Prelude to the History of Music – Westen Gesell

Short Stories

Prelude to the History of Music
by Westen Gesell

She stands there, watching the inert forms of her troop as clouds of flies settle over them, without any hope that the bodies of her family will stir, crushed by the choking stench of their emaciated limbs.  The gaping sockets of their eyes lock onto her, beseeching her to save them, accusing her of not having done enough. Once again, she sinks to her knees in despair….

… and snaps her eyes open, her breath squeezed between the cold, hard earth and the bottomless predawn sky of the savanna. She has dreamed enough to distinguish between the worlds of sleep and wakefulness, but nonetheless, she strains her senses for reassurance.

No flies.

No stench.

The sound of eight others breathing in the dark begins to soothe her, but she knows there is truth in the dream. Their bodies have grown weaker and thinner during the dry season, with fewer opportunities to forage or scavenge and predators growing increasingly desperate. They are still emaciated, and she can still feel the foreboding weight of their empty stares.

Sometimes, Leader can taste the strength and pride she felt when the old Leader, her mate, was grabbed by a crocodile, leaving her to guide the troop. Though she had not been the strongest, she possessed an intelligence and foresight that her troop had recognized. They became hers, and she theirs, in a relationship that mixed kinship, ownership, and protection. That new sense of possession had energized her once, but now it only shakes her from sleep in the early hours and tugs at her fears throughout the day.

She lies there, knowing that sleep lies beyond her reach, and after several heartbeats, gently rolls her offspring away from her and slips out of the granite-enclosed space. As she steps out into the open, something in the pinkened sky moves her to climb atop one of the boulders of their kopje, where she sits, still unsettled by worry for her troop.

The Serengeti lies shrouded in fog, with the dark forms of acacia trees and other kopjes intimating at what could lie in their shadows. Light brims on the horizon, spilling across the pale haze and lending it a golden solidity even as it melts away. Above, the formless grey faces of clouds slowly catch the sunlight and burst into fiery texture. To the west, the cool, dark blue of night gives way to the fresh warmth of a new day.

A pebble skitters down one of the boulders, and the female turns to see her daughter as she climbs up to join her. The sense of responsibility that Leader feels for her group is strongest with her, and the child’s presence fills her with a quiet satisfaction. Together, they watch the landscape in silence as color is restored to their world.

Leader has been awake during the sunrise before, but never before has she placed herself at such a vantage point and simply soaked in the visual display. There is something in the regularity of this dramatic shift that makes her feel small, and yet comforts her. The world is heartless, yet dependable in its rules and patterns, and that is somehow enough to provide the female with the calming resolve she needs. She stretches an arm around the thin shoulders of her daughter and pulls her close as the final wisps of mist disintegrate in the growing warmth.

Today is a day worthy of change.  

* * *

Eight figures step through the grass with stones in hand, enjoying the brief respite from the beating sun provided by the splayed canopies of the acacia trees. On some days, the younger ones split away from the adults, peering up into the trees and laughing with delight when the birds are startled into flight, but today there is a grim set to Leader’s jaw that quiets the troop. One of the younger ones skips a few steps away, breaking out of their synchronized gait, but is cowed by an older female, who roughly grabs them and hauls them back into the center of the group.

It is not abnormal for the troop to start their day traveling in the direction of the river, as they are now, but the focus of Leader is still unsettling for many of the older troop members, though they lack the linguistic faculties to question her. They reach the river by late morning, which they approach with their senses on high alert for predators and rivals. At the water’s edge, they each drink their fill with a watchful urgency, fearful of the crocodiles that have claimed troop members before. Across the river, a small group of zebras engages in similar behavior, with the same caution as their hominid neighbors.

Once they have hydrated themselves, Leader resumes her deliberate gait, leading the group along the riverside. The uneasiness of the troop grows, and many of them tighten their grip on the stones they have brought with them from the kopje. Their eyes flit back and forth between the searching gaze of Leader and their surroundings. They learned long ago the dangers of lingering near the water, and the increased foliage near the banks of the river screams of lurking predators.

They walk in this state until early afternoon, the stink of their fear surely heralding their passage before Leader stops at the edge of a thicker copse of trees. Kneeling, she points through the brush into an open area away from the river.  An involuntary hiss escapes one of the males as they see the goal of their journey: a lion stands over the body of a zebra, growling, deep and guttural, as he senses the approach of other animals.

Deliberately, the lead male turns to face the troop’s members. In mute disbelief, they watch as Leader stretches her arms out, a sizeable rock in each hand, and brings them together with a percussive clack. Despite seeing her prepare for the action, many of them jump at the sound, watching in horror beneath her arms as the lion looks up from his prey and stares at the copse of trees with another growl.

Again, Leader brings her hands up, and again she crashes her two rocks together.  By now, the group recognizes what she is doing, and her daughter joins in this time with her own smaller rocks. With the next crash, several more members have joined in, accompanied by the stomping of feet. With several more crashes, the entirety of the group has joined in, and they sway to the beat, their fear somehow leached from their bodies by this unifying activity.

A cry bursts from Leader’s mouth, the high pitched collection of nonsense syllables eliciting a response in kind from the troop, with different members finding their pitches to create a wild, hair-raising harmonic cacophony. As they gain confidence, their volume and range increase, with some members singing a growling drone of their own beneath the accelerating rhythm of stones and feet.

Leader turns and steps out into the clearing, followed by the rest of the troop, still singing and swaying as she crashes the rocks together. Together, intoxicated by their music, the group is unstoppable, and they slowly advance on the lion from the trees.

The lion roars, stepping over its prize as it confronts these strange ape-like beings. He, too, recognizes this display, but has only seen it in a defensive setting, when this species is threatened by a predator. This new, aggressive use, is an entirely new phenomenon. He roars again, his hackles raised, and takes another step towards this newly aggressive group of hominids. Under ordinary circumstances, such a strange show of force would be enough to force it away from its food, but resources are scarce now, and he too can feel himself weakening in the heat of this dry season.

The singing falters, with members of the troop recalling the strength and danger of the apex predator they are approaching, but Leader continues her chant with more urgency, animating her gestures further to refocus her comrades. With each call and response, they inch closer to the lion until they are no more than three body lengths away from it, and it feels as though they are singing directly into its gaping maw. The dissonance of the music, and of this bizarre upheaval of the food chain, is a physical thing now, mixing with the furious roars of the lion. For several seconds, they stand there, two species, screaming at each other, disputing a hierarchy that has remained in place for tens of thousands of years.

One of the rocks that a male is holding actually shatters from the repeated impact. With a scream, he hurls his remaining stone at the lion, striking it on the head and cutting off its roar. Before the beast can recover, other members of the troop are launching their stones with as much strength as they can muster, striking the predator on the head and sides as it backs away. Their screams grow stronger with this escalation, and the tension seems to break.

With a final, perfunctory roar, the lion retreats from the clearing with blood dripping from its muzzle, jogging away through the acacias beneath a further onslaught of stones.

Their singing continues for several seconds, until they are certain that they are alone, after which they turn to each other, elated by their victory and still feeling the rush of adrenaline. With the ferocity of the constantly hungry, they tear into the flesh of the zebra, struggling through the tough hide to get at the meat beneath.

Leader sees the broken pieces of rock that the male discarded lying in the grass and stoops to pick them up. One of them is very sharp, and she carries it over to the carcass, remembering past troop members cutting into the hides of scavenged animals with rock shards. With short, vicious strokes, she splits the hide around the wound, allowing for easier access to its muscular frame.

* * *

For two hours, the troop remains in the clearing, eating their fill before beginning the trek home.

The two children play as they walk back, accompanied by hisses and barks from their parents when they stray too far, or too near to a stand of bushes. Overall, though, the group is more relaxed, and members communicate contentedly with each other. Though they lack specific words, the past few generations have seen the development of an emotive, tonal verbalization, with certain patterns of syllables beginning to describe experiences. One adult mimes the throwing of a stone, chattering excitedly as he recalls their victory earlier that day.

Early evening is setting, and Leader allows herself a rare instance of satisfaction as she watches her daughter skip from curiosity to curiosity. There is an intelligence in the child that fills her with pride and gives her hope for the troop in years to come.

A soft, golden haze seems to fall over the Serengeti as the sun nears the horizon, and the bugs come out beneath the acacias, catching the sun with their lazy motions and appearing to be more light than nuisance. Other members of the troop sense that something fundamental shifted today, and there is an accompanying sense of surrealism as they enjoy their lack of hunger.

Letting her eyes wander, Leader can feel the weight of those empty stares from her dream lightening.

A scream rips her focus back to her daughter, and her environment snaps into horrifying clarity. A lion, blood dried on its snarling muzzle, has leapt from within a thicket of taller grass. Clasping the child’s kicking leg between his teeth, he yanks her brutally off of her feet, and begins to drag her away from the troop.

In defiance, she twists and slams a rock into the lion’s nose. For a brief moment, the impact is startling enough that he lets go, and she begins to crawl away.

The sight of her daughter’s arms flailing in the grass gives Leader’s maternal instinct the strength to smash through the barrier of her survival instinct, and she finds herself bounding after the lion, screaming uncontrollably as she hoists a stone above her head. Behind her, several other members break into pursuit as well, matching her cries with their own.

Although desperate for food, the lion once again finds itself to be no match for the concerted ferocity of this group of Homo ergaster. The leading ape-like being actually bludgeons it on the snout with her stone, followed by a further barrage of stones from other members of her troop. With yet another frustrated roar, he releases his prey and retreats again into the savanna.

This time, the mother halts her aggression immediately, falling to her knees beside her child and cradling her head in her lap. Shakily, Leader coos to her, as she did when her daughter was an infant, uncaring of the blood that gushes over her thighs.

Within minutes, the child lies dead, her mother’s tears mixing with the blood as it soaks into the dirt. The Serengeti stands motionless around them as the sunset bathes the sky a deepening red.

Surrounding the pair, many troop members find tears spilling down their own weathered faces. The sun has completely disappeared by the time the mother looks up at her troop with a look of both utter exhaustion and resolve.

Breaking the rules of the Serengeti comes at a price, and this species has come to know that price intimately since they were forced from the forests uncounted years ago. Slowly, the group gathers more tightly around the child’s body, tears still glistening on their faces.

It is far past the sunset when the troop has finished and resumes their journey back home, the blood of more than one species coagulating around their mouths.

* * *

In the morning, the empty gaze of her daughter alone is enough to drive Leader atop their granite shelter, where she sits and continues to weep before the lightening sky. As she looks out at the misty forms of the acacias, and the distant darkness of foliage around the river, she finds herself hating this land that demands so much for mere survival. A scream begins to force its way up her throat, fueled by the pain and frustrations of a mother whose greatest fears have been realized, but she chokes it down for fear of waking her troop.

The skitter of a rock draws her attention, and she whips around to see another member of her troop, a male who she recognizes for his smaller form and missing pinky finger on his left hand. He freezes as their eyes lock, but the softening of Leader’s gaze as she sees the pain mirrored in his eyes allows him to make his way to her side.

Moments later, the other three females climb atop the rock, followed by the other two males and the only remaining child.

Sitting together, they share their pain and watch the world return to golden clarity.

The Leaf Scouts

Short Stories

By Cody Claassen

The Old Forest reaches from top to toe,

And through this woods we all must go.

Let evil be vanquished with each kill we sow,

What the Children learned then, the Elders now know

            “Wilric, what is the most important thing to remember during The Great Hunt?” Teacher asked. Wilric jolted awake from where he sat in the clearing, lit with the dying sun and the content flames of the fire in the middle of the circle of children. He saw a disappointed look from the retired Forest Guard. Snickers from the other Leaf Scouts tittered from his left and right side.”I’m sorry, Teacher, I didn’t hear the question. What was it again?”

            The scarred teacher sighed. “During The Great Hunt, what should you do?”

            “Ummm… You should chew on willow bark?” said Wilric, his tone jovial.                         

            “No, Wilric,” the teacher chided. “That’s for mild pain. Can anybody else remember?” Many other hands shot up from the other children gathered in the clearing. Murmurs and pleas for selection arose from the young students. “Marten, what is the answer?”

            “During the Great Hunt everyone should stay indoors, lock all doors, and open them only after the sun has risen again, always keep something made of iron on your person or close by, and keep a fire made of rowan burning hot in the hearth,” said Marten with no hesitation or pause.

            “Very good, Marten.” said the teacher, scarred from age and combat with a smile, pride briefly touching his one good eye. “And if you are caught outside?”

            Marten paused before speaking. “I don’t know. I suppose I would want to seek shelter anywhere I could.”

            “Hmm, that’s part of it, definitely seek shelter: find the safest place you can find. But the most important thing during the Great Hunt is to be mindful. Be mindful of your surroundings, be mindful of the time, and most importantly, be mindful of the horns,” the teacher said grimly.

            “Well,” said Wilric. “I think we should also look out for antlers and tusks and all manner of pointy things.”

            The teacher’s face changed into a gnarled mass of anger, but only for a second. “No, Wilric,” he said in a restrained voice. “By horns, I mean bugles and trumpets. Horns that would be used in a hunting party. If you are outside during the Great Hunt and can hear the horns, find the direction it is loudest and then go the opposite way. If the horns end suddenly, you’re already dead. Find shelter, do not build a fire, and do not draw your weapons. That will only enrage her.”

The Collecting

Short Stories

By Kaitlin Schmidt 

            She wrote of her father’s family, which she met only in dreams. The fabrication of details didn’t upset her conscience because the doctor gave her license to ‘create’ whatever she thought would contribute to healing. Claire created and recreated, things from her mind and life and things from an imagined life she might have lived once.

            Instead of unpacking the boxes that formed cardboard towers all around her childhood bedroom, she rummaged in her old desk for paper. Her palms became coated in soft gray dust while she investigated the empty cubbies and drawers. She had been gone long enough for these spaces to be unfamiliar now. Out the window and up the street – the lawns and houses were only the bones of her memories, while all the flesh and color had changed.

            She found a yellow legal pad with scribbles about a missed phone call on the top page. She ripped it off and started fresh.

            The facts were never nailed down, the youngest sister craved answers but they floated between her fingers like mist, only moistening her palms. She listened to her mother speak of family photographs.
“Some folks in everyday clothes and alongside them full Indians with feathers and beads all the way down.”

They were relatives, she said. The people in the photos were the great aunts and uncles that had left the reservations for a different sort of living and then came back to visit. These photos, though much discussed, could never be produced when relatives were called upon to search them out from top-shelf closet boxes and from basement storage bins.

To Infinity and Beyond: Imagining Liba College Futures and Other Science Fictions

Short Stories

By Ami Regier

***

The new entrepreneurial president was desperate. What small colleges do that no other form of higher education can do, he thought, is create a world. It is a very special, intense world, characterized by full-body, full-mind, live time scenarios 24-7, involving arduous journeys through the rugged terrains of, among others, liberal arts, technology, music, undergraduate research, and athletics. With much creativity, small colleges create their own educational structures and intercollegiate competitions. While musing about this, the president was multitasking along with the first-year students, having occasional google hangouts while reading the community-wide text Reamde, by Neal Stephenson. Reamde imagines that videogame realities are starting to intersect with real-world economies and power-brokers. In Reamde, students in China hack into Russian mafia financial data in order to make college tuition money. The data sets get imported into the game and held for ransom. Students problem-solve how to win access to the data sets in gaming logic (by winning in the game construct) but end up resolving real-world conflicts. When the president read the line about how people were tracing each other’s locations in two realities, the president turned to the webcam and shouted “Brilliant—that’s it!” Before long, the college had shifted the location of classroom learning into narrative worlds. A new major combining gaming, programming, international business, and writing was developed. Students developed problem-solving methods in the narrative context of multiplayer games, writing the next plot event after each problem was solved. As in Reamde, tuition money could be sited in the game, with portals for payment and collection based on student research, labs, logic proofs, performances, and creative activities built into the game. Soon, students world-wide were enrolling in the narrative world of Liba College. Residential inhabitation was optional, but students tended to choose it, because they could live as their game avatars and written selves during the duration of each class segment. Invented lives of mathematicians, economists, scientists, computer programmers, musicians, innovators, and super-athletes became real lives.

The Green Jacket

Short Stories

By Jenae Janzen

 

I work on a hunch. I’m always working on hunches. I have a hunch that if I follow a man in a green jacket into a corner store I’ll find a solution. I used the colors only in order. I colored only on the right-hand pages.

Today I realize I don’t love you. Today I realize love is only an illusion, and that I only wished to love you. Today I realize that you are only an illusion and I only wished to love you. I wanted to tell you this in person, but I had forgotten. I was too in love with the idea of love to admit this.

We’re taking the interstate. You’re driving. I’m sitting in the passenger seat, reclining, I’m holding a magazine and the directions that we printed off have slid onto the floor and gotten lost amongst the fast food wrappers and discarded clothes. I flip a page and read you advice on pleasing girls. You ask me to read you the exit you need to take instead. I put my sunglasses on.

You miss the exit. I just shrug because I don’t really care where we’re going. You yell at me to find the GPS and I hand you your backpack. You don’t like this. I don’t care.

I read you another article, and this one’s on “sex cravings,” whatever that means.

You turn on the radio, so I start talking louder. You turn up the radio. I start talking even louder. This goes on for several minutes before you nearly run off the road and that shuts us up. After too long of a silence, you see a sign for a hotel and we pull off into the parking lot.

The Crying Sky- Prologue: Deuteronomy

Short Stories

By Ben Preheim 

Not many alive today know how to listen, but for the few who do, they would know that even the trees were nervous.  The shaggy bushes and neatly trimmed hedges stood on edge; their leaves were silent.  The air was still, the animals quiet. A figure in a flowing black cloak strode like a ghost down a narrow rubbish-strewn street. He had been overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of the main streets.  These people were insane in their love of bright lights that burned without wood or oil, and their noisy vehicles. He chuckled, they called this progress, but they were barbaric than they had been hundreds years before.  The air was so laced with pollutants that it nearly made him choke.

He made his way to what the locals called Seraphim Abbey.  He could see it now, plainly visible in the pallid light of the possessed lamps that illuminated it.  The abbey was a large gothic church with a majestic rose window at the front, flanked by two square stone towers.  One tower held the bells, sweet bronze bells that rang on festival days.  The other tower had an enormous clock face on the front side; its hands read five minutes from midnight.

Tension started to build in his chest, and he shivered with excitement.  Oh, how long he had waited for this moment.  After years of preparation, plots, and counterplots, he had come to this moment.  He could barely contain himself.  Finally, after so many years, he’d be able to complete his mission.

The Trouble with Life Enrichment Is

Short Stories

By Marike Stucky       

   She looked at me as if to say, “Well duh, you little shit.”

            I had asked this woman sitting on the curb, whose face was like a dried apricot—all orange and crinkly—if anyone was home at this time of day. Of course someone was home. This home was always occupied. The smoke drifting up from the woman’s cigarette seared my nostrils—I’m allergic to cigarette smoke—and drove me to action. I turned from the apricot woman and jogged up the steps leading to the house. Door. Handle. Open.

            “Hello?” I asked into the dismal entryway of house number 314. There was a staircase filling the space to my right; a living room devoid of the living on my left. A few potted plants dotted the living room—they had long past died. There were some squashy arm chairs in there, all with horrible floral prints. I was standing in the foyer. I’d left footprints in the dust as I had traipsed in.

             “Uh, Madge? You in here?”

Hijo del Pule-Zapatos

Poetry, Short Stories

Por Nicole Eitzen

A petición de su suegra Doña Mari lavaba su cuero cabelludo con machaca de plátanos machos, una pizca de azúcar y jugo de limón. Su cabello alongado y terso se mecía, a la vez que su cuerpo voluptuoso se movía como un gusano de seda al entrar en contacto con el amor caliente como la sangre y pesado como el sol. Tito desde el hoyo entre la cocina y el baño la observaba y la alegría del albañil se palpaba en el sonido que silbaba la tortilla con manteca en el comal del señor. Señor bendito y puro como la hermana, como la ausencia de aquella crema tan cara para restregarse los puntos negros y acabar con el salpullido del interior. Doña Mari terminó de a punto su baño y mientras se alistaba en su cuarto el perro de la casa, “Borracho” se acercaba a lamerle los claveles de piernas que la señora de leches evaporadas protegía como la verruga con la que nació.

“Buenas, Doña Mari”, dijo el hijo del pule-zapatos, el joven quien con prudente arrebato había entrado a la casa de los Lucero. Tito y Doña Mari desde diferentes partes de la casa lo observaban, Tito con ojos bizcos y Doña Mari con la piel clara, usando cada quien lo suyo para ponerse presentables e ir a atenderlo con el más último detalle en modales y atención. Tito, sabiendo que la patrona se molestaría si se sentaba en el sofá, se apresuró a tomar una silla del comedor y colocarla en la sala, ágil y de movimientos que contrarrestaban con su pésimo sentido de cordialidad y humor.

Hurricane Denny

Short Stories

By Martin Olson

Somehow, Jacob Wilde kissed Chastity Goldbern in his college dorm room, standing between the dresser, which hid bottles of liquor beneath its clothes, and the desk, whose drawers collected friends’ lighters and empty packs of cigarettes. Somehow he sat at her side and held her hand, even as she cried for his addictions and weaknesses and condemned his soul. Somehow he won the approval of both her midwestern parents and the majority of the ghosts of her ancestry, and somehow he settled down with her in Bantam, Nebraska, where she worked telling dysfunctional children Mommy and Daddy may be going to Hell, but there is still plenty of Jesus left for you. Somehow, they conceived and raised a child, Dennis Mitchell, to adolescence, and remained stable enough to serve as a loving foster family. But that is where their miracles stopped.

On the television, the afternoon news botched a convenience store robbery in Lincoln, shooting the clerk in the face before he even opened the register, then fleeing the scene empty handed, just to be killed in a confrontation with police less than a mile away.