Her mother’s yellow dress lay crumpled on the floor. It was but a piece of silk, a dress her mother had sewn so she would feel beautiful, something different from the cotton dyed with unripe persimmons she wore on the island. She remembered her mother humming as she sewed. How she said it had been so long since she looked pretty for a man. She’d sewn a matching dress for Lucy, but Lucy dug in the dirt in it, scrambled up rocks and ridges in it, splashed in the creek in it; she’d torn and dirtied it until there was no more wearing of it. There was no wearing of her mother’s dress, either. Lucy gathered up the silky material and pressed it to her face, inhaled the lavender and lemon scent, then in a fit of anger, she ripped it to shreds.
When the man came, Lucy’s mother forgot the strength she had on the island. How the Jeju women would free-dive into the cold waters to gather abalone and conch and sell them to make the money needed—they were called haenyeo, sea women, strong and brave. Lucy visited the island three times with her mother, the last time to bring Grandmother back after the cancer overtook her. Lucy never forgot the sight of her mother and grandmother diving into the water at Jeju; she thought them both the bravest women ever. She’d refused to dive. Her grandmother attempted to tease her into it, but she pretended she was bored, not afraid.
She’d said, haughtily, in English, “I’m American. Americans don’t do that.”
In Jeju dialect, her grandmother answered, “You are a part of me, too.”
“She’s so like her father,” her mother said, then quickly turned away.
Lucy didn’t remember her father, only knew him from grainy photos in sepia tones, an American with intense eyes and a smiling mouth. Lucy’s mother would not tell Lucy about him, and until she’d grown too old for it, Lucy made up stories about him, ones where he was brave and true and came to rescue her mother on his white horse. His legacy to his family was the log cabin nestled in a cove on a mountain, where he’d swept away Lucy’s mother from Jeju to live. There was a beautiful willow tree near the creek; her father had planted it himself when he was a boy. The tree was in the photos, first small, and then full and beautiful with its long leaves blowing in the wind, tickling her father’s face, as it did Lucy’s.
Grandmother called out, “There Lucy is again, off in the worlds in her head!” She’d held up a conch shell in triumph. “This for you, Lucy.”
Lucy shrugged, as if she didn’t care about diving for her own conch shell.
Her mother said, “Leave her be. When you come to America, you will understand.”
Grandmother answered, “I understand many things.”
On the flight back to America, Lucy’s grandmother told her about the Three Abundance: The Seokda (rocks), Pungda (wind), and Yeoda (women). How the seokda came from Mt. Halla’s volcano, and how the people worked hard to clear them away; how they constructed the walls for protection against the wild blowing wind; and how many men were lost to the sea, so it was up to the yeoda to be strong and brave and to work as hard as the men, or harder.
Grandmother said, “Jeju people are independent and value honor; their lives connected and strong on the island, just like the mountain people where we go now. I am not afraid.” She had then folded her hands over her lap, and fallen asleep.
Lucy’s mother leaned over and whispered, “And just like the mountain, tourists are now everywhere on Jeju!” She’d laughed.
Lucy only thought of regret. She should have been brave and dived into the water.
When they arrived home, her grandmother said if she squinted her eyes just right, some things seemed like Jeju—the rock, the wind, the mountain, the women. But she loved the willow, just as Lucy did.
Lucy’s mother and grandmother’s long hair fanned in the breeze as they hung sheets on the line, the white linens undulating like angel’s wings, and later the sheets smelled like the sun. At night, Lucy listened to the sound of the bobcat screaming, the coons chattering over the apples she left on the porch, the song of the creek as it rushed. Her grandmother and mother spoke wistfully of Jeju, but for Lucy, the mountain was all she needed, all she wanted. Still, the waters of Jeju called to her, because she had not dived, she had not been brave.
One day, her grandmother asked, “Do you believe, Lucy?”
“In the Three Abundance. In the power you hold as a woman?”
“I guess so.”
“Oh, Lucy.” Her grandmother shook her head. “Just trust in your strengths.”
Lucy’s mother said to Grandmother, “It’s different here. You don’t understand.”
Grandmother shook her head again. “It is no different.”
The herbs her grandmother made helped the cancer pain. Grandmother said, “These help me to be with you longer, so I can rest against our willow and look at the mountains.” Her Grandmother died under the willow tree with her back against its bark, her face holding songs of the island, her lips curved in a smile.
A year later was when her mother sewed the dress. Then, the man slipped in to live with them on the mountain. Everything changed. As soon as she could, Lucy left the mountain. She had to.
Seven evenings after she’d ripped the dress, Lucy’s returned from work to find at her apartment door a box tied with blue ribbon, her name written in silver ink. She lifted it, untied the ribbon, opened the box, and familiar scent wafted. Inside laid a large silver locket. Etched on the front was a willow tree growing on a rock that stood in the ocean, and a piece of rolled parchment paper.
She went inside, sat on her sofa, carefully unrolled the paper, and read, “Remember the Three Abundance.” When she opened the locket, powder sifted onto her lap. She sniffed it—her grandmother’s herbs. She scraped up the spill, poured it back into the locket, and closed it.
Her mother must have sent it. She dialed up home, and the man answered the phone. Lucy wanted to hang up, but she asked, “Where is my mother?”
“Where’s the check, girlie? We had a deal.”
“I mailed it.”
“Wale, I ain’t got it yet.” She pictured him cleaning his nails with the old rusty pocketknife, the one he’d once poked her mother’s skin with when he was drunk and displeased.
“You’ll get it. Now, let me speak to my mother.” Lucy’s stomach roiled. Their deal: she sent the man a check every month to help take care of her mother. Her mother did not know.
She heard him blow cigarette smoke, and imagined his yellow fingertips curled into his palm as he made a fist. “You got no business running off and leaving us alone. Think you’re too good.”
She heard the tinkling of ice against glass, the cold sound of sorrows. A picture flashed, the man rearing up like an enraged bear, cuffing her mother with his big paw. The smell of whisky poisoning the air. Running outside to hide behind the leaves of the willow, young Lucy had felt shame for her mother.
Her voice commanded, even with its tremor she knew he heard, “Let me speak to my mother.”
She listened as his chair scraped ridges into the wood floor, and imagined Grandmother’s ghost watching him with angry eyes as he disrespected their home.
Her mother’s voice brought burning to Lucy’s eyes. “Oh, Lucy! Are you well?”
“Yes, mother, I’m well.” They talked about her job at the museum. Lucy asked about her willow, and learned it was weeping. They said their goodbyes, and Lucy placed the phone on its cradle. She knew she should go home to her mother, her willow, but she could not.
For seven nights she dreamed her grandmother stood underneath the willow’s branches, their hair wild and blowing. The seventh night she called out, and Lucy awoke to her own voice answering, “Yes. I’m Lucy. I’m your granddaughter.” Clicking on the lamp, she picked up the silver locket and turned it over, watched her reflection waver on the smooth mirrored backside. On the front, she more closely studied the etched willow tree, and noticed how it seemed as if the branches were moving, ethereal, lighter than the heaviness. Blown by breaths of wind.
The following weeks she worked at the museum, among the dead and lost, among the ancient ways, among the silence she craved. The dream nagged; her mountain called. She belonged there. He did not. Her anger surfaced, like foam on water after the wave curls.
An evening when the sky held bloated clouds, she lay in bed with her photo album and held the picture of her mother and she under the willow, when Lucy was seventeen. That was after her mother had the man arrested, and he went to jail. Then, the two of them were happy again. They’d gone for long walks, watched the deer grazing with their delicate muzzles to the sweet grass. They’d sat at the kitchen table, drank strong bittersweet coffee, and ate the bread Lucy’s mother baked. Her grandmother’s spirit was happy.
When the man returned with fools-golden promises, his face cleared of his mistakes, the booze poured out where it mixed with the New River, her mother felt sorry for the man’s loneliness, and let him slip back in. Lucy couldn’t bear it.
Seven weeks passed since she received the strange locket. Her grandmother’s scent was everywhere. She supposed people experienced these things when regret would not release. She supposed people conjured up strange occurrences when guilt prodded.
She dreamed of her mother and grandmother diving at Jeju. On the seventh day of the seventh month, she dreamed the willow and mountain were lifted up and deposited on the island, combining her life, her mothers and her grandmother’s life. She climbed to the top of the tree and dived into the water, searching, searching and not quite finding.
The phone awoke Lucy, and her heart skittered. She put her hand on the receiver, her head still heavy against her pillow, expecting to hear the man’s voice full of smoke, whisky, and anger, for she had not sent his latest check. She had instead written a fury-filled letter. She wrote how she was coming to help her mother. She raged all the swallowed words, her pen heavy against the paper, tearing it in places. She wanted to hurt him, she wrote, that she had a fury against him she couldn’t tame. She’d sprinkled herbs from the locket into the envelope. She’d sealed it and mailed it and scheduled her flight.
The phone screamed again.
She picked up the receiver, and before he could say a word, she said, “I hate you. I will never see what my mother sees.”
A female voice said, “What?” Then, “This Lucy?”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Yes, this is Lucy.”
“This here’s Lou. Down the road. Your daddy, he done passed on this mornin’.”
“What? I…he’s not my father.” She sat up.
“Well, don’t know ‘bout that.” A sigh, then, “He was tryin’ to cut down that willer tree. Cussin’ up a storm, he was.”
“He cut down our willow?” Lucy’s heart constricted.
“Well, no, ‘cause guess he cut hisself. I didn’t see that part; I had to get on lookin’ for my old cur, but your momma rang me up. Said she didn’t want to wake you up in so early in the morning. Said to wait ‘til seven.”
Lucy gripped the phone.
“She’s up to the funeral home. Said for you to come on home now.”
Lucy picked up the locket, and it felt as warm as if it had been held in a palm, close and tight.
“Your momma were the onliest one took time to help that poor mean man.”
“Yes. She was the only one.”
“Well, guess I oughter get back to my beans.”
“Thank you, Lou. Goodbye.” She replaced the receiver. She kissed the locket.
At the funeral, her mother stood straight and tall in a plain cotton dress. She looked at Lucy and Lucy saw a flicker of something in her mother’s eyes—something wild and dangerous, just as she’d looked when she’d dived at Jeju.
Later, Lucy asked, “What happened?”
Her mother looked at her a long time, then said, “Your father was a good man who loved us both fiercely. I wish you remembered him. He had green eyes, and a gentle touch. He died one night trying to get home. His car ran off the road.” She closed her eyes, opened them. “I always felt guilty that he was trying to get home to us on those curvy roads, and so late at night. I was a young bride. I put pressures on him.” She pressed her lips briefly together, then said, “I don’t know where I’ve been these last years, as if I’ve been punishing myself.”
“No, Mother. I have.”
She grabbed Lucy’s hand. “I did what had to be done. For us.”
Lucy nodded. “I did, too.”
Lucy knew what her mother required. The purifying feel of water, the cleansing wind, the steady rock. She went back to Boston to gather her things.
Seven days, seven hours, seven minutes later, Lucy reached her mountain while the moon was heavy and unclouded. She set down her suitcases and inhaled the scent of lavender and lemon. She was home. She had two tickets to Jeju—one round trip for her, and a one-way for her mother. They’d leave on the seventh. Lucy already felt the weight of the water as it closed around her, and then released her as she broke surface. She was not afraid.
Outside, her mother stood beside the willow tree, her hair blowing in the wind. Lucy joined her. They sat against the trunk, the bark tattooing upon their back the willow’s stories. She thought how the willow would again gather strength from her care, as she gathered rest and shade from it. She leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder.
Lucy said, “Grandmother is here.”
Her mother said, “Yes. I know.”
The strength of rock, the force of wind, and the bravery of women. What powers came from the Three Abundance? Many. Enough.
Kathryn Magendie is a writer and editor, and Senior Editor/Senior Newsletter Editor at The Rose & Thorn Literary Ezine. Kat’s essays, columns, poetry, short stories, book reviews, interviews, and photography have been published in places such as, Western North Carolina Woman Magazine (a version of Three Abundance won first place in their 2008 Short Story contest), Literal Latte, BoomerWomen Our Stories, OCEAN Magazine, A Cup of Comfort for Writers, Moondance-Celebrating Creative Women, C/Oasis: Writing for the Connected World, The Rose & Thorn, Nicholls State University Jubilee Anthology (novel excerpt), Halfway Down the Stairs, Drollerie Press (short story coming soon), Lunch Hour Stories (coming July 2008), L'Intrigue, the Wild Magnolia of Literature, Cantaraville Three, The Mountaineer Publishing Company’s The Guide.
Willow courtesy of Art.com
Carter’s Third Funeral
We’re driving to Big Grandma’s funeral in our brown car, Mom and Lucy and me. It’s my third funeral.
"It better be open casket," Mom says. She cranks the radio up and the window down. I’m in the seat right behind her. The wind streaks Mom’s hair backward until her curls are flat. I touch the golden threads and feel hard little cat whiskers of hair whipping back and forth.
Our cat, Mr. Angry Pants, puked this morning. Mom hopped around in one shoe cleaning it up with Lucy’s diaper. When I asked why Norton eats his puke up and Mr. Angry Pants won’t, Mom said, "Because Norton is a dog.” Then she burned the toast and Lucy drove one of my trucks off the toilet seat into the water. I could tell she thought putting lots of toilet paper in the water might make it easier to get the truck, but I tried that once and it doesn’t. We left the truck where it was and hoped Mom would find it sometime when she wasn’t so mad.
I know it’s a funeral by the treetops flicking past the window and the white sky. All our funerals have this sky. First there was Uncle Vern’s funeral when I was a little kid and I barely remember it except for the trees and the sky, which was the first time I knew about how the sky could be different for a funeral. Mom said that when Uncle Vern died thunder and lightning came out of the sky to get him.
"Damn it all, he’s pulling us over," Mom says.
"Never mind." She stops the car in a buzz of gravel.
"Who’s pulling us over, Mom?" But I can see for myself the police lights in the window. "You were going too fast again."
"I was not." She turns around to face us. "Okay, guys. Do you want your mommy to get taken away? Cry real loud. And keep crying."
Lucy opens up and screams, her face getting red and her hair standing on end. She screams so loud I feel worms turning inside my ears. She screams so loud birds fly away from the trees near where we’ve stopped.
The cop bends down until his hat brim fills Mom’s window. He bounces back a little when he hears Lucy screaming.
She’s crying for real. She arches her back and the car seat straps cut into her shoulders. Her tummy sticks out like a wad of gum and her feet brace against the seat. I know exactly how she feels. She’s so loud the car shakes.
The cop steps away with his hands out. His lips move but I can’t hear what he says. He gets in his car and drives away really fast, and when Mom turns around smiling, Lucy goes quiet.
"No ticket," says Mom.
"You were going too fast," I say.
"Oh, Carter." Mom throws the brown car into gear and peals out, saying: "You don’t know anything about it."
Pretty soon, she’s doing it again. She turns up the radio and the trees flicker by my window. I know.
When we arrive, Aunt Lillian comes out to greet us, wobbling both arms. She has the same red hair as Mom, and she squeezes Mom’s cheek into a pink bunch and when she lets go, Mom has Aunt Lillian’s fingerprints on her face. "Oh, honey! You came to see if she’s dead, too."
I undo my safety belt and Lucy’s car seat belt. She turns over and wiggles out, and I open my door because Mom’s not looking.
"Open casket?" asks Mom in her grown-up voice.
Aunt Lillian wiggles her eyebrows. "That’s how the Adventists like to do it."
"They didn’t open Daddy's casket until the service was over."
Aunt Lillian drops her voice. "Honey, we didn’t need proof your daddy was dead. What we needed was proof he’d been alive in the first place."
Mom leans close to Aunt Lillian. "Oh, I’m such a mess. I saw the devil’s face in my window last night. And today, everything is so out of control."
"Who wouldn’t be a mess? Your mother just passed away." Aunt Lillian looks down, seeing me for the first time. "Is this your perfect little man?"
I remember grandpa a little. When he died, his nose stuck out of the coffin, a high bumpy nose that went up and up. I wondered how they were going to get the lid down again. Maybe Grandpa would have to sleep until Judgment Day with no pillow. I don’t remember his nose being like that when he was alive but I was just a little kid then, and I had to talk VERY LOUD to grandpa. Mom hurried me past the coffin so I couldn’t see anything but the part of him that stuck out.
Later Mom sat down on the floor of a big black car and cried in Big Grandma’s lap. Lucy wasn’t born yet. It was just me then, and I remember thinking how easily Mom could drive off with Big Grandma and leave me behind on the sidewalk. That was our second funeral.
"I still wish he was here," says Aunt Lillian. We are walking up steps to the church and she is wheezing like she needs to clear her throat. "Your daddy. Not a day goes by."
"The old woman wore him out," says Mom.
Inside the church, a man with dark clothes shakes my hand and gives me a card. I see buttons and ties and black dresses. Everyone talks in low voices, and the women go whish whish whish as they walk. There are no other kids around that I can see.
We squeeze into a bench with a bunch of old people who don’t smile. Uncle Ted is at the very end and he gives me a scary look, a nod. It means don’t mess up or else.
There are books in a wooden holder in front of me, but I don’t reach out to touch them or kick the kneeler. Mom must have been really bored when she was a kid because no one was her age, and today me and Lucy are really bored because there’s no one our age to play with except a baby.
"I know it’s a lot to take in," Mom says. "But this is the last one."
"Won’t we go to more funerals?"
"Not if we move and leave no forwarding address."
Until more people arrive I can see the coffin in the front of the room. The lid is down and flowers are all over it. Pink.
"Is she in there?" I ask.
Mom runs her finger over my wrist. "I sincerely hope so."
"Honey, it’s complicated." She gives me and Lucy each a cracker and fusses with the plastic bag. "She was a mean woman who never loved anyone."
This place is not a church. I know because at grandpa’s funeral Uncle Ted said grandpa didn’t have far to travel, just up from the basement, because this is a funeral home, not a real church, and he folded his arms across his chest and made the look.
The air smells of coffins and flowers and old dresses and pages of books that never get opened. The only time the air gets breathed is during funerals. For, I don’t know, maybe a hundred years, only funerals happen in this room. The air waits for funerals, and I wonder if the air I breathed at grandpa’s funeral is still in here, just waiting for me to come back. Maybe I’m breathing it now.
Big Grandma’s coffin has the lid down, so she’s not part of the air. I hold my breath and count to twenty-six before I have to breathe again.
Mom says, "Don’t gasp, Carter. I’m struggling enough as it is."
A minister starts to talk, and all the people sit down. When it’s time for sharing memories about Big Grandma, people cringe away from the minister as he walks down the aisle holding a microphone. No one wants to talk. When he goes past us, Mom stiffens up like a statue and I know she wants to get up and tell about seeing the devil’s face in the window, and how Big Grandma used to keep a pee bucket next to her bed so she didn’t have to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Finally someone stands up, someone who probably didn’t know Big Grandma very well, or who feels sorry for the minister. Mom gives Lucy another cracker. I gasp again because I held my breath until thirty-two while the minister walked past us, but I do it quietly so no one knows.
After the talking, another man goes to the casket and strips off the flowers. He puts his hands on the lid. Everyone who’s been to funerals before knows what happens next. The man waits a minute with his head bowed before opening the lid.
"Okay, let’s go." Mom stands and lifts Lucy to her hip in a shower of cracker crumbs. I get her other hand. "You don’t have to look, Carter."
"I want to." I’m afraid to stay behind while she goes to look at Big Grandma. I don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t go.
We line up like kids getting cartons of milk at lunchtime. People pause at the coffin, some people touch it. Uncle Ted and Aunt Lillian stand there a long time, and maybe Uncle Ted is angry because this isn’t a church, but Aunt Lillian is happy because Big Grandma is really in there.
When it’s our turn, Mom charges ahead. She and Lucy bend over the coffin like one person with two heads. Lucy still has her cracker crammed part way into her mouth. I hope it’s soggy and won’t drop crumbs. Mom looks longer than anyone else, leaning closer as if she sees something interesting but can’t quite figure out what it is.
All this time I’m thinking I can’t do it. Looking at a dead person is like staring into the sun or keeping your feet on the floorboards when you go through a tunnel. I want to hold my breath again when I get there, so I take big breaths now.
I step forward until I’m close enough to touch the shiny pink blanket inside, close enough to smell baby powder and flowers and the still, unbreathed air inside the coffin. When I look at Big Grandma, I remember. I remember the time I woke up somewhere and wasn’t sure where I was and couldn’t find Mom. I walked into a hall where the carpet was so thick no one ever walked there. I saw a mirror on the inside of an open door, and she, Big Grandma, was in the mirror. Her foot was on the rim of the bathtub inside her gray shoe. The flesh of her ankle folded over the top of her shoe and her calf folded over the top of her ankle. She rolled a brown stocking over her knee only to stop somewhere on her thigh where a wall of purple fat bubbled over her stocking.
"What’re you looking at?" she said.
Now all her soft parts seem to have pooled in the bottom of the coffin, leaving only her chin, nose and eyebrows sticking out. Her mouth hooks down like she’s mad we’re all staring at her while she’s dead. She’s waiting until we leave and then she’ll throw a purple leg over the side of the coffin and climb out and she’ll come after everyone who stared at her. Then she’ll be in the mirror, maybe even the mirror at home where I brush my teeth, and I’ll see a cave in her eyes, one that goes deep, deep, deep into all the bad things I’ve ever done.
After the funeral Mom takes us to MacDonald’s and puts Lucy in the ball pit. We sit at a table and she squeezes packets of ketchup, one after another, into a giant ketchup lake on the tray. I fly my French fries through the sky and dive low, skimming the lake and going home.
Mom leans on her elbow, not eating anything. The noise of the other people and Lucy screaming in the ball pit seems to soften around us, soften into a white light that fills Mom’s eyes and glows in her hair. When she looks out the window, the light is gentle and white, but she puts her hand on the glass as if she’s trying to keep something away.
I’m scared and I don’t know why.
"It’s complicated, Carter," she says though I haven’t spoken. "I don’t suppose you understand much about today, do you?"
"We didn’t get a ticket."
"We didn’t, did we?"
"And she was in there," I say, thinking that will make her happy.
"Oh, honey." Mom puts her finger in the ketchup lake and swirls it around and around until half her finger is orange. She puts the finger in her mouth and sucks it clean. "Once she told me she’d come and steal you away to get baptized. I didn’t sleep for a month."
"Me?" I asked, thinking Lucy would be a much better choice for Big Grandma. Lucy is a girl and would probably like to get baptized if it meant she would be even more special.
"I wouldn’t let her, Carter."
When we go back outside to the brown car, it’s raining and I try to imagine I never had that thought about the air. Or ever saw Big Grandma in the mirror. Mom puts Lucy in her car seat and waits while I buckle up. Then she gets in and steps hard on the gas.
Faster, faster, I tell her. Let’s go as fast as we can.
Kassandra Kelly received her M.F.A. from Pacific University in 2006. She's appeared in Future Fire, Clonepod and Northpoint. She lives in Oregon City, Oregon with the real Mr. Angry Pants.
Sunrise courtesy of Art.com
“As long as the Earth can make a spring every year, I can…”
At first sight, Blake felt nothing for Nicole. The way she came into work, withdrawn that first day. Tony, the manager, limped in with the usual scowl pasted to his sweaty face; she shuffled in behind him. Nicole was quiet but not shy. That was the thing, she hardly smiled or chatted, but her blue-eyed gaze was steady and penetrating. Unlike other girls, she held his eyes unwaveringly until he had to tear away, and look down to the floor, or sideways to the cubbies or tattered sofas. She had a slight frame, darker complexion, and an aura of quiet stirring; like a cloud pregnant with some vast storm of secrets.
Blake watched the other guys wearing that cocky swagger, typical of lifeguards and young men, approach Nicole with their intentions written across their grinning mouths. He noticed her comical responses to their pick-up attempts; her poorly held giggles, laughing rejections. She walked by the guard shack as he stood in the doorway, and he smiled at her.
“None for you, huh?” Blake said laughing.
“Maybe they’re not the ones I want,” Nicole answered shrugging as she walked on.
“Come're kid,” said Tony after they closed for the night. Blake walked along the aging boardwalk, its surface sun-bleached and creaking. He stood beside the manager, looking out over the gray-blue sound with him. A lone yacht bobbed sorrowfully in the inlet. Its sleek white body seemed to be angling constantly in an attempt to capture as many of the fading late-afternoon rays as possible.
“Chances are it rains tomorrow,” Tony said, looking from the sky, to the water, and then to him.
“Yeah?” Blake asked.
“Yeah. You’re closing,” replied Tony.
“Yeah, sure Tony, sure thing,” Blake said, smirking.
“The other guards said you were a funny one; you funny?”
“Sure, sure. If it rains, you’ll close with,” Tony began, pulling out a folded list from his khaki pockets, and scanning the list, he pointed to a name, “the new girl, Nicole. Show her how we close on a rain day.”
“The new girl?” Blake whined, hiding his intrigued feeling from his boss.
“Yeah, you got a problem?”
“Nah Tony, no problem. No problem sir.”
“And quit calling me sir.”
“Yes ‘sir,’ Tony.”
“Get outta here.”
The next day Blake arrived at work to find Nicole sitting alone on the concrete staircase by the beach. Sand had worked its way up the flight, coating each step with its own grainy moist patch. The displaced sand made the steps feel oddly dirty beneath his feet. Above, the clouds spun and wove, dancing into one another and emerging again menacingly close and dark.
“Anyone else here?”
“No,” she answered softly.
“Was Tony here?”
“Well what did he say?”
“Because of the rain everyone went home. We have to wait an hour, then lock up.”
Blake walked into the guard shack, Nicole right behind him. He lay down on the vomit-green lounger that was thrust against the back wall and was shaped like a psychologist’s couch. Outside, the wind was picking up. It came sweeping over the choppy bay, then funneled over the stairwells and into the bunker-like changing rooms beside the guard-shack, howling as if it were alive. Of course it wasn’t, but it still made his spine tingle. He covered his face with a hooded sweatshirt, and, looking out a small opening, saw Nicole in the corner, rifling through her bag. She bent down, and came up with a flimsy top, and a black skirt. She glanced his way slyly, and began to change out of her lifeguard attire.
He watched her remove her sweats, the red fabric sliding down over her sun-kissed legs; the knees catching the waistline, her shaking side-to-side, swiftly like some small animal; the pants dropping to the floor. Black, hmm. The skirt pulled up, she reached, arms crossed over, for the bottom of her lifeguard shirt. His heart caught up in itself mid-beat; butterflies. She paused, and passed her gaze over to him for a moment before continuing.
She pulled the shirt off, and it fell forgotten to a chair beside her. He ran his eyes up her shapely waist and smooth stomach, and then up to her ribs, and finally her bra: black, textured. The black top she dropped down onto her self, the narrow straps falling into place on her shoulders. Lastly, she shook her hair, put a tie around it, and sat down in the chair by the door, simply yet elegantly composed.
He sat up, his heart racing too fast to let him rest.
“What’s all that for?”
She hesitates. She knows he saw. He knows she knows.
“I waitress. Monty’s Snake Pit, on the pier.”
He looks at the wall clock. It’s a dreary thing hung up on the dingy wall above the manager’s empty desk.
“I guess we can close up now,” he says in a new voice, something shy and reserved, he’s not used to sounding like that, it throws him off.
He walks around to the various gates – rusting, paint worn by years of salty sea breeze. She follows him, dutifully, like a private behind a lieutenant or two clergymen, him the senior.
“This is the padlock, make sure it’s-.”
“Yeah,” he says, with squeaky laughter.
She subtly licks her lips as he looks at her, and he feels as if she’s thinking of some other time and place. He notices her wide set, dark eyes, sharp nose, and her cheeks, which are shapely, but still soft in their angles.
“Is that all?” she asks.
Lightning – some great crackling, cleaving bolt from on high, crashes down somewhere out on the bay. Thunder crackles, mixing with the wind’s howl for just an instant. The rain gathers itself, turning soft and hesitant for a moment, and then as if purposefully driven to new ambitions begins to pound down viciously. Great drops smash onto the beach, sending up miniature plumes of sand and water.
They stand beneath the changing room eave, silently watching the sheets of rain toss about on the water’s slithering surface. The beach sand looks darkly wet, sticky, and oddly appealing from afar.
He gestures out to the beach with his head, and smiles.
“Yeah,” he says laughing, “out there.”
In response, the rain and wind choose new powerful dimensions. They wait for several moments, until she says, “Well?”
He jets out from beneath the sheltering eave in a mock sprint. She runs out after him, laughing, holding her top and hair. Her run is a sashaying series of movements, a tossing forward of her exposed legs, a rhythmic sliding of her ass.
At the stairwell gate they stop, drenched, and he fumbles with the lock as she jumps up and down in the shower. They finish the gate and run back to their eave. She trails him closely, swiftly, and then laughs, looking down at her soaked work clothes.
“Oh, damn,” he says.
“The boardwalk gate.”
Blake takes one running step out from the eave, and then Nicole’s slender hand slips around his wrist and pulls. He stops short and turns, confused. She moves, water sliding down her body, through the electrified air, and presses her lips onto his. Their whole universe becomes silent and infinite for the briefest few seconds, and she slides down and steps back.
“You saw me?” she asks innocently.
“Yeah,” he answers, breathless.
She pushes up on her tiptoes, her hand against his chest, and kisses him again.
Nicole strolled in, so confident, wrapped in cashmere, two cheeks red from the cold. Blake watched as a gust of wind behind her blew brown, orange, and red leaves into the bar. She came over to the counter and ordered a beer. Blake knew many girls who disliked beer, though it went down well in the fall season. She took off her knit hat, her hair falling down around her shoulders, layering upon her gray scarf, and she turned to look at him with big blue eyes.
"Another one?" asked the bartender.
"Yeah," Blake said, pushing his empty glass across the bar.
Blake wrapped his hand around the chilled mug, a cold drink to warm the body for a cold October.
There was a knock on the big wooden door of the bar. They turned to look. Hesitantly a little hand emerged. This was followed by a group of kids dressed in strange attire; Halloween costumes.
"Not in there!" called a grown up from outside.
Silently the grotesque miniature procession filed back out. The bartender chuckled.
Blake leaned back against the bar, half watching a pool game, half watching the girl at his side. Nicole was so lovely, so beautiful and full of life. They had been together for four months now, and she'd always managed to amaze or surprise when he thought he’d had her figured out.
They walked out into the cold fall evening together. Trick-or-treaters scampered around the neighborhood. They walked through a bizarre gothic landscape, coated in fake spider webs and overrun with hideous and comical masks.
"So," she began, her tone unsure.
"So,” Blake repeated hesitantly, and then breathing in as if to prepare for a long speech, said simply, “this is tough.”
"Yeah, I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve been missing you so much, but it will be fine, we’ll keep talking every day, everything will be fine."
They stopped walking. His gaze was cast down, and unfocused. He saw cracks in the pavement with grass coming out; orange and black streamers floated by in the wind.
"Wow," he tried to eloquently phrase his feelings.
"Yeah, I know."
A simple, "Yeah," was all he could manage in agreement.
"We'll still talk all the time."
"I know," he said with reticence.
Blake went back to school the next day. Nicole watched him drive off. He saw her on the side of the road waving weakly in his rear-view.
A bitter silence filled up the room. Blake’s eyes were unfocused as another series of blurred images passed across his field of vision. He shuddered as he broke piece by piece from his calm self. He slammed his clenched fist down on the wooden coffee table. A beer can tottered weakly, tipping slowly on its side. Beer leaked out from the top of the can and ran to the edge of the table. More so than his dark feelings, it was that old beer, dripping out of sight to the floor that pushed him over the edge.
Blake grabbed a jacket from the brass hook nailed to the wall by the dorm suite door. In a combined series of brusque actions he donned the jacket, exited the dormitory, and slammed the door shut. He could already see down the length of the hallway and through the glass double-doors forming the entranceway to the Evening Breeze Apartments. A light flutter of snowflakes was billowing up against the building, waiting for him.
Blake shoved the door aside, leaving fingerprints on the frosty glass, and jetted down the granite front steps. He thrust his hands into his pockets and felt the folded paper in his right pocket. Lowering his head, he walked briskly down the block. At the corner, he stepped up close to the Saturday evening traffic. Taxis and limos were whizzing by in flurries of metal, motor, and wind. At a lull, he jaywalked diagonally to the opposite sidewalk.
The strange city folk of the evening danced as they walked beneath the flurries, energized by the streetlights and bar front neon. Overhead, brightly lit signs cast red, white, and blue light down onto the gray streets of the frigid night.
As he continued walking, down the row of restaurants and bars, apartments and shops, he looked swiftly through each glass façade, searching.
Blake crossed another street to a public park encaged by an imposing black lacquered fence. Through the slats, he could see the benches, a half-inch of snow resting gently on their curved metal armrests; the bare oaks, climbing up into an invisible oblivion tangle of naked arms, and the paved pathways, vacant in the night.
Of course it was locked up by some unseen workers each night, but he knew how to push the front gate far enough open, to stretch out the linked-chain, and squeeze his head through. Where his head could go, the rest could follow.
Alone in two acres of winding paths, snowfields, and silent trees, he walked slowly and thoughtfully. Beneath his considerations and inner dialogue, he directed himself to the very middle of the park. All the paths led to a cracking concrete circle, and rising up solidly in the dead center was a small marble and brass fountain.
With a stroke of his hand, he brushed away the thin powdering of snow from the surface of one of the benches. Onto that cleared spot he sat down, and leaned forward to run his hands through his hair. The snow peppered his shoulders and back. He looked up, and in his silent reverie began to take notice of the sculpture atop the fountain.
The sculpture was a stone carving of a woman, dressed in robes, and sitting on a pedestal. Her hair flowed down to layer upon her garments. The sculpture’s down-turned face was hidden from the weak ambient light coming from the street, and was shrouded in shadow. The woman’s whole figure seemed, although comprised of stone, to be most fragile and ephemeral. As the snowflakes descended all around and the wind chipped at the exposed area of Blake’s neck, something coming from the sculpture elicited intense feeling and memory. She reminded him of Nicole: the slyly down-turned face, the insanely fragile lines of her form, and yet a solid, willful presence. As he sat alone beneath the falling snow, he let his imagination paint pictures of last summer across the invisible blank-canvas of the statue.
It was only two days ago that they’d last laid eyes on one another. And now this: the unremarkable envelope he’d picked up from campus mail, with Nicole’s hand-written letter inside.
“Well, it was bound to happen,” he thought; too many days apart, too many parties with alcohol and drugs, and back rooms, hiding unknown, insidious unions.
He reached into his pocket, and fished out the letter. He read the words by angling the paper towards the light. He had already read it twice, and his third attempt yielded only the same damning words. He sighed with frustration, looked at the statue of the woman, and felt like screaming. The cold, of which he was now becoming acutely aware, made him shudder and shiver.
“Damn,” he said to the stone woman.
Blake stood up, looked once more to the lady of the fountain, and walked back out of the park the way he’d come in.
The long dark nights, and the icy winds sweeping in between the buildings colored the last stretch of winter with several shades of misery.
Then, when it seemed that the world had been forever crystallized into dark, twisted, ice-bound forms, the weather broke. Sunlight sliced down through the clouds, and the buds appeared on the branches. Blake awoke one day to true light flowing down onto his windowsill, no longer the strange, foreign, blue tint of deep winter.
Blake donned a light jacket, and strode out into the new spring. He still smiled and laughed with his friends when they went out on the town, though a new darker place had grown up in him; he moved a little slower then he might have a year ago.
They met on a warm, late day in May. Blake walked along his familiar route, ending up at the park just blocks from his dormitory. The laughter of girls on woven-linen spreads was wafting along with the gentle breeze. Their trim figures moving or settled cut brilliant shadowy lines onto the fresh, now-green lawns below. He walked along one of the pathways, and came to the fountain in the middle. There, sitting alone on one of the benches, sat a girl watching the jets of water shoot up from a circle of nozzles below the statue.
“Do you mind if I sit?” Blake asked.
“Oh, um, no go ahead,” the girl responded.
They sat next to each other, contemplating the fountain and statue.
“It’s beautiful,” she began, “she’s so-.”
“Yes,” she said, and then sat quietly for a moment. “Yes, fragile, and still, solid, like she’s never going to move.”
“Well, I don’t imagine she will,” Blake said laughing.
She laughed, and her eyes flashed warmly and hung on him. He felt a familiar feeling, and searched quickly for when he’d last felt that. In the blossoming city park, he felt rather than saw images of beaches, and summer thunderstorms. Inside himself, he shook off those dead layers, and looked again to the fountain with its clear water sparkling in the sun, and then to the girl beside him; spring flower.
Hello, my name is Nathan Weinstein. I’m a
twenty-one year old junior attending Binghamton University. I grew
up in New York City, and currently reside in Westchester. I would love
to hear feedback and comments at email@example.com.
What Are They Gonna Say Now courtesy of Art.com
“Fireflies,” Charles insisted. “That’s what we always called them.”
Emma laughed, leaning her head to one side so that her thick chestnut-colored hair brushed her bare shoulder, which appeared white in the twilight glow. Sitting next to her on the grass, Charles thought the entire world softened somehow, came under a spell as shapes lost their sharp edges, colors became muted, and the sky darkened. Around them, the silent, synchronized lights swam in dark shadows of the trees, growing brighter and brighter, as if frantic to make the most of their brief time.
“They’re lightning bugs,” Emma said, glancing at Charles. “Everyone I know calls them lightning bugs. All the children I teach call them lightning bugs. Where did you say you’re from again?”
“Tennessee. Big city of Memphis. My family’s lived there since before the Civil War, and we’ve always called them fireflies.”
“Well, now that you’re in North Carolina you should learn to call them lightning bugs. When in Rome …”
Emma pulled a sweater off the picnic basket and draped it around her, covering the sleeveless cotton blouse she was wearing. Charles forgot what color the blouse was now, but he remembered how pretty she looked in it when he picked her up to go on the picnic. This was their seventh date. He’d kept track. He had taken her to the Bijou several times, out for ice cream once, and twice to dinner at Palagi’s, the nicest restaurant in town. He’d thought about asking her to go dancing, but he’d always turned shy at the last minute.
The picnic was her idea.
The crickets and frogs were growing louder, the flashing lights more brilliant.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Emma said, standing up and holding out her hand.
Charles said nothing, afraid of breaking the spell, but stood and gently clasped her hand. He could feel the evening breeze blow through the thin fabric and buttonholes of the Madras shirt he was wearing. They followed the path in silence, watching the lights. Charles wished he had been brave enough to ask her to go dancing. He wanted to hold her body tight against his, to rub on her in a smoke-filled room while saxophones moaned and a drum set kept the rhythm. He didn’t know why he hadn’t asked her. He loved to dance, had danced with dozens of girls, some of them soft and yielding, others taut and teasing. During the war, he’d gone dancing every chance he got. He could do it all—swing, waltz, slow.
He loved to dance.
It was almost completely dark. In a minute she would say she had to go home, and it would be over. He probably wouldn’t see her again until Sunday at church. That’s where he had first seen her soon after he moved to Ashton Mill for an engineering job at the Pineridge Textile Plant. It was a small town, and most of the social activity centered around church. Other than the mill and a small college, there was one movie theater, one drive-through burger joint, a few restaurants, and about a hundred churches. Everybody seemed to know which church you went to, or didn’t. His boss suggested First Methodist, and so he tied his narrow silk tie, walked through the solid wooden doors, and looked around. She was the first thing he saw, sitting in a broad band of light shining through the massive windows. She was in a pew near the front with her parents—both already gray headed—and her teenage brother, a notably handsome boy. As the Sundays went by, he learned that she always sat there, her face intent, wearing a hat and tailored suit, not so much beautiful as lovely.
After the service, several young children would run up to show her what they had made in Sunday School. She taught first grade at Ashton Mill Elementary and was clearly a favorite. When Charles thought of her, he always pictured her surrounded by children. He had never envisioned a woman like that before, and he was surprised at the strength of the attraction, especially since he didn’t know much about her. Didn’t know what songs she liked, who her friends were, whether or not she’d lost a young man during the war. He didn’t know anything about her, except that he was drawn to her.
He felt that if she did dance with him, it would be altogether different than ever before.
They stopped by the fountain shaped like a water lily and lit by a pair of greenish gray lamps on either side of a plaque that read “Now folds the lily all her sweetness up, And slips into the bosom of the lake.”
“I love these gardens,” Emma said. “With the winding paths and flowering bushes, and the cupid statues and the quaint old plaques. There aren’t many places anymore where you can go just to watch the evening turn to night.”
Charles wondered why he had never noticed the park before. It seemed so wonderful now.
“Look,” Emma said. “You can see the moon’s reflection in the water. That must be good luck, don’t you think?”
“I’m sure of it,” Charles replied, staring at their silhouettes wavering below the bright white roundness.
He put his arm around her shoulders and breathed in the cool air.
“I have to go,” Emma said, leaning her head against him.
“No. Not yet.”
“I have to. I live with my parents, remember? I’m not like those women you knew in the big city of Memphis.”
“I know you’re not. Please. Stay.”
Emma looked at him and smiled. She took his hand, and they headed down the path, a trail of almost total darkness now, broken occasionally by a pale lamplight.
“They’re almost gone,” Emma said.
“The lightning bugs. There’s just a few of them left. I guess they’ve all found each other.”
“Oh, the fireflies. …” Charles looked and saw she was right. There were only a few intermittent flashes that seemed to convey a sad, lost message, as if they had missed out on the only significant thing in their tiny lives.
“I always thought they stayed out all night long,” Charles said
They stopped under a huge sycamore tree, watching the last bit of twilight.
“Most of the flashing is at dusk. My children are studying them in science. The female flashes her light, and the male answers by flashing his. It’s a form of courtship.”
“Kind of like a dance,” Charles said. “The lightning bug dance.” He could barely see her now, but he could feel her closeness along his entire body.
“I suppose so … the firefly waltz.”
He pulled her in toward him, and they swayed ever so slightly. The night creatures, fully awakened, buzzed and sang and flew around them.
Elizabeth Jennings has been mesmerized by the written word as long as she can remember. She studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware. Her nonfiction columns and features have won several awards, while her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Apalachee Review, Ladybug: the Magazine for Young Children, Futures Mysterious Anthology, and Greenprints. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her book-loving family and their sun-loving cats.
Fireflies in Jar courtesy Art.com
Running After Carlin
I have dreams that I am running after my dog Carlin. I can feel my feet landing, my toes slamming into my shoes. I can feel his warm fur in my arms as I lift him.
The confusing part about the accident was this: I'd made eye contact with the driver, actually smiled at him. Why he didn't brake is still a mystery, but I suppose it's possible that my smile distracted him.
Something cracked open like a pit. One of my legs tried to run. People were making angry noises, surrounding me and screaming.
“Stay really, really, really still,” a man said.
A woman's voice said, “Ohmigod.”
“Do they make wheelchairs that dance?” I ask Dan. He isn't amused. Really, I am only testing him to see if he can laugh at the absurdity, but the effect is morbid. I don't mean it to be.
“You're a perfectionist,” I say to him in my head. I've said this to him before in real words, with my real voice, and it used to make him laugh. He'd snort at me as if he were a pig. Grunt, grunt, grunt . . .
I won't be able to grow my leg back.
I won't be able to scoop Carlin off the ground just in time. His ashes are in a small wooden box next to my bed. My brain reminds me that it wasn't possible.
The day I came home from the hospital, there was a present near a puddle on newspaper. “Her name hasn't been picked,” Dan said.
When you love a perfect person (as there is no such thing), you tell yourself this: You will be good for him. He will learn that it is OK to have a messy floor and a wet dog and a woman who rolls instead of walks.
Dan held her out toward me and released her on my lap. Her breath was oxygen. I buried my nose in her fur.
Meg Pokrass lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Emry's Foundation Journal, Flutter Magazine, The Orange Room, Halfway Down the Stairs, 971 Menu, Toasted Cheese,Thieves Jargon, Eclectica, Chanterelle's Notebook, Roadrunner Haiku Journal, 34th Parallel, SoMa Literary Journal, Blossombones, Word Riot, and Literary Mama. She has performed with theatre companies throughout the United States and considers writing a natural extension of sensory work developed as an actor.
Girl's Best Friend courtesy of Art.com
You get a beer for your brother because he asks. By rights, he should bring the beer. It’s your day. Graduation with honors. First college degree in your family ever. So you bring the beer to show him that you’re no different, that his life isn’t a mess. The midnight trips to the emergency room were only teenage angst. He’s over them now, the beer says.
You jump the precarious gap between boat and dock.
“Bring four,” says your brother. He’s lying on the bottom of the boat, with the dregs of your celebration--fishing tackle, picnic wrappers and empty bottles--pretending to stargaze. The night is not yet dark, the sun not altogether gone. It’s a perfect gloaming to mirror your buzz. The lake is obsidian glass cut only by the feathers of mated loons. They call to each other like lovers across a distance, the same sound you listened to as a child lying awake, worrying about your dad alone on the lake with nothing but a rod and a bottle.
You head towards shore and the fishing shack your grandfather built. The dock wafts and bobs with the beer in your stomach. You lean over the cooler to grab some bottles and the boards under your feet creak. You turn to face your father. He stands on the dock with his feet splayed for anchor. A cigarette hangs from his lip. Ice melts in his glass. He doesn’t offer to carry the bottles. Dad only drinks rye.
“Quite a day, wasn’t it,” he says. You nod and shift cold bottles in your arms. “I’m so proud of you. You know that, right?” He sways as if a sudden wind tosses the dock. He throws an arm around your shoulder and you stagger under the weight of his affection. “You’re the only one in this family who matters, you know that, right? The only one who’s worth anything. Your brother. . . . ” He waves his hand. Watered rye sloshes over his knuckles. “I need to sit.”
You help him into an Adirondack chair, balancing bottles under one arm. He flings the burning nub of his cigarette into the bushes.
“I failed him. Such a failure . . . such a goddamned pathetic waste.” His voice fades to a wet whisper. “But you! You are the one. You will make heroes of us all!” He laughs until the cough kicks in. You listen to the phlegm rattle in his lungs. His hacking echoes around the lake and into the mountain silhouette, drowning the eerie laugh of the loons.
He lights another cigarette.
You wish he wouldn’t smoke or fling burning butts into the bushes. You wish your brother wasn’t lying in a boat a dozen feet away, waiting for the stars to shine.
Kim McDougall is a Canadian born author, photographer, and artist, who writes from "Between the Cracks" at www.kimmcdougall.com. 2008 will see two of Kim's fantasy novels in print by Double Dragon Publishing and two picture books by Guardian Angel Publishing (under pen name Kim Chatel).
Internal Conflict courtesy Art.com
Cain walked the empty City streets. At one time York had been filled with people. Filled with life. Tourists from all over the world came and visited. Now, like every other town, York was dead. If anyone did still walk the streets, then they were ghosts. But even a ghost would be company.
Directly in front of Cain a sign spread its metal arms and offered directions. With the whole town open to him he could go anywhere he wanted. The Minster seemed as good a place as any.
As he walked, the only sound he heard was that of his own feet. Once, the streets were filled with cars and busses and the air was alive with birds. Once. Not now. That was before. How long ago, he wondered. Five years? Six? Ten? More? He didn’t know. For Cain every day was the same, and each one was filled with emptiness.
When it happened, it happened fast—some kind of biological weapon. People lay where they dropped: in their homes, at work, in the streets. The bodies were everywhere. The smell was everywhere. Then, Mother Nature sent in her cleaners—the flies.
For the flies, the eating was good. They multiplied quickly and formed huge black clouds. By day the buzzing of their wings was unbearable. Nights were better, but when the flies did eventually settle to sleep, they covered everything with a huge, black, writhing blanket.
If the flies were bad, their offspring was worse. The blanket they formed was a white one, and underneath it the bodies of the sleeping were tossed and turned until they were just bones.
In time, however, the flies' food supply diminished and their numbers did likewise. Cain did not miss those creatures of the air, but he would always miss the birds.
After the weapon detonated, the infection spread rapidly, but no conquering heroes came to survey their handy work and nobody came to claim the spoils of war. There was nothing. Only death.
Somewhere, someone must have manufactured the virus—or whatever it was—and it seemed only common sense that, along with the weapon, they would have developed an antidote for their own people. But it was apparent to Cain that this was not the case. Either that or the antidote hadn’t worked. Maybe the virus had mutated, even, rendering any antidote useless. He did not know and his questions were pointless. There was no one to furnish the answers. All Cain did know was that, since then, he had not seen another living person—not one—and he had long since given up all hope of ever doing so. He was alone and his punishment was unbearable.
Standing in front of the Minster, he looked up. As the clouds drifted by, they made the building look as if it was swaying. If only it was. If only it would fall down on top of him and end his torment. Such dreams were useless. A falling building would only bring him more pain, not the release he longed for. Lowering his head, he walked inside.
Even in the present circumstances the Minster felt like a house of God. That, at least, offered Cain some comfort. He spent a lot of time in places of worship. God was his only company now, but God was a silent companion.
Leaflets, yellow with age, fluttered on a display stand beside the door. Cain picked up one and looked at it. Then he noticed the little, black boxes. Audio guides. He took one and placed the headphones against his ear. When he pressed the button, all it played was silence. Even a canned voice would be better than no voice at all, but even that comfort was to be denied him. Trying again, he reached for the next box. Then another and another still. Like the rest of the world, they were all dead.
He had been punished for so long. An eternity. Would there never be any compassion for him? He headed towards the alter at the far end of the building.
Cain had spent his whole life on the move, never daring to stay in one place for too long in case people noticed he was different. People persecuted those who were different, he knew that, so he kept on moving, and he kept his secret. Alone.
Then mankind destroyed itself, and Cain was more alone than ever.
People were always fascinated, Cain had noticed, by the idea of immortality. Films were made about immortal beings: Vampires, sword-bearing highlanders, fountains of youth. Before the films there were books, and always the dream of cheating death.
Some people even chose to have their bodies frozen after death, in the hope that one day they’d be thawed out and live again. Immortality was their impossible dream. For Cain it was a living nightmare.
He reached the altar and kneeled to pray. Once again, he begged that the mark be lifted from him, allowing him to finally rest in peace. What was done was done, and Cain was no more able to return his brother's life than he was of ending his own. And he was sorry. He had been sorry for a very longtime.
Steve Calvert lives in the UK and his fiction has appeared in Best, The New Cauldron, Dark of Night, Whispers of Wickedness, Chillout, Lookout, Scriptor6 and the e-anthology I Am This Meat (Susurrus Press). For more on Steve, visit his website.
Urban Abstract No. 141 courtesy Art.com
Golden Sparkled Dancer’s Cap
I am standing in my closet, preparing for a night of dinner and a play at the Hart Theater, here in the little town of Waynesville, North Carolina. It is warm outside, so I settle on white jeans, a sinuous blouse, and high-heeled sandals. The clothes settle around my body with a sigh, but this is not what brings a smile of pleasure.
The joy comes when I slide the golden dancer’s cap over my boy-short hair. The finely-wrought, crocheted dancer’s cap fits snugly, and boasts sparkled discs placed here and there. Someone made this cap unknowing of the woman who would wear it, unknowing of the joy it would bring. Or perhaps its creator did know, perhaps she had a dancer’s cap of her own and imagined her creations adorning the head of a woman just like me. The discs catch the light as I look this way and that into the mirror. Bits of my dark hair peek out, and I laugh at one tuft that stubbornly sticks out in the back; I decide to leave the tuft there, why not? I place rings on my fingers, around my neck the silver wolf-head necklace I received as a gift from my husband on my fifty-first birthday, and last, a silver bracelet. Done. Silver and gold. Yes.
How differently I dress here in Western North Carolina than I did in South Louisiana. It is not just the climate change, but much more than that. What I never would have thought to wear, even if I had found one there, was a golden sparkled dancer’s cap.
I was born in West Virginia, but my father was a restless man and moved his family about quite frequently. When I was ten years old, we settled for a time in Baton Rouge, and there I would stay until my husband and I moved to the mountains. Thirty-eight years in Baton Rouge. That is long enough for identities to be heaped upon a person, both true and perceived. There is the girl identity with bare feet and pedal pushers; the junior high then high school garb that tries to look like everyone else, even when nonconformist all the nonconformists look alike; and then comes work and first marriages and a child and that marriage is very bad and heavy heavy cloaks are draped to hide the fine mess I am in. There is a divorce and whispers and then the shedding away of that cloak, and the pulling on of sexy attire to show the world an almost forty-year-old woman is still attractive, still has something to offer, the tottering around in high high very-high heels, short skirts—look at me! Look at me! There is the meeting of a man and the second marriage that comes of it, and the dressing to keep his eye attached to my curves—I am worthy of your attention and love, my clothing tightly and scantily stated.
In the last years of my life in Louisiana before my move to the mountains, I adopted a strangling style to my dress. I was sick of sexilicious. Why should I boast my cleavage? Why should I slither into too-tight clothing that restricted my breathing and made me feel as if I were on display, “For Sale, Woman, Cheap.” I enrolled at Louisiana State University, and I wore flip-flops, trendy jeans, and t-shirts. For my job at the university, prim heels and suits or structured pants and tops were my costumes. As a personal trainer, I wore tennis shoes and yoga clothes and said, “Give me one more rep…now two more!” Elsewhere, I threw on funky quirky clothes that hailed from the 60s and 70s. This is who I am, my clothing choices said. I am no One person; I am a multitude of women. It didn’t occur to me that I was still dressing to hide from the world the woman I was becoming as I approached my late forties—independent, strong, outspoken, more than a body to drape clothes upon in an effort to create my definition. The clothes filling my closet and dresser drawers were a schizophrenic muddled mess.
When Roger and I moved to our beautiful mountain, I stayed reclused in our log house for months. I wore flannel shirts and baggy jeans. I hid the curves. No one would ever have to know. I was androgynous. I worked on my essays, short stories, and my novel for long hours, huddled inside my loose comfortable new skin. I took long walks on the mountain in chunky boots and down vests. Off to the hardware store, or off to the grocery store I’d go—my only ventures out—and I’d not bother to change into anything pleasing to anyone, sometimes not even pleasing to me. The feeling was one of freedom. No one knew who I was. No one would judge. I could be anyone at all! Anyone. Or, rather: No one. I disappeared.
One afternoon when I felt particularly restless, I took off down the mountain to Seven Silver Seas—here in Maggie Valley—a bright purple building with whimsical decorations and bright flowers and wind socks and chimes, a veritable wickedly grinning crook’d finger of delight that had been begging me for months to step inside its doors and be charmed. And it was while there, when that feeling of fading away was most acute, that I stopped, reached out my hand, grabbed that dancer’s cap off the Styrofoam skull, took it to the cash register, and handed it to the owner of Seven Silver Seas.
She smiled, and said, “This is perfect for you.”
I answered, “Yes. Yes it is.”
“This color will look good with your dark hair, too.”
Again, I reached out and touched the cap. “It’s beautiful.”
“I have one of my own. I feel like a princess when I wear it.”
“Maybe I’ll feel like a dancer. I’ve always wanted to be a dancer.”
She folded the cap, gently placed it in tissue, then in a lavender bag. I handed over my money, which didn’t seem very much for such a fine work of art. The exchange done, I left the store. But, back in my car, I looked down at myself. Would a woman who wears a Golden Sparkled Dancer’s Cap wear droopy, saggy clothes with it?
And that day, I bought jeans, boots, fuzzy sweaters, sinuous blouses, high-heels. But, oh! that cap. That golden sparked cap! And atop my head it sits, proud, beautiful. Me. Am I a dancer? Well, no; but no matter, the dancer’s cap tells me I can be one if I want to, and if I don’t want to, I can wear it anyway, simply because I like it.
I twirl about my living room, my husband smiling at me, my dogs looking at me as if I’m a bit daft. I twirl and laugh and think, I can start again.
Do the clothes make the woman? Or does the woman make the clothing? Who cares? I have a golden sparkled dancer’s cap and I’m dancing.