Totem, Part 1

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Only after the humans left did the birds advance. It wasn’t that they were afraid—they’d lived among people for some time and had grown used to them long ago—only that it would be easier to find what they were looking for without having to dodge the many arms and legs in a crowd.

Now that the lunch hour was over, they fanned out, charged into the outdoor dining area of a nearby sandwich shop with a singularity of mind and purpose no mere birds would have been capable of.

It’s close, called one in a soundless thought that carried effortlessly across the intervening distance. I can feel it.

It’s companions chirped in reply.

Centuries of life bound to the cold blue sky, imprisoned in fragile yet frustratingly immortal bodies. Oh, how they longed for death, and because of their master’s cruelty, it was a luxury thus far denied them.

But no prison was ever foolproof. There were always ways to skirt the rules, if only one was willing to search hard enough and long enough for solutions.

Their leader, the one who’d first spoken, poked a tiny, jittering head between the legs of a shiny aluminum table.

Not here, it cried.

Not here either, said another, fluttering out of an open trash can.

They could all feel it, an irresistible pull toward the general area. Yet that was as far as their senses allowed, and all they could do now was continue scouring the city until they located the item they sought.

A totem. Every binding required one, a physical object linked by magic to another. It was a symbol of sorts, a contract that, once broken, released the binding. In their case, it was a bracelet, a deceptively simple piece of inlaid ivory with six avian figures carved into the surface, each corresponding to another of their number. Their human bodies and mortality had been bound to them, leaving them trapped in their blackbird forms.

Strange, their leader thought, that such a relic of the past—a relic of magic and mysticism—would find its way here, to one of the many concrete jungles erected as a monument to modern, rational ideals. Had their master passed it down through his family, or had it been lost to time, eventually finding its way to the city by accident? Did it currently have an owner, and if so, did that person understand the nature of the object they possessed? Most importantly, what would happen if they retrieved it? How would they destroy it? They were only birds, without the ability to wield tools.

So many uncertainties, yet they all believed freedom was possible. They had to, because the alternative to belief was madness.


One of the six had stopped with its head slanted forward, twittering left and right as it beheld with dark, glassy eyes a woman through one of the sandwich shop’s windows. It sent the image to its companions, and a moment later they were all fluttering over to meet him.

The woman stood behind a counter, stacking racks into a large metal box. And there, on her wrist, an ivory bracelet with six masterfully crafted birds, carved into the bone-white surface.

She wears it like jewelry, exclaimed one.

How did she come to possess it, asked another.

They regarded her with their pointed beaks and dark button eyes and pondered their next move.

Due to popular request, I’ve decided to follow this up with Part 2, which you can read here. This second installment doesn’t resolve the conflict introduced in Part 1. Rather, I plan to continue expanding on this as more ideas come to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll finish this story, only that I’ll explore it in more depth in upcoming blogs.

Everlasting Life

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Death hung above Karen’s head like a dark shadow, ready to quicken, ready to smother her and snuff out her life. She remembered being put to sleep in the hospital for surgery a few weeks back. It felt like that now, no pain, only a bone deep weariness. The sole difference was that this time, when she fell asleep, there would be no waking.

She tried to summon every scrap of her remaining strength, as if combined, these fragments might somehow compose a spark that could jump start her failing body. But there was no fuel left for her body to burn, only the ashes of so many spent years, ready to be cast to the wind and forgotten.

Don’t let me die!

The words ran over and over again through her mind, a mad litany rattled off to an unknown god.

She could no longer open her eyes, and the darkness behind them was beginning to merge with a deeper darkness, one that whispered of oblivion.


Startled, she wanted to ask who’d spoken—she thought she’d been alone—but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak.

“Karen,” said that voice again, cool, sterile, like windswept leaves.

Was she hallucinating? She’d read once that people on their deathbeds imagined all sorts of things, one last supernova of the senses before the brain shut down for good.

“I’m real, Karen.”

Yes, she believed it, though she had no particular reason to.

“Let me help you, Karen. Let me give you back your life.”

How can you do that when I’m so close to death, she wanted to ask.

“I can do all things,” said the voice as if it had read her mind. “All you have to do is ask.”

A convulsive chill surged through her spine like a high voltage current.

I want to live, she thought. No matter the cost, I want to live. Nothing can be worse than death.


Sleep, if it had weighed on her before, was now an avalanche, pelting her on the head, driving her down into endless dark.

I imagined it after all, she thought, a mad sort of clarity coming over her at last.

If you’re real, speak. Prove to me you’re not a delusion.


Speak, dammit!

Exhausted, Karen’s mind collapsed into darkness.

*         *         *

She opened her eyes the next morning, alert, wide eyed, reeling. When the doctors came in, surprised by her sudden turnaround, she asked with bugged eyes if anyone had been with her during the night.

She’d been alone, they assured her, she must have been dreaming. They released her and sent her home.

She still had the old aches and pains, the same brittle bones that were prone to breaking if she wasn’t careful how she walked, the same chronic cough. But she was grateful to be alive, to discover there were years left for her body to burn after all.

Then, one by one, everyone she loved began to die. First her sons and daughters, then her grandchildren, then her great grandchildren.

These last looked upon her in their final days with the kind of uneasy reverence one might show to some terrible, unspeakable god. Deep down, they knew her long life wasn’t natural, but like terrified children they were unable to articulate their fears, and instead they kept their distance from her until death had its way with them and delivered them from her sight.

She lives in a convalescent home now, far away in both place and time from where she’d once settled in another life. She sits on a rocking chair in a dark, shadowy corner, rocking, rocking, waiting for an end that will never come.

Only in that terrible half-life is she at last able to count the cost of her gift, not in fact a gift at all but a curse. Everlasting life, she thought, mad with despair.

Death would have been better.

Can I Live More Than Once?

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Life is a garden of experience. There are so many places to see, so many people to meet, so many things to try. Like children, we’re inebriated with life and want to have it all. But our days on Earth are so short, and if you’re like most of us, your available time is further constrained by the dictates of a nine-to-five work day, along with all the other obligations that ensure you’ll only experience an infinitesimal fraction of all the things you so boldly aspired to accomplish when you were young.

In moments of despair, when you’re laying on your back in the middle of the night looking up at the ceiling, wondering if you’ll ever have an opportunity to break free from the shackles of an ordinary life, you might wonder, “What could I achieve if only I could live more than once?”

It’s one of the reasons we’re obsessed with immortality and youth. It’s one of the reasons we cling so desperately to life even in its twilight hour, because the child within, still so naive and optimistic, hopes in spite of its imminent demise to have it all.

What are we to do? Is there any way for us to fulfill such a foolhardy desire, or like death row inmates, are we to cower in our cells, waiting for the executioner to call our number?

Books are the answer.

Of course, nothing beats a first-hand experience. But stories nevertheless come in at a close second, for what are stories but intimate tales of other people’s life experiences? Whether real or imagined, stories allow us to slip in and out of other places and other lives, regardless of our financial, professional or social obligations.

Want to go some place new?

Open a book and transport yourself to anywhere in the world. Visit Europe. Explore the Middle East. Tour the tropical paradises of Southeast Asia. Whatever you desire is always available; the world is at your fingertips, waiting only for you to turn the page.

Is the Earth too ordinary for you? Purchase something of the sci-fi or fantasy variety and do what generations of explorers and astronauts have only dreamed of: explore new worlds. Books are gateways, portals to the vast multiverse of the collective human imagination. Contained within are worlds of every kind. Some are governed by the laws of magic. Others are governed by the laws of real-world science. Some are even a unique combination of the two.

For the cost of a cup of coffee, you can purchase a tourist visa to any number of other worlds, all of them accessible, ready and waiting for you to discover their secrets at your convenience.

Want to live a different life?

Have you ever wanted to pick up a new hobby, but you didn’t have enough time? How about a new profession? Hell, haven’t you ever wanted to know what it’s like to live someone else’s life entirely?

Once more, books provide the solution.

What truly makes stories worth reading is that they afford us intimate encounters with other people. Not only do we meet them, we’re offered access to their minds, their hearts, their souls. We’re granted an almost omniscient point of view, something that we mere mortals couldn’t dare to dream of achieving any other way.

We become the characters. Just as we travel effortlessly from one location to the next, so too do we pass from mind to mind, becoming each and every person we meet along the way. The result is that we live as many lives as we desire.

Even in fiction, the people we encounter are real, for every character was ultimately written by a real person, so that each is always a reflection of something true.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…” ― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Every book is a world encompassing a tapestry of lives and experiences that are not our own, yet can be if only we choose to read about them. As humans, we might not be capable of immortality. But through reading, we can ensure that our brief time on Earth will be rich and pregnant with possibilities.