Ten Word Stories

Yeah, this picture is completely unrelated to the post, but I like it.

This year the Storymakers writing conference was virtual (of course). Yesterday, I listened to a class on using nuance in writing. One of the exercises the instructor suggested was writing ten word stories. So, being the obedient and dutiful student that I am, I composed a few. Some work better than others and with some I explored what a different feeling I got from changing a single pronoun. Anyway, here they are. If you have suggestions for improvement, let me know in the comments.

The ticking clock echoes in our…my empty house.
My day began with bliss and ended in agony.
Your friend request has been declined.
After the accident, my second call went to voicemail.
Unsigned, the papers on my desk screamed failure.
I stare at the papers awaiting my signature.
He slams the front door. Tires squeal. I’m alone—finally.
Trembling with anxiety, I open the envelope and shout for joy.
The question hangs in air between us. Yes, she says.
My father’s shoulders slump. I could offer comfort, but I don’t.
I chamber a round. Almost finished. I won’t miss again.
The monitor line flattened. He is free at last.
The monitor line flattened. I am free at last.
Puzzled, I considered the stranger. “I’m your sister,” she said.
“Can I help you young lady?” “Hi dad,” she said.
Across the crowded room, he mouthed the words: “I’m sorry.”

The 7/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

In my Masterclass writing class Neil Gaiman suggests as an exercise that we write something while imitating another author’s writing style. On occasion I attempt this when writing announcements for Thanatopsis, our book club. In the following as you will see we read Stuart Turton’s book The 71/2 deaths of Eveylyn Hardcastle. I’m not sure how successful I was. Incidentally, the person responsible for sending announcements, putting together reading lists and taking care of other Club miscellany has been called “The Girl” since the Club’s founding in 1984. When I volunteered to undertake those responsibilities a few years ago I adopted that title.

Tree limbs lash the air, the screaming gale wielding them like whips. Steel clouds shading to black in the west stream overhead, distant lightening stabbing the ground amid a low, delayed, continuous grumble. The storm is not here yet.

But it’s coming.

Fear, a heavy, icy blanket, drapes itself over my shoulders, weighing me down and freezing my limbs into immobility. I shouldn’t be here.

Before me on a slight rise, a house droops in decay. Brown it must once have been judging from bits of stain clinging forlorn to the gray siding.  A single dim lantern glows behind vaulting windows, its subdued light concealing more than illuminating the room within the glass.   On crumbling concrete, I’ve halted my ascent up the cracked, broken drive toward the structure sagging in mourning for its lost youth and vigor.

I must continue.

Why?   

I ransack a shattered memory for any shard that might explain my presence, my terror and my compulsion. Flickers of light entrance me only to wink away when I reach for them before I even manage a glimpse. I’m here, now, but how I came here or what my purpose, hides behind a curtain as black as the approaching tempest. A curtain that also obscures my name.

Unable to contain the force that drives my limbs against all my power of resistance, I plant a foot then another convulsing like a rusty, broken automaton up the steps to the weather-beaten, faded front door. The universe splits white as the Gods arc from heaven to earth shaking its foundation and loosing a torrent on my unprotected head, icy streams flowing under my clothing along shuddering limbs and torso.

A woman, wide-eyed and trembling, cracks the door peering at the apparition dripping ponds on her doorstep. After a heartbeat she flings it wide. “Kevin!” she exclaims and gestures me within. “Inside with you this instant. You’ll catch your death out there.”

Kevin. I roll the name, but it doesn’t fit easily on my tongue. It’s not me, though the woman believes it to be. My fear does not flag at the sight of the woman, middle-aged, trim and pretty, but she is not the source of the dread crushing my lungs and slamming my heart against its cage. That lies beyond the threshold in the dimly lighted room.

She grabs my naked arm, her hand warm on my pallid, clammy flesh. Unable to resist the woman’s insistence and still driven by an unseen force I stumble inside the doorway and puddle in the entry. In the gloom, hardly relieved by the sole, dingy, yellow lamp, sagging, torn couches resting on threadbare, unravelling carpet face the towering rain-streamed windows.

The woman speaks. But a thunderous explosion envelopes her words and rumbles them away in booming echoes. On one of the couches, I glimpse an open laptop and its baleful, blue white glare is a knife in my eyes. I flinch from redoubled fear at the sight of my terror’s source. Not willing to leave me be, the woman clinches my arm, forces my gaze on the machine and speaks again, urging and insistent. “The book club notice.” Her voice rises on her own wings of fear. “You have to send the notice!”

Suspended between duty’s irresistible force and horror’s immoveable object, my limbs rattle like the writhing storm-thrashed trees without. Inch by inch, duty overpowers fear and I approach, then take up the machine. My fingers dance across its accursed keys as if each threatens to burn my flesh to bone. I type:

Book Club

Tuesday March 31st

Host: Virtual on Zoom. See log in link below.

Review: Lark

Book: The 7 and ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

I hit enter and my missive flies—electronic packets fleeing to their destinations. Fear, having failed to obstruct my goal, collapses in a smoldering ash heap, leaving me spent and hollow. In tandem, as if its fury was gathered in terror’s service, the storm falters and passes and a single ray of light limns the now smiling woman in a golden halo. My consciousness flickers, its entire force having been expended in this one task. But before blackness descends an odd inner voice etches a curious salutation on my mind.

Ever diligent in my duties, I remain,

your humble servant,

The Girl.     

JACK ON TRIAL

You’ll hear more about this gavel below.

As a Christmas gift this year, some of my children gave me a Masterclass by Neil Gaiman on storytelling. One of the writing assignments in the class was to take a fairy tale and retell it using one of three prompts: you’re a psychiatrist analyzing one of the characters, you’re a newspaper reporter reporting the story or you have the character explain his actions to a jury. 

Well, it wasn’t hard to choose from that list. So, I give you

JACK ON TRIAL

Hands clenched to still their trembling, Jack rose from the table and walked stiffly to the witness stand.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?” Mashed together and drawled in a bored tone, the words lost all their meaning to Jack’s ears. The bailiff stared at him and yawned. Just another in a series of witnesses—nothing special here. Nothing special unless you were on trial for your life.

“I do,” Jack said, a quaver in his voice despite having rehearsed this moment ad nauseam with his lawyer. Seated, his hands out of sight below the witness box, he worked them open and closed trying to subdue his screaming nerves. The Bailiff shuffled off to his seat and closed his eyes almost immediately nodding off. With an effort of will, Jack stopped himself from shifting in his seat and wiping the sheen of sweat from his upper lip. His lawyer and drummed that into him.

“You’ll look unreliable, like you’re nervous and have something to hide. You don’t need to smile and pretend you’re happy, but sit up straight, don’t move around and when you talk address the jury and look them in the eyes.“ He stopped pacing and pointed at Jack. “People like it when you look them in the eye. They don’t trust you if you don’t.”

Jack was happy to look toward the jury now and away from the gallery where two giants sat on the front row glaring at him, their unblinking, beady eyes glittering with hate under huge shelves of bone, topped with eyebrows resembling nothing so much as wild forest undergrowth.

His lawyer rose and moved to stand in front of the jury allowing him to answer his questions and talk to the jurors at the same time and not coincidently avoid the hulking masses of vengeful malice on the gallery’s front row. His lawyer smiled at him and although he knew he didn’t have to return the smile, he tried to anyway only to have his lawyer widen his eyes in alarm and give a subtle shake of the head. His attempt must have been as bad as it had felt and he allowed it to fade away.

“Jack,” his lawyer said, “tell the jury a little about yourself.”

“Objection,” the prosecutor said, not bothering to stand. “Calls for a narrative.”

“Sustained,” the judge said.

After an annoyed glance toward the prosecutor, his lawyer had explained that on this kind of opening background material such a question was unlikely to draw an objection unless the prosecutor was being a jerk, his lawyer said, “How old are you Jack?”

“Eighteen, sir.”

“And how long have you lived in Midsomer County?”

“All my life, sir. I was born in the same farmhouse I lived in all my life—where I still live.”

“Do you live alone?”

“No, sir. I live with me mum.”

“No father?”

Like they’d planned it, when he got to this part, he lowered his eyes. Then he got an idea and pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. When he raised his eyes to talk to the jury like his lawyer had told him to do, his lawyer looked annoyed and he remembered him telling Jack not to overdo the emotions because jurors didn’t like faked emotions. Sure enough two of the jurors looked back at Jack with open disbelief. Jack didn’t have to fake the burning red cheeks from embarrassment. “Me dad died when I was a baby.”

His lawyer nodded. “I see. And how does your Mum make a living?”

“We’re farmers. Well, she’s a farmer and I help out around the farm doing odd jobs, chopping wood, weeding the farm, milking the cow, you know, stuff that needs doing on a farm that me mum has a hard time with.”

“How well does your farm do?”

This time the prosecutor stood. “Objection, relevance, he’s on trial for murder and last I looked impecuniosity was not a defense to taking another’s life.”

Annoyed again, his lawyer said, “It goes to his state of mind your honor, the charge here involves premeditation.”

The judge massaged his jaw. “I’ll allow it, but you’re on a short leash here, counselor.”

“How well does your farm do, Jack?”

Jack shook his head. He was starting to relax now as they moved into his story. “We’re dirt poor. Most years the Farm gives us enough to live, but that’s all. Mum makes all my clothes from the little wool she’s able to buy with money. She cards and spins the wool then weaves it on our home made loom.” Jack glanced down at his homespun and pulled at his shirt. They had debated whether to have him wear his old clothes. He certainly would have been more respectable in the clothes he’d been able to afford after his adventure, but in the end they decided that looking pitiful was more important. “We’ve been poor all our lives.”

At this the prosecutor visibly rolled his eyes and shook his head. One of the jurors glanced in his direction with a half smile. The jury had already heard testimony about how the goose had made them rich and changed their lives. The prosecutor had tried to coax the singing harp to testify, but all he got for his trouble was a series of sad lullabys.

“The prosecution will be counting on the jury to forget about how poor you used to be and think of you as having always had money. We need to remind them that at one time you were down and out,” his lawyer had told him. “Stick with the homespun.”

“We never had much to eat and we never had much money. What money we did make from selling our crops we had to spend on seed for the next year and on the few things we needed that we couldn’t make for ourselves.”

“Did you always have enough money to buy seed for the planting?”

“Until this last year, we managed every spring to buy some seed—not always a lot, but we managed until this last year to buy at least some.”
His lawyer looked concerned and swept that concerned look across the jurors. “But not last year?”

“No.”

“What happened last year?

“Last year the harvest was too small. We needed everything we had just to stay alive and when the spring came, we had nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Jack shook his head and had no trouble allowing sadness to reflect on his face. He remembered that conversation. His mum had been in tears on the floor, sobbing because they were hungry with little in the house. Without the seed they wouldn’t be able to plant and when the food ran out they would starve to death. This time he didn’t have to pretend. He allowed the tear to run down his cheek.

“Nothing. We had food for a couple of months, but with no seed to plant after that….” He shrugged.

His lawyer paused allowing the jurors to experience his client’s despair. “After that?” his lawyer prompted in a soft voice.

“We would die.” Jack couldn’t keep the hardness from his voice or his face. “Have you ever seen someone starve to death?” He looked each juror in the eye with the question. One by one they met his eyes and looked away. “I have. Our neighbors one year. Just like us, they had a bad harvest and had no money for seed in the spring. We couldn’t help. We had just enough to keep our bodies and souls together. But they…It was hardest to watch their little girl. She was three and couldn’t understand what was happening. She cried—a lot. Until she was too weak.”

The words hung in the air, his lawyer leaving them there for the jury to taste the desperation. In his mind Jack saw Katie again, listless eyes, sunken cheeks, hair falling out in clumps, stick limbs and bloated belly, lying in her mother’s lap as flies crawled across her staring eyes. Neither she nor her mother had the strength to move.

“What did you do?”

Jack shook himself into the present. Haunted by his vision of the past, he forgot for a moment where he was. Had someone spoken?

“What did you do?” his lawyer asked again.

Jack closed his eyes to give himself a moment to think, but Katie was there waiting for him. His eyes snapped open. She haunted him enough in his dreams; he didn’t need her following him awake. “We, uh,” Jack massaged his forehead. “Mum said we had to sell the cow.”

His lawyer looked at him urging him to continue.

“So, I took Bess and started off to market. On the way, I met a strange old man.” He resisted the urge to look to the gallery for his mum, knowing that the giants blocked his view and glad of that for the moment. He had a hard time facing his mum with the next part. “He, uh…he offered me magic beans in exchange for our cow.” Jack lowered his head. Despite the fact that his adventure had turned out well, except for the part about being on trial for murder and theft that is, he was deeply ashamed of this part. “And I agreed,” he said in a low voice.

Jurors stirred at this, some with indrawn breaths, some with quiet chuckles, some with anger.

“You exchanged your cow for ‘magic beans’?”

Jack looked up sharply wanting defend himself reminding himself that he’d been right.

“He said they’d grow right up to the sky overnight.”

“And you believed this strange old man you’d never seen before.”

Jack nodded. He had a million excuses at the ready—he’d been tired, hungry, delirious—the old man had cast a spell on him. But as when he’d returned to his mum, they all rang hollow in his ears.

“How did your mum react when you returned home?”

“She was furious, said I’d been swindled, that I’d been a fool and now we were going to die.” Jack’s cheeks burned again as he recalled the feeling like he had awakened from a dream to discover he’d committed a horrible crime. Renewed shame at his having been such a dolt sending streaks like lightening down his limbs. He tried to console himself with the outcome, but the feeling wasn’t so easily displaced.

“I ran to my room and tossed the beans out my window. I couldn’t face Mum that night, so I stayed in my room and after a long time fell asleep.”

“And when you woke, was anything different?”

Jack beamed. Now they were getting to the good part. “Yes, sir, something was different! There was a giant beanstalk growing outside my window straight up to the top of the sky, just like the old man said. I was so excited, I wanted to wake Mum and show her the man was right and here was this giant thing. But then I thought how is this better than before? Can we eat the beanstalk? Can we get seeds to plant on the farm? No, I says to meself I have to reckon how this can help us before I tell mum.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I did the only thing I could think to do with it. I climbed it.”

“Did you find anything when you climbed it?”

“Yessir. Right at the top in the clouds I found a giant house. I thought that was strange ‘cause I’d never heard tell of houses in the clouds, so I thought I should explore. I went to the door which was open a crack and slipped inside–”

Jack stopped abruptly at his lawyer’s upraised hand.

“Now think carefully before you answer the questions I’m about to ask.”
His lawyer stared at him expectantly. Jack nodded.

“Were there any signs before you reached the house or on the house itself telling you not to trespass?”

“Nossir.”

“Any signs saying it was private property?”

“Nossir.”

“You said you’d never heard of any houses in the clouds. When you saw this house, did you expect to find anyone living in it?”

“Nossir. People don’t live in clouds. Well, me mum sometimes says I have my head in the clouds, but I think she means something different by that.”

Some of the jurors chuckled at this and his lawyer looked pleased. Maybe he was getting the hang of this testifying thing.

“Okay, continue. What did you find in the house?

“Well, I saw this huge table and chairs and what looked like a giant kitchen and in the kitchen was this enormous, giant woman. She must have heard my footsteps though I was being ever so quiet, because she turned and when she saw me marched toward me. I turned to run, but she was faster and grabbed me by the back of me shirt.” He reached behind his back and hauled up his shirt at the collar to illustrate. Once again a few giggles rippled through the jury. “She hauled me into the air like I’d lift a cat and turned me to look her right in her horrible face.” Jack had forgotten for a moment that the very woman was on the front row. He didn’t look, but in his mind saw her glower deepen. “I was ever so scared, but then she talked to me and acted real nice like. ‘Do you want some breakfast’ says she. Well, thought I, I don’t remember my last decent meal. So, even though she looked ever so fearsome and I knew it might be a trap, ‘yes,’ I told her, ‘that would be kind.’”

Again with an upraised hand, his lawyer called on him to stop. “You were in court yesterday, weren’t you, Jack?”

“I was.”

“And you heard Mactildis the giant testify?” He pointed to the female giant on the front row. Having gathered courage from reciting his story, Jack leveled a defiant look at the giant. “She testified that you crawled under a closed door that was prominently marked with a sign that said ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING ESPECIALLY HUMANS’. Do you recall that testimony?”

“Yessir, and it’s not true not a word of it. It happened just like I said.” Jack scooted back in the witness box as Mactildis shifted and, with a menacing growl, half rose in her seat.
Jurors gasped and shrank away; the unseen gallery buzzed and the courtroom echoed with the sound of the judge’s gavel. “Order,” the judge said pointing at Mactildis. “I don’t want to have to have you removed.”

Mactildis shifted her glare to the judge and growled, then lowered herself in her seat. “We knew.” Mactildis said and her voice was stones tumbling in a landslide. “No justice for Giants among humans.”

“Continue with your account, Jack.”

“Well, she set me down on the table and gave me milk and cheese. And I’ll tell you, I was so hungry it was the best food I ever had, only when I had a few bites I hear this great rumbling stomping noise coming from somewhere past the kitchen. And all of a sudden, there was this great booming voice. And I’ll never forget those words. They chill me even now. ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ he says ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.’”

The gallery buzzed with outrage and the jurors were aghast. Mactildis snorted and looked away, but her somewhat smaller companion leaped to his feet while the judge pounded away with his gavel. “Liar,” he shouted pointing at Jack, “Dad would never say that. We only eat Frenchmen or Germans if we’re really hard up.”

“Order!” the judge shouted until the crowd quieted and the young giant had resumed his seat. “One more outburst from either of you,” he pointed at Mactildis and her son, “and you’ll both be taken from here to a holding cell. Are we clear?”

Sullen, the young giant held the judge’s eyes for a long moment, then bowed his head in submission. The judge motioned for Jack to continue.

“Like I was saying, this giant was stomping on his way to the kitchen and Mactildis gets all worried. ‘It’s my husband,’ she says. ‘He’ll want to eat you for breakfast.’ So she picks me up she does, throws me into this pot. Jack rubbed his shoulder. “That hurt it did. Thought I’d broken me shoulder.”

His lawyer nodded in sympathy. “What happened next?”

“‘Don’t stir until he’s asleep after his breakfast,’ she says and slams a lid on the pot. Nearly took me head off, but I wanted to see what was happening so I lifted the lid just a bit. And this really great giant stomps into the room then stops, lifts his head and sniffs. ‘You’re sure there’s not an Englishman nearby?’ he says. ‘Because that sure smells like one and it’s making me hungry for Englishman Bone Bread. You know, the kind you used to make back when we had a steady supply of Englishmen.’”

Mactildis’ son scoffed and shook his head and the judge shot him a warning look.
His lawyer nodded. “Were you afraid?”

“Yessir, scared to death I was. Here was this bloody great giant wanting to kill me and grind up my bones for bread. You bet I was scared. I was shaking in my boots, weak kneed, faint hearted–”

The lawyer frowned and shook his head a fraction and Jack stopped.

The lawyer eyed the jury with a meaningful look. “Afraid for your life?”

Annoyed at the repetition until he remembered their script, Jack nodded emphatically. “I was afraid for my life. I knew if he got his hands on me, I was a goner.”

The lawyer shook his head in mock horror. “Go on.”

“Well, while Mactildis was getting breakfast ready her husband opened a closet and dragged out this hen.”

“A hen?”

“Yeah, scraggly, sickly looking thing and he plunked it down on the table in front of him. ‘Lay,’ he says to this poor critter. I almost gave myself away at that point laughing so hard. Who’s ever heard of a hen that lays cause you tell it to? ‘Lay,’ he says again and when nothing came out he reared back and smacked the hen off the table. ‘I said, lay.’ There he was hitting and screaming at this poor hen, no wonder she looked awful.”

Shocked, and letting the jury see the full extent of his outrage, the lawyer said, “This giant, Mactildis’ husband, was cruelly abusing that poor animal?”

“Yessir, and for a long time by the look of that miserable creature. Well, he picks her up–”

“The hen.”

“Picks up the hen and slams her on the table again with this horrible glare until the hen laid an egg. But it weren’t no ordinary egg, nossir. It was a golden egg.”

“A golden egg?”

“Yessir, an egg made of gold.”

“Then what?”

Jack puffed out his cheeks and scratched his head pretending that he was thinking about what came next, just like they’d practiced. “Well, the giant ate his breakfast and afterwards pulled out this golden harp with a young girl’s face on it. You’ve seen it,” he said speaking directly to the jury. “’Sing,’ the giant said, but the harp wouldn’t so the brute reared back,” Jack lifted his arm behind him to demonstrate, “and smacked her face.” Jack brought his arm down to illustrate, misjudged his swing and slammed his hand into the witness box. Through eyes tearing with pain, Jack saw his lawyer close his eyes and shake his head. Jack shook his hand and bowed forward holding it. When the pain had subsided, he glanced up. His lawyer stood cupping his chin in his palm looking annoyed. A few jurors looked alarmed, the rest were smiling.

His lawyer twirled his finger. “Let’s wrap it up, Jack.”

“Well, anyway,” Jack continued, “The harp played and sang a lullaby and the giant fell asleep. Once he was asleep, Mactildis took the lid off me pot and told me now was my chance. I was about to run for it when I saw the miserable abused hen and the poor mistreated harp and I decided I couldn’t leave them behind, so I gathered them up and took off. But something must have awakened the giant because when I got to the beanstalk he roared out of the house calling me a thief and shouting about grinding me bones for bread, that whole fee fi fo fum bit again.” He stopped and looked each juror in the eye. “I was afraid for my life,” he said slowly and distinctly, proud of himself for being able to make that vital point once again. “That giant was going to kill me if he caught me and beat up on the hen and the harp again, so I was afraid for their lives too.”

“Afraid for your life,” his lawyer gave the jurors a significant look. “Did you think to try and defend yourself.”

Jack shook his head. “Against that bloody great giant? Are you bonkers? I knew I didn’t stand a chance. There was only one thing I could do to save meself, the hen and the harp and I did it.”

“What was that?”

“The giant was on the beanstalk now after me. So I got to the bottom of that beanstalk as fast as I could and I chopped it down.”

“With the giant on it?”

“Yessir.”

“Did you know your actions would kill the giant?”

“Yessir, but I didn’t have a choice. He was going to kill me and hurt the hen and the harp. The only thing I could do to save my life was chop that beanstalk.” Jack sat back in the witness box, pleased that he’d almost made it through his testimony until he remembered he was supposed to be sorry about killing the giant. He’d never understood that part, but he snapped his face into reluctance.

At this point, something stirred the gallery, but Mactildis and her son blocked his view, until a man showed up and bent over saying something to the prosecutor.

“Now, Jack,” his lawyer said. “You indicated before, you were in the courtroom when Mactildis and her son Jep testified, do you recall that?”

The man speaking with the prosecutor pointed back toward the entrance to the courtroom and the prosecutor glanced back in that direction then turned his attention to Jack and smiled.

“Yessir, I was here and heard everything.”

“You heard them testify that you snuck into their home and stole those valuable possessions the hen and the harp.”

“Yessir.”

“And haven’t you admitted to that theft here today?”

Okay, they’d practiced this over and over. He had to get this right. With sadness he looked at the jury. “The only thing I’m guilty of is saving the hen and the little girl in the harp from slavery and pain. That’s all they were for that giant–slaves to be beaten until they performed. That can’t be a crime, can it? Saving someone from a life of pain?”

His lawyer nodded in agreement. “You also heard their testimony that their husband and father tried to reason with you before you descended the beanstalk? And that when he followed you down, he was pleading with you to return the hen and the harp?”

“I heard them say that, but it weren’t true.” He turned to the jury. “You know giants,” he pointed to Mactildis and Jep who were seething with anger. “You saw their tempers. How can you believe the fairy stories they told?”

His lawyer addressed the Judge. “Your honor, the defense rests.”

The judge turned to the prosecutor. “Any cross?”

The prosecutor stood and buttoned his suit coat. “No, your honor, but the state does wish to call a rebuttal witness.”

Confused, Jack looked to his lawyer. He hadn’t mentioned any rebuttal witnesses and he’d said the state had to disclose all witnesses they were going to call.

Concerned, his lawyer said, “The state hasn’t disclosed any rebuttal witnesses, your honor.”

The judge looked at the prosecutor. “Oh, but we did, but I said we hadn’t been able to locate him. I’m informed just now that we have and he is here ready to testify.”

Dread settled in the pit of Jack’s stomach. He could only be talking about one person.

“The state calls Vassy Heymon to the stand.”

Again the gallery stirred.

Thump, something wooden struck the courtroom floor.

Thump…Thump….Thump.

From behind the giants Vassy emerged, his peg leg thumping as he made his way to the witness stand.

Jack watched his progress with horror until he stood at the base of the witness stand. “Hello, Jack” he said.

“What are you doing here?” Jack hissed with a furtive glance at the jury. “I thought you were out of the country?”

Moving slowly, Jack stepped down from the stand. Vassy caught his arm as he passed by and breathed in his ear. “I’m sorry. They caught me and offered me a deal.”

Numb, Jack couldn’t move.

His lawyer took him by the arm and guided him to the defense table. “Who is he?” his lawyer whispered. “When we saw his name as a potential witness, you told me he was no one and not to worry about him. Well, he’s clearly not no one. Who is he?”

Jack waved him away, staring as Vassy settled himself into the witness chair and with a grunt, pulled his peg leg straight until the peg, starting just below his knee, stuck out the side of the witness box. Age and experience had etched lines deep into his face and weather had stained it mahogany and coarsened it. Wizened. He’d heard Vassy described that way once and after looking it up had decided it fit.

The bailiff who had perked up at Vassy’s appearance stood to administer the oath. He waited on Vassy. The prosecutor rose with a smirk in Jack’s direction then faced Vassy.

“It’s customary to stand while taking the oath Mr. Heymon.”

Vassy scowled, a vile look the lines on his face reinforced as they fell into an obviously well worn pattern. “Well, I’ve heard tell,” he said in a deep, hoarse voice as worn as his face, “that it’s customary for prosecutors to go—“

A shot exploded from the judge’s gavel. “That will do, Mr. Heymon. Bailiff, please administer the oath.

“Raise your right hand, please.” Vassy lifted his hand from his lap. The Bailiff frowned and glanced at the judge who remained impassive. The Bailiff continued. “Do you swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”

“Sure,” Vassy growled, “stranger things have happened.”

Flustered, the Bailiff gave up and scurried back to his chair.

The prosecutor, lips puckered as if he’d bitten into a particularly sour lemon, approached the witness. “Mr. Heymon, do you know the defendant, Jack?” He pointed at Jack.
Still in shock from seeking Vassy in the courtroom, Jack twitched his head to the side.

Vassy contemplated Jack, his scowl softening into sorrow. “Yes.”

“How do you know him?”

“Couple months ago, I ran into him on the road to the market. Him and his cow.”

“Was that the first time you had seen the defendant, Jack?”

Vassy sighed and he shook his head. “No.”

Puzzled, Jack looked a question at Vassy. Vassy shifted his gaze to the prosecutor.

“When did you first see the defendant, Jack?”

“A couple months afore that.”

“How did that come about?”

Vassy sighed again and inspected his fingernails. “I was checking him out, watching him from afar, watching that little farm of his and his mum’s fail. Watching them scrape and scrimp trying to stay alive.”

“Why?”

“Because I had a project in mind and I was looking for some help.”

Outrage kindled in Jack’s heart. He’d been tricked!

“What project was that?”

Vassy leaned back in his chair and laced his hands across his ample stomach, settling in. “When I was young, about Jack’s age, I met an old man who told me what I thought at the time was a tall tale. He claimed that he’d visited a land in the clouds where giants lived. He said he used to visit them all the time; got to know ‘em real good. Said they was friendly folk. Oh, sometimes they’d eat the odd stranger who showed up in their lands, but they was always Frenchmen, with the occasional German when they was really hungry.”

On the front row, Jeb nodded vigorously a vindicated smile on his face.

“He told me they was all rich on account of their magic. They all had golden harps and hens that gave them golden eggs. And he wanted to me to help him steal one of them geese that laid golden eggs. He invited me to go with him and get the lay of the land. So, I did. He had this beanstalk and he took me up there to the giants for a couple of months and showed me around. After that he and I decided on the best house to rob. He was going to distract the giants in this house, while I went in and took their hen. Well, we needed a new beanstalk, so I could sneak up without being seen so he gave me three beans. The day came and I planted ‘em and climbed. I snuck up on the house and sure enough, there he was in the front room yaking away with the giants. I wiggled my way into the house and headed to where we knew they kept the hen.”

He shook his head. “I almost got away with it, but before I could get out of the house, the darned hen cackled. They caught me and figured out that the old man in their parlor was working with me. They ate him first. Then they came for me. But young and strong as I was, they decided to eat me a piece at a time.” He slapped his peg. “They took part of me leg first. But before they could get to the rest of me, I escaped and practically fell down that beanstalk. I chopped it down right quick before anyone could follow.”

He stopped and closed his eyes. “I tried to forget all about the giants and their treasure.” He opened eyes glittering with greed. “But that gold. It burned in my imagination, taking my sleep, stealing my appetite. So, I set out to find more magic beans. It took all me life, but finally last year,” he smiled, “I found them.” His smile faded. “But what was I going to do?” He slapped his peg again. “I couldn’t climb no beanstalk. No I needed someone young, someone desperate, someone like Jack.”

Resentment boiled Jack’s blood and he wanted to scream at the old man, at the jury, at the prosecutor. They had no idea what it was like scrabbling in the dirt for meagre handfuls of grain, not even enough each day to cut hunger’s gnawing, sawing edge.

“When I met Jack on that road, I already knew he was my man. I explained my whole plan, a plan I’d thought on long and hard for forty years. Even so, he almost got caught.” Vassy lapsed into silence.

The prosecutor cleared his throat. “So, you and Jack agreed that he would rob the giants and you would split the profits?”

Vassy nodded. “Yeah, that was the plan. And it would have worked, but he roused the giant…and murdered him.”

The courtroom erupted. The giants, both leaping to their feet, screamed at Jack while in the unseen gallery cries and moans competed with the bellowing giants. From the gallery Jack heard “Help her she’s fainted.” Was that his mother? The judge’s gavel rang out almost unheard in the commotion.

All the noise faded from Jack’s consciousness as the import of what just happened shut down his senses. Was that enough to convict him of murder? Of theft he was now almost certainly to be seen as guilty, but murder….If they got him on murder he’d hang and that would almost certainly kill his mum.

After a few moments, the judge’s gavel began to have an effect and the chaos quieted. Breathing hard, the red faced judge finally stared at the silenced crowd. “One more outburst like that and I’ll clear the room.”

“The prosecution rests.”

“Cross?” the judge asked Jack’s attorney.

His attorney eyed him for a long moment then shrugged. “Nothing, your honor.”

Hours later, the Judge excused the jury for deliberation. Jack had sat through closing statements and instructions in a fog. Nothing registered. His mind rang with the imagined words: “guilty, taken and hung by the neck until dead.” They couldn’t do that to him could they?

“Now we wait,” his attorney said.

And wait they did. Five hours after being excused, word came back. The jury has reached a verdict. As the jurors filed in none looked in Jack’s direction. To no avail Jack tried to catch the eye of a few.

“Has the jury elected a foreperson?” the judge asked.

A woman stood up. “I am, your honor.”

“Have you reached a verdict?”

“We have your honor,” she said and held up a piece of paper.

“Please pass it to the Bailiff.”

The Bailiff took the piece of paper and delivered it to the judge. The judge studied the paper for a good minute in the midst of a silence so profound, a cough from the gallery echoed like a gunshot. The judge handed the paper to the Bailiff who plodded back to the foreperson and delivered it.

“What is your verdict?” the judge asked.

The foreperson cleared her throat and looked down at the fluttering paper in her hand. “On the count of murder in the first degree, we the jury hereby find the Defendant….”

Why Hallmark Movies Are Like Theoretical Physics

Yesterday I finished a fascinating book. Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder.

The Book

In the course of her book, Dr. Hossenfelder describes in a general non technical way how at times in the past theoretical physicists have predicted the existence of particles that had not yet been seen in any experiments. It seems, if I have this right, which is no sure thing by any means, that physicists form theories by extending mathematical formulas that have been shown to describe our reality. In performing such extensions, on occasion theoretical physicists will posit the existence of a particle or particles because that particle or those particles are necessary to the proper functioning of the formula. For example, as I understand it, please see caveat above, for many years the Standard Model of particle physics as generally formulated posited the existence of the Higgs Field and its corresponding particle, the Higgs Boson even though it had not been seen. Physicists were confident of its existence because it was necessary to complete the Standard Model’s formulas. And in 2012, the Higgs Boson was observed confirming the theoretical prediction.

So, last night the Lovely Marianne and I were watching a Hallmark Movie (yes, we will occasionally view Hallmark movies, but I feel I must now make a ritual denunciation of them as shallow and cheesy and…fill in the blank). Anyway, last night’s fine piece of cinema was A Princess for Christmas.

The Movie

In the movie, we meet Jules who after her sister and brother-in-law (Charles)’s tragic deaths is responsible for their two children Maggie (6?) and Milo (14?). Charles it seems was the estranged son of Edward, the Duke of Castlebury (Castlebury being one of the many tiny European monarchies desperate to marry off their royal offspring to American youth). One day out of the blue Duke Edward’s butler shows up on Jules’ doorstep. Duke Edward wants to mend family fences and invites his grandchildren Maggie and Milo to spend Christmas at Castlebury Hall. Jules, of course, is invited along as well.

Okay with the stage set, here is where we combine Hallmark and Theoretical Physics. Jules and the children had just arrived at Castlebury Hall when the Lovely Marianne asked, “When do we get to meet Edward’s other son?”

“His what?” I ask because there has been no mention thus far of a brother to Charles. As far as we know, the deceased Charles was Duke Edward’s only child.

“His other son. The Duke has to have another son.”

And sure enough, not a minute later Ashton, Charles’ brother, Duke Edward’s second son drives up in a sports car.

And it hit me. Just like a good theoretical physicist, The Lovely Marianne postulated the existence of a thus far unobserved character. She was certain of his existence even in the absence of any factual basis for her supposition because he was necessary to the formula. Her perspicacity was demonstrated when we observed that character, thus confirming her theoretical prediction.

Who says formulaic, cheesy entertainment can’t be educational?