ODD SHORT STORIES
Sarah Hartwell

A few very short stories or dreams, exploring themes.

ONCE MORE, WITH SPIRIT
March 2007 (sometime)

It's a strange kind of life this. During the daytime, I'm loitering about my mortal remains watching people gawking at them. I'm not inside the bandages of course, that would be gross, I just like watching people's reactions. In times past, people sat for hours with pencil and paper and drew the exhibits. These days, it's all over in a flash - a digital picture taken in haste to be consumed at leisure.

Sometimes I just sit in my case and people-watch. They fascinate me - everything from idle curiosity to serious study and even, to my eternal dismay, disgust. The children leave greasy fingerprints on my glass case, which is annoying and rather spoils the view from the sarcophagus. Lately I've taken to sitting on top of the case, swinging my non-corporeal legs and flicking non-corporeal snot at the more irritating children - the ones that walk around with stiff legs and outstretched arms going "Look, I'm a mummy."

Once the visitors have gone, the museum is left to us and the night staff. I'm generally known as Atun, though I had a splendidly long name in dynastic days, befitting a priest and a prince of Egypt. On the next shelf is a lesser wife of a pharoah. She's a bit miffed that they've misidentified her family and is very fond of saying "he was the third, for goodness sake, the third - not the fifth!" and despite being only a couple of dynasties older than me, she far prefers the company over in Ancient Britain. It's a good job her husband is over in Cairo as I rely don't think he'd approve of the company she's been keeping lately - a bog body, for goodness sake!

Ram, whose display is a few rooms away, told me they'd brought in a chariot for the revamped Bronze Age exhibit - nice two-wheeler, beaten metal, leather and wood. That sounded like fun. There are a couple of Celtic ponies around from a ritual burial so we thought we'd hitch them up and race around the central hall. To our disappointment, it was a modern reconstruction so it didn't have a spirit. What we really need is a dead chariot, one from an ancient burial; one with spirit.

Please don't think we're just a couple of late dynastic/early Iron Age boy racers. There's a forlorn tiger wandering around the colonial India exhibit. Poor thing is only a motheaten rug and he's so tatty he's kept in the store room these days in a drawer labelled "Royal Bengal tiger, study skin and skull", so Ram and I thought we could brighten up his night with an old-fashioned chariot hunt. The most excitement he's had of late is ambushing the Roman senator's wife on her way from the Romans in Britain display to the 18th century French fashions.

What about the dinosaurs, I hear you ask, do they come alive at night? Silly, of course not. 65 million years of decay and even their spirits have fossilised. Never mind the disappointment of the chariot, there's a bit of a party in the snack bar. The caterers are chucking out a crate of chocolate brownies gone past their sell-by and we've found an amphora of wine over in Minoan crete with a bit of spirit left in it (not much though - that crowd over in Roman Britain are a right bunch of boozers). Life's too long not to enjoy yourself!

 

THE EPHRAIM BOX
From a dream 23/24 September 2018

“What is it?” I asked, looking at the metal box. It was about 6 inches long, 4 inches wide and 1.5 inches deep, enamelled in a pale green-brown and with two small lights – one red, one green, on the top.

“Dad said it was in the loft but he doesn’t remember putting it there, “ said my brother, Colin.

Dad had been clearing out the loft as he downsized. With mum gone, he couldn’t manage the house alone and was moving to a bungalow. Colin and I were helping with the clear-out.

“There’s a brown cardboard folder with it,” dad said., “and hand-drawn designs and notes, but I don’t remember seeing it before and I’m not suffering dementia just yet.”

We added it to the pile of things to dispose of and decided to find out what it was before selling it online. Colin said he’d read the handwritten documents and see if there was more on the internet.

“It’s an Ephraim Box,” Colin told me later, “Some sort of conspiracy theory thing. Whatever it does, the MoD were very interested in concept, but the only working prototype went missing with its creator.”

“What does it do – if the MoD are interested in it then shouldn’t we hand it over? It might be stolen,” I suggested.

“I think the designer went missing and took it with him so they wouldn’t get hold of it, Sal,” he replied, “The online stuff is largely speculation, but the Ephraim Box would allow the user to get ahead of the enemy – it sounds almost like a time-travel device.”

I laughed.

“Anyway there are notes and diagrams here and if the circuitry is okay then all it needs are batteries ….” he said. I could almost hear the cogwheel turning in my brother’s head – he was 50 going on 15 and tinkering with old electronics.

A day or so later he announced that he’d fixed it and I should pop over for a cup of tea when he switched it on. In other words, I should stand by with the fire extinguisher in case he blew something up, just as I’d done throughout our childhood. For added safety, he conducted the trial in the back garden. There was a metal toggle switch and when he flicked it the air became distorted. Colin put his hand into the distortion and it vanished. So he next put his head into the distortion – putting his head where angels thought twice about treading, as mum always called his impulsiveness.

“Jeez, Sal,” he gasped, jerking his head back, “When I put my head through I’m somewhere else! Or maybe somewhen else, because it looks like here, but futuristic.”

“Let me look,” I said and cautiously pushed my face into the distortion.

He was right. It looked just like here, but with a futuristic twist. Perhaps we could stand outside the bookies, switch it on and get the results of the next World Cup and make a killing, or something like that. But first we’d have to work out how to use it properly. Colin said there wasn’t anything in the notes or conspiracy theory writings about how to set the Ephraim Box, it just opened up a hole to whenever.

A couple of days later he noticed that someone was watching him. Workmen were digging a pretend hole in the road while really keeping an eye on his house. Leaflet deliverers were more active than usual and didn’t seem to have leaflets. Some young men loitered to smoke cigarettes in the street. There was always an occupied cat parked within view. Colin reverted to a sort of childhood code in his texts and emails.

“I’m glad you came, sis,” he said in low tones as he let me in the house, “I am certain military intelligence know that we switched on the Ephraim Box and are keeping an eye on me. I’ve stopped using wi-fi and I’ve only posted really inane stuff on Facebook or Twitter.”

We peered through his net curtains to the parked car. The driver and passenger were both getting out and looking in this direction. I was sure there was the bulge of a weapon.

“What are we going to do?” I hissed at Colin.

“Only thing I can do – keep one step ahead of the enemy. Use the Ephraim Box and go through the distortion, then switch it off.”

“You’ll be stuck on the other side and we don’t even know when that is!”

“I think it’s about 50 years ahead. Look after dad, will you?”

The men were almost at the door and we knew they wouldn’t bother knocking. Colin flipped the toggle and the distortion appeared. He grabbed the documents that accompanied the Ephraim Box and stepped into the distortion. Two men had pushed their way into the house, quite obviously wanting the box. All they saw was Colin’s hand, waving goodbye from the distortion and the hole in reality snapped shut with Colin on the other side. They’d have to wait another 50 years or so for someone to find the Ephraim Box and switch it on, and with luck it would always stay one step ahead of them, just as it was supposed to do.

 

CONSTRAINED
Dream 15/16 Sept 2018

To deepen the understanding between the two planets, Brian invited one of the visitors, whose name transliterated as Anthlith, to join him for a game of golf. Anthlith agreed eagerly, he was delighted to learn more about Earth’s pastimes and most of the American and Japanese businessmen he had met spoke of golf.

It was played with a long stick, bent near one end, somewhat like an Iqk club back home. The object was to strike a small ball with the bent end and knock the ball into a flag-marked hole some distance away. Anthlith found it a familiar concept, even though he was unable to adopt the stylised pose to swing the club in the same way as his host. The aim was to knock the ball into each of 18 holes in as few strokes as possible. This perplexed Anthlith.

The American suggested he demonstrate. He arced the ball a fair distance and required two more strikes to knock it into the hole. Then he handed the club to Anthlith. Anthlith swiftly calculated the probabilities and constrained the ball to travel in a low arc from himself directly to the hole.

“A hole in one!” enthused Brian, “That’s pretty darn good for someone who has never played golf before.”

“It reminds me of a game we play back home,” replied Anthlith modestly.

They walked to the next hole and this Brian suggested Anthlith went first. Anthlith calculated the variables and constrained the ball to land at the foot of the flag that obstructed the hole. Brian gave a low whistle. It took him 4 strokes to line the ball up and knock it into the hole. Anthlith wondered why Brian didn’t simply constrain the ball. It seemed an oddly unchallenging sport.

“I’m curious,” said Anthlith, “You don’t constrain the ball to go directly to the hole? “

Brian made the “huh?” sound that Anthlith recognised as “I don’t understand.”

“I’m struggling to understand the challenge of this sport,” Anthlith continued, “Why you need so many knocks to get the ball in the hole when it can easily be done in one.” Then he hurriedly added (lest he insult his hosts by his misunderstanding) “Though there is more challenge without constraining the ball.”

“O-kay,” said Brian, “This is where I say ‘I don’t understand.’ What’s constraining?”

Anthlith explained that he mentally weighed up the options, calculated variables such as wind deflection, envisaged the path from tee to hole then constrained the ball to travel that path.

“When we play Iqk, which is a little similar, the object is to bounce the ball from multiple points and not run out of momentum before sinking it into the hole,” he explained. He made a few quick calculations and constrained the next shot to deflect from 3 trees and finally approach the hole from the other side.

Anthlith had heard the saying “jaw-dropping” but until now had never seen a human’s mouth open as wide as Brian’s mouth now opened. Oh dear, he thought to himself, this seems to be one of those cultural misunderstandings …

 

PRE-EMPTIVE SOLUTION
Dream 4-5 December, 2018

I dreamt I was being held in a room waiting for execution by guillotine. The room had small frosted glass windows high up on the walls, and I managed to open one a very small amount to get some fresh air. I wasn’t tied up as there was no way out. Strangely I was past the stage of panic and I was quite calm. I didn’t know why I was being executed and those about to execute me seemed almost apologetic that they had to do this to me. It soon turned out that my cell was a room on the ground floor of some sort of factory. Because there was no guillotine, they explained, they would use “paper cutter number 3.” It was very sharp and would be humane. They didn’t tell me how soon it would be, but I knew it was no more than a couple of hours away. I should have been terrified, but in the dream I had gone beyond that stage and just felt numb and empty.

I was alone and very calm and sad about the inevitability of being executed. Then there was a power cut and darkness and one of the windows was pulled completely out of its frame. Some friends pulled me out of the room and help me run into nearby woodland. We had to get into the thickest part. They were monitoring radio transmission and knew that my captors were looking for me, because my execution was a necessity. I had no clues about what I’d done or why I had to die, why my executioners were sympathetic or why I was so calm and sad about the situation.

Then I seemed to be in two places at once. I was hiding with my rescuers in an empty house, but at the same time I could feel myself standing up with my hands tied behind my back and a person on each side of me.

“Why are they going to kill me?” I asked my rescuers, “I haven’t done anything.”

“It’s not because of something you’ve done, it’s because of something you will do.”

There was a hand on each upper arm, leading me out of the room and towards paper cutter number 3. At the same time I was hiding in that empty house asking what on earth was going on.

“They’ve looked into the close future and there’s something you’re going to do that is a threat to them. So they’re pre-empting it. Try to get some rest while we figure things out.”

I felt myself pushed to my knees onto a stool, bending my head to rest on a towel. My head was turned to the right. A hand on my right ear held my head still. There was a slight mechanical vibration.

Blackness.

 

AKLON BAE
2nd March 2019

In this weird dream I was Billie, lab assistant to brilliant scientist Andy and his partner Lenny. Because our world was in a real fix, Andy and Lenny had been tasked with finding a way to travel 500 years back in time to meet the visionary scientist Aklon Bae who had foreseen so much of the future and developed such wonderful devices and also such horrific weapons. Our president believed Aklon Bae was the only person brilliant enough to help us. Compared to solving our current problems, going back 5 centuries was not hard. Once we had sought Aklon Bae’s knowledge we would return with a solution to the terrible problems of our own time.

We travelled back, but were taken into custody of the presidential forces of that time. Our time device was confiscated and we were given laboratories and compelled to use our future knowledge for the benefit of this president in order to get it back. Unfortunately our inventions were so useful to him that he smashed out time device in order to keep us in that century. There was no way to get hold of the extra-solar compounds needed to rebuild our device. As time went on we created more and more terrible means of waging war on his enemies.

“How did we get to this?” asked Andy, “We were looking to cure problems, or prevent them, not dream up such horrific things. And why haven’t we been introduced to Aklon Bae?”

“I think I can answer that,” I said, showing him one of the printouts. We had all initialled it in the bottom right corner: AK LON BAE

“AK – Andy Kirshner. LON – Leonard Oscar Night. BAE – Billie-Anne Edwards.”

 

UNRAVELLED
Dream 2/3 June 2019

The city reminded us of 1950s London and 19th Century New York in equal measures. A bridge spanned the wide river, iron girders reinforcing the 1800s brickwork. It was supported by two large brick columns and the tracery of girders showed it had been expanded sideways to accommodate both rail and car traffic. Having evicted the green witches from infesting part of the city (how else did Greenwich get its name?) their energy had dived down under the bridge supports and embedded itself in the fabric of time.

“The only way to get of them is to unravel time and change the location of the bridge,” the team leader told us, “Its supports penetrate the green witches’ domain and give them a path into this dimension.”

“Won’t that harm the present?” we asked.

“We’ll only move it by a few feet, not enough to make changes,” he assured us.

So we unravelled time, or moved backwards, and watched the city being undone. The metal tracery vanished from the bridge and the two huge clocks reappeared at the top of the two supporting columns. Then the brickwork vanished and the old wooden bridge, supported on its hundred stilts appeared. Then that too vanished and in its place was the old beaver dam and a few small boats to ferry people across the narrower stream below the damn.

“They built the bridge where the beavers dammed the river – diverting part of the flow westwards so the river below the dam stayed narrow. If the bridge is upstream a few feet it will avoid the green witches’ dimension. We breach the dam!”

Now we have an aerial view. The dam was breached and the water from the pool upstream poured down, breaching the banks and spreading out across the flood plain in a flood too wide to be bridged. The only site for a bridge was upstream of the dam where the banks were firm.

Now ravel time forwards …..

It was the present again, but not the same. What a difference a few feet would make! Instead of a bridge, large ferries transported people across the broad expanse of water. Without the westward diversion of part of the flow it had carved a single wide channel, a long estuary reaching inland as far as the city. The team leader had overlooked the variables …. We had to mingle to find out what had changed in this world, how far the ripples spread – a local effect or a global change?

The ferry from the western bank left from pier 2.4. The well-to-do travelled on the upper deck where canvas canopies protected them from the sun. We travelled among the anonymous throng below decks. A number of sheep bleated in their pen, the straw and wood shavings soaking up their urine. Another pen contained some piglets. In the pre-change city the livestock had been banished from the streets.

“Fares, fares!” called the conductor. “We handed him an illusory coin – he saw and held what he expected to see and hold, but the moment it was out of sight in his conductor’s bag the illusion ceased to exist.

“We pull in at the pier downstream on the eastern bank,” the team leader told us, “we have to return to this side by 6 p.m. – take the ferry from pier 2.5 – it is upstream from where this one pulls in. Both of you - work your way northwards and observe what has changed – I didn’t expect so many ripples.”

We disembarked at pier 3 and blended in, walking northwards in a purposeless-looking way. Several lanes led inland from the river’s embankment. The first was lined with small shops selling paintings, maps, artists’ supplies and such like, punctuated by coffee shops and small wine-bars. The buildings were built of pale grey brick and many were whitewashed. Parallel to it was a lane perplexingly called “The Snaps” – the road-name being displayed on a black metal sign halfway up the wall of the corner building. It was dingy and instead of stores the walls were punctuated by double-doored grey-brick-built boat sheds. There were several of these – a trading street and then a back street for the sheds and warehouses. They must have harked back to an earlier time of trading.

Soon after, the street widened into a plaza of taller, wealthier buildings, the bottom storeys being shops – a chemists shop, a bookseller, a grocery store. These were not the large, neon-signed stores of the pre-change city, these were smaller and less brash. Then there was a white building with fluted columns and a triangular pediment. A museum? No, it was the city residence of the emperor. A large noticeboard gave a potted history for the benefit of tourists. A few people were sketching the building. There were no cameras.

I was a tourist in this post-change city. The board told me that it was a Romano-Germanic state with an emperor at the top and his Germanic army keeping order.

“Ware! Ware!” came a cry, “Slime seeds!”

People shuffled away from the warning. I felt something prickly land in my hair and cling there like a burr.

“Tourists,” said someone nearby, “they don’t have any immunity to the slime seeds.”

The burr seemed to be growing and spreading. I pulled out a hank of hair, but the infestation was already snarled in my hair. The noticeboard had called them a Germanic weapon from the war. The seeds infested anyone not immune to them, releasing painful toxins wherever they scratched the skin – not lethal, but distractingly painful.

“There’s a chemist up the road,” said an unaffected woman kindly, “Renny Shampoo will clear the slime burrs out of your hair. Or you could use Ren’s Spray for temporary relief. You’ll need something for the sickness too.”

Pulling out snarls of hair was less painful than the stinging, prickling scratches. I didn’t have time to stop, and we were warned against spending too much illusory coinage because it could upset the local economy, so did my best to ignore my prickling scalp and I headed towards pier 2.5 for the ferry back. I had to report back that the ripples from that little change were far reaching – when we breached the dam we had let loose a wholly different flow of time.

DRAGONQUEEN'S LAIR

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