The misbegotten script

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Maxim flung the script across the room where it hit the wall with a satisfying thud and broke apart, showering papers over his desk and onto the floor. The cat, that had been curled up by his desk, took a lazy swipe at several sheets, then, bored with the game, sought refuge in an armchair, from where it stared at him unblinking. He shook an angry fist at it, but his attention quickly returned to the script. Selena should not have been lashed to the stake. In the gloom of early evening, several men were moving forward with flaming torches. No! No! No! That wasn’t what he’d written. She was supposed to escape. Getting down on all fours, he shoved away the cat that was rolling in the discarded sheets, baring it’s hairy belly to the world. Rummaging through the pages, he searched for the last scene, but it was nowhere to be found. Snatching up a sheet, he turned it over and, grabbing a pen from his desk, scribbled on the blank side: Selena shakes off the shackles that bind her… as if writing it again might sway history … but it didn’t work. The smell of smoke was everywhere and he could hear the crackle of flames. Balling up the paper, he tossed it to the floor where the cat pounced on it, tearing it to shreds between claws and teeth. Maxim clamped his hands over his ears when the ripping of paper gave way to a piercing scream. A moan broke from his unwilling lips and tears streamed from his eyes. Smoke curled round him ever denser. “Selena?” he called out. Jeers were the only answer he got. “That’ll teach you, witch!” one man cried out. A fit of coughing had Maxim bent over double as the fire roared ever louder. He sank to the floor, a wave of intense heat washing over him, sapping his strength. Cracking open stinging eyelids, he saw two large, round eyes emerge from the swirling smoke only inches from his face and a tiny pick tongue darted out and licked his nose, its touch rough and wet and reassuring. When the cat turned to leave, despair threatened to overwhelm him, but the animal halted and glanced back, waiting. Gathering what little force he had left, Maxim pushed himself up on all fours and crawled after the cat.

God be blown

The blast flung Scott the length of the corridor, through the back door of the pub and all the way into the yard. When its force finally waned, he crumpled to the ground to a round of applause. Looking up, he saw a row of people arrayed along the wall grinning. What had he done wrong? And what was this clasped in his hand? A brick! Where in blaze’s name had that come from? He clawed his way up the wall then squinted at the object in his hand. Apart from its excessive weight, it seemed quite ordinary, a dull orange pitted with tiny holes. Scratching his head, he tended the brick to the young woman leaning against the wall a few feet from him. “What do you make of it, Louisa?” She might once have been an acclaimed Miss Chichester, but for all her bold colours Louisa was no hero. She shied away, her glass sloshing its sherry over the bank clerk parked in a wheelchair next to her. But Scott insisted. Pulling a hanky from her pocket, she dabbed the sherry from the clerk’s knees then took the brick and, feeling its full weight, almost dropped it before she deposited it in the clerk’s lap. The clerk manoeuvred his wheelchair into a patch of light and examined the brick as if it were a holy relic. “‘Ere. Give it t’ me, Mate,” a young man in paint-stained overalls said, plucking it from the clerk’s lap. He stroked its bevelled edges, a broad smile on his lips. “Now there’s a good un. What d’yer think, Louisa?” She scowled and sipped her sherry. Flexing his biceps, he tossed the brick a short way into the air, sizing it up. “It’s a good un, Reverend,” he said and bowing deeply proffered it in outstretched palms. The vicar grasped it with both hands and shook it vigorously, no doubt expecting a tiny devil to fall out. “If you didn’t drink so much, Walter, you wouldn’t be so amazed by a mere brick.” He looked like he wanted to dispose of it as fast as possible, but that wouldn’t be very Christian, so he bestowed it on the last of those propped against the wall: a boy whose feminine features and frail form were almost angelic. The youth cringed at the feel of the brick, as if it might bewitch him. Flicking the long hair from his eyes, he pulled away from the wall and watched the others slink towards the pub door as if they wanted to have nothing to do with him. Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another, he screamed and hurled the brick, shattering the window at the back of the police station. The resulting blast blew out the window, frame and all, and hurled the boy back across the yard where he landed at the feet of an astounded group, the brick firmly clasped in his hands.

The Complex Weaver

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“He’s not a Complex Weaver…” The young woman’s voice broke off as her words encountered silence.

Such a name should never have been heard; not even by an errant spirit like me.  But the Lord’s Keeper strode in at that moment and conversation faltered, then failed completely. A few patrons eyed the Keeper and with good reason. He was a striking man. Taller and more solidly built than any of those present, he wore a full length riding coat, pulled in at the waist but unbuttoned, revealing a silk waistcoat. But most of the men in the tavern craned to see the woman, hoping to catch a glimpse of the one who had dared say that name.

No one, apart from myself, had noticed the slender woman take a seat in an alcove close to the door at the back. It said something for her skill that she passed unnoticed in a crowded tavern despite her bright red hair and her finely chiselled features. Even when the patrons awoke to her being there, no one could make out whom she was talking to. Even I, shroud in my natural invisibility and gifted with the ability to flow where I liked, could not get a close look at the illusive form that addressed her in hushed tones from the shadows of the recess.

Sergio, the taverner, a stout fellow with an almost perpetual smile, frowned, no doubt sensing that an ugly situation was only a few words away. He called out “Last orders, gentlemen, please.” Only to add more quietly, no doubt for fear of offending, “And lady.”

Timidly at first, then with more gusto, conversations rekindled till the room was loud with their interrogations, each individual glad to sink back into noisy anonymity.

The Lord’s Keeper hastily snatched the broad cap from his head and, being careful not to look at the shadowy form squatted opposite her, bowed to the young lady. “Milady Aurelia,” he said quietly. “Might I accompany you back to your mansion?”

All knew the Keeper had no authority over her. Lady Aurelia was the Lord’s daughter, after all. But his words were more than a polite request. They were a warning. There was danger and both of them knew it.

Pulling the hood of her cape over her head, such that it concealed her face and most of her long red curls, Lady Aurelia nodded to the shifting shadows swirling across from her, rose and took the arm the Keeper offered her.

I searched to make sure the shadowy force hadn’t shifted to some dark corner ready to prey on an unsuspecting patron. Then I followed Lady Aurelia out.

No one ever pays attention to errant spirits such as me, except perhaps the likes of her. Sure enough, when we were out of earshot of the tavern, Lady Aurelia turned to greet me, much to the Keeper’s surprise. As most men in town, he was blind to spirits.

“Jonathan,” she said. I loved the way she spoke my name, her voice like a caress. Had I been a cat, I would have purred. “What brings you here?”

“The same thing as you, my Lady.”

“Make yourself visible to the Keeper. The poor man must be alarmed watching me talk to empty air. He’ll be telling Father I’ve gone mad.”

The Keeper shook his head, no doubt used to witnessing inexplicable phenomena in the lady’s presence.

“Keeper,” I said, shifting to look like a travel-worn peddler unburdened by his wares.

He bowed stiffly but remained silent, showing no surprise at my sudden appearance.

Lady Aurelia laughed, tossing back her head so that her hood fell away revealing her pale face and causing her curls to tumble over her shoulders. “Don’t be fooled by Jonathan’s appearance,” she said, drawing the Keeper closer as if they were conspiring. “He’s far more than he seems.”

I held back, allowing them to walk ahead and as I did I let my human form drift away till nothing of it remained. Some people might think errant spirits crave the body they don’t have, but truthfully, I feel more comfortable and safer being invisible, especially at such dangerous times.

Had I been human I might have been jealous, watching her walk arm in arm with the Keeper. He was a handsome man, a good ten inches taller than her, impressive with his sword attached to his belt. But instead, I savoured the way her presence danced with my spirit, making me feel light and joyous. I didn’t need to hold her arm to be linked to her. It was part of my nature. All Weavers did that to me, but Lady Aurelia more than any other.

Weavers! Few of those meddling human magicians merited the name. Thank heavens the powers of mere magicians were limited. The world would be an ugly place if those self-centred, petty-minded magicians were to wield the power of a weaver. As a weaver, Lady Aurelia was one of the best. She could weave the fabric of the world, shaping places and people alike. But she did so sparingly, concentrating her efforts on healing.

When we reached the mansion, bestowed on her by her father, she invited the Keeper in. I needed no invitation.

The building was eerily quiet. No one greeted us in the entrance hall, no fire burnt bright in the fireplace, and no one waited on us in the reception room. She must have sent the servants away. A wise precaution.

Settled in a padded chair, the Keeper spoke up.  “I heard you mention…” He balked at pronouncing the words.

“The complex weaver,” she said, causing him to glance nervously at the many bookshelves, as if one might jump out from between the books.

“I always thought it was a legend,” he said, turning back to her.

“I wish it were.”

“Why complex?”

“A misheard ancient name…” she paused, “or maybe a way of not evoking the unnameable…”

The Keeper looked perplexed.

“Pronouncing such a name is akin to summoning the being you name.” Her lips curved in a twisted smile that verged on a grimace. “And I can assure you, you really don’t want that.”

It was then I felt a distant shuddering deep in the fabric of the world, as if existence itself were quaking. She felt it to. I could see it in her eyes and feel it in the dulling of her spirit. Complex weavers draw their power from the magic of the world, and other weavers in particular. Even the Keeper seemed to sense something was amiss. He drew his sword and stood.

“Sheath your sword, ” she said, slumping back into her chair.  “Someone might get hurt.”

He did as ordered, asking, “Is there nothing we can do?”

She shook her head, getting paler by the minute. It wasn’t that she was afraid. Of that I was sure. Rather that life was slowly draining from her. I could feel it, just as I could feel my own light dimming.

The trembling drew rapidly closer and stronger, until the closed door started to ripple as if it were water. Becoming more and more agitated, it finally burst into thousands of droplets that fell to the floor with a splash, revealing a second form that flowed into the room through the hole. Rapidly taking shape, a little girl no more than eight years old ventured an unsteady step towards them. Raw power raged from her like an army of wild hands clawing at everything within reach. It took all my effort not to be torn apart.

Alarmed, the Keeper looked to Lady Aurelia for an explanation, but she sagged in her seat, her eyes clenched shut, both hands gripping her head.

If Lady Aurelia’s earlier words had been like caresses, the girl’s “Help!” was like the desperate screech of a caged bird.

“Keep away from her,” the Keeper growled, his fist on the hilt of his sword.

Lady Aurelia held up a trembling hand to halt him.

His bravery would do no good, the girl could dispatch him without a thought, but at least he did something. All I could do was hover in a corner, desperately trying to hold myself together as the girl’s presence tore at my being.

The girl ignored the Keeper and knelt at the lady’s side. Taking up the lady’s limp hand, she said, “It’s got to stop.”

“I can’t help,” her voice a hoarse whisper, “you’re killing me.”

“Tell me how to stop.”

A long silence followed, broken only by Lady Aurelia’s ragged breathing.

“Stop sucking the sap from me,” Lady Aurelia finally replied, struggling over each word.

“How?”

“Your skin,” was all she could say.

“Use your skin to curb the flow,” I said, my voice sounding frail and distant, the effort of talking exhausting me.

At the sound of my voice, the girl spun to face me, piercing me with a look of distain. My every instinct screamed, “Run!”

Many of the lesser spirits that normally congregated around a weaver had already fled. Magical artefacts that once lay proud on the shelves had crumbled to dust and Lady Aurelia’s impressive collection of magical treatises began to smoulder.

“Skin?” the girl asked.

“Use it to foil the flow of life’s force,” I said, wishing I had a physical object to hide behind as her force continued to batter me.

“But I will die if I don’t get my fill,” she said and sprang to her feet causing the few remaining books to burst into flame. Lady Aurelia screamed.

“No you won’t,” I managed to say. “Some may die.” I glanced at Lady Aurelia who lay sprawled in her armchair. “But not you.”

The girl groaned and sank to the floor, her fingers ranging over her skin in a desperate search for an answer. Then her back arched upwards as if she were having a fit and, as abruptly as it had begun, the forces that wracked the room collapsed back on her like a giant breath being sucked in. The backlash flung the Keeper across the room and blasted Lady Aurelia from her chair. As for me, an inhuman wail tore from me as I gave up the struggle and was ripped asunder.

 

When I finally flickered back into existence, faint and weak, I was scattered in many tiny clouds, making it hard to know who or what or where I was.  I painstakingly drew the fragments together and managed to recall whom I was, then I looked around.

The room was in ruin. Lady Aurelia lay slumped by a broken armchair, seemingly lifeless. The Keeper was crumbled on the floor in a puddle of blood, his own sword stuck in his side. As for the girl, she was unrecognizable; a charred mass that bubbled here and there, letting off a foul smelling gas.

Moving closer, I felt short bursts of magical energy break from the sinister heap and spurt playfully about the room. Dare I use it? What if it were tainted? To my relief, I found the energy to be good and sucked in as much as I could. I had never held so much before. It had my whole being trembling with power; the feeling was so alarming I promptly stopped.

Turning to Lady Aurelia, who lay unmoving, I could just make out a faint light glowing in her midst. She was still alive, but barely. I was no healer, but if I could just feed her some energy, she might survive. Errant spirits take energy; they don’t give it. I had no idea what to do. I tried pushing energy into her body. It didn’t work. Neither did anything else I tried. In desperation, I curled around her, cradling her like only an errant spirit can, and let my thoughts drift.

Memories of past encounters with Aurelia laced with delicious scents and sweet sounds floated to the surface, sparking a yearning that tore at the depths of my being. I lingered over words long forgotten and, one last time, I savoured an intricate magical procedure I’d seen her perform. Maybe it was the moment to let her go. My spirit drifted through her hair like a sigh, causing her curls to stir and I glided over her cheek; the closest I could come to a caress.

“Jonathan,” a delicious voice said, “that tickles.”

The Blinkin’ Box

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I peer out, my eyes pressed to the cold metal slit. The brick wall opposite often forms a landscape scarred with shadows, but today it is nothing but a red blur. It stings my eyes as I watch a beetle scuttle across, willing it on with silent words. When it reaches the other side, I leap for joy. Well I would, if I had the room.

Early every morning, patches of deep blue trudge by. Then come the greys and blacks, hastening in a sole direction. But it is the flutter of colours filling the remaining daylight hours that delights me most, bringing with it delicate scents and whispered voices. Then, finally, as night falls, the whole ballet rewinds, ready to repeat again.

Not all is routine. From time to time, thin wedges of paper get shoved into my face through the narrow slit. Only yesterday, I got one in my ear. Damn sharp it was. Can’t complain though; they bring welcome sustenance, something I can chew on for hours.

It is time for the colours. My breath comes in short, sharp bursts and my mouth goes dry. I shift to squint out, biting my lip as I do, but the slit is obscured. Blast! A long drawn-out groan close to my feet, like metal straining against metal, has me scrambling to get away. But there is nowhere to go.

“‘Ere give us a ‘and with them bolts,” a rough voice calls out. It is so close, it could be in my head. “Pillar boxes ain’t no blinkin’ use any rate. Who’d be postin’ flippin’ letters these days.”

The shifting of metal on metal takes up again. Once, twice, three times in steady succession, only to stop, then start again. When it finally ceases, a metal object clatters to the ground and the voice calls out, “Right yer go! Lift ‘er up. Steady as she goes.”

The walls around me tremble and the unthinkable happens. Light streams in at my feet. I clench my eyes, wrap my arms tight around my chest and hold my breath, every muscle tensed to flee. But fleeing is no option.

Air swirls about me, setting my hairs on end as a stark light probes my every inch. I sway sightless. Exposed. Vulnerable. Seeking reassurance, I crack open my eyes. The world stretches away in every direction. Its sheer immensity has me blinking in amazement. People of all shapes and sizes stand frozen like grotesque statues, ogling. Their expressions shift from disbelief to distain to disgust. Then the muttering begins.

With no box left to sustain me, I sag, then sink slowly, till I am but a formless mess that flows out across the pavement, lost and bewildered, like spilt water far from its cup.

The Shed

Lurking in the dank shadows, amid a heavy wreak of creosote, a rake, head held high, leans across a bundle of raffia, the strands of which escape and tumble to the floor and over earthenware pots plopped in unruly piles next to a bundle of slender bamboos each darkened at the tip where it has been thrust into the ground to truss up last year’s raspberries or was it peas or runner beans, no matter, oh and there’s Granddad’s butterfly net, I can see him now, careening across the tiny lawn and between the narrow rows of carefully tended greens in search of cabbage whites, brandishing the net at them, and Nana peering round the kitchen door, her pinny tight about her waist, her face red from cooking, calling out Hey Percy, lunch is on the table, while his stomach rumbles and him grumbling all the time, complaining that it is too early or too late, and all the time shaking the net at stray fluttery patches of white as he struggles a spade from the damp soil, shakes the clods of earth from it and plods away from their tiny terraced house, along the narrow stone path by the apple trees that have been trained along the fence until right at the end, there where a brick wall marks the boundary of his little world, he cracks open the door, returns the spade to the hoe and fork, before hanging up the net for the day and clicking closed the door of the shed.

The Lift

Catching sight of her striding after him as he hurried into the lift, he was relieved when the doors started to close and a mechanical voice said: Ground floor. Going up.

Undaunted, she reached forward and forced her outstretched hands between the two halves of the closing lift, prizing them apart. Once the doors sprang open, she slipped deftly inside and moved to the opposite corner, staring resolutely at the set of buttons indicating the floors.

Should he make a run for it? Not possible! The doors had just shut.  So he wedged himself in the farthermost corner of the tiny lift, from where he glanced at her furtively.

She was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt that hugged her body, the kind some women wore when they were headed for a workout at the gym. Her scanty clothes left no secret about the muscular curves of her body. Hardly the attire for work.

Thank heavens she hadn’t recognised him. Had he changed that much? Of course, he had been off sick for a while following that first encounter and had lost a lot of weight. Surely she couldn’t possibly have forgotten. He certainly hadn’t. Cold sweat ran down his back at the thought.

Then the lift shuddered to a halt between floors, jerking him off balance. Her hand shot out to steady him. With a vice-like grip her fingers clamped aroundhis arm, her nails digging into his skin before she finally released him.

Now he was in for trouble. Last time he hadn’t known what to expect when she cornered him in an unlit corridor after an office party. He’d had the bruises for weeks. When he finally returned to work, colleagues had jokingly asked him if his wife had been beating him.

“What an awkward situation,” he said, thinking out loud.

“How are you John?” she asked, turning to face him.

“Feeling rather trapped.” He loosened the knot of his tie. Closed spaces always made him feel uncomfortable, but being stuck with her was far worse.

Judging from the smile on her face, she didn’t feel in the slightest trapped or uncomfortable.

“Would you mind if I kissed you?” she asked, as blunt as ever. “For old times sake.”

So she hadn’t forgotten. Far from it. His hand flew to his mouth, as if that might protect him. He took a nervous step towards the door and pressed the alarm bell several times, but he could hear no answering ring. “When are they going to rescue us?” he asked.

“It could be quite a while,” she said, leaning so close he could feel the warmth of her breath on his face and neck.

 

This story was inspired by an exercise with Marie-José about dialogue in a GWG workshop in Geneva.

The professor

“…all this nonsense about rules and regulations is so trying…” the professor complained, abruptly raising his voice as he paced the auditorium. Several older ladies in the front row started, one stifled a squeal, another dropped her pen and notebook with a clatter to the parquet floor. A young man seated near by tried to hide his grin as he gathered up the errant items and handed them back with a flourish. He was rewarded with an embarrassed smile.

One hand raking through a shock of white hair, the professor described an all-encompassing arc in the air over the audience with his other hand. “When I began this profession, no such regulations hindered our work.” He halted abruptly, staring intently at the young man as if asking a question. It was the young man’s turn to be embarrassed, clearly unsure how to react. Embarrassment spread rapidly through the room as the professor continued to stare in silence.

Then just when people were beginning to shift uncomfortably on their chairs, the professor looked away, disappointment etched in the folds of his face, and continued his pacing. “The art of our work is to find ways round such obstacles.”

An interview of Dr. Schwab

We are lucky to have with us today the renown scientist Dr. Schwab of Frütigen-am-See University. He’s a depth psychologist and an expert on human-bird relations. He has kindly accepted to talk about Alan McCluskey’s short story, The Path.

Tell us Dr. Schwab, what do you make of The Path?

I think the author must be a little bit troubled, nicht wahr?

Troubled? What exactly do you mean?

Well. How desperate do you have to get to seek advice from a bird? (He laughs) 

Jokes apart, surely this piece raises fundamental questions?

You are right. Let’s be serious. That is what we are here for.  Most people are obsessed with where they are going, some are worried about how they will get there, but few are so taken by where and when it all started. This man is quite stuck with the idea. He’s got his head up his… how do you say it?

I don’t understand. Stuck?

Don’t you English say, stuck in a butt?

Ah. (surprised and amused if not embarrassed) Surely you mean stuck in a rut.

Rut? What a strange language yours is. I hardly see what torrid sex has to do with it?  Hm! Maybe Freud was right. (pause) Well never mind. If you ask me, this is a typical teenage reaction.

I don’t follow.

Exactly. He’s not a follower. He wants to go before God, not after him. He is convinced he could have done things better. All young people are the same. They are dotted with spots, plagued with uncontrollable desires and yet they believe they are all powerful.

So why this round path?

It’s obvious, wirklich wahr. He wants to go before, but instead he comes afterwards. Think about it! The only way you can be both before and after is by walking in circles.

Good Lord! You are right.

Nein! Gott has no role in this. It’s a question of geometry and logic. Walking in circles gives the impression you follow yourself and no one else.

So the bird does him a favour, you mean?

I doubt it. The truth is, birds can’t abide human stupidity. Why else do you think they make such a noise in the early morning. It’s the thought of watching humans make a fool of themselves once again.

Thank you Dr. Schwab for explaining things with such (he pauses) lucidity. I remind our listeners that your latest book entitled “The bird in each of us” is now available from your local ornithological society. 

Magical words

Late as usual, I managed to slid into one of the very last remaining places at the back of the lecture hall, at the limit of scrutiny. Opening my notebook and hiding a tiny tape recorder under an array of papers next to it, I turned my attention to the bevy of young women fluttering and twittering in anticipation in the front row. The faithful following.

The door swung open and in strolled Winston, master art theoretician, connoisseur of strange artifacts, specialist of Lacan and other obscure luminaries, and, above all, marathon orator and supreme performer. His jacket flowed out behind him as if he were wearing a cape or one of those gowns that professors used to wear when giving lectures. Rumour had it that the university had snubbed him, refusing to appoint him professor, forcing him to fall back on second best: fine art school. Maybe that explained the cape-like appearance.

Barely glancing at his audience and without the slightest greeting, Winston launched into his lecture like a headstrong diver plunging unheeding into the swirling waves. Taking my cue from him, I started the recorder, hoping no one would notice the click it invariably made when switched on. One of my neighbours, a mature student like myself, an intent-looking woman with a snub nose, glared at me. Recording was proscribed, although from my vantage point I could see several others surreptitiously hooking up devices and turning them on.

Winston had no time for notes or other such crutches like slideshows, instead, he expounded Lacan’s theories from memory, richly illustrated with personal anecdotes, in a tightly woven flow that lasted the regulatory two hours without the slightest pause. No interruptions were tolerated. The unfortunate first-year student who once misguidedly asked a question while Winston was in mid-flight was annihilated with icy scorn and derision.

I tried to take notes, but, as always, failed miserably. The subject was fascinating and thought provoking, but Winston’s lectures had an uncanny way of sparking a wealth of ideas about creative projects that had little or nothing to do with his words. It was those untamed imaginings and selected sketches that filled the pages of my notepad when the lecture was over.

Secretly recording his lectures served to allay my feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction. I would be able to listen to the lecture in the quiet of my studio at home. At least then I would have done my duty as a student and would be able to answer questions about the subject. Unfortunately, even in the absence of the charismatic Winston, the recording had me drifting in a sea of wild ideas and fanciful projects, leaving me with no notion as to what the lecture was about.

The Path

The young man got to his feet and paced a well worn circle around the wooden foldable chair on which he had been seated. A blackbird circled overhead, then settled on the back of the vacated chair with a flutter of its wings and began silently preening. The young man, his hands clasped behind his back, his face set in grim determination, paid the bird no heed as he continued to pace.

“What seems to be the problem?”

The question startled the young man, who spun round trying to see who had spoken. Nobody ever came there. Nobody ever spoke to him. The large expanse of dusty ground on which the chair stood was otherwise empty. No trees, no flowers, no animals and, above all, no people. He resumed his pacing.

“You can’t deny there’s a problem,” the voice said.

It was then that he spotted the bird. A scruffy specimen, its head drooped, its wings lackluster, its eyes watery and glassy. The creature turned its head in his direction and opened its beak as if to speak.

“You are not happy, are you?” it said, its question rhetorical.

“Is that so self evident?” he replied, swallowing his surprise at this talking bird.

The bird nodded.

“It’s hard to explain,” the young man said. He would have pursued his round, but he wondered if that might appear rude. Instead, swaying unsteadily on the spot, cautious not to step beyond the circle, he struggled to find the right words. “Once, there was a beginning, right?”

The bird remained silent, its mournful eyes staring at him, waiting.

“The creation they call it. Before there was nothing and after there was everything…”

The idea was unfinished, but the need to move was so strong he resumed his pacing in silence, the bird swivelling its head to follow him.

“One sole person witnessed that event, if you can call that a person.” He halted a moment, lost in thought. “By the time you and I came on the scene the die had long been cast. We arrived too late.”

“How so?” the bird asked, spreading its wings as if it were about to fly off, only to settle again.

“A path is determined by its starting point,” the young man replied, kicking up a cloud of dust with his bare feet. “If we had been there, maybe the path would have been different, perhaps better.”

“But you weren’t.”

“No,” the young man said with a sigh, “but if we had been…”

“Indeed.”

“Instead we are bound to follow the path traced out for us,” he said, his voice sounding bitter.

The bird rose brusquely in the air and plunged directly at the young man’s head, causing him to stagger back as he threw up his hands to protect his face.

“You see,” the bird said, resuming its position on the chair back.

The young man sank to one knee confused, one hand on the ground to steady himself, the other shakily assessing the damage to his head. No harm done, it would seem. The bird must have swerved at the last moment. Glancing down at his hand planted in the dust, he realised to his horror that he knelt several yards outside the familiar circle. His breath caught in his throat as panic seized him and his muscles locked in place.

“What were you saying about the path?” the bird asked.