Kirk AC Marshall
Published in The Diamond & the Thief – September 09

Kirk Marshall is a twenty-six-year-old emerging writer, and schoolteacher of Eng­lish and Media (Film & T.V. Studies) from Melbourne, Australia. He has written for more than sixty publications, both in Australia and overseas, and is the author of The Signatory (Skylight Press; 2012), Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories (Black Rider Press; 2011), and A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953. Kirk is also the writer-director of the 2005 independent Australian feature film, "About 8" (promoted by Prodany Entertainment). From 2009, he has edited Red Leaves, the world's first English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal. He now suffers migraines in two languages.

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Hangin’ with Barack Obama
By Kirk AC Marshall

    I didn’t entertain a lick of lingering doubt that he’d extend me vocal plaudits of appreciation and mock envy at the quality of my naval-blue gabardine coat.

    As long as I could claim to know him, Barack Obama was some tireless, winning form of friend. in a league entirely unto himself, equipped with a heart of triumph and rhapsody, he’d only ever corrupt the warm, amniotic saccule of silence which nourished us by exchanging sentiments of true, pious affirmation about how grateful he was to have me as a confidant, in confidence.

    He was some heroic breed of guy. One might even dispense with wordsmithy etiquette, divorce themselves of an aura of personally-cultivated cool, and risk saying that Barack Obama constituted the most generous, measured and memorable friend a fortunate man might call his own. Yup. He was starry and lionhearted, backstroking before me through millennia of fire and storm, with rivers in his eyes, and crocodiles in his laughter, able to brave the scorn and scrutiny of detractors and imitators alike in a suit as sharp as a blade whetted on the axis of evil.

    Oh, we had our goofball moments, Barack Obama and I. It’s not like we were fashioned from the cloth of saints and seraphim. We made our stupid dashes, we plied our piratical trades, we gambled our broken hands. You’d have to be a blind Cyclops screaming for sight through a visor of glaucous white, not to have seen us run like candles through the night. Barack Obama and I were swift to shake off the mothballs and shed the trail of space-junk on our weekends. I tell you, he was some phosphorous prince, offering to buy me a burger with the works on the wharf at the fringes of the city, where coyotes stalked the stars.

    ‘You don’t have to do that,’ I’d fence, ribbing old Barack Obama in the shoulder. ‘I’ve been working the whole week; if you buy me a sandwich I’ll feel like I’m witnessing a crime. I’ve got a brace of the folding stuff in my possession,’ I’d declare, suddenly frantic, suddenly frisking myself, suddenly aware of the conspicuous wallet-shaped absence punched out of my soul. ‘Oh fuck,’ I’d exclaim, my night of party evaporating like the promise of lust and karaoke upon encountering a pack of mad dogs.

    Barack Obama would never betray his conspiracy of élan and glamour. Man, even now, seduced by the romance of the bright-eyed reminiscence, I can still square him up, see him flourish that smile like a Christmas toupé and laugh like a discotheque about to vomit out its riot of patrons.

    He roped me around my shoulders with arms to rival a black bear. Then his eyes would waltz beneath that mottled, tessellating dance of moonlight. He’d furnish a small, sweat-bound oblong of leather beneath my nose, and draw his chin to his chest like no stately motherfucker I can make to remember.

    Back and forth, Barack Obama would be shaking in a fit of laughter so tiny you’d have to squint to see it. And then flames would telescope his amusement, leaping from the cavern of his toothily handsome mouth. ‘I can’t believe you fell for it,’ he’d roar, my love retreating from the mountains to hug the walls of the night. ‘You should keep a better eye on your assets,’ he’d instruct, clapping his hands together to applaud himself.

    ‘You’re a special piece of work, Barack Obama,’ I’d banter, like a songwriter attempting to reclaim his dignity after emerging from a cocaine-induced coma. ‘Yeah, alright. You can buy me that burger with the works.’ and then it would rain, unprecedented, descending in sheets of melodrama and malice before invading the holes in my gabardine coat and Barack Obama’s newly-cut power-suit. Our design to kick out, lash the water like fly-fishermen, bark at the windows of restaurants and drink all night would be erased beneath a cannonade of gossamer rain. We’d titter like snowflakes in spring, and race to the threshold of Joe’s garage, our collars up and our fists plundering the lining of our swish fabric.

    The red tigers on my feet would carry the stain of wine on a tablecloth. Our hair would drip in a trespass of stray kinks down our wet, glistening foreheads. ‘I’m not a meteorologist,’ Barack Obama would tell me. ‘Surprise, surprise. Still, I’d hazard that it’ll clear in a deuce.’

    We’d congregate under a tarpaulin of water-resistant green canvas, shuffling on our heels, kicking and scuffing at the grille to the storm-drain, experiencing the night as it bristled with electricity.

    After exchanging cigarettes and acknowledging the appetitive advances of the howling beach, we’d shoulder our way into the late-night diner, and unfurl our funny money. Barack Obama and I would drink ornate, three-layered milkshakes the colours of the American flag.

    After our monstrous ballet through the rain, with alcohol making its rogue passage through my veins, a few forgotten dollars would all seem so puny and unkempt in contrast to another weekend of blood and flowers with my best friend.

On my way home, once my train had disembarked the station, I’d realise that Barack Obama had stiffed me fifteen bucks.

King Kill
By Kirk A.C. Marshall

Salvatore King Spinoza – cobalt eyes gleaming to adjust – hulked with the shuffling lethargy of all night-annihilated shift-workers, up the internal flock of stairs within the meat locker of Spiro Bonanza’s Red Light Diner, and burst into the winter dusk.

He exhaled the city, in its polychromatic tangles of moonlight smoke, into one spectacular breath-bouquet through his fingers. His gaze hunted the madness of the dark, teeming with movement, rancour, shadows and human sound. A sonic empire, the sleeping-but-sleepless city.

He stood in a white chef smock bruised with blood, a human atlas of slaughter, scarlet continents separating and expanding against his cold flesh. These were the butchers’ bloodflowers, plasmic blooms too surly to poison, no matter how much detergent or soda and soap or barbershop chemical bleach Salvatore might hope to immerse himself in.

Each night he would confront the graveyard-shift duties of the job, brazen in a uniform of immaculate whiteness, and each night he would depart before 5:00am, while the sun was still recovering from its astrological haze, adrift in clothes saturated with carnage. He liked to pretend to his sleep-consumptive, ache-slandered self that it was the regalia of a timberland wolf, his death-soaked smock, because didn’t they so often sport manes of lustrous black caked with the battle and blood of the slain? Who was he fooling; he looked like an uncoordinated obstetrician, not a beast of pinewood snows.

What he needed best now was a cigarette: there they were, squelched and flattened into the ass-pocket of his blue jeans, a cosmos in collision, a match-face on the underside of his heel, a sudden lurch of soft sound, a sudden burst and a trembling light: a flame eroding the tip of a smoke like a taper.

Ah... Salvatore breathed in nicotine and relaxed.

There was something spectral and sublime about this well-manipulated routine, something of a subdued and lazy beauty about standing in the snow, with a smoke, after work. He could still hear the clamour of the other chefs trading tomcat hollers and diffuse perversions over the fabled hush of the downward-spiralling frost, could still apprehend the noisy vicissitudes of his boss’ final-minute requests, but that world down there, of labour and sweat and bourbon-tempered wit, was already swiftly subsiding, its rinse of life now dimming to accommodate the buzz of the traffic above, the cobblestone scramble of glass bottles and the friendless thunder of a car door slamming a gradient of streets away.

Salvatore King Spinoza huddled beneath the constellation of descending flakes, and warmed himself with a frivolous smile at his toes. Pay was coming in this morning.

Which meant hot mulled wine and knuckle-shots of gin and vermouth; a hoot lounging over the bleachers at a downtown slugfest with money on the prizefighter; an immodest breakfast of butterscotch and cherry mascarpone pancakes; a jug of black coffee; a hotdog with caramelised onions and yellow peppers; a steambath in some all-night pimp-gallery dive; and maybe a trip to the zoo tomorrow if he was awake enough to manage it, before work claimed his hands, eyes, focus and perspiration for another six hours.

There was good in the world tonight, he thought. There was possibility and ambition; another morning to brave the almost-atomic fallout of a twilight territory of powder and luminous doorways bristling with music, the monasterial whipcrack of billiard ball on billiard ball, the whisper-flash of some taut-breasted dragonfly of an alley stripper, as she lunged and winked like a blade in the darkness. There were no further reflections forthcoming of what it was he was doing down in that chopshop, no strategic and surprised fevered-memory of a cleaver rending marrow from bone in the refrigerated meat locker of Spiro Bonanza’s Red Light Diner.

He’d weathered that shank-rankling, marrow-winnowed, steel-toed furnace of frozen meats – The Kitchen – long enough to develop certain intractable skills and precocities when it came to creating a distance between his world above ground and the occasional mutilation he was obliged to perform beneath its sidewalks.

Salvatore had – to summon one of his many uncommon qualifications to hand – swiftly emerged within the hospitality industry of wholesale livestock butchery to become a triumphalist with the blade: there wasn’t another squint-sullied soul as economical with a knife, nor as generous with his cuts.

You wouldn’t survive in this realm of blue-collar bloodletting if you were inflexible of moral or feeble of constitution. Nossir: You had to be a strategist with the steel, and blood was only a vocational hazard of its mastery, something to accommodate and encourage (in the same vein as a leak of oil is for a mechanic). You had to expect spills and thrills, for a little liberated blood never hurt anyone, really, and a shirt laundered in the spoils of slaughter only demonstrated that your method was succeeding.

There was no suffering involved from Salvatore’s keen and salient perspective; the animals were engineered to be dismantled for convenient consumption, and his cleaver was just cunning enough to locate the perforation lines. This wasn’t a political philosophy, unless folding a paper plane constituted a loaded and subversive act. What actually concerned Salvatore was not this professional tolerance of the intricacies necessary to affect a successful bargain-bulk kill, but the madness that could not be disassembled and cured so easily in the street-level functions of the world beyond the meat locker.

He didn’t really understand what was expected of him up here, an identity he’d long neglected so as to advance up the furrows and levels of complexity in the blade trade. It was an indictment on the night’s invitation that now that he stood free, beyond the conventions of that mutton-froze kitchen, he was bereft of purpose, of immediate strategy.

He decided to think his plan over, here, while kindling the alley with his cigarette exhalations – and that’s when he saw it, hovering on forelock and hoof in the snowtorched darkness, like a subdued and placid-faced nightmare. Like a stark piebald-pelted planet of helium cowering at the end of this backstreet city intersection.

The snow still wheeling and tumbling like ash, Salvatore watched the cow pace the chill-slick cul-de-sac with sad eyes of stroboscopic trust, flat and prismic and overwhelmed.

A heart-shaped peninsula of bovine landscape, this red devil of the dusk was all devon, of no tusk nor talon. Salvatore blinked, and some fleece from the sky’s drove of bestial cloudform, from overhead, whistled through his lashes.

He stamped out his cigarette, sheathing his fists beneath his pits, and ventured to broker a momentary alliance with the apparition by scuffing forward in the powder. The cow did not move: it simply raised its head. Salvatore King Spinoza frowned. There was something of visceral physics going on here. He could not explain away the animal’s appearance, for this was not the countryside, but the byzantine limits of a city of glass and furious light. And still, not twenty metres distance, there stood, amongst arabesques of heat-sweetened breath, a cow trembling in the snow.

Salvatore grimaced. He felt, of a sudden, the threat of the wind and ice on his face. He grit his teeth. If they, if anyone of discerning eye, caught him out here, on the shingle-flamed street opposite his workplace, with a live full-grown buttercup cow, a breathing and bellowing cow, what would they say? What would the world demand he do? He rested his neck against the corrugated iron of a water-pipe for a minute, his head raging in the dark. Eventually, reverently, he unclenched his hands and shuffled forward once more.

‘C’mon now, it’s okay now,’ he whispered, and as he said it, exchanging the cow’s gaze for his, he felt the ache of his knife-crippled fingers subside and he knew he could trust these words. ‘Nobody’s going to hurt you.’

As Published The Diamond & the Thief – October 10 edition

Years of Viking Hospitality
By Kirk AC Marshall

A lazy, musical blue canopy rustles and recedes behind my eyes. A sudden birdsong, sharp as a cast line, breaks my reverie.

The lustre of morning has intruded again, & the skies are abundant with hoop snakes wrought from gold. A glamorous and celestial sunshine, teeming with a lemniscate of light, bearing the fingerprint of creation like a watermark within a piece of parchment. Again, I am agog before God.

My breaths have shortened, & the susurrus of the Java Sea tides simulate the sigh of one thousand newborn children, floating upon backs as the angel parade courses above them on high.

There is not a destination upon the diadem of our flat world which lacks the debt and courtesy of holy hand. Of this, I am sure.

Refrain, whispers Thorstar, getting into role with juicy abandon. I have to remember he refuses to answer to his legal name – Jacob Finney – since it no longer seems to suit his viking ambitions. His darkset, crimson face is spackled with the paranormal pattern of shoreline turquoise. He, too, can hear the roar of waves.

Yes, verily, a hymn, I agree, coughing beneath my rain-heavied pelt. The ocean continues to ring out in rhapsodic clarity, a legion of countries pushing water our way.

I don’t care what it fucking sounds like. I asked you to stop. Thorstar so often summons up a face to chase away thunder, but I’ve known him a decade too long for the drama of his surly advances to administer any real impact. He turns to exchange a grin with me, & I am once more struck thankful for the singular bounty which the Blessed One provides. Thorstar’s laugh is playful. Forgive me, priest.I ask that you heed caution when I call for silence. This proves to be an island unlike any heretofore recorded or apprehended.

He slowly chokes a chuckle, and entreats me with a timid, perhaps even frightened eye. I’m compelled to swallow. Pray reveal, Thorstar. A seasoned pirate such as yourself must know. Do you expect inhospitable inhabitants?

Oh, Ulfrik, you are one gormless little shit, aren’t you? Thorstar’s salacious observation should’ve bristled with a wit as sharp as the cut that it intended to inflict. Instead, his generous jibe feels hollow, spartan of festivity. I pride myself on possessing the good reason not to remind him I’m still quite fond of my other name, Norman Smith, & I wait out the storm flashing dangerously behind Thorstar’s black, implacable gaze. I wouldn’t concern yourself over the peregrinations of this island’s savages, priest. I entirely doubt that they’ll represent much of a unique simulacrum or riff on the breed, and I can’t discern the commonsense in angsting over cannibals. Just rape, behead and burn.

I could see that the account which Thorstar was about to exchange constituted a cipher, a key to understanding the shape and speed of foreboding huddling behind his brow. I steeled myself, & I held my tongue.

Somewhere, a guttering candle whispered at the shackled soles of an enemy of the state; and yet here we all were – the reformed earth’s final vestige of seafaring raiders – staking landfall under the guise of the free nation, on an indistinguishable spit of blonde sand, & still almost every fool equipped with the intellect of an anthelid moth could determine that our intention was not one born of discovery, but one forged from the possibilities of deception.

We lacked in an education as to how to transfer our capacity for carnage to sunnier, more soulful things. We could not identify what, if anything, the likes of bastards and monsters such as us might do, now that “to rape & pillage” was synonymous with barbarism, with empirical treason. And so we hid, fulfilling our manifest design, skulking on our stomachs like swine afflicted by madness: left to kill what we might, or kill ourselves. For the spirit of a man is not androgynous, it pertains to a definitive shape, & I’ve since come to understand that no effort to distort its dimensions can refashion the geometry of a life-furnished purpose. We, each one of us, are vikings of the sea and plain. We do what we do, not because we can; but because we can do nothing else as well.

What I fear, priest Ulfrik, is something much worse than mere pygmies.

Thorstar squinted like a cat through the agapanthus, a hand as rough as breakwater gripped fast across my mouth. Worse even than those employed by the new order to hunt us for bounty. Thorstar, that great leonine bandit – he who had liberated me from a lifetime’s imprisonment, torture & an assault of charges attesting to my sacrilege – he with a heart of horrifying renown, and a red-thatched face of covetous legend – was shaking. Now shivered before me like a river.

We best be under the aegis of that fucking deity of yours, friend. I’ve got a Jones that presiding somewhere out in this tropic wilderness, there be something to pale your tiny soul. He looked at me, my hot shining eyes, but did not remove his hand. There be dragons, priest. You best call in all theological favour.

*

When we returned to the barque, the men were already assembled onshore, griping at the torment of parched, thirsting throats and collectively pawing with an agitative dispassion at the carbuncular peat of their chests and genitalia.

Men were not engineered for the inconstancies and psychosis of the sea. A soul is not equipped with gills, nor a heart designed for the corrosive alchemy of brine & nitrogen and lightning, of mutiny & gambling and conquest & storm. Everyone bristled with sea lice, and improved their present countenance through an exchange of abhorrent insults at one another & the state of the pirating trade.

Thorstar strode amongst them, disbanding their belligerent coven with a face seized by the lunacy of a scoundrel’s grin, brooding amidst and between his brothers, his one lazy eye swifting back & forth in the manner of a disoriented gull, harried for missing his flock. The smile was pornographic, his gums marbled from a diet constituting entirely of poultry and seafood, teeth black & gold from dental trauma, like the pelt of a tiger stalking through the black limbs of a treeline purged by fire.

The men were wary of Thorstar’s travestied attempts at charm; his was a social apparatus incapable of fostering reassurance, particularly since common testimony demonstrated that he seldom exchanged a genial pleasantry unless it prefaced the decapitation or defenestration of a feeble and foolhardy foe.

Still, he was in a blowzy, ticklish mood fit for Gauls & Saxons, making lewd gestures at his comrades and trading monosyllabic impurities with those vandals harbouring an evil lust for female company. Thorstar could win over the infirm & the obscene with his gentleman’s swagger: he pussyfooted about, hands clasped behind back, extolling us all to a grace so incongruous with his composition and stature that there must’ve been faerie or Holy Ghost in his heritage. A bestial storm, on gentle feet.

Tonight we rest, for it has been a day to suffer the sun and endure the steel and scurf of a violent thirst. But now that our toil sees us on island soil, the wizard and I are obliged to prevail upon you songs and spells of wonders to excite your hardiest, most disturbed and clandestine appetite! There will be twelve girls for each man, one more fertile and virginal than the rest! There will be mead foaming down our beards, and blood churning the streets, babies butchered for the congregations of blackest parrots, men beheaded, livestock savaged and consumed, hutments burning and the thick, bilious, tallowy hiss of fats mixing with tar and taro. There will be cities razed like locust, and we, the victors, will stamp their primitive skeletons into the raging dust! Thorstar squinted, appraised us all with a rapid volley of blinks, and violated the reverence of the moment with a carnivorous yelp.

He was raising his blade. Thorstar had ordained his long, gilded shark-toothed sickle with the name Hawkfright, though you needn’t possess the acuities or feelings of the bird-of-prey to be catalysed by a deep-seeded terror at the capabilities of Thorstar’s sword. It made one think of the weapons characteristic of the old heroes, forged from star rock & engineered to leave cuts like sordid whispers where before your entrails remained intact.

Before we disinvest ourselves of our burdens and make camp, let us each withdraw our blades and allow our kinsman, that wizard of startling alchemies, Ulfrik Moonbane – he whom the continent wishes to perjure and disinherit of all vital organs, he they seek to roast in a fire hot enough to purge the marrow from one’s bones and send it brimming through the skin like molten juice, he they will render into meat for the jackal and the spider – to bless us this night aglow with blood!

Thorstar was grinning his way at me. He had volunteered me again, or this Moonbane version of me, to the potential wrath and scrutiny of fifteen inviolable crusaders with hatchets for sneers. I grappled with the responsibility, my hands too jangled by the bedevilment of cowardice to simulate the shape a prayer must make to succeed. My fists drummed the air.

The trees thrashed and rattled, whips where whippoorwills should be. I transferred my gaze to the violet spine of the earth’s skyline, propelling my watering eye up the tortuous musculature of our Lord’s own back, but I could divine nothing in the freckled sinew of the heavens but stars. A man cannot truthfully determine the savage ache that comes of a lack of companionship, if he has not cast his face to the stars and asked them for consolation.

The silence was irritating the men, for I heard the susurrating clink of mail and muscle shifting from left to right, like the sound an aspergillum makes as it visors a penitent congregation with a mist of holy water.

The pits of my arms were leaking, rills of perspiration thrushing down the length of my body beneath my cowl & vestment. Brethren! I burped, warding off concern for the odious state of my digestive system with a terrified smile. We forge ahead tomorrow in the certainty that victory over this spit of paradise approaches swift and without ardour! Every man, woman and child that does not repent and wilfully claim the charity of the Lord shall find themselves barren of negotiating powers, and their heads besides! We ask the Almighty to regard our plight with his smiting glance, encouraging those we seek to defeat into ruination and repentance! I was succeeding, for my inelegant blather had elevated us all to a height of demented self-enchantment.

I turned my shame to the moon. It looked tarnished and lacking for lustre, but my eye polished it with the ignorant dream of the few, anyway. Let us prowl amongst them like wolves with coats of sheepskin!

I croaked this last, seeking motivation, but it galvanised the right response. The men, in their ocean-tortured guises of hair, snot and squid ink, brayed and crowed at the canopies.

Amphoras of wine and horns of ale were disseminated around the coven circle of our beach fire, and soon we were all silent.

Thorstar stood, back turned, stoking the flames with the plane of his revered blade.

He turned suddenly, breathing gin into the air in plumes of smoke. “You hear that, priest?” He hissed, the alarm distorting the geography of his face. I shook my head. Nevermind. I thought I heard a human scream. He was clearly startled. Just the wind, cowering amongst the trees.

*

We woke to the screams first, a legion of bodies of lean strength & righteous dexterity capering into the seaside fray, exhorting smoke in volumes, and the percussive rhythm of swords clattering against naked kneecaps.

I scurried to the remnants of the campfire, now a summit of sweet, talc-smelling ash, the most timid of fireside cinders clinging to one another for warmth, with a desperation that anticipated the lack of compassion familiar to this island’s fierce winds. I huddled too, beneath the dark vision of our loathsome boat.

Men were calling into the night, their unearthly voices distorted by the mechanism of the darkness, but every once in a while I would be accosted by the appearance of a distressed, fear-retarded face, vaulting through this indigo country of disturbed dreams, and it would shock me into reverence the way a sudden burst of lightning might, upon cauterising the land in a start of violent colour.

I exhaled pillows into the witching hour, clenching my eyes so tight I might hope to evaporate, and I could just make out the stars as they trembled in dribbly clusters through the thresh of my winking lashes. I couldn’t dismiss the horror before me, for there is nothing to entrance a cupidinous soul more than the glamour of a scandal or disaster. I wheeled out into the catastrophe, coveting my crotch in my hands like a string of rosary beads.

Thorstar’s dew-dappled visage careened out of the darkness. We’ve been outmanoeuvred, Norman! Sorry, Ulfrik! he shuddered, a wet-eyed bastion of bitter confusion. Whilst we slept! This is a cavalier demonstration of disrespect! You do not attack a man in repose, for there is no challenge in killing a foe at his most vulnerable! Thorstar braceleted me beneath the armpit, & escorted me through the chaotic terrain. My feet dangled above the ground, but Thorstar communicated no irritation at my being his newfound burden.

We clove through the darting masses, entirely dispossessed of visibility or orientation, and Thorstar pirouetted around the obstructions on the cusp of hearing, a dervish with the grave face of a mountain.

Some men are claiming it’s the craft of an evil, rather than the tree-scrabbling handiwork of pygmies or primitives. We need you to disconfirm their fright-feeble follies. Pirates are a superstitious breed, for we know no science to accommodate the freak of discovery. Do not dignify their coarse, wagging tongues any heed.

He did not sound convinced, himself, and I realised then with the clarity of sublime terror that this is who I had always been for these men: I was Ulfrik, the lucky omen, the human rabbit’s foot, less believed in than I was attributed a reassuring currency of hokum, enough to dispel the cowardice in a pagan heart by amplifying the same heart’s willingness to seek out any religion available. When Jacob Finney was Thorstar he regarded me less like a person, and more as a token of reassurance: that a god, any god, might oversee this sad, vacant bandit’s acts of barbarism and redeem them by entrusting Thorstar with success and fair weather.

My own countenance must’ve betrayed my dishonour and indignation, pulsing a luminous crimson from the flood of disdain & outrage telescoping my stare, but I could do nothing but silently renounce my immense and troubled love for this man as he embraced me to his booming breast & spoke his sorrows into my scalp.

The men were yelling now, for I could discern their cries with a robust clarity, and the words Dragon! Dragon! did not escape my boxed and chill-blighted ears. How far had we come to suffer a crisis of faith & dispense with the new-world enlightenment I had laboured over sharing?

Maybe they were right; perhaps everything is preordained to devolve into chanting and madness when our only sport is killing, in an effort to regain the land which the continent’s civilizing mission had denied us – the last of the unclean – access to. Maybe the map papering the breadth of our flat planet was only populated by dynasties & empirical progress, and maybe we were the dragons, that species hounded and pursued into mythology, prepared to be slain beneath the jackboots of industry, and forgetting.

Thorstar & I emerged from total dark, and now we could see by the leaping flames of torches which encircled a contour of beach, where a man, one of our own, lay prone, his palms and knuckles sheathed in gloves of blood, a mouth open to accommodate the evacuation of a wounded soul. His entrails lay tethered in a coil between his convulsing legs.

Dragon! The men whispered, between the rapturous sputter of the flame. A dragon did this to Frømund. I could still remember when his name had been Frank Taylor, though this seemed like millennia ago.

The men were all resolved in agreement; a grown soul like Frank (which is to say Frømund) could not be monstered by another man in this manner, not even by the administrations of a cannibal. I could do nothing to restore my calm, or prevent the words from issuing from my slackened jaw. Frømund was dying beneath our canopy of disbelief, his face tortured by suffering.

A dragon, I said, a little uneasily. A dragon. I felt the tidal gates lurch open, & the whole world, all its twinkling celestial festival, each man awakened by fear on this beach at the edge of the map, repeated my words, my proclamation. It’s an amazing thing, the power evident in nightmares. You can usurp whole kingdoms if enough people crave to believe. Frømund has been set upon by a dragon!

And that’s when I saw Thorstar’s resolve break, and the true, dangerous, sordid nature of his heroism was revealed. He believed everything that I said, just as the men, the man dying beneath our feet, did. I was their compass through the wilds & superstitions of the night. They looked to me for order, the same way a man makes a prayer to exercise a sense of closure.

I saw what I, Norman Smith, had become for them, I understood the transformation that my stewardship had undergone, since these vikings had first brokered an alliance and shown me hospitality. I was their downfall.

I bolted up the beach, my lungs furious with exertion, the arc of my limbs propelling me into the thick sward of the jungle. They were after me, I could tell, close enough to fell my final gambit with a single thrust of the blade, & behind me, not too far beneath the confessions of the sea, the words Dragon! Dragon! as I fled into a future where men and gods knew nothing of one another.

As published in The Diamond & the Thief – February 10 edition