Decisions, Decisions

"We've got the genealogical report in on Pete Mesling. There's some Fredric Brown. Some Kafka. And even some Brautigan. But mostly there's Mesling. And that's 100% unique and original. As is None So Deaf, this memorable collection."—Mort Castle, author of Moon on the Water and New Moon on the Water


A minute sooner or later and the thing might have spotted Simon Jesbarth making water behind a nearby oak. He heard what sounded like the whipping of canvas sails in high wind, so he cut the flow of his piddling and took a peek around the tree. It came fluttering down out of the sky like a shot bird, its wings several shades darker than the night surrounding it. Dust, barely visible in the dark, whirled up as the creature landed in a crouch and inspected its new surroundings with all the suspicion of a seasoned culprit. Simon watched as it fanned its leathery wings to its sides, raising another cloud of dust.
As it slunk over the hill that separated the village of Blysedale from the river, there was something uneven in its gait, something forced about its posture. Instead of arms, Simon noticed with a gasp, it had two clusters of writhing tentacles protruding from bulbous sockets. By the time it crested the hill, its shape and height seemed to have shifted several times, as though it were trying on different appearances.
After a moment, Simon released the breath he’d been holding in unconsiously. He was about to step away from the tree and return to the relative safety of the Dancing Bishop when he remembered he wasn’t quite finished with the business he’d come out to do. Wrapping up as quickly as possible, he walked a circuitous loop to the main door of the tavern to avoid being caught out in the open.
Liberty Jim’s fiddle music was running high when Simon stepped inside. He went straight for his regular table near the back of the crowded and noisy room, where he’d left a mug of ale. He downed what remained. Margie, the barmaid, was quick to offer a refill, and he was just as quick to take her up on it. He welcomed the warmth from the fire that blazed in a nearby hearth, but it proved to be precious little comfort.
The townspeople of Blysedale didn’t give old Simon Jesbarth much credence on a good day. No one was likely to believe a word of what he’d just seen, but his heart pounded with the desire to unburden himself of the secret. Scanning the room for a trustworthy face, he came up empty. Half the patrons were too far into their cups to hear a man out, and the others were trying like hell to catch up. He’d only be a nuisance if he tried to bend an ear in this place. A superstitious old man is what they’d call him, and it wouldn’t be the first time.
But he ached to tell someone. Maybe with the right person by his side he’d find the courage to go after the thing that had landed in the road and find out what it was after. There wasn’t anything special about Blysedale in the way of attracting demonic attention, but unless Simon Jesbarth’s eyes had been lying to him all his life, Blysedale’s newest inhabitant wasn’t cut from natural cloth. And having gone that far, it wasn’t a stretch to surmise that the creature was on the side of evil.
Not wanting to pour fuel on the fire of people’s opinions of him, he kept what he’d seen to himself, deciding it was best to wait for something to happen that would make his story easier for people to swallow. The better part of a week passed without incident, but then two more strangers appeared in town.
The sound of an equipage pulling up outside the tavern was enough to make most of the patrons turn their attention to the windows. The tired nickering of the horses at rest was a call to some folks to press up against the glass and be among the first to see who would emerge from the dark interior of the carriage. Others contented themselves with idle speculation, knowing that any newcomer to Blysedale was likely to take a meal at the Bishop before doing much else, since the next coach stop in any direction was a long way off. It was also the only place in town for a traveler to bed down. Just a few modest rooms upstairs, but Mrs. Tupper knew how to keep a house, and she made the best rural breakfast in northern England.
Well, someone didn’t just step through that door. He might as well have owned the place. Dressed in the finest clothes the streets of Blysedale had boasted in a good long while, this gallant figure paused in the doorway to remove his gloves and inspect the rabble. A short black cape hung to the middle of his back and he wore a silken top hat. He ordered an ale at the bar, and behind him a much more timid specimen appeared. She was a young thing. Cute as a magpie and also done up in every manner of finery. Only she didn’t fill it so comfortably. The way she pulled at the ruffled trim here and there, you’d think she hadn’t worn anything frillier than a country smock until that very morning.
This is exactly the kind of thinking that often got Simon in trouble with Jack Rapp, the miller, who was fond of accusing him of taking as fact what lay beyond the evidence of the eyes. Maybe so, but Simon had more than a few years on that cock-sure bully, and his ideas had held up to scrutiny just as often as not.
The girl glanced in his direction but quickly shot her gaze down to where her two pointing fingers appeared to be grinding a speck of dust into still smaller pieces. It was about then he got the sense that other eyes were on him. He looked over to the bar and sure enough, the stranger was staring right into him, one hand on a foam-topped tankard and one foot cocked on the brass rail below. Here was a man who’d seen enough of the world to know what danger was, maybe too much to care anymore. The room was a cathedral of anticipation. Even Jack Rapp was silent. When the stranger picked up his ale and headed towards Simon, the murmur of gossip, bragging and outright lies wound itself back up. By the time Liberty Jim picked up where he’d left off with his fiddle playing, the Dancing Bishop was back to its normal buzz. Simon, however, did not share the other regulars’ relaxed acceptance of the man who bore down on him like a riled animal.
A log-like arm swung over his head, and for a second he thought the man might just knock him a good one and that would be the end of it. It turned out to be a gesture for the girl to join them.
“The name’s Medlar,” the man said once he and his charge, or whatever she was, were seated. His voice was high and clipped. He placed his hat near the center of the table. “This is Idaleen. We’re traveling together.”
She’d been staring at the surface of the table, but at the mention of her name she flashed Simon the greenest eyes in the world. No painter could have come up with a sharper match than those eyes to that flowing auburn hair, or that hair to her plump, white arms. She was a beauty, all right.
“Nice to meet you.” He tried to focus on the man but his eyes kept being drawn back to Idaleen. “I’m Simon Jesbarth. Most folks around here will tell you I’ve been borrowing time for as long as they can remember. They may be right. You folks plan on staying long in Blysedale?” Behind the question was the hope that there would be plenty more opportunity to see Idaleen, mixed with the knowledge that the longer a pretty girl like that stayed in town, the more chance there was of trouble.
“I hope not too long.” Medlar took a long draught of ale. “We’ll need a room, though. Are we in the right place?”
“There are a few rooms upstairs. Weber’s the man you want to be talking to. He’s the big chap with the towel on his shoulder, idling behind the bar.”
“Are you a bit of a loner, Mr. Jesbarth?”
Simon bristled a little at that. It seemed a bold kind of thing to ask out of the blue. But Blysedale folk were pretty well practiced at swallowing their pride. Most of them, anyway.
“I suppose you might say I enjoy my own company about as well as anyone else’s. Why do you ask?”
“You strike me as the kind of man who might know of things that go on around these parts before anyone else does. Has anything… gone on recently?”
As much as Simon wanted to tell someone about the figure he watched fall out of the sky, this gentleman with only the one name had a long way to go to earn his confidence. “No, sir. Nothing you’d call out of the ordinary. You the law? Is there a convict on the loose or something?”
“Nothing of the kind. Forget I asked. Well, I'd better see Mr. Weber about a room.”
He anchored his large hands on the edge of the table to push himself up, but his prying had emboldened Simon, who now laid a hand on Medlar’s forearm and leaned in. “If you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Medlar, what’s the story on your friend here? People’ll want to know, and I’m not without curiosity myself.”
“Idaleen is my niece. She’s mute.”
“That’s a mighty brief story.”
Medlar rose, and Idaleen quickly did the same. Her uneasy, darting looks gave her a captured quality, but also a charming one.
“I trust we’ll have further opportunity to talk, Mr. Jesbarth,” Medlar said. He held out his hand and Simon took it. Cold as a perch breathing its last on a wet rock in the middle of the night.
“You can feel free to call me Simon.” He was hoping to coax a Christian name out of the man, but Medlar only walked away, Idaleen in tow.

*****

Two days after Medlar and Idaleen’s arrival in Blysedale, people stopped seeing them together. It took another day for them to figure out that the girl was never seen coming or going anymore at all—with or without her escort. Only Medlar stepped out occasionally for a stroll through town or out into the country.
It got Simon curious, this sudden disappearance of Idaleen, and curiosity carried a good amount of weight in Blysedale. It was the kind of place where any alternative to boredom was quickly embraced because it was impossible to know who might beat you to it or when the next one might come along. So, one evening when Medlar left the tavern without a word to anyone, Simon took it upon himself to follow.
He wasn’t all that surprised to see Medlar heading in the direction the thing with wings and tentacles had fled in all those nights ago, but there can be a sort of jolt to discovering you’re right about a thing, and that he did feel. He wouldn’t have minded having his suspicions about Medlar disproved right about then. Instead they were strengthened. At least that’s how he saw it. Medlar must have found a cave down by the water and made a den of it. There were several to choose from amid the rocky terrain that sloped down to the riverbank. Maybe that was where he’d gone to change into Medlar. And maybe it was where he went every now and then to enjoy his inhuman form for a spell, like a city gentleman who likes to enjoy the comforts of home in slippers and a bathrobe. Perhaps it was even where Idaleen was being held against her will.
Simon chided himself for jumping to conclusions. He’d have answers soon enough. No reason to let his mind wander off into a tangle of dark weeds.
He heard the distinctive snapping of a dry twig somewhere off to his left. He froze, almost at the top of the hill. It couldn’t have been Medlar. Maybe a wild animal. He took several wary steps up the hill, afraid of losing sight of his quarry. But again he heard movement among the trees, farther ahead this time, and closer. As if someone—or something—was beginning to circle him.
Before his imagination could get the better of him he made a run for it. He was too old for the exertion, and the gathering darkness made it almost suicidally dangerous, but run he did, aided by the light of the rising moon. It must have awakened an ancient memory in his bones, of a nimbler youth, for he darted between rocks and leapt over fallen limbs with an agility—hell, a grace—that he feared he would pay dearly for come morning.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. He gripped a low-hanging branch and swung himself around the base of a jutting evergreen to avoid having to slow his pace and negotiate a patch of granite boulders. In doing so he delivered himself into the iron arms of Jack Rapp, who rocked him like a babe and howled with laughter before setting him down.
“And what’s so bloomin’ hilarious, Jack Rapp?” Simon did his best to restore dignity to his ruffled hair and clothing by swatting at every inch of himself.
“Why, you are, Old Simon. You’re just about the funniest sight I’ve laid eyes on this month. What are you doing bounding through these woods like a schoolboy? People might start thinking you’re a bit balmy.” He expelled another hoarse laugh and slapped Simon on the shoulder, as if to emphasize the fact that people already thought Old Simon was a bit balmy.
“I might ask you the same question. Besides, I wasn’t aware that you owned these woods.”
“You were following Mr. Medlar, weren’t you?”
“Why don’t you just leave me be.”
“Mr. Medlar’s got two things that make him a right welcome guest in our town, as far as I’m concerned. He’s got money, and he’s got a niece. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but there isn’t what you’d call an abundance of eligible females in Blysedale. You may be out to pasture, Granddad, but I still have a wild oat or two needs sowing.”
“Are you asking me to keep out of your way?” Simon couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I’m genuinely touched that you view me as such an obstacle to your happiness. For your information, I have my suspicions about their relationship to one another. I’d figure that even a damn fool like you might wonder why he never lets the girl put a word in. If you’re so interested in her affections maybe you ought to be a little more curious about what kind of hold he has over her.”
“Simon, sometimes I wonder what it’s like being your brain. I pity that organ. I truly do. The fantasies you put that thing through, I swear. No wonder it’s starting to show signs of wear. The girl is dumb. You said so yourself.”
Simon took several determined steps towards the river, away from Jack. Then he came back and pointed a shaky finger at him.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’ve had it with your insults, Jack. I came out here tonight to see where in hell Mr. Medlar goes almost every evening, and that’s just what I’m going to do. You can join me if you like. I could use the company, to be honest, but I won’t beg you. And I won’t put up with any interference.”
This time he walked away and didn’t look back. Before long he heard Jack’s heavy boots thrashing through the underbrush several yards behind him. A grin sprang up on his face and he let it grow to the biggest, stupidest smile he’d ever worn. If Jack Rapp could be put in his place, the Devil himself might be bested.
Firelight flickered from a cave several dozen yards away. Simon waited for Jack to catch him up.
“See that?” Simon asked. “I was right. The dandy holes up in a cave, like a beast.”
By the moonlight he could see that Jack found little comfort in the thought. Good, maybe he was starting to get some sense.
“What do you plan to do, charge in there like the law?” Jack wanted to know.
“I think he’s keeping the girl in there. If it wasn’t for that, maybe I could let it go, but I can’t stomach the thought of Idaleen being held prisoner by that maggot.”
“I think maybe your theory has a hole or two.”
“Why’s that?”
Jack pointed towards the cave. “He’s not much of a gaoler if that’s his idea of keeping someone captive.”
Simon looked back to the cave and saw Idaleen walking freely to a stand of birch that stood between her and the water’s edge. A moment later Medlar’s sleek form appeared at the cave’s entrance. He leaned against a rock wall, and the fire within made his shadow dance. He looked after the girl with something like chagrin and eventually returned to the comforts of the cave.
Without a word, Simon and Jack proceeded through the crooked rows of trees Idaleen had entered farther downstream. They emerged onto a lush bank. The girl sat on a log near the river, facing the waters that were louder in their ancient mumblings than they were visible in the moon-tinted air.
“What do you think?” asked Jack. “Should we just go up to her and ask if she’s being held against her will? What if you’re wrong about this?”
Simon wasn’t sure how to proceed. He wasn’t even sure he was right anymore. He was about to give the miller some kind of answer when Idaleen rose again. Her red silken dress began to undulate and bulge. The slimy grey tips of flabby tentacles licked at the hem before lifting it up over her head and fairly shredding the fabric in the process. Something pushed through the flesh that covered her left shoulder blade, sending a splash of dark blood into the moonlight. She screamed as the same thing happened on her right side. Soon the protruding joints unfolded, revealing themselves to be great wings, which she twisted and stretched high above her still-hunched frame as the tentacles wriggled and danced. The moon captured the display in its chilly blue light.
He was wrong. He watched until Idaleen stood to full height—a much fuller height than before—then turned to ask Jack for some kind of advice, but Jack was gone. Simon could hear him crashing through the thicker brush up above. When he looked at Idaleen again her head was turned in his direction—only it was no longer Idaleen at all. It gave the impression of human form and features but was far more vague. Where there should have been eyes there were only depressions. Where Simon expected a nose and mouth there were two holes and a slit instead. The torso looked fit but wasn’t defined with hard lines. The creature looked more male than female but there was no sexual apparatus to confirm the suspicion, only a bulbous curve of flesh where the legs came together at the hips. It brought its wings down slowly and took several steps towards Simon.
He was scared, but if he was going to flee he would have done it by now. The vision before him was at least as intriguing as it was frightening. He closed the gap by approaching what had been Idaleen—the green eyes and fiery hair clearly nothing more than one of the demon’s disguises, though a creamy hue still colored its flesh.
Demon? Did he really believe that? Would he allow himself to get within strangling distance of something he thought to be sent from Hell? Besides, since when did demons fall from the sky?
“Mr. Jesbarth,” it sputtered through the wound-like slit, “you weren’t meant to see this.”
“I don’t doubt it. I probably wasn’t meant to see you land recently, either.”
It cocked its head, considering a response. “No, I didn’t realize I’d been witnessed. What are we going to do about this?”
“I suppose that’s up to you. Where do you come from? Are you an agent of good, or evil?” It felt strange to invoke the terms, but there was no other way of putting it that he could think of.
“It would be—”
“Well, if this isn’t a cozy little assignation.” The intruding voice was Medlar’s, and they turned their attention to him instantly. He stood higher up, near the trees.
Idaleen let out something like a hiss and backed away from the man, her tentacles alive with motion. Simon stood his ground. “What do you want, Medlar?”
“What I want, Simon Jesbarth, is of no concern to you. My business is with the fallen one. Do you care to intercede? We could possibly work something out.”
“Ignore him,” Idaleen said to Simon. “He’s a fork-tongued scoundrel.”
“Am I?” was Medlar’s theatrical response. He laid a hand on his chest as he spoke. “Well, let me try to be a bit more plain. This thing that you know as Idaleen is nothing less than a fallen angel. A lot of folks think God finished kicking out the rebellious long ago. Not so. New ones are discovered every now and then, and God casts them out with terrific vengeance.
“Their destination, of course, is meant to be…” He pointed a long, bony finger at the ground and moved his wrist up and down to emphasize the gesture.
Simon didn’t like being told all of this. It was the kind of thing you were only made privy to if the teller didn’t plan on keeping you around very long. Still, he couldn’t help himself. “You know an awful lot about this business,” he blurted out.
“Oh, I ought to. My employer—not God—has a vested interest in seeing to it that Idaleen here makes it to where she was headed.”
“Yes,” Idaleen interrupted, “for some reason I stalled in the earthly realm, and soon after, Mr. Medlar appeared in the vicinity of Blysedale, his only passion to convince me to join him and his ilk.”
“So you have a choice,” Simon put in. “You can remain here. You don’t have to go with him.”
Idaleen nodded.
“Then the solution is simple. Tell him to go to Hell. You stay here and learn our ways. Can’t you see? It was no accident that you were barred from falling any further. Earth is a testing ground, for all of us. It’s always been a place of contests. You’ve arrived here to earn your way back into the Kingdom of Heaven. Or fail in the attempt. By God, I’m sure of it!”
“Don’t listen to him,” Medlar spat. “What can he possibly know of such things? Here you will suffer for no reason. In my world your suffering will be repaid with your heart’s desire. Think of how much it hurts to be shut out from God’s glory. What kind of god would show you the riches of Heaven only to rip it all away again, hmmm?”
“Be of your own mind in this,” Simon said to the fallen one. “You’ll know the right answer when you’ve asked yourself the right question.” There was nothing more to say for the time being. He made it about ten steps in the direction of the village when Medlar’s voice cut across the cool night air.
“Leaving so soon, Simon? Not without a parting gift.”
He kicked something that began rolling down the bank towards Simon. As it slowed to a stop several yards away, Simon recognized it as the head of Jack Rapp. He wanted to scream, wanted to cry and tear his hair out. But that was exactly what Medlar wanted him to do, and he wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. Instead he walked over to the head, bent down and lifted it up by the hair, which was greasy with blood.
“Just my way of showing what I think of interference from your kind,” Medlar added, but it lacked power. Simon shook his head in disgust and walked away, carrying the miller’s head under his arm all the way back to the Dancing Bishop. He stepped inside, and though he was aware of the crowd parting before him, and of their stares, he made no eye contact as he moved to the huge fireplace in the back of the room and hurled Jack’s head into the flames. In the same manner, he left again and found his way home through a fog of mental strain and mounting terror.

*****

Somehow, he found sleep, and the next morning began with a knock at the door. Simon crawled out of bed and forced his throbbing body to answer it. Standing under the thatch overhang of his roof was Idaleen, devoid of the wings and tentacles and sexless physique from the previous night. Just a shy, green-eyed girl in a simple country dress. She looked at him and smiled, and he invited her in for coffee and palaver.


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Contents

Crisscross Purposes

Foreword