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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

The Empire of Ice Cream

BOOK: The Empire of Ice Cream
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The Empire of Ice Cream

Stories

Jeffrey Ford

For Lynn

whose love has rescued me time and again

on the slippery slopes of the Empire of Ice Cream

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

Introduction

One of the most terrible losses man endures in his lifetime is not even noticed by most people, much less mourned. Which is astonishing because what we lose is in many ways one of the essential qualities that sets us apart from other creatures.

I'm talking about the loss of the sense of wonder that is such an integral part of our world when we are children. However, as we grow older, that sense of wonder shrinks from cosmic to microscopic by the time we are adults. Kids say “Wow!” all the time. Opening their mouths fully, their eyes light up with genuine awe and glee. The word emanates not so much from a voice box as from an astonished soul that has once again been shown that the world is full of amazing unexpected things.

When was the last time you let fly a loud, truly heartfelt “WOW”?

Not recently I bet. Because generally speaking wonder belongs to kids, with the rare exception of falling madly in love with another person, which invariably leads to a rebirth of wonder. As adults, we are not supposed to say or feel Wow, or wonder, or even true surprise because those things make us sound goofy, ingenuous, and childlike. How can you run the world if you are in constant awe of it?

Of course there are exceptions. One need only look at the astounding success of
Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars
, and the novels of Stephen King (the list is much longer than that), to see that people are really hungry for wonder. Still, most adults wouldn't fess up to that though because they don't want to admit how gorgeous it feels to sit transfixed in a movie theater or reading chair, thoroughly absorbed in a world ten times more interesting and diverse than their own. The human heart has a long memory though and remembers what it was like to live through days where it was constantly surprised and delighted by the world around it. Unfortunately we have been taught control, control, control all of our lives by parents, by society, by our education. If you can't control something then get rid of it or get out of it or get away from it.

Yet we know that the imagination really is most alive when it is
not
in control of things, flying through the air without a safety net below to catch it. To live surrounded by wonder means the unknown and the dangerous also surround you as well (as in a great love affair).

When I sat down to read Jeffrey Ford's
The Empire of Ice Cream
, I knew only one thing: that for the next few hundred pages my mind would be swinging on a trapeze high above the ground with no net below. No matter what, the experience would be exhilarating, dangerous, and challenging, not necessarily in that order. Because anything goes in Ford's worlds. Tiny creatures live exciting noble lives full of great love and high adventure inside those disintegrating sand castles we pass on the beach but rarely ever look at twice. When I began reading that story I was smiling already about five pages into it because I thought, Okay, that's it—I will never look at a sand castle the same way again. Then my sense of reawakened wonder rubbed its hands together and asked what else is he going to show me? A lot, in fact: Bottle glass and threads of ancient clothes that wash up from the sea carrying their own powerful, peculiar magic. Too many cups of coffee cause not only the jitters but also the kind of visions that change a life in an instant, and not always for the good.

Like any strong short story collection, you can pick this one up and read around in it, sample various stories like food at a great buffet. Or you can read the book straight through, as I did. There isn't a bad taste, a bad story here. Some are wilder than others, some are very concerned with the minutiae of our everyday. But the common thread running through all of them is Ford's delight in showing us the wonder in worlds both utterly different and very much like our own. There are fairies and giants in Ford country, yes, but there are also heartwrenching love stories, and middle-aged pals getting stoned behind the shed together while ruefully discussing what it feels like to be lost in one's own life. Because he is a very good writer, Ford never forces any of these things on us. He is the intriguing stranger at the hotel bar, just back from Madagascar and full of strange and exotic stories that keeps you riveted to your stool. You persist in asking him to tell you another; you pay for all of his drinks just to keep him there and talking. Or he is that charismatic camp councilor sitting by the bonfire telling ghost stories so real that the hair starts to stand up on your arm. You have to pee so badly that you think you're going to explode, but still you don't move because you
must
hear the end of this story.

Ford sees wonder everywhere and embraces it fully. A generous writer, he is willing to share it with us. The precision and clarity with which he gives us his vision is really the next best thing to being there. In the end, what greater compliment can you give to a writer?

Jonathan Carroll

Vienna, Austria

May 2005

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.

BOOK: The Empire of Ice Cream
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