Sunday, June 10, 2007

That Old Marshmallow Maze Spell

First thing I notice, walking into the familiar old Great Room, is that the crowd hasn't changed. There's one small difference that I can't put my finger on... it'll come to me, I'm sure.

More familiarity: mature fires are burning in the two great stone mantles at opposing ends of the room, each contributing warmth and a certain inevitable smoke. I make my way to the bar — where else? As I weave through the tables, old faces and new glance up from lively conversations, some smiling to greet me or wink at me. Oh, it's good to be back again. I've never been happier to walk into this room. Not so much because I've been away, but because of where I've been.

How could I have let it happen? I don't know how I'll explain to any of my old friends... better not to dwell on it for now. I arrive at the bar, settle onto one of the ancient teak stools. Before I've so much as glanced at the tap, a young, fashionably unkempt bartender I don't recognize sets down a half-yard of cool pilsner and declares: "On the house! Welcome back!" Before I can ask him his name he's off again, delivering a pair of frothing mugs to a pair of codgers laughing at some private joke near the far end of the bar from where I sit.

I study my pils. It's my regular fare, but I don't recognize the bartender. I must be getting old. The thought occurs to me that the only difference in the tavern crowd, in the six months I've been away, is that they seem to have aged backwards. Depressing? Maybe not. Life had its challenges when I was younger, too. Except for recent events, and surely they're anomalous, growing old hasn't been as bad as I've heard it would be. The past half year, sure, it's put years on my life... but that's quickly becoming so much bridgewater now that I'm back in town. Things already seem better.

I take my lager over to a table to enjoy it quietly. I want to be lost for a while in the noisy company around me. I choose an aged bench, an old favorite, its familiar knots worn smooth by countless drunken backsides, its gouges and furrows sealed with some unknown caulking the color of greasy smoke. I sip my pilsner and wonder again how it could have happened to me. Who would believe it? I resolve not to tell anyone. Instead I might tell the comfortable half-truths that people are expecting from me: I've been busy with personal affairs, all of which are now resolved satisfactorily, and now I'm back among the living. That's all anyone really needs to know.

My lager's gold deepens to sudden wheat as a shadow blots out the entire westward hearth from my vantage: an enormous blonde man, easily twice my size, is settling down directly across from me. My worries leave me on the instant.

"Rauser! What are the odds — how long has it been, friend?" I greet him with genuine cheer, and find I can't suppress a huge grin. I hadn't expected to see him here this afternoon.

"Too long, and then longer," Rauser booms back at me. He waves at the barkeep, pointing at the tap.

The funny thing about Rauser was that he always booms. His voice can't do anything but boom. I've known him for most of my life, and he's never been able to whisper. That trait got us into a lot of trouble as kids. But he also has the knack of talking his way out of trouble. Rauser and I, we go waaaay back. I'd trust him with my life.

Rauser's aged visibly since we last spoke, perhaps nine or ten months ago. His broad, almost ageless face has finally begun to sport lines, and his temples are half an inch higher. And he looks every bit as tired as I feel.

"What have you been up to, Raus old buddy? I heard you haven't been around here much lately. Although — admittedly — I haven't been around muchly myself to look for you." I'm genuinely curious. Rauser was once as much a regular here as I myself had been, not a year ago.

Rauser eyes my half-drained glass with unconcealed longing, grunts, turns to locate the barkeep. I push my glass over to him. "Have it. You look like you need a head start."

"Thanks, bud!" He drains it in a gulp, wipes his mouth, and shouts over the crowd to the pot-boy near the east fire, who seems to be taking his time serving a group of five or six young women who look like tourists. The pot-boy notices me and Rauser waving at him and bolts behind the bar.

Rauser looks me up and down appraisingly. I'm still grinning at how fast he demolished my beer. "You back for real now? Or just visiting?"

"I'm back," I announce, and as I say it I feel the truth of it. I really am back. I've been away from Story for far too long, and although I have a whopper of a tale, it's still too real to tell. Stories are best after they've settled a bit, not when they're still raw and confusing and don't seem quite dead enough to handle yet, not without risking getting your hand bitten by a side story or a vignette that hasn't played out yet, or simply hasn't realized that it's supposed to be over.

I'm back for real, but my story will have to wait. I need to rest and mull over it. When it's been mulled to sufficiency, I'll seal its gouges and furrows with a little smoke to make it comfortable to tell, which of course has to happen before it's comfortable to hear. All good stories should make you a little uncomfortable, and great stories can wound a person and leave scars for life. But if you're not careful, and you don't wait just a little before telling it, a fresh enough story can even do damage to itself.

So I want to hear someone else's story, and Rauser looks like he has a pretty good one to tell me. As we wait for our beer, I'm suffused with an odd mixture of nostalgia and relief. It has been a very long time since I've felt a pang this intense that wasn't guilt, or shame, or dread, and I suddenly feel nostalgic for the feeling of nostalgia, and relieved that I can once more feel relief. How did I let it happen to me? I wonder...

The pot-boy finally makes his way to us with a pair of oversized steins. We've switched to a dark malt, rich and subtle as fine chocolate, and I take a me-sized swig while Rauser takes a Rauser-sized swig. Our mugs thump to the table with different thump-pitches. I'd swear Rauser's mug sounds empty.

This place always has the best beer. Maybe that's part of why the stories are always so good.

Here's the story Rauser tells me. It's a little raw, but it's how he tells it to me. I'll try to keep my side-commentary to a minimum, at least after his story gets underway. I'll also try to remain true to Rauser's phrasing, which is as unique and personal as the man himself. Whatever. Here's what he booms out:

"My old friend, best of friends..."

He always starts that way. I'm not trying to disguise my name or anything. It's just how he starts his stories with me. We actually are pretty close to best friends, though. One or two heads turn, since it sounds like a story is starting up, but we pay them no attention.

"You know I've been gone a good while, and I've got a tale to tell all right. But I haven't spun it properly for a real Telling, not for an audience and all. So I'll just tell you, and I'll let the story take its real shape as I read your reactions. Got it?"

I nod knowingly. More beer, is what Rauser is saying. No secrets between friends, and Rauser's an old friend. It's the best kind of story introduction: just between you and me, for your ears only. That's always a call for more beer. I wave to the pot-boy, catching his attention; he nods from across the room and heads to the bar. Rauser continues...

"I've thought long and hard about how to tell this story, how to explain how I just disappeared for close to a year. I haven't decided yet. But you're getting the true version. And there's a hard bit to swallow right in the beginning, so let's get it out of the way."

Rauser eyes me with sudden intensity. I'm a little uncomfortable, even, and drop my eyes to my beer glass. I hope he hasn't murdered someone.

"Here it is, whether you believe me or not: I had a spell put on me by an evil wizard, and I've been laboring under that spell for the past ninemonth and some weeks. That's what happened to me. It was a modern-day, evil wizard, and you and I both know they don't exist. But that's the truth of it."

He pauses, not proceeding with his story, waiting for me to react. I try not to, but I think I may have winced involuntarily, just a little wince, when I heard him say "evil wizard". I take a deep breath and say nothing. At least he hasn't murdered anyone, unless that's supposed to be his alibi. But I think he saw me wince. Since that's my only reaction, he runs with it:

"Fine, fine, now that I hear myself saying it, I know it sounds unconvincing as all that. But hear me out, hear me out. I'm not talking about fireworks or so-called mystical rituals or any such nonsense. You know me well enough for that. What I'm telling you is much more subtle. I only know a few words that can adequately describe what happened to me. So when I tell you I was entrapped by a spell cast by an evil wizard, old friend, that's just me doing my best to explain something entirely outside my realm of experience. And you and I don't lack for experience."

The pot-boy arrives with two full yards of dark brown lager. Good boy. He can tell we're about to embark on a story, and gets out of our way quickly. I give Rauser's glass a solid clink with my own, wordlessly accepting his explanation and inviting him to tell me the whole story. I regret my little wince from before; it's just that... no matter, no matter. I put it out of my mind as Rauser begins his story in earnest:

"I'll tell you this much: I'll never eat another marshmallow again, not if I live to be a hundred.

"About nine months back, I landed a job with a local landowner. He had an old mansion on the property, and he'd forever been fiddling with it, adding extensions here and there, and it had never really, well, coalesced I guess is the word for it. It hadn't settled down and grown character the way a mansion should. It was just a mess, a big eyesore that he said was as uncomfortable to live in as to look at. So he wanted us to build him a brand-new mansion on another part of his property. That was the job.

"Normally you and I work with our own crews, hand-picked, but this landowner was in a hurry and had some of his own people in mind. He talked me into joining on, and it wasn't a hard sell, because I was looking for something big, and this job had real promise. It did, and it still does. I'm still on it, in fact.

"This landowner already has it made; he's got more cash than a reasonable person could ever need, enough to build himself a brand-new mansion while he's living out of his old one. And he has other properties, and such. You know the type. Rich entrepreneur. He wasn't happy with any of his other mansions, though, and he wants this one to be fit to house a king. He's set on it.

"I don't know if he's planning on inviting a king, or being one himself, but his plans for this mansion are immense. It's more palace than mansion. When it's done, and I've no doubt it'll be one of the finest mansions most folks will ever lay eyes on, assuming they ever go out there. It's quite a haul from here..."

Rauser squints at his beer, momentarily unsure of himself. He takes a huge gulp of it and continues, more confident. That's beer for you.

"You and I have done this kind of job plenty of times, and you know they take years. But there were two catches that made this job especially tricky. As if it weren't hard enough already!

"The first catch: this property we're building on is a lowland, with swamps and standing water, and you can't drain it. The water would just come right back. Traditionally the way the planner solves this is by bringing in earth, mounds and mountains of it, and building it up high above the water line.

"It can take a long time to build a foundation like that, and you know as well as I do they don't always work. You need to let the hill settle before building on it. But the purse strings are always drawn tight during those waits, and better than half the jobs wind up building on piles of fresh dirt. Things go well for a while, but when the dirt gets enough weight on it, the whole foundation can collapse. We've seen it happen. Oft as not the job will be over at that point — the landowner is out of coin, or someone on the crew is injured and they all leave superstitiously, or maybe the landowner blames the crew but can't find replacements who'll take the job. And sometimes everyone's lined up to keep working, but the thing is damaged beyond repair, and they grind away uselessly for a while before the effort just falls apart on its own.

"We've seen all those things happen before. Sure, we've seen successes with the build-a-hill approach, even done a few ourselves, but conditions have to be just right. You need proper time, proper planning, proper funding, fair weather, a strong crew, and a handy bit o' luck thrown in for a project like that to complete."

"The other catch to this dream job was the time: it had to be done on an impossible schedule. The landowner, a reasonable and respectable man in my judgment, had never undertaken this kind of job before, and didn't estimate the effort properly. The complexity and expense of a job like this are proportional to the physical size of the structure, so building a mansion just half again bigger than your last one can easily quadruple the effort required. It's deceptive. And it doesn't matter how you try to explain it, because from a distance it looks the same as the other jobs they've seen. They don't realize they're not just making it bigger; they're making it fancier while they're at it. Every new mansion has to be better than the neighboring mansions in every imaginable way, and it can wind up being ten or even a hundred times the work to build the last one.

"You can see now why I took the job. Building a palace fit for a king, on a swamp fit for a crocodile, with a schedule that wouldn't work for a midwife, let alone for building a normal-sized mansion. That's the kind of job that gets your attention, because if you do it right, and then you pull it off, some nobleman really will buy the thing, and your crew along with it. I've seen folks like us retire after one job like that."

Rauser pauses significantly for a deep draught of his lager. The mention of early retirement, or any retirement at all, always deserves a respectful drink in our profession, and I salute him with my glass. None of us would ever retire the way you'd think of it, of course; we're master builders, and in so-called retirement we'd likely continue puttering on our own homes and other projects forever. But doing your own thing on your own time is a damn sight better than doing it all for someone else. Well, that's what I've heard. Can't say myself, and neither can Rauser, but retirement is still one of our favorite toasts.

"So now you know the job, or as much about it as matters, and you know why I took it, and why he picked me. This landowner tracked me down at another site, where I was negotiating a new job. I'm surprised he didn't track you down too. We could have used you. Still could. He was going for top talent and paying top price, so I felt he was leaving starting gate with the right attitude and initial decisions. How many projects can we say that about?

"I laughed long and hard at his proposed schedule, and he took it well enough. He asked me how long I thought I needed, and when I told him, he didn't balk. That clinched it for me. This was going to be a dream job, after all: the kind where you build something that lasts for generations, the kind of job you can rest a career on.

"I told him I'd take the job on one condition: I alone get to make the decision about how to handle the swamp. I had an interesting idea in mind about how to build on the wetlands. It's not something we've seen done on this scale before, but I was convinced it would work. Even so, it took a bit of negotiation and some persuasion to get him to agree to my plan, because once you go this route you're committed from day one.

"My idea was to build a big floating platform, then build the mansion on the platform. I told him the platform would take three to five months, at which point it wouldn't be completely finished, but it would be strong and stable enough to let us start construction on the mansion. Then we'd continue to shore up the platform and refine it as needed while we built him his little palace.

"He was intrigued, just as you seem to be. But I'd been thinking about this approach and sketching out designs for, well, years if you want to know the truth. But in the past year I'd finally figured out the last technical obstacles.

"This platform was, and is, unlike anything you've seen before. You'd never guess it was floating by looking at it. It's actually partly supported by land, but during the rainy season it floats fully, and during a drought the land contacts can support its full weight and then some. Most of the floating platforms we've seen, leastaways the ones I've seen, maybe you know better than me, have been flimsy and skittish, built for cheap single-occupant homes. They only do it when there's no money for dirt. They're popular, sure, but I've never heard tell of a floatable platform strong enough to park a palace, and immobilized enough so none of the occupants gets seasick walking to the cupboard for a midnight swig."

We both take another swig, right on cue. A master storyteller like Rauser tailors his story on the fly to keep the beer flowing, which in turn keeps the story going.

"The technical challenge, both in design and construction, wasn't exactly risk-free, and both the landowner and I knew it. But we also knew that a fivemonth is a full year sooner than the time it would take to build a strong hill. He didn't seem to care if his mansion is elevated or not; he'd been to the East and seen water-level palaces fit for entertaining nobles, albeit not floating ones, at least as far as he could tell me. A hill would be nice, sure. But this job is a home, not a fortification, and if my floating platform were viable, it would save him a fortune in both time and money. More money for the palace! The better the palace, the better the crew's future career prospects; everyone comes away happy.

"So we signed the contract on the spot, and I went straight to work. He would provide the crew, although I was welcome to bring any of my own men as I could locate them. Our mini-crew would start work on the platform, and after three months we'd be fully staffed and ready to start on the mansion proper, with all of us transitioned full-time to the mansion work within half a year of our contract date.

"Here, my friend, is where my story departs from being just another bland job description, floaty platform or no floaty platform, and enters the realm of the bizarre, in a way most... unfortunate for all of us.

"Before I tell you what happened, just keep in mind the three Ms."

Rauser's been preparing his story for a mass audience rather more than I'd realized, if he's bringing an M into it already. Rauser busies himself waving down the barkeep, having finished his giant beer, but I'm certain he's doing it to give me time to think, and digest what he's told me so far.

Problem is, I can't concentrate. I've been listening to his story silently so far, trying to avoid making any faces other than rapt attention, because I know already that any faces I make will be the wrong ones at the wrong times, and Rauser, master storyteller and friend to me that he is, will notice. I don't want him to stop the narrative; the first telling can be make-or-break, and he may lose interest or change the focus of the story altogether if I push him off track inadvertently.

Raw stories are delicate to handle, even when apparently cooked with an M already, and I can tell this is Rauser's first telling of this thing, whatever it is that happened to him. I won't ruin his story by letting on that I know his entire story — at least so far — because it's the same as my own. The only appreciable difference is the platform; his floats, tailored to the wetland upon which he's building, and my platform, if that's the right word for it, is suspended in midair with ropes, cabling, wind-power and a fair bit of fingers-crossed hope, all tailored for a castle in the sky. Other than that irrelevant technical detail, Rauser could be telling my story, and it's scaring me, because if it ends up the same way, then it's not a happy one.

So I try to be stoic, almost holding my breath as his tale unfolds, told in his booming bass with big beer belches, Rauser-style.

The three Ms, by the way, are Metaphor, Misdirection, and Mashups. All are ways of covering your tracks, of hiding the puppet wires, of fictionalizing a story that began as nonfiction (or multiple stories, in the case of Mashups). Each M is an ingredient that enhances the flavor of a story when baked in, without changing the story's nature or intent. A romance is still romantic, a cautionary tale still cautions, and a shaggy-dog joke, one would hope, is still funny. The three Ms themselves are something of in-joke here in Story, because it's tacitly understood that there are more than three, and they don't all start with M. Whatever. That's writers for you.

Anyway, as soon as an M makes an appearance in a story, all bets are off. Rauser could be telling me an old joke he heard, or a synthesis of real events that happened to others, or he could be making it all up for practice; it's impossible to guess. Some storytellers have even been known to claim Ms are present when in fact there are none, in a paradoxical application of the second M.

But I have a hunch Rauser is telling me a story that's nearly raw, in part because I've known him so long, and in part because it jibes so closely with my own recent experiences. Unless, of course, I'm just making all this up for your enjoyment, which I just M-ight be.

The way these things are typically done, especially in the hands of a teller as practiced as Rauser, is each M is embodied by a character or story element that actually starts with M. Where does that leave us? Marshmallow is the obvious candidate, with Mansion being a solid runner-up. No matter. In the end, Rauser is simply telling me that this is just a story, and that any elements of real pain in it are entirely secondary to the fact that he's back among us, able once again to entertain and perhaps educate, and be entertained and educated himself. That's why we come here; that's all he's really saying.

Rauser's a beer ahead of me now. I'm not surprised; he's a big, thirsty man, and he's been away even longer than I have. I stop trying to pace him, and take a deep pull from my yard. The lager is almost as sweet as mead. I've missed this place.

"I guess it's time to tell you about the foreman. Well, heck, I'm not sure at this point who to tell you about. After three months of toiling through the rainy season, my floating platform was large and stable enough to hold thirty mounted riders, which is all we could muster for a stability check. It didn't budge, even though it was floating six inches above the anchor points from all the rain. We knew it was good enough to start construction of the mansion. We were still waiting on the final floor plan, though, and it wasn't due for a month... well, that's a detail.

"I'm trying to avoid too much detail here, since the technical and schedule details aren't what I'm about. You can imagine how they went. We had some delays, some setbacks, just like you'd expect, but we still managed to stay on the original schedule, or close enough to it so nobody could complain. Well — nobody rational, that is.

"About four months into the project, we started hearing... talk. Just bits of rumors, snippets here and there, about our crew and our project. This landowner's property is a good way from here, eight days' journey with strong horses and friendly weather. It wasn't exactly a secret, but we also knew the landowner didn't want to attract attention to the mansion until it was ready to show, for the usual reasons: bandits, pranksters, and even the chance that someone else would come along and build nearby, ruining the obvious potential for selling the place as a remote summer villa or even a fancy inn, should it come to that.

"The talk we heard was about our progress. The landlord rarely made appearances, what with it being the wet season and he needing to tend to his other affairs, abroad. But we heard he was unhappy, or that his potential buyers were unhappy, or that a neighboring baronial type was unhappy, all manner of unhappy-talk. The rumors were always different, and you know how they spread around, so nobody could place them. There was just enough traffic in and out to provide a constant supply of rumor. But we didn't pay much attention to any of it then, early on in the project, because we knew we were making great progress.

"Right around then, at least I think that's when it was, I started noticing the marshmallows. They were showing up in the provisions, little bags of them, and nobody thought anything of it at first. We started roasting them on nights when it was dry enough to light a fire. Sometimes we'd see little bowls of them appear on a workbench, or in a tool chest. Before long they seemed to be everywhere, and we didn't think much of it at the time. Maybe someone just liked marshmallows. Maybe one of our food suppliers was unloading them at a bulk discount. Nobody really cared that much, since any you didn't eat you could throw into the fire, or the swamp.

"Well, word came down from... somewhere... I never quite have figured out where it originated, I suppose, but I have a good guess now. In any event, we got word that we had to eat the marshmallows or there would be trouble of some unspecified sort.

"It was never made clear exactly why we had to eat them, as opposed to just throwing them away and not ordering so many. We heard that they were pushing back on the supplier, but talks were in progress; heck, we heard so many conflicting things, I doubt any two men on our crew have the same idea in their heads today as to what really happened. Maybe we heard that we couldn't throw them in the marsh or it would attract crocodiles, or maybe we just speculated as much, one night while we were roasting them. At the time, you know how it is, the project was really busy, we were building like crazy, and it seemed like a minor thing.

"You've heard about boiling frogs, of course, and I tell you: even if it's not true — never tried it myself — that wives tale about frog-boiling has the ring of truth because things like it happen all the time. There was never a clear time or event you could point at, where the rumors and the marshmallows became recognized as a problem, because we thought the problem was us.

"You're at a remote worksite like ours, you know how it is. Guys tell each other stories to keep from going stir-crazy, and we crave news from the outside world, even if it's just rumor. Some of our foremen wound up meeting with visitors or even going offsite way more often than the crew did, and we heard most of our news through them. And they were worried. You could see it.

"I didn't see why they should be worried; my floating platform was clearly going to work out just fine, and although one could fairly debate whether I'd created a repeatable process, well, as a one-off it was just what we needed. But I'd hear, usually via the foremen, that the folks with the money were questioning the entire approach, and were even saying that we should have built a hill, never mind that building a hill, which is already inherently risky, takes well over a year.

"You'd think we'd have spent more time questioning the foremen, but they assured us they were able to send accurate reports of our progress back upstream, and that as long as we could reel the schedule in just a little bit, it would reassure our patrons that we're a competent crew worth funding.

"'How much?' we asked, and we were told that maybe pulling it in a month or so, and fully transitioning work from the platform to the mansion (whose floor plans we'd just received) in five months instead of six would do the trick."

"You know how much day-to-day detail goes into our jobs, and you know pulling in a six-month schedule by a month requires a minor miracle at best, or a major one if you're unlucky. But the picture wouldn't be complete without telling you about the maze."

Another M. I'd known one was coming. Can't fool me, Rauser. The maze is a fake, a plot device, an allegory. Right? Right. Then why did my gut just do a flip? Can't fool myself, either. The maze — it's in my story, too. I'm not sure I'd have chosen the word "maze", but then my story didn't exactly have marshm... the word is sticking in my throat for some reason. MMmmmaaaaarsshhhmmm...

"This maze, old friend, was a real and oppressive thing. It came upon us gradually, just like the marshmallows did, just like the rumors about our progress. I can look back and see it growing. It was a combination of things. We were working out on this oddly-shaped platform, with its little docks and outcroppings and square holes to let a hillock of sandy mud jut through, all the sorts of oddments you'd expect of a floating platform in a swamp made for housing a mansion.

"So from the start, navigating it was always a little tricky. It helped if you had some seafaring experience, we found, and not because you needed your sea legs — the platform was immobilized from day one. It's because the ex-sailors on the crew knew how to dodge and weave through crates and equipment without losing their balance or slowing down. But everyone on crew got the hang of it eventually.

"Getting from our camp to the platform was, I will freely admit, pretty awful. We didn't have a lot of time to work on the ramps, so oft times it was just boards and homemade signs. The platform was maybe a quarter mile from our little lean-to village where we all slept and ate, on higher ground, and where deliveries and most visitors stopped. We had a lot of people ask to see the platform, but since it wasn't visible unless you went out there, and there was mud everywhere, most folks declined. I can't say I blame 'em. Wasn't my job to build the road. That could come later.

"Well, one of the downsides of the platform, given our three-month initial schedule, was that it was only maybe twice as big as the mansion itself. We didn't have room for all the crates, boxes, bags, lumber, piles of building material, paint, and all the other cruft that showed up ahead of schedule. Initially, I think we decided, without giving it much thought, that we should try to move deliveries as close to the platform as possible, while we had the extra hands of the delivery crews.

"So we wound up with dozens of makeshift trails leading to the platform. With all our comings and goings, one trail wasn't going to suffice, and the trails were lined with equipment, trees, bushes, anything that hadn't been trampled down by feet. It became kind of maze-like, and there were more than a few dead-ends. It finally got to where you needed a guide on your first trip out to the platform, and maybe your second or third too.

"And those damned marshmallow bags kept showing up on the trails, on the platform, everywhere. It was getting out of hand. We were tired of eating them, but there was always pressure when we tried to do anything other than eat them. We seemed to be running out of trail space — sometimes it felt as if trees would spring up overnight, I'd swear it. And we were forbidden from discarding the marshmallows or even moving them off-trail. We were told that we would offend our patrons if we didn't eat them, and we were told that everyone upstream was trying as hard as they could to shut off the supply, but evidently there was a miscommunication. We never did see where the marshmallows were coming from, but they kept showing up, each day more than the day before. And what with the rumors about our lack of progress, and the vague blame cloud surrounding my decision to build a floating platform rather than a mountain of dirt, we were in no position to push back.

"I'm telling you — this whole situation just crept up on us, and none of it seemed so unusual at the time that anyone would stop to question it all. Sure, we'd talk about the individual elements: our progress, or the rumors, or the increasing difficulty of getting to and from the platform, some of which was our fault, although our increasing schedule pressure gave us correspondingly less time to build better trails. And of course everyone was tired of marshmallows, to the point where people started hinting that some folks on the crew weren't doing their share of marshmallow-swallowing; some of us were eating huge bags of them every hour; why couldn't the rest keep up?

Rauser pauses, takes a deep breath. He's been talking faster, which is a bit worrisome if you know anything about storytelling. It can get away from you, can rip into the crowd before you can recover and beat it back into submission. Careful, Rauser...

"All right, you get the idea, I think. Permit me to skip ahead a few months and describe my condition after eight months on this job.

"I hadn't taken a vacation in months, not even a day-hike away from camp. I'd stopped exercising. I'd ceased whittling and reading and all the other little diversions I bring to remote jobs like this one. I'd stopped eating anything but marshmallows, because it was the only way to keep the maze clear. I slept on the platform and rarely visited the camp. I would work from before dawn, deep into the night, with only occasional breaks to stuff down a marshmallow as big as a picnic table that had gotten itself wedged in some important leg of the maze. The maze itself was navigable only by the crew and foremen, and nobody ever came to see the mansion anymore. This was just as well, since our hygiene had fallen somewhat into disrepair as well.

"I was exhausted all the time, and worried all the time, and the nature of our situation was such that the only solution I could think of was to work harder.

"The mansion was progressing steadily, and was still on the original schedule I'd envisioned with the landowner seven or eight months back. Not that I had access to the contract or, for that matter, the landowner, so my recollection was a bit hazy. But every few weeks we'd receive news from one foreman or another, all of whom by the way were looking as depressed, worried and overworked as I was, that the schedule had reverse-slipped again, and that we had apparently promised yet another key delivery well in advance of when the crew thought it was due. Every time this happened, we redoubled our efforts.

"You know the math on this approach. You cap out quickly. We've done it before, but the circumstances were different. In those rare times in our careers where we've sustained 100+ hour weeks for any length of time, it was a fixed schedule — a building for an upcoming wedding, maybe, or a holiday in need of an orphanage. We always knew what we were building, and we knew we were good at it. We'd work the extra hours to compensate for inevitable schedule slips, and afterwards we'd have a huge celebration.

"This, friend, was different. The mansion plans never really changed, but our progress was being measured daily, and we were made to commit to tasks, in front of the rest of the crew, and then held against those commitments regardless of what happened in the interim — a tree falling on the platform, a crocodile eating a crew member, a lumber delivery never arriving. It didn't matter. We were told to dodge, weave, cut corners, and do whatever it took to make up the slack, because every week we were in worse (yet always vague) trouble, and nearly every week the schedule was pulled in some more.

"You and I, we're strong guys; we've been through the fire and the gauntlet on countless projects together. I don't know how to tell you, but this was not normal. I was feeling guilty all the time, but I couldn't walk away because of the platform; it hadn't seen the dry season yet, and I didn't want it suddenly snapping in two and killing half the crew. I had to stay, but it was killing me. It was killing all of us. Except for the crocodile that ate that one guy, but I think some of the other crew members were actually envious of him; that's how bad it had gotten.

"We loved the mansion, and I had high hopes for the smile on the landowner's face when he next came to see it. We'd had to triage most of the niceties, saving them for later, but it was (and is) still going to be a functional giant mansion on a swamp in what has to be world record time.

"By month nine I was a disaster. I slept an hour or two per night. I took risks with construction that should have taken my hand off, even without the sleep deprivation. We'd been ordered to stop worrying about building codes or safety; all that mattered was the mansion, so much so that it could have been painted on cardboard and still met our new short-term requirements. Everyone felt so ashamed that we could barely speak to one other. Any time we might otherwise have spent on planning, or questioning the situation, or even sleeping, we spent trying to force passages through the now-clogged maze by swallowing more than our own weight in marshmallows each hour, which we were able to accomplish through some magic I still fail to comprehend."

Rauser has stopped quite suddenly, and he isn't taking a drink this time. He seems to have just noticed that I am not the only one listening to his story, which has finally acquired a grim life of its own, holding our attention effortlessly. We all gape at him. He looks around at the listeners, perhaps twenty in all, a few from every table nearby. Outside our circle, the tavern noise continues merrily, unabated.

Rauser's tone changes from a boom to something almost like a whisper. A booming whisper, I guess. It would be comical if he weren't so serious, and if his story hadn't turned us all into boiled frogs in just a few short minutes.

"Have you ever noticed that all our folklore about wolves has certain themes and patterns to it? I've never met a wolf, but I give them fair credit for being wily creatures. I'm a big man, not one to fear a big dog's bite, but I would give a wolf a wide berth, because they're reputed to be so crafty. And crafty, friends, I am not. A craftsman, yes, but I realize now that I am more sheep than wolf.

"The landowner in my tale is a good, affable fellow; I could see it within minutes of meeting him, and I stand by him today still. He's a man with a clear vision and a good heart, and he hired crew members who, for all our talents, know nothing of wolves or wizards.

"The problem with setting up an untended, untrained flock of sheep is that there are wolves aplenty, and as sheep are not adequately prepared to recognize or deal with wolves, they will all eventually be eaten. This seems obvious to us. Nearly as obvious is that this idea applies equally to government, with the minor change that the wolves are savvy politicians and the sheep are incompetent ones. Eventually the sheep are all eaten, so our assumption is generally that the government is filled entirely with wolves — an assumption that has proven to be essentially axiomatic, across time and nation.

"What's far less obvious is that the idea applies outside flocks and governments, with the same consequences. If you set up any organization of saintly do-gooders, with no politics anywhere in sight, then the presence of a single master politician can go unrecognized for long enough for every single sheep to be eaten and replaced with a wolf. At some point the shepherd looks down and perceives that he now has a flock of wolves, and he wonders how it happened. But a shepherd rarely witnesses the process while it's in motion, because the wolves are so sneaky.

"I was being eaten alive on my mansion project, and yet I was utterly oblivious to anything but the need to survive, which due to various odd circumstances required working without sleep and eating marshmallows without respite, apparently until either I was dead or forever happened, whichever came first.

"And before you fetch the blunderbuss from the mantle and go out a-hunting wolves, remember that they need to eat. That doesn't make them evil. And killing all the wolves may simply saddle you with a different predator. Although at this point I can't say I'd stop you, either.

"But you have to be careful. If you dispose of an un-subtle wolf, it will be replaced with a subtle one, and this process will repeat until you no longer know your wolves from your sheep until your flock is dying.

"That, I think, is how organizations die. Wolves, wizards, behind-the-throne court counselors, whatever you want to call them or whatever guise they take, they specialize in being invisible to sheep. But wolves need to eat, and when the organization's last sheep is gone, the entity has undergone a complete transformation that will either kill it or change its focus to devouring neighboring flocks."

"At least that's what I think, but perhaps my recent experience has biased me unduly."

Rauser has paused, for one final time I think, and this time he does take a drink. He's past the worst of it. I can see from the shocked and worried faces around me that his story is going to leave some marks, maybe even a scar or two. That's what you get, Rauser, handling a raw story like that in public. Remember your three Ms.

"The end of the story is simple enough. Our wolf finally became bold enough and ravenous enough to destroy two of our sheep, rending them and devouring them as I stood and watched. I'm a big man, so the wolf hasn't gone for me yet. But I'm also a dumb man, at least dumb to the ways of wolves and wizards, so it managed to convince me I was simply struggling for survival by virtue of my own incompetence. Hell, for a few minutes I thought those sheep were just marshmallows with ketchup. Anything to change the flavor.

"The wolf didn't huff, or puff, or blow my house down. It was the wolf from Red Riding Hood, the fabled wolf in sheep's clothing, and its craft was far beyond mine, since I have none.

"Once I realized they weren't ketchup marshmallows, but were in fact two members of my crew, the spell was broken. I had no idea what to do, and still have none, but at least I'm catching up on my sleep.

"Sheep can kick surprisingly hard, as many a wild wolf has found. They simply lack the will to do it. The wolf charms the sheep, lulls it with fear and promise of escape, with whatever whispers it needs to keep the sheep from fighting or fleeing. A flock of sheep can fend off a pack of wolves with few casualties, but it rarely happens, because the wolves have learned to avoid direct confrontation. They do their work invisibly.

"I don't know what I'll do next, but I suspect it will involve teaching some sheep a few basic fighting maneuvers, and also a fair amount of long-overdue repair to our floating platform and our in-progress mansion.

"The only thing I know for certain is that I haven't had a beer in nine months, and it was high time to set my priorities straight!"

Rauser drains his mug to applause. It was a pretty decent story, although he really needs to change it to third-person, set it a few hundred years ago, throw in a few anachronisms, and dial down the soapboxing at the end. I'm sure he'll figure it out.

I can never tell my own story now, of course. If you take out the mundane detail thrown in for color, it's essentially the same story. I'll have to catch Rauser after his newfound fans dissipate and he's sobered up a bit. I need to ask him... well, no, it just doesn't seem possible that his wolf is the same as my wolf. Our job sites are hundreds of miles apart, weeks of travel separating us.

Plus there was one critical detail — oh, how it turns my stomach. I can't think about it. But I know why his maze wasn't the same as my maze, why their wolf isn't the same as our wolf. It's another reason I can't tell my story, unless I make prodigious use of the three Ms.

You see, the same thing — well, almost the same — happened to me. The only important difference was... well...

Our maze was full of dog chow. I don't know what the hell Rauser's complaining about.


It's good to be back.