Red River Valley

Three-thirty in the night, thirty-two
and a half hours before the end,
two liters of tissue, blood, and fluid
gush in an arc, red, muddy,
landing on my floor.

I try to imagine what tributaries
have broken what banks of his belly
to wash lumps of liver into his stomach
to be thrown up on my shore
and why he has not yet bled out.

I deposit him on the toilet to sit alone,
wait to be cleaned, bedded,
while I squat in my nightgown
sopping up the flood with paper towels,
sobbing for my carpet.


About the Author: Donna James has practiced psychotherapy for over thirty-five years. After long years of academic writing, she returns to poetry, her first literary love. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Cape Rock, Carbon Culture Review, Kyoto Journal, and Secret Histories: Stories of Courage, Risk, and Revelation.

Boarding School

You had to know my pal Chelminski
to take full measure
of his unfettered enthusiasm for mischief.
One day, for no good reason,
he wrote

PEANUT BUTTER

on the blackboard in history class,
its chalky mockery hidden
behind a Mercator projection of the world,
pulled down to conceal the silliness beneath;
he wrote

PEANUT BUTTER

in red paint in the tiled foyer
beneath the bronze statue of Abe Lincoln
(its nose an erotic protuberance stroked
by giggling, complicit teenage fingers);
he wrote

PEANUT BUTTER

on our textbooks, on our lockers, in the halls,
on the floors beneath our beds,
and at last, on the door
to the headmaster’s living room.

Ah yes, our headmaster, the sanctimonious Tall Paul,
eventually found the ebullient prankster out.

“Chelminski,” he intoned before the entire school,
“I find your all too inappropriate treatment of

PEANUT BUTTER

low,
common,
cheap,
vulgar
and disgusting.”

And here Tall Paul paused, grateful
for the chance to wrinkle his nose
and condemn adolescent masturbation.
From somewhere behind invisible curtains
we could hear Chelminski giggle.

About the author, Victor Altshul: My second and third books of poems, Singing with Starlings (2015) and Ode to My Autumn (2017), were published by Antrim House, and two of my poems have appeared in the Hartford Courant. My work has recently been published in Alabama Literary Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Cape Rock, Caveat Lector, Chantwood Magazine, Coachella Review, Door Is A Jar Magazine, Existere, The Perch, and Studio One. I am active on the board of the Connecticut Poetry Society and have given several readings throughout the state. I am a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Medical School and am on the faculty of the latter. I have been in continuous private practice of psychiatry since 1967.

The Day in the Hilo Social Security Office

The security guard’s starry black eyes lifted her out of her seat into the waiting area.

I can’t tell you anything about social security.
I can tell you how to get a numbered ticket,
where to sit,
when we open and when we close

The bald man next to me said he’d moved to Hilo
because there were too many Mexicans and Blacks in California.
My daughter said later that I should have punched him.

The security guard said:

There’s no point in coming before they open.
Let me put it this way.
If you get here early
and there is no line,
the heavens have parted for you
and sent down angels,
unicorns, mermaids, all sorts of
magical creatures”

It wasn’t anticlimactic
           when she asked me about my
           new aqua New Balance running shoes
     on my way out.
     She said she was going to buy herself a pair
           from the store here in the mall
           after work.

About the Author, Melanie Lee: I live in Brooklyn with my husband, daughter, Havanese and hedgehog.

Lonely Bones

       Jessa smiles the first time that she runs away from the hospital—the same smile that always wins Amelie over, bright and wild. She stands in Amelie’s bedroom like it’s the only place she belongs as Amelie muffles a yawn behind her hands and says, “Jess? How’d you get here—I thought you were supposed to still be at the hospital?”

       “It’s okay, I’m way better now. Like a whole new person, you know?” Jessa says and something inside Amelie sinks because Jessa has fed her those exact same lines at least a hundred times. “And anyway, I didn’t really like it there. I’d rather be here with you.”

       Amelie pushes down her doubts as she climbs out of bed and wraps her arms around Jessa. Her body feels so light, like a strong gust of wind might carry her away into the wide prairie sky.

#

       On their first date, Jake watches Amelie eat—fork and knife slicing her meal into tiny pieces. There’s only one restaurant in town, so they slide into the corner booth that has belonged to Jake and his friends for as long as Amelie can remember. 

       “Has Jess come back from the hospital yet?” he says. Amelie blushes every time he speaks—tall and broad-shouldered, he is so beautiful that sometimes she forgets to breathe. 

       “Yeah, the hospital signed her out this morning.”

       “I’m glad she’s back. But let’s go, we’re late for the movie,” he says, blue eyes drifting up to the clock hanging on the wall. When Amelie glances back down at her half empty plate, he says, “You weren’t going to eat all of that anyway, right?”

       “What? Oh—no.” She shakes her head and pushes it away, although the smell of food still makes her hungry stomach grumble.

       Later, his hands cover her body—fingers running across the smooth grooves of her bones.

#

       The next time that Amelie visits Jessa, it feels like she is barely there at all—brown eyes huge in her delicate face. They sit quiet on the floor of Jessa’s bedroom as sunlight falls through the open window. White curtains blow in the breeze.

       “So you’re feeling better?” Amelie draws her knees up to her chest.

       “Yeah, I feel great.” 

       “Why do you do it?” 

       “Do what?” Jessa blinks, thin cotton shirt clinging to every curve of her vertebrae. They stare at each other in silence before Amelie says, “Never mind. I just—I missed you so much.”

       “I missed you too.” Jessa hesitates before she takes Amelie’s hand. Amelie closes her eyes and wishes that they could just stay like this for the rest of their lives.

#

       Jake meets Amelie late at the party out in the country—loud music thrumming like a second heartbeat deep inside her body.

       “Want to dance?” He smiles, slinging an arm like an anchor around her shoulders.

       “Okay,” she says and he takes her hand, pushing through the milling bodies as she drifts in his wake. They dance through several long songs—his heavy hands wander from her waist as they sway in slow circles. 

       When he goes outside to smoke, she glimpses Jessa through a brief gap in the crowd—thin, almost ethereal body moving to the music as people watch like they can’t look away. Amelie doesn’t blame them. 

       She waits, but Jake never comes back from his smoke break and so Amelie pushes through the crowd until she reaches Jessa. They dance the rest of the night away and when Amelie places her hands on Jessa’s waist, she can feel her hip bones, sharp beneath her clothes. 

       Later, they both crawl into an empty bed, heads heavy from exhaustion. Jessa falls asleep almost immediately, despite the pills that she has been popping all evening—body warm beneath the sheets. Amelie stays awake, listening to the sound of her breathing.

#

       The second time that Jessa runs away, Amelie also stops eating. She cuts her meals into small bites and pushes the pieces around on her plate until it grows cold, and then she throws it out. At night, she lays awake in the dark, waiting for Jessa to tap on her window, demanding to be let inside. When she sleeps, she doesn’t dream about anything.

       “Are you on a diet or something? You’ve lost a lot of weight,” Jake says one morning, sitting half-dressed at her kitchen table.

       “No.” Amelie sips black coffee, taste bitter in the back of her throat.

       “Well you look great.”

       “Thanks.” Amelie stands, pushing back her chair—its legs scrape against the kitchen tiles. When she shrugs into her jacket, he says, “Where are you going?”

       “Out to look for Jess. No one’s seen her since she ran away from the hospital.”

       She kisses him on the cheek before she leaves.

#

       Amelie visits all of Jessa’s favorite places, always expecting to find her waiting—smiling like it’s some kind of game. But she returns home alone as the sun sets, feet sore from walking all around town. 

       Up in her bedroom, Amelie shuffles through all the clothes in her closet, picking a few potential outfits to wear on her next date with Jake. 

       “Hey, could you just say something?” She sends the message to Jessa and waits for her phone to vibrate. When it stays silent, she tosses it down on the covers of her bed and bites her bottom lip. Her head hurts, a dull pain pulsing at the back of her skull.

       She tries on the outfits in front of the mirror, spinning in slow circles to study the way the clothes hang from her body. Then she strips down to her underwear and runs her hands along her rib cage—feeling all the empty spaces between her bones.

#

       On their next date, Jake drives far out of town—parking the truck on the side of a deserted dirt road, headlights brightening the night. They sit in the open bed of the vehicle, passing a bottle of wine back and forth beneath the stars.

       Amelie only takes small sips, eyes tracing the constellations in the heavens above as Jake curls his thick-muscled arm around her waist. When she checks her phone, screen highlighting the delicate contours of her face, he says, “Have you heard anything from her yet?”

       “No.” Amelie knows who he is talking about without even asking.

       “Well, she’s got to show up eventually. But it’s kind of nice that I’ve got you all to myself right now,” he says and kisses her, mouth rough and hungry.

       When he pulls off her loose cotton shirt, he grins at her skinny body. Amelie wonders if it’s possible to become thin enough to just disappear completely.

#

       She showers after Jake drops her off at her place, shivering beneath the slow-warming water. Crawling into bed, she pulls the pillows over her head and breathes deep, like maybe the scent of Jessa’s hair still lingers caught in the fabric. But it doesn’t smell like anything and so she reaches for her phone on the nightstand.

       “Please say something.” Amelie sends another text to Jessa, slender fingers tapping against the smooth screen. Stubborn, her phone stays silent and she sighs, closing her eyes.

       In her dreams, Jake is eating her—skin, bone and marrow. Bright blood smears the corners of his mouth and she wakes with a start, heart hammering as she stares into the dark. 

       And this might also be a dream, but later Jessa taps on the window until Amelie stumbles out of bed to let her inside. They fall asleep together, Amelie holding Jessa close enough to feel the bones beneath her clothes.

       When she wakes, her stomach aches. 

About the Author: Ashton Noone writes short fiction from Calgary, Alberta. Ashton's work has been a finalist in the In Places Between: The Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest and has appeared in the Aurora Award-nominated anthology Enigma Front: The Monster Within.

The State Trooper’s House

Across the road that borders my backyard
at the end of a tarmac drive his house is built
into a rise whose lawn slopes to a pond
about a quarter mile long.  A green scum
extends its length which was broken 
by ducks and a heron.  Most people
don’t know it’s there since his land is hedged
with trees and he owns to the corner
and woods that surround and climb 
for twenty-seven acres.  Trumpet vines
are bellowing orange on rotting fences
and a snake skin glistens near the overturned
boat.  Oars must be in one of several
locked sheds.  The house has no shade,
perfect for solar.  There’s a fireplace
and a heat pump.  Twenty-five years
ago I had just moved in and saw him
the first and last time.  I know what 
you new people want-street lights and 
sewers.  He used to shoot woodchucks.
The underground stream that emerges
to drain his pond he does not visit from 
his nursing home.  

About the Author: Bob Elmendorf has been published in 44 magazines including 4 poems in the current issue of Little Star. He gives infrequent readings and was in poetry workshops for 20 years. He has been teaching Vergil, Catullus, Ovid and Horace and New Testament Greek pro bono to home school teens the last 12 years.

Hummingbirds

       “Rufous is back!” Blanche shouts.

       Henry falters from a doze in his electronic push-up chair.

       Blanche grabs for a tattered dish towel and marches toward the deck on a mission, only to be met by an obstacle! The screen door is completely broken. 

       Her wrinkled face squishes into a grimace. Blanche knows, only too well, that her neighbor, Sally Collins, will be happy to help on the next check-in. Sally cheerfully drops by every morning, with a cup-of-tea excuse, but Blanche is certain it’s to make sure that she and Henry survived the night. Sally’s been here already this morning. She won’t be back until tomorrow. Blanche will figure out how to fix the screen door on her own before then. 

       Sally is the same age as Blanche—eighty—but looks rosy in her pastel “jogging” outfits, and she moves with a bouncy step since taking up tap dancing at the Trumbull Grange Hall. 

       Blanche jiggles the screen door, tips it to the side, and wiggles it the other way. She shoves and thump-thump-thumps it open. If she doesn’t hop-to, tannish brown Rufous, like a schoolyard bully, will chase the more cooperative red and green Broad-tails away. A nine-inch space between the screen door and its frame allows Blanche to slip through. Her body, in gray sweatshirt and baggy trousers, has shrunk to five feet, two inches from her earlier five feet, five inches. Never a heavy woman, Blanche weighs a mere ninety pounds. 

       Charging onto the deck, she waves the dish towel like a flag that has seen too many battles. Blanche doesn’t want to hurt Rufous, but something has to be done. He can’t run roughshod over the others. If she could only get a little closer. Taunting her, he circles behind the feeder. When she had her full height, Blanche could have easily reached him. 

       She doesn’t depart, so Rufous jets off to loiter in a nearby ponderosa pine while the other hummingbirds gather to take fast sips from ten red plastic, blossom-shaped dispensers. They give each other turns the way Blanche wants them to do.

       She used to teach fifth graders, and often said, “They’re agreeable. Different from those sixth graders with their big ideas.”

       Fifteen years ago, Henry, upon his retirement, came up with his moving-to-the-cabin-permanently idea. Blanche felt a painful clutch to the chest as if her heart had been stabbed. The thought of leaving her school, where she had been employed since their boys went off to college, caused a throbbing, like her lifeblood pumping out. 

       Eventually, she got over the loss and started volunteer work. She also quit thinking of the old white colonial in Denver as “my home,” which is a good thing because their youngest son, Andrew, and his wife, both artists, bought the house. Recently, they painted it chartreuse with burgundy trim.

       With a huff of irritation, her thoughts return to Sally Collins and her meddling ways. 

       Sally is also a permanent resident on the river. She and Ralph and her three pampered felines moved in year-round shortly after Henry and Blanche Robinson took up permanent residence. 

       At the time, Henry said, “This is just grand. Chums right here in the wilderness. We don’t have to drive down the mountain for a party.”

       At the time, Blanche felt grateful to have an old friend nearby.

       As soon as she turns her back and heads for the front room of the cabin, Rufous, like a fighter pilot, dive-bombs the Broad-tails. Blanche does an about-face. If it’s necessary to stand here until the little ones get their fair share, that’s exactly what she will do. For another ten minutes she waits, dish towel stretched tightly between her two hands, teeth clenched, causing her prominent chin to jut out. 

       At last, the satiated Broad-tails fly off to hide in low-hanging branches, and she finally feels free to leave her post. It’s time for Rufous to have all he wants. There’s plenty more. Blanche makes a new batch of boiled water and sugar every day. She requires a good supply because bats raid the feeder at night. If some sleep wasn’t necessary, she’d stay up with a flashlight to scare them off.

       “Did you get rid of him?” Henry rasps, leaning forward on his chair when Blanche returns. He can barely see the hummers due to macular degeneration, which has left him legally blind, yet claims that he senses their whirring motion and hears their metallic whistling sound.

       “I sure did,” Blanche says. “Kept him away until the others got enough.”

       Henry has taken to slumping on his walker near the deck railing, letting the more sociable of the hummers, never Rufous, land on an outstretched finger. Grinning, he says the beating wings tickle. Observing this, Blanche finds it impossible to believe that he used to perform several delicate surgeries each month. Christopher, their eldest son, has taken over the practice, with his wife as part-time bookkeeper—a position Blanche held through their boys’ growing-up years.

       “How ’bout me?” Henry whines. “Time to fill me up?” 

       “Sandwiches’ll be ready as fast as I can assemble them.”

       “A bit of wine’d be nice.”

       “You always say that.”

       “Well, it would. Some of the peppery red that Ralph used to like,” he coaxes.

       Sally’s husband always said, “Wine is good for us.” He’s been gone over a year. Cancer. Blanche is sure that if he hadn’t indulged in all the scotch, as well as all the wine, he’d still be with them.

       She takes a small glass shaped like a turned-up bell and pours barely a thimbleful of cabernet into it.

       “Dr. Johnston tells me this is beneficial. Takes away the aches and helps me sleep,” Henry informs her for at least the hundredth time. 

       “What does he know? Burt Johnston doesn’t look old enough to be a doctor,” Blanche retorts for at least the hundredth time. “If you hadn’t been drinking so much wine all these years, you’d have your vision, of that I’m absolutely convinced.” And your sharp mind. Blanche forges toward the kitchen. “Besides, you sleep more than enough with those long naps.”

       While standing next to the counter nibbling at her own lunch, she cuts Henry’s tuna fish sandwich in triangles and places them on a plate from the old house. It belonged to her mother and has a rose pattern. When he could see, Henry liked these dishes. Alongside the sandwich, she arranges sliced Gala apple in a pinwheel. Next, Blanche waves her hand over the plate as if giving his food a blessing and carries it to a foldable tray alongside his “magic” chair.

       After she sets down the meal and tucks a napkin into Henry’s collar, he says, “More, please?” Two wobbly hands lift the wineglass under Blanche’s nose, Oliver Twist-like. 

       “Just one additional, very small serving,” she says, and after it’s poured, “I don’t want you tripping in the bedroom when you go for your rest.”

       Blanche hears Henry’s sigh, but chooses to ignore it. Several months ago, he fell at bedtime. Stark-naked and about to wriggle into his pajama bottoms, he tipped over. She couldn’t hoist him onto the bed. He insisted that she help dress him before calling Sally, so she rolled and boosted and tugged until he said, “I’m properly covered.” Upon arrival, Sally aided Blanche in lifting Henry off the floor and tucking him under his blankets.  

       She stayed for at least an hour. “To make sure everything’s okay.”

       That’s when Blanche first imagined Sally acting as their monitor. Tick-tick-tick.

       “Why don’t I get a little wine to relax you?” Sally had said, in an annoying, artificially calming voice that she’s taken to using all the time.

       “I don’t need to relax. I’ll make some tea.”

       “Tea would be nice. Remember tea we used to drink at The Cozy Café?”

       “I most certainly do, as well as the work on your campaigns.” And so started one of their many stories. Blanche helped Sally win every high school class office she ever ran for, with useful improvement ideas and colorful, eye-catching posters: Vote for Sal—She’s Your Gal!!! They lost touch with each other until, after Blanche’s years of supporting Henry through medical training, when he finally joined an established practice, they became reacquainted. Sally was the wife of another junior partner in the cardiology group.

       She would say, “It’s so remarkable that Ralph and Henry came to the same office. We were able to resume our friendship.”

       Blanche also used to think of it as remarkable.

       On the night Henry fell, when Sally ran out of memories, she started on the Robinsons’ general well-being. “If he breaks something, I’m afraid you’ll have to move back to the city.”

       This prospect would have pleased Blanche no end earlier, but she’s grown to love living in the mountains. Early on, she visited a nursing home in Woodland Park three times a week, bringing wholesome snacks like homemade granola bars and vegetable juices whipped up in her blender. These offerings were not always appreciated. Still, Blanche said things like, “It’s your responsibility to stay as healthy as possible,” and felt pleased with their cooperation. Lately, she’s had more than enough to do keeping Henry in working order, and stopped going to this nursing home. The past two summers since his deterioration, she has worried that it’ll be the last season to feed the hummingbirds and protect the Broad-tails against Rufous. What will they do when she’s not around? Will the poor things be ill-prepared for their long flight? Will they starve? 

       That wretched night of Henry’s fall, Sally eventually took her lantern and left for the short walk back to her cabin. That was when she first said, “Call any time you need me,” and the next morning her drop-in checks began.

       Blanche vowed to never need Sally again, and she’s been successful until the blasted screen door broke.

       However, it’s going to have to wait a bit. After Henry is prepared for his nap, Blanche tromps to the bathroom. She’s been working on a huge project—re-pasting wine labels stuck to the walls over forty years before, back in the days when she enjoyed the revelry. Back when she liked the buttery taste of chardonnay. These labels stayed perfectly fine until the past few months when all of them started to peel off at once. Her plan for the day was to finish this task.

       A hint of a smile crosses her face as she recalls Henry’s oft-heard remark, when he could see: “This beats fussy wallpaper or boring old paint. Every one of these labels has a story and represents a fantastic time. Better than reading a magazine when you’re sitting for a long while.”


       They hosted work parties with friends that first year the cabin was built, each person taking turns with the pasting. The bathroom walls are covered with labels of every wine variety: chardonnay, rosé, zinfandel, a Zeller Schwarze Katz—this one mounted by Sally. Henry had leaned close and peered at the black cat, with back arched and paws outstretched. He said in a teasing voice, “It looks like you, Sal.” 

       That day, Blanche said, “Oh, Henry, it does not!”

       Sally comments on this label whenever she uses their bathroom. If it wasn’t her grandchildren’s favorite, Blanche would rip it off the wall and throw it in the trash. Instead, she squeezes her lips together and swallows to get rid of the memory of chardonnay in her mouth.

       She puts her stepladder in place and starts to work. In her normal rushing fashion, she drills through the designated task and completes her goal. She neatly places supplies under the sink, stands back, and admires her efforts.

       Suddenly, her still-sharp ears pick up rustling noises. Rufous again! She considers the stuck screen door and decides to push it onto the deck in order to get her ladder through, thinking that after defending the Broad-tails, she’ll fix it. Blanche fetches a broom in order to really give Rufous what-for! Several Broad-tails cluster in the pines like spectators to a bloody confrontation.

       She places the ladder close to the railing, tests for stability, and climbs a couple steps. She reaches with the broom to give Rufous a good whack, but he zigzags away from the bristles. Landing on the feeder’s far side, he commences to gulp belligerently. She nudges the feeder’s bottom with her broom, and he zooms away. Blanche climbs up another step to the top of her ladder. Here she can hold him off. She swishes through the air several times, pauses, and sniffs at sun-warmed pine needles spread over the deck. This mess will have to be swept away as soon as she’s fixed that door. The Broad-tails flit tentatively past the feeder and spread their tails like fans, seeming to say, “Thank you.”

       “You’re welcome,” Blanche answers. Poised as straight as a sentry, she glares at Rufous until he backs down and disappears. Most of the Broad-tails zero in on plastic blossoms. A few vibrate nearby as if awaiting orders. Gradually they join the group.

       Once her duty is completed, Blanche prepares to leave. It’s time to get Henry up so he doesn’t sleep the rest of the day away. And once that’s done, she’ll fix the door. She moves each foot down once, twice, and on the final step catches a toe. The broom drops with a clatter. She circles her scrawny arms backward, round and round, loses her balance, and tumbles from the ladder. At the last moment, Blanche turns her head to look into the cabin, catching a glimpse of Henry’s gnarly, bare foot peeking out from under the covers. Then, she crashes onto the deck and smashes her temple against the metal frame of the waiting screen door.

       A puddle of blood, as dark as red wine, pools around her cheek. She lies there, eyes scrunched shut, hands uncharacteristically quiet.

* * *

       That’s how Sally Collins finds her in the early evening. An ominous feeling caused Sally to come by for another check on the elderly couple. Blood has dried a dark rust color, and Blanche’s face is grayish white. Sally touches her neck. No pulse. After a startled few seconds, she considers moving Blanche into the cabin, or at least looking for something to cover her. Sally concludes that neither action will make her any better off than resting in the open on a bed of fragrant pine needles.

       “Blanche…Blanche… Where are you?”

       Sally barely hears Henry’s voice. She raises her own. “It’s me. Sally. I’ll be right in.” She looks at the fallen screen door and wonders when it broke. Sally scoots it aside with a hard nudge of her toe so that she can enter the cabin. With this action her head whirls as Blanche’s head tips back and forth and clunks to the deck. 

       Sally takes a deep breath and goes to help Henry out of bed. Once he’s sitting up, she gently guides his bare feet to the floor and into fuzzy slippers. She places an arm under his arm. The other hand presses his chest for balance.

       Henry pushes his walker into the opening where the screen door used to be. Blanche lies inches from his fuzzy foot. 

       “You must stay inside,” Sally tells him. “It’s cold out here with the sun setting.”

       “Where’s Blanche?”

       “There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry.” Sally puts her arm around Henry’s frail shoulders, guiding him and the walker to his special chair. In the bedroom, she finds a quilt to wrap around him.

       Henry shivers uncontrollably as if his chair vibrates. Through chattering teeth he says, “What kind of accident?”

       Sally explains that Blanche fell off a ladder onto the deck, hit her head, and she’s gone.

       He looks blank, as if shell-shocked. It takes a while for the accident to register. With his head slowly shaking, he says, “How could this happen? She’s such a trooper.”

       “That she was,” Sally agrees.

       And, after a few more minutes, Henry murmurs, “Blanche always kept humming along.”

       Sally uncovers a dusty bottle of scotch. It’s her deceased husband’s Chivas Regal, hidden in the back of Blanche’s first-aid cupboard. She pours a healthy dose in a tumbler for Henry, to warm him and settle his nerves. Now, she calls the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. They tell Sally that before long someone will arrive to take her best friend away. 

       Turning to Blanche’s mostly unused chair, beside Henry, Sally sits down with her own scotch in a bell-shaped glass. She watches the tiny birds at their feeder. They all depart, except the biggest one. He’s such a pretty coppery gold color.

       Rufous sticks around for a long time, taking an extra-big drink. 


About the author Kathleen Glassburn: My work has been published or is forthcoming in Adelaide Literary Journal, Amarillo Bay, Broad River Review, Epiphany Magazine, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, SLAB, Wild Violet, and several other journals. My story “Picnics” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start contest. I am Managing Editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review and my novel, Making It Work, is now available from Amazon.

Oma

       I stared into the murky gloom outside my kitchen window while sipping on a cup of coffee. The milky fog partially obscured the dark shapes of trees and buildings across the street, but the weather report said it was going to clear up later in the morning – another typical San Francisco day.  Headlights from passing cars going up and down a steep Telegraph Hill street cast luminous beams into the haze.  A lone, hunched figure shuffled along the sidewalk in front of my place, stopped for a moment as if lost, and then continued walking on into the mist.   

       I usually wasn’t up so early, but woke up from a rather pleasant and poignant dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. The dream was about a time in my youth when I took train trips from a Munich suburb to the city with my mother and sister.  During these trips, I always sat in a window seat so I could wave goodbye to my grandmother as the train slowly pulled away from the station; except in this dream, she was the one in the train and was waving goodbye to me from an open window.

       I rustled up an omelet, listened to the news on the radio, and ate at the dining room table.  Soon I had a notion to take the day off work from the newspaper, especially since it was a Friday and I could wrap the day around the weekend.  A minute later, I decided to do it.  I’d grown to dislike working there anyway and didn’t care what my bosses thought.  

       After breakfast, I topped off my cup, flopped down on the easy chair, and started to plan the day.  First, I’d walk up Columbus Ave to City Light Books, maybe buy a book or two there, have lunch in Chinatown, pick up the Bay Meadows Racing Form, and handicap the Saturday card in a Grant Street Coffeehouse.  

       In the meantime, I started reading a book but set it down after a few pages.  I couldn’t help thinking about my grandmother, and now felt compelled to go down to the apartment’s storage area and open a box of childhood photos that I was meaning to put into an album.  I set aside the photos from my last time in Germany and gazed at them, one by one.  There was the picture of me climbing an apple tree in my grandparent’s yard, and another one where I was sitting at the dinner table next to my uncles and grandfather.  I chuckled at the photo of me in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s Mercedes sedan with my hands on the steering wheel, pretending as if I was driving and with such a wild and goofy grin.  And most precious of all; sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she read me a story from a big book.  

       Now, more memories burst forth about my grandmother – or Oma, as my sister, Aline, and I lovingly called her – and the last summer I spent in Germany when I was ten years old.  The first thing I recalled were the times we all walked together along the dirt roads of the rustic Obermenzing neighborhood in the mornings, passing by old houses with spacious yards sheltered by shrubs and trees - some with chickens, roosters, goats, or pigs - until we arrived at the train station.

***

       “Hey look, Oma!”  I said, pointing up the tracks.  “Here comes the train!”   

       “Ja Ja,” she said.  “Ich sehe es.”  

       “Do you see it too, Mom?”  I asked. 

       “Oh yes, there it is,” she answered.

       “What’s the big deal?”  Aline said.  “It’s just the same old train.”

       “I wish you were going with us this time,” I said to Oma.

       Oma shook her head because she didn’t understand, so mother translated my words to her.  Afterwards, she nodded to me with a smile.  

       I stared at the dark shape of the locomotive as it rounded a curve in the far distance, and couldn’t take my eyes off the single glimmering headlight.  Soon, I began to feel lightheaded as the locomotive got closer, and only snapped out of it when the platform shook a little as the train shuddered to a stop.   

       Today we were going to the Zoo; that was going to be fun.  I jumped onto the train and sat down in one of the window seats facing the platform so I could see Oma.  We were off on another adventure!  Even though we’d taken the same ride many times before, I always liked looking at the scenery as we passed the farms and countryside, the roads and autobahn, the villages and small towns, and then the larger towns, the outskirts of Munchen, and finally the bustling railway station.  There was always something new and different to see each time.  

       Aline and I waved to Oma from the window, and as soon as the train started to move out, I lifted up the window and waved to her again.  She waved back with that same warm smile, and with eyes that looked like they were crying.  I looked back and watched her standing on the platform for as long as I could, until the train rounded a bend and she disappeared from view.    

***

       I watched Oma chop vegetables while I cracked and ate nuts on the kitchen table.  As usual, she wore the same black floral dress, covered in the front with an apron, with buckled shoes and thick leg stockings.  It seemed like she was always in the kitchen preparing food for the midday and evening meals; the kitchen was her kingdom.  I noted the concentration on her face as she cut the carrots and potatoes and other vegetables with such precision.    

       “Oma, can I help?”   

       She looked back to me with a surprised smile.  I knew she understood English a little but could barely speak it at all.

       “Helfen?  Sie mochten uns helfen?  Selbstverständlich, kleine Bertie.  Selbstverständlich.”  

       She handed me some already-peeled potatoes and carrots and then gave me a large knife, while saying something in German to me, only a little of which I understood.  I tried to cut the first potato with the same care that she did.

       That evening, we all sat in the dining room for the evening meal.  As usual, my grandfather – or Opa, as Aline and I called him – sat at the head of the table.  The main course was the oxtail soup full of the vegetables that I helped cut.  

       “Mmm sehr gut, Mutti,” Rolf remarked as he ate.

       “Ja. Das Fleisch ist zart,” Wolfgang said.

       “Mmm, you’re right, uncle,” Bert said.  “The meat almost melts in my mouth.”    

       “Kleine Bertie half mir heute, Sie wissen,” Oma said

       “Wirklich? Wie?”  Opa asked            

        I remembered some German from the time I was there two summers before and was beginning to understand the language better each day.  “I cut some vegetables, that’s all,” I answered. 

       “Good for you,” mother said.

       “Probably the ugly mushy ones,” Aline retorted.

       “Oh shut up.  I did better than you could.” 

       “You two stop fighting or else no dessert for either of you,” mother said.

       I listened to my uncles and Opa chat during the rest of the meal.  Today, my uncles casually discussed their jobs in a bank.  Other days, they talked much more animatedly about how the Bayern Munchen soccer team was doing.  As they talked, I noticed my uncles and Opa soak up the last of their oxtail soup with pieces of bread, and so I did the same  

        “Aussehen,” Wolfgang said, as he watched me soak up the soup with my bread.  “Bert ist essen wie ein Mensch, nicht ein Junge.”  

       “Ja, Ich bin ein Mensch!”  I answered, holding both arms up to show my muscles, “nicht ein Junge!”   

       “Und er ist auch ein komisch!”  Opa said, with a laugh.

       “And smart,” Rolf said, who liked to speak English more whenever he could.  “Your German is good,” he said to me.

       “Nicht so gut,” I answered.

       “Do you give them lessons?”  Rolf asked mother.

       “No, he just listens well,” she said.

       “Ja, er ist sehr klug,” Opa said to Oma, “wie ihre Bruder.”    

       “Hast du ein Bruder?”  I asked Oma. 

       “Ja, aber ich habe noch vier Bruder.”   

       “Wow, you have four brothers,” I said.  “Hast du Schwesters?”  

       “Nein, ich habe keine Schwestern,” Oma answered.

       Oh, no sisters,” I replied.  “Wo wohnst deine Bruders?”  

       “Drei in Stuttgart and eins in Ulm.”  

       “We’re going to visit her brothers in Stuttgart soon, you know,” mother said.

       “When?”

       “Wann haben Sie sagen, wir werden sie besuchen?” mother asked Oma.

       “Am nächsten Wochenende,” Oma answered.

       “Next weekend?  Are we going by car or train?”

       “By car,” Rolf answered.

       “Yay!  On the autobahn!” 


       I was so glad to ride in Rolf’s fast Mercedes with Wolfgang on the way to Stuttgart.  The rest of the family rode in Opa’s Opel sedan.  We left in the morning and both cars rode together until we got on the autobahn, and then Rolf sped off and left the Opel behind.  The plan was that Rolf would pick up Gerhard, one of Oma’s brothers, in Ulm and then drive to Stuttgart later in the afternoon.

       Rolf had taken me on short trips on the autobahn before, so I knew he liked to drive fast.  I sat in the back seat and watched with glee as Rolf passed almost every car on the autobahn.  The only time he ducked into the right lane was when those funny-looking Porsches roared past us.  

       Around noon, we arrived in Ulm and picked up Gerhard, a distinguished-looking man with a well-trimmed white beard who walked with a cane and wore a long black coat and a round black hat.  On the way to Stuttgart, Gerhard spoke in rapid German to Rolf and Wolfgang, but said nothing to me after a brief introduction.  

       We arrived in Stuttgart in the early afternoon, but stayed in the residential areas.  Rolf maneuvered his way into a woodsy neighborhood with large and stately homes and eventually turned into a long a driveway that led to one of those homes.  After he parked the car, I got out and gazed at the house in awe, which looked as big as a castle. 

       A butler greeted us at the door and led us through the house.  All the rooms we passed had rich woodwork and high, beamed ceilings, and there were many old paintings of landscapes and portraits hanging on the walls.  After we passed the busy kitchen and a room full of many books, we emerged into a spacious backyard where groups of adults and children were socializing.

       Most of the men were gathered in the partially shaded patio holding large mugs of beer.  Rolf and Wolfgang quickly headed toward them, leaving me by myself.  The yard was interspersed with fruit trees and bordered by pruned shrubs.  Aline played on a swing with two other girls.  A group of women sat on a table with mother and Oma in the shade under a large tree.  On the other side of the yard, three boys about my age kicked a soccer ball around.  I was about to join them until I saw Oma walking, with a slight limp, towards me.

        “Ah es gibt sie Bertie,” she said.  “Sie können sich meine Brüder jetzt - deine grosse Onkle.”   

       She led me to a festive group of men.  One of the men broke off his conversation when he saw Oma and me approaching.   

       “Auch Schwester,” the man said to Oma.  “Wer ist dieser hübsche junge Mann mit ihnen?  

       “Das ist Albert, Doris' Sohn,” Oma answered, “aber wir nennen ihn Bert.”  

       “Ach ja,” the man said, with a smile to me.  “So you are my nephew - no, my grand- nephew.”

       “Bert, das ist Eckhard, einer von meinen Brüdern,” Oma said.

       “Gutentag, Eckhard,” I said. 

       “Gutentag, Bert.  Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  

       “Nur ein bischen.”   

       “That is good enough,” Eckhard said, with a hearty laugh.

       Just then, a few other men gathered around Eckhard. 

       “These are my other brothers,” Eckhard said, pointing to two men behind him,   “Friedrich and Werner.” 

       Both of the men nodded and gazed at me with fixed grins. 

       “How do like Germany?”  Friedrich asked. 

       “I like Germany very much,” I answered.  “I also like this house very much too.  It’s so big”

       “Yes, it’s been in our family many years,” Eckhard said.

       As we talked, I noticed one of the girls on the swing race across the yard and stand next to the men on the patio.  She had blonde hair with long braids and stared intently at me as I spoke to my granduncles. 

       “Would you like to see more of the house?”  Werner asked.

       “Jawohl, grossonkel.”

       Friedrich then interjected something in German to Eckhard and Werner that I didn’t understand.  Friedrich punctuated what he said with a wink to both of them.

       Eckhard put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the house.  The granduncles and others followed, including Oma.  After we passed a large, open stairway that led to the upper rooms, they stopped in front of the dining hall.  

       “This is where we will all eat soon,” Eckhard said.  “I hope you are hungry.”

       “Ya”, Ich bin sehr hungrig.”

       Next, we went into the library, which had a large globe in the middle of the room.  Most of the books were behind beveled glass doors, and a few of them looked very old, judging by their well-worn covers.  Some weaponry hung on another wall opposite the books: swords, bows, and long, sharp instruments I’d never seen before.  

       “Come now, Bert,” Eckhard said.  “There is one more painting I want you to see.”

       When we emerged from the library, I saw a few more people milling around the main room, including the girl with braids.  Eckhard led us to this room, which had a huge fireplace that looked ten times bigger than the one we had in Seattle.  We stopped in an alcove along the main room and in front of a large portrait of a man with dark features, a stern expression, and long sideburns that connected to his mustache.   

       “This is Reinhold,” Eckhart said, pointing up to the portrait.  ”He’s the one who had this house built over three hundred years ago.”

       “Some say this painting has magical powers,” Friedrich whispered into my ear. 

       “What do you mean?”  

       “If you stare into his eyes and walk back and forth, you might see them following you,”   

       “Just to some people,” Werner said.  “Try walking back and forth to see.”

       I stared up at the portrait and into Reinhold’s eyes.  First, I walked a little to the right and then to the left; Reinhold’s eyes followed me both times.  I walked a little faster across the painting, but Reinhold’s eyes followed me again, as if he was alive in the painting.  

       I stopped in front of the painting while staring up at Reinhold and began to feel a tingly sensation on the back of my neck.  Everything else around the painting seemed to be a blur.  I was barely aware of the subdued laughter of others in the room, which sounded distant and like an echo.  

       The spell was broken when I felt an arm on my shoulder.  I looked up and saw it was Oma.

       “Es ist in Ordnung, Bert.  Alles ist jetzt gut,” she said.

       “You’re part of the family now,” Eckhart said to me, with a smile.  

       The rest of the group followed Eckhart into the Dining Hall. 

       “It’s just a trick they play on kids,” I heard a girls voice say behind me say.  I turned and saw it was the girl with braids.  “They did it to me last year. My name is Gretchen.”

       “Hi. My name is Bert.”

       “I hear you’re from the United States,” she said

       “Yeah. We’re just visiting our relatives in Munchen. Are you from the U.S. too?”

       “No. My family lives in Heidelberg.”

       “It’s just that you speak English so well.’ 

       “My brother, Dieter, and I go to a school here that teaches it.  Come, everyone is going to the dining hall.  We can sit together and talk some more.” 

       The grownups all sat on the main table, while I sat in the middle of the smaller table next to Gretchen and three other boys.  Aline sat with four other girls on the other side of the table.   

       “Dieter, this is Bert, from the United States,” she said to a boy across from them.  “He’s visiting our relatives in Munchen.

       “Hi, Bert,” Dieter said.

       “I saw you playing soccer when I came here,” I said.

       “Soccer?”  Dieter asked.  “Oh, we call it fussball here.”

       “Football?  We have another sport called football in the U.S.”

       “Was sagts er?” a boy next to Dieter asked.

       Dieter muttered something in German to the boy, who responded with a laugh.

       “Do you play soccer, Bert?”  Dieter asked.

       “I play with some boys in Munchen.”

       “Good.  Next time you come here you can join us.”

       I spent the rest of the meal talking mostly to Gretchen while the others spoke amongst themselves in German.  As we all feasted on roast chicken, potato pancakes with gravy and a cabbage salad, we exchanged many little stories about what life was like in each other’s countries.  I liked Gretchen.  Even though she was a girl, she wasn’t too girlish.  


       The next morning, I sat on the kitchen table with mother and Aline eating sausages and eggs and fresh bread, thinking about the fun I had after the dinner with the other kids when we all went down to play in the large cellar of the house.  To get there, we went down a long, narrow flight of stairs that ended in a large room that stored many racks of wine and barrels of beer against the wall.  We also explored the dimly lit passageways that branched out from the main room, and later devised a little game of hide-and-seek.  Gretchen and I hid together behind a trunk near the end of a long passageway and whispered to each other about what was in one of those locked doors behind us: ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and other scary things.  Gretchen clutched my arm tightly as we whispered in the semi-darkness, and then I felt a peck on my cheek – a kiss.  

       I stared at her with a wide-eyed grin in the semi-darkness and kissed her back on the cheek.  Afterwards, we both tried to suppress a laugh.  Right after that, one of Dieter’s friends heard us and discovered our hiding place.      

       “What are you thinking about, Bert?” mother asked.  “You’re so quiet this morning.”

       “Oh, just all the fun I had here last night, especially in the basement.”

       “You know, Bert,” mother said, “Werner told me after the dinner that you remind him of one of his brothers, in the way you look, and even in the way you speak and act.”

       “Which brother?”

       “One that is not alive anymore.  His name was Herman.  I remember a little about him, but not too much.”  

       “So Oma had another brother?  What happened to him?”

       “He died during the War.”

       “Was he a soldier?”

       “No.  He worked on a newspaper.  Sometimes he wrote things that certain people didn’t like so —”    

       She let the words hang, then went back to eating her breakfast.  I noticed that she had the same troubled expression and tone of voice as when she talked about the war at other times. 

        “Do you think we can come here again before we leave?”  I asked her after a long silence.

       “We’ll see.”

       Both of us knew that was unlikely because it was already the middle of August and we had to fly back to the States in less than three weeks.   

       After breakfast, we all said goodbye to Eckhart and his brothers and headed outside toward our cars for the drive back to Munchen.  I looked back to the house before I got back in the car and held my gaze on the second-floor balcony where I stood watching the sunrise over the rolling, woodsy hills surrounding the neighborhood.  I wished we could’ve stayed in the house another day or two because I felt so good just being inside it.  It was similar to a feeling I had in the Munchen house, but even more so.  I stood there for some time and couldn’t take my eyes off of the house because I felt that if I did, something important would be lost to me forever.

       “Let’s go, Bert,” Rolf said, from inside the Mercedes.  “It’s a long drive back.” 

       Reluctantly, I got in the car and said little during the drive home, torn by confusing emotions I didn’t understand.  It seemed to have something to do with what Eckhart said about being part of his family.  Maybe that’s why I wanted to stay so much; we were leaving too soon!

***

       I tried to get to sleep but my mind was on other things, mostly the fact that we were going back to the States in a few days.  In a way, I looked forward to the exciting plane trip, but the strongest feelings I had were ones of disappointment and sadness because of all the new friends I was going to leave behind.  Gretchen was the first girl that I really liked, and I was also going to miss Dieter and his friends too.  Another was Rovie, the boy next door, who I played with the most.  We explored the trails in the nearby woods, and played soccer together with the other neighborhood boys.    

       In fact, I was going to miss everything about Germany: the countryside and farms, the old and stately building in the city, the different kinds of cars, riding on the trains, and just the way all the people talked and acted.  Germany seemed like a place that I just felt more comfortable and at home in - so much more than in Seattle.  Of course, I was going to miss my uncles and Opa and Oma most of all.

       I tossed and turned but still couldn’t get to sleep so I finally crept downstairs to see if anyone was still up.  Wolfgang was reading a book by the fireplace and Oma sat in the other side of the room knitting something that looked like scarf.

       “Bertie,” she said.  “Was ist los?  Kannst du nicht schlafen?”  

       “Nein Oma,” 

       “Hier kommen dann,” she said, patting the chair, “Ich lese Ihnen jetzt ein Buch.”  

       I went to a nearby shelf and pulled out a familiar book: a large hardbound collection of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.  It was my favorite book and she had read stories to me from it several times before. 

       “Welche soll ich Ihnen vorlesen am Abend?” she asked.

       “Ich weiß es nicht, Oma.”  A new story.

       I sat down on the chair next to her and settled my head on her shoulder, soft as a pillow, after she opened the book.  The pungent, musty aroma of her dress and the odor of her body seemed to transform my imagination even deeper into the book as she turned the pages.  I’d seen and read many of the stories and their corresponding sketches before: The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, The Enchanted Stag, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Clever Elf, Rumpelstiltskin, and others.  Finally, she came upon a new story that I guessed was titled: The Young Traveller. 

       “This one,” I said, pointing to the page.

        “Ah, Der Junge Riese.”  

       I could only understand a few words as she read to me in German, but it almost didn’t matter.  I gazed upon the sketches on each page and simply imagined what those words could be and what they meant.  In a way, that was almost better than reading it in English.  Soon, she finished the story and paged through a few more stories until she came upon one that had another good sketch.  I pointed to it.

       “Dieser?” she asked.

       “Ja Oma, das ist gut.”  

       As she read Der Verlorene Sohn, I felt myself starting to nod off.  I tried to stay awake because it felt so good being in her comforting presence and in the fantasy world of the book; however, near the end of the story I couldn’t fight it off anymore and drifted off to sleep.

***

       I sat in his easy chair for some time thinking about this, and the other memories of my last time Germany.  I walked toward my bookshelves, picked out a version of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales that I bought many years before, and browsed though it until I came upon the last story that Oma read to me: The Lost Son.  

       I set the book down and chuckled to myself with a new realization.  So maybe that’s where it began; Oma reading this book to me.

       When I returned to school that year, I started going to the local library a lot more.  The first books I read were the ones from Robert Louis Stevenson, and then Jules Verne.  In high school, I liked the stories from Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Victor Hugo and many others.  In college, I developed an interest in creative writing and graduated with degrees in English Lit and Journalism.  


       The next Monday, I was back at work on the newspaper, banging on the typewriter as fast as I could.  The piece I was rushing through was an extraction from the police blotter that came in on the wire over an hour late.  

       “Hey Bert!”  I heard Gus shout from the other side of the office

       “Pick up line four.  It’s your mother from Seattle.”

       “Hello, mom?”

       “Oh Bert,” she said, in a distraught voice.  “I’m sorry to call you at work, but it just couldn’t wait, and sometimes you don’t answer your home phone.”

       “Is everything alright?”

       “No.  I just got a call from your Uncle Rolf in Germany.  It’s my mother – your Oma,” she said between sobs.  “She passed away.” 

       “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”

       “He tried to call earlier but a storm disrupted the phone service there, so I just found out about it today.  It’s just that there’s no one around here in the family.  I feel so alone.  

       “Did you call Aline?”

       “Yes, she’s driving up from Portland today.  That will help.”

       “I’ll see if I can take a few days off to drive up there.”    

       “That’s very thoughtful of you but there won’t be enough time.  I have to catch a flight to Germany Wednesday for the funeral later this week.  Oh, this is so unexpected.  I just got a letter from her earlier this month,” she said, breaking into sobs again.  “Everything seemed alright with her.”

       “Gosh, mother, I wish I could join you.  You know, I was just thinking about her too the other day.  In fact —”   I was going to tell her about the dream when I felt a strange emotion begin to stir within me.  “When did it happen?”

       “Just last week.”

       I was about to ask which day, but then it hit me; I knew exactly which day it was.  


About the Author: A.R. Bender is a somewhat peripatetic writer of German heritage now living in Tacoma, Washington, USA. He's completed two short story collections, a few of which have been published individually, multiple flash fiction pieces, and a smattering of poetry. He's also seeking representation for his completed historical novel. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking off the grid and coaching youth soccer.