Monday, May 21, 2012

A Simple Question of Humaneness--a short story

Confucius: A human is one who acts with humaneness

Eliza was waiting at the edge of the cafeteria with the other lunch ladies.  She fidgeted with the spray bottle in her gloved hands, thinking about the way her hair net seemed to pull her hair so that her white roots showed.  She decided that she’d give herself a dye job at the end of this work day.  And then she’d watch her favorite television show and eat the delicious scalloped potatoes she’d gotten into the habit of making.  If she was lucky, Ralph would spend the evening at the bar and she could have the house to herself for a while.

She stared at the clock that hung on the wall, wishing the workday was over so she could relax a little. 

The table on the end emptied first.  These were the fifth grade boys who sat together and made the most noise.  There was a flurry of activity around the large trash bins as they smacked the edges of the can with their trays and stacked them in a pile.  Elisa saw one boy throw his entire tray away.  He was the leader of these boys.  He’d done this before.  Elisa felt a flash of anger. 

“Hey you!” she called out. 

He turned to face her. 

“You got a problem old woman?” he said.  He started to walk toward her and all of his friends turned as well.

“You’re not supposed to throw the whole tray away.  Pick it up and put it where it belongs.”  She tried to speak in an authoritative voice, but to her shame, her voice shook.

The boys laughed at her and the leader repeated her words in a falsetto.  This made the other boys laugh.  Eliza flushed.  With his friends flanking him on either side, he swept out of the cafeteria.  Eliza stooped and fished the tray out of the trash.  Another lunch lady, Cindy, had started to clean the table they’d vacated, so Eliza resumed her place on the wall with as much dignity as she could muster. 

Eliza tried to remember her scalloped potatoes and how pretty she was going to feel after she fixed her hair, but the mockery had shamed her so much that she could think of nothing else.  The minutes dragged on.

The table closest to the door was always the last one to be vacated.  Second graders sat here, and they were cute for the most part.  But there was one foreign looking girl who spent at least a half hour pulling her string cheese apart.  Elisa grit her teeth as she watched the girl pull the string cheese out of her brown paper bag just as the last of her classmates got up and filed outside for recess.

“Look at that,” Eliza said to Cindy.  “There she goes again with the string cheese.” 

The girl didn’t look at them, but Eliza liked the way she flinched. 

“These kids don’t give a damn about their elders,” Eliza said.  “She does this just to piss us off.  I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“Tell me about it,” Cindy said. 

Eliza straightened her shoulders.  “She does this every single day and I don’t know what she expects us to do about it.  Are we supposed to wait around while she picks at her food?  Who does she think we are?  Slaves?  Look at her.  She can hear us, but she still keeps doing it.  I don’t know, maybe that’s how they treat their elders in her country.”

The cafeteria was empty except for the lunch ladies and the girl with the cheese.

“Hey, girl!  We have jobs to do you know.  We can’t just wait around while you pick at your cheese,” Eliza snapped. 

The girl didn’t answer her.

“Look at how disrespectful she is!  I’m sorry, but I can’t just wait around for her.  I’ve got to clear this table out before the next round of kids comes in here.”

Someone had spilled their helping of corn onto the table, and Eliza swept the food toward the girl who gasped as the corn hit her.  Eliza hadn’t expected the food to hit her so hard.  One of the corn pieces stuck to the teddy bear on her multicolored sweater.  The girl dusted herself off, but still didn’t look up at them.

“I’m sorry.  I told you to move.  I don’t know what you expect me to do.  I’m just trying to do my job.  It’s not like the whole world is here to wait on you.”

“Come on Eliza,” Cindy said in a disapproving tone.  “Maybe it’s part of her religion or something.”

“I don’t even know what she is.  Hey, what country are you from?” Eliza asked, pitching her voice louder and talking very slowly.  “Is that way you eat part of your religion?  Do know the word religion?”

The girl nodded. 

“Now that’s a weird religion.  I can’t imagine why they do things like that, but I guess that’s not PC to say,” Eliza said.  “She’s not even eating, she’s pretending to eat.  I’m the one who’s going to get blamed if the tables aren’t cleaned.  You should just eat your food.  Why are you picking at it?  Wait, do you understand English?”

“She doesn’t understand you,” Cindy said.

“She understood me before, didn’t you see her nod?  I don’t know why they let people like that into the country if they can’t even speak English.”

The girl was watching them. “I can speak English,” she said in an unaccented voice. 

“Look at that, she does speak English.  Why did you try to trick us?” Eliza demanded.

“I didn’t.  I-I just wanted to make the slivers really tiny,” she said. 

“The slivers?  What are you talking about?” Eliza said, looking at Cindy as if the girl had lost her mind. 

“The slivers of cheese, see?” she said, holding up a filament of cheese so thin that Eliza could barely see it.

“Well hurry up and get out,” Eliza said.  “It’s not healthy to sit inside while all your classmates are out there playing.  In this country we play at recess.” 

“Come on Eliza, don’t be mean,” Cindy said.

“I’m not the bad guy here,” Eliza said.  But Eliza felt like it. 

“Ask her what her religion is,” Cindy instructed.

“What is your religion?” Eliza asked slowly, shouting.

“I’m a Sikh,” she said.

“You’re sick?  No wonder.  I thought you said this was a religious ritual,” Eliza laughed.  “Gosh and here I was giving her a hard time about this.”

“No I’m a Sikh,” the girl said. 

“Oh, so it is religious,” Eliza said.  Instantly, she was suspicious again.    

“No I told you, I just want to eat the cheese like this.”

The girl was starting to turn red.  Eliza felt a stab of annoyance and pity.  “So what do you believe in?  I’m not trying to pick on you. I’m just trying to be friendly.”  The girl just stared at her and Eliza felt her pity evaporate.  “What do you believe in?” she asked again.

“I don’t know,” she said. 

“How could you be part of the religion and not know?  You must have some kind of beliefs like in Christianity.  Do you know what Christianity is?” Eliza said, saying the word slowly for her benefit.

“I know what that is,” the girl said.  She started to cry. 

 “Oh look at that,” Eliza said.  “I didn’t mean to make her…it cry,” she said to Cindy.  “Oh my God, is it a boy or a girl?”  She looked at Cindy, and held her hand in front of her face.  “I just insulted him by calling him a girl.”

“No, don’t worry, it’s a girl.  I’m pretty sure I heard the teacher say so.  Ask for its name,” Cindy instructed.  “We’ll be able to tell by the name.”

“What’s your name?” Eliza asked. 

The girl mumbled something unpronounceable into her hand. 

“You’re going to have to speak louder honey, I can’t hear you.”

She said the name again, but it was so foreign sounding that Eliza couldn’t remember it. 

“Say it again I still didn’t get it,” Eliza said.

“Never mind,” Cindy hissed.  “We still can’t tell if she’s a boy or a girl with that foreign name.”

“I’m just going to ask her.  I’m sorry to have to ask, but are you a girl?”

The child rolled its eyes.  “I’m a girl!” she practically shouted.

“Okay, sorry, my mistake.  We’re just trying to learn about other cultures.  I’m very open minded.  This is instructive for me.  I hope you don’t mind.  Okay, let’s get back to what you believe in.  What are the basic ideas in your religion?  Just give me a quick summary.”

The girl shrugged, staring at her string cheese.  “I know my religion. It’s just hard to explain.”

“Let’s just leave her alone,” Cindy whispered. 

“I’m not trying to be mean.  Do you think I’m being mean?” Eliza asked the girl.

“Everyone asks me the same questions.  Every day, all the time.  I’m scared to go outside,” the girl said.

“Because of the questions?” Eliza said. 

“No,” the girl said.

“Then why?” Eliza said.

The girl turned her attention back to the string cheese and started picking again.  She shook her head, but didn’t speak.  Eliza realized that for the second time that day she had been manipulated by a bratty kid.

“She’s been playing games with us this whole time,” Eliza said.  She felt her anger and shame at her own ignorance bubble over.  “I don’t know if you’re sick or religious, but you shouldn’t be here.  Eat your food and go outside to play.  Maybe if you hung around some American kids you’d learn how to be a little normal.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Night Terrors Part I

Trace slid back into consciousness and was aware of pain.  Like a knife in his back, radiating out to the rest of his body.  His mouth tasted like blood.  He moved his head, but the pain was so bad that he lay still for a time.  The sound of his own breath scared him.  And there was another sound too, like the dripping of a faucet, except thicker.  His jeans were slick with his blood.  The light from the streetlamp shone on the denim fabric. 

He rested with his forehead on the steering wheel, eyes open, watching the blood trickle over his jeans.

He raised his head again, slower this time.  The lonely country road was deserted.  He thought about the cell phone he kept in his pocket.  Retrieving it seemed like a monumental task.  If he could get the cell phone out, he could call for help.  But what for?  This was his fault.  Seeing him covered in blood would only excite the killer instinct inside them.    

He knew they’d be happy to see him like this.  Bleeding and broken, whimpering like a run over dog. 

He didn’t have the strength to reach into his pocket, but he wanted to so badly that he thought it was in his hands.  But then he opened his eyes and he was in the same position as before.  Drool gathered in his mouth.  He knew he was about to vomit.  When it came it sprayed out forcefully, and he began to mewl like the cat his brothers had set on fire when they were kids.  He tried to reach for his cell phone again, but he still couldn’t get himself to move. 

“Hello?  Can you hear me?”

There was a woman tapping on the window.  Trace stared at her.  She looked worried for some reason.  Trace tried to talk, but his words came out as a slurred mess. 

She pulled at the door, but it had been crushed. 

He watched her put her fists in front of her mouth.  She turned away and scurried up the side of the road.  Distant headlights outlined her figure.  He saw her turn away from the light, with her cell phone pressed to her ear.  She was gesticulating wildly, and behind her the headlights were growing brighter. 

When the truck finally arrived, her back was still turned.  He watched her body explode.  Blood spattered the windshield and the top half of her body landed forcefully on the hood of his car. 

Smoke began to fill the interior of the car.  Dimly, Trace saw a man standing in the place where the unfortunate Samaritan had stood.  Flames began to lick the dashboard, coming closer to him. 

Trace screamed as terror unlike anything he’d ever known overcame him.  He clawed at the windows, making hand prints on the soot that clouded him.  The burning smoke made him gag and cough, but he could still feel the flames charring his skin.  He smelled his own flesh roasting.  In his panic, he broke the small bones in his hands in his desperate attempt to escape.    

Eventually, he stopped struggling and submitted to the pain.  When they opened the car to remove the remains, there was a moment of silence as they saw the charred body, curled in on itself.  Then the older patrolman recovered himself first.

“Look at that.  This one crashes, and this lady gets herself killed trying to save him.  No good deed goes unpunished,” he joked. 

The newer cop went into the bushes and vomited.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Ancient Werewolf: Wolves and Wolves who Walk on Two Legs

In the dark of the night, the moon casts a light that seems to freeze the camp. A man adds wood to the fire as he watches the herd of horses, cattle, and sheep. Every whinny or bleat makes his head shoot up as cold sweat makes him shiver. He has reason to fear, because as he well knows, werewolves and wolves are watching. They are hungry. They wait, as they have for thousands of years. They wait for the slightest lapse in attention. His dog puts its great head between its paws and sighs. The man thinks about it. His myths tell him that long, long ago, before the creation, the good spirit, Ahura Mazda dwelled in the land of light. The evil, stinking spirit Angra Mainyu dwelled in darkness. One day he spied Ahura Mazda’s light. He wanted it. He wanted it not to enjoy, but to destroy. Ahura Mazda, being wise, asked his evil enemy, the devil Angra Mainyu, to come and rule in the light, with him.

Of course, the devil refused, saying that he would take all, and lay waste to it, for he only desires what is unprofitable.

Wanting to limit the destruction by the Evil One, Ahura Mazda began to create the world. He created time so that his battle with Angra Mainyu would be limited. Now, Ahura Mazda had the power to create matter, but the Evil Spirit did not. Ahura Mazda decided to share the matter with him, for had he not, the creations of the Evil Spirit would have been non-corporeal. They could attack without humans seeing them.

As the good God Ahura Mazda began to create beings, the unimaginative Evil Spirit created the evil counterpart to each of his creations. When Ahura Mazda created the dog, who is to help humankind, the wicked Angra Mainyu created the wolf and the werewolf. As the good dog watches over his flocks day and night, so do the wolves watch, but like the Evil Spirit, they seek only to lay waste to anything they see.

The man shivered again, and then went stiff when the long, eerie howl rent the air.

I have written on ancient Indo-European myth, and here we see how the ancient Iranians conceived of evil entities. They actually believed in werewolves, awful demons who crept outside their camps, ever watchful for the opportunity to tear a human or animal to shreds.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Indo-European Folklore and Myth

Zeus, who was quite loose, and Indra, who was equally promiscuous, were two early Aryan gods; the former from Greek myth, and the latter from Vedic myth. The early Aryans (a linguistic term) were the source of gods and goddesses, myths and tales from many of the areas where these nomadic people settled. They carried these myths with them in languages that came to be known as Indo-European after 18th century linguists such as Sir William Jones, studying Sanskrit in India, realized that most of the European, many of the Indian languages, and some Middle Eastern languages were closely related. Not only were the languages related, but these cultures shared many myths as well.

These myths speak of war loving people, whose gods mirrored their lust for life and the pleasures that came with it. Their myths still inform our lives as we see the themes occurring in stories we enjoy today. The myth of the lost prince who grows up in poor circumstances, but rises again to his position is one of these. I use this in the Fire Chronicles.

As a scholar of languages and folklore, I seek to reclaim myths for people to enjoy. The academic endeavor is often sadly selfish. Scholars write to impress each other with little regard for what services they can provide for the general public. As a graduate student, I came to realize that my insights would be seen only by a few. I understood that academic writing was largely a game where people tried to outdo each other in their complex and sometimes meaningless jargon. I respect scholars like Wendy Doniger, who writes in such a way as to reach a wider audience. While making devilishly ingenious arguments, she also manages to bring the world of scholarship to life for all. This, I believe, is the duty of a true scholar. I wrote my latest academic book with this in mind, but I also feel that these stories can come alive in fiction. The storytellers of yore did just this. In my coming series, The Sorcerer Chronicles, I make use of many Indo-European myth themes.

I believe you might enjoy the story of how Indra, the king of the gods, is cursed to have genitalia sprout all over his body. Well, I don’t tell his story exactly, but I do use parts of it!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My Favorite Demons and Monsters, Part 1

I draw from world mythology to create demons and monsters in my stories. Zohak is such a demon. His myth begins deep in antiquity in the tales of the early Iranians. When we look at these myths, we have to be aware that there are many variants, and that a myth develops in time.

Zohak is the villain in the Fire Chronicles (Son of Fire, Trial by Fire, Burned Dreams, and Banner of Fire), as well as the Fire Demon Chronicles (not yet published.) His story is one pieced together from the Indo-European dragon mythology. Azhi means a dragon or dragon snake in Old Iranian. The dragon was often depicted as hoarding water in mountains, causing drought.

Azhidahaka (Dahaka is a shortening of his name, and Zohak is a later spelling) is a three-headed dragon in Iranian myth. I use Dahaka as the name for Zohak’s wizard father). This dragon tries to steal away the Royal xwarnah, (in later Persian Farr).

Azhi Dahaka’s myth tells about how he ruled after the first king, Yima (Jamshid). He rules for 1,000 years, during which time he experiments with breeding half human, half demon creatures, and works sorcery of all sorts.

He is finally chained in Mount Damavand until the end of the cycle, when he will break out and terrorize the world, eating a full third of humans and animals in existence.

In the Fire Chronicles, I combine these motifs. Dahaka, the evil wizard brother of the Firestarter Anacharsis, wants glory and kingship, but he doesn’t have the power to overcome his brother. He steals Anacharsis’ love, Queen Cunaxa the Pure, and produces a son, Zohak. Anacharsis later has a son by Cunaxa, Atar, who is destined to be the next Firestarter and king of the Seven Kingdoms. Throughout the books, a giant boar with golden hooves and tusks follows Atar, whose name means fire. This boar represents the royal Farr, or power of kingship granted by the gods, in Persian myth.

Zohak covets power and longs to gain the throne, but finally, he does so only by selling his soul, unwittingly, to the demons. In one Persian myth, Zohak is an Arab who has as a mentor the Devil Iblis. Zohak starts out as a good son, but he has an evil seed in his heart. Iblis appears to him as a lovely boy who steals his heart. Zohak is irritated with his father, Merdas, who has a generous heart, and gives too much to the poor. Iblis councils him to kill his father, but Zohak can’t stand the thought of it. Iblis does it for him by digging a hole in a garden path Merdas takes in the predawn hours to pray in his garden. When the poor man falls in, evil Iblis buries him alive.

Now when Zohak goes to Iran and conquers the region, Iblis appears again in a different guise, as a comely young cook. He corrupts Zohak further. Zohak does not eat animals, for at this time, people were more civil. First Iblis introduces eggs into his diet, then meats of all sorts until Zohak is hopelessly hooked. Zohak is most pleased and offers Iblis a boon. Iblis asks only that he be allowed to kiss Zohak’s bare shoulders.

When he does so, a horrific snake-dragon breaks through each shoulder. They demand the brains of innocent humans as food. So, Zohak goes from being ambitious, to being a monster himself. Eventually, the only way to stop him is to chain him up in a cave in Mount Damavand, where he still lives today, waiting to be released.

The Fire Chronicles follow Zohak as he goes from being a jealous brother to a demi-demon who can’t be killed. He is a tragic figure, because he is tricked by the Devil, but only because he has the seed of evil in his heart.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Banner of Fire--Now Available!!

The Banner of Fire (Back Cover)

The Army of the People rises under Atar and Kava, but they are faced with an Imperial army now composed of full and part blooded demons, sorcerers, and wizards. Their only hope is the power contained in the body of Atar, the Firestarter, but he must first find a way to activate it.