Welcome to Infomancy

Welcome to Infomancy.net, the website of haikuist and author Stewart C Baker.

You can read free reprinted and original fiction and poetry right here online.

If you’d like to browse around my published fiction and poetry (much of which is already free to read on external sites), check the relevant links in the menu to see a list of each.

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Now on QuarterReads

Ever had a quarter and wished you could buy a short story or a poem with it? Well, now you can!

QuarterReads is a newly-launched site which lets you load money into their system and then buy original and reprinted fiction and poetry at a quarter a pop.

If it sounds interesting, I have a few reprints and one original poem up over there right now.

Here’s the opening few lines of Mare Serrulatus, which may well be the only sci-fi poem about cherry blossoms on the moon (if it’s not, please give me a name for the others!)


Mare Serrulatus

by Stewart C Baker

after lift-off
fighting gravity’s pull
a sea of cherries
shades the lunar surface
beneath us
in the artificial winds
of the clear domes
the first settlers built them
a fragile beauty
passed down from mother to son
father to daughter
for over a hundred years
……

Intrigued? Head on over to QuarterReads and you can read the rest!

Reprint: Behind the First Years

Hello, Internets. (And a special hello to those of you coming over from Christopher Baldwin’s site) Have some science fiction!

This one was originally published in COSMOS (the Australian SF magazine–not the American fashion magazine) a year or so back.

Behind the First Years

by Stewart C Baker

Five short hours to planet-fall, Pete sat watching Magda die. Her hands were thin and wrinkle-fine, the leathern colour of paper five-hundred years old. She had been Archivist sixty years before him there in the great, silent bulk of the ship.

"But what am I to do when we land?" he asked. "I have only been Transcriber, Magda. I never—"

"You must look behind the shelf of the first years."

"The shelf of the first years is empty."

"Did I say on, foolish man?" Magda tsked. "How can you record history if you do not listen?" Her eyes were as sharp as her voice, clear and precise, honed from the long years of watching her duties entailed.

Pete flushed and bowed his head. "Behind the shelf, Magda. I understand."

How can she possibly die? he thought. Yet the grey-white walls of her quarters were hung with fresh-picked jasmine to hide the stink of it.

"You understand nothing, foolish man. Look at me." And again, kinder, when he did not. "Look at me."

"Yes, Magda."

"What lies behind the shelf of the first years is important, but does not change your duty. You must record all things, as I have. Record and preserve, Peter. In all these lifetimes under space, that has been our calling."

"Record and preserve. Yes, Magda."

He had first spoken the words fifteen years prior, when he became Transcriber. His parents cried during the ceremony, then left him to go back to Bottom. Magda had been old even then, and Pete used to go to bed terrified of finding her dead when he woke, and him still an untrained youth. Now she was going at last.

She coughed once, twice, making no move to clean the deep red flecks from her lips. Her eyes had gone dim.

"Peter," she said, "Peter."

She reached out with one frail hand and he took it: "Yes, Magda."

"You will be building the history of a world. Remember . . . the first years."

Pete did not respond: she was gone. He placed her hand back on her stomach and wiped her lips one last time with the damp cloth the ship’s doctor had left him. The man waited outside the door, polite and sympathetic.

"I know it’s hard, but it may be for the best. The dispersal would have been hard on her."

Pete nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and left the doctor to his work. It was eighteen floors down to the archives, but instead of the express lift he took the stairs. Something Magda had said didn’t sit right, but he could not put his finger on it. Walking helped him think.

‘Remember the first years’ was a strange directive. The people of that time had been content to track their history in transient digital form, with the result that little was left. Pete thought with regret of the few scraps of paper that had come down to them. Scrawled inventories, engineer-neat lists of meaningless names. In his darker moments, Pete felt the first people were mocking him, conspiring to erase all knowledge of why they had been sent away, what calamity had befallen Earth.

But what did it matter? Earth was a planet he would never see, and in just over four hours he would be walking the surface of a world untouched by human hands. A place to start anew. Even Magda’s death could not entirely remove the thrill of it. She had died well, clear and alert until the last. And it was true the dispersal would have been hard on her.

Dispersal! Soon they would spread across the surface of the unsullied planet, down amidst the mottled green-and-black they had so far seen only on the vid-screens, where it hung in the middle distance between the ship and the system’s star.

He came out on the archives level and picked up his pace. He had set up an interview with Captain McAllister-Xo the night before, the first part of his duty. He would not have long to examine the shelf of the first years. He was reaching for the panel to open the ever-dimmed rooms of the archives when he realized.

Under. Magda had said under space.


Captaincy was in McAllister-Xo’s bones. His family had guided the ship since the time of the first people—or so it was said. He greeted Pete and spoke to him of approach vectors and automated systems, stopping occasionally to check in with an officer or to type arcane sequences of keys into the mem-pad before him.

In one of these pauses, Pete told him of Magda’s death.

"That old witch," the captain said. "I always thought she’d live forever." He paused, coughed, scratched his temple with his middle finger. "Sorry. I know you were close."

"It was her time. But there was something she said before she passed that I thought you might be able to explain."

"Shoot."

"She was talking of the Archivists’ Code: record and preserve."

"I’ve heard it."

"Um, yes. But it was how she described it: ‘In all these lifetimes under space, that has been our calling.’ She said ‘under,’ not ‘in.’ What do you make of that?"

The captain shrugged. "She was old. She was dying. A slip of the tongue, some missed connection between her brain and her lips. What’s to make of it?"

The explanation made as much sense as any Pete could think of, but McAllister-Xo had not been there. Magda had been too alert, her voice too clear and strong for the word to be delirium or sickness. He remembered the way she had taken him to task for not listening clearly. There was something to what she had said, he was sure of it.

He thanked the captain and made his way to Bottom. Perhaps popular memory could tell him what high command could not.


Bottom, so called for its location at the lowest part of the ship, was a vast expanse of inspired agro-engineering which doubled as the ship’s food supply and as a living space for most of its population. It was as large as the rest of the ship.

The express lift plunged from the light-specked ceiling and sank past moisture sprays and clouds. The rolling green landscape which sped to meet him was the same as he remembered from before he had been taken above to the archives. He could just make out the pale, blue-tinged metal of the inner bulkhead a kilometre or so away. Then the trees rushed up and overhead, and the lift doors hissed open.

The smell of Bottom was earthy and moist, as different from the paper-dry odours of the archives as possible. He strode past farms and villages he knew from his childhood, passing within metres of the homes where his family and friends still lived. But he did not have time for a visit today.

At last, he reached his destination. Old Jadwiga had been ancient when he was still a child and, unlike Magda, had lived the hard life of a Bottom woman. She walked with a cane, bent over and shuffling, and her hands trembled as she invited him to sit. Her eyes were rheumy, and he had to repeat Magda’s dying words several times before she understood him.

"Under space, hmmm?"

She sat quiet for a few minutes after that, but Pete waited patiently. As slow as it was, even Old Jadwiga’s memory would be faster than trying to find just the right Bottom lore in the archives’ massive collection, which filled kilometres of shelving.

Just as Pete began to doubt his assessment, the old woman spoke again:

"I remember . . . under the time of Captain Xo, there was a great anger among the people."

"Captain Xo?" But that was ridiculous—the last captain of that name had served almost one hundred years ago. Jadwiga couldn’t possibly be that old, could she?

"Yes. Yes. People were angry, for the upper deck families took the best crops and we in Bottom had always to make do with their leavings. One year when I was a young girl . . . "

Jadwiga continued to speak, drawing out story after story of those long-dead and their actions. Pete let her voice fade into the background, half-listening for anything about the ship being ‘under’ space instead of in it. After an hour, he excused himself and left the old woman to her memories. They were fascinating enough, but of all she had said there were only two things relevant to Magda’s words.

First, something he’d forgotten from his childhood: people here took the designation of ‘Bottom’ with pride. They were liable to refer to any other part of the ship as "above." But Magda had come from an upper deck family, and in any case she had placed the entire ship under space, not just Bottom.

The second was a children’s rhyme, cryptic to the point of uselessness:

Under space and over all,
Ship-bound people standing tall;
When they reach their destination,
They will build a new old nation.

He shook his head as he re-entered the lift. Even the stacks, with their information overload, would likely have given him more than that.

There were only two hours left to landing, and Captain McAllister-Xo expected Pete to make a record of the dispersal. He hoped there would still be time to make it to the shelf of the first years and retrieve whatever Magda had hidden there.


The stacks were dark, but Pete did not bother with a light. The shelf of the first years was easy enough to find without looking: it was the only one empty.

He ran his hands over the smooth metal surface, then crouched down, feeling around behind the shelf with one awkward, outstretched arm. There was only open space. He wondered if he had, after all, put too much stock in the words of an old, dying woman.

Then, just as he was standing, giving up, something brushed the tips of his fingers. Something hard, with the texture of rough-spun cloth. He leaned his shoulder into the shelf, extending his arm until the muscles burned, and closed his hand around the item. A book.

Back in the lift, on the way to the McAllister-Xo and the ceremony, he brushed dust off the cover and read the title, embossed in the spine: The Book of the Ship.

He had expected something grander from the way the book was hidden, and Magda’s cryptic promises. He flipped to a random page, hoping it would make the book’s purpose clear. It was in one of the old languages: " . . . extended isolation studies, which have shown the feasibility of interplanetary travel, were first carried out . . . " Other pages were filled with similar stuff. Exciting as it was from an archival point of view—it was clearly very old—how could any of it be important to him in the days to come?

Perhaps he was misunderstanding the text, he thought. He had never mastered the old languages as Magda had. But he remembered her words as she lay dying. How can you record if you do not listen?

The same must be true of reading, of observation in general. He would have to take the time to decipher it, but time was something he did not have—he would have to wait until the dispersal had begun.


McCallister-Xo and a half-dozen officers were crammed into the control room with Pete, the captain going through the schedule one last time before the live broadcast began.

"First Officer Seong, you will say the words to set us on our way. I will then inform the ship about the dispersal order, and the dangers that may await them on the planet."

He had rehearsed these briefly already, his voice terse as he rattled off the items of a list apparently long memorized. The possibility of indigenous flora and fauna, dangerous or benign. Likely meteorological phenomena, dangerous or benign. How to handle riots from the people of Bottom, who were unused to change.

"We touched down three hours ago, ahead of schedule," the captain concluded. "All systems show a planet which matches the specifications from the few remaining scientific records of the first people. Oxygen content and purity is similar to Earth’s and the ship’s, and our exterior sensors show pressure well within comfort range."

Not for the first time, Pete marvelled at the shipbuilding genius of the first people. He had felt nothing whatsoever during the landing: the ship was silent and still as before. His regret for their missing records intensified, but at least he had the book.

The ceremony made up little more than a scant few words directed at the present, not the future. Vague and visionary things Pete did not bother to remember—the first moments of the dispersal would be infinitely more important, and anyway an officer with a vid crew was transmitting it all live to the entire ship.

They filed into the airlock, thick with the dry smell of centuries of stale emptiness. Pete, at the front of the crowd with the captain, watched the dull steel of the outer door. He wished the first people had put in windows—the scenes from the vid display had done little to whet his appetite for the new world. Yet as the door hissed open, he could not help closing his eyes tight, preparing poetic turns of phrase to use later when he wrote the events of this day, their first on the planet, the fruition of all their long labours.

But there was a black void beyond the ship when he did look, the only light a dim yellow which spilled from the airlock and illuminated little save a narrow, steel ledge jutting up against the ship. The vid-screen had shown hills, rock-strewn but wide and gentle. There was a sudden surge as the officers at the back tried to push forward out into the planet. Pete stumbled back, jostling against the press of bodies. He felt more than saw the newly empty space beside him—McCallister-Xo had fallen over the side of the ledge. His hoarse yells echoed down and away, punctuated in jerking thuds until at last all was silent.

That silenced them all, and one of the officers took out a maintenance flash-light. The stark white beam pulled fragments of horror out of the dark: bloody streaks left by the captain’s fall on the side of the ship; the hull stretching endlessly down, juxtaposed not against some outcropping of rock or grass but hard, slick steel. Dust and mildewed greens.

Across the ledge was a vast platform, similar in design to the ship itself. The far wall was rough stone and stretched up into darkness beyond the range of their vision; set into it were two massive steel doors, the words May God forgive us what we have done scrawled rust-coloured and huge above them in one of the ancient Earth languages. Pete translated for the others, his mind numb.

Captainless and bewildered—were they still on Earth? How? And why?—they wandered the platform in disarray, all thoughts of their grand journey’s fated destination fallen away into the dark. Three of the officers joined McCallister-Xo, walking slow, deliberate steps off the ledge, their descent all the more harrowing for its silence. Pete and the others heard only soft thuds and scratches as they tumbled off the hull of the ship they had served.

At last Pete remembered the book, Magda’s dying words. She had known—all the archivists had. His head felt loose on his shoulders as he staggered back to the airlock to read by its light.


It took a team of six rugged Bottom labourers several hours to shift the doors at the cavern’s edge. While they worked, other teams walked its interior, measuring and probing, trying to find some sort of explanation.

Pete read.

The book turned out to hold two separate texts, joined who knew when. The first, older text was the shorter of the two, and so despite the difficulty of its language, Pete tackled it first. It was set on official looking paper and dated in the old style, which had not been used as far as Pete was aware since the second or third generation.

This was the portion of the book he had turned to when he first found it. The terminology seemed wilfully obscure at points, and even when the words were clear the grammar was strange to him, but eventually Pete determined that it was a study on simulated space travel, commissioned by some long-ago Earth government.

He had struggled through half of it before the team breached the door, revealing empty, winding caves which branched and joined in maze-like arrays. The ship crew abandoned their search of the cavern where the ship sat and spread outward. It was dispersal of a sort, but tethered and impermanent, a ranging into the caves which always returned to the bulk of the ship.

They found none of the promised meadows, no life of any sort save mildew and fungi. There were streams, little trickling spots of damp which were clear and cool as promises on their tongue, filtered by the endless rock. The water tasted bitter in the dankness of their underground prison.

The teams were always careful to mark the way back to the ship, placing fluorescent strips from long-term storage on the walls or floors of the caves. But even so, some did not return. Other teams would come across markings which simply stopped, with no sign of life nearby and nobody to answer their calls.

When he was not ranging, Pete read the book. By now it was clear the ship had never left Earth, although the reason for this eluded them all. Pete skipped the rest of the first text and moved to the second, which was actually harder to read despite its language being more recognisably his own. It was technical in nature, describing systems the ship used to simulate space travel. Even though he didn’t understand most of what it said, Pete continued to read.

Then one day Pete’s team found the wall. It was at the end of a long passage which wound inexorably upwards, and it was made of brick. Pete watched, glad he had been there when it happened, as two Bottom men scrabbled at the caulking, hammered at the bricks with stalagmites they ripped from the cave floor, breaking down the dirt and rocks and scree beyond with equal fervour. He made no move to participate, caught up in fantasies of what they would find on the other side and readying what he would say when they returned to the ship.

All they found was ruin and stagnation, silence and death—an ash-choked swathe of land which stretched away beyond their new-made exit in the brick. Clouds of the dust blew past what must have once been a town, billowing out grey plumes from shattered buildings and tugging formless bundles of stuff.

The two men who had torn down the wall walked off into the dust, searching for life, supplies, or signs of what had happened. After an hour or two, with weak sunlight ribboning down, the other members of the party went too. Pete stayed: he would report back to the ship, he told them.

And so he watched and waited until the sun died a fiery red and the cold of evening set in. In the dim emptiness, he seemed to hear sounds in the distance, low sinuous hissings from the depths of history. The clouds of ash seemed to hide shadowy figures, but when they swirled away revealed only a shattered building, a rusting, useless metal hulk, or nothing at all. He shuddered and returned to the ship’s resting place, alone.

When he arrived, they questioned him. Why had he returned alone? Where was his team? What of the time they had spent out in the caves? He only shook his head, filled with grief, and passed them by.


"The secrets of the ship?"

"Yes, Captain Seong. Nothing of why we’re here, who the first people were or what purpose they hoped to achieve. But all the secrets of the ship’s systems, everything we need to prolong the illusion."

"And we should do this even though you found a way out?"

"Just come with me, Captain. Come with me and you will understand."


Captain Seong took little convincing once he had seen the desolation which lay beyond the caves. He and Pete took a few steps out down the hillside until the ash began to choke them, cold acrid fingers down their throats. They heard the sounds, saw things that were not there. Captain Seong swore he felt something brush his shoulder, though Pete was only a few feet away and saw nothing but ash. They turned back lest they lose sight of the entrance: Earth held nothing for them and if it did they were terrified of it.

Inside the cave mouth, the other officers waited. At a shake of the head from Captain Seong, they began to rebuild the wall, working in silence. On the walk back to the ship, they tore up the guide-strips. Over the next few days, as Bottom teams tore up the other strips, removing all signs which pointed to their ship, Pete and the officers between them got the ship’s systems rebooted.

When all was complete, they sealed the cavern doors and closed off the ship once more. The ship’s journey was a lie, but it was one with promise—promise they would pass on to later generations.


Pete finished transcribing the last of the records from the dispersal and sat back, cracking his knuckles. It was only right, he thought, that he complete his duty as Archivist before betraying it. His generation would keep few records, and preserve none of them.

He lifted the paper from the desk and set it in the book he held, behind the two older sets of papers, then walked with it from the stacks, nodding to the two officers who stood at the ready with vid-cams and torches.

At the door, he stopped to watch. One last time, one last event: the fire-swept cleansing of all they had recorded, all their history and lore. He felt no regret at the destruction of their legends and dreams, their pasts and their futures.

After a while, he set the book firmly under his arm, turned on his heel, and walked to the express lift and the rich, verdant hills of Bottom. Behind him, the tongues of flame licked over everything but the shelf of the first years, already long since empty.


This story first appeared in COSMOS‘ online edition in April of 2013.


If you’d like to sign up to receive updates to this blog by e-mail, you can check the little floating “Follow” box on the right-hand side, near the bottom of the screen. If you’re more of an RSS person, there’s also a link to the RSS in the side bar. If you enjoyed what you read, you might also like my novelette, The Abbot’s Garden, a tale of parallel worlds and early science fiction set in post-WW2 Japan. You can find it on your regional Amazon through the link below:

The Abbot’s Garden: a novelette by Stewart C Baker

Original Fiction: The Robotic Poet Reads Bashō

I’m pleased to announce that Beyond Borderlands, a hybrid academic/creative arts magazine, has just published “The Robotic Poet Reads Bashō,” a story of haiku criticism, parallel worlds, Thoreau, and the nature of reality. (I wrote the thing. In case that wasn’t clear.)

Here’s a brief teaser:

The robotic poet (who refers to herself in the third person, for reasons which may become clear) has been reading translations of Bashō, and has discovered two things in his work:

First, that our understanding of reality is largely a consensus agreement.

Second, and more importantly, that poetry can serve as a gateway to an infinite number of realities.

It may be tempting to attribute these little epiphanies to the vagaries of translation—to differences in interpretation and idiosyncratic syntax choices. (The robotic poet’s children were of the opinion that we all saw a single reality, but children have not lived. Not fully. The robotic poet herself remains convinced there is more going on.)

Intrigued? Confused? You don’t even?

You can read the rest of the story at Beyond Borderlands here: “The Robotic Poet Reads Bashō”.

I’ve published my short story “The Abbot’s Garden,” about a Zen abbot in post-war Japan, interdimensional travel, and rock gardens (among other things), to Amazon Kindle Direct. You can purchase a copy on your regional Amazon or read on below for a free preview. (Warning: cliffhanger!)


The Abbot’s Garden (preview)

by Stewart C Baker

Showa 26 (1951), Sunday February 11th

Ryouji believes he can contact beings from another reality by careful realignment of the monastery’s rock garden. Some of the blame for this is mine, and I have started this journal to track my efforts as abbot to cure him of his delusion.

He sits reading most nights in his rented room, the soft hum of the electric light just audible in my study across the courtyard. He never seems to mind the evening chill; he simply reads, trying to forget his wife’s death with immersion in the unreal. This obsession worries me—I am forever trying to change him, to show him a better way.

Occasionally I join him and he tells me fantastical stories from other lands, translating in bursts of Japanese as his thoughts overflow. I insert futile koan into the gaps between his words, hoping to awaken him to the true nature of things with strangely adapted Zen riddles:

“Has a fictional character Buddha-nature?”

Or: “Whenever he was asked about literature, Master Gutei simply tore a page out of a book.”

Or: “Ummon said, ‘Literature and ignorance correspond to one another. The whole earth is literature. What is your true self?'”

None of them ever work. He simply pauses a moment longer and continues speaking—no doubt he does not even properly hear my interjections, so busy as he is inside his head.

Tonight I had finally decided to try a different track. If Ryouji so loved books, I thought, I would supply books which instructed, books which could direct his powerful mind to better purposes. When I went to his rented room near the monastery’s southern gate, I took with me an armful of treatises on gardening.

If Ryouji saw them when I entered, he made no comment. He just looked up from the volume spread open on his desk, blinked a few times, and started to read aloud as though I had been there all along.

The story he told was of an apparently infinite library, and it was stranger even than his usual fare. Many of the books in this library did not even have words, holding simply the same three letters over and over for hundreds of pages. People lived there, spent their entire lives walking through it and reading and reading and reading. Some thought the books revealed some truth about the universe; others believed they were meaningless.

The story was blessedly short, and when he finished I cleared my throat. “Ryouji,” I said, “this tale perfectly describes your own situation.”

“Abbot Ichiou, am I to understand you actually listen to my readings? All this time I thought you came only to convert me.” A slight smile worked its way across his face to show he meant no disrespect by the comment, but I waved my hand in dismissal.

“It is my calling to listen,” I reminded him, “as well as instruct. It is you who do not attend. These stories you immerse yourself in—they are like the library you describe. They are illusions, Ryouji, endless illusions without meaning.

“But their endlessness, too, is illusory—the library only appears infinite. All illusion can be broken if you step outside it. You need only realise this to enter into the garden of life, the path to truth, and see clearly the attachments which threaten you.”

He looked at the closed book on his lap, but did not speak. I brushed off the front of my robe and stood, placing the books I had brought with me on his desk.

“I have brought you some books on gardening,” I said. “It is my fervent hope they will teach you to work with the real in a way these endless strings of words cannot. Good evening.”

But as I opened the door to his room, he spoke. “Gardening . . . of course! Your insight is amazing, Abbot.”

I stopped, one hand on the door-frame.

“The books are illusion,” Ryouji said. “I know that. It is what they tell us of reality that makes them useful. But the garden . . . “

I sat, cautiously optimistic. I had never expected him to even understand my gesture, let alone agree with it.

“In this same book,” he continued, “is the story of a garden, an infinite labyrinth. The narrator of the story believes the garden’s existence proves reality to be . . . “

He flipped through the pages in his lap.

“To be ‘an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.’ Each of these ‘times’—each newly split-off reality—is caused by the decisions we make in our daily life. More importantly, these different realities can interact.”

“Ryouji,” I said, my head spinning.

“The garden in the story is actually just a book,” he continued, “although its long-dead author has misled generations of scholars by writing of an endless labyrinth he wished to produce. The labyrinth and the book—the garden—are one and the same, but so are the book and reality, the labyrinth and reality.”

“Ryouji!”

He waved me to silence. “The details of the story are not important. What is important, Abbot, is the connection with gardens. Gardens are essentially natural landscapes, which means they must exist in many realities. But they are also man-made, and like our actions must be different in each.

“It is like Elfland, a magical kingdom from an old book indeed. There are places where its boundaries overlap with our own, and sometimes the boundaries weaken, and . . . “

I put a hand to my forehead. More stories? More insane, impossible realities?

“Ryouji, please!”

“Sorry, Abbot. Anyway, what matters is that we can create just such a weakened boundary between our reality and others by carefully manipulating our garden.”

He thumped the gardening treatises I had brought him to emphasize his point. “We can make contact with versions of ourselves who live in other ‘dimensions of time’!”

I had not seen him so animated in all his six years at the monastery since his wife passed away, but my heart grew heavy. My attempt to help had done little more than cloud his vision further. His own private tragedy still ruled his emotions, still held his spirit in check.

I could not speak. Without another word, I stood and returned to my room and this diary.


Showa 26 (1951), Monday February 12th

Ryouji has spent the day in the garden, bothering the monks with surprisingly deft questions about the books I loaned him. I believe the only reason they have not thrown him out is that he has made no secret of his strange belief about communicating with other realities, and they do not know what to make of it.

Some take it as a sort of practical koan, wondering if Ryouji has finally given up his scholar’s trappings. They ask if he has come to me, if he has read something in some sutra that rang true, and when I admit to giving him the gardening books, they ask if he has become enlightened. If he is going to join our brotherhood instead of merely living in our midst.

I dare not tell them he is sincere.

Others are not as well-intentioned. Brother Haku, who adheres to folk superstitions with the same fervour Ryouji feels for his books, approached me in the dining hall this evening.

“Abbot Ichiou,” he said. “There is something that troubles me, and I have come to you for guidance. I have heard that you gave Ryouji some treatises on gardening, despite the fact that they are meant to be secret.”

Inwardly, I groaned. Haku had never liked Ryouji, and my association with the man he saw as an outsider had turned him from a good monk into a bitter, jealous soul. Another of my failings, is poor brother Haku.

“It is true,” I said. “I hope they—”

“Is it true, then, Abbot, that he using them to summon demon spirits in the rock garden?”

I allowed myself to laugh. “There you are mistaken, Brother Haku. Ryouji will surely do no such thing.”

“No? And yet I am sure I have heard—”

“As to what you have heard, Brother Haku, I cannot say.”

He flushed, but pressed on: “And yet, does Ryouji not read strange books in place of the sutras? Does he not spend his hours jotting furious notes, learning foreign tongues, or doing other empty things?

“His condition has worsened since he arrived at the monastery all those years ago. His soul has only become more inured in the fatal chain of samsara. If not even righteous words can change his spirit . . . “

I sighed. “It is true that Ryouji is troubled. His path to truth will be much longer than yours or mine. That is why I gave him the books.”

Haku’s eyes narrowed. “There is some sense to that, I suppose.”

“Indeed. And no matter how strange he is, the idea that he has taken up gardening to summon demons is ridiculous.”

“All the same, Abbot, I am worried.”

“I will talk to Ryouji,” I said. “I am sure there is some misunderstanding.”

Haku looked sideways at me as though he wanted to say more, then shook his head, bowed and left the hall.


Showa 26, Sunday February 18th

Ryouji has spent the entire week constructing a new garden in the empty yard behind the bath-house. His designs are shockingly unorthodox, as expected of one who lacks adequate training. Indeed, at times he seems to go out of his way to flaunt the books I gave him. He places boulders in abhorrent arrangements which have strange effects on the eye, making the garden seem twenty times larger than it is. His tree-pruning is barbarous, the designs that result impossible to describe and uncomfortable to look upon.

The koi pond feeds into a small stream which does not cross the garden north to south, as it should, nor even east to west. Instead it makes a circle, feeding in turn back into the pond, where some number of fish glitter and splash. I tried to count them only once, but they seemed to split off and join into each other in ways I could not quite believe were caused just by ripples in the water. It made me dizzy, and when I looked away I saw quite clearly reflected in the pond a double of myself, eyes wide in horror. I jumped back, shouting in surprise, but the space beside me was empty. When I told Ryouji what I had seen he only smiled and refused to explain.

Since then I have avoided the place and its illusions. The other monks too are disturbed by the garden’s oddness, but since no demons have sprung from behind boulders they have begun to think that Ryouji was not being serious. They are content for now to watch and wait, and hope he will give it up and return to his books.

I hope it as well, but there is something in the air, something like the pressure that arrives before a storm. I remember the tales of the first patriarchs’ awakening and I shudder to think what it might mean.


Showa 26, Tuesday February 20th

Today, Ryouji walked into the dining hall when he was already there.

It was the noon-time meal, and the hall was filled with a peaceable quiet. But at the second Ryouji’s entrance, the silence turned to ice. This new Ryouji strolled to the table where he usually sits—was already sitting. He pointed to the seated version of himself, let out a yell of triumph, and started to jabber incomprehensible questions.

The hall exploded into riotous sound, the monks all shouting and pointing and trying to get away from these two impossible men. The first Ryouji slowly stood, brushing off his simple russet-coloured robe. He took two steps towards the newcomer, held out a single piece of paper, then flickered out of sight like a cloud of steam rising from a hot spring in winter.


Want to read the rest? Head on over to your regional Amazon, where you can pick up the ebook for only $2.99.

One of the poetic forms I’ve been toying with lately is the chōka. This long-form Japanese poetic structure is one of the earliest forms of waka, and tanka derives from it. Which means it’s a very distant ancestor of haiku, that’s for sure!

Similarly to haiku and tanka, the chōka goes in alternating five- and seven-on lines, and–again like the tanka—is capped with a pair of seven-on lines (an on being a “sound unit”—normally translated to “syllable” but not quite the same). The main difference is that chōka can be of any length you wish. Historically the form was often used as a panegyric–public songs performed publicly in praise of the various Japanese kings, queens, and emperors.

M. Kei has a very informative post on the form if you’re interested in learning more: http://kujakupoet.blogspot.com/2006/05/origins-of-japanese-poetry-choka.html

This poem of mine, tentatively titled “River-cut,” started with an image of the lush hills of coastal Oregon rising from the foggy seas. I think it sounds more like the start of an epic than a complete poem in its own right, but here’s the opening so far:

River-cut

by Stewart C Baker

once was a time
when green hills rose tree-skirted
from the mist
cast up by waves and spellcraft
all along the coast
their slopes glinting, sunlit,
until all rolling
they merged with the waves below
identical
in all but their stillness
and the stags which danced
across their untouched meadows
skittish at man-smell
echoing earthbound the hawks
who wheeled and dove
to pick clams from the water
and drop them again
to shatter into fragments
on rock-dagger shoals
overrun with human sounds
as fresh-hewn ships
sleek and eager as terns
spilled from the rivers’ frothing


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Original Fiction: “They Come in Waves” at Freeze Frame Fiction

In lieu of posting a new piece of fiction or a reprint here this week, I’d like to direct your attention to the newly-launched Freeze Frame Fiction, which just went live today.

As you may have been able to tell, I have a story in this new ‘zine! I like to joke that it’s a story about lesbian zombie romance, but stripped of hyperbole a better description might be that it’s about relationships, regret, and still zombies.

Here’s a teaser:

No breath any more.

Cold steel at the edge of the darkness, and voices.

He pushes, and with a screeching buckle there is light and scent and terror like a drug in the air.

The salty copper taste of flesh and blood.

#

Jorah sits up shivering with cold and perspiration, sure that in the moment just before her dream turned to morning she had heard a distant booming thunder like the white caps of waves falling in on themselves.

She collapses her tent, packs and shoulders her bag, and hurries on down the trail. Remembering the dream, she takes another photo and sends it to Ella.

I am here, Jorah imagines it saying. I am here, I am coming, I am sorry. Do not forget me. Love.

So if you like flash fiction, go check out my story and the rest of the pieces in the first issue of Freeze Frame Fiction!


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Now Available at Grievous Angel: two short speculative poems

I mentioned last week that I’d sold a haiku and a tanka to Grievous Angel, a new e-zine by Charles Christian of Urban Fantasist.

Well, they’re now live!

Go check it out for yourself at http://www.urbanfantasist.com/article/new-poetry–haiku—tanka-5071

If you’re of the poetic or flash-fictional persuasion yourself, I’d also add that I received a prompt turn-around time on my submission and—just as importantly—was paid promptly upon publication.

Reprinted and Original Haiku

by Stewart C Baker

fresh-raked coals
she takes her father’s will
out on her children


Originally appeared in A Hundred Gourds

freeway moon
the slow occlusion
of my evening


Unpublished

 
election day I cast my line into the river


Originally appeared in
Modern Haiku

sunny weather
she waits for her lover
to get over it


Unpublished

orchid tree
the drifting scent
of traffic


Originally appeared in Crysanthemum

after the funeral
identical cars
turning the corner


Unpublished


 


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Reprint: Butterflies

Butterflies

by Stewart C Baker

She was four when they furrowed her, opening holes in her skull and channels through her brain. She was four when they prepared her for the Tree.

Four, but not afraid—not really. Jeyna had known of the Tree, of course, and how important the guardian’s duties were, but fear was foreign to her, along with the words her parents had repeated the night before: honour, sacrifice, pride.

Her parents themselves she remembers mostly as a jumble of impressions, all tear-streaked faces and shaking hands. She can picture their clothes, though, crisp and orderly, their pristine white subtly emphasising the cream-coloured soulsteel curves of the Place’s inner halls.

Her father’s broken baritone still echoes through her mind: “It’s not right, Kel. Not right.”

Still, he left her there.

They both had, outside the surgery, but she had not been afraid. She was curious. What would it be like, this new life with the Tree? She turned to the doors to find them open, awaiting her.

And to find Marin, clad in a vibrant red robe, her arms outstretched in welcome.

Marin, who was all smiles and gentle caring, who held her hand during the blackening pain of the furrow, and who soothed her burning recovery with patience and cool water. Marin, who trusted and raised and loved her all through the long years of her training.

#

A life without Marin? Jeyna would as well imagine a life without the Tree, a life without the smooth soulsteel of the Place around her. But they never lie, the realities which flitter in the forefront of her altered mind—the infinite storm of relentless, ash-grey butterflies.

The Tree, as always, buttresses her body and spirit. Its monofilament tendrils drift out and above her place within its trunk, comforting in their familiar motions. She can feel—very dimly—the sharpness where its interface pierces the base of her skull, but mostly she feels the supple smoothness of its soulsteel on her flesh, its vast energy throbbing through her.

She feels also the Place, its winding inner passages and its dizzying shafts, its artificial oceans and sprawling, engineered forests. It is for this beautiful globe of living green and tempered soulsteel that she stays vigilant, for all its teeming millions that she performs her duties.

Out here beyond the ends of time, her mind and the Tree are all that separate life from death. For a decade she has stood her watch, striking at each metaphysical butterfly, choosing a single one of its wings to affix to the vision of the Tree she keeps in her mind. Only one path can stay the Place through time.

She must carry out her duty in an instant: that is all it would take for the butterflies to settle on the tree she holds in her mind. Then, reality would stutter and trip, the bubble of space-time that keeps her people safe would fade. The Place and its wonders would burst into ghastly oblivion.

She has never failed in her duty, has never missed a single instant. Even the butterflies, ivory-tinged and formal, that spelled her parents’ deaths she struck through without regret. Always, she has chosen the reality which prolongs the Place. Always, she has acted.

Until now, when the butterfly is clad in red and bears Marin’s face.

And so, instead of striking, Jeyna hesitates: the butterfly settles into the leaves of the tree in her mind. It jerks and twitches its wings, and in a fluttering of light spawns two new red-black pests.

The Place begins to shift, a subtle disjunct only Jeyna can feel. She closes her eyes, striking the child realities from the tree in her mind as they appear. But always, when she returns to the red butterfly, she hesitates; always, she lets it dance its wings and propagate.

Eventually, inevitably, she slips again.

The butterfly-children twitch and dance, and there are four realities, four choices. She makes two, but the others have split, and when she solves those there are more. The Tree thrums with heat as she draws on its power; her skin burns with the frantic pace of closing possibilities.

Jeyna knows she cannot keep up—the disjuncts are feeding off each other, each butterfly-branch branching, the blight spreading until she is faced with a seething red-black chaos, an endless array of choices and realities she can no longer process.

She slumps, sweat-sodden, against the hardness of the Tree, and opens her eyes. The walls of the Place begin to flicker, then fade, and the swirling purples and greens of the maelstrom press through.

#

At fifteen, she made ready for the joining. She fasted fifteen days, cross-legged on the floor of her cell, for the Tree required great purity of body.

Next, two nameless men, their faces obscured by shimmering, half-teardrop masks, led her to the baths. Immersed in the crystal-heated waters, Jeyna recited the rituals Marin had taught her, for the Tree required great purity of mind.

Then Marin arrived, quietly smiling, and spoke the words: “Young one, pure one, cleansed of the world. I come to ask of you your duty. Are you able to serve? Have you made ready, body and soul?”

Jeyna stood, the clean freshness of the water sluicing over the cusp of her youth, down the lean, untested curves of her body. She felt washed free from the stains of life, and was pleased.

“I have, and I am.”

Marin nodded, her face aglow with a fierce and loving pride, and escorted her to the Tree. The old guardian stood there still, ensconced in the hollowed-out bole of the trunk. Her eyes darted about the room, the only sign that life and wits had not left her.

Jeyna took in her empty, sagging body, the narrow wrinkled lumps where bone showed through her papery skin. She had seen these things before, but always at a distance. The guardian had been for her a kind of shrine, an ideal to work towards. Now it was her own body she saw in those tired limbs and that misshapen flesh. Her own darting eyes and grim mouth.

A frisson of excitement shot through her. To serve so long…

She looked to Marin, who lay a hand on her bare shoulder, its pressure firm, yet light.

Then it was all happening at once: a gasping rattle from the guardian; the two men removing the woman’s shuddering body from the Tree.

Marin lifted Jeyna into place in the now-empty hollow. “She who was guardian is gone,” she said, “but lives on in you. All those before now stand watch with you. Remember them, and do them honour, and strive to act as they have acted. As they stand with you, you stand for the living. You can not fail.”

Jeyna took one final unaugmented glance at the Place, and then the Tree’s interface pushed into her brain as she slipped into the soothing embrace of its cold, rigid walls.

Beautiful, she thought, seeing for the first time not only the Place as it was, but as it might be—as it must not be.

So began her watch.

#

Jeyna staggers, naked in the cold of the Tree-room. She grasps for the butterfly choices, but they are gone, and with them the tree in her mind. Everything is knocked loose. Her life, the lives of the Place. Reality itself is no longer certain but a dread, stumbling mystery.

How had—? What—?

The Tree! She spins, but it is occupied; a fresh-faced girl stands in her place, eyes adart with her duties.

Jeyna knows, then, what has happened. This new guardian has pulled them back from the brink and replaced her. She has failed.

A hand touches her shoulder, a nostalgic feeling like the last blush of childhood. It is Marin, she knows without looking.

“I doomed us,” Jeyna says.

“Almost.”

Jeyna snaps her head around. “Almost? The Place shattered; the colours of space were pushing in; I could—”

“You stood your guard ten years, long enough for me to train a new guardian. When reality crumbled, you fought long enough for her to retrieve you—and it. Whatever choice unseated you does not change that. You did not doom us.”

The confused anger drains all in a rush, and Jeyna hangs her head. “Your death. I could not allow your death.”

Marin laughs, but there is no malice in it. “All things die, child. Even here, even now.”

“But you were the only one. Always…”

“My death will not change our past together, child—Jeyna.”

Marin squeezes her shoulder, and Jeyna remembers the turbulence of puberty, how she had tried to make Marin hate her, resent her, show any emotion at all beyond warm acceptance. The feeble strength in the older woman’s hand surprises her, its skin like paper-covered bone. All things die.

She tries to hide the tears that come, as she can not stop them.

“My death will not end me, either,” Marin continues. “In this place, as in all others, we live only as guests in each other’s hearts. I will live on within you, Jeyna, and in the child now in the Tree.”

“And when I die? When she dies?” Even here, even now. “When all of us are gone, and the Place with us?”

Marin’s hand leaves her shoulder, and Jeyna regrets the questions, the bitterness of her voice. Is she still a child, to act this way? But then Marin is before her, catching her up in an embrace cool and red.

“I’m sorry,” Jeyna whispers.

“You are right to ask. We alone hold back the veil of night from all that ever was. We alone carry forth the beauty and rightness of life. There may be a time when the veil drops, but that too will be beautiful and right.”

Marin steps back, then, gently lifting Jeyna’s hands from the red of her robe.

“I know,” Jeyna says, “and I understand, but the hurt is no less.”

“For that,” Marin says, “I am sorry. But my time has passed, and more than passed.”

Jeyna meets the older woman’s gaze. She expects to see sorrow there, red-rimmed pain to match her own, but Marin’s eyes are at peace—the cloudless, reaching blue of an open sky.

There is another reeling snap as reality resolves itself, and Marin is gone. Other things, too, are subtly different: the shape of the room, the colour of its walls. She notices a slight variance in the drift of the Tree’s tendrils, and wonders what other changes have been wrought.

She tries not to think of oceans and forests, of countless trusting souls.

Besides, it cannot be undone. She draws a single jagged breath and turns to face the uncertainty of a life without everything she has known.

But there next to the door stands one of the nameless men. He bows his masked head and raises his hands in supplication. In them, a robe of the richest crimson. Jeyna takes it, surprised at its roughness. Always before she had thought it soft.

Marin wore this once, she thinks. Then she does understand, well and truly. Laughter bubbles up from somewhere deep within as half-forgotten conversations wash over her.

The robe fits well around her neck; it settles into place on her shoulders with a distant, yet somehow familiar comfort.

“This too is beautiful and right,” she murmurs.

The nameless man nods—a terse, disjointed movement all angles and duty. “As you say.”

Jeyna smiles. She allows herself one last brush of her fingers over the fabric, one final indulgence. Then it is time.

Past time. “Come,” she says, and strides from the room.

She does not look back, but she remembers.


This story first appeared in Spark: A Creative Anthology in the January, 2014 issue. You can purchase a copy at the Spark website (ebook and print both available).


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Sold! Two speculative poems to Grievous Angel.

I’m happy to say that I sold a speculative haiku and a speculative tanka to Grievous Angel, a new imprint of Urbanfantasist.com.

There was a quick turn-around time on these, and the editor, Charles Christian, seemed personable when I queried about a few unclear points in the guidelines (since updated), so I’d definitely recommend sending him some speculative poems if you’ve got ‘em! Payment is $1 per line, with a $5 minimum. (Also 6 cents per word for flash, $20 minimum.)

I’m told my two poems will run some time this week, so that’s a plus as well.