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Monday, June 22, 2015

Mulberry Wine

Summer damp rumpled the pages of the book on the nightstand; the whir of the fan echoed the restlessness of a dark, sonorous night. Bullfrogs at the lake’s edge sang a song of weariness and ennui. Fireflies flashed in recognition of the sentiment.

Sleep was a fugitive on many nights like this. The humidity was just high enough to make the sheet cling to her legs, tangling her feet with each toss and turn. The book had been picked up and put down several times already, failing its one job as soporific.

The breeze rustled the leaves of the trees in the yard and brought the scent of roses in the window. So many years ago she had climbed out this window in the middle of the night whenever sleep eluded her. The sense that she was escaping a box full of disapproval meant just for her was exhilarating. In mid-summer she would sneak down to the lake and climb the mulberry tree whose ancient branches swept out over the water. Eating her fill of ripe mulberries, the splash of raccoons fishing at the water’s edge would nearly lull her to sleep in the tree.

Tonight she considered climbing out that window again, just for old time’s sake. A feeling of foolishness washed over her as she tossed aside the damp sheet. Instead of by the mulberry tree near the lake, she found herself in the kitchen pouring a glass of her uncle’s homemade mulberry wine. The cat squinted up at her and wound itself around her feet, determined not to be left out of whatever mischief was afoot.

As she and the cat settled into the glider on the front porch, it occurred to her that the alchemy of changing mulberries into wine was an excellent metaphor for life. The brash tartness of the berries had been boiled, strained, sweetened and fermented. The resulting dark liquid held the memory of where it had come from, of what it had been. It also held the knowledge of transformation – from modest beginnings into fragrant sweetness. Yet the transformation wouldn’t have been so grand had the berry not been so humble.

Sometimes the hero and the damsel in distress can be one and the same.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The wait


an unmanned boat in the middle of the river
slight ripples skitter across the surface
blown by the breeze that sighs in the yews
wrinkled, amber colored leaves
land in the water with the barest sound
like the distant chittering of ravens
Charon is on holiday, and I dip my toe in the Acheron
the winds can keep no secrets
and I
haunted
await his return
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Friday, May 11, 2012

King Harold’s defeat

King Harold slowly picked himself up from the gravel and wiped the blood from his mouth.  He had the unshakeable feeling that the wheel of fortune had not only thrown him down, but was now rolling over his bones, crushing any remaining hope for normalcy like the dried seedpods scattered at his feet.

His enemies had won the day, once again.  His ego was tattered and bruised, his family would be distraught.

His mother, Dr. Anna Harold, professor of medieval history at Cambridge University had considered herself so very droll when she named her son King.  He had suffered relentless punishment from his peers since toddlerhood.

He was absolutely certain that it was not, in fact, good to be King.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What did you do?!?

 

The black wrought iron bench was placed in the only spot in the park that was never shaded.  A fine way to ensure it isn’t overly stressed by the weight of people whose primary exercise is watching others jog.  Its placement, however, didn’t deter the birds from decorating it with white polka dots during the spring and fall, and lovely purple ones at the height of summer when the mulberry trees were in full fruit.

Every Thursday Joanne took her brown bag lunch to the park and sat on the stone wall by the brook, watching as the pigeons pecked their way along the path around the lake.  Every time a child or jogger whizzed toward the pigeons they  flitted off in a panic, eyes wide and wings aflutter.  Something about those retarded birds reminded her of her cousin, who panicked in the face of every threat, real or perceived. Sophie had been flighty as a child, but as an adult, she had become unbearable.

As children, Joanne had returned to her grandmother’s house one day without Sophie, although the two had left together. 

“Where is Sophie?” Grandmother asked while pitting cherries for pie. Joanne shrugged her shoulders and wandered out pet the dog on the front porch.

An hour later, Sophie returned, sweat stains on her shirt, breathing heavily, missing a shoe.

“Lordy mercy! What on earth happened to you?”

Sophie looked her grandmother in the eye and said “Joanne is evil!”

“Oh honey.  Now what happened?”

“We were walking home from the Dairy Queen with our ice cream cones, and the dog on Fourth Street started after us – he’d broken his chain".”

“Oh for Pete’s sake, I’m going to give Mary Kate and piece of my mind..”

“And the only way I could get away from him was to climb the stop sign at the corner!”

“You what?”

“I climbed up the stop sign.  I sat up on top of it while that durned dog barked at me forever, and Joanne just laughed and pointed and then strolled home!”

As funny as it had been to watch Sophie stranded in an apoplectic fit on top of that stop sign, it hadn’t been worth the caning Joanne had received that evening.  Somehow, everything that didn’t go Sophie’s way had been Joanne’s fault.  Joanne had just accepted that she was somehow consigned to bear the responsibility for Sophie’s unhappiness.  She listened to Sophie whine, accepted blame from others when things went wrong, and even allowed herself into being intimidated into foolish schemes that Sophie insisted were the best idea since sliced bread.

Until the day that Sophie called Joanne to complain bitterly about her father, who’d had the gall to require surgery the Friday before she and her husband were planning to leave on vacation.

“Sophie, I don’t want to hear it.  You should be kissing his ever-lovin’ ass for all the things he has done for you.  If it weren’t for him you’d be a drug addict living out your last days on the mean streets of Chicago, finally resting in the morgue tagged as Jane Doe.  He has bailed you out of jail, sat by your hospital bed while you recovered from that horrid accident, and given you part ownership of his business, even though you’ve never shown an ounce of common sense!”

Sophie had flitted off, eyes wide, wings aflutter.  And Grandmother had asked Joanne “What did you do?!?”

 

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Here and Now

Carrie was never very good at being ‘in the moment.’  In fact, she was nearly always stuck in another time, another conversation, another place.  She wished very much for one of the birds from Aldous Huxley’s novel that would constantly remind her to pay attention to the “here and now, here and now.”

The train whistle transported her.  Carrie had been watching the wild grasses switch in the stiff breeze and reliving the joyfulness of watching her young children play with the dog in the pasture.  The whistle took her back to a place and time she had never experienced, but that felt no less real. 

The heat of a still summer afternoon was oppressive and the household chores would have to wait.  Snapping green beans in the shade of the front porch and listening to Mood Indigo crackle over the radio from the parlor, Carrie heard the whistle as the train approached her backwater town.  The children always ran past her house on their way to meet it at the station – they imagined that one day someone famous might step off that train and they didn’t want to miss it.  The farrier down the street could be heard cursing the horse he was working on – the fool never got a horse to cooperate with him, he was such an unpleasant person the horses could smell his ill humor a mile away.

The cat jumped in Carrie’s lap and startled her out of the reverie.  The suddenness left her slightly disoriented, as if peering out of someone else’s eyeglasses.  What was it that made that particular daydream so real?  She was imagining a time long before she was even born, but it felt like it might have been last week.  Was it just because times are hard for so many these days, as it was then?  Was it that her grandmother’s stories had been so skillfully woven that she envisioned the era as her own memory, rather than someone else’s?  Or perhaps Carrie longed for a time in which (she believed) people had a better sense of community and camaraderie, and spent less time arguing politics and religion, and posting trollish comments on the internet.

It doesn’t matter.   What matters is that there is a cat in Carrie’s lap, and its head needs petting.  Here and now, here and now.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

An impotent justice

There is something therapeutic about the breaking of glass.  Not just the action of it, but the sound of it.  The tinkling of glass raining down on a tile floor sounds like a gentle, cleansing rain. 

The baseball entered the kitchen with barely enough speed to make it through the window.  Six year-olds can’t put enough chutzpah behind a baseball to make a statement.  Not that the intent isn’t there, it’s just that a six year-old’s anger makes promises their arm can’t keep.

Phillip had never wanted anything as much as he wanted to destroy the home his grandfather lived in.  Fortunately, he was too young to have discovered the inflammatory properties of gasoline.  At only six, he had already suffered three years of sexual abuse, without any sense of understanding about what was happening to him.  His nightmares centered around an old man with burning eyes that chased him through the hallways, always waking just before the bony hands clasped him while he crouched in a corner.  Had Phillip known, or rather understood, what his life had become after his parents were killed in the car accident three years ago, he would have become an avenging angel, set to slowly destroy the man responsible for his descent into Hell. 

Instead, his six year old mind could only conceive of heaving a baseball through a glass window, for which he was sure to be punished.  But for the moment, the sound of the glass slivers bouncing on the tile floor was cathartic, and all was right with the world.

 

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Fear and kindness

For Linda Medrano, who is apparently
my biggest fan

 

The window was open.  The window was never open.  Moe had an unreasonable fear of smog, pollen, dust from the neighboring fields, insects small enough to fit through the screening, and the Hollywood version of the angel of death.  On any given day, Maris would stop by to check on Moe and find him hermetically sealed in his tiny bungalow at the edge of town.  His encyclopedia of fears prompted him to keep the windows closed all year round, the doors locked whenever he wasn’t actively using them. 

Moe hadn’t always been so fearful.  An inability to understand how he had completely screwed up his own life led to a fear of each thing that had unaccountably (in his mind) caused him to lose a job, a wife, a friend.  Moe’s life was filled with loss. None of it his fault.  With each event that he could ascribe to someone or something else, he collected a new fear.  His collection of fears soon rivaled his childhood collection of marbles.

“Moe? Everything ok?” Maris called from the front porch.  Window open and no response – that couldn’t be good.  “Moe?  I had some fried chicken left over from last night’s dinner – I thought you might like it for lunch.”  It took a minute for her to work up the nerve to try the front door when he didn’t answer. 

The door was unlocked, another aberration.  Maris stepped into the living room and swallowed a gasp.  The floor was littered with papers ripped into tiny pieces, the couch had several small burn holes, and nearly half of a section of wallpaper had been torn from the wall.  Her heart pounding, she stepped into the kitchen slowly, terrified of what she might find.  Cabinet doors were open, dishes ripped out of them and smashed on the floor, a chair lay on its side.  The back door stood wide open.

Maris went to the doorway and searched for signs of forced entry – nothing.  Something caught her attention in the corner of her eye.  Looking up, she watched as Moe stood by the pond in the side yard, tossing bread to the ducks.  Moe was afraid of water.  He was terrified of ducks.

“Moe!”  Maris ran across the yard.  “Moe!  What happened?  Are you ok?”

Moe turned his wrinkled, careworn face toward her, and it lit up when he saw her.  A smile full of sunshine greeted her when she reached him.

“I get it, Maris!  I get it!”

“You get what, Moe?”

“It was all my fault.  I made a total mess of everything.  I didn’t understand until I got the letter.”

“What letter?”

“Julie wrote me to tell me that our grandson was graduating first in his class at Indiana University.  Our granddaughter is engaged to a kind man with a good job.  Julie remarried years ago and is enjoying retirement in Fort Lauderdale.  I haven’t heard from her in 30 years and I thought she was telling me all this to rub my face in her happiness.  To make me jealous that everything she did after I left went well and I have had nothing but hardship.  But you know what she said at the end of the letter?”

“What, Moe?”

“She said she missed me.  She doesn’t hate me, Maris!”  His huge grin was beautiful.

“Oh, Moe…”

“I started thinking about all the things that haven’t gone well in my life, and wondering how many times I thought things were one way, when actually they were very different.  How many things I might have done differently if only I had known.  At first I went nuts, tearing the letter up and trashing the house in frustration, screaming at the top of my lungs how unfair it was that my whole life had been a mess because I made it that way.  But then I realized what a gift I have been given.  I have been absolved.  Now I can die in peace.”

“What on earth do you mean?  You aren’t planning something stupid, are you?”

“I’m done with stupidity.  You should go now, Maris.  Thank you for being a friend to such a cantankerous old man.”

“Wait, Moe, why don’t we go down to that little diner you like and get a sandwich and a Coke.  You can tell me more about this.”

“No, Maris.  You need to go now.  Thank you.”

Maris hesitated, and Moe waved her toward her car.  Reluctantly, she turned and walked back, looking over her shoulder once to see him beaming at the ducks that only yesterday would have made him wet himself if they came so close. 

The next day, as she was preparing to take a loaf of fresh-baked bread to Moe’s house, the mail carrier pulled up to her mailbox.  Pulling the mail out and tossing it on the front seat of her car, she noticed a small envelope addressed to her in a scrawly hand.  Maris snatched it up and opened it with a peculiar dread.

Dear Maris,

You have been such a darling, trying to show kindness to an old man who never deserved it.  I truly believe your kindness will be repaid someday, although it will have to be returned to you through another person. 

I hope you will understand but I ask that you not come over again.  Please give a call to Sheriff Lassiter.  Tell him to come by my house when you receive this, and remember, I have asked you not to come.

Thank you again for your kindness and caring.  If only all of humanity could see the world through your eyes, the world could be a glorious place.

Your friend,
Moe

Moe was found floating in the pond that afternoon.  He must have mailed the letter the previous day, planning his demise in such a way that Maris wouldn’t be the one to discover the body.  It was his last, greatest act of kindness, and Maris would never forget it.

 

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