The Law

The students had sent a representative to ask their question.
"Instructor," he said, bowing slightly, "what is the most important law?"
The dark-skinned teacher removed his glasses and scratched his itchy temple with one of the carved horn arms before setting them down on the velvet-topped desk in front of him. He waited the requisite length of time to build suspense, then squinted up at his student.
"You have studied the laws for two years," he said, "which do you think it is?"
Whispers issued from the huddled group of students at the back of the room. The representative looked back at them for support, but found none. After several false starts, he was able to offer an answer in the tone of a suggestion.
"Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated?"
The instructor held a deadpan for the requisite length of time.
"That is a good law," he said, replacing his glasses and returning his gaze to the papers he had been grading.
The student waited in front of the desk. This secretly pleased the teacher; they were learning his habits. If the student had gone back to the group, he would have received nothing more.
"A good law," the instructor continued, "but not the best law. Not the most important. It carries the letter, but not the spirit, of the most important law."
"What is it, then?" the student asked.
The instructor looked beyond the student at the group, which seemed to be holding their collective breaths. He rose and took a few steps until he stood beside his enormous desk, made to appear all the more imposing by the instructor's short frame.
"There is a law," he said, raising his voice to lecture level, "which, if followed by every person, would make redundant all other laws. It would render your future careers unnecessary, and deprive each and every one of you of the tremendous sums of money you will undoubtedly accumulate from defending the misfortunes and prosecuting the wrongdoings of others."
He waited the requisite length of time.
"It is not enough simply to treat others well. This is a good act, and like any other good act, can be used and abused for the wrong reasons. A man may treat another well simply to build power over him and curry favors. Any good act can be perverted in this way; any save one, and this one incorruptible good is the foundation of all laws."
He waited only half the requisite length of time, in order to catch them by surprise.
"Love everyone unconditionally," he said.
Though silence had been prevailing between statements, it seemed to grow even heavier here as the students stared at him in incomprehension.
"Love everyone, no matter what. Everyone. Every single person. Do this and all good that comes from you is incorruptible. This is the greatest law."
He waited again before returning to his desk. His chair screeched nosily as he dragged it out, sat down, and returned to his papers.
"No one is able to do this, however, and that is why you will be rich."


Charlene stood on a raised root of a large oak tree, holding her new friend, Bubba, on a white cotton leash.  She brushed away from her face a mass of tangled yellow hair, which the breeze had been playing with ever since her rubber band had snapped.  Despite being engulfed in a leafy shadow, she shaded her eyes as she searched for her father in the throng before her.

The air was filled with fire, peppermint, and brass song.  Soldiers marched to a staccato drum; women twirled silk scarves; children shrieked across grass and pavement alike.  A colossal king rolled past on a great throne, followed by a rose blossom larger than an elephant.  Behind this came a great crescent moon ridden by a fairy, who smiled and waved to everyone she saw.  Charlene could not see her father anywhere, and jumped down from her root.  Bubba remained behind only a split second before clumsily following in her path.  Together they ran out from under the tree toward an enormous orange dinosaur who flew low to the ground.

"Charlie!" she heard from her left.  Startled, she tripped on a raised edge of the broken sidewalk, opened both hands and put out her arms to catch herself.  Bubba instantly shot into the air, and Charlene quickly stood to try to catch him.  The leash was already out of her reach, and a pang of fear and regret shot through her rapidly beating chest.  Just then a giant, with impossibly long legs clothed in flowing, star-speckled trousers, rose up in her sight.  The giant reached into the sky and snatched Bubba out of the air.  He then held onto the brim of his tall blue top-hat, leaned as far down as he could without bending his knees, and returned the string to Charlene's outstretched hand.  She looked into the giant's half-white, half-yellow face, and her eyes widened.  

"Daddy!" she said, "How did you get so tall?!"

The Obvious Solution

From the fridge to the dishwasher, Ella’s favorite vase lay in hundreds of pieces, along with a dozen rose petals, some empty stems, and a puddle of water.
“Before you say anything, this was not my fault,” said her husband Sean, standing barefoot in the middle of it all, “The stupid cat tripped me when I was watering the plants like you asked me to.”
Ella set the groceries on the counter and stooped to pick up the largest floral patterned fragment.  Sean continued to stand in the mess, grumbling and making no move to help clean up.
“Are your feet okay?” Ella asked, gathering up the slimy green stems, “Did they get cut?”
Sean leaned over to the fridge and used it for balance as he stepped out of the accident. 
“Uh, no, I’m fine.”
Ella said nothing more and looked silently at the debris.  Sean disappeared down the hall after a few moments.  Ella sighed and looked for the broom.
After picking everything up and mopping the floor, Ella took all the vase pieces into her studio in the garage, kicking the door shut behind her.  Setting them on an end table next to her potter’s wheel, she tried to arrange the pieces in more or less contiguous order.  Ella rolled up the sleeves of her sweater, used her wire to slice a two inch slab of clay off a new block, and slapped it on the wheel.  She pounded the clay with her fists for a bit and felt a little better. 
For a quarter hour she did not create anything, but rather tortured the clay, digging her nails in, twisting, pinching, rolling, lifting and slamming the whole mess back on the cold gray surface of the wheel.  This was not anger; it was tradition.  This was how she had made her favorite vase.
When she was ready to truly begin, Ella paused.  Creating a specific shape was always more difficult than freeform sculpting, and she did not have a physical model from which to work.  Ella looked at the broken fragments next to her and tried to remember the exact form of the vase.
At first she tried with her eyes closed, and the result was laughable.  Wadding the clay up for the second attempt, she kept the image of the vase burning before her vision and tried to mold the medium to precisely fit the picture.
An hour passed, and many vessels that were decidedly not her favorite vase emerged from the clay and were squished back into formlessness.  She sat limply, looking at her finger marks in the gray flattened pancake, then covered her face and cried.  It had been the only vase she put flowers in, on the infrequent occasions she received them.
The heavy door leading to the kitchen behind her opened slightly and Sean leaned in.  Ella snatched a relatively clean towel off the table beside her and wiped her eyes before turning around.
“Uh… hey, how’s it going?” Sean said, sounding apprehensive.
Ella sighed and shrugged, “Okay.”
“What do you want for dinner?  We’ve got some mini-pizzas, I could heat them up.”
“Sure, sounds fine.”
“You want one or two?”
“One please.”
There was silence for a moment after Ella turned back to the wheel, then the door clacked shut.  Ella’s cat, Wiffle, leapt silently onto the table next to her.  Ella scratched its back with a clay encrusted hand, and murmured, half grinning to herself.
“Did you really trip him?”
The cat only stretched and flopped onto its side.  Ella sighed again, realizing the futility in attempting to remake the vase.  Every piece she had made was unique; she was not a machine and could not make an exact copy.  Maybe if she wasn’t so distraught, she thought, she might be able to come up with something close.  But it wouldn’t be the vase.
It was only an object anyway, she thought, standing and straightening her clothes.  After dinner she would make a new, entirely different vase to put flowers in.
Ella washed her hands and went to check on dinner’s progress.  Sean was trying to stop the ancient spring-loaded cooking alarm on the oven from going off even with twenty minutes left on the timer.
“Oh hey,” he said, futilely twisting the timer knob, “Shut up dammit!  Uh, hey Ell, we still got a while before they’re done.”
Ella nodded and sat down at the table to read the newspaper.
“I’m, uh, sorry about the vase earlier.”
Ella stopped and looked up at him, “Sean…”
“I know what you’re going to say, okay-”
“Why don’t you ever apologize when things happen?  You always apologize later.”
Sean held up his hands defensively, allowing the oven timer to buzz relentlessly “I know! I know, okay? I was just frustrated.  Anyway, the point is…” he paused and slammed the heel of his hand into the timer, causing it to stop, “point is… here, I got you something.”
Sean snatched a plastic bag off the counter and presented it to Ella.  Inside was a tall, fluted, crystal vase.  Ella turned it over in her hands and said nothing.
“It was my fault,” Sean said uneasily, “and I’m sorry.”
It was a vase.  A fancy, store-bought vase.  Ella’s jaw tensed and she squinted her eyes shut.  She folded her arms in front of her on the table and buried her face in them.
“What’s wrong?” Sean asked, stepping closer.
This was a very typical Sean solution, Ella thought.  It was obvious; a vase had broken and needed a replacement, so he had bought her one.  Ella peeked out at him, her face hidden from him by her hair.
Sean appeared to be holding his breath.  He stood motionless, with an entirely uncharacteristic expression of uncertainty.   Sean was, to the rest of the world, a confident, abrasive, and unapologetic man, but here, in front of his wife, he looked as though he was desperately trying to balance on an eggshell.  The longer Ella watched him, nervously standing stock still, the sillier he looked.  Ella couldn't maintain her somber composure, and was soon giggling quietly into the table top.
Sean appeared confused, but relieved.
Ella sat up and tried her best to look reproachful while laughing, “You bought me a vase without flowers?
One of Ella’s favorite expressions appeared on Sean’s face.  It was one that said: Of course, why didn’t I think of that?  Ella stood to embrace him, and whispered forgiveness in his ear.
“I really am sorry,” Sean said, and Ella laughed again.
“Why do you always apologize again after I say it’s okay?”
Sean seemed embarrassed.
“I dunno,  It's just when I screw up, I don’t know what to say most of the time.”
“It’s okay,” Ella said, pinching Sean's nose between thumb and forefinger and tweaking it slightly, “I know what you mean, most of the time.”

I Met a Monster

Having your fingernails pulled out with a set of rusty iron grips, held by a burly, sweating, loan shark collection “officer” probably ranks among the most painful things that can happen to you.  That’s also probably one of the best torture methods they ever invented, ‘cause just the real, immediate threat of that being done is enough to make you think about spilling your guts, in multiple ways.
I was fortunate I wasn’t the one who actually owed the money.  I was unfortunate enough to know the guy who did, though, also know where he was hiding.  The shark knew I knew too, so he sent his thug over to ask me nicely if I wouldn’t mind divulging the information.
Why do they never believe you when you say you don’t know?  What if I really didn’t know?  They’d probably pull my nails out anyway, and since I didn’t know, they’d get nothing out of me.  They’d probably say “...ten! Whoo, this one’s a beauty! Well, time to work on them toes, princess.”
Sucks for people who really don’t know anything.
So anyway, when the hood gets pulled off my head, I’m duct-taped to a steel chair and desk combo that’s bolted to the floor in the middle of some warehouse the shark probably owns.  My arms are in front of me, taped down with like five rolls of the stuff, but my hands are exposed, sittin' on the desk like I'm a third-grader on the first day of school.  A pair of rusty pliers sits just out of reach of my hands.  The thug, who I’ll call Mugsy, ‘cause he wouldn’t tell me his name before he got- well, anyway, Mugsy sits on a barstool type thing in front of me, smoking and saying unkind things about my lineage.  Back at my apartment, he tasered me to knock me out and did the whole blindfold bit, so I have no idea where I am.  During the transit, I thought about ribbing the guy about using a taser instead of punching me out, but I thought better of it.  Mugsy's huge, and also bald.  My past experience with bald people has taught me not to anger them unnecessarily.
Near the end of his smoke he stops insulting me and pauses to eat the cigar butt.  Just kinda casually popped it in his mouth and chewed on it a bit before swallowing.  It was still lit too.  He was doing his best to intimidate me, even in subtlety, and it was goddamned working.  He then went on a long description of the history and nuances of fingernail-pulling.  I’m no nerves-of-steel guy, so I was really sweating it, but I’m probably the most stubborn bastard you ever met, so I was determined, just to piss this guy off, not to talk.  I just didn't care.  Honestly, I didn’t care about Jordan.  To hell with that guy, getting mixed up with loan sharks.  Maybe I’m a closet masochist, I dunno.  But the way I figured it, if I talk, Mugsy wins. 
I can't stand losing.
I didn’t really feel like a masochist when he picked up the pliers.  Mostly I was thinking, “This is gonna hurt so goddamn much.”  And I was more scared than any other time in my life.  Mugsy could see it, too.  I wasn’t doing anything to hide it.
“You going to tell me where Mr. Steinwick is, Sunshine?”
I don’t have the, uh, concentration to look tough or make a witty retort, so I just roll my eyes at him and look over my shoulder like he’s talking to someone else.  I was ready to piss myself.  Shaking a lot too.
“Thumbs’re the worst digit to get injured,” he said all apologetic-like, as he grasped my right thumb and dug the end of his pliers under my nail.
I tell you, I was able to take stock of just how many muscles are in my body, ‘cause every single goddamn one of them went tense.
You know when you go to the doctor to get a shot, when you’re a kid, and you think the shot is going to be a whole lot worse than it turns out to be?  This was nothing like that.  The worst kind of pain is the pain that surpasses your imagination, like, you never even dreamt something could hurt that much.
Man did I scream.  I screamed loud, long, and as hard as I could.  They say if you scream loud it takes some of the edge off the pain.  I dunno if it did, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
My thumbnail gave, and a nice little squirt of blood shoots out as he staggers backwards with it gripped in his pliers.
“Whoo, that’s a beauty!” he said, holding for a few moments to scrutinize it.
“See this?  This was once a part of your body.  Now it is over there,” he said, tossing it to the side.
I can’t even think straight ‘cause of the pain, plus I think I chipped a tooth from grinding them.  I was seriously considering compromising my principles; maybe turn over a new leaf and be a little bit less of a stubborn asshole in the future, but Mugsy doesn’t even ask me if I’ll tell him about Jordan now, and goes straight for my left thumb.
Right then, thank God, the big metal cargo door thing behind Mugsy folds up accordion-style like it was made out of paper, and this weird looking dreadlocks guy is standing there.  It looks like he just scrunched a steel door with one arm, and Mugsy drops the pliers and backs up.
With Mugsy out of the way I get a good look at the guy.  He’s shirtless, and ripped as all hell, wearing some crazy white baggy pants, like Arabian style, with lots of gold trim.  He’s barefoot, and wearing nothing else but a cloth belt and some gold armbands.  Got tanned skin and his hair in long black dreads, that hang down clear to his shoulders.  He kinda looked like he belonged in one of those artsy-fart circuses where they don't have clowns, and everyone's an acrobat.  I dunno, he was weird.
Anyway, the guy just stands there, and he looks mad; like somebody just shot his puppy and slapped his mother.  Mugsy pulls out a gun and shoots him smack in the middle of the face.  The guy doesn’t even blink and we hear the bullet ric to the ceiling.  Mugsy empties his clip at him and just wastes bullets.  Arabian Guy walks to Mugsy, all slow-like, and Mugsy tries to pistol-whip him, but the guy catches the swing and it’s like Mugsy got his arm cemented into a wall.  Can’t budge one micron.
The guy finally speaks, and it’s a voice like a goddamn volcano erupting.
“Perversion of a man,” he, or maybe it, I’m thinking by this point, says, getting all in Mugsy’s face, “As you are, you are not fit to live among humanity.”
It was bad theatrics, really, but he had damn good presence.  I forgot all about my thumb.
Mugsy swings a punch with his other arm, and this one connects.  There's a really loud cracking noise, but it's pretty obvious whose body made it.  Mugsy yelps and his free hand starts quivering in a way that makes me almost feel sorry for him.  He tries to drop to his knees, but he’s held at the elbow by Arabian Guy, and he starts bawling out, begging the guy not to kill him.  Arabian Guy shows like no emotion now; his face goes flat, no anger, nothing.  The voice doesn't change a bit, though.
“Fear not.  I am not here to take your life, but to alter it.”
Mugsy sorta brightens at this; for a just a sec he looks up and smiles hopefully at Arabian Guy, but then the guy wraps his hands around Mugsy’s fat skull and lifts him right off the ground.  Mugsy’s a good half-foot taller than the guy, but Arabian Guy still manages to make his feet dangle.
The angle they’re at, I can’t see Arabian Guy's face, but I can tell there’s some kinda light coming from it somehow, ‘cause it’s reflecting off Mugsy.  His eyes are plastered on Arabian Guy’s face, and he looks like a mouse being squeezed by a snake.
Man, did he scream.  If Mugsy, at that moment, and me, with all twenty of my nails being yanked out at the same time, if we got into a screaming contest, he would’ve taken gold and silver.
Near as I could tell the guy wasn’t doing anything to physically hurt Mugsy.  Oh, I’m sure being held up by your head is no picnic, but the way Mugsy was going on about it, you’d think he was being shoved into a blender filled with battery acid.
After about a minute of this performance, Arabian Guy drops Mugsy, who collapses into the fetal position, convulsing a little.  He then comes over to me and, get this, gently removes the duct-tape.  I didn’t lose a single arm hair.
He says nothing to me the whole time, and gives me a cloth thing to wrap around my thumb, then turns to leave.  I’m totally out of words there, and, I mean, just listen to me.  I usually have scads of them.
Finally I manage to say something.  I really should be thanking him, but I can't get over what just happened.
“W-wait!… Hey! What the hell did you just do to him?!” I shouted after the guy, who turned around and looked at me.
“I removed from him the capacity to enjoy the suffering of others.”
And me, I dunno what to say to this.  I figured this meant Arabian Guy messed with Mugsy's mind somehow, and I was thinking, what, was Mugsy going to be retarded now or something?
“How the hell?…” I began, but the guy just turned around and kept going.
After a couple seconds it sinks in.  If what the guy said was true, he just, like, mentally raped Mugsy’s brain and screwed it up.  If I was smart, I woulda kept my mouth shut, but no, not me.  I felt like, man, humanity just got invaded by something worse than a million Mugsies, and I wasn't gonna let it exit stage left without me giving it an earful of what I thought of it.  But in the heat of the moment, I didn’t even have the goddamned intelligence to make a good insultory phrase; and I'm usually the Einstein of insults, the Stephen Hawking of-  anyway, I just lost my mind and shouted one word at him with all my lungpower.
Arabian Guy didn't turn around to look at me, but he stopped for a second and said just one goddamned word back.


The man was held to the wall by iron.  It bit into three of his limbs; in some places to the bone.  His head was clamped back, forcing him to stare upward.  He shivered in spasms, his flesh exposed to the cold air and the bites of the insects and rats that made small meals of his blood.

His left leg hung without restraints, free but limp.  On the floor, a few inches to the side, the man knew there was a rough metal lever.  He could not move his head to look at it, nor would he have seen it even if he could, for he was deep within the earth and no light reached him.  He knew the lever was there, however, and occasionally he moved his leg to feel the sharp corner of the flat, square pedal made for his foot to press.  If he were to press it, a large, powerful spring would be released, propelling an axe that would swifty decapitate him.  He occasionally thought about pressing it.

Sometimes he talked to himself.

"You have made this decision.  You will live with it, and be happy," he said, even as he dragged the emaciated flesh of his left calf across the edge of the lever, "It was the right decision.  I will be happy."

The man continued to repeat this mantra to himself until he heard a small scraping sound on the ceiling, and he desperately opened his mouth to catch the sickeningly sweet liquid that poured from a pipe protruding from the ceiling above him.  For a brief moment he could forget about where he was, about the lever, and about everything except the meal.

As the fluid drizzled down his throat, he was able to convince himself he was happy.

"Yes, this was the right decision," he said to himself.

This sensation was fleeting, however.  The sweet taste swiftly changed to a dense bitterness, and the man soon vomited straight up like a fountain.  His throat burned with the acid of the bile.  He coughed and sputtered and thought of the lever.

He also thought of her.

Just call her name.  The thought burned in his brain.

Call out to her.

"No," he said aloud, coughing, "I cannot face her."

Call her.

"No!" he croaked, as loud as he could.

She trusted you.

His chest heaved, and he moaned quietly.

She was happy.

"I know," he whispered, his eyes burning with tears.

She thought you were wonderful.

"I know," he sobbed, his leg flailing clumsily near the lever on the floor.

The scraping sound in the ceiling returned.  The man reflexively opened his mouth and greedily swallowed the liquid that followed.  His agony subsided for a short time, and he forgot everything once again.

This cycle continued for a time, the passage of which was lost on the man. 

The man did not notice the light until it was very bright.  The clamp holding his head prevented him from moving to look at its source.

"Is someone there?!" he called out.

"It's me," came a small voice.

The man's lungs froze and his heart seized.

"Go away," he said, shaking, "I am perfectly happy here without you."

"No," she said, the voice sounding closer.

Presently the man heard a rapid flapping noise and his eyes widened as the light grew brighter.  The fairy fluttered into his vision.

She was, at that moment, six inches from head to foot.  Light radiated from a set of butterfly-like wings on her back, illuminating everything around her.  She wore a small pink dress made of an incredibly thin, translucent material, which fluttered in the wind from her wings.  A miniscule rolling backpack dangled from her grip.

She did not look pleased.

"I don't have time for this," the fairy said, landing on the clamp that held his head in place, "It is time for you to leave this place."

The man simply stared, wide-eyed at her in silence.  She seemed to grow impatient, and scratched her bare feet on his long chin stubble.

"You've kept yourself here long enough," she said after a time, "If you'll come with me, we will try it again."

The man worked past his sense of surprise and a seething, wretched pride swelled within him.
"Are you saying I'm wrong?" he asked.

The fairy set her bag down and continued to rub her feet across his lower chin.
"You hurt me," she said.

"I had to," he said indignantly.

"No, you didn't," she said, "You didn't have to.  We had each other.  You could have handled it."

After a short period of silence between the two, a scratching sound came from the ceiling above him.  The flow of liquid began again, and the fairy flew a few inches to the side to avoid it.

"So," she said, looking up at the pipe, "that's how she's doing it?"

The man said nothing and opened his mouth wide.

"No, we can't have this," the fairy said, pulling a tiny umbrella from her bag, opening it, and holding it over the man's face.  This caused the liquid to run off to the side, away from his mouth.

The man shouted at her.  He cried and begged for her to stop, to allow him to drink again.  The fairy simply fluttered in place, yawning slightly.  Soon the flow of liquid stopped.

"There we go," she said, shaking off her umbrella and sitting back down on his head restraints, "much better."

The man continued to sob.  Tears flowed and his nose ran.  The fairy removed an enormous handkerchief from her backpack and mopped this up.

"Now," she said, "Will you listen?"

The man simply squinted at her with stinging eyes.

"I want to try again," she said, "You can leave here anytime you want to, you know?"

"No, I can't," he said, "I'm stuck."

The fairy sighed and tapped the head clamp with her heel, "This isn't held in place by anything but your own will."

"I cannot leave, I've made a choice," the man said.

"So committed," the fairy said, "So commited to someone who cares nothing for you."

The man said nothing and closed his eyes.

"You were committed to me once," she said, in a softer tone, "What happened to that?"

"I had to make a choice," he said without opening his eyes.

"You chose wrongly," she said simply, "Come with me and we'll give it another try."

Pride rose within the man, burning in his chest.  He shouted venom at her.


The fairy stiffened slightly.  The man could not tell if she was crying.  The scratching sound came from the ceiling again, and she again readied her umbrella.

"Stop!  STOP!" the man shouted at her, "STOP DOING THAT!"

The fairy merely hovered in place, staring down at him flatly, only moving back once the flow from the pipe had stopped.  Again she shook off her umbrella and sat down.

"Now," she began, "let's try again..."

This continued for hours.

Slowly the man's pride shriveled into remorse.

"I'm sorry," he sobbed, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry.  I want to leave, I want to leave."

"You can leave," the fairy said, fluttering up into the air, "Just push, it will give way."

"I can't," the man said, his voice cracking, "I can't, I'm stuck.  I can't do it."

The fairy sighed heavily.

"Then I shall leave without you," she said, and flitted out of his vision.

"Wait!" he called out.  The light was getting dimmer.

"Wait!" he shouted, straining at his bonds.  His free leg kicked the wall wildly; it began to crumble.  One by one the iron bars holding him in place popped free.  He burst forth from the wall and looked around the tiny room.  The fairy's light was disappearing down the hall through the narrow stone doorway.

The places where the iron had bit into his flesh were forgotten.  He ran, calling the fairy's name frantically.  She was very fast, and he soon lost sight of her light completely.  Still, he ran down the long, dark corridor.  Doors to dim grey rooms flew by on either side of him, and a pinprick of light appeared ahead of him.  He continued to run, the path turning upward and becoming steep.  He ran as a dog climbing stairs; upward and outward.  The light ahead of him grew; he could smell grass, trees, and the spring breeze.

All at once the light became blinding and he burst forth into the free world.

The man looked around in dead silence.  A few birds nearby twittered softly, crickets chirped and a startled rabbit bounded into nearby bushes.  The man began to laugh and fell to the ground.

The man let out an incoherent shout of joy and rolled in the grass, kicking his legs wildly.

He looked at himself.  His wounds were healed, his skin soft and clean as though he had bathed.  He laughed in near hysterics, but abruptly stopped and stood up.

"Hello?!" he called out, looking around.

After a quick search of the area revealed nothing, he looked back at the doorway in the rock he had come from.  Somehow it seemed to have shrunk down, to a size from which he couldn't possibly have fit through.  He knelt down and peered in the now tiny hole.  Presently the fairy, in her smallest form, walked out.

"Hello," she said, smiling slightly.

The man slowly extended his hand down to ground level, offering it to her.  the fairy accepted and sat down upon it.  The man lifted her up and attempted to turn and walk away, when the fairy was nearly yanked from his hand by the tightening of a long, thin, silvery chain clasped around her leg.  It trailed back through the tiny doorway of the rock.

"What is this?" he asked, running the chain between his thumb and forefinger.

The fairy looked at it sadly, then back up at him.

"I'm stuck," she said softly.

The man stiffened slightly, then slowly sat down and gently cradled the fairy in his hands.  She yawned deeply and curled up into a ball, hugging her legs.

"I'm so sleepy," she said.

The man gently knelt forward and kissed her on the side of her tiny face.  She closed her eyes and smiled.

"I'll be here until you get unstuck," he whispered, "then we'll leave together."

The fairy shifted slightly and whispered back before dozing off.

"Thank you, Anh."

The man quietly began to cry.

"No," he said, "I can't even begin to thank you."


The man landed with a muted thud.  The ground was mostly mud, but the small of his back had managed to find a rock to connect with in an intimate fashion.  Sharp, tingling pain shot through his tailbone and he gasped for breath, winded.

He had lost count of the times he had fallen, and the low light made it difficult to see exactly where each of these falls had taken him.  His goal, before each fall, was to climb the slippery spiral ramp that stretched up into the darkness like a giant, flat corkscrew.  It was muddy, like the floor he lay on now, and gave easily under his feet.  Somewhere far up above a light shone dimly.  That was the outside, he knew.  He had been attempting to get to it for many months.

The man felt around his wrist and found the tiny, silvery chain that was connected to it.  He pulled this out of the mud and followed it a short ways to find the tiny fairy.  She sat on a small stone, the end of the chain connected to her ankle.  Her elbows rested on her knees, and her hands supported her face.  She was crying.
The man pushed himself up on his side to examine her briefly, then rolled back to catch his breath.  She was never physically harmed, but he always checked just the same; no matter how often the falls occurred.  Turning into a solid statue evidently protected her until they reached the bottom.
This was the hazard of being a fairy, apparently.  The physiology of a fairy mystified the man, but what he had been able to glean from his time around her was this: happiness lightened, anger weighed down.  He had read somewhere that fairies, being of a small and magical nature, could only stably express one emotion at a time.  If more than one were to become trapped in a fairy, strange things would happen.  Fairies that experienced a full spectrum of positive emotions at the same time tended to transform into high speed projectiles, ricocheting off of any surface they encountered.  Restraining a fairy in this state would cause it to explode into a shower of light, only for it to reform a second later to continue zipping around wildly.
Pain, however, was an altogether different story.  If fairies were "excited" by happiness the same way particles were by energy, then the opposite was true with negative emotions.  A sad fairy would become weighed down and sluggish.  A fairy experiencing a wide range of such emotions became a solid statue, and impossibly heavy.
This transformation had occurred many times to the man's companion, each taking place at various levels of their progression up the slippery ramp.  When she was not in this state, she flew freely about him, as far as the silvery chain clamped to her ankle would allow her.  When an attack of heaviness overtook her, she became an anchor, the weight of which the man was powerless to stop from dragging him off the sloped edge of the spiral ramp.
The man checked the chain at his wrist.  It was loose, as usual, and had not tightened.  He wished it would.  He could have dropped it; indeed he could have prevented every one of the fairy's attacks of heaviness from dragging him down simply by letting go of the chain, but he had refused.  He was not going to leave without her.
The chain was something of a magical enigma as well.  It seemed to have a life of its own when he did not hold it.  If he were to set it down, the end would attach itself to whatever surface it came into contact with, and the fairy would be trapped at that spot.  If he picked it back up, it would come free, but it refused to tighten itself around his wrist of its own accord.  He had to hold onto it with main strength to keep it from getting ripped out of his hand whenever they were being pulled down to the bottom of the pit.
"Well," she said sulkily after many minutes of silence, "why don't you put that thing down and get out of here?"
The man had mostly recovered his breath, but did not move from where he lay.
"You have accused me," he said, wheezing slightly, "of running from problems.  That I just can't handle it when things aren't going perfectly; so I run away from it."
"Yes, you do," she said unapologetically.
"Did," the man said, struggling to his feet, "Let's get started."
The fairy sighed and slowly flapped its butterfly wings.  A tiny amount of light radiated out from them and she floated up off of her stone seat.  The man gingerly felt his way across the muddy ground to the base of the spiral ramp.
"You're with me, right?" he asked.
The fairy floated near his head, the chain dangling down from her foot.
"Yes," she said after a few moments.
The two began to walk slowly up the ramp.  After a while they began to talk.  The conversation was idle at first, but eventually turned to the future, and what they planned to do together once they were out of the cavern.
The fairy's light became brighter as her spirits lifted.  They began to tell jokes, all the while climbing higher.  Laughter echoed throughout the recesses of the cave, and the fairy began to fly around more swiftly in a sort of aerial dance.  Despite her motions making the chain flip this way and that, it did not disrupt the man's ability to climb at all.
The man looked above them.  The light from outside was brighter than he had ever seen before.  The fairy flitted close to his face and stuck her tongue out at him while making a silly noise.  They both laughed.
Presently the conversation dropped and the fairy became quiet.  The man's heart pounded; he had come to recognize the early signs.  Sure enough, a question came.
"Are you really as nice as you seem?" the fairy asked.
"I'm doing my best," the man said hurriedly, wishing he could change the topic.
"You really hurt me, you know," she said, the light from her wings dimming considerably.
The man kept climbing.  There was a time he would have hesitated, but he had been trained by circumstance to keep moving in these situations.
"Yes, I know," he said, "Please forgive me and let's keep going."
"And your 'friends,'" she continued, "I hate them.  How could you have listened to them?"
The speed at which the fairy flew slowed to a crawl, then stopped altogether as she landed on the ramp and walked a few steps on foot.  The man was forced to slow his pace to prevent himself from dragging her.
"It was my fault," he said, "They were just trying to help.  Please, forgive me."
At this point it was too late, the transformation had taken place.  The fairy was now a small, grey statuette, toppling over and beginning to slide down the ramp.  The slack in the chain was soon used up and the man found himself being dragged off the side of the ramp along with her.
He held on tightly to the chain.

This particular fall caused him to lose consciousness, but he did not realize it.  He woke up and immediately clenched his fist.  This caused him a small amount of discomfort, for he found he had already been gripping the chain as tightly as he could manage, and his hand was cramping.  He looked around for the fairy, and found her sitting in a similar spot as the previous time.
The man stretched out his limbs spread-eagle and tried to rest for a moment.  He ached everywhere, and mud was getting into uncomfortable parts of his anatomy.
"Why did you do this to me?" she asked after several minutes.
The man winced both physically and mentally as a spasm went through his back when he shifted onto his side.  He looked at her for a long time.  She didn't meet his gaze.
"Why do you refuse to accept my apologies?" he asked.
There was a long silence before she responded.
"I don't know if you are sincere," she said.
"In other words," the man said, "You don't trust me."
"How can I?" she said, turning to look at him, "You hurt me. I'm scared of you."
The man grimaced and rolled onto his back again.  Another twinge of pain went through his spine and he let out a small grunt to express it.
"You realize," he said after a time, "that this is a cycle?"
"I can't help it," she said, "You hurt me.  This is your fault."
Anger pawed at the locked gate in his chest, but the man refused to unleash it.  He had done far too much shouting already.
"Before we can even begin to make it," the man said, quietly, "You must forgive me.  We will continue to have these falls until you do."
"This is your fault," she repeated, "What am I supposed to do?  You're the reason we're here!"
The man ignored all pain and abruptly sat up.  Losing restraint, he raised his voice.
"This is not MY prison!"
The fairy turned around on her little stone seat to face away from him.
"We have been in my prison," he continued, failing to lower his voice as much as he would have liked, "We are not there anymore.  This one is yoursYou are trapped, and you hold the key to getting out."
The fairy did not respond.
"You say you do not trust me," the man continued, "You have pointed out my tendency to run from problems in the past, but here I am refusing to run now. Do you not see what I am doing?  Why do you not trust me?"
"Because," she said without turning, "You hurt me.  What kind of person would do what you did?"
"There it is again," the man said simply.  He should not have been so short, but he was losing his patience.
"What? What?!" she demanded, turning to glare at him.
"How I can I build trust with you if you do not forgive me?  I have repented and grieved over what I did to you!  I have begged your forgiveness, and I have followed you down here into the prison of your own resentment to try to help you escape!  I am doing all that I can, and all that I should!" the man held up his arm and displayed the slack loop of chain around his wrist, "This is not a shackle to me.  I am not trapped!  You are!"
"So drop the chain and just leave!" she said, raising her own voice.
These words echoed throughout the cavern for several moments, and were followed by a long period of silence.  The fairy remained motionless and the man regretted his volume.
"I am sorry," the man said, "I am sorry I shouted.  This is not easy for me."
"So leave," she said again.
"I am not giving up," he said, quietly, "I am not running from this problem."
There was another long period of silence before the fairy spoke again.
"What is a catch twenty-two?"
"Oh..." the man said, "Uh, it's... it's a situation where solving one problem creates a second problem, which leads back to the original problem.  It's named after a novel."
"I see," she said.
"The problem," the man continued, "is you don't trust me, and we need you to trust me for us to get out of here.  But you can't trust me unless you forgive me, and you're stuck on being unable to forgive me because he don't trust me.  It has to start with you.  I'm doing everything I can; I am powerless beyond what I am already doing."
There was another moment of silence before the fairy spoke again.
"That doesn't sound like a catch twenty-two."
The man thought about it carefully and realized she was right.  It wasn't the solving of one problem leading to another problem, it was merely problems that needed to be solved in the right order.
"Well, uh..." he began, flustered, "That... that's not the point!"
The fairy laughed at his embarrassment, which infected the man as well.  Their two bodies shook in quiet mirth and the fairy's light began to glow a bit.
This moment of happy distraction was brief, however.  They soon sobered and lapsed into silence again.
"Look," the man began again, "I'm not giving up.  I'm not going to leave, but you're stuck.  I'm trying to help you get unstuck, but you have to forgive me before we can make any progress.  We need to forgive people who hurt us.  If we don't do that..."
Here the man paused and coughed.
"If we don't do that, we end up... well," he gestured at the dark cavern around them, "we end up here."
The fairy was quiet for several minutes.  The man was so exhausted he nearly fell asleep, but was roused when the fairy flapped over to him and landed on his chest to stare in his face.        

"Yes?" the man said after several moments had passed.
"Are you going to hurt me again?" the fairy demanded.
The man massaged his left temple with his thumb.
"It would be idiotic of me to do so after going through all this trouble," he said.
"It was idiotic the first time," she retorted, pacing up and down his abdomen.
The man closed his eyes and grimaced.
"Yes, yes it was.  I don't plan on making that mistake again."
"You'd better not," she said, fluttering into the air, "Let's go."
This was the first time the fairy had ever been the one to initiate the climb, and this notion gave the man new energy.  He stood quickly and swatted as much mud off his pants as he could before stumbling over to the bottom of the spiral ramp.
"You're with me, right?" she asked.
"Yes," the man said after a few moments.
"I can't promise we won't fall again," the fairy said.
"I know," the man said, taking the first step.