Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Gamayun, in a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov 
A chapter from the Novel-In-Progress

The Giri bird sat in the world tree, high, high and very high up; not the topmost branch, which was forbidden her, but close. High, high above the worlds which spun, a frothy and glowing foam far below.
She ruffled her dark feathers, settled more comfortably onto her branch. The world tree was older than old; tall it was, and strong, and though few winds stirred it, some did.
It did not do to relax one’s grip. It was unpleasant to fall.
With her sharp black beak she dug beneath one wing, grooming. She ferreted out a louse; in its impertinence, the crawly creature had been trying to feast on her blood; biting and clawing for purchase it had hurt her. She snapped its little carapace in her sharp beak, ignoring squeaks and pleas for mercy.
She was the Giri bird. She had outgrown mercy aeons ago.
Somewhere, down on one of the many worlds in the roiling soup below, something flashed, catching her attention. The Giri bird cocked her head, bent her bright eye toward the thing.
It had been several centuries since she had been intrigued. She hopped a little, further toward the end of her branch, to get a better look.
She thought she might go have a look.
Creaking from millenia of inactivity, the Giri bird stretched out her impressive wings. Feathers, razor sharp, grated and rustled against one another. She gave a preparatory flap, stirring up the winds of fate beneath her wings. One raucous, harsh cry, and she was launched.
Black wings spread wide, the Giri bird coasted in lazy spirals, down, down, down into the shining realms which lay, a thick fog, about the middle sections of the world tree. She was old, but her bright eyes were keen. It didn’t take her long to find what she sought.

The day was dark grey and cold. There was nothing to eat, and the babies were crying. Orghuz sat before the door of her yurt, the biggest in the small encampment, and chewed a small piece of straw.
A few flakes of snow blew, here and there, mocking her. The ground was dry, but the snow would come. Orghuz squinted at the low clouds. Tonight, perhaps.
Then the last of her clan would die.
A great, black bird of impressive wing span had been circling overhead, and dropped now, dropped from the sky, landing a few feet away on an outcropping of rock. It cocked its head, and looked at Orghuz out of one bright black eye.
She had thought it was a vulture, the way it had been circling, but it was something else. She had never seen such a bird. Some sort of hawk, perhaps.
“Have you come to feast on these old bones, sister?” She spoke to the creature. Why not? Who was there to hear, or to care? Besides, creatures had intelligence.
She knew this. It was good to be cautious. To be polite.
The bird said nothing, but opened its beak, silently. It flapped those big black wings, twice, then settled in to grooming itself.
Orghuz cackled. “Not much meat on my bones, even for you, feathered one.” She laughed at her own dark humor. The black one stretched her feathered head skyward, bobbing.
Perhaps she was laughing, too.
Orghuz did not know what to do. The men were all gone, all dead. Only a few teenage boys remained, and they the ones unfit for fighting. Maimed, malformed, touched by the gods, or cowards.
She glanced toward Orduk, a tall, shapely lad, golden hair falling in a stream of yellow across his shoulders. Thirteen summers, perhaps fourteen. She had lost count. He sat, his back to her, face turned toward the wide, empty plain, arms wrapped around himself, rocking.
If he turned toward her, she knew what she would see. Empty eyes, drooling lips.
Perhaps they should eat him tonight. They had not found water for days. His blood, his meat, would sustain the dwindling numbers of her family for another sunset, perhaps two.
They had not had to resort to eating one another, yet. It was only a matter of time. They had slaughtered and devoured the last of the horses three days ago.
Perhaps she should offer herself. I am an old woman. Why should I live and Orduk die? Yet even as the thought spoke to her, she knew it was false. There was more meat on Orduk; she would barely even flavor the broth of a soup.
Orduk was an eternal child; a man’s body with a toddler’s mind. She, on the other hand, well. Her wiley and quick mind had kept them alive, thus far. Kept them one step ahead of their enemy, the enemy who was hunting and driving them from their lands.
The cruel enemy who had killed all their men. All her sons.
Yet Orghuz knew her bag was almost empty of tricks. They had listened to her, gone where she told them: up, up, up into unknown lands, far beyond the high pastures. So far, the enemy had not followed.
But there was no water here, no game.
Orghuz feared she had led her people into a trap.
The enemy had no need to follow. The winter would finish off the tribe.
Orghuz felt the bright eyes of the bird on her, watching.
“Have you come to watch us die, feathered one?”
The bird gave a raucus cry that could have meant anything at all. Then, spreading those massive, night coloured wings, it flapped lazily to the top of Orghuz’ yurt, tucked its head beneath one wing, and slept.
They did not eat Orduk that night. Orghuz did not have the heart for it.
That night, she dreamt.
She stood alone on the bald knob of a treeless and grassless hill, high above the plains below. The wind whistled and tore at her clothes and hair. It was cold; she was barefoot.
Orghuz shivered.
For more than sixty years she had been athalto, seer, to her tribe. She knew this dreaming for what it was. A true vision.
She looked around her. The sky was grey beneath its listless cover of clouds. Where was the sun?
She could not tell if it were morning or evening.
There did not seem to be anything at all here she could use to help her tribe survive.
That in itself was a message.
Their time had run out.
A pain beyond sorrow slammed into Orghuz’ old chest, shattering the numbness she had felt for weeks and weeks now, wandering in the grey uplands. She dropped to her hands and knees, an animal in the dirt. The sharp stones and gravel cut her knees and hands, hurting her. Tears and spittle mingled with blood on the stony, lifeless ground.
Someone, anyone.
Hear me. Help us.
Orghuz swung her head back and forth. Her grey braids dragged in the dust.
I will do anything.
There was the sound of the flapping of great, night coloured wings. A loud cry, a raucous caw, sounded to her left. Orghuz raised her head, sat back on her knees.
Two bright black eyes regarded her with keen interest.
They shone out of the smooth face of a beautiful woman, sitting, as Orghuz did, down on her knees on the sterile ground. Her skin was moon pale, her hair in a thousand tiny braidlets long enough to sweep the ground. Her eyes were all pupil, no iris, no surrounding white, and were black as jet.
Her garment was made all of black feathers. It rustled and scraped together when she moved.
Orghuz, ahthalto for sixty years, recognized the woman for what she was: an Old One, a High One. She bowed, lowering her old head low, low, touched her forehead to the ground before this visitor to her dreams.
She remained there, silent. She would not be impertinent. She waited for the dream visitor to speak.
“Orghuz, your people are almost at an end.”
Orghuz sat up, sat back on her heels, and regarded the other woman. Her voice had been as a scraping whisper on the wind.
She nodded. “Yes, Lady, it is even as you say.” Why deny the truth?
“And you would save them?”
Orghuz was ahthalto; she was old and clever and quick of wit. She recognized the opening of negotiations.
“I would.”
The woman in the feathered garment nodded, her strange wide eyes, pools of black, glinted with interest. She cocked her head to one side.
“Do they deserve to be saved, do you think?”
Orghuz saw the trap, and stepped deftly around it. She spread her hands.
“Who among humankind deserves life, Great Lady? To live is a gift of the gods.”
The woman smiled, a strange twisting of her features that was not entirely comforting.
“Your words are well said, Orghuz of the Erdel. No one deserves life. It is a gift.
“But in truth, your tribe deserves it even less than most, do they not?” The woman cocked her head to the other side. The shrug of her shoulders reminded Orghuz of a bird fluffing its feathers.
“Your people have become corrupt and cruel, and the land vomits you out.” Wind ruffled the feathers of the woman’s black garment. “Why should I help you?”
Orghuz was a skilled bargainer. She bowed low to the woman, then spoke again.
“My Lady would not waste her time with such as I am, if there were not some small thing, some small service, her servant could provide. Perhaps,” Orghuz looked at the ground as she spoke, “Perhaps My Lady yearns to show kindness to a small people, and receive their gratitude.”
Orghuz felt rather than heard the creature’s laughter. It electrified the wind; even the little sharp stones beneath her old knees seemed to chuckle and shake.
“I like you, Orghuz of the Erdel.” Orghuz raised her head, looked up. The creature’s eyes glittered with light.
“I will help you, if you agree to my terms.”
“I listen, My Lady.” Orghuz peeled her ears. She must listen carefully. She must make the best bargain she might for her people.
The Creature spoke. “You are being driven by your enemies, westward, and upward, beyond the high pastures, and your back is now against the mountains. This you know. Beyond these mountains is a land that once belonged to a people who served me, long and long and long ago, before you or your people ever were.
“My people were conquered, all destroyed, by the ones who now hold that land.” The Creature’s dark eyes grew darker, and she frowned. “It was long ago.”
“The ones who are in my land now, they do not serve me.” She cocked her head again, turned her bright black gaze on Orghuz.
“I will give you their land, if you and your people will serve me.”
Orghuz nodded. It was what her people needed. Land. Home.
“How would we serve you, Generous Lady?”
The Creature continued to look at Orghuz; for what seemed like a long time, she said nothing. There was only the keening of the sharp wind, while the sharp stones continued to cut into Orghuz’ old knees. A thin trickle of blood continued a slow ooze into the ground where she knelt.
Even in her dream she felt herself slipping away. Her head was light with hunger. With blood loss.
“I would teach you a Way of Power.” The words were almost lost on the wind, but Orghuz, desperate and despairing, caught them, listened, nodded.
“You would serve me with blood. And cruelty.” Orghuz glimpsed an ancient madness peering out from behind the bright black eyes.
“You will wipe the Other from my land; you will never make peace.
“I will make you a queen, ahthalto. A queen of your people. You will rule for seven generations, and will give birth to many sons.
“Your daughters and their daughters will be queen after. So long as you keep our pact.”
Orghuz listened to the Creature. “I am old, Feathered Lady. Will Old Orghuz yet give birth to sons and daughters?”
The laughter of the Creature was sharp. The wind swirled up a little dust devil of amusement.
“Do you have a maiden in your camp, Orghuz? A maiden ripe for mating, succulent and sweet, who has not yet known a man?”
Orghuz thought, then nodded, one solemn swing of her old grey head. A heaviness laid itself on her chest, twisting at her heart.
“Yana is such a one, Lady.” Beautiful Yana, thirteen summers old. Hair the color of sunlight a silken fall to her swinging, swaying hips. She was ripe and fertile, even though there was not enough food, nor had been for several months.
“Good.” The Creature grinned, head bobbing in a birdlike parody of a nod. “Yes. She will do.”
Orghuz waited. She would hear the details of the deal before she agreed. Before she bartered young Yana’s life away.
As if it were not already lost, Yana’s life, along with all the lives of the tribe. The winter would have them all before long.
“Three days hence, gather your clan, Orghuz, all who are left. Bring the Yani child to me. I will tell you how the sacrifice of the Yani child is to be made. I will give her youth, her fertility, her beauty to you, and you will rise up young and beautiful and strong, able to bear the many sons and daughters I have promised you.
“But it is not enough, for you, alone, to grow fertile. You must share your gift. For three days and three nights you will share yourself with the men of your tribe, one and all. They will be potent with you and, having dipped into your renewed well, they will be potent and strong and full of seed with the women of your tribe, and in the summer will be many children.
“Every seven years, every woman of your direct bloodline must keep this rite with me, your daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters, and they will be queens among your people. She will be fertile and I will fill her with a Power, the way of which I will teach you.
“If any one of your daughters, though, keep not this rite with me, she will not have joy of her children. She will die before they are grown.
“I will hide you, Orghuz of the Erdel, you and those of your tribe who remain, in the deep mountains, for five generations. Game will you have, meat and fruit and milk, and be filled and full, while your numbers grow and the people who lie in my land, dishonouring me, slumber away the years, not knowing the weapon I forge at their very gates.
“Then, when you are strong, you will pass down from the mountain, and take the land, and it will be yours, so long as you keep our pact. I am the Giri bird who sits in the tree of life.
“What say you, Old Orghuz of the Erdel? Will you make a bargain with me for your people?
“Or will you die, here in the winter, and pass from the world and be gone, seeing as the time of your people has come.”
Orghuz bowed her head low to the ground before the Creature.
“My Lady is generous to her servants. I accept your bargain.
“Tell me what I must do.”
stlcatlady (sometimes also known as M. Dawn Blaloch) is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Good Morning, Neighbor!"

We've been trying for a while, the neighbors and I, to put a stop to some small time drug trafficking on my street.

It all started with the old man who lived in and owned the three family flat .He and his wife had lived there for thirty years or more. At least, that's what they say, the neighbors. The long timers. The ones who've been here so much longer than Spousal Unit, the thirteen cats, and I. I saw him once or twice the year we moved in. An old, quiet, black gentleman, mourning his wife, who had died. They had been a vital part of the neighborhood. "Good neighbors, good people." So I'm told. It seemed that way to me.

The wife died and, as so often happens, the old man, her long time partner and mate, did not long outlast her, at least in this world. Reunited, they moved on to new adventures. The house fell vacant.

Either there were no heirs, or no heirs wanted the modest, two story brick building, at least not to live in. It became one of those things we all, or most of us, dread to have on our blocks, in our little urban villages, cancers in our communities. It became an "investment property." A piece of property with an absentee landlord. A landlord who provides the capital, but lives somewhere else, far away. Somewhere not here. Too far away to be held accountable. Not a part of the community, of the people with skin in the game.

There were a few years of chaos. People in and people out. Prostitutes once, whose rowdy, rude, and sometimes violent customers terrorized the block. A stop was put to that. The building changed hands. Owners and tenants came and went.

When "George" (not his real name) moved in to the building, it had been vacant for a good half year. Things were tense in the village; neighbors were hunkered down inside their homes. No one went outside, much. No one smiled. No one spoke. We all looked with hostility and suspicion at anyone we met on the streets, neighbor or no. It was a fortress mentality. We were all alone, each of us, in hostile territory.

I think, though, George didn't get that memo. Didn't get the notice. Didn't "get it", the way things were here. Desperate people hanging on, trying to get by. Trying to stay safe. Trying not to let the hoodlae take over the hood.

George had the audacity to sit on his front porch (are you kidding me? the FRONT porch?) and play his guitar. He was quite good, really. It was an old, battered acoustic thing; he strummed chords, mostly. It was a welcome relief from the heavy, rafter rattling base coming from the mobile stereo systems of the young thuglets as they raced through the streets, gone before the police could arrive to answer the constant complaints. It was summer. I would sit in my upstairs office, the windows open, writing. The mellow chords, carrying just a hint of the blues, drifted in on the breeze. Despite myself, I smiled.

The first time we actually met, George knocked on my door and asked to use my telephone. I think I stared at him, slack jawed, for all of ten seconds before practically slamming the door in his face, my heart hammering. Who WAS this guy? Hadn't he read the play book?

It seemed he hadn't. He had the audacity to speak to everyone who passed by on the street. Speak to them! Introduce himself, wish them a good day. What the heck? We watched him, we did, from behind closed doors and curtained windows, this strange middle aged black man with his bluesy guitar and friendly "Good morning, neighbor!"

"Who the heck does he think he is", I asked the Spousal Unit. "Mr. Rogers?"

Over the next few years, in almost imperceptible increments, a change crept through our little village. I do believe, even now, it was wrought in large part by George and by his determined, relentless friendliness.

People began to speak to each other. "Good Morning!" we would say, now, to each other on the street. We began to know a little more about each other, creeping out of our fortified dens like frightened and hungry kittens, coming out for the food we so desperately need, though we fear the stranger offering it.

Was George aware of the change he was bringing about? I doubt it. He played his guitar; he brought me flowers, scoured from the grocery dumpsters. Many, many days, in the worst of depression, George's salvaged flowers in their crumpled cellophane sat on my kitchen island, their bright colors bringing cheer, reminding me to smile, and to carry on.

He learned about the Thirteen Cats, the managed feral colony, the community kitties who make their homes around the yard and under the deck. He took them into his generosity, too, salvaging litter and food when he could, dropping it off with a smile and a "Thought you might be able to use this for the cats." If you've ever participated in managing a colony of community cats, you know that extra food is always welcomed.

His demonstrated compassion began to open my heart.

I learned a few things about him, over the years. He was a veteran. He was a cancer survivor. He was a recovering addict. He had been homeless. Maybe it was that, the former homelessness, that made him so joyous to be in this little home, in our little urban village. That made him so industrious in making it a home; in doing what he did to foster community.

For years, all was quiet. All was peaceful. The block was blooming, and George was a real contributor to that.

Then things began to change. Sal (not his real name) moved in. Sal and George were brothers.

Things began to unravel a little. Sal had lots of friends; there began to be lots of traffic, at all hours of the day and night, to the little three family flat. The guitar disappeared. I noticed, because I missed the afternoon music floating in through open windows.

One evening, well after midnight, they woke me up, shouting.

"Don't you like it here?" George, standing in the middle of the street, berated his brother. "Isn't this a nice place? Don't you want to stay?

"You're going to mess things all up if you don't just stop!"

Sal stood on the porch, swaying, drunk or stoned. He fell down. George let out a string of frustrated commentary, then helped his brother into the house.

I figured Sal had been on a bender. I closed the windows and went back to bed.

There began to be cars, strange cars, parked up and down the block. Some with no license plates. Some with license plates from far away. Sal and George were always working on cars.

The Spousal and I thought, "Well, ok. People have to make a living. What do we care if they're working on cars without a garage license." But it was more than that. Often, a car would be parked in front of their house, its hood open, but no tools in sight. Sal and George would be dressed in bright blue. People would come, stay for a few minutes, then leave.

It takes us a while, but eventually we get it. They were trafficking in drugs. They and the people who visited became bolder and bolder. The drug deals were happening right in front of my house. I stood at my upstairs windows, watching the money change hands.

The people who came to buy drugs were disruptive. One group of young men began throwing things at the house of one of my neighbors, believing this neighbor to have reported some misdeed or another to the police. A gaggle of thugs followed female neighbors, shoulder chucked them, laughing, attempting to intimidate us. The corner store was burglarized. Twice.

And then of course there was the constant noise. The "boom boom boom" of loud, hate driven music in the visiting cars, the profanity, the fighting at all hours of the day and night.

It took a while, but finally, enough was enough. Working with the Neighborhood Stabilization Officer, the Alderman, the Problem Property Coordinator, and the police, the neighbors banded together and the place was shut down.  That absentee landlord has never even shown his face, hasn't responded to any invitations to meetings. Has certainly not put some skin in the game and come to deal with the quality of life issues his neglect was allowing to happen.

Finally, the building has been condemned. At first, this had no effect on the residents, the two brothers and a woman who had moved in. They ignored the posted signs and went about their business. The police returned. George was caught being on the property, after having been warned to stay away. There were bench warrants, and he was taken away. This week he was back.

The cars with their hoods open, no tools in sight, were parked again in front of the building. George was again sitting on the porch wearing royal blue, open for business.

This morning, the police came again, and a big truck full of city workers with plywood and drills and tool belts. They had come to board the place up. George had to go.

I sat in the upstairs office, looking out the open windows, weeping. I know we can't enable drug trafficking in our midst. There are children growing up on my block. There is one young couple with a baby on the way, my beautiful young neighbor radiant with the promise of new life she carries inside her. I know these children deserve a safe place to grow up. I'm willing to fight to see to it that they have it. To allow the drug dealers to stay, to look the other way, is to participate in the cancer they bring to our village. It's to allow the violence. It's enabling of the worst kind. It helps no one. It hurts everyone.

Yet still, I watched him go, and I wept. Once upon a time, these two men were also the promise of new life, growing inside a beautiful young mother. I don't know what their lives were. I don't know what wrong choices they made, and I don't know all the twisted, subtle ways in which we failed them.

I confess, I'm glad to see them go. I don't want the drama, the danger, the chaos.

And yet, I will miss that bluesy guitar, the crooked smile, the "Good Morning, neighbor!"

I wish them well. I wish it could have been different.


stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!