the pleasures of not stirring

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Turkish Delight Baklava

Turkish Delight Baklava by Jeremy Brooks, flickr

The sun is setting across the parking lot and blinding the eyes of the customers along the western facing stand up bar in the grocery eat in restaurant. Amir and Nada are replenishing the chickpea patties, hummus, tabbouli salad, tzatziki sauce, and fresh baked breads in the display case to be ready for the evening shoppers.

The bell clings against the door. In walks Ms. Dashel, hardly the usual customer for the Persian/Turkish/Mediterranean market.

Amir had always felt guilty since Ms. Dashel had become a customer. Her first visit had been with Nicolaou Poulakidas, a notoriously demanding boar of a man, a local chef in town who shopped there for specialty ingredients. Amir felt in some way that the store had become a trap to hold Ms. Dashel to something against her will or something that should have been against her will in Amir’s estimation.

She sits in her usual spot in one of the free floating tables, plunking down her satchel and grocery bag which is deflated but ready to be filled. She orders a Turkish coffee.

She hardly makes eye contact but she has the dark wild gaze Amir has noticed since the woman starting visiting the store on her own.

Though her eyes that first visit had been a soft, twinkling brown as she floated around on the arm of her new boyfriend Mr. Poulakidas, Amir could have sworn her eyes had turned color. He had noticed in recent times they are black with flashes of white shards, as if her eyes were now the obsidian of his homeland.

As in times before he wants to reach out to her and physically reassure her but of course his faith prevented it. He retreats to the counter with her order and begs of his wife to speak to her.

Nada is a kind a woman but more reserved than her husband. She believes people’s business should be their own. But Amir was kind to everyone and out of respect for his heart she would do what she could.

“There is a huge bruise on her arm,” says Amir, in whispered tones behind the counter while Nada grinds the coffee. “It looks like that brute has grabbed her.”

Only last week Mr. Poulakidas had come in and yelled at Nada for poor technique in the preparation of his coffee.

Amir always suspected Ms. Dashel believed herself to be Mr. Poulakidas’ one and only. Amir had noticed she filled her bag up with things normally stocked by the offensive orospu çocuğu. She was probably running his errands while he was sleeping with someone else.

The delicate Nada carefully sets the ornate demitasse cup and saucer down in front of Ms. Dashel so as not to startle her. Ms. Dashel stares at the blank table at nothing in particular. Nada notices on her exposed upper arm, bare because of her light pink sleeveless sundress, a deep purple bruise the length and width of a thick long finger.

“May I sit with you, Ms. Dashel? I am so tired,” she says, hoping Ms. Dashel will understand her intrusion as a request for a favor rather than a display of pity.

“Yes, dear,” Ms. Dashel replies in an abstracted tone. “Please make yourself comfortable,” but she is still staring at the table as if her beloved coffee had not been set before her.

“Ms. Dashel,” says Nada, “do you mind me observing that pink favors you. It is a lovely dress you are wearing.”

Ms. Dashel makes eye contact with the lovely Nada whose deep brown eyes gaze at her steadily and compassionately as the eyes of Umay. She bends to bring the tiny demitasse cup up to her mouth. Nada notices a little quiver in her left eye, a faint tick along the outer crease.

“Will you be buying groceries from us today, Ms. Dashel? We are so happy to have you here,” says Nada.

Ms. Dashel applies a tiny gold spoon full of sugar to the dark offering and take another sip.

“He always tells me I don’t stir,” she says, finally.

“Who?” says Nada.

“Nicolaou Poulakidas.”

Ms. Dashel applies the rim of the deep blue demitasse cup to her fading painted lips.

“When we get coffee at the diner I get cream. And I don’t stir. He laughs at me.”

Nada can only imagine. She remembers vividly the large man, a rope of a ponytail down his back, demanding she start over with the coffee. She had felt the back of her neck burn as she stood at the stove with the ibrik, willing it to build more foam as demanded of her.

“I want to tell you a secret about stirring,” says Nada, gently, carefully covering her hand over Ms. Dashel’s frail bird claw.

“There is a certain pleasure to be had in not stirring. Let me tell you about those pleasures. First of all, it is beautiful to watch the cream enter the coffee and swirl around, isn’t it, yes? Also, you never know what each sip will taste like. Will it be creamy? Will it be dark? Life is a mystery, and there are some of us who enjoy mysteries and beauty, Ms. Dashel.”

Ms. Dashel’s hand had warmed under Nada’s touch. She retrieved it and put it into her lap. She pushed her spine up against the back of her chair. “You are right,” she said.

That afternoon Ms. Dashel used Mr. Poulakidas’ card to buy Turkish delights for the market employees and their families. She had Nada wrap special boxes for the children and tie them up elaborately with bows. Then she had Amir cut the card in half with the shears he kept behind the counter.

Ms. Dashel would pretend she didn’t know what had happened though she would be having her last conversation with Nicolaou while she looked out on the ocean from her campsite with her dog, a box of Turkish delights beside her, her favorite kind, large pink chunks of rosewater.

 

 

*The inspiration for Nada’s thoughts come from a wonderful little lifehacker article called Why You Shouldn’t Stir Your Coffee.

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sur s’dey chh’nam t’mey, hello year new

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Messy, Sodanie Chea, flickr

Messy, Sodanie Chea, flickr

Starbucks chocolate mint coffee for breakfast, the last of the bag in the freezer since the Christmas before. She was now going on $15 dollars in the account since Christmas week when she forked over the promised last one hundred for the concert ticket promised her son. She was praying to some god her plenty of fish date tonight was the paying kind. She was counting on it. It was dinner.

Once she had dated a man who had used a coupon their first date and then expected her to split the cost. Mean little life. There were times she felt she was hanging on like a tick on life’s back. Not at all like the genteel mannered life of her upbringing, her white rich mama having adopted her from Cambodia and trained her in the way of proper southern ladies. Her mama had assumed after the divorce she was being wined and dined, that rich men were courting her. Let her assume, thought Chanthou.

She had changed her name back to Chanthou Seng. Her son retained his father’s surname, Rouse. She had been Georgia Abernathy as a child, heaven forbid, then Georgia Rouse, married.

She touched the picture she recently taped to the refrigerator, a picture of a Cambodian woman handing over her baby to an American soldier in a helicopter. The copter was on the roof of a hospital and the mother was saving her child from horrors and likely death under the Khmer Rouge. Chanthou had ripped it from the page of an old magazine at the library. She had no pictures of her family.

The coffee grinds in the Mr. Coffee filter inside the basket still smelled a little like mint chocolate, like some old forgotten dream. She retrieved a china mug from her long ago Christmas wedding shower. She wanted to smash it. But she had an affinity for beauty and could adopt a cold objectivity for sentimental objects when it served her.

The wedding ring quilt she had given to her dog. It was some cheap mass produced western looking thing they probably made in her country or some other place with no unions, ten hour days, women fainting and falling out. It was a delicious feeling when the small white pet began to tear at it with her teeth and paws.

Her son was up finally, on his way to work a double, tall, dark, the skin and facial features of home. He was so much taller the top of her head fit under his chin. He would never know she had only $15 dollars to her name until the month’s alimony came through.

She received a text from a man she hadn’t met yet who would meet her out for tea, and, she hoped, some of the restaurant’s Thai offerings, like the Satay Satay Salad or the Thaiger is Crying Sandwhich. Yum. Are you ok with beards, he said? Cause right now I look like Santa. Something about that completely cracked her up. She smiled. She told him so.

When she received a text from her ex the day before, something having to do with their son, he had said something hilarious, and she cried. She would not have confessed this to him of course. But despite her bitterness, she found the old laughter both poignant and painful and no less a kind of miracle. The icy slim blond who is her replacement wouldn’t tolerate much of a rapport between the two of them so she keeps it brief. She needs her monthly aid and would not cause trouble.

How much fun when she was young. In college, climbing in the campus fountain, dancing with her friends. I don’t give a fuck she had shouted for the whole quad to hear and her friends had repeated after her, laughing, all of them soaked and twirling around, three a.m., no campus security. She remembered what she felt like when she said that, something she would never have said before when she was a foreign daughter with white rich Christian parents.

That’s what she felt now at the prospect of meeting Santa. And he had joked with her that she should sit in his lap.

She had a feeling he would pay.

And if he didn’t, she would make her escape.

Christmas Cake

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Christmas Cake from Cornwall

Christmas Cake from Cornwall by Ramones Karaoke, flickr

He liked the feel of her in his hands, like risen dough he mashes down and forms again when he is on the job as a pastry chef. She is large, so much larger than most women he has seen, and so fair.

Secretly, to his family and friends she was his big cinnamon, that is what he called her, using a synechdoche in which a part represents a whole, in this case, the sweet smell of her and kindness representing her oversized sweet yeast bun type body. He was no small creature himself and when he met her and slept with her, he felt a kind of echoing satisfaction in his bones, through his blood and flesh.

He brought to her sweet confectionary: chocolate covered strawberries, cheese cake, chocolate ganache, banana bread, baklava, cream cheese iced red velvet. He loved to watch her consume his offerings with abandon, to observe her big red glossed lips, her cheeks smooth and creamy, her plump, baby like fingers shoveling in bites of his creations.

And yet. There were times when he felt it might be more appropriate for her to wait. Why did she always have to eat a piece of what he brought her on the selfsame day? What was wrong with her that she didn’t have the restraint to put something in the freezer, to wait for an occasion to bring out and share it later at an event?

He wasn’t sure what event he had in mind exactly. She was clearly on her own, divorced, hanging out in coffee shops while he worked all night, jabbering with musicians and reading her poetry and sending him pictures on her phone. She had her little white dog and her adult son at times. She was no longer a socialite but a burnt out star.

Still, she could have used some restraint.

But she clearly loved him: “Dear Charles, you are the best, the most brilliant! The night we spent was beyond compare. Remember that waiter? hahaha! You made short work of him, my beautiful god!” This is the kind of thing she would text to him by phone and he would erase it with one click of his generous strong finger, preferring instead to talk to her the next day on his way home from work.

For the holidays, he made her a huge Christmas cheesecake, topped with a strawberry swirl glaze, red and green candies, a yellow chiffon cake side dyed with a green checkerboard pattern of tiny green trees. He had to work on Christmas Eve but stopped by to give her the cake and wish her well.

Her face was tear stained when she opened the door, he could see that. Her son had preferred to stay with his father for the night. And she was alone.

She took the cake from him and set it on the counter. She embraced him in thanks. She insisted he sit down for a moment. She had made coffee.

She took the cake from the box and placed it on a silver stand and exclaimed over it and kissed him again.

He sipped her coffee, she knew how to make it just the way he liked, straight, smooth, and dark.

And yet, she took a silver cake cutter, a holdover from a different life, and sliced right through the heart of his cake, the artfully swirled puree, the tenderly created trees.

That plump, baby hand on the silver server, the lifting of a piece right from the Christmas heart of it all and the ungracious plopping of it onto a plate, the insertion of a large bite right into her fat face.

He couldn’t take it anymore.

He told her he had to leave.

In the crisp and biting air, alone on the front step, he knew: On the morrow, he would be free.

 

*

You may also enjoy my Christmas story “Santa Baby” published in the UK journal Use Your Words: here.

You may also enjoy reading my story “Cocoa Beach Christmas,” here.

“Santa Baby” is racier, while “Cocoa Beach Christmas” is most definitely rated G.

Thank you for reading and Merry Christmas!

Flashnano Day 10: Write a story in the form of a test

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Here is a test to determine readiness for achieving competency as a literary fiction writer in the United States of America in the 21st century. The method to test the margin between competence and popularity and/or critical success has yet to be determined. Again, the parameters of this test are merely to determine potential competency in the field of creative fiction writing.

This test is based on the anecdotal experiences of the author of this test and could be deemed less than scientifically rigorous. But given the popularity of readers and test takers who self select tests in magazines and online, we decided to put together a series of tests based on varying demographics and experiences each with the goal of helping the readers determine for themselves answers to the mysterious questions often googled such as: What does it take to be a literary fiction writer? Google, we realize, is the much more interactive cousin of the Magic 8 ball, and so we thought: Why not help the reader be more interactive with himself/herself as he/she goes alongside a mentor of sorts, a working writer, as he/she interrogates the soul regarding one’s capacity for literary endeavors?

In addition to this, we offered to pay the book allowance of each test creator for one month, a small sum which many writers cannot afford given the cost of rent, food, and helping other writers and artists who themselves are hungry and without shelter.

Further, we must disclose we are supported by advertising dollars – big pharma, chain retail, political candidates – but do not endorse ads and links that appear on the site.

We want to do our best to help you decide whether you can be an artist. Please let us know your score below and what you thought of this experience.

Test for Artistic Competency: The Middle Aged Divorced Housewife, given certain conditions listed below

This test may be relevant for you if: You are a woman in her 50s, divorced after 20 years of marriage more or less, were married to a conservative who threatened to leave you if you try to work outside the home and were raised by religious conservatives who have always hated that you are a writer and discourage rather than encourage you. You make no money from your literary endeavors but are living on a wing and a prayer.

  1. Imagine this future scenario and ask yourself if, repeated over and over in a host of variations, you can handle it without becoming an alcoholic, or at least a nonfunctional one: You go to a bar to hang out withat least able “really fun people” according to the social meet up site on the internet, all of them highly successful working professionals. You begin talking to a seemingly pleasant man who is about your age. He has come to several group meetings, has salt and pepper hair and beard and a Phd, and teaches history at a local private boarding school. You stand at the bar and talk while you enjoy your drinks. When he asks what you do and you say you are a writer he says: Are you successful? If you make no money from your writing but you are published in literary journals, how do you respond? If you defensively argue bullshit about how art has no monetary measure because its worth is in the non-monetized value to humanity, you are a romantic but also a fool in America. Trust me he will walk away and tell the rest of his monetarily wealthy friends you are a real loser. This is a no win situation, so don’t feel sorry, sister. Have more booze and take your credit card away from where it is sitting on the bar then later hoodwink the bartender into believing he’s got a tab going for you. Order another G & T. It’s so busy he’ll get too flustered and forget. Order as many as you can get away with. In so many ways, you can’t afford to be at this gig, but you were trying to be Dorothy Parker. Give yourself 0 points. It’s a wash.
  2. Add up the number of friends you have now, before you seriously start writing, friends you have now before posting your writing, publishing it, friends who want to go out with you, aren’t jealous of you or who treat you strangely, friends who like you because they understand you, or at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number less one from that. That’s how many real friends you will have left when you start publishing as a literary writer. (This perhaps assumes you will be relatively “unknown” which applies to almost all working writers in the United States today. However, if circumstances change and you develop groupies, friends won because of fame don’t really count in this equation unless their loyalty is proven through ups and downs. This is not part of the current equation because the test does not solve for virtual improbabilities.) I hope you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one will be added to a negative 10 which is the number of writing friends that will be won and lost over the course of your training and development, friends lost through petty arguments, jealousies, and competitions. However, add 30 to this negative number if you are able to pull off going to a low residency or full residency writing program. Add the same number if you can’t afford it but get involved in the local writing and artistic community as well as the writing community online. If you do both and your attention is divided, the final total number of writing friends and acquaintances of this equation is still a solid 21. If you indulge in unrelated social media arguments and rants – political or otherwise – take away at least 5 friends.
  3. Repeat the steps in #2 but solve for the number of supportive family members, with some variations added: Add up the supportive number of friendly adult family members you have now, before you seriously start writing, posting your writing, and publishing in literary journals and magazines, adult family members who want to hang out with you, don’t treat you strangely, adult family members who like you because they understand you, or feel they are at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number minus one from that. That’s how many supportive adult family members you will have left when you begin publishing as a literary writer. Again, it is good you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one friendly member remaining will be added to a negative 1 which is a retroactive situation in which a previously divorced spouse left you, partly because he hated your writing, so it is a wash, darling. When your child grows up to be an adult and if he/she feels proud you are a writer, consider yourself a diva. If you have more than one child, and/or nieces and nephews who grow up to become adults and proud of your writing, you are blessed.
  4. If you plan on compromising your writing to please your friends and your family, take away all points in 2 and 3. It is not looking good for you, sister. But if you say: Come what may, I will write according to my voice, I will follow what it tells me, I live in a free country and no matter what, I will say what I believe through my stories, you may keep whatever gains you have made in equations 2 and 3. If a few of these gains drop off because of your exercise of freedom, you will not have lost anything, in fact you may gain which leads to the next test question.
  5. If you exercise your voice and speak regardless of risk to career opportunities, dating opportunities, marital status, social life, family approval, religious sanction, legal protection, your soul may be crushed down so that you feel you are operating in the negative numbers for soul vitality but you may – at that point – begin reaching the ground floor of your artistic competency. It is a subjective judgement how much one has sacrificed to reach this ground level competency, but nothing less than total sacrifice in at least a few areas most citizens believe are critical for well being and stability is what is necessary. The only way to know for sure if you will become a competent literary writer in the United States of America in the 21st century is to start writing. If your effort and passion equal infinity, the chances are good you will become a competent writer. You may at least learn how to spell a few words and meet a few nifty people.
  6. Actually, since you are a woman and mostly likely by now have experienced a phenomenon wherein no one cares about your words written or spoken, you have to learn to deal in extreme invisibility scores. You will see a huge downward spiral into the abyss of negative soul points. Give yourself at least negative 30. That said, you are your own most powerful weapon for in your invisibility and absence of indulgence from others you stand the highest chance of all demographic groups of achieving a greater than normal levels of competence. In fact it is surmised by the test creator that you are likely on the edge of a kind of an invisible greatness as contradictory as that may sound. Nonmonetary value you have in spades my friend. Wear it as a laurel on your head. Know this: It is very unlikely the male colleague, the husband, the boyfriend will even notice. In fact your written words will be invisible to them or obscured. Soul crushing is your effectual pen. Bleed it and speak.

Flashnano Day 9: Write a story containing a song lyric. Readers: Thank you for being here for my 100th post.

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Image from The Pride of the Household, 1900, flickr

Image from The Pride of the Household, 1900, flickr

She had come late to making biscuits. Divorce. Cancer. A child left for college. She had come late to keeping flour on hand. Buttermilk. Cold butter. She had cooked a lot of gourmet in her married years, and been on too many fad diets. And now it was just her and the dog. And later this weekend a stranger who wants to meet her, sleep with her, the last of his kind, she imagines.

She turns on youtube music starting with her mid life music crush John Prine singing with Kacey Musgraves on a cruise ship. “Mind your own biscuits,” is the heart of the song. She smiles at Kacey and John singing and strumming and gives her dog a treat she keeps in the crystal biscuit barrel, a very expensive gift from her marriage.

She doesn’t make the biscuits fancy, cutting butter through the flour, rolling the dough out and creating a round with a cutter. She melts the butter into the buttermilk, mixes this all in with the dry ingredients and plops a spoonful of dough onto the parchment.

She doesn’t know how it happened to her, her life like this. She couldn’t even afford to fix her oven. She baked her biscuits in a small oven on the counter. What had happened to her dreams of hosting her family around dinner tables. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t even clean her house anymore, a place not even associated with her former life except for the occasional visitation of her son.

She slept with the strange men for free. She wasn’t even sure why. It occurred to her one day she was cheating herself, risking herself, and for what. Not even for a little compensation. All so she could pretend to feel better, pretend to forget. She should have charged them. For that she would put grape jelly on her biscuits when they were done. To take an edge off. Pretend she was special, she was love.

She knew how to take the pictures so she looked better, thinner. She would send the pictures to them to satisfy them, entice them, and hear them say they were interested. There had been a time she didn’t have to pretend and she wanted that feeling back, of having power. One of them had become so convinced she had tricked him into her beauty, he had brought a gun to the hotel where they met.

She had once polished silver. Brought a whole silver tea seat and dishes passed down from gradmothers to a tea party at her son’s school. There had been enough silver to hold all the cookies and biscuits and scones.

What was she doing now, she didn’t know. Ruined, said Mama. Indeed, her younger self knew so many things. Thought she knew love which now she realized was only approval.

The biscuits looked done. She pulled them out, put a couple on a plate, a chipped plate with palm trees from a set she had purchased from a department store one Christmas to decorate her Mama’s table handed down to her, the antique purchased in Texas before she was born. How much perfection there was then, and the Murano glass candle holders containing the white tea lights.

Only briefly she had earned a living before she married and that not too much higher than the minimum needed to get by in her town. Now no work experience, and her looks faded, her age telling. What was there but biscuits. And on good days chili with good meat. On other good days, casseroles.

She holds a chunk of biscuit down for her little white dog who sits on the floor beneath the little makeshift oven. She feels her little mouth grabbing for the bread. There is just this, then. And she marvels she is still alive. Her dog’s little tongue, licking up the butter, feels good on her skin.

She had taken to calling her dog Biscuit, which was not her name. It didn’t seem to matter.

Flashnano Day 8: Write a story involving the police

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on danse

on danse by Raul Lieberwirth

Here is the scene that has informed my romantic imagination since girlhood: Father and Mother, in the living room, dancing to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” Father still in police uniform, his hand upholding Mama’s delicate hand in his as if cradling something delicate and pure, his other hand enclosing her waist.

He sings the words directly to her and she smiles at him as if this is the first time he has ever sung words about two lovers dancing until the night became a brand new day. The soaring orchestra, Neil Diamond’s gravely voice, the poignant, wistful tune. Most of the time, Father in all his uniform trappings – the loaded police duty belt, his heavy shoes – produced a cacophony of squeaks, but I never noticed this during “September Morn.” It was like the two of them were born of air.

This is how they ended every day when Father came home after work. Before dinner. Before he said hi to me, my sister, or my brother, before he took the dog out, before he tasted what was on the stove.

Mother dressed for his arrival too, a full skirted dress, heels, makeup, smoothed down hair.

My parents have been married for forty six years. When I was young and used to watch them dance I thought I would want a husband like Father.

I still want a husband like my father. But it has not happened for me. Or maybe I could never figure out to be more like my mother to get a man like my father.

These days it gets to be demoralizing to eat every single meal alone, something I would never have envisioned for myself when I was young. Of course, I eat watching movies or the news. But sometimes I try to eat at my table without turning on the television or checking social media. However, by the time the next meal rolls around, I have given in.

This morning I decided to go to a restaurant close to me I had never tried before called The Breakfast Club. It’s a diner that only serves breakfast all day long.

After situating myself in a booth, I saw a man sitting by himself at a table in the middle of the restaurant, the only other person who was there alone. The room was noisy with couples, people from work, families.

I watched his face. He seemed to be the kind of man to be embarrassed for not many reasons at all, just something I felt I picked up in his demeanor. And his face was red. But that could have been because he worked in the sun. He was wearing work boots like many of the men there.

I caught his eye. He had a not unfriendly face, white hair, fairly athletic build. He broke eye contact but I knew he caught me looking at him.

I myself am middle aged, not bad looking, though no longer young.

He never came by my table. Nor did I pluck up the courage to go say hi to him.

I left the restaurant, but interestingly, he walked out not far behind me.

I yearned for the courage to turn around and simply say something but I felt I couldn’t.

When I was inside my car, I knew I must listen to “September Morn.”

I opened sunroof and let the music flow out into the sunny, cool day.

I saw him glance at me on the way to his car. But I still couldn’t bring myself to introduce myself.

On the way home, past trees and neighborhoods as my car took me further away from that spot where I noticed another’s loneliness that was equal to mine, a place I could not reach out to be vulnerable, I felt my sense of failure, of feeling trapped.

As I listened to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” over and over and over, I felt I would always live in memory of my father, in a bubble, a dream, I would keep recalling those moments of watching them dance as if I were caught in a loop, observing their young glory, their victories, their dignity.

I took note of how messy and chaotic my house had become, the telltale signs of an insomniac, a depressive.

I should clean up, I thought.

And I thought to make note of the time and the day I had eaten at the restaurant so I may return next week, just in case.

Flashnano Day 7: Write a story that takes place at a famous location

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egypt by rocor, flickr

Egypt by rocor, flickr

In the Valley of the Kings, the two women, one older, mild aged but well preserved, and the other younger, pretty, blond, yet with a slightly sad face, rode in the tram to the tomb of Seti I. In front of the tomb, they sat in an appointed dining area – a little stall with small metal tables and collapsible chairs – to await the tour. Rene tried, for the hundredth time in this country to get them to put something in her coke to make it cold, but it was handed to her tepid, the bubbles scratching at her throat. She sipped the liquid through a straw, watching the whirls of sand and dust spiral up into the air and brush against the limestone banks.

Her much younger companion, Chloe Bruce, pulled her glass bottle of water from her backpack. The top of her head was decoratively banded with a wide headscarf and her neat dark blond hair tucked into a low ponytail. She was travel chic, a Talbots model look, though Rene was sure whatever the child wore this is the impression she would make. Also, there was the coolness in her eyes, the pert mouth that almost never said anything.

How unlikely it was Chloe had pursued morturary science though the young lady did have a kind of remove with which she gazed upon the world, a sort of mask. Maybe that attitude and demeanor was well suited. And maybe something about the keep of the dead had fascinated her because her parents had passed in a car accident when she was in college. Rene took her in during summers and holidays and gave her a place to be when she was home.

Rene didn’t have children of her own. She had helped watch Chloe when she was a child, she had been good friends with Chloe’s parents.  She had taken her to see the opera Hansel and Gretel when it was playing downtown. She bought the child a record player and a vinyl recording of the classic Englebert Humperdink masterpiece. Rene remembered fondly the lullaby from her childhood: “When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep.” She hoped the lullaby and the rest of the recording may come to mean something to the young woman one day.

“I want something to eat,” said Chloe, “I’m starving.” She pulled out a 5 pound Egyption note from her Channel bag and ordered a falafel sandwich from the little cart. Apparently the man who worked the cart kept the warm sandwiches from the drinks, in their own compartment,  though Rene doubted her coke had been insulated at all. Nothing seemed to matter here. You could order all you wanted and there would be smiling and nodding and you would get exactly what they wanted to give you.

Chloe ate hurriedly, shoveling stray bits of cucumber and tomato into her mouth and licking the excess tahini from her fingers. At least the camels were not here like they were at the pyramids, their handlers pressing hard to sell rides around the ancient structures, flattering, wheedling, offering to take “American dollar.” And the Valley of the Kings was fairly quiet and clean because of this, and had probably been an ideal place for the ancient people to hide the riches their pharaohs would need in the afterlife. The tombs were tucked into the folds of the white and pink cliffs where the earth held the ancient secrets of a civilization and a deep faith their leaders would meet with the eternal.

How crass we are now, thought Rene, enjoying a cigarette while Chloe threw away her sandwich wrapping and reapplied her lipstick. We no longer give the same care and attention to our lives, much less our deaths. Groups of tourists passed, desperate figures, some wearing socks with sandals, mounds of white flesh, fanny packs.

When David was alive, he used to hold her hand when they sat out on their back patio every evening, drinking wine. “My queen,” he would say. And they gazed upon the opulent garden they had built within a budget, but still, there was a fountain and tall swaying bamboo, tropical flowers. They took turns making dinner. Maybe it was not having had children that made their devotion and relaxation possible, she wasn’t entirely sure, but she didn’t understand when her other married friends complained. They had only been through one bout of desperate fighting and despair, when he had wanted children but she had not. She could not explain her feelings and he had left her alone one night, enraged that she was not open to exploring having a family. He returned the next morning, held her, and they never breathed another word about it.

She and Chloe descended the stairs of Seti’s tomb, the elaborately decorated walls with carved figured and mythological creatures paralleling their descent down further and further beneath the ground. In the huge room where Seti’s sarcophagus would have lain was a deep blue star filled domed roof. The artists, said the tour guide, had provided Seti with a view of the gorgeous night sky, while the many workers preparing his tomb filled his rooms with furniture, gold, food, wine, linens, jewelry, statues, furniture. The deep blue of the domed ceiling inspired Rene to think of Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer. To think these ancient people really believed they needed to give their dead kings something to gaze upon.

The guide also said that a raid on the tomb orchestrated by the priests seeking money to gain political power stripped the pharaohs of their sacred and eternal powers.

In the cool ride back to the motel, in the nice car they had hired to treat themselves, Chloe said, taking off her scarf and rubber band and shaking her hair: “I’ve stolen from a dead person before.” The comment jarred Rene, as if the car had suddenly ridden over a sharp dip in the road.

“I was starting my internship at the morgue. This girl no one had claimed was being handed over to the city. She was wearing a necklace with a ruby.” Chloe pulled her hair back and secured it again with the rubber band. “I wasn’t sure how she could have afforded it. It looked like she stole it so I slipped it off of her and wore it out that night.”

The tour guide had said it wasn’t just the priests who had stolen from the pharaohs with their organized raid. Little by little, the common people, the ones who supported the afterlife preparation industry, took from the tombs in order to make enough money to support their families. They worked themselves to the bone and often were paid an insulting amount. Resentment had built up given the disparity.

Rene observed her young friend. She seriously doubted she was committing Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer to memory if she ever listened to the record at all. What was death to her. What was life. What was dignity. She wasn’t quite sure. She had always wondered what it would have been like for Chloe to deal with death so much having lost her own parents but her mentors said she always handled the loved ones of the deceased with such poise and grace. And yet, the coldness of an act like this, although on the other hand it had a strange logic too, like that of a child.

As the car bumped along, Rene ran her fingers through Chloe’s long ponytail, something the young woman still allowed her to do. She was not her child, and yet, in some strange way Rene had been a kind of mother. She was not sure she had guided her or made any contribution. Then again she thought, what are we  but masses of colliding particles, even to our own offspring.

That night she closed her eyes and imagined the faith of the Egyptians and their ceremonies.

She heard the crinkling of a chocolate bar wrapper. Chloe, getting into the candy they had collected at the market. “Would you like a piece of chocolate, Rene?”

 

Flashnano Day 6: Write a story in the form of a folktale. “A Tale of Two Men”

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photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, flickr

photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, flickr

1.

There once was a man who lived in a pine forest. Every evening, he laid a woman’s nightgown beside him in his big iron bed. Every evening, he set two extra places at his broad table. Every week, he bought food and clothing for the family he did not yet have. He bought toys for the child, jewelry for his wife.

Every night he prayed to his god fervently: “God, please give me a wife I can love and cherish, please give me a child. I am prepared to be your humble servant in all things related to these matters. I am a man, full of love. I will love my wife as my own flesh, my child as the flesh from my wife’s womb.”

One morning, the man woke to two tiny feet pressing against his shoulder. A baby! The man praised his god. He clothed the baby in the garments already bought for the child and gave him the milk stored in his home.

But he was puzzled how to present the child to the town since he was unmarried. He knew he should trust god and bravely and simply said, when anyone asked: “This is my new baby, praise god! I was alone in the world and god has seen fit to grant me a son.”

Adoption laws being what they were, everyone shrugged, congratulated the man, and went on about their own hectic lives. The man would know soon enough how hard it was to be a father and if he had strength enough for it he deserved the fulfillment of his prayers, for good or ill.

One night after the child had gone to sleep, the man sat on his porch. The pines creaked and the sound of the wind soughing in the bows amplified his loneliness and he prayed: “God, you brought me a miracle. You see how I have handled what you have seen fit to give me. If a bad father gives a stone to the son who asks for bread, how much more will you give?”

Carried along on the wind was a sound barely distinguishable from the soughing of the pines. It was a woman crying. The man searched his porch, but he could not find the source. He went out into the woods and there among the shadows was a woman, dressed in a white gown, shivering.

“Where have you come from?” said the man, putting his heavy wool coat around her shoulders and lifting her from the forest floor so she would not further damage her tender feet.

“I have given you a child,” said the woman, “a child I had no means of supporting. And now please sir, I wish to hold my son.”

The man’s heart filled with pity and with something else besides for the woman was very beautiful and young.

“You may hold your son for as long as you wish. I will make it possible for you. I will give to you whatever you require.”

And seeing there was no ring on the young woman’s finger, he made her the bride of his heart and did not question anything, only praised his god for his good fortune. When the woman slept in his bed, holding her son, the two the image of peace and warmth, he knelt all night in the wood in wonder.

2.

There once was a man who was tired of his wife. It was well known how many errors she had committed, and the number of errors was well past her ability to make up for them, even if she began engaging in acts of contrition the first moment he expressed his discontent and worked continuously, around the clock.

His wrath had built up. Number of laundry baskets not completed per day. Number of times the dishes were stacked in the sink. Number of times she was with her foolish friends rather than at the market. Number of times she was late getting the children to school. Number of pounds she had gained since their marriage. Number of times she did not attend worship services. Number of times he had come home from work to see her face and hair in their natural state. Number of times she had indulged in her projects and made cold meals rather than cook. Number of times she expected him to help her while she pursued her education. Number of times she disappointed his extended family.

And so, she became a terrible wife among those who worshiped his god, became an outcast and despised.

He prayed: “Oh god, why have you given me such a terrible wife? As a young man growing up, I tried to do the right thing, and yet you did not see that I was worthy of your favor?”

He prayed this at night, on his knees, in the living room, so that his wife heard, though their children slept the sleep of the innocent. It frustrated him how much they forgave her.

Being a man of ambition and righteousness, he knew the ways of the unrighteous and what would eventually befall her. Here is what he knew: The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.

Frustrated with his god, he existed in the house with his wife, neither praising nor belittling her, pouring his love and attention onto his children so that even if she became an angel to them, he would be even more perfect.

As it happened, she became wayward and ruined and he was enabled to be rid of her in all good conscience in the sight of his community.

“Thank you, God,” he said, “for this opportunity to start again.” And all the man’s wishes were granted, according to the dictates of his god.

Flash Nano Day 5: A story that takes place on a Monday

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Art Gallery by Richard Potts, flickr

Art Gallery by Richard Potts, flickr

It was Monday night at the art gallery downtown. Mel Jenkins, fat, manic depressive, weird fiction writer, had brought Lollie Kyle to be her friend at the event.

Rarely did anyone accompany her to her own readings, neither her former husband or current nonwriting friends or dates, though she had made some friends in the arts community whom she greeted when she was out.

Sometimes she was jealous of husband and wife teams who sat together and sold books, usually the husband’s, and as much as she had wanted something like this when she was married, it was simply beyond the parameters of the marriage. Her ex hated her writing for one, and well, that was a problem. And her psychiatrist blamed her fat on their divorce. Luckily someone else was now dispensing her med scripts.

It was highly unlikely someone like Lollie would hang around Mel voluntarily. Lollie was skinny, tiny, social, wore gorgeous clothes, had long, straight dark hair, bright eyes, an infectious laugh.

At the art gallery when Mel introduced the sprite of a woman to her friends, she was grateful to Lollie for not saying the real reason they were hanging out together: Mel had hired Lollie to take her to an outpatient procedure, had hired her off of a caregiver website. Mel had to hire her because she had no one to take her – friend or family – to the embarrassing procedure, a colonoscopy, something she had to take care of earlier than usual having survived breast cancer a few years before.

She knew her friends and contacts at the gallery were surprised she was with someone so apparently beautiful and together like Lollie. Mel experienced a certain power, like the kind she had when she was younger and more beautiful and skinnier, married to a doctor, before she had been diagnosed and put on drugs that made her fat. She had thought herself beyond such artificialities. But maybe not. People seemed to notice her more and she glowed a bit in the attention.

As it turns out, Lollie lived in her neighborhood, so all all Mel needed to do to pick Lollie up for their night out together was drive around the block to her door. Lollie was drinking, had put something strong in her thermos, the smell of it filled the car. Lollie was giddy and laughing. She was wearing the same ballet shoes she had worn at the outpatient clinic the day they met, the ones with wide ribbons crisscrossing on her delicate feet and ankles, displayed with jeans rolled up and cuffed. The doctor had noticed the shoes and stared at Lollie in the pre-procedure interview when Lollie was sitting with her in the prep area and not letting on she was hired, pretending she was Mel’s friend.

Mel had thought the doctor cute. Oh well, she also thought. So much for that. It was the downside of having a beautiful caregiver.

Mel had made some unfortunate choices in what to read that evening at the gallery. It happened sometimes. It was the moodiness and lack of judgement. She sometimes wondered if she didn’t have other things wrong with her, something that affected social abilities, the abilities to read others. Though often as a writer and a writer of weird fiction she almost always told others she didn’t care what anyone thought of her work. She had been tired of defending it to such people like her conservative ex and her family.

But then, that Monday night, having read her one piece about an alien who seduces a man – a piece that actually reads as a disturbing, serious story about mental illness – she wondered: Had she gone too far? Most definitely, yes. Her reading was met with a strange kind of complete, withdrawn silence.

Afterwards, when the crowd was mingling and talking, Mel returned to a table where Lollie was sitting with an organizer of literary readings. Lollie was flirting with him and they were laughing. Lollie laughed at her, said she hated the story, that it definitely was not the kind of thing she read. “Aliens!” she said. The event organizer laughed.

Mel and Lollie walked to the Irish bar next door to the gallery. Lollie kept drinking til she got pretty stone drunk. They sat in chairs outside the bar. Lollie hit on a much younger guy standing outside smoking and she bummed cigarettes off of him. One drink was enough for Mel. She was driving and hadn’t eaten all evening and her stomach was sour from nerves from the reading.

The young man eventually went away and Mel managed to talk Lollie out of yet another round. In the parking lot, Lollie smoked and pulled down the front of her jeans to shoe Mel a tattoo on her belly. Lollie may have well been the alien. Mel had not seen a body so small like that since she was in grade school.

She managed to get Lollie home. When she pulled up to the curb of Lollie’s townhome, Lollie said: “Do you have any oxy?” Mel managed a shocked response: “I don’t know,” she said. “Good night.” And luckily Lollie got out and got inside without involving Mel’s assistance.

Mel had time to think of this the next day. Had this been a kind of unspoken pact between them? The reason why Lollie hadn’t blown the cover of the real nature of the relationship?

It occurred to Mel that there was kind of an unspoken quid pro quo Lollie had orchestrated: She knew Mel’s desperation and she knew the flattery necessary to score free oxycontin. She knew Mel would perhaps have leftovers from cancer treatments and surgeries. Lollie probably did this kind of thing all the time as a caregiver.

Mel put one bottle of expired oxy in a bag and included a note: “This is it. I will not give you more, so don’t ask again. Don’t tell anyone I gave you this.” She hung it on Lollie’s front door

A couple of days later she received a text from Lollie complaining the strength of it wasn’t high enough. She ignored it and hoped she never saw Lollie again.

One afternoon when Mel was taking her dog outside her townhome, an hour which saw her unkempt, unshowered, her hair pulled up on her head and wild as an over-risen round loaf of mountain bread, Lollie pulled up next to her in her red SUV, smoking, calling her name.

Mel almost didn’t know who it was the inside of the truck was so dark and the day so bright. “Mel! Melanie Jenkins!” Lollie called out from behind the wheel. “I’m moving today, Mel! Going to Texas, wish me luck!”

Mel acquiesced and wished her well.

“I need you to review my caregiving on the site, so I can get more jobs,” said Lollie.

“Ok,” said Mel, though the thought of having to be so dishonest sickened her. She wasn’t sure if she would really do it.

And then Lollie was off, barreling down the narrow road between the houses and the woods.

It was perceptively quiet without Lollie and with the new thought that she was leaving. Lollie didn’t seem to be happy in Mel’s hometown anyway.

Mel’s little white dog sat down on the warm pavement, stretching her neck and sniffing. The trees seemed to move a little, as if taking a breath.

Flashnano day 4: A story that takes place in a hot room

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kennan street parlor by

kennan street parlor by Bradley Fulton, flickr

It was hot in Grandmama’s apartment where we gathered for the family tradition of testing the corpse. Grandmama always liked it hot and never wanted any of us to act on her behalf to ensure there was a fix to the heat level in her particular suite of rooms. She always said, it is good for my circulation and supports my tropical sensibilities. She had the complexion of Martha Washington, a regal American bearing that suggested nothing of anything having to do with tropical climes or a constitution able to endure such. And there she was dead in the dining room, laid on the table, in the manner of our long line of southern ancestors.

“Horrible, just horrible,” said Mama beneath her breath while she poured a drink from the sideboard. My sister and I had been pressed into hopping on a same day flight from our respective colleges because of the body lying in an airless room, having been assisted to another realm of existence by a death doula. My ministering daddy was there of course, to press the holy oil onto her forehead and heart, to lay the family coins on her eyes. He was Grandmama’s only son.

Mama wasn’t amenable to such barbaric customs she called them. “Cremate me, right away,” she said while for once she offered each of us a whiskey though we were beneath the legal age.

“When I die they will carry me out feet first,” said Grandmama when she and I were making sugar cookies in her tiny kitchen, her blue veined arms and hands, delicate as china, working over the dough and helping me shape it into little balls. “You want to know why?” I could always count on Grandmama to tell me the truth. “So I don’t look back and take you with me, so I don’t drag you down to the grave.” And she wiped off the residue of dough on her hands and took a long sip of her now cool oolang tea.

Grandmama would have thought it rebellious that Mama wore bright orange to a deceased’s household, foolhardy even given the dead’s propensity to call people who did not present themselves in shadow in the traditional black. But no, Mama not only wore her favorite billowy bright orange chiffon dress, and the flashy burst of flower earrings with the rhinestone tendrils trailing down and her slingbacks. Devil shoes, Grandmama had said.

My sister and I tended the kitchen, distributing cups of punch and plates of little sandwiches Grandmama’s maid Effie had made that morning. When it came time for the traditional mirror ceremony, all of us – cousins, aunts, uncles – gathered round, though it meant nothing now that a death doula was qualified to declare the end of life. But Daddy insisted. It is what Grandmama would have wanted, he said while everyone looked on, Grandmama laid out so beautifully on the table, her silver hair swept back, her face as serene and lovely as I’d ever seen it. Mama rolled her eyes. I could see her across the room from where I stood beside Grandmama’s body.

Daddy held the small mirror in his hands, the oval one surrounded by little gold filigreed loops. He had instructed my sister and I and the cousins to gather on either side. When I hold this mirror up to her mouth, he said, you are to tell me if you see any breath on the mirror. We cannot bury your Grandmama while she is still alive.

My cousins were all younger than my sister and I and my aunts were extremely concerned that my father was creating nightmares with his insistence on this antiquated tradition. Daddy was pretty intense however, though unlike grandmother he took things less seriously. He was just trying to show a younger generation old Southern customs. And he thought kids were too sheltered for their own good. In our family, ghost stories at Christmas were as important as gifts themselves, and from the time you learned to speak, you were expected to speak of the dead in story form, however rudimentary. Mama would tip a little extra bourbon into her eggnog on those nights.

Daddy ceremoniously lowered the mirror to Grandmama’s mouth while the kids kneeled keeping their eyes level to the table top so they may spot any errant breath upon the reflected surface. We all froze that way for some moments, the heat ticking through the radiator pipes. From the corner of my eye I could see Mama slip out onto the balcony overlooking oaks draped with Spanish moss, filtering the dying pink light. She lit a cigarette and let a plume drift around her magnificent head of short golden hair.

Soon it would be time for me to sit in airless rooms at the college far away, the weather there stricken through with winter’s frost, listening to concepts just beyond my grasp. How I wish for the simpler times when Grandmama and I had tea, when she told me of her times of adventuring in Alaska, and saying the Lord’s Prayer when an intruder invaded her home. She bit his arm when he lunged at her and he jumped from her third story apartment.

By a vote of silence all cousins had apparently decided Grandmama was truly dead.

I couldn’t be sure but when we left Grandmama to be alone with the doula I felt a faint pressure on my arm. Was that Grandmama’s hand? I doubt she would try to pull me to the grave. Knowing her though, she was surely yanking my chain.

I love you Grandmama I said softly, smiling at her antics, and stepped safely across the threshold. I looked back at her body on the table, regal as a queen. She ruled her household with iron but there was a softness too.

When I started writing fiction a few years later, I would never write of a living person without writing of a dead one too, or at least the shadow of the dead. My creative writing professors had no truck with stories outside of strict realism.  By now, Daddy had gone to be with Grandmama and I had a baby at home and a husband too. I lit a candle and incense for them both every day and let the fragrance waft into our humble apartment while I conjured up the dead just like Daddy had taught me to do and my baby dreamt a peaceful sleep of the living and the innocent.

Be damned with them I can only imagine my Grandmama saying of my professors. I risked low grades, but somehow it didn’t matter. I wrote of the dead lying on door frames between chairs, families waiting for bodies to rot to ensure death, ghosts haunting southern estates reminding my ancestors of war and injustices, petty grievances and sorrow, ghosts who loved still and wanted to be of comfort to those they left behind.

Mama might even like some of these stories I thought sometimes, perhaps foolishly. Still, I hoped so. I brought her bright sweaters when I visited her at the home. One day I might even give her a bound copy of what I had made or better yet, read to her my gift if she was willing to hear.

Or we could simply drink whiskey in her cozy apartment and look out on the green of the woods beyond her window, deep and silent, and watch the light fade.

 

 

Flashnano day 3: Write a story involving mud

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I am entering rougher terrain in order to try to finish the writing prompts for flashnano, almost a month after the event. The quality of stories will vary, some being more cohesive than others, some more developed in terms of concept and voice than others, some more exciting and gripping than others. I am thinking of some of these as being sketches for later characters and stories or even nonfiction pieces I’d like to develop. Some may never see the light of day again. Thank you for reading.

end of by Eddi van W.

end of by Eddi van W., flickr

I had never seen a woman use a mud mask until my sister and I slept over at a friend’s house. That was when we lived in Arkansas where our father was a minister. My mother didn’t use masks, or at least not around me and my sister and brother.

My friend’s mother was a kind woman, civic minded, political, intense. She was married to a wealthy successful man though there was often something silent and dark about him. He hunted and my father didn’t like to hunt. He drank, my preacher father did not.

I wish I could remember more about why my friend’s mother came into the room where all the girls were sleeping. Were we being loud? I don’t remember. Was she upset about something? I don’t recall. I only remember the shock of seeing her transformed, standing in the doorway the light behind her, her face obscured behind the mud mask, her gaze now alien and removed.

She was always kind to me when I was young and in the years after, even after my family moved from Arkansas and lived in another state, even through my college and married years. For birthdays and holidays, I always received a card scribbled in her tiny, almost indecipherable script.

She was nice to me too when she came to eat lunch with my family when we lived in Florida. I can’t remember the infraction I had committed as an adult child to inspire my parent’s silence toward me at that table on that day, but my friend’s mother was most visibly distressed over the disparity of attention lavished on the adult children. I felt it in her darting eyes and the shifting in her seat. For her it had been an experience of unnaturalism.

I think of her as a little darting bird like the kind you find who distracts you mercifully when you look out into the trees seeking solace or praying for relief.

I don’t know how a mud mask fits into this little story other than to perhaps point to the reality that she was always only ever herself.

But maybe the compulsion to make neat and tidy those elements of a story which rightfully exist randomly is undertaken by the same type who seek a too ready oneness with romantic partners and peers, those who are the pleasers and the insecurely attached.

No matter, what my friend’s mother shows is that there are people who exist for you even if you have not asked for them and even if you think you scarcely deserve them but there they are, seeing you. And sometimes that is all you want: a witness.

 

Flash Nano, day 2: A story that takes place in a bathroom

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emily-austin-1101089-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Emily Austin, unsplash

Misha had thought to kill herself only hours before, lying in the deep bath of what a wealthy friend derisively called a “tract home.” She had been preparing for the well heeled event, a cocktail party with her husband’s colleagues, partners in the medical practice. Every year, around the time of her birthday, she felt herself slipping below the rim of reality as if she had slipped beneath the skin of the surface of a warm bath and was looking up at the world and its players, distorted and menacing. She thought she was screaming, but no one could hear anything. In a moment she would have to relinquish her soaking when the water turned cold. Then there would be the fixing of her hair, the straightening of her dress, the application of makeup, and the selection of jewelry.

What would she talk to these people about? And the women were all so stark and regal, proper doctor’s wives. She never lost the baby weight. That feeling of her self consciousness oppressed her. Planning on ways to kill herself did not help either, as if she were her own judge and jury, and sided with the sophisticated medical crowd regarding her value as a human.

At the party, things were as anticipated. But she found her solace in the locked bathroom where she let the water run from the faucet long and in a soothing little torrent. She used the brass stopper to close the drain and watched as the sink filled and the excess water spilled into the overflow holes. When she turned off the sink, she played with the water with little twirls of her hands. Maybe she should die in the bathtub, slashes deep and long in her flesh, the blood red and warming her as her body cooled. What if her child found her though. No, maybe there was something not so jarring in appearance.

What she didn’t realize was that there was someone in the toilet stall. A young yellow haired woman emerged, thin, a before pregnancy body, a black spaghetti strap halter dress hanging off of her like a dress hanging on a hangar. Her eyes were blotched with errant mascara and her hair mussed a bit as if she had been sitting on the toilet holding her head in her hands.

Misha remembered the night of her marriage. It had not been quite what she had anticipated. All the build up, the move from Minsk, the ceremony arranged by Rob’s parents in the United States. Misha so concerned to be beautiful, according to her advertisement on the Russian bride site, her parents and brothers and sisters and whole family crying before her trip overseas but wishing her well. The vodka, wine, cranberry juice, black bread, the gift of salt, the old sad songs for the loss of a daughter to her groom. After the ceremony in an empty white church devoid of the embellishments of her country’s faith, she remembered the lightweight veil on her head and realized what she had always wanted as a girl: To feel the orthodox bridal crown. She sat in the hotel bathroom, the first night of her married life and felt the sting of tears. What was wrong with her? She chastised herself. She thought of her parents, how happy they were, she tried to be happy too.

“How can I help you?” Misha said to the sniffling young woman, but the girl ignored her and dabbed at her eyes with a linen napkin from the stack provided by the sink. “Here, dear one, let me give you a hug.” The girl acquiesced and Misha felt the racking of her sniffles against her chest and her birdlike shoulders in the folds of her motherly arms. Where had she come from? She hadn’t even noticed anyone slightly under the age of thirty. The youngest couples were not that young, all of them having survived medical school and residencies and made it into partnership.

“I have to go,” said the girl, and twisted out of her grasp and slipped through the door.

Misha, who herself had only, hours before, been crying silently as she lay in the deep water of the tub, could not find the child among the mix of people when she emerged from the bathroom. At least she had been given the chance to be of comfort and she did feel a little lighter.

That night, she slipped out of her dress, took off her jewelry and lit candles around her tub.

Rob kidded her she would turn into a prune. She kissed him on the mouth. His eyes registered surprise. She had been withdrawn from him some weeks.

She slipped into the warm water all encompassing and primordial. How beautiful to hold herself in this way, suspended, and know she would come up for air.

Ms. Myska tries for love

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Mme E. by Emmanuel25, flickr

Mme E. by Emmanuel25, flickr

It had become Ms. Myska’s tradition to allow herself one month of the year to date through the interwebs. Signing up on a dating site involved a creating of a profile which she completed with relish and a certain glee, hoping her prospects would catch her tongue in cheek style, her humor, her joie de vivre. She spoke of her love for art, for the beauty of nature, the necessity of good stand up comedy, her passion for the eating of chocolate hazelnut spread, the patting of her soft dog while enjoying the breeze on her porch. Her initial offering netted an overall positive response and she was off to the races.

This particular month, in the month between Halloween and Thanksgiving, her first date was a military man who had exciting, interesting things to tell her over their salmon and broccoli: his work in search and rescue, his knowledge of Chinese and Russian intelligence, his concern for a wave of immigrants about to cross the border. But he also told her how easy it was for him to pick up women, how he could sit at the bar and they would just flock to him. There was no one at this restaurant bar. Eighties rock music reverberated throughout the empty chain restaurant dining room and the salmon was a little bit dry though she discretely slathered it with butter sauce. The barkeep was drying glasses and putting them away for the night. Ms. Myska’s date had lied about his age. He was actually more than a few years older than she. She could see it in his hair and frame and hands.

The military man convinced her before their second date to take down her profile and date him exclusively, that he was a great catch and well worth it. Another man she had been messaging on the site, a man slightly unhinged but who had been entertaining her nonetheless, got angry with her when she told him she was deleting her account for someone else. He flung a tirade of angry texts at her, telling her she had betrayed him though they had never gone out. He predicted that by the third date, she would be moving her stuff in with this person and making wedding plans. Ms. Myska’s heart began to race. She had no intention of moving in with anyone. And here’s the other thing: She was no good with a stranger’s anger, not this explosive and intense kind of anger, and seemingly without much foundation.

Because of dealing with this other man’s angry texts and the doubts it raised in her, she was late to her second date at another chain restaurant/bar and almost didn’t go. But she made it with apologies. Almost as if the dating gods had turned against her for this, the charm had drained from the military man altogether. His face appeared weary and drawn. His age was more revealing in the light. And she listened to a one hour tale about his lucky numbers and how he intuits them and uses them to bet and play the lottery, how lucky he is as if he were pretty much invincible. She supposed in a certain light on other dates this show of bravado sealed it for the uncertain as if he were a magic lucky teapot. The determinism of the numbers crushed her as did his seeming unwavering faith in himself. The fried chicken pieces at this second restaurant, a different restaurant than the first but almost interchangeable in a way inspired in her the following image: A very long tunnel with small round doors in the walls, each containing a lecture, a bland restaurant item, an angry political person, a disappointed man.

The next day she broke up with him over text. They had only seen each other twice. He called her a child for not breaking up with him face to face and he implied she was one of these “crazy ass women” he’d been seeing as of late. She asked him how insults fit into his self-presentation as a gentlemen. Then the doors to that particular slammed shut. Wham.

Her next prospect was an elementary school cafeteria manager who after one date convinced her to take her dating profile off the website, the profile she created after the military man dressed her down like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. She and the cafeteria manager went out for tapas at a Brazilian restaurant. She liked the way they spoke fluidly of food and recipes and restaurants and ingredients. She liked his hands, nice, big, warm looking, and his height. They laughed and talked and went for ice cream. They hugged when the date was over. They hit it off so they both took down their profile.

Then he didn’t call her. Confused and puzzled, she confronted him. He responded he was following some sort of “rule” for not calling her. He was angry she was upset. And he seemed angry by the second date over delicious blackened fish sandwiches. She was trying to be cheerful and funny but she felt his scowl and withdrawal and later that night it depressed her and she broke up with him. She kept remembering the way he walked to his car after their meal like he was leaving a house on fire when really nothing was burning. She was only standing beside him waiting for a reassuring hug or something to clear away their early days of trouble. Down this corridor there would be the mournful tears of someone crying for the love she could have given but it was unwanted. She broke up with him in the middle of the night when she knew he would be asleep.

She met a man on a motorcycle. They met out for oysters. He had a heavy silver skull ring for each finger and a salt and pepper goatee. He smiled at her and they sat at the bar chatting comfortably. She hadn’t planned on it but she asked him to take her around town on the back of his Harley. She didn’t even have a helmet which is as bold as Ms. Myska had ever become with her own safety.

It was an inky, starry night. She knew instantly she loved him or could love him.

A few days later his mother died after a long and painful illness. Ms. Myska felt him slip away into things he must handle, though she tried to help him best she could and she tried to be supportive. She went to the funeral home, leant an ear and what she believed was her sympathy. She liked the way he included her right away. She liked the way he took her out and seemed to want to know some things from previous experiences in her relationships. Knowing him and the people he rode with was like knowing a larger family.

But there was another side that snuck in too, a sadism that caught her mouse heart off guard though she tried to chalk it up to his grief. In the short amount of time a bond formed, maybe it was she in her sympathy, a chance to be useful in a way she wanted to be, useful and helpful and good. She had given a lot of herself, her feelings, her care. She was, she thinks now, a bit of an idiot but in the moment that this happens, this bonding, her dedication always seems to be for some cause, as if love were a god to be served exclusively and everything and everyone is sacrificed on the altar. With the last and final man for the year, it had something to do with the rumbling of the motorcycle, her body pressed up against him, her arms around his waist, his little hat, the rock music, Tom Petty, the air.

But eventually after she had done what she could and what she thought she should do out of respect for his grief, he hated her too.

Ms. Myska deleted her account.

The deeper truths are in the green dark mystery of the woods across the street. You cannot give up pursuing this mystery, not even for a moment, she thought, in the quiet, no military histories on tv, no man banging around making something in the kitchen, no full set of skull rings falling on her black iron Neiman Marcus side table she bought from ebay. How the woods have missed her, the sky. Her dog’s small dark and bright eyes, watch her and wait for the moment she will tear her eyes from the lonely and dissatisfied and take her for a walk.

flashnano 2018: day one, “father”

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marty hadding, flickr

marty hadding, flickr

Put the tiny cup to my lips, father, and I will drink the grape juice, the blood of our Lord. I am too weak to grasp it myself and cannot lift my head from the pillow.

Your kindly, knobby fingers I know so well, and the freckle by your ring finger. The bells of your church in Arkansas years ago when I was a child, the bright green lawn, the white of the walls beyond the gold cross suspended from the ceiling with taut wire. At the front of the church I sing with my friends “So My Sheep May Safely Graze,” our voices reverberating, mother on the second row where she always sits. You in your red velvet chair behind the pulpit. I know where you keep a glass of water, on a shelf just below the Bible, a secret shelf.

Do you remember when I went with you to give a last communion to an invalid lady? You served her from a velvet lined burgundy kit containing the juice and wafers, Jesus’ body. When we were sitting in the car later in front of her house, I stared hard out of the window, afraid to look at your face because you said I was strong. Tears stung my eyes. When you asked me what was wrong I said will that lady be alright? You said nothing. Our experience became a sermon illustration.

I try to speak to you but my words cannot make it into my mouth my body has become slowed and lazy with the sedatives, the morphine.

I love you, father.

You hold my hand, you tell me where to go, you tell me where I will meet you. You ask me to reserve a place.

FlashNano 2018: On Your Mark… FAQ

Nancy Stohlman

FlashNano 2018

It’s that time a year again, folks: FlashNano! And if you’ve never heard of FlashNano before now, it’s the annual challenge to write 30 flash fiction stories in 30 days during the month of November, now in its 7th year!

The idea originated in 2012 as a spin-off from National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWRiMo): the challenge to write a 50,000 novel in a month. That challenge is fantastic and you can find out more here.

But FlashNano is the flash fiction lover’s answer to NaNoWriMo—the thrill of generating lots of material and the solidarity and the contagious energy of mad creation: sprinting, crawling, agonizing and celebrating throughout November with our novel-writing friends.

Join us!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do we join?
Declare it so.
Go buy some new pens and notebooks.
Join the mailing list (if you haven’t already) if you would like prompts emailed to…

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lips

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amadeo-muslimovic-599781-unsplash

woman wearing eye covers by Amadeo Muslimovic, unsplash

She had a date, Ms. Myska. A miracle, really, considering it had only been a month ago that she lay on the operating table awaiting anesthesia, uncertain if cancer would take her down with her uterus.

And here she was, healthy as a new chick, sitting across the table from a smiling man with retro looking glasses, a man who knew how to choose a restaurant, to order, to talk. It hardly felt deserved, actually, Ms. Myska being somewhat shy, somewhat of a scurrying mouse, somewhat worried about her problems though she put on her best face.

Still, her face was betraying her. Sangria was the culprit. Sulfites, likely, in the wine. She began to feel her bottom lip plump out into a perfect rectangle and she wondered if the man saw, though thankfully the lights were dim.

She hoped she didn’t seem awkward talking to him because she was trying to talk while worrying. But to Ms. Myska worrying and doing something else at the same time was like walking and chewing gum.

The hysterectomy, the next phase in her fight against cancer, a fight to stay one step ahead of the reaper, saw her experience with a new drug. And it plumped out her lips and caused them to be red and chapped. This had been an unexpected. Though the swelling seemed to come and go – some days she felt she was over it, and some days her lips seemed to be stretching the boundaries of her skin – she was resigned to the permanence of the situation and sometimes observed the phenomenon with curiosity, like a scientist, or sometimes with horror, like a Japanese citizen in a monster flick, shaken to the core by a walking lizard exploded beyond all reason in size and ferocity.

As she watched her date order their tapas she hoped her lips did not cause her to blurt out any of her presently closely guarded feelings and thoughts. Here were a few: “Hey, you are even cuter than I imagined.” Or: “What would it be like to kiss you?” Or: “I think it’s really sexy when a guy knows how to order. Total hotness.”

Her lips had a serious side too. They wanted to say things like: “How come your other relationships didn’t work out?” Or: “Tell me how you feel about being a widower.” Or: “Do you snore loudly? Do you have flatulence? Would you mind if I did on occasion? Or minded if I enjoyed burping very loudly? Would you mind if I occasionally struggle with insomnia? I talk to my dog constantly, is that a problem? I sometimes cry, unprovoked, is that a big deal? Messy house? Financial messes?”

Instead she said: “I love making coconut shrimp. Yum.” He was a cook too and they compared notes.

When they were off to their cars at the top of the garage under the inky sky, they hugged goodnight.

It was only later, in her car, driving home, that she realized he had turned his head sideways to kiss her.

She was glad her lips had not picked up on this. Her lips only realized it later, with her brain.

She liked him.

But she was glad.

 

 

Nettie

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Let death find you alive by Kara Hamms, flickr

Let death find you alive by Kara Harms, flickr

There is something wrong with Nettie, who lives at the edge of town. There is something wrong with Nettie who walks beside the trees. There is something wrong with Nettie whose dress once pure is coated with a dark liver colored stain. There is something wrong with Nettie, no one has seen her little dog in weeks. There is something wrong with Nettie, her hair has ratted. There is something wrong with Nettie, they say she walks in the woods naked at night. There is something wrong with Nettie, kids hear her scratching at their windows. There is something wrong with Nettie, someone found her in a tree, gripping the trunk of it in her thighs. There is something wrong with Nettie, when the moon is full, she walks beside the highway. There is something wrong with Nettie, some say she ate a man, homeless, her teeth, sharp and ruthless. There is something wrong with Nettie though she was once one of us. There is something wrong with Nettie, but her former husband and children turn as if embarrassed, aggrieved. There is something wrong with Nettie, and no one will say what, exactly, and no one will do anything. There is something wrong with Nettie, she climbs the sky every night riding a rough stick and wearing a red cap over hair matted with sticks and rocks she collects sleeping on the ground. There is something wrong with Nettie, and maybe, one day, she’ll die.

New Micros: Exceptionally Short Stories releases today!

Nancy Stohlman

New Micros Releases today, August 28, 2018!

A new collection of very short stories selected by Flash Fiction editor James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro.

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: WW Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393354709
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393354706

Buy it on Amazon now!

To say I cut my teeth on the Norton flash fiction anthologies would be an understatement. I remember reading Flash Fiction Forward in a hammock in Costa Rica circa 2008–as I was in the middle of an MFA and creating and editing my first anthology of flash fiction with Fast Forward Press–and just marveling at the scope and vision of editors James Thomas and Robert Shapard. I, of course, proceeded to read all their previous anthologies, then assigned them in my classes and workshops. Some of the stories in that book, like “Consuming the View” by Luigi Malerba (and reprinted in Flash Fiction International), continue to haunt…

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Ms. Myska’s Kintsugi

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etsy kintsugi by

Kintsugi by Abigail Moses, etsy store, JoStarrCo, link below the story

Ms. Myska’s upcoming operation had altered the course of her daily thoughts and interaction with the world. The surgeon told her he would use robotic arms to go into her womb and extract her cancerous uterus. Always before learning of such she had a mousy nervous way, an odd way, that people noticed and remarked upon, albeit through veiled observant glances and uncomfortable laughter. And now, Ms. Myska’s nerves had sent her over the edge. In fact, she had come to believe she could interact with the insensate world, something she kept a secret but something she felt nonetheless.

It started with her fear of death. Mrs. Malvoline, at the weekly Bible study luncheon, had told her when learning of the upcoming procedure: “Well you know Mitzy Bowzer had that done, all fancy Dan, the surgery modern as a toaster, and she lost her bowels from between her legs. Slipped right through.”

This during the chicken salad salad sandwiches at a table mounded with fruit in the center around which the ladies chattered about their families and their diets.

Ms. Myska laid her croissant sandwich down on her plastic plate and held a napkin to her lips.

Greta Malvoline had not known of or could not have guessed Ms. Myska’s feverish sweats in the middle of night, her nightmares of being chased through the town by robotic arms that could move in 360 degree rotation, arms that played with her hair, put things in her grocery basket, made her meals – gourmet style – far superior to her humble culinary efforts. And now, in waking life, arms would take the organ that had once held her baby.

The room where twelve ladies sat around the luncheon table in the church, twelve ladies strong, good as the twelve apostles, was too close for Ms. Myska, the now cloying odor of fresh baked bread and fruit overwhelming. She grabbed her purse and scurried to the door. Outside the church at the memorial garden where the cremated remains of former parishioners sat in jars. She felt sick but she wanted to show respect for the dead.

“Oh earth,” she said, “If I die, will you hold me?”

Even Ms. Myska knew she was being a bit dramatic. The surgeon had reassured her he had performed thousands of robotic surgeries without mishap. And the upside was a quick recovery.

She felt a breeze then, a caress. The leaves rattled “yes.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. She had her answer, then. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like this was a reassurance.

She must think of something pretty to be buried in, she thought, looking around at the colorful urns where others’ ashes were stored. Were jars standard or could she choose a favorite?

She thought of her great grandmother’s ginger jar. When she was a girl she had brushed against the pie crust table where it was displayed. The jar broke into many pieces. Rather than scold her, her great grandmother had gathered the pieces and glued them back together, teaching her about the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi. “The Japanese believe, my little one, that a repaired vessel is even more beautiful because it is the scars that show uniqueness and beauty. Artists often highlight the cracks in a repaired piece of pottery using gold. It is a lesson in resilience. A repaired vessel is a sign of soul.” And her great grandmother gently brushed her cheek with a crooked and withered finger.

One of the items Ms. Myska procured for herself after her great grandmother’s death was the repaired old ginger jar. Ms. Myska’s mother, a practical woman, was in the process of tossing her odds and ends. The jar was sitting on top of a pile of old books and newspapers. Nula spirited it away. “That’s useless, you know,” said her mother. Nula ignored her. She kept her magic jar in her room beside her pet rock Harry and her matryoshka doll collection.

The afternoon of the earth’s reassurance, she was happy to not return to the ladies who by now were commencing a study and discussion of the Messianic prefigurings of Jesus. It had nothing to do with her. The irrelevance of this arcane type of scholasticism coupled with a stomach heavy with a rich lunch inspired her departure. To stay might have brought about drowsing during the lecture, adding yet another incidence of eccentricity to her reputation.

At home, she retrieved her great grandmother’s blue and white ginger jar from the china cabinet. She kept it in the place where the little interior light of the cabinet could highlight it. If she looked carefully, she could see the places where her grandmother had lovingly glued the pieces back together. She placed it on her dining room table and sat before it.

“Little jar,” she said, “Will you hold the ashes of my bones when I am dead?”

She couldn’t be completely sure, not when she thought of it later, but she could have sworn she heard the lid of the jar rattle lightly against the lip. Maybe it was just her nervous agitation upsetting the table slightly and disturbing the jar, but it seemed perhaps she had her answer.

Ms. Myska buzzed about the kitchen making her dinner of chili beans and cornbread and feeding her dog. It took a great deal of time for the beans to cook and though it was early afternoon she anticipated a late night dinner.

On the porch she sat with her needlework. The sky was busily forming and reforming clouds as she followed the pattern for the large splashy peonies on the printed canvas. It was pleasurable to push the colored yarn through and know that this was her only chore for the afternoon. Years ago she had entertained her husband’s – now ex husband’s – clients with elaborate parties. Years ago she had raised a teenage son. Years ago she had scurried around a library large as a city block looking for patron’s requests. Now all that was required was the simple tent stich. Her tiny white dog sat beside her on the small porch swing.

She had a sudden worry for her. Who would care for the little thing were something to happen?

“Sky,” she said, “Will you watch over my dog Belle when I’m dead? Watch over her to protect her? Protect her as a mother?”

The clouds bowed up then forming a perfect circle like a mother’s arms. Miraculous! Ms. Myska had never felt so close to the sky and she stayed outside on her porch until the summer storm blew her indoors.

That evening, the whole of her house bathed in gold while Ms. Myska ate her supper. It was as if it were a crack in an artisan’s pot that had been repaired with gold. The whole of her life was a history of her scarring and repair and for the first time in weeks Ms. Myska lay in her soft bed with her dog at her feet and slept without nightmares.

Go here to acquire Abigail Moses’ wonderful work of art above “Kintsugi.”

Meeting Medusa

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BW faces by J.

BW faces by E.

A woman walked into the salon. Mateo, a new hairdresser, observed what appeared to be separately dyed chunks of hair, each strand moving independently so that the whole had an effect of a dark crazy nimbus around her face. For some reason, no one seemed to notice, but he was working on the rougher side of town now, having struggled to find an opening. Maybe a lot happened without notice or comment.

No doubt he would be assigned to the striped headed woman being that he had more of the walk in clients. As he finished with the client in his chair he briefly mused on the challenge of his afternoon: This once trendy way of dying large swaths of hair in contrasting colors to jarring effect was going by the wayside, and thank God. He had seen it work for a few regal beauties. But for the average person: Quel dommage!

He tried to honor the customers who wanted extreme hair dyes, but he always found himself secretly compromising with expressed wishes when it came to actually applying color. He always told himself they would be amazed at how becoming his magic would be and they wouldn’t mind he altered their plans ever so slightly. And usually, he was correct. A few light streaks in strategically located places around the face and crown and they looked ten years younger, brighter, smarter. And no walking around town with a Ringling circus tent for hair, not on his watch.

At last he had the wild haired woman – whose name he learned was Willa – on his chair, hair bouncing on her head long after she sat still. He grabbed for his readers on the dresser of his station. He needed them to do the detailed work he expected of himself. Having situated them on his nose he saw something most unexpected: Willa’s hair was full of life because her hair was indeed alive. The chunks of hair weren’t individually dyed, they were each an independently writhing and hissing snake! Mateo jumped in alarm as if bitten. His heart was racing. And he almost fell to the floor. But he maintained enough composure to hold up a finger indicating “just a moment” as he raced to the bathroom.

He threw up his lunch, the leftovers from the dinner his partner, Ray, had made him the night before. His throat and nose burned and he washed out his mouth and splashed water on his face. He gazed at himself intently in the mirror. Often when he did this he could imagine Ray’s soft brown eyes looking back at him. And he saw them now, encouraging him, believing in him. He needed this job. Desperately. The whole of their lives hinged on his resourcefulness.

He stole out of the back door of the shop and drove to the bait and tackle to fetch a container of crickets. From years of fishing with his dad, he knew where to buy them and he knew from Ray, who kept their garden, this is one thing many of the nonpoisonous ones liked to eat. Ray kept for them a beautiful garden full of plants they used every day, roses, citrus. But Mateo’s father had cut off all contact.

In the back room at the salon, he managed to get all the crickets into a hair dryer cap, having sealed off the tube that attached to the dryer. And then he worked the cap over Willa’s head, trying not to think of anything but Ray’s soft brown eyes, even as the snakes were whipping his hands and arms. And at last, there was less and less movement under the cap as the snakes sated themselves. Willa seemed happier and more satisfied too. Now he could talk to her in peace.

“How did you come to have snakes for hair?” he said, watching her face, trying to determine what was going on.

But Willa didn’t speak, or she was unable to tell him. She looked at the floor.
He brought her the lemonade Ray made for him every day specially with lemons from their garden. He was right in guessing this would help. When she seemed open to talking, he arranged to make special visits to her home for what he jokingly told her was “the cricket cure.” He saw her smile, just a little, and he knew he had a client.

He and Ray began visiting every Saturday, bringing their little dog Matt Junior.
Until one weekend, they arrived at her home to discover her head was full of hair instead of writhing serpents. And at last Mateo found out the cause of the poor woman’s affliction: She had been attacked on a Sunday as she was coming back from church. The attacker must have been watching her for some time and knew her schedule and when she would be most vulnerable. He dragged her out into the garden, and her house, being remote from neighbors, meant no one could hear her or see what was going on. She was raped in her garden. And her grief in the months following resulted in an unruly head.

It had been a year since the tragedy and Mateo and Jay were helping her to feel like herself again.

The first day of Willa’s normal hair, Mateo smiled in the good lady’s sunny kitchen, a glass of wine in one hand and a handful of Willa’s healthy hair in the other. “It’s time to get back to gorgeous,” he said, and he put down his wine and began to section off her hair for his signature radiant style.

Heft

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Cristinella by vitto, flickr

Cristinella by vitto, flickr

Just before Julie’s morning break, the security monitor flashed on a girl with black hair and kohl lined eyes. Julie zoomed in on her to get a better look.

The customer stood at the ladies’ jewelry counter, perusing a turnstile of watches. She then summoned Rosemary to unlock the clear plastic case. A few minutes later, she slipped a watch into her jacket pocket.

Julie was just about to alert her undercover shopper when the girl stopped and looked up at the camera. It was Chloe. Behind the dark hair and goth makeup was the face of Julie’s own child. Julie stroked the monitor with her fingers. Chloe hadn’t been home in a long time.

As if in response to Julie’s touch, Chloe shot her the bird. She then stormed off to the womens’ hosiery department. She slid the watch into a ladies’ pantyhose sleeve, holding it up so her mother could see what she was doing.

“Do you want me to go down there and handle it?” This was Julie’s boyfriend, having watched the events from the security room. He had been a witness to many such scenes between his girlfriend and her daughter, but nothing was ever stolen. Things were merely rearranged.

“Leave it,” she said.

The divorce had created a new child, someone Julie didn’t recognize. To make matters worse, her ex rarely called, and when he spent time with Chloe, it was to let her know her mother was a whore.

By the time Julie arrived on the floor, Chloe had gone. She tipped the watch out of the sleeve and held it in her hand until it was warm. It was deceptively heavy.

First appeared in decomP magazine.

Seeking Brother Lawrence

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A woman was feeling lonely, desperate. In fact, that’s what a former, much younger lover had told her: She was lonely and desperate. That was a year ago. And no dating since. And since then the gynecologist had showed her a picture of something in her uterus, the scope light making it appear as a large shining globe like the top of an alien’s head, half of a crystal ball. She was old enough to have given birth to her young friend, and she did give birth to a man only a bit younger than he. And now she would have to give birth to her uterus to be rid of the foreign body growing inside her.

She remembers telling the young man when they broke up: When you are alone paying your own bills and worrying about fixing your own house and taking care of your health, feelings are a bit different, life is harder. You’ll see. Asshole. Well, she didn’t call him that, but she wanted to. He still lived with his parents, to her shame, among piles of books and hoards of cats.

Brother Lawrence Bible Verses 4 You promised to deliver daily Bible verses by text, every day for 40 days. Part of the course was to write in a journal and by the end of it track spiritual growth. Before this scheme, she had thought she might start writing letters to herself or composing texts to herself, some which might be Bible verses. In her letters, she would say the things she wanted to hear from others but didn’t – reassurances, promises of love, apologies. She would pretend to be others and sign their names. She needed to feel better, somehow. And she would do anything.

But the Brother Lawrence thing seemed so much more direct. Sure, Bible verses were connected in some ways to dark memories of her upbringing, but she wouldn’t have to put forth as much effort to think of them and send them to herself. It was a service she could receive for once and perhaps it could feel more like a gift. Now that she was divorced and without prospects, she wasn’t beyond sending flowers to herself at Valentine’s, for example, but at what cost. She had grown tired. And now she was sick. And in need of an operation.

The site did not send her any texts.

She called Brother Lawrence, the customer service line listed on the site. There was some music on the hold line, Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” How many times had she been to church and listened to the organ arrangement. She had even sung it in a church choir. And now it was coming through static on the Brother Lawrence help line.

“Hello?” said a wavering voice, finally, picking up the call. It sounded like an older woman.

There were no formalities to help the situation and so she proceeded. “Look I signed up to receive your Bible verse texts, which I think is a wonderful service. But I haven’t received a verse yet.”

“We are just a nonprofit aiming to do our best,” said the woman and there was the sound of a chiming clock behind her.

“Isn’t it automated so that once I sign up I begin to receive verses?”

“I don’t know.”

There was some silence between them.

What more could be said.

“Thank you,” said the woman and hung up.

Maybe the older woman on the helpline had been hinting that they needed a donation to activate the verses.

The money required to get her uterus out, alien head and all, mitigated against charitable donations.

Yet another nothing is for free moment. And so she rejoined the dog eat dog world, got over her depression, got rid of her uterus, went back to the gym, took her life back, went back to school and eventually got a job.

A few months later she received a text from Brother Lawrence: “God loves you.”

A Woman and her Box

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Some experiments by Gisella Klein, flickr

Some experiments by Gisella Klein, flickr

After a housewife spends hours before a glowing box pressing buttons, her hands sweating, her legs and arms weakening, her pupils dilating and contracting, fluids streaming from every orifice, she goes about her tasks which do not involve punching buttons or looking at a glowing box. These tasks, by comparison, cause little reaction. She goes back to her occupation before the box as if returning to an essential fire. Her life crashes down around her, her family leaves, her house disintegrates and is taken away, and eventually someone takes the box away. She spends the rest of her life dreaming about the times she sat before the box. She dies and is put into a box. The box that had been her glowing box becomes a black box piled on top of other boxes nourishing the soil with mercury, chromium, cadmium, and lead.

First appeared in The New Absurdist

A Woman Rides a Train

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julia ortiz

Untitled XXIII by Julia Ortiz, flickr

She had long since forgotten what it felt like to have a man’s eyes on her. She was forty-two, still passable for her late thirties, but had grown used to the fact that men weren’t going to look at her when she walked into a room, that she would be ignored no matter her capabilities, her joie de vivre, her “soul.” How she laughed to herself to remember her past reassurances of older female friends when they mourned their changing looks. These reassurances, she knew now, would have seemed as specious to them as her beliefs about the “soul” itself. How could she have known that so much of happiness was tied to what she had once thought was superficial?

One morning a year after her baby was born, she took the metro to the D.C. Mall. She wanted to spend a quiet day in the National Gallery looking at paintings, letting the silence and the beauty change her or refresh her in some way. She and her husband had lived in Gaithersburg for a few years but she had rarely followed through with her plan to get away from the house, to entertain herself with this rare private indulgence.

She closed her eyes as the train sped away from the station. She settled into the jostling car as it whirred along the rails. She was grateful that even the small decisions involved with driving a car were not hers to make, that at least for a while, there was little reason for vigilance. As the stops rolled by one after another she had to rouse herself to pay attention.

And that’s when she saw him standing by the door opposite. She hadn’t been sure what made her look at him, of all the men standing in the car, with their identical suits, grasping their briefcases and newspapers. He was watching her. She met his gaze. He did not look away.

Was he really looking at her? she wondered. Maybe she was mistaken. She turned, saw the car was filled with people reading, dozing, talking on phones. She resumed watching his blue, almost gray eyes. He smiled at her then, just a small turning up of his lips. He knew what she was thinking. It made her uncomfortable to think he knew something about her just from this one gesture and yet she felt something in his gaze that was innocent, that was merely curious, intensely curious.

She had to think about her breath and to make herself focus on her metro stop. When it arrived, she pushed herself up from her chair. She lurched forward. How very unattractive, she thought. She felt her face burning. She looked at his face once more before stepping out of the car. He was still watching her. He was still smiling. She stood on the platform while the doors closed and he did not let his eyes move from her face.

She wanted to cry. She liked him. Or she liked the idea of him, that’s what she realized later when she thought about wanting to cry as she stood there watching some stranger being pulled away from her. He was curious and he was handsome and there was something shy in his gaze too, something that made it safe for her to like him, and she wished she had stayed in the car and hadn’t been so true to her plans.

Years later, when she thought of the day the man had looked at her, she realized a part of her feelings of loss about becoming invisible had been about a lost identity but also a great deal had been about something else, that something that would never return to her in the shape of her yearning, in the empty space that is left when she finally became no one and everyone, both at once.

first published in Atticus Review

Demonic Household: Hanako-san!

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More than twenty dark humor stories ranging from hilarious to deadly each portraying a household item with a mind of its own. My story Hanako-san of the Toilet is deadly! Take advantage of the special pre-order Kindle price of $2.99. Today is the last day at this price. Release date is set for August 10. Get your scary/funny summer read!

Ugly Betty’s Fourth

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preparing for our fourth of july barbque Jenn Vargas

preparing for our fourth of July barbeque, Jenn Vargas, Flickr

Driving back from dropping off her son at camp outside Hampton, Tennessee, she turned off onto the road leading to the cabin. It was the week of the 4th and frankly the time had been less than hoped for.

The cabin was tucked back in dark woods, remote, still. The inside paneling was dark. The cabin was equipped with a wood burning stove and an upstairs loft with a bed. There was limited wifi and not much in the way of cable.

Since her divorce she and her son had developed nocturnal habits with their electronic equipment – he with his video games, she her social media and movies – but in the dead of night here there wasn’t much to do and not much to entertain him. She knew she had contributed to this way of being, this spoiled way, and she had spoiled herself too in constant escapism. It had been the guilt that had perhaps entered in between them and made her a different kind of parent than she might have been.

She hadn’t noticed the gas gauge. She was almost on empty. It was growing dark and before long the car’s GPS fell off of radar. There had been flooding and she had to gun it across a flooded run running as rapidly as a small creek. She was scared and shaken. And alone. Her son had helped her find the cabin initially by using the map system on his phone. Luckily she started to recognize landmarks and used her memory to help guide her choices.

At the cabin, the leaves of the wood were the kind that becomes their most intense green right before darkness. There was a porch around the cabin. Along the front it was tiny and screened in, an airless room. Along the side it was open and big enough to house a small jacuzzi tub, the one compensation. She suited up and took the cover off of the tub and stepped in and was lulled for a moment. And then she worried about what may be watching her, what she couldn’t see – animal, human.

She went inside, locked the door, drew the curtains, and started a fire in the wood burning stove even though it was a warm night. She would sit on her towel in her wet suit and dry out. She was able to contact the dating site she just couldn’t stay on it forever. Only a couple of people had sent her messages but only the bare minimum of what had become the usual. Hi. or Hey. or sometimes Hey gorgeous. or worse Hey sexy. Would she ever get to the point of responding to Hey sexy. She hoped not.

She had planned to write her fiction. She wasn’t feeling imaginative. She was feeling dull and useless. In a little bit she would need to scrounge up dinner.

She took a few pictures with her camera phone for the site. Why not. Her hair was brown and short now because of the chemo. Only a few years ago she had what seemed like a more photogenic quality. Now she looked more her age. She wore heavy black framed glasses that even looked a bit stylish with their heaviness. She had done a series of black and white photos wearing her glasses and a necklace set she had bought when she was married, one from Talbots, a silver mother of pearl set. She was selling herself online now as Ugly Betty which sometimes netted her responses like You’re not ugly! and You’re hot why are you saying you’re ugly! Sometimes people were funny which made her feel better. Sometimes she wondered if that was her only goal.

She had even gone so far as to see if anyone living in the area would want to meet out, something she’d seen guys do. So many guys came to Orlando on business and wanted only a one time or short term dating situation. Or who knows maybe they said that and were actually married. These were the sort of behaviors she had become accustomed to.

A log fell. She propped it back up with the poker and put in a fresh one from the iron basket beside the stove.

There wasn’t anyone in proximity to where she was it seemed. With the difficulty of getting through the woods it was best. And as far as staying put, the cabin was not as comfortable as she’d hoped either with hard wooden chairs in the kitchen where she’d have to sit if she wanted to write at a table. She missed her padded high back chair in front of her narrow and cheap but elegant rustic Queen Anne writing table at home, hardwood and only stained. It was ironic to be away from home on vacation and miss the things you had.

As she had many times she reminded herself since divorcing she was here for her son, this had been the main goal. She had successfully dropped him at camp, though in a fashion typical for his age he hadn’t wanted her to hang around. She sensed this at least. She had brought the dog as an excuse, to save face for them both, so she could leave. She had not become one of those hot cool moms. She was chubs at this point and she felt he might be ashamed of her but she didn’t pursue it with him. Ugly Betty was an apt name. She could have done some things about her state. She couldn’t get motivated.

Really, all she wanted as an Ugly Betty was to meet a man who wasn’t so overly dependent on his ego that he could be a companion. She pictured him smiling at her and giving her a side hug when they were out. He would be proud of her even though she wasn’t perfect. He wouldn’t be perfect either – average looking too, average build or even chubs like her, it was ok, even desirable in some ways. She wanted to have the sense he protected her, or could if she needed this. He would have a bit of a personality combined with a kind of sober realism. He wouldn’t flirt too much with other women when they were out or stare because he understood her feelings and wanted to value them, wanted to be the man she wanted. He wouldn’t see her as a short term opportunity because she had been sick.

Had she had a man like that maybe he would want to help her with things. The day before, the day of the fireworks, she wasn’t sure how to use the celebratory explosives and her son wasn’t sure either. They had tried shooting them off in a tiny side yard that was barely a clearing apart from the trees and underbrush. She had registered her son’s disappointment. Some of the fireworks were faulty, the rest just simply lackluster. She had bought them somewhere. A discount store which is where she buys everything now, even clothes, canned foods, dishes, and towels.

Ugly Betty’s man would have rounded the fireworks up in Georgia on the way up, big, loud explosives that would take off the tips of fingers if you didn’t know what you were doing. The silence and stillness of the woods would be penetrated with their force. He would show her son how to do everything, letting him take over and feel like a man.

It made her feel good to imagine her man with her now. In fact she got up to make him dinner. When her son wasn’t with her she had to fight with herself to find reason to make the effort. In her imagination her man was sitting there, on the couch now, having fiddled with the television antenna. He was watching her backside appreciatively. He liked the way she looked, he had often told her. He liked her Rubenesque figure, her dark eyes, her full lips.

She stirred the garlic and anchovy paste into the olive oil warming in the pan. She had come with plenty of food in the cooler, plenty to feed her son, who ate huge amounts. This would be something her man would appreciate, be grateful for, her resourcefulness. She would make spaghetti and hot crusty bread.

She put the spaghetti pot on full of water. “You know you have to bring it to a boil first before adding the salt,” she said to her dog because her man was engrossed in something he was reading in the paper they had picked up on the way in. “That way you don’t get pock marks on the bottom.”

Never again had she thought she would meet anyone else who might be able to benefit from what she had accumulated over the years, an intimate knowledge of the kitchen’s secrets.

She felt invigorated now, enough to open a bottle of wine she had indulged in to celebrate the successful drop off of her child. She put it on the table covered with the red checked tablecloth she had brought from home, along with other festive décor for the holiday.

She fed the dog who was wearing her Fourth of July bandana.

Her man would hug her appreciatively when she was finished cooking, would smile at her with his twinkling blue eyes, and after dinner they would enjoy themselves in the hot tub under the inky night sky, listening to the few remaining fireworks, smelling the gun powder drifting through the trees.

She wouldn’t think about what was looking at her through the trees.

She would think about what she sees.

Demonic Household!

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I am appearing in this publication by Battle Goddess this August. Dark humor stories featuring items found in your household! The stories progress from light and soft to dark and gory. Let’s just say, my story falls somewhere near the end of this spectrum! I am happy to appear with friends here, an anthology edited by the highly creative Valerie Willis. Don’t forget to pre-order now to take advantage of the special pricing. Time is closing in. Projected paperback release date: August 10.

demonic household 1

 

 

 

 

There is a short term pricing offer for pre-orders if you are a Kindle user for $2.99.

A Review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River

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BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

canttuBy Emilio Carrero

On a soccer field I met my childhood best friend. Our elementary school was mostly white, and we were the only Spanish kids standing on the field that day. We were the last two picked.

As a kid I never realized this fact: the two of us were oddities, a brown Puerto Rican and a white Mexican roaming the hallways. We were familiar to each—the both of us quiet, hardworking, and stumbling to navigate between our Spanish cultures and American culture. But we were also different. I was better than Pepe at soccer and I spoke better English. I knew this, as a kid, because the white kids were nicer to me. They eventually picked me regularly to be on their team.

I remember resenting Pepe for not speaking better English, for embarrassing me around the other kids to the point that I distanced myself from him…

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Grey Gardens Society of Central Florida

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symmetry angelic by Zack Gingg, flickr

symmetry angelic by Zack Gingg, flickr

part 1

Sissy Day stood at the microphone under the arbor of Dot Backson’s home on Rosemary Beach. The sprawling Key West style two story had been selected by the Florida Grey Gardens Society of Women for its first annual conference “In Defense of Freedom: An Examination of the Lives of Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale.” On this late Friday afternoon in September, Sissy was waiting for the conference attendees to settle, to get their drinks and snacks and find a chair. She was opening the conferences bedecked in a white floppy sunhat, the style worn by Big Edie when she sits on her bed in the disintegrating home in East Hampton and sings “Tea for two” in the documentary film Grey Gardens. She also wore the 1940s style swimsuit Big and Little Edie both wore when they sunbathed on their porch. And she wore a kaftan tied around her waist in homage to Little Edie’s fashion flair and the Grey Gardens’ fashion principal that clothes designed for an intended purpose are not functionally confined to the original purpose.

Mimi Carroll looked on approvingly at the costume. She had also chosen to start the conference wearing something very much of the sensibility of Little Edie, especially, and found it a relief since losing her hair with cancer treatment, she could don a teal linen swath of fabric on her head, the tail of it going down her back like a ponytail with a matching strand of yarn tied at the nape of her neck. She had been told by the others upon their arrival that it set off her brown eyes. A long articulated gold earring pierced through the fabric just over her right ear moved in flowing, serpentine motion and flashing in the light of the setting sun. She wore the big round glasses Little Eddie wore when she sunbathed.

Jules Carpenter, Mimi Carroll’s assistant, was a little less impressed with the women adorned like street people when they were so much wealthier than she was. “White people,” she thought, as she took note of shirts worn as skirts and pinned with costume jewelry pins, white block heels with bathing suits, head costumes that could have passed as religious head coverings and yet there was no religious reason for them and except for Mimi, they were not a cover for baldness. She was given to understand that all of these fashion quirks and more on display before her were a part of the sensibility of Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin who became destitute after Phelan Beale, husband of Big Edie, father of Little Edie, abandoned the house and the women. Even the film subject seemed very white: How a mother and daughter became poor and destitute and crazy. It was a little more than that, though. This pair had rich relatives. So maybe it was a commentary on how these two could have stooped to this level when their family was so rich and famous. It was hard to figure. Yet the women at the conference seemed to embrace the poor, crazy pair. Jules was going to try to sneak out to pick up her whiskey at a liquor store she spied in town. Note to self, she said to herself.

The only person the first speaker Sissy Day knew from her small home town was Grace Alan. The meeting had been arranged through social media and most of the ladies in attendance were from Orlando. “Whore,” thought Grace Alan of Sissy, watching her tap the mic under the arbor of sea grapes, trying to get everyone’s attention. She hated her guts. Sissy had slept with her best friend’s husband. Nothing had come of it, but Grace’s friend had cried when she found hints of the affair and Sissy’s late night texts. But Grace loved Grey Gardens too, and she had once loved Sissy as a best friend can love. And she had been in Sissy’s Bible study, but certainly that was over. People found out. But probably most people here didn’t know about her, guessed Grace, probably no one does. We’ll see what happens she said to herself, maybe something will have to be made of it here, and she adjusted the pin that held the fabric of the sweater she had made into a skirt.

Within a short walking distance of the thirty ladies or so that gathered on the veranda and front lawn of Dot’s Rosemary Beach home breathed mother ocean, the tides advancing in maternal interest and care and receding with the aloofness of maternal unfeelingness and self centered old age. Advancing to love and caress the shore, receding to let the shore dry in the sun abandoned and malnourished. Big Edie had used her maternal power to keep Little Edie dependent and Little Edie gave up her dreams of pursuing Broadway. That is, at least, one version, the gravitational pull version, the force of the moon mother on the tides of behavior version.

Stay tuned for more on this story….

glades

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water ripple by nullality, flickr

water ripple by nullality, flickr

They all want to see the gators tucked back in the brackish waters she navigates in the tour kayak through the glades. Take me to them they say but then they hunker down when eyes, snout, jaws, emerge from the murky water where armor like bodies search for sustenance, prey. Or they are a bit more relaxed when the gators, spotted up on the shore, bask in the sun, seemingly content for the day, or afternoon. They take pictures of their massive bodies, along with creatures hovering above them in trees – owls, a nest of baby birds. Sometimes if they are quiet and still, which she encourages on her tour, for the best chances to see wildlife, they may spot a bobcat, or even sometimes a panther, through the dense mangroves.

There are all assortment of creatures she points out to them – possums, pelicans, egrets, cormorants, raccoons, heron, sea turtles, snakes, osprey. She tells them of the fishing tour they can take for snook, snapper, red drum, sheepshead, and more, tours which can include the cleaning of the fish and a meal with either cooking provided or cooking instruction. She doesn’t tell them she could also provide them with instruction on catching and cleaning possum, for example, and a lesson on her granny’s recipe handed down since early settlers, possum n’ taters. It was safer to stick with a conversation about cooking fish. Though to loosen the mood when they saw a gator, she gave out the recipe for fried gator tale bites with mango chutney. She could get a little chatty sometimes, but mostly when she was trying to make her passenger comfortable.

She doesn’t talk about the time she lost her balance when she was alone in the kayak and a gator clamped down on her arm with its massive jaws. The beast rolled her and the salt water invaded her nose and mouth and her screams mixed with his deep and primitive grunting. In her anger and panic she thought of the dens of rotting meat gators keep just below the outcroppings of shore. She managed to stab it in the eye with the hand not under control of its grip and extract herself from the bloody water. She nearly lost her arm and required three surgeries, but it was repaired, not without nerve damage and scarring. But she didn’t talk about it, unless compelled to by a curious tourist, though sometimes she lied. The truth was bad for business though she always coached her clients on how to behave in this wilderness.

She covered half her body with a tattoo, a gator stretched out, his tail along her back, his body over her shoulder and his head on the arm that had been crushed. She had him decorated with flowers and butterflies. She didn’t allow herself much time to worry or think, just went back to work as soon as she could. She was learning what it was like to support herself without a husband, not in the way she had been raised, but in the way she was learning to survive.

Schneewittchen

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I am listening to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman. She analyzes myth and stories showing what they can teach us about ourselves. In her analysis of Snow White, she points out that each character is an aspect of the self. I wrote this particular piece when I first became interested in retelling fairy tales. I had just read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and wanted to try my hand. In this piece, I do not go into a detailed retelling but this is the idea behind this voice piece which explores a bit of modern day jealousy in the literary world. Let’s say it takes the saying “murder your darlings” in a different kind of direction. Flash fiction writer Kathy Fish posted a flash fiction exercise this past week having to do with voice which you can find here and I thought….oh, so that is what I was trying to do. What would the voice of each of your favorite characters sound like if you retold a fairy or folktale through their perspective?

woman in the studio by Craig Cloutier, flickr

woman in the studio by Craig Cloutier, flickr

There was never a time I knew Anoushka when she was not in some sleepy-eyed phase of a delayed bloom. Yes, she was much younger than I was and much more beautiful and far more talented. I felt some inexplicable responsibility to protect her though at the same time, I wanted her to wake up and not rely on me. It was becoming so that I was constantly reminding her of her talents just to keep her going. Yet she remained untried in the real world and I grew weary. I wanted her to ply our trade, to finish her stories, to submit them for publication, to suffer.

And while I haven’t wanted this mother’s role of reassuring her and encouraging her in her writing, I have found myself taking up this mantel. Maybe there has been something to gain by my being her friend, OK, call me creepy if you want, call me a sycophant, call me a desperate, middle aged lady who’s flattered that this twenty-something would want to be friends with me, someone who is – what – not hip to the scene or whatever it is they’re saying these days.

And no, I’m not a lesbian. I’m happily married to a man, thank you very much. I’m happy most of the time, that is. OK, let’s just say I’m happy enough to get by, alright. But one can still have beautiful, young friends, can they not? Yet I grew weary of the dewy youth on this one as I waited for her to break out of her writing virginity, to publish the product of her labors. She secretly gloated that she was much better than I, better than most. So out with it, I said. If she demanded so much from me by way of reassurances to her ego, do I not have a right to insist she pop the publication cherry?

It was her lethargy I craved to kill, but as my weariness grew, other aspects to her personhood and our relationship became vulnerable to my vicious fantasies. I wanted to be rid of the very idea of her and of our friendship. I could not afford the ambition she siphoned off with her need, her expectations that I love her for her looks and her humor and her youth and as if that weren’t enough, her cracker-jack ability with the words which came rolling off of her, spinning out as a beautiful vine of roses from fertile soil, as if there were never a phenomenon more natural.

The market supports and encourages those of her ilk, who take beautiful cover photos, who will not make waves, whose writing, above all free of what may disturb or unsettle, or at least not to an inordinate degree. You can see how, my readers, this may be a problem for me, admitting already as I have that I am: a) jealous, b) covetous, c) ambitious, and d) of the murdering persuasion as it applies to the murdering of one’s literary “child.”

You can only imagine my narratives. You can only imagine my look behind the podium given what you can guess of my age, given what I covet enough to abolish. Other writers would not be as forthright as I. I have seen many a female writer who will swear they have never felt competition with any other female writer and yet they cut and undercut other women like a scythe mowing a hayfield. It happens. Men don’t know it. They are the compassionate hunters who can’t believe some woman has sent them out to cut out a heart.

So here was how I murdered her, so to speak, my gorgeous literary darling:

1) The corset binding. I forced her to gaze upon what was inconsequential to the writing itself: Her looks. I emphasized over and over how beautiful she was while she drew herself to the mirror and away from her desk. I cinched in her waist and she was mesmerized by her own proportions. By my manipulation of her waist size, she almost ran out of breath as she was overcome by a sense of the futility of self-expression in light of her growing dedication to her physical form.

2) The poisoned comb. I infected her thinking with faint praise, going in deep to kill the root that would poison the bloom, once and for all. If this had been successful, she would be like the women who yearn to write but who finally give up because of self-doubt.

3) The poisoned apple. At this point, she had found others who were wise to me, clever girl, so this step was the trickiest of all. I was determined that she must see me eating from the same fruit, as it were, and so I told her: “You can be a writer and have it all. Don’t listen to what people say about giving up the life of wife and mother to dedicate oneself to one’s art. Choose as I have chosen. See, I have done so, and it hasn’t killed me!”

These are only half-truths because my children are estranged, my husband sleeps on the other end of the house, my career consists of shredding up budding artists at the women’s college to whom I feed poisoned apples. My creative output consists in enumerating these tales of my passions, my crimes, but I’ve found the market responds, for grist and the gristle can be literature as long as it’s beautifully spun. The market eats almost anything in a pretty package, and Anoushka does too, chomping down on the succulent flesh of my tempting suggestions, taking the bait, wedding a man who loves only her beauty. After a while, he can’t even stand the sound of her voice.

shoe and line

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A tiny shoe sat beside the white line of the road. It sat breathless as the cars whooshed past. Will someone stop to pick it up? Is the lady standing at the bus stop waiting for her opportunity to cradle it in her hands, to kiss its soft tongue?

– My life has not begun said the shoe to no one in particular. I am not ready to die. He thought of his troubles as he lay beside the painted white line.

– I have it worse, said the line. I have never been in contact with a living being.

What a ridiculous white line, thought the shoe at the same time recognizing his dependence. No one would run over him since he was close.

– Why would you need what I have? said the shoe. You never die. You are renewed with white paint. You help the cars, the beasts.

– You have held a place of privilege, said the line. Now you will see what it’s like to be the rest of us.

– What are you talking about, the rest of us?

– The anonymous. The merely dutiful. Or worse, the forgotten. You’ve thought yourself special, I can tell.

– I have not.

– You’ve thought yourself indispensable. Now you’re like trash. You think that woman over there wants you because some other woman has? The first woman in your life only wanted you because you helped her son. That other woman over there is old. You probably remind her of something painful, like a child who has grown and gone astray or a child she has lost.

– How do you know so much? You’re a line.

– I’ve seen enough.

– You’ve seen the bottoms of tires.

– I’ve seen people die.

– Then that makes you the font.

– Of what?

– Wisdom, you idiot. It’s a cliché. When you’re out among people, you hear these things.

– See the specialness creeping in again.

– I have no such pretentions. I’m about to be squashed, besides.

– And then you’ll only experience what the rest of us feel, the random nature of life. How some are chosen to be one thing and some another. How some live on, some die.

– You make me feel so much better.

At that moment, the lady from the bus stop rescued the shoe. There had been a break in traffic. She sat on the bench and cradled it in her palm.

The line looked on. He was jealous of the shoe, but he would not admit it. To admit his jealousy would not change his duty to be a line. Some thrive on admiration for simply being what they are.

– Special boy, he muttered to himself, but his whisper was drowned by shushing of tires.

First appeared in The New Absurdist

How to Love an Octopus

Glowing Octopus by ccarlstead, flickr Glowing Octopus by ccarlstead, flickr

Book passage to the South Pacific  where Jacques Cousteau made his mark. When you charter your boat to find your octopus you will discover, in fact, that they use the same tanks, much of the same equipment, designed by the inventor of the Aqua-Lung. His name and methods are sacrosanct. He has shown you this way to love. Watch and listen. Ask questions. Pay attention. Be aware. This is the mark of the lover.

While you wait for passage discover what it’s like to be an octopus by learning to breathe underwater. Enroll in a scuba class.  Begin to learn now that to prepare to meet an octopus you will have to learn a way that is the opposite way of being terrestrial. Your feet are crazy long, you have no peripheral vision, and your breathing makes you sound like a monster. To enter a portal requires transformation and patience. You will also learn of possible injury from the process of the dive and even death, and yet, you do it for love.

Sit on the edge of the chartered Opunohu boat in the blue crystalline waters off the coast of Moorea. Hold your mask as you flip backwards off the edge into rolling waves. At last, you have entered your own sweet blue planet, the tropical reefs of French Polynesia, in search of your love, the Giant Pacific Octopus. At last you will have an encounter with an alternate reality, another form of consciousness.  At last you will reach across the vertebrate divide to know and be known.

Like all who are pursued and truly desired, your octopus will be illusive. Know that and be patient. She is the master of disguise and changing skin. She is invisible though right before you. She is silent, immobile, watching you as you move over the reef looking for her. You may find evidence of her dinner of scallops and if you are so lucky, an arm full of suckers protruding from her den. If you are polite, and move away, she may come out to greet you the next time you visit. Your acceptance of her need for privacy strengthens her to be brave. If you are slow in your motions and patient on your subsequent visits, she may even take your arm and show you around. She may even introduce you to her friends.

A lover bears gifts. Do not visit bereft of certain tokens of affection. Toys are gifts for an octopus, for the intelligent creature loves a challenge. Do not bore your octopus! Several examples of good toys are as follows: screwtop jars, bottles, plastic screw apart Easter eggs or balls, various video cameras she will enjoy dismantling and dragging into her den. Do not arrive without a crab in a jar or a piece of shrimp in a Mister Potato Head or a lobster in a trap. Watch her with admiration as she springs her food from the trap and devours it, tasting it as it passes from sucker to sucker and into her mouth in the center of her warped star figure.

When you have formed a bond of trust with the object of your love, submit yourself to her curiosity.  Do not shudder as those naturalists and artists of the past. Surely this is not in the lover’s nature, to be repulsed. Instead consider the light suctioning kisses a sweet tasting of your skin, her silken tendril arms moving over your arms and shoulders the gentle exploration of new love, the rapid changes in skin color pleasurable blushes, the pulse of ink and exit a flirtation, the regard of the dark slit eyes the all knowing all loving gaze of the divine.

You could keep a lover if you wish. Some do. In a large fish tank emulating the ocean. She will want to be by the television. And if she can, she will get out and eat the leftovers on the counter and sink. She will crawl onto your shoulder and head and watch tv.  She will cheer on your team. She will watch your favorite shows. If you feed her, if you entertain her, if you love her, she will never leave.

 

This loosely references the work of Sy Montgomery, and in particular, The Soul of an Octopus. The documentary Aliens of the Deep was also a helpful source.

 

 

Sabina

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Unknown by Edward Zulawski, flickr

Unknown by Edward Zulawski, flickr

At five in the afternoon in December the dark skin of night closes in over day. Across the street from Sabina’s townhouse the last glimmer of gold, the fire sky, simmers through the pines, the scrub oak, the palms, and she wishes to hold onto that moment of the final sun forever, a diamond in her hand, its flash, its promise. But of course there is no stopping the night. It shuts down a liveliness in her as if it were the coming of age itself, as if it were death itself come unbidden.

He would have called her melodramatic, “he” being her ex, of course. She would have said she was merely acknowledging her reality, this sense of being subject.

And so she plowed through on this Monday, with her experience, in this melodramatic frame, wondering this: What to provide her son for his dinner when he begins his week with her. When the earth shuts down, this is no small task. The weeks her child is with his father she eats only leftovers, scours the crisper and cabinets for anything that would serve as a food source. She is juggling bills and doctors and medicine and a crumbling house and car. She eats things past their due date, sometimes way past. One time she got sick.

When it is time for her son to spend Christmas week with her she knows if she appears desperate or unorganized, she risks losing contact. She must address her responsibilities as dark skies threaten to sap her and so she takes a risk: She texts her son asking him for to pick up carryout on his way home from soccer practice.

“Does your ex think you unfit to parent?” This from her therapist months ago when Sabina was ordered to come off of a controlled substance for anxiety. She was strung out and barely able to carry a thought from one sentence to the next. She sometimes forgot words altogether. And yet this one word rammed through her: unfit. The word reverberated in her skull with no pill to protect her. This seemed unfair, outrageous, even, that she is both required to be free of a substance and then criticized for her withdrawal. After all, she and her eighteen year old had been through worse – the threat of her death and chemo treatments – and come out together, it seemed.

She left her therapist, sent her a text and asked her about that word – “unfit” – but then didn’t really try to understand her therapist’s return text, just told her she wasn’t going to see her anymore. Sufficiently vague. And when the sky fell early the following winter, there was no pill to guard against the effects of that hour of darkness.

Though she could speak this December, “unfit” would never leave her. And it unnerved her that her ex might see the text to her son to help her secure food. Would he see this as “unfit?” It is amazing how many things come out in a divorce, over a conference table, a smooth blond wood surface in a room across the street from the fountain Sabina described in her first published piece which her then husband proudly framed for her and hung on their wall. And yet, years later, at the mediation: All the small slights, the things told in confidence, trotted out, the hurts.

But there is also this: Had she not bought real maple syrup for her husband and son when she was married? And after the divorce, when she bought an imitation brand to save money so she could buy pancake mix too, and health insurance, her son spoke of his friend’s house, where he ate “real syrup.” This became for her a secret symbol of families who had not been broken, and almost all families in her son’s conservative Christian school were still intact, a school where Sabina now felt like a pariah though she had once felt close to many of the women, where she had even been involved.

Somehow Sabina knew the Jesus of the Christian school would have actually been eating imitation syrup with the tax collectors and sinners, the broken, the unwashed people scrounging to eat in the face of powerful ruling religious classes.

And at the outset of her son’s soccer season this year, coinciding with early darkness and regrets, her son greets her after a game on the sidelines and calls another woman his mom. Why do all the dramas of our lives get enacted on fields? Is there so much intensity there, invisible, that we slip into it whether the field be in the shape of a rectangle or diamond? And though there are things that are redeemed, there are also things lost on fields never to be found again.

Still, Sabina’s contest has always been with the sky, not a person nor a disappointment related to a person, not a field nor a disappointment related to a field. And so, she faces the murdering night on this Monday of Christmas week, waiting for her son to bring sustenance, determined to serve pancakes with syrup even if she must boil brown sugar and water over a meager stove for want of money, the little bit of money having been transferred to the carryout and the stores for the gifts under the tree.

First published in Writing in a Woman’s Voice

the entomologist’s daughter

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Little Girl by Lynette Zozette, flickr

Little Girl by Lynette Zozette, flickr

She laid a dime next to the tiny white snail eggs, laid it right there in the dirt at the bottom of the terrarium. She and her brother had named their snails Harold and Maude, with prompting from their mother who now watches with wonder her daughter’s delicate fringe of lashes, the fall of auburn hair, the small fingers once smaller but still delicate.

“Shall we take a picture?” says the mother, which had been the plan all along, but in the quiet morning with the sun streaming through the window and the tank with the beta fish, the golden pathos stems gracing the water, the stick insect clinging to a shelf beside the cat, it is nice to say the words, to recognize the steps of recording and observation and perspective for others and as a reminder to the self: This is what once was.

The daughter nods and takes the camera from her mother. She looks through the viewer and aims, clicking to capture an image of the tiny eggs in the soil. A butterfly dances by, a tortoiseshell they were housing in the cool of the old fashioned larder. “Quick,” says the daughter, “let’s open a window!” And the mother cranks the window over the fish bowl and they gently coax it to fly through. It flies out over the spring grass peaking through wet dead leaves. It flies through trees, their branches pushing out green buds.

for my friend Jen

Be Willing to Write Badly

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“I hear my own voice saying each word I type. I do not allow the naysayer to have any voice at all.” —

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz janpby Jan Priddy

Karen Karbo spends twenty minutes each morning ranting on yellow pads of paper before she begins her real writing for the day. William Stafford famously began his days by writing an aphorism and then the draft of a poem. In his book of writing advice, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, erasing a mark, and that we should use lined paper with green lines. He also writes that he hopes he doesn’t teach others to write, “but how to teach yourself to write.”

My first creative writing teacher, Sandra Dorr, described being stranded in Europe and completely blocked from writing by her interior nay-saying voice. We all hear that voice. It tells us that our writing is hopeless, clunky, too specific or too general, without purpose or meaning even to ourselves. Personify the critical voice the way Jamaica Kincaid does briefly…

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skin

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the enemy within unleashed by Arne Halvorsen

the enemy within unleashed by Arne Halverson, flickr

This must be the least favorite part of your body,” said the manicurist, rubbing a rose scented cream into the woman’s hand. The manicurist’s eyes traveled up to the woman’s neck and rested on her face. “In fact, your neck and whole right side is damaged.” The manicurist gave her some cream to take home.

The manicurist was not exaggerating. On the back of her wrist was a long purple scar where she had surgery to remove a ganglion cyst. It looked like some kind of upside down suicide attempt. There was a puckered white patch on a knuckle where she burned her hand ironing her husband’s shirt on his first day of work. Her pinkie had suffered third degree burns from the hot glue gun when she was helping her son make Gandalf for a Tolkien diorama. There was a slash on her neck where her thyroid had been removed. There was a sprinkling of hypopigmentation on the right side of her face, a result of pregnancy that no amount of makeup could hide.

She used the cream. It worked. She looked nothing like herself. She freaked out. She slashed the back of her wrist and the base of her neck. She burned her knuckle with an iron. She covered her pinkie with hot glue. She dotted her check with household bleach. She took herself to the emergency room and said she had been tortured, and no, she did not know her assailant.

First appeared in 52/250

r.e.m.

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Notes of ink, Cheryl Brind, flickr

Notes of ink, Cheryl Brind, flickr

In the grey green woods at dusk, the smell of smoke and crackling of fire, we all make our way silently through the trees their dark musky bark, the brown smell of the humus undergrowth. There is a choir singing green notes and purple, round and droll, heavy, singing hymns I know from childhood, yellow girlhood, people dressed in white their clean smell dull as a communion wafer. At last we arrive at a large man seated at a long table, a man pressed from a jello mold. He accepts the bowls of soup we bring him each of us offering a deep brown fragrant bowl we have filled from a moaning cauldron. This man we have come to worship and serve.

Pick up the hymnal I am told, the red ones with a musical staff the long line of a funeral procession, the notes like mourners marching. I don’t want to sing the songs I once loved in yellow pink girlhood for now the songs have gone grey and dank as wet stone.

There is a car on the edge of the woods whose engine makes a sound like red, like let’s go, but there’s nowhere for me to sit. My happy parents, their laughter orange and dancing, their clothes sweet and tart as lemonade, and cool as an orangesicle, look at me while I beg them in black frantic panic tones jagged as razor wire to take me with them. The car speeds away, dirt rising in its wake like miniscule dust fairies ascending and falling to the ground again, silent as rain, quieter even, a dry feeling like white.

the banishment window

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Window by Akuppa John Wigham, flickr

Window by John Akuppa Wigham, flickr

Say your prayers at the banishment window. Whisper your secrets to me at the banishment window. I will wait for you mornings, at dawn, at evenings, dusk, at the banishment window. I will hear your pleadings to join us, your proof of your reform, but the extent of your involvement will take place at the banishment window. On my side of the banishment window, there is a place for me to sit, but on your side, only rough wall, where you stand, where you will always stand when you see me until we bury you in the potter’s field.

You might wear our clothes, but the extent of our talk will be at the banishment window. You might secure our degrees but don’t think you can fancy talk your way past the banishment window. Have children if you like but they will stay with you out there at the banishment window. Your spouse too: banishment window. In fact, let us know if you’re bringing a whole family and friends, and we’ll have more listeners at the banishment window. But just because there might be more people out there than in here, don’t think you can outnumber your way past the banishment window. When we speak Christ into your life we will meet you at the banishment window. When we curl our lip at your choices or the color of your skin, for sure it will take place at the banishment window.

Sometimes creatures, sometimes fire, sometimes winds, sometimes floods, sometimes people off of their heads out there might take you down whole on the other side of the banishment window. Could you just keep it down, please. Just keep it down ok? We’re trying to pray in here. How do you think our prayers will be made effectual if you keep interrupting us? Chillax and we’ll meet you at the banishment window in the morning.

To the UN Committee on Alternative Fuel Sources

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It has been well known for quite some time that on the outskirts of Munir, a city that could well be considered a test city for its heretofore untapped source of fuel, the bodies of the useless women currently are housed. We use the term “bodies” to denote that for all intents and purposes, such women as these are barely alive by today’s standard of living and for all intents and purposes will soon be dead, either through despair or other natural causes induced by such. And we say “useless women” to mean that such unfortunates have no use in our mainstream consumer society and must therefore be removed in order to fulfill their highest potentialities: The usage of their bodies as an alternative fuel source, their heroic sacrificial contribution to our community.

We have found marginalized groups have the highest wattage output per kilogram and though findings remain uncertain, we surmise this must have something to do with the epic operation of the soul that is crushed and aggrieved. Having observed the transfer of energies of suffering beings into ghost forms upon death, we are determined to tap into this energy surplus and use it to the good use of the operation of our fair city.

Our future alternative fuel source are the bodies of women who die naturally in our community center designed to house them, women who have lived well past their prime, those women who, in life, have been neglected by husbands, who, by sheer neglect or harsher means, express their displeasure as well as women considered burdens by their offspring where once they were considered vital sources of nurture. These women have cadavers that will burn most efficiently and we will see to their disposal as we honor them for such, giving flags and medals and ceremonies for families, large mass punch and cake gatherings with balloons.

Unless such women have managed to overcome the barriers against them and build a world for themselves based on talents apart from chasing male providers’ affections and the nurturance of children, midlife women often find themselves at a place we provide: A death house we call Sunny Meadows to signify heaven though we do not by any means indulge in the practice of euthanasia. In addition, we attempt to meet the essential needs of our residents of Sunny Meadows while practicing restraint in the spiritual fulfillment mandates for housing a human being, realizing the energy potentials would be compromised should happiness be complete.

We are not beyond taking women or any beings for that matter who, lost to despair, are searching for a place to exist, beings who have lost functionality in our free market including but not limited to politicians and activists labeled “nasty,” beauty queens labeled “pigs,” actresses labeled “overrated,” pre-menopausal women who bleed, violated women labeled “liars.” We anticipate the bodies of all such marginalized women and others whose psyches are crushed by the current oligarchy will make excellent sources of fuel in our alternative energy program and we anticipate in fact an uptick in fuel reserves to get us through times of famine, that is, more benevolent future regimes, should that eventuality become realized.

When evil flourishes, either privately on the personal level in homes – between family members, a husband and wife, children and parents – or when it flourishes in our public sociopolitical  machine, we are operating in the black and so we say, unofficially, of course, may evil reign, yet it always does. It is simply a matter of degree and so this method of securing this previously untapped fuel source is flawless.

Published in S/tick

For Kimberly Townsend Palmer

Quiet Zones

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piron-guillaume-361666-unsplash.jpg

A person should know she was she was driving over the train tracks, should be able to feel it under the wheels, Monique told Carl as she packed her white hat back into its box. Carl was sitting in her bedroom watching her as she changed her clothes.

“Three deaths, baby,” she said to him about recent train related incidents. The city had installed rubber casings on the tracks so drivers hardly registered the feel of the rails. The point was to make it easier on everyone’s suspension. Trains had been silenced too. No more trains blowing at the crossroads. And now people had died or been hurt because they didn’t know they were on the tracks. There had been no warning, no communication from the train.

She remembered with a shiver having barely escaped an oncoming train when she was with Aimee one afternoon. They were taking their sons and their classmates on a field trip. They had not known they were crossing a track, had not heard a train, until they were just past. Looking back on that day, she realized someone must have driven through the gates and broken them. Probably some drunk rich white kids because it was only in wealthy neighborhoods that “quiet zones” were established.

She had not told Carl about that day with Aimee. And now the silence with which Aimee eventually accepted her death from cancer seemed like that smooth ride over the tracks. She cried hot tears and Carl nuzzled her hair. She talked through things with Carl again, things she had said before, that Aimee hadn’t wanted any of them beside her when she was at the end of her illness, not even her husband and children. She wanted no one to see that last husk of what she had become. She had wanted to go quietly, without a fuss. Monique had not been allowed to be with her either. Aimee’s body had been cremated and put into a box.

Aimee was the only white woman Monique had ever been close to. She had been a pistol right after the diagnosis, had believed God would heal her because she wanted it that way, had come to her son’s baseball games hobbling on feet blistered by chemo. But when it was clear she would not live she instructed Monique to wear her Easter hat to the funeral. Aimee had always told her there were doves on Monique’s Easter hat, but they were simply high peaks of white chiffon. Monique had honored Aimee’s wishes and had worn the hat but she vowed to herself, while she sat in the white people’s church, not to make any more white friends.

First appeared in Trainwrite

Butter Witch: Irish folklore in Appalachia(Happy St. Patty’s)

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temporalata witch hut 1, flickr

temporalata, witch hut 1, flickr

On Saturdays, Mama set me down in front of the churn. On summer days, she set me on the porch to look out upon the woods, to look for fairies and woodsprite, to keep the woodland green at bay, she said, lest it overtake the house and we be lost. On winter days, I set inside not far from the stove but far enough that a witch’s spell that come down through the flue would not frustrate my efforts. The spell would come on account of Ms. Maybre, Mama would say, the spinster, who casts spells such as that of the butter witch. On account of that happening, we gotta stick the poker from the fire in the butter and break the witch’s back and get the butter going again.

I always wondered if she meant Ms. Maybre would have a broken back. But Ms. Maybre did seem to be the type of lady to be a witch and because of that, the Dempsey kids loved to play some tricks, just to get her ire going. Which is probably why we got butter spells going on us. We pulled tricks like stringing up a can of water over her door, dressing her cats up in the rags mama kept for washing down the house, hanging ghosts up in her yard from torn sheets, tying a scarecrow around the broom she kept by the door like it was flying it like a witch.

Mama said the inside of her house smells like a musty smoke house from the solid pig fat she buns as candles. She had been there once to check on her, witch or no witch she told us, and Daddy, at the dinner table. She hadn’t seen Ms. Maybre for weeks. It was her Christian duty, and there was Ms. Maybre, half naked from the waist up, drinking from a mason jar in front of the fire. Mama says she was drinking the moonshine she made from the pressure cooker on the stove with the copper wire run through, she was drinking the devil’s drink.

“Ms. Maybre,” said Mama to the old witch, “I worried about you when I haven’t seen you none, at all, not even to see you get your mail at the end of the road.”

“I drank the potion and went up the chimney. I flew over Grandfather on my corn broom with my red cap.” (Grandfather was a mountain not far from where we lived.)

She talked like the devil, said Mama. She was frothy with spirits. Mama put a shawl around her and laid her out on a cot she kept beside her stove. She set beside her and put a cold cloth on her head but hours later, Mama had fallen asleep for when she woke, there was no Ms. Maybre, only a cat, black as midnight, staring at her with white eyes, white as the yarrow she kept in a jar on the table in summer.

What Mama had concluded was that the cat was Ms. Maybre. “I swanee, I never seen nothing like this cat. It knew me inside out, like a person would. I held my cross around my neck,” and at this time in the story, she would show us how she clutched at the cross pendant Daddy gave her, “and I backed out the house.”

One Saturday, I gave baby Emma the handle for the churn. We call her baby Emma because even though she is grown up a bit, and in grade school, she is still the baby. I say to baby Emma, “On St. Patty’s, an old witch sends a butter spell down the flue and breaks up the churning. You let me know if the fat won’t come together and we’ll break a witch’s back.”

I left because I wanted to meet my friends at Sliding Rock.

When I came home, Emma was setting in the rocker next to the fire. Her normally blond hair was  black and her brown eyes were white and she looked old and blind. She cried and pointed at me because I had left her alone. Mama and Daddy had gone into town, she said, and everyone else had gone away. The butter wouldn’t churn and she didn’t know how to break the witch’s back.

My heart was racing, I stoked a fire in the dying wood stove. What had happened to Emma? I jammed a poker into the coals. I pulled the paddle out of the churn and thrust the poker inside. It hissed and a whippoorwill lapsed into its nighttime song, almost in relief. Emma’s hair returned back to its soft blond and her lovely eyes the deep brown of a pond in moonlight. I held her tight and asked her to forgive me. She just nodded, but said nothing. “I’ll make you honey toast. And milk,” I said. “Let’s not worry now,” which is something Mama often said although it never often worked. I was surprised to hear myself saying it.

By the time Mama and Daddy got back with goods from town, the butter was churned and dinner set out. My other brothers and sisters were there too, in response to the dinner bell I had rung for them, summoning them back from adventures in the woods.

That night, sleeping under the eaves in the room I shared with my sisters, something woke me. A crooked old woman stood in the door frame. Was that Ms. Maybre? She made no sound, but glided to the head of my bed. She reached a claw down to my mouth and put her other claw to her pursed lips, instructing me to be quiet and still. Her finger smelled like the burning embers from the fire. She lifted it then and swiped through the air. I felt a whoosh and closed my eyes. When I could open them again I saw the roof was no more and I gazed up at black sky full of stars. She put her finger back down on my lips to quiet me and gave the shushing sign with the other hand. She then pressed her charred fingers down on my eyelids until I knew nothing but black.

The next morning at the mail boxes down the road, Ms. Maybre gave me a knowing look. I couldn’t be sure that she wasn’t the same woman as the night before. I kept to myself like the good girl I had read about in a book as a child. I never knew that girl to be me but I certainly wasn’t a no-count either.

– for Valerie Willis

 

 

 

white buffalo calf woman

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Feathers, braids, and beads by Nic McPhee, flickr

Feathers, braids, and beads by Nic McPhee, flickr

In the Lakota legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, a beautiful apparition wearing a white buckskin dress decorated with porcupine quills approaches two men. She carries a pipe bag embroidered with the symbol of the four directions. One man, upon seeing her, expresses a desire to lay with her but the other man advises care and respect due to her sacred nature. However, the greedy man gets exactly what he wants until there was nothing left of him but a pile of bones in the grass. The White Buffalo Calf Woman explains to the remaining man that what his lustful companion had yearned for was only her beauty. His demise lay in his unwillingness to know her spirit.

My grandmother would sit before the fire in our house which backed up to the Wekiwa state park in Apopka Florida and tell me and my twin sister this story over and over. The purpose of this story has not always remained clear. When we asked her, finally, why she was telling us this story once more she explained: There are many interpretations and uses of the story, she said, but you should learn that a man should show respect for a woman’s spirit. The Buffalo Calf Woman gives us strength even though she came to the Lakota.

And then my grandmother laid down upon the couch because she liked to be near the stove where she makes little corn cakes for us, cakes she feeds us with squash juice and honey when we come home from school. Often my grandmother reminds us of our heritage: We are descended from a relative of Georgia Rose, a full Cherokee, who married a Seminole.

In our room at night, we talk about this story Grandma tells us and try to discern what it must be saying. No man seems to care about us. There are many men who have said they want to lay with us and we are only fifteen. There are many guys our age who want this and older guys too and when they admit it to themselves they want not just one of us but both at the same time. A couple of men have tried to pimp us out. They are greedy, like the lustful man in the story, and they do not know what is inside, our spirit. They want what they want.

Still our grandmother has taught us a lot and we try to listen to her. My mother married a white man much to her disappointment and now that my mother has cancer, Father is gone, gone, off to Texas without a penny left to give his dying squaw, to save her life.

We have crosses and dreamcatchers, Native American dances and hip hop, prom and religious ceremonies, native costumes and Juicy Couture. Grandmother holds it all together and yet she grows weaker. “You girls are going to have to handle the guns and take care of this place. You are going to have to drive and share the car and take care of your mother. As for your father, girls, I will have to say: It is expected.” She lay her head down at last as if that final confession had taken her last breath.

That night, my sister and I built a fire in the fire pit. We put on our ceremonial dresses and braided our hair and interwove feathers. We put paint on our faces and burnt bundles of sage. We had done this many times, when we were bored, lonely, when grandmother had to go to the hospital, when our mother was diagnosed, when our father left us alone and our mother wouldn’t get off the couch for days. It was what we knew, this turning slow circles in the way we had been taught, but slower. We danced a man’s dance but in a woman’s way. We were turning and we were thinking through our plan. Here was the story of the hunt, the way the weapons were prepared, the way we were to feed our family, this is how it would happen, how the buck would be approached, how it would die and we would live. We had talked over it in the moonlight shining through our bedroom window, the feathers in our dream catchers caught lightly by air blowing through the vent.

“Come to Wekiwa State Park,” we said to the men in online exchanges. “Walk to Sand Lake and sit there and wait until the park closes. We will meet you at midnight. We will build a fire and make you feel good.”

That was all we said. Well, we made arrangements for letting them know what they were getting and for how much. We found the men to be pliant, but not all of them followed through, and some of them, when they followed through, would not drink with us and so it wasn’t safe to continue and we disappeared into the woods, leaving them stranded. But somehow, we would make them pay, pay for what they are doing to us, what they are doing to my mother through my father and his white man Porsche while my mother is left with the cost of radiation, chemo, surgery.

We got better at it. Drinking became part of the deal. No man liked being called a woman and so we goaded them: Drink, drink, we said. And then we slipped Mama’s oxy, powdered, into their beers. And then we danced, turning, slowly around the fire, circling, ever closer, putting the buck in our sites. We kissed each other and he began to drink. We touched each other and started taking off each other’s clothes. Drink, drink, we said. Yet when these men stood to touch us, they would lurch back and collapse. It was the drug, taking effect. We would wait until they were immobile and then we dressed. The fallen man would keep long enough for us to raid his wallet and run away, through the moonlight, through the woods once inhabited by natives who fed on alligator, through the fields now deserted.

On these nights, a woman rose up out of the grasses. Her hair was white and adorned with feathers and she wore a white calf skin dress. She was mother to us every night and we made our escape.

soulmates

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Valerie Everett, flickr

Valerie Everett, flickr

 

He was at it again, thought Sylvie, her husband talking of Her, the alien, the dream alien, and this of all times, with dinner guests to witness it, this being Thanksgiving no less, the table set the day before, the house cleaned last Sunday, the afternoon light bending in perfect golden shafts over their cleared place settings, the room smelling of warmth, mellowed perfumes, buttered dishes, wine, coffee. A pale pink rose petal had fallen from a low bunch of flowers gathered in a centerpiece and was tinged a slight brown against the cream fabric. Almost nothing was amiss.

Their guests were young, coiffed, and beautiful, supremely educated, their clutches firmly settling into the world. When they were at Abbie and Jake’s house this past summer, Sylvie had overheard her young handsome husband Brad speak of an alien having visited him in a dream to extract his semen. It was such a brief conversation sliver that folded back into the larger noise of the party that it did not hit her, the cut of it, until she turned the lock to Abbie’s tiny half bath, and then she felt her head turn heavy and she sat upon the commode, gripping the sink. Had he really said that? She asked him about it on their way home. He just shook his head, his eyes glazed over, but for Brad that could mean he just didn’t want to talk about it.

And now here it was again.

“She was there, beside me, last night. Sylvie was asleep and I tried to wake her.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure man, I’m sure you tried to wake your wife to tell her about the sexy alien babe,” said Jake. “You must be a baby daddy by now. They got your semen last summer.”

“What? What is this?” This from Rakesh who taught at the college. He and his fiancé were holding hands under the table but let go at this unexpected turn. They were newly arrived from India.

“We grow ’em rare over here,” said Jake.

“There are gods, there are other beings,” said Rakesh, trying to be helpful. “Perhaps this is what is happening to you.”

“I don’t know,” said Brad. “I’m just saying, this woman was with me last night, an alien. This was the same one from before.”

“Why I never heard – ” said Abbie. “Sylvie, is everything all right?”

The room was starting to shift a bit, Sylvie could feel it, they leaned in, their elbows pressed hard against her table, the floor length curtains sentries, the chandelier oppressive.

Sylvie tilted a dinner knife, unused and abandoned, so that it reflected Brad’s image. His head appeared football shaped, his neck bulbous.

“This feeling I have, it is like a unification,” he went on. “It is beautiful. I feel whole. I have a second life in that place. It is my real life, my actual life, my soul.”

“For fuck’s sake, man,” said Jake. He had known Brad since they were children. They ran an accounting firm together.

Sylvie retreated to the kitchen. Abbie followed. She held Sylvie for a while. She then poured her friend a glass of water. She asked Sylvie some questions, none of which Sylvie could answer. The dinner guests trickled away and Sylvie managed not to cry, not even for Abbie. Sylvie prevented Jake from calling the hospital. Abbie and Jake finally went home.

Sylvie sat up in bed that night while Brad drifted off. The shifting shadows from the trees outside created dark spaces and light. “Be gone,” she said, touching Brad’s forehead while she spoke, for she loved him no matter the alterations of his attractions, adventures, grotesqueries. “Be gone,” she said. “Mine.” And there was not a sound but the shifting leaves.

what I saw at the funeral procession

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Abstract cross

Cross by Evan, flickr

In my small North Carolina town where I kept a house with my grandma and ten cats, we read of the funeral procession of the late renowned evangelist through our small mountain community. It was a rare day my grandma felt like leaving the house anymore, but she insisted on propping herself on the curb in her favorite “outside chair” to take in the pomp of the procession and to rest her eyes on the hearse carrying her dear one who touched her at a rally and said words to her and prayed for healing for her failing heart. She was going to Jesus, she said, due to the one man on earth who has been the most like him.

It wouldn’t be easy. I would need to take her to our desired spot early in the morning, drop her off, and find a parking space somewhere up the mountain. The procession would follow the main road through and we were somewhere up the mountain on a little tributary of a road. And walking for my grandma would be inconceivable. It was also cold.

“Are you sure, Grandma?” She was bending over clawing kibble into King Frederick’s bowl, a Balinese, who gratefully mewed in response.

“Lookie here, Doreen, if I die up here on this mountain seeing the sight of that man, God take me.”

That’s what she always said when she was expressing her hell-bent determination to do something: “God take me.”

The service itself was for family alone. This was the one chance for average people like me and my grandma to witness and pay some sort of tribute. I was going out of respect for Grandma. Some of my friends weren’t as excited by all of this.

One of my friends, Keith, said: “I’m glad he’s dead, the bitch.”  This was because “the bitch” in question had tried to influence law makers against gay rights in North Carolina. Other friends of mine were upset he hadn’t done more to curb gun purchases. Many of these friends have moved on to Asheville and do things like sell their wares in the River Arts district, attend massive drum rallies and protests, participate in wild events such as the annual Topless Rally. Nowadays we keep up day-to-day through Facebook. They’re not that far away but caring for Grandma is nonstop. One or two come over sometimes, and when they do I watch her talk quietly to herself as she watches the TV while we sit in the front room, chatting. She only talks to herself when she gets upset.

Mission accomplished though, the day of, Grandma, clothing layered up, chair firmly in place on a curb, blankets on her lap and over her shoulders, a thermos of hot cocoa, a packet of graham crackers and a chocolate bar, her favorite snacks, and all before the police begin the sweep of the street, the barricades, and crowd control, just in time to scoot up a side street and find a parking place, albeit way up a mountain where, if you kept walking up, the street turned into a gravel path which lead you straight up to the mountain peak. The rush of a stream beside the road was soothing, I was tempted to collapse on a boulder, at least while Grandma was entertained, but I forced my legs to propel me down the hill. It had been a while since I’d done much walking and my thighs began to burn.

I myself liked the evangelist Keith calls a bitch. I used to babysit a couple of his grandkids when they visited over the summer holidays, taking them rock hopping and to the pool, taking them for ice cream.  I almost never saw him, except a time or two in his study when I came inside to fetch the boys from their rooms. He knew I was there and had a smile for me, and a wave. He kept his door open. He seemed to be the kind of man that would do that, be intensely focused, but keep the door open for a child, or his spouse, or one of his grown children, and even a relative stranger like me. I didn’t know much about what he believed. That never really mattered much growing up, only that I did what my parents and grandparents wanted me to do. I didn’t attend church in college or much afterwards. I thought it would be good to believe something, I just couldn’t decide how I felt about it all. When grandma tried to convince me to believe it was Jesus that had healed her, that seemed as just a good an explanation as any. But really it seemed most likely that she believed it was the evangelist was responsible. Had the cardiologist done much more? Hardly.

I found her in the place I left her, all squinched up in the beach chair with a wool cloche jammed down on her head, purchased in a day and age when she had more hair and it likely sat up on her head a bit more primly. She sported ear muffs that wrapped around the wool of the hat and because of that hardly touched her ears but I guess she appreciated the psychological sense of extra protection. Between all that and her cataract glasses I couldn’t even see her face, just her nose, chin, and bright coral lips she colored that morning in preparation for The Funeral of That Man. Since the healing, he had ever only been That Man, and this had never been in reference to any other man, not even Grandpa. She had even insisted on wearing her green chiffon dress, but somehow I talked her out of it, asking how Jesus’ Man would feel if she got sick watching him being escorted to the pearly gates? All that progress lost? She relented finally and I pulled her wool slacks and jacket on, a high fashion ensemble from the days she and Grandpa used to dress to fly overseas. I had to put a few stiches in it the night before to draw the pieces closer to her body and keep out the cold, she had lost so much weight.

She reached for me and grasped my hand in her firm bony one.

“Grandma, we need to get some gloves on you,” I said.

“I know, I was just eating my grahams. Yum,” She said and gave a little girlish chuckle.

An officer came up to us. “Ma’am,” he said to me, putting a hand on my arm, “You’re going to need to get behind the curb here.”

Grandma reached out for him. “My son,” she said, “What do you think about all of this?”

“I think it’s amazing, ma’am. What an amazing man.”

“Oh I think that too!” And I heard the quaver in her voice and I knew she was starting to cry.

The officer graciously held her hand for a minute. “Now you put on your gloves young lady. I’m sure that’s an infraction of some kind and I don’t want to have to take you to the pokie on such a big day.”

Grandma laughed as he went down the street, placing people where they should be. “Oh, I know it might not be right to laugh at such a time,” she said, “but what a buster that one is. What if you dated someone like that, Doreen.”

As if it was as easy as ordering a cheeseburger. I’ll have that one medium rare, please, with a big easy smile and a knack for charming grandmothers.

The police motorcade was beginning to make its way through. The chattering of the crowd died and the rumbling of motors reverberated in my chest. Grandma put her gloved hand in mind. I stood beside her chair, a space someone had mercifully made me along the street lined with thousands for miles, apparently. I could tell this was going to be a very emotional day for her. I had never seen a funeral procession. It was very somber and the occasional familiar person dotted throughout the crowd, people I had known in my life prior to becoming grandma’s full time keeper, were uncharacteristically quiet and still, people I had known from bars in town, parties at homes flowing with booze and weed, women I had known from my parents’ church who talked incessantly even during the quiet parts of the service, their voices sussurating over the hushed tones of the organ during communion. They all stood with tongues ceased in their mouths as if some sort of numbing gas had stunned them momentarily. Not even the children there were moving or talking, a rare phenomenon in a community that lavishes its attention on the young. And then a brigade of riders on horses passed us following soon after the dark black hearse. People threw flowers down on the street so that it rode over stems, crushed roses and lilies. Grandma threw the clump of violets we gathered that morning from the pot that sat inside by the window.

When the hearse was just past us, out popped a man from the crowd in a black face mask, his clothes black. He was on the street and wearing combat boots and had just escaped the grasp of police on foot though horses were bearing down.

“Good riddance!” he shouted, and a streak of red paint lifted up from a bucket in his hands, and the paint smeared the street and doused the flowers but missed the hearse, the intended target. Everyone gasped and shouted, confused. The police locked him down, almost immediately.

That night, Grandma prayed for the man with the paint.

And that was when I began to wonder just what it was she believed.

“Pray for your enemies and those who curse you,” she said to me when she sensed I was observing her through the cracked door of her bedroom. “It’s in the Bible, Doreen. Good night, child.”

I closed her door softly and went to the kitchen to fix my nightly herbal tea. The African violets which sat in the window had suffered an assault in honor of the evangelist. I fetched the growth food from under the sink and dotted it in the soil with a syringe. Only a few tender leaves remained and the rest was a waste of shorn stems.

I would never really understand grandma, not completely, even though we had spent many hours together. That’s what I came to realize as the steam rose in the kettle. We are, in the end, each of us on our own.

I poured the boiling water in my favorite mug and, cupping it in my hands, went to the porch. The fireflies were circling among the trees, luxuriously blinking. A dove cooed. The sweet smell of mountain laurel drifted in on a breeze.

I would die on this mountain too, just like grandma, just like the evangelist. I’m not sure who would be around to bury me, but it didn’t seem to matter, somehow. Besides, in that moment, I still had grandma in my care. I guess what it all amounts to are moments. When there are no more moments, there is the end – death – and that is all. Something about that made me feel grateful, that it was this simple. To my grandma this would have seemed bleak. But it was my secret to savor on this dark porch. The ground is what will meet me. And I will embrace it like an orphan daughter her parent.

Santa Baby by Meg Sefton

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Check out my new flash piece in a fabulous UK literary magazine Use Your Words. Merry Christmas! — Meg

Use Your Words

litmas


· Santa Baby ·

by Meg Sefton

There is a man I see from the dating site I call Santa. He calls me Cupcake even though I asked him from the beginning to call me by my given name. He did once, in a text, but ever since, it’s been “Doll” or “Cupcake.” I wonder if he even really knows my name anymore. When I first started dating five years ago after my divorce from a twenty-year marriage, I had been overwhelmed and appalled by trying to date midlife, things were so different when I met and dated my ex. Plus, I had been raised and married into a religiously conservative subculture and when I started dating again, soon learned how sheltered I had been for most of my adult life.

Santa hangs Christmas lights from the roofs and eaves, ancient oak trees, and palms in the wealthiest suburb of…

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Cocoa Beach Christmas

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Two girls with scooters public domain Australia

Daddy drove us nine hundred miles to Florida the Christmas after Mama passed. It was just me, Daddy, and my little sister Lulu. Daddy said there wasn’t anything in Florida that wasn’t all around the world and that was Christmas love and reindeers and Santa. He didn’t want to see snow, he said, or get a tree or eat turkey. These things reminded him of Mama and he needed a break from feeling sad. He said she would have wanted us to go to Florida for Christmas. In fact, he said, she probably knew what we were up to right now and it made her happy.

When I wasn’t keeping my sister occupied with books and games of eye spy, I was watching the landscape change from naked trees and gray skies to thick grass and fat palms and I was watching for Mama to see if she was watching us drive to Florida. Maybe she was traveling beside us, just outside the window. I looked for her in the shadows of green. I looked for her in the marshes beside the freeway. She would wear her white linen gown, the one with the satin bow I had learned to tie when I was three years old. She would wear her hair long, like she did before the sickness took it. She loved the outdoors. It made sense I saw her a few times, walking along in the trees, touching the head of a tall white bird in the marsh, a place she would sink if she were a real person and not a ghost.

The camp was a place called Cocoa Beach. I had wondered if that meant the water would be made of chocolate. I had visions of me and Mama and my sister rolling in waves and waves of cocoa. Dad would be sitting on the shore, reading his paper as usual. We would bring him cups of cocoa and he would pretend to drink it just like he did at our tea parties. He would finally join us and mama would flee away, not wanting to cause him pain because she was a ghost and it seemed like ghosts knew everything.

We camped in a spot surrounded by twisted trees and bushes with red berries. It looked like God put his finger down and stirred things up, but it was really the wind and soil that made them the way they were said Daddy. While he set up the tent, he let us go to the beach and put our toes in the water which was not cocoa. The sand was crushed shells and scratched my feet but it didn’t hurt. When a wave crashed, bits of shell rubbed up against my legs. My shoulders felt warm from the sun. I put my diving mask on and dunked my head under the water, looking for Mama. Not far away I saw the tail end of a white gown flowing in the water but then a wave took me down and by the time I stood up, I could see no one. I went under again and all I could see was the strange grey green sea.

Lulu was scared of the water and so I had to hold her like Mama used to, on my hip. She could swim but I knew it was the moving water that worried her and she clung tight. When the waves started slapping her bottom, she kicked and screamed. I took her back to the shore and held her hand while we walked back to the campsite. My stomach was all in knots because I thought she might cry to Daddy about the waves and spoil things but she just sat on the picnic bench and sucked her thumb. I brought a towel and wrapped it around her.

That night by the camp fire, Daddy read about the baby Jesus. All I could think about was whether Mary would get cancer and leave Jesus. Then I remembered Mary weeping for Jesus on the cross. I didn’t feel so sorry for him that he was poor and there wasn’t room for him in the inn. And I didn’t care about Easter and Jesus dying. This was Christmas. I kicked some sand into the fire.

“Katherine Elizabeth,” daddy said like he does when I’m in trouble.
He sent me to the camp restrooms to get ready for bed. There was a lady in the stall beside me who had blue veins running through her feet like Mama did right before she died.

“Where is your campsite?” I asked her when I came out of my stall but she just kept washing her hands over and over. I couldn’t see her face. Her hair hung down like Mama’s used to hang when she let it free. “Are you Mama?”

She looked up at me then. She had dark eyes and a face with deep lines around her mouth. She only wiped her hands on a roll of cloth that went round and round through a machine.

Daddy was silent in the tent. He didn’t sing to us like Mama would have. I knew I shouldn’t say anything about the lady and about whether Mama was in Florida. He promised Santa would find us no matter where we were but of course I knew Santa was a made up story. But how come so many grown ups believed you would never die? Was Mama an angel now?

When Daddy and Lulu were asleep, I slipped outside the tent. The moonlight made our campsite white. Little puffs of air blew against my face and the shadows moved with the trees.

I spoke with Santa then. I asked him for my old Mama back – the one who could still lift Lulu on her hip, who could sing us to sleep without stopping to catch her breath, who made us fried chicken and biscuits. I asked Santa if my Mama was here. I asked him these things even though he was supposed to be an old made up story for children.

There was only the sound of the crashing chocolate waves. How Mama would have loved that, that I imagined them as cocoa. She would have played along, filling up a pot and putting it on the fire, doing magic and making real chocolate. She would have kissed me for my dream of the dark, sweet, milk sea. There was a sea somewhere like that and Mama was waiting for us, with Peter the wolfhound who died soon after she died, heartsick my dad told us. He was licking up the ocean. She had gone there to prepare a place for us. We would never be apart again and Daddy would watch over us always.

I stuck a dried up flower from a palm tree in the sand. Daddy said people didn’t really notice the flower of the palm but he said the most interesting things come and go in secret. I put some rocks around the base to hold it up and then at the top I tied the ribbon Mama had given me. It was white and satin like the ribbon in her gown. The dried up palm flower looked like a Christmas tree. I would leave it out all night, just in case.

Tiny Dreams

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slow moves by gregorfischer.photography on flickr

slow moves by gregorfischer.photography on flickr

There were lots of people she used to sing for but now with the thyroid surgery, her voice had changed. She could talk, and whistle, but she couldn’t sing which was why the song of the caged parrot down the street inspired a sense of loss she would not have been able to describe had someone cared to ask. Whenever she walked her dog she would hear it. She had always wanted birds – finches, or even a parrot or cockatoo, – but now it looked likely, because of the cancer invading her body, any bird she may adopt now might outlive her.

A man in town sold pet health insurance and she was beginning to make her plans. She wanted her son to have her little white dog and knew he would need money to take care of her. He was not old enough to pay these expenses on his own. And a parrot was out of the question at this point. They could live to be 100 or more and she would be dead at 46.

She felt it, no matter what people said, no matter how much they told her to have a positive mindset. Buying a parrot now was an act of faith bordering on the ridiculous.

Every morning the parrot chirped from the third floor balcony down the street where she walked her dog. The bird was a part of how the real estate company was staging the property, he was part of their plan to sell the new orange painted homes.

Not far away, a woman was mauled by a black bear as she walked her dog. The cancer was about the same thing. What difference did it make, she would be gone, taken by something – whether it emerged from the forest – a madman or bear – or a malignancy in her body that grew until she succumbed. She hoped, at least, in the case of the woman confronting the bear, the dog managed to get away.

Which was why she sat across from the desk of the pet insurance agent. She signed every paper. She paid. She set up a plan for payments. The agent had no ring. She asked him to lunch. They ate nicoise salad in a restaurant where unlit chandeliers and stained glass panels hung from the ceiling. He said he had old movies on reels at home they could watch. He said they could dance to music on his jukebox.

A shaft of light poured in through the basement window where they were dancing. She was not expecting this. She considered asking him to draw up a separate policy for a parrot. The agent had nice leather shoes, smelled of bergamot oil, had a curl against his ear.

first published in beakful