Issue 7.1

7.1

CONTENTS of ISSUE 7.1

 

—PROSE—

Arthur Lindenberg: Les Yeux et les Rêves

JB Grant: End of a Journey

Marlene S Molinoff: River Running

Seyna Bruskin: The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Guilty

Emily Eddins: Will It Work Out?

Walter B Levis: Panic

Tim Gorham: Charity

Kate Berson: Almost Life

Cynthia Lim: A World of Pain

Mercedes Lucero: A Brief History of Open Windows

Chris Dungey: Half-Assed Science Project

David Lenoe: Mexican Red Bull

Mike Moreschi: Wild Green Pastures

Nancy Bourne: Waiting for Rose

Svetlana Kortchik: Superhuman

Lucy EM Black: Romaine Hearts

Lucas McMillan: Grand Opening

Casey Ark: Put Him Down

Liz McGinley: Amateur Hour

Donald Kenny: A Walk to the End of the Earth

Charles Haddox: Winter Nights


—VISUAL—

Summer Pierre: Artichoke | High Chair | Soup | Garbage Day

—POETRY—

Emily Treakle-Chase: Precursor

John Grey: The Plagiarist

Erik Bendix: Paper Snow | Homage to Ivan Bilibin

Matt Hartman: America II

A Anupama: A Visit to the Gorge at Tolmin, Slovenia | Dance of the Gardener’s Hands

Murray Silverstein: At The Zoo | When Light Arrives | Mother Metaphor

Diane Webster: Laugh Screeches | Sides of the Fence | Need For Breeze

Demond Blake: fading polaroids

William Ogden Haynes: Erosion | Interpretations of the Heart | A Sonnet for the Affluent

Sydney Avey: First Times | Redeem the Gifts of Childhood

Anna Halberstadt: Disappearance

Daniel Gillespie: Forms of Death

Harvey J Baine: Skinny Sidewalk

Mimi Plevin-Foust: Star Magnolia | The Spear

Elya Braden: Asking For It | Back Side of the Shovel

Anton Frost: Backwards | griefs

SuzAnne C Cole: Tombs

Jed Myers: What I Didn’t Hear

Savannah Grant: Falohri

Bob DeWeese: The Telling

Cynthia Eddy: Snow | Rattle

John Harper: Pure | Losing Life | I | Mind

Peycho Kanev: Peter | 2:35 AM

Les Yeux et les Rêves

By Arthur Lindenberg

7.1 I-small gasp breathlessly in the thin air on this plateau high in the Andes mountains in Peru. The bronzed landscape rolls back from agave plants, casting ominous shadows in front of me, but melting into springtime luminescence, and then onward across an unthinkable distance toward twisted red ridges and canyons, finally stopping at a wall of jagged snowcapped peaks piercing whipped-cream clouds into an azure sky.

How can Sally be here, in this photo book of Peru? But her voice forces me to look: Don’t follow me. Leave me. Leave me. Her voice, a frigid wind, rolls down from the peaks, across the steppes, and stings my cheeks. Leave me. Leave me. I turn and move my body, feeling like I am weighted with lead, stopping again panting, step-by-step toward a hill that was cut into terraces of ancient fields of crops by the Incas, more than six-hundred years ago.

A Quechua man with six-hundred years of history etched into his face, a Quechua man—wearing a gray vest, llama shirt, medicine bag hanging from beaded necklace—squats, hums an alien song. Eyes look downward emitting a voiceless Sally. No, don’t follow me. Rumbles through my brain, my breath gasping, my heart thumping in my chest.

I move closer to the man, my lungs nearly bursting. Leave me. Leave me. The shaman lifts his head and smiles through three rotting teeth. He dips into his medicine bag tied around his neck. He pulls out some coca leaves, puts one in his mouth then another.

Eyes lacking pupils wander across my face and body. They record every inch of me outside. Inside, my gut churns. He hands me a coca leaf. Like him, I put it on my tongue. The bittersweet taste dissolves into warmth, soothing my body. I can breathe again.

The shaman puts a hand into one of his pants pockets and pulls out a medicine bundle, a tattered black cloth bag. He lays it on the ground, opens it. He starts a fire there. The flames crackle, Leave me. Leave me. He lays the items out on the cloth, a chuquiraga flower, Sally’s perfume bottle collection, her fur stole, pictures of our daughter when she was ten, Sally’s favorite cookbook, and this book of photographs of Peru. The shaman reaches into his other pocket and pulls out a vial. He opens and pours the contents over the bundle, muttering, Leave me, in Sally’s voice. He wraps up the bundle, ties the ends, and walks to the fire. No, don’t follow me. He lifts it, then chants another ancient cipher, blows on the bundle three times, and throws it into the fire. I lunge forward, to pull it from the flames. No, don’t follow me. Leave me. Leave me.

But the fire swallows the bundle, just sparks flying through the thin air. The sky, the ancient Incan fields, the mountains, and the ground spin and wobble, and soften. I cannot keep from falling out of this book.

* * *

I inhale, hold the air for a while, and then exhale. Scooters and cycles sputter and zoom up and down Boulevard Saint-Germain outside our window. An ambulance siren whines and screams, louder as it speeds by, then changes octave and fades.

My bladder takes over. I close the window, head to the bathroom, and then back to our bedroom, where Iris is still sleeping, naked, and draped over the covers slightly bent, one leg in front of the other.

Before this instant, I had never met Iris. Yet I am not surprised that she sleeps in this bed that we obviously share. I am not surprised that I know her so well, know every line and crease in her forehead, her face with the mole on her chin, each curve of her body soft yet pliant and strong, her velvet skin, her orangey scent, her mellow smooth voice. I know her as well as I know she knows me.

I walk back to the half-open window, pushing the panes outward to let the sounds of Boulevard Saint-Germain and this Paris morning flow into the apartment. Cars and scooters hum by in ebbs and flows like the tide on a beach. Outside conversation spills upward through our window between the surges of traffic: Bonjour, Mademoiselle Bercy, et comment allez-vous ce matin? Je vais bien, merci, Monsieur Callicoit. Allez-vous au marché. Oui, mais d’abord je boirai un café. Me joindrez-vous? A bus roars by, the number fifteen, and hides the conversation, until it is gone. Vous avez lu les nouvelles d’Amérique…? Je ne peux pas tenir cette prise Collette de voisinage…pour instruire, Claude… I put my head out the window far enough to see the marché at the corner of Rue des Carmes. Iris calls me to come back to bed…

* * *

The grandfather clock chimes seven times. Then silence. I open my eyes and survey my bedroom. The house, Sally’s and my house, empty of all but scant furniture. There are a few dishes, the grandfather clock (an heirloom from my childhood), an end table, this bed, and my own clothes and toiletries. All evidence of Sally, of our lives together, of the child we bore and raised, they are gone. The empty house echoes. I put my face in my hands.

* * *

I had been a very successful businessman. Personally, I never had any interest in traveling. From the time we were married, Sally had always wanted to travel, wanted to visit exotic and distant places. But I built my business, and we raised our daughter. After she married, I was able to retire. Sally said that this was our time. She wanted to travel, but she wanted me to go too. I was not interested.

So every so often she went to the bookstore and bought an expensive hardbound book of photographs of some exotic and faraway place. She pored over these books with me sitting next to her. She planned imaginary trips and then begged me to go. When I said no, she went to bed and got up with a migraine. A month or so later, brought home another one of those books of photographs of another faraway place. She pleaded with me to go with her. I did not want to travel.

The seventh book Sally bought was of the highlands of Peru. I spent another evening sitting with her looking at the pictures of Incan structures, the women wearing brightly colored costumes, leading llamas, and weaving. A picture of a shaman blowing on a magic bundle, and in the next photo smiling and reaching for a coca leaf, and the mountains crowned with snow, surrounded by halos of clouds. There was something special about this book, as if you could taste and smell the three-dimensional pictures.

Sally wanted to go. She read about Incan history and contemporary culture, and religious practices. She promised me that this was the right place. I reluctantly agreed. We bought tickets, arranged tours, and got our passports and visas. Then the morning before we were to leave, Sally woke with a migraine and said she was too afraid to leave. We canceled. She stayed in bed for days.

I thought another book might lift her from her doldrums. I bought a book of Paris photographs. I chose Paris with care. Sally remembered a little of her school French. Her college roommate was an exchange student from Paris. For years, they exchanged letters. Eventually, though, they lost touch. Sally was excited about going to Paris. Why hadn’t she thought of Paris before?

We pored over travel guides and picture books. We watched old movies. We studied maps, listened to French music, read Baudelaire, Flaubert, Hugo, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. I looked at the photographs; one in particular of a fin de siècle brasserie with rich deep carved wood, bladed fans, classic bar, and booths and tables. A young woman, mostly blurred, but beautiful, especially her eyes—as if she was looking at me—stared out from this photo. I wanted to see this wonderful city too.

I made reservations at a four-star hotel on Boulevard Haussmann just a few blocks from the Opera House and from the two biggest department stores in Paris. Sally loved to shop. The big tour companies began their bus tours there. The staff spoke English. The concierge could book us shows, dinners, a boat ride on the Seine, and would hail taxicabs for us.

* * *

We arrived in Paris, and with a guide we toured for three days. Went to every major monument, museum, and site. We strolled the Champs-Élysées at night. In my mind, I wandered the small, windy streets lined with food shops, a street market now and then, and sculpted art deco buildings. Then there were the cafés and brasseries. I watched the people, looked at French faces, seeming to me to be carelessly happy.

I thought Sally would be happy, but her smiles were forced, and her laugh tinny. That evening at the hotel, I saw the reason why her suitcase was so heavy. She had taken the book with the photographs of Peru.

The next day on the Pont Neuf, I asked an American tourist to take a photograph of us with the Seine in the background. We paused and smiled. She held my arm as if it was her lifeline. I thanked the person and looked at the picture. An arm clutches mine, but Sally was cropped out of the picture.

* * *

We were leaving Paris tomorrow, and Sally had yet to shop in the two department stores. I suggested that she go while I would take a short walk around the area. She pleaded with me to come with her. But I do not want to shop for women’s things, I tell her. I would just annoy her with my impatience. Even though it is close, she could take a taxi there and get the store concierge to order her a taxi to return to the hotel. She smiled false courage and agreed to go.

That was the last time I saw Sally. When she got into the taxi. I closed the door, smiled, and waved. She put up a good front.

After she left, I walked to Rue Tronchet. Rain threatened in the chill air, so I stepped in an old café for a coffee. I hoped that Sally would enjoy her shopping. Then something—maybe a sound or a whiff of perfume—made me turn and stare at a woman at the table next to me. She looked younger than our daughter. She did not wear any makeup; her hair was tied in a ponytail; and she was dressed casually in jeans, a white blouse, and a black button-down sweater. She caught me glancing at her, but instead of turning away she stared back at me, her eyes deep-sea blue, her mouth soft and turned into a knowing smile. Despite the ten or fifteen feet between us, I tasted her lips, sweet and winey. We were intimate. We were lovers for an instant. Tension. Release. We returned to our cafés.

This is also the power of Paris: to unite two strangers even in a fiction or a dream for an instant. I felt euphoric as I walked back to our hotel.

* * *

I opened our room door and stopped in my tracks: Sally’s clothing and suitcase were gone. There was a note on the bed. It was in Sally’s writing. She wrote that I never was in love with her because I was in love with Paris. She was leaving me and leaving my life. Do not follow me. Leave me. She signed the note.

I had no idea what set Sally off. If somehow Sally had seen me glance at that woman in a café, she also would see me glancing and coveting the city of Paris. Sally was not a jealous person.

I went downstairs. The concierge remembered that she returned by taxi. Then a short time later, he helped her with her things as she got into another taxi. She spoke to him and to the driver in fluent French. The concierge did not hear where she went. But she had a heavy book under her arm, a book with the word “Peru.”

The concierge said that in his kind of job, you see it all. Sometimes people get upset, and even go to stay in another hotel. She probably would be back tomorrow.

When she didn’t come back, I thought that she might go right to the airport. We would meet, make up, and then get on our flight. But Sally never showed up at the airport.

Perhaps she had gone right to the airport yesterday and caught an earlier flight. But when I asked about her at the airline information desk, the person said that nobody with Sally’s name was ever on any flights. The agent told me that their records showed I had purchased a single round-trip ticket to France. I was traveling alone.

I should have been in a panic. I should have felt… But when I thought about it, I thought that something could have been wrong with their computer records. And if Sally had had enough of Paris, she might have flown home earlier on another airline. I waited to board my plane.

* * *

I opened the front door of our house expecting to see Sally, angry at me, or Sally sitting in the kitchen or in the den on the telephone with our daughter. I walked from room to room. There were no signs of her, of anything from our twenty-nine years together. All were gone. There were no clothes, or belongings, or books, or any of the gifts that I gave her. There were no pictures on the wall, no photo albums filled with pictures of us, of our daughter’s years growing up and finally marrying. All were gone. I walked into the bathroom: one toothbrush and a half-empty medicine cabinet. It is as if she never existed.

I never thought that Sally could get that angry. Had she gone to stay with our daughter, or with a friend? I could not find a telephone book. The grandfather clock chimed. I remembered our daughter’s phone number, and a few friends, so I called. All the numbers were not in service. I spoke to the telephone company. They had no record of any of these people. I went back to the living room. On the table sat the book of photographs of Paris.

* * *

I was puzzled, empty, and sad. But quickly I surrendered to the pleasant quiet of my house. At times, I almost believed that Sally had never been there, that our life together had been made up. But there was the book of Paris.

In Paris, the night before she vanished, as we lay in bed, she told me that she never really wanted to go to any other places, only to Peru. But I did not want to go there, so she said she would come to Paris with me so that I would be happy.

That night I dreamed what I dreamed again and again: Leave me. Leave me. I woke dizzy and gasping for breath. She touched my arm and asked me if I had a nightmare.

* * *

Now, I awaken every morning, gasping as the clock strikes seven. Sally’s touch was my imagination. There never was a Sally. Was I ever in Paris?

One evening I walk into town, by this travel agency. I look in the window at a poster, a spectacular picture of Place de la Concorde at night all lit up and glowing with the Eiffel Tower in the background. I try to imagine Sally and I in Paris. I smell the brioche wafting on Parisian air, but there is no Sally.

When I get home, to the echoing, empty house, my empty life of the past twenty-nine years, I know I cannot dream again of Peru. I bury my face in my hands and close my eyes.

* * *

I know Paris, its narrow winding streets, its shops and cafés, its neighborhoods and history in its monuments. From the rues to the grand boulevards, I know them all so well. The elegant street lamps, the museums, the Palais Garnier where Iris and I have seen so many opera performances, even the country outside, Versailles and Fontainebleau. I know this so well, so well. I know Iris so well. But I look upon her dozing, this woman. Last night we recited poetry to each other, drank, laughed, and made love. Yet this is the first time I see Iris.

I put my head out the window and try to see the outdoor market down the street where there is conversation and banter. Iris stirs, and sighs. I turn to look at her. She smiles that lingering contented smile that I have always known, the smile I have never seen before.

Ferme la fenêtre, she speaks to me in French. I understand every word; know every subtlety of this language. I understand every subtlety of her. She beckons to me, pushes the covers aside. My body tingles, as I get close. She looks longingly into my eyes. We make love. It is the first time again. We shower together and laugh. Iris dresses and runs downstairs while I brew the café noir that we both enjoy. She returns to our apartment with a tartine and some croissants. She also has some peaches and pears from the market. After we eat breakfast, we go downstairs, cross Boulevard Saint-Germain, walk up to Rue des Ecoles, and then walk to Boulevard Saint-Michel. Soon we are in the Jardin du Luxembourg, sitting in chairs around the pond speaking about things that matter. I confess to her that I had a strange dream about someone named Sally. She was my wife in the dream. She wanted to go to Peru because of the Incas.

Iris touches my hand and looks into my eyes. “Once I wanted to go to Peru, but we know the truth right here…”

 

——————–
Arthur Lindenberg still teaches creative writing at Schoolcraft College.  He is the founding editor of The MacGuffin, published since 1984.  His most recent publications include “To Die in L.A. II” in The Medulla Review, November 2012.  He is currently completing a novel, Descent.

Winter Nights

By Charles Haddox

7.1 T-small he apprentice midwife named Carla brought her cousin, Cadi Bythell, to stay at Zoë’s house for a little bit. A winter night lay over the suburb where Zoë and her roommates lived. The stars were singing in shadowy cottonwoods surrounding the home, which was also Zoë’s shop, “The Turned-Into’s,” and their icy song reminded Carla and Cadi of a lost Phrygian mode that was nowadays familiar only to certain holy dancers who lived deep in the forests and valleys of rural Occitania.

Zoë wasn’t home when Carla brought over her cousin, but she was always comfortable with unexpected guests, and had actually developed the habit of calling her roommates “guests.” Zoë loved the little apprentice midwives who were her roommates and her sisters, especially Carla, who was charmingly pretty and gentle and exceedingly patient and gave incredible backrubs; but she missed her mommy, too, and was fond of visiting her and sleeping in her childhood bed, and having her prepare lemon-pepper noodles and watercress salads with fresh mint dressing for dinner, and sour cherry pie for dessert, and singing her lullabies as if she was still a baby. So when Zoë returned to her own house and shop after a visit to her mother’s, well-rested and full of tasty home cooking, she had her first encounter with the new guest who was already settled in, a woman who was tall and had long, dark hair and green eyes just like her.

Carla was certainly not alone among the roommates in noting that her cousin Cadi was a mirror image of their Zoë. They all did a double-take the first time they saw them together. Cadi looked much more like Zoë’s blood-sister than she did a cousin to Carla. And it wasn’t just the midwives. When the two girls who helped in Zoë’s shop met Cadi, they couldn’t help themselves, and ragged poor Zoë about “her new twin” until she was more than a little upset. She was in no way prepared to meet her double, either, even one who turned out to have quite a different temperament, no matter how much she resembled her in hair and face and figure. Cadi and Zoë shared a saucy smile and a natural grace, but while Zoë was full of self-confidence and boisterousness and laughter, Cadi still felt a bit awkward about her tallness and boyishness and lack of style, and occasionally even got a lump in her throat when she thought about how she had been teased by other children when she was younger. As a girl Zoë also experienced her own share of teasing, but now she had magic and sisters and practically a Fairy Godmother in her life, not to mention her mommy, and it all went a long way toward making her feel special and, above all, self-assured.

But, as it happened—surely as it was meant to happen—there were also plenty of similarities between the two of them in behavior, more than were evident at a simple glance, which Zoë discovered when she found Cadi cooking in her kitchen. She was making creamy mashed potatoes with garlic, using potatoes Zoë had bought a few days before at the farmer’s market; and a parsley, red onion and string bean salad, with her choicest spicy red chili and Arbequina olive oil dressing—which also happened to be a specialty of Zoë’s. Her cooking was perfect for the simple diet favored by the whole household, and that, too, seemed a bit of a coincidence, but it wasn’t the entire story. As she prepared the little meal she sang snatches of “The Sardine Song”:

Gather the olives and gather the salt,
If the brine is spoiled it won’t be your fault.
Gather the tears of a beautiful friend,
And soak the dry rushes until they bend.

Fresh bread and butter, and blue, slick sardines,
That swim on their own from your mouth to the beans,
Baskets of rushes will catch them so well,
And keep them quite cozy until they smell…

To no one’s astonishment, except, perhaps, Zoë herself, it just so happened that “The Sardine Song” had been one of her favorites ever since childhood. After a few nights of this (Zoë’s shop was only open at night), she decided it was all too much. It’s one thing to have lots of unusual whims and proclivities, but quite another to see them mirrored in somebody else, especially if that someone is a more restrained, and possibly an even prettier, version of you. She wanted to ask Cadi where she learned “The Sardine Song,” and to grill vegetables escalivada–style, and why she tied her hair in braids before she went to sleep, and how it was even possible that she had already heard the brand new joke about Zoë’s cat.

And then a winter storm arrived, with barreling black clouds like a murder of crows. The snow swirled about and settled everywhere. Bad weather meant that there were no customers in Zoë’s shop, which only sold handiwork made by Zoë herself; and as long as the bad weather lasted it was hard to venture out, so no one ventured out except on those more or less expected occasions when one or another of the roommates (who were all apprentice midwives), got called to a birth. In fidelity to their sacred calling, they braved the storm, looking like dolls dressed in knitwear, but nearly all of the woolens that they used to bundle-up with actually belonged to Zoë, who hated to be cold and owned mohair and merino, alpaca and angora, cashmere and Shetland, in scarves and sweaters, and coats, gloves and hats.

With the garden under snow and icy winds rattling over the old eaves, Zoë was confined to the indoor arts. She did a little sewing and baking and tie-dying and tincturing, and some weaving and beading and candle-making, which was really quite a lot. As she undertook her busy tasks, Cadi was always about like a shadow. The weight of hospitality held Zoë in check, but she didn’t know how much longer she could take all the whisperings and jibes regarding “her and her twin.”

Zoë rubbed French clay on her skin, trying to remove the marigold dye that had stained her hands. She sat in her favorite chair looking out a large window at the moonlit snow as she worked the clay. It hadn’t snowed in their suburb for a long time. Sitting there watching the pallid winter night, a lovely old English carol came to her, and she began to sing it under her breath—even though it was February—as she thought about toys and picture-books, and new shoes and fairy wings and striped silk tights, and church bells and Christmas trees glowing with a million lights, and holly berries and solstice greetings and baked peppermint delights. She looked over at her double, to see if she was singing too, but Cadi was standing in thoughtful silence at the stove making tea. When she carefully brought Zoë a bowl of hot water and a towel so she could rinse her hands, the clay having done its best, Zoë decided, then and there, that it was high time the two of them had a little talk.

“Don’t you think it’s odd how everybody says we look so much alike?”

“Well, we do. And let’s face it, that’s the thing I find really strange. Not just that people think it. But that you and I know it’s true. We never even met until a few days ago, but now, when I look in the mirror, I feel like I’m seeing you.”

“I thought the same thing this morning!” Zoë exclaimed, feeling more and more disconcerted by the whole business.

“Do you think it’s all just a coincidence?”

“Yes and no. It could be a coincidence, but how do you explain the fact that we don’t just look like sisters—we act like sisters, too?”

“It’s true that from the first moment I met you, it felt as if I’d known you my whole life.”

“What’s your birthday?”

“June twenty-first,” Cadi answered.

“That’s my birthday, too.”

“Well, lots of people have the same birthday.”

“What’s your mommy’s name?” Zoë asked.

“Maria.”

“Maria? That’s my mommy’s name. For real.”

“But Maria’s a very common name…” Cadi’s voice wavered a little.

“What’s your favorite tree?”

“Italian cypress.”

“Mine, too.”

“What’s your favorite animal?”

“The owl.”

“Same here.”

“What’s your favorite soup?”

“Yellow squash with buckwheat dumplings,” Cadi said without a moment’s hesitation. Then she added, “Favorite color, green. Favorite shoe, sandals. Favorite stone, amethyst. Favorite musical act, The Mediæval Bæbes. Favorite wine, red. Favorite tea, chamomile. Allergic to…wasps. Pillows, my smile, eggplant, patchouli, Mars, yoga, fair trade chocolate, Buenos Aires, stepping on broken glass in bare feet. Do you want me to go on?”

“Oh, my…” Zoë gasped, and for once she was speechless.

Zoë knew that she needed her Godmother’s advice and counsel. She was a Wise Woman of great knowledge and might, who understood many traditions that were hidden. Zoë recalled a favorite story that was told of her, one of the countless legends that revealed a little of the truly marvelous powers she possessed. It was said that when she was young she had a favorite songbird in her garden, a yellow warbler whom she would feed with lantana berries from her own hand every day. When a Cooper’s hawk killed the yellow warbler, she became so cross that she made the hawk not only stay with her in the garden and keep her company, but also learn all the yellow warbler’s songs and sing them as well!

Zoë welcomed her Godmother, whose name was Arabella, in from the furious storm. As she handed her coat and knitted cap to Zoë, Arabella surveyed the tidy shop, “The Turned-Into’s,” which filled the living room of the modest home. Arabella’s eyes were warm and wise, and her bearing was like a queen’s. She was Zoë’s most trusted guide and teacher, and could surely explain to Zoë and Cadi why the two of them, virtual strangers to each other, were so much alike. Or at least show them the path to follow that would lead to their own discovery of the meaning of the enigma they were presently confronting. Zoë introduced Cadi in an anxious voice, and Cadi’s striking likeness to her supplied Arabella with half the reason why she had been summoned in such bad weather. Fiddling nervously with an aromatherapy lamp that held a drip of calming lavender oil, Zoë went on to tell the story of the conversation that had fully revealed to the two of them just how intensely they resembled each other in nearly every way.

Arabella took a seat between Zoë and Cadi before a roaring fire in an old brick hearth that was built into a corner of the shop. She gazed at the flames that danced like tipsy sailors for a bit, and listened to the rustic logs as they crackled and hissed. Arabella was a small, thin woman with long grey hair, and she wore a lavender crinoline shawl that seemed as miraculous and never-ending as the robe Krishna furnished for Draupadi’s virtue. And she smelled a little like roasted beech nuts. A friend had brought her a jar of beech nut butter from France that she decided was more suited for soap-making than for eating, and that’s exactly what she did with it, making a soap that became her favorite.

Taking each of the girls in hand, and speaking in a kindly voice, she asked them what they wanted of her.

“Mistress, we’re both afraid and uneasy, and we need your help. Cadi was invited here by Carla, who knew I would provide her with hospitality, but she never thought for a moment how I might feel about meeting someone who looked so much like me that I couldn’t believe it myself. And then, when the two of us discovered that the likeness was more than just “skin deep,” we determined at once that this was not just an accident of nature. We realized that something more was at work, and we didn’t know if it was good or bad, or just a whim of some power that we can’t begin to understand, or if our meeting was a part of some greater plan. We need your wisdom to unravel this mystery; to help us comprehend where it comes from and what it means.”

“Please, if you can help us, we’d be eternally grateful,” Cadi added. “Neither one of us ever dreamed we’d experience something like this, and we really are confused.”

Arabella nodded, and said, “We’re no doubt confronting a mystery. A mystery to me, as much as to the two of you. It would be easy to run away from it, but you two certainly know better than that. I can’t tell you why this has happened; why the two of you have met and discovered that each of you is a mirror for the other. But I can tell you that it is not wrong to want to understand what it means, and to discover if some greater purpose lies behind your meeting. Back in days long ago when nearly everyone drew their water from wells, parents used to tell tall tales about monsters or demons that lived in them, to keep their children from becoming too inquisitive and accidently falling in and drowning; but children drowned anyway, and sometimes it’s necessary to look deeper into things, even at the risk of drowning.”

“But what is it that we are looking into?” Zoë asked.

“That, I’m afraid, is something the two of you must discover, and discover together. I can only help by binding you as sisters with a blood-seal.”

Zoë fetched a pin, and she and Cadi pricked their index fingers, and the two of them let Arabella take their hands and press them together until the blood mingled. Zoë sucked her finger, but it continued to bleed a little, and she bound it with a clean cotton dressing, before serving tea and raisin cakes to her Godmother and new sister while the snow continued to swirl outside.

The winter storm had passed, and the sound of melting snow sliding off the roof and onto the wet earth was welcomed by all the sisters in the little house and shop. Zoë and Cadi were having a glass of red wine with a morsel of olive bread before retiring to bed. Cadi truly needed a sister at that moment, as she was telling Zoë a heartrending story.

“My mother died of leukemia when I was twelve. I was in shock for a long time afterward. Black, heart-stopping shock, for like a year. I froze, and I really don’t know if I’ve ever unfrozen.”

Zoë had been living so long in Fairyland that it hurt her deeply to think of her sister, whose world, though outwardly rich with dreams and fancies, in fact lay outside the Land of the Morning. Her eyes were filled with bright summer foliage, the same luxuriant Eden that was reflected in Zoë’s own eyes, a landscape mirrored by two gleaming lakes, where meliae and fauns held pageants and fêtes, and pastoral children frolicked together, clothed in linen and festooned with wreaths, but the land in her eyes wasn’t hers anymore. To win a joyous laugh from Cadi would restore the golden age. But she had been exiled from Arcadia; Jinnistan had died for the child with her mother; the door to the paradise called “mommy” fastened shut by the grave. Earth’s old ache, the flaming sword, death’s shadow, even now in a heart full of innocence. Zoë recalled the words of mad Hölderlin:

       Ruhmlos und einsam kehr ich zurück und wandre durch mein Vaterland, wie ein Totengarten…
       Inglorious, lonely, I return, and wander my homeland, which is like a dead garden…

In fact, there was a woman in the garden, but no stream would flow from her frozen heart to restore it to life. Cadi needed a foster mother, and Zoë thought of her own mommy, who had raised three daughters alone, and who loved her and cared for her as one would a tot, even though she was the eldest and almost thirty years old.

Zoë promised Cadi that she would take her home to meet her mother on her very next visit, and she would cook for them both and sing to them, and give them cozy beds and tranquil sleep, and dry Cadi’s tears and make her feel special. Cadi lovingly embraced her sister and twin, and thanked her for sharing her mother with her.

Cadi Bythell left Zoë and her roommates shortly after meeting her new mother, who accepted her warmly, and having found a place of her own with plenty of space for her own roommates, she moved to a little house by the sea. Zoë missed her, because they didn’t see each other very often after that. And she couldn’t help but notice that the finger she had pricked with a pin for the blood-seal continued to bleed for a long time, until her very favorite blue-and-white wrap skirt became entirely stained with heavy droplets of her own bright blood, but she let it go at that, because the greatest mysteries are never wholly resolved.

 

——————–
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas. His work can be found in a number of journals including Folio, Concho River Review, The Raven Chronicles, and Danse Macabre. You can read more about Zoë and her friends in Sein und Werden, the Wunderkammer issue, and in Chicago Quarterly Review, Volume 15.

A Walk to the End of the Earth

By Donald Kenny

“Survivors of traumatic brain injuries — from car-crash victims to soldiers wounded in Iraq — face an extra hurdle as they recover: Thousands of them will develop epilepsy months or years later. Epilepsy may not begin with the classic jerking seizures, but instead with memory loss, attention problems or other more subtle symptoms. Roughly 25 percent of survivors of moderate to severe brain injury will develop epilepsy.”
— Lauran Neergaard, Associated Press, April 3, 2007

May 5, 2005, 8:45 AM

7.1 C-smallounty Road 633 outside Traverse City is a peaceful fifteen-mile drive through rolling farmland and modest homes often set miles apart. It abruptly ends at Michigan Highway 37, like a stream that pours into a faster flowing river. I had driven this road perhaps a thousand times to and from work. It was a great drive, a way to mentally gear up, an even better way to unwind afterward. It’s a mild spring day in Northern Michigan and Route 633 carries fewer cars than normal. People seem to be playing hooky, I think. I am enjoying the ride when my cell phone rings. I was approaching a high hill where a notorious cellphone dead zone began and I considered ignoring the call, but the ID displayed a number I had to answer.

May 5, 2005, 8:55 AM

I pulled off to the side of 633, making sure I was squarely on the shoulder. I placed my car in park and flipped on the emergency flashers. “Hello,” I said.
I didn’t hear a car horn or the screech of tires. No sound broke the silence of that still-perfect spring day. There was no warning, no way to know that the life I was used to living was about to change forever.

May 5, 2005, 9:10 AM

I opened my eyes; blurry, surreal images registered. I felt pain in my head, chest and arm. It took another moment to realize that the thick red blood dripping down my face was coming from the pain in my head. I slowly realized I was hanging upside down, held fast by the car’s seat belt. I pushed the button to release the belt and dropped like dead weight onto the car’s roof.

“Cars can catch on fire in a bad accident,” a voice inside my head said.

I told the voice, “If I’m going to die today, it won’t be in this goddamn car.”

May 5, 2005, 9:15 AM

I don’t know how I escaped the car, which had overturned and now sat on its roof. I remember lying on the front lawn of a house, 50 yards from where I had parked. A woman sat next to me. “Help is on the way,” she said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You’ve been in a car accident. You were struck from behind by a pickup truck. We are trying to keep him away from you.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s drunk.”

Shortly after the accident I began to experience periods of lost time, increasing confusion, seizures and cognitive problems. From traveling the world, negotiating complex contracts, directing subordinates, analyzing data and giving counsel to senior management, I was now unable to make change at the corner store. The drunk, who had no license and no insurance, would be sentenced to 90 days in jail.

January 17, 2012, Traverse City, Michigan

For more than a thousand years pilgrims have walked the 550-mile Camino de Santiago – the Way of St. James – that stretches from Roncesvalles, Spain, just south of France to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic Ocean, where the remains of St. James are said to be buried. I will follow the French Way for six weeks. Making the journey in winter is different from summer, when thousands of pilgrims – some serious, many not – clog the pathways and hostels. For a guy turning 60 in a few weeks the hike will be a challenge. Seven years after my accident I am still not who I used to be. Who I was and what I was supposed to do had always been clear. Now I am fearful, hesitant. There seems to be a hole inside me that is slowly filling up, like a ship whose hull had been breached and lets in salt water, drawing it to the bottom of the sea. I decided to repair the hole; I needed to clear my head. I would walk to the end of the medieval western world, to Finisterre on the Iberian Peninsula.
January 23, 2012, Barcelona, Spain

I arrived in Spain this morning on the overnight flight from Chicago. It seems I left my computer someplace at O’Hare. Two hours into my trip and I lost something; not a great sign. Since the accident I have trouble keeping track of things. Maybe it was baggage I didn’t need. My son Tim called TSA at O’Hare; they found the computer and sent it back to my home in Traverse City. I will rely on computers at the hostels or Internet cafes, when they’re available, otherwise pen and paper will work.

January 24, 2012, Pamplona, Spain

The train ride from Barcelona to Pamplona takes three-and-a-half hours across a desolate countryside that reminds me of the Bad Lands of South Dakota. From Pamplona I’ll take a bus to Roncesvalles, Spain, near the French border, and begin my pilgrimage. I have to backtrack, walking from Roncesvalles back to Pamplona, but it’s the only way to start.
Mile after mile the train moves through harsh and empty high plains with cliffs that fall to a red clay floor. The scenery is monotonous, broken only by scores of windmills in neat rows in the distance, all spinning in sequence as if trying to fly off and pull up the land. Farmers have scraped the landscape into flat, small patches and planted crops that struggle to grow. The regularity of the scenery and the swaying of the train cars makes the ride seem longer. I find out in Pamplona that the bus to Roncesvalles leaves in three hours.

***

I met Jonathan much later in Najera at the “albergue,” as the pilgrims’ hostels are called, after I had hiked alone for several days. He was traveling with Louis and Mita, a married couple both retired from a bank in Barcelona. The last member of the group was Chris, a 21-year-old Australian, who was touring Europe and would soon be off to find a job in Paris. It is hard to miss Jonathan, an imposing man who stands six feet five or six. He is a little heavier than he should be and wears a thick brown beard that approaches his chest. A wide-brimmed leather hat sits unnaturally on his head; glasses rest on a prominent nose.

Louis made sure we all woke up early. If someone didn’t get up that was ok, the rest would move on without him. We talked about breakfast as we cared for blisters and rubbed down sore muscles and joints with an international variety of ointments, balms, disinfectants and lotions. The smell that rose from the dorm could choke Satan. After fruit and bread were passed around, we walked into the street to start a new day.

We had gone a few hundred yards when I realized I needed more Ben Gay or the Spanish equivalent to rub on my sore knees. Jonathan said we had just passed a pharmacy and pointed down the street and told me where to turn and said it was “68 meters” (about 75 yards) away. “How can you be so sure it is exactly 68 meters?” I asked.

“It is,” he said matter-of-factly, and gave me detailed instructions about how to find the pharmacy. “We will meet you on the steps of the church,” he added, pointing ahead to a beautiful towering steeple that bordered a square.

“And how far away are the steps?” I asked, a bit sarcastically.

“Eighteen meters,” Jonathan said, then walked off.

I turned at the first street, as instructed. The voice in my head asked, “Did he say the first street or the second? Have I walked 68 meters?”

I was lost in a matter of seconds.

After an hour, I resigned myself to the fact they had gone on without me. In a way I was glad. I wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment of questions. I turned a corner and at the end of the street, I saw a large man in an oversized hat with a smile on his face waiving at me. I walked up to Jonathan and apologized. I felt like a child who had broken from line during a museum field trip and ended up lost, then found; half scared and half relieved.

Jonathan looked at me and smiled: “No harm, we were only concerned.”

“Louis must be really annoyed,” I said.

“I am sure he will burn off his Spanish steam quickly.” I was grateful for this kindness. As we walked to the church steps I saw a strained smile on Mita’s face; she glanced at Louis, who appeared to be sulking. Chris was wandering around the square randomly snapping photographs. I spotted the distinctive Camino sign, in the shape of a seashell, on the edge of a one-lane street that intersected the square. I walked toward it and Jonathan followed, then Mita and Louis; and Chris lagging behind. Jonathan and I took the lead over some rough terrain and a difficult trail.

“I want to tell you something about that whole getting lost business this morning,” I said. He didn’t respond, but kept walking, waiting for me to continue.

“A couple of years ago, I could never have made this trip alone,” I said and told him about the car accident that had left me damaged, apparently in ways I still did not fully understand.
Jonathan listened without responding, and clapped a heavy, gentle hand on my shoulder.

“You don’t need to explain,” he said.

“I hate it when I know people think less of me because…”

“Stop,” he interrupted. “No one thinks less of you. We don’t know you, don’t know your last name and in a day or two we will all go our separate ways, a memory in each others minds and eventually a forgotten one.”

“Good,” I said. “But if it happens again don’t worry, and don’t look for me or wait. I always find my way. And you will not become forgotten memories.”

January 25, 2012, Larrasoana, Spain

Surprisingly, it wasn’t blisters that did me in on the first day on a walk that would last, in all, over 550 miles. It was debilitating pain in my knees. At first, it was only my left knee, supposedly the good one, that began to hurt. My right knee had been repaired sixteen years ago with an ACL replacement after a basketball injury, but before long the right knee was as painful as my left. As my limp became more pronounced, the excitement and adrenaline of adventure began to fade.

Toward the end of the first day a line by Moe Howard of The Three Stooges rattled in my head as I made my way to the hostel: “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch.” I was on the inch-by-inch phase by three in the afternoon and was questioning my decision to go for a walk in Spain. I hadn’t thought about the physical demands on my aging body. My thoughts had focused on where I now found myself, seven years after my car accident.

The backpack that I so carefully packed with “only essentials” burned into my shoulders; I did not yet learn what essential meant. I had been confident that I knew how to pack for this journey. I had spent a year hitch hiking in Europe when I was twenty and had hitched to California the summer before. That was forty years ago. Now, the overloaded pack, the painful knees and the sore feet were all placing demands on my aging body that I had not allowed in years.

A young Italian man would joke one night in the near future, after our second bottle of wine, “Luke had to become ‘one with the force,’ but we have chosen the more difficult path — of becoming one with our backpacks.” We were pilgrims of the Camino Santiago. We thought it a great joke.

***

The Camino is less traveled in winter’s harsher weather. Most pilgrims would rather battle the smothering heat of a Spanish summer, the crowded paths and the race from one albergue to the next than travel in winter. Winter travel, like summer travel, is a social event, but more people seem to seek solitary travel in the colder months. Common wisdom said that those traveling the Way in winter were hardier than summer pilgrims or perhaps braver for having endured the harsher conditions. I never met any winter pilgrims who disagreed. I don’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing, this slight air of superiority that winter pilgrims seemed to hold. It didn’t matter to me.

I had talked about the importance of “the Way” with two Spanish guys I met waiting for a bus in Pamplona, Nacho (yes, his real name) and Jose. We discussed the hardships the original pilgrims had to endure, which led to a discussion of modern-day pilgrims. Both men said that to be a committed pilgrim it is important to carry your belongings on your back, and endure the challenges and discomfort “the Way” offers. Like others I met, Nacho and Jose disdained the able-bodied hikers who hire taxis to take their backpacks from one albergue to the next or have one member of their group drive a car and carry their luggage. Nacho and Jose call them “the cheaters.”

“It won’t be long before people will fly over the Camino and claim to have completed it in one day,” said Jose. “The Camino is not a competition; it is a journey.”

* * *

Not long after my accident in May 2005, I would leave the house to run errands or go for a walk and realize after a few minutes I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. My son Patrick joined me one day on a quick shopping trip. We had just bought chemicals for the hot tub and drove several hundred yards to an auto store. He waited in the car while I ran in. I returned and started the car, carefully turning out of the driveway. Patrick looked straight ahead.

“Dad?” he said.

I looked at him and saw his face squinted in confusion.

“Yeah?”

“Dad, I think you turned the wrong way,” he said quietly.

“No, I just want to make a quick stop and buy some chemicals for the hot tub.”

“Dad,” he said, his face tight with pain, “we were just there.”

At other times, I called home to ask my wife where I was going and she would tell me, patient and nonchalant. Sometimes she drove out to find me and bring me home. Those were the times a thick grey fog floated into my head and settled there, unbidden and insistent.

January 26, 2012, Cizur Menor, Spain

I was traveling with Nacho and Jose, still struggling with my knees as we walked out of Larrasoaña; I began to suspect I was no longer twenty years old. Climbing hills eased the pain a little, but walking downhill, using my legs and knees as a brake, was proving harder than I thought. We had gone maybe a mile when we came to a steep descent that reminded me of Filbert Street in San Francisco. I stopped, looked down and sighed like a child whose parents had ordered him to eat a plate of hated vegetables. I hesitated at the crest and imagined the painful challenge ahead. Nacho walked up beside me, reading my apprehension and fear.

“This is going to be tough on you,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be fine,” I said, not believing a word. We looked down the hill and watched Jose stroll leisurely, twirling his walking stick and whistling.

“I’ll carry your pack down,” said Nacho, who was about twenty-one.

“Thanks, but that would be cheating,” I said. Nacho held out his walking sticks.

“Take these.”

I shook my head no.

“It’s not cheating,” said Nacho. “Even the first pilgrims used walking sticks.”

I accepted one of them and started down the hill. He followed for a moment then walked past to the bottom and waited with Jose. When I reached them; I walked past slowly, without looking at either man or speaking. They turned and followed without complaint.
Our agenda for the day was to stop and take in the sights at Pamplona and then continue to Cizur Menor, a total of thirteen miles plus whatever sightseeing we did. After several hours we stopped to rest and eat lunch. I realized I had to lighten my pack if I had any chance of getting to Cizur Menor today. I pulled everything out, setting aside what I could live without. My pack was several pounds lighter when we resumed our trek, but an hour later I was struggling again. Jose and Nacho had to stop and wait for me more and more often. They were patient, but I was slowing them down badly. I finally suggested they go on without me and I would meet them later at the albergue. Nacho translated what I had said to Jose.

“No,” Jose said without hesitation.

Nacho handed me his other walking stick and moved ahead. I don’t remember what the landscape to Cizur Menor looked like. I kept my head down and worked both walking sticks with full concentration. The pain in my knees was becoming unbearable and exhaustion was setting in. We finally arrived at the albergue about 5 p.m. I dropped my pack on the floor and slumped into a chair. I felt empty, flat, out of gas but lucky to have somehow coasted into the gas station and stopped next to a pump.

I thought that a night’s sleep would put me back on “the Way” tomorrow.

I was wrong. It would take two days of rest before I was able to walk on, alone, to Puenta La Reina, twelve miles away.

* * *

“The Way,” a fellow traveler named Kathrijn from Belgium would write later, “was about the physical effort, the adventure and having some time off to reflect. When you are ‘on the road’ nothing is mandatory, your agenda is empty, time is powerless and as the road progresses you come to realize what really matters in life are the things you may have forgotten in the real world.”

As I left Cizur Menor the road ran in front of me over flat, rocky farmland and collided with hills in the distance. The path was initially groomed but turned rocky and rutted. The temperature rose to the mid-50s Fahrenheit, about 10 degrees warmer than normal. Fields were already green and mounds of dirty brown boulders had been piled high along their edges, making a stark contrast to the wakening crops and grass. The path, as wide as a one-lane road, was quiet and lonely. I walked miles without seeing anyone, not even a farmer working in a field. I thought about nothing and soaked up the sun and the breeze and stared at once-distant hills that now appeared closer and higher. I walked through a large wind turbine farm not far from a village called Zariquiegui, each one turning at its own pace, occasionally falling into unison with others, then catching the wind at different speeds again.

I stood at the base of one of the humming turbines, gazing at scores of spinning propellers. I want to leave the windmills but am locked in place by the intrusion of technology on this quiet hillside where pilgrims have walked for a thousand years. The Way beyond is rough and much narrower, nothing more than a steep footpath. The load on my back gets heavier. My feet are blistering and my aching knees demand that I stop to rest more frequently. The wind is blowing hard at the summit of Alto Perdon. I remind myself that nothing stays the same; not journeys, not people, not life. I am standing at 2,560 feet, above the Arga Valley, a climb this morning of 1,018 feet. I can see Pamplona in the distance to the northeast. Cast iron silhouette sculptures along the top of the ridge show twelve pilgrims, nine on foot, two on horseback, another riding a donkey; a dog runs alongside the horsemen. A plaque in Spanish reads, “Where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars.” It is a place to rest for a while. I can’t hear the windmills in the distance anymore, their humming carried off by the wind.

* * *

It’s hard to imagine what the albergues are like during the spring and summer months when thousands are on the road and people hurry from one to another before the heat of the day sets in and to arrive before the beds are all taken. Arriving much after noon, you may have to walk to the next albergue or find a hotel; and hotel prices are high. The winter months are quiet and many albergues are closed. Sometimes it’s difficult to find one that is open. Often only certain rooms are available and these are typical dormitory rooms with bunk beds taken on a first-come basis.

In a village just beyond the middle of nowhere I found a rustic open albergue and shared a small room with three other men, from Iceland, Italy and Korea. The Icelander, middle-aged, balding and very fit, spent a year traveling to New Zealand, South Africa, Tunisia and beyond; fortunately for me he spoke excellent English. The Italian was a handsome young man who also spoke English, in a calm, quiet voice; the Korean said nothing in any language but seemed content to sit quietly on his bed and smile.

After an evening of conversation, I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I tucked myself into to my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and drifted off quickly. Before long, however, the once-quiet room erupted. A long drawn out snore was followed by another and then another. A rip-roaring fart punctuated a series of snorts and coughs, accompanied by the stench that can only come from a grown man.

I sent up a heartfelt prayer: “Oh God, if you only spare me this ordeal, I will mend my ways.”

The night also included multiple bathroom runs, complete with stumbling, banging and the muffled curses that came when bare feet struck unseen inanimate objects. The toilet flush sounded like Niagara Falls in the silent room, inevitably followed by more bumping, bungling and cursing on the return to bed.

So it went that night: Rustling in and out of sleeping bags. A cough. A fart. Snoring to wake the dead. I can honestly testify that the noise kept me awake all night.

It’s also possible the other three guys may have made some noise.

February 23, 2012

I was sitting in the warm sun in a town called Villavante drinking my second glass of Coke, resting at an outdoor cafe with several people when I saw a hiker approach, swinging walking sticks in perfect unison with each step, but with an obvious sore-foot shuffle that I had come to recognize in pilgrims. The shuffle looked more like skating on the pavement, each step barely lifting off the ground before sliding out in front; hands manned with a walking stick followed smoothly, hitting the ground in time to shift the walker’s weight into the sticks, which bowed slightly.

As the figure approached I could see it was a young Korean woman about twenty years old, dressed entirely in black. A scarf wrapped around the bottom portion of her face covered her mouth. It was difficult to tell if she was overweight or if the multiple layers of clothing made her appear this way. One of my companions commented on how terribly hot she must be.

“Hola,” someone said. She shuffled past without turning her head or glancing up. In a muffled, almost inaudible voice she responded, “Hola,” but never broke stride and slowly skated by. I could see dark eyes above round, full cheeks and slightly flattened nose. Her high forehead was bare; jet-black hair was all but hidden under a hooded sweatshirt. Her eyes were bright and full of concentration, focused on taking the next painful step. We stared after her as she disappeared behind the bend in the road and followed the yellow sea shells that marked the Way.

An hour later we walked passed her. “Bueno camino,” I said. “Bueno camino,” she answered, staring at the ground in front of her. One of my companions held out a water bottle to her and another an orange but she kept moving and said, “No gracias.” She arrived at the albergue that evening, several hours after the rest of us and walked slowly to the dorm. Like so many others, she doctored her feet as she sat on the edge of the bed, which was next to mine. I’ll call her Sun-Hui because even if I could remember her name, I couldn’t pronounce it or spell it. She spoke little English but shyly tried to communicate. I looked at her feet. It was the worst case of bleeding blisters and infection I had seen yet on my journey. I pointed at her feet and grimaced and said, “Very bad.” She seemed to understand and forced a smile and said, “Ok, Ok.”

They clearly were not.

“No, not ok.” I said, pointing at her swollen toes. “Doctor.”

She shook her head vigorously and quietly said, “No.”

I opened one of the pockets of my backpack and found some band aids, gauze and antiseptic and held them out to her. She smiled again and declined in a quiet, sweet voice. I insisted and continued to hold out the bandages until she accepted a few band-aids and gauze. She said something in Korean, which I assumed was thank you but could have been a curse for my interference. I smiled at her and noticed an upturned shoe that was worn unevenly. I picked up the shoe and held it upside down and said, “No good.” “Ok, Ok,” she said again. I thought she might not have money to buy new shoes. I reached into my pocket and held out a ten euro bill. A young woman nearby who had been watching this exchange stepped up and offered a five euro note. Sun-Hui looked at us, her eyes tearing. For a second, she seemed to think about accepting the money, then determinedly shook her head and said, “No, gracias.”

When I dropped into bed that night, I was ready to sleep after a long day of walking. Sun-Hui followed me into the dorm room and lifted her pack onto the bed next to me and sat crossed legged in front of it. She had taken off her hooded sweater and looked more comfortable in a white cotton blouse and pajama pants; her long black hair tied into a ponytail.

“Hola.” she said, looking up. “Hi,” I answered. The dorm room had gone dark with most pilgrims trying to sleep.

Sun-Hui began. She emptied everything out of her backpack one piece at a time, each item individually wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. She picked up each bag (rustle, crinkle, rustle) emptied it onto the bed, picked up the item in the bag, examined it closely and after a minute or two, put it back into its plastic bag (rustle, rustle, crinkle) and carefully placed it into its designated place in the back pack. The next grocery bag was pulled out (rustle, crinkle, rustle) emptied (rustle, rustle) examined (rustle, rustle) and replaced.

The opening, removing, inspecting and returning each item went on for over an hour. Every fifteen minutes or so Sun-Hui got up from her bed, walked to the door, opened it and left the room, her flip-flops spanking the bottom of her feet, the albergue’s old floor squeaking, the door banging shut.

She followed this routine rigidly: walk to the door (spank, spank), open it (squeak, squeak) leave the room (spank, squeak, spank, squeak), close the door (bang), return to bed (spank, spank), and continue the inventorying of belongings (rustle, rustle).

Once in a while I heard her whisper, as if speaking to someone nearby. I never saw another person, nor did I hear anyone respond. The room was in total darkness so I can’t say for certain if she was speaking to someone or not. Sun-Hui tried to be considerate. She opened the dorm room door only half way to let light in; sometimes she used a small flashlight to inspect an object. When she did I opened my eyes and saw in the dim light people sitting up on one elbow looking at her, unable to sleep.

I knew from the room’s deep silence that most people in the dorm had to be awake. A roomful of sleeping people is not quiet. A normal night in an albergue is filled with the sounds of sleeping human beings that most pilgrims had learned to ignore; Sun-Hui could not be ignored.

Two days later, after settling in at the albergue in Arca, I decided to walk around town. I stopped outside the door to the hostel, trying to choose which direction to take, when I saw a black-dressed figure walking mechanically down the road, seemingly skating in slow motion over its surface.

Fear swept into my heart like a dark winter wind.

I turned and ran up the steps of the albergue, falling in my haste. I got up quickly and headed to the dormitory. I looked frantically at the bunks near mine to see if any were unoccupied; several were empty, one alongside mine. Sweat ran down my face. My heart rate soared as adrenaline surged through me. I threw my coat onto the nearby empty bed, then tossed clothes, my backpack, even my walking stick onto beds anywhere near mine, leaving only one available bunk on the far side of the room.

The dorm was larger than many of the other winter albergues and the corner bed would put Sun Hui – it had to be her – at least 30 feet away with a half dozen bunks between us as a buffer. It would not fully resolve the problem but might allow me to get a few hours’ sleep. I sat on the edge of my bed and waited. Long minutes later the door opened. Sun-Hui entered the room and stopped, looking around for a bed. I cowered, my head down, pretending to be busy with my gear.

I found her in the same albergue and in the same room with me half-dozen times but – by the grace of God – we were finally separated by time or distance.

From time to time I met people who also remembered nights with Sun-Hui. We joked and laughed about it, but when we glanced over our shoulders to see whether a lone figure in black seemed to be skating down the road, no one laughed.

February 6, 2012, Najera

It was another overcast day of climbing stone paths and carefully navigating down; the walking sticks helped take some of the stress off my knees and keep a firm footing. Half way through the day, I remembered it was my sixtieth birthday, the day – as my kids would remind me – that I was no longer getting old, I was now officially old. I laughed at the thought of Brigid and Maggie going back and forth, teasing me about another birthday. I looked behind me to make sure that another pilgrim had not quietly caught up to me. Once I confirmed I was alone I sang Happy Birthday as loud as I could. Sixty years old and walking across Spain, I thought. Life is far from over.

* * *

In the common room at Villafranca del Bierzo I notice a group of people talking and drinking wine in the courtyard. A woman in the group looks vaguely familiar: short, dark hair, about 35, and outgoing. I just can’t place her. She limps over to me a few minutes later and says, “Hello.”

“Hi, how you doing?” I said, still unable to recall where we met.

“Good. How is your son Dan?” ah yes, the walk to Ponferrada. It’s Kathrijn.

“He’s good, back in A Corruna and teaching again.”

“How’s the Sangria?” she asks, gesturing to the free wine our host has provided.

“It’s OK, too sweet though.”

I pour some into a fresh plastic cup and hand it to her. Plastic cups are pilgrim china, useful commodities that are to be saved. Kathrijn has bad feet, like most pilgrims do at one time or another. As we discuss her condition, people overhear us and rush to give remedies and advice. Our host suggests soaking her feet in hot salt water and goes back to the kitchen to prepare it. A very animated guy in his early thirties comes in and begins making suggestions. The room is now centered on Kathrijn, her predicament providing a way for strangers to talk to one another and offer help. Everyone seems to be trying to convince her that his cure is most effective.

Kathrijn listens politely and seems willing to try almost anything. Our host comes in with a deep pan of steaming water that had to be boiling moments ago and instructs her to place both feet in for 10 minutes. She touches the water with one foot and cringes, saying she’ll wait until it cools a bit. He insists, saying she put her feet in right away. “She’s going to add second degree burns to her blistered and swollen feet if she sticks them in that scalding water,” I think.

The animated young guy asks what’s in the water.

“Salt,” he’s told. He loudly pronounces the recipe unfit, adding, “It needs to be vinegar.” The host disagrees; a heated discussion ensues with more comments from those watching the unfolding drama.

The animated young guy leaves the room, returns with vinegar and pours a generous portion into the pan. He leaves again, retuning with a large container of cold water and adds that to the basin. The water is still hot but not unbearable, allowing Kathrijn to submerge her feet with a grimace. Her sincere thanks seem to make everyone feel appreciated.

I repeat the advice a doctor gave another pilgrim, which was to leave her feet bare and let the air help heal them. My comment, which seems to carry the full medical weight of having come from a doctor, finds some credibility.

A dinner of soup, bread and fried eggs follows soon after. It was an interesting, but not unusual, dinner combination. Eggs are a popular food in Spain but never served at breakfast. The dinner was filling, the wine and conversation good. By the time we finished I knew a little about everyone at the table and we talked on for several hours. I asked Katherijn how her feet were and she said fine, which seemed impossible. I had suffered through this stage and had seen what others had endured. I suggested that she might consider a day off.

“I’ll see how they are in the morning before I decide,” she said. “Besides, everyone will leave and I’ll have to travel alone,” adding that she would like company now. “At first, I wanted to be by myself, that was important,” she said. “I started out alone and it was good, but now I’m ready for people.”

“I can understand that,” I said, “a woman traveling by herself through long stretches in isolated areas may be a bit worrisome or scary at times.” She laughed.

“The only problem I’ve had was today. I was walking through a small village when a man dropped his pants and asked if I wanted to have sex.”

I imagined this woman frozen in fear in front of a crazed pervert, his pants slung around his ankles, leering.

“What did you do?”

She laughed. “I said, ‘No thank you’ and kept walking.”

I must have looked stunned. “You didn’t yell or scream for help or tell him to get away or … or…”

She gave a quick laugh. “All I said was, ‘No, gracias.’”

“How did he respond?”

“He said, ‘OK’ and pulled his pants up and walked away. Just a simple ‘No gracias,’ and off he went.”

“I wonder if that has ever worked for him?” I asked.

As we joked about the incident a bit more, a clear sense of relief moved across her face.

* * *

I believe I was in Mansilla de la Mulas, much earlier in my journey, when I arrived at the albergue in the center of town after a strenuous fifteen-mile walk on a warm day. I was not so much tired as dehydrated; I had not expected the heat and drank the last of my water hours ago. I ordered a beer at the café in the lobby and sat at a table in the courtyard, uninvited, with three men: a northern Italian, about thirty, who looked as if he did physical work or exercised strenuously. While brusque in manner he was friendly. The other two men, both German, were traveling together with a large dog that was exploring the courtyard. The older of the two Germans was in his late twenties or early thirties and had an amicable, quiet air about him. The other was nineteen, sullen but polite, a young man who seemed to think he had better places to be. His name was Daniel.

In some European countries, a person convicted of a lesser crime may be given an option: spend time in prison or walk the Camino. This was Daniel’s first conviction – for selling drugs – and he had opted for the Camino. He was escorted by his social worker, the older German with the dog.

Typically, a group traveling together will alternate walking partners, especially if they can communicate in the same language. Our troupe for the next few days consisted of Daniel, his social worker and companion, Tommy from Norway, a 21-year-old Mexican woman and the well-muscled Italian.

Several in the group had given me hints about Daniel’s past, but I reserved judgment. He seemed to be a nice enough young guy, not the drug lord they made him out to be. His social worker provided little information; it was Daniel who shared the details of his life as we walked together for several hours one day.

Daniel opened up more to me as we walked on and told me about his short but successful career as a minor drug lord. His English was basic, but as everyone who has traveled in a similar circumstance knows, verbal fluency is only part of communicating. He wasn’t shy and was quite proud of his success selling drugs.

“Have they told you I am a businessman?” he asked me as we walked along.

“An interesting self-image,” I thought, and then said, “Yes, someone mentioned it.”

“Do you know that at this very moment, I am making money?” he asked.

I looked at him without expression and remained silent. He gave me a weak smile and then he continued:

“When I am sleeping, I am making money. You know the clothes by Armani?”

“Yeah, I have heard of them. But have never owned any,” I said. “Too classy.”

“My suits are Armani. All of my clothes are the best and latest fashion.”

I gave him a blank look and said that I was glad that the clothes made him happy.

“Maybe, you don’t know the importance of the clothes because of the world you are from?”

“Maybe” I said, “but it’s more likely that the name tags in my clothes don’t mean shit to me.”

He laughed, and studied me for a moment, then said, “I believe you,” and gave me an amused smile.

We walked in silence for a while and then I asked him how he was caught. He told me a young thug had approached his eight-year-old sister and sexually threatened her. After his sister told him what had happened, Daniel said he found the man, wrestled him to the ground and held a knife to his throat, threatening him if he came near his sister again. Daniel said he assured the thug that he would never know when the attack would come. The police were called, Daniel’s home was searched and because he was known for dealing drugs was arrested and taken to trial.

Daniel and his social worker had walked over 600 miles before entering Spain and would walk a total of more than 1,100 miles before their journey ended. Still, the long hike was better than prison, Daniel said. I wish I could say that I didn’t like him, or that he was a stupid thug, but neither is true.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“That the same effort and creativity in a legal business would likely have given you the same Armani clothes.”

Daniel walked along side, staring at me with a sly smile. I pretended not to notice, but it was making me uncomfortable, I finally stopped and faced him:

“What?” I asked. He stopped staring and smiled warmly at me. We walked on.

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I’m retired.” I said.

“But what did you do?”

“I was a business man.”

He immediately laughed; after I got the joke we laughed together. I was able to finally say, “Not the same kind of businessman as you.”

“Were you successful?”

“To a certain extent, until an accident and then not so much.”

“What accident?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter, what kind, just that it changed a lot of things.”

“And now you walk the Camino, to escape? Run away?”

“I’d like to find out who this new me is, and if I can accept him,” I said. “If not, I will continue to struggle, so I am not running away but more running to somewhere.”

“How can you be running to somewhere, if you don’t know your final destination?” he asked.

“Do you really know your destination, Daniel? Have you considered the possibilities of where you could go in your life, if you are open to them?”

He stared at me again but there was no smug smile this time. Then he said, “Maybe you and me have that in common.”

I paused, then said more to myself than to Daniel:

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”

“Did you make that up?” he asked.

“No, James Thurber.”

“I never heard of him.”

March 5, 2012, Azura to Arca

After two days of drizzle, mud and driving rain, I was greeted this morning by the sun climbing above the tree line, sending a glow through the branches like a halo.

I was walking twelve miles to Arca and tomorrow I looked forward to a triumphant march into Santiago. I would walk directly to the cathedral at the center of the old town and attend the pilgrims mass at noon. Between Aruza and Arca, the path ran through several small valleys and only one climb. Spring was born on this path through the Galician countryside and reminded me of the greening in Ireland at the end of winter. I was nearing the end of my six-week walk and wanted to enjoy a leisurely day in the sunshine and marvel at my adventure. Six weeks and no one had asked once for my last name, nor did I ask theirs, nor was one ever offered. People remained anonymous along “the Way” and were taken at face value, with no preconceived assumptions or prejudices, no point of reference to their past, mostly without suspicion or mistrust.

“So,” I said to myself, “your life changed after the car crash and will never be the same again, but no one here knew you before, and you were accepted, liked, even respected. Perhaps the new you isn’t a lesser person.” The day got brighter and warmer and my step became easy and smooth, in spite of the stony ground.

I entered Arca in the middle of the afternoon and signed in at the albergue. The last few days saw an ever-increasing number of people at the hostels along the way. I went to a café and spent the afternoon reading and relaxing. I decided to attend the pilgrims mass at noon the next day in Santiago. It would be a hard walk but if I got an early start I could make it easily.

* * *

I awoke before the alarm went off and was surprised to see how far the sun was up at this time of the morning. I noticed that the room had already started to empty and realized it was an hour and half later than the alarm was set for. It was now eight o’clock.

I don’t know why it was important for me to arrive for the mass today. It was said every day at noon. But it was. It was the day that I had chosen, just like every day of this walk had been a choice. I was soon hiking the Camino at a forced-march, up and down steep hills and rough terrain. In my haste to leave the albergue, I had neglected to fill my water bottle, and I knew the lack of water and no breakfast would slow me down. Time was running out but I knew I had to stop, eat and drink something and take a short rest. At the next cafe I stopped, ordered bread and water and slumped down in a seat at a small table. I rested five minutes, then paid and left.

I began to have doubts about whether I could arrive on time and tried to push myself even harder. I realized I was at my maximum endurance. Out of nowhere I came to my senses: “Isn’t it the journey and not the destination?” I asked out loud. I stopped dead still, took a deep breath and, with my mind and body calmer, walked at a slower, steady pace toward Santiago. At 11:58 a.m. I opened the cathedral door and found a seat in a pew among the pilgrims. A moment later the priests walked onto the altar and began the mass.

March 9, 2012, Friday: Santiago

My son Dan, who was living in A Corunna and teaching English, is walking with me on the final leg of my pilgrimage. We will walk the last portion of el Camino Santiago to Finisterre, which adds 55 miles to the journey. During the Middle Ages, it was the “end of the earth,” the farthest point west before travelers met the ocean and the unknown that lay beyond. That was my final destination: to reach the end of the earth. We decided to cover the distance in three days, which required walking about 20 miles a day. Galicia is a beautiful but hilly province, and while our final passage was filled with spectacular views of the Spanish spring in full bloom it was demanding and we were both tired when we arrived at Finisterre.

Dan had heard that the albergue would hold our backpacks for safe keeping while we climbed the final hill above the town. He reminded me, however, that I had carried my pack for over 550 miles and suggested to finish the walk with it on my back.

“No cheating,” the voice inside my head said.

I kept the pack and carried it to the last spit of land that jutted into the water. These were the final moments of my pilgrimage, and I walked slowly to relish them. Along the Camino road markers identified the remaining number of kilometers to Santiago and now to Finisterre. It was encouraging to see my progress clicked off in such a concrete way, but it was also a curse, especially through the tough stretches when the going was strenuous and slow and the distant landscape changed minimally. I was tired, dirty, sweating and hungry as we walked up to the final kilometer marker, which now displayed only zeros. There were no more miles to walk. “The Way of St. James” was completed.

“I made it,” I told Dan as we hugged tightly. It was all I could manage.

I stared out over the Atlantic and watched its violent waves wear down the rocky coast. The earth once ended here, along this dangerous, seemingly endless stretch of blue water. The backpack I had struggled to carry was now lighter, and the voice in my head quiet, calm.

 

——————–
Donald Kenny is a retired businessman who lives in northern Michigan. During his career, he has traveled to China, South America, Central and Western Europe and across the United States. As a young man, he hitchhiked across the U.S. and eastern Canada and worked throughout Europe for a year. Kenny, who earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and linguistics from Western Michigan University, is married and the father of five children. He is planning a European trip that may take him back to Ireland, Scotland and Spain. “A Walk to the End of the Earth” is his first published story.

Amateur Hour

By Liz McGinley

7.1 I-smalln what ended up feeling like a small miracle, my husband, Tom, my sister, Cathy, and I were lucky enough to escape to Nantucket for the summer of 2009. Even though the bad economy was the reason we were free to be there, it was still a thrill to have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend ten uninterrupted weeks on an exclusive little island where the word “summer” is commonly tossed around as a verb.

After settling in and attempting to embrace the local mantra, “there’s nothing to do and no time to do it,” the decision was made that we needed a little bit more “nothing” to fill up the period that elapsed between hitting the beach and squeezing fresh lime juice for sunset margaritas. Tom decided it might be fun to take sailing lessons and took the initiative to sign the three of us up with Nantucket Community Sailing, headquartered at idyllic Jetties Beach.

The first day, our young instructor, Riley, brought us over to a chalkboard where he proceeded to draw a few diagrams explaining the basics of sailing. He rattled off some vocabulary words I tried to commit to memory. Straining to make sense of concepts like tacking and jibing, the premise seemed somewhat complicated. While nodding emphatically at him as he spoke, I decided it must be the kind of stuff that comes naturally once you’re on the boat. Besides, I was coming into this experience with a bit of boating knowledge from the years when my dad owned a 26-foot Aquasport. I knew a thing or two about red and green buoys and thought this kind of knowledge would put me ahead of the game. As it happened, I thought wrong.

Soon enough, Riley announced it was time to head out to the Rhodes 19. The launch operator cruised us out to the mooring. With about as much grace as a greasy pig, I managed to slip and fall head first into the sailboat as I attempted to climb from one bobbing vessel to the other. It turns out that water that looks smooth as glass from the safety of your towel suddenly seems like a wild rapid when you’re off shore. “I’m fine, really,” I proclaimed even though blood was gushing from my calf where I had scraped against what I later learned was called a “cleat.”

Once on board, Riley gave us directions for rigging the boat. Basically, we had to unwrap the main sail and jib, hook them up to the masts, and raise the sails. From a distance this task looks simple, like something you could do with your eyes closed and your hands tied behind your back. In reality, the boat and all its parts felt like an assembly-required item from Ikea, where the dozens of instructional diagrams are impossible to follow and there always seems to be a critical piece missing. After appraising what needed to be done, I began to find it hard to believe how many people voluntarily participate in this ritual for so-called “fun.” Knots needed to be tied and sails unfurled, all while the tiny boat rocked violently from side to side. Riley watched us struggle while munching away on some raw carrots. Everything was heavy and on the road to rusty. I was drowning in canvas, my fingers sore from knot tying, snapping, and clipping. As a person who often hems pants with a stapler, I was hoping to discover a few shortcuts, but none were forthcoming.

Once the thing was adequately rigged, Riley unhooked us from the mooring ball and off we went. He took the helm first, demonstrating how gently the tiller needed to be manipulated. After making the task look easy enough for even a child to master, I volunteered to be the first victim. Within seconds we went from a gentle, soothing ride to completely lurching from side to side as I grappled with which way to push the tiller. So much for instincts kicking in. All the shrieking that ensued sounded more like we were riding the Cyclone in Coney Island than cruising a tiny sailboat in Nantucket Sound.

Once Riley helped me steady the boat, everything seemed okay again, at least for the moment. As long as no sudden shifts in wind occurred, we were golden. Holding my breath and white knuckling the tiller, I silently prayed no rogue gusts would force me to change direction. Riley took this moment to explain the critical, yet panic-inducing expression “ready about.” Basically, if you want sail in an upwind direction, you need to tack, which requires a zigzag route into the wind. Unfortunately, each time you turn the boat into the wind, the boom comes flying across the hull and the crew needs to duck their heads. To forewarn everybody, it was suggested we shout the heart-stopping phrase “ready about.” This was all well and good except sometimes, you accidentally turned the boat into the wind, and the massive boom came swinging across unexpectedly. The constant threat of this occurring with enough speed and strength to decapitate us filled me with terror. Wondering if I could survive being knocked unconscious and thrown from the boat, I spent a lot of time hunched down low contemplating a mouth guard and helmet. Even worse, Tom could never remember the words “ready about,” but instead often yelled “tally ho,” apparently subconsciously thinking he was on some fox hunt in Oxford instead of a rickety old sailboat whipping about in Nantucket Harbor. It occurred to me that I might be better suited to a less stressful hobby, like knitting.

On one particularly difficult morning as we thrashed back and forth across the harbor, a colleague of Riley’s came sailing up alongside us with a boat full of young children. The instructor could not steer the boat close enough to a mooring ball for one of the kids to grab it. She asked Riley to help, and with barely a word, he catapulted “Cirque du Soleil-style” out of our boat and into hers. At that moment, what was already a nerve-racking endeavor suddenly evolved into freaking high-level chaos. Completely abandoned, we began panicking at full throttle. Cathy screamed “abort mission,” and against all reason, frantically suggested we ditch the sailboat. Apparently, she wasn’t of the mind that the captain should go down with the ship. Tom shouted back, “this must be some kind of test, to see if we can sail alone.” Both of them looked at me and demanded I steer, since thus far I had spent the most time behind the wheel. As a person who hasn’t driven a car on the highway in about 15 years, it was odd that I was the one chosen to save us from what felt like an out-of-control death spiral. At first, I wondered if I would ever see my children again. Then, I started thinking about whether or not our homeowners insurance would cover whatever damage was about to be done. The boat sadistically banged up and down as I attempted to gain control of the tiller.

In reality, an average vacationer at the beach that day might have described it as being “absolutely beautiful, without a cloud in the sky.” I’m sure from the comfort of a beach chair, the air seemed balmy; the atmosphere, tranquil. But from the vantage point of our sailboat, it felt like the combination of churning currents and hurricane strength winds would surely cause us to capsize. From our delusional perspective, The Perfect Storm was but a slight breeze compared to these wicked conditions. Even though the odds of serious injury were probably relatively low, destroying our boat along with a few others in the somewhat crowded mooring zone did not seem out of the realm of possibilities.

Miraculously, we managed to stay afloat during Riley’s absence. And eventually, the launch operator skillfully deposited him back into our boat. After the crisis passed, I realized we could never take one of these death vessels out without having someone like Riley aboard.

Even after logging countless numbers of hours on the boat, I still never got a feel for how it operated. It seemed likely that an aneurism might burst as I strained to make sense of all the “sailing” vocabulary bouncing around in my head. In the heat of the moment, with just seconds to spare before running aground at Brant Point, we would somehow manage to abruptly whip the boat around, severely tilting it to give the main sail a quick dunk before heading back in the more perilous direction towards the jetties. Riley would chuckle. Tom would squeal. I could feel gray hairs sprouting on my head. And Cathy would hyperventilate while screaming “let the sails luff,” since doing this was like pulling the emergency break. When the sails were luffing, the wind couldn’t fill them up and propel the boat forward. This allowed us to stop and have a discussion about which way the wind was blowing and to set our next course. We certainly weren’t in any danger of being recruited to crew for the America’s Cup. Constantly tightening and loosening ropes, I am convinced our instructor thought we were pathetic.

With the ordeal behind me, I will never again use the expression “smooth sailing” to mean “coasting,” when in fact the skill required to achieve that level of kumbaya is similar to landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. The sailing lessons forced me to realize that I am not a sailboat kind of person after all, but more of a lie on a towel on the beach kind of person. Where it is safe. Where I never have to wonder if the day will end with me losing a few teeth. Just give me a beach chair and a New York Times best seller on a sunny afternoon. That’s the dream I want to live.

 

——————–
Liz McGinley is a writer dedicated to logging hours of time hunched over a laptop on a quest to find humor amidst the ever-evolving plot line of her life. She is known for her mild obsessions with French pressed coffee, high-end cocktails (always shaken, never stirred), and Bartlett’s Farm corn on the cob.

Put Him Down

By Casey Ark

Zero days

7.1 W-smallith his hand on the door of the delivery room, Derek took a moment to remember all of the advice he had received over the past months. Their doctor told him to grab his wife’s hand and tell her to squeeze if the pain was too much. Their pastor told him that Corinthians 13:4 is a known anesthetic and should be recited through all births and surgeries. Their lamaze instructor said to keep a level head, a centered soul, and a calm tone of voice throughout. But what everyone, everyone, said, was that the delivery room would not be like it is in movies. Delivery rooms, they said, are calm, non-hectic places, with no screaming. And with his incredibly sweet, gentle, midwestern wife, he should expect a beautiful birth. With that calming thought, Derek slowly opened the door.

“I HATE YOU, DEREK! Oh jesus, get this thing out of me NOW. Oh!” screamed Pam from across the room. With her almost ridiculous Minnesota accent, the word “oh” lasted a very long time.

Nurses were scrambling around the room to grab supplies as two red-faced doctors barked orders. Derek couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but managed to catch something about the baby being “upside-down.”

Derek rushed to his wife and grabbed her hand. “Okay, it’s okay, everything’s alright.”

“It is NOT alright, Derek. Oh, dang, oh jesus christ!”

“Shhh, don’t swear, honey. Everything is gonna be okay, okay? Do those deep breaths, think about Deepak Chopra, think about calmness-”

“I don’t remember who that is!” Pam yelled, finishing with a grunt.

“Maybe, maybe you could just say Deepak Chopra a bunch of times, it’s a really calming name.”

“Chriiiiist! Deepak Chopra, Deeepak Chopra, Deepak Chopra…”

Twenty minutes later, Albert was born.

“Oh, oh my little boy.” Pam whispered as the nurses cleaned her son.

A dark-haired nurse handed the swaddled child to his mother. “Dear, that’s an interesting little birthmark he has there on his ankle, isn’t it?”

Derek examined the ankle. “Hm, that’s strange. It almost looks like…”

On Albert’s ankle, clear as day, was a perfect swastika.

Pam and Derek both looked at their child and simultaneously said “Oh….” The “oh” lasted a very long time.

 

Two months

Albert always wore pants, Pam made sure of it. “We don’t want people getting the wrong idea just because of some little birthmark,” she’d say. This day was no exception. Albert was in his crib, attempting to roll over, when he got a pant leg stuck between the mattress and a crib bar. Albert, effectively unable to move, began to cry.

“Ugh, Pam, we need to get him out of these pants. He keeps getting stuck.”

“No, I think we need a new crib, that’s just poor design.”

Derek pulled the pant leg out from the crack and picked up his son. “This crib was a goddamn Consumer Reports top buy, I’m not gonna return it – whoa, buddy, what is on your face?” Derek squinted his eyes, confused, and called to his wife. “Have you seen this?”

“Well, would you look at that, huh.”

“He’s got something on his upper lip, you see it?”

“Looks like little hairs. Is he growing a mustache?”

 

Three months

Albert had grown a full mustache in the middle of his upper lip. The pediatrician said it was the result of “overactive hair follicles,” a somewhat common problem in infants, and that he would absolutely, definitely grow out of it. The mustache was square, dark black, with a slightly bushy quality to it. Due to its size and position, it made him look much like a certain world leader.

“He does not look like Hitler!”

“I’m just saying I see a resemblance, Pam. I think it’s kind of cute.” Derek chuckled.

“It is not cute, and this is not funny. Don’t tell me our son looks like that person. And don’t say that name around me. That’s not something you say to someone.”

The hair grew in quickly – so quickly that they had to shave it every other day.

“You’ll shave him and put him in pants before my parents get here. You promise me?” Pam asked sternly.

“I promise.”

“And you’ll entertain them until I get back.” This time not asking. “I’ll only be a few hours.”

“I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.”

Around thirty seconds after Pam’s departure, Derek heard the familiar humming sound of a car pulling up to the driveway. Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang.

Derek grabbed Albert, ran to the door, and opened it quickly. “Oh, my gosh, we weren’t expecting you guys for hours…”

“I know!” said Pam’s mother with glee. “Surprise! We caught an early flight! Look at my little grandson! You’re so big, look at you,” she cried at dog-audible pitch as she tickled little Albert. “Oh, what is that on your upper lip? Oh, my…”

Derek sat across from his in-laws for an hour as they all watched Albert play with a mobile. Pam’s father, in his mid seventies and wholly senile, sat dejectedly on the sofa next to his wife as she chattered on.

“You know, when Pamela was a baby, she had a freckle underneath her eye, and that went away.”

“Mhm. Donald, can I get you another sandwich? Chips?” Derek asked.

“He’s fine,” she gestured to her husband. “Donald’s trying to slim down.” Donald didn’t seem so sure. He grunted and continued to stare angrily into the distance.

Pam’s mother continued. “And her hair was a frizzy mess for years. We called her Donna Summer it was so frizzy. Not to her face of course. She grew out of that too!”

“Mhm.”

“Kids have weird things, it’s totally natural. You’re gonna look back at this someday and you and Pamela are gonna tell stories about it, and you’re gonna laugh and laugh-”

“He’s BABY HITLER, Camille!” yelled Donald as he stood up and pointed at the child accusingly. He let the words hang in the air for a few seconds, then nonchalantly walked out of the room.

 

Nine months

Things had started to escalate. Albert had begun to crawl, and Albert had begun to crawl towards certain things. A German dictionary, an article in Newsweek about Nazi theology, the TV- when Derek accidentally flipped past a History Channel special on the weapons of World War II. Each time, Albert’s eyes would light up, and he’d quietly giggle. Each time, the offending object was quickly disposed of, and the incident forgotten.

It was harder to forget when Albert grabbed a toy train car and uttered his first word, Breitspurbahn – which Pam later found was the name of a planned double-decker railway system from 1940s Germany.

“Honey, come in here!” Pam cried across the house.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“I think he’s close to walking. Look at him hugging the couch like that, he’s gonna stand, I think!”

Albert grasped the edge of the sofa and slowly pulled himself up, only to lose his balance and fall moments later.

“Derek, get the camera!”

Just as Derek returned with camcorder in hand, and just as Pam had finished screaming, “This is it, this is it!” Albert stood and walked five perfect steps across the room – with his left arm straight out in front of his body and his legs rigid in what was clearly a Nazi soldier’s march.

 

Eleven months

Derek came home from work to find Albert on the floor playing with a new toy.

“What is Albert playing with?”

“It’s nothing,” she said sweetly, in the way she always did when she knew a fight was coming.

“Is this,” Derek ripped the toy out of Albert’s hands and he began to cry, “an SS symbol? Really?”

Pam nodded.

“Really? Where did you even get this? Why?”

“Amazon. It’s an early Christmas present for Albert. Dr. Schrieber says we need to be supportive of him during this phase.”

“Oh, really…” Derek spit out a sigh.

“He says that if we withhold German things from him, he will only want them more.”

“Well we can’t just encourage it!”

“Dr. Schrieber says it’s perfectly normal and that lots of kids experience strange phases like this,” Pam shouted over Albert’s cries.

“Oh, excellent, so you’re going to have me believe that people are popping out baby dictators all the time?” Derek began to yell.

“No, it’s not like that, Derek.”

“Hm, I wonder where Mao’s parents are. Do you think he’s knocking down the art in their house? I hope the Mussolinis live nearby, I could really go for a cannoli. You know what, for all we know, there’s a baby Yalta going on right now! Imagine that!”

“Stop it. Dr. Schrieber is an expert in his field and he says that we should support Albert and I’m his mother, so I’m going to support him.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, honey, but Dr. Schrieber is a quack, and so is any other doctor who claims that what’s happening here is normal. When I wake up in the morning to the sound of my son humming Flight of the Valkyrie, that’s not normal. When I come home to him playing with an SS logo, that’s not normal either. When my SON looks more like him than me, THAT’S not normal! If we support this, he could grow up to truly be that person, Pam! He could kill millions of people, and the weight of that will be all on us. On you.”

He slammed the toy into the carpet, grabbed his briefcase, and walked out of the house.

 

Twelve months

Pam and Derek laid awake in the pitch black and perfectly stillness of their bedroom.

“I just don’t know what I did wrong.” Pam had started to cry.

“What?”

“I screwed it all up. I’m his mother, and I broke him. I just don’t know what I did.”

“What are you talking about? Honey, no.”

“Maybe those Baby Einstein tapes I played for him had a germanizing affect somehow,” she sobbed.

“No, honey…”

“Or one time, I thought I poured myself a caffeine-free Coke Zero but it turned out to be a normal coke. The baby isn’t supposed to have caffeine.”

“No, mothers do that all the time, it’s alright…”

“And caffeine-free Coke Zero doesn’t even exist! ” Pam cried, slumping her body into her husband’s frame. Derek held her as she shook and sobbed. “And we’re always fighting now, we used to be so perfect.”

“It’s okay, it’s alright, it’s not your fault. This is all gonna pass, it’ll all be over soon. I know it…”

 

Fourteen months

Derek took Albert for a walk in the stroller. He had his headphones in, and never heard the car approach. They would later learn that the driver was drunk and was pushing his Audi down the suburban road at at least fifty miles an hour when he suddenly swerved off course and ramped over the curb, straight at Derek and Albert. At the time, Derek only felt the rush of wind as the front bumper glanced the side of the stroller, sending Albert flying some twenty feet through the air and onto a neighbor’s lawn. Had the driver swerved ten inches to the right, the stroller certainly would have been run over. Derek was knocked into the sidewalk, cutting his face in the process, but quickly scrambled to his feet. When he found Albert, the boy smiled at him in the grass. Only cuts and bruises.

Pam held Albert close for days after, but the family largely forgot about the incident. Derek knew he should feel thankful, but deep, deep down, he almost wished the car hadn’t missed.

 

Fifteen months

Pam was sound asleep. Derek sat on the sofa watching TV with Albert on his lap when a commercial came on – it was for a Holocaust remembrance special on PBS, entitled “Never Forget.”

Derek felt the couch vibrate before he heard the sound. Albert was laughing hysterically, his whole body shaking the sofa as he curled into a ball, giggling more and more as images of piled-up dead bodies flashed across the screen. His cackling was so powerful that it took a full twenty seconds after the commercial was over for him to stop. The room laid silent. Derek was left completely and utterly horrified. In that moment, he decided, things needed to stop. Now.

Wordlessly, he carried Albert into his room and placed him in the crib. The baby didn’t make a sound. Derek walked to his bedroom, softly opened the drawer, and retrieved the nine millimeter glock he had purchased months before. His body rigid with anger, he stood outside of Albert’s room and pulled back the hammer. He took a deep breath and opened the door.

In the darkness, Albert laid back, looked up at the ceiling, and smiled.

 

——————–
Casey Ark is a 22 year-old aspiring writer from Harrisburg, PA whose work has been featured on JukePopSerials.com, and twice in From the Fallout Shelter, a Penn State literary magazine. When he’s not writing about baby Hitler, he’s managing his own web design company, Plato Web Design.

Grand Opening

By Lucas McMillan

7.1 B-smallefore the Man Hole was the Man Hole, it was a Perkins. The problem, James Erikson thought as he stood on the other side of the street and examined the hokey contours of its roof, was that you could tell. Not that his clientele would care, of course. In a town as small as Sakatah, beggars couldn’t be choosers for a gay bar experience. But still, the building itself exuded a kind of corn-fed, nuclear family feel that he badly wanted to scrub away. The building looked nerdy, square, like it would rat you out to a teacher or the law. But it was what they had.

The Man Hole, née Perkins, was a hundred yards away from both schools and churches, which meant, of course, that it wasn’t in the city limits of Sakatah at all. Those two simple city council edicts, dusty vestiges of sepia-toned anti-sodomy laws, had banished the Man Hole to the outer orbit of town, all the way out to the abandoned hull of a family-friendly restaurant in between a gas station and an adult toy emporium several blocks from a highway overpass.

James clutched a plastic bag containing the large novelty pair of scissors he’d bought at a party supply store that morning for the Man Hole’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, now almost an hour overdue.

James’ cell phone rang and he answered.

“Hi, Mom? Are you almost here? No, different exit. Exit seventy-eight, not seventy-nine. Is Dad driving? Put Dad on. Dad doesn’t want to talk? Fine. Exit seventy-eight. Bye.”

James could picture his father, hands in the ten and two o’clock positions on the steering wheel, knuckling down harder and harder as his parents drove out of the Cities. The dutiful soldier, bursting with unexpressed protestations.

James walked across the cracked asphalt of the parking lot, emerald green tufts of grass wiggling through the pavement. He stood below the bar’s sign and looked up. It had turned out well; the “O” in “Hole” was an actual wrought-iron manhole cover strung up in chintzy-looking Christmas lights. Derek had wanted the sign to be more suggestive of a sphincter, but James had nixed the plan, pointing out that the name of the bar was suggestive enough.

A battered pickup truck rolled into the parking lot and chugged to a halt. A petite woman stepped gingerly down from the cab with a large, boxy camera dangling around her neck.

“Hi, are you James?” she asked, walking over to him. She held out her hand. “Shannon Cooper, from the paper?”

“Hi, Shannon, how are you?” He shook her hand.

“You excited for the ribbon-cutting ceremony?” she asked. The faux pomp and circumstance of a ribbon-cutting ceremony had been another overblown touch of Derek’s. A pink and gold ribbon streamed across the door of the bar, flapping in the wind.

“We didn’t get any big celebrities to help us,” James said. “Not even the mayor.”

She laughed.

A Volvo ripped into the parking lot, the horn blaring. It drove a joyous, circuitous route around the lot, kicking up glittering green shards of broken beer bottles, before skidding to a halt in front of them. Derek climbed out, a feather boa wrapped around his neck, bug-eyed sunglasses perched on his head like the goggles of a mad WWI aviator.

“Greetings,” he said, throwing both his hands into the air. He lurched toward the reporter and bear-hugged her, his arms clamping around her so hard she dropped her notepad.

“Careful, careful, the camera,” she said, pushing him away. He threw his arms around James then. Despite himself, James breathed in deep, the surprisingly staid, earthy smell of Derek’s cologne tickling his nostrils.

“A joyous day,” Derek said, beaming. A sheen of nervous sweat glistened on his forehead.

“My boyfriend, Derek,” James said, bowing with both hands extended like he was revealing a game-show prize. “I thought you had a shift at the hospital this morning?”

Derek threw the tip of the pink boa over his shoulder cavalierly.

“I did. Changed out of my scrubs there.”

“And the boa?”

“Borrowed it from one of the other nurses. I promised I’d give it back to him if he came out later.”

James wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. It was a hot day, the sun mercilessly wavering off the blacktop. He wished they’d fixed the air conditioner in the Man Hole, but they’d used the money to unclog the plumbing instead. Derek scratched under the bundle of itchy, burnt nylon-smelling feathers wrapped around his neck.

“So why did you guys pick this place?” the reporter asked. She squinted up at the sign, shielding her eyes with both hands.

James pointed at Derek with the deference of an indecisive driver at a four-way stop.

“Well,” Derek said. “James, we can trust the liberal media, can we not?” Derek turned to Shannon and arched an eyebrow, putting his chin between the crook of his thumb and forefinger.

“I’d think so,” James said. He sat down cross-legged on the ground and pulled the novelty scissors out of the plastic bag. The scissors were entombed in a hard plastic turtle shell, the kind with no obvious point of attack, the kind of virtually indestructible exoskeleton that his employer, 3M, had pioneered. He picked at the small seam in the plastic near the hanger hole.

“You see, Shannon,” Derek said. “We picked this spot because it’s near a highway, and Sakatah is rapidly becoming a suburb, whether it wants to become one or not. The Twin Cities are growing out, you know, urban sprawl or whatever, further and further down the state, and Sakatah will be swallowed up soon.” He gestured around with both hands in a sweeping gesture, taking in the soybean field across the street and the Quonset hut next door that sold vibrators.

“This doesn’t look like much now, but it’ll be developed soon, civilized, even,” he said.

“We hope,” James said. “Or our little bar could get stranded out here like those cute little towns that sprang up around railroads.” He wrestled with the scissor’s packaging, taking his car keys out of his pocket to saw at it.

“Come on, why are you so cranky?” Derek said, smacking James on the back of the head in a brotherly way.

“I fucking drove from St. Paul this afternoon,” James said, wiping the sweat from the arrow spike of his hairline. “I worked today too, you know.”

“Can I get your guys’ picture at the door? Or maybe in front of the sign?” the reporter asked.

James’ cell phone rang.

“Yes, hello, Mom? Jesus Christ, no. Wrong exit again. You’re headed toward Albert Lea. No, that’s all wrong. Put Dad on the phone. At least put it on speaker, then. Okay, fine, turn around and call me when you get back to the highway.” He hung up.

“Your parents?” Derek asked.

“Yeah, my dad got them lost. Probably on purpose, knowing him.”

“They don’t want to meet me?” Derek asked. He made to chew on his index finger, but there wasn’t a nail left to chew, so he stuck his thumb in his mouth and chewed that nail instead. “Do you think that’s it?”

“He doesn’t want to go to a gay bar, Derek,” James said. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”

The reporter shifted her weight nervously from foot to foot. That happened sometimes in public when the two men quarreled. People knew how to deal with domestic tiffs between two heterosexuals, but when James and Derek got into it at the farmer’s market or in the movie theater ticket line, James could see people mentally crawling under desks and preparing for bombs to drop.

“So, James, you don’t live down here?” the reporter asked, trying to change the subject, inadvertently changing it to a worse one.

“No I do not,” James said. “I’m an engineer at 3M, so I’ve gotta stay up there.”

“Why did you buy a bar in Sakatah?”

“Two middle-aged gay guys can have midlife crises too,” James said. “We just don’t buy sports cars. We either buy bars or adopt Chinese babies.”

“I’m a nurse at Mayo,” Derek offered with an apologetic shake of his head. “So I live down here. We make it work, don’t we, sweetie?”

“Mmm.” James continued to saw at the plastic shell, the serrated edge of his keys sending up flecks of the material. “Derek talked me into buying this place, didn’t you, sweetie?” Sweat dripped down the bridge of his nose, pattering onto the hard plastic.

“I’m sorry he’s being so dramatic,” Derek said to the reporter. “He gets a little fussy in the heat.”

“Dramatic,” James snorted. He stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. “You’re wearing a feather boa, Derek.”

“Whatever,” Derek said, flipping it again over his shoulder and holding up a hand. “I’m gonna call Kevin and see where they’re at.” Kevin was a friend of theirs from the Twin Cities who was driving a busload of partygoers to the grand opening.

James checked his watch; they were supposed to have opened an hour ago. Derek plugged his other ear and walked around the corner of the building to talk. The reporter busied herself snapping pictures of the bar and the pink lemonade-colored ribbon over the entryway.

James’ cell phone rang again. He sighed deeply, deflating more than exhaling, and took the call.

“Yes, Mother,” he said. “You what? He turned around? You’re going home now? Oh, come fucking on. Oh my God, Mom, you know he was just looking for an excuse to do that, make him… Ugh, whatever. Drive safe.”

Derek walked around the corner of the bar, shaking his head.

“Bus blew a flat. Kevin says they won’t be here for at least another two hours.”

The reporter cleared her throat.

“Hey, guys, I think I’ve got everything I need. Can I just get a picture of you two standing by the ribbon?”

James looked down at the novelty scissors on the ground, frozen in their plastic pod.

“Sure thing,” he said. He picked up the container and held it aloft, the sun refracting through the creased and dented plastic. James spiked it onto the ground with both hands. The seam popped open along the side, and the scissors clattered to the ground.

“You’ll get your picture,” he said, scooping up the scissors and advancing resolutely toward the ribbon.

“Whoa, honey, what are you doing?” Derek said. Derek’s voice dropped into the quiet, measured tone that was his real voice when the pressure, both real and imagined, to be so Derek all the time eased. Derek whipped off the boa and threw it to the ground. He took off his sunglasses and tucked them into the deep V of his T-shirt neckline. “Let’s wait till everyone gets here, okay?”

“If we’re going to do this, let’s fucking do this,” James said.

“Fine,” Derek said, hissing through his teeth. “We will talk about this later.”

“No, we won’t.”

“Are you guys ready?” the reporter called, the camera held to her face.

Derek plastered on a smile and threw an arm around James’ shoulder.

“Born ready,” James called. He snipped the ribbon.

 

——————–

Lucas McMillan is a marketing copywriter whose short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Drake Magazine, The Oklahoma Review, and Urban Plains Magazine.

Romaine Hearts

By Lucy EM Black

7.1 O-smallur neighborhood was in a protected enclave, two facing rows of houses bordered by fields, a church, and a row of shops.   We took pride in knowing things.  “Keith knows something!” was a summoning that made us abandon our pursuits and huddle in close.

“Bird’s Nest is washing!” announced Keith.  Bird’s Nest was code for Mrs. Ross, nicknamed for the grey hair that she piled messily in a bun.  We grinned at each other and solemnly headed to the Hardings’ where, if you climbed on the garage roof and laid flat on your stomach, you could peer in the basement window and watch Mrs. Ross doing the laundry – stark naked.  Feeding the wet items through the cylinders that pressed excess water out, she took the flattened fabric coils and folded them in the basket at her feet.  Dressed, she would eventually carry the laundry outside and hang the wet things on her clothesline.

We knew secrets and we guarded them.  We knew when someone got smacked by their Dad, when Mr. Gilchrist was out of work, when Mr. Vickers got drunk, and how Mrs. Eliot got her shiner.   Mr. and Mrs. Curtin were an older couple who lived in a yellow house with a square hillock on their front lawn.  The grass that grew there was always long and soft. We sat on their hill often, favouring them with our company.  When they moved away to live with their married daughter, we stood in regimental formation along their driveway and waved.  Later that week, a new family moved in and we gawked openly as their furniture and boxes were unloaded and carried in the front door.  There were two boys.

Early on Saturday morning, we approached the Smith’s front door, ordered by our respective mothers to “be nice” and asked if the older boy would like to play.    He was self-conscious when he joined us, loping across the lawn with stiff legs and arms, as though unaccustomed to the movements of his own body.  We watched his approach with interest, as curious about him as we would be a caterpillar on tree bark, or a dead baby bird.

We wanted to know what Bradley was good at.  All of us were good at something.  Tree-climbing, conkers, bike tricks, trading.   He wouldn’t look at us, staring down instead at his crossed legs, awkward in our circle on the grassy boulevard.  “Keith’s good at farting,” offered Paul.  “They stink like nothing you ever smelled before.”  We laughed and corroborated the statement, each of us helping to establish Keith’s reputation as a premium farter.

“Once, he even farted in class.  So loud, Lownie turned around and demanded to know, who had been so rude as to foul the air.  Foul the air!” we snorted, enjoying the ridiculous phrase.

Bradley wasn’t amused.  His ears went all red and he looked like he was going to cry.  We were silent, watching him.  Paul finally pulled out his prize conker – a carefully polished chestnut with a black shoe lace threaded through it.  “You can have this,” Paul said, “if you like conkers.” The rest of us sat back, watching.  Bradley reached for it and examined it carefully.

“Thanks,” he said, looking up and smiling at Paul, just briefly.

The rest of us followed suit and reached into our pockets to pull out cat-eye marbles,   dyed rabbit feet, and a few hunks of coloured glass.  Keith had a pen from Niagara Falls with a little Maid of the Mist boat that floated inside the clear shaft.  By turn, all of these things were admired.

“You got anything?” I finally asked.

“Just this,” he said, reaching into his pocket.  “My Grandpa gave it to me.”  Bradley took out a shiny silver dollar.  We passed it around the circle respectfully.  None of us had seen one before.  Bradley had, with this small act, eased his way into the fringe of our group, and we afforded him tag-along privileges.

There was a pecking order in our domain, and a system that dictated the way things were done.  When it rained, we played in the Grants’ basement.  When it was hot, we played in the Clarkes’ shaded yard.  For dodge-ball, we went to the Wilsons’.  We were also accustomed to piling into a neighborhood kitchen for snack.  “Mom, can we come in?” was the preliminary, uttered by whomever lived there.  And then, permission granted, six or seven of us would crowd into the room, wash our hands at the sink, and sit at the formica table, often two bottoms per chair, while we waited.

Bradley had joined us on these forays several times before we decided that it was his turn to host.  After carefully rehearsing the ritual, we followed him to the side door and waited for things to unfold.  But Mrs. Smith did not invite us in.  Instead, she came to the door carrying a leafy green thing and broke off pieces which she passed out, calling them Romaine Hearts.  We said “thank you” awkwardly and walked away,  feeling strangely embarrassed.

I scanned the wooden bins of produce with interest the next time I was at the grocery store. When my mother selected a large head of iceberg lettuce for our cart, I told her the Smith secret.  “You know, Mum, the Smiths eat Romaine Hearts.”  I felt ashamed to be saying it aloud; as if I was complicit in their unconventionality.

“Hmm,” responded my mother, “I suppose that’s okay if it suits them.”

But she had not understood what it was that I was trying to communicate:  that the Smiths weren’t like us.

When I eat an elegant salad, wilted confections with radicchio and arugula, dressed with exotic oils and vinegars, I’m aware of consciously spearing the tender greens with a determined thrust.  It is as though a part of me believes that if I could somehow learn to savor such fare, those childhood days and the romaine hearts, would be once more.

 

——————–

Lucy Black is an educator.  She studied creative writing at the undergraduate level and later earned an M.A. in nineteen-century British fiction.  She has studied at the Sage Hill school of writing, the Humber College school of writing, and has participated in many writing workshops and writer’s groups.  She recently completed writing her first novel on the plight of Irish emigrants in 1870s Ontario which has been edited by Canadian writer, Donna Morrissey.  Lucy received the “Writer of Distinction” award from Humber College for this manuscript.  Her short stories have been published by Cyphers Magazine, Fast Forward Fiction, Temenos Fiction, Vintage Script, and Under the Gum TreeThe Hawaii Review  and Gargoyle have also accepted work for publication.

Superhuman

By Svetlana Kortchik

7.1 S-smallhe was superhuman. Her moves defied commonly accepted laws of physics, and everything she did, from a tiny flicker of her fingers to elaborate, daring tumbling passes, was masterfully executed. When she stepped on the mat, her aim was not to beat her competitors. Nor was she attempting to conquer her fears for she had none. But every time she performed, every time the audience gasped in breathless wonder and erupted in a thunder of applause, she was fighting the gravity. And when she prevailed over it, time and time again, she knew that the physical limitations that applied to other people didn’t apply to her. She was invincible, a hero, a role model for millions of young girls around the world who wanted to be her.

Her trembling hand clasping the remote tightly, Sarah watched herself compete on TV. Her unblinking eyes followed the slim figure on the tiny screen, while her whole body seemed to tense whenever she performed a particularly remarkable skill. Each time her routine ended, she would rewind to the beginning. Over and over she would play it without noticing the tears that ran down her cheeks. She watched the girl on TV do a brilliant dismount after a flawless beam routine and raise her hands in a celebratory greeting, and her face lit up for a second and then relaxed into a habitual frown again.

A nurse waltzed into the room, a medical chart under her arm. She smiled cheerfully, an expression of carefree unconcern on her plump freckly face. ‘Are you watching it again?’ she demanded, taking the remote from Sarah’s unresponsive fingers and pausing the video. ‘All you do is torture yourself. You should watch a movie or read a book. We have many good books in the library. I could bring you one.’

Sarah shook her head sadly and looked out the window, her eyes vacant and staring. If she tried hard enough, maybe she could pretend that she was someplace else, practicing in the gym, perhaps, or swimming in the lake, or at her parents’ place enjoying a family meal. Anywhere but in this dreary room where everything, from grey walls to the wheelchair that she used to move her immobile body around, smelt of sickness, death and desperation.

‘Try to move your toes for me, honey.’ The nurse’s no nonsense voice interrupted her reverie. ‘You have a long way to go to get better and you have to work very hard.’

Sarah blinked the unwanted tears away. How was she supposed to move her toes if she didn’t even feel them? She sensed her stomach tighten in a helpless, petrified mass and she squeezed her eyes. ‘What’s the point?’ she said dejectedly. ‘I will never do gymnastics again.’

‘Yes but if you don’t give up, you might walk again.’ The nurse winked and adjusted her pillows.

‘Gymnastics is my life,’ Sarah whispered.

‘Oh, honey,’ said the nurse dismissively. ‘There’s more to life than gymnastics.’

Sarah contemplated her with pity. The woman didn’t know what she was talking about. How could she if she never experienced the rush of mastering a move that no one else in the world could do, the giddy exhilaration of winning, of achieving the impossible, of beating the odds every single day of her life?

Her gaze fell on a framed photograph on her bedside table. The young girl in the picture was crying too but instead of weakness and fear, they were tears of happiness. Not because she had a gold medal around her neck or because of the adoring crowds shouting her name. And not even because she was the best in the world.

No, she was crying from happiness because she still believed that she was superhuman.

***

She waited for him all day. Trapped in her helpless misery, there was nothing left for her to do but pray for him to come. Nothing to do but watch her mobile phone obsessively and dial his number time and time again, leaving countless messages, each more frantic and despairing than the last. She fretted and cried and she even put on some bright pink lipstick only to wipe it off again with a sleeve of her hospital gown. Finally, she slept.

It was while she was still asleep and when the early morning dawn coloured dark skies bright red that he finally came.

He watched her open her eyes groggily and said, ‘Sorry I haven’t been in touch. I got caught up at the gym.’

‘I called the gym. You weren’t there,’ she said accusingly. ‘Were you with her?’ Sarah didn’t like the whining, atypically insecure note that made her voice quiver. She shut her eyes in pain, waiting for the drug infused fog to clear so she could think straight.

Instead of sitting down in a chair beside her bed, he took a step back. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.

‘I’m not,’ she said dully.

‘Sorry?’ He looked at her in confusion.

‘I’m not feeling anything, Paul.’ It was a lie. Paradoxically and despite not having any sensation below her waist, every fibre of her body seemed to exude dull, monotone pain that never went away, not even when she was asleep.

‘Do you want anything? Is there anything I can do?’

‘There is. When I fell…’ she stammered. ‘When I had the accident, I was recording my vault. I want to see the video.’

‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’

‘It will make me feel better.’

‘You shouldn’t dwell on the past so much. Concentrate on your recovery.’

‘I need to understand the mistake I made to make sure I don’t do it again,’ she said, and then she saw his darkened face and remembered. She would never do gymnastics again. Shivering, she continued, ‘You are my coach. It happened on your watch. It’s your fault! I want to see the video.’

He gasped as if she slapped him. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he said coldly. ‘You should get some rest.’

‘Do you still love me?’ she demanded.

‘Of course.’

‘Say it.’ She watched his face for what seemed like a very long time. ‘I need to hear you say it.’

‘I love you.’ It was almost a whisper.

She lowered her gaze thoughtfully. ‘If you loved me, you would have gotten a divorce by now.’

‘I really need to get going. I will come and see you very soon, I promise. Go back to sleep.’

Leaving the room, he turned the lights off behind him. She was suddenly plunged in darkness, and she squeezed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to fight off the familiar twinge of panic and loneliness. Her shoulders shook in silent sobs. She desperately wanted to get up, make her way to the window and watch his retreating back as he walked away from her and into his daily life. But the body that until very recently had obeyed her every whim now let her down, refusing to cooperate. She concentrated on her lifeless feet, willing them to move but there was nothing, not even a flicker of feeling.

***

Paul stepped out into the cold and, briefly turning around to look at her window, started down the street. He wasn’t sure if it was the bleak hopelessness of the hospital room, Sarah’s tearful desperation or his own all-consuming remorse that was forcing him to walk so fast on this lazy Saturday morning. All he knew was that he had to get away.

He slipped on the icy road and almost fell, swearing loudly and startling a lone dog walker leading an oversized yellow Labrador. Regaining his balance, Paul muttered something under his breath and rapidly changed direction. He couldn’t face going home, either.

He couldn’t face his wife, just yet.

He wondered if Lucy knew about him and Sarah. How could she possibly not? She worked as a physiotherapist at their gym and she wasn’t stupid or blind. And yet, they had been very discreet. No one else knew, not even other gymnasts. Not even Sarah’s best friend.

He fumbled in his pocket for a key and, struggling with a lock, his frozen fingers trembling a little, opened the door. The gym was deserted and he welcomed a rare moment of solitude.

His office was a chaos of haphazardly discarded papers, documents and magazines but Sarah’s camera was still on the table, right where he left it that day, exactly a week ago. He shuddered every time he remembered what happened. Her sharp cry of pain, hushed voices of white clad doctors, quiet rustle of their crisp uniforms as they placed Sarah on a stretcher, monotone blue flashing lights of the ambulance as it made its way through deserted streets. Picking up the camera, he hesitated. He wasn’t sure he could bear to relive the disquieting feeling of helpless guilt that he felt then and was still feeling now.

Finally, he sank into his leather chair, turned on his computer and braced himself for what he was about to see. She was breathtakingly beautiful and even now, in the confines of his small computer screen, she radiated youthful energy and life. She did one vault after another and he smiled proudly. She was the only one in the world who had the courage and the talent required to do this skill. She was a winner, a force of nature.

He sighed and shook his head in despair.

After her third vault, she walked to her gym bag to get a drink, her back to the camera. She took a swig of water and, bending over, began to bandage her ankle that was troubling her that day. And as soon as she did that, a tall blonde woman approached the vault and moved the springboard a few inches away from the apparatus.

Paul blinked, his face frozen in shock. His question had been answered.

Lucy knew about him and Sarah.

***

For the last week Lucy hadn’t been able to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she awoke from the same agonising nightmare, shaking in anguish, cold sweat running down her face. And as she lay wide awake night after sleepless night, she wanted to scream. I didn’t want it to end so badly, she repeated to herself. I didn’t want her to get hurt.

She couldn’t face going to work. Long, mournful faces of gymnasts, subconscious fear permeating their every move, Sarah’s name whispered everywhere she turned, even the cursed vault, everything reminded her of what she had done.

Day after day, she stayed in the reassuring safety of the house she and Paul shared.

On an impulse, she dialled the hospital. There was no answer for a very long time and she breathed out sharply, almost relieved. When a nurse finally answered, she panicked and nearly hung up. ‘I am calling to inquire about one of your patients,’ she mumbled, her voice barely audible. ‘Her name is Sarah. Sarah White.’ Saying Sarah’s name aloud made her cringe, as if she was in pain.

‘Are you a family member?’

‘Yes,’ she stammered. ‘I’m her sister.’ She shivered.

‘There’s been no change in Miss White’s condition.’ The nurse on the other side of the phone sounded bored.

‘Will she be able to walk?’ asked Lucy, holding her breath.

‘I’m sorry but at this stage it’s impossible to tell.’

‘Thank you,’ whispered Lucy softly. Slowly she sank into a deep armchair and stared into space, her body rocking back and forth. Half an hour passed, then an hour.

A sudden bang of the front door startled her and she looked up. Paul was standing over her, his mouth set in a tense contemptuous line. ‘Aren’t you going to work today?’ he asked sternly.

‘I’m not feeling well,’ she said, her voice hoarse. ‘What are you doing home?’ Slowly, unsteadily, as if the effort of it was too much for her sleep deprived body, she got up and leaned against the wall, facing him.

‘We need to talk.’ He watched his wife’s gaunt face, his arms wrapped tightly around his athletic body. ‘I want a divorce,’ he said firmly, his voice empty and dull. He braced himself for her reaction, her shock, her inevitable tears. None came. She looked calm and collected, and only the glass she was holding in her hand shook badly, spilling water all over their spotless beige carpet.

‘I know we’ve been having problems. We drifted apart. But we can work on it. We can try again.’ She was blinking fast as if struggling to control her emotion.

He shook his head defiantly. ‘It’s over, Lucy. There’s no point trying.’

‘All I ask for is another chance. Is it because of her?’ Finally she cried, her shoulders quivering. ‘You must really love her to want to do this to us.’ She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand and her face lit up in sudden hope. ‘I will never give you a divorce. Once this infatuation is over, things will go back to normal. I am your wife for life and nothing you do is going to change that.’

She leaned forward and reached for his hand but he recoiled and took a step back. When he spoke, his voice was very quiet and she had to make an effort to hear him. ‘I know what you did to Sarah. You are lucky she’s alive. You could have killed her. Here, watch this.’ Carelessly, with contempt, he threw a computer disc in her direction, and it fell on the floor with a disturbing clanking sound. ‘And don’t worry if you damage it, I made copies. My lawyer will be in touch.’

He looked at her one last time and his eyes were cold. Turning around, he walked through the door, slamming it behind him once more. When she was alone, Lucy sank to the floor in a shattered faltering mass, clutching her stomach tightly as if she had been stabbed.

***

Sarah wished she could sleep twenty hours a day. Sleep was oblivion and when she slept, she was almost happy. Unfortunately, her body was rebelling against more sleep just like it was rebelling against everything else that she willed it to do. To pass the time, she watched an enormous spider on the ceiling above her bed, weaving its intricate web that stretched from one wall to another. Every morning a cleaner destroyed the results of its incessant work, and every day the spider rebuilt its web again, never giving up, no matter how long it took, only to have it taken away from him once again the next morning.

I wish I had his determination, thought Sarah. She named the spider and had endless discussions with him.

The spider was a good listener.

The door opened silently and she watched a tall woman make her way into the room. Sarah recognised her immediately, even though Lucy looked as if she aged ten years since the last time she saw her. There were dark shadows under Lucy’s eyes and her shoulders were stooped. There was no makeup on her face, nor did she bother to brush her long blond hair that looked matted and lifeless.

There was a minute of silence as the two of them stared at each other intently. Finally, Lucy said, ‘You must be very pleased with yourself.’

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Sarah, wondering if perhaps the older woman was mad and whether she should call for help. Just in case, she placed her thumb on the emergency panic button.

‘I felt so bad about what happened to you. So guilty. But not anymore. You deserve everything you got.’ Lucy paused, as if afraid that she revealed too much.

Sarah closed her eyes. She was in pain and didn’t feel up to a confrontation. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asked coldly.

‘How do you do that? Even now that you are in a wheelchair, you manage to destroy my marriage.’ She laughed hysterically, her hands shaking.

‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’

‘He left,’ said Lucy. ‘He packed his bags and left. We are getting a divorce. But if you think you will be happy together, you are wrong. One day he’ll do to you what he did to me, you just wait and see. He will soon get tired of the responsibility of looking after you.’ She looked Sarah up and down with disdain.

Sarah felt the tiniest glimmer of remorse as she listened to Lucy’s tearful accusations but it was soon gone, giving way to exhilaration and excitement. In vain did she struggle to hide the sheer happiness that was written all over her face. Finally, like she always wanted, she and Paul could be together. No more sneaking around and hiding their feelings for each other. She closed her eyes and prayed for the woman to leave, so she could daydream about her future with Paul without interruption.

For the first time since her fall, she felt hopeful.

That night and the one after, she didn’t close her eyes, not for a moment. She waited for Paul to come and give her the exciting news. She couldn’t wait to hear him tell her that now she could have everything she ever dreamt of, with him. That everything would be ok. She lay awake minute after agonising minute, watching the door.

But hours turned into days and her hope soon turned into doubt, and there was still no sign of him.

Finally, her mobile rang. She grabbed it and, seeing his name light up on the little screen, answered eagerly.

‘Where have you been?’ she demanded. ‘I haven’t seen you for three days.’

‘I think it’s better if we don’t see each other anymore.’ He sounded distant and his voice was quiet but every cruel, bitter word made her gasp in agony.

‘Why are you doing this? I thought that now you left Lucy we could finally be together.’

‘I’m not doing this to hurt you. It’s for the best for both of us. One day you will understand.’

‘Are you going back to her? You should know that she’s crazy. She was here, threatening me. She stalks me pretending to be my sister.’ Sarah talked very fast, refusing to believe in the finality of what was happening.

‘This has nothing to do with her,’ he said firmly.

‘You said you loved me. Was it a lie?’ She listened to the ominous silence on the other end and a sudden panic gripped her. ‘Please don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone,’ she pleaded. ‘Is it because I’m not well? Well, I’m going to get better soon and then you’ll be sorry.’

‘I hope you get better, Sarah, I really do. For your sake rather than mine. You are only seventeen. You have your whole life ahead of you.’

‘I can’t even walk, you bastard!’ she screamed, throwing the phone in the corner of her room and shaking in rage. ‘I can’t even walk,’ she whispered.

***

Layer upon flawless layer of snowflakes were performing a peculiar dance in the eerie light of a lone yellow streetlamp outside. As they settled on the tall leafy pine trees, on the frozen ground and ungainly buildings, Sarah thought that they made everything appear shiny, magical even, as if it was Christmas, as if there was no hospital room, or pain, or fear.

A nurse strolled in, a distracted, it’s almost the end of my shift expression on her round face. ‘How are we today?’ she inquired.

‘Fine,’ said Sarah. ‘Just fine.’

‘That’s good to hear. I brought you a book. It’s about a cyclist who made a full recovery after an accident. Would you like it?’

‘Yes, please.’ Sarah reached for the book eagerly. ‘Do you think I will make a full recovery one day?’

‘Of course you will, dear. As long as you believe in it.’

‘I believe in it,’ whispered Sarah, holding the book close and looking out the window once more. She wished she could touch the snow, run across the boundless white fields of her parents’ farm as fast as she possibly could, their refreshing coolness making her giddy with excitement, her trusted dog Buttons by her side. And as she imagined the crunch of snow under her bare feet, almost sensing its icy touch on her bare skin, she tensed her muscles. She tensed her shoulders first, and then her arms, and when she tensed her back, she sensed a strange tingling sensation running up and down her legs.

And as she squeezed her eyes, thinking about all the things that she wanted to do, all the things that she used to do but took for granted, she felt her feet move.

 

——————–
Svetlana Kortchik was born in a small Siberian town of Tomsk and, when she was 16, moved to Australia with her mum. She lives in Sydney, working as a computer programmer. Her passions are writing, travelling, history and martial arts.

Waiting for Rose

By Nancy Bourne

7.1 Y-smallour life can change in a split second. I know. It happened when I was seven.

Daddy was at the stove fixing my breakfast. He was wearing his blue striped pajama bottoms and no top and he was barefoot. His chest, which doesn’t have any hair, was so pale, he looked almost sick. And his face needed shaving.

“Here you go, Toots,” he said. “French toast with lots of butter and jelly.”

My name is Teresa, but everybody calls me Toots. Everybody except Grandma Charlotte.

That’s when I heard Mama coming down the stairs. I could tell she was wearing her pink satin bedroom slippers with the pompoms and the wedge heels because she was making a loud clomp with each step.

The minute she came in the kitchen, I knew something was wrong. Her old navy terry-cloth bathrobe was hanging open over her nightgown, which had a big yellow stain down the front. And her hair stuck out in different directions.

Before that day, Mama dressed for breakfast. At least that’s how I remember it. There was a bright blue cotton blouse, that smelled like lemon soap and the starch she always used, and she wore her hair, which was red and wavy, brushed back from her face and held in place with little curved combs. She would come to me first thing and take my face in her soft, soft fingers, and kiss me on the top of my head. She was so pretty and she smelled so good.

“How’s my tootsie-roll?” she’d ask.

“Sweet as pie,” I’d answer.

But that morning was all wrong.

She didn’t even look at me. Instead, she said to Daddy, “How come you’re not dressed?” Which was strange, since she wasn’t dressed.

“Don’t rush me,” Daddy said. “I got to get some coffee. My head’s killing me.”

“Well, no wonder,” she said in a voice I didn’t recognize. “You know, they’re gonna fire you one of these days if you keep being late all the time.”

I thought, they can’t fire him, can they?

I watched Daddy pour himself a cup of coffee. He sat down next to me at the red Formica breakfast table and snapped his newspaper open. He didn’t look at Mama.

“Get off my back,” he said.

She stomped over to the Frigidaire, pulled out a package of bacon, and threw a couple of pieces into the skillet which Daddy had used to fry my French toast.

“What’s going to happen to these girls, huh? When your mother’s finally had enough and fires your ass.”

I had never heard her talk like that before. I wanted to tie the belt of her robe and turn her around and say, Mama, go back upstairs. Come down again, all dressed and pretty.

“Stop screeching!” Daddy said without looking up from his paper. He wrapped his bare feet around the aluminum legs of the chair.

“I’ll screech as much as I like,” she said.

“Go ahead, then.” His voice was the kind of calm that tells you a person’s really mad but holding it back.

I started to get up from the table. I could tell something terrible was about to happen and I didn’t want to be there.

“I wish your precious mother could see you now,” Mama said.

“I wish she could see you,” Daddy said. He made his voice go up high like Grandma’s. “‘I warned you, didn’t I? I told you she was no good before you married her.’”

Then it happened. She grabbed that hot iron skillet with the bacon still sizzling in it.

“Mama,” I screamed. But she didn’t stop. She walked over to where Daddy was sitting. He just sat there and watched her. And then she hit him. Right on the head with that hot frying pan.

“Rose!” I screamed. “Rose! Rose! Rose!”

It was all confusion after that. Daddy was hollering and wiping hot grease off his bare chest. Mama was crying and saying she was sorry. The ambulance showed up, loaded Daddy in, and took off, with the sirens screaming. My sister Rose went too. She told me later that Mama was too upset to give a straight story, so she had to go. She told the doctor that Daddy had hurt himself cooking. She was fifteen years old.

Nobody even thought about getting me to school that day.

As I said, everything changed in a flash. But Rose told me it had changed before that. I just hadn’t noticed. Or maybe I didn’t want to. I was too happy being the baby of the family.

Take the time I sang Onward Christian Soldiers for Sunday service in front of everybody. I was six and I wore a white organdy dress with a sash tied in the back and puffed sleeves. Mama brushed my hair over a broomstick that morning into dark ringlets.

When the time came for my solo, Grandma took me by the hand and led me up from our family’s pew onto the stage next to Reverend Parker. The sanctuary was almost full and I could see red and blue patterns on the wood floor from the sun shining through the stained glass windows. I looked out at all the people, mostly grownups but some children, and wanted to run off that stage. But then Grandma started playing the organ, real soft, and I began to sing as loud as I could. I put my hands together, the way she had showed me, like I was praying, and looked up at the picture of Jesus on the Cross which is hanging at the back of the church.

When the service was over, everyone came up to me and hugged me and told me how pretty my singing was and how I might become a gospel singer someday. And when I got home, Mama made me an ice cream soda and made over me. That’s what my life was like then. If sometimes Mama’s laugh got a little too loud or Daddy looked like he was sick in the mornings, I paid no attention. I was their Toots.

Daddy didn’t lose his job, although he’s still late to work a lot of the time. My Grandma owns the Spottswood Hotel where Daddy’s the manager, and she wouldn’t dare fire her only son. Grandma is a very large person, not fat exactly, but when she comes into a room, everybody stops talking and listens to what she says.

And she hates my Mama.

“You made your bed,” she’d say to Daddy. “And the only way you’re going to be able to sleep in it is to make that woman behave.”

“How am I going to do that, Mama?” he’d ask.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she’d say.

He’d wink at me. “I think she wants me to bring your Mama to a WCTU meeting, Toots.” Grandma’s the president of the WCTU in our town, which is the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Rose is eight years older than me. After the bad day in the kitchen, she tried to explain it to me.

“Mama was sick,” she said. “She didn’t know what she was saying to Daddy because she was feeling so bad.”

“She hit him,” I said. I couldn’t stop seeing it, my own Mama in that dirty bathrobe clomping across the linoleum floor, with that hot frying pan in her hand.

“She didn’t mean to. She didn’t know what she was doing.”

That made no sense. “She sounded more mad than sick.”

“I guess she was mad. But the sickness made her mad.”

“Why was she mad?”

“She wasn’t mad at you, if that’s what you think.”

“Why was she mad?”

“Grownups sometimes get mad.”

“Is Daddy going to be okay?” I was worried about him. He seemed so helpless beside Mama and Grandma Charlotte.

“Sure. You saw him when he got home from the hospital. They put a bandage on his head and some medicine on his burns. He’s fine.”

“Will she hit him again?”

I wanted her to say, no, never. But instead she hugged me. “I hope not,” she said. “But I’ll take care of you, Toots, whatever happens. I promise.”

It was the best I could get. And she was true to her word. Whenever Mama started drinking orange juice and smelling funny, I’d find Rose and she’d take me to Ballou Park or buy me an ice cream cone at the Dairy Korner or take me to her room for a story.

Another way my life changed was that Grandma Charlotte started coming to our house in the afternoons. A lot of the time Mama was upstairs in bed with the door closed, and Grandma didn’t bother her. She always brought ginger cookies, and she’d ask me to play something on the piano, hymns mostly, and she’d quiz Rose about school. She never stayed long.

One afternoon she showed up when Mama was downstairs fixing me an ice cream soda and pouring herself a glass of orange juice. She was wearing her old blue bathrobe, which I was getting used to, although I missed the pretty blouses. I missed them so much.

“Well, what a surprise!” Grandma said when she walked into the kitchen.

“I’m just fixing myself a little juice,” Mama said. “I think I’m coming down with a cold.” I could tell she didn’t like Grandma being there, but she was trying to be polite.

“Orange juice and what?” Grandma asked.

Mama glared at her and laughed. “None of your business,” she said.

“It is my business the way you’re acting. It’s very much my business.”

Mama looked up at the ceiling and said in a low, steady voice, “Please leave my house.” I wanted to get out of there, but Mama put her hands on my shoulders and kept me in my seat.

“I will not leave until I’ve had my say,” Grandma said. “You have no idea what’s happening to these girls. I won’t even mention the way you treat your husband. He should be able to take care of himself, although I sometimes wonder. But these girls need a mother.”

I could feel Mama leaning heavy on my shoulders.

Grandma said. “Sit down and listen to me.”

“I guess I don’t have much choice,” Mama said. “Do your worst.”

“Do you know where Rose is right now?”

“With friends. She’s sixteen, Charlotte.”

“Do you know with what friends?”

“Of course I know her friends,” Mama said, although it made me wonder. Rose rarely brought friends home, and when she did, Mama was usually in bed.

“Teresa, honey,” Grandma said, “now that you’ve finished your ice cream, maybe you should go. Your mother and I have some things to discuss.”

I looked at Mama. I didn’t want to abandon her to Grandma, but I was dying to get out of that kitchen. She didn’t say anything. So I left. But I heard Grandma say the name Cory as I was leaving. Cory was one of Rose’s friends and I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the way he put his hands on Rose, and I didn’t like his laugh, which sounded rude. When I asked her, Rose said he wasn’t her boyfriend, which made me feel better.

I was looking for Rose when Grandma pushed past me. Mama was standing at the door of the kitchen yelling, “Get out of here and don’t you come back.”

“Rose,” I called.

And there she was, standing right by the front door, her eyes on Grandma, her shoulders stiff like a soldier. I could always count on her to be brave.

“You heard Mama,” she said to Grandma. “Leave us alone.”

“Oh, sweetheart, if only I could.”

“You only make it worse,” Rose said.

I stood there looking back and forth between them, wanting them to stop, wanting all of it to stop.

“I’m going to speak to your father,” Grandma said.

“You do all the time.”

After she left Rose stooped down next to me and hugged me so hard we fell on the floor, which started us laughing.

“The old goat,” Rose said. And that made me laugh really hard.

And then one day, when I needed her and called and called, she didn’t answer. Mama had picked me up from school. She was supposed to take me to my piano lesson, but she drove home instead. I figured she was having one of her spells, because she was driving slow and she didn’t say anything. By that time, I knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask questions.

The first thing I saw when we got home was Rose’s red sweater hanging on the banister. Mama went right to the kitchen and poured herself a big glass of orange juice. She sat down at the table and laid her head down on her arms. I called Rose but she didn’t answer. So I went over and touched Mama’s back.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She looked up at me like she was surprised to find me there.

“Why don’t you go play?” she said.

I didn’t feel like playing, so I went upstairs to look for Rose.

The door to her room was shut. I didn’t hear anything, but I figured she had to be in there.

“Rose?” I whispered through the door. “It’s Mama. Something’s the matter.”

She didn’t answer. So I opened the door. At first I couldn’t see anything. The blinds were drawn and there weren’t any lights. Then I saw Rose on the bed. And someone was lying on the bed beside her, face down.

“Go on back downstairs,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

But I just stood there. I couldn’t move. Because she didn’t have her blouse on. She had one arm crossed over herself and she was pulling at the sheet with her other hand, but I could see her nipples.

“Jesus, Rose, you said nobody was home.” It was Cory.

Rose pulled the sheet up around her.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you later. Just a minute.”

I watched her get herself dressed and we went down to the kitchen. Mama was on the floor, lying in a puddle of juice and broken glass.

“What’s the matter with her?” I asked, squatting on the floor beside her.

But Rose didn’t answer. Instead she said, “Come on, Toots, let’s get her upstairs.”

She was pulling on Mama’s arm when we looked up to find Cory staring down at us.

“Oh my god,” he said, “She’s dead drunk.”

“No,” I told him. “She’s sick.”

“Alcohol poisoning,” he said.

“You’re wrong,” I said. “I hate you.”

“Just give us a hand,” Rose said. She sounded so tired.

When they had gotten Mama into her bed, I stayed behind, gazing at her face, patting her cheek, and saying over and over, “What’s wrong, Mama?” until Rose took me by the hand and led me from the room.

Then she was gone. Daddy drove her to a hospital where he said she would get well. I wrote letters to her at the hospital, and she sent me postcards with pictures of dolphins and giraffes. She said she loved me and missed me and would come home soon. I pasted the postcards in my scrapbook. And most nights I slept with Rose to keep from crying.

And then one day, when I was sitting with Rose on her bed, she started to tear up a letter she was reading.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s from Mama.” She looked really angry.

“Let me see.” I tried to grab the paper.

“She’s not getting well.”

I started hitting her with my fists. “That’s not true,” I screamed.

Rose put her arms around me. “Poor little kid,” she said. She looked like she’d been crying.

I wiggled away from her and picked up the pieces of Mama’s letter that were scattered all over the bed.

“Read it,” I said, holding out the scraps of paper.

“You poor little kid,” she said again.

I laid out the scraps of paper on the bed. Too many pieces were missing to read it, but I pretended. “It says she’s getting well and is coming home soon.” And I left the room.

Mama did come home. And the first week or two were pretty good. She was dressed and smelling nice every afternoon when I got home from school, and she made dinner for us.

“Whoopee! No more Grandma,” Rose said.

Mama laughed her old laugh. “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”

But one afternoon, soon after she came back, I burst open the door to her bedroom, where Rose said she’d gone to take a rest. The blinds were drawn and the room smelled like cough syrup.

I tiptoed over to the bed and whispered, “Mama?”

She propped herself up on her elbow and tried to straighten the sheet which was tangled up in her legs. “Hi Toots,” she said. “How’s my baby?”

I took hold of the sheet and pulled it off of her. “Please get up,” I said.

But she flopped down on her back. “In a minute, honey.”

“Please,” I begged.

She didn’t answer. I stood there watching her face for a long time, but she didn’t say anything else. I left the room when she started snoring.

After that she was usually in bed when I left for school, and her door was closed when I got home. She still came downstairs from time to time, but she was usually in her nightgown and the gray showed in her hair. Daddy told me it was taking a long time for her to get well. And then he took her to what he called a rest home.

Of course, she came back again. And again. But she always went back to the rest home.
Each time I cried less.

That’s when Grandma Charlotte took over.

“How come she’s here all the time?” Rose asked Daddy.

“Toots needs her.”

“I’ll look after her like I’ve been doing for the past year.”

“You’re a kid.”

“Suit yourself,” Rose said, “but it’s me or her.”

And she meant it, because with Grandma hanging around all the time, Rose stopped coming home after school. She slept at our house, of course. Otherwise, Grandma would have called the police. But she never turned up until after dinner.

“Where have you been?” Grandma would ask.

“With friends.”

“You’ll end up just like your mother,” Grandma would say.

“Good.”

Occasionally I’d see her in town with Cory, their arms around each other’s waists, talking and laughing. I’d run up to her and beg her to come home.

“It’s awful without you,” I’d tell her.

“Not now, Toots,” she’d say. “I’ll be there tonight.” And she’d give me a big hug and off she’d go with Cory. I hated him.

After awhile, we only saw her on weekends. Grandma called the police, but before they showed up, somebody’s mother would telephone and ask if Rose could sleep over.

“She’s okay,” Daddy told Grandma. “Lay off her. She’s a teenager. Right now, she’d rather be with her friends.”

“Do you even care what happens to your child?”

“I won’t dignify that with an answer. Rose’s had a shock, and the last thing she needs is to have the cops trailing after her. Give her time; she’s a responsible kid.”

“She’s seventeen, Herman.”

“Just leave the police out of it,” Daddy said and disappeared into the kitchen.

“Don’t you pour yourself another drop of that whiskey,” Grandma said.

And Daddy just laughed.

Finally, Rose’s high school counselor reported her missing from school. Grandma telephoned all of her friends, but no one knew where she was.

“She’s with Cory,” I said.

But Cory didn’t know where she was.

“Search me!” he said.

“She’s a runaway,” the policeman said. “She’ll turn up when she needs money. They always do.”

But she didn’t. Every afternoon Grandma would telephone the police to see if anyone had seen her. I always stood beside her while she phoned, listening as hard as I could. Then I would go to her room and close the door. And I’d write letters to Rose. I would tell her what was happening in school and what songs I was learning on the piano. I’d tell her I loved her. I’d hear Grandma outside the door. “Teresa, honey, can I come in?”

“Leave me alone,” I’d say.

“Let’s go to the Dairy Korner.”

“Leave me alone.”

I kept all the letters in a box in Rose’s room for when she turned up. She’d promised to take care of me.

Grandma got Daddy to work on me, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He was drinking a lot of whiskey by then. He had to hide the bottles, because Grandma poured the whiskey down the sink whenever she found them.

I’m ten now. Mama comes home now and then, but she doesn’t stay for long. I try not to think about the time before she got sick. Grandma’s pretty nice to me. She’s probably afraid I’ll leave. But I’m only ten. So I go to school; I go to First Baptist; I play the piano.

And I wait for Rose. I have my suitcase packed. Because some day she’ll come for me. I know she will. And she won’t be with Cory. She’ll come for me.

 

——————–
Nancy Bourne is a retired lawyer who represented California public schools in a statewide education law firm. Since retirement, she has been writing stories and teaching English composition to inmates at the California San Quentin State Prison. Her recent publications include stories in Summerset Review and Forge. Another story is scheduled for publication in Quiddity in Fall 2013.