(recently edited manuscript by A Word with You Press.)
Good evening, from the Towers that are still standing near Friendship Square in Moscow!
A Word with You Press is ready, willing, and able to proceed with posting our remaining semi-finalists in our contest Once Upon a Time. In honor of our friend Gary Clark, who left us without our permission, I figgered a cowboy metaphor would be an inappropriate way to get back on the bull. And we all know the Cowboy was no stranger to bull and/or inappropriate. We miss you, Gary. Hope you took your reading glasses, and that you are reading by starlight rather than by the fire where Beelzebubles his marshmallows. We have two more entries to post as semi finalists, and then we will have three finalists to choose. I will do my best to speed things up for ya’all (cowboys talk like that).
You will recall, you were challenged to write a prologue to a work in progress as the opening gambit to this contest. Semi-finalists submit chapter one; finalists chapter two.
I should have included a link to the prologues from our other entrants, but I can assure you, not having done so will not impact the judging. But I did take someone’s advice(moi? take advice?–outrageous but true) and here is a link to the prologue that Michaels Dilts submitted, which got him to the next step Once Upon a Time.
And here is the first chapter to
by Michael Dilts
When you are the proprietor of a metaphysical bookstore, there is no such thing as “just another day.” After you unlock the door and put up the OPEN sign, there really is no way to tell what the next nine hours will bring. A seller of “mundane” books might happily stock titles on the art of archery without ever expecting to be asked to slide on a wrist brace and demonstrate the proper draw on a compound bow. Maintaining a selection of French cookbooks does not imply that the clerk behind the counter will be expected to actually whip together a serving of homard en croûte de sel and give out samples. In a metaphysical bookstore, however, you never know whether or not the next customer who walks through the door will need to know if they are tracing a banishing pentagram in the air correctly. Or maybe they will be utterly convinced that their recent spate of bad luck requires a dose of anti-hex oil – which you will of course mix up for them while they wait, won’t you?
Sure, there are the regulars who pop in once a month to pick up the most recent issue of Astrology Gazette, but when you receive a random phone call demanding to know whether or not the planet Mercury is retrograde, you can’t really put it on hold while you consult an ephemeris. It undermines your authority as a metaphysical bookstore proprietor! Fortunately, the status of Mercury is usually obvious if you have been paying attention. It is the planet responsible for transportation and communication, so when there is confusion in those areas – when an employee keeps arriving late for work because of car trouble, or you find yourself having to repeat directions to the bookstore more frequently than usual – it is a good sign that Mercury is moving backward in its orbit relative to Earth. (“No it’s Canfield Road, not Cornfeld Lane – that’s why it’s not showing up on Google Maps!”) Believing in astrology? Not an absolute prerequisite, although it is good to remain open to the possibility that anything might be true. You keep more customers that way.
Of course there is no point in being shy if you are given the opportunity to expound your views on, say, the nature of good and evil. Again, you have an image to maintain and as long as you avoid politics, any topic can be a chance for you to demonstrate your familiarity with occult lore and arcane facts. So when a middle-aged computer programmer who doesn’t want to go back to work at the end of his lunch break continues his pontification along the lines that “there are some beings, some entities, that are just 100% evil,” there is no way you can resist.
First you ask for a definition of exactly what he means by “evil.” The programmer’s name is Ben Cutler, and you know from experience that he thinks of himself as a purely logical and rational thinker. Somehow this doesn’t prevent him from hanging out at a bookstore devoted to areas of inquiry with which most self-proclaimed rationalists would not defile their pristine minds. What is Ben hoping to find here? Maybe someday you will uncover it.
For now, he replies with his usual arrogance. “Evil? Well isn’t that obvious? it’s just like black and white – do we need to define that? Evil entities are bent on harming other entities just for the hell of it. They love causing pain. They enjoy watching other beings suffer. That’s evil.”
You point out that by his definition, an evil being would have to have some amount of empathy – otherwise it would be unaware of the suffering of its victim. As he begins to bluster a reply, the telephone rings and you excuse yourself (not without a tiny sense of relief) to deal with it.
Another of your more demanding customers is on the line. Donna Rollins wants to know if you have a book called White Magick – Theory and Practice in stock. The title is unfamiliar but you take a moment to check the computerized inventory before you inform her of the book’s absence. Why don’t you carry it? Well, there are other authors that you find more reliable… Alyce L. for example. You do have her Fundamentals of Spellcasting on the shelf. No, it doesn’t have “white magick” in the title, but… Well, yes, you will be happy to order the other book for her. You already have her contact information. You will call her as soon as the book arrives.
Now back to Ben, who has been eagerly preparing his response. You preempt him by suggesting that according to his definition a cat would be an essentially evil creature. It torments the mice it catches just to watch them squirm. (You know that this is a bit of a ruse, but you are curious to see where it will go.)
“A cat? Not purely evil, I suppose. Not in the sense I was…”
Since Ben’s hesitation gives you the opening for another preemptive interruption, you demand that he provide a better example of the pure unmitigated evil he is proposing. What entity is really 100% evil? He searches his mind for an example and you provide your own: a virus.
“What do you mean?” He is temporarily speechless. Exactly the response you were hoping for.
You point out that a virus causes unnecessary suffering for its host and contributes nothing in return. If that isn’t evil by his definition, what is?
“But a virus has no… no intelligence. It can’t feel… it can’t enjoy!”
You are determined to press your advantage and now you try to make him admit that intelligence is a prerequisite for evil according to his definition, so that the more intelligent a being has the more capable of evil it must be. Intelligence and evil thus go hand in hand.
“Come on,” he grumbles. “That isn’t what I was trying to…”
The tinkle of a bell triggers a Pavlovian response which takes precedence over your dismissal of Ben’s inchoate protests. Your eyes are drawn automatically to the shop’s front door, where a new customer is making her grand entrance. You take her in instantly – the unnaturally red hair, the unnaturally full bosom, the unnaturally tight skirt and high heels, the unnaturally full lips and blue-tinted eyelids. She has obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make an impression, but behind the oddly unconvincing façade there is an undeniable lack of presence.
Still, she is a (very) warm body carrying a large purse which might contain funds she is prepared to part with to support the image she is trying to project. The conversation with Ben will have to be postponed indefinitely. You have noticed over time that even though he seems to be gainfully employed and is able to transport himself across town in a glittering Harley Davidson FXDL Lowrider, he is remarkably unwilling to leave any of his income behind at the bookshop. Here his munificence is definitely of the verbal rather than the pecuniary variety.
So you give your full attention to the new arrival.
Can you help her find anything? Is there a specific object to her quest for knowledge today?
“Is there some place we could talk?” She glances nervously in Ben’s direction.
Okay, she needs privacy so is this is going to be another free counseling session? You turn to Ben, who is giving you a “wow, this is weird” look. You reply with a shrug – undetectable to the new customer, you hope – and he takes the hint.
“Well I guess I need to get back to work anyway,” he mutters.
You nod gratefully and he heads for the door.
You indicate to your prospective counselee that you are now available, but that you will need to stay at the counter to “keep an eye on things.” She reluctantly acquiesces.
Looking around once more with unassuaged suspicion, she draws a large envelope out of that capacious purse. She wants to show you something.
Now you are having your own bout of suspicion. What is she trying to sell you? Patience, you urge yourself. It is too early to jump to conclusions.
She spreads a series of pictures on the counter between you. They are hand-drawn portraits, carefully shaded in colored pencil.
“Are any of these faces familiar to you?” she asks.
You are not exactly dumbstruck, but are certainly taken a little aback, The faces are weirdly inhuman – long chins and slightly pointed ears, the skin-tone a sickly yellowish green. Why would she expect you to recognize any of these creatures? (Again, not the kind of question an ordinary bookshop proprietor would have to answer.)
Well, you have to say something. You ask if she drew them herself.
“Yes, of course I did! But I’m not looking for an artistic critique here. You really don’t have any idea who they are? What they might be?”
You suggest with measured uncertainty that they don’t exactly look human. It is very possible that they are not from earth. She could check the UFO section in the back. Some of the book have pictures, even photographs. (You are still hoping to extract a sale from this interaction.)
She shakes her head in annoyance. “No, no, they’re not E.T.s. They don’t ride in flying saucers or anything like that. I keep seeing them in my dreams. They show up every night. I get up in the morning and draw them from memory. Are you sure you have no clue who or what they might be?”
You don’t believe in demons, in incubi or succubi, at least you don’t think you do, but that is what comes to mind. You decide to shift to what might be a safer suggestion. Does she think they might be angels?
She nods. Correct answer! Or at least the one she was hoping for.
You mention that there is also a section of books on Angels – she might find some information there. Again she dismisses the utility of such commonplace reference material.
“Have you ever heard the name ‘Ashael?’ One of them told me its name was Ashael.”
It doesn’t ring a bell, you admit. But it definitely sounds like an angelic name. You draw her attention to the “-el” at the end end of the word. It means “god” in the Semitic languages. Has she noticed that most names of well-known angels end that way? Michael? Raphael? Gabriel?
She is silent for a moment too long, so you ask if these angel beings ever say anything else besides “Ashael.” Any other words? Any more extensive communication?
“Yes, they do talk to me. But I don’t understand anything they say. I assume they are using whatever language angels speak.”
You wonder if she would be interested in a book on Channeling. The Channeling section is in the back next to the books on UFOs. She might find some hints on communicating with disembodied entities…
Her cell phone rings. She needs to pick up her daughter. (She has a daughter? Poor child!) She quickly gathers her portraits and is gone.
Ben emerges from his hiding place in one of the aisles. You are startled by his sudden reappearance. You thought he had gone.
“I forgot something,” he explains unconvincingly. “Didn’t you hear the bell when I came back in? I guess you were distracted by something… or by a pair of somethings!”
You give Ben a look that you hope is adequately disapproving.
“So?” he wants to know.
You shrug your shoulders again, this time without inhibition.
Just another day in a metaphysical bookshop…
If you stay in any environment long enough, the law of relativity sets in. What was initially out of the ordinary becomes the expected modus operandi. In a metaphysical bookstore you come to anticipate abnormality, to become inured to the unusual until the lack of weirdness is itself a disturbing departure from the status quo. But even when the truly bizarre becomes a modulation on the background carrier frequency of weirdness, it turns out that it is not always an easy thing to spot the deeply strange at first blush.
You start with high hopes for the red-headed colored pencil artist. Maybe there is something interesting behind her dream drawings. It isn’t every day that a customer presents channeled portraits for your delectation. Since it turns out to be an atypically quite weekend, you even take the time to look up the name “Ashael” and find that the closest match is “Asahel,” the nephew of the biblical King David. There is also a reference to an “Asael” in the Book of Enoch, a strange pseudepigraphic text of which fragments have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but which exists in its entirely only in an Ethiopic translation. Even though the original had been composed in Aramaic and Hebrew in the 3rd Century BC, only the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches recognize it as legitimate scripture.
The artist lady does not return the next day or the next, so you do not have a chance to share any of this information. There are other things to attend to, other concerns, other requests, other expediencies to deal with. You have books to order, love spells to prepare, crystals to cleanse, bills to pay. The odd set of sketches gradually fades from active memory.
More days go by, none of them just another day. Donna Rollins, who has been alerted to its arrival as promised, stops by to pick up her copy of White Magick. As usual, she struts form aisle to aisle, scanning the shelves with undisguised rapacity. Your hopes are aroused. You anticipate that surely she will add more purchases to the single book she has come to collect, but in the end she approaches the counter empty-handed and demands her special order.
“Are you sure it has only white magick in it?” she inquires as you scan the newly added bar-code.
You assure her by pointing out that it says so in the title.
“So you haven’t actually read it yourself?”
You remind her that it is not an item you normally stock and you were confident that she would not appreciate it if you had paged through her personal copy.
“You didn’t order a second copy?”
Your insistence that you decided to wait upon her opinion of the book before adding it to standard inventory seems to simultaneously annoy and appease her. She snatches up her purchase and departs.
Ben eventually returns as well, thankfully avoiding the topic of the red-head and her physical endowments but now ready, willing and able to continue exploration of the nature of good and evil.
“Adolph Hitler!” he announces.
You remember enough of your previous conversation to deduce that he has finally come up with his example of pure evil. But he can’t be serious, can he? You point out that this tired old cliché is far beneath him. Hitler? He is so “last millennium.” Haven’t there been more recent paragons of sin? Osama bin Laden? Saddam Hussein?
“Bin Laden only killed what? Two or three thousand people in the Twin Towers?” he objects. “Hitler exterminated six million Jews and caused sixty million other deaths and untold misery during World War II!”
You ask him if Hitler worked alone or had the assistance of the German people along with, say, the Italians and Japanese. Surely there was enough evil to go around. Harry Truman, for example, gave the order to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How many innocent civilians died as a result of that single decision?
“But if it wasn’t for Hitler,” he insists, “there wouldn’t have been a war in the first place!”
Again, is he serious about that? He doesn’t think the framers of the Treaty of Versailles bear any responsibility after they weighted Germany down with impossible reparations? Or how about the greedy bankers who drove the world into a global Depression in 1929? Did Hitler emerge fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ head? Wasn’t he a product of his environment – a frustrated anti-Semitic artist who ended up in the wrong place at the right time? The wrong place for most of the world, that is.
Ben snorts. “How far back are you going to take this?” he asks. “All the way to back to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge? Adam and Eve weren’t to blame, right? They were just trapped in a flawed environment!”
You decide to play along with the Biblical metaphor. Why stop with Adam and Eve? The serpent who tempted them was designed and implemented by the creator. So if there is anyone to blame for a bug in the software, isn’t it the programmer? Ben should know this better than anyone.
He laughs. “Evil as a programming error. I like it. But come on, do you seriously believe that no one needs to take responsibility for their actions? I mean, what if someone came in and held you up at gunpoint and robbed the store? Whose fault is it? Yours for providing the temptation?”
You give him a mockingly wary look. Is that what this is all about? He is planning a heist and wants to know if you will hold him personally responsible?
Ben is not amused. “Just think about it for a minute,” he insists. “If someone – not me, but someone – did that to you, how could you not take something like that personally?”
You admit that you might be disappointed in whoever it might be.
“Disappointed?” he echoes incredulously. “That’s all? Just ‘disappointed?’”
You insist that, as a programmer, he should know that there are always many solutions to a given problem. You’ve loaned money to customers in the past to get them through a tight spot. You would actually be disappointed in yourself for not managing to work out an alternate arrangement with the hypothetical thief.
“How about including me in one of your alternate arrangements?”
This unexpected contribution to the conversation comes from a rich male source emanating from the rear of the store. As you and Ben register your surprise, in Ben’s case surprise tinged with a touch of indignation, and look back along the bookshelves, a tall figure saunters toward the front counter. You quickly explain to Ben that Tuck Williams is one of the psychics who rents the corner space behind the curtains. Tuck comes in every Wednesday to offer “spiritual” readings, counsel and advice, mostly to his coterie of long-term clients. At the moment, apparently, he happens to be unoccupied.
“The man behind the curtain, at your service,” jokes Tuck, who has reached the counter by the time you finish your exposition.
Ben nods uneasily, obviously disturbed to realize that the recent verbal fencing match has had an undeclared witness. The opinions and prejudices he makes a point of expressing make it unlikely that he himself would ever consider engaging the personal services of a psychic of any variety.
You break the awkward silence by suggesting, mostly in jest, that Tuck himself might be a better example of pure evil than any of the candidates mentioned so far. When neither member of your audience seems to appreciate the remark, you abandon any further attempts at failed levity and mention that Tuck was once an engineer himself before giving up on numerically-based reality to focus on things that cannot be reduced to an algorithm.
“It’s not quite as cut and dried as all that,” corrects Tuck. “You should come to my workshop next week. I’ll be teaching right here at the bookshop.”
He holds up a flyer printed on neon green paper. Ben accepts it with reluctance.
“Starts at 7:30 PM,” continues Tuck, completely unfazed by Ben’s lack of interest. “Right after regular business hours. Bring a friend and I’ll let you in at half price!”
Ben mutters some semblance of a “thank you,” then announces his obligation to return to his place of employment and departs with absolute minimal concessions to social amenities.
“So what’s his problem?” asks Tuck as Ben revs up his Harley.
You indicate, as diplomatically as you can, that Ben has a severe ideological allergy to anything even remotely paranormal and then proceed to speculate that he may have been unhappy about Tuck’s blatant eavesdropping.
“Eavesdropping? Well, if that’s what you want to call it. I could hardly help but overhear the two of you braying like donkeys out here!” Tuck waves an arm vaguely at the front window.
You have no response to this feeble attempt at self-exculpation. There are things you need to organize at the front counter, and you ostentatiously transfer your attention to them.
“By the way,” Tuck continues, conveniently ignoring your snub, “I was serious about wanting to be included in one of your alternate arrangements.”
You ask what he is talking about and then remember the premature end of your conversation with Ben.
“Well, perhaps we could, say, renegotiate my rates for the reading room, assuming that you are willing to follow up on the fine principles outlined in your recent verbal manifesto…”
Trying to conceal your shock, you inquire if Tuck is currently short on funds.
“Always,” he replies shamelessly.
You carefully explain that he already has a more advantageous rate than any other psychic, partly because he has been at the store for such a long time. Tuck’s tenure actually predates your own. You “inherited” him when you acquired the store, and as long as Tuck pays his keep, you are reluctant to pitch him out summarily. Reducing his rent, however, would make him barely a profitable asset, and you patiently point this out.
“I do give you free advertising on my radio show,” he reminds you.
You have made a point of tuning in a few times and have thus determined that most of this “advertising” is for Tuck’s own services – psychic readings and the weekly lectures that just happen to take place at the bookstore.
It is as you begin to point this out that the bell on the front door tinkles. You turn quickly enough to see the “alien portrait” lady step inside.
Tuck returns to his corner as quickly and quietly as a spider skittering to the edge of its web to await the imminent prospect of new prey.
You welcome the recent arrival back to the store. With a strange glint in her eye, she places a large cardboard box on the counter. You confess as smoothly as you can manage that you do not exactly remember her name. You are positive that she did not get around to offering this information on her previous visit, but your tenancy at the bookshop has taught you that it usually makes such social interactions proceed more painlessly if you take preemptive responsibility for any possible breech of etiquette.
“Oh, I don’t think I introduced myself last time,” she immediately admits, a little surprised by your frankness. “My birth name was Cindy – Cindy Corbin. But They have told me to use the name ‘Zivya’ for this project.”
You restrain yourself form asking who “They” are and what the “project” is, since “Zivya” seems to be on the verge of revealing it all without the need for any verbal encouragement.
She removes the lid from the box…
An hour and change later, you look up from your task and notice that it is past closing time. As you secure the lock on the front door and flip the OPEN sign to CLOSED, Tuck reemerges form his lair.
“What’s all this?” he asks. “These look like the holy cards the nuns used to pass out in Catholic grammar school.”
Catholic grammar school? Explains a lot. You smile because you had exactly the same impression and then you explain that you have a new business partner. “Ziyva,” A.K.A. Cindy Corbin, has left the cards for you to try to sell. Each of them is printed with a scanned image of one of her colored pencil portraits.
Tuck turns one of the cards over and studies its reverse side.
“What’s this writing? Some kind of prayer?”
You acknowledge your ignorance and share what Ziyva told you – that it was the script of the so-called “angelic” beings who had inspired the portraits.
“Doesn’t look like any script I’ve ever seen,” he observes. “It’s not Enochian or Theban. Doesn’t look Hebrew or Arabic either.”
You are forced to admit to yourself that Tuck’s credibility rating has just increased in your mind, since you have already arrived at the same conclusion.
You explain that you have agreed to carry the cards on consignment. If they don’t move, then you can simply return them, no harm, no foul. If they happen to sell, then you will both benefit.
“Win-win,” he agrees. “How much does she want for them?”
Does he want to buy one? When he is non-committal, you give him the price. $8.88 per card.
You mention that there was no negotiation on that issue. “They” dictated the price.
“Who are ‘They?’” he asks.
You point to the folks in the pictures and ask if any of them look familiar.
He shrugs. “Not exactly.”
You ask if they resemble his own so-called “spirit-guides” but he brushes the question aside.
“Good luck to both of you.” He abruptly returns the card to the display you have been arranging on a newly cleared shelf with easy visibility from the front counter. “Now about those alternate arrangements we were talking about…”
By the time you are both ready to call a truce, you have held your ground on rental fees, but have agreed that you will pay Tuck a percentage on any items his clients purchase in the store. Most of them come only to see Tuck and leave without availing themselves of the store’s panoply of books and gifts. if Tuck were to encourage purchases – just as you would encourage regular customers to patronize Tuck – then you would both benefit. “Win-win,” in Tuck’s words.
After trying once to make his previous case, Tuck reluctantly accepts these terms and then briskly gathers his possessions from the reading room. As you prepare to lock the back door behind him (there is more to do before you get to head for home yourself), you suddenly ask him what he had “gotten” from Ziyva when she came through the door.
“You mean, did I read anything in her aura?” he clarifies.
You agree. Her aura or anything else he could pick up.
He pauses for a moment.
“Nothing,” he finally responds. “It was strange. She was just a blank.”
You charitably suggest that she might be hiding behind some kind of “psychic energy shield.”
“Something like that,” he allows with a sour smile. And then he is gone.
Maybe not just another day in a metaphysical bookshop, you tell yourself.
You turn the key in the lock.