The Steam Guild


“You’re right, I am from far away,” Will said. “Before I crashed the motorcycle we were …”
    He stopped when he saw the girl’s brow wrinkle.
   “Motorcycle,” she echoed. “That sounds like one of the Steam Guild’s inventions. What does it do?”

In The Shadow of Malabron, Rowen briefly mentions the existence of a Steam Guild in the city of Fable but nothing more is said about it.

The Steam Guild is a small group of inventors in Fable who have begun tinkering with steam as a source of power. Rowen’s grandfather, the toymaker Nicholas Pendrake, was briefly a member of this group and has used steam in some of his toys. He left the guild after he understood what some of its members were planning for the future of Fable.

So far the Guild’s creations, like the steam-powered book-page-turner, have been small and not very powerful. But it’s said that one of the inventors, Diomedes Howe, is on the cusp of perfecting a much larger engine that will use steam power to pump water out of flooded mines. Howe envisions a time when steam will allow people to rush in horseless carts at great speeds over the roads, and even to soar up into the sky in vessels raised by the power of hot air and sheer audacity.

Many in Fable consider Howe a madman, and they’ve nicknamed him “Howe Odd.” But already inventors and other curious folk from elsewhere have been coming to Fable for a look at the Steam Guild’s work. Some of these strangers show up in what they call steamwear: outlandish hats, cloaks, boots and tinted goggles that they claim will be both useful and fashionable in the age of steam, which they say is going to sweep over the Realm any day now.

Asked to comment on these visions of the future, Nicholas Pendrake said this: “Howe’s engines, he says, will one day dig vast amounts of coal out of the ground and fell entire forests in an afternoon. Even if we can do such things, I have to wonder, should we? What is the real cost of a future wreathed in steam? What I see at the end of that road are machines that will give immense power to a few and take power away from most others. The name for that is tyranny, no matter what costume it wears …”

Illustration by T Wharton

The Fable of Brother Buchreder

I had a great time at the Lethbridge Word on the Street Festival and read a new non-fiction piece about fear of bears.  A piece so new I was still tinkering with it just before I went up onstage to read.

I also got to see a former student of mine, Matt Schneider, who lives in Lethbridge and is working on his PhD dissertation on the materiality of video games. Matt is also a writer of fiction and he kindly agreed to share a story of his on the Perilous Realm blog, a brief tale that booklovers will enjoy, called The Fable of Brother Buchreder.

Matt has a blog of his own about all things bookish and then some, at

Note: the last line of the story is a quote from Dante's Inferno, which translates roughly into English as "And we came out once more under the stars."

Illustration: "Lucia Carrying Dante" by William Blake

The Adventures of Gord Watching Hockey


Tales from the Golden Goose: The Adventures of Gord Watching Hockey

Gord avalanched into his recliner. He grasped the TV remote and jabbed his thumb down on the button of power.

Rapid-fire images of commercial enticement cascaded and danced before his eyes. Gord dragged air in and out of his lungs. His mouth sagged open.

One image at last flung hooks of interest that caught hold of his eyes and tugged. Hockey. The blaring theme song called to his blood.

Gord burrowed into the creaking leather of the chair and watched, watched, watched.

The play ceased. The period break slammed into his absorption like a body check. Gord stirred in his chair. His domelike stomach emitted a deep, gurgling, rhinocerotic growl.

From a rotund bowl on the table at his side Gord captured a rippled chip of potato. His jaws snapped down upon it, his molars grinding, grinding. The heady savour of salt and caustic vinegar smacked his olfactory and gustatory nerve endings upside the head. Swiftly he snatched up another chip and crushed it into paste, then another and another.

With a decisive squeeze he wrenched off the unwilling cap of a cold brown bottle, tilted his head back and sluiced down a foaming, bubbling tide of Alberta-made big-name brand beer, his neck pulsing like a wild thing.

Hockey returned and again Gord watched with all his might, his capacious flesh jerking and rippling to the movements on the screen, grunts and other ejaculations of vicarious team spirit and zeal rising frequently from his throat. Come on!... Damn it!... Aww jeeziz guy!Oh … oh … oh YEAH!

There were many exciting plays, and more beers cracked open and chugged down to toast them. At the appointed time the game ended, happily as it turned out for the team of Gord’s affections. The late evening news came on. There were a few broken bits of potato chip left in the bowl. Gord plucked them out and ate them, staring glassily at rapid-fire images of unpleasant happenings around the world. Then the sports news came on and Gord relived the night’s most exciting plays and cheered once more at that totally awesome goal.

With his tongue Gord zambonied the remaining crumbs and salt from his lips. A Brobdingnagian belch volcanoed up from the core of his being, followed by a face-cracking, leonine yawn that shook his mighty frame and shuddered down into his toes.

Once again, as he had before, Gord prodded the button of power. The screen went dark.

Silence bombarded the room like an aerial bombardment of very quiet warplanes.

Gord's eyes clanged shut like portcullises. He stampeded his way down into the beery vales of sleep.

Author's note: this piece began as a writing exercise about verbs. I wanted to see if I could make a very passive activity sound active and exciting by using strong, active verbs. I chose the most passive activity I could think of -- sitting in a recliner watching sports on TV -- and very quickly I realized the combination of slothfulness and power-verbs could only result in something very silly. So I let it become as silly as it wanted to be and this is the result.

Back to life Part 2

The hanged man’s neck is broken and so I have to cradle his head in the crook of my arm to hold it upright. Then I reach my fingers around to the mouth. I don’t want to touch those cold lips, that swollen tongue, but I think of the gold and I force myself.

The jaw is already getting stiff, so I have to yank on it hard, and I hear it crack. Then the old fellow crouches down and brings the bottle to the dead man’s lips and starts to pour the contents slowly and carefully down his throat. Whatever this stuff is, it smells worse than goat piddle left to ferment in a bucket all summer. And all the while he’s pouring, the old one is murmuring to himself, like someone reciting his prayers.

“Life is heat, and motion, and impulse,” he’s saying. “Impulse is the physical manifestation of desire, and desire is not only of the corporeal body but of the spirit. The salamandrian fire does not originate within the body but the body takes part in it…”

The concoction is all gone. The old fellow slips the empty bottle back into his cloak and hunches forward, peering closely into the corpse’s face.

“Nothing’s happening,” I say.

“Patience,” the old one says, and then he looks up at me sharply. “You believe you have a soul in you?”

“I don’t know. That’s what the preachers say.”

“Tell me this, if the soul is incorporeal, insubstantial, if it is not physical matter, how could it be confined by time and space? Why would it have to be in you at all? No, my friend, our lives are moved by a great cosmic force called desire. We think of our desires, like our souls, as part of us, as something growing from us like our hair and teeth, but desire is larger than any of us. It’s an invisible river that we all swim in. It surrounds us and shapes us, but like stones in a stream we also give a shape to desire. We leave our own particular traces in the current. Those traces are still here, lingering around the body.”

He returned his gaze to the dead man, frowned, and prodded the cold, bare chest with a finger.

“All that the elixir does is restore heat and motion to the physical shell. The rest is accomplished by desire. The body seeks the same things it did in life. And what did he want more than anything in this life?”

“Gold,” I say, and the dead man jumps. As if the word itself was all he was waiting for, he flops in my arms like a fish. I give a shout and I’m about to drop him but the old fellow raises a hand.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says. “It’s just life. Life returning.”

He’s not afraid, clearly, and something in me doesn’t want to look a coward in his eyes, so I hang on to the dead man. If he is a dead man anymore. And if he isn’t, then what is he?

I cry out again when the dead man’s hand reaches out and clutches my arm.

“Papa,” says a voice that I can still hear, all these years later. A voice that seems to be coming from a cave deep underground, though it’s coming from the dead man’s throat. “Papa, is that you?”

I look at the old fellow, and he nods. I understand what he wants me to do. I swallow hard.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s me, son.”

“I want to come home Papa. I’m so sorry for what I done. Please let me come home.”

I look at the old fellow and he mimes rubbing a coin between his fingers.

“You can come home, son,” I say, “as soon as you tell us where you hid the gold.”

The voice rises again out of its deep hole.

“Don’t let them hang me, Papa. I’m sorry. I want to come home.”

“The gold.” My voice is harsh, but not because I’m angry at him. I’m angry at myself. I’m disgusted with myself, but I can’t stop. “Where did you hide the gold?”

He growls and he moans and he thrashes in my arms, but in the end he tells us. He gives us the precise location in great detail, so we won’t have any trouble at all finding it. And once the old fellow has the information he’s after, he whispers to me, “Now put him back.”
“He has to go back in the ground so no one will know.”
“But he’s alive.”
“You call this life? No, the elixir’s potency will fade in a few hours and the body will go cold again. He’ll begin to rot, just as nature intended.”
“You’re sure?”
“If the elixir brought the dead back to life and kept them alive permanently, why would I need to dig up graves in the middle of the night? Think, man. I could just sell the elixir and get rich that way.”
That made sense, I suppose. I lean close to the dead man’s ear and I whisper, “You’ve done well, son. You’re home now, and you can rest. So rest now. Sleep.”
The dead man lets out a long sigh, but doesn’t speak again, or move. His hand lets go its grip on my arm.

And yes, I buried him. Tied the sack back around him like I was tucking him in for the night. Put him back in the ground and covered him over.  And then the old fellow and I went to the place where the dead man had hidden the gold, and we found it all right. The old fellow honored his word. He shared the gold with me and I was able to buy the tavern and set myself up for life. As for the sorcerer, never heard a word of him after that night.

A happy ending? Things went my way for a while, it’s true. Sure, it was a mystery where a gravedigger had found enough money to set himself up in business, but because no one could prove anything, I was safe. But even though I was on the other side of the bar now, filling the glasses and raking in the coins, the drink was still right in front of me and I couldn’t keep myself from it. At the end of each night, after the last of my customers had staggered home and I was cleaning up, I’d look toward the door and expect to see him there. Come for what he wanted more than anything in this life. That thought was enough to drive a man to the bottle. And in time I lost everything: tavern, wife and child.

You call this life? I haven’t forgotten the question. He wasn’t speaking of me, but he might as well have been. Heat, motion, and impulse. Did I live any better than the man I put back in the ground?

So that’s what magic does. That’s what magic is. There’s always a price to pay for the thing you want more than anything in this life. You find out who you really are.

Back to life

Tales from the Golden Goose: Back to Life

Magic. Enchanted islands. Hm. Well, I’ve seen real magic, and it isn’t pretty. It isn’t nice.

I used to work as a gravedigger. This was in a time of plague, and so work was steady, though the pay was terrible. One time I’d just finished burying a fellow who’d been hung for robbery and murder when this shifty-looking old codger comes sidling up to me. Says he’ll pay me plenty to come back with him to the graveyard at midnight and dig up the body. “I just plant them,” I say to the geezer. “I don’t dig them up.”

He looks around all furtively and then hands me a fat pouch. More in it than I make in a month.

“If we’re caught,” I say, “we could both end up planted ourselves.” (Of course I’m wondering what he wants the body for, but I figure the less I know the better).

“If we get away with it,” he says, “there’ll be more of what’s in that purse for you. A lot more.”

Well, I don’t like the look of this fellow. Ice in his eyes and skin like he’s just been dug up himself. But I agree to meet him at midnight. Had a young wife and a child to feed in those days. Before I lost them to the drink.

So that evening after supper I tell the wife I’m off to the tavern, which was usually the truth anyhow, so my leaving isn’t anything out of the ordinary. And in fact I do stop in for a few pints, to fortify myself for what lies ahead. Near midnight I retrieve my spade from where I stashed it behind the tavern's woodshed and I head for the graveyard. 

The old one’s already there, waiting in the shadows. The moon’s nearly full so we don’t need a lantern. That’s one bit of luck. Less chance of being seen out here.

The murderer’s buried in a low patch at the far end of the graveyard, on the other side of a wall from the respectable corpses. He's lucky he's been stashed in the graveyard at all. Connections, I guess. 

We find the fresh grave and I get to work.

You’d think a gravedigger would be the last person to get spooked in a graveyard. But I only ever come out to this place in the daytime. Like everyone else I avoid it at night. So even with the drink in me I’m starting to get the creeps. There’s a big wind tonight, which is good because it’s hiding the noise of my spade, but it’s making the trees bend and creak and thrash around like a coven of mad old witches dancing to raise the Evil One. Every little sound makes me jump. The old fellow seems unmoved, like this is nothing new or scary to him. Again I wonder what he wants this body for.

I reach the corpse and clear the earth away from it. He wasn’t buried in a box. Just a sack. I haul the sack up and out, tear it open. The dead man hasn’t started to smell yet. One small blessing. The noose is still around his neck. Face the colour of a turnip that’s been in the cellar too many winters. Tongue swollen and hanging out of his mouth all blue. Strange to think this thing was breathing the air and thinking his thoughts, just like me, only a few hours ago.

“There you go,” I say to the old fellow. “My work is done.”

By now I’m nearly sober and I just want to get the hell out of here at the earliest possible opportunity. I hold out my hand to give him the hint I want the rest of my pay.

“Wait,” he says. “There’s more to do.”

“Not for me there isn’t.”

“He was hung for killing a rich old widow,” the old one says. “Isn’t that right?”

“That’s right. Nearly finished off her servant, too, but he survived and that’s how they caught this fool. The servant knew him. He was some relation of the widow’s. Disgraced nephew, I think. In the old lady’s black books.”

“So they caught him,” the old one says. “But they didn’t find the widow’s gold.”

“He wouldn’t talk. They tried to beat it out of him but he never said a word. Must’ve figured he was going to be hung either way, I guess.”

“I’m going to make him talk,” the old fellow says to me, cool as you please. “He’ll lead us right to the gold.”

That sobers me up completely. I realize now I’m out here in the dark with a raving lunatic. I keep a good grip on my spade and I say, “In case it’s escaped your notice, friend, this lump of wormbait I just dug up isn’t likely to be too articulate.”

The old fellow doesn’t seem to be listening. He’s rummaging in his cloak and brings out a big glass bottle filled with some liquid that in the moonlight looks as black as pitch. He swirls it around, then uncorks it. I stand there, wondering if I should just run, but something’s keeping me rooted to the spot. The old fellow isn’t behaving like a madman. He’s calm. Sure of himself.

“What are you?” I ask, trying to put a sneer in my voice. “Some kind of sorcerer?”

He nods. Just a nod, as if it’s not worth the trouble trying to convince me. And well, that convinces me.

“If you help me now,” he says, “this will be the last grave you’ll ever have to dig. I know you have a pretty young wife, and a child at home. How’d you like to be able to go into business for yourself? I understand the tavernkeeper is retiring, looking for someone to buy his place. That someone could be you.”

He knows a lot about me, that’s clear. Too much. I’d thought it enough times, to be sure, that if only I had a little money, if only this rotten miserly world would give me a bit of luck for once, I’d be on the other side of that bar, filling the glasses instead of emptying them. Maybe the dead man thought something like that too, when he lay awake nights imagining the old lady's gold.

“What do you want me to do?” I hear myself asking.

“Sit him up and hold open his mouth, while I pour this in.”

[to be continued]


Tales from the Golden Goose


I’m a merchant, a man of business. I travel not because I enjoy it but because it’s necessary in my line of work. I travel to faraway lands, purchase exotic wares, bring them home, and sell them to people who can’t or won’t travel themselves. If they did travel they might discover these wares are not so rare and wonderful after all, that one man’s exotic is another man’s commonplace. But if that happened I’d be out of business, wouldn’t I?

What’s the strangest place I’ve been to in my travels, you ask? That's easy. There's an island. Better to call it The Island. It's a place where everything is exotic, but only to the people who live there. No, exotic isn’t the right word. On this island, every single thing is precious. Miraculous. Truly one of a kind. 

I warn you right now: never go there.

Let me explain. This island wasn’t on my regular trade route, but I thought I’d have a look and see what sorts of opportunities it might hold for expanding my business. When I arrived I anchored my ship in the island’s one lagoon, rowed to its one beach, and followed the one road up to the one village at the foot of the island’s one mountain. Nothing unusual about that, right? After all, there must be plenty of islands in the world with only one road, village and mountain. True enough, but this island was peculiar in that there was only one of everything else, too. The island had one tree, a pine. One flower, a night-blooming cereus, I believe. One dog. One cat. One mouse. One wild pig. One bird, a very loud parrot who sat in the one tree all day, squawking the same bawdy phrase at everyone who walked by. The village itself consisted of one house, with one window, one chair, one bed. And in the house?  One book, one pipe, one spoon, one shoelace….

And yet, as I discovered, there’s one thing the island has many of. People. How do they live? Well, with every single thing that you and I take for granted there’ll always be plenty of, they have to take turns. They take turns sleeping in the one bed. They take turns going for walks on the one footpath with the one dog. They take turns playing the one guitar with one string and singing the one song they all know by heart. Cooking. Chores. Playing ball. Lying on the one blade of grass and dreamily looking up at the island’s one cloud.

So this is why I said that everything on this island is exotic only to the people who live there. After all, if you’ve only got one tree, then a tree is a very special thing, a wondrous thing, an object with no parallel. Nothing to compare it to. A tree is the perfect, ideal tree. A dog is the world’s best dog. A shoelace is the ideal shoelace.

Was I tempted to put an end to this paradise of singularity? Of course. When I first got there I was sure I’d stumbled onto a merchant’s dream. How could I fail to make a fortune in no time selling these poor benighted souls more of each thing they had only one of? (They had been gaping in awe at the six buttons on my coat, for example.) Imagine how they would marvel, I thought, at the astonishing notion of more than one playing card! At the near-infinite possibility of more than one thumbtack! I hurried back to my ship and loaded everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary onto the rowboat and returned. Look at these! I announced to the villagers, tossing the contents of the boat at their feet. Nails, biscuits, potatoes, bowls, arrows, stockings, pillows. We didn’t have a lot of words in common, but I did the best I could. Many! I shouted. Many is better than one!

It was bound to fail. For one thing, the entire population’s purchasing power consisted of one tarnished copper penny. And even so, they weren’t willing to spend the only coin they’d ever had. To them, it was The Coin. Barter failed, too. They owned nothing they were willing to trade for one more anything.

Things were at an impasse. They all looked at one another with an expression I couldn’t read, and then the village elder stepped forward.

“We thank you for showing us the world of Many,” she said. “We do not need it.”

“But why?” I asked. “I don’t understand. How can one shoe be better than enough shoes for everyone’s feet at the same time?”

She couldn’t explain. Or wouldn’t. They all saw me down to my rowboat, gave me a farewell drink from the island’s one cup, and then a child came forward and presented me with a gift: the island’s one seashell, an unremarkable-looking scallop. I looked at it, and then I really looked at it.

“I can’t accept this,” I said, and handed it back. They looked sad. They must have thought I was offended by such a worthless gift. I wasn’t. Far from it. It was simply that for one moment (and for the people of the island there is only one moment) I had seen the world through their eyes. And since that day I’ve worked hard to drive what I saw out of my mind. I’ve never gone back, and I never will. Because I’m a merchant, right? A man of business. Can you imagine what would happen to trade and commerce if everyone looked at things the way those people do? Well, I can imagine it, unfortunately. Some mornings, when I’m slipping on one of my stockings, or picking up my breakfast spoon, or catching sight of a sparrow building a nest in the branches of the tree outside my dining room window, I can imagine it. And it terrifies me. I see a world that seems to be made of many, but is really only one, and in this world there is no desire for more. There is no better. There is no lack.

Ah, my throat is dry from all this talking. Where’s that barmaid? I could really use another ale.

The Golden Goose

It’s a cold, rainy, miserable night. You’re on your way from someplace to someplace else, but you can barely remember where you set out from and where you’re going to, you’ve been on the road so long. You’re soaked to the bones, hungry, tired, alone.

You’ve come to a city you’ve never been to before and you’re looking for a warm fire, supper and a bed. In your pocket is just enough money that you should be able to purchase these three items, as long as you’re not too fussy. Which you’re not.  Not this night.

You’re crossing a bridge, searching for an inn, when you see lights from windows above you, and the sounds of laughter and the clink of glasses. You stop, surprised. There’s an inn right on the bridge. You find the stairs that lead up to the entrance. There’s a sign above the door: a goose, a golden egg, and a name: "M. Plunkett, prop."

You stumble in, dripping water from your cloak and hat, and find yourself in a crowded common room. Noise, light, voices, the pleasing scents of ale and wine and good food. You like it here immediately. This is just what you were looking for. You find a seat near the roaring fire. The barmaid brings you a bowl of soup, a hunk of bread, and a foaming tankard. You sit back, content. This is more like it.

The room, you discover, is filled with folk from all over. Some are pilgrims stopping for the night on the way to holy places; others are restless young men and women seeking their fortune; still others are adventurers on quests; and some simply introduce themselves as travelers, like you, on their way someplace from someplace else.

What they have in common is that each of them has a story. And one is being told right now...

[coming soon: Tales from the Golden Goose]