Monday, April 10, 2017

Short Fiction: The Language Barrier

The following story was written in 2012-2013 and submitted to a short story publication for a Ray Bradbury tribute issue. It got close to being accepted, but ultimately rejected (which is fine, no ill-will there) and I've just been sitting on it for a while now, so why not toss it out there?

A key thing to remember is that this isn't Pulp, even if it is deliberately Bradburian. If I'd written it now, I'd probably have somebody fistfight a ghost in the climax, since that's always fun. 

Since I figure I've been talking with a lot of Pulp Revolution and Superversive people lately, its time for me to put up or shut up. 

The Language Barrier
By K.P. Kalvaitis

     “The big thing to remember when dealing with the spirit world is the language barrier,” Pete Kasket explained. He was all of eighteen and a self-professed Vodun houngan. He also claimed to be a direct descendant of Marie Laveau, despite being of Irish and Swedish stock and white as freshly fallen snow. His best friend Tim Kaminsky knew he was a liar, but didn't mind, since most of what Pete said was interesting. Just last week he'd sworn that Ferdinand Magellan visited him in his sleep to lecture him about geography, which was the reason Pete had aced that midterm. Tim supposed it sounded more exciting than saying he studied hard.

     Tim didn't blame Pete for making things up. The Ohio town they lived in was small and inconsequential. The biggest local news in recent years was the new sign erected at the township line boasting that it was the birthplace of a man who created a comic strip that was popular when William Randolph Hurst was alive. There were farms, a few wineries, and a truck stop by the interstate that had decent coffee. Beyond that, it was peaceful, scenic, and quiet.

     Tim tried to change the subject. “Where are you applying for college?”

    “I'm serious,” Pete continued as Tim lay on a picnic table looking up at the clouds. “If you go into a graveyard and manage to get the ritual and incantations right and actually summon up an Iroquois who died before the Western Reserve was settled, he's not going to understand English.”

     It normally paid to let Pete monologue as he started one of his tales. It gave Tim time to look for paradoxes and contradictions that he could throw back at Pete. Challenging the lie was part of the fun of listening to it.

     “Or what if he was from the French and Indian War and actually recognizes you speaking English? Then you'd have an angry ghost Iroquois on your hands. What then?”

     Tim looked away from a rocking chair-shaped cloud when Pete's silence requested an answer. “I dunno, probably nothing since I'm not raising an Indian Spirit in a cemetery.”

     “The correct answer is apologize,” Pete tapped a knuckle on Tim's forehead. “Otherwise there's an ectoplasmic tomahawk shearing your scalp off.”

     “So what if it does?” Tim asked. “It's just a ghost. It can't do nothin' to you.”

     “There's curses. Say he's marked you, and now every restless Iroquois spirit from here to upstate New York knows it. What do you do then?”

     Tim tried to read Pete's face. It was always difficult to see if he was telling the truth. “Are we talking hypothetically here or did you do something stupid?”

     In the silence of Pete's reply, Tim thought he heard the rocking chair cloud creaking woodenly before the wind blew it apart.


     Two bikes pedaled East toward the River on a sunny autumn afternoon. Thick cumulus clouds rolled Southeast, the wind pushing them continuously re-sculpted them into new shapes but was never satisfied with the results. Tim chased Pete down the road, shouting for his friend to wait up. Pete laughed in response, the messenger bag over his left shoulder jumping wildly with every bump.
The road wound down a slope into a valley carved over a million years by a shallow and rocky river. Pete finally stopped when he reached the covered bridge straddling it.

     “See this?” Pete pointed at the wooden roof.

     Tim rolled to a stop next to Pete. “We come down here all the time.”

     “The town used to have the longest covered bridge on the continent, but back in the 1930s, some Canadian millionaire bought it and transported it timber-by-timber up to some other small town in New Brunswick.”

     “Oh come on, why would the town sell their bridge?”

     “The Great Depression,” Pete said like it was the most obvious answer in the world.

     “What did they do with the money?”

     “Built a new bridge. Except this one's two feet shorter than the original.”

     The boys walked their bikes across the bridge, listening to the river burble over the rocks below. Tim noticed Pete fidgeting with the bag.

     “What's in there?” Tim asked.

     “Mysteries! Miracles! Monkeyshine!” Pete answered with renewed vigor. “If you want to find out, you'll have to beat me to the graveyard!”

     Tim barely had time to jump back on his bike before Pete was already thirty feet ahead and pulling away. Tim swore, then apologized to the sky, then tore off after Pete.

     It was the closest race Tim had ever run with his friend. Pete guffawed when Tim pulled even, then increased speed. Tim pedaled harder to match it. One second he was in the lead, the next it was Pete.

     All of a sudden, they skidded to a halt on the gravel driveway of Willowbrook Cemetery. They gulped air in huge bites and washed it down with the salty sweat that dripped off their brows.

     “Well would you...look at that?” Pete panted. “About time you...beat me in a race.”

     Tim looked at the cemetery gate and realized his bike was closer. “You win!” he protested.
Pete shook his head. “Lies! Slander! That's my...job. Not yours.”

     “Where's this brave of yours?” Tim demanded as they propped their bikes up against the fence.

     “Under the Colonel.” Pete hopped the fence and peeked inside his bag for a fraction of a second. Tim jumped in after.

     Willowbrook was ancient. Nobody had been interred there for over a hundred years. The most recent headstone had 1898 carved under the name. Most of the older markers were too weatherbeaten by snow and ice and acid rain to be legible anymore. Pete said it was the oldest graveyard in the state. He refused to call them cemeteries. Cemeteries were where the dead rested. Graveyards were where they lived.

     Towering over every other gnarled and twisted tree was the gnarliest and twistiest oak of them all. It stood on a ridge that dropped off suddenly to the winding river below and marked the edge of the graveyard. That was the Colonel, and entwined in its roots was a block of marble so pitted it looked and felt like pumice. The only letters still readable on the stone were “Col,” and even the Historical Society declared that it was probably the final resting place of the man who'd first settled the township.

     Pete patted the Colonel respectfully and plopped down on a root as thick as his torso. Tim sat down cross legged facing him. Pete fished around inside the bag and pulled out two paper cups.

     “I'd like a drum roll,” Pete said with deadly seriousness. Tim arched an eyebrow, but finally slapped out a drum roll on his jeans.

     Pete let “Whoosh!” jump out of his lips and he raised a bottle of whiskey to the sky. It shone like bronze in the sunlight.

     “Where'd you get that?”
     “Dad's liquor cabinet, of course.”

     “But he'll...”

     “Yell at me and ground me for a week when he finds out,” Pete shrugged. “Big deal. It's worth it for the occasion.”

     “What occasion?”

     “The end of youth! The death of our friendship as we know it!”

     “End of...? That's crazy talk!”

     Pete unsuccessfully tried to swat away the shadow that crawled over his face. “We're still going to be friends, obviously, but not like we were before. Not like we are now. By this time next year, you'll be in Indiana, or Illinois, or Pennsylvania.”

     “Jeez, Pete, I haven't even finished applying anywhere.”

     “Yeah, but you'll get in. Good student, serious about grades. You'll get a scholarship and get out of this town. Me? I'll be working somewhere and going to community college. The days of doing stuff like this...,” Pete spread his arms wide in an attempt to span the graveyard. “These days are numbered.”

     “What do you want me to do about it?” Tim snapped. “Not go?”

     “No! Of course not! It's your chance to get out of here and do something new. What I want you to do about it is acknowledge the change, and salute the mortality of friendship with a toast, and then wring every possible second of value out of that friendship before we grow up, apart, and dead. No, worse than dead! Mature!”

     Tim thought about that in silence. A gust of wind blew a cloud of leaves through the graveyard. “I can drink to that,” he finally agreed.

     The shadow over Pete's face lightened. “'Atta boy.” He unscrewed the bottle and poured.

     Tim stared into the double shot that was handed to him. “So what do we toast to? Friendship?”

     “Too cliché.”

     “To cliché!” Tim echoed with a laugh and they clinked cups. Or would have if they weren't made of paper. They tilted the shots back.

     The next full minute was full of violent coughing, red faces, bulging eyes and throats on fire.

     “That's disgusting!” Tim finally managed. “Who drinks that!?”

     Pete thumped his chest a few times trying to keep the drink down. “Mature people. My dad. Your dad. Us in ten years.”

     “Man, I hope not.”

     Pete put a hand on Tim's shoulder. “Hey, promise me that when you come back from college to visit, that you'll have stories of your own, okay? True, false, I don't care. It'll be your turn to be the interesting one.”

     “I promise,” Tim said. “Just don't make me drink more of that.”

     Pete roared with laughter and screwed the cap back onto the bottle. “I think that's been enough of that.”

     For a second, Tim thought Pete looked a lot older as the Sun slouched West, then shook it out of his head. “You know, I wish there was a ghost Indian you brought me here to see.”

     A switch went on somewhere and Pete's face was young again. “That actually happened, you know. He was standing about ten feet behind you near the ridge. An Iroquois or probably Erie brave, dressed in skins and warpaint, big as life and glowing like a bug zapper.”

     “Did he say anything?”

     “Sure, but I couldn't understand him.”
     “Did you say anything?”

     “No, I stared at him and then ran away.”

     “He do anything else?”

     “He looked surprised, then disappointed. Nothing sadder than a disappointed ghost,” Pete sighed.

     “Sounds like you feel a little guilty.”


     “Sounds like you want to make it up to the guy and apologize, right?”

     “That would be the polite thing to do, right?”

     Tim took the bottle out of Pete's hand and examined it. With the Sun going down, it had lost its shine.

     “Then if we can't communicate with him, the next best thing is to leave him a gift.”

     “By the Colonel, you're right!” Pete exclaimed. “There's hope for you yet, Timmy!”

     The whiskey bottle was paraded around the tree with reverence. It was still three-quarters full when Pete set it gently against the Colonel and saluted.

     “I Pete Kasket, do formally apologize for seeing a ghost and running like a scaredy-cat. You probably still can't understand what I'm saying, but please accept this gift of whiskey for you to enjoy and share with your ghost neighbors.”

     After his little speech, Pete waited for any kind of response.

     “Is that-” Tim started before Pete's hand shot up to shush him. Tim shushed and they both waited some more.

     “...Maybe if we unscrewed the bottle,” Tim whispered.

     Pete bent down and removed the cap and preemptively shushed Tim again. The waiting resumed.

     Three more minutes passed before Tim broke the silence. “It's getting dark. Let's go home.”

     “All right,” Pete conceded. The friends hopped back over the fence, picked up their bikes, and rode into the sunset.

     The town sexton unlocked the fence at Willowbrook at seven in the morning. The town liked having its oldest cemetery nice and tidy, and the sexton came out every week to pull weeds and trim hedges.

     He worked his way to the Colonel and stopped. There was an empty bottle of whiskey propped up against the tree.

     Muttering about damn hooligans, he picked up the bottle to throw it away. If the sexton had examined it closer, he would have noticed there wasn't a drop of anything inside, not even the morning dew.

No comments: