Now Sit Down!


[The HUT stops moving, kneels, and BABA YAGA steps out, followed by CAT. BABA YAGA is slowly balling up an impossible tangle of yarn. CAT is doing CAT things.]

BABA-YAGA:
Well, well, a visitor. What can your sweet harmless auntie Baba Yaga do for you?

NATASHA:
Auntie, I just came for a needle and thread. My stepmother needs to mend my father’s shirt.

BABA-YAGA:
Why, of course my dear. Why don’t you take over undoing this knot of yarn for me and I’ll fetch it for you right away.

NATASHA:
Yes, Auntie. What a tangle- this could take forever. But, in stories such as these, children are always subordinate to adults, regardless of their obviously wicked intentions. So, I unwind.

[BABA-YAGA walks to the side of the stage, where she meets the SKULL, whose eye is open.]

SKULL:

Oh my god, you’re fucking hideous. (closes eye)

BABA-YAGA:
Loyal servant, I’m going to boil some water to cook this child in. If this girl tries to escape, I want you to bite her sweet little head off.

SKULL:
Wow, that’s graphic.

[BABA YAGA exits backstage]

SKULL:

Yo, I think that bitch it going to eat you. As it always is in stories, etcetera.

CAT:
I haven’t had a bite of food in weeks, yet Baba-Yaga is going to eat a whole little girl? Why do evil creatures always mistreat their subordinates in stories such as these? It seems like a bad way to maintain employer/employee relationships. Me-Ow.

NATASHA

You poor thing. I have a little salted fish, take it for yourself.

CAT

Me-ow. That’s the stuff.

BABA-YAGA (offstage)
You’re still undoing that yarn, aren’t you?

NATASHA

Yes ma’am!

CAT

You know what? I think Skull is right- Baba Yaga has a track record of eating everyone who comes in here. She even disguised herself as a beautiful woman and married some dumb woodsman, gloating about she was going to lure his kid away, eat her, and then eat her husband. Me-Ow.


BABA-YAGA:
Are you still undoing that yarn?

NATASHA:
Yes ma’am.

CAT

Look, honey, you should run. Just gimme that yarn before you do. Cat’s do love yarn-

NATASHA

In stories such as these?

CAT

Don’t be so precocious,

[NATASHA gives CAT the Yarn. CAT promptly starts playing with it and spreading it about, making joyful cat noises]

SKULL

We got your back, homegirl.

NATASHA

Thank you all so much!

NATASHA flees offstage, running through GATES, who let her pass with a sigh. NATASHA stands just beyond the GATES.

BABA YAGA

Still rolling up that yarn for your Auntie Baba Yaga?

CAT

Yes meow.

[Enter BABA-YAGA.]

BABA-YAGA:
YOU!

[The CAT throws the Yarn over Baba Yaga, gives her the finger, and flees off stage making cat noises]

BABA-YAGA (struggling with Yarn)
Traitorous vermin!
( stumbles towards the SKULL)

SKULL

The things I do for love. And free eyeballs. (bites BABA YAGA, who howls in rage)

BABA YAGA

I’m going to gnaw the flesh from your bones, you little brat, and then boil your father into a stew!

[BABA YAGA stumbles towards NATASHA and the GATES, who promptly swing shut and knock her back towards the HUT, which is standing.]

NATASHA
Hut of Brown! Now Sit Down!

[The HUT crushes BABA YAGA. NATASHA flees.]

NARRATOR

As you probably guessed, Natasha ran right home to her Father and explained that his wife had been Baba Yaga in disguise, as the cat had told her. When her Father heard this, he wept and embraced his daughter, and they lived together in peace, playing games in the woods and Natasha never grew older, nor was he Father lonely, and they never knew hunger or sorrow again, till the end of all time. No lesson was learned, no moral was taught, as it is and always should be, in stories such as these.

(LIGHTS OUT)

Tsukumogomi

The small hamlet of Ogama was nestled in a deep green wood at the base of Takatsume mountain. Those woods, long said to be home to mischievous spirits that changed their shape, was where Nakamura Isamu collected the wood for his shop, as had his father’s grandfather before him. In that storied shop, Isamu sat at his desk, writing in his ledger.

As he wrote, the light from his oil lamp flickered and something rustled nearby. Isamu pushed his thin glasses up his nose and glanced up at the shelf on the wall, which held a few tools, the oil lamp, and several keepsakes crafted by his late grandfather. A delicately parqueted puzzle box, about twenty centimeters square, was one of those keepsakes. As Isamu tracked his eyes along the shelf, the little puzzle box seemed to tremble in the light of the lamp’s twisting flame.

Suddenly, it jumped slightly to the left as though something inside moved. Isamu blinked slowly, and the box jumped again. Not a great leap or mighty skip, but a gentle little hop, like a bead of water on the surface of a hot pan. As Isamu rose from his seat, the box leapt again, and when Isamu snatched the box from the shelf it was vibrating and shaking fiercely. Without warning, a small section of the puzzle box along one side pushed itself out and hung awkwardly along the box’s side, and then another from the opposite side. Two small sections flipped out of the bottom and hung stiffly in place.

Isamu set the box down on his desk and stepped back speechlessly as another small section rotated out of position on the box’s front to reveal what appeared to be a single round and beady eye. The box sat up and howled in a tiny voice.

“Shigeru-san!”

Isamu blinked again, and addressed the delicate animate box. “No, I’m afraid you are mistaken. Shigeru was my great-grandfather’s name. I am Isamu.”

“Today is my birthday!” The box thrust one little appendage accusingly at Isamu. “One hundred years old, this very day!” It turned around and bent over to expose the maker’s mark on its dusty posterior. It was the familiar mark of Isamu’s great-grandfather and a date: 1865. Isamu knew what was happening immediately. The box was a tsukumogami, an inanimate object given life by the spirits on the centennial anniversary of its creation. Isamu removed a small handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped the dust from the box’s backside. It jumped forward with a start and turned to face him. The panel above its eye lowered in suspicion.

“Excuse me, I meant no disrespect. Happy birthday and many happy returns.”

“No, no, not happy at all, no.” The box walked to the edge of the table shook its entire body back and forth, wailing.

“What troubles you?”

The box walked across the desk to where several tools lay and kicked an awl dourly.

“Unsolved, unsolved. One-hundred-years-unsolved. Only Shigeru-san ever opened me, and what he placed inside, I do not know.”

“I could try, if you’d allow me,” Isamu said, pocketing the handkerchief once more. The box clapped its arms together joyfully, then gesticulated threateningly once more.

“Excellent! If you fail, however, be warned I will join the kitsune and tanuki of the woods to wreak mischief on travelers. My wrath will pour from the heavens!” the box shouted in a miniscule rage.

“Of course. That’s only fair.”

Isamu picked the box up and pushed and prodded at its many surfaces looking for some secret key or latch to open it up. With each poke, the box giggled and squirmed and glared menacingly at Isamu. Into the evening, Isamu twisted and turned the box, sliding hidden panels to reveal nothing, unlocking and twisting the many facets of the parqueted surface to reveal nothing once more. The lamp oil burned low and the moon rose through the open window to cast its blue-white light down on the tsukumogami’s tiny body, now polished and shining from Isamu’s worrying hands. After many hours with no success, Isamu placed the box upon the desk once more.

“No luck?” it squeaked.

Isamu shook his head mournfully. He could not help but respect the masterful work of his ancestor, even while it was currently pondering an incredibly sharp chisel on his desk with an air of goblinesque menace.

“I’m afraid I cannot solve you, little puzzlebox. My apologies.”

The box shuddered, and pointed at him furiously.

“Then I go to join the bakemono of the woods. But first,” it leapt across the desk and grabbed the sharp chisel between its clumsy arms. “I will kill you!”

The box lunged at Isamu, who dodged to the left in surprise. He kept his tools sharp enough to slice a hair, and even in the hands of such a diminutive opponent could be direly injured by them. The box let loose a shrill war-cry and lunged again. In a panic, Isamu grabbed the first thing he could on the desk and struck out at his minikin assailant.

Much to his dismay, Isamu had grabbed a hammer. The box cried out, stumbled backwards, and dropped the razor-sharp chisel. Isamu’s blow had opened a wide crack along the box’s top, and it collapsed in a heap. its rage-filled eye blinked once, and then went cold.

Isamu gently picked up its broken form and pulled apart the shattered remains of the box to see what it had held. As he pried it apart, he let out a long sigh. A slightly smaller puzzle box with his ancestor’s mark, inanimate still, sat mockingly in his hand with a date inscribed on the bottom: that very evening’s date, one year hence.

Isamu set the new box on the shelf and sat at his desk to ponder the little broken box before him and his great-grandfather’s strange sense of humor.