Featured Fiction: Yellow Eyes (published in Luna Station Quarterly Issue 18)

Reading short fiction requires only minimal commitment, and in the process the reader may encounter a worthwhile story and writer. With that in mind I hope I can convince some of you to read “Yellow Eyes,” which was published last year (see http://lunastationquarterly.com/story/yellow-eyes/ ). I would describe it as a fantasy story, though there is no magic or supernatural elements, but it is rather characterized by a dark and violent atmosphere, and one disturbing boy.

And you if don’t read or finish it…many thanks for dropping by nonetheless.

YELLOW EYES

Darius concentrated on the babble of the nearby stream and the scuttling of insects beneath his ear, but in the distance he could still hear the muffled screams. He pressed the left side of his body deep into the log’s soft, warm vegetation, as though to disappear entirely. The man to his right died when he hit the ground, and his skin was cold and wet, his arm stiff against Darius’ pliable flesh. As for the old tree, it fell decades ago, during the greatest storm the village had known. It was once a towering elm, taller and thicker than any left in the forest today. The rotting wood was now completely covered in new life —moss and fungus— as the humidity from the stream had spread like an infection.

Lodged between different kinds of dead, Darius struggled to breathe and his muscles cried out against the weight atop him. The man above, however, was still alive and breathing loudly, a raspy, whistling sound that reminded Darius of the noise the wind sometimes made when it twirled in the empty fireplace. Those were cold nights, with wood too wet to light and his family’s bony cow serving as their only source of heat. But the dying man, Cade, was hot. He was fighting alongside Darius when the Yellow-Eyed man’s arrows pierced him. Three through the chest, like knives in soft butter. Cade stood still and gasped, then slowly, in no hurry to die, stepped backwards until he tripped over the corpse of a comrade. Cade collapsed onto Darius, an underfed youth with the stature of a mere child. They both went down with a bone-breaking crash, Darius’s old butcher’s knife firmly clutched in his hand.

The battle raged and Darius, so conveniently yet uncomfortably hidden, went unseen. The Yellow-Eyed men come the hour before dawn, bearing torches in the dim light, yellow flames dancing in their eyes. They vanish by sunrise, leaving villages empty of life, but otherwise intact. They trade in people, not coin.

It was mostly over, Darius knew, because the high-pitched wails told him they had found the women and children. His mother and sisters, including seventeen-year-old Audrey. His big sister cared for him when he was sick, ruffled his hair playfully, and always kissed him goodnight.

Darius should be terrified, “trembling like a leaf” his father would say. His heart beat fast, but he remained listlessly calm, almost sleepy, as each minute stretched out. He found himself thinking of odd things, like how much he hated Cade. Brave and handsome Cade, whose family came from the town over the mountain range, where now only the Yellow-Eyed men reign. The village had welcomed the Overholtzers and their brawny son and their sack of golden chalices, candlesticks, and candelabras. Refugees, bringing strong arms and gold —who would turn them away? The village girls became silly and wore bows in their hair, even sweet, down-to-earth Audrey. It quickly became obvious that Cade had eyes only for her, with her shiny red hair, sturdy frame, and straight teeth.

“Good hips for bearing sons,” agreed Darius’ father when Cade requested her hand. Cade blushed and mumbled something about “love.”

Darius did not want his sister to stop being his sister. If Audrey married Cade, she would move to his house and have babies, and would have no more time for him, like his own mother, always with a newborn at her teat. Now Cade’s blood is dripping onto his forehead, and that seemed like a fine thing.

Darius’s fingers ached, locked around the knife he had yet to use against the enemy. The fighting was quick and intense, the onslaught aimed at the strong. Within what seemed like the first ten seconds of battle he saw his father struck by a blow to the head, finished by one thrust of a blade. His father had given him the old butcher’s knife, and Darius had oiled the rusty blade until it gleamed as well as it could. He remembered the time, years past, when his father used the same knife to outline a square in the pink flesh of a large hog, lifting the skin; a window onto its slimy innards. Darius had wrinkled his nose and stared. His father pointed towards the liver, then poked Darius’s own belly.

“You mean I have one of those?” Darius said in mild disgust, hands on his abdomen.

“That and everything else. We’re not so different from the pigs, and that’s good to know in battle.”

“What about the Yellow-Eyed ones? I thought they were demons?”

“They have the devil in their heads, but their bodies are just like ours.”

From that day, Darius observed the pigs his father butchered and often wished he could kill one himself. But his father always slit their throats, bleeding them while they squealed to their death. No part was wasted. Instead, when the honey melons growing in the garden were ripe, Darius offered to slice them, stabbing them wildly and pretending the hard, slick thud was that of the enemy’s chest cavity. Here, with the earthy smell of decaying wood doing little to cover Cade’s sweat and acrid breath, the thought of cutting the enemy’s flesh repulsed him. And it seemed a shame to sully his blade when there was so little left to save.

Darius tried shifting his position, to catch a glimpse of the events. Sprawled on his back, with Cade’s face nestled against his shoulder, his only option was to tilt his head backwards, hoping the movement wouldn’t draw attention. It was hard to make out what was happening, with people looking as though walking on their heads. With the light of day almost upon them, the tall men dressed in black appeared less sinister, their eyes dull. Some wiped their blades on the grass while others rounded up the last of the weeping women. Darius saw a flash of red, and wondered if it was Audrey with her fiery hair, or just more blood. He felt a pang of regret, but continued to stare, immobile as his kinsfolk were marched away, easterly, towards the mountains. Besides, he knew they would survive, and he would have lost Audrey, anyhow. She could still have babies, on the other side of the mountain range. It was all the same to him.

The sun was high and flies were buzzing by the time Darius extricated himself. Cade was long dead, as were all the other men, young and old.  He headed directly to the small wooden structure that served as church and council hall. He bagged the chalices, candelabras, and all objects shiny and marched west. As he passed through the village gate, he smiled to himself. Perhaps in the next village he would be greeted as the new “Cade,” by eager parents and girls wearing pretty bows.

END

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In this age of conspiracy…

With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our lives, misinformation, conspiracy, frauds, and pseudoscience have gained power and carved out a significant place in our society. Even for very smart, critical people, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between legitimate and questionable sources. In just the past few years, it seems that conspiracies have multiplied and gained traction. One of the most notable was the promise of the 2012 apocalypse as supposedly predicted by the Maya. The Maya never really predicted any such thing –the truth, like most truths, is more nuanced and not nearly as sensational– but it’s more exciting to think the world will explode, am I right?!

As an archaeologist this drove me a little crazy, but to make things worse, I have family members who manage to believe in dozens of sometimes conflicting conspiracies at the same time. I have come to understand that sometimes the blind belief in the strange replaces traditional religion. This inspired me to write (and publish) a short fiction piece that explores the madness behind certain conspiracy theories. Misinformation is not just harmless fun; we have seen time and time again that this can lead unstable individuals to commit terrible acts in the name of…who exactly?

The Countdown

(originally published in print in The Watermark, 2013)

 by Natasha L.

The clock had been ticking for as long as he could remember. As a small child Michael heard the tick tock as he entertained himself in the living room, lying on the thick red rug, waiting. He stared at the room and its individual objects, inventing a story for each. The clock did not bother him then, but sometimes it sounded more like a tsk, the tsk, tsk of a mother scolding her child. The rhythm became urgent, as though time had sped up. This he heard in the night, awake or dreaming, when he walked by the cellar door or when his father stirred the cubes in his evening booze.

“Toward the end of Time the world will grow ill, truly worse than it is now. Wretched things will be heaped upon us, and the planet will no longer be safe, at least until December 21st when all will come to a halt. The 12th planet will finally appear in the night sky, and alignment will be achieved. The end will seem nigh, and yet the people will become calm and hopeful during the last minutes of respite –the Earth will give off a sense of peace,” intones Michael. He smiles to himself, enjoying the power of his own words.

That is how Michael imagines things will unravel, near the end of the calendar. And who better to know this than the clock himself? He had long come to the conclusion that he was time impersonated, his innards wiring and his heart the beating timepiece.

When the worst is expected, hopeful fools will always be lulled by the calm before the storm. With their guns, underground shelters and canned goods, they will believe themselves prepared. But when the earth does not immediately shatter and engulf all things living, the wicked will think themselves spared, the good will think themselves chosen. But Michael knows better; there will be no escape, and the final countdown will have just begun.

From the cellar he often heard voices, men and women, laughing hysterically. He was always left out and could only wonder at the white, paint-chipped door. He would sit on the cold, dirty linoleum of the kitchen floor, imagining the fun he must be missing. His father assumed he was too young to understand, but Michael was always listening to the adults, interpreting their words as best he could. Once, his father had compared the neighbor’s dog to his mother; Michael understood this was no laughing matter. That day, long ago, he opened the white door –he would share in this joke– and in doing so brought up a waft of incense and cold sweat, and laughter that turned into screams as they reached his ears.

free stockphoto_starsMichael believes that as all gaze upon the firmament, waiting for their demise to come from above, this is when the dead will reach out from their graves and tickle the unsuspecting feet of the living. As they wrestle the dirt to reach the light, they will remember their hunger. This part is not in the Popol Vuh; the ancient Maya had not seen “Dawn of the Dead.” Young Michael had, and something similar, in the cellar. They were not truly zombies, and after seeing a documentary on Santeria he later learned they had been drugged. But if the living could become zombie-like, then why not the dead?

Then will come the solar flares, so that living flesh sizzles and bone crumbles. Earth will become a marshmallow, melting and white with heat. The last few survivors will hear the wind above; it must be a storm. It is nothing but fire. Fire like the ball of heat that flowed from Michael’s mouth to his stomach the time he stole a taste from his father’s glass. His mother disapproved of alcohol, as she disapproved of most things beyond breathing and praying. She did not tolerate her husband and his pagan practices, she feared them, and prayed harder, counting her prayer beads out loud.

Michael suspects the last few to survive, atheists and religious fanatics alike, will have simultaneous epiphanies in which they fancy themselves filled with grace.

“We must be the Ones, the survivors of Armageddon that will inherit the Earth and repopulate it with acts of kindness. The World has been cleansed,” chants Michael. “And of course they would think this, since near the end, society will have taken a turn for the worst: murder, disease, war, economic and moral degradation!” Michael laughs and beams at his audience.

His daughters, small blond children of two and four, smile back. They are nervous and confused, but even now they trust him; he has always been a gentle, loving father. At bedtime he tells stories, wonderful magical stories of talking animals, hidden gardens and enchanted fruit.

“Then tell me, why did the world not end with Nazi Germany? Were those not trying times?” he continues, gesticulating wildly. His wife jerks her head, nods, as tears stream down her cheeks, wetting the duct tape that holds her mouth shut. But her eyes are pleading and full of questions.

“I know what you are thinking, love. For a time I wasn’t worried, but then the clock started ticking faster…tsk, tsk, tsk, and everything was pointing towards 2012. It’s all over the media! Websites, documentaries, even the ancient texts! The Maya themselves predicted it,” he explains, as he smoothes out her hair, removing a few strands from her trembling brow.

When the ground starts to shake, Michael knows it will not be the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, despite all that his mother said. The earthquakes will sound more like beating drums, the ones his father used to play. The tectonic plates will shake and bend as the poles reverse, the plates will shift, free from the magnetic field that he thinks holds them in place. The Earth’s crust will collapse like a soggy cracker as the oceans wash over it.

“Do you understand? It’s not about good or evil. It will simply be the End; no new beginning after December 21st. How could there be? The calendar ends,” says Michael, hands held together in gentle supplication. “This is for the best, trust me.”

He starts counting the pills; the dosage must be exact. The sound they make as they fall from the bottle to the countertop matches the ticking in his head.

“Now open your mouths.”

He feeds them to his daughters. He waits to ensure they have swallowed and then unties his wife’s bonds. It is too late to fight; defeated she willingly takes the pills and hurries over to her children.  Michael leads them to the sofa and grabs a thick, leather-bound book from the shelf. Before they go to sleep, he will read them one last fairytale, his favorite of all.

“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth…”

 

END