Serendipity - Inside the Outside by Michael Loughrey

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Inside the Outside
by Michael Loughrey

I am the doctor.
I am the man of medicine.
I am the mushroom of the spirit.
I am he who puts together, he who speaks, he who searches.
I am he who looks for the spirit of the day.
I search where there is fright and terror.
I am he who fixes, he who cures the person that is sick.
I am he who resolves all. Truly, you are man enough to resolve the truth.
You are he who puts together and resolves. You are he who puts together the personality. You are he who speaks with the light of day.You are he who speaks with terror.

Mazatec Indian Shaman.

I am because you are

- Bantu, sub-Saharan tribal ideology

Cat is flying. This apparent evolutionary quirk causes a certain Mr. Darwin to turn in his grave when the news is conveyed to him by the waggish wind spirit. Whistling lickety-split through the cemetary in the Kentish village of Down, the stealthy quidnunc slaps a paper napkin bearing the emblem of Les Deux Magots café against the anthropologist's tombstone. Sketched in tabloid red across the absinthe-stained folds of the napkin's dimpled surface is a surreal cadavre exquis of the man-bird chimera.

Cat is flying. The shaman's spirit has temporarily left his corporeal form and entered the body of a bird to soar on psilocybin thermals for an aerial view of the terrestrial tragedy.

Below the firmament, a chorus of hi-ho, hi-ho, and off-to-work-we-go as with idiot glee the spirits of each laughing stone, each somersaulting leaf, each jitterbugging blade of grass and all seven colours of refracted rays from vermeil sunbeams zipping through each dewdrop get on with their work as best they can in the fallout of human error. And leaning against a crooked telegraph pole down there on the dusty trail, the man Joe Cat waits patiently, recalling teachings from another time in another place.

I am he who puts together, he who speaks, he who searches. I am he who looks for the spirit of the day. I search where there is fright and terror. I am he who fixes, he who cures the person that is sick.

The wind spirit swirls like a Dervish whilst impersonating an amphetamine-fuelled groupie at a rock gig from another era, crooning snippets of The Pistols Pretty Vacant at a chipper lilt to accompany the shaman's slow descent towards terra firma.

Cat concurs that recycling these sentiments make a fitting anthem for the plutocrats who bungled, blundered and botched their way to this cataclysm, who, he is informed, are currently scurrying along the corridors of power to cobble committees and quangos to round up scapegoats for their malfeasance. In their escalating panic, a mishmash of inanity, compromise, desperation and bedrock incompetence lead to a hit-or-miss list of culprits being broadcast to the populace as subliminal messages. God - Christopher Columbus - Geomagnetic reversal - Overpopulation - Failure in the Carbon Cycle - Recreational drugs - Einstein - Disneyland - Lucifer - The Barbie Doll - Communism - Hedonism - Atomism - Happy Meals - Haemorrhoids. We'll be right back with more after the break. Don't touch that dial.

When their passing the buck strategy fails to assuage rioting mobs, angst-ridden hirelings responsible for their composition lose control of their bowels, leap from tall buildings, slash wrists, overdose on camel tranquilliser and mismanage hara-kiri with sharpened paper clips.

Conspiracy theorists fare no better in explaining the Götterdämmerung. Now forced to bash out their imputations on antique typewriters by candlelight, they point the accusing finger at a Fernando Botero/Diane Arbus personate, one Fraü Trudi Baumgarten of 14 Köpffelstrasse in the city of Graz, who, with the fateful switching on of her Vibro Gewicht Reduktion Meister™ to launch a belt-shaking blitz on the apfelstrudels responsible for her pendulous anatomy shut down every national grid in the western hemisphere. The Chaos Theory applied to the temptation of one too many pastries oozing with the fruit of the original sin.

Altitude and aeronautics have left Cat feeling dizzy, and the flapping of feathered wings proving too much for a man of his age in a temporary bird-state. Alighting on the drunken telegraph pole, he taps his orange beak against its weathered wood before squinting to examine the lengthy appendage. Enthralled as he was to be on the wing, he had not even bothered to note what species of bird his human form had taken on before taking off. Man, he chuckles, that's one lardass pecker poking out 'yo head.

Scanning the bleak horizon he espies a flickering neon sign atop an unidentifiable architectural blob on a highway strewn with a hickeldy-pickeldy chain of abandoned vehicles. A bar where he could whet his whistle. But then, he realised, a bird could hardly slip unnoticed onto a barstool next to a bunch of good ol' boys, order a beer, chomp on stale pretzels and shoot the breeze about football, Holly carburettors, Tony Lama cowboy boots, wicked weather ruining your crops and wicked women ruining your credit rating whilst nonchalantly checking the I.D. of his plumage in the tinted mirror behind the alcoholic beverages. So he elects to examine his reflection in an oily puddle he's spotted at the foot of the telegraph pole, acknowledging that these are times when beggars cannot be choosers.

Cat is falling! This time the wind spirit guffaws as Cat not so much flies but plummets vertically to a most undignified crash landing. Unabashed levity and knee-slapping from stones, grass, leaves, dewdrops and sunbeams.

'Fuck.' Cat grumbled in a gallimaufry of Brando and Daffy at the surprise mirrored back by the murky puddle. 'A duck. I'm a fucking duck.' You are he who puts together the personality. Joe Cat realises there is nothing else to do but to have a conversation with himself. Old habits die hard.

'Damned old fool. Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look as a duck?'

Anthropologists with a leaning towards Freudian principles suggest that shamans are psychotic or schizophrenic. This is not to understand the essence of shamanism. The shaman exists in two worlds, the ordinary world of mutually agreed predetermined references which exists around us and a "shadow" world inhabited by a perplexing quantity of good, bad and neutral spirits. In shaman cosmology, these two worlds continuously collide and overlap with each other. Anthropologists all suffer from compulsive identification disorder, and therapy involves sticking labels on. Generally on the part they see as dangerous, contentious or subversive, like puritan patrons of the arts obliging painters to conceal pudenda with fig leaves.

'Two sides to their personalities, eh?' Darwin strokes his waist length beard and chortles until his skeleton rattles. 'Now that's a prognosis any bird brain could work out. Nurse, hand me a straitjacket with the Schizo logo for this poor confused fellow, and don't forget to feed the baboons their peanut butter sarnies before you collect my red décolleé evening gown from the dry cleaners.'

The nurse crosses slender silk stocking clad legs tight together, smiling as she chants the clandestine feminist mantra destined to optimise clitoral gratification. Charlie is my Darwin, my Darwin, Charlie is my Darwin, my Darwin, my young chevalier.

Back in the shadow world, Cat is not taking to being a duck as Anatidae are supposed to take to water.

'You and me need to talk.' He snapped like a subjugated spouse, waddling in circles as he addressed his alter ego.

'The way we always do when there's no one else to listen?' Joe Cat mumbled despondently in reply.

'A duck. What were you thinking of? An eagle was out of the question for obvious reasons, but we could have been a dove, an oyster-catcher, even a blackbird. Like that time in Paris in 1789? Can your addled mind remember that far back? I can still taste those juicy warm eyeballs we pecked out from the severed heads of those faggoty dudes with powdered wigs that the no-knickers party decapitated. But a duck? A web-footed clod with all the volitant grace of a lead balloon? No wonder my arms are aching.'

'Wings.' A ruffling of feathers communicates disgruntlement. 'Not arms. Temporarily.'

'Whatever. Just think yourself lucky there were no hunters around. We could have ended the day with our booty full of buckshot before they made us into the culinary kitsch canard à l'orange and washed us down with cheap Muscatel. And what if there'd been a paparazzo lurking in the neighbourhood? The tabloids would have had a field day. Shamanism: the lame duck.'

The bickering continued between peripatetic meanderings across the muddy puddle.

'As usual, it's all my fault. Give me a break. I'm new at this game.'

'New? Two thousand friggin' years.'

'Not even a nanosecond. Relatively speaking.'

'Listen. You're not getting any younger. Maybe you're losing your touch. A duck. A common or garden Mallard.'

'So I'm sorry. Does that make you feel better? I didn't carp on about the time we were supposed to make a quick getaway as a Lipizzaner stallion from that insatiable trollop in Alexandria and someone got it wrong. Not that I'd mention it was you.'

'A horse, a sloth, what's the difference? We made it didn't we? Our exeunt was just a little more lento than prestissimo. Which insatiable trollop was that? There were so many of them. Alexandria? I don't remember that at all. Did we staple psychedelic posters to the penthouse walls and throw the T.V. out of the window again?'


'No thanks. But I could kill a cigarette if you've got one.'

The wind spirit sends a series of ripples over the surface of the puddle. Peering down at the distorted image framed by the elongated reflection of a particularly laid-back cumulus, Joe Cat giggles.

'Can you imagine how humiliating it is to be seen with you? Look at yourself. Check out the size of that beak. That's not an extremity, it's a liability. And those web feet are just so...ironically postmodern.'

This banter prompts a blade of grass who is eavesdropping on the conversation from the far side of the puddle to slap the smooth pink pebble next to it on the back as they both slobber with mirth. A drop of acid rain falls, hitting the tip of the blade of grass before sliding at a dilatory pace down its concave surface before ricocheting off the apex of the pebble into the centre of the puddle, sending perfectly concentric rings outwards to its perimeter. All the spirits of the heavens and Earth applaud this small miracle. Moved to tears, Joe Cat would have joined in if only his momentary bird-state precluded having hands. He contributed to the felicitations with a croaky quack-quack.

'I think they're trying to tell us something.'


'Signs. We're supposed to read the signs. By the way, did you get a second sighting of that thing in the sky that prompted this investigation as a bird in the first place?'

'Nope. Vanished into thin air. As U.F.O.'s do.'

'Well if we'd got it right and been a more aerodynamic bird of passage, we might have seen where it had landed. What the hell. Let's get back to the world as a hole.'

'Back to our old six foot one inch two hundred and six bone human frame?'

'Mercy. For one flickering brain cell. On the count of three? Can you get that far?'

'Remind me. You know how I am with numbers. They add up to zero.'


The wind spirit scoots along the dusty trail hustling up a blustery gust. After rubbing grit from his pale grey-blue eyes, Joe Cat examines his hands. A female he had once dallied with told him that his hands had the pulchritude of a Renaissance piéta sculpted from ivory. In a fit of jealousy, she later stabbed him in the cheek with a breadknife whilst he was sleeping, to weaken, she claimed, the ethereal allure which drew other women to him.

Before the stitches from the scar were removed, said inamorata stole his hat, favourite T-shirt (faded printed message read: In God We Rust) denim jeans, leather jacket and only pair of boots when she eloped with an albino gambler from Latvia.

Tracing the life line in the palm of his left hand with his right index finger, he searches for signs. Splat. A big fat raindrop, smack bang in the middle of his love line. Oh-oh.

'Joe. Joe. Hello? Anybody on board this vessel? Look I really need me a drink. When we was the wrong stuff doing the right stuff wrong I saw a bar over yonder. Can we put the mystical on hold and just go have a beer and watch a game of football? Like normal folks?'

'Have you seen my walking stick? I know I had it with me earlier.'

'Christ. This is bad. You're holding it.'

'So I am. The beer. You buying?'

'As usual.'

'You are he who puts together and resolves.'

'Picks up bar tabs. Puts hands in pockets. Finds small change.'

'Forgive me for the duck up?'

'Water off my back.'

'You are a true gentleman.'

'I know, I know. But with every blessing comes a curse.'

Sneaky Pete's Left Ear was a bizarre name for a bar, but then the building itself was enough of an architectural oddity to have driven Walter Gropius and the boys from the Bauhaus to drink every bar from Cork to Kalgoorlie dry. The façade was a giant human ear cast in concrete and painted bright pink, the outer surfaces of which had faded over the years to a colour resembling breast-fed baby-vomit.

A tall and precarious bamboo ladder was propped against the outer edge of the ear, allowing a thin man wearing stained longjohns and a bowler hat perched on its utmost rung to repair a broken portion of the helix with a hod of fresh cement. A drove of mangy camels burdened with carpet bags and packing crates were tethered to door handles of the rusting cars and trucks randomly abandoned in front of the building, lazily chewing cud and swatting flies with their tails. A teenage quadroon male crouched on the roof of one of the trucks cradled an ancient automatic rifle, apparently standing vigil over the contraband the dromedaries habitually transported for smugglers and black marketeers.

Using his walking stick to clamber over the rough surface of the lobe to enter the ear's orifice which was the entrance to the bar, Joe Cat was relieved to see a small wind turbine chugging lazily away at the side of the building. A wind turbine meant energy, which meant cold beer, maybe a jukebox. Maybe even a T.V. if the wind spirit was feeling magnanimous.

The inside of Sneaky Pete's Left Ear was even more peculiar than the outside. Organic shaped booths with tables like fungal growths sculpted into the curved walls at different levels were linked by an improbable network of Escheresque staircases. The bar itself was a horizontal ear-shaped construction in the centre of the room which appeared to float in a glowing halo of azure incandescence. Disturbingly, the floor was covered in a thin layer of sticky golden yellow goo. Walking with a minimum of cool machismo was extremely difficult without losing a shoe.

Towering tallow candles shaped like stalactites cast warm soft illumination as well as inky black shadows. There was vociferous wheeling and dealing in two languages Joe Cat couldn't identify going on between a group of unsavoury characters at the bar whom he assumed to be the owners of the camels he'd seen outside.

A horde of drunken riff-raff milled about on the lower levels whilst higher up sombre booths were the setting for the gamut of fornication. Scantily clad waitresses swayed up and down the labyrinth of staircases bearing ear-shaped plastic trays laden with glasses, steins, bottles and jugs. There were midgets mud wrestling on a bank of plasma screens and from the jukebox Wiggy Vibe, the doyen of Country and Western singers of yesteryear, rasped out a number whose lyrics lamented the demise of gasoline-powered transport.

Joe Cat found an empty booth, sat in its darkest corner, lit a cigarette and surveyed the scene.

'What's it to be?'

Not quite compos mentis since his episode as a duck, Joe Cat pondered the nature of the disembodied question that drifted out from smoky shadows beside him.

'A most wonderful sensation.' He replied foggily. 'The word bliss comes to mind.'

'Mister. I'm a working girl. You wanna drink, or what?'

When he moved forwards to try to catch a glimpse of the girl speaking to him she recoiled further into the shadows.

'Sorry.' Cat said softly. 'A beer. Cold as it can be before I have to bite it. I can't see you.'

The girl sniffed. 'Better that way. Sneaky Pete always gives me this corner to work. Something to eat? Chef's special's is spit roasted prairie dog with boiled yucca root mash.'

'Just the beer. No. Wait. I'll have some French fries too.'

'Regular or jumbo?'

'Jumbo. Are they made with real potatoes? Fried in real oil?'

'Sure they are. And our beer's made with genuine champagne. And those camels outside? They're really Cadillacs. Where you been these last years?'

'Dwelling in optimism. Is Dolly Parton on that jukebox?'

'Dolly who? Must have been before my time. Oldest thing we got on there is this crap. Pete likes it. Wiggy someone.'

'Did you by any chance notice anything unusual in the sky today? Something falling?'

'Like rain?'


'A piece of the ear broke off and fell down. Old Earl Whitcomb is up there patching it up. Does that count as something falling?'

Drawing greedily on the cigarette, Joe Cat shook his head.

'What's with the sticky yellow gunk on the floor? Man could lose a boot. How do I get the damned stuff off the tip of my walking stick?'

'Ear wax. Sneaky Pete's idea of a joke. You're in the Ear, you wade in wax. Resin from the tupelo tree. You can lean over at impossible angles but it makes fighting next to impossible. And dancing. Pete says people who dance are sick in the head. A dancing girl out of Dallas sliced his ear off. Just the beer and jumbo fries, right?'

Whilst he was still nodding the shaman Joe Cat realised the girl had slipped away into the darkness, leaving a glowing spectre of deep sorrow etched in the space where she had stood.

Although there hadn't quite been the bar-room cliché where the piano player stops vamping and all heads turn towards the stranger entering through the swing doors when Joe Cat had walked into Sneaky Pete's Left Ear, he was aware that his arrival hadn't gone entirely unnoticed. Now, the one-eared individual indicating he was the proprietor, a wiry yet muscular man with rastafarian dreadlocks bleached white and waxed vertical, iridescent wraparounds and a heavily tattooed torso conferred with a gum-chewing waitress from where he surveyed his seedy domain in an oversized baby's high chair.

After Sneaky Pete had whispered to the waitress, she hiked through the goo to the booth where Joe Cat was about to light another cigarette.

Pushing the gum into a rouged cheek with her tongue, she drawled a short sharp syllable across the toadstool table. Joe Cat imagined a reverberating electrical implant in her vocal chords.


'Not right now. But earlier, I could have grabbed the Van Allen belt and used it to spank Venus. Big bad bubba in the high chair must be Sneaky Pete. And you're Charlene, right?'

Charlene's synthetic smile vanished, replaced by a snarl betraying her crooked heart.

'Hell. You read lips?'

'Books yes. Lips no.'

'C'mon. How'd you know my name?'

'I am he who puts together, he who speaks, he who searches. I am he who looks for the spirit of the day. I search where there is fright and terror. How do you manage to keep your hair so...perfect?'

Charlene was a tough customer who knew how to deal with tough customers, but her previously fluent body language was slipping towards incoherence faced with the stranger Joe Cat.

'Pete was wondering if you wanted a woman.' Charlene whispered, patting the lacquered sheen of her powder blue bouffant. 'We got girls to cater for all tastes. And you're in luck. Big hand just ticked over into Happy Hour. Reduced rates on all the whores.'

'Now ain't Pete sweet. To wonder about my prurient hankerings. Do I want a woman? Sure.' Joe Cat said, vaguely irritated because he couldn't move his feet in the resinous goo.

'Seen one that's caught your eye?' Charlene said, batting eyelids caked with stale makeup. 'If not, there's plenty more upstairs. All shapes and sizes.'

Joe Cat shrugged. 'The girl that just took my order. She caught more than just my eye.'

Charlene hissed scornfully. 'Why that little one don't work no more. Sneaky Pete's orders. Crazy bitch ain't fit to fuck a decent man.'

Leaning forward across the table, Joe Cat shot Charlene an arctic glance that brought her out in a sweat. 'Now what makes you think I'm a decent man?'

Charlene gulped hard. 'I gotta ask Pete. But if you think she comes cheap on account of her condition, you got another thought coming.'

Joe Cat grinned. 'Lady, I am loaded. I am the mushroom of the spirit.'

'Well shit.' Charlene groaned. 'I do believe you're as crazy as a loon.'

'Being crazy is what stopped me going insane. Tell Pete I search where there is fright and terror. And ask him if there's any Dolly Parton on that jukebox.'

Charlene went back across the room to parley with Sneaky Pete. From out of the shadows to Joe Cat's right, a pale outstretched arm slid a tray with a glass of beer and a jumbo cone of French fries before him.

'Beer. Jumbo fries. Mister? I could get hell for telling you this. But you oughta watch your back in this dump. I seen good men come in that door that never went back out.'

After sipping his beer, Joe Cat licked froth from the stubble on his upper lip.

'I see.'

'Can I bring you something else?'

'I'm sure you could. But your name would do for now.'

There came a painful silence from the shadow where the girl was concealed.

'I ain't got no name no more. Sneaky Pete done took my name away.'

Charlene sauntered across the room, ungainly on high heels in the sticky floor.

'Hey. Mister mushroom man. Pete says you can have her. But it'll cost double the normal rate. Reckons you must be some kind of pervert to want shed your load in this one when we got all kinds of unspoilt beauties upstairs.'

Joe Cat took a Jalapeño pepper from his pocket and chewed on it.

Here,' he said, throwing a fat roll of grubby bills tied with a rubber band across the tabletop, 'peel off what's necessary so I can do same to she whose name has been stolen.'

Charlene's grimace looked like a reflection in a distorting mirror.

'Bitch been spilling beans? She ought know better by now.'

'Her lips are sealed. But I lied. I did read yours.'

Charlene's facial muscles were twitching when she spoke. 'Cross me and you'll cross Sneaky Pete.'

Joe Cat laughed. 'Don't fret on my account. I search where there is fright and terror. Remember?'

'Standing up, Joe Cat stepped out of the booth and grabbed the hand of the girl in the shadows.

'Shit. I just lost a boot in this goo.' He grumbled. 'What the hell. A man can't kick fences down with his boots on.'

The palm of the gamine's small hand transpired the sickness of civilisation as she guided him upwards through the swaying skein of crooked staircases. Leading the way into a deep alcove in which a soft red rectangle floated on the floor she extinguished the flickering candle.

Curiosity kills cats. But then there's always an exception to every rule, and old shaman Joe was always a punter for the exceptional. Later, in the tangle of their forsaken clothes he found his jacket, delved into a pocket, retrieved his cigarette lighter and lit a candle. A gypsy moth came from out of nowhere, fluttering playfully around the flickering flame. Joe Cat was perfectly still, mesmerised by the half moon of contentment on the the girl's face opposite the penumbra dividing it as she slept.

'Hey, old buddy.' Joe Cat whispered to the gypsy moth when it alighted on his naked shoulder. 'Thanks for coming to the rescue.'

'Don't mention it, pal.' Said the moth. 'If we can't lend a helping hand, what's life all about?'

'You said it. But all the same. You're a hero. Making such a sacrifice.'

The moth beat its wings gently. 'Think of it as a donation. Anyway, I'll be back. Plan on trying human the next time round, spirits willing. Picking a dobro. Maybe a pedal steel. Watch out for me.'

'You betcha.'

When Joe Cat moved the candle from left to right, the girl's eyes suddenly snapped open, flooded with feral fear.

'No!' She screamed with fathomless agony. 'Please don't look. Please.'

Joe Cat cradled her trembling body.

'Why did he do that to you?'

Tears flowed as she shook with the revival of the horror.

'Even a whore got to have some self-respect. I riled Sneaky Pete, so he tied me up and poured acid on one side of my face. To remind me of what was and what is.'

Joe Cat stared into her eyes until they closed. The gypsy moth circled down in a graceful spiral from his shoulder to alight on the scarred side of her face. The space blossomed momentarily into astron white luminescence.

'We should leave now.' Cat said to the girl as he watched the moth flit away. 'Move with the times.'

They dressed hurriedly in the darkness. Lighting another candle, he held her shoulders firmly and turned her to face the broken fragment of dusty mirror propped against the wall.

Leaning into the dim reflection, the girl's eyes shone with joy and disbelief.

'How?' She gasped, running her fingers over her face.

Joe Cat kissed the back of her neck.

'I am the the doctor. I am the man of medicine. All I really ever wanted to be though was a pro. football player. You should have seen me. I could do magic with a football.'

On the way down to ground level inside Sneaky Pete's Left Ear they negotiated a passage between unconscious bodies until they reached ground level. Wading through the yellow goo they passed Sneaky Pete in a comatic sleep, the gypsy moth slowly surrendering its life as it diligently reproduced the acid burn scars on his face which he had inflicted on the girl with no name.

Daylight was creeping over a misty horizon when they flopped into the inside out world. A camel farted and the youth with the machine gun on top of the wrecked sixteen wheeler laughed in his sleep.

Joe Cat pressed all the money in his pockets into her coat pocket and bade her farewell.

'I am he who looks for the spirit of the day. So I'll go looking. And you should head back home. Your parents miss you. And a boy that you went to college with? He wants to love you. Give me your hand. Take this. From me to you.'

She looked into the palm of her outstretched hand.

'A feather?' She giggled.

'A magic feather.' Cat mumbled apologetically. 'Keep you out of harm's way.'

The wind spirit waited respectfully before rising up to guide them on their separate ways.

Story Copyright © 2008 by Michael Loughrey. All rights reserved.
Previous: The Search for Savino by Brendan Connell and Forrest Aguirre | Next: The Kingdom of this World by Katy Wimhurst

About the author

Michael Loughrey's short fiction has featured in Word Riot, Hobart,

Underground Voices, 5_Trope, Aphelion, Byzarium, Sein und Werden, Dogmatika,

Aesthetica, The Future Fire, Raging Face, Showcase @ Laura Hird

Half-Cut Publications/Leper Colony and Zygote In My Coffee.

The StorySouth Million Writers Award judges recently voted one of his

stories as the most notable stories of 2007.

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