False Starts, part the 3rd

Posted: February 10, 2011 in sci fi
Tags: , , , ,

My brother told me about this thing called “exquisite corpse” in which one person starts a story, and then others continue to write additions to it.So, in the interests of seeing if such a thing can be done in this day and age, I present this little nugget. Let’s see what we can come up with. It’ll be like Linux – all open sourcey and stuff. Yays!

A Flaming Sword Round About

More so than just being old, what struck me most about the man was the fact that he looked tired. I mean, really tired, bone weary, fed up, disgusted, sick-and-tired-of-your-shit tired.Some old people have this air of childlike wonder about them.Some look mean and grouchy, as if all their lives they’ve lived for this one thing, only to find out that it was all a lie. This guy looked like he’d seen it all, over and over again, for years and years. He just couldn’t be impressed. Not by you, me, Obama, anybody. Not a single damn could he give. Not at all.

He sat in a rickety little folding lawn chair, next to an equally rickety looking gate. It was one of those wrought iron, Fleur de lis things, covered in layers of chipped and peeling paint. Funny thing was, it wasn’t connected to a fence. It hung there, suspended among the weeds. He sat watch to it, like a security guard waiting for the shift change.

Our archaeological digs had been covering a lot of ground nearby, so to speak. We were trying to salvage whatever history we could, frankly. This part of Iraq had seen a lot of fighting: against the Mullahs of Iran; the Kurdish separatists; the missiles of George H. W. Bush; the willing coalition of his son; the Shia, the Sunni, the Baathists, the Medes, the Elaamites, whoever and whatever else. We felt lucky to find more than two sticks propped up against each other. A bit of pottery fragment here, a scrap of leather there. We were trying to piece together the lives of people, dead for thousands of years, based on rumor, hearsay and dusty old garbage. It was tedious, miserable, fidgety work, and we loved it.

The old man and his gate were at the end of a long dirt road. Scruffy tufts of grass, a twisted and gnarled old tree with sparse leaves that gave neither shade nor shelter. The old man, and his gate. Dr. Mansuur spoke first, asked him how he was doing. He nodded. It seemed to take a supreme amount of energy for him to do this. He looked at me for a moment, the creases in his face deepening slightly.

“What do you want?” he asked, in unaccented, expressionless English.

Yeah, I was a little shocked. Just about anywhere we went in this part of the country, English was a third or forth language at best. Our interpreter had been a lifesaver -literally- on more than one occasion. Mansuur was a doctor in his own right: a paleontologist. He was able to explain in Arabic, and a few other languages, a lot of what we were up to. So, the rest of us, me especially, had gotten lazy. Pressed for an answer, in straightforward English no less, I guess I balked a bit.

“Um,” I stammered, “we’re archaeologists, and-”

“I know what you are,” the old man interrupted. “What do you want?”

“To, ah, to learn the history of this place, I suppose you could say,” I lamely finished.

The old man grunted. “I guess that my command of the English language is not so good,” he lied. “What do you, want. Here.” He jabbed a long, bony finger at the ground. It seemed like an accusation.

“Uh, to dig around here?” I guessed. “See what we can turn up? Maybe we can find something here, something really important, to, well, convince people to stop fighting in this area?” The old man looked at me, expectantly. “That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? No more fighting?” God knows why I felt so…caught. I had the sensation of being a little kid trying to explain to his dad why I was digging a huge hole in the front yard. I felt I had no good reason to be there, with the old man, his scraggly tree and his gate without a fence. I felt like a fool.

“Heh,” the old man breathed. It was a cross between a grunt and a laugh. “Dig around all you like.” He gestured indulgently. “You won’t find a thing to stop the bloodshed, though. Dig everywhere your little heart desires.

“Just don’t go through the gate. I warn you.”

“Don’t go through it?” I asked.

The old man looked at Dr. Mansuur, asked him something in Arabic. The good doctor replied, and the old man nodded in response. Then, he fixed his eyes on me. They were… very dark. Piercing and black. “He says you’re not mentally impaired. I have my doubts. Nevertheless, I will struggle to put it in words that even you could understand. Dig on this side of the gate. Dig on that side of it. Look all around the gate till you have unearthed every stone, stick and sand flea. Do not, however, under any circumstances, walk through the gate.”

“You do know,” I offered, “that there is no fence?”

“I do not share your lack of understanding, I have eyes,” the old man mocked. “Yes, there is no fence.”

“So what’s the gate for?”

“To keep you out, of course,” he huffed. “Don’t ask me anything else.”

And that was that.


The old man had been right. Months had gone by. We sifted through an Everest of sand, it seemed. We found nothing. Everyday, the old man scowled at us, his dour expression never changing. His disapproval became palpable, and he could barely hold it in check. “Have you learned anything yet?” he would taunt us.

“Don’t you have anywhere else to be?” I finally barked at him. This, oddly enough, garnered the only smile from him I ever saw.

“You see?” he grinned. “This is a place of discord. People have fought here for millennia, and they will fight for thousands of years still. The sword will never depart from this land,” he sniffed.

It was right then, that I decided that I would kill him. Bitter old coot. Should have been dead long ago.

I began a new field of study. I measured his comings and goings. I noted what he ate, what he drank, what hand he used, when he did these things. What foot he started to walk with. The length of his gait. The tone of his voice. All these things I did on the sly, of course.

“We’ve been all over this place,” Dr. Lewis began, one day. “There’s nothing here. Isn’t it time to move on?”

“I think,” I lied, “we could concentrate our excavations in the southwest corner. Sector nine, maybe.”

“Again?” Dr. Mansuur asked.

“We must be thorough, rigorous,” I replied. “We may not have this opportunity again.” All the while, observing, studying, quantifying the old man. Right arm never swings when he walks. Must be damaged. Chewed on the left side. Voice almost always got louder a tiny bit right at the end of a sentence. Forty breaths a minute, average.

Every day, without fail, he taunted me. “Have you learned anything new?”

Yes. I’ve learned that your right ear is your good one. I learned that I could tiptoe through sand and make no sound other than the rustling of the stubbly grasses around you. I’ve learned that if I could smash you over the head one good time, I could bury you in a nearby marsh, and they’d never find you. Not that you’d be missed, miserable bastard.


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