Friday, March 31, 2017

The Coffee Potion

You may or may not know this, but coffee shops are dangerous places. Because of the strength of caffeine in espresso, it is the perfect vector for magical potions. Many coffee shops are run by sorcerers and fairies willing to sell these potions and slip them into drinks. They do a roaring trade in love potions.

As it so happened, one young woman was blithely unaware of this fact and she agreed to go out for coffee with a man she didn't much like, but he had cajoled and wheedled until she finally gave in and said yes, one coffee. The coffee shop was run by an evil, or at least amoral, sorcerer who agreed to put a love potion into her drink. He did exactly this and the woman fell in love with the man she didn't much like.

Except she didn't. She wondered why she was in this relationship, except that it seemed an okay thing to do at the time. After all, it meant she was in a relationship, which was preferable to being single, and she was getting laid and there were no better prospects out there at this moment. And so the relationship continued.

There is a problem with love potions. They never last. And after the initial dating period, most couples don't just go for coffee on a regular basis. In fact, the woman barely drank coffee at all.

But it takes time to wear off. They were in a relationship for 2 years and living together before the final effects of the potion disappeared. Then it felt too late to extract herself. It took another year before she left and was happily single again. It felt as if she'd come up for air for the first time in 3 years. As if she was seeing clearly again. And she wondered why she ever got into the relationship in the first place. If you've ever wondered the same thing about yourself, now you know.

The moral of this story is: Beware of anyone who invites you to coffee.

Friday, March 24, 2017

How the Moon Came to Be

Once, long ago, there was no moon in the sky.  Only stars.  Of course this happened long before there were dinosaurs or fishes or plants, so no one knows this but me. And now you.

There was no moon and only stars.  Among the stars was the tiniest of tiny stars.  It was so tiny that if you were to look up at it, you would barely see a twinkle.  Perhaps a little flash and you would wonder, is there a star there.  But you wouldn't be certain.  Then you would move on to looking at the other stars, the bigger ones you could see.

Of course, as always happens to the smallest and weakest beings, the other stars teased the tiny star.  They laughed and made fun of its tiny rays of light and no matter how hard it pushed its little furnaces, the light never got stronger.  Finally the tiny star began to cry and this made the other stars laugh even harder.

The star wanted to die and made a wish, "I wish I were a big star.  Bigger than all the other stars in the universe."

It so happened that the universe heard the star's wish and felt pity on it.  It asked the star, "Alright. What are you going to do about it?"

The star was astounded.  It had never thought that there was anything it could do about it but endure the taunts and torments and suffer being little.  But the universe whispered a secret.  This secret, as we now know it, is called gravity, but gravity worked a little different back then.  You had to decide to be heavy before you could be so.  The little star decided, and heavier it got.  And the more heavy it got the more things got pulled into its orbit, and then into itself.

First there were its planets and comets and asteroids.  Then great clouds of hydrogen came barreling in.  Dark matter and light matter and all kinds of matter fell into the little star's orbit and then boom, was sucked into the star itself.  And the star grew bigger.  It sucked in asteroids by the millions and planets by the thousands.  It sucked in entire nebulae.  And it grew bigger and bigger, until it was the size of the moon.

And then the star stopped.  It was the brightest and biggest thing in the sky and that was enough.  It had no need to continue now that it had its wish.  This was very wise of the star.  But along with wisdom, the star also had vengeance in its heart.  Honestly, who could blame it.  Haven't we all wished to bring torment on the ones who tormented us?

So the star began to laugh at those who had once laughed at it.  And it purposely shone so bright that the light of all the other stars could not be seen at all.  It shown and shown and shown and never stopped shining until it was competing with the sun herself for brightest in the sky.

This could not be allowed.  And the universe came to the star again and said so.  It told the star it was very proud of all the star had become.  But that perhaps it might like to be a little more subdued and allow others to shine as well.  The star got angry at this and told the universe it had no right to push itself on the star.  The star had made itself with no help from the universe and it would do what it wanted.

The universe laughed at this, because the universe is very wise and does not get angry easily.  It told the star, "And who made the things that helped you grow big, if not me?"

But the star, high on its own brightness and hubris, did not care.  "I did the work. Me! No one else. You can't pretend I took anything from you."

The universe was still smiling. "I'm not pretending," it said.

Finally in a fit of beligerance the star said to the universe, "What are you going to do about it?" Meaning that it didn't think the universe could threaten it.  Silly star. Just like that the universe blinked and the star was back to its old self again.  Small and hard to see.

And that was how the universe left things for awhile.  The star, realizing its mistake, cried and cried.  And the other stars, were worse to it than ever.  This could not be allowed either.  The universe felt it had to do something.  It gave the little star back all its size and brightness, but only for awhile each month.  Every month it becomes the biggest and brightest in the night sky and then retreats down to its little form.  One way to shine as bright as it can and the other to remember how truly little one can be.

The star is now called the moon and we say it waxes and wanes.  But it is really a wise little star who has been ridiculed and ridiculed in turn and learned when to shine and when to wane.  And no star makes fun of another anymore.  The little star doesn't allow that shit.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Lab Pet

About a third of our feces, by weight, is bacteria or about 100,000,000,000 organisms by gram.  They help digest our food, absorb vitamins, and they take up space in the body that might otherwise be open to dangerous pathogens.  Eschericha coli is so common to our bodies that it was once ignored as a possible cause for disease.

Of the hundreds of strains, only a few harm us, and really it isn't their fault.  They are just sitting in our intestines, going about their business the same as all the other E. coli only they produce a toxin.  Even then, most of the toxin produced isn't deadly.  There might be some cramping, some nasty diarrhea, but nothing a little over the counter medicine and a couple of days won't cure.

But then there is E. coli O157:H7.  It can cause the colon to bleed and the kidneys to fail, though honestly it isn't pernicious at all.  Most people infected will just suffer the usual E. coli symptoms.  Some will see a little blood.  Only five or ten out of a hundred will seriously suffer and only one will be likely to die.  It doesn't deserve its nasty reputation in news reports.  Besides, it is our own fault there are outbreaks.  It spreads through our own making from our factory farms and centralized food production.

Mostly E. coli lives a quiet life in our guts, happily helping us, content to live out their lives without our ever noticing them until they die or are flushed down our toilets.   It is a friendly little thing.  The bacteria most microbiology students culture first.  It grows well, fast, easily, and only wants a little food once in awhile.  The bacterial version of the houseplant you can't kill.  It's round colonies rice up from the agar plates like smelly smiley faces.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Peaches-- Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

The constable was neither a cruel man, nor a smart man, nor a dishonest man.  The judge was also neither cruel, nor smart, nor dishonest.  They were simply men, as many men in this world, working away at what they must work at and doing what they could for their families, their friends, and themselves.  Within reason.  There may be some sliding of rules here and there, but no true breaches of duty or crimes committed.  They were, for the most part, good men.  It was as good men they walked up to the door and knocked.  It was as good men that they explained the charges of seduction and sorcery to her father, and it was as good men that they kept her father from beating her too much in his rage.  They led the now bloody girl away from the door of her family and they couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for this young thing, hurt and frightened and crying beside them.  Did she seduce the duke?  Did she bewitch him and then curse him?  If someone as great as the Duke said so, then it must be so, even if she did look like a harmless little thing.  But perhaps not.  They were fair men and responsible to their duties.  They would interrogate and test her to be certain.

The girl broke easily, with barely a touch of the tools and the fire.  She confessed to every misdeed and a few more misdeeds no one had known of until then, and the constable and the judge were amazed that such wickedness could have sprung up from their own town.  They were good men.  They hated the wicked and to protect their own homes, their families, their friends, the judgement was passed and the girl would burn.

The good people of the town were horrified at the evil that had been among them.  Every girl who had been her friend now denied ever liking her and every boy who had ever admired her now believed himself the victim of a spell.  Even the words of the men who had cut down the trees and the women who had eaten the peaches were not enough to save her and only created scorn and slander and hatred for themselves.  One woman woke to find her chickens beheaded on her stoop and one man was pelted with eggs by children, because no one likes those who defend the evil.  Those voices must be stopped.

The day of the burning came and all the town came to see the temptress get her justice.  Her mother wept, but her father glared at her with all the hatred in his eyes, because he had to, because the rest of his family was now vulnerable and he must be strong and hate his daughter in order to protect them, his wife and the other children.  He glared, and if the hatred was only in his eyes and not rooted in his heart, who, if they knew, would blame him?  Except the duke.  Except the town.  Because anyone who did not hate evil must also be evil.  So her father hated his daughter and no more ill came to the family.  Her sisters married well and her brothers grew old tending the peach trees, though stories still cling to the family like ragged flesh left on a peach pit of the temptress in their lineage.

All were in the town square, gathered around the wood pile and the stake.  The duke was there, gaunt and haggard.  To survive he had learned to eat rotten fruit, to chew through sickly sweet and maggots and worms and to swallow, though each meal made him ill.  In the castle the cook was fired and everyone now ate gruel since there was no need for fine dinners that the duke could not taste.

The constable led the shaking and dirty girl to the stake.  He had to carry her the last of the way.  Pronouncements were made and she was asked if she had any last words.  And though all she could do was whimper, in her mind she recalled the words she had said when she had planted the peaches, “These are the fruits of my labor, may all the little peaches see, that I can still be happy and they cannot trample me.”  It seemed a silly thing for her to think of then, when she was not happy and quite trampled, but then it was a silly thing when she had said then, when she was neither happy nor untrampled.  It was her one way of defiance, even if only she knew of it.

There was a suitable pause for the girl to speak, but she only sobbed, and so the constable lowered his torch to the wood.  First there was smoke as the wood heated, and then there was the crackle of newly born flame among the pyre.

Then something odd happened.  A stick lit on fire.  It had been on of the sticks from the peach trees, cut down and dismembered by the men and the villagers.  Out of the new flame jumped a child, and then another, and another, and another, and another.  Five little children with cheeks as pink as peaches and tummies fat and round.  They danced and clapped and sang:

Oh our father is the duke,
as anyone can see
Our mother she sells peaches
that grow off of a tree.
Our father met our mother
and though he did not know her name,
He led her behind the peaches cart
and plucked her just the same.
Now take up harp and timbrel,
Now take up flute and lute,
and hear how our father
Tasted his own fruits.
Oh, they were soft and sour
Oh, they were sick and sweet
Now he sits in his tower
and cannot eat his meat.
Our mother she was taken
and given all the blame,
Tortured and forgotten
and put to fire and flame.
But we are smart young peaches
and we know our mother’s name
We stole her from the burning pyre
and gave the town her shame.

The children ran off giggling and skipping.  Some of the town’s children ran after them as did some of the adults, but none were able to catch them and no one knew where they went.  It was a large crowd, as burnings tend to attract, and some of the people saw the children, some only caught glimpses, some heard the song and others smelt the burning of the peach wood.  Some saw and heard nothing at all, distracted by gossip and intense discussions of their neighbor’s noisy goose and the virtues of their new cart.  They looked up at the reaction of the crowd and someone near them told them what had happened.  They were sorry and angry they missed the excitement, and when they told their children and grandchildren of that day, they always said they’d seen it all.

Slowly, one by one, the townsfolk stopped looking after the running children and turned back to the pyre, expecting at any second now for the screaming to start and the smell of meat and hair.  But there was only the crackle and pop of sap and only the smell of ash and wood.  The stake was empty and, but for that stabbing into the sky, the fire could have been any simple bonfire, such as the ones they built for spring and fall and midsummer.

The girl was gone.  Some saw this as proof of her sorcery and were angry.  Others were disappointed at the lack of spectacle.  Some, including her father who had smelled the burning of the peach wood, were relieved.  (We do not know what her mother felt.)  And a few, a very few, knew that the gift given was not just the rescue of the girl, but the rescue of the town.  These villagers collected the ashes of the pyre to keep in special places, on mantles and curio shelves.  These people and their families were known to be humble and kind, even to those others would condemn.  They found the good in all who meet them, and told the stories that have been passed down, imperfect as they are.

But what happened to the girl?  How did she get away?  Did she find a happy place to heal where no one was trampled or plucked or forgotten?  Did she come back to town and serve retribution on the Duke and the townsfolk for what they had done?  Did she ever have a purpose beyond being the victim in this story?

Of course she did.  But no one thought to ask until it was too late and she was gone.  It took a decade or more before someone even thought of it.  The ones who tell the stories like to dream she had a happy life—sometimes with the animals and creature of the woods, sometimes living with the fairies and enjoying their revels.  Sometimes they dream she found another town, one better than their own.  Some people have a shrine to her and say she is a goddess of women and fruit, and perhaps this one is the most true of all. Others try to forget the story exists, or are cynical and tired of hearing it.  Many don’t believe it really happened.

You may be disappointed in this story because all the wrongs are not righted and all the heroes do not win.  The Duke was never punished by the people nor did Peaches return triumphant and vindicated for all to see.  But this is not a story of fairness or rightness or justice.  Some peaches are dry and some are juicy, according to their own will, even as we pluck them and complain that one is dry and delight that one is juicy.  This story is not for you.  This story is for the peaches.  This story is not a fruit.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Peaches-- Part 2

Part 1

The men heard this rhyme and understood and each vowed that he would leave the kingdom before he ever again bowed to the duke.  They left the trees as they had fallen, whole and green, unwilling to take part in dismemberment of those perfect trees.  They picked up their bundles, and walked away towards home and the villagers instead came along and chopped the trees into sticks to burn in their stoves.

The men gave the peaches away, to mothers and daughters and sisters and lovers.  To their wives and the wives of friends.  They left none for themselves, but to a man gave away all the peaches.  Only one ever had a bite, when his wife, smiling and with juice running down her chin held it out for him to share, and with that taste he saw her dreams and wishes and hopes and desires, the essence of her and thought, “Why, she’s just like me?”  It was a surprise, and one he never forgot.  Years later their love would be legend, as a tale of romance and requitement, of long standing joy and respect, and of adventure as they crossed many hardships to be together after the wars came.  They are their own story.

But even the men who did not taste the peaches were forever changed.  You would know their names if I told you, because they are famous and their successes are often told.  One travelled with the Princess Henrietta when she led the raid and slew the monsters in the caverns.  She knighted him for his bravery and boldness in battle and gave him her dagger, which has been passed down to the first born of his descendents for these hundreds of years and now resides with his great-great-great-great-great grandson, who will soon give it to his firstborn, a daughter.  Another is the poet who wrote of buttercups and water lilies and whose poems of love and loss you recite to yourself whenever your heart is broken.  A third became a judge known for being fair.  In his time, no witches were burned.  A fourth became a doctor,  who was known to be as safe and adept as a midwife at birthing babies.

The women who ate the peaches, you know of them too.  Princess Henrietta was one.  Juliana the Just was another.  Maxine the builder whose bridges still stand, and of course, Pauline the painter whose frescoes are the pride of the nation.  Others did not become famous or renowned, but all led cheerful and lucky lives into their old age, matriarchs, whose families who truly mourned them when they died.  They were the peach girls, and their smallest deeds are still felt in each and every breath in this city.

But at that time this was still a town, surrounded by farm land and orchards.  The men went their ways and told no one of the children and the rhyme.

That evening the duke sat down to dinner, racks of lamb and roasted potatoes and raspberry tart for dessert.  He lifted his spoon over the first course, a leek and cream soup that was the specialty of the cook, dipped it into his bowl, brought it to his mouth, and then gagged.  He spit and out came a bite of rotten peach with a white worm ducking out of the light and back into its hole.  He raged and demanded to know what the meaning of it was.  But no one knew.  The cook begged his sir’s pardon, but he had put no peaches into the evening dinner.  None at all.

The duke, not very mollified, but hungry enough to go on with his dinner, cut himself a piece of lamb, brown and red with blood puddling beneath the meat.  He brought a bite to his mouth, smelling the char and the spices.  Then he gagged on rotten peach.  This time he did not call for the cook, nor yell at the staff.  He knew it was that temptress who sold fruit at the side of the road.  The one who had seduced him, lowering her head and curtseying day after day as he passed.  She looked demure to all, but he knew better, she was a sorceress and a seductress and she had reeled him in to curse him.

The duke threw his napkin down and left the table, with servants and family members trailing behind him in shock and fear for what he might do if they caught his glance now, in an angry mood.  He called for his man again but his man did not come.  He had left with the workers at the trees, and though he had too much pride to remove his shirt as the men had, he still carried peaches in his pockets and never saw the duke again.  The duke had to find someone else to give orders to, but this was easily done.  He gave orders to find the girl and arrest her for being a temptress and a witch.

What of Peaches, the girl who sold fruit and planted the trees?  Where was she in all of this?  What was she thinking and how was she healing after having been used and discarded?  No one knows.  Like her name, there is no record of her thoughts or doings or if she ate peas and drank punch.  Her story is forgotten, if anyone ever knew it in the first place.  No one asked or wondered.  She has served her purpose and now the only concern is how justice gets served and for that this girl with no name need hardly be there at all.  We shall assume that she washed herself as soon as she could, tried to not wake anyone up as she cried at night, and kept silent.  If she thought or did anything more than curtsey as the duke rode by on those days, we do not know it.  She has her purpose in the story, just as she had her purpose for the duke.  So we’ll leave her to her silence and punch and peas, not knowing that the duke had called for her arrest, the judge has been routed from his dinner table and the constable is coming with chains and iron.

Part 3