Stories

The Laying on of Hands

By Heather Whited

It was quiet and Honor wondered if the snow had started.

She was hidden in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, wearing two sweaters and two pairs of socks and listening to her father wash the dishes while she pretended to be a cave explorer. It was a game she played, crawling under there with her flashlight. She’d drawn on the back wall of the cabinet; a stick bison being hunted by two stick men like she’d seen in a book at school. Mom would kill her when she saw. The skinny calico cat was curled up with her, a pink triangle nose pressed against Honor’s ear. Warm against her cheek and a purr rumbling through her. The rhythm of breathing.

The cabinet door was cracked open and she watched the kitchen; her father’s swaying legs, a sliver of the kitchen table, the high chair where baby Daphne slumped. She had lost one of her small blue socks and her other foot was bare. She weakly flexed her toes. Their parents were normally more careful since Daphne was sick, so Honor was surprised at this oversight.

No one had even turned on the television this evening and every small noise had free reign. Pings and drips and forks banging against each other in the sink.

Snow was quiet. Not like rain. On the news they had said it was going to snow today and all day, the sky had the look of it, overfull and moody, a heavy and lumbering stomach. Everything was so quiet but she couldn’t tell if the snow had started.

“Lance.”

Mom. Honor couldn’t see her feet just yet, but there was the smell of coffee. Mom always had a mug of coffee with her these days. His name was all Mom said and Dad stepped away. Mom’s feet joined Dad’s at the kitchen door and the whispering started. Honor closed her eyes and hugged the cat to her.

It was a Daphne talk, the whispers tense, reminding her of the out of tune guitar upstairs that Dad sometimes played. She fell asleep there, under the cabinet and Bo woke her. It was a hard waking, scared because she had forgotten where she had fallen asleep, jarred by the cold. The sink leaked and it had dripped on her back.

“Wake up,” said Bo. “We’re leaving.”

“Where to?”

Bo shrugged.

“Don’t know. Mom and Dad said get ready.”

Honor crawled from under the sink. The house was so cold tonight. She rubbed her hands together. They put on their shoes at the door. Bo’s were from the church bin, pink with flowers. They’d been the only ones that fit him and he was silent about it in a way Honor had not been about hers, which were scruffy and plain. Shoes are shoes, he had said, to himself and to his sister.

There was no one in the house but she and Bo, but Honor heard footsteps on the front porch. Heavy. It was Dad.

“I’m hungry,” Honor said. “Why didn’t we eat dinner?”

“Don’t ask me.”

“Is it the hospital for Daphne again?”

“I don’t know. Jeez.”

Honor knotted her laces together.

Outside a sky pearly with the anticipation of the weather, a sharpness to the air.

Mom drove them and Dad stared out the window, his hand on her knee. In town, they pulled into the drive-in place and sat at a table under one of the heat lamps. Soon, a tall, skinny girl came out with a bag of hamburgers. Honor finished hers and played with a dog tied up at a neighboring table.

“Come back and eat,” said Mom.

“But I’m done.”

Mom looked over at her crinkled up wrapper and she sighed.

“Fine.”

They didn’t go home after that, but the road they took was a familiar one. For a while driving past the business of houses and cars and all their lights, driving past the billboards, towards the darkness and silence of the hills. It wasn’t Wednesday night, so Honor didn’t know why they were going to church.

When they arrived at Miss Judy’s house, where the small congregation met several times a week, there were already cars parked in her drive. Dad turned around and took Daphne from her car seat.

“You stay here,” he said to Bo and Honor.

“It’s cold!” said Bo.

Mom snapped around.

“You won’t freeze. We’ll be back in a minute. Watch your sister, Bo.”

Every light in Miss Judy’s house was on. The tiny, square basement windows, just stretching over the hedges, were bright too. Daphne whined.

“Is it church?” asked Honor.

“Stay here,” was all Mom said.

Then they were gone. The door to the house opened for them as they walked up the steps. Miss Judy, in her large sweater, her gray hair pinned up. Their parents went in and the door closed.

The world had fallen into the still that only came before snow, when everything stretched out and lay unmoving. The sounds of church music rode the emptiness to them from Miss Judy’s house.

Bo said, “Want to see something?”

From his coat pocket, he pulled a rolled up magazine. There was a baby lion on the cover, yawning stretched on its back. It had the library’s stamp on the front.

“I took it,” he whispered. “Yesterday, when I walked down.”

“You should give it back.”

“I don’t want to.” He bit his lip. “Don’t tell.”

“I won’t.”

“Come here and I’ll read it to you.”

Honor unbuckled her seat belt to move closer. Bo opened the magazine and started to read.

“Do you think Daphne is going to die?” asked Honor.

“Don’t say that. You’re not having faith. Mom and Dad say that we have to have faith if she’s going to get better.”

“Well you broke the stealing commandment. What if you being bad makes her die?”

Tears came to Bo’s eyes.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean it,” mumbled Honor. “It’s only a magazine. Just read?”

It was dark and they could hardly see, but he read until they both fell asleep.

The car doors opened and Mom and Dad were back. Daphne wriggled in Dad’s arms. Her pallor was replaced with a frantic, pink flush. The windshield was dusted with snow.

“What time is it?” asked Bo as he rubbed his eyes. He hid the magazine back in his coat. Dad was buckling Daphne in her car seat as the car warmed.

“Late,” said Mom. The car reversed. “Sorry. I didn’t know it was going to get this cold.”

The snow picked up quickly on the way home. The tires crunched on the frost that had hardened on the ground. Theirs was the only car on the road as they drove away.

At home, Bo and Honor complained that they weren’t tired.

“Look at the snow,” Dad said to Mom. “No school tomorrow.”

“Do what you want,” said Mom. “The baby needs to go to bed.”

She left with Daphne and Honor watched Bo jump at the slam of the bathroom door.

Dad made them cocoa while Mom gave Daphne a bath. They sat on the couch together watching television and waiting to be tired again.

*     *     *     *     *

He woke in his bed. On the other side of the room, Honor was asleep. The cat lifted her head as he sat up but didn’t pay much mind in the end. Bo made no noise going back downstairs, putting on his shoes, his coat with the magazine in the pocket. He creaked open the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

His were the first footprints. As he walked down the steps, the snow covered his ankles. His shoes were quickly soaked through. He would return the magazine and go home.

The night was a bright and brittle eggshell that he cracked.

___

Heather Whited graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2006 with a BA in creative writing. She lived in Japan and Ireland before returning to her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee to get her graduate degree. She now lives in Portland Oregon. She has been published in the literary magazines Straylight, Lingerpost, The Timberline Review, A Door is Ajar, Allegro, Foliate Oak, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Windmill; The Hofstra Journal of Art and Literature, Chantwood Literary Magazine, and soon Cricket, Storm Cellar, and Forge. In 2015 she was an honorable mention in Gemini Magazine‘s annual short story contest. She is a contributor to The Drunken Odyssey podcast and Secondhand Stories Podcast.

The Ghost of Joseph Gagnon

By Mike Siemasz

Owen grasped a patinated handle of the black chest he had discovered in the lightless, grotto-like alcove under the basement staircase. The chest scraped across the concrete floor as the kid pulled it into the yellow light of a single bulb above. The floor above creaked where his sister, Sable, ambulated around in the burnishing mid-morning light pouring through the kitchen window. She was unpacking and obstreperously stacking dishware into various cupboards at the new house.

Owen unlatched the chest lid and opened it to the stale smell of age. Inside were old Army dress blues folded under a stack of notebooks beside a photo album on which sat a peaked cap. The album lay beside the folded canvass of a pitch tent upon which sat several inconsequential items—a necklace of animal fangs; a club of black, petrified wood; a snake skull; a lidded Mason jar containing a black, desiccated spider on its back with constricted legs; a canteen, a compass, a knit cap, a skillet, a rucksack. The chest was a reliquary of forgotten things, pieces of someone’s history. It was a museum of ordinaries arrayed in an unordinary context.

Owen pushed aside the items and flipped through the photo album. In the back, he found suctioned between two plastic sheets a black and white portrait of a young soldier. He flipped the page over and read the name on the back of the photo in messy cursive: “Joseph Gagnon.” Owen set the album down on the concrete floor and went for the dress blues. He flapped the stiffness out of the uniform and put it on, after which he chose the two most intriguing articles in the chest to carry upstairs to show Sable.

Owen slogged up the stairs in the baggy uniform, tripping over the blue slacks sagging below his little ass and covering his shoes. The shirt hung to his knees. Its sleeves were an arm longer than his own. Every few steps he pushed up the blue cap falling down his forehead and covering his eyes. He shuffled to the kitchen doorway and stood there about ready to burst with laughter. “Hey!” he shouted at Sable. She gasped and turned around. He held the snake skull in one hand, in the other the spider-occupied Mason jar. Her eyes shrunk back down from their wide glare into an inquisitive gaze and she turned back to stacking dishes.

“Where did you find that crap?” Sable said.

“Down there.”

“The basement? What’s down there?”

“A haunted black box with cool stuff in it.” He ran out of the kitchen, tripping on the blues and stumbling a little, and back down the basement steps. The unfinished basement was damp and concrete, its corners shadowy and pale with demented, blotchy light refracted through thick block windows near the ceiling. Sable came down the stairs after Owen and discovered him on his knees rummaging through the chest.

“It’s not kind to go through others’ things,” she said.

“Whose?”

“Someone who owned that box I guess.”

“Is he dead?”

“Who?”

“The man who collected all this stuff.”

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Probably, because he was in a war.”

She picked up a notebook. “Joseph Gagnon” was written on the inside cover. She flipped to the middle. Sable shut the thing and tossed it into the chest as though it were on fire. “What in the hell?” she said. It’s a witch book, or something, an evil thing, she thought. She felt a cold breath on her nape, though she knew it was a draft leaking out from somewhere in the basement. She had smoked something strong earlier, a parting gift from Sally, that pothead, before they piled into the car with Mom, Dad driving the big moving truck, and drove off to the new home, and the pot totally made her think this is such a drafty, evil basement, like it’s haunted or something, maybe Owen’s right. That would be so funny, though, to pretend I’m possessed or something, and that would totally be good practice for acting, given my aspirations to play a major role in the fall musical at the new high school.

It was decided, then.

Sable whipped her head around at Owen with such violence her neck cracked. That was a bad idea, she thought, I might have some pain tomorrow, but it’s dedication that makes good acting, even sacrifice of health sometimes, okay? She covered her mouth with one hand and began laughing with a heinous cackle. You have to be so high to do this, she thought. Owen stood stupefied and stupid looking in the baggy dress blues with his head tilted back because that big cap still hung too low over his little face.

“Would you like me to save this man’s spirit divided among lonesome nightmares?” she said. Wow, where did that come from? That was good. Sable could see Owen felt uneasy about how she was acting. Kids can be so intuitive, she thought, they pick up on aberrant behavior without a hitch.

“I’ll grab some garbage bags and get rid of it,” Owen said. With her best demonic smile, Sable stood glaring at Owen, glaring through him, her imagined sinuous fingers wriggling and snapping.

“Be right back. Promise,” Owen said after Sable didn’t respond. He didn’t want to upset her. He put down the jar and skull and fled upstairs. She was still staring at the place where he stood under the stairs after he had run off, just to keep the effect in place. Don’t want to upset the fictitious environment I’m creating, she thought. The thing she pretended to have inside her burned. Her face looked white and green, she hoped. Her eyes were red and dry maybe. Her tongue was purple and sharp in this role. She held it tight between her front teeth imagining all of this would be her true countenance when Owen came back.

Upstairs, Owen thought about calling the cops but the cops would think Sable’s crazy, and Mom and Dad wouldn’t appreciate coming home to discover I shipped her off to an insane asylum, he thought. Can’t we trust you with anything, Owen James? One quick trip to the sub shop for lunch and you send your sister off to a nuthouse?

Owen went back downstairs with the garbage bags. “Halt,” Sable said. Owen froze. In the upper left corner of the entrance to the lightless space, an orb weaver was perched halcyon and motionless in its awkward, ineptly spun web. Sable reached over, ew! can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, you have to be so high to do this. The spider crawled onto her finger. She brought it up to her eyes as it crawled over her hand. “Let me tell you the story of Joseph Gagnon. I’ve just heard it myself,” she said.

“Don’t you want me to clean this stuff up?” Owen said.

She glared at him in anger and he shook his head. The orb weaver still crawled along her hand, ok can’t take this anymore, she thought and flicked it off, ok broke character a little there. She opened Joseph’s notebook. She threw her shoulders back and stood straight and stoic and began to read in an incantatory drawl as though someone else was speaking through her. She was as unprepared for the content as Owen, though he believed she somehow was privy to its meaning without having read any of the sentences yet. She was, after all, empowered by dark forces at this point.

She read.

March 16, 1967

Yesterday, woke up in the medical unit. Dale’s dead. She maybe ate him. Maybe almost ate me. They won’t tell me where his body’s at; just make stoic faces when I ask. They say, who? What’s he look like? Big black dude, I say, like Frederick Douglass without the hair and beard. Frederick Douglass? they say. Forget it, I say. We were many miles out from Saigon where they found me.

Before that:

That way, Dale whispers.

How you know it’s that way? I say.

We been walking straight toward nothing for hours.

Walking through the jungle. One hundred degrees. M16s above our heads. Sharp grass lacerating our necks and cheeks. Far echoes of exotic birds screeching in the trees. Morning light. Stale air. Sweaty. Ache from sleeping on hard ground. Out here we feel watched. Can’t sleep well for fear of vicious beasts tearing us apart, or bullets or a knife.

I stop in the tall grass and shut my eyes. I smell the swampy heat. I listen to the jungle. I look at my broken compass. Let’s go this way, I say. Should have listened to Dale. We cut right and continue walking. The grass ends and we walk until we come to a dark, cool place. It’s preternatural in the middle of the blazing and muggy jungle. I stop to analyze the change in temperature and make some notes. We stand there for a few minutes while I note-take.

I don’t like this, Joe, Dale says.

Relax, I say. I put away the notebook and take a few steps forward and hear the thud of Dale’s body against the jungle ground. I turn around, see a long bamboo spear thrust through his chest. I sweep the jungle with my M16. The gun shakes in my hands. The clip empties. No one comes out. Loading another clip, something pricks me in the leg. I black out.

Wake up in the evening on a sheet of canvass beside a smoldering fire. Quiet, same cool temperature as when she killed Dale. She has me tied up. Some indigenous campsite with bamboo sticks in the dirt, vines strung between them and laced through a sampling of animal skull eye sockets. On a log sit in a line a number of cloudy, unrelated jars with large insects crawling around in them trying to escape. A sickening smell like burnt feces lingers despite a constant and unnatural zephyr.

She comes out of a small hut on the other side of the fire toward the edge of the campsite. Skinny, shirtless, native woman with piercings, wearing a tattered green skirt fashioned out of Dale’s T-shirt. Stringy, black hair hangs long over her shoulders and down her back. Eyes are black coins. Walks toward me with a scimitar in hand pointing towards the ground.

Degar? Degar? I say. I try to get up. My ankles are tied too. Degar? American. Friends. Good. Here to help. War. Saigon. She stares at me and continues walking toward me. My stomach tightens as I prepare for the abdominal pain of puncture.

She stands over me with the whet-anew blade dangling beside her. I spit at her feet. Last moment of pride. She starts mumbling something and holds out her fist, opens it, blows on a small pile of orange powder. It fills the air like talcum. She closes her eyes and begins mumbling something again. A heavy sleep overtakes me.

There’s a nurse at my bedside. Says some farmers found me naked and passed out next to a rice field. You wouldn’t wake up, like comatose, she says. You’re lucky the farmers told us. They said they wouldn’t bring you in like the other soldiers they’ve helped. They said we shouldn’t either because you’re cursed. The nurse looks askance at me. They took your gun and went through your pack, she says. They found some peculiar things in there, things a witch would carry they said. I’m staring at the snowy mountain peaks at the end of the bed where my feet stick straight up under the white bed sheet. I’ll leave you alone now, she says. She smiles and walks away.

Ill at night. Vomiting a black, putrid substance. I grab the hand mirror beside my bed and gaze in disbelief at the pallor of my face, the sluggish purple of my lips, the devilish red of my eyes. The doctors, I can sense, do not want to treat me. I’m ugly. Something evil is boiling within me. Others around me are sleeping. I sit propped up against my pillow wheezing, feeling my teeth with my tongue. They hum for something I can’t sink them into.. Each incisor, cuspid, bicuspid has a stomach of its own. The doctors stand in a corner at the end of the unit speaking in low, concerned voices. One looks back at me and I see the horror on his face.

Not horror at me, not horror at all. Tenseness as he regards the medic they’ve recruited to sneak up on my left side and jab a needle into my thigh. It prompts my sleep.

My dream is maybe drug-induced, vivid regardless of its provenance. The jungle woman appears. She speaks in a bygone ghostly tongue. I understand while remaining conscious of my unfamiliarity with it. She is bringing me a message.. I wake and recall the information without labor in my own language:

The night hag proclaims her shadow gathers princes’ souls to dwell in repose within her thorn-and-thistle haunt. The monsters assemble in her castle of cries to share the spirits they possess forever. All generations are her beasts for gathering from their overgrown desert briar abodes. There, all are gone wild and missing, lacking food and rest, mouths and minds. They shall be marked and ordered under her shadows of jackals for eternity.

“What’s going on down there?” The basement light flickered on and off. Their dad was toggling the switch at the top of the stairs.

“Just exploring,” Sable said.

“Come up for subs.”

Sable looked at Owen and brought back her demented countenance. “We’ll finish this later.” She slammed the notebook shut. Owen took off the old clothes and hat and put them away.

*     *     *     *     *

Owen observed Sable throughout the day as they unpacked boxes and put things away in the new home. She seemed normal now, but it could be a ruse to keep their parents from discovering her possession, either by Joseph Gagnon or the witch who cursed him or the demonic spirit that inhabited or empowered her, Owen thought. By end of day, he hadn’t noted anything else peculiar about her behavior. Still, he was wary of her earlier transmogrification, her seeming understanding of Joseph Gagnon’s notebook and other obscure items in the chest. He thought it would be best to sleep with his hand-carved hardwood tribal dagger, which some former missionaries to Africa who lived around the block from the old house had allowed him to purchase for ten dollars at their garage sale last month. It was very dull, but it was his only weapon. He wished he could trust Sable, but she wasn’t herself. It was a messy situation for her to get caught up in.

By midnight, Owen had fallen asleep, dagger enclosed in his right hand beneath the covers. When Sable crept into his room, the floorboards creaked. Owen stirred but stayed asleep. She walked to his bedside and knelt. This’ll be so good, she thought trying not to laugh and blow her operation. She put her hand around his neck, not a tight grip, and in her most infernal, guttural voice told him to wake up. And he did. His eyes shot open and, as he had been prepared, he threw the covers off, screaming, and smacked Sable above her ear with the blunt, wooden dagger. It was a poor attempt at a stab or a jab. Sable fell back screaming and holding her head. The hallway light came on.

“What the hell’s going on?” their dad stampeded down the hall like a pachyderm. He turned on the light. “What is this?” Sable was on her back pretending to cry. Owen sat confused and frightened in bed holding the dagger.

“She’s possessed!” Owen said.

“He stabbed me, he stabbed me,” Sable said.

“What?” Their dad saw the dagger. “Give me that. Where’d you get it?”

“Garage sale,” Owen said with his head down.

“But why? Why? You might have seriously injured her. This could kill someone!”

“She’s a witch!”

“A what? A witch? Owen James. What is wrong with you? You’re done. You’re done for a month at least. Grounded, I mean. I don’t even know what to say about this. This is just, evil. Absurd. Can I even trust you? Do I need to somehow padlock your door so you don’t come murder us all?”

Sable had stopped fake crying. Now Owen was truly on the verge. Sable stood. “I forgive you,” she said. She walked to bed. Their dad still stood over Owen.

“Don’t even think about pulling anything else tonight. We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said. He turned off the light and walked out.

No one will believe me, Owen thought, I should have figured that out hours ago, I’ll always be on my own with this. He lay in bed awake, wondering if he was crazy or if everyone else was too stupid to see the danger in Sable, who was there again, in the doorway, a still, breathless silhouette moving. Owen stared at her motionless, afraid to breathe himself; afraid she might eviscerate him with some vicious, punitive spell she had learned. He waited for her to move in on him again. He didn’t have his dagger now, or any other means of defending himself, so he waited. She stood there for half an hour, and then left. He sighed with relief and closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them, she was in front of him, having crawled along the floor beneath his line of vision, and was putting her hands around his throat again. And in that hoarse, horrible voice: “Gotcha.

___

Mike Siemasz lives near Detroit and works in corporate communications. He has a B.S. in Written Communication. His fiction has been published in Mulberry Fork Review. Twitter: @mike_siemasz.

Cakewalk Island, 1944

By Burton Shulman

The recon reports all agreed that the little rock they were attacking today, Cay-Ak Island, was barely defended—abandoned, in effect, but for a couple of hundred unfortunates who’d been left behind to die. Plus, Ike’s camera unit was going in third wave: strictly mop-up.

Low-rolling South Pacific swells were catching and releasing fresh morning sunlight. Hump—Lt. Humphrey—told the pilot to drop them near the left perimeter so they’d have a broad view of the other incoming Ducks and, on the other side, an equally broad view of the horizontal mound that rose fifty feet in the air a hundred yards inland, and ran parallel to the beach for half a mile. Reports from the first two waves confirmed that Jap resistance was minimal and would be over when they landed. The unit’s goals today were quality and clarity. The rear-echelon Johnnies—MacArthur’s tacticians—wanted rock-steady footage, fixed compositions they could study so they could tinker with the latest landing tactics. That was probably the operation’s only real value; the island had a small airfield, but no one pretended it was strategically important. Mostly, this was a live-ammo training maneuver to sharpen tactics for the landing everyone was starting to think about all the time—the invasion of Japan. MacArthur himself had taken to calling it “Cakewalk Island.”

“Cakewalk Island: the place to go in the Solomons when you’re…”

…thunder, followed by instant rain, brought Ike back to the moment; one of those Solomon cloudbursts where one second the sky was clear, deep blue and the next you were soaked. He glanced up— why was the sky still blue?—as a second thunderclap followed, this time accompanied by a skyrocketing fountain thirty yards to port. Confused, Ike blinked at the fountain, as a third eruption grabbed him and shook out his body the way a hand might shake out a paper bag.

He heard a scream and another boom, his eyes grew round as bullet holes, and he wet his pants.

Hump was yelling, Ike couldn’t hear what, and everyone was diving. They were still thirty yards off the beach as he hit the water. When he surfaced, the Duck was in a creaky turn and Ike was screaming at nobody, combat sweat popping out like measles. Another concussion threw him back underwater, where the shriek of metal was amplified and unavoidable; Pacific water was so clear that sound waves were visible, forming an envelope around the Duck’s hull as another shell tore it open. The water shook with such violence that it rammed Ike’s face down into the coral as his legs tried to run. When he found footing, his head and torso shot too high over the surface and he threw himself back down. His back was to the island, his face toward the mess that had been his Duck. A sob tried to emerge, but he had to breathe in first as he dragged his legs through the surf, which kept shoving him back.

He pictured himself beating MacArthur to death. Somewhere the old shithead was watching this, chewing his pipe, already working out the excuse; when he’d said “cakewalk,” he hadn’t meant what everyone seemed to think he’d meant. It wasn’t his fault if some crazy Jap officer had chosen third-wave Cay-Ak to commit suicide. They’d conceded the island, they’d abandoned it, plus Japs never did this on third waves, especially not when all they could hope for was a few dead GIs before they died themselves.

Ike was going to die in a cakewalk.

He started to dump his gear so he could move quickly but the impact of another shell rammed his lower back and threw his head forward, knocking out his breath again. This time his face slammed against beach, and he gagged on sand for a few seconds. He was frightened by the ugly, strangled sounds he was making, tried to spit and couldn’t but somehow managed a breath because his body kept moving, flattened itself against the clammy sand, dragged out the IMO camera, and started filming the futile maneuvers of the remaining Ducks. Shells continued to explode as they moved through floating bodies of dead and dying GIs. He’d never really known why they were called “Ducks” until now, seeing them flap around as if the ocean was a barrel of water in a carnival, and their wings had been cut.

The destroyers now started flinging masses of ordnance at the middle of the island, so when Ike turned he saw crazed GIs diving, jumping, rolling back over the mound, fleeing positions they’d secured hours ago, trying to escape the cross of friendly and unfriendly fire. Cay-Ak was an animal shaking GIs off its hide, shrieking with the staccato bursts of nonexistent Jap guns fired by nonexistent Jap infantry, occupying nonexistent Jap positions.

*     *     *     *     *

It took a half hour before there was enough of a lull for Ike to crawl down the beach and form up with the rest of his unit. Somehow they’d all survived.

The shelling heated up again as they hacked foxholes out of the coral and sand. Alternately ducking and digging, Hump wouldn’t shut up about how he’d personally seen the recon, personally read the reports proving there weren’t more than two hundred Japs on this piece of shit. Given a combined U.S. force of ten thousand backed by three destroyers that had thrown down 130mm shells for a week, their fucking situation was impossible.

Another shell exploded and Ike threw himself on his face, pressed as flat as he could under the hail of coral that pummeled his back, as his legs tried to jam his head deeper into the sand than the sand itself would allow.

*     *     *     *     *

For ten miserable days the Japanese maintained numerically impossible dominance of every part of Cay-Ak except the beach. The big guns that recon said they didn’t have established a cross-fire zone that made it suicidal to break the vertical plane of the half-mile mound. MacArthur must have been having trouble diverting ships from other operations because after the first day, the destroyers’ ordnance stopped cold. Ike wasn’t alone in assuming this had something to do with trying not to admit the enormity of his stupidity. How do you demand backup for a cakewalk?

Day eleven, the general’s voice crackled over Armed Forces Radio, psychotically reassuring them that “Mopping-up operations on Cay-Ak are in their final stages.”

Day twelve, word came that a forward patrol had finally figured things out: Running lengthwise under the middle of the island was a previously undetected chain of coral caves. Speculation was that when the Jap supply ships pulled out weeks before, they hadn’t left behind a “token” defensive force—closer to a full division, which was now dug into the caves with a full complement of heavy artillery. So the Japs had lured in waves one and two, then opened up on wave three—a good strategy if you thought you could win, mass murder/suicide if you knew you couldn’t. Since no Jap ships had been detected headed back to Cay-Ak—they couldn’t.

 

When you took a piss, you were shot at. When you crawled between foxholes, you were shot at. When you scratched your ass, you were shot at. HQ raised the estimate of enemy troops from “under five hundred” to “under ten thousand” so quietly, the first number could have been a typo.

Misery floated among the men like mustard gas.

Day thirteen, artillery spotters delivered the first reliable coordinates to a group of redeployed destroyers, which launched a fresh bombardment, this one directly at the caves. Shell after shell screamed overhead for a week, dwarfing the intensity of anything Ike had previously experienced. The noise hardly paused, amplified each morning by aerial bombardment, sometimes loud enough to push Ike to tears. When everything finally stopped, the silence was almost worse. Then came the order: Move toward the caves.

Recon had found more than one opening; the Japs had planned escape routes. Infantry sealed off all but one, set up a perimeter of night-lights around it, and cut down every Jap who tried to run. This attrition continued for a week until the big artillery was close enough to aim directly into the caves. That bombardment went on for yet another week.

Next came the flamethrowers. Ike filmed streams of jellied gasoline bursting into flaming light in the cave’s blackness. When occasional return fire hit a gas tank, it blew up and killed the operator instantly—who was replaced so quickly, there was hardly a pause. Long ago, Ike and his buddies had made it standard practice not to learn any of their names.

The battle was now a slaughter—and Ike was all for it. Jap willingness to suffer starvation, heat, thirst, and terror had always seemed insane, but suicide on this order terrified him, infuriated him. He hated these Japs far more than if they were only trying to kill him. Everyone said Japs were more concerned about avoiding a nasty afterlife than clinging to their current one—that surrender was disgrace. But after being bombed and starved, and now trapped in suffocating heat and darkness without the possibility of escape, why didn’t they surrender?

Because.

Without a surrender, everyone in Ike’s camera unit was now in almost as much danger as the nameless flamethrowers.

*     *     *     *     *

Twenty-one days after the landing, Hump slid into Ike’s foxhole and delivered the news.

“We’re up.”

Ike was checking over his camera and smoking perhaps his thirty-fifth cigarette of the morning.

“For what?” He made sure the cigarette bobbed in his mouth as he spoke, to remind himself he was tough.

“Anyone who’s alive is surrendering. We got to film it.” Hump scratched a bloody insect bite on his neck. “Then we go in.”

Ike had to breathe a few times before speaking. “Into the caves.” Of course MacFuckingArthur wanted this. Still, he couldn’t believe it.

“They want proof. We need to shoot the dead people so the general has proof that this was recon’s fault, not his.”

Ike laughed without smiling. His hands shook. The tough-guy image of himself he’d been clinging to after two years of on-and-off combat—Sgt. Grizzled Combat Veteran—collapsed. He wanted to bury his face in his mother’s apron.

“Ike, it’s just bodies. We’ll have infantry with us. I’m on Leica, you’re on IMO. They’re delaying the surrender till we get there. Dougie wants pictures. We gotta move.”

Furious, Ike threw canisters of film into his sack. He felt the eyes of his buddies on him, the ones who weren’t going. It was like being picked at by vultures: He knew how glad they were that they weren’t him, but he didn’t hold it against them; he’d feel the same. Ten thousand dead—maybe with a few still breathing who hadn’t surrendered because they were still really angry.

*     *     *     *     *

The ones who did surrender—there were maybe a hundred—had big heads, big bellies, and stick limbs. The bodies were barely alive and the eyes lacked light. It looked as if the only things still undecided were the exact circumstances of their deaths. Some clung to bits of white cloth—ludicrous symbols of surrender—stumbling with eyes half closed against the white sun, after weeks of darkness, banging blindly into the coral as infantry studied them for signs of booby traps.

Hump was right; it was just bodies.

What was ten thousand minus a hundred?

 

At the cave mouth the air was humid but breathable; thirty steps in, a wall of stench smacked into Ike so suddenly that he vomited. He turned to run but Hump was right there, also vomiting but not running. Ike swiveled back; he wasn’t going to be the one who ran.

“Sooner we’re in, sooner we’re out,” Hump said, and threw up again. Ike hit his shutter and heard Hump do the same.

It was a system of coral caves with huge ceilings, pools of rank seawater in places, and other places where the white floor was smooth and dry. Ike had shot plenty of bodies, but this was different. They were everywhere, in every pose. A few were more or less intact; most were in the process of falling apart. Nearest the opening, the flamethrowers had left charred meat. Further in it became clear that when the pace of dying accelerated, it overwhelmed the Japs’ ability or will to do anything with the dead. They lay where they fell. Every stage of human decomposition was on display, from older bleached skeletons picked clean, to recent corpses, bloated and wet, covered with the bugs who did the picking. Once, an itch on Ike’s leg caused him to shake his body wildly, sure that one had run up his pants.

He felt increasingly…odd—not that it made sense anymore, differentiating between odd and not-odd, but this was new; he felt as if something was draining from him, something he might have called “will.”

For instance: he had a crazy desire to sit down. He had enough presence of mind to wonder what the fuck was wrong, but that didn’t change what he felt. In search of solidity he looked for Hump, but it was dark in this part of the cave; he was flooded with vertigo and almost fell. He lowered the IMO. A surge of some kind of physical terror burst through his body and left him shaking again. He located Hump now, just twenty feet to his right, but it didn’t calm him. He wanted to tell him what was happening, but when he moved his mouth, nothing came.

“Orders are go deep,” Hump insisted. He spat, and spat again. “Faster we’re in, faster we’re out.” Why did he keep repeating himself? Ike again tried to say that something was wrong, again couldn’t. He tried pleading with his eyes, but Hump wasn’t looking. With nothing else to do, he lifted the IMO and resumed shooting.

Riflemen moved alongside. They’d tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths; they looked like desperadoes. Their job was to find signs of life and extinguish them. No one spoke; the only sounds were bursts of gunfire, boots, dripping water, intermittent vomiting, and the cameras, echoing through the caves.

The bombardment had opened a few holes in the roof, letting in pockets of breathable air along with weird ambient light. Concentrating on inhaling in one such pocket, Ike stepped on an arm; it cracked so loudly, the sound exploded through the cave and his brain. A GI called to him and pointed. Turning, he saw a fire pit with charred driftwood and bones. The bones were human. He saw other fire pits.

It took a few seconds to realize that the Japanese had been eating their dead.

The stench they’d been breathing included airborne bits of that too. Ike started hacking out saliva and mucus, took a slug from his canteen he couldn’t swallow, could only use to rinse and spit out, though that didn’t get rid of the taste. His muscles were so tense that his whole body ached; moving was getting harder.

At one point he almost threw down the IMO, but caught himself. He’d gradually learned to trust his combat sanity because Hump did; hearing the click of Hump’s shutter, seeing the flash of his light, he wanted to cry. Hump depended on him; Ike couldn’t do this to him.

In the ridiculous heat he shivered.

Maybe if he kept his eyes inside the viewfinder. Sweat splashed from his chin into pools of the foulest water there ever was. Tears, too, and tears were absurd, walking around acres of dead Japs whose kinds of death proved they deserved to be dead. Emotions he had no names for surged and retreated like surf. After two years in this shit, why was this fucking place snapping him like a rubber band? The bodies stank but couldn’t hurt him; they were just dead. So why was he fighting not to scream, not to throw the fucking IMO, not to fall, not to stop breathing, not to be dead himself?

If he was going crazy, it wasn’t what he’d expected—there was no release. He knew exactly where he was—a stinking hole with ten thousand bodies. The problem was that accepting such knowledge wasn’t possible. So where were the goddamned hallucinations? Why did he have to know what was going on and just not be able to stand it? He just wanted to shed all this, to molt it. That it existed, that he was inside it taking pictures, he couldn’t accept.

Maybe his number was up. His will went on pulsing out, an arterial wound draining the ability to do anything. You could fall down, he heard something say; Hump will hear the splash, and if you scream loud enough, it might get you out. He tried but got the timing wrong, tried just after he’d breathed out, so he couldn’t scream or breathe either, until a strange gasp turned into a strangled breath.

Even breathing was now complicated.

Another wave of vertigo caused him to breathe in more deeply, after which he gagged and spat again. Why had he forgotten how to breathe? He wasn’t an infant! And why could he only think now of his dead mother—not his stepmother but the one he didn’t remember, the one from old nightmares?

Part of his mind started talking shit—this was as good a place as any to die; there never really was an “outside” anyway. All your life you were looking at things through a window or maybe a doorway you secretly knew you could never cross. And because you could never cross, you’d eventually end up in a grave, except now you realized you’d been in a grave all the time. Wasn’t every place only a farm for cemeteries, where the fully dead outnumbered the merely dying? The purpose of life was to make bodies to fill graves.

No one here was “killed in action.” Whatever words you used to describe this should be invented or you shouldn’t use any.

Another part of him reminded him he was going crazy; with immense weariness he resumed moving, shooting, reloading, shooting.

Everyone said Japs worshiped the dead. So why would they do this, especially knowing they’d soon be dead too? A crazy pain ricocheted inside his head and left an aftershock. His hands shook as he opened the canteen and forced himself to swallow a salt pill. Sitting heavily on a coral shelf, he thought about how every bit of that shelf, every bit of the cave above the waterline, in fact, was dead too. Long before the war this was a tomb–for billions of tiny coral skeletons. Now his living bones sat on their dead ones, amid thousands of new dead ones, laid out like a carpet for as far he could see.

He closed his eyes but ghastly images sprang up, and he opened them quickly. He’d seen guys go nuts, seen medics tackle them and jab in needles full of morphine, dragging them off to field hospitals where they lay staring. A time or two he’d been close himself. He couldn’t do that now, not in this place, not with Hump in here with him, counting on him.

So he tried again. This time he decided to focus only on hands—no arms, legs, heads, or torsos, only hands. He’d study them. Some were all bone, white as coral; others had bits of flesh. Many seemed to be grasping at something. What? He shook sweat from his eyes.

Him?

He judged the distance to the cave’s mouth as about a hundred yards. Closer than he’d thought, but that made no difference. No way would he re-cross those hands—bone hands, purple hands, oozing hands, red meat hands. They’d let him in but they wouldn’t let him out. Now that they’d touched him he was infected. His head throbbed, as if one of the dead Japs had just rammed a bayonet through the back of his skull and out his eye.

There was sunlight back at the cave mouth. So what. Sunlight, darkness, sunlight, darkness. It never stuck. All bullshit.

He put the camera on another shelf and sat down again. Hump was probably gone, probably left him alone. Something would happen to him after the sun was gone. He was sure of it.

“Out.”

Hump said it hoarsely.

Ike shook his head but Hump pulled him to his feet and shoved him forward to get him going. They stumbled toward the mouth, stepping on all the things Ike could not step on.

“This is the bottom, Ike; there’s nothing worse.” Ike wanted to laugh.

Who was Hump kidding?

___

Twenty years ago, Andrea Barrett called Burton Shulman’s first collection of short stories, Safe House, “lean and beautifully written… A strong and unusual debut.” The book was well reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and other publications. Charles Baxter said, “It takes nerve to write stories like these-nerve, intelligence, and heart.”

Burton earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College. After the birth of the first of his two daughters, he worked for twelve years as a corporate vice president, mostly for Thomson Reuters and Standard & Poor’s, before shifting to a consulting position that allows for more time to write. When he’s not writing, he plays and composes songs for guitar, and studies secular Buddhism.

From Where She Stands

By Heather Leah Huddleston

She never wanted to have babies.

At least that’s what she told herself for most of her life.

But every time she found herself in a chance encounter with a baby on the street or in the market, whenever she was in the presence of something so small and vulnerable and powerful, she transformed into someone unrecognizable: giddy, unbridled.

But today, she stands in her kitchen, a rag in her hand, staring at the ants that crawl on the floor, over the countertop, down the wall into the closet where the trash is kept, and back up again, two lines moving in succession.

No matter how much she cleans.

No matter that it’s the beginning of November.

The ants come in through the sliding glass door off the deck. They come in because, unlike her neighbors, she refuses to use the sweet smelling poison that the creatures would then carry back to their—what is it, a den? a nest? a lair? She knows she should Google it—at least that would be productive—instead of just standing here, staring.

Her husband has told her that the ants will stop coming if there is no food for them.

“From where I stand, you have two choices,” he has said to her more than once, “learn to live with them or learn to be OK with killing them.”

“But I couldn’t…”

She cleans to the point of obsession: taking the trash out twice a day; wiping all surfaces with the drenched rag until lines of water streak the counters and table; sweeping the floors, especially around the cats’ food bowls, so much that they hiss at her if she comes near the bowls without food in her hands.

But the ants still come.

There was an illusionary reprieve for a few weeks when the temperatures dipped to the low forties at night, but the seventy-degree days keep them coming back.

They’re desperate.

“You’re too sensitive,” her father had said when she called him to ask his advice on how to humanely remove the critters. “They’re just ants! Get rid of them.” He informed her about ant bait. “It’s simple. All you have to do is put the bait trap on your counter or by the door, and voilà! They’ll be gone in a day or two. Like they never existed. From where I stand, doll, that’s your only option.”

But that couldn’t be her only option. After that conversation, she called an exterminator to find out what happened to the ants, after—what the bait actually did to them. But his too-cheery way of discussing their certain deaths, his too-eager desire to get rid of the “things that were inconveniencing her,” and the free consultation he offered caused her to hang up the phone on him mid-sentence.

Then she went to the Internet.

Which was far worse than what the exterminator had told her.

The destruction, the boasting and selling of products that end life, the ease of it all.

*     *     *     *     *

You’re too sensitive, that’s what everyone said about her after she accidentally hit the mourning dove while driving around the bend onto the highway. She had seen its mate on the right side of her car, had said aloud, “Stay there, little guy.” A flash of wings on the periphery of her vision. Left side. Then the thud. “No!” she had screamed as she looked in the rearview mirror, the car plowing through feathers; she stopped to look under the hood, inside the grille, around the car, but there was nothing, no evidence that the life had been there, outside of the single down feather stuck to the roof that stayed attached through the highway speeds until she got home.

Sensitive. She locked herself in her studio for months after hitting the dove, and all she could paint for two years were two doves in flight, each version had the space between the doves growing. She learned that mourning doves mate for life, and she often spent hours at a time wondering which one she had killed. After that, everything that darted on the edge of her periphery caused her to startle and skitter behind the wheel, resulting in her braking a little too quickly, for a little too long.

But the baby raccoons on the side of the road were the things that caused her to stop driving altogether. She had not hit them, and there were no bloody entrails, no blood at all in fact, just a sleeping softness to their ending that disturbed her more than any “roadkill” she had ever seen. Every day, when she drove to meet her husband for lunch, she saw them, two of them with at least ten feet between them, curled up like stuffed animals against the curb. The fact that no one tended to them made her wonder if they were even real, and when suddenly, after two weeks of daily sightings, they disappeared, she questioned if she had ever seen them at all.

Or was it just a dream?

An illusion?

“The raccoons are gone,” she had said to her husband over lunch as she imagined their mother waiting by the side of the road. In mourning.

*     *     *     *     *

She’s tried everything to get rid of the ants, all the recommendations the humane sites offered. Rescuing them from the sink and dishwasher before washing the dishes. Licking lollipops and putting them out on the furthest corner of the deck to divert their path. That worked for a day or two until the candy dissolved completely. Cream of tartar, cinnamon, coffee grinds, chili pepper, cloves, lemon…she infused them all and spread a line along the seal of the sliding glass door—all the things that repel them together would surely make for a stronger resistance. But somehow their presence lingered: Several stragglers, or scouts as she learned they were called, remained.

Just in case.

When none of the natural remedies worked, she decided on the one thing she could live with: coexistence.

Until she couldn’t anymore.

Until today. She stands with a wet rag in one hand, drip-dropping onto the floor, an unopened box of ant poison in the other.

“What’s this?” her husband had asked the day before while unpacking the groceries. He held the box up to her. She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

“Is this what took you so long?”

And she had, in fact, lingered in the pesticide and home care aisle, not because there were stacks upon stacks of options, but because she couldn’t will herself to raise her arm, couldn’t command her hand to grab a product. Any product. Instead, she cried for thirty-five minutes until a nice old lady picked one off the shelf and said, “This one has worked for me.” She nodded her head at the woman as she dropped the box into the cart. Not a “thank you” offered or needed.

Her husband pleaded with her to just wait it out—the temperatures would soon shift and the ants would retreat underground to hibernate. It was a dance they did every year. But this year, it’s different. This year, she can’t wait. Besides, the ten-day forecast promises temperatures in the 70s and 80s: an Indian summer.

“What’s wrong, baby?” He started asking the question two months ago after he got back from his business conference. He asked it every day from that moment on when he got home from work and she was still standing in the same spot as when he left—in the kitchen, staring at the ants. And when she couldn’t answer, he asked: “Baby, are you OK?”

He kissed her; she nodded. This was her sign to move; otherwise, he may require her to “see someone.” His dinner was always ready. They ate together, talked about his day; they had sex and fell asleep sometimes in each other’s arms, sometimes with their backs touching. They woke together. She made him breakfast as he showered and got ready for his day. They ate together. He left. She cleaned, tried to create art in her studio. This was the pattern they walked together.

But today is different. The dripping rag, the box of ant bait that she can now see is in the form of a cute little hotel, at least that’s what the cover promises.

Today, she stands in front of the ants. Pregnant.

She never wanted babies—at least that’s what she always told herself.

But then she met her husband, and as soon as she saw him, as soon as they occupied the same space, as soon as she heard his high-pitched laughter that almost mirrored a dolphin’s, as soon as his fingertips grazed her skin, she knew she wanted to have not just any baby, but his.

When he told her, almost in the same space as the falling, as if he were used to this, as if his telling was a preemptive requirement that freed him to fall in love, that he had had a vasectomy, she had to mourn the baby she knew she was meant to have with this man (and the urgent desire to have it), the one that would be the pure expression of the UNION OF THEM. She mourned this before they had sex, before they had even kissed.

The freedom of her not having to worry about getting pregnant too soon made their sex raw and primal, something a step beyond passionate. But the weeping always came after, when she had gone to the toilet and his sterilized essence dripped out of her. Only if it’s meant to be.

The mourning.

The entire first year they were together, and even though he was forty-three at the time and had an adult child who lived across the country, he would whisper to her, “I can get it reversed, if you want me to.”

Her pillow talk returned: “It’s not a hundred percent. If we’re meant to have a child, our love will make it happen.”

“That’s what I love about you: your sensitive spirit.”

But for the last five years, neither of them have approached the issue. They’ve been content, happy even, with their life together: Him + Her = THEM.

*     *     *     *     *

Her husband had gone away for a business conference two months ago. He had asked her to go, but being away from her studio would only increase her anxiety. She was no good to him in those settings, and he was OK with it. While he was gone, she dressed like she used to when she was single and had frequented bars, back when she was the brooding college artist. Her body still fit into her size eight jeans, but most of the makeup was either crumbling or had a strange organic smell to it and had to be thrown away. The mascara and lipstick were another story—they worked well enough for her to feel like she did before the sensitivity had overtaken her entire life. She felt like someone altogether different. Instead of calling her one friend outside of her husband, the one she would meet once a week at the local museum to discuss art over lunch, she went to the bar alone.

Other people, all life outside of her small, contained house, drained her. But that was OK, she had an artist’s disposition, “a gift,” her husband learned to call her sensitivity; he learned that it was just part of her personality, that he didn’t have to worry.

Until she started standing in the kitchen, staring at ants. If she could just bring herself to tell him: It’s all for art. Then everything would be different. But she couldn’t. She doesn’t believe it herself. She’s taken to the staring almost the entire time he’s away from the house, when she’s supposed to be locked away in her studio, creating.

*     *     *     *     *

Slipping away to the doctor’s office was easy enough; she had sold a small painting to her friend and used the cash she had given her to pay for the visit. She was foggy, she had told the doctor, even more sensitive than usual, enough to make her worry. I spend my days staring at ants, she almost made the mistake of saying to him. Instead, “I can’t stand the ants in my house,” she wrung her hands. “Normally, we can coexist, but now…”

“It’s perfectly normal to want to exterminate pests.”

The word made her teeth clench, her jaw muscle bulge.

“But we’ll take some tests just to see if there’s anything wrong.”

Urine, blood, the whole works. When to doctor called and said, “Congratulations!” in a singsong voice, followed by, “That explains the nesting.”

“What?”

“You’re pregnant, my dear!”

“But…” His words sounded as if they were delivered from underwater.

“Happy news!”

Silence.

“Are you OK?”

She couldn’t breathe.

“I’d say you’re about two months along. You need to start on a prenatal right away… Hello?”

The phone slid to the cradle.

“From where I stand, you have some choices…”

A gentle click.

The fact that she should have been happy, that his swimmers, what they both affectionately called his sperm that first year when she was still feeling hopeful of “divine intervention,” that they wanted her after all and had worked extra hard to make their way to her…

But she wasn’t. Happy. She was terrified. After the call, she noticed the ants, a circular swarm, as they overtook a piece of wet cat food that must have either dropped off a whisker or been flicked from the tongue as the cats tried to consume it. Her old cats did that—abandoned food they couldn’t quite fit into their mouths on the first try; they always knew there would be more. There was a pattern to the swarm, a place where they entered the circle, where they left it. The pattern of the utilitarian relationship, the trust. She walked to the ants in the closet that housed the trash can and watched them, her nose grazing the surface of the wall on which they climbed. In a line, she could learn to accept them, how each individual had a meaningful purpose, the one that carried a piece of food three times its size, the one that trailed behind empty-handed in order to pick up pieces if they were to fall. Was it this trust that kept her from eliminating them? She could see it: Each ant would be drawn to the poison, carry it, and think they were doing what was best for the collective; they’d never suspect anything, never see it coming. But then…

She couldn’t. It seemed utterly cruel.

Right before her husband came back from his conference, she had stopped emptying the trash twice daily. The crumbs around the toaster oven, the trash piled to more than a quarter way up in the can, carrot slivers and dehydrated onion skins on the floor, these were what prompted his questioning:

“Are you OK?”

She simply nodded.

“But the ants…”

She shrugged her shoulders: “Coexistence.”

*     *     *     *     *

Standing in front of the ants with the dripping rag and the bait, she remembers how she went to the bar, not to pick up anyone or to even be noticed, but just to remind herself of who she was before the sensitivity, before the confines of her house and studio and husband were all she wanted or needed. At the bar, she had gone to the bathroom, returned to her seat, finished her drink, and hobbled home on shaky legs with a foggy brain. None of this surprised or concerned her. She never drank more than a glass of wine every couple of weeks. The GNT at the bar had hit her hard. That was all. She held her head the entire three blocks she walked back to the house; she unlocked the door; she woke at noon the next day, the sheets of her bed torn from her husband’s side like she had wanted to wrap herself in the scent of him. Only they didn’t smell of him. The entire room reeked of something organic, something metal.

Her body hurt—her breasts, her vagina, her head, the places so deep inside of her she could only imagine and paint but never actually see. Because of this feeling and the fact that she could barely remember why she even felt this way—oh, yes, the bar, the larger-than-life GNT that she will paint life-sized on a different day—she decided in that moment that she would never drink again; her painting would be an ode.

When she slid into the steaming bath and her skin turned to fire, she saw what looked like four thin claw marks trailing down her abdomen from nipple to groin. Not a gouge. Just deep enough to break the skin’s surface. And red-and-purple bruises that would later darken on her inner thigh. And the ant floating in the clear water.

“No!” Water sloshed over the side of the ceramic claw-foot tub. The black dot bobbed on the waves. Making a scoop of her hands, she let the water drain carefully from them as she stood and got out of the tub. The black dot she knew was browner when not wet clung to her hand. I never wanted this, she thought. Not this. Just my own space. She tried everything to save the ant: blew on it, used toilet paper to suck the moisture from its limp body, even the rebellious act of prayer. After several seconds, the ant started to wiggle and inflate, as if pumped full of air. Two of its legs were damaged, but it crawled a micrometer, waited as if catching its breath, and crawled again. She howled, then quieted her joy in case the volume traumatized the resurrected ant. The ant’s unfolding back into life was so beautiful, so mystical that she simply forgot about the tenderness of her own bruised body. She placed the ant on a washcloth on the bathroom counter, where she left it crumbs and drops of water, and there it stayed for four days until her husband returned from his conference. Then, it disappeared.

By the time he came home, the scratches and bruises had calmed enough to be either nonexistent or unimportant.

“An ant made its way into my bath a few days ago.”

“All the way up here?”

She nodded.

“How odd.”

She nodded again.

“I saved it from drowning.”

“That’s my baby,” he said as he held her close and kissed her on the forehead. He started to undress her and she did something she had never done before: She turned off the light.

*     *      *     *     *

She had never wanted babies; at least that’s what she told herself for most of her life. Until she met her husband and she dreamed her daughter into being and mourned her within the space of a few breaths.

And now she stands, a dripping rag in one hand, drip-dropping small puddles on the floor that the ants dance around, an unopened bait hotel in the other, watching them crawl on the floor, up and over the countertop, up the wall, into and out of the trash can, two lines in succession, working together to survive.

___

Heather Leah Huddleston’s work has appeared on the TEDx stage, in the Listen to Your Mother (Baltimore) show, in Reader’s Digest and other print and online media. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is a certified AntiGravity Fitness instructor and yoga teacher. She also teaches a writing workshop, “Writing the Body,” which combines yoga, meditation, and creative movement with writing prompts.

Headhunter

By Z.Z Boone

Dawn never even sees them move in. When she and her parents return from their weekend in Albany, they’re apparently already settled, a black Dodge van parked in the driveway, a silver Chevy Volt at the curb. The house has been empty for almost four months, and both Dawn and her parents have mixed feelings now that people are actually inside.

“I just hope they’re respectful,” her mother says.

“And no fat-ass dogs leaving presents for me to slide in,” her dad adds.

Dawn’s fears go in the opposite direction. The last thing she needs is some arthritic old couple constantly in need of favors from “that sweet girl next-door.”

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Beverly says to her daughter.

It’s Sunday evening, late August, just over a week before school starts. Beverly suggests the three of them walk over and play welcome wagon, but Wayne choses to pass. “I’ll run into ‘em soon enough,” he says as he switches on the TV and falls into his recliner.

Beverly and Dawn bake two dozen chocolate chip cookies, change clothes, put the spaghetti pot on the stove and instruct Wayne to keep an eye on it, then walk over and knock on the door. The woman who answers looks ancient, grey-haired and creased and brown-spotted like an overly ripe banana. Her body is slender and she dresses—Dawn thinks—like somebody a quarter her age: snug jeans, black t-shirt, flip-flops.

“Hi. I’m Beverly Devino and this is my daughter, Dawn. Hope we’re not disturbing anything.”

The woman smiles, showing straight white teeth, invites them in and introduces herself as Lianne. They stand in the downstairs entryway and Dawn finds herself surprised there are no stacked cardboard boxes, no haphazardly placed furniture.

“We’re still waiting on some things,” Lianne says.

Dawn feels Lianne’s eyes on her, and they don’t move away until Beverly pushes the plate of cookies toward her.

“We thought you might be a little peckish,” Beverly says.

“Perfectly timed,” Lianne says. “I was just about to put on coffee if you have a minute.”

Dawn is just about to beg out, to find some excuse to return home, when she hears the voice from somewhere upstairs.

“Lianne?!”

“We have company!” Lianne calls back.

“I’ll be down as soon as I figure out this goddamn computer!”

“Shoot,” Beverly says. “If somebody’s having a computer problem, Dawn here’s an expert.”

“Ma…”

“Could you?” Lianne says. “Even if it’s just plugging the thing in.”

Dawn holds back. “Go,” Beverly says. “I’ll holler up when the coffee’s ready.”

Dawn slowly climbs the stairs, stops halfway, and turns to give her mother a hard look, but Lianne and Beverly have already moved on.

 

The house is the same size as theirs, the same model with the same floorplan, the same almost everything. She finds him in the master bedroom hunched over a wide wooden desk, a computer with its various components yet to be connected. He’s young—mid-twenties, she figures—the size of a college football player, dressed in tan chinos and a navy blue polo shirt.   Dawn notices a thin, toothpick-wide moustache that reminds her of an actor she saw on TV playing Zorro.

“Hey,” she says. “They thought you could use my help.”

The man looks up at her and smiles. “And you are…?”

“Dawn. From next door.”

“You know anything about hooking up a computer, Dawn-from-next-door?”

Dawn walks over to the desk and checks it out. The monitor, the printer, the keyboard and mouse—all color-coded. A . The man stands by an ornate king-sized bed and watches while she uncoils the nest of wires, then laughs when Dawn asks if Lianne is his mom.

“She’s my live-in,” he says.

Dawn looks up.

“Wow,” she says. “You must be rich.”

“I work as a headhunter,” the man says. “You know what that is?” Dawn shakes her head. “I look for people unhappy in their present positions and offer them something better.”

“You should talk to my father,” she says. “He’s a warehouse manager who thinks he should run the world.”

The man moves to an ebony dresser with a Bose Wave on top. He picks up a CD and holds it for Dawn to see.

“Like her?”

Dawn looks over and nods, and the man puts it on. Daya. One of her favorites.

“So where are you from?”

“Actually,” he says, “I’m what you’d call a southern boy.”  He moves toward the desk. “You at the high school?”

Dawn nods. “John Jay.”

“What do you teach?”

It takes a moment for Dawn to realize he’s joking. “If only,” she says.

“Hey,” the man says. “Don’t wish it away. Close your eyes and the next thing you know you’re like me. An old man pushing twenty-three.”

She works away for a few minutes while he watches. Finally he says, “Hey. I haven’t even introduced myself. Tom Bergandorf.” He offers a hand and she shakes it. “Call me ‘Berg.’” He points at her feet. “Cool sneakers.”

“Really?”

He nods. “You into guys?”

“What?”

“You have a boyfriend?”

Dawn makes her eyes roll back. “Ben Steiger,” she says. “At least he thinks he is. Personally, I wouldn’t care if he fell off the edge of the earth.”

“Well that’s not good,” Berg says. “What you need is somebody who can really curl your toes.” Dawn feels her face going red, so she slips her hand from his, turns away, keeps working.            “So tell me about you,” he says.

“I’m an electronic genius,” she says, and when she pushes the round, illuminated button, the computer comes alive like Frankenstein.

“Coffee!” Beverly yells up.

“I don’t even drink coffee,” Dawn confesses.

“No problem,” Berg says. “I’ll find you something stronger.”

Dawn laughs as they head down. “I like your van,” she says.

 

“So who owns the tuna boat?”  Wayne asks shortly after they sit down to dinner. “In the driveway. The pimp mobile. The shaggin’ wagon.”

“If you mean the van,” Dawn says, “it belongs to Berg.”

“Excuse me?” Beverly says. “I believe it’s Mr. Bergandorf to you.”

“It’s what he told me to call him.”

“Well whoever it belongs to, stay out of it. The thing doesn’t even have cargo windows.”

“Da-ad…”

“Something like that comes down the street, the driver’s usually offering free candy.”

“Actually, he seems very nice,” Beverly says as she passes the garlic bread. “Him and the housekeeper both. I believe he’s from Canada someplace.”

“He’s from down south,” Dawn says.

“Just what the neighborhood needs, Wayne says. “A hillbilly.”

“For your information,” Dawn says, “he’s quite intelligent.”

“Hey,” her father says. “I was stationed in Texas for two years. None of them are ‘quite  intelligent.’”

“Would you want somebody jumping to conclusions about you?”

“No,” Wayne grins, “because I’m perfect.”

Dawn twirls her linguini. “You’re also hilarious,” she says straight-faced.

 

“I had no friggin’ idea,” Olive says. “Did you?”

Olive is Dawn’s best friend who lives fifteen minutes away by bike. She standing on her front porch waiting when Dawn peddles onto the lawn and stops by the tree a few feet away.

“What are you talking about?” Dawn asks as she sets the kickstand.

“Ben, dummy. I had no idea.”

“What about him?”

Dawn walks up the three wooden steps and takes a seat on the porch swing, and Olive sits right next to her.

“His father’s getting transferred to Chicago. They leave in two weeks. He’s probably not even coming back to school.”

The news stuns her. “Dude,” she says. “Are you serious?”

“Didn’t he tell you?”

In truth, Ben has been trying to get hold of Dawn for the past couple of days. She’s checked her phone, noticed the calls and the texts, figured she’d get back to him when she could.

“This is so weird,” she tells Olive.

“What is?”

Dawn sits back and so does Olive. They begin to swing.

“There’s this guy,” Dawn says.

 

All week she looks for any excuse to go next-door until finally she can’t help herself any longer. It’s already Wednesday morning, over two days since they met, and both the van and the Chevy Volt have remained parked.

When Dawn finally finds the nerve to walk over, Lianne—barefoot and wearing white shorts with a forest green tank top—opens the door.

She must do yoga, Dawn thinks to herself.

“Hi,” Dawn says. “I was wondering if I could borrow a stick of butter.”

Lianne smiles and invites her inside.

“Where’s Berg?” Dawn asks as Lianne leads her into the kitchen.

“He’s took the train into New York,” Lianne says, and as she opens the refrigerator door. “Just one stick?”

Dawn nods. “It’s for a cake I’m making. I can replace it tomorrow if that’s okay.”

“Take all the time in the world,” Lianne says, and as she closes the refrigerator Dawn notices a gold band on the woman’s left hand.

“Are you married?”

Lianne’s right hand goes to the ring and she begins to twist it around her finger.

“Not actually,” she says.

A widow, Dawn figures, and decides not to push it.

“Well tell Berg I said hello,” she says.

“You should tell him yourself,” Lianne says. “He’s been hoping you’d come over.”

“Really?”

Lianne nods.

“We both have.”

“Ben Steiger came by looking for you,” Beverly tells Dawn when she walks back into the house.

“What did you tell him?”

“The truth. That I didn’t know where you were.”

“Good,” Dawn says.

Beverly points to Dawn’s right hand which hangs down by her side. “What’s with the butter?” she says.

 

“You’ve got to be crazy,” her mother says, the canister vacuum following her into the kitchen like a dog on a leash. “You’ll burn like toast.”

It’s Friday, the beginning of the final weekend of summer vacation.

“I just want a little color before school starts,” Dawn says. “Look at me.”

She has a point. Dawn’s skin is as white as her mother’s—translucent almost—but with enough SPF 30 smeared all over, she’s hopeful. She’s pouring herself a tall glass of iced tea, and adding a wedge of lime. She’s selected a book to read—her mother’s copy of Keith Richard’s Life—man-bait, she hopes.

Dawn isn’t quite developed enough to “rock a bikini,” but her body is trim and tight, free of unwanted hair and embarrassing pimples. She wheels the plastic chaise from the patio onto the grass, close to the chain-link fence that separates the properties, but far enough away to appear disinterested. She’s not lying there ten minutes when her phone goes off.

It’s an email from her school.

“Shit!” she says, as soon as she reads it.

“What’s wrong?”

She turns her head, pushes her sunglasses up, squints toward his voice. Berg is standing next to the van, his hand on the door handle.

Dawn smiles, softens. “Nothing,” she says. “Just that I found out my schedule’s changed.”

“At school?”

She nods. “I was supposed to have Barnett for AP Lit, now I’m switched to Scalza.”

“Sounds bad.”

“Scalza’s all Shakespeare and Beowulf. Barnett’s more like Harry Potter and ‘Matinee Mondays.’”

“So c’mon,” he says. “We’ll buzz by the place and make it right.”

She laughs. “Like this?”

“Why not?”

“Because I think this breaks the dress code.”

“You ask me,” he says, “I think you look delicious.”

Dawn forces a second laugh, but the comment—perhaps coupled with her father’s warning—makes her uncomfortable.

“Maybe another time,” she says.

“You’re the boss.”

She watches as he gets into the van and backs it out of the driveway. It’s equipped with some kind of truck horn—Dawn actually watches as he pulls on a cord like some train engineer—and the blast sets off every dog in the neighborhood.

“What was that?!” her mother calls out the screened back door.

“Nothing,” Dawn says. “It was nothing.”

“It sounded like the coming of the apocalypse!”

“Mom, please. Just go back to what you were doing.”

Dawn wonders how far he’s gotten. If it’s too late to jump up, run down her own driveway, flag the van down and slide inside.

 

“There’s nothing weird about a woman dating a man a few years older than she is,” Dawn tells Olive as they stand inside the open bus shelter on the first day of their junior year. “In fact, it’s preferable.”

Rain has been sprinkling down throughout the night, creating a dark, unseasonably chilly morning. The girls are dressed for it, Olive with a red plastic slicker, Dawn in a lightweight yellow hoodie.

“I don’t know,” Olive says. “A guy that old?” She does a high-pitched voice like some cyborg on TV. “Stranger danger,” she says.

Ben Steiger, under an umbrella picturing cats and dogs pouring from the sky, comes walking over from his house half-a-street down.

“Where have you been?” he says to Dawn as he collapses his umbrella. “You didn’t even get back to me.”

“I dropped my phone in the toilet,” she lies.

“No offense,” Olive says, “but I thought we saw the last of you.”

“I just need to pick up a few things up from the art room.”

Ben takes Dawn’s hand in his, and she allows it like a child being led across an empty street. “We’ll keep in touch, though. Right?”

“Oh. My. God,” Dawn says as she slips free from Ben’s grasp.

Burg is pulled over on the other side of the street, his van window rolled down. “Dawn!” he calls.

Olive and Ben stare over as if a spaceship just landed. “Watch my backpack,” Dawn tells them as she flips her hood up.

“You need a ride?” he asks when she stops maybe a-foot-or-so away.

Dawn tries to look inside the van without getting too close, but there’s a partition separating the cab from the cargo area, and all she can see is black.

“I’m going in the other direction,” she says.

“I can turn around.”

“Dawnie!” Ben calls. “C’mon! Bus!”

“Is that Ben?” he asks.

Dawn nods.

“Looks like a nice lad.” He pats the passenger seat. “Hey. Nice and dry in here.”

Dawn can already hear the rumors. How she showed up at school chauffeured by this older guy, how he carried her backpack right up to the front of the school, how he maybe even kissed her before she went inside.

“DAWNIE!”

Her head pivots like it’s on a swivel. “OKAY! JESUS!” She turns back just before the bus stops and its red warning lights begin to flash.

“I’ll see you later,” she says.

On the bus, Ben sits behind Dawn and Olive. “Who was the humanoid?” he asks leaning forward, his head between them.

“Quiet, lad,” Dawn says.

 

When she gets into school, Dawn hears her name announced over the loud speaker. She’s told to report to the registrar’s office which is almost never good, but when she gets there she’s informed of another change. She’s been given an override and now she’s back with Barnett. Dawn stares at the registrar, her mouth the shape of an egg rolled on its side.

“Are you all right?” the registrar asks.

“Sure,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

*     *     *     *     *

Dawn, in cut-off sweatpants and a bra, lies across her bed and checks her phone. Ben has called twice and left three texts, all of which she ignores. From the bathroom, she can hear her father rummaging around like a crazy man. Cabinet door opening and slamming shut, bottles on the counter around the two sinks being pushed around. She tries to ignore it, hopes that whatever’s stuck up his ass is out by dinner. She hears hurried male footsteps, and then a pounding on her door.

“Do you have the hydrogen peroxide in there!?” Wayne yells.

She does. It’s on her dresser along with her make-up.

“I’ll bring it out in a minute!”

Her father throws the door open and Dawn sits straight up, covers the upper half of her body with her arm, and demands to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing. Wayne sees the brown plastic bottle and grabs it.

“I want a lock on my door!” she says, getting up and grabbing her t-shirt at the foot of the bed.

“For your information,” Wayne says, “your mother is downstairs practically bleeding to death!”

“Then call 911 and stop being so dramatic!”

He’s near enough that he doesn’t need to step any closer, and when he swats at her the flat of his hand hits her flush on the ear. Dawn screams—it’s loud and piercing—but underneath it she can still hear her mother hurrying up the stairs.

“I hope I’m making myself clear,” he says in a spookily calm voice.

This scares her more than the slap. She’s taken an abnormal psychology course and this is how a person acts just before they totally lose it.

Beverly’s head appears in the doorway. “Is everything all right?” she says.

Dawn rushes past her mother, not even stopping to comment on the bloody paper towel Beverly holds wrapped around her finger. Down the stairs and out the front door. It’s not even five, still light out. She’ll get her bike from the garage, ride over to Olive’s and stay there for a while. But when she reaches down and attempts to roll up the garage door, it doesn’t budge.

“GODDAMN IT!”

“Dawn?”

Dawn sees her the second she straightens up. Lianne. Standing on the other side of the fence, holding a bag of groceries like it’s a baby. She also notices, for the first time, that the silver Volt has taken the place of the black van.

“Anything the matter?”

Dawn feels the sting on the side of her face and her ear throbs as if her heart has just entered it.

“Why don’t you come over,” Lianne says. “Keep me company for a few minutes.”

 

“He should just die,” Dawn says.

She’s sitting at the kitchen table with a bag of frozen peas held against her already swollen ear, while Lianne pours them each some herbal tea.

“I don’t think you mean that,” Lianne says.

“Why can’t I be you?”

Lianne laughs as she takes the chair across from Dawn. “Now why would you want that?”

“Live here with a guy like Berg? Are you kidding? That’d be so awesome.”

Lianne has already called next door. She’s sat patiently and listened while the girl let it all pour out. Now Dawn feels at ease for the first time today. When she gets up to go home, Lianne comes around the table and they share a hug.

“You’re very cool for someone your age,” Dawn says.

“Hey. I’m only nineteen,” Lianne says.

The two women look at one another, their faces inches apart. Lianne is the first to break out in a wide grin.

“Sure you are,” Dawn says, returning Lianne’s smile.

“And do me a favor. Don’t wish death on anyone.”

“Talking about anybody I know?” Berg says, and when Dawn looks toward the archway, there he is.

*     *     *     *     *

At first Dawn thinks it’s lightning. A silent, late-summer heat storm illuminating the sky outside her window. The bedside clock says it’s a few minutes past midnight, and when she gets up and looks out she sees that the flashes are actually coming from next-door, that the house itself is glowing from within. Dawn is about to scream for her parents, ready to yell for help, when the flares of light brighten, then slowly flicker and die out like an extinguished campfire.

The next day, halfway through Statistics II, Dawn is called from of the classroom and sent to Mr. Gerosa, the vice-principal. He’s a kind man, bald and brown-suited, and his office is decorated as if it’s the cabin on-board a ship. When she goes inside, she sees Lianne sitting in front of the vice principal’s desk.

“What’s going on?” Dawn asks

Gerosa stands up. “There’s been an accident,” he says. “It’s your father. Your neighbor here was kind enough to come by.”

“Is he all right?”

“All I know is what I just told you.”

Lianne stands and walks over to Dawn. “We should go,” she says.

In the Volt, Lianne tells her what happened. Wayne was operating a forklift when it tipped over and the load he was carrying came down on top of him. Beverly rushed over to the hospital, and called her from there.

“How bad is he?” Dawn asks.

“He’s in intensive care.”

“Take me to Berg.”

“But your mother’s waiting for you at the hospital.”

“Right now.”

Lianne nods.  “If you’re sure,” she says.

At the curb, Dawn gets out, starts up the flagstone path, and walks in without even knocking. She calls for Berg and gets no answer, but then she hears it. The Daya CD. Coming from upstairs.

She finds him sitting at his desk in front of the computer, and when she walks in he looks up as if he’s been expecting her.

“I heard about your dad,” he says.

“Let him live.”

“What makes you think I—?”

“Please.”

Berg pushes away from the desk and gets to his feet. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll do what I can. But you should be over there with him. Come on. I’ll run you by.”

They leave the house and Dawn sees that Lianne hasn’t moved. Berg raises a hand to her  and she waves back, and Dawn, even with all she has on her mind, thinks the woman looks different from this distance.

Younger.

She hesitates only a second before climbing up inside the van. It’s warm in there, pleasantly so, and there’s the odor of new car leather and mint. It makes her suddenly sleepy, the same way nighttime cold medicines do.

“Your mother’ll be glad to see you,” Berg tells her. “She’ll be elated. Her husband’s just regained consciousness and the doctors think he may be over the worst of it.”

“Who are you?” Dawn says, and her own voice suddenly sounds foreign to her.

Berg backs the van out of the driveway and Dawn notices that neither Lianne nor the Chevy Volt are still there. When he maneuvers onto the street, she doesn’t even bother telling him that he’s heading south, away from the hospital. He has on a light windbreaker, and he takes an envelope from the inside pocket and hands it to Dawn.

“What is this?”

“It’s for you.”

Dawn tears a slot open, turns the envelope over, and shakes something out. A ring. She slips it on the fourth finger of her left hand and isn’t at all surprised that it’s a perfect fit.

___

Z.Z. Boone‘s fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The MacGuffin, 2 Bridges Review, and other terrific places. His collection of short stories, Off Somewhere, was a finalist for the 2015 Indie Award.

The Teachings of the Wolves

By Linda Carela

Winston left New York City before dawn. He drove for miles, avoiding the highway, assiduously keeping to the speed limit along narrow, secondary roads. He kept driving even as the sky lightened, until he entered Averill State Park. At the pull-off alongside Route 110, he abandoned his car, removing the license plates and then flinging them into the brown creek below the parking area. Then he entered the woods and trekked for two hours along an overgrown, unmarked trail until by the time the sun was overhead he had managed to reach the lean-to that he remembered from his teenage get-high-in-the-woods days. His buddy Carl lived up around here now and when Winston called Carl from a gas station and hinted at some trouble Carl told Winston to go to the lean-to.

Winston slumped to the ground, held his face in his hands, and tried to slow his breathing. Shit, shit, shit. Why did he flee? He should have gone to the police right away. It was an accident. Involuntary manslaughter. That’s what they called it. Something like that. Not murder. No there was no way he was capable of it. No not him. Maybe he could just pretend it never happened. No one would know. Except he called Carl. But he didn’t tell him much. Winston would just disappear, live like an outlaw. Until one day he froze to death on some exposed ledge. Yeah that would be the right thing to do. Just outrun this.

He imagined a Jesse James type existence— rugged, manly, courageous. Of course he had no survival equipment, no gun. Nothing to get food or water. Only Thelma’s fucking purse filled with lipsticks and tampons. Why in the hell did he drag that thing out here? What did he want? Incriminating evidence right on him. Besides that, he could barely move the shoulder where Thelma had slammed the chair down on him. Another stupid argument that led to stupid actions. Once again she had started it, but this time he struck back, hurt her. But he hadn’t meant it. No, no. no. It was just a bad moment. Why should he pay all of his life for one bad moment? But then another thought occurred to him. Maybe she was faking it, lying there all crumpled across the door jamb. He was just having a bad dream.

After a few moments, he exhaled and looked up. A young girl appeared before him. Just padded barefoot right up in the shimmering heat of mid-day.

“Mister?” she said.

He was discovered. Winston exhaled forcefully, his nostrils flared and his palms pushed at the ground so he could rise to standing, but a dog, it looked more like a wolf or a coyote, sprang up out of nowhere and growled.

The child squatted next to Winston and wrinkled up her nose. “You’re hurt, Mister.” She pointed at his shoulder.

“Yeah, never you mind. Get moving. Get out of here.”

But she didn’t move. Instead, she clapped her hands and the wolf-dog came to her side. Without another word, the girl pulled Winston’s shirt away from his bloody shoulder. It had a long gash from his collarbone up to the top of the shoulder which had bruised a livid purple. She placed her small dirty hand on the wound and held it there for a moment. Winston remembered the touch of the school nurse bandaging a scraped knee. The girl waved the animal closer.

“Let him lick the wound. It will heal it.”

Winston shook his head. Now, they were on the threshold of madness. He didn’t get free of Thelma to succumb to a shrunken backwoods devil.

The girl pulled at the ruff of the animal’s neck. “Come on, King,” she said. The dog yawned, as if preparing for a tedious task, and Winston gazed at the long pink tongue and yellow incisors.

“Just lean against that rock there and then King can reach you.” She pushed Winston against the boulder and the dog came forward and began to lick with his rough tongue. Winston’s stomach heaved and he turned his head away from the dog’s fetid breath. He feared that with any quick movement the dog would be at his throat.

“Is that where you live?” The girl stepped in front of Winston and pointed at the lean-to. Winston shook his head slightly, not enough to indicate assent or disagreement. The dog finally stepped back away from Winston and turned his large head toward the girl. She patted the animal. “King is the best healer we’ve got,” she declared.

Winston tugged at his shirt and tried to wipe away the dog’s spittle. He realized he was rubbing at his shoulder and it didn’t hurt as much. He looked down at the wound. Well . . . it didn’t really look too bad now. Maybe the pain had been more in his mind.

The girl chewed on her bottom lip and then ran down the hill and into the woods. Problem was that she left the beast sitting on his haunches and licking his chops. Still, Winston thought that he could get away and heaved himself up. The dog stood too, pulled his ears forward. Winston’s heart quickened. Oh God, what was he so afraid of? It was just a girl and her pet.

But he had no chance to make another move because within minutes the girl was back, waving a few stalks of some dried-out weed and with another even larger dog by her side.

“Hey, Mister.” She was no more than nine or ten with her soft features and round face. She waved the plant at him. “This is just what you need,” she said.

“What I need is to be days and miles away from here,” he said.

“No, no, no you don’t. You are too hurt for traveling. Tell him King.” King bared his incisors and emitted a low growl.

The girl looked at the lean-to and then turned and gave Winston a squint-eyed look. “I know what’s wrong. I bet you’ve seen Tractor’s ghost. Good ole Tractor. He’s been visiting.”

Winston’s nostrils flared. This was pathetic. He was being ordered around by a dimwitted, superstitious, hillbilly child. What was she doing wandering around all alone? Probably had an alcoholic for a mother, a father she never met.

The girl walked over to him, kicked lightly at his leg. “Yeah, you’ve seen Tractor all right. You fell trying to get away, right?”

Winston shook his head and spit on the ground next to her feet.

“Put your hand over your heart,” she commanded.

Winston, who had his own set of superstitions, put his left hand on the right side of his chest, the heartless side. The child nodded, although King, who seemed to know the location of the human heart better than she did, growled.

She rummaged in a small pack she had been carrying and produced a folded, dirty sheet of paper. She shook open the page, stood with both legs together, shoulders pushed back, and began to recite, “From this day forward, I (that’s you, Mister) will be a bodhisattva” (she stumbled over this word and Winston had no idea what she was talking about anyway). “I will obey all wolf spirits. My mind will be clear like the spring of Anawasi and my heart will be as large as the night sky. I will stand tall and strong as the mountain of Black Iron. And no bad will befall me.” She bowed her head for a second, folded the paper along its well-worn creases and placed it back in her bag.

Winston’s mouth hung open. Not even Thelma with her crystals and incense and wind chimes talked such nonsense.

The girl came closer and began prodding him with her foot. “Mister, pay attention. You have to say ‘I swear’ or I can’t bring Waltman to help you.”

“I swear,” he told the girl because what difference did it make. Just let her go away. He must think, plan. Where the hell was Carl? Did Winston have the right shelter? He covered his face to try to kick his mind into gear, to remember Carl’s directions. Instead, he saw Thelma’s body at the door to the bedroom, a trail of blood running under the bed.

The air seemed to be pressing down on him so that he almost fell forward into the mud. He sunk back down to sit against the rock. He would just rest a bit. No one would find Thelma for days. He had time. He still had time.

“What’s the matter with you, Mister? You’re breathing funny. You need some water?”

Winston looked up and met the girl’s eyes. “Yes,” he nodded. “I need water.”

The child pursed her lips. “The creek is down there.” She pointed to a hollow below the shelter. “But I guess you know that, living here and all.” She looked at him and shrugged. “I guess I’ll go get it for you.” She twisted her mouth to one side and furrowed her forehead at the purse lying next to Winston. “Where’s your bottle?” she asked. “How do you fetch water?”

“Don’t you have a bottle?” Winston asked.

She shook her head. “Not on me. The pups and me just drink direct from the creek.”

She opened the purse and dumped the contents: a lipstick, tampons, a few crumpled dollar bills, a bottle of pills and a Swiss Army knife. She shook the pill bottle. They were probably just Thelma’s sleeping pills but as little as the girl weighed it shouldn’t take much to kill her or, at least, make her pass out. Why not? Blood was already on his hands. He felt reckless.

“Hey, honey, you know what’s in that little bottle? Something that will make you so strong. You’ll be able to run faster than either than of these nice fellows here.” Winston waved his hand at the two canines, wolves or dogs he was no longer certain.

She looked up at him, nostrils flared, eyes narrowed. Perhaps she was smarter than he had presumed. He felt relieved. Okay good then. No sense throwing everything away. He would be spared the harming of a child. She opened up the knife and waved the blade through the air.

“Now, child, you don’t want to be messing with that.”

She shrugged, snapped the blade back in place and put the knife behind her. “I am going to bring that to Waltman. He collects knives.”

Winston waved his hand at the bigger animal. “That’s not Waltman?” he asked.

The girl pulled her head back, a gesture of disbelief. “Nooo,” she put her hand on the head of the first dog who had licked him, “this is King.” Then she put her hand on the larger animal, “and this is Princess.” She spoke slowly as if she were instructing a small child or someone who didn’t speak any English.

Okay then. Now he was really fucked. He either got out of there quick or he would face what was coming to him. Two ferocious beasts and some knife-loving creature named Waltman, all in submission to this ill-nourished girl. He swallowed. So maybe he deserved it. So what. He did plenty of good that he never got paid for.

She picked up the knife and stuck it in the waistband of her pants. It looked absurdly large next to her small torso. There goes his weapon, he thought. No matter. He could still get out to the road in less than an hour. He’d hitchhike to town. He’d take his chances. He listened for cars on the distant road. He almost hoped to hear sirens.

“Since you’re hurting so bad,” she tugged at her grimy hair, “I’ll go back to camp for a canteen.”

“Okay, then. Take your time,” he called out. “Keep your pals close.” Winston waved at the animals. “Plenty of bad guys in these woods. I’ll just wait right here.” He patted the rock.

“King comes with me always,” she said. And then, chewing on her bottom lip, “Princess can stay to keep you company,” as if doing him a favor. She slapped her thigh and King trotted to her side. She looked at Princess and pressed one hand flat toward the ground. The animal lay down, long snout resting between its front paws. The girl nodded and then she and King ran down the hill and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Winston cursed and Princess lifted her head. He leaned back against the rock and tried to clear his head, tried to plan. The sun had sunk behind Timber Mountain and even though it was still early autumn it was getting colder. Another couple of hours and it would be dusk. And then it would be pitch dark. Perhaps that would be better. Perhaps the demon child and her Waltman wouldn’t be able to find him in the dark. He looked over at the wolf dog. “Princess, yeah right,” he said. The dog pulled her ears forward and gave him a hard stare.

Winston tried to think so hard he grew exhausted and dozed off. When he jerked back awake, it was dark and quiet. No hope of Carl now. He opened his eyes wider and tried to peer into the darkness. Something white fluttered by. His mouth dropped open, but it was just a moth. A moth seeking out a bit of light. Winston looked up. No moon. That’s why it was so damned dark. He listened for the breathing of the wolf. Nothing. It must have left. With some effort, Winston heaved himself up. The moth flew into his face and he almost inhaled the damn thing. But still, he was standing. He wondered how many hours it would take to find the road in this darkness. As he stumbled along, he listened for the whoosh of cars. All was quiet. Maybe it was just too late for traffic. Everyone was home, nice and cozy in their beds, even the little demon who probably lived in the trailer park just west of the park boundary.

He rested against a tree. His eyes had adjusted so that now he could just discern the path. He knew he had to head uphill first. He rose and propelled himself forward. When he finally made it to the rise, with way too much panting and sweating, he saw a light bobbing in the distance.

Winston put his hands in the air and waited for the light to get closer. He dreaded what he knew was coming. For an accident, maybe three to four years in a quiet cell. Just get it started so it could be over. But then he saw it was the girl again. She carried a flashlight and waved the beam up and down Winston’s body. “There he is. He needs help,” she called out. Tracking behind her were a dozen wolf dogs as well as three men with shotguns. The police were nowhere to be seen.

She went up to Winston, tugged on his sleeve, and then craned her head back and looked into his face. “You moved,” she said. “We’ve been looking for you.” She handed a bottle of water up to Winston and then turned and looked at one of the men. “Yup, Waltman, this is him.”

Winston couldn’t see any of the men’s faces, hidden behind the glare of the flashlights, but he could see the shotguns slung over their shoulders, bandolier style. Winston held his hands up and waved them around. One of the men stepped forward and pointed his chin at Winston. “What are you running from? Sister told us about you.”

Winston felt a wave of nausea roll through him. Sister? “No . . . no . . . not running. It’s just that . . .” he stammered.

Suddenly one of the wolves, teeth bared, leaped toward Winston. Winston gasped and fell into a crouch.

The girl pulled the animal back by the scruff of the neck. “Get up mister,” she said. “We’re taking you back to the camp.”

Two of the men pulled Winston up by his arms, the third man went behind and pushed a hand into Winston’s back. They walked deeper into the woods along the old mining cart road. The girl, ahead of Winston and the men, was surrounded by the pack of wolves and patted a head or two as she walked. The men had their flashlights on but still they tripped over an exposed root or a pointy rock sometimes pulling Winston down to his knees. The girl had no need of light and moved as easily down the dark path as the animals.

After a trek that seemed to last hours but was probably no more than thirty or forty minutes, they approached a clearing surrounded on three sides by steep walls of rock. Winston knew that they were deep in the park now, maybe five miles from the road where he had left his truck. The girl and the wolves disappeared into the darkness. The men kept Winston in the clearing. They pulled him down to sit on a log and then turned their flashlights off. One of the men sat down next to him. “You don’t want to disturb Sister when she’s getting ready,” he said in a strange, soft voice.

“So what is she getting ready to do?” Winston half-mumbled, half-whispered. He didn’t really want his question answered.

The smallest man turned on his flashlight and shone it on Winston. “When we are in the presence of an enemy,” he circled the light around Winston’s head. “And when the old world is nearing its end,” he turned the light up to the dark sky, “then Sister knows what needs to be done.” The man turned the light off.

Suddenly Winston was lifted by his armpits and pulled to standing. All three flashlights were turned back on. The girl, now wearing a fur hat, appeared in the clearing accompanied by at least twenty dogs. She climbed on top of a boulder and one of the men handed his flashlight up to her. She shone it on Winston. Then, like an angel of wrath in a coonskin cap, she crooked her index finger indicating that Winston should approach. Winston shook his head, pointing his chin at the pack of dogs. She called out a word that he didn’t understand and he thought that perhaps she had cursed him and he wondered if he would turn to ash. But the word was meant for the dogs who promptly sat on their haunches. The girl shone her flashlight over the animals and then beckoned Winston once more.

Winston walked over to the rock. The girl squatted and shone the light on his hurt shoulder. She placed her palm flat against the skin and nodded. “It is healed.”

Winston thought, yeah, well, maybe not. But then he looked and the open wound where the splintered wood of the chair had bit into him was gone and even the large purple bruise had disappeared.

The girl waved one of the men over. “Look. This man was hurt and now he’s better. King did that. King has great power.”

The man pulled Winston’s shirt aside and poked at the shoulder. Winston winced, expecting pain, but there was none. The man stepped backward. “I think the power is in you, Sister,” he said.

Sister jumped down off the rock, landing in a crouch like an animal. “Jimman, stop saying that. It’s the dogs.”

“Are they dogs or are they wolves?” Winston blurted. He hadn’t meant to speak.

The girl slapped her right thigh and then her left. With a single bound, King and another still larger animal stood next to Winston, one on each side. “Well, what do you think?” she said. “Are they wolves or dogs? Pet them.”

Winston reached his hand out to King, hoping that since they were already acquainted it might be okay, but the animal bared his teeth and emitted a low growl. Winston pulled his hand back.

“They smell your fear,” she said. She swayed and then sniffed the air. “Even I smell your fear.”

Winston looked over his shoulder at the men. They were staring at the girl as if she were the Virgin Mary coming to save them. Winston half expected them to drop to their knees, but they remained standing, legs spread, hands on hips. Sister uttered another incomprehensible word and this time the men came up to Winston. One held his arms, one stepped on his feet, and the biggest one had a piece of lumber. Winston did not feel much pain, just a bit of nausea as he slumped to the ground.

Winston revived in a pool of spring water. The noise of his chattering teeth woke him before the cold did. As consciousness seeped in, he felt something on his shoulder. He reached back and touched a fur paw. Winston howled.

“I told you if the water didn’t work, Princess would do the job,” the girl said. “Bring him up out of there. We will bring him to the Diamond Cave. That’s the place to let the wolves do their work.” She lifted one of the animals up by the front paws and did a little dance with it. “Diamond Cave, Diamond Cave, Diiiii Mond Caaaave,” she sang.

The men hauled Winston up to the mossy bank, where he lay panting. He wondered if he was about to have a heart attack. Maybe he had already had the attack and this was the aftermath. Fuck, maybe he was dead already and this was some joke of a hell.

The men pulled and prodded Winston through the field and into a rock covered space. It was not exactly a cave, just a dugout under a boulder, and there certainly were no diamonds, just a muddy floor, and a cold dank smell. The girl placed some clothes, a gallon jug of water and a tin bucket of what looked like pig slop by his side. “I will return in two days,” she said.

Then she was gone. Winston shivered himself into a stupor until it was dark. He groped over the dirt until he found the water jug. He shook it. Probably poisoned. The pail of food did not smell bad but he remembered that it looked like something regurgitated. The clothes felt like soft fleece but they smelled like they had been washed in a mud puddle. But no matter they were dry and probably warm. With some difficulty, he shucked off his wet clothes and put the dry ones on. Winston knew that the dark gave him his best chance to escape, but he was exhausted. He leaned back against the rock wall. The she-devil said two days. That gave him plenty of time. For now, he would just rest and regain some strength.

Winston woke to the sound of his own voice and a panic that clutched at his throat. He was talking nonsense, babble. He jerked upright, banged his head against the rock wall. It was an act of will to grip his mind, to hold it still. If he went crazy, he would be Sister’s idiot prisoner forever.

A murky light filtered through the gaps in the rocks. It must be early morning. Sister and company should still be asleep. Now was the time. Now, he repeated out loud. Now. No matter how his body ached. No matter how tired he was. Winston reached his palms down to push himself up, but instead of rock or mud, he touched a warm furry body, one on each side of him. They growled and pushed against him. Winston ran his fingers through their thick pelts, a coarse layer of hair on top and downy warm fur underneath. He ran his hands down the side of the animal on his right, the skin loose over the rib cage and then he patted the animals. Over and over. Left side, right side. The animals slept through it all, peaceful and content. Winston’s breathing slowed as if to keep pace with the beasts. All desire to flee, the urgency to escape seeped away. Winston came to the realization that he had nowhere else to go, nowhere else to be. He felt the energy coiled inside the animals moving up his arm, into his legs, his lungs, his heart. He lay back down cradled by animal heat and breath. In his dreams he felt light, almost buoyant, ready to greet the next sunrise or even to adore the never ending dark of his cave.

On the third day, the girl led Winston out to the highway. No matter that he had three days of threat by flesh-rending wolves and bombardment by cryptic, apocalyptic messages, Winston felt his body strong and invigorated and his mind was as calm and velvety soft as the night sky above him. The girl pointed him in the direction of the nearest town and handed him a flashlight. She waved her hand indicating that Winston should bend down and she reached forward and touched his ravaged face. He half-expected her fingers to burn his flesh off, but it was no more than a child’s sweaty palm.

“Jimman and Waltman and Willman wanted to take you themselves,” she said. Winston shone the light on her. She was chewing on her bottom lip, a childish habit. “But I said that you could do it on your own. Princess and King and Thunder and Luna and Sable and Delta and Flash and Jupiter and Rambler and Loner and Lightning,” she ticked off each name on her fingers, “all of them have transformed you. You were hapless but now you are blessed.”

Hapless? Winston wasn’t even sure what that meant. Where in the hell did the girl learn all this? But the wolf spirit, even in the guise of a child, has been around a long time.

Winston turned away and started the half mile to town. At first, he beat his way through the weeds alongside the road. But after ten minutes of that struggle, he just walked down the middle of the pavement. Let him be killed like a dog. Halfway to town, he felt compelled to discard his shoes and flashlight and he continued barefoot in the darkness. He imagined that Sister was still there. Indeed, he felt like he was one of her wolves trotting alongside her. The town, not the one where he left Thelma bleeding on the carpet, but the next one over, was quiet. A few rangy young men loitering outside a corner store pointed and jeered at Winston.

Winston gave them a flat sober look and asked where the police station was. The men looked at one another, spat on the ground and told Winston to get the fuck out of there. Winston shrugged and moved on.

A police car pulled up and Winston held his hand up in greeting. He tried to open the back door but the cops jumped out and pulled his arms behind his back. They cuffed him and pushed him into the back seat. Winston sighed at their ill manners but still he told them that they should go to 266 Parker Avenue. The cops squinched up their faces and wondered what nut they had found on this lonely night. That was the beginning of his days of freedom. From that night on, no matter where they caged him, Winston walked with wolves beside him.

___

Linda Carela lives in the Bronx, NYC, and works at a humanitarian relief organization where she analyzes donor data and provides customer service. She is also trying to climb the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Midway Journal, Exit 7, Limestone, RipRap, and Crack the Spine. She attended The Writers Studio for four years and studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz.

We Gather Together

By Nancy Bourne

Last Thanksgiving my Uncle Jimmy shoved a newspaperman who was taking pictures in front of our church and knocked down his camera. His picture was on television. Uncle Jimmy is leaning over the man, his face just furious. At the edge of the picture you can see a policeman, all blurry, running up to stop the fight. What you don’t see are all the Negroes, who had been coming out of the church, dressed to the nines. They disappeared, just like that, before you could turn around. I know. I was there.

It’s what comes of trying to integrate, my daddy said. He was dead set against it when the Reverend Coleman announced his plan a month or so before. He stood up in the pulpit and told us he had invited the colored Baptist church to worship with us on Thanksgiving Day.

“I got nothing against the colored,” Daddy said. “But they got their own church. It’s a damn fool idea to try to mix them in with us.”

And Uncle Jimmy said, “I don’t care what those Communists on the Supreme Court say, I don’t associate with the colored and I never will.”

Some of the men decided to talk to the Reverend, bring him to his senses. I know because my daddy was one of them and told me all about it.

“The Court meant for schools to be integrated, not church,” they told the Reverend. “The colored will feel uncomfortable mixing with the professional people we got here at Main Street Baptist.”

But the Reverend just smiled. “Remember what you used to sing in Sunday School? Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”

“Bible says nothing about mixing,” the men said.

“We all worship the same God; we’re all Baptists. It’s time we came together in thanksgiving,” the Reverend said.

I didn’t know what to think. I was fourteen, and the only Negro I’d ever known was Luther, the janitor at our church. They say Mr. Huntsman, the mayor’s father, was his daddy, which is why his skin is so light. But of course that doesn’t make Luther white. I’ve seen the colored maids on the back of the bus on the way to work, and the garbage men. But I don’t know any of them. We don’t have a maid; Mama and I clean.

When I first heard we had to go to school with the colored, it scared me half to death. The white boys in my school are rough enough without having some colored boys fighting and talking dirty. And everybody says they’re a lot dumber than we are. But it’s been a couple of years since the Supreme Court said we had to integrate, and so far nothing’s happened to change the schools. So I couldn’t understand why the preacher wanted to make trouble at church.

On the other hand, I’d always looked up to Reverend Coleman; everybody did. I thought of him as good a Christian as a man could be. Maybe because he was always so nice to me, called me by my name, Shirley, complimented me when I played the piano at Sunday School. He always stood real straight in the pulpit and opened up his arms like the painting of Jesus, telling us that God would forgive us no matter how nasty we’d behaved. And when it was time for hymns, he’d throw back his head and sing louder than anybody. So when he asked why God would want us to turn a family away from our church just because they’re colored, I didn’t know what to think.

Every Sunday until the big day, Reverend Coleman read the parable of the Good Samaritan to make his point. And he wore down most of the deacons and some of the women with his arguments. Not my mama, of course; she always sided with my daddy and Uncle Jimmy. And they were against it. But they got outvoted.

*     *     *     *     *

Uncle Jimmy is the President of the Bank of Virginia and the Chairman of the School Board. He’s always been my favorite uncle. He doesn’t have any children himself, so he’s made my brother Sonny and me his substitute children. Uncle Jimmy laughs a lot, and he brings me Hershey bars, and he once gave me a little bronze statue of the Empire State Building, which he had bought in New York City. He’s very handsome with lots of wavy red hair, not like my daddy who’s almost bald.

But mostly he’s my hero. Like the time we were at a Lion’s Club picnic on Luna Lake, and Daddy and Uncle Jimmy took us out in a rowboat. Sonny was only two and of course he couldn’t swim, so Mama said he couldn’t go. But Sonny kept climbing into the boat and smiling at Daddy. So when Mama wasn’t looking, Daddy pushed off.

I put my hand in the water to feel the cool on such a hot day and watched the ripples coming out from my fingers. I liked looking at Uncle Jimmy’s shoulders while he did the rowing. They were full of muscles and getting red from the sun. He’s much stronger than my daddy whose shoulders are thin and bent forward. Maybe from bending over the cash register at the store all day.

All of a sudden I heard a splash. I looked around, but Sonny wasn’t in the boat. And he wasn’t in the water. I started screaming.

Then another splash and the boat started rocking so bad I had to hold on with both hands. It was Uncle Jimmy. He’d jumped in. Daddy was yelling and I could hear Mama calling us from the shore. It seemed to go on forever. Once in a while my uncle’s head would burst out of the water, his red hair plastered to his forehead, and then back down he’d go. Finally, he pulled himself into the boat, which was rocking so bad I was afraid it would go under. He flopped down on his back, soaking wet. Sonny was spread out on top of him like a rag doll. They lay there without moving while Daddy was pulling at them and I was screaming and screaming. Finally Sonny opened his eyes, slowly, like in a dream, but he wasn’t looking at anything.

“Row!” Uncle Jimmy yelled, “Row!” He picked Sonny up and hit him hard on the back. Nothing happened. Then he laid him down on the seat and put his mouth on Sonny’s face. I watched him breathe into my brother’s mouth, then suck the breath back in. We were all quiet now, waiting, and Daddy was rowing hard. When we hit shore, Mama jumped into the water, sundress, sandals and all, crying, “Where’s my baby?”

Uncle Jimmy didn’t look up; he just kept breathing for Sonny, hunched over him, wet and white and serious. All of a sudden, Sonny wiggled. Then he started choking and crying and spitting up water, but he was breathing for himself.

Daddy grabbed him and wrapped him in a beach towel. Mama was crying and hanging on to Daddy. I hugged Uncle Jimmy, and he put his arms around me.

*     *     *     *     *

Daddy insisted that we leave for church right after breakfast that Thanksgiving morning to make sure we’d be seated down front.

“Don’t want to sit behind the colored,” he said.

I didn’t want to go. But daddy made me. He said, we’d always gone to church on Thanksgiving and no niggers were going to keep us away. So I put on my brown felt hat with the veil, which Mama always made me wear to church, and my white gloves.

The church slowly filled up with folks we knew until it was about five minutes before the ten o’clock service was to start. The organ was going full tilt with Onward Christian Soldiers.

“Looks like we’re safe,” Mama whispered.

“Not a chance,” Daddy whispered back.

They were walking in a bunch down the side aisles, the men in dark suits, the women all dressed up in bright colored dresses, red and blue with big flowers, and feathers waving off their hats. They didn’t look like maids or janitors or garbage men. The girls in pigtails and stiff little skirts faced straight ahead as they followed their mamas down the aisles, hanging onto their hands. The boys were all in suits. I didn’t see Luther anywhere.

“All rise.”

It was Reverend Coleman. He had slipped in when I wasn’t looking and was standing in the pulpit, his arms spread out, that big smile on his face. Next to him stood a tall, fat man, with rough skin the color of dark chocolate. He had on this light blue suit and a red tie, but he wasn’t smiling. He didn’t even look at us; he kept his eyes on his hymnbook, which was open in his hands. I figured he wanted to be there about as much as I did.

Reverend Coleman spent a long time welcoming everybody to our church and saying what a glorious Thanksgiving Day God had provided. He said a prayer and then the organist belted out “We Gather Together To Ask the Lord’s Blessing,” and the choir joined in. The church was full of people by this time, all the white people in the middle, the colored on the sides, so you would think we’d fill up that place with singing. But the sound was pretty pitiful. I didn’t feel like singing, and I guess the other people felt the same. But I could hear Reverend Coleman’s voice, deep and steady, way out in front of everybody, “He chastens and hastens His will to make known.” I couldn’t hear the black preacher, but his lips were moving.

After the hymn, the service proceeded as usual. The choir sang, the deacons from both churches passed collection plates, the colored preacher read the Beatitudes from the Bible, and Reverend Coleman preached about “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Except for the fact that we were sitting with a bunch of colored people, it didn’t seem much different from other Thanksgiving services.

Every once in a while, I’d look over at Uncle Jimmy. He was sitting on the front row with the other deacons, but kind of to the side, so I had a good view of him. I noticed he wasn’t singing during the hymns, which was unusual for him; he loves to sing. And whenever either Reverend Coleman or the colored preacher started talking, he looked down at his lap.

During the last hymn, Reverend Coleman walked up the aisle through the congregation and waited at the door to greet people as they filed out. I started to join the line.

But Daddy said, “Hold on there, Shirley. Let them get out first.”

By the time we got to the preacher, the church was nearly empty. I shook Reverend Coleman’s hand and started down the stairs in front of the church. Then I stopped. The yard below was packed with people. Some I’d never seen before. And there were cameras everywhere. Big boxy cameras on stands with men crouching behind them. It was a mess. People were running away from the cameras, down Main Street, and men holding pencils and notebooks were running after them, shouting questions. I could hear them.

“How many Negroes were in that church today?”

“Did the Negro preacher give the sermon?”

“What was it like to sit next to Negroes?”

Main Street was full of cars but they weren’t moving, and all around and between the cars, all kinds of people were yelling, “Nigger lover, nigger lover.”

Reverend Coleman rushed past me down the stairs into the crowd.

“These are religious people,” he kept saying. “Let them pass.”

But the newspapermen ran past him, bumping into him, paying him no mind.

“Back into the church,” Daddy ordered. “We’ll go out the back way.”

I stood there.

“Shirley!” his voice was harsh.

“Uncle Jimmy!” I cried. Because I had just seen him, in the middle of all those people.

“You got no right to take pictures of my church,” he shouted and pointed at a cameraman who was focusing on a colored woman in a big red hat. She was looking all around like she’d lost somebody.

The man motioned for Uncle Jimmy to get out of the way. But he didn’t.

He walked over to the camera and with a loud crash knocked it onto the sidewalk. The cameraman started after Uncle Jimmy. That’s when my uncle shoved him and he fell.

“Shirley!”

As I turned back into the church, I heard the sirens screaming.

*     *     *     *     *

Afterwards, on the news they kept showing the picture of Uncle Jimmy, leaning over a man, looking fierce, and the broken camera smashed beside them.

The TV announcer said, “Today, in Spottswood, Virginia, James Sherwood, President of the local Bank of Virginia, assaulted a New York Times photographer to prevent his taking pictures of the first integrated church service in the state of Virginia.”

“Turn that thing off,” Daddy yelled. But I kept watching.

The man on TV was talking at the top of his voice, “Mr. Sherwood was arrested at the scene but was shortly released and is free on bail.”

“Goddammit, I said turn it off.”

Mama was sitting crouched over the kitchen table, her nose red and swollen. She still had on the hat she’d worn to church, the one with the black feathers. Daddy sat down beside her and put his arms around her.

“Don’t you worry, sweetheart. Jimmy will get off. He was just protecting our church. The judge knows him. He’ll see it was self-defense.”

“Why did he break the camera?” I asked.

“He didn’t break the camera. The camera fell down while he was trying to keep those New York people from stirring up the colored.”

“But he knocked that man down,” I said.

“Go to bed,” Daddy said. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

For the rest of the Thanksgiving holiday Daddy refused to talk about it.

On Sunday, Reverend Coleman asked God to help us forgive those who revile and persecute us. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the New York Times or all those people in the street, calling us names.

*     *     *     *     *

I didn’t want to go to school the next Monday; I figured the kids would be asking me a lot of questions. But it turned out they were too busy arguing about whether Elvis’s voice sounded dirty when he sang Blue Suede Shoes on the radio.

So when Mr. Jefferson, out of the blue, asked our Social Studies class whether we thought knocking over a newspaper camera was a violation of Freedom of the Press, I was stunned.

Henry Matthews waved his skinny arm in the air. “He shouldn’t have done it. The newspapers have the right to record the news.”

That got Barry Arnold going. “They shouldn’t have let niggers in that church in the first place.”

Everybody had an opinion, mostly against the colored.

Mr. Jefferson started walking up and down the rows of desks, his head bent

forward like he was listening, his hair hanging in his face, his pants dusty from chalk. Then he stopped at my desk. I sat very still.

“What do you think, Shirley?”

I looked up, scared. Did he know it was my Uncle Jimmy who had knocked over the camera? I couldn’t tell. But I had to defend him.

So I said the first thing that popped into my head: “He had to do it.”

“What do you mean?” He walked back to the front of the class.

“He was protecting the people at the church.”

“Protecting them from what?”

“Those newspapermen were chasing the church people.”

“Were you there?” Mr. Jefferson asked. He was looking at me like he was really interested.

I nodded.

“Would you tell us what you saw?”

Everybody turned to look at me.

“It was my Uncle Jimmy,” I said, “and he was protecting those people when they were coming out of church.”

“Do you think that gave your uncle the right to knock down a news camera?”

I felt my face get really hot.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “You weren’t there.” I was trying not to cry.

Well that started it. Everybody was yelling, blaming Uncle Jimmy, blaming the church, blaming the colored.

“Shirley, would you see me after school?” Mr. Jefferson said. Then he clapped his hands. “That’s enough of Current Events. Open your books to page 45.”

I ran out of the room before the tears came. I hid in a stall in the girls’ bathroom until I heard the bell ring for the end of the period. Then I ran home.

*     *     *     *     *

Mama could tell something was wrong the minute I got home.

“It was Mr. Jefferson,” I said.

“What about him?”

“He said some mean things about Uncle Jimmy.”

“What things?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” I felt I was somehow to blame. I had talked back to Mr. Jefferson, which was a first for me, and I hadn’t gone to see him after class. Plus I’d cut school. I was scared of what Daddy would say, but at the same time I was really mad at Mr. Jefferson.

So Mama let me be, but when Daddy got home from the store, he went after me until I told the whole story.

“The son of a bitch nigger lover,” he said under his breath. “He’ll hear about this.”

And then, to my surprise, he hugged me really tight and told me I had done the right thing. And Mama hugged me. And later Uncle Jimmy came over and teased me about being his lawyer. I went to bed almost happy.

The next morning when we arrived at school, Daddy surprised me by parking and jumping out of the car.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

I didn’t like the sound of that and made a beeline for my locker.

But he reached out and grabbed me by the elbow. “You’re coming with me, honey,” he said.

“I don’t want to.”

But it was too late.

Mr. Christopher, the principal, smiled at Daddy and shook his hand.

“Come on in, Earl,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

I’d never been in the principal’s office before, and I was surprised how messy it was. Textbooks were stacked on the desk, on the table, some even on the floor, and there were papers everywhere. We sat at the table on wooden chairs, Daddy and me on one side, Mr. Christopher on the other. I looked out the window.

Daddy started right in. “Rick, you’ve got a teacher here who’s preaching integration politics in the classroom.”

“Yeah?”

He turned to me. “You tell him what happened, Shirley.”

Mr. Christopher is a short man, not much taller than the students, but he has these beady eyes that make you feel guilty, no matter what you’ve done, and he fixed those beady eyes on me.

“I don’t want to get anybody in trouble,” I said.

“You won’t if you tell the truth, young lady.”

So I did. I told him what Mr. Jefferson said about Freedom of the Press and Uncle Jimmy. I didn’t want to, but I did.

“You see?” Daddy said. “See what I’m talking about? Harassing my girl like that. You have to do something, Earl. That man has no place in the classroom.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Christopher said. “Why don’t you go to class, Shirley?”

I was only too happy to do that. As I left the room, I heard Daddy say Uncle Jimmy’s name and something about the School Board.

There was a substitute in Social Studies that day. And Mr. Jefferson didn’t turn up the rest of the week, which was a big relief.

At lunch period on Friday, Henry Matthews came over to where I was eating with my friend Sarah. His slide rule banged against the table as he leaned over me. “I hope you’re satisfied, now that you got Mr. Jefferson fired.”

“I did not.”

“Well, your daddy did. He bullied Mr. Christopher into firing the best teacher we ever had in this dump of a school.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

After Henry left, I asked Sarah, “What’s he talking about?” But I knew and I felt sick to my stomach.

“I heard a rumor,” she said, “that Mr. Jefferson was leaving, but it can’t be your fault.” She hugged me.

I could have told her the truth. About my talking to Mr. Christopher. But suppose it got out. Sarah’s my best friend, but still, she might let it slip. And I didn’t want anybody to know about it.

So I said, “I hate Henry Matthews.”

*     *     *     *     *

It’s January. Mr. Jefferson never came back. We’ve been having one substitute after another in Social Studies, and we haven’t learned a thing. Even though I still blame Mr. Jefferson for what he did to me, I have to admit he made Social Studies interesting. Henry Matthews and his friends are still mad at me.

Mr. Jefferson isn’t the only one leaving town. Reverend Coleman announced at Christmas Eve service that he’d got the call to a church in Washington D.C.

“How come you’re leaving?” I asked him last week. It was after choir practice and I noticed the light was on in his study.

“Hi Shirley,” he said. “Come on in.” He has a wonderful smile.

“Don’t leave,” I blurted out.

“I don’t like leaving,” he said, “but it’s the right time. Besides, have you ever been to Washington?”

“No Sir.”

“Well, you have a treat in store when you and your mama and daddy come to visit me.”

“Is it because of Thanksgiving?” I asked.

He smiled again. “Is that what you think?”

“I guess so.”

He was quiet for what seemed like forever. Then he said, “It’s not your Uncle Jimmy’s fault. Don’t think that for a minute. It’s just time for me to go.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.” I started to leave, but then I realized how bad I needed to talk to somebody about Mr. Jefferson. And Reverend Coleman seemed the right person. Maybe that’s why I went to his office in the first place.

“Mr. Jefferson is leaving too,” I said.

He looked up, like he was surprised I was still there. “Mr. Jefferson, the teacher?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Why is that do you suppose?”

“They say he got fired.”

“That’s pretty serious.”

“He shouldn’t have been talking about Uncle Jimmy in class.” I could feel the tears coming.

The Reverend got up from his desk and put his arm around me. “Come over here, Shirley,” he said, and sat me down beside him on this brown sofa he’s got in his office.

“They say I’m to blame. That I got him fired.”

“How can they say that?”

I told him about Mr. Jefferson talking about Freedom of the Press. About how I had defended Uncle Jimmy. About how Mr. Jefferson had treated me.

Reverend Coleman was looking at me in such a serious way. “No wonder you’re upset,” he said.

That’s when I started crying. I just couldn’t hold it back.

“It’s because of me he got fired.” I was sobbing. “Daddy made me tell Mr. Christopher what happened. And he got fired.”

Reverend Coleman sat there, with his arm around me, letting me cry.

Finally he said, “It’s not your fault, Shirley. You didn’t do anything wrong. One of these days you’ll have to decide what you think about breaking cameras and Freedom of the Press, but whatever you decide, this wasn’t your fault.”

He pulled a paper napkin from his coat pocket and handed it to me.

“Do you understand?”

I nodded and wiped my eyes. I wanted to believe him.

*     *     *     *     *

Uncle Jimmy came over last night to celebrate what he called his David and Goliath victory.

“How bout that, kid?” he said. “Your uncle whipped the mighty New York Times.”

“You did?”

“You bet. They agreed not to press charges.”

“Were they going to send you to jail?”

“I was never going to jail, sweetheart. Not a chance.”

“Your uncle was a perfect gentleman,” Mama said. “He offered to pay for the camera.”

Uncle Jimmy popped the cork off a bottle of champagne and poured glasses for him and Daddy. Mama, Sonny and I had orange juice.

“Let’s drink a toast to Shirley.” He winked at me. “She’s rid this town of two trouble-makers.”

I put my glass down. “Huh?”

“Your Mr. Jefferson’s out on his ear. I made sure of that. And good riddance to Preacher Coleman.”

“That wasn’t me!” I cried out.

He picked me up and twirled me around. Laughing and laughing. I’ve always loved it when Uncle Jimmy holds me up like that. But this time was different.

“Put me down!” I was sobbing.

I struggled out of his arms and looked around.

“You don’t know,” I said. “You don’t know anything. It’s all a mess!”

They were staring at me. Nobody was laughing.

___

Nancy Bourne’s stories have appeared in Forge, Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Persimmon Tree, MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, Shadowgraph, The Steel Toe Review and Ursa Minor

Since retiring from a career of public school legal advocacy, she has been tutoring a variety of students, ranging from inmates at San Quentin State Prison to fifth graders in a low income public school.

Like a Complete Unknown

By Sharon Barr

If you want to know how great you are, stay home and audition for your mother.

—Stella Adler

 

Newark Metropolitan Airport baggage claim area

Saturday, June 28, 1969

4:30 a.m.

 

We few passengers from the 11:50 p.m. flight from Chicago to Newark Metropolitan Airport are waiting around for our luggage in the cavernous United Airlines terminal. A paunchy guy with a bad comb-over is gaping at my legs so I turn away hoping to discourage his attention. I’m eighteen, and at 5’11” am used to having people look, but it often makes me tight-throated and nauseous. Today I can’t allow anyone to disrupt the little time I have left for rehearsal. Only fifty-two hours till I try out for the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I’ve got to get in. I wish I believed that institution’s rejection of me utterly unimaginable, but I’ve imagined just that—a terrific lot.

My audition monologue is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the part where Helena yells at Lysander and Demetrius because she thinks they are making fun of her. I can relate—my height has always been a source of other people’s amusement. I like being tall but if my mother had had her way my knees would have been stapled when I hit 5 foot 8. My New York plans were met with heavy sighs and concerned frowns.  My parents used the words “inexperienced,” “naïve” and “gullible” to explain their position; I used “adventure,” “summer” and “I don’t care what you say I’m going” to explain mine.

So I need to not blow it. I need to do this right. I need a cigarette. Now perched on the back of an orange fiberglass airport bench I feel good. Sitting high up like this gives me attitude, which is important particularly when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

I know that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter—a kind of da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, thing so I cross my legs and run through the monologue, punctuating its rhythm with a circling ankle, cigarette held between my index and middle finger, and a few dramatic head tosses:

If you were civil and knew courtesy, you would not do me this much injury. Can you not hate me, as I know you do

But you must join in souls to mock me too?

I try it different ways, tossing around emphatic hand gestures, always with a cig.  A woman with a kerchief on her head and a long skirt drags her little boy to a distant bench. Just as I start to explain to her that I’m rehearsing, I hear the mechanical baggage carousel spit out clangorous paroxysms. Eager to get on my way and reunite with my wardrobe, encased in a big white plastic Samsonite, borrowed from my mother, I rush over to it.

Suitcases crash out of the chute onto a metal conveyor belt. Mine, arriving behind several smaller, more discreet satchels, appears like a moving mountain.  Mr. comb-over guy is now standing next to me as I yank my suitcase from the belt; it lands spinning on the linoleum. I lean over and try to pick it up.

“Looks like you’re staying a while. Can I give you a hand?” he asks.

Unsure about my next move I say, “Oh—that would be utterly super!” He starts out with a big, confident grin but can’t carry the bag more than a few steps and ends up shoving it toward a waiting taxi. By the time he gets it into the trunk, he’s dissolved into massive pools of sweat and wheezy gasps; his updo has fallen over leaving him with a shiny pate surrounded by stringy fringe. I’m grateful for the suitcase transport and thank him with a hug which he must find startling because he backs way up as I wave and slip into the cab’s rear seat.

 

*     *     *     *     *

From the conspicuously displayed license I see that my driver’s name is Agung, so I greet him with “Hi Agung. I’m Riley.”

“Where to?”

“One twenty-three East 18th Street at Irving Place.”

Wow––next stop Manhattan and the apartment Olive, who scored a summer internship at Random House, arranged for us. Olive Hardwick was my best friend at Miss Willifred’s Preparatory School and one of the few people I really talk to. I’m anxious to tell her about recent family developments—that my father lost a ton of money in the soybean futures market; that my mother has become very matter-of-fact and utterly creepy; and that the extended financial leash I’ve always enjoyed is now tight.

I may be nervous but I’m certain that everything that’s happened so far has led up to this exact taxi ride––New York––the Stage––and me on it!  After all—I have cab fare, four hundred fifty dollars in American Express traveler’s checks, and I’ve got what it takes––I think.

As we emerge from a tunnel into Manhattan, the grey dawn is breaking pinkish-orange. I lean my head out the window, look up at the dirty brick structures full of people living vertical lives, and let my voice fly:

If you were men, as men you are in show, you would not use a gentle lady so;

I sit back in the cab. “That’s part of my audition piece,” I explain to the driver–– who does not respond. “Hey,  . . . what does the name Agung mean in English?”

Greatest. Balinese.”

“You’re from Bali? Oh, that’s super. I’d love to go there. Why did you leave?”

“Big Volcano, 1963. Hot lava covered my village, killed whole family and many other peoples.”

“Ohh. We didn’t hear much about that. President Kennedy got shot that year, and then the Beatles arrived. Maybe that’s why. I’m really sorry,” I say, but he doesn’t seem to want to chat, so I continue my catechism:

To vow, and swear, and super praise my parts, when I am sure you hate me with your hearts.

It feels like we’re getting close to my new home, so I forget rehearsing and start looking at street signs. On Hudson the traffic slows, which seems odd for only 5:30 in the morning, and then we begin to hear sirens as we crawl uptown. When we come to a street called Christopher, it’s obvious that there is some kind of a disturbance. A bunch of detritus including broken bottles and odd pieces of clothing are strewn all over. I smell rubbery smoke and see the charred shell of a car. People block the crosswalk and crowd onto the sidewalk carrying signs. One says RESIST, and another reads STAND UP & SAY NO. I think it a protest against the Viet Nam War so I flash a peace sign to demonstrate my solidarity and clear our path, but a guy in overalls and no shirt stands in front of our vehicle and gives us the finger.

There are a lot of men and more than a few women yelling. I make out phrases like “Down with the pigs” and “Shit gotta stop.” An uprooted parking meter lies across the sidewalk. I see girls in cheerleader outfits and heels form a kick line across Christopher Street, but when one pulls off a wig, it’s clear they are in fact guys. Next a bottle shatters on our hood before its liquid drenches the windshield.

Naskleng!” yells Agung. “What does that mean?” “Dickhead!”

“Let’s turn around!” I offer, as though it’s a new idea. It’s clear, however, that because so many people are in the street blocking us, we won’t be budging anytime soon.

 

*     *     *     *     *

A dude with shaved eyebrows and tight black jeans picks up a loose cobblestone and heaves it at a policeman. It misses him but knocks out one of our headlights. At this frontal assault, Agung, who is now alternately crossing himself and honking, starts to move forward; a cop stops us with his hand and then unspools a fire hose, which another policeman attaches to a hydrant. The crowd backs up as he ratchets the nozzle. When it becomes obvious that it contains no water, everyone laughs and cheers. Cars are pelted with pennies that resonate with a dissonant tinkle.

The young man with no eyebrows and black jeans tries to open the taxi door on my side. It’s locked so I roll down the window and say,” Did you need a ride? I’m only going to 18th street.”

Before he can answer Agung screams, “Close window!”

I roll it up right before it’s splatted by a tomato delivered by a muscular woman in a black leather vest standing behind the guy without brows. Her expression is one of aloof hatred. I offer a weak smile, another peace sign and then flatten myself onto the seat. There is a thick smell of exhaust fumes and I want to throw up.

“Where are we?” I finally think to ask. “Village!” Agung says.

“What’s going on?”

“Very mad peoples!”

I’d forever heard how exciting the Village was but didn’t know that it’s also a war zone.

Again he tries to move, but the car is still encircled by men and women ranting, “No more! No more!”

Agung pulls the key out of the ignition, leans his forehead on the steering wheel and mumbles. I hear him sniffling too, so he might be crying. With the car turned off and the windows closed, it feels like we’re in a coffin. Many of the passersby stop, peek in, and make faces. I should be way more concerned with Agung’s tears and our possible asphyxiation, but I can’t help but notice the way these protesters dress. If they’re not wearing tight Levis, they’re sporting colorful, imaginative, folkloric-type garb. This whole experience makes me rethink my wardrobe.  Just then we’re hit with at least two more beer bottles, which smash, splinter and splash all over the car again.  I hear phrases like “Shut the fuck up,” so I guess the inhabitants in the building overhead, yearning for sleep, are doing the throwing.

Finally, as the crowd moves east, there’s a break. Agung takes quick advantage of the clearing and starts the motor. We head up Hudson to 8th Avenue and then right on 14th Street. I roll down the window and exhale with relief. Fifteen minutes later Agung stops the cab on Irving Place.

“You lucky we not dead, lady. Thank you, Jesus. So this it!” he announces.

When Olive described the place, it had sounded bohemian: a basement apartment next to an old tavern. This building is a dreary, off-white affair. There are dripping, rusty air conditioners hanging out of dirty windows, and on the curb are an abandoned stroller, an overflowing garbage can, and the remains of what must have once been a bicycle.

Across the street are two shaggy-haired boys in their undershirts, smoking and sprawling on the stoop of a crumbling brownstone.

I want to take you higher, by Sly and the Family Stone, is blaring out of the bar next door even though it’s barely 7 a.m.

“I must have the wrong address.”

“This it!” Agung says with absolute determination. I pay and beg him to wait while I check the names on the bells. The designated apartment, Minus 1-A, has no name next to it. I buzz, hear subterranean rustling and a male and a female voice.

Assuming that, in fact, this is the wrong place, I relax, but then the door swings open and there’s Olive wrapping herself in a seersucker robe.

“Ri!” she exclaims, giving me a quick hug.

“Olly pop! Sorry it’s so early. I took the red eye. We got caught in a big riot downtown!”

“Wow. Far out. I thought you were coming in tomorrow. The place is kind of a mess. Tommy and I weren’t expecting you today.” She says this while raking her hands through her glossy brown hair, which is usually flipped up or tucked into a neat ponytail. She looks disheveled but fresh. Unlike me, her body is va-va-va-voom voluptuous with cleavage for days.

“So he’s here too?”

I knew Olive was hot for a guy named Tommy, whom she’d met last spring skiing in Aspen. She’d thought it hopeless. He was at Yale, from a big-deal family, and even though she was set to go to Barnard, at that point she was only a senior in boarding school. “What did you do to your hair?” she says, making an expert subject change.

“Oh, yeah, cut off the big debutante do a day after my party. Needed a change. Did it with kitchen shears.  Kicky right?”

Olive looks concerned.

Just then I hear a thud and turn to see that Agung has tossed my suitcase onto the curb. I rush to get it before someone else does––plus I want to say goodbye to my friend from the front.

“Sorry about the volcano,” I say, peeking in through his passenger side.

Agung closes his eyes, bows his head and then looks up at the road and speeds off. As I go back to my bag, one of my pumps gets sucked into the cracked concrete causing me to flail and spin. Before I’ve stopped wobbling, Tommy reveals himself from behind Olive. He’s bare chested, wearing madras Bermudas, loafers without socks and a dazzling smile. Charging over to get the bag, he steadies my gait and helps me regain my balance. Then he reaches his hand out to shake.

“Tommy Paley”

He’s at least four inches taller than me. I flip my hair as though I still have a full mane and look up as I place my hand in his. “Riley Fairchild.”

“I like your dress.”

I’m wearing a black-and-white checked minidress that I love.  I’m flattered he notices it but still I look down and pretend to check what I’m wearing. “Oh, I forgot what I had on.”

He smiles and picks up my suitcase like it’s a loaf of bread. I catch Olive’s eye. Her look is remote as she glances first at me, then at Tommy. He walks by her carrying the bag; they kiss quickly as he passes. This brief peck seems to reassure her of his singular intentions. We follow him through the front door, turn right, and go down three steps into the basement flat. Tommy, now relieved of suitcase duty, stands behind Olive and puts his arms tightly around her waist as she exclaims, “I am so glad you’re here!” She seems genuinely pleased.

“Gosh. Me too. Wait till you hear about my cab ride! Quelle experience! And there is so much else I need to tell you. Where, uh, should I put my purse?”

I look around and am not excited about putting anything down anywhere. It doesn’t look dirty, just worn and vaguely tragic. I see a stack of New York Times and smell an odd combination of stale kitchen grease and Olive’s L’ Air du Temps cologne. The room has two half windows that look out on the sidewalk with a view of pedestrian feet. The laminate floor is stained and peeling. The walls are blue with purple streaks, as though the color was up for grabs. There’s an old card table with three folding chairs; next to it is a black leatherette beanbag seat that looks like a giant burnt baked potato. Dropped from the ceiling is a combo fan/light fixture that, because it contains no bulbs, seems beside the point. As an added design element, a five-foot-tall drywall divides this room and what appears to be a sort of kitchen zone. Why, of all the apartments in New York, has Olive chosen this one?

“I know it’s a bit Dickensian, but hey, so convenient.” says Olive, following my drift.

To what I wonder––the pub next door?

As though there are several wings to choose from, Olive gestures to the door of a room facing the apartment’s street side. “I think you’ll have the most privacy in there.”

This front room, into which I am ushered, has a bare mattress in the middle of the floor, a fan and a lamp shaded by an orange paper lantern. Out the window I see two silver trashcans. There is also a peculiar rope strung lengthwise from one side of the tiny space to the other. “Am I supposed to hang myself with that if things don’t work out?” I say, gesturing to the rope.

“That’s for your clothes silly,” she says laughing. “There’s a closet in the hall but it’s really small, and Tommy put his stuff in there. I know it’s a little bare bones, but . . .”

“Hey, I’m off to the bodega. So milk, and what else do we need, hon.?” Tommy interrupts.

“Eggs . . . oh, and light bulbs!”

“Right.” They kiss and he leaves the flat.

“I think you’ll really like Tommy. He’s got a cool summer job at the Village Voice—a weekly paper.”

“I’m just happy to be here, but I don’t want to get in the way or anything.

I mean I could always . . .”

“Oh, no. I meant to festoon the joint with fresh flowers in honor of your arrival. I really thought you were coming tomorrow. There are a bunch of extra sheets and stuff, and guess what’s just down a few blocks? The place that the New York cognoscenti think is so in right now. Max’s Kansas City!”

“Kansas City?”

“The Warhol hangout—musicians, artists, drag queens. I love drag queens.” “You know drag queens?”

“Well, no, but I’m sure I would love them, if I did. Anyway, Max’s is wild, and if they ever let me into the back room, I’m never leaving.”

“Let you in?”

“Oh, you’ll see. When does your school start?”

“Well if I get in—Tuesday” “You might not be admitted?”

“Well, it’s a very old and . . . uh . . . well-respected place. I have to audition Monday, but it’s for the summer session, so how hard could it be?”

I realize I don’t know the answer. My throat tightens, and I cough. “I’ll get you some water.”

“It’ll go away in a sec. It’s that imaginary noose thing that happens to me when things get a little”––I manage a deep breath—“too real.”

“Well, let’s not go there. I hate that!” I follow Olive out into the kitchen zone, where she fills a glass from the tap. The water is warm and vaguely metallic tasting, but I drink it down.

“I’m doing a piece from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the audition.”

“Cool!”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

I’m convinced this choice of classical material will indicate my serious intentions.

Even though I kind of always knew I had to be an actress, my only previous theatrical experience included a successful audition for the drama club at Miss Willifred’s that led to a role in an original production entitled A Rock, a Tree, and a Cloud. We had only one performance, and during this, the girl playing the Other Waitress dropped the line on which I was to exit. Not knowing what to do, and not eager to relinquish the limelight, I stayed at my perch on the barstool, drink in hand, and acted like I was getting more and more loaded. Then right before the final curtain, I keeled over. It got a big laugh. The playwright and the other actors were upset, but when I took my bow the audience stood up. This spurt of validation made me ecstatic, and I knew it was time for New York.

Then because there doesn’t seem to be a dishwasher, I put the glass in the sink.

“I love that play,” Olive says. “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

Titania is such an eccentric chick!”

“I’m doing Helena’s monologue. The one where she’s really pissed off because thinks she’s being made a fool of by Demetrius and Lysander.”

“Oh? In front of everyone?” “I better practice.”

“Not tonight! There’s a party at a friend of Tommy’s. You have to come.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

I spend the day napping, and just as I start to rehearse, Olive knocks on my door announcing it’s time to get ready. I take a shower in the fusty bathroom, put on makeup, hoop earrings, my cherished pearl necklace with an emerald clasp, a Courrèges vinyl miniskirt, and white go-go boots. Olive looks beatnicky chic, in a black minidress, tights, ballet flats, French twisted hair, and peace sign drop earrings. In contrast Tommy, wearing khakis, red striped tie, navy sport coat and Top-Siders, looks like an ad for Brooks Brothers. We get a cab and give the driver a Park Avenue address.

Ten minutes later, as we pull up to a building with an elaborate portico, I whisper to Olive, “Is this where we’re going?”

“Why are you whispering?”

“It’s just so très èlégante—Tommy has a friend who lives here?” “Well, it’s her parents’ place. She’s our age.”

The white-gloved doorman rushes out, opens the taxi door and practically carries us inside. He recognizes Tommy and ushers us into the elevator and up to the penthouse. A winsome girl named Jamie meets us at the door, and, as Tommy is introducing Olive and me to her, a man about fifty with flowing iron gray hair, black turtleneck, a pendant

necklace, and a jacket, worn cape-like over his shoulders barrels down a flight of stairs and heads for the exit. He stops short when he sees Tommy.

“Tommy darling, how are you?” he says. “Uncle Lenny! I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Just leaving, dear boy––but thrilled to catch sight of you!” “These are my friends Olive and Riley.”

“Groovy. Well, have fun, kids.” And with that he kisses Tommy on both cheeks and ruffles his hair; then after readjusting his jacket, he pivots and continues his departure.

“He’s your uncle?” I blurt out in shock.

“Not technically—but I’ve known him all my life. The Bernsteins are friends of my parents.”

“Tommy knows a lot of people. He grew up in Manhattan,” Olive explains.

I see two grand pianos back-to-back in the enormous Chinese-yellow living room, and it dawns on me that this is in fact Leonard Bernstein’s home and that the hostess is his daughter.

The party is a loud, smoky, affair. Everyone appears to be smart, rich, or beautiful, and in some cases all three. I watch them balance their cocktails and cigarettes with a splendid kind of carelessness. Olive, Tommy, and I light up as we enter the living room, and I take a comforting pull on my cigarette as they disappear, hand in hand, into the crowd.

Was it only two weeks ago when I hosted my own shindig, where I blew out eighteen birthday candles and prayed that an eastern breeze off Lake Michigan would carry my wish up to the heavens? That was a gauzy affair under a pink tent with an eight-piece R&B band. It had been labeled my coming-out party, but exactly who or what I was coming out into wasn’t clear. In attendance were the rich but always understated denizens of Lake Forest, Illinois. I danced barefoot in a strapless, fuchsia-chiffon gown till three in the morning when omelets and coffee were served by the pool. Indeed, my parents gave me a loving, extravagant celebration, which also served as a well-catered punctuation mark to their twenty-two-year marriage.

Everywhere I look in this luxury duplex are clear-skinned Ivy Leaguers who appear completely at home. I overhear conversations about this one’s play being produced and that one’s magazine job. There are a lot of discussions about the Vineyard and some regatta or other. Then I hear the phrase ‘uprising in the Village’ spoken by a guy with ebony hair, blue eyes and prominent cheekbones that give him a savagely sexy beauty.

He’s talking to a couple—a short man in a bowtie with an arm around a small woman in a flowered shift.

“My taxi got stuck in that riot. What was their beef anyway?” I say, jumping into the conversation. The three turn to me, and I flush with embarrassment.

“Homosexuals in a gay bar called Stonewall Inn finally got sick of being raided, so last night when they got busted, one refused to get into the paddy wagon. From there it mushroomed,” the one with the cheekbones, says.

“It’s a Mafia-run place that the cops are determined to shut down,” declares the guy in the bowtie.

“I heard it was also sparked by Judy Garland’s funeral,” his other half adds. “After lunch at the Carlyle I was walking uptown and saw at least a thousand people queuing up around the block just to get a look at her in her coffin. Many of them were Negroes.”

“Guess they identify with her,” her friend says.

“What were you doing downtown so late?” the sexy one asks me.

“Well, it was dawn. I was just . . .” I try to think of a more interesting scenario but come up short.  “. . . riding in from the airport. I’m here for the summer to . . .” At this the couple roll their eyes at one another and peel off. Left alone with this man, I get nervous and stifle a throaty cough.

“Are you okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s just a wrinkle in my otherwise implacable poise.” But my throat tightens.

As I clear it he says, “How about a drink?” I panic and look around for Olive.

“If you are searching for whoever you came with, they’re probably smoking a joint in the bedroom. I can take you there–––or offer you . . . champagne?” He lifts a flute off a passing tray. “Voilà! ”

“Merci!” It’s clear he’s at least ten years older than most of the other guests, well into his thirties.

“Quite a skirt you have on. Can I touch it?”

Well, this is an odd request. “Okay. It’s Courrèges, the spring collection.”

He touches its surface and then caresses the hem for a moment, brushing my leg. I can’t breathe for a beat and am surprised by my reaction.

“What brings you here?” he says, smiling.

Is he messing with me? I take a sip of the champagne, look away, and try to regain my composure. Then I shake my hair as though it’s in my eyes, take a breath, and with a straight face let it rip. “Well, you see, I’m a coloratura soprano and hope to be discovered before I age and lose the light quality of my top notes.” I then turn, bump into someone, and spill half my champagne down my front.

Chuckling, he hands me a paper napkin as his eyes slide over my body. “Perhaps you could sing Over the Rainbow,” he says, nodding at the piano, “I could accompany you and make your leap to stardom that much easier.”

“Are you a musician?” I dry my hands and pat a spot on my blouse.

“If you’re a singer, then I’m a musician.” He takes back the napkin, crumples it, and hands it to a passing waitress, deftly exchanging my now half-empty glass for a full one.

I take a quick sip and, feeling a bit more secure, use a phrase I’ve heard my mother utter a million times at parties: “And to what or whom do we owe your attendance?”

“I recently sold Jamie one of my paintings, and she was kind enough to invite me.”

“You’re a musician and a painter?”

“I mess about a bit. I’m Lucca Seaver.” He gives me a card I glance at.

I see a Seventh Avenue address and stow it away in my pocket. “And I’m Maria Callas.”

He laughs which thrills me. “You’re a fabulist,” he says.

“Thank you!  No, really, my name is Riley Wainwright Fairchild.”

“That’s a mouthful. So, Riley, do you have a phone yet?”

Startled and excited by his interest, I’m poised to look for Olive, to ask for our number, when a tall woman with long, auburn hair, fringe bangs, and a sheer blouse comes up, puts her hands over his eyes, and kisses him on the neck. As Lucca whips around and they embrace, I shrink back into the cluster of partiers.

Everyone continues to maintain a relentless but understated presumption of friendliness that makes me feel even more random.  Three classes of champagne later I start introducing myself as the Duchess of Argyle. Neither Olive nor Tommy reappear, so finally I make my way out the apartment door, down the elevator and onto the street to get a taxi. Just as one screeches to an impressive halt, I hear a voice from above yell, “Maria! Don’t leave me all alone!”

I look up, and there’s Lucca. I blow him a kiss and climb into the cab. Feeling smug that I displayed a kind of casual aplomb, I’m happy for a few blocks until I remember the monologue I’m to perform in is in less than thirty-six hours. This realization crashes my buzz, and once again I start uttering my lines aloud:

Can you not hate me, as I know you do, but you must join in souls to mock me too?

The cab driver, who sports thick glasses and bushy hair and is not much older than I, chimes in with:

If you were men, as men you are in show, you would not use a gentle lady so.

“Wow. Are you an actor—or just well read?” I say, catching his eye in the rearview mirror.

“Both. Hey, only a suggestion, but I think you need to play against the needy way Shakespeare has written Helena. I’d get the whine out of my voice.”

“Did you do the play?”

“Last spring at the Sheridan Square Playhouse.”

“Oh. Cool.” Opening the window, I imagine myself in a tragic taxi crash, pre- empting Monday’s potentially humiliating audition. And then, for the second time today, I’m deposited in front of our sad edifice. I hand the driver a five, wait for change, give him a quarter, exit the vehicle, and recite in a coquettish, not whiney, voice:

If you were men, as men you are in show, you would not use a gentle lady so!

“Better!” he yells after me.

I hurry past a boy sitting on a garbage can, smoking a joint, and when I smell the burgers from the pub next door, realize that I’m hungry. The song “MacArthur Park” blares out of the bar’s jukebox and its lyrics resonate over the city’s ubiquitous clatter of existence.

A siren screams in the distance.

___

Sharon Barr is an American actress who achieved 1970s cult status through her participation in the neo-expressionist off-off Broadway movement. With roles in Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars (Drama Desk Award) and plays by other emerging playwrights she managed to frequent the stages of La Ma Ma E.T.C., Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, etc. She then moved on to Film and Television (imdb.com/name/nm0056570). In 2011 Barr, a licensed Chinese Medical practitioner, wrote and directed a documentary pilot entitled BoomerAngst, which deals with her generation’s feelings about their own mortality. She has just completed a novel also entitled Like a Complete Unknown that takes place in the Manhattan of the early seventies.

Going to Lough Derg

By Raymond Abbott

When Eileen boarded the charter bus for Donegal, late at night as it was, she had the bad luck (she later decided) to be seated next to an elderly American woman who, desiring to express herself, told her that though she wasn’t of Irish ancestry herself (as far as she knew), she had come to Ireland because it was so lush and green. Her name was Bertha, she informed Eileen, and her late husband was Raymond.

Bertha continued talking, on and on, as fast as the words could spill out of her, oblivious to the possibility that Eileen was not interested in what she had to say. Somehow, Eileen had the idea that a woman with the name of Bertha would be large, as well as unattractive. But this Bertha happened to be tiny and frail, with ample facial wrinkles and a deep voice. Eileen guessed her to be about seventy years old.

Eileen wondered what on earth this woman was doing on a charter bus to Lough Derg, but she was unable to find an opening in the woman’s nonstop talking to ask the question. Every time she would try to interject something, Bertha would speak right over her words, drowning her out. This annoyed Eileen greatly.

First, it was an account of her life in great detail, including her marriage to Raymond and his death. Then there came an unabridged accounting of her various ailments throughout the years. After about an hour of this, which was almost more than the reserved and very polite Irish woman could stand, she concluded that perhaps God had given her this woman as an additional penance. This was the penalty for sounding smug with her friend Dympna, when she shared with her the great pleasure she had making the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. She had simply been too chipper for God’s liking about the upcoming weekend of fasting and prayer. Yes, that was it, that was her conclusion. And so Bertha was to be her punishment.

God was testing her. He must be disapproving of her. This God, one of wrath and vengeance, the God of the Old Testament. She was much more familiar with the God in the words of Jesus as told in the Gospels, and even more so with his Mother, the Blessed Mother, to whom she most often prayed. Indeed, it was to the Blessed Mother she had prayed for her brother Giroud’s child, an albino, and born blind.

Eileen wondered if Bertha was going on the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. She couldn’t imagine how such a loquacious person could manage the rule of silence that was strictly enforced. And in addition to that, the physical demands of Lough Derg would surely be difficult for a frail, elderly individual like this woman. But as it turned out, Bertha was on the bus on her way to Galway, and for no other reason. She was allowed to take a seat on the charter by special permission, because the station master didn’t wish to have to listen to the woman talking interminably. He had taken enough punishment hearing her, and by God he was going to put her on the first bus he could.

When the bus arrived at Galway hours later, with Bertha talking the entire time, it was clear to Eileen that she was not to be dropped off at the bus station, but rather at a corner near the Great Southern Hotel on the outskirts of Galway. She highly doubted if Bertha understood why she was left there at 3 a.m.

The driver, figuring that since she was an American, and therefore had money, assumed she could simply pop into the hotel and stay there the rest of the night. But what if the poor soul doesn’t have 150 pounds for the Great Southern? Eileen worried. What would she do? Yet Bertha did not appear to object to where she was dumped.

On an impulse, Eileen left her seat and called out to the driver, asking that he wait a moment. He was reluctant to linger there, as he was already behind schedule, but he complied with a gesture of exasperation.

“I thought you had someplace to go,” Bertha remarked, as the bus pulled away. She was obviously pleased that she had company again. Someone who talked on and on as she did could not enjoy being alone, Eileen concluded. She probably talks to herself when she is alone, she speculated.

Eileen was not particularly attractive. She suffered additionally with a kind of hip displacement, a birth defect the doctor’s called it, which could have been repaired at birth but never was. It left her with a noticeable limp. She was widowed and had one teenaged son, Eric. She knew there would not be another husband in her future, a future that looked rather bleak to her as the years passed. She was grateful to have the one son. But she found Bertha’s life far more depressing than her own, even though it occurred to her that Bertha herself didn’t view her life that way. But she determined that she would do this added penance, help this pitiful American woman. She’d do what she could to help her get on her way, and then go on to the pilgrimage at Lough Derg. That must be what God required of her now.

“Have a place to go?” she asked Bertha.

“No, not really, but here is a hotel.” She gestured toward the Great Southern.

“Yes, but I don’t think you would want that place, not at 200 quid a night.” She was exaggerating the price. She didn’t really know what they charged, but she guessed it was certainly at least a hundred.

“Oh my, no. I’m not sure how much that is in dollars. What is a quid? The money still confuses me, you know.” She laughed nervously. But clearly she was glad to have help, and even more, to have company. Bertha had a throaty laugh and a deep speaking voice, as if her vocal cords were damaged. Probably got that way from talking too much, Eileen surmised. But whatever the cause, her voice was unpleasant to listen to, and often difficult to understand.

“Do you have your plane ticket home?” Eileen persisted, thinking that that was what the woman was probably about to do, go home. Bertha had said, in her lengthy monologue on the bus, that she’d been in Ireland nearly three weeks and was planning to leave soon.

“Oh my, yes, I have it someplace.” She began to rifle through her large black pocketbook.

“That’s all right,” Eileen said, putting up her hands dismissively. “We can look later. Right now we need to find a place to stay. A bed and breakfast, I suppose.”

“But I thought you were going to Donegal, to that place,” Bertha protested.

Well, so did I, frankly, Eileen thought, but she didn’t say it. “Well, there is a temporary change of plans. Yes, later I will go on to Lough Derg,” although by then she didn’t see how she would manage it. Nevertheless, she sensed that she was doing the right thing helping the American woman.

Nearby she found them a bed and breakfast, at the going rate of 13 pounds per person. Much better than the hotel rate was bound to be. Once they settled in a room, which would have a rather spectacular view of Galway Bay in daylight, Eileen set about trying to get the woman sufficiently organized so that she herself might get on course and think about getting to Donegal and from there, to Lough Derg. This proved to be a difficult task, for Bertha wanted to do nothing but talk. Now she was expounding about the travels of her life.

Eileen found herself listening absently, trying not to show her increasing impatience with this woman. Bertha seemed incapable of shutting up, even at this late hour, when both women were close to exhaustion and needing to rest.

“You know, Mrs. Riddle,” (for that was her surname) “you talk a lot.” There, she said it! She couldn’t have not said it.

“Oh my, yes, I do. I should try harder not to. I know, I’m told that all the time. Even my son and daughter tell me. Have I told you about them?” She had, of course. “Oh my, but here I go talking too much again, aren’t I?” And as they began to prepare for bed, for a few minutes she was actually quiet.

They slept only a very few hours before breakfast was served. Eileen hated to pass up the sumptuous meal, yet she figured she might yet make Lough Derg, and would need to continue on her fast. Bertha paid for everything, saying she had money, and that was the least she could do. She had in the meantime produced her plane ticket, which Eileen noted was not for another four days.

“So what was it that you wanted to do in Galway?” she asked.

“I don’t have any family here. I don’t have any in Ireland, although there is supposed to be some Irish blood way back. But this lady I used to work with—did I tell you I’m retired from Western Electric Company?” Eileen nodded, for she had heard it all, at least twice. “Well, she continued, a friend of mine has a cousin in a place called Spiddal, which is supposedly close to Galway.”

“It is.”

“Emily, that’s my friend, she gave me an envelope for this woman. I think there’s money in it, but I don’t know, of course. I didn’t look. I did promise to give it to her, and Emily is a good friend.” She began digging in her large pocketbook, finally coming up with a scrap of paper. She read it. “Dillon is her name, Kathleen Dillon.”

“Then you want to go and see this woman?”

“I did promise.” She paused. “Look, dear, you don’t need to stay with me. You have things to do, important things, more important than me.” The woman was right. But Eileen was now in a quandary. She realized she had no way to get to Donegal, couldn’t afford to rent a car, and who knew when the next bus would come, how long it would take to get there, and what the cost was? “Maybe I will stay around and see that you get to meet your friend’s relative, this Mrs. Dillon.”

The Dillon woman actually lived in a place called Barna, not Spiddal. It was on the outskirts of Barna that they found the house, with the help of a hired car. The house was small and trim, with a definite charm about it. The woman who answered the door was middle-aged, short and heavy-set like the peasant she was. She was also a heavy smoker, as well as a non-stop talker to rival Bertha herself.

Mrs. Dillon was hospitable and welcoming to the strangers, inviting them in immediately for tea. The house was a chaotic mess inside, cluttered and dirty, with a bad smell about it. Several unhealthy-looking cats were in evidence. Kathleen Dillon was able to out-talk Bertha, and she chattered on about herself, smoking all the while, and punctuating her talk with references to deceased persons, pausing to bless the souls of those dearly departed.

When Bertha pulled the thick brown envelope from her purse and prefaced the giving of it, Mrs. Dillon stopped talking, put down her cigarette, and took from her the

thick envelope. She opened it to find a letter and a large pile of twenty dollar bills in US currency. Perhaps several hundred dollars, Eileen guessed, trying not to stare.

“Bless you for taking the trouble to come,” she said. Her happy grin showed mossy green teeth in need of care. “You must have some tea,” she insisted, as she

got up to turn off the kettle in the kitchen. But the prospect of a meal in this dirty house did not appeal to either visitor, and they demurred.

Meanwhile, Eileen was finding the cottage close and smelly, with the stench of garbage and stale tobacco smoke, so she got up and followed one of the cats out the open back door. Outside it was a mild, sunny day, with the grass still damp with morning dew. She spotted a milk cow some distance out in the back, along with more cats. Just then, Eileen slipped and fell hard on her bad hip, but fortunately the impact was cushioned by something soft. That something was a fresh cow flap, which she found herself sitting squarely in, and she wearing the best slacks she owned.

Penance is one thing, she thought to herself, but this is getting ridiculous. She managed a weak smile, as the other two saw what had happened. What an absurd comedy this has turned out to be!

She got up rather gingerly. She ought to feel grateful that she wasn’t injured badly, although gratitude at the moment was hard to summon, sitting as she was on the ground covered with cow dung at ten in the morning in her best clothing, and feeling hungry and weak, as well.

Mrs. Dillon rushed out bearing a not-too-clean towel, trying not to laugh at the scene, while Bertha seemed confused about what was going on. Eileen did her best to clean herself up, and she and Bertha soon left in the rented car which had been waiting for them all this time. It was Eileen’s intention to change clothes at the bed and breakfast, say goodbye to Bertha, and catch the next bus to Donegal and do the best she could with what was left of her time at Lough Derg. She wondered if the authorities would allow her to join the group at such a late time, but she would give it a try.

But when Bertha suggested to Eileen that she go with her to Lough Derg, Eileen was speechless. How could she discourage this woman?

“Maybe I haven’t told you how hard Lough Derg can be, Bertha.” Had Bertha listened when she mentioned the fasting, the kneeling, the crawling over sharp stones? Eileen suspected, but was too polite to ask, that Bertha wasn’t even Catholic, and so all of this would be completely foreign to her. But to go to the island like one of the regular pilgrims, was that appropriate? Would it be allowed? Should it be?

“It isn’t at all easy,” she assured Bertha.

“You said you’re allowed a bit of toast and some tea,” Bertha countered.

“I did say that, didn’t I?” She didn’t add that for additional penance, she usually only took water, no tea, no burnt toast. Eileen, being polite, but wanting desperately to be rid of this woman, made up her mind to be firm and say the obvious: It would be impossible for her to join the pilgrimage!

Bertha went to her bag and began unzipping pockets, looking for something. Then she pulled out a thick stack of travelers checks. “I can easily afford for us to go there by car, and if we hurry, we won’t be so late.” She handed the checks to Eileen. There must have been three thousand dollars in checks in hundred-dollar denominations, and to Eileen’s amazement, none were signed. The bank apparently had allowed Bertha to leave without signing the checks. Why, this was the same as having three thousand in cash stuffed in a bag!

“Do you realize,” Eileen scolded her, “that these checks are unsigned? Did the bank give you them like this?”

“I suppose they did. I got them as I recall the day before I left for this trip and it was late and the bank was closing and the people there seemed upset that I was so late in coming in.” The words tumbled out. “Travel is for the young, or it should be, but you don’t have the cash or time it seems when you’re young and want to do it, and feel up to doing things like climbing mountains and other strenuous activities. You know what I mean?”

Eileen nodded, but she wasn’t so sure. She certainly didn’t have the money to do many things now, and she was fairly young, younger by far than Bertha, and she didn’t see where she would have the money later in her life, unless she got awfully lucky, like winning the lottery.

“First thing you need to do, Bertha, is to sign these checks. Right now, I mean.”

She had authority in her voice. And so Bertha signed all the checks, of which there were many, at least three thousand dollars worth.

As Eileen watched her signing, she thought, What harm could it do if the woman traveled to Lough Derg with me? Then she quickly realized she was being tempted by the money and what it might buy. Like a ride to Donegal. Still, how fine it would be to travel to Donegal in a car hire, a taxi, no less. Bertha could easily afford it and the cost wouldn’t be so much if Bertha went out to the island. Surely God wouldn’t be offended, even if the woman might put away a chicken sandwich to get her over the hump. She hadn’t been fasting anyway. Eileen was keeping the fast, but growing weak with all the activity. It was one thing to fast at Lough Derg where food wasn’t all around and others were fasting, too, but here and now, fasting was much more difficult.             Nevertheless, it was decided Bertha would accompany Eileen on her pilgrimage to Lough Derg.

They arrived in Donegal that evening. The boat operator was puzzled as to why anyone would wish to go out at that hour, for surely the Prior out there wouldn’t permit a landing. But when Eileen waved a couple of twenty quid notes in front of his nose, he took them out just the same. He would leave it to the priests to figure out for themselves what to do with the stragglers. It wasn’t his place to make such decisions. He did feel there was a strong possibility the fathers would send them back, so he decided he’d better hang around for a few minutes just in case.

Lough Derg is a tiny place, a spit of land in a large lake. Eileen didn’t know its history and couldn’t answer the many questions Bertha threw in her direction. It was evident that Bertha had been expecting a much larger place, and she began to wonder what she was getting herself into. Eileen had tried to prepare her, but that wasn’t an easy task for someone unaccustomed to listening. Bertha heard what she wanted and tuned out the rest.

On the short boat ride she said only, “I guess I’m really doing it.” Eileen didn’t reply to this obvious statement, thinking instead about what it meant to bring someone with her who had not been fasting, and was not even Catholic. Perhaps even a total non-believer! If Bertha had not offered to pay for the car to Donegal and the boat ride, she never would have allowed this situation to develop. Bertha had put the pressure on, that’s for sure; but there was more to it. To Eileen, it was as if this weekend was meant to unfold as it was unfolding. God’s hand was in all of this. It was meant to be difficult and confusing, just as it had been so far. God wanted this annoying American woman to accompany her on the pilgrimage, and she’d just as well accept it.

Upon their arrival at Lough Derg, the Prior, the Rev. Robert Moynihan, was reluctant to allow them on the island so late, and he questioned why they were coming at all, so long after the main body. Eileen tried to explain, but it did little good. She had warned Bertha that this might happen, and Bertha’s reply was, “Balls! I haven’t come this far not to be admitted. We’ll pay him off.” And she waved a stack of 50 pound notes, drawing the attention of the boatman.

“It won’t be that simple, Bertha,” Eileen warned. But it was that simple. Bertha made a contribution of 200 pounds to the church coffers, and they were allowed in. This astonished Eileen, for she knew the previous Prior, a stern cleric, would never have done so. But this new young cleric must have been more worldly, for he accepted the generous contribution with alacrity.

Eileen wondered what had happened to the former Prior. Had he died? Where would a Prior go after Lough Derg, other than to Heaven? She struggled to remember his name and then it came to her. Father Kehoe. She blessed his soul.

For a Prior, Father Moynihan was a bit too jolly. It was hard for him to be serious in a place where talk was discouraged and what there was was done in hushed tones. So he had to express himself mostly with a generous smile. Moynihan was thick of build, with dark hair combed back severely, without a part. His deep blue eyes were merry, perhaps even mischievous. His late beloved mother used to tell him that such eyes would draw the girls, and he’d better be prepared for that.

And what did this new Prior think of Bertha, dressed as she was, not in modest dress like the Irish women, but in a lavender polyester pantsuit favored by older American women? He warned them that the pilgrimage would be strenuous, both spiritually and physically, and it was quite likely they would not, as Eileen hoped, be able to catch up with the rest as far as the discipline and many prayers.

As they walked toward the women’s hostel, Eileen tried to explain (quietly, of course) what was ahead of them. “The chief penitential exercise is the vigil, in which we must stay awake for twenty-four hours,” she began. “You’ll see.” Bertha had never heard of such a thing. Not to eat, nor sleep either? “The toughest part of what we must do is remain awake, from 10 p.m. tonight to 10 p.m. tomorrow night.”

Was that a groan coming from Bertha, and then a murmur “My God!”

After settling in their Spartan rooms, the two made their way to St. Patrick’s Basilica. At the entrance, they removed their footwear. They could hear people praying in concert, but being late, they began with Station I. The stations were supposed to be completed by 9:30 and it was already past 8. They were hopelessly behind the others, yet in a strange way, Eileen was enjoying herself. I must not have fun, she told herself, feeling immediately guilty.

The floor of the Basilica (which was quite small) was paved with sharp stones, which immediately got Bertha’s attention. “Oh, the rocks certainly are sharp, aren’t they? They could do something about them, it seems to me. A little cement would do wonders. After all, we are barefoot.” She was not speaking quietly, and Eileen had to hush her up, all the while trying not to laugh. Was the woman serious? Didn’t she understand that this was all deliberate?

The other pilgrims had finished the set of stations, and the two stragglers were quite alone, at least they thought so, until they spotted Father Moynihan standing nearby within earshot. It almost looked as if he too were enjoying himself watching the women.

Eileen hadn’t asked Bertha what her religion was, but the fact that she had no relatives in Ireland must mean she was something other than Catholic. She could even be Jewish. So she voiced the question that had been gnawing at her. “You are Catholic, Bertha?”

“Oh my goodness me! My Raymond could never tolerate Catholics. He didn’t like Episcopals either, because they were too Catholic. I was raised Presbyterian, but Ray was Baptist, Southern Baptist, and so I became a Southern Baptist.” Eileen wondered what that was all about. But this was dangerous talk in the present milieu, and she had to shut her up.

“I told you, Bertha, we can’t keep talking.”

“Oh, I forgot, honey.”

That “honey” was a first for Eileen. Oh, these foreigners! What in the world was this woman doing with her? And why had she decided to invite her? For Bertha, it was loneliness, she guessed, but what was Eileen’s excuse? Maybe she was lonely, too. But what company she had selected! Or did it pick her? She really didn’t know.

Bertha was catching on now. If she couldn’t say all the prayers, at least she could move her lips and pretend, so nobody knew for certain. But only the Prior was watching, anyway.

“Not bad for a Southern Baptist,” Bertha whispered to Eileen, who nodded, not really knowing what that was except that it was some Protestant sect. She had never really known a Protestant in her entire life.

After all the walking and kneeling on the sharp stones, Bertha stopped to rub her knees and check out one foot which was bleeding slightly. “You need not go on,” Eileen said gently. “They will take you back to the hostel.”

“Not without you, honey. I’m staying. Did I do it right?”

“You did well,” Eileen said softly. She pitied her after a fashion. She pitied herself as much. Now she was pleased that Bertha was with her. Bertha the Baptist. God forgive her her mistakes, she thought. He must have meant it to be this way or it wouldn’t be happening. He wouldn’t have put her in her path in the quirky way that he did.

It was curious, but Bertha was more suitably dressed for the vigil than was Eileen. Eileen wore a pair of jeans because her slacks had been soiled. These jeans, God help her, had a seam running down the front, which made the trek over sharp stones even more unpleasant. Bertha’s polyester had some give and wore like iron, and so she suffered less—or so it appeared— but due to her age and generally poor condition, it could not be reasonably said that she was having anything approaching a good time. She wasn’t. She was uncomfortable and very tired, but she didn’t complain, though she continued to talk too much. There was nothing much Eileen could do about that.

Meanwhile, Eileen’s knees were especially sore from that seam, that terrible, terrible seam. Discomfort, tiredness, and hunger were one thing, but this punishment from the seam was almost too much to deal with. Yet she plodded on, saying nothing to Bertha. And Bertha was certainly doing all right, considering everything. She was a real trouper. God bless her.

The two rushed a bit through the rest of the required stops, but by morning, they were with the others. They had caught up. They made the 6:30 a.m. mass and morning prayers, and it was shortly after this that they were permitted to take one of their Lough Derg meals (so-called). It consisted of black coffee (no sugar) and burnt dry toast. Bertha had already been forewarned about that. The meal was eaten in silence, though Bertha dared to ask if there were any dessert, knowing very well there would be none this day or any day of the pilgrimage.

After the meal, Eileen reminded her again that she could stop any time she wished, but she knew Bertha would go on, so she decided to say no more about it.

“I know, I know,” Bertha reassured her. “I will stop if I have to, but not yet. How are your knees, honey?”

“Not so great,” Eileen replied. “See this seam—did you ever see jeans with a seam in the middle of the leg?” Bertha smiled, thinking she knew nothing about jeans, never having worn them. “I don’t know if I can stand it,” Eileen complained, which was unusual for her. “But I promised God I would come. He did something for me, so I come to honor his mother.”

Somehow the unlikely pair got through the day and remaining required stations before bed at 10 p.m. Bertha was nearly asleep on her feet and Eileen had to almost prop her up. But she wouldn’t quit. By bedtime, Eileen collapsed, her knees torn painfully by the seams. Bertha looked even more exhausted, but Eileen barely noticed. She took off the wretched jeans, fell into bed, and was soon fast asleep. But Bertha felt called upon to do a little sewing for her injured friend. She took out of her handbag scissors, needle and thread, and in the dim light of the room, cut out those objectionable seams, then cut strips from the matching lavender coat she wore as part of her pantsuit and replaced the cruel seam with a soft patch of sorts. It took her a long time to do this, for her eyesight was poor in the low light, but she prevailed.

No one was aware of what Bertha was engaged in, except for Prior Moynihan, who saw her through the doorway. He hadn’t expected her to last until bedtime, and here she was, up hours beyond that time sewing, of all things. When Bertha finished her work, it was only a very few hours before time to rise again. But she was satisfied she had done a good turn for her friend, and was awake before the appointed time.

When Eileen got up and saw the lavender strip where the seam had once been, she was nearly overcome, but didn’t know what to say, except for a sincere Thank You. Together they went in silence for the closing mass and ninth and final station, and then it was 10 a.m. and time for the boat to leave. To Eileen’s dismay, Bertha had disappeared. She began to worry that she had finally collapsed somewhere of exhaustion, but the Prior came up to speak to her.

“She’s fine. She fell asleep. She will be along soon. A quite remarkable lady, your American friend,” he said with a grin. “By the way, I like your jeans. Might they even be called ‘designer jeans?'” He was jesting.

“I guess they might be,” Eileen said. “They certainly fit like none I’ve ever worn before.” Eileen was about to explain how the jeans came to have a lavender stripe up the front, but the Prior simply put up his hand. “No need to explain at all,” he said. “I understand fully how the change came about. Here your friend comes now.” Bertha hobbled toward them, looking tired as well she might, but smiling too.

“Have a safe journey home, and God bless both of you!”

There is a saying at Lough Derg, Eileen had said on the boat ride in, that if you look back at the island even once as you proceed toward the mainland, it is a sign you will return someday. Eileen had never been able to leave and not look back, and she doubted that many of the pilgrims could forego the temptation.

But Bertha, on the other hand, said “Never, never, never again,” and she didn’t look back, not so much as out of the corner of her eye. She was taking no chances.

­­­___

Raymond Abbott is a social worker in Louisville, Kentucky, having served in VISTA on a South Dakota Indian reservation. He has received a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council.

The Talon’s Grip

by Townsend Walker

 

prawled on the path, her pale skin, cherried lips, and ebony curls pressed against the green mossy stone. A lilac evening dress draped on her. I stared at the corpse. Turned, and saw the husband, seated nearby. A dark haired fellow, clothed in a silk dressing gown and velvet Albert slippers, appearing to enjoy the patter of rain, the scent of mown grass, and the blush of rose petals in early morning, only occasionally glancing at his wife’s body.

“Sir.” I tried to focus the man’s attention. “I am Detective Chief Inspector Turney.”

“Ironic,” Richard Carlyle said, “Irene dead, unable to share this splendid morning.”

An early call from the station had awakened me at home.

I tried again to shake Carlyle from his reverie, “Sir, when did you discover your wife’s body?”

“Oh yes, well I arrived home last evening before she did, woke to find her missing from her bed, searched the house, combed the grounds, then came out here. She rather favored this small garden, you know.”

Carlyle spoke little, perhaps mindful that when one speaks, one often says too much.

“Why hadn’t you come home together?”

“Happened often. Different tolerance for jollity, that sort of thing.”

There were no marks on Irene Carlyle’s face, hands or shoulders. The gown was not ripped or stained. Her face betrayed only an expression of slight surprise. The medical examiner peered closely, said, “Nothing to indicate violence or death by other than natural causes. We’ll know more, early afternoon.”

Carlyle pointed to a slate blue falcon resting on a post at the end of the garden. “Irene’s. Named her Mabel. I find few women are content without an interest, it matters little what—flowers, be they roses or hydrangeas; animals, horses or dogs; or friends, card playing or shopping—as long as pursued avidly. My wife found hers in falcons.”

“Excuse me sir, but your wife is dead, most unexpectedly. She’s lying here in front of you, and you are talking about birds.”

“Yes, the bird business started after she had been up to London one day. At the Wallace, she saw Vernet’s An Algerian Lady Hawking.” He turned toward me. “Have you seen it? Um, perhaps not.” I feigned indifference at the implied slight. “It portrays a woman in a flowing gossamer blouse, astride a magnificent white steed, seated on a crimson saddle, with a bird on the hand. This became Irene’s new self-image.”

There was little point continuing the conversation. Reality had slipped from Carlyle’s grasp. I told my men to trawl the house and grounds for clues. Carlyle requested only that they complete their work in the small garden first. He intended to do some pruning and talk to Mabel about the morning. “Figuratively, you understand, Chief Inspector.”

“I’ll be leaving one of my men here Mr. Carlyle, to keep an eye on things and see evidence is not disturbed.”

*      *     *     *     *

I returned to Pembroke Hall a little past one. In the house white flowers replaced the multi-hued ones there this morning. Carlyle was sitting at a small table nibbling on cheese and slices of cold beef. A bottle of claret caught the light, perhaps a glass left.

“Sorry to disturb your lunch, but I thought you would be interested in the medical examiner’s preliminary findings.”

“I was reminiscing about the times Irene and I vacationed in Morocco and India. That lovely hotel with the tiled arcade in Marrakesh, the chalk white inn above the caravan route at Ouarzazate, the palace in Jaipur with peacocks performing at breakfast and a subterranean blue and gold mosaic lined pool. One misses those things. Since the bird arrived a year ago, those adventures have been curtailed. Haven’t been anywhere.”

“Your wife died of asphyxiation. Most likely, someone smothered her. The examiner found some bluish discoloration around her mouth and nose, something we didn’t observe in this morning’s light. Also, congestion in the nose and sinus–typical in these cases.”

“So she stopped breathing.”

“Was stopped from breathing, sir.”

Carlyle nodded.

“And it seems she had consumed a considerable quantity of alcohol.”

“Not unusual.”

“May I ask about the relationship between you and your late wife?”

“We lived together.”

“Is that all?”

“What more can one say?”

I stared out the window and saw a deer crossing the lawn. This chap seemed two biscuits short of a tin. “Tell me, Mr. Carlyle who would want your wife dead?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. None whatsoever.” Carlyle paused. “I don’t suppose that affair in London could have come back to haunt her. You remember, some ten years ago, the financier Sir George Bagot, Defense Secretary Thomson, and the showgirls. She was Irene Scarletti then.”

I did recall the scandal about government funds finding their way through a sham insurance company for a military project outside of Cairo. “We’ll look into it, but after this time, I’m sure most of the actors have moved on.”

I made to leave, put my hand in my pocket for the keys and came on some papers. “Oh, by the way, my people found these papers crumpled in the bookcase. Something from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Do you know anything about it?”

Carlyle turned, leaned forward, glanced at the paper, then shrugged. “Only that Irene was quite keen. I’ve never seen it.”

*      *      *     *     *

Carlyle’s preoccupation with the falcon was bizarrely out of place. I rang up a Mr. Elliott, a falconer of local repute. According to him, Irene Carlyle had devoted hours to Mabel: manning (acculturating to humans, becoming accustomed to the falconer, learning to associate food with the glove). Then training to hunt: the jesses and creances. Finally, she bought a telemetry transmitter for free flight hunting.

“She was uncommonly proud of that bird. When Mabel killed her first pigeon, her mistress had a taxidermist mount one of the prey’s wings. All that was left.” The disapproving curl of the lip was audible over the phone.

Elliott had been present at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when Mrs. Carlyle walked in. The plight of the northern harrier was being discussed. The impending loss of its habitat in Scotland to building speculators aroused the birding contingent.

“The lady pledged some millions of pounds against the purchase of land for a sanctuary. As if the sum were a pittance.” Days after the meeting, Elliott was still unable to recount the event without stumbling over his words.

Mrs. Carlyle, on the other hand, was promptly promised (“though not guaranteed,” Elliott noted) a presentation to the Queen and an O.B.E. for her generosity. Her Majesty is patron of the RSPB. After hanging up I put Sergeant Oliver Sellman, one of my brighter lads, up from Cambridge, on the trail of the Carlyle’s finances.

Next morning, I came back to the Hall with more questions. Could Carlyle prove he came directly home? Never left his bed until morning?

No, he could not corroborate his movements. He recited events as they occurred: he and his wife went to the ball. Sipped champagne. Danced. Dined on pheasant. Played cards (he, whist, she, bridge). Heavy stakes at the bridge table required she stay longer and so he left and went home to bed.

“The Moncrieff’s, I believe it was Sara, or perhaps Hugh, I’m not sure who, volunteered to bring her home.”

“Did you sleep soundly?” I asked, wondering how natural the reply might be.

“I did. I’d been riding earlier in the day with some younger fellows and they rather extended me.” Carlyle sat back in his chair, thinking I’d be satisfied with the reply.

“Their names, please.”

“What? You doubt me?” Carlyle sat up, as if on horseback.

“In cases like this, we need to verify everything. Speaking of which, as your wife seems to have been suffocated, we’ll be sending the cushions and pillows in the sitting room and library to the laboratory in London to examine them for fingerprints and fluids.”

“Why London?”

“Very special equipment. Quite new. The materials are placed in a vacuum chamber, gold is heated up and spread like a film over the fabric. Then zinc is heated. It attaches to the gold where there are no fingerprint residues. The fingerprints are revealed as the fabric. Somewhat like a photo negative.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman stumbled into my office, a jumble of chairs, filing cabinets, and chalk boards, all dominated by my large wooden desk piled high with folders and papers. The walls were covered with some of my water colors of the Lake District. I’m a keen hiker and amateur painter. Not poor, I’ll admit. A few ribbons at local shows.

“I persuaded Mrs. Carlyle’s solicitor to share with me the principal terms of her will.”

“Good show, Oliver.”

“A small annuity to Mabel. Jewelry to her sister. The flat on Eaton Place, number 31 (three units in addition to one under the stairs) and five million pounds in Treasury bonds were left to her husband. And, the contents of a safe deposit box and numbered account in a Swiss bank to a woman in Bologna.”

“Someone connected to the Thomson affair, I presume,” the Inspector mused.

“And I know you’re not interested and it’s probably not relevant,” Sellman rushed on, “But I found out that number 31 has a bit of a history. Alan Lerner wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady in the maisonette on top and Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, kept the under stairs flat as a chamber close for his liaisons with other men.”

“No, not relevant, but an interesting sidelight, if one is fond of the West End, or politics.”

“Yes sir.”

“The amount on the RSPB pledge form would have left Carlyle a poor man,” I reckon. “I wonder if he could have held on to Pembroke Hall.”

“I suppose he was aware of the pledge.”

“Elliott, the falconer, was there when the pledge was made. He was under the distinct impression that it was a spur of the moment thing on her part.”

“So it would appear that since, or because of, the death of his wife, Mr. Carlyle is without a financial care.”

“It would.”

*     *     *     *     *

As I walked up the path to the Moncrieff’s manor, the scene of Mrs. Carlyle’s last party, I heard shouts and cries from inside. I rapped on the door, wasn’t heard over the barking man and bawling woman, rapped again, finally pushed the door, found it unlocked, and hesitantly stepped into the foyer. Sara and Hugh stood at opposite ends of the space framed by tall wooden arches, open mouthed, red faced, whirling their arms, hurling invectives at one another. As they caught sight of me, they quieted.

“Perhaps I should come back at another time?”

“Please, do come in.” Mrs. Moncrieff swept her welcoming arms towards a nearby room. “You’re here about our dear Irene, I’m sure.”

Sara Moncrieff was a tall willowy woman, chestnut hair, and freckled, more and more apparently as the angry red drained down to her neck and chest. I noticed her arms, the prominent musculature of a horsewoman. We went into the library where we sat another around a low mahogany table.

“Something to drink, Chief Inspector?” Moncrieff offered heartedly, as if to a long lost friend.

“Water will be fine.”

“A sherry,” she said.

Moncrieff returned balancing a tray with my water, his wife’s sherry, and a tumbler of whiskey. He offered a sharp contrast to his wife: short, stocky, bright blue eyes, and broken-blood-vessel ruddy cheeks.

“Before we talk of the night of Irene Carlyle’s murder, what do you know about them?”

Sara Moncrieff started. “I heard Richard found her somewhere on the Cote d’Azur, lying low after the scandal in London. You know the one I’m talking about?”

I nodded.

“It was the perfect match—she was pretty, vivacious and had a bundle, apparently a payoff. He was landed gentry in a quiet spot of the country, sophisticated, with a manor going . . .” she paused.

Her husband barged in, “Say it, dammit woman, Pembroke Hall was going to ruins.  The disgrace of the county.”

This confirmed what Carlyle told me and what I’d picked up from an internet search and talking to others in the village about Pembroke.

“The night of your ball, Mr. Carlyle said one of you offered to drive his wife back to Pembroke. He had left earlier.”

“You have it turned around, Chief Inspector,” Moncrieff said, “She left first. Richard wanted to stay on.”

“I see. But, which of you drove her?”

“Was it you Hugh darling?” with an emphasis on ‘darling’ that suggested the contrary.

“Don’t you remember, it was you, old girl?” he snapped.

“Why it was. I remember now. I had to help poor Irene up the stairs and ended up setting her down in a chair in the library. I simply couldn’t carry her further.”

“Did you see anyone?” I asked. “She was found in the garden.”

“I know, poor thing. No one, but then I’d drunk a bit more than usual.”

“Than what, darling?” he interjected.

“Than usual. So you see Chief Inspector, a thing or two may have escaped me.”

“Or many things,” Moncrieff added.

“Darling,” she insisted, “we have a guest.”

I stood up and walked about, to create a different mood. “So it appears you were the last to see her alive.”

“Oh dear, I hope I said something nice to her.” Sara Moncrieff twisted her hands as if perhaps she hadn’t.

“I’m sure you did,” her husband said. “You are always considerate and sweet tempered to the wives of your male friends.”

“Especially in these times,” she said.

“These times?”

I lost the thread of the conversation.

Moncrieff leaned forward, face flushed a second time from having consumed a tumbler of whiskey. “Our Irene had become quite batty these recent months.  First the falcon, then the affectation with all those gauzy dresses. She’d become one of those bloody 70s hippies, back to nature, communing with birds, money the root of evil sort of thing, except when it came to that damn falcon.”

“Poor Richard was beside himself,” Mrs. Moncrieff added. “The money to run Pembroke was hers, and though she put a million or so into it when she arrived, it forever needs repairs.”

“Ah yes, poor Richard, who must be at every function we hold, so extraordinarily handsome, such a conversationalist, life of the party, according to my Sara, who knows him intimately.”

She got up from her chair and walked to the end of the room. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure it is relevant to the Chief Inspector’s enquiry,” he said.

“What do you mean, Mr. Moncrieff?” I asked.

She offered, “What Hugh means is that he thinks Richard and I are having an affair.”

“And you’re not.” I said.

“The very idea!” she shot back, outraged by her husband’s insinuation, but not exactly denying it.

Moncrieff lowered his lids over his eyes, slumped in the chair, and mumbled.

“If there is nothing more, I’ll be leaving,” I said. “Please let me know should you decide to leave the county for any reason.

“Let me walk you out to your car, Chief Inspector.”

At the car, Moncrieff proffered, “Something you should know about Richard’s property deals. He’s a clever sort, especially at cards. He’ll be in the middle of recounting the most wickedly funny and salacious story, seemingly paying no attention to the game, and then turns five winning tricks in a go. But from what I’ve heard, he’s been terribly unsuccessful freeing himself from his dependence on Irene’s money. Never a detail man. He never says anything, but his type always resent relying on others.”

“His type?

“The land poor upper classes at middle age.”

*     *     *     *     *

I went over to Pembroke in the evening, finding only one of the servants about, a young maid named Mary, a rosy cheeked, fair complexioned lass. Carlyle explained that his wife was most keen on having staff live in the village, not at the Hall, but last night he’d been uncomfortable in the large house and proposed someone might stay a week or two while he became accustomed to the quiet.

“Everyone begged off the duty, except young Mary here.”

I’d seen Mary around town and overheard my young constables chatting about her. Last summer she’d blossomed. Noticeably. And her spending went more to lipstick and eye liner than larger blouses. When Mary brought us whiskey and sodas, Carlyle’s languid eyes, and her mincing step suggested there may have been more to Mary’s duties than answering the door and cleaning.

“One more thing before I go. The night of the party, the Moncrieff’s seem to think that your wife left first.”

“Curious. I looked around and someone that told me she was caught up in a game of bridge.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember who told you?”

Carlyle cocked his head in a “no.”

I walked toward the door, and as a last minute thought, asked, “Tell me, what were the relations between Mr. Moncrieff and your wife? Anything more than good neighbors?”

“I rather had suspicions of something going on between them.”

“And you and Mrs. Moncrieff?”

“Really, Chief Inspector. You’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.”

Mary showed me to the door. As she opened it, I asked her, “We understand from the RSPB that they sent a letter by Royal Mail Sameday to Mrs. Carlyle the morning she died. Did you see the letter in the post?”

“Well, the Mister was there beside me when the post arrived and took it, actually he more like grabbed it from me hand, said he’d deliver it to the Missus.” She reached for my hand, “Sir, about . . .” And then Carlyle called her from the library. “Later,” she said, in an urgent whisper.

*     *     *     *     *

The next afternoon, when I walked into the station, Sergeant Sellman was there typing up reports. “Oliver, grab a cup of tea, one for me and let’s see where we are.”

“So, who wanted her dead?”

“Her husband, so her money didn’t go to the birds.” Sellman knew me better than to add literally. “Add to that the RSPB pledge form he claimed he knew nothing about, despite having grabbed it from Mary.”

Sellman looked back at his notes. “Then there’s Sara Moncrieff, a rival for Carlyle’s affections who might have wanted her out of the way.”

“And/or might have wanted retribution for the alleged affair between her husband and Mrs. Moncrieff,” I thought. “Or, welcomed an opportunity to switch husbands and enjoy Mrs. Carlyle’s money. Hugh Moncrieff is a bully, in addition to being borderline alcoholic.”

Sellman looked up at the ceiling and shook his head, “You know, sir, I don’t understand these people, their affairs.”

“Simple, my boy. Life can be quiet in the country.  When we lot want a bit of fun, we go down to the pub for a pint or two. That lot, they go up to the bedroom for a shag.”

“Both of them had an opportunity to smother her. Didn’t take much, given her condition. But we haven’t found the cushion or pillow that was used. Those we sent up to London for testing came back with only the servants’ prints on them.”

“Oliver, talk to Mary. Find out if she found anything amiss the next morning during her cleaning rounds.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“Not so fast. If you’ve noticed, and it’s hard to believe you haven’t, this young girl is aching to get out of the village. From my experience, there are two ways, the right way and the wrong way. She appears bent on the latter.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman later reported that he found Mary at the chemist’s. “May I ask you some questions about your former mistress?”

“It’ll cost ya a tea and scone.”

They went to Bea’s Tea Room. I know the place, cozy with lace curtains, butter yellow walls and floral print chair covers. Mary said the day Mrs. Carlyle died, as every day, she counted the pillows on the chairs in the main salon and found one missing.

“She was quite particular, was the lady, didn’t trust a soul. Thought everybody was out to pinch something from her. Such a habit counting I had, even though she were a gonner, I did it anyway.”

“And did you find it?” Sellman said he nearly leaped across the table with hope.

Justified, when Mary said, “It was days later, stuffed into the linen closet, of all places. So put it back where it belonged, didn’t I. Now the others were brought back.”

Sellman bribed Mary with another scone and she took him back to Pembroke to recover the pillow.

*      *     *     *     *

After the tests on the new-found pillow were in, Sellman and I drove out to Carlyle’s house at day end. No one answered our knock. We opened the door and went through the house into the garden. Carlyle was stretched out on the chaise with a drink, Mabel on his arm. The setting sun ignited the yellow roses climbing the east wall. The remains of a cold plate and bottle of wine were on the table. A man at his ease. We watched him savor his last minutes of freedom. As the sun fell behind the wall, a murmuration of starlings traced wide circles in the evening sky.

Mabel sounded “kak, kak, kak.”

Carlyle loosened Mabel’s jesses and flung the bird into the sky. She climbed slowly, high above the starlings, wheeled, then dove and struck.

___

Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. A novella in noir, La Ronde, was published by Truth Serum Press in June 2015. Some seventy-five short stories have been published in literary journals and included in ten anthologies. He has received two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award; first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. He is currently writing a screenplay based on La Ronde and a novel based on original collage works of Beverly Mills. His website is www.townsendwalker.com