Bewildering Stories

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The Kestron Lenses

part 1

by Jonathan M. Sweet

Over three thousand years ago, the world was a new and frightening place, home to ancient gods and demons.

Near the dormant mouth of the volcanic crater the locals called Dwezi Chwen Di Yu, in present-day outer Mongolia, a peasant boy sauntered amongst ashes that had been ancient when his great-great grandfather was in the womb.

The boy was young and impetuous. He had heard his elders tell of the obsidian glass that lined the Lips of Hell (as the Chinese name can roughly be translated), created by Satan himself in unearthly forges deep in the earth by crushing hot sand in his great hands. If one looked into it he saw the souls of other fools stupid enough to look into it before him. “It eats your soul,” his father told him, “and then when the next fool looks into the glass, he will see you.”

Not cowed by the old lore — or perhaps spurred by them, as a boy often is by his peers to steal apples from the trees that hang over the stone wall at the edge of the emperor’s garden, because it is delicious to tempt fate — the boy stooped by a large hunk of black glass. The rock was rough on three sides, yet on its fourth face as smooth as the surface of a pan of calm water. As he ran his fingers around it a sharp edge cut his fingertip.

The boy’s hurt finger flew to his mouth — but paused in midair as he thought he saw the polished surface of the stone ripple as the sanguine drop hit it and was swallowed, like a pebble into the surface of a pond. Ghostly images filled the flat face of stone:

a man with a tiny mustache and a sash bearing a bent-armed cross on his arm lips moving soundlessly fist waving in the air

a thousand unspeakable birds releasing explosive droppings upon a village miles below

a young man apparently a leader riding in a horseless carriage smiling suddenly fall limp to the floor his neck pierced by the unseen arrow of a hidden assassin while his companions shriek in horror

an older man with dark hair and withered countenance also appearing to be a leader pierced by an unknown assassin’s arrow clutching his breast and falling one of his followers leaps to protect his master and falls wounded

The boy screamed, in Mandarin, “Visions of the devil!” turned, and fled from the black rock, forgetting his wounded finger. His mother later questioned him about the blood on his robes, but he went immediately to his bed with fever and didn’t recover for a fortnight.

He never told his parents about what he saw at Dwezi Chwen Di Yu... but generations later, as a wizened old man, he would relate his experience to his great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons. They took his warnings to heart and never ventured into that poisoned valley. The boy lived to see four generations of his descendants, yet never once forgot the faces carved in the hell stone.

“You can’t be serious.”

Leon Marks scratched his short bark-colored beard morosely. “I’m afraid I am, Harry. Your work is really suffering because of your bad eyes.” The older man reached out to pat Harry’s shoulder. “Your reporting skills are top-crust, you know how to ask a good hard-hitting question, and your interviewees feel comfortable. But your copy reads like shit. Shad has to work twice as hard editing you.”

Harry glanced out Marks’ office door and noted Shadrach Hutch, a tall, thin, sober-faced black man in his early-twenties, scanning a piece of copy and running a blue pencil over it. His lips were pursed in deep thought. The copy editor was the only black staffer on the Champagne Island Dispatch and always looked the part of the dandy, with his neatly-trimmed mustache, white shirts, and conservative ties.

“And it isn’t ignorance,” continued Marks. “You’re a smart writer. Your stories are well-researched, sources quoted perfectly... but your copy is full of typos and bad punctuation. I’ve seen how you sit real far back from your computer —” Marks held his arms out in front of him and made a face like he was looking at a dead exploded possum on the road — “or hold a book all the way out in Siberia when you read.

“I think you need glasses.” Marks folded his arms and leaned his head against the wall behind him. Directly over his long hair (a souvenir of his checkered hippie past from some thirty-odd years gone, replaced by pot-fried brain cells and a steadily-bulging paunch) was a 2000-01 calendar that didn’t look like what you’d expect to find in the office of the managing editor of a campus newspaper. Rather than the University’s sober academic calendar, it featured women wearing little more than come-hither smiles. Harry wondered why the faculty advisor didn’t censure this bit of sexist unprofessionalism.

“All right, I admit maybe my eyes aren’t so good,” Harry confessed, “and I am a little farsighted. But glasses are expensive, and I don’t have the bread for them.”

“I sympathize, but I hate to see you jeopardize what could be a promising journalism career over your eyes. I’ve seen enough of your work in two months to know gold when I see it. But if it wasn’t for your recorder tapes, we’d have nothing.

“Two of your stories have been delayed, one reassigned, and three missed totally because Shad gave up trying to read your chickencrap copy. A professional paper would probably have let you go a lot sooner.”

“That’s discrimination.”

“No, that’s life. Now I will give you a choice: get glasses or get out. Spring break is next week, and that should be ample time for you to decide what you want to do. Ask around. Compare prices. Borrow money. If you want to be a newspaperman and you want a good recommendation from us when you graduate, you can’t be turning in shoddy work.” Marks pointed to his eyes. “Get the specs.”

In 1274, during his famous travels through China, explorer Marco Polo visited a monastery near the Tibetan border. This particular order were necromancers and engaged in unusual practices in search of spiritual enlightenment, including bodily mutilation, starvation, and communing with the dead.

Polo was intrigued. He asked the head priest how this was done. The venerable elder ducked behind a scarlet curtain embroidered with arcane symbols and returned with a box containing two crudely-fashioned glass lenses. They were rough circles, pebbled on one face yet on the other as smooth as if milled. In Chinese, the elder told Polo that they were mined from an ancient volcano in a distant province. While most glass lenses were worn about the face to ward away spirits, if you held these to your eyes and anointed them with sacred blood, your ancestors spirits came to show you eternal truths.

The old man produced a small clay pot and dipped a small brush in it. He painted the face of each glass with a streak of blood, then placed them on Polo’s eyes.

cavalry charges of men in blue and grey uniforms firing unspeakable weapons that fill the air with thick smoke and blood many fall dead into the dust

a man with a mustache and dark mad eyes stealing into what appeared to be a theater box and aiming some weapon at a bearded man with the air of a leader seated with his back facing the doorway

unspeakable flying machines with two sets of wings firing upon each other in the sky

Polo staggered back, perspiring heavily, his head throbbing painfully. One of the lenses slipped from his hands and struck the stone floor... yet did not break. The elder retrieved it and its twin from Polo, set them back in their box, and demanded, “What did you see?”

Polo could not speak. The visions flooding his head persisted: the mustached man with the bent-armed cross unfurled behind him, the skeletal men confined in pens like animals, their dusty dead eyes staring ahead into nothing as they shambled in the dust; a mushroom of smoke and light rising from a desert in a vision of unspeakable horror. He collapsed unconscious and remained so for hours, his mind hellishly awake and livid.

A half century later, as Polo lay dying, a priest came to give him last rights and asked him if he wished to admit that his fantastic accounts of the Far East were lies.

“I did not report half of what I saw,” Polo rasped, and the priest crossed himself as he looked in the dying man’s eyes. In them was hell.

Fulkes University was one of the more prestigious colleges in Biloxi, Mississippi. It housed just under 8,000 students. Located ten miles offshore in Mississippi Sound was Champagne Island (pop. 900) where around 7 percent of the alumni body lived and commuted by ferry. The ferry served neighboring Cat and Ship Islands as well; a different boat traveled the Horn and Petit Bois route.

Xavier Harold Stafford was one of the commuters. He was a tall, lanky junior journalism major with a shock of dirty blonde hair. Harry knew most newspapers wouldn’t give him a second look without a portfolio of published clippings, and that little rags like the Dispatch were crucial to an aspiring writer. He couldn’t afford to gamble with this job. He respected and liked Leon Marks, but right now he wanted to smash the smug son-of-a-gun’s face in for giving him that ultimatum.

“That’s a kick in the cojones,” Kirk said after Harry told him about Marks threat to bounce him off the paper if he didn’t get glasses by the week after next. “A good pair of glasses cost you at minimum a couple of hundred bucks, and that’s just with those butt-ugly industrial frames.”

Harry had met Kirk Lumberger several weeks ago in the poolroom, which, like the caf, was housed in the Hoopes Center building. The two had shot a couple of games of pool and become fast friends. Kirk was a short, squat fellow with a sparse beard who dressed in old stained pants and T-shirts. He prided himself as an “eclectic” who “knows all the angles.” “If a guy sneezes on the other side of the campus at eight Tuesday morning, I know about it on my end of campus by Tuesday afternoon,” he was fond of saying. Kirk smoked home-rolled cigarettes and changed both majors and women about as often as his underwear.

“I might know a guy.”

Harry poked his taco pie with his fork. Normally he loved the stuff, but today his appetite was nil. “You know a guy, huh? He a student?”

“Ayup,” Kirk said. “Technically, my brother-in-law knows him. He’ll give me the address if you’re interested.

“No, he don’t go here. He’s thirty. He lives over his mother’s house on the island, in an apartment over the garage. His old man was an optometrist, and he inherited all the stock when he croaked. Sells glasses and contact lenses at discount prices — ninety percent off.”

“How’s he make any profit?”

“Bugger profit. He’s really a mechanic. Eyeglasses is just a sideline to pad his income and pay the rent on time.”

“Doesn’t he have an office?”

“Well, a garage — but how the blazes do you think his prices are so low? No overhead. The merchandise is quality, and it’s just right for your pocket. An Andrew Jackson will get you a pair of glasses and help you keep your job. ’Sworth it, ain’t it?”

Harry wasn’t sure he wanted to trust his eyes to a guy who worked out of his mom’s garage... but he only had thirty-seven dollars in the bank, and beggars can’t be choosy.

“Take me to him,” Harry said.

Monday, March 19, dawned warm, and around one Kirk and Harry arrived at a low brick house with a small room located over a tin garage. Kirk pulled a small tin out of his back pocket, produced tobacco and a rolling paper, made himself a cigarette, and lit it.

The garage door was up, and inside a man in torn, oil-spotted jeans and a T-shirt with a pocket was sorting something in a cardboard box on top of several metal crates. Kirk consulted the slip of crinkled paper in his hand.

“Pardon me,” he called to the man, “but are you Art Fisher?”

“Ayup,” he answered. Harry noted the objects in the box were eyeglass frames. “You the boys Hank called and told me about, right? How you know Hank?”

“He married my sister,” explained Kirk. “Mr. Fisher, my friend here needs glasses and can’t afford the fancy uptown prices. Can you set him up?”

Fisher said he could, and led Harry to a stool. Kirk finished his cigarette at the edge of the driveway, flicked it into the gutter, and followed a moment later. On the opposite wall, between a stack of Firestone tires and an old dresser with a cracked mirror and a missing drawer, was an eyechart. First Fisher had Harry read the chart, scribbled a note on a pad, then had him read aloud a section of a grease-stained copy of Pudd’nhead Wilson.

“Ayup, you’re farsighted, ain’tcha?” he said, seeing how Harry held the book far from his face. “Let me tell you something,” he continued, as he shone a light in Harry’s eyes, “a lot of my stock is one-size-fits-all. I don’t fuss too much about fancy prescriptions. You want that, you go back to Biloxi or Gulfport or, heck, all the way to Mobile, for all I care, and pay them ritzy prices.

“I ain’t a doctor. The name on that diploma says ‘Arthur Fisher’, which was my stepdaddy’s name. Don’t specify no Junior or Senior. My father died at fifty and left me his name and his bid’ness. He hoped I’d make something of myself, but I never wanted to go to med school like he done wanted me to.

“Now I recommend these,” he went on, placing a thick, old-fashioned, black-framed pair of glasses on Harry’s nose. The glass was a sooty color. “My dad bought them in Italy during the war. The lenses are actually from China, and that tinted effect is natural. That’s smoke from a volcano what erupted a couple millennia ago and created a volcanic glass that is so optically perfect it customizes itself to fit the wearers’ eyes.

“’S like no other glass I ever seen. Most lenses get worn and scratched from exposure to elements, right? They look like shit after two years. Not these. Though the frames can’t be more than four, five years old, the glass — or so my dad told me — is maybe five thousand years old.”

“You’re putting me on,” Harry said.

“That’s what I been told. You don’t got to believe me, but look here.” Fisher showed Harry a second pair and pointed out how most lenses get scratched in a circular pattern due to the way people move their fingers while cleaning them. Those lenses however, were free of blemish.

“And they’re as tough as diamonds,” Fisher said. He reached for an open toolbox, took up a small hammer, and tapped the lenses rather hard. “A blow like that would crack or chip a normal lens. But look.”

The dark-colored lens wasn’t nicked an iota.

“I don’t sell a lot of these types of lenses because most people take their business to big fancy optometrists... but none of them carry nothing like this. They make their money off’n replacing your specs every two, three years. My dad was never into the profit motive; he wanted to he’p people. One of the last few philanthropists, pop was. That clearer?”

Harry opened Pudd’nhead Wilson and was pleased to see that the tiny print looked clear to him at arm’s length and didn’t blur when he drew the book closer to his face.

“Thanks, Doc,” he said. “How much I owe you?”

“I told you, I ain’t a doc. Just a guy my daddy handed over his business to when he keeled over suddenly of a heart attack four years a’gone, hoping I’d be more’n a grease monkey.” Fisher’s gaunt, sallow face cracked in a wry smile. “That’ll be fifteen bucks. More than the whole she-bang is worth, imho. But momma’d crucify me if she ever heard me talking about going against daddy’s will.

“Good luck t’y’ll when you get back to school in ’loxi, y’hear?”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan M. Sweet

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