The Man With the Bottle of Red

I had not yet opened for the day when the man came in with his bottle of red. From behind the bar, while dusting the shelf where my barleycorn and rye used to sit, I heard the tinkle of the doorchime and the squeak of the hinges. “We are not open” I called. “Please, come back in an hour.”

“I am not a customer,” said the man. “I am here to sell.” 

That got my attention. Booze was hard to come by these days. Beer was doing okay, moonshine and vodka could never die, but the more intentional liquors had drifted into obsolescence. The bare necessities remained. 

The man had come through the door and shut it again. I was alone in the bar with him. Although he wore fine clothes – a colorless trenchcoat, a black hat with a red ribbon – there was a desperate cast to his features. In one hand, he carried a bottle. It looked like a chianti; the little fiascho basket around the bottom, the Homeric purple of the wine. The barstools were still on the bar, and they made a thicket through which our eyes met. 

“We are not open,” I said again. 

“I think you will be interested in my wine. Not many folk have wine these days. And no one has wine like this.”

A smart man, savvy enough to put in the effort. I gave him an exaggerated sigh and indicated the barstools. “Have a seat.” 

He pulled a stool down and straddled it, his coat wrapping around the chair like a ballgown. He set the bottle on the bar. “Do you have glasses?”

“I don’t sample my stock.” Stock was too precious. 

“You’ll want to know what you’re buying.” Up close, I could see each little silver hair in his stubbly beard. How old was he? Forty? Sixty? 

“Oh, I’m buying it, am I?”

“I hope you will.” He gestured. “At least pour me a glass, if you’d please. Although I hate to drink alone.” 

I reached for the glasses. Stemless. They hadn’t always been stemless, but after one of the quakes I got wise to the perilous nature of fragile glassware. Now they just rolled with the earth, and I didn’t spend my mornings sweeping up broken glass. 

Without noticing, I’d grabbed two glasses. The man uncorked the bottle with a deft hand and a little metal screw. A man who knew his way around wine. He poured, just a finger in each glass. 

“To your health,” he said, and lifted his glass. The lonely lightbulbs winked off the wine. I lifted mine, too, and matched his toast. We drank. 

It was a wine unlike any I’d tasted before. There was a richness to it. A deepness. A feeling that you were tasting something extracted from the very depths of existence, not a wine but a syrup, tapped from the tree of life. Red and rich, red and rich, and earthy, too, the taste of loam and moss, the rich soil.

“It’s not bad,” I admitted. 

The man snorted. “That’s one perspective.”

“Did you make this?” I inspected the bottle. No label, no maker’s mark. The bottle looked handblown, the faschio handmade. 

“I did.” 

“What’s the secret? Most vineyards have crumbled altogether, whether from fire or quake or the flu.” 

“Most.” He licked his lips. I felt the need to do the same. I could still taste the wine. Its ghost lingered on my tongue. As though I’d chewed a clod of black humus. “The secret is in the soil.”

I tried to imagine what could be in this soil that could cling to the grapes so fiercely. I was not an expert in wines, nor particularly predisposed to enjoying them. I rarely drank of late. Too little stock. 

“Do you know how long it takes to make rich soil?” 

I sighed. “You don’t need to give me your sales patter. I’ll by the wine. No more than three hundred thousand dollars, though. I’ve got a budget.” 

The man didn’t listen. Or, if he heard, he didn’t care. His fingers drummed the bar. There was dirt under the nails. “It can take thousands of years. Millions of years. The best soil, the most potent humus, is in the places untouched by cultivation. All cultivation sucks the goodness from the soil and leaves it wasted.”

“So you, what, built a vineyard in deepest Borneo?” 

“No. My vineyard is nearby. When I was a boy, I heard tell of an island near Venice, a place long-abandoned by mortal man. In the days of the plague, they used this island for quarantine. Their quarantines were crude. The sick were abandoned there, and the well with them. Doctors in masks wandered the fields of the dying, collecting the dead and burning them in great pits. The flames could be seen from Venice at night. They said the screams of those burned while still living could be heard clear across the Alps. Exaggerations, of course, and hyperbole, but it is known that the island was a charnel-pit.

“It was abandoned, then, this island, more recently than you might suspect. Superstitious Venetians called it haunted. Perhaps it is. I had forgotten about this story for many years until, in a little bar in Split, I met an old man who sat alone. No other patrons would speak to him. I was studying there at the time, a young man, arrogant and all-knowning, and I took it upon myself to crack the secrets of this old Croat. Every night, he ordered a little glass of water and one empty wineglass. Then, from a silver flask, he would pour himself a little white wine. He drank his water and wine all night, then went home. Every day, he did this. 

“I spoke with him for some time. Gained his trust. Eventually, he offered me some wine. I tasted it. My god, I tasted it. It was unlike any other white wine I have ever tried. A depth to it. A taste like liquid silver, with the aftertaste of thick black earth. I was amazed. Here was this old wino, and he had the greatest wine on earth. He told me where he’d grown his grapes, made his wine, aged the casks. He told me the name of his vintage. I knew it well. The name of the island. The island off Venice. The soil of the island, he said, was the richest he’d ever found. You just had to be careful for the bones and teeth that might still be mixed in under the ash.” 

I eyed the wine with a new perspective. What had he given me? What was he selling me? “You grew this there, then?”

“No, no.” He laughed. “No. I’ve never set foot on that isle. But I remembered. And when our own plagues struck, I remembered. I gathered up the bodies. The bodies of my neighbors. My wife. Strangers. Children dead in the streets. Old men and women rotting in their beds, left alone at the uttermost end. I gathered them in a van and I took them to a field near my house. I burned them there. The light filled the sky. I dressed in cloak and mask to keep the flu at bay. I have always been strong. Stronger than those that perished, at least. Like you. That’s why we’re still here. 

“I grew the grapes in ash. I aged the wine in barrels lined with bone. I drew from the dead what value I could, and aged it, and bottled it, and I am here to sell.” 


If you liked this…thing…you can check out more fiction of mine at the Chaotic Neutral Chronicles. 

The Chaotic Neutral Chronicles!

This blog has been awful quiet for a while. You may have noticed. Part of that is the principle of inevitable blog death – all blogs fade away, trunkless legs of stone in the vast expanse of desert, and on the pedestal these words appear “UPDATE: SORRY I HAVEN’T POSTED RECENTLY.”

However! I have been hard at work on a bigger project, on its own website. A fiction project. An ongoing fantasy story, loosely based on an ongoing D&D campaign: THE CHAOTIC NEUTRAL CHRONICLES!

You can find it here: https://chaoticneutralchronicles.wordpress.com/

It’s also available in podcast format in iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and I think a few other platforms. You can also just add the RSS feed manually from the homepage. Or, if you prefer the written word, you can read everything instead. There’s also little extras like Lucy’s Lorebook, which are Hitchiker’s Guide-style entries on the world and its many creatures, places, and problems. I’m also working on some general Dungeons & Dragons articles for that blog – adventure module reviews, tips & tricks, etc. There’s a lot there, and a lot to come (ebook versions of the story? Physical versions??? Let’s not get crazy. That’s a hard maybe).

This is a passion project for me. I love writing fantasy stories, I love my wacky D&D stuff, I love it all. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing.

What Twin Peaks Has Meant To Me

Today is the 28th anniversary of the final episode of the original run of Twin Peaks. Episode 29, also titled “Beyond Life and Death,” left us with an indelible image: our beloved Agent Cooper, head bloody, reflection twisted to the tune of BOB, jabbering “how’s Annie? how’s Annie?” again and again and again.

I wasn’t born when the episode aired (I have outed myself as a Young now. I understand this). But Twin Peaks has been a part of my life for about a decade now. Here on this auspicious date, 28 years after the first “how’s Annie?” I’d like to reflect a little on my journey with Twin Peaks.

In high school, I took Latin. My teacher was, looking back, the perfect teacher for me. I don’t remember much Latin (raeda in fossa est being the exception. Lots of carts stuck in ditches). But I do remember spending many, many lunch periods in Mrs. Greenman’s classroom, just talking and learning and hanging out with like-minded nerds. (Mrs. Greenman, in early 2011, asked me a fateful question: “Did you hear they’re casting Sean Bean as Ned Stark?” To which I answered “Boromir as who?” She introduced me to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, for which I will forever be grateful. She also talked about Harlan Ellison with me, and left me with a deep appreciation for that strange, irascible dude).

I don’t remember how Twin Peaks came up, exactly. But I do remember two things: she told me about the Log Lady, and told me that the Owls Are Not What They Seem. “Okay,” I thought. “I’ll check it out. That sounds cool.”

I pirated Twin Peaks. From the first, I was hooked. As someone about to leave high school, I was captivated by the awful nightmare feeling in Twin Peaks High when news of Laura’s death begins to spread. The girl running screaming across the courtyard of the school, Laura’s wail of despair, James’ throbbing forehead – all of it. It hit home. Not in a “realistic” way, but in a heightened way, something that spoke to parts of my brain I didn’t know existed.

I watched all of Twin Peaks. I watched it again in college, and encouraged friends to watch it too. I pirated Fire Walk With Me and watched it alone in my dorm room, a traumatic experience. (Tangentially: in the same week, I ripped and watched Leaving Las Vegas alone in my room. Rough!)

I have always loved fantasy. Speculative fiction, if you prefer. Stories that wrap themselves in the super-natural, that slip the surly bonds etc etc. For me, Twin Peaks was the definitive depiction of the way supernatural evil is inseparable from human evil. The darkness in Leland Palmer was inseparable from the evil entity BOB – the question of what came first, or which was really responsible, wasn’t the important question. We are all tangled in fear and weakness and evil. Leo Johnson wasn’t possessed by an evil Lodge spirit when he beat his wife and sold drugs; Ben Horne wasn’t sucked in by a hopping woodsman when he ran a covert brothel/human trafficking operation on the Canadian border.

I watched Twin Peaks, and loved it. And then it came back.

Twin Peaks: The Return aired in May 2017. At the time, my wife and I were making a move to a new city. We were moving away from friends and family to a new place – a beautiful place, and a place that had a great job for my wife, but a new place. She moved down a few weeks before I did. We took a weekend to get her mostly moved in, and then I returned to the apartment, cracked open a cold one, and watched the two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return.

The show followed me all through that summer (blessed as we were to get eighteen episodes!) I didn’t have a job lined up in the new city. Every Monday morning, I would wake up, make breakfast, see my wife off to work, and then curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee and watch the newest episode. You can see some of my tweets here: https://twitter.com/search?l=&q=peaks%2C%20OR%20twin%20from%3Abookshelfstud%20since%3A2017-05-01%20until%3A2017-12-31&src=typd

All that summer, The Return was mine. Joy, sorrow, love, death, horror, all of it.

The weekend of the two-part finale, I was back at my parents’ house, visiting for the weekend. I set myself up in the basement, on the little TV near the treadmill and the bookshelf of picture books and VHS tapes. (How many hours had I spent in this basement? When I was young the Star Wars movies babysat me here; here I played my first video games [Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System], here I jammed on the drums with my friends in high school, here I ran and ran up and down the hall as a little boy, here I told stories with LEGOs and built great fortresses, here I fell asleep watching Thor with my then-girlfriend now-wife. What a place to be, this memory-soaked basement!) I turned all the lights off, set up a chair about three feet from the little TV, and just sat. And watched.

No story has affected me in quite the way Twin Peaks did. To call the ending of The Return “nightmarish” is to oversell the quality of my nightmares. There are rare days when I don’t think about that final episode. Rare days. I can’t describe what it meant to me, to be there for the end of Twin Peaks, and to see the way the nightmare tied itself together in an endless loop. Like a circle never drawn but always suggested.

To me, Carl Rodd was the centerpiece of The Return. Dale Cooper can keep his bravado and heroics, his “I am the FBI” and his “what year is it?” Carl Rodd is the man. Like James Hurley, he is a part of Twin Peaks (or Fat Trout Trailer Park) – he is cool, and he is here, and he will always be cool and be here. He plays his guitar. He helps his tenants out as best he can. (Is Carl Rodd the only good landlord? Yes). Moreover, he is a centerpiece of community, of the small things we all do every day to help other people. Sometimes it’s a bigger gesture – rescuing Shelley Briggs from her daughter Becky’s automobile rampage, for example, using a pan flute and his trusty panel van – but more often it’s a very small thing indeed, a hand laid on the shoulder of a grieving mother. (In fact, there’s something enormously touching to me about Carl Rodd’s presence as a helper in the wake of automobile accidents, of hit-and-runs. If Mr. Rogers told us to look for the helpers, Carl Rodd shows us how to be one).

We’re unlikely to see more of Twin Peaks. Most of the principal actors are passing on now. Frank Silva’s not around to be BOB. Miguel Ferrer passed away shortly after filming The Return. David Bowie became a teakettle. Catherine Coulson, the Log Lady herself, iconic heart of Twin Peaks, passed away during filming. Leave it to David Lynch et al to capture on film the fleeting beauty of the little town of Twin Peaks, the horror and the glory alike.

 

This Is It: The End of Game of Thrones Will Be The End of ASOIAF

Introduction & Caveat

May 19th, 2019, saw the end of Game of Thrones, after eight tumultuous years. Through this final season, one refrain in particular has resurfaced time and again: well, it won’t be like that in the books. Right? Arya won’t kill the Night King, Daenerys won’t burn innocent people after the Others are defeated, Jon won’t retire beyond the Wall in true superhero fashion. Right?

Wrong, friend.

Before I get into why I think this is the same ending we’ll get in the books, I do want to lay out one important caveat:

I understand I might be wrong. I do! I am going to argue my opinion and my case as persuasively as I can. But I understand that the only one who really knows is George R. R. Martin, and he ain’t talkin’.

Okay. With that said. I think this is the ending we’re getting in the books, almost 1:1. I wasn’t convinced at first. But I’ve had time to sit with this for a while, to mull it over, and to read up on other critics who saw the art in the story. And I do truly believe that:

  1. Game of Thrones is, overall, a good story
  2. This is the same story we’ll see in the books

I won’t try to convince you of #1 here. But #2? Hell yes. I’m tackling that bad boy from three different angles. In the first section, I will look at what GRRM himself (more…)

Game of Thrones S8E05 – “The Bells”

Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance.
Inwardly: alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better. At least the four of them are safe at last.
AM will be all the madder for that. It makes me a little happier. And yet … AM has won, simply… he has taken his revenge …
I have no mouth. And I must scream.

A masterpiece.

This episode was masterpiece.

In Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, the main character is reduced to little more than a puddle of jelly, stripped of all visible humanity. Yet his mind remains, and he must scream. Some interpret this as a depressing ending, purely horrifying – oh my god what have they done to this man, this is awful! Others, though, see it as almost a humanistic ending – despite all the unspeakable horrors wrought on our protagonist, the human, the bare, screaming, soul of man remains.

Anyway, Game of Thrones!

Masks

In this episode, our protagonists are stripped of the social constructs that once held them together, reduced to their barest, basest desires and impulses. Their masks slip, and the eerie light (more…)

Game of Thrones S8E04: “The Last of the Starks”

Woah! Spoiler alert there, title of the episode! That makes it sound like we’re thinning out the Starks a little! Haven’t you ever heard of common decency? (Alternate titles for the episode include “No Country for Old Wolves” and “Last Day At Summer Camp BLOWOUT Extravaganza.”)

Before the episode aired, at least a few of the actors referred to the upcoming spectacle as “Shakespearean.” Spot-on. Tragedy runs bone-deep here, in every haunted look and half-earnest laugh. Romance and idealism burn and fizzle against the overwhelming bleakness like Dothraki candles in the wind. At the center of it all are Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, the titular Ice and Fire, thrown into chaos and storm at last.

Chains

Every character in this episode tries to escape the shackles of the past. Dany sees herself becoming further and further removed from her people – and this time, she’s not in Meereen, where she can tell herself that her real goal is Westeros, that of course these people won’t like her. This is it, for her. She’s at the top, and it is hollow, and bitter, and she is growing more lonely by the second. You can see it in her face at the banquet: she’s so close to her goal, and so, so far from what she wants.

(more…)

Game of Thrones S8E03: “The Long Night”

More like the long fight! Golly! What a lengthy battle!

With only three more episodes remaining, we are decidedly in the Endgame now. The time has come to confirm (or shatter) long-standing fan expectations for the story. In my writeup for episode 1, I mentioned how much of the show was now being written around those fan expectations. The writers anticipate audience reaction and either write to elicit that reaction or subvert it.

In this, the most earth-shattering battle scene ever put to film (in terms of human rights violations for the crew, i mean jesus), you can absolutely see the way the writers are working around what they think the audience will expect. It’s a game of double-bluffing. They can’t foreshadow things too much (or so they think), but they also can’t just ass-pull every plot point. They’ve said as much with regards to the Sansa/Arya conflict in season 7 – most of it was misdirection to build up to a very surprising twist (Littlefinger’s trial).

Perhaps no moment glistens with the silvery slime of fan expectations quite as much as (more…)