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Stead’s Folly

WT Stead

Socialist reformer W.T. Stead was fascinated by spiritualism and psychic phenomena, so much so that when a medium told him he must not, under any circumstances, travel by sea, he went and booked passage aboard an ocean liner for her maiden voyage.

He died aboard the Titanic, April 15, 1912.

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Lord Krishna’s Mouth

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There is a story told of Lord Krishna. When he was a toddler at Brindavan, he liked to steal butter and cream. He was roundly scorned for this, and his mother told him he should take care never to do it again.

So, the next time the little Lord set about playing at the homes of his young friends, instead of making off with the butter, he grabbed a baby fistful of mud, ramming it into his mouth. His young friends, seeing what the baby had done, were offended, and went to tell his mother, Yashoda.

When he returned home, Lord Krishna’s mother said to him, “You awful, unthinking child! I will teach you never to put filthy mud into your mouth again!”

And she started to enact his punishment. Perhaps she was going to make him suck on a sour lemon, or even a cake of soap. We are not told. Whatever the case, though, when Lord Krishna opened his mouth, his mother was treated to an astounding sight:

She saw hills and valleys, trees and fields, rushing rivers, and vast craggy peaks. She saw mountainous rises and shallow dips, the twinkling, starlit array of diamonds in the black, vaulted firmament of heaven. She saw the planets, each with its own life, and the suns burning brightly in wonder, and the forgotten depths of the ocean floors, and even the raging waters of other worlds.

She, indeed, beheld the universe in the suckling infant’s mouth.

Lord Krishna’s mother fell to weeping, as she realized that Vishnu had come to earth in the form of her son.

(We imagine that, after that, he was treated to all the butter and cream he liked.)

Purchase the “Bhagavad Gita: Large Print Edition” at AMAZON:

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Books, Hardboiled, Rants, short-short, Urban Legends

The Inscrutable Wheel

Kimberly mining camp in South Africa, in 1873, was a rough and tumble collection of shanty shacks, gambling “hells”, dens of iniquity and vice, prostitution, drunkenness; what one would expect, for the most part, from a boom town that had grown up overnight, its development driven by the lust for glittering riches, hidden in the form of diamonds buried beneath the earthen crust.

It was into one of these establishments that a young man entered, possessed of a small sum of money he was eager to multiply. Seeking out the roulette table like a lemming looking for a cliff, he sauntered up, laid down his bets, and began to play. And lose. And go again. And lose again. and, yet, for him, at least, losing only a part of his wealth was not enough.

The gambler’s mania had gripped him, and, soon, he found himself dispossessed of all but a single British pound. (Or, we at least assume it was a British pound. I suppose it could have been a single Rand. We’re unsure of this. Let’s compromise for now and just call the measly currency he proffered a “dollar,” shall we?)

Raymond Chandler has a story called “You Play the Black, and the Red Comes Up.” Raymond Chandler novels were full of desperate men and beautiful, deadly dames, all of whom lived in a world that was, essentially, amoral, predatory, rife with scoundrelism and, just beneath the aching, tired, weather-beaten and undeniably phony façade , was corrupt deep down to the core. Life is ugly, men are predators, and dames is “no damn good.”

Of course, the young man was soon divested of this money, and beating his breast in despair (or, so we assume), dragged his sorry carcass out the door of the so-good den of gambling and vice, much to the cheers and jeers of the other assembled gamblers. It was not long after that a shot rang out in the street.

“Well, I’ll be damned. The sorry bastard has went and done himself in!” someone must have shouted.

(You’ll forgive us the literary license of putting words in the mouth of a fictional bystander. We do it only toward the establishment of a dramatic effect.)

In the dusty, rutted, dirty road lay a bleeding body, the hand still gripping the butt of the pistol, a pool of crimson wetting the earth around the rawboned, grief-addled, but undeniably handsome visage of the dead young miner. A small crowd gathered to circle, like human vultures, and spit forth exclamations, mutterings, and various imprecations to the preservative power of putative saints.

They must have dragged the body off to the morgue. I suppose it was unceremoniously deposited into a cold, lonely, paupers’ grave, to be eternally forgotten, except by the windblown trees.

Soon after, as if in a cosmic chuckle at the ill-starred fate of the so-unfortunate suicided loser, a quite similar young fellow entered a gambling establishment called Dodd’s Canteen. He had only one dollar in his pocket. His name, incidentally, was David Harris.

He sauntered over to the roulette table. Should he lay down his single, hard-earned dollar, risk the only money he had, all and everything, on a simple intuitive feeling?

He finally decided to do so. Mr. Harris left Dodd’s Canteen 1,400 dollars wealthier than when he entered it. In time, he would develop this small sum of money into a vast fortune.

So turns the inscrutable Wheel of Fortune. For one man wealth and happiness; for another rack and ruin. The completely illogical nature of this seems, to us at least, to almost smack of a kind of cosmic sadism; or perhaps, it’s all one big joke, with the final joke always being on you.

Even the Prince catches up with the Pauper, eventually; in the shallow depths of a cold, hard grave.

But, still, one must surely beat his breast, raise his fists to heaven, and damn God for the inscrutable way in which he metes out destiny in the world. C’est la vie!

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A Sprig of Grapes

So here I am sitting in church.

“Wait, didn’t you say you had a dream about God last night?”

Someone to my left asks me this. In point of fact, I had a dream I died. Went through the whole tunnel of light thing. A space-alien voice, like a prerecorded robot female telephone operator says, “And I started moving faster and faster.” And right away, I make that God has everyone on a string, like the Krishnas believe, and when he pulls up…that’s death.

But I don’t tell the guy any of this.

In front of the church, on either side of the altar, the pastor and some other rube is sitting, and I make I should get up out of the pew, and so I go up to them and the pastor smiles at me, great, awesome gape of a grin…
“Hey, don’t you remember your instructions?”

He smiles. Secretly, I hate and fear the man, as his withering contempt is somehow frightening to me. But, it looks like his church has fallen on hard times. The decor is the same, but this business with two tables set up for communion…I don’t understand.

He hands me a sprig of grapes. I suppose this is the untrammeled body of Christ. Or maybe, like the ancient hymn, He is trampling out the vintage.

(“In the lilies of the valley, Christ was born across the sea, with a splendor in his bosom that transfigured you and me…”

I wake up with this in my head. Something about these lyrics…

“As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…”

Our God is marching on. )

I look at them, rather nonplussed. He is sitting in what looks like a lawn chair. It’s all very casual. This is communion?

My grandfather is leaning over the table on the right. I walk up behind him, and he hands over a clear plastic Dixie cup spilling over with wafers. The Body of Christ? I think to myself, disgustedly.

“Don’t you remember your instructions?” His question kept reverberating inside my skull. I had dreamed, the night before, that God had everyone on an invisible cord, like the silver cord spiritualists claim connects the astral body and the physical body to keep them from separating on the earth plane. And when we die? He simply pulls the cord, like pulling the plug.

We go up, up, up…through the tunnel of light. “Faster and faster,” claimed the cyborg-like voice.

Faster and faster.

But, I couldn’t, at any rate, remember whatever it was my instructions were supposed to be.

And I was separated from God.

And maybe we explode like a burning flame, flicker out like a dying star. And maybe we are trampled like the vintage, like the grapes of wrath…

And maybe, and maybe, and maybe so…

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In the Shadow of the Cube

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On our world, the ground is on fire…

Our boy, cognizant of all of this, perhaps even more so than the average individual (who tries with all his will to avoid placing an overemphasis of thought upon the final residence of his mortal spirit or consciousness), thankfully did not commit suicide. (Although he tried, but that is another tale, for another time.)

One day, in the late afternoon, after picking up a Bible and finding scant comfort within its mostly inscrutable pages, he violently closed the leather-bound cover, and slammed his fist into it. Repeatedly. Heatedly. He wanted answers, and none had seemed to be forthcoming for many, many months now.

He lay down upon his bed. He closed his eyes; yet, he felt no exhaustion, and knew he wasn’t asleep. Instead, he found himself…transported. Delivered. Taken to a new and frightening place, and shown strange things he had never before witnessed in his entire life.

It was a dark, primordial world, a place as barren and rough as the landscape of the lunar surface. But it was, unmistakably, Earth, and upon the surface of the planet the boy saw a vision of primitive man–not quite Neanderthal, but much more fully-evolved. Shaggy, clad in furs, carrying rough spears and clubs, they roughly approximated the image one might have of African natives or Kalahari Bushmen. Yet, instead of a steaming jungle, their world seemed to be a vast, ugly, rocky desert with little in the way of vegetation and water.

And, obviously, they were divided into hostile tribes.

Much went on like this in the vision, starting and stopping, showing flashes of scenes that faded into days and finally weeks and maybe years; until, soon, the vision began to shift. A group of the primitives had gathered around a fire in the chill early evening, when, suddenly, the leader, perhaps the tribal chieftain, stood up and leaned against his spear. Above him, a brilliant star began to glow brighter and brighter in the heavens. Soon, he called the attention of the rest of his people.

The glowing object grew to an enormous size; and, to the amazement of the primitive people gathered below, they could see that it was no ordinary comet or other such naturally-occurring aerial object. It was something entirely different from anything they had been exposed to in their entire lives.

It presented itself as a perfect black cube, brilliantly lit with shifting lights, and made from a solid material none of them had ever before had the experience of encountering. The surface was as dark as midnight.

It hovered, miraculously, just above their heads, before settling down into the midst of them, but never quite touching the ground.

The people, who had a rough language of grunts and clicks, began to speak madly amongst themselves, and even the mighty chieftain felt his bold, sturdy legs quiver with fear, as he pointed his spear at it, menacingly.

Suddenly, from the surface of the object, a multiplicity of strange sounds began to erupt: voices, speaking in a number of strange tongues that the people couldn’t possibly have known. They began to grunt and click amongst themselves again, and the cube from space suddenly ceased its bizarre chatter, and began to make noises as if it were calculating and assimilating the unwritten language of the primitives.

In a short time, it was communicating with them effectively.
***
Of course, there was no doubt in the minds of the tribesmen that this was God, or a god,(or at the very least a personage worthy of veneration and worship). First and foremost, however, the Cube from Space acted as a Great Teacher.

And what lessons those primitives soon learned!

From hunter-gatherers to more effective hunters, and from there to planting and irrigation. From primitive, superstitious witch doctoring, to mastering a few basic arts of medicine and survival; from spears to clumsy stone axes, and later to blunt instruments that were rudimentary swords.

The dwellings went from being thatched huts that blew away miserably in a violent storm of dust, to sturdy clay buildings that could house and shelter a family. And families did soon grow. And systems grew from the need for order, and religion grew to chastise the people when they misbehaved–and Law grew from the necessity to punish the wrongdoers. \

A religion was born around the mystery of the Cube, and the Cube did little to protest this itself. After all, it guided evolution along a trajectory that had been programmed for it by one greater than itself, and its understanding of the finer points of ethical direction might have been somewhat lacking. Soon, the Cube found itself put upon a pedestal, offered sacrifices of goats and other livestock (domestication had proceeded at an acceptable, even admirable rate) and its increasingly refined musings were taken by the people as holy writ. And yes, soon, they were even plunking down chicken-scratches in crude stone tablets, and a history was about to be born.

All of this was meet and good, saw the Cube, who felt as if it could rest a bit on its laurels, and could foresee no real reason to worry about the immediate future, as things were proceeding nicely.
***

Of course, the success of one tribe inevitably brought the envy of others, who watched the strange goings-on below them from their perches and aeries in the vast hills and rocky mountains surrounding the now fertile valley below. A contemptuous mixture of envy and fear began to eat at these out-dwelling primitives, and they soon wondered why their own gods had, as of late, been so dismissive of them. After all, they were just barely subsisting on what they could gather, and the pickings as far as animal flesh were slim. Their women did not possess the lustrous comeliness of the better-fed brides below, nor were their own dwellings as sturdy and impregnable as the dwellings of the rival tribe that lived in a valley that had been transformed, in such a short time, into a place lush and wondrous and green.

And of course, they wondered at the strange black stone, the one that looked to be perfectly formed on all sides, with nary a ripple or debasement on its smooth, obsidian surface. They also wondered at the melodious, patient voice that came forth from this “magic boulder,” and they thought, perhaps, the whole thing was possessed, full of monsters or spirits.

Their own god, a badly-chiseled hunk of rock that remained silent, and useless, and aloof, had not blessed them the way that this other god had blessed their neighbors in the valley, and their chieftain began to wonder why. Where they not as worthy as the people below? Had they not served their god, and offered sacrifices to him at each phase of the moon? Were they simply bad, or incorrigible in some way, or less attractive? Were their daughters not comely, too?

The chieftain of the mountain tribe was having none of it, and one day, much to the horror of the tribal elders, he approached the altar of their silent, mocking, useless god, and he pushed the graven image from its pedestal, shattering it upon the rough earth. One man fell dead away in shock, and others declared that he had just cursed himself and his descendants to the fortieth generation–but it was really no great episode, after awhile. Most of the tribe had been tired of serving that particular god, anyway, seeing as how he had never, in his long history, been very kind, generous, or forgiving. No, the god below them, the black god of their enemy tribe (whom they had made war with before, and had always managed to at least best, if not totally eradicate), was a much more propitious fellow altogether, it seemed, and serving him, undoubtedly, was the thing to do, for the good of all.

However, how could they go about getting rid of his chosen children, the hated tribe of the Lower Valley that he seemed to now be so favoring with rich knowledge and miraculous rewards? That was a problem that was going to need some consulting upon, and so the chieftain called a council of his elders together, and included among them one known, generally, as seer of spirits and far-off worlds where gods and immortal beings walked together with the dead.

This particular shaman, who was clad in a cloak of black feathers and who had a long, pale face, no teeth, and a pair of burning, haunted eyes, looked deep within the smoke from the ceremonial fire where, he claimed, he could see the dancing vision of the future in the leaping tongues of flame. It was one of war, he claimed, a black spirit, the Spirit of the Ages, had told him that they must prepare to do battle with the people below, and then they would find favor with the strange black god that had come from the sky, as he would then deem them worthy to be His children, and would favor them and curse his former charges as weaklings and cowards.

Of course, the chieftain and the elders knew that such an all-out offensive was not going to be an easy task. For one, the people in the valley below were better fed, better prepared and sheltered, and had fashioned for themselves superior weaponry, weaponry that was going to be difficult to match with clumsy spears and ignorant clubs.

No matter, said the Old Wise Seer. It was how the spirits said it must be, and so thus it must transpire. They should prepare, he said, with hundreds of men and women, recruited from the caves and cul-de-sacs of the hillsides and mountain ranges, and arm them with spears, and most importantly, torches. For, they would burn the crops in the fertile valley, and kill the domesticated beasts, and lay waste to they infant farmland that had sprung up in the shadow of the Cube.

And so it was they began to prepare for the first Great war mankind would ever know.
***
The Cube itself was not completely ignorant of the preceding events, since it monitored activity around it with super-sensitive accuracy and realized that something was brewing in the primitive lands just above. It was a few days of panic when the people, emerging from their stone huts one day, found that the Great Throne of the Cube was vacant, and that their God had, seemingly, vanished without a trace.

There was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and quite a lot of blood flowed from sacrificed animals, in an attempt to call the benevolent, presumed divine being back to his adored place of veneration.

Some may have committed suicide out of sheer grief. However, they shouldn’t have been over-worried about the strange absence, for it was not long before the blessed Cube did return to them, and stated, quite plainly, that they were in danger from enemies that lived in the high mountains above.

The Cube itself, not being a physical being in any sense that can ever be imagined, was quite powerless to do anything to stop the coming conflagration. Or, at least it must have been contrary to its personal ethics or programming to do anything, or interfere,. A frightening display of its aerial prowess, and a few trumpet-like blasts of its thunderous voice, might have gone a long way toward calming the warlike passions of the enemy tribe.

It, of course, attempted nothing of the sort, but instead prepared the tribal people of the valley to face the coming onslaught. It taught them some finer arts of physical defense, encouraged them to sharpen their flint knives, prepare their stone axes, prepare thousands of torches, fashion bows and advanced spear tips, and generally did as much as possible to arm and ready a still primitive people for a battle the likes of which had never before been enacted upon the face of the world.

And why did such a mysterious, advanced being go to this alarming length, you might ask? Well, one possibility might be the far-reaching scope of the personal vision of whoever (or whatever) sent the Cube to begin with. We recently had occasion to glance at an article that suggested that all of man’s great evolutionary leaps could be attributed to his willingness, not to live in peace, but to fester in a state of almost-permanent war. Truly , mankind has lived awash in a mighty ocean of blood and grue all the days of his existence on this revolving orb in the middle of space, and much of his technology and learning has, indeed, been a direct or indirect result of his striving toward better, faster, and more efficient methods of killing his fellow man in fierce and determined, (and often pointless) struggles.

C’est la Vie!

Of course, their preparations alone would make for an entire new book, and the resultant innovations in killing developed during this short period of preparation by the tribesman of the lower valley were considerable and would fascinate archaeologists or historians who happened upon this particular period (if this particular period actually existed in the way in which the boy‘s vision revealed).

We have already demanded much of the reader, having taken him from the creeping hallways and somber farm fields of haunted Indiana to a place in the ancient past, back beyond the mists of recorded history, and we can be sympathetic at the possible stretching of credulity demanded of You, Dear Reader, and we do not mean to test your patience. Not in the least.

When the attack finally came, it was a slaughter the likes of which would sicken the most battle-hardened veteran of modern military conflicts. Men fell by spear and axe, heads were shattered by stones fired from slings, warriors were run through with sharpened stakes, and burned alive where they stood. Women and children fell prey to the shattering club, and volleys of arrows, for the first time in history, flew through the air like deadly, skinny insects, laying waste to waves of battling tribesmen, who ran down from the hills to die, and retreat, and come down in fury, in a berserkers’ rage of vengeance, once more.

The sandy earth grew sodden with blood, but the worst were the whirlwinds of flame, as crops and building and structures newly erected were torched by the enemy force. Likewise, the strongholds of the tribe from the hills were soon overrun and invaded by the people from the valley, who burned their homes and hovels and huts, and pillaged what little they had, in hatred and revenge.

Suddenly, the future chronicle of the human race was born in a torrent of blood and fire and pain, and the Cube, who was monitoring and recording all of this for later evaluation, remained, curiously, silent and aloof through it all. The vision, as far as the boy could see, began to fade, and pull back, until he realized he was staring at a series of moving images projected on an unfurled scroll. Holding the scroll, in long, skeletal, brown fingers, was the image of a being that was clearly not of this earth. The skin looked like wet clay, the head was enormous, while the arms and chest and neck were bony and thin. The mouth was a bare slit, and the nose a slight indentation.

The skinny fingers held a series of scrolls. These images, these peculiar visions of a past that could be verified by no historian, played out upon the face of the scroll. Then, when a particular scene was finished, the scroll blew away into the darkness in which the being seemed to be standing. The scrolls would then burst into flame.

There were many such scrolls, and the being seemed to speak in a voice that was rapid and mechanical, yet strangely smooth and comforting. The boy must have tossed and turned in the “sleep” of his strange vision, as future scenes that he would not even later remember were played out in front of his mind’s eye.

One scene that did stick out starkly in his consciousness was an alien, burning world, and a picture of forests of trees ablaze.

On our world, the ground is on fire. But there are still trees.

He didn’t understand what the being meant by that, but, like all the others, the scroll blew from the skinny tips of the being’s fingers, and burst into a ball of flame.

Then, the final scroll, this time, floating in the darkness only momentarily before the boy emerged from his vision. This scroll bore a strange symbol upon it, like a hand with an eye in the center of the palm.

Suddenly, the boy emerged upward from unconsciousness, still feeling the heavy magnitude of what he had just experienced. He reeled from bed and went outside, into the cool stillness of the night.

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