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An Apple for the Teacher

Esopus on Columbus Day 2008 030

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Groundhog mayday

winter

The groundhog stared at the radio as the reporter excitedly updated the news, “The posse has him cornered in a line shack west of Punxsutawney. They expect to call in a drone strike any minute now. We’ve had enough of this winter, that over-sized rat has gone too far this time, why couldn’t he have just stayed in his hole and let the spring come early?”

Phil sniveled, “They’re going to shoot the messenger because they can accept the fact that climate change is the result of their own stupid excesses. Sure, they burn fossil fuels and cut down the trees, what do they expect? They want a scapegoat, so they picked me to pin their sins on.”

He lifted a trap door and dropped through the floor to his tunnel without bothering to turn off the radio. He was a quarter mile behind the encircling humans, watching when the first drone strike incinerated the line shack. “Go ahead, dummies,” he chuckled, “add some more carbon dioxide to the ozone layer. It will come back to haunt you. Meanwhile, I’ll find another abandoned house to keep me warm for the rest of this interminable winter.”

The Wicked Witch and the Windmill Eating Troll

The miller’s wagon packed with tools, canvas, gears, shafts and heavy grinding stones creaked into the square before the Inn. After a tankard of Spencer Ale and a quorum of stuffed quahogs he walked about.  By day’s end, he knew in his heart that Skyblue offered the best hill upon which to set the gears and the sails that would convert the wind into blessings.The Skyblue folks delighted in the prospect although the grumblers of the Nimby Clan griped and muttered. Nevertheless Skyblue agreed to let the miller build and hoped that soon the whispering, dancing mill-sails would catch the breezes, turn its shaft, gears and stones to grind grain to the finest flour. The town glowed with festive expectation.

In the far off nether reaches, the Wicked Witch heard the Nimby Clan’s grumbling and the people’s glee. She pointed her twisted, green finger at her murky mirror where she viewed the miller’s plans. “This would never do,” she cackled, “for if wind is used the Skyblue folks would no longer buy the bones, blood and breath of long dead dragons to burn in their machines.” She could no longer suck the wealth from the town’s folk, and foul their air and water.

She dispatched her flying monkeys, Nazgûls and her fiendish ambassador, the troll called Nocebo to infect the brains of the humans so they would fear the windmills and talk nonsense against them.  She took special delight in the Nimby Clan, who of course didn’t mind that the Wicked Witch turned tap water to flame, killed lakes, destroyed agriculture and increased earthquakes a hundred fold as she extracted sludge and slime from dragon’s graves, as long as it happened not in my back yard, at least not yet.

Nocebo gathered toads, toadstools and snakes for use in Nocebo cookies, but the children proved too well informed. They actually liked the windmill and windmill cookies, but dreaded the evil ambassador and Nocebo cookies. Since the children proved too wise, Nocebo turned to the Nimby Clan with pitchers of Nocebo Sangria. In no time, the very mention of the word “windmill” evoked symptoms of stress in the Nimby Clan. Their hands twitched with the urge to write dozens of complaint letters every day, even though the windmill had yet to operate.

With increasing boldness, the now enchanted Nimby Clan predicted that the windmill’s sails would snare their beloved vampire bats, banshees and pterodactyls. Nevertheless, People for the Ethical Treatment of Vampire Bats, Banshees and Pterodactyls logged no injuries to these endangering species gliding above Skyblue.

The Nimbys claimed that since this windmill was larger than others, it would make more noise. Instead it made less noise than its smaller neighbors. They preached that real estate prices would drop in their neighborhood, but new houses have started as did bidding wars on existing homes.

The Nimbys claimed that in winter the sails would fling daggers of ice, far and wide, slicing town’s folks to the quick. This too has never happened. They said the turning sails would cast spells upon the carters and that their oxen would run amuck. No vehicular accidents ever happened because of the windmill. They spread fear that the sounds of grinding stones would quake the earth and summon demons from the depths to enchant the students at their lessons. The kids still love he windmills and windmill cookies and have excelled in school. The other schools want their own windmills.

Nocebo urged the windmill workers to quit their jobs or their teeth and eyes would fall out and they would soon go mad, but none of these evils befell them. Nocebo hired the scribes, Ditto and Rehash to write hundreds of letter against the windmill. “Look.” Nocebo said, “The households have suffered hundreds of health disorders caused by the windmill, we must tear it down.”

But the miller asked, “Where are the medical records that demonstrate injury?”

Nocebo screamed, “You can’t invade the privacy of these complainants or even know their true number, pre-existing conditions or vested interests.”

The miller and his many workers and thousands of townspeople who benefited from the windmill rose against Nocebo’s fear tactics, while those who had drunk Nocebo Sangria marched like zombies toward the windmill, chanting and grinding their teeth.

Then out of the night rode the heroine Jeannine the Brave, waving the banner of sanity. She sprayed the poisoned Nimby throng with the antidote to Nocebo Sangria. The Nimbys reeled in confusion and finally came to their senses.

They slowly admitted, “We are not victims of the windmill, but of the Wicked Witch and her ambassador Nocebo.  Hurray for Jeannine the Brave! Let her look over our health for many years to come.”

Flavia 006: The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

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Trains, planes and automobiles, along with Winston Churchill and a military escort greeted Hillary de Luce upon her return to her husband, her daughters and her ancestral estate: Buckshaw. Thus began episode 006 of the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series. Alan Bradley had left Flavia, his protagonist, the youngest of those de Luce daughters, dangling at the conclusion of volume 005, only to have her land in volume 006 with one foot in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the other in Kim’s Game as described by Rudyard Kipling.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches introduced major plot shifts, revelations, reconciliations and retributions. Relics of the past flickered and flew into view, unveiling secrets that stretched back through three hundred years of de Luce history and service to king and country.  Flavia’s new and more durable personal nemesis emerged, Undine: younger, equal and opposite, perhaps brighter and potentially more dangerous than Flavia. Was she a usurper, a snoop or just a lonely child looking for a friend?

Flavia passed through a substantial stage of metamorphosis to an elevated sense of power and confidence and yet at times she was more flustered than she had ever been. Most importantly, she did emerge as a far more formidable Flavia as she began her trek toward volume 007.

Reviews of mysteries, especially a series in which the initiated would have shunned spoilers other than those offered by the publisher, must focus on style rather than substance. Alan Bradley often invited the reader to tea, a break in the action, an apparent distraction, where the author installed words in place as would a jeweler carefully set a variety of brilliant stones within the gold of a magnificent brooch. There was no better way to review Bradley’s skill than to quote the author on various aspects of volume 006, or as he would have had Flavia say, “Let’s take another squint…”

At their current situation:

We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

Churchill…still had certain secrets which he kept even from God.

Logical beyond question but at the same time mad as a March hare

At her father:

Windows were as essential to my father’s talking as his tongue.

He stood frozen in his own private glacier.

Father, the checkmated king, gracious, but fatally wounded in defeat

(With Churchill) These two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something I could not even begin to imagine.

At her sister Ophelia:

The image of bereaved beauty, she simply glowed with grief.

Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as a maiden from Tennyson.

She knew me as well as the magic mirror knew the wicked queen.

Her complexion—at least since its volcanic activity settled down

Her voice suddenly as cold and stiff as whipped egg whites

At Flavia on Flavia:

I wanted to curl up like a salted slug and die.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in case of overlooked jam or drool.

One of the marks of a truly great mind…is to be able to feign stupidity on demand.

The comforting reek of nitrocellulose lacquer

It smelled as if a coffee house in the slums of Hell had been hit by lightning.

That bump in her bloomers was me! (A comment on a photo of her pregnant mother)

My emotions were writhing inside me like snakes in a pit.

There is a strange strength in secrets which can never be achieved by spilling one’s guts.

I slept the sleep of the damned, tossing and turning as if I were lying in a bed of smoldering coals.

My mouth tasted as if a farmer had stored turnips in it while I slept.

My brain came instantly up to full throttle.

There are few instances in life where, in spite of everything, one had to swallow one’s heart and go it alone, and this was one of them.

Giving praise at every silent step for the invention of carpets

My knees gave off an alarming crack.

At flying:

And with a roar the propeller disappeared in a blur.

The roar became a tornado and we began to move.

And then a sudden smoothness…we were flying!

Beneath our wings the marvelous toy world slid slowly by…miniature sheep grazed in handkerchief pastures.

At trains:

The gleaming engine panted into the station and squealed to a stop at the edge of the platform.

(The train) sat resting for a few moments in the importance of its own swirling steam.

At music:

Each note hung for an instant like a cold, crystalline drop of water melting from the end of an icicle.

Humming mindlessly to herself like a hive of distant bees

The music faded and died among the beams and king posts of the ancient roof.

The organ fell silent as if suddenly embarrassed at what it had done.

At children:

They had lost more than one baby in the making and I could only pray that the next one would be a howling success.

“You’re a child.” “Of course I am, but that’s hardly a reason to treat me like one.”

As we await volume 007, we might expect a twelve-year-old Flavia who would have behaved not so much as her teen-aged sisters but as her mother Harriet. The relevance of the photo of Churchill’s statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada will become apparent to the readers of volume 006.

Bradley, Alan. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

He wore an old scarf

The subway door opened at Queens Plaza and there he sat on the platform against the stairs. He wore an old scarf, a filthy coat and a soiled knit hat. He raised his head and looked through the open door. Our eyes met. I was afraid he would stand and approach me, but he looked at the bottle in the brown paper bag in his right hand, raised it and slugged down a mouthful of Wild Irish Rose. The cheap wine spilled out of the corners of his mouth, running between the cakes of dirt, the strands of beard and down his neck soaking into his scarf.

The doors of the subway car slid together and the train lurched forward. I caught a last glimpse of him through the window but soon the train entered the blackness of the tunnel. I gazed at the cardboard posters along the inside wall of the subway car. One of these advertisements featured a young man with rosy cheeks, a bright smile and woolen coat and dapper scarf. He toasted the passengers with an uplifted bottle of Wild Irish Rose.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)