Song of the Soul: rough draft

 

A rough draft, but let me know what you think. 

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Stories from the Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In medieval Persia,  a time when myth and magic reigned supreme, in which men feared for their lives from evil djinn, and explorers searched for hidden caves full of treasure, there was a great kingdom in the middle of the vast desert.

The sultan of this kingdom was rich. In his treasury were ebony statues of warriors that could come to life and fight for him in a war. There were exquisite flying carpets which soared high into the heavens. Birds carved out of jade feasted on trees that grew emerald leaves and bore ruby pomegranates and diamond figs. These were just but a few of the marvelous treasures that the sultan owned, and he gave thanks to Allah for his bounty.

But outside the palace walls, the people didn’t fare so well. They majority of the population lived in rundown buildings, and tried to live their daily lives either by cobbling, sewing, vending, or in the worst case living on the streets. The fortunate ones were the rich merchants, to which the lower class merchants struggled against. However, not all of the lower class and homeless were miserable.

Despite his old age and his life of hardships, Payim was still happy. He had his chang (a harp) that his mother had given to him before she had died. Whenever he ran his fingers through the strings, he could hear his mother’s voice singing sweetly and softly, bringing serenity to his soul. At age eighty, he stood on the street corner of the main market, making music to sooth the souls of the masses who had lost humanity in their will to survive. Among the greedy hands, hungry for merchandise, starving for fine material possessions, or just the humblest of the dust, who desired nothing more than a decent meal, there were those who heard his music, the voice of the siren’s strings, and were elevated to a moment of pure bliss. They would put aside their petty squabbles at the stalls, and make their way over to listen to Payim where they would be further enraptured by his gift, blessed to him from Allah above.

But not all appreciated Payam’s gifts. These were mainly the rich merchants. Because of the deafness of their ears, they esteemed the old man’s music not as a lullaby to sooth the beast that bellowed in their hearts, but as the braying of a donkey. They wanted nothing more than that menace of the musician to cease. The sultan agreed with his money-driven subjects, issuing a decree that music must not be played in, or anywhere near, the marketplace. The only music appropriate for the market were the ballads of the auctioneers naming the prices and the jingle of coins landing on counters. Many also found it to be an inconvenience that Payim stood in the only green area of the kingdom, on the corner arrayed in palms and fruit trees and bright flowers. A little oasis had also formed where Payam played, a small silver mirror surrounded by a sea of sand and stucco. There were merchants who coveted that area to peddle their wares.

One day the sultan’s guards caught Payam playing. “You have been a burden for long enough, old man. You have been asked time and time again to not make such noise.”

“Would you take joy away from the people?” asked Payam.

“Let him play,” protested the audience and the poorer merchants.

“You know the law,” the guard said. “Let this be a warning. Play at your own risk.”

But Payam ignored the warning as though it was just the buzzing of an irritating fly. He kept his corner and from there he played his harp. One day the merchants had enough and summoned the guards. “You know the sultan’s decree. Do your job and put an end to this riff-raff’s playing.”

What was once a sweet symphony became a harmony of discord as the old musician’s instrument wailed and groaned in pain, splintering into many pieces on the street. “You were warned,” said the guard curtly.

Payam rushed to gather the broken fragments. His harp was in splinters and so was his livelihood. Cradling the pieces in his hands, he took them back to his hovel, built of mud and sticks. Cracks ran through it, welcoming the insects that shared Payam’s straw bed. Inside, under the sickly yellow rays, swarming with dust, Payam worked on fixing his chang. But he didn’t know how to. He tried repairing it with wattle and daub, but those weren’t meant for repairing instruments. Even if he managed to fix the frame, the strings were had been torn asunder. Be that as it may, the broken strings of his instrument were a trivial matter compared to the broken strings of his heart.

There were many who missed Payam and his playing, but not the wealthy merchants. The majority of them fought for the right to sells their wares on the green corner where Payam had played. In the end, only two of the richest merchants were given permission from the sultan to plant their stalls among the fronds and near the water. However, shortly after, the small oasis sunk down into the earth, withdrawing to its home for a long slumber. Without the water, the sand ruled as king and tyrant, and the plants bowed in submission to it, turning back into the dust from whence they came.

Meanwhile, unknown to Payam, skilled hands were crafting him another chang. For not all merchants were enslaved to pouches of gold. A few, like Arman were content with their own golden hearts. A middle-aged merchant with a bellowing laugh, a bushy mustache resting comfortably under a bulbous nose, and a bulging belly that burst forth in bellowing laughter, Arman was as pious as he was jovial. His life was guided by the Quran, particularly by Quran 34:39 about whatsoever someone spent on anything, God would replace it. But God didn’t work alone. From using Muhammed, peace be upon him, to give his vision to the whole of humanity, Allah expected all of his children to be give back generously in his name. Allah had played the strings of Payam’s life as effectively as Payam had played his chang; music springing forth from the same fountain. Soon that music would pour out freely again, giving life to the desert.

Finished with the chang, Arman wasted no time in delivering it to Payam. But the old musician just looked at the chang without any music in his eyes. “I am a broken man, though I thank you for the offer,” Payam declined the gift.

“Brother, there are those who are in need of your gifts,” Arman said, trying to force the chang in Payam’s hands.

“For what purpose? My chang was more than a harp. It was a reminder of my mother who gave it to before she died. I saw her die once, only to see her die a second time.”

“It is true that I wield not the soul of your mother,” Arman said, looking at him with understanding eyes. “But Allah is good, and he has guided me in creating you another harp. Please, give it a try.”

Payam looked at the instrument. The harp was carved most gracefully, the curves like a maiden in movement. He strummed the strings and the sound that soared forth was that of a chorus of angels. Music was once again made manifest in the musician’s eyes and his countenance again became like that of youth.

“You do realize that if play this music, the guards will smash my harp again. Maybe even imprison me,” warned Payam.

“If you don’t bless the world with your music, then we are all imprisoned,” countered Arman.

Knowing that what the merchant said was true, the musician carried out his chang to the corner. But the wealthy merchants were there, and they glared at him. Payam was forced to find another corner, one he hadn’t performed on before. He took a deep breath and began to play. His fingers glided across the strings like a fish through a stream. The stared at him with coals for eyes, angered at the loss of their customers. Everyone else stood transfixed to the message that the music promulgated, a message devoid of words, but not of meaning.

Then, down the streets, two golden camels, one in the front, one in the back, trotted up. Opulent sofa covers, blue sapphire like the evening sky, crowned their humps. Between the camels, on a set of poles, was a palanquin. It glittered golden under the sunlight. The servant, dressed in rich embroideries, leading the camels came to a halt at the sight of the old musician. From inside the palanquin came a voice of anger, and not even the curtains, decorated in geometric patterns, could muffle the disapproval.

“Who dares disturb the peace?” the sultan boomed.

“Forgive us,” said one of the guards, kneeling at the palanquin. “It’s a musician we had problems with before. We broke his chang, but he now seems to have a new one.”

“Is that so? Such insolence! If he wishes to be stubborn like a mule, let’s behead him.”

“You shall do no such thing,” another voice said from inside the palanquin. It was gentle, but firm; a soft voice that could halt an army and set the coward’s heart aflame in courage.

“But, my canary, my starlight, this man broke the law, not just once, but twice,” the sultan said, but his voice wavered.

“Tell me, father, is money law or justice law?”

“Well I” –

“Deviate from the path of righteousness and justice and you shall answer to God.”

“It’s just” –

“With your hoard of treasures, some magical and some mundane, you refuse to contribute to zakat. Imagine what Muhammed would say to you. With your enchanted stone warriors who move, your carpets that fly, and your treasure chests that magically replenish themselves with treasure every full moon, Muhammed would condemn you of idolatry, like the idols at Mecca he destroyed.”

“But dear,” and the sultan, his voice losing strength, “he’s just a vagabond with a harp.”

“A harp that is more magical than any of your treasures,” pointed out his daughter. “Allah has blessed him, and in turn this man has blessed the people, turning their hearts from riches to the heavens.”

There was a pause, a long drawn out sigh, and suddenly a concession. “As you wish, Firuzeh, dear. I make a promise never to harm this man and to let him play music to his heart’s content.”

And so it was. Payam was allowed to play. When Payam left for the evening, grass had sprung under his feet, and a small trickle of water burst forth from the ground, accompanied by the sapling of a new pomegranate tree.

From then on, the old musician took his music all throughout the kingdom, and wherever he played, the plants and the waters, which lay in a deep slumber in the earth, woke up, roused by the touching music that issued forth from his harp. The kingdom began to bloom as a rose, transformed into an oasis in an ocean of never-ending sand and all were made rich.

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Meandering Meaninglously on Medium

While I work diligently on arriving at the point to where I can publish my books, I have figured that I might as well write on Medium on the side. But seriously! Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m doing. Recently, I shared my thoughts about donating money to rebuild Notre Dame, particularly by the rich. My meaningless meanderings can be read here.

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Notre Dame Cathedral at Night: Image by Sanchezn from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Cold Shades Ch 1: Revised but still imperfect

A revised edition of the first chapter of my dystopian novel I’m working on. Still imperfect. Still needs some editing. Recommended for ages 18 and up for strong language, violence, and mature themes. 

Rebecca Brown, simply known as Becca, rarely left her home. There was no need to. All of the necessities of life were supplied right at her fingertips. She could even engage in her career in her living room, without having to worry about house work, seeing as there were house bots that would clean and cook for her.

At the moment, Becca was typing on her computer screen, but not in the archaic method with her fingers on a keyboard, in which words appeared on a physical screen. Instead, the computer monitor was a slender hologram popping out from the slit of a small, flat device that she could fit in the palm of her hand. It rested on her table top, and it was pumping out fresh words she was thinking from a chip imbedded in her brain. If she needed to delete something, all she had to do was clench her fist and say, “delete.” In this case, she told the program to “delete the third paragraph.” She had been composing an email to an irate customer, and the third paragraph she wrote had been particularly volatile. There would be much deleting ahead.

It was hard working with idiots, day in and day out, and that was putting it lightly. It was overwhelming.

The soft buzz of robotics hummed gently in the air, helping to soothe her temper just a bit. After all, they were a blessing by keeping up her house so she could focus on her work. When she was done with a dish, she didn’t have to rinse it off and put it in the dishwasher. A mechanical arm and hand near the kitchen sink would take it from her. And that arm and hand could stretch far, far enough to reach each of the rooms. The faucet would turn on by itself, unleashing a light laser that would burn off the food and then de-germ it with a light spray. Scrub beetles would burn away grime from her kitchen floor. There were even bots in the bathroom to do the dirty work of cleaning. Robots, the size of mice, even nested in the walls. If a crack formed, the bots would make the needed repairs.

Her stomach grumbled, letting her know in no uncertain terms that it needed nourishment. A break was in order.

“Restaurants,” Becca said, causing a holographic image to project a list of local eateries. “Chinese,” she continued, realizing she hadn’t had one of her favorite meals in a while; sweet and sour pork. The computer narrowed her choices solely to those catering in Chinese food. “Mrs. Yang’s” she said. Projecting straight out of the little computer box, right into her living room, was a Chinese waitress wearing a long red dress of silk, her black hair curled into a bun. Though only an illusion, the likeness of a real person was impeccable.

Holograms over the years had made such leaps and bounds that most people applauded the technological advancements as modern marvels. And yet, they were a different type of hologram than the old images which were formed by beams of light making 3D images. These holograms were extra lifelike, and may as well not have been called holograms. The very illusions Becca saw before here were produced from the chip in her head, rather than light, causing her brain and her eyes to visualize it all. It’s not to say that the small, compact desktop upon her table didn’t help with producing such images. The chip within Becca’s brain sent a signal to the computer and thus both computer and chip collaborated together to form said illusion.

As things stood, not everyone was pleased with this technology. Some hated it. But though there were a few Platos still in the world who didn’t approve of it, harping on the analogy of the cave with its shadows and illusions, such luddites had always been a rare breed.

“Welcome to Mrs. Yang’s,” the waitress said. The waitress’s voice was produced by a signal from the computer sending a recording into Becca’s chip, enabling her ears to hear it. “A house of the finest Chinese cuisine to satisfy you and your family’s appetites awaits you. Would you like to try our special today?”

“What’s today’s special?” asked Becca.

“Today’s special is twice-cooked pork, fried-cheese wontons, and three egg rolls, plus a drink, all for ten-ninety five.” A perfect 3D image of the food appeared before her.

Tempting price, but Becca didn’t care for twice-cooked pork. “No,” she said.

“Would you like to see our menu?”

“Yes.”

“Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

Illusions of smorgasbords, followed by descriptions of each one of the foods, popped up into her living room in crystal clear precision, as though they could be grabbed. Such realism further satiated her hunger. Becca browsed, not bothering to say another word to the waitress until she ordered. It would be pointless to do so anyway. The waitress was only a recorded person, only able to respond to certain words and phrases. It was a normal tactic done by all restaurant management; video record a person, then program that image and voice into the computer, in which they would respond to applicable questions. There was no use asking how she was doing. She wasn’t fine, sad, angry, or flustered; she just was as is. It would be pointless telling her that her red dress laced with etchings of golden dragons was appreciated. It wouldn’t change a mood that was never there. She was only the shell of the waitress, made visualized flesh by computer and by chip, not the actual person.

After looking over all the appetizers, entrees, dinners, and side dishes, Becca was still confident about her previous decision. “I would like the sweet and sour pork with a side of ham fried rice.”

“Anything to drink?”

“No.”

“Will that be all?”

“Yes.”

“Is this for pickup or delivery?”

“Delivery.”

“Plus driver tax, your total comes to fifteen twenty-five,” said the waitress. “Are you ready for us to scan your chip?”

“Go for it!” Becca assented.

A laser reader came out from her computer, scanning the chip implanted in her brain. “Ms. Rebecca Brown, age thirty-one, of 4213 Willington Dr. Las Angeles, California,” said the waitress. “Is this correct?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything else?”

“No.”

“Thank you for ordering from Mrs. Yang’s,” the image said with a bow. “Your food will be arriving shortly.”

Becca didn’t immediately return to work, opting instead to sprawl across her couch. She was sure that it was her hunger that was causing her to be short with the customer.

As she waited for her food, she thought of how much of a nuisance it was ordering out. Sure it was convenient, but it came with a price, and that price was more than money. She was certain that she would be dreaming of Mrs. Yang’s off and on, just as she dreamed about some of her other favorite restaurants. It wasn’t uncommon for these companies to hack into the chip when one was asleep to send images into it, causing customers to dream. It was the most effective form of advertising ever.

Originally, there had been laws passed against this, the courts having deemed it as an infringement upon peoples’ privacy, but the ruling didn’t hold up long. Corporations made the argument that they ‘weren’t actually prying into peoples’ thoughts,’ but rather were ‘only broadcasting their products from stores and chains that the consumer had already purchased from.’ While this had still seemed invasive, in the end money and corporate interests won out against the lawmakers and legislatures against it. Bribery was a surefire way to get politicians on the side of the corporations.

In any event, it wasn’t like many people cared about the advertisements in their sleep. Society was bombarded by advertisements on a daily basis. At this very moment, Becca was wearing a t-shirt that screened images of the latest products on it from a very narrow and flexible computerized screen that picked up satellite signals. Even the legging of her pants had a thin vertical screen running down them, with ever-changing words advertising the newest game released or the latest movie out. This had cut down greatly on the price of clothing, making it very inexpensive. Ads on clothing, as well as other advertisements out in the city, were one of the very things that people didn’t need a chip to see. As for the advertisements transferred as dreams into peoples’ sleep, most corporations were smart enough to know not to overdo it. Usually the dreams were subtle, sometimes to the point that people could hardly remember them. Sometimes only the subliminal message remained.

Growing tired of just lounging on her couch, Becca decided to experience a movie. Televisions were a thing of the past, computers having completely taken over, just as they had with everything else. And like almost everything else, the computer program for the movie worked to send a signal to her chip, enabling her to be engulfed in the story.

Cars in a high speed chased rushed past her, the sounds of bullets blazing by while tires burning rubber assaulted her ears. Sometimes she found herself enveloped in a fiery explosion, to see the hero walk out of it towards her, so life-like that she felt she could reach out and touch him. Or she was soaring with a jet above the snowy Swiss Alps, her favorite scene, as it showed a time before those mountains were almost all covered in housing developments.

Everything was so-lifelike while experiencing a movie that one had to be careful so as not to get carried away. Becca remembered back to when she was experiencing one of her favorite films. It was about brave adventurers looking for hidden treasure in an ancient crumbling temple. She had grown so excited during the scenes in which the travelers were jumping from one crumbling platform to another over a chasm that she tried to jump with them, only to break her right leg on her table. Needless to say, she had spent the rest of the day on her couch, as the medical nanobots worked on repairing the bone in her leg. Since then, she learned to sit still during a movie.

‘Your food is here,’ said a pleasant computer automated voice in her ear. Becca ordered the film to shut down, plunging her back into her boring living room.

At her door was a Delivery Bot. The robot was constructed simplistic enough, being built more like a car, and able to hold numerous orders in its interior which was always heated by a heat lamp. Like an average car, it hovered. A large metal neck jutted out from the front, ending in what looked like a pair of oversized binoculars for vision. It held a bag of food out in one metallic hand, while the other hand was a card scanner, greedily outstretched, as hungry for the payment as Becca was for the food. Becca quickly paid it. No chit-chat, no time wasted. Just pay and eat.

As the Delivery Bot flew off, Becca thought back to the history books she read, which told of a time that human delivery had caused too many problems because of irresponsible and their demands for higher wages. Robots were the logical answer to the problem. And not just for restaurants, but for grocery stores too. Robots now delivered everything from fresh eggs, meats, and fish, to cereal and bread, to cleaners and soaps and so forth, meaning one never had to leave their home to go to go the grocery store, either. This was not without its drawbacks, seeing as a huge percentage of the population was now living off meager government assistance, forced to share official living quarters with other families and individuals. The worse off were homeless.

While experiencing her movie, she occasionally spilt food when she was excited by a certain scene. Not a problem. The maid bot, built low to the ground on a pair of wheels, came by and burned, with pinpoint precision, away any food particles off her tile floor.

Finishing her meal, Becca felt like a walk was in order. While it was true that many people chose to stay inside, living in a state of eternal hibernation, she craved the fresh air. She decided that she would end her work day early and let the disgruntled customer wait

Outside she was greeted by houses spread out for miles in all directions, a sea of concrete and plaster. In-between blocks of neighborhoods, one might come across a store or a restaurant. There were, of course, office buildings, but they were more conglomerated downtown and there were only a few of them. Still, though very few people worked white collar jobs anymore, the few office buildings downtown were islands of steel and spires sticking out of the ocean of mediocre homes.

Soaring in the sky above Becca were a couple of cars. Though she had a car, she hated them ever since her husband had died in one. Fairly frequently, the news reported terrible car wrecks. One that stuck out in her memory most vividly was of a drunk driver who, before getting himself drunk, had dismantled the automated flying program. He had plummeted down into the living room of a family, killing the parents and the children. One would have thought that since cars were computer operated that wrecks would have been a tragedy consigned to the annals of history. But this was not the case. Aside from those who loved the thrill of driving their own cars and who would find ways to deactivate the self-driving mechanisms, there were also many cyber-terrorists from other nations who got a sick thrill out of hacking into someone else’s car terminal and rerouting the designated safe route into a building or into a skyway with cars, flying in the opposite direction. It didn’t seem to matter how many security programs were newly put in place, as hackers loved the challenge of finding ways around them. In short, Pandora’s Box had been opened, and not solely by flying cars, but by the advent of putting computers into cars, back in the early 2000s, even before they could fly.

Becca continued on her walk, choosing not to focus on the macabre scenario. It made her think too much of her deceased husband.

Instead she kept her eyes open for interesting people she could possibly meet. But where were they? Come to think of, when had she last seen people out and about? The neighborhood was a silent cemetery. About half the houses were probably deserted, remnants of bygone days when people had spread further to the outskirts of town.

A ro-mower was silently droning as it hovered just barely over the grass, cutting the blades with a spinning laser. A couple blocks further, a louder noise was generated by a swarm of nano-flies cutting the branches off a tree, a pile of sawdust at the base. That was it. Just a couple of robotics out and about. Not a single human.

She was about to give up, but then she saw him.

He was tall and broad shouldered. He wore a polo shirt and a pair of khakis. Upon his shirt an advertisement was ending for a new cereal brand, making way for an ad about the newest in automated indoor sprinkling systems to put out house fires. An ad was running down the video strip on his khakis for the mind-phone update that could be installed in the computer chip. He flashed her a smile that looked as though it could come off the cover of a romance novel.

“Hello there,” said Becca.

“Hello,” he reciprocated. “Where do you come from?”

Becca shrugged. “Just this neighborhood, I’m afraid. Nothing exciting, I know.”

“Nothing exciting? I can hardly believe that, Ms…. Uh, what’s your name?”

“My name is Rebecca Brown,” she said, extending her hand for him to shake. “But just call me Becca.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Becca,” said the man, shaking her hand. “I’m Theodore Green. Kind of a dorky name, I know.”

“Not at all! It sounds strong, masculine.”

“That’s very kind of you. Anyway, you can call me Ted.”

“Okay, Ted,” Becca nodded. “Do you live nearby?”

Ted shook his head. “No. I live on the other end of town. But you know, getting restless and all, I decided I’d take a scenic drive.”

“Scenic!” exclaimed Becca in disbelief. “Why? I didn’t think the neighborhood south of here looked much different than this one. Also, why even take a walk here when you can just take one on your end?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure of what you’re getting at,” said Ted.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It seems kind of weird, but whatever.”

“Say, do you like cars?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Not really. My husband was killed in one.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Ted. “Man that sucks! I hope I didn’t dredge up any painful memories.”

“It’s okay. I’d like to take a look at your car anyway,” she lied, two factors prompting it, her feelings of infatuation and it being rude to turn down someone friendly.

Besides, she was lonely, not having gone on a date for quite some time. She needed to get out more, to dance, to feel the embrace of the opposite sex. She had been working far too hard not to indulge in some healthy human interaction. Customers sending angry emails, in which she reciprocated twice as angrily, was not good bonding with her fellow man.

“Right on!” said Ted. “Follow me.” Becca did so, without thinking of the potential consequences of blindly following a stranger. Her parents had warned her, ever since she was a child, of the dangers of just trusting anybody. It was one of the reasons they had enrolled her in virtual classes, so as not to have her deal with bullies and school shootings. In this case, her parents would certainly warn her against following a stranger to his car. And Ted was strange, strange in his mannerisms, and with the way he answered questions.

It only took a minute to come to Ted’s pride and glory, an Orange Bolt 3000. It was sleek and beautiful. Its coloring was that of a sunset, a bright orange slowly fading to a purple with a yellow stripe running across the middle of it. It was modeled after the old convertibles in that it lacked a roof.

“Would you like to hop in for a drive?” Ted wore an expression bespeaking of himself as the perfect gentlemen as the car door automatically opened. “We can go to your place or mine. Maybe we could even get a beer, chill out, watch a movie?”

“Gee, thanks for the invite,” said Becca. “But, I’m not ready for that yet. I mean, let’s get real for a sec. I just met you.”

“I’m sorry, but is there a problem with the car?” asked Ted.

Problem with the car? Becca couldn’t believe her ears. She hadn’t said a thing about the car. Still, he was kind of cute and she was lonely. “How about we meet up some time,” she ventured, not wanting to ruin an opportunity of jumping back into the dating pool.

“That’d be great! What do you like to do?”

“Let’s go to a bar and get plastered,” she said, staring at an advertisement for her favorite beer playing across his shirt. “We could go to a bar and clubbing.”

“Awesome,” said Ted, excitedly. “I’m down for whatever. Maybe I can pick you up in my car.”

“Cool, let’s do it! But I’ll meet you there. I’m not ready to ride with you yet. No offense, but you are a stranger.”

“Can I get your number?”

Becca reluctantly gave it, and in turn he gave her his, the small chip in her head saving it. Now she noticed that the screen on Ted’s polo was primarily showing off different cars. They made a little more chit-chat before Ted drove off.

Overall, Becca had found the conversation to be peculiar, and she was a little annoyed that it often came back to his car. Before leaving he had at least talked about his car for five minutes, boasting about how wonderfully efficient it was. Yet, he was kind enough and she didn’t sense any danger from him.

Becca shrugged. Maybe she didn’t get it, but she didn’t care. She had been trying so hard to forget about her husband that she would take the quirks of a new boyfriend, even if those quirks were talking about cars. Also it’d be a lie to say that she didn’t have her own interests, such as movies and books, which could make her quirky. Who was she to judge someone for loving cars?  She only hoped that if something were to develop between the two of them that she could broaden his horizons.

Becca could have gotten lost in her reverie of finding romance until she remembered that today was the day that she had to visit her deadbeat brother. She didn’t relish this. But she had made a promise to be his wet nurse and she was stuck with her decision. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself that he lived within walking distance. She could keep the visit brief.

Walking briskly, Becca found herself there in no less than five minutes. A laser came down from the front porch, scanning her chip. Only after it had analyzed all the data did it grant her entrance.

She found her brother sprawled out on the couch, a slug of a man, slowly but steadily drowning under waves of his own fat.

“I don’t suppose you brought me something to eat?” he asked.

How typical! Of course that would be the first question out of his voracious vacuum of a mouth.

“You know, if you hadn’t of lied on the questioner, you probably wouldn’t be immobilized here on your fat ass,” Becca said without worrying the least bit about candor.

“Ah, cut me some slack!” her brother protested. “You know that I tried to sound convincing.”

“Harold,” cried out Becca in exasperation, “you told the computer that you had prior work experience as a manager! How the hell did you think that would go over?”

“I wasn’t thinking” –

“So what else is new?” Becca cut him off. “Harold, even if they didn’t verify through your work history and past employers, the lie detector chip is more than enough to tell them that you are full of shit. A quick scan from a computer monitors your heart rate, your brain waves, just about everything that could give you away. I shouldn’t even be telling you this. You should be smart enough to know this.”

“Well, I’m not, so excuse me!” shouted Harold. “I’ve never been as smart as you. Never as brilliant.”

“Harold. You have genius level abilities in the fields of history and linguistics. You have no right to call yourself stupid. In your case it’s not about brilliance, it’s just about common sense.”

“Yeah, well I guess I lack that.”

Becca was flustered. Why did this have to be so hard? She and Harold had always clashed. This was nothing new. And yet, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Most problems he faced in life he had brought on himself, but society didn’t make it any easier, not with computers and all having taken over the interview process.

It had started out simple enough, with many large companies using computers to do online applications. Now computers were advanced enough to conduct interviews, ascertaining the honesty of the interviewee and assessing his or her skills and weaknesses. In theory it was supposed to be simple, but in reality it made life more difficult. No matter how smart the AI was, no matter what questions the computer could ask, no matter how capable it was of reading heart-rate and brain waves to analyze honesty, there was still room for a great margin of error.

Harold had had the misfortune of being interviewed by a particularly rigid computer program from a prestigious educational firm. He had wanted to be a museum curator, and he had studied hard for many years at an expensive virtual university, paying out huge sums of money and appropriating a large debt in student loans, only to have it capitulate in a small apartment. The thread which had led to his career demise had slowly unwound into a tangled mess after he had graduated. He had made the mistake of taking a year sabbatical before finding a job, in order to help out their sick mother. In retrospect, Harold should have just taken that opportunity to interview for the museum.

But could have he in good conscious?

Their mother had been being treated for cancer for over a year, and she had gradually been growing worse. Nothing the life-like android nurses could do could help her. There had been a couple of flesh and blood doctors there, but they had seldom visited her, except at brief intervals, having so many other things to attend to. Becca had visited her a few times a month when she could manage. If she had of known her mother’s condition was that bad, she would have visited her more. For this Becca still felt heavy guilt. It was Harold who had taken up the mantle of caring for their mother. It was he who had helped her improve for a little while. It didn’t last, but for a short time she was happier.

However, her brother’s sacrifice had come with a price. The computerized interview had asked him if he had been engaged in any education or work in that one year gap. When he had told the computer that he was looking after his mother, the computer had only responded with, ‘I don’t understand. Have you been employed or enrolled in any schooling this past year?’ He should have said no. But he had known that doing so would have brought on the high probability of barring him from future interviews. So, panicking, he had lied, telling the computer that he had spent the last year enrolled as a supervisor for robotic tour guides at historic sites. It didn’t take long for the computer to read his brain waves and his heart-rate, finding that he was lying. Since then, Harold’s reputation had spread through other computer employment systems, effectively lowering his chances fifty-fold of landing a job.

Now, her brother was living off of borrowed funds from their deceased parents and from Becca herself. He could hardly pay the tuition costs back and he barely had a sufficient amount for his own living conditions. It wouldn’t be long until Becca would have to take her brother in to live with her, seeing as the funds within his chip would soon be depleted.

Yes, it was only logical. Becca should have taken her mom in. Then again, why should she have? Why should Harold have even bothered? It wasn’t like Becca’s parents were there for them that much. While they had worked, the robotic butler and maid had watched after her and her brother. And they were cheap robotics at that. They were built to walk on four legs, and looked more like a mechanical set of dogs than they did people. Becca’s parents couldn’t bother to pay for the life-like androids, even though they could have afforded it. The most the robotic nanny and butler did was tell them when to go to bed, help fix them food, and prevent them getting into any danger. In a way, it was her mom’s fault for not being there for them. Why should she have expected any of her kids to be there for them? Becca felt like crap for thinking this. Harold, in many ways, was a better person than her.

“I’m sure something will come up,” Becca lied.

“Yeah, maybe if I can get some pills to take that change the heart rate and the brain-waves to fool the computer,” said Harold.

“Those are illegal!”

“Oh, I’d sell my own mother to afford pills to cheat the system,” he shrugged.

“Not funny,” said Becca. She wanted to slap him for that remark. But she controlled herself by remembering that her brother never had much of a filter to begin with. Besides, despite that utterly tasteless joke over their dead mother, he had still been the one to watch over her, not she, thus getting himself into this predicament. “Harold,” she said in a softer tone, “I know it’s rough right now. But you’re bound to find something.”

“Like what? Who in the hell would have me?”

Becca was at a loss for words. Very few companies would hire him. “What can I do to help make your life easier?” she asked instead.

“Well, you could buy me some of those cream filled cookies. You know the kind I like! I can then happily gorge myself on those. You can also buy me some packs of my favorite beer. I can use those to vomit out my sorrow.”

“Damn it, Harold!” exclaimed Becca. “What good will that do?”

“You’re one to talk, you and your pious, holier-than-thou attitude,” pointed out Harold, shaking a fat fist at her, without even standing up. “You at least have a job. I don’t have jack-shit! How dare you have the nerve lecturing me about how morally wrong slowly killing myself is! Well, society is slowly killing me a little bit each and every day. If I’m to die, at least let it be from drinking myself to death, or a heart attack brought on by a sugar rush.”

Becca blushed. He was right. She had no right to condemn him.

“I’m sorry, Harold,” she whispered. “I’ll see what I can do.”

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The Open Window short story: rough draft

 

 

 

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The Shipwreck on the Northern Sea by Ivan Alvazovsky

 

In the midst of the ocean, far away from the continent of any kingdom, there was a very small island of black rocks and on this island was an equally black tower. But inside the tower, living on the very top floor, was the most beautiful maiden, a princess, that mankind could hope to see. Her hair was amber gold, her skin white like marble with a dash of rose-red on her cheeks, and her eyes green like the grass emerging in the spring after a long winter. Her hands were dainty, her feet delicate, and her body petite. But her real beauty didn’t come from the shell that her soul occupied. Rather her beauty was her soul.

Yet many of the suitors failed to see Princess Celeste’s inner beauty. They were too enamored by her physical features. However, there had been one man who had seen past her outer beauty and into the heart that beat within her. This man hadn’t been one of the nobility, but a lowly farmer who had dared to talk with the princess when she had escaped the confines of the castle to stroll out in the countryside in disguise. He had been charming, witty, and eager to hear what Celeste had to say, treating her like an average person.

For his kindness towards her, he would pay with his life.

Celeste’s father had sent the royal guards out to find her. When they saw her mingling with a common farmer they bound him in chains, despite the Princess’s pleading for his life. Reasoning with her father had not worked. The King had the farmer whipped and then beheaded. In anguish and fury, Celeste had told him that because of his cruelty she’d never marry a suitor that he picked for her. Enraged, the king ordered her to be locked away in a tower far out in the ocean, months away from land, until she changed her mind.

Because of this edict, Celeste was confined in this tower, unable to leave it. The sturdy door at the bottom had to be always sealed shut because of the force of the waves that crashed against it, eager to pull a young maiden into their waters and claim her as their own. It was just as well. There was nothing down there except jagged rocks and slimy moss that clung to the lower stones of the tower.  Celeste’s father, out of his supposed love and mercy for her, had decorated her tower chamber with all the trinkets, tapestries, and books from her castle quarters back home. There had been no way for him to move furniture in. The waves were too fierce. But there was furniture, a chest of drawers, a mirror, a table, a few chairs, a rug, and a bed that had been put in the tower years ago. Yet, a prison was a prison, no matter how much like home it was made to feel.

Sometimes Celeste would stare out the window, smelling the sea breeze, a perfume of salty tears, as she looked out into the dark blue hills that were always rolling and crashing over one another. Sometimes this helped, others time it did not. More than once, she considered tossing herself out of the window to land on the rocks below, offering herself as a sacrifice to the fish of the sea. It was her books that preserved her fragile mind. In those slender pages were numerous worlds full of adventure.

Every year her father sent a ship full of sailors, guardsmen, and servants out to the tower to see if she had changed her mind. Celeste’s answer was always the same. She’d rather die alone than succumb to a tyrant’s wishes. “Are you not running low on food and water?” the men would ask. But she would tell him that she would survive. And she had. She had managed to knit herself a net from one of her old dresses, and from the lower windows she would cast it into the sea and haul up fish. She collected rainwater from a bucket she had dangling from a peg hanging out her window. For fruit and vegetables she had smuggled out some berry seeds and roots in a chest of soil that she had been allowed to take with her (her father had thought she was taking some extra clothes). From her bedroom window, she would push the end of a desk out through the window with the plants on top so they could get sunlight.

Still, it was lonely. She had lived in the tower for the last five years. Her misfortunes aside, Celeste felt greater sorrow for the young farmer who had loved her for her. She had often dreamed about him in her sleep, as though they were on some wild adventure from one of her novels. He hadn’t deserved to die. These thoughts were her unpleasant company, day in and day out.

It was the fifth year that her life would change.

It was a day of heavy rain and harsh winds. Celeste was forced to move her potted plants and her pale inside lest they were blown away. Tall waves were slamming up against the tower, working hard to break through the doors. But they held strong. The wind roared like a dragon in flight.

To keep her mind off the storm, Celeste was knitting. She was just finishing up knitting the last thread of wool on a headscarf when a flash of light shot through her window. Initially she thought it was lightening. But it was a wounded bird, an arrow piercing its left side just above the leg, and it had landed on the table. A pool of blood formed under it, dripping in small droplets that ran off the table’s edges. The poor wounded creature moved Celeste’s heart to compassion as she rushed over to the bird.

Cradling the bird in her arms, she was amazed to see that he wasn’t like any other bird she had seen before. It wasn’t a pelican or a stork. He almost looked like a heron. It had a sharp beak and a long neck like one. Its body shape was similar to. However, its body glistened like refined silver. Its talons and beak were like gold. A tuft of furry feathers were like blue diamonds, and its eyes coruscated like green emeralds. The tail feathers were what truly caught her attention. They were as transparent as a wisp in the night. The bird croaked pitifully.

“Be of good comfort,” Celeste soothed the bird. “All will be made right. Now please be still.”

Gritting her teeth, she braced herself to pull the arrow out. The bird squawked as she yanked it free. Her hands moved fast as she wrapped the scarf she had knitted into a bandage for the bird. Her act of kindness had stained her favorite blue dress in dark blood. This hurt her a little because the dress was a gift that her mother had given her before she had passed away. Celeste’s mother had always loved her, unlike her father. Wearing the dress helped Celeste remember her. Nonetheless, a dress could be replaced. A life could not.

Celeste laid the poor bird in a basket with a bundle of clothes. She placed it in a corner of the room, far from the storm, and laid a bowl of water by it. She didn’t know what else she could do for it except to speak soothingly to it, which she did. Celeste’s speaking eventually turned into song. Her song was a clear, spring day, bright sunlight, keeping the roaring and howling of the storm at bay. When she was done singing and night was approaching, she slipped into her gown and made her way to her bed. Pulling the covers over her, she thought she could hear a voice. It was faint. It was “thank you.” Chalking it up to her exhaustion, she thought no more of it and fell asleep.

As the weeks passed, Celeste gave the bird food and water. Each week, the bird looked a bit healthier. Sometimes she would even read to the bird. Though it was only an animal she was tending to, the princess felt like her life had purpose again. Gradually, the bird began to walk. It came to a point that, though still wounded, the bird would follow Celeste around the chamber, and sometimes even down to the kitchen where she would cook a meal.

The emotions that coursed through the princess’s heart were twofold. On one hand her soul was enlivened to see the bird growing well. It was more than the tending of an animal. It was a friendship. They ate together, cuddling up in the blanket together when it was cold, and when she talked to her winged companion she felt like it could understand her; if not her words, the language of her heart and soul. When Celeste was happy, the bird looked happy, when despondent, the bird appeared despondent. It was as if some string had connected the two of them together. And yet gloom hung over her to know that when the fowl was well, she would be alone. That string would break when the bird flew away into the horizon, away from her life.

How Celeste wished she could fly away, especially at this time of year. As the years passed, she had grown accustomed to the change in seasons and what they brought. Without even a calendar to remind her, she knew that in another week her father’s servants and guardsmen would be returning on their ship to inquire her as to whether she would be a dutiful daughter and accept her father’s arranged marriage for her. Every year she told them no, and every year they told her that she’d die here if she didn’t bend to the king’s will. Celeste looked over the bird she had formed a friendship with. That was a free bird, whereas she was a bird trapped in a fancy cage.

When the time was nigh and the night was at its darkest, Celeste lay awake, sobbing on the large cushions of the bed. In another day her father’s ship would be here and she wouldn’t be able to board it. The darkness was heavy, and again thoughts whispered sweet lies, like poison, that it was better that she toss herself out from the tower than live another day in misery as she slowly awaited for death to come naturally.

It was when the shadows were at their deepest, in which she couldn’t hope to resurface from this sea of sorrow, that she heard a gentle voice. “Celeste, mourn not.”

She looked up from the pillows to see the bird, and he was glowing. His silver body and golden beaks and legs shone in the dark, as did the tuft of blue hair on his head. His emerald eyes sparkled like stars. And his tail feather! Feathers, spread out like a fan, which were once transparent were now a translucent cornucopia of shifting colors.

“Why do you cry?” he asked her.

“Do you not know?” she sniffed while wiping the tears from her eyes. “Have I not told you that the time draws near for my father to torment me again by reaching out a hand that I can never take?

“And why can you never take his hand, child?”

“For what he did. A farmer, just barely a young man, deigned to speak with me and to treat me as though I were decent human being and not a prize to be won. I was so infatuated with him, in spite of his rough hands and crude appearance, that I felt a sense of joy. We laughed together, talked together, sang in unison. Then my father cut the cord of his life.”

The bird flapped his wings and landed on the bedside by Celeste. “And you stay away from your father because you don’t want to associate with him?”

“Of course! I won’t give in and marry a suitor to appease him, not after what he did. His heinous sin is unforgivable.”

The bird latched his green eyes onto hers. “Are you sure that he’s the only one you won’t forgive?”

“Whatever do you mean? What sort of riddles do you speak, bird?”

“I speak not in riddles, but plainly so that the mind can comprehend. Do you not forgive yourself? For I see it clearly, the burden that you carry on your back. You blame yourself as much as you blame your father for the young man’s death.”

The truth that the bird proclaimed was an arrow, piercing her heart. It hurt. Celeste had tried to deny that she was punishing herself for so long. “What must I do?” she asked, her voice weak.

“You want to cut associations with your father, do you not?”

“I do,” Celeste said with great conviction.

“Then cast off your burdens. That way your frame will be light and you can fly away with me.”

“How do I cast off” –

“It’s simple,” the bird interjected. “You forgive yourself. However, once you do, there is no looking back. You will cease to be a princess. Does that suite you?”

“Yes,” Celeste’s voice quivered with a hint of sadness. “Yes, it suits me fine.”

“Do you forgive yourself?”

Celeste had to examine herself. Why, oh why, did she ever have to associate with a mere farmhand? If it hadn’t been for her, that poor man would have still been alive. It wasn’t her fault. She herself telling herself again and again. The sin was her father’s and her father’s alone. After some deep introspection, she forgave herself.

“I’m ready,” she told the bird.

“Not yet,” he said to her gently. “You must now forgive your father, just as I forgave some sailors who shot an infernal arrow in me. Until then, you are chained here.”

“Forgive!” fumed Celeste. “He is unforgivable. I shall never crawl back to him.”

“I never asked you to crawl back to him,” the bird corrected her. “I asked you to soar high above him, to reach the heavens that he cannot reach. Do so and you’ll have a freedom that he refuses.” For a moment there was silence. “Unless you’d like to stay trapped in this tower.”

Celeste certainly did not want to live out the rest of her life entrapped in a tower. But could she forgive the man who had harmed her and harmed many others? Why couldn’t he have been the one death had claimed as a prize instead of her fair mother? As she pondered this, not so much with her mind, but through the very depths of her soul, she came to the realization that she could forgive him. He had done so much to hurt himself. Through his cruel actions, he had lost the trust and confidence of many of the lords and ladies. He had made more enemies, instead of allies, that constantly waged war against his kingdom. He had lost her, his daughter and a blood heir to the throne. He had the scorn of the world. He didn’t need hers.

“I forgive him,” said Celeste.

The bird landed on the windowsill, his many colors forming a rainbow against the night sky. “Then fly with me.”

“It’s madness. I’ll hit the rocks below and perish.”

“You shall not. I promise you.” The bird flew out, leaving a trail of silver, gold, emerald, crimson-purple, light blue, bright red, and vibrant yellow.

Celeste did her best to calm the machinations of her mind that warned her against such foolishness, choosing instead to rely on her heart. She leapt out the window, stretched out her arms and took flight. For a few seconds she screamed, certain that the earth was going to pull her down. Instead she was soaring in the night, the waves of the ocean crashing below her and the stars in the sky acting as a map, a compass, above her, pointing her in the direction she should go.

The king’s ship manned by sailors, servants, and guardsmen were being rocked back and forth on the ocean that night, five hours away from the tower. But they wouldn’t see the princess when they arrived. What they did see were two birds in flight, glowing in a myriad of different colors that cut through the darkest of nights.

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