a classic retold

Man of Blossoms

"Let me tell you a story…"

The old man stumbled through the night, eyes wide in fright, knuckles raw and bloody from all the times he had scraped them in falling. He dare not look behind him, chased into the night by the voice, that kindly voice. Behind that kindness hid steel, steel and a dark vein of anger.

"Once, in the mountains, lived an old man and an old woman, who together tilled a small plot of land. They were a virtuous and happy couple, with only one lack: they had never born children. Instead, they had a loyal dog, Shiro, white and wolfish, and they doted on him like he was their son, and gave him the best of everything. But… you know this don’t you?”

The fleeing man didn’t respond, his breath ragged from running, too afraid to look behind at the one who chased after. The calm voice of vengeance.

                “On that mountain there was another couple, another elderly couple, as bitter and greedy as the first was kind and virtuous. When Shiro sniffed around their home, seeking company or scrap, they spit at him and kicked at him. How cruel they were to that sweet and innocent dog!”

                He couldn’t see but two feet in front of his face. Soon, he knew, his flight would end. And he would face the justice that harried after. Tears streamed down his cheeks. How had it come to this? All he wanted was to be acknowledged, all he craved was a taste of the magic he had witnessed. Was that so wrong?

                “One day, as the man from the first couple returned from a hard day laboring in the fields, he saw his beloved dog whining at the path that lead up the mountain. He saw the old man and barked, wagging his tail, clearly indicating that he should follow.

                “Trusting Shiro implicitly, he did. The loyal mutt lead him to a patch of turned Earth under a cherry tree and barking, scratched at the Earth, indicating where to dig. And the old man obliged, and dug where Shiro indicated. You, of course, know what he found.”

                The old man fell to the ground, and did not rise, he was tired of running. Tired of fighting the inevitable. Perhaps this had been destined ever since that faithful day. Since he had raised his hands in anger and destroyed that beautiful creature.

                “Gold, untold riches, flowed from that hole in the ground, a fountain of wealth. The old man was astonished. Never before had he seen such riches. Soon, the other couple heard of what he had found, and connived to steal Shiro away from the kindly couple.

                “The greedy old man forced Shiro back up the mountain, desperate to find the spot wherefrom wealth tumbled so freely. The dog, sensing his anger, was afraid and began to whimper. The greedy man, thinking he indicated that here to lay wealth, began to dig. But instead of gold, snakes and garbage flew from the ground. In anger, the greedy old man slew Shiro.”

                Desperate, the fallen old man began to beg. ‘Please, I didn’t realize. Please, I only wanted…’ But the kindly old voice that followed after, that hid steel, interrupted his pleas for forgiveness.

                “The kindly old couple grieved at their loss, and buried their beloved dog as they would a child. From his grave, sprouted a sapling. Months of growth in a matter of days. Soon, Shiro appeared to the old man in a dream. ‘Make a mortar of my sapling,’ The dog yelped, somehow understood in the impossible manner of dreams. They obliged, and prepared rice cakes in the mortar in his honor. But as they pounded rice in the mortar, it too turned to gold.”

                The greedy old man, still on his knees, had stopped begging for forgiveness and began praying to whatever God he believed in for absolution. He heard steps in the distance, slow and measured, like his reckoning could wait all the time in the world.

                “Hearing of this wealth, the greedy old couple rushed over, seizing the mortar for themselves. Alas, when they tried to crush rice in the mortar, instead of gold, only mud was made. Dismayed, they hacked the mortar with pieces with an axe and tossed them into a fire, leaving nothing but ash. The kindly old man was disheartened, but gathered the ash in a box and returned to his home, bearing the ashes as solemnly as if they were the remains of Shiro himself.”

                From the night a shadow emerged, stooped and limping, growing closer and closer to the penitent sinner as he prayed for a forgiveness that was not forthcoming. As the figure grew closer, the old man quailed in his prayers, his hopes for repentance overwhelmed by fear.

                “’Let’s sprinkle these ashes in Shiro’s favorite field, where we grow radishes.’ The old man suggested to his wife, who agreed. When they attempted to do so, the wind swept them up into a nearby cherry tree, dead many years. Immediately it bloomed beautiful blossoms, to the couple’s astonishment and delight.

                “’This is how I’ll remember Shiro,’ The old man decided, ‘By making the flowers bloom.’

                “And he went from tree to tree, and where he sprinkled, life sprouted once again. Soon the king heard of his exploits, and sent for him and his box of ashes so that he too could witness the miracle. The old man bowed low before him, and said humbly ‘Now, I’ll make the flowers bloom.’ He sprinkled the ashes on a nearby tree, and indeed it grew beautiful, white flowers.”

                The old man listened to the tale with a growing chill, as the face of justice that loomed grew ever more familiar. It was the kindly old man and his box of ashes, but he was not smiling that day. His patience with greed and avarice had come to an end.

                “But, not to be outdone, the greedy man came running, carrying the leftover ashes from the fire. ‘No, I am the greatest flower bloomer in the land!’ He boasted, and sprinkled his ashes. Alas, wind carried his ashes not onto the trees, but into the eyes and mouth of the king, who choked and sputtered angrily. ‘Fool!’ He cried, throwing the old man in prison.”

                The kind old man stooped down, to see his fallen neighbor eye to eye.

                “That should have been the end to that tale. That greedy man should have known that was the end.”

                He opened the box, and prepared to grab from the dwindling supply of ashes.

                “But no, when he got out, the fool attempted to return to the village on the mountain where they both once lived, and was shunned. No longer welcomed by the townsfolk, or even his wife, who we had forgiven. And the greedy old man grew bitter. In his anger, he broke into the kind couple’s home, and killed the old man’s wife. He sought to deny them both the happiness that had eluded him his entire life.”

                The old man stopped begging, stopped praying to God. No relief was forthcoming, nor was forgiveness. He closed his eyes, and waited. The kindly old man brought the ashes to his lips, then paused.

                “So here we are. You, the greedy old man, me the widower, grieving for my wife and for poor Shiro. But even in death there can be beauty. Now… I make the flowers bloom.”

                With those words, he blew the ashes all over the greedy old man. At first, nothing happened, the greedy one thought he might be granted a reprieve. Until small lesions appeared on his flesh, red and pink and white angry welts. Slowly they sprouted, then more quickly they grew. The pain was excruciating, but he did not scream. He felt his skin cells growing, and segmenting, becoming rigid and porous, less skin now than bark. From his fingers, now branches, grew white flowers. His feet sunk into the earth, his toes grew in every direction like roots seeking moisture. His last thoughts, before succumbing to the wind, boughs bending and groaning in the dark: I… wanted… I only wanted…

                “You only wanted what I had, but not the virtue it demanded. Now look what you’ve become.”

                As the kindly widower descended back down the mountain, behind him he left a flourishing, if gnarled tree. Its size and countenance suggesting a man.

Le Nez

                Le Nez sniffs the world for love, sifting through the scents for timid lovers with unsure tongues. He searches for those suffering from the most unrequited of diseases; who themselves lack the language to make their dreams a reality. They do not know it, but he empathizes with their plight. He knows what it means to desire the impossible. His curse cannot be lifted, that of perverse ugliness. His whole face is nose, a crooked, rancid, pockmarked thing. It drips with viscous fluid, and itches with the smells of the universe. It obliterates face, and all people would see—if he allowed others to look upon him—is the unholy protuberance. No, his curse is forever, those he helps, their lack is one he can address, their void is one he can fill… even if only for a night.

                It was a quiet man he found that fateful night. One who quested in the club's darkness for connection but knew not how to make it. A young man, his eyes fixed on another who danced on the floor alone. Handsome dark features fixed in bliss. He watched he who was free, who did not care if all he captured all the world's eyes, or none of them. He who appeared to feel joy for its own sake. The young loner watched him dance, and longed to drink of the same freedom. He watched the muscles shift and move beneath the dancer's clothing, and imagined himself pressing against them. He saw their flesh dancing as one. It was a feeling more powerful than lust; it was the spark from which flames love.

                If only, if only… He sighed. If only this could ever be.

                Alas, he was too much a coward to walk over there himself. And here Le Nez stepped in. The young man, Marcus, closed his eyes and imagined what might pass if he drummed up the courage. He saw, in his mind's eye, himself pushing through the crowd, weaving through the body-throng, through groups and couples that fed on one another in the night. He pushed until he reached his dancer, and took a deep-breath. The words came to him, spoken by another mind but with his mouth. A presence that whispered reassuring in his ear: Trust me, I will guide you true. Trust my words.

                Somehow, over the noise, he was heard.

                "Sorry to interrupt-"

                His dark object of desire did not stop dancing, but their eyes meant and he flashed the shy young Marcus a sudden grin.

                "Uh, sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering… if I might join you."

                The other did not stop smiling, but said. "And what if I came here to be alone?"

                Marcus quailed, even in his dream. Every fiber of his being longed to turn tail and recede back into the crowd, but whatever force that guided him would not allow surrender.

                "Perhaps you did, perhaps that's even what you told yourself. 'I just want to dance.' 'I'm not looking for anything special.' But I don't think that's true. Here you are, in a roiling pot of sex. We do not come here to be alone. And you are… so…"

                The other man had stopped dancing now, hung on Marcus's words. "Yes?" He was definitely listening now.

                "Free, open, in a way I've never been. And I am quiet and reserved in a way you may not know."

                "You don't seem so tonight."

                "This… is new for me. We are new for each other… but it needn't always be so. We could get to know each other. We could start with a dance."

                Marcus was too enraptured by the man before him, actually talking to him, actually interested, to wonder where these words came from. Words that would not occur to him in a thousand years. Now his hand moved like a marionette, lightly touching the other man's arm. And he knew, from how wide the stranger's black pupils grew, that they both felt the electricity that flowed from one to the other and back. The time for words was over, and both their bodies knew how to move. Two ships collided in the dark, two bodies joined for a moment however brief, each one filling the other's negative spaces. They did not dance so much as flow together, each wondering: How did I go my whole life without this moment?

                Time passed, hours, no more was spoken. Eventually the lights flickered on and the music quieted. Marcus opened his eyes, and for the first time truly realized what had passed was not a dream. He had said these things, he had brought them together. They stepped together slowly in the quiet. His words were his own again, but the courage he was gifted, from wherever it came, remained.

                "I never caught your name."

                "Arsenault… my friends call me Arty."

                "Arty, I'm Marcus."

                "Nice to meet you Marcus," He smiled again, more deeply, as open as his dancing in those early hours. "I live just up the street, want to…?"

                Marcus did not answer. He did not need to. He merely returned the open smile and squeezed Arty's hand. He felt it strongly: Even if they parted, even if words never again flowed as easily as they had this night, his courage would not fade; his soul would remain forever enriched.

                They stepped past Le Nez, who wore his impossible ugliness like a cloak. None would look at him; none would acknowledge such a perversity could exist. He would have smiled, had he a mouth, for he smelled it in the air. The strong, musky smell of love wafting by. And he disappeared back into the air. His part done, the final act performed.

                In the end, like always, I am left with nothing. Le Nez sighs silently. Nothing but my panache.

The Café

                “It is a good thing this café.”

                Night fell long ago, only one light was left shining on an empty street. One man drank, one served. Each in their own sphere where the other could not reach, except to order and to pour. The old man sipped his brandy and did not reply. He never did. He was deaf and had not heard anything under a shout in nearly a decade. He liked the night. It came with quiet sounds; each had their own vibration. Near the end, life takes all but the little pleasures.

                “There’s something to be said for cleanliness,” The waiter at his elbow continued. Out of eyeshot, and therefore unheard. His words little more than ripples in the old man’s pond, another soft layer of small happiness. “And so it is a good thing this café. Polished tabletops, swept floors, a clean saucer for good brandy.”

                “Another.”

                The waiter obliged, then continued.

                “The world is so different now than it used to be. No one cares for places like these. It’s all darkness and decay. Where young folk hide from each other everything about who they are, even from themselves. They think a picture is enough. These… selfies with so little actual self. They seek the soul in a hook-up, a brief liaison. But they are all strangers.”

                “Another.”

              "The closer we get on these social media, the further apart we drift. My grandkids, when I do see them, all they talk about are Snapchat and Instagram and wherever else they expose themselves. It's all skin deep."

                This pour was careless. Brandy sloshed over the rim of the cup onto the saucer, dripping on the tabletop below. Neither the waiter nor the old man noticed. The waiter lost in thought; the old man in drunkenness, and so both remained satisfied.

                “You remember it don’t you? Times when places like these were on every street corner. Perhaps their disappearance is part of why you tried to ki-no, I imagine that is your own secret prison. Not my place.”

                The trees across the street bowed with the wind, as they had done for years. Their boughs do not break, merely crackle and groan as they had for years.

                “They will still be growing older even when my children are forgotten. If they are allowed to. I wonder what we will value then.”

                Sips, then silence.

                “Perhaps, I’m not being fair. To myself or the present. Perhaps the light of the past was a lie. Our openness a façade. What did we hide with the truth?” The waiter looks at the spotted, pale scalp of the old man he serves. “Why did you try to kill yourself so close to death’s door?”

                He does not turn. He merely drinks. His movements grow slower and slower.

                The waiter yawned. He was tired. Tonight he might even sleep, if only an hour or two. He waited a few minutes for the call he knew would come.

                “Another.”

                This time, he did not immediately serve. But walked around so that the old man could see his eyes. More importantly, could read his mouth.

                “Last call,” He did not speak loudly, or slowly. The waiter knew he was understood, and poured the man one final drink. “After this, we both go home. Yes?”

                The old man grunted, clearly not ready to leave. But nodded. He acquiesced, even if he did not agree. In moments, that last brandy was gone. He rose, unsteadily, but did not fall, leaving a collection of bills on the bar. The waiter, himself an older man if not old, did not need to count it. He knew there would be enough, and a generous tip besides.

The small figure grew smaller in the distance, and was swallowed by shadows. Then he was truly alone.

                He went to the back and closed shop. Wiping the spilled brandy from the table, mopping the back bar and sweeping a day’s worth of crumbs from the floor.

                De rien. He thought. Tout c’est rien.

                Tomorrow the same people would come and make the same mess, and the day after that they would come again, and the day after and after. Eventually they would stop, and so would he. And others would make their mark on the shore. And the tide would come and wash that away as well.

                He ascended the stairs to his three room flat overseeing the small café he owned, stocked and manned singlehandedly. On a whim he opened his laptop and checked Facebook, where he only ever created a profile to satisfy the whims of his young grandchildren. Not that they ever messaged him anyway. True to form, there were no notifications. Only the pictures of other people living their separate lives, with no regard for his own.

                No. He decided, lying in bed, eyes wide-open. I guess I won’t sleep after all.

Doctor Hyde

"We admit the first trial had its flaws."

                The words woke Gabe Utterson to face the bright lights and his throbbing headache. At first, he couldn't speak, his tongue hung limp and swollen in his mouth, like someone had covered it with a woolen sock. He was dehydrated and bewildered, uncertain of where he was and who was speaking. The voice though, it was familiar.

                "There were… unanticipated side-effects, and some collateral damage, it's true. So it always is with discovery. Never can we create without bumps in the road."

                Gabe knew that voice, and tried to move toward it, but could not. His hands and feet were bound. He was tied prostrate on some sort of table, and as his vision cleared, he could see the devices of medical examination around him. A length of medical tubing was fed into him intravenously, leading up to a amniotic bag on a nearby platform, filled with some unknown viscous fluid, glowing golden.

                "H-Henry?" He began to stutter, and tried to sit up. He could not move his shackled hands or legs, but a shadowy figure moved quickly to his side and forced him back down onto his back. Shoving him not gently, but also not rough enough to bruise. "Wh-what is-where are we?"

                "You really don't recognize this place Gabe? I'm hurt. How long have we been friends?"             

                The lawyer Utterson found he could turn his head and as he looked around him he found he did know this place. A basement much transformed from the last time he lounged here at one of the good doctor's parties. His one-time friend held him bound in a cellar that, once appointed for entertainment, now appeared better suited as a dungeon.

                "Dr. Jekyll," Gabe tried to regain his composure, searching for his stiff upper-lip in the face of trouble and all that. Clearly his friend was quite disturbed. In the thrall of some substance he dare not try to name. "I admit, I find this a little overwhelming. What, what exactly are we doing here? In your basement?"

                "Yes, I can see why this might be a little overwhelming, but your facts are out of date my good man. I am not Dr. Jekyll any more… well, I'm not just Dr. Jekyll."

                As his eyes grew accustomed to the light, Gabe saw more and more of the good doctor's face. He recognized hints and pieces of the man he knew, though he had been much transformed. Some hidden ugliness had been brought to the fore of his features. A snarl etched itself on his lips; his nose was sharper and thin; his eyes, once a dark humble brown, had turned icy blue. But there was no denying it was clear from the fringe of brown hair and a birthmark the shape of a anchor above his right eye, this was, or at least at one point had been, the esteemed Henry Jekyll.

                "Henry… what have you done?" Gabe Utterson gasped, unable to hide his terror.

                More importantly, what will you do to me? Was his unspoken fear.

                "Gabe, Gabe, it is not so much 'What have I done?' as 'What have I become?' I am my best self Mr. Utterson. I am free."

                The esteemed doctor hunched in a chair by Gabe's prone side, perched in it like an animal uncomfortable in human trappings, and continued: "Each of us wears two faces. The polite face, worn towards society, born of false trappings and assumed dignity. This is the face we wear that allows us to walk through the world without judgement or shame for our baser urges."

                He who was Jekyll leaned forward, his features lost again in shadow as he bent into the bright light, all obscured except for his maleficent leer.

                "Then there is the other face, our truer face. A dark face looking inward, built of desires we dare not acknowledge even to ourselves in the quiet. Wearing that face, we are ugly men; and we do ugly things. We try to deny it, but every so often it manifests itself and the consequences are… dire.

                "What if there were another way? What if one could make those two faces one, join these disparate selves. This is what I have endeavored to do these past few months. Not without setbacks. You met Mr. Hyde one night I believe?"

                Gabe's eyes go wide at the name.

                "That was-"

                "-my shadow counterpart. At that moment I am afraid he had full control. A nasty bit of business. That poor woman… is she all right?"

                "She's still alive, no thanks to you!"

                "I do regret her distress and had yet to work out the kinks. But I've finally perfected it. Look at me. Am I not cured?" 'Jekyll' stepped back from the table, a whipcord figure of muscle and gristle, veins straining on his forehead. Gabe doubted that the transformation, or whatever it was Jekyll went through, was truly as perfect as he claimed, but despite his appearance, he seemed calm in a way that Hyde had not, his manner decent in a fashion of which Hyde was not capable. Suddenly, it hit him.

                "Doctor, what is this you're giving me? What is flowing through my veins?"

                Before Jekyll answered, the lawyer Utterson knew what the drug must be. A feeling grew within him, avarice. It was clear by the hunger that spread from his head to the tip of his toes, a burning warmth. Anger, passion, lust, they multiplied… and yet. He controlled them, could indulge as he saw fit, or not as he chose. Emotions became exponentially stronger, but also less somehow.

                Jekyll smiled, this one more genteel than his previous leer.

                "Why, I needed to use more than myself as test subject. And where better to look than among one's friends? Tell me Gabe, how do you feel?'

                "I feel…" Smiling, Gabe had to admit he was feeling pretty fantastic. Like a whole new man, in fact. "Well Dr. Jekyll, I feel-"

                "Please, it's not Jekyll anymore." And the Doctor grinned all the wider now that he saw the leer on the lawyer formerly called Utterson's face now matched his own.  "Call me Hyde, Doctor Hyde."