The Great and Groovy Game, by Joshua Wanisko

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below.  Read by Mark Robinson.  Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.)

The Great and Groovy Game – illustration by Leslie Herzfeld – click to enlarge

October 19

I realized that I had drifted off to sleep on top of the map only when I heard the sound of Charlotte’s key in the lock. We were staying at the cheapest motel she could find, and the room looked like the eighth day of a week-long sit-in.  I’m just glad the door was sturdy. I rubbed my eyes to clear them and rose to greet her.

“How was your date with the pig boy?” I asked when she had let herself in to our room.

She set down her purse on our table and rummaged inside it for a cigarette before replying. She lit it, took a drag, exhaled a plume of smoke and when she answered, it was about what I expected. “He still has pig shit on his heels, but I could hardly smell it underneath the stink of the Elders.”

“So he’s an opener then?”

“I don’t think he’s much of anything on his own. But the Pig is, and it’s calling the shots.”

“Oh?” I said, and smiled.

She couldn’t have seen the smile but something in my voice must have given it away. “I figured you’d like that.”

“Perhaps 1974 will be the year of the companion”, then “You cats have a groovy time?”

“Don’t try to speak the lingo, Auntie. It just makes you sound old.”

“I am old, dear. What did you wind up talking about?”

She smiled with the tolerance the young have for the foibles of their elders and answered, “Music. Politics. The War. Why we feel the way we do.”

“And the Game?”

“Of course the Game.”

“Did he try to convert you?”

She nodded, “Of course.”

“And, you him?”

“Of course.”

“And?”

“Nothing, either way. He learned most of what he knows about the Game from the Pig, and I don’t think he really understands what he’s gotten himself into.”

“Do you feel sorry for him?”

She shrugged, “A little, maybe. It’s hard not to.”

“He might be a victim, but that doesn’t mean he’s not our enemy.”

She shook her head, “I know.”

I decided I wanted to get off this topic. “Did you find out where they’re staying?”

“At the Waldorf Towers.”

“That must be expensive,” I said, and went to mark it on the map, struggling with a stubborn pushpin for a moment before Charlotte pulled it loose and stuck it into place.

She nodded. “The pig’s oracular vision extends into the near term as well. I understand they’ve had a run of striking good luck and extremely profitable investments.”

Charlotte is my human. I prefer that that term to the “master” or “mistress” used by other companions. Those titles seems increasingly anachronistic in this modern world, and further, I’ve been around for rather longer than Charlotte and much like the Prescient Pig on the other side, I’m the one in charge.

“This is ridiculous,” I said, “to be this late in the game and still not know all the players.”

“I thought you were good at this, Auntie,” she said, squinting down at the map.

I peered at her with one eye, and checked on the progress of my dinner with another. With a third, I looked at the map. It was much blanker than I would have liked.

“I am good at this, dear. But the modern world presents its own challenges.”

We are players in the Great Game, she and I, striving to bar the way to Elders. This battle has been going on since before my age and even a generation ago, it was contested much more openly than it is now. But as time’s winged chariot made its flight into the twentieth century, the nature of the participants changed to reflect the spirit of the times. No longer obviously monstrous, they hide their nature now, bright colors painted over rotten wood. The Politician hid in plain sight, in the highest house in the land.

Would it surprise you to learn that he was one of ours? He preferred the world as it was, and had no desire to play second fiddle to the gods of Nameless Night. But he is gone now, fallen from grace and fallen from power, and may not aid us in this fight.

“Have you checked on the wand?” I asked.

Charlotte nodded, “It’s still safe.”

“Good. And your friend with the Dodge can get it out to us in time?”

“He’s just waiting for our call.”

“That’s something, at least,” I said, and she smiled.

Charlotte is a beautiful young woman with great green eyes, too few for my liking, though they beguile the men we meet in our travels. Her legs are long, like her straight dark hair, but again, she just doesn’t have enough of them. Then again, my station colors my perceptions. I am Arachne, the Weaver, transformed over two thousand years ago by a jealous Athena, and the next time someone tells you that she’s the most reasonable of her pantheon, well; Medusa and I will have to sit you down and set you straight.

We are closers. The Pig and his Boy are openers, those so mad or so broken that they wish to open the way for the alien gods, so they may remake mankind in their own image; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy, to quote old Howard. When the moon is full on Halloween night, and the walls between the worlds are at their weakest, then the openers may hold a ritual to throw wide the gate and bid them enter. Charlotte and I and others like us oppose them to ensure that this never comes to pass.

It was three in the morning. Charlotte went to sleep, but I travelled across town to see our enemy’s dwelling. The windows were closed and the drapes were drawn, and I could not spy within. I contented myself with writing “Delicious” in the web outside their room. Stupid Pig.

October 26

He had already passed into legend by my time, but if the Bible is to be believed, Old King Solomon had three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines, so most find it somewhat surprising that he only has one living descendant in the whole of the modern world. And even more surprising than that is that the last of his line is a hard drinking, hard driving long haul trucker with an orangutan for a co-pilot.

This is the seventies, though. That last part is to be expected.

He’s a sorcerer too, just like his great-grand-pappy. Augmenting his own considerable power is his ancestor’s ring, which is a potent tool of the Game. And like old Solomon, he understands the power that lies with names, which is why he has relinquished his own.  Like many others who have played the Game before him, he is known only by a title. In his case, his nom de guerre is the Trucker.

It might lack the grandeur of some of the other sobriquets, but at least you know what you’re getting.

The Trucker’s Rig was sprawled across the far end of the gravel lot of a honky-tonk. Something by Waylon Jennings twanged from within to welcome us.  Charlotte’s Gremlin wheezed its way to our destination and sputtered once when she pulled out the key. I scurried off the dashboard, skittered up Charlotte’s arm and perched on the shoulder of her frilled vest.

She turned off the headlights and looked over at his rig. A phrase from Paradise Lost was painted along the side of the trailer: “Awake, Arise or be forever Fallen”. I couldn’t see it from the car, but I knew the other side was painted with pictures of naked girls. Classy.

“What do you think he’s moving in his truck?” she asked.

“Mood rings, pet rocks, almonds, Cuban cigars and wombats,” I said.

“Wombats! That’s interesting,” she said, “I’ve been looking for a good source of wombats.”

I looked at Charlotte. Charlotte looked at me.

“Be serious, Auntie.”

“I don’t know. He sometimes runs beer to dry counties down south, but he probably doesn’t have much cargo if he’s here for the Game. Sneak a peek at the manifest. Or you can just ask him.”

She nodded, started to walk towards the truck, then hesitated. “What’s the skinny on him?”

“Wild. Rough around the edges. A little bit of a redneck. Good man, though. Smarter than he looks. A lot smarter than he acts. You’ll like Pinky. She’s a hugger, though.”

She nodded. “Okay, let’s go,” and began heading uncertainly for the truck

“I’m kind of surprised that Solomon was a real guy,” she mentioned when we were just outside the cab.

I chuckled, “Look at your companion. As a wise man once said, ‘If one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist.’”

If you stick around in the Game long enough, you develop a sixth sense about certain things. Or perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse, and those with such an awareness are those who tend to last to play more than once. It could be too, that I’m justifying things with knowledge of later events, but I don’t think so. Looking back to this moment, I think we both knew what was coming on some level and our banter was a way to delay dealing with it.

Charlotte knocked on the door of the cab, and receiving no answer, stepped up and peered in.

Both the Trucker and Pinky were in their accustomed seats, throats cut, stone dead.

Charlotte’s eyes went as cold and hard as jade. Her first reaction was not to draw back in shock, but to lean forward to investigate. I’m proud of the woman she’s become.

The Trucker’s craggy face as peaceful as I’ve ever seen it. Somehow that added to the indignity. A man like him should have gone out fighting. The Solomon’s Seal was still cradled in his lap. It was signet ring much too large to actually wear, all of lead and weighty iron, of two concentric circles with mystical sigils etched between them.

Pinky just looked surprised. Her throat had been cut, but so cleanly that not a drop stained her chiffon dress. Her eyes were focused on something I could not see.

Every generation laments the loss of the civility that nostalgia tells them reigned in their time. Time has stripped that illusion from me, but it is true that something this brazen would not have gone unpunished in earlier Games.

“Who did this?” asked Charlotte, poking carefully for clues.

I scurried off her vest and on to the dash, next to a plastic figure of a bare-breasted hula girl. Though it looked like a tacky little knickknack, it was actually a powerful sorcerous talisman. It hadn’t been enough to save the Trucker though.

“I don’t know. There’s no shortage of openers this year. Someone human, though. The Seal gives those of the blood the power to renegotiate the compacts that govern interactions between humans and the Hidden World, and the Trucker had absolute protection against anything supernatural. So, the Killer-Next-Door mayhap. Or perhaps Van Owen. He has the skill, certainly, but it’s not his style. I think he’s in Africa anyway. Maybe even your Pig Boy. I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter.”

“Just bangin’,” she said sourly, then looked down at the ring, “They left it here to mock us.”

I nodded. My head is much too small for anyone to see the gesture, but Charlotte always knows when I’m nodding. “Without a descendent of Solomon, it’s just a fancy paperweight.”

“So what do we do?”

“We look in the ashtray to see if there’s enough change to buy off Charon, and then we get out of here. There’s nothing we can do for them.”

“But-”

“But nothing, Charlotte. This is as much a trap for us as it was for them, and I guarantee that a patrol car is going to pull in the moment we start moving the bodies. Then what are you going to say? ‘Don’t mind me, officer. I’m just taking my dead orangutan for a walk’?”

She sighed. I hopped on to her hand and brushed it gently with six of my legs. That had always calmed her as a girl. “We’ll avenge them by closing the gate.”

In the end, she agreed. I had her drop me at the Waldorf Towers so I could write “succulent” outside the Pig’s room. I thought I could hear oinking laughter from within.

October 29

“I think it’s time to call your friend,” I said to Charlotte.

“I’ll have him load the wand into the Challenger.”

“Can he get across the country in two days?”

“He did it before.”

“Didn’t he die last time?”

“Yes, and he’s not going to make that mistake again.”

“Super Soul be with us,” I muttered as she made the call.

At nine p.m. Charlotte drove me to Central Park, a bright blaze of green amidst all the grey. From there I made my way to a particular gnarled tree to await Bandit   He is the raccoon companion to Tsul ‘Kalu, Lord of the Game. That’s “game” as in animals one hunts for food, and not the Great Game as in the activity in which I was currently engaged and from which he was curiously absent.

This was to be a meeting between companions, but I was certain that Kalu would be near.

He’s better known as “Bigfoot” in modern times, but I happen to know he hates that name. He doesn’t like “Sasquatch” much better.

I spun a web while I waited. Weaving is still my joy, even after everything. It is prayer and meditation at once, divine communion with gods I no longer held holy, a liturgy by way of my art. Not even Athena could take that away from me.

I lost myself in my work until a fat young fly blundered into my tapestry, spurned either by clumsiness or a hatred for fine art. I was wrapping it up when Bandit padded in behind me, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, as they say.

“Wise and wicked Arachne,” he greeted me, two pinpricks of light glinting within the black of his mask.

“Bandit,” I answered, “most cunning of your kind.”

He stood on his hind legs and made an elaborately casual gesture of examining his paws, “I’m too modest to say so, but yes. How may we be of service, oh ancient weaver?”

“The moon grows great and the sacred time approaches. Your master has come, but makes no preparations. If we are to close the way, then he must act.”

Bandit hesitated uncharacteristically then, looking like his simple cousins in that moment of frozen time. “We will not be aiding you,” he said stiffly.

“What? You’re not-”

“Openers?” He huffed. “No. Certainly not.”

“Well, what is it then?”

Bandit gestured with his paws, taking in the city with a gesture. “Look around you. This city is a microcosm of humanity. Tsul ‘Kalu is the Great Lord of the game, but the game is gone now, sacrificed on the altar of progress. He is the last of his kind. Humanity’s battles are not his. Look up. The stars hide their faces. If this is progress, we do not want it.”

“If the Elders enter, he will not be spared.”

“I know that. He knows that. But if this city represents humanity, then perhaps humanity deserves to perish. In memory of favors past, he will not act against you. But nor will he aid you.”

It’s been two thousand years since I’ve had teeth, but in my mind, I was gritting them. I didn’t want to push them into active opposition. If I did, I felt I’d leave this meeting as a spider-shaped smear on the bottom of Bigfoot’s big feet, and then there would truly be no one left to man the barricades. But it pissed me off that the world was going to end because they had watched that commercial with the crying Indian too many times. “Is there anything I can do to convince you otherwise?”

“I can’t think of anything, no.”

I sighed deeply. “Thank you then for speaking so plainly with me. May your paws be swift. May your mask be true.”

When I was leaving I saw Tsul ‘Kalu from within a copse of trees, wearing the shadow as a shroud, his deep eyes heavy with sorrow, reminding me of Pinky with their human intelligence framed in an inhuman face.

On my way back I hit the hotel and wrote “Free bacon” in jagged block letters with no concern for artistry. I’m not even sure I got the right apartment.

October 31

Halloween.

Children in masks, some of them dressed as the very forces we were opposing, went door to door begging for candy. Some of them had even come here. What kind of parents let their kids trick or treat at a motel?

Charlotte was wearing a sombrero and a serape, like a bandita from one of those spaghetti westerns. She was thrown into this world of ours almost from birth, and never had much of a childhood, so I indulge her when we have the opportunity to do something normal.

So we’re doing something normal. Just a girl and her spider giving out wax lips before a ritual to decide the fate of the world.
As she was closing the door on a pair of trick or treaters she said, “The lady at the front desk has the Innsmouth look.”

I raised eight eyes to look at her. She continued. “I think she’s a Deep One.”

I didn’t think she really meant that, but she often brought up something silly as preamble to discussing something serious, so I decided to play along. “Maybe she just has too much sodium in her diet,” I offered. “Or Peter Lorre is her dad.”

She sat down on the bed next to me.

“Do you ever doubt, Auntie?”

“I am poisoned with doubts, Charlotte,” I said, “I doubt we can keep the way closed forever.  One day the odds will catch up to us.  I even doubt that we will prevail tonight, for only we two stand alone as a candle in the dark-”

There was a knock at the door. Charlotte rose to answer it, peering through the peephole first.

“More children or the wand?”

“Kids.”

She dropped some candy into the bags of kids playing scruffy looking hippies, then returned to me.

“I have no doubts about the virtue of opposing the Elders.” I went on “It must be done, and it must be us. I was given a vision shortly after my transformation and that glimpse of their realm has sustained me for two thousand years. Even after this time, I lack the words to describe the horrors, even though I see them anew every night. Should they enter, it won’t be the end of the human race; they’ll need slaves, food and host bodies, but it will certainly mark the end of humanity.”

Another knock. More kids.

I looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s getting late,” I said, “I’d hate to lose in a forfeit.”

We were silent for a while, then I said, “I’m sorry that I dragged you into this Charlotte. It’s no life for a young woman. The Elders must be opposed. I’m just sorry that it had to be you.”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it, Auntie. I know you love me, and that’s a lot more than most people get. After we win, and we’re going to win, I want to take a long vacation somewhere sunny, and not think about the Game for the rest of my life. When’s the next one?”

There was a knock on the door. She rose. “Not until next century,” I said.

“Great,” she said, pulling aside the curtains enough to reveal the silhouette of an adult man outside. The wand, and none too soon. “I’ll be an old woman by then, and maybe I can pass the mantle to one of my kids and she can see what it’s like spending her formative years running up and down and to and fro in the world with a talking spider.”

“Kids?” I said as she undid the lock, “I didn’t know you wanted kids.”

“Eventually,” she said, opening the door while looking over at me, “It’s something I just recently realized myself, and there was really no time to bring it up in the past month. I haven’t met the right guy, and that’s not surprising, given our circumstances, but I have confidence that someday my prince will come.”

She turned back to the door and saw what I was already seeing. It wasn’t the courier standing there. It was the Pig Boy.

He held up his hands. “Wait,” he said, “Can we talk?”

Charlotte was within both her rights and her power to destroy him where he stood. But she forbore from the act and I think I understood what he was doing here, even though such a thing had happened but thrice in the long history of the Game. I had only seen him from a distance previously, but he was better groomed than he had been on those occasions, and I don’t think he was all cleaned up just to ring in the Elders. One does not get to my age without understanding a little about human nature. (And spider-nature and pig-nature too, but this part was strictly a human show.)

Charlotte stepped away from the door and with a gesture, bid him enter.  He took a seat at the table. I took up a seat near the ashtray next to his right arm.  As the Archetype, I have traits in common with each of my children, (To be more precise, they have traits in common with me, but let’s not muddy the waters at this late hour) and I’m fairly large for one of my kind. Spiders tend to make people nervous anyway, and as the Ur-Spider, my form is somewhat malleable, so I assumed a shape somewhat larger and hairier than was the norm for me, and caressed his hand to help him concentrate.

“She’s not poisonous, is she?” he asked Charlotte, drawing away as much as he could without leaving the seat.

“No,” she said.

“Good,” he said, and almost sagged with relief.

“She’s venomous. That’s much worse,” and the Pig Boy’s skin paled beneath what I now saw was a new haircut.

I have a certain, I’m loathe to call it cruelty, but a tendency towards the dramatic gesture when I feel it appropriate. This trait has caused me grief in the past, but I keep doing it, because, much like my fellow arachnid in the fable about crossing the river with the fox, it’s my nature. It is Charlotte’s too. So she gave him a smile that showed her teeth and said, “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“Well,” he began, “I was thinking about what you said when we met. And I’m not always the smartest guy around. I usually let the Mast-, the Pig do my thinking for me.”

Charlotte nodded, and he went on. “But if something bothers me, I keep worrying at. I don’t really want to do it, but there’s nothing worse than the feeling of not doing it, dig?”

She nodded again. He looked athwart at me, “So, um, how did you two meet?”

“Oh, you know the story,” she said tartly. “Girl’s relaxing on her tuffet and enjoying a light snack, spider shows up, girl spills her snack and they bond when she’s scooping out some more curds and decide to form their very own Mod Squad.” She scowled. “Come on, Pig Boy! Focus! We don’t have a lot of time left!”

“Pig Boy?” He looked hurt.  “Is that what you call me?” but she brushed the question aside with a “get-on-with it” gesture.

“Okay. So I was thinking about what you said and what the Pig had told me, and how they couldn’t both be true. I’m not that smart, but I think about the Game constantly. And given time and constant pressure, water can wear away stone. I thought about what you had each said, and your account seemed to match the facts better. But more than that, it was the version that I wanted to be true.”

Charlotte softened somewhat, and her smile was accompanied by that unconscious turn of her head that she does when she really means it.

The Pig Boy went on, “The Closing Wand isn’t going to get here in time. I heard the Pig gloating about it to the others. Your driver has transcended this realm, but his cargo has not and is still governed by its laws. The Pig has a lot of pull all over the place. Seeing the future lets him blackmail folks for things they haven’t even done yet, and he has thrown up enough obstacles to slow down even your man. His vision showed that the wand is going to roll in here at sunrise tomorrow, too late to facilitate the closing.”

Charlotte did not respond save with a tightening of her jaw. She was looking down at me and opening her mouth to say something when he added “So I thought it only fair to grab this before I came over,” and smiled as he lay what had to be the Opening Wand on the table.

“What if they threw an apocalypse and nobody came?” he asked as Charlotte threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Did we win?

The world didn’t end. Charlotte and the Pig Boy were married three weeks later. They served pork chops at the reception.

Josh says: Arachne is the weaver out of myth, transformed into a spider when she bested Athena in a contest. The driver in the Dodge Challenger is a reference to the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. The Trucker and his orangutan Pinky are nods to Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way but Loose,  Tsul ‘Kalu is a figure out of Cherokee legend similar to Bigfoot. Solomon is the biblical figure who had power over the spirits of the air. “If one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist.” and “Mood rings, pet rocks, almonds, Cuban cigars and wombats,” are both references to Roger Zelazny’s book, If at Faust You Don’t Succeed.  Van Owen is a reference to the character in Warren Zevon’s song, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. The Prescient Pig that is briefly mentioned, but never seen is a broad reference to Hen Wen from the Chronicles of Prydain, but primarily exists to set up the joke about Arachne writing messages in the webs outside his residence, which is a reference to Charlotte’s Web. The commercial with the crying Indian is a reference to the 1971 Keep America Beautiful ad campaign with Iron Eyes Cody. The Mod Squad refers to the television series that was popular in the 70s, “venomous” is what most people mean when they say “poisonous” (the distinctions have become blurred now, but properly speaking, a venomous animal will bite or sting you and inject you with the venom, whereas a poisonous animal will only poison you if you eat it) and Charlotte makes the distinction, and Arachne’s fellow arachnid in the fable about crossing the river with the fox references Aesop’s fable Scorpion and the Frog, which sometimes features a fox rather than a frog. Sitting on a tuffet and eating a snack refers to the nursery rhyme, Little Miss Muffet.

Josh Wanisko was born on a Night in the Lonesome October, on the Halloween of the full moon, but that’s just one of those meaningless coincidences that happens from time to time. He writes about the works of Roger Zelazny at his blog, Where There had been Darkness.

Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.

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4 responses to “The Great and Groovy Game, by Joshua Wanisko

  1. Oh for someone who has s true dread of spiders, your story made me cry with delight that you’d chose who you’d chosen to act as Closer! So well framed and thought out and darkly comic, thank you you made me cry with happiness at the end! :)

  2. Thanks so much, everyone! I really enjoyed writing this and I’m glad that other folks enjoyed it too. I’m a big fan of audio books to, and I particularly enjoyed the reading. (He even got my last name right, and that seldom happens even among people for whom I’ve pronounced it!) I also really liked the picture made to go along with it! It just perfectly captures the mood I was going for.

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