Sunday, February 18, 2007

lusus naturae

Barely anybody had clapped eyes on an authentic copy of Dr Hirschkovitsch’s Encyclopaedia of Monstrosities and Miscreations in the nearly two hundred years since the destruction of its scanty printing. In fact, the closest number of eyes I can come up with at present sits at nineteen; a number which counts up to and including the man’s who relieved me of the evil thing, but omitting those of whomever currently owns the last of those bedevilled books. And for him I feel nothing but the utmost sympathy, for his life, should he suffer any length of one at all, will not be anything approaching enjoyable.

first and second eyes

Dr Itzhak Hirschkovitsch, renowned explorer and acclaimed cryptozoologist, had set to task writing the manuscript during the early years of the nineteenth century after his nearly two decades of extensive travel and note-taking.

The things he had seen abroad had changed him, his wife was noted as saying, and once back home, Dr Hirschkovitsch flatly refused to discuss the things he had seen, and the “vast network of monstrosities” which he had discovered.

All would be laid out in his book, he said, and the world would at last see what it was never meant to see. The imaginary lines dividing countries would fall away, and religions would crumble with a new, greater one rising up to replace the myriad old. The earth’s population would assume its rightful place as a people of slaves, he said, and it would be happy to do so in place of the “other thing” which he repeatedly declined to elaborate on in his few interviews. All would be laid out in his book, he said. And it was.

By summer of 1808, the manuscript was ready for printing, and a title was chosen, with the words Encyclopaedia of Monstrosities and Miscreations emblazoned in gold on the book’s great leather cover. Dr Hirschkovitsch envisioned a book which could be kept locked by three brass hasps, requiring three different keys, each of which could be hidden in a different locations around the owner’s home. In addition to the aforementioned details, the book’s pages would be made of the sturdiest paper, and its accursed words would be printed with the finest of inks – all details which made the book one of the most expensive books to be printed up to that time.

third, forth, fifth, and sixth eyes

Dr Itzhak Hirschkovitsch inexplicably chose for the book’s printing one of the smallest and most ill-equipped printing houses in all of England – Kohlson’s. It was only Samuel Kohlson’s second year in the business when Dr Hirschkovitsch made the exhaustive request of him, and he would have declined the work if it were not for the handsome amount of money the weird doctor offered.

It’s been said that not even two dozen copies of the book were printed by the time Dr Itzhak Hirschkovitsch abruptly ordered the book’s printing stopped, and this order he followed by another: the immediate destruction of all twenty-three already printed copies. This order was to be carried out by Kohlson’s apprentice, a boy by the name of Johann Bruhner. It was this apprentice who saw something important in the tome, and managed to squirrel away a copy of the book before burning the rest.

But the books would not go down without a fight, and the fire which ensued raged large enough and so wildly that the printing house was burned to the ground with Samuel Kohlson still inside, unable to escape.

The body of Dr Itzhak Hirschkovitsch was found hanging in his home three days later. He did not leave a note, but he did tie a really good noose. So nicely tied was the noose, that it worked its way into all of the newspaper articles on the doctor’s suicide. A new length of the finest hemp rope was used and twenty-three coils made up the knot, one for each copy of the Encyclopaedia of Monstrosities and Miscreations which he had allowed to be printed. In life, Dr Hirschkovitsch enjoyed twenty foot ceilings – in death, this made for an awfully long drop over the second floor balustrade.

seventh and eighth eyes

Printer’s apprentice Johann Bruhner was never the same after the fiery destruction of his workplace, and it wasn’t long before his bloodied body was found in the basement of his parent’s home.

Police reports detailing the suicide mention how the young boy committed an act now known as seppuku, seemingly ripping open his own abdomen with a long knife. He was cut through, all the way, from side to side, they wrote, and his body was discovered nearly cut into two pieces. The knife was still in his hand. A book lay open by his side.

Police Inspector William Johnson is said to have collected a few things as evidence, including the knife and the unnamed book. The knife went where evidence is supposed to go; the book found its way to Inspector Johnson’s home.

eyes nine through eighteen

I’ve a theory that Inspector Johnson never did get to look through the book, instead, unthinkingly, but luckily, locking it using the three brass hasps without having the keys to open them again.

I think this only because Inspector Johnson apparently enjoyed a long life, a life free from any kind of curse save for the curse of mundanity, and by the time my great-great-grandfather – a noted bibliophile – found the book in Johnson’s attic, it was still locked and under a layer of five decade’s worth of dust. The book, considered little more than an oddity by my own family, found itself being passed down from my great-great-grandfather to his eldest daughter, to her eldest son, to his eldest son, until it wound up in my hands.

eye nineteen

That is, the book was in my possession until two years ago when it was stolen from me during a random burglary. The one-eyed career criminal, Hunter Hickley, was ultimately arrested for the break-in of my home, along with the homes of a number of others in the neighbourhood, but while the police were able to recover a few of the items stolen, the Encyclopaedia of Monstrosities and Miscreations was never found.

My only hope is that for his own wellbeing, Mr Hickley never got around to opening those three brass hasps. For if he did, I could not say with any certainty that he will live long enough to enjoy the resumption of his crooked career.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


He’s in the middle of another slurred soliloquy, a red-eyed rambling, a drunken discourse on the past pushed through his lips and into the smoky pub air. He’s stuck there, unable to free himself, and his voice has taken on the timbre of an imprisoned soul desperately crying out for liberation. I listen to his would-be eloquence in the same way that a mother listens to her child’s plaintive cries: with one part pity, one part unease, and one part scepticism.

“You ever think about going back?” he garbles.

“Pardon me?” I squint.

“I mean, do you ever think about going back home?” he asks again.

I only get to offer a slight snort, and I mean to answer when he answers for me.

“Of course you do,” he says. “It’d be bloody great, it would. We’re like goddamn legends there, can you imagine?”

And I can. I can imagine what it would be like. It’d be like we were ghosts floating through a world which we’d been irrevocably cut off from. A world which we can no longer interact with. A world which barely remembers our names. We’re not legends. We’re barely a scribble in the margin of that town’s storied history.

He talks some more, and as he does, I’m very nearly whisked back to a time when I didn’t care enough to care. An easy time. The hardest time of my life. But I steady myself against those evil winds of nostalgia, hiding behind this great brick and mortar bastion of the here and now. That wind; a vile, poisonous wind.

The next morning is one of those in which a man could easily lose himself in the cushy, voluminous folds of his blankets. And as I lay in bed with a beery head, the sunlight pushing gently on the front of the house, for a moment I’m swept away.

“Why do you do this?” she cried. “Always so eager to leave, so eager to get away. Have you spent one moment with me happy? Have you spent one moment here wanting to be here and not somewhere else?”

I stuttered the start of a response, and tried, clumsily, to wrap my arm around her, only to have the motion brushed aside.

“I – I am happy,” I said with some trepidation. “But – but I’ve my future to think about, I—”

“That’s the problem,” she said, tersely. “You’re too busy thinking about the future to enjoy the present. I only get to have this flickering, glimmering you. You’re barely here at the best of times, and when you are, your heart is elsewhere. It’s like I’m dating a homesick time traveller. A man visiting the past out of curiosity, thinking only of a time when he would return home to the future.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“You’re a writer,” she accused. “What’s the antonym for nostalgia?”

I stared at her dumbly for a moment.

“Well,” she said, “whatever it is, you’re guilty of it.”

Later that week, I fled my hometown, my past, and pushed ever forward into the future, to another time, another place. And it’s that place where I find myself presently, swaddled in thick duvets, head nuzzling pillowy pillows, eyes shut to keep out the morning light. Here, now, stuck betwixt nostalgia and that other thing, wanting to go neither backward nor forward, content in the present.

Yes, this time traveller has gone now as far as he wishes to go, and these days dreams only of stasis, not wishing to go backward, but not wanting to go forward, either. Laying awake now, my eyes closed against the morning light, I am at ease.

I don’t think much of the those blocks of years we call decades, neither the ones which have passed, nor the ones which will. I’ll happily deafen my ears to talk of the past, and if the Fates were to grant me one boon, I would only ask that they allow me the gift of continued ignorance of my end, for to know it, I fear, would be too much for my heart to bear.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

sierra hotel india tango

I left my wallet in the crumbling belly of a wretched inn in Srinagar, a city located on the bank of the Jhelum River in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, some 10,533 kilometres away from me as the crow flies.

An inch-think fold of stitched black leather, a gift given to me by a girlfriend from another time, the wallet sits forever in my mind atop the bedside table where I last saw it. Positively stuffed with dinner receipts, taxi chits, and coupons, the wallet pouts. "You go on without me," it whinges, "I'm so full I just can't budge."

And so I do. In the theatre of my mind, a past me walks out that door leaving behind an inch-think fold of stitched black leather atop a rickety little table beside the infested bed in which I had slept for the better part of three weeks. I walk out that door and hop in a taxicab, paying with a crumpled banknote from my pocket on my arrival at the airport.

Then, taking full advantage of the modern ease of e-everything, I show the grumpy little airline clerk my driver's licence – which I had smartly kept in a safe place apart from my wallet! – and he checks it against my e-ticket. The next thing I know, I'm through security and hunched into a terrible seat aboard a decades-old plane somewhere above Eastern Europe shouting repeatedly, "Oh, god! My wallet!" and frantically checking and rechecking all of my pockets while inadvertently elbowing my seat neighbour all about the upper torso.

Yes. These are the things which they didn't talk about in archaeology school. Even then, we entertained dreams of Indiana Jones-esque adventures in long forgotten tombs, circumventing snake pits and being chased by Nazis while taking care to not trigger the deadly traps laid for us two millennia ago. Aw, sweet, sweet naïveté, huh? What I wouldn't give now to have had one single professor say, "And please, please, people; be mindful of your personal belongings while checking out of a hotel. I know you're going to be hungover as all hell on the day of your departure, but please take the time to make sure you have everything." Not part of the curriculum I guess.

We had flown up from Sierra Leone where we had attended a lecture on the Transatlantic Slave Trade of the 1700s, and set out to work that very day. The site, located just outside of Srinagar, lent little to the imagination, as it was barely more than three shallow squares carved in the hard, yellow earth, each marked off by white string. Meticulous scraping, brushing, and sifting ensued, days spent on hands and knees, unearthing green-grey statuettes from the Maurya period.

"Look!" I excitedly called out at some point, "this one's smiling!"

My colleague just looked at me like I was mad, scowled a little, and returned to his tedious work.

"What do you figure we should do with ourselves tonight?" I asked.

He shrugged, wiping the dust off his forehead with the ratty sleeve of his shirt.

"Supposed to be a pretty good discothèque in town," he suggested, "could check it out if we wanted."

"Discothèque," I scoffed, "what the hell's that?"

"Hey," he said, "that's what they call them here."

So we went, and found ourselves engaged in a reckless evening of tango far, far away from Buenos Aires, in the company of pushy beautiful women we could barely communicate with. One dance would end and another would begin before we could even stumble to the murky sidelines of the dance floor, and it wasn't long before the night was over and we were tossing and turning in the dirty, rough cots of our rooms. That's how it was that three weeks of trading the discomfort of days for the weirdness of evenings led to my eventual brain freeze and the forgetting of my wallet.

Home now. Back in metropolitan North America. Crunching toward my car down a snow covered sidewalk on campus, chatting a little uninterestedly on my cell phone to an acquaintance about my trip. I'm about to pay for my parking when I'm reminded again of the absence of my wallet.

"Shit!" I snap.

"Pardon me?" my acquaintance asks.

"Shit," I say, "I still haven't been sent my new Visa, and I've no cash for parking."

"Sorry," she says, "but you're breaking up – can you repeat that?"

"Shit, shit, shit!" I repeat, pounding on the ticket box. "Shit – Sierra Hotel India Tango – shit!"

I abruptly click my phone shut, and walk the one thousand kilometres back to the administration building where I happen to run into one of my Earth Sciences professors in the hall.

"So," she starts excitedly, "you're back! How was the dig?"

I let loose some kind of howl that transcends the noise needed to express mere frustration, and I storm on past her towards my office where I collapse into my chair and commence staring out the window.

10,533 kilometres away from me as the crow flies, an inch-think fold of stitched black leather dances the tango across the faded wood of a bedside table. It mocks me; the damn thing mocks me. And what's worse, is it's a better dancer, too, light on the toes with dexterity to die for, adroitly handling even the most expert of moves. My wallet: the adventurer I'll never be. Brave enough to never go home again. Courageous enough to not even care.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007


She lends herself to me just long enough so that I might pour some nonsense into her ears, fill them up, right to the top until the babble spills out, running down those delicate lobes and onto her tiny shoulders. She’s not listening, but is at least going through the motions, putting on a good show with her little nods and slight shakes of the head, her hms and haws. I’m relentless in my talk, I know, but I like her way too much to entertain any sort of cruel expectations of undivided attention.


The incessant clinking of a spoon against the side of a coffee cup finds its way to us from a neighbouring table, and suddenly I’m lost. My thoughts crumble a little here and there, words falling apart, their individual letters fraying at the edges to such a degree so as to render them nearly illegible. Decay. There is decay even there, within my own head, and I’m left with nothing to do but sit back and watch as a sort of ps chic d comp sition h s its w w h the int lectuali n of a th r k

“Hey,” she says.

“Huh? Sorry,” I say, a little stunned. “Think I blanked out there.”

“Tell me about what you’ve been working on lately,” she suggests, lifting the tiny white cup to her deadly red lips. “How’s the writing coming along?”

“Eh,” I say, “It goes as writing does. It looks as though I accomplish so little when the written words themselves are held up against the amount time it took to think them, to log them, to edit them.”

Starting to depress myself a little again, I scrabble for a change of conversational direction, something a little lighter, something a little less severe – but nothing comes up.

“Time,” I say. “It’s a bitch, right?”

She nods and smiles a little, lending herself to me so that I might find comfort in the illusion that someone actually gives a damn. The illusion that someone understands. The illusion that perhaps, just perhaps, I’m not completely alone.

Time. Goddamn time. I think about the last decade and how quickly it slipped by me, which in turn leads to me wondering just how many decades a guy has in him. How quickly would this next block of years fall away? And the next after that? Eighty years seems like a long time until you’re at the end of it.

I get lost in research during my writing, sidetracked to such a degree that I often wind up getting very little done. Immerse myself in stories of lost cities, wandering through the lush foliage around Machu Picchu, or setting off to the underwater city of Kitezh, and the glassy waters of the Lake Svetloyar beneath which it rests. I’ll find myself pondering curious technologies like the seventeen hundred year old Baghdad battery, ancient Egyptian flying machines, or the Antikythera mechanism, a twenty-two hundred year old analog computer discovered in a wreck of the coast of Greece. I’ll read about all of this and can’t help but feel that we’ve done all of this before. Over and over again.

A short block of eighty insignificant years is what we’re given to work with, and there’s this uncontrollable desire to be more than just a blip, this yearning to leave something more behind than just my DNA. I talk and she pretends to listen. To my babble about Teotihuacán, Calakmul, and secret chambers beneath the Great Sphinx of Giza. I talk, and as I do, a crushing wave of nothingness washes over me, stretching all the way from the beginning of time and rushes relentlessly on into the future. I’m speaking into vacant ears, thoughts crumbling away. And she can not understand – because I barely do, myself.