Wading through the whimsy-grass that bristles past my shoulders, I break into a clearing near the back of the house. Squinting, I raise the floppy rim of my hat in case the shadows deceive me, but what stands beneath the deck remains the same: twins, a boy and a girl, both blonde as a split aspen. The little boy jabs right with a stubby wooden sword, and the pair exchange a nod before parting ways. Yet neither is safe here, neither is ready— the garden shows its teeth before establishing trust.
Hello and welcome back to Songs of the Every Other Week, where we enjoy biweekly songs between intervals where absolutely no songs or music of any sort is scheduled for discussion! Funny how even the strongest of traditions can have the strangest of schedules, but these are not the sorts of phenomena we here at Max Todd Dot Com (Max! Todd! Dot! Com!) find worth questioning. God’s plans are best left undisturbed, and it is thusly our only prerogative to further the succession of songs on alternate Fridays.
At the Polyhedral Pizzeria, the restaurant in the thrift store in the plaster Roman ruins on a B-movie budget: peeling back places, unfairly priced. We climb to our raised table and keep climbing our raised chairs, guessing how offensively valued the shelved vases are because we’ve waited hours for our food. Why then are the newcomers, the group of gurgling girls, comet-tailed by a silver platter— an order they’ve barely breathed? We’re impatient partners, you and I, salivating over the next table’s salad branes— balsamic and basil, peppered tomato and mozzarella strata. At the Polyhedral Pizzeria, displaced in time and space: confusing ascension with amputation.
And so, driving down the parkway, George and Delilah talked to anyone but each other:
“I always think it’s crazy that we ended up with a blue sky,” said George.
“Eyes on the road, George,” said Delilah.
“And blue’s not even my favorite color, especially not this shade.”
“You don’t like my dress, George?”
“No! Yes! No, I do, because the blue complements the yellow, it’s a whole different thing. I just think, you know, when the plants are all September-dry and the sky gets more faded-airport blue, it just… I don’t know, an orange sky would be more fun, right? I don’t know.”
“You sound like you know, George.”
“Well, uh… I guess where I’m going with this is, like… the sky is blue because the atmosphere is, I don’t know, dense enough that it refracts the white sunlight and blocks everything down the rainbow up until blue—”
“No, no, everything with a higher wavelength than blue doesn’t bounce off all the molecules. It’s called Rayleigh scattering, George.”
“My name’s not Rayleigh, it’s—”
“I know, I know, Mr. Rayleigh was your father’s name, just call you George.”
“Well, uh… I guess where I’m going with this is, like… the sky’s only blue because of our exact atmosphere and its exact molecules, and it just has me thinking, I don’t know, we wouldn’t have evolved without all of those exact conditions, and if we did, we wouldn’t be the same George and Delilah, now would we? We’d have… lungs on our… brains, or. I don’t know.”
“Turn here, George.”
It went on like that; a trailing kite tail behind the car, winding up and down and around the asphalt anthill they call Humphrey Heights. Humphrey Heights, where sightings of spring chickens like George and Delilah were sparing at best. They call retirees who migrate south “snowbirds,” but there’s no ornithological designation for the more sessile types, like Delilah’s parents. Chickens, maybe, but certainly not the vernal variety. Their daughter may have flown the coop, but she wasn’t above a visit. Delilah owed her parents dinner; George owed Delilah a buffer. Say your prayers, George and Delilah.
This is the seven-thousand, eight-hundred and seventieth day of my life. 7-8-7-0. The seventh day of my week begins at eight o’clock, 0-8-0-0 (standard or military), with my alarm fading in across the oblong room. My alarm tone is called “Springtide,” and I chose it because it’s friendly, but not too friendly. It’s eighty-seven degrees outside, and was seventy-eight last night— enough to justify the fan that now blows at the exact frequency as my alarm. This, your honor (for I call my body this derogatorily), is why we cannot rise— facedown, frozen, and odiously awake. “Springtide” has reached its saccharine swell, shedding all semblance of zen to reveal its unforgivable friendliness before I’ve even had breakfast. Friendly, unfriendly— either way, it always ends in a slap to the snooze button.
All it takes is a flick of a switch on my bedside lamp to jumpstart my seven-thousand, eight-hundred and seventieth day. One flick to spark the bulb, one bulb to light the walls, one light to peel the shadows away from the seven-foot naked man across my room, watching while I wake. He sits sunny side up beyond the perpendicular bookshelf that divides my bedroom, but soon launches from his crouched knees and bounds towards me. I’m on my feet before my brain can register and breathing like a marathon runner, but I haven’t dodged a thing— and certainly not a man. No, its grin is far too wide across a head stretched like a lemon, and though it leaps on feet like a kangaroo, it’s too aimless to have aimed for me. It can only ricochet around my room— a bug trapped beneath a mason jar, finding paths with ones and zeros. Stimulus, response. Entomologists call that taxis. If it was my job, I would too.
I now know this is a rare Forest Minstrel, and I know it because knowing is my job. I make puzzles for kids, seven so far with an eighth on the way, that teach them of the dangers that lurk within the woods. Between a Good Fairy level of reward and a Bunny Foo Foo level of risk, most field mice are best left in the nest. I have seen zero Forest Minstrels in my own woodland forays, zero like the empty, animal 0 behind its black eyes. I’ll need to film this one and film it good if anyone is to believe me, so I record its scattered bounces with my phone, already in hand. Eight seconds in, and I remember to turn out the light to show that shadows cast across it unlike cheap VFX. The darkness works too well— swallows the Minstrel whole as it leaps just behind the bookshelf. Zero visibility on my next artistic reference.
I turn disappointedly towards the bedside lamp, only to find myself nose to nose with a drooling face. The Minstrel stands on the bed next to me wearing a smile wider than the span of my shoulders. Its breath sends a stinging breeze across my eyes, shot between thick gaps in dozens on dozens of square, wet teeth. A giggle hisses through its clenched jaw like a less friendly zen alarm. But still, zero behind its eyes— like eye contact with a parrotfish, empty as outer space despite eerily human teeth.
Then, still hissed, a hushed command: “sssshhhh.”
I oblige as it drapes my sheets gently over my face, and I have no choice, your honor, because they’re tucked so tight. And isn’t this only part of the Forest Minstrel’s show? They’re born entertainers, after all, like the imp clade they hail from. It lays me down in bed and the room braces in silence, silent like my muscles that stay still even though they’re screaming. From here, seven possibilities: I’m skewered, I’m bitten, I’m tossed or tickled by spindly, overgrown fingernails; I’m thrashed, I’m smashed, I’m snapped in half by a wound-up kangaroo stomp. I simply make us freeze and wait, your honor, because seven-thousand, eight-hundred and seventy is a nice round number; feels penultimate, like October, without proclaiming too much grandiosity. It even slides nicely off the tongue: 7-8-7-0. That’s all I’ve got, and it’s enough. I can accept that. Still— silence.
“Springtide” lilts on, seven unblinking minutes later. Soft, sourceless footsteps on the carpet advance to muffle it before disappearing, returning after another eight minutes to repeat the cycle. Taxis. This is the Forest Minstrel’s show— I can accept that, even respect it. I stop fighting sleep, picture the moral of the story on the back of my eyelids: I’m safest asleep in the nest.
[TW: Blood and Gun Violence, neither of which I condone, especially given the atrocious political landscape that the USA is currently mired in. As with the rest of the Dream Stories series, this is spun out from a dream and is meant to be entirely humorous.]
There is no canned applause when the disheveled man takes the stage, an AK-47 in one hand and the head of some expired 90’s heartthrob in the other, sunken but still plastered with a surgical smile.
The Dolby Theater’s renowned acoustics complement the gong of each warning shot, and like the great Nicole Kidman before me, I am too immersed in the cinema of it all to dive behind a seat.
“Enter the will of the people, stage left!” squawks the man with far less baritone than his bullhorn gun. He shoos with the head still clenched by its stiff quiff, flicking the comedian offstage with jugular stud’s blood. Her shriek splits the stale air dispersed by her scattered notes, a livelier performance than anything else gasped out in years. She smacks the floor as her polite jokes are atomized into illegible letters by another ear-splitting blast.
But still, this can’t be happening. The crowd is frozen— how captivating a performance! The whole audience joins me outside the fishbowl despite the semiautomatic muzzle snarling in our direction. And this isn’t my party, anyways— my name tag says “collateral damage,” and my invitation rolled out of a raffle cage.
“No more movies, give me cinema! I want to be swept off my feet, not showered in your patronizing mundanities rained down from atop a gilded throne! The people want a culling, not a coddling. Down with mediocrity, I say! Death to the sheep-shaman— death to the Oscars!”
Kevlar stops bullets, spider silk more so, but molars, most of all, make castle walls. You sip oatmeal through a boba straw, jaw-broken, psychosomatically satisfied without proper sustenance. Bone-scraping, marrow-slaking, seeds never sewn between crushing wisdom at the back of your jaw, yet still that dull, drilling ache. Maybe bullets and chocolate-frosted sugar bombs are not in the demolition crew’s toolbox– maybe a bath in ancestral addiction is all it takes to show why the sausage was made.