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          "WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH” screamed Phineaus as he, his eyeballs and several ornately carved chunks of cathedral plummeted out of sight.

          At the top of the ancient tower, the harpy, Phoenix stood watching, her blue dress and golden wings blowing in the breeze that still owned the air from the recently thrown gargoyle. “I guess I didn’t fall as hard for you as you did for me” called Phoenix after Phineaus. Then, more for your benefit than anyone else’s, she added, “Get it? Because he fell.” “It’s funny.”

          “WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH” screamed another voice. This one from around her waist. Leisurely, Phoenix pulled the wailing cell phone from her pocket and answered the call.

          “y’ello”

          “I assume blinding him was your idea,” came the replying voice. It was a voice that sounded like one of those monkey things with the cymbals on his/her hands. Only with coconuts instead of cymbals. That kind of voice. Nick.

          “I made the news already?” smiled Phoenix, “What’d he land on? What’d he land on?”

          “The prime minister’s Lexus. Apparently someone placed an urgent call to pick up the minister’s wife at that exact location.” The rest of Nick’s explanation was cut off by Phoenix’s giggling.

          “That model looks better in red anyway” she said with the kind of glee that comes from not watching the actual TV show. “So, what’s next?”

          “Phoenix…” began Nick.

          “Yes Santa?” replied Phoenix.

          “PHOENIX, I’VE TOLD YOU STOP CALLING ME THAT! I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING SERIOUS!”

          “OK Ok ok,” calmed Phoenix, “What is it?” On the other end of the line, Patron Saint Nicholas let out a deep impossible breath.

          “Phoenix…it escaped”

          “Oh, that’s fine. Just set up some ‘it’ traps, bait them with Its favourite food and you’ll have It recaught in no time.”

          “PHOENIX THIS IS SERIOUS! WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR

Gallows Humour

                        By Eric Hackler

          “Alright. I’m sorry,” Phoenix apologised. “What Escaped?”

 

          “Your soul”

 

          For the second time in her life, Phoenix was speechless. Her wings twitched and fluttered a nonexistent wind. The cold south american air suddenly tasted a lot colder.

          “Phoenix?”

          “Damn it!  You never call with good news. I was hoping you were going to say something fun like The Nazis or Black Pete. I’ve always wanted to meet him. He’d have some great stories. Tell me, did you and he ever…”

          “Phoenix!”

          “Oh, right! Serious voice…um….so how did my soul escape?”

          “Someone up here must’ve opened the crypt. We’re still trying to sort out all the details. Michael is furious. He’s had Matthew going through the records for the past 10 hours without a break.”

          “Right…So what happens now?” asked Phoenix and she could almost see Nick rolling his nonexistent eyes.

          “Most of the souls will end up on earth. I expect a lot more people will be seeing ghosts in the next few weeks. But those are souls without a master. Without a target.” Nick waited for a response. Failing that he added, “You should lay low for a while”

          There was silence on the line. A deep-penetrating, unnatural silence like watching porn with the laptop muted. “I get the distinct impression you’re embarrassed of me.”

          “Phoenix”

          “I’m gonna go with…no”

          “Phoenix, You could be in danger. If she finds you…” Nicholas began to caution.

          “Just put me on the naughty list” dismissed Phoenix and all Nick heard after that was the flapping of feathers and then the line went dead.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          Half an hour later, the night watchmen at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris found themselves scrambling from their sleepy guard posts and sprinting to the display of the priceless Goya whose alarm had just been tripped. Apparently it didn’t register in their minds that that particular piece had been stolen the week before and thus their running to protect it was futile. Of course whether they thought of that or not soon became irrelevant when they saw its frame on the floor and the priceless painting it was supposed to house thumb-tacked to the wall. It was the first time in the Musee’s history that an art (insert opposite of thief here) had returned a painting. It would have been a first for Paris but there was that one guy… As they all marvelled at the sight, one of the guards looked up and would later swear that he had seen an angel disappear behind the moon.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

   Why is it everyone who steals art from France always flees to Brazil? Phoenix’s lighthouse in Wales was completely inaccessible from the land. It sat atop a high cliff overlooking the sea on one side and overlooking the land on the other. There was a bit of a local legend about the impossible lighthouse that couldn’t be reached, but somehow stayed lit. A few crazy people had claimed to see a winged creature in the area over the years but like wart on Ewan McGregor’s forehead, no one had really cared to notice.

          Phoenix swooped through the closed skylight. The glass cut her pale skin which re-formed immediately. One of the fun benefits of immortality. No pain, no scars. Phoenix shook out her wings, grabbed a bottle of coloured sugar water from her fridge and perched herself on the arm of the couch. Her wings stretched out behind her like the tail of a peacock who had decided to bronze itself, but changed its mind after doing the feathers. She turned on and then immediately ignored the TV.

          I mean, Phineaus wasn’t even trying to hide where he was. Ok, he was in a linen closet in the US Embassy, but even so…Didn’t he know that was the first place I would look?

          Phoenix’s gaze flickered around her home. She liked living here. She had always dreamed of living in a castle with all the expensive art on the walls. Well, she could no longer have the art, but this was a damn good replacement.    It was cold. Phoenix’s wings formed a massive shadow creature on the wall before her. Sometimes I miss taking things out of their places instead of putting them back.  The lighthouse beam swung around the room, constantly changing the colours and making her possessions act out little shadow plays on the dark glass walls. It was like living in a planetarium for the dark shapes that follow us through our lives. Her favourite moment was when the light was directly behind her and cast the shape of her wings on the wall. It was the closest she would ever come to feeling like and angel and of course, as if to remind her of her actual status in the grand game of Risk that is life, the angel moments were only a second long.

          Phoenix sipped her sugar water. Makes me wish I hadn’t made that deal. She stopped thinking thoughts for a moment. Her mind was trying to get around the one she had just had. Her silhouette on the glass shifted uncomfortably. Why am I thinking things like this now? I haven’t had these thoughts in the last few hundred years….Does it have anything to do with my soul escap…why hasn’t my shadow moved? Phoenix spun around and let her drink fall. The lighthouse light was not turning. Something, some invisible force was keeping it in place. Unfortunately, no one had mentioned this to the motors that were still attempting to spin. The whole contraption was about to shatter.

          Strike that “about”. The whole contraption shattered. Gears, glass, filament and twisted metal flew towards Phoenix. She took flight, smashing through a glass wall of her home and this time, she felt the shards.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

Meanwhile in nowhere at all, Saint Nicholas, The Patron Saint Of Thieves Esq. was watching How The Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated one) (the Jim Carrey one isn’t even worth mentioning) (please forget I mentioned it), as he waited for the plot to involve him again. Then suddenly, like an actor stumbling on stage two full pages after he was supposed to enter, Nick’s nonexistent cell phone shattered the awkward silence.

          “Phoenix”

          “Nick!” This time the shaking in Phoenix’s voice was noticeable. “She’s coming after me.”

          “Where are you?”

          “With Carmen San Diego. YOU KNOW WHERE I AM!”

          “Calm down, Phoenix”

          “Calm down? Is your soul flitting about blowing up lighthouses!? I sold her to you so you would keep her locked up.”

          “No, you sold her to me to save your life.”

          “And you’re doing a hell of a job now aren’t you!” Even in nowhere, where there is never sound, Phoenix’s words silenced the room.

          It took Nick a minute to speak. “Phoenix, I didn’t want this to happen either. But I’m afraid…now that she’s made it back to earth…She’s sort of out of my jurisdiction.

          “Great! So I have to deal with a murderous soul. Mind telling me how I’m supposed to do this? There’s not a lot of lore on what happens when a sold soul comes back for a refund!”

          “Do it the way we always do. Research,” replied Nick with all the heart and usefulness of Clippy the Microsoft Word paperclip.

          “Research? HOW???” Phoenix shrieked.

          “I DON’T KNOW! GOOGLE IT! DO SOMETHING! I have your backstory to exposit. Call me if anything happens”

          “You have my wha?” but Nick had already hung up. There are just some times, even when they’re having a nervous breakdown, that you just do not want to talk to your friends.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          At the cabaret theatre in San Diego, sitting in the back row of a performance of Carmen, Phoenix couldn’t believe her ears. “He hung up on me! Bastard!” And with that, she walked out. She had more important things to do than stay and watch this horrible show just for the sake of letting me make a bad pun.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          So my soul’s come back to play. Phoenix was thinking as she lowered her sixth tiger of the night into The London Zoo’s parakeet enclosure. When it came to relaxation, switching around the animals in the zoo just couldn’t be beat. Whenever Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick gave her a tough assignment, she would head straight for the cages. You could usually tell by the next day’s headlines exactly how much thinking she’d been doing the night before.

          After finishing with the tigers, she checked again on the security guard in his booth. Normally it added to the fun when the guards noticed – meant she could put them in a cage too – but tonight, she just wanted to be left alone with her thoughts.

          I wonder how she’ll get in touch. Nick said normal people would just experience them as incorporeal ghosts.

          But then, you’re not a normal person said the story’s narrator.

          That’s true mused Phoenix as she manoeuvred a sleeping wildebeest in with the cheetahs. The guard was in his booth, his eyes glued to the television. She had the whole place to herself.

          What do I suppose will happen when I do finally run into her? Since neither you nor I know the answer to that question, we all stayed silent and allowed Phoenix’s thoughts to continue. I suppose I’ll just go back the like I was before I sold her.

          Then the realisation hit her. So hard that she lost her grip on the wriggling hyena she was carrying and had to dive low to catch him. She knew exactly where she would end up if that soul got back into her body.

          This time, she intentionally dropped the hyena. There was a splash.

          I hope the flamingos drown him.

          She flew back to check on the guard again. Nothing new to report. He was as frozen stiff as my friend Sean whenever he hears a dirty joke. The television was still on in the background, but nothing on it was plot relevant. Phoenix was about to take flight again and head for the reptile house when the TV as if it was aware of the narrative it existed for, suddenly and unexpectedly switched to something much more important. A news report:

          “We interrupt your original program to bring you this breaking news announcement.”

          “Excuse me.” Phoenix pounded on the glass window. The guard turned and looked at her with eyes of not-seeing. “Could you turn that up a bit?”

          “Oh, yeah sure,” mumbled the guard, grabbing for the remote and upping the volume. “Good?”

          “Perfect. Thanks.”

          The reporter was still talking. “Just minutes ago in downtown Rouen, this horrifying image was discovered”

            The picture on the screen changed to show what was discovered. In the centre of Gare de Rouen-Rive-Droite – that’s a major train station in Rouen – hanging from the ceiling, a noose tied tightly around its neck was the still flailing body of a Cassowary - For those of you who don’t watch national geographic, a cassowary is a large flightless bird with blue and black feathers and large talons on its feet. A pretty good equivalent to our lead, wouldn’t you say? – Phoenix watched as the poor creature gave a final spastic twitch, not unlike when you accidentally shock yourself with a car battery. As the bird on the screen died, Phoenix put a hand up to her own throat.

          “This video was taken just moments ago by our news crew inside the Gare de Rouen-Rive-Droite – that’s a major train station in Rouen” quipped the anchor redundantly, “At this time, officials are unsure exactly why the bird was killed or why it happened in this location.”

          I can answer both those questions

          Phoenix turned her head away from the TV to see the guard staring at her, his jaw hanging as slack as Dockers©. “How….How did you….?” And that was all he managed to struggle out before our heroine grabbed him by the collar and rose twenty feet off the ground.

          “Now, what to do with you…”

          Well, that proves it. I know what she’s back to do.

          “Part of me wants to see how long you can ride an alligator.”

          And if she finds me, it’s b’bye easy carefree existence.

          “But then another part of me is dying to put you in with the naked mole rats.

          Oh for fuck’s sake! Hippos!

          “I hadn’t thought of that”

          I just did!

          “Yep, Hippos it is!” and with that, Phoenix gently deposited Guard – believe it or not, that was actually his name – into the hippo enclosure and merrily ignored his cries for help as she swooped off into the blue night sky. It was time to answer the call.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          Have you ever been to Rouen? I really don’t advise it. Not a friendly place. Last time I went, I got so incredibly lost. Luckily for her, Phoenix knew the area well and had no trouble navigating her way to the Gare de Rouen-Rive-Droite. She drifted gently, her feet barely an inch (2.54 centimetres – we are in Europe) off the ground to the centre of the train station where just moments ago, police had cut down the body of the cassowary. A shiver ran through her feathers. The last time she had stood here and turned her eyes skyward, she hadn’t liked what she’d seen.

          Knowing her soul would be listening, she called out. “Well, I’m here.”

          “I can see that,” the young janitor yelled back from the end of the hall. He had a strange voice. A French cockney sort of thing. Phoenix rolled her eyes. When mortals can’t see the golden feathery things coming out of your back, you can be forgiven for forgetting that they can notice you at all. Phoenix once again turned her eyes roof-ward. Ok, clearly she’s not interested in talking. Our heroine floated over to one of the train benches and gracefully flopped down onto it to think. I’m going to go out on a limb here…

          That’s really not the best choice of words for this situation.

          That’s true. Let’s see…she clearly wants me here.

          I’d say that’s a safe bet.

          And she wants to do me harm.

          That would be the entire point of me telling this story.

          Yeah…but if she wants me here, then where is she? I mean, she sent the invitation, if she put all this effort in, you’d think she would be here before me. If she doesn’t show, I’ll probably end up searching the whole planet to find her.

          “Do you have the time?”

          Your voice changed.

          “Excuse me, do you have the time?”

          Phoenix opened her eyes. Standing in front of her was a dashing young man. He was staring at her strangely and Phoenix suddenly understood what Ariel had felt for Prince What’s-His-Name in The Little Mermaid. “Um…I lost my watch, I’m afraid. Sorry. There’s a big clock around here somewhere though” she stammered.

          “I’ll find it,” the young man said “Thanks.” He held out his hand and shook Phoenix’s.

          Where was I? Yes, searching the world to find…why hasn’t he let go? Phoenix’s hand was still clasped in the man’s palm. He was still looking at her, but something was different now. He was thinner and gaunter. His skull appeared to be coming through his face. It was as if he had spent the last thirty seconds serving a twenty year term in Azkaban. His hand was cold. Phoenix looked down and the feeling intensified. The touch of his hands was fading, but the cold was getting icier.

          He leaned in a whispered, “You’re out of time, thief” Without warning, his other hand was plunging into Phoenix’s wrist. Her throat closed up, the cold spread up her arm and drove straight for her heart. She could no longer feel his hands on her, but somehow, she had never felt a stronger grip. Phoenix choked. She could feel foam filling her mouth. Her respiratory system felt like it had been rented out to a volcano but the rest of her could feel nothing but cold. Like a hollow ice sculpture lit ablaze. Phoenix felt herself melting away. Her lungs pumped furiously. Fruitlessly.

          Then her wings tried the same thing and here she had some luck. Within seconds a tornado was brewing and Phoenix found herself and the body her soul was possessing lifting off the ground. Eyes skyward, and with the last of her strength, Phoenix hurtled towards one of the stations windows - concentrating all her focus on aiming. She had to get this right. In the distance, she could hear a group of carollers singing the first Christmas song of the season and this gave her power. He’s watching over me.

          She hit the windows with a shattering crash. She hit the windows alone. The corporeal soul who was assailing her hadn’t been so lucky. She had hit a window; he had hit the wall beside it. Phoenix heard the thud as she tore through the early morning sky. She could feel the broken bones in her arm welding themselves back together, but she didn’t dare look. She knew she would heal. What she didn’t know was where her soul would go next or what its next plan might be. She needed to figure that out. But right now, what she needed most was rest.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          Oh goddammit! I forgot about Phoenix’s backstory! I made this whole big deal about Nick hanging up on her and everything…fuck…this is bad narrating, I mean, forgive me, I haven’t done this in a while, but still…it’s like my cousin trying to tell a joke: “oh no wait, hang on I forgot to tell you the horse has a huge penis” what the hell kind of thing is that…anyway, here’s the whole backstory thing for your reading pleasure…ugh!

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          Meanwhile in the same nowhere as we were the last time we started a section with ‘Meanwhile’, Nick had tucked the nonexistent cell phone into a slightly more nonexistent pocket and was now musing on the day he’d hired Phoenix. Of course her name hadn’t been Phoenix then, but changing names now would likely just confuse you. So for the next flashback, just keep in mind that Phoenix wasn’t actually her name.

          Phoenix (not her name) had been a thief. Operating mostly in northern France and Belgium, she was quickly earning herself a reputation. A reputation of being the worst goddam thief in the history of Europe (she would have had the Americas too, but they had the whole Indian land thing going on at the time). For the most part, the authorities never bothered to punish her because she wasn’t enough of a threat. One time, she tried to commit a theft at the same time as some other heist-ers and ended up getting them all caught. So you can understand why the police didn’t mind having her around. But even the worst thief in the world will eventually get better at it (again, not counting America because we don’t want to get political here).

          Phoenix (still not her name)’s criminal career took off when she stole the Gros-Horloge, a massive astronomical clock in the centre of Rouen. She was caught boarding a ship to England the next week and brought back to Rouen to stand trial. Though none of the police wanted to do it and even though the mayor laughed his way through the entire reading of the sentence, it was still determined that Phoenix (you know the drill by now) was to be hung by the neck until she was dead.

          The hangman was hired, the noose prepared, the jeering crowd gathered, and the prisoner marched centre stage. She was offered last words. She replied with “I guess my time is up”. The crowd laughed good-naturedly because this was a time when puns were still considered funny and the hangman slipped the noose over our girl’s neck.

          The trapdoor dropped. The rope caught tight. She tried to scream but was rendered completely speechless. This was the first time.

          In Nick’s realm, he was watching the display. There were so few entertaining thieves in the world, he mourned when his favourites were caught. But as Phoenix was having a final spastic twitch, she managed to utter one word.

          “Please!”

           At that moment, Saint Nicholas-Patron Saint Of Thieves knew he couldn’t let this one go. He stopped earth time, magic-ed himself into Phoenix’s sight and there they struck a deal. He would save her, give her powers and immortality. She would work for him, be his agent on earth. They shook hands and he lifted her from the gallows and carried her to safety. The townsfolk immediately forgot that any thief who would one day be called Phoenix had ever existed and they went about their business. Decades later, they would build a train station on the exact spot where her gallows had stood.

          That was the past. Hundreds of years ago. And yet the memory was still fresh in Nick’s mind. And in Phoenix’s dreams.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          The motel was neon-lit and grimy. Like Amsterdam’s red light district if it was frozen in something. Rats patrolled the walls. Cockroaches skittered about just out of sight of the rats. And immortal harpies awoke violently from violent nightmares. Phoenix (now her name) wrapped her wings around her sweating shoulders, her chest heaving like a teenage bulimic.

          “That’s it!” she said out loud and her thoughts continued

          I’m not going to let some outdated apparition take what’s mine. It’s time I fought back.

          But how? the narrator asked.

          I don’t know. But I’m about to find out.

          Phoenix grabbed the laptop she’d swiped from the clerk at the front desk and after moving all the porn files to different folders, she opened the internet and did the logical thing. She googled ‘how to kill a soul’.

          What followed was a skull-meltingly boring hour and a half of harry potter forums, historical Wikipedia pages and oddly enough, the new jersey school system’s home page. Then finally she became desperate enough to click on the WikiAnswers link. This is what she found:

There are several ways to destroy a soul.

1. Kill another human being

2. Become addicted to something

3. Lose someone you loved more than anything in the entire world.

And the answer went on for another paragraph or two.

          Well, numbers 2 and 3 are out. Addiction takes too long and I don’t really love anyone all that much. Except Natalie Portman. And I’m not losing her! I guess I have to go with option 1. But I kill people all the time and my old sister is still around.

          Phoenix looked back over her search history musing on how rare it was to see the names Hitler, Stalin, Voldemort, Chris Christie and Stephanie Meyer in the same place. Her musing blocked the realisation for a minute.

          But when that realisation finally did hit her…it actually threw her from her chair.

          “Killing someone won’t be enough,” she said aloud because I was tired of changing the font to italics. “If I really want to beat her, I need to up my game. I can’t just be bad. I need to be worse. Much worse.”

          After that declaration, it only took her a matter of seconds to throw on her clothes, take a few silly-face pictures on the laptop’s webcam, and launch herself out into the morning light. She was about to bring her soul right back to her.

                                                                                       *             *              *   

          The massive gust of wind coming from inside the orphanage nearly collapsed the building. It was swiftly followed by an ear-drum splintering sound of splintering as many many wooden things crashed in to many many other wooden things.

          Phoenix was now standing inside the main room of the orphanage breathing in the smell of gasoline. She was flipping a lit cigarette between her fingers and idly hoping that the room’s occupants wouldn’t expire before the guest of honour arrived. She had chosen an orphanage in Wales because as everyone knows, the Welsh are inherently evil people who have a surplus of orphanages just waiting to be put to use. This amusingly horrid thought was distracted by a sound. A very hard sound to describe. Like the sound a yeti would make if he/she were blowing across the neck of a bottle. A sound that caught Phoenix’s attention and she turned to face her plan.

          Strung up all around the room, nooses around their little necks, were at least fifty orphan children, all twitching and gasping for air. Some were in pyjamas, some were fully dressed. None were wearing shoes. Against the back wall were at least fifty chairs (and one table) that had recently been blown out from beneath the children’s feet. Things taken out of their places.

          But Phoenix wasn’t looking at either of these things. Her gaze was drawn instead to the writhing mass that was forming in the air in the centre of the room. The sound was growing louder. The electric lights flickered. And suddenly, with a rush of sound and echo it was there.

Her Soul

          It hovered above the ground looking exactly like something no one had ever seen before. And there was shock on its visage.

          “What are you doing!?!?” the soul flared. It’s voice was mine.

          “Begging an audience” replied Phoenix casually. The soul’s tendrils flailed wildly.

          “You killed all these orphans!”

          “No, of course not,” replied our now REALLY-questionable heroine. “They’re not dead yet. What’s the fun in burning down an orphanage if there are no orphans alive to see it?”

          The soul’s thousands of seeing holes widened. “Why are you doing this???” Here I called Phoenix by her human name. “You’re evil! You’re unnatural! You’re…”

          “Soulless?”

          Everything in the room went still…Ok; everything in the room except the twitching, dying orphans went still. The soul couldn’t believe its pierced ears.

          Phoenix dropped the cigarette.         

 

          Cue the music.

 

          The smiling Harpy winked at the still unmoving essence of life. Then at the last second, she turned on her heel and took flight. Just as the flame touched gasoline.

 

BOOM

 

          The force of the explosion did to the building what the gust of wind couldn’t: reducing it to flaming splinters. Bodies and nooses filled the air. Smoke blacked out the navy sky. There was no sign of Phoenix’s soul.

          Phoenix herself was soaring away from the disaster when some of the flaming embers caught onto her wings and very quickly brought her crashing to the ground. As the feathers burned, she beat her wings together and managed to put the fire out. But not before rendering her wings useless.

          Getting to her feet, she muttered, “Ok. Lesson learned. I walk away from explosions from now on.” She knew they would grow back. Everything always did.                                         Everything except me.

          I lay in the wreckage watching each step as she left me behind. She strode confidently but through the last vestiges of our connection, I could feel the emptiness in her. The emptiness             the emptiness that never comes back.                   The kn                            knowledge that you have forever                          for     ever lost some                          part of yourself.

She                       knew                    I                  was             gone, but              there was a sm                             small part             that missed me.

          I fel              felt the fires and             hatred                   and indifference consume me and with a final push,                    I threw myself       into             the end of this story.                The fire                 fire ignited the                black and blue sky                  as the harpy                             my harpy

walked away into the night...

© 2014 by Eric Hackler

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ERIC HACKLER

Writer  |  Director  |  Photographer  |  Storyteller  |  Altruist

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