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The Panther and the Lash, by Langston Hughes

The Panther and the Lash

What It’s About

A collection of Langston Hughes’ most politically outspoken poems, published in 1967.

Why I Think You’d Like It

When it comes to poetry, I think we often expect a puzzle. Most poems, by way of symbolic language and artful structure, partially conceal their subject. In doing so, they make you hunt for it, and so when you finally realize what they are saying, it hits you all the more powerfully. Langston Hughes does almost the opposite. He takes what we all witness and understand, but shroud in euphemism and distancing language, and he strips it bare. He takes topics that we would dance gingerly up to, and subtracts the dance. He plunges us straight into truth, and then looks at us with arms crossed and eyebrow raised, not even having to say, “what? don’t tell me you’re surprised. I know, deep down, you aren’t really.”

There are classics who should be read because of their place in history, and there are classics that should be read because they are damn good. Langston Hughes is both. He is smart and wry. His poems pound like feet slapping the pavement. His words move. He was one of our first Black poets, and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance whose voice long outlasted its heydey. His voice revolutionized American poetry.

Consider this review a recommendation of any of his works, but I do especially like The Panther and the Lash. It is Hughes at his most raw, fierce and angry, and in my opinion, that also makes it him at his best.

Content Warnings

Swearing, slurs, references to violent periods.


Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, by Kali Nicole Gross

Hannah Mary Tabbs

What It’s About

The discovery of a headless, limbless corpse in 1887 Philadelphia sparks the arrest of two Black suspects, one a light skinned man and the other a dark skinned woman. Colorism, gender, stereotypes and politics all come into play as both fight for survival in a system rigged against them.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s a brilliant blend of true crime with history and sociology. The dissections of culture, identity and power dynamics are smart and fascinating, as well as extremely relevant to today. It breaks apart the myth of the post-war North as a racially integrated paradise and exposes the long history of racial bias in law enforcement. At the same time, the academia never gets in the way of the pace of the story. Kali Nicole Gross is a great writer, and this book, despite being meaty, will not take long to finish. I kept it on hand at all times and took every opportunity to read it, even if just a page at a time.

Hannah Mary Tabbs as a fascinating historical figure. She does things that most of us would consider unsavory, but considering the ways society was stacked against her, it is hard not to root for her regardless. I first learned about this book from the authors interview on Stuff You Missed in History Class, and she said one of her goals was to show that Black women did not have to be flawless champions of justice to be noteworthy or interesting. She definitely achieved that goal.

I also thought the author did a fantastic job drawing the line between evidence and speculation. I do love history with a narrative flair, but I can’t stand it when authors let that be license to state things that can’t possibly be known as fact. At the same time, I know too much hedging can result in dry prose. It’s a tricky balance to find, but this book absolutely found it.

In short, if you’re a fan of either gruesome crime or American history, this book will have something for you. If you like both, this book was made for you.

Content Warnings

Well, it explores a grisly murder and the impacts of racism on early criminal justice in America. So… there’s that.

Nothing beyond what you’d expect though. If you weren’t put off by the title, you probably won’t be put off by the content.

This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Literary
  • Plot Summary
    • Rose Wallace spends the summer at her family’s favorite beach, while her parents struggle to get over a year of tragedy. 
  • Character Empathy
    • I love how Jillian Tamaki draws the expressions. They are incredibly subtle, especially for a graphic novel. If most comics characters are dancers in a Broadway musical, this is that underrated actor who communicates an entire mood with one twitching jaw muscle. The effect is immersive and effective.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The story is a strange mixture of sweet and suspenseful. Rose and her friend Windy are on the brink of growing up, but aren’t quite ready to yet. They want to enjoy one more summer of childhood, yet events around them keep threatening to shatter their innocence. As they peek in, then pull away, you’re simultaneously curious at what they’ve missed, and relieved that they have avoided it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This is one of those rare books that perfectly captured what it was like to be a kid in the summer. I think it’s the things the girls did that seemed almost boring; lounging on the couch, picking up pebbles, digging massive holes, debating whether to go swimming or rent a movie or pick up ice cream without really caring. Part of the fun of summer is that nothing you do is too important, so you just do whatever you feel like. Often that something is nothing at all.
    • I loved the way the characters were drawn. I saw bodies that you see every day in real life, but almost never in art or fiction. I especially liked Windy’s squashy pear shape. I don’t know why; I think she reminded me of a friend I once had.
  • Content Warnings
    • Not really applicable; most of the adult content is hinted at, rather than depicted outright.
  • Quotes

God, man, just look at the pictures in this one.

Summer 4Summer 1Summer 3Summer 2

Black Victorians, Black Victoriana, Edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Black Victorians Black Victoriana

  • Genre
    • History, Black History, European History, Essays
  • Summary
    • Black history, as it’s taught in America, consists of a brief overview of slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and the life of George Washington Carver. In other Western countries, the situation is apparently not much better; historians have been trained to think of white history as history and anything else as an obscure specialization. There are, thankfully, efforts to change that, and this book focuses on a particularly neglected period; the lives and rights of Black people living in England during the Victorian era. 
  • Information
    • I got this book a few years ago because I wanted to know how to write non-white people in a Victorian inspired setting. And by Victorian inspired setting I mean steampunk. I was expecting a comprehensive picture, but instead it’s a collection of academic essays on different aspects of Black Victoriana. It was less of a picture, more of a collection of puzzle pieces, which in a way was more interesting. It’s intent was to open a conversation, by pointing out interesting and neglected facets, and leaving the reader still curious to learn more. 
    • These articles touch on genealogy, famous individuals, immigrants, families, portrayal of Africans in Victorian culture and the efforts Black Victorians took to reclaim their image. Every one of these articles taught me something fascinating and new, and several gave me character ideas. I’d definitely recommend this both to writers and history nerds.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Obviously it varies by author, and it should be noted these people are mostly academics first and writers second. While some of them were stiff, they were straightforward and relatively easy to get through; nothing painfully bogged down in jargon or made artificially complicated. The prose is plain, but the content more than makes up on it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • An entire essay on the fabulously fascinating life of Pablo Fanque, who owned one of the most successful and famous circuses of his era. Yes, that’s one of the ones that gave me a story idea. 
    • The story of Ida B. Wells’ trip to Britain and how she continued her fight for racial justice there. 
    • Absolutely beautiful photos and illustrations of Black people in Victorian garb.
    • The article on the Pan-African Conference of 1900 is required reading if you are into anti-imperialist and decolonizing movements.
    • This is a fabulous starting point, not only because of the subject matter within, but because it draws from so many authors and references so many other books. It’s an introduction with a built-in reading list for your continued research.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good.
  • Quotes
    • From the editor’s intro; “For more than thirty years a gap has existed in the scholarship of black Britain, one that leaped from the thousands of black inhabitants of eighteenth century Britain to the two migrations of black people into Britain during World War I and directly following World War II… One of the purposes of this book is to dispel that silence by carefully combing the records to locate black Victorians and to put them back into the national picture, both in the ways they were represented in popular culture and as actual people who lived, worked, traveled, lectured, performed, and struggled in Victorian England.”

RIP, Carrie Fisher

There’s something about this that is hitting me extra hard. Not even because I was an especially rabid fan of hers. I just… liked her. With idolization comes a sense that the epic tale must come to an end, that all heroes must one day go to Valhalla. People you like aren’t supposed to die though. They’re just supposed to keep existing, forever, periodically turning up to make this moment of your life extra happy. I liked Carrie Fisher, because she was talented and funny. Because she brought Princess Leia to life and when I was a pre-transition kid it was really great to see a woman in an action movie who DID things. Because by all accounts, in her real life, she was a genuinely sweet and lovely person.

And it’s also sad because, this year, she’s not just a person who died, she’s another person who died. In a way, I feel like her death, so tragic and so close to the end of this year, comes with the echoes of everyone else we lost who I couldn’t quite mourn, because something else was happening. Leonard Cohen died, and even though he was one of my favorite singers of all time, I couldn’t process it, because my nation had just accidentally elected a sociopathic imbecile on a fucking technicality. I mean, Jesus. Pterry and Leonard and now Carrie.

We keep talking about 2016 as this kind of cursed year, and there’s a strange comfort to that; curses are, at least, under someone’s control. Not a good person’s control, but somebody’s. If someone is to blame than someone can be stopped. If it’s just random bad shit, who knows when it’s going to end. We’d all been counting our costs and gearing up to mourn together in a way that suggested things were finally blowing over, and now Carrie.

This isn’t how it’s going to be forever. For all the cold comfort materialism and statistics sometimes seem to bring, the truth is that they still say this will end. Wild bell curves still regress to a mean. Things die and are born and grow and die again. There are winters and summers and springs.

Still, if by any chance I’m wrong about this whole materialistic skeptical godless thing, then I’m really fucking positive Carrie Fisher went straight to the good place.

Thanks for being you. It was really cool to have you while you were here.


An Open Letter to Mattea: Love and Truth and the Survivor’s Bias

Hello again Mattea,

As promised, here’s a full post’s worth of a response to your comment on my Screwtape Letters review. Sorry for the delay; I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the political situation. In my post I took apart Lewis’ explanation of why sex outside of marriage is condemned, and I noted that I’ve never heard another good reason for why sex is bad, or bad outside of that specific context. You gave your explanation, and it makes sense from your perspective, but it doesn’t really contain anything that’s convincing to somebody who doesn’t already believe in, not only Jesus, but your specific interpretation of Jesus, love, and purity.

Hopefully you can see that yourself, and I don’t have to spell out why; if you’d like a fuller explanation let me know in the comments. That doesn’t really bother me because you also said you won’t tell somebody else how to live their life. As I said in that chapter, if you have made a person decision to remain a virgin until marriage, based on your understanding of your own religion, I have no problem whatsoever with that. I don’t think you’re a loser or missing out, as you seemed to think I might. Props to you for living life your own way; my only issue is with people who let their religion dictate somebody else’s sex life. Since that’s not you, we have no problem.

The part I really want to respond to starts here.

“But as a Christian, I have a deep desire to see the lives around me experience the same joy and love and peace that I have in Jesus.”

You were homeschooled, I was homeschooled, you mentioned you’re twenty-one and you have been a Christian your whole life (or at least you’ve been Christian 21 years and you are a college student, correct me if I jumped to the wrong conclusion there). I can relate to that. I was only a little younger than you when I left the faith. So much of what you said resonated with my memories of how I used to think, and particularly with my ideas of what the world outside was like. Because my access to that world was very limited, I had a lot of misconceptions about life from somebody else’s perspective.

You were willing to be very personal about your experiences and perspectives, so what I really want to do isn’t argue, so much as share what life has been like for me, growing up the way you did and then seeing another side.

For example, you said, “whenever I hear people’s stories about how they left the church, they [didn’t] believe God exists, or [they] ‘fell away.'” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the survivor’s bias. The classic example is WWII planes, where they tried to determine structural weaknesses in bombers by analyzing the bullet holes in aircraft that returned from missions. But however much they reinforced those areas, the number of planes shot down never changed, until they realized their mistake. They were looking at the bullet holes in the planes that survived. This gave them no information about why planes fell down.

In the church, you hear conversion stories, or stories about falling away and returning to the fold. Ministers and evangelists often assume these stories are typical of people’s experiences in the secular world, but they aren’t representative at all. And, for the record, atheist activists also make this mistake. They hear stories of former believers who had traumatic, toxic experiences, and assume that is representative of all believers. Again, it’s not that simple. This is why I don’t proselytize anymore. I want everyone in the world to be happy, loved and fulfilled; I don’t presume the journey there will look the same for everyone.

So here’s my deconversion story, which I share not to convince you to leave Christianity, but just so you’ll know something of the data that you aren’t being exposed to.

My faith was built on three things. First was a model of how the world worked. It was extremely self-referential, but it still had its own internal logic. Everything held up, but every piece was dependent on every other piece. Second was a community of people who all lived according to the same framework. Third was a handful of experiences that seemed to confirm a few of those pieces, and, by extension, the entire framework.

Yes, I too had experiences that, at one point, I thought made my beliefs unassailable.  There was a time when I was walking to an acting class, and I felt extremely anxious. I prayed, and felt a presence standing beside me. There was a time when I was confirmed, and I felt like I was about to step out of my body and soar. I thought this must be the Holy Spirit alighting on me. There were many times when I spoke in tongues during church services, and there were times when someone came and delivered a message to me from God.

So, if I had experiences like this, why would I ever doubt? Well, for one thing, I learned about how people from other religions, ones I considered absolutely false or even inspired by demons, had similar experiences. I read scientific explanations for them; states of self-hypnosis, group mentalities, cold reading, altered consciousness inspired by social pressure, etc. Learning this was positively creepy, because once I knew it, I had three choices.

Number one; I could believe that, of all the religions and denominations out there, one was divine and the rest were inspired by Satan, who was mimicking God’s work. This was comforting as long as I assumed I was in the right one, but the more I thought about the mathematics of that, the more terrifying this idea was. After all, the false, Satan-inspired religions outnumbered the one true faith, and most people blindly follow whatever religion they were raised in. Statistically, what were the real odds that I had happened to be born into the one true religion? If I assumed Satan could mimic God, I could never be sure I was following good and not evil.

Number two; believe that God existed, but was not the exclusively Protestant Christian God I had been raised with. He was in, if not all religions, than most of them, and if you got some details about his life wrong he wouldn’t hold it against you, so long as your heart was in the right place. This seemed sensible, comforting, and deeply blasphemous. If I chose to believe this, I could never admit it to the Christians around me. They were the sort of people who genuinely believed Catholics and Mormons were going to hell; to propose that God might speak through Islam or Hinduism or even Wiccan was as good as abandoning our religion altogether.

Number three; believe the materialistic scientists were right. All of this was a consequence of a brain that was easily deceived by social pressure and my own expectations.

As I read more about the way these feelings of mine could be simulated by stage magicians and fake psychics, the last seemed more and more likely. Also, I noticed disturbing patterns in the way all my churches talked about evidence for the supernatural. If a story was hard to confirm, it was by far more compelling and fantastic than any that I could confirm. People had stories of a friend of a friend of a friend who was healed of cancer, or prayed a man back to live. But nobody I knew was ever healed. Oh, but that was fine! God and mysterious ways and plans and all that. Meanwhile, I had the evidence of the divinely inspired outbursts people had in church; prophecies and messages from God and speaking in tongues. Of course, a stranger walking in might say that these people were just improvising and believing they were inspired by God because of social pressure…

It was all right to have evidence for God, but nobody was allowed to talk about evidence against. If evidence lined up, it was repeated and celebrated. If it didn’t, it was dismissed on any excuse at all. This was problematic, because in my own personal life, I felt like God was letting me down.

Take that anxiety attack outside the acting class, for example. It was far from the worst I ever experienced. There were jobs I had to quit, events I had to miss, and days I spent unable to stop crying. Once I had an anxiety attack so bad I couldn’t move. I don’t remember how long, because I couldn’t even turn my head to look at a clock. I just lay on a couch, feeling like I was encased in a cement mold, crying in terror. None of those resulted in a comforting presence.

The explanation most consistent with Christianity was that God had sent me aid when I needed it but also gave me opportunities to grow on my own. But the truth is, I didn’t really need that acting class. I wanted it, but it didn’t change my life or create lasting friendships. The opportunities I missed because of anxiety attacks were more important than the one where God “saved” me.

Besides, what I really needed wasn’t a sense of an angel. I had a mental health problem, and I needed to see a doctor. I couldn’t drive because of my anxiety, and my parents were willfully blind to my condition. When I told my parents about the paralyzing attack, they said it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. They were obsessed with healthy diets, and that was their go-to explanation for any anxiety attack of mine. But I knew for a fact that I had eaten enough that day. I had been keeping track, and diet wasn’t helping. The experience taught me that my mind and my body could betray me, and my parents would not take it seriously. If God was there when I needed him most, why didn’t he tell my parents to take me to a doctor?

The explanation a scientist would give for all that, on the other hand, was that the anxiety outside the acting class was relatively mild because the circumstances weren’t overly triggering, and my disorder was less severe at that point. Because it was mild, I could fight it by envisioning a comforting image, which, because of my religious upbringing, I gave spiritual significance. Later, as my mental health deteriorated, I lost the ability to comfort myself. This makes more sense to me.

As I said, three things upheld my belief; models, experience and community. By now you have some understanding of how the experiences that once seemed ironclad evidence became flimsy excuses. Research also meant that I could see how other people understood the world differently. I could see other models that people had, and how in many ways they explained the world better than mine. What remained was community, and that scared me. Because the truth was, my place in the community was entirely dependent on my faith. I could not exist among my old friends and family as an unbeliever, as a person with an adjusted model.

Remember how I described that model? How circular and self-referential it was, and how it stood on its own but moving or removing a single piece would send the whole thing crashing down? I envied those with other models, because they were malleable. They could be shifted around, repainted, parts replaced, replacement parts replaced again, and the whole thing still stood. They could learn that a certain part didn’t work, and make it into something better. I loved truth. I was afraid of going to hell if I happened to be wrong. So I decided to let my beliefs fall apart, and see if I could build up something better.

This was not when I lost my faith. This was when I remained in the church, but debated people, questioned my ideas, and tried to reform myself. It was also when I made new friends, and it was then that I discovered something. I had been miserable all along.

This is another statement of yours that got me.

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ – Philippians 3:8

I’m only “preaching” to you because I want you to have what I have. He really is everything.

I remember feeling that way. I remember believing that nothing in my life was good except the love of Christ, and I’m not even talking about my anxiety disorder. I’m talking about something I had been raised with since birth; the understanding the only thing of any worth was the love of Jesus Christ. In prayer and worship I meditated on this and believed. In those moments of worship I felt an overwhelming love that I lived on.

That love was like candy. It was an intense, blissful sensation that produced energetic highs, and then let me crash down. It did not build me up into a strong, resilient person, because to believe myself worthy of God’s love I had to degrade myself as sinful (the irony of that worldview; I was filth, and only by acknowledging it wholeheartedly could I allow myself to feel the high of a God who loved me despite my worthlessness). My soul, for lack of a better word, was emaciated, an anorexic surviving on tic-tacs and glue. When I left the church for the company of unbelievers, the love they offered me was not the empty, worldly thing that had been described to me. It was a rough, flawed love, not an idealized one, but it had the nourishing qualities of crusty bread, crunchy apples and thick stew. The ideas and love I was encountering were soup and bread and apples and milk. Being seen as the weird, curious, queer boy I was, and loved for it, put meat back on my bones.

After years of questioning, I realized that atheism made more sense to me than any of the religions out there. It was a pragmatic decision. I am perfectly comfortable sharing the world with people who have religious beliefs. I am also comfortable with the idea that I might one day encounter new evidence that might change my mind. In the meantime, I am growing, I am learning, and I am loved.

And that’s what I, in turn, want for you. I don’t care whether you find it in Christianity or Buddhism or some other religion or abandoning religion altogether. If you have it now, I am happy to hear it. If you don’t, don’t be afraid to go looking for it.


Lane William Brown

Rereading Harry Potter as an Ex-Christian

As many of you know, I grew up in one of those fundy households that thought Harry Potter would steal my soul, or something like that. As a result, I didn’t read it until my late teens/early twenties, and that was a very rushed reading; ploughing my way through the first three books while my parents were on vacation, then waiting years before I could even get my hands on the next one. I thought I would take the time now to read it more leisurely, and share my thoughts. Now, there’s been so much said that I didn’t think a full review could add much. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to pause and add my thoughts at the end of each book. This post has been several months in the making, so I hope you enjoy!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher/Sorcerer’s Stone

I would have really enjoyed this book as a kid. I think J.K. Rowling’s approach of letting the books grow up with the readers was very clever. Unfortunately, I do think that makes this a hard series to come to as an adult. I recognize a clear, imaginative yet simple prose style that lets young readers fill in details with their imagination. Coming back to a familiar book in this style as an adult lets you tap into those childhood fantasies, but unfortunately a first time reading as an adult doesn’t have the same effect.

Still, one of the great things about this series is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I look forward to the next six!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Already there’s a subtle increase in the sophistication of the prose style. I enjoy the developing friendships between Harry, Ron and Hermione. This is also the one that introduces Dobby and fleshes out more of Ron’s family, both of whom I love. Now that the world has been set up, the plot with the basilisk and Tom Riddle’s diary can be fleshed out more than I think the mystery of the stone was last time.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t give this one as much attention as I wanted. There’s been this weird squeaking in my walls at night. Grant doesn’t hear anything, so maybe its all in my head. Then again, he’s a much deeper sleeper, so who knows. I can’t figure out what’s causing it, but it has made my sleep… fitful. I wake up without having rested.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

As the darkness of the series rises, I get more and more entranced. Last night I woke up around midnight, and was positive I saw a Dementor standing over my bed. My scream woke Grant up, and the image was gone even before he asked me what was wrong. No doubt I was only half awake, and my own voice brought me fully to consciousness.

Sirius Black is awesome. J.K. Rowling is a sadist for not letting him give Harry a happy home forever.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I am getting acclimated to the lack of sleep. No longer do I yawn and slouch through the day. I do what needs to be done, without thought, and I wait for the night, when insomnia only gives me more time to read Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I apologize for not mentioning the scratchings in the walls since my second summary. No doubt it’s been worrying you. I have not heard them in a long time, and the mystery has now been solved. The Dementor who woke me in the night came again, and this time I did not cry out. I knew it would bring no relief, and in truth I wanted none.

I rose and followed. The walls opened before him, and closed after me. There were tunnels, irregular in the contours of their walls, as though they had been chewed out by rats. I woke up in the morning, but I knew it had not been a dream. He had showed me. He showed me.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I am the half-blood prince. I am blood, and half and I must be whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of its parts are not human. It’s part goat, and part man, and part nothingness. It demands blood. I must give it my blood.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Hail Satan.

Reflections on Posting My Story

For the past few months I have been publishing a novel, Stealing Souls, in installments here on the blog. I had a vision of the book taking a form analogous to a TV show. I would publish weekly or bi-weekly chapters, like episodes, and take season breaks to work on the next installments. Every year I would publish somewhere between 9 and 12 installments, which would complete some subplot, sequence or act, as well as leaving threads open that would spill over to the next season.

I hoped to pick up a following and eventually move the story to its own site. Unfortunately, as I kept an eye on the stats, I didn’t see the chapters gaining much attention. They lag far behind my other posts in both views and likes. Like most writers, I struggle with a lot of anxiety about my own writing, and it didn’t take much for me to get discouraged.

Before I get into that, I would like to post some positives about this whole experience. There genuinely were quite a few.

  • The posting schedule kept me working. If I was frustrated with a chapter, I couldn’t bail on it. I had to tinker with it and make it work, because I had promises to keep. I have found this often; forcing myself to meet a particular deadline spurs productivity and leaves my negative self-talk little space to work in.
  • I did not have time to filter my work through close friends who could tell me whether the story was good or not. This forced me to practice relying more on my own judgment. It’s a skill I’m still working on, and this was good for that.
  • The absence of accolades did, in and of itself, force me to let go of that need for praise to keep going. I had to learn to see the posting itself as an end goal, and any positive attention as a bonus.
  • The tight schedule made me develop new tricks for keeping myself writing, no matter what else was going on in my life.

So, on the whole, it was not a bad experience, disappointments aside. And perhaps the real issue was that my hopes were too high in the first place. I might have expected more attention than was realistic. Right now, though, I can see three possibilities.

Number one; my story is not good. It’s tough for me to say whether that’s the issue or not. While I feel pretty confidant in my judgment of books or movies that other people made, my experience of stories I’m creating is so different, I can’t even compare the two. As I said, I’m working on developing that creator’s self-awareness, but it still seems that for everything I write, I have the same experience. I love some parts of it, I hate others.

Number two; my story is good, but my publishing plan was terrible. Prose just doesn’t work like TV, and putting it into installments like this will never be satisfying enough to sustain a readership. I need to finish the story and publish it all as one piece.

Number three; my plan was good, my story is good, my patience is lacking. I just need time to build up an audience.

What I’ve decided I really need to do is wait for a bit. If you’ve read my story, in part or in whole, please leave your thoughts in the comments. Positive and negative opinions are both welcome, subjective and objective. In the meantime, I’m going to give this project some distance, and, hopefully after I’ve gotten a little more feedback, I’ll decide what to do.

As always, thanks for reading.

Stealing Souls Chapter Nine; Merlin

This is the final chapter of my ongoing novel, before I take a break. Plans on further posting to be announced. See full archives here.

Most of the Metropiads who kept dogs liked to specialize. If they wanted to trade fur to the spinners, they bred long-haired dogs with solid coats. If they wanted to hunt, they bred terriers or greyhounds who could take down an animal on their own (hunting was a loophole around the injunction against killing, but only if the hound did the killing personally). A few took molossers to patrol the edges of the Potomac river that marked Metropiad territory.

Then there were packs like Merlin’s. He was a fixer. When a puppy was proving particularly difficult to train, or a stray had been found by someone who wanted to incorporate it into their pack, its keeper came to him for help. When their dogs were sick or injured, he kept them safe while they healed. His permanent pack consisted of the bad dogs; the useless mutts everyone else needed to discard, the ones too unruly for anyone else to handle and the ones too old to keep up with their own packs.

Despite the bleached, elderly feel of his name, he was a lithe, fresh-faced man. Some Asian ancestors had gifted him with glossy black hair and the ability to pass for twenty even though he was a closer to forty. He was tall, with most of his length in his arms and legs. When he rose from sitting, usually with one knee drawn easily toward his chest or both legs crossed, he seemed to unfold, in a smooth yet complex motion, like an umbrella opening.

He liked people, but spent much of his time alone by choice. His style of loving was an easy, detached one, but no less warm for it. He would treat a dog as his own for as long as he had it, but there would be no hesitation when it was time to give it back. He missed every dog he had surrendered, and greeted them gladly if he ever saw them again, but he knew the farewells were for the best. Besides, their passing made space and time for new troublesome puppies.

Currently, he was sitting on a large rock, fishing with Fifty-Seven. It was forbidden to give dogs human names, so some keepers, like Fifty-Seven’s former master, simply numbered them. Merlin didn’t like this practice, but he also felt guilty any time he renamed a dog. Names should stick once they were given, so Fifty-Seven stayed Fifty-Seven. He was a blind orange and cream bulldog. Ordinarily he stuck close to Merlin, so it was worth taking notice when Fifty-Seven stood up and waddled, as quickly as his cautious feet ever did, into a field of green ferns.

Merlin watched as the dog stopped in the middle, and a little brown hand reached up and patted his snout. A child’s head poked up, just long enough for Merlin to see the big black eyes and leaves stuck in her hair before she popped back down under the leaves.

“Interesting,” Merlin muttered.

He watched the rustling ferns for a moment, then called Fifty-Seven to him. He saw the trail of shaking ferns, signaling the dog’s approach. The dog emerged alone, trotting to Merlin’s arms for a rub on the head. Merlin lay down to see under the broad leaves. The girl had followed the dog partway through the foliage, but had frozen in place before where the shadows of the ferns were interrupted by sunlit dirt path. She crouched, staring back at him; a dark shadow surrounded by the green light that filtered through the foliage. She did not shrink away from his stare, but he could see that didn’t mean she was not afraid. It was paralyzed stillness, with focused, calculating eyes.

His heart stopped, then came to life again, in a rapid pounding. Thudthudthudthudthud. The desire to help her was so strong, it did not even feel generous. It felt like selfishness, because if that hungry, miserable thing disappeared into the underbrush part of him would die.

This feeling, powerful though it was, did not disorient him. He felt it every time someone brought a new dog to him. The only novelty was that he was feeling it for his own kind. He did what he always did; waited quietly until it settled, formed it in to a tight, silent little ball inside of him, and began to strategize.

Merlin rummaged through his rucksack until he found his packet of dried apple rings. He put one on his hand and held it out to her. He remained like that, waiting, but unfortunately his arm began to ache from being outstretched before she budged. The apple was returned to the packet, and he rubbed Fifty-Seven’s head while he thought. One option was to put the packet on the ground and walk away. Surely she would sneak out and steal it. However, as he considered that from her perspective, it seemed unsatisfying. She might not be able to distinguish between a gift he was offering and a forgotten thing she had stolen from him. She would be fed for today, and that would be good, but then she might run away, and that would be worse.

Fifty-Seven rolled over on his side, and Merlin scratched his belly. For a moment he saw her smile. She feared him, but liked his dog. That gave him an idea. He took the strings off the packet, but wrapped the waxed paper around it securely. He put the packet in Fifty-Seven’s mouth and sent it to her. She greeted the dog with happy, tickling fingers and giggled out loud when he dropped the present in front of her. Soon her cheeks were bulging with the fruit.

Casually, Merlin rolled onto his back, laced his hands behind his heads, and watched the pattern of leaves against the sky for a while. After a few moments, he glanced back at the child, smiled at her, then looked back up again. Everything about his body language said, “I see you, but I don’t really care what you’re doing. The sky is much more interesting.”

Fifty-Seven returned and sniffed around his face. Merlin patted his flanks and scratched under his jaw. Another glance back at the ferns, and he failed to find the girl. There was a moment of panic, and he wriggled slowly on his belly to get a closer look without startling her. A few feet and he saw her curled up, breathing softly. A full belly and an adventurous afternoon had made for a sleeping girl. This was good.

Merlin remained in that area, making a campfire as the day went on and calling his dogs back to him. Cloud, alpha of the pack when Merlin was not present, brought them in. He was small, with white tufted fur. He had been the runt from a litter of spinner’s dogs; too small to be of much use to them. The same was true of Sorrel, a lazy, yippy ball of perpetually burr-ridden orange fluff. Winter, a blue eyed merle, had a similar origin. Her body was larger, but her fur was too short and varigated. His two most recent acquisitions were Twigs and Buttercup. Twigs was like a greyhound shrunk to the size of a shoe. His keeper had hoped that if his temperament improved, he would be a good one to chase small, quick creatures like squirrels; Merlin intended to advise him to leave the dog alone. Twigs’ attitude had improved significantly, but his nervousness came from an intuitive understanding that his little bones were fragile, and he did not belong in the world of working dogs. His mutation was a practical dead end, but Merlin would be happy to keep him. Buttercup had been a yellow retriever who had turned skittish after an injury that took one of her ears. She was doing well, and he suspected that she had returned late because she had been running around for the sheer joy of it. He would return her to her keeper soon. Last came Saturday and Sunday, elderly former guardians who had been retired now that their gaits were slow and they slept most of the day. They were brother and sister, and resembled a mix of Great Dane and wolfhound.

Merlin’s plans to fish for dinner, as he usually did, had been disrupted by the little girl’s appearance. This was no worry of his. No doubt many of them had hunted a bit, and he broke into a few jars of preserved scraps for any who were hungry. They knew to wait until he distributed it among old clay bowls, and he praised them for their patience. For himself, there were walnuts and another packet of dried apples.

When he was finished, he looked below the ferns once again. The girl was still asleep. Could he pick her up, carry her to his camp, where there were blankets and a fire to keep her warm?

As soon as he began to crawl into the bed of ferns, she stirred. Her eyes slowly half opened, then snapped open all the way. She rolled onto her stomach and scrambled on all fours deep into the bed. Merlin rose to his feet and tried to chase after her, then stopped himself. His heart pounded and begged him to catch the girl, but experience reminded him that anyone being chased was likely to keep running.

He dropped back down, sat cross-legged, and began picking at the ferns. It was an old trick with skittish puppies. Chasing created fear, which drove humans and animals alike away, but minding one’s own business while doing something odd created curiosity, the best lure for any intelligent creature.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her. She reached the edge of the ferns, and he worried that his change had come too late. If she did not look back until she was deep into the forest, he might lose her completely. Luckily, a few feet into the forest was a young pine tree. She ducked under its branches and began to climb. When she ran out of branches that would support her, she stopped to watched him.

Another standoff. But he couldn’t afford to slowly bring her down this time. The sun was already setting.

While he plucked the ferns, he imagined the world from where she was perched.

The pine needles were pricking her skin from one side, the evening air from the other. The breeze was swaying her, gently like a cradle. He could see that from here. The air smelled cool and quiet and lovely, but there was no safety in it. She clung to the branches and stayed as still as possible to keep her perch. She was small. She needed to sleep, but not enough to come down.

He felt the answer without thinking it. He rose to his feet and returned to his camp, where he retrieved his blanket. It was soft, woven in stripes of black, white, and brown fur. He took it to her pine tree, spread it underneath the branches, and walked away. It would be a cold night, but not too cold, and he would have smelled rain if it was coming. The dogs would keep him warm enough.

With them for company, he watched the sunset, and tried not to watch the tree. When he looked, he looked out of the corner of his eyes. The thick southern branches obscured her, but he felt he could keep track of the right tree. He did not let the fact that she was hard to see tempt him into turning his head. It would be so much easier for her to see him through the needles than vice versa. After a while, when he had not seen her climb down in his glances, he began to doubt his ability to keep track of the correct tree. Maybe he should have been eyeing the tree just behind it. She couldn’t have climbed all the way down without him noticing. Or had she climbed down too stealthfully? Or maybe she had shimmied down while his back was turned, when he was returning to his own camp.

He did not sleep well. Every few hours, he woke up, wondering if the girl was still in her tree, or curled in the blanket, or had run away to some other hiding place where he would never find her. The urge to go check pulled at him, but he resisted. The worst thing he could do now was frighten her again.

Then, when the stars were high in the sky, he turned over and nearly jumped. Right across from him was the little girl, her cheek pressed against Fifty-Seven’s flank. She was so close that even in the moonlight, he could see the individual ringlets of her hair, dark and pussywillow soft. The blanket had been dragged along. It had dried leaves stuck to its surface, especially at the edges, where they clung like a bedraggled fringe. With one fist, she had it clutched under her chin, one corner drawn into a knot while the rest spread over her shoulders and back. Her nose twitched, and she sneezed, opening her eyes briefly. Their eyes met, and she blinked slowly at him. He expected to see her gather the blanket up again and run away, but instead she gave him a nonchalant, lazy look, as if she was seeing his surprise and thinking, “what? Isn’t this what you were hoping for? Silly man.”

Then she tucked her head back down and fell asleep again.

Merlin watched her for a while before returning to sleep himself. Inside the core of his chest, he felt that little knot of caring open up again. It had been latent all day, like a rosebud hiding in his core. Now it spilled out and unfolded, becoming bigger and more complex the more it opened. Like petal upon petal spilling out, each one somehow making space for still more to come out, like there was an abundant supply of love inside himself and each bit of love just made room for more.

Stealing Souls, Chapter Eight: The Odds of Escape

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in March. The story is a work in progress and posting will resume in the fall. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Metropiads were not wasteful. When they had first discovered this vast parking lots abandoned under the city, they had seen treasures of metal, plastic and glass, of pre-made pistons and sockets ready to be scavaged. They had all done their best to protect them from rust, mice and the general forces of entropy. Secured deep underground, they had at least the advantage of stable temperature. Still, entropy would have its way. In Ainsel’s car, the engine had been removed decades ago, leaving a hollow space, and rust had slowly grown a hole between it and the driver’s seat. It only took some aimless plucking of the upholstery to reveal it. The hole was just Ainsel sized. The moment that she exposed it, she gingerly lowered herself past the jagged orange-brown edges, and dropped to the ground.

So far, Ainsel had not done anything unusual.

The Metropiads had done their best to secure the cars, but their inmates had always found ways to escape. An overlooked emergency release button in the trunk might be triggered, or the cord that had once run from the trunk to the button in the driver’s seat might be uncovered and tugged. Those larger and stronger than Ainsel occasionally broke windows. Their captors did not worry too much about these gaps in their security, for a very simple reason. There were more ways out of the cars than out of the garage.

Specifically, there were two real ways out, and one false way.

The false way out was the ramp to the surface, the one that the cars had once driven up. A boy called Abhorsen had gone that way two months ago. One of the handles on his car door had broken off, meaning that the chain locking it closed was useless, and he had wandered out. Abhorsen was not even thinking of escape. He had been locked up in the dark too long to remember that there was an outside to escape to. The Metropiad priests who attended to him believed he was happy, because he did not scream and sometimes, while working with the tiles, he smiled at them. They did not notice all the times he didn’t smile.

Abhorsen’s had wandered through the rows of cars, peeking in at first. Some of the faces he had seen were blank or sleeping, some absorbed in tearing up their surroundings or plucking their hair. But some had seen him, and lunged, slapping their windows, pleading with their eyes to be let out. He not only did not know how to do this, he did not quite understand what they wanted. He was not good at understanding facial expressions. Just because he didn’t understand them, though, did not mean he didn’t feel them. They pinched at his stomach, and drove him to run for the big empty space he saw.

He wandered up the smooth, curving ramp, skipping all the exits to more little prisons, until he came to the top. The Metropiads had discovered the simplest possible means to prevent escape. Their ancestors had a long, slatted descending door of metal, to keep people out when the garage was closed. The Metropiads had lowered it.

While it had no weaknesses that had promised escape, it did have cracks, holes, places that were bent. These let in a golden afternoon light that caught particles of dust and turned them into speck sized fairies. Along the bottom, blades of emerald glass poked through from outside. A coral ladybug had crawled through one opening a moment before Abhorsen’s arrival, and was flying around, trying to remember where the exit was. Abhorsen raised a finger, and the ladybug landed. He stood, transfixed and utterly sated by all the beauty in front of him. He stayed there, silently absorbing the perfection of the insect, until his captors found him and lead him back downstairs.

A week later, his heart stopped beating while he slept. He joined all those who had died of neglect and misery, and took with him the secret, beautiful moment.

So that was the deceptive exit. The first real one was the old gray door that lead to the stairs directly to the sidewalk above. It was next to the ramp, and the last person to take it was a girl named Piala. She was seven and angry. The Metropiads did not pretend that they loved her, like they did Abhorsen. They merely believed that she was a mean little thing, and thus impossible to love. She felt much the same about them.

Her mind was too active for its cage. It was too active for the world outside, and lead her to run around madly at anything that caught her attention. This, combined with an odd habit of staring at her hands and sing-songy speech that was hard to understand, had landed her in the garage at three. It then lead her to make her destruction more focused than Ainsel’s. Her car had avoided developing any structural weaknesses over the last century, but she made up for lost time. She kicked, clawed, tested every inch of the car methodically for weaknesses, until the cobweb scratches on the windows made them weak enough that she could shatter one.

She had ran for the door and charged up the stairs, only to meet a Metropiad guard. He had been startled and wrestled with her briefly, and knocked her down six flights of concrete steps. By the time her body reached the bottom, her neck had been broken.

The final way out was the door the Metropiads regularly took the children through. There wasn’t a single guard behind that one. There was no need, because behind it there was a long hallway with no hiding places and too many Metropiads for a scared, disoriented, conspicuous child to slip past.

Ainsel tried the ramp first. When she discovered the dead end, she doubled back and tried that second door. If she stretched her hands all the way up and jumped, her fingers could feel a brief tingle as the came in contact with the cold metal doorknob.

For the past year of her job, she had only had one job; to find ways to open doors for her pawed caretakers. She knew she could get through this door. For a moment she stood and looked, studying the door and its immediate surroundings, then she returned to her old prison of a car.

Once there, she began rooting through her own wreckage. She had previously played around with the organization of the debris, first scattering them across the floor and then sorting through the mess. Pieces of foam got chucked over the back seat into the hatchback’s trunk. They had settled like yellow-brown snow. Then pieces of plastic got stuck into the soft rubbery padding around the glass. It gave them nice jagged frames. The threads she had pulled out of the seats were deposited on top of the dashboard. She laid them all out lengthwise, because they were slightly silver tinted and if they were somewhat straight they all caught bits of light together. The effect was just shy of shiny.

She took a large handful of these long threads, and draped them around her neck before she went back down her hole. Once there, instead of heading for the door, she went to a large brown jeep that was parked next to a pillar.

She climbed from the floor to the rear bumper, the bumper to the tailgate, and from there she began to shimmy up, between the pillar and the supports for the now-absent canvas roof. From there, she had a jungle gym of pipes, joists and latticed supports. It was pure joy for her to maneuver through them, all the way to the doors. Ainsel got herself directly over the closed door. She waited a long time. The door swung open, and with careful timing, Ainsel dropped her handful of strings. Light, and soundless, they drifted to the closing door, where they draped like a towel or a bit of tinsel on a branch. There was just enough, just close enough to the hinge, to keep the door a crack open, barely enough to be noticed but perhaps, just enough for little fingers to reach in and push. Now she only had to crawl back down the way she came. Or so she thought. For all her cleverness, she still had a child’s mind, unable to notice calculate every variable. If she had been a little older, she would have thought about the fact that the door had only opened because a leather clad Metropiad had just come through.

At the same time Ainsel crawled overhead, the figure walked beneath her. Under the thick armor was a woman, a nurse named Nevada, carrying a little boy so emaciated he resembled a monkey. He was sleeping in her arms. She deposited him gently into the green Escapade that was his home, straightened up, and looked around to make sure all was well. As she turned, scanning, her eyes finally fell on the door, wedged open by silver cords.

As unique as the trick with the ceiling and the strings sounded, someone else had tried it before, with the slightest of variations. A slightly older boy named Othello had been able to strip away all the bits of rubber from the windows of his car. In this way he was able to maneuver the glass out as well, and smash it on the cement.

As he left, he had taken the rubber strips, tied into a long rope. He had also picked up a large shard of glass, for his own defense. The rest of his story went exactly as Ainsel’s had, except instead of crawling back, he had dropped directly from the ceiling to the floor, and run through. Sheer speed and determination had gotten him past many grasping hands, and when a hand finally caught hold of him, he began to use the glass shiv.

The Metropiad had that thick, hot leather armor on, but had taken the head covering off for comfort. That was where Othello had aimed; the face, the eyes, the nose. With every stab, the glass drove back into Othello’s hand as well as into the skin of his opponent. Soon it was too slippery to old; even so, he struggled so much that he returned with a broken rib. Both Othello and his captor had died of infection.

The woman had heard the story. Everyone heard it. It was The Cautionary Tale every new physician in this experiment needed to know. It was the ghost story that marked their initiation.

Under the leather and the sweat it had drenched her in, she turned pale. She had decide quickly whether the one who had done this was still here in the lot, or had already gone ahead.

She looked to the left, to the right, and saw no one. Then she raced ahead, grabbing every adult in sight. Did you see a child come this way? No, I was just with an Empty. I was just fetching some tiles. I needed some tea. If each one had taken the time to carefully compare their stories, they would realize that at no point had the long hall been empty, as it never was. Someone was always there. But, in their panic, each could think of a time in the last two or three minutes when they had not been looking. They assumed that all their gaps in attention had overlapped, and someone had already gotten past, out into the old lobby of a former hotel, where there were hiding places on the way to the great and sunny outdoors.

All who were not occupied with a child in the old restroom ran out to find this ghost, and so, when Ainsel made it to the hall, she stumbled along uninterrupted. She hid in the hiding places they had already checked, she inched forwards as they ran still further on, until she pushed open the grimy glass door that was the only remaining barrier between her and sunlight.