The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Fiction

Spring Of A Down, By Stirling Newberry, Chapters XIII-XV

Невідомі води[lv]

They watched the world wake-up from history, there was no place they wanted to be.[lvi]

Pockmarks over the sea air. Wisps and black cinders grew up, up, up to the air billowing мистецтво. The mill was the last refuge of Ukraine. Junk was the line. Z Goliath lined up tanks and self-propelled rocket launchers for rent, while the David took the underground. Close to the unknown waters the day the music died.[lvii] Spires multiple of factory smokestacks rising towards the tumble rubble dark air in space.

From above the destruction is immense: metal roofs shattered, cars dispersed as toys across the parking lots, all burning on the streets all mimsy were the borogoves.[lviii] Brick walls stand with nothing to guard. White dross of paper and wooden chaff of some blown maze where all of the denizens lie in wait. Cradles of the new dying fur and an aerie of fluttering wreckage.[lix] Even now, bands of irregulars hurled Molotov beer at the Russians in the corner of the Azov Iron Works. Judge Dredd might know this place: a riptide of industrial destruction next to the seashore with salt wind. The wind blew away the smoke of shells.

It was in these warrens that a few boys waited by the earthen trenches, at a point that was no more than single file dug, opening the sky and slithering in the mud. In the open warehouse, pipes ran everywhere – some drops combed off from somewhere, 20 meters up.

In the clouds a ray of moonlight pierced through. And one of the soldiers stood in the bask of it. With arms like a mother cross. Gentle and serene.

Краплинка.[lx] Pause. Краплинка. Pause. Краплинка!

It was Borysko the first to itch.

He felt the oil on his sweater.

“I needed a parasol every day.” He played with an unlit cigarette and then put it down.

“It is the Champs-Élysées here all the time.” Neither Borysko, nor anyone else, had seen the boulevard in Paris. Though Borysko had tasted Gauloises, then made in France.[lxi]

Краплинка. Pause. Краплинка. Pause. Краплинка!

“It could be the Styx, or the paradise theater.”[lxii] Everyone looked over at Kostyantyn.

But it was Maksym that replied: “Nothing ever goes as planned.”[lxiii]

Borsyko laughed: “Just ask the other side.” There was nothing jovial in the way he said it. Then a wail peaked. His voice was annoyance, or perhaps his annoyance found an outlet.

Краплинка. Pause. Краплинка. Pause. Краплинка!

They all moved out from under the pipe making a bit of noise as they did so. Any awareness of the droplets erased from the boys’ minds. Boys will be The Boys.[lxiv]

Then another figure came up the tranche. He was bolder, once beefier, and bearded but spatter with grime. His name was unimportant, for all called him Starshyna. The boys shivered. The old man softly said: “Do you want to see the блакитний?”[lxv] All agree that they want to see the heavenly blue. Just. One. More. Time.[lxvi] Each one a siren sound, when each one may be your last. “Then keep quiet.” he added in a controlled tone of voice. He then thought a bit and lined them up, but quietly: “First. Second. Third.”[lxvii]

They lined-up, but grumpily.

The man they called Starshyna, old rank for Master Sergeant, was Bohdanko Petrovitch Mikhailov. He was born of a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father, back at a time when which language you spoke was seen as an indicator of your political leanings: Ukrainian was said to lead towards Kyiv and Russian meant towards Moskva. It was horseradish at the time, but much stronger horseradish. As a young boy, he burned at the insults, especially “Ублюдок” which was the equivalent of “Bastard.” He could not even make his mind up, in utero. But he never said “All Apologies”[lxviii] for the mixed-up tongue even over Pennyroyal tea.[lxix] Give Bohdanko a Cohen world every single time not a box of chocolates.[lxx] Everybody knows the dice are loaded with nirvana.[lxxi] He burned, and that is why he joined the far-right to expunge the sound, the sound, the sound of everyone else being gay. Then it was a natural expansion to the Patriot Ukraine to the Azov Regiment in 2014. All-natural and pure. It was the purity of essence that drove Bohdanko because there was so little of it around.[lxxii] A tourniquet of expiry.

Bohdanko looked back one more time. What he saw were kids who probably were not going to see daylight. He saw ghosts in their faces, turned in shades of grey with shrapnel sucking out the blood. Then he went off into the darkness. The trees denude, walls denuded, bodies denude, all along the bomb out streets.

Once he started to leave the boys whispered under their breath: “First. Second. Third.”[lxxiii] Once again, the insults came Bohdanko’s way.

Then 50 meters or so away Bohdanko looked back one more time. What he saw were kids who probably were not going to see daylight. He saw ghosts in their faces, turned in shades of grey. Then he went off farther into the darkness. He watched the plumes from the ships at sea torrenting the coronets skyward in a nascent display streak strophe splendor. He watched every burst, realizing one day he would be in the target zone.

He began talking to himself. “You should not be hard on them. They probably do know the feeling of being a father. Not the way you do. Remember holding up the soft flesh for the first time. So delicate and pure of essence to the core.

He looked out over the sea. Old man was now thin as he was once undefeated but now broken on the inside. An open door was waiting. A harpoon was aiming. He looked around because somewhere he knew a sniper was taking aim.

He knew that it was not him. He remembered the pouch of tobacco. Red was the glow of the match. The first light would be too short. The second light the sniper would aim. The third light – never three on a lucifer.

The shot called true. But it was a RAM grenade. Piercing slicing shell shock. Then all of them were dispatched. At least there was no agony or painpainpain.

Up above the oil went from a dribble to a spurt.

It was a lesson that you learned whatever your persuasion: you think you will live forever, when you’ve done a line or two.[lxxiv] They drill that out of you in basic but, for whatever reason, it crepts back in. It was a warning of universal application: quiet gets one killed last.

Pretty lights, beneath the stars and sea.

Spring of Down, By Stirling Newberry, Chapters X-XII

мене на могилis[xxxix]

Cry Havoc, Let slip the dogs of war![xl]

He let his voice slide into a whisper as he controlled the crowded cockpit. In his imagination he could see a drone’s eye view of the slag towers.


And he was in the best tank now in service – the T-14, whose low rumbling sleek military green frame was out on the battlefield in a pack of wolves over the land. Where the streets have no name, merely Number-Letters in an astute vision akilter. In Cyrillic, because they were Russian, he to flame out the old enemy. Without a trace. He looked across at the gunner, rotating through his list of targets. Burred with the taste of beardlets he concentrated Concentrated on  destruction by madness, on starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn.[xli]

This was the torture plain of Donbas. For now, the streaming gang of Russians mobbing the зелёнка, green scraggly brush meant to hide them from hidden opponents. Russian tanks poured across the disputed border – because, to the Russian, what is his but what is yours is negotiable – in number and scope.

There was occasionally even some semblance of moderate military discipline. A hate-filled gas of iron, germs, and bad tactics.

He focused, focused, focused. Focus on the dawn which was now breaking along the distant trees on the sullen horizon. Love turned to rust on the guts of red. Kostik moved his head to shake out his tinnitus but quickly turned back to sight, not sound. It was a sight that killed you. He knew that, at least in the front of his skull.

The land was empty of wheat and fodder for hoofed beats, but its’terrain was what the tank was designed for: a thoroughbred of orthogonal grace. It was quiet as the three watched their stations.

But finally, the driver, Kostik, uttered: “They are burning their money in wastebaskets.” He spat on the running floor where everything moved in staccato.

Driver Lyonya startled at first then composed. “Whatever do you mean?”

“The fuel is the commodity. Burning it like trash that warms the caliber.”

“If they get hits, it does not matter.” Lyonov wished for nothing more than to wait in the sunlight and drink coffee and talked for hour after hour. He said none of this, now or any time.

“We are the terror through the wall, creeping up by Wolf’s tail for surprise.” Kostik then beaded his eye through the tube sensing that there was a Javelin man in the rubbish bushes. He swiveled and searched – but did not find what he was looking for. Dull roots with spring rain dappled the escape. When searching for the acute angle,  man and machine are one. Where the dead tree gives no shelter.

But inside he was hungry, for Kostik’s stomach growled. Stale borscht without enough beef or sour cream. It was harder to kill, not having enough to eat. Even wisps of odor turned rancid in the cheap cologne and stale soap.

Kostik waded his dry tongue over a dry inner check. Dry stone, no sound of wate,r even the shadow under this red skin.

“Why do they fight this way?”

“They fended off Kyiv. Why not hold their ground in the disputed territories on the free regions?” By this Lyonov meant the two nations which Russia recognized. Both men thought ‘Know respect for the near abroad.’ That is why the DEFCON was raised. This was a Russian police action.

Kostik strained his neck. Bleary cheery fatigue had set in. He thought: ‘Open your eyes!’ It became a kind of chant in the heat of the moment. Pies Iesu Domine. Dona eis requiem. Thunk.

Du hast. Du hast. Du hast.[xlii]

Would any name of the rose be so logical in the swing of Foucault’s Pendulum?

Search and Destroy. Or be destroyed.

Spring of Down, Chapters VII-IX, By Stirling Newberry

קטרילבקה קידמה

The show must go on. There must be progress – in costumes for example.[xi] She twirled to see the whole of the outfit. Serafina was truly unhappy.

Not that she didn’t have reasons – unhappy from inside to outside. Ukrainian in a country being overrun by Russian forces, Jewish in an Orthodox Christian nation; acting in a town of straights, and an atheist in a land of believers. The president’s face looked at her from his portrait stuck on her mirror.

She looked at her face. Did it show? Jewish did – there was a lilt to her features – nothing so gauche as a crooked nose but a sweep to her cheekbones. Some of the young men worshiped that. She thought: everywhere there are those who want something different. She was thin and there were those who felt she was attractive. Who is she to judge? She glanced at the other chair that had a man’s sweater.

“Are you ready?” The voice came from behind. It was the techie – the man who could get you anyone, but for himself, nothing. The paunch said it all. Likes women but indulges in latkes. The second let you down easily and was eager for late nights. Unlike Serafina. He had tried. Repeatedly.

“I’m only me when I’m acting.”

“Limelight is in 5.” He placed his fingers like a pistol.

She thought: “What an Imaginary Invalid.” But out her mouth came: “Break a leg.”

“Toi, Toi, Toi.” He tried to pinch her … anywhere.

She looked to the stage at Kolesca Theater -it was an Academic, part of the gaggle of theatre, schools, churches, museums, coffee bars, and wine hangouts. People needed to be picked-up or gently let down. She glanced over at the audience, who were quieting down. The pale-yellow bricks with white arches had attracted the weary to the street curved near the thicket of woods. She blinked.

And within the blink, she remembered coming up the Funicular – a cable car that went up and down. It was a freezing day, it was січень, the month when the Orthodox Christians celebrated what they wished to be on a child. She saw a young man reading a novel, patiently lost in thought. She envied the book – to inspire such attention.

But then, in the present, she moved to her position. The wheel of dialog had begun. The nylon curtain had begun. A steam whistle from stage right called. She waited while the lead played out the opening with his pharmacist then the lead rang a bell. It was almost time for her entrance – but she had to wait for him to shout. The script had an exact number but the director left the exact number to the lead. The director thought it would be more pressure she had to listen; she rememberedthe director admonished during the first rehearsal “She comes out of her room only when it is clear she must go.” To have a room of our own – she thought that would be heavenly.

As her left hand waited to make an entrance, she again recalled the young man and the very moment that he looked up with his narrow dark-rimmed specs. It was an inner event in her mind, a flight that still had shades.

Back in the present, she saw the tiny audience and then turned to the lead and said. With. Dead. Pan. “Coming, coming.” She waited for the lead’s abuse, which was more than an act. He had tried, too. He tried cold Northern tears to get his way but in theatre, everyone knew what was live and what was Memorex. He wanted the “Ohs” to be with exclamation points.[xii]

“Oh.” She acted in the present. With deadpan.

“Oh.” When her line came up. With sarcasm.

“Oh.” Remember a different moment. It was later and night wrapped its dirty blanket as they went inside to the bedroom which she borrowed. Here were all the exclamation points. They went out. She wanted to show him where she worked.

“So, what do you think, Kuzma?”

He examined the building. He nodded. “Lots of yellow going up the slope.” He looked at all the quaint builds out of a different century, and an age of asymmetry with arches.

“I come every day from below to see the tree in the backdrop.”

But the present interrupted her memories of lines that were read. Then another verse, a little bit louder and a little worse, of the refrain: “Oh!” With feeling.

She knew that she was a bit player. She knew she was not doing well tonight but the memories kept intruding. Earlier that night they had wandered. Up a gentle hill, they reached a statue – of a clown. A tear ran down the statue’s cheek. His paperback book, all torn from reading, was upon his chest, it read: Demons – in Russian of course.

He turned to her looking at the statue: “Do you know who he was?”

“Yes. Do you?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes. He was Aleksandr Vertinskiy, the Russian clown.”

“A Jewish clown.”

“Are you Jewish?”

She looked up and down, then giggled. She covered her mouth with both hands. “As the saying goes: only on my parent’s side.”

“What does that mean?”

“I am descended from Israel, but I do not believe.”

He closed his mouth rightly. She could see a decision being made. He straightened in his pinstripe pants and there was a tightening in his navy jacket.

“I do believe either.” His breath left a frost in the air.

“When did you make up your mind?”

“Now.” He waited with an intense gaze. “It is a struggle.” He held up his book. “My favorite author believed.” Then he put it into his jacket pocket.

She dropped her hand, finding another close to hers. They linked and then she said: “Do you want to see where I work?”

Then in the present again, they were taking their bows. She was acting by rote.

Then the ultimate memory: if it was in the acting room she borrowed, again.

She roused herself from the quilted bed. It was morning and sunlight gazed through. There was straightness to her midsection.

“May I ask you something, my Kulbaba?”[xiii]

She looked around at him with suspicion.

“Why do you have no curve?” Though it was intimated there was no hint of evil in either his face or words.

“It is a secret. But like Screwtape, it is obvious if you think about lower down.”[xiv]

“If you tell me that, then I will as well.”

She halted. She hesitated. Then she began: “I was pregnant. My father insisted that I keep it. They are Orthodox and my father’s position is that it is forbidden. Then he gave the child away. I left. Now you know.”

He straightened to sitt. There was no hesitation. “I got a letter yesterday. I have been called up.” He reached out and snagged a sweater and offered it to her.

“If I come back, I will offer you a room of your own.”

She look away towards the promenade, her heart skipped in five, and dreamed of the day.[xv]



You will not find this in any Encyclopedia of the world.[xvii] Try as you may, it will elude you. And yet it is – existence as yours, as unreality. And yet by habit, it will sound strange to you when I tell this story. On a road with many writers, one of them stopped to capture the dull brown grass at his feet. It was wartime and he realized that many people would not recognize the subtle shades that brown could muster. Brown sky over the city made of brown smoke.[xviii] Pounding with violence on the Sea of Azov.

The Flying Trees

A long, long time ago, when the world was young, the gods had children.

Gods can fly, but their children cannot.

So the elder Goddess of Joy created the flying trees.

The trees, themselves, didn’t fly–except when young, when every spring they would fly for weeks, looking for perfect soil and the laughter of children, but any child who ate one of their fruit could fly, for three days.

And the trees spread across the world; their seeds spread and were fertilized by the laughter of the children of the Gods.

Gods are not as we, and their children are children for an Age.

But eventually the children of the Gods grew up, and left their nursery.

The trees remained in their millions. They no longer spread, for they could not without the laughter of divine children, but also they were immortal and never died. So when, some Ages later, the Gods, feeling the cradle needed someone to nurture, created humanity, breathing in life and the most dangerous of gifts, free will, humans grew up among the flying trees and for their children, too, the fruit allowed flight.

For Ages it remained so, the delight of childhood, the freedom of flight.

Then someone, who is not known, discovered that flying suits could be made from the wood of flying trees. And that adults could use them to fly.

The Gods thundered and sent oracles, and the Goddess of Joy wept, but nothing stopped the mortals, and the Gods kept to their law of respect for human free will.

So the trees were cut down, and because no more could grow, in time there were no more flying trees.

Some time after that, a long time, there were also no flying suits, as they were destroyed in accident, or fire, or from simple wear and tear. Wars were fought over the remaining suits, scraps were used for repairs, great prayers were sent to the gods, but nothing availed. Finally no adults soared the skies.

And so, today, neither children nor adults fly, and the Gods, clustered about a sorrowful Joy, have turned their faces from the world.

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Libby: Washington December 2006

She is slight and crisply gray suit clad, her hair pinned into a bun and her lip bitten. The office is large, with only one window letting in dusk’s strained light. Three walls are covered with maps and graphs, each pinned neatly in place. In one corner, a muted television changes channels each minute and the final wall is nothing but crisp LCD screens. Some display stock tickers, others charts, still others a blur of words or news tickers. The woman sits cross legged in her chair at the center of this, completely motionless. She is looking in the direction of a series of charts whose titles all relate to housing and credit risk derivatives, but her eyes are unfocused..

When the man says her name, “Libby”, she doesn’t so much as twitch until long seconds have gone by. Slowly, with a shift of her weight, she swivels the chair to face the silver haired man.


He smiles faintly, “Libby.”

“Credit derivatives.”

He nods. “Offloading default risk from banks onto investors. The chairman says they make the market much… stronger.”

“Who’s buying these derivatives?”

“Hedge funds are big. Those boys need big profits. No one parks their money in a hedge fund to get mutual fund returns.”

“Lot of them are getting mutual fund returns.” She nods towards one of the charts.

“I’m guessing their risk profile isn’t the same as a mutual fund’s.” It’s not a question but Libby nods to another chart.

“Nope. Lots of refi exposure too. ‘Cause the risk of someone defaulting on a second mortgate is no big deal.” She gestures with her chin to a series of charts pinned to one wall and he turns to look at them.

“Time to sale of housing. Seems to be going up in a lot of markets.”

“When a market hits a sharp discontinuity who gets hurt worst, first?”

“People who expect it to continue trend.”

The silver haired man turns back to Libby. His voice is weary, “are we going to hit a discontinuity?”

“Ever blow bubbles as a kid?” One corner of her mouth tilts up. “Any of them ever not burst?”

John shakes his head, but says, “well, not that I know of. But maybe one’s still blowing on the wind somewhere.”

Libby raises a hand slowly, then purses her lips and blows. John turns to look in the direction off her breath, “still going”.

She shakes her head, then cracks her hands together. The two of them match gazes for a few seconds and the older man finally breaks the gaze to look at the monitor. With a stride he stands next to the slight woman, then crouches, his head level with hers. “Show me the numbers.” She swivels back to the monitor and as the last pale light of the sun dims he follows her flashing white hands in a darkness lit only by the light of her screens.


This is one of the John Q. Treasury series of short stories, the majority of which are no longer online.  There have been some requests to repost them, so here’s one of the last.  I’ll repost more as time goes by and perhaps write some new ones.  There’s certainly plenty of reason for John,  Libby and friends to return.  Unfortunately.

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