Jacinda and her tiny people lived in the mushrooms of Muir Woods. It was very dry. Her house was decaying prematurely. When she came home from foraging she tried to slam the door to show her frustration but the dehydrated stalk meant the nice arched door no longer fit.
Derek, our decorator, and I were hauling a massive carved discounted headboard upstairs. We paused on the landing, laughing and breathing hard. I said: “My husband doesn’t like ornate furniture like this.” Crisply, like a boss, Derek said: “Oh chile, he wants to have sex with it.”
The heart is hard and slow to forgive. How delicious to nurture a grudge, to simmer in bitterness. I told myself I prayed for the ability to forgive, but did I really? By praying and believing myself unheard and ill equipped, I put off letting go my toxic pleasure.
North Carolina summer night at Mama’s, with Jeff playing with the boa as it arcs and stretches toward the chandelier, the sweet scent of mountain laurel wafting through the window, Jeff and I doubled in fits of laughter, high. Mama turning on the light, glares. Party over.
He did exactly what I wanted him to do: Show at the chemo ward with no shirt except cuffs, a pilgrim hat, big buckled shoes. Rent-a-friends comes handy when holidays see you with no family and undergoing treatment. The nurses were a little flustered. It was perfect.
When Mom’s spirit visits the old building where we live now, where we sleep on a dilapidated mattress, she sobs. Why is it ghost cries blend so carefully with wind, their light melds with leaf filtered sun? She tells me it is almost Davey’s time to die.
My ghost is wearing my red sweater. After papers were signed and locks were changed, I realized I left behind the sweater as well as a French cookbook. Would she try to cook from it? I’m telling you now she will suck. She doesn’t have the finesse that comes only with age. And a lot of cooking.
She is straddling the stadium seat and laughing hard at something my ex is saying. Her hair falls down beneath the hem of the sweater, something I’m sure pleases him. Men pass by and stare at her backside.
She attends a funeral of a family member of my ex’s, someone I knew for over twenty years. We were close. But I was not invited. I text my ex, force my way in. She is there beside him.
“What is she wearing?” I hiss to my sister. She wears a short strapless dress and summer sandals. I have gone full-on Jackie O.
“You are just like Mom,” she says.
I bring a flowering rose bush over Christmas Eve. I feel a little guilty for the grief I may have caused.
My son is there. I say hi. She takes the bush and doesn’t thank me. She’s wearing my red sweater.
The moon kisses my head through the open sunroof on my way to midnight mass.
I don’t care anymore.
I just had to see my sweater one more time.
She caught the infant in the hotel’s pool light, an over-sized kidney bean. The mysterious guest had told her, with a gleam, “Nothing ever dies.” It was her Emaline, her dream, a miscarriage but alive! How to explain? Her heart reeled. She held the bundle and rang the concierge: “Diapers?”
Clinical Lycanthropy: Injured patient Edward Hocs believes he is a giant bird who will swoop down on criminals and rapists and peck their brains out. Under observation for thirty days: Only manifestation of hallucination is attempt to perch on bed frame, curled toes, but, failure. Hence, evil continues its reign.
Lady death’s dark coat is long and ragged, dragging in its train the stillborn, accident deaths, junkies, the weak and infirm, victims of famine, disease, and war, dead bones clinking and clanking, the reek of flesh. Souls are not her purview, only death’s physicality, its inevitability, our commonality with animals.
It was in the dark that she, adopted, met her mother. Before becoming aware of her mother’s suicide, she had been only curious. Now, confronted with the sweet smell of rotting flesh, long ragged nails brushing back her hair, she wished to return to the ignorance of her childhood.
Bitsy got drunk at the Halloween party. She pretended to bite men’s necks but secretly slipped off her fangs and nuzzled them and kissed them, both married and single. “Mmm, tasty,” she said. Later we found her fallen off the curb, neck broken. Rumor had it she had been shoved.
Thank you for reading my blog. Since its inception in August 2013, I have published over one hundred forty fiction pieces. Thank you for reading the month of October as I throw down with fellow flash writers for a micro challenge: One prompt based micro a day. I have tried to get into the spirit of Halloween with the theme and tone of each.
Next month is Nancy Stohlman’s annual FlashNano event in which flash fiction writers write one prompt based story per day for the month of November. Though I don’t always finish a full month of stories, I am happy to come up with some new material as well as participate with fellow writers.
When I started the blog in 2013 I was in the midst of treatment for her2 positive breast cancer as well as thyroid cancer. I am still in that fight with medication and continued tests. Some of you who read a previous blog of mine “How to be Alone” know I also struggle with bipolar disorder, a disorder that has become more pronounced with cancer treatment and medication.
Fiction is my outlet. What I say are things I need to say. Characters I meet through my imagination keep me company, give me hope or frighten me. Fictional villages, dystopias, fantastical circumstances, trials in some unspecified time are my ways of dealing with the news of the world. Empty nest mothers, the frightened Ms. Myska who faces her hysterectomy, the mourning romantic who misses his deceased wife, senior ladies in a retirement village remembering old times, fictional ghosts of lovers and children past rise up on the “page” of my screen.
Currently, I cannot seem to systematize the information to make a cohesive whole – a book, a project – though I have faith it will happen. Medication, aches and pains, moods leave me struggling some days so it is truly a triumph to create each day, but that I try to do or at least meet my outside quota of one story per week. I can’t relay how fantastic that makes me feel.
It is hard to be bipolar especially if there are other health challenges as well. Knowing I can write has saved me. And books and stories of others, handed down in books and recordings, save me too.
Maybe you can relate to what I am saying. Or maybe you have other challenges which make things hard. If you can relate, you are not alone. If you can find some simple thing to make you happy, do that one thing without apology.
We tend to turn everything into a contest. For example for writers it’s often this kind of thing: You have to be published certain places to be legit or have a book or win a prize or make a certain amount of money or be known by certain people, etc. The best part about practicing the humanities however is that “human” aspect. Let’s just do that humanities thing and keep on doing that until we allow nothing else to define us, until we become more human, until we become able to relate what that means.
Again, thank you for reading my blog. I am also always happy for such beautiful pictures like the one here and on other posts. I always document the photographer and artist. I hope you enjoy them too.
Halloween night, ill-lit lots and streets crawl with the malevolent seeking unencumbered females made dizzy with drink, the carelessness that comes from dressing up and going in disguise, an easier trust of strangers, a willingness to entertain novelty. Dead women are angels, witnesses; their protection, no match.
In my family, we had a death treasure, a collection of presents for the deceased’s coffin: jewelry, a child’s blanket, photos, candy. A death doula taught us this to prevent hauntings but we couldn’t get it right because the lonely dead still lurked about, looking to find what they craved.
At Winster Solstice, the witch crawls out from a cupboard where she has been hiding. She hangs an ornament of sea glass. The family is helpless to consider their contingent existence. She blows on the glass, lights a candle, sings a quiet song, and turns in a slow circle.
It was in the wild, uncultivated woods beside the Veterans of Foreign War Memorial that a girl went missing one day after high school. The undergrowth, the twisting trunks of oaks, the Spanish moss did not give up their secrets. The girls’ parents appealed fruitlessly to the uncompromising green sameness.
A strict Lutheran from Slovakia wanted a pure farm life for his family. He purchased land to grow celery in what is now known as Oviedo, Florida. According to legend, both laughter and wailing of ghost children can be heard in the neighborhood where once lived the righteous migrant family.
On holidays, when memories are persistent, overgrown, ghosts haunt Dementia Retirement Village where residents live in happier times. At Christmas, Ms. Annie speaks of a lover never returned from war. She does not speak of her childrens’ father. Her adult children are unhappy; she, oblivious, free.
It was said global warming caused the global freeze as warm waters interrupted currents. The world was turning to frozen earth and snow, the sea, frozen water. My parents, desperate to feed us with quickly draining resources, sold me to a talent collector. I was to help build Ice City.
On All Hallows’, witches swing on electric currents like ballooning spiders, shifting from place to place, their belongings on their backs – potions, books of spells, cats – riding their besom brooms. At gatherings, the thinning veil and a ritual incantation, a single candle in the night, allows their company with spirits.
It started happening at her most frail moment in the chemo ward, the drip in her arm dosing her into semi-consciousness: The flickering lights, the unfurling of a dark presence in the hallway, bony finger beckoning. One day, she stood apart from herself and joined the darkness, floating, cold.
Harvest moon, mousy witch Nettie and her little dog, both donned in black, scamper up the hill to Temple, not for services, but for gravesites. Enchanted, corpses rise. Old Mrs. Stein, offers a finger to the little beast. Next day her daughter discovers her mother’s ring by the grave.
Build your candy houses, dear hags, to draw hungry children Hallow’s Eve. Say your prayers, dear wee ones, you may be delivered come All Souls’. Board your houses dear parents, keep danger at bay. Tis the sugar will kill them, lured away by candy skulls, forest deep, sugar house.
Even in Florida, the Winter Queen comes in October. Mom and dad drink, argue, get stoned. A child has an overnight. In the closet. “I love you,” says the Snow Queen her breath billowing in the narrow light. There are cold kisses, icy fingers. “I should kiss you to death.”
Imagine Alicia, novice mortician, fevered klepto, having extracted the ring from Mrs. Nováková’s corpse, waking in the dead of night to bony fingers round her throat, crushing her windpipe. The corpse exits the smashed window, abandoning sheets of skin on the glass.
Broken-down bar doll, middle-aged, desperate, faded beauty.
“Hi,” his crooked smile the bait. “A kiss for your soul,” he said, black wings unfurling, claw wending round her, almost met his quota.
“A sluagh!” she exclaimed.
He took her in dark flight.
Here is a little project I’ve been thinking about for a while. This is a rough introduction. I would like to post in installments but I am not used to that. Hopefully more will be on the way. I know roughly where I’m going. Other flash work may interrupt these posts at times but I would like to be fairly consistently posting to the project. If I don’t do that please forgive me, lol. My young Comforters are always in my thoughts. Cheers.
The night my father killed me, I saw stars. At first I thought the stars were just behind my eyelids when he cracked my skull with an axe.
But then I realized they were the stars of the night sky and I was flying, shrieking, in pain and agony and fear, my skirt flapping in the wind, my sweater hanging from me like wings, tearing past veils – dark, light, and soft – and I began to be aware of a curious collective presence as soft as my mother’s soft-worn dresses hanging in her wardrobe.
I realized I was floating in a dark night sky. I felt the pain ebbing away from me as it would when Mama would smooth my hair with her fingers.
And now, I was being carried by a feathery presence – or was there more than one? – lifting me, carrying me through mists and vapors, caressing my eyes and cheeks with soft sweet smelling tongues until the dried blood on my flesh softened and melted away.
I felt a little softer on the inside too and I was no longer shrieking or crying. But at the thought of my father with my mother, brother, and sister caused me to cry out as if whatever pain he was causing them he was causing to me too.
A face emerged from the darkness, a young face of a girl about my age, a girl whose eyes were filled with tributaries of blood so that her milky blue eyes looked like veined marbles of the most precious kind, the one we would have wanted to win.
“My name is Rachel,”she said, taking my hand, “We will see to your family.” I loved her immediately.
In the distance, the moon shone over the sea. We flew closer to the dark waves, which rose in huge swells.
“You will understand all of this in time,” Rachel shouted over the sound of the wind in our ears, the waves. “But first there is someone who needs us.”
She pointed to a tiny white cooler rising on the swells of huge waves. There was screeching, a baby’s cries. I could hear them, even over the storm.
“She has just died, Fannie.”
We swooped down together. We dove into the wave where the cooler was bobbing along the crest. When we emerged, Rachel grabbed it. As we hovered over the swells she had me hold the bottom while she retrieved the tiny wet frightened child.
“I thought you said she had died,” I said.
“Yes, but we are going to help her rest.” And she gave the child her pinky finger to suck and the child at last quieted and drifted off to sleep. “Welcome to the Realm of the Comforters.”
The night before All Hallows’ Eve, the heavy oak door creaked open while I sat in the hall of the church manse. It moved like an old grandfather, obscuring my face and body in darkness. The dark had a voice. It called to me, a preacher’s daughter, two months before the age of my confirmation. It said Brynn Violet, we have come for you.
Why was I drawn to the hall every night, wearing my white cotton gown, like a bride of Christ? The thick air of the Florida night laid heavy in my nose and mouth. The ocean kicked up breezes, billowing salt air into the curtains down the hall, illuminated by the moon. My back felt sweaty against the bead board.
The open door kept me waiting for hours and hours in its shadow. When it wanted me to leave, it slammed shut, waking my mother.
“Why don’t you sleep?” she would say, standing in the light from the room she shares with my father. She would stand over me in her curlers and robe. “Why do you sit in the hallway all night like a wild hyena?”
There was whispering only I can hear, women’s voices, reciting something over and over, like a prayer, though I couldn’t make out the words. A shadow of a long-nailed hand appeared to poke mother’s curlers. I wanted to laugh but I was scared so I slunk away to my room while her words stabbed my back: “I wish I had never adopted you.”
The spirits of the dead had come for me the night before All Hallows’ Eve though my father, a minister in the Purify Church movement, has banned celebrating the holiday from our island.
My adopted mother often reminded me my biological mother was a witch. The Church had tried to drown her beyond the reef of Marathon Key to test her. It had been a stormy, dark day and she disappeared into the waves. Word had it she was still alive, that the devil had saved her.
There were constant reminders of the practices of my female ancestors, ancestors as far back as my great, great, great grandmother, Maria Fuentes, who escaped the violence of the Mexican Revolution and immigrated to the United States with Grandfather Alberto.
Grandmother Maria, housekeeper of the wealthy Warren family on Key West, had survived the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. For the holiday, she and Grandfather Alberto were visiting relatives on Islamorada. When a category 5 hurricane hit, she was swept out into the bay. Later she was found exactly where she had started, clutching a small robed statue that wielded a grim reaper’s scythe, Santa Muerte, a demon’s object, my mother always reminded me.
“What she sacrificed for her devil worship was her husband’s life,” my mother always instructed, “Your great, great, great grandfather.”
Yes but she and her baby, the baby in her belly survived, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
By the time I was in high school The Purify Church Movement was purging all people of foreign descent, people who were brown skinned. Only my status as an adopted daughter of a white evangelical minister saved me.
In the hallway at night, Grandmother Maria sent word that I would be protected. In the darkness I was in her embrace. I let my nails grow long and sometimes stood to look at myself in the mirror, the silver tarnished from the salt air. I tapped on the glass. Grandmother Maria tapped back, smiling, hair dark and wild like mine though she wore a death mask.
On Halloween the year of my confirmation, there was a little dark rabbit in our yard, a swamp rabbit nibbling the saw grass.
“Shoo!” I said though I wanted to make the rabbit my friend. I had been tasked by my adopted mother with keeping rabbits away. I was thinking I could convince her I wasn’t a witch. I was thinking since rabbits are a witch’s familiar, I could show her I thought they were dirty, nuisance creatures and I wanted nothing to do them.
“I’ll be back,” he said as he darted away. But how could he be speaking? I wondered.
One day when I was cleaning the church after school, a woman wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a burlap bag found me in the kitchen. Her skin was the same color as mine which had become rare. She wore a long braid down her back. She appeared to wear the clothes of a gardener or farm worker. Likely she was indispensable to a rich and powerful person.
She took my hands in hers. “These things belonged to your Grandmother Maria. Put them in a secret place and pray to The Bony Lady, our dear Santa Muerte. She has brought me to you so have faith. And she loves our Jesus.” I realized she may be assuming I had adopted the faith of my parents and wanted to reassure me.
She gave me a quick hug. Her hair smelled like the outdoors. She left me in a shocked silence.
When I got home the house was empty. I hid in my closet with the burlap bag. What I found was a massive statue of a painted skeleton woman wearing a robe and carrying a long blade at the end of a staff. She stood on a huge mound of skulls.
I sat with my back against the opposite wall and studied her. Then I perused other contents in the bag. There was a little book of prayers and instructions, a bottle of liquid called Florida Water, and five candles, each a different color.
I cleaned The Bony Lady according to the instructions in the book. I lit a candle and spoke to her using one of the prayers. I thought of the woman’s words “She has brought me to you so have faith.” I felt a little frisson of power transfer to me as I looked into the stark skeletal mask of the Lady’s face. I also thought what the woman said about The Bony Lady loving Jesus. Somehow, I don’t think my parents would see it that way.
That night I dreamt I was in a mangrove swamp. The mud held me tight. I fought it but I was beginning to sink. The dark rabbit who had invaded our yard sprung past. He shouted at me to hurry up and follow. The earth loosened its grip and I trudged behind dropping heavy mud from my feet and gown.
We went deep inside the arcs of the mangrove roots. I became small so I was able to follow him. “Where are we going?” I said. The aerial roots overhead looked like arcs of a cathedral.
Without turning he said “You are to become my bride.” And I could hear his teeth smack against his lip.
His bride? I felt as if I cannot breathe but still I followed him until we reached a little home deep in the mangrove swamp. The floor of his home was covered with leaves. The walls and ceiling consisted of mangrove branches and mud.
I was to be married here? Where was my mother? My father? Who was to marry us?
I woke with a start, shivering and sweating. No one was awake. I checked on Santa Muerte in my closet. She was still there. No one had discovered her or taken her. I sat down cross legged and lit a candle.
“Dear Lady, what is happening to me?” It was All Saints Day. I do believe she had become my saint and intercessor.
She stared at me, stern and uncompromising, but not distant. Her stillness was like the compassionate copper Christ, a statue anchored in a reef off Key Largo, the Christ of the Abyss.
“Please help me,” I implored her.
The next day the swamp rabbit was in the yard again.
“Shoo! Shoo!” I said, lunging and stomping my foot so that it hopped to the edge of the yard.
A dark cloud passed over. It stood on its hind legs. “Come with me, ride on my tail. I will make you my bride and save you from death.” Then he scampered away into the hedge.
That night I dreamt the hare took me deep into the mangrove swamp again. I had become skilled at walking through them, I did not sink or get stuck.
“You are becoming a woman,” the rabbit said, stopping to admire my progress. “It won’t be long now before we will be married.”
As if on cue, a crow flew down, the sun gleaming off its feathers. In its beak was a huge strand of raffia.
“Hold out your hand now,” said the rabbit. “We will measure you for the handfasting. You will be bound to me for your wedding night.”
And the crow flew around my right hand, binding my wrist tightly. With the rest of the raffia he bound me to the rabbit’s leg.
“The crow is our parson. Now you are mine, Brynn Violent!” he said, hopping off into the mangroves. I followed my captor at the other end of the tether. My head was in peril as I tried to duck quickly under the aerial roots. I had been tricked!
I awakened in a sweat. I leapt into my closet. I lit a candle for The Bony Lady. “Thank you, thank you!” I said, “You saved me!”
The danger was real now, it was not a dream. A dark crow landed on my windowsill with a long strand of raffia in its beak.
In the prayer book beside The Lady a page was dedicated to All Souls Day or Dia de Muertos. I picked it up and read out loud: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”
Just then Mother burst into the room. She opened my closet to find me with my shrine. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “What in the world are you doing?”
It was decided by the Church I must be practicing witchcraft and would be tested in the waters off the reef of Key Largo. The test was severe: A chain around my ankle, tied to a huge stone. If I were truly a witch, I would escape. If I died before anyone could save me, it would probably be for the best. I practiced the folk religion of drug lords and prostitutes.
I sank to the bottom of the ocean, the heavy rock landing hard on the ocean floor and shaking the chain, yanking my ankle. I had never felt so alone, so scared. Though down on the ocean shelf, a few hundred feet from the abyss, it was beautiful and separate from the evil above.
In my heart, I began to pray something I had memorized: “Lady, My Most Holy Saint Death, I declare myself filled with love and devotion for you, and I surrender myself to you. I recognize myself as your subject and recognize you as my queen.”
The chain loosened from my foot and slipped away. I kicked as hard as I could, past the Christ of the Abyss, rising to the surface, where I was hidden from the boat by the waves. I swam a good distance, careful when I came up for air that I did not stick my head up too far above the surface.
And this is how I escaped both the rabbit and The Cleansing. I found passage to Cuba and then on to Mexico.
I became a bruja, or witch, and people sought me out for my power. For the Day of the Dead I always gave my Bony Lady flowers and gifts. I practiced white magic out of respect for the Christ of the Abyss. I prayed for the safe return of my biological mother. And I told my daughter of the stories of the magic arts of her grandmothers.
Florida Fall Ball was Ms. Myska’s favorite Little League baseball season. Her son used to play in the neighborhood league. He had long since graduated and moved to another city and yet there she was, working the concession stand, having kept a key. Not only that, she tidied the field and toilet, picked up the trash, wiped down the metal bleachers. The city janitor assigned to the park had been shooed away by a smiling Ms. Myska and the young mothers were also summarily dismissed when they tried to insist that she should be sitting outside, enjoying the weather. She merely smiled and turned the oil on for the fries, made the coffee. For all they knew, she kept a cot in there, they said to themselves.
By the end of each season the players and their parents had always developed a strange fondness for the rodent-like woman who scurried from task to task, never speaking much, never making much eye contact. They would have been surprised to know she remembered their concession preferences, knew their faces and voices, knew whether they were confident, shy, slow, smart, funny, knew who their friends were, knew their family members, beloved and otherwise. At Halloween, she gave each of them a candy she knew to be their favorite.
Little did they know that each summer, when they were vacationing, she was scurrying to the store for the secret ingredients to her chili. Making the chili every year made fall her favorite season for baseball. Who could resist a good chili on a cool evening? No one, and certainly no one who had tasted her version, contained as it was in a tiny bag of corn chips, the corn chips serving in lieu of pasta, the small bag a portable meal, ready to eat with a spork.
Nor did they know of her harvest moon night when she turned cartwheels in the field and tilted her head back and sang her full-throated songs. Other mysterious women, bodies worn from giving life and sustaining it, joined her, dancing, singing, drinking wine, running the bases and laughing until they ran up into the night sky and they transformed into other beings entirely, birds and butterflies and delicate moths. At daybreak, they became human again.
The season after Ms. Myska died, a young mother found a chili recipe in the cash box. “Make it with love,” the instructions said, “and you will be blessed.”
My name is Dyta and my husband and I moved over here from Poland when we were newlyweds. I was excited to live in the States because I had these beliefs like so many young Polish people I knew at the time: That Americans were so kind and so friendly and that unbelievable things happened here, just like in the commercials. It took a while for my American husband to convince me my beliefs were naïve and ill-founded. Had he known me as a youth in Poland he would have seen too why it was so important for me to believe only positive things about people. I was one of those students who was teased and harassed by peers, females as much as males. I truly believed America was the chance to start over and a chance for others to see me in a new light.
I did find a sense of liberation when I audited a fiction writing class at the University of Central Florida soon after arriving and settling in. I found that the students were interested in me simply because I was Polish and now living here. Everything was interesting to them so that I could be the greatest dullard from Warsaw for all they knew but because I was an exotic dullard I had more value than I did at home. The novelty would wear off though I didn’t let myself think about that at first. I was enjoying my new writing class and using my imagination fully, as if someone, or the circumstances, had given me full permission and encouragement and I poured out all of myself for the first time.
I found a group of girlfriends from my class. We were happy people, the four of us, and hopeful and young. We all seemed to enjoy each other and be at the same level in this artistic hobby that was new to all four of us: crafting fiction. We went out frequently, talked on the phone, we compared our stories, nervous as we were to share them with the wider class. For years this went on between us and we grew in our writing as we married and had families.
As is true to life I am learning as I get older, cracks always show, don’t they. I became sick, so sick in fact I had a hard time concentrating on my work and keeping up with my friends who were getting into journals and being accepted to graduate school. I had breast cancer, stage three. My husband was so supportive of me at that time, and bless him, was being patient throughout so we may begin a family when the treatment had finished. I felt like I was falling more and more behind in my life, was losing more of his interest as my looks fell apart and I became more of a patient.
My friends, busy with their lives and I assumed trying not to be sad, avoided seeing me or talking to me. I felt I had hit upon something dark in this country. People were friendly and bright when everything was going well. But people ignored what they didn’t want to know or see and this included sick people, even their friends who are sick. I began to feel a certain way about my new friends that started my deep rift with them. It made me yearn for some of the old ways of my people. We were used to sadness, took it in stride, even to the death, mourning beforehand what we were afraid of.
I realized too I was just as guilty of shallowness. I had loved my new friendships for that wave of a bubble of good feeling they gave me, not for anything deeper or more meaningful. It had suited me. But now with no hair, no abilities, little humor, things were quite different.
It was unfortunate that after my recovery, I divorced from my husband. Too many things had happened, or not happened, between us, and we didn’t survive the illness and the aftermath. He just seemed to lose interest.
A few months later as I was growing my hair back and beginning the transition to life, one of the members of the writing group, Evie, called to inquire about the beach house I had shared with my ex’s family. She left a message on my phone: Do I still own a share in the house? If so, could we go there as a group sometime? Maybe we could all do some writing and sharing our work?
I’ll have to admit I was a little irritated. Evie had not inquired about how I was feeling. She had not made any attempt to see me while I was undergoing treatment. But I was also still in the mode where some of my feelings were discounted by my sense that I must still be learning about this culture. Furthermore, my leniency had really entered in with chemo brain. It was hard to separate out reality still, to make sound judgments, and so I tried to withhold judgements as much as possible, while at the same time experiencing frustration. And Evie was married and had her first baby. She was perfectly healthy and publishing, had been accepted into a prestigious MFA. It took a few more months before I was able to return her call.
When we got together again for the first time since I started treatment, I thought I could sense both the condescension and the competition. Was I writing again or was I up to it? Self publishing certainly was for the declasse wasn’t it? And who didn’t know about the hierarchy of journals? To sell yourself short to the bottom rungs was to doom your career to the eternal stagnation of the unknown. Do I have a platform? I definitely need a platform or I would never be taken seriously.
Tacia caught me in the bathroom where I was refreshing my lipstick. She was drunk, something that never changed. “You sure are a HANDSOME woman, aren’t you?” And she laughed, leaning into me, observing her smile in the mirror, she was usually pretty taken with herself. She was not giving me a compliment. It occurred to me I had been magically transported back to my school in Warsaw again. I had far less hair, though. It was now just a very short mannish length. And I had more wrinkles, more flesh.
At the table, I drank my wine, as much as I could and still manage to make it home.
I determined I would give Evie the key but would not go. I envisioned myself alone at home with the cat feeling more peace knowing the group was out of town plotting literary maneuvers while I wrote modest pieces and prayed for inclusion somewhere. Besides I had come to enjoy my afternoons working shelving books at the bookstore. Once I had allowed to let them use the house, I would never feel obligated to again. I don’t even know why I felt obligated in the first place but for some reason I did, maybe because early on, when we were all seemingly close friends I had foolishly said something to them about sharing a time away together at the beach.
In Slavic mythology, places beside water are not always safe. There are female spirits there who are sometimes mermaids or sirens who lure men to their deaths. They are the souls of those who have either had evil committed against them and so they bring about more evil and tragedy or they have committed suicide and live on as the undead, in misery.
I am not saying I would wish anyone evil. But I do know myself well enough now to know I think I know better what lurks inside the hearts of men and women. I am not as naïve as I once was. And I’m not as naïve about myself as I once was. I know of what I am capable. But also as well I respect my level of tolerance.
I am not saying Boginki or Rusalki exist anywhere, but who is to say they do not. Having known about them from childhood and reflecting on my disappointed feelings as an adult, I have more sympathy for those mythological beings who act out of passion, out of rage.
I stay away from people who do not know me or wish to know me, who do not wish to walk with me in my darkest moments. They do not wish to know me in my darkness. Trust me, they do not. I yearn for my old mother Poland some nights. I think of how foolish I once was. I wonder if I should have married and allowed my husband to take me away from all the things I had ever known. But Mother Poland and my family are with me always in both my brightest and my darkest heart. America is a pale imitation of a culture, of a medium for life, though she is mine now in all my loneliness. She is my ugly stepchild. But still, she is mine, and I hold her dear.
I found a motel on St. Pete run by a quiet German couple. Earlier that day upon my arrival to town, I had deposited the money from the policy with no fanfare.
At check in I wore the black of a widow. I was very quiet, subdued, some might even say I seemed to be appropriately mourning.
On my first evening I wore to the pool a conservative kaftan, had a drink from the bar only at the cocktail hour and only one.
The police had questioned me a few days ago when he died but only to rule me out, had made note of an alibi.
There would have been only the one motive, though a considerable one, the sizable life insurance policy.
After the questioning, I had to survive the duties – the mourning wife, funeral director, hostess and I was surprised I had it in me to be so cold and unfeeling. But all I had to remember was my husband’s iron grip on my arm, the bruising, the years of indignities, and I was a woman of steel. Before I left town I paid the death expert, my white knight.
At the beach my first sunset there, how good the warm breeze felt on my cheek as I followed the path between the dunes, the setting sun on my back, the knowledge of the money tucked away in my account, my German hosts polishing my car in the lot.
There was a little brick hut apparently for storing beach equipment along the path. And beside it, a small concrete outcropping where five smooth black cats lounged.
What did they know? I thought to myself, amused. Very little.
On the beach as the sun fell I must have drifted asleep.
I woke up in the darkness to mewling and purring beside me. The cats, I thought.
One had pressed its lips to mine. I couldn’t move. It had taken all my breath, its yellow eyes penetrating the dark.
I woke, gasping for air. It had been a nightmare.
I sighed in relief and returned to my room. The next day, a group of them waited for me outside my door. I could barely pass to get breakfast.
I was not able to stay at St. Pete without the cats following me, more and more of them. It made me feel conspicuous and self conscious. And of course people looked at me.
I moved to another beach town further north and stayed inside most of the time but found they clustering near the door though I never fed them. They followed me when I went to to the grocery or to town, crowding in, harassing, mewling, hissing.
It’s been months now and I’m half crazed. To be honest, I hope to die.
At night, Billy sits with Brother John and the guys at their WAR house in the Panhandle as they watch the videos of the National Socialist Party. Billy always sits on the scratchy green tweed sofa that reminds him of his Granny’s but Brother John’s smells like earth and rain and the chocolate smell of mildew.
It is Hitler’s birthday. Mother Beulah has made a Nazi cake in the colors of the flag. She sets it on the oilcloth. Her arms are exposed and giggling like Granny’s. He imagines them soft to the touch. In the center of the sheet cake she had written in a thin chocolate scrawl: Happy Birthday, Hitler! Mama Beulah has arthritis and her hands weren’t steady but Brother John doesn’t fault her.
Billy gets a corner piece of the cake, where the piped chocolate icing has bunched up and there is a tiny SS bolt. Everybody is grabbing for the plates and tiny plastic forks. He pulls himself through sweat drenched boyhood, some bigger bodies too, shoving, the guys cackling and laughing. Mama never made a big cake like this. His birthday was on Halloween. She put a candle in a jacko-lantern. He blew it out. There was no one around.
Every night after dinner, they watch the videos of the Hitler youth in the Old Country, before The Second World War. They talk of the racial consciousness of the boy in the video who plays the drum so hard in the Hitler youth band, who looks like a live Little Drummer Boy from Billy’s nighttime book in the guest room at Granny’s. One of the guys, usually Grady, whose sideburns are so wide and long they’re almost a beard, always says that drummer kid’s got his shit together.
Grady wears black boots with red laces. Red laces mean something. Billy’s boots are red with black laces. If he grows up good in the movement and succeeds, he’ll get his blood laces and black boots.
Billy sneaks downstairs after the salute. The salute is when they stand and put an arm out to the Nazi flag on the wall and Brother John sings the anthem he plays on a disc, a song about a pure white America. Brother John can’t sing and doesn’t always know the words but everyone has to put on a German helmet from the bin. No one smiles. You have to make her eyebrows bunch up and your eyes shaded. You have to sing very loudly. When it’s over you have to say, very loudly, White Power!
One time they’d burned an American flag in the woods when the Klan came for speeches and a cross burning. They had a punk Nazi band, definitely the kind of thing his stepfather hated, the sounds clashing like a car accident, screeching guitars, the band leader’s deep growls that didn’t sound like words. A force took a hold of Billy’s body and he thrashed about with the brothers in the heat and inky darkness, their bodies slamming into each other, girls watching from the fringes, silent and slouching, smoking.
He deserved to go to jail, it was true, that time living with his Mama and new Daddy. He held up a store with some friends and fired shots though no one got hurt. When he got out, only Brother John was there to make bail, along with Grady and a couple of guys his age, punk ass kids like him who were no longer wanted by their parents. His stepfather handed him over. He didn’t see his Mama again. He didn’t see his Granny. He didn’t hear the songs his Granny sang to him in a wavery voice at night about going to sleep, not worrying his head.
There is a mission that night of the cake, a ride along, and he is forced to go and he didn’t know about it. He is wrenched up from his bed by Brother John, his arm clamped by the same grip that held him sometimes against his will when secret things were happening, secret things even the other boys didn’t know about.
There is a group of them together in the pickup truck, the crickets and night frogs screeching, an owl its loud “hoo” insistent. They bump along in back, Grady and another older guy, and another kid his age. John is driving. The grand wizard has joined them, the wizard who always insisted from podiums in speeches they were about nonviolence. Billy asked him once after a ceremony about the noose patch on his robe. The wizard merely glared at him, his face severe under a pointed hat decorated with stars.
When they get to a house in the woods, there are some other skinheads there already with sawn off shotguns. They busted in and hauled out a black man and laid him out behind the truck. The man’s wife runs outside, screaming. A skinhead with a the big fat gun they called The Judge cocks the piece against her skull. The skinhead bending over the black man has a chain over his shoulder.
“You two boys, you young’uns!” he says pointing to Billy and the other young kid in the back. “Time to step up and be men.”
“You heard him now,” says Brother John. “Time to get out now and earn your laces! Time to see something, be someone.”
The man with the chain tells the other boy to run the chain around the hauling hitch. Then he gives Billy the rest.
“It’s in your hands, son. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Billy thinks only of Brother John. Billy has no one. Nowhere he belongs. He would get his red laces and even the older guys would think he was a bad ass Nazi and no one would treat him like a baby.
Brother John and Grady hold the black man’s ankles who is kicking and screaming. Billy puts the chain around them. Brother John hands him the lock. “It’s on you, son.” he says. “Let’s clean everything out now. Be a man.”
While the man kicks and Brother John yells at him, Billy hears his Granny’s gentle wavering voice singing Mary Poppins’ lullaby: “While the moon drifts in the skies, stay awake, don’t close your eyes.”
He clamps his hand over the lock and sprints into the woods, the undergrowth slapping his jeans, the thick night air flowing over him like warm water, the throats of the tree frogs cheering him.
“Billy!” he hears Brother John call, but he is racing through the night and is soon at the highway and can’t hear them at all.
The one thing Florida hares appreciate the most is a lone woman and her daughter, a lone woman desperate to see her daughter matched. In fact, the marsh hare of the Keys, named S.p. Hefneri for playboy founder Hugh Hefner, rather overshoots himself with conquests which is to be expected. Often when a daughter goes missing detectives check the protective briers, dense clumps of magnolia trees, and the mangroves along the shore. These are the places where the handsomely sleek hare with dark brown fur and greyish white belly makes his home. And what the little playboy lacks in size he more than adequately makes up for in charm and persistence. Many a young lady has become ensnared.
S.p. hefneri meet women of the island on their garden patches. “Wanna play?” they say, “wanna come out and play?” Usually the hare of the Lower Keys are nibbling a piece of sawgrass or clover, their eyes gleaming with predatory spirit, their mouths secretly watering with the capture of a young woman. Their endangerment has them thinking irrational mating outside the species. They sit in yards, the sound of the surf burrowing into their long ears , the breeze ruffling their coats, their noses twitching to the smell of salt, dead marine life, and fresh grass. They hop. They hop some more. They spring about, stretching their sleek bodies for the benefit of their observers, admiring young women so they hope. Someone will take note. That is their confidence.
Hugh number 121 observes wife number 16 come into the yard. Only 150 of the S.p. Hefneri exist on the island but this one is not worried. What a wonderful tail she has, he thinks. He will make her his. What a wonderful ride she will enjoy on his tail.
“Stop eating our sawgrass. Mother is not pleased,” the black haired beauty Brynn Violet scolds. She has a nice fire in her dark brown eyes. He knows she has only made an excuse to come outside and talk to him. In typical hare fashion, he says to himself, “She is in love, she is entranced, she protests in abundance.”
In fact, Brynn Violet’s mother, being a religious woman, had been worrying the hare was a portent of a hurricane. It was a witch’s familiar, she reminded her daughter. “Go out there and tell the tatty thing to go away.”
The old mother was old enough to remember tales of her great, great grandmother swept out to sea by a category five, when people were whipped about like rag dolls and drowned in the bay. She had survived it, and the only explanation: She was a witch. Brynn Violet’s great grandmother and grandmother were also said to be witches, with nary any patience for Christian fears about about hares and black magic.
In fact quite a few female ancestors in Brynn Violet’s family could enter the form of a hare and were keepers of other familiars suck as crows and magpies. Her mother reminded Brynn Violet that all of them died eventually, they were not all powerful, lest the child fall prey to what those poor on the island were susceptible to – practices and beliefs, evil, shortcuts to hard work.
“Take a ride on my tail,” the hare says. “Let me take you to my home where you can stroke my warm coat and drink my tea.”
She refuses him. And again he comes the next day and she refuses him yet again. On the third day, however, she breaks down at last and leaps on his tail. Her mother, observing what is happening, races from the house. But she cannot catch them. Police and detectives cannot find them. Another island daughter, taken prisoner.
When Brynn Violet returns home on her own conniving and strength, she tells her mother the tale of how the dirty thing tried to make her his sixteenth wife; tried to force her to entertain the wedding party of a crow and magpie by having her cook the wedding feast. She managed to steal large bundles of mangrove twigs just outside the window and make a huge doll standing by the hot stove, cooking wedding stew and tea.
It was later told in town the impatient hare approached the doll, ordering it about, and lopped its head off in frustration thinking to goad his soon to be bride into action. When the twig head rolled off, the hare cried out in shock, alarm, and grief.
“I was so alone,” Brynn Violet says to her mother when she was safely tucked away at home, enjoying her mother’s best stew. She cries as she describes how demanding the hare was and how the crow looked at her with black eyes, how the magpie cocked its head and pecked her arms and hair.
“Well you are home now,” says her mother, kissing her on the forehead.
And that is how the clever Brynn Violet, who is named for the island of Islamorada, meaning purple island, restored herself to her happy life with her mother in their humble abode by the sea.