Music From Funeral Marches

Rows of ashen clouds rolled over Cape Cod like lines of soldiers marching from battle, the remains of a furious storm that pounded the shore long into the night.  Wind still bullied the trees, combing the long field grass in the yard before whistling through the cracks in the window caulking chilling the small bedroom.

Dennis opened his eyes to blurry images around the tiny bedroom.  It had been a fitful sleep, clouded with shadows and music from funeral marches.  Even unable to focus without his glasses he knew each of the furnishings and articles by heart.  In his mind they stood out clearly, etched deeply in his memory.  The faded black and white wedding picture atop the bureau had been in the same spot for fifty-one years.  In it he appeared stern, tie clamping his neck like a vise. He vividly recalled the pinching and chafing of his prominent Adam’s apple.  Thick, curly brown hair was matted like a hat about his long face.  Ellen said his eyes betrayed his fear.  He was certainly nervous but fear was not an emotion he felt on his wedding day.  On the contrary, it had been one of the happiest days of his life.  He couldn’t help it if his expressions weren’t always connected to his heart.  Though he had the appearance of a bookkeeper, his tall athletic body belied that notion.  True to form, his lips, thin as potato peels, held a hard line.  

Ellen turned her head on the pillow and gazed at him.  She’d been up for hours. Though she smiled, he recognized the anguish in her blue eyes as he slipped on his glasses.  Nodding slowly with a slight smile, he reached under the blankets and gave her limp arm a careful squeeze.  She had always been his strength, his energy.  It was even evident in the wedding photo, her stance, sure and steady, announcing to the world that the pairing was the right thing.  Though a foot shorter than he she seemed to support his lanky body.  Her broad face beamed with a bright smile and eyes shined with quiet, but obvious confidence.

He proposed to her on a scalding day on the New Jersey shore.  Windblown and sunburned he knelt over her trying to ignore the butterflies banging in his stomach.  Even after five years he wasn’t sure if she would accept, though both were thirty years old.   As the question limped over his tongue she watched the flight of a lone gull.  Children’s cries echoed off the calm water and bathers went about their business.  His question hung in the salty breeze and he blushed as he waited, irritated at himself because his timing seemed wrong. She was distracted by the bird, interested in its proud display of freedom and power. He should have recognized that but he became anxious, throat dry and tongue swollen, fearful he might back out if he didn’t jump on the chance.  After years of planning and practicing, he panicked.  Her inquisitive gaze, eyes darting after the flight of the gull, conveyed her independence, the strength he would never corral. His admiration for her strength was what drove his love for her.  

She heard his dull inflection and stiff delivery which lacked creativity and originality and hesitated for a moment, deciding she should make him pay for the pitiful performance.  After all those years she deserved better, she really did. But in the end it was the content that was most important, not the tone of the delivery.  What was she, a dog?  Still, right before she accepted she thought it would be hilarious to say, “I’m sorry.  What did you say?  I wasn’t paying attention,” but knew he might never gather the nerve again. They had been stuck in neutral for years and had to throw the vehicle into drive so they could get on with their lives.

When she finally said, “Yes,” he missed it.  He followed her gaze and caught up with the seagull in flight, admiring both of their quests for freedom and began manufacturing a mask to cover his devastation, a ruse that would allow him to walk away with his head held high – protect his pride.

This would be comical if it wasn’t so important and overdue, she thought as she watched his gaze – his light blue eyes, already bordered with crow’s feet, following the gull. She knew exactly what he was doing.  While she still had the chance, before he decided on his exit strategy and retreated for good, she shifted onto her knees, the sun-drenched blanket warm on her joints and reiterated, “I said yes, you know.”

He took a double take, digesting her words and was so relieved he forgot to smile, express his excitement; though he never, for one moment throughout all the years forgot the exhilaration of that moment.  Besides the birth of their children and the actual wedding, it ranked as the most important event in his life and whenever he felt deflated he drifted back to that hot day in the sand and could recreate the sounds, the smells and the sights that surrounded his euphoria.

“Morning,” she whispered faintly.

He leaned over her and kissed her lightly, their lips like sandpaper brushing across each other, then rearranged her thick curls on the pillow. Once jet-black, they were now heavily streaked with gray. He shifted onto his elbow, bones creaking as he leaned over her.  She had shrunk, her head hardly evident on the pillow, her body just a small crease under the comforter.  “It looks like the storm passed.”  The old house had shaken and quaked in the fierce wind.  Rain drove like nails against the window through much of the night.   The trees groaned as their branches yielded and sprung back, while small twigs were swiped off and thrown unmercifully against the house.  “You’d think I would get use to storms like that, let them follow their course without worrying,” he sighed, head bent down in surrender.

Her blue eyes twinkled like pools of water.  She responded by blinking.  The storms had the same effect on her.

Crawling to his side of the bed and sitting up, his feet smacked the cold wood floor. Feeling the tightness in his lower back, he stretched his right arm behind his head and leaned as hard as he could to the left, waiting for the tightness to subside and provide him full movement.  Then he did the same with his left arm. His knees cracked when he stood and walked around to the stainless pot that caught the flow from her catheter.  Stooping down, he gazed at the picture of the family posed before their small sailboat.  Even though the picture was black and white their tans and sun-bleached hair leapt from it.  After a passerby took the picture, he had taken his son Bobby out on the boat while Ellen remained ashore with their daughter Penny.

Bobby’s bony rib cage struck out with playful pride, ever the protector of his sister, while demure Penny leaned against him.  Their windswept hair signaled their lack of vanity, their youthful innocence.  It was the only picture he could remember in which he smiled broadly – a reflection of his own pride. Taken when Bobby was ten and Penny five, it was a constant reminder of the fickle temperament of the forces over which he had no control.

He lifted the pot, balancing it carefully so not to spill its contents.  The bleach-like odor was a result of the mixture of drugs she took four times a day.  Her bladder, because of the catheter, had grown weak and pretty much useless, just like the rest of her muscles, but at least it wasn’t causing her pain.  After emptying the pot in the toilet and washing it out, he asked, “Hungry?”

She shook her head in the pillow.  “Thirsty, though.  Need my meds too.”

He nodded and walked to the kitchen past the dining room.  The maple table held piles of newspapers and magazines – none of which he’d looked at – always promising himself he’d catch up on them but the layer of dust was evidence of his failure to do so.  The table had become a repository – a staging area for waste.

  

“You have to leave it be,” Ellen gasped, staring strongly across the table at him, slamming her fork on the table, tears welling in her eyes.  “It is over,” she insisted, glancing at Penny, then a teenager, who gazed blankly at her untouched dinner. “We are helpless to do anything about it now. We have to move on.”

Dennis knew better than to argue. He couldn’t recall ever winning one in their married life.  He shrugged, wiping his own tears.  He looked at the empty chair, then at his wife and daughter, his jaw quivering.  Despite his need to talk about it, he would respect her wishes.


She’d been bedridden for 8 months, suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis that had all but paralyzed her.  Only the painkillers made life bearable.  He winced as he recalled her energy and curiosity for life.  He rarely left her alone  – only when Penny came by to check in on them did he feel it all right to be out of hearing distance.        

The kitchen needed straightening. Actually it needed cleaning. He had never been very attentive to housekeeping chores. The only domestic talent on which he prided himself was baking apple pies, with apples picked from a small orchard at the end of the yard.  He hadn’t done that for years, not since the children were young. Even back then, he took grief for not cleaning up after himself.  Somehow he used his focus and energy on the creative process and was too tired afterwards to clean. Actually, he thought the pedestrian task of cleaning beneath him. Tall stacks of dirty dishes by the sink reminded him he hadn’t done them for days. He hadn’t swept the floor in over a week.  It didn’t really bother him. They hadn’t entertained friends in years.  Basically there was no one left to entertain.  All the friends of their youth had either left the area or died.  

Penny continued to berate him for his slovenliness, but he actually looked forward to it, because he had turned it into a game.  It was too quiet in the house.  When it pulsed with the overbearing and never ending noise of four people continually expressing opposing opinions, he never thought for a moment that he would rue the day when silence reigned. He never thought he would miss the arguments and miss them so much he started them whenever Penny arrived.  The only argument he hated was the one about them moving into a nursing home.  It had become Ellen’s favorite subject.  Penny also joined in, constantly harping on the subject, but she was his child, and he found ignoring her simple, though his silence usually threw her into a tirade about how he never listened to her, had never respected her.  A slight smile came to his thin lips when he thought about her diatribes.  

She always had a habit of making bad decisions, and though he wished it wasn’t the case, he never hesitated to remind her, and felt strongly that it was the only way to teach her the proper way to make a decision. If she couldn’t understand that after all these years, whose fault was it? Though he would only admit it to himself, these arguments were a defense mechanism in hopes of drawing his family’s attention away from their favorite subject – putting him in some damn nursing home.

Reaching for a clean glass in the cupboard he knocked a dirty one with his elbow, sending it careening off the counter across the floor where it shattered against the wall into a hundred tiny pieces.  He watched with a dazed smile as the shards of glass spun vibrantly like dancing drunks before wobbling to a halt.

“Dennis!” Ellen called.  “Are you all right?”

“Damn,” he whispered.  Then he called out, “I’m fine!  Stupid glass jumped right off the counter.  If Penny doesn’t get here soon to do the dishes….” She was due later that morning.  He smiled to himself, knowing full well how that would irritate Ellen.  He picked his moments of sarcasm with Ellen carefully, understanding her condition could only withstand so many and he didn’t want to wear her out.

“Did you clean it up?” she asked as he came back into the bedroom with a glass of water and her pills.

“Penny will get it when she gets here.”

“It’s not fair to expect her to have to take care of us,” Ellen argued.

“What’s wrong with her taking care of us?  She’s our child.”

“With plenty of responsibilities of her own and certainly not enough time to dote on us.  If you can’t sweep up a broken glass…” 

“Don’t you dare bring it up again!” he growled, anticipating her direction.  “I’m not doing it.  I’m perfectly capable of taking care of us.  Hell, if you hadn’t spoiled me all these years I’d be cleaning up in there, alleviating all the pitfalls. But because you were so insistent on taking care of me, I now lack the training.”  His eyes twinkled as he grinned mischievously, rubbing his hands together.

“Jesus,” she sighed, futilely trying to hide her amusement by turning her head from him.

“Didn’t think it would come to this, when you were washing all those dishes over the years, did you?”

She shut her eyes and shook her head.  “I didn’t think I’d end up chained to a damn bed, either.”  Her amusement vanished and she puckered her lips.

“But, that’s not your fault.”  Her tone smothered his impish joy and a cloud of seriousness washed across his face.

“No.  And neither are our old age and my need for the care that you can no longer provide.”  She stopped and looked directly at him, fully aware her words would hurt his pride.  

His features grew hard, cheeks flexing and chin sticking out defensively.  Feeling self pity, ignoring the accuracy of her statements, he fell silent while he gently slipped the pills into her mouth, lifting her head under his arm, tilting her chin, and holding the glass of water so she could sip, before dabbing her lips with a napkin.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” she sighed, familiar with his childish, self- centered behavior and how he loved to use it as a guilt provoking tool.  She was too weak to argue for long periods, even though she knew it inspired him in some strange way.

He looked away and mumbled, “I can handle the situation.  I always have.”  It had been his regular response over the past year.  It had become a signal to stop the discussion. When he first recited it, he had no doubt about its validity, but lately even he had begun questioning his abilities, the weakness in his legs, the shortness of breath and most of all, the forgetfulness.  The statement had taken on a dual purpose – the second a reminder to him to ignore his own weaknesses in hopes they would miraculously disappear and he would grow stronger. 

“What happens if something happens to you?  I can’t call Penny. I can’t even reach a phone.”

He scowled at her.  “I don’t want you talking like that.  Nothing is gonna happen to me.  I’m fit as hell.”  He avoided her gaze and looked out the window.

“We never know.  I was fit too.”

He shook his head and ran his hand through his thinning hair.  “I can’t, damn it!  We both know that once were in, it’s a death sentence, the last day of freedom. Might as well stick me in the ground.”

“But it’s a nice place.”

“According to Penny, but what does she know?  She’s not the one going to jail.”


Tall pines lined the road like sentries in front of her parent’s house.  When Penny was having a good day she took delight in their whimsical beauty; the way the branches swayed gracefully in the breeze.  It reminded her of her youth.  When she was struggling with her life she recognized their strength and tried to draw from it.  Ever since she was a child she had seen them as a symbol of her parents.

She was in the midst of a string of good days.  Her oldest daughter Sherry had called that morning just to bring her up to date on her own three daughters.  Of all her children, Sherry was most like Penny - a strong, nurturing individual who wasn’t afraid to tackle a problem.  Penny used to be that type of person.

Sitting in the driveway, she wondered how she had become a parent with whom her kids visited only periodically.  She was no longer a major part of their lives – hardly more than a footnote, or number three or maybe even six on their to-do lists.  The other two called every so often, more often than not when they needed something or needed to complain to someone.  As much as she missed having them living locally, she refused to harp on it and always put up a strong front while speaking to them.  Complaining about it would only drive them further away, both figuratively and physically.

She adjusted the rearview mirror and checked her makeup.  It had become a habit in high school when her father complained her makeup made her look like a whore.  “Looks like you’re wearing three coats of enamel,” he commented as she prepared for her first date with Paul, her future husband.  It was his way of telling her she was too young to date.  Her mother was her protector, a vicious defender who would drop everything to race to her side during the constant arguments with her father.

“Maybe I have to because I look more like you than Mom,” she screamed, severely hurt by his attack, but also just as angry because her tears meant she had to wash her face and apply the makeup all over again.  After the third cycle of attacks and face washing, Paul was at the door and she had to go out with a scrubbed, tear blotched face.  It was a wonder he showed up for a second date. 

After the divorce, Dennis gloated rather than offer support.  “You were too damn young for marriage.  Besides I never could see anything in him.”  He never explained his comments, just made them, fully expecting everyone to understand him, and accept whatever he said as gospel.  

She sat in the car building up her strength before going into see them. Turning up the volume on the radio, letting the easy jazz soothe her, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, attempting to shut out the world, at least to delay the inevitable when she walked through the door. The small Cape Cod house, white with green shutters, was her childhood home.  She had the second bedroom on the first floor and Bobby slept in the attic.  He had an advantage, the rule of the roost; able to shut himself away when their father became angry, leaving her an unprotected target for his cruel verbal attacks.  The structure was too small and cramped and all too often her memories were of the screaming matches between father and Bobby, Bobby and herself, and Father and her echoing abrasively throughout the tiny rooms.  The only positive constant was Mother as the mediator, the protector.

The tension was still evident, even though the causes were different, and her visits rarely went smoothly.  Even if she felt good going in, some outburst from her father would ensue and she would leave feeling terribly sorry for her mother and even sorrier for herself.  She had become their parent, taking on the role of enforcer, though admittedly, not an entirely effective one.  

Her last visit had been a disaster.  She made it a habit to follow a set routine upon her arrival - give her mother a kiss, make sure she was as comfortable as she could be, considering her condition, grunt a greeting to her father, then march right into the kitchen and clean up the mess he always left.  He loved seeing her in the kitchen and never failed to watch her.

The routine usually went swimmingly and she was even able to ignore his irritating presence, but after washing the dishes during the last visit, while drying them, he whistled from the doorway.  “Kind of losing your speed, aren’t ya, kiddo?”

It was a playful barb.  She realized that, but he had the knack of stabbing at the wrong time, (or right time, depending upon his intention), and she flung the towel at him.  He straightened abruptly, shocked at the action, anger oozing from his cool blue eyes because he took it as a sign of disrespect.

“No, Dad!  It’s you who is getting slower.  Look at this mess,” she cried, feeling the tears well in her eyes as her throat closed.  She hated crying when she became angry, knowing he considered it a sign of weakness.  “What self-respecting adult would leave a crap house like this?”  Unlike his barb, there was no humor, not even sarcasm in her tone – only bitterness.  She was tired of being his verbal punching bag.  “What right do you have to constantly downgrade me?  All I’ve ever tried to do is help!”

That was the end of the conversation.  The look on his haggard face was a mixture of astonishment and agony, but he just bit his lip and limped away, leaving Penny alone in the kitchen, guilt ridden midst the echoes of her assault and dreading having to face her mother after such an attack.


“You can’t cut it off like this!  Not again!”  Ellen cried, tears welling. “I’m not giving in anymore.  Yesterday you dropped a plate on the way in here.  Today, you break a glass in the kitchen.  What the hell is going to happen tomorrow?  What if the house caught fire?  How could you get me out?”  She was grasping for any excuse, the more extreme the better, because she realized, even if he didn’t, each of these disasters could happen any time.  They were defenseless.

Trying to ignore her while pulling on a pair of gray flannels, he yanked the belt to the last hole, bunching the waistband into an accordion of folds.  He glanced in the mirror and saw a three-day stubble, but refused to worry about it as he once would have because no one was around to witness it.  Besides, it was much sparser than it used to be.  

“I’ll tell you one thing that isn’t happening today or tomorrow, and that’s us moving into a damn home!”  With a frustrated wave of his hand he stomped out of the room and on his way outside, slammed the door, making sure it resounded like the crack of a rifle shot.

“Dennis!  You get back here!”

“Who the hell does she think she is?” he muttered as he marched across the backyard.  Chest pounding, hands trembling, he tasted blood as he bit his lip in an attempt to control himself.    

White billowy clouds had replaced the storm clouds and they rode high on a warm breeze.  Blue jays chattered and chased each other through the bushes.  Their words replayed in his mind and he bounced between self-pity and anger. Her loss of confidence in him was plain to see, but what was more aggravating was the stark realization he might be losing his own.

“I see he’s been up to his old tricks again,” Penny remarked as she entered the tiny bedroom after cleaning the kitchen.

“You mean the glass in the kitchen?” Ellen sighed.

“Breaking it is one thing, but why does he always leave the mess for me to clean?”

  She sat on the edge of the bed by her mother’s feet.  It was a place she’d been occupying since she was a child.  She recalled the slippery coolness of the silk comforter on winter mornings when she crept in to wake them, the invigorating chill seeping through the window they kept open at night.

“Why does he do anything he does?  He’s so damn stubborn I could kill him.”

“Don’t.  Then there’d be a long trial, and transporting you back and forth to the courthouse would be just too much of a burden.”  Penny smiled and winked.  “Have you had your meds?”

“He gave them to me.”

“One thing he’s good for.”

“I don’t know if that’s enough to keep him around, though.  I guess the piss bowl would over flow without him.  If you add that to occasionally changing my diaper, the few times that’s needed, I still don’t know if it’s enough.”

“Tough morning, huh?”

“I was pretty tough on him.  His ego is a bit bruised.”

“Ah, the sweet smell of revenge.”

Ellen chuckled.

“I suppose it was the retirement home thing again.”

“We’ve been retired for years.  We’re in need of nursing now.”

“Not Dad.  He needs nothing.  Just ask him.  Never has needed anything from anyone.”

Ellen grew serious.  “Penny, he needs both of us and you know it.”

Penny frowned.  “He needed Bobby.  I’m not so sure he needs me.”

“Father and son.  It’s not unusual.”

Penny stood up and stretched.  She suddenly felt tired.  Repetition of the same argument wore her to the point of exhaustion.  She needed some breakthrough in her life.  “I’m just so damn sick of the attacks, the constant degradation.”

“Unfortunate as they are, it seems our burden to bear.”

“He would never treat Bobby the way he treats me.”

“He did.  You just refuse to remember.  That is his way.  I married him too damn late.  He was set in his ways and I couldn’t soften him.  He’s always been a strict, stubborn bastard who thinks his way is the only way.”

“Merciless is a better description. Whenever Bobby got in trouble, he’d escape upstairs after the screaming match and I would get the remaining brunt of his anger.  I never did anything, but was a convenient target just because I lived here.  I didn’t choose him as a father!”

“He loves you.  Strictness is just one way of showing it, one way of protecting you.”

“Strictness is one thing, but sarcastic and hurtful attacking is entirely different. What upsets me most is the fact I’m expected to accept him the way he is when he’s always trying to change me.”

“He never tried to change you.  He just expresses his opinions openly.  Never once did he stop you from doing what you wanted.  He just warned you.  He told you what he thought, but he never stopped you and never loved you less when you went ahead and did it.”

“And he’d be the first to remind me of his wisdom when it didn’t work out. Just loved to rub the salt into my deep wounds, and if they weren’t deep enough he’d dig them deeper.”

“Often times too tough, but just another expression of his opinion.”

“Of Paul?”

“He was your husband, not his.  Just because he may not have liked him didn’t mean you couldn’t.  He always felt it was his right as his father to let you know what was on his mind. Actually, he felt it was his responsibility to make sure you saw everything, understood everything.”

Tears welled in Penny’s eyes.  “Why the hell did he have to be so right all the time?”

Ellen chuckled.

Wiping her tears, Penny asked, “Where is the old coot, anyway?”

Ellen turned to the clock.  “God!  It’s been an hour since he stomped out of here.  You better go look for him.”


The back of the property was lined with a row of crooked apple trees crumpled like arthritic hands.  The bright red apples beckoned to him.  It had been years since he made an apple pie. 

Scurrying back to the garage, he grabbed a basket and hobbled to the brink of a deep ditch that separated him from the trees.  He wound up, grimacing as he tossed it across to the foot of the trees, bringing on tightness in his shoulder and a new ping in his lower back.  At one time he thought nothing of rearing back and leaping the width of the ditch, but suddenly, standing there peering into its rocky mouth, he found it difficult to believe he’d accomplished it so easily.  A coat of sweat engulfed him as he imagined the flight. His heartbeat quickened as he took a few steps back and started for the edge, knees cracking, calves tightening over cramping ankles. Two steps into the approach he was winded.  Airborne, arms flapping wildly, he knew he’d leapt too soon. It was as though he were weighted down. He braced himself for the worst as he lost momentum immediately and fell short.  Legs crumbling beneath him as he met the far side with a jarring force, he reeled back.  Twirling around him were glimpses of trees followed by flashes of thick white clouds as he tumbled dizzily backwards into the ditch.  The intensity with which he landed knocked the wind from him and shot a mesmerizing jolt of pain from his lower back up his spine into his head where an explosion of colors knocked him unconscious.


“Dad!  Where are you?”  Penny called as she wandered down the path, peering into bushes and around trees.  The panic brought a grating tightness in her stomach as she tried to dispel harrowing images of his corpse and the following pain and suffering they would have to endure.

“Over here.” The shrillness of his voice surprised both of them and embarrassed him.

“Oh my God!” she cried as she crouched down, peering into the ditch.  “Are you all right? Can you move?  What are you doing here?”  The sight of his crumpled body shocked her. 

“Don’t ask,” he groaned.  The ease with which she reached him, then held him, made him realize how old and out of control he'd become.  Her concern was that of a mother for a child.

“What hurts?”

He did a mental inventory.  Besides shortness of breath he seemed intact. “Nothing, it seems. I just kinda ran out of steam in mid-air.”

Effortlessly she had him on his feet.  He was brittle and paper thin. Wrapped in her arms, he laid his head against her breast.  When had she grown taller?  As she rocked him, he gulped a sob.

“Can you walk back?”

He pulled back and stared at her for a moment.  Her features were Ellen’s, especially the brightness of her eyes, the strength of her jaw.  “Would you help me to the beach?”

“To the beach?  Are you out of your mind?  Is that where you were headed when this happened?”  She held him steady, astonished by the malleability of his frame.  “What about Mom?”

He shook his head.  “She’ll be napping. Please. I need to go there.”

“You wait here and I’ll go tell her what we’re doing.”

The craggy sea grass glowed purple in the cloudy light.  She reached around and supported him as they struggled up the dune; the wet sand slippery and dangerous as he limped along, determined to reach the peak. The sea still raged from the storm.  Leaning on each other, they struggled to catch their breath at the top of the dune.  Against the wind, they gazed out at the whitecaps.  The air was wet with salt and he smiled as it coated his face.

“It’s the only thing I can count on to remain the same,” he murmured.  Surveying the horizon, he inhaled deeply.  “It’s so overwhelming.  So perfect.”  Even in its angry state, sand and water churning with frightening force, its beauty and energy were awe-inspiring.

The billowy clouds raced inland across wide swatches of blue sky.

He pointed to a large whitecap.  “That’s mine.  You pick one.”

“Over there!” she laughed.  It was a game they had played when she was a child.  Follow the whitecap to shore.  Bobby’s wave always won.

The excitement and anxiety brought a blush to her cheeks as she urged her wave on to victory.  She screamed and danced over the sand, waving her arms wildly.  “I finally won!”

He clapped.  The wild panorama was no different than forty years earlier when he scaled the dune with the telegram in hand.  The sea’s roar masked his anguished screams.  Bobby’s ship had gone down in a storm off the coast of Viet Nam.  He had left the table with Ellen holding Penny.  All were paralyzed with grief.

He slipped his arm around her waist.  “I shouldn’t have let him enlist,” he admitted solemnly.  “He still had another year before he had to go.”

She squared his shoulders, turning him to her and peered into his tired eyes. His age screamed in the layers of wrinkles around them, and she finally recognized the toll life had taken on him.  “You can’t blame yourself.”

“It was the only time in my life I held back.  Didn’t express my feelings.”

“He wouldn’t have listened, Dad.”

He shook his head and wiped a tear. “I suppose not.  No one around here ever has.  But I could’ve withheld my signature on the papers.”

“He would have forged it and run away.”

He smiled sadly as he gazed at the horizon.  “Seems stubbornness is a family trait.”

“Not a particularly good one, but at least it is something we all have in common.”


Dusk’s shadows crept slowly across the bedroom.  Taking Ellen’s hand in his, he smiled down at her. She gazed at him, her blue eyes, though nestled in webs of wrinkles, showed the vibrancy of a young woman.

“You’re right.  It’s time for us to move,” he whispered.  There was no reason to go into all the details.  

She knew better than to ask why he had changed his mind after all this time, but she could finally stop worrying about him, knowing he would be in a safe place, knowing Penny wouldn’t be burdened by him.

Smiling and shutting her eyes, she was back on the beach by the boat where Bobby took her hand.

 

About the Author: After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, both east and west, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area. His short stories and poems have appeared in Full of Crow, Potluck, Dirty Chai, The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Yellow Chair Review, Shoe Music Press, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Brief Wilderness, Poydras Review, Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing, Foliate Oak Literary Journal,Midway Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review and Temptation Press Anthology - Private Lessons.

Emily As Supper

I don’t mouth
what I’m not willing
to swallow.

About the Author: Darren C. Demaree is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently “Two Towns Over”, which was selected the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press. He is the recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children

Wonder Wheel

A blond woman with a Samsonite suitcase at the border
of a Coney Island ride, a broken-promises look on her face
like she’s figured out that she may have to rescue herself.

Look, it’s just a photograph I took off the Internet today,
after I decided the United States of America, my country,
is your-fucked-up-brother-in-law stupid. An uber-idiot. 

Jim Harrison says the Statue of Liberty needs a necklace
of human skulls—"her great iron lips quivering in a smile”—
and that skulls striking together is the true sound of history.

America, you’re like a woman who wants to get reckless
in the Men’s Room of a coffee shop. For shits and giggles.
You’re pissed off at yourself. And more than a little crazy.

We’re on the Wonder Wheel, you bet. And if I like Woody,
it isn’t that I excuse anything because his movies are funny,
especially since only one or two early ones made me laugh.

If I consider the teals and goldenrods of the leaves on the
woman’s print dress in Wonder Wheel to be a bit much, 
it’s that autumn colors suggest—what else?—falling.

About the Author: Roy Bentley is the author of five books. He has been awarded fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Walking with Eve in the Loved City, his most recent book, was selected as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and published by the University of Arkansas.

Just Another Fish Story

     Tried fishing once. Went with an old Army buddy named Rick. Drove all day, almost, upstate, then down a long dirt road till we came to a river out in the middle of friggin' nowhere. Told me this river was teeming with fish just begging to be caught. "So many fish they jump out of the water into your arms," he said. "No fishing rod needed," he claimed. "Sounds like a fish story to me," I tell him. But I went anyway, just to get out of the house. Found it a waste of time, just standing around in the river all day, wet, cold. Luckily we'd brought beer. Only thing I caught was my thumb.

     The next day, after much yelling and many threats, my wife makes me go food shopping with her. Usually I manage to weasel my way out by faking the sudden onset of some exotic tropical disease . . . or a promise to clean the gutters. But this particular Saturday she's pissed-off about something. Who knows what. So I find myself driving her down to the local shopping center, just off Route 2. 

     When we get to the Stop & Shop, she drops me off in the produce section and tells me to pick out some fruit. "Make sure you get prunes," she says as she heads off with her binder-load of coupons. "You need more fiber." What I need is less aggravation, I say under my breath.

     I cruise the produce section, taking my sweet time, sampling the many varieties of grapes and berries. I pass by the packaged prunes. When I've had my fill, I look for the little old lady handing out samples of what Stop & Shop calls hors d'oeuvres. She usually sets up her little table by the deli section. I walk over and chat her up, sampling her wares until I wear out my welcome – and she runs out of samples.  

     I continue trolling. Sometimes the bakery hands out pastry samples. But not today. I find myself in the rear of the store where, much to my surprise, I discover this Stop & Shop sells fish! They're just lying there, on ice, already skinned and gutted, patiently waiting for a fry pan or broiler. 

     Never went fishing again. The next time my buddy asks if I want to go fishing, I inform him that, number one, they sell fish at the local Stop & Shop, and number two, if fishing is just an excuse to get away from his wife and drink beer, there's a bar with a large TV just down the road from his house – and I know for a fact they have ESPN. 

     I have to confess, though, that that wasn't the first time I'd been on a fishing trip. There was another trip, long ago and far away. I was in an armed convoy, on a bridge, trying to cross a river. We were on our way to an exotic place where the locals patiently waited, hoping to kill me and a couple hundred buddies of mine.

     I was sitting on the deck of a track – an M-113A1 Armored Personnel Carrier, the Army calls it - waiting. I'm hot, hungry, and pissed off - I'd missed morning chow. I stood up, wiped a filthy brow with an equally filthy arm and yelled - to no one in particular - "What's the friggin' holdup?" At the time it didn't occur to me that perhaps it was better we take our time getting to that exotic place where those locals patiently waited. Looking back, years later, I chalk it up to youthful impetuosity.

     So I'm sitting there, hot, hungry, and pissed off when I notice two kids on the bank of the river, fishing with small nets. An old lady squats nearby, collecting their meager catch in a basket. One kid looks my way, smiles and waves. I wave back. I reach into the cargo hold of our track and pick out a couple of C-Ration accessory packs from an open case and toss both into the river. The two kids quickly swim out, collect the packs, swim back and smile - I smile back hoping they're related to the angry locals I know are waiting for us on the far side of the river.

     Just ahead, I catch sight of a G.I. tossing something else into the river, something that looks suspiciously like a grenade - I'm hoping those two kids don't swim out thinking it's another accessory pack. 

     There's a splash, followed a few seconds later by a 'whump' that throws up a fountain of brown-green water. The G.I. and his buddy laugh. The two kids standing on the bank of the river hesitate, then dive in and dog paddle out to retrieve the stunned and dead fish that float to the surface.

     "What the fuck you doin'?" I yell to the G.I. fisherman. 

     "What the fuck's it look like? I'm fishin'," he yells back, laughing. Then his buddy pulls the pin on another grenade and tosses it out into the river. There’s another 'whump', followed by another fountain of brown-green water. The two grenade-tossing idiots laugh. I'm thinking this must be why the locals call us dien cai dau, local lingo for 'crazy.'

     More fish float to the surface. The two kids swim out again and retrieve the fish. And once again they give their catch to the old lady standing nearby. 

     Now, I've done this myself, this tossing of grenades into a river. But the tossing was done at night while guarding another bridge. The grenades were meant to discourage underwater sappers from planting charges that would blow up the bridge we're guarding – and standing on. But these two idiots – the idiots in the track just ahead - aren’t guarding any bridge. They're in a convoy like me, waiting to get to that exotic place where those locals patiently wait.

     At one end of the bridge I notice a dusty, concrete and sandbagged bunker, manned by two equally bored ARVN’s who pay no attention to these two dien cai dau Americans. One reads a dog-eared magazine while the other just stares off into space. They’d probably seen it all before, no doubt. 

     When I see one of the two G.I.'s toss back and finish a can of beer, crush it, laugh, then toss the crumpled empty into the river, I understand. These two idiots aren't bored, they're shit-faced. 

     Just as I'm about to climb down and walk to the front of our convoy to check on the holdup, one of the two idiots heaves a large white rectangular bundle – a bundle that looks suspiciously like several blocks of C-4 taped together  - into the river, this time a little farther out. C-4 is a VERY high explosive used to move any obstacle foolish enough to get in our way. The local fish are in for a very rough day, I'm thinking. 

     Anyway, the large white bundle hits the water with a splash, sinks, and after a few seconds, goes off with a thundering 'whump' this time, sending a big-ass column of brown-green water high into the sky. The concussion hits me like a punch to the chest, knocking me off my feet. I'm momentarily stunned. 

     The blast also startles the locals crossing the bridge. They're used to explosions, I'm sure, but maybe not so close. They scream, thinking they're being mortared. The blast knocks over the locals standing on the bank of this river.

     Knowing this would be one hell of a 'boom,' the two idiots who'd tossed the C-4 duck down into the cargo hold of their track. After the blast, the two emerge with a "Fuck, yeah!" look on their faces, then break out laughing. "Thanks, asshole," I yell over the idling engines. 

     Well, what goes up must come down - I think that’s some law of physics or gravity or whatever. The towering column of water sent up by the C-4 comes down like a torrential monsoon rain, soaking everyone and everything within a fifty-yard radius - could of been more. 

     Mixed in with the brown-green rain are fish. Shitloads of fish. I mean it's raining fish. There must have been a million of 'em - could have been more.

     One large fish lands on the bridge next to an old man knocked down in the rush to escape the blast. He wipes brown-green river water from his eyes, blinks, spots the fish lying next to him and yells something in the local lingo - probably something like, 'Holy shit! Look what I found!'  He runs away waving what will probably be his lunch. Other locals scramble around, collecting the monsoon of fish that fall on the bridge.

     Unfortunately, this large blast catches the attention of some fat captain further up the column who comes waddling back to investigate. The fat captain stops at the track just ahead of mine, the one with the two grenade and C-4 tossing idiots. 

     It could have been the suspicious "I didn’t hear nothin'" and "I didn't do nothin'" look on their stupid faces that makes this fat captain pick these two out from all the other hot, tired, and pissed-off faces in our column. Then again, it could also have been the slurred words, the blood-shot eyes, booze burn, and beer breath that gives them away.

     Anyway, when the fat captain spots the half-empty beer cooler and an open case of C-4 in the cargo hold of their track, the fat captain's suspicions are confirmed. It's then that these two idiots realize they're in very deep shit. Army shit. The worst kind of shit.

     The fat captain turns and yells at a fat and sweaty master sergeant who'd followed him down the column. I know what the fat master sergeant is thinking. He's thinking, "I don't need this shit." The fat and sweaty master sergeant yells, "Yes sir," then turns and yells at these two idiots. He looks like he wants to plant a boot up both their skinny asses for making him sweat even more. 

     It was hard to hear over the idling diesel engines, but I think I hear the fat and sweaty master sergeant yell something like, "I'll deal with you two idiots later." I'm sure the sweaty and pissed-off master sergeant later came up with a suitable punishment – like making these two idiots fill sandbags for the rest of their military lives or dig many, very deep latrines. 

     The two kids who'd been standing on the bank of the river jump back in and swim around, frantically collecting this unexpected windfall, this plethora of fish. Once back on the bank, the two fill the basket held by the old lady to the brim. One of the kids waves a fish over his head and smiles at me. I smile and wave back. 

     Still hungry and pissed off at missing morning chow, I reach into that open case of C's in our cargo hold, hoping I'll find a can of peaches. Instead I find a fish. A big fat fish. Still alive and flopping around. I pick up the fish and wave it at the two kids standing on the bank of the river. They smile and wave back.

     Many years later, after an afternoon drinking many beers with my fishing buddy Rick – at that bar just down the road from his house - I tell this story to my wife. She shoots me one of her "Yeah, right" looks and continues thumbing through the TV Guide searching for a rom-com chick-flick. 

     I don't talk about the war much, especially about the many times the locals tried to kill me and my buddies. So I'm pissed she thinks I'm telling some bullshit war story. She probably thinks this is just an Army version of a 'fish story,' you know, one of those stories where the fish gets bigger in the telling as the years go by.  Well, maybe she's right. Maybe there weren't a million fish.

     "What's for supper," I ask, hoping she'll fry us up a couple of steaks.

      "There was a sale on fish at Stop & Shop today," she says.

About the Author: Michail Mulvey is a retired educator who taught for over four decades at all levels, from kindergarten to college. He holds an MFA in creative writing and has had short stories published in literary magazines and journals in the US, the UK, and Ireland. In 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost, of course, but he did take first prize in the 2007 Southern Connecticut State University Fiction Contest. He also earned a couple of Honorary Mentions from the Glimmer Train sisters, Susan and Linda. His work has appeared in such publications as Johnny America, Scholars and Rogues, The Umbrella Factory, Prole, Poydras, The Front Porch Review, Roadside Fiction, Crack the Spine, Literary Orphans, and War, Literature and the Arts.

Treasure Hunt

“Treasure,” Luis whispered while waving his hand across the shining arch of worlds above his head. He paid them no attention. Luis and his brother were looking for something buried beneath the ground. 

He stopped and rotated his hand as if compressing space between his palm and the northern horizon. Luminous particles above his head filled the spaces between darkness and darkness. His right hand pointed the way and his left held the boys’ sacred codex, a map that had led them to where they were. He had kept it in a tin ammunition box he found in the old storage closet. 

Henry’s eyes also traced the scattered, milk-tinted dust that lined the sky down to the horizon line, and further down to the ground below him. The broken shards of passed-away rocks that displaced under his feet were not all too different from the dusty cloud between the stars above them. Shining rocks in the night sky came much closer together above the dirt path he walked on. Distant candles of hydrogen made an assortment of light arching behind and in front of the brothers. It was a cloudless night. 

They did not share the same mother. Henry knew they had to get back by morning. Still, the impending threat of a mother’s castigation did not scare the boy’s enough to dissuade them. They had been in Luis’s house, as the last rays of light disappeared. Soon after the first twinkle of an evening star, they were crawling out the window and into the night. Henry had been allowed to sleep at his brother’s household on occasion, but Luis knew very little about his mother’s relationship with his father. It was something the brothers avoided bringing up. Even at his young age, Henry’s discernment advised against the provocation of his brother’s darker emotions. They knew that Luis’s mother had never married their father and that Henry’s mother had once known Luis’s mother. But, she had cast indignant eyes upon her counterpart since the birth of her husband’s son. Luis rarely came their way, but Henry’s rebellious nature led him to the house of the forsaken quite often. Their island was small and the boys grew close. Henry was a familiar face in the Hagar household.  

It was there that the codex was first revealed. In the late hours of his formative nights, Henry’s father would relay stories of ancient pirates and lost treasures. Henry obsessed over the impromptu bedtime legends. In the mornings, he would run across the island to his favorite listener, attempting to match the fervor of his father’s storytelling animations. Luis, also, attached himself to his brother’s ramblings about the previous nights’ bedtime stories. To the boys, they were not legends—they transcended mythology and became sacred doctrine through which one day they too might acquire eternal, unending treasures, perhaps in the second coming of a pirate era. 

During a battle of imaginary pistol fire and throw-pillow cannonballs, the boys refuged into the storage closet where an old bookshelf was amongst the war-damage. They rummaged through the faded pages looking for familiar words or images. Henry grabbed one with a sketch of a pirate ship on the first page. 

Legends of the Lost,” Luis read aloud. 

Henry couldn’t yet read. Though he soon learned, motivated by the promise of fruitful treasures and unfathomable adventure. A young Henry was formed and cultivated between the pages of the boys’ ancient codex. He, in particular, shadowed reverence on the heroes and heroines of Legends of the Lost. Pirates and Sailors and the unpredictable, up-and-down volatility of their nature were perfect counterparts to the monotony of the rigid toil and labor he saw in his elders. He would not be like his parents. They sowed the same cloth everyday and all their clocks were round. 

“Spanish Gold. Spanish Gold,” Henry mumbled under his breath, watching his steps. The horizon stretched. Some stars drifted west. 

“Ferdinand and Isabel’s finest from the hands of Sir Francis,” Luis added in a vivacious whisper. 

The boys meandered on, sharing the same fantasy. They imagined the journey of Spanish doubloons from the cellars of Queen Isabel of Castille to the captain’s quarters of Sir Francis Drake’s ship to a hole in the ground to their own still-growing hands. Getting closer. Getting closer. Luis could already feel the ridges of the crux hispanarium and the divine right of things being bestowed upon him as the hero of his people and the rightful inheritor of the newfound riches—along with his brother, of course. They were part of a selfish fantasy. 

All the myths and tales of ancient pirates captured their attention but one story in particular became the alpha and the omega, the first and the last story they pondered at night. The boy’s ancient codex was based on the oral accounts from the great-grandchild of a first-mate on a ship in Queen Isabel’s Armada. According to the Legends, this first-mate was one of the few survivors of a ship that was seized and sunk by the famous privateer Sir Francis Drake—and he was the only surviving member of the ships command. The ever-sought-after rudders drowned with the ship’s captain and the first-mate became indispensible to Drake, who imprisoned him aboard the English interceptor. The first-mate became a witness to all of Drake’s further endeavors on that voyage including the seizure of treasure from Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion off the Peruvian coast and the burial of Spanish and Incan treasure on a small West Indian island—the same island, as fate would have it, that Luis and Henry now wandered. The codex had been lost for too many years in the bureaucratic mish-mash of a shanty-home storage closet. But, to the boys, it was sacred doctrine—Holy Scripture of profound promises and glorious glories. 

The legend had laid out a path for them and a map for them, from which they were not to stray. But, times had changed. Their island had changed. Ancient landmarks no longer matched the map before them and Henry looked up for guidance—perhaps, a celestial cartographer to take them to treasure. Many, including the boys’ parents were aware of such legends like the one that occurred on their own island, but they thought better than to assume ancient truths transcended the too-much time that had passed. Luckily, age had restricted Henry and Luis from killing dreams with mundane thinking and using phrases like “somebody would have found it by now.” Yes, their island had changed, but perhaps what was under the ground had not moved. As the pole star had remained steadfast in its position, so too the boys had hoped their treasure remained through the centuries. They knew certainly that the stars remained the same throughout the years—and the snakes. Three hundred paces from the waters edge, a sharp turn east after the old water well, and always beware of snakes. 

Luis walked in front, codex in hand. Henry wandered a few yards back hoping his brother had not forgotten the codex’s most vital commandment: to watch out for snakes. Henry knew a snake bite could make you forget about the codex, or worse, make you believe that there were no treasures at all. 

Luis mumbled something about snakes and Henry was reassured that his brother had not forgotten. He let his eyes wander up towards the lights that shone limitless distances above his head. 

“Our treasure will be shinier than those stars” Henry said, pointing to the sprinkled galaxy that arched above them. He was used to stars. Over and over again, when the lights of the village would shut off, the stars became the eternal torches of Henry’s night. They sent rays of the visible and invisible that carried with them not just information from their source but also unfathomable mystery of what is seen and unseen. The known gave way to the unknown and filled Henry’s head with perplexities unthinkable to even a more mature mind than his. He had seen stars before but that did not stop the torch that ignited deep within his chest every night when they sang across the sky. They were his favorite subjects. 

Luis’s stars shone brightly beneath three centuries of dirt and sand. Gold doubloons were all that filled the space between darkness and darkness—Luis’s unspoken darkness remained unexplored by his brother. 

“Don’t get distracted by the stars now, Henry. With our treasure I’ll buy you the galaxy.” 

“Dad says we are all like stars. We’re all made of stardust. Everything on earth is just stardust. Everything in our bodies and even the treasure is stardust. We’ll be holding stars, Luis,” Henry said, trying to push his brother deeper and letting his mouth run with his thoughts. 

His brother was silent. Their father had often shared with Henry his philosophical, cosmic ramblings—his frustration with the pandemic misconception of humanities position on the universal scale. When a star explodes, its elements float in space until gravity draws them together to form new stars or planets. When the universe began, tiny pieces of stardust made up the little pieces that make up the earth and make up your body. Small pieces of every part of your body can be traced back to the beginnings of the entire universe, his father would tell him, you are stardust, my son.  Sunday school taught him that he was made in the likeness of God and that God was everywhere and in everything. His teachers held firm that his father’s philosophies were blasphemous treasons against human dominion, against the superiority of man on the natural spectrum. He was made of the universe and he was made in the likeness of God. Adults told Henry that both positions could never hold hands. 

He looked down at his own star-dusted hand—the hand of God—and then back up to the sky. 

“Do you think that God is in the stars, Luis?” he said, testing his brother. 

“What are you talking about?” Luis jeered, still walking in front. 

“I mean why do we always look up? Have you ever seen someone pray down instead of up. Dad says were made of stardust. Mrs. Jones at Sunday school says we’re made like God. Do you think God just lives up there, as the stars? 

I guess maybe everything is God. Maybe he’s in everything that exists. I wonder what Dad would say.”

“It’s always ‘Dad, Dad, Dad’ with you, Henry. We don’t have time for this kind of talk. We need to find this treasure before our parents find out we’re gone. Then we’ll never find it!” Luis was annoyed at the references to their father and perhaps jealous, too. 

“It’s Dad’s stories that got us this far,” Henry mumbled and came back to present. He envisioned the slice of stardust-heaven he knew he could find in the treasure, but kept his eyes pointed upward. He couldn’t help but feel a connection to the stars above. I feel like the stars, maybe I am treasure. 

“Why does it all matter so much, the treasure, the glory, my mother’s hatred of my brother, the truth, the map, if I am made of stardust, if I am treasure? Our lives aren’t so dark with the stars above us” Henry thought to himself. He suddenly felt a rush of individuality. One thing felt like everything and the treasure felt found in fixing his eyes to mysterious things above. He couldn’t quite discern the sentiments surrounding him. With the sudden, sacred draw of a living breath, he felt wholeness overcome him for a moment. 

He had let his mind wander too far. He was off-track. His brother’s voice and the fear of forgetting the codex dropped him right back into his shoes. His legs now pressed against the earth that had stopped being a trodden path several miles ago. They were treading in the turf of snakes, the ones that bite from hiding-holes you don’t even see in daylight—the hiding-holes that look like crab holes, or lizard holes, that the untrained eye presumes harmless. Good thing for the codex.  

“Look for the palms in a triangle. We are getting close,” Luis told Henry. 

The codex had told them the treasure was buried between three palms. On one palm they needed to look for the letters “F.D.” carved next to the Holy Cross of the Nazarene. Time was fleeting. Luis noticed the moon had shifted across the sky now. 

The boys arrived at the edge of a river they called Shark Creek. On the other side were more trees, places where the treasure might be. They knew better than to wade across that water. 

According to the codex they were in the vicinity of priceless treasures. Somewhere close, underneath Henry and Luis’s feet, treasure had lived undisturbed for more than three centuries. That was a long time, enough time for the island to change and for the codex to change. And, the island had changed but the codex remained. They had followed a map from a world before their time. Could it still hold truth? Henry questioned but Luis was stagnant in his devotion to the codex. Trees lined the shore around the creek but none in the particular assortment indicated by the codex.

Luis found nothing. Henry felt nothing. He searched for the wholeness he found in his earlier stream of consciousness. What Henry felt instead was a resounding emptiness in the sand beneath his feet—a deficiency of connection between himself and their desired treasure. Luis scoured the shore. He looked at the island on the opposite side the creek. His focus shifted side to side, in front and behind himself. He did not look up. 

Henry affixed his gaze on the reflection of the stars on the creek. His mind left the moment again. His brother wouldn’t understand. The stars told him the treasure wasn’t there. Then, the stars danced. Luis’ footstep on the edge of the water had sent a ripple across the creek. 

“Let’s cross it. It has to be on the other side,” Luis said. The faint orange glow of the approaching sun dimly sprinkled the tree line of the land across the creek. Both hearts raced a little faster. 

“Have you lost your mind, Luis? We both know what swims up and down this creek. The treasure isn’t here. We must’ve missed something.” Henry saw his brother’s face flush red, even in the fading starlight. He had always been afraid of his brother’s volatile emotional engine. It was something he simultaneously admired and respected.
“We’re going, Henry. We have to. We’ve always dreamed of this treasure. Think of what we can gain!” Luis voice rose in near despair. It echoed off invisible dark walls somewhere in the distance. 

Henry was more afraid of his brother’s contempt than anything that hunted in the shallow waters of the creek they endeavored to cross. The boys picked the shortest and shallowest point of entry. They waded slowly, Luis leading Henry, until they were beyond knee-deep in dangerous water. There were sharks and there were snakes in these waters. There were animals looking for a meal that didn’t care if Henry and Luis were the chosen species, or if they were creatures capable of comprehending the ephemerality of their own lives. The stars danced faster on the surface of the water and Luis’s stride broke constellations. 

The boys swam the rest of the way across the creek as fast as they could, drawing the attention of night-stalking predators, but never the bite. To Luis’s despair the land across the creek proved even more fruitless than the previous. No triangle of palms and no hint of either initials or the cross. 

“Where the fuck is it, Henry?” Luis cried. Tears now formed in his eyes and he broke the rules his mother had given him. He spoke in the sailor’s tongue. His thoughts raced with slippery, slithering, hateful words. He couldn’t swallow the idea that their dream and his decision to risk both his brother’s life and his own life could end with no reward. There was nothing by which to slay the wicked whose words now filled his head. 

Henry too felt a deep disappointment. Finding the real treasure, the queen’s doubloons, had always been what his brother had told him was right. The dream of glories and riches could only be fulfilled with the gold and silver coins promised by the codex. He thought maybe the treasure could be found another day and even another way. Perhaps, the codex was not the only truth. Had they missed another important text in the shanty closet? Had they settled for the first one that caught their eye and missed an important piece of history? Did Sir Francis move his treasure? Questions raced in Henry’s head but neither the codex nor the land provided clear answers. The stars and the trees asked more questions. 

Visible rays of sunlight projected from the horizon and Luis knew they had to go back. Frustration swelled in his eyes and his knuckles turned red on his clenched fists. This time the boys waded across the water on a log they found on the opposite shore of the creek. They were still vulnerable but kept the important parts of their bodies out of reach, paddling one hand at a time until they arrived in safer waters. 

Henry and Luis raced the rising sun back home. They didn’t know what time it was but the fading stars and orange glow told them Luis’s mother would be awake soon. His swift pace and shifting thoughts increased Luis’s anger at their failure to find treasure. He considered never going back. But where would he go? He knew he couldn’t spend his whole life digging for treasure without a codex to guide him. He must’ve missed something. 

“We missed something, Henry. You distracted me with your stupid star talk” Luis’s voice cracked as he held back tears of anger. They were close to home. They kept walking until they saw the silhouette of Luis’s house. The lights were still off. 

“You were the one with the map, Luis. You missed something.” 

“No! You always have to bring up Dad and his crazy stories. I’m the only one who understands the Codex. I’m the only one who can read the map. I would’ve found the treasure if you didn’t talk so much.” Anger boiled inside of Luis as the thought of their failure continued to circle his mind and his brother pointed fingers. 

“We didn’t find the treasure, Luis, so I guess you can’t read the map afterall! I’m keeping it from now on.” 

Henry lunged for the tin ammunition box that held the codex. Just as he grabbed it Luis pulled it back. It flew out of his hands and tumbled against the rocky ground. The box nestled between two bigger stones. One side had imploded on impact, making one of the corners stick out like a broken shard of glass or a jagged knife. 

Luis dislodged the box and started running towards his house. Henry, the faster of the two, chased after his older brother. The boys kicked up dirt and made thudding footsteps sounds that resonated between the trees and houses. Henry caught up to Luis. Still running, he made another lunge toward the codex. Luis, again, pulled the box away. The two boys toppled down to the dirt both holding the box. They wrestled each other for possession of the codex. They each wanted to hold the truth and to know the truth. 

Despite his lesser age, Henry was not inferior in strength. But, Luis’s rage had swelled in him since they crossed Shark Creek. He had seen red. He had said “fuck.” He had even hated his brother. 

Luis hit the side of Henry’s head with a closed fist and tore the ammunition box out of his brother’s hands. He began to run away with his prize but turned around to the sound of frantic moaning. A gushing sea of red now surrounded his brother’s body—more red than Luis had ever seen. Henry’s blood stained the knife-sharp corner of the ammunition box. Henry bled from a spouting wound just before his open hand. 

“Henry! Henry!” Luis took off his shirt and covered his brother’s wound. The Blood didn’t stop and his hands turned red. 

Henry’s head slouched over his right shoulder. His eyes were wide and his heartbeat was a ticking clock. He looked toward Luis house, for salvation from somewhere. No one heard and no one came. Luis ran for help. Henry lifted his head and saw that a few stars still twinkled above him in the light blue sky. 

“Treasure,” he mumbled and once again dropped his head into the rushing river of blood. His own gaze circled his body as if without himself. Some palms had converged on him, getting closer with every pulse and gush of blood that left his body. He counted them and saw himself in the center of a prophesized trinity. The box that held the codex was dripping red and the God of Israel watched the scene while perched on the palm tree on his right. It had risen, but it hadn’t faded after so many years. F-D. F-D. F-D. 

“Treasure.” 

He gripped his chest. Every valley was raised up, every mountain was made low, all things were level and the rugged became plain. Then he touched the place where treasure poured out into the earth. Suddenly, by the wind of his breath, one thing became all things and all things became one. He had no name and muttered only: I am. I am. 

“Treasure.” 

And the day began. 


About the Author, Christopher Vincent: I am a recent graduate of Villanova University, where I studied English and Political Science. I was born in Miami, Florida to a Cuban-American father and a Panamanian mother. I grew up writing and speaking in both English and Spanish. I am an ardent photographer, surfer, and adventurer. I also played soccer both collegiately and internationally in two youth world cups.

Tekla's Child

4:30 a.m. 13 April 1930: Palm Sunday

     Through her sleep she hears it, clear and real: the chunk of shovel striking earth.

     The new loosened dirt on the sides of the hole crumble down on her. Her mouth is full of dirt. But still, the light above. She reaches for it. She shouts. Hands appear overhead, so many she can’t count. At first, they seem so beautiful, a lacy pattern of graceful fingers, until she feels the clods of fresh earth landing on her. Then more hands. She draws a breath. More dirt. She chokes. She screams.

     She is awake.

     The cool dark air through the open window whispers in her nostrils.  Deep night, brightened by clouded moon, casts shadows of the swaying trees outside.  One angled branch moves rhythmically up and down, up and down.  Too mechanical to be tree.

     A shovel slices sharp into dirt. 

     The thin sheet slips off Nora’s naked skin. She covers her breasts with her hands, as she swings her feet over the bed, leans forward to peer out the window.  

     It’s Babcia Franzi.  By moonlight, Babcia digs, between the budding pussy willows.  A mound of dirt already grows in the garden still edged by muddy snow.  Even with Dziadzia's* heavy old work boots laced tight around her spindly legs, she moves quickly.

     Babcia picks up a bundle the size of an infant, wrapped in burlap and tied.  She settles it into the hole.  Her wispy grey hair tumbles out of her babushka, as she carefully positions the bundle, before filling the hole again.  

     Nora can pretend this is what all the neighbors do, but actually she is glad they are asleep.   Except maybe the Słomkas.  All of the other houses are dark and still, but a light burns behind the greying curtains in the Słomka’s back room.  Their new baby must be colicky.  

     Babcia now trudges back towards the house, the old coal shovel now her cane.  Though her grandmother is hunched deeply over, Nora still hears her muttering.  Talking to Dziadzia Marian, no doubt.

     Just two days before, Babcia told a census worker that her husband Marian was still head of this household, even though close to sixteen years have passed since his coffin was carried down Chambers Street by the five Gorzynski sons. At the corner of Chambers and Broadway, those silent pallbearers stopped, while the Cleveland-bound streetcar rattled past.  Breathing heavy under the weight of the homemade wooden coffin resting on their shoulders, surrounded by wailing women, crying children and other men, all silent and smoking, they waited.  Unlike the other children, Nora didn’t cry.  She and her father and the whole entourage crossed Broadway.  They escorted the coffin down Miles Avenue to Calvary Cemetery, where they lowered Dziadzia Marian into a hole right next to his daughter, Tekla.  

     Yes, about sixteen years have passed since the entire neighborhood took that walk. Still, Babcia told the census worker her husband still lives with her in this house. 

     "Can I talk to him then?" the census worker said, probably hoping for someone more fluent in English.

     "No.  He got job in Buffalo.  Be back next week."

     “And you are?” 

     “Franciszka Gorzynski.  Call me Franzi.”

     “Frances,” the census worker said, writing.

     “No! I hate that name Frances!  Everyone call me Franzi.”

     Listening from the kitchen, Nora supposed she could go and help.  But instead, she cut a slice of bread, spread some lard on it, poured some coffee, and settled at the table.  She lit a cigarette.  

     "So, when did you and your husband immigrate?"

     "Marian come 1882.  Me 1883.  He born 1861.  Me 1867."  Babcia said the numbers in German.  The census worker seemed to understand.  Babcia told the woman that Uncle Walter still lived here, too, though he died the year Nora entered the convent.   She added Alfons, who died the year after Marian.  

     Nora traced the patterns made by decades of knives on the wood, while the census worker labored with Babcia Franzi's account of the house’s occupants.  The census worker seemed a nice woman.  Nora thought she really should go out and correct the details, by pointing out those actually living, and those dead.  But there was a certain truth to Babcia's story: this house teamed with very lively spirits.  Sometimes Nora could feel them passing in the halls, hurrying on with their unfinished lives, or just going to the kitchen for a visit with Franzi. 

     “Oh, and Nora,” Babcia finally added for the census worker.  “My niece.”  Again in German.

     Nora’s knee twitched.  She began to rise, but then heard the census worker being bustled out the door.  She’d missed her chance.  It would be nice to be counted correctly after nine years of not being counted at all.  Census workers hadn’t come to the cloistered convent where Nora lived from age fourteen.  Few at the convent took account of her at all. Sent there by her step-mother, no one knew she was the only living offspring of the long-deceased Tekla Gorzynski.  

     Six months before that census worker’s visit, it was Nora herself knocking on Franzi’s door, hoping to collect on a promise her grandmother made, long ago. Nora worried that the Gorzynskis had forgotten her. Franzi made no indication of remembering, though she acknowledged Nora as kin.  She simply grunted, then led Nora upstairs to a room full of hand-hewn furniture, cast-off clothes and ancient photographs, all covered with sheets.  Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe, all busy now with new families and changed names, welcomed their long forgotten niece. After a quick conversation, they determined Nora was the best candidate to care for their aging matriarch, the neighborhood crazy lady who spoke a Polish no one could understand when she talked to the dead.

     The back door closes downstairs.  Five days from now, Nora knows, Franzi will return to the lamb roast buried in the garden.  Burying, Franzi insists, is the only way to properly tenderize meat.  

     Floorboards creak as her grandmother moves towards the front of the house, closing curtains, extinguishing lights.  In the front room, chair springs squeak.  Nora knows that, come morning, she will find her grandmother sleeping in that chair, with her rosary, half way completed, wrapped around her fingers in her lap.  

April 1921: Uncle Walter’s Funeral
Thursday

     "Tekla's child?"  Mrs. Mrozinski said.

     "Yes, Tekla's child," Mrs. Krajewski answered.  

     Though they shared the surname Krajewski, Nora could not call this woman “mommy.” From the day she started putting Nora into bed at night, just six months after her mother had died, there had been nothing warm in this woman’s eyes.  Nora would stare, mouth clamped shut, while her father’s new wife efficiently tucked in the corners of her sheets, then patted the bed.  She never touched Nora, and in response, Nora never called her by name. In public, Nora called her Mrs. Krajewski.   

     Mrs. Mrozinski and Mrs. Krajewski talked as if Nora wasn't there. They rolled out dough on the table, producing soft clouds of flour that settled in Nora’s hair.  Nora ignored them, too.  She let herself become one with the painting she painted: the goddess Marzanna, breasts bare and flaming skirt holding her aloft over a still, icy landscape.  Nora painted her breasts like two shining suns, radiating their energy into the air.

     "How old is she now?"

     "Oh, nearly fifteen," Mrs. Krajewski said.

     "She's getting old.  Is she willful?"  Mrs. Mrozinski said, spreading butter and nuts onto the paper-thin dough.  She had lowered her voice, as if that made any difference.  Mrs. Krajewski didn't respond.

     "It must be difficult, especially since your own are getting older too."

     Mrs. Krajewski may have shrugged.  Or made a silent comment.  Nora didn't pay attention.  As she painted some flecks of gold from the sun on the turning earth, she could feel its warmth on her arms.   Adding gaunt dark birds in the sky, she heard their call.

     "She looks like Tekla,”  Mrs. Mrozinski said.  “I remember Tekla.”  

     The wind Nora could hear howling in Marzanna’s ears subsided.  Nora listened to the women making pastry at the table.  

     "I didn't know her," Mrs. Krajewski said.  "I didn't pay much attention to those people before I married George. Queer things happen in that house. If the Gorzynskis weren't Nora's kin, I'd have nothing to do with them."

     "Well, Tekla was different.  She was a little shorter than the others.  And she didn't put on airs, like her sister Helen does."

     "Oh, that Helen," Mrs. Krajewski said. 

     Nora painted a deer, as lithe and beautiful as her Aunt Helen, standing alert, gazing up at the Queen.

     "Tekla was prettier than Helen.  And very kind," Mrs. Mrozinski said.

     Mrs. Krajewski's heavy steps carried her to the icebox.  Nora’s forehead burned.  She felt Mrs. Mrozinksi’s eyes watching her.  Nora looked up to face her.

     "Who are you painting?" Mrs. Mrozinski asked. When she tried to smile, her cheeks grew fatter, her eyes more squinty.

     Nora considered telling her the painting was her real mother, the beautiful Tekla. Or her Aunt Helen.  Instead, she said nothing. 

     "Nora, you should answer people when they ask you questions," Mrs. Krajewski said, than added, "She's very shy.  Sometimes I think there's something wrong with her."

     Nora dipped her brush into water, than blended her colors together.  Blue and purple and gold and red.  They turned into the color of mud.

     "It would make sense, with all she's been through," Mrs. Mrozinski said.  "Wouldn't it be a burden to you if she never married?"

     Her brush now laden with mud, Nora spread it over the painting. Marzana and her glowing breasts, the slender deer, all became nothing but mud.

     "I think you're right," Mrs. Mrozinski said.  "There's probably something wrong with her."

     Nora watched them for a moment, then slid from her chair.  She slammed the door behind her, hard enough, she hoped, to make the delicate rising dough collapse.


     Nearly everyone on Chambers Street thought Uncle Walter was born in the Old Country.  His funny lisp was often taken for an accent.   But the truth was, Walter was born in Nanticoke, where the family lived before they moved to Cleveland.  Walter was born nine months after the young Franzi joined Dziedzia Marian in the two-room home he had prepared for her.  A year after Walter’s birth, Tekla was born.  Than Uncle Joe, then Helen, then three more boys.  Nearly one every year.

     As a young boy, Walter had worked the mines with his father, so he knew how to climb down freshly dug holes and collect valuable hunks of bituminous coal while not disturbing that which shouldn't be disturbed.  It was Uncle Walter who climbed down that hole and rescued Nora, enfolding her in his huge tobacco-tinged hands, than holding her up over the six-foot-four inch length of his body, so others could snatch her into safety.  

     Uncle Walter, too, taught Nora Polish, so she could talk to Babcia Franzi. And he told her about her mother as a girl. We were like twins, he said. But she was the pretty one.

     He had a big pock-marked face, and elephant-like ears that he could wiggle on command.  And though his hands were always dirty and dry, his touch was gentle.  For years, Nora was jealous of his two little girls, Geraldine and Dorothy, because they had both their real parents, and one of them was her mother's sweetest, eldest brother, Walter.

     The dirt under Nora’s bare feet was hot and dry.  She pressed the whittled tip of a long stick into the ground, twisting it to make a neat hole.  Then another, then another, in a pattern like a starry night sky, while her half-sister Alice and some neighbor girls jumped rope at the other end of the yard, and a dog down the street howled.  Nora looked to see if it was the Gorzynski's dog, but couldn't tell.  Their house - the largest on the street - seemed so small and far away.

     The day before it had been Uncle Walter's turn to die.  Already the neighbors were saying Walter’s widow wanted to move her girls to her brother's house in New York. Probably next week.

     "No child should live in that house," Mrs. Krajewski said just that morning.  "It is cursed."

     Nora pressed the stick against the tip of another, making it spring into the air.  Alice and her friends shouted and squealed.  Nora looked up to see them scattering as Robert ran among the girls with something clutched in each of his fists.  Probably frogs.    

     "Mama!  Mama!" Alice called. The door swung open and there was Mrs. Krajewski. Nearly as wide as the doorframe, and covered with flour, she wiped her hands on her apron.

     "Robert!  Leave your sister alone," she shouted. Then:

     "Nora!"

     Nora didn't reply, just stood and waited for her command.  

     Mrs. Krajewski stepped out of the house, her face firm and red.

     "Answer me when I call you."

     Like a tightrope walker, Nora approached her. One foot in front of the other; her stick was now her balancing rod.  

     "Nora, I have some strucla for you to bring to your grandmother's house for the funeral dinner.  Hurry now."

     Mrs. Krajewski held out a loaf, wrapped in newspaper.

     "Why not strudel?" Nora said.

     "Strudel is for special occasions.  Now go and hurry back.  I'll need your help preparing dinner."


     At the Gorzynski house, the windows and door were covered with the black sheets of mourning.  The window shroud moved slightly after Nora knocked.  The lock released, and the heavy door sighed.  When Helen’s powdered white face appeared, it seemed to float in blackness.

     “Did you come to see Walter, Honora?” Helen asked.

     Nora swallowed and her eyes grew damp.

     Only the Gorzynskis called her Honora.  It was the name her mother gave her.  She was named for her mother’s elder sister, Honorata, Franzi’s only child to be born in Poland.

     “He’s right here if you want to see him,” Helen said.

     Nora did not have to see anything; she knew this house’s death rituals so well. Just inside the door, in the parlor to the left, she knew all the shades were drawn, the mirrors and pictures covered with black. The hot, thick air would be tinged with the sweet taste of flesh, just beginning to decompose. The wooden sawhorses that Dziadzia had long ago built to brace the wood he was carving into elaborate moldings or stair rails stood under the crucifix and image of the Virgin.  Built to hold heavy weight, the sawhorses now served as coffin supports.  Today, they supported Walter’s handmade coffin.  Inside, her uncle lay, cheeks sunk deep, hands folded across his thin chest.  No, Nora did not have to look.  She knew what she would see.

     She held out her package.

     “Mrs. Krajewski told me to bring this for Uncle Walter’s funeral meal.”

     The door opened more, and Helen stepped out.  Even grieving, she was as glamorous as Alice Terry in her sequined fur-trimmed black dress and black turban.  

     “Strudel?” Helen said.

     “No, Strucla.”

     Helen smirked.

     “We’re not good enough for Mrs. Krajewski’s strudel. Go around back, will you Nora? I’ll take it at the kitchen door,” Helen said. Before closing the door, she winked and added, “and we can have some lemonade together.”

     Nora hurried down the wooden steps, then past tall sunflowers that swayed like dancers alongside the house. In the garden, chickens chattered. Uncle Joe’s roosters crowed when she rounded the corner. Joe’s son Frank – already tall as a man though only twelve – leaned, shirtless, against the shed and smoked.  

     “Ah, my pretty cousin Nora is here,” Frank said. “Don’t go into that house, you may catch the plague.”

     A sea of hardened mud and chicken shit separated her from him. She was glad. Even at this distance, his thin chest seemed to collapse as he coughed. He probably had consumption, too. After all, his mother had been the first to die from it. And his father was still in the public sanatorium.

     “You are the lucky one,” he said. “You are a Krajewski. You did not inherit this name.”

     The back door squeaked open.

     “Come sit with me, Nora,” Helen said, setting some lemon-aide and a plate of honey cookies on the wooden table under the oak tree.  The table was built from beams left over from the house’s foundation.

     Though her knees quivered as she approached her aunt, Nora sat close enough to smell Helen’s musty perfume and see the sweat pearling on the powder dusting Helen’s full, exposed cleavage. Helen’s presence always made Nora’s whole body tingle. Nora lifted a cookie, took a sweet bite.

     “Frankie, give me a smoke,” Helen said, reaching her hand out.  Frank crossed the dried mud sea, pulled a thin, smudged rolled paper from his pocket, and placed it between Helen’s graceful extended fingers.  A spark of fire reflected in Helen’s deep brown eyes, and she sipped in the smoke. 

     Frank sat across from them and popped a whole cookie into his mouth.  Close up, Nora could smell the bitter tinge of sweat and tobacco, and watch Frank’s long slender fingers.  Always dirty, they fluttered delicately, unconsciously.   

     “Got any vodka, Auntie Helen?” he said, swaying back and forth.

     “You know we can’t drink as long as Walter’s in the house,” Helen said.  

     “Nora?” she added, offering the cigarette.

     Nora’s face went hot.

     “Oh, don’t be a prude. Your mother wasn’t a prude.”

     “Was she as beautiful as you?” Nora asked, carefully taking the cigarette in her fingers.

     “Everyone says Aunt Tekla was the prettiest,” Frank said.  

     “Which is why I didn’t grieve when she died,” Helen added, then laughed.

     Nora laughed too, though she wasn’t sure why.  She could not imagine anyone prettier than Aunt Helen.  Placing the cigarette between her lips, Nora sucked.  The sides of her throat ignited, than exploded in a searing cough.  The cigarette popped from Nora’s fingers and onto the ground, while Frank laughed and Helen squealed as she snatched it up.

     “Oh, Nora, sweet, you’re such a girl,” Helen said, embracing Nora quickly against her full bosom before inhaling on the cigarette until it burned down to a glowing stub in her fingers.

     The door creaked again, followed by a rustle of skirts.  A woman’s shape emerged, shrouded by black lace and cloth.  Babcia descended into the yard.

     “Is that Tekla’s child?” Babcia said, in Polish.

     Her grandmother’s arms engulfed Nora in a stifling embrace, holding her face tight to her musty, taffeta breast.   Releasing Nora, Babcia turned, smacked Helen’s face with an open palm.

     “Disgraceful! Honor your dead brother. Go inside and cover yourself.”

     “I lose a brother nearly every year, Franzi. I can’t stay covered forever,” Helen answered.

     “Not forever. But a week of mourning wouldn’t hurt you.”

     Babcia attention returned to Nora. Now self-conscious of her light white cotton shirt and knee-length skirt, Nora crouched.  She could barely see her grandmother’s expression.  Reportedly, her grandmother was beautiful once, with sparkling eyes and flawless light skin. Although her father was a peasant who had never owned his own home, Babcia still carried herself like an aristocrat.  Underneath that veil, though, Nora knew Babcia’s eyes were sunk into a leathery, creased face; her hands were gnarled and work-worn.

     “Will you stay with us tonight, Honora?  Will you watch Walter’s final hours away with your kin?”

     “I brought strucla from Mrs. Krajewski,” Nora stammered, her Polish words like jagged pebbles in her lips.  “My father and I will come tomorrow to the cemetery.”

     “Strucla is for Christmas.  Give it to the dogs.  Your Mrs. Krajewski should deliver the best for the eldest son’s funeral,” Babcia said.

     Helen laughed, tore open the paper on Mrs. Krajewski’s package, and ripped off a piece of the strucla and ate it.  

     “Still warm,” Helen said, and passed the package to Frank.

     Babcia gathered her skirts and settled on the bench next to Frank. 

     “Nora is right to go home to her father tonight,” Babcia said.  Her hands rustled inside her crepey layers.  Finally, she drew a dented tin flask from her skirts and opened it.

      “But Nora,” she added.  “You must share a drink with us now.”  

      “But we’re not supposed to drink, mother, out of respect for Walter,” Helen said, her voice mimicking Babcia’s scolding tone.

     “Didn’t I tell you to cover yourself?” Babcia answered, without even looking at Helen.

     “Besides, this is not normal drink,” Babcia added. “It is the vodka that Marian made six months before he died. No one would buy it.  Plague vodka, they said.  Laced with the curse of Marian’s sins. It is almost gone.  If we finish it now, we will put an end to people dying in this house.”

     Babcia raised the flask, took a long drink, sighed deeply, and for a moment, seemed to relax.

     “Helena.  Drink.”

     Helen drank. She wrinkled her face as she wiped her mouth. When Frank drank, he was overcome by coughing.

     “Now you, Nora,” Babcia said.

     The outstretched flask glinted, but Nora’s hand could not move.  Drinking would surely give her the plague too.  She’d be dead in a year, for sure.

     “Honora?” Babcia said. “You must finish it. Drink to your mother’s memory.”

     Nora’s arm moved at her grandmother’s command.  Her hand trembled as she raised the flask to her mouth and tasted the tin.  The liquid inside was also metallic.  It tore open the cigarette burn in her throat as she swallowed.  She gasped. Blinding tears streamed down her cheeks.  

     “Eat some strucla. It will help,” Babcia said.  She took the flask from Nora and drank the final swallows.

     Nora tore off a piece of Walter’s funeral strucla, let its sweetness soak in the remaining vodka in her mouth.  She chewed.  It was a strange new taste.  Not unpleasant. She savored it, before she swallowed.   

Friday

     The police wouldn't let the men carry coffins through the streets between the house and the cemetery anymore, so the Gorzynskis convinced the milkman to let them use his wagon.  But they still had to carry Walter from the house to the wagon, then from the wagon to the grave.

     Holding her father’s hand, Nora stood at the edge of the group of mourners.  Her father’s usually cool palm was hot and wet.  Mrs. Krajewski had gone to the church, but refused to come to the grave. 

     The gravestone had been moved aside and a new hole dug, in the exact same place where Nora’s mother was buried. 

     “They can’t put him there!” Nora said.

     If she looked into that hole, Nora was sure she would see her mother, lying there in her broken coffin, with her hands crossed softly over her belly.  And her baby sister, who died with her, snuggled by her side.

     “Quiet, Nora,” her father whispered.

     The men and Uncle Walter's coffin moved closer to the hole.  Nora pulled on her father’s arm. He embraced her and led her closer to the grave.  

     Nora wouldn't look inside it, though.  Her eyes rested on the gravestone.  What are they thinking?  They can't put another person into that hole.

     The men shouted and struggled as they hoisted Uncle Walter over the open grave.  Her father's fingers opened Nora’s hand, pressed a clod of cool fresh earth inside it.  She sucked in her breath, but it caught in her throat as she stared at the crumbling dirt in her hand.  She wanted to turn and run.  Instead, her stomach clenched and a rushing filled her head, as her legs collapsed underneath her.

     Her father pressed dirt into her tiny hands. It crumbled out through her fingers. He pressed more dirt in and closed her fingers tight. “Throw, Nora, throw! We must bury mama.” He said. She threw. The dirt fell on Nora’s new black dress. She was too little to be burying her mother.  

     “Get closer, Nora!” her father had said, again pressing dirt into her palm, then squeezing her fist shut, before pushing her towards the hole. “Throw, Nora, throw!”  

     The earth that she threw wouldn’t let her release it; it carried her with it, right over the dark edge and into the grave. Her hands, outstretched to break her fall, instead broke through the thin wood of her mama's coffin, gripped the cold crossed hands and the rosary wound in mama’s fingers. The raw, loosened earth on the sides of the grave crumbled down on top of her, along with a shower of dirt clods. Nora couldn't scream for the dirt in her mouth. Then a heavy shadow loomed overhead. Uncle Walter, climbing down, shouted Stop! Stop! in Polish, while his warm hands embraced her and lifted her up towards the light and the stunned faces above her.  

     "Nora! Nora!" 

     Her head burned as her father shook her back to consciousness. There was no dirt in her mouth, only hot sun on her forehead. Babcia Franzi's black lace veil, dampened with tears and cool water, pressed against her forehead. Lying on the ground next to the grave, Nora watched the men try not to fall while they lowered Uncle Walter down on top of her mother.

     "She remembers her fall when we buried Tekla," Babcia said. Babcia knelt beside Nora. When Babcia stroked her face, her gnarled fingers felt as soft as bird's wings.  

     "I remember, too," Babcia whispered to Nora.  "I thought I'd lost three babies at once. But thank the Lord, we didn't lose you."

     Two of Nora’s uncles helped Babcia rise to her feet.  Babcia reached with both hands for dirt to throw into the hole.

     "I will throw for you, Honora," Babcia said.  Nora sat up to watch the clods of earth returning to their rightful place.  Everyone threw their dirt, then gathered another fistful and threw, again and again, enough to cover Walter, Nora’s mother, and Nora’s baby sister, once more.

Saturday

     "I hear you almost fell into the grave again, Nora," Robert said.

     "Go away," Nora answered.  Her dress for the day still lay on her bed.  Robert had probably heard Alice go downstairs.   Even though he was forbidden to enter the room Nora shared with Alice, Nora knew Robert came in anyway.  Sometimes she found her underwear on the floor, when she knew she had folded it and put it away.  Sometimes she was sure he'd been in her bed, because the sheets were rumpled and smelly.

     "I just want to say how sorry I am about your Uncle Walter," he said, but she didn't believe him.

     He closed the door behind him and leaned against it.

     "Leave me alone," Nora said.

     "I just thought you might need a hug, Nora, to comfort you."

     "Go away!" she said louder.  The last time he hugged her, he'd gripped her arms until they were red and pushed his hard pointy crotch against her.  When Nora had reminded him they had the same father, he had just laughed.  

     "You should be crying about your Uncle Walter," he said, moving forward through the shadows.  "But you don't care, do you?  You don't really care about anyone.  Only Nora."

     Robert’s short thick body was strong. She knew she wouldn't be able to get past him.

     " I saw your Aunt Helen with George Walzer right after they buried your uncle. They were in the backseat of Walzer’s car.  I can show you what they were doing.  You be Helen."

     “You are my brother,” Nora said.  

     “Only half,” Robert said as his breathing came closer.  Her back to the wall, Nora’s hand reached behind, fingertips searching for the windowsill.  She was barely dressed, but she removed the wood dowel that kept the window locked.  It would be foolish to turn her back to Robert.  But somehow she knew that would be just as foolish to not try to escape. She turned, yanked the window wide open.

     Nora’s hair fluttered in the cool morning air as Robert grabbed her from behind.  He pushed her against the wall so hard her face smacked the window frame.  His body heavy against hers, she could not catch her breath.  The taste of blood filled her mouth.  Robert’s fingers pried down her panties and groped between her legs.

     Nora screamed out into the dim morning streets.  The air was still. No one was out yet.

     "Shut up," he spat into her ear.  He bit her.

     Nora’s head hurt. She couldn't see. Her fingers clutched the wooden dowel. Her father had cut it strong and solid, to protect my girls, he had said. She swung around, gripping it tight. The dowel connected with a crack like a bat against a ball. Robert shouted and grabbed his head, as Nora climbed out the window. Crawling out onto the roof of the front porch, blood dripped from her head onto her hands. Robert’s head was bleeding, too, but she didn’t care. She screamed. The houses across the street lit up. She screamed louder. Mrs. Krajewski appeared in the street below, her mouth wide open as she stared up at Nora, who was standing now, on the roof of the front porch. Blood dribbled out of Nora’s ear and mouth and splattered on her thin sleeping shift.  Her panties were still pulled down to just below her knees. Still, when Mrs. Krajewski heard both her story and Robert's, she decided that Nora was all to blame.  

Monday

     One skirt. One dress. Two white shirts and some socks. Some panties. One camisole. She folded them small. Nora only had one bag, and it, too, was small. 

     Nora could hear the call of the old blacksmith who pushed a cart through the streets with his tool and knife-sharpening stone.  She paused to watch him just as he stopped under a tree, took a long drink from a wineskin.  

     Tap tap tap tap tap! The sound of hurried footsteps approached. Both the blacksmith and Nora looked and saw Babcia Franzi, her black mourning cape fluttering, her face as tight as the fists that carried her long skirt up high enough to accommodate long strides.  When Nora heard Babcia’s frantic pounding on the door downstairs, she knew Mrs. Krajewski, who was packing a cheese sandwich for Nora’s dinner, would not be happy.

     Voices rose in the kitchen below. Mrs. Krajewski knew no Polish, so she shouted in English, as if yelling was the only way to communicate with Babcia Franzi. 

     "Her father made the decision! The arrangements are made!"  Mrs. Krajewski said.

     At the top of the stairs, Nora listened, laughing softly when Babcia’s low voice growled: kurwa!you whore!.

     “Did you just put a spell on me, you Polish witch? Talk to her father! He'll be here with the car soon."  

     “Kurwiarz!”

     When Nora entered the kitchen, Babcia Franzi stopped cursing. Covered by black mourning lace, only Franzi’s face and her fingers were visible. Those fingers held an old burlap bag, wide open, towards Nora.

     "Put your things in here, and come home with me.  There's a room, just for you, in my house."

     "But I'm going to join the Poor Clares," Nora said.  The idea of a room at the Gorzynski's was enticing, but she would still be down the street from Robert. She would surely see him, and his mother, at least twice a week.  And of course, she would die in Babcia’s house.  Everyone else did. 

     “The nuns promised me my own a room,” Nora said.

     "But they're cloistered!  No member of my family could tolerate being locked in anywhere for even an afternoon!  You might as well be buried alive.  You can't want to go there, can you?"

Nora’s breath was shallow, and the room glowed brighter than usual, almost burned her eyes.  All she could see of Mrs. Krajewski was her back as she slouched against the counter, a bread knife clenched in her hand.

     Outside, a car door slammed.   Her father was back with the borrowed car, ready to take her to the convent.  

     "Yes," Nora said.  "I want to go."

     "Are you sure?" Babcia asked.  Her grip loosened. The bag dropped to her side.

     Nora nodded.

     "Just don't forget, when you start thinking you don't want to spend your life praying for strangers' sins, that there's always a room for you with me."

18 April 1930: Good Friday

     Nora can hear Babcia Franzi moving around in the parlor.  Dusting.  Talking.  To Dziedzia, for sure. Then a pause, before Franzi claps her hands together and laughs, as if Dziadzia Marian actually has answered her.

     Nora’s job is to clean the kitchen before the dinner preparations.  Babcia Franzi doesn't trust her much with cooking.  “You spent too much time just boiling things in that convent,” Franzi says, and she is right.  She lets Nora do the potatoes, and maybe make the cabbage, but Franzi insists she will do the lamb herself.  The bread is rising.  Tomorrow will be the sweets.  Nora will finally get to watch Babcia Franzi make her own strudel, envied even by Mrs. Krajewski for its delicate, melting pastry.  Until now, Franzi has refused to tell anyone her secrets, and she does not know how to write them down.

     "Helen’s new baby is coming for Easter," Franzi says as she shuffles down the hall towards the kitchen.  Then, "Honora!  This floor needs to be scrubbed!"

     "I will, Babcia," Nora says, wringing the wet rag, letting the hot water run down her arms.  Franzi insists everything be cleaned with the hottest of water.  Especially on a night as cool as this, Nora does not mind; she loves to plunge her hands into a warm soapy brew.  The scrubbing water at the convent was always cold.

     Franzi chuckles, now, in low tones, and sometimes her voice goes soft and smooth, almost seductive.  It is as if Dziadzia Marian is with her, helping her shake out the lacy table cloth, sent long ago from her mother in Poland, helping her center it on the table.  The crystal glasses, tinkling and ringing as she dusts them, orchestrate her soft lullaby.  She sings lullabies and parlor songs mostly in German.  The only Polish songs she knows are folk songs.

     Nora scrubs the counters and the sink. She scrubs down the table and polishes the gilded crucifix.  She kneels before it to scrub the floor. 

     Five days have passed since Babcia Franzi buried the roast, and Nora knows she intends to unearth it tonight.  The tulips and daffodils are a day shy of bursting, and the moon is high.  Cool air whispers through Nora’s window.  She can't sleep.

     She hears the trudge of Dziadzia Marian's boots, and the chunk, chunk, chunk of the shovel that Franzi uses like a cane.  Nora sits up to watch her through the window.  Franzi wears her nightdress - a rough grey cotton gown - and it lifts, softly, in the breeze.

     But she's going to the wrong place.  Franzi starts digging by the chicken coup.  Head bowed, her knobby fingers tight on the shovel, she cuts into the earth.

     Wrong place.  Nora remembers where she put it.  Between the pussy willows.  She can hear her grandmother’s hard breathing.

     "Babcia," Nora almost shouts.  But she would wake the whole neighborhood, she’s sure.  She dresses quickly, in the cotton shift that always hangs at the foot of her single bed, the only thing she kept from the convent.  Nora’s feet hurry down the cold hard wood steps. She finds her work boots, than goes out the back door.

     "Babcia!" she calls, in a loud whisper.

     Her grandmother grunts, takes another slice at the earth.

     "Babcia, it's over here!" She calls a little louder now.  Finally, the old woman raises her head.

     "Honora, you should be in bed," she says.

     "So should you," Nora says.  "It's over here."

     Nora walks towards the spot between the pussy willows.  They're in full bloom, their fuzzy tails swaying in the evening air.

     Franzi’s face is smudged with dust, as she leans against her shovel.

     "You woke me up the other night when you were burying it," Nora says.  "I watched you.  I know you buried it here."

     Franzi peers into the hole that she dug.  She digs a little more, taps the earth with the tip of the shovel.  Squints, shakes her head, then hobbles across the yard and hands the shovel to Nora.

     "Show me where."

     Nora kicks away white flowers and pussy willow buds, finds the place where the earth below is not blanketed with last autumn's dead leaves.  She touches the fresh soil with the tip of the shovel.

     "There."

     "Show me."

     Nora digs into the earth.  After six or seven shovels full, she begins to doubt her own memory.  Franzi is chuckling behind her when the shovel strikes something.  Not a rock.  More like a buried tree limb.  Nora gently scoops the dirt away to uncover the burlap package her grandmother buried there.

     They both kneel on the earth, push their hands into the damp soil to grasp it from beneath.  When they lift it out and set it on the ground, Nora reckons it to be about seven or eight pounds of good lamb roast.

     She puts her arms around Babcia Franzi's frail shoulders to help her up.  When Nora places the swaddled roast in her grandmother’s arms, Franzi smiles and embraces it.

     "Good for you, Nora, remembering that," she says, turning back towards the house.  It seems darker; clouds must have covered the moon.  Franzi finds her way slowly.  Nora follows her, carrying the shovel.

     "I'm getting old, you know," Babcia Franzi says, as Nora opens the door for her.  "I forget things.  It would be awful if I lost this, wouldn't it?"

     "But you didn't.”

     Nora leans the shovel against the house, latches the door behind them, than follows her grandmother to the kitchen, brightly lit. She imagines that if one of the neighbors were to wake up and look out on this night, with its nearly full moon, the Gorzynski’s would be the only house light they would see. If they looked a little closer, too, they might even see the heads of Franzi and Nora, bowed over the lamb roast, preparing it for their Easter dinner.

* Pronounced “Jah-jah” dziadzia is the Americanized Polish word for dziadziu, grandfather;  Babcia (bahb-tchah) is grandmother.

About the Author, Mary Louise Hill: With an MA in Fiction Writing from Syracuse and a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU, Mary Louise Hill's day job is academic, chairing the English Department at a small college in Buffalo, NY. In her free time, she writes fiction. Recent publications include The Gettysburg Review (shortlisted for the Best American Short Stories 2014) and Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine.