magine a castle. The kind your parents saw in squeaky spring cinemas that could only play one film at a time. The kind of castle Christopher Lee could brood around in. Imagine barbicans and battlements, towers and turrets, bodies swaying in gibbets. That kind of castle. Not a friendly place. Why are you here, so early in the morning?
As if in answer, the drawbridge lowers. Down comes powdered rust like snow. Someone must have gone in the back to open it. Graffiti has been splashed across the two wooden doors, made illegible with time. The doors yawn darkly inward. You think about turning around. Any sane person would. But a distant sound draws you forward. The jolly lilt of a flute.
Imagine ceilings too high for any ladder, windows only a giraffe could reach. You feel small and insignificant, as you always do, only more so. And there in the middle of the floor: a mountain. Not a mountain, a boot.
You circumnavigate the toe. Imagine the herd of cows that would need slaughtering, the hide stretching and drying and tanning and stitching, to make a boot of this size. Imagine the foot that slips inside it, causing earthquakes with each step. Imagine the ankle, the calf, the knee and up, way up, to the head like a small planet looking down at you. A hand closing around you, bringing you closer to an abyss of teeth like whitened tombstones. Flesh and bone ground to a fine red paste.
Imagine all that.
But instead all you find is a half circle of three chairs pulled up in front of a fireplace, the fire long since cold. A man, with his back to you, rocking. Just a man, not a giant. White hair, sagging skin. Rocking, rocking. Of his own accord or just the slow dying force of a pendulum, it’s impossible to tell. A wood recorder lies on the floor next to the chair. Imagine the song you could play with that. Sweet, sad. Friendly.
eep in the miserable ruins outside Caledon, three figures in purple robes gather around a fire. The wood, like them, is rotten and gives little light and less warmth. A bird pirouettes on a spit, green feathers piled nearby. They are all cold and lacking in animation.
One of them has a beard, one wears a helmet and one is a woman. Other than that, they are indistinguishable. They speak with one voice. They’ve long since given up on money, glory and power. World domination. Now they just have the simple dream of the downtrodden: that tomorrow will be a little better, bring a little more than yesterday. Just enough to scratch some kind of lasting imprint on the world. Leave something behind them when they go.
The man in the helmet claims to be invincible, and so have they all felt once. But their robes are frayed, the deep plum fading to mulberry. The bird won’t feed them all, but it will keep them going. The end might never come.
But even now, from the trees there’s a toot-toot-twee! The piping of some mad flautist. The pattering of hooves. Someone shrieks in a high pitched voice: Suffering psyche! I found them, I found them!
Soon he’ll be there, barely clothed. Down from the mountain with hades to pay. He’ll let them smack him around for a while. Allow them this fleeting taste of victory, before snatching it away. Then on with the ring and the crash of lightning.
He’ll grab a handful of purple robes and drag one of them off, back up the mountain. Screaming. The other two will wait their turn. They’ll eat the bird. The whole thing will take less than five minutes.
e limps between the tombstones, the few not crumbling or knocked over by teens. He isn’t as tall as he used to be. That’s what age does to you. Curves the spine, rounds the joints, shaves off inches and memory. Makes you somebody else.
He keeps to himself these days. The dwarves organized on him, started insisting on being called Little People and demanded new robes. Cotton instead of the burlap he’d been buying in bulk. Too itchy, they said. So he just stopped making minions altogether. He’d let the spheres rust, too. He couldn’t afford to fix the humidifier to keep the old place dry. Mausoleums cost a fortune to heat.
He’s taken to snowbirding. At the first sign of frost, he’s off to the red dimension. He doesn’t come back until the asphalt shimmers. He has to take tests every year to keep the hearse on the road. The fat man from the DMV always sweating all over the leather, he’s almost happy when they come to blow it up now, so he can get a new one. And come they will. They always find him, eventually. There were only so many funeral homes, tombs and graveyards he could hide in these days.
Back inside, he lays the brochures out on his desk. Maybe he could get a part-time job at the hardware store in town. Just enough to put a down payment on a condominium, in one of these seniors' places. Retirement home. It has a nice ring to it.
But first, there’s sod to lay, floors to polish, brains to obtain. There’s never enough time.
Today is quiet, sure. But tomorrow, or next week, one day soon they’ll come roaring up in that Barracuda, tearing up his grass. The boy and the ice cream man. Going on thirty years, but they just won’t give up. The irony doesn’t escape him. He’s short and the boy’s old enough to start collecting a pension.
They’ll make a mess of the place. Whooping and hollering and firing off that four-barreled shotgun. He’s so tired of dying, he just wants to rest.
ook—the moon. A small bowl brimming with cream. Listen—can you hear it? A piano, the keys softly walked. Stars rippling across the sky in time. Pull back. A sleeping, steepled town. Further. The street winding empty like it seldom does these days. Further. The buildings huddle close, the trees closer still. A handful of lights behind shuttered windows, like glowworms in cocoons.
Listen—a viola slides in, easing us…off…to…sleep.
But look—up there. Over the hedge. The high window of the nearest rowhouse. Push back the branch of the gnarled chestnut. That dappled glow. But before you can reach it, the light snaps off. The music hushes.
Get a little closer. Closer still, hands and nose pressed coldly to windowpane. A captain’s bed. Sheets drawn tight like a death shroud over the sleeping form. Breath gusting through the empty chambers of his body.
Let him sleep.
But he’s just been pretending. Waiting for the wadded comfort of night to settle over us like cotton batting. A plumed head emerges from under the bed. A sheepdog, a torch clamped firmly in its mouth. The boy slides from the bed, taking the torch. Offering received.
They pause, like this, in anticipation. The music hangs. The arms of some great scale sway drunkenly above us.
The torch winks on.
A splash of light, a circle on carpet. It glitters, like the barely remembered stars from long ago, outside. A portal. It seems to beckon. One step and we’ll be falling, straight through the floor, sliding helter skelter round and round, down and down, exploding into a world of colour and light. Old friends, new adventures.
But listen—there’s no music. Just a siren in the distance. And look—in the harsh glow of the flashlight, you see it’s not a sheepdog. Just a mutt. Not a boy, a man, bent with age and disappointment. They’ve been looking for intruders. Not adventure. This is a bad neighbourhood, after all. They play the light of the torch across the wall. Shadows like slow monsters. Duck—before you’re seen. Back over the hedge, out of the light. Up and down the streets, fumbling for something, someone you might recognize.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.