The Eyes of Gael: Prelude to The Otherworld Chronicles

 

Can the Devil love?

That’s one question Connor MacAuley never imagined he’d be asking himself as he sat at the bar of Kelly’s, staring at the bubbling black beer in his hand like he half expected it to wink back at him.

After all, he reasoned, there had to be something else to Him besides cloven feet and infernal contracts.

In fact, he’d personally come to find the devil’s contract was not really at all what everyone thinks it is.

The devil takes many forms.

They got that much right at least. The rest, he suspected, was just religious superstition. The truth was there were so many more devils in the world than there were dwelling in the darkest pits of Hell itself. They just managed to go unnoticed. This was either because they didn’t want to be seen, or because people failed (0ften outright refused) to recognize when they were looking them straight in the eye. That’s the way they preferred things, anyway.

The funny thing was they were remarkably easy to spot when you actually wanted to see them.

Connor didn’t.

So why was he able to?

All his life they stood out to him plain as day.

Ma always chimed, ‘daoine íogair do na saol eile‘.

He was neart. That’s what she’d call him. A strong force. He had to be steadfast and ‘just leave it be’. They were like bees buzzing in the field. Simply leave’em be and they’d fly off eventually.

Best not mention it or think about it, Connor. Few would understand. Just accept that it is and it’ll never do you any harm.

If only she knew…

It was true that Connor was steadfast by nature and never one to let things stick to him for very long. He had to be. It was easier, after all, to compartmentalize and push forward. But today, he couldn’t avoid the question that seemed to dig at him like a cat digs at the sofa.

He sat, inhaling the overwhelming scents of tobacco, drink and sweat coming from his fellow dock workers, each one of them trying to drown the aches and pains of their day’s labor in the bottom of a pint of ‘Kelly’s Finest‘ stout. As he conjured thoughts about devils and mothers and everything in between, the thought reached Connor that he’d been cursed with his mother’s same lateral way of thinking.

He permitted his mind a brief respite, and his eye wandered towards the game streaming on the wall. Score one for the Rovers! Followed by a resounding cheer from his companions, many of whom raised a toast in solidarity of what now promised to be a win for them. Connor felt a brisk smack to his shoulder and turned toward Brutus, his foreman. They clapped their mugs together before downing what was left of the Guinness in their glasses.

Suddenly, his nerves seemed to burn, and the room, for the briefest moment, blurred and darkened, as though reality had become utterly detached from itself before returning to normal. He shot around, as if magnetically compelled. Going past him was a girl wrapped up in a dark leather jacket, zipped just tight enough to allow a deep green bodycon to squeeze down to her knees, carried on golden thin-strapped stilettos.

Gael for sure. Auburn hair, pulled back into a tight bun, exposing a long and slender neck. She belonged at The Rose Bar at the Gramercy. Not at Kelly’s beer bin, which catered to the finest class of underpaid dock monkeys in Hell’s Kitchen.

He had glimpsed a resolute look on her face, etched upon a squared jaw, and eyes of emerald green set apart by a wide, soft-looking nose, awarding her a brazen—almost serpentine—sex appeal that drew not only Connor’s attention, but also half the room as she carried on.

Certainly, she was not from this end of town.

“Hey!” The shrill of a terrible accent cut through the maudlin discord of the room like a blunted saw. Some boorish gobshite who couldn’t or wouldn’t even try to distinguish his O’s from his U’s, contrasting his own high-end looking black linen jacket and outfit. Also a wee bit out of place at a joint like Kelly’s.

The man was making his way to cut the girl off. She didn’t stop. Not even when his hand firmly clasped around her forearm. A jerk of the shoulder was all it took for her to break free and continue on her way, only to be checkmated when Loverboy fell back on the human wall strategy.

Connor had taken in the scene well enough. The loser was getting dumped by the sight of it, compounded by the occasional coherent outburst of “Stuck-up bitch!”, “My girl!”, “Not over!”, and, of course, the classic beggar’s “Please”.

Romantic. Truly.

It was never his policy to bother in other’s dysfunctionality, but when Loverboy started throwing around words like, “I should snap your head off!” this was starting to become the kind of drama no one wanted to see; yet more and more eyes were starting to follow. More specifically, they were drawn to her, apparently studying her intently as she stood, dourly tapping her foot with all the patience of an incensed bear. She ignored the assemblage of eyes like they were nothing in the world to her.

Somewhere, in this half-cocked groveling, Loverboy’s eyes made contact with Connor, standing up to face them.

“Wha’ da fuck you lookin’ at, ugly?”

Connor stepped towards the unsightly pair. Loverboy’s foul breath reeked like rotten eggs. His yellowed teeth reminded Connor of a meth head he’d seen living in the alley. They were jagged, rotten and decayed as the walking dead. And what had initially seemed to be sweat glistening on the man’s face from a distance was actually a greasy gloss, covering a very spotty complexion. His hair was shaved off to a short stubble, making his burly head look like an overly-ripened peach. Definitely shit-faced, judging by the perfume of whiskey sour permeating off of him—and ready to do some damage with his beastly, stub-nailed mitts.

 “Don’t believe the young lady appreciates your treatment of—”

“No,” he interrupted, “What I don’t think she appreciates is some pervert-“

Connor took another casual step.

“Who has no sense of fashion—” the words seemed to belch themselves out as his eyes scanned over Connor’s admittedly underwhelming attire. Still, how would you look after pulling overtime on the docks? When you go to work dirty, you come home dirty.

“No friends—”

If he only knew.

 “—and is such a scrawny lil’ faggot he’s probably never even had a girlfriend!”

A final step closed the gap between them. When Connor refused to back down, Loverboy’s face and eyes seemed to get just a bit redder, making him the color of a fresh beet.

“Fuck off!”

“Stand there and speak sweet nothings to me all night long—”

“FUCKOFF!”

“—I don’t walk away until one of two things happen. Either you turn around and go with what’s left of your tattered ego…or one of us is laid out on this floor.”

The words barely left his lips and already several of the fellows, encouraged by Connor’s example (Brutus included), were being roused from their inebriated meditations on her and redirecting them towards her aggressor. By now each of them was more than eager to teach the new plaything a lesson in longshoreman etiquette; and they could be quite thorough when it came to the lesson of throwing shapes around in a pub.

“And I’ve a strange inklin’ it’s not gonna be me.”

When Loverboy raised a fist, it seemed things were about to get bloody. But the goon stopped short when he noticed that there were a half a dozen chaps on either side staring him down like lions ready to defend their alcoholic pride. Even the barman— whose hands noticeably disappeared beneath his counter, retrieving a very sizable aluminum bat that already looked very well broken-in—had that fiendish “please do” twinkle in his eye that said he was itching to make an example out of the latest fool at Kelly’s.

“Should have mind your own fuckin’ bus’ness, Missur Hero,” was the last thing he croaked before furiously storming off, leaving a fine long crack in the glass door slammed shut behind him as a memento.

Hero? Whatever happened to plain decency?

Was it so much to ask that in this day and age of rampant disillusion with everything that one person had the wherewithal to do one decent act every once in a while? Then again, who should expect a manky creature like that to have the capacity to do anything decent short of hiking his trousers up?

Oh, well.

With a short nod towards Brutus, the lads knew it was okay to go back about their own business, though a few stragglers continued to study her as if that would get them somewhere. Connor looked to the barman, gesturing to send them all another round. What was a few drinks in exchange for a few spared ribs, after all?

He held the door open to the lady. All she did was stand there, her attention now firmly locked upon him.

“I didn’t require your help.” Her words came out in a hiss of resentfulness that was as indignant as it was condescending the way only womankind has ever been able to master.

“I wasn’t offering any. I was just escorting you both out.” The words came out harsher than he had intended, but if that was how she wanted to be, then so be it!

In an instant her face flushed, and, while it might have been Connor’s imagination, her deep green eyes seemed to fill with an impactful glow as she glared at him with the intent that told him she was fighting back every urge to pick him up and toss him through the door herself. Ultimately, she seemed to give it up and made her way out, but never once abandoned that predatory focus. Not even after she’d cleared half the parking lot. From that distance, Connor could still make out her gaze, trailing him like a piece of game…

Another erupting roar of excitement for the Rovers pulled him back to the world inside the pub. When he looked again, she was gone as fast as she’d been there.

Aithriocht.

Freak.

Halfway home she was still stuck in his head. That rueful pucker about her lips. Those eyes that had followed him. What the Hell was that about, anyway? He’d done her a favor and she repaid him with the look of death? Too late, he realized, he should’ve just yielded to his instincts and not gotten involved in the first place. Things always seem to just go arseways whenever you do–

Suddenly, a hand clutched Connor’s throat, gripping as a snake coils its form about its prey. There followed the cold tickle of a sharp instrument tracing across his belly, as if sniffing out the ideal location to puncture a can. For his part, Connor couldn’t believe he didn’t smell him coming from a mile away. The reek of rotten eggs and sour whiskey still enveloped the brute.

 “Money, now!” The knife punched its way through fabric and gave Connor a none-too-gentle prod. “Missur Hero!”

Oh, joy. Loverboy wanted to play some more.

“Don’t carry any. Let go.”

The blade launched rather than pushed its way in, drawing the slightest amount of blood. Not that it made any difference. Connor didn’t feel any pain. It was another one of those ways that he was neart.

“Cut da horseshit!  Money, jewelry—”

“Do I really look that much like a woman from behind?”

“SHADDUP! ’EFORE I — !”

Before he had the chance to finish, the snake’s coil loosened and slipped away. The knife tore in slightly deeper, before likewise being left embedded where it was.

From the darkness behind Connor came a vulgar sound—a kind of crunch! noise. He was afraid to look back but dared himself to anyway, and was greeted by the sight of a slender and silhouetted outline, casting off a vague luminous shine in the pitch black of the alley. Loverboy’s throat was clinched in its vicelike grip; his mass suspended just off the ground by an otherworldly strength. With the other hand the silhouette clasped his face and puckered his mouth, from which it seemed to draw the living breath from his body.

Even in the stygian light, Connor could almost see the aura of life dim as it abandoned him, while the silhouettes seemed to grow in response. Finally, with a snap of the wrist, a taloned hand severed the head from its neck, chucking it through the air before it landed with a resounding slam dunk into a nearby dumpster. The corpse followed shortly after, crashing with enough force to bring the lid down on top of it. As he watched the macabre spectacle unfold, Connor could not bring himself to envy the poor shmuck that was unfortunate enough to discover that nasty little surprise when trash day came.

The obscurity of the dim alley night did nothing to conceal her eyes of emerald, now glimmering as they rested upon him, glowering with predatory regard.

Moments eked by with painful stillness as her gaze remained on him. He was next. He had to be.

Yet she remained still. Composed and attentive. The gaze never faltered. Why didn’t she make her move?

Of course.

She was the predator, and he was the prey. His next move would decide if he lived or became another drained body in a dumpster. Backed into a corner with no easy exit, he was in no shape to run. Not with a fresh wound leaking out of him, held only by the pressure of his own hand trying in vain to contain it. Should he stand his ground? Draw the blade out and hope for the best, perhaps? No, he wasn’t running anywhere. Not like this. And to try and fight was all but a death sentence.

“Umm…”

She shifted at his sound, intent to hear what the man had to say for himself now. Hell, he was probably going to die anyway, what did he have to lose?!

“I didn’t require your help.”

  1. Did not. Just. Say. That.

“I wasn’t offering any.”

It was her alright. Her voice, still irrefutably feminine, now carried an extra quality. A kind of homorhythmic resonance, both silvery and smoky at once, perfectly blended. Unreal as it was, it put him at ease, for some reason.

“That was for me.”

At that moment a lamplight snapped on, and the silhouette stepped into the glassy overcast to illuminate someone very different from what Connor had seen earlier at Kelly’s. What he beheld was an unearthly beauty that would have left the hardest man distraught with longing. She was lithe and shapely, in clothes that only further emphasized the fullness of her figure. The jacket was gone, revealing the form-fitting dress which clung to her breasts, waist and hips like a second skin, leaving bare and unabashedly elegant legs and feet exposed.

Even under the highlight of the lamp she seemed to glow as if she were a sliver of moonlight herself, weather-reddened cheeks sprinkled with freckles about her wide but soft-looking nose and luminescent marbled skin. Her head burned by an immense crown of bright red hair bounding off of her shoulders and descending down to the swell of her hips. And those eyes…ever glimmering the deepest emerald green.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

What kind of faery’s child was that poet talking about, Connor couldn’t help but wonder…?

The girl—if that was the word for her—sauntered up to him in a motion more like floating than walking, her hands tucked unassumingly behind her as she went.

Tilting forward like a dipping bird, she took in the full sight of his wound. Her tongue momentarily peaked out and wetted her lips, as if the sight inspired a hungry desire in her. “That’s in pretty deep. How bad is it?” Her question buttoned with a half-serious poke.

“I—don’t think it nipped anything important, if that’s what you mean.”

“Pity.” She made another go for it, but this time she found her wrist caught in Connor’s own grip. The precociousness was immediately replaced by a very lethal candor that needed to redirected fast.

“So, who are you?” he asked, releasing the hold he had on her, slowly, before she chose to bare fangs as well.

 “Someone you’ll be happy not to be on the bad side of. Now shut up and hold still.” With no flicker of hesitation—or warning—she removed and discarded the knife as unceremoniously as she had its previous owner. She raised Connor’s shirt and dropped to her knee, Connor watching—half-dazed and dumb—as the girl-monster-thing pressed her wetted lips to his hip, running her tongue over the fresh, trickling wound. The burn at first, with each stroke, became lesser and lesser, until not even a souvenir scar remained.

As she looked up at him, lapping the bit of crimson staining her mouth, Connor scrambled for words. What had just occurred was all but ridiculous in how impossible it was. How could he rationalize it? His whole life in the past few minutes had become too surreal—like he’d stepped out of what he knew as reality into a dream that wouldn’t let up.

The girl stood, smiling in a way that suggested nothing short of pure malicious intent, hidden beneath a façade of civility. “Remember, this means we’re even now.”

“Fine.”

No words passed for a long time. The girl didn’t seem interested in leaving either. At this point, was that good or bad…?

“So…” he began. “…what are…you…called?” Her brow peaked with a cautious scrutiny. “Do you…have…a name?”

At first she seemed reticent. Uncertain whether or not to share this apparently precious piece of information.

“Please?” He tried to manage an unassuming face; or at least as much as one could, given the circumstances.

“Sirennia.” The word barely escaped her lips enough for the ear to catch it. “That’s my name.”

Sirennia. The siren calls and the helpless sailor plunges to his death at her beckoning.

The irony was so incredible that Connor had to smile.

“You find something amusing, sir?”

“You’re the first to ever talk to me.”

“The…first?”

“I’ve seen things like you—” Her other brow peaked, followed by a flat grimace that suggested she took umbrage at being referred to as a ‘thing’. “—I notice them all the time. But they’ve never noticed me. Now here you are, and I’m not sure what to say…” It took more than a moment, an age it felt like, but somehow the words he had wanted to say this whole time came to him. “What…are…you?”

“You…have…no idea, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

“What w—” She stopped abruptly, as if catching herself before she could take this conversation in a direction she dared not go. She had clearly reached some conclusion. But Connor would never know what it was. “What are you called?” She asked, now quick to change the subject.

“Connor MacAulay.”

“Do you have another name?”

What that was supposed to mean, Connor couldn’t tell. Still, it was far from the oddest thing that had happened tonight, and more pressing matters were currently standing right in front of him.

“If I ever find out, I’ll gladly share it with you over drinks. Just not at that place.” He shot his thumb out. It pointed back toward Kelly’s.

That managed a soft smile from her. Progress, at least.

“Might you have a shower? I need to wash off, before everything starts congealing.” She held out blood-stricken ladyfingers, displaying a right mess, indeed.

“I do.” He extended an arm for her, though he couldn’t fathom why. “I’m just around the corner.”

How had this shifted from damoiseau in distress rescued by an enchanted princess to “Do you want to come back to my place”? The thought popped into his mind almost as quickly as it left.

For only a moment she held her reluctance. But that recessed, and the affirmative sprite cordially took hold. “Then, if you would kindly.”

What the Hell are ya doing, man?

Why is she even here?  

And Why, oh-why, did you just hold the door open and invite her inside?

Those were the questions Connor knew he should be asking himself in this moment. Alone, in his room, with a woman apparently able to transform into…what was she, anyway?

But, no. Instead all he could think about was how much he wanted—needed—for her to stay.

What the Hell is wrong with you? The last spark of his sanity shot this warning sign into his mind before it, too, lolled back into the void of mindlessness.

He tried listening to the sound of the running water from the bathroom, attempting to declutter his mind. Bad mistake. Instead, the image of that bare-skinned figure generously soaking herself followed by something else altogether inappropriate crept its way into his imagination.

How do I get her out of here? What could I do to get her to leave?

Why would you want her to leave?

God, help me!

All this unproductive contemplation was cut short when he heard the door open, and what stepped out was nothing short of divinity wrapped in a poly-cotton towel. The sight of that slicked back red hair or that alabaster skin dewed with moisture was enough to send all the blood rushing from any true man’s head to his pelvis in a heartbeat.

By the way she looked at him, Connor felt certain that she could sense how fast his heart was racing. Curling a come-hither finger, she gestured him to come. His brain would not even permit itself a moment to think. Arching up slightly on her forefeet, she stopped just short enough to tickle his nose with a sweet little peck. Her smile professed that she found the dumb-founded look on his face gratifying.

“Thank you,” she trilled, rather affectionately for once.

“Certainly,” was the most he managed to conjure up.

Connor scrambled to make some sense—any kind of sense—of what he was thinking. The thought stabbed into his mind that anything she wanted was hers, as long as it meant she’d stay. He wanted whatever voice was droning on inside him to shut up, so that he could clearly define a plan to excuse her from his flat. Or, failing that, excuse himself—anything to put some distance between them. He breathed deep and held it as he broke his eye contact and turned away from her.

“I don’t know about you, but I need a drink.”

Somehow, he directed himself towards the kitchen, where his lifesaving bottle of Bushmill’s sat prominently on the counter. He fought to keep her out of his field of vision as he poured the whiskey into his glass, then followed it with a large ice cube. He crunched the ice quite deliberately between his teeth after he threw back the shot, hoping that the cold agony would numb the infernal impulse he felt right now to run straight into her arms.

A moment of silence went by without incident.

Then he felt her arms enwrap him from behind, the hands making for the buttons of his shirt.

“Umm…excuse me?” served as his substitute for “What the Hell are you doing?”.

The words, “You should get out of that,” whispered in his ear.

“What?”

Looking himself over, he realized for the first time that he’d neglected to change out of his soiled clothing. Between being marked with blood, a none-too-subtle tear in the side, and having a sleeve stained with whatever bits of matter that had clung to Sirennia’s hands when she took hold of his arm earlier, there was little doubt that shirt had seen the end of its use. He finished the job she started and tossed it in the garbage.

Damn,” he thought aloud. There went his last decent pub-crawling shirt.

 “Might I have something to drink?”

“Yes.” The word escaped his mouth before he could stop himself. Reaching into the freezer, a litany of thoughts bombarded him from one side to the other.

            What the Hell is going on?

He asked himself the question over and over again to no avail. Was it possible that being alone with this “girl” who could kill him as readily as kiss him (in no particular order) was about to become the best thing that could possibly happen to him tonight? It was true that he didn’t have much to lose at this point. It was also true that she was a monster—maybe even the Devil himself in some twisted, starry-eyed, red-headed form! But she was also perfection unmatched. How could he deny that?

A large cube of ice clinked! into the glass, shortly followed by another amber flow of Bushmills.

As he held it out to her, her fingers ever so delicately wrapped around the glass. Connor couldn’t keep himself from gawking as she closed her eyes and took a long slow protracted sip before handing it back. He could only assume that she meant for him to finish it, which he did, despite himself.

“Kiss me,” she ordered.

“What?” he asked, unintentionally coughing back up a bit of burning liquor.

“It is what you want to do, isn’t it?”

With that, almost as if on cue, the towel fell, revealing every uninhibited inch of her. ‘Perfection’ did not do it justice. What choice did he have? Barely tilting his head forward, her mouth overtook his. The taste of her whiskey-laced tongue was more intoxicating than the drink. As he took her in his arms the entire world around them seemed to dissolve, until all Connor was able to perceive was random color and abstract shapes. The feeling of the warmth of their bodies enjoined. The mounting ecstasy overcoming all other sensibilities…

Connor opened his eyes with no small degree of effort. Then clamped them shut again just as quickly. Trying to rub away the ache, along with the pounding sensation in his head, he finally managed to get up from what he realized was his bed, still made from the day before.

“Come to me, my dear,” the caped black and white Count on the TV proclaimed as he gestured towards the buxom young object of his wicked seduction. “Come!”

Just as his lips lowered to the neck of his mesmerized victim, the scene cut to an Elvira (or was it Morticia?) lookalike announcing the commercial break. “We’ll be right back with more ghoulish delights momentarily on this, the fifth night of our ‘Classic Terrors from the Vault’ marathon in a bit. Don’t go getting cold feet…at least not until we’ve had a chance to finish the job! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-HA-HA-HAA!!!”

“Ugh—Enough of that.” The power button on the remote discontinued the agony-inducing drivel coming out of that woman’s mouth.

In between the pulses of pain in his temple, the first thing that registered was a glass, alongside a significantly emptied whiskey bottle settled next to it on the nightstand. Well, now, that explained everything, didn’t it?

Doin’ your ol’ Irish ancestor’s proud now, aren’t you, Connor, me boy-o?

The thump-thump-thumping of his brain admonished him as he swirled the bottle and its contents in his hand.

Somehow managing to get to his feet, he tried to stretch out the pangs of an uncomfortable night. Rolling his neck first to one side, then another, he suddenly noticed something that shouldn’t be there. That couldn’t be there…

The shirt. Cleanly folded and unassumingly hung over the rail of his desk chair. At that moment, the events of the previous evening flooded into his head with enough force to kick him back into bed. Taking it in hand, almost trembling at the thought of examining it, the shirt unfolded. Nothing. Not so much as a stray thread out of place. Never mind the blood stains or the cut that his memory told him should be there, if he remembered correctly. Was he remembering correctly?

There were no strewn about lacy unmentionables. Nor any other indicators of a woman’s presence. Hell, he was still in the same pants and shoes he had on yesterday. In the bathroom, there was no sign of disturbance. All towels clean, dry and accounted for. No moisture suggesting recent use of the shower, or an affectionate note left on the mirror with a cell number promising future encounters anywhere in sight.

Just himself, alone, with a rushing palpitation in his head that had him praying to God in all His mercy to just end it now, and make it as peaceful as possible.

The infernal BZZZ! BZZZ! BZZZ! of the alarm clock having just hit 5:00 AM returned him to reality. Such an ungodly hour. The law should forbid being awake so early.

Still, he didn’t make the schedule, and the docks don’t work themselves. Just the same, the notion of listening to grinding forklifts and sputtering delivery trucks was nothing short of dread inducing right now.

What he needed was coffee. Wandering into the kitchen, he managed to locate the precious grounds needed to bring himself back from the edge of oblivion. He poured the aromatic elixir of life into a mug and sat, alternately blowing, sipping, and repeating until his raw mouth was able to tolerate the burn. As he began to wake up, another thought struck him.

It was a place.

Ireland.

Killead.

How long ago was it that he’d left that county and that name behind?

How old was he? Three, four years old maybe? One wondered how he could even recall the name.

Ma and Da were gone. Certainly no one else in Hell’s Kitchen had any connection with Killead. Hell, all that Connor had were vague images from his childhood and the stories his parents carried with them to their new home.

He could recall fields of green that seemed to have no end. Crystal blue skies, with one damn cloud that always managed an afternoon rain.

The more that he thought about it, the more certain he became. He had to go back. Something deep down told him that was the answer. The only answer. It had to be. He didn’t know how, but the thought couldn’t have popped into his head randomly.

The clock reminded him again that the morning needed to get started. He couldn’t afford to be late on the day he planned to ask for time off, after all.

Just enough time to shower and leave.

One or two Tylenol to help ease the head pain. Maybe three. Or even four. Fuck it. Take the bottle.

Then the image of her standing beneath that street light returned.

Dear God.

Had she been the Devil?

Some apparition of the Fae?

Or perhaps something even worse?

He drowned his thoughts in what was left of his coffee.

But he could only hope that the cold shower would be enough to wash her away.

 

Authors Note: I began writing this prologue in January 2011, as I had imagined an entire universe of characters and story lines for The Otherworld Chronicles…. edit after re-edit, after re-edit, I was finally content with Connor and Sirennia meeting for the first time, in this short story on March 29, 2020.

Humor

It is said we are a blank piece of paper when we are born. As we grow, we become a collage of the different experiences, concepts, beliefs and cultures we encounter. Looking at my life, the most prominent piece of my collage—and perhaps the most central part of my being—is humor. As young children we’ll laugh at physical things like a fart, or seeing a cartoon coyote repeatedly fall off the same cliff, and I was no different. But real humor is something harder to appreciate, especially for a person struggling with autism. I was fortunate in that regard to have a mother who has a prodigious sense of humor.

I was seven years old when I began the transaction from the “fart and falling coyote” phase to actual linguistic humor. You may ask how a seven-year-old even makes that distinction. My answer to that question, I hope, can offer an insight into the differences of the neurotypical (brain functioning) person and the neurological world of the autistic spectrum. At age five, I was reading at a collegiate level. I was talking, and thinking, in fully fleshed out sentences using words that some college professors might struggle to understand.

But as for the subject of humor–I realized that I didn’t understand it. I asked her, pleaded for her to explain it. Without hesitation she told me “we had to start from the beginning”. She sat me down in front of the TV, popped in a VHS (this was 1997) and told me, “All modern-day comedy is founded on these incredible people”. Then I saw the box cover. It said, Duck Soup. And it starred “The Marx Brothers”. I had no idea what I was in for. It wasn’t long before I found myself enamored with Groucho’s precisely timed one-liners, Chico’s litany of Italian-inspired babble and, of course, Harpo’s nonsensical silent antics.

But why was it funny? Why do people laugh at that? As an Asperger person, comprehending these aspects of humor is a difficult thing. We take things literally. Reading between the lines is not a natural thing for us. What you say is what you get, and there aren’t two, three or four different meanings for anything. So, you can see why a person like that would have trouble “getting the joke”—or worse off—understand idioms!

OMG.

“Bees in your bonnet”.

“Pushing up daisies”.

“Down the drain”.

Think about those for a moment. You say an idiom to an autistic person and they will hear the literal words; not the innuendo, cultural meaning or how its figurative association is meant to differ from its literal meaning. It’s hard enough for an Asperger person to make sense of the world around them. But then throwing formulaic language at him too?! Well, that’s just not fair.

So, when I listened to the words being “said” in a comedy skit, I could not connect the feeling of this being funny. Stand-up comedians oftentimes insult people, degrade themselves and others around them, say mean things, or just spin out babble. How is insulting someone funny? The literal definition is saying something to someone that degrades them, points out their faults. It’s hurtful, not funny. Wow, did I have a lot to learn.

This became a cognitive learning process for me. It took effort, sitting there for hours on end, pressing the stop-start button on the remote to isolate each different one-liner, idiom or short skit. Taking one thing at a time, I hit the start button, listening to Groucho’s typical banter or off-handed remarks (that no one else seemed to react to or even hear…?) as my ever-patient mother took each phrase, each idiom, each remark and explained the “set-up”. Eventually, I got it! The concept of humor!!!

While I didn’t understand the full implications at the time, I had been left with an overwhelming desire to understand more. As I exhausted the Marx Bros. catalog, she told me that we would go historically through each decade, seeing how the next generation of comedians built on their foundation. I would go on to discover The Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, George Carlin, Jim Carrey, Monty Python and more. Drawing from comedic geniuses like these helped me develop a sense of timing, instilled a love for entertainment and, most importantly, gave me something that I could share with other people.

Laughter.

Without knowing it, I had in-fact armed myself with one of the most important tools I would need in life; something that could help me bridge the gap with neurotypical people. After all, who doesn’t love a comedian? Who doesn’t want someone around who can always put a smile on their face? Who doesn’t want to walk away feeling better than they were before?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate that it takes a special kind of person to remind everyone else, even when life is difficult, that there is still some way to laugh. In that way, humor has become integral part of who I am as a person. And speaking from my own experience, there is definitely something to be said for living life every day from that point of view. Granted being the designated “Life of the Party” isn’t always an easy task, but I now know that’s what I was meant to be, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Besides, when you think about it, what could be a better gift; than to give the gift of a smile?

The Thing: A Study In Minimalism

John Carpenter is one of the most influential directors in the genre of horror and is looked upon as the primordial source of the modern-day slasher film. His legendary Halloween film has set the golden standard for nearly every mainstream horror movie to follow. From the trope of the silent masked serial killer who butchers his way through promiscuous drug-abusing teenagers, to being killed by a puritan (at least compared to the other characters) heroine only to come back to life again and again. All these seem to be traceable to the iconic embodiment of evil that is Michael Myers. That having been said, many of Carpenter’s films are considered cult classics today, but were often criticized and overlooked by critics during their original release.

One of these films, which I feel was dealt a heavy hand by unjust critics, is the now iconic monster horror film known as The Thing. The premise of the film revolves around a group of men stationed at an Antarctic research station who find themselves beset by a hostile parasitic alien life form that assimilates its prey and perfectly mimics anything or anyone it infects down to the cellular level. Carpenter edits the movie in such a way where the viewer is placed in the same position as the characters in the movie. We can’t be certain who is trustworthy or not; who has been infected or not. Even the main character of the film, RJ MacReady, may not be what he appears to be. As the film goes on, and one imposter after another is exposed, paranoia and mistrust start to run rampant, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the research station, as well as, hopefully, the Thing itself.

The second live-action American motion picture adaptation of a classic science fiction novella, Who Goes There? authored by John W. Campbell, Jr. (preceded by The Thing from Another World in 1951), The Thing is a modern-day masterpiece of paranoia and suspense, highlighted by quality acting from big-screen names like Kurt Russell and Keith David. While the first film, The Thing From Another World, is a classic in its own right, The Thing superbly combines practical effects with an atmosphere of suspense and psychological horror so profound that anyone watching it feels just as paranoid, uneasy and horrified as the people in this movie.

The Thing could rival Spielberg’s Jaws in terms of the minimalist approach it takes in maximizing a viewer’s fear. Much like Jaws, the horror in the film stems more from what we don’t see then what we do. It is the fear of not knowing and the thought of falling prey to something so utterly alien, in every sense of the word, that terrifies. Even the actual appearance of the film’s monster or how it kills its victims (both of which are equally horrifying in and of themselves) is not nearly as terrifying as the unknown that lays in wait.

And perhaps just as quintessential and unique as the atmosphere of dread and the environment of mistrust in the film is its score, provided by the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone, the genius behind such classic film scores as The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon A Time In America, and The Untouchables. Morricone’s soundtrack for the film is likewise unique in its minimalist approach towards scoring. In fact, there are many extended periods without any score to speak of. In instances where underscoring is present, it uses largely repetitive motives and a harmony that often does not extend beyond a few pulses of sound—reminiscent of a beating heart—and occasionally interjected with sharp, stinging notes meant to emphasize instances of foreboding, rather than imminent danger.

There is very little in the way of melody, which is appropriate given the themes of this kind of film; where edginess is meant to drive us to a state of adrenaline-fueled uncertainty. Indeed, the film’s main theme doesn’t evolve beyond a few brief thump-thumps which seem to dissolve as quickly as they come, much like the on-screen appearances of the Thing itself. The score practically blurs the line between consonance and dissonance; where there is a resolved and stable rhythm but simultaneously managing to feel unresolved and unstable, again complementing the tone of the film immaculately.

Never in the film is there a tempo that escalates into a fast – paced rhythm or beat, save for one isolated moment during the film’s climax where Macready faces off alone against the Thing, which culminates in the destruction of the outpost. The timbre of the film is otherwise a very soft, almost negligible dynamic with a very limited instrumentation of synthesized beats. Not once do we hear any form of classic orchestration—woodwinds, brass, strings—are entirely absent, depriving the film of any sense of being organic in its presentation. Which is simultaneously appropriate for a setting like the Antarctic, where man could only survive by artificial or synthetic means (i.e. construction of a shelter).

Speaking of which, the Antarctic environment of The Thing truly works to its advantage. It allows us to feel the coldness of the world these characters are in, especially whenever someone is forced to go outside during a storm and the only sound present is the howling of blizzard winds. The themes of isolation, desperation, and containment permeate throughout, giving a true sense of how utterly alone these people are as they go through these experiences. While it is difficult to say whether this is intentional, the fact that underscoring is featured in only a few prominent instances spotted throughout the film emphasizes the mood of isolationism.

During so many scenes, characters find themselves alone. The tension of being alone with your own thoughts and fears can drive you even closer to the brink of panic. Here the soundtrack speaks on a fundamental level toward the more primitive animal-like aspects of human behavior. Particularly in how readily we abandon our capacity for pretense, allowing our baser nature to become predominant in our own struggle for survival.

Only once, in the beginning of the film, is there an instance of borrowed music that takes the form of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, played in a diegetic manner over a character’s radio, also foreboding what is soon to come. What makes the score so truly endearing is its competence in establishing mood, character, setting and plot using only the basest musical accompaniment. To put it in layman’s terms, what was the last film you saw where everything that needs to be said about a film is summarized in a few brief pulsing notes?

The Thing’s soundtrack embodies the otherworldly sense that we are dealing with something that cannot be truly understood or appreciated in human terms. After all, how can we begin to comprehend a life form that seems to exist only to consume you while simultaneously taking over your mind, body and soul? Even the cast of the film had to debate whether or not they thought their character was infected by the Thing (or, for that matter, if they were even aware of being infected). It truly says something about the integrity of a film’s approach to suspense and psychological horror when your cast and crew are thrown into a scenario of such uncertainty during production!

Suffice it to say, while being far from the ‘classical film score’, the soundtrack for The Thing accomplishes so much for the film’s success that being nominated for a Golden Razzie Award was as stupid as dismissing Casablanca as “just another love triangle story”. If anything, this movie’s score serves to teach us that one does not need wall-to-wall music, leitmotifs and huge thematic transformations in order to be competent. In my opinion, a group collaboration between John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Alan Silvestri, with Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven acting as a project oversight committee could not have improved this score.

It may be that the greatest works in history are not truly appreciated until long after the fact, but at this point I must digress. Greatness, after all, is ultimately decided by the masses as much as the individual. When all is said and done, we can take comfort knowing that The Thing has ultimately managed to secure its place in the annals of popular culture, if for no other reason than its contribution of the popular phrase, “KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!” God bless you Carpenter! Salute Morricone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cultural Analysis of Star Trek

In the world of cult classics and pop culture, it would be understated to say that Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi epic, Star Trek, is a success.  And with good reason. Roddenberry used a futuristic show to comment on political and socio-economic issues of the time; ranging from sexism and racism to nationalism and even dystopia, global war and extinction in a way that set a precedent like no other show at the time. Roddenberry also broke through the wall of traditional role playing by making decisions like casting an African-American woman as an important character in a prominent position of leadership, always standing next to (and occasionally up to) the dashing and traditionally dreamy Captain Kirk.

This multicultural bridge staff was as diverse as a UN meeting: an Asian pilot, a Russian navigator, a Scottish Engineer, and a very logical and stoic alien/human hybrid as his loyal second in command. And it worked. In the shadow of the Cold War, continued unrest with the Civil Rights Movement, and the ravages of an unpopular war, Star Trek took us to a time in our own possible future, where all races, nationalities and species worked together as equal. It’s not hard to see why Star Trek was one of the first TV shows to win an NAACP Award. It was here that Roddenberry made his first stand against the turbulence and fears of his current day.

At a time when America was uneasy and in a dangerous situation with the Soviet Union, to place a Russian navigator on the bridge of The Enterprise (Ensign Pavel Chekov, who humorously believes that all good things were created by Russia) must have seemed this close to infringing on “national security”. Roddenberry also pushed the borders of censorship, for the time, by using blatant sexuality to influence and distract the network from noticing the allegories he portrayed with his alien encounters. A particularly infamous episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, is widely remembered for an interracial kiss between the Swahili Lt. Uhura and Caucasian Captain Kirk.

These indiscretions only snuck by network scrutiny because of the pretext that the characters were forced to kiss under alien mind control; not to mention a bit a scene fudging by William Shatner. It was said that he deliberately ran out after filming that day, kissing her firmly on the lips, and not giving the director any time to film a reshoot where Kirk managed to resist. Other versions of the story have suggested these scenes were shot, but thanks to Shatner deliberately crossing his eyes and over-acting, they were left with no choice but to keep the kissing scene in.

Whatever the case, this successful mix of cultural diversity, mutual understanding and respect for all living things has helped make Star Trek the most influential science fiction TV series in history; even being ranked by TV Guide as “the greatest cult show ever”. It’s tales of morality and statements revealing the socio-political issues during the 1960s still resonate today just as strongly. Indeed, it is this rare combination that gives Star Trek relevancy 50 years after its initial inception. Episodes like “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, “Arena”, “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Mirror, Mirror” rank among the greatest and influential TV show episodes of all time.

But the real genius of Star Trek is how Roddenberry used the show to push issues that popular media wouldn’t or couldn’t address to a national audience. During the period in which the show aired (1966-1968) the world was embroiled in a global crisis that had many convinced that we would annihilate the entire planet via nuclear war. The Cold War loomed over us all, and the unpopular war in Vietnam had resulted in a counterculture movement unlike any other. Naturally, it stands to reason a great deal of the show reflected these issues and more.

One such episode, “The Way to Eden”, portrayed a group of “space hippies”, disillusioned and abused by “the system” and driven to reject their society in favor of finding a utopian world on which to establish a new Eden. All this is very much reflective to the 1960-70’s hippie movement, which represented an utter rejection of a political and social belief system that equally abused, exploited and betrayed them. There was a growing disdain for the government’s policies that drafted an entire generation of children into a war that had nothing to do with them and ultimately served no purpose. What resulted was a movement that completely rejected the status quo of “the establishment” and sought enlightenment or escape, through a number of alternative means. Typically, involving the consumption of vast quantities of mind-altering substances, and not accepting the established lifestyle set by their parents.

We see this aptly displayed in “This Side of Paradise”, the premise of which finds the crew of The Enterprise encountering a small Federation colony that has embraced a holistic and anti-establishment lifestyle on an underdeveloped world. After being exposed to plant spores that essentially enslaved them to the mindset of carefree free spirits. Ironically, they are only freed from the spore’s enslavement once exposed to strong negative emotional states.

Space Seed”, arguably one of the most important episodes in the canon, introduces a character so tyrannical that his name has become as synonymous with Star Trek as Capt. Kirk or Mr. Spock. Kahn Noonien Singh. The result of gene augmenting experiments, Kahn is a despot who believes himself entitled to the complete subjugation of humanity simply due to his perceived superiority in strength, skill and intelligence. In his totalitarian viewpoint, this is the only way to bring ‘peace’ to the human race. In these qualities, Kahn perfectly embodies one of the most daunting fears that Americans had. The threat of an unforeseen, potentially superior adversary against our way of life (i.e. Communism and The Soviet Union).

We can see the same staging reflected in “Balance of Terror”, where for the first time, humanity comes face-to-face with an adversary known as the Romulans. A hostile neighboring race, the xenophobic Romulans refused to make even visual contact with outsiders. For a hundred years, the Federation had maintained a precarious state of neutrality with them. A stalemate that was constantly on the verge of turning into an all-consuming war.

Clearly these episodes spoke to the growing fear and anxiety that everyone was experiencing during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Combined with the silent threat of the Cold War, and the spread of communism, we were also worried how the Soviet Union would exploit our turbulence to destabilize us further.  Star Trek not only listened but qualified these concerns by giving them a ‘real’ stage to be seen and heard. While most programming worked towards maintaining the unrealistic happy portrayal of American life—such as in The Partridge Family and The Doris Day Show—the disenfranchised found a voice in a series, that, of all things, was a cheesy low budget sci-fi serial.

Roddenberry was by no means hesitant to address hot button issues of racism and bigotry as well. The best portrayal being in the episode, “Let That Be Your Final Battleground” which features two members of an alien race polarized against one another. Each has a half black and white skin coloration on the left and right side. Lokai is black on the left side, while his adversary, Bele, is black on the right.

This variant in their skin coloration has led to a cast system whereby the people who are black on the left side have been subjugated and enslaved by the people who have black on the right side. This bias, based on the arbitrary color of their skin, ultimately proves the destruction for their entire race. It is discovered, in the story line, that global warfare, fueled by this racial war, has resulted in the complete decimation of their home world. Obviously, Roddenberry was making very brazen statement about the irrationality and futility of our own racial prejudices.

The Doomsday Machine” uses the premise of a planet consuming machine to invoke the sense of dread and foreboding felt by the youth of this time. A combination of the 60,000 young men being slaughtered in the Vietnam war, and the ever-looming prospect of nuclear weapons being deployed under a principle of “mutually assured destruction”. Similar themes are presented to us in “A Taste of Armageddon”, which portrays a very dystopian world that has “civilized” war by engaging in computer simulated battles. The “casualties” of such battles are voluntarily escorted to extermination chambers, where they are expected to take their own lives as “casualties”.

What we see here is a society that has effectively made war so comfortable and convenient that their society has become desensitized and now embraces war as just a part of everyday life. This reflects the disturbed notions of how a society can become so dehumanized that the lives of individuals can become relegated to mere score points on a board. Again, this reflected the feelings of an entire generation, who perceived their government as using them as pawns, or score points, in fruitless war.

The history of manifest destiny that had been embraced by their parents’ generation—the insistence of imposing our way of life upon other cultures, whether they wanted it or not—revolted this younger generation and only drove a deeper wedge between the two. Roddenberry also made a clear and resounding statement about this dangerous percept. The ‘Prime Directive’ of Star Trek’s Federation, was based on non-interference in other cultures and their way of life. It was Roddenberry’s opinion that these policies of interference tend to have drastic repercussions for everyone involved that were better off avoided.

A Piece of The Action” illustrates this with a world that has utterly abandoned its previous society and culture. Instead they have adopted a system based on organized crime and gang warfare, inspired by a book about the Mafia that was inadvertently left on their world by a previous expedition from Earth. “Patterns Of Force” offers an even more twisted portrayal of this mistake when an historian from Earth contaminates the societal path of an alien race by familiarizing them with concepts of social and economic renewal based on the regime of Nazi Germany, intending only to impress upon them the ‘positive’ aspects while leaving out the bad, predictably leading to history repeating itself.

We see from this that, even with the best intentions, interference with a foreign community can ultimately only serve to degrade and perhaps destroy their culture. A realization that America may have yet to fully understand or take to heart. Sadly, it is this self-righteous sense of entitlement that has resulted in America’s bad image of being “imperialistic” in the eyes of many places. Places that, realistically, have nothing to do with America, Christianity or Democracy.

Religious themes also permeate throughout the entirety of the series, reflecting Roddenberry’s sense of secular humanism and general disillusionment with religious establishments. “The Apple” for example—aside from the on-the-nose reference that the title portends—portrays a society that blindly obeys the orders of a self-aware machine called Vaal. It provides for all their needs, while demanding their total subjugation to its will and only permitting them the knowledge that it feels they “need to know”. As a result, the entire race is left in a state of childlike obliviousness, never developing beyond their primitive tribal lifestyle.

Never allowed to understand emotions like love, reproduction or even murder; as these concepts do not serve the “purposes” of Vaal. It is only when The Enterprise crew disables Vaal that the people are liberated to think for themselves, and to develop a sense of independence and basic functionality. This episode is particularly clever in that it allows for the argument that the people might have been better off as they were, but by interfering the People of Vaal are given the proverbial Apple. Very much akin to our own biblical allegory whereby, had we not been given free will, we would still be in the Garden of Eden.

We see similar critiques of this religious mindset imbued in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” when the crew is taken prisoner by a powerful being who is actually the Olympian God Apollo, intent on indoctrinating them as his new worshipers. When the crew refuses to acknowledge his divinity and destroys his source of power—his temple—they are able to defeat the passé god and leave knowing that, as a people, they are better off not enslaved by the notion of gods and idol worship. “The Mark of Gideon” is particularly critical of the self-righteous notion that most religious practices endorse when Capt. Kirk finds himself used as a guinea pig in an attempt to ‘naturally’ introduce fatal disease as a way to curb overpopulation.

The race involved had once lived in a paradise where everyone was long-lived, there was no disease, no famine, and the “sanctity of life” was cherished to the extent that it rejects practices of contraception or birth control. The end result? They found themselves in a living hell, grossly over populated, where people were nothing but living piles, pushed on top of one another. We get an inference from this that Roddenberry’s perception of humanity is to enslave ourselves to sanctimonious notions and principles that ultimately become self-destructive, or at least, counterproductive.

As we see, Star Trek simultaneously acts as a vehicle and a platform for addressing long-standing issues, many of which are still hotly debated and unresolved today. And the controversies of America’s counterculture movement were not the only focus of the series. The second incarnation of the show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, delves even further into issues of social change prompted by the events of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Set 100 years after the original series, Next Gen. portrays the Federation as a more established presence within the galaxy. We have a society that has abandoned the practices of currency, eliminated poverty through the application of its technological advancement, and has managed to broker peace with several previously hostile powers, such as the Klingon Empire, which once threatened us with complete extermination.

Taking precedence is the rights of the individual to be allowed to pursue their own personal growth and achievement. This compares heavily with the post-World War II development in our society versus the bleak portrayal of our future during the Vietnam era. The introduction of other beings alongside our own culture is also given heavy presence, such as in the case of Lieutenant Worf, a Klingon who was adopted and raised by a human family after being rescued from a war zone. We also see an attempt to question our true significance and potential for contribution in the vastness of the universe.

In the pilot episode for the series “Encounter at Farpoint”, the crew is rather abruptly introduced to an omnipotent entity known as Q. He takes it upon himself to test humanity’s worthiness to exist in the face of its repetitive history of committing atrocities. He perceives this repetition as an indication that humanity will never change from this nature. When humanity ultimately proves itself worthy of yet another chance, the omnipotent Q is begrudgingly forced to step aside, allowing us to continue forward in our progression.

Of particular note in this series, is the emphasis of Starfleet’s Prime Directive; a directive of non-interference that stipulates an ethical principle of not interfering with the natural development of other (typically less developed) cultures and civilizations—however well intended it may be—for fear of the unforeseen ramifications that may be born from such actions. Using his own personal views, Roddenberry made this a critical component of the series. From his perspective, our foreign policy must have seemed truly paradoxical, as it came from a country that portends to represent the rights of an individual person or persons to live as they choose to.

Star Trek created an ‘off-world’ environment where many of these issues could be presented. If we cannot learn from our own history, perhaps we could learn by seeing ourselves and our actions portrayed in others. The Bible certainly has had its impact over the past 5,000 years doing the same. In Star Trek, we are confronted with the inevitable question of how we will treat sentience and sentient life forms. Episodes like TOS “Devil In The Dark”, TNG “Home Soil” and TNG “Evolution” are all examples of humanity having to acknowledge the rights and privileges of other life forms, even when they are radically different from what we know, as “life”.

Illustrating the importance of this lesson is Lt. Commander Data. A cognizant android constantly striving to discover and understand his own “humanity” throughout the run of the series. He is forced to consider his own sentience, identity, and culture; his place in the grand scheme of the universe. Remarkably, he does this based only on the examples provided by the companionship of his teammates aboard The Enterprise and their encounters with myriad life forms ranging from the mechanical (“The Quality of Life”) to inorganic (“Home Soil”).

In one of the earliest episodes of the series, “The Measure of a Man”, Data is actually placed on trial to represent his rights as a sentient being. A Starfleet cyberneticist named Maddox asserts that Data is property and that he is not entitled to the rights of a life form, going so far as to refer to Data as “it” rather than “him”. He has so little regard for Data as an individual that he plans to disassemble the android, against his will, in order to reverse engineer his unique technology in hopes of creating others. Maddox’s argument ultimately fails him when Capt. Picard, acting as Data’s defense, displays that Data has the qualities ascribed to sentient life. He also argues that Data represented a unique and individual race in and of himself, also asserting to create and cultivate others like him for the deliberate purpose of exploitation would thus constitute breeding a slave race, which would ultimately reflect on how the rest of the universe viewed the Federation as a people.

Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, portrayed by Shakespearean-trained actor Sir Patrick Stewart, best represents the qualities and ethics of the United Federation of Planets. He is noble, and his steadfast ability to discern the rights of all sentient life forms, in my opinion, makes him the best captain in Star Trek canon. He is never afraid to stand his ground. He consistently maintains the integrity of what The Federation stands for, even when opposed by the vast majority.

With all of these qualities in mind, he is also humble, which brings a great deal of humanity to his duties as a captain. The best representation of this is illustrated in two episodes. “Who Watches the Watchers” involves The Enterprise crew accidentally revealing itself to a bronze-age race called the Mintakans. They are an empirically minded race that had previously abandoned superstitious beliefs in favor of a rational way of thinking.

The Prime Directive is threatened when one of their kind is critically injured and brought aboard The Enterprise to be treated.  He is returned to the planet’s surface and remembers, despite the doctors’ best effort to erase the incident from his mind. He becomes convinced that he has been brought back to life by “The Overseer”, one of their ancient gods which he names as “The Picard”. Some members of Picard’s staff, such as an anthropologist observing the development of the Mintakans, advises Picard to play into their superstitions.

The scientist insists that the captain present himself as their Overseer in order to minimize further damage and ‘set guidelines’ for their new religion. Picard refuses this suggestion and opts for the only responsible solution; he reveals who he truly is to the Mintakan leader, explaining their magic as technology, not divinity, and manages to convince her people of his mortality after a near fatal encounter with a fanatic believer. With this action, Picard not only displays his integrity and conviction of character but also his wisdom and practicality, so much so that he willingly puts his life on the line, when dealing with a precarious situation.

The Drumhead” deals with an overzealous retired Starfleet Admiral Satie, who begins a series of “trials” meant to unravel, what she perceives, to be a major conspiracy against the Federation after a sabotage attempt aboard The Enterprise. This episode not only explores the rights of the individual, but gives us an opportunity to scrutinize the McCarthyism we experienced during the 1950’s—just a few short years before Star Treks’ inception. It is easy to understand how Gene Roddenberry was incensed and concerned about our direction, which gave way to so many notable stories of strife and non-conformity, humanity, and the ongoing struggle of the human race to evolve. Not unlike the McCarthy trials, Admiral Satie becomes singularly convinced that there are spies and traitors all about her.

While her initial intensions seem justified, and indeed they do manage to uncover the presence of a traitor, her efforts fall into the same practice of making accusations of subversion without any regard for evidence. Picard attempts to stand against the Admiral for overstepping her prevue and incriminating crew members based only on circumstantial evidence and radical conjecture. Ultimately put on trial for suspicion of being a double agent, Picard is incriminated and accused of treason. But like Army consul Joseph Welch before him, Picard never breaks his stance or demeanor. With calm and composure, he recites the words of her own father, a famed civil liberties judge, as part of his defense, “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured…the first thought forbidden…the first freedom denied – chains us all, irrevocably.” The invocation of her father’s name to support his “traitorous arguments” sends the admiral spiraling out of control, revealing her for the effete fanatic that she truly is under her facade of patriotic duty.

Shortly after Picard epitomizes the lesson to be learned from the situation, in one of the strongest statements in the series, Villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged [] someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish – spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay.” Picard’s character embodies integrity and trust. Fundamental characteristics that Gene Roddenberry, and I myself, feel are much needed in the world today. Star Trek forever reminds us that, if we are not careful, we will slip and fall. We cannot forget the lessons of our past, even in the 24th century. Once individual liberties and freedoms are breached, “the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think”, another notion Picard urges Worf to consider earlier in the episode.

Star Trek: Voyager (1995), the fourth incarnation in the franchise, gives us a contrast from the previous installments by adding a fish out of water element. The circumstance of this series challenges the very notion of the Federation’s strength and integrity when it is literally flung from the ‘safety zone’ of our well-guarded corner of the universe, into a realm that is as alien as the nonhuman-life-forms we have seen throughout Star Trek. In this series, the eponymous Federation vessel, Voyager, along with members of a dissident group known as the Maquis, are thrust from the Alpha Quadrant 70,000 light years into the Delta Quadrant, forced to survive a 75-year voyage home. Besides the distinction of being the first Star Trek series to feature a female captain, Kathryn Janeway (played by Golden Globe winning actress, Kate Mulgrew), Voyager also gives us a unique portrayal of what one must do to survive when trapped in situations/territories outside of our own cultural boundaries.

While Janeway was the first woman to be elevated to that role, that took Gene Roddenberry thirty years to accomplish. In contrast, the first promotional Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, produced in 1964, was not picked up as a series; in part because Gene had a woman in the position of second-in-command to the classically handsome male captain Christopher Pike called Number One (portrayed by Genes’ wife Majel Barrett). The “suits” at NBC at the time simply could not accept the premise of a woman holding such a high-ranking military position.

As with all things Star Trek, Roddenberry would not let his dream end there. The network liked Star Trek enough to give Roddenberry money to produce a second pilot with the changes they wanted; no female in a commanding position, replace the captain with a different actor, and ‘get rid of the pointy-ear-alien’. They ultimately got two out-of-three. Majel Barrett was given a more “proper female role” as a sickbay nurse. Gene, meanwhile, stuck to his vision of cultural diversity and managed to keep a female character in a prominent, albeit lessor position on the bridge; slipping in black actress Nichelle Nichols to play the communications officer Uhura. As another first in history, Roddenberry would elevate the black actress out of a general servant/maid/housekeeper role and into a position of influence as a bridge crew member.

The crew of Voyager, now comprised of both Federation officers and Maquis, are forced to put aside their preconceived notions of one another in order to band together with the common interest of survival. The tone of this show leads its captain down a different road dealing with her crew and command staff. Being over seventy years from home, she must not only be their captain and leader, but also console and adopt a more maternal role in order to keep up moral. Gone are the luxuries of space exploration and formalities of The Federation.

Without a home port, they are forced to scavenge, ration supplies and resources in order to keep themselves alive. They find themselves confronted by alien races and life forms completely unfamiliar to them, many of them hostile. Sadly, the Delta Quadrant has another problem; The Borg. A known race to the Federation, the Delta Quadrant is their home. The Borg, a cybernetic collective that enhances itself by assimilating other beings and their technology, incorporating them into its “hive mind” and stripping them of individuality, are the worst known enemy of the Federation. As the series progresses, Voyager continues to be embedded with the trials and tribulations of survival.

Star Trek has another lesson for us to learn.  When all culture, government, family and tradition is taken away, how do you not loose who you are? Seven Of Nine (played by Jeri Ryan), a human abducted and assimilated into the Borg collective as a child, faces a similar crisis. When she is liberated from the collective by Janeway, “Seven” must now learn to reintegrate herself into human society and rediscover her own unique identity.

“Seven”, whose real name is Annika Hansen, is often reluctant and sometimes hostile, to the process of re-indoctrination into human society, as she finds it counter-intuitive to the cold, rational, empirical thinking that she has lived with her entire life as a member of the Borg collective. Over time, she rediscovers herself and the life she had lost. ‘Seven’ endures the hardships and awkwardness reflective of a child learning to understand what it is to “be human”, reconciling both the good and the bad aspects of that process within herself.

Similar challenges are faced by the ships EMH (emergency medical hologram), known only as The Doctor (Robert Picardo). He is forced to assume the role of chief medical officer, after the real Chief Medical Officer perished during the initial “Voyager incident” which has left them stranded. Forced to be given an independent AI in order to function properly, he grows and develops a personality of his own and eventually is embraced as part of the crew. Again, we are made to question what constitutes and qualifies as sentient life. What entitles them to the liberties granted to such beings—even sentient life developed from a non-sentient source, such as a pre-programmed holographic image?

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), much like Voyager, shifts the focus of the franchises’ ideals and philosophies, and centralizes them on a more at home theme. Instead of wondering the universe on an endless “Five Year Mission” or wondering through the Delta Quadrant for 70,000 light years, we now find ourselves in one place, aboard the eponymous DS9, a space station securing a stable worm hole that links us with the previously unexplored Gamma Quadrant. In this series, a Federation officer named Benjamin Sisko is given command over a newly commissioned space station previously belonging to the Cardassian Empire, a dictatorship responsible for the decimation and obliteration of a number of worlds, including a neighboring race known as the Bajora, in their efforts for expansionism and conquest.

The Cardassians exist within a ruthless, xenophobic, totalitarian regime that has eerie similarities to the Nazi party. In a similar vein, Bajorans serve as a kind of proxy for the Jews, once being among the oldest and richest cultures in the quadrant. The Cardassians treatment of the Bajorans bear a heavy resemblance to the treatment exacted on Jewish citizens during the Nazi parties Final Solution. As a victimized society, they find themselves displaced, stymied and traumatized by the Cardassian occupation of their world. Here we are given another lesson about the horrors of concentration camps, slavery and the decimation of an entire planet.

The wormhole happens to be occupied by extra-dimensional beings that are worshiped by the Bajora, known as “The Prophets”. As the story unfolds, we see these ancient and immortal celestial beings have chosen Sisko to be their Emissary, a central figure in the Bajoran religion. It goes without saying that religion, as well as the impact it has on people’s opinions, actions and decisions, plays a heavy role throughout the series. This is the first time in the Star Trek cannon where religion, in all its aspects, are explored.

Another new social aspect introduced by this show is the unconventional life forms known as the Trill. A humanoid race that coexists with sentient symbiotic organisms, appropriately called “symbionts”. They cooperatively occupy a selected Trill’s body, thus forming a distinct personality that combines both symbiont and host, along with all of the symbionts many-lived-memories.  As symbionts can live over hundreds of generations, they drift from one host to the next, assuming numerous male and female identities over many lifetimes.

This unique dynamic alludes to an equally unique aspect in our concept of society and relationships, as well as another social theme we are experiencing today, gender identity.  This is explored in the relationships between a female crew member named Jadzia (a Trill who is ‘joined’ with a symbiont named Dax) and Cpt Sisko. In a prior life, the Dax symbiont was a renowned male statesman and comrade to a younger Lieutenant Sisko. Now, in the present, Cpt Sisko is made to face a beautiful young woman and simultaneously maintain his friendship with the ‘old man’ he once knew. While both accept that Sisko relates to her emotionally in the male gender form, Jadzia wrestles with balancing her female biological identity against that of the male and female gender identities within her.

Of particular note is how this series portrays its captain, an African-American, with little reliance or drawing upon this racial distinction. Throughout the series run, Benjamin is neither affected by nor influenced by the fact that he is of African ancestry. He is simply portrayed as a successful man in a unique situation that gives him a unique perspective of the world that he inhabits.

This is perhaps a reflection of the “politically correct” approach that was being institutionalized in the 1990’s to neutralize the black/white schism of racial and cultural tensions that had purveyed throughout American history. Since Star Trek has always used story-telling as its vehicle for social statements and reform, the writers took this opportunity to address two of the most prominent cultural problems facing African Americans today. The fatherless home, and poor education and illiteracy of their children.

In this storyline, Cpt Sisko is a widow, a man alone, raising his son, subtly displaying a black man who balances a successful career and living up to his full potential as a father and male role model for his son. The series also emphasizes the importance of good childhood education and literacy. In fact, there were many episodes where the Space Stations school was threatened by cultural dissidence against the concept of formal education. Furthering the platform of social reform, Cpt Sisko’s son, Jake, grows up to be a professional writer and journalist; reiterating the fact that, given an equal chance to a good education, the next generation can and will be well read and literate.

It is also perhaps no coincidence that this series displays a more liberal approach and portrayal of its characters compared to other incarnations of the franchise. For example, while extraterrestrial races were typically in the minority in the other series, DS9 features a broader array of different alien cultures including the aforementioned Lieut. Dax and Odo, a member of a fluid changeling race capable of shape shifting and assuming whatever form “he” desires and who prominently functions as the stations chief of security.

Also included are a Cardassian refugee named Garak, and a host of capitalistic-minded Ferengi who staff and manage “Quark’s Bar”.  This arrangement allows for a distinct portrayal of how these other cultures, societies and races view our own in both a positive and negative way. Some, like the Bajora, seeing the Federation as a “necessary” (if often unwanted) evil in order to reestablish their presence within the universe. Others view the Federation as intrusive, trying to impose their values and ideals onto others.

Another notable aspect that distinguishes this series was its courage in exposing a cardinal taboo within our society and mainstream media until very recently; homosexuality.  This is blatantly seen in the episode “Rejoined”, which portrayed one of the first on-screen lesbian kisses between actress Terry Farrell (Jadzia Dax) and Susanna Thompson (Lenara Kahn), and in another episode, “Chimera”, where Odo forms what could be seen as an ‘intimate’ relationship with another male changeling.

All of these issues have continued to influence, shape and change our society. Interracial relationships are now commonplace and many differing national and ethnic groups work together, giving them unprecedented opportunities. This decade alone brought us our first African-American president, along with many other noteworthy black political candidates, another female vice-presidential nominee, a successful popular vote for the first woman presidential candidate and the right for LGBT citizens to marry.

Yet even with all of these fundamental changes, our society is polarized, particularly in the wake of our most recent presidential election. We have not seen this much animosity and social unrest since the Civil War, where southern states chose to secede because of their perceived inalienable rights being superseded, exacerbated by unjust financial exploitation from the North.

Now in 2016 we are experiencing polarization epitomized by different points of view so severe, both on the part of the candidates and the people who support them; that it seems America is only one election away from independence and liberty to devolving into socialism. Not unlike Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump has never been a career politician, but his actions have given a voice to a previously unheard/disregarded majority of Americans who are now convinced that we have lost our way.

As change and development occurs, it is little surprise that the 2009 reboot of ‘the most famous sci-fi series ever’ would reflect this. There is no denying that much of the allegory and morality play that epitomized the franchise in its inception has been largely put aside in favor of action, adventure and character driven story arcs. Nevertheless, the parallels involved say a great deal about where we are now in comparison to where we were in the 1960s.

Much like the original series, the J. J. Abrams produced reboot films are the product of a time where our future often seems at best bleak and uncertain; mired by an unpopular military campaign, considerable social upheaval, and a general disillusionment with current political and governmental agendas. We are now given a Mr. Spock forced to cope with the loss of his home world as well as the displacement of his species in the galaxy. Not unlike how similar refugees we see today from Syria, Sudan and Afghanistan have been displaced from “their world”.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Kahn in Star Trek into Darkness, instead of leading the charge with a ragtag group of rebels, in the reboot, works a singular asymmetric warfare and subterfuge in order to bring the downfall of those he feels has wronged him. Perhaps giving him homage to the mind-set and actions of our present-day villains; Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and ISIS. Like Kahn, these villains are the result of a government’s policies and actions. Where they have afflicted themselves upon others, overstepping their boundaries and by doing so have ended up creating a far more dangerous enemy.

When all is said, and done, Star Trek remains relevant today because it needs to be relevant. As long as the human race keeps expanding itself consciously and technologically into the great unknown of space, we will have to continue to consider what is right and wrong in the way we conduct ourselves. We should learn from the results of our actions, both good and bad, even though we, as a people, don’t always necessarily take those lessons to heart. Therein creates the need for literature, and sagacious storytellers like Roddenberry, to keep us in check. If we can begin to learn from our mistakes, then we can expand our consciousness to a place where we can enter the universe as real human beings.  As Cpt. Picard quoted with conviction, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”

We must learn that it’s not just the universe that makes us who we are, but it’s our actions that create the universe we live in. A universe has endless possibilities, in exploration and in our own journey to true enlightenment as a species. Roddenberry knew this. He knew there was a possibility that we could overcome our shortcomings and accomplish more. He took us forward, into that time, where humanity was doing more as a result of that growth in our consciousness. To a place where we created a global community on Earth, with no poverty or war. A society that was willing and able to take hold of the “Control Panel” and drive ourselves forever forward into that “Final Frontier”.

Mr. Dust And Melissa – Prologue

Prologue

The Morris Estate, Emmitsburg, MD, 1867

The day had been many things, but for Crichton Thaddeus Morris it had been too long. As he entered his study, which was his common ritual at the end of every day, he was grateful that ever-faithful Hannah had already kindled the fire. His favorite drink, a rye whiskey, sat next to his chair. As he took a sip from his glass, he watched the flames flicker and twist, making shadows dance about the chamber. He was always grateful for these simple moments, without noise or distraction. Just a moment of stillness and silent reverie.

But it could not last, he knew, as he took his final swig of rye, he eyed the unforgiving mound of paperwork and unread mail upon his desk for the first time tonight. Without thought he scooped up the topmost bunch of letters and tossed them, one by one, back onto the desk after a cursory glance at the print written upon them.

One however just managed to stand out to him before it took its place in the pile. This handwriting was familiar in a way he knew all too well, and would until the day he died. It was addressed to ‘Doc Morris’ and those words alone brought back memories from a different life altogether—The War. And of all things he swore he’d never forget about that painful past, it was the man from whom this letter came. The man who’d saved him when a Confederate cannonball tore his leg off, leaving him to bleed out in some god forsaken plot of earth already half-blown to oblivion. Josiah Hennesson, the name also flooded his mind with other memories of torment and suffering that ‘Doc Morris’ thought he’d forgotten long ago.

Hennesson had been a contracted surgeon during the war fighting for the Union, not unlike many true-blooded Northern-born doctors of their day. But Josiah Hennesson’s bravery was twice-over for he not only fought for his country and beliefs, he’d had the courage to do it in spite of the stigma that came with being a free man of color in such times.

He’d left the Union Regiment after the war, like Morris and a great many other wounded men to be sure.

The war was over.

The North was victorious.

Slavery would be abolished.

But what had the cost been? Hilltops covered by bodies and streams stained with blood? One nameless face after another brought in on wooden tables to see if they were even worth saving? Yes, some survived, but how better off were they for the effort? Without legs how could they work? How could they till a field without both arms? What good were they to their families without the use of their eyes?

Too many questions that he would never be able to answer. And now Josiah had written him. As he sat back in his chair the words on the letter seemed to jump off the page at him.

Dear Doc Morris,

I have been well since leaving the service. I told you often of my sister, Isabelle, who seemed just a baby when I had left her behind to join the Union Army. How shocked I was to return home and it was a young lady nearly my size came running to my arms. Never mind her surprise at seeing her brother turned into a stoic, bearded man of service.  Who’d have thought a few years could do so much to a person?

Unfortunately, while the Black Man may now be free according to the White Man’s paper, he sure doesn’t seem to be in his heart or mind. It seems no-one wants a “nigger-doctor” to lay his hands upon them. You however have always treated me as an equal measure of a man on the field, for which I will always be grateful.

I’ve always remembered the stories you told me of your plans after the war. How you planned to invest your lifelong assets into converting your family’s estate into an infirmary like no other. When word arrived that ol’ Doc Morris had actually succeeded and had more patients than he could know what to do with, I knew that I had to write. You’ve no obligation to me sir for our past, but I would be mighty grateful if you could find a small patch for me and Isabelle, for which I in turn am more than willing to offer my services in your clinic in exchange. My sister too, you will no doubt find a very amiable and able worker.

My Deepest Regards,

Josiah Hennesson

As Morris shifted in his chair, he resumed watching the flames reflect off of the ceiling and walls. He struggled between recalling his memories of Josiah without bringing to light any more painful memories of that time. While most of the soldiers and medical staff tended to avoid Josiah as much as possible, Morris had been fond of him. He was well-educated and, as he knew from first-hand experience, a most qualified surgeon.

Yes, this could be a good thing. And the help was certainly needed. After the war so many had been left broken and crippled on both sides. Too many families had been forced to go for too long without proper health care that only he seemed to be able and, more urgently, willing to provide. The word had spread like wildfire, apparently reaching as far as Virginia according to some folks, though Morris’ conservative nature was wont to regard this as wild exaggeration. That was, until whole families started showing up in droves, some from at least as far as Boston. Many ready to throw their life earnings at his feet in hope of getting back some semblance of what their beloveds had lost. Indeed, a full year had passed almost to the day and he was just now seeing some of his critically needed beds emptied for the next hard soul in need of soothing.

Yes, this could be just what he needed indeed.

Mr. Dust and Melissa – Chapter One

Chapter One

A New Home…March 3, 2007

How long had the drive been? One hour? Two? Melissa couldn’t tell. Not that it was her business to have a firm grasp of the passage of time at just five years old. All she knew was she was restless and her legs were bothering her having to do all this sitting, sitting, sitting! And the rain storm they had to drive through had not helped. But finally—as she’d desperately hoped would happen for the past twenty minutes—the car finally came to a halt, along with the obnoxious hum of the engine.

“Are we there now?” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, glad that the rain had stopped at least.

“Yep,” her mother, Rene, finally said as she stepped out onto the still unpaved gravel. “That’s another thing that needs to go,” she reaffirmed as she spun around to open the back door of the car. “Oh, no you don’t,” she casually quipped as she just barely grabbed a hold of the little sprite, who had managed—yet again—to undo her seatbelt before her mother even unlocked the back door, and made a break for freedom the moment she could, short-lived though it was. “Little jitterbug! You keep ahold of momma’s hand. Understand?”

“Okee.”

“Okee,” she playfully repeated as she gave Melissa’s nose an affectionate squeeze with her knuckles. That always got a smile out of her. “Sam, don’t go far, I’m still gonna need your help with the stuff in the back.”

“Just going to unlock the door, Ren. Be back before you can say ‘Where’d that handsome man go? However shall I go on without him?’”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Melissa laughed. “Growups” as she was in the habit of calling adults these days, were a lot like children when they quarreled sometimes. Then she looked up for the first time. What she saw she wasn’t so sure she liked. It reminded her of an ugly cuckoo clock she’d seen once. She hated that thing. The first time that it chimed and that spooky-looking bird popped out the door she dived behind her mother’s leg so fast that the poor woman nearly jumped herself. It took nearly ten straight minutes of head patting to coax her into understanding it was supposed to do that…and another five to convince her it wouldn’t hurt her.

“I know. Big, isn’t it?” Sam said, catching the expression of awe on his daughter’s face as he walked back toward the car. “Good thing she didn’t see this place two months ago when we first got here,” he said to Rene. He rolled his eyes as he remembered the boarded up and broken windows, the front stairs, the mess they had found inside before they gutted the kitchen, bathroom and two upstairs bedrooms. Never mind trying to get ready to pick up Melissa from her grandparents’ house so they could all get settled in for the rest of the renovations and repairs.

They had given Melissa very specific instructions on what parts of the house she could ‘play in’. Much of the house still needed a lot of work, and contractors would be in and out over the next nine months with heavy equipment and would be moving things in and out nearly every day. Perhaps not the best environment for a five-year-old, but Melissa was very mature for her age and when your parents have owned and operated a business like Victorian Renovations, LLC sites like these were a familiar environment. Sam really didn’t think it would be that much trouble, and Rene had found a good day school for her, so most of the time she would be out of the house anyway.

Sam had grown up outside of New Orleans to a father who had often chastised him for not “being of pure mind and soul”, given that he was a very prominent and driven Baptist preacher. Not one of those who led his flock into song and dance every Sunday. No, he was more the kind who screamed hell and damnation, and called for a spiteful and vengeful God who would smite the devil out of you. Sam had enough of that by the age of ten. At seventeen he had squirreled away enough for a bus ticket to Philadelphia. Luckily, he had a cousin who lived there, and it was there that he began his real life. One that excluded Voodoo, ol’ Cajun-man’s tales and hard-southern Baptist practices. At just over six feet tall, with medium-dark skin and some of the finer features that showed a mixed heritage of the Africans brought over to work the plantation fields under their French masters, his astonishing good looks certainly didn’t hurt when he went job seeking.

He loved being outdoors; a habit he acquired as a young boy, wanting to be as far away from “The House” as possible, especially when his father was in a ‘the Mood’ and taking it out on everyone else inside.

Man of God. Yeah right,” Sam often thought. If any god could see his father acting like that, Sam was certain he’d have had more than a few strong words for him.

It was this love for being outside that led him to The Pennsylvania School of Design where he met Rene. Blonde hair, beautiful, and from a wealthy local family; he never really believed that she could go for a young country-boy like him. Somehow, they fell in love over a common passion for restoring old things back to their original beauty. With a little startup money from her father, “Victorian Restorations, LLC” was born. Rene concentrated on the interior work and had the talent for interior design, while Sam concentrated on exterior landscaping. It was shortly after that they married, and a year later that Melissa was born.

They had been lucky to get this contract. Many different companies had put in bids to the Morris Foundation, but somehow, they landed the job. Not only did it come with a decent down payment of $15,000, and a carte blanche bank roll to hire local craftsmen to come in and work on the project as well, but Mr. Morris was also offering a monthly income over the next year while the entire house and property was being restored back to its original 1800s stature. Apparently the eighty-five-year-old Nathan Morris was gifting the estate to the local Historical Society as an historic home site, in honor of his family and the part they played in the community as well as the Civil War. Emmitsburg, Maryland was just south of Gettysburg and the town still attracted a large tourist industry.

As he glanced back to Melissa, Sam was glad that old Mr. Morris agreed to the idea of allowing his family to remodel the basic part of the house first, so they could move in during the final 10 months of renovations.

“Yeah,” Melissa cooed, only half listening to whatever her father said. She was more afraid than anything to take her eyes off of the house, half convinced it would try to gobble her up when she looked away. With all the windows and dormers, the building looked like it was grinning at her with anticipation.  As her eyes traveled further up, she became fixated upon the highest window at the topmost part of the house.

From the corner of her eye, Rene noticed Melissa had raised her arm and appeared to be…waving at the house, as near as she could tell. Then the thing she did not want to happen did. Melissa slipped her hand out of her mother’s and bolted for the door that Sam had just opened, slid under her papa’s grasp and got as far as the spiraling wood stairway before a familiar pair of arms lifted her up.

“Aww…” she whined with resignation as her father hugged her to his chest.

“And where are your little feet off too in such a hurry?”

“Someone’s in the room,” she replied, as if that was supposed to mean something.

“Say what?”

“I saw him.”

Her father peaked his brow.

“Outside! I saw him! The man in the round window…”

“What window, Melissa?” he asked as he glanced at Rene.

“The round window at the top! The round window-room!” Melissa said with some excitement.

Rather than try to make sense of a five-year old’s babbling, Sam spun on his heel and carried his daughter back outside. After giving the exterior a once over he turned back to Melissa.

“Now, what are you goin’ on about, child?”

Melissa’s little finger pointed in the direction of the “round window” that Sam recognized was the oxeye. Most Victorian homes had one on their center dormer, usually looking out from the attic. He had been in there once or twice over the past two months and knew that room would be the darkest and, more significantly, the least comfortable in the house, due to lack of ventilation.

“There’s nothing up there but boxes, old furniture and dust, sweet pea,” her mother chimed in.

“Yeah-Huh!” Melissa insisted.

“Uh-Uh,” Rene countered.

“Uh-Huh!” Melissa repeated.

“Uh-Uh,” Rene countered again, adding a little cheek poke for emphasis.

“Take me! Take me! Lemme see!” Melissa started chanting relentlessly.

“For the love of—! Okay! Just stop jittering before I drop you,” Sam declared as he kept trying to re-affirm his grasp.

“Okee!” She smiled triumphant at her mother, whose revenge took the form of another affectionate nose pinch.

Up, up, up, up they went, up the lacquer wood staircase that seemed to endlessly spiral until they reached the second floor. Melissa looked down a long hallway. At one end was the main bathroom. They showed Melissa their bedroom, and then her own, which had many of her toys and furniture from their old house near grandma’s. Again, she broke away from her father’s side and ran down the hallway to the last closed door.

“Melissa, stop there,” Sam said, just as she had her hand on the old rusty doorknob. “We had a talk about this, remember?” Melissa nodded. “You can only play in the finished parts of the house. You have to be with me, mommy or a grown up to go anywhere else, remember?” Melissa nodded again, but she was still very anxious to open that door.

Sam took the doorknob and turned it. To Melissa’s surprise, there was a dark, very narrow stairway that led straight up. Sam took her hand, since there was no handrail, and Rene followed close behind. They finally got to the top where Melissa saw it…the window.

“See daddy. That’s where the nice man was.” She ran to the window and eyeballed their van parked in front of the house. Then she turned back to the room, her head swiveling back and forth, desperately trying to find something—or someone—else. To her the old attic was magical! So much stuff piled around. Old furniture, clothes, a manikin with a pretty dress, and many, many boxes. But nobody else was up there. “Oh, well,” she thought out loud, “He’s probably somewhere else by now.” It was then that her attention was drawn to an old trunk. “Mommy, can I see inside?” she patted the trunk inquisitively.

Rene looked at Sam, who simply shrugged.

“I’m sure there’s nothing in there that will hurt her,” he said as his wife walked over and unlatched the trunk.

Melissa’s eyes lit up when she saw a little ragdoll sitting on the top. Looking at her mother for ‘permission to touch’, Rene nodded. She grabbed the doll and started to turn it in her hands. René, meanwhile, began looking through the rest of the trunk. It was all children’s items from what she could tell.

She turned to Sam. “We’ll have to call Mrs. Hatter and have her get these things out of here. Stuff like this belongs in a museum—not in an attic.”

Melissa was too busy cuddling the rag doll for all that it was worth to care. “Can I keep her, mommy? Pleeease?”

Rene looked at Sam, whose expression said that he didn’t care either way. Typical man. She stood, placed her hand on Melissa’s little wiry head and stroked it. The child instinctively hugged herself to her mother’s thigh, all the while gleaming at her through pleading hazel eyes. “Sure, baby, you can have her.”

Melissa celebrated with a joyous stomp & spin dance.

“Well at least we know what toy we’re putting her to bed with tonight,” Sam thought aloud to his wife, as they both took the time to study their daughter’s delight in her new plaything.

“Once she falls asleep,” Rene inserted.

If she falls asleep,” Sam countered.

If,” she concurred.

They both smiled.

“She’ll be okay. Right?” Sam asked, looking more for affirmation than reassurance.

Rene looked at her husband with a bewildered smirk.

Of course, she’ll be okay! Why wouldn’t she be?

“I think so. She’s already made her first friend, after all,” she indicated.

“No mommy!” The little girl proclaimed. “She’s my second friend. The man in the window…he’s my first friend!” she said, pointing back at the oxeye excitedly.

Rene glanced at Sam and there was a slight snicker between the two. Their daughter had always had a big imagination, and a penchant for make-believe friends. It was only natural, they supposed, for an only child. Rene wanted a bigger family but nature had not given them a sibling for Melissa yet.

Not this year, thought Rene as she took her daughter’s hand. Way too much to do!

“Let’s take you downstairs and get the van unpacked so we can get you settled in, young lady. And then I have to make dinner—I’m starving!” Sam led the way as they went down the narrow stairs and shut the attic door behind them.

Mr. Dust and Melissa – Chapter Four

Chapter Four

A Surprise Recital…March 8, 2007

Rene opened the front door, expecting Uncle George to come that afternoon. Sam needed to get into the parlor and begin tearing up that old 1930’s vinyl flooring. They knew the original hardwood oak was under there and they couldn’t wait to see it.

“Rene Fuller! I do declare you only get lovelier the older I get,” the old man stated matter-of-factly as he embraced his ‘niece’ and gifted her with the traditional bottle of red merlot he knew Rene was fond of. Tucked under his arm was the present for Melissa.

Another three-hundred-piece puzzle, Uncle Georgie?”

“Well, I had no choice. Last time I saw her she said one-hundred pieces was too boring!”

“Thanks,” Rene smirked as she led her ‘Uncle’ into the room. “I swear that child collects puzzles the way other kids collect stuffed animals.”

“Stuffed animals! Bah! Who needs a plush-teddy…when you can have a whole family of dolphins?” He said emphasizing the image on the puzzle box, which indeed portrayed a school of dolphins swimming and jumping about in the water.

With a smile, Rene turned toward the spiraling staircase and cried out, “Melissa! Uncle Georgie’s here!” When she received no response, she muttered to herself, “Now where has the little munchkin gotten to?” before turning her attention back to guiding George into the parlor. “Well, there she is, George. I hope you’re able to save her. She will look wonderful in here once we’ve finished.”

A third-generation musical instrument repairman by trade, George Pottersfield prided himself on being able to restore anything to its original beauty, be it a grand piano or even a harmonica. Rene had known him since she was a child herself. She’d arrange for ‘Uncle Georgie’ to come down to the Morris estate before the baby grand was to be packed up and shipped out for servicing.

“Well, I’ll let you get to work. Just let me know if you need anything. Would you like something to drink before you get started?”

“No. No, I’m fine, darling. I’ll be okay in here.” He took his time checking the outside casing and the legs, looking for any fractures or signs of wood rot that would require special handling or care. Then he opened his tuning box and lifted up the lid. A giggle caught his attention and he turned to see a tiny pair of hazel eyes peeking around the corner. “Well, well! Who do we have here?” He sat down on the piano bench and held up the puzzle he had for her. Melissa darted into the room and reached with all her might for the shiny box, which stayed just beyond grasp no matter how hard she tried.

“Now what do we say, little miss?”

“Thank you, Uncle Pottie!”

George couldn’t help laughing every time she mispronounced his name like that. “Pottersfield, you little–!” He stroked her on the head as he spoke. “Anyhow, why can’t you just say, ‘Uncle Georgie’?”

“Uh-Uh!” Melissa declared, which only made his smile stretch further.

He turned his attention away from Melissa, who watched with acute interest as he lifted the lid. Even on her tippy toes she couldn’t see. She always wanted to know what was inside one of these things that made such pretty sounds. George saw her dilemma, and lifted her up and stood her on the piano seat where she could get a clear look at all the strings.

Her eyes got wide and finally she broke out into a big smile, “What are all those? They look like the wire my daddy uses to make lights work.”

George laughed. “Not quite the same thing, Melissa. These wires are called ‘strings’. They’re made of very special metal, and each one makes a different sound called a ‘note’.”

“What’s in the box? What you gonna do? Will it hurt?”

“No, no, I’m just giving her a once over before we pack her up and ship her to where they can make her look brand new!” Melissa was glad to hear that. She didn’t know why but she liked this pea-anno thing. “Now, if you promise to stay and be still you can watch while I check everything out. Okay?” At that, Melissa plopped down on the seat and beamed at her ‘Uncle’ with an enormous grin, accompanied by a bobblehead nod that he couldn’t resist smiling at. With that matter settled, he could focus on his work.

He found the Knabe in surprisingly good condition, which would make shipping it easier, if nothing else. Once he was content with the appraisal, he filled out the last section of his order form. As he was packing up his tool kit, Melissa was still studying the instrument intently. Once or twice she even touched a key to see what happened; and she seemed to perk up every time a straight C or a sharp B bellowed out. That was when the idea crept into his head.

“Melissa, let’s have you scooch over for a second.” The little girl complied, and George took his place next to her on the bench. “Know what these are?” he ran his hand across the keyboard. Melissa shook her head, pursing her lips as she did so. “These are keys. Each is attached to what’s called an action—that’s these fuzzy little hammers that hit the wires inside there…” As he spoke, he struck an A and C. Melissa’s eyes stretched as wide as an owl when she heard that sound. “…and when they do, they make music. Here, let me show you”.

George tapped some single keys. When he stopped, Melissa immediately asked him to do some more, bobbing up and down in place excitedly. How could he resist such a sweet request? He thought for a moment what to play for a five-year-old child. Finally, he decided. An old childhood melody his mother used to sing for him. It didn’t come out as the exact melody he was hoping for, but the piano did need some work after all.

Melissa just giggled and smiled with delight throughout and, of course, decided she needed to try it for herself. Uncle George showed her where to place her hands on the keyboard, as he did, which she managed with some effort. She was still a little short and needed to prop herself on her Uncle’s knee to reach all the way up. After showing her how to recognize the middle C and line up her fingers properly, he started in steady succession (C, D, E…), tucking in his fingers at certain points and continuing (F, G, A, B, C), then played it backwards until both hands were back where they began.

“Try it if you can.”

Melissa strained to align her hands like her Uncle Pottie had shown her, but she still needed a little hint here and there, despite claiming more than once she could do it herself. When she pressed down on the two C keys and successfully reproduced the noise that Uncle had made, she perked up and sounded out the rest of the C major scale, only slurring ever so slightly at the points where she needed to tuck her fingers to finish. Playing it in reverse was trickier, but with a bit of extra effort (and extra time to tuck her fingers correctly), she finished with her hands back where she had begun.

“Well, that’s just fine. Just fine. But can you do this?” This time he incorporated some of the black keys, which made Melissa purse her lips again, slightly harder, as she squinted to remember his finger movements. She struggled a bit more and needed to start over once when she got confused crossing her fingers, but she still managed to sound out the scale once again, forward and back.

“Melissa. You ever played a piano before?”

“Uh-uh,” the girl insisted, adding two exaggerated head shakes for effect.

“Huh. Try this…”

For a while they carried on, and each time it was the same. He’d show her something, and she’d echo it back almost perfectly.

Eventually, he had to ask Melissa if she would excuse him for a moment, and wait for him to come back. She readily agreed, before turning her attention back to the task of making more pretty sounds on her pea-anno. When he came back, he had Rene with him. He asked Melissa to repeat the tune they had just played together for her, which she happily did, eager to show her mommy her fun new game.

She asked her mother if she’d liked it, but Rene was too dumbstruck to do anything other than gape at what she saw.

“You ever give Melissa any kind of piano lessons before?” George asked.

Rene barely managed to utter, “No,” as she looked at her daughter, still sitting on the bench, a bit unsure why mommy wasn’t talking.

“Well, I think you got something with this one here, Rene. If I was you, I’d consider getting her some proper mentoring, and soon!” he proclaimed without hesitation, buttoning his statement with a firm pat on the head for Melissa.

Like a bolt the little girl shot off of her seat and wrapped herself around her flabbergasted mother’ waist. “Please, mommy? Please, can I play pea-anno more? Pleeeaaaasssee?”

Before he left, Uncle George had handed Rene all the dates and instructions for when his team would be back to crate up the Parlor Grand. “I was serious before, Rene,” he restated as she walked him to the door. “There is something very unique in that child. Something you’d be smart not to ignore.” And with that, he gave Rene one final family hug good-bye and saw his way out.

Sam had been gone most of the afternoon ordering supplies. When he finally got back Rene called him into the kitchen and told him what had happened when George was there. Conservative and hard-headed as ever, he simply stated that when they get their own house next year, he’d consider getting her a keyboard and some lessons, and tried to drop it there.

Five years old and that woman wants to stick my baby behind a piano and make her listen to some old fluff for an hour out of her day every week? Can’t mothers just be happy with what they got, without needing their kid being something “special”? He found himself wondering as he walked out of the room. Oh, well. Case closed. He wouldn’t hear any more about it.

Rene, of course, was not quite so easily deterred. She saw what Melissa had done, and while it was true that every mother thinks her child is the best, she knew that what she saw had been extraordinary. She had long been suspecting it. This was not a typical child. As a mother, her instinct had been telling her this all along. And today had all but proved it.

She had seen the other children at day care and on play dates. Melissa always had the propensity for figuring out things faster and better than any of them. Especially puzzles. Once, just after Melissa turned five, she discovered her daughter had dumped a 300-piece puzzle onto the floor. She had finished a good deal of it, before Rene arrived and got hooked into finishing it with her. Yes, she knew that her daughter was different; her husband would not be quick to acknowledge it—he so desperately needed their lives to be as ‘normal’ as possible.

Too bad for him, she thought as she walked through the parlor, glancing at the piano one last time with a decisive smile.

The next day the movers came for the old Parlor Grand. Melissa waved good bye through the oxeye attic window onto the driveway as the truck rolled out, not that anybody noticed her from up there. When it was long out of sight, she headed back toward the stairway, stopping part way.

“Don’t worry. The pea-anno people will bring it back.”

She started her descent.

“Uh-huh! Uncle Pottie said it will look shiny and new.”

She took the attic door in-hand.

“Uh-huh! Miss Karen said they’d bring everything back after mommy and daddy make the house pretty again,” she continued, holding the door wide open for three or four generous seconds before closing it behind her.

Beowulf, And His Eternal Lessons

All great stories endure because of the themes they represent and the lessons that may be learned. Before Arthur taught Britain that a mere man could pull a sword from stone or that a holy woman like Saint Martha could tame a ravenous monster with a gentle hymn and a show of faith, there was the Epic Poem of Beowulf. The first European vernacular poem dating back to 700-750 AC, it is the longest epic poem written in Old English. It would set the stage for all legends that followed in subsequent years; describing the same bravery, heroism, and greatness that we still covet in our most admired heroes today, living and fictional, English and otherwise.

Recorded during a period of perpetual death, radical religious change, and told for ages beforehand by pagan worshippers of the Norse gods, Beowulf’s epic may also present one of Christianity’s earliest recorded pieces of cultural assimilation. The monks, being the only one’s gifted with the ability to write during the time of recording (between 700 and 1000 AD) would inevitably inject Christian ideology and elements into an already well-established and often-told fable.

From the beginning, Beowulf’s every trait exemplifies the ideal hero. Beowulf is descended of great warriors, carries a noble title, and is a perfect warrior. His strength makes him unmatched in hand-to-hand combat (a skill that will prove invaluable throughout his adventures) and his courage only feeds his ambitiousness. Beowulf, like all men of his era, is driven by his devotion to the Germanic heroic code, valuing strength, courage, and loyalty not only to one’s state and lord, but also to oneself. This is not an easy standard to meet, but Beowulf is ever ready and eager to meet the challenge.

His first great challenge is presented when he hears of trouble in the Kingdom of Denmark. Ruled by Hrothgar, considered one of the greatest legendary kings, and a close friend of Beowulf’s own father, Ecgtheow. The revelry and constant celebrations in Hrothgar’s great mead hall, Heorot, has attracted the malicious attentions of a dark monster, a demon of the swamps called Grendel. Who or what Grendel is is never thoroughly explained—neither are his motives, if any—although he is described with physical, even humanistic attributes (hands, feet, skin of scale and coated with thorns).

He remains ultimately a character of the shadow, with darkness following forever in his stead. Grendel is also said to be descended from the cursed lineage of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who slew his brother, Abel, out of cold jealousy and contempt. As a result, he was forever banished (along with his entire line) from mankind, ultimately coming to personify demonic creatures. Grendel despises mankind, and is even potentially envious of the joy that occurs under the mead halls’ roof—a kind of social camaraderie Grendel is destined never to know or enjoy.

In retaliation, he has taken to storming into the hall and slaughtering partygoers in their sleep, sometimes claiming as many as thirty lives at a time. Some he tears apart and others he eats; typical of demonic characters.  No man is able to stop him as he massacres innocents by the dozens, as no weapon of man’s making can harm his cursed body. This is the kind of impossible challenge a young hero like Beowulf has dreamed of.

In order to see his name preserved for ages to come, he will slay the un-slayable monster and restore order to a broken land. Ambitious character elements we too often see ascribed to heroes in fairy tales and fables to this day. His journey to Denmark will see him cross an angry sea from his native Geatland (what’s now known as Sweden) all the way to Denmark, taking with him fourteen of his bravest thanes.

In Denmark, Beowulf is welcomed into Hrothgar’s kingdom as a savior and friend. Hrothgar has every faith in Beowulf—he has known him since he was a small child, and treats him like his own son—so much so that he reopens the sealed mead hall in order for him to lay his trap. But not everyone is so enthusiastic. One of Hrothgar’s advisors, Unferth, is jealous of Beowulf’s bravery and boldness in making a stand against the demon, Grendel.

Clearly, Unferth is too cowardly to rise to the occasion as is our epic hero. To cast doubt on his rival’s bravado, Unferth recalls an event from Beowulf’s youth where he lost an ill-advised swimming match on the open sea against another renowned hero, Breca the Mighty. Undeterred by Unferth’s taunts, Beowulf rebukes Unferth’s accusations with his own (rather exaggerated) recollection of the event. Rather than losing the race, Beowulf retells of how he WON the match, dressed in full armor, after saving his childhood friend from a league of sea serpents during a great storm, dragging him all the way to shore.

Suffice to say, it was not unusual for warriors to exaggerate their exploits when boasting. But Beowulf is still able to get the better of his adversary in this scenario not by his strength or action, but by the clever use of his reputation over Unferth’s; who was not renowned for heroic deeds. Instead he was notoriously known in his homeland for having killed both of his brothers.

Night falls, after a day of revelry, drinking, singing, and merry-making (the perfect bait to bring Grendel calling) the men and women of the mead hall are turning to slumber, when the beast comes to kill. Beowulf has set the trap, but in preparing he never arms himself against Grendel. He knows that the monster only slew his victims with its hands, and to raise a weapon against any opponent who does not fight with a weapon—even a demonic one—would be dishonorable. He will fight Grendel as an equal, and the greater fighter will be victorious. The instant Grendel appears, he slays one of Beowulf’s men and feasts on the thanes’ blood while the others try in vain to harm the cursed creature with their mortal weapons.

Beowulf is unfazed, despite the grim scene playing out before him. With calmed reserve he simply reaches out for Grendel’s arm, twisting and twisting until the vile thing’s appendage is ripped out at the shoulder. With his own hands Beowulf has succeeded where small armies had failed. He has delivered a fatal blow to the monster, sending him howling into the night, hemorrhaging from a bloody stump.

With Grendel’s arm as a trophy, Beowulf has become the hero of Hrothgar’s land. He and his men are vastly rewarded. The hero’s fame has been assured for generations. Still, the greatest of his adventures have yet to begin…

Deep in Grendel’s cave, the beast lies dead. Despite his foulness, there is a soul that weeps for the fallen monster. It is an old swamp-hag, Grendel’s mother, grieving over the death of her son. Like her damnable son, Grendel’s mother is as dangerous as she is ambiguously described—and her grief will soon turn to bloodlust.

The night after Grendel’s death, while the people of Heorot, drunk and exhausted from celebrating the creatures demise sleep, Grendel’s mother slaughters all in the hall in retaliation, leaving only the king to grieve for his fallen brethren as she did for her own son. As swiftly as she arrived, she is gone, leaving a hall full of carnage. While Grendel’s motives may have been little more than malicious character, the motives of his mother could not have been any clearer. Vengeance for her murdered child, paid in blood.

Meanwhile, back home in Geatland, Beowulf is enraged by the radical turn of events. In one day had he liberated Denmark from darkness, only to have it destroyed during his brief absence. Returning with his armor in hand, he travels with Hrothgar to the home of Grendel and his mother, the haunted mere. They are led through the winding woods by the trail of blood spray and gore dripping from the she-demons clawed hands and stained clothing.

The monsters’ home is a giant frozen lake inhabited with gigantic poisonous serpents. Beowulf alone has the courage to traverse the ice and dive into the waters to search for Grendel’s mother. Displaying unwavering bravery and confidence he manages to battle off the many giant sea snakes and find the entrance to Grendel’s dwelling. She is waiting for him and strikes as soon as he arrives, easily overpowering him. Despite his efforts, Beowulf’s mortal-crafted weapon proves as useless against Grendel’s mother as they did against Grendel himself.

His luck changes when he discovers a magical sword grafted by the race of Giants. The sword is magically gifted and so massive that no mortal man should be capable of wielding it. Using all of his mythological mightiness, Beowulf manages to lift the great blade and severs the mother’s head in one blind swipe. Again, Beowulf’s indestructible spirit and might has overcome pure evil and further established his name as the great monster slayer. The Bee-Wolf has won his fame and glory, but his return home will not prove restful.

As he travels home, he encounters a massive war between Geatland and the neighboring Frisians and Swede’s. As his honor would mandate, Beowulf joins the fray and guides his people to victory alongside his king, Hygelac. When the king falls, Beowulf himself is elected as the viable candidate, but instead devoutly sponsors the king’s son, despite the boy’s undisciplined manner and inexperience. Glory and influence is one thing, but Beowulf the mighty monster slayer has little interest in the slow-paced tension and delicateness of political agendas that come along with kingship.

He would accept the power if given to him, but would prefer to keep a blood-born royal as king. Again, showing his sense of devotion to his country and throne, he would prefer to remain on the field of battle. When the young king himself falls victim to an enemy blade, Beowulf is ultimately left as king of the Geats for his courageousness and brilliance in battle. He rules over his land peacefully for fifty years, until an act of greed by a desperate man will force him to don his armor for the last time.

In another part of Geatland a slave has managed to escape his abusive master. In desperation, he hides in an ancient cave, unaware that the massive cavern hordes an enormous cache of treasure. Gold and silverware, priceless jewelry, encrusted weapons fit for kings. But there is more than gold to be found here—there is also a massive fire-breathing dragon.

At the moment the slave enters, the great lizard is asleep atop his massive golden perch. Most would count their blessings and immediately leave the same way they came in, but the slave’s greed won’t allow him to part from this abundance of wealth empty-handed. From under the dragon’s sleeping nose he picks off with a golden drinking cup and makes his escape.

Sadly, this relatively meager act of theft will result in disastrous consequences. For the dragon’s greed surpasses man’s many times over, and the cup happened to be one of its favorite pieces. The dragon awakens to discover the cup missing. Its wrath is now in full bloom and it immediately sets out to wreak havoc on the land, leveling several villages, killing hundreds. Even Beowulf’s own home is lost to the dragon’s flame.

By now Beowulf is an old man, well past his prime—but again, his code of honor won’t allow this injustice upon his own kingdom to go unaddressed. For what will be the last time, the hero dresses for battle and sets out with his best men. Among them is a young cousin (and only surviving member of the Wægmunding clan besides Beowulf himself), Wiglaf. Hardly older than Beowulf had been when he first set out on his adventures, Wiglaf has never seen battle before this day, and so is derived and teased by the older thanes.

Ultimately, however, Wiglaf’s heroic blood will show through before the long day is done. Reaching the mouth of the dragon’s cave, Beowulf himself only has the boldness to enter the beasts’ lair. Like the thief, he has caught the dragon asleep, but this time it is more alert and ready for intruders. It leaps awake and has Beowulf pinned instantly. Beowulf’s plaintive cries to his men fall on deaf ears, as the dragon’s roaring has sent them all running for their lives, leaving only the young Wiglaf.

Cursing the cowardice of the other men, the young thane will not leave his heroic relative to die alone and charges brazenly into the cave, sword at the ready. Wiglaf’s distraction not only disables the dragon’s ability to expel flame. It allows Beowulf access to its vital underside, where he rams his now shattered sword into the dragon’s heart. But delivering the final blow to the dragon is also the final blow to Beowulf.

In its dying throes the dragon reaches out and bites Beowulf deeply in the neck. At Beowulf’s request, Wiglaf brings him the treasure they fought for, so that he may see the glorious prize as he lies dying. As the last of the Wægmunding weeps over his dying friend, Beowulf gives Wiglaf his mail shirt, helm, and rings, and beseeches him to “watch the people’s needs”; signifying his passing of kingship to Wiglaf, to reward his courageousness and unparalleled bravery that day. And yet, without Beowulf’s wise guidance, Wiglaf dreads the future of Geatland, knowing that the true suffering of the people has yet to come.

The Arthurian Legend, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, fairytales of brave knights who hunt dragons to save a languishing land; how many of these historical and often culturally significant legacies and story elements owe their success to the Epic of Beowulf, the first recorded story written in the English language? Beowulf has successfully transcended culture after culture, becoming the prime example of heroic action in a time of repression and victory against all odds; while reminding us that the fight against evil can never truly end—no matter how many monster heads you might have perched on your mantel.

Mr. Dust and Melissa – Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

The Heart Song (April 2007)

The little chair creaked like a croaking toad as it swayed back and forth.

Mr. Dusty? Mr. Dusty? Are you here? Are you there?” sang the little girl as she placed another piece of block on her amalgamation of a tower.

Still the rocker swayed, slightly more deliberately.

“…Can you hear me calling?…” she continued, even as the muddled thump! thump! outside foretold the impending arrival of a Growup. “…Don’t you hear me spouting…

Knock! Knock!

“…Mr. Dust…

The handle jiggled and turned.

“…Mr. Dust…

In the doorway stood a face, watching with intrigue.

“Sweetie?” her father said.

“Yes, da?”

“What’re ya doin’?” He tilted his head, pondering by what juvenile sleight of hand his child had managed to create the illusion that her rocking chair was moving.

“Playing.”

“I see that.” For the first time he really noticed the sculpture of blocks, stacked for no particular reason other than to make it as tall as possible. “What were you singin’?”

“It’s a heart-song, daddy.”

“A heart-song?”

“Mr. Dust taught me it.”

“And who, pray tell, is Mr. Dust?”

Without a word the child merely pointed to the unoccupied rocker, which still had a slight row to it in spite of that fact. ‘How does this little girl of mine do these things?’ he had to ask himself.

“Oh. Some new special friend?”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded. “Mr. Dust sleeps in the attic. That’s why he’s always dusty.”

“I’ll bet he’s really tall, huh?” her father said, obviously amused by his daughter’s imagination.

“Yep. But he’s reeeaaal skinny, and he wears a old jacket and a big hat, like the men in the pictures.”

“He does?”

“Mmm-hmm. And he told me that if I keep the song close to my heart and sing it when I’m in trouble, then he’ll hear it and help us. He can keep us safe from Sybil.”

“Sybil, now?” He peaked his brow.

“The mean lady who burned mommy in the kitchen. She’s Mr. Dust’s sister. She doesn’t like you or mommy being around me. That’s why she did it.”

“Melissa, you little rascal,” he sighed as he drew the child up off her feet, spun himself about once in-place with her in his arms, then proceeded to deposit her onto his knee, giggling and kicking enthusiastically the whole time like the darling little soul she was. “Now, you listen to me. Your mommy was tired and got a little careless around the stove. That’s all. It doesn’t mean somebody wants to hurt mommy. You understand?”

“Okay.” Although she didn’t really believe it for a moment.

“Good.” He planted a small kiss on Melissa’s forehead. “And as for Mr. Dust…” he cast another cursory glance toward the “magic” chair. “Well, you’re safe enough as long as I’m around.”

“Then how come you didn’t move out the way when your things fell off the shelf?”

He stopped there. It was true that his latest attempt at assembling the utility shelf had proven less than a success—as the entire contents of the shelf managed to buckle on one side and pour the whole payload less than an inch short from where he was standing.

With his back turned at the time.

A grand total of four and a half minutes after the job had been finished.

He’d considered it no less than an act of God that he’d chosen to stand where he had when the event occurred.

“How do you know about that, Melissa?”

“Mr. Dust told me. He said you were being ‘harebrained’ and not paying attention. He had to keep your stuff from falling on you.”

“Melissa, that’s enough!” he sternly put with a puckered lip.

The little girl shuddered, caught off-guard by her father’s sudden angst. “I’m sorry, daddy. I didn’t mean it. Honest.”

“I’m-I’m sorry too, Lissa.” He was still mad, but he saw the look his daughter gave him. He could tell that she was frightened. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He wrapped his arms around the little girl, who did her best to return the gesture with what little reach she had.

 

Authors Note: I first met Melissa in 2010, as she appeared to me and I placed her onto a sheet of white paper… her story flowed from this first conversation she had with her father. In between college and life, I had my summers that I devoted to visiting Gettysburg, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick Maryland, Emmitsburg Maryland, and even a live Civil War Doctor (re-enactment) at his 1864 infirmary… as Mellisa’s world began to open up I met her mother, father and a bevy of characters that came into her life, for a year, when she was only 6 to 7 years old. I was inspired to pull her out of my files when I met Dr. Nancy McCabe at the University of Pittsburgh in Bradford. It was under her watchful eye, in 2015,  where I did my best work, and continued my novel, Mr. Dust and Melissa.