Wednesday, October 21, 2015

And If I Hang My Sword


     The mansion, built in the early 1800s, had been seemingly transported from the very heart of Dixie. Stout German neighbors on the one side viewed it with the same mixture of suspicion and curiosity as they might have an alien spacecraft. On the other side - well, the property still goes on and on out of view, until it butts up against a thick stand of brush too ugly and forsaken for anyone to try and make a living on it.
      Oh, it was beautiful:  the white columned facade, the gracefully curved walkway, the two-story veranda, the fountain in the courtyard. You can tell how the place once looked the same way that you can discern the sculpted cheekbones and delicate skin that still lie hidden under sagging jowls and caked foundation on Virginia Shippen.  I heard that Virginia got her looks from her mother, and her legendary vile temper from her father, and she's not selling the mansion until she drops as dead as a deer that's been gut-shot.
      Nobody that's local would look twice at the place, let alone consider buying it.  Hell, some of them won't even use the road that runs in front.  There've been too many accidents along that stretch. Horses spook and throw riders, or overturn carriages. Cars blow tires with alarming frequency.  And, by some trick of nature, thunderstorms seem to hang over the place in a near constant cannonade during the month of July.
      I didn't get the full tour, but I did get a look-see when I brought Virginia a third offer from our company.
      Stepping through the front door, I was struck by the 15 foot ceilings and the pervasive scent of gardenia.  A great fireplace yawned along one wall, and above hung the requisite oil paintings of sour and judgemental ancestors. I was struck by the one in the middle, however;  a beautiful woman with russet ringlets and full pouting lips seated next to a man with thin lips, pointy nose and a distinct resemblance to a possum. Ms. Shippen followed my gaze.
     "My parents. Well, just one of them, really."
      I raised one eyebrow, a trick which I had spent an entire year in elementary school perfecting.
      There was a far off rumbling, which I interpreted as yet another cold front moving into the area. Excellent. A good downpour would allow me to observe any telltale pooling of water outside or egregious leaks inside. Any excuse to tear the place down and build something new, something modern, with clean simple lines, lots of windows...
      "Good. You hear them."  The widow's voice jolted me from my mercenary reverie.
      "Sorry?"  My first thought was that "them" might be the scurrying of vermin. I resisted the urge to lift my feet.
      She smiled at me brightly.  "Would you like some sweet tea?"

      Rude as it may seem, I followed her into the kitchen so as to assess its potential use in the conference center of our dreams.  It wouldn't do at all. 
      I sat down at the wooden table as another drumroll sent vibrations through the soles of my feet, accompanied by a quick flare of bright light. 
      Locals say that an apparition is often spotted on the property - a Confederate soldier, dressed in an officer's uniform. While alive he marched past the mansion on his way to a nearby battle, where he met his end. His body forever trapped in the North, his spirit took refuge in the mansion as the closest and most familiar representation of his beloved South.
      "Poppycock," she ground out.
      My teeth clacked painfully on the rim of the glass.  I couldn't possibly have quoted that aloud;  the cold sticky tea was still trickling down my throat.
      "You aren't the first to sit here with that ridiculously sappy look on your face.  Romantic folklore. Pah."  
      Boom! went the thunder.  Or a thirty-two pounder.
       "My father had made his money breeding horses, and when war was declared the Union Army came and bought all but three. Two years later, when the Rebs had come close enough that we could smell 'em, Father took the last three and lit out for Yankee lines.  He couldn't fight - a horse kick had busted his kneecap the year he built White Chimneys- but he could drive a pony trap with the horses on behind. And the troops could certainly use fresh horses. Stop picking your cuticles."
       I slid my hands under the table guiltily, resisting the urge to say "Sorry, ma'am."
       "At any rate, while he was gone, a Confederate officer did come to the door.  You'd think that she would have hidden, but you would be wrong.  She met him at the door with a Remington 6 shot, saw that he was bleeding heavily from a head wound, and allowed him entrance.  As a Confederate, he was the enemy;  as an officer, and a well-bred man to boot, he posed no immediate threat.  She showed him to an unused servant's room - back that hallway."  She pointed to a doorway at the other end of the kitchen. 
     The air seemed to split with a deafening crack and I just managed to stop myself from covering my ears. She would have made an excellent stage manager, arranging for nature to perfectly punctuate her tale.
      "She told him 'My husband will be back shortly.  He's a decent sort of man, and will shelter you as long as you abide in a peaceful manner.  I'll ask you to hang your sword outside of the door as a token of trust.' So he did."
      "And what happened when your Father met him?"  I was so drawn into the story that I had forgotten why I was even there.
      "He killed him, or so the story goes. You see, when he got home Mother was nowhere to be found.  He found a smear of blood on the floor there - right over there - which led him to the room with the officer. And Father shot him."
      "But the sword!" Ugh. I sounded like a squealing school girl.
      What I presumed was hail rat-a-tatted against the wooden siding.
      "We can only surmise that the soldier was somehow in possession of the sword."
      I felt dumbfounded.  The story felt all wrong, somehow. Had I missed something?
      "So the Confederate officer had killed your mother?"
      The old woman smiled, and that's when I saw the faint outlines of her mother's beauty lingering subtly below the carunculated surface.
      "Oh no. She killed my father. Please close your mouth, dear."  She delicately added a sprig of mint from a china plate to her sweating glass of tea. "You see, she'd been out to the privy when Father arrived home.  That's why he couldn't find her."
      I wanted to beat my head on the table.  "I don't get it. I just don't get it."
      "Well, I guess it's a story about honor.  Or war.  Or love. I can't really know, can I?  I wasn't even born. It's like one of those - science things.  A dichotomous key.  There are choices, and each choice leads to a different outcome.  I know two things.  No one else in my family has blue eyes. And my Father supposedly broke the sword in anger.  And yet there it was, whole, at the bottom of Mother's cedar chest when she passed."
     I slowly digested this as watery light filled the kitchen.
     "Now then, young man, you may leave your paperwork in that fancy carrying case of yours. I have everything drawn up here, just so.  I'm ready - ready as I'll ever be - to move to the Cavalry Home.  I know, I know, it's Calvary, but it does make the erudite curl up and wither.  Your company agrees to keep and maintain the mansion, intact, and to make that a condition for future resale as well. You also agree to maintain and honor the graves of those who are buried in the cemetary in the copse over the hill.  In return, you may purchase the property for the princely sum of one dollar." 
     "Ah, well..." I ran a finger under the back of my collar.  Damned itching tags. "I'll have this back and offer it for..."
     There was a deafening crash which sent me into a palsied leap from my chair. Out of the corner of my eye, floating in a lazy trajectory, was a glowing cannonball. I threw myself down on the cool tiled floor.
     "It's gone.  Suppose you get up on your hind legs and sign these papers.  A body's only born with so much patience."
     I scrambled to my feet, feeling my face flush hot with embarrassment.  She held out a pen. "The pen is mightier than the sword, boy.  Sign, and I'll even give you the sword as a gift."
     Picking up the pen, I toyed with it, rolling it between my fingers.  The noise outside had abated, a few muted thumps and a faraway voice calling unintelligibly.  I felt ridiculous; a tendril of insanity had been tickling the far reaches of my mind, it seemed.  Virginia's story had transported me to that other time.  It was just a storm.  The cannonball was just ball lightning.  
     "Poppycock," I said aloud, to reassure myself.
     "Is it?" Virginia countered. "Sign, and they will take their war back to where it belongs."
     "And if I hang my sword..."
     "...outside of your bedroom, as a sign of trust, you will always remain safe."

     Well, I signed of course.  After all, it's important to re-purpose and save structures of historic import.  The mansion is now a cozy conference center with two modern suites on the upper floor to house important overnight guests.  The locals still swear that they see apparitions about the place, but that just means more bookings for the center.  Outsiders are curious.
     Virginia's still at the old folks' home, as far as I know, and probably raising hell with residents and staff alike.
     Me, I moved to another country and took up bartending.  The sword is in a museum back in the US.  But just to be on the safe side, I bought a toy replica which I hang outside of my bedroom every night.
     Just to be on the safe side, you know.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

An Evening At the Mop and Pail - #FridayFlash

Part 1: From A Holler To Here

   The blonde in ISO-6 is slowly and methodically licking the viewing window.  It could be a side effect of whatever she's taken this evening, a deliberate bid for attention, or an attempt to rattle me. Every employee at the Washburn County jail knows that at some point they'll witness an event which will haunt them. But tasting the infrastructure is pretty tame compared to the usual Saturday shennanigans.
     "Git yer hands offa me, you fat-assed Mexican."
     "Over to the counter, sir. Feet on the blue tape. And I prefer to think of myself as husky." That's Officer Ramirez, who's Peruvian but has given up on mentioning it.
     We all get our lineage, our physical aspects and our mothers' marital status questioned. I happen to be part Native American, which elicits everything from offers to smoke a "peace pipe" (the guy actually pulled a crack pipe out of his ass) to war whoops and unsteady performances of Sugar Hill Gangs's Apache (Jump On It). 
     The best piece of advice I've ever been given came from my brother; "consider the source". The source is more than the mouth it came from.  The source is the history, the family, the home and the combined experiences of a lifetime. Drink from a dirty well and you get good and sick. And there's plenty of dirty wells in Washburn County.
     When the jail was built during the Depression, most of our business came from the Holler.  Drunks, petty thieves and the occasional moonshiner showed up on a pretty regular basis. We locked them up, dried them out, gave them a Bible and shipped them out to the judge by 8 AM the next morning.  Nobody held a grudge; the dude who tried to head butt you one night was fixing the steering on your truck a week later.  Hey Earl, can you check the pressure in the tires while you're at it? Sure, Chief. Might charge ya for the air though. Ten bucks a pound. Wink.
     Nowadays the menu has changed to include drug dealing, domestic violence, corruption of minors, mail fraud, burglary and cyberstalking. Yeah, that last one. Got a young man in here for violating a restraining order - he "liked" the girl's Facebook posts. Lots of the oldtimers chalk it up to newcomers moving in, people with too much money and time, big city problems and big world attitudes. You don't have much crime when nobody has anything to steal, when everybody knows who you are, where you live, and is ready and willing to sic your own grandma on you. Which might make you smile until I tell you that my own dear Grammy clobbered a bear over the head with a shovel while Pops ran to get the shotgun.
     "Hey JoJo."
     That's me she's talking to, Joseph Harjo. I'm not big on nicknames, but it beats most of the things that people come up with. You can just imagine. Everything from Chief Runs From Dogs to Squats In the Woods.
     "JoJo, quit starin' down the corridor.  You're creepin' out the inmates.  Remember that missing girl, Paisley Meadows?"
     "Yup. Her family still calling?  I feel bad for them, but she's 19.  No sign of foul play.  It's not a crime to leave town and not call your parents."
     "True.  But somebody else is looking for her now, and that IS gonna be our problem."

Author's note: The phrase "Mop and Pail" in the title refers to rhyming slang for "jail" used back in the thirties (US).  I don't know if it's still used today.
This is part of a series about the inhabitants of the fictional towns called Norgood Hollow and Pascutt Shores. I am clueless right now about where things are going - it might end up being a series of character portraits, or a murder mystery, or a really confusing mess completely lacking in plot or continuity. 



Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Breath Of Kanaloa - #FlashFiction #WEPFF

Photo: Public Domain, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons

     There are those who are sentenced to death, and those who greedily chase it with every penny, every thought, every heartbeat.
     I have tried to do the math. One cubic meter of ocean equals about one ton. A wave ten meters high, a horizontal portion twenty meters wide, that's some 400 tons barreling along at who knows what speed, chasing you down, curling over you, enough power to rupture your organs, slam you to the seabed, snap your bones in half.
     You say that you are never so "alive" as when you are cheating death.
     I say that I am never so dead as when you are feeling "alive".
     You share an intimacy with this colossus which confounds and exasperates me.
     Go, if you must, and call forth your dreams. 

     "Ku mai! Ku mai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai..."
         (arise, arise you great surfs from Kahiki)

     The waves have swallowed "us";  may they not swallow you.

All of my blog posts are "FCA"
Word count: 166
 Written as part of the WEP Spectacular Settings Challenge. We are to "share a paragraph from a novel, or an extract from a poem, or a photograph that stopped your heart with a spectacular setting etc", describe what we liked about the setting, then share our own "setting piece" (new or from WIP). I chose to write a flash.

Big wave surfers pit themselves against one of the most powerful forces on earth. There are better photos available, but this one...well, those surfers look like tiny little stick figures.  It showcases the frailty of humans and the magnificent power of nature.

Thanks for reading! There will be more challenges in the future, so check out the link to WEP if you'd like to join the fun.

Click here to join

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Revising A Boring Opening at Fiction University

    Fiction University - a blog by Janice Hardy - is one of my favorite stops on my weekly reading agenda.  It's jam packed with writing tips, guest posts, and prompts as well as articles covering everything from initial planning of a novel to publishing and marketing your work.
    I recently took a stab at one of her prompts;  "revise this boring opening page".  (Janice purposely created the opening, BTW, so it wasn't as though she was inviting us to rip apart some poor aspiring writer's infant novel.)
    The contest is closed but if you'd like to see what we did with that opening - or would like to privately have a go at it for practice - you can check it out HERE. The winner was Laura Rueckert (congrats!) but I'm pleased me to say that I at least made the cut to the final three.
     Fiction University is a tremendous resource for writers, so I urge you to check it out and browse through the archives.
     Also, if you're looking for a prompt this week, Write, Edit, Publish has a blog hop kicking off this week with the theme "Spectacular Settings". 
     Choose a setting which has inspired you/taken your breath away.  It can be a photo, artwork, poem, or bit of prose.  Then you may share something inspired by that work, write something that incorporates it, post a bit of a WIP...rules are fairly flexible. 
     That's it for now.  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

From A Holler To Here - #FridayFlash

      I can remember the walk to the train station.  Fields of corn rustling and creaking, alive with chirping and buzzing, the night/day interface soft, heavy, with a hint of damp. Air like a thick warm quilt, fever-soaked, somewhere between comforting and suffocating.  Near the borough line a sign shot full of holes announced The Churches Of Norgood Welcome You and there was somewhere for everyone if you were a Protestant. I always assumed that the Catholics let the nuns do the recruiting, although the various phrases associated with the convents - Adoration Of the Blood Of Christ, Perpetual Sorrow, Our Lady Of the Snows - always brought to mind the Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons.  Maybe one day I will visit a nunnery, ring the bell and ask if I might have a look around.
      They will ask me where I'm from, and I will be tempted to say "NoGod Holler" which is what some folks called it instead of its official municipal name, which started out as "Norgood Hollow", but then they dropped the Hollow because only dirt-poor country places with shotgun shacks and barefooted, crust-covered kids had names with Hollow tacked on the end.
     They will ask me my name.
     Others did that before, but I first made the mistake of saying I don't have a fucking clue and so any moniker which I subsequently produced was instantly viewed with suspicion.  But it was easy to just walk away, took my clothes from the drawer and joined in the cattle call visiting hours are now over and once outside to find a bench, sit down and consider my options.
     It's funny, not ha ha funny but funny in that peculiar way you look at a three-legged dog or an old woman plastered with aquamarine eye shadow and fire engine red lipstick, that my memory encompasses a finite channel from the Holler to here. That comes of catching a beating from someone, somewhere prior to catching the train.  The bad thing about trains is that they require you to present ID.  The good thing about trains is that nobody bothers to enforce it.  You buy your ticket at an automated kiosk at the station (because no one wants to pay a body to sell maybe two or three tickets before 7:00A.M.), you board the train, you pick a seat - not too close to anyone, not in the first car (if there's a derailment you'll die) and not in the last car (if there's a derailment you'll die) and not in the middle car (because everyone else who's afraid to die will sit there, along with their cellphones and screaming kids) - and you put in your headphones, pull down your cap and stick your ticket under the little clip on top of the seat in front of you.  The conductor isn't going to shake you awake to look at your ID.  He's going to punch your ticket and sway along the line to the next and the next, a marginally better job than building sandwiches at Subway because the pay and benefits are higher.
     Maybe one day I will be a train conductor.
     But then I will be forced to choose whether I will ask for ID or not. I will scrutinize each face and if it bears the telltale signs of bruises or the swelling of tears or the lackluster gaze of the lost, I will ask them questions and I may or may not know what to do with the answers.  I will never even make it past the first few seats and so I will not be employed very long as a train conductor.
     Besides, here is where I need to be for now.  Here is a postcard-perfect town with a summer Chautauqua and a year-round community of artists. Here is a place where someone with nothing can get by on dreams and sweat and a pinch of luck.  Here is where all of these things are printed on glossy brochures and lying on just about every available horizontal surface.  And even if it seems just a little too desperate, just a little too much like a going-out-of-business sale, well it has to have its basis in something.  Every bit of advertising has a speck of truth in it, somewhere.
     A well-fed couple strolls by, the woman sailing along with a prow barely restrained by fabric, waves of decaying rose overwhelming the natural sea air.  They stop at the town fountain, and the man reaches a hand into his pocket, rummages around, examines the withdrawn contents and then tosses them into the basin.
     Their wishes grant mine.
     Perhaps that is the natural order of things; that what we wish for is given to others, and what someone else desires comes to us.
     When they have moved on, I nonchalantly make my way to the fountain, take a seat on the edge of the concrete basin, and dip my fingers into the water.  People have either made extravagant wishes, or they have left all of their pennies in jars at home.  The fountain is filled with silver and I carefully scoop the coins and put them into my pocket.  When I have as much as I deem safe to carry, I stand up and realize that my pants are soaked.  And so I extend my arms in the fountain, and whoop, and loudly display a manic enjoyment of the water on my skin.  The few people still walking in the area take note of my exuberance and are relatively unmoved.  They perceive me as a fellow vacationer, not a thief or a drunk.  Thieves are quiet and slink about in darkness; drunks take off their clothes, or curse, or fall face down in the fountain and then stagger out and off into the night. I retrieve a fragment of information from storage.
     It's very hard to kill a drunk.
     So I am here, I have money, and I have a name.  Not mine; that appears to be gone for now.  It is yours, written in silver metallic Sharpie on the insides of your shoes, it is here, written in purple ink on the outsides Pascutt Shore Or Bust!, the dot at the bottom made into a little flower, the treads still clutching grains of red clay from home, the pull tabs rubbing my heels raw as I walk.
      If I don't find you here, there is always another train. Always another road.
     Always another way.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

nuqneH pa'!

File:Amazing Stories October 1957.jpg

nuqneH pa'! qalegh naDev DaHjaj jIQuch! 
(Hello there! I am happy to see you here today!)

This is the most entertaining bit of political news that I've seen in a while.

From BBC news: 
Klingon was the chosen language for the Welsh government in its response to queries about UFO sightings at Cardiff Airport.

"Shadow Health Minister Darren Millar had asked for details of UFOs sightings and asked if research would be funded.
A Welsh government spokesman responded with: "jang vIDa je due luq."
The Welsh government statement continued: "'ach ghotvam'e' QI'yaH devolve qaS."
In full it said it translated as: "The minister will reply in due course. However this is a non-devolved matter."
It is believed to be the first time the Welsh government has chosen to communicate in Klingon."
 10 July 2015

Use the translator at Bing to translate further Klingon communications.
Learn Huttese and Ewok here
Listverse has a few other fictional languages here  
There seem to be a TON of Minion translator apps available, too many to list here.

This was a just-for-fun post since I've been busy this summer and took a writing hiatus after the A to Z Challenge in April.

Have you done anything interesting this summer? Know anyone who has learned a fictional language?   Created a fictional language of your own?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Charlie Charlie Are You There? Or, How Modern Kids Are Scaring Themselves As They Have For Generations #CharlieCharlieChallenge

     Sitting in the Junior High school cafeteria the other day, I was bemused by the the following special announcement.
     "Attention students. Some of you have been engaging in the game called Charlie Charlie Are You There. Let me remind you that this is not an acceptable or appropriate activity during your lunch break, or during school hours for that matter..."
      I try to stay on top of new fads, but this one was unfamiliar to me. So I asked another instructor about it.
      "It's some sort of game played with a paper grid and pencils. I think they ask questions about the future."
      "No, they're trying to make contact with the dead," someone chimed in. "And then the pencil moves and some of these kids get scared."
     The teacher across from me nodded. "We now have students crying, who are afraid to be in the hallway or go to the bathroom by themselves."

     Since no one seemed to really know the details, I did a little digging when I got home from work that day.  Multiple sources state that it's been around for at least 6 or 7 years, but really took off via social media as participants filmed themselves and posted it using the tag #CharlieCharlieChallenge. A grid is drawn with yes, no, yes, and no in four corners.  Two pencils or pens are laid in the shape of a cross on the grid. Then a participant says either "Charlie, Charlie, are you there?" or "Charlie, Charlie, can you play?" and waits for the pen/pencil to move.  Just about all sources say that the game is calling upon a "Mexican demon" named Charlie and similar games played with pencil and paper. (Isn't it strange how dozens of entities quote the same information, but can't point to a single definitive source?)
      I did, however, finally track down a notation on Wikipedia stating that the game was engineered to promote an upcoming movie called The Gallows.  (I have no idea if it's true or not.)
     At any rate, the "game" has caused consternation among schools, some parents, and even the Vatican.  
     "The problem with opening yourself up to demonic activity is that it opens a window of possibilities which is not easily closed." - Father Stephen McCarthy of Saints John Neumann and Mario Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia was quoted as saying by The Independent.

     I have no intention of weighing in on the existence of spirits, demons, communication with the dead, or any sort of religious beliefs. I agree that schools should squelch this sort of activity during school hours;  good luck with that, however, as strictures against giving wedgies, texting during class and farting games seem to be relatively difficult to enforce. Besides, making it "forbidden" will just add to the air of fear and suspense that already surrounds it for some kids.
     There's nothing new about children scaring each other or themselves, and dabbling in magic, superstition and the occult.  Remember Huck and Tom with the dead cat in the graveyard?  And the Ouija board has been around since 1890 (although it began life as an adult parlor game). I don't know about boys, but girls have dozens of ways to predict who their future husbands will be.  We used to say the alphabet while twisting an apple stem; whatever letter was said when the stem snapped was the first letter of your future husband's last name. When I was in Girl Scouts, we would sit in a circle at night and try to "levitate" someone.  Then there were the hundreds of scary stories, urban legends, and half-baked theories about missing persons or abandoned properties that we would recite and embellish until someone would scream and the Scout leaders would shut us down for the night.
     Charlie Charlie has spread further and faster due to the "viral" nature of the internet, but rest assured that one day it will be replaced by some other method for kids to scare themselves silly.  It seems to be human nature.
     What about you? Have you heard of this game?  Any memories of doing spooky stuff as a kid?

*Just as an aside, after writing the first paragraph of this post my computer inexplicably crashed.  Charlie, Charlie, are you...


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Letter Z, The Choose Your Poison List and Wrap-Up #AtoZChallenge

Z is for Zyklon B, originally developed as a fumigant and pesticide but used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. You can read more here and here.  
I'll be honest. There's too much information on Zyklon B for it to be easily condensed, and I hadn't the stomach to try and create a fiction piece. I wasn't there, and I've never really been able to wrap my mind around what it must have been like in the death chambers at Auschwitz.

Poisons A to Z: the Wrap-Up

Through time, many plants and animals evolved toxins - and methods of administration - either to protect themselves or to actively prey on others. At some point humans learned to use these poisons themselves, at first probably for hunting but as time went on, also to treat disease, kill unwanted vegetation and vermin, and...unwanted humans as well.

Oldest traces of poison - Stone Age Tool With Ricinoleic Acid

Mentions of deliberate poisonings date back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Poison was a very popular method of assassination.  Mithridates VI was so afraid of being poisoned that he began to test substances on criminals, experimenting with various strengths and combinations as well as antidotes. He even administered small amounts of poison to himself in an attempt to gain immunity.

Agathodaimon, an ancient alchemist, makes mention of a“fiery poison”; when mixed with natron and dissolved into water, the water stayed clear, but when copper was dunked into it that water, it turned a deep green (which leads experts to believe that he was describing arsenic trioxide). Only fragments of his texts remain.

Persian physician and scholar Rhazes wrote Secret of Secrets, a book of chemical compounds, minerals and apparatus. His was the first mention of mercury compounds (such as mercury chloride) as medicine, particularly as a laxative and an ingredient in ointments for skin diseases like scabies (caused by mites, which the mercury killed) and weeping sores (such as those caused by syphilis).

medieval poison ring was unearthed in Bulgaria in 2013. Murderous jewelry was thought of long before modern mystery writers came on the scene.

Poisons are still used today, both for good and for evil. People die daily, from accidental ingestion, environmental exposure, and by deliberate administration for purposes of murder (or 'sanctioned' execution).

The history of poison is intertwined with the history of mankind. I couldn't possibly cover all of them in the challenge. I've tried to use each post to highlight something unusual: a poison you might not have heard of, a more imaginative way to use it, a historical case which might be unfamiliar to you.

Other poisons/toxins/heavy metals which you may wish to research and include in your stories are listed below. (LInks are to my A to Z posts.) I have attempted to give each one a date or time frame, in case you are looking for a poison specific to a time period. The time is just a reference point; it doesn't mean that the poison was recognized as such. Many were first used as pigments, folk remedies, even hallucinogens. Some are also naturally occuring and have always been around, like mushrooms and castor beans. (I did not include all of the poisonous plants and venoms found in nature, as that would make the list far too long and unwieldy.)

Abrin                            (No dates found. Naturally occuring toxin.)
Aconite                         (Ancient)
Antimony                      (1540)
Arsenic                          (Ancient)
Aristolochia clematitis (Ancient)
Atropine                       (Ancient)
Belladonna                   (Ancient)
Brodifacoum                (1975)
Bromine/bromides (xylyl bromide) (1825)
Botulin                      (first medically described 1817)
Cadmium                     (1817)
Chlorine                       (1774)
Chloroform                  (1831)
Chromium                   (used by Q'in dynasty; named as element in 1761)
Cobalt                          (Ancient, used in pigment)
Colchicine                   (Ancient)
Cyanide                       (1700s)
Dioxin                         (1960s)
Ethylene glycol           (1859)
Ergot                             (Ancient)
Fluorine                        (1886) 
Formaldehyde              (1859)
Fugu (pufferfish)          (Ancient)
Furan                            (1780)
Green potatoes (solanine) (Ancient)
Hellebore                      (Medieval)
Hemlock                       (Ancient)
Henbane                        (Ancient)
Hydrogen cyanide         (1704) isolated from "Prussian Blue"
Inhalants                        varies according to substance inhaled
Lead                              (Ancient)
Mandrake                      (Ancient)
Mercury                        (Ancient)
Methyl bromide            (1932)      (Recent case: US Virgin Islands)
Mustard gas                   (1916)
Mycotoxins (fungi/mold) (Ancient)
Nicotine                          (Ancient, isolated 1828)
Nux vomica                   (Medieval)
Oleander                        (Ancient)
Paraquat                         (1882; first used as herbicide 1955)
Paris Green                    (1800s)
Phosgene                       (1812)
Phosphorus                    (1669)
Plutonium                      (1940)
Polonium                       (1898)
Potassium cyanide        Possibly 1807
Quinine                         Ancient
Ricin                              (Ancient. Identified 1889)
Sarin                              (1938)
Saxitoxin (paralytic shellfish toxin) (Identified 1927)
Strychnine                     (Ancient)
Thallium                        (1861)
Tutin                              (1909)
VX (nerve gas)              (1954)
Warfarin                         (1948)              

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Letter Y: The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

Today's letter, Y, is represented by Mr. Yuk.

The idea for Mr.Yuk was conceived by Dr. Richard Moriarty of University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1971. The design for Mr. Yuk was created by Wendy Courtney Brown, a 4th grader student at Liberty Elementary in West Virginia, USA as part of a contest.
     Mr. Yuk is used to educate children and adults about the dangers of poisonous substances.  Free sheets of stickers are available by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to:
Mr. Yuk
Pittsburgh Poison Center
200 Lothrop Street
PFG 01-01-01
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Each sticker contains the national toll-free number to the Poison Control Center. Calling this number from anywhere in the US or its territories will connect you to the nearest regional poison center. Help is available 24/7.

For your viewing pleasure: a Mr. Yuk commercial from 1971. Very trippy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Letter X: The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

Olive Trees With Yellow Sky and Sun

     "Art and sight are closely intertwined. Painting is a visual medium that requires both the artist and the observer to use their visual sense to fully appreciate the execution and development of a composition....
     .....In this first instalment of a mini-series looking into the subject of ‘Vision and Art’ I would like to talk about the ‘yellow vision’ of Vincent van Gogh.
     ‘Xanthopsia’, that is, an overriding yellow bias in vision, can be provoked by many disorders other than the reddish-brown filter of nuclear sclerosis, which most famously affected Monet.
Poisoning by a large number of drugs, including santonin, digitalis, phenacetin, ether, chromic and picric acids, and even snake venom have been associated with xanthopsia....
     ...Whatever van Gogh’s exact diagnosis may have been, it is highly likely that after admission to the asylum at Saint-Rémy in 1889, his physician, Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, prescribed digitalis, which is why medical historiography strongly supports the hypothesis of van Gogh having suffered from digitalis-induced xanthopsia. In Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890, the foxglove plant is presented in front of Dr Gachet; digitalis is extracted from foxglove plants."  -from Vincent van Gogh’s Yellow Vision, Anna Gruene,

Monday, April 27, 2015

Letter W: The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge
It would be most disconcerting if your doctor wrote you a prescription for rat poison. Yet that is exactly what has happened if you or a family member has taken Warfarin (brand name Coumadin) for preventing thrombosis or thromboembolism (blood clot).

Warfarin was initially introduced in 1948 as a pesticide against rats and mice, and is still used for this purpose today although better controls are available. The name Warfarin is derived from Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation which funded studies, and coumarin. It is a synthetic form of an anti-coagulant originally discovered in spoiled sweet clover animal feed.

Patients being treated with Warfarin need to have their blood monitored on a regular basis, and since levels of vitamin K can affect the blood clotting ability, dietary intake of foods high in that vitamin (like leafy green vegetables) must be regulated as well.

This is yet another example of a "poison" being put to use in a therapeutic manner under tightly controlled circumstances.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Letter V : The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

Blue ringed octopus. Photograph by Roy Caldwell via Wikimedia Commons

     The terms poisonous and venomous are not interchangeable.  Venomous creatures produce a biotoxin and inject it by means of bite, sting, or other sharp protruding body part (such as spines or spurs).  Utilization of venom occurs across a broad spectrum of classifications, from invertebrates (spiders) to fish (stonefish) to mammals (male platypus).  Venom can be used as both an offensive and defensive weapon.

    Lists of "most venomous" animals vary, due to differences in criteria.  Are they rating absolute toxicity? Most commonly encountered?  Highest death toll among humans? I thought I'd list a few with no known antidote; you get envenomated, you probably die in a painful and horrible manner.

    1. The Blue-Ringed Octopus is strikingly beautiful and small, but its venom is powerful. It carries enough poison to kill 26 adult humans within minutes, and there is no antidote.

    2. The Pufferfish's poison produces a quick and violent death. Puffer poisoning causes dizziness, vomiting, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, and muscle paralysis. Victims die from suffocation when diaphragm muscles are paralyzed. There is no known antidote.

    3. Coral cobra. These snakes are not true cobras but get their name from both their color and habit of flattening their necks into a hood. They are native to Africa and are highly venomous. However, since they have short fangs and live a burrowing lifestyle, the chances of a deadly encounter are fairly slim. There is no known antidote for their bite.

    4. Cone snails typically live in warm and tropical oceans worldwide, with the highest density in the western Pacific region.  They have beautifully patterned shells, but carry a deadly neurotoxin with which they poison their prey.  Symptoms after being stung include typical neurological impairment such as weakness, lack of coordination, vision problems, and difficulty with speech and hearing. A heavy dose of venom from one of the larger snails may result in death, due to respiratory paralysis, within hours.  There is no antidote.

      5. Box jellyfish show up on nearly every list. Most entries I've read state that there is no antidote to the poison. However, it's my understanding that an antidote does now exist. Unfortunately, many victims probably wouldn't live long enough to take advantage of it anyway.
     Box jellies include about 50 described species; there are probably more yet to be discovered. They have tentacles covered in tiny cnidocysts; each one is like a poison dart that causes an immediate and explosive release of poison. The toxin enters the blood, spiking blood pressure to dangerously high levels and often causing cardiac arrest.

     That's a short list, due to the nature of the A to Z Challenge. (I've tried to keep my posts short and sweet.)  There are plenty more venomous - and deadly - creatures out there. But let's not forget that in studying these toxins and attempting to find antidotes, scientists have learned a great deal about how toxins work, and they have also put these toxins and/or their components to work saving lives.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unhealthy Foods and Orthorexia : The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

     Most of us strive to eat a healthy diet. So it seems counterintuitive to consider that behavior as problematic. But there are those who cross the line and become obsessive.
     When unhealthy foods are viewed as poison, when one's life is consumed with draconian food restrictions, when social life is narrowed or disappears altogether, then orthorexia nervosa may have come into play.
     Orthorexia nervosa is not a recognized disorder in the DSM-V, but falls into the same category as anorexia nervosa and bulemia. One of the differences, however, is that orthorexics aren't generally attempting to lose or control weight; they are simply consumed with eating only what they consider to be "pure" or healthy foods. This type of eating behavior becomes a disorder when it interferes with a person's ability to function on a daily basis. For example, an orthorexic may decline to eat anywhere outside the home and only what they themselves have chosen and prepared. They may agonize over every single food item; where it came from, whether or not it is currently considered a "superfood", whether or not it should be cooked and by what method. They may spend hours poring over books and internet sites, searching for information on what they should be eating, and when. "Slipping up" and eating something unhealthy may send them into a spiral of depression and self-loathing, with the added consequence of making them even more rigid about their diet.
     And while eating pure and healthy foods may sound like it's good for you, unless it is carefully done you can still end up with unmet nutritional needs and deficiencies. That can result in osteoporosis, hormone problems, gastrointestinal problems, even cardiac issues.
     Like just about everything in life, it all comes down to balance. If you have food allergies or diseases such as celiac, diabetes or IBS, then of course diet is more critical to you then most. But for the average person with no known food issues, eating should be just a part of life - and a pleasurable part. Be smart about it. Portion control, a wide variety of fruits and veggies, lots of whole grains - these will help you stay on track to meet your nutritional needs. Don't forget, your body also needs a small amount of fat in the diet to function properly. Fat is a component of myelin, the protective sheath around nerve cells; it's also necessary to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, and K.

     Couldn't come up with a poison for letter U (other than uranium).
    I was going to do "unhealthy foods are like poison to your system" but there's so much information on foods that are bad for you. (And it keeps changing.) So I chose to highlight orthorexia, which I think is a lesser known (but increasingly common) disorder. A bit of a stretch for letter U's my blog and I'll fudge if I want to.

Letter T : The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

It was discovered in 1862, and like so many other poisons was first used to kill rodents. After several accidents the use as poison was banned in the United States in 1972. It is, however, still used in the electronics industry, as well as for certain medical scans.

A spate of murders gained this element the moniker of "poisoner's poison", as it is colorless, tasteless and odorless, and causes symptoms in the victims which can easily be attributed to other causes.  It featured in an Agatha Christie novel, The Pale Horse;  a major clue was hair loss, a distinctive side effect.

Have you guessed today's poison?  It's Thallium.

During 1952-1953 several successive murder trials featured thallium poisoning in Australia; chronic vermin infestations, the easy availability of thallium rat poison and the human propensity to "copy-cat" probably led to the cluster of killings.  There were 5 different murder cases during that time period.  The most sensational was probably that of Veronica Monty in 1952; she was tried for the attempted murder of her son-in-law and rugby player Bob Lulham, and the trial revealed that she had been involved in an intimate relationship with him. Veronica was found not guilty, but committed suicide - using thallium - in 1955.

Other noted cases include:

  • 1957  Nikolai Khokhlov, a former KGB assassin, was poisoned with thallium. (Oh, the irony.) He was eventually flown to the US and recovered.
  • 1971   Graham Frederick Young used thallium to poison around 70 people in the English village of Bovingdon. Three died.
  • 1988   George J. Trepal, later known as "The Mensa Murderer", was convicted of poisoning his neighbors the Carrs by placing Coke bottles laced with thallium nitrate in the residence. The mother, Peggy Carr, died; the rest of the family was sickened but survived. It seems that George was annoyed with his neighbors, especially because they were too loud.  He may have been brilliant and a member of Mensa, but he made two very stupid mistakes.  He couldn't keep his mouth shut;  he drew suspicion when he attended a Mensa group murder weekend and said something about "neighbors needing to watch what they eat/drink around the house". And, he didn't get rid of the evidence; a vial containing traces of thallium was found in his garbage.