Short Fiction for Guests of the Wordfeeder
Monday, August 22, 2011
As is the case with everything I write,
except for a few details, this is a true story.
(To a short short story? Why not?)
As you may already know, there are literary historians who contest the notion that William Shakespeare (4/26/1564 – 4/26/1616) was, in fact, the prolific author he is reputed to be. (Yes, he died on the same day of the same month on which he was born.) It is their theory that, acting as a front, Shakespeare took credit for the works of one or more of his contemporaries, namely Francis Bacon (1/22/1561 – 4/9/1626) and/or Christopher Marlowe (2/26/1564 until he was stabbed to death on 5/30/1593 at the age of only 29). Most scholars believe this debate is unwarranted and that William Shakespeare was, in fact, the genius creator of the works to which he signed his name.
In any case, relationships among these three men – Shakespeare, Bacon and Marlowe – varied from cordial, even warm, particularly between Shakespeare and Marlowe, to angry, resentful and distrusting. Some have even suggested that Bacon – who was known to have a nasty disposition, generally lacking any sense of humor and occasionally ruthless – may have arranged for Marlowe’s demise, envious of his closeness to Shakespeare and angered by certain blasphemous remarks, quite shocking for their time, made by Marlowe about Bacon which Sir Francis took personally. Who knows?
What is known for sure is that Shakespeare’s remarkable productivity stalled abruptly in late 1599, with no output – no play or poem – through most of 1600. The best he could manage was some reworking of Hamlet which he had first written in 1589. Why? Could it be that Shakespeare was distracted and, instead of writing, chose instead to spend the year rolling around with Gwyneth Paltrow? (Who wouldn’t?) Of course not. That was the movie. In fact, no one really knows, but there is a school of thought that believes Shakespeare, who was a superstitious person, was affected by a gift he received about that time from none other than Francis Bacon himself. Alleged by Sir Francis to have been presented to encourage a reconciliation between the two, there are those who believe the gift had a much more sinister purpose.
It was early on the perfect Saturday morning, Jake’s favorite day. He’d been up for a while, wrapping up one of the columns that would one day make possible the nice house in the country which was their dream. For now, their one bedroom city apartment would have to do. His nimble fingers were flying over his laptop’s keyboard, until they stopped abruptly, for just a moment, before hitting the final period. “Done.”
“Oh, yeah?” Eve was just coming around the corner into their kitchen/dining/family room where Jake worked on their coffee table, perched on the edge of their small sofa.
“Hey, good morning.” Reaching up, he took her left hand, pulling her down and onto his lap. A quick kiss, and then he just looked at her, smiling, and her back at him, they way they did. “Okay,” he said, “I’m three columns ahead. ..Well, two and half. I’ll proof this one tomorrow morning.” He liked to let them sit overnight. “Each of them really very good, if I do say so myself.”
“And if you don’t, who will?” she looked at him funny, as if pretending to say, “I’ll be the judge of that.” In fact, she was his biggest fan and loved his writing which, as it turns out, was what first attracted her to him when they first met.
“And I got an email from Mervin,” his agent, “to say he’s crazy about the two chapters I sent him and may have someone who’s interested.”
“Oooo! That is impressive. I think you deserve a special treat.”
“Hold that thou..,” but she kissed him before he could finish. “I was thinking we could take the day off and celebrate my creative genius,” she kissed him again, “and your good looks by going into the country for some antique shopping. Maybe buy me an actual desk, something cheap I can refinish? Have lunch in one of those country stores? Maybe overnight at a quaint B&B somewhere?”
She kissed him a third time, longer this time. “Okay,” was all she said, pushing off his shoulder and standing up. “You know,” she told him matter of fact, “if I were you,” she kept walking, reaching down, her hands across her chest, to grab the corners of the t-shirt she’d slept in, “I’d be meeting me in the shower.” Two slow steps later, when her t-shirt hit the floor, Jake was up and right behind her, picking up her t-shirt along the way because he was the neat one of the two of them.
One longer than usual shower, and two bowls of cereal later, they were in their old Forester and on the road, out of the city, off the Interstate and on their way. Jake was driving, relying on the navigator in his phone. Eva, on the other hand, had her seat back, her bare fee up on the dashboard, reading a local country travel guide she’d picked up a yard sale a couple of weeks ago.
“Which way?” Jake was letting her take the lead, content to play airplane with his hand dangling out his open window.
“Just stay on this road until I tell you to turn left.”
Thirty minutes, two left and 3 right turns later, they were lost.
“I have to tinkle,” Eva announced.
“You tinkled before we left.”
“Apparently, I didn’t tinkle enough.”
“Well, let’s see,” he pulled to a stop at an unmarked intersection. “Your choices are the woods,” he looked to his left, “or the woods,” he concluded, looking to his right.
“How ‘bout that place?” Pointing out her window, they both turned to see a small, run down country home in the distance, it’s small “Special Furniture” sign barely visible next to an out of control shrub at the street end of its dirt driveway. “Let’s go there.”
The driveway was long and uneven, the low points still wet from Friday’s storm. At the end, there was a small circle of uncut grass. They pulled up, a few feet from the front porch steps, both of them relieved to see, but wondering about the late model BMW parked toward the side.
“Com’on,” Jake pulled the handle and pushed open his door, “you tinkle, I’ll look around.”
Between the two of them – Eva taught English Liturture at a local community college. – they didn’t have much, but a do-it-yourself desk should be affordable. Jake would use one of the kitchen chairs, or pick up something with wheels cheap at Staples.
The solid wood door was open, the screen door behind it hitting the usual bell when they let themselves in. Inside, what used to be the living and dining room was filled with wooden pieces, ordinary country items that were hard not to like. Nothing special. Nothing too weird or creepy the way so many antiques are.
“Oh.” The particularly well-dressed thirty something woman who came from the back, carrying an open 3 ring notebook, was surprised to see them. “Hi. Is there something I can do for you? ..Actually we’re not really open.”
“Uh, I’m sorry to impose, but could I use your bathroom?”
“Of course. It’s just down the hall,” she said, pointing behind her.
“None of this is for sale?” Jake asked.
“Well,” the woman walked further into the room, “yes and no. This was my grandfather’s place, and his business. He passed away a few months ago. I’m just here to close up.”
“Okay if we look around?”
“Of course. I’m not sure what I can tell you about any of these pieces. All I’ve found is this notebook he kept, but I’ll do my best.”
Eva was back and the two of them walked around for a few minutes, commenting to each other on this and that, but not finding anything in particular.
“There’s more in the basement, if you’d like to take a look.”
“Wait a minute.” Jake had just noticed a desk in the corner, papers all over it, two file boxes stacked beside it, the top one with its lid off and leaning against the wall. An old wooden office chair was pushed unevenly under it. “What about this?”
“Actually, that was my grandfather’s desk. ..Let me see,” she paused while she set the notebook she was holding down on a dinning table and turned the pages until she found it. “Okay. Let’s see. ‘Unique piece, dating from the late 1500s.’ Wow. Hard to believe. I had no idea. ‘Originally brought to the United States from England through Annapolis in the early 1700s. Is claimed to have once been owned by…’ Hm. Get this, ‘..by William Shakespeare, a gift to him from Sir Francis Bacon.’ ..This is interesting.”
“Are you kidding?” Jake was skeptical, to say the least. “There’s more?”
“Honey,” Eva didn’t believe a word of it, “that just stuff these little dealers make up.. No offense,” she added, opening her eye wide and gesturing with her hands as she turned toward their host.
“None taken. I’m just reading,” she began her disclaimer without bothering to look up. “Yeah, there’s more alright. ‘Selling price,’ he wrote, ‘shall be $100 to facilitate a quick sale.’”
“Quite the steal,” Eva cracked, “for a desk Shakespeare once owned.”
“Hey,” Jake didn’t want to be rude. “Let’s hear the rest of it.”
“It’s okay. My grandfather knew his business, but had quite the imagination.” She looked up for a moment, but not at either of them in particular, remembering the occasional summers she had spent at the old house when she was a kid, before getting back to the business at hand. “..‘Buyer must inspect item carefully and agree that there will be no returns. Buyer must assert that he is neither a writer..”
“What?” Eva was as surprised as Jake.
The woman kept reading, “…artist or inventor. ..Caveat emptor.”
“Are you kidding?”
“That’s what it says. Are either one of you any of those things?”
“Let’s take a look at the desk,” Jake responded, ducking the woman’s question. “Do you mind if we..,” Jake pointed to the piles of paper, mostly old receipts and some magazines, asking if they could remove them.
“Sure,” the woman walked over to help. “Just stack them on the floor. ..Here. Let’s pull the table away from the corner so you can get a better look at it.”
The table was small. Thirty inches high, wide and deep. Open in the front, where you would pull up a chair. The top was smooth with inlaid trim. The sides and front panel were anything but. They were solid wood, top to bottom, side to side. No legs. Just square panels, with ornately carved intertwining vines from top to bottom.
Jake looked over at Eva, shrugging as he did. “Honey, it’s in great condition. I wouldn’t even refinish it.”
“And why,” Eva was still skeptical, “are you willing to sell this for only $100? I mean, if he really thought it belonged to..”
“According to my grandfather’s notes, it’s not his. Says here,” she looked back at the notebook, running her finger along the text of an old form, “it’s a consignment item from the estate of someone named Joseph Mitchell, a writer.. Hm. ..who passed away in 1996, and then gives their contact information. ..Anyway,” the woman looked up, “those are the terms. It doesn’t actually belong to my grandfather. $100 it is. Up to you.”
Two months late, Jake, sitting at his desk, the one they bought in the country, sighed for the nth time, his fingers resting motionless on the keyboard of his laptop. For another $30, they’d bought the woman had sold them the old man’s chair. Falling back into the sofa, he reached up to rub his face with both hands thinking it would help him stay awake.
“Hey. It’s the middle of the night. What are you doing up?” as if she didn’t know. “Come back to bed, honey.
“I can’t write for shit. I’m behind on every deadline and what I do squeeze out sucks. ..Fuck,” he mumbled, and then put his sweat sox covered foot no the front edge of his desk and kicked it (and his computer!) over.
“Hey?! What are you.. You know it’s not like we can could afford to get a new computer,” Eva was rolling into her stern voice, but then stopped. “…What’s that?”
“Look here.” Eva got down on her knees and pointed, just short of touching, at the underside of the desk’s top. “This is lettering. These black marks. This is writing in some language I don’t recognize.” Slowly she moved her finger, left to right, along the first two of five lines, as Jake came down off the couch next to her, both of them leaning forward to see better.
Touching the surface, Jake realized that, “They’ve been carved, maybe burned into the wood”
“Yeah, I think so. ..Get me some printer paper and a regular, lead pencil.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going to..”
“Just like in the movies,” which is exactly what she did. Holding one, then a second sheet of paper over the lettering – One page wasn’t enough. – she rubbed the lead of her pencil over the lettering. The result was a surprisingly clear sketch of the text. Having carefully lined up and taped the two pages together, she stopped by the copy center on campus the next morning and used the large page copier to make a single image she scanned and emailed to herself. The rest of that day, except for the two classes she taught, was spent at the library, going on-line and looking at real books, trying to place the symbols.
“I’ve got it!” Eva called Jake as soon as she figured it out.
“I don’t know what it means, but at least I identified the language.”
“So what is it?!”
“Get some Chinese. You know what I like.” She was as excited as she sounded. “I’ll tell you everything over dinner.”
“Deal. I need some good news. Drive carefully.”
Later, sitting around their little kitchen/dinning room table, covered with open bait boxes from “#1 Son,” the politically incorrect chain founded in the days when detective Charlie Chan was all people thought they knew about the Chinese… “It’s ‘Theban’,” she told him, like he should have known what that was.
“The language of, what, actors?”
“That would be funny, if it wasn’t so stupid. I said ‘Theban,’ not ‘Thespian.’”
“I know, but I still don’t know what it is.”
“It’s the language, the not-so-secret-anymore language of Witches, of the spells they cast.”
“I don’t believe in spells.”
“Neither do I, but don’t you want to know what it says?”
“Uh,” Jake hesitated, not wanting to admit how curious he really was, “sure. ..So what does it mean?”
“I haven’t a clue, but at least I know what language it’s written in.”
“Great. ..So what’s our next step?”
“I’ve found a Professor of Theology at Stanford who specializes in fringe religions..”
“Our apologies to all our Witches friends.”
“Right. The point is, I called her from campus, and she’s agreed to take a look.”
Two days later, Eva was on the phone again calling from campus. “Jake!”
“Hi, honey. Wait a minute.”
“I can’t wait. My class is taking a test. I’ve got to get back.”
“Don’t worry.” Then there was the sound of crumbing paper. “I just need to file the draft of my latest column.”
“Two points,” he said, the disappointment evident in his tone, and she knew what that meant.
“Jake, maybe it’s better than you think. You know how you’re always more critical of what you write than anyone else.”
“Trust me, it sucks.”
“Okay,” Eva was tired of his whining. “Who cares. ..Actually, that was insensitive of me, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe just a tad.”
“Yeah, we it could be I know why.”
“Why everything you’ve written, or not, since we bought that damn desk, sucks.”
“So even you think my stuff sucks?”
“Only recently, but that’s not the point. Read the email from Professor Swinson that I just sent you. I’ve got to get back. We’ll talk about it tonight.”
There, sitting at “the desk,” Jake pressed the “Get new messages..” button and waited a second for it to show up. “Blah, blah, blah, blah…”
‘As best I can tell, the text you’ve sent me is what we, today, would call a curse. The witch who cast it – just prior to the onset of the 17th century if I’m reading the date reference correctly, a powerful time by the way, the change of centuries, if there ever was one – is creating a hole of sorts, a pit into which all the creations of he who owns ‘The Block’..
“What block?” Jake thought to himself out loud.
‘..will be drawn, rendering the creator barren and wasted, all that he would have imagined being irretrievably lost so long as The Block is his. So I pray of the Gods, and bare witness on their behalf.’ And there are some other words, maybe incantations, I can’t figure out.”
“What block?” Eva asked the same question when she got home to share the chopped chicken Cobb salad and fresh lemonade Jake had made for them.
Both of them stared at the desk, for only a second, and then back at each other. “Thirty by thirty by thirty,” they said to each other in unison.
“It’s the desk,” Eva said.
“It’s a cube.”
“Not just ‘a’ block,” Jake was thinking. “It’s ‘The’ block.”
“But we don’t believe in crap like this. It was probably just a 17th century prank.., some Elizabethan era jerk’s idea of a practical joke.”
“That sucked the livin’ creativity out of no less a creative genius than William Shakespeare for over a year?! ..I checked.”
Jake stared at her, cocking his head slightly.
“..So, what? You thought I got my Doctorate in English Lit by accident?”
“I love you. ..eBay or Criag’s list?”
“Both. Why take any chances?”
“Right. The sooner the better.”
And later that night, on the very desk they’d would be selling to a student of veterinary medicine who thought it would make a really interesting dog house for “Hamlet,” the name he’d given to the mutt puppy he’d rescued from a near death experience at the pound to impress this girl he’d been dating, a dramatic arts student prone to overacting. That didn’t work out, but a pet is forever. “Price: $100.” the ad read in part. “Buyer must assert that he is neither a writer, artist or inventor. Caveat emptor.”
And you know what? It turns out all that creativity the desk was holding back? Well, it all comes back as soon as you sell it, and then some. Word is Jake’s even taking up writing short short stories for his blog. Imagine that.
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