August 3rd, 2009


Illustrations by Nathan Scheck

I was so sure that everyone would overlook the incident of the day before. “After all,” I’d reasoned over my bedtime glass of milk, “it’s only what anyone in their right mind would have done. They’re probably more likely to applaud my presence of mind than get snappish. And even if they do, which I will not admit to being anything but doubtful, it will only amount to a minor twenty-second scolding.”

So immersed was I in these thoughts that I didn’t even notice that the milk had tasted odd. When I awoke I found that I had been taken.

The Swale of Vindictiveness is not readily discovered on a map. In fact as far as anyone can tell it has never been included in any effort of cartography to date. However this may merely be the result of its having some official name that does not sound like it came out of The Neverending Story which we haven’t heard of. My cousin once spent several fruitless hours at his computer examining satellite photos in an ill-conceived attempt to locate it, but gave up after he developed the theory that even if the swale’s position was officially known, someone would have bribed the government to classify it by now. In any case, this hardly matters because when one finds themselves in the Swale of Vindictiveness, concerns of geographic positioning tend to sink into irrelevancy.

From the inside of the swale one finds it almost possible to believe the legend that this murky place exists as a small alternate universe manifested by the simmering ill-will of a bunch of crotchety old ladies. The sky is masked by impenetrable grey fog to the extent that it is a pure act of faith to believe that there is one at all. Mist smothers the landscape, daring you to consider any place beyond the grey walls that contain this brief world of dead trees and mud. The trees are stunted and bare and seem to grow naturally in a dead state. Their gnarly root system is the only firm footing amid the swaths of dark mud that resembles nothing so much as indifferently made chocolate pudding to which someone has added a great deal too many dead insects. The only noises to be heard are the ones you make yourself while scrambling about on tree roots, but even these sound dead and half-hearted. The air is cold and dank to the extent that your clothing dampens immediately and the activities of breathing and drowning are no longer mutually exclusive

My two escorts were firmly rapped in expansive, hooded rain ponchos to the point where it was impossible to tell who on earth they were. Not that it mattered much, in all likelihood, they were from that class of broken-down, old fossils that I’ve only met once or twice at those ghastly family gatherings.

Now, most of my family doesn’t agree with my analysis of their social functions, but that is because they are all dynamically obsessed. The only way to pass time at those things is for everyone to be horribly active at each other in an organized fashion. You must either play badminton, volleyball, or prance about chucking Frisbees at people; no one has ever had the sense to smuggle in a few video games! So when I, very sensibly, would sneak off to relax near the refreshment table, this flock of crones would descend like vultures to sit around and make disparaging, suggestive remarks about my physical and mental health. All of which being quite unfair as you never saw any of them messing about on the croquet lawn. I’ve found the only thing to do at that point is to munch on the chips as loudly as possible so I don’t have to listen.

I slipped, completely clotting my left pajama leg in gunk.

“If you’re going to drug me, ship me off to wherever here is, and tramp me through muck, you could have at least brought me some decent footwear. My socks will never be clean again,” I opened angrily, it was bad enough that my night apparel was damp throughout without getting mud all over it.

The shrouded figure who had my right wrist to its keeping merely snorted in a dismissive manner and hauled me over another root.

I wasn’t about to let them go on ignoring my most basic needs, “and furthermore slow down. I can’t keep up this pace with impunity.”

“Seeing as all your athletic experience has never reached beyond sitting on couches or suchlike objects, I am hardly surprised,” returned the figure that had my left, in a voice that would have been dry in some other climate. They didn’t reduce their pace.

Finally we reached our goal; it appeared to be another stunted tree. Without further ado my companions duct taped me to it with many an unnecessary comment about how much tape it took to go all the way around me. Half a dozen nodules dug into my back as those confounded relics made off into the mist.

“Hey!” I shouted, “you can’t just leave me here!”

“That we can, my paisley- clad little louse,” one shot over her shoulder nastily, “you have been a disgrace for the last time. You must now face the consequences.”

“You can’t seriously be trying to sacrifice me to the spirit of my Great Aunt Millie!” I yelled after them, “that’s absurd! She isn’t even dead yet!”

No one listens to me. I think deep down they know that they’re nuts but will never admit it. They have far too much fun with these delusions of family dictators.

I suddenly realized I was sweating, which given the climate was rather disturbing. My mind kept wandering off into grisly conjectures on what it was that honorary spirits did to people. And although I still held that great aunt Millie was a harmless old loony who was not worth any consideration, I couldn’t seem to shake the recollection of how horribly frightening I had always found her.

The last time I had seen her was when I was six. We were at some sort of communal tea and I had decided to get hold of one of her personal crumpets (I was a champion food-snatcher at that time). Three minutes darting from tablecloth to tablecloth, two minutes waiting under the nearest table for the coast to clear, and I was just reaching towards the platter of pastries when I heard a disapproving sniff. Looking round over my shoulder I saw great aunt Millie just standing there and glaring. There is something about the why she glares that makes you instantly regret that you ever did anything to make her even notice you. As I recall, the first thing I did was wet my pants and the second was to run for my life. And come to think of it, I seem to have spent the last sixteen years studiously avoiding her.

As an excuse to do something to distract me from these morbid recollections I began meticulously drying my glasses; a futile activity but I couldn’t pace, eat, or cut up washcloths so it would have to do.

Upon restoring them to my face I received a bit of a shock, great aunt Millie was standing directly in front of me, swathed in a great cloak that looked like it had been made out of moth-eaten curtains, and clutching in one claw-like hand the bone handel of her black walking stick. Her head was thrust forward as she observed me over the square spectacles on her long, boney nose; her whole aspect rather gave the impression of a deranged, homicidal macaw trying to decide which appendage to remove first.

“So, we meet again young Filbert,” Millie began in a quiet voice that sent shivers up my spine –it was the kind of voice that one reads barrow-wight incantations in- “Been having fun with Margaret’s Chihuahua have you?”

“No, that is to say, yes, but err,” I stuttered, “Look, I didn’t mean to throw it out the window, just to throw it generally away from me, there was no mellitus intent towards aunt Margaret’s herb garden really! Or all that much toward the dog ether, I mean for goodness sakes it was trying to eat me!” I ended on a bit of a squeak.

She just looked at me.

This was a time for desperate measures, “I could apologize.”

My great aunt raised an eyebrow.

“And pay for rabies shots?”

She pushed her spectacles up her nose. They seemed to behave in a manner similar to magnifying glasses, taking the whole of her brownish-gray, watery gaze and intensifying it into two burning pinpoints of imperiousness. My stomach began to shrivel.

“Help replace the herbs Miffy destroyed?”

“You know, why don’t I set you up with my hair dresser?” Millie mused contemplatively, “ You could use a perm.”

I fought down the scream that had risen into my throat, “I’ll do aunt Margaret’s laundry!”

“And a manicure.”

I really did scream at that point, my body was rocking against the tree uncontrollably, “I’ll do it every day and vacuum the rugs too! You can’t manicure me!”

“But you need to look presentable when you model my new lipstick prototypes at the armature cosmetics convention this month.”

The world spun around me, I appeared to be melting into the mud right through my socks,
“Not that,” I wimpered.

Great aunt Millie sighed, “It’s too late. You have talent and ability but you’ve squandered it these twenty-two years by pruning yourself into a vegetable. Vegetables only have two uses: to be eaten or to be thrown at people you don’t like.”

She started to turn away.

“Please!” I screamed, “I’ll do anything you want! Just don’t make me model lipstick!”

She suddenly struck me over the head with her cane.

When I came to, I was sprawled on the floor of my room covered in mud. A small slip of paper was pinned to my shirt.

Your next-door neighbor, Ophelia Himmle will be out of town this weekend. She has some papers hidden in her doily collection. Get them.

And that, Bill, is why I can’t help you clean out your garage on Saturday.

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