in a dark and stormy land, far from the brightly lit cities and towns of genteel civilization,
a lone traveler rode furiously across a battered and windswept landscape, heedless of the uprooted trees, fallen boulders and other obstacles that the maddened lightning periodically illuminated in his path.
animals, too, wolves, bears and panthers growled and hissed in his path. still he rode on.
behind him, audible over the din of the howling wind, the howling of dogs, the pounding of an army of hooves, the clanging of armor and the occasional explosion of firearms could be heard.
suddenly his horse reared up at an enormous mossy rock illuminated in the path by an bright bolt of lightning. a huge black panther crouched on top of the boulder. rain streamed over its sinewy body and dripped from its red roaring jaws.
how it rained!
with a desperate effort, the blinded rider forced his terrified steed to its four feet and dismounted. red eyes appeared in the boiling mist around them. suddenly the panther sprung from the rock, landing a scant six feet from the traveler!
calmly, the rider drew a saber from beneath his rain-drenched cloak. the panther reared back, growling deeply. the other animals drew back also, except for a shaggy bear, with a raven on its shoulder, a hideous black-and-white wolf, and a thin elongated jaguar.
the rider advanced toward the panther. the panther retreated two steps, then sprang!! the horseman seemed to slip forward in the mud, then brought the saber down on the leaping beast's skull, splitting it in two. red blood, white brains, and a loathsome green gas boiled out, briefly illuminating the scene, then was quickly effaced by the increasingly furious wind and rain.
the other beasts who had witnessed the affair began a horrible cacaphony and began to surround the human and his steed, but with an imperious gesture he waved them away. they slunk back into the darkness. only the bear with its raven companion paused to mark the rider's countenance (hidden, indeed, by his thick cloak) before joining its fellows in the darkness.
it was over in minutes. now the clangor of the pursuing army, which had been partially obscured by the raging storm, manifested itself anew. leaping back on the horse, as the lightning flashed, flashed and flashed again, the rider had just time to see in the distance the outline of a castle, curiously undefended and alone on the horizon. then the lightning disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving the cosmos in total darkness, as before. now, the heavens opened in earnest.
after what seemed an eternity the lone traveler reached the castle. it was completely unlit, and he would never have seen it had it not been for the lightning.
the pursuing army had been left behind in the downpour which had still not ceased.
the travelers clothes were hopelessly soaked through. he had ridden his horse to death - when he dismounted the heroic beast collapsed and expired in the mud.
the traveler looked around as best he could. he could not help but notice the most singular aspect of the castle - that although the landscape around abounded in hills, crags and rocky terrain more suitable for a defensive position, it had been built in the most exposed spot imaginable, as if taunting any would be attackers.
there was no moat or any other outer outer fortifications so he strode right up to the door.
although no light shone from within, the building, as best he could tell, did not look neglected. the windows (all barred) were not broken, and no rubbish was visible around the walls.
"it is inhabited - i feel it," he spoke aloud. he proceeded to pound on the front door. after about ten minutes of the hardest blows he could muster, a faint light finally appeared under the door. it opened, and the waterlogged traveler found himself facing the oldest servant he had ever seen - the fellow must be one hundred and twenty years old, he muttered to himself.
"actually, sir, i am four hundred and eighty-seven, but i still have excellent hearing." the ancient lifted his head from the base of his curved spine and fixed the traveler with the eye of a condor or cobra. "are you making a claim on the master's hospitality?"
"it seems the appropriate course of action under the circumstances."
"indeed. will your horse require attention? do you have more than one horse?"
"my horse has expired and will require disposal. and he was, i am afraid, the only one."
"no servants accompany you?"
"very well then." the old man stood aside and the traveler entered. he was led dpwn a long low ceilinged hall unadorned by pictures, statues, banners or armaments. a door at the end was opened, revealing a spacious though low ceilinged drawing room. it was immediately apparent that the lack of light on the outside was not due to the lack of light within, but to the tightness of the shuttered windows. a veritable bonfire blazed in the hearth, revealing the figure seated next to it in the most ravishing light possible. but despite the fire and the tight window, a chill shook the travelers frame as he entered.
"from this wet clothing," he muttered to himself.
the figure beside the fire did not speak. instead the deep voice of one to whom command was first and second nature emerged from the shadows of the room.
"gruz, don't bring the fellow in here dripping wet, put some dry clothes on him."
"yes, sir. i thought you might want to see him first."
"i will see him when he's dry."
the traveler gave a short bow in the direction of the voice. "i apologize, sir -"
a cold breeze brushed the travelers cheek, as if from the wave of the voice's hand. "your apologies can wait, sir," the voice replied in a polite enough tone. "we have all night."
"all night and more," the servant added. "this way, sir."
isidore arrived at the park a little later than usual. he noted with relief that "his" bench was unoccupied and that the shade had reached it on schedule. his "friends" hank and ernestine (he thought of them as "friends" in quotation marks) were sitting on the grass under a tree.
hank, reading his newspaper, looked subdued, and ernestine a little more pugnacious than usual. isidiore surmised that they had had an argument, but had more or less kissed and made up.
isidore never sat on the grass. if the benches were occupied he would just walk around, or sometimes sit on a stone wall. although he had been homeless for a year and a half, he made an effort to present a civilized and gracious appearance. an effort not helped by the fact that he had no teeth.
one thing isidore liked about hank was that his newspaper devouring usually gave them some pretext for conversation. now he sat on his bench about twenty feet from hank and ernestine, draped his arm over the back of the bench and addressed hank in the exact words he used every morning.
"any news today?"
"sure, there is always news," hank answered.
"but some days there is more news than others."
hank dimly remembered having this conversation with isidore before. "yeah, on sundays. the paper is bigger on sundays."
"he asks that all the time. don't you?" ernestine asked isidore good naturedly. ernestine didn't mind people saying the same things over and over. it was what she did herself.
"so what is in the news today?" isidore asked hank.
"iraq is in the news today." hank didn't elaborate on iraq. he continued turning the pages of the paper.
"so what do you think," isidore persisted, "about the current strategy in iraq?"
"let me finish the funnies first."
"they're the comics now, not the funnies," said ernestine. "you got to be the last person in the world that calls them the funnies."
"i heard there is a guy in sacramento who calls them the funnies,"said isidore. "and another one in new zealand. so hank isn't the only one."
ernestine ignored this. neither she nor hank ever pretended to laugh at anything they didn't think was funny. they weren't polite or well bred people.
hank mumbled something unintelligible.
"what was that?" ernestine asked him.
"mutt and jeff aren't in here. or alley oop."
"well, what did i tell you, that's why they're the comics now and not the funnies." ernestine laughed at her own humor.
hank hardly ever laughed at anything except jokes with punch lines. he turned some more pages of the paper. suddenly he reacted to isidore's earlier question.
"the strategy in iraq? i'll tell you the strategy in iraq. just drive on through. drive on through, smash everything that gets in the way, like me and patton did on d-day."
"but they've already done that. and there still seem to be problems."
"then they should do it again. just keep doing it and doing it until they get the message."
isidore was almost enjoying this. "and what message might that be?"
"to leave america alone," hank answered firmly.
isidore spread his arms and made a show of looking around the park with wide eyes. "i don't see any iraqis in the bushes. do you?"
"very funny. what about all these girls disappearing and being kidnapped? you think al qaeda isn't behind that?"
isidore laughed. "that's a novel theory, hank. maybe you should go to the police with it."
"ernestine's the one who should go to the police," hank said. "she saw something last night, didn't you?"
"is that right?" isidore asked her, suddenly interested. unlike hank, with his endless stories about singlehandedly leading general george patton across europe in world war ii, ernestine never seemed to make things up. in fact, she hardly talked about herself at all.
"yeah, i seen something. but i ain't telling the cops nothing."
"you didn't see someone actually being abducted?"
"that's exactly what i did see." ernestine didn't look up as she said this.
"then maybe you should go to the police."
"it's her civic duty," said hank.
"no fucking way."
just then a patrol car came crawling down the cement path of the park. hank waved to it excitedly. it stopped and a young patrolman wearing wraparound shades got out and slowly approached them.
"hank, you mother-fucker. you miserable, miserable motherfucker," ernestine kept her voice just low enough that the policeman couldn't hear her.
the young man's name tag identified him as officer jarowicz. he had had a long night and was in no mood for the homeless.
"can i help you?" he made a pathetic show of barely controlled aggression. the homeless just bored him and he didn't want to get too close to them.
"this young lady has something to tell you," hank told him.
jarowicz almost smiled at ernestine being called a "young lady" but he was too tired to smile. he was too tired to stand up.
"i didn't see anything," ernestine said calmly.
jarowicz had taken a notebook out. "did you see anything or didn't you?"
"no, officer, i didn't. i told my friends i saw something but i was just making it up."
"then i guess that settles that." jarowicz put the notebook back in his pocket. he returned to the patrol car and drove off a little too quickly.
as he rolled around the next curve he wondered if he should have asked the bag lady what it was that she didn't see.
"he should have at least asked you what you didn't see," said isidore when the patrol car was gone.
"yeah," hank agreed.
"maybe both of you assholes should learn to mind your own fucking business."
"i didn't say one word to him," isidore protested.
"that's right, you didn't," ernestine agreed. she turned to look at hank. hank jumped up and started running away across the grass, with his hats bobbing on his head.
ernestine didn't chase him. "that's right, run, hank!" she shouted after him. "you better fucking run!"