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Queen Mab Courtesy

By Bruce C. Davis

 

It was the pigeons that awakened me. There was a flock of them just outside the basement window that I had crawled in through the night before. They scattered with a thundering of wings as the C.O.P.S. started their first sweep. I must have been tired or slow that morning because I was only halfway out when the first C.O.P. unit crashed the door. It managed to get a grip on my boot. I could feel the insistent pressure of its padded steel manipulator as it drew me back through the window.

"Allow me to assist you, sir," it said in its best 'let us reason together' voice.

Having learned from hard experience that one cannot reason with a machine, I slipped the boot and was out into the alley. The alley ran east-west between State and Wabash. I could hear the rumble of a C.O.P.S.. hovercraft over on Wabash so I headed toward the State Street end.

For once things seemed to be going my way. The weekend farmers market was gearing up and the State Street Mall was full of Normies eager for their fresh fruit fix. I used my size, or rather my lack of it, to disappear into the crowd. I don't blame the Normie housewife for not seeing me, or even for stomping on my bare toes. But she didn't have to scream when she looked down and saw what she had stepped on. I seem to have that effect on nice white ladies from up the lake. In any event, her scream attracted the C.O.P.S. and I was off and running again.

I had only taken a few steps before I was scooped up and deposited head first into a warm box. Actually, it was a downright hot box and I was about to say so when a thick hand clamped across my mouth and a voice whispered in my ear, "Keep quiet. The heat will confuse their infrared sensors."

I had enough sense to lay low. The heat was stifling. The box had wheels; I could feel it moving and thumping gently over irregularities in the pavement. A cry of "Chestnuts" from my unseen benefactor and the crinkling of small paper bags under my back solved the minor mystery of where I was.

I was sweating like a pig and was about to pop the lid for a breath of air, C.O.P.S. or no C.O.P.S., when a mechanical voice boomed off of the walls of my box.

"Halt, Citizen," it said, "This unit requests your assistance."

"Certainly, Officer." said my benefactor, "How can I help."

"This unit is seeking a fugitive who was last detected moving in this direction. This unit requests your assistance in locating said fugitive under section 24, article 5 of the criminal code. Failure to comply may result in arrest or detention."

The Computer Operated Patrol System unit was properly thorough in its request and in its thinly veiled threat. I held my breath waiting for the answer, ready to spring and run.

"A fugitive? What's this fugitive look like?" asked the chestnut vendor. "This unit seeks a male human of dark coloring and dark straight hair of medium length. Height: approximately one meter. Weight: approximately 40 kilograms. Last seen wearing dark blue jacket and tan work coverall, wearing one dark ankle length boot with serrated rubber sole and one red stocking. The fugitive has the typical facial characteristics of viral hyperteloric dwarfism."

"A Denver Dwarf with one shoe on and one shoe off?" the vendor chuckled. "No, I'd certainly remember a sight like that. What's he wanted for? Murder? Armed robbery? Public ugliness?" the vendor burst into a loud belly laugh.

"The fugitive is wanted by the Department of Human Services for unlawful welfare evasion," the C.O.P. unit intoned solemnly. "Your amusement is a serious breach of proper citizenship. Have you seen the person this unit seeks?"

"No ... no" answered the vendor. "I have not seen such a person." He controlled his laughter with some effort and went on, "Please excuse my lack of decorum."

"Your name and vendor's license, please."

"Charlemagne Sleaser, license BTL224-576. But my friends just call me Charlie," answered the chestnut man.

There was a brief pause as the C.O.P unit accessed the mainframe computer for Citizen Sleaser's records. Then it said, "Very well, sir. Your license and records are in order, although I would remind you that your municipal water bill is due today. This unit thanks you for your cooperation."

Charlie exhaled audibly as the C.O.P. moved off into the crowd. The box began moving again and the crowd noise lessened. The lid popped open, admitting a breath of cooler air. My first sight of Charlie was of his right hand. A remarkable hand, long and tapered with a twisted middle finger.

"Keep your head down," he murmured as the hand rummaged in the bags of chestnuts and withdrew two. "There may be more of them about. Let me check it out."

The hand withdrew and I could hear him moving away. He left the lid open, so at least I had some air. I picked up a bag of nuts and had eaten two or three when I heard him return.

"OK, you can come out now." he said softly.

I raised my head and took a deep breath of cool air. I turned my head slightly from side to side in the manner of my kind in order to get a full view of his face. With a broad brow, high cheekbones and deeply pockmarked skin, it could not be called a good-looking face, and would have been rather sinister were it not for the good humor in the black eyes and the gentle voice.

"Not very big, are you?" he said, grinning suddenly.

"No, and my eyes are too far apart and my nose is too flat and I have a weak jaw and am obviously mentally deficient. And you are possibly the ugliest person next to myself that I have ever seen. Any other comments?" I pulled myself out of the box and dropped to the ground. Charlie said nothing. "Well, I'd like nothing better than to stand here and trade insults with a talking ape but I've got places to go. Thanks for dumping me in that rolling oven of yours. I can't think of when I've had a better time."

I stalked off as defiantly as I could in one boot. I know, I know; that was no way to talk to someone who had just helped me out of a tight spot. I was even less fond of the city welfare homes than of Charlie's oven. But he shouldn't have mentioned my size. I'm the only one with that privilege. I was born in Denver just after the Plague. That simple statement has defined and constricted my life for as long as I can remember. Of course, to anyone who sees me on the street, the time and circumstances of my birth are immediately obvious. But even reading the words, most people form an image of me. An image tinged with pity, perhaps or sometimes revulsion, but always the same picture. Images can be disturbing, especially when they depart from the comfortable illusions people build around themselves. Stability, normalcy, control are illusions to which we cling in the face of random chance. Images of me and my kind challenge the illusion and hint at the chaos lurking on the fringes of "normal life." Labels help to restore the illusions. To tag something strange with a label is to control it, to return it to the realm of "normal."

It's called Viral Hyperteloric Dwarfism Syndrome, VHDS for short. Denver Dwarf or Fish-Eye Dwarf to the masses. My eyes are set wide and bulge almost beyond my ears. Aside from the obvious aesthetic handicap this presents, it makes it difficult to see anything directly in front of me. I tend to swing my head from side to side slightly to get my visual fields to overlap and create a semblance of depth perception. That plus an undersized jaw and short stature create the impression of mental deficiency as well. We tend to get locked into the role. I had spent most of my early years listening to the taunts of Normie children and the oh-so-concerned assessments of Normie doctors and social workers who looked out for my "special needs" while condemning me to the tender mercies of the city welfare homes and their dead-end "vocational training." I wasn't about to hang around and listen to some Normie with a major case of the uglies tell me I was too short.

I hobbled along, fuming and muttering, for about three blocks before I noticed that he was still behind me. I stopped and glared. It was one of my best looks, guaranteed to frighten housewives and give children nightmares. Charlie just grinned.

"Well?" I sneered, "You got something to say?"

"Where are you going?" he asked. "The C.O.P.S. are still around and you're not exactly invisible out here." he gestured. I realized we were standing on the pedestrian overpass above New Lake Shore Drive, a place I usually avoided, especially when the C.O.P.S. were sweeping the Loop.

"Maybe I'm going to jump. What's it to you?" I demanded, madder than ever.

"Ah, but suicide's not permitted in our obsessively safe society. If a C.O.P. hears you talking like that, you'll be detained as a threat to your own safety." Charlie was still grinning at some private joke.

"So? What's it to you?" I shouted.

"You still haven't answered the central question." he said. His voice changed to a deeper almost reverent tone. "To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

He chuckled and looked at me expectantly. For the first time I really saw him: an absolutely absurd old man quoting from a play not one Normie in a hundred would recognize while standing above a river of them rushing home to their game shows and soaps in nonpolluting government certified safe computer controlled cars. I choked. I sputtered and something burst inside me and blew away the anger. I laughed.

For the next couple of years we were inseparable. Charlie knew more dodges than a C.O.P.S. mainframe and we stayed one or two jumps of the welfare agents. We kept moving, all over the city, working off the record when we could and always giving the Normies a few Queen Mab courtesies to brighten their drab days before moving on. The Queen Mab courtesies were Charlie's own.

"A kind of half-assed favor," he explained. "Just the sort of thing you'd expect from such a fickle fairy. The kind of favor that you think you could maybe have done without; like me dumping you in that hotbox. Take my name, for instance: Charlemagne Sleazer. A Queen Mab courtesy if I ever saw one."

And so it went, sleeping in the abandoned subway tunnels, "housesitting" for some rich Normies up the lake whose security system was less devious than Charlie, conversing with the cities finest philosophers in the backroom of Freddie Paternowski's broken down bar.

Freddie's at Christmas time. Cheap lights and tinsel. We both had jobs of sorts; Charlie sweeping up after hours at the branch library on Devon and me washing dishes off the record at Freddie's. We had a room above Mrs. Nostopoulo's flower shop and spent our free time downstairs among the wilting blossoms talking to her customers, not all of whom came to buy flowers.

It was a wet winter, cold and wet, and the chill crept into my chest and stayed there. I went on working until Mrs. Nostopoulo caught me coughing in our room and hustled me into bed. I slid deeper into the fever, alternately drenching the bed in sweat then shivering under a ton of blankets. I slept.

I awoke one afternoon to find Charlie standing over me. He wore a strange look as if lost in some private past. I could barely see him through the gummy film that coated my eyelids. He didn't seem to notice that I was awake.

A fly, alive long past its time, buzzed lazily down from the ceiling and landed on my nose. Charlie's big hand snapped it up, barely brushing the tip of my nose.

"Queen Mab hath been with me." he said quietly. "She's the fairy's midwife and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate on the forefinger of an alderman, drawn by a team of little atomies, athwart men's noses as they sleep." He chuckled and touched my nose. Opening his hand, he watched as the fly zoomed away.

"Goodbye, little fury." he whispered. "Am I mad then, to recite Shakespeare to flies? Is it a fly, or Queen Mab herself that graces our warped wallpaper? Charlmagne doesn't care. And they call him crazy? Maybe. A gentle touch of madness may be a good thing in this guaranteed safe world." He stopped and stared at his hands.

"A confession, my diminutive friend: I once had a wife. We lived in Denver, back before the Plague. She got so sick, Horatio. She lay there in our bed, eyes gummed shut, just as you lie here feigning sleep. I left her there. I couldn't bear it, seeing her die, slowly choking to death on her own blood."

Charlie slumped to the floor, his back against the wall. His face was pale with an expression so alien to it that at first I couldn't tell what it meant. Then I saw my own face reflected in his and it snapped into place: fear.

"I was working then, too." he went on. "I was a lab tech in one of the new biotech companies. Hard job back then, back when the Normies could still be persuaded that genetic recombinant research was evil. Back before all the friendly microbes of today that cheerfully turn our garbage into high octane, nonpolluting fuel or churn out the monoclonal antibodies that cure everything from colds to cancer." He sighed and closed his eyes.

When he spoke again it was to himself, sadly. "But there was money to be made in those days if you were clever and a little devious. Other companies would pay top dollar for a culture of a new strain of insulin producers. But you stole the wrong culture, didn't you Charlemagne. And too late you tried to take it back." His eyes opened but still were far away, within himself.

"Was it fate or something else that loosened your grip on the satchel you clutched so desperately? No matter. With the first sound of the glass breaking underfoot, you ran. No warning to the unsuspecting crowd, no midnight call to the media. You ran, knowing there was death in the air." He stopped and hung his head. He was silent for a long time.

"But the question comes back." Charlie spoke softly without raising his head to look at me. "Am I mad? What am I without you to tell me stories and laugh at my jokes and play Horatio to my Hamlet? Can love for the object of my guilt absolve that guilt?"

He rose and walked over to his bed. He picked up his old coat and faced me again. "But you knew, didn't you Charlemagne? You knew last night when the snow made you want to run and hide because of the loneliness and pain it brought. You're leaving again. When the right moment comes, when the strongest sorrow wins out, then it's time to leave, to move, to run again. But what of little Horatio? Do I drag him along, my dwarfish Sancho Panza? I think not; little Horatio has faced being little. Mrs. Nostopoulo loves him. He'll find his place."

He strode quickly to the door and stood holding the knob, not looking back. "Invitation from Queen Mab, Horatio. Queen Mab courteously ..."

I interrupted him, the familiar words coming easily through the fever," ... invites you to join her and all other individuals who have the gall to believe in fairies, poets, good samaritans and other such myths for an absurdly improper tea as soon as you can get there."

Charlie opened the door. He looked back and flashed his ridiculous grin. He was gone. I stared at the ceiling, seeing nothing, my mind running down the road with Charlie. The fly landed on my forehead and buzzed furiously, unnoticed.*

 

Story copyright © 1998 Bruce C. Davis <us008812@mindspring.com>

Artwork copyright © 1998 Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>


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