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Archive for September, 2010

TWO PORTRAITS

Two portraits hung in a large European museum.  One portrait was of a beautiful young maiden with long locks of strawberry red hair.  The other portrait portrayed a strapping young lad in uniform.  Different artists painted the portraits during different centuries.  And, ostensibly, the individuals in the paintings were perfectly made up.

The portraits were hung opposite from one another in a large hallway.  They had been placed there for many years.  Possibly over a century.  One would find it difficult to perceive, and even difficult to imagine that the individuals in the portraits, in fact, developed quite a liking for one another.  After all, the young man was a dashing hero and the young maiden fair and easy on the eyes.  And it was almost serendipitous that they should be placed directly across from one another allowing them to flirt endlessly.

One day, a large rumbling shook the building.  A horrid thunder from outside persisted for days thereafter.  Several items and artifacts in the museum came crashing down, but the portraits managed to remain in place.  It wasn’t long before men in uniform came storming through the hallways.  The curator of the museum was taken under arrest as the soldiers gathered the items from the museum.

The two lovers looked at one another, but instead of smiles, they indeed had expressions of concern.  They were terrified, knowing not where they would be taken.  The portraits suddenly caught the attention of the general and a foot soldier.

“Look at this darling young gal.  Ain’t she a treasure?  Who do you suppose was the artist?” asked the foot soldier.

“Undoubtedly a man with exceptional taste for women.  Go on then, grab her and I’ll take the bloke in uniform here.”

The portraits were piled up with the other portraits in the museum and taken to some grim storage room in the industrial district.  Fate, however, had it so that when the portraits were placed about, the two lovers were not only laid next to one another, but facing one another as well.  One could only imagine how delighted they were by this strange grace of fortune.

The war went on for years.  Several of the buildings nearby were destroyed and demolished.  The museum was being used as headquarters for the generals of the invading army.  Eventually, the museum, too, was destroyed.  The two lovers, however, paid little attention to the surrounding circumstances.  They were simply enamored with one another in their own imaginary world.

Decades had passed and the war had come to a halt.  But the city was in ruins.  It would be another decade before things were somewhat back to normal.  Several years later, a man, who was buying the old building, had stumbled upon the portraits in a dusty old room.  He separated them out and placed them all for auction.  The lovers were terrified, yet again.

The young lad was the first to go.  He was auctioned off to a little old woman who had never bought artwork in her life.  But she was wealthy and spent a small fortune on the piece.  The young woman, incidentally, was next to go.  She was sold for an exorbitant amount to an old fellow who, as the maiden in the portrait noticed, looked quite familiar.  In fact, he was the same man ~ the young foot soldier ~ who had taken her from the wall in the museum so many years ago.  He had, in fact, remembered her this whole time and was startled to find that she was being auctioned off.  Unlike the lady who had bought the portrait of the young man, the old foot soldier was somewhat of an art collector.  Throughout the years, he had managed to gain some fortune by working as a state official.  He, however, no longer worked, but spent his time collecting beautiful works of art.

“You, my dear, are my most beautiful prize.  But you do look a bit different from what I remember.  You look sad.  The years must have been difficult for you as well.”

She missed her lover very much.  They had not been apart from one another for centuries.  And now, alas, she was alone with this friendly old man.

Many years later, the man had died and his things, too, were auctioned off.  This time, a young American fellow had purchased the sad young damsel and brought her back to Manhattan.  As it turns out, he was a curator of a rather large museum that had many artifacts of European art, literature, and warfare.  He managed to trace back some of the items lost during times of war and was happy to find that the young lady was still alive, as it were.

He personally hung her up in a large corridor.  He stood back momentarily to marvel at her beauty and briskly walked off.  As he turned to leave, she was able to see the opposite wall.  There was a lovely portrait hung there.  It was painted several centuries ago.  It portrayed a dashing young lad in uniform.

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In the future, the world will be ruled by King Xulu. His reign will last hundreds of years, and although his physical essence will whither in time, his influence will increase in strength. The people of Earth will be entirely under his rule and know little outside of their small existence – one which is dedicated entirely to King Xulu’s Empire.

Although the King maintains absolute authority, power is partitioned throughout a small number of his closest minions. One very significant minion is the Empire’s Executioner, simply referred to as The Executioner. This tale is about a particularly momentous time in The Executioner’s life.

Originally from New Europe, The Executioner was raised comfortably, having inherited a lofty family estate. He joined the King’s Services for several years where he made all his important acquaintances. This is about the time when he had a very interesting and unexpected visit with the Under Lord, the ruler of all dark forces on earth and beyond.

The Under Lord came with a very tempting proposition. He noticed an exceptionally strong nature in The Executioner, and so he offered him a high position in the afterlife, one which would require extraordinary strength. And to test The Executioner’s strength, he would give him a position in the Ruling Empire where his strength would be tested every day – where he would have to make decisions ruthlessly, with no remorse at all. If he were to allow his weaknesses to interfere with his duties, not only would the Under Lord take back his offer, but The Executioner would be stripped from this reality and forced into the most miserable afterlife imaginable. It would not be enough to just terminate a condemned victim, and so the Under Lord’s final condition was that The Executioner would meet with every one of his victims for three hours on the eve of their departure.

The Executioner without much hesitation agreed to the conditions. The following week, by virtue of unseen forces, he was appointed the position of Empire’s Executioner by the highest authorities. For decades, The Executioner conducted all of King Xulu’s demands with absolute obedience.

GUSTOFF’S MEETING

A man is condemned to death and awaits his day of departure in a tiny, cramped dungeon cell with oily walls and a filthy, stained mattress.  The Executioner meets with the man on the eve of his fateful death. The Executioner as is his custom, enjoys to be more intimately acquainted with his victims before processing them.

They exchange a bit of small talk and philosophize some. The Executioner is an exceptionally bright fellow – well read and sharp on his wits. The condemned are often dim and sheepish – petty criminals of the proletariat; murders in fits of passion and brash in most regards.

This man, however, is brilliant – educated, well tempered, but ostensibly not as smart as he could have been, considering his circumstances. Several hours prior to his meeting with The Executioner, the man was condemned for a series of crimes of a higher magnitude; specifically, a conviction of Defaming the Empire.

As he spoke with his Executioner, he never rose his voice and spoke with integrity, omitting all crude language.

“Yesterday evening, I met with today’s victim – an older man who, for years, had watched the condemned being executed publicly. A hungry peasant, he stole goods for himself and his family and was caught, condemned, and sentenced to death. I listened to his entire story: his love for family and admiration of those in society who can afford to live decently and honestly. The man didn’t seem to understand that decency is pervaded by exceptional actors. I also noticed – and this is certainly not uncommon – that he was attempting to flatter me in hopes that I would relinquish the sentence. As the man spoke, I suddenly realized that I actually knew him. For years, he heckled the condemned, sheepishly judging them; and now, he, himself, was being put to death by the same system he supported. You see, from an early age, I was gifted with a good – some would say photographic – memory. It is not uncommon for me to meet with men and women who I have previously observed within the crowds of spectators on Execution Day.”

“Why is it,” Gustoff asked, “that you utilize such crude methods to process your victims?”

“Crude? That is a highly objective word to use. This charade you are witnessing is all an experiment. It’s an ongoing experiment to see what methods elicit the most notable reaction in the public – the most effective and painful methods.”

“Methods of what?”

“Ah yes. Well, most immediately, the methods of torture. But the sub context, as you were probably alluding to, is the collective punishment that the human population is currently experiencing.”

“Punishment for what?”

“For having the audacity to come here expecting to get off easily! You see, I pay particularly close attention to the victim’s closest relations: parents, siblings, children, but especially the spouses. I like to take note on whether the individuals appear heart-broken or comforted knowing that the condemned is finally relieved from their earthly burdens. The condemned men and women aren’t always run-of-the-mill criminals. Some are murderers, rapists, and occasionally we’ll encounter a stately official – a politician – facing the highest judgment.”

Gustoff remained silent.

The Executioner noticed this and started.  “Have you children?”

“I should expect that a man of your intellectual caliber would have memorized the report on my famelial background.  Am I wrong?”  The Executioner shrugged.  “Then, with all due respect, why bother with such trivial discourse?”

The Executioner, without hesitation, dryly recited Gustoff’s entire record with startling accuracy and confidence.  “You see,” he continued, “this exercise is by no means trivial.  It is quite deliberate actually.  I enjoy nothing more than hearing the words drip from the tongues of the condemned.  It makes this exercise much more interesting.”

“Well, you may, then, be delighted to know that your report excluded one crucial detail.”

“Oh?  A discrepancy?”

“Yes.  I happen to be an orator of the ancient folk tradition.”

“Ah, a storyteller!”

“Yes.  And one of the few remaining.”

“And I assure you, Gustoff, there will be fewer still.”

“Quite so.”

“Well then, storyteller, tell me a tale.”

Gustoff sat still, entertaining the thought that had he been a free man, he would have kept such notions a secret.  But The Executioner appeared to be quite amused and eager to hear a good tale.  Seeing this enthusiasm, Gustoff leaned forward and started.

THE TALE OF SHAILA AND WHITE FEATHER

“Many years ago,” Gustoff explains, “there was a little bird who’s parents named him White Feather for the distinguished feather on his head. At a young age, he looked quite ordinary. Nothing very outstanding.  However, White Feather did  have great ambition.  His life would forever change the first time he saw Shaila. He absolutely fell in love with little Shaila, who was the most beautiful bird in the entire flock. Everybody did their best to impress her, though she was seldom interested in anybody. It seemed that she would only fall for the best of the best. Little White Feather decided then and there that he would do everything he possibly could to gain Shaila’s affection, and so he collected every charming item to contribute to his plumes, and so, over the years, he became the most lavishly ornamented bird in the flock. He managed to gain the attention of virtually everybody and became known as the most flamboyant bird around. His ego became very apparent, and he strut and flew anywhere and everywhere with exceptional pride.  Over the years, he managed to build such a reputation as quite a suitable mate; but despite his efforts, Shaila never took much interest in him. She seemed to never notice him in the least. But little White Feather was cursed by his ambitions and did everything in his power to be all the more impressive, but to no avail.

“One day, the wisest of all birds, The Great Black Bird, who had been observing little White Feather for some time, confronted our flamboyant friend. He warned White Feather, telling him that by putting himself on such a lavish display will prove to be perilous in the end and that humility is the highest virtue of the wise.

“White Feather heard this and grew very peevish and told The Great Black Bird that he was a fool, and quite jealous of his beauty.  ‘I’m a work of art, whereas you, sir, are just a boring black bird.’ The Great Black Bird was not offended, but felt pity for the young buffoon and said, ‘I assure you, White Feather, that you will soon meet your doom.’  But White Feather turned his back and flew off to the company of his fancy.

“It wasn’t long before White Feather could hardly be referred to as that, for there was hardly a white feather on his body.  He was as colorful as the rainbow, and quite proud and full of pomp.  The others grew weary by his self-important display.  And Shaila was all the least impressed by him.  But this fact did not bother White Feather any more, for his gregarious decoration was no longer intended to impress others; but rather to impress is own ego.

“As he was fully satisfied in his self, he no longer served any purpose to the flock, and the Gods of the Universe seemingly decided to act on this.  One day, while heading South as the migrating birds do, White Feather insisted on leading the tribe.  The other birds were neutral to the notion of leadership and permitted him in his wish.  It wasn’t before they reached the Southernmost point of North America when they encountered a formidable foe.  A man who collected the feathers of rare and exotic birds spotted White Feather amongst the other birds and grew very excited, indeed.  Within seconds, the man fired a deadly shot, piercing White Feather’s heart; and on the way down, in the midst of losing consciousness, White Feather thought to himself how much he wished that he had listened to The Great Black Bird’s advice.”

“Ha!” The Executioner exclaimed.  “Now you see what happens when you don’t listen to the wise – you face the firing squad.”

“Quite so.”

“Did you share this tale with your children?”

“Yes.  In their early years.”

“Bold man, you are.  They could have repeated this to others, and the authorities would have traced it straight back to you.  You’re quite the risk-taker.”

“Nobody’s childhood is complete without the valuable lessons in fairytales.  It was a risk worth taking.”

“Well, have you other stories that you would like to share?”

“More than you could imagine.”

“Then, I beg you, go on.”

DEVIL’S CANNON

“Before the turn of the last century, a great civilization thrived on what was then referred to as Valentines Island.  Fifty-thousand people lived throughout the kingdom and engaged in all forms of spiritual and cultural practices; most notably, their annual carnival that occurred during the Spring Equinox.  The ceremony was held in respect to the Gods of Fertility, who made the fields rich for the year’s harvest.

“Now, this tale is about the wealthiest man on Valentines Island, who went by the name Ailiani Sylbaris.  He was the greatest magistrate in all the land.  Considered a King by some, he was often consulted for various municipal policies and progress.  Some even came to him for emotional and financial guidance.  Most importantly, he was responsible for funding education on the island, for he felt a deep responsibility for cultivating a glorious future.

“One year, the island was struck by a severe drought.  Alas, the fields produced a meager harvest and many people went hungry and starved.  Some blamed themselves for not being more zealous in their homage to the Gods of Fertility.  Others blamed the magistrate, Ailiani.  They claimed that he ignored the Gods and, by being the most powerful man throughout the land, he would have more strength in summoning the celestial forces.  The people soon plotted against him and sought to have him condemned to the dungeons.

“A great meeting was called throughout the land and everybody put forth testimony against Ailiani, including his own wife and children.  A mob subsequently stormed his home, shackled and dragged him to the far side of the island where he would live out the rest of his life.  The people rejoiced. His estate was so large that upon being reclaimed, it was redistributed amongst the people, making everyone exceptionally rich.  They began to import food from the mainlands.  Few people worked and everybody lived rather comfortably for a period of time.  Nobody spoke of Ailiani and soon, he became a faint memory.  When they did mention his name, they ridiculed him for being a foolish and insolent man who deserved his formidable fate.

“Years would pass before a thundering roar shook the Earth and darkened the Heavens. Devil’s Cannon, the largest volcano on the island, began to smoke severely. The people of Valentines Island grew frantic. They attempted to gather their belongings and head to the shores. Few made it to the docks, and before they could embark to the safety of sea, Devil’s Cannon erupted, shooting ash and flaming hot boulders high into the atmosphere. A pyroclastic flow of simmering black air swept the land shortly thereafter, killing everybody instantly.

“Ailiani was having breakfast when he felt the Earth quake. Hot gas quickly reached Ailiani’s cell and entered through tiny vents towards the front of the dungeon. He scrambled to stuff sheets into the holes, but it was too hot, and so he curled up towards the back of his cell. In a moment, everything grew silent. It was all over. Ailiani was burned severely over his back and shoulders, but there was absolutely no damage to his clothing. A few days had passed before a rescue team arrived on Valentines Island. They found the entire city flattened and not a single survivor. They thought all was doomed until they searched the dungeons where they found Ailiani badly burnt, but alive.

“Some years passed. Ailiani recovered and was invited to join the circus, where he became known as ‘The Incredible Ailiani Sylbaris ~ the Betrayed King of Valentine; who was Condemned to a Life in Prison; who became the One & Only Survivor of Devil’s Cannon; who, through the Confines of his Dungeon, was Kept Safe from Volcanic Catastrophe!'”

Gustoff, at these last words, remained silent and stared off, seemingly lost in his mind.

“Well,” The Executioner said, interrupted the uncomfortable silence.  “That is a fascinating story, and I must admit, the first time I have heard it.  But I am sorry to say that you, Gustoff, will not be as fortunate as Monsieur Sylbaris.”

“Quite so,” Gustoff replied calmly.

The Executioner reached through his coat and produced a watch.  It clicked for a few seconds and he exhaled grimly.  “It is nearly time for me to be off.  Must get rest for tomorrow.”

“Yes.  But before you go, I have a very short tale to share with you – one which I think you will find particularly amusing.  Consider it my final word of the evening.”

THE MORTICIAN’S PARADE

“A charming mountain town high in the Continental United States was home to a particular mortician who, with seldom an extra shilling, struggled to get by.  Being a mortician, he could not simply summon his clientele, as he was obliged to wait for his ‘customers’ to Wander the Elysian Fields.”

The Executioner looked confused and interjected.  “The Elysian Fields?”

“Surely you must be acquainted with mythology, sir?”

“Keep in mind, Gustoff, mythology is devious and misleading.  You are amongst few who are acquainted with such matters.  That being said, enlighten me.”

“Well then.  The Elysian Fields encompasses an area in the Under World thought to be the final resting place for the heroic and the virtuous.”

“I see.  The fields of the dead.”

“Precisely.  May I continue?”  The Exectioner nodded, permitting Gustoff to carry on.

“Well then.  People in the town were mostly young and healthy – hard laborers with high hopes in shaping the future of their new nation.  And so the Mortician was quite out of work.

“This was not always so.  At some point in the past, the early settlers of the town had grown old and sickly.  The youth, additionally, were often falling ill, and the Mortician was in constant demand.  Until one day, a young doctor, fresh from the modern medical academy, ventured to work in town, curing the sick and frail with simple and affective remedies.

“The Mortician grew bitter and envious of the young physician’s success.  And so he reckoned to cast a spell throughout the land so that he could gain wealth at everyone’s expense.  Soon, a shipment of goods arrived in town bringing with it a mysterious disease that affected many of the town folk.  The first to be afflicted, oddly enough, was the young doctor.  As it turns out, it was a horrific sickness that brought one to death within two days, and so the young man died shortly thereafter.  Upon hearing this news, the Mortician rejoiced knowing that his incantation worked.

“And so, the Mortician prepared the doctor for burial and paraded his casket through the Main Street which lead to the town’s cemetery.  The town folk looked on silently, wondering what sort of wickedness would cause such a phenomenon to occur.  It wasn’t long before more people fell victim to the ravenous fury of the mysterious illness.  Nobody was safe.  And so the Mortician grew very rich very quick.  With his riches came an exceptional amount of pride and he soon became known as one of the wealthiest men in town.

“The Mortician paraded the corpse of each victim through town as hoards of mourners stood and watched.  Despite the vapid suffering, he seemed to be impervious – almost satisfied – by such unfortunate circumstances.  So many people died that it soon became impractical to parade each and every corpse through town, and so the victims were being buried in mass graves with no ceremony whatsoever.

“The Mortician’s estate became increasingly lavish as he grew more and more sinister.  Until one day, during supper, he noticed that he had no appetite.  As he walked the stairs to his bedroom, he grew faint, light-headed and collapsed, tumbling town each step, breaking several ribs.  There were no physicians remaining in town, and so he helplessly made his way to bed where he would remain in agony for the following two days.

“A week had passed until the survivors of the plague noticed that no more victims were being brought to the town’s cemetery.  And so they concluded that the plague had claimed its final victims and was finally over.  They also noticed that the Mortician had been absent and when they paid him a visit, found his corpse rotting in his bed.

“And thus, the town folk happily paraded the final corpse to the cemetery.”

The Executioner, throughout Gustoff’s story, acknowledged that the foregoing tales were told with intention.  They were being addressed to The Executioner as an allegory to his life.  And, thus, he calmly interjected, doing his best to conceal his indignation.  “That is a charming story, and I am truly amused.  But I assure you, Gustoff, that I will not be paraded to the cemetery like your Mortician anytime soon.  My mission on Earth has yet to be complete.”

Gustoff was not surprised by his Executioner’s keen discernment and responded calmly.  “You are playing with treachery, my friend, and you will someday meet a very similar fate.”

“That may be so, Gustoff.  But after tomorrow, I will enjoy a warm evening meal, make merry in the company of my loved ones, and watch the sun set, whereas you, sir, will not.  I bid you goodnight.”

EPILOGUE

The following day, Gustoff was executed, swiftly and severely.  The crowds cheered and roared, revering the Gods of the Empire, as well as The Executioner’s impeccable performance.  He made it a point to end Gustoff’s life in a brutal fashion, and with absolutely no remorse, The Executioner returned to his study.  It was late afternoon, and he was scheduled to meet with his next victim; but before long, he heard the wooden floorboards growling as they parted, giving way to a large, smoldering cavity.  The Under Lord rose slowly from the fiery hole and spoke to The Executioner in a grave tone:

“Today you have completed your most challenging task: Killing the Honorable Wise Man.  And you did so without any hesitation, and for that, I commend you, sir.”  Although he was given praise, The Executioner appeared terrified by The Under Lord’s presence, for something truly sinister was at hand.  He felt as if he were on the brink of a new transition – one that he, perhaps, was not yet prepared for.  He considered his final words to Gustoff: that he would continue living, enjoying the company of loved ones, and watch the setting sun.  The sun, however, was still high, and he felt somewhat ashamed of his hasty swagger.

“Many years ago,” The Under Lord continued, “I gave you my word that upon completion of your examination, you would be given the highest honor: Royal Executioner of the Under World.  Well, my wicked man, you have satisfied my wishes.  And thus, the time has come!  Kneel to me, Executioner.”

As The Executioner kneeled, The Under Lord recited a series of incantations in a most peculiar dialect.  The Executioner was then asked to rise.  He was swiftly impaled through the chest by The Under Lords enormous forefinger, and brought screaming to the fiery depths of the Under World, where he would remain Royal Executioner for all eternity.

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