Teeth

Kage Baker had blessedly little experience with writer’s block, as I have said. She had even less tolerance for what little block she did suffer.

She could power through just about any pain, even the beginnings of a migraine. She wrote hung-over, with the flu, nauseated, and propped up on pillows with surgical staples in her abdomen. But that was just a matter of discipline, of ignoring something she didn’t want to deal with anyway – who would not happily trade pain for the soaring power of the written word?

That was why she so utterly loathed writer’s block. Fighting it was like punching a jello salad, or the air. Writer’s block didn’t care how disciplined you were, or how full of ideas; you couldn’t take a pill or a tisane to cure it. Kage said it didn’t even care about the writer anyway, not as a writer. The writer was just a drying river in the desert sun, helpless and uninvolved with the huge hot rock blocking the water.

Sometimes you can feel the words craving to be written down – but you can’t do it. They are leaping up and down and howling behind your forehead, anxious to be born. If you really, really try, you can pull the words out one by one. It’s slow and agonizing. It is like pulling teeth. And that is not an idle description, Dear Readers.

If you have ever had the misfortune to have a tooth pulled, then you know the pressure and the pain and the horrible, ghastly intimacy of some hauling a piece of your skeleton out of your living flesh by main force. Now imagine that the anesthetic didn’t work. And that you so desperately want to get it out of you that you are willing to sit still and do it. Over, and over, and over.

That’s what writing was for me today. But it worked. I have no complaints, because I have 2 pages of the Zombie Story to offer you, Dear Readers. And here it is.

 

At least, I don’t think anyone tried to make contact. Certainly, no one knocked on my door, but I was trying very hard to make my house look empty. I did get rid of the trash, but I never put it out on the street. I waited until it was dark, and then I crept out and tossed it into the back yards of houses I knew were deserted. Murphy and I didn’t accumulate that much trash, anyway.

I raided the guys next door a second time; this time, I resisted the urge to peek through their blinds. I’d been watching the house across the street where I’d seen the zombies picnicking, and I hadn’t seen them come back. In fact, I’d seen coyotes trotting in and and out of the yard and the house. The news, as well as my own observations through the arrow-slit of my drapes, made it clear that live animals avoided zombies just as hard as they could – the zombies would eat them faster than I would have believed, if not for some unfortunate CNN footage …

So, I was thinking that we did not seem to be on a major zombie game trail. I was sure that some had come – and might still come – wandering up the steep streets from the Hollywood flat land, but it wasn’t happening very often. I guess even undead pedestrians were daunted by our streets. The only level place in the neighborhood was the intersection in front of my house.

The zombies who had been residents had either moved on, or eaten one another. Certainly it was not time to wander blithely down to the Boulevard in search of a pizza, but I was thinking it might be safe to try and meet other survivors in my own neighborhood. If there really were any.

***

The news reports from all over, where there was anything left, by this time agreed that whether or not the zombies were alive was still not quite decided. But they definitely did not retain any aspects of their living personalities for very long – that first morning, the Cat Lady had tried to offer me a present, but by afternoon she was trying to eat the UPS man; but he, who was still clinging to some old habits, had won the fight and carried the Cat Lady off for supper … but the two I had seen in the garden across the way were past house -warming gifts, and were just chowing down on whoever they had found sheltering in place.

No one was sure how long it took to deteriorate. But all the witnesses agreed that zombies could no longer read. Most of them were exhibiting trouble with doorknobs, and not a one had been seen unlocking a lock.

So one early afternoon I loaded a bag with some specially looted goodies from another neighbor’s house. I had baby formula, cereal and fruit and juice, Pampers (worth their weight in gold, I figured) and a note with my name, address and email. There was still no phone service, but I figured if my computer worked, the young mother across the street might still had service,too. And she might appreciate a way to contact me long distance.

As a last precaution, I tore the cardboard back off a pad, wrote I AM NOT A ZOMBIE on it in large letters, and pinned it to my shirt front. Then I took my trusty machete and the Welcome Wagon bag, and went resolutely to the front door.

“Guard the house, Murphy,” I told the cat. He promptly crawled under the couch. I unlocked the front door and made my way as quickly as I could down into my front stairs.

I crouched there and took cautious stock of the street: hot. Dusty. Empty. Especially, empty. As I watched, a raven floated down into the street, and began to search noisily through a burst garbage bag. It looked to me like the best guarantee I would get of the streets being free of semi-living organisms.

So I scurried out and across the street (the raven ignored me, which I guessed meant I wasn’t scary), and pushed through the gate surrounding the tiny front garden. It was full of white roses and over-shaded by short palm trees, giving it a sort of Garden of Allah feel. Walking as slowly as I dared, I climbed the short stairs up to the front door, put down the bag and stood for a terrifying 10 seconds under the eye of the Ring camera above the door.

And then I scarpered as fast as I could go back to my house own house. I fled inside, locked the door, and flung myself down on the floor with Murphy. He crawled back out from under the couch and pressed himself into my arms. We lay there and shivered together for awhile. After about 15 minutes, when I had calmed down enough, I went to the window, and peered through my arrow-slit in the drapes.

The bag was gone. And unless the raven managed to steal a bag larger than itself, that bag had to have been taken inside the house.

Nothing else showed on the street. I waited a while longer, then went to check on my email. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting a reply. I sure would have hesitated, if it hadn’t been my own idea. But there was a new email. It said, I’M NOT A ZOMBIE EITHER.

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My Mind Is An Echoing Void

Kage Baker … was given to many peculiar habits and opinions, which still make my life interesting; and not necessarily in a good way. She was genuinely fond of her agent, Linn Prentis; despite Linn taking Kage less and less seriously as time went on. Kage knew that errors were creeping into Linn’s bookkeeping, and that she had estranged most of the big publishing houses to such an extent that Linn was not permitted into their offices.

Kage had accompanied Linn to business lunches where Linn ignored Kage and instead spent her time promoting new clients. She had removed some manuscripts from Linn’s control in order to make sure they got published at all – and still forwarded the agent’s fee dutifully on to Linn. She was always grateful to Linn for the extraordinary way in which Linn had championed Kage’s work at the very beginning – and it was extraordinary, and it was good of Kage stay beholding to Linn for that good start.

But it made me furious, to see how poorly Kage was treated by Linn in her last couple of years. I don’t think Linn quite realized what she was doing to Kage, or how patient Kage was being about it. Royalty and advance checks were held long past the dates they should have been paid to Kage – sometimes the checks she received were actually for other authors, and more delay was involved in returning them and getting the right ones. Linn missed dates and appointments, even lost a couple of of stories. Still, Kage made me promise to stay with Linn as the agent for her work.

I did, too. I was also grateful to Linn for Kage’s start as a published author, even if I was unhappy with how things finally ended. But things got stranger, and Linn got more careless, after Kage died. She failed to forward checks. She stopped sending me 1099’s at tax time. I severed our relationship when I discovered that Linn was describing herself as Kage’s executrix: which she was not. Linn sent me an angry letter saying she knew I had never liked her (That wasn’t true. But I liked Kage better.) and failed to send me even more tax papers or checks.

Last July, I turned 65. One of the government inquiries I have received in the run-up to Social Security  has asked me to prove that a certain $5,000 advance for Nell Gwynne II had been paid to Kage’s estate. I couldn’t find any such proof, and my requests for proof from Linn had largely been ignored. Her estate, she having passed away in the interim, said it could not provide any proof one way or the other and would the IRS be content with being told the records were not accessible?

Well, no. The IRS is not a markedly trusting organization. I need proof one way or the other, and it has been gently implied that my SSI benefits just might be in jeopardy; which pretty much uses up any patience I’ve regrown. I have explained this in detail to the surviving office help – who apparently have no idea who Linn’s executor even is – and am assured that some answer will be forthcoming soon.

It’s tiring. And depressing. And I’m cranky, and want to concentrate on writing, and have been repeatedly thwarted in this simple desire. My mind is a squirrel cage and all the squirrels are on meth …

Nonetheless, I have advanced the plot of the Misses Take and Treat a little bit. I hope, Dear Readers, that you enjoy it. We pick up where our heroine has been accepted under false pretenses as a breeding postulant …

 

One might expect such a melodramatic welcome to lead to some deep, emotional scene. However, ghouls are practical people once the necessary rituals have been met. I didn’t have to take a deadly oath or anything of that sort: my obvious antecedents sort of grandmothered me in. I was a legacy, like a Job’s Daughter or a Young Republican.

Actually, the Hanim and Petek kindly sat me down and served me tea and cookies. Like their bread, the ghouls make marvellous cookies – we had sugar cookies and almond bars, and they were wonderful. The tea was an old-fashioned black tea, flavoured with jasmine. I nearly cried again at the familiar tastes.

After some gentle questioning as to what my actual, pertinent skills might be, I was assigned to shadow Petek with the bee hives. That was great with me; it meant I would be free to wander the gardens even when I wasn’t working; I like working with the bees, and anyone with access to honey was in a good position to make friends with little girls.

When Hanim Mugae dismissed us, Petek gave me a brief tour of the convent grounds. As I expected, it was a huge, rambling garden, where potting stands, fountains, hose bibs and benches appeared at random amid the trees and flower beds. Between the trees were a number of small cottages, all hand made and heavily customized by their inhabitants. Some were so old and so snuggled into the garden that they were practically just doors and windows in walls of flowering vines. One was built right into the side of a gentle swelling berm along one edge of the orchard.

There were only three large buildings – a barn for processing produce and honey, a meeting house attached to the Hanim’s large cottage, and the refectory. That last was a high, bright hall with skylights in the roof, and small tables set up in casual groups; a low dais at one side held what was clearly the High Table, where the convent elders could dine together. The chairs there were tall and ornate and heavily cushioned.

Petek finally led me back to that one hobbit-style cottage beside the orchard. There were a lot more skeps here, on triangular stands that made them look like woven pyramids. Bees were loud in the blossoming trees, and in the beds of flowers and herbs.

“I thought you would like this room,” said Petek shyly. She opened the little front door and led me inside. “It’s very small, but very private. Your closest neighbors will be the bees.”

That cottage was straight out of a faerie story. It was all one deep room, with a half loft at the back for sleeping. There were low windows in all the front walls, and the back wall was made of clean grey stone framing a fireplace, There was a table and two chairs, and a tiny steep stair at one side of the room, leading to the loft. The floor was wood, with softly faded rugs scattered about; a tiny glass-fronted hutch showed tea things and plates and bowls.

“Most meals are taken in company, of course,” Petek said. “But you can make tea, and cook a little in here if you like. If you’re used to an open fire?”

“Well, yes, but …” I waved my hands around, trying to find words. “I’ve lived rough before – but this isn’t living rough! This is so beautiful, Petek! Are you sure I can stay here?”

To my amazement, Petek gave me a long hug. Standing back from me, she smiled and said, “Well, of course! You need a safe place, Neith, and we really do welcome you. This little place is only big enough for one, really. And traditionally, the bee keeper or her worker live here. My cottage is on the other side of the orchard, and I share it with my birth-sister. So this is the perfect place for you.

“Here, this is the toilet – “ she opened a door under the stairs to reveal a composting toilet in a neatly painted little cell. My mouth fell open, and Petek laughed out loud. “We just had these put in a few years ago, and they may be the most popular modern convenience around here.”

“I can believe that,” I said sincerely. There’s nothing like hunting in wilderness areas and state parks to make you cherish competent plumbing …

“And here – “ she threw open another door, beside the fireplace “ – is an indoor pump!”

It was. It was a shiny little RV hand pump, mounted over a tiny enameled tin sink in a wooden stand. There was even a wee draining shelf to one side.

“All the cells are plumbed in to our well and cistern,” said Petek, with obvious pride. She deserved to be proud – this was a better set-up than I had seen in most camp grounds. “And we do all the plumbing ourselves, of course. We haven’t had a clog or a back up even in the kitchens for almost a year.”

“That’s amazing,” I agreed. I was sincere, too.

“Well, you must be tired, Neith,” Petek said. She was practically glowing with pride. “ Especially after walking up from Highway 1. That’s a dreadful hike, even if you stick to the road. Why don’t you rest for the rest of the morning? I’ll come fetch you when we gather for lunch, and then afterwards we can take a closer look at the honey room.”

I thanked her effusively as she let herself out. She didn’t offer me a key, and I didn’t expect one – convent cells, even when they were hobbit holes in a fruit orchard, were never locked. It didn’t bother me. I was carrying nothing that would give me away, not even a cell phone. But the very first thing I did, as soon as the latch clipped behind her, was dash in to try the toilet. And there was a generous net bag of lavender blossoms hanging on the back of the door, for a very effective room deodorizer. What a luxury!

The next thing I tried was the little pump, with a glass from the hutch. The pump worked wonderfully. A few back-and-forths on the shiny aluminum handle, and a stream of water spewed forth. It was beautifully cold, too, from its underground origins, and tasted of clean stone and mist. I got a second glassful, and retreated to one of the two padded armchairs.

So, here I was, gathered eagerly to the bosom of a sisterhood that certainly had designs on my mixed and unique bloodline. I found I didn’t mind. It had worried me quite a bit, wondering if my story would be believed, but now that I was apparently accepted – it made me feel bad about myself. It wasn’t a long reach, for me to regard these ghouls as nice people. I had more good experience than bad with their kind, even after I grew up and learned the whole story of my own begetting. Not even my paternal kinswomen had offered me harm.

As for these ladies: they were making me so comfortable, I was beginning to feel guilty. If only my errand had been anything less serious than a kidnapped child …

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Kage Baker Is Right – Again

Kage Baker took it as a surety – and practiced it, and preached it, too – that writing was a panacea for all pains.

It started when she was a little girl. Shortly after Kage discovered she could continue the stories she didn’t want to end, she discovered that she could also disappear into a story at need.  She could read – she already had discovered how a good story would take the reader away to another world. Her truly great discovery was that you could also enter into the world most desired as you made it.

That discovery got Kage through every sorrow that struck her between the ages of 7 and 58. Deaths, losses, relatives behaving like monsters, lovers behaving like idiots, rejections from publishers: any and all could be safely withstood from within a Universe of her own making. Even her own death, as it turned out – where she spent the day entertaining guests, and stuffing me with the details she had no time to write down herself; and then left, her responsibilities over,  on the midnight tide.

Since she died, I have discovered for myself that – as usual, drat the woman! – she was right. This blog grew out of my adhering to her dictum, and finding out that she was utterly correct. True, I cried like Mad Maudlin as I wrote the last pages of The Women of Nell Gwynne II, but it was a relief. The weeping, as well as the finishing … and since then, I have discovered for myself that the act of writing can ease all manner of pains and griefs.

It was another bad night here, short of sleep, long on drama, with assorted EMTs and far too few soothing drinks. The day would have been horrible in the extreme if it were not for working on the Zombie Story for a thousand words or so …

Thank you for your continued interest, Dear Readers. The Zombie Story, especially, is being put together in a slap-dash fashion: I write bits and pieces and then I cut and paste until some kind of plot appears. It may not be the finished product – probably won’t, in ultimate fact – but it does go forward inevitably, for which I am grateful. Getting it into shape enough for you all to read is the most excellent goad, too.

So here you are – the next 1,000+ words.

 

Two weeks in, and I was appalled one day to realize that we were, well – two weeks in – into the Zombie Apocalypse, for heaven’s sake. It was a bad dream, a really bad movie. It was worse than election campaigns starting when the sitting president had only been in office for 2 years.

At this point, whether or not there still was a sitting President was a topic of serious debate; there were 6 Federal officials, 2 Southern governors and several assorted preachers and evangelists all claiming to be the Heir to American Democracy. None of them was the guy we’d elected, either. He was still incommunicado and pretty much considered to be zombie-chow, despite the fact that there was a semi-regular radio broadcast out of Cheyenne Mountain in his name …

August was half way past, and L.A. was a vast, silent ghost town. One local television station was back on the air, the venerable Channel 5 that had been the first television channel in L.A. For that matter, it had been the first one in the western United States; and at this point, it was almost the only urban television station broadcasting West of the Rockies. Most of their content was repeats from CNN and MSNBC offices in New York and Atlanta, but it had the ring of truth about it. Unfortunately, that truth was that the country was broken into little tiny pieces, and all the bones were still being gnawed on by their residents.

There were the occasional official radio broadcasts out of Colorado, but most other broadcasters were dismissing them as frantic fakes from whatever was left of the Federal government. There were some intermittent civilian broadcasts from ham operators identifying themselves as based on marijuana farms in the boonies of Pueblo County – however, a lot of their reports seemed to be cribbed from some of the more popular zombie movies, and a lot of other commentators assumed those guys were high most of the time …

A couple of ham radios out of Oregon were much more intermittent, much less entertaining, and just as much under critique for being in an altered chemical state. A few PBS television stations got on the air at unscheduled intervals, and most of their useful programming was promptly re-broadcast by the news stations. Even in the face of the Zombie Apocalypse, people still trusted PBS, I guess.

And that was mostly it for current events. Whatever was coming out of the rest of the world was mostly Europe and Asia – sometimes the “real” news reported that everyone else was in just as much trouble as we were; some international ham rigs picked up fellow amateurs and sent on hideous first person reports.

England had staged a remarkable defense based on a joint campaign by local militias and local hunts, which was keeping the rural areas relatively safe. It helps if your country is an island … Switzerland, whose entire citizenry was armed, was operating on the principle that “if there are no zombies, there will be no zombies”. There were reportedly a lot of successfully executed infected victims, but the disease did not slow down. It was an experiment still in process. The rest of Europe was back in the Dark Ages, huddling in its cottages and fearing whatever roamed the night. There was nothing, nothing at all out of the Balkans, Russia or Ukraine; it was assumed that the the cities were eating themselves, and only the rural areas survived.

Asia was mostly silent. China and India had reverted to warlords, protecting as much as each one could from the remains of stone forts: zombies couldn’t break stone as easily as wood, plaster, and military chain link fences.

At that early date, there was no clear indication whether or not dead zombies stayed dead. Hell, no one was even sure if fresh zombies were alive or dead! All that was clear was that if you ruined a suspected zombie’s head, by bullet or bludgeon or William Tell’s bow, they didn’t get up again. But that was true of anybody.

Nothing came from Australia. There was much speculation – as much as there was casual speculation on anything – as to what would come out on top: the zombies, or the deadly native animals? Or would the locals go zombie, on top of their rich heritage of poison, fangs and claws?

One thing that seemed to be true everywhere – and that was the subject of much discussion and thanks to divinity – was that the only mammals affected were human beings. No zombie cows, moose, dogs, cats, ferrets, bears … but the native animals in Australia were marsupials, and so no one was sure what would happen. I’d seen a couple of the local opossums, though, and they were no more beady-eyed or aggressive than usual. They just seemed disapproving of the sudden dearth of human garbage.

Mind you, on the local front, some trash still appeared on the streets, neatly bagged – there was a limit to what you could keep in the house or the garage. Whatever was set out furtively here and there on the curbs was regularly rooted through, by dogs and coyotes and raccoons. The possums ate what was spread out by the others. A few times, I also saw human figures examining the bag contents.

At first, I couldn’t tell if they were zombies or not – I only made up my mind by seeing what they ate from the bags. If they grabbed the other local vermin and munched on them, they were zombies. One of the universals was that zombies craved living meat. They had better luck with humans prey, though. The wildlife fought back and could run faster.

But between the appearance of garbage bags and the rare non-zombie going through the trash – amazingly, there was one guy still salvaging plastic bottles, though I can’t imagine where he was hoping to redeem them – I got a clear idea of where some survivors still lived in my neighborhood.

The mother and child I had seen scurry indoors on the very first evening were still there; they lived literally catty-corner from me, in a house with blinds over its few windows and no sign of life by day. Hardly any sound, either; that was one quiet baby and a determined mom. There didn’t seem to be anyone else but me on my block – I saw a car from time to time, but I know it belonged further up the street near the crest of the hill. After the first week, though, they seemed to have de-camped to the beach or something, and I didn’t see their car again.

I live on a funny little street up the Hollywood Hills – it’s only two blocks long, and it dead ends on both ends. There’s just the one intersection, where a “major” street cuts it in half. One block dead ends at a precipitous slope of blackberries and assorted weeds; one can climb over the rusted fence, and skid all the way down to Franklin Avenue – or used to be able to, now it was largely a zombie nest.

But the other end was a double row of tiny 1920’s garages that also dead-ended; but there, it was at the mouth of a tunnel in the hillside, leading to a tower that rose up out of the slope. It looked like it was made out of moldy gingerbread. An elevator inside took you to a nest of streets made up entirely of staircases, too narrow for any traffic but pedestrian. The garages below were all under lock and key, as were the wrought-iron doors of the elevator – so it was a fair assumption that no zombies had wandered into the enclave that had defeated so many pizza deliverymen and utility readers. I could see dim lights in one of the houses up there sometimes, and the drapes opened and closed day by day. So I was pretty sure there was someone left alive, who had not been overpowered by any naturally occurring zombies.

It was a symptom of how shell-shocked we all were, I guess, that no one tried to contact anyone else for those first two weeks.

 

 

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It’s Headache Season. Of course.

Kage Baker always associated her migraines with hot weather – late July and August, when all of California’s hills were covered with either asphalt you could fry an egg on; or with miles of the wild oats that have covered the land since the Spaniards rode through on their well-fed horses. Weather where heat haze filled the Basin. Weather where the wavering heat above the roads patched them with a series of auroras and puddles shimmering in illusion.

Hot times, you know? Popsicle and gin and tonic days, ice cream for dinner nights – unless her brain went on the fritz and the tsunami of migraine rolled over like an evil spell, changing her world behind itself into something rich and strange … and painful as hell. She hated those times. Seeing the world in a new palette of quivering inhuman colours was not worth feeling like her brain was hatching out of her head.

If it had, she’d have cheered its escape and held the door for it, as long as the pain stopped.

It’s not hot, not yet. Summer this year started with rain,and a dawn wind straight out of some Paradise of cut grass and roses. It’s still not really hot, and the June gloom keeps faithfully creeping back at night to cool whaevert fever the hills produce. But then Kage’s certainty that migraines only happened in hot weather was never true, not even for her. I think those were just the ones she remembered most intensely – a lot of them happened at Faire, which was NO place to suffer a migraine.

I am not sleeping well at nights right now; except that I managed to sleep through most of the times Kimberly needed my help with Ray last night. So when I actually made the call for assisting Ray in the eredawn this morning, I was wracked with guilt – and by the time I made it back to bed, the edges of the world were dissolving in migraine-infused acid.

Also, the garbage disposal croaked it this afternoon. Tomorrow must be given over to re-arranging the kitchen enough to get a plumber in to replace it. That’s just a vile perfection of a migraine accompaniment.

Still, we have a sort of battle plan for the damned disposal. And the migraine is mostly gone. But I got no writing done. I dreamed about it, mind you – and as soon as I filter out the truly bizarre things (images of stilt-legged cats wearing boxes as tunics, for instance, teeter-tottering around on their furry toes) I will force wring some sort of plot out of it all. I’ll be back on point tomorrow, Dear Readers.

In the meantime, imagine Neith sleeping uneasily in a bower near the bee hives. And poor Rosemary lying stark staring awake, on the alert for fingers clawing at her windows …

Worse problems than I’ve got. Thank you, all the gods!

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Never Name The Thing You Fear

Kage Baker was superstitious, in a personal, individual way. That is, she was superstitious about only a few things, and in only a few ways, that were important to her. Common superstitions didn’t quite cut it for her.

She believed that if she told her dreams before breakfast, they would never come true, Since she also believed that dreams could come true, if properly curated; and so Kage always ate something before she would tell her dreams. Sometimes she ate things she didn’t even like, just because she was eager to tell her dreams to me or the computer.

She believed that evil was drawn by speaking its name. She tried not to actually use the name of any bad thing, therefore, and resorted to a lot of You-Know-Who or You-Know-What. In particular, she believed that it was bad luck to name whatever you most feared. It could be done – in good company, in a strong light, with plenty of rum on hand to cushion your system – but she really preferred not to do do. It called the feared evil to you, she always said.

So. Yestreday, I went on at some point about mania versus depression. I talked about how much fun mania was, how much I dreaded the numbing black cold of depression. And sure enough, today I woke up in a profound depression, and the mere sight of my keyboard was enough to turn my stomach.

This was not acceptable. I drank a lot of coffee, took an extra Prozac, ate half a box of Norfolk Manor Wine Gummies, and sat down resolutely to write. Along the way, I watched Captain Marvel. And behold! My tricks worked, my system rebounded, my neurons re-booted, and I wrote.

It was glorious, Dear Readers. Don’t know if it’s any good, but producing it was wonderful. Here are next 1200 words or so of Misses Take and Treat. Recall, our heroine  had just been welcomed by the gate keeper at the ghoul convent.

I walked deeper into a vast lovely garden; even with the errand I was on, I couldn’t help feeling my spirits rise as we passed the deep beds and increasingly heavy-fruited trees. Bits of cottage walls showed through the trees now, casements open to the misty air, eaves decorated with morning glory, honeysuckle and roses. Bee hives were set up beside most of the cottages; good old-fashioned woven straw bee skeps, that were illegal for commercial use in California now.

But if these ghouls were selling honey, they would be doing so through a whole labyrinth of go-betweens. They probably even had a model apiary set up somewhere, where they could be checked by the Agricultural Board. And of course, a lot of it would just be for their own use. Ghouls loved honey, and had a long tradition of friendly bee-keeping …

I put up my hand as we passed by one of the skeps, and a little mote of fuzzy gold landed on me. I stood stock still while the worker determined I was neither an enemy nor a flower, then flew off straight into a huge tangle of roses.

“You’re used to the little sisters,” said Petek approvingly.

“I’ve always liked helping with the hives,” I said – again, quite truthfully. I’d been unafraid of bees since I could toddle,when one tickly bee could fill my whole baby palm. Petek, I remembered now, meant honeycomb. No wonder she approved. “Do you sell honey here? Hives are so regulated now.”

“No, but we sell honey cakes. A lot goes into those, they’re very popular,” said Petek readily. “The rest we keep for ourselves, and no one ever worries about our production methods. Does your house sell honey?”

“Not any more. But they did.”

I think Petek would have probed further as to my antecedents, but we reached a tiny porch just then, which was obviously our destination. The house beyond was larger than the others I had glimpsed through the trees, and the bright blue front door was flanked by lead-glass casement windows. Petek gestured to a bench beside the porch, inviting me to sit, and went into the house with a desultory knock.

If I had been anyone – anything – else, I knew I would never have gotten this far. I’d have been stopped at the gate, or fobbed off with a meeting with some lower-echalon female in whatever they used as a guest-house here. Outsiders never got to see the deep interior of the convent grounds. They also didn’t get to see the hanim, the convent leader at all, usually; let alone be taken straight to her house. I knew it was only my eyes and my name that had gotten me this far. I had to sell my story, if I wanted to stay awhile.

I had only a few minutes to rehearse it, though, before I heard Petek’s footsteps coming back. The brevity of her report could mean I was a shoo-in. On the other hand, it could mean I was destined for a very brief tour of the compost heap.

Petek opened the house door again, and beckoned me in.

“Hanim Mugae will be pleased to meet you now,” she said, smiling. “Please come in.”

So I walked into a short hallway, floored with flagstones. Petek waved me at once to the left, into a lovely, dim parlour. A large wing back chair stood by the open windows, facing a comfortably lumpy old sofa. The Hanim Mugae – the Lady Lily of the Valley, her name was – stood tall against the silver morning light, waiting for me.

The other reason I wouldn’t have met Hanim Mugae had there been any doubt about my species, was that the head of a ghoul convent was always an elder. And old lady ghouls no longer look as much like human women.

I advanced across the parlour rug – a nice Persian style one in greys and pinks – and bowed deeply to the Hanim. When I straightened and looked up (and up, Hanim Mugae was tall) I stared into a pair of transparent honey eyes, in a long pale face framed with silver braids. Her cheekbones were as broad and sloping as a Neanderthal’s, with hollowed cheeks below; her nose was arched, with wide winged nostrils. There were only a few wrinkles around her eyes and mouth to indicate her age.

But most telling of all, her lower canines projected from the corners of that mouth in two distinct tusks. They sported elegant silver bands.

There were silver bands around her wrists, as well, when she extended her hands to me in welcome. Her hands were like jointed ivory, from those knobby wrists to the pale, carefully manicured talons that tipped her long, bony fingers.

I stepped forward and put both my hands between hers. Her hands were cool and smooth as wood when they closed around mine. Mine were much smaller.

“Welcome, Neith, called Treat,” said Hanim Mugae. Her voice was husky, deep and sweet. “We welcome you to this House. And from which House do you come to us?”

“Hanim, I come from no house any more,” I said, looking up into her eyes. “I have been on the road for many months. My House, which was the House of the Sea Poppy, is closed and lost. I seek shelter where I may.”

There really was a House of the Sea Poppy, which is what the ghouls called the huge white matilija bush poppies of California. It was down south, in the hills to the east of Orange County, in the Cleveland National Forest. I knew it well, and I cried when it was burned out in a wildfire several years ago; it took most of the females who lived there with it. It was no effort to let tears well up in my eyes now, thinking of it.

The various convents know of one another, but they don’t communicate much. Letters, sometimes, carried by the peripatetic males; but nothing more intimate. Ghouls don’t use phones, except to place or get commercial orders with humans. But the grapevine is pretty good, and everyone on it knew that the House of the Sea Poppy had suffered an especially traumatic demise.

“Do you seek formal shelter here, Neith?” asked Hanim Mugae. Her eyes shimmered, silver over cold honey, and tears spilled down her cheeks as well.

“I have little to offer, Hanim, as dowry for a place in your House,” I said. I looked down at the floor.

Hanim Mugae put on long hand under my chin,and lifted my head up to look into my eyes again.

“Have you, Neith, called Treat,” she asked in her sweet husky voice, “known a man or had a child?”

“No, Hanim,” I whispered.

“Then you have all the dowry we would ever ask,” said Hanim Mugae. She bent low over me, and kissed me on the brow.

I was in.

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Hyper- vs. Hypo – vs. It’s All Good!

Kage Baker, like all writers, resented her occasional fits of writer’s block. Never mind that hers were inhumanly brief, especially compared with many other, famous, unfortunate writers.

There are some who spent more time blocked than they did writing, and still could not kick the irresistible urge to keep on trying to write anyway. Samuel Taylor Coleridge bemoaned spending an entire year without writing; Truman Capote spent the last several years of his life, according to one biographer, pretending to write a novel that wasn’t there. Even Stephen King complains of it from time to time. Every writer has their tried and true method of getting past it – and, just like all the cures for hiccoughs and insomnia, none of these methods ever works for anybody else.

You just have to plough through it, somehow. Or not. For every writer, there are dreadful times when every word must be dragged out of some interior morass of bad black mud – and yet, those times are preferable to times when nothing comes at all. At least you’re writing.

I have recently escaped a long horrible stretch of writer’s block. Now I am in the sunny tropical waters of “Oh my God, I must write!” and find myself unable to do much of anything else. I am endangering my computer by keeping a cup of coffee beside it all the time – but I’ve got to have my coffee! It actually seems to slow my racing mind down long enough to get a few thousand words on paper coherently.

Frankly, Dear Readers, I am placing my money on mania as the cause of my current happy state. I have depression; Bipolar Depression II, to be exact, which is normally kept in control by that wonder condiment, Prozac. The problem with the Type II of this disease is that you are far more likely to suffer from depression than from mania. When mania does raise its lovely tousled head from beside yours on the pillow, it is generally less intense than in Type I. It’s called “hypomania” instead of “hypermania”, though it must be watched to make sure it doesn’t slip over the boundary into faerieland and send you racing off with the Wild Hunt …

Which is an inordinate drag, Dear Readers, because you know what? Mania is fun. You get such a lot done! And you enjoy doing it, too. It sounds the way some chemically-incautious friends have described cocaine use to me, except that it’s not as dangerous and no one usually arrests you for doing it.

My mania is, inevitably, slowing down a little now – but definitely not going away completely. I am hoping that it only recedes to a state of calm water, where I can continue the good habits that have been so ridiculously easy to follow this last week or so. If I am lucky, it will not go back down all the way to the Maelstrom and the whirling black depths of despair: which are not fun, and also not productive.

Your kind attention, Dear Readers, is assisting me in keeping to the sweet, heady edge of whatever kind of mania I am presently enjoying. Also, one of the things that notoriously brings on mania is sleep deprivation: which is a fact of life in my household at the moment, so I have great expectations. Seems only just that I should get some good out if it all, you know?

Tonight, Dear Readers, I offer a small bit of the Zombie Story. It was a peculiarly quiet and sleepy day, and I was actually asleep for most of it. I am enjoying the results of sleep deprivation no end right now, but the sleep debt knocks on the door with a warrant when one least expects it, and it’s off to the sleep debtor’s prison one must go …

Anyway, here’s our heroine and the charming Murphy getting and giving some clues. Or are they?

***

Despite all the perfectly justified fears of global warming and water shortages, Middle and East Coast America had been suffering from two completely other weather curses for several years. Winters were ghastly, filled to overflowing with extreme winds, snow storms, and polar vortexes. And then Spring followed with excessive rain, hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding absolutely everywhere anywhere near a river. Whole states became lakes with tree tops and roofs sticking out. River boundaries became lines on maps, with no connection to geographic reality.

The CDC had been worried about all that rain: about malaria, Zika, West Nile and nasty things like typhoid fever and cholera. They had been worried for years about emerging diseases from jungles and wilderness, but it never occurred to them that some diseases do not flourish in places without people. Some diseases like cites; some even prefer developed countries to undeveloped ones …

I remember watching the first report speculating on that particular problem. (There were reports speculating on everything in the first few days, up to and including alien invasions of both terrestrial and bug-eyed monsters.) It was the morning of Stephanie Ruhle and the lady with the cat and one red shoe. Not that Stephanie had any theory about the cause of this – bad drugs, especially bath salts and meth, were still high on the list of causes.

But her team had gotten hold of the interesting factoid that Toxoplasma gondii is more prevalent in rich, developed areas than in poor, rural ones, and she was making a big joke about it.

It’s a vaguely funny name. And it can only breed inside a living cat’s gastrointestinal tract, which is also kind of funny. It causes behaviour changes in rodents when it infects them – makes them crave felines instead of fear them; so the rodents go out actually looking for cats, and get eaten, and that’s how T. gondii perpetuates itself. It doesn’t do anything to humans, though. It infects them, all right, with brief flu-like symptoms, but it doesn’t make them love cats. Nonetheless, it’s an amusing idea, and the stuff is sometimes called “Crazy Cat Lady Virus”.

It’s not a virus, though – it’s a protozoan. It lives in cats and dirt and water; and it has been found in clouds and storms. Probably half the people in developed countries like the US carry a form of T. gondii. And which form you carry turned out to effect whether or not you ate the neighbors.

It took a while to figure that out, though. I’m not sure we have it right, even now. We sure don’t have any vaccines or cures – just ways we’ve adapted to the fact that zombies are, yes, real; and that they are an urban problem like flash mobs and traffic jams.

The woman who left Murphy – thankfully alive and apparently uninfected – on my doorstep was not a Crazy Cat Lady. She meant to offer me the cat, I was sure. I was equally sure that – whatever a zombie turned out to be – she was a zombie. But that wasn’t something that Toxoplasma gondii did to people! It had never done anyone but a dazed rat any harm.

Guess what? Turns out I was only partially right about that. All of that.

 

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More Fruit

Kage Baker liked fruit, but not just any fruit. No one likes just any fruit, I suspect – does anyone really like Red or Yellow Delicious Apples? – but Kage really liked exotic stuff. At least, she liked the idea of exotic fruit, and we had some wild searches for things that caught her fancy.

She liked cherimoyas, for instance: a South American fruit that looks like a pangolin curled up in a ball, and tastes like a mixed fruit custard. They grow all over LA and can be found in most stores. She liked coconuts, green and ripe, and devised many interesting ways to get into them, depending on which tools we could find at the time. She liked heirloom apples tremendously; and successfully grew Cox’s Orange Pippins in our Pismo Beach garden. Other exotics she got from the apple stand in Gopher Gulch, up See Canyon Road in Pismo … man, those were great.

She wanted to try jackfruit – which is hilariously huge, looks like a pod from The Body Snatchers and supposedly taste like pulled pork when cooked; but we could never find any in her lifetime. Breadfruit, a jackfruit relative that tastes like – surprise – bread, also intrigued her. But we could never lay hands on that either, alas. She also wanted to try durian – a fruit that looks like a giant sycamore burr, and supposedly smells like rotting flesh. It’s supposed to taste better than that, which I’d think wouldn’t be difficult, but that was one thing I refused to try. I wouldn’t even try to find any so Kage, alone, could try it. She had to be satisfied with written descriptions, and with feeding it to the evil Enforcers at their ultimate, deadly banquet.

Lichees, loquats, kumquats – all available in most markets now, but exotic and rare in our youth. Except that, like the cherimoyas, they are grown all over Los Angeles, for unknown reasons. We were garden robbers in our adolescence, I am afraid; though only so far as we could reach over fences and so much as we could fit in our pockets. Lichees and loquats are sort of bland and boring, but Kage liked them. Me, I adore kumquats: which really do taste even better when clandestinely harvested from a neighbor’s tree …

Which brings us back to grapes! Dear Readers, I have identified Kage’s mystery grape -or rather, Kimberly identified it about an hour after I posted that blog. It’s a Skuppernong! Which is even sillier than the names I made up … Carolyn Gibson identified it as one of the muscats, which Skuppernongs definitely are; she also suggested that the usually round Skuppernongs can be induced to elongate into the lozenge shape Kage remembered, by the application of gibberellic acid, a topical hormone used to accelerate grape growth.

And so the usefulness of research is used once again. Ta da!  Thank you, Kimberly and Carolyn.

And now, a brief excerpt from the Zombie Story. It’s only 2 or 3 pages; it was a rough day. More of something or other tomorrow, Dear Readers. I am on a roll! Thanks to you all for encouraging and indulging me so much.

***

I stayed indoors for days. I told myself I would look for other survivors if the water or power failed, but the utilities continued to come through. I figured there must be crews holed up in every pumping station and power house: those buildings were famous for being ugly little windowless boxes, which are really great places in a zombie apocalypse. We had enough supplies for days, Murphy and me. I pulled the blankets and pillows off my bed into our nest in the living room, and we sat and watched television while I surfed the Web.

The reports online were dreadful, and not only in content. Most were either salvaged footage from remains of zombie feasts – zombies don’t eat phones, obviously – or they were shot by the sort of giggling morons who stage deadly stunts for YouTube. A lot started out as stupid stunts and ended up as leftovers, which Murphy and I agreed was not too surprising.

Reports online were getting most of their new contents from the man-in-the-street-running-for-his-life film. Sometimes that man was their own reporter. More often, it was someone’s surviving family turning over their footage for a price. What they thought they were going to spend it on was beyond me. One thing that the footage made clear was that most of the United States was in a state of terrified siege; and if you lived in a city, it was much worse. You were a lot likelier to be a brief obituary in found film.

The Federal government was mostly silent for the early bits. The official story, put out by whatever was left of the military (and that was mostly the Coast Guard, God help us) was that the President was safe under Cheyenne Mountain, but rendered incommunicado by the destruction of the phone lines. Maybe zombies chewed on them, the way squirrels do … but all the footage out of D.C. showed smoking ruins all around the National Mall, and a slow, seething, crowd wandering aimlessly between what was left of the White House and the Capitol Building.

The Lincoln Memorial, oddly, was unscathed. Full of zombies, but they were slow and quiet. The memory of Lincoln was apparently undead-proof.

Cities were in the worst shape – well, that’s where most of the humans are, right? But all the amateur film made it clear that smaller towns, villages, hamlets and highway rest stops were also eating themselves out of house, home and neighbors. They just weren’t making as much of a fuss about it. Fewer of them actually burned, for instance.

Miami was apparently over-run in about a week. That was the only complete city-wide infestation, though; in retrospect, it was clear that the zombie infection must have been burning slowly in Florida for years. Everywhere else, the apocalypse tended to be siege situations in specific neighborhoods. Gated communities were safer, unless zombies surfaced inside the walls – then, they became abattoirs. But since the zombies couldn’t get out easily, either, the neighborhoods next door stayed safe. It was a weird, patchwork effect.

FEMA was useless from the beginning. It didn’t help that their upper echelon was almost immediately eaten. It probably didn’t hurt, either, but they still had no recourse against zombies. They couldn’t come up with a way to shelter people; and unless the storms had already washed away your house, zombies certainly didn’t, and FEMA didn’t seem to know what to do except with the aftermath of a flood … A lot of zombies kept living in their own houses, in fact. Others ate the FEMA teams delivering useless trailers, and then lived in the trailers.

This wasn’t a city-leveling disaster, and you never knew when a quiet street or office building might be harboring zombies. Hell, you couldn’t tell sometimes until the UPS man took a bite out of you – they all looked pretty normal at first. After a while, they began to look sort of … withered is the best word, as well as ragged and dirty; but they didn’t shamble or moan. Your neighbor might look like he’d just had a hard weekend at first, and be talking about the weather right before he bit your nose off …

This created problems for the police, the National Guard, and the Army, too. Which disheveled citizens do you shoot? It gradually turned out that the quieter ones were probably the zombies, but it wasn’t always a truism – a lot of people got shot because they obediently held their hands up and tried to obey orders, and then were shot for being too calm. And what happened then … well, gamers have an old joke about “Eat the dead!” It didn’t stay a joke for long.

They say – the ubiquitous they – that no major city is more than a week away from starving to death. Turns out they aren’t more than a 3-day weekend from collapsing into chaos when there is too much to eat. If it’s the wrong thing to eat, anyway.

Skuppernongs!

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