Few writers can extract as much enchantment from the mundane as award-winning author Jeffrey Ford. His talent for storytelling is readily evident in The Empire of Ice Cream, his collection of ordinary and extraordinary juxtapositions.
The bittersweet Nebula Award–winning title story introduces a composer with synesthesia who finds the sound—and woman—of his dreams through a cup of coffee. Then there are the fairies that inhabit sandcastles in the fleeting moments before the inevitable rise of the tide. Ford populates this charmed collection with stories taken from his own life as well, including “Botch Town,” which finds him as a schoolboy, and “The Trentino Kid,” which recalls his experience digging for clams.
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About the Author
Ford’s fiction has been translated into twenty languages. In addition to writing, he has been a professor of literature and writing for thirty years and has been a guest lecturer at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, the Stone Coast MFA in Creative Writing Program, Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. Ford lives in Ohio and currently teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Jonathan Carroll (b. 1949) is an award-winning American author of modern fantasy and slipstream novels. His debut book, The Land of Laughs (1980), tells the story of a children’s author whose imagination has left the printed page and begun to influence reality. The book introduced several hallmarks of Carroll’s writing, including talking animals and worlds that straddle the thin line between reality and the surreal, a technique that has seen him compared to South American magical realists. Outside the Dog Museum (1991) was named the best novel of the year by the British Fantasy Society, and has proven to be one of Carroll’s most popular works. Since then he has written the Crane’s View trilogy, Glass Soup (2005) and, most recently, The Ghost in Love (2008). His short stories have been collected in The Panic Hand (1995) and The Woman Who Married a Cloud (2012). He lives and writes in Vienna.
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The Empire of Ice Cream
By Jeffrey Ford
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Jeffrey Ford
All rights reserved.
The Annals of Eelin-Ok
When I was a child someone once told me that gnats, those miniscule winged specks that swarm in clouds about your head on summer evenings, are born, live out their entire lives, and die all in the space of a single day. A brief existence, no doubt, but briefer still are the allotted hours of that denizen of the faerie world, a Twilmish, for its life is dependent upon one of the most tenuous creations of mankind, namely, the sand castle. When a Twilmish takes up residence in one of these fanciful structures, its span of time is determined by the durability and duration of its chosen home.
Prior to the appearance of a sand castle on the beach, Twilmish exist merely as a notion: an invisible potentiality of faerie presence. In their insubstantial form, they will haunt a shoreline for centuries, biding their time, like an idea waiting to be imagined. If you've ever been to the beach in the winter after it has snowed and seen the glittering white powder rise up for a moment in a miniature twister, that's an indication of Twilmish presence. The phenomenon has something to do with the power they draw from the meeting of the earth and the sea: attraction and repulsion in a circular fashion like a dog chasing its tail. If on a perfectly sunny summer afternoon, you are walking along the shoreline during the time of the outgoing tide and suddenly enter a zone of frigid cold air no more than a few feet in breadth, again, it indicates that your beach has a Twilmish. The drop in degree is a result of their envy of your physical form. It means one is definitely about, searching for the handy-work of industrious children.
No matter how long a Twilmish has waited for a home, no matter the degree of desire to step into the world, not just any sand castle will do. They are as shrewd and judicious in their search as your grandmother choosing a melon at the grocery, for whatever place one does decide on will, to a large extent, define its life. Once the tide has turned and the breakers roar in and destroy the castle, its inhabitant is also washed away, not returning to the form of energy to await another castle, but gone, returned physically and spiritually to Nature, as we are at the end of our long lives. So the most important prerequisite of a good castle is that it must have been created by a child or children. Too often with adults, they transfer their penchants for worry about the future and their reliance on their watches into the architecture, and the spirit of these frustrations sunders the effect of Twilmish Time: the phenomenon that allows those few hours between the outgoing and incoming tide to seem to this special breed of faerie folk to last as long as all our long years seem to us.
Here are a few of the other things they look for in a residence: a place wrought by children's hands and not plastic molds or metal shovels, so that there are no right angles and each inch of living space resembles the unique contours of the human imagination; a complex structure with as many rooms and tunnels, parapets, bridges, dungeons, and moats as possible; a place decorated with beautiful shells and sea glass (they prize most highly the use of blue bottle glass tumbled smooth as butter by the surf, but green is also welcome); the use of driftwood to line the roads, or a pole made from a sea horse's spike flying a seaweed flag; the absence of sand crabs, those burrowing, armored nuisances that can undermine a wall or infest a dungeon; a retaining wall of modest height, encircling the entire design, to stave off the sea's hungry high-tide advances as long as possible but not block the ocean view; and a name for the place, already bestowed and carefully written with the quill of a fallen gull feather above the main gate, something like Heart's Desire or Sandland or Castle of Dreams, so that precious seconds of the inhabitant's life might not be taken up with this decision.
Even many of those whose life's work it is to study the lineage and ways of the faerie folk are unfamiliar with the Twilmish, and no one is absolutely certain of their origin. I suppose they have been around at least as long as sand castles, and probably before, inhabiting the sand caves of Neanderthal children way back at the dawn of human history. Perhaps, in their spirit form, they had come into existence with the universe and had simply been waiting eons for sand castles to finally appear, or perhaps they are a later development in the evolution of the faerie phylum. Some believe them to be part of that special line of enchanted creatures that associate themselves with the creativity of humans, like the monkey of the ink pot, attracted to the work of writers, or the painter's demon, which plays in the bright mix of colors on an artist's pallet, resulting in never before seen hues.
Whichever and whatever the case may be, there is only one way to truly understand the nature of the Twilmish, and that is to meet one of them. So here, I will relate for you the biography of an individual of their kind. All of what follows will have taken place on the evening of a perfect summer day after you had left the beach, and will occupy the time between tides—from when you had sat down to dinner and five hours later when you laid your head upon the pillow to sleep. There seemed to you to be barely enough time to eat your chicken and potatoes, sneak your carrots to the dog beneath the table, clean up, watch your favorite TV show, draw a picture of a pirate with an eye patch and a parrot upon her shoulder, brush your teeth, and kiss your parents good night. To understand the Twilmish, though, is to understand that in a mere moment, all can be saved or lost, an ingenious idea can be born, a kingdom can fall, love can grow, and life can discover its meaning.
Now, if I wasn't an honest fellow, I would, at this juncture, merely make up a bunch of hogwash concerning the biography of a particular Twilmish, for it is fine to note the existence of a race, but one can never really know anything of substance about a group until one has met some of its individuals. The more one meets, the deeper the understanding. There is a problem, though, in knowing anything definitive about any particular Twilmish, and that is because they are no bigger than a human thumbnail. In addition, they move more quickly than an eye-blink in order to stretch each second into a minute, each minute into an hour.
I've never been a very good liar, and as luck and circumstance would have it, there is no need for it in this situation, for out of the surf one day in 1999, on the beach at Barnegat Light in New Jersey, a five-year-old girl, Chieko Quigley, found a conch shell at the shoreline, whose spiral form enchanted her. She took it home and used it as a decoration on the windowsill of her room. Three years later, her cat, Madelain, knocked the shell onto the floor and from within the winding labyrinth, the opening to which she would place her ear from time to time to listen to the surf, fell an exceedingly tiny book, no bigger than ten grains of sand stuck together; its cover made of sea-horse hide, its pages, dune grass. Since I am an expert on faeries and faerie lore, it was brought to me to discern whether it was a genuine artifact or a prank. The diminutive volume was subjected to electron microscopy, and was discovered to be an actual journal that had once belonged to a Twilmish named Eelin-Ok.
Eelin-Ok must have had artistic aspirations as well, for on the first page is a self-portrait, a line drawing done in squid ink. He stands, perhaps on the tallest turret of his castle, obviously in an ocean breeze that lifts the long, dark hair of his topknot and causes his full-length cape to billow out behind him. He is stocky, with broad shoulders, calf muscles and biceps as large around as his head. His face, homely handsome, with its thick brow and smudge of a nose, might win no beauty contests but could inspire comfort with its look of simple honesty. The eyes are intense and seem to be intently staring at something in the distance. I cannot help but think that this portrait represents the moment when Eelin-Ok realized that the chaotic force of the ocean would at some point consume himself and his castle, While Away.
The existence of the journal is a kind of miracle in its own right, and the writing within is priceless to the Twilmish historian. It seems our subject was a Twilmish of few words, for between each entry it is evident that some good portion of time has passed, but taken all together they represent, as the title page suggests: The Annals of Eelin-Ok. So here they are, newly translated from the Twilmish by the ingenious decoding software called Faerie Speak (a product of Fen & Dale Inc.), presented for the first time to the reading public.
How I Happened
I became aware of It, a place for me to be, when I was no more than a cloud, drifting like a notion in the breaker's mist. It's a frightening thing to make the decision to be born. Very little ever is what it seems until you get up close and touch it. But this castle that the giant, laughing architects created and named "While Away" (I do not understand their language but those are the symbols the way they were carved) with a word-scratched driftwood plaque set in among the scalloped, maroon cobbles of the courtyard, was like a dream come true. The two turrets, the bridge and moat, the counting room paneled with nautilus amber, the damp dungeon and secret passage, the strong retaining wall that encircled it, every sturdy inch bejeweled by beautiful blue and green and clear glass, decorated with the most delicate white shells, seemed to have leaped right out of my imagination and onto the beach in much the same way that I leaped into my body and life as Eelin-Ok. Sometimes caution must be thrown to the wind, and in this instance it was. Those first few moments were confusing what with the new feel of being, the act of breathing, the wind in my face. Some things I was born knowing, as I was born full grown, and others I only remember that I have forgotten them. The enormous red orb, sitting atop the horizon, and the immensity of the ocean, struck me deeply; their powerful beauty causing my emotions to boil over. I staggered to the edge of the lookout post on the taller turret, leaned upon the battlement, and wept. "I've done it," I thought, and then a few moments later after I had dried my eyes, "Now what?"
Upon returning from a food expedition, weighed down with a bit of crabmeat dug out from a severed claw dropped by a gull and a goodly portion of jellyfish curd, I discovered a visitor in the castle. He waited for me at the front entrance, hopping around impatiently: a lively little sand flea, black as a fish eye, and hairy all over. I put down my larder and called him to me, patted his notched little head. He was full of high spirits and circled round me, barking in whispers. His antics made me smile. When I finally lifted my goods and trudged toward the entrance to the turret that held the dining hall, he followed, so I let him in and gave him a name, Phargo. He is my companion, and although he doesn't understand a word of Twilmish, I tell him everything.
Out of nowhere came my memory of the spell to make fire—three simple words and a snapping of the fingers. I realize I have innate powers of magic and enchantment, but they are meager, and I have decided to not rely on them too often as this is a world in which one must learn to trust mainly in muscle and brain in order to survive.
The castle is a wondrous structure, but it is my responsibility to fill it with items both useful and decorative. There is no luckier place to be left with nothing than the seashore, for with every wave useful treasures are tossed onto the beach, and before you can collect them, another wave carries more. I made my tools from sharp shards of glass and shell, not yet worried smooth by the action of the waters. These I attached to pieces of reed and quills from bird feathers and tied tight with tough lanyards of dune grass. With these tools I made a table for the dining hall from a choice piece of driftwood, carved out a fireplace for my bedroom, created chairs and sofas from the cartilage of bluefish carcasses. I have taught Phargo the names of these tools, and the ones he can lift, he drags to me when I call for them. My bed is a mussel shell; my wash basin a metal thing discarded by the giant, laughing architects, on the back of which are the characters "Root Beer," and smaller, "twist off," along with an arrow following the circular curve of it (very curious); my weapon is an axe of reed handle and shark's tooth head. Making things is my joy.
The Fishing Expedition
Up the beach, the ocean has left a lake in its retreat, and it is swarming with silver fish as long as my leg. Phargo and I set sail in a small craft I burned out of a block of driftwood and rigged with a sail made from the fin of a dead sea-robin. I took a spear and a lantern—a chip of quartz that catches the rays of the red orb and magnifies them. The glow of the prism stone drew my prey from the depths. Good thing I tied a generous length of seaweed round the spear, for my aim needed practice. Eventually, I hit the mark, and dragged aboard fish after fish, which I then bludgeoned with my axe. The boat was loaded. As we headed back to shore, a strong gust of wind caught the sail and tipped the low-riding craft perilously to one side. I lost my grip on the tiller and fell overboard into the deep water. This is how I learned to swim. After much struggling and many deep, spluttering draughts of brine, Phargo whisper-barking frantically from on board, I made it to safety and climbed back aboard. This, though, my friend, is also how I learned to die. The feeling of the water rising around my ears, the ache in the lungs, the frantic racing of my mind, the approaching blackness, I know I will meet again on my final day.
The dunes lie due north of While Away, a range of tall hills sparsely covered with a sharp, forbidding grass I use to tie up my tools. I have been to them on expeditions to cut blades of the stuff, but never ventured into their recesses, as they are vast and their winding paths like a maze. From out of this wilderness came a shaggy behemoth with needle teeth and a tail like an eel. I heard it squeal as it tried to clear the outer wall. Grabbing my spear I ran to the front gate and out along the bridge that crosses the moat. There I was able to take the shell staircase to the top of the wall. I knew that if the rat breached the wall the castle would be destroyed. As it tried to climb over, though, its hind feet displaced the sand the battlement was made of and it kept slipping back. I charged headlong and drove the tip of my spear into its right eye. It screeched in agony and retreated, my weapon jutting from the oozing wound. There was no question that it was after me, a morsel of Twilmish meat, or that others would eventually come.
The Red Orb Has Drowned
The red orb has sunk into the ocean, leaving only pink and orange streaks behind in its wake. Its drowning has been gradual and it has struggled valiantly, but now darkness reigns upon the beach. Way above there are points of light that hypnotize me when I stare too long at them and reveal themselves in patterns of—a sea gull, a wave, a crab. I must be sure to gather more driftwood in order to keep the fires going, for the temperature has also slowly dropped. Some little time ago, a huge swath of pink material washed ashore. On it was a symbol belonging, I am sure, to the giant, laughing architects: a round yellow circle made into a face with eyes and a strange, unnerving smile. From this I will cut pieces and make warmer garments. Phargo sleeps more often now, but when he is awake he still bounds about senselessly and makes me laugh often enough. We swim like fish through the dark.
In My Bed
I lie in my bed writing. From beyond the walls of my castle I hear the waves coming and going in their steady, assuring rhythm, and the sound is lulling me toward sleep. I have been wondering what the name assigned to my home by the architects means. While Away—if only I could understand their symbols, I might understand more the point of my life. Yes, the point of life is to fish and work and make things and explore, but there are times, especially now since the red orb has been swallowed, that I suspect there is some secret reason for my being here. There are moments when I wish I knew, and others when I couldn't care less. Oh, to be like Phargo, for whom a drop of fish blood and a hopping run along the beach is all the secret necessary. Perhaps I think too much. There is the squeal of a bat, the call of a plover, the sound of the wind, and they mix with the salt air to bring me closer to sleep. When I wake, I will ........
Excerpted from The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford. Copyright © 2006 Jeffrey Ford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Introduction – Jonathan Carroll
- The Annals of Eelin-Ok
- Jupiter’s Skull
- A Night in the Tropics
- The Empire of Ice Cream
- The Beautiful Gelreesh
- Boatman’s Holiday
- Botch Town
- A Man of Light
- The Green Word
- Giant Land
- Coffins on the River
- Summer Afternoon
- The Weight of Words
- The Trentino Kid
- About the Author