An excellent flash fiction piece at the Cabinet of Heed. Enjoy.
Fall 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.
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 she died, a young mother found a chili recipe in the cash box. “Make it with love,” the instructions said, “and you will be blessed.”
He stood at the foot of her son’s bunkbed. She had slept there the night before, her son being grown and in college. He had been dating her for about six months, but had not succeeded in getting her to sleep the entire night with him. She slept alone.
She reached out and touched the name stitched on his shirt. He kissed her lips. She wore only gloss. He liked that.
“I want to make you some coffee,” she said.
Her hair was mussed up. He wanted to forget his scruples, drop his pants, and climb right into her child’s bed, but he was running late.
“I don’t have time.” It was cold outside. He had to get the truck started. “OK, make me coffee, would ya? And chop, chop.” He patted her bottom.
She would pour him a steaming pint in his big thermos with cream and sugar and he would drink from it slowly to make it last. He would make sure everyone noticed its presence too, clinking it down here or there.
When he came back into the house, she was on the kitchen counter, kneeling, stretching for a bag of sugar.
“Watch it now, baby,” he said, trying to scold her, though he had caught a glimpse of her dimpled thigh under her nightshirt. He knew he would remember it all day. He pulled her down and retrieved the sugar. She took it from him with her icy, thin fingers.
“Let’s get married,” he said.
She didn’t look up to meet his gaze. She held the bag over the mouth of the thermos. As he watched a seemingly endless white stream fall into his coffee, he felt a pressure on his chest.
“Yes,” she said. When he looked up, he saw that she was watching his face, was not watching the sugar, was smiling in that way she saved for things that secretly pleased her.
Once upon a time there lived in Numbskull Village an unusual little girl named Flower. Now this particular Flower was unlike all other girls in the village in that she was such a simple thing, she believed everything anyone ever told her. Even though this was Numbskull Village, almost everyone knew you could never trust anyone one hundred percent of the time. They knew this because one night when they were partying, some of them saw shadows on a cave wall and believed people who walked in front of the fire became bigger, ergo you could not trust people because you could not trust them to remain the same size.
But Flower was an anomaly and as she grew, she continued to say things like “a rose is a rose is a rose,” thereby demonstrating her belief in her teacher’s interpretation that “a thing is what it is.” Flower also said things like “Jesus loves me” without a hint of doubt and this is because other people she respected and admired told her this was true and besides, Jesus’ statue stayed the same size Sunday after Sunday and therefore Jesus could be trusted to be who he said he was.
One day, some boys got together and decided to have a little fun. They decided to stick it to this Flower babe and give her some love poems. Yeah! That’ll get her going! They said, slapping each others’ butts. Well, actually, they decided to have the girls write the poems. They requested that the girls phrase the lines in such a way as to evoke a mad passion. They said: Put just enough in there about Flower to make her believe she is the recipient, OK? So, you know, do girls smile? Put some stuff in there about smiles. Do they have hearts? Oh yeah, put that in there too. Also, bunnies. Girls love bunnies.
Then one of the smartest of the girls – which in Numbskull isn’t saying much – spoke up and said: So what happens when she believes these poems were meant just for her? What happens when she falls in love with you? What will you say then? The smartest of the boys said, Well let’s just say we give these poems to all the girls and even to some of us guys, that way it’ll look like we didn’t give them just to her, it’ll look like everyone got these poems, you know? Hence, The “Well-Meaning” Poets Society was born. (And they used air quotes too, in referring to themselves, and it made them feel funny and they bought beer and bashed their heads against boulders.)
So Flower took all of the poems the postman gave her and ate them all up, she gobbled them down whole. She really did. They were like sugar candy, like hot lava rocks that blew her socks off, that steamed her little hot tamales. Her parents didn’t need heat all winter and the snow melted from around the base of the house so that bulbs shot up early and the flowers bloomed. And when spring came, Flower couldn’t contain herself anymore. She had to go out and find her own true Love. She went searching, searching, everywhere, but she only saw mirrors on all the Numbskull faces. What had become of her Love? But she had not written the poems, had she? So why did she only see herself? That’s when one mirror told her she was mistaken to think she was special. When that mirror spoke, it sounded like it could have been the one who wrote the poems because he made reference to the unspecialness of a billion black bunnies.
And so, inevitably it seems, her heart broke. She ran through the village and up the hill to her tiny house. Her parents held her as she cried and cried. They had waited for this Moment. They knew it was coming and now they thought they could relax a little and help teach her by Hard Experience what all the other children seemed to know. She would likely become something less like a Hothouse Flower and more like a Dandelion or Weed.
But that which is called a Flower by any other name would still be as trusting and they were not to change her. In fact, she grew only more Hothouse-gorgeous as the bitterness poured down and off and around her and flooded the town, fertilizing crops, drowning fields, providing new homes for water birds and their babies, and bringing people from villages all around to swim in their beautiful blue lakes and marvel in the wonders of a village no longer called Numbskull but instead “Miroslava” which means “peace and glory.”
First published in State of Imagination
Back when the sky stayed the blood red all day, when the beasts in the undergrowth ate gardeners and sunbathers, when workers came to hotels rising up from the scrub from which they had always lain and slit the throats of sleeping tourists, when the rumbling of the hurricanes did not stop but shook the earth in constant tremors, when we held our infants tight for fear, when we cried in the dark and ran from falling trees, when live wires threatened our walk to stores bereft of goods, when our computers were good for nothing but as paperweights and a place to drape our soaked clothes, when rumor had it our president was in an underground facility at his vacation address, when gas generators poisoned families because people didn’t know how to use them and there was no one to take them to hospitals, when it hailed afternoons in summer, when our children went to bed crying and woke up in terror, when there were no more leaders, when there were skirmishes and death among us over food, candles, matches, the dead walked out of the sea and dwelt among us and made it their course to banish the divide.
My father is a birdman. By instinct the birds know him as a living man and not a statue and so they hover near his still, sitting frame, standing on their little bird legs, perching on his shoulders and knees, poking their heads into his pockets looking for seed.
My mother declared him petrified, useless. That was before she left him, she a bird herself flown from our little yellow kitchen of continuous spaghetti dinners and fried bologna sandwiches.
My father is quite an active man though as I grew I came to understand just not active in the direction desired by my mother. “Son,” he says to me, “Every bird in the city will be fed by sundown, he says, every bird will get their taste of my cones.” At night he coats pinecones with peanut butter and rolls them through birdseed.
He teaches me what to do so I can help him after school. Rather than show me how to play ball or take me fishing, my father teaches me the ways of his art.
“When you are with the birds their feathers become your wings,” he says, “their cooing the secret stirrings of your heart.”
His oddity never occurred to me though kids at school laugh at us saying my father shampoos himself in bird shit, my father would one day be taken up into space by a huge flock, my father was about to sprout wings and strut around like a pigeon, my father was CEO of birddom, my father was Bird Jesus and some birds were going to be saved from the birdpocalypse in which there would be a birdbath lake of fire and the 666 bird.
My father lost his job when he came back from the fighting. His eyes were torn away he said. His heart was in the gutter. At work he kept his jaws locked when he was supposed to speak and he kept getting lost and not able to find his way to meetings and conferences. That’s what he told me the first night we smeared the pinecones with peanut butter then rolled them through the seed spread out on the newspaper on the basement floor.
“A man is not meant to see another man’s bone, the skin torn from muscle, another man’s guts, his brains,” he says. “It is not meant for man to see man disassembled for at the sight, you lose yourself. Both you and the man so disassembled lose the dignity it is meant for a man to have. Without dignity many things are not possible.” As he says this, he slides one of mama’s silver knives over a pinecone. He doesn’t specify exactly what he means by this and I didn’t ask.
That first night we do a few practice pinecones for the backyard. We hang them from the trees with the yarn Mama left in her sewing basket. My father has me climb up among the branches and tie them around the limbs.
Then we sit on the porch and drink sun tea.
“When I got back,’ he says, ‘your Mama was the only one I wanted to see, well, besides you and your sister. I felt guilty because what have I done to earn her, Lord. That’s what I said to the Lord. Nothing, said the Lord. But she’s yours, love her.
“I did love her but I couldn’t love your Mama well enough. That’s a lot of pressure on a man, to love an angel. No matter, son, you have to try, when you have the chance, when God sees fit to bless.”
Nights we hang lanterns from the tree, lanterns we make ourselves with mason jars and candles. They were the jars Ma had collected over the years for canning and since she hadn’t come back to can strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, corn, okra, beans, by fall it seemed she was not coming back. On these nights we take our pinecone operation to the picnic table out back and work by the light of our homemade lanterns.
“We’re gonna roll these pinecones for peace right out there to those birds.”
I thought what use my classmates could make of such a line.
“Once I rolled grenades into enemy zones,” he said. “I saw what no man should see if he expects to stand come judgment. I am paying for grenades with eyes that don’t stay shut at night.”
“It’s ok, Dad. You are doing better now. You take care of things.”
“Don’t hurt another man, son. Let them lock you up before you take another life. Promise.”
“Ok, I promise,” I said and put my hand out to shake and he hugs me with what I recognized as a man’s dignity.
First published in Still Crazy: A Literary Magazine
At the posh Mexican restaurant where her writer friend would be lecturing Ms. Myska ordered a margarita but in “not too crazy a glass, please.” The other women in attendance thought that amusing. Ms. Myska thought the likelihood of accidents quite strong especially since attendees were sitting in rows of chairs and not around tables and she only imagined herself tipping a top heavy vessel. Besides, she had grown, she suspected, somewhat queer in her manners, having sequestered herself for so long, and probably rather queer in speech too, hence the laughter.
And yet, there was the long lost friend, acquaintance really, that despite Ms. Myska’s hesitation to get out again and risk embarrassment, she was determined to see and show support for her friend’s literary efforts. Ms. Myska felt, after the sickness that nearly took her life, she had become a bit of an animal, a rodent, really. She had also grown depressed. She had also developed deep worries for her son. Many days she was speeding to catch up after all that had felled her. She was amazed someone could come out with a book, was a bit jealous perhaps, her own efforts having spun into tiny stories of which she was proud, but her attention on more meditative projects had proved itself to be as brief as a turn of the second hand.
A powerful woman stood as master of ceremonies, someone Ms. Myska had known in what felt a former life, a woman who, having been exposed to a Ms. Myska story, let her have it when asked for a critique. “There is so much static in your story,” the woman had said, “that when you read it out loud, I just want to plug up my ears with my fingers like this,” and she demonstrated what she meant by plugging up her ears and squishing her eyes together. It made Ms. Myska sorry and yet she revised the story and gave it to a small journal who quietly published it, having found it acceptable to the eyes at least. Still, the rift was beginning to form between Ms. Myska and her city, and that was one of the points of contention. Of course she wanted to belong and was moved very deeply in a way that negatively affected her mood after that point. Was she fooling herself? Ms. Myska would always ask that question. And yet she wrote anyway and rarely asked anyone what they thought after she read her work out loud.
“Energy vampires” the lady master of ceremonies, the representative of establishment literature “are people we want to avoid. “People who complain, people who are passive aggressive, people who drag us down.” The margarita was just the right balance of sweet and tart and salt, which Ms. Myska didn’t mind flicking her tongue to the edge of the glass to taste. She didn’t even mind if someone saw. The lady was thin and wiry, a fairly attractive person for about seventy whereas middle aged Ms. Myska had become a bit more plump and matronly, something the MC hinted at when Ms. Myska re-introduced herself to her secret long lasting nemesis: “You look so different,” the wiry lady said, “I hardly recognized you.”
The MC woman had apparently moved on from teaching writing to some kind of coaching which taught every moment was a chance to live up to one’s fullest potential. As part of the introduction she was giving a snapshot of how she could help everyone move to the light, which was what, apparently, Ms. Myska’s novelist friend had done under the tutelage of the grand MC.
It would always be thus, thought Ms. Myska, thinking of the chips and salsa she had seen someone order at the bar. It had looked so delicious she had wanted to place her own order for the conference room but then she would have to juggle too many things without a table and then people would really look.
The sweet face of her friend made her happy she had come. At last she spoke of her twenty five year effort to produce her successful work.
When Ms. Myska got home she found she had forgotten to take the dog out and so she had had an accident and so she took her out and gave her a snack. The sink was full and her son had called, wondering if he could speak to her on the phone before he went to bed. Clothes were strewn everywhere, old projects still waiting. She was home.
Along the shore of his lake in the city of lakes, he fashions boats from waxed paper, affixes huge tissue heats to the corners, sets candles inside and lights them so that the miniature craft are drawn along on the dark water. Lovers pay fifty cents to see their hearts set on fire and set adrift only to witness their incineration somewhere near the opposite bank, the cinder and ash ascending into the grey twilight, the smell of burnt paper, like kindling that flames and is quickly gone, filling the air, an acrid, comforting smell of home fires and warmth.
No one asks him any questions about the meaning of all of this or how or why he started, nor does he think of it too much. He thinks only of the delicate feel of the tissue, the lightness of the string, the slippery paper smoothed and sealed by wax, the fire on the water, the lovers’ faces as they stare at what they have paid for, prompted by who knows what, fascinated to see what becomes of their boat though they all must know what will be so why do they stay to watch? It is a mystery. Are they sad or satisfied somehow in the justification about their beliefs about tissue and hearts and fire, or had they hoped to see their boat, of all others, land on the other side?
Every night a woman who brings him a snack of rice and vegetables wrapped in a tortilla pays him fifty cents to place something small in her boat – tiny babies from Mardi Gras cakes, bodkins she wore in her hair when she was a girl, pieces of wool from her sewing basket in which she kept materials to make socks for soldiers, crosses she buys in packets of ten, pieces of kibble. She always has a prayer and dedication which she asks the man to recite though every night he protests he does not have his glasses and every night she gives him her late husband’s readers from the nightstand, and as the boat floats out, he says her prayers for the soldiers, the young life, the married couple, the single women, the woman herself and her cat and her grandchildren.
He found himself saying a prayer for himself one night as he set a boat in the water containing a gold heart. He snatched the boat back, soaking his trousers. He retrieved the heart. This is my gig, he said gruffly, as if she had affronted him with something. She asked for his blessing upon the heart. She asked him to kiss it. Instead, he chucked it out into the lake with all of his force where it plunked into the dark center and disappeared. They stood for a moment, the frogs screeching in judgment. It’s time to get a move on, he said. People are waiting. Indeed, a line had formed and that was the last night he saw her.
Every night he was hungry for the food she gave him and every night he had nothing to wonder about, what she would put into her boat, how she would ask him to pray, the feel of her late husband’s glasses upon his nose. How he missed that feel, strangely enough, and the strange prayers she had written, not like the coherent prayers he knew, but her erratic thoughts upon a subject, not a petition, but a statement as if she were telling someone how things were. He missed it.
And so he collected things for her, things he thought she would like, things he liked too, things forgotten and dusty in closets, things from childhood and a career and family from another life, and he put them in boats and watched the hearts burn and the boats sink with prayers on his lips uttered in a strange tongue, her way of speaking and thinking that had infused him and he believed himself capable of finding that gold heart had only there been money for proper equipment and younger lungs. In its depths the dark lake held his gift and he did not mourn but for the first time understood why couples waited until they saw what they knew would come to pass, and that in the waiting they anticipated what was most beautiful, a beginning and an end, all at once.
Now Ms. Myska lives on the edge of her city, her townhome overlooking a small forest, more like a stand of trees, where once she had found an old dollhouse, where once she had found a muddy salsa CD without a case, where once she had seen a Florida black bear wandering through the scrub oak and pine. It was the place of meeting between Ms. Myska and people who also lived on these outskirts or who dumped their things here, people she had never met but got to know through the objects they discarded. It was also the place of meeting between her and animals, her and trees, her and the moon which peeped first through the trees on inky nights and then rose overhead, attended by a smattering of stars still visible in her relatively undeveloped part of town. Her home extended out onto the woods and she welcomed whatever came to her through her doors and windows.
The son of Ms. Myska had made it clear to her he did not want doors and windows open when they had any of their noisy electronics on and this out of respect for their neighbors. Though she was normally compliant with this line of thinking, when he left for school on the morning of the eve of the inauguration, she opened her door and let the forest and the bears and the folk who may be sleeping among the trees hear her winter music: pieces by Liszt, Vivaldi, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, thoughtful pieces, pieces reminiscent of snow, pieces reminiscent of the holiday just passed, pieces reminiscent of the silence of space on a cool evening, pieces reminiscent of the majesty of the Florida black bear, pieces reminiscent of the hope of trees. On this eve, she played for trees that they may have what they need through a cold winter, or longer, through a holocaust of trees. She played that their seeds would burrow deep into the earth to be kept for a time not quite possible to imagine but the fulfillment of which was the fervent desire of Ms. Myska.
They say the selkie is an embodiment of a dead soul, manifested in the form of a seal. The first day of spring dozens of seals washed up along the Jersey shore and it was among this wreckage of creatures I searched for you. How else to account for your disappearance into Grand Central the day we watched the silent protestors lying down to mark the murder of an innocent woman gunned down by the police? We met under the Pisces constellation, do you remember? I held your hand. When I let go of you, you disappeared in the crush of people of the terminal.
They say a man can capture a selkie and make her his wife if he captures the skin she lays aside while she sunbathes and frolics in the sea. He must hide it or she will put it back on and swim away. You may be somewhere off the shore. We have been told not to go near the seals along the beach, as if I have ever had the right to approach you in your freedom. But still I miss you, Maire.
I lit a candle for you at St Patrick’s. I listened to the young choir, their voices piercing the clutter of scaffolding, caressing the Pieta partially obscured by a tarp. A rose lay at the feet of Christ and Mary, the mother of sacrificing and long suffering. I went back to Grand Central and looked for you among the people who may have seen you in the station. I described your long dark hair, your chocolate eyes, your long limbs. I spoke with the man who slept beneath Orion’s belt, to the woman playing a saw with a bow, to the copper man still as a statue. I wondered if they may enjoy some special frequency not accessible to the rest of us as they lay closer to ground tremors, stars, tears, accidents.
You used to say whenever we visited the city it didn’t matter we didn’t have a plan. We must at least always meet here, at the Station, by the café, the place of our first meeting where we each enjoyed a madeleine and cappuccino. We agreed upon this. Do you remember? Remember when we spoke to the Portuguese couple new to the United States, whose grandparents had migrated through Ellis Island a century ago? They were so proud to use their newfound mother tongue. And I learned something about you too, as we spoke to this couple. I learned of your Irish roots.
I cannot find you and I cannot find the skin you left along the shore. As I said, the police have told us not to approach the seals who will bite. Is it any coincidence I still have the marks from where you bit me? Was that a sign, warning, a portent? We are told the seals are hungry and have come closer to shore to wait for the tide to bring them herring.
Are you happier there, in the deep? Is that where you are? I would like to be gentler with you now in my attitude toward you. I would like to be able to say I am happy if you are happy. But here is what I think: You may as well be dead, you are so thoroughly missing and no one has been of assistance, not even the police in all of their brutality and misguided energies.
I have not given up hope. I have found the remnants of a seal, long perished, not quite the skin as in the legend, so I did not embark upon that turn. But I will find the skin of your being and take it for my own and hide it in a place you will never go and you will have no choice but to love me if you are still among us and not lost to the abyss.
Today, I consulted the woman playing the saw. She sat near the entrance to the crosstown train releasing into the air a song like the music of the spheres, of the sirens. She said to expect you, but that you would not come in the way that is proscribed but through an alternate portal. I was to go lie on a grave in Brooklyn and she wrote a plot number down on a piece of trash. How did she die? I say. But the woman who plays the saw pretended not to hear and so did not answer.
I have no proof to myself now whether you were real or wholly imagined, we never exchanged rings or any little thing, only intimacies and whisperings, shiftings between sheets, our bodies in light and shadow. And yet how to explain this hank of hair I keep in my pocket?
I boarded the train to Brooklyn. Passengers boarded a train on a parallel track. We leave together, both trains, going at the same speed, passing through tunnels and stations, the pillars between us framing parallel cars like the frames of an old movie. Do you move parallel to me now? At the cemetery, where I am directed, there is no sign of you.
At day’s end, the day before I have to leave the city, I go to the museum and find a giant statue of a woman, made of candles, burning. I stand for hours, watching her melting, thinking of you shedding your pelt. I want to put my hands into the melting wax, feel its softness and heat but the museum guard is watching. What if I told him what I was searching for, would it matter to him? Perhaps he had a love like me. Perhaps he had only a dream, would it matter? Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
I should talk to this man, brusque and stern, share what I found of a selkie song. I copied it from a big book at the library and kept it in my pocket so now the paper is soft and worn, the writing faded. Shouldn’t men share their dreams?
One of my favorite forms of the short story is “flash fiction.” This is variously interpreted, length being one defining element. Though I prefer working in the longer end of this, it is a challenge to see if I can convey something of a shapely story in 250 words, a word limit of some flash fiction journals and slam competitions. Though I leave the competition to the competitors, it is still satisfying when something feels finished. I don’t always know why, something clicks inside and says: “Done!” And then I am just pleased I somehow pulled it off. Alex Pruteanu, prolific writer and this month’s co-editor of Flash Frontier says this of flash fiction and the rationale behind his editorial choices:
“Something I always look for in flash fiction is urgency: the urgency of the writer, but also the situation that I, as a reader, am being presented with. I want to be thrown into a scene and left there for me to figure out how to get out. I like that. And so I made sure that a complete story wasn’t being spoon-fed to me, even severely compressed as it must be when the word limit is 250 words. I also enjoy controlled chaos and have a visceral reaction when I read well-constructed flash that seems out of control and about to explode in my face. And finally, I just like things that come at me from obtuse angles. It’s hard to somehow verbalize this but…flash fiction for me reads like Thelonious Monk’s piano playing. Something hits you from a never-before-seen angle. And you think: holy moly, this actually works.”
The theme for this month’s Flash Frontier is “Motels.” It is interesting to note the variety a well chosen, concrete theme can inspire, especially one that makes us think of travel, or even waywardness, an on-the-fringes existence. It doesn’t always have to suggest these things but a built-in opportunity exists for the writer who will grasp it: Tension. This is the torque of any story. The best stories employ multiple layers of human anguish and difficulty, not a melodramatic presentation of course, but a visceral one so that by the end we are so close to what is happening as to feel we are inside a world that is not our own. Good stories humanize us by letting us experience the lives of more people we can ever know in a lifetime. In this sentence about the function of stories, I am roughly paraphrasing Harold Bloom, one of our most erudite literary critics.
The Old Woman from Ipanema
Coastal processes assessment, Brevard County, Florida
The night we met at The Red Fox Lounge at the Mount Vernon Inn, I started to lose my vision. Lorna Lombey was singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and handing out tambourines and maracas and castanets and suddenly there were two Lornas and two of you and two of everything else. After that weekend, the historic Florida inn would be destroyed by land developers and Lorna would no longer play where she and her late husband of thirty years had a Vegas lounge act.
I held your hand, tears in my eyes, and watched the room double.
“Let’s get a drink,” you said, knowing nothing. I had not been open about my health. Dating at fifty was one long sales pitch.
We checked into a room. You laid me onto the bed and hovered over me in twos. “I’ll never leave you,” you said. When I was twenty-five and newly married my husband said the same thing though I left him first.
In the morning, I woke to a note: Goodbye Angeline. My double vision had fled, long enough for me to drive home and watch the news that night, including news of the destruction of a Winter Park landmark, yet another link to our past, this David Lynchian concatenation.
My dog rolled over and I thought: This is the one true thing.
I scratched her belly.
“Our city will be lonelier without strange things such as these,” I said.
First published in Flash Frontier, September 2016
There is a murderer staying in the ice hotel. He sleeps on his ice bed which is covered in reindeer fur. He drinks Absolut vodka from a frozen shot glass. He cries to the walls made of the clear, pure, bubble-free ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. The snow cementing the ice block muffles his grief. It absorbs what he cannot bring himself to say: he killed his girlfriend when he caught her with another man.
The ice in his room shifts, sighs, drips. It is April 6, the end of the season. A dripping snow column beside his bed pulses with multi-colored LED lights, He is calmed by this, this lifelike column a beating heart, a gentle mother watching over him as he lies upon his bed. He finally falls asleep in a room that is twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit.
The next morning, the murderer goes on a tour to meet the indigenous people, the Sami or “reindeer people.” A group of men taking the tour are hung over and worried about getting to Heathrow. They make fun of the guide who fries reindeer meet before the fire in his ancestral tent. The guide tells them about his culture and the men ask him where he gets his clothes and the guide says his mother sews them. “Oh,” says one of them. “I would have said Saks.”
There is a woman with them too but she watches the fire intently. After they have eaten, they ride in sledges behind reindeer. The men are thrilled with the bull who is so fast, pulling each of them, they are tossed into the snow. The woman quietly rides in her sledge behind a cow. The murderer takes over her sledge when she is finished and doesn’t mind the pace.
He wonders if he could escape to this place, ingratiate himself among the people, learn the language, tend the herds. He wants to live among the reindeer with their large brown, wet eyes. Could he escape into the wilds of Lapland, where in winter the temperatures hover around zero and snow would not be shared with another for miles? He could change his name, adopt their belief in an animated world, exact his own punishment or wait for it to come.
As it stands, the ice hotel is melting. Soon it will no longer be structurally sound. He buys equipment in Jukkasjärvi and a pack of dogs using the remaining money in his account. The trees stand around him like thickly frosted decorations on a thickly frosted cake. He sets out on his sled, making his mark upon the snow, a mark that will be gone when the snow falls again that night, a wet spring snow but a blanketing one. Even the hotel will melt into the Torne River and be resurrected the next winter with no traces of anyone having slept there before.
* Some of the details regarding the hotel and tour are loosely based on Barbara Sjholm’s beautifully written travelogue, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland.
First published in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series under the title “Melting”
David Adamson’s Snow Capped B & W (flickr)
When they come to capture Father, they do so with ropes and sticks and feed him bear containing a tranquilizing substance. We watch as he devours the flesh, its blood resting in the fur I use to kiss. He had been starving and in mourning for my mother, who had been captured, tagged, and taken away to higher regions. My brother and sister and I do not make it obvious to him we could see his defeat. We eat our grains and cream in silence in cupboard spaces and we do not crowd him or come near.
The men hoist him onto a stretcher, their pipes set in their teeth, the smoke from the bowls drifting down over our father’s limp frame, as if he were powerless, as if he were lazy and never chased deer and wild game, as if he had not laughed at our games in sunshined fields and watched for danger along the shadowed edges.
I touch his paw as his body moves past and it seems as dead and yet it has steadied me while I took my first steps. With it, he has lifted me onto his back where I would ride holding onto his fur, the nape of his neck smelling of burnt wood and leaves.
My brother and sister are calling out for my father, my brother and sister are crying. It is the new people who do not understand, I say, though I know my brother and sister, being young, do not know my meaning. I have no words of comfort for them while the presence of the men lingers heavily in the air. Drink your milk I say and they drink the heavy milk at the bottom of the bowl, the last of the milk my father stole from the farmer further down in the valley.
I am not ready to speak for my mother and father both. I am not ready to guide.
I take them out to play where they can run among the stones of the people who have died. They should not have to watch as their father’s body jars as if lifeless on the open-bed truck while men’s ash falls on his fur.
I tell them these are the stones commemorating all who have returned, though I know they will not believe this in the literal sense I wished it to be understood. And yet it comforts them, children of tombstones and loss, that in some sense, this is true, and that even men with stiff lipped bearded faces have no say in what cannot be contained, or shot, or beaten.
And when the sun is high we take a picnic on the stones and when it rests over the mountain range we lie among the memorials to people who were and wait for the chorus of animals that contains the voice of our mother penetrating the mists of the dreaming dead.
First appeared in Chrome Baby
It was appropriate she lived on the edge, the edge of town, the outer edge along the woods that will sometime be subsumed by buildings but for now she caught a glimpse of what it was like to look into trees, the dark hollows they created by their limbs. She lived in a small house three stories high and each story faced the pines and scrub oak and the hidden homeless, black bears, and garbage people in the town threw out. The woods sometimes yielded odd things she collected and saved, such as a Merengue CD covered in dirt and filth she washed and played in her CD player, the words foreign but the tune and beat so upbeat she had to move her hips a bit while she sashayed across her small living room, the tune spilling out into the inky darkness.
One morning she found a dollhouse exactly like the dollhouse of her girlhood. It was only soiled a bit, but it was the same basic white frame house, three stories, interestingly, she thought to herself, the same structure as her own house though the rooms were distributed differently. She brought it inside and cleaned it. Her suitor, a Norweigan who liked to fix things, patched the tiny broken furniture inside and the tiny shingles on the roof. He painted each room and the exterior as well. The one requirement, she told him, was that he was to leave the kitchen table legs and dining chair legs as they were: White with brownish red tips. When she was a girl, she had nightmares the table and chair legs were really matches and that if you scraped them the wrong way, the house would go up in flames. She didn’t know why she wanted them the same way. She just did.
I started telling the story by saying it was appropriate the woman of our story lived on the edge of town and maybe that is because in her beige little living room where she lies down and stares at nothing sometimes and wonders whether she will make it she is constantly reminded of another edge: The edge of death, of illness. It is an edge, she knows now, that not everyone has to face, at least not in the middle of their life. It is an empty edge, the edge of oblivion. When you stare at that edge, you stare into your own silence. She is glad for the red pillows that dot the beige sofa, ottoman, chairs. They catch her gaze. They ignite her interest. Each is different and she has selected them carefully. She is glad for the dollhouse that reminds her of her girlhood, the table and chairs in the dollhouse whose tips reminded her of matches. She enjoys the memory even though in her younger years, she was frightened, she was frightened the night of that Christmas day when she saw all she wanted – a beautiful house her parents had constructed for her in secret – whose very existence might be threatened by what’s inside. She hopes the woods will never go away. Even if she finds a bear there, if one should meet her on the doorstop as she is fumbling with the lock or if one day, in her foolhardiness, she should wander out into them with a compass and a sandwich, she hopes she will stay in the place she bought, her own death, chosen and full of danger.
My mother is a wolf. She is with me at the campsite. There is a sign that specifically says do not keep food accessible to wild animals. She sits at the table and has tea with me. She is sitting on her haunches.
My mother is crying. She says there are things she never taught me: how to sew from a pattern, how to manage my accounts, how to plan for a week’s worth of shopping. Her paw is on my hand. It is warm from scrambling over the sun-kissed rock, from a blood that has become different from the way my blood runs, which is almost reptilian by comparison.
I have no feeling any more, mother, I say, no regrets. I am serving the cinnamon tea. I am serving it in delicate white china.
In the sun, my mother is beautiful. In the sun, the blue of her eyes like the sky penetrate my defenses.
I did not raise you this way, to take the hardships of your life this way, she says. I never told you it would always be the same. There are things you must do now to become who you must become.
The smoke of the fire curls up into the air. I wonder if my mother will return that evening with the other wolves, to threaten me for my meager fare — a bird shot in midflight, a rabbit caught in a snare. I wonder if she will return for me.
She had come to see me during the day at other times, and not for tea, and not for any reason. I have felt the presence of the others hovering about the trees. So far, it has not resulted in anything, only a mild abrasion on the cheek when we kissed, an unintentional scraping, drawing a faint line of blood.
I am disappointing her, I feel, and yet I cannot move on. My old life is behind me, in ruins. I mourn it as for an ancient city, burning. My beginning has no map. My mother is not the woman in the yellow dress cooking dinner for my father and my brother and sister. All histories have melted away and these old regrets live on top of the mountain. And yet, except for a few tears, my mother runs in packs at night. I know she protects me, for in the morning, there is a drop of blood in the corner of her mouth or in the web of her paws that she does not explain but wipes away on a napkin.
And yet I continue to straighten the napkins and check the egg timer for steeping.
Published in Apocrypha and Abstractions, February 20, 2014