One lithium-ion battery, toxic pond scum, 250g of concentrated dog shit and an ancient curse solves the age-old conundrum of how to shake-a-wake a corpse and ruin a sunny day in Saintes.
Guillaume, Violette, and Andres were enjoying a sunny promenade in the year 2018 CE, walking Guillaume’s German Shepard, France, up and down the shore of the Charente. The early June sun beamed down upon them with hardly a cloud in sight, but there were still entire footpaths flooded after the heavy rains of winter. The trio doubled back before they reached the campgrounds, then crossed the pedestrian bridge and continued onto Rue Saint-Pierre towards the Cathedral. Rather than carrying on past the cafés, boutiques and tabacs, the late-teenagers sought refuge from the glaring heat, turning right down Rue Aliénor d’Aquitainetowards Place des Récollets.
France, the dog, was bound by neither leash nor fealty to his master and trod up ahead to the square’s garden. France fully intended on taking an enormous shit on the lawn, right after peeing on the topiary and sniffing the toxic pond scum pooled in the Ancient Roman ramparts at the square’s eastern side. Guillaume, whose moral fiber was as brittle as a sacramental wafer, would’ve readily left his dog’s droppings where they lay had France been any more discreet than dumping them dead center in the lawn. Such was not the case, and the teen skirted the park, grabbed a plastic sac from the dispenser on the opposing side, and sacked the shit. Still, wafer-boy, observing that he was now equidistant from the dispenser and the trashy puddle, opted to chuck his full baggy into the murky, green waters of the stone bulwarks.
Violette and Andres were sitting on the rocky half-wall bordering the park, petting France. Guillaume, seeing an opportunity to profiteer by virtue of the natural sun; the innate beauty of France, the dog; and his friends’ complacency, mounted the eastern side of the square, sauntered up the sidewalk, and hollered over the railing,
“Violette, Andres! Go over by the tree and take a picture with France!”
France had her own Instagram. Thanks to sponsored content and #Francetravels, Guillaume raked in a pretty penny each month that allowed him to buy nice things like the newest iPhone, which he was now using to position his shot from above the Roman ruins.
Now, no one can say which petty god or idle wraith was responsible for the following revelatory gag, but a sudden, profound change overcame Guillaume. The veiled depravity of this system, so long hidden from view to the young entrepreneur, came to light in a single, panic-stricken instant. From his roost above the ramparts, Guillaume’s tortured virgin eyes beheld the arbitrary flow of the river of wealth. He saw, for the first time, the inner-workings of an international, cybernetic economy built on cashing in on chance and milking the twin teats of mere observation and circumstance. He was rapt by the beauty and horror of epiphany incarnate, by this magnanimous vision that played out before Guillaume across the screen of his iPhone, a cosmic glitch riding upon a single beam of early summer sunlight. Guillaume dropped his phone.
The phone plummeted. From Guillaume’s buttery fingers, it fell down into the vat of deceptively fecund waste, resonating like the smacking of a bare baby’s bottom as the phone pierced the opaque surface and penetrated the viscous depths of stagnant filth. Now, normally, this would be about the end of it. The kid would’ve either sulked back home with his tail between his legs or tried to wade through the fecal muck in a vain attempt to recover his precious while his friends filmed future viral gold. Not today.
As that phone sunk, the electrical energy from Steve Job’s masterstroke combined with the magical energy of ancient Helvetian sorcery and France’s dog shit to awaken a curse that dated back two-thousand and eighteen years. Guillaume’s clumsy mitts had unwittingly set the wheels in motion for a two millennium-old contingency, hellbent on fulfilling the wet dreams of a former US Secretary of Homeland Security:
Unremitting death and destruction on foreign soil.
Witchery in the West, as a serious profession, was shelved well before the trials in Salem. Not to mention political climates and economic realities in the Americas during the coming industrial revolution would soon force the remaining casuals into more vanilla, albeit less dangerous, jobs as factory laborers. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, heralded a witching boom, as people increasingly sought refuge from famine in the arcane. The Roman Catholic Church, despite its intentions, did less to suppress the rise of paganism as seed it and promote its ballooning to a near cataclysmic level. That coupled with the supernatural niche opened up by the death of Muhammad in the East meant the stage was now set of all manner of abracadabra across Africa and the Middle East as well.
But if we scurry even further backward in history, just after the Gallic Wars and the formation of Mediolanum, there weren’t too many real witches or wizards left in the Gallo-Roman Empire. This, incidentally, created a magical power vacuum that would soon be filled by Jesus. But that’s another, much longer, story.
Having said all that, we all know that exceptions exist to every rule, and Geneviève lived to except every rule she ever came across. Geneviève the Bricoleuse, a Helvetian sorceress and Christ contemporary, was well-handy with both a spell and a hammer. She’d traveled the newly conquered land of Gaul from her home with the Helvetii, in Old Switzerland, living off the menagerie of odd jobs her particular brand of mechanical necromancy could procure. In fact, at the very beginning of the Common Era, Geneviève and her resurrected man-slave/consort Dante Alighieri were undertaking some serious sorcery at the bequest of the newly nomadic druid and basement insurrectionist, Mug-Tadgh of Gaul.
“I have literally been to Hell, mind you, and I’ve never seen anything as horrifying as this.”
“I work with what I’m given,” Geneviève rebuked Dante as she sewed the inflated pigeon head onto the metal chassis, binding it at the neck to a taught leather gasket, “My pal, Mugsworth, wants a griffin, then brings me the parts for half a manticore plus change, so here we are: doing the best with what we have.”
Mug-Tadgh, hearing nearly none of this, continued his drunken leaning against a willow tree while he watched the witch tinker. A bottle of eau de vie dangled limply from his fingertips.
“It’s a… It’s a griffin,” started the Gallois, “Manticore’s are just stupid-dumb… nobody ever invaded nobody on no manticore. You… you gotta have a griffin.”
Geneviève had been listening to this spiel on repeat for the better half of two hours, so now she just accepted Dante’s knowing glance and finished sewing up the neck.
“You know I was in Heaven before this? Before you resurrected me?”
“You never mentioned,” she intercepted a wayward drop of sweat with her rag. The full weight of summer’s heat braced itself against her exposed neck and back.
“They’re the king of burrrr — everything,” words continued bubbling forth from Mug-Tadgh, like the steamy gas of a warm, flatulent bog, “They have the head of an eagle… or a falcon… they’ve got themselves a big ol’ bird head. And then, well, then there’s the lion’s body. It’s the king of all the little beasties and I’m going to ride it…”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t bring me neither bird, did ya? No. You brought me a lion and a dead peasant. Then I had to go and shoot down a pigeon with my bow to get the head, front legs and wings.”
“You pulled me from heaven to listen to this,” Dante was pretending to preen his wings. He didn’t have any, but he swore that he did when he lived in Heaven, “Did I complain? No. In fact, I was honored.”
“What did you say about burrrr — pigeons…?”
“I thought, ‘Oh, now here’s my chance to repay the cosmic debt I owed after Virgil rendered me his services. Surely now I’ll be sent down, an emissary of God, to help another find their Beatrice.’”
“How… oup!” The nobleman swayed back, visibly recoiling from the force of his hiccup, “How did you resize the falcon legs?”
“Soaked them in water overnight,” Geneviève, now walking around the crouching war-machine, was having none of what the lads were serving, “I said you could stay and watch me work, I didn’t say you could ask questions. And Mr. Alighieri?”
After a final system’s check, the sorceress patted the “griffin’s” broad shoulders.
“Right, so, we’re running off of two leopard hearts and a magic shit-powered engine… It’ll go fast, but it ain’t got a long run, so be thinking sprints not marathons on your killing spree.”
The talk of blood and contextual glory had a somewhat sobering effect on Mug-Tadgh. Perhaps sobering wasn’t the right way to put it, rather, the blood and glory took the drunk out of his blathering druid cheeks and put it right down into his cock. Puffing out his chest, he proclaimed,
“I shall call him Gregorios, a mighty name which shall inspire divine fear into the hearts of all those who bear witness — ,”
“Gregory. It looks like a Gregory,” Geneviève looked the creature up and down, “Maybe even a Greg. Good name.”
“No, it’s Gregorios,” Insisted the irked druid, “As in the watchful and vigilant eye, stalking his prey from above — ,”
“Yeah, except he’s Gregory though, and you better be careful because he ain’t the most stable steed of all time.”
“Whatchu mean, witchy?”
“I mean mentally,” the witch walked around to the beast’s head and gave it an amiable pat, “Look, Mugsy, there’s no easy way to say this, but the peasant brain you brought me was trash. Absolute rubbish — the worms had burrowed all the way through the cortex.”
“I don’t under — ,”
Geneviève cut him off, pacing back and forth, articulating each point with a wild gesticulation.
“Now I coulda done this another way: I coulda rigged ’em up like a nut n’ bolt feather puppet and he woulda been the most ferocious animatronic flesh-tank you’ve ever seen. But I’m a fucking witch. So, what’d I do? What I did was I reached into the future and grabbed a handful of grey matter from a time when there was a surplus of the wrinkly stuff and no one the wiser if any of it went missing. You follow me? I stole future brains and I got this particular sample from some guy named John Kelly.”
“John Kelly… that’s a strange name,” Mug-Tadgh appeared to be tasting the foreign syllables, mulling them over in his mouth, “Was he a Roman?”
“Dunno what he was,” Geneviève didn’t much like discussing the future. The only thing she saw on humanity’s horizon was the illusion of freedoms she had a habit of taking for herself anyway, “All I’m saying is hold tight to those reigns, you don’t want this mad dog getting loose. Discretion was not this guy’s forte.”
If Mug-Tadgh was phased by any of this he did not show it. His eyes were glossy dinner plates brimming with a heaping helping of Gregory, the ill-begotten cyborg chimera.
“Yeah, if you pull on the horns just right, he’ll shoot lightning out his ass. Now climb on up there and fuck off.”
“Oh, hah,” A hiccup laugh frothed up in the drunk druid’s mouth as he mounted his steed, “You’re a funny witch. You’re a funny, funny witch.”
“Yeah, I’m a funny witch. Here,” She hoisted up a sac of manure, “Funnel that in while I rev ’em up.”
Geneviève revved the engine, starting a chain reaction of gunpowder and magic, a powerful mix of old wisdom and new toys that shot Mug-Tadgh off like a rocket into the high heavens. Dante looked on while the necromancer starting packing up their effects.
“He really tied one on before hopping aboard,” Observed Dante, “You think he’s going to be O.K.?”
“I just… I just don’t care, Dante,” Sighed Geneviève, “He paid me and I built him the Gregory and now, honestly, I just don’t care what happens to him.”
The fate of Gregory and Mug-Tadgh, though it was of no consequence to Geneviève, read less like the Iliad and more like the accident report for the Apollo 6.
What it boiled down to was, Geneviève, whether intentionally or otherwise, miscalculated the amount of shit necessary to fuel two tandem leopard hearts on a harpy-esque escapade through Old France. Gregory’s motor sputtered out over the Charente and the bionic griffin and his master plummeted into the settlement’s palisades with a splat. Mug-Tadgh was practically liquified by the impact, while his steed merely shook, rattled and rolled into a ravine. Why? Because Geneviève may have been many things, but a hack she was not: Gregory was a work of necronomic art.
Gregory’s craftsmanship was such that his semi-organic infrastructure withstood the ravages of time, quietly lurking beneath the pond scum and sewage of the ravine while the city around it was conquered and reconquered, invaded and bombarded, renamed and, most recently, landscaped. Mediolanum became Saintes; Gallo-Romans gave way to vikings; vikings gave way to the English; finally, Saintes, the city, belonged to the French.
During all that history, Gregory sat in his well and gathered waste indiscriminately. Human sewage ran over his corpse on its way out to the river, Charente. Pigeons bombarded their undead brother from the trees until the surrounding trees were bowed to topiary, subsequently forcing the pigeons to the rooftops in order to continue fecal harassment of the submerged griffin. Many droughts threatened to prematurely expose Gregory to the modern world, but by then, Gregory the Griffin was so thoroughly caked in shit that its form was unrecognizable to any dubious onlookers. Then the rains would come and the somnolent beast would sink once more into the obscure depths of its stone chateau. In recent years, as pet proprietorship stole over Europe, our hypnagogic hybrid’s palette was introduced to dog poop. Lots and lots of dog poop.
Gregory’s rule over the square, the 20 x 20 square meter Place des Récollets,was challenged only once by a noble champion, a backyard Samaritan on town council who stepped up, advocated for, and later installed, a dog waste bag dispenser in the square. This threat to the Gregorian time-bomb fizzled out in a impotent puff as citizens collectively decided it was easier to simply jettison their plastic dog shit bags into the green pond rather than walk back and return them to the trash bin attached to the dispensary unit. Under the miry mirror, the fallen Valkyrie accepted our refuse gratefully.
But dog-shit-guts and two leopard hearts weren’t going to jumpstart themselves. Gregory, it seemed, was going to need a little help from global consumerism if he was ever going to rise from his rank, rank lair. Thank God for Tom Cook and the lithium ion battery.
Travel to France in the early spring time as an American and you risk your allergies taking you straight to town and giving you the business. You’ve got to hit that sweet spot: somewhere right at the edge of summer when the pollen settles, the rains abate, and the tourists are still a couple weeks away. It was precisely under these kinds of circumstances that we join two traveling buds, Johnson and Beans, upon the sunlit terrace of the Garden Ice Café in Saintes.
“It’s an absolute travesty. Total tragedy of the commons.”
“You know, it’s all well and good to talk about charity and doing right, but how many people really ante up and help their community,” Johnson pulled at the filter of his hand-rolled, Amsterdamer packed cigarette and took a double drag of pretty words and nicotine gas, “Honestly, Beans, I won’t say another word about it.”
“I will certainly drink to that,” Beans didn’t know what they were talking about any more, but he loved the taste of affirmation and light irony filtered into tiny French coffee cups. He took a dainty sip, savoring his expresso.
“Oh, Johnson, wouldn’t you believe it? I forgot to order an allongé, again. I forgot to order an owl — on — jay. Now I’ve got this positively adorable shot of coincidence.”
What fun it was, thought Beans, to affect these British accents and smoke rollies over a cheeky cup on the terrace. Johnson and Beans had been on the road for awhile now and, bless their souls, they couldn’t even remember how they’d wound up in this delightful little asylum. Sure, you could be sure the two fellows had a sense of knowing — a general unfounded feeling of past and of future, but here’s a fun fact: if you’d asked either of them, Mr. Beans or Mr. Johnson, where they’d been before or where they were going, they wouldn’t have had the slightest clue. And if you pressed too hard, why, they’d actually cease to exist at all.
“Oh, that is just good fun, Beans,” Johnson leaned back in his chair, thrusting his head backwards and chuckling, imitating a gesture he’d seen somewhere, at sometime on the television, “Wouldn’t it be great to do this all the time. It is such a proper shame that this all has to come to an end.”
“But does it, Mr. Johnson? Why couldn’t we just stay in this town forever?”
“Well, there’s the money, for one.”
“Ah, yes. The money.”
“We can only go so long without having to make more of the money.”
“And then the women?”
“Can’t leave the women for too long, that’s certainly… that’s certainly true.”
Johnson shifted around uncomfortably in his seat. These words were beginning to taste weird in his mouth… money, women, and work… they were so this way, and not that way, and he much preferred to say things like intersectionality and systematic racism. His tongue felt swollen in his mouth, and he considered taking something to ease the inflammation.
He mouthed the words white privilege and felt a little more reassured, and his chair softened to cushion his pale behind more readily.
Beans, having succumbed to a similar attack of mal à l’aise, had just finished instagramming a photo of their aperitif he’d taken not twenty minutes before and now breathed a sigh of relief as the likes came pouring in.
“I believe we were saying…,” Began Mr. Johnson, pausing briefly as he was rudely interrupted by a faint disturbance, coming from somewhere down the Cours National,
“… that the sorry state of affairs our poor, afflicted nation finds itself in — Beans, do you hear something?” Inquired Johnson, breaking from his feigned accent for the first time since they’d sat down for coffee.
“You know, I thought I did,” Replied Beans, still unshakably in character, “But I reckon it’s just a pigeon cooing or a fine, French demoiselle singing au bord de la Charente.”
“Come off it, Beans,” said Johnson, feebly grasping for a sincere tone of voice, but that damn British accent was just so charismatic, so infectious, and just so hard to shake, “Still, whatever it was… whatever it may have been…”
“… was probably an absolute travesty?” Prodded Beans.
“Yes… Right. One might even call it a tragedy of the commons.”
“Well said,” Beans nodded in approval. The wheel started to turn.
“It’s just, well, we spend so much time talking, and how much do we actually…,” Johnson let his voice trail off as two things occurred to him: the first was a most peculiar sensation of déjà vu, and as for the second, there was definitely something going on down the main avenue. A flock of birds had flown from their roost at the sound of broken glass, perhaps a wine bottle, Johnson suspected, dropped by an SDF.
Johnson returned tentatively to the terrace, still guarding that faraway look in his eyes,
“… Do. Beans, do you think there’s something afoot?”
“Well, that’s just it, isn’t it. There is definitely something afoot,” Began Beans, “Our government, a beacon of democracy in the free world, is threatened by its own ballooning ego. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our educational systems are vastly underfunded and the only thing we’re concerned with is the size of our 600 billion dollar military pecker. Bombing civilians; funding religious, anti-abortion racket; nixing healthcare for the plebs — I tell you what, Johnson, I feel positively criminal just paying my taxes these days!”
“What are we doing here?” Johnson wondered. Commotion and clamor were mounting in the East. A siren wailed down the way.
“Climate change threatens the mere continuance of our species,” Beans continued, now visibly spitting, his hands waving around frantically. Two receipts, one for his coffee, one for his cigarettes, took flight and ventured down the pedestrian street, unnoticed, “I mean for all we know, Johnson, tomorrow we could all be squashed under the other shoe!”
“What are we doing here?”
Johnson wasn’t sure if he’d actually asked the question aloud, or just felt it resonate within him. A definite scream pierced the spring air.
“You think it’s going to smell good when all the collective shit of humanity hits the fan?” Beans, disturbed now by the rising hubbub on the main road turned in his chair and shouted, “I say! Will you please keep it down over there!”
There was a definite happening in the plaza. A jogger cartwheeled through the air, caterwauling all the way until she landed with a disappointing, aluminum thud on the hood of a parked Renault. In a maelstrom of talons, teeth and flying fur, the beast soared up the boulevard and checked a banker through the window of BNP Paribas. From the sidewalk to the air, Gregory alighted upon the top of a passing car, tearing off the roof, and hurling the driver onto the Palais de Justice’s courtyard.
“Really, Johnson, we came here to get away from the riff raff. What is the world coming to when a couple of working class bohemians can’t — ,”
With the calculating cruelty and roughly-honed sociopathy that could only come from the White House Chief of Staff’s frontal cortex, Greg descended upon the Garden Ice Café and tucked in, wetting his gargantuan pigeon beak with the blood of tourists, lawyers, bankers and anyone else unlucky enough to be enjoying a cheeky cup n’ smoke on the terrace that fine afternoon.
Johnson would receive the brunt of the impact, as Gregory pinned the American up against the glass window, which subsequently broke, letting in all of the chaos and mania that had reigned in Outside Land, and giving it dominion over the café interior. A barista was skewered by Greg’s wing tip. Several tenants were knocked unconscious by the magnificent entry. Johnson was lying in a mat of broken glass, reconciling his now shattered vertebral column, before the mismatched mythical monstrosity came down on him like a righteous mallet of justice. As the avian nib pecked at the insides of Johnson’s freshly opened ribcage, now spread open in a blood eagle, the man executed a final, nearly whimsical act of defiance: he pulled the beast’s horns.
White lightning burst forth from the lion’s rump and found a staggering, newly concussed Beans standing in the silhouette of the broken window. The force of the lightning strike lifted him up off his feet and carried the man forthright to his deathbed: an alcove housing Crédit Agricole’s two automated tellers. The force of Beans’ body’s impact was enough to bust those money nuts wide open and shower the young man in a colorful casket of paper banknotes.
Meanwhile, in the café, as Gregory’s twin leopard hearts slowed to a dull, intermittent, thwump-pump, the Frankenstein brain took in the scene. The peasant half, so far gone from two millennium and eighteen years of hosting rot and maggots, couldn’t understand anything about this strange, new world. Nor could it comprehend the immense carnage it had just brought into it. Yet, as the final beats of his bionic hearts rung out, Gregory lay down, amidst the fire and flames, and the other part of him smiled.
Upstairs, one of Epicurus’ secretary angels, charged with the task of tallying up the two lads’ lives in terms of general usefulness would later write in the margins of their divine ledger, the most useful thing either of these two clods ever did was die.
Written by Zachary D. Turner