Tom Tolnay operates Birch Brook Press. More than 30 of his stories have been published in literary and consumer periodicals.
Lorelei on Cranberry Lake
Dense clouds, like layers of gritty snow after they'd been plowed off the road, were hanging low over Cranberry Lake, and Mrs. Penny Gauntlet was studying them from the kitchen window of her weather-grayed house. "You should not go out on the lake today," she said to her husband, as if she'd divined something regrettable in the offing.
"Fishing season's dead after today," Jace replied, seated at the white tin-topped table.
"Clouds have been stacking up and getting blacker all morning."
"With my leg going bad on me, I hardly got in any fishing this summer."
"There's always next spring."
"Who knows what shape I'll be in by next year?"
"Especially if you do something stupid this fall."
Jace frowned darkly at her. "Instead of staring at clouds like some mad meteorologist, you ought to eye my beautiful Morning Star. She's sleeping at the edge of the lake, dreaming about being paddled through her natural home on water."
"Canoes don't dream, they flip over in bad weather."
"Weather really isn't all that bad, just a little cloudy."
"It's heavily overcast and very chilly out there," she insisted, allowing a shiver to tremble across her meaty shoulders.
"In the 40s and the water's smooth as ice."
"Turn your back for five minutes in these mountains and the skies'll come crashing down on you."
"You always expect the worst out of everything and everyone, whether it's the sky or your husband."
"You're over sixty years old, for chrissake! Stop behaving like a child."
Aiming his chipped, yellowy teeth at her, he said: "My Morning Star is lonely--she's only been out on the water a couple times this year."
His wife's crumpled face resembled a crushed brown paper bag. "Why don't you face the fact that it's a shitty day for canoeing or fishing?"
"God dammit, Penny, a man's got to fish when he can for as long as he can because one day he won't be able to."
Mrs. Gauntlet had learned long ago that when she was trying to sway her husband toward doing or not doing something she would eventually run into the wall of his "pigheadedness," and all she could hope to accomplish at that point was to slow him down from doing something crazy. Bringing her reflection into focus in the window, she patted the loose strands of her gray-streaked hair before turning away from the window. She took the half dozen steps required to reach the black, wood-burning kitchen stove, which was crackling softly. "I'll pour you another cup of coffee," she said.
"Had two cups already, and I'm already late getting out of here."
Jace drained off the last cold drops from his cup, stood up unsteadily, and plucked a scarred apple out of the bowl on the table. He limped to the wooden coat rack beside the door, pinched the brim of his canvas fishing hat, and tugged it over his clump of white hair. Grabbing the rain slicker off another hook, he forced the apple into its pocket and draped the jacket over his arm. Without looking back at his wife he said: "Wish me luck."
Penny hissed as he pushed his way out the doorway. Soon as the coiled spring slammed the door shut she moved back to the window, peeking out from the edge of a curtain cluttered with prints of pine cones. She cringed as her husband staggered toward the pine-plank shed he'd built years earlier. When her husband disappeared inside the shed, Penny scowled in the direction of the canoe.
Jace emerged from the shed clutching a fiberglass fishing rod in his left hand and a scarred plastic tackle box in his right. The green jacket had been tossed over the shoulder of his red-and-black checkered wool shirt. The closer he got to the canoe, the more prominent his limp became, until he stopped alongside the Morning Star: In the spray of flaky light it shone devil red, with strips of oak lined along its gunwale. Two cane seats and a pair of oak thwarts divided the interior. Jace stood wavering slightly, staring into its belly, as if trying to figure out the safest way to climb into it.
Leaning across the gunwale, he lowered the fishing rod, tackle box, and slicker beside the paddle in the canoe. He took hold of the yellow knitted nylon rope, tied to a metal loop on the bow, and dragged the canoe over the flattened, brownish weeds until half of its curvaceous 15.5-foot Kevlar body was set on water. Gingerly bending at the knees, he gripped the oak rim with both hands, and slowly lifted his left, good leg over its side, planting his foot firmly in its bottom. Swinging his rear end toward the cane strips in the stern, he dropped his body onto the seat, causing the canoe to tilt sharply. "Easy does it, Red."
Still watching him, Penny gripped the sashes on both sides of the window as if she, rather than her husband, was clasping the canoe's gunwale, trying to steady the craft. Once Jace seemed to have gained his equilibrium, his wife loosened her fingers on the sashes and turned away from the window. She stomped to the cook stove. Lifting the coffee pot off a black cast iron disk, she poured a steaming cup of coffee, and settled her broad hips onto the ladderback chair at the table.
"Dumb ass!" she spat.
Jace centered himself on the seat, took hold of the wooden paddle, jabbed it into the muddy bottom of Cranberry Lake, and pushed away from shore, its keel grinding across a scattering of stones. He thrust the paddle through the gray-green waters, causing the canoe to flutter hesitantly before floating away freely. "We're on our way." By this time the tempered breeze had kicked up a notch, giving off a low thrumming sound, and he found himself surrounded by rows of ripples. Continuing to thrust the paddle with conviction, he felt twinges of soreness in his shoulders and biceps, but he continued to paddle hard, expanding the distance between himself and shore.
The canoe had been propelled to more than a hundred feet off shore when he noticed the breeze had increased in strength yet again, and after another hundred feet the wind began to take over the canoe's locomotion, carrying him farther and faster than he'd anticipated. But the position he found himself in, adjacent to a cut bank in the shoreline, was close to where he'd caught a monster big-mouth two years earlier. Back paddling to slow his movement, he grabbed the anchor--a rubber coated electric wire wrapped around a weight-lifting disc--and lowered it overboard. Though the water was too deep for the anchor to reach bottom, his canoe seemed to understand what he wanted to accomplish, and the craft bobbed bow and stern without drifting very far from his[T1] prime fishing spot.
Jace opened the tackle box and shuffled through a cluster of lures, selecting a blue and gold Rapala and clipping it onto the tiny swivel at the end of his line. Scanning the lake's surface, which had begun to boil with two-inch-high ripples, he took a full breath and raised the rod--equipped with a chubby Zebco spinning reel--back over his shoulder, and powered it forward. The lure with its dangling hooks sailed thirty feet to the right of the canoe, his thrust rocking the canoe wildly. "Settle down, Red," he said, gripping the gunwale with his left hand.
Allowing time for the lure, weighted by a thin strip of lead, to find its own stasis in the lake, Jace sat motionless, without troubling the line for nearly a minute. Soon a veil of peace settled over him that was as discernable as a physical experience, as if some unknown woman had draped an afghan over his body while he was napping on a cool autumn afternoon; it was this weightless, timeless, seamless sensation that had first attracted him to fishing and had kept him at it for fifty years. In his experience, no other activity in life could arouse such quiet repose.
Jace jiggled the line a couple of times, and let it rest. With no response from below, he jerked the line and then sat still holding the rod steady. The peace he felt continued to flow through his inner space, but calmness was not what was occurring in the atmosphere around him: the wind had gotten pushy, sculpting ridges of choppy waves, transforming the complexion of the lake from borderline tranquility to agitated. On his fourth cast Jace thought he felt a light tugging at the end of his line, and he yanked the tip of his rod too soon, and didn't manage to connect with anything below the surface.
Jace heard the patter of rain on his slicker in the bottom of the canoe, and he eyed the little explosions of drops on the surface of Cranberry Lake. Already he could hear Penny's raspy voice: "I told you so, but you never listen to me!" In his mind he replied: "A fisherman has to fish--no matter what God throws at him."
"Don't you go blaming God. You're the one who insisted on going out in a canoe in a thunderstorm."
"I didn't hear any thunder."
Only then did it occur to him to pick up the jacket and drape it over his shoulders, but in doing this he knocked the fishing rod over the side of the canoe and it was swept away into the lake. "Shit!" Focusing on the place where his rod had blown, he paddled furiously, trying to close in on the bobbing rod, but in less than a minute the rod and reel had disappeared. Rain running down his face like tears, he struggled to force his arms into the jacket, nearly swamping the canoe. Breathing heavily as he steadied the craft, he experienced a series of clawing pains in his right leg, from the calf up into his knee; the pains were so sharp they stopped his breathing momentarily.
The rain intensified, slapping loudly on his shoulders and hat; with the heavier pelting came stronger winds, so strong they began to carry the canoe--he reminded himself it weighed only 36 pounds--far away from his favored fishing spot, out to much deeper waters. "Anchor's not helping at all," he muttered, and drew it out of the water and set it behind his seat. Then the wind added an additional insult by plucking the hat off his head and sending it skipping twenty feet over the lake. In moments his rag of white hair became thoroughly soaked. For awhile he couldn't summon sufficient energy to paddle against the wind and rain, so he slid its blade out of the water and shoved it under the thwarts, allowing the wind to carry him even farther from shore. What the hell, he thought, I'll let her drift until the rains calm down. Soon he was more than half way across the miles-wide lake, and he found himself bucking in the direction of a single-story white cottage with green roof shingles, smoke sailing wildly out of its brick chimney; a pile of split firewood was stacked on a wooden deck out back. Only two other houses--seasonal residences, he believed--were visible from where he was situated, separated from each other by a couple of miles. Away from Cranberry Lake Village, the houses were few and far between, and that's what he liked about living here, that and the abundance of good fishing.
A woman in khaki slacks and a cable-knit sweater appeared out back of the cottage and scooped an aluminum chair off the deck, folded and carried it into the one-car garage. Out the garage's wide open door she hurried and collected another chair, folded it, and dragged it into the garage. Bouncing along in the canoe, gripping the gunwale with both hands, Jace watched the woman as she lost her grip on the last chair: It flew out of her hands all the way to water's edge, and she ran down the slope to retrieve it. Realizing he was getting too close to this woman's private domain, Jace slid the paddle out from under the thwarts and began thrusting to prevent his canoe from landing on shore. But he was helpless against the storm, which continued to sweep the canoe toward the sloped beach, and the force of which made it feel much colder than when he had started out.
When the woman caught up to the flying deck chair at the edge of the water, she noticed the man in the canoe. As Jace kept sailing swiftly closer to the slope, he saw the beach was covered with little white pebbles. Suddenly the air around him became filled with white pebbles, too--the droplets of rain had transformed into balls of hail.
About forty feet from shore the canoe, buffeted by blasts of wind, began rocking crazily. Jace tried to steady the canoe by poking the paddle into the water, but he couldn't reach the silt below, so he yanked the paddle into the canoe, bent low, and gripped the gunwale on both sides. The canoe concluded its remarkable dance by toppling over onto its side, dumping him overboard and instantly flooding with water: The red craft carried swiftly away from him, while his tackle box bobbed off in the opposite direction. Struggling to hoist his body up on two feet, chest deep in water, Jace was shivering fiercely in the icy water as the hail began turning into pellets of snow. The pain in his right leg was muted by the cold water as he slogged a couple of steps in the direction of the canoe. But he quickly realized it was no use--partially submerged, the canoe had already sailed twenty-five feet away from him.
The woman, whose sweater and slacks were plastered with rain against her body, and whose rusty hair was wetted down against her skull, carried the deck chair into water up to her knees. With the snow swirling thickly around her, she shouted at him: "Are you alright?"
Jace staggered toward her through the wind-broken water and slashing snow. "I'm okay," he called out, "but my canoe and fishing gear are gone with the wind."
As he moved closer to the woman, she said: "Why don't you come inside--I've got a fire going and the tea kettle's on."
Ten feet away from her Jace Gauntlet stopped to catch his breath and he gazed at the cottage: He saw that a section of its white siding was missing, along with a patch of green shingles, and its chimney was tilted slightly toward the south. "I'd appreciate that very much," he said.
Without another word the tallish woman turned and started taking long strides up the pebbled slope. Jace followed, though more slowly. A coating of frozen white crystals had crusted over the dead lawn by the time she had placed the chair in the garage and climbed the stairs onto the deck. She slid open the glass door and entered the cottage. Two minutes behind her, Jace stepped onto the scarred oak floor inside, leaving muddy boot prints. "Sorry about the mud," he said, closing the door behind him.
"That's alright--I'm the only one who'll notice the dirt."
The fireplace, with scorched brickd on both sides, was blazing noisily. On an iron lever hanging near the fire was a bulbous tea kettle, and it was singing. The woman told him to sit down on the woven rug "right in front of the fire" while she got out of her wet clothes. Jace did as he was told, and she disappeared down a narrow hallway, giving him time to look over this new setting. Planks of knotty pine surrounded the room. A plaid-upholstered sofa and matching armchair faced the fireplace, and a coffee table and lamp table, both built with stained birch, completed the furnishings. A half-filled ring of firewood stood to the left of the fireplace, a rack of fire-tending iron tools to the right.
The woman returned to the living room wearing soft tan moccasins and a cream-colored fleece robe, her shins bare. Her short hair resembled a gathering of slick feathers. Gazing down over him, she said: "You got to get out of those clothes or you'll catch your death. If you don't mind wearing a dead man's robe and slippers, you can use the ones I left in the bathroom."
Jace thought this an odd way of referring to garments that had belonged to a deceased partner. "You're a widow?"
"No," she said, "I meant my ex is dead to me."
This comment perplexed Jace even more, but he got up off the floor stiffly, favoring his right leg. After extending his damp hands toward the flames a few moments, he started down the hall, tracking more mud. Into the tiny, pine-walled bathroom he went, untied his soggy boots, disrobed, and chucked his wet jeans, wool shirt, underwear, and rain jacket into the bath tub, on top of her wet khakis, blouse, sweater, underpants, and brassiere. He tied himself into the blue flannel robe, and pushed his damp feet into the felt-lined slippers. Jace shivered momentarily not because of the chilly air so much as questions he had about the man who had worn these garments before. Looking himself over in the medicine cabinet mirror, he saw the rain and snow had creased his pale, grizzled face and, until that moment, he hadn't noticed just how white his hair had become over the past year or two.
Back in the living room, he found the woman seated on the sofa before a mug of tea--its bag still soaking--on the coffee table. On the table next to the armchair there was a mug filled with dark, steaming fluid, its bag soaking. "This is very nice of you," he said, sinking into the armchair and immediately slipping his finger into the porcelain loop of the mug.
"I hope you like herbal tea sweetened with honey."
The coffee drinker nodded, took a sip, then said: "May I ask you something?"
"What did you mean when you said your ex is dead to you."
"It's a long story."
"I've got plenty of time."
"You sure you want to hear all this?"
"If you wouldn't mind telling it to a stranger."
Taking a sip of tea, she spoke: "Three years ago my former husband--his name was Hank--got out of bed one morning, strapped on his overalls, climbed into his pick-up, and drove off to work: He worked for a small heating-plumbing contractor in the Village. Just an ordinary day around here except for one thing . . . he never came back. I waited through the night, and in the morning I called the state police."
"That's a terrible hand of cards to be dealt."
"Believe it or not, you're the first man to step into this house in three years." All of a sudden she exploded--crying loudly and wetly, burying her face into the plush arm of the robe.
Jace had never learned how to deal with tears; he wanted to go over and pat her on the shoulder, but he remained seated and silent.
Just like that she stopped sobbing, wiped her face, took a noisy breath, and rasped, "Excuse me--I'm fine now."
Jace took a quick sip of tea.
"All we ever learned was that he never showed up at work."
"How hard that must've been on you."
"The police and I went out into the woods and drove around the lake looking for him for several days. Though it took a couple of weeks, I finally faced up to the truth: Hank didn't come back because he didn't want to come back."
Jace was sorry he had asked her to tell him such a personal story, and he couldn't help thinking this was her problem, not his. He had his own problems--by this time Penny would surely be concerned about him, and might even call the police just as the woman had done. Despite this woman's problems and his own, however, he couldn't deny that he was feeling pretty good by this time, considering the dip he had taken in the icy lake, and that he'd lost his canoe and gear; yes, he found the crackling fire, the sweet fragrant tea, the soft cushion of the armchair, and even the missing man's robe and slippers very comfortable.
Sighing noisily, the woman leaned in his direction and asked quietly: "Where do you live?"
"About five miles away on the other side of the lake."
"With my wife Penny."
"How are you and your wife enjoying life on Cranberry Lake?" she said, gripping her mug with both hands to warm her finger tips.
Thinking over what he considered a very complicated question, he said: "Not as much as we used to."
Bringing the mug near her lips without drinking from it, she muttered, "Not getting along these days?"
"It's just that we've been together so many years I know everything she's going to say before she says it, and she knows everything I'm going to do before I do it. . . ."
"I know what you mean."
"Maybe we've just grown tired of living with each other in close quarters."
"A common affliction," she sighed.
"It's no one's fault really, it's just the way things go in marriage after many years."
"A son, Jeff--he lives in Seattle so we never see him any more."
"Hank and I had a daughter, Sharon, but she died as a youngster."
"Very sorry to hear that."
"It happened right here in the lake."
"How awful for you."
"That was so many years ago I don't feel the pain any more."
"Could that be why your husband didn't come back?"
"His leaving had nothing to do with our daughter; it was about him and me--we no longer knew what to do with each other."
Jace brooded over her comment and then, without expecting this from himself, revealed: "There are times when I don't feel like going back home either."
Inching toward the edge of the sofa, she asked: "Why do you keep going back?"
"Just too complicated not too return." He cleared his throat, as if trying to get rid of what he had told her.
"After I got used to Hank not being around, it occurred to me one night that by not returning home, he was being very courageous."
"When you think about how so many long-term relationships go, that sounds like a reasonable notion."
As if she wasn't quite sure she wanted to be heard, she said faintly: "If you ever get an urge again to be courageous, now you know where you can hide out."
Jace laughed. "Okay, but what would you do if I got that urge right now?"
She looked into Jace's speckled eyes. "You wouldn't hear any objections from me."
"But you know absolutely nothing about me," he smiled.
"And you know absolutely nothing about me."
"Not even your name."
"I'm Lorelei. What do they call you?"
"Could just as easily have been Adam and Eve," she said with a sly curl to her lips.
When Jace didn't respond, Lorelei continued: "Seems to me, Jace, that two people not knowing anything about each other would have an advantage--you know, starting from the very beginning without any preconceptions about each other."
"True enough," he chuckled, getting into the spirit of the game he felt they were playing. "But what would happen when they started looking for me?"
"Eventually they'd find your red canoe at the bottom of the lake, and maybe your fishing box," she said. "But Cranberry Lake is nine miles long and four miles wide in places, and the water's as much as forty feet deep."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"Your body would never be recovered."
A raw laugh burst out of his chest. "Especially since I wouldn't actually be floating around in the lake, with fish nibbling on my toes. I'd be enjoying a cup of tea with Lorelei."
"All you'd have to do is stay seated in that armchair, sipping tea, and your adventure would begin without having to do a thing."
As Jace was emptying his mug of tea, he couldn't help thinking about the man whose lips had pressed against this mug: What if Hank hadn't run away from his wife? What if his wife had somehow helped to make him disappear? To shake off these darker thoughts, he looked steadily at Lorelei, as if trying to understand just what sort of woman he was dealing with. She was attractive in a weary kind of way, probably in her early fifties. The flesh on her body seemed loose, as if she'd lost a lot of weight recently, but despite all that she said she'd gone through, there was still a sparkle in her green eyes. Years earlier, he thought, she might even have been referred to as beautiful.
Standing up and swinging the lever holding the steaming kettle toward her, Lorelei said, "Would you like a refill?"
"Yes, please. I've enjoyed a mug of spicy water so much."
Lifting his mug off the end table, dropping a new teabag into it, Lorelei touched the lip of his mug with the spout of the kettle, filled it to the brim, and said: "Does this mean it's settled then?"
Jace was startled that the game he thought they'd been playing had turned serious, that he was suddenly being asked to make a decision. His response to this altered circumstance was to take a deep breath and allow the air to escape very slowly from his lungs. Now he realized the woman was staring at him rather intensely, her eyes flickering from the flames in the fireplace; he sat absolutely still, sensing something he couldn't name coiling around him in the heated air, with a soft tugging that seemed to be drawing him, a millimeter at a time, in her direction.
Candice Marley Conner lives at the bottom of Alabama, right where the antebellum lady rests her feet in the Gulf of Mexico. Her writing can be found at Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, Good Mother Project, and Babybug. She is represented by Lotus Lane Literary and has a MG and YA out on submission.
On a perfect spring day with flat seas and clear blue skies, Bridget woke to discover she made a terrible mistake.
And he let her live.
The blue sky was a hasty glimpse through a porthole before a sailcloth was thrown over her head. As wretched as she felt, she appreciated things like calm seas as she was marched from Captain’s Quarters to the brig. Her head was swimming more than the fishes. There were probably damned porpoises dancing in the wake as well.
She knew the captain let her live because he thought he once loved her and she scoffed at the idea of love, at the idea of him really. At his idea of honor, when their whole world knew those emotions were the ones you refused for yourself because they took away your freedom. Love made you bow down to someone else’s whims and desires, forced you to throw your own wants and needs to the gulls, so she rebuffed it.
Deposited in her cell, she tugged off the sailcloth. Her ears rang with the iron on iron as the door slammed behind her. Bridget shook her hands, causing the manacle chains to clang together raucously. She was looking for the weak link. There was always a weak link, a way out of any situation, and the day she couldn’t find it was the day she would die. The sound was a cutlass to her eyeballs. She continued anyway.
“Ma’am, please don’t do that,” pleaded her guard after a bit. “Capt’n doesn’t want you to hurt yourself.”
He was younger than she previously thought when he was stoically silent. Or she had assumed stoically, now she guessed it was because he was scared. Eli had greatly underestimated her if this slip of a boy was her only guard. And then she narrowed her eyes and smirked, finding the weak link. She moaned as if in pain. Hell’s Teeth, she was in pain.
The boy sighed, pulling a key from a pocket. But as soon as he twisted the key in the cell door lock, Bridget shoved the door open, knocking him off balance and pulling him inside the cell, his keys now in her hand.
She smiled at the look of shock on his face. For his youth, he was on the tall side. “Take off your clothes.”
She unlocked her manacles and clapped them on the boy’s naked arms. As she pulled his shirt over her tailored one she wrinkled her nose at the stench but at the same time noticed the quality of the material. Nice clothes meant this boy was a favorite of Eli’s. Maybe she could use that to her advantage. She gathered her thick chestnut hair and twisted it into a bun before shoving it under the boy’s salt-stiffened cap.
The boy whimpered as he stood there, the heavy manacles dragging his skinny arms down. She looked at him, evaluating his worth when something puzzled her. He must know his situation was hopeless, but Bridget noticed a glint of something in his eyes.
“You’re refusing to beg for your life. You know I can easily kill you.” She was intrigued.
The boy nodded and kept his chin up.
“Why aren’t you scared?”
“I do not fear death,” he whispered.
Bridget grinned. She understood the spark in his eyes now. She saw it every time her own reflection looked back at her from a shard of polished glass or from the flat sea: stubbornness, a refusal to back down for someone else. “You must have someone waiting for you.”
Now the boy looked down. “My mum. She died when I was a baby.”
“I’m sure she’s in no hurry to see you now.” Bridget tore off a piece of the shirt and stuffed it in his mouth. “Not a peep.” And she left him in the cell, locking the door behind her.
She knew, though dressed as a cabin boy, that she needed to wait until dark to make her escape. She had misjudged time in her dusky cell once she crept up the stairs and saw it was only dusk. A perfect kind of twilight made for stargazing. Or lovers. Various nefarious activities. A twilight where possibilities were endless.
She went back into the hold as not to draw attention.
The boy hadn’t yet learned to hide his emotions so Bridget could easily see how disgusted he was with himself that he let his prisoner escape. This was probably his first real task besides menial work, so why had Eli put him in charge of watching over her? Surely Eli knew what she was capable of.
The weak link was too easy, too pliable. What did Eli have planned?
Unless, did he think she got captured on purpose?
Bridget gritted her teeth and cursed the circumstances that led to her imprisonment. Because honestly, if she hadn’t gotten quite so drunk and quite so angry, she wouldn’t have left her dagger buried to the hilt in the wall of some pub and all her crewmates unconscious in a dinghy somewhere offshore.
She had been celebrating the anniversary of her freedom, though none of her crew knew exactly what they were drinking for. Her liberty coincided—for related reasons—with her first killing. Mixed emotions meant mixed vices.
The last thing she remembered was playing cards. She must have passed out on the poker table because when she woke up she was in Eli’s bed.
So what’s a girl to do except knife him in the thigh with a blade she found under the mattress when he returned bringing breakfast? And it’s not like it was a deep wound. With her eyes crossing from the pounding of her hangover, she could barely see straight so she just nicked him.
Instead of tossing her overboard, he threw her in the brig. Another cage. Bridget knew that if the situation was reversed and she had found Eli snoozing away at a poker table, she would have killed him. Well, first she’d have finished out his hand depending on his cards, pocketed his winnings, and then killed him. She smiled in satisfaction at the image.
But then the boy in the cell let out a sigh so full of despair, Bridget’s smile vanished.
She knew sorrow, too.
Her hands fisted as she thought back to when she first had the misfortune to meet Captain Eli P. Cooke. She had learned resilience from her father’s heavy hand and wiliness from her mum. Bridget had ached to be free, to run off to sea, but as a girl she had only one occupational choice and she was too proud for that.
Then she met this captain who was dashing, kind, and so full of confidence she was desperate for some too. When he professed love, she was ecstatic. Until she realized what love meant and that he intended on keeping her locked up as a pet. She was a pretty bird in a cage when she wanted to be a free fish in the sea. He would visit her when his ship was in port but she grew to hate him for keeping her confined.
And then when she got pregnant, those many years ago, she had been horrified. She had seen what being a mother had done to her own mum. Her growing belly took away every chance of escape, a cage more solid than bars.
So she made one of the midwife’s girls take it away.
Her first act of murder.
Once the house quieted back down, she ran. Ran off to sea and was so desperate to never be locked up again she killed anyone who stood in her way. She was proud of how far she’d come on her own, the respect and fear she’d earned, but in dark moments she’d remember the softness of the baby’s cheek, the fuzziness of its skull and the dark pink of its tiny mouth.
Bridget heard the boy in the cell sniff and shook her head to disperse the cobwebs of old memories. She hated Eli for making her feel such sorrow, for destroying her idea of love, for teaching her how fragile love can make you. It was a better idea to plan an escape, not sit in the dark and think of past sadness.
“Do you have a knife?” She decided on cutting loose a lifeboat to escape.
She thought the boy nodded but as it was getting darker, Bridget was having a more difficult time making out his features.
“Where is it?”
The boy’s words garbled against the cloth in his mouth. Bridget walked down the rest of the stairs and reached through the bars to pull out his gag.
“Are you going to kill me now?” he asked.
“Depends on if you tell me, or I have to waste my time looking for it.”
“It’s underneath the step I was sitting on. Second one from the bottom.”
Bridget returned to fetch it.
“Why does the Capt’n love you so? I can tell the way he looked at you this morning.”
Curses, she forgot to put the gag back in. She sat on his vacated step once she found the knife. “This is a beautiful knife. Why does the Captain love you so?” she countered.
“He’s my father.”
Bridget caught the reflection of her eyes in the knife’s shiny blade. The momentary sadness she saw angered her. For all Eli’s declarations of love to her, he hadn’t been faithful. But why did she expect him to be and why did it bother her?
She was gone.
A piece of paper that said they were married doesn’t warm a bed. He was a man after all. She swallowed against the twist in her gut. “Then he won’t punish you too bad when he sees I’ve escaped.”
It was so dark now she could barely make out his dejected nod. Time to go. She climbed the rest of the way up and peeked out again. It was a half moon and the stars were out in full force, glistening like water lilies on the dark surface of a pond.
Bridget made her way starboard, changing her purposeful, commanding stride to the shuffling gait of a cabin boy. She crouched behind an upside down lifeboat that resembled the bleached rib bones of a whale in the pale moonlight. She was sawing at the ropes when she heard footsteps behind her.
“Leaving again, my darling?”
She whirled around to glare at him. “You’re not putting me in a cage again, Eli. Ever. You made the mistake of not killing me and that’s the only way you can keep me, over my dead body.”
“My leg wound isn’t serious, in case you’re concerned.”
“I didn’t figure it was.” She turned her back to him and began sawing at the ropes again. “Why would you give your cabin boy such a dull knife?”
“To make it harder for you to escape.”
Bridget felt something rise in her throat, threatening to choke her. Why was he playing with her? How did he still have the ability to make her feel so feeble after all this time? “Why are you doing this?”
Eli crouched down in front of her, next to the boat and looked into her eyes. She returned the gaze, fighting the urge to avoid his eyes. He reached out a hand toward her face but she snatched her head back. “What am I doing?” he asked.
“Why did you bring me here? Put me in your bed and lock me in a cage again. All this time had passed. You’ve moved on, why couldn’t you just leave me asleep at the card table?”
“I never knew you saw our home as a cage until you ran away.”
“I wanted to be here with you, having grand adventures. Not a lonely old woman when I was still a girl.” Hell’s Bells. She needed to muzzle her tongue. Cut it out and run it up the main mast.
“Then join me now. Sans knife to the leg, of course.”
Bridget’s grip on the knife tightened. “If you had said that eight years ago, I would’ve said yes with all my heart. But too much time has passed, too much sorrow, too much love lost. I’m my own person now. I don’t need anyone to be free.”
But this time when Captain Eli reached out his hand, Bridget didn’t back away. He helped her stand and softly ran his thumb along her jaw line. “I heard you fought a crew of Barbary pirates single-handedly.”
“Hardly single-handed. I had a dagger in one and a sword in the other.”
“I’m not going to force you to stay. Leave if you need to. But know that I love you the depth of this ocean and that will never end.”
Bridget thought of the cabin boy’s dead mother and imagined Eli with another woman. She gave him a thin, humorless smile because his words were pretty, but the truth wasn’t there. “Is that why you left the boy guarding me? So I could escape easily? You should be glad I didn’t kill him. He told me you’re his father.”
She waited for him to look guilty, caught in his lie. But she was surprised instead at the warm, confidant expression on his face.
“I thought you two should meet.”
She was caught off guard by his response and couldn’t help the flabbergasted look on her face. “Meet? Why the devil should we meet?”
“Because he’s your son.”
She spun around, more eager than ever to leave. He could be lying. This could be a ruse to hurt her.
But then she recalled that look the cabin boy gave her in the brig. It was familiar because it was hers.
It was too much. Too much. Memories, long buried, rose to the surface. Indignant newborn cries, the incredible softness of skin when the midwife mistakenly laid it on her exhausted chest.
Bridget assumed it had died.
The person she was before had. All frail things die.
The rope snapped. She struggled to flip the boat over but her boot snagged on a coil of rope, tripping her, making her uncharacteristically clumsy. Eli lifted with her and the boat hit the water with a splash. She looked at it, bobbing in the phosphorus. The baby had lived.
“He doesn’t know?” she asked quietly.
She swung a leg over the railing.
“I call him Bridge. He has your fire.”
“Yesterday was his birthday.”
She hadn’t known she said the words aloud until Eli nodded, his eyes softening in a way that cut into Bridget. The wood of the railing bit into her palms. She imagined herself through his eyes. Her son’s eyes. He was looking forward to death so he could meet her. Not a weak notion at all.
A very stupid one, but still, brave in a twisted sense.
She wondered if—rather than embracing her independence—she was running away, a pathetic thing to do. It’s not escaping when your captor helps you flip your getaway boat, after all.
So now, what was the brave thing to do?
The hardest. Always the hardest thing.
William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem."
You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle).
OFFICER CARL'S LIFE GOES ON
The Sunday morning shift was a blessing for Officer Carl. Considering the occasional Saturday night hell one assigned him during the usual shift rotation; he welcomed the contrasting peace and quiet. As he drove along the side road, he enjoyed the wind going by the open window of the squad car. The warmth of the sun on his arm perched on the car door felt good.
It was a beautiful day. Tony would play softball this afternoon and Carl looked forward to being in the stands with Patty to cheer for their son. He figured his daughter Molly wouldn’t come certain she would rather spend time with her friends. Guy stuff didn’t appeal to her.
Carl held the wheel with his left hand and reached out on the seat for his lunchbox. It was still early, but he felt a few pangs of hunger. His wife had packed two sandwiches so half now would calm the grumblings in his stomach.
He couldn't get a hold of it and glanced over at the seat. There it was, his Hannah Montana lunchbox. The boys at the precinct laughed when he showed up with it. Molly had been overjoyed when she got the lunchbox for her birthday. She watched the television show and was a fan of the Disney character. A nearly life-size poster of Hannah hung on one wall of her bedroom.
However, things changed. One day, Molly announced she could no longer go to school with something embossed with the image of Hannah Montana. It was no longer cool. Carl remembered sitting at the dinner table when Molly made this announcement not sure of how to proceed. Mom stepped in with the offer to trade lunchboxes with Dad, his being a neutral blue with no design. Molly seemed relieved. Being uncool was a burden.
That duty now fell upon dear old Dad, six feet, two hundred and twenty pounds of the meanest, toughest cop on the Hanover police force. Harry on dispatch was the first one to chuckle at the sight of Carl coming into work holding the lunchbox. "I knew it. Montana is out. All the girls at school have called it quits."
At some point, he would stop at the store and pick up a less distinguished container. Then again, if he took Molly along, he could get her the next cool thing.
The radio crackled. He leaned away from the window so he could hear the voice. "Car four, car four, come in please."
He shut the window and picked up the mike. "Car four here."
"Carl, we had a report of an accident out on Route 6 about five kilometres out of town."
"I'm on side road 54B just coming up to Route 6. That’s about a half a click away. I'll be there in under five."
As the radio went silent, Carl hit both the siren and the light and sped down the side road toward Route 6. With the flat prairie farmland, he could see a distance in both directions and at the moment, the road was deserted. He slowed, but did not stop as he turned onto the highway.
He cracked the window again as he accelerated. The wind whipped by and the noise was loud in his ear. As he got closer, he could make out two cars. One was off to the left, upside down in the grass beside the shoulder. The other was sitting in the middle of the right hand lane, turned one hundred and eighty degrees and pointing backward. Part of its front looked smashed. What could have happened? It was sunny out. It was a peaceful Sunday morning. How could anybody have an accident in perfect conditions? Who knows? Strange things happen.
As Carl roared up, he radioed in to dispatch. An ambulance would be needed, no doubt about it. He pulled over to the left and turned off the siren. He jogged over to the car beside the road. The motor was still running. He knelt to look in the driver's window that was wide open. A man hung upside down still strapped into the seat, his arms dangling toward the roof. He wasn't moving. Carl felt the man’s wrist for a pulse. He was still alive. Carl reached in and shut off the key cutting the motor then looked at both ends of the car. He didn't see any danger, so he left the man for the paramedics to get out. Unstrapping him meant he'd fall on his head. It was best to wait for help.
Carl stood up and backed away. The other car must have swerved on the road and slammed into the rear door. The speed limit along this stretch of road was eighty kilometres an hour, so if both cars were doing the speed limit, they connected at a hundred and sixty. This car must have spun around and turned over when it hit the shoulder.
He walked to the other car sitting in the middle of the right hand lane. It too had spun around but remained upright. As he approached the front, he saw it was badly smashed on the driver's side. The windshield was cracked so much; he couldn't see the interior. He noticed the driver's door was partially open and walked around to that side of the car. When Carl reached for the handle, he heard a moan and turned to see a body on the shoulder.
Carl took three steps and stood over the man. He was lying on his back. The side of his head was badly cut and bleeding. Carl guessed the man had not been wearing his safety belt. He must have slammed forward and his head smashed into the windshield. During the spin, the door must have popped open, and he was flung out of the car.
Carl knelt and said, "Are you all right?" That was silly. This guy was in bad shape. Would he live? What the heck had he been doing? Carl looked around. The day was sunny. It was calm, perfect weather, and there wasn't another car in either direction. There was no reason this should have happened.
The man coughed. Carl looked back down. Blood trickled out of the side of the man's mouth. "Are you all right?" Carl stared waiting for a response. The man's lips quivered. Was he going to say something? Carl leaned closer and watched the lips for a few seconds. No response. "Sir?" He waited. The lips quivered again then the man let out a sigh and stopped moving. Carl continued to stare at him for a few seconds. He felt man's wrist for a pulse. The man had died, right in front of him.
Carl remained kneeling looking at him. Who was he? Why was he here? What happened? Was he married? Carl would have to write this up. He would have to find answers to these questions. Somebody would have to break the news to his family, maybe to his wife if he wasn't single.
A bird chirped overhead. He looked up. There were a three of them perched on the wires running beside the road. He realised how quiet it was. The sun felt good on his skin. He stood up and looked in both directions. There wasn't a car in sight.
He checked his watch. It was eleven-ten a.m. He calculated his schedule. Deal with the ambulance. Survey the accident scene. Take notes and photographs. Have the wrecks removed and ensure the area was cleaned up. Back to the station and write the accident report. Would he still be able to get home and change so he and Patty could make the game by four p.m.? He was looking forward to seeing his son play baseball.
The sound of a siren grew in the distance. Carl glanced down at the body. A bird chirped overhead as he walked back to the police car to radio into the station. Life goes on.
Angel Edwards from Vancouver BC is a member of SOCAN, BMI and VMA and she owns a small music publishing company. She currently performs as a solo acoustic electric singer songwriter guitarist.
Her poems are included in two international poetry anthologies "Mind Paintings" and "Between Earth and Sky" from Silver Bow Publishing and her poetry and stories have been published in dozens of literary magazines in several countries.
Her poem "Morning Flight" was published in The Long Islander Newspaper in "Walt's Corner" April 23 2015.
Angel is preparing her first poetry, short stories book.
THE TALE OF MIRA AND ELROY
There once existed a magical body of water in a faraway kingdom, rarely visited by mankind. Schools of fish, a turtle and assorted water creatures lived happily within the pool.
One summer day, a lovely red bird swooped down from the blue sky and dipped her
copper colored beak into the water. Mira spread her crimson wings out full length and the reflection appeared like a scarlet angel to the citizens of the pool. Such a vast proportion of redness was something which none of the fish had ever seen before. The color was so new, so different, compelling, so alluring that curiosity vanquished their fear and several younger smaller fish paddled up to the surface for closer look.
Underneath the surface, an elegant blue angel fish with swirling purple wing like fins floated furtively behind a large rock. Here was Elroy the largest and oldest fish in the pond. Elroy crept out from behind his stone shelter. He glanced up warily and at that precise instant Mira peered down into the pond. Their eyes met
“How beautiful…” they each thought. Both recognized love for the first time.
Elroy was overwhelmed by this unfamiliar emotion and the fish swam rapidly away from Mira’s mesmerizing splendor, splashing the gorgeous bird in his hurry to escape.
With a majestic ruffling of her rosy feathers Mira flew off into the sky. She did not return for three days. Elroy thought about nothing except Mira. It certainly did not help Elroy’s growing obsession to hear so many fish exclaiming over the beauty of the red bird. Elroy was miserable with helpless longing.
MIRA’S EYE VIEW
Mira’s world was the sky, the endless sky. Sometimes the sky’s vastness made Mira feel anxious. She envied Elroy’s world. The pond had a bottom, an end. Mira had seen clearly down to the muddy floor. (Mira perceived the water as sky. The Redbirds were not swimmers and their experience with water began and concluded with drinking sips of it now and then.)
“How safe and beautiful is my darling’s skydom” thought Mira.
Her home was in a large red tree. This was shared with numerous brothers, sisters, aunties uncles, cousins and a few non relatives.
Mira was known to fly away to solitude frequently. Her mother sisters and aunties lectured constantly about “settling down, making a nest and laying eggs.”
“For more birds!” Mira would mutter under her beak. “Just what this tree needs –more birds…”
Mira was infatuated with Elroy. She thought of Elroy as “The One fashioned from evening sky by purple twilight”
Four mornings later Mira flew to the pond .Elroy rushed to the surface and poked his nose out of the water. He could not help himself, nor could he even begin to disguise his joy at beholding Mira. Elroy jumped into the air, using his powerful fish tail as a propeller. He executed a graceful double somersault which unfortunately ended badly in a thunderous belly flop. Again the pretty bird was thoroughly soaked. and Elroy swum off in deep embarrassment, despising his fishy clumsiness .But he swam back up to the surface again in a few minutes
“Such a tail he has” sighed Mira flying in slow circles above Elroy’s home. “I must bring him a present!”
Mira appeared with a yellow plump flower dangling from her mouth and this she dropped in front of Elroy’s face. The happy fish devoured the offering and it was the most delectable delicacy that Elroy had ever tasted.
Mira opened her long narrow beak to emit a short shrill song. It sounded like this…
”I am mmmmmmmmmmmm Miraaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” The sound was fine music to Elroy. Once more he leapt into the air, wishing that he could make some small sound or sing a little tune in reply. ”Mira Mira Mira” Elroy chanted the name in his head, rocked on waves of sheer seventh heaven.
Bird and fish ogled one another for several long minutes and then at exactly the same time fish and bird turned reluctantly away to their respective dwellings.
Mira’s inquisitive mother asked Mira where she had been and why she was away for so long missing dinner.
“Oh Mother, I was sky studying” explained Mira with a large half truth.
Sky studying was an honored bird’s religious experience. And it was condoned and avidly encouraged. The sky with its different levels had different clouds, airs currents etc. The clouds changed their shape and palette constantly and the sky was divinity to the Redbirds. Birds would spend an entire lifetime in the earnest study of clouds and sky. Still all of the skies mysteries remained unsolved and intact. (ever leaving a bird full of revere and wonder)
A bird of course could only fly so high. Above them would still be miles and miles fathoms of unexplored unreachable sky.
Mira’s mom Burrda had an uncomfortable feeling about her daughter. All this talk of devotion to sky study was certainly news to her. Mira had never shown much interest in Skydom before.
“I wonder what that young bird is really up to…” pondered Burrda.
Her mother decided that Mira must be kept busy and to this end she employed her sister.
Mira was surprised when Auntie PickPick asked for help with her newly hatched nestlings. Auntie PickPick was as picky as her name and poor Mira flew here there and everywhere on endless errands. She had absolutely no chance to visit Elroy’s Pond.
In Mira’s absence Elroy became increasingly despondent. He stopped swimming and spent much of his time concealed behind the rock. His friends could not cheer him up and Elroy’s depression was affecting the livelihood of the pond.. the cycle of life within the watery world lost its ordinary rhythm. The other fish spent a lot of time fussing around the angelfish. Guppies were left on their own getting into mischief and not attending fish school. Cleaning of the pond and algae eating were not attended to. The pond began to appear murky.
The Pond Elders assembled without Elroy and discussed the situation at great length. This meeting dragged on for two hours and Elroy stirred from his deep melancholy to notice the strange silence of his surroundings.. He knew that something was wrong! The blue angelfish swam to the center of the pond and his bewildered eyes saw the gathering of pond creatures. Elroy swam rapidly towards them…
Carl, a large bullfrog was the residing judge over the Pond Meetings. He was known to be quite even handed in his judgments, as fair as a simple bullfrog could be.
“That redbird is the problem, the intruder, the interloper, the alien and therefore the Bird shall be banished and not welcomed in our pond (nor in the sky above our pond)for the good and safety of all concerned.. Any sightings of the Redbird must by law be reported immediately and the bird shall be splashed and drenched with water until she either drowns or departs!”
Carl looked around at all in the small assembly. “Does any fish or animal have anything to say?”
(Fish cannot speak, so to speak, but they have the ability to communicate telepathically often with the use of bubbles)
“You can’t mean that Sir!” protested Spotty who was a close friend of Elroy’s..”We must not chase away Redbird. Elroy loves, her calls her Mira. Maybe they belong together”.
. “What?” croaked Carl “A bird and a fish-whoever heard of such a thing!”
“Well why not” put in a small goldfish. “There is always a first time for Everything”
“I think the red bird is pretty” said a green angelfish.
“Well,” added a pale grey fish. “I think it is Elroy’s business who he loves!”
“I tell you a bird could never love a fish!” exclaimed Carl
“Elroy is way out of line!” agreed the turtle.
“Are you talking about me?” demanded Elroy, bursting in on the conversation.
All stared at Elroy dumbfounded. Spotty was pleased to see his old pal out of bed. Elroy appeared remarkably healthy too with his wonderful tail swishing out from behind him like a ballerina’s costume. His eyes were bright with temper. “Are you talking about me behind my fins? ”shouted Elroy.. The angelfish opened his mouth to display tiny razor sharp teeth.
“Not only about you,” explained the faithful Spotty. “Carl and the others are just deciding what to do about your romance with that bird you call Mira.”
“I call her Mira because that is her name,” snarled Elroy.
“Now now Elroy.” began Carl.
Elroy turned on the bullfrog angrily. “Just what business is this of Yours Carl?” he demanded. “Why I ought to bite your skinny leg-you pompous old-just what is going on here?”
“Er…well we were having a Pond Meeting that is all,” said Carl leaping out of the pond. The bullfrog turned to confront Elroy’s wrath from the safety of the land. ”Your infatuation with this bird has gotten out of hand Elroy and you know it!” admonished Carl. “Pond life is begging to suffer.”
“Nonsense!” cried Elroy. “It is gossip and fish interference that has caused any problem here .Why can’t you all simply mind your own business.”
“We only mean to help you Elroy” said Carl quietly. “and after all you Are head angelfish…”
Elroy addressed the small crowd of pond animals and fish. ’I will say that I am sorry to all of you for causing worry about nothing. I love Mira and I in tend to be with her one way or the other. If you were really my friends you would help us, not swim in judgment. .I love her. Can’t you see that?”
Elroy wept although no liquid streamed from his eyes. The angelfish cried behind his eyes(and maybe that kind of dry weeping hurts the most!)
“I believe that there is a solution to this er a predicament,” said Carl speaking tactfully. “Elroy, do you still say that you are unwilling to relinquish this doomed love affair?”
“I cannot.” answered Elroy sadly.
Carl was moved by the passion he saw in Elroy’s unblinking eyes but he remained unmoved in his verdict. The bullfrog spoke the rest of his judgment delicately.. “Elroy, you will have to retire from being Head Angelfish. Perhaps Spotty could replace you. Then pond life can continue on as before and you Mr. Elroy are hereby released from all Pond responsibility. Well I am afraid you will have to find your own answers. You must know of course that if you actually leave the pond you will die.”
“We are taught that in roe school!” said Elroy
“Then what will you do dear Elroy?” inquired Carl with concern.
“I will simply wait for her,” declared Elroy. “Yes I shall wait for as long as it takes!”
“And what if she never comes back here?” asked Spotty.
“O didn’t you hear spotty you are to be made head angelfish”
“Elroy” sniffed Spotty “How can you think that I would accept with you putting it like that!”
“Take it easy my dear friend.” said Elroy. “I truly want you to be head angelfish. Yes I really do. My life is riding a different wave now. Why who knows I may be leaving the pond. Mira may carry me away.” Elroy laughed with glee.
Carl hopped off to his own dinner shaking his head in sadness.
The rampaging hunger that consumed Elroy’s fish soul and the desire to see his lady bird love would not be slackened. Seven days passed and Mira did not come to the pond .Elroys' thoughts twisted further out of reality and he all but ceased to breathe. What did he care for breathing? What was life without the hope of Mira’s love? Just her presence at the water’s edge or hovering so gracefully above it, just her attendance was all that he hoped and prayed for! “Only one more look at Mira and I can die a happy fish.” thought Elroy.
Carl and the turtle and most of the other fish stopped trying to reason with Elroy. Spotty wished his dear friend the greatest of life’s blessings and tried with all of his fish heart to be non judgmental regarding Elroy’s unusual choice for a mate..
But every single morning Spotty and the turtle pushed Elroy to the surface in the hope that Mira would return and see Elroy.
Mira's family kept close watch over her at all times, giving her no opportunity to visit Elroy.
She told no bird about her heartache.
“Hail Beautiful Sky,” prayed Mira with all of the devotion that she could muster. Her thoughts always returned to Elroy. ”He has such incredible feathers(of scales she knew nothing).”And I can see both eyes with one look! I wonder what he thinks about me. I do believe that he loves me! I wish that I was not so big compared to him! I hope that he admires my extra long wingspan. I heard his friend call him Elroy.” Mira put her head under her wing and sighed deeply, singing his name under her breath. “Elroy! Elroy Elroy!”
Her wistful reverie was rudely interrupted.
“Miraaaaaaaaaaaa” squawked Auntie PickPick. I need you to watch my nestlings! Whatever are you doing sleeping in the daytime?”
Mira flapped her wings in irritation and awkwardly alit from her perch . ”Sorry Auntie” said Mira and busied herself singing songs and telling stories to the baby redbirds. The stories were all about a grand angelfish and although the little ones had no idea what an angelfish was they listened attentively and soon were lulled to sleep.
Spotty took on the role of head angelfish and did his very best. Elroy may have been gratified to learn that every creature in the pond missed him. Fish friends brought him food or he would have perished.. Basically Elroy was left to to his own solitary misery.. He became something of a legend., an underground romantic hero. Some of the younger female fish were terribly impressed by the high drama of this doomed love affair. Parents used the story of “Poor Elroy Who Had-Fallen-in-love--with-the Red One from the Sky and Fallen From Grace" to scare their progeny away from foolish love affairs.
Pond life trickled along. Elroy became a shadow of a fish. He was emaciated in body and even leaner in spirit. His fins drooped. His brilliant colors were fading paler and paler each passing day. The summer was nearly over and still there was no sign of Mira. Elroy never ceased to believe that she would return. He never stopped waiting. Every single morning Elroys friends lifted him to the surface to watch for. Mira. Their faith persisted even as Elroy watched the land trees begin to change into their autumn apparel.
Carl alone remained skeptical but he kept his doubts to himself.
Now there came flocks of noisy migrating birds, flying high above the pond but there was no Redbird in sight. The air grew colder. By September’s last days Elroy was in a sorry state. His eyesight was dim and his body convulsed uncontrollably. His friends were filled with sorrow and could only swim nearby, helplessly watching their old leader die.
Still each morning the turtle Spotty and three or four others pushed Elroy to the surface of the pond.
Mira awoke from a vivid nightmare in which a school of fish gathered around Elroy who appeared to be right at death’s door. .Mira knew in her heart that she must at any cost return to the pond... The red bird flew to a distant corner of her world to the remote dangerous marshlands. She landed on the ground. under a tall blue tree. Mira pecked and searched and finally pulled up a long stringy blue weed from the depths of the soggy ground. This strange plant was sacred to the Redbirds and probably not known to the fish world...
So as the small fish pond continued their daily sky watch yet prepared for the worst, Mira made her graceful appearance out of the blue. She carried the long stringy blue plant in her beak. This Mira dropped directly into Elroy’s wide gaping mouth and he gulped at once swallowing the curative weed .Elroy fell asleep and Mira flew away with a hopeful heart.
Spotty and a few of the others fluttered Elroy’s sleeping form back to his homestead rock. Hope reigned in the depths of that small body of water .Elroy awoke after two days.
“O tell me that it was not a dream!” were Elroy’s first words to the crowd gathered around him. A cheer rose up from the assembled pond creatures because they knew Elroy was going to be alright (if his strong shout was any indication)
“No it was not a dream. Mira did return” said Spotty “It really happened! Mira flew over and…”
“As a matter of fact,” interrupted Carl. ”We watched her feed you a strange plant and it appears to have restored your health. It would seem that this lady bird of yours loves you very much after all Elroy. Please accept my sincere apologies.”
“O Carl,” said Elroy. “I know that I have been selfish about this. I have doubted all of you and you stood by me .I see that now. Will you all please forgive me?
“There there quiet now,” said Carl soothingly as he was speaking to a guppy.. “You just rest now Elroy.”
“Mira loves me!” sang Elroy to himself transported on waves of rapture. “She loves me! Mira loves me!”
Mira returned to the pond many more times, always with a gift of a plant or flower.
The fish and the bird gazed with loving eyes upon each other and began and ended each visit with fish nose touching orange beak.
This kissing ritual was exhilarating to both of them. The pond inhabitants would cheer for their love.
They were the inspiration for many bedtime love stories
Mira’s family never met Elroy, never visited his pond and grew to believe that Mira was a serious sky study student who required time for herself. The Redbirds allowed her to fly off on her own.
The tale of Mira and Elroy will continue to unfold beyond our understanding and with no further telling.
Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.com, lives and writes in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
The man at the traffic light trips you and you fall on the ground. He bends over you, unfolds a pocket knife, shows you the miniscule blade, grins, and stretches out his hand to help you up. In disbelief you take his hand and get up. He walks away.
I took to writing stories about a little over a year ago for something to do while recovering from a broken foot. I've had about thirty published here and there. They have appeared in Romance Magazine, Heater, The Flash Fiction Press, The Fable Online, Frontier Tales, Clever Magazine, The Zodiac Review, Fear of Monkeys, Abbreviate Journal, and The Texas Writer's Journal Quarterly. (I think that's all of them.)
THE COLOR OF JUSTICE
“Look Mr. Walker I’ve already offered your client a reasonable plea agreement of three months court supervision and a small fine. If your client behaves himself after three months the case is dismissed like it never happened. You know how these things work. What’s wrong with that?”
Jamal Walker veteran defense attorney looked down at the young assistant state's attorney sitting at the prosecutor’s table. “What’s wrong with it is that the state still makes money on it at my client’s expense. Look Barron this whole case is silly. I know you're just starting out. I too started out in the state’s attorney’s office years ago and I know you’re lookin to get a high conviction rate, that’s what you people do, but for God’s sake this is only a misdemeanor, littering. There’s no harm in dismissing it. It won’t reflect badly on you.”
“I’m sorry but my instructions are take a plea or go to trial.”
Attorney Walker let out a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“You gentlemen ready?” queried Judge Hauptman from the bench on high. “We’ve got a courtroom full of people here waiting for their turn counselors. Let’s get on with it. We don't have all day. Do you have a pleas agreement or not?”
“Not your honor,” both attorneys answered simultaneously.
“All right call your first witness Mr. Von Heintz.”
“The state calls Game Warden Wilhelm A. Frassa.”
“Please swear in Officer Frassa bailiff,” instructed Judge Hauptman. The bailiff did so.
Game Warden Frassa was a young man thirtyish, thin as a rail all muscle, clean shaven with mousy colored closely cropped hair and no sideburns whatsoever. His heavily starched uniform crinkled as he sat himself upright, stiff backed in the witness chair, his shiny badge prominently displayed on his pleated ironed shirt. “You may proceed Mr.Von Heintz.”
“State your name please and your job.”
“Bill Frassa state game warden.”
“Please tell the court what happened on December 24th at 10 a.m. of last year concerning you and the incident with the Defendant Willie Jackson.”
“I was working along the river in the vicinity of the area commonly known as ‘Swamptown’ checking the backwaters there for people fishing without a license when I observed the defendant ice fishing by himself in one of the inlets there next to where all the houses are. I approached him and noticed that he had fish scattered around and told him to pick them up.”
“And what was his response.”
“He asked me why. Why he had to pick up the fish?”
“And what did you say?”
“I said because you’re littering. That’s why.”
“And what was his response?”
“He said no he wasn’t littering and told me that beer cans, junk food wrappers, cigarette butts were litter not fish and wanted to know if I saw any beer cans, wrappers or butts here. I told him that I’ll be the judge of what’s litter not him and that he better watch his mouth as I didn’t appreciate his attitude.”
“Then what did he say?”
“He got lippy and smart mouth with me. Said, ‘Oh is it against the law to have an attitude that you don’t like?’ Said it kind of all smirky and snarky like. Again I told him to clean up this mess and after numerous repeated requests he still refused to pick the fish and put them in his bucket. I was very patient with him but finally I gave him one last chance and when he gave me another one of his jive answers, I wrote him up.”
“No further questions your honor.”
“Your witness Mr. Walker.”
“Thank you Judge. Mr. Frassa did Mr. Jackson have a fishing license?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well you were checking for license that day weren’t you? That’s why you approached him in the first place isn’t it?”
Attorney Walker interrupted him. “But you didn’t check Mr. Jackson for a license did you?”
“No I didn’t.”
“You were all concerned about all these fish laying around on the ice weren’t you? These ten or so bluegills no bigger than your hand all clogging up this backwater slough creating an eyesore weren’t you?”
“I wasn’t more worried but yes they were creating a mess.”
“You didn’t gather up all these fish evidence and bag them did you?”
“Well I couldn’t because.”
Again attorney Walker cut him off. “I didn’t ask you why you couldn’t Game Warden Frassa did I? I asked you if you did. It calls for a yes or no answer. Did you collect any evidence of litter or not? Yes or no?”
“So the evidence was left on the ice? Yes or no?”
“No buts Mr. Game Warden Frassa. Yes or no. You didn’t collect the evidence did you?”
“Objection. Counsel is badgering the witness. Question’s been asked and answered Judge,” interjected Baron Von Heintz.
“Gentlemen,” responded the Judge, “Let’s not waste this court’s time with objections. I’ve been around a while and I know the rules of evidence. This is a misdemeanor. Let’s not get dramatic here and overdo it. Mr. Von Heintz can ask you for an explanation if he wishes officer Frassa. Are you finished Mr.Walker?”
“Yes your Honor.”
“Anything further Mr. Von Heintz?”
“Yes your Honor only one question.”
“Game Warden Frassa did Mr. Jackson ever pick up the fish?”
“No he refused to do so and never did.”
“Thank you. The state rests your Honor.”
“Mr. Walker your turn.”
“The defense calls the Defendant Willie LeRoy Jackson.”
Willie LeRoy Jackson, fiftyish, a scrawny runt of an unshaven black man in his ill fitted, rumpled up second hand suit and stained tie was sworn in and took the stand.
“Mr. Jackson tell us please just exactly what transpired between you and officer Frassa on Christmas Eve at 10 a.m. of last year.”
“Well I was ice fishing by myself there in my neighborhood minding my own business when Officer Frassa comes over to me and gets in my face. Tells me I’m littering and to pick up the fish I caught. I tell him I ain’t littering and I’ll take my fish with me when I leave if you don’t mind. He minded he said and said that he didn’t trust me to do so. That wasn’t good enough for him so he orders me to pick them up right now and put them in my bucket. Again I tell him not worry about it and promise to do it when I leave. He starts ranting like a mad dog that I’m being disrespectful of the law, that I’m a wisenheimer, whatever that is, and that he doesn’t like my attitude. So I told him I don’t care if he likes my attitude or not. That it ain’t against the law to have an attitude that you don’t like and I told him that I didn’t particularly care for his attitude.”
Laughter and chortling erupted from the small packed courtroom. “No more outbursts or I’ll clear this courtroom,” warned the Judge. The crowd quickly regained its composure.
“Then what happened Mr. Jackson?” asked Jamal Walker getting his client back on track.
“The he gets right in my face, nose to nose, spitting and blathering what he’s gonna do to me. I back off and start shouting it right back at him. We get into this big old shouting match when he suddenly stops and he looks over my shoulder. I turn around and look behind me and a group of fishermen farther down the ice start running over to us. Then people start coming out of their houses to see what all the ruckus is about. Pretty soon we’re surrounded by about twenty people. Officer Frassa here gets all nervous and calls the real police. Tells them there’s a riot breaking out down in Swamptown and to send a couple of squad cars of police with riot gear asap. Well more people keep showing up coming out on the ice. Now there's about thirty people there. The ice ain’t that thick yet and pretty soon the ice broke and we’re all flopping around like fish out of water trying to get our balance in this freezing mucky gooey swamp water when the police arrive. It ain’t deep there only about four feet of water.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well the police help get everybody out, they didn’t get wet though, and then wrote up everyone for disorderly conduct, obstructing justice, rioting and mayhem, wherever they could think of. All this time all of us are standing out there in the freezing cold, in wet clothing, freezing our you know what’s off. Then after everyone got a ticket the police left. That’s about it?”
“Did Game Warden Frassa say anything further?”
“Oh yeah I almost forgot to say this. He saunters up to me, gets about six inches from my face and says real cutesy like, ‘I hope everybody enjoys their Christmas presents.’
“Nothing further. Your witness Herr Von Heintz.”
“That won’t be necessary Mr. Von Heintz. I’ve heard enough,” interrupted the judge. “I’m dismissing this case.”
The crowd of awaiting defendants suddenly and uncontrollably burst into applause, rose in unison clapping giving the judge a standing ovation.
“Order. Order. Please sit down everyone. Let me remind you that this court is still in session.” shouted the judge over all the uproar.
The crowd hushed and sat down.
“Now,” continued Judge Hauptman. “How many of you people out there have cases relating to this incident? Raise your hands please.”
The judge scanned the crowd of those awaiting their fate. “It appears that this includes everyone. Raise your hand if you’re here on a case stemming from something else.
No one raised their hands.
“Well then,” reflected Judge Hauptman smiling. “Now hold your applause until I say court’s adjourned. Everyone’s case is dismissed. You’re free to go.” The judge stopped, holding them in suspense to the point of bursting, then finally, “Court is now adjourned.”
The courtroom assembly of former defendants went wild and gave the judge a second standing ovation. Judge Hauptman acknowledged their approval, bowed and left the courtroom.
“Thank you Jamal. Thank you for putting those racist nazi pigs in their place. Frassa would have never messed with me if I was white, same thing for Von Heintz. He would have dismissed it I bet if I was white. The whole god damn system’s geared to getting the blackman. Fine him for being black. Fine the poor people who can’ afford it and are barely getting by as it is.”
“Willie you’re getting yourself all worked up again. Just calm down. It’s over.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down Jamal. You know how it is. The system don’t treat us fairly. A black man can’t get justice from the white man.”
“Willie, Judge Hauptman just gave you and all the others justice.”
“That’s ‘cause she’s black.”
Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes.
LEAVING RAPID CITY
On the last day of school Sandra Conner and Bridgett Knutson were in the dark tiny alcove that led down to the boiler room. They were kissing when two jocks, footballers, heading down to the boiler room for a smoke, discovered them. Within an hour it was all over the school and someone had even scrawled “Lesbo” large with a black magic marker onto Bridgett’s new tan Ford Ranger, her rancher father’s graduation present. Sandy skipped graduation ceremonies and supposed that Bridgett had as well, but did not know since Bridgett had not returned to school and would not answer her phone.
Although they had known and liked one another all during their last semester of high school she and Bridgett had only just realized a stronger mutual attraction the week before. Standing in the lunch line Bridgett had gently brushed against Sandy then smiled in that way. The two had spent the last week of high school between final exams and senior assemblies, apprehensive, cautiously probing one another for those cloaked signs of affection. At the graduation practice Bridgett had slipped a note into Sandy’s hand. “I want to kiss you.” Sandy’s heart raced as she whispered in Bridgett’s ear to meet at the alcove. Now this.
Sandy and her mother had moved back to Rapid City from Pierre at Christmas time. Mae, her mother, had received a letter from the South Dakota State Attorney General’s office notifying her of Sandy’s father’s release date from the State Penitentiary at Sioux Falls.
“Last place that sonofabitch will look for us is Rapid City. That’s where he got busted and he knows them cops still got it in for his sorry ass. But let’s play it safe, baby, if any of your friends ask, tell ‘em we’re movin’ back up to Billings. Billings, Sandy, you got that? You unnerstand, doncha, baby?”
So she had entered Central High in Rapid City for her last semester of high school. How many public schools did that make? Nine, ten? Yankton, Rapid City, Fargo, Billings, Pierre, now back in Rapid City, fuck. It had always been her dad running from the law, or running from some dealer he’d burned, then she and her mom running from him until at last he’d drawn six years for breaking a cop’s jaw and possession. Good riddance.
The outing at Central High was the pits, fortunate only in that it was the very end of her senior year. Real feelings for Bridgette had begun to grow with her yearning for something more, something undefined, desire of unknown dimension. She was almost eighteen, a virgin. Friends talked incessantly of sex, but it wasn’t sex that she wanted, it was love. It was joy. It was to quench that thrist for the enlightenment characters in movies and novels found. A relationship, especially this kind? Was such passionate romance something perceived only through fiction, novels and movies, portrayals and unlikely to ever descend upon anyone in wind blown, freezing cold, shit hole Rapid City? Rapid City home to too many asshole cowboys and drunken Indians, misogynists, racists with medieval views of women, education, and culture. And the women, hard-scrabble, beaten down by the vicissitudes of machismo, brutal winters, and living in a place where for hundreds of miles high culture was shit kicker bars, bowling alleys and movie houses showing nothing but films with explosions and car chases. Before Bridgette Knuteson she had firmly resigned to escape the Dakotas ASAP after graduation. Now she’d even fantasized getting off the train with Bridgette in Minneapolis or Chicago or New York. The hurt from the outing was less from the shame engendered by gossip, than from Bridgette’s retreat. “ C’mon, girl, gimme a call.” Sandy’s memory was however fraught with goodbyes and furtive night time skips out of town. Only two good friends had survived this nomadic existence, Billy Pelltier and her Uncle Fen.
Fen, her mother’s younger, smarter brother and a true Bohemian had a genuine love for his only niece and when he was around he doted on her. Freshly discharged from the Navy he had come to live for a while with his sister. Sandy had attached herself to her happy go lucky uncle who had no problem allowing his thirteen year old niece to drive his Volkswagon, smoke cigarettes and say “shit, goddamit, and fuck it.” Fen believed himself a reincarnated Lakota Sioux shaman. He fascinated Sandy recounting his visions through dreams. He once told her he had dreamt of her. In his dream Sandy was searching for her people but beset by enemies. Wounded she is saved by a sleek grey wolf which she rode like a pony to a beautiful safe valley and the lodges of her people. Fen could always make her feel good.
A crippled boy her age, Billy Pelltier and she had become close friends in Pierre. An outsider like Sandy the two had met in the ninth grade when Mae had rented their trailer from Billy’s grandmother who lived next door. No father had ever claimed Billy whose mother had fled to earn her fortune on her back up north in the oil fields, leaving the boy with his grandmother supported by social security and meager rental from three shabby trailers on the sad side of town. Because she could beat him arm wrestling when they were fourteen he’d called her Grip.
As soon as the queer gossip hit Mae’s ears she pitched a fit. “Goddammit Sandy, what in the hell’s the matter with you, girl. Ain’t boys good enough for ya? Huh? You gotta munch carpet? Is that it? Where in God’s name did that come from I wanna know. Your people may not be perfect by a long shot but we ain’t never had no queers or dykes. Never. Jesus H. Christ, girl, where you think you are? Sandy this ain’t San Francisco or Paris, France. No,no, no, this here’s the hard side of Brokeback Mountain. You best straighten up and fly right, girl.”
She said nothing, but went into a brooding silence. She tried calling Bridgette once again. Eyes were tearing up later when she dialed Billy’s number
“ Billy I gotta get outta this shit hole. Would you please ask your grandma if I can stay with you for a while.”
“Hey wassamatter, Grip? You in trouble or somethin’?”
“Just go ask her right now, Billy. Lemme explain when I get there.”
“Hold on a minute, Grip. Yeah, Grandma said, ‘Why sure, honey;. Get your ass down here outta whatever storm yer in, Grip.”
“Okay, there’s a mornin’ Greyhound to Sioux Falls and Vermillion. I’ll get off at Vermillion and hitch a ride to Yankton.”
“Fuck that, Grip. Find out what time the bus gets to Vermillion and Grandma and me will be waiting.”
Billy’s place would be temporary sanctuary only. She resolved to find the life she was supposed to live far from the prairie. From her top dresser drawer she took out the sock that held the $85.50, some of it babysitting money, some of it the $50 Uncle Fen had sent her for her eighteenth birthday. Fen was earning big money now down in Nebraska living in his camper, repairing combines all over the state; he’d lend her money. If he couldn’t? Well, somehow she would find work, probably waiting tables in Sioux Falls and when she had enough she was heading for New York. From the kitchen she heard Mae yell at her.
“ I’m goin’ to work now. You best think over what I’m tellin’ you, Sandy. You don’t straighten up your act you’re askin’ for trouble. Big trouble, girl, this is Rapid City. You hear me?”
“Yes ma, I hear you.” And fuck you too. I will be so glad to be outta this shit heap.
She dialed Bridgette’s number. This time she waited for the answering machine.
”Bridgette, I reckon this is goodbye, hon. I wish…. Oh well, best of luck, girl. I’m leaving Rapid City for good on the early morning Greyhound. I do wish…Fuck it. Goodbye, girl.”
Next morning with the small valise in hand she quietly closed the front door as her mother snored from her bedroom. She walked the seven blocks to the Greyhound station, bought a large coffee. Waiting alone on an outside bench for the bus to announce boarding she never heard his approach. A powerful left arm tightened into a choke hold as Randy Larmar, Mr. Knutson’s ranch foreman, cut off her right ear lobe and then hanks her hair with a Buck knife. “You don’t never call Knutson’s number, you hear me, you little slut, never. Got that?” A minute later she heard the klaxon on Larmer’s pickup as he sped past shooting her the bird. Looking down she saw blood and hair all over her lap and the bench. Once aboard the Greyhound she willed herself not to cry. “I am strong, damn it. I am bigger than them,” she thought. Fen’s dream was true, she was indeed strong, and knew that wherever she’d land, be it Minneapolis, Chicago, or New York, there she would find the lodges of her people.