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Monday, January 16, 2023

Land Mark

 

 

Land Mark (1976)


I was lying on my back, on top of the six cubit high stone block, 

drinking wine, and was watching the stars slowly begin to appear as 

the sun set. Venus glowed and twinkled in the western desert, and 

a slight breeze cooled the air. Pronti, the Easterner, and boss of the 

raft, was telling us about his brief time working around the top-stone 

crew. 


The Top Stoners were highly paid cutters, and almost everyone 

hates them.  “I saw them let one slide down and crush two workers, 

killing one, eventually,” said Pronti. “An accident, one of them said. 

Another one laughed.  I punched him, and the other jumped me, and 

I broke his arm.  I was reassigned after that. Stuck here with all of 

you.”


Pronti is a good boss. I suppose if I insisted, I could have been boss,

but, frankly I didn’t want it. This is my last run anyway.  


“But they are highly skilled right,” said Andue, who had the rudder.  

“Years of training.”


“No, not really.  You can learn in weeks, if you pay attention. Longer 

to get good of course. But it’s also about talent. Only a few get really 

good.  It is about handling the light saws. I was in the caravan that 

brought them over from the Eastern edge.  It takes about two, three 

weeks to learn the basics. But sometimes they do have to do it by 

hand - rather - if the grain is right, you can get a better cut with a 

hammer and chisel. That is skill, that is what slows things down 

cause there are only a few guys who can do that. Gruron is a better 

cutter than any of them, but they don’t like Southerners, so that would

be a problem. It is all fucked up. I would rather work with you guys.”


Gruron and Andue were from way down river, beyond the headwaters,

 from the Green Hills.  


“Why’d they let you go Pronti?” Andue couldn’t get enough of Pronti’s

stories. He was both different and authentic, salt of the earth, like him

and Grulon.  Me, I was just different, at least in their eyes. But I knew 

things, and I shared what I knew, so I mostly got along with everyone,

as long as I played the fool.


“In Zhumud”, said Pronti, “we already have mountains - you wouldn’t 

be able to breathe at the top of even the smaller ones, even if you 

could stand the cold.” 


“You ever climb those cold mountains Pronti?”  Andue worshiped 

Pronti, a fact his countryman Grulon thought comical.


“When I was young, sure. It was expected.  We all did, even the 

women.  I lived above the clouds. We don’t need to build mountains.”


“We have mountains in the south. Plenty high. Only goats live there.”


“Goats!” Pronti laughed.  “Even in the foothills of Zhumud, the birds 

can’t reach the top.” 

 

Andue looked at Grulon, who shook his head, not believing any of it. 

He reached for the wineskin.  I knew Pronti was right, because I had 

flown over the Zhumud mountains. Pronti caught my eye and smiled.


“Why did you leave Zhumud Pronti?”


“You have woman trouble,” Grulon asked.


Pronti was silent. He looked at Grulon, began to say something, then 

stopped. 


“Why do you bring that up?” Andue threw a small rock at Grulon. “Is 

it because your wife…” Grulon leaped like a cheetah on Andue, and 

punched him. 


“Get off him! Yes, I had ‘women trouble’. Yes!  I wasn’t the only 

workman she sought out. But…” There was more to the story of 

course, but Pronti wasn’t about to tell it.


“Like Grulon’s wife!” said Andue, as he pushed away from his 

countryman. 


“Anyway, after I was dismissed from the Emperor’s honor guard, I helped 

Fontu come here,” Pronti continued. “I never realized who he was or 

why he was coming here. I thought he was just a rich traveler.”


I had worked with Fontu when I was with the Planners.


“You knew him, didn’t you?”


“Yes,” I said. “He understood the project better than the lead builders.

They were too preoccupied with their numbers and the way the stars 

aligned.”


The rough squaring of the stone is done on the boat. The finer the 

work we do, the more money we make. But if we take off too much, 

the block won’t fit and will be useless. This block, the one we carried 

was nearly perfect, except for an overhang on one side.


Grulon’s chisel work was the best I have ever seen. Sometimes, 

with a few well placed shots, he can finish a piece as smooth as a top 

stone. He sees the flow of the grain better than anyone.  Andue, 

however, wants to cut all the time, in little bits. Chip, chip, all the way 

up the river. It is the safest way, he says. He wants all of us to work 

like that, rather than risk a bad cut. Pronti had told me he had never 

seen Grulon make a bad cut.


Prontus and myself aren’t great cutters, and would rather let Grulon 

do his magic. Grulon climbed up on the block with his hammer and 

chisel.


“Wait,” yelled Andue. “Why aren’t we all just chipping at it? We can 

gradually get it almost perfect.”


“Almost perfect.” Grulon laughed as he prepared to find his groove.


“Wait a minute!” said Pronti. He studied the stone impatiently, aware 

as anyone that he was probably the least expert of us in the matter of

stone cutting.


“Its a question of value, Pronti,” I said. “Is our free time on the boat 

worth the slight chance that we ruin the stone?”


“No,” he answered. 


“Fuck you then,” said Grulon. He jumped down off the stone and 

took the rudder. “I ain’t helping you with that.” He took a big pull from 

the wine bag. “You guys can chip all you want.” He handed me the 

wine and I took a good pull myself. I agreed with him. Really perfect 

work brought a significant bonus. It was worth the risk to let Grulon 

do it.  We both sat in the bow, and I dug the last wineskin out from 

the supplies. Pronti and Andue were chipping and whispering to 

each other.


“I thought you could do it,” I said.


Grulon smiled and lay back. It was a big wineskin.


Grulon was soon asleep, and I was restless, so I grabbed a hammer 

and chisel and jumped back up on the stone. Pronti took the rudder.


“How much further?,” asked Pronti.


Andue looked at the river bank. “Tomorrow morning, maybe early 

afternoon.”


When the sun went down we stopped at a village lit up by several 

large campfires and bought more wine and a side of antelope. Andue

and Pronti climbed up on the stone and made a fire. I woke Grulon 

and he had trouble climbing the stone.  We all laughed at him, and 

he laughed too, and the argument of earlier seemed forgotten. I went

for a twilight swim before joining them. 


I floated along behind the raft to avoid snags, and wondered why I 

was enjoying life so much now that I had left the Council. They were 

moving away from the original purpose, drifting into megalomania. 

The so-called Pharaoh was merely their puppet now. He really 

thought they were building his mausoleum. I looked up and saw an 

Atlantian ship, heading east. 

 

At that moment, I knew they were taking Fontu’s body back to his 

home. How the river must look from up there tonight! Hundreds of 

dinner fires on the floating stone blocks, all in a line as far down river 

as you could see. 


With Fontu gone, there were no wise ones left.


“Fontu is dead,” said Pronti. Andue was eating with carnivorous 

gusto and Grulon was nibbling and drinking. 


“How did you know,” I asked. Pronti shrugged. What a waste of 

talent! But it was too late to harness it. I was glad for him actually, 

because I knew what it meant to have your powers harnessed.

“I guess I will marry and settle in this desert,” he said. I nodded.


Andue immediately began telling Pronti about the quarter he lived in. 

“It is a good place. Close to the docks. We have nice places to eat 

and shop. It isn’t too wild, good for children.” Pronti nodded. I saw he 

was thinking of his son being raised in the palace of a princess. His 

princess. 


I had the first shift on the rudder. I woke at the first light and could 

see the unloading terminal ahead. We made good time. The river 

was up from yesterday.  They were already pulling one up off the 

raft. In this light that was dangerous. We would be second in line. 

The council was growing impatient at the pace of work, it seemed. 


“Perhaps in our lifetime,” I could almost hear their idle chatter. I am 

leaving this land. I will go north to the forest, beyond the sea. No 

more of this foolishness. 


“Look at that!” Grulon was pointing. Four Atlantian ships taking 

off together. Any flock of birds would launch themselves with more 

style and synchronicity.  I wasn’t impressed, and did not hide my 

annoyance.


Andue and Pronti hadn’t expected to arrive so soon. “Must of rained 

like a motherfucker back home,” said Andue. Grulon nodded. We 

only had a couple of hours at most to finish cutting the stone.  It was 

too late to let Grulon find a proper groove now. So we all chipped 

away furiously, including Grulon. Every pebble cut was more money.


I got off the raft, collected my pay, which was better than I had 

expected, and said goodbye. Although they would have no trouble 

replacing me, they were all silently mad that I was leaving, and soon 

I was a stranger to them.  After a couple days, they would be on 

camels headed south to get the next raft.  I bought a donkey and 

started for the coast. 

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Nightmare for a Gilded Stalion (1973)

 



Slowly, Tom walked toward Shorty’s Cafe. It was around dusk, and

 cold. Muffled thunder rumbled in the distance and Tom was 

enveloped by a strange feeling of melancholic discombobulation.


He wandered into the dingy diner and decided not to sit at a booth. 

He only wanted coffee. He sat on the backless, round counter seat,

 two stools over from an old man, who was nodding in starts and fits.

 Tom caught a whiff of urinal cake ammonia.  A fly wobbling with a 

sputtering buzz, circled around a doughnut case. Behind him, in a 

booth, a loud teenage girl in a faded maroon blouse was ribaldly 

entertaining a couple of old hobos.


Tom felt at home here. He took out a small notebook he always kept 

in his back pocket and wrote, “The bizarre nature of this dive 

seduces my imagination to induce cerebral semen into the fertile 

and virgin regions of my intellect.” He clicked his pen and put it back 

in his front short pocket and sipped his coffee with some self-

satisfaction.


A raven-haired woman entered Shorty’s, dragging a beat up suitcase. 

She was wearing a flowery, silken red dress, the hem of which drug 

across the dirty linoleum cafe floor.  She was looking around as if 

distracted by something.  Tom couldn’t guess her age - she looked 

18, maybe 20,  but something about her face, or the haunted look in 

her eyes told him she was older.  She sat down next to him. He 

looked at her, smiled and lifted his coffee to her.


“Is the coffee any good?”


Tom shrugged noncommittally.


She scowled, looked away and shook her head.


Tom stared at her until she turned back toward him.


“You can’t even commit to how you feel about a cup of coffee, can 

you?” 


Tom’s puzzled look turned to a chuckle. “It’s - I don’t know.”  He took 

a sip and made a face. “It’s coffee.”  He kept an anodyne face, but 

inside began to feel both dread and excitement.


She looked directly at him. They held each other’s gaze for an 

eternity.


“The coffee sucks,” he said.  “But that is an opinion. Not a 

commitment.”  From behind the counter Shorty looked at Tom, then 

at the woman, blinked slowly and held up the pot.


The raven haired woman smiled sadly. “Sure.” She pointed at her cup.

 “I have to stay awake so I don’t miss the next bus out of here.”


“Where you heading?”


“Wherever.”

 

Tom looked at her and again she looked back.  They sat in silence 

listening to the teenage girl’s laughter change to sobbing. A garbled 

argument between her companions was slowly escalating. Tom shook

his head and made a strained face and the woman in the long red 

dress and black hair seemed amused at his discomfort.  


“You need a place to crash tonight?”


“Probably.  Why?”


“You could stay at my place tonight. There will always be another 

bus."


She looked at Tom, and laughed, but continued staring at him. Tom 

didn’t look away. She shrugged and nodded.  He got up, paid for 

both of their coffees and picked up her suitcase.  They walked out 

together.  As they strolled past the shops on Main street, the lights in

the shop made Tom feel he was on stage with an unseen audience 

watching from the street.


Spring came quickly. This has all been a dream, thought Tom. Things

 are never surprising in dreams.  He was looking out his window at 

the rain, which was more than a drizzle and less than a downpour.  It 

was foggy and even though he had stared out his bedroom window 

countless times, the view seemed to flicker between the familiar and 

some other place. Tom leaned over the bed and shook Mary.


“Let’s go down to Shorty’s for breakfast. Come on, we’ll walk.” Mary 

acted annoyed, but beneath that Tom sensed her reluctance - almost

 - but not quite - fear. But he ignored it, subconsciously telling himself 

that she was just sleepy.  “Come on, it will be fun. We have not been 

back there since we met.”


She sat up, then after a bit, got up, and pulled on faded jeans over 

her well shaped legs. She slipped on a black sweater and combed 

her long dark hair straight back and then let it fall lightly on her 

shoulders. Meanwhile, Tom pulled on a tee shirt and climbed into a 

pair of mechanics overalls. They walked out into the cool spring rain, 

holding hands.


The rain matted Mary’s hair down. Tom looked at her with awe and a 

smidge of fear.  He suddenly realized he was - happy, complete, more

than content - but in love?  It might be love, he wasn’t sure - this was 

the first time he ever felt this way. He must have been, even though 

the winter had passed almost without notice. At least it must have 

passed, he thought.  As they exited Tom’s apartment, they skipped 

together for about ten yards, Yellow Brick Road style, a little ritual 

they had acquired somehow. But soon stopped and walked steadily, 

watchfully. Tom couldn’t remember the last time they had been out 

together.


A Lincoln Continental with dark mirrored windows pulled up next to 

them and stopped, and a small man in a gray, tight fitting jacket and 

a skinny dark tie, got out of the back seat and stepped toward them.


“He wants you to come home,” he said to Mary.  She squeezed Tom’s

 hand, and looked up.  She lowered her head and stared blankly at 

Tom.  The water on her cheeks could have been rain or tears.


“Come with me?” she said.


Tom nodded once with a determined and worried look.


They got in the back of the Lincoln together.  The front seat was 

empty, and the man in the tight-fitting sport coat got in the driver’s 

seat and drove down Main a couple of blocks and parked in front of 

the bank, the biggest building in town.  He waited while Mary and 

then Tom got out. An old man in a bellhop uniform came out of the 

bank and  ushered the three of them into the main entrance.


Inside, several men respectfully said hello, but the man in the sport 

coat ignored them and led Tom and Mary behind the counter, and 

down a hallway to an elevator with a security number pad. They got 

in, but it went down. It came to a stop  and the three of them got out 

in front of spacious, clean well-lit offices. They saw a number of 

beautiful people working.  It was like there was an modern metropolis

underneath Tom’s sleepy college town. 


“Mary?...”


She gave Tom a stony look, as though to say “not here!” There was 

no fear, no remorse, no hint of what was amiss on her face. But no 

awe or surprise either.  Tom tried to wipe his mind of any thoughts. 

They turned right and walked through a glass door and stepped down

 into a vast lobby.  Across the room on an elevated platform was a 

naked man nailed to a wooden cross. The naked man lifted his head 

and opened his eyes and cried, 

“Mother!”


“I gave him his chance in the desert.”  Tom turned around and 

looked at the man in the tight fitting sport coat who had driven them 

to the bank.  “The bastard could have used Mystery, or Caesar's 

sword, he could have fed them, awed them, and ruled them. It would 

have all been so much simpler. Instead he gave them all false hope.”


“Mother forgive me! I didn’t know what I was doing!”


With a stoic face, she turned away and said to Tom, “Let’s get the 

hell out of here.” She sneered at the thin man in the gray jacket, “We 

are closing our account,” she exclaimed. She and Tom walked back 

to the elevator.


“OK,” said Tom. “What now?”


“Get your savings out in cash. We are going to need more room.  I 

am pregnant.”

      

*****


Tom looked out the window of Shorty’s all night cafe. The dark haired

 woman was lugging her heavy suitcase across the street to the bus 

station. The thunder that had seemed distant before was now closer, 

but somehow it was less ominous. 


It was starting to become light outside. Tom waited for the bus to 

leave, then walked back to his basement apartment in the drizzling 

rain.