Robin Ray is a musician/author from Seattle, WA. His literary output includes poetry, short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels and screenplays. His short fiction has been published in Red Fez, Darkest Before the Dawn, Flash Fiction Online, Aphelion, and Enchanted Conversation.
Once upon a time, a grain miller and his wife tried for years to have a child, but as fortune wasn’t in their favor, they had no such luck. The other people in the village thought the couple were cursed, or perhaps did something in their past lives which they’re now paying for, but the childless couple knew better. If going along without a progeny was written in the stars then so be it. No use in crying over what was out of their control.
One day, the female, Mrs. Miller, went down to a stream just outside the village to fetch a bucket of water. When she dipped the wooden container in the cool brook, she heard a faint whimper coming from behind. Curious, she stopped moving to listen closely to whatever had made the sound. After a few moments, when the sound wasn’t heard again, she continued her task. As she scooped out the bucket load of water, she heard the whimper again, this time, louder than before. Eyeing a shrub not too far away, she tiptoed over to see what animal was perhaps in dire need of aid. Laying the bucket on the ground, she carefully parted the thistled hedgrerow. When she saw what was whimpering, she shrieked, panicked, quickly reversed and tripped over the bucket. Water went spilling everywhere as she regained her composure. Getting up she returned to the shrub and, once again, parted it. In front of her, laying naked on the ground, was a baby no more that a few weeks old. Unlike the other babies in her particular village, however, this one was black, as black as a starless night. Feeling sorry for the shivering little tyke, the miller’s wife removed her apron, wrapped the youngster in it, and promptly brought her home. When her husband saw her he, too, was somewhat startled. Nevertheless, considering her a gift from Heaven, he named her Lamp Black for that is what she reminded him of.
Lampie, as her friends often called her, grew up to become a precocious child. An excellent speller, she always won the quizzes conducted by the village’s school teacher. As the years passed, her other talents came to the fore. She showed shepherds a better way of herding sheep. She showed craftsmen how to better utilize their etching knives in whittling soft wood into fantastic shapes. She introduced cooks to a new kind of thick, creamy, tasty, stomach-filling soup using ingredients already at their disposal. She even helped designed a new, efficient windmill which did three things at once - crush grain, deliver water, and aid in twisting vines to create ropes much stronger than the villagers ever had before. Indeed, Lampie was quite an asset to her little hamlet. Everyone loved her, and so did the boys, especially since she grew up to be quite an attractive lass. Unfortunately, a few girls became jealous of the attention she was receiving and often wasted no time in talking behind her back as only true gossipers would. One day, when she was down by the stream fetching a bucket of water, two girls about the same age as her from town approached.
“Snow White! Rose Red!” Lampie called when she saw them coming. “I haven’t seen you two in a while.”
“Don’t patronize us!” Snow White shot back.
Lampie was taken aback by her friend’s brusqueness. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Stop pretending you’re so innocent,” Rose Red explained. “We know what you’re up to.”
“What do you mean?” the confused water carrier asked.
“You show off to all the boys,” Snow White exclaimed. “Short ones, tall ones, fat ones, skinny ones…doesn’t matter to you. You hook ‘em in with your smart inventions and addictive food, but we know what you are.”
“And what’s that?” Lamp Black asked.
“A witch,” Rose Red ascertained.
Lampie started laughing. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she swore.
“Really?” Rose Red asked. “No one knows where you came from or how you know so many things.”
“And I’ve seen Moors,” Snow White added, “and none of them are as black as you.”
“And that makes me a witch?” Lampie asked.
“Then, how else else can you explain it?” Rose Red wondered. “How come no one has come to claim you all these years? How could you suddenly solve mechanical problems in the village that generations of artisans couldn’t? How could you know all these different ways of threshing grain that no one has done before? Sounds like witchcraft to me.”
“You two are being absurd,” Lamp Black moaned. “I’m just going to ignore you at this time and return to my work.”
“Oh, no, you’re not,” Snow White promised.
Just then, six young men entered the area from the surrounding forest. One of them was carrying a giant net while the others were dragging a canoe with foodstuffs in a sack in it. Lampie, quickly reading the writing on the wall, dropped her pail and started to run. Rose Red, a champion sprinter in her younger school days, darted after the fleeing maiden and, mere moments later, tackled her on a grassy knoll. Lampie started fighting back. To her surprise, Rose Red held her own. Despite her pale, skinny arms, she was as strong as a tiger. Seconds later, Snow White and the young men caught up to the sparring duo. In no time, they restrained the struggling lass and cast the net over her.
“Amazing,” Rose Red whined, catching her breath. “She’s as fast and feisty as a cobra.”
“I guess you met your match,” Snow White told her red-haired friend.
“Let me out of here!” Lampie yelled, struggling to free herself from the net.
“Oh,” Rose Red assured her, “you’ll be let out…far away from here.”
“Help!” Lampie shouted. “Help!”
“Hush, girl,” Snow White warned her. “You’re too far in the woods to be heard.”
“Wait till my parents hear of this!” Lampie castigated them.
“Easy come, easy go,” Rose Red taunted her.
“What does that mean?” the captured young woman asked.
“When your parents realize you’ve gone,” Rose boasted, “they’ll just see it as you rediscovering your roots and returning back to where you came from.”
“Just so you know,” Snow White confessed, “not everybody in the village likes you.”
“That’s a lie!” Lampie asserted.
“It’s only because your parents are well respected that you’ve lasted this long,” Snow White assured her. “Behind your back you should hear the names the people call you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Lamp Black scolded her.
“Midnight Child, Charcoal Sister, Sootie...” Snow White elucidated.
“Black Rose, Blackstone, Blacksnake,” Rose Red added. “Should we go on?”
Lamp Black, beginning to feel the painful sting of the village’s betrayal, started sobbing.
“That’s not true,” she cried. “You’re lying.”
“People only opened their arms to you because they didn’t know if they could trust you,” Rose Red explained. “Face it, you’re different. People are cautious of those that are different. You’re not one of us. You’ll never be one of us.”
“Then, let me go,” Lampie countered, “and let the villagers tell me so themselves.”
“Too late for that,” Snow White explained.
Lampie gazed at the long faces of the young men who’d capture her. At least half of them she knew.
“Billy Blue,” she pleaded to the shortest member. “We grew up together. I taught you how to tie all different kinds of knots. Why are you doing this?”
Embarrassed, and barely unable to look his ex-classmate in the face, Billy silently stared at his feet.
“And you,” she said to another young man, “Peter Rich, the magistrate’s son. Didn’t we have a lot of laughs together, you and I?”
Like Billy, Peter also couldn’t look Lampie in the face.
“We planted a lot of fields together, Young Starling,” she said to a third. “As a matter of fact, you used to have my back when kids from neighboring villages picked on me. How can you do this now?”
“Maybe,” Starling began, somewhat forlornly, “maybe everybody’s right. You don’t belong here.”
“Do you really believe that, Starling?” Lampie asked. “After all we’ve been through, like a brother and sister?”
“You’re not my sister!” he abruptly blurted out, shaking Lamp Black to her core.
“Take her already,” Rose Red commanded the sextet. “It’s getting late and all this sentimental back and forth nonsense is giving me a headache.”
Thus, the six young men from the village placed their struggling victim in the canoe and dragged it towards the beach not far from where they stood. Then each man, grabbing an oar, sailed off into the great expanse while Snow White and Rose Red watched from the shore.
For six unbearable days and nights, Lamp Black tried her best to deal with the improbable journey. All her pleas to the six boatmen went unanswered. In fact, they were so ill-prepared for the journey that they decided to cut their voyage short. Originally, they were headed off to Maereus, the Isle of Lost Souls, an island so bleak that it is rumored those who stepped foot on it were never heard from again. A virtual prison, it required no high fences or towering balustrades as it was surround by countless man-eating sea creatures of all shapes, colors and sizes. However, because the sextet were running out of food, and catching fish proved more irksome than fruitful, they agreed to drop her off at the next inlet they came upon.
It didn’t take long before they saw a bay that, from all outward appearances, seemed calm. Assured that she might perhaps survive in that wilderness and, therefore, allow them to sleep guiltlessly, they oared towards it.
“Where is this?” Lamp Black asked weakly, she herself starving for food.
“Doesn’t matter,” Young Starling retorted. “The Isle of Lost Souls is just too far to sail to in this dinghy.”
“Is that where we were headed?” Lampie asked. “Why?” she cried. “What did I do to deserve this?”
“What’s done is done,” Starling claimed. “Perhaps you’ll learn your lesson from this experience.”
“What lesson?” she asked. “I did nothing to deserve this treatment.”
“Who are we to argue with the fact that you are but a trespasser?” Starling inquired, hoping to receive no response from the dismayed captive.
“Did you ever stop to think that maybe I was a gift to our village?” she asked him.
“You are free to ponder any question you like,” Starling said as the boat touched the shore. “You’ll have lots of time.”
“Please, Starling,” Lampie pleaded again. “Don’t do this. Snow White and Rose Red are evil. They’ve corrupted you, all of you. Can’t you see that? Jealousy has led them to this.”
“Come on, girlie,” he said as the other men helped carry her off the canoe.
Laying her on the beach in the net, Young Starling removed a sharpened stone knife from his waistband and placed it on the beach not far from her reach.
“I’d cut you loose,” he remarked, “but you’d attack us and then we’d be forced to do something we will regret later. At least that knife will help you survive in this wilderness. Goodbye, Lamp Black, and good luck.”
Lampie cussed the six sailors as they returned to the canoe and sailed off towards their homeland. Looking at the sky, it was apparent that night would soon fall. Inching towards the knife, she secured it and freed herself from the net. Then, standing up, she surveyed the area with great intensity. As beaches went, this one was no different. Covered with shells and driftwood, she ambled along the soft sand, the net slung over her shoulder, hoping to find some sign that people were present. Nearly an hour later, and with no signs of human life in sight, she discovered the shoreline in front of her stopped at a small mountain of rocks which dropped off into the ocean. Delving into the nearby forest, she hoped perhaps she’d have better luck than she did on the beach. As night fell, and with seemingly no end to the forest, she returned to the beach where, at least, berries thrived in the shrubs not far from shore. Indulging in both green and black ones, she gorged herself until she could eat no longer then, folding the net into a pillow, lay down beneath the moonlight and cried herself to sleep.
Early the next day, and already tired of eating just berries, the deserted maiden decided to try her hand at fishing. Remembering that she’d passed a tree which leaned out over the sea, she returned to the spot down the beach, climbed the leaning tree’s relatively thin trunk, and headed up towards the branches. Fastening a long end of the net to a branch, she eased the rest of it down to the water below and, while she waited for fish to swim past, sang herself a song her mother used to sing to her.
Lampie, Lampie, don’t you cry
Papa’s ship is sailing by
Close your arms and make a wish
Mama’ll make your fav’rite dish.
The exiled lass started crying thinking about her mother and father. She even recalled what her fav’rite dish was. Just then, she noticed gentle motion from the rope hanging from the tree. Quickly, she pulled the net out of the water. In it were an armful of denizens of the sea.
“Fish!” she exclaimed, using nearly the exact same voice she did when her mother had completed her little tune.
After cleaning 1/4th of the fish, roasting them over a spit, and eating her fill, she filleted the rest and laid them out on leaves to dry in the sun. These she would eat later. Even though they would be pungent to smell, simply salting them in the sea water would make them palatable.
It didn’t take long for days to turn into weeks and weeks into months as Lamp Black acclimated herself to life in the distant land. Because of her warm, outgoing personality, she made friends with a few of the woodland animals she’d encountered. A hare with white feet she named White Socks. A deer with no tail she called No Tail. A fox who’d lost an eye, perhaps to disease or an accident, was called One Eye. The quartet were, essentially, kindred spirits as they were outsiders from their own kith and kin, and although Lampie pined to return home, at least she had good company in the friends she’d acquired.
One day, Lampie, White Socks, No Tail and One Eye went for a walk deep into the woods. Just for fun, they liked to travel to places they’d never been to before. Lamp Black, the strongest of the quartet, carried the net, which was full of food, over her shoulder. Arriving at a newly discovered area, White Socks started feeling jittery. Refusing to continue, he started thumping his hind legs in fright. Looking up ahead, all Lampie could see was a collection of trees that were typical in appearance. Several sky-high pines were arranged in a near perfect line, but other than that, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“White Socks,” she spoke to him, “why are you fearful? There’s nothing here to be scared of.”
The poor hare, barely listening to a word Lampie uttered, started reversing back from where they’d just came from.
“Don’t leave, White Socks,” she pleaded. “It’s because of you we have all these delicious roots to eat.”
The deserted maiden’s words fell on deaf ears as White Socks disappeared.
“I’ll never understand hares,” she groaned.
Onward, the remaining three continued. Several yards past the pines, No Tail started feeling jittery and refused to continue; his wobbly limbs exhibited this fear. Looking ahead, all Lamp Black could see were a near perfect row of oak trees. Other than that nothing else seemed out of the ordinary.
“No Tail,” she spoke to him,” why are you fearful? There’s nothing here to be scared of.”
The poor deer, barely listening to a word Lampie uttered, started reversing back from where they’d just came from.
“Don’t leave, No Tail,” she pleaded. “It’s because of you we have all these delicious nuts to eat.”
Lampie was talking to herself because, by the time she’d finished her spiel, the deer was no where to be found.
“I’ll never understand deer,” she lamented.
She then turned to the fox. “Well, One Eye,” she told him, “I guess it’s just you and me.”
The fox nodded as they continued their journey. Several yards past the oaks, they came to a clearing in the forest. A few yards ahead of them was a small quaint hut made from branches and twigs, no doubt, garnered from the very forest they were in. To the left of the hut was a life-sized statue of a growling bear. To the right was a life-sized statue of a roaring lion. What made the statues so unique was, instead of being constructed of alabaster, wood or clay, they appeared to be made solely from water. The eerie sight made the fox freeze in his tracks, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up straight. Lampie, eyeing the house, thought it looked ordinary, but unlike the animals, she was ecstatic to finally come into contact with a human again. She turned to her last companion.
“One Eye,” she spoke to him, “why are you fearful? There’s nothing here to be scared of.”
The poor fox, barely listening to a word his human friend uttered, started reversing back from where they’d just came from.
“Don’t leave, One Eye,” she pleaded. “It’s because of you we have all these delicious berries to eat.”
The fox, scared out of his wits, failed to say goodbye to her as he disappeared into the forest. Lampie shook her head.
“I’ll never understand foxes,” she revealed.
Turning to face the little house, she eyed it with curiosity. I wonder who lives here? she asked herself. From where she stood she could see a light on in the hut. Cautiously, she approached the remote cottage, listening intently for any sounds which would be a warning to keep her distance. She then scrutinized both statues, dipping a finger in each, wetting it in the process. Impossibly, both animals were sculpted from water. How can this be? she pondered. Water statues? Still disbelieving her eyes, she rolled up the sleeve on her right arm, stuck her arm straight through the bear statue, then passed it from left to right in her quest for something solid. Retrieving her arm, she wiped the water off it and rolled her sleeve back down. What manner of trickery is this? she asked herself. Just then the front door squeaked open; a short, hunchbacked old woman with a kind face exited with an empty bucket and a hand shovel. Lampie introduced herself.
“Good afternoon,” she began. “My name is Lamp Black. I thought I was alone in this forest.”
The old woman stopped and eyed the stranger. It had been so long since she’d spoken to anyone that she almost forgot how to speak.
“Hello, dearie,” she finally greeted the traveler. “Are you lost?”
“I was exiled here many months ago by my own people,” Lampie explained, “because they suddenly said I was trespassing.”
“What do you mean?” the elderly female inquired.
“Have you noticed,” Lampie asked, “that my skin is blacker than black?”
“That’s why you were exiled?”
“Yes,” the young forlorn mistress answered. “I was discovered in a stream by a childless couple who raised me as their own. All went well for years, but eventually, all dark secrets are revealed one way or another.”
“And you were betrayed,” the old woman guessed.
“I was betrayed,” Lampie repeated, nodding in exasperation.
“Do you want revenge on those who wronged you?” the elder stranger asked.
“Oh, no,” Lamp Black quickly answered. “That is not my way. I harbor no ill will towards them. In fact, I’ve spent many nights contemplating their actions from their point of view.Who am I to judge right from wrong?”
“I see,” the old woman said. “That’s quite noble of you. Still, I’d love to stay and chat more, but as you can see,” she elucidated by hoisting her shovel and empty bucket, “I’m off to the woods to dig up whatever edible root I can find.”
“Oh,” Lampie smiled, laying her own filled sack down on the ground between them. “There’s no need for that. As you can see,” she added, displaying all the contents of her net, “you can have your fill right here.”
The old woman’s eyes lit up like a star in the night. Laying her tools aside, she started handling the collection of nuts, berries and edible roots with care, relishing the feeling in her crooked little hands.
“Beautiful,” she exclaimed. “What are you selling these for?”
“They’re not for sale,” Lampie assured her. “You can have them. Help yourself to whatever you like.”
“Really?” the old woman asked. “No tricks?”
Lampie laughed. “I see now why you live alone,” she chuckled. “Mankind has been bad to you with their broken promises and deceitful ways.”
“That’s right,” the old woman nodded. “You’re quite astute. Since you’re willing to help me out, I am willing to return the favor. I can teach you things that will make you powerful, more so that you can imagine.”
“Tell me,” Lampie asked, “how are these water statues keeping their shape?”
“I can teach you how to do that, too,” the stranger answered simply. “My name is Markette.”
“Are you a witch?” Lampie asked.
Markette chuckled. “I haven’t heard that word in years,” she revealed. “There are secrets I know and things that I can do that some may label me a conjurer or diviner, and others may label as witch, but personally, I don’t care for that word. It seems too…evil. Years ago, when I did live amongst your world, they called me the Water Witch because of my ability to manipulate water. It’s just a gift I have but earned me the disdain of the people, so I had to leave. I am in exile, but unlike you, by choice.”
“Then you understand how I feel,” Lampie guessed.
“Lamp,” Markette said, “you are free to stay in my home as long as you like.”
“I would like that,” the precocious youngster nodded. “I think I can learn a lot from you.”
“And I, as well,” Markette said. “Come, let me show you how I prepare roots. You will find my recipes to be the most enticing things your tongue has ever tasted.”
And so began the tutelage of Lamp Black by the so-called sorceress the Water Witch, a schooling that would last for seven years. Theirs was a truly symbiotic relationship as they did learn and grow from each other. Markette, at her age, thought she’d learned all she possibly could in life, but Lampie brought her a gift she’d rarely had any use for – compassion. For instance, the old woman, who already had a handle on animal behavior, gained new insight into the local fauna and came to respect their kingdom as much as her student did. Lampie also had a few tricks up her sleeve in reference to cooking, and through her, Markette discovered how to prepare new ways for the old roots. And, to the elder woman’s surprise, she had no idea that, for years, she simply grazed past wild plants she could’ve consumed, roots and all. Soon, because of her protégé, she came to identify and appreciate the purplish, large-leaved burdock, the corn taste-a-like cattail, the bushy chicory with their light blue flowers, the white-flowered wood sorrel whose roots tasted a bit like potatoes, and many others, including the easy to find dandelion which she never suspected could be eaten once the roots are boiled and seasoned to taste.
As an apprentice, Lampie was a quick and eager student. She learned the history and art of divining; that is, using Y-shaped dowsing rods to help locate sources of ground water. She also learned not only how to predict weather but also the total amount of rainfall expected. Although there were countless failures after failures, she eventually did learn how to create water spouts from streams and seas, how to part the rain from falling on her when she went out for a stroll, how to manipulate sea waves to move objects such as shells, driftwood and fish, and even how to sculpt images using water alone. Lampie’s growth was astonishing, but it also made Markette nervous. In case her young charge became corrupted by her gifts, she purposefully didn’t teach her all she knew. The student, however, guessed that the old lady was holding back from teaching her everything, but Markette swore she had nothing else to impart.
One day, when the elderly woman went scouting for some edible roots, the supremely inquisitive Lampie started rifling through the tomes Markette had thought she’d kept well hidden high above a wood beam in a box near the ceiling. Perusing quickly, she soon learned about sea cucumbers, unusual animals that can liquefy themselves by unhooking the bonds that keep their cells together. More importantly, she learned that even a human could turn into water if they knew how to manipulate the same forces of nature. She also learned that, through manipulation of similar forces, she could change her skin color like a chameleon, from black to white to all the shades between. Fascinated by her discoveries, Lampie studied the books whenever her teacher wasn’t around, that is to say, very often; the times she was alone she poured into the forbidden manuals as deeply as she could. First, she learned how to submerge her hand in water and watch as it became water, incredulously mixing in and becoming invisible with the clear liquid in the trough. Eventually, she learned not only how to turn her whole body into water but also how to turn it into a stream, puddle, raindrops, or anything else that involved water. Proud as she was of her new gifts, she feared showing them to Markette lest she be scolded, and perhaps even kicked out, for accessing the hidden ledgers.
Throughout the years, Lampie tried hard to forget the only village she knew as well as the only parents she had. This weighed heavily on her heart but did not go unnoticed by her compassionate mentor. One afternoon, while they were enjoying tasty crimson weed soup, Markette’s tongue felt so heavy she simply felt she had to relieve it somehow.
“Lamp,” she asked her charge, “isn’t it time you went back home?”
“It’s been on my mind,” the maiden-in-exile revealed, “but I’ve become so used to you and this forest over the years that I feel like this is my home now.”
“I’m old,” Markette lamented, “and probably won’t be around for much longer. I would regret it deeply if it’s my fault that you’ve completely turned your back on your loved ones.”
“But how would I get there?” Lamp asked. “It’s so far.”
Nearly an hour later, Lampie and Markette were standing on the shore, the same beachfront where the young maiden arrived seven years hence. A canoe stocked with a sack of bread, nuts and berries, as well as a new suit in a case, were sitting in it.
“This is why I was gone so often,” the old lady admitted. “I’ve been building this boat for you for some time.”
“But suppose I don’t want to return?” Lampie asked, tears filling her eyes.
“My dear, Lamp,” the old woman said, caressing the youngster’s hands, “all things, good and bad, must come to an end. There’s no escaping fate. Perhaps it was your destiny to stay here with me these past seven years, but I believe you belong in that village. We don’t know where you came from or who your parents are, but it doesn’t matter. The ones who call you their child and love you are back there, and they miss you.”
“How do you know?” Lampie asked.
“I know,” Markette answered, nodding her head.
Lampie, finally agreeing with the elder woman’s kind words, kissed her goodbye then set sail back towards her homeland.
From a spectator’s point of view, standing on a beach watching boatmen man their oars, their actions seemed effortless, like they were rowing through clouds. Or so Lamp thought. Now, however, that she herself was a boatman, she found the task excruciatingly painful and tedious. Mere minutes later, deciding she was out of sight of Markette and the forest, she commanded a wave to propel the craft towards her destination. Traveling at a casual speed, she guessed it might be a day or two before she reached the village so, stretching out her legs, she went right to sleep beneath the agreeably warm sun.
When Lampie finally reached the village two days later, she disguised herself as a test to see how well the area fared without her, or even if they missed her at all. Instead of her usual appearance, she was now as fair as Snow White, complete with deep blue eyes and long brown hair cascading down her back. To add to her ruse, she even adopted a tone of voice principally utilized by noblewomen. Hiding the canoe amongst a dense grove near the beach, she slipped into the town in her brand new suit and was immediately noticed by the villagers. Men, both young and old, ran to her and asked if there was something they could help her with such as food or lodgings. Telling them her name was White Lotus, she accepted their offer and found respite in a tidy and spacious home that the villagers mainly used as a guest house for visiting dignitaries. When they asked her why she was traveling without luggage, she said that, in order for her to experience any place to the fullest that she visited, it was best she not only ate like the populace but dressed like them as well, and so preferred to move about without wares, furnishings or even clothes.
For the next few days, White Lotus was treated like a queen by the menfolk of the village. Some younger women were quite jealous of her charm and beauty but their pride kept them silent. The older females, however, welcomed her with open arms as guests to their neck of the woods were far and few between. Snow White’s mother, a fine cook and baker, showered her with fresh biscuits, delicious soups and fine cuts of meat at an impromptu dinner party at her house which her daughter herself attended. Snow White, jealous of how refined Lotus was, ignored her all night. Lotus, enjoying her disguise, simply stared at the young woman who was responsible for her previous exile. The next night, she was invited to the home of Rose Red’s mother, a fine seamstress who bestowed upon her pretty jackets and dresses that would befit a princess. Rose Red, jealous of how magnificent Lotus appeared, ignored her all night. Lotus, enjoying her disguise, simply stared at the young woman who was responsible for her previous exile.
As Lotus was usually feted during the nights as a guest at people’s homes, during the day she conducted her own investigation into the town. As it turned out, even though seven years had passed, the disappearance of Lamp Black was still fresh on some folk’s minds. Among other things she learned was that Lamp Black was a witch and got what she deserved, or perhaps did so much wrong in her past life that her rebirth rendered her a midnight-black child. Some people admitted that she didn’t deserve to to be exiled while others had no opinion on the matter. The few times White Lotus decided to visit her parents, she got distracted by the villagers who vied for her attention. Eventually, she learned that The Millers had went to another village to trade beans for grain and that they should be returning shortly.
One night, White Lotus was feted for visiting the village by the magistrate at his spacious home. Among the guests were Peter Rich, the magistrate’s son, as well as Billy Blue, Young Starling and the three other men who were part of the crew that carried Lampie into exile. During dinner, at a large rectangular table, the subject of Lamp Black was brought up.
“She was a nuisance,” Peter Rich claimed.
“She was a trouble maker,” Billy Blue added.
“She was a trespasser,” Young Starling admitted.
The magistrate simply shook his head and encouraged everyone to mind their manners because they had a guest in attendance. Gracefully, White Lotus took all the comments in stride even though, deep inside, she could feel her own internal temperature rising.
“Her parents, those millers, were to blame,” Peter Rich stated.
“If it wasn’t for them there’d be no rumors,” Billy Blue guessed.
“They’re bad luck for this town,” Young Starling concluded.
“I hate to agree,” the magistrate chimed in, “but the Millers tainted this community worse than a poisoned well. If they were to go, good riddance. I wouldn’t shed a tear.”
Again, gracefully, White Lotus took all the comments in even though, deep inside, she could feel her own blood boiling. The next day, while walking around the village, she overhead two people talking. Through them she learned that her parents were back in town. Jubilant, she went off to see them at once.
While Lampie was in exile, her parents were forced to move to a house that was located on a hill just outside of town, the trumped-up reasons being they were non-productive members and couldn’t be trusted for having adopted Lamp Black in the first place. As White Lotus neared the base of the hill, she noticed smoke rising from the crest. Suddenly, a fear gripped her heart like nothing she’d ever felt before. Racing up the hill, she momentarily looked over to one side and witnessed, in the distance, some people running down the other side as fast as their legs would take them. Among the quickly disappearing throng, she noticed, were Young Starling and his friends as well as Snow White and Rose Red. By the time Lotus reached the house, it was nothing but a smoldering collection of logs and branches. Ominously, burnt-out torches were lying haphazardly at the base of the house as if they were flung there. Quickly conjuring a spell, she caused water to rise up from nearby springs and douse the house and torches. As the flames died down, she ran into the bleak cottage where she saw her parents huddled together against a corner, both severely weakened from the intense heat and smoke inhalation. Protected by a shroud of water, young Lotus mustered all the strength she had, kicked aside some burning timber in her path, helped her parents to their feet and assisted them to the safety of the grass outside.
“Are you two okay?” the despondent savior asked as the shroud dissipated.
“My child,” Lotus’s mother remarked, albeit weakly, “you came home.”
“How do you know it’s me?” their daughter asked. “My form is different.”
“Your voice is the same,” her mother stated. “A parent knows their children.”
“I should’ve come back sooner,” Lotus cried.
“We missed you so much,” her strength-less father revealed.
“As did I,” their daughter said, weeping. “I have to get you two to a doctor.”
“I fear it’s too late for us,” her mother whispered. “Look after yourself.”
“You two are all I have,” Lotus cried. “It was never my choice to leave.”
“We fully understand,” her father surmised. “We can’t change the way these people think.”
“Whoever set this place on fire will pay!” Lotus promised.
“Even though you were gone you were always here,” her mother stated, pointing to her own heart. “Don’t forget, we will always love you.”
Lotus hugged both of her parents then stared as life seeped from their body.
“No!” she yelled.
Her eyes, aflame like red orbs of molten lava in her throbbing skull, turned her head to angrily gaze down the hill where the eight young people had ran off. At the same time, a thunderclap boomed so loudly that it caused birds to abandon their roosts in the trees and take to the sky.
The sudden, unexpected rainfall in the village seconds later caught everyone by surprise. Folks who were out working in the fields had to abandon their chores while children, out enjoying the sun, cursed the sky and returned to the safety of their homes. Although it was raining everywhere the drops came down harder in certain spots. One noted area this occurred was down at the marina where several boats were moored. When word got out that the boats were beginning to fill with water, their owners rushed down to the docks to drain them out.
Among the sailors who raced down to the dock in the pouring rain were Young Starling and his five friends, eager to rid the boat they all co-owned of its growing pool of water. With the strong winds lashing about incessantly, and with water often blinding their eyes, it became apparent that the promise of draining the boat vs the actual act were two completely different things. Like the other owners, the sextet quickly climbed aboard with their pails and began draining the water out, a task grossly impeded by the swelling waves which caused the vessels to list from side to side. A sailor, arriving a bit late to drain his own boat, quickly glanced at the others to see how they were faring. Looking down the beach he noticed something peculiar where the last boat was moored. Squinting his eyes, and still barely unable to determine what he was seeing because of the falling rain, he went towards the boat. Within seconds it became apparent that a white-footed hare was chewing on the taut mooring rope of the last vessel.
“Scoot!” he yelled at White Socks.
When the hare kept on gnawing, the sailor grabbed a piece of driftwood from the shore and flung it towards the little furry lagomorph. White Socks, narrowly escaping the log, leaped up and quickly disappeared into the nearby forest. The mooring rope, severely weakened by the overgrown front teeth of the mischievous hare, snapped in two, causing the boat to break free of the marina.
“Ahoy!” the sailor shouted to the Starling sextet, but it was too late. By the time the young sailors realized they were no longer in safe harbor, the rising waves had already thrust them out to sea.
At once, all six started panicking when they realized their dinghy was headed straight towards a whirlpool. Young Starling, frightened that the craft may get pulled under, dived into the water and tried to swim back to shore. To his amazement, the current was stronger than he imagined and he soon found himself being pulled towards the eddy. The remaining men on the boat reached over the side to reel him in but he was too far out of reach. Peter Rich, grabbing an elongated net puller, stretched it out towards his floundering buddy. Starling kept reaching for the hook-end of the puller, but the violent motion of the waves prevented it. Finally, he grabbed the hook; unfortunately, the suction from the eddy was so strong that Peter was accidentally yanked overboard. As the other four on the boat reached for him, all six began to realize what was written in the stars - struggle as they might to get to safety, it was plainly obvious that they were just too close to gaping maw of the powerful whirlpool. The other sailors on the shore could only stare in abject awe as Young Starling and his five friends got sucked into the swirling eddy, never to be seen or heard from again.
Rose Red and a young man she fancied, meanwhile, were enjoying themselves at a picnic area near a mountaintop. It was raining, but their site wasn’t nearly as deluged as the waterfront. Also, since the site was well protected by several old oak and maple trees, they felt safe. The young man, a talented musician from the village, was regaling his paramour with songs ancient and new. Strumming his lyre, he sang while Rose spun around like a whirling dervish, her moist, wind-swept dress blowing in the wind. Because of the rain, a waterfall was created over an escarpment a few yards beyond the trees. Rose, ever the playful darling, raced over to the fall, stripped herself naked and began bathing in the flowing water. Her boyfriend, tempted by the sight, laid down his instrument and started undressing to accompany her there.
Just then, a fox leaped out of the bushes towards Rose and snarled at her. Frightened, the naked maiden backed up into the waterfall where both of her feet got caught between the rocks. Yelling for help, her boyfriend ran towards the fall while the fox, which was One Eye, kept baring his teeth at her. Her boyfriend, picking up a heavy stick, threw it at One Eye, catching him on his back, causing the fox to leap and shoot back into the woods. By then a solid chamber of water had developed around the frightened lass and was filling fast. Her boyfriend reached out for her but found he couldn’t penetrate the unusual partition. Rose, struggling to free her feet, soon realized the pool of water she was in was already up to her neck. As her boyfriend pounded fruitlessly on the transparent wall, water kept on rising till it was well above her head. All he could do was stare helplessly as his girlfriend frantically clawed towards freedom, pitifully gasped for air, trying her best to escape the water trap. Seconds later, reality struck him like a barrel of bricks when the now blue Rose Red, her lungs filled with water, gave up the fight and went silent. The wall then collapsed. Her boyfriend caught her in his arms, but by then, it was too late. Rose Red was gone.
Over on the eastern slope of the village in the midst of a heath, a birthday party, in full swing just minutes before, came to an unfortunate sudden stop when it started raining. At once, the guests began packing their belongings which included blankets and shawls, food and beverages. Almost all of the party goers were annoyed by the sudden downpour, but one guest was tremendously upset with it. Snow White, wearing a brand new dress she’d sewn for the occasion, pouted and sulked, punching her fist to the sky while uttering words so colorful that even her friends were surprised she knew them. As she began to assist with the clean up, she noticed a playful deer scamping about in the heath about 200 feet away. Abandoning her work, she cautiously went towards the ruminant, carefully avoiding sudden movements that might scare it away. When she neared it, it was apparent that the even-toed, no-tail herbivore wasn’t scared of her at all. In fact, it seemed to enjoy her company so much that they both began to scamper and frolic about like long lost pals. Snow White, ignoring her friends’ call to return, kept playing with her new buddy in the light rain, indulging in impromptu games of hide & seek and catch the stick.
When No Tail hopped into a grassy knoll next to a few vine-covered elms, the young maiden followed suit. When the deer pounced on a mound of rocks, his new friend, likewise, did the same. The deer then leaped over an earthen patch beneath one of the elms, but Snow White, lacking the same jumping ability as the feisty critter, simply followed along on the ground. Just then she found herself stuck in the soft earth. Try as she might, she couldn’t free herself from the trap. As she began sinking into the quicksand, she reached upwards and grabbed one of the low-hanging vines. As she couldn’t pull herself out, she started yelling for help. Immediately, her friends stopped what they were doing and ran towards her. No Tail, seeing the small crowd approaching, quickly darted off into the forest. By the time the party goers arrived, the poor lass, now encircled by several waterspouts, was entangled in a few of the overhead vines, some wrapped around her arms and chest. Her friends tried reaching through the powerful spouts to free her, but to their surprise, they were impenetrable. Snow White, sinking deeper and deeper, continued screaming for help as she became even more entangled in the vines. With both her arms caught in the immovable tendrils, some wrapped around her neck, she found herself being stretched out as if her body was caught in a dungeon’s punishing rack. The guests then watched and screamed in horror as Snow White, mired in the rain-soaked phenomena, suddenly had her head rented from her shoulders by the vines while her body got completely pulled beneath the surface of the muscular quicksand.
It didn’t take long before the legend of Lamp Black became a popular folk tale among the citizens. Some claim that she disguised herself as water to exact revenge on those who killed her parents, others say it’s just an old wives’ tale children are told so they’ll be careful when playing in and around water. Even so, to this day, in the heath where Snow White died, in the waterfall where Rose Red met her end, and the shore where the six sailors last stood, when it rains, you can still hear in the winds, the plaintive wail of a maiden-in-exile lamenting the loss of the only parents she knew.
Jeremy Garner is an up and coming writer currently studying at Full Sail university
Carol dreaded this. She cast the box on the porch of her house a tired look and groaned. She truly dreaded this. She knew another would come. They always did. Every single year. Sometimes they’d be bigger, and she’d struggle to get it inside. Sometimes they’d be small enough to fit into the palm of her hand, and she’d lose it for a day or two before finding it again. Once, she’d forgotten for a whole month. And for her forgetfulness, she found herself with a mess that’d taken almost three weeks to clean. And even then, she still found remnants of the mess, be it underneath the couch, behind the entertainment system, or in a stray corner off where no one would notice.
For a second, Carol wondered. Wondered if she should just leave the box there, and pray that this time, this one time, it’d be gone by morning. But she knew that wouldn’t work. The box would remain there tomorrow, and the day after, and so on until she decided to pick it up.
Disposal of the box didn’t work. She’d tried that. She’d tried throwing it away, time and time again. And each time, she'd see him looking at her, and the guilt would grow, and she’d find herself unable to do the deed. She’d tried asking nicely, then a tad less nicely, for the sender to stop. And for at least a year, they did. Then the year after rolled in, and Carol found herself with an even bigger box. She stopped asking after that.
“Oh, look. A mysterious cardboard box on my porch.” She droned. She heard a giggle and the tinkling of bells from out of sight. She sighed.
Let’s just get this over with. She picked the box up and carried it into the dining room, setting it on the table. She eyed the ribbon holding the box together with a withering glance before finally tearing it off. She hesitated to cut the box open, only to hear another giggle. With one last resigned sigh, she reached for the box, only to find-
Carol yelped, clutching a hand to her chest as the source of the giggles appeared before her, standing on top of the unopened box. A creature, vaguely human in appearance, with a long, bushy red beard, was trying his best to look her in the eye, a wide grin on his face. He was small enough to where even as he stood on the box, he barely reached her chin. He wore a dull green suit, patched in a few places, a top hat, dress shoes that barely held together, and a top hat, the same color as his suit, possible the oldest looking thing he wore. A family heirloom, he called it, passed down throughout his family.
All these year, and he hasn’t aged a day, she thought as she gazed down at her old friend, Flanagan Dunwood.
“Do you like it?”
She gave him a tired smile. “I haven’t exactly opened it yet Flan.”
The dwarf cast his eyes down to see she was right. His expression quickly grew sheepish. “Cripes! Yer absolutely right lass! Look at me! Gettin’ my feet all over your present! So sorry, very sorry,” he said as he hopped off the box. “Now! Go on then, open ‘er up! I wanna see your face!” he exclaimed.
Carol nodded as she turned back to box. No way of getting out of this now. He was right there, waiting for it. She reached for the box, pulling it open, to find-
A book. An simple, leather bound book.
No, she thought as she eyed the pastry in question. Not simple. With Flan, simple, just won’t do.
She opened to book to see pictures. Pictures that shifted and moved to play scenes from throughout her life. The day she and Flanagan had first met when she was seven. The day he’d shown her a magic trick, pulling a rabbit from his hat. When she didn’t believe him, he pulled birds, a fish, and a whole horse out to prove it was real. The first brought her an item from his world, a flower that, when ingested, could let the user speak to animals. When he asked if she’d like to try, she was ecstatic, and by the end of the day, she’d held conversations with every animal she could find, from the nearby squirrels to her dog.
The scenes continued into her later years. The day Flan had snuck into her locker in middle school, and she had to sneak him out. The day he’d followed her on her first date and accidentally wound up launching her date across the restaurant. Her husband swore he was over it, yet he still checked under his seat at restaurants for magic crystals that made one fly. The day of her wedding, where Flan arrived late on the back of a griffon to deliver his present. A pair of earrings for her, a pair of cufflinks for Phillip, her husband. Both shopped like stars, made of crystal.
“For good luck,” he said with a wink before flying off. The guests were flabbergasted. Her mother, to this day, laughed about it.
Carol grinned as more and more scenes played out before her. Soon, however, the pages became blank. She turned back to Flan who was smiling expectantly.
“Why are the rest blank?” she asked. The dwarf chuckled.
“For the future, lass! I intend to stick around to fill those out those down the line.” His smile suddenly grew worried, his hands clasped before him. “Do ya like it?”
Carol looked at the dwarf and thought. Thought of all the times they’d shared. Of the wonders he’d shown her. Of the messes they found themselves in. Of the good times they’d shared. And she smiled.
“Yes,” came her answer. “I did.”
R.L.M. Cooper is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a most precocious Tonkinese cat. Several of her short stories have appeared in issues of Ariel Chart, Tuck Magazine, Literally Stories, and others. Additionally, Ms. Cooper has recently completed a novel in the thriller genre for which she is currently seeking representation.
"Well, I think she should be buried in a Potter's Field. That's what I think." Charlotte plopped her coffee cup with a clunk into its saucer and crossed her arms.
Tiny's mouth dropped open and Bonnie Sue halted her syrupy, pancake-laden fork mid-air.
"Charlotte!" Bonnie Sue and Tiny stared at her, shocked, and then at each other, wide-eyed.
The funeral had taken place just this morning at the Mayfield Baptist Church and everybody was decked out like they were going to the opening day at Ascot or the Kentucky Derby, except in black. The preacher, in unusually fine fettle, had droned on in his best Billy Graham, North Carolina accent for at least a half hour extolling the virtues of the lovely Dixie Lee who had been "so tragically taken from us in the rosebud years of her young life."
Everybody was there, of course. In Mayfield your absence would have been duly noted and--count on it--mentioned to everybody in the whole county, including you. Plus, you could just write it on your calendar that Preacher would show up shortly to find out what on earth was wrong with you and hold a prayer meeting right then and there in front of God and everybody with total disregard for any embarrassment that might cause you. So everybody was there in enough black to cause a total eclipse and absolutely wilting because it was hot enough to blister the hinges of hell and no matter how hard anybody waved those little cardboard fans from Duncan's Funeral Home there was no relief whatever.
You had to feel sorry for the parents, of course. After all, Dixie Lee was the only girl in a family of five children. And, like all parents, they thought the earth turned just for her. The four brothers sat with them on the front row, quietly--probably for the first time in their lives--pulling at their neckties as though a hangman might show up any second to finish the job. Dixie Lee's grandmother sat in the next row wailing at operatic top note while her best friend patted her on the back and held up a hand-embroidered hanky to wipe away her tears.
The Mayfield Junior College football team had shown up right on schedule, too, taking up nearly all of the left rear section of the church and making so much noise that the two rows of mourners in front of them turned around and shushed them with Medusa-like stares. Brave on the football field, this silent reprimand reduced every last one of them by at least a foot as they slid down on the pew and dropped their heads into their shoulders.
The seven girls remaining on the cheerleading squad sat with the rest of Dixie Lee's classmates at the right rear of the church. Black had been considered just too much for these young things so they were all draped in varying shades of deep purple.
The odd woman out was Dixie Lee's great aunt who had flown in for the occasion from Jacksonville. To everyone's shock, she had defiantly worn white with red piping and she gave anyone who dared to ask her about it a look so withering that almost nobody did. She was, the town had long since decided, hopelessly wayward and beyond any kind of decent salvation.
After preacher finally finished (to everyone's relief), Dixie Lee, in her pure white, pink-satin-lined casket, was toted out to the graveyard by six of the football players and lowered into the grave. After that, the mourners edged away in every direction, Charlotte, Tiny, and Bonnie Sue amongst them. The three of them had decided to do brunch at the Green Tomato where they sat now, mouths agape at Charlotte's comment.
"Well, I do!" Charlotte said, in response to their histrionically shocked stare.
Before they could say anything, Mrs. Ledbetter, the cheer-leading coach, rushed over to them with a world-class expression of pained sympathy and draped herself over Charlotte and Tiny. She would have included Bonnie Sue if she had had a third arm. "Oh, my precious girls! I know you must just be devastated! It was just such a terrible, terrible thing! We are all just devastated!"
Before any one of the three could answer, she had flitted away to a table across the room to join her husband and son who were looking around rather impatiently, either for her or for a waiter to come and take their order.
"Yeah. It was terrible." Charlotte looked at the other two who were still staring at her.
"Well, it was, actually," Tiny said. "Imagine getting run over like that."
"True," Bonnie Sue said. "But a Potter's Field? Why, Charlotte?"
Charlotte looked at her like she had lost her mind. "Please, Bonnie Sue. Don't tell me Dixie Lee never did anything to you. And what was she doing behind the bleachers with half the football team at midnight, anyway? Teaching them cheers?"
Tiny suppressed a giggle. Bonnie Sue remained silent at this. Then she said, "You're just still peeved because she stole Johnny Ray from you."
"And if I recall correctly," Charlotte fired back, "she made sure you didn't make the cheerleading squad."
Tiny said, "And there was that time she shamed Margaret for eating a hamburger in the cafeteria because she was overweight. Poor Margaret told me she nearly died when Dixie Lee called her Margaret Mountain in front of everybody."
"Well, I do have to admit that was not very nice." Bonnie Sue had gone back to eating her pancakes, commenting between bites. "But Margaret really was fat. Still, Dixie Lee had no call to announce the obvious to everybody in the building."
"I'm just tired of hearing what an angel Dixie Lee was. Miss Perfect. Miss Mayfield. Miss Butter-Wouldn't-Melt. She had everybody in this whole town bamboozled."
Tiny said, "I heard that Margaret's daddy was in some kind of electronics or something and got transferred over to Atlanta. After they got there Margaret lost a whole bunch of weight and got herself a modeling contract with a really good agency there."
"Is that right? I wonder what Dixie Lee would have thought of that," Bonnie Sue said.
Bobby Jones, the owner of the Green Tomato, came over to the table to offer his condolences. "I know you girls were just the best of friends. We are all going to miss Dixie Lee. I'm just so sorry. She was such a pretty thing. It's just a tragedy, that's what it is," he said, as though it wouldn't have been nearly so tragic if a homely girl had been run over in the "rosebud years of her young life."
"Thank you, Bobby. We are definitely going to miss her. She was an angel." Charlotte said in her most convincing voice and then rolled her eyes as he promptly took his leave and went back into the kitchen.
"Charlotte!" Bonnie Sue was really close to laughter but suppressed it beautifully--although it was hard to cover up the dimples without a hand over her face.
Charlotte's demeanor, all of a sudden, softened a mite and she said, "Well. I do have to admit Johnny Ray wasn't exactly a prize anyway. I heard he got arrested for fighting at a football game down in Baton Rouge after she dumped him."
Bonnie Sue said, "And I promise you I never really wanted to be a cheerleader. I just tried out to please my mama."
"Is that true?" Tiny asked, like this was the revelation of the century.
"Of course it is. Who wants to do all that yelling and jumping around?"
"Dixie Lee was good at it, though, wasn't she?"
"She was good at everything," Charlotte said. "Just ask anybody in town. And while you are at it, ask them why she was drunker'n a skunk and walking all over the road when she got hit."
"Yeah, like we've never been drunk." Bonnie Sue finally laughed. "Remember the time we all got snockered and drove up to Mays Lake and went swimmin' in the buff and old Raymond Whatshisname saw us and threatened to tell?"
Charlotte laughed out loud.
"Shhhhhhh," Tiny shushed her as though no one had ever before in the history of the world laughed after a funeral.
"That was Dixie Lee's idea, wasn't it?"
"It was. Just one of many crazy ones," Bonnie Sue volunteered as she finished the last of her pancakes.
Charlotte said, "Remember when we all decided we would see if we could steal lipsticks from Bennet's Five and Dime?"
"I remember," Tiny said. "I was the only one of us that got caught. Not only did old Mr. Bennet call my parents, but he took away the lipstick, too. I still remember the name: Snow Fire Red. I really wanted that lipstick, too."
"Mine was Catalina Coral," Charlotte told them. Do you remember yours, Bonnie Sue?"
"Nah. That's been too long ago. But I do remember that I hid it for months along with a half-smoked pack of cigarettes so my mother wouldn't know I had it."
The three of them began laughing. The more escapades they remembered, the harder they laughed. And the harder they laughed, the more attention they got.
Bobby stuck his head out of the kitchen to see what the ruckus was and some of the other customers were staring disapprovingly. They looked around and decided it would be in their best interest to pay up and get outside before they shocked the whole town any more than they already had.
"Can I get a ride with you, Bonnie Sue?" Tiny asked.
"What are you gonna do, Charlotte?"
"Well. I'll tell ya. I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I just now decided. I'm gonna go home and rummage through my old box of junk and see if I can find that damned tube of lipstick. Then I'm gonna drive back to the cemetery and I'm gonna march myself over there and bury it on top of Dixie Lee's grave."
"You still got that thing?" Tiny asked her.
Bonnie Sue said, "She never throws anything away." Then she said to Charlotte, "No more Potter's Field for Dixie Lee?"
"No. I guess not. I guess we were all about as bad as she was." She got quiet for a minute. "Damn it, anyway! We had some really good times, didn't we? I really am gonna miss her."
* * *
Jonathan Yom-Tov was born in Israel, but raised on four continents. A few years ago he decided to stow his backpack, get a laptop and become a Serious Person. It’s unclear how long this phase will last. In his spare time he likes to box and write.
Yesterday’s snow had covered the whole city but the spire of the Clock of Freedom seemed unbowed by its burden. It still stood tall and black, the four clocks it carried each facing a different direction and covered with a thin hood of snow. The clocks did not agree. Each had given up at a different time. Tracks pressed into the snow led from the Clock to a burnt out bus at the edge of the square. A plume of soot covered its dirty white and blue flank, issuing from the front wheel and stretching all the way to the back. The bus had collided with one of the old stone buildings which stood on the square and almost collapsed the arch that held it up. One side of the arch now rested on top of the bus and the stones of the abutment lay scattered below it.
Nizar and Maher eyed the roofs of the buildings. There were many hiding places. Water tanks, satellite dishes, mounds of debris. Any one of those could hide a sniper. The wan light of winter made concealment easy. Finally, Maher gave the signal and they sprinted to the bus. They rolled smoothly below it and waited. It was quiet, a light rain had started to fall. Soon it would wash away the snow. The garbage would remain. It stuck to the streets, defying the wind and the rain. Nothing seemed to move it.
Nizar looked at Maher, waiting for the signal to continue. Maher’s hands, grimy with weeks of dirt, oil and gunpowder were wrapped tightly around his rifle. He scratched his short cropped beard, a gesture Nizar had learned meant Maher was nervous. He pointed at an arch fifty meters away and they both sprang up from their hiding place and ran to it. Just before reaching the arch Maher ducked down an alley and Nizar followed him. Maher slowed down, stopped and looked back.
“You OK?” he asked. Nizar nodded.
“Good man,” he patted Nizar’s cheek. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
It was quiet. That special quiet that comes after a hard rain. The clouds ran swiftly before the wind. In the narrow spaces between them the sky was turning to dusk. A small drop of rain, a last remnant of the storm, landed on Nizar’s eyeball. He blinked and brought his gaze down.
The alley had been dusty before. Now the rain had washed most of the dust away and turned the rest to gray mud. Some of it ran in little streams along the alley, some floated in turbid puddles and some still clung to the walls of the tall buildings, slowly dribbling down to the ground. At least the air smelled clean. Clean and cold. The rain had washed away the stink of dust, gunpowder and rotting garbage, as if offering the city a new beginning.
It was a futile gesture. The shattered structures would not disappear so easily. The alley was lined on both sides by bombed out buildings. Up ahead three floors had slid down to rest in a pile of rubble which blocked the alley. Twisted bars of steel raised themselves from among the mound of shattered concrete.
The rain soaked through Nizar’s clothes and he clenched his muscles, willing himself not to tremble with the cold. He looked up at a building on the opposite side of the alley. The façade had been completely blown off by a recent bombing. Inside the tottering concrete skeleton blankets, furniture, cutlery, broken sinks and TVs jostled against each other in a chaotic jumble. An ornate wooden table had fallen from one of the floors and now stood in the middle of the alley.
They had been walking for hours with little rest. Maher was saving the remnants of his small militia, moving from hideout to hideout and ordering them away from the city. Nizar remembered the beginning of the battle. His parents had fled as soon as the regime’s tanks had moved in and though they had pleaded with him to go with them he had felt enough of a man to join the rebels, to stay and fight. The first few days were exhilarating. With the rifle in his hand he’d never felt more invincible. But now the regime had the upper hand and they were forced to retreat.
Nizar had been proud when Maher chose him to accompany him on this last mission but now he was miserable. Cold, wet, tired and fearful. He longed for reprieve. He imagined his parents waiting for him in Jordan at the refugee camp. He would be joining them soon with Maher’s father. For him the war was over.
Maher looked back at Nizar. His normally fierce expression turned soft. “You’re tired. Here, sit down, rest, drink some water.”
Nizar sat on the table and Maher handed him his canteen. He took a swig.
“Nizar, sometimes even the Faithful suffer defeat. It’s the way of war. But the war is long, there are many battles and in the end we always win. We won in Afghanistan and we’ll win in Syria. God willing, we will gather strength and come back, just as Muhammad came back from Yathrib. Then God will grant us victory and we shall sweep the kuffar from Homs, Chaleb and Damascus.
I remember the battle at Zhawar, years before you were born. The Russians and their allies drove us from our base. It was a bloody affair. Our commander, Haqqani, was killed. We fought the kuffar, killed his soldiers, brought down his helicopters. But in the end we could not withstand the aerial bombardment and had to retreat. It was a bitter day. But the enemy’s victory was short lived. We came back a few days later and they never took Zhawar from us again.”
Maher smiled at Nizar.
“Come on, we’ve rested enough, let’s go.”
They both stood up, Nizar straightened his shoulders and led the way to the other end of the alley, the crackling and screeching complaints of the debris beneath his feet disturbing the silence. He could see the main street that the alley connected to. Before the war he used to go shopping for fruits and vegetables there. Now it was empty. Maher was only a few steps behind him, scanning the buildings. Nizar stepped out of the alley and immediately a shot rang out. He heard the bullet hitting the wall behind him and fragments raining down on the street.
He turned back and ran into the alley, but before he could go very far Maher took hold of his sleeve and stopped him. Nizar heard his heart hammering in his skull. Dry air scraped his throat as it rushed into his lungs. He saw Maher’s face twisted in a savage grin.
“Don’t be afraid. You’re safe. God is merciful. Is this the first time someone’s shot at you?”
Nizar nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“You’ll learn to enjoy it. But we must continue. The enemy knows we’re here but we don’t know where he is. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll run out and draw his fire, you’ll kill him. Understood?”
“Maher, it should be the other way around. You’re the better shot. I should go.” Nizar immediately regretted his words. He didn’t want to die. Not so soon. Not before seeing his parents again.
“Nizar, do as I say. God will grant us victory. Remember what I taught you. Kneel down, sight carefully, let your breath out and squeeze the trigger slowly. There’s no hurry, I’ll be OK. Just don’t take too long.” Maher winked.
Nizar nodded weakly and brought up his rifle. He knelt down at the corner of the alley’s last building and waited. Maher burst into the street running and bellowed “Allahu Akbar!”. Nizar emerged into the alley just as two shots were fired in quick succession. He tried to spot the shooter. Time slowed down. There were so many windows, so many hiding places. He couldn’t hear anything except the roar of blood and the booming of his heart. Time was running out, soon the shooter would fire again and find his mark. There was Ahmed’s furniture shop, the windows all broken. He’d played there with Ghassan, years ago. He squeezed his cheek to his rifle’s cool stock, just as Maher had shown him.
He saw Maher zigzagging his way across the street and paused to track him for a long moment. Maher’s hand jerked back in a spray of blood. He screamed silently, mouthing Nizar’s name. Nizar fired without aiming, feeling guilty at losing track of his task. Once, twice, three times the stock slammed into his teeth with the recoil. Maher fell on his back and fired a long burst from his rifle. Nizar turned to watch his target and saw a soldier fall from one of the roofs. The heavy thud at the end told Nizar he had regained his hearing.
He ran to Maher. Blood had darkened a stain on his jacket near his elbow. He looked pale but ferocious. He dropped his rifle and reached inside his jacket with his good arm, then tossed Nizar a bandage.
“Here, help me with that.”
Nizar caught the bandage.
“I’m sorry Maher, I don’t know what I was doing.”
“Nizar, the enemy is dead. You did exactly as you should have had. Now quickly, wrap the bandage around my arm, don’t bother with the sleeve.”
Nizar opened the bandage’s wrapping and shook the bandage loose. He put it on the wound and wrapped the gauzy cotton strips around Maher’s arm. When he was done Maher picked up his rifle and sprang to his feet.
“It’s not safe here. Come on. Our brothers our waiting close by.”
This time Maher led the way. They continued their cautious advance through the streets, scurrying from shelter to shelter, eyes constantly scanning, ears alert for any sound. They rounded a corner and stepped into a small square. Maher appeared to relax.
“Brother, we are here!”
Maher and Nizar turned to face the sound. A bearded man in fatigue pants and a faded black sweater was standing beside the blasted remains of a tree. He dangled his rifle from one hand and motioned them over with the other. Behind him a door hung from its hinges, guarding the entrance to the crumbling shell of a three storey building.
“Ali, it’s good to see you again,” said Maher as he hugged the man and slapped him on the back. “How goes the battle?”
“Here, very well. We downed a regime helicopter yesterday and captured the pilots. I’ll show you.”
He motioned them to the entrance. Nizar looked at a balcony overhead which clung to the building’s façade. After a moment’s hesitation he followed Maher and Ali inside. The smell of wet concrete dust and piss was strong. Two men slouched in one corner of the room, their heads drooping over their chests, their feet bound at the ankles. They wore Syrian army uniforms. One was a captain. On one side of them was a plush red sofa, the only piece of furniture in the room. A man wearing fatigues and a black bandana sat on it, a rifle in his lap. Above him a glaring emergency light hung from the ceiling.
“There they are,” said Ali.
“How did you catch them?” Maher asked.
“They were dropping barrel bombs on Bab al-Sebaa. Martyred Yussef Hayani and his whole family. Twelve people. We shot their helicopter when they overflew us and they crashed onto a football field shortly after. Four were killed, but we got the pilots.”
“Praise God. The Nusarites are inhumanly cruel, but it will avail them nothing, our victory grows closer every day.”
Ali grabbed hold of the captain’s hair and raised his head. “This one used to live here in Homs, or so he says.”
One of the captain’s eyes was swollen shut. There was a cut on his cheek and a trail of fresh blood that reached down to his chin. His good eye focused on Maher.
Maher bent down and looked at him closely. “I know him.”
“Maher,” the captain croaked. “Water.”
“Get him some water,” Maher barked over his shoulder at the guard.
The guard picked up a plastic bottle from beside the couch and poured some water into the captain’s mouth.
“Maher. I never thought I’d see you again.” The captain coughed, leaned his head back against the wall and looked up at Maher. “They call you the Lion of Afghanistan now.”
“There’s a price on your head. 10,000 dollars.”
“There have been greater. But God is merciful, I have never been caught.”
A sudden yowl echoed in the room, startling Nizar. He swiveled sharply, his heart racing. A cat had jumped onto the sofa. It was pathetically thin. Its ginger stripes heaved with every breath. Ali and the guard snickered at Nizar’s alarm. He reached out, hand still shaking, and stroked the cat’s back. It paused to purr. Nizar knelt by the sofa. Black slits on green irises looked back at him from behind half-closed eyes. He heard the captain behind his back as his attention came back to the conversation. He poured some water into his hand and let the cat slurp it up, enjoying the wet tickling of its whiskers.
“The world is a strange place Maher. I never thought we’d end up fighting on opposite sides. We were brothers.”
The captain held up his hand to Maher.
“You remember our blood oath? I still have the scar. You cut a little too deep. My father was so angry, his belt hurt much more than your knife.”
Maher smiled. “I know, I also felt your father’s belt that day.”
“I’m a father now too. Taufik is seven years old, Reem is four. My wife…you know my wife. Aisha. We used to play together when we were kids.”
“You were a good man, Abdul. Always. So why do you fight now with the regime?”
“Maher, I’m not guilty of any crime. I serve my government, obey its orders. Yes, we’ve killed your men. Sometimes civilians were caught in the crossfire. In war that can’t be avoided. But what about your men? Have you not killed many soldiers? Civilians too? My brother died near Idlib, killed by the mujaheedin for refusing to give them money.”
Maher stared at the captain for a moment.
“For the kuffar there can be no forgiveness,” he straightened and turned his back on the pilot.
“Ali, you must leave the city now. Meet us at the old factory tonight. Give my friend a quick death. The other…”
“Maher…” the captain whispered.
“Nizar, let’s go. This is no place for you,” Maher said.
On an impulse Nizar grabbed the cat by the back of its neck and put it into his bag, leaving its head poking out the top. Maher took him by the arm and guided him out.
“Maher, please!” The captain tried to get up but tripped and fell on his face.
Outside, night had fallen. Darkness made Maher bolder and he hurried down a side street, a silent shadow. Nizar did his best to follow but occasionally his feet tripped on a piece of rubble or plunged into a pothole, which sent him sprawling. The cat didn’t complain as he picked himself up and continued. The clouds’ swift march across the sky was interrupted by a full moon. The soft light made it easy to recall what the city looked like before the battle had begun. It had never been pretty, but it had always been a home. It didn’t deserve this.
In the shadow of an exposed brick wall Adnan was crouching by a small bonfire with his back to Nizar and Maher. He stood up quickly and turned around. His gaze flitted over Maher and settled on Nizar. Thick black eyebrows overhung eyes from which deep furrows ran the length of his cheeks. His mouth was surrounded by white stubble and his hair had retreated almost to the back of his head. Surviving tufts of gray stood in disorder on his scalp. He was very thin.
“You’re back. There were more people with you yesterday, what happened to them?”
“They’re all safe, outside the city. When the soldiers come they will find no one.”
“Who is this?”
“This is Nizar. He’s from Akrama.”
“He’s far too young to be carrying a gun. Why are you here boy?”
“I’m sending him to Jordan to join his parents. I want you to go with him.”
Adnan turned his back on them and resumed his position by the fire.
“Father,” Maher said softly. “We have to leave. I must get you to safety.”
There was a long silence, interrupted only by the crackling of the fire. The cat meowed softly from Nizar’s rucksack. He felt it digging its claws into his shoulder. He reached back and picked it up. It was cold, just as he was. He could feel the warmth of the fire, tantalizingly close and yet not near enough to offer relief. Maher sighed and sat down by his father next to the fire. Nizar joined him.
“Do you remember our vacation in Latakia?” Adnan said. “We stopped on the way and I took you on that boat to Arwad. You were so excited. You didn’t stop talking about traveling the high seas for weeks afterwards.”
“That was years ago, I was still a child.”
“I never thought you’d end up traveling for war.”
“Not for war. For jihad. To help my Muslim brothers.”
“Oh? And did you help them? How is Afghanistan now? Do the Afghans prosper? Is the food plentiful?”
“God provides for them. And besides, what would you have me do? Leave them to the Russians to get raped and murdered?”
“Maher, I’m not a fool and neither are you. The Afghanis languish under the boot of Karzai. Those that do not suffer from your Taliban. They barely have enough food, many are refugees. Daily they suffer violence, sometimes by the Taliban, sometimes by the Americans. Life is hell for them.”
“The Americans, like the Russians, will not last long in Afghanistan. The House of Islam is no place for the kuffar.”
“It was always futile arguing with you, even when you were a child.”
A long burst of machine gun fire sounded close by. Adnan and Nizar threw themselves to the ground. The cat jumped out of Nizar’s hands as he crawled frantically away from the firelight. Maher jumped to his feet, trying to locate the sound.
“Relax, they’re not so close“, Maher said. “But it’s time for us to go.”
Adnan got up. “There is nowhere to go, Maher. Your mujaheedin or the regime’s murderers, it’s all the same to me. May as well die here, where I was born.”
Small flakes of snow drifted down, silver in the moonlight. They hissed briefly as they perished in Adnan’s bonfire. In the distance a battle flared. First the rattle of small arms fire and then the booming of mortars. Two illumination rounds bloomed in the darkness high above the city and started their slow descent. Nizar got to his feet and picked up his bag. The cat perched on the wall above him and fixed him with an indifferent stare. He called to it softly.
A brief whoosh heralded the sound of an incoming artillery round. The explosion gouged chunks of asphalt, concrete and metal and hurled them into the air.
Maher climbed to his feet and shook his head. He stumbled over to Nizar who was slumped with his back against the wall. Blood gushed from his neck, his eyes were open. Maher knelt down, reached out and closed his eyes. The snow was falling faster now, shrouding Nizar in white. Adnan watched as Maher caressed Nizar’s hair and began a whispered prayer. When he was done he brushed the snow from Nizar’s face and kissed his forehead. He got up.
“Father, please, we have to go.”
Adnan turned his back on Maher and sat back down by the fire. Maher gave his father a long look. Finally he waved to him and turned away. His tracks quickly disappeared as he faded into the storm.
Jesse Toler is a program coordinator for Game Changer, a non-profit in association with the Orange County library system. He produces a podcast called Wubbalubbadubcast, a Rick and Morty close watch. It can be found on Itunes and Soundcloud. He is currently furthering his education at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.
OF TEA AND BLOOD
Their waitress, a plump, curvy woman with a child’s smile asked the two men, "What’ll we be having tonight?"
The priest nodded, "Tea, Earl gray, if you have it?"
The vampire said, "You, if you have the notion." Then laughed directly into the glare of the priest.
Johanna, her name tag read, blushed and giggled before losing her curves within the sea of patrons in the hotel bar. It was early for the evening. To the vampire it was still morning. He yawned as if to institute the point and scratched the side of his rib cage. "What?" He asked the priest. "Can't take a poke at the natives?"
"I believe that was a poke at me."
"Is that what you believe?"
The priest said nothing. Neither men resembled their title from the outside. The priest without white collar over a simple black suit. The vampire without the pale skin made popular by eight-dollar paper backs. Their dress was causal and simple and neither matched the other, nor the rest of the crowd, teeming with the promises of life
Johanna returned with a steaming cup of water, two tea bags and a small tray of assortments. The priest thanked her and dropped the bag into the water. It bled through the porous shell like an open wound. Her, "Anything else?”, was returned with silence and so she left. The vampire burned two eye shaped holes into her backside.
"Don't stare." The priest bounced the tag bag in and out of the water. "It's unnerving."
"Can't I savor the meal 'for I taste it?"
"You're not having her."
The vampire traced an invisible line over the left side of his face. "Haven't decided yet."
"No, you do not understand my meaning,” He whispered. "You are not having her."
"Look at you, shepherding your flock. Even though she doesn't give two shits for your God."
"She doesn't have to, to be spared your...kinds intentions."
"Judgment from a catholic priest, It’s all the familiar favorites tonight."
The priest took out the bag and poured one packet of sugar into the tea. He mixed with a tiny spoon absently clattering it against the porcine. The sharpness of sound hurt the vampire’s sensitive ears, but he did nothing to show it.
"I would rather we not talk through this. We didn't the last times. Let’s stand on tradition." The priest said.
"You started, padre.” Then it looked as if the vampire was going to end it there. It went this way the last elven times, this being the twelfth time they met at the same hotel bar. A few barbs and then hours of silence watching the crowd. “Tradition is overrated, let me tell you about your flock. I’ll list out the sins I smell floating ‘round in her bag of flesh. Pot, latex, spermicide, and cherry flavored lube from her backside.” He leaned forward, dodging the broad side of a jet-black purse strung on the arm of a youthful twenty something pushing through the crowd to meet her friends. “I bet she even eats meat on Friday."
"It is for God to judge..."
"You did a fine job of passing judgment on me."
"You aren't one of his children."
"I was once upon a time. That's was always her point to you, if I recall.”
The priest took a sip of his tea. "I like to forget why you and I meet like this."
"Death bed promises will do that."
"Excuse me." The priest stood out of his chair.
"Don't let me stop you."
"I am only going to relieve myself. An activity I'm sure you've forgotten." He left before the vampire could respond and both men were glad for it. The priest wanted to put cold water to his neck to cool his anger, just as the vampire wanted no witnesses as self-loathing twisted lines into his face.
The crowd thickened like a stew simmering over a hot stove. The priest couldn’t see the vampire from the bathroom door and allowed himself to hope that in the time he was in the bathroom, the monster had left. He didn’t.
"Since you have the intention of talking through this evening." The priest sat down in is chair, crossing his legs and bringing the tea to his lips. "I have some rules."
"Oh, you have all my attentions." The edge of one fang poked from a smirk.
"One, none of your base natures will reveal themselves while you are in this building. Two, you will not mention her again. Not by name, nor will you not even infer her memory."
"Is that all?"
The priest nodded.
The vampire took his time to properly find ways to manipulate both clauses of the verbal contract while the men shared seconds of silence.
"Forgive me Father for I have sinned." The vampire began in earnest. "It has been six months since my last confession."
The priest almost choked on his tea. "You can't be serious."
"As a heart attack, padre. If you don't take my confession-listen up, because this bit’s crucial, if you rob me of absolution, I will kill somebody in this room tonight in her memory and leave the corpse to rot on your bed." He picked at a tooth next to a fang with his pinky nail. "Just so you know exactly who you didn't save."
One finger halted the priests conjecture. "That's my deal."
The priest sank into his chair as deep as it would have him. Humbled by a devil was this servant of God.
"I'd like to be saved now."
"Six months?" the priest asked.
"I knew you'd play." The vampire clapped his hands together and laughed as one would imagine a spider laughs when its web pulls from the struggles of a captured fly.
"What on earth brought you to confession six months ago?"
A quiet came upon the vampire. His body became a statue, so much that the priest felt every part of his living body from the sudden comparison. Those subtle nervous jerks that otherwise went unnoticed. The way his chest moved to make room for each breath. And the crowd, they sped through their motions as if somebody hit fast forward on a movie. It was a reminder that before him was a dead thing walking that the priest knew the vampire to be, in spite of the intelligence gleaming inside.
"This is different. I have something else to confess tonight."
"It's your soul."
The vampire laughed again and his stillness left him. Akin to a predator letting fauna collapse back over his stalk. "So good of you to notice. My confession," He inhaled as if he were moments from submerging in water. "This took place during the first campaign at Bull Run, where Jackson got his nom de guerre. I was sixteen and, like the rest of the Union, unbloodied. Lucky Luke was the platoon corporal, named for the notches he left on bed boards all over. This is how I killed that son of a whore."
The priest listened. The words made him forget the tea cooling in front of him, the hotel bottled with the fresh wines of life, and the Earth as it turned ever on it axis.
The war sprang high in our minds. When the call broke out and we were to get arms and march, it was with a sigh of relief. The history books talk of such things though. What they never get right is how much Manassas smelled like hot pig shit that summer. Tell that to the Civil War buffs. Takes the civil right out of it, don’t you think?
We'd marched south through small townships on roads with no names. I expected it to be like the tales of my great grandfathers, only we were quelling the thirst for revolution. We were damning confederated to hell. Our righteousness made us strong.
Two days marching under that prick McDowell and we couldn't even quell the upheaval in our own minds, let alone South of us. He had no idea what he was doing, not that I knew that then. Green as a blade of grass and just as thin, my brothers in blue said that they couldn't make me out under the sun if I turned sideways and stopped shivering. It wasn't the cold. It was the nerves I couldn't stop.
Luke saw it too. He'd known a lot about me just by looking, more then I knew about myself. That's how he got me to turncoat. Oh, it wasn't hard, I lacked spine back then. Sixteen really isn't long enough to develop one. One whisper here and a word there and a mile out from Fort Sumpter I was convinced the North was foolhardy. Not just me either, a few other boys. Little did we know; Lucky Luke was getting ten dollars a head for any folk he could get to trade blue for grey. They had a few like that in the ranks, real bastards you could imagine.
When a great blue wall five abreast started down that final night march, we were already leagues ahead. There were six of us; Johnny Smit, Bradley O'Brian, Able Johnson, Edward Black, Lucky Luke, and I. Yonder west from where we laid rest, we could survey the whole field soon to be covered with blood and smoke. I remember thinking that it didn't look like Washington's days at all.
In the time, we doodled and twiddled and slept and waited and we did this all alone mind you, while the first shots were fired. See, Luke's contact never showed up and he didn't really know the rank from the file on the South side. Black and O'Brian bickered with the others for a time before heading into the conflict. They helped mow down Griffin's crew or so I heard.
The rest of us waited and we watched the war. Front row seats, all we were missing was a pot filled kettle cooked corn. We had was water and dry rations and should have been enough, but there was this nagging feeling in our bellies that we'd done wrong that day and we'd surely pay for it, somehow. Men like that get irritable. They look for itches to scratch.
By night fall it was clear nobody was showing to take us in their arms. We'd been glorious deserters for a day. By sunset, we'd been forgotten. No money, except what we could fit in our boots. Couple packets of lead rocks and some black powder that wouldn't fetch two nights on inn cots. So, Luke had an idea that would save us all.
See there were rows of onlookers watching the battle, nobles, pretty folk and the like. For the world, I didn't understand what they saw in the mayhem, but Luke sure sowed his resentment over them. In his mind, they were the reason why his contact never showed. All the shiny things they had, he told us this under moon light, belonged to us. He was made mad by the notion.
You see how these things go. Forgotten in dusk and at midnight, I was a renegade. It had been a long day. We followed a small carriage back through the trails, picked our time and ran-sacked them. It was over pretty quick. I even got to play menacing for a minute to a girl barely older than me. She had some plump goodies though, like Johanna's. Gave her a sense of being old enough that somehow made what we'd done next not as bad.
The boys didn't take turns. They were uncivil toward her. For my horror and weakness, they made me stand watch, until available...accommodations could be made. I looked out to the smoke from the battlefield above the trees. In between gasps of breath and muffled screams caught between fingers, I could hear errant rifle fire. I imagined I’d accustom to the sound eventually.
Maybe this next part was mercy of a type, but she died before I got mine. Poor little creature was frightened into a hellish death. Luke took me aside and tried to make this alright the best way he knew how. He said, "Girlie was so used in the end, she'd hardly feel your pecker. We'll get you a nice tight hole in town, son." And he laughed.
In a man’s life, there are times when you can hear a snap between the ears. In those moments, a soundless decision is made. What strikes me now is that I didn't get much a say in the matter. It all went down before I could think on it. Luke turned his back on me and I cut his throat with my bayonet. His blood wasn't as black as I’d figured.
Smit and Johnson froze. So, I gave them an ear full. The general thesis of which, no man would take from me what was mine again, Ever.
They seemed inclined to agree. Went on as renegades for a time. Smit got caught with a blade in between his shoulder blades and Johnson got caught AWOL by a few blues. He did time in a quarry. I joined up with the South after working as a hand for a farm in Lexington. The rest, that’s something else.
"What happens next?" the vampire asked.
When the priest spoke, it was as though his last air of breath was ripped out. "How do you mean?"
"I gave you my sin. Isn't there a job or something you tell me to do?"
"Act of contrition."
"That's it, make me contrite something."
"It's not a Band-Aid." The priest took a sip from his tea. He squeezed some lemon juice into the cup. The night needed more bitterness. "It's penance."
"Oh, I mean it. I want to do something to make it right. There is justice to be had by Sally and I'm going to do-"
The vampire gave pause. Then he smiled so wide his jaw almost unhinged, two fine porcelain fangs dripping to a point.
The priest didn't know why anybody else didn't see them as clear as he did. He thought, maybe I’ve finally gone insane from this. "Tell me, vampire, of which sin are you confessing? Murder? What about your cowardliness? A severe want of spine as you said, which could be considered apathy. Which sin would you like absolution from?"
"You reckon sins carry an individual weight?”
The priest could see the bartender pocket ten dollars from the till through the mirror. He looked up to see if anybody was looking and didn’t seem to notice the priest staring back at him. “It’s not weight-this isn’t about your heart vs. feather on the scale of things. When you sin, it’s stains your soul.”
“Is there a discount on cleaning if I bundle all three?”
“You make fun-”
“It’s in jest.” The vampire put up his hands to show surrender and smacked the smacked the leg of an older, suited gentlemen to focuses on his gin and conversation to car.
“It’s deadly serious,” The priest said. “When you die, and you will die eventually beast, the sins you commit will find your soul already burning in hell. This consciousness, this intelligence you carry will join it there for eternal suffering.”
"So, you find my confession lacks an honest melody?”
"No amount of faith could make me believe you, for an instant, would want save your soul from its torments."
"Explain to me how it’s possible to love without a soul, Padre? Your sandal wearing hippy, Christ, was all about love. He went on and on, we could figure it’s what he meant when he said, made in God’s image."
The hairs on the back of the priest neck stretched out as if an electrical charge went through them. "I do not believe you love anything. Least of which, yourself."
The vampire forced a laugh through his throat. He could never seem to fake the sound of joy. It’s infectious, communal, like flies buzzing in chorus around a mound of dog shit. "Were that true, if I didn't love on occasion, you'd be dead where you stood."
The air in the room passed through too many mouths. It’s was all carbon and no oxide. The priest ached for the time to pass, for the night to be over.
“What do you want?” He asked the vampire.
The vampire considered this. He had a point to prove, but search him if he knew what it was. He let his tongue taste the smells of the air, sensing menstrual blood from two different sources. “A parable of love,” he went. “You being the authority on it. Tell me of your love.”
The priest could taste bile in his throat. "We agreed not to bring her up."
"I'm not. I want to hear the about her mother. What knocked you out of the seminary for a time? I want to hear your sin of love, padre.”
"I've done my penance. I'd rather not relive it."
"What you’d rather do is continue conversing. I've some mighty pangs in my belly." He rubbed his stomach. "Come now. Sing or supper? You pick."
Johanna returned to the table and the priest order another hot glass of water for his second tea bag. They both waited until she returned with the hot cup. Through lines of steam the priest could see eagerness in the vampire’s eyes.
"She was a nun..." he began.
Although not fully a Nun. She was a path to complete devotion to God. I was as well, in my way. It was this mindfulness of the Holy Spirit that attracted us to each other, I think. At the time, it felt as if we were the only ones speaking on Gospels truth. We felt singular in a crowded room.
The first time we met I hadn't seen her face. I only got to know her voice during mock confessions. The bishop had decreed this type of training to be essential for the priesthood. To prepare us for hearing horrible and even humorous stories to come through the grate. We were given index cards at random and had to read them to each other. The nuns participated. All of it was to be real world training. It was a required class.
I came to the seminary in the first place because of the education. I wanted a knowing of God. Inspired by tales of a family friend, Cardinal Sam Kenny, I came to think of the vows as a price I had to pay to have a direct line with Him. I thought there were secrets. By the time mock confessions started, I had been heartily disillusioned by this point of view. So, when her voice almost sung these words through the grate, "I stabbed my son with a rock on a mountain because God told me to do it," I couldn't contain my laughter. It was the height of absurdity. Through the partition I could make out one blue eye, but I didn't see her face.
The event took a quiet obsession in the background of my thoughts. I wasn't much aware of it until I heard her in the library a week later. She was sitting with one of her fellows, lecturing him on how Job was a victim of Satan’s jealously rather than someone tested by God. I asked her, all but ignoring her friend, "Did you really kill your son?" I could have had the wrong woman, sure, but I was driven by forces I didn't understand. She didn't hesitate, looked up with me with those blue eyes and spoke with the voice likened to the Holy Spirit, "That’s what the card said."
Angelica and I developed a seamless friendship from then on. The library became our place, our sanctuary. It gave us reason to explain the simple truth that our bodies and hearts had known from the start. We were courting each other. Through discussions of God’s love, we could discover things about mortal love that we thought we already knew. The levels of intimacy from a casual touch. How one could dream of another’s laugh and wake smiling. An honest heart is the perfect spiritual aphrodisiac.
It came as little surprise to our fellows and teachers when we were caught kissing in the stacks. To the end I maintained that she kissed me first as hard as she said that I was the first offender. This was brought upon by great conversations in which both of us were made to feel guilty the transgression. After hearing how we met, the bishop reversed his decree that nuns had to take part in the mock confessions.
We were both torn by our love of God and love of each other and neither of us could explain to the rest how the two weren't mutually exclusive. My roommate eventually got it in my head that she was my test. If I didn't let her go I'd never know God like I wanted to. That those realms of secrets about the nature of life would remain hidden. That old apples core did rot away in my soul.
I ended it with her, using much the same argument, and she said that I didn't really believe that. She was right of course. She always was.
I went to take final vows soon after. She'd already left the nun’s habit and just as I knelt in front of my savior, she came through the doors and challenged my love as false. In front of everybody, she said that if I could not love her that my love of God was hollow and worthless to him. This was the sixties, you could stand on firm ground with an argument like that. They tried to remove my Angelica, of course, but she was not someone that man could move.
It was all terribly romantic and yes, I admit, I was taken in that euphoric tide. I left the church and we got a hotel room an hour outside the city. We married each other on a shoddy spring mattress with only our faith to witness. She was pregnant soon after.
I kept in touch with Cardinal Sam. He confessed jealously in knowing a love that he could never know. He didn't agree with my fellows or see rashness in my actions. He saw free will in its purest form. I sought his counsel more than once and it was him that planted certain treacherous seeds of hope in my mind. He said that I would see God in the love of my newborn daughter. That such a truth would be in her eyes. He promised this to me.
I did not. I held her cocooned in a blanket, my daughter with my brown eyes in her head did not look at me with a love of the Holy Spirit, but a stark fear. In that moment, all my worst crafted imaginations were realized. I had forsaken my calling for what was an earthly matter. It left me hollow.
Angelica would have none of it. I wasn't allowed to share my distention’s in the house or the infant would pick up on my negative energy, a term she brought home from her weekly mediation circle. A crack soon became a chasm that neither of us could fill. The simple truth became, I did not find God’s love in our child and that was the only place my dear Angelica could see it.
My daughter did not make it to her first birthday before her father abandoned her and her mother. The cardinal spoke with the bishop and they accepted me back to Holy Mother church. They made me wait a year before I completed my vows. They said, they wanted me to be sure of this commitment. They didn't understand why I came back. They didn't know how empty my heart had become.
The priest choked trying to keep the tears at bay. Those standing nearby noticed this. Some even took this as a sign to leave. The priest thought, sure witness my pain, but ignore the monster in your midst. Sheep need a Shepard.
The vampire shook his head. "Even in holy orders, it all boils down to who you know, not what you know."
A piece of metal glinted in their eyes from somewhere in the seething mass. Both the vampire and the priest looked for it, but it was gone as soon as it came.
"Oh, padre," The vampire spoke after some serious thought, to ward off the sudden pot of hot rage boiling his blood. "Were you cast as the coward or the betrayer? Can you sin twice in the same action? Seems unfair."
"I told you I already confessed these sins, all of them. My soul is intact. You wanted a story and you have one."
"Oh yes,” He gave a single clap, “A solid romp. Oscar worthy."
"Do not patronize me."
"Seems to me you're handed a love that folk write poems about, a love that I had to wait over hundred years to have, and you toss it away for some orders ain't worth the spit it'd take to shine my boots. And now you’re all confessed and cleaned by the lord. I wonder though, would you do it again the same?” The vampire sneered. “Can you bury those regrets knowing now abandoning that little girl led her on a path to me?”
"We're on dangerous ground." The priest told him.
"I don't give a mighty fuck what the ground is! After you call out my yellow belly? ‘Least I had the guts to take what I wanted in the end."
The priest noticed the remains of the crowd openly notice the vampire. It was hard not to, being the tone in his voice had raised to echo beyond the doors. The bartender reached for the phone near the bar.
The priest whispered, "If you do not calm down, we are going to be forced to leave."
And the vampire whispered back. "Nobody ain't forcing me to do anything I don't have mind to."
"In her memory."
"Remember your idle threat from earlier. You would kill in her memory. This is your epitaph for your one great love? If love drives that in man or monster, I'll die a happy man with these vows chained to my heart."
The vampire leaned back as if the comment struck him in his center.
Two men, large in the eyes of the priest, but food in the eyes of the vampire, entered into the bar area on clipped strides of purpose. They were given a wide berth by the patrons, so wide more spilled out of the bar. The bartender pointed at the corner the priest and the vampire shared. The vampire was oblivious to all of this. His focus kept on the priest until one of the men leaned over his chair and asked them both to leave.
The vampire spoke without looking at him. In his hand, he produced the man’s wallet. "Fuck off or I'll kill everything you've ever loved, Mr. Daniel O'Brian." Then he laughed and handed the wallet back to the man. "It's been an age since I've met an O'Brian. Good family name."
The man's face turned a shade of pale the priest understood as ghastly white. His bottom lip trembled. The stark honesty collapsed over his throat like two hands. His partner hadn't heard what the vampire said, standing off to the side. He walked over. "Danny?"
O'Brian didn't seem to hear him. "I'm...I-am gunna call the cops."
The vampire waved him off, "Do it far away.”
The two men wasted no more time. O'Brian's partner reached for the phone near the bar and the priest could see he dialed three digits into the cradle while O'Brian sat in a stool. He failed to calm his shaking hands.
"That was uncivilized."
The vampire looked at his pocket watch. "Not much left in the night to shorten anyway."
The priest nodded and drank the last of his tea. A question formed in his mind that he asked before he could think to stop it. "What did it feel like to be dead and still love?"
The vampire exhaled, almost a sigh. The priest couldn’t remember the vampire sighing before. "I never got to love when I was a living man. If there's a difference, I couldn't say much about it."
"Then how could you be certain it was love you felt?"
"How could you be sure it wasn't God in her eyes?"
The priest brought the cup to his lips only to find it empty. Only the stains remained. Johanna was nowhere to be found and would not be returning.
"Got nothing, Padre? No proverb or witty comeback? J.C. had little topical to bring to these matters?"
"The son of God," The priest began, searching for any vein of closure. "Jesus, loved when it was never convenient. He took actions out of pure love in spite of what others saw in them. He pointedly spoke of judgment only to be martyred for it, for all of us. His death and life after, studied only to prove his unconditional love."
"Tough thing to align your life with those expectations."
"I don't have to. I practice love. Some days I'm better at it then others. He was born from it."
The vampire laughed at the priest and clapped two slow claps. "Oh, you are dripping with conviction. I might slip on it were I caught following you."
The vampire leaned forward. “I reckon you are one of his favorites. His father abandoned him to the cross, just as you left her. Those are your examples of decent living."
"God never abandoned Jesus."
The vampire hit a closed fist against his heart. "Preach padre. Teach me how God watched while his son broke all earthly conventions. Tell me how wrong they were when they put nails to the wood and called him monster. Preach to me!"
Those that stayed in the bar retreated to the far corners. They'd seen the trailers for the show and knew something big would come from the nights simple celebrations.
The vampire stood, one sharp nail pointed at the priest’s chest. "Look at you, shrinking violet from words you'd never gave credence to before. Because you’re finally hearing truth. In your heart of hearts, you can see where our stories meet. Where they collide. You and I, ain't all that different."
The priest whispered so only the vampire could hear. "I do not kill."
"Cop out. A hundred years I've had that thrown at me by folk that'll take a sledgehammer to a cow’s head for a cheese burger. You'll kill to eat the same as me. I'm just higher on the food chain and its sucks to be looked down on."
"I'm a vegetarian."
"So was Hitler," the vampire said. For the first time his eyes cast out on the crowd. He no longer wanted to surprise the priest with his kill. The priest would watch. He wanted the priest to look on his victim’s face as they die. He hadn't had one yet that didn't pass without a smile.
In the far corner of the room, standing in the center of a group, was a young blond with shinning blue eyes. She fingered the silver cross around her neck in a manner that brought happier times to a painful forefront for the vampire’s memories. His feelings crawled over a barbed fence and were left bloody. He jumped to the empty stage, a place reserved for Wednesdays Blues night or Friday’s local comedy acts.
"Ladybugs and germs, my friend and I apologize. Our debates of tea and blood have spilled over your gentle evenings. Not our intention. You see, we meet here every year to keep a promise to spend a little time together in the memory of a love we shared. I married my friend daughter and she passed away some time ago.
“Now my friend, a Godly man, would confess that he did see any love in her the first time he held her in his arms. He preaches of God’s love, finds acceptance in his own failings and let that be done. He is absolved of the damage his short sightedness did. So, I aim to take a poll. How many of ya'll believe in a just and right lovin’ lord, a gospel of unconditional love?
Some of the crowd laughed out their nervous tension. One man even raised a hand until he saw he was alone. "They lack conviction father." The vampire told the priest.
"What would you have of me?" The priest approached the stage. "The melodrama...it's not going to accomplish anything."
"But look at them!" The vampire swept a hand across the horizon. "These folk, that wear the symbols and say their thanks before sleep, can't be bothered to stand for a silent God. They rate higher than your own daughter?”
"They don't wish to succumb to the whims of a madman."
"Not the same crowd caught dead at Sunday services? You ask me that’s a life waisted."
The priest ascended the stage, if only to help end the drama. "I do not know what you are saying."
The vampire took a knee in front of the priest. "Absolve me. Save me. Let ya'll watch and see the example of God’s love. I am a vicious beast, have no doubts about it. A nightmare to frighten nightmares. I have never asked for true forgiveness before, but tonight, after confessing my sins, I am begging that this priest give me a lion’s share." The vampire stared at the priest. "Forgive me Father, I dare you." He thought he could feel a heart a century dead, flutter with anticipation.
The priest approached. He laid one hand over the creature’s brow. A revulsion he didn't expect came from deep inside him. He’d taken confession in prisons, from men and woman with sick evil inside of them. He could feel through their words and he absolved those half-hearted in their penance even as they planned their sins while listing them. He prayed that half a heart would at once become whole. When the words were ash and his faith dried out from doubt, he found the strength to say what needed to be said. This was his calling. This was his work to do.
The same words tasted like poison in the presence of a kneeling, present vampire. He felt a sickness that sapped his strength, making his legs waver. He couldn't pull anything from inside. This didn't feel like his to do. The vampire was an abomination, a blight. Jesus would cast him out in the same breath as he cast out Legion into a valley of pigs. His love was for man, not for the dead.
He resolved to move his hand from the brow of the vampire and offer himself for the vampire’s promise of murder. He would quell the beasts rage and thirst with his own neck. After a life time of studying Gods will, he could make this choice. He would condemn.
The light was unexpected. It glared his eye, same as before, and he turned toward the crowd, only for a second. There was his daughter, as he remembered her before she brought the monster to him. She played with her cross, ignored by the group around her. The light from the cross made the priest blink and the vision of his daughter was gone, replaced by a stranger.
The question she consistently asked of him, asked again in his mind. "What would God say?" She never professed to know any secrets. When she found him as an adult, even after Angelica begged her not to seek the priest out, his daughter had only questions. She'd tell him something and then ask, "What would God say?" In his most honest moments, he would tell her he didn't know.
He asked himself, this time with his inner voice, "Lord, what would you have of me?" The words he spoke out loud were not his. To his dying day, he could not confess to know where they came from. Though, in private moments, he believed it was Gods pure light speaking through him as sure as it shined from the cross.
"In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you. Let these sins be washed from your soul. Shed the wolf’s skin and return to the fold as you were once. Born fresh, born new in the eyes of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The priest made the sign of the cross on the vampire’s chest. The flesh under his shirt sizzled as if held to a match.
There wasn't a sound from the room. People froze in half movements, lifting glasses to mouths, whispering in ears. Under the silence, lay undercurrents of embarrassment. None knew why. Something moved in the room that they have no words for. It had become sacred.
The vampire left money at the bar for the tea and they both walked out through the hotel lobby without a word between them. Outside, a half-moon vied with the city lights still burning through square holes in the concrete. A layer of snow created a soft comforter on the ground. Flurries drifted in front of their eyes.
The priest let his tears go. The vampire felt things he didn't understand. He'd never believed he could be saved.
"Until next year."
"Until I have no more years left."
A police car pulled up. Its lights turned off. Two officers with bored looks on their faces entered the hotel. The vampire looked at the priest and started to say something, when both men broke out into a choir of laughter. It came as if freed from their chests. From afar, one could think that these two men where life-long friends, or maybe even brothers.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
Jets and Jobs
©1995 Green's Educational Pub. (Canada)
Ceiling shadows reminded Fred of a childhood game of flexing fingers and fanning them to resemble a bird. "But this isn't childhood," he said aloud.
Joy moved her arm out across the cotton sheets. "You okay?"
"Sure. Go back to sleep."
A shallow sigh escaped. Joy pulled at her short nightgown making it fan out and in to form a breeze. Sarcastically she said, "It really is easy to sleep in Miami's heat and humidity." She rolled and faced away from Fred.
"Think of the positive," Fred whispered. "We probably won't be here much longer." He shifted his weight to position himself on a part of sheet that wasn't hot and damp from his body's sweat.
"'Night," Joy responded, not wanting to prolong the conversation which, she knew, would not lead to anything except a fight from frustration.
Fred raised his arms and clasped his hands. The streetlight wasn't coming in at a necessary angle for a 'bird' to form.
"What are you doing?" Joy turned around. Her hair was matted from the humidity and her clinging nightgown twisted as she tried to face Fred.
"Didn't know you had eyes in the back of your head for anyone except the kids." Fred tried to sound cheerful.
"Stop playing and go to sleep!" She ordered in the tone of voice reserved, generally, for the children.
He wanted to reply 'yes, mommy' but knew that would infuriate his wife. He lowered one arm, patted her on the head, then raised it again. "Bird. Wings of Man. Eastern's flown away."
"What are you babbling now?" Joy pushed herself into a semi-seated position. "Do you want to talk?"
"Talk about what?" Fred lowered both of his arms, then pushed his pillow to form a back rest and sat up. His chest was bare yet beads of moisture dotted his skin. The hair on his shoulders drooped from the perspiration.
A car honked in the apartment complex parking lot. Then an alarm went off in the distance.
"Good thing the kids sleep through anything. There'll be a siren next." Joy got out of bed and stood at the window. Her purple satin nightgown clung to her damp skin. She liked Miami. The temperature during the summer was the only part of this area that upset her, and if they'd the money, air-conditioning could control much of that. For her daily life, Miami was comfortable: she knew where to shop, where the library was, had friends, liked the tropical climate, and it had become familiar after eight years. She was anxious about the uncertain future. "Did you know my parents flew Eastern New York to Miami on their 1956 honeymoon?"
"Guess not. It isn't something you make conversation about. Hi. We're your in-laws and, gee, we flew Eastern on our honeymoon so you're going to love us." Fred's flippant tone bothered Joy.
Joy pushed her straight hair back as if her fingers were a comb. "Don't you ever stop joking?" She knew he felt frightened about a future suddenly non-existent, and knew he thought he was letting his family down as a provider. She now worried about health insurance; and about grocery, rent, and utilities bills; and growing kids always needing shoes and clothing. Shouldn't they be sharing their fears? Why wasn't there a required school course in marriage and communication?
"Listen, kiddo," Fred got up and went to the window. An impression from the elastic waistband of his underwear itched; he brushed the back of his hand against the area. "Everyone wants a person trained in air commerce!" His glib sentence continued. "No problem getting another job."
"No problem," Joy strained to hold back her annoyance. "No problem. We have problems and need to talk about them."
"You want me to come back to bed? Let's turn on the lamp and make funny objects on the ceiling. Maybe even airplanes." Fred leaned his palms against the window glass, then pushed the tip of his nose onto it but the glass was neither cool nor able to make lasting impressions of his body's prints.
Joy went into the bathroom but left it dark. She splashed her face with water, and drizzled some on her hair. To the silence she said, "Unspoken. Why do we always keep real fears and sensations silent? Why do we pretend when we should be making eachother feel safe? Why can't I scream about a major airline going bankrupt and the unfairness of it all? Why can't I whisper to Fred, 'I'm scared. I'm really scared.'"
"You okay?" Fred called in a restrained tone.
"I'm okay. You're okay. Was that a song or a poem or something?" Joy came back into the room and sat near her pillow.
"It was something." Fred moved from the window, sat on the mattress, then used his arm and circled her waist. "Want to fool around?" Maybe, he thought, we could forget for just a few minutes what a frightening situation we're in and how insecure our lives really are. Maybe our closeness will make troubles disappear...for a little while.
As Joy grinned over the idea, air escaped from her nose.
"You sound like Jennifer imitating a horse. What does the horse say, Jennifer? Neigh. Then she blows air out of her nose." Fred spoke about their year old daughter. Oh, how will I provide for that child and her brother? What if she wants dancing lessons, or... His mental process was stopped by the sound of Joy's voice.
"Let's go to sleep. Okay?" Joy slipped into bed with Fred's arm still circling her.
"Seems like we keep saying 'okay'. Is that the same as 'you know' that we always hate to hear?" Fred moved with her not allowing his grip to waved, then held her tighter.
"I'm scared." Joy lay almost rigid. She was breaking an unwritten agreement. "Fred? You listening? I'm scared. You're specialized. You're an L-10-11 expert. Who'se even got the airbusses anymore what with the fuel costs? DC-9's still running, and 737's, and I guess you could learn those airplane manuals and work with them, but others already know how to fix those things and they're out of work, too. Do you want to be a househusband and I'll go back to work?"
Tears stung Fred's eyes. He was glad the darkness protected him from view. What Joy needed was his strength not his anxiety.
"Mommy. Water." Three year old Michael called from his bedroom.
Joy got up and pushed her feet into backless slippers. She went to the kitchen and filled a plastic cup with water.
"Saved by my son," Fred spoke to the walls. "Oh, what can I do to keep them safe, secure, stable! Air commerce. I love it but what do I do with it now? I can't break down yet. Joy needs my courage."
"He's sleeping again," Joy spoke as she removed her slippers. "Glad he doesn't know worry yet."
"I promised your family I'd take care of you," Fred began, "and I will."
"We're supposed to take care of eachother. It's not one-sided. We're a partnership. So we've division of labor."
Fred quipped, "Yeah, you went through labor and I divided up the cigars."
"Please, Fred. Stop!" Joy's body was shaking from the strain of pretense and fears she needed to be soothed away.
He raised himself on one elbow and bent over her. "Joy. I love you and the kids. Help me to be strong. I don't want to collect unemployment and watch TV soaps. I don't want to have to be a househusband; if I choose to be, that's a different case. I feel like a failure."
Joy began to cry. "You're not responsible for what's happened to us. How could you forsee it? That airline was as old as any that ever existed! We can only prepare for what we think may truly have a chance of happening, and this wasn't Peoples Express or Altair." Joy's sobbing was relief rather than regret. "We'll manage. Somehow, we'll manage. We'll use our savings-towards-a-house and just start up that fund again once you've another job." Not able to distinguish what was Miami's humid air and perspiration, and what might be human tears, Joy felt Fred's face without feedback.
"Thanks." Fred's throat felt tight from trying to hold back his own need to cry. "I may work as an auto mechanic, or even shelve groceries in the supermarket, but I need to feel I'm macho man or Tarzan even though I know you're not walking two steps behind me or are Jane. Okay?" He knew that minimum wage and menial jobs might be the only offers.
"It's going to be hard to uproot and start again. I just don't know how people do it and pretend it's easy."
"They pretend, honey." Fred brushed his lips across Joy's cheek.
"Let's not pretend so much. Let's be real from this point on. All we have is eachother. My mother told me that was vital to a marriage. It's us...you...me." Joy's mouth found Fred's and she kissed him with tenderness then passion.
"Just stand by me." Fred returned the excitement and leaned at an angle so he could stroke her hair.
"Always." Joy felt that a bonding had developed that was different from anything they'd previously shared. "And be there for me, too."
Joy reached around Fred's shoulder and pulled him to her, then heard, "Mommy. Water."
Both laughed. "Michael always had a sense of timing, didn't he?" Joy lifted herself and pushed her feet into her slippers.
Leaning her elbows on the windowsill, Cindy Miller stared out into the street. Snow piles pushed to the curb showed slivers of sidewalk as some snow had drifted back to the concrete. " . It sure took a long time coming."
Her sister, Susan, passed by and commented "You look like the cover of The Saturday Evening Post."
Cindy turned, grinned. "That girl was staring into a floor mirror."
Correcting, Susan stated, "That girl was staring at herself or her reflection, really, while peering into a cheval mirror."
"Oh, Geez," Cindy rolled her eyes. "Bad enough mom fixes grammar all the time, but not you, too."
"Why so glum?" Susan entered the room, then squat on the floor beside her sister's legs.
"I don't know where to write my resolutions."
"Try the walls."
"Oh, silly," Cindy was getting annoyed, "I'm serious."
"Got a lot?" Susan straightened her legs, placed her hands on her knees, then wiggled her feet.
"I don't know. When I start printing them out, then I'll know. Besides, what's 'a lot': ten, a hundred!" Cindy resumed her former position.
Susan stopped watching the motions of her feet, folded them alongside her, and reached an arm out to her sister. "Sorry. I like to tease. Wrong timing, I guess."
Cindy nodded her head but didn't turn around. "It's different now that daddy's dead. I don't know. I don't know."
Tears stung Susan's eyes, but she blotted them with the back of her index finger. "Do what I always did as a kid. Write your resolutions on toilet paper. Mom and Dad always loved unrolling it and reading my promises."
"But we don't have a dad," Cindy whispered. "And Mom spends her alone-time talking to his photo. It's creepy. Have you heard it?"
Susan had heard her mother asking a picture of a dead man how she was going to manage, how to pay the mortgage and bills, how to figure out future college funds. Stupid. How could a picture answer, and what was there to figure out. All you do is get a bill and write out a check, Susan remembered learning that in arithmetic. She put her hands on her ears as if to blot out her mother's voice echoing 'honey, oh honey, I miss you, I love you, I need you.' Pulling herself up, she uncupped her hands, embraced Cindy from behind and flippantly said, "Get the toilet paper."
"Ink is runny, Susan. What'd you do to stop it? A blotter?"
"Crayon. The big, black china-marking crayon. I'll get it." Susan had severed the seriousness of this day which ends familiar numbers after monthly dates, but she thought about it. She'd write in her diary; that's the private place to put inner feelings. Right now, she'd have to help Cindy.
In a wooden kitchen drawer which held marking crayons, electrical tape, assorted pins, scissors, glue, pencils with broken points, nail buffing felts, bottle openers, and such, Susan spotted a tortoise-shell hair comb. She lifted her hair, stuck the comb in place, patted it to assure herself it was secure, then grabbed the crayon. Climbing the stairs two at a time, she returned to Cindy's room.
Cindy had a wrapped roll. It said 'Facial Quality, Double-Ply, Bathroom Tissue.' "Why doesn't this just say toilet paper."
Susan giggled. What was the term she learned in school that meant prettying-up? "Euphemism," she said aloud.
"Euphemism. It's substitution of a word that other people might not like for a word that they will. Like 'death' gets changed to 'passed on', or 'garbage man' to 'sanitation engineer'. Toilet bothers a lot of people otherwise public ones would be called toilet. Haven't you heard one of Mom's friends say she's going to the 'little girls' room' when she means she has to use the toilet."
"Oh, the fish restaurant that had 'whalers' on a door and I didn't know that meant the men's toilet?" Cindy took short breaths and giggled as she continued to recite other instances. "Silhouettes painted on doors, or the rooster for men and the chicken for women but when you have to go you don't look for the poultry difference."
"If you announce you're going to write your new year's resolutions on facial-quality bathroom tissue, it sounds chic," Susan tore off the wrapper as she spoke, "but say you've planned next year's promises on toilet paper and it conjures up yuks."
"Do I unroll and start at the top, Susan, or do I write on the first sheet and work my way up?"
"If you unroll it first, then Mom will have to unroll to start reading and roll up the paper as she goes along. It's more dramatic. Daddy used to go nuts watching the whole thing flop down until the cardboard roll appeared. Then he'd have to read and roll at the same time."
"But what if I run out of resolutions before the paper is done?" Cindy looked puzzled.
"Just tear off what's left. Like when you tear some off to wipe." Susan was so matter-of-fact she didn't realize that the question really confused Cindy.
"Oh. Yeah." Cindy's voice pitched higher, then lowered. "Oops, I mean yes."
"I'll leave you alone, okay. Don't press hard or you'll tear the toilet paper. I mean," Susan then emphasized, "facial-quality bathroom tissue. But if it rips, scotch-tape it together. It'll still be a thing like knights unrolled to read off edicts in the Middle Ages."
"Thanks. Really, thanks."
Susan left the room but stood just out of eyesight. She heard Cindy whisper, 'I promise this new year I'll make my bed every day....'
At the far end of the hallway, the master bedroom door was half open. Straining to hear, and tip-toeing to get closer without being detected, Susan heard her mother's voice whimpering 'honey, oh honey, I miss you, the girls miss you, sometimes I'm so frightened alone and feel so alone.'
Susan shook her head with sudden awareness that her mother, who had daughters and responsibilities that kept her constantly occupied, was 'alone'. This time, the tears that exited from Susan's eyes were not blotted by the back of her fingers but tumbled down her cheeks. Mouthing to the bedroom, she formed the phrase "I love you."
Samantha Mallinger currently works full-time in a retail store in her home state of Iowa. She dreams of one day being a full-fledged writer that will change the world of symbolism within her stories. In order to do that, she went to Buena Vista University and received a bachelor degree in history with minors in psychology and sociology before she started attending Full Sail University to get a bachelor degree in creative writing.
She could be in the Olympics for her archer, never misses a target. The wind could be against her and her arrow still hits the target, but she doesn’t want to be in the Olympics. She avoids anything Olympian since that one event that happened in her life, many years ago. So many years ago that the memory shouldn’t be clear and vivid within her dreams that haunts her every time that she goes to sleep. Three people know the truth. One is herself. One who is dead, never to return back to life, no matter how much she prays and plead. The third and final one that knows the truth is her brother. The brother that she shared their mother’s womb with, her younger twin brother is the culprit. He’s the one who took away her happiness and started rumors, just like their Aunt Demeter.
Rumors that held little truth to them, rumors that were nothing more but lies. Lies! People wrote down lies about her life and the event. How little do the mortal people know about the truth behind all the myths and legends surrounding her heritage and she’s not the only victim. Like the rumors that surround THAT event. The event that took away her happiness, her love for a mortal man that not even her older sister Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty – couldn’t even replace within her. A love that only one other couple has experienced, their own relationship image destroyed by a mother unwillingly to let go of her daughter to someone who treats her like a queen.
Images of the event flashed through her mind, reminding her of the horror. She was standing there, standing right next to Orion. He was a mortal, a hunter like herself, but soon he was going to be a god. They were on the hunt, just a simple hunt, to enjoy each other’s company, otherwise known as a date in this modern world. Her twin brother stood in front of them, holding onto his bow with an arrow in place, getting ready to aim for his own prey. Her brother took aim and before she could respond, before Orion could respond; her brother shot his arrow at Orion. The arrow penetrated Orion’s chest, like one of their own hunting arrows going into a stag cleanly.
She remembers screaming after Orion collapsed onto the ground. She tried to save him from her Uncle Hades and Aunt/Cousin Persephone; she tried to prevent Orion from going into the River Styx. It would all end in pain and heartbreak. Hades and Persephone, they didn’t want to take Orion, but they had no choice. He would have died from the poison that the tip of the arrow was laced with. Persephone was there, trying to comfort her, saying she knows the pain that she’s going through when she has to leave her husband behind to return to her mother. She scoffs at that, Hades is still alive, still treating Persephone like a queen, but she…she has no one. Her Orion is gone, only visible within the starry night sky, when it is her time to look over the mortals at night.
Since that incident, she is anything but formal with her brother. She’s polite to him at the mandatory gatherings and looks the other direction if he’s nearby. He isn’t allowed to visit her outside of business discussion and even then she’s not the perfect host to him. She has kept to her vow of not ever forgiving him and she’s crude to all of his lovers. Why should he get to enjoy a woman’s company who he enjoys but takes away the one man’s company that she enjoyed?
She walked out into her balcony looking up at the star filled sky, the half-moon slowing rising as it was becoming her turn to shine. She won’t rise up to the sky until the sun is all the way down. She’s acting childish for so many centuries but she doesn’t care.
Silvery wisps of a glowing blue light shimmered next to her, one of the glowing particles moving around her hand until it reaches her palm, causing her to squeeze gently. “Hello, Orion.”
It was nothing more but a small whisper into the evening sky, to the mortals, an imaginary breeze. To her, it was everything. “Hello, Artemis.”
NT Franklin writes after his real job hoping one day to have it be his real job. He writes cozy mystery short stories, nostalgia short stories, and Flash Fiction. He has been published in Scarlet Leaf Review, Fiction on the Web, Madswirl, Postcard Shorts, 404 Words, Freedom Fiction, Burrst, Entropy, Alsina Publishing, Fifty-word stories, among others. When not reading or writing short stories, you might find him fishing or solving crossword puzzles.
Me and Bart Go Dancing
I was hardly back from school when I saw Bart jogging across the road with a football under his arm. “Come on, we’re gonna have a touch football game.”
“I’m in.” I didn’t need to be asked twice, it was football weather.
Bart was short of breath from jogging, so we walked slow so he could catch his breath and I could understand him.
“You know the new family that moved in four doors down? You know, the really huge front lawn with no trees?”
“Robbie and Tommy in our grade, right?”
Bart nodded. “Yup, they’re twins.”
“But they don’t look the same.”
Bart shrugged. “My mom said some twins are like that. But they’re both really fast and can both throw a football a mile.”
When me and Bart arrived, we chose up sides, splitting the twins. The long lawn was perfect for a football field.
It was a fun game and by the time everyone had to go home for supper, there were a dozen kids playing. Bart was right, the twins were good. One was a little faster and the other threw a football a little farther, but they were the two best players on the field.
On the walk home, I told Bart, “I hope we do this every day after school.”
“Speaking of school, I heard there’s a student teacher coming this week for gym class. I wonder what we’ll do,” Bart said.
“I’m getting kinda used to dodgeball every class.”
The first class of the day was gym. We stayed in street clothes and carried our shoes to the gym floor. Sure enough, we were introduced to the student teacher, Miss Hamilton. And she was a girl gym teacher!
We were all lined up on the black line ready to count off for attendance when Miss Hamilton strode to the middle of the floor and said, “We’re going to dance in gym class for the next few weeks.”
Some of the boys started snickering, but me and Bart kept a straight face.
“TWEET!” Miss Hamilton blew a whistle and stopped everyone in their tracks. “And there will be none of that. DO YOU HEAR ME?”
I almost peed in my pants. She was scary. She looked kinda like the guy gym teachers but yelled louder. Her arms were bigger than Mr. Nesbit, the English teacher. No one was going to mess with her. Then she opened the curtain dividing the gym into the boys’ and girls’ side. We’d never been allowed to peek into the girl’s side, and here, the curtain was wide open.
There the girls were, all standing on the black line on the other side of the big gym.
Miss Hamilton stood in the middle of the gym floor and looked at everyone. After a moment, she walked to the wall by the girls’ locker room where a phonograph was plugged in. She turned it on and set the needle on the record. talking while she demonstrated dance steps. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, over and over. Then we were told to move an arm’s distance apart and do the steps. The curtain was still open so we could see the girls doing the steps and they could see us. After a half hour that seemed to last three hours, we went back to the locker room to put on our shoes and go to our next class.
The buzz through the school was crazy. The girls liked the dance stuff and the boys, or most of them anyway, said they missed dodgeball.
We practiced dance the next day in gym class until the end when we were given proper instruction on asking a girl to dance, “May I have this dance?” Miss Hamilton said was the correct way to ask a young lady to dance. And we needed to know that because we’d be dancing with partners the next class. We were to keep the same partners all during the dance section of gym class.
Some of the boys said they were going to be sick from school, but I doubted it.
“Bart, that means we’re going to dance with girls. Do you think we’ll have to touch them?”
“Do you think everyone will dance?” I asked.
“There are more girls than boys so all the boys will have a girl partner. I don’t think girls mind dancing with girls.”
“I’m afraid I might forget the steps,” I said.
“My mom dances a lot; she really likes it. She’ll help and I can practice. We’ve done it before. I’m pretty good.”
“Your mom dances?”
“Yeah. I guess my dad doesn’t like dancing because she goes out alone or with other people when he travels.”
The rest of the day, Fred Wick was doing his usual bullying thing. Annie Howard, the most popular girl in school, was in the girl’s class. Fred said he was going to be the one to ask her to dance and no one else had better dare.
“I’m going to walk straight across the floor and ask who is across from me,” I said. “No way I’m going to ask Annie.”
Bart shook his head. “Ha! I just might ask Annie to dance.”
“Gee, Bart, that’s risky.”
“Nah, Fred Wick doesn’t worry me.”
After school, we played touch football in Robbie and Tommy’s yard. While we played, dance class was talked about, but mainly, tagged you, did not, did too, dominated the discussions.
The first class of the next day, we lined up on the black lines looking at each other – girls on the right, boys on the left. Miss Hamilton was in the middle with her whistle on the end of a strap. She hadn’t needed to blow it other than that one time.
“Gentlemen,” she announced, “please ask a lady to dance and I will start the music.”
Blonde straight hair, blue eyes, dimples, and a big smile, there was quite a rush to Annie and a few other girls. She was directly across from Bart and he confidently strode straight over and asked, “May I have this dance?”
At the same time, Fred Wick asked, “Wanna dance?”
Before Annie could answer, Miss Hamilton bellowed, “Hold it right there, young man.” She stormed across the gym floor and was inches from Fred’s face. “What did you say?”
“I said, wanna dance.” Fred answered.
“Let’s try that again,” Miss Hamilton ordered. “Politely.”
Everyone stopped and waited to see what would happen next.
Fred looked down at his socks and said “May I have this dance?”
“It seems you have a choice, Annie,” Miss Hamilton said.
You could have heard a pin drop before Annie spoke. “Thank you, Bart, I’d love to dance.” The word love floated out of her mouth and was musical the way she said it.
Annie turned to Fred, “I’m sorry, but I have a partner. Why don’t you ask Cecelia next to me here to dance?” Fred wilted to about three-feet tall.
With that, the gym started buzzing, boys asking girls and girls accepting. All except Fred, who stood there with his mouth open. I asked the girl directly across from me to dance and she said yes.
Leftover girls quickly asked other leftover girls to dance to avoid Fred as a partner. The only people left were Cecelia and Fred. No matter what dress Cecelia wore, it never fit right. Cecelia was last in everything in every class, but she seemed happy enough to have a boy to dance with, even if it was Fred Wick.
Annie was a good dancer, almost as good as Bart, so all eyes were on them. They moved to the music as one. It was kinda pretty. They moved to the center of the gym floor and everyone gave them lots of room. I made sure I stayed a long way away from Fred and Cecelia. As good as Bart and Annie were, Fred and Cecelia were that bad. Miss Hamilton stayed close to them because they never did the steps right. I was glad to see someone way worse than me. Cecelia smiled the whole time, even when Fred stepped on her toes. She even smiled when Fred tripped her and she went down in a heap.
I didn’t forget the steps, but pretty much had to count one, two, three, four, over and over. I only stepped on Roberta’s toes once.
The whole school knew about Miss Hamilton and Annie putting Fred Wick in his place. It was great. Bart made it through the whole day without getting pounded by Fred. He didn’t think Fred was going to be a problem. I wasn’t sure. Once again, Bart was right. Fred pretty much kept his head down in the hallways and didn’t stare at anyone the whole day.
After school on the way home, Bart asked, “How was dancing?”
“It was okay. I don’t even miss dodgeball that much.” I was sure we’d go back to playing it as soon as Miss Hamilton left.
“I didn’t see you, who did you dance with? You had to touch her, right?” He smiled. “You okay?”
“I danced with Roberta, uh… I mean Robbie, one of the twins. You know, we play touch football with her. She’s really fast and catches a football really well… for a girl. So, she’s almost not like a girl.
“Nice,” Bart said.
All in all, it was a good day, I learned how to dance, a bully was humiliated, and who knows, there is always tomorrow.
Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
THE TRIAL OF MR. AVAILABLE