Tulgey Wood

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsey were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”

“Is that all she says?”

“Yes. Over and over. Same thing.”

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

“What sort of rubbish is that? It doesn’t even sound like English.”

“Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s Jabberwocky. You know. The poem by Lewis Carroll?”

“That the guy who wrote about the magical wardrobe?”

“Not even close. What the hell kind of childhood did you have anyway? Didn’t you ever read Through the Looking Glass?”

“Irrelevant. Does she say anything else? Anything at all.”

“Well… not really.”

“You hesitated there. What is it?”

“Sometimes it’s as if she’s gotten stuck. She’ll repeat the same word over and over like she can’t remember the next line.”

“And then?”

“After a while she just kicks back in as if she’d never hit a glitch.”

“And what is this Jabberwocky…”

They think I can’t hear them, they think I don’t see what’s two feet away. Catatonic, they say. But I’m just ignoring them. They don’t know anything, and they’ll leave the room eventually. They always do.

I’m safe inside myself. No one can reach me here and there’s nothing that can hurt me. I don’t have to feel anything this way. I don’t have to fear anything. I’m disconnected from my body, and though I can’t exactly get around, that’s okay. I don’t need a change of scenery. I don’t need a change of pace. I like it just fine here inside myself where it’s safe.

“Beware! Beware! Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

They think I’m crazy. They think getting lost in the basement during a power outage was too much for me. They claim I freaked out; short-circuited, or something. Deep seated fear of the dark, they say. They’re so full of shit they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it showed up and bit their heads off in the middle of the night.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame…”

There really is a Jabberwock. I’ve seen it. I’ve fought it. I thought my life was as good as over. But if I told them that, they’d still think I was crazy. So it’s better to hide inside myself, where it’s safe. Not even the Jabberwock can get me.

As a child I never had irrational fears of monsters or things that go bump in the night. Now I know better.

It was a stormy summer evening, and I’d tried to keep busy. There wasn’t much to do. The cable had been knocked out and the TV reception was crap without it. I couldn’t risk the computer to a power surge, it was too valuable. So I made myself productive. There was a lot of house to clean. I’d been sick all week and my husband was down with what he’d nursed me through. I let him rest on the couch with a book, occasionally bringing him something to drink.

I admit I’ve never been a fan of the dark. I’m a klutz. The basement’s always been a bit creepy; but in a centipedes’ and spiders’ playhouse sense, not in a monsters’ feeding ground kind of way.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

I went down to check the laundry. I’ve always been obsessive about getting the clothes out while they were still hot. I avoid a lot of ironing that way. I’m not particularly good at ironing. Never was.

I folded the laundry in the basement, using the chest freezer as a table, and dropping the folded clothes into a basket for my husband to lug up the stairs. I’m also not particularly strong. You might call me a full-grown ninety pound weakling.

“The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back…”

I was in the basement when our block lost power. I was more annoyed than scared. I knew my own house well enough to find my way out of it in the dark. And really, what’s to fear of the dark? If I didn’t come up soon enough, my husband would be down with a flashlight.

The basement in the dark is a terrible horrible place. It’s something all children seem to know. Parents dismiss it as a silly fear, but I think it’s an ancient instinct. Parents think they know best. Fools. They don’t like things that defy their neat and tidy logical world. In the dark, a basement becomes another realm; a maze populated with all the horrors of ancient epic, and a host of others never dreamed of. Ishtar’s wild bull can’t touch it. The Minotaur is a plaything. Grendel is nothing on the Jabberwock.

“Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came…”

I don’t know how long I stumbled around in the dark. My husband didn’t respond to my calls. My shouts. He blames himself for my condition. If I dared come out, for even a moment, I’d tell him it’s not his fault. He didn’t hear me because I wasn’t in our basement anymore. I was in the place where darkness was born. I was in the Tulgey Wood.

I stumbled into a hard wall, slick with the cool dampness of a limestone dungeon. The surface felt rough, nothing like the sheet rock we’d hung last spring. That should have warned me. But I told myself I was too dependent on my sight and didn’t know what I was feeling. I reminded myself of the old Halloween gag where peeled grapes pass for witches’ eyeballs. I tripped over obstacles that shouldn’t have been there. Instead of understanding, I cursed our tendency to let things go for too long before cleaning them up.

“So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought…”

I eventually sat down on the damp and lumpy floor to wait. There was no point in continuing to bumble about in the dark, blindly walking into walls.

I felt a tickle as if light hairs were sweeping gently over my arm. I froze, hardly able to breathe. I was sure my heart would stop when the first spider was followed by others, all running across my bare skin. I tried to tell myself it was just my hair dangling down onto my arms, or brushing against my legs where I sat hunched up. But I knew better. It was the centipedes and other multi-legged creatures come to claim their domain. In the dark they have no fear. In the dark they can be as small as a broken pencil lead, or as big as a horse. They live with the Jabberwock. They share the spoils.

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch…”

It wasn’t until I heard the louder scuffles, the slithering noises and rustlings of larger things, that I realized something was wrong. That’s when I began to feel fear. You don’t really know what fear is until you’ve faced your basement in the dark.

The rough floor trembled slightly and I heard something approaching with great heavy steps. I called for my husband, thinking it was him. I saw the orange glow from around the corner and got up, virtually running to greet him.

No light burns quite like the fire in Jabberwock’s eyes. It’s red. It’s hot. It sears its imprint on your retina as you try to see. Never meet the eyes of a Jabberwock. In an instant you can know its mind, but it’s very like standing on the lip of an erupting volcano.

Jabberwock knows your fears; any and all of them. It’s been around longer than we have. It can’t come into our world except in the dark. It needs a basement, as a demon needs a gate.

“Long time the manxome foe he sought…”

Its mouth makes up a full two-thirds of its head and its eyes are the other third. Its nose seems to have been added as an afterthought, and I don’t think it relies on smell for much. For a beast the size of a hippo, it moves with the speed of a cheetah. Perhaps the laws of our world don’t apply to Jabberwock. Then again, the perfect conditions for it to come into our realm may align so rarely that it has to be fast if it wants time to toy with us. Jabberwock likes to play with its food.

It grabbed me in its two huge claws before my brain could even register surprise. I’ve never been a screamer. But I was that night. I shrieked until my throat was raw. I screamed until all that came out was a forced hoarse exhalation. It roared its triumph. It stomped its four great feet in celebration. I struggled. I kicked and squirmed. The logical part of my mind had been reduced to a quivering mass of incomprehension while I fought for my life.

“The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

When it tried to put me in its mouth I must have triggered a long dormant berserker gene. My father hasn’t traced the family back to Norway yet, but I suspect he’ll find that link soon enough. I kicked and bit and scratched and howled in protest all at the same time. I somehow broke loose. The fight itself is still a blur. It grabbed me and I got away, again and again. It knocked me against a hard stone wall, but I refused to pass out. I refused to lay still and die. I ran behind it and grabbed its pathetic string of a tail and sank my teeth into it. Bit it right off.

“He took his vorpal sword, vorpal sword, vorpal sword in hand…”

Jabberwock’s blood is foul beyond the most noxious sewer sludge. It smells of a hundred rotting corpses sitting in the summer sun two weeks after they should have been buried. It burns like acid that peels the skin right off your body. But I had no vorpal sword. No magic blade to chop off its head and be done with it. I had to endure the sickening stench and wretched pain, and even seek it out if I wanted to survive.

Jabberwock howled in rage. It grew less interested in playing and more intent on killing me and eating me. Not necessarily in that order. It grabbed me by the hair. I bit its nose. We fought in a haze of teeth and feet and claws. I poked its fiery eyes. It slapped me across the room. I broke an arm. Jabberwock lost a tooth.

“Beware the Jabberwock…”

When the lights came back on, Jabberwock vanished with a screech of protest. It had not conquered me. It was sent home unwilling, but I knew it would be back, looking for me and the opportunity for revenge.

I collapsed in a daze; the adrenaline crash was phenomenal. There wasn’t a piece of me that didn’t scream out in pain. I hurt so much I wanted to die, but I hadn’t the means or the energy. I couldn’t move. My throat was too raw to cry for help. I lay there until my husband woke from his nap hours later and came looking. By then I’d retreated to the safest possible place. I’d followed that recessive berserker gene to its little hidey hole for safe keeping. Nothing can hurt me here.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?”

They think I’m crazy, but I’m not. They don’t know what lives in the dark. And they wouldn’t believe me if I told them. I’m not ready to face the Jabberwock again. Not just yet. So from my place of safety I whisper the charm that keeps the Jabberwock away. But I haven’t been idle. I’ve found the vorpal sword and can claim it as my own. Someday when I’m strong again, I’ll take up that sword and finish the job.



Inspired by my basement, irrational fear of the dark, and the poem Jabberwocky.

Speed Writing #8 – Good Deeds

“Excuse me.”  The young voice startled me, and I looked up from where I was hunched into the trunk of my car, rummaging for the jack.  She looked Japanese and about fourteen.  Her black and silver clothes made me think of the night sky.  She stood in the center of the sidewalk, a hopeful expression on her face. 

“Do you have a map I could borrow?” she asked.

“Uhh…”  It took me a moment to pull my brain from the track it was on, to one that could answer her question.  Poor kid was lost.  I realized she wasn’t alone, though.  Another girl, similarly dressed, stood in the grass several feet back.  She was holding what looked like a couple of brooms behind her back.  “I don’t have like a paper map or anything,” I said, wondering what happened to the one I used to keep in the glove box.  “But I could pull one up on my phone, if that would help.”

She looked puzzled.  “You can do that?” she asked.

I smiled and straightened up, taking a step closer.  “Yeah.”  I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and held it up for her to see.  “Here, I’ll show you.”  My fingers slid quickly across the screen, unlocking the device, then navigating to the map app.  While it loaded, I turned it toward her.

“That’s a phone?”  She blinked a couple of times.

I nodded.  “Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a smart phone.”  It didn’t seem possible.

She smiled, and something about it was secretive.  “I’ve never seen a phone like this.”  She glanced over her shoulder, her straight black hair twirling out about her shoulders.  “San, do you want to see it?”

The other girl shook her head stiffly.

The first one shrugged and turned back to my phone.  “She’s a little nervous,” she whispered.  “It’s her first big outing and she’s never been lost before.”

“You have?” I asked.  The map had loaded, and I tapped the GPS button, and it adjusted to our location.

She giggled.  “Lots of times.”

“So why don’t you have a map?”  It seemed a bit obvious.

“It’s more fun if you have to work at it,” she said.  “So it’s more memorable.  You don’t ever forget and get lost in the same place twice this way.”

“Where are you from?” I asked, thinking it odd that a girl her age was accustomed to getting lost.  Her philosophy about it was strangely mature.

“Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of it,” she assured me.  “It’s a tiny little town.”  She stared at the screen.  “So we’re… here?”  She pointed to the red pin marking our place on the map.

“Yup.  Where are you trying to get to?”

She chewed on her lower lip as she thought for a moment.  “I think you call it Raspberry Island.”

I smiled, it sounded like she was a tourist, translating the place name from her own language.  “Do you have a different name for it?”  I turned my phone sideways and dragged the map a little to find the island.

“Of course.  Oh!”  She smiled brightly and pointed to the screen, careful not to touch it.  “There it is.”  She glanced back over her shoulder.  “We’re only a little off course San.  We’ll be there in no time.”

“So what are you doing?” I asked.  “How’d you get lost?”

“We’re meeting at Raspberry Island,” she said.  “We’ve all been left someplace we’ve never been, and we have to find our way there.”  She looked up at me.  “Don’t worry.  It’s not cheating to get help like this.”

“So it’s a competition or something?”  Someone had dropped young teens all over St. Paul with these instructions?  That seemed kind of harsh.

“More of a test,” she corrected.

“Do you need a ride or want the bus schedule or anything?”  Raspberry Island was easily three miles away.

She grinned.  “Oh, no thank you.  But it’s very kind of you to offer.”  She looked at my car, parked at the curb.  “And I do appreciate you interrupting what you’re doing to help us.”

“No problem.”  I’d forgotten about my flat tire, and the break from that frustration had actually been quite welcome.

“Have a good evening,” she said, before turning to her friend, her hand held out.  The other girl passed one of the brooms to her.

“Thanks.  You too.”  Then I froze and watched, dumbfounded as they straddled their brooms and floated up into the evening sky.  When I finally got back to my tire, it was no longer flat.



Prompt: Do you have a map I could borrow?

Peony

Birth does not always call attention to itself. It is not necessarily a thing of beauty. There is not always screaming, although sometimes that simply comes later.

The stainless-steel kitchen sink was half full of water so cold the bare sides above were fogged and condensing. The shiny silver faucet was dotted with sweat, and droplets slid one by one into the pool of water below. Two recently clipped peonies floated on their petal heavy heads, their stems sticking straight up in the air like some sort of backward bouquet. Small groups of ants gathered in the green cup where the stem joined the blossom. Some had climbed the stem to hang precariously on upside-down leaves. Floating lifeless in the water were the casualties who had not made it from their places deep within the flower before the deadly flood reached them.

One of the flowers bobbed up-and-down a couple of times before tipping onto its side. The ants scattered. There was a rustling of petals at the center of the flower, so hesitant at first it was barely noticeable. Then it picked up a frantic pace. A slender black thing, like the leg of a spider, poked out from between the pale pink petals. It was followed by others, twelve in all, attached to a body that seemed much too small for such long limbs. The whole thing was probably no larger than a quarter, but it was growing. It dipped itself into the cold water and the legs elongated as though the process had been caught on film and speeded up.

Like its limbs, its oval body was black. At one end it had a short pointed tail, not even a tenth as long as its legs. At the other end, its tiny bird’s skull of a head was raised up on a spindly neck. The creature was now heavy enough that the peony could no longer support it, so it set itself free in the water. It sank below the surface for just a few seconds before its growth permitted it to stand with its head above the water.

It looked at the peony from which it had come. Mother, it thought. The petals were thickly crowded together, concealing anything that might be hiding inside. In clumps, small white hairs with pollen yellow tips peeked out from places near the center. The petals were light, almost pastel, although some near the edges bore darker streaks of magenta. It was beautiful; perfect. No flower had ever been so right. The creature leaned closer and inhaled the same heavy perfume that was so familiar. The soothing smell had been a constant throughout its whole existence. Its beaky face nuzzled against the petals, smearing its forehead and the ridges under its solid blue eyes with the comforting scent that spoke of home and safety and love.

It leaned back and admired the blossom one more time, then with great speed darted forward and snapped its maw. It got half the flower in one bite, and the other half in the next. It ducked its head under the water to snatch the stem from the bottom of the sink where it had settled. Delicious. Its legs were now sticking out all over, draped across the counter tops and in front of the cupboards beneath the sink. It owed the other flower no allegiance, and snapped it up without admiring it first. It was terribly hungry. It was growing so rapidly.

It reached up, extending its scrawny neck, and bit off the end of the faucet with a crunch. The metal was a little hard on its teeth, still soft from being so new. The faucet was not good. It swallowed it anyway, because it had to eat something, then it looked around the counters for something better. There were dishes, but they were as bad as the faucet. Some were worse.

It slurped some of the water and wriggled its long legs. They poked out of the sink at odd angles and dangled into free air. It peered down and realized it could reach the floor without a long drop. Ravenous and delighted, it pulled itself clumsily out of the sink, and slipped to the linoleum with a soft clicking of its pointed little feet. It sniffed at the air. There were more flowers nearby. But even better, there was something larger. It was making noise in another part of the house, humming like no bird or insect the creature had heard during its infancy. The flower picker, it thought. Surely it would provide enough of a meal to stop the painful churning of its stomach.

Giddy, it scampered through the house, following the humming.

Speed Writing #4 – Night Swimming

There was nothing more perfect than gliding through the water at two in the morning, under a cloudless sky with a sliver of a moon.  This was when everything was calm.  The annoying mosquitoes and even more annoying drunks had all gone to sleep or passed out.  The bats, who were active early on, had settled in for a few hours.  The surface of the lake was still, glassy, with the exception of the small ripples spreading out from her body.

Having a restaurant and bar right on the edge of the lake was a novelty, though it had worn off after the third or fourth karaoke night.  It wasn’t that she minded the music.  She was all for expressions of happiness.  But the off key howling of hammered patrons hurt her sensitive ears.  Her evening swims had moved later and later.  And it seemed she had finally stumbled upon the perfect time.

She rolled, belly up to gaze at the stars, allowing her momentum to slow, but not stop.  She had a long way to go to complete her circuit, but she had plenty of time, and there was no need to rush.  Her eyes caught the dim glow of a satellite tracking quickly across the sky, and she smiled.

Without warning, her head rammed into something firm yet yielding.  It was immediately followed by an inarticulate shout and a great deal of splashing.

Fearing the worst, she twisted her body to tread water and look around.

A man stood about six feet away, the water just reaching his lower ribs.  He was shirtless, and water dripped from his dark hair to shoulders.  She couldn’t help following the little rivulets of water down his pale chest, wishing her hands could do the same.  Though she was sure the water temperature hadn’t changed, she suddenly felt warmer.  He held his arms out, hands open and extended as if he feared he might need to fight something off.  He was breathing hard, obviously more startled than she was.

“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly.  She didn’t want to disturb the silence of the night needlessly, but she felt bad about causing his panicked state.  “I should’ve watched where I was going.  Are you all right?“

He blew out heavily, lowering his arms.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I’m okay. You?”

She nodded, her lips curving into a small smile.  “I’m Luria.“

“Luria? Hi.  I’m Krish.”  there was a trace of uncertainty in his voice.  “So… what are you doing out here this late?“

“Swimming,” she said with a giggle.  “Isn’t that obvious?“  She thought he might have blushed, but it was hard to tell in this lighting. “What about you?  What are you doing out here?”

“Uh… couldn’t sleep, actually,” he said.  He took a couple steps closer.  “I’m on vacation.“  He pointed over his shoulder toward the little cabin behind him on shore.  “But my brain hasn’t realized it yet.”  He had a nice smile, friendly.  “So… do you… live around here?“

“I do.”  She grinned at the accuracy yet misleading nature of that statement.  “Would you be interested in a local tour guide?“ This time, she moved closer.

“Is that an offer?” he asked, delight clear in his wide eyes.

“It is.”  She reached a tentative hands toward him, hesitating and pointing to his left shoulder.  “You have a bit of lake weed.“

He stared at her for a moment, slightly befuddled as his brain tried to put together her actions and words.  “I… what?”

With a little laugh, she let her hand finish its trajectory to pluck off the scraggly green strand and hold it up for him to see.



Prompt:I’m swimming laps in a lake alone at night and I thought no one else was here, but I just swam writing to you, and uh?  You’re not wearing a shirt, and your hot as hell.  Please take me right here.

Modifications: She’s not human