On the Third Day, Boulder (barrier)
Milo called for the donkey colt who reluctantly stepped forward.
— Choose a card, my friend.
‘(I don’t wish to be the primary architect of my own future, I choose instead to continue as a vehicle for fate to express itself.)’
Milo was taken aback by the creature’s speech. Not for its content, as he would go to the grave with this same belief, but for its capacity to communicate at all.
— Would you let me pick for you? What is your name?
‘(Donkey, obviously. Yes, you may select, but it is not on my account, it would only be acting as an agent for Her…)’
Milo took Her to refer to Fate and reached for the most obscured card buried under the rest, and flipped it over, placing it to the right of the crossed cards. The Wheel of Fortune.
Milo couldn’t disguise his surprise, — my! Well, that should bring The Legend of Old Stump to a close in an expected way…
Inside of a room there’s a cage, there’s a cage
It’s a-made out of chain and glass
It’s about forty feet high and three feet wide
It was built to last
It’s against a brick wall in an old muddy corner
Of a basement tunnel room
There’s a man in the cage in the old, muddy corner
He’s asleep, but he’ll wake up soon
Oh won’t you be there with me for it, tonight?
In this hut-to-hut witch hunt, down the tunnels of Old Yellowcake
Where all the souls in a city go drowning by starlight
Where each choice you make it’s a fierce firefight, it’s a new mistake?
—Rasputina, In Old Yellowcake
The last morning after sleeping late, a rejuvenated Ole Stump creaked opened his ornamental iron door to find a businessman in a pin-striped suit waiting patiently for Stump’s awakening. The man looked at his gold wristwatch and smiled. “May I come in?”
“By all means, good sir, that’s the name of the game! I’ve been at this old chestnut for long enough to not mince thoughts. Whatever you want is going to cost you dearly.”
“Money is of no object to me.” The man smiled.
Ole Stump showed him in to the kitchen table, pouring two frothy stouts. He set one down in front of the stranger, and scooped his beverage’s aroma up with his broad mustachioed nose stuffed down into the foam. “So?”
“I have a proposition for you.” The man leans away from the table, tapping quietly at the base of the untouched stein, and settles comfortably into the ensuing silence.
Without picking up his glass, Stump sip-sucks a layer of beer foam and responded, This proposition had best involve gold.”
The business man leaned in suddenly like a leopard pouncing prey and spoke in hushed tones. “I want you to make me you.”
“I make things, pal, and you don’t want to be me, I’m world-weary and stagnant in this whole operation I’ve spent my whole life trying to achieve. I get angry when I haven’t eaten enough food, and I’m restless and anxious when I take a shit and I’ve been told I use too much pot pourri when wiping. And I, I’m not sorry to say, don’t wish to be you at all.” Ole Stump shook his head and frowned. “You should drink that stout and leave.”
“I didn’t make myself clear, I very much wish to stay myself. What I want is for you to create an automaton of yourself.”
Astonished and baffled, “you want you to create a doll of myself?”
“No, a functional version of yourself out of tin or iron, or whatever would work, that is capable of doing all the labor that you’ve tasked yourself with. All the smithing and the powerful imbueing of enchantments.”
Ole Stump broke his befuddled silence with a great guffaw. “Oh, I get it. So you wouldn’t need to ever come back and pay more gold, teach a man to fish, sort of thing. Well, sir, to that I say, ‘Fuck you’ and no.”
“I see, I’m sorry to hear that you’re unable to do such a thing.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, buckeroo! I didn’t say I couldn’t do it, I’m saying I won’t.”
“It was indeed silly of me to think that such a fantastic feat were not accomplishable, even for a dwarf of your demonstrated talents.”
“Are you intentionally deaf?”
“But if you could do such a thing, why haven’t you done it already?”
The wizened dwarf had to admit being stumped. Why hadn’t he?
“Get the fuck out, now.” The man nodded a weak smile and left.
Annie let his leg drop to the patient mat and peeled off her latex glove, tossing it into the waste bin near the wall. Her heart was racing, beating time in her ears.
She touched June’s upper arm and thanked her for the help.
Milo’s mother started to cry as she watched her little boy’s glazed and pasty eyes already disconnected from sight begin to close as the tremors subsided in intensity. The plastic seat she slumped back into was cold and uncomfortable. She bent over and ran her hands over her wig.
June didn’t really wish to speak, but she wanted to seize this opportunity to fire the machine up again.
Ole Stump spent the rest of the day furious with the stranger and himself. He was angry that he couldn’t banish the proposed project from his mind; he was angry that he hadn’t come up with the idea himself. How many times had he begged for an assistant, someone who might be able to shoulder some of the relentless burden of generating these endless miracles, and while he had an endless array of tools at his disposal it never occurred to him to create a creator.
The task would be difficult and daunting, surely, but he had a growing list of ideas on how to fashion a steam-powered New Stump that could manage the multiple furnaces. And if need be, he could engineer another variant that focused on the alchemical enchantments, a third to do the research to expand his abilities.
He pondered all this in a rocking chair with a mature whiskey in front of the warm fireplace, where he fell snoring asleep.
June started somberly back to booth, maneuvering around the anesthesia cart, catching Milo’s mother’s attention with “Do you want to stay in the room with him, Mrs. King?”
“It’s Ms. Cha-,” she stopped herself short and extracted a tissue from her bag. “No, I think I need a moment to myself. He seems okay at the moment.”
June opened the door to the vestibule and waited for Milo’s mother to collect her things, which she did slowly and distractedly.
“Which way to the restroom?”
“I’ll show you,” June replied and closed the door behind them.
Ole Stump’s hangover was pecked by early morning light. He stretched his limbs, but the activity nearly caused his stomach to somersault. After composing himself, he stood before the door, head bent, and to his relief, the business man was there again.
“Have you had a chance to reconsider the offer? If you’re still adamantly opposed, I’ll leave you to your next customer immediately, as the line has gotten… well, there’s no end in sight, to be honest.”
Wordlessly, Stump directed the man inside, but dispensed with the formalities of alcohol.
“I have rethought it. These old bones are weary, I’ve spent my life in acts of service, doing what others needed done of me. Don’t get me wrong, it was my pleasure to do it. It made my muscles strong, my abilities vast, and my mind adroit. My legacy is writ. There’s nothing greater task I can complete now than to pursue my own happiness, wherever that should lead this ole dwarf.
So to the matter of this one last intriguing bargain. I will do it as my coup de grace, a swan song, a denouement to my story before I retire to roam the seven kingdoms. The cost will be my weight in gold coin. I trust you are good for such a staggering sum?”
“I will be waiting here first thing tomorrow morning with your payment.”
And with that, Ole Stump grabbed his notebook and began work.
Annie avoided the chewed clip of the blue pen cap as she removed and placed it on the ridged rubber mat on the corner of her cart. Faint blue streaks squiggled as she started to write in her log, so she shook the pen to persuade the ink, via semi-idle threat of acceleration and gravity, to flow to the nib. She nearly tore the paper, leaving just indentations. It looked to her as if it still had ink in the carriage. She touched the nib to her tongue, and detecting no Concord grape bitterness, she sucked at the barrel intensely until her ears rang. Even with one last shake, nothing wrote, so her vowels became larger and more petulant loops until she threw the entire apparatus in the trash, and grabbed another from her “Out to Lunch” coffee mug. She tore out the ruined page from her logbook and stuffed it into her scrubs pocket, and began the process again.
With both great pride and excitement, Ole Stump threw open the door the next morning, beaming. The business man stood confidently, hands folded in front of him, but Stump could see no bag, or barrow, or barrel that might contain his gold, which gravely aroused his suspicion.
“May I come in?”
“You have my gold?” to which the man assented. Stump let him, suddenly eager to share the fruits of his long labor of mental fortitude, mechanical feat and raw genius.
“Behold! I give you, New Stump.” He pointed to the furnace, where, hard at work sculpting white hot metal pipes was a rotund orb of titanium sheets, magic and steam with thin limbs and bubble head about half the size of Ole Stump the dwarf. The automaton didn’t even need to cease its toil to spin its wee head around and bob it hydraulically up and down in greeting. “And with that, he’s yours and I’m gonna take that sack of gold you owe me and retire.”
“Do you really think that I would lug that kind of wealth around for everyone to see? To sleep in line for months to get to you see you, and not have such a sum stolen? You must be mad!”
“I’m the one who’s mad now! You promised you were good for it!”
“I am. I will give you this token. Its value is incalculable, for in your hour of dire need, just wish on it, and you will be rewarded.” The business man placed the large token in Stump’s hands.
Ole Stump clutched it tightly and solemnly said, “I need a sack of gold as heavy as I am on Christmas.”
“Don’t be a dick.”
“Hmf.” Stump turned over the token to find a strange sigil embossed on the silver that was somehow familiar, but he couldn’t quite place. It looked a bit like a scampering gecko lizard or an octopus. He banked it in his most precious coffer and began to pack up some equipment he intended to bring with him on his journey into retirement.
The business man curiously observed New Stump’s prodigiousness at the great fuming forge. He called to Stump. “If you’re leaving and heading out the front, what are you going to tell all those townsfolk in line?”
Stump dropped his clothes packing and ran to the front shop window, surveying the endless line of dreamers, all hoping in one way to improve their lives, so desperate as to pay enormous tax of their time, resources, and hope. All debts they are readily willing to shoulder, merely to gain a day of one dwarf’s labor. He had always felt so alone, so put upon, so injured that he never stopped to sympathize with their plight, to walk a moment in their too-big shoes, to care.
“I’ll tell you what, Ole Stump. Keep the token, but let me teach and mold your wondrous creation, employ him here to keep the magic smithy doors open, so that none of these poor souls need be shunned and rudely sent home. New Stump here shall graduate to master the moment you leave through the back door with your already substantial horde of riches.”
They negotiated the details over the next several hours, but Ole Stump agreed immediately that it would the ethical thing to do. They signed hastily penned contracts with no malice or suspicion. On this matter, it seemed Stump and the business man were of one mind.
Ole Stump was about to bid adieu from the rear vestibule when it occurred to him.
“Listen, just one more thing. Don’t never tell him about any of this, okay? You know, that he’s not the real Stump or nothin’. Ain’t no need fer him to suffer like that, knowing he’s just a reproduction, just a machine. Even a god-damn good one, like he is.”
“What if he asks?”
“Especially not if he asks.” Stump emphasizes.
Milo grinned at Donkey’s cocked head.
‘(But, what happened to Ole Stump?)’
— I don’t know yet, Donkey, said Milo as he gathered up the tarot deck. I have some idea, but I’m not really sure. It’s too soon to tell. But I need your help. Would you assist me, Donkey?
Annie finished her entry notes about the procedure. She breathed a heavy sigh upward leaning her neck back and craning from side to side to stretch out the tension.
June’s voice crackled through the room’s loudspeaker, “you’re staying inside, right?”
Annie shrugged with obligation, “you know I have to.” She took her place at the vitals monitor, resting on her elbows, and chuckled. It’s protocol to finish the count regardless of anything but emergency circumstances. She tilts her upper body to get a better view of Milo’s quiet eyes.