“Well,” the Stickman said, breaking the heavy silence. “And that’s that.”
In the aftermath of the furious battle, the three companions stood closely together, their noses pinched and proof against the disagreeable odor, little understanding how fortunate they were to have survived the unanticipated assault.
The Whirling Lobster, whose sensitive nostrils had almost succumbed to olfactory attack, sighed. “I cannot, for the life of me, see why some hearts simply go sour.”
“Some things are simply that way, I suppose,” the Stickman said, gingerly stepping over a curdled corpse that was dissipating in the disinclined breeze. “If you keep hoping-“
“There is nothing wrong with hoping,” interrupted the Whirling Lobster. “For some, it is all they have.”
“Sorrow,” replied the Whirling Lobster, squinting at the setting sun. “Or giving up.”
“Sorrow is often exaggerated,” the Stickman muttered.
“Sorrow is here, in this place,” the Whirling Lobster said quietly. “I do not think these twisted woods will ever be free of their stench.”
“That, if anything, tells us how it is past time we left this terrible place,” said the Ornament Angel. She had kept her silence throughout the ambush and now only wanted to depart.
“Fiddlelyfine,” said the Stickman, “but we still have no idea where we are or where we are to go!”
“True, true,” agreed the Whirling Lobster, waving his remaining claw. Deep in his clockwork eyes a tiny crack widened just a smidgen – but being blind to his own flaws he, of course, did not notice. “I suppose we just have to make do with what we do do.”
“Well, then,” the Ornament Angel said, clearing her throat. “What we do do or do not do will simply have to do for now. It is certainly better than doing nothing at all. Too much of that and the world just passes you by. I should know.” And she did, remembering for a moment the tragic circumstances of her melancholic captivity and the endless days and nights she spent looking outside from the inside of a cage.
“Fiddlelyfine,” said the Stickman. “So what are we to do?”
His two companions looked at each other, then at him, then at each other again.
“We go where wings can take us,” stated the Ornament Angel.
“But I have no wings!” protested the Stickman.
“Perhaps I can -” began the Ornament Angel.
“But some things are perhaps not meant to fly!” the Stickman cried, aghast at the notion of leaving the ground.
“I promise to hold you and not let you fall,” offered the Whirling Lobster. “My good claw, after all, is the one the Knave of Spades left me with. You will not fall.”
“Besides,” the Ornament Angel told the Stickman, “even if you do fall, we can always pick you up. You do remember what the Little Girl used to say – ‘sticks is sticks’.”
“They most certainly are not!” roared the Stickman, shocked that anyone remembered the cruel words of that petulant child.
“Careful, careful,” said the Whirling Lobster. “The last thing we need is for you to catch fire.”
“All I’m saying is that if you do fall, we can pick you up, no harm, no harm at all. And that’s all I have to say on the matter. If I’ve hurt you, do keep in mind that the words I spoke are not my own but someone else’s and it is her phraseology that makes it painful.” With that, the Ornament Angel floated away, head high, stretching her wings.
” Fiddlelyfine,” muttered the Stickman, “Anything, I suppose, to evade the Garrote Parrot.”
The Ornament Angel floated back, the lips on her ceramic face formed in an “O”. “Oh!”
“Do not say its name,” the Whirling Lobster cautioned. “It may be able to hear us after its name is spoken.”
“But you mention its name all the time,” the Stickman shouted, unable to control his temper. At once, a thin flame burst into feeble life on his left arm.
“Oh, oh! He is aflame!” The Ornament Angel flitted helplessly about.
“Help me! Help me,” cried the Stickman, as the smoke began to exude from his sleeve.
The sound of pained gears drowned his shocked words as the Whirling Lobster raised his single claw and snapped it shut over the Stickman’s burning arm.
For a moment they stared at the burning wooden limb on the ground.
The Stickman screamed. “You- you have crippled me!”
“I saved your life,” the Whirling Lobster told him. “Sticks is sticks.”
“They most certainly –“ the Stickman began to sputter.
“Enough,” a dulcet voice boomed from above the trio as a shadow descended in the twilight.
The Ornament Angel, recognizing the menacing tone, spread her wings to flee, her need for freedom sundering any loyalty she held toward her companions. The frenzied fluttering of her tiny wings were arrested by a powerful gust of wind that knocked her to the ground, shattering her face against a sharp rock.
The Garrote Parrot, its cruel talons clenching and unclenching, landed in front of the stunned Stickman and the Whirling Lobster, folded its expansive wings, and lowered its harnessed head, revealing its passenger.
“Oh, Ornament Angel,” the Little Girl said softly. “Look what is happened to you.”
The Stickman fell to his knees. “Forgive me! They made me do it! Especially this maiming lobster!”
The Whirling Lobster did not move, except for his eyes. One clockwork eye remained trained on the child, while the other watched the sinister avian.
“L-l-let me t-t-take them, Little G-g-girl,” the Garrote Parrot stammered, straining against the dull iron collar around its neck. “T-t-they slew t-t-he Knave of Sp-sp-spades!”
The Little Girl looked up from where she was kneeling, the remains of the Ornament Angel in her hands. “Oh, my little ones. I fear this time you is gone too far.”
“Forgive me!” cried the Stickman, his face pressed against the ground.
The Little Girl carefully placed the fragments of what was once the Ornament Angel in one of the pockets of her white dress. “Sticks is sticks but bricks is bricks.” She gestured to the Garrote Parrot.
In a flurry of sudden motion, the Garrote Parrot extended the tips of its wings and caught the Stickman by the neck, and with a savage twist of iron-tipped feathers, snapped the wooden creature’s head off.
The Little Girl regarded the Whirling Lobster. “And what is I to do with you?”
The Whirling Lobster offered no reply.
“You is mad to try and try and try,” the Little Girl scolded him, waving a dainty finger in his direction. “You will always fail.”
In his mind’s eye, the Whirling Lobster recalled all his sixteen previous attempts: first with Wintermink and Lambent Lambert; then with Peacedoll and Stripecurrant; then Wavy Navy and Judas Boat. The fourth attempt, with Plenty and Book Crook, was the first time he’d seen the forest, and subsequent attempts (Bitterhelen and Tam Tambourine; Milquetask and Smiling George; Natty Batty and the Recording Beast; G. Shell and the feisty Mock Ness) had taken him further and further. But always the shadow of the Garrote Parrot caught up with him, and with the stammering savage bird came the Little Girl, always to take him back. And only him. She did not spare Jumping Jeho-so-fat or Cream Dandy, she crushed Timothy Tock and Handel-with-Care, she scattered Aunt Farm and made him watch Wisty Misty dissipate into nothingness, and she was particularly impatient with Yayhigh and Heylow. Beginning with Slapping Patty and Tears Aglow, he’d tried to recruit companions with a more martial bent, but didn’t get very far when Hentooth and Nettlebelle turned swifty on each other. He thought he would make it past the forest with Danger Ranger and the Wonderwheel, but they too were caught. And now this.
“What do you has to say for yourself, Whirling Lobster?”
“One day I will see what is beyond the forest,” the Whirling Lobster said. “One day, I will be free.”
“Silly Lobster,” the Little Girl said. “You cannot run away from love.”
The Whirling Lobster whirled in place and abruptly stopped, his back to the Little Girl. “One day, I will.”
As the Little Girl reached down to carry him, the tiny crack deep in his clockwork eye grew a bit more.
“Come, beautiful parrot,” the Little Girl beckoned to the iron-collared bird. “It’s time to go home.”
In the Whirling Lobster’s mind, he was considering how to convince the Bracer Racer and Sneezy Breezy, or Artic Tock, or perhaps Rusty Statchoo.
He remembered that Bendy Paw had betrayed a hint of interest, and began to plan his next escape.
Dean Francis Alfar is a playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction. His plays have been performed in venues across the country, while his articles and fiction have been published both in his native Philippines and abroad, such as in Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and the Exotic Gothic series.
His literary awards include ten Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature — including the Grand Prize for Novel for Salamanca (Ateneo Press, 2006) — as well as the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Awards for the graphic novels Siglo: Freedom and Siglo: Passion, and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award.
He is an advocate of the literature of the fantastic, publishing the annual Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology.
The parrot image is from here.