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E. W. Farnsworth

The Worm Snakes


Refraction Sublime

Dr. Wilson F. Engel, III, writing under his own name and the pseudonym E. W. Farnsworth, is widely published on line and in print.  Winner of four first-place prizes in open, international competitions for his short stories in 2014 and one first so far in 2015, Dr. Engel's westerns, spy stories, romance/thrillers and a romance will be separately published under contract in 2015. His picaresque novel about global intrigue in cryptocurrency enforcement will appear in 2016. Dr. Engel has had twenty-one short stories contracted for publication in anthologies that will appear in 2015.  Some of E. W. Farnsworth's sci fi stories and modern fables are available on line from Ether Books in the UK and in the US, and two of his John Fulghum mysteries will be on line this spring at IndelibleCHAOS in India.  A Distinguished Member of the International Society of Poets in the UK, Dr. Engel will also be featured in Who's Who in American Poetry, 2015.  Born in California, Dr. Engel now lives and writes in Arizona, USA.  He was honored to be appointed Leverhulme Professor of Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.


           Life was slow and death quick then, and with all the boggy land it took a long time to reach anywhere.  Doc Johnston who was summoned to cure me took much too long to get to our little farm, and I died of wasting consumption while he was on the way.  When he arrived, the Doc proclaimed I had passed, and then they buried me right here on this hillock where redolent honeysuckle blooms, gold and white, would most likely grow.  Later they buried Mom there in the grave between mine and Grandpa’s.  Mom had tried hard to keep me alive, and she always said how hard it was for her to go on living without a man around the farm, and then the war came but not for me.  One body buried here in an unmarked, shallow grave was a victim of that war.  Another buried surreptitiously was a victim of murder foul with the murderer never found.  Neither of those was family.


           My brother paid for these headstones that have cracked, sunk and twisted and footstones, else you’d have never found us.  The way those two willows grew up and heaved the ground with their thick, wandering roots and the way tangled, flowery greenery covered everything always, it seems nature conspired to keep us a secret and failed.  Birds nested and rabbits, black voles and mice burrowed here and there for generations, and eastern worm snakes snapped like small flesh whips their way into my coffin to eat their fill and curl about my bones.  Alive I feared worm snakes, but now our intimacy comforts me as I encompass those who compass me.


          You came to clear our graveyard and wash our gravestones: for that I thank you kindly.  You’ve cleaned many other such: I know this from the gentle way you cleared the leafy foliage and washed each stone with bristling brushes and let flesh-colored worm snakes be when they dove for cover through cracks in cover stones placed to keep coffins with bodies down where they belong in this sodden, hallowed soil.  You fought through thick blackberry, gorse and honeysuckle vines down to layers of wet papery sough and rank, mildewed compost, and I saw you press and pull with both your hands and brush back your hair from your brow with soil-black wrists and sweat all over in sunshine toiling like a happy plowman. 


           When you came with crook and staff I thought at first you were the thing whose scythe reached for me when I was sick and brought Mom here too later.  But you didn’t smile the way the other did, and you didn’t bear an hourglass with its sand run through, wear a hood, limp or smell like sulphur.  Even so, I didn’t cotton to your disturbing us until your rays of light pierced through the hollow right to where my rags and bones and all those worm snakes lay dazzled and wriggling as if today I was reborn and stand anew.



         Sri and her husband Ravi were in love, and as soon as possible after their nuptials, they conceived a child named Bijoy.


         Their child’s delivery was difficult in a village not far south of the border with Nepal. There was no expert medical attention.  Sri died in childbirth, but her infant son survived.  What an infant Bijoy was! 


         An eight-limbed infant was unheard of among humans, but not among the gods.


         Ravi, still grieving for the loss Sri, consulted physicians to save the newborn’s life and consulted oracles to foretell its future.

         In the mean time, word went out to all the surrounding villages that a prodigious birth had occurred. In no time, Bijoy became the talk of all India.


         Soothsayers agreed that Bijoy’s birth was propitious and that he should be protected.  

         National army personnel forthwith arrived to protect the child.  The President of India himself paid a special visit with the news media taking pictures and recording his speeches.  It was a time of great anticipation.


         The authorities soon learned, to their horror, that a god needs no protection, but humans do. 

         The Chinese, viewing the massing of new Indian troops on the border as a threat to China, moved their troops into the vicinity as a countermeasure.


         The Chinese Premier made a state visit to see Bijoy.  While in the village, he became stricken with a sudden illness and died within six hours. 

         China accused India of luring the Premier into a trap.  War was imminent.


         Bijoy, only a few weeks old, uttered his first words, which were in perfect Mandarin Chinese:

        “Leave my people alone, or you will regret it.” 


         This message was reported verbatim in the world press.  Immediately the same plague that had killed the Chinese Premier flared up in Beijing.

         China was panicked by deaths accumulating by hundreds, then thousands, then millions.


         Ravi requested that his son desist and permit the Chinese people to be rid of the pestilence. 

         Bijoy assented, and China was relieved to have the plague disappear. 


         From that time forward, the Chinese respected the sacred boundaries of India. 

         Bijoy lived and thrived, dancing and rejoicing with his people.



          Sailing the Mediterranean north from Tunis, we should not have sighted land for another three hours.  Yet the island was clearly visible: a volcanic shape with emerald-green slopes.  We saw it through our binoculars, but it was not visible on our radar or marked on our charts. Most certainly what we saw was a light refraction, that is, an image of a much more distant island projected through the atmosphere so that, within a narrow window of space, it would appear to be real at or near the physical horizon.  At the time I did not think more of the matter, but when Simon Frye told me his tale, it made sense.  Simon was an old friend and fellow sailor, and I heard his tale at his bedside in the recovery room of a hospital.  He had asked me to come as soon as I could for a chat.


          In fact, Simon needed a friend to give his doctors confidence that he was a sane and steady man, not given to hallucinations or exaggerations. The case was most serious because Simon’s family had simply disappeared during the same shipwreck that caused his recovery and extraction to his hospital here in Naples, Italy.  When he came to, his doctors, said, he had been stark raving mad about his family’s loss.  He was almost incoherent from grief and self-loathing. Simon’s doctors feared that he would take his life.  I wasted no time getting to the hospital.  When my bonafides had been checked by the staff, I was allowed to see my old friend, who seemed glad to see me and not at all perturbed.  He graciously thanked me for coming to his assistance, asked me whether I wanted to have something to eat, and then apologized for having put me through an ordeal he had hoped to face without assistance.  Breathing a sigh of relief at my presence, he then asked whether I was ready to hear his tale.  I said I was ready, and I eased back in my chair to give him my full attention.


         The way Simon told it, he was sailing north from Tunis, Tunisia, with his wife and young sons.  They had been progressing towards the Strait of Messina as my ship had done many years ago.  Again like my experience—about which I had told him at some length years ago--they sighted an uncharted green island to the north of their current position.  They had not considered refraction at all because the island did not disappear from their view as they continued sailing.  Instead, it acted like any other landmass approached from the sea.  Simon, April and James and John, their two tweens, decided after spending the night at sea, they would land on the beach and go ashore to explore the place the next morning.  What could possibly go wrong?


         The Fryes had brought camping gear, so when they landed on the island, they drew their sailboat well up on the beach and struck out with full kit for the volcano’s peak through the green foliage that they had seen during their approach.  They were not 100 yards from the shoreline, moving inwards, when a violent storm came out of nowhere.  The storm turned out to be worse than any Simon had experienced in all his years as a sailor. The four pitched their tent as fast as they could and hunkered down.  Just as they finished staking down their tent and climbing inside, hurricane-force wind and pelting rain enveloped them and lasted for five hours. Afterwards, just as suddenly as when it had begun, the storm subsided. The lowering clouds disappeared revealing a beautiful evening sky filled with stars as the darkness increased.  Soaked to the bone, the Fryeslaughed about their luck and ate from their dry stores.  The ordeal did nothing to deter them from having a sound night’s sleep.


          The next morning, they were awakened by a human voice asking whether they were all right after such a frightful storm.  Outside their tent stood a bearded man of middle age, dressed in a brown robe and staff. Apparently, they thought, the man was some sort of monk.  He apologized for any harm he may have caused them, saying half abstractedly, “Dear me, sometimes my experiments have unintended consequences.”


           The Fryes emerged from their tent to make the man’s acquaintance.  He said that his name was Prospero and that his profession was illusionist.  He was not a monk, but he thought both professions gained a lot from scholarship.  He was definitely a scholar. Afterwards Prospero invited them to spend time walking with him inwards to the cave that he called home. It was, he said, near enough to the top of the volcano that they could rest and dine there.  Then, if they liked, they could proceed to the summit of the crater.  He assured them that the volcano was inactive.  There would be no problem with further storms for the present.  So they all ascended the trail, hearing Prospero’s engaging conversation.


          They ended at the entrance to Prospero’s cave for dinner.  The interior made him no ordinary troglodyte. It was palatial with fine appointments and a skylight bored into the crater above it.  The cave had a magnificent library, better in quality, Simon said, than most of the major European libraries.  For comfort Prospero had piled carpets on the floor of the cave. His beds and pillows were stuffed with duck and goose down.  For dinner, Prospero served duck, lobster and fish, with native greens and spices.  His island was, as he suggested, a little world made cunningly.


          It was not until they prepared to retire for the night that Simon began to suspect Prospero’s motives.  Simon’s wife and two sons seemed to be unnaturally attracted to Prospero.  By the end of the evening, they said that they would stay on this island forever.  And that is exactly what they did. Simon was found at sea alone the following morning.

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