Gone, Baby, Gone
When I moved to Salt Spring Island twenty years ago from the city, I thought the locals were so out there. There was this strange old woman who lived up the coast, sheltering under a boardwalk that looked out to the harbor. If the tide was out far enough, she burned fires on a patch of beach and warmed whatever food she could find to eat that day. She lived with this guy with weathered skin and his hair looked bleached, although it was hard to imagine that he did such a thing.
Often, from my car, I still see him walking along the main road. I don’t know where he sleeps nowadays. Their encampment was cleared away by the police when it was overrun with rats and the old woman moved off-island. The couple’s misfortunes were documented in the local newspaper. I felt connected to them somehow, as if they were our homeless, as opposed to the drifters that camped every summer, often teen runaways looking for adventure, romance or escape.
I sympathized with the couple because we too were overrun with rats once. Ours was a new house, but the plumber forgot to screw down a metal screen on a drain. A rat couple made their way in and hid under our stove until we went to bed. I woke up to the grinding of teeth on wood, chewing through whatever scrap of sleep I had that night. In the morning gnawed hollow in the pantry door propelled us into the village to buy traps.
The rat couple proved elusive. They bred 10 babies which we eventually trapped one by one, leaving them for a good long time before disposing of the trap and body in a garbage bag. If I attended too eagerly after the sound of the snap, I might see the animal in its death throes, dragging the trap behind it in an uncomfortably human way. Just when we thought we were done with them a gray blur would whip out from under me to disappear beneath the chest of drawers by the kitchen. Now we seal all our pantry goods in clear containers, like a health food store, only one that stocks Frosted Flakes.
Rats are a downside of island life. Some people find island life irksome, taking the ferry to the city for specialist appointments, especially as you get older, or being snowed in for extended power outages. That loses its charm if you can’t shovel your own way out, or walk through snow drifts to get milk. I can still light a fire to warm myself, however, and heat up any food at hand. I might follow the old woman to the city, but I’m not there yet.
A brief encounter with this woman happened like this: we were cruising the thrift store, a small and crowded shop that supported the local woman shelter when– no, come to think of it, we were in the drugstore, in the makeup section. She looked straight into my eyes and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a spare twenty, would you?” I turned to her, surprised, and mumbled an embarrassed no. She had never approached me before. Shrugging, she limped off into another aisle.
Her voice contrasted with the slurred or affected speech I expected. Because her clothes were theatrical: large, tilted hat with straw fruit adorning its brim, full skirt and a bright red coat. She sounded just like any other neighbor. It struck me that I might be as recognizable to her as she was to me. An old guy who lived in a derelict boat collected litter in the village with a spiky stick. Accepting donations for his service, I often gave him a twenty, grateful he was tidying up the place. Had the trash collector spoken to the old woman about me? Other unsettling thoughts about her seeped into my mind. I would be applying blush at the mirror and falter: is this the same blush she uses? With few drugstores on the island, there were only so many blush options to be had. Like her attire, her makeup was of the stage, with bold circles of rouge, overdrawn lipstick smeared on her mouth and thick black eyeliner curling up at her eyelid corners.
When my hair started going grey, I wondered if I should let it come, or move into old age with a falsely bright head of hair. Then I’d think of the old woman’s hennaed head, how she must have dyed her hair in the public restroom at the park, or perhaps a kind hairdresser did it for her. I realized that she had dealt with this grey hair problem just before me. (My father-in-law solved it a by using raspberry mousse, tinting his hair an unnatural red.)
Rifling through the thrift store racks, I’d disentangle some hippie jacket with cheerful patterns and think can I pull this off? Slowly I’d lower the hanger back on the rack. I might look like I was dressed for the stage, like the old woman, with her floppy hat and Bohemian clothing.
The coat would be useful as a spare in my studio, to be honest. The other day I nipped into the Post Office during a brief but furious windstorm. Unprepared for weather, I swept a pink blanket around my shoulders in what I hoped was a stylish wrap. And then there was the time I attended a party at my neighbor’s, looking down to discover I’d kept my slippers on. Their ratty fake fur trim peeked out from my trouser bottoms.
I thought I had a brief encounter with that old woman, but now I see it was more a passing of the baton. We gazed at the same choppy water, shopped in the same shops, warmed by the same fire, fought the same marauding rats. Technically, a neighboring fire and neighboring rats. Her ex chats in front of the grocery store just as my partner often stops to do. For now, I’m the old woman who lives on the island. And I’m gone, baby. I’ve gone island.
Lorrin Johnson is an Early Childhood teacher, she's an up-and-coming writer. She graduated from Davenport University with a degree in business and a diploma as a Nurse Aide. Lorrin enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, and traveling. She enjoys writing - it's a wonderful form of expression.
Our Secret Place
I met John two weeks, ago at a traffic light I blew my horn and he rolled down his window. I smiled and asked, how are you? He replied I’m fine, I said I can see that, my name is Lindsey nice to meet you, John. Well, John, I know women usually don’t do this but I’m different can I get your number? I would like to take you to dinner we exchanged numbers then went our separate ways.
I went home and walked into my room and fell face-first into my pillow.
I was tickled like a high school girl this feeling gave me a rush! I felt so alive everything in my life seemed so repetitive. I got up and ate a snack then pondered on what I was going to say.
After walking around for ten minutes I called John’s number and the phone rang.
My heart started to beat fast he answered hello Lindsey! How are you?
I’m great thank you for asking, how are you, John?
I’m well, why is a woman as stunning as you single? I haven’t meant the right man, ok what qualities does he have to have?
Honest, caring, non-judgemental, and wants a family wow that guy sounds like me!
We will see John: would you like to go to dinner Saturday at 4:00?
Yes, Lindsey, I would like that! I will talk to you later have a good day!
I put the phone down and smiled, I know what I was going to wear. I have this hunter green dress with gold jewelry and my hunter green and gold heels. After I got my clothes together, I did some research for a project for I had at work before I knew it, I fell asleep.
I woke up it was Saturday! I took a sip of my tea for meditation. It helps clear my mind. I ate some toast with two flipped egg whites and a banana. I felt great John texted me good morning and he will see me in a few hours!
I texted back great and sent the address to one of my favorite nightclubs.
This was more of a jazz and blues nightclub. I got there around 3:30 valet parked my car.
I walked through the door John was already there, I smiled and fixed my hair, and walked to our table. Lindsey, you look amazing, John you're wearing that suit! In my mind I wanted him to lose the suit. He pulled my chair out and I sat down. I smiled and he smiled back. Lindsey this is my favorite nightclub. Really? Yes, that’s funny it’s also my favorite.
We ordered our food and wine after we ate we danced I really enjoyed myself. John kissed my forehead and looked down and smiled at me. Lindsey, I could hold you forever I laid my head on his shoulder.
I asked if he was ready to leave? He said yes we walked out to the valet together and they brought our cars around. I told John to follow me. I had a condo fifteen minutes away it was out by itself. John trailed me there we pulled into the garage we got out. We walked through the door, John swung me around and kissed me. I could have melted we walked up the stairs to my bedroom I turned on the fireplace with my remote it was a little chilly. I dimmed the lights and turned on some music. We undressed each other then made love. It was like our bodies were meant for each other. I had a wonderful day and a beautiful night! I didn’t want the night to end. We laid down and woke up the next morning. John and I had breakfast, we kissed and got into our cars and went our separate ways. I drive back to my house I glanced in my review mirror that was the best sex I had in my life! I want this every night I asked myself what are you thinking?
This isn’t possible, is it? Could I have a great career and successful marriage and family? It made me wonder I just planned on having flings I walked through my front door feeling different than I felt before. I had to keep myself busy and push this silly thought out of my head. Besides, I have a project I’m doing for a magazine. I typed up my article and submitted it to our chief editor. Not even an hour later I received an email the Chief editor liked my article!
I got a rise and was promoted to assistant chief editor!
I had to tell someone the good news! I was getting ready to call John my phone rang it was John. Hi Lindsey, how are you doing? I’m great I just got promoted, that's wonderful let’s celebrate!
I have good news but I want to tell you in person, Lindsey what are you doing today at 4:30?
Nothing that’s great let’s meet at our favorite jazz club. I will see you then Lindsey you don’t have to dress up. I put on a nice pair of jeans and a sexy blouse and wedge heels. I wonder what John wants to tell me? It was 2:00 I started curling my hair and getting my clothes on and getting ready to go. I was ready to go at 3:00 I got in my car and drove to the club I made it there at 3:30.
John was sitting there, he ordered a bottle of Champaign, he pulled out my chair so John tell me the good news. I sat down and we ordered our food Lindsey you are my good news!
I like everything about you, there’s only one thing I don’t like, What’s that John?
Not waking up to you every morning, he stood up and walked around to me.
John got on one knee and asked, Will you be my best friend for life? Will you marry me?
Yes, it’s a beautiful ring. We ate dinner and went to John’s place Lindsey, I knew you were the one when I held your hand. From now on, no looking back we're working towards our future.
I’m glad I stopped you at the light.
I have never done this before. I have no idea how to do it.
Writing a journal has never been my thing. I prefer medical blogs and articles rather than wasting my time in writing daily chores in a diary, or as in this case, a journal. Ah, well, I guess everybody needs to evolve in life. In any case, life is all about changes. That was what Professor Bloombelt used to say.
The reason for me writing this journal happened in the morning today. I was in the hospital when--
Oh, I am sorry. Even though this is my personal system, I should introduce myself here. So, here it is. I am Dr. Aarnay Mitra. Not a surgeon, a cardiologist, or neurologist, mind you. I am just a Psychotherapist. Most people back in India do not even think of Psychotherapists as real doctors. I was born in Kolkata, India, but most of my life has been spent in the US, at least since I started college at Columbia University in 1990. And for the last thirty years, this country has been my home, twenty of which has been in my current apartment in Merrifield, Virginia. Now, I cannot even imagine myself living anywhere other than this place.
Life has changed a lot. When I first came to the US, I was a young guy with a lot of energy. Now, as I look into the mirror, I see a frail middle-aged man with a fully shaved round face and similarly curved glasses donned on his eyes. The matching gray hairs around the temples and thinning hair in the middle is just another add on to my miserable aging body. Running a couple of miles every morning doesn't seem to do much good.
Oh, I am deviating from the main topic. I should write about the unusual thing that happened today before I diverge again.
So, at 10 in the morning today, literally twelve hours ago, his son made the appointment, and an hour afterward, I met them.
'Hi, Doctor.' The younger person, around thirty, tall, handsome, blond with gray eyes, entered my office. 'My father had an appointment at eleven.'
'Is that Mr. Peter Young?' I said, looking at the system in front of me.
And then I saw him. Peter Young, sixty, with white and thinning hair, pale skin, a bit hunched, and similar gray eye as his son. He came up timidly behind his son, looking at me with, shall I say, hopeful eyes?
'So, what is it that you want my help with?' I asked the son.
'Yes, Doctor.' He said while helping his dad sit in the chair opposite me. 'My name is Bill Young, and he is my dad, Peter Young. We live in Montgomery Village.'
'Ok.' I nodded and urged him to continue.
'Yeah. Last week, while driving to the supermarket, dad lost control of the car and hit a tree near the sidewalk.' He looked at his father, who seemed to be miles away from our conversation. It looked like he has found something of real fascination outside the window of my office on the fourth floor of the George Washington University Hospital. I know there was nothing outside other than the skyline of the Washington DC, something I have already been bored of seeing.
To my experience, he looked to be suffering from Schizoid Personality Disorder, a medical condition that involves disengagement of social relationships.
But before I can conclude that, I needed to know all the details. Therefore, I waited for Bill to go on.
'They took him to the hospital then and there, and the treatment started. There was a lump on his head-----'.
I had already noticed the bandaged area on Peter's temple and guessed as such.
'--and the doctor said that he had a minor concussion. They treated him for three days and released him just a couple of days back.'
Bill wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead before continuing. With the air conditioning in the hospital working fine, there could only be one reason for him perspiring. I just waited for him to continue.
'But once he came back home, something had changed inside him.' The young man said. 'He has been speaking about absurd things and---'
'What kind of absurd things?' I asked, stopping Bill, who shifted in his seat, looking uncertainly at his father and then at me.
'I... I think it is better if you hear from him.' He said and then touched Peter's shoulder gently, who seemed to be startled and---
'No, no, Don't.' The sudden shout echoed throughout the office as the older person jumped out of his chair and looked at his son with red-rimmed eyes, shocking even me.
My secretary Helen opened the door with her eyes wide, looking at the room. I guess she heard the commotion and must have thought that someone attacked me.
'N....nothing, Helen.' I assured her and urged her to leave us as I stood up to take hold of my patient.
'This is a glimpse of what has been happening with dad for these two days, Doctor.' Bill said, nervously looking at his father, who was back to being calm again. As he sat on the chair slowly, I caught his eyes darting left and right rapidly, as if reading things from thin air.
Clearly not the Schizoid Personality Disorder. It is more like Paranoid Schizophrenia.
'Yesterday, he tried to attack my son, who, according to him, was something called 2001119 and 846.' Bill continued once I sat back on my chair.
'9920.' My patient suddenly said in a grumpy voice. As I moved my eyes towards him, I found him staring straight at me.
'What's that number, sir?' I asked, curiosity driving me now.
'2110.' He said again, now bearing the trembling index finger of his right hand pointing straight at me. '9920 at 2110. BOOM.'
The whole thing looked very unusual to me. I have seen people with Paranoid Schizophrenia, and this patient exhibited all the symptoms of that, but something seemed to be out of place. Something clicked on the back of my mind, but I couldn't place what it was.
The person in question implied to have lost all his energy as he started sweating profusely, and his chest heaved. For the next ten minutes, I checked him physically. Except for his pulse being high, nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. Peter Young seemed to be completely fine if you ignore the bandage on his head.
I recommended a few tests and some medication that will help the older Young to sleep well at night. Right now, there is nothing else I can do without the reports. I asked Bill to come next week with the results so that I can decide on the next course of action.
Even though I was busy with other patients the whole day and the Doctor's Conference in Washington DC for the evening, I couldn't bring myself to forget about Peter. There was something distinctive that has been striking the back of my mind, specifically about his numbers. Those digits kept on reiterating in my head as I drove towards my home at night.
What would that figure 2001119 mean? Perhaps one of his bank accounts, or maybe a voucher number? It could even be something else, or probably nothing.
As I was pondering over those numbers, my eyes were briefly off the road. As a result, I jumped a signal and brought the disaster on myself.
A car that came from the right and grazed--
I praise my good luck that it was just trying to turn and accidentally hit my car on the right. If it was any different, I might not have been here to write this journal today. It took more than an hour to complete all the formalities with the patrolmen and the insurance before I could be back at my residence. With the dinner done at the conference, there was nothing left for me to do, except to start reading one of the novels I bought last weekend.
But that was not to be.
As I started taking a hot shower, suddenly something struck my mind. And in a flash, I found out what it was that had been bothering me about Mr. Peter Young's numbers.
The figure he told me while pointing a trembling finger. It was......it was my car's license plate.
My license plate read: BJS 9920. Can it be a coincidence?
As soon as I remembered that, another thought hit my mind. Without bothering to dry myself off or wrapping the towel, I came running to the living room and rummaged through my wallet. I took out the thing that I had thought of just a moment ago and checked it.
And there it was, the receipt of my fine to the cops. I double-checked the time. Sure enough, the time of my accident was 21:10, written clearly by the cop.
And then I thought about the first number Mr. Young said in the morning.
2001119, and 846.
20:01:11:19? No, it does not add up.
It took me ten more minutes, standing in front of the table with a notebook and doing permutations for the number before I understood what it was.
2001/11/9 at 8:46 AM.
It was the date and time the Twin Towers got hit. The darkest day in the history of the United States.
Even though the date was well known to the whole world, the exact timing was not something everybody knew. I even had to Google it to get a specific time.
How could he know the exact timing of the attack? Moreover, how could he have known about my accident at that specific time?
That was when I decided to keep a record of this unusual incident here in the journal on my laptop.
I must check more on him once he is back next week.
I am writing the journal exactly after seven days today, and that too for a justified reason.
I had promised myself to record only the special events in this journal, so not writing anything in between the week should not bother me. Anyway, before I deviate again, I should write down the events as they occurred.
As discussed, Bill Young came today with his father and the respective test reports in the morning. Checking those, I became sure there was nothing more than a glancing blow on the Occipital Lobe of Peter Young. There was no internal damage, no clots, nothing. It's supposed to be a happy thing, though I didn't feel the same. If there were any injuries, at least that would have explained the reason behind Peter's newfound abilities. But now, the mystery of his numbers remained hidden, unsatisfactorily.
'The reports are fine, Bill.' I told the younger person sitting in front of me, while his father seemed to be miles away from our conversation, like the day we first met. 'There's nothing unusual with Peter at all, at least not from any internal damage.'
Bill sighed as he tried to grin. But his smile faded as soon as his father started to speak.
'04071030'. Peter whispered as he tried to focus on the ceiling of my office.
'This has been continuing for the past week?' I asked his son.
'Yes, mostly. Dad has been uttering random numbers frequently. Mostly 623.'
'And the rest of the time?'
'He hardly speaks with anybody among us, Doctor.' Bill sniffed. 'He is always confined to his own thought and in his room.'
'Hmmm.' I nodded as I took another look at the person in question.
'Bill.' I exhaled and looked at the younger person in the room after observation. 'I would suggest you keep him in the medical ward here. I want to keep a close watch on him for a few days.'
I tried to be as reassuring as possible. After all, it would be good if Peter stays here on my watch. I needed to figure out what was happening with Peter.
'That's....that's completely fine with me.' Bill smiled a bit, the first actual one since we have met.
I asked him to complete the formalities and get Mr. Peter Young in the hospital by the afternoon.
It was 2 PM when Peter was admitted here into my care, in bed number 623, surprisingly, as that was the only one left unoccupied. But Bill seemed oblivious of his father's abilities. Am I the only one who noticed the numbers Peter has been muttering about and their uncanny relation to something or the other in the real world?
Anyhow, with all the patients and work in my hand, I barely had time for Mr. Young before leaving in the evening.
'What's happening to me?' Peter asked, whimpering as I neared his bed before retiring for the day.
'Nothing Peter.' I replied, smiling, trying to calm him. 'How are you feeling?'
It was the most normal I had seen him since we met.
'I......it feels weird.' Peter blinked. 'I can see numbers randomly jumping, somersaulting, running around me, everywhere. But sometimes, a few numbers come together and glow in front of my eyes.'
'Oh, is it?' It is needless to say that I was intrigued as I sat on the chair. The incident with my car last week has been an eye-opener for me.
'38.89.' He suddenly said, looking somewhere behind me.
I turned back to see the door behind me and nothing else. Peter can probably see the numbers again.
'What is it, Mr. Young?' I said, my breathing hard now as I tried to take his hand.
'38.89.' He stopped for a second.
'-77.009.' Peter said again.
Negative numbers? What the--
'-4.25.' He muttered, this time looking at me. 'And -2.5.'
'What are you----'
I could not finish my words as I suddenly understood the meaning of the last numbers. I unconsciously pulled my hands away from him and took the glasses from my eyes, looking at them and then back at him, unable to breathe.
What Peter had just told me was the power of my glasses. They were -4.25 in the right eye and -2.5 in the left.
How does he know?
I had called the hospital just fifteen minutes back, and as expected, Peter was sleeping. But till he went to rest, it seemed he had been muttering numbers. Asking about which numbers, the person gave me a list of them.
And a few more.
I tried to understand what these digits mean, but nothing came up.
But the biggest surprise came as soon as I opened my laptop. Like thunder striking, I suddenly understood the meaning of one of the uttered figures.
That is my birth date and year.
How could Peter know about my birthday?
The last few days have been busy for me. Due to a seminar on Psychiatry in New York, I had been away from Washington. It was tough to keep my curiosity on Peter's case aside and go to New York, but there was no way to avoid it. As a notable Psychotherapist, I was among one of the speakers in the seminar. Apart from the respect they provide me with, these seminars also help me get in touch with some of my old friends. And I didn't want to miss that.
Anyway, when I came back last evening, my priority was to call the hospital and check on Peter. A perfect combination of abilities like — Precognition, Remote Viewing, and Retro-cognition was too rare a thing to miss. And in this case, more so because all this ingenuity is related to numbers.
'He was a bit agitated this afternoon, sir.' The attending nurse said in an irritated tone. 'But a small dose of Zolpidem helped him to go back to sleep.'
'Ok, let me know if anything happens.'
Still, groggy from waking up, the first thing I noticed was the clock. Messaging the kink on my neck, as I tried to determine what woke me up at 2:30 in the morning, I heard the phone ringing again.
Who the hell was calling me at this hour?
As I noticed the caller, all my uneasiness disappeared in an instant. It was from the hospital. Damn, what happened there?
'Hello.' I said, my voice trembling. 'What happened?'
'Doctor. You asked me to call as soon as there was something up with Peter.' The shrill voice of the night nurse came from the other side.
'Y... yes. What is it?' I was fully awake by then, with all traces of sleep gone.
'Doctor, please come here. Quickly.' The nurse said hurriedly in a frantic voice. 'Peter suddenly is acting too much strangely. He is repeating the same numbers over and over. I.......tried to stop him, but Peter.......he attacked me. I tried to give him a dose of sleeping injection, but he threw it away. Please hurry.'
Without delay, I hung up the phone and started getting ready. It hardly took me more than fifteen minutes after the call to get into the car and reach the hospital. By the time I reached the third-floor medical wing, I could hear a commotion coming out from the far left room.
I quickly came through the door and entered the room to see--
'It’s fire there. People died. DEAD.'
The shouts were easily heard, and all from Peter, while the nurses tried to keep him in check.
Peter's shouting has increased tenfold since the last time I had seen him more than two days ago. He always seemed to be calm to me, so I have not thought of restraining him or giving him shock therapy. But seeing the incident in front of me, I wished I had done exactly that.
There was blood strewn everywhere, droplets of blood all over the bed. The red stains on the white sheets of the hospital bed and the carpet looked like bullet holes in a naked body. Instantly my eyes went to the source of the blood.
It was nothing other than Peter's wrist. He somehow got hold of a knife and tried to cut his wrist.
'Intermittent Explosive Disorder.' I whispered as I approached.
It was ten minutes later that Peter drifted down to his sleep, courtesy of the injection I just gave him.
'What was he muttering about?' I asked as my patient finally slept.
'No idea, Doctor.' Marie, the head nurse, said, shaking her head. 'He slept around 10:00 PM but woke up suddenly at 1 AM. From then on, the guy has been yelling those numbers and ranting about death and fire. When we tried to stop him, he attacked us. He got hold of the knife and said that he wanted to die rather than seeing people dead and doing nothing. If we had not intervened, he would have already been dead.'
For the last few hours, till the time I reached home at 5 in the morning today and even now typing the things in this journal, I have only a single thought.
What do those numbers mean that Peter even wanted to die for?
My life has always moved in a straight line: my studies, job, and home. My days have revolved around these three things. I love to read books on diverse topics and also travel a lot. Most of my travels are either related to some Medical Conference or solo vacations. It may be because I am a less adventurous person than most, or it might be because I am a private person. I don't like to speak with unknown people much outside of my professional work.
But after the last two days, I cannot say that.
Things have drastically shifted in my life in these two days. Even now, my head pains making me still remember --
No. Let me start from the beginning.
In my last note, I wrote about the call from the hospital and the lunacy of Peter. Once back at my home, after handling the cops and all, there was no way I could sleep anymore.
My mind was full of the details of all the numbers Peter was saying. It was clear that each figure he was uttering had a broader meaning. It was not by coincidence that he could smoothly tell the power of my glasses, my birthday, or the timing of my accident. And if that is the case, then it was also clear that the other digits also had some meaning.
But what? And how to verify those?
As the morning progressed and I scribbled all the numbers one by one told by Peter in my notebook, it seemed more and more complex to solve.
You are just trying to find meaning in something where there is none.
And I won’t deny it. Maybe I was overthinking. Maybe, I wanted to ignore the fact that Peter is a mentally ill patient who needs treatment, not my confirmation to attest his numbers. And after that night's incident, it was probably time for a shock treatment.
A look at the clock told me it was 8 AM. I sighed and took my phone out to dial the hospital.
'Yes.' I said as someone on the other side picked up. 'Please cancel all my appointments today. I will go to the hospital to oversee treatment in the morning, but I won't be able to see any new patients. And please call Mr. Bill Young, son of Peter, and ask him to see me at 10 in the hospital today.'
Giving a few more instructions, and once confirmed, I hung up, getting ready for the day.
In the hospital, there was only one thing of note that happened.
'I am fine as long as dad recovers soon.' Bill said, taking a deep breath when I told him my decision to start the shock therapy.
It was when I introduced shock therapy that the incident took place.
'Doctor.....' Peter suddenly said as he was getting transferred to the therapy room. 'Save...s...save them. They will die.'
I neglected the comments and continued with the procedure. But, as the therapy ended, Peter's blurting started again, figures this time, as usual.
He was repeating the same four digits from last night.
Ignoring the numbers, I ensured that he was taken to his cabin and given lunch before he drifted off to sleep.
Once he was asleep, and with no more patients to see, suddenly the fatigue caught up with me. And along with that, yearning for Blueberry Pancakes and Indian food. It was when I was striding through the corridors of the hospital that I suddenly recalled a place. It was the Eastern Market in Washington, where both of my cravings can get fulfilled.
It took me 20 minutes to reach my destination and half an hour more to fulfill my hunger.
With my day off and nothing else to do, I had time to visit the Library of Congress to check some new books on Psychiatry today. With Peter's numbers still playing in my mind, I opened the door to my car and started the Google Maps for navigation.
And suddenly, a thought struck me as I entered my destination there.
Without delay, I entered two of the four figures that Peter was repeating.
Can they be latitudes and longitudes?
In my parked car, I started doing permutations and combinations as scores of people came and went into the Market for the next fifteen minutes. Using a Geocoding conversion app and the numbers, I finally found two options if these were really latitudes and longitudes. The first one is Antarctica, and the second one is the United States Capitol, the north-eastern part of the building.
With one of the options just five minutes away from my current position, I decided to follow my instinct.
By the time I completed a full tour of the United States Capitol, my first in three decades, it was already evening outside. The sun was about to set on the horizon, behind the Washington skyline, turning the sky a shade of yellowish-orange that I always enjoyed as a college student. For a minute, it felt like I was back to my youth, as I watched the sun fully set.
With the thought of House Chambers, The Apotheosis of Washington, and the Crypt lingering fresh in my mind, I started the engine of my car. Still, I was not sure if it was the place Peter wanted to signify, but he did me a favor anyway. Without searching for the coordinates, I might never have visited the Capitol.
Just as I was about to reverse my car, something caught my eye.
A car crossed me from the parking and turned slowly towards First St NE, with two people inside. It was not the passengers or the vehicle itself that seized my attention, but the license plate. It read DJS 00378.
Keeping the car still in the parking lot, I quickly rummaged through my bag as something struck my mind.
Can it be.....
Yes. There it was, in my notebook.
I opened the page where I had been scribbling in the morning all the numbers that Peter was uttering.
And I saw it. The last number in the list. It was the same as the license plate of the black Nissan that just crossed me a couple of minutes ago.
I have never been a risk-taker in my life and thought of leaving the wild goose chase behind.
But another part of my brain wanted me to pursue the mystery of Peter's numbers. And so I did.
Without delay, I quickly reversed and floored the gas. My car shot off the parking and jumped onto the First St NE, the same street where the other pickup had gone. Without thinking, I veered my vehicle left and right, crossing the cars and trucks on the track, before quickly turning left on to the Northeast Dr. And then I saw it.
The other car was just a couple of hundred yards away from me as it moved casually. I could see the bald driver and the blonde passenger talking to each other as the car moved at a speed of 55 mph.
What the hell am I doing?
Ignoring once again my inner voice, I followed the black Nissan that was just a little more than a hundred and fifty yards away.
A Hundred yards.
And then it happened.
Without warning, suddenly, the lead car started speeding. I saw the blonde passenger looking back at my car and say something to the driver. The next second, the vehicle veered left and accelerated.
I could hear a distant siren somewhere as I followed the vehicle. I have to save whoever might fall into an accident in that car.
But I was not ready for what happened next.
It sounded like thunder as I saw a flash of light from the Nissan. The next moment, my windscreen smashed, and the car started skidding. The wind rushed inside my car, screaming into my eyes, as I tried to slow down.
But the car has already lost balance.
Am I going to d...
And everything went dark as my eyes closed.
White light exploded as I opened my eyes for a second and forced me to close them again.
The next time I opened them, the intensity of the lights was less. But another pain forced me to close my eyes for a moment.
'Aahhh.' I held my head with both hands, trying to lessen the ache.
'Please. Please don't get up.' A soft feminine voice told me from the side. 'You are hurt.'
'Where..... Where am I?' I asked, trying to take in my surroundings.
It seemed like I was in a hospital cabin, on a bed with my head wrapped with a bandage. A young female doctor stood by the side of my bed, her brows furrowed together. The beeping of the heart and pulse monitor made me aware of their presence in the room behind me. There was another person present in the room, but I could not focus on him at first. My head seemed to be on fire.
'In Hospital.' Someone else said from the door to the cabin on my left, in a smooth but firm voice. 'You have some minor scratches and a concussion, but it looks like you are fine.'
I focused my vision on the owner of the voice, squinting my eyes. It was a man in a black suit, tall with pale skin, somewhere in his mid-thirties. He had a smile on his face that instantly made him likable to anybody.
'Hi, I'm Agent Jacob Farris.' He said, extending his hand to me, still smiling. 'FBI.'
'Hi.' I said, stunned.
What has the FBI got to do with me?
And then I noticed the other person in the room. He was also similarly attired like Farris, just a bit older with salt and pepper hair. His badge read Klowal Jed.
'Can you tell me exactly what happened?' Farris asked, taking a small notebook out of his hands as Jed neared my bed.
'I.....I....' I started, as the pain intensified a little, making me keep my head still and rested on the pillow. 'I was following the car and.......'
And then I recalled. Oh, God! It was.......
'Oh, my God!' I yelled, looking at the Agent. 'I....they fired a gun at me.'
The Agent seemed unfazed by this revelation. Almost as if.....
'The two people in that car were from the Jihadi Movement.' Farris said, increasing my curiosity. 'The traffic cameras have picked their identities as Ali Ansari and Zubeidar Khan. Two of the most wanted terrorists suspected to have links with Al-Qaeda.'
I gulped, trying to understand what he was saying. Al-Qaeda? But why would.......
'Why were you following them?' Jed asked in a gloomy voice, looking at me, all the while under the watchful gaze of the doctor.
'I....I...' I tried to find an answer to the question. Inevitably an FBI agent was not expecting to hear the story of a Psychotherapist chasing a couple of terrorists based on a number told by one of his patients in the streets of Washington. 'They seemed suspicious to me. They were looking at the......'
And it struck me. The actual meaning of the numbers that were told by Peter last night. The figures for which he was ready to die. But then......
'They....they seemed to be looking at the Capitol building while driving.'
I had to control my impulse, to tell the truth to an FBI officer. I need to be sure first.
Farris furrowed his eyebrows for a moment and exchanged a glance with his partner before looking back at me.
'I see.' He said, noting things down in his little notebook while tilting his head. 'Anything else?'
'Ummm....nope. Nothing else.'
Did I just now lie to a Federal Agent?
My heart thumped in my chest as I kept staring at the card he left me, thinking about what I have done just now. But there was nothing I could do except verify my theory.
For the next few hours, I waited eagerly for my release from the hospital. Finally, when I got discharged, I nearly ran to the street to get a cab to my home.
I was not even sure if whatever I was thinking made any sense, but I had to check. The whole way, I was silent, till I entered home and sat down on the couch with a notebook and my system in front of me.
Are you crazy? My mind screamed at me.
'You'll see.' I whispered to myself as I started scribbling something on the notebook and went back, typing into my system.
It took me five more minutes to find out what I was looking for on the laptop.
'YES. Yes. Yes.' I yelled, punching the air for a moment as I sat up straight, shooting a stab of pain in my head. I looked at the laptop once and then back at my notebook. There, I had written something like this -
-77.009 E — The Capitol Building.
04071030 — 4th of July at 10:30 AM.
00378 — DJS 00378 — Ali Ansari and Zubeidar Khan's car — Al-Qaeda.
Fire — Everyone Dead — Bomb?
If I was correctly deducing whatever Peter wanted to convey, it meant that he was talking about the coordinates of the northeast wing of the Capitol Building, the Independence Day of America, and the car of two Jihadi terrorists. If I add my patient's shout about everyone dying and fire, only one thing made sense.
If everything was as I interpreted, it suggested that there would be a bomb blast waiting to happen on the 4th of July in the Capitol Building at 10:30 AM.
I took my phone out and dialed a number.
'1934.' Peter said, his eyes wide and red, as I sat with him the next morning. '1...19..34. Yes.'
I came out as Peter went to sleep while the Congressmen started the arrangements in the Capitol Building for the Independence Day on the eve before the actual celebration.
'Hello, Dr. Mitra.' Agent Farris said, his face pensive, as I reached the Capitol Building. 'You are five minutes late.'
I looked at my watch and saw it pointing at 10:05 AM of the Independence Day of America, the 4th of July. I have already seen the celebrations happening throughout the city as I came by cab.
'Yeah, Agent.' I said, smiling. 'My car seems to be in pieces and giving a hard time to the insurer. It might take some time before I can drive my own.'
'That's fine.' Agent Jed replied. 'So, this patient of yours? You really think you're onto something?'
'Let's find out.'
As I spoke the words, I, Agent Farris, Agent Jed, and at least ten more field agents moved with purpose towards the Crypt. The place looked serene as we entered the Crypt of the Capitol Building. Originally created to be the tomb of George Washington, but never fulfilling that purpose, the Crypt was a central attraction for all tours in the Capitol.
'So, we have captured the two terrorists early morning today.' Jed said as we looked around in the Crypt. 'Both Ali Ansari and Zubeidar Khan have been seen in and around this place for the last three days. The security cameras have picked them up with different makeup each time. We suspect that they want to do something big here, but we don't know what or where. But they haven't given us anything yet.'
The Agent stopped for a moment and looked at me, while Jed moved inwards, admiring the marble statues.
'We have Psychotherapist Dr. Aarnay Mitra here, who thinks he is onto something.' He smiled, shaking his head. 'But, we need to be cautious. So, everybody fan out and keep in radio contact. Anything unusual, raise the flag then and there. Go. Go. Go.'
As the agents fanned out in different directions, I could see the Congressmen moving into the place, getting ready for the celebrations.
'I have risked getting you here.' Farris whispered. 'I don't know what story you are cooking, but if there's anything you can help us with, now is the time.'
And he left me.
As I roamed around the Crypt, only one thing was going through my mind.
1934. That was what Peter had said to me in the hospital. It must have some meaning. I saw the Magna Carta replica and the case, I noticed the thirteen statues all around the area, and then I noticed the Compass Star that marked the four quadrants.
More than thirty people here, if I don't count the FBI agents and the security guards.
Think. Think fast.
I looked at my watch. 10:15 AM.
'1934.' I whispered to myself. 'What could it be? A fresco number? A particular column details? Or another coordinate?'
As I moved to the northeast section of the script, my mind only tried to make sense of the number.
And then I saw it. The statue of Caesar Rodney looming above me. The white marble statue was a work of art beyond measure. I tried to remember all about him from my last visit just a couple of days ago.
Caesar Rodney was born in Dover, Delaware, on October 7, 1728, and died on June 26, 1784. Nowhere near the number I was searching for. I tried subtraction, addition, and even multiplication of the digits, but nothing came close to 1934.
And then I remembered. Yes, of course. This statue had something to do with the year 1934.
This statue of Caesar Rodney was given to National Statuary Hall Collection by Delaware in 1934. As I recalled that, the blood suddenly inside me started to boil.
There must be something here. For the next couple of minutes, I searched near the statue, but without any result. There was nothing, simply nothing, anywhere near the sculpture or its base.
Am I wrong? Maybe.
But what if I am right? And I didn't find the bomb planted by two terrorists? It would be a disaster, with me in it.
And then I saw him. A man, wearing the same suit as those of the congressmen. Nothing was alarming about the person, except his eyes. They darted left and right, before settling on a person wearing a black suit. I tried to keep an eye on them while trying to find whatever it was near the marble statue. The black suit seemingly ushered the person to come with him, and they were gone from my view the next minute.
Shit. Just six minutes left.
I frantically searched everywhere around the statue, as Farris reached me and put his hand on my shoulder.
'Found something doctor?' His eyes seemed to humor me.
'N....no. Not yet.' I replied, my voice trembling a bit in anticipation. 'But I.......'
I stopped mid-sentence as I saw the newcomer and the black suit approach the statue where I was standing.
And my eyes fell upon the hands of both the black suit and the newcomer. And I scr......
The next moment, even before I blinked, Farris was thrown forward flying, and I heard something whooshing past my ear, missing me just by a centimeter. Before I understood what happened, instincts and adrenaline kicked in.
I shouted and ran at the same time.
My sudden shout seemed to stun both my attackers for a second as they stood rooted to their place, giving me the precious time to slice through the air and hit straight into the midsection of the newcomer. A jolt of pain coursed through my head as we collided and fell in a heap. I ignored the agony, as I sensed it was not muscle and tissue that I had smacked. It was something else, a little harder below his jacket. We both tumbled to the ground, but he was quick on his feet.
He sneered at me and kicked hard on my face, causing my lip to split and bleed. The black suit pulled his silenced gun and pointed it straight between my eyes.
'May Allah have mercy.' The newcomer cried out loud as he lifted both his arms, the right one holding a silver tube with a red button on top of it that I had seen a moment ago along with the gun in the black suit's hand.
I closed my eyes as the man lifted his thumb to put pressure on the red button.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
I opened my eyes just in time.......
To see the lifeless glassy eyes of the newcomer looking back at me, just a few feet away.
And I fainted.
'Welcome back to the world of the living.'
I opened my eyes and saw a bandaged Agent Farris sitting cross-legged in front of me. His eyes were glinting while the whole place was ablaze with activity. Cops ran around, the two body bags getting removed, and so on. A look at the watch told me I was out for nearly ten minutes.
'Welcome back, Doctor.' The Agent said as I slowly got up. 'If it is not for you, the suicide bomber Jahir Abbas would have turned the place to dust. And I believe it was because of your scream that Agent Jed was not able to kill me. So, thank you for saving an FBI Agent, and the Capitol.'
'Who....who killed them.' I asked, my throat dried up.
'One from me and two from a couple of other FBI agents.' Farris replied, his face twisting in pain as he tried to stand slowly. 'Your shout helped us. I had never thought that Jed could be helping the terrorists.'
'That actually makes sense.' I said, thinking out loud. 'That bomber Abbas must have needed someone inside to get the bomb and the vest in through the Capitol.'
'Yes.' He said as he stared at me with a smile on his face. 'You know what doctor? I had thought that old doctors were never fit enough to take care of themselves. But your running and tackling Jahir today changed my view. I will keep an eye out for any young doctors aged around 55 next time.
And that bullet just grazed my shoulder. Jed was always a lousy shooter, thank god for that.'
And we both laughed together.
It finally took me more than a couple of hours to come back to the hospital, with my energy absolutely drained.
'Doctor.' The hospital called me as soon as I sat on the couch in the living room, feeling exhausted.
'What is it?' I whispered.
'You should come and see Peter.'
Hearing the worry in the nurse's voice, I wasted no time driving back to the hospital.
'Thank you, doctor.' I heard Bill say even before I saw him. He sounded happy and beaming, as was, interestingly, Peter.
'Thank you, doctor Mitra.' Peter said grinning, happily. 'Without your help, I might not have recovered back.'
'What...what do you mean?' I could not wrap my head around the fact that Peter was speaking normally to me, without uttering a single number.
'Yes, I felt fine after my breakfast today.' Peter replied in a completely normal tone. 'The numbers were not there anymore. I could see and think clearly.'
This was unbelievable.
I wanted to observe him for a day more, so I asked Bill to wait till tomorrow. But I think Peter will be fine.
I cannot explain the phenomenon of Peter getting better, but my mind was telling me something else. Peter had the duty to stop a terror attack in the city during the Independence Day, and he has fulfilled that. Maybe, someday when something worse is about to happen, he will regain his power of numbers.
I don't know, but I hope he doesn't have to.
Eoghan McGrath is a writer and poet from Dublin, Ireland. His fiction has previously appeared in The Scum Gentry online magazine and his poetry appeared in the Ogham Stone magazine (2019) and online at the Galway Review in April 2020. twitter: @OgOfTheBog
Traverse of the Gods
Doug Dawson hails from Brooklyn, New York, wrote extensively for the US Defense Dept. and as a freelancer had some 40 articles and fiction published by car magazines (“Vette Vues,” “Corvette Enthusiast,” “Corvette” magazine). He holds degrees in music and computer science (American University, Univ. of Maryland,
UMBC) has had his short stories accepted for publication by Academy of the Heart & Mind, Ariel Chart, Aphelion Webzine, Literary Yard, Scars Publications in the U.K. (3 stories) and poetry accepted by Page & Spine.
"Here comes Brownie!" said the little boy, looking through the screen door. At the same time Ed Rawley turned to look, so distracted he let up on the mower's safety handle and it stopped. Several other people peered out their windows, smiling as the little dog trotted down the sidewalk. Two pre-teens standing on their front lawn bent down to pet her but missed as she scurried along, just out of reach. Just two months old when she arrived here, the neighborhood's newest resident was a tan, short-haired miniature Dachshund, whose gait suggested a long box supported by pogo sticks on all four corners. If there was a sound associated with her movements it would have been "Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!" as her squat body bounced along, her long ears flopping, whiskers waving in the breeze, her wet nose carefully attuned to each scent. She turned her head this way and that as she walked, alert to every sight and sound.
The street was Kenwood Terrace, a quiet lane in the shape of a boomerang that ran four blocks between Biltmore and Lexington Avenues. For the most part only residents walked or drove on this street, past the small single-family homes with their neat yards. That was why the place was about as quiet and trouble-free as any neighborhood and why Brownie's owners didn't mind the family's new addition exploring on her own, besides the fact that she wouldn't approach strangers unless they were tiny kids close to her own size. She padded down the sidewalk, carefully avoiding cars when she crossed one of the side streets on the way to Biltmore, where she turned and trotted the four blocks back to Lexington before turning around and heading for home. Her routine was so regular she usually had an audience: housewives in the morning, kids home from school in the afternoon, whole families on evenings and weekends. Residents told their friends and by the end of her fifth month on earth Brownie was a local celebrity, whose reputation went far beyond Kenwood Terrace. Unknown to her owners, someone called a local TV station and said there was a human-interest story their "fluff reporter" might want to cover. A few days later the TV station called Brownie's home and talked to the surprised Lorton family.
The following Saturday morning a brightly-painted green and white van parked in front of the three-bedroom rancher Brownie called home, prompting the entire family to come out to talk to the reporter and her crew. Brownie, out taking her morning constitutional, was at that moment forced to walk around several kids who were a little too big for her to trust. She passed Mr. Greene, who looked down and said "Hello, your puppyship." On the next block two tots stooped to pet her and one said "Bwownie," attempting to imitate what he heard others call her. As she approached her home Brownie slowed when she saw strangers on her family's property. "That must be her," said the attractive blonde reporter. A few seconds later the TV camera followed her movements along the sidewalk, up to the front porch and into the house. Inside, she snuggled in Mrs. Lorton's lap as the reporter and TV taping crew made a fuss over her.
That evening Brownie was at the corner of Kenwood and Lexington, about to turn around when a small, dark colored car came screeching to a halt in front of her. She hesitated just a moment as she surveyed the rude stranger who jumped out, and by the time she turned to run it was too late. A young man picked her up under her front legs and jerked her into the car. He had red hair, just like Mr. Greene, he was bony and he looked older than the Lorton kids, who went away every morning and came back in the middle of the afternoon. He wouldn't let her go even in the car and she squealed as his hands dug into her underside. She'd never felt this sensation before and struggled to get free.
"Stop it!" the young man shouted at her, hitting her on the top of her head with his hand. Brownie squealed some more and tried even harder to wriggle away, but he was much too strong. Finally, the man who was driving the car said "Easy! It's still a baby," and the boy who was holding her let up. She was still uncomfortable but he didn't hit her any more. Instead he took her collar off, looked at the metal tag with her family's name and address on it and threw it out the window.
A short time later the car stopped on a street she couldn't remember seeing from her rides in the car with the Lortons. There was uncollected garbage in the street and the smell was foul. The house they stopped in front of was small, like the Lortons', but it wasn't pretty like theirs and the grass was very long. She was hand-carried in the front door, with the boy not supporting her under her back and with his fingers digging in under her front legs just as he did in the car. She squealed again but it did no good and by the time he put her down both her back and her underside hurt. The room they were in smelled moldy, she could see dust balls on the floor and the only things in it, besides her and the boy, were two chairs and a sofa, one of those strange boxes with moving pictures in it and another set of boxes with long wires coiled coiled behind them on the floor. The boy walked over to the latter boxes and turned on loud music, which hurt her ears. After a while the man yelled at him and he walked over to the boxes again and made the music much quieter.
"We'll sell her," said the young one with red hair. "Back to the owners."
"And who's that?" Said the man. "You threw her dog tag out the window." There was a long pause then the older one said "And don't be stupid, they'd call the cops ... probably be waiting for us when we brought her back."
"I know a couple'a people'd love to have a dog like this - they cost a lot, don't they?"
"Maybe we'll just keep her."
"I need the money, dad."
"Let me think about it."
Besides the fear caused by her rough handling and new surroundings, Brownie was starting to feel a hunger she'd never known before. The Lortons always fed her after her walk, which was hours earlier. She'd never felt this bad or this weak. Long after it got dark her drowsiness was overcoming her gnawing hunger when the man said "Don't forget - we got to feed her."
"We got nothing to eat around here," said the younger one, "except some milk."
"Give her that then."
The red-haired one got a carton from the refrigerator then looked around.
"We got no bowl," he said.
"Put it in a pan," said the man.
The boy poured the milk into a frying pan then put it in front of Brownie, who could tell from the smell there was something wrong. She backed away from it.
"Lick it up, damn you!" yelled the boy at her, as he grabbed her, forced her head to the pan and pushed her nose into the milk. She choked and sputtered with the milk in her nostrils and the boy let up. He held her tightly enough to hurt her and raised his other hand as if to hit her and she decided lapping up the foul smelling, rancid-tasting milk was better than drowning or being hit.
A few minutes later she threw up from the spoiled milk, prompting the young man to yell "Bitch!" as he kicked her and knocked her over.
"I shoulda never let you grab that dog!" yelled the father as he grabbed a towel and mopped up what Brownie had coughed up from her stomach.
The man said "Here!" and motioned toward Brownie, who was afraid to go to him. He finally walked over and she dived into a corner, cowering. At least he picked her up gently, supporting both ends of her and carried her over to a blanket, where he set her down.
"We'll get her some dog food tomorrow," he said to the younger one then they both walked into other rooms, closed the doors behind them and weren't heard from again that night. Brownie was still sore, hungry and now feeling sick, but she knew she had to get away from this place and these people before they hurt her any more. In the dark she explored the entire house, coming at last to a screen door. The door was locked, but the screen was loose and she prodded it with her nose and then her paws. Finally, she pushed enough of it away from its frame to squeeze though, but only partly. She found herself stuck, her rear legs unable to get through for what seemed a long time. She used all the strength in her tiny front legs, eventually dragged herself through the screen and found herself in the dirt, facing a small back yard she could barely see. She made her way to the edge of the property, where a ramshackle chicken wire fence barred her way. Without out knowing why she started to dig in the dirt. It just came naturally to her, so she kept at it until she'd made a hole under the fence. Gradually the hole got bigger and though she was weakening from fatigue and hunger she felt her very existence was at stake and that drove her on.
At some point her weariness made her stop digging and in the few seconds she closed her eyes she drifted off. When she woke the distant light was coming into the sky. The sickness wasn't as bad now but she instinctively knew she had to get away before the strangers got up and found her. She returned to digging and as the sun came up she squeezed under the fence and ran along the side to the front of the house, where she faced a big decision - which way to go. Neither direction looked promising, but anything beat staying where she was, so Brownie headed in the direction the sun was coming up, as fast as her little legs could take her. She was so afraid to be caught again she didn't even stop to look for food in the garbage that was left at the curb.
A while later she found herself in a busier part of town. There were taller buildings and they were much closer together, with no front yards and no space between them. People were coming outside, opening up stores, walking around and getting in their cars. To continue her journey she could see she'd have to jump curbs and cross the streets, something she was loathe to do, as she'd only gone across the little side streets that crossed Kenwood, where there was hardly any traffic. Now there were cars coming and she was more afraid than ever, but summing her courage, she jumped off a high curb, made her way across the street and started to run when she heard tires squeal close to her. She bounded up the curb on the next street, the hunger tearing at her belly the way the bad milk had. She wasn't sure how much further she could go when she came upon a man all in white. As she stopped to watch he raised a big wire mesh that covered his store then unlocked the front door, from which she could smell all kinds of food inside. He had on a pointed hat and she didn't know why exactly, but he looked kind. He looked down at her and didn't try to pet her or pick her up, which she found reassuring. Instead he went inside and came out a minute later with a bowl in one hand and a carton in the other. He poured fresh milk into the bowl, set in it down, then backed off, so as not to frighten her. Her hunger made her daring and she approached the bowl. The milk smelled sweet and she lapped it all up then looked at the man, as if to say "Give me more!"
The man went back inside and soon reappeared with a small can, which he opened up and put in front of her. The Lortons had been feeding her a special food for small dogs with delicate stomachs and this food was nothing like that, but it smelled delicious and it was chewy. After she finished it she wasn't sure she could hold it down, but her ravished little digestive system handled it and she looked up again, for the food had made her thirsty. The man understood and he poured her another small bowl of milk, which she lapped up hastily. He squatted down but didn't move toward her. She'd never been bold enough to approach a stranger before but she inched up to him, licked his fingers and let him pet her. Soon she was bounding down the street in the direction she hoped her home was, her strength renewed. People looked down as she carefully stepped between them on the busy street. Several people tried to pet her but she kept moving as quickly as her little legs would take her. Dire necessity forced her to learn quickly and now before she jumped off curbs, she waited for people to come - for they seemed to know when it was safe to cross - and she went with them.
Finally, she was past the busy part of town and in a neighborhood like her own. This one was a decided improvement over the slovenly place she'd been held kept captive in and it didn't reek of garbage. She trotted toward a yard with a boy and two dogs in it. The boy was younger than the one who'd taken him away from his home but older than the Lorton kids. Neither dog was large but they were full grown and a lot bigger than Brownie. One looked like a much larger version of herself: barrel-chested, long and low to the ground and colored black and tan with short hair. It didn't growl but it looked mean and she was glad for the imposing wire fence which stood between them. The fence wasn't like the loose screen she'd been able to tear away from the door or the flimsy chicken wire she dug under; this wire was heavy stuff, held up by thick, sturdy-looking silver poles that looked like they were buried deep into the ground.
"Look mom!" yelled the boy as Brownie approached the yard. She heard the front door open then looked over to see a woman around Mrs. Lorton's age coming outside.
"She doesn't even have a collar," the boy continued to yell, followed by
"I'm gonna get her!"
"I don't know," said the mother too late, for her boy was over the fence in a jiffy and chasing Brownie down the street. She ran as fast as she could, but she was still a baby and the boy caught her and scooped her up in his arms. He brought her back to the yard, opened the gate and presented her to his mother, who only said "I don't know ..."
"Look, no collar," said the boy, "nobody owns her - I'm gonna keep her. Can I, mom?"
The mother looked perplexed for a minute then said "Oh, I guess so" and went back inside, followed by the boy. He didn't dig his fingers into her sides or hit her, but she knew she was in trouble again.
"Maybe she hasn't eaten," said the boy, "Let's feed her."
"She can wait till the others eat," said the mother.
Brownie couldn't understand what they were saying but she wasn't hungry in any case. The boy carried her over to the sofa, where he set her down then proceeded to pet her. He was gentle and he seemed genuinely fond of her.
When it was finally time for the dogs to eat Brownie was hungry again. The lady put three bowls of food on the floor. It was food Brownie hadn't tasted or smelled before, not horrible like the sour milk and not tasty like the pungent-smelling treat the man in white had given her. It was edible, though and by the time Brownie had stopped smelling and tasting it the other dogs had wolfed theirs down and turned their attention to Brownie's dish. They pushed her aside and devoured her food. She'd only gotten a few bites and it was only the meal from the man in the street that kept her from going hungry like she had the night before. The bullying and stealing her food were bad enough, but it was only the beginning. The big Dachshund was named Fritzy and immediately after eating Brownie's food he seemed to need some exercise, which he got by using his head to knock her on her side. She wasn't hurt so she unwisely got up and was immediately knocked down again for her trouble. This time she stayed down and Fritzy glowered at her, as if to say "Just try to get up again."
"Fritzy, you're being bad," said the boy, who picked up Brownie and set her on the couch again. She thought she was safe, but the other dog, a true mutt by the name of Sammy, jumped up before the boy could stop him and bit her on the ear. When Brownie yelped the boy knocked Sammy off the couch, yelled at him and at the mutt ran away. The rest of the day was spent alternating between the couch, trying to find places to hide and exploring the front yard, where the three dogs were allowed to roam several times a day. As expected, Fritzy knocked Brownie down over and over, daring her to get up and Brownie was afraid she wouldn't even be allowed to relieve herself, but sooner or later something always distracted the bigger dog and when he turned his attention elsewhere Brownie ran into the bushes next to the house, where she could both relieve herself and attempt to hide.
The second day in this place was a repetition of the first, except there was no delicious breakfast given by a kindly man in white clothes. Brownie just managed a few bites of food before the rest of it was "liberated" by the other dogs, who seemed to delight in her abuse. The boy was protective and he managed to fend them off quite a bit of the time, but he went out a lot and then she was on her own. The mutt had bitten her ears several times and they stung. She was desperate for places to hide, but there didn't seem to be any safe ones. The times she was left alone in the yard by the other dogs she made her way to the fence, which she tied to dig under, but here it was rough going. The crab grass went right up to the fence and it was so thick she could barely tear through it. Any time she started to make some headway along came one of the other dogs, which sent her scurrying away as fast as she could, to no avail. They always caught her within seconds, at which point she had one of two options: fall down and stay down if Fritzy caught her or if it was Sammy, squeal before and during the inevitable ear biting and hope the boy was home to grab the mutt and make it stop. She learned it was pointless to expect help from the woman.
By the third day at this house Brownie was feeling as weak from lack of food as she did the morning after she was taken. But this day the boy stayed home and he gave most of his attention to her. He put her on the couch and looked at her, like he was concerned. He'd been chewing from a soft brown-colored stick of food, which he took out of his mouth and gave to her. It was the sweetest thing she had ever tasted but even that little bit of food gave her strength. He looked closely at one of her ears and touched it, which made her yelp, as it stung from all the bites.
He yelled toward the back of the house: "Mom, you should see her ears - we got to do something about this."
"What?" came from another room, sounding far away.
"Her ears, they're all bit up. The other dogs musta done it. She doesn't look so good ... I think she's sick."
"What?" came again from somewhere in the house.
"I think we should take her to a vet."
That brought the woman out to the living room. "The vet? You think we're made of money?"
The boy answered "We don't want her to die, do we?"
The woman looked pensive "Oh, she'll be all right - dogs are tough, especially puppies. She'll mend OK."
"Look at her ears - there's blood. She really got bit - she's in pain. I just touched 'em and she screamed. And I don't think she's eatin' - look at her."
"Well, let me look." The woman grabbed one of the injured ears, prompting Brownie to yelp as she never had in her life.
"Stop it - you're hurtin' her!" yelled the boy.
"No, I'm not, let me see," said the woman, reaching for the other ear.
The boy was too quick for her. He knocked his mother's hand away, jumped up with Brownie in his arms and headed out the front door, followed by Fritzy and the mutt.
"Come back here," his mother yelled as he opened the gate and ran down the sidewalk, the other dogs taking advantage of the open gate to run off in the other direction.
Apparently, the boy was as perplexed and frightened as Brownie, for he just kept running, so far and so fast she felt like she was getting a ride in a car. Finally, he stopped and looked around to find himself in a neighborhood with huge houses surrounded by spacious, well-manicured lawns. The boy carried Brownie up to an enormous white house, set her down in front of the door and rang the doorbell. She looked around at the large wooden porch, with its rocking chairs and small tables and colorful plants hung everywhere. She could smell food coming from inside and looked up at the door and noticed a huge brass knocker and small windows above it. She'd never seen a house this big, which momentarily distracted her from the pain in her ears and from the boy who'd just risked his mother's wrath to save him from a house of horrors. She turned to see him running away at a speed she didn't think humans were capable of. Within a few seconds the boy was down the block and out of sight.
"Well my goodness, what do we have here?" came a kindly-sounding female voice from the door, which had opened when Brownie was studying the disappearing form of the boy she could only regard as her savior. In other times she would have run at the sound of a stranger's voice, but now she was so frightened and weak from lack of nourishment she just sat there, looking up and hoping for better luck in this new place.
"Francine, come here, quick," said the lady, who appeared to be quite a bit older than Mrs. Lorton. Soon a younger lady appeared and quickly bent down to look at Brownie.
"Look - her ears are bitten up," said the younger one.
The older one said "She's not wearing a collar - I don't understand. She's a Dachshund, isn't she? Dachshunds are pedigreed - now who'd let a dog like that run loose without a collar?"
"She's been mistreated, you can see that," said the younger one. "Let's take her in. I hate people who abuse their dogs ... let's feed her, poor thing looks like she's starving."
The younger one carefully picked her up, one hand under the rear legs, the other under her chest and soon they were all in a large kitchen, where Brownie was gently set down on a throw rug as the two women ran around looking for food.
The older one said "We don't have any dog food - can she eat what Rani does?"
"Cat food? I don't see why not," said the younger one, opening a small can of food that smelled exactly like what the kindly store owner had fed her on the street. "Here, baby - this is tuna," she said. "It's good." She put the contents on a plate and Brownie devoured it in seconds. She started to cough and choke, not from the food but from eating too fast.
"Oh, I forgot, she'll still a puppy, maybe that's too heavy for her," said the young one. "Let me think ... we've still got some baby formula in the house; I'll give her that."
"Good idea," said the older one, who retrieved milk from the refrigerator, put it in a pan, mixed in the formula and heated it up. A few minutes later the three were on a couch, with the younger woman holding Brownie in her arms and feeding her the warm mixture from a baby bottle. Her ears still hurt, but it was the first time she'd felt safe since having been stolen. As she sucked the liquid, she started to feel her strength come back. After draining the bottle, she fell asleep.
She was awakened by the sound of older woman, who was talking on the telephone. "That's right, she's a foundling. We opened the front door and there she was, just looking up at us: dirty, her ears all bitten up, looking like a starved and abused child." There was a long pause and then she said "OK, we'll clean her up then bring her over."
A few minutes later Brownie was in a large pan in a bathtub, feeling warm water wash over her. The water contained soap, a smell she remembered coming from a certain room in the Lortons'. Some of the soap got on her ears, which made them sting, but she wasn't afraid anymore and felt these new people were caring and loving, like the Lortons. The two women dried her off with large towels and were careful not to rub her ears. The younger woman carried her out to the car and held her as the other one drove. A short time later they came to a one-story brick building, inside which other people were sitting with their dogs. She was set down by the younger woman on a long bench, where she fell asleep.
This time she was awakened by a man's voice. He was all dressed in white, like the kind man in the city who fed her. He gently picked her up and carried her into a large room, where a girl looked her over and petted her. Brownie felt a pinch as the man inserted a needle into her. It was like the ones she'd received before being taken home by the Lortons. Next, he put something wet and cold on her ears, which made them sting again, but she was starting to mind the pain less and less, as she instinctively knew the two women and this man were taking care of her. Finally, the man and the girl brought her back into the waiting room.
"I think she'll be all right," said the man. "I don't think the baby formula hurt her, but I'd give her this - just follow the directions on the cans" he said, handing over a good-sized package. The older woman took some green pieces of paper from her pocket and gave them to the man.
She soon found herself back at home on the sofa, where she fell asleep again, this time for much longer. When she woke it was dark outside and the two women were watching the box with the moving pictures inside it. Brownie had a feeling the pictures were only meant for the humans but she could follow them too, even though they kept changing and sometimes didn't make any sense. What confused her the most was that it could be night time outside like it was now, but the box showed people in the daylight and sometimes it was the other way around. This time the box showed first a man talking and then a woman and they were both seated at desks. It wasn't the most exciting thing she'd ever seen, but the two women who'd taken her in seemed engrossed in it, so she figured what the people in the box were saying must be important. She was about to doze off again when a small dog appeared in the box. It was long and short with tan hair and appeared to be a baby, like her. Her sore ears picked up when she heard her name, "Brownie," coming from the box. She jumped up and squealed at what she saw next: the Lortons, all four of them, right there in the box. She was so excited she jumped around the couch and barked, making her new parents look at her. Finally, the young one said "That must be her home - she's the one they've been saying was stolen along Lexington Avenue."
"I hate that area," said the older one. "So many crummy people around there."
The younger woman got up, ran over to the black thing on the table that people talked into and came back to the couch with a sheet of paper and a small, thin stick. "We've got to call her family," she said.
Now the box had funny lines on it, which made the younger woman touch the stick to the paper many times, after which she walked to the box and touched it to make it silent. Next, she walked back to the black thing, picked it up and spoke into it. Then Brownie heard the familiar name again: "Hello, Mrs. Lorton?"
A short time later she was getting another ride in a car, being petted and fussed over in turn by all four of the Lortons, who seemed awfully glad to see her again. No matter how glad they were it couldn't approach the way Brownie felt. Soon she was back home and in her little basket with the blankets, where she slept for the longest time she had in days. When she woke it was daylight and she felt the twin needs to eat and to relieve herself. She expected to be let out the front door and proceed on her walk the way she always had, but this time things were different. Her mommy put another collar around her neck, tied a leash onto it and took her for her walk. It felt funny, not being able to go wherever she liked and at her own pace, but she felt safe and after her ordeal that - and the love of her family - were all that mattered.
Max is an emerging Anglo-Italian writer of fiction. He lives with his wife Kristina in Prague, where he is a member of the Prague Writers Group, an English-speaking club of aspiring and published fiction writers. His short fiction has been published on East of the Web and on the illustrated anthology A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words.
The common good
‘Emma,’ he said in a swirl of ashen steam, the hope in the question-statement shaded by fear. But why? He could pick her signature shuffle—half army private, half weekend charity volunteer—out of an acoustic line-up of footsteps, if anyone bothered to capture them in a recording. In the days when they could still use something to record.
‘They’ve come today.’ Her shrill soprano was commanding, earnest; she was always the first to know.
‘They didn’t find anything,’ Ivan said. Which was true.
They entered the wooden hovel with the sloped roof they called home. Stella, their daughter, was still asleep in their only bedroom. Emma cast off the crimson scarf which belied her rank in the Citizen’s Committee and snatched a sack of lentils from the half-empty pantry.
Lentils, cornmeal, a cup of broth; their daily ration, year out, year in. If they got lucky they could add a sprinkling of wild herbs, or mushrooms after rainy days. But always no more than a handful: the rest would need to go to the chapel, where supplies were stored. Emma insisted on that.
The passes had been sealed for years now; first by avalanches when the glaciers started to melt, then by staves planted in the defrosting soil, on orders of the committee, when the few outsiders—they were already called that—brought harrowing tales from the valleys. By then, even those sturdy delivery vans weren’t making their uphill trek anymore.
The only way left to get in or out was through the mines, their shafts tunnelling through the rock to resurface in the valley. The committee kept the mountainside entrance under lock and key, although villagers did leave, from time to time, to search for food or supplies to bring back. Few returned.
‘When did they come?’ Emma asked, counting the lentils in her hand.
‘In the afternoon,’ Ivan said, fumbling with kindling by the fireplace. ‘I opened the door, showed them in. They checked our pantry, had a look around, and left. They were very kind about it.’
‘As we all are when doing our rounds. Did they say anything?’
Ivan shook his head.
Emma filled a rusty kettle from the barrel used to collect snow melt. There was always more of it these days. ‘Nothing about why they came here?’ she asked.
Of course, they wouldn’t tell her; even her.
She shivered. ‘It’s cold today. Why isn’t the fire on?’
‘Wanted to save, didn’t I?’ Ivan said, striking a match.
‘You had it on yesterday and it wasn’t half as cold.’
Emma’s eyes narrowed as she spotted the mound of smouldering embers in the middle of the fireplace, away from the burning pyramid of twigs and dry leaves Ivan had delicately assembled against its left-hand-side wall.
‘It died when I went outside,’ he said.
‘No wonder we’re running low on matches,’ Emma said, arms aloft. ‘Why did you let it? Why light it at all, if you were going outside? Ivan!’
Ivan kept nursing the timid flames, careful to keep them against the far wall, averting his gaze. ‘Don’t know,’ he squeaked. ‘Didn’t think.’
Ivan swallowed and let out a burst of nervous laugher. ‘Don’t know what you mean.’
‘You avoid looking at me, you don’t answer my questions—‘ Emma squatted, hands again on her knees, peering at the flames. ‘You said you opened the door for them.’
‘That means you were inside.’ Emma stopped Ivan from throwing on a bigger log.
She grabbed a poker and prodded the fireguard lined up against the fireplace’s right-hand-side wall. There was a clink of metal on metal. Emma’s eyes flickered to Ivan’s hapless face. Using the poker’s wrought-iron hook, she latched on to the fireguard, pulled it towards her, and let it clatter to the fireplace’s floor. A pile of cans and sacks stood behind it.
Ivan grabbed hold of Emma, but she shoved his hand away.
The flames were losing tempo. Ignoring them, Emma knelt to retrieve the cans.‘So that’s why the inspectors came. Cornmeal? Beans? Meat?’As she spat out each word she let the item in question drop onto the crooked table. Ivan winced at each thud.
Emma was shouting.‘Just what were you thinking? Why on earth didn’t you give this in to the committee? Our citizens are at risk of starvation and this is the example we set?’
Ivan called her name, his hands ensconced around her crossed arms, aching to sooth her. ‘I didn’t save this for me. I saved it for us. For our future. For Stella. What if something happened and we were left to fend for ourselves? What would we give her?’
Emma stepped back.‘I can’t even look at you right now. You lied to me, you lied to the committee, you lied to everyone. And you’re not even ashamed of it.’
‘I did it for our own good,’ he said, raising his voice in turn. ‘It could save us.’
‘You don’t even know what good is.’
‘Isn’t it what’s best for my family? Our family?’
Emma shook her head. ‘It’s the common good, Ivan. The community needs it; some people more than us. The rules are clear. No hoarding. Only that way we can make sure there’s enough for everyone.’
A child’s cries reached them. Stella’s.
Ivan’s eyes wanted to accuse.
‘I’ll go check in on her,’ he said instead.
Ivan returned to see Emma filling a crate with the cans recovered from the fireplace. His cans. No, their cans.
‘What are you going to do now?’His question was injected with alarm.
‘I’ll bring them in, to the chapel. Where they belong.’
‘What are you going to tell them?’
‘The truth. Something you’re not used to.’
Ivan walked down the muddy central road—the high street, they used to call it, when the cement still held—to the four-story wooden building, crowned by a sloped roof like all the others, that used to be the hotel. The committee had turned the ground floor restaurant into a people’s canteen.
An old metal desk had been squeezed onto the wooden porch by the front door. The handwritten cardboard sign advertised for volunteers for the mines. There was no queue.
The old man with the red scarf manning it wore an optimistic smile. ‘Want to do your bit for the community’s future? Go down the mines, see the world beyond the mountains, come back with the supplies we need. You’ll have the committee’s gratitude forever.’
Ivan passed on. That didn’t chime with what he’d heard from the couple of miners who made it back whole, in body and in spirit, as they retold their story in hushed tones and with dilated eyes. The people outside will kill you for your boots, they said; if they’re friendly, they’ll infect you. Health systems couldn’t keep up with a boiling world.
The canteen was packed. Here the queues were perennial; Ivan waited in line for his ladleful of gruel with his cornmeal and his lentils. No one said a word, but all the grim stares were on him as he searched for a free place. No one moved aside; spare seats were filled with scarves and caps.
As he scanned the packed wooden benches, the burly man who used to be a butcher before the mass extinctions drove his broad shoulder into Ivan’s. The bowls slid off Ivan’s tray and emptied their contents onto the hardwood planks.
Ivan grovelled on the floor, scooping up his lunch with his hands. No one offered to help, not even the red-scarved committee men stationed by the door.
Everyone knew everything in the mountain towns. Everyone knew that it was thanks to Ivan that the committee had issued the new regulations; it was thanks to him that their homes were searched top to bottom, and all their food relinquished; and thanks to him they could only ever eat here, cheek-by-jowl, at set times, under the watchful eyes of the committee.
Ivan got back up, balancing what he could salvage on the tray. But the spilled broth had made the planks slippery. Ivan slid and fell with a cry of pain. He lay on the floor, nursing his backbone, eyes welling up as he witnessed his lentils gathering dust on the sodden floor. He had been so hungry.
Emma ran from the committee’s bench, leaving their daughter on the lap of her neighbour, and came to him. She grabbed the mangy piece of cornmeal from the floor and placed it on his plate.
‘Come on!’ she said. ‘You’re still my husband, after all.’
Ivan didn’t have the strength to grasp her outstretched hand.
Emma turned towards the diners. ‘How about some help here?’ she asked.
But they kept eating, eyes cast down on their bowls.
Emma slumped down next to him, cross-legged on the floor- She offered him her bowl of lentils, watching him as he licked it clean. When he returned it to her, her gaze was chock-full of empathy.
Ivan looked away. Hunger had given way to shame. She used to feed him with soup, like that, when he was sick. And he would do the same for her. Now she had fed him, and he hadn't done anything for her. Or for anyone else since he remembered.
He glanced around. The diners in the canteen had returned their eyes to their bowls, but the pity and scorn clung to his pathetic self like the duct tape they used to mend things with. Was he broken without repair? Ivan hoisted himself up, ignoring Emma’s helping hand. No, he wasn’t.
He had enough of their pitiful looks, of his weakness, of Emma’s judgement. He wanted to tell them that they weren’t better than him, that he didn’t just care about himself.
But he didn’t say a word to anyone, not even to Emma. Instead, he strode towards the desk on the porch where the red-scarved man sat.
The snow-ridden slopes were flooded with the greyish amber glow of the freezing alpine dawn. In a hard-hat and with pick and chisel dangling from his belt—all courtesy of the committee—Ivan set out along the narrow dirt trail which led from their home to the mine’s closest entrance, keys in hand.
It wasn’t long before Emma caught up with him.
‘Wait,’ she said, out of breath, trying to grab him, blocking his way. ‘Think about it one more time. I beg you.’
Ivan sidestepped her and continued walking.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ she asked, chasing after him. ‘You have a daughter. Think about her!’
Ivan halted and lowered the handkerchief wrapped around his nose and mouth. ‘So? Isn’t the community more important? You taught me that!’
She gave him a crazed look. ‘Ivan, this isn’t a tin of canned meat we’re talking about. It’s about life and death! You can’t leave your wife a widow and your daughter an orphan.’
He grabbed her arm. ‘I love you and I love my daughter. But I love this place too, for good or ill. And it won’t last long without fresh supplies. We both know there’s only one way to get them.’ Ivan resumed his march before he finished speaking.
Emma was taken aback.‘It doesn’t mean you have to go! There are others who can do it. Others better suited, unmarried men...’
‘Emma, there are no volunteers,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I need to do my bit.’
Emma burst into tears.
Turning around, Ivan put an arm round her shoulder.’You’ll need to be strong,’ he said in a more conciliatory tone, ‘for our daughter.’
Emma, drying her eyes with her elbow, at length managed to speak, in between the hiccups and sobs.‘Are you sure you’re not doing it just for me?’
Ivan stiffened.‘It’s for the common good.’
He pushed her back, gently but firmly, and set off again, towards the mines.
“There you go sweetheart.” She grinned, patted me on the head and handed me my favorite treat. She was still a small town girl then, before she embarked for Europe for the first time.
My aunt was remarkable in many ways, some of which only became clear to me recently.
Isabelle was an accomplished painter. Just before the Second World War broke out she had been studying art in Paris. Suddenly the congenial spell was broken and panic took its place. Her Italian boyfriend urged her to leave. She had to scramble to get out of France before the Wehrmacht marched in. She packed the best of her paintings into a steamer trunk and boarded one of the last ships out of Le Havre. Six days later she disembarked in New York and then took the train to Toronto. To this day many of the same canvases hang on her relatives’ walls all over Canada. Of course, I own one.
The themes are always bucolic: woods, rivers, wild flowers. The painting I was given features a majestic Holm oak. In its thick roots, where they meet the soil, grow poisonous, destroying angel, or amanita virosa, mushrooms. At first I mistook them for young Portobello mushrooms, they look so much alike. In the canvas’s background a lovely brook flows. The details of the watercolour are so exact one could mistake it for a photograph.
My mother and her siblings, including Isabelle, grew up in Port Ryerse, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Erie. The lake is magnificent in summer, surrounded by Eastern hemlock, oak and maple. Cormorants, yellow warblers and marsh wrens make their homes in the area. Lake effect snow in winter turns this beautiful scene pure white but makes life onerous.
Part of our family can be traced back to Empire Loyalists who moved from New York to the area in 1801. They were involved in shipping and fishing before the building of the railroads. The shipping business died and Port Ryerse shrank from a bustling village to what is now a mere hamlet. During prohibition in the U.S., rum-running in small boats across Lake Erie allowed some people to prosper but that ended in 1933. Today the community’s existence depends on cottagers and sports fishermen who stroll along Young’s Creek or take to Lake Erie. There is no downtown, not even a grocery store. The only building of note that’s left is the Memorial Anglican Church where for generations our family’s children have been baptized and married. A small white building of no aesthetic value, the church draws only locals and the odd lost tourist.
Between 1912 and 1961 my grandfather owned a hardware store in Port Ryerse. He sold the usual nails, saws, and shovels, as well as fishing gear. My grandmother bore eight children; all survived. In the early years the community and the store flourished but by the Dirty Thirties, that was history. The little community offered few opportunities and the children moved away as soon as they legally could, including Isabelle and my mother.
Having avoided the German occupation of France, Isabelle was left penniless. She was forced to return to the family home, something she resented. The bleak hamlet was no more inviting than the day she had left it for Paris.
My mother’s second oldest sibling was Arnold. When Isabelle first returned to Port Ryerse, she discovered he had moved himself and his young bride into the family home which the couple now shared with his parents. Arnold was a short-tempered man and made things difficult for everyone in the house.
I have only the vaguest memory of Uncle Arnold. During a visit in Port Ryerse, I recall him screaming at his wife, upset she had not properly sewn a button on his jacket. My mother, Aunt Isabelle and I hurried out of the house; that was the last time I saw him. Three months later he was dead. The family was told he died of a heart attack. After collecting Arnold’s life insurance, his young widow didn’t wait long to find someone to replace him. She moved to Cleveland where she and her second husband ran a tobacco shop.
Isabelle once said to me that living with Arnold had been impossible. It drove her to marry the first available candidate, a man ten years her senior by the name of Ralf Biglow.
“I had to get out,” she said to me. “He almost ruined my little wedding but was civil enough to hold off dying till the day after the nuptials.” She lowered her voice. “The man was crass and a bully, like all the men in this family. I won’t miss him. I don’t know who will.” There followed a long pause. “Why did he have to be so stupid?” Her face clouded over. She wiped a tear from her eye and walked out of the room wringing her hands.
Isabelle had met Ralf because his family owned a cottage near Port Ryerse. They quickly married. The couple moved to Toronto where Ralf’s father owned a dairy that supplied milk, cheese and butter to half the city. Whispers among my relatives said he was a drunk and a brute who slapped poor Isabelle around. I only met Ralf a couple of times. He died unexpectedly a year after he married Isabelle.
Isabelle’s second husband, Oscar, was a short, robust man with a thick black mustache and a square face that suggested a capacity for violence. As I discovered, he was in fact a gracious and kind man. Very entertaining, he told funny anecdotes and jokes.
I recall him telling the story of a talking horse that walked into a Toronto tavern.
“Are you hiring?” said the stallion to the owner.
“No,” replied the owner, “but try the circus they might have work you.”
The horse looked puzzled. “Why,” said the horse, “would a circus need a bartender?”
Whenever he visited any of our family he brought the most beautiful flowers, and the finest chocolates and wine. His only bad habit was gambling. Oscar would disappear for a day or a week and return with a pocket full of cash; sometimes two pockets full of cash. One spring afternoon he came home accompanied by two large thugs. He looked terrible, his face scraped, his jacket torn. The brawny men walked him to the safe in the basement. He emptied its contents and handed over all the money.
The event terrified my poor Aunt Isabelle. According to my late mother when Isabelle asked him what happened to bring about this shocking intrusion, all he said was, “You win some, you lose some.”
His gambling sojourns went on for years, then one day he didn’t return home. After going missing for a month, his body washed up on the shore of Rotary Peace Park in New Toronto. This same park, ironically, was a place where Oscar and Isabelle often picnicked with their young son. Oscar had drowned, the police said. Isabelle decided not to remarry. She had wisely invested the money she received from her first husband’s insurance and had also squirreled away some of Oscar’s winnings.
The family lost sight of Aunt Isabelle when she moved back to Paris with her young son, Ted. I learned years later the boy grew to be a man much like his father, gambling, drinking and womanizing. At age twenty-nine he was dead from some sort of seizure.
In the summer of 1975 my husband, little daughter and I visited France. We dropped in to see Aunt Isabelle. She was living in the 16th arrondissement in a beautiful apartment and teaching art at the École des Beaux-Arts where she was held in high esteem.
My aunt welcomed my husband, daughter and me warmly. We sat in the drawing room where Isabelle regaled us with stories of her siblings when they were growing up in rural Ontario. Her maid brought in coffee and delicious pastries. In surveying the room I noticed a Rodin figure standing on a column of red marble. With the exception of a few abstract watercolours, the place looked like it was straight out of the nineteenth century. Persian rugs hugged the floor and paintings in elaborate frames hung on the walls. It was as if my aunt was hoping Claude Monet or Edgar Degas would walk in and she wanted them to feel at ease. She noticed my eyes scan the room and gave me an approving smile that soon disappeared. It was then that Isabelle turned toward me and pointed to my daughter.
“What is wrong with her,” said Isabelle.
“Oh, you mean her foot. She was born with a club foot and for now has to wear a special corrective shoe. But the doctor expects she’ll be okay in a year or so.”
“No, it’s ugly. Poor crippled child! I can refer you to a doctor here. I have excellent connections. They’ll fix her up in no time.”
“Thank you, Aunt Isabelle, but she’s getting great care in Hamilton. She’ll be fine.”
Isabelle seemed to take my remarks as a rebuff because her face turned red with anger.
“Are you sure?” she said coldly.
“Yes, but thank you for your concern.”
The mood had changed and we all fell into silence. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her furtively tap on her diamond watch.
This was apparently a signal for her maid who quickly reminded my aunt, “You have a meeting with Andre Allar in thirty minutes, Madam.”
My husband gave me a knowing look and the three of us said our goodbyes to Isabelle. Irritation was written on her face as she escorted us to the door.
The Bois de Boulogne was just down the street so we walked among its trees and along the shores of Lac Inférieur for some time trying to shake off the unpleasantness we had left behind in Isabelle’s apartment. We soon found a park bench among the oak trees and watched as our little girl made faces at the ducks on the lake.
I can recall saying to my husband as we looked out at the water, “It seems my aunt’s offer of help had more to do with her than our daughter. She was trying to impress upon us how far she’s come up in the world; that she now has important friends. We took away her chance to show us how influential she’s become.”
He nodded. “Maybe she’s worried when we look at her we don’t see a grand dame but the daughter of a middling hardware store owner from a no-account town?”
A couple of weeks later I found a letter from Aunt Isabelle in my mailbox. In a precise hand-written note she apologized for the disagreeable ending to our meeting in her Paris apartment and urged me to come visit her again soon. Astonished, I stared at the message for a minute then tossed it into the trash.
The following year I gave birth to twin boys. I received gifts, cards and phone calls from my extended family but nothing from Isabelle. In the years that followed I had no news regarding my aunt and indeed almost forgot she existed. My own life went on with its ups and downs. I became a science teacher, my children grew up and I divorced my layabout husband.
Late one evening last October I received an email from a nephew informing me of my aunt’s demise. For a moment I thought it was a joke. I could not believe she had lived to the age of a hundred and three!
In her will she left the older members of the family money and mementoes. Three months after her cremation, I received sixteen thousand Euros and yesterday her Edwardian oak accent table was deposited at my front door. I spent some time trying to find a place for it. The antique table is small so I moved it several times before I was satisfied. It seemed to fit nicely in a recess in the hall. I’m not young myself so perhaps that’s why only hours after it arrived I clumsily knocked it over. That’s when a hidden drawer not half an inch thick slid open from its back. Inside was a small book bound in green leather. I was of course surprised and immediately opened it up expecting to find a gossipy diary of some kind. A faint scent of lavender rose from every page.
But it was no diary. On alternate pages I found, in flowing longhand, recipes for mushroom concoctions including Creamy Wild Mushroom Pasta, Mushroom Frittata and Wild Mushroom Tart. Facing those pages Aunt Isabelle had drawn wonderful likenesses of people. There were renditions of her two husbands, Ralf and Oscar; her brother Arnold and her son Ted. There were also portraits of two women. One woman I did not recognize but the other was of me. In the portrayal I look to be about thirty, the age when I last saw my aunt. With the exception of my likeness, under each picture, in tiny precise print, Isabelle had noted the dates she had poisoned each person.
Sarah Katz is an author and cyber security engineer. Her fiction publications include award-winning scifFi novel "Apex Five" as well as historical fiction "The Messenger from the Mountain" and short stories published in 365 tomorrows, AHF Magazine and Thriller Magazine. Her nonfiction articles have been published in Cyber Defense Magazine, Dark Reading, Infosecurity Magazine and Tech Xplore.
Following years by the side of her Matriarch, never had the clan turned on their second-in-command. As the second highest-ranking female, never before has she found herself on the receiving end of the males’ scheming whoops. The call to attack spreads out from all angles amidst the brush.
Bounding through the tall grass with none of the grace of the gazelles her clan often hunts, she darts through the darkest areas of brush to avoid the prying eyes of the pack.
While the idle voice at the back of her mind warns of lions bound to be lurking in these parts, she trudges onward through the scratchy fronds. The entire way, she resists the flashes of memory that flood forth – her newborn cub at her feet, destroyed by the Matriarch she had come to admire as both mentor and companion.
A speck of light up head shatters her agonized reverie, limited illumination contrasted against the streaks of lightning gracing the dark skies above.
It is no secret that her current path leads to the Two-Leg village at the eastern corner of the clan’s roaming territory. Indeed, various members of the pack – namely the more witless males – have even investigated occasionally, reporting back on the caged lions and generally docile Two-Legs who strangely avoid threatening her kind with their thundertubes.
Unbeknownst to her Matriarch, she has even strayed once or twice to the firm, sharp material enclosing the kept animals. Few Two-Legs dwell around the area, the constant being a tall male. Intrigued by the Tall One’s size compared to the males of her kind who tend to be smaller, she finds herself oddly unfazed by his presence behind those wires tonight.
As she emerges from the brush in a slinking fashion that maintains the urgency of her escape, she knows enough not to alarm the Two-Leg. Still, he rises to his feet, dark eyes never leaving her gaze.
All around them, rain begins to fall. As the cool water drips down between her legs to sting the fresh changes there, she wants to growl at how everything seems to remind her of the cub she just birthed. She can only hope the fresh rain will mask her scent from the hunting party.
She makes sure to calm her breathing as well as the frustrated tittering she has fought to quell the entire trek through the underbrush, attempting and failing to forget the loss of her cub and her Matriarch’s betrayal.
“…Hyena!” the Tall One bellows, presumably to another Two-Leg inside the tree bark dwelling behind him.
That word - she recognizes the term as the name for her kind among some Two-Legs. Just now, she can’t help but notice how this enclosure before her seems to have expanded, fresh soil turned up around the bark dwelling. So then it is true. The Two-Legs are encroaching onto clan territory.
Still, no matter how much danger the path ahead might hold, she has no choice but to press on--
The flash of light confuses her senses. Feeling no pain with adrenaline flooding her veins, she blinks to see the bright assailant gone. The sounds of the Tall One shouting to his stout male companion are the first to reach her ears, as both Two-Legs swim back into focus.
She gathers bits and pieces of their dialogue, understood from context of observing their previous interactions.
“Hurt?” the Tall One bellows.
“No. …Hyena?” the shorter one says.
“Don’t know…no. Woman,” the Tall One answers.
The Tall One’s eyes meet hers again, as she idly becomes aware of the dry grass clumped between her paws. No, not paws…
Glancing down at the bizarre way the fronds feel on her flesh, she realizes why they scratch so much. Her paws have elongated and are no longer covered in fur.
The raindrops trickle along the skin of her face in much the same way – too moist, with no fur barrier. Where has her fur gone?
As she lifts a hand to feel a smooth cheek, her eyes fall on the stout man with the sunset-colored head fur - who has a thundertube cocked in her direction.
“No!” shouts the Tall One, placing his hand on the weapon to lower it.
“”But…hyena…” says the other male. “Out there with her.”
“No, she’s alone,” replies the Tall One, with an air like her Matriarch uses to inform the clan whether a pack of antelope is grazing too close to lion territory and therefore, off limits to the kill.
Her instincts compel her to cringe, as the tall Two-Leg opens the wired trap with a screech.
Never letting her gaze leave his approaching figure, she forces her breathing to slow as he kneels before her. With any luck, she can hide away tonight with the Two-Legs to avoid her rampaging clan mates. Already, all senses apart from smell have dulled and she struggles to choke down the rising panic of being stuck in this strange form.
“Help? …you hurt?” the Tall One thankfully refrains from touching her. “Where…your clothes?”
She calls up all words she has learned during her brief eavesdropping sessions of Two-Legs speaking this way and moves her mouth to see if she can communicate. While she has heard the sunset-furred stout Two-Leg mention a term for family, she has little expectation that the word will mean anything coming from her.
The noise of her own verbal utterance in this new form sounds strangely quiet to her ears, a far cry from the usual whoops and titters that can carry across many fields.
Another flash of lightning mars the night sky, illuminating a grove of trees behind the Two-Leg dwelling. Still, she holds the Tall One’s gaze, as his companion speaks up.
“Clan. Don’t think there…many clans…here,” says the stout one.
“Not Scottish clan,” the Tall One still eyes her, gaze finally falling.
He lightly touches her arm. Instinct kicking in, she snaps her jaws at his fingers.
“She been attacked?” the stout male asks, as the Tall One’s hand falls to his side.
It only takes a moment for her to follow the males’ gazes to her bare legs – dark rivulets shine in the dull lights of the Two-Leg dwelling, drying on her inner thighs.
No – these Two-Leg males must not think her weak enough to have been attacked. They must know the truth.
Struggling to keep her limbs steady, she raises her hands to symbolize the form of something small.
She hopes the Two-Legs will understand she means offspring.
“Looks like she may have just given birth,” the Tall One surmises, and she wants to sigh in relief when he backs away from her.
“But who’s after you?” the stout one asks, and she’s beginning to notice a difference in lilt between him and the Tall One.
At least their speech patterns are finally starting to fall into place a little more easily for her.
She glances from the stout male to the tall Two-Leg and repeats the sound she has heard his kind make in reference to hers. “Clan.”
Another rumble of thunder sounds in the distance.
“Hospital?” the sunset-furred male asks.
The Tall One ignores his companion and gestures to himself. “I am Shaka. What is your name?”
She just stares into those dark eyes for several moments that pass as slow as the sludge of a muddy slope. She figures he must be seeking a way to identify her. Wracking her brain, she recalls the term she has discovered to mean after-one among Two-Legs determining the size of tree bark while building dwellings out on the brush.
“Two,” she murmurs.
“Two, like the number?” comes the stout one’s question.
Her gaze flits to the shorter Two-Leg before resettling on the Tall One, still studying her curiously. She points to herself.
“I see,” he inclines his head. “Two…where is your baby?”
Baby – another new Two-Leg sound with some meaning she doesn’t know. He gestures to her legs, and she supposes he means the wounds from birth.
She lets her gaze fall.
These sounds are foreign to her ears and yet, the sorrow of the situation still strikes now that these Two-Legs seem to know what has taken place.
A glimmer of surprise flashes across the Tall One’s gaze.
“I…I’m sorry,” he finally replies, and her muscles relax a touch from the calming tone of his strange sounds. “Come inside with us? The rain is heavy, and we just want to help.”
When he points toward the dwelling within the cage, she rises to her feet in a shaky, cautious motion. Drawing a deep breath, she trudges after the two males into their dwelling to escape the males of her kind whose whoops are already reaching her ears on the wind.
Despite the humid rain outside, the air in the Two-Leg dwelling is even warmer.
“Come with me,” the Tall One gestures for her to follow him through a tight stretch of wooden floor and walls.
When they emerge out into a larger yet still small space, the tall Two-Leg motions to what looks like a sleeping place filled with grass.
“You can use this bed,” he tells her, then disappears for several moments.
He returns with a moist, soft-looking material and drier material of a darker color.
“Thank you for not lashing out again,” he smiles, handing her the soft gift, before gesturing toward the left side of the room. “The washroom is to the left out in the hall. Feel free to use this to clean your legs and the robe to wear. You’re safe here, no one will hurt you. May I touch your forehead?”
He gestures to her face, and she stills. Slowly, he touches a hand to her forehead, letting his fingers fall again soon after.
“No fever. Very good. I’ll leave you to yourself now. Sleep well, Two.”
Overhead, thunder rumbles, as she struggles and fails to sleep in this strange, dark space.
Her cub – a rare survivor in a birth that kills most firstborn offspring – mauled seconds after coming into this world. The rage that had filled her body at the sight of her dead offspring pushed her to do the impossible. She had attacked her own Matriarch. Everyone knows challenging a Matriarch sets one up for death.
And yet, here she is.
When the chill in the room sends shivers across this new bare flesh, she pulls on the darker large material, dropping the wet one to the ground after dragging it gingerly over her inner thighs.
Lying back on the soft surface at the corner of the space, she closes her eyes in an attempt to calm the tiny shakes that wrack her body. Soon enough, she loses track of time to the patter of rainfall outside.
The noise of Two-Leg voices draws her from her fitful stupor. Rising from the soft pad on the floor, she ignores the ache between her legs and creeps toward the sound of the voices. Making sure to stay in the shadows, she listens.
The sunset-furred one speaks. “Shaka, the development team arrives tomorrow morning. You don’t think our guest will be a wee bit alarmed by their machinery?”
“No, Nick,” replies the Tall One, Shaka, “she stays for now. Something isn’t right. Before that lightning hit, that was a hyena standing out in that field.”
“So then, where’d it go?” Nick wants to know.
“Better yet, where’d that woman come from?” Shaka says.
“Well,” Nick answers, “I always heard Savanna park ranger work was more entertaining than working with Highland sheep, but never did I expect a magic lady to turn up my first week on the job.”
Fatigue finally seeping into her limbs, she turns away from the unintelligible voices and succumbs to the comfort of the strange soft pad. The darkness of sleep falls entirely too soon.
The third Two-Leg who comes to look at her the following morning has a large front, as if he has just eaten a hefty meal. He examines her, thankfully not removing the dark materialfrom her figure.
“Looks good,” says the Two-Leg. “She seems calm now, but if she’s shown violent tendencies, no need for a full exam today.”
“I felt her head,” Shaka says from the doorway. “Doesn’t seem to be a fever or anything.”
After the large Two-Leg leaves, Shaka offers her food, which she refuses. The stuff smells like meat, but is far too brown, as if burned under fire.
About to return to the sleeping space, she discovers something – herself. Or rather, her reflection. The Two-Leg female stares back at her from the wall beside the basin, wide eyes set in a furless face with skin the color of the dark spots of her natural coat.
At least fur still grows on top of her head.
Having seen her reflection before in lake waters and puddles, she hears her breath hitch at the utter stranger looking into her eyes. This confirms her suspicions – she has somehow become Two-Leg.
The loud sound that erupts from outside makes her jump.
A low rumble that shakes the earth sends her rushing toward the dwelling entrance in search of the two male Two-Legs she knows.
To her relief, Shaka stands to greet her as Nick exits the dwelling.
“It’s all right, Two. Some people are just here for the day to build. It’s a lot of noise, nothing more. You can go back to your room…”
Glad she can still hear him well enough to pick up on his calming tone, she steels herself to hide the tremble in her limbs. Dominance is the key to survival. She will not leave this space out of fear.
Yet another Two-Leg male enters the dwelling behind Nick. Immediately, she observes the tense body language between Shaka and the new arrival.
“Shaka,” the male inclines his head, grey fur covering the lower half of his pale face. He throws her a fleeting glance before focusing again on the Tall One. “You said we’d be able to start early today. What’s the holdup I’m hearing from Nick?”
Shaka subtly widens his stance before responding. “We have a visitor. Also, the hyena calls are pretty close at night these days. It may not be safe for your team.”
The new male scoffs. “Orders say we start today.”
He eyes her on his way out, gaze leaving a creeping feeling in her gut. That light, clear gaze reminds her of a lioness’s focused stare moments before going in for a pounce.
Within seconds, the rumbling and shrill shrieking outside continues.
“So,” Shaka says, steeping closer to her, “are you hungry yet?”
He withdraws some meat from his pocket that she soon realizes is…wrong. Far too try, as if left for days in the sunlight. Her nose wrinkles.
“Understood,” he replaces the meat in his pocket. “So, are you happy to tell me where you’re from or…”
Once again, the strange male enters the dwelling. “Shaka, what’s this Nick’s saying now about the relocation plans? You won’t move this building?”
“Henry, I own this plot of the park,” Shaka says. “That means I have to sign off on any changes you make from the original plan. So unless you plan on buying the land from me, we’re going to have a problem.”
This new male Henry stares down Shaka for a long moment, and she finds herself reminded of the challenging gazes of her own kind.
“Sure, Shaka. We’ll just get started, then.” With that, Henry leaves.
Shaka stares after the door. “He is growing pushier these days.”
“Think he’ll invite in poachers or the like?” Nick asks.
Shaka shakes his head. “Any fool in these parts knows how seriously the law comes down on poachers.”
Eventually, she eats the meat. The taste brings to mind smoke, but it will do to fill her belly.
While eating, she stares in as much comfort as she will allow herself, as the Two-Legs speak to her.
“I came out here after my daughter died in a car crash,” Shaka says, and she wonders at the low tone of his voice. “She always loved being around animals, so I finally quit the police force to do something a bit…quieter.”
Sitting at the set of seats surrounding the round piece of tree bark in the front area, she licks her lips. When Shaka’s eyes meet hers again, she sees a hint of vulnerability.
Shaka and Nick again leave her in peace that night. Though she hears the roars of several kept lions from a short distance away, she knows they cannot harm her in here.
No storm falls this night, and she actually begins to relax - until the loud rumbles start up again early the next morning.
“You hit one?” comes Nick’s shout from the front area. “We told you, no development beyond the tree grove.”
“What happened?” Shaka asks.
Entering the front area, she sees the same man Henry from the day before.
“Damn hyenas,” he shakes his head. “Why do you even care?”
“This is a national park, damn it,” Shaka has evidently caught on. “The striped hyenas are already endangered, and the spotted get closer every day. They need some sliver of territory to call their own.”
“Sure, Shaka,” Henry inclines his head, handing Shaka a white object of some sort, similar to the items she has seen strewn about in some areas of the shrubbery where Two-Legs pass through. “I hate to encroach, but business is business. Management wants a local museum here. So just take a look at the plans, it might not put you out too far.”
That’s when a scent strikes her nostrils clearer than anything she’s smelt since losing her natural form. Danger.
Shouting wordlessly over the deafening drone from outside, she yearns for the volume of her kind’s sounds.
As she goes to snatch the white thing from Shaka’s hand, Henry bellows, “Shaka, I was told only you and Nick were…”
Successfully grasping the offending object from Shaka, she wants to snarl at Henry. This Two-Leg has just tried to poison his fellow clan member. Amidst the buzzing from outside, she is determined to inform Shaka.
“No,” she recalls the words she has often heard Two-Legs shout at one another in panic, hoping this will convey the message.
Judging from the way Nick turns on Henry even faster than Shaka, she figures both males understand.
“Poison?” Nick seethes. “What is it, anthrax? Plan to steal this plot of land, do ya?”
“Are you mad?” Henry shouts back. “Are you accusing me of attempted murder?”
Meanwhile, Shaka has already crossed the room to use that talker machine. “You are not taking this land.”
“That’ll be the police he’s calling,” Nick backs Henry up to the front door, despite the former’s shorter height. “I’d hightail it out of here if I were you.”
In the next moment, Henry is gone.
As soon as Shaka sets down the talker, he glances back at Two, bewilderment written across his features. “How did you know?”
Not wanting to bother again with trying to find the right words, she simply raises her fingertips to her nose.
“You could smell that?” Nick asks, perplexed.
“Hyenas…” Shaka trails off. “They’re resistant to the stuff.”
“Damn massive coincidence,” Nick whistles.
Shaka walks over and looks down at the white flap concealing the poison.
That night, she tosses and turns, sweat beading on her flesh as she dreams of her clan. The rain and lightning outside do little to quell her nerves.
In truth, she’s surprised the two males haven’t yet ousted her from their dwelling, especially if they know the truth. Not that she isn’t grateful.
A particularly close flash of lightning either strikes the ground right outside her window or penetrates the surface without shattering the stuff it’s made from.
Sitting bolt upright, she starts at the sound uttered from her own mouth – a frustrated titter.
Her natural form has returned.
Acute hearing regained, her ears pick up the muted voices of Shaka and Nick from the front area of the dwelling.
“So, you’re actually thinking she…was the hyena?” Nick asks.
“You tell me,” Shaka’s low tone replies. “You’re the biologist. Could it be?”
A lengthy pause ensues, before Nick speaks up again. “Don’t quote me on this, but it could have something to do with the humans encroaching on their land. Perhaps an enhanced method of communication to reset the balance, though the spontaneity of it is bewildering.”
“But how?” Shaka wants to know. “Because we were close to her at the time, out in the storm?”
“Who knows, Shaka.” She can picture the sunset-furred male shaking his head. “Why was she here when we needed her? To keep you from dying? That’s another question all in itself.”
Another stretch of silence passes, as she shrugs off the now useless cloth.
“Best not bother her tonight,” Shaka decides. “We owe her one. Let’s check on the lions.”
Once the voices die down and the dwelling falls silent, she decides the time has come to set off on her own. Away from these unexpectedly docile Two-Legs as well as the ire of her own clan. Best to start now while the mud is fresh, and she can escape beneath the enclosure. Armed with the knowledge of these Two-Legs’ dwelling place, she will find a new clan and earn their trust with the news of a safe region to roam.
With a stealth that is easily lost to the patter of the rain, she noses open the unlocked, covered opening of the dwelling’s entrance and plods out into the warm night.
The Baker of Motta-San-Giacobbe
Why do I have to be a baker? Domenico thought, wondering where he would be if his father were something more interesting, I could make horseshoes, or wine. Standing, he dressed and pushed open the shutters of the bedroom. He rested his elbows on the cold, plastered-brick, and stared up at the ancient church tower looming above. I could work with Sebastiano… I could see him every day… he continued to contemplate working in the church, a smile crossing his lips as he dreamt of spending his days with his cherished, and secret, love. Climbing down the narrow stairs to the lower level of their home, Domenico’s father smiled warmly upon seeing him. Domenico gave his usual shrug and yawn, stretching again.
“Signora Pelicanó brought a pot of honey, the first of the season,” Domenico’s father said.
“What are we going to do with it?”
“I thought you would be interested in baking honeybread.”
“That would be nice. Where is mamma?”
“At the market again, head in the clouds while bartering for some flowers.”
Domenico nodded. He rolled up his sleeves and went to the oven, with massive pots of flour and water adjacent. Reaching under the attached wooden counter, he pulled out bowls and got to work on the first loaves of the day. Thinking of his closest friend Sebastiano, the priest’s son came every morning to purchase bread for his family and for the day’s communion service. He quickly and easily prepared the dough. Forming the dough into rounds, he turned and placed them into the oven. Removing his arm, he accidentally touched his skin to the hot bricks, giving his wrist and forearm a painful burn. He jerked his arm back.
“Damn!” He grabbed his wrist in pain.
His father turned from what he was doing, “What? What’s the matter?”
“I—” He couldn’t force the words out.
“You must be careful when working with in oven, she’s a feisty one… like your mother.”
The jest took Domenico’s mind off the stinging. Seconds later the church’s bronze bell tolled. Its deep sound echoed through the town from its throne-like tower on the hill high above. It gave Domenico another reason to smile. He knew Sebastiano was awake and well. It was his job every day to ring the bell. Sebastiano’s father, the priest, was a kind and gentle man, but didn’t approve of Sebastiano’s friends. Especially not Domenico and his distracting of Sebastiano from his studies.
“You should pay more attention, Domenico,” his father’s voice interrupted his fantasizing, “All this will be yours one day.”
Domenico looked at his father, who had his back to him and had begun whistling an old ballad about some maiden in a castle by the sea. What if I don’t want to be a baker? What if I want to be with Sebastiano? He kept mulling over his thoughts, most of them about his friend.
Sebastiano’s sweet voice echoed in his head “The next time we can, we should climb the tower. It is so beautiful up there!” Domenico snapped out of his daydreaming and began preparing the honeybread, knowing exactly what he would do with it. While kneading the dough repeatedly he poured in the sweet and floral honey, almost getting lost in his own daydreaming while thinking of his friend. He formed the rolls into hearts and put them in the oven, close to the wood as possible.
A few minutes later, all of the bread in the oven was done. He pulled everything out and put it in a basket for Sebastiano. He made his way up the hill and stared up at the entrance, the door already open. Engraved above its arch was “Chiesa del San. Sebastiano”. I always wondered if Sebastiano was named for this place he thought. Before stepping in he broke a roll of the honeybread and held it to his nose, breathing in the sweet scent. He shoved it in his mouth and tried to chew quickly, picking apart every taste like an expert chef. “Signora Pelicanó’s bees really love their roses”, he mumbled to himself while chewing roughly and admiring the beauty of the church. The bread melted in his mouth, tasting primarily of the mouth-watering spring blossom honey.
Domenico quickly swallowed and entered, calling out to his friend “It’s great to see you.”
“Sì, Domenico, it’s always a pleasure!”
Domenico gestured to the basket “I brought the bread,”
“Ah, grazie mille, they look lovely!” Sebastiano peeked in the basket.
Domenico placed his hands over Sebastiano’s. He lifted up the larger sourdough rounds to show him the fresh honeybread rolls, still warm. “First of the season.”
“Oh! They look delicious” Sebastiano’s eyes grazed over the hearts, trying desperately to hide a soft blush creeping over his face, his friend’s proximity certainly not helping. “Oh… Domenico… what did you do?” the boy said, gripping his friend’s hand once he noticed the burn.
“It’s nothing… I was going to quickly,” he said.
“Why aren’t you worried about it?”
“It happens all the time,” he said, shrugging.
Sebastiano produced a soft cloth. “Here…” he wrapped the burn in the cloth, tying it firmly in place. “You should purchase some gloves from Signore Niccolò”
Domenico wasn’t paying attention, focused on his friend’s eyes which sparkled in the heavenly-tinted light of the stained-glass windows. They bathed the nave in a glow unlike anything he had seen before, his friend always said they rivaled the most beautiful windows in Florence and Rome. He was jerked from his thoughts as Sebastiano pulled him down the aisle between the thick wooden pews.
“Wait! Where are we going?” Domenico asked.
“To the tower silly… Signore Domenico Medici, testa per aria,”
“My head is perfectly on my shoulders and grounded, altar boy,”
His friend ducked into doorway and disappeared up an ancient stone staircase. “Hurry! We only have a few minutes before I have to ring the bell again,” he called down the stairs.
Domenico placed the bread down next to the stairs, and shoved a roll in his pocket. Huffing his way up the steps to meet his friend, sitting on the thin ledge between the stairs and windows. “I— knew you would share with your father… so I made one for you” he smiled weakly and produced the honeybread from his pocket. Sebastiano took it and split with him. Placing the sweet bread in his mouth he smiled wide, chewing on it for a few seconds.
“You really know what you’re doing Domenico, you sure you don’t want to be a baker?”
Domenico shrugged. Leaning in for a kiss, their lips just grazed before he pulled back and blushed rose red, and awkwardly smiled at the bell.
“Oh… the bell is kind of loud, you should cover your ears. The tower is too narrow to ring it from the bottom,” Sebastiano said with a chuckle, breaking the awkwardness. He shifted so he could see the sun, waiting for the sun. When it was fully above the horizon, he swung the bronze clapper. Domenico didn’t mind the loud clanging, not while something much more important held his attention.
Being a baker isn’t so bad… He thought.
ANGANDEEP KR CHATTERJEE
BENSON PHILLIP LOTT
DENNIS J. KAFALAS
ELISE DANIELLE IRWIN
ERIN X. WONG
JAMES RODERICK BURNS
J. B. POLK
L. L. FRIEDMAN