Current Issue

As Though You Owned that Time

By Alison Stone

Grandma, your paintings shine from frames. Soap

carvings of rabbits, arch-backed cats, a dancing bear,

two dogs with curling-ribbon

collars march on a tray near your collection of miniature spoons.

Weddings to one side, your mantel

teems with offspring who crowd the self-published volume of your poems.

In each crevice of this house, you put yourself, inking

political slogans on wooden stools, crocheting hats to hold a roll

of toilet paper, knitting handles for the drapes.

 

When anyone would listen,

you recited Shakespeare, your rich voice filling each soliloquy.

I gave you “Howl” in return,

which you hated. You were even more disgusted by my teacher

and his line “the dead put on their shoes.”

“The dead put on their shoes?” That isn’t poetry.

It makes no sense.

 

You know now if it makes sense or not.

But which shoes?

The shiny black ones of your girlhood when you took

the train to school,

and, too small to push open the doors,  often had to ride an extra stop?

The heels of your brief rebellion?

The flats for your one job, stenographer at the Aetna, where you got fired

for getting married? (Though they

kept you on, you told us proudly, longer than policy.)

Perhaps the flowered slippers

waiting near the couch where you read.

 

Absence makes you nicer.

We praise your volunteer

work and amazing memory, ignore your narrow-mindedness, your fear

which made my mother’s

childhood a list of “don’ts.” Don’t swim, you’ll get

wet. Don’t ice skate, you’ll

get cold. Don’t get a dog, they die.

Twice you broke

this last rule and brought your daughters wagging bundles;

both times you changed

your mind again, with a weak excuse gave the puppy back.

 

There are things I could tell you,

you said, then clamped your mouth shut and tightened

your throat until something grew there.

 

Instead you told happy tales beginning, In my day

as though you owned that time,

smoothing over the Depression, savoring your sixty years with the same man.

 

Grandma, ninety-two

is not enough. This is the last time your house will hold you.

Already the great-grandchildren

are taking paintings; my aunt is offering your bedroom set.

Frozen

By Alison Stone

I. Sisters

 

It’s always the younger one who yearns.

Who offers bike riding, her best jokes,

 

and learns that love is hungering

outside a locked door.

 

Memories of shared laughter

freeze in her heart.

 

Rejection makes her reckless.

She chases storms, takes

 

rides from strangers,

believes any boy

 

with a slick opening line.

Ends up numb beside a dying fire,

 

dumb to the futility of fantasy,

the cad behind the kiss.

 

 

II. Elsa in Translation

 

Let go now

Let go and forget

Suddenly

I have this power

Release hand

Let there be snow

I will rise at dawn

I’ll put it out

It wants to fly

Freed, released

To let go

It happened

I come to life

I’m letting everything go

I’m putting an end

Break free

Let it go as I am

I’m free

This is enough

And I forget

Lock of the icy heart

Forget everything

It’s left behind

It ends now

Doesn’t matter

Don’t mind it

It has already passed

Step ahead

Set it free

Let it go

Let it happen

Let it be

Let it snow

 

III. Finally a Fairy Tale

 

for all the gifted girls,

forced to hide

because our power threatens.

Guilty, hidden, cold, so lonely

we’ll try anything—

conceal, don’t feel—the soul-

dulling mantra that promises

a place at the dance.

 

Let us take off our gloves.

Conjure stairs,

then climb them.

Let our secrets sculpt

themselves from ice as weak

men cower and each flagrant note

of Now they know soars

from out open throats.

 

Let us be cold

as we need to be.

Suss the pretty prince

for what he is.

Whip up palaces and skating rinks.

When our sisters stumble,

let us take their hands

and guide them into glide.

Atmosphere

By Stephanie Valente

Centaurs & gilded mouths
line up & down the lot

followed through
with sea foam
& open legs
to spare

if there’s a maze
to navigate
there’s no telling
how many men
need to enter

before I feel
the water, sliding
waiting
to bring
condensation

with a cup
of steam.

 

—–

Stephanie Valente lives in Brooklyn, New York. One day, she would like to be a silent film star. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from dotdotdash, Nano Fiction, LIES/ISLE, and Uphook Press. She can be found at http://kitschy.tumblr.com.

Short Story

By Will Walker

Start with a question––say, Where does this pencil

come from? Then imagine for a moment

the little symphony of stories attached––

 

the graphite, sweet cedar, glue that sticks

the wooden halves together,

factory that makes a flood of pencils even now,

 

foreman who comes home with the smell of cedar

in his hair, trucker who carts in the little steel jackets

that hold the erasers, the distant source of rubber

 

for the tips themselves––and soon

you have a world, several continents tingling

with the intricate tale, even before

 

you think about the woman in Peoria

using a pencil just like yours––a Mirado

Black Warrior, HB2, arrived

 

from only God knows where, or when––

who writes a cryptic note to her husband Jake––

Gone for smokes, back soon––

 

—–

Will Walker lives in San Francisco with his wife and their dog. He (the writer, not the dog) is a former editor of the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal. His collection of poems, Wednesday after Lunch, is available on Amazon.

Pigeons

By Edward Butscher

A dark, lean, hard man who spoke little
forever hatted like a taxicab driver, his
childish smile rare as a peacock unfolding
below the flock of pigeons that exploded
from upturned palms like electrified stones
his form distinct above us on the tenement
roof: a foreign saint set against rabid clouds.

He was our uncle, we were told, but he never
looked at us, shy as a Dutch tulip, and my
father said in secret (man to man) that he was
only a cousin from the family’s corrupt branch
where blood seethed wild with syphilis herds
and was thin enough to candle eggs—his wife
a huge balloon figure sloped over a kitchen
window chair who could not bear children.

It was on the Lower East Side, just after the war
when we first glimpsed him and his pigeon host
and I guessed from the way my father gauged
his rooster frame that he was unique, a specimen
divine in the madness propelling him into the sky
each morning, a laugh like startled mallards as he
unlatched the wire door and slowly pivoted on tar
paper in tune, in time, to circling shafts of light.

Near the end of both their lives, my father and he
sat side by side in a urine-stained couch to monitor
TV soap operas. Teeth gone, nearly deaf, he could
not stop clucking as my father sipped his headless
beers, reciting newspaper horror stories by rote—
fried infants, raped co-eds, tortured cats—asking
me once if I had ever tasted a “coon hair pie.”

At my father’s wake, he slumped alone in the rear
and played with himself, cave grin bearing witness
to the betrayal of our shared laughter, and soon he
was also dead, his wife dancing in a thin nightgown
on the griddle of a snow-ribbed street, while black
attendants handled him gently into an ambulance,
dawn horizon bleak as a tossed purse, pigeons
ascending like tattered angels from my mouth.

___

Born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Edward Butscher’s poems, stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of journals since the early 1970’s, including the Saturday Review of Literature, Poetry, Georgia Review, Newsday, and the American Book Review. In 1976 Seabury Press published his Poems About Silence and Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, first biography of the controversial poet. He also edited Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (1978) for Dodd, Mead, and his Adelaide Crapsey was published in 1979 as a title in Twayne’s United States Authors series.

Cross Cultural Communications published two collections of his poems, Amagansett Cycle (1980) and Unfinished Sequence (1981), and his only novel, Faces on the Barroom Floor, appeared from Contemporary Press in 1984. He co-edited (with Irving Malin) a special issue of Twentieth Century Literature in 1986 devoted to the work of Paul Bowles. His Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale, published in 1988 by the University of Georgia Press, won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Cane Award for that year

Edward Butscher is the author of Peter Wild (1992) in the Western Writers of America series and Eros Descending (1992), a group of lyrics from an on-going sequence issued as a Dusty Dog Chapbook, and has been a contributing scholar for a number of reference works, among them, The Reference Guide to Short Fiction (St. James Press), MaGill’s Survey of Contemporary Poetry, and Oxford University’s Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English.

Seven Poems

By Simon Perchik

*

In the cold you blow on it

give it branches then roots

spreading out to pull you closer

 

–it’s hopeless! this wooden bowl

stays empty, is watered

with whispers while dirt everywhere

 

goes on lifting as the endless thirst

that makes all wood human

hunted down the way you say goodbye

 

with a cry that’s not a song anymore

not overhead though the bowl

is just for show, a little something

 

where nothing keeps its hold

on cradlesong –you lower it

till it disappears and you drink.

 

 

 

 

*

Inside this glove its fleece

pressing against the ground

keeps it warm even in the daytime

 

–what’s left for a pillow

touches her cheek the way your hand

reaches slowly across

 

though it’s no longer needed

will work for nothing

just to rest as a quiet mound

 

giving birth and the snow

is used to it, covers her

with a makeshift lullaby

 

that lifts the dirt

for your arm going nowhere

then shoulder to shoulder.

 

 

 

 

*

Once you reach the window in back

the chair pretends to be in place

circles lower and lower

 

though it’s you who can’t keep up

and the rag, sometimes alone

sometimes holding on

 

–you don’t open the canopy

afraid a breeze will come too close

lift the shade, take what’s left

 

room by sunlit room –the rag

already wiping your cheek

smelling from smoke and inches.

 

 

 

 

 

*

Wherever the nurse touches you

more gauze is needed

though the shoreline stretches out

 

the way your blood here to there

drifts off course, not remembering

why the sea motions not to move

 

let your arm float on the few drops

still beating –you are wrapped

in salt, close to being buried

 

absorbed by a sharp rock

and what feels like rain

is the handful that has taken so long.

 

 

 

 

*

Head-on and the shield curves in

till the wind is powerless

–you can see through and lift

 

becomes possible though the battle

has no name, just this map

wingtip to wingtip, unfolded

 

heated by some hillside

beating under the hood, working

the thermals –you smell smoke

 

but no one is listening

no one will get in the car with you

or along where this road

 

used to turn, then for a few minutes

didn’t move –you don’t touch the map

you don’t need the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

Helpless on the ground this dirt

is already salt, then darkness

though your mouth belongs

 

the way each winter your shadow

thaws as the flower

that no longer talks in the open

 

or wanders off to become the scent

that hides in your heart

and melting candles –dirt

 

is useless here –cold

is your shadow now, buried

in the darkness moving across

 

–you can barely hear the cries

watching over you, covering

this unbearable Earth.

 

 

 

 

*

Disguised as mountainside

–all wing though the sky

can’t let go and all evening

 

updraft –the sun thins out

becomes red then black

dead on the ground, choked

 

as if every climb is made from dirt

keeps its hold till the air

takes root and you drift

 

without moving or water

–you hound this darkness

by mining it arm over arm

 

and around each stone

your arms held in

picking up speed –the sun

 

dangling from your teeth

and the distance

that has forgotten how.

___

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is AlmostRain, published by River Otter Press (2013).  For more information, including free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities,” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

Forge Interview with Edward Butscher

By Tim McLafferty

Welcome to the first Forge Interview. Here we set forth on our series of interviews with makers on making. Conceptually cast as craft interviews, we offer time and space to invited poets and writers, the goal of which is manifold: to get to know the artist better by trying to understand how they make a thing, to better understand the thing itself, and hopefully, to provide a lasting utility.

Our first guest is Edward Butscher, a complex poet with a luminous head-piece, who has been more than generous in answering our seemingly dilettante questions; we sincerely thank him for helping us start our new project.

*

TM: Describe your working day, what time of day you like to write?

 

EB: Unlike my other writing, poetry has never been a matter of regimen or time of day, although mornings, especially in summer when free of teaching, have been most conducive to poetry.  It was a long summer, in fact, when I sweated out And Thus Spake Godfrey, my whale of an unpublished anti-epic epic—Godfrey was a beloved cat with a divine sense of humor.  In general, however, poetry comes when it comes, usually generated by some event or idea or memory that strikes a deep note, sinks into the murk of unconscious brooding and begins accruing coral images, perhaps even a narrative thrust.  Sometimes, the triggering event is a newspaper report, as, for instance, when a local paper recounted how a middle-aged nurse, still in uniform, committed suicide one sunny afternoon by sitting on the LIRR track in Hampton Bays, where we then had a summer house.  The poem that resulted, “Spring Harvest,” was part of the Child in the House collection in 1994.

 

Spring Harvest

 

The engineer reported, “shaken,”

that the woman sat  (luminous

as a lily in her starched uniform)

so still, head aslant, as if

blessing the gravel at her toes

when the express tore her free.

Her shoes, whiter than the way

an unexpected wave smashes sand

down to diamond chips, blind me

as they dance around the sun

sucking us into their wake

with the ease of season.

 

 

TM: How long do you think about a poem before you begin to write it?

 

EB: The gestation period varies, as the above suggests, and the poems tend to come in clusters, one igniting another, as if in an oxygen-rich zone or mood—the happiest time for a poet, a period of intoxicated inspiration. Of course, when in this state, you do not know where the poem is going, but you are, via a process of associative chaining, following unconscious nudges even as your conscious mind labors to gain control of the material.  As T. S. Eliot once commented, so acutely, the good poet knows when to be conscious and when to be unconscious.

 

TM: How about revisions? If you do revise, what are some of the elements that you are looking to remove or build upon?

 

EB: Revisions are writing.  To be sure, the urge to revise, after the poem has been finished, or “let go,” to use Valéry’s phrase, is powerful, but should be resisted, as Auden sagely advised.  Occasionally, the urge stems from an accurate diagnosis of a misstep or the need for cuts, more intense images, and you plunge back in…if the poem is elaborate or extensive, as in the Godfrey epic, it can be like trying to repair a ship in a bottle, risking a total collapse.

 

TM: How about abstractions?

 

EB: Go in fear of abstractions, Pound might suggest, with much justice, but they are at the pith of language and the glory of our grey cells.  It was in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I think, where Eliot began transforming abstractions into their opposite with great impact, but emulation by theft might not travel well.  Perhaps Williams’ dictum of “no ideas but in things” is a better sign to hang over one’s computer.

 

TM: How do you balance clarity and abstraction?

 

EB: I’m not sure this is a legitimate opposition.  Clarity in a poem is not always a virtue, since form follows function and Robert Frost is laboring to say one thing and mean another.

 

TM: I wasn’t thinking of these as opposites, but as elements; certainly not a clear question. What I mean is, in a poem, how are you balancing personal symbols, myths, history, veiled meanings, abstraction: things that are more inside to you, against things that would be clearer to the reader? Is the reader a concern? Is communication a goal, or just the making of the object (poem)? Is there a balancing act?

 

EB: Interesting tactical question this way.  Personal history feeds the beast inside the psyche when in heated Ahab-like pursuit of the poem. One is repeatedly translating private experience and emotions into the symbols and narratives that constitute the treasure chest of our culture.  A major source of the psychological energy behind the quest is the “family romance” construed by Freud to explain a vulnerable child’s fantasy vision of an exalted destiny.  The reader is a concern, but she or he is an idealized version of yourself, thus able to appreciate what you have accomplished.

This brings up the question of obscurity, how much to reveal to the reader, how much information to provide.  It is a subject Simon Perchik and I have discussed at various times over the years of our friendship.  Si is closer to the surreal core than I, edging nearer to abstraction and Gertrude Stein’s grand mistake, more worried about the danger he sees in the poets all around us of lapsing into disguised prose.

 

TM: What about meter and form?

 

EB: Like most poets, or artists, I began in early adolescence to master the conventional forms, that is, to write poems that were both rhymed and metered…the restrictions offered genuine pleasure in their demands. But exposure to Whitman and his modern descendants, in league with a growing rebellion against the restraints imposed on what I wanted and needed to say, led me to vers libre.  In place of meter and rhyme, I explored alternate ways of making music, if you will, via assonance and consonance, alliteration, etc., sometimes even syllable-counting, à la Marianne Moore.

 

TM: Do you spend much time reading your poems out loud?

 

EB: At times, I do read a poem aloud during or soon after its completion, and my considerable ego thrives on public readings, although my shyness—doubtless an aspect of the same ego—causes me to turn to alcohol for support, not to mention the simple self-aggrandizing joy of being drunk. Like the late and mourned Dwight MacDonald, I find a guilty pleasure in reading my own work, although at times exasperated by uncaught errors, aesthetic missteps, and the like.

 

TM: How about the poems of others? How do you study them, read them, enjoy them?

 

EB: Reading and studying the poems of others were, of course, part of the educational process from high school on through college and graduate schools, although reading poems of contemporaries became a habit and joy as well, beginning in the late 1950s.  There was a special excitement reading the collections of ‘confessional’ poets as they came off the press, new books by John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Snodgrass, et al., then the discovery of Sylvia Plath after her suicide and the posthumous publication of Ariel.

Equally electric for me were the volumes of Dylan Thomas’s verses—the latter’s 1953 death in New York on one of his drunken tours added to his extravagant poetry’s allure as the product of a doomed romantic genius.  It was while taking a poetry-analysis seminar at StonyBrookUniversity one summer that I was introduced to Plath’s tragic life and determined to become her biographer.

 

TM: Do you read novels?

 

EB: Like the culture at large, my primary literary experience has been reading novels from childhood on—my very first one was a glossy hard-cover book about Uncle Wiggily, a birthday present from my older brother John, which led to finding others on my own, popular ones about Robin Hood and other such mythic heroes available in cheap hard-cover editions, as I also devoured Classic comic books and pulp fiction.  And, inevitably, I gulped down the novels often disliked by my fellow students, ranging from The Yearling and Johnny Tremain through Silas Marner to Giants in the Earth. Biographies, literary and otherwise, were also fodder, as were history texts, American history in particular, and assigned books from Ancient Greece and Rome.

 

TM: What poets have influenced you most—when you were just starting, and through the years until now?

 

EB: The poets who had the greatest impact on my formative years were the traditional 19th century American poets in the classroom, most indelibly Longfellow, Whitman, and Dickinson.  When I was in Flushing High School and Queens College through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the poets dubbed “confessional” by M. L. Rosenthal, the keenest critic of contemporary poetry then writing and a teacher of mine at NYU, exerted a major influence, as did Wallace Stevens, discovered on my own and judged as merging the wit and intelligence and linguistic dazzle closest to what I wanted to achieve.   Johnson’s “Metaphysicals” also enthralled, and Shakespeare remained the inescapable master, his sonnets a yearly read and frequent deconstruction specimen in the classroom.

 

TM: What are you reading lately?

 

EB: Sad to say, I do not read nearly as much as I once did but have recently read John Banville’s Ancient Light and Rebecca Goldstein’s 1991 novel, The Dark Sister, along with several volumes of letters, those of George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, and William Gaddis—a favorite form of history and essential research tool.

As for poetry, aside from much magazine verse, I largely relished Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012, despite a distressing trend towards mysticism, and Si’s latest surreal graveyard dances, Almost Rain.

 

TM: Do you carry and use notebooks?

 

EB: I love the idea of a notebook, so conscious of how many poems are lost because notions and images are not jotted down during moments of inspiration, but have never followed through.  These days, I still tend to write my poems in long hand first, usually on yellow legal pads, before moving on to the computer, which provides an almost physical satisfaction of its own.  Correcting typescripts is the dessert course.

 

TM: Do you give up on some poems and leave them unfinished?

 

EB: If a poem gets started, that is, if it gets beyond the idea phase and has begun to weave some leit motif or field of vision, it might be put aside at a critical juncture for further recollection in tranquility but will, in most cases, soon resume its loom march towards a vague final arras. There have been a few times, however, when they were thrown into a drawer instead—languishing ghosts of what might have been.

 

TM: Do you show your unpublished poems to anyone, and if so, is it helpful?

 

EB: I have never been comfortable sharing incomplete poems or drafts with anyone, even with Paula, who is the ultimate judge of all I write, as well as an acute editor of my prose writings, whether essays, reviews, or biographies.  Ego is, again, the problem where the poetry is concerned. But there is a kind of triangular trade route among myself, Si, and Anselm Parletore, psychiatrist and passionate poet in the Geoffry Hill mold living on the West Coast.  We share poems and criticisms with candid freedom.

 

TM: Can you describe your affinity with the visual arts?

 

EB: I have always loved painting and sculpture.  When very young, I bought (or stole) a complete painting set and several canvasses.  I had a certain drawing skill, could copy anything or anyone with reasonable fidelity. Subsequently, in high school, I encountered a classmate who was truly gifted—we competed sketching WWII airplane and ground battles—and realized I could never become a great artist.  Books, which I always loved, would have to be my canvasses.

I used to drag my younger brother Ronald, now deceased, by subway into Manhattan (while playing hooky) to sample Times Square treats and tour the museums, usually MOMA and the Met.  The former was most attractive for me, because I instinctively related to the modern, whether the harsh naturalism of the Ashcan School or the different realistic visions of Wyeth and Edward Hopper or surrealism of every kind—a natural predilection of the literary-minded.

 

TM: What are some of the best ways that you’ve found to improve one’s poetry?

 

EB: Aging rapidly, too rapidly, in flesh and craft, I find that the treacherous ground under my poems is exposed when they come too swiftly.  I must force myself to fight against their imperative flow to completion, summon enough resistance to supply missing friction.  As I observed elsewhere, it is far too easy when you grow old and appear to have achieved a certain success, to do what Picasso warned against and imitate yourself.

 

 

Born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Edward Butscher’s poems, stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of journals since the early 1970’s, including the Saturday Review of Literature, Poetry, Georgia Review, Newsday, and the American Book Review. In 1976 Seabury Press published his Poems About Silence and Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, first biography of the controversial poet. He also edited Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (1978) for Dodd, Mead, and his Adelaide Crapsey was published in 1979 as a title in Twayne’s United States Authors series.

Cross Cultural Communications published two collections of his poems, Amagansett Cycle (1980) and Unfinished Sequence (1981), and his only novel, Faces on the Barroom Floor, appeared from Contemporary Press in 1984. He co-edited (with Irving Malin) a special issue of Twentieth Century Literature in 1986 devoted to the work of Paul Bowles. His Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale, published in 1988 by the University of Georgia Press, won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Cane Award for that year

Edward Butscher is the author of Peter Wild (1992) in the Western Writers of America series and Eros Descending (1992), a group of lyrics from an on-going sequence issued as a Dusty Dog Chapbook, and has been a contributing scholar for a number of reference works, among them, The Reference Guide to Short Fiction (St. James Press), MaGill’s Survey of Contemporary Poetry, and Oxford University’s Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English.

More recent poetry collections are, Child in the House (1994) from Canio’s Editions, with an introduction by David Ignatow, and the full sequence, Eros Descending (2010) from The Amagansett Press. Edward Butscher lives in East Hampton, NY, with his wife, Paula Trachtman.

The Last Noble Heathen

By Joel Youngblood

The Ignoble Noble Child

N-2webow in those far distant and better days when a man who worked was properly of a low station and those that spent their days in idle wastrelness quarrelling and killing were considered noble and when silver fish would leap from the deep pools to the boat just for the pleasure of conversation there lived a man named Ingvar. To this world of dragons, mermaids and mermen (and one sea-serpent named Sisyphus) pompous troubadours and heathen kings, Ingvar was the perfect perfidious youth—without ambition, save to be ambitionless and to wander the greater world taking that which wasn’t his. There was a certain nobility to this in those times.

By all accounts he was a precocious boy and it is said that his father was a king. But this was certainly false. However he had for a friend a certain King Olaf’s son, Onund, who was just as appreciatively un-appreciable as Ingvar and who lived his life with imitable laissez-faire. How the two boys became friends is unknown and anyways besides the point, but it is certain that they set themselves to their ancient profession as freebooters and trouble-stirrers with a laudable aplomb. Their first business as friends was to strengthen Onund’s father’s kingdom, for it was quite weak and a strong kingdom was certainly against the norm. Once they had unified it and strengthened it they could set about unmaking it one piece at a time.

Now, there was a little island which was inhabited in those days by a people called the Semigallings and they made their meager living by combing the beaches for shells of silver and by snaring mermaids in their nets and making them sing until such time as they ceased to be beautiful and had to be cast back to the sea. To this place of proletariat peace came Ingvar and Onund and Ingvar found the chief of their island and said to him this:

‘Good chief, I have heard that you do not pay tribute to our fair king Olaf for your village is poor. But this is a time of great peace and unity, for Olaf has made peace with the other thirteen kings and the thirty seven chiefs and the forty-four headmen and it is agreed that our country should be the most noble and our education should be the best and our songs the finest and no river should be uncrossed nor any bridge without a unionized troll for tax collection: thus it is your duty also to pay the king.’

And the chief scratched his beard and pulled from it little clams. ‘We cannot pay the kings tax, we are too poor.’

‘Then make your mermaids sing also on Sundays and also on Wednesdays and raise the prices on your little shells of silver and then you can pay the kings tax. Do these things and we will come back in one month to collect the tax. And if you do not have it, we shall kill you all to a man, for dead subjects are far more profitable than live ones to Olaf and Onund and myself.’

It perhaps goes without saying that the extra hours dried the mermaids out faster and that the market could not afford the increased price of shells of silver, for no one really liked these or had any purpose for them anyway, and so the little island of the Semigallings was quickly bankrupt and broken and filled with hungry and angry and quite hairy Vikings. This would seem to be Ingvar’s whole purpose so that when he came back with men and ships the Semigallings were ready for him and they all met on the beach offer battle. And Ingvar and his friend Onund and some other vicious louts killed them all mostly to a man and then strung up their three chiefs and accounted it a well spent summer holiday.

Olaf was very happy and proud with these boys and he lavished much too much praise and gold on them and he asked Ingvar what it was he would most like and anything he should name he would give to the boy. So Ingvar immediately replied that he should like most of all to be king. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do that,’ said the King, so Ingvar said some things too rude to translate, but which in point work out to: ‘Then you insult me, great and accounted generous king, and there is no wealth in all this world that would tempt me except to sit your throne and make my own judgments and see you play with the dogs and the children in the graveyard.’

 

Ingvar’s Father, the Sagaless

Now at this time happened a thing which would begin to work some great changes over the young man Ingvar. Firstly he no longer had Onund as a friend, for no man in those days could be friends with another who demanded his father’s throne and then insinuated that he should play amongst children. But that was all well, for the gods of those days couldn’t really be bothered with the troubles of little kings and their sons so they didn’t have the bother-with-all to curse Ingvar, and he was in his own way a good pagan who wore the proper pendants and knew a fair few curses of his own. But the loss of Onund was nothing to the loss of Ingvar’s father, of whom it may be stated poignantly, almost nothing is known.

When this thing happened Ingvar was out playing with the frost-giants whose toes were the size of a horse and who those with much and more free time and bravado used to go and tickle so that they would laugh and raise up their feet and then you would leap up and cling along for the ride while tickling all the time until you were quite high in the air and you held on whilst it thrashed and kicked and you just kept tickling. Ingvar’s father (known only now as ‘Ingvar’s father, the Sagaless’) was doing what men did best those days, which was ride around in boats and kill Christians. He was injured when a friend asked him to mind his spear and he promptly forgot so that when their boat pitched, Ingvar’s Father, the Sagaless was pitched upon the spear and he was badly pierced. So they brought him back to shore accompanied by the sea-serpent Sisyphus to issue his final words. He called to his son who came only in time.

‘Son,’ he said, chewing his beard, ‘you have had a misspent youth and I cannot begrudge you a thing so noble for I had one as well. But look to me: I have a big bone-cage and it holds my heart-hoard well, but that hoard is emptying fast and soon all that is left of me will be a puddle on the beach and you are my only legacy. Your father did nothing of account and now people will know him only as the Sagaless and that is only if you do something very saga-worthy so that some Christian will record these my final words to be put down on their parchments and fed to their mice. So son, I charge you to please go and do something very great so that I should at least be known as Ingvar’s father—the Sagaless.’

So Ingvar said to his father: ‘Father, I will not let your sagalessness be forgotten, nor shall any man in the wide world forget that you had no saga. It seems to me that the only noble thing to do is go and slay a dragon’ (at this Sisyphus slipped back to sea) ‘and a giant and to lay a foreign queen and fight for some foreign king and to find the end of the world and there amass much booty and lead many men to their untimely deaths. This will then become the greatest saga ever told.’ These sentiments were heartfelt but pointless for Ingvar’s father died before he uttered his first word.

But it was as Ingvar said, for in those days a man had two ways to achieve great fame: to go looting and pillaging and raping and killing and become, because of these merits, a great king, or to abandon paganry wholly and become a bishop. Ingvar had no wish to abandon his paganry and so he began to rally to himself all those youths who were noble and idle and full of wastrelness and querulousness and with them, and borrowing from them, they raised a fleet of thirty ships with which to pillage and plunder and generally be good pagans all around the known world.

When Ingvar had raised the greater bulk of these ships and was sitting by the beach hunting for mermaids and picking up shells of silver, King Olaf and his son Onund came to Ingvar and the king had with him a small shovel such as children play with making sand-dragons and sea-castles, and when Ingvar saw him Olaf immediately dropped to the sand and began to dig and make sea-dragons. Onund approached Ingvar and knelt to him and pleaded with him thus:

‘Good friend Ingvar, by all accounts greatest pagan of past or present, we beseech you to abandon your quest and rule over us all as our king. See—here is my father Olaf, playing in the sand like a child, and soon other children will come and play with him and dogs too and I also shall play if that is your wish and you may rule as you will and kill all the priests you want and gather all the mermaids and shells of silver you could ever want and have all the ships of the world not just these thirty.’

But Ingvar was unmoved. ‘No, no, rise Onund. I am over it. I have no desire to be a king anymore. It is boring. I want to be the legendary hero of saga so my name will be known through the ages as Ingvar the dragon slayer, Ingvar the giant-feller, and Ingvar the bedder of many queens.’

‘Then tell me friend Ingvar—where will you go? How shall you begin?’

‘I will sail to the edge of the world.’

‘But you will fall off.’

‘Then I shall sail to the northernmost point of the world.’

‘But you will freeze to death.’

‘Then I shall to sail to the furthest east and conquer the kingdoms of the Berbers and the Saracens.’

‘But you shall burn up, for only the Saracens and the men of Prester John’s kingdom can withstand the great heat of those deserts.’

‘Then I shall sail south, to the realm of the Amazonians and subdue them and tame their queen and take her as wife.’

‘But you shall die if you try this Ingvar: for the air in the south is poisonous to those not of the Amazonian kingdom.’

Ingvar began to become frustrated and flustered and he kicked his mermaid and stroked his shell of silver. ‘Well then I shall sail for Heliopolis for that is where all great men in sagas go.’

‘That, friend, is a proper way to begin a saga.’

‘Well that is what I am going to do. And I shall find a river wider and faster than any, the lengths of which no man has explored, and I shall follow it to a great mountain where I shall find a dragon guarding a pool of gold filled with the treasure and tribute of all the nations of earth and I shall kill him and take all for myself. That is my true aim, and always has been.’

‘Then friend Ingvar, may the gods be with you.’

Now having made the King play in the sand and having gathered his ships and kissed the shell of silver, there was but one thing for Ingvar to do and this was to go to the local cathedral and leave a quantity of gold with the Christian bishop. In those days only Christians wrote down things and any wise pagan who wanted to have himself immortalized in a saga had better first make sure the bishop thought he was a good Catholic.

 

Of Kings, Giants, Dragons, and Endless Rivers

So Ingvar set sail from Sweden or Geatland or Gotterdammerung or wherever with his thirty ships and the gulls swam on invisible currents with them and these swift-sounding comrades gave voice to the wind, and the ships’ sails were full and their backs were strong for the sea. Ingvar would not see his homeland fall behind him for he was noble and proud and this was his time for saga and only the sea-serpent Sisyphus saw the emotion on the young man’s face, for Ingvar had never before left his homeland and was not yet even a man of twenty winters.

For many nights and days these mariners skirted distant shores and savage coastlines and came to many various places until finally landing at the kingdom of King Jarzizaliza, and the king took immediately to Ingvar and asked that he stay and be as a son to him and Ingvar for his part liked this king also and in his secret heart he was already cold and weary of the sea and desired only to get on with the fighting and looting and saga making. Even so, he stayed with King Jarzizaliza for three years and they say that he learned many things and new languages and could properly distinguish between his ‘Hic Haec and Hoc’ (that is Here, Here, and Here) and became a man in full winter.

This Jarzizaliza had his kingdom at the mouth of a very great river that was wide and full of crystals which sparkled under moonlight when the evening bird had sung its song and the merman danced and sunk beneath the rocky chasms. And this river took Ingvar’s eye and he looked upon it every day and by night he slept with one eye upon it and it beckoned him the whole of his tenure with this king. So one morning when Ingvar’s men complained that they had neither looted nor plundered nor raped nor killed enough to be immortalized in savage saga Ingvar went to the king and asked him wither this river went and the king shrugged his shoulders and could provide Ingvar with no good answer. So in the morning when the mists were still from Avalon and the kingdom slept and the good king dreamed only of what conquests he and Ingvar would make, the thirty ships slipped away and never again were seen in living thought in Jarzizaliza’s kingdom.

They followed this river for many moons until they could see that around them the land was changing, and this they knew for the animals and the people were different and strange. After a time they found themselves sailing in total darkness for first the cliffs closed abut them and they had to light candles in their ships to see at all and then when the cliffs had receded the trees grew so large and close that all was dark again, except now there were candles of green lit upon the distant shore that flickered like the faces of the dead. These things greatly frightened Ingvar’s men so he set a prohibition upon them that no man should leave the ships at night and if any did so they would have either a foot or a hand cut off.

At last the candles were blown out and replaced with clean and happy air and stars and shore breezes blown from distant waves that were calm and beautiful on their fair faces. But here their danger was in fact truly beginning, and if the little fairies that are now called the ardorvolus were their worst peril then their expedition would have been pleasant and unworthy of saga. However, one night after they had escaped the darkness, they were moored near the shore and as night fell and the cool shapes of cimmeria came all about them it was seen that in the distance there was, upon a hill, a house of stone with gold light in the windows and a pleasing smoke upon its rafters and Ingvar’s men became most curious so that he had to remind them of his prohibition and he set his most loyal man Ketil to keep watch so that none violated this.

Ketil was perhaps Ingvar’s most loyal pirate but he was also the dimmest and the most prone to be affected by the boredom of his stupidity. So as his night vigil went on he became greatly affected and decided to climb the chains and step into the reeds and run barefoot through the grasses under the stars to amuse himself chasing the ardorvolus. However this too soon became boring and so he looked to that stone house on the hill and he was drawn towards it until he stood outside the golden windows and saw that they were monstrously huge and inside burned a fire of horrible ferocity, and still, knowing this, his idiot curiosity got the better of him and he slipped through one of these windows. Inside the room was empty and earthen save for a silver cauldron (or kettle) which hung over the fire and Ketil decided he quite liked this kettle and decided to take it though it was far too heavy for him so instead he took the handle and broke a piece and planned to hide it under his pillow on Ingvar’s ship.

Of course this was a giant’s house, and giants are much like dragons in that they are territorial and greedy though they are far dumber and less malevolent, much like Ketil himself. But the giant knew immediately that something had been taken from him and pursued Ketil in a sore rage. Luckily Ketil was a swift runner and he ran like the fire of hell was at his back. Even so, the giant took one step for every twenty of Ketil’s and would have caught him if Ketil had not had the sense to drop the kettle handle and push quickly through the ardorvolus and climb the chain back to his ship where he dropped to Ingvar’s feet to beg for mercy.

It may have been proper for Ingvar to cut off Ketil’s head immediately, or at least the offending hand and foot, and be done with the affair. But Ingvar was in the business for a saga and at the first mention of the word ‘giant’ he thought of his poor father and his brittle bones laid somewhere in hard cold dirt and his blood upon the beach, and his eyes were alight with glory and he ordered his men to prepare for battle for he had giant-slaying on the mind and he quite forgot about poor stupid frightened Ketil and they remained the best of friends until the end.

This then was Ingvar’s plan: to charge the giant with all his men with their bows and spears and swords and axes and shoot stab and hack it until it was dead. It was a very poor plan. After they tried this and many men died, Ingvar and the survivors returned to their ships and waited until the time when the sun rose and they saw the giant was very tired and so he went back to his house to rest. Ingvar conceived a new plan. With his strongest men they went quietly into the giant’s home where he slept soundly and they saw a single pillar of wood as big around as twenty men supporting his roof and they set upon it with their axes, all while the giant slept soundly dreaming of large women. When this pillar had been weakened as much as possible Ingvar took his spear, with which he was accounted passing fair, and threw it into the giant’s eye, which angered the poor creature and all in a rage he awoke shaking and screaming and making a general ruckus charging in the direction of the shot colliding with his own beam and bringing the house of stone and gold windows down around him so that only his foot stuck out from the ruin.

Ingvar and his men attacked this foot with great ferocity and fear for they figured the brute still alive; but when they had the foot off they realized he was dead and Ingvar’s men took the foot back to their ships and rolled it in preserving salts to act as a grim trophy to their leaders’ great might. But Ingvar was a good pagan, and becoming in fact a noble one, and he made all his men go and burn the body and house of the great giant and Ingvar himself led a chorus of praise for their fine enemy and then he wept over the body, for this giant was neither very smart nor clever and it was only because of the curiosity of Ketil that in the end it had to die, and were Ingvar a Christian he would have commended its soul to god, but as he was not he asked only that when the end came the giant be allowed to fight by their gods side in the great twilight battle where only heroes would die.

And so with heavy heart did Ingvar sail from the home of the giant and he thought that it was sad that they didn’t know the poor beast’s name and could erect no stone over his grave, and with the winds came the ashes and in the end they saw his fire still burning and it made the evening redness both behind and before them. Ingvar’s hope was only that some good could come of the giant’s death and he looked upon the horrid form of the foot upon the prow and like a noble man he shed another tear for it. It was at this moment that the foolish Ingvar passed from the memory of mortals and the last noble heathen was born to serve his short and glorious tenure.

***

With Ingvar was another man called Valdimar, and he was like Ketil in that he was a fool, and he was like Ingvar in that he was proud and strong, but he was unlike them both because he was a person without noble soul but only vainglory that festered in his heart-hoard. When they had sailed on for many more days and through many regions and seen that the colors changed and the people and the animals they knew for certain that they were far from home and each heart broke in its own little way. But Ingvar would not turn around for his father was dead and sagaless and all that was noble was the endless river and the hope that he was upon it. So it came to pass that one night when their ships were put to rest that Valdimar was given the watch, and when the world was whole dark he saw in the distance a thing that shone like a silver moon standing on distant earth. And Valdimar was greatly curious and desired above all else to be most praised of Ingvar’s men and to have the greatest place in his saga.

So when all the others were asleep and their trust given over complete to Valdimar he slipped down the chains and through the grasses and reeds and he went past the ardorvolus and on and on till he came to a hill which seemed to be made of gold, and there atop the hill was the silver moon. So Valdimar began to climb this hill and saw it was not gold but rather sleeping serpents with golden bellies raised to the stars and Valdimar was scared, but he was also greedy and foolish. When he reached the moon of silver he saw hanging in its center a golden ring and this he reached out for with his spear and took, whereupon immediately the silver moon uncoiled and it was the dragon Jakulus. This Jakulus was nothing like the modern jaculus, the little stabbing snake of Madagascar, but rather the legendary Jakulus, a true god of the dragons all great and terrible, and when he woke and discovered his favorite ring was gone he rose in terrible fury with fire and horror flying from his serpent’s mouth.

This serpent’s great wrath and the wild yells of Valdimar awakened Ingvar and his men and they all rose to see the great winding trail of flame that Jakulus left in his wake as he raged and murdered all across the countryside in his mad hunt for Valdimar and his ring. Valdimar ran like the coward straight back to Ingvar’s ship and climbed the chain and threw himself to his knees crying ‘Mercy!’ Ingvar looked upon him with disgust. ‘Kill the serpent or die trying: that alone will redeem you.’ Now each could plainly see what sort of man Valdimar was, for he ran every which way in his terror and the serpent ate him up and burned him and the cursed ring both to char in his gullet.

Now Ingvar saw clearly that he had awakened this evil upon the poor people of this strange land and that to him it would fall to still it. Fortunately, Ingvar also saw immediately the thing to do: he had his men take the rancid token of the slain giant and raise it to the ship’s highest mast and then lit a fire upon all the shores and these things drew the ravaging serpent like a dragonfly. He landed on the mast and began to lick the salted foot and eat it in all his greediness, for though he had back his ring a hunger was awakened that could not be slaked by anything of the mortal world and only the immortal abyss could now fill it.

Ingvar called again for his sharpest spear and when he had it his men fled in mortal terror of that horror and Ingvar stood alone with the beast on his ship in the ring of fire whilst it gorged and gorged until at last it had eaten up the giants foot whole and taken to notice Ingvar. But when it made to fly, its putrid little wings were not enough to lift its sated bulk and it floundered and flapped, exposing its soft belly which Ingvar marked and threw true with spear, so that it penetrated the silver softness and caused a small puncture which then began to rip and tear spilling all of the serpent’s insides into the river and dragging the beast flaming into its depths where it smoldered and reeked for days.

Some of Ingvar’s men came and suggested that they should pull the body of Valdimar from the belly of the beast but Ingvar would hear it not. ‘He has paid a heavy price for his treachery,’ said Ingvar, ‘so let him rot with the beast in the abyss. And if our gods are true and our teachers true and the Christians false, then Othin will lift him and his scaly comrade from those depths at the twilight times and both can repay such debts as they still have.’

 

King Wolf and the Kingdom at the Edge of the World

Through the spring and summer and into fall they sailed until again the land changed and no longer were there coastlines or mountains or any discernible feature of the hands of gods, only open water-road like ocean, and the swift-winged gulls joined them again and flew with them and men called to them for news and they all said that the kingdom at the end of the world was approaching. And so it was, for one day the coast swiftly returned and with it high mountains and magnificent buildings and towns and finally, upon a mighty rock, a great citadel of white marble upon which crowds of men and white birds stood with poise. Ingvar and his men marveled at the beauty of the walls and birds and the women who wore white and washed in the waters of the endless river.

Alone one woman stood out as brightest and whitest and fairest and she walked out into the waters and Ingvar climbed down to her and she was beautiful and golden haired and he was taken with her and she with him and they smiled and she said: ‘I am called Silky and I am queen of this land.’

And he said: ‘I am called Ingvar and am ruler of nothing but have come to find the endless river and the source of things with no source. We journey till the end of the world.’

‘Then take heart,’ said she, ‘for you are nearly there. But my husband and King will wish to meet first with you—for you look strong and noble and we are in need of strength for King Wolf is under attack by his wicked brother and the eight evil kings whom he has gathered under him.’

‘Lead me lady and I will follow.’ Ingvar’s men heard this and were sad because they heard ‘Lady I love you’ and feared that he would never return to them.

The queen took Ingvar through winding streets where clouds and birds slept on rooftops and where women in white laughed and danced barefoot and stern men hid smiles under their beards and the children saw all colors as one. They climbed up and up until they stood on the height of a great mountain and here King Wolf held his court in the citadel of white marble where light shone through seven windows overlooking the seven rivers, and in the room seven chairs seated his seven counselors. There was the king, and he was an old man of good heart and sound body and he welcomed Ingvar and they talked well into the night when the sun had away and the candles burned and the gulls roosted. All this time the queen knelt and attended their needs and the King saw clearly that she loved Ingvar, and in his own way he loved him as well, and he hoped that Ingvar would help him to win back his kingdom and that he himself should fall fighting his brother and leave to Ingvar the only things he truly loved.

So King Wolf explained to Ingvar his predicament and told him how with the help of Ingvar and his warriors they could make right and then the light of his high-hall would continue to shine unto the ends of the earth. And Ingvar for his part was taken with the king and stayed with him through all the winter and could watch from the high hall the white snow drift down the river endlessly, as did his heart also. So he came to spend all his days with the King and love him in his way, but at night he would spend all his time with the queen whom he also loved, and she became pregnant by Ingvar and the people knew this secret and spoke it and said that the king cared more for Ingvar than for them and that soon his brother would come and slaughter them and turn all their walls of white to red.

At last the king put an ultimatum to Ingvar to help him fight his brother and alluded that Ingvar could be made king. But there was shame in Ingvar for he loved this king like his father and he thought of his father—sagaless, cold and dead, far from these crystal shores; and he thought of his shame in betraying the king by loving his queen and how one day he would have to pay in blood for his duplicity; and he thought of his men who grew weak and tired and sick with the daily drunkenness and fornication. But most of all he thought of the vague and exciting possibility of adventure and knew that endlessly it called his heart and he knew that never again would he be happy in any one place and that as long as there was a horizon, it was his to chase and hope that one day that horizon would be endless and he could sail into the sunset forever without the hope of dawn. And so he told the king that he must go to the edge of the world.

The king begged him to not go, saying: ‘Ingvar, you are young, not of twenty-four winters yet, and you know not of these things. Once too I was young and thought to chase the endless river and I hoped to find the day without dawn. That is how I came to this place and founded my kingdom. And here I found the thing I sought, for my name is endless and the sun will never rise upon a day where it is not spoken, or read, or remembered by the daughters and sons and grandchildren of my kingdom. Do not go in search of the endlessness of the world, it is empty and hollow and promiseless and can bring you no pleasure.’ But Ingvar would hear no argument and so the king asked only this: ‘When you are returning, and your disappointment is great and you wish to do no mortal deeds anymore, promise me that you will stop here and help me defeat my wicked brother.’ This Ingvar promised.

So one clear morning they sailed away and his men wondered at the captain’s heart of stone to leave behind a father and a child and the promise of a kingdom, but though they grumbled publicly, in private their hearts were glad for here was a man noble to an ideal even to a fault and he was their captain and they were his noble thanes who would chase eternity in the greatest saga ever to be told.

Thus it was that after many days they came to the end of the world and there a great waterfall crashed and fell and a rainbow of purest color rose from it and lofted to a castle on a distant hill. Ingvar had the boats pulled to shore and he went to this castle which was a place of death and ruin and from its tallest tower he looked out into the endless and formless expanse of eternity and he was unfulfilled for it was everything and nothing that he had dreamed. And so he ordered his men back to their boats and he stayed all that night in this castle alone looking over the deep and he felt only the nothingness.

At night when the fog was black and the world was void and empty the Christian Devil arose from those deeps and he came and sat beside Ingvar and this made Ingvar worried for the perfidy of the Christian Devil was far deeper than any of his own religion’s devils. The Devil spoke to Ingvar: ‘I have heard tell that you are wise and will make a fair king, so listen to my words. There was once a king who sailed the wide world in search of a horizon without end and he came to this place and accounted himself lucky for he believed to have found the place where the sun did not set. So he established this hall and had for himself two sons and a daughter. When the king grew old and the bones of his body brittle and he died, he left his kingdom to be distributed evenly between his two sons. To his daughter he left nothing other than that which you see there—but a courtyard of the keep. But there she kept flowers and hyacinths and sweet lilac and would play with the candle-flies in the summer with her fair children. Now the elder son had all this side of the river till the mountains cold, and the younger had the opposing shore all the way to those mountains cold. But the younger saw his brother’s as the better and he made war upon the elder and when much death had been done, both sides were in ruins and all their retainers were dead and no one offered these kings wise fair words. So both in their despair took their own lives. This left only the daughter and her humble kingdom of the garden where she and her offspring lived out their days in happiness and respite, until the dragon came and ate all their bones.’

Ingvar considered the Devils words. ‘You are preaching the end of my faith, Devil, and the rise of the Christian humility. What you are saying is that heathendom shall extinguish its own flame and from the little places shall arise the new world.’

The Devil looked to the dark. ‘You are not so wise as you are accounted. Let me tell you another. There lived a king before the coming of men and he was considered the wisest and fairest of rulers and under his rule he abolished might so that there could be only right. He drew to him the best retainers in the whole world to his island kingdom and ruled with absolute love. And this greatest king had the fairest queen and the mightiest thane. But in time the king grew too loving and lost his strength and his finest thane took to his queen and had child with her and this child grew up to challenge for the throne and in the civil war the king slew this child and this child slew the king and all of his men died fighting each other until his kingdom was ruined and sank into the sea, somewhere beyond the west where the sun never sets.’

‘You are speaking of my own perfidy in betraying Wolf, and that it is my child who will bring the twilight of my gods.’

‘No Ingvar. The first means that no matter how noble or foolish your ideal, in the end you shall die and your bones even will not survive you. The second, that even idealism will die in the end and sink below the mortal sea. You do not see that your gods are weaker than my devils. You should convert to Christendom and become a king greater than any ever told, for in the end it will be only our stories told.’

‘Why should the Devil wish to make of me a convert?’

‘It is simple arithmetic: without converts, there is no god. Without god there is no devil.’

Such did the Devil and Ingvar converse all through the night, and to Ingvar’s crew only horrid sounds such as the screeching of the banshee and the she-wolf reached them and they were afraid and cowered in their ships until morning came and brought silence and felicity. However, when the light crested the mountains and filled the earth with dew and they crawled from their hiding places, Ingvar came to them like an idol of gold and his hair blew like summer wheat and he smiled and said to them: ‘We must go, for this is a land of endless autumn and defeat and the land of endless sunset is ever onwards.’

 

The Death of Ingvar

And so Ingvar and his brave retainers sailed back up the marble river until they came to Wolf’s kingdom of stone and when they reached these shores the white gulls cried and the women shed tears and flocked to them for they said the king was about to join battle with his brother and the eight kings and that their kingdom and its high hall were destined to fall without their aid. Ingvar made hasty preparations and ordered that every sword be sharpened and ever spear straightened and also had iron spikes prepared which his men arrayed before them on the field of battle so that their enemies and their horses should be impaled upon them and then they joined the battle and slew many enemies and fed the black raven well.

When the better part of the slaughter was accomplished, Ingvar restrained his men and told them to take what plunder they would from the dead but leave the rest of the battle to the living for he wished that King Wolf be seen as the victor. So his men stripped their enemies’ corpses of gold and dignity and loaded their ships so that they sat heavy in the water like the hippopotamus after dinner. Ingvar’s men rejoiced for this they thought was the end of their journey, for they had been to the edge of the world and fought giants and dragons and won great battles and filled their cups till they overflowed. But Ingvar shook his head and said no, for the endless horizon was somewhere beyond and in that other direction the river had no known end and to that end they must attend.

While his loyal men cleared the dead, Ingvar stood upon the field and watched as King Wolf slew the last of the disloyal kings, delivering death to each in kind and at last laid low his brother with his shining sword; and he looked and saw upon the high-seat the queen who was white and bright and heavy with his child. So he turned his back to them and came to rejoin his brothers when the king, still in wild battle spirit, turned to join Ingvar and fell instead upon Ingvar’s ingenious traps which hurt and killed many of his men so that they feared treachery thinking Ingvar wished to seize this kingdom that would have been willingly given. King Wolf fell upon Ingvar and they did fight and do great hurts to each other so that the king died and Ingvar had to flee to his ships. When they had disengaged from battle, Ingvar had men enough to crew only five of his ships.

As they flew from the carnage Ingvar looked back and wished he could raise the pyre and stone for this best of kings but his hurts were grievous, and they were chased by the king’s men whom they had saved from one evil. And then all Ingvar’s ships sank save his own, for they had been overloaded with gold and plunder and the dead and their heavy memories so that at last the red sun set on the battle and they sailed away from Ingvar’s shameful child and disgraced queen as only a loyal few. They came to the place where the land and the animals change and the place where they could see only shore-lit candles and then where there was only darkness, and they went past Jarzizaliza’s kingdom. On and on ever they went for Ingvar was gripped with fever and he knew that he and the king had betrayed themselves and wrought their ends.

So for many ages they sailed on, Ingvar and his few brave men, and every day the sunsets grew longer and the air colder and Ingvar became excited because though he was not yet in his twenty-fifth year he saw that his death was near at hand and that his quest to find the endless river and the endless sunset was nearing an end; so the swift gulls again came and cried that the terminus was approaching and that all their labors were nearing the culmination. Finally Ingvar awoke and he beheld clearly a far off land where the sun runs ever quicker and the grass is emerald and the beaches white and the oceans blue and the dark fog rolls back from you and you know then many things and none, and he knew that it was time for him to die.

He called to him Ketil, for he was ever the most loyal, and he bade him bring him his spear which had felled the giant and the dragon and the evil kings and the good king, and he gripped it tight to him with his weak hands and he said to Ketil: ‘My time is come and I see the land of my forefathers where the sun neither sets nor rises and we only run ever after. I will hurtle this spear with all my last youthful might into those far fields and you shall bury me where it lands.’ But Ingvar was weak and when he threw his spear it merely clattered off the prow and splashed into the white waves. But Ketil was more loyal than wise and he flung his dead master along with his treasure into the waters after it.

Thus was the fellowship and adventure of Ingvar’s ended until such time as his gods call him forth from the feverless night, and Ingvar’s men saw after they had disposed of their dead lord that they had come not to a land of endless sunsets and azure seas but only to the cold North Sea from which their journey had begun. And each went their separate ways to die as they saw fit for themselves, poor of body yet rich of spirit. It is said that some went and had more great adventures, but of those we know nothing, for none save Ketil ever returned to his home shores, and of those other noble mariners no man can for certain say.

But when Ketil returned to his home he went down to the beach where Ingvar had picked shells of silver and mermaid kisses and he raised a stone to Ingvar for though his master’s body was adrift in the endless river he feared that Ingvar should be forgotten in mortal mind. And there were many in the land who had lost sons and husbands and friends on Ingvar’s mad and glorious quest and they raised stones also for those loved ones and to this day they stand; and far away in the kingdom at the edge of the world Silky gave birth to Ingvar’s son and named him Svein Ingvarsson and he grew quickly to be strong and swift like his father, and he wished also to do great things so that his father would not be Ingvar the sagaless but Ingvar the Far-Traveler and he went sailing and raiding and some say he did many deeds greater even than those of his father. But Svein was a Christian and thus his deeds are of no interest to us for he lived and died by the words of God and the Devil and his deeds were consecrated before Christ. And so it was that with Ingvar did die all that beauty and glory and nobility of the ancient north: for Ingvar was like the sea-serpent Sisyphus, the last of his kind, and it was his and his alone to carry all their great hope and great sadness beyond the mortal pale. When at last both were dead, then dimmed the fires of heaven.

When Svein died an old man and king, his final act was to consecrate a church in the name of his father in the hopes that perhaps he be given respite from purgatory and one day be allowed to be a thrall in the kingdom of God. But Ingvar had found his own kingdom there where the sun has never set nor has it ever risen and where the fish still leaps with the child and the gulls bring news and he needed not an immortal effigy or stone reliquary, only the simple words which loyal Ketil carved upon now lost stone:

 

Ever into the east—eternally Ingvar led

The ravenous raven—rightly we fed

That endless river—his eternal bed

Ketil carves this—caring for his friends

Where world ends—where strength ends

And days grow dark—like departing season

There lies Ingvar—last noble heathen

___ 

Joel Youngblood is a freelance writer from a very small town in New Jersey.  He has spent far too much time in far too many colleges studying far too many things, but has never been able to commit to any particular degree.  When not reading or writing he plays guitar in the band “Hawthorne’s Neighbor.”

The Right One for the Job

By Jamal Michel

O-2webur Glorious Pentecostal Church.” The sign to its entrance stood like a small picket fence on the outskirts of a dirt road. James pulled at his tie. His mother turned and looked at him, unwilling to let up on showing how perturbed she’d been that morning after having dressed him. He was getting baptized. Most of the kids in the neighborhood had already experienced this, but when James was born both of his parents needed to be present to sign off on the baptism. His father couldn’t make it to that. He now drove James and his mother to church, thirteen years later, humming the hymns of last week’s service. There was no one reason he missed on the signing; he was at work and hadn’t been able to make it after his wife’s water broke. The congregation thought up all sorts of stories, that maybe his father was unfaithful, or that maybe James himself was damned. Sunday school was a tortuous ordeal as a result. James sat alone all the while his teachers told of the shortcomings of Job, and how God would eventually save him. He wondered about God, where he had been in Job’s time of isolation, and if he knew what he was doing to James as well. A sort of resentment had been planted then.

The sun struck the surface of the passenger side window as the car door opened, the rays crossed up and over his father’s face. James shielded his eyes. He looked around a moment, at the rundown gas station a few yards away, at the shadows the crows made hovering overhead, circling him as if knowing his identity. There were lines he had been rehearsing for the baptism, lines his mother drilled into him like he were a cabinet with a flimsy shelf. They all walked and stood under a large oak tree just outside the church.

“Let’s hear it, son,” he heard his mother say. James ran through the lines in his head, but thought about it a moment.

“Mama, why am I doing this?” he wanted so badly to understand where it was this man he was professing to presented himself.

“Come here, honey.” She motioned James over to where she stood. “If you listen closely enough, you could hear this tree, you could hear it profess its love for the Lord because of the beauty that surrounds it. Go on, take a listen.”

James moved in, stepping on a root that jutted out of the ground, and pressed his ear against the jagged trunk of that tree. The bark scratched the side of his head, and through the soft whirring of the breeze around them, James heard nothing. He didn’t hear the tree or see the beauty, he only looked at his mother as she smiled, self-assured to have answered her son’s question.

“Well, enough of that,” she said. “We need to practice.” James thought about the words again and this time let them leave his mouth, but he couldn’t hear them. He felt his mouth open and close, his jaw motioned up and down, yet he heard no sound. His mother smiled, clasping her hands together over her mouth, her eyes slowly welling up with tears. He could hear his father in the distance whistling “Without You, I’d Fail.”

“We are so proud of you, hun’,” his mother said, her words stifled by a subtle sob, “We’ll head inside. You should come in when you’re ready.” James watched his parents ascend the wooden steps to the church and close the door behind them. He sat at the foot of the oak tree and tried whispering the lines to himself, but there was not one word to be heard.

“What the hell?” he asked aloud, looking up, his neck growing hot and his cheeks feeling it too. The oak tree swayed in the gentle push and pull of the cool air. Looking down, he drew an X in the dirt, over and over again until it penetrated the earth. He stood up, covering over the X with a few sliding motions of his foot. The oak tree still hadn’t spoken to him, but James tried once more before heading into the church to see if he could actually get something from it. Taking in a deep breath, he stepped closer to the tree now, placing a hand on the side of its trunk before pressing his ear to the bark. There was a crow in the distance that cawed, and the wind picked up slightly, cooling the sweat on his forehead, but still there was silence. He stepped back, and stared straight up the oak to the large, twisted branches that reached out to the sunlight. He kicked it, and turned to make his way inside.

The church was crowded that morning, more so because of the gossip swirling around the day’s main event. Walking down the aisle, James spotted the Richardsons and their two boys who used to play dodge ball against him at Sunday school, the Moores and the Walkers, the neighbor, Aretha, who babysat James until he was nine, and a sea of other faces he had never seen before. His parents were in the front row, seated next to the pastor who stood up the moment James entered.

“And he has arrived!” the pastor bellowed, his voice booming and lurid. James watched as a hundred black and white faces turned toward him now, all wondering things he himself wasn’t wondering, but could probably predict. There were whispers and a few chuckles, but overall the crowd seemed to embrace, not James, but the moment at hand. “Come forward, my son,” the pastor motioned for him to approach the pulpit, “you have a date with your destiny.” James made his way toward the man overseeing the baptism without looking anywhere else, but straight ahead. The crème colored marbled steps were polished the night before and he could see the reflection of stained glass windows, and the image of the Virgin Mary, who hadn’t been looking in his direction. There was a small column holding up a basin of water on the stage and the pastor took James by the shoulders and stood him before it. “Today we are truly blessed. Blessed is the man who takes the oath, an oath of everlasting love and glory for the Lord above.” There were shouts of “amen” some murmurs, and a few hoots, in agreement. “This young man has been anointed by the hand of God, anointed and brought forth by the grace of his loving mother and father. Can I get an amen?” The congregation hummed, sang, and shouted, not for James, but out of the provocation of the pastor.

Standing there, in front of his parents, his community, James ran through the lines again in his head, fearing the pastor would expose his silence as a sign of blasphemy. “Are you ready, son?” The pastor turned his attention back to James, who nodded in response. “We are ready!” the pastor shouted, beginning with a prayer he usually opened baptisms with. Everyone but James hummed along, and while the church prayed, he scanned the audience, wondering about the placement of things that day. The pastor turned to him, singing an unfamiliar song, and dipped his hands in the basin. James looked up at him and the pastor began, in his loud, booming voice.

“Do you, James, accept the Lord in your life? As the ruler and master of your destiny?” James hesitated a second, replaying the lines he said to his mother earlier, the lines he whispered under the oak tree a moment ago. He opened his mouth once more and allowed those empty words to leave him, hearing nothing, but accepting that whatever was being said, he was glad he couldn’t hear it. Seemingly pleased with the response, the pastor leaned James over the basin and passed handfuls of water over his head and face. He could see his parents out of the corner of his eye, his mother tightly clasping her hands in prayer as she held his father. Standing him upright again, the pastor looked out into the crowd and at James now. “We have ourselves a new man!” he thundered. The crowd cheered and shouted, hooting and hollering God’s name and praising that moment and that moment alone. “Will you live your life in belief, son?” The pastor was right in his face now, and the crowd became hushed by this. James didn’t have anything else rehearsed, he didn’t know what to say right then. He saw the thousand beady eyes of the congregation watching him, almost threateningly. He saw his mother and father, smiling unreservedly, and saw again the cascading wave of faces he never knew before that day. He looked at the familiar and unfamiliar, the young and the old, the children of the Sunday school who lashed out at him, and while he did this his attention was suddenly struck. Sitting at the end of a row behind his family he noticed a young girl he had never seen in the community before, a white scarf tied around her forehead like a bow. She was looking directly at James now, her eyes piercing him. He could look nowhere else. Her auburn hair was pulled behind her ears, and the way she made an effort to smile at him stirred up a sort of reverie. She reminded him of the weather outside, the way the sun struck the surface of the passenger side window, the manner in which the birds swirled overhead when his family arrived at the church. There was music now, he saw the oak tree in his mind and heard music that seemed to come from the girl at the end of the row. Her eyes were opened to James, and while it seemed that all were looking at him, she could actually see.

He could feel the water trickle down his face and heard it hit the wooden floor of the stage. He looked up at the stained glass, the image from before now as attentive as the congregation. The girl with the white scarf seemed to answer the question James had wondered about for so long, and yet there she sat, just as flesh and bone as the boy on the stage. He looked down at the marble steps that led him to that moment, and realized how closely they resembled the smooth skin of the girl who still looked nowhere else but his direction. The pastor backed away, hoping to regain James’ attention.

“Son, will you live your life in belief?” he repeated, staring at the boy who cared for no one else’s attention but the girl in white. James reimagined the moments of his life that brought him there, and there was a sudden feeling of appreciation for why they played out that way. Looking at the young girl, James opened his mouth.

“Yes,” he heard himself say, “Yes, I will.”

___

Jamal Michel is a recent graduate from Florida International University and will be starting graduate work at Duke this summer, pursuing an MA in teaching. He has been writing since the fourth grade. He is an American-born Muslim of a mother from Guyana and a father from Haiti.

Driving a Bus

By Judith Goode

S-2webeveral of us are gathered outside the chapel on the side of the church where we hold the A.A. meetings. The sun is hazy and hot. Unaccountably, we smoke cigarettes. A little heat never deters us hardcore smokers. I feel unkempt, I haven’t shaved in two days, and my hands are perennially stained earth color from the work I do. I don’t know why Elizabeth puts up with me. She’s always nicely dressed in jeans and a clean shirt, and she wears makeup that causes her eyes, which are huge in her narrow face, to look even larger. Elizabeth is the woman I live with. She believes in me, even though I only have three months sober. She says she has me in her back pocket and she walks with God. When I told her about the dream I had she said, Maybe it’s time for you to reach out to people beyond our family. I said, It’s hard for me to do this, considering that I have four children and I’ve been out of work for five months. The children are mine and Elizabeth helps me care for them. But we’ve been eating food from the food pantry for too long.

In the dream I was running. No, it was more like flying. It must have been back in the days when I was a long distance runner, while I was still a student and didn’t have a family to support. I’m one of those educated types who chose to work in the building trades. I like working with my hands better than working with my mind. Or, to be truthful, my life as a drinker didn’t leave much time or energy for advanced study to qualify me for one of the professions. I settled for being a builder, not from the business end but from the ground up. The foundation through the roofing, usually with a crew I’ve assembled from among my circle of friends and workers. To my credit, I’m a master carpenter. I also have—or rather I had—a knack for finding projects. People came to me with plans for houses they wanted built and I did the work. Or architects came to me, or business owners. One way or another, I always had work. The recession put a swift end to that.

In the dream, I was running through gardens and along beaches. I was running like a cheetah, which my second youngest son tells me is the fastest animal alive. Then I was walking through an endless house built like an above-ground tunnel with windows. Each group of rooms was an environment in which people sat and drank coffee together, talking about ideas. Then someone told me that jobs were available to drive buses. My father, who was never around when I was growing up, surfaced, and noodled with the director of the bus company to get me a job. But I don’t have a chauffer’s license, I said. It doesn’t matter, my father said, they just need people to drive buses. I got the job.

Elizabeth is very sure of things but in a nice way. You can’t not like her or, in my case, love her. She always speaks her mind. She said that being responsible for a bus load of people was a big deal. I should share at meetings, she said. Sharing is a way of giving back. People might have questions and you just might give them answers in what you say. I can’t feed my family, I said, so what answers could I possibly have? You never know what God will put in your mind, she said. I’m better at doing, I said. Then drive the bus and see what happens, she said.

It made me think of the time a few weeks ago when the guy, Al, who gives me a ride to the meeting at noon said he would take a woman in the meeting to her car, which was at the shop. I went along because I didn’t have anything better to do. When we got to the shop, we learned that the woman’s old Saab was finished. The wiring was shot. It’s a death trap, they told us. We helped the woman clear some things out of the car, including a snow shovel, windshield cleaner, the registration, her cushion, and a bag of stuff belonging to her daughter. The woman was crying and had a hard time deciding what to take and what to leave. She said that the car had been her sister’s. It had Georgetown University stickers on the windows, some of which read, “Retired.” The woman herself, Jenna, is a pretty older gal who always says something of value at meetings. Someone in the meeting told me that her daughter suddenly cut her off and she’s looked sad since then. That may have been why she cried so easily. You never know what’ll set someone off. But we gave her hugs and Al said, God has a plan for you, although you may not know what it is yet. She thanked us, all three of us standing in the parking lot saying goodbye to the old Saab.

I told Elizabeth about it again after the dream. Well, you helped one person. Now it’s time to help a bus load, she said. I thought about Jenna, who now comes up to me at every meeting and reaches out her arms to me. I have to bend down to hug her she’s so little. She always asks me how I’m doing but in a kind way, not an off-hand How ya doin’ way like most people. She listens to my answer, which is usually, Not so great, and thinks about it. Then she says something thoughtful, like, Sobriety can mean hard times for a while but you’re good at what you do so something will come your way. And that makes me feel better. Elizabeth said that when I missed a meeting because one of the children was sick, Jenna asked her about me. Is he okay? she said. She was concerned. That helped, too.

I’ve been thinking about the dream. In it, I was running toward the job as a bus driver. And I was high, not from drinking or drugs, but from the running itself. I can still feel the wet grass under my feet and the hard sand of the beach at low tide. Grass and beach are two things that I love. I always make sure that my client hires a landscaper for when the house is finished. I want to see lawn and gardens outside my houses. I also want to think of the interior as inviting to people who want to sit around and talk ideas. That’s what I miss from college. Our seminars were inspiring. I used to go for a run down to the river after classes were over for the day, around four o’clock so that I would be at the river’s edge when the redwing blackbirds were flocking. While I ran, I thought about the ideas that had come up in the seminar, whether they were Nietzsche or Proust, it didn’t matter. Then when I got to the river I would sit on the bank and listen to the calls of the redwings and the beating sound of their wings, multiplied by hundreds. That was their feeding hour. It was my hour of reflection.

My hours of reflection now are pretty much self-seeking and self-pitying. It’s a sorry state of affairs when someone who’s used to supporting his family with work he likes is sitting on his hands. I do what I can around the house but I can’t make repairs because I don’t have the cash for supplies. At night, my family patiently eats hot dogs, or mac and cheese out of a box. That’s what we get from the food pantry—and the occasional overripe peaches or pears someone donates. At least we have fresh vegetables from my garden. Elizabeth likes the hair products or lipstick that show up on the food pantry shelf. She chats with the food pantry ladies about cosmetics and hairdos. Sometimes she gets onto nittier subjects like what to do about teeth that need work. I don’t like to think about my children’s teeth so I usually take the bags of stuff and wait in the car while that’s going on. While I’m waiting, I sometimes think about Jenna because she reminds me of my mother. I have a soft spot for my mother. She’s small like Jenna and she listens. I call her regularly to tell her how we are. Same old, same old, I say. Like Jenna, Mom has something thoughtful to say. Remember, she says, you designed and built your own house. Now that’s something to be proud of.

I spent four seasons before I ever drew up the plans, charting the progress of the sun on the hill where the building site was to be. I wanted to place the windows and the greenhouse room according to where the sun would be at each time of year. That was during my period of controlled drinking so I had a relatively clear head. I have some skill at drafting and my plans wowed the city planner who sat on the board when my project came up for review. I was pleased. But I was mainly happy that I could design a house that would be economical and environmentally sound—and suit my family. That was when my wife was still in the picture. She got weary of living with a drinker who dabbled in drugs, however, and the marriage was over when the children were still little. Unfortunately for her, she had her own problems with mental illness and had to be hospitalized. I got custody of the children as a result. Brown hair and brown eyes is how I think of my wife. She’s nothing like Elizabeth. She has a hefty build and a no-nonsense, rationalist way about her. Lucky or not, our respective nonsense didn’t mix well. Eve is living with her mother now and she sees the children every other weekend and for two weeks in the summer.

They go to Shelter Island in the summer, Eve and her mother and the children. That’s part of the custody agreement, that Eve’s mother be there to supervise Eve with the children. I don’t much care for Eve’s mother, who’s controlling and opinionated, but she’s a good grandmother and I appreciate that. Poor Eve will probably never be quite right. But I can’t think about that nowadays, it’s too sad. Sad is bad for me right now. I have to keep my spirits up. Or, your spirit, as Elizabeth says. By that she means my conscious contact with God, something I’m never sure about. I don’t understand how people like Elizabeth can believe without doubt in their God. That I have faith, if not belief, is all that I’m thankful for. At least I’m teachable, as we say in A.A.

This afternoon I went down to the stream with my little guy and his brother. The dragonflies were skimming the surface and the stream was full from all the rain we’ve had this summer. We went into the cold water and played around. Then we sat on a rock, the little guy in my lap with his wet trunks dripping down my leg, and the older boy beside us on the grass. There’d been rain showers around lunch time and the air had cooled off. I felt calm and reflective, almost the way I used to in college, sitting on the bank of the river listening to the redwings. They have a distinctive call. Today I’m listening to a wood thrush or maybe a hermit thrush. I have trouble telling them apart but they both speak to me of deep woods, green and secretive. “…a green thought in a green shade.” That’s a line from a poem by Andrew Marvell. I’m there now in spirit, feeling close to my boys and ready for what comes, which is mainly more reflection. My boys, five and eight, respectively, are already knowledgeable about plants and trees and wildlife. One day the older one, Nick, spotted a scarlet tanager sitting still as could be in a tree in the woods down the hill from our house. We got Elizabeth and we all had a good look at the bird, which didn’t stir. Moments like that mean a lot to me, and to all of us.

Today, Elizabeth and the older ones, both girls, are off at a friend’s house. Elizabeth works the three to eleven shift as a nurse so she’ll be bringing the girls back soon. She has a rhythm to her day, set by her job. I miss that, the early morning drive through mist or snow or rain to a building site. Hanging with the guys I work with, doing the work, which might be hauling heavy materials or the fine-tuned finishing when a house is built, insulated, sheet-rocked, and painted, outside and inside. Then we’re doing the trim and the baseboards, watching it all take shape in its final form. In my last house, the client chose the most delicate shades, light shades, just a hint of peach or green, for the walls. It was a pleasure painting and looking at the effect of light on the walls. She was a nice client, too, which isn’t always the case. Many of our clients were gay couples and they had unfailingly good taste—not necessarily my taste but good taste, although they could be persnickety. I miss my work.

Still, I like being home with the children. It’s a different kind of life. Stay-at-home dad and house husband, although I admit that cleaning up sometimes gets away from me. My oldest is fifteen and she picks up the slack. But right now I’m savoring this moment with my boys. The air is still, so still I wonder if another storm is brewing. If so, we’ll have to leave the stream. But until then, we’re here. I’m here with them and myself. The sun is showing over a bank of clouds, making an interesting effect of dark and light. The light of the sun hits the stream and you can see the shadows of the deeper water, the shape of smooth, flat rocks in the shallow water. My older son is skipping stones on the surface. He’s become adept at this game. My little guy is comfortable on my lap and getting sleepy. He’ll take a nap when Elizabeth and the girls get home.

Elizabeth’s schedule was seven to three when I was working so we all had an early morning, Elizabeth leaving when it was barely daylight in the winter months. I would help the older ones with breakfast and hair braiding and all the preparations for school. My little guy slept the latest and sometimes had to be carried into the car to go to daycare. I enjoyed making breakfast, with the help of one or more of them. How did we manage to have so many children? I sometimes wonder. But I’m glad of it now. I like family life, hard as it is now. What I mean is, the family is not hard, it’s the maintaining of them on one salary when we’re used to two. I used to be the cook of the family. I made good dinners because I can cook. I almost chose to be a chef and seriously considered going to The Culinary Institute here in New York State. But I realized that my temperament wasn’t suited to the stress of being an executive chef. It’s sad not having the ingredients for good dinners, although Elizabeth is working. A nurse’s salary doesn’t cut it when there are six mouths to feed, especially since Elizabeth’s hours have been reduced several times in the last few months. We manage. Occasionally we shop for fresh fruit in season, and I make braised chard from the garden and fruit compote. Those are special dinners.

The reflection off the water is mysterious in the light cast by the sun with the clouds beneath it. My older boy says he can see rainbows off the water. But I see something else, something strange and hard to describe. It’s the shape of a woman’s head and arms, the arms reaching toward me. I think I must be dreaming a daytime dream. But no, I see this, I really do. I think in my temporary madness that it must be the serene face of the Virgin Mary. You’re full of it, I say to myself and I look again. It is, sweet Mary with forgiveness throughout her whole being. She looks at me and I look back. We’ve met for an instant and then she’s gone. My oldest asks me what I’m staring at and I say, I’m not sure. I can’t explain to him that I’ve just seen a vision on our stream. But I will remember this as a real dream, a wide open eyes dream, the kind that comes to you when your heart is ready.

What did she want to tell me that I might not have heard in the sound of the water and the woods? With the thrush singing and the children talking, what were her words to me? I’m not sure I can tell this even to Elizabeth, to whom I tell everything. It’s a Did I or didn’t I? dance, like my whole relationship with God and the Trinity. Do I or don’t I? I like this mystery. It means that more will be revealed to me if I hold fast to my faith, as I call it. I don’t even like to use the word, faith. I think again about my nighttime dream and why my father was the one to point me toward a job. Was it his way of finally being a dad to me? His lack in my life made me defensive. Elizabeth says I even have a defensive way of walking, throwing my shoulders around with each step. My dad was never was more than a shadow presence during his lifetime so is he now speaking to me in the language of the dead? I reserve my cynicism and take it as a gift: my father got me a job as a driver of many on a bus. I worried in the dream about maneuvering and parking, but remembered that you don’t park a bus, you just start it and stop it until it’s time to drive it back to the bus garage, where parking is diagonal. I have a practical mind, even in my dreams. I take one more look at the surface of the stream but it is as always, just a stream, with no visions of the Virgin Mary rising from it. My little guy is wiggling on my lap and the older boy is tired of skipping stones onto the water. There’s Elizabeth’s car on the dirt road to our house. It’s time to go up.

Now comes the mad rush to get ready. Elizabeth is not methodical like me: she leaves things for the last minute. She’s in our closet looking for a clean uniform and stockings. Our oldest is on her cell and the others are in various stages of finding something with which to occupy themselves. I could suggest tasks to be done around the house but I’m busy packing Elizabeth’s dinner. Packing meals is one of our economies, even though I don’t have much to pack other than egg salad sandwiches. Elizabeth is fine with that. She’s not a fussy eater. She’s not a fussy person.

I imagine talking to her while she gets ready, following her from the closet to the bathroom to the bedroom again and telling her about the Virgin Mary on the surface of the stream. I decide that this is counterintuitive. She’ll be in a hurry because she should be in the car by now so I go outside and turn her car around for her, leaving it running. Somehow she always gets done on time, and is in the car and driving to work just when she should be. Elizabeth is good for me. Her effectiveness balances my lapses into entropy and my penchant for reflection balances her tendency to shoot from the hip. The bustle in the house quiets down and we all settle into our activities for the afternoon. Mine is to get my youngest onto his bed for his nap and help my thirteen-year-old with her homework. She’s a math whiz but struggles with English so we work together on this part of her assignment, sitting at the dining room table, which I make a mental note to clear off and wipe clean when we’re done. Then my oldest wants to know if she can have a friend over for dinner so I say yes, which gets me thinking about how I can make our spaghetti with sauce from a jar more interesting, the answer for which fails to come to me. The afternoon goes on until a severe thunder storm blows up with a straight down squall. I’m glad to think of Elizabeth safe at work and us all in the house. We get the windows closed in time, ratcheting in the casement handles, which all work well because the windows were installed properly at the start. I appreciate my house again, remembering what my mother said to me about being proud of the house I built with my own hands.

It’s not until twilight that I get a chance to think again about the Virgin Mary on the stream. The storm cleared quickly and we all went out to see if there was a rainbow. There was, a double rainbow visible from the top of the trees to the end of the lawn. We all cheered and marveled at the sight. The air still smelled of ozone mixed with the smell of wet grass, like the grass in my dream. My youngest stares sleepily at the rainbow from my shoulder, where he buried his head when the storm wakened him from his nap. I think about Mary and mercy, which she represents, and the fact of us all out together in the fresh evening, looking at the rainbow. In my mind I chart the colors of the rainbow and think of the spectrum they represent. I think about color, which seems to have been lacking from my life up till now and the magnificence of the rainbow in the sky. I think about the sky and its vastness, and all that exists beyond what we can see. I feel a spaciousness around us, even on our property, which is large but finite. I think of what we are to each other as we live on this property and in this house. I look at my vegetable garden and think about the food it yields to us in our straitened circumstances. I imagine branching out to chickens and maybe even a goat, and what they in turn would yield to us. Basil and oregano, that’s what I’ll add to the spaghetti sauce. And by mid-summer we’ll have the volume of tomatoes we need to make our own spaghetti sauce. Then I’m back in my dream and running through the garden and over the stone walls, down to the beach and the ocean, and back up to the house and my father, who’s gotten me a job as a bus driver.

My oldest daughter asks me if she should put the pot on for the spaghetti to boil and I tell her yes, and what does she think about getting some chicks so we could have eggs from the hens? Chicks, could we have chicks? Really? My eight-year-old says and I answer, maybe yes, maybe we could. We all pick pole beans and, the basil and oregano, and little cherry tomatoes for the salad, all red and ripe. We fill two colanders and go back into the house to cook. The munificence of nature I think, and nurture, of course, because a vegetable garden needs work and care. The kitchen gets steamy from the boiling water and we open the windows. A fresh clean breeze blows in.

Elizabeth calls on her break to see how things are going, and to tell us that her evening is busy but good. Elizabeth always calls on her break. I think about how she looks in her nurse’s uniform, big-boned but thin, a little too thin since she got sober, I tell her. She asks me if I’ve called my sponsor yet today and I tell her that I will when the children are in bed. Oh, and her egg salad sandwiches were great, she says. She always tells me the dinner I’ve packed for her is great. It could be cardboard and still she would tell me it was great. It cheers me to imagine her opening her wrapped sandwiches and thinking of me.

We sit down to dinner and my thirteen-year-old asks me if we should say grace. That’s new: we’ve never said grace before. Sure, I say, why not? We say the Lord’s prayer and I remember the Virgin Mary. Vision or not, she’s here with us as we eat.

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Judith Goode was born and raised in New York City. She attended the High School of Music and Art, with a major in music. She went on to Bard College, where she majored in Languages and Literature. Her short story, “Tattoo,” was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Calliope.