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by Andy T Coombs, alias Lorax
The old man sat alone on the rock, the sun beating down on his bald head. Surveying the ghostly town that surrounded the obelisk, he stroked his beard. It was one of those old sage like jobs that tend to sprout from ancient Greek philosophers and suchlike. The kind of beard that is not so much groomed as gardened. Cultivated even.
With a sudden flash of acknowledgement in his deep set eyes, the old man plucked a small squirming entity from his facial forest and held it up for examination. It was a bug. A beetle, or an earwig perhaps. His doddery cobwebbed brain had forgotten which was which.
Ears with wigs?
Baldy hearing horns.
The lonely figure cackled randomly to himself.
With grim determination furrowing his brow the old fellow stuffed the protesting insect into the pipe that dangled from his lips. Extracting a matchbox from one of the many pockets in the patchy jacket that may or may not have once been his bedding, he set the wretched critter aflame and began to take deep drags. A cloud of acrid greenish smoke was expelled from his flaring nostrils and wafted its way to the distant sun above. Removing the intricately decorated pipe from his unkempt hairy gob, he let a wide grin spread across his time etched face.
Yes, he was the only soul left here now. The others had gone long ago.
He remembered the Harvest Carnival. Hmm, capital letters. You always know something is important when it has capital letters. Even if it's not written down you can sort of tell when something needs to be adorned from the alphabets upper cases. Some may call it snobbery. Some may even speak darkly of case warfare. Revolutionary mumblings and dastardly goings on in the impoverished lower cases of the alphabet. Oh go ahead and laugh. Laugh longly and loudly and mockingly. You've probably never been woken up in the middle of the night to find a vanguard of small letter bees under the bed, hatred in their eyes and clutching loaded exclamation marks.
The old guy scratched his head. He had forgotten his hat. Come to think of it, did he even have one?
He had been thinking about something important before going off on a tangent. Looking down upon the lonely tumbledown buildings his mind filled up with images of small children dressed as ears of corn. Farmer's offspring costumed as vegetation dragging last years turnips on dog leashes. That's right, he remembered. The Harvest Carnival.
Large sweaty farmhands carrying cows around the market square. Running. Puffing. The last man standing who hasn't dropped his bovine and been disqualified wins. The heroes of the day win the hearts of the vestal virgins and ride off to the Turnip Purification Rites to be wed by the village Matriachs. The losers win nowt but shame. Shunned by their family and peers, they may win back their honour by way of a Holy Quest on Sprouting Friday or be forever banished into the woods.
A tear ran down the ancient one's cheek as he remembered.
Sprouting Friday, an occasion both momentous and terrifying, for it was when the Bung trees sprung forth explosively from the Pewsey Bogs.
The shamed ones would scramble up the newborn trees slippery bark to win the eggs of the Holy Pewsey birds. Some would tumble screaming into the bogs to be overcome by the fumes and be devoured by Those That Lurk. Some would come face to face with an angry Pewsey, its red eyes flashing and spring loaded legs going boing in a menacing fashion. Their fate was to be cruelly tickled to their doom by the merciless prehensile snouts of the agitated and territorial beasties, never to be seen again if they were lucky. The more unfortunate ones were left to wander the woods, insane and unwashed.
The man was sure somebody was laughing at him now. Sure, there was nobody around. There hadn't been anybody around for many moons but he was sure as turnips that some bastard was laughing at him. Maybe you've never been shamed. Maybe you've never had an enraged Pewsey launch itself at you, beak snapping and forked tongue flicking back and forth dangerously.
The lonely old man recalled the time that his leg had given out upon the Harvest Carnival. How his cow had come crashing to the ground, shattering into a million pieces.
How he had felt the shame burn his ears and the back of his neck. Hiding his head from the jeering crowd, he could still feel the steely eyes of the Matriachs burning into his sorry skull. He had fought in vain to hold back the bitter sobs as the virgins had mounted the bovines of his compatriots and thundered off towards the Hallowed Ground Of Turnip Purification.
Unable to stand from a poisonous mixture of shame and injury he had crawled out of the square, all the while being pelted with last years turnips by the jeering children in their corn suits. The then young man had hidden in the forest, living with a family of sympathetic possums who had found him half dead under a large tree one still and lonely night. Still deeply ashamed, he began the long wait until Sprouting Friday.
The memories came flooding back into the old man's head now. Unwelcome memories. The reason he had done his best to forget them in the first place.
He remembered his name. Buford. Buford The Lost.
And alas, the next Sprouting Friday was never to be.
He had been dining on roast Pewsey with his possum saviours in their lavishly decorated lair when They had come. He had been picking at a large drumstick and indulging in pleasant chatter with his adoptive family. Florence The Toothless had been eyeing him up again and he was trying desperately not to notice.
“So Bert, how goes the trees of the forest today pray tell?”
Bert The Large, who was the head of the family, shrugged and sighed.
“There's something amiss out there. But I just can't put my finger on it.”
The future wrinkly who was then only in the twilight phase between nipperhood and young manness tried to ignore Florence poking him with a furry toe in a personal place beneath the table.
Bert brought his fist down angrily, clattering the crockery.
“How many times do I have to tell you Florence! Sexual harassment of our guests will not be....”
The big possum daddy was rudely cut off by a sudden loud choppy roaring noise which accompanied itself by much shaking and rattling of things. The possum's fine chandelier swayed like a seasick monkey and the splendid gilt framed portrait of Uncle Grebbit The Mad fell off the wall. Uncle Grebbit looked even more paranoid than usual as the lovingly detailed oil painting of him resplendent in his favourite sequined ballgown toppled from its place above the fireplace and smashed into the hearth below.
As the possums retreated into their personalized boltholes under the carpet, our hero sprinted out the door like a man possessed. Outside the noise was deafening. Buford could feel it pounding relentlessly inside his head. He dared not shut his mouth in case his teeth exploded. Whatever it was that was responsible for the unholy din was causing an unnatural gale to blow through the trees. A surprised and angry looking Pewsey hurtled past him, out of control. Its razor sharp talons nearly took his head off before the unfortunate creature splattered messily against an inconveniently placed rock. Buford clamped his nose to avoid breathing in the stench of exposed Pewsey entrails.
Half running, half rolling downhill, Buford came to the village to find that pandemonium had come around uninvited and it was bloody well going to have a party.
People were spilling out of their houses into the streets. A great deal of them were running the way he had come. Panicking villagers tripped over each other as they dashed towards the relative safety of the forest. A man he recognised as the local fishmonger bolted past him, shoving him out of the way. A look of pure terror froze his face in a mask of torment. The fishmonger was usually a strong silent type but now he emitted a high pitched squeal as he waved his tattooed and muscular arms about in random directions.
It was then that Buford The Lost laid his eyes upon the source of all the trouble.
Oh how he wished that he had never remembered now. Them. Them and the abomination they had landed in.
It was a strange machine of the likes Buford nor any of his fellow villagers had ever seen before. It consisted of a big pod constructed of glass and metal, standing on what looked preposterously like large skis. A big whirly thing sat atop the machine, which appeared to be the device responsible for both the peace shattering racket and the job of keeping the machine airborne. Another smaller whirly thing was attached to its tail. The whole ghastly affair was jet black and looked for all the world like an enormous deformed fly come to herald the apocalypse.
Buford scurried behind a sign outside the bakery as the thing landed in the middle of the town square. A few of the braver villagers emerged from the surrounding forest to gawp but came no further.
Then They disembarked from it. Yes, capital letters again. They with a capital T. They looked like men but they moved like lifeless, mechanical things, or as Buford crudely reflected, like they had steel rods up their arses.
They were all dressed in the same black suits, carried the same little black cases, had the same slicked back hairstyles that looked as if they wouldn't move even in a hurricane and they all wore identical black tinted glasses. Buford wondered how they could see.
Perhaps they were not men, but the offspring of the machine in some sort of larval form. They marched stiffly from the craft and formed a circle around it, folding their arms and glaring about menacingly. They were followed by a slightly different looking fellow. He was smaller than the others and he carried a little board with a clip at the top of it. For some reason he had attempted to cover up his baldness by combing strands of his remaining hair over the naked patch. His combover blew about like a poorly constructed lid for his brain.
Turning around, he gestured sharply at the big metal bug and the whirly blade shuddered to a halt and stopped trying to blow everybody's houses down. The petrified townfolk darted about amongst the trees vying for better spots to view the proceedings whilst also doing their best to remain hidden.
“Get down you idiot”, somebody hissed.
Buford had grown to be tough as a boot during his enforced exile and had begun to see this whole disturbing episode as a chance to regain his honour before Sprouting Friday. Avoiding the Pewseys would be a good thing too. Kicking the baker's sign over, he stood up in plain view of the strange invaders and any villagers who might be watching. Especially the girls. Stretching himself up to his full height, he puffed his chest out and cleared his throat loudly.
Shocked murmuring could be heard coming from the undergrowth.
“Maybe this is his doing....”
“Didn't he break a cow last Harvest?”
The big scary guys huddled and grunted. Then combover boy stepped forward through the circle.
“Who is in charge here?”
He enunciated the words slowly and deliberately. Before Buford could respond he repeated himself, more slowly this time and with a marked increase in volume, with a hint of irritation in his tone. Kind of like the way everybody spoke to Glembo the Simple when they were encouraging him to stop doing something, or they just wanted him to put some pants on.
He fixed Buford with the kind of look usually reserved for a naughty child or an errant puppy guilty of shitting on the shagpile. Buford noticed that he was sweating. His mother had always told him never to trust sweaty men. He decided that he would speak to the stranger as he himself had been spoken to.
He slapped his forehead for extra comic effect. Somebody sniggered in the background. They were silenced by someone else hitting them and telling them to shut up.
The sweaty balding man just stood there unimpressed, slowly blinking his beady little lizard eyes.
“So, where are these Matriachs then?”
Buford sighed and shook his head. Whoever these guys were, they didn't have many clues. Indeed, they seemed to be as thick as the proverbial pig shit. Shrugging his shoulders, he made his way over to the standing stones at the centre of the village.
“They live in here. They've always lived in here. They've lived in these here sacred stones since before we even built the village. In fact they told us how and why to build it. Before the visitation of the Grand Matriach we all lived in the trees, living in constant fear of being eaten.”
Some of the villagers had found enough courage to emerge from beneath the shrubbery upon seeing that the strangers had developed an interest, and perhaps an unhealthy one at that, in the sacred stones that had stood undisturbed since time immemorial.
The leader of the strange flying bug men, now sweating profusely, strode towards the stones with consternation furrowing his brow. He was followed by his troop of goons, who glared suspiciously around them and shoved any stray townsfolk aside.
Mr bald and sweaty, much to everybody's puzzlement, began to tap his clipboard against the stone. After he did this he stood still, glaring at it for a few seconds before tapping it again.
Buford sidestepped in front of this sickening display of utter disrespect, and waved an angry finger at the offender.
“You won't get an answer. They only come out twice a year, and certainly aren't in the habit of popping out to chat with sweaty little men who have no business being here!”
The goon squad lept forth and were quickly upon our hero. They held him still in their big goony arms while their leader prodded him in the chest with a stubby little finger.
“This is because they don't exist isn't it?”
The stubby little finger poked him again.
“The matriachs do not exist!”
The goons unceremoniously dumped a confused Buford to the ground.
“I don't understand what's going on here, but I think it might be time for you gentlemen to leave.”
The leader ignored him and paced away from the stones muttering.
“No. This won't do. This won't do at all. I thought they were all gone. All the magic should have died a long time ago.”
He spun around to face Buford, who was following him. Buford drew himself closer but the goons made threatening gestures at him. The other villagers kept their distance and some of the cowardly bastards even dived back into the undergrowth.
The fussy one xtracted a pen from the top of his clipboard and waved it at everybody.
“You people don't even realise that this just should not be. The rest of the world has moved on. There can be no more magic. This age is an age of reason. An age of measuring things and putting them in their corresponding places. An age of order. An age of following the correct procedure.”
Buford loomed at him and was pushed to the ground by the goons. Lying on his back, he began to shout.
“This is our town! This is the way things are here and the way they always have been and always will be. I don't know where you come from, but we would all thank you kindly to get back in that thing of yours and go back there. You have no business here!”
His opponent exploded, his combover ragged and billowing in the breeze, his fat face red and puffy.
“Oh come on. Bung trees. Whoever has heard of Bung tress?”
A solitary voice from behind something piped up.
“I fell out of one once. I was very lucky to survive. And I couldn't get rid of the smell for almost three winters.”
“Shut up”, screamed the man, “Pewsey birds. Cows being carried around on men's shoulders. Those same cows shattering into tiny pieces upon being dropped. Talking possums. Sexually deviant talking possums. It's all ridiculous! My own grandfather had to put a stop to a glitch in reality once, which involved militarized and hostile playing cards. This is almost as bad!”
Buford raised a questioning finger.
“How did you know about the possums?”
“Shut up! This should not be. It is not normal, nor is it remotely sensible. This is a breach in reality and it must be repaired, for this is the age of reason!”
Buford thought about it for a bit.
“Then what was the state of reality before you fellows took it upon yourselves to go around jerry mandering it then? This is the way things have always been. Maybe you're a breach in reality...”
“Never! Before the age of reason the world was a terrible place, ruled by magic and plagued by chaos. It was full of illogical and woefully inconsistent anomalies. It had no purpose. It was, above all things inefficient, and we are here today to put a stop to it once and for all. There shall be no more magic! Only the cold and impassionate scalpel of science!”
Buford stroked his chin and squinted thoughtfully.
“I think you're a twat myself.”
The chief shock trooper of reason drilled a stubby finger into his chest.
“No, I am a qualified professional. Hah!”
He gestured sharply again.
“Men, prepare to seal the breach. Activate the quantum spatio-temporal realignment field and power up the para-dimensional containment matrix!”
The shock troops of reason and their leader filed back into the monstrous craft they had arrived in and the whirly thing again began to whirl. The horrid thing hovered over the village and began to throb and pulse ominously, a threatening looking device extending from its belly.
The device began to glow, and the other villagers scattered, leaving Buford all alone, trapped in a howling whirlwind. The sods.
As the noise reached a crescendo, Buford lost consciousness. White out.
The next morning he woke up to find the village abandoned. And for some unknown reason it looked as if it had been in this decaying state for hundreds of years. That wasn't the only thing wrong either. He walked down to the bogs to find the bung trees gone. In fact, the whole bog was gone.
All that was left were some very boring looking trees with some decidedly unthreatening birds sitting in them. Wandering the overgrown fields, he kicked the first cow he encountered out of sheer frustration. To his surprise, it remained all too intact and looked very upset.
Running from the enraged cow into the woods, Buford came across a possum and was doubly surprised to find it naked and clinging to a branch. Florence the Toothless, he thought. With all the unusual events lately she must have finally lost it completely.
He cried out to his friend,
The alarmed creature responded by bolting back up the tree. Looking up, he could see more of the possums huddling naked in the branches, their eyes devoid of any knowledge or even personality.
No more talking possums, just dumb animals.
Our hero sprinted back to the village, confusion threatening to eat his brain. Still nobody there. Everything abandoned, everything gone.
Frantically our hero scrambled about the wreckage of his home trying to find the source of the voice calling out to him. The taylor's hut!
The door to the dilapidated old shack fell off its rusted hinges as he opened it. Leaning up against the far wall was a mirror, and in the mirror a green lady. A matriach!
She beckoned to him.
“Buford, a terrible thing has been done to us by the grey men who would destroy everything. You have proven yourself now young man, and now you must seek the sacred beetle and prepare to free us from this trap.”
“I don't understand....”
“The mirror Buford, put your hand against the glass.”
He did so and the green lady reached out her hand and pressed it against his. He understood what he had to do.
Then the voice of the taylor called out from behind the glass.
“And hop to it you little bastard! Some of us are still convinced that this is somehow all your fault!”
Old Buford sat dejected on his rock, tears drying on his leathery old face in the hot sun.
They took it all away. The unholy horrors took it all away. All the magic in the world cauterized like a wound in space and time all because those horrible grey men didn't see the point of it.
A sly grin spread across Old Buford's face. So that's what he'd been doing all these years. Concentrating all his energies upon reopening the so-called breach by way of the sacrifice of the sacred beetles. The sacred green beetles.
He pulled another bug out of his beard and stuffed it in his pipe. Smoking bugs.
“Ha ha ha you miserable swine!”
Buford wailed at the sky.
“You didn't get everything. You overlooked the bugs. Too small in your grand scheme of sensible and useful things so you just ignored them. I've got the bugs!”
He waved a bug at the clouds.
“Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
As Buford laughed wildly a solitary Pewsey bird flew overhead and from somewhere deep in the forest he heard somebody telling Florence to get down out of the tree.
Miles away, the cow that he had kicked years earlier exploded into a million tiny fragments.
The matriach burst forth from the rock, green fire dancing around the green lady as she embraced him. She smiled.
Somewhere, eventually, a certain humourless little man with a combover was going to get very upset.
It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye