From comedy writer, public speaker, and founding editor of The Onion Scott Dikkers comes this laugh-out-loud hilarious guide to surviving and thriving under Donald Trump’s presidency.
With satirical graphics, pictorials, news columns, and bulletins that are screamingly funny to everyone regardless of political persuasion, this is the ultimate handbook to the forty-fifth President of the United States.
Everything from a schematic of Trump’s presidential chariot (with missile launchers) to a handy pictorial that explains how Trump would have won every American war in three days or less is included in this sidesplitting anthology. Discover more about the new President with articles such as “Inside the Twitter War Room” and “If Einstein Was So Smart, Why Wasn’t He Rich?”
This work was previously published as Trump’s America: The Complete Loser’s Guide.
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Deeply upset by rampant naughtiness, Santa Claus decides to launch nuclear missiles at the world. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer argues he’s being too rash, that not all humans are bad.
Santa agrees to cancel the missile strike if he can find someone who will slay twenty-nine bad people by Christmas Eve. He settles on his kin Sam Mollusk of Poway, California.
Sam begins by killing the neighborhood terrorist. Medusa, lonely for millennia because of the snakes on her head, loves Sam and follows his every move.
Meanwhile, root-beer-loving Afghan terrorists Nar and Salah are hoping to gain membership in Poway’s Al Qaeda cell and become Tupperware salesmen as cover.
Can Sam prevent Al Qaeda’s fiendish plot and Santa’s nuclear holocaust? Will Sam survive shopping WalMart on Christmas Eve?
My Favorite Christmas Tree
Originally appeared in Ellipsis: An Anthology of Humorous Short Stories, August 2016
The names in this story are true.
Only the facts have been changed.
None are innocent.
We called ourselves the Scurvy Bastards. To us, drinking was science; the weekend our laboratory; our bodies, test tubes; and our minds, the experiment.
Every Friday and Saturday, each of us would absorb three to four times the lethal dose of alcohol, and have others report back on our actions. Needless to say, this was fascinating research.
One night, whilst sitting on the Scurvy Benches, as was our wont, the Electrician (a man permanently wired) had just dismissed the whole of Kant’s epistemology with the words, “That faggot didn’t even drink.”
The air was crisp as lettuce and miniature fogs arose whenever someone used the Pissing Tree. The Electrician’s irrefutable logic set Feeney thinking. Feeney did a great deal of thinking. He had to. No one could be that disturbed or disturbing without having put a great deal of thought into it. He was something of an enigma wrapped in legend. None knew from whence he came; he would appear like some mythical being, gym bag filled with books, Jameson, and Stout, dressed like Sherlock Holmes. He had a great red beard, and spoke in parables. One night he passed out and we found the only identification he bore was a membership card to the Dudley Do-Right fan club in the name of Little Bobby Feeney.
At present, Feeney was engaged in what he termed, “The Great Experiment.” The premise was as simple as it was ingenious: How long can a human being subsist on Guinness Stout and Cheese Doodles?
On the Nature of Re: Genesis
God entered Freud’s consulting room. He wasn’t sure why he was there but he knew that his job depended on it. The memo was clear:
Our records indicate that you are due for a psychiatric examination with the company's chief psychoanalytical clinician. Please report to his office in room 3 beginning on Tuesday, October 11th, as per section G in your contract. Failure to comply will result in your immediate dismissal from the call center and you will no longer be granted access to the facilities of Heaven Inc.
God expected the room to look different. He was prepared to enter a neat and organized space. Instead it was a cluttered mess. There were chotchkies everywhere, seeming to represent some kind of unfocused history. Aborted fertility goddesses from various cultures and lopsided Paleolithic bowls lay strewn about the study while arrowheads took their rest in a display case overhead. Tablets with hieroglyphics and cuneiform scrawlings sat in holders on a desk. The dead languages were showcased, as if to suggest something about psychoanalysis itself.
The walls were covered with pictures of people, places, and certificates. One picture looked like a photograph of the statues at Abu Simbel. On closer examination; however, it wasn’t Abu Simbel at all. Perhaps it wasn’t even Egyptian but rather Nubian, those wannabes from the south that during Egypt’s worst period of decline saved the great dynasty from her own self destruction. After the Great Ramses died. God searched around, wondering if the mummy of the mightiest pharaoh might be hidden in the room. No soiled linens were found.
“Gutten tag,” said a voice slathered in a thick German accent. Freud appeared. He sat in a chair next to the daybed where God was soon to lay back. In the corner was a bust of Caesar or some other emperor from the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Rome. Or it could have been Alexander the Great. Who the fuck knew. This ode to history was terribly garbled. Everything that was once truth seemed to get mixed up here, in this room.
“Would you like to try some cocaine?” Freud offered. “I think you will find it picks you up quite nicely.”
“No thanks,” God declined, holding his soft hands up to show his resistance.
“Okay then, please have a seat,” Freud pointed at the daybed covered with an old patterned rug that extended onto the floor. A matching piece covered a piano stool in front of a shelf. Books written by Freud lined the shelf with titles like, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Studies on Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, Psychopathology and Everyday Life, and Totem and Tabu, which served as the doctor’s ode to egocentricity.
God sat on the couch and noticed that it felt softer than it looked. But a cloud of dust wafted up from the carpet when he sat. A sneeze escaped God. He had hoped for leather. The smell of cured cow hide pleased Him.
“Hello God. My name is Doctor Sigmund Freud.” Freud cleaned white powder off of his glasses with a cloth that he kept on the small table which held the floating Roman head. “Do you know why you are here?”
“I received a memo from the CEO that I was due for a psych exam today. So, I assume that is why I am here. I didn’t realize that these exams were mandatory.”
“Well, I assure you that this is normal,” Freud lied. This was certainly not a normal practice for employees of Heaven Inc. and Freud knew this. In fact, only the CEO knew that this was taking place. Something big was coming down the pipe at Heaven Inc. Freud desperately wanted to be a part of it.
“Sure. I am just hoping that this won’t take too long. I’m very busy.”
“This discussion will happen over several days but no more than an hour at a time. I know that you are busy at the call center. Don’t worry though, you have been signed out for these sessions.” Freud looked at the cocaine. He rubbed his nose, thinking about taking another hit. He declined, though, wondering if his heart, which was about to drum its way out of his chest, could take it.
God sighed. “Can we please get on with this?”
“Sure. Let’s start with the present. Tell me about your job.” Freud slipped a notepad and pen out of his inside jacket pocket. The booklet was empty except for a single name: God. He flipped to page one, pen in hand, prepared to jot notes down.
“There’s isn’t much to tell. I’m a B2C, or Business to Consumer representative at Heaven Inc, as you probably already know. Essentially, I handle in-bound Judeo-Christian calls to heaven.”
“Excellent. Take me through the beginning of your day. What does a typical morning look like for you?”
“Most days start out pretty normal. I get to work around eight, setup at my station and then take calls. But, as I’m sure that the cameras and swipe cards indicate, lately I find myself checking around to see if anyone is watching me sneak in a little late. I get this feeling that I’m being watched. I know it sounds paranoid. I have to say though, I do generally like the gods I work with.”
Freud feverishly scribbled notes. He was looking for anything that could be incriminating. While this wasn’t nearly enough to provide the CEO with the ammunition he needed to dispose of God, it was certainly going in the desired direction already.
“My seat is close to the entrance so I try to move quickly and throw my backpack and jacket under the desk in one quick sweep. I’m not even sure how my headphones go on, it just happens so naturally now. I lean back in my chair, and adjust my mic. I casually look at the time, like I’ve been sitting there for two hours. I yawn, even if I don’t need to. Then it’s time to get a coffee.”
Freud stopped scribbling. He tapped the pen against his nose, “Why is it that you are late so often?”
God sighed, “Bacchus,” he admitted.
“Bacchus?” Freud leaned forward. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but Bacchus was a patient of mine quite some time ago. Don’t tell me that he’s on another drinking frenzy,”
“Yes. He’s been on a real tear lately. He calls me religiously at nine PM and insists that we should go out. I try to tell him that I have to work in the morning but he retorts, telling me that he knows a place where the drinks will be stronger, the dancing better, the girls prettier than the night before. I can’t believe that he is always right! Somehow each night is a little better than the last. The beer and liquor and wine flow like milk and honey and… wine. It’s really hard to say no!”
“Bacchanalia, indeed! But let us shelf that discussion for later. For now, why don’t you tell me about the people with whom you work?”
“Sure. Where to start? Well, in the first row going from left to right, after me, there is Jehovah, Pan Gu, and Buddha. In the Back row from left to right is Janus, Osiris, Ishtar, and Shiva. As you may know, Jehovah is my brother.”
“Good. Good. Tell me more about your brother.”
“Jehovah is the only outbound caller at the center, even though he does manage some call blending. If you were to look at us side by each, our facial features are similar. We dress considerably different though. Jehovah wears a formal eighteenth century red overcoat with a white vest and this white puffy shirt. He dawns a blue scarf around his neck but pulled through like a tie. I have never seen him without his red, white, and blue jester’s hat but the monocle that he sports is new. As you can see, I prefer jeans and a white t-shirt. The most notable difference between us is that Jehovah has a small scar under his left ear which looks oddly like a castle’s watchtower.
“Jehovah always sits with perfect posture, industriously calling away. He is the best salesman I have ever heard. I’ve spent some time listening to him and I remember one of his pitches. If he is on the defensive, he’ll start asking, ‘How could you not want to be a witness?’ And he’ll tell them that, ‘This year we are offering an additional 20 seats into heaven. After this there are only 65 seats available throughout the rest of Earth’s days. Imagine how foolish you will feel if you are left out of heaven. And the best part is, regardless of your personal baggage, you will not go to hell. Being my witness is a guaranteed ticket against going to hell.’ And then he’ll be reaching for a pen because that’s when Jehovah has made a new follower.
“It’s clever to include a get out of hell free card. It seems to convince those on the fence. But then he takes down their banking information – I have no idea why that is required.”
“I see what you mean, he sounds quite talented.” Freud petted his well-manicured beard like he was hoping for it to purr. “How do you feel about his success at Heaven Inc.?”
God hadn’t thought about his brother as successful before. He even looked down his nose at him for making the outbound calls. God decided to answer honestly, “I think he’s a joke. If he was successful, he wouldn’t have to make the calls. The calls would come to him. He works night and day; it isn’t a life.”
“I see. Do you think he feels that way about you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really talk to him, even at work.”
“Okay. Let’s move on to some of your other colleagues. Who else do you work with?”
“There’s Buddha. If ever I met a hippy-slacker-God, it’s Buddha. Just yesterday I had this strange run in with him. ‘Buddha bless you,’ he says to me. Out of the blue. So I ask him, ‘Why do you refer to yourself in the third person?’ He smiled at me, his eyes bloodshot and half closed. ‘I have some new literature for you today, brother.’ He hands me a half sheet of paper with what appears to be a coffee stain all along the bottom. I take it from his hands and look closely at his face. He’s covered with acne and scars. Still, his smile covers most of his face, as if completely satisfied with himself. ‘Are you happy with your life, brother?’ I can’t make out his accent. I tell him that I am happy with my life. ‘Peace is found within,’ he clichés. I tell him that topical cream is found in the third aisle of the drug store. He looks horrible. ‘You may mock Buddha all you like. You are short sighted.’ Curious, I ask him why he thinks that. ‘This life is but a small fragment of the infinity that is life. Please read the literature and get back to me.’ I joke with him, and tell him sure. And then I ask him kindly to tuck his boobies back in because there are other people working here. His zhen always hangs low and never covers his nipples. I think I still have his literature on my desk if you ever want to look at it.”
“Have you ever looked at it?”
“Okay. Enough said.” He scribbled feverishly in his notebook. “Please tell me more about your colleagues. They sound like fascinating gods.”
“Next to Buddha sits Pan Gu. He’s usually parked on his ass, groaning to himself while bouncing a ying-yang ball off of his belly. His balding head glistens with sweat which he wipes away with his hand and then uses the moisture to shape his goatee into a point. I can’t remember the last time someone called him. Did you know that long, long ago Pan Gu was hatched out of a cosmic egg. It is said that half the shell pushed up to form the sky while the other half was pushed below to form the Earth. He grew taller each day for 18,000 years until the Earth and heavens reached their appointed places. It was then that the lice fell off of his body which became mankind. Some believe that Pan Gu fell apart, but that’s not true. He was hired here, at Heaven Inc.
“In the back left corner paces Shiva. You would think that she is the birth product of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown with her four hands raised high in the air. Her eyes light as if a fire is burning. I am sure that there is fire because out of her ears steam whistles while yelling at a caller, “I told you not to touch that shrine! Now look at what you have done!” Her intense gaze is set to destroy the world once again.
“Sounds intense! Who is she, exactly?”
“She’s the Hindu goddess of destruction. Part of The Trinity.”
“Okay. Who else is there?” Freud’s foot thumped against the ground while his heart raced in his chest. His arms felt eight feet long as he scribbled notes. Cocaine is a hell of drug, he thought over and over.
“Beside Shiva is Ishtar, the original party girl. Now her story is a little confusing. You might know her as Absusu, Abtaigigi, Dilbah, Gumshea, Har, Kilili, or even Ninkasi, to name a few of her former names. She has absorbed so many deities that it’s difficult to say what she is the goddess of. But, given the way she looks and acts, I would have to say that wine and promiscuity are two of her favorites. Kind of like Janis Joplin, but rougher around the edges.
“Don’t piss her off, though. She will lash out and tear you apart like an angry lion attacking the unsuspecting gazelle. Most of the time, however, she’s just seated slurring to herself while rubbing her Pandora’s Box of venereal disease.”
“Do you believe that this rubbing of the genitalia is a desire for her to have a penis?” Freud took a detour. He always felt the urge to ask this question about women.
“Her? No. That’s Osiris.”
“Who is Osiris?”
“If ever a god could be called a pussy, it would be Osiris. You can see him hunched over his desk occasionally taking a hit off of his salbutamol inhaler for his awful wheezing. We watch him at our desks and wait for him to notice that his penis gone. Then it’s a game of hotter / colder to find it.
Freud squinted his beady eyes, “I don’t understand. How could his penis go missing?”
“Osiris had a rough upbringing on account of his brother, Seth, who I have to say is quite the asshole. Seth didn’t like Osiris, so he killed his brother. Seth packed up the remains in a coffin then shipped it half way across the world. Osiris’ sister-wife, Isis, managed to find Osiris’ dead body which sent Seth into a psychotic rage. Seth chopped Osiris into tiny pieces and scattered each morsel around the world, to ensure that Osiris would never enjoy the afterlife.
“Well, Isis being so obsessively in love with Osiris, went searching for all of the pieces but she never found his penis because it was eaten by some fish in a river. Instead of letting bygones be gone by, Isis fashioned a stiffy for him out of wood. Apropos, right?”
Freud loved this story, “Apropos indeed. How big is it?”
“What, the wood penis?”
“Yes, yes.” He was entirely too excited.
“We have never measured it.”
“Oh. Okay, go on then,” Freud’s excitement quickly vanished.
“I’ve been working at Heaven Inc. for about 2,000 years and it was an old tradition back then to hide Osiris’ penis and make him go looking for it. It’s fun to watch a geek like that get angry and ‘…demand that the location of [his] penis be established immediately or else…’ Once we hid it in Ishtar’s ass but that was just frightening.” Goosebumps were visible on God’s skin as he shuddered.
“Why? Because he couldn’t find it?”
“No, because Ishtar didn’t know it was there!”
“I can see how that might be somewhat disconcerting.”
“So anyway, the only other god that works in the call center is Janus, who seems really two faced. One minute he’ll be looking at you, all smiles and chuckles but he seems to have eyes in the back of his head. And then if you look closer, you might see that he also has a nose back there. And a mouth. He actually has two faces on his head. It’s so creepy.”
“Do you like working with them?”
God looked down at his feet while he thought. “What can I say? These gods are interesting and they keep me amused. The job pays the bills, you know.”
“Do you feel like you’re in a slump at Heaven Inc.?”
God stared at his feet a little longer. He sighed. “Do you mean when it comes to the job itself? I don’t know. It isn’t what it used to be.”
The next evening, Carissa stood outside and beat her flashlight against the palm of her hand. Really? Why did the batteries have to die now? She cursed under her breath and fished her phone out of her back pocket, second-guessing her aversion to smartphones. Her little flip phone didn’t have a flashlight, and the camera flash didn’t last long enough to get anything done. Frustrated, she straightened up and turned to Aden. He’d shown up a few minutes earlier, wondering what she was doing, and even offered to help. He said he could see everything as clear as day.
She looked back at her malfunctioning flashlight, and then back to the man on the sidewalk. She huffed out a breath.
“Okay, Mr. I-Can-See-Perfectly-In-The-Dark, come over here and find the darn thing for me,” Carissa said, rolling her eyes.
His grin wolfish, Aden sprinted up her walkway. “You have to admit it, first.”
Carissa snorted. “Admit what? That you’re a creeper who only comes out at night and likes to spy on me whenever you get the chance?”
He winced. “I haven’t been spying on you. I live across the street. Do you expect me to never look out my windows?”
Carissa laughed, wrinkling her nose at him. His sentiment was oddly close to hers. “Okay, I’ll give you that, but you’re still a creeper.”
Aden stepped closer, closing the distance until she had to look up to see his eyes. She sucked in a breath. He didn’t look socially awkward tonight. “That’s not what you really think. Admit it. You have a crush on me.”
“Pfft. That’s what you think. I’ve said no such thing,” Carissa said, pushing on his chest. “I barely know your stubborn ass.”
Aden didn’t budge. His mouth turned up. “For now.” He looked down at the ground. “How badly do you need that key?”
Carissa slapped her hands on her hips. “Very. I can’t get into work without it.”
Aden reached out and gently tugged on her ponytail. “So, just admit the truth, and I’ll get it for you.”
Carissa rolled her eyes, her mouth twitching. “I’ll just wait until morning.”
Aden chuckled. “Ah, yes, the enviable day. And just how many of those have you had since you lost it?”
Carissa narrowed her eyes. “Two,” she muttered.
He raised an eyebrow at her. Damn the man. He knew she couldn’t find it without his help. “Fine!” she grumbled, “You’re not the most unattractive man I’ve ever seen.”
He stared at her for a moment, blinking, then his deep laugh flooded out, wrapping her in the resonating warmth of his amusement. Aden touched his finger gently to her chin. “You are the most contrary woman I’ve ever met.”
Carissa crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to think about the spark that ignited at his lightest touch. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Aden chuckled again, and turned away, bending down to look on the ground underneath the vibrant orange flowers in her flowerbed. He stood up almost immediately, the tiny metal key in the palm of his hand.
“It looks like it was in your garden the whole time.”
She tilted her head to the side. He was hiding something. “You knew it was there, didn’t you?”
Aden dusted his fingers off and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He flashed her a wicked grin. “If I did, are you going to punish me?”
Carissa smacked his arm, eying his large muscles. “I doubt I would succeed if I tried. No, I think I might be better off running.”
His grin widened, showing a hint of teeth. “I could tackle you before you ever reached the driveway.”
Carissa gulped. The driveway was a fair distance away from where they stood. How could he be that fast? She shook her head, more confused over the fact that she wasn’t scared. Aden was mysterious, and as she noticed the first night she saw him, magnificent. And he also looked a little sheepish. Maybe he wasn’t as cocky as he was trying to seem. Carissa pulled the sunglasses off the top of her head – they’d been there since she started looking...during the day – and hooked them into the front of her shirt to give her hands something to do, something to keep from touching him again.
She wasn’t used to all this attraction bombarding her senses. He was obviously flirting, and she didn’t know how to handle it. He reached out and gently rubbed his thumb over her cheek.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Carissa. I couldn’t,” he said softly.
Her breath hitched, the mental plug in her heart shifting. Her eyes met his, the deep blue of his gaze more shocking than the zap she’d received from the cable box a few hours prior. His thumb left her cheek, slowly tracing the outline of her mouth. Her knees went weak, and she instinctively grabbed his biceps to keep from falling. His other arm encircled her waist, pulling her firmly against his hard chest. His fingers trailed her spine, ending with the lightest of touches to the back of her neck. She gulped again.
His face lowered toward her, his lips moving ever closer to her own. Her heartbeat sounded like jungle drums in her ears, buzzing with the fire of her intense attraction. He stopped, eyes on hers, a breath away from her mouth. His eyes grew brighter the longer she looked. Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips, and his eyes flashed, the light illuminating his face.
Carissa jumped back with a squeak, stumbling backward up her stairs while Aden stared, mouth wide in shock. She shook her head. “I-I’m sorry, Aden. I have to, uh, do laundry.” She turned and ran inside, locking the door behind her with a snap.
She leaned against the wall, her hand over her wildly beating heart. His eyes glowed. Glowing eyes. Carissa closed her own. That was not possible. She’d wanted to know more about him and who he was, but now she had a more important question:
What was Aden?
Muzhduk stepped into the path of the flying boulder. It was the size and shape of a small woman curled up in a ball, but much heavier, and it came at him like a canon shot.
Muzhduk leaned forward to meet the boulder, knees bent, hoping to absorb the impact with his legs. He staggered backward with the force of the blow, but did not drop the big rock.
The audience erupted with cheering, and a cloud of yellow butterflies scattered from the noise. His opponent was Hulagu, arguably the strongest Slovak in the tribe, and all six villages were present for the Dull-Boulder Throw. All the Slovaks who lived in the mountains of northeastern Siberia were there, lined up along the edges of the saddle-shaped ridge. Even those so old or sick they knew the trip would kill them. Two had died on the way.
The audience watched Muzhduk. He knew some of them wondered whether he would disqualify himself. He hadn’t moved out of the way, of course, but no one had ever tried to absorb the shock with his legs before. Arms and chest were normal, but bending the legs was almost like ducking and he could see Hulagu bite his fat lips, wanting to make a charge of dishonor, which would itself be dishonorable.
Muzhduk decided not to disqualify himself. Honor was about avoiding cowardice, not change. At only three hundred pounds, he was much smaller than his father, who was smaller than his father.The blood of the Uglis was becoming diluted, as they took women from the Mongols, Yakuts, and Russians, but Hulagu was inbred, huge, and dumb. If Hulagu won, the entire tribe would suffer.
It was Muzhduk’s turn. He picked up the boulder, lifted it over his head, and launched with both arms. It flew straight, and Hulagu jumped forward to meet it. The boulder hit him high on the shoul- der, ripped his bearskin pelt, and bobbled as he tried to keep it from falling. It fell anyway. He hadn’t flinched, so the contest wasn’t over, but Muzhduk would get to throw again. They traded places on the ridge and Muzhduk picked up the boulder. Hulagu leaned forward in anticipation, but his right arm hung limp at his side.
“Your arm is hurt,” Muzhduk said. “We’ll finish tomorrow.”
“I can see past the end of my nose.Throw the rock, little Muzh.” The audience roared its approval, but Muzhduk didn’t have the stomach to throw a boulder at a man with one good arm. Not even
Hulagu. “Tomorrow is better.”
“You give up?” Hulagu asked, grinning. If he won, he would climb the highest mountain right away, not wait for years as Muzhduk had done. Then he’d have both eyes and be chief. The first thing he’d do would be to exile the Ugli men and rape the Ugli women. As for Muzhduk, him he’d drag over sharp rocks until he was flayed alive. Then he’d stake him to the ground and spray him with urine. It would be the end of three generations of Ugli rule.
Muzhduk threw the boulder. Hulagu couldn’t catch it with one arm, but he still managed to get his chest in front of it. The big rock broke his sternum, pushed his ribs into his lungs, and he collapsed.The contest was over. Bells rang to announce the end. Everyone cheered and came to congratulate Muzhduk for holding onto his title. He had gained another year to find and climb a mountain higher than the one climbed by his father or by any other Slovak chief before him. Then he would have two eyes—two claims to the chieftainship, one objective and one subjective.Then the chieftainship could pass to him undisputed.
Muzhduk found his father, Muzhduk the Ugli the Third. “You won,” his father said. “And that is good. But I don’t know
about your method.”
“Mind if I take Hulagu to Fred the Political Officer?”Muzhduk answered. “It’s better if he’s healthy. For when the Reds come.”
Ugli the Third shrugged and turned to watch the start of the long, slow procession of men, women, and animals back to their villages. Most were dressed in furs, though some of the younger women wore traditional red-and-white lace collars. From a distance, the line of waddling shapes had a self-protective, huddled look.
It was a terrible day to climb a mountain. The air was grey and wet—not quite rain, but damp and miserable. Still, it was the day after the Dull-Boulder Throw, and Muzhduk wanted to climb Mount Baldhead. It was the highest mountain in the Verkhoyansk Range, much of it covered in knee-high Arctic pine. He followed the river past the giant rock with the overturned Red tank, up through the first pass where the real trees ended, and then the second where the dwarf- trees turned to lichen, past where the lichen turned to scree, and on to the broken wall. It was only this last part that was difficult, where the mountain folded into sharp cliffs and jagged chasms. Muzhduk had climbed it many times, probably more than any other Slovak in the six villages. He did it for practice and in the hope that from the vantage of his grandfather he’d be able to see something higher. Baldhead had been the second eye of Muzhduk the Ugli the Second. What a simple test it now seemed.
But Muzhduk also climbed Baldhead because mountaintops were the place for introspection. And though it wasn’t the actual top of the mountain, Muzhduk had a special spot that he preferred. It was a boulder about twice the size of a man, wedged between two cliffs, a few minutes from the summit. Under the boulder, the sheer cliffs continued down for half a mile, parallel, less than ten feet apart the whole way. He reached it by inching along a foot-wide ledge that dropped off just before the boulder. Crossing the gap required a little jump that always terrified him. He sometimes tried to imagine where the boulder had come from, but the only possible answer was that it had fallen from the sky.
He’d started coming here because he was scared of heights. As a child, he thought that if he made the jump often enough, the fear would go away. Every time his head spun, his stomach rose, and his chest constricted until he couldn’t breathe. The fear never went away. Instead, it got worse. He became convinced that he’d been born with a given store of luck, and each time he came to the rock he used up a little more. One day it would be done and he would slip and fall between those endless parallel cliffs.The fear never went away, and so he kept coming until the boulder from the sky became his favorite place. He needed to find his second eye soon, to stop these annual challenges. His father had faced a similar problem at his age. Back then no one had known of a mountain higher than Baldhead; every- one wondered how Third would surpass Second. Third wandered up and down the northern coast of Siberia, staying with the Chukchi and Sakha tribes or spending months alone, with no luck. And then, like the boulder where Muzhduk now sat, like the Chukchi shamans in their sixty-pound coats whom the Reds sometimes threw out of helicopters, his father’s answer fell out of the sky. During a winter so cold that the plum brandy turned to syrup and you could eat it on toast, so cold that logs gave off blue sparks when you chopped them and healthy trees exploded with cracks like tank-cannon, the Red Army dropped Spetsnaz paratroops into the valley of the Slovaks. Confused by their own maps, the Reds couldn’t get out. They froze. Only one man survived, and when he reached the river Lena, the Uglis caught him. He was Frederick Vladimirovich Ekatin, the platoon’s Political Officer. Born in an observation station on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, the son of two doctors, he’d spent decades as a spy before becoming a Political Officer. He knew the world.The Uglis kept him in the basement, and, as a child, it was little Muzhduk’s job to clean and feed him. Fred’s cot hung from two chains attached to the basement wall and it could be flipped up when there wasn’t enough room. Muzhduk usually sat on a mound of potatoes that he could shape into a chair, or on the pile of loose grain that sometimes forced Fred to sleep on a slant. Neither of them could stand upright, because the permafrost ground had made digging difficult.
Fred said that he’d once stayed in a room even smaller than the Ugli basement at harvest. It was in Japan, and his body had touched all six walls at the same time.The higher the capsule-room, Fred said, the more expensive, because fewer people climbed the ladder past your head. Fred knew more languages than the Uglis, who read every book they could steal, and he told Muzhduk wonderful stories about the world beyond Verkhoyansk: America, Africa, Europe, and other odd places. He even knew the answer to Muzhduk’s childhood question about the shamans that fell out of the sky—proof that he knew more than the big library in Yakutsk that his father and uncles had raided in the hope of getting Muzhduk an answer.
Fred said they fell out of the sky because of their coats. Everyone knew shaman coats were covered with metal antlers, iron bars, and chains hanging down the back—that’s what made them jangle—but they also had bird-shaped pendants that, when dipped in reindeer pee, gave the shamans the ability to fly. The Reds were embarrassed by their lack of Progress, so they threw them out of helicopters and said, “Use the coat.”
That’s what Fred said, and Fred knew, because he’d thrown some out himself.
Muzhduk absorbed all the lessons, but when his father climbed down into the cold, shallow basement, lit by empty knotholes and gaps in the floor above, he asked Fred about only one thing—whether there was anything higher in this world than Mount Baldhead. Now, sitting on the wedged-in boulder and searching for an even higher point, Muzhduk understood why his father was so obsessed.
Fred told Muzhduk’s father about Mount Communism, the greatest mountain on the planet, compared to which Baldhead was only a foothill. Immediately, Muzhduk the Ugli the Third set out for the Tadzhik Soviet Socialist Republic to climb Mount Communism, 7700 meters, 24,590 feet, the highest mountain on the planet.
When his father returned seven years later, he brought wondrous tales of Communism and of a beautiful country to the south called Afghanistan, where he’d stayed for a year to rest and fight some Reds. Having climbed the highest peak, he could now be objectively proud. He could use his spittle to paste money onto the broad foreheads of Slovaks he passed in the valley. His valley. This forehead-pasting was the weakness of the Ugli line and it impoverished the family, but it was the custom for one who had earned the right to be objectively proud. Upon seeing this, the original Ugli, Muzhduk the First, was satisfied. He died. Muzhduk the Second became old, Muzhduk the Third became chief, and young Muzhduk began planning his own quest. This was the way the generations cycled in Verkhoyansk on the river Lena.
But Muzhduk had been planning now for well over a decade, and he doubted that an answer would fall out of the sky the way it had for his father. There was only one top to the world. So long as he kept winning the annual Dull-Boulder Throw he would be the rightful heir. But the village would always say that he was a man with one eye leading a village of the blind. It could be done, but there was no pride in it. He would be challenged every year, until one day Hulagu or some other muscular dummy would defeat him and lead the tribe to ruin.
Enough thinking, he decided. He stood up carefully, unable to fully straighten his knees as the vertigo hit him. From the rounded top of the boulder he extended one leg onto the foot-wide path carved by nature into the cliff. For a second he straddled a thousand-meter drop. He fought off the nausea, a lifting-gut feeling like he’d leaned too far back in a chair, and pushed off with his other leg. On the path, he pressed himself up against the cliff with the irrational fear that his ass would pull him over the edge, or that he’d lose his mind for a moment and jump. He slid along the cliff until the path wound out and he was safe. He thanked the boulder and the path with a sigh of relief.
The true summit of Baldhead was around the corner. As he walked up for a quick look, for the formality of it, he heard a helicopter. It wasn’t military; it was the sound of the new helicopters that had been circling the six villages for several months. They didn’t shoot, didn’t drop bombs or shamans, and only landed when there were no people nearby. No one knew why they circled. Muzhduk ran to the top of the enormous rounded rock that formed the summit and arrived just as the helicopter was landing.
Two women and three beardless men stepped out.They all, even the men, wore shiny pastel clothes made of cloth, not skins or the wool greatcoats of the Russians. All five were small and thin, the heaviest couldn’t have been more than a hundred kilos—light enough for the wind to blow them away.Two of the men were obviously guards, despite their flimsy outfits, and the third was in charge, though he wore a red noose around his neck by which anyone could hang him.They all had clean, mild faces unlike any he’d ever seen.
Muzhduk picked up a boulder and said, in Russian, “Are you Reds?”
All five turned. They stared at Muzhduk and he stared back, until one of the women said,“Hello.” She spoke Russian with a strange accent. Then she repeated the greeting in Slovak.
“You’re not Slovak.” Muzhduk knew everyone in the six villages, of course.
“I’m an anthropologist. From America.”
“America?” Muzhduk said, wary. Fred the Political Officer had told him about the evil wizards of technology and the alienated factors of production and consumption, about the cities that scraped the clouds. And his father had met Americans in Afghanistan. He said they all sold shoulder-fired missiles.
“Jesus,”said the man in the noose to the other woman, in English. “It’s André the Giant.”
“I speak English,” Muzhduk said, and all of them started in surprise. It would have been fun to pretend he didn’t understand them while they spoke to each other, but they already seemed a little helpless. “Fred the Political Officer taught me. Who is André the Giant?”
“My name is John.” The man held his hand out. It looked like a woman’s hand.
Muzhduk dropped his boulder.“Here in Verkhoyansk, it is rare to meet a stranger on a mountaintop,” he said.“Normally there is only space for one.This means no empty greetings are required. So long as the mountain is high enough. Usually, that means above the clouds, but today is a bad day. We can’t go by the clouds. Is this okay for you?” But he wondered whether the mountaintop rule applied to people who sat in a helicopter instead of climbing all day.
The man looked confused as well.
“Yes,” the first woman, the one who’d called herself an anthro- pologist, said for him. She squeezed a closed green notebook, and that seemed to calm her. “Yes. That’s okay.”
“Good. Why are you here?”
The noose-man said, “We’re surveying our property.” “Baldhead is your property?”
“Everything you see,” the man gestured in a circle.“This whole part of the Verkhoyansk range. We bought it six months ago from the Russian government.”
Muzhduk laughed. “The Reds tricked you. I hope you didn’t pay very much.”
“What do you mean,” the man scowled, “they tricked us?” “My father is the chief, and he didn’t sell anything.”
The man nodded. “We were told that there was an insurgency. When the Wall fell they released the old files and corrected their maps.”
“Which wall fell?”
“Communism fell?” Muzhduk couldn’t hide his amazement. Communism was his father’s second eye. If it fell, did his father’s chieftainship fall as well?
“Look,” the man said,“we’re fully aware that your people fought off the Soviet Army. But this is our land now, so we want to make an arrangement. We have no problem with your people living here.”
“Thank you,” Muzhduk said, picking up his boulder again. “Wait,” the man said, waving his hands in front of him. “We
can work this out. All I want is to run some tours. Nothing intrusive. I don’t want to mine or build cities or anything like that. Quite the opposite. You have a very rare breed of butterfly that lives only here. I want to set up a conservation area and fly in wealthy tourists. One hotel, that’s it. Butterfly lovers who’d spend money and do no harm to the environment.”
“Butterflies?” Muzhduk nodded at one that had landed not far from them. It had a stubby, juicy body, shaggy like a sheep dog, with long sleek wings that were transparent in the center but trimmed on all sides with thick yellow velvet. “We eat them.”
“Eat them?”gasped the woman who was not the anthropologist, eyes wide. “They’re endangered!”
“We eat them when they’re still worms.” “For God’s sakes, why?”
Muzhduk smiled. “They taste good.”
The five Americans objected. Muzhduk told them they were wasting their time talking to him, since he only had one eye. They should object to Ugli the Third.
After checking with their Russian pilot on how much the helicopter could lift, the Americans offered Muzhduk a ride down to his village. On the way, they asked how Slovaks had ended up in this hidden valley in far northeastern Siberia. The Americans had read about the Czechoslovak Legion of 50,000 men who broke through Russian lines during World War I and refused to turn back despite cowardly orders to do so. They said that historians knew about the Great March East, when the entire Legion walked from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, but they thought the Legion had stayed in Siberia for only three years.The history books said they had captured eight train cars of gold bullion and bought passage on Europe-bound ships in Vladivostok, making it back to Czechoslovakia after a full circumnavigation of the planet, proud that they’d never had to retreat.
Muzhduk explained that while most of the Legion had continued east, his great-grandfather Muzhduk the Ugli the First had stopped here on the edge of the Verkhoyansk Range, on the banks of the river Lena, and shouted, “Big people do not walk so much!” He was a huge man with a forehead like a promontory and a neck like an amphitheater, and when he shouted the echo set off three avalanches. There had been a quarrel. General Stefanik, the leader of the Czechoslovak Legion, insisted that the world was round, and that eventually they would come home to their beloved Tatra Mountains, to villages nestled in cleft valley passes and their women warm within. He said that it was too cold in Siberia, that the Reds were winning the Russian civil war and Reds believed that all men were equal, regardless of how much they could lift. He said that Czechs were not mountain people and that the Czech philosopher Masaryk was waiting for them all in Prague, capital of a new Czech and Slovak Federated Republic. Muzhduk’s great-grandfather and six thousand men said no.The Verkhoyansk Mountains were similar enough to the Tatras, their feet were tired, they no longer remembered their wives. The six thousand
stayed while the rest marched on.
The Reds defeated the Whites, but many years passed before they turned to face their Slovak problem. Mostly, they were occupied with other business. But by the late 1950s, they had established a worker’s paradise, secured world peace, and were well on their way to the Moon. It was then that they decided it was finally time to clean out Verkhoyansk.
They invaded the valley every five years, but, needless to say, they failed. The Slovaks are strong and brave, a people who’d stopped the Roman Empire two thousand years earlier, holding off phalanx technology, onagers, and civilization with little more than large boulders. From the time they can stand unsupported, Slovak children are taught to throw oak logs and large rocks at each other. They have honor. In the end, the Red Army finally solved its Slovak problem by printing maps that didn’t show the valley. And so, everyone lived in peace.
Muzhduk explained all this, and as much more as he could manage during the short flight. In exchange, the Americans told him about Mount Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat, and Cho Oyu.
“Those are all higher than Mount Communism?” Muzhduk asked, shocked and delighted. After more than a decade of trying to find a higher mountain, here was a whole pile of them.
The anthropologist crouched around her notebook and wrote furiously, mumbling about lost tribes and colonial peripheries and her publisher, while Muzhduk talked about how, when he would return from his quest, they’d spot him when he crossed the river Lena. By the time he reached his village there’d be a hundred girls, each with a bottle of slivovica, using every wile known to Verkhoyansk woman in trying to force some down his throat, and the men would crowd at the Ugli home, jumping drunkenly to give Ugli the Third the honor of breaking his top step under the weight of all his guests. Then, after he’d clapped all the women courteously on the ass, after the top step was broken, and after the girl whose bottle was the emptiest was declared the winner—
The anthropologist cursed when they touched down in the center of the village and Muzhduk stopped talking.
Ugli the Third greeted them before the blades had stopped spinning by knocking unhappily on the window.“What do you want,” he said, then grumbled that he didn’t like helicopters. The Americans stared. He had a hundred pounds and six inches on Muzhduk.
Muzhduk’s father led them back to the house, a square cottage with the tallest and widest roof-tree in the six villages. All the guests could fit in the central room, though they had to pause to let their eyes adjust to the weak light coming in through small fret-shuttered windows and their lungs to the sour smell of pine, earth, and lanolin that mixed with faint smoke from an iron wood-fired stove. Flypaper coils hung throughout the room, heavy with dead Siberian bugs, and tapestries covered the log walls.The only other real room in the house was the attic, where they slept, held up by rough branches that wove through the ceiling to the plank, tar, and scavenged-metal roof. Most of it was tank armor. But all the furniture was carved of wood, good wood that did not creak when you sat on it, and every crossbeam was engraved with scenes of men challenging each other to single combat or relaxing in various positions with women and slivovica afterward. And there were great battles against the Reds, as well as the objective-eye exploits of the family, scenes of walking and Baldhead and Afghanistan.
Muzhduk’s mother quickly chased out the smell of earth and smoke with that of strong coffee. She shook bearskins, plumped bol- sters, replaced the short nettle-cloth on the table with a white lace tablecloth from Austria-Hungary, and stacked meat and cabbage onto blue-onion china. Everyone sat, and the man in the noose introduced himself again as John. He added that he was an attorney and introduced the two women as an anthropologist and a biologist.
“How did you get these titles?” the Third asked, shaking a thick bottle toward his guests. They declined, so he poured it into his own coffee. “And why do you throw them around?”
The attorney looked at the anthropologist. She hesitated, then wrote in her notebook one word: “status.” She underlined it for John’s benefit.
“Status,” Muzhduk said. The anthropologist winced.
“You think we cannot read?”the Third asked, incredulous, pointing at the upside-down English word. “When we steal women from the Red camps, we take their books too.”
“I’m sorry,” the attorney said.“I use my anthropologist to avoid offending you.”
“Avoiding is the only thing that will offend me. Talk without help or crawl back into your metal shell and fly home.”
The attorney didn’t know what to say. He straightened his tie. “And take that off. It makes me want to hang you from the ceiling just for fun—and then I can’t concentrate. It’s like if she,” he stuck out his bottom teeth at the anthropologist, “pulled down her
pants during our whole conversation. How could I think?”
The anthropologist stared back at the Third and stopped writing. For a few seconds the only movement was the biologist slapping at a black fly that had found its way through all the flypaper coils.
John took off his tie and jacket and rubbed his hands together. “Okay, you asked about my title. I’m the attorney for, and a partner in, a company called SiberTours—”
“I asked how you got your titles. They mean nothing if I don’t
know how you got them.”
“Well,” he hesitated, “I graduated with a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, first in my class, and I’m a member of the New York bar.”
“Those still mean nothing.”
John paused to think before each answer, and this was beginning to annoy the three hosts.
The anthropologist added, “Harvard is the top law school in the world, and—”
“It’s the highest?” “Yes.”
Ugli the Third nodded. “And you graduated. So you climbed to the top of the steps of the highest law school. That is respectable, though it means nothing to us. I know what laws are. Fred the Political Officer has explained the world well.They are for the weak-willed. We don’t believe one person needs to tell another how to live.”
“You don’t have laws?”John asked in disbelief.“What if someone murders your sister?”
Muzhduk’s father made an enormous fist.“Then it’s between my family and his. We don’t bring strangers into such a personal thing.” “There must be something your people look down upon as
a whole,” the anthropologist said. “In the abstract. Otherwise you wouldn’t have a culture. Do you understand what I mean?”
Ugli the Third pursed his lips, though the movement was hardly visible under his beard.“Dishonor. Ducking a boulder instead of trying to catch it. Too much introspection in the valley.” He pointed a thick finger at his son. “Thinking about things instead of acting. But these are not laws. They are honor.”
“Fine,” John said curtly. “But your enemies have laws. Anyway, Harvard Law teaches more than laws. It teaches how to think and use language.”
“Words are toys. You can’t throw words.”
“Of course you can. That is exactly what law school teaches.
How to throw words.”
“How do you weigh them? What’s the most powerful word?
“Harvard. In my life, that has clearly been the most powerful word.” He paused again. “Like Communism was for you.”
“Enough of this,” Ugli the Third slammed his open hand down on the foot-thick table. His hand was as big as the anthropologist’s notebook, and hairy. “What do you want here?”
John the Attorney explained his plan to fly in tourists to look at the butterflies. For the first time since the helicopter landed, Muzhduk’s father smiled. He had big teeth, each as big as John’s thumbnail. “You are a funny man, John the Attorney.Take some slivovica.”
This time John accepted, and Third filled John’s coffee cup so it was half coffee, half 160-proof plum brandy.
“The butterflies are okay,” the Third said. “But you keep the helicopters away from the villages and make the tourists walk the last hour.”
“Great,” John said.
“But you have to stop killing the worms,” the biologist added. “The worms taste good,” Muzhduk the Ugli the Third said.
“And if we don’t eat them, they’ll eat everything else. They never stop eating, especially the mulberry leaves. They make silk for us and then, on the first day in their cocoon, we pick some and have a feast. And after the rest grow, the women use the yellow from the wings for eye paint. This will not change.”
“It must,” she insisted.
“It will not change.” Ugli shook his head somberly.“People who do not eat butterflies will wear their clothes the wrong way, and people who wear their clothes the wrong way are inviting lemmings inside.” “Our company owns this land now,” the biologist said, her face
white. The anthropologist squeezed her arm, but it was too late. “Then I hope you are more powerful than the Reds. I withdraw
my grant. We will kill your tourists and you.”
“Even if we are not armed?” the anthropologist asked.
Ugli the Third frowned. It would make no sense for them to come unarmed to a battle; but if they did, if they were crazy, then what? He couldn’t kill someone who was both crazy and unarmed. “Go away,” he said.
“Wait,” the attorney interrupted.“I can see that you’re an honorable people, with your own sorts of rules. The rule of lore instead of the rule of law.” He smiled and the Uglis stared at his perfectly straight teeth. Like a horse. “I get it. And you’re right, this land is yours and only yours. To give or not to give, as you will. We were naïve to trust the Russians. The, um, Reds. But as a token, I ask that you grant me land the size of…” he looked around, finding the rug under the table, “…of a bearskin. Just one bearskin. To be mine, to not be interfered with no matter what, on your honor.”
Muzhduk the Third laughed, finding John funny again.“What could you do with land the size of a bearskin? Even for a small man like you, that’s barely enough space to lie down.”
Muzhduk the Third winked at his son. He was chief. He had both eyes, objective and subjective. Muzhduk the Fourth hadn’t told him yet about the collapse of Mount Communism. “Fine,” the Third said.“I grant you land the size of a bearskin anywhere in our domain. Now go away, but leave your anthropologist.”
“Can you sign this paper?” John asked, handing Ugli the Third a contract.
“My honor!”the Third boomed. He spat on the paper and stuck it on John’s forehead.
They left, taking the anthropologist with them, loaded down with gifts of plum brandy, mountain wool socks that Muzhduk’s mother had knitted, a newborn goat, and enough apple strudel for a week of desserts. Had they left on warmer terms, there would have been too much for the helicopter to carry.
Two weeks later, Muzhduk saw the helicopter circling the six villages. When it landed in front of the Ugli home, Muzhduk the Ugli the Third was waiting, angry.“I told you not to fly this noisy thing so close.”
“But you gave us this land,” John said. “Where is your bearskin?”
“I cut it into a fine thread. I took the thread and placed it in a big circle that surrounds the six villages. Now this area is all mine.”
The Third’s neck swelled and turned red.
“On your honor,” John the Attorney said, backing up.
Ugli the Third pulled on his ears, rubbed his forehead, and looked dangerously close to indecision. Finally, he said,“If I kill you, then the person I gave my word to no longer exists.”
“That sounds like ducking.”
Ugli the Third growled.“You’ve learned too much.” He stormed into his house, pulled up the trapdoor and climbed down into the dungeon where the family kept Fred the Political Officer. Muzhduk followed him. Fred looked terrible. He was lying on his cot, gaunt and pale and blind. And old. Ugli the Third should have listened to his son, but he’d been too stubborn.
“Fred the Political Officer,” the Third said by way of greeting. “Yes?” Fred answered. His voice was ragged and dry.
“Tell me about words.” “What words?”
“Words and attorneys. How do you fight words?”
“I can’t tell you anything about them. I am almost dead.” “Yes,” Ugli the Third said and went back upstairs. He told
Muzhduk to sit across from him at the large table. Muzhduk’s mother joined them, and the three drank coffee.They drank for hours, until it made them sweat and shake and hallucinate in their peripheral vision. “I was wrong,” the Third finally said. “Words are not just toys.
They are heavy but not straight. You caught Hulagu’s rock by doing strange things with your body, and you used to move the rug to give Fred the Political Officer more light when nobody was here. So maybe you will succeed with these people who want the butterflies to spread until they eat every bush and tree. Go to that place where John the Attorney learned to throw words.To fight Reds, we had to understand metal.To fight Americans, we need words. Pick up the word Harvard and learn it better than John and bring it back. It will be your second eye, more like that of the First, but still objective.”
“Why not just kill John the Attorney? Then the promise dies with him.”
“There will be more like him.”
There would be others on Mount Harvard, surely, thought Muzhduk, other future chiefs of “niches,” as the Americans called their tribes, learning to use words as weapons. Harvard wasn’t really a mountain, but the first Ugli had only walked to Siberia and stopped. He hadn’t climbed anything. And according to John, others had climbed Baldhead and Communism before the Uglis had ever even seen them. The whole family’s second eye was at risk.
And chasing a word to its peak couldn’t be wrong. The Verkhoyansk Slovaks had changed a lot living in the mountains of Siberia, but they were still Slovaks. And the word Slovak literally means people who use words. As opposed to, say, the word for Germans, Nemtsi,
meaning people who don’t speak. For a Slovak, even a Verkhoyansk
Slovak, it couldn’t be wrong to understand words. Could it?
When Muzhduk pressed John for more information, he told them strange things like: “Objective success changes, though you must quickly forget that it does,” and “The top’s always changing.That’s why it’s hard to stay there. Power comes from many tiny micro-interactions, not broad sweeps. You keep your nose to the market, watch fluctuations, ride the wave.That’s the only way to remain the big chief.” And he told them that the name of Mount Communism had changed to Ismoil Somoni Peak.
“Ismoil Somoni Peak!” Muzhduk’s father repeated for days, shaking his head.
The fall of Communism overshadowed everything. The six Slovak villages of Verkhoyansk wondered whether Ugli the Third had lost half—the objective half—of the family’s claim to the chieftainship. Then, on top of everything, Fred actually started to die.
He’d been coughing blood for months, but everyone thought it was just because he lived with the grain and that wheat dust bothered him. And normally when people coughed more than the usual amount of blood, they went to see Fred. Everyone assumed he’d fix himself.
Now he couldn’t even sit up, and his coughing fits sometimes made him pass out. Muzhduk wanted to take him upstairs, give him some sun and air, and his father agreed. But Fred didn’t want to leave. He said he wanted to be comfortable. Muzhduk brought six flashlights to the basement to give Fred some light, but Fred said to turn five off. So Muzhduk spent his last week in Verkhoyansk in the basement, in near darkness, with a wall of grain squeezing him against Fred’s death-cot. “Thank you for moving the rug all these years.” Fred pointed up
to the irregular lines of light filtering through the axe-hewn wood-plank ceiling where the bearskin rug had been.
Muzhduk scratched wheat chaff out of his beard. He’d come to squeeze the last bits of information from Fred the Political Officer, who’d worked in America during his spy days. Instead, he kept thinking of the hours he’d spent down here with Fred. He’d talked more with Fred during his life than with anyone else in the six villages, including women. Finally, he said, “You want to play a game of chess?”
Fred said no. “I want to tell you what I know about America.
Before you go.”
He’d watched the Uglis for twenty years from under the floor, keeping the name Everest secret out of bitterness. It was what remained of his loyalty to Mother Russia. But Fred had heard the talk with John the Attorney and between father and son, and he knew that America would be difficult for Muzhduk. In the six villages even the chief can’t tell another Slovak what to do—if half the village wants to fight Reds and half wants to finish the harvest, each does their own thing and doesn’t question the other.The chief ’s opinion carries weight, but if he ever tried to force someone, the way the generals did before the Great March East, his own family would beat him to death out of shame.
Fred told Muzhduk that in America there’s no single chief, but everyone tells each other what to do. They have fifty million laws, all written down. In Verkhoyansk nobody writes down anything important because human memory is faulty. In America they write everything, for the same reason. There are rules about what kind of plants you can smoke, when and where you can have a drink, and what you must wear on your head when you ride a motorcycle. They have rules against standing around and not doing anything. If you break a rule, they write it down so nobody will ever forget. And there is nobody to fight if the rule is wrong.
Fred tried to sit up, but only managed to turn onto his side. “That’s a rule you must remember: men can’t fight, even if they both want to. If your honor demands a fight, you must remember that honor is different there—”
“But—” Muzhduk started.
Fred gripped Muzhduk’s wrist.“You absolutely can’t hurt anyone physically, not even a dog, because in America pets are people too, and they have an internal army like the Reds, but they’re Blue, and everybody helps them catch someone who breaks a rule. Don’t trust anyone, not even friends, they all collaborate. If you kill someone, your own friend will call the Blues.”
Fred told him things that would help.“The fastest way to learn the laws is to learn about the men who make them. For example: they are rich, unfit, and afraid, so their laws protect property, forbid nudity, and give the Blues a monopoly on violence. But it’s complicated, because hypocrisy is important there. They consider it the first step to virtue.”
“If you ever get in trouble,” he said, coughing with nearly every word,“say that what you’re doing is to increase safety.‘Safety’ is almost like honor there. Another way is to become famous, or the most at something. My handler and I used to laugh . . .”
Fred coughed at the thought of laughing.
“ . . . that if we ever defected we’d call ourselves the world’s tallest midget and the world’s shortest giant and try to become rich on American television.”
On the last day, Fred still tried to talk, but what came out was a ramble of fragments. About looking at the part of the swan beneath the water, how it paddles frantically, about bureaucrats who will insist Muzhduk have a number, and about his own life in the Uglis’ basement. “In places like that,” Fred said at the end, staring at the grain,“if a wall falls on a man and people want to know why, they study the wall. In this basement I’ve learned you have to know why the man sat beside it.”
Fred died. Muzhduk sat with him for a while, then pulled his hand off his wrist.They burned his body as if he were one of the family, and since the smoke was in the shape of a deer, they threw his ashes into the air.Then Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth left for his long walk to America.
I was with three dogs, all from the same household: Ozzie, a bouncy, athletic and energetic bearded collie cross; Gem, a lovely-natured little Staffordshire bull terrier; and Sam, a rather overweight, but ultra-sociable Cairn terrier whose short, stumpy legs struggle to keep his belly from trailing the ground.
In a country park, high in the hills that overlook Paisley and Glasgow, we were following our regular route. As normal, I checked each field for sheep and cattle before entering. Except, on this occasion the cattle were not apparent from the entrance and were actually ensconced in an obscured dip, around a bend.
The three dogs were off-lead and slightly ahead of me as they charged through the open ground. Well, Ozzie and Gem, at least – Sam was mooching his way around as usual, searching for scraps of discarded picnic food and leaving his scent-mark on just about every raised tuft of grass that he passed.
I knew something was wrong the instant all three stopped what they were doing and stood still. Gem threw me a look from over her shoulder which I loosely translated as:
“We’ve got a problem …”
Confronting us now, and quickly rising to their feet, were about twenty cows. Worse - they each had their young with them.
I returned Gem’s look, hoping she’d interpret it as:
“Keep calm, and walk slowly towards the woods.”
At least in there, I reckoned, the cattle would have no room to charge us, and if we were seen to be walking away from them, hopefully they’d realise we intended no harm to their calves.
The most vociferous of the herd was by now no more than four metres from me. She was snorting and stamping her front hooves on the ground. The others were becoming more animated and vocal as they circled us. I shot a look towards the wooded area, some fifty metres away.
The alarmed baying of the group in front of us had alerted a splinter-herd, who had been resting-up in the shade of the very same woods.
Gem slowly turned her head towards me, a quizzical look on her face. I think she was saying:
“What now, wise-guy?”
‘What now?’ indeed.
Well, Ozzie, being of nimble foot, had already made himself scarce and scarpered towards the bottom end of the field. Gem, ever so trusting, was still awaiting instruction.
Sam, completely unaware of any possible danger, decided he’d like to make friends with the cattle. This was not helping, at all.
A car stopped on the road that bisects the park, and the driver came to the fence around a hundred metres away. From his vantage point, down the slope from where we were cornered, he could see a gap forming in the herd. He shouted to me and pointed to where we should run.
And run we did – Gem close by my side.
It was, as I’d read in magazine articles, ‘every man and dog for themselves,’ as we, the faithful Gem and myself, raced through the break in formation. Sam, however was still dithering around with his new ‘pals.’
“Come on Sam” I hollered. “BISCUITS!”
That did the trick. His little legs were a blur as he tried to catch up, more afraid of missing out on a treat than the danger of being trampled and kicked to death by an irate cow or two.
We quickly reached the sanctuary of the road, where Ozzie was waiting:
“What kept you?” I could imagine him panting.
Friday, November 23rd 1888
Doctor J. Watson to Sherlock Holmes Esq:
Here, as requested, is the first of my journal entries made last evening, detailing the events and our involvement in what must surely be our most grisly case yet. I believe at least one of the dailies is running with the headline 'Jack the Ripper', which I think is mere sensationalism, however, history will demand the truth...
Having been brought up to date in the brougham by the effervescent Sherlock Holmes, he and I made our way to Whitechapel. I began to list some aspects of the crimes reported via our friend Lestrade, Mr Lungcutter the police surgeon and constables Armstrong & Miller (first on the scene at the most recent murder). There have so far been five murders - including the two last night - and various items were found at each murder scene. These items include:
A bucket and spade left near the corpse
A quantity of porridge in the victim's breast pocket
A lock of hair tied round the victim's ring finger
The words - yore neckst - written in porridge across the victim's chest.
Several incisions have been made to the bodies of all the victims, leading Lestrade to believe the murders may have been committed by a crazed doctor. In fact, Lestrade even questioned me, albeit briefly, as to my whereabouts on the dates in question and is satisfied (thank God) that I am not a suspect. He is currently questioning several hundred Doctors to ascertain their movements.
We arrived at Jones the Butchers Yard and were able to inspect the murder scene. Holmes spent several minutes lying prostrate on the ground, examining the cobbles for evidence. Though the police claimed to have been quite thorough, Holmes discovered a quantity of what he suspected might be French tobacco and two cigar stubs bearing a royal crest.
My old war wound is playing up, so I shall continue this narrative in due course.
The path was well worn, for they came in numbers.
To many, the journey had taken the form of almost religious homage. But for the majority, the subjugated, it was a feared and tortuous trek into the unknown.
Penance or penalty – who could tell? It mattered not.
Even those forced to accompany their masters on frequent trips were fearful of stumbling upon unexpected terrors. For this was an unforgiving land - a strange, soulless wood land, fraught with dread and trepidation around every turn. A land inhabited by a species of beings, shy by nature, who would gather in small groups but scamper into the darkened recesses when approached by outsiders. For it would seem they too were tormented by the unknown.
Colin had been here before, of course. Most of the village’s menfolk had.
But this particular command to saddle up the iron horse and prepare for a new venture into the living, breathing nightmare took him by surprise. Surely his master had laid sufficient sacrifices at the altar of Ingvar to last until the year end at least? Had their dues not been fully satisfied? What more could be required of them?
Colin’s hands were visibly shaking as he prepared for the journey. A survival pack was hastily replenished with revitalising fluids, spectacles, a mobile communicator and most importantly, cash. The god, Ingvar rewarded the offering of cash. This Colin knew only too well.
The short trip to the edge of the mysterious wood land passed quietly and the iron horse was securely stored in a place that would later become as difficult to find as the end of a rainbow.
Colin’s master led the way towards, and through the rotating gates to the place of nightmares. Colin took a deep breath and closed his eyes as, from somewhere deep within, he found the courage to follow.
Instantly, his heart sank. His knees trembled. His head felt as if it were being squeezed by a contracting band of steel. Experience, however, reassured him.
“Focus on the positive. Always the positive,” he told himself. If his master was in benevolent mood, there may be a reward at the end of the trek. Assuming he made it through unscathed, that was.
Trailing a discreet distance behind his master, Colin joined the sluggard masses. Eye contact with the other subjugates proved difficult, but when by chance glances were exchanged, he could see into the very souls of the others. They were neither dead, nor undead. They were caught in a twilight world where all emotion had been thwarted. Until they made it to the other side (if they made it to the other side) their minds belonged to their masters. Only the naïve or plain stupid would offer up opinions of negativity. Even those who opined what they considered a neutral indecisiveness would be ruthlessly smote down in a volley of retribution.
As they wandered deeper and deeper into the petrifying forest, their masters would casually pick up items for brief inspection, pat them, then cast them aside once again. Colin and the other subjugates, however, would become disorientated and nauseous. Their very existence lay in the hands of the masters. So long as they remained no more than a few steps behind, and didn’t let them slip out of sight, they knew it would all have to end. Eventually.
Focus. Envisage the end. How good will it feel when it’s all over?
And then it was.
Suddenly, the trail opened up. No longer was it a random path meandering throughout the heavily wooded area. It was now a straight, direct walkway through a deep valley, dwarfed on both sides by mountainous blocks erected in temple-like fashion – a place for final worship before leaving the kingdom of Ingvar.
The mood of Colin and the numerous other subjugates visibly brightened. Their pace increased. Their gait lightened. They were nearly home. All that remained was to wade through the wide, but traversable rapids.
It had been done before. This was do-able.
And there, in the near distance, the reward. Colin’s master gave that look. Simply translated, it meant: ‘Yes. Ok. You’ve been good. Go on.’
And Colin ran and Colin skipped over to the reward. Now – ice cream or hot dog? Or maybe some meatballs to take-away? Or some cinnamon rolls?
Weekend visits to Ikea were sometimes worth the grief.
The Definitive Humor-Writing Handbook From A Top Comedy Pro
This easy-to-follow guide, written by one of the world's most successful humor writers, lays out a clear system for creating funny ideas that get big, milk-coming-out-of-your-nose laughs, reliably and repeatably. You'll learn...
* The 3 sure-fire ways to generate material
* The 11 different kinds of jokes and how to tell them
* The secret to permanently overcoming writer's block
* And many more tips, tricks, and techniques
Table of Contents
Use the techniques in this book to reliably create top-notch humor writing (page 9)
2 Your Brain's Comedy Engine
Access both hemispheres of your brain to eliminate writer's block and tap an endless reserve of comedy ideas (page 19)
3 The Humor Writer's Biggest Problem
Overcome this one devastating obstacle to reach the widest possible audience (page 27)
4 How To Get Laughs
Understand the different kinds of laughs, and how to generate the best one (page 37)
6 Subtext: The Secret Ingredient
Infuse your humor with this vital component to create writing that makes people laugh (page 51)
6 The 11 Funny Filters
Create any joke using the 11 fundamental building blocks of humor (page 61)
Funny Filter 1: Irony (page 62)
Funny Filter 2: Character (page 64)
Funny Filter 3: Shock (page 70)
Funny Filter 4: Hyperbole (page 74)
Funny Filter 5: Wordplay (page 77)
Funny Filter 6: Reference (page 81)
Funny Filter 7: Madcap (page 85)
Funny Filter 8: Parody (page 90)
Funny Filter 9: Analogy 9(page 4)
Funny Filter 10: Misplaced Focus (page 96)
Funny Filter 11: Metahumor (page 99)
7 Using The Funny Filters
Layer the building blocks to create increasingly hilarious jokes (page 105)
8 Process Overview
Master this simple system to become a prolific humor writer (page 127)
Click "Look inside" to see more!
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The Half-Assed Wizard by Gary Jonas Narrator: Joe Hempel Series: The Half-Assed Wizard #1 Published by Denton & White on 09-11-17 Genres: Fantasy , Urban