Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Love and Apricots

 (17 July 2007)

The bus pulled up with a screech of old brakes and crunching of gravel just in front of the old grocery store.  It seemed to be the only building around. Empty lots with naked, cracked foundations neighbored it on both sides.  Across the once-paved road a burnt out husk of a shack leaned precariously, its false front the most substantial-looking thing about it, if you ignored the broken windows.

The grocery store itself could only be called a building by the most generous stretch of the imagination.  It had more bare wood showing than paint, and half the windows were boarded up.  But it had electricity, as the Coke machine buzzing on the front porch attested.  A hazy-eyed Australian Sheppard lolled on the porch next to it, more or less blocking the entrance.

The bus door squeaked open and a tall woman with long brown hair and freckles climbed out.  The bus driver must have been asking her something, because she nodded and said “Yes, yes, this is the place.  I’m sure, thanks.”  The bus driver shook his head and shrugged.  The door squeaked shut again and the bus crunched away, back on the road and gradually, out of sight.

The lanky woman, whose name was Gloria, hefted her bag over one shoulder and squinted at the grocery store. The sun was setting behind it now – or rather, behind the mountains in the distance – and the sky all around was ablaze with oranges and purples that looked like they belonged more in a preschooler’s crayola version of a sunset.  She smiled very slightly, taking in a deep breath of the juniper- and sage-scented air, then walked up the steps to the porch.

The dog lifted his head slightly as she approached, made a sort of soft grunt, and then flopped his tail on the porch clumsily.  She reached a hand down slowly, let the dog sniff her, and then scratched behind his ears.  She then stepped over him carefully and pushed open the glass door into the shop.

A tiny bell clanged as she entered and she winced slightly.  “Hello?” she called out.  There didn’t seem to be anyone around.  The store looked a little like 1950’s meets 1980’s meets 21st century.  It also looked more like someone’s cellar than a store.  Rows of tall, narrow shelves marched down the length of the room, filled, in spots, with cans of beans, bags of M&Ms and a brand of cat food she had never heard of.

There were posters on the wall advertising Coors Lite with scantily-clad women lounging in small swimming pools, dressed improbably as Santa’s helpers, right next to posters advertising Bubbalicious chewing gum and the movie The Matrix.  A large, life-size plush version of Bart Simpson leered from a place on the wall just behind the register.

She walked towards the counter, behind which could be seen a door that led, most likely, to living quarters.

“Hello?” she said again, rather more loudly.  “Anybody home?  The sign says you’re open.”

There was a thumping from behind the door, and then it opened, revealing a roundish, balding man with very big upper arms.  He had a stubbly beard and mustache and a reddish-brown tan down his arms and neck, though the rest of him was pretty much pink.  His age was indeterminate, but if Gloria had had to guess, she would have said he was in his late fifties.  He looked tough and healthy, though – worn around the edges, maybe, but he definitely had the look of a guy who had worked hard all his life and still knew how to.

“Evenin’,” he said.  “Sorry if I kept you waiting.  I was just catching the end of BSG.”

Gloria frowned.  “BSG?”

The man laughed.  “Battle Star Gallactica.  Damn fine show.  Addictive, though.  Can I help you with something?  You haven’t run out of gas or popped a tire, have you?  ‘Cause I’m not much help if you have, and the gas station’s closed this time of night.”

Gloria put her bag down and walked up to the counter.

“Um, I’m here about your post – about, you know, the –uh – truck.”  There was no reason to be quiet, seeing as how Gloria and the older man were probably the only two people in a square mile, at least.  Still, she spoke softly, and when he answered, so did he.

“Are you Gloria?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Ah.”  He thrust out his hand to shake hers.  “Ah, good.  Great!  I’m Eldon.  So great you could come. Wow.”  He shook her hand vigorously across the counter.  “I didn’t realize you would be here so soon. You must really be a professional, eh?  Come on in, come on in.” And he waved her around the counter and through the door, into what seemed to be his combination living room/kitchen/dining area.  There was a rather nice leather couch on the left, facing a 50-inch plasma TV.  An empty TV dinner tray lay on the glass coffee table, but otherwise the room was immaculate.  Towards the far side of the room were a door leading out and a staircase leading up, probably to the bedrooms.  On the right were an ancient fridge – the kind with a big, metal handle and rounded door in lime green – and also a sink, washer, dryer and stove.  A little card table rounded out that side of the room, covered with stacks of newspaper clippings. 

“Little hobby of mine,” he explained, seeing her looking at the clippings.  “Sorry about the mess.”

“Not at all,” said Gloria.  “It’s a lot nicer than my place.”

Through the door at the other side of the room she could see a courtyard.  Behind that was a huge garage, full of cars in various states of repair and disrepair.  The light coming through the window was mostly purple now.

“Like a beer?” asked Eldon, pulling open the fridge.

Gloria walked to the back door and gazed out, said "No, thanks,” and then, “Is it out there?”

Eldon closed the fridge, pulled a bottle opener from his pocket, popped the lid off a microbrew and came to stand beside her.  He looked uncomfortable, putting his free hand first in his pocket, then folding his arms, then leaning on the wall.

Gloria smiled reassuringly at him.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “I know this is kinda freaky.  And you’d probably rather that I wasn’t here at all.  Or at least, that I didn’t need to be.”

“Heh,” said Eldon, looking at his beer.

Gloria looked out again.  “Which one is it?”

Eldon crossed his arms again, then rubbed his nose.

“Well, it’s the old blue Ford.  Mostly blue, anyway. Can’t miss it.  It doesn’t seem to matter where I park it at night.  Every morning it’s right under that apricot tree again.”  He let out a shaky sigh.  “I even sold it a couple of times to folks who live miles away.  I thought for the longest time it was just somebody messing with me – some fool kids or maybe a neighbor, but, there’s not many folks around here, so who could it be?”  He laughed unconvincingly.

“’Sides, it’s been going on so long – years actually – that I had to finally admit there couldn’t be somebody doing it.  Who could keep up a gag like that for so long?”

Gloria put a hand on his arm.  “It’s okay.  That’s what I’m here for, y’know?  No big deal.  Maybe it’s nothing.  Maybe it’s something.  Either way, I’ll figure it out for you, okay?”

Eldon gave a big, relieved sigh and nodded.  For a guy who looked like he could hold his own in the international strongman competitions, he sure looked scared.  More like a frightened little boy, to tell the truth.

“Where’s the apricot tree?” asked Gloria.  “Out this way?”

“Yeah,” said Eldon, regaining his composure a bit.

“Just walk ‘round the back of the garage there, then up to the top of the hill.  There’s a little stream just over on the other side – and the apricots grow down by it.  You can’t miss it.”

“Okay,” said Gloria, all business-like.  She opened the door and stepped out into the dusk.

“Don’t you want to wait ‘til morning?” asked Eldon. “I mean – aren’t… aren’t you afraid?”

Gloria shook her head just slightly.  “No,” she said. “It’s the living who scare me.”  She stumped off around the garage and up the hill, as the big man closed his door again.

The light was fading fast, but Gloria didn’t need it.

The climb to the top of the hill was easy and as soon as she got there, she could hear it.

It was like a soft, pitiful wailing – something like the sound wind makes when whistling past houses or through trees, or perhaps like the distant, mournful howl of a timber wolf, separated from its pack. Gloria knew as she heard it that it was not a normal sound – not something that normal people could hear, anyway.  It was so sorrowful, so lonely, that her throat began to ache as she tried, and failed, not to cry.

Down a little ways from the rise stood three leafy apricot trees, looking out-of-place amidst the sage and clumps of low grasses.  A little stream twisted its way along near them, and there, on the gravely spot between trees and stream, was the blue Ford pick-up.

It was a mid-60’s model, half-ton, more or less blue colored - parts of it were rust colored actually – and it was missing its tailgate.  Otherwise it seemed to be pretty much intact.  It was quite still, the motor and lights were off, but it was quite plainly crying.

Gloria approached the truck slowly, making a fair amount of noise as she did so – purposely crunching a twig here and there.  As she passed the apricot trees, she picked one and popped it in her mouth, casually spitting out the seed a moment later.  She chewed purposefully.  The wailing sound had stopped.

After a few minutes of staring into the distance, she approached the truck again.  When she was within five feet of it she stopped, standing off to one side – the driver’s side – and waited.

The night was still very quiet.  When another two or three minutes had passed, she moved again, walking very slowly up to the driver’s side door.  Slowly, gently, she reached up and touched the side mirror.

A rush of feelings and images flooded her, pushing out the twilight sky, the apricot trees, the stream.  It was daytime now – warm and sunny.  A middle-aged man with sandy hair and a plaid shirt was walking up to her, smiling broadly.  He climbed in, turned the key and ground the gears into first.  She moved forward, purring warmly, gliding smoothly over the rough ground.  Her suspension squeaked a little, but she did her best to give him a smooth ride.

They drove down to the ravine.  She watched the man get out, and go to the back of the truck.  He pulled out a shovel and a small sack, then sauntered cheerfully to a flat area just off the water.  She basked in the warm sun and watched lovingly as he dug the earth, planted the apricot seeds, and then leaned on his shovel, sweat glistening charmingly off his heroic brow.

There was a blinding flash and suddenly time had shifted.  The stream looked familiar, but now part of it was shaded.  Little children ran in and out of her view, climbing the trees, picking apricots, eating them, and lounging in the trees’ shade.  Gloria hummed with joy.

Then time shifted again.  She was much older now.  The beautiful man was walking up to her – she could see him reflected in her side mirror.  He was wearing his red plaid, his graying hair ruffled in the breeze slightly, and he had the smile he always wore.  He looked a little sad though.  Then another man was coming up behind him – a bigger man, and he had something in his hand.

Gloria screamed.  The sandy-haired man fell, his blood soaked into the ground by the shade of the apricot trees, and his smile was no more.

“Ahh!” shouted Gloria, and she pulled her hand away from the mirror.  She was trembling and weak, and stumbled only a few feet away before sitting heavily on the rocky ground.  The wailing had started again.

Gloria wiped tears from her eyes.  Then she took a deep breath and slowly inched her way back to the truck.  She held her hand near the tire – it was as high as she could reach.  She didn’t touch it though, not quite.

“I want to help you,” she said, shaking.  “I can help you.  If you want me to.  I can set you free.”

The wailing stopped.  Gloria was suddenly very aware of the splashing and tinkling sound of the stream.

She held her hand a finger’s width from the truck’s front tire and said: “I can help you, but you have to make the first move.  If you don’t, I will leave you and promise never to return.”

There was a murmur then, not from the stream.  It didn’t contain words, but Gloria felt she understood that it was a question.

“I don’t know where you will go,” she said.  “I have never known.  But I know that you will be free of this place.”  She closed her eyes and took slow, deep breaths, then waited.  The truck was silent for some time.  Then, Gloria heard a small creaking sound and the unmistakable crunch of a tire pressing on gravel.

She felt the knobbly tread connect with her hand… and her mind exploded.  The visions were gone, but this time it was raw emotion.  Gloria let it wash through her.  She held on to it, pulled at it, brought the strands of joy and sadness and anger together, and drew them to herself.  Then she sobbed.  Tears streamed down her face, and she cried and cried, holding on to the truck tire.  The tears slid down her cheeks and splashed onto the ground beneath the apricot trees, soaking into the sandy soil.

After some time, Gloria stood and dried her face on her shirt sleeves.  She walked slowly, back up the hill and down again, around the garage and towards the back door of Eldon’s home, from which spilled a perfect rectangular beam of yellow light.  She knocked a little and then let herself in.  Eldon was sitting at the card table, pressing newspaper clippings into a nicely bound scrap book.  He looked up as Gloria came in and rushed to her side, helping her make the last few steps to the leather couch.  Then he brought her some water, and when she emptied it, he raced back to the sink for a second glass.

Gloria finished that, too, and then let out a deep, slow sigh.  Eldon sat next to her, perched anxiously on the edge of the couch.

“Is it done?” he asked.  “I mean – whatever it is you came to do?”

“Yes,” said Gloria simply.  She looked Eldon in the eyes for some time.  He found it hard, for some reason, to look away from her warm, freckly brown face.  She regarded him somewhat impassively.

“You killed him, yes?”  she said.  “The man in the flannel shirt with the sandy hair…”

Eldon looked down then, and sighed.  He didn’t get angry; he didn’t get scared.  He just sighed in a tired sort of way and said “Yeah.”

“Ah,” said Gloria.

She didn’t ask why.  She merely finished the last drop of her glass of water.  But Eldon seemed compelled to explain.

“It was a misunderstanding, really,” he said.  “I thought my wife was shacking up with him – long time ago – but I was wrong.  Got the wrong guy.  No one was around when it happened.  I told everyone he’d gone to retire in Arizona and left the place to me.  Then I waited for the right guy to come along.  He never has, though.  Nobody ever comes back to this god-forsaken place, once they’ve got free of it.”  Eldon balled his fists, but it was a feeble gesture.  A moment later, he was dropping his head into his hands, crying silently.

Gloria stood and walked to the kitchen, putting her glass in the sink.  As she did, she noticed the clippings on the table again.  They were short fluff pieces from a local newspaper, about folks who had moved away and what they were up to these days. 

Gloria put her hand on the door, ready to leave.

“You sent it away, right?” said Eldon then.  Gloria nodded.

“I freed it, yes,” she said.

Eldon looked at his hands.  “Can you free me?” he said, in almost a whisper.

Gloria said nothing for a moment and then, when Eldon looked up at her, she shook her head and said: “No, I’m sorry.  I can’t do that.”  And she left him there, slumped on his leather couch.  She walked back through the store at the front of the building, picking up her bag.  She opened the squeaky front door, stepped over the old dog and out onto the gravel.

She gave the place behind her one last look, and then she turned, hitching her shoulder bag up, and began walking down the long road back.  Four miles to the highway and then maybe hitch a ride from there.  Or maybe just keep on walking.  Gloria was used to walking.

Remember the Watermelons; Forget the Seeds

(Copyright Kirsten Petersen. Written June, 2006.)

Uncle Red was a tomato farmer.  Back in the summer of '82 I went to live with him while my parents straightened out some unspecified affairs.  I did know that my grandfather had died (not Red's father, but the other grandpa - Mom's Dad) but I didn't know that my parents were also contemplating a divorce.  It was an unpleasant homecoming to say the least.  But before all that there was the summer - the hot and sweaty summer in South Jersey with my Uncle Red.

I helped my uncle in the garden during the day.  In the late afternoon, when it was too hot to move, we'd crash on the back porch with two tall glasses of homemade iced tea and a couple huge slices of watermelon.

Tomatoes were his business, but watermelons were his passion.  "Sometimes, life is like a watermelon," he'd tell me.  "Kinda sweet and juicy, but not much to it when you get right down to it - and if you forget to pick out the seeds, you'll get the shits."  Uncle Red never edited his language around me, something I strongly approved of at that age.

He had a big old watermelon patch out behind the wood shed.  There were far too many for just the three of us to eat - my Uncle Red, Aunt Phyllis and I - so we shared them around with the neighbors in exchange for blueberries, strawberries, pole beans and such.  Uncle Red's cousin Larry owned a boat and took folks out fishing on the weekends.  He was also a huge fan of watermelons and could sometimes be lured into taking us out in exchange for a few.  Knowing this, I was pretty motivated to help my uncle out.

One day while we were out watering the garden, I caught sight of a monster watermelon, hiding under the leaves.  I pointed it out to Uncle Red and he said "Quick! Cut that one loose. Don't let 'im get any bigger than that."  He seemed so genuinely concerned that I just had to ask, what happens if you let them get bigger than that?

"Well," said Uncle Red, "my cousin Jimmy - poor fella - when he was just about your age, he decided to let one of his watermelons grow as big as it wanted.  He watered it every day until it was as big as a house and made a creaky sound all the time, like you could hear it stretching as it grew.  Well, cousin Jimmy's dogs disappeared one night, and all he could find was the collars, so he started to worry if that big ol' watermelon had developed a taste for blood.  Finally, he decided to cut it open with a chainsaw.  It took him three days 'cause the thing kept growing while he was cutting it.  He finally got the thing split in half and found it was hollow inside, and no sign of his two poor dogs.  The shell was so woody that it lasted the winter through, and the next spring when the farm flooded, Jimmy's family jumped inside the watermelon halves and floated to safety."

After that, I watched the watermelons pretty carefully.  Sometimes I'd sit for hours, reading a book or just lying in the sun, listening for the creak of the watermelons growing.  And I checked under the leaves pretty carefully each day, to make sure we hadn't missed some monster, lying in wait.

I liked the way the watermelons came on gradually: a few one day, a few more the next.  And there never seemed to be any rhyme or reason to it.  One morning I'd swear that little watermelon on the end of the row wouldn't be ready for a week, and the next day it'd be the size of a - well, of a watermelon.  I asked my Uncle Red about it. 

"Well," he said, "the watermelons hold a sort of election every night, after everyone else has gone to bed.  The meanest ones get the most water, and grow the fastest, and the rest just make do as best they can.  But the big ones get their necks cut in the morning and get eaten in the afternoon.  So don't go feeling sorry for the little guys.  That little pale green fella over there?  He's been in my garden for twenty years."

A couple nights after that I snuck out my bedroom window and crept down to the watermelon patch, hoping to catch a watermelon election in action.  But if the watermelons were doing anything besides sitting there, their leaves resting gently along those bulging ovoids, I never could tell.

About midsummer my father came alone to visit me and I started to get a feeling things weren't quite right.  He and my mom were supposed to be settling Grandpa's affairs, as far as I knew, and my father gave no real reason for his visit.

"Evenin', Jake," my uncle said when Pop pulled up the drive and stepped out of his car.  "Watermelon?"

I gave my dad a hug and we sat on the porch, eating watermelons and me telling my dad about all the adventures I was having.  My uncle barely said a word to my father, but he wasn't rude precisely.  He just didn't tell any stories like he usually would, and that was what I thought was strange.

Pop stayed the night, but he left early the next day, right after his cornflakes and coffee.  "See you in August," he told me, and he was off again.  I watched his beat-up old Toyota backing down the drive, and then I went out to help my uncle trim the grape vines.  We were both pretty quiet that day until finally, as we sat on the porch, I asked him if he knew why so many grownups felt the need to be secretive with kids.  He put down his watermelon slice and wiped his chin thoughtfully.

Finally, he said "when I was a kid, my dad used to tell me crazy stories.  I always believed him, until one day, I got to thinking he was full of it.  Then I didn't believe him for a long time, not a damn thing he ever said.  I even stopped talkin' to him.  I couldn't figure out why he would tell me so much bull.  But then I got older and started to remember his stories and you know what happened?"

"What?" I said.

"I realized every one of them was true.  Every lying damn one of them."

I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure how my uncle's story was any sort of an answer to my question.  By morning, I had forgotten all about it, because the tomatoes were on and we were busy picking.

Uncle Red's tomatoes were a thing of beauty.  They were red all the way through, from skin to seeds, none of this whitish store-bought crap that you get today.  And they were firm but juicy, spicy and sweet.  We used to pick 'em right off the vine, slice 'em up, salt 'em and eat 'em for lunch, just like that.  For six weeks I had tomatoes every day and never got tired of them.  I loved them so much that I prodded my uncle constantly for stories about tomatoes, but he side-stepped all of my attempts.

"Did you ever have a tomato grow as big as a house?" I'd ask.

"That's ridiculous," he'd say.

"Well," I said, undeterred.  "Did you ever see tomatoes talking or anything?"

He gave me a frowning look, his bushy eyebrows bristling.  "What makes you think tomatoes can talk?" he said, then walked away.

Finally, out of frustration, I asked Uncle Red why he never told any stories about tomatoes. 

"Don't have any," he said, wiping watermelon juice on his shirt sleeve.  "Do you?"

The days rolled on, calmer and more peaceful than any I could remember before coming to live with Uncle Red.  I spent my days in the sun and my nights listening to the crickets and cicada bugs roaring outside my window.  The hot and humid air that I had found so stifling at first came to feel like a warm friendly blanket, always giving me a hug.  The rains came seldom, but when they did, it was better than any show on TV - first the sticky air and the smell of ozone, then the distant booming of thunder, and finally the cooling breeze and pelting rain, always followed the next day by fresh, clean air that smelled like peaches and a garden so green it almost hurt to look at it.

Uncle Red's watermelon stories grew wilder and stranger as the summer wore on, just as the watermelon vines themselves grew rangier and more unkempt.  The fruit was starting to ripen more slowly, and I kept an eye on that little green one Uncle Red had said was there for 20 years.  One day its vine withered all up and the next day it was black and slug-ridden.  I asked Uncle Red why it had died all of a sudden and he just shrugged and said its time had come.  "Everything ends eventually," he said.

I thought a 20-year-old watermelon deserved more respect than that.  So, I snuck off one afternoon and pulled it off the vine and buried it under my favorite maple tree, and said "Goodbye Mr. Watermelon.  You hung in there for a long time, but you never amounted to much.  Better luck next time."

By the end of August, I was starting to wonder if my uncle ever got tired of watermelons.  Personally, I still found them pretty refreshing, but the mushy texture, the annoying seeds and the messiness of it all had lost their appeal.

I asked my uncle: "How can you eat watermelons every day?"

"I don't," he said.  "Only in the summer.  They don't keep so good.  You have to enjoy 'em when they're fresh."

"Well, how can you eat 'em every day in the summer?" I asked.

He examined his watermelon slice seriously.  "Well, they're good for you," he said.

"I thought you said there wasn't much to 'em?" I asked slyly.

"Sure," he said.  "That's true.  They're mostly water, and a little sweetness.  But that can be good for you.  Sometimes all we need is a little sweetness."

When my parents came to pick me up at the end of August - my mother staying in the car, her arms crossed and frowning, Pop looking like he'd been running a marathon for a year or so - I stopped at the front door to give my uncle a hug.

"I want to tell you something about tomatoes," I said.

"Oh?" said my uncle.

"They're not as dumb as you think," I told him, gaining momentum.  "While the watermelons are busy arguing over whose the meanest and who gets the most water, the tomatoes are working together, quiet-like - helping each other.  I've seen it."

"You have?" said my uncle, quite seriously.

"Yes," I said.  "That's why the tomatoes are always kissing each other."

My uncle stared at me for a long moment, and then nodded slowly.  "Mm-hmm," was all he said, as he opened the door and carried out my bags.  He handed me a big watermelon after I'd climbed into the car.  I saw a little twinkle in his eye as he said "this one told me I couldn't have her, so you'll have to take her with you.  Make sure you share," he said, glancing at my parents, and I promised that I would.

Fairy Wings and Donkey Carts

(30 July 2006)

He wandered into the village on a rest day.  Everyone was about their household chores, getting ready for the big family dinner that evening.  No one was working the fields.  He made his way into the village unseen.  A little boy found him resting his feet by the village well, his donkey and his cart beside him, and the little boy reported to his mother that there was a sayer in town.

News of the sayer spread fast, and soon the small courtyard around the well was full of people, all asking the sayer for their favorite story.  He smiled at them but kept silent.  He just nodded in a friendly way and continued drinking his fill from their well.

Finally people started to mutter about whether or not he really was a sayer.  It seemed he had to be, though - he had the look of all seven worlds about him, a man whose origin you could not quite place.  And his eyes had a faraway look, of a man who spent too much time gazing inward.  He had no trinkets to sell - he was no trader.  No, for sure, they agreed, he must be a sayer.  Sayers were notorious, after all, for having poor social graces.

The man in the wellyard was silent for a long time, until a little girl had joined the crowd and made her way up to the front.  She was very quiet, unlike the other boys and girls who squawked and shouted at the sayer, and she gave him a most peculiar look, as though torn between uncertainty and insatiable curiosity.

Finally she walked up to the sayer and pressed a coin into his palm and said, in a somewhat shaky voice, "tell me a story please."

And he did.  He told them the story of the fairy princess who fell in love with the fish king and traded her wings for gills and fins so that she could join him in his watery kingdom.  But she had made a deal with a treacherous witch, and when her first daughter was born, the witch claimed her as the price of their bargain.  When the fairy princess refused, the witch said she would take her gills and fins instead, and the princess drowned.  Her daughter was saved, however, and grew up to be quite lovely, and to fall in love with a human prince (but that's another story).

When the sayer had finished, everyone clapped and began asking for more stories, pulling coins from their pockets and pouches.  The sayer told many more stories that afternoon, but the little girl sat and stared off into the distance, seeming not to hear him.  Finally, it was time to finish the dinner preparations and the townsfolk reluctantly moved away.  As they left the sayer, the people joked with each other about his ludicrous tales, his unimaginative story-telling technique, and his lack of timing and dramatic tension.  The same people who moments before had been in his thrall, now ridiculed everything from his feeble plot devices to his unfashionable hairstyle.

Only the little girl remained.  The sayer fed his donkey and was packing up his drinking cup and his earnings, when the little girl said: "The princess should never have given up her wings.  She made a terrible mistake."  

"But it all turned out alright in the end," said the sayer.

The little girl shook her head.  "She left her home, her family - everything she knew. And then, just when she had found happiness, she lost it all."

"Hm," replied the sayer.  "I disagree.  She gambled, sure, but she achieved her heart's greatest desires."

"She died alone.  No one tried to save her," said the little girl.

"Everyone dies alone," replied the sayer.  "Some journeys must be made alone."

And with that, the sayer and his donkey left.

The next morning, no one could find the little girl.  She had taken very few possessions with her - just enough to survive to the next village.  

But one donkey and one cart were missing.


The Scales

(March 2006)

The hero stepped through the portal into a vast chamber carved from stone.  The edges of the chamber stretched away into inky depths.  In front of him and in every direction as far as could be seen stood stone pedestals, like altars.  Upon each sat a man or a woman with legs crossed.  Each wore a blindfold and held aloft a large scale in their right hands.  On both sides of the scale were piled rocks and beads and other tidbits of varying size.  Next to each person on the pedestal was a third pile of stones and other sundries.  

Between the rows of pedestals moved figures the hero had only dreamt of in his wildest fancies - pixies, elves, demons and angels.  Seemingly at random, one of these creatures would slide over to a pedestal and add a stone to one side of the scale held there, or perhaps remove one.  Occassionally they would add or remove several stones.  Invariably, this caused the scales to teeter and rock, and the person who held it would paw about on the stone around them for a rock or piece of wood and add it to the scale, returning it to balance.

Just as the hero was taking this all in, his guide emerged nearby.  "We must pass quickly through this realm, my lord," said the guide.  "It is quite dangerous."

"What is it?" asked the hero, frightened by the strangeness of it.  "What are they doing?"

His guide fidgeted, wringing his hands.  "They toil without rest to keep the scales balanced, my lord.  And as you can see -" he indicated a passing pixie, who grinned fiendishly at them before tapping another scale, sending it teetering wildly.  "They have much to contend with," finished the guide.

The hero stood quietly, considering.  He had seen many nightmarish and exotic things in his travels, but nothing that compared to this place.  "What happens if they can't balance the scales?" he asked.

The guide pointed.  "Look."

A young woman sat desperately adding stones to her scale, but to the wrong side.  It teetered more and more out of control, then finally the entire thing fell from her hands and crashed to the floor.  In a heartbeat, she had vanished.

"If they cannot balance the scales they die, my lord," said the guide, looking pale.  "Please, we must move quickly."

The hero nodded and they rushed between the stone pedestals, making their way to the other side of the chamber and the portal that would take them past this realm to the next stop on their journey.  As they moved through the chamber, the hero observed many more people vanish as their scales tipped too far to one side or the other.

Finally, they had reached the second portal.  The guide uttered an incantation and a hazy opening appeared in the rock wall before them.  The hero turned to look one last time at the strange realm.  "What place is this?" he asked, full of curiosity and awe for a people who could endure so much.

"It is the mortal realm," said the guide.  "The land of men."

The Foretelling

(March 2006)

"I'm not sure I can do it," he said.

"Yes, you can," answered the ancient wise woman.  "I have foreseen it."  She hacked and coughed and spit on the fire, then poked at the coals with a stick.  Her bare feet were caked with dirt, the nails split and torn.  She wiggled her filthy toes near the flame.  The young man looked at her with barely concealed loathing.

"What have you seen, exactly?" he demanded.

She dropped her stick and put her hands up to her grimy face.  Closing her eyes and pressing her hands together, she tilted her chin to the sky and whispered as though she were reading quietly aloud.  The young man shifted impatiently, tired of sitting on the hard ground with this crazy, supposedly wise woman.

Finally, the old woman opened her eyes and dropped her hands to her lap.  "I have seen you, glorious in gleaming armor with the mark of an eagle's talon, skewering the great bull with a long, ancient blade."  Her eyes flashed, and the young man trembled in spite of himself.  "You will be the one to do this thing," she said in an ominous tone.  "The gods have determined it before your birth."

They were silent for a moment, the only sounds the cheerful crackling of the fire and the distant rustle of nocturnal creatures in the woods around them.

"Well," said the young man at last, and he got up to leave.  The old woman picked up a chunk of the roast pheasant he had brought for her and began chewing enthusiastically on it.  The young man picked up his helmet and bowed stiffly, then took his leave, riding his horse off into the night without saying another word.

After several moments, when the sound of his hoof beats could no longer be heard ringing up the trail, a young woman emerged from the nearby trees.  Her long hair hung like a ghostly pale sheet, but her eyes were as brown as the earth.

"What did you tell him, Nana?" she asked, looking off down the path he had taken.

The old woman spit out a bone and coughed.  "The same thing I told the last seven idiots."

"Oh," said the young girl.  "What happened to them?"

The old woman shrugged.  "Eh, one fell in the river, two were killed by highwaymen, another died of consumption..." she chuckled.  Then, seeing the deflated expression on her granddaughter's face, she grew more serious.  "Oh, don't worry.  Come here and sit by an old woman."

The girl did as she was told.  "Why do you tell them that they will succeed when you know they will not?" she asked.

"Ah, yes, that is important.  You will need to understand this if you are to take my place some day, child, so listen carefully."  She handed over a piece of pheasant.  "I tell them that they will succeed, because that is what they have come to hear.  It's what they need to hear.  Their purpose is to quest.  I give them the courage to continue on."

"To their deaths," said the girl, nibbling at the bird.  She stared into the fire glumly, her shoulders slumped.

"Well, now," said the old woman.  "No one can really know that for sure.  Although it is true that I can see when they are likely to fail.  But what good to set them on another path?  They would just as like fail at that as well." She laughed heartily and stretched.  "What's all this worry about anyway?  I've never seen you so taken."

"I liked him," the girl said simply.  "He was different from the others."

"Ah, well," said the old woman, grinning broadly.  "You do have the family spark, don't you?  Yes, he was different.  And I shouldn't worry about him, if I were you.  Not a bit."

The girl brightened and looked at her grandmother curiously.  "Why not?" she asked.

"Because, unlike the other fools who've come traipsing up here for solace and have gone marching off confidently to their dooms, that one did not believe a word I said to him.  There's hope for him."

The Odds

(17 Aug 2006)

Walter Newman feared pain above all other things.  In grade school he had begged out of playing football with his classmates, preferring to be teased by the other boys, in return for avoiding what looked certain to be a painful sport.  It wasn't that he didn't enjoy sports - Walter was quite an avid tennis player - but his fear of pain kept him away from the more interactive games.

Walter had never started a fight, or even been in one.  He had never been seriously injured, or had surgery.  In fact, he had experienced very little pain in his life, compared to most, and none of it severe or chronic in any way.

He couldn't remember exactly the day that he had first become afraid of pain.  It might have been in first grade, or second.  Walter had been playing tether ball with a boy on the playground - James, that was his name - when James had gotten distracted and been hit in the face by the ball.  James' nose was bleeding like crazy, of course, and Walter watched, paralyzed, as a teacher ran up and tsk'd over the mess and walked James to the nurse's office.  James was sobbing.  "It hurts," he wailed pitifully.  Walter watched, and looked at the little spots of blood on the ground, and vowed never to play tether ball again.

Perhaps that was how it started.  Walter couldn't be sure.  He only knew that somewhere along the way he had developed a strong aversion to pain of any kind.  He wore sunblock every day from May to September, dreading a sunburn.  He was absurdly vigilant while driving, terrified at the thought of being crushed inside his own car.  He avoided hot beverages for fear of spilling them in his lap.  And he was even cautious around escalators and automatic doors, on the off-chance of being painfully crushed by one.

As he grew older, his paranoia become more noticeable.  His fiancĂ©, Angela, started to comment that he never seemed to cook much anymore - Walter had become afraid of cutting himself with a sharp knife or being burnt by hot cooking grease - and he had always been so fond of cooking when they first started dating.  Now he just made sandwiches or burritos most nights.

Finally, Angela started to work out what was going on in Walter's head.

"I think you should see a therapist," she said.  "I'm worried about you."

Walter was starting to worry a little, too - every time his imagination conjured some new horribly painful scenario that might befall him, a piece of his life would crumble away.  It was starting to get very difficult to make it into the office each morning, and Walter had to admit to himself that it was getting ridiculous.

So, he took his fiancé's advice.

The therapist was not particularly inspiring, but she got Walter talking, and that got him thinking, and finally he was able to put his troubles into words.

"I just keep seeing these horrible things happening to me, and then I think about how awful that would feel, and suddenly there's one more thing that I can't do anymore," he explained.

"Here's what I think," said the therapist, looking slightly bored.  She sat behind her desk, sipping coffee while Walter talked.  "You say you're afraid of pain.  But what you're really afraid of is death.  Or, more specifically, a painful death.  It's a very natural fear, but you've taken it to creative extremes.  You fear all kinds of painful things that couldn't possibly kill you."

Walter thought of the hot coffee and kitchen knives and had to admit this was true.  He then imagined himself trapped in a twisted car, the metal frame cutting into his flesh as the engine caught fire, and the flames spread to his clothes.  He imagined the horrible agony of burning to death, screaming and writhing...

"Walter?" The therapist looked at him, her eyes a little less sleepy.  "Are you alright?"

"Obviously not," he grumbled, wondering if he would ever be able to lay eyes on a car again, let alone get into one.

"Look," she said.  "I want you to go see these folks."  She slid him a business card.  "I know it looks gimmicky, but their work is based on hard data and real statistical analysis.  It's all very high-tech.  And it just might bring you some comfort."

Walter examined the card.  "Possible Outcomes" it read, with a logo resembling stylized runic symbols.  He had heard of them.  Some company that had gotten its start in Hollywood and spread like wildfire from there.  They were supposed to be able to tell you how you were going to die, or something like that.  Walter hadn't paid it much attention - it seemed like a trendy thing.

"Are you serious?" he asked, feeling a little offended at being put off.

"Yes, you should really try it.  I think you'll find that it really gives you perspective."  She glanced at her watch.  "Time's up.  See you next week." 

Walter decided not to waste any time.  The next day he went downtown to the offices of "Possible Outcomes," which turned out to be above a thrift store and next to a dance hall.  In the waiting room, Walter could just hear "and a one, two, three" and the stomping of many feet coming through the adjoining wall.

The waiting room reminded him of his dentist's office.  It was windowless, and the plants were all fake.  There was a sort of hideous strip of wallpaper in a burgundy floral print, about halfway up the wall.  The chairs were uncomfortable and the magazines were all for either working moms or business executives.    Walter found himself wondering where the magazine was that catered to his demographic - the 30-something eccentric who likes music and cooking, and thinking deep thoughts - when he remembered that there was no such magazine.

There was a sliding window over where Walter had checked in.  A young man sat behind it, listening to his mp3 player and rocking out.  Periodically, he would start talking to thin air, or so it seemed, until Walter realized that he was receiving phone calls through the same ear buds, moving seamlessly between his music and taking calls.  Walter still thought it was pretty unprofessional.

After a few minutes, a young woman came through the door to the waiting room, clutching several printouts.  "You can always view your results online, of course," said the other woman who had walked out with her.  "And share them with your family and friends if you like, free of charge."  She beamed.  

The young woman looked dazed for a moment, then flung her arms around the older woman and hugged her fiercely.  Her eyes and nose were puffy from crying.  "Thank you," she breathed, and rushed from the office.

The older woman, dressed in a tasteful burgundy-colored business suit, approached Walter.  "Walter Newman?" she asked, consulting a clipboard.  He nodded.  "I'm Judy Scherer."  They shook hands.  "The technicians will see you now.  Follow me please."

Walter followed the burgundy-dressed woman down a short hall to another small room, also windowless.  There was a reclining chair that definitely looked like it belonged in a dentist's office, and two rolling stools.  Along one wall was a counter with several things laid out on it: sterile needles, gauze, a pressure cuff and stethoscope, and non-latex gloves in a vibrant green.  Next to the reclining chair was a large device on a rolling metal stand.  It had a video display and some wires dangling from it.  Walter guessed it was some kind of monitor.

Along the far wall there was a computer console.  The keyboard looked strange - almost like a cash register keyboard, with abbreviations on the keys, the meaning of which Walter could not guess at.

"Please make yourself comfortable," said Judy, gesturing at the reclining chair.  She handed Walter the clipboard.  "And you'll want to fill this out."

High-tech my ass, thought Walter.  They're still using paper?

"We're required to have a paper trail," said Judy.  "And you'll need to sign the bottom."

She walked out and Walter started reading through the form.  It was a pretty standard waiver, as far as Walter could tell, although he was pretty sure that the part about Possible Outcomes not being liable for the suicide of patients following their appointment was unusual.  Walter shook his head.  Suicide?  He signed the waiver.

It was a few minutes before the technicians arrived.  Walter sat in the chair and tried to relax.  It was hard not to look over at the needles.

Finally, the technicians came in, both wearing white smocks.  They were young men, perhaps in their mid-twenties, and both glowing with enthusiasm for their work.  The taller one shook Walter's hand.  "I'm Steven!" he grinned.  "This guy here is Josh."  Walter shook hands with Josh as well.  His smile was not quite as frozen as Steven's, but he also seemed abnormally cheerful.  Walter was suddenly reminded of the college kids who worked at the coffee hut and had always been "so stoked!" to see him.

"Alright, let's get started," said Steven as he began putting the pressure cuff on Walter's arm.  "Here's how it works:  I'm gonna get your baseline stats and run a few tests while Josh asks you some questions and inputs your answers into the computer.  Then we'll have it crunch some numbers while you wait, and then you'll meet with our analyst - that's Judy - who will go over your results with you."

The procedure turned out to be as straight forward as Steven had said it would be.  Josh started asking Walter questions about his family health history, his personal health, his hygiene, his lifestyle, habits, the lifestyles and habits of his friends and coworkers, his relationship status, his sexual habits, his politics - even what kind of books he liked to read.  Meanwhile, Steven checked his blood pressure, listened to his lungs, took a swab from the inside of his cheek, poked and prodded him, and hooked him up to the monitor.  Walter wanted to ask him what he was looking for as Steven frowned at the display, but Josh kept him busy with a barrage of questions.

Walter was not a shy or modest person and he answered every question as truthfully as he could.  But some of them struck him as particularly odd.  Questions like "Do you like to go fishing?" or "How often do you think your parents had sex?" caught him off guard.  But he answered every one as best he could.

The blood draw came near the end, and Walter couldn't help but squeeze his eyes shut and clutch the arms of the chair.  Steven was a pro, however, despite his youthful appearance, and Walter barely felt the pin-prick.

"Okay, you can wait in the lounge down the hall," said Steven, bandaging Walter's arm.  "There's coffee and doughnuts if you like, and some cold soda."

The lounge was at the end of the hall and was like heaven compared to the waiting room.  There were windows, for one thing, overlooking the river and the live oaks growing along it.  Walter could see bicyclists and people pushing strollers along the cobblestone path below.  There were real plants in this room and the walls were painted a soothing pastel blue.  There was a coffee table surrounded by leather armchairs.  Walter took a doughnut from the counter near the door, looked sadly at the coffee, and then eased himself into a chair and looked out at the summertime scene below.

There were no magazines in this room, and as a few minutes turned into twenty, Walter found himself thinking he should sneak back down the hall and grab the Business Week or Working Mom from the waiting room.  Anything was better than just sitting there, waiting to hear how you were going to die.

At last, Judy came in and sat next to Walter.  She had a small stack of printouts with her.

"Sorry that took so long," she said, frowning at the printouts.  "I needed to verify your results with a colleague at our Los Angeles office.  Your results were a little unusual."

Walter tried not to panic.  He liked unusual food and unusual music.  But with respect to matters of life and death, "unusual" was never a word you wanted to hear.

"Now," said Judy, straightening up and smiling.  She passed a sheet to Walter.  "These are your results.  They show the likelihood that you will die from various causes, such as a car crash or from cancer.  This page -" she handed him another sheet - "shows a breakdown of the likelihood that you will die from an illness versus an accident.  The bottom section shows the likeliness of your death occurring during certain age ranges."

She handed him more pages.  "These others show your risk of suicide, probability of being murdered, and chance of dying either alone or with other people.  This page shows the chance that you will die quickly or slowly, and how much pain and what type you are likely to suffer."

This last caught Walter's attention, but before he had a chance to read it, Judy was giving him one more page.

"This is sort of a summary.  And I don't want you to be alarmed.  The results were a bit unusual."  Walter tried to read the page but found it to be somewhat cryptic.  Judy took a deep breath.  "It seems that you are a very cautious person, and live a very health- and safety-conscious life.  From your interview, it seems that you have even managed to surround yourself with other circumspect and conscientious people.  So, you are at particularly low risk for all of the common causes of death in our country today - things like cancer, heart disease, car accidents and violence."

Judy paused and stared meaningfully at Walter.  He nodded to show that he understood.

"So?" he said.

"Well," said Judy, leaning back in her chair.  "Because you are at a low risk for conventional causes of death, and - well, because something has to kill you eventually - it turns out that you are at high risk for unusual causes of death."

Walter tried not to tremble.  Unusual... death, he thought, imagining the worst.

"It's all right there," said Judy.  

Walter read over the sheet again.  Under the subheading "most likely causes of death" were listed: struck by lightning while boating, avalanche, earthquake, volcanic eruption, rioting, tsunami.

"This is... crazy," he said.

"It is odd," admitted Judy.  "I have to say, I've never had a client in this region with anything more than a .01% chance of being killed by a tsunami, but you've got a five percent chance.  Considering that you live here in the Willamette Valley and only visit the coast once or twice a year, that's remarkable."

"And you've verified these results?" asked Walter, staring at the sheet in disbelief.

"Yes, of course," said Judy.  "I assure you, the process is quite rigorous.  We've been following up on our clients since the business started twelve years ago and our accuracy rating is at 90%."

"So there's a chance that you're wrong?" asked Walter.

"Well," said Judy.  "It's all probabilities, you see.  You have about a fifty percent chance of being struck by lightning while boating.  Now, that's based on current weather trends, current statistics on similar deaths, correlated with your particular risk factors, and taking your lifestyle into account.  But there is still a good chance - fifty percent - that you will die some other way."

"But," said Walter, shaking his head.  "I hardly ever go boating."  

"I know, I know," she said, looking troubled.  "I told you, the results are a bit odd.  You are a bit of a unique character, apparently."  She smiled warmly.

Walter read through the other pages, trying to make sense of the graphs and tables.

"What... what.." he took a deep breath.  "What are the chances that I will die very ... painfully?" he asked.

"Oh your chances are good," said Judy, turning to the appropriate page.  Walter stared at her.  "Oh no! I mean the chance is good that you will die very suddenly - you see?  Most of these natural disaster type deaths kill you pretty quickly.  There's a 10% chance that you will die from painful smoke inhalation during a volcanic eruption or fire, but it looks like your chances of actually burning to death are low, for example."

Walter shook his head and smiled.  "This is incredible," he said, suddenly grasping what this information could mean.  "Do you ever have anyone change their results?  I mean, by changing their lifestyle?  Like quitting smoking or whatever?"

Judy sighed.  "Sadly, no.  Some people say they're going to turn their lives around, but in my experience, they almost never do."

"God," breathed Walter.  "Why do they even come here then?  What's the point?"

Judy shrugged, looking suddenly defeated.  "I suspect they just don't like the uncertainty of it all  - the fear of the unknown.  Once they know what to expect, well, I think it's just a comfort to them.  For the most part, they either deny the results entirely, or embrace them."

Walter turned to the summary page again.

"What if..." he scanned the list.  "What if I eliminated my chance of dying on a boat by never going on a boat again?"

Judy considered.  "Then I suppose your chances of dying via these other methods would increase.  I mean, something has to kill you."

"Does it?" asked Walter, feeling giddy.  "I mean, why doesn't this list old age as a cause of death?"

"That's a common misconception," she explained patiently.  "People don't actually die of old age.  They die of organ failure or pneumonia or a stroke.  All of which, for various reasons, you are at extremely low risk of."

Walter flipped to the page that showed age ranges for death.  "These numbers don't add up to 100%," he said.

Judy shook her head.  "I know.  I think it might be a bug in the software.  The endpoint is based on the oldest known person's age of death, but the results showed you had a 25% chance of living past that age, which is 120."

Walter stared.  "Are you kidding me?"

Judy ran her hands through her hair.  She looked tired.  "No.  I'm quite serious.  I never joke about death, Mr. Newman."

"Well, this is fantastic," said Walter.  "I mean, according to this, I'll most likely live to a very old age and die suddenly from some random crazy natural disaster.  Huh."

Judy smiled.  "I'm glad you're pleased.  Now, I'm afraid I have to excuse myself.  We have another patient coming in.  Please feel free to help yourself to some coffee and stay as long as you need."

And she left.

Walter read through all the documents, getting more and more excited.  It was better than good - it was fabulous.  The genetic tests showed he had no risk of diabetes or heart disease, two family diseases he had always feared he would get.  He had almost no chance of dying from a wasting disease, from a virulent infection, or from being repeatedly stabbed - scenarios that had often filled his fancies.  He had essentially zero chance of dying in a car.  How do they figure this stuff? he wondered.

In his mind, he started making plans.  Tonight, he would make a fantastic chef's salad for Angela like he used to make - with lots of chopped fresh vegetables and diced ham.  He would fly out to his parents in Houston - he hadn't seen them in years, being too afraid to fly or drive, or even take the train (they derail, you know - but no risk of derailment here!).  He was going to go out for burgers with his buddies at work tomorrow - damn the saturated fat!  And later he'd take Angela out dancing - no chance of being paralyzed by a falling disco ball.

As Walter got up to leave, wiping doughnut crumbs off his pants, he saw the coffee pot again and thought hallelujah!

He filled the styrofoam cup with confidence, stirred in a little sugar, and strode confidently from the room.  As he reached the waiting room, he held up his hand to the guy behind the counter in a mock high-five and said "have a good one!" then pushed through the door that led to the stairs, sipping his coffee.

As Walter took the first step down the narrow flight of stairs - the printouts tucked under one arm, the coffee cup in the other - a heavy latin beat came from the dance studio next door.  Startled, he slopped some coffee onto his pant leg, where it soaked quickly through his slacks and singed the delicate skin beneath.  He bent forward slightly, trying to wipe away the coffee with his other hand without dropping the papers, when he lost his balance.

When the EMTs arrived, finding Walter's ruined body at the bottom of the stairs, they told the gathering crowd that he had died instantaneously.

The little girl who had found him examined his face, wondering if he would look scared or surprised.  But there was no expression at all.

The Magic Gate

 (1992)


With a longing sort of look,

reaching for her favorite book,

she reclines into a nook.


Here no petty troubles wait;

she escapes her sorry fate,

passing through a magic gate.


Lands uncharted, things unknown;

This is where she's most at home,

living fantasy alone.


When at last her time is through

and there are things that she must do,

she bids her happy nook adieu.

Prince Charming

(September 2004)


Last night

I picked up Prince Charming's dirty underwear

from the bathroom floor

for the third time this week


I tripped over some shoes

in the hallway

that gallant prince again


I found some dishes

in the study

they were stuck to the desk

and looked like someone's science experiment


no one ever said

in the fairy tales

if princes had good table manners

mine doesn't

he prefers to eat in front of the TV anyway


But today I paged him

and he called me right back

came to see me when I needed him


he makes excuses for me

when the phone rings

and I don't want to talk


he holds me when I have a bad dream

makes me breakfast in bed

just because

surprises me with hugs

and rubs my feet


With respect to everyone else

I know where I stand with my prince:

First


So the next time I pick up a dirty sock

I wrinkle my nose and think:

my prince may not be perfect

in every way

but in every way that counts

he is

The Landslide

(April 2005)


He stood, muscles straining, sweat glinting on his well-toned body, the weight of a mountain in his arms. Below him the villagers ran for their lives from the onslaught of falling rocks.  The landslide continued, seemingly without end, and still he held back the tide.  Time and again his strength had been tested, and he had met every challenge without fail.  This was the ultimate test, pitting his enormous strength against the fury of nature, proving himself by saving the lives of thousands.

The rocks continued to pile on his shoulders, ton after ton, and still he held, as the earth rumbled around him.  Ton after ton, the ground shaking, dust stinging his eyes, the screams of the escaping villagers filling his ears.  He found another reservoir of strength and tapped it, as the rubble piled on and on and on.

He felt something then that he had never felt in his life.  He felt himself begin to weaken; his strength began to fail.  He used resources he had never used before, flexing muscles he didn't know he had.  He marveled at his own beauty and prowess.  He had never been tested this far.

Then suddenly his strength failed him completely.  He had time to see that the villagers had escaped far down the mountainside, but still he held by force of sheer will.  The mountain roared and shook and in his last moments he felt no fear, he felt no disappointment.  He felt only relief.  He had found his limit and embraced it, as the mountain tumbled over him.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Small Magics

(14 Jul 2015)

Paulo was not a very good wizard. He was still young, it's true, and still learning. But even at this stage, people could tell he was never going to be a great wizard. He had the spark, but not much more.

In school, he suffered the ridicule of his classmates, who loved to demonstrate their superior abilities at every opportunity.

But Paulo had something few people ever have: a true friend. Her name was Emerelda, and she was not a wizard - at least not the kind with magic. She lived in Paolo's neighborhood, and they met often at the playground.

"Do one of your tricks!" she would so often say. For even before Paulo knew he was a wizard, he had made small magics for Emerelda. He would make a swing move without touching it, or change the sound of a chirping cricket to a croaking frog. Emerelda would laugh and clap with delight, and Paulo's heart would sing.

In school the young wizards learned to lift heavier and heavier objects with their minds - first feathers, then small stones, then boulders and huge carved stones. Paolo progressed much slower. His teacher finally said "I think you'd best stick to feathers, my boy." So Paulo practiced and practiced with his feather, lifting it and tumbling it through the air.

In the playground he showed Emerelda the dancing feather trick. He raised it slowly, pretended to let it drop, then brought it swiftly back up again. It twisted and danced in the air between them and Emerelda gasped. "It's magic!" she said. And Paulo felt a little happy but also sad, because he knew this was only small magic.

In school, the other children learned to control water. Gradually they worked up from making little ripples and waves to creating huge tsunamis that crashed on the shore of the lake, soaking the whole class. Paulo could only make bubbles, sweet rainbow-colored orbs that he collected on the water's surface. His teacher came by and tsk'ed, unimpressed. The other children snickered at him.

But later, Paulo met Emerelda in the playground. They went to the edge of the little pond, where he made dozens of small bubbles on the water's surface, like translucent pearls, and collected them together into shapes: a swan, a boat, and a little heart. Emerelda sighed and put her hands in his. "Magic," she said.

But Paulo knew his magic was no good. In school the other children were learning to control fierce animals: eagles, bears and werewolves. They made them hop on one foot, and eat ice cream, and occasionally set them on each other, to a chorus of screams and laughter.

Paulo concentrated on controlling butterflies. He could do no more. And later, in the playground, he showed Emerelda his masterpiece. The butterflies all lined up in a row, took a bow, and then began pirouetting and tumbling in an elegant ballet, while a cricket chirped (and ribbeted) the Ode to Joy.

Emerelda was so pleased, she clasped her hands to her heart and wept. "Oh, Paulo, it's wonderful," she said.

At the end of the year, there was a festival, where the wizards did great magics to please the crowds and collect money for their school. Emerelda begged Paulo to take her, so he did. But he feared what she would say when she saw how pathetic his magic really was. "She won't want to be my friend anymore," he thought miserably.  But he could not say no to her.

At the festival, the other students did magnificent tricks, as Paulo had expected. One child crashed a tsunami into the audience. Many people applauded, but Emerelda was frowning, shaking water off her new dress. Another wizard lifted several great standing stones, then let them crash back to earth, covering the audience in dust. Emerelda coughed.

The third act was a controlled werewolf, who rode a tricycle and ate a hotdog, then rampaged through the audience. Everyone screamed, but when it was over, they laughed and applauded - all except Emerelda.

When it was Paulo's turn, he did the best he could. He summoned the butterflies, lifted some feathers, and had them dancing through the air together surrounded by a swirling stream of iridescent bubbles. When he was done, he used his mind to gently place the feather in Emerelda's hand, the butterflies settled on her hair, and the string of water pearls lay splendidly around her neck. The audience ooooh'd quietly.

Paulo dropped his head in shame and walked up to his friend.

"Oh, Paulo," she said, "your magic was the best of all."

He stared at her. "How can you say that?" stammered Paulo. "Theirs was so much better."

"No," said Emerelda. "Because their magic was for themselves. But yours... was for me."

A Dust Jacket Review

(27 Mar 2015)


Today I started reading Neil Gaiman's new short story collection "Trigger Warning" and I must point out one glaring flaw.

The text on the inside front cover of the dust jacket refers to Neil Gaiman as "the beloved storyteller."

While I am sure he is loved by many, "beloved" is hardly the right adjective.

Mother Theresa was beloved. Santa Claus is beloved. Would you call a spider "beloved"? No, you would not.

What Neil Gaiman is, is a class A trickster, a conjurer, a charlatan. He pulls you in with a story, which you dutifully gobble up. At the end, you bark a laugh or say "huh" and go about your business.

But late at night, you wake up, and see the curtains moving without a breeze, hear a floorboard squeak where no footfall should be, see a shadow that's gone when you rub your eyes.

And on waking, there can be only one logical conclusion: that such terrors you saw in the night exist not so much in the real world, as in your own head, where they are in a way far more dangerous.

To be fair, Neil Gaiman did not put them there. But he opened the cellar door, he pulled aside the cobwebs, and took the shackles off the monster. And now it's roaming freely in the corners of your mind.

For this bit of magic, we love him. But you would hardly call a person who does <em>that</em> beloved. Respected, let's say. Possibly revered. No, we need a word with more trouble in it, more menace.

I'm not sure what it is, not having a thesaurus handy. I'll let you decide.

For now, I'll go finish reading "Trigger Warning" and perhaps the word will be there. Or more likely I will find it, hiding in my mind's cellar, behind the coal chute, in that dark corner that that tricky magician is about to show me.

The Totally Reasonable Practice of Keeping Pets

(17 Nov 2012)

I grew up with pets, just like a lot of people I know.  Everyone has a philosophy about pets and about the proper relationship between humans and animals.  I have known vegans who wouldn't squash a fly but kept murderous cats. I babysat two little children who were content to eat the bunny rabbits they had named and played with all spring. Some people consider a cow food, a horse a tool, a dog a friend and a cat a terrifying menace. 

Suffice it to say, our relationship with animals is complicated. 

A very wise friend of mine once said that people who hold extreme views are doomed to contradict themselves. The fact of the matter is, humans are animals, too. And on a more basic level, we are alive and we like having other living things around us. 

I used to think that keeping a mammal or a bird as a pet was quite reasonable, but that creatures like reptiles and insects were illogical pets. But my perspective was too limited. Keep in mind that from the ages of ten to fourteen, a tuxedo cat was my best friend in the entire world. For me, pets were all about friendship, about caring for something that cared about me, too. So when I looked at a snake or a lizard, animals that are not terribly social, it was hard to understand the appeal.

But since then I have kept quite a few creatures in my home that couldn't have cared less about me, and it was still worth it. There is something to be said for having other living things around. And there is no better way to understand another creature than to live with it, day in and day out, observing its habits and being surprised by its idiosyncrasies. 

My husband once brought home a tire track eel. At first, I was a bit horrified. I felt no affinity for the creature whatsoever. It looked like something I would hope to find on some rice at the sushi restaurant, and the way it was looking at me implied that it had the same idea about me, too. 

They are carnivorous, smart, and energetic creatures. The eel was active at all times of the day, and turned out to be an uncanny escape artist. We had our tank divided to keep the convict cichlid from chewing on everyone else, but the tire track eel viewed the divider as a challenge. He always had to be on the other side of it. He also figured out how to get into the filter tank outside the main tank, several times. We started keeping the water level low to discourage his antics, but we still found him in the filter every few days or so. 

Over time, I grew to admire the eel. He was funny. He liked to hang out with the catfish in his private cave. The catfish was shy and hated having the eel with him, which seemed to delight the eel. The eel also seemed to relish tormenting the cichlid, who was territorial and felt compelled to pick a fight with anyone who came near. When the eel wasn't in the cichlid's side of the tank moving her rocks around, he was on the other side of the divider, mocking her as the cichlid attacked the divider over and over again. 

At this point I can imagine most people are thinking: "you are anthropomorphizing your fish." And it's true. But I would argue that it's a healthy exercise to try to understand the behavior of alien creatures in terms of our own motivations. This is one of the very reasons that parents give their children pets, even though children are notoriously bad with responsibility. Having a pet is an excellent way to learn empathy. 

Whatever the eel was up to, one thing was abundantly clear: he was bored. He was an intelligent animal, and after years of watching him, I grew to admire his intelligence and ingenuity and to feel bad that we weren't providing him with enough entertainment. When the tire track eel died after an unfortunately successful escape attempt (suicide attempt?), I was genuinely distraught. In my mind, eels are no longer something to eat or be afraid of. They are now something to admire and enjoy. 

And that in a nutshell is the totally reasonable reason that people keep pets. We all struggle to survive, endure, thrive and abide. And in the end we know we will all lose this battle. We feel a connection with other collections of molecules trying to do the same thing. 

There is something freaky and special about life. Life is all about bucking the system. It's a big F-U to the man, to entropy. We know we are just eddies in time, but it's glorious while it lasts. And whether you are cuddling a fat furry cat who is purring on your stomach, watching a cichlid fish sort the rocks in its den, or listening to your hermit crabs clicking to each other in the middle of the night, there is something irresistible and wonderful about life.