Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Important Things

I. Enjoy the Weather.

It is not a real winter here. Polar vortices are heard of but unseen. Congratulations are given, months after the fact, for the foresight to go where snow will never be shoveled. Hard times are over!

It gets down to the 50s at night. There's a heater in our house, but it's inconsistent. There is little concern about this, even though 50s-at-night can be a pretty chilly situation when you're indoors and stationary. Congratulations on the weather makes me want to engage about it. Correct it. You know, it can actually require jackets. You know, K acclimated immediately, and she can get quite chilly. You know, weather extremes are a pretty good marker for the passage of time. You know, it's actually the lack of humidity that has been the biggest blessing. You know, I have a hard time stopping myself from thinking of how different everything would be if we'd turned right instead of left. 

Well anyway. Thank you, it is rather comfortable outside. How are your pipes holding up?


II.  Laid to Rest.

Vibrant is not the word. The single thing I keep remembering about Walt is when I went to Chicago with him and my brother Dave. We were going for a comic book convention, the first time Chicago Comic Con was branded Wizard World Chicago. I remember the nametag had the electric blue Superman on it. It was 1997? 1998? It must have been 1997. After high school and before college started. I bought a wall scroll for Denise, who I may or may not have been dating at the time. We were dating toward the end of high school, then broke up a bit, then in that first year of college pinged back and forth a bit, as one will do. But I remember wanting to bring back a present, and I remember choosing some sort of anime-ish wall scroll. It rolled up tight, but it was long -- three-feet or so -- like a nice walking cane, but too long to be packed.

Walt and Dave and myself had shared a hotel room for the several days we went to the show. After we left, I realized I'd forgotten the scroll. I think we'd even made it to breakfast? It must have been a Denny's, or something similar, located quite close to the hotel, because we hadn't gone far. I can see the moment clearly -- putting something in the back of the van, realizing the absence of the scroll. I told them and we went back to the hotel, and they let us back in the room. It was there leaning in a corner, and I picked it up, and we got back in the van, and we went on our way again.

What I'm trying to say is -- Walt joked a lot. My feeling on that trip was that I was a little embarrassed and a little awkward all of the time, and that as Walt grew more comfortable with me, he would joke more at my expense. Which is a sign of affection really, or comfort at the very least, when it comes to midwestern dudes inclined to go to comic book conventions, but at 18 and right out of school and used to being the weirdo that cooler weirdos pushed around, it made me feel uncomfortable and exposed. And I was dreading the jokes at my expense for forgetting and having to go back for the wall scroll I'd bought for the girl who was maybe my girlfriend.

I don't think he said anything about it. Probably, he didn't even care. Or notice. I was 18 and self-conscious about anything that drew attention to myself (a pressure point that has only slightly subsided over time), and I was terribly relieved and grateful for not being picked on about it.

Walt was the first of my brother's adult friends I met and felt any kind of relation to. Last September Dave told me Walt had cancer -- many cancers -- and he passed away last week. This anecdote doesn't do any kind of justice to who he was as a human being or a man or a father or a friend. It's not really meant to. It's just one of many things that's rumbled around my own head as I've thought of him recently.

I'll feel better if I repeat what I posted on Facebook:

Walter Davis wore overalls, rocked a marvelous mulletted ponytail well past its expiration date, and, despite being one of the bigger dudes I have ever met , comfortably answered to the nickname "Tweedle." He passed away last night after spending the last several months bloodying the nose and blackening the eyes of cancer. Which means he gets first pass at the heavenly $1 comic bins.

Walt was a father, my brother's dear friend, and a funny motherfucker. He still is those things, and will be them forever. Rest well, buddy.


I'll feel better if I share what L shared with me, after reading about Walt's passing:

i read this poem of rilke's for many days, sometimes even out loud...and shared it with some of our friends too...and its acknowledgment of the unknowable and the immensity of grief felt right. others told me they felt the same way. so i thought i would send it to you. lots of love. xo.

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.


III. Rising and Being Risen.

A recurring insecurity is, "What am I contributing to this situation?" Relationships, work, creative endeavors, social outings. As if a thing (anything) can be seen from the outside, and as if it can be judged, then, by it's individual components. Am I being helpful? Am I making it better, or worse? What would happen if I left now? Am I slowing everyone down? 





I almost fell down a hole of fearful, existential introspection, there. I came upon that image by accident and it actually made me feel a lot better. If you make a dumb choice, if your joke is the worst joke, if the people you love are a little disappointed in you or embarrassed by you?

You still have to get out of bed the next day. You can choose to be kind the next time the people you love don't hit the bar they want or expect. 

I don't think man is capable of love is the line, for me, with the most gravity from the True Detective I watched last night. Obviously the speaker is in the depths of his own hole of introspection and existential crisis. He's a fiction, but then so is Homer. We get to choose which is correct. We can choose nature (fear, suspicion, judgement) or grace.

Maybe we're wrapped up in our own heads and we don't notice when it's the kindest thing simply not to poke our friends in a sensitive spot. Or maybe it's all somewhere in our heads -- and by our heads, I mean our entire selves -- and we can, occasionally, have an inherent feeling for what will help maintain a positive balance for ourselves and the people we love and the people we like and the people we've only just met.
 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Remember Arnie

I met Arnie Raiff in ... 2003. We were both taking Carey Friedman's Experimental Theater class and it was my first semester at Columbia College Chicago. I had decided to go back to school because I was restless and aimless and wanted to write a lot. Arnie was teaching there, and taking classes that interested him. I was already intimidated, taking an experimental theater class before I'd taken any normal theater classes, but now I was taking it alongside a teacher and a bunch of grad students. But I was kind of dumb, so I didn't let it bother me too much.

But I felt comfortable around Arnie from the first time I saw him. He had a scraggly beard and a scratchy voice. He wore newsboy caps and baggy sweaters. He didn't look like a writing teacher auditing a class. He looked like a guy, a Chicago guy, and he was eager to ask questions when he didn't quite get something yet, and he was quick to get excited when he got it. We didn't talk much, one on one. I didn't talk to anyone much, one on one, that semester. Maybe that whole year. I was nervous about being back in school and being found out for a fraud and a terrible writer. I remember having something I wrote read aloud in class one day, and hearing Arnie laugh at one of the right places. I don't even remember what I wrote. I just remember that he laughed.

That summer Arnie taught a writing workshop I took. The focus was creative nonfiction. I read "Shooting an Elephant" for the first time in his class, and it was one of the first stories I taught to students of my own later. He talked about unions and looked at me with a little bit of disbelief when I said that my dad was in a union, but couldn't quite articulate what he did at work every day. I investigated imaginary friends as my final project for that class, not conscious that it was because, even after nearly two years in Chicago and one year back in school, I still felt so separate from a lot of real humans.

But that meant there were figures like Arnie that loomed large. Writers who had gone through the process. Arnie was still exploring his work and his craft, still struggling with making himself understood, but also eager to help others find their voices. I didn't have an intense personal connection with him. Except for the one that came from being fellow travelers who were in the same place for a little while. We walked and read and wrote together, for a little while.

This morning, I woke up in a city far from Chicago and scrolled through Facebook to help jumpstart my brain. To see what the world was up to while I was asleep. I read that Arnie Raiff died peacefully at home on October 29, ending his long battle with cancer.

I haven't seen Arnie in person since 2006, when I left Chicago for California, the first time. But I have thought about him -- this is no joke -- on a regular basis ever since, trying to explain the Chicago-centric pop culture references from Spider-Man 2. "'He's Back,'" Arnie said, pretending to hold up a newspaper. "That's Michael Jordan!" I don't know why that pops into my head as often as it does. I would imagine Arnie didn't think too much about Spider-Man 2 after that summer. But that's how I see him, as the focus of that semi-circle in a little room on South Michigan Avenue, holding court and talking about stories. Write on, brother.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Prelude to Michael Caine

Sometimes you take on a new project and you think, this will be a nice way to spend the weekend. We're hangin shelves! And then you do, and you have shelves.

Sometimes you think you'll start a Choose Your Own Adventure-ish blog and it will be finished in six months, but instead you're still writing it (or not-writing it) 5 years later.

Sometimes you know it's going to be a project that will carry on for years and years, and you're content to enjoy the ride.

So Kate says to me the other day, she says: Do you want to watch Michael Caine's filmography in chronological order?

"Yes. Yes I do."
 We established some ground rules. We're starting with his first starring role, in 1964's Zulu, and all of the colonial & prejudiced problems that will go along with watching a 1960s movie about British soldiers killing Africans. Wikipedia is kind enough to report that, "due to the apartheid laws in South Africa, none of the Zulu extras could be paid for their performance. Director Endfield circumvented this by leaving them all the animals, primarily cattle, used in the film; to the Zulu, this was a gift far more valuable than money."

Wuf.

Well, Alfie is only two movies away.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fiction: Coda -- Roy Raven

[This is the third of three shorties I wrote about Roy Raven, my Pathfinder character of a year or so. This was written after the campaign's close, when the playing was done and our group had drifted to different corners of the country. 

Kendra was an NPC that I decided Roy might wind up traveling with. I wrote this on the plane as Kate and I were flying to San Diego to look for an apartment after a rather all-of-a-sudden decision to move to California. I didn't look at, or share, this story with the rest of my group until just last week -- I didn't even realize, when I was writing it, that I was writing about Kate and myself moving and leaving the Diplomancers, just like Roy and Kendra were leaving the Bugbears.] 

The fires burned low as the sun rose. Kendra came back -- Roy hadn't noticed her go -- and softly cleared her throat.

"Right," said Roy. "Probably time to get."

"You promised to catch up with them before Caliphas," she said.

"I did say that," said Roy. "That is a thing that I said."

"You lingered awfully long as you said it too. Like someone who was stalling."

"I have been known to stall, it's true. From time to time." Roy Raven kicked at the dirt of the reconsecrated temple grounds. After the fight with the scholar -- after the Gallowspire had been sealed again and for all time -- the rest of the Bugbears had wanted to rest and recount their win and their spoils. Roy had felt antsy. He'd laid awake as the others slept, and he'd parted ways with them, only for a day, he promised, to wrap up any burials or loose spirits at Renchurch. Kendra had gone with him.

We're bonded now, she had said. We might should spend some time together.

Mostly the Bugbears didn't care. Fitzy had tried to tag along -- more and more toward the end he had been right there behind Roy -- but Roy shrugged off the goblin's assistance. It'll be boring, Roy explained. Spirit exorcisms, corpse re-burial. That kind of thing.

We never fully explored those stables, Fitzy had reasoned. There might be something--

Definitely not, Roy said. But if there is -- you've got dibs.
That had been enough to appease the little alchemist.

Kendra hadn't said anything, but Roy could tell she knew he was thinking of taking the opportunity to head in another direction.

"They'll be disappointed," she said now, like she could read his mind. Maybe she could? Who knew what almost-bonding with a lich godling could do to someone.

"They'll be fine," he said. "They know the songs. I was never that good of a banjo player. You heard us back in Ravengro."

"You did more than just banjo for them."

"Got them into trouble," offered Roy. "'What my friend here means to say...'" Roy had been quietly perfecting his Ganlow impression, but that was before the change. He'd somehow, incongrously, seemed to have lost some of that skill.

"They're fond of you for it," said Kendra.

Roy shrugged. "They are. All the same. I think I need to try something new. Honestly, when I think of going back on the road ... there's like a white border around that way of thinking. It's a vision of the past. It gives me a headache. I don't mean like a metaphor. It hurts, physically. Here." Roy tapped his temple.

"Pharasma touched you," said Kendra. "It's difficult to avoid destiny."

"You managed it," said Roy. "Destiny-wise, you should be the vessel for a lich-king right about now, yeah?"

"I avoided one destiny. I seem to have gotten mixed up with another. This bond we seem to have--"

"Ahh," Roy said, waving off her words. "I mean yeah, I get it. I'd just rather not -- let's not talk about it quite yet."

Kendra settled into an amused silence.

"Besides," said Roy, "I've been dodging destinies my whole life. I was raised by people, did you know that?"

"I didn't," said Kendra.

"It's true. Fisherman's family. For the first few years, anyway. So by most accounts, I should be inheriting a fishing boat or something."

"What happened?"

Roy pretended to have trouble remembering. "Nothing unusual. Brigand-related. Me and Sur -- he was my foster-brother, I suppose -- we headed to the city afterward. Got caught up in pickpocketing. So, by that destiny, I should have been a street rat forever, or else strung up in a jail somewhere in the Shackles. Or conscripted onto a pirate ship or something."

"I could see you as a pirate. A bird on your shoulder." She smirked.

"That Moesul, I swear. If I never see that particular weirdo again..."

"Aw, come on. Kaisen wasn't so bad."

"He had a pretty great belt," Roy conceded. " And his dancing was really improving, though I wouldn't tell him so to his face."

"Anyway," said Kendra. "What happened to pickpocket Roy? How was that destiny avoided?"

"Sur joined the army, believe it or not. Decided to fight for some lord or other, maybe earn his knighthood. I even thought about joining, for the sake of family togetherness. But it clearly wasn't for me. Bird bones, you know?"

"I do."

"So. I wound up learning a trade."

"Which one?"

Roy glanced at the graveyard, where not too many days previous he had buried his friend.

"One not far removed from what we're doing now. So maybe that particular destiny was just sidestepped for a few years. I picked up the banjo, and I just-so-happened to be enough of a weirdo for the freakshow that Deltaen was putting together at the time. Fitzy was already there, and then Myrtle joined shortly thereafter. And then Ganlow joined and stole all of my good ideas. We toured and we gigged, and then we met Muzzgash in the cemetery the day we -- well, you know. The day we buried your dad."

"And now here we are," said Kendra, smiling sadly, remembering the times before. "But where to next?"

"We could ask the planchette!" said Roy, perking up. He liked asking the planchette. "Follow the unquiet spirits about, help put them to rest."

"I'm a little tired of talking to ghosts," Kendra said. "The truth is -- I can hear them anyway."

"Yow. Really? That's creepy, Kendra."

"They're like whispers," she said, staring at something far away.

"Well, I can respect that. Taking a break from ghosts and all. It's just that -- well, I kind of have this deal. With Pharasma, I mean. I think it's kind of my job now."

"There's a lot of unquiet dead," said Kendra. "I don't know if we need to ask them anything. We could just -- travel. Follow our noses for a bit, instead of racing off to the next thing."

"I like to travel," agreed Roy. "It's been a long time since I've been down to the Shackles. Have you ever been?"

"Never," she said. "I hear it's -- well, actually I hear it's not very nice."

"Oh, it's not," Roy agreed. "But it is where I'm from."

"Let's go then," said Kendra. "Should we stop in Ravengro? I have some things that--"

"Aw, things," said Roy. "Things have never gotten anyone anywhere. You know what gets people places?"

"What?"

"Going."

Kendra smiled. "Then let's get going."

"Yeah," said Roy, as if it hadn't been his own idea. He took one more look around Renchurch in the rising sun, and it didn't look nearly as abandoned or as dreadful as it had when he'd first seen it. "And hey, maybe we'll catch up with those Bugbears someday anyway. That wouldn't be so bad."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fiction: Roy's Prayer

[The second of three stories I wrote about my Pathfinder character from the last year, a tengu bard named Roy Raven. 
In this installment, we were near the end of yearish-long campaign and I felt like Roy -- who began as a bit of a boorish smartmouth -- had made something of a personal journey. One of his friends had recently sacrificed himself for the group, and I was thinking of giving Roy a level in a divine class like paladin. Our Gamemaster Alex suggested that Pharasma herself -- she's a deity in the Pathfinder world -- might step in and offer something more drastic.]

I offer a prayer to Pharasma. 

I have never been a holy bird, so Lady honor me with your patience. I was alone when I was born, like most folk are. I've been on the receiving end of kindness now and again, but for the most part, it was up to me to figure out how to survive. That's how it was for a long time, and that's how I learned most of my habits. I've stolen from the living and the dead, and it's never made me particularly sorry.

When I wanted to give up that kind of life, yours was the first face I saw. This old dwarf gave me a job and a shovel. Well — he gave me the job, but he docked my pay for the shovel. His name was Bardin. We buried people. Humans, dwarves, orcs — we buried a tengu once. He was a young guy too, younger than me. We buried the dead, and we got paid a copper for it. It wasn't work I was proud of, at first. I made jokes. I pocketed some possessions that were meant for the ones I was burying. Old Bardin never caught me, or if he did he never made me stop. You made me stop.

I overheard a cleric reciting a prayer to you, in advance of the body being given to me and Old Bardin for the burial. I don't remember the words, so apologies again, but I do remember part of what he said. "The Lady shall keep it." I didn't know exactly what we meant, but also I thought that I did, if that makes any sense. I thought maybe it meant … well, I dunno. Not the soul, exactly. For whatever reason, I decided it meant all their worry. The world is hard, and it was nice to think that when some poor old folks were finished running around in it, when they've finally met their bloody end, that they could have some rest. That they didn't have to carry that worry around anymore, of going hungry or going poor, or being stabbed to death by some adventurer who wanted a name for himself. I thought that it mean that you would keep it, that worry, so that they wouldn't anymore. And I liked that.

Old Bardin died. I buried him in his own plot. Nobody paid me to do it.

Nobody paid me to bury anybody after that. I took what Old Bardin had left behind, which wasn't much. A book of myths or stories for dwarves, a banjo, a cloak, and a shovel. I burned the cloak. I left the shovel behind, and mine own too, so that whoever took the job next could at least start with a leg up. I read that book, over and over again. About dwarves who went down too deep. Did you know that every dwarven story is about that? Digging too deep and finding something foul. Or giving yourself over to greed. Or drink. Every dwarf story has the same lesson, Lady Pharasma. I started plucking at the banjo too, and after awhile I got not-bad enough that people stopped yelling at me to stop. They started giving me a copper or two to keep going, and that's a better way to earn it than digging graves.

Anyway. That's how I found these guys, the Bugbears. They're all right. I think their mostly good people. What I mean is, they're probably the best guys I've ever known, but you know. If I told them that they'd just make sure their coinpurse was still there. Which is okay. I have old habits.

One old habit is how I still feel about those departed folk. I know a body is a just a body, and that the soul moves on. That you keep their worries for them. But it still means something to me, and I don't think it's just because of my old job. A body is a holy thing itself, and that's one thing I've learned since those gigs in Ravengro. A body shouldn't be used how the Way wants to use them. I think they're real wrong about what they do.

But I didn't really mean to talk to you about the Way. They're bad, but I think we can handle them. I meant to talk to you about Muzgash. He was a real weird guy, you know? And he smelled bad, and he walked slow, and sometimes he would help the people who wanted to kill us. Help them not to hurt. But he was also real all right. And that thing I guess he did, to cleanse your temple? 

Well. All due respect, I guess you owe him pretty big for that. I hope you keep his worries for him. He had a lot, I think.

And I don't always know what to do, but if there's a thing I can, I want to do it.  I think Muzgash has the right idea. You've got to just do it all, all that you can. I don't have a soul worthy of cleansing a temple or anything, but I can be pretty good at shooting things. And I can play Bardin's banjo a little. So if there's something I should do, and you can see it and I can't? You tell me what it is. Okay?

The Lady shall keep it. Amen.
[After this, Alex and I role-played a scenario via email where Pharasma offered Roy the chance to give himself over to her divine mission. His feathers turned white and he lost all of his bard and thief levels, replacing them with levels of Inquisitor. I still played him with the same rakish personality, only know he was on a Mission from God, kind of like Jake Blues. It was a fun change, and it felt character-based and natural.]

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Fiction: The Old Bird of the Shackles

My gaming group, the Diplomancers, spent much of the last year meeting every Thursday night to play a Pathfinder adventure called The Carrion Crown. About halfway through, some of us actually wrote up the backstories to the characters we'd already been playing for months. This was the secret origin of Roy Raven, my bardish thief, who later found religion.

The Shackles are the home of pirate lords and smuggler kings, with ruined towers dotting its islands and rocky outcroppings, carved with images of cannibal cults and terrible tentacled things never seen by living eyes. With an unending hurricane and the lawless and savage Sodden Lands to the north, the harsh and unforgiving Terwa Uplands to the east, the Shackles are also home to those who are too helpless, too hungry, or simply too forgotten to live anywhere else.

Sandy was one of the hungry. A decade and more ago he had tried his hand at buccaneering, robbing, and raping, but quickly found that while his cutlass was willing, he simply hadn’t the heart of a ruthless ravager. His first time boarding a merchant vessel he puked over the side when he witnessed one of his fellows disembowel the other ship’s boatswain, and the second time he himself jumped overboard and swam to shore, either unnoticed by the pirates or mistaken for a drifting corpse. He drifted to shore on Motaku Isle, fell in love in the warrens of Quent, and took over an abandoned farm on the outskirts of the jungle, hoping to raise his new family there, astounded at the good fortune that had led him away from a murderous life and to one of love and stability.

Of course, nothing stays dry for long in the Shackles.

Sandy’s family grew to three children and a wife he adored, and worked hard for. But growing crops on the rocky Motaku Isle was ever a challenge, and more often than not the nearby Eye of Abendego, a hurricane that had been raging for centuries, would send hellstorms that would drown even the simplest, hardiest harvest.

“I’ve no skills,” he admitted to his wife one night, when the children were in bed and presumed to be asleep. “The only thing I’ve ever been good at escaping with my life when everyone around me was dying on a pirate’s blade.”

“You were absurdly lucky,” said his wife. “Maybe you can put that luck to good use?”

The islands and rocky atolls of the Shackles called to adventurers seeking treasure and heroic challenges. They also called to Sandy, who sought food and comfort for those who mattered to him most.

There was one particular atoll, difficult to reach due to rocky spires that lurked just below the water’s surface, but which was perhaps the last hope for a hungry man with hungrier babies at home. Sandy rowed carefully, his eyes always on the water around him. The rocks and ruins he glided over could end his trip if he skirted too close and one punctured his small skiff.

It was a thing of wood that Sandy had borrowed from one of his neighbors. Old Edward would already have discovered it was missing, and was no doubt cursing Sandy for a fool that would likely never return. But if Sandy returned with what he was seeking, Old Edward would be too busy eating to be angry. And if Sandy didn’t return, well, he wouldn’t have to listen to Old Edward shouting at him anyway.

He could see his goal in the distance, through the fog of the sea. It was a tower, slender and tall, rising above the waves. Not terribly tall, but straight and strong enough to have withstood wind and water and the terror of the storms caused by the Eye of Abendengo.

It was there that hope was said to still live.

Sandy had heard of the tengu, but had never seen one with his own eyes. They were said to be good luck on ships, if only because the birdfolk attracted all of the spare bad luck to themselves. And in Quent, the largest city on Motaku Isle, there was tengu rookery that was known to be a den of avarice and sin. He knew of taverns there that would occasionally serve tengu eggs, for a few hours raking in fistfuls of gold from the curious, and before a murder of tengu descended on the place to shut it down and run off those who had gathered to eat the tengus’ unborn. But here in this tower there was rumored to be a tengu nest unprotected by what passed for birdfolk warriors, and even if some civilized men (like Old Edward) would frown on eating the eggs of intelligent humanoids, Sandy had a family feed. And, if his conscience got the better of him again, he could sell the eggs to buy food that didn’t have its own part of town in several civilized cities.

Sandy’s boat bumped into a rocky shoal under the water, and the sound scraped against the bottom of his wooden boat. He would have to slow to keep his boat safe, using his oar as a pole that would propel him off of or away from the ruins under the waves. Sandy’s boat coasted to where the tower met the sea. It rose straight from the water, its base down below the sickly lapping waves. He pushed his way around and found a hole in the tower wall at the waterline just large enough to glide his skiff through.

It was dark inside the tower, and the sound of the water echoed around him. A spiral staircase, carved of stone from the interior wall of the tower itself, curved and rose above him, broken in places by time and the salty sea. More than sixty feet above Sandy there was a wooden landing, and sunlight broke through it in places. If there was an isolated tengu nest here, that was the most likely place for it.

He glided the small skiff to where the stone stairs rose from the gently lapping waves. The stairs were so worn -- and so wobbly and weak in places -- he had to move up them on all fours, hand over hand and foot over foot. He stopped every few moments to listen for evidence of his quarry up above, but he could hear nothing but the echoes of the water and his own guilty heart.

When Sandy reached the landing he was momentarily blinded by the sudden sunlight. The roof of the tower had been torn away -- by what, he couldn’t say -- and the landing itself was a tangle of rotten and sea-stained wood, moldering burlap sacks, and detritus gathered from who knows where.

There, in one back corner, under the last remaining vestige of the stony ceiling, was the shadowed form of what could be one of the birdfolk, the tengu. Over the sounds of the sea all around, Sandy could hear labored breathing and the wheezing of a creature most certainly close to death.

Sandy’s heart sank. What if there was a tengu here, and it was already spent and nearly dead? He didn’t know if he had the heart to put it out of its misery (which meant he surely wouldn’t have had the heart to kill it and steal its eggs), and then paddle his way home with nothing to show for his voyage, or this theft of Old Edward’s skiff.

“Hello?” said Sandy. He pulled a simple dagger from his belt, feeling quite rude and boorish for drawing a weapon in what clearly a stranger’s home. “I’m sorry,” he said, feeling immediately foolish for apologizing to a creature he’d not yet met, and from whom he’d intended to steal that which was surely most precious to it.

There was a rattle of breath from the shadowed corner, followed by a wracking cough.

“My doom,” said a voice unseen, “comes to greet me, it seems.”

“Hello,” Sandy said again, feeling quite foolish all over again. A vision came to him of his babies crying for food, and of Old Edward admonishing him for stealing his skiff. “I’m afraid I may have come to rob you.”

The shadows in the corner collected themselves and shifted and moved. Sandy took a step back and nearly dropped his dagger, so slick from sweat were his palms.

“You have come to kill me,” said the thing he still could not properly see. “In days past, when one came clambering up my stairs I would rain oil and arrows down upon the burglaring bumbler. But I am old now, and ill.”

The things shuffled into the sunlight, but the smell of it hit Sandy before the sight. It smelled of old meat, wet feathers, and rot. It smelled of something sick and dreadful, and it moved much the same. It was one of the birdfolk, true, but it had a broken arm (a broken wing?), and a hollow mess of red where one beady eye had once been. Its beak was cracked and askew, and its feathers were matted and torn where they weren’t missing altogether.

Sandy backed up further, and startled himself when he backed into the tower wall. He drew in a gasp of breath at the sight of the poor creature before him, and was flooded with pity. It’s why he made a poor marauder, and an even worse thief. He had no heart for killing or the taking of another’s property, and though he wasn’t particularly strong or especially bright, he would rather aid a helpless creature than take from it.

“What’s done this to you?” said Sandy.

The wheezing old tengu doubled over with a wracking cough that Sandy soon realized was a laugh.

“Time,” the thing said. “I am old, human-man. I am 64, and though I don’t know how long your kind naturally survive, that is a respectably lamentable age for the tengu. Age has inflicted much of the damage you see before you. The rest was courtesy of an especially brutish pirate band, the remains of which you see there.”

Sandy looked down and into another corner of the tower landing, where he saw the sunbleached bones of several canine-skulled creatures. They had been gnolls when they were alive, hyena-humanoids it was best to avoid whether on land or at sea. This tengu of the tower had been accosted by them, and they had undoubtedly planned to do precisely what Sandy had come to do: kill her, and take away her eggs.

“Is there anything I can do?” he said. “To help you, I mean. I don’t really have much, in fact, I --”

The tengu wheeze-laughed again, sitting down where she stood, as if the effort of walking and talking was altogether too much for her.

“You can put me out of misery,” she said, “as you no doubt intended to do when you broached my tower. I have lived here long, and I have defended this place from the likes of you just as long. You would come for my treasure, or my eggs, or simply the glory of killing a lonely sea-druid. Which was it that called you across the waves, pink one?”

Sandy shook his head, with every intention of denying the truth of her accusations, but he could not keep his eyes from flickering behind her, to where her nest must be.

She shuddered and coughed again. “My eggs,” she said. “You came for food, is that it? You have the look of a hungry one. But you come alone, which means you must have someone waiting for you back home. Little ones, perhaps? Or a nagging she-man who demands you provide?”

“She does not nag,” said Sandy. “She tries her best as well, but the truth is, neither of us are very good at, well. Anything. But there are little ones. They’re much better than us, or at least better than me. They’re good. They love hearing music. They love to play together, and they’re never cruel. But life here is so hard.”

“Is it?” said the tengu. “Is it hard where you live, on land, surrounded by fishable waters and lush green plants? By neighbors who would help you in hard times? By family and friends? Is it hard there, where you live among others, never driven off a ship when your good luck charms wore off? Or out from a settlement because the humans drew tired of your ways, of your strange smells, of your beady eyes? Is it a hard life for you?”

Sandy’s face grew hot, and he could not look her in her one remaining eye.

When he finally looked up, she had sagged even closer to the ground. Whether he put her out of her misery or not, this creature was not long for the world.

“There is something you can do,” she said. “I have little treasure, but if there is anything in my worldly goods that will help you, you may take them. I am old, but I and all of mine have been fertile all of our days. There’s many of my own kind who make the treacherous trip to this tower as well, to gain the favor of Ruk, the Feathered Druid of the Sea. I have a nest of eggs here, and you may take them as well. You may feed them to your little ones, you beast of a man -- all but one. One egg you must swear to hatch and raise as your own, and you must swear to treat the chick as equal to your little ones. You must not force it to lay its own eggs for you, should it be a maiden. Raise the little birdling as your own, but with full knowledge of who they are and from whence they come. Do that, and the rest of my eggs shall be yours.”

Sandy though it over for merely a moment. What else could he do?

“What’s to ensure I keep my promise?” he said.

“Do the men of the Shackles keep their word?” said Ruk.

“Not most,” said Sandy. “But the good ones do.”

“Then do, if you are a good one,” said the tengu. “If you are not, and you mean to trick me: tell me so, and kill me before I can curse the day you rowed to my tower.”

“And yourself?”

“Leave me be. I may have one last spell in me yet, and I would give myself to the gods under my own power, if I may.”

Sandy agreed, and gathered Ruk’s eggs into a sturdy burlap sack she provided. There was little else useful to him in her tower, though he agreed to take a momento from her that he would pass on to her chick when the little birdling was old enough to understand: a compass, seemingly normal and with no shine or sheen to draw attention to it, but tingly to the touch for reasons Sandy could not understand.

The voyage back to shore seemed even longer than the trip to the tower, and the sound of the tengu druid’s wheezing laugh would not leave Sandy’s ears.

Back home he apologized to Old Edward for the theft of his skiff, but as recompense he gave the old man the largest of the tengu eggs. “You can sell it if you want to,” said Sandy. “It will surely fetch a high price.”

“What will you do with yours?” asked Old Edward.

“Feed my family,” said Sandy. “For a little while, at least.”

He told his wife of the promise he’d made to Ruk, and within a week they were the adoptive parents of a small, screeching black-feathered boy.

“What will we call it?” asked Sandy’s wife.

“Him. At least, I think it’s a him. We’ll call him -- Roy, after an old uncle.”

“But -- he, he’ll not have our last name,” said his wife.

“No, that wouldn’t do,” said Sandy, remembering another part of his promise to the old tengu: that the chick should always know his own origins.

“What was his family’s name?” asked Sandy’s wife.

“I don’t know … he had the head of a raven.”

“Raven, then,” she said. “We’ll call him Roy Raven.”

An Interview With Ben Costa

I just interviewed my friend Ben Costa for the Longbox Project about his life and work in comics. I'm really proud of it! You should go read it.

One of the first things I did when I moved to San Francisco in 2006 was I went to my grad school's meet n' greet. It was pretty scary. I was 27, I'd just moved across the country to attend an MFA writing program in San Francisco, a place I had barely ever visited before. There were writerly introverts, writerly extroverts, intimidating new instructors, and a whole new social world to decipher.

And there, where the sea of humanity parted.

A gangly tall dude with scruffy hair and a Usagi Yojimbo t-shirt.

I had found one of my people.

Ben Costa, Amy Martin, and me, with our comics at APE in 2007. Two of these people went on to be successful comic creators!

When the rest of the CCA gang were going out drinking or carousing or troublemaking over those two years in our MFA program, Ben would hang out for a round (sometimes) or a joke or two after class (usually) and then excuse himself to go home and draw pages from his comic, which then only existed on the web. It was (and still is) called Shi Long Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk. Ben was award one of the last Xeric grants to publish the first volume of Pang in hardcover, and earlier this year he successfully Kickstartered volume 2. Ben debuted the new volume at Comic Con 2013, and he's sending out copies to his Kickstarter funders any day now.

Ben's a damn good friend and a weird dude and I like him a lot. I'm hella proud of the work he's done and the manner in which he does it: how he wants, and to exceedingly high standards of quality. Read the interview, read his book, and check out the beard that won him the CCA 2008 beard-growing contest:

Me;  Ben; Ben's Beard; 2008.