Among the Witches

A gentle wind has pulled the clouds apart like a gray curtain to reveal the peaks of the Caucasus mountains, and I am pleased because it means that we will fly tonight.

It is the evening of October 24th, 1942, a Saturday, and I am resting in the open cockpit of my flimsy plywood and canvas biplane waiting for the night. My breath causes little cloudbursts to flow from my lips, and I know from previous flights that my and my navigator Vasilisa’s feet will freeze in our boots once we take flight.

All around me, the engineers of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment rush about outside the barn that tonight serves as our hangar, laying down planks of wood in the mud that will be our runway for the night. I do not envy their labor, but I am grateful for each of their efforts. Each woman of the regiment has a role to play, and I am proud of mine. Just six months ago I could not have foreseen that I would find joy in the idea of flying into the dark night sky to drop bombs on the heads of Germans, but tonight the idea makes my heart race.

Commander Bershanskaya, our regiment’s second in command, wrapped the briefing for tonight’s mission just an hour ago. She stood before us and explained that our target was the occupied city of Armavir. Vasilisa looked back at me as though to ask whether I had ever heard of it, and I shrugged. Flying with the 588th I dropped bombs over many Soviet cities and towns occupied by the Germans, most of which I did not know existed until the evening briefing. Tonight would be no different.

Tonight does feel different, or at least I do. I am collecting my thoughts when Vasilisa walks up and catches my attention.

“Oksana, have you heard? Word from the front is that the captured Germans are talking about us.”

I look down from the open cockpit and am unsurprised to see Vasilisa is eating straight out of a can of beans. The other girls in the regiment, myself included, eat a kind of chocolate toffee to stay alert for night missions but Vasilisa swears flat tins packed with salty fish. The beans are a recent addition to our rations – shipments from our British allies. The labels were all in English still and none of the other girls wanted to guess at the contents, but Vasilisa fears nothing.

I am for a moment grateful for the Polikarpov biplane’s open cockpit.

“Talking about us? What do you mean?”

“They call us Nachthexen, Oksana,” she says between bites.

“I don’t speak fascist, Vasilisa.”

“It means ‘Night Witches’ in German. They say they cannot shoot us down because we are sorceresses.”

I laugh at this. “Witches? Grown men say this?”

Vasilisa finishes her can of beans and throws it on the rubbish pile. The engineers have completed the wooden runway and begin to load our biplanes with bombs, two to a plane. Vasilisa climbs into the cockpit with me.

“It’s true. They say that the Red Army gives us injections that let us see at night, like cats.”

“What superstition. Why witches? Why not demons or devils or something just as preposterous?”

Vasilisa’s face lights up and I realize she has been waiting to share this with me.

“Well, you know how we shut the engines off and glide so they won’t hear us coming? The captured Germans say that right before the bombs come down, they hear the sounds of witches flying overhead on their brooms.”

“Brooms? Germans believe witches have flying brooms?” I look out over the mountains and try to imagine such a thing. Above the jagged peaks of the Caucasus, the full moon is rising and a deep black cape is trailing behind it. Bombs are clicked under our planes wings by a pair of engineers, and I look over my shoulder at Vasilisa. She shrugs.

“I know, I always thought they flew in giant mortars while grinding their pestles.”

“Don’t be so bourgeois, Vasilisa. There’s no such thing as witches.”

She makes a shocked and playfully angry face, and strikes me lightly on the shoulder. “I know that! I mean, that is what my grandmother would say. Besides, I’ve seen you playing with fortune telling cards some nights,” she points accusingly at me, “So maybe you really are a witch.”

I laugh and twist my hands into claw-like shapes. “Maybe I am.” I begin to make cackling noises and feint lunges at Vasilisa, who in turn makes mocking sounds of helplessness. We play at this only for a moment before she suddenly stops. A serious expression haunts her brow, and I stop.

“Vasilisa, what is it? Are you alright?”

She looks at me solemnly for several seconds before speaking.

“Do you remember when we first started the night bombing? How scared we were?”

I nod, for she is right – we were petrified. She hangs her head slightly, and the moonlight glints off the goggles that rest on her aviator cap. When she looks up, any trace of humor is gone from her face.

“Perhaps we are becoming too used to this, Oksana.”

The night closes in around us and the sounds of engines being turned on fills the air. It is nearly time for us to fly. Vasilisa pulls her goggles down over her eyes and readies her compass and map.

I face forward and pull my goggles down. Perhaps that is the thing I felt different in myself. Engineers are waving at us to take off and our coven of aviatrixes takes to the sky in the light of the full moon. Tonight I will descend from darkness in silence, my broom a gliding cropduster and my curses in the shapes of bombs.

Let the fascists call us witches.

I won’t argue.

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!”

Love and Dread

Deep within the bowels of the Fortress of Maleficence, the super-villain known as Dread was having a rough time finding love. She had known that “Evildoer” was a lonely career choice when she made it, but when she decided to pursue her passion for destruction she assumed that eventually she would meet her partner in both crime and love.

This had not happened.

Sitting now at one of the many tables set up by the Society for Creative Anarchy in their secret Antarctic fortress, Dread was doing her best to find some hope that she might find someone tolerable enough to go to dinner with, or at least pleasant enough to plot the conquest of the world’s nations with over drinks. This small pearl of hope was swiftly disintegrating as her speed date with the hirsute fellow whose name-tag read “Smashsquatch” was reaching the end of its excruciating fifth minute.

So, what do you think of Bigfoot, then?” Dread asked, swirling her glass of absinthe and watching her green reflection dance circles in the tumbler.

Graaar.” Smashsquatch gave a non-committal groan and shrugged. Dread sighed and looked across the stark gray laboratory that was currently serving as the base of operations for the Society’s dating event. Brushed steel tables were scattered about the hall, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights and the occasional pulse of Tesla coils. Pulling one matted rope of black hair out of her face, she watched the doomsday clock tick away the final seconds. Smashsquatch was vainly attempting to communicate with hand gestures and guttural noises when the air raid siren sounded three times to indicate this particular date was over. Dread looked over at Smashsquatch with cold indifference as he stood, grunted something friendly, and moved to the next table. She ticked the “Not Interested” box on her chart and gazed aimlessly around.

That was when she saw him. Two tables down and moving through the room with languid grace was the purple-caped man of her diabolical dreams. Narrow eyed with impossible cheekbones and blonde hair, he sat just one speed-date away. Dread felt her heart skip. Before she could catch her breath however, her next date arrived and plopped down in the seat across from her.

Hi there.” Dread’s new date grinned from behind welding goggles and dropped a pile of junk on the table between them. She looked down at his name-tag; “The Trapper.” She sighed softly; she hated men who felt the need to add “The” to their supervillain titles.

Hello.”

So, I see your name is Dread. Is that because of your dreadlocks? Can you, like, animate them Medusa-style and choke your enemies to death?” The Trapper fidgeted with a mousetrap, opening and closing it nervously.

No, I can’t animate my hair.”

Oh. I’m into traps. Booby traps, snares, punji pits – you name it, I can build it.” The Trapper snapped the mousetrap shut, narrowly missing his own finger. “Ambushes, when the mood strikes.”

Fascinating.” Dread sipped her absinthe. The clock ticked away, and The Trapper began to rattle off a catalogue of devices that interested him. He quickly faded into the background and Dread found herself watching the mysterious stranger in purple who was eliciting easy laughter from Madam Catastrophe just a table away. Dread, who had chosen her name based on her own constant sense of unease, felt something stir in her sinister heart. The Trapper was enthusiastically explaining the trigger mechanisms of beartraps when the air raid siren sounded thrice to indicate the end of the date. Dread blinked with surprise at how quickly the time had passed.

Great talking to you, Dread. I think we have a lot in common.” The Trapper grinned like a crocodile and shuffled to his next date, dragging his dangerous luggage behind him. Dread swiftly checked the “Not Interested” box and anxiously looked up. Excruciating seconds passed before her next date reached her table. She smoothed her dreadlocks back as he sat before her.

Hello there.” He smiled and his crystal blue eyes gazed deeply at her. Dread felt the lingering sense of disquiet lift from her shoulders and she smiled for the first time since she successfully infected her nemesis Captain Action with ebola. She looked down at her date’s name-tag, which read “Lothar.”

Hi. I’m Dread.”

Dread? What a beautiful name. Surely because of the feeling you inspire in your enemies?”

Dread laughed uneasily and nodded. She was having trouble speaking and blood seemed to be rushing to her cheeks.

Uh, yes, that’s it.”

Well, judging from the way I am currently feeling,” Lothar smiled brightly and leaned in slightly. “I must not be one of your enemies. Lucky me.” One flawless golden curl fell delicately across his brow and Dread felt practically faint. She couldn’t wait to tic the box marked “Interested” on her date card.

So, Lothar is an interesting name. Are you an alien or evil magician or something?” Dread rested her elbows on the table and gave him her full attention as the Tesla coils crackled romantically throughout the lab. Lothar placed one of his hands close to Dread’s.

Yes, something like that.”

They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, and Dread found herself awash in chemicals she normally used exclusively for mind-control serums. She was falling in love.

So, do you have a superpower, Lothar?”

I do.”

I’d love to see it,” Dread whispered softly.

It’d be my pleasure, gorgeous.” Lothar gently lifted his pencil up to eye level for Dread to see.

You see, Dread, my power,” He placed the black tip of his pencil gently down on his date card between them, “is heartbreak.”

Lothar checked the “Not Interested” box just as the air raid sirens sounded thrice, and a moment later was gone.

The Treasure of the Arama Maru

It took a tremendous effort to get Ms. Amy Bierce to leave her beloved seaplane, The Osprey, unattended on the turquoise waters of Lake Titicaca. Her argument for staying with the plane was that someone might steal or damage it, which Howard had assured her was not only unlikely but somewhat preposterous.

“The people of Puna are not savages, Ms. Bierce. They’ve had a railway some six decades now – since 1870, if I’m not mistaken. Furthermore, should someone decide to steal your seaplane, I sincerely doubt that they would have the technical training to get it up in the air.”

“Her,” Amy responded, chewing her gum menacingly.

“I beg your pardon?” Howard did not look up from the map he was consulting, which depicted the 16 kilometer journey south to a location marked “Arama Maru” as a line drawn in blue pen across a field of green. He squinted against the brightness of the newly risen sun and adjusted his wool scarf. He had not expected the high plains of Peru to be so cold in the summer.

“The Osprey ain’t an ‘it,’ Professor. She’s a lady. It’d be in your best interests to call her by her rightful name if you plan on leaving South America after this little bug-hunt of yours. ” Amy slowly blew a large pink bubble with her gum and deflated it. Her cheeks were flush from the early morning chill and nearly matched hue of her brilliant red hair.

“Yes, quite – give The Osprey my sincerest apologies.” Howard pushed his glasses up his nose and looked up at the Quechua boy he’d sent to bring them pack animals, who was just now arriving with two llamas and a satisfied grin. Howard took the llamas by their leads and paid the boy in four crisp 5-sole bills.

Solpayki, Urpichay sonqoy, Howard thanked the boy as he ran off.

Amy eyed the llamas warily, and chose this moment to offer up her second argument for staying with the plane.

“I have about as much interest in riding those things as I do in slogging through the Andes to help you capture bugs,” Amy said. Her llama, shaggy and roan colored, thoughtfully chewed its cud and stared back at her. Amy swallowed her gum.

“I must again insist that you cease referring to all insects as ‘bugs,’ my dear. Based on what I’ve gathered from local legend, I believe the insects we seek are not members of the ‘true bug’ order Hemiptera at all, but are more likely to be members of the Coleoptera family,he said. “As a counterargument to your dogged determination to stay with the plane, I submit the following – I’m only contractually obligated to pay you the full week’s wages if you accompany me to the Arama Maru. You agreed to keep me safe the entire trip.”

“Fine, but call me ‘my dear’ one more time and I’ll shoot you.” Amy pushed back her bomber jacket and placed her hands on her hips, revealing the matte black Colt revolver at her side.

“Duly noted, Ms. Bierce. Now, if you’re done threatening me, it’s best we set off while the day is still young.”

Within the hour, they loaded the llamas with water and supplies for the trip. When they finally left the town of Puna, the sun was shining warmly and each distant little island on the lake seemed to glimmer like a jewel.

As they led their llamas down from the high plain where Puna was seated, the landscape quickly gave way to the lush valleys of the Andes. Howard grew quiet as he struggled with the map, and hours passed before either of them spoke.

“So,” Amy said, “what makes you think you’ll find anything at this Arma Mara place, anyway?”

“It’s the Arama Maru, Ms. Bierce. To answer your question, the local legends claim there have been what people describe as ‘balls of blue light’ creeping about the walls of Arama Maru, which my research suggests may be a bio-luminescent subterranean insect.”

“Or ghosts,” Amy said.

Howard adjusted the weight of the satchel that hung at his side. “I sincerely doubt there will be any ghosts.”

Amy shrugged and gently tugged on the lead for her llama, who was gently navigating the rocky valley floor. The incline downhill was getting steeper.

“What is this place, exactly? A temple or something?” Amy asked.

“Honestly, I have no idea. I’m an entomologist, not an archaeologist. My interest is less historical and more biological, but my research indicates the site was believed by the ancient Inca to be a ‘gateway to the gods.’ Realistically, it seems more likely that it is a subterranean storage for…” Howard caught himself, and went silent. Amy perked up considerably.

“For what?”

Howard flinched and collected himself. From what he had gathered of the lovely Ms. Bierce on the flight into Peru, her interests were less scientific and more fiscal. He surmised there was no use in hiding the possibility from her.

“Well, it is a matter of historical record that the Incas were rather fond of hiding their treasures in subterranean tunnels.”

Amy moved so quickly to Howard’s side that her llama stumbled to keep up with the pressure on its lead. Howard kept his eyes on the meager trail headed southwest as she maneuvered into his field of vision.

“Treasure? You never said anything about lost Inca treasure, Professor. Are you trying to chisel me here?”

Amy leveled her gem-green eyes directly at Howard and he stopped abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that his llama failed to stop walking and bumped into him just hard enough to thrust him forcefully into Amy. The impact caught them both off guard, and they lost their grips on the leads as well as their footing.

They tumbled awkwardly down the grassy valley floor, rolling over one another several times on the way down the hill. When they finally did come to a stop, Amy was entangled in Howard’s scarf and Howard was entangled in a mix of joy, injury, and embarrassment.

The llamas looked down on pair with stoic indifference. Gasping for breath, Howard was the first one to speak.

“Are you alright, my dear?”

In one fluid motion, Amy shot bolt upright, disengaged herself from Howard’s scarf, snapped her pistol from her waist and pressed the barrel into the tip of Howard’s nose.

“I told you to stop calling me ‘dear,’ didn’t I?” she growled.

Howard’s eyes widened considerably and he threw his hands up. They locked in this position for several seconds, until Howard wordlessly gestured with one finger past Amy and made a small, helpless noise. Amy hesitantly looked over her shoulder, never taking the gun off Howard.

Behind her, the face of a great stone hill rose up some twenty feet or more. The hill’s escarpment was perfectly smooth, with one exception. Cut into the center of it and surrounded by veils of flowing vines was a t-shaped alcove tall enough for a man to stand in. The late afternoon sun cast a golden sheen over the smooth red stone.

Amy gasped softly and lowered her revolver, much to Howard’s relief.

“I believe this is the place,” he said.

Howard stood and reverently approached the structure, the creeping undergrowth crunching under his careful footsteps. Amy blinked away her awe and climbed up to where the llamas stood listlessly chewing their cud and led them down to the valley floor.

As the animals walked over the mossy ground, she sensed their uneasiness. She shared their hesitancy. Howard looked back at them and motioned with an open hand to her as he stepped forward.

“Come, Ms. Bierce, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Amy stepped forward just as Howard plunged out of view, crashing through the vegetation and revealing a dark entrance below-ground. The brown llama made a shrill noise of alarm and Amy rushed over to peer into the hole.

“Howard! Are you alright?”

Just five feet below, Howard was getting back to his feet and brushing himself off. He pushed his glasses back into position and looked up at her, a wide grin spreading across his face.

“Coming, Ms. Bierce?”

Amy laughed brightly, stood and tied the llamas loosely to a nearby tree. She lowered herself down the rugged stones that lined the pit and reached Howard’s side just as he pulled flashlight from his pack. He switched it on and the beam illuminated a dusty stone hallway heading back further than the light could reach.

Amy nudged him slightly, and her voice echoed down the hallway.

“There aren’t going to be any booby traps or anything, right? I didn’t sign up to deal with any booby traps.”

Howard had already begun to walk down the hallway, and he laughed gently.

“Ms. Bierce, I do believe you have been reading far too many pulp novels. No matter how fine Inca engineering may have been, everything here has been left without custodial maintenance for several millennia. The odds that there are any traps set to ward off interlopers is miniscule as best.”

As they proceeded through the cool dark corridors of the subterranean tunnels, it seemed to Howard that the grade of the tunnel was bringing them upwards towards the surface with every step. As they walked, he pointed his flashlight at various patterns on the wall and made small sounds of affirmation. Amy kept close behind, watching him survey the tunnel walls. Shapes reminiscent of spiders or insects danced in the narrow spear cast by Howard’s flashlight.

Howard stopped abruptly when the beam revealed a tight grouping of several distinct holes in the wall. He nodded sagely.

“See this? Surely you assume these to be a primitive crossbow trap or other such rubbish, but it is far more likely that these were cut to allow fresh air to flow into the lower levels of the shrine.” Howard stepped forward as he spoke, and laughed. “Traps, indeed.”

As he placed one foot in front of him, something clicked. From somewhere above and nearby, an unknown mechanism stirred for the first time in centuries.

“Oh, my.”

A great stone tablet wrenched free of the ceiling and crashed down several feet to Howard’s left. Guttural groaning noises issued from the bowels of the structure. Howard looked at the man-sized slab of stone in shock.

“Howard!” Amy tackled him with enough force to throw him to the ground just as another slab of stone fell from the roof. The pair staggered to their feet as the ceiling of the tunnel began to collapse behind them.

“Run, Amy!”

As they sprinted down the tunnel, the walls and ceiling seemed to unravel. Huge slabs of stone crashed down, throwing clouds of dust in spirals that were momentarily illuminated by the bobbing circle cast by Howard’s flashlight.

“You said no traps!” Amy shouted as she dodged a falling tile that cracked the stone floor as it crashed down. As they fled down the hallway, a familiar series of holes in the walls issued a spasm of darts. Howard twisted awkwardly to avoid them.

“I seemed to be mistaken, Ms. Bierce!” The tunnel swerved left and then right, and the crashing of stones gradually came to a stop. Howard and Amy came to a stop, winded.

The tunnel behind them was sealed with debris, and the flashlight barely illuminated the way before them through the cloud of settling dust. Howard turned to face Amy.

“Are you alight, Ms. Bierce?”

“We could have died, you putz!” Amy shouted between gulps air.

“Yes, that’s true. My apologies,” Howard said between spasmodic coughs. Amy gasped, and pointed past him.

“Howard, look.”

About twenty feet beyond a curtain of slowly settling dust, the tunnel opened up into a wide chamber. At the light’s edge, an azure blue haze dimly illuminated the room with a dream-like quality. As Howard slowly advanced into the chamber, he pulled his insect collection kit from his satchel and stepped forward.

Crawling across the stone walls of the open chamber were countless orbs of phosphorescent light. Each one shuddered and skittered as Howard moved slowly forward. Amy stepped into the chamber behind him, and caught her breath.

Only a single column of silvery sunlight penetrated the room through a hole in the ceiling, and when Howard flicked off his flashlight, the walls pulsed with a dim glow. He slowly unscrewed the cap of an insect collection jar and approached a lone orb of light. It moved a few inches across the wall as he approached, but in one quick movement he swept it into the jar and clamped the perforated lid down.

Inside the jar, a blue beetle crawled aimlessly, pulsing bright blue light from two spots on the back of its carapace. With scientific precision, Howard collected three more specimens, placing each jar gently into his satchel.

Amy finally managed to whisper, “They’re beautiful.” After safely stowing the insects, Howard allowed himself a deep breath. The beetles pulsed gently as Amy approached him. “Are they worth anything?”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Bierce. Fame and recognition throughout the entire world of entomology.”

“Good, because I don’t see any gold down here.” Amy sighed dejectedly, then looked up to the low lying ceiling. “Can we get out this way?”

Amy motioned towards the manhole-sized gap in the ceiling.

Howard looked about the room, then climbed on a rectangular stone dais. He motioned for Amy’s to come closer.

“I’ll boost you up,” he said, offering his linked hands for her to stand on.

Howard boosted Amy up to the ceiling. She scrambled through the hole, then turned and offered her hands to him. He passed up his satchel first, eliciting a sigh from her. With some effort, Howard squeezed through the hole and they found themselves atop a great stony hill, looking across the valley they had passed through.

In the distance, Amy could make out the shape of two indifferent llamas. The sun was just beginning to set, casting amethyst and gold waves across the sky as the pair gently climbed downhill.

When they finally reached the llamas, the cool night of the Andean summer was creeping upon them. They set up camp, and in the flickering campfire light Howard inspected the jarred specimens.

“They’re beautiful. What are you going to call them?” Amy asked. Howard gave them a long look, then smiled at Amy.

“I was thinking Coleoptera Biercei. Or, to the layman – Bierce’s Beetle.

Amy smiled and leaned in close to Howard, her eyes glimmering like emeralds in the firelight. She pressed the cool barrel of her gun to his chin and whispered.

“Just pay me, Professor.”

Buried Bottles

Beneath the shivering white cedars and staggering red cliffs that tower over the sun-washed beaches of Lake Huron, my older brother Jack and I would often play at pirates. Shy ospreys, with their golden eyes hidden behind black masks, watched us mutely as we buried bottles in the soft sand and whispered of treasure and adventure. As adolescence encroached on our timelessness, our private myths of sailing and salt-water larceny grew fewer and farther apart. Over the years, our dreams divided like a fork in the river; flowing from a common font, but exiting to the sea at very different points. He pitched himself headlong into the studies of a sommelier, and spent years memorizing wine regions and grape varietals. I chose to become a professional diver, and lost myself in the ancient skeletons of those wounded ships that spotted the bottom of the lake we spent so many summers dreaming upon.

Jack announced his engagement to Bonnie just three days ago, the same day I set out to dive the  shattered remains of the SS Regina, a package freighter sunk nearly a century ago during the Great Lakes Storm that claimed more than a dozen ships. As I drifted eighty feet below the placid surface of the lake, flashlight and cutting torch at my side, Jack’s words echoed in my mind.

“Adventure was always your passion, Daniel, and mine was always treasure. Bonnie’s the greatest treasure I’ve ever found.”

I envied him in that moment, as I drifted past the broken shards of china and shattered bottles that littered the belly-up body of that great dead beast of a ship. Regina had been efficiently looted over the years, but I wasn’t after antique spoons or turn-of-the-century razors like most salvors: I was seeking the captain’s quarters. I had told Jack of my intention to find something no one else had ever seen, and he had shook his head and laughed a little, then squeezed my arms and looked at me somberly.

“Be safe, and come back. You’re to be the best man, after all.”

In remembering his concern, I laughed and bubbles escaped the confines of my mask to drift upwards and roll away through the confines of the ship’s hull. In a way, I resented his safe happiness, and wondered if we’d ever truly shared the same dreams on those dunes overlooking the clear blue water.

I twisted my body through sideways hallways and weaved through broken doorways. My flashlight cut a brilliant white beam that caught a hint of brittle brass hanging clumsily on an old cabin door, and I turned my head to read it. Captain Edward H. McConkey. I gasped behind my mask, and quickly checked my oxygen supply. I still had plenty of time.

I pulled with all my might against the corroded door and it tore away, suddenly heavy in the weightlessness of Lake Huron’s grasp. The white spear of light cast by my flashlight searched fervently as I kicked my legs and propelled myself into the captain’s quarters. Everything inside was askew, frozen in time and space by the dark clear water like a surreal photograph. I felt like an intruder; the rotting chairs and broken gauges stared back at me indignantly. An empty picture frame, it’s photo long-gone, clung from a rusted nail to the wall near the blank staring eye of a wall safe.

My underwater cutting torch flared to life, a rich flow of bubbles cascading upwards as its ruby arc licked the edges of the century-old safe. As the torch cut, the flashing arc reminded me of our beach bonfires in summer, of my brother’s words when dawn once intruded on our myths.

“We might never find buried treasure, Daniel, but I’ll treasure the adventures nonetheless.”

As the torch cut, I mused that Jack was somewhere above, probably describing to his bride-to-be some Old World sparkling wine as having a hint of lime-blossoms or toasted oak. The safe finally gave and I shut my torch off immediately. The door lifted away effortlessly, and I scrambled with hesitant hands to search the forgotten lock-box’s contents. Languidly resting, unbroken and undamaged in the dark cold water, was a single glass bottle.

I checked my oxygen gauge and knew it was time to go. I grabbed the bottle and swam hastily out of the captain’s cabin, gripping the bottle tight to my stomach and rising upwards through the Regina’s husk. Maybe it was the changing pressure or a hint of nitrogen narcosis, but as I drifted closer to the bright light of the water’s surface I felt giddy, lighter than weightless, and I could almost see my brother’s face in the oncoming sunlight.

When I finally breached the surface and signaled the dive boat, I pulled my mask back and inspected the bottle. What remained of the tattered label read “Champagne. Reims, France. 1907.” As the dive boat approached, a white-stomached osprey flew overhead.  It was bound for the sighing white cedars and rust-red cliffs that mutely watch the sandy beaches and dunes. That bandit-masked raptor was careening over where we’d buried countless bottles as boys, and I laughed out loud. When they pulled me from the bright waters of Lake Huron, I was almost in a fit; I was laughing like the boys who left that beach years ago on divergent adventures. I was laughing for joy and sadness of times long past. I was laughing at my brother’s jokes, at our shared dreams, at the time we used to be pirates together and at the treasures we’d shared.

I was laughing because I had found the perfect wedding gift.

Safety

“No, you cannot have a target that looks like a real person,” the woman behind the glass at the outdoor range’s shop smacked through her gum. “That’s illegal in this state.”

Evelyn sighed and grabbed a target from the bin, sliding it across the counter without bothering to look at it. The young woman working the register raised one eyebrow at her choice and popped her gum as she handed Evelyn back her change. Evelyn slid on her ear protection, and grabbed the rolled up target and her black gun case from the table alongside the register. She turned sharply on her heel and moved quickly towards her designated spot in the range. There was no one on either side of her, which is what she had hoped for.

Evelyn stood calmly, listening to the dull thumping of infrequent gunfire through the think padding of her earmuffs. Baking in the summer heat, she stared across the vast swath of dirt that made up the outdoor range. The sound of weapons discharging seemed far away and syncopated, like small waves crashing on countless distant shores.

Evelyn reached down with trembling hands and opened the black gun case. It took her a moment to realize that she was squeezing her eyes shut, but she gathered the strength to open them and look into the case. Inside, her father’s Glock 17 sat dourly.

As she waited for the signal to end firing, she contemplated the matte black gun case on the small counter. She had only seen it a few times in her life.

Once, when her father had purchased over a decade ago. He had shown her what was kept inside.

A second time, when she was 12, and nosing around looking for Christmas presents in her parent’s closet. She didn’t look inside.

The third time, a year ago when Evelyn’s mother told her what Evelyn’s father had done. It was open, and empty.

The fourth time, six weeks ago when Evelyn’s mother said she couldn’t stand to keep it in the house anymore. She hadn’t looked inside until now.

Evelyn felt something terrible uncoiling in the pit of her stomach. A shrill horn sounded and she snapped back to reality, blinking away a bead of moisture that trembled on the precipice of her right eyelashes. She looked over her shoulder at the gun case as the range-master’s voice came over the public address system.

“Ceasefire. Clear your weapons and stand behind the white line. Firing will recommence in approximately five minutes.”

A wave of silence descended on the range. In the mute caverns of her earmuffs, Evelyn listened to the blood thunder in her veins.

“You may now enter the range to adjust your targets.”

She waited a moment, then strode out onto the range to set up her target. As she stepped out from under the shadow of the awning that stretched lazily across the shooter’s area of the range, the temperature seemed to double. She instinctively raised one hand to shield herself from the rays, but was too late. For a moment, she was blinded and everything was awash in white light. It seemed, for an instant, that the distant silhouette of the target board wavered and danced mockingly in the heat of the burning noonday sun. She reached the board and dragged it halfway back to the shooter’s area, planting it firmly in two small steel-rimmed holes in the ground.

Carefully, she unrolled the target she had purchased: A brazenly cartoonish image of “Zombie Santa Claus.” She stared in shock at it a moment. The undead illustration’s mouth foamed, his eyes burned, and he gesticulated threateningly with a gore-slick candy cane. A fresh headwound was splashed across his forehead by a zealous illustrator’s hand. Evelyn choked slightly, forced down a wave of nausea, shook her head, and walked back to the shooter’s area. As she reached her spot, the public address system crackled to life, and the static-laced voice spoke again.

“The range is now clear. Shooting may recommence with the sound of the siren.”

The siren horn sounded, and the muffled sound of intermittent gunfire began again. Her father’s Glock 17 seemed to look up at her, the safety winking mockingly. Evelyn’s heart sank, and her father’s face burned on the periphery of her mind’s eye, trying to edge in past all the anxiety and drag along with it all of the sadness and regret and anger that it was burdened with now.

Deep down, she was afraid that what he’d done to himself, to all of them, might seize her in a poltergeist grip and manipulate her very hands. She was afraid it might twist her own fingers around the grip and clamp her teeth down on the barrel. As Though it might be possible that it was the gun itself that made him do it, possessed by some terrible goblin or malicious demon that waited for any poor soul to pick up that firearm.

She shook away her fears and snatched the pistol by the plastic grip. That was why she was here – to shake off those feelings and accept the reality. She slid the loaded magazine, short one bullet, into place. She flicked the safety off. She was here to undo the power of the object that her weeping mother couldn’t abide the existence of another day. As she pulled back the action of the Glock, Evelyn felt something move inside and click into place. She leveled the gun downrange and looked past the little white dot of the sights.

She was here to kill the idea that anything other than her father’s weakness had possessed him to pull the trigger and end his own life. In the distance, the stupid bulbous face of the demonic paper Santa Claus jeered in frozen lewdness, an idiotic totem full of angst and rage.

She stared past it, into the abyss of her fear and loathing, and fired.

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.

Stranded

Edwin’s car lurched suddenly and drunkenly to the right, his right front tire burst and something metal housed underneath his car scraped and sparked against the dusty blacktop of the highway. The tarry amber circles cast by his headlights trembled and shook as he pulled to the side of the highway with a curse on his lips. Edwin turned on his emergency blinkers and lingered in his car a moment, heart pounding at triple the pace of the soft neutral clicking of his car’s blinkers. Unceremoniously, he turned the car off and swung the door open.

The early evening light was blue and bright, and Edwin was stranded somewhere in the one-hundred-twenty-thousand square miles of rock and dirt called the Sonoran desert. The sun huddled just behind the horizon as the black curtain of night swung closed. The skybourne display was but an opening act for the headlining chill of the late autumn evening waiting in the wings. Edwin knelt down on the dusty side of the highway and strained to see what had caused his car to lurch sharply to the right. A rogue nail or other unknown highway detritus had slashed his front passenger-side tire and left it in tatters the shape of downed blackbirds, scattered down the road.

Standing, he pulled a map from the right breast pocket of his brown corduroy jacket, opened it, and stood in the beam cast by the cars headlights. Edwin unfolded a pair of delicate reading glasses and slipped them on, straining in the encroaching dark to estimate how far he still had to go.

A dull thud came from the back end of the car. Edwin’s heart went racing and he breathed deep to stifle the palpitations.

Edwin ran his finger down the vein of the highway etched in red on his folded map. He’d driven about an hour and a half west out of Phoenix, and he guessed he had another half hour to go before reaching the meager town of Quartzsite. It was unlikely anyone would drive by anytime soon.

Another dull thud, more insistent than the last, issued from the trunk of Edwin’s car. He swapped the map for a small orange bottle from his breast pocket and kicked back two small white tablets before slowly walking towards the back of the car. Pocketing the bottle again, he unlocked the trunk.

Nestled in the trunk was a spare tire, a shovel, and the bound and struggling form of a young, dark haired man. Edwin drew his revolver from the holster under his coat and leveled it calmly at the man in his trunk.

“It looks like there’s been a change of plans, Kenneth.”

Kenneth said something unintelligible and furious through the gag tied over his mouth. Edwin only shook his head, pocketed his phone and pulled Kenneth forcefully from the trunk. The asphalt was still hot with the residue from the days sunlight, and Kenneth’s bare feet burned to touch it.

A push from the barrel of the revolver directed Kenneth silently to walk out towards the desert. Cacti and uneven stones slashed his naked feet and he felt them go slick with fresh blood. Edwin continuously prodded him on, and soon the highway was little more than the distant faint glow of one pair of headlights and emergency blinkers. The moon hung pregnant and full, illuminating the rough desert in blue-white light.

“Alright, stop,” Edwin strained to speak.

Kenneth stopped and turned to face his captor. The march out into the desert had not been easy in the dark, and they were both winded. Kenneth’s feet were raw and bloody, Edwin’s face was red and his brow was slick with sweat that glistened in the moonlight. The unforgiving barrel of his revolver was leveled at Kenneth’s chest.

“It’s not what I would have liked, Kenneth, but it’s going to have to do.” Edwin wheezed and his glasses slipped down his nose slightly. Kenneth’s eyes narrowed as he watched Edwin struggle.

“Turn around.” Edwin motioned with the gun, and Kenneth did as he was told. A moment later a dark blindfold lowered over his eyes, and the night air seemed suddenly crisp and cold. Kenneth felt Edwin behind him tying the blindfold tightly with both hands. He knew this was his chance.

The moment the blindfold was tied, Kenneth butted his head backwards as hard as he could and connected sharply with the bridge of Edwin’s nose, breaking the delicate glasses perched there. Kenneth shoved backwards, throwing Edwin to the ground and knocking the small orange bottle out of his pocket. Edwin had momentarily holstered the gun to tie the blindfold, but that gave the blind folded, bound and barefoot Kenneth no real advantage. Without hesitation, Kenneth bolted into the dark desert.

Edwin drew the revolver hastily and fired once. He sprinted clumsily after his quarry and fired another shot aimlessly into the night. His chest heaved and a crushing weight settled on him. He halted, dropped to one knee and clutched his heart. Somewhere behind him in the brush of the moonlit desert, his heart medication was spilled in the dirt. Edwin lurched forward and struggled to breath before the weight was too great to fight against any longer.

Kenneth saw none of this as he stumbled over barrel cactus and sharp stone, through brush and dry dead vegetation. Two reports sounded in the night air and he ran until he slammed headlong into a towering and sturdy cactus bristling with thorns. He screamed into the gag and fell backwards, his entire front covered in blood and spines. He was blindfolded, barefoot, his hands bound, and he was alone somewhere in the one-hundred-twenty-thousand square miles of rock and dirt called the Sonoran desert.