Echoes of Scheherazade

“I’m not saying it’s bloom,” says Doc. “I’m just saying it’s probably bloom.”

Larry glowers at him from beneath eyebrows the color of rust. “Are you saying it is or it isn’t?”

The hobo steps back and lifts the half empty bourbon bottle to his mouth, drinks, and scratches his chin, payment for his diagnosis. They both look down at the blemish on Larry’s arm, a fuzzy birthmark.

Doc hands the bottle back to Larry.“When I worked at the lab…”

“Which lab?”

“The one in Fresno. We were studying goat prions.”

“What?” Larry snatches the bottle and takes a swig, annoyed at the half-assed answer.

“Prions. They’re little rogue proteins. They eat away at your brain, make you forget things, act different.”

“Like rabies?”

“Thats a virus…” Doc takes a breath. “What I was saying is that at the lab we called these fairy rings?”

“What?”

“Fairy rings. Like a bunch of fairies might dance around them. It’s folklore, Larry.”

Larry makes a face and takes another swig. “I’ll tell you who’s a fairy and it ain’t me.”

“No, you’re the troll.”

“What?”

“Under the bridge,” Doc smiles and points to the tracks high overhead, lost in the night sky. He runs a dirty hand through his wild salt and pepper hair. It wisps slightly in the breeze coming off the gorge as they sit beneath the railroad bridge. A tin can sitting on the rock beside him falls over and they both watch it tumble down the slope into the San Joaquin river. Then the ground rumbles and Larry looks back at his arm. Now there are two rings.

“Fairy ring, eh?”

“Yep. you see them a lot in the wild. Formed by mushrooms.”

“I thought you said prions.”

“These were mushrooms, a fungus.” He points at Larry’s fairy ring. “That probably is too.”

“Someone plant them like that?” asks Larry. “The mushrooms I mean.”

“Nope. Just happens naturally.”

Larry screws up his face and takes a drink. “How do they know to be in a circle?”

Fifty feet up, a train makes its way over the bridge. The ground moves. Doc’s mouth begins to move, but Larry can’t really hear over the train. He looks down at his arm again. They’re still there, a dozen wispy towers in a circle, growing out of his skin just below the crook in his elbow. At the center stands another cottony spire, half an inch high. It doesn’t hurt, but Larry can’t help but wonder if it will.

“So is this a prion or a virus, or a fungus or what?” he asks. But Doc is still talking and the train is making it impossible to hear his own thoughts. What he does hear, sounds like music. The train above is blasting Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade. All Larry can do it smile.

Doc is staring at him. “You alright, Larry?”

“Fine. Why?”

“You’ve been staring at that fairy ring on your arm for the last two hours.”

He sees now that Doc is wearing a paper face mask. When did that go on, he wonders. “I have?”

Doc nods slowly.

Scheherazade sounds fainter now that the train is gone. But Larry still thinks he can remember the tune. He hums and then laughs.

“Damn. I couldn’t even play drums in school.” He beams at Doc with a gap-toothed grin. “They kicked me out of marching band. But I fuckin’ loved me some Scheherazade.”

But Doc isn’t laughing with him. Doc just stares, his dark eyes going between the fairy ring and his face. Finally Doc reached into his tackle box and brings out a clear plastic bottle.

“What’s that?” asks Larry.

“Rubbing Alcohol,” says Doc. He pours some on a damp rag. “Give me your arm.”

He’s on his feet before he knows it. “Why?”

“Because,” Doc says. “I’m going to see if I can get rid of it.”

The arm moves fast, snatching up a rusty metal shiv and brandishing it at the old man. Larry stares at his arm like some alien appendage. A full minute passes before he can relax and the shiv comes down. It clatters on the dirty concrete.  “I’d… I guess I’d rather you didn’t.”

Doc gives a slow cautious nod, damp rag in hand. The music is louder again, and Larry can’t tell if Doc is smiling or frowning behind that surgeon mask. He likes to think the old man is smiling, smiling along with him. Maybe he hears Scheherazade too.

“Why does it know how to grow in a circle like that?”

“Maybe that’s just what it’s meant to do,” says Doc. He stands and takes his tackle box. “Lots of things in nature do things without knowing why. How does a spider know how to make a web? How does a bee know how to plot its GPS coordinates to the hive? How does a lyrebird know how to mimic any sound it hears? How do we know how to write or sing or play the harpsichord?” He begins to walk past Larry, but stops to look down at the arm. “Maybe that’s all talent is, ,just some flipped genetic switch. What you should be asking, is if you are remembering a song, or if the bloom is remembering it for you. Or if you are even remembering this conversation.”

“But I… you said it wasn’t bloom.”

But Doc is gone and it’s now daylight. Larry looks at the sky and blinks. How did it get so fucking bright? He raises his hand to block the sun and frowns at the wool muff over his arm. Densely packed fibers hint only a faint suggestion of the hand and forearm underneath.

Larry flexes his fingers, and the fibres shift like a feather duster under water. And from somewhere deep inside, Larry hears the song again. He smiles up at the warmth in the sky, and hums along.

—-

This is a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds.com.

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A Very Good Liar

My entry in the Writer’s Weekly 24-Hour Flash Fiction contest. Below is the prompt they gave us.

The fruit vendor smiled at her through sightless eyes, enjoying the warm breeze and salty air. During casual banter with his customers, he seemed to remember the smallest details, even ones they couldn’t remember sharing with him in the past. The girl had been coming to his stand daily for as long as she could remember. As she turned to leave, she patted his hand and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, friend.

Still smiling, he replied, “No, you won’t…”

—-

We had from noon Central time on Saturday to write something and submit by the same time on Sunday. I was pretty drunk when I wrote and edited this at 11pm, so we’ll leave it up to the fates whether it gets noticed.  Enjoy!

A Very Good Liar

Inigo had a very good memory. Some said it was rare for a man of his years to remember things as well as he did. Others said that he made everything up, a liar.

Aside from selling fruit, Inigo was a storyteller. To some, this was endearing. They said that people–especially children–needed a dose of fantasy, no matter how wild it might be. As the oldest man alive, Inigo had many stories.

“There used to be more,” he would say, twirling a strand of beard between fingers. “We used to be more.”

Children would gather around his cart in the evenings–with their parents’ permission, of course. The young were in love with stories, those things that older people said, legal lies, fiction. Adults could tell lies and not get in trouble. The fact that Inigo was as old as he was made the stories seem so much more real.

He would sit on an old wooden stool when enough children had gathered around, their dirty butts on the concrete, turning gray with dust, filthy faces tilted upward. They would tug on his hems, gently, just enough to let the old man know he had an audience.

“Tell us,” they would say.

“Yes, tell us of the time before.”

“Tell us of the time before the white.”

And Inigo would laugh. “Oh, so you want to hear about the white again. Haven’t I already told you all about that?”

“Yes,” they would say, “but we love the stories so. We love to hear. Did it hurt, the white?”

“No,” Inigo would tell them. “It did not hurt at all.”

Sometimes parents would come by and take their child away, feeling in the dark for their grubby hair and dragging them, protesting, by an ear or an elbow. “You should no listen to such things.”

For knowing such things was dangerous. Making children think that there was once a time when we knew more, when we were more than we are now. It was a cruel thing Inigo did, telling children how the people before them were once so powerful, back in a time before the white descended.

One time a woman had set fire to Inigo’s cart, screaming at him as the flames spread. People ran and cried. They did not know what to do. The fire ravaged several houses before the soft rains quenched its thirst.

“You are a cruel, cruel man,” she screamed at him as the town burned. “You tell them things they can never be. How can you do so? You are a monster!”

“I only tell them the truth,” said Inigo, clutching the last of his wares, a bunch of bananas and dried pears. “I only tell them what I know.”

Tears ran from his useless eyes, down his leather cheeks and onto his shirt, brown and reeking of filth. It took Inigo five years to build his business up after that day. But the woman never returned. Some say she was run off by the other townspeople, shamed for her outburst, for the reckless damage she had caused.

But still the children came, pleading, begging for stories.

“Tell us,” they cried. “Tell us what it was like.”

And eventually, Inigo conceded. “Okay,” he said. “I will tell you of the time when man owned the earth.”

“The ground?” asked a young boy.

“No, Philip. Not the ground. Not the soil. The earth is this world, a giant ball of rock and water. It hurls through the universe at a terrible speed.”

They laughed. “How do you know?” asked one child, for there was always one in the group who would question Inigo, always a challenger to his stories.

“Because I was one of them,” he said. “That is how very old I am.”

And it was true. Inigo was perhaps the oldest man in all of Nova Illuminati, a man so old, he remembered things called pictures, a sense called sight. He told stories of humans who had not four senses, but five, a time when eyes were more than useless pale stones in people’s faces, collecting flies and disease.

“A fifth sense,” parents would exclaim, “Can you imagine who would say such things to children? Sight. Such bullocks.”

“Well, before the white, before the virus…” others would argue.

“Fairy tales,” others would argue. “No one is that old!”

But Inigo knew his time in Nova Illuminati was almost up now. Generations had all but forgotten. The woman who burned his cart, who accused him of lying, she was not alone. There would be more like her. Yes, it was time to move on.

Inigo had been packing up when Lizbeth arrived right on schedule for her morning apples. He recognized her by the clicking in her throat, echoing off the nearby walls and gutters, navigating by sound like all people.

“Good morning,” she said and he could tell by her voice she knew. She had been crying.

“Hello, Lizbeth,” he said handing her a ration of dried fruit. “You should try Rodriguez tomorrow. I’m afraid I do not feel so well.”

As he handed her the bag, each of them finding the other’s fingers in the dark–the eternal night all humans lived in now–he felt her pat his hand.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, her voice hopeful.

“No,” he said. “No, you won’t.”

(c) 2011 Marlan Smith