She caught my attention because she was so there: standing tall with her arms folded in front of her chest and her defiant gaze that seemed to say to everyone around her: ‘I dare you, I dare you to say something about it, I dare you to assume; dare to conclude, to judge’.
He was wearing shades, a black jacket on blue jeans and a big brown leather bag that made him lean sideways. He was next to her, but also behind her at the same time. Like he neither wanted to be next to her nor following her, while she didn’t want him to be either and certainly not in front of her. So she paced with long steps to keep ahead of him and he had to keep up dragging his heavy load. A reluctant chase.
Suddenly she halted a few meters further on the platform, making him stop as well after a minimum exchange of words. The bag thudded on the concrete. I imagined it to be bursting with voluminous books containing hundreds of pages made out of frail paper filled with miniscule lines. Like a pocket bible. Books filled with all the words they would ever need, but would never say to each other if they could help it. Words that would no longer see the light of day.
He turned towards a bicycle shop that was at one side of the raised platform and a few meters lower. He lifted the shades to put them on the top of his head and then put his hands in his pockets to stare at the rows upon rows of cycles inside the shop.
She looked the other way, with her back to the shop and staring at nothing in particular because she was mostly focused on looking away from him. Her arms were still folded in front of her chest.
When the train stopped she moved towards the doors without giving him one look. He put on his shades, lifted the bag and followed her. When the doors opened they both stepped inside at the same time. Just before she was inside she stopped for a brief moment and gave me this intense gaze. There was a bit of defiance in it, but also – deeper – a sense of resignation. A resignation about having to put up with someone you want to be miles away from, but you had to be with for this one trip. Just for this one last trip.
“No!” Meena, the eldest of the two daughters said with an indignant expression on her face when her parents proposed to go to the market fair.
Eve, the youngest, fell into an uncomfortable silence squeezing a plushie against her chest. She did not dare to go against her older sisters opinion, yet she feared her mother’s displeasure equally. She withdrew into the only direction she could: into herself.
“We never go to anything that we like. We always have to go to these boring things you like.” Meena continued waving her frail hand about, ”I am not going and that is final!”
Harry, the father, tried to reason with her, but she was not going to listen: hormones and peer pressure were much more important for the budding teen than whatever considered arguments parents brought to bear.
Jane, the mother, then played the power card. “We all go and that is final!”
Meena grabbed her hand-held, stomped upstairs and closed the door of her room with such an audible bang that even the neighbors heard it. Everyone got that message. Then she started to whatsap all her friends that parents were the worst creatures in the universe by far and her parents were the vilest of the bunch.
Jane then shouted up the stairs that Meena should come down this instance or she would be facing a week of extra chores. Eve started to pout her lips and Harry began to tell Jane that maybe they should reconsider this fair business.
“See, even father doesn’t want to go!” Meena shouted, she triumphantly rubbed the words into her mothers face.
“I didn’t mean that!” Harry said, hearing how his words were being twisted into arguments for the defence.
“What then do you mean?” Jane said. She felt slightly backstabbed by her husband but also knew that her eldest was twisting the knife on purpose. At the same time she saw her youngest discomfort and she grabbed Eve’s hand.
Harry smiled disarmingly at his wife. Meena had walked halfway down the stairs not wanting to give in to her mother, but also not wanting to face a week of extra chores. She looked down on the scene with her arms folded in front of her chest.
Purr the cat sat in front of the door that led to the garden. She mewed at it and glanced at them to see if they would notice. Purr was certain that door would open sooner or later, and if it didn’t she would lie down on her cushion on the couch. From that vantage point she would then stare at them with an expression that seemed to say: what on earth are you all doing?
It was perhaps not the first order the emperor Armadius gave, but the order to capture the bird was among the first when he ascended the throne. It was the witch Najeste who caught the bird with a fine net and put the petite colorful bird in a golden cage, which was then placed on a pedestal before the throne set up in the large hall.
Another of those first orders caused the capture and summary execution of those relatives who might be a direct threat to the new ruler or be used by others against him. Among those captured was also the prince Lanare, an otherwise insignificant noble of an insignificant estate, but he was reviled by the emperor for his openly bi-sexual lifestyle. It was well known that Najeste and Lanare were lovers and after some rough handling by guards it was revealed that the witch was indeed a man, although his looks and behavior suggested otherwise. It was something the new emperor had always suspected.
The emperor promised Najeste to spare Lanare from the executioners axe in exchange for the birds capture, but he did not feel obliged to give them their freedom, so he had both men thrown into a dungeon. Each in their own cell: separate, close together but far enough to make communication suitably difficult…
It then took the emperor a year and some thousand lives to squash any potential opposition to his rule, either real or perceived, before he returned to his throne room to ponder the mystery of the bird.
Twenty-five years before, the old emperor had been close to death, but somehow the bird had saved the old emperor from dying. But that was not all. Not only had the bird saved the emperor, but it had also changed him. At first he had been an ruthless warrior whose reputation for bloodshed was only overshadowed by his reputation as conqueror, but the bird had changed him into a gently benign ruler with it’s singing.
During those twenty-five years of reign the old emperor had sat each and every morning on his balcony and listened to the bird and enjoyed the marvelous view of the capital city that stretched out from the palace all the way to the sea. And he had stopped the conquests, encouraged trade, advanced education and alleviated poverty. He had send away the generals and the courtiers and surrounded himself with children. One of which had been Armadius.
Armadius took seat on his throne and he listened to the bird sing for a few days, but nothing was revealed to him. But he was determined to discover the power of this bird one way or another. He sent messengers to all ends of his empire and beyond, and promised untold riches to anyone who would succeed in tapping the power. From far and wide wizards, witches, conjurers, demonists, wise men, hermits and crackpots flocked to the palace, even from far away Siang, but none succeeded in this task.
When all other means were exhausted Armadius had Najeste and Lanare dragged from their cells.
“Tell me the birds secret.” Armadius commanded Najeste,” And I will let you despicable people go.”
The two men held each other close, giving each other comfort and strength. Najeste then looked the emperor straight in the eyes.”I do not know this birds power. The only thing I know is that a child once said that when the bird sings all the other birds come.”
“The bird has sung before me each and every day in this very hall and never has anything remarkable happened.” the emperor said.
“Then the truth must be that the bird has no power whatsoever.” Najeste said,”And whatever happened to the old emperor had more to do with a change in himself than with any outside influence..”
Although the emperor was satisfied with this answer, he had both the prince and witch executed. The prince was staked and the witch torn into four parts by four horses and each part was buried some distance from the other in each point of the compass. He felt that it was offensive to the high gods teachings to let the lovers live and witches were dangerous anyway, especially after being slighted..
Armadius by now had been convinced that the bird did not posses any magic whatsoever and he felt proven when a few months later the bird died of some disease. The emperor was out conquering yet another country when it happened and when he was told he merely shrugged.
When the emperor returned to his palace he ordered the now empty cage to be taken away, and the hall to be filled with the voices of men and women who sang the praises of the emperor and the high god. To him it was a sound much more befitting the palace..
He then sat down on the same balcony the old emperor has sat and looked out over the city.. He enjoyed the view for it gave him to feeling he was a master of all he surveyed, which was true, for everything he saw, but for the sea. He could have his guards go to the city and have them slaughter each and every men. Nobody would be able to stand up to him. Tomorrow his victorious armies would parade down there to demonstrate the might of the empire. He felt satisfied and proud.
He had his servants serve him food and drinks there, like the old emperor had, and when night came he watched the moon rise and the lights of the city flicker below, like the stars did in the sky above, until he fell asleep.
The next morning he woke to see the first light of dawn. The red light flooded the streets of the city. It was the red of morning, but it looked like a sea of blood. The red climbed up towards the mountain and lightened the stake that had once held the carcass of the Prince Lanare.
The emperor rose to his feet and he watched the dawns splendor which took away his breath. And then a petite colorful bird fluttered to the balustrade and picked at some stray crumbs and then started a song. And from the city a wind brought the sound of singing, as the men and women started the new day with songs. And some of those songs were about wise old emperors and others about boundless lovers.
And the emperor felt tears in his eyes as he heard and saw this and then a deep sorrow possessed him as he saw the deceased Lanare and recalled the untold suffering he had caused.
Maybe this sorrow would have lasted a short while and maybe he would have forgotten about it, but he suddenly remembered how the old emperor once had asked him to sing him a song when he was still a child. An innocent song only a child would sing. And the emperor sang that song and the whole city sang to him.
Sarah sat at her favorite table in that little Italian restaurant on the corner of Sixth Street and Main when Mr Perfect walked in. Of course, he did not wear a tag that said he was Mr Perfect, but she knew he was the moment she saw him. He was slender and dressed in a white jacket with stone washed jeans. He had a catchy smile, was slightly unshaven, had short curly hair and when he passed her table a scent of man lingered.
Sarah was a longtime single pushing thirty and that made her walk over to his table and ask him if he would like to have some company. He gave her his infectious smile, stood up and offered her a chair. At the end of a delightful evening he paid their bill and then accompanied her outside, where he hailed a cab.
When they arrived at her house he helped her out of the cab and then took her hand and said to her, “Dear Sarah, I loved the dinner, I loved the conversation and would love to do it again.”
“You are so Mr Perfect.” Sarah breathed, ”Do you want to come in..?”
He gave her that smile again but with a hint of sadness, “ Lovely Sarah, I might be Mr Perfect to you, bui..,” He stopped for a moment.
“..but you are not to me.”
He gave her an apologizing smile, kissed her hand, got back into the cab and had it drive off into the star spangled night to find his own Mr Perfect.
For my friend: Misaki Andel and the love of his life Davie Holden.
After delivering his speech on outsourcing, the head of the IT department made a gesture as if to fold some papers in his hands, but he had none at the moment, as his department had been committed to substantial cost savings by becoming a real paperless office.
The handful of people that were with him in his room moved to congratulate him. They were familiar faces: the painted one of his secretary, the stubbled ones of the managers and the fresh ones of the management assistants who would become managers themselves in a few years time.
The amorphous mass of employees who were watching them on small and large screens in small and large rooms all over the world saw only the smug smiles on those faces. They had not yet been disconnected, but then.. they never had been connected anyway.
None of the employees gathered in the conference room had ever seen Lars Sunden in the flesh. And even in this presentation, displayed on a huge screen, the head of the informational technology department remained a vague figure wearing a white shirt and a tie. He was only visible in the corner of the huge screen otherwise dominated by a slide with too many lines on it and filled with acronyms few of the people in the room understood. The only noticeable thing about him was that he was slender and that he spoke meticulous English, despite his foreign sounding name.
He was bringing them such important news that all the employees of the department had been requested to attend, even those who were hired hands. Probably around a thousand people had gathered in the same kind of rooms all around Europe.
The mood in this room bordered on the hostile, which was no wonder as the company had undergone a series of cost saving operations that piled an increasing workload on a dwindling workforce. Pulling people from their tasks for a meeting meant they could not do those tasks. It did not help that those people only expected bad news, given the companies economic plight.
The mood had not become better when the first thing that was addressed was the expression of a warm thanks from Lars to another high manager, one Geralt Liberty, a man who had decided on early retirement a day before the presentation. It was already known that it could hardly be his age that made Liberty leave, as he was in his late fifties, but that it had probably more to do with his involvement with a certain cost saving project that had made the company lose two million dollars instead of saving it as was promised. Despite this disaster Lars praised the retiring manager for his efforts in creating savings that appeared prominent on the slide but had yet to be realized.
Next Lars started to reiterate the current situation. The market was bad, the economy was still weak and the company barely made a profit. As such more cost reductions were in order. It was not mentioned by Lars, but the slide showed a figure of 25% EBITAD. This was a term few people could recall with ease but the number 25% poked people to attention: that was a quarter of something. Was it a quarter of their budget? The people looked around with some worry.
Next on the agenda was an outlining of the IT policy which Lars drilled down to doing more with less.
“Poverty..” So Lars said, “leads to innovation..”
It was an expression that lost him the marginal goodwill he had. People saw the specter of hunger stricken Africa rise and instinctively knew that poverty did not lead to innovation: it lead to misery.
The next item on the agenda was a shift in the hierarchy at the top of the foodchain. Responsibilities were reshuffled and where certain directors had been responsible for this or that, they would be responsible for that and this after the change. Few names were familiar to the watchers and those who were familiar were nothing but names of people they only knew from slides shown in other presentations filled with too many lines and unknown words.
More slides were shown as Lars quickly went down the hierarchy. With the second slide names had been dropped for functions. And only with the fourth slide people in the room started to see something they did recognize. There were no names, but one person in the room, a manager that was considered high among them was connected to a function at the bottom of that slide. They were coming into view.
Lars got the fifth slide and hurried quickly through all the functions and when he came to the part that did involved the people in the room there were only two things on the slide. The first item was the disastrous cost savings project that some of them had been involved in and had been implemented in disregard of their advice. The second was the task of replacing the aging desktop computers, which had never been executed because the higher management had kept off spending money on new computers for years because it considered to outsource this particular activity. Despite an urgent call to innovate, most of the companies workforce were still working on decrepit computers that were so old that they stood a real danger of falling apart.
The only exception were the laptops of key people, which had been replaced by new models. It did not need to be mentioned that higher management and their staff belonged to the group of key people.
All their other responsibilities, including that of keeping the companies network infrastructure, mailing infrastructure and production systems running were not mentioned. These had fallen well below Lars horizon of interest.
The fore last item on the list was to express higher management commitment to make sure that everyone would be able to get the latest performance figures real time.
“We will soon be able to deliver reports to anyone at any time.” Lars said, who visibly beamed with the idea of being able to call up a performance report at the spur of the moment. A wet dream that completely failed to interest the bulk of his employees.
The last item on the agenda was the implementation of an educational system.
“We have to educated ourselves and our colleagues. We need more training on the job and appoint key people who will train they co-workers. We will provide an extensive pool of e-books and online courses so we will have an innovative cutting edge technical staff.” Lars mentioned with a enthusiasm that did not invoke the same response in the room as they knew very well that all education courses for which they had to pay had been cancelled to save costs. To them it looked like this higher manager was going pile more work on them by draining away even more people from the already understaffed departments to teach others…
“And we will see to it that education will be measured as a KPI.” He banged the desk enthusiastically.
KPI was something the people in the room had heard about. It mean key performance something and it was something that kept awake at night a certain kind of managers.. Nobody at their level did something with KPI’s. These workers had their technical reports and those told them what the systems were doing.. There were no acronyms for that: they talked about logging, errors, alerts and incidents. And they were used to report problems and point to solutions.
Lars wrapped his presentation up with an call to everyone to let ‘them’ know if they had any questions or remarks. It did not matter what. Nobody in the room felt invited to speak their mind or ask questions. Instead he workers and their direct managers filed out of the room to go to lunch. The whole presentation was barely mentioned during the meal and half forgotten by most after the lunch as urgent work was demanding their attention. The most important thing they got out of it was that whatever happened up there did not directly affect them as they did not exist in Lars slides.
Everyone also knew that in a few years time there would be another presentation organised by yet another head of the technical department in which other higher managers totally disconnected from their workforce would be telling them of yet another change in responsibilities, key indicators and focus of effort. It had been like that for a few years now.
Sometimes an employee thought of telling a man like Lars Sunden that he was a bleeding idiot, but nobody did that for they knew that even if Lars would listen to them, he would not understand them.
The air is too thin up there.
The red dust took some time to settle after they landed but that did not dampen their excitement.
“Who goes first?” Tomi voiced their question..
Mission control had told them who would go first, but in the face of history, far off Earth had no say.
Marchand stepped forward, but Indra tripped him. The crew started to fight and they fought all the way down the ladder in front of the camera.
“This is embarrassing.” Humboldt, UN Commissioner for Spaceflight, turned off the player, “In every simulation they start to fight.”
“Going down history as the first to land on Mars gets the better of us all.”, said Sir Irons, project psychologist, “But I have an idea.” He placed old video tape with the title ‘Capricorn one’ on the table.
The first broadcasted Mars landing was an astounding cooperative success: the flag of the United Nation was planted on a red hill and some evocative lines were spoken.
The next landing, a year later, was equally successful. When the crew of that second mission scanned the red planet for signs of the first mission, they found no trace of them. Not even after they had landed.
“Let’s ask the woman in our midst.” His Most Divine Emperor Maximilian the third said.
The gathered nobles of the realm, fitted in their shiniest armors adorned with silver and gold, turned their gazes towards her.
Eveline, envoy of the empress-mother, looked at the princess Isobel, who was laying at the feet of the emperor. Even in defeat the rebel princess was a comely figure, with her long golden hair, blue eyes and armor that hugged her slender young figure.
Eveline waited for a few seconds, then gave the much rehearsed answer. “Kill her or marry her. She will be trouble either way.”
The nobles laughed loudly as the emperor dismissed both idea’s..
Isobel and Eveline smiled at each other. The empress-mother had exactly predicted this reaction. They would be great friends, Eveline was sure of it.
“So you finally set yourself to it?” His neighbors voice rumbled. He was a big fellow, with a large beard. He was the kind that roared when he laughed or when he downed too many beers at the pub down the road.
James looked up and took in the solid shape that loomed over the two of them. The last leaves, showing a myriad colors, floated down, released by the wind. One caressed his nose and then continued its way to the mossy ground.
He smelled wet grass and earth. He remembered a rope swing hanging from lowest the big branch. He recalled the laughter of children and a picnic in August in the cool comfort of the shades.
James patted the old worn surface. Felt the irregularities. The deep groves. Parts of the bark had fallen off, more were giving way under the pressure of his touch. One piece showed the fading shape of a heart. Two names one each side, unreadable, but he knew them anyway.
“It is dead now..” His voice trembled.
“And one day it will topple over. A storm will come and then it falls. It is a danger now..”
“A danger.. I guess it is.”
“I could get my chain saw. It will be easier.”.
“You could,” James nodded. He fingered the lenght of wood in his hand. It felt sturdy, new, and strong. The heavy metal at the end would be unrelenting, “but i want to do it like this.”
“It will take you forever..”
“It is the least I can do…”
The other one peered at him and smiled. “Like burying a loved one, huh?
“Something like that…”
“It is just a piece of wood now, you know. Dead wood.”
James grabbed the handle of the axe with both hands. He felt the weight of the head pulling itself to the ground. He practised a swing.
“It feels sturdy.”
“Better get started then, before you grow roots and someone comes along and cuts down the both of you. “
James took a step forward, braced himself and started the first of his many swings.
The tree did not cry out, but he felt a pain nevertheless.