Jeffrey the Piper was long and slim-hipped and mean. Red-throated, wild-haired, licking his lips — the king of the red lizard world. Striding around his infernal create, he made everyone squirm. Even the old men. Even Louis, the idiot..

Jeffrey strode onto our dock from the Ferry beast, my greatest creation. Hewn from living matter, forty meters long, she roamed the sea until needed and then she came home.

I studied the Ferry beast’s cartilage and baleen — visible, as sunlight penetrated her gaping mouth. I studied the tensile tautness of her slick grey hide, the stretch that provides her seaworthiness and strength in the snottiest sea. Tautness beyond that which a real animal could endure. Medieval pain no animal could endure. She had to be in pain to live and work, to have consciousness and — G-d or being, please help me —  I made my Ferry beast to be in pain. Our children felt that pain. I attempted to, but could not feel something so bottomless that only in slumber came escape…

Give me a moment to compose myself.


The wide, flat tongue of the Ferry beast stretched out and the Piper jingled down the gangplank –  the only one aboard. He wore polyester clothing — itself an insult. But we knew not what insult was until the Ferry beast gently lowered that crate onto the living dock.

The crate broke apart on cue – we suffer no unliving here – no “wooden” crates – and before our eyes stood the most obscene of the obscene, an automobile, round like a beetle, from two centuries before.

Dead metal.

“A Volkswagen sedan,” crowed the Piper. “Four cylinders. Twelve volts. 1600 cubic air cooled centimeters.”

Louis gasped, “A car goes on petroleum,” the foolish boy said, voicing the harsh words formed  in all our minds. “A car burns petroleum!” Louis pressed his lips together until his nose nearly touched his chin. “You burn the petroleum once and then the petroleum is gone!” came the voice from beyond pinched dough.

The Piper jangled his way toward the crowd of adults, whose children slept on the ground or in their parents’ arms. The Piper stirred them: the children moaned. My son Matt wanly  embraced my leg. The Piper studied the children as though they were his food. Then he turned to Louis.

He regarded the boy’s epicanthic folds and his round, soft body, saw his Artificial Intelligence Friend draped over his ear, exactly like another ear.

“What’s wrong with this one?” sneered the Piper. “Why didn’t you fix him like you fix everything else?” His padded toe moved slightly to rest upon a child sleeping at his feet, Sarah Corningsby, I think.

“Louis’ parents didn’t want that,” said Louis himself, his AI overriding him. “Louis’ parents believed in leaving children as they were.”

Louis’ parents who’d left their son “as he was”  for the town to raise, after they drowned at sea when their imperfect vessel beast died – before we had perfected all the beasts. As we would have perfected Louis. As we had — so we believed — perfected the world for Matt and those who were his friends and those who were not his friends. And then they began their sleep.

“Perhaps I’ll leave my sweet chariot here,” the Piper said, to worry the living dock that bore the dead metal but knew not what to do with it. The Piper lied, for a moment later he produced from his pocket a pointed silver coin, a key.

And he took the key and poked it in a hole and there was a whirr and a rumble as though the dead came back angry. And then silence. The Piper kicked the Beetle’s floor and cursed — no encouragement, as we would urge our beasts. The Piper turned the key again and a louder rumble of death filled the air with foul fumes. He slammed the door and retracted a panel of glass in its side.

“I mean to do this a lot,” the Piper said to no one and to everyone.

Spurred by harsh movements of his hands and feet, the dead metal sprang to life and drayed the Piper down the road. Our gentle transport beasts stepped aside, courteous as is their wont. Out of a chrome tube in the back of the Beetle poured black smoke, sufficient energy to move the car again and again, by my reckoning. The smoke wafted into the sky.


Obscenity flowing over us into the sky. The adults gaped openly at one another. Louis held his nose. But the children stirred. Some of the strongest managed feeble waves. I felt a prickling against my shin and then in my heart and Matthew, more than half awake, looked up into my eyes.

My sweet son slipped away even as I carried  him home. Later, cosseted in my chair with a liqueur, I contemplated  Louis, the only youngster not touched by the lethargy. But I also thought of Matt – little then, much littler than Louis then — saying for the first time, “Dad, tell Louis I’m too tired to play ball. I want to do my studying and then go right to bed.”

I frowned at my son’s drooping posture and nodded.

Within a week, Matt was too tired to study. A week later he slept through school. Sweet Matt, whose energy had burned like well-tended embers, grew dark and slow and inept. And so with those who were his friends and those who were not his friends. Streets once awash with happy children noisily playing with each others’ beasts, now just silence.


That evening, the Piper appeared outside my house and called my name.

“Door,” I whispered and the portal softly dilated, My chair felt fear and gently hugged me, turned up its heat a notch, worried for me. My carpet, smelling my pheremones, massaged the soles of my feet.

Upstairs, Matthew slept deeply, but his bed listened to what was being said in the parlor.

Which was this: “I will fix him,” said Jeffrey. “I will wake him up.”

“And how will you do that?” I asked.

“Never you mind,” said Jeffrey.

“Have you done it for others?”

“There are no others,” the Piper answered. “No others to think they have re-made the world as utterly as you.”

“Why are you here?”

“Have you another choice,” the Piper sneered, “than me?”

When I did not answer, he said, “Now, let’s get down to business. I want your oil.  I  can wake your children if you give me your oil.”

“We have no petroleum — oil,” I laughed and the carpet, whose intelligence lay in the component of it that was “oil” and could be intelligent, laughed with me. “All our petroleum is in use.”

Everything that we owned was in use. Everything was assigned the best use. We exhumed our buried bodies to have more material from which to manufacture. Mined our putrid landfills and the great protean seabeds. Dogs and cats became more valuable for what they could be made into, then for what they were. We reignited petroleum’s spark of ancient life and stirred our bisque as thick and quick as herring spawn.  L-rd or whatever, we felt pleasure. And ignored our little sleepers.

“I mean for you to make gasoline for my car,” hissed  Jeffrey, showing me his red throat and licking his lips. “Give me what you use at your Factory. Boil out of things. The essence.”

Now I did not laugh, nor did my carpet, nor the components of the chair, the door, even my own clothing, that were all enlivened with petroleum.

“Give me the oil,” Jeffrey repeated. “All of it. That’s my payment. And the children wake up.”

Could I contemplate this demand? To take the part that can think, that can be… and just burn it? To ignore the falling waters and the sun and the tides and the wind? To use the ageless spark of life refined over aeons?

“How can you even ask?” I sputtered and the Piper grew an ugly smile.

We’d jealously husbanded our petroleum. From bits of code we grew wainscoting, or a chair, or a Ferry beast. We bred our beasts to their work so that they loved the work as much as a beast can love. So that my chair loved being a chair and, as well as a chair can love, loved me.

Carrion and vegetation – salmon and alder especially –  good at becoming, but impatient. Petroleum alone could be quickened. Hemp and cow filled in the rest. This is the will of my people, to make everything perfect, to fill in the rest.

“Do you know how much we would have to destroy,” I said, close to the Piper’s odious face. “to give you what you ask?”

“Do it,” Jeffrey commanded. “Top off my tank.”


Sick I was as I presented the Piper’s proposal to the Council.

“Chief Engineer, how can we do as he asks?” Mayor Terwilliger said to me and then turned to the other Council members. “Is it too much?”

“How can it be too much?” asked beautiful Helen, rocking her sleeping boy Lyle. “Without our children, what is the future?”

“Too much,” said tough Joe Roast. “You’re extracting upwards of 10 gallons? That’s a lot of intelligence.”

“Won’t he take something else?” asked Helen innocently.

Then, pounding his gavel Terwilliger shouted, “Who makes these demands!”

Jeffrey strode into the Council Chamber. “I want him to do it,” said the Piper, pointing at my chest. “He knows the value of oil and he knows how to trim the valves and gauges. He opens the valves for me.”

“Who do you think you are?!” Terwilliger wailed.

“I am here to help you,” the Piper answered, approaching Helen. Give me the child,” he said with such authority that beautiful Helen handed over her Lyle.

Jeffrey stroked Lyle’s smooth brow and brought up some sweat from the friction of his fingers. “I am here now, little baby,” he cooed. “I am here to wake you, little bird. You are too perfect for this world. I will make you less perfect.”

As we watched, little Lyle did begin to stir, inflate.

“It cannot all last forever,” said the Piper, spittle dripping from his chin. Terwilliger grunted and the Piper shot him a terrifying glare. “For there to be life, there must be pain!”

Jeffrey said and slapped Lyle as hard as one would an adult. Lyle cried out for his mother. “Hush little baby, hush little bird,” Jeffrey sang, “Papa’s going to whisper a mocking word.”

Helen snatched back her child. Lyle buried his sweaty face in Helen’s armpit and wrapped his chubby legs around her waist.

“Mama, Mama,” he sobbed, before our loud hush – so long had it been since we’d heard a child’s voice not thickened by sleep.

So we gave in. Even Terwilliger, even Joe. We started by extracting intelligence from some of the broader household items. Four point six gallons we had always held in abeyance, a hedge against future needs.  As Chief Engineer I’d always insisted that, when extracted from one beast and used to enliven another, petroleum needed to steep, so that the gestalt of the first beast did not tint the second. On the brink of  burning our beasts’ consciousness away forever, I abandoned such fineries.

To give the Piper his gallons we looted our homes and businesses. Drips of petroleum wrung from cooking stoves and office desks, answering machines and pots, the larger mobile beasts waiting loyally at the door of the Factory for death without better new life to come. To think that our ancestors trafficked in millions of barrels per day!

Our ancestors feared they would blow themselves up, we feared we would use ourselves up. So we had saved, remade, made better. Now, we mourned. For brooms that strove to hold on to dirt, pans that pulled their sides from perfectly baked cakes, clocks that nudged themselves forward for the tardy.

“Hurry!” the Piper said, when I appeared with his fuel, the cannister itself made to dead metal from its contribution to the Piper’s foul enterprise. Before the sad eyes of the Council,  the Piper made me fill that tank of his –  11.2 gallons precisely. He took our his silver coin and again we heard the rumble of death. Jarring the beasts from the roads that the Piper drove. But with each mile, another child strained from his bed or sofa to listen.

“Mommy and Daddy, why do you cry?” young Marian Beech asked her joyful parents, as I watched. “Where have I been?”

I heard Matt’s happy shouts from outside the house as he called for his friends. Soon, what had been silent streets  rang with children’s excited voices, as they pointed to the Piper’s Beetle and ran after it. The Piper laughed at first and encouraged them, but then grew dark as he watched his fuel needle inch toward 1/2 full, then 1/4. It distracted him from his driving and the children grew drowsy again.


Pouring over now-silent charts, configuring responses to our loss of intelligence,  I heard the Piper’s Beetle before I saw him. Through the eye of the still-living Factory beast,  I scanned the Piper’s evil visage.

You could tell the he was impatient more by the way he stood – hip and elbow out to one side, chin pointed the other way — than by his incessant foot-tapping. The Factory beast opened her portal to him and the Piper glanced quickly around, then stepped inside.

The Piper admired my dials and gauges. “Chief Engineer! This is a  fine world you have created,” he mocked me, in a passable imitation of the Mayor’s voice.

“Just turn the valves  more and soon you’ll be done,” he said.

“I cannot these valves,” I protested. “We have given you so much already.”

“Must you always be this way?” said Jeffrey.

“The people – the Council — Joe, Helen, they will not let me give you more!”

“That is not the way my story works,” said Jeffrey. “I wish for your sake it was.”

I had managed to have three meals with Matt, and share an evening laughing over old holos of his grandparents as children. Then I again blunted the pain of his slipping away by studying the charts and graphs for the remaining intelligence of the infrastructure beasts, especially the Ferry beast, the Factory and the great Dam — the hearts of our world. As Jeffrey had predicted, the people looked to me to turn the valves.


As Chief Engineer, it is fitting that once each year I stand on the promontory above our engineered lagoon to watch our engineered salmon return. The sea lions come on their own  — with no touch from us or our methods – to share in our returning bounty. Bloody and beautiful bestial ballet.

Our lagoon is an outpond for the great Dam beast, with long tunnels gnawed into the hillside by digger beasts. Water gushes through and the friction again the Dam beast’s innards generates much of our power. But the hydro beast has a whine born of that friction. On Nature Day, the Piper’s year, as I waited for the sea lions, I  heard that whine for the first time with the ears of a child. And it occurred to me that there was pain in that whine, also in the friction of the Ferry beast’s screws. Perhaps, even in the swish of my carpet?

That Nature Day everyone carried their children down to the lagoon — in earlier years the children would have run ahead of their parents. I propped Matt against a knoll so he could see —  if he opened his eyes.

Penny, daughter of Gene and Grace Fencer, was the first child to spot the pod of sea lions off in the distance. At first, a splashing in the water and a dark spot that separated into a crew of barking heads. Whiskered snouts pointing every which way. An unruly mob —  sea lions boasting of their appetite.  As the 500-lb. marine mammals came close, the scene had a power to rival Piper’s. “Look! The edge of the lagoon!” Penny brightened into a young girl’s soprano so dearly sweet that even the other children stirred.

The lions, comedians, could anything be more boisterously full of nature than they? And our salmon, returning to spawn and die. Why they do what they do, we still don’t know, how they do we barely know. The taste of the water, we think, and the position of the stars and the rhythm of the currents.

As the lions entered the lagoon proper, some of the children rose drowsily to their feet. Crusty-eyed, stiff-legged, arms about each other, half in camaraderie, half in support. Matt’s legs worked fine, I noticed, as he held on to Amon Stirrup.

The sea lions had come to feed, to chomp and splash and make bits of salmon flesh fly through the air. The children silently watched, Amon and Matt letting go of each other to walk   toward the beach.

Then, new sounds, a keening and a rumbling and a roar. Snorting into the lagoon came a  dozen killer whales, while onto the sand-and-pebble beach chot-chotted the Piper and his machine.

And the killer whales fed on the sea lions. The nine-ton whales bit off chunks of meat larger than a child’s head. The sea churned red, then the sand, then screams as the wounded lions made a mad leap for shore, each to be pulled back by to a lethal depth in the mouth of a killer whale.  The sea lions were caught again and again, up and down the red beach of the lagoon.

The Piper’s wheels spun and his exhaust belched, He went round and round in a stinking, grisly  pirouette, pelting us all with curtains of sand thrown up by the outward camber of the Beetle’s tires. Louis sat in the car with the Piper, aping his driving down to the drool on Jeffrey’s chin.

The children chased the Piper down the beach, choking on sand and fumes, but sweetly alive! Then, the Piper slowed, his car chugged a last time and settled in the sand, out of gas, while the children came in laughing waves to crash against the rear of his car.


“Are you all right, Son?”: the silly question I asked Matt that evening over dinner. Neither of us had much appetite.

“I’m okay, Dad,” he answered. “It’s so quiet here. My beasts won’t sing to me.”

I tried to explain to him how his beasts could no longer could even know he was there and choked at how alone my son was – there was now only me.

Outside our inert door,  Helen had to knock to get my attention. I let her inside with Lyle, who immediately went over to Matt. Matt tickled his friend under his armpit.

“Listen to them laugh. Turn the valve more,” said beautiful Helen, pleading with her breasts and throat as well as her eyes. “You can turn it, only a little more? I can’t bear the thought of losing him again.”

To turn the valve for Helen? Were I a natural man, her eyes alone should have been enough. I thought of Matt and then of the Ferry beast and I pushed Helen away. “He wants it all!” I shouted.

And I realized I had known from the beginning that Jeffrey, the Piper, would keep asking and keep waking up the children until we had no more to give and then he would go. Only as long as he burned petroleum would the children wake.

I had turned the valve all I could. I had prodded and kicked our transport beasts – they needed to be prodded and kicked now – I spent my days prodding and kicking. But when it came time for the Ferry beast to return I knew I could not, would not! extinguish the spark in my greatest creation.

Helen gathered Lyle in her arms. Her eyes were now cold and she left without a word. Matt stumbled walking over to me, rubbed his eyes and I carried him to his bedroom.

My son shivered, unused to a cold bed. I brought down an extra quilt from the armoire, whose doors I opened myself.

Matt was already drifting away.

“It is good to talk to you, Son,” I said.

“I like the Beetle, Dad,” said Matt, even as he closed his eyes. “I don’t like Jeffrey, but I like what he does.”

I stroked his forehead. So precise my son, the Chief Engineer’s son. So wrong, by my way of thinking. “Be careful what you hate,” I heard in my mother’s voice. “Your child will marry it.”


I met Jeffrey at our now-dead dock, where his dead metal Beetle raised eyebrows no longer.

“Jeff, what will you do?”

“I’ll take the children,” he said wearily. “Of course. You knew that from the beginning.” He showed me cracked, stained teeth. “It’s all so tiresome really.”

Then I heard the groan of the Ferry beast approaching.  A groan of pain.

Jeffrey the Piper winked at me and then skipped around the town ajangle, like his pants were on fire. And everywhere he danced,  the children followed, dancing and skipping, too, gloriously awake. They followed the Piper through the town, past the school and the Factory and back down to the dock. The townspeople followed a short distance behind, calling their children’s names. The Ferry beast’s gleaming eye was just visible, a living klieg.

“Could it be, yes it could,” sang the Piper. “Something coming, something good.”  He laughed and pulled the first child – Dan Terwilliger – the Mayor’s boy – closer to him and licked the child’s cheek. “With me, they live at least,” he said to me and the other parents.

“Your Chief Engineer is right, you know,” the Piper intoned,  his eyes scanning the crowd. “I would have taken it all from you, every drop, and still do what I am about to do.”

Jeffrey hugged another child to him, Cynthia DuMont.

I searched the children’s faces, found Matt and started toward him. I stopped. Like a barn being raised, the Ferry beast rose behind Matt and the other children. Then the great tongue attached itself to the dock.

“Come, my babies,” said the Piper.

So my sweet Matthew, and his friends and those who were not his friends crossed the Ferry beast’s tongue. The Ferry beast’s groan I heard in my soul and my teeth and Matt blurred and our children blurred and the Ferry beast pulled away, all our children aboard..

All but Louis, whose AI told him the Piper was wrong. He still tries to sit in my lap, Louis does. A child, though an old man. Like me.

I tell him to sit beside me instead and drive.

We spend hours in the car some days – the Piper left it, said he had places to take our children the Beetle would not travel.

I watch Louis drive. Become the Piper, down to the drool.

When the Piper drove, life was sweeter, I must admit. Sweeter than the love of our beasts. Now, with the children gone and the beasts gone, it is up to us to learn to love ourselves.

Louis shows us the way.

One drip of drool falls off Louis’ chin and splatters against the fabric of his trousers, spreading, another universe created.

The End